Sunday, August 31, 2008

Smoke-Grilled Lamb Ribs

My brother Stephen is a chef and a grill master, so when he sent me this picture of the dinner he prepared tonight, I just had to post it. I was not lucky enough to taste these ribs, but I just know they were awesome. I'm not even a huge fan of lamb, but with a rich rub like this and a little smoke, even I would love to give them a try. At my request, he wrote out an actual recipe, something he rarely uses, but is helpful to some of us -- at least as a starting point.
"Can you say YUM? I found a stray rack of lamb ribs . . . never seen that particular product before. Rubbed them with rosemary, whole grain mustard, garlic and olive oil. Hickory and apple wood smoked . . . too good to be true! It is a good preparation . . . not gamey at all, tastes more like bacon!!
2 racks of ribs (approximately 3 lbs.)
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 sprigs fresh rosemary or 1 tbsp. dried
4 tbsp whole grain mustard or Dijon
2 tbsp. kosher salt
1 tbsp. black pepper
juice from 1 lemon
4 tbsp. olive oil

Combine all in a bowl to make a thick paste. Rub all over meat and refrigerate for 2 hours, or as long as overnight. Grill over INDIRECT heat (225-250 degrees), so as not to burn the marinade, using any wood of your choice for smoking. Cook to internal temperature of at least 180 degrees -- this is a very moist rib, so you may want to cook longer to render more fat off the ribs.
* Smoking tips - soak wood chips in water for at least 30 minutes, then wrap in a foil pouch poked with holes to release smoke. Place directly on coals; replace with a new pouch of wood chips as soon as you don't see any smoke.

On gas grills, just use one burner and put meat off to the cold side; place the wood chip pouch on the flames.

Bon appetit!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Unforgettable Pizza

It was the best pizza I had ever eaten!

Many, many years ago . . . way too many to talk about in real numbers . . . I enjoyed my first pan pizza. It was at Papa Del's in Champaign, and I was visiting my friend, Wendy, a freshman at U of I, who was eager to share this incredible culinary discovery with me. From that day forward, it became the gold standard by which all other pizzas are measured.

Last week, we were driving to Chicago to see Jersey Boys with my brother-in-law and sister-in-law, when I happened to think again about that delicious pan pizza. Suddenly it occurred to me that we would be driving right past Champaign and I could have that pizza again! I immediately suggested a stop at Papa Del's on our way back home. The decision was unanimous!

We didn't arrive at Papa Del's until about 8:30 p.m. on Monday night, although Mapquest took us there with no problems -- just too much shopping in Chicago before we left town. We should have known! We parked in the large lot behind the building, walked inside and were greeted by a server who reluctantly told us they had been "slammed" earlier in the evening and were completely out of pizza dough. I was crushed! "But," she said, "if you want to wait, we'll have more made in about 30 minutes." Did I want to wait? After all this time? You bet!

We ordered drinks and were informed that they were not serving anything but pizza for the rest of the evening, so even a salad while we waited was out of the question. OK then! We'll be really ready for that pizza. Of course, making the dough took time, but so does baking a pizza that size and that dense. At least an hour passed before our pizza was finally delivered to our table. It was breath-taking to behold! Aromatic, bubbly, beautiful and enormous!

And the taste? One bite and I knew it was just like I remembered -- pizza perfection! Thanks Papa Del's . . . and thanks again Wendy!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Brick Oven Pizza - A little flour, a little fire, and a lot of fun!

I can tell you from experience that having a wood-fired brick oven is amazing. It's a culinary event every time you build that wood fire, stoke it all day, and finally slide that pizza off the peel and onto the hot bricks. Before you know it, you're biting into a crisp crust like no other crust you've ever made, and you're hooked! If you love great pizza, building a backyard brick oven of your very own will make you happy, happy, happy every time you make pizza. And don't forget, if you also like to bake artisan breads, you'll have double the fun with a brick oven!

If you love good pizza and want authentic Italian style pizza at home, then you need to use what Italians use to make the crust -- authentic Molino Caputo Tipo "00" flour. This finely milled wheat flour makes a thin, crispy Neopolitan-style crust. The Forno Bravo website offers this imported flour for sale, as well as, information about brick ovens and recipes for pizza from the dough up, if you are truly serious about an authentic pizza experience.

Of course, there are other effective ways to make great pizza at home, giving you complete domain over the ingredients -- like San Marzano tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, fresh basil and fresh or roasted garlic. Italian flour and good fresh toppings are still the choice for an excellent pizza, but other methods of baking your creation will give you the proper snap, crackle and pull you crave.

