Smokin’ !

It’s been two weeks since my wife and I returned from our 4-day trip to New Orleans and I still haven’t managed to submit a post about the adventure.  I think I’m still reeling from the experience and, even though the trip is still fresh in my mind, I’m finding it difficult to write about.   We had a wonderful time in New Orleans.  It’s a fantastic city with so much to offer.  I’m sure I will find time to share the details…someday!

Today was devoted to the joy of barbecue and smoking a brisket.  I try to make smoked brisket at least once a year and it’s always worth the effort.

Smoking a brisket is no easy feat, at least for me.  It takes between 12 to 16 hours to cook, which makes for a very long day.  I started this morning at 3:30 with a cup of chicory coffee, warmed up from yesterday’s cold pot.   Outdoor temperature was about 80° but the humidity was near 100°!  It was so humid that the newspaper I used for the charcoal chimney starter was limp and soggy by the time I was putting a match to it.  It took 3 attempts and about 30 minutes just to light the coals!

I bought a new offset smoker yesterday and I decided to break it in with a brisket.  I didn’t know if I was being foolish or confident.  Fortunately, the brisket came out just fine. 

By 4:00 p.m. I was pulling off the cooked brisket and life was good. 

We served the brisket with homemade Texas-style barbecue sauce, potato salad and a refreshing cucumber salad.  And for desert, homemade cheesecake, compliments of my wife.

This was the sort of Sunday meal that will keep me inspired throughout the upcoming work week!

Paella

There we were, running like silly tourists, attempting to use our Barcelona tour map to cover our heads, as we searched for a hidden gem of a restaurant.

We ducked into a nearby alley, just as the unexpected rain shower passed by and the blazing sun returned.  Steam rose slowly from the hot, rain slicked cobblestone street as we stepped under the nearest balcony and, by our good fortune, found a fantastic little café that served the most delicious paella! 

Alright, here’s the real story.  One of my wife’s co-workers gave her a few threads of saffron and when my wife presented them to me, my thoughts, not surprisingly, went straight to paella.  I’ve eaten dishes that contain saffron before, like grilled lamb and couscous but I have yet to understand what makes the spice so special.  A tiny amount of saffron can really brighten a dish and make it very colorful but the spice is so subtle, in flavor, that it goes virtually unnoticed by my palette.  There’s a good chance that my palette lacks sophistication and there’s an even better chance that I am too heavy-handed with other spices that I don’t showcase saffron properly.

Saffron is ridiculously expensive, due to the amount of work and resources required to grow and harvest it, which means that you won’t see me at the bazaar, haggling over the price with a merchant.   

For me, the real joy of paella comes from the harmony achieved by the combination of the various vegetables, meats and rice.  And, it’s a one-pan wonder!  If you don’t have saffron, you can substitute with other spices that add brilliant color.  A tiny amount of turmeric, achiote, or a combination of both can be used to produce yellow, orange and red color just as easily, and they won’t break the bank! 

Ingredients:

1 onion, diced

½ green bell pepper, diced

½ red bell pepper, diced

4 or 5 garlic cloves, smashed and rough chopped

4 or 5 Roma tomatoes, diced

¼ cup olive oil

2 large bay leaves

1 tsp Hungarian paprika

1 tsp smoked paprika

1 tsp saffron threads

Salt and pepper to taste

¼ cup white wine

1 lb chicken breast or chicken thighs, cut into 1 inch pieces

2 cups uncooked rice

5 cups chicken stock or chicken broth

½ cup frozen green peas

8 jumbo raw shrimp, peeled, with tails on

6 to 8 green mussels

2 fresh squid, cleaned and cut into rings

1 lime, sliced

Directions:

Prepare the vegetables.  Chop the onions, bell peppers, garlic and tomatoes.  Set aside.

In a large stainless steel skillet, add oil and heat at medium/low heat.

Add all of the chopped vegetables, except the tomatoes.

Simmer and stir the vegetables for five minutes. 

Add the chopped tomatoes, spices and bay leaves.  Simmer for another five minutes. 

Add salt and pepper to taste.  Add white wine.

Simmer and stir occasionally for ten minutes.

Add chicken and rice.  Stir for one minute.

Slowly add the chicken stock (or broth).  Shake the skillet to level the rice, but do not stir.

Bring the mixture to a boil and then set the heat to low.

Leave the pan uncovered and let the paella do its thing.  Do not stir. 

