December 11, 2006

Don’t Call it A Comeback – Meta-Style

There are no good excuses for a nearly month and a half absence, but here are some anyway.

First, I was obsessed with the Nov. 7 election and was devoting the time in the evenings I had been doing some of this blogging stuff to election-related work.

Second, I’ve been trying to actually finish reading a book (A Baron in the Trees, by Italo Calvino), which doesn’t happen that often these days. I’m almost done with it.

Third, I haven’t been very inspired. For whatever reason, haven’t had a lot of time to cook much of anything new and none of our stand-bys we were making seemed worthy of posting to this site, at least at the time they didn’t.

The third reason led me to a conclusion that I need to shift the focus of this blog. I’m no chef, just a guy who likes good food and likes to cook good food (and succeeds, most, but not all, of the time).

So while I’m going to keep posting recipes here and there, I’m also going to include shorter posts on food-related issues, including food safety and quality. For example…

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT when it was in the news a few weeks ago: If you’re a seafood fan, eat up now, Johnny. ‘Cause if overfishing continues at the current pace, there ain’t gonna be any left to eat.

"At this point 29 percent of fish and seafood species have collapsed - that is, their catch has declined by 90 percent. It is a very clear trend, and it is accelerating," Worm said. "If the long-term trend continues, all fish and seafood species are projected to collapse within my lifetime - by 2048."

ALSO, I found this little story amusing, in a hard-to-f@#!ing-believe sort of way. Two percent - yes, that 2 - of that guacamole some people pick up off a grocery store shelf and actually pay for is actual avocado. And now somebody is suing them for it! Take my advice. Make your own guac.

EGGS -- They’re what’s for dinner. I have yet to make any of these recipes, but a few week’s ago Mark Bittman had some eggs-for-dinner recipes (free registration required) that just seem like must-makers.

Finally, a recommendation for two mid-week meals.

COBALT Sandwiches and Spinach Salad

COBALTs are just a riff on a classic BLT sandwich. It stands for: Cheese, Onion, Bacon, Avocado, Lettuce, Tomato.

I don’t think anybody needs my advice on how to put together a sandwich. However, what we like to do is make the sandwiches using some good bread. Then, you have some leftover to eat the next day with a spinach salad, which you make in part using leftover bacon, avocado, onion, and tomato from the COBALT meal.

In our salad the other night, in addition to the aforementioned leftovers, were some sliced hard-boiled eggs and diced cucumber. Some mushrooms, maybe even quickly sautéed, would also be good additions. A balsamic or sherry vinaigrette works well with this salad.

October 27, 2006


I honestly cannot remember the last time we bought a bottle of salad dressing. It’s gotten to the point that I can't help but cringe when we are eating at somebody else’s house and they bring out a bottled dressing. Rude, I know. But at least I try to hide or disguise my inappropriate behavior.

I make 3 or 4 vinaigrettes that are far superior to anything you’ll buy in a grocery store and, not surprisingly, easy to make. But making a good vinaigrette, as is the case with most things culinary, requires good ingredients.

That’s why we always have a good bottle of extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and sherry vinegar. I have yet to invest a lot of money in a red-wine vinegar, and, to be honest, I’m not even sure if there is such a thing as a high-quality red wine vinegar, at least not one worth $10-15 a bottle. Although I'm sure there's somebody out there who can/will prove me wrong.

The vinaigrette recipes below are all very similar. All call for fresh herbs, if you have them. Otherwise, a little less of a dried herb will work fine. Some vinaigrette recipes call for garlic, but I don’t think it’s needed.

And, as a bonus, by a fortuitous coincidence, Mark Bittman this week has some recipes for a blue-cheese dressing, ranch dressing, and a miso-carrot dressing with ginger. I expect to try to the blue-cheese dressing quite soon. [Subscription may be required; it’s free and easy.]

Balsamic vinaigrette

  • 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar
  • ¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon of chopped oregano
  • Splash of honey
  • Salt
  • Pepper

Combine the vinegar, mustard, oregano, honey, salt and pepper in a bowl, mix well. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil and briskly mix with a whisk. Drizzle over top of prepared salad and toss well.

Note: This dressing goes very well with salads topped with blue cheese. And, as always, when I mention blue cheese, I must advise that, if you see Maytag brand blue cheese in the grocery store, buy it! You will be ruined on other blue cheeses forever more, but that’s the price of eating well.

Sherry vinaigrette

  • 2 tablespoons of sherry vinegar
  • ¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon of lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon of honey
  • 1 teaspoon of chopped thyme or tarragon
  • Salt
  • Pepper

Combine the vinegar, lemon juice, honey, thyme, salt, and pepper. Mix well. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil and briskly mix with a whisk. Drizzle over top of prepared salad and toss well.

Note: We’re fond of putting a little cheese on our salads. This vinaigrette goes well with a fontina cheese, so make this for a salad the same week you make a frittata topped with fontina.

Red-wine vinaigrette

  • 2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar
  • ¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon of lemon juice
  • ½ teaspoon of chopped rosemary
  • 1 teaspoon of finely diced shallot
  • Salt
  • Pepper

Combine the vinegar, lemon juice, rosemary, shallot, salt, and pepper. Mix well. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil and briskly mix with a whisk. Drizzle over top of prepared salad and toss well.

