Designated Driver Cooking

All my friends know I don’t drink.

All my friends also know that I love cooking.

They just don’t understand why I have better liquor collections than they do.

I can only explain it in cook’s terms: if you wouldn’t drink it, don’t cook with it.

Like, you can’t expect great Chicken Marsala with box wine. Sorry, good people, it’s just not happening.

Try getting good Beef Burgundy without a solid Burgundy. Not today, not tomorrow. Not ever.

“But Rich…I don’t want to break the bank…”

Don’t worry. I’m just as under-employed as the rest of you.

I give you all the best resource I can: Ibotta!

Because all good friends deserve to drink and eat well – and you deserve to get some other tangible benefit from this deal!

My Grandma’s Fried Apples – With a Twist!

When you grow up in the country in North Carolina in the 70s-80s, you learn a couple things about food. You learn that fresh is ALWAYS best, and you learn that looks aren’t everything when it comes to good taste.

Unless, of course, you’re a little kid to whom looks ARE everything. Especially when it comes to food. If it didn’t “look right” to me, chances are I was going to avoid it. It saved me from chitlins, that’s for sure, but it kept me from truly enjoying things like collard greens (couldn’t get past the fact that vinegar was in it, and I couldn’t think about vinegar without shuddering a little.)

So, my Grandma’s fried apples took a little hit, optically.

The thing is, my Grandma did everything right as far as cooking them. She washed and cut green apples off the trees in our backyard, She cooked them on low heat in a tablespoon of oil until it bubbled. She sprinkled sugar to taste. Then she turned up to medium and stirred gently to keep the apples from burning. Then she poured a little bit of water into the skillet and covered it, to allow the steam to further tenderize the apples.

Only problem – once the cover came off, the green skin turned olive green and the meat of the apple looked green as well. Remember, looks are everything to a little kid. So I never realized how good they were…

FAST FORWARD:

So, a place called Cracker Barrel emerged into my life. I went for the biscuits. I left with a new perspective on fried apples. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t taste those either. Because I wasn’t going to violate my Grandma’s cooking for anyone’s chain. But I noticed that their fried apples were green as well. It was like she had been doing it right the whole time, and I was the only one missing out. Shame on me.

Next time I went home, I begged my Grandma to show me again how she made fried apples. Naturally, she refused the first time I asked, because I refused to eat them as a kid. But grandsons can be awfully charming when they have to. And I pulled out all the charm I had, trust me.

We made that dish and I finally tried it…and I was struck by what I had missed on. Perfectly tart and sweet at the same time, and even the green skin was good. I apologized profusely for everything I had missed out on over the years.

She just patted me on the shoulder with a “It’s okay, baby boy, you just didn’t know. But now you know how to make it, you can make it yourself. And I’m proud of you for trying it out.”

So, I worked on trying to make it as good as Grandma’s for years. I think I finally got it. In fact, I think mine is better than Cracker Barrel, to be honest. But there’s only one way for you to find out, so I’m going to give it to you.

GRANDMA’S FRIED APPLES WITH A TWIST

INGREDIENTS:

  • 2 lbs Granny Smith apples, cored and quartered (Note: keep the skin on for authenticity)
  • 1/2 cup of sugar, divided into 1/4 cup each
  • 2 tbsp of powdered Saigon cinnamon, divided
  • 1/2 a stick of butter, divided in half
  • 2 1/4 cups of water
  • Cornstarch for thickening
  • 1 ounce unprocessed apple cider
  • 1 ounce of Calvados apple Brandy
  • 1/8 tsp of apple cider vinegar (also for authenticity)