A pizza stone produces a delightfully crisp crust. If your oven gets really, really hot (500+ degrees!) then you're in luck. Purchase a pizza stone and lay it on the bottom of the oven while you crank the heat up to inferno. Slide your pizza onto the stone and keep a careful watch -- it will bake really fast! I promise you will be amazed at the results!

If your indoor oven is not up to the challenge, move outside and light up the covered grill. Of course, the pizza stone is also perfect for the grill but, once again, it is also possible to make a great pie on right on the rack. There are pizza stones made expressly for the outdoor grill now, but the same stone you put in your oven will work fine too. Remember, you want the grill to be really, really hot, but no flames please! And you'll need a pizza peel to make the transition from counter to stone to table easier and safer -- that fire is HOT!

One other word of advice -- pre-baking your crust, before adding the toppings, is a little secret to perfect pizza, especially if you like a very thin smattering of toppings. A quick pre-bake will assure you of a cooked-all-the-way-through crispy crust, without incinerating those toppings. Make the dough, shape it, and bake it for a few minutes until it holds its shape. Remove from the oven and hold until time to top and finish baking. My brother, Jeff the Pizza Chef, uses the pre-bake method for both the brick oven and the grill, with perfect results every time! And remember, perfectly round pizza never looks homemade!

Don't you wish you you had one right now? Buon appetito!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Kitchen Notes - A Fork for Cooking!

I've had this big orange fork for a while, but I took it out for the first time tonight when I was browning some ground beef, the very task for which I purchased it. For me, browning ground beef requires cooking with a fork. A spoon just won't give the crumbled texture that a fork will. But cooking with a fork can really damage a non-stick pan, not to mention the wear and tear on a fork designed for eating.

Enter the Grill Friends Fork, definitely a true wish-I-had-thought-of-that find. The silicon exterior is wrapped around a substantial metal fork, making it comfortable, sturdy and easy to handle. It made quick work of crumbling the ground beef as it browned and looked none the worse for wear from the heat and grease. Wash-up was simple too.

I just love it when I find something new that is so handy and functional. The Grill Friends Fork is reasonably priced and would make a great gift for your favorite cook -- birthdays, Christmas, hostess gift, etc. I know a few people who will find one in their Christmas stocking this year.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Pea Salad Days

I'll just bet food snobs don't eat pea salad. To tell the truth, I'm not exactly sure who does, because nobody really eats canned peas, at least not when anyone is looking. But for those who adore the appeal of food as art -- impeccably fresh ingredients, precariously stacked and served in oh-so-trendy stark white rimmed bowls or square plates -- pea salad probably does not even exist.

I suppose it would be possible to fancy it up a bit -- harvest and shell fresh heirloom peas, thoughtfully select complementary layers of flavor, whip up a batch of homemade mayonnaise and gently fold it all together. Food snobs could then proudly proclaim themselves creators of a gourmet pea delight. I guess I would give their version a try, because I am not a food snob, but pea salad purists would say, "Phooey!" to this pseudo pea salad.

You may be able to dress it up, but you still don't take it anywhere. Real pea salad is not rare or elegant, except perhaps in its sublime simplicity, so it lacks the appeal required of twenty-first century restaurant menus. Back in the day, as my son would say, there may have been tearooms serving pea salad to ladies lunching in hats and gloves. And today, in some circles, pea salad probably still finds its way to pot-luck suppers or funeral meals, but in my mind, pea salad will always be simple, unaffected kitchen table food.

The definitive recipe for pea salad does not exist, except in the minds of seasoned cooks. Rather, it is a construct of ingredients pulled from the pantry shelf and evocative of a simpler time when moms and grandmas made it for lunch or supper. Vintage community cookbooks, published by mid-twentieth century churches and civic groups, are still around to tell the true story of foods like pea salad . . . in the beginning, take a can LeSueur peas. What happens beyond that rests with the creator, because the simple truth is there is no cooking involved!

1 can LeSueur peas
2 tbsp. sweet pickle relish
2/3 c. shredded cheddar cheese
1/3 c. Hellman's mayonnaise

Place ingredients in a bowl and stir gently to combine. Serve immediately or refrigerate to let the flavors blend a little.