October 15, 2006

Your new favorite chili

Everyone has a chili recipe. Some I’m sure are quite good. Others, maybe not so much (and yet some people continue to make it anyway). The chili we make in our household has evolved over time. It’s been tweaked here and there. Seems like we always have to make substitutions because we thought we had an ingredient in the fridge or cupboard but didn’t (and typically we’re too lazy to run to the grocery store to pick it up).

The chili my wife made the other day was excellent and incorporated a few different chile powders I’ve picked up at the grocery store, two different kinds of beans, and two different kinds of peppers—including my most recent favorite, poblano.

This is definitely one of those recipes, though, where guesstimations are involved. So taste, taste, and taste again as you go along. The end product will be well worth it.

Finallly, this is a good Sunday recipe, because should have leftovers for your Monday meal.

  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1 red pepper, chopped
  • 1 poblano pepper, roasted, cored, and diced
  • 1 vidalia onion, chopped
  • 1 package of mushrooms (whatever you like best, we used sliced baby bellas this time)
  • 1 can of black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 can of cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 can of whole (peeled) tomatoes, crushed by hand in a bowl
  • 2 tbs of brown sugar
  • 1 bottle of beer
  • 1/2 tbs of chipotle chili powder
  • 1 tbs of ancho chili powder
  • 1 tbs of standard chili powder
  • 1 ripe avocado, diced
  • 2 tbs of cilantro, finely chopped
  • Sour cream

Brown the ground beef with the onion and red pepper in a large pot over medium heat. When the beef is brown, stir in the mushrooms and cook for a few minutes.

Add the chile powders and brown sugar and stir until well blended. Then add the beans, crushed tomatoes, and roasted poblanos and stir until well blended. Add the beer, stir, bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium low and cook for at least 20-30 minutes.

At this point, take a taste. You want a hint of sweet, but not too sweet. This is intended to be fairly spicy, so take that into consideration when adding the chili powders. If you want a little more heat after tasting, add a teaspoon more of some chipotle or even some of your favorite hot sauce. Taste again and tweak as needed.

When the chili is where you like it, put some in a bowl, top with some diced avocado, a sprinkling of cilantro, and a small dollop of sour cream.

October 3, 2006

Random food and drink stuff

A few things worth noting, but no single thing particularly worthy of a longer post.

First, a guacamole update...

Although I think the guacamole recipe I posted not too long ago is pretty much unassailable, I made a tomatillo-poblano guacamole the other day that was fairly successful. Although it was not an improvement upon the original recipe, the roasted poblanos were fantastic.

The poblano’s flavor is richer and smokier than a jalapeno. It doesn’t have the same kick, which may make it a more attractive option to those who, for reasons I cannot possibly fathom, “don’t like spicy food.”

So if a poblano sounds appealing, here’s what you do. Proceed with the recipe sans jalapeno. Turn your gas burner on med-high and, using tongs, hold the poblano over the flame until all sides have a nice black char on them.

Then wrap the poblano in some cling wrap for about five minutes. Remove from the wrap and, using a knife, scrape off the black coating. Cut off the top of the pepper and throw out the big clump of seeds. Dice the poblano and add it to the mixture after you’ve mashed up the avocado a little and are ready to put in the lime juice.

If you don’t have a gas burner, put the oven on broil and roast the poblano for about 3 or 4 minutes to get the outside charred.

Second, a seasonal beer recommendation...

If you have a beer distributor/store near you that carries a hefty assortment of microbrews, keep your eyes out for Dogfish Head Punkin Ale.

We were fortunate enough to catch some of the first pours of this fine seasonal at the Dogfish Head Brewpub in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, during our abbreviated vacation there in August. Amazingly, I have failed to make it to one of the coolest places in the northern Pittsburgh suburbs, 3 Sons Dogs and Suds, since the 3 Sons reported more than two weeks ago that they had Punkin’ Ale in stock. Who knows if it’s even still there!

Generally speaking, you can’t go wrong with any Dogfish Head offering. It is now a staple in our house.

Speaking of beer, probably in the first week of November, I’ll provide some recommendations on the best holiday beers. I hate to sound sacrilegious, but nothing says Christmas like a good holiday brew.

Finally, for the tree-huggers...

I came across this the other day via another food blog (I’d offer a “hatip,” but I can’t remember which blog it was. My apologies. Bad blogging etiquette!) and thought I’d pass it along.

It’s a resource offered by the Monterey Bay Aquarium to help make more environmentally conscious seafood choices. Overfishing is a huge problem, so I’m all for doing what it takes to keep good seafood available and affordable.

UPDATE: Since this post, I have made a trip to 3 Sons and they did have some Punkin Ale in stock. I picked up several 4-packs of Punkin Ale. It is fantastic!

September 27, 2006

Tender Chops with Roasted Baby Carrots

I grew up under the impression that pork chops were nothing more than overcooked, underseasoned, scrawny scraps, typically accompanied by overcooked, underseasoned roasted potatoes and carrots. [No offense to my mother, she just had certain culinary limitations.]

My children, fortunately, will grow up knowing that pork should be tender, succulent, and always a surprise. It might be a Tex-Mex influenced pork tenderloin or, as is the case here, it might be center-cut pork chops coated with an easy, but elegant spice rub.

Coupled with carrots that you cook in the same pan as the pork and some herby smashed potatoes and you’ve got yourself a fantastic and easy mid-week meal.

