Smoked Cornish Game Hens

I love the smell of smoke drifting through the neighborhood.  I especially like it when it emanates from my own backyard!  There is something about the change from summer to fall that makes me want to cook fowl outdoors.  Chicken, turkey, whatever.  This recipe combines bright citrus tones, savory spices and a gentle, smoky flavor. 

Ingredients:

2 Cornish game hens

Marinade for the hens (see below)

Marinade Ingredients:

3 cups olive oil

3 full heads of garlic, peeled and smashed

3 oranges

3 lemons

3 limes

1 cup orange juice

¼ cup rosemary, chopped

¼ cup kosher salt

¼ cup coarse black pepper

2 star anise pods

1 Thai cinnamon stick

Directions:

Zest the citrus fruit

Add the juice and zest from the fruit to a bowl.  Add the orange juice and oil to the bowl.

Using a mortar and pestle, grind the rosemary, salt, black pepper, anise and cinnamon. 

Add the ground seasonings to the bowl, along with the juice and zest.

finished marinade

Keep the rinds and pulp from the fruit to use as an aromatic.  In a large pot of water, add rinds and pulp.  Set heat to very low and add other aromatics, such as cinnamon sticks, star anise, sage, all spice berries…really, anything that strikes your fancy.

Put on stove, low heat…fill the house with the aroma!

Cut the hens in half, (remove back bones and split the bird in half with a large kitchen knife).

whole hen
Pretty side up!

Marinate the chicken for 12 hours, or overnight.  Turn the chicken occasionally, to allow the marinade to soak in.

Refrigerate overnight

I used oak for the smoking process.  Oak lends a nice smoky flavor without imparting a heavy flavor.  I didn’t bother measuring or monitoring the temperature of the coals or the smoker, or the birds.  I knew that I had used plenty of coals and that the birds would cook evenly, since they were split.  Smoking meat this way is not advised but,  I happened to be in a very confident mood that day and I turned everything over to fate. 

Directions for smoking the birds:

Start a batch of charcoal for a smoker.  Hot charcoals maintain even and steady heat for the smoker and they ignite the wood, used for the smoke.  Once the coals are hot (gray), add some pieces of oak.  Let the oak char for about 20 minutes.  Add some more oak and char for another 15 minutes.  Once the wood has turned into nice coals and the smoke has thinned a little, prepare the grill for smoking.

On a clean grill, add the hens, cut side down, with leg portions pointed toward the center of the grill.  Smoke the birds for 1 ½ hours.  I finished cooking in a 300° oven for 15 minutes, just to make sure that they were cooked all the way through.

Let the hens rest for a few minutes before separating into breasts, legs and wings.

Serve with pasta with fresh tomato sauce, garden salad and warm Jalapeño Cheddar Cheese Bread with pads of butter.

Pasta with Fresh Tomato Sauce:

Summer is gone but I still enjoy the taste of fresh tomatoes from the garden.  That’s because I filled a 2 gallon storage bag with ripe tomatoes.  I didn’t wash the tomatoes before freezing them.  Whenever I want a tomato, I open the bag, pull one out, let it thaw at room temperature for about 15 minutes and then I rinse it under tap water.  The skin peels off right away and I’m left with a wonderful, fresh tomato.  For this recipe, I used two tomatoes.

Ingredients:

2 *fresh* tomatoes

1 lb penne rigate

1 anchovy (packed in oil)

3 garlic cloves, smashed

1 tsp olive oil

2 Tbs butter

½ tsp dried oregano leaves

½ tsp dried basil leaves

½ cup feta cheese

Directions:

Boil water in a large pot.  Add the penne rigate and cook to al dente.  Drain the water but do not rinse.  Reserve 1 cup of the pasta water.

While the pasta cooks…

Chop tomatoes into ½” pieces.  Set aside.

Crush anchovy and garlic together in a mortar and pestle.  Set aside.

In a large skillet, set to medium/low heat, add olive oil.  Add half of the tomatoes, garlic and anchovy. Cook down to a sauce (about 10 minutes). 

Add a cup of pasta water and cook down for another 5 minutes. 

Add the spices and butter.  Simmer for a few minutes and simmer for a few more minutes. 

Add the cooked pasta and stir to coat the pasta.

Turn out to a serving bowl and top with feta cheese.

Jalapeño and Cheddar Cheese Bread

My wife makes this bread and it doesn’t sit on the table very long!  Next time she makes it, I’ll pay better attention and share the recipe along with directions.  It’s always the highlight to any meal it accompanies!