So give me a can of LeSueur peas, a warm summer day, and I'm in pea salad heaven. I have my mother to thank for my love of pea salad -- and I also thank my mother-in-law for giving me someone who shares that same love. Guilty pleasure, comfort food or nostalgia -- you decide.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Late Summer Garden Party

The end of the summer is a wonderful time of year, especially if you have a garden. Interesting combinations of the last little bits of the season’s harvest can lead to some truly inspired meals. Just let your imagination run wild and it will be easy to create a delicious breakfast, lunch or dinner. And if you find yourself with beautiful blue skies, perfect temperatures, and dear friends in town for the weekend, why not dish up a late summer garden party?

Recipes have never been a strict requirement for creating imaginative layers of complimentary flavors. Consider some of these combinations as starting points and see where your late summer garden takes you. Toss vegetables with fresh greens for salads, layer them on artisan whole grain breads for sandwiches, or blend them with hot or cold rice or pasta for an elegant one dish meal.

 We combined a whole host of salads with grilled chicken and veggie burgers, both glazed with my brother's secret sauce and, of course, fresh corn on the cob and sliced tomatoes. Dessert was simple with a huge fruit salad, including fresh-from-the-farmers' market blueberries, peaches, melon and grapes -- that was forgotten in the refrigerator when setting the dinner table! -- and a variety of ice cream bars.

Just be sure to write down your own favorite combinations for planning next year’s garden!
Eggplant, provolone, mozzarella, marinara sauce
Lettuces, roasted red peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, and fresh herbs, with tuna or chicken
Cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, capers, red onions, feta cheese, with optional chicken or fish
Roasted eggplant, fresh mozzarella, provolone, marinara sauce
Roast beef, roasted red peppers, caramelized onions, provolone
Tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, hearty artisan bread, fresh basil or homemade pesto
Spinach, garlic, caramelized onions, roasted peppers, freshly grated Parmesan
Roasted eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash, onions, red pepper, garlic, capers, roasted tomatoes
Roasted tomatoes, pesto, goat cheese

6 c. cooked rice (a mix of brown and white was very nice!)
2 c. finely chopped red, yellow or orange pepper
3/4 c. finely chopped red onion
1 c. chopped marinated artichoke hearts
1/4 c. small capers
1 c. golden raisins
1/2 c. chopped fresh dill - do not use dried!
1/3 c. minced fresh parsley
1 c. sliced black olives
1 c. fresh or frozen peas - do not cook

Mix all of the ingredients and toss with about 3/4 of the dressing -- add more dressing only if needed. Prepare several hours before serving. Serve at room temperature. Variation: add roasted chicken breast or grilled shrimp for a main dish.

1 1/4 c. corn oil
1/2 c. white wine vinegar
1 3/4 tsp. kosher salt
1 3/4 tsp. freshly ground pepper
1 tbsp. minced garlic
1/2 tsp. dried basil
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1/4 c. chopped fresh parsley

Whisk all ingredients together and toss with rice salad mixture. Reserve some of dressing to use only if needed, so that salad is still fluffy and not soaked in dressing.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Welcome Home, Howard!

After adding the last post (see below) I fixed myself a little lunch -- the second half of yesterday's Italian Combo on Ciabatta from Panera. As luck would have it, I also had some of my favorite relish to freshen my leftover sandwich. After four year's of doing without, I discovered jars of Howard's Sweet Pepper Relish on the shelves of Southern Season in Chapel Hill. Bonanza!

Given my incredible memory for good things I've eaten since early childhood, I must admit that I never knew the name of my favorite condiment. Therein lies my excitement at finding it on my trip, and returning home with a couple of jars to call my own. No one else in my family likes the stuff, but I sure do! It's great on hotdogs and sub sandwiches -- and probably on a spoon, right out of the jar, but so far I've resisted eating it that way.

I didn't even realize how mindlessly I had been plucking jars of HSPR from the shelf at the supermarket, without even knowing the name, until I moved and looked for the familiar jar at my new grocery store. I stood staring at the condiment section in a daze. What did the jar look like? What variety of relish was it? What the heck was the brand name? I could recall the size of the jar and the shape of the jar, and in my mind I could see what I thought was a gold and white label with red relish peeking out behind it, but for the life of me I couldn't conjure up the name on the label, nor could I find anything like it on the shelves around here. Without a name, it was pointless to try to ask the store manager if they carried it. "Gosh, ma'am, I not sure if we carry your favorite red relish, in a jar with a gold and white label, that is delicious on hotdogs or subs -- could you hum a few bars?"

So, imagine the thrill of finding my long lost relish friend on the shelves of Southern Season, and my surprise in finding that Howard's Relish has been made in MA and NH since the 1890's! I don't ever remember seeing it on any of my many trips to NH, but then, I guess I wasn't really looking for it in that context. I have it now though, and I know the brand name and where to find more.