Rub (from Fine Cooking magazine)

  • 3 teaspoons of dark brown sugar
  • 3 teaspoons of crushed fennel seed
  • 2 teaspoons of sweet paprika
  • 2 teaspoons of garlic powder
  • 1 ½ teaspoons of black pepper
  • 1 ½ teaspoons of kosher salt
  • 4 center-cut pork chops
  • 3-4 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 2 to 3 handfuls of baby carrots (cut any particularly big ones in half)
  • 1 tablespoon of fresh tarragon (or thyme)
  • Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Combine and mix all of the rub items together.

Put a little olive oil on each chop, rub it in, and then coat each chop with some of the spice rub.

Combine the carrots in a bowl with 1 tablespoon of oil, salt, pepper, and tarragon.

Put the remaining olive oil (at least one tablespoon) in a large, oven-proof pan and heat over med-high heat. After a minute or two (you want that pan to be hot), put the chops in the pan and don’t touch them. After 3-4 minutes, flip over (with tongs) and don’t touch them. You want to sear the chops, so don’t move them around in the pan!

Put the carrots in the pan with the chops and put the pan in the oven for no more than 10 minutes. Pull from the oven and serve immediately.

September 25, 2006


It was a ludicrous question, really. The waiter didn’t even understand it. I have to assume that John and Rachel, the couple there with us, were terribly embarrassed. They knew the restaurant owner, as I recall, a friend of a friend.

They had been going there for dinner regularly since moving into their apartment, which was right next door to ours, in a garden-style complex in one of the more fairly-undesirable locations of Alexandria, Va.

The question I asked:

“Can you leave out the mint? Can I get it without the mint?”

To this day, I’m glad the waiter didn’t speak English. If he had, he probably would have either a) laughed hysterically or b) spit in my hair.

The “it” in which I did not want any mint included was number 31. A traditional Vietnamese dish, number 31 consisted of shredded lettuce and mint leaves covered by squiggly vermicelli noodles. Resting atop the noodles were two skewers of grilled pork that had been marinated in lemongrass and other spices, two halves of a Vietnamese spring roll (also filled with pork), and crushed peanuts. Served on the side is a small cup of a traditional Vietnamese dipping sauce, nuoc cham.

Visit any Vietnamese restaurant and you’re likely to see this same dish, as well as a version with beef or chicken. For reasons I don’t know, only the pork version is accompanied by a spring roll in the bowl.

At the moment of “the question,” I knew absolutely nothing about Vietnamese food. In fact, I knew very little about food at all. To that point in my life, I ate no seafood, no vegetables to speak of. Meat was ordered medium-well. Salads were iceberg lettuce topped with creamy dressings. Beverages—alcoholic ones, at least—were no better. I avoided wine and drank only the water-dressed-as-beer offerings from America’s mega-brewers.

Our presence at this restaurant was the direct result of a new friendship we had developed with our soon-to-be-mollified neighbors. Aside from proximity, we had other important things in common with John and his then-girlfriend (and later ex-wife) Rachel. They, too, were only a year or two out of college. They, too, were new to Washington, D.C. They, too, were working disturbingly low-paying jobs, which meant dining out was a treat.

John had grown up not far from Maryland’s eastern shore, and for many years his father worked in Washington as an attorney for the federal government. His family had friends there, including a Vietnamese woman who had a friend who owned a small restaurant in an area known as Little Vietnam, a single plaza off of Route 7 in Alexandria’s Seven Corner’s area in which every business is geared toward Vietnamese clientele.

It was a weeknight and only a few other customers were there. We were the only Caucasians. It was clean, in that there were no visible signs of dirt or bugs or soiled utensils. There were maybe 12, well-worn tables, with likewise well-worn chairs. Nothing could be described as glimmering. Vietnamese muzak floated around our giggly conversation.

At John and Rachel’s recommendation, Sarah and I both ordered number 31—and a Coke, which was brought to the table in a can, accompanied by a small (possibly plastic) glass.

Based on the menu description, it was clear I had never eaten anything like this before. And, yet, apparently the only thing about it that gave me pause was the mint. As far as I knew, its only use was to flavor iced tea.

The ludicrous question was posed. Because it was obvious the waiter didn’t comprehend it, I gave up. I’d pick out the mint.

When our meal arrived, John and Rachel explained that you pulled the pork off of the skewers and poured the nuoc cham over top. The mint was at the bottom with the other stuff, so it might prove difficult to scoop out.

I was probably pretty hungry, so I just went for it. I tossed it altogether into a big, mysterious heap. I may have even used chop sticks.

The pork was incredible. It was actually tender, something I did not realize was possible. Lemongrass was a revelation for my inexperienced taste buds. The nuoc cham was sweet, a little spicy. The shredded lettuce and peanuts were crunchy.

And the mint? Little bits of it would sort of burst in your mouth, and it made everything else taste that much better.

Over the next year, we would visit Number 31—which is what we came to call the restaurant—at least once a week. Number 31 was our usual. On occasion, we tried, and usually liked, other things.

And we always got a Coke, in the can.

September 15, 2006

Holy, Holy Guacamole

I have developed a strange obsession with guacamole this summer. Not surprisingly, that obsession has coincided with actually taking the time to make my own.  It’s so simple to make that it’s hard to understand why anybody buys it pre-made at the grocery store. Well, that’s not necessarily true. I think I know why.

First, you have to have ripe avocados, so timing is an issue. Fortunately, our local grocery store almost always has ripe, or nearly ripe, avocados, so that has not been a problem.

The other factor is cost. Avocados are expensive. That said, if your making delicious guacamole, you might be able to justify the cost by using it for more than one meal. We’ll do fish tacos one night with some guac and chips, and then use the leftover the next night to put on a burger or a hot dog. So, if you plan it right, you can stretch that guac as a component of dinner for two nights.