Meatball Subs

When I make spaghetti and meat balls I almost always make extra sauce and meatballs.  I sometimes use the extra sauce to make meatball sub sandwiches. 

Ingredients:

2 cups of cooked meatballs in marinara sauce

½ cup dry Parmesan cheese

1 large New Orleans style Po’ Boy bread loaf (or any good French loaf)

1 cup Mozzarella cheese, grated

½ cup fresh Parmesan cheese, grated

1 Tbs olive oil

1 clove of garlic, smashed

¼ bell pepper, sliced into ¼” strips

2 Tbs chopped fresh basil

Directions:

Warm the meatballs and marina is a skillet.  Add the dry Parmesan and mix.  Simmer over low heat for about 10 minutes.

While the meatballs warm, grate the cheese and prepare the garlic and bell pepper.  Chop the basil.  Set aside.

In a small pan, add olive oil and garlic.  Heat the pan on low/medium heat and then add the bell pepper.  Sauté for a few minutes, until the peppers have softened.

Heat the oven broiler.

I used a 24” bread loaf, which made 4 subs.

Slice the bread loaf but do not cut through all of the way.   Cut a “V” shaped trough in one of the lengths. 

Add the meatballs and marinara to the trough in the bread loaf.

Add the mozzarella and Parmesan cheese.  Put the subs under the oven broiler to melt the cheese.

Remove the subs and layer with the bell pepper and a little more fresh Parmesan cheese and basil.

Shrimp with Creamy Garlic Butter and Pasta

This dish is a bit like Shrimp Scampi but, not so bold and intense in flavor.  The creaminess, provided by the half-and-half, along with the pasta turns a wild Shrimp Scampi into something gentle and soothing.

Ingredients:

4 Tbs unsalted butter

1 Tbs olive oil

1 tsp coarse salt

1 tsp red chili flakes

4 garlic cloves

1 lb large, raw shrimp, deveined and peeled

2 green onions

¼ cup fresh basil

Juice of 1/2 lemon

½ cup shredded Parmesan cheese

½ cup half-and-half

12 oz dry pasta (I used Farfalle – butterfly pasta)

Ingredients for the sauce thickener:

1 Tbs softened butter

1 Tbs flour

Ingredients for the garnish:

½ cup diced tomatoes

2 root ends of green onions

1 Tbs olive oil

1 tsp vinegar

½ tsp oregano

¼ tsp garlic powder

Directions:

You should prepare all of the ingredients in advance.  Shrimp cooks very quickly and you want to have all of the other ingredients ready when you need them.

Boil the pasta to al dente.  Normally I would use lots of water but this time, I wanted the noodles to keep some of their starchiness so that the sauce would cling to it better.

While the pasta cooks…

Pulverize coarse salt and red chili flakes in a mortar and pestle.  Set aside.

Chop the garlic and slice the green onions.  Reserve the root portions of the green onions.  Set aside.

Prepare the sauce thickener by blending the flour with the softened butter.  I like to use a fork for blending.  Set aside until needed.

Prepare the garnish by dicing the tomato and roots of the green onion.

Drain the pasta but do not rinse.  Set aside.

Strain the garnish to remove the olive oil and vinegar.  Set the garnish aside.

Rinse the shrimp under cold water and remove the shells. 

In a large skillet, add 4 tablespoons of butter and 1 tablespoon of olive oil.  Simmer at low heat. 

Add the garlic and crushed salt and red chili flakes.  Simmer at low heat for about two minutes.  This will allow the garlic to mellow a little. 

Add the shrimp to the pan.  Turn the heat to low/medium. 

Stir the shrimp until they turn from translucent to slightly pink.

Add the green onion, basil and lemon juice to the pan and stir for about a half minute.

Add the sauce thickener and mix with the buttery sauce.  It should thicken within a minute or so. Add the half-and-half and stir. 

Add the Parmesan cheese.

Turn the heat off and add the pasta.  Stir a few times and remove to a serving bowl.

Top with the tomato and onion garnish.

Dinner #1: Spaghetti with Meatballs

There are some meals that I can cook in my sleep, with one hand tied behind my back.  Spaghetti is one of those meals.  Long ago, when I when I was just establishing myself as a home cook, I had a very limited repertoire.  It wasn’t because I lacked a willingness to experiment and it wasn’t due to a lack of creativity, training or knowledge that curtailed my culinary endeavors to a mere handful of recipes. 