Maybe if I take that second jar to the manager at my local Kroger, I won't have to bother my NC or NH friends to mail it to me by the case, which is how I get my favorite brands of tea, coffee, tiny butterbeans, barbecue sauce, and cornmeal . . . It's all about the food, isn't it!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Meet Me At The Farmers' Market

Carbondale Farmers' Market - Saturday August 2, 2008

(My monthly column for Heartland Women)
August 2008

I must say, I was very disappointed when my summer travel plans did not turn out the way I wanted this year. Wait! That didn’t come out right! My friends I just returned from visiting are going to read this and think I didn’t have a good time with them in Iowa and North Carolina – but I did!

What I should say is, I had planned to visit my last three states and I really was looking forward to reaching my 50-state goal and setting my sights on more distant lands. Alas, that big wedding we just had, plus even bigger gas prices, did not add up to the final leg of my “See American First” road trip this summer. North Dakota, Montana and Idaho will be there next year, I guess, and upon further reflection, I’m not sure my driver was as disappointed as I was.

As it turns out, I’ve made do quite nicely with Plan B, a little road trip of my own to Iowa and a flying trip to North Carolina. I have been to Iowa a few times to visit my BFF, Robin, and her family, and I lived in eastern North Carolina for twenty-four years, so neither was a first-time. In fact, before we moved back to Carbondale, we seriously considered settling in Chapel Hill, which had always reminded us so much of Carbondale. Funny how things work out sometimes.

When you are looking at a new town to live in, you are concerned about all manner of factors related to economics, healthcare, schools, etc. But when you are just traveling, factors like entertainment and shopping are much more important. Let’s face it, for me, that means bookstores, theaters (movie and live performance), food markets, and kitchen shops – but mostly restaurants. I am what I am!

I love the feel of Iowa City as much as I love the drive through miles of rolling cornfields to get there. The neighborhoods are filled with charming homes and friendly people are always out walking. The downtown area is alive and bustling with interesting shops and restaurants, including it’s own Pagliai’s Pizza and the famous Hamburg Inn, which is a campaign stop for every serious presidential candidate! Iowa City seems so alive and so corn-fed-middle-America. What’s not to like about that!

Every trip I make to Iowa City includes a restaurant stop or two. This time we had dinner at Atlas and, with Dan’s recommendation, I tried the Buffalo Chicken Burrito, something I would probably not normally choose. Well, I would have missed out on something really good! Crispy hand-breaded and fried chicken tenders, spicy wing sauce, mashed parmesan and Yukon gold potatoes, fresh carrots and celery all rolled into a giant burrito and served with Maytag blue cheese or ranch (Dan’s favorite!) dressing for dipping. Loved it -- an amazing blend of some very basic bar food done fresh, local and with a twist!

I also dined at, not one, but two great restaurants right on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, within easy walking distance from campus. At Lantern, chef-owner Andrea Reusing creates her Asian-inspired dishes with locally grown produce, meats and seafood. My choices were a cold spicy cucumber soup, delicious pork and chive dumplings, a steamed halibut with ginger, scallions, black beans and baby bok choy entree, and a creamy local strawberry ice cream with pistachio shortbread. Everything was very good!

On another night, my friend Dannie took me to her latest discovery, Bonne Soiree, where husband and wife team, Chip Smith and Tina Vaughn, offer a simple, yet elegant, atmosphere to enjoy delicious local foods, this time with a French influence. I chose to start with an herb and goat cheese soufflé, followed by a perfectly seared scallops entrée. Both were wonderful, especially when paired with wines, chosen by Tina, to compliment them perfectly. Dessert was a decadent pot de crème.

We also spent time in the Pinehurst/Southern Pines area while I was in North Carolina, which included some more great eating experiences. Perhaps my favorite dinner of the whole trip was at Wolcott’s, a very small eatery in Southern Pines. Chef Scott Wolcott prepared the most incredible fried calamari that was so light and tender, it simply melted in our mouths. I followed that with equally delicious fried oysters (what can I say, I’ve really missed fresh seafood!) and then a fresh, butter poached Maine lobster tail served with cheese polenta and spinach in garlic. I also tasted almost everyone else’s dinner at our table . . . everyone likes to share with the food writer! The Berkshire pork tenderloin was outstanding, living up to everything I’ve read about it. It took a second or two to detect the divine flavor in the mashed potatoes that accompanied the pork – freshly ground nutmeg! Dessert was the lightest, most wonderful bread pudding I’ve ever tasted . . . and I can’t begin to imagine how it was made or even how to describe it. I must add, the wait staff at Wolcott’s was both very professional and quite charming, which added to our total dinner experience.