This recipe will be enough for a group of 4 to 6 people.
  • 3 ripe avocados
  • 3 tablespoons of finely diced red onion
  • ¼ cup of chopped cilantro
  • One ripe tomato, diced
  • Two jalapenos, seeded, and finely chopped (one, if you don't like too much heat)
  • Half of a lime
  • Kosher salt

Combine the onion, cilantro, jalapenos, and a good-sized pinch of salt and mash them with a mortar and pestle until it forms a loose paste.

Cut the avocados in half, take out the pit, scoop out the insides into a bowl. Add the cilantro mixture and squeeze in about half of the juice of the lime, mash with a large serving fork or something similar and combine well. Add the tomatoes and gently combine.

Taste at this point. Might need a little more salt, lime juice, or cilantro. If you have some leftover cilantro, which you should, dice a little up and sprinkle it on top as a garnish.

Tip: Use a roasted jalapeno instead of just a plain ol' raw one. Put over top of a flame on the oven top until blackened all over, about 3-4 minutes. Wrap in plastic wrap for 5 minutes. Remove, scape off the blackened skin with a steak knife, remove seeds and ribbing.

September 11, 2006

The Nation: All About Food

I missed this, but the Sept. 11 issue of The Nation is all about food. Looks like there is lots of good stuff here. Any thoughts on the articles are welcome (via the Comments, for you blog virgins)...

September 9, 2006

A Good Piece of Flank Steak

(Adapted from a March 2004 Food & Wine recipe)

One of the meals from my childhood that I remember with a good deal of fondness is cube steak. At the time, I didn’t realize the cube steak was most likely pieced together from some of the least desirable cuts of the cow. I wouldn’t have cared anyway. I was a kid and, unlike my mother’s overcooked pork chops, it tasted good.

It’s been years since I’ve had cube steak, but a cut of meat that I think some people may lump together with cube steak and that I’ve really come to enjoy is flank steak.

One reason that I suspect flank steak is underrated is, well, because the cuts available at many grocery stores, or even butcher shops for that matter, are of fairly poor quality. Also, once it’s cooked past medium, even a quality piece of flank steak starts to toughen up (like those overcooked porkchops from my childhood) and lose its flavor.

This flank steak recipe is very simple to make, yet is reminiscent of a meal you could get in a good Asian restaurant. It involves just a few ingredients. But the key to its success revolves around two factors.

First, it requires a quality flank steak. We have had great success with flank steaks purchased from Whole Foods, which gets a lot of its meats from Coleman Natural. Yes, you are going to pay probably twice what you would pay for a flank steak from your usual grocery store, but the end product is well worth it. That said, some of the bigger grocery chains are now carrying their own line of hormone-free, antibiotic-free meats, and they seem to be of a decent quality—although, again, they are more expensive.

Second, the meat cannot be cooked past medium. Even medium, in my view, is a minor travesty, particularly if you’ve actually paid for a good piece of flank steak. So, if you’re one of those squeamish sorts who, for whatever reason, equates eating red or pink meat with pouring laundry detergent in your eyes, then perhaps you should skip this recipe. It’s your loss.

  • 1 tablespoon of canola oil
  • 1 tablespoon of minced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon of finely grated fresh ginger (do NOT substitute ground ginger)
  • ½ cup soy sauce (low-sodium is fine, and healthier)
  • 1/3 cup of dark brown sugar
  • Two pinches of crushed red pepper
  • 2 lbs or so of flank steak
  • Salt and pepper

Get a grill going over medium-high heat

Heat the canola oil in small sauce pan over medium heat. Add garlic and ginger and cook for about a minute or so, stirring a few times, until garlic is just starting to golden. Dump in the soy sauce, brown sugar, and crushed pepper, stirring here and there, and let it get syrupy, which should take 3 or 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and let it cool. Reserve about 2 tablespoons or so in a separate bowl.

Season the flank steak with salt and pepper and put on the grill (and leave it alone!). Cook for 4-5 minutes and then turn it over. Cook for another 3-4 minutes, and then brush on all of the glaze (except for the reserve) for the last minute or two of grilling.

Remove it from the grill and let it sit for a few minutes on a cutting board. Remember, it’s still going to cook for a few minutes while it sits there. So unless it's a particularly thick steak, 10 minutes is the maximum time it should be on the grill.

Slice the steak crosswise into half-inch strips and drizzle the reserve glaze over top.

Note: In terms of a side to eat with this dish, I would highly recommend making a little bit more of the glaze than the recipe calls for (just adding a little more of each ingredient to the pan), and using one tablespoon or so to quickly marinate some asparagus, which you can grill at the same time as the flank steak. We’ve done that on several occasions and it’s a perfect combination.

September 5, 2006

Alotta Frittata

This is a favorite mid-week meal in our house. Frittatas are kind of like an omelet, but you don’t flip them over. Instead, the eggs and “the stuff” all stay flat like a pizza and go under the broiler for a few minutes.

Although there are some hearty frittatas you can make, this one is light, so I’d recommend some toasted fresh bread or a side spinach salad (or both) to make it a complete meal. To save some time, you can cut up the tomato, fontina, and onion the night before.

