I baked a cake!

Today, we celebrated Tripp’s 3rd birthday. My wife has been out of town on business for weeks, so I put the whole thing together myself. Given my son’s current penchant for very selective eating habits, I decided to make a custom cake using some of his favorite foods.

So I baked. Which is kind of a big deal for me. I almost never bake goods, and even more rarely have I frosted and decorated said baked goods. My first intention was to try something very original. Tripp loves strawberries and bananas, so I had this idea for a banana bread iced with strawberry icing. The idea was shot down by a few experienced bakers/family members. I went with plan B.

I bought a yellow cake mix, ready-made strawberry frosting, fresh bananas, and strawberries. I prepared the mix as directed, which means I got to play with a hand mixer. Cathy suggested a cream cheese frosting, since we had some on hand. I checked a few recipes and decided a 1:1 ratio of the whole tub of frosting blended with a whole pack of cream cheese would work, but I tested a small portion first to be sure. My instincts, plus a fair share of cooking show viewings, told me icing the cake would be messy, so I laid out some wax paper and got to work. You can see the finished results below.

The cake was a big hit. I’m not 100% sure people were impressed with the cake in general, or simply that I was the baker, but either way, much was consumed. Most importantly, Tripp loved it. I don’t know how often I’ll bake in the future, or how ambitious I’ll ever try to get, but like many things I’ve tried in the kitchen, this was another effort that proved to be easier than I’d expected. Enjoy!

Up to Some Good

After I spotted some on a recent trip to the store, my most recent cooking caper involved cooking with capers. Inspired by a favorite chicken dish, I made a version of chicken saltimbocca.

Now, my history with this dish goes back to my days at Buca Di Beppo, where I first fell in love with their Chicken Saltimbocca. Fast forward a decade later, I went to work for Cooper’s Hawk, where my former Buca GM had become their VP of Operations. To this day I’m convinced Cooper’s offered a version of this dish at his request.

Recently, while shopping at Aldi’s, I came across jars of the little pea-sized, olive-like beads of concentrated flavor. I immediately thought of this dish and decided to attempt it at home. I knew the ingredients in general, but I had no experience with the recipe so I looked for one that fit the bill in my favorite app, Allrecipes.

What I found seemed to suggest the traditional version wasn’t quite the same as what I had experienced. None of the recipes I found called specifically for a lemon buerre blanc (a lemon, white wine, and butter sauce), which was a key part of the versions from both establishments.

One thing I’ve learned from the industry is quite often menus are crafted to maximize utilization of ingredients. Both restaurants offer a Chicken Piccata, which does traditionally use a lemon buerre blanc, which might explain the use of the same sauce on both dishes.

I decided to follow the Piccata recipe. I didn’t have prosciutto, so I just added a slice of deli ham and provolone to each breast after the flip. I did the rest as directed, the only other substitution being gluten-free flour for coating the chicken.

It ended up being darn near perfection. The citrus element was punched up by use of a Sauvignon Blanc for the sauce. The chicken was ridiculously tender and moist. I served it over instant garlic mashed potatoes with a side of seasoned steamed California veggie medley.

I’m already planning to do a straight up Piccata over spaghetti, since it was so good and I still have capers to use. I highly recommend this dish if you haven’t had it, and I highly recommend the app from Allrecipes.com if you haven’t been there. Enjoy!

Quesadillas!

My dad is half hispanic. That makes me a quarter hispanic. Totally not obvious to people around me, and that’s cool. However, when my dad was a little kid, my grandma remarried Desi Arnaz. (Okay, not really, but he reminded me a lot of Desi growing up.) I spent many Sundays with my grandparents, enjoying chorizo and eggs and refried beans for breakfast. Many a holiday included chicken molé next to the turkey or ham. I learned about rompope, gazpacho, fidello soup, and picadillo, a ground beef and potato dish.

Because of this, I’ve become a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to mexican food. Not completely, of course, since I still like cheese on my otherwise mexican-style tacos (usually just meat, cilantro, and onion, often with a squeeze of lime.) Yet the one thing I love the most, I usually love most traditionally… Quesadillas!

In my mind, the best quesadilla is a corn tortilla, filled with chihuahua cheese and flat grilled till it’s the right balance of crisp and chew and the cheese is nearly as stringy as mozzarella on a pizza. Forget flour tortillas, forget cheddar-jack blends, and no thank you to the endless parade of add-ons. Calling that a quesadilla is like calling instant pudding “mousse” or Spaghetti-O’s “pasta.”

