Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Weird Wednesday: "Turkey" a Word Bigger than Bird

Life has been hectic lately.  Now, it's hectic for a different reason.  Thanksgiving is tomorrow.  I am tasked with picking up the bird and its trimmings this morning.  We ordered one of those turkeys that lived a life of luxury: no injections, no cages, an upstairs maid, a chiropractor and a jet ski.

The turkey is native to North America, yet bears the name of a nation at the intersection of Europe and Asia.  What's up with that, you might ask?  Or you might not but I'm going to tell you anyway.

This scruffy looking bird made its way to Europe through early European explorers and traders entertaining people with the strange things they found over yonder.  Things like animals, foods and Lady Gaga.  Farmers in turkey started breeding the birds and traded them across Europe.  They became known as "turkey birds" after their newly localized point of origin.  That eventually was shortened and today we eat "turkey" with no sense of irony about the name.

As to how a turkey came to be a pejorative slam on things?  Well, have you ever seen one?

Happy Thanksgiving.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Food, Family, Friday: Breville Panini Maker

A man wants to know he has the right tool for the job.  To drive a nail, you need a hammer.  To do anything else, you need duct tape. 

That about covers it.  Good night. 

Surprisingly, though, in the kitchen you run into the occasional situation where a hammer and duct tape are not enough.  I am not making this up.  The wife says it has something to do with keeping the food edible and I should not try to tell her duct tape is high in fiber though it no doubt is. 

We have many kitchen tools, though we’re not big on gadgets.  We tend to subscribe to AltonBrown’s “Death to Uni-taskers” idea:  kitchen items that only do one thing – and therefore are used once or so a year – are seldom worth the money when other tools, properly used, will do that same thing and many others as well.   So, you might think that we would never buy a Panini maker.

But, you would be wrong.

A couple years ago, we bought a Breville Panini Maker when it was on sale at Williams Sonoma.  This gadget is named like a uni-tasker, but it is much more.  We bought it because it not only makes great sandwiches, it functions as an indoor grill.  We grill chicken, steaks, even salmon on this thing and they are all done to near perfection in around six minutes.  It is especially handy if you are just throwing grilled meat into something else like a pasta dish.  Your ingredient is done in six minutes and there is no running in and out of the house just for an ingredient. 

That is not to knock Panini, even if the name sounds like a schoolyard taunt.  A Panini is a sandwich that got dressed up to go to the prom.  That fancied up sandwich pairs nicely with other simple things such as salads or soups. 

Cheese is key to making the whole thing work, but after that it’s up to you.  A Panini is as much a concept to play with as it is a specific recipe.  Here is one that I came up with recently.  It keeps the meat simple and uses chopped up vegetables to add flavor and texture.

1 slice prosciutto per sandwich
½ pound mushrooms, sliced in two
2 medium zucchini, chopped into half inch rounds
½ large onion, sliced roughly
dash of balsamic vinegar
1 slice (or so if your bread is big) provolone cheese per sandwich
Sun-dried tomato mayo (recipe follows)

Put a few tablespoons of marinated sun-dried tomatoes, a clove of garlic and just enough olive oil (could come from the oil in the tomatoes) to make sure they will whir up in a food processor.  Whir them up to be as smooth as possible.  Combine that with a half cup mayonnaise. 

Grill your veggies.  You can put them on the Breville or toss them in a shaker basket and put them on the regular grill.  When they are starting to char, remove them and let them cool a bit.  Then, put them into a food processor and give them a healthy chop with a splash of balsamic vinegar in the mix.  Be sure not to puree them or your sandwich will be a mess.  You should leave them with plenty of texture.

Take two slices of whole wheat or multi-grain bread per sandwich.  Paint one side of each slice with olive oil.  On the other sides, paint them with the sun-dried tomato mayo.

Put a slice of prosciutto on the mayo side of a bread slice.  Spread a layer of grilled veggies on top.  Place a slice of cheese over all that and cap it with the other mayo side of another bread slice.  Place that on your pre-heated Panini grill and close the lid.  It should take 3 to 5 minutes to get good grill marks and properly oozing cheese.  If you start hearing lots of sizzle, your cheese is probably melting too much and oozing onto the grill.