  • 6 eggs, cracked and beaten
  • ¼ cup of whole milk (or, if you’re not counting calories, cream or half ‘n half)
  • 1 ripe tomato, diced
  • ½ to 2/3 cup of Vidalia or other sweet onion, thinly sliced (We’ve really been enjoying the PA Simply Sweet Onions, as of late)
  • 3-4 ounces of fontina cheese, diced (if you can get your mitts on some good fontina, I recommend it)
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon fresh oregano
  • Couple passes of freshly ground nutmeg
  • Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to broil

Heat the olive oil and butter in a large frying pan (the big boy) over medium heat. Add the onions, sauté for a minute or two, then add the tomatoes and sauté for one more minute. Season the eggs with salt, pepper, and two or three dashes of nutmeg, and add to the pan.

Cover and let the mixture sit for two minutes. Uncover, tilt the pan a little to the side, lift up some set egg and let some of the runny stuff from the top go underneath. Sprinkle the oregano and the fontina over top and put into the oven. Remove from the oven once the top shows the first signs of browning, about 3 or 4 minutes.

Let it set for a minute or two. Loosen up the frittata with a rubber spatula and slide it onto a cutting board. Cut it into 4 pieces and serve.

August 29, 2006

Herby Smashed Potatoes

My mother-in-law will be proud to hear that she inspired this simple recipe. There was a time when a common side dish with dinner at my in-laws house was potato chunks boiled and then tossed in a bowl with butter, salt, and pepper (aka, boiled potatoes). And I liked 'em. Heck, that’s pretty much all I need to make me happy: properly cooked potatoes and lots of butter.

My wife, however, having grown up eaten these very potatoes on what, as she explains, was a fairly regular basis, is not so enamored with this home-cookin’ treat. When I would suggest it as an easy side for a meal that sort of needed a side dish if it was going to actually qualify as a meal, she would always say: “No, I’m sick of that.”

So, the other day, I put together a rub for some center-cut pork chops and cut up some garden veggies and other stuff (capers, olives, etc) for a salsa to put on top of them [future recipe, I promise]. Even though they were big chops, we needed something else.

On the shelf, sidled up to some PA Simply Sweet™ onions, I spied a small container of “new” potatoes from our CSA. I knew if I didn't use them at that very moment, they would be doomed to the garbage can. I could not let that happen (part of my Potatatic Oath: "I promise to respect the spud, not to cover it with fake bacon bits or processed cheese, but to treat it gently, with the same courtesy as a main dish..."). So this is what I did…

  • 5 to 8 medium-sized new potatoes, quartered (skin on, Nancy)
  • 1 tablespoon of chopped sage
  • 2 tablespoon of snipped chives
  • ½ stick of butter (plus a little more for later)
  • ¼ cup of cream, half-half, or whole milk (plus a little more for later)
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Boil the potatoes in a pot of water until they are fork-tender. Strain and put in a big bowl, add the herbs, 1/2 stick of butter, 1/4 cup of cream, salt and pepper.

Take a fork (a big salad fork works well) and mash the ingredients of the bowl together. These aren’t “mashed” potatoes, however, so just mash and mix until everything is incorporated, but still a little chunky. Then taste and adjust ingredients as you see fit.

We don’t have potatoes that often, so we really enjoyed these and they worked well with the pork chops. I have a feeling these will make it back onto the dinner plates in our house fairly soon.

August 25, 2006

Asian Porkalicious!

I’ve only made this once, but it was so good – and so easy – that I wanted to get it up quickly.

This is actually the cover recipe for the September 2006 issue of Food & Wine magazine. The name of the recipe in F&W was “spicy ginger pork in lettuce leaves.” The only problem: it really isn’t “spicy,” at least not in the traditional American sense. Despite its misleading title, it’s still an extremely flavorful dish that makes you want to eat it as fast as you can.

The original recipe called for ¾ pounds of pork. But most of the time when you buy ground pork, it’s going to come in 1 pound increments, or something close to that, so I adjusted the recipe a bit to compensate for the extra pork. I was fortunate enough to have some organic pork from Wil-Den Family Farms in Jackson Center, Pa. It’s some good stuff.

  • 1 lb ground pork
  • 1 big red pepper, finely diced
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 heaping tablespoon of minced ginger
  • 1 heaping tablespoon Thai sweet chile sauce (most large grocery stores carry this)
  • 1 1/4 tablespoon of Asian fish sauce (most large grocery stores carry this)
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 2 tablespoons of grapeseed oil
  • 8-ounce can of water chestnuts, drained and sliced thin
  • 2 scallions, thinly sliced (I find the bulbs of green onions can some times be surprisingly pungent and can overwhelm a dish. So, to be safe, I typically use a good bit of the green leaves and just some of the white bulb)
  • 2 tablespoons plus one teaspoon of oyster sauce
  • 2 heaping tablespoons of chopped cilantro
  • A whole bunch of (cleaned) sturdy lettuce leaves, such as Boston or Bibb

Mix the ground pork with the red pepper, garlic, ginger, chile sauce, fish sauce, sesame oil and 1 tablespoon of the grapeseed oil.

In a large skillet, heat the remaining grapeseed oil over high heat. Add the pork and cook, breaking it up, until it is no longer pink and starting to brown, which should take about 10 minutes.

Mix in the water chestnuts, scallions, oyster sauce and cilantro and remove from the burner. Put a big spoonful or two on a lettuce leaf and have at it.

Now, this recipe is meant to be a starter or an appetizer. But, heck, why not just make some brown or white rice, throw in some chopped cilantro or green onion -- or any other left over herb/spice used in this dish -- and call it a meal?!