To be fair, there are the occasional surprises. A few of the tex-mex inspired creations out that can be amazing. However, it’s still hard not to bristle at the notion of these fantastic creations being given the “quesadilla” label. I’d much rather see them called something like, “latin-style grilled flatwraps” or something like that. Case in point, the delicious grilled flatwaps I made two days ago, with flour tortillas and slices of smoked sweet swiss. They were amazing, but very non-traditional.

So, if anyone is paying attention, feel free to use “flatwraps” for a more accurate description of your creativity, and please leave the traditional quesadilla to the professionals at Los Burritos (insert appropriate name here). Enjoy!

Recipes for Success

As I continue to spend more time in the kitchen, recipe apps like Allrecipes and Food.com are my go-to sources for direction and inspiration.  For example, about three weeks ago, we hosted a party for my son’s first birthday. As part of the snack selections I bought two big bags of El Milagro tortilla chips. They were never opened. So I told my wife I would make the classic mexican breakfast dish, chilaquiles. (If you’ve never had traditional chilaquiles you are missing out!)

This morning, I finally decided to give it a go. I found a short list of recipes of varying difficulty and complexity. I chose one in the mid range based on the ingredients I had on hand, but I had to make a few substitutions. For example, instead of a can of enchilada sauce, I used up some green salsa and some pico de gallo. Instead of a Kraft shredded mexican cheese blend, I shredded some applewood smoked cheddar. There was one aspect of the cooking process that I wasn’t sure about, regarding cooking the chips, but I decided to trust the recipe and follow along as indicated.

They turned out delicious! Packed with flavor, the tortilla chips had the right balance of chew and crunch one expects from this dish. I do wish I’d had the fresh cilantro on hand, but beyond that, I couldn’t be happier with the results. It’s always exciting to try something new and have it turn out well. I did take some liberties with the ingredients, so there’s no way to know if my version was better than the recipe. My previous experiences in the kitchen have given me greater confidence to change things up when the pantry comes up short. The important thing to remember, though, is to trust the recipe when dealing with new concepts or techniques. After all, if it doesn’t turn out well, at least I’ll have learned what not to do. Enjoy!

A Not So Secret Menu Item

It’s no secret I currently work as a server at Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant. I’ve been with the company for nearly four years now. In that time, I’ve eaten my way through the entire menu, and experimented with my own concoctions during many of my meal breaks.

One of the most popular side dishes on the menu is Betty’s Potatoes, a cheesy, shredded hash brown casserole inspired by the founder’s mother-in-law. People order it all the time, and often substitute it for other side dishes. I don’t blame them. If you’ve tried them, you don’t either.

They are also prepared in small batches and finished in individual rarebit dishes. Often at the end of the night, there are anywhere from one to four leftover orders that cannot be reused. As is often my motto about perfectly good items due to be discarded, “If it’s me or the garbage…” I will grab a couple servings to bring home. I usually reheat them for breakfast, playing with various mix-ins, like diced pepperoni, bacon bits, scrambled eggs, and canned chili, just to name a few.

The challenge has always been reheating them, I tend to scrape off the excess bread crumbs before I pack them, because those can turn out weird in the microwave. Lately, though, I’ve taken to a very specific set of steps to prepare them for breakfast. Before, I would pack them in bulk in a large to-go container and cut or scoop chunks out for a meal. Now, I pack each serving into a soup bowl, which serves as a mold, to shape each order into a nice, round cake. I then drop them into a greased, preheated frying pan on medium heat, and cook them for about 2-3 minutes per side. They get a nice, crispy toast on each side, and each serving makes a great base to lay a fried egg on top. It’s my current morning obsession.

Obviously, if you don’t work there, you can’t get them as easily as I do. However, they are very reasonably priced. Just order a side to go the next time you’re in the store. Press them flat into your carryout container, or take them home and transfer them to something that will give them a nice round shape, and reheat them the next morning. Then experiment with your own toppings, and see if you don’t get obsessed with them as well. Enjoy!

An Apron by Any Color…

This week, we received a free shipment from Blue Apron, courtesy of one of my wife’s coworkers. For those not familiar, they essentially pack and ship two complete meals, with nearly all the ingredients you need (including meats, packed in ice for shipping), neatly bagged and labeled, along with a recipe for each. All I needed to do was a little slicing and dicing, and provide my own olive oil.

Tonight, I tackled the first recipe; Salisbury Steak with roasted potato wedges and asparagus. I pulled all the ingredients together and skimmed through the instructions. I needed to dice an onion, mince some garlic, slice some cremini mushrooms, wedge-cut the russet potatoes, and cut the “woody” ends off the asparagus stalks. Overall start to finish time was estimated at 35-45 minutes, but it took me a little over an hour from oven preheating to serving up the finished product. So, my first bit of advice is, unless you’re a wiz with a kitchen knife, add about a quarter longer to the overall time estimate.