Every successful visit to Chapel Hill must include a couple of hours cruising around in Southern Season, my favorite food/kitchen/wine shop. I was sorry not to have had time to take a cooking class, but the irresistible, non-perishable goodies I collected there just arrived at my door, so I’ve got to finish this column and get back into my own kitchen!

Iowa City and Chapel Hill both draw from much larger economic bases than Carbondale and it shows in the variety of really good, locally owned restaurants and the number of little shops they can support. They both offer a vibrant local food culture, including growing numbers of local farmers and food artisans, a network of area farmers’ markets, and even Slow Food convivial, that all add to the whole food scene.

Carbondale is much smaller than either Iowa City or Chapel Hill, even when the population of the surrounding communities is added. That doesn’t matter much though, because we still have what it takes to put good food on our tables at home. We don’t have to travel far to find butchers, bakers and produce growers. We have orchards and farms selling their own locally grown fruits and vegetables, and at least half of the homes on my street have a vegetable garden in the backyard too. We have markets specializing in ethnic food items to help us enjoy a wide variety of cuisines. In most of our markets, we can buy fresh baked goods, organic produce and even locally raised meats. Where the local food culture supports the availability of this many good products, it isn’t long before even more food artisans, more specialty shops and great local restaurants appear – and that’s a good thing!

Best of all, we already have our own farmers’ markets where it is possible to find fresh, local, organic and artisan foods (and crafts!) in one place. Just remember though, you can’t go to our farmers’ market, if you are in a hurry, because you will always run into people you know. In small towns, we are a community and places like the farmers’ market celebrate the best of what brings us together -- good food and friendly, familiar faces.

Over the next few days, I'll post some recipes for summer’s very freshest ingredients in honor of National Farmers’ Market Week August 3 – 9. Traveling is fun, but home is also a good place to eat and shop. Meet me at the local farmers’ market to celebrate National Farmers’ Market Week, August 3 – 9. Remember to eat local and let the people who grow, raise and craft your food know how much you appreciate them.

1 3/4 c. diced peeled peaches (about 3 large)
1/4 c. diced red bell pepper
1/4 c. chopped red onions
3 tbsp. fresh lime juice, divided
2 tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro
1 tbsp. minced seeded jalapeño
1 garlic clove, minced

Mix peaches, red bell pepper, green onions, 2 tablespoons lime juice, chopped cilantro, jalapeño, and garlic in small bowl to blend. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate 1 hour before serving to allow flavors to blend.

4-5 med. zucchini (about 1-1/2lbs.)
3/4 tsp. salt
4 eggs
1 clove garlic, minced
3/4 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 c. grated Parmesan cheese
1 tbsp. finely chopped onion
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
sour cream

Trim and coarsely shred zucchini (you should have about 5 cups). In a large bowl toss zucchini with salt. Place in a colander or sieve. Place a plate on top of zucchini and weight down with a couple of cans; let drain in the sink or over a bowl for 15 minutes. Discard liquid. In the large mixing bowl, beat eggs and garlic. Stir in flour, Parmesan cheese, onion, and pepper until just moistened (batter should be lumpy). Stir in shredded zucchini until just combined (mixture will be thick).
For each zucchini pancake, spoon a rounded tablespoon of batter onto a hot, lightly oiled griddle or heavy skillet, spreading to form a 3-inch circle. Cook over medium heat for 2-3 minutes on each side, or until the pancake is golden brown. (Reduce heat to medium-low if pancakes brown too quickly.) Keep pancakes warm in a 300-degree oven while cooking remaining pancakes. Serve warm topped with a dollop of sour cream, if desired. To keep for future use, cool then place in layers in a freezer container with waxed paper between layers. To reheat: Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place frozen pancakes in a single layer on a greased baking sheet. Bake, uncovered, for 8 to 10 minutes or until hot and slightly crisp. Makes about 30 pancakes.

1 med. seedless watermelon, cut into bite-size chunks
1 c. thinly sliced red onion
1 c. Feta cheese, crumbled
2 tbsp. fresh lime juice (about 2 limes)
1-2 tbsp. honey
salt to taste
2 tbsp. chopped fresh mint leaves
2 tbsp. fresh basil, thinly sliced into ribbons

Toss all ingredients together, except mint leaves and basil, and let sit for 1 hour. Refrigerate or serve at room temperature. Toss with herbs immediately before serving.