The cheese should help glue all the veggies together as it melts.  And if things start falling apart, you have my permission to use a little duct tape.  LEGAL DISCLAIMER: That’s a joke, son!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Weird Wednesday – Ferrari Icebox

My grandmother was born in 1888.  She lived a long life and I was a later life surprise for my father.  So, let’s be clear that I am not as old as that makes me sound (just feels like it some days).

We lived with Gramma.  She was a simple woman, the matriarch of quite an extended family.  She spent much of her days tending her gardens.  I say “gardens” plural because I can remember at least three that she had in various spots on our 5.5 acre homestead.  Some days, she would disappear for hours and show up again just before dinner with her straw hat full of twigs and an apron full of vegetables.

She would clean the veggies and put them in the “icebox.”  For the longest time, I thought she was referring to the freezer compartment when she used that term.  Turned out, “icebox” was a holdover from a previous era of home refrigeration.

The icebox was a piece of home furniture that was pretty much what it sounded like.  The ice man brought a block of ice to your home and it went into a compartment high in the box and as it melted it cooled your food.  Fancy models had ways to collect the resulting water and drain it.  For the rest, you just put a tray under the unit and Lassie lapped up the water as it collected.

They were attractive pieces of furniture as these pictures from Wikimedia and historian Mike Manning of Magi Media show.  Decidedly low tech by today’s standards, but they could conceivably fit in any room of the house.

In a back to the future move, a UK company named Robey’s has recovered the attractive aesthetics of that bygone era and solved that low-tech problem.  For more than $40,000, you can buy a refrigerator that could live in any room of the house.  It can be configured with a coffee maker, a few different kinds of ovens, room for an internal pantry or even a TV. 

Fittingly, it is called Meneghini La Cambusa.  I have no idea what that means, but it sounds more like an Italian sports car than a box that holds beer and burgers for the big game.

It’s essentially a house contained in a refrigerator.  It’ll do everything except tend the garden.  Of course, you probably have someone else to do that if you’re plunking down $40,000 on a fridge.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Food, Family, Friday: Roasted Butternut Squash Soup - Updated

I wrote the below a couple years ago.  I have since made a minor update to the recipe, so I thought I would repost it.  Enjoy.
-- Chef Dad

Let’s face it: butternut squash is funny looking.  With the fat part down, it looks like the start of a cartoon character.  With the fat part up, it’s hard to resist driving a nail into the wall with it.

But, it’s plentiful in the winter and offers that rustic, homey flavor a cold winter day cries out for.  If a comfy old flannel shirt had a flavor it would taste like butternut squash.

I haven’t just posted a recipe in a while, so here is one of my favorite soups along with a spice mixture I developed after investigating Middle Eastern cooking a couple years back.  I call the mixture “Middle Eastern BAM” after the popular invective Emeril utters when he tosses his “Essence” creole seasoning around.  That doesn’t make this a Middle Eastern soup.  Middle Eastern BAM (or “MEB” for short) comes in handy for numerous things where you want to add lots of subtle flavors.  You might also try it to season the flour before you dredge mild-flavored whitefish varieties.  You can also substitute other vegetables like carrots for the squash in this recipe.

1 tbsp of the following:
Sweet paprika
Dried thyme
Dried oregano
Ground coriander

2 tsp of the following:
Ground ginger
Ground cumin

1 tsp of the following:
Ground cinnamon
Ground cardamom

Shake it all together.  I do not put salt and pepper in the MEB so I can control that in whatever I’m cooking.  Also, almost anything I use this with already has some fresh onion and garlic in it.  Otherwise, you would want to add some onion powder and garlic powder to the mix.  If you like heat, you could add a touch of cayenne, but I actually don’t recommend it.  The Middle Eastern cuisine that inspired the mixture is not geared toward heat but lots and lots of subtle nuances.

The Soup
1 medium or 2 small butternut squash
1 medium onion, chopped
2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
3 or 4 cloves garlic, chopped
~ 2 tbsp MEB
4-5 cups chicken stock
~ 1/2 cup half and half
Honey, optional and if needed to balance sweetness
Some fresh herbs to finish

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Peel, seed, and chop the butternut squash. This squash has a thick peel and if you have to work up a sweat to peel it, get thee a decent peeler anon!  Put the squash on a cookie sheet and give it a minor toss with just a bit of olive oil.  Into the oven with it until a fork slides into the chunks like a warm welcome at a friend’s house; if it becomes a tearful, mushy welcome at Aunt Maude’s family reunion then you cooked it a bit long but the soup will likely be fine.