I get anxious, every time I add uncooked rice to a pan full of stuff that is already cooking but I have learned to walk away.  I find something else to do for 15 minutes.

After 15 minutes, nestle the squid, shrimp into the rice. 

Top with peas and mussels. Cook for another 5 minutes.

Cover and let rest for 10 minutes.

Serve the paella in pan.  Garnish with slices of lime.

Fresh Pizza

I drew inspiration for this pizza from the well of memories I have of the summer I spent in Tuscany, chatting with the local farmers and artisan bakers.  Oh, how I miss the sun dappled hazelnut trees that surrounded our villa!…

Well, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch.

I saw a sprig of rosemary on my kitchen counter today, left over from last night’s meal, and my thoughts led me to pizza.  I wanted to make a pizza with some fresh ingredients.  So, here we go…

Ingredients for the sauce:

3 medium sized tomatoes, cored and chopped

1 Tbs white sugar

1 tsp olive oil

½ tsp garlic powder

½ tsp white vinegar

Directions:

Add chopped tomatoes to a sauce pan and simmer at low heat.  Add all of the other ingredients and stir.

Simmer for 1 hour, stirring occasionally, at first and then  increasing the frequency, as the sauce cooks down.

Ingredients for the spices:

2 cloves fresh garlic

1 Tbs dried basil

1 Tbs dried onion flakes

1 tsp coarse salt

1 tsp fresh rosemary leaves

1 tsp garlic powder

1 tsp dried thyme leaves

1 tsp red chili flakes

½ tsp dried oregano leaves

¼ cup olive oil

Directions:

Add all ingredients, except olive oil, to a mortar and pestle.  Pound and grind the ingredients until everything forms a thick paste. 

In a microwave safe bowl, heat the olive oil in a microwave oven for about 30 seconds.  Remove the olive oil and the mashed seasonings.  Allow the mixture to sit for an hour before using.

Prepare the pizza dough.  I use a simple recipe which only takes about one hour to rise.  It’s warm enough now that I can cover the dough and let it rise in the cab of my pickup truck. 

Roll out the dough and form the pies.  I prebake my crust is a conventional oven, since I don’t have a Tuscan wood-burning brick oven. 

Combine the spices with the sauce.

Spread the sauce on the pizza crust.

Add sliced onions and mushrooms. 

Top with grated Mozzarella and Parmesan cheese.

Bake at 400° for 10 minutes.

Top with arugula, or “scratchy endive”, as my dad likes to call it. Serve on the balcony, overlooking the lush rolling hills.

Prolonged Paella…and a trip

No, I haven’t fallen off the edge of the earth. I’ve been busy jumping over life’s hurdles. Work. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. That’s been the name of the game for many, many months and it doesn’t look like there’s any relief any time soon. But, as any good hurdler will tell you, the key to success is to stay limber and be ready for the next hurdle.

And, so it goes.

I’ve got several posts waiting in the wings, waiting for final tune-ups, but I have left them idle for so long now that I’ve nearly forgotten the spirit that lives within each of them. No worries though. I’ll find a way to breathe life into them and bring them into the light, someday.

For now, I’ll tease you with a picture of the paella that I made several months ago and then it’s off to New Orleans. Yes, the culinary Mecca of the U.S. A few decades ago, I might have made a trip to New Orleans just to stagger around Bourbon Street with a drink in my hand, but now I’m going to enjoy the sights, the history, and the awesome food.

I hope to come back rejuvenated and inspired.

But, for now, as promised, here’s a glimpse of a lovely paella!

Bye for now. Enjoy every meal!

Étouffée with Roasted Chicken

It’s springtime in the mid-south and, if there’s one thing that can compete with the joy of seeing new buds on the trees and seeing the weeds in full bloom , it’s the return of our fresh Gulf seafood vendors!  I get  giddy just seeing the colorful trailers, parked at local gas stations.  For me, it’s a sacred rite of spring to haphazardly park, get out of the car and stand in line, amidst the  throng of excited seafood devotees. 

I try to find ways to make each visit to the seafood vendor special.  This time, the customers weren’t standing in an orderly line.  A crowd of people clustered around the trailer, jockeying for position.  I stayed back for a moment and enjoyed the tempting aroma of steaming crawfish and shrimp, billowing from large pots at the end of the trailer.  I struck up a conversation with a man who was waiting for his order and learned that he was a Marine veteran who served during the late 1950’s and 1960’s.  After a brief conversation, his order was bagged and ready and he was on his way home.