The instructions were clear and left little to chance. The attached pictures were a bit helpful, but almost unnecessary. It was easy to work with most of the items, and the quality and freshness of the ingredients was noticeable. I did have to move to a bigger pan at one point, but that’s probably because I ignored my initial instinct. The only step I felt less than confident that I completed well was when I had to gently blend the sautéed “aromatics” with the ground beef and bread crumbs. The finished “steak” patties were more fragile than I had hoped.

When I was all done, the dish presented very well. The sauce for the steaks had a chunkiness I’d never seen before for this dish, but I think that’s because I’d only ever had Salisbury Steaks in cafeterias, or as a tv dinner. The dish wasn’t gluten free, but as long as the all-purpose flour substitute can successfully thicken the sauce, it should be easy enough to alter. The flavors of the steaks, potato wedges, and roasted asparagus paired very well. The asparagus may have been our favorite part of the meal.

Overall, from a culinary perspective, I think the Blue Apron is great. The food was quite good, and I felt confident preparing this meal. I’m not sure if I learned anything significant, but I think looking at the portioning would help me be more aware when I wing it in the kitchen in the future. As far as the value of the program, I think it would depend on one’s lifestyle. If you’re home cooking dinner several nights a week, this could potentially be a great fit. They do all the thinking for you, while letting you focus on the joy of cooking a home-cooked meal. Compared to eating out, it’s a good deal, but only if you eat out frequently. I also think this would appeal most to people who don’t mind making some time to enjoy the process from start to finish. If you’re on a time crunch, this may not be a good fit. So, if you’re passionate about learning to cook, you enjoy the process, and you haven’t mastered ingredient selection/shopping and meal planning, this could be a great way to make your own great food for a change. Enjoy!

Try it. You’ll like it.

Recently, a coworker said to me, “You always have the best break food.” She was noting my recent experiment with various items from the kitchen at work. My latest endeavor to change things up is to try different sauces and toppings on mashed potatoes. My current favorites are tomato basil relish on the regular mashed and the potsticker sauce on wasabi-buttered mashed.

Whenever guests ask me what I like, I always say the same thing. “I have tried everything on the menu, and I have favorites in every category.” When someone tells me to chose between two items I always ask if they’ve tried either and usually tell them to try the other one. If they want me to choose an all-time favorite, I rarely have one, and usually respond, “It depends on my mood.”

Why? Because I’ve got an explorer’s spirit when it comes to eating. I love to try new things. Sure, I have my go-to favorite flavors, like cilantro, chocolate, anything cheese. Yet, more often of late, I’m getting away from my old pattern of getting stuck on a dish and trying it wherever I go. Gone are my caesar salad phase, my obsession with reuben sandwiches, or my penchant for all things alfredo sauce. I’ve learned to appreciate brussel sprouts again, to cook without cheese, to put a fried egg on peanut buttered toast, just because a pinterest pin suggested it. I’m an open-minded eater always on the hunt for my next dining experience.

There are limits of course. I still won’t eat liver, I’ve never eaten bugs (as far as I know), and I prefer my seafood tailless and shell-less. Still, the pairing of cayenne pepper and dark chocolate, or peanut butter and jalapeños, are just some of the many unexpected treats I now seek out. I hope my adventurous spirit is something my son embraces as he learns about foot. I also hope I can continue to inspire others to embrace new food for the rest of my life. After all, there’s so much out there to be explored. You never know where your next great favorite meal is waiting to be consumed until you keep looking to find it. Enjoy!

Nutty

I have a thing for peanut butter. I love the stuff. Crunchy or creamy is fine by me. It’s been one of my go-to quick fix meals for years, the classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Occasionally, it’s been banana, or honey, or marshmallow fluff. About the only jelly, jam, or preserve I’m not too fond of is orange marmalade. I generally prefer my bread toasted, so the peanut butter gets a little melty and gooey.

In the last few years, I’ve become more educated on ways to use peanut butter in a non-traditional manner, at least non-traditional for me. I already knew peanut butter is used in some asian dishes, but the first dish to really wow me was an african dish called Muamba. Now, a good friend of mine, Lynne, makes a killer version that utilizes a crockpot, and it’s always amazing! I’ve yet to attempt it, but I have the recipe saved on Food.com for future use. Soon, my precious, soon… More recently, I saved a go-to recipe for stir fry with a thai feel that uses peanut butter from Allrecipes.com. I change out the main ingredients, but the sauce always delivers each time I use it.