Meanwhile, start sautéing your onion and carrots in a decent-sized stockpot/saucier or what have you.  When soft, add the garlic and continue sautéing for a minute (the garlic should be quite fragrant).  Add your MEB (you are not required to shout “BAM!” when you do so, but don’t knock it till you try it).  Continue sautéing, stirring frequently for roughly one minute.  For those of us with grandparents of European descent, it might sound strange to toast the spices this way rather than add them after the liquid.  In fact, we are the strange ones on the planet on this point.

Anyway, by this time your squash should be ready.  Take it out of the oven and put it in with the onions.  Give it a few stirs, enough to coat it a bit with the spice mixture, then add your stock and bring to a boil.  Lower the heat and simmer a bit, just long enough that all your ingredients can get on a first-name basis with each other.  Then – and this is very important unless you were planning on getting plastic surgery anyway – turn off the heat.  Check to make sure you’re not getting bubbles any longer.  Now, take out your immersion blender and puree the soup (I like a little texture left in mine, but only a little). 

A regular blender or even a potato masher will suffice if you have no immersion blender (add that to the list when you go to get a decent peeler).  There is no specific worry about plastic surgery in this case, but keep your hand on the lid of the blender or you will be re-painting your ceiling (on the plus side, spinning and aerating hot liquids can be a great physics lesson for the kids if you have nothing else to do with your time and money).

Return it all to an ever so gentle simmer and add the half and half, a little at a time.  Let that simmer a bit and then taste it.  The soup should have rich flavors that kind of finish with just a shadow of sweetness.  If the sweetness is missing, add a bit of honey but don’t go overboard.  Sweet is just one of many flavors here.

To make a mid-week meal, I will often serve the soup alongside open-faced sandwiches made of whatever lunchmeat and cheese we have and then run them under the broiler to brown the cheese and crisp the bread.  Together, it’s a tasty and filling combo.


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Weird Wednesday: The Next Food Network Star

Reality TV is everywhere and the trend has infected cooking shows as much as any other genre.  One of the highest profile is Food Network's "Food Network Star" in which they put a group of star chef wannabe's through a grueling set of tasks.

It's pitched as a test of how creative these chefs are, how their style translates to Food TV and generally how good a cook they are.  Even the sting of losing is softened by the thought that all the contenders have somehow joined the Food Network family.

One of the tests of creativity, of course, is how you deal with duress when things don't go quite how you planned.  It's an important part of cooking shows, tracing back to Julia Child's famous flub while flipping some sort of pancake.  This classic scene is juxtaposed here against Meryl Streep's recreation of it which has been on Youtube for a couple years though no doubt contains material owned by media companies.

The truth is that no matter how well prepared you are, things don't always go as you planned when you are cooking.  Take the case of one cook in Holland Township, Michigan.

According to the website Mlive, a Michigan news site, a gentleman was preparing to cook a squirrel.  Like anyone would, he grabbed his propane torch to burn the fur off the carcass first.

Now, I know what you're thinking.  Oh, this is some guy silly enough to use a torch on a dead animal in his kitchen.  What about the smell?  Does he read this blog and think you can just do stuff like this and it's funny?

Certainly not.  This is a reasonable, pragmatic torch-wielding squirrel eater.  He stepped out onto the deck of his apartment building to burn the fur off his rodent.

But, you know, things happen when you're cooking, even if you're Julia Child or a Food Network dude.  In fact, things happened to 32 of the apartments as flames leaped from the deck to the roof of the building.  Luckily the only injury was a firefighter who broke a toe in the blaze.  As to how the toe was broken in this case of roasted rodent gone awry...insert your own joke here.

Attn: Food Network
RE: The Next Food Network Star

Friday, October 12, 2012

Food, Family, Friday: Chef Dad’s Making Guacamole

One of the classic memes of fatherhood is the enthusiastic welcome home Dad receives at the end of a workday.  In the cartoon version, Dad is literally knocked over with love as kids and dogs express their unbounded joy that he has returned once again to the family nest to share his wisdom, warmth and humor with a loving brood.