I ordered two pounds of fresh whole shrimp and one pound of boiled crawfish.  I’m still debating on what to do with the shrimp but I know exactly what to do with the crawfish. 

Crawfish isn’t for everyone.  It’s an acquired taste.  I have discovered that there are ways to prepare crawfish that even non-crawfish people can enjoy.  For this meal, I am roasting a whole hen.  Anyone that balks at the crawfish will still have something to eat!  And, for those who want to try the étouffée, I am asking the crawfish to play second fiddle to another Cajun classic – andouille sausage.  I am using Cajun seasonings sparingly, despite my usual craving for extreme spiciness, and I am adding  a gentle tomato sauce, to make the dish smooth and creamy.

Ingredients for the roast chicken:

1 whole roasting hen

1 Tbs dried thyme leaves

2 Tbs Cajun seasoning

3 Tbs salted butter

2 celery stalks

¼ cup chicken broth

Directions:

Wash chicken, inside and out, under cool running water.  Trim excess fat and allow the chicken to dry, on a clean surface, at room temperature.

Mix thyme and 1 tablespoon of Cajun seasoning with softened butter

Cut two large celery stalks in half and arrange them at the bottom of a large cast iron skillet.  This will support the chicken while it roasts and will keep it from sticking to the pan. 

Examine the neck cavity of the bird and slide fingers under the skin.  Carefully slide your fingers beneath the surface of the skin and slide the palm of your hand along the breast meat.  Angle your fingers down to the leg joint and begin separating the skin from the leg and thigh.  Do this for each breast and leg.

Cup some of the butter mixture in your fingertips and slide them along the breasts, legs and thighs.  Sprinkle the remaining tablespoon of Cajun seasoning on the outside of the bird, across the breast, legs and thighs.

Pour ¼ cup chicken broth in the cast iron skillet.

Lay the chicken in the pan, top side up.  Roast uncovered for 45 minutes at 400°.  Turn the oven down to 350° and continue roasting for another 30 minutes. 

Remove the chicken and allow it to rest for 15 to 20 minutes.

While the chicken roasts, prepare garlic bread and the étouffée.

For the garlic bread:

12” loaf of fresh French bread

4 Tbs melted butter

2 tsp garlic salt

A few dashes of finely ground black pepper

2 tsp dried Parmesan cheese

Directions:

Slice the fresh French bread, lengthwise.

Lay the opened loaf on a cutting board and brush each side with melted butter.

Shake garlic salt across each half, dust lightly with black pepper and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.

Close the two halves of bread together and wrap tightly in aluminum foil.  Bake in a 350° for 15 to 20 minutes. 

Étouffée ingredients:

1 lb boiled crawfish (boiled with Cajun seasonings)

½ lb andouille sausage, sliced into bite sized pieces

3 Tbs cooking oil

1 yellow onion

1 green bell pepper

3 celery stalks

1 small bulb, fresh garlic (with stems)

1 tomato

3 green onions

8 oz tomato sauce

3 Tbs softened butter

3 Tbs flour

2 cups chicken stock

1 Tbs lemon juice

Cooked white rice

Directions:

Remove the tail meat from the crawfish and place the pieces in a bowl.  Squeeze the heads of crawfish over the tail meat, to extract the crawfish juices.  Set the crawfish meat aside and discard the crawfish shells, or use later for stock.

Peel and chop the yellow onion, bell pepper and celery.  Dice the garlic and add to the vegetables.  Set the vegetables aside. 

Chop the tomato and green onions and set them aside.

Add 3 tablespoons of oil to a large skillet and set heat to medium.  Add the yellow onion, bell pepper, celery and garlic to the skillet. 

Sautee for 10 minutes while stirring frequently. 

When the onion turns translucent, add tomato sauce

Simmer at low heat for about 5 minutes.

Mix the melted butter and flour in a small dish.  Add some of the warm, cooked sauce to the flour and butter mixture and mix well.  Add the mixture to the sauce and mix well.  Simmer at low heat for 5 minutes, to thicken the sauce. 

Add two cups of chicken broth while stirring the sauce.  Add lemon juice and chopped tomatoes.  Simmer for a few minutes.

Add the and andouille sausage and mix well. 

Add the crawfish meat and simmer at low heat for a few minutes.

Arrange the cooked rice in the center of a large serving platter.  Pile the étouffée on top of the rice.  Carve the chicken and arrange the pieces around the outer edges of the platter.  Top with chopped green onion.

