Sunday, June 7, 2009

Dressing for Success

So, I've spent all weekend trying to decide if I should write on a certain topic for this blog entry. I waned over the prospect of preaching about what I thought was one of the easiest aspects of a meal to prepare. Then, I had a sort of epiphany; with endless combinations and many faux pas to be made, there was actually quite a bit that needed to be said about one of the most overlooked parts of a meal, the salad. More specifically the garden salad, as opposed to a dessert, pasta, or other non-greens forms of this dish.

Generally, each time I prepare a full meal I include a basic salad in the menu, but I especially love to get creative for the times when the salad actually is the meal. This was the case this past evening when I had some friends from work over for a late dinner. I was told that my cooking had been touted as wonderful(a fact that I cannot refute in good conscience) and that I was not to disappoint. With that in mind, I raided my refrigerator and got to work.

When engineering a salad, getting creative does not mean getting overly complex with your ingredients. The best thing to do is to focus on one aspect of the salad, and pair everything to work with that particular element. I tend to start with the dressing and work out from there. In this case, we're discussing my favorite: Honey Ginger Vinaigrette. It's tart, a little sweet, bold without being overpowering, and it's the perfect match to a well built summer salad.

Now, I don't like to preach (heh heh), but if there is one thing I can impress upon you it is that you should ALWAYS make your own salad dressing. Nothing is going to give you exactly the result that you are looking for unless you make it yourself. Perhaps this makes me a control freak. Perhaps I am okay with this fact. Regardless, it is such a shame to pair together prime ingredients only to serve them with some prefabricated dressing that has been sitting for days on a store shelf. If you'd like to make the dressing that I used in this case, the recipe will follow my rant. Just so everyone knows, I'm not above using bottled dressings, I just don't normally serve them to my guests.

The salad in this case was based on mild field greens (spicy greens like arugula would fight with the dressing.) and baby spinach. To complement the nice bite of the dressing, I picked some nicely ripe strawberries and quartered them. Then I added halved sugar snap peas and candied pecans to top the dish and give a little bit of a crunch. To complete a nice flavor trifecta, I add some (and by some, I never mean a small amount) crumbled Amish blue cheese for a rich finish. When building a salad, keep in mind that the components of the salad should each bring something unique in the taste department to the table, so to speak. If you pair things that each bring the same flavor genre to the salad, it will only confuse your guests palate and leave them unsatisfied. Last, I added some diced grilled chicken breast because this was, after all, the entire meal. Make sure if you're grilling this chicken to either let it cool completely, or wait till the very last minute to add it to the salad, hot meat and cool greens tend to not get along after a short period of time.

This Paired with the Dressing, which is a simple vinaigrette of (about) 1/4c balsamic vinegar (the good stuff), 1/4c of Extra Virgin, a healthy dash of white pepper and kosher salt, about 1/4t of ground horseradish, 2t of Dijon Mustard, 2-3T of Clover Honey, 1T fresh chopped ginger, and 2 cloves of fresh chopped garlic. Now I usually recommend that you mix all ingredients EXCEPT the olive oil about an hour in advance to allow the flavors of the garlic, ginger, and pepper to infuse, then whisk in the olive oil before serving the salad. In keeping with what Shane pointed out in his post, PLAY WITH THE PROPORTIONS! If you like a more tart dressing, use less honey and oil, and add more ginger. Something smoother? Up the garlic and honey. I'm going so far as to say that it is your job as the chef to not just follow a recipe as is if you know that your guests tastes differ from the composition.

Now, I'm not guaranteeing that your guests will not feel gypped when they hear that all you are preparing is a salad. Most people think of salads as boring entities, meant to tide you over and give a cook more time to prepare the main courses. They might ask if they should "bring something" or even say they can't come. Just remember that if there is one thing I can guarantee, it's that with the proper thoughtful attention to detail, they will never doubt your culinary decision again.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Much Ado About Mushroom

So I think the general format here is going to revolve around Brett primarily posting recipes and anecdotes, and me maybe highlighting one of the ingredients he used in the recipe. Be on the lookout for my cooking philosophies as well. It’s a fluid format for now, so work with us and allow room for future changes.

Ownership of cooking is an important concept to me. Take recipes you see here, omit some things, add others. Double the onions, halve the peppers. Create food you and your friends and family want to eat. Look at Brett’s first recipe, he talks about “a bit” of this and “some” of that. If you’re putting chopped tomatoes in a measuring vessel to make sure you have exactly ½ cup, you’ve missed the point and the fun. Naturally, I’m talking about non-structural elements here, if we post a cake recipe, you can’t arbitrarily use less flour.

How do you accomplish this style of cooking? Through tasting. Taste the ingredients, taste your sauces, taste your finished product. Never let anything go out of your kitchen without a final taste.

Portabella Mushrooms

Brett’s first recipe hit upon one of my favorite ingredients. Mushrooms truly are the love’em or hate’em ingredient. So why am I highlighting such a controversial ingredient? Simply, mushrooms get a bad rap, meld well with a variety of flavors and at least deserve a second chance among anyone that thinks they don't like them. I suspect many of the mushroom haters were chagrined as children when their parents denied them the privilege of pepperoni on pizza and were served canned white mushrooms instead. Cook mushrooms from fresh, and I'm sure you'll find a much more agreeable flavor and texture.