Being a parent of very young children changes a person in many ways and one of those inevitable changes is a parents’ diet.  I don’t regret anything about having children.  One of the greatest things about having children is watching them grow up to become living, breathing, free-thinking adults.  I wouldn’t trade the experience of raising children for anything.

Young children don’t have refined, educated palettes.  Surprise!  For a long time, my wife and I didn’t even think about making something like Steak with Roquefort Cheese Sauce, Bratwurst with Sauerkraut or Tandoori Chicken.  Heck, we were lucky if we could sneak a vegetable past our kids every now and then without them noticing. 

We realized pretty quickly that our meals repeated week after week.  Four or five basic recipes stayed in constant rotation.  It got to a point where I assigned a number to the meals.  Monday nights were spaghetti and Friday nights were homemade pizza so, Spaghetti became Dinner #1 and Pizza became Dinner #5.  Dinners 2,3 and 4 varied over the years and they entered and exited the rotation as young taste buds changed.  They included simple meals like, chicken nuggets and tater tots, tacos with salad and fish sticks, with macaroni and cheese.  Our weekends were “anything goes” days.  It might be barbacoa tacos, pan fried chicken or a pasta casserole.  We made sure to include fresh fruit as often as possible, especially because the only vegetable our kids would willingly eat was raw carrot sticks. 

Eh, they survived.  And, so did we.  I look back on those days fondly.

Fast forward nearly twenty years and Dinner #1 is still one of my favorite go-to meals.  I have made spaghetti over 1,000 times in my lifetime.  That’s not a guess…that’s real math at work! 

Now that my children are grown, I have more free time which means I can add flair to simple recipes, like spaghetti and meatballs.  For this version, I used homemade tomato sauce.  I also employed some extra tricks to make this meal a little more special.  Plain tomato sauce tends to be acidic.  I could have added a few tablespoons of sugar or honey to balance the sauce but I used Marsala wine, roasted garlic and fire roasted bell pepper, which provided all of the necessary sweetness and it gave the sauce an additional depth of flavor.

This recipe will feed about 6 people.

Ingredients:

24 oz tomato sauce (store-bought sauce is perfectly fine)

1 whole garlic bulb

¼ cup fresh basil

½ red bell pepper

½ onion

¼ cup Marsala wine

1 lb. ground beef (80/20)

½ cup bread crumbs

1 Tbs dried oregano

2 tsp dried rosemary (ground)

2 eggs

¼ cup grated, dry Parmesan cheese

1 tsp black pepper

1 tsp salt

½ cup grated, fresh Parmesan cheese

For the spaghetti noodles:

4 quarts water

12 oz dry spaghetti noodles

1 Tbs kosher salt

1 bay leaf

1 Tbs olive oil

Directions:

If you are using store-bought tomato sauce, feel free to skip to the section on Preparing the Meatballs.

Otherwise…

Heat an oven to 300°.

Prepare the herbs, onion, garlic and bell pepper.

Roughly chop the basil and set aside.

Chop the onion into ¼” pieces and set aside.

Separate the garlic bulb in half.  One half of the garlic will be roasted in the oven and the other half will be minced, fresh.

Wrap one half of the garlic bulb in aluminum foil and place on the rack, in the oven.

Rest the half bell pepper on a stove burner and char the pepper over low heat.  Rotate the pepper for several minutes to all the pepper to char on all sides. 

Wrap the pepper in foil and put it on the oven rack, with the garlic.

Allow the garlic and red pepper to bake in the foil for about 20 minutes. Remove the garlic and pepper.

Unwrap the red pepper and allow it to cool for a few minutes.  Rinse under water to remove the charred parts. 

Slice the top and stem of the pepper and discard.  Lay the remaining red pepper on a clean surface and dice into ¼” pieces.  Set aside.

Remove the roasted garlic from the foil and squeeze the soft garlic from the papery husks.  Mash the garlic into a paste with the broad side of a kitchen knife and set aside.

Mince the cloves of the other half of the garlic bulb and set aside.

Preparing the Meatballs:

In a large mixing bowl add the ground beef, bread crumbs, eggs, dry Parmesan cheese, oregano, rosemary, salt and pepper. 

Mix until all of the ingredients have combined. 

Form into 1” balls and leave the meatballs in the mixing bowl. 

In a large skillet, set the heat on the stove to low and add a tablespoon of olive oil.  Add the onions and sauté until slightly softened.  Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute. 

Add the meatballs and cover the pan.