Finally, I don’t see why this couldn’t be a “spicy” dish. Next time I make it, I’m going to add a dash or two of cayenne, or maybe throw in some diced jalapeno. Nothin’ like a little sweat under the eyes to make you really 'feel' your food.

August 16, 2006

Goin' to the beach

We're going on vacation for a week or so, so won't have a new post until the end of next week. But it will be a goody, so be sure to come back for some... Asian Porkalicious!

August 13, 2006

In Honor of Pesto

I can’t remember the first time I had pesto. I’m certain I never had it during my childhood. With few exceptions, pasta in my house came dressed in red gravy, usually with a meatball or two.

Now that I’m a firmly entrenched, 30-something adult, pesto is an important part of my life. I’m fairly certain that I could eat some pasta with pesto—or put it on some sort of sandwich, or maybe on some eggs and toast even—at least once a week. Pesto is something I always look forward to, even when it’s leftover. Heck, especially when it’s leftover.

The beauty of pesto is twofold. First, it’s easy to make and requires only a handful of ingredients. But the quality of the ingredients is critical to creating a pesto worthy of adulation. Freshly grated parmesan really is a must. Don’t insult this dish by using any of that pre-grated stuff from the store that is closer to lint balls than cheese. A fairly good quality extra-virgin olive oil also is critical. Along with the basil, olive oil is pesto’s foundation. Using a cheap olive oil in your pesto is like using mud to hold together the bricks on a house. You may complete the task, but the end product is sure to let you down.

Second, pesto is always satisfying. When I eat a good pesto, I can taste every ingredient in it, but no one ingredient – even the basil, I suppose – dominates. The pine nuts, assuming enough have been added, comes through, the cheese, the garlic. It’s all there, and it all works together to slather your tongue and stimulate every taste bud on it (even, I swear, the sweet ones!). Some pasta coated with pesto is my idea of simple perfection.

And although I can’t necessarily fault anybody for only making classic pesto, I highly recommend doing some branching out here and there. Following the wise words of Molto Mario, we’ve made a fantastic pesto that substitutes hazelnuts for pinenuts and throws in a little crushed red pepper and… wait for it… goat cheese. Man is it good (see below).

We also recently made a mint pesto that has both basil and mint but that also included some ricotta cheese. In that case, however, the ricotta was mixed in with the rest of the ingredients in the food processor. The mint to basil ratio was about 1:2, and that seemed about right, because the mint was there, but it didn’t overwhelm the other ingredients.

And I just read on another food blog I recently started visiting (and that is apparently quite popular - even though its author is only, gasp, 27!) about a makeshift strawberry basil pesto. I recently had a strawberry basil mojito at Six Penn Kitchen in downtown Pittsburgh, and it was tasty (but not as good as a well-made classic mojito). This strawberry concotion sounds interesting. I may have to give it a shot, but not until next year when we can get "luscious berries" from Harvest Valley Farms.

A traditional northern Italian preparation with a classic pesto is to mix into the pasta some blanched green beans and thinly sliced, cooked potatoes. Yes, that’s a lot of starch. But it’s pretty darn delicious. Just don’t put in too many potatoes.

With the colder months not too far off and the basil we have growing in various spots around our house likely to start going south, I just made two batches of classic pesto and two mint to put in the freezer.

I’m already looking forward to the day in mid-January when I mix some linguini with pesto for dinner and then head outside to clear a few inches of snow from my driveway. If you’ve got to shovel snow, might as well start the job with a smile on your face, eh?

Classic Pesto

This should make enough for you to use half one day and freeze the other half for use another time, but play with it and see what you think. You may, in the end, need a little more basil, and, in turn, a little more of everything else.

  • 5 cups of basil
  • 6 tbs of pine nuts (some recipes suggest substituting walnuts; I don't)
  • 2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
  • Few generous pinches of kosher salt and some pepper
  • Half- to 2/3-cup of grated parmesan
  • 1 cup of extra-virgin olive oil
  • ¾ lb of pasta (linguini, penne work particularly well)

Throw everything but the olive oil into a food processor and pulse to it’s somewhat pasty. Then begin to drizzle in the oil through the top (with the food processor going, that is).

Important note: You don't have to add all of the oil. Add half, check the consistency, and then taste the pesto. At this point, you probably want to add some more oil to make sure it’s sufficiently oily to coat the pasta, a little more cheese, even some more pine nuts. Tasting it after the first go round is very important.

Variation on the theme. Substitute a few tablespoons of hazelnuts for the pine nuts, and add a teaspoon of crushed red pepper. Then, when you’re pasta is just about cooked, put some pesto over medium heat in a large saucepan and throw in 4 oz of goat cheese, stir until it’s just incorporated, add the strained pasta directly to the pan and stir ‘til it’s coated.

August 8, 2006

Lemon Box Pie (aka, Lemon Ice Box Pie)

This is Lusty Bit’s first recipe from a guest contributor, my friend and colleague, Barbara Cire. Please hold your applause until the end of the recipe or once you have successfully made it. I plan on making it this weekend.

The name of this pie comes from the fact that you must refrigerate it before serving. At least through the 1960s, refrigerators were referred to as “ice boxes” by my family, who come from Mississippi. This, of course, goes back to earlier days when refrigerators actually had blocks of ice in them to keep everything cool.

When my niece, Elizabeth, was younger, she left out some of the words (not knowing what an ice box was) and referred to this as a Lemon Box Pie. So, that’s what we call it now. She also called the serrated bread knife an Ocean Knife because of the waves on the blade.