On the other side of the coin, those of us that admire the fungi simply can’t get enough. For us, it’s a lucky thing that mushrooms have so many different applications. They can improve a salad or a steak, get sautéed with chicken or stuffed with crab, or even become the stuffing themselves. All these applications and I haven’t even mentioned the psychoactive properties of some varieties.

The Portabella is, of course, the steak of mushrooms. It’s large, meaty and simply delicious. As such, I love leaving Portabellas whole letting their texture shine through. Do this: Marinate some whole portabellas for a few hours in a mixture of balsamic vinegar, olive oil and black pepper. When they’ve marinated, throw them on the grill, season to taste and cook until done. When are they done? When they are cooked to a texture you like. I’m sorry, that’s the answer. Eat the mushroom just like that. Not looking forward to a big mushroom for dinner? Grill some olive oil brushed ciabatta along side your mushrooms and make a sandwich with goat cheese and baby spinach leaves. Don’t like goat cheese? Use feta. Don’t like feta? Use blue. Don’t like any of those? Stop pretending you like cheese.

Go out, buy some mushrooms and experiment with them. They’ve got myriad applications and are guaranteed to help you feed your friends, satiate your neighbors and expand your cooking horizons.

Date night with the Crew.

So, MANY years ago I had my first ever experience going to the drive-in with some of my friends. I was instantly enamoured with this format, even though I loathe seeing movies in the theater. Anyone who knows me would realize that sending me to a place with a bunch of strange people with whom I cannot talk, where I have to sit still for 2 hours, and where my shoes stick to the floor is a recipe for disaster. The drive-in allowed me to do away with all of these attributes, I was in heaven.

Now, I've done the cheesy thing of taking a few dates to the drive in, but this is not my favorite use for such a great venue. Over the years I've taken advantage of the flexibility of the drive-in and had many a great night out with friends. I've come to the conclusion from all of my extensive research that the best recipe for a good time is to gather about 3-4 friends, pile them into a truck, pack a picnic basket full of goodies and head over to catch the latest double feature.

Last night, I had the opportunity to catch this perfect storm and gather my favorite crew from Woohattan and head over to Strasburg, Ohio to the Lynn Drive-In. This place was spartan, compact, and likely hadn't been updated for 30 years. I was again, in heaven.

For this adventure I packed a picnic basket (well... plastic bag in this case since I was running behind again as usual)for everyone to enjoy. If I look back at my treks to the outdoor screens, I notice that I've tried many things with which to fill the basket: Calzones, salads, even potluck style dinners. But by far my favorite is this recipe that I developed about 6 years ago specifically for a trip to the drive-in and I've been making it ever since. I call it a picnic sandwich, and it draws inspiration from a stuffed loaf, and a pita. It's perfect for this type of gathering because it's completely self contained, easy to transport and serve, and (the element I'm most concerned with) it looks unavoidably delicious. So unavoidable in fact that I may have to send one of my friends flowers to apologize for forcing her to break her diet. Sometimes when I make a dish, it looks phenomenal, but falls short of the taste mark. These are the dishes that are never seen again. The fact that I make this sandwich repeatedly for many occasions is a testament to it's ability to deliver on all fronts.

I start by heating a bit of olive oil in a deep skillet, in order to sautee some sliced portabella mushrooms. Once these are nice and tender, I add sliced roasted red and yellow peppers, a handful of roasted garlic cloves and if you like, Kalamata (or Black) olives, Diced oven roasted chicken, chopped fresh basil and oregano, black pepper and salt to taste. Reduce to low heat and allow to cook for a few minutes to allow the flavors to meld. Remove from heat and place in a bowl. Fold in a small handful of shredded parmesean cheese. Then in the same pan wilt spinach with about 2 tablespoons of water and sea salt. remove from heat when complete. Next take a whole loaf of bread. (here I used a round loaf of whole wheat house sourdough from Broken Rocks Cafe in Wooster) Slice lengthwise to creat a top and bottom half. Remove the soft bread from the middle of the loaf creating a cavity for the filling. fill the bottom half with the chicken mixture. Place a layer of sliced provolone cheese on top of this, and then top with the wilted spinach and place the top half of the loaf back on top. You should not be able to see the filling from the side. This actually does two things, keep the filling from spilling out, and retain the heat of the filling. Wrap the entire loaf in 2 layers of foil and place into a 325 degree oven for 15-20 mins.

Leave it in the foil to pack it, and bring along a bread knife to cut it. this will definitely impress each time you bring it along. Pair it with a wine or even better, a beer (but don't blame me if they kick you out for having alcohol.) and make sure to pack a bold dessert that stays together on it's own. This time around I made my mom's Peanut butterscotch Rice Crispies Squares (which I'm sure I'll eventually post the recipe for in a future blog.) for dessert to make for one filling meal that kept even my overactive mouth quiet for the movie.

My Very First Blog

So, I've finally caved in and started a blog. I've been against this concept for a while because I truly believe that no one has an interest in my mundane life.
Lately though, I've felt compelled to share some experiences that others might actually find useful. I've always had a love of entertaining, especially with food. I truly feel that there are others out there who might appreciate the love (and more importantly, the recipes) that I have for creating interesting foods for interesting social gatherings.
Along with my good friend Shane, who I respect immensely for his ideas, insight, knowledge, skill, and most of all his wit, we will hopefully be providing you with something that is not only readable, but interesting and entertaining.
Feel free to let us know what you think, make suggestions, tell your stories, etc.
Thanks especially to Shane giving my blog it's title, which for me is apparently too difficult to muster the creativity.