However, my two newest obsessions involve PB&J for breakfast, and peanut butter with something entirely unexpected for lunch. First, I had the brilliant idea to cook plain oatmeal, then toss in a spoonful of peanut butter and a spoonful of jelly to flavor it. Delicious! I’ve since done just peanut butter in an apple-cinnamon oatmeal and that’s outstanding as well. Plus the protein source adds additional health benefits to give me a great start to my day. Then, just a week or so ago, someone posted on FB an infographic of 15 different alternative toppings for a sandwich. So, on an adventurous whim, I tried topping my PB with a fried egg. I’ve done it twice since then; it’s that good. The salty peanut butter blends delightfully with the rich flavor of the egg. This one is definitely an “on-toast” prerequisite.. I’m sure I’ll do it again before the week is done.

As I expand my knowledge and palette, I’m learning more and more not to shoehorn ingredients into narrow categories, but to let myself experience some crazy combinations that I’d never had before. They don’t always work out, like the time I tried to wing it with a “mexican” spaghetti, but I’ll keep at it, and savor my successes. A few are bound to even end up here as original recipes from yours truly. Enjoy!

Not Chicken Anymore II: The Final Bow

Recently, I tackled my first whole chicken as described in this post. It was a smashing success, but a few days later, all that was left was the wings and a carcass. Cathy suggested I make stock from it. I’d never made stock before, but I figured all I needed was guidance from a recipe to get the job done.

Four hours later, I had a nice stock going. However, I still had to make dinner and I’d defrosted a chicken breast, so I got the idea to make a chicken noodle soup. Another recipe served me as a guide for cooking times and I went to work. I roasted some onions with the chicken breast until the chicken was pull-apart tender. I used the left over lemon and olive oil drippings from when I’d roasted the whole chicken for the roasting oil. I carefully pulled out as much edible meat form the remains of straining the stock and tossed that in. I didn’t have carrots or celery, but I did have some frozen pureed carrots we had been feeding the boy. A few tablespoons of that went in for flavor and nutrition. I used gluten free fusilli for the pasta.

Cathy and I downed two bowls each without blinking. I dished up four more helpings into storage containers for lunches this week. Another successful night in the kitchen, but so much of the process was unmeasured that I’ll never be able to truly repeat this again. To get the broth just right, I did something I hadn’t really done much in the past. I tasted as I went. That led me to toss in a little citron salt flakes we had on hand and a couple bouillon cubes to balance the broth. Tasting is an important part of the process that I need to trust more in the future. Like a great many other aspects of my growing kitchen skills, it’s the thing that will build my confidence and lead to future successes. Which I’m sure I’ll report on as soon as they happen. Enjoy!

Not Chicken Anymore

As I continue to try new things in the kitchen, I find myself facing many new firsts. There are still a great many things I’ve never tried before, such as making a soufflé, poaching eggs, or gutting a fish. (The first two will probably come up soon, but I’m in no hurry to try the third.) So I still have a lot of exploring to do.

One thing I hadn’t tried yet was cooking a whole chicken. I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know if I’d have to scoop out giblets by hand, or if I would over or under cook it. So I waited till Cathy was available for questions, since I had seen her cook a whole turkey before, inside a brown paper bag no less. I figured she had to know what she was doing. I also found several promising recipes to pick from and reviewed those with her as well. As it would turn out, we had one of what I would call beginner chickens. The giblets were neatly tucked into a wax paper bag and the chicken included a… I don’t know the technical term so I’ll call it a popper. You know, those pre-inserted thermometers that pop when the bird is done. Very handy, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

After emptying the bird and rinsing it out, I left it to dry in the fridge, propped up on it’s tail for a few hours. I chose a lemon and herb roast recipe, because I have had pretty consistent success with roasting in the past, and the recipe’s seasoning mix included mustard powder, which I happened to have on hand. The mixture was sprinkled inside and out, and then the lemon juice and olive oil blend was drizzled over the whole thing. Popped it into the oven, and started my basting timer. The recipe said to let it cook for an hour and a half, but I wasn’t sure if I should trust that or the popper. A quick call to the sis-in-law confirmed the popper’s idiot-proofness, so after the hour and a half was up, I switched to ten minute basting intervals. Right around the two and a quarter hour mark, I finally got a pop and out it came. After 20 minutes rest and a masterful carving job by the wife and we ate like kings.

I don’t know what I’ll tackle next (maybe cornish hens?), but I eagerly anticipate each new adventure. After all, I may not be an expert at cooking a whole chicken, but that doesn’t mean I have to be one anymore. I just have to trust in my ability to comprehend instructions, and I should take courage in knowing that so many have paved the way in the kitchen before me. Thanks to them the whole experience of cooking truly can be a joy. Enjoy!