  • 1 box of vanilla wafers
  • 1 can sweetened condensed milk
  • 2 eggs, separated
  • one-third to one-half cup lemon juice
  • 2 tbs sugar

Vanilla Wafer pie crust

Cover the bottom of an 8” pie plate with vanilla wafers and prop them up along the sides of the pie plate. Then, finely crush a handful or so of vanilla wafers and use them to cover the spaces between the cookies on the bottom of the pie plate. (You can also use a commercial graham cracker crust if you absolutely don’t have time to make this crust, but it’s not nearly as good as a vanilla wafer crust.)

In a medium-sized bowl, mix the egg yolks with the condensed milk. Then, add about half of the lemon juice and slowly blend it with a whisk. Then, add the rest of the lemon juice, again mixing it slowly. Pour the mixture into the pie crust.

Beat the 2 egg whites into a meringue, adding 2 spoons of sugar when the meringue is almost stiff. Spread the meringue evenly over the top of the pie, sealing it to the vanilla wafers around the edges. Brown meringue in a pre-heated 350-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes or until meringue is a light golden brown.

Remove pie from oven and cool thoroughly. Then put it in the refrigerator and chill it thoroughly, preferably overnight. (But, if you make the pie first thing in the morning, it should be OK for dinner that night.)


1. This pie does not travel well because the meringue always sticks to the tin foil and looks bad when you unveil it at your potluck

2. Double the recipe for a larger pie plate.

3. Fresh-squeezed lemon juice is best, but the Minute Maid frozen lemon juice works well. (Make sure it’s thawed before mixing it with the condensed milk.) Under no circumstances should you use ReaLemon or MiLem or any kind of reconstituted lemon juice product. That would be a sin and the recipe might not work.

August 4, 2006

An Oily But a Goodie

Spaghetti with Garlic and Olive Oil

My mother used to make a version of this quite often for me back in the day. And I made a really bad version of it when, after college, I pretty much lived by myself for a year, made very little money, and realized I couldn’t eat out for every meal. I typically cooked the garlic until it resembled little bits of crushed rock. My advice: don’t do that.

Over the last year I’ve rediscovered this easy pasta dish and seem to always have a hankering for it. If you search this on the Web, you’ll see many variations. Some have other herbs, some used dried chilies. I’m embarrassed to admit that I first added anchovies based on a Rachel Ray recipe. So thanks, Rachel. Even though you’re really annoying, you do come in handy now and then.

  • 1/3 cup or so of olive oil
  • 5-6 cloves of garlic, very thinly sliced or finely chopped
  • 1 tbs of chopped, fresh oregano
  • 3-6 anchovy fillets (from a tin of anchovies packed in olive oil)
  • 1 tsp crushed red pepper
  • Salt and pepper
  • Freshly grated parmesan cheese
  • ¾ lb of spaghetti

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and add the spaghetti.

When the spaghetti seems about halfway to al dente, heat the olive oil in a large pan over medium heat for a minute or two. Add the garlic and crushed red pepper. Cook the garlic for just a minute or two and then add the anchovies (if, like me, you’re not an anchovy fan, keep it at 3; if you like ‘em, add as many as you like) and stir for a few minutes until the anchovies are pretty much disintegrated. DON”T FORGET ABOUT THE SPAGHETTI.

Pull the oil and garlic from the heat. Add the strained spaghetti to the pan, add the oregano, salt and pepper, and a little parmesan. Toss and serve.

Mix things up a bit: Add some chopped tomatoes, especially at this time of year when you can get excellent tomatoes from the farm market or your own garden. Or, skip the parmesan and add some lemon zest instead. Not too much, but a nice sprinkling over top is really good. Haven’t tried it, but I would bet some grilled shrimp on top would be pretty good.

July 26, 2006

Green Beans a la Fillippelli

This is sort of an amalgamation of 2 or 3 different recipes, but man did it work. It will be especially good with farm-fresh green beans and some really good blue cheese, preferably Maytag Blue.

  • 1 lb green beans, cleaned
  • 2/3 cup good blue cheese, crumbled
  • ½ cup thinly sliced shallots
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Start some salted water boiling in a large pot.

Heat olive oil over med-high heat and add shallots. Fry shallots in small pan until they are brown and just getting crispy, remove from heat.

Blanch the green beans for 1-2 minutes and immediatley strain.

Combine the green beans with the fried shallot mixture, drizzle with balsamic, bleu cheese, and salt and pepper, and combine well.

The cheese will melt a little from the heat of the beans and ensure you get a little bit o' blue in every bite.

July 20, 2006

My New Favorite Italian Grocery

Since moving to Pittsburgh from Washington, D.C., we had not found a little Italian deli where we could pop in to get some homemade pasta, prosciutto, parmesan, olives, and other goodies.

Sure, there are some great Italian stores in the Strip. Penn Mac and Sunseri Bros. have a good selection of all of the above. But (no offense to anybody with particularly strong allegiances to either place) they are kind of like Wal-Mart, when we wanted a mom-and-pop shop—you know, the small, family-owned joint like our beloved Da Marco in Silver Spring, Md., a place run by a guy and his wife, where after you’ve been in a few times and dropped some dollars on the imported prosciutto and a some homemade tortellini, you get the warm hello and knowing gaze that confirms you’re now a regular, that little secrets about the parmesan can be shared, that pizza-making advice can be offered.