Simmer the meatballs for about 5 minutes at low heat and then turn them over.  Cover the pan and cook for another few minutes.  Keep turning the meatballs every few minutes until they become firm.

Strain the meatballs to remove the grease.  Return the meatballs to the pan. 

Add the tomato sauce to the meatballs.  Stir the meatballs in the sauce and add the Marsala, roasted garlic, roasted bell pepper, fresh garlic, chopped basil, oregano, rosemary, salt and black pepper.  Stir briefly to incorporate.

Cover and simmer for 30 minutes. 

While the sauce is finishing, prepare spaghetti noodles in a large stock pot.  Add the water to the pot and bring to a boil.  Add a tablespoon of salt, a bay leaf and 1 tablespoon of oil.  Add spaghetti noodles and cook until the noodles are al dente.

Serve with fresh Parmesan cheese, garlic bread and salad.

¡Salsa Picante!

My garden is at its zenith.  This summer has provided a rare, but welcomed, balance of sunshine, heat  and rain.  I haven’t watered the garden in over two months and I haven’t used any pesticides or fertilizer.  Nature has been kind to me, this season!

This week’s harvest provided four gallons of tomatoes and lots of different varieties of peppers.  That means it’s time to make salsa!   This recipe will make 4 quarts of salsa and, now that I have made it, I wish I would have doubled or tripled the batch.  This is not a quick process…be prepared to spend a more than a couple of hours prepping the vegetables and cooking sauces.  The end result is definitely worth the work.  I plan on giving one or two quarts away to friends and keeping the others for my family.  I don’t know why I even bother canning the stuff, since my family and I can gobble down a quart in a day or two.  But, I will try to hide a quart and bring it out as a surprise, long after summer has gone. 

Aside from the optional habanero and tabasco chiles, I consider this to be a basic salsa.  The proportions listed in the recipe should produce a “medium” heat salsa.  If you want to tweak this recipe, I suggest roasting or smoking one or more of the items.  For example, you could put the jalapeños on the grill and smoke with some mesquite wood, or you could char the onion and tomato over hot coals, or wrap the head of garlic in aluminum foil and bake for 15 minutes.  Any of these things will add a new, distinct profile to your salsa. 

I stared at the habaneros and tabascos for a long time and finally decided to pass on them.  I would love to include them but I believe the end result would have been too spicy for some folks.  I will dice them and sauté them in a little tomato sauce and add it to my private reserve!

For this recipe, I made the tomato sauce from fresh tomatoes.  If you don’t have access to fresh tomatoes, canned tomato sauce will work just fine. 

Ingredients:

1 gallon diced tomatoes

2 cups diced onion

2 cups diced bell pepper

1 ½ cups diced jalapeño

Juice of 2 limes

1 head of garlic (about ¼ cup) minced garlic

3 habanero chiles (optional)

8 tabasco chiles peppers (optional)

½ gallon tomato sauce

2 cups vegetable stock (reduced to sauce)

Directions:

See my previous post to make the vegetable stock reduction: https://toothpicktales.com/2019/08/11/a-conversation-on-conservation-and-consideration/

Heat the tomato sauce in a large uncovered pot on the stove.  If you are using the vegetable stock, add it now.  Simmer at low heat while vegetables are prepared.

Chop vegetables into small pieces.  Tomatoes should be about ½” pieces and the onions and chiles should be cut into ¼” pieces.  Strain the juice from the tomatoes and set aside. 

Add all ingredients to the sauce.  Cook uncovered for one hour.  Turn the heat off and add the lime juice and stir to incorporate. 

I have to confess, I did not cook the salsa long enough and I forgot to add the lime juice when I made this.  Within a day after canning, juice started creeping out of the jars.  When I unscrewed the ring the lid popped off, from the pressure inside.  I dumped the salsa back into a pot and cooked it at a low boil for 30 minutes and then added the lime juice.  I have canned it again and I hope that does the trick.  If not, I will come clean and relay the sordid details!

Sanitize canning jars.  I use a bleach and water solution.  The bleach to water ratio should be 2 teaspoons of bleach to 1 gallon of water.

Lay empty canning jars, lids and rings in the kitchen sink, after plugging the drain.  Fill the sink with 3 gallons of boiling water.  Add 6 teaspoons of liquid bleach.  Remove the jars after two minutes and allow them to air dry. 

Fill the jars with salsa and leave about ½” air space at the top.  Cover the jar with the lid and secure by gently tightening the ring with your fingertips. 

Immerse the jars in boiling water and pull them out after 15 minutes and allow them to cool on a cooling rack.