Serve with the warm garlic bread.

Now…what to do with the shrimp?!  Maybe a fresh shrimp cocktail, or a shrimp po’ boy, or shrimp remoulade, or coconut shrimp, or… 

Chicken Schnitzel with Roasted Mushrooms and Broccoli

A Quick Dinner for Two

Preparing a dinner has nearly become automatic for me.  I say, nearly, because there are still times that I am stumped about how to approach a particular meal, which usually causes me to bounce around the kitchen like a ping-pong ball, while trying to accomplish the simplest tasks.  But, over the years, I’ve learned how to manage my time and I’ve learned how to stay calm in the kitchen, even while improvising. 

For this meal, I wanted to flavor the broccoli with garlic but I didn’t want pieces of garlic in the finished dish and I wanted to add garlic paste to the schnitzel gravy so, it made perfect sense to me to quickly pan fry the broccoli with whole pieces of garlic and then use the garlic for the gravy.  That kind of efficiency pays off when you want to reduce the amount of time preparing a meal.  If I remember correctly, this meal took about 45 minutes to prepare.

Mushroom and Broccoli ingredients:

8 oz fresh broccoli florets

5 garlic cloves

8 oz fresh mushrooms (stems removed)

8 oz Mozzarella, crumbled

1 Tbs bread crumbs

Directions:

Heat a small pan and add a little olive oil, about 1 tablespoon.  Add broccoli and peeled garlic cloves over high heat, tossing in the pan, frequently.  The high heat will char the broccoli without overcooking.  Remove and set the garlic aside.

Add about 1 tablespoon of olive oil to a ceramic baking dish.  Smear the oil around the bottom of the dish, to coat. 

Remove stems from mushrooms and arrange them in the dish.  Nestle the broccoli between the mushrooms. 

Top with crumbled Mozzarella cheese.  Sprinkle bread crumbs over the cheese.

Bake at 350° for about 20 minutes, or until the cheese melts and begins to brown.  Remove from oven and store in a warm place.

Schnitzel Gravy ingredients:

15 oz tomato sauce

4 Tbs Hungarian paprika

5 garlic cloves, sautéed and mashed

Salt and pepper to taste

2 Tbs softened butter

2 Tbs flour

For the schnitzel:

1 cup of cooking oil

2 large chicken breasts, flattened

2 eggs, beaten

1 cup Panko bread crumbs

2 Green onions, chopped

Directions:

Add tomato sauce to a large pan and set the heat to medium/low.  Add the paprika and swirl into the sauce with a whisk. 

Move the sautéed garlic, prepared earlier, to a clean cutting board.  Sprinkle a little coarse salt over the garlic cloves.   Press and smear the garlic with the broad side of a kitchen knife, to form a paste.

Add the garlic paste to the sauce and mix. 

Add flour and softened butter to a small bowl.  Mix with a fork.  Ladle some of the warm sauce into the bowl and continue to mix. 

Add the mixture back to the sauce and continue to the heat the sauce over medium/low heat.  The sauce will thicken during the next several minutes.  Reduce heat to low and simmer while preparing the chicken.

Add about 1 cup cooking oil to a pan and heat over medium/hot heat.

Add chicken breasts to a clean work surface.  Pound the chicken to about ½” thick with the broad side of a meat cleaver or mallet. 

Set up a dredging station with beaten eggs in one dish and Panko bread crumbs in the other dish.

Dredge the chicken in the egg, coating each side.  Lay the chicken in the Panko bread crumbs and turn over to coat each side.  Press on the chicken with your hands to ensure that the chicken is thoroughly coated.  Pan fry the chicken for about two minutes on each side, or until the chicken is golden brown.

Remove to a paper towel to remove excess oil. 

Add the chicken to a serving dish and cover with the schnitzel gravy.  Garnish with chopped green onions and serve warm.

Ramen with Sesame Pork

There’s a million fun ways to make ramen.  This is one of those ways. 

Ingredients:

1 Tbs brown sugar

1 Tbs Hoisin sauce

1 Tbs soy sauce

1 Tbs sesame oil

2 tsp chili garlic sauce

2 pork loin cutlets ( ½” thick)

1 cup sliced mushrooms

4 green onions, chopped

¼ cup fresh basil, chopped

1 large jalapeño, sliced

1 wickedly spicy chili of your choice, thinly sliced (optional)

½ tsp toasted sesame seeds

2 packs of dry ramen, save the spice packets for another day

Directions:

Mix the brown sugar, Hoisin sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil and chili garlic sauce in a small bowl. 