Nothing like this exists anywhere in the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh. So on a recent Sunday, we hopped in the car for the half-hour jaunt down to the city. We planned on running up our credit card with sizable charges on meat and fish from the Whole Foods in East Liberty. But based on a tip Sarah got from a colleague at work, we added a second stop to our itinerary: Groceria Italiana in Bloomfield.

We pulled onto a raggedy side street off of Liberty Ave. and could see the store’s diminutive sign donning, of course, an Italian flag. With Julia the 23-pound drama queen in my arm, I opened the door to Groceria Italiana. My leg was bouncing. Call me a freak, but I felt like a kid on Christmas morning with a sneaky suspicion I was about to get my first Big Wheel.

I got it alright.

We were greeted by a woman with short black hair, lightly highlighted with some tans and browns, and with wispy snakes of gray poking through here and there. Her skin was tan, a bit too much makeup. In her hands was a large tray of nearly soccer ball-sized rounds of freshly baked bread, a dusting of flour on top. And, she informed us (in response to our Homer Simpson-like moans of hunger), they were still quite warm.

My eyes followed the tray as she set it on the glass counter, but were yanked downward to a small box filled with one of the most wondrous delights of my childhood, little bags of fried bread dough. Holy crap: A Big Wheel and a remote control car!

Shelves were filled with some half-decent olive oils, imported tomatoes (including the San Marzanos that are a must for making pizzas), sardines, anchovies, dried pastas. Deli counter in the back with the usual suspects: olives, cheeses, cured meats. Some freezers with housemade pastas.

We grabbed one of the breads and, somehow, only one bag of fried dough—5 small rounds of desire generously coated with cinnamon or sugar. Some pecorino romano and prosciutto. From a freezer on the far side of the store, two dozen of Groceria Italiana’s calling card: Ravioli, 12 cheese and 12 artichoke and gorgonzola.

While checking out, we chatted with the woman who had initially greeted us with the bread tray in hand. She told us how her mother makes most of the food they sell: all of the pastas, all of the baked fish on Fridays during lent. On one Friday, she told us, when all 60 pounds of fish had been sold and customers kept coming in asking for more, she told them to wait and threw together a gargantuan frittata with “everything and the kitchen sink in it.”

We ate some of the ravioli last week: Big Wheel, remote control car, and the coolest Hot Wheels money can buy. That’s what I call Christmas in July.

July 17, 2006

(Easy) Omelet Extraordinaire

Apple and Goat Cheese omelet (Adapted from Garrett Oliver, head brewer, Brooklyn Brewery)

Makes 2 omelets

  • One apple, peeled, cored, and cut into thin slices
  • 4 tbs butter
  • 1 tbs of brown sugar
  • 4 oz goat cheese
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 tbs milk
  • salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter over medium heat, add apples and cook for a few minutes until they just begin to brown, then add and brown sugar and cook until apples are nicely brown, about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, beat the eggs lightly with some milk, add salt and pepper. Put half of eggs in pan over medium heat.

When eggs are close to setting, add half of goat cheese on one side, top with half of apples, turn over other half, and cook until inside of omelette has firmed up. Repeat with remaining ingredients.

Serve with some toasted ciabatta with butter (or a little more goat cheese!) and an India Pale Ale.

Soup n' Sandwich

This is a great midweek meal. It's a dressed-up soup and sandwich combo that, with a little preparation the night before, is easy to pull off as a mid-week meal

Carrot and Leek Soup (adapted from Soup, A Way of Life, by Barbara Kafka)

NOTE: To save time, I cut up the veggies the night before

  • 4 tbs butter
  • 1/2 tsp ground cardamom
  • 3 medium leeks, cleaned very well, white and light green parts only, cut into half-inch slices (I think it's easier to clean leeks if you cut them length wise down the middle and then sort of fan out the halfs as you run A LOT of water over them)
  • 5 large carrots, peeled and cut into thin slices
  • 3 cups chicken stock (if you don’t have any homemade around, a good store-bought brand we like is an actual stock called Kitchen Basics; also like Pacific's Organic chicken broth, but it's a little sweet)
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • Kosher salt to taste (I won't comment on the superiority of kosher to iodized salt)
  • Pepper (white if you've got it, which we never do)

In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Dump in cardamom and stir frequently for about 2 minutes. Add the leeks, cover with a lid and cook for 5-7 minutes, with a stir here and there. Add carrots and stock, bring up to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, covered, for about 13-15 minutes. [NOTE: This is the toughest part of the recipe: you definitely want to get the carrots tender. The second time we made this, I rushed the carrots and they were not as tender as they should have been. As a result, the end product did not have the creaminess it should have. That said, don’t cook the carrots to a mushy pulp].

Add to a blender or food processor. Might want to do 2 batches if you don’t have a large blender or processor.

Put soup into your serving pot/bowl, stir in the cream and serve. [NOTE: As this soup is a main part of your meal, I might recommend doing just ¼ of cream and ¼ of whatever milk you have. A big bowl of this made with heavy cream can be a bit overwhelming. That said, I’d recommend not having a big bowl of it anyway. It’s a rich soup and a little goes a long way.]

This makes a good bit of soup, so you definitely can freeze the leftover.

Prosciutto sandwich

  • Fresh baguette or ciabatta
  • 2-3 slices of prosciutto
  • Butter

Cut the bread into sandwich-sized lengths and then in half, add some butter to one or both sides, add your prosciutto.

Just the prosciutto and butter is delicious. But if you want to add some other tastes, some thinly sliced fresh mozzarella and roasted red peppers – both of which are typically available in most decent grocery stores these days – work very well.