For the most part, I work out of the house.  My morning and evening commute is a grueling 10 feet between the home office and the kitchen.   I don’t get swarmed with love.   I get people wondering what’s for dinner and why isn’t it on the table and can I have $10 for school tomorrow.

The only time I ever get overwhelmed with love, a physical outpouring of joy and devotion that threatens to knock me off my feet, a veritable native dance of jumping and arm waving enthusiasm…is when I make guacamole.  Even then, the object of affection is the mulcajete full of green stuff that I have to hold over my head to get it to the table. 

And that’s not easy.  A mulcajete is a large mortar and pestle carved out of volcanic rock.  It’s cool, but it’s heavy.  You do not want to drop this thing on your toe and certainly not on your head.  Culturally, it comes from Mexico, though it is just one expression of the mortar and pestle that comes in many forms around the world.  They are all similar in nature; you put stuff into the bowl and bash it up.  Being a rock, the mulcajete is quite an effective basher.

This elegant rock was a birthday gift from the family.  I dutifully set out making guacamole with it.  After bashing it all together, I set the whole thing on the table and turned to get something to drink with my chips and guac.  When I returned to the table, it was all gone and there was an outcry for more. 

Since then, whenever I get the mulcajete out of the cabinet, my family goes through a werewolf-like transformation.  Though instead of deadly beasts, they turn into a pack of coyotes yip-yipping at my heels.  As her last bit of humanity passes from her body, BMW reminds everyone to leave some for me.

And then she tears the bag of chips open with her teeth and growls at the kids.

Chef Dad’s Making Guacamole
3 large cloves of garlic
Juice of half a lime (maybe more depending on how juicy your lime is)
2 tsp of ground coriander
1 tsp of ground cumin
Handful of cilantro
Generous pour of good extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste (they’re important ingredients)
2 large, ripe avocadoes sectioned so it all fits into mulcajete

The trick here is to first make a base out of all the other ingredients, and then bash the avocadoes into that base.  Put everything except the avocadoes into the mortar and pestle.  Start by crushing the garlic cloves enough so that you can work with them.  Then bash everything up, moving the mass around.  The advantage of the mulcajete for this is that it is a rough surface so that any movement does some grinding.

Eventually, the mass will be relatively smooth (though still textured) and a uniform green color.  Toss in the avocadoes and repeat.  You should end up with something that looks like the picture above.  Give it a taste to adjust seasonings if necessary.

Then fire a couple of warning shots to clear a path to the table and grab some chips before the coyotes regroup.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Weird Wednesday: McDonald’s Wants You to Know The Big Mac Rots

It is said that after nuclear Armageddon, life on earth will be reduced to just a couple of categories: cockroaches and Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards.  The theory goes that if Keith hasn’t killed himself with the many drugs he’s done so far, he has nothing to fear from the bomb.

Jokes operate on an internal logic all their own, which is part of what makes them funny (and, yes, analyzing jokes defines the opposite of funny).  The internal logic operating in this case begs a further question:  What will Keith do for munchies?

McDonald’s wants Keith to know that he cannot rely on all the leftover Big Macs on the planet because they will, indeed, rot…more or less…under certain circumstances.

My background is in corporate communications and journalism.  Generally, the corporate practice is to extol the virtues of your product, though integrity demands that you own up to any shortcomings.  In any other industry, products that are built to last a long time would be considered an advantage.  Not so for McDonald’s.

I cannot come up with another example of a company extoling the inherently rotten nature of its flagship product.  But, that’s what McDonald’s did in this unusual FAQ post on their Canadian corporate site.  In fact, Mickey D turned the page over to a food scientist from the University of Guelph to explain that the Big Mac decays like any other foodstuff – just a little more slowly than you might expect.      

But, the kindly scientist offered a couple suggestions for speeding up the process if you’re into that kind of thing.  And who isn’t, am I right?

Apparently, the Internet had been feasting on the rumor that Big Macs are so chock full of chemicals that they do not decay.  Oh for the days when important rumors could be confined to high school and Wall Street where people knew what to do with them.  Alas, now that McDonald’s and food science have cleared up this misunderstanding, the search goes on for a post-Armageddon foodstuff.

Perhaps Keith Richards will have to satisfy himself with Twinkies.