Smear the mixture over the pork cutlets.

Lay the pork cutlets on a sheet of heavy duty aluminum foil and wrap tightly.

Heat a skillet at high heat.  Lay the aluminum packet on the skillet and press with a heavy object, such as a tea kettle full of water, or small pot filled with water.

Turn the packet over every minute, with tongs.  Remove the packet after 5 minutes.  Set aside.

Set a pot of water to boil.  Add the ramen and stir briefly until the ramen is tender.  Strain the ramen noodles and set aside.

Slice the pork into ½” thick strips.  Set aside.

Pour the juices from the aluminum foil pack into a small sauce pan.  Scrape away any solids that remain on the aluminum foil and add them to the pan.  Add 2 cups of water to the pan and simmer at medium medium/high heat.  Allow the sauce to boil for a minute and then turn the heat off.  Add the toasted sesame seeds. 

Add some of the cooked noodles to a serving bowl.  Add some sliced pork and raw vegetables.  Pour some of the broth into the bowl and steep for a few minutes.  Serve warm.

Winter Soup

Valentine’s Day week, 2021, remember that?!  The Big Freeze!  Snowmageddon! The Snowpocalypse!  The events seem blurry to me now but it was big deal, at the time.  Here, in the deep South, we were crippled by the massive arctic blast. 

My wife and I somehow found a way to commute to work, when others couldn’t, or were too scared to try.  We’re just rugged, that way, I suppose.  We came home, tired and hungry each day and our dinners were slapped together quickly with whatever food we had in the house and we went to bed early, only to face another day of bitter cold and icy roads.

It wasn’t until the end of the cold snap that I decided to make this suitable “cold day” meal. 

Ingredients:

1 large yam

2 medium yellow squash

3 green onions

1 cup broccoli

2 Tbs butter

¼ cup milk

2 Tbs heavy cream

1 cup turkey or chicken broth

Directions:

Wash and rinse vegetables.  Chop the vegetables into 1 to 2 inch pieces. 

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over low heat.  Add the vegetables to the pan and sauté for about  15 minutes, or until the vegetables begin to soften.

Add the turkey or chicken broth.  Simmer for 30 minutes.

Pour the vegetables and broth into a mixer and puree.

Return the pureed mix to the sauce pan and simmer at low heat.  Add a the milk and cream and simmer for a few more minutes, while stirring gently.

Remove to a serving bowl. 

Serve with warm bread and butter.

Roast Pork Loin with Rosemary

A tip of the hat to legendary chef Emeril Lagasse for this one.  Emeril is a master of simplicity and he has a deep respecet for quality ingredients.  Say what you want about TV chefs but Emeril’s attention to detail and culinary skill is inspiring!  This particular recipe is about as simple as it gets and the result can make you feel like you’re eating at a four star restaurant.

As with any good cut of lean meat, high heat and short cooking time is key.  I was afraid of serving undercooked meat until I realized that it’s not the color of the finished meat that matters…it’s the temperature.  Bring the meat to a high enough temperature to kill bacteria and you’re safe to serve!

Ingredients:

4 large garlic cloves, pressed

1 Tbs Dijon mustard (I substituted with a German, stone ground mustard)

4 tsp chopped fresh rosemary

1 tsp coarse salt

1 tsp ground black pepper

2 lbs boneless pork loin roast, excess fat trimmed (I cut the roast into two equal pieces)

1 cup warmed chicken stock

Fresh rosemary sprigs or fresh parsley, for garnish

Directions:

Mix the pressed garlic cloves, mustard, rosemary, salt and pepper together. Rub the mixture over the entire pork roast.

Place the pork, fat side down, into ceramic roasting pan. Roast the pork for 30 minutes at 400° F, then turn the roast over and roast until a meat thermometer, inserted into the center of the roast, reads 140° F, about 25 to 30 more minutes.

Remove the roast from the oven and let the roast cool for about 10 minutes.

Deglaze the roasting pan with warmed chicken stock and pour into a small saucepan. Simmer the sacue for a few minutes. 

Cut the pork into thin 1/3-inch-thick slices and arrange overlapping slices on a serving platter. Drizzle the sacue over the pork and garnish fresh rosemary sprigs or parsley.

Serve with baked or steamed vegetables.  I chose broccoli and baked potatoes.