DIRECTIONS

  • In a large bowl, toss the apples, 1/4 cup of sugar, and a tablespoon of the cinnamon. Toss until the apples are completely covered.
  • In a 12-inch cast iron skillet, heat half of the butter on low heat until it begins to bubble gently.
  • Place the apples in the skillet and gently brown them on the heat. Only brown them very lightly, as you don’t want to burn them. Gently pour in 1/4 cup of water until the apples become slightly tender. Remove them from the pan.
  • Place the other half of the butter into the pan with the 1/4 cup of sugar, and the remaining cinnamon, apple cider, brandy and vinegar. On low heat, gently stir the mixture until bubbling.
  • Blend the other 1/4 cup of water with the cornstarch, until thoroughly mixed. Pour a little at a time until the mixture is thickened.
  • Replace the apples and stir gently until they are entirely covered with the mixture.
  • Turn off the heat and cover, so that the apples will be heated through but not too soft.
  • Uncover after 5 minutes and enjoy! You can cover vanilla ice cream with this dish if you like, but it’s very good as a standalone dessert.

Be a star…cut your own chicken!

When some of us busy adults hear things like “spatchcock” or “butterfly” a chicken, they have the following response:

“Yeah, that’s all well and good, but I can just buy a whole chicken and get it out of the way, right?”

In my not-really humble opinion, I disagree, and I’ll tell you why:

  • You end up saving money by doing it yourself. Think of it like you think of car repair: you go to the shop and you pay for labor – extra cost! No one wants to spend extra money, especially not in this uncertain economic climate;
  • It only takes you 5 minutes if you find the correct technique. I have tried many of these, and the best I have found comes from a channel ‘Cooking with Glenn’ on YouTube- he really gets it done with maybe 4 cuts. That’s if you choose to use a knife. You can always use the traditional way of using kitchen shears – which is a very effective technique – but take it from me, using a knife is more fun;
  • You will save yourself the trouble of butchering the whole chicken after it’s cooked, because with this method you can get it into the stove, and let the entire chicken cook (separated, it should only take you 45 minutes instead of the hour and change it takes for a typical chicken to cook (More later on why 400 degrees works better than what some home cooks call, heavenly 350). It’s WAAAY easier to cut chicken up after you spatchcock and cook it, as opposed to trying to carve a chicken as you would a turkey. Chicken is smaller, which doesn’t lend itself easily to carving;
  • I promise you a spatchcocked chicken is easier to season. It loosens the skin in all of the important places that you want to get your spices. Spots such as between the thigh and the leg, all along the breast, and even under the ribcage. If you can touch it with your hands and see it, you can assure yourself that your chicken is properly seasoned;
  • Remember when I mentioned turkey? Yes, you can spatchcock a turkey too. All my people that would buy a turkey and get up all hours of the night to make sure it isn’t dry… Stop that. You spatchcock a turkey correctly, you can get it in front of your guests within 4-5 hours – what that means to you, is you can sleep in and start cooking later so that your friends and family walk in to the wonderful scent of holiday food – and start eating as soon as they take off their jackets.

So, do yourselves a favor. Everyone may not know what a star you are with that knife, but I bet you they keep eating!

Kryptonite = Banana Bread

Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey Ice Cream.

Okay, I said it. That was painful, but I said it.

Why is that so painful? Because people like me (that cook for a living and cultivate a higher-plane palate) should not admit to having such an addiction.

But I do, and I can’t help myself.

The very first time I tried it, I was in heaven. It took me back to the days of elementary school and banana fudge bomb pops. Yes, in the 70’s, ice cream was the thing to look forward to when you were in elementary school. Between that and rolling down the hill in an oversized tractor tire with 4 more of my friends. (okay, that’s a whole different story. Let’s get back on track…)

I’ll just say this…at the tender age of 1st through 3rd grade, I could promise you that there was no better dessert on the planet. Reasons: I am a dedicated chocoholic, and my favorite fruit is bananas. Give me both simultaneously and I am at your mercy, even to this day. A band of overly sweet banana ice cream capped and held up by bands of chocolate ice cream? What could possibly be better?

It all ended the one day I dashed inside the grocery store to discover, alas, they had been removed from the shelves. That day, I admit, I cried. Inside, of course, because no one (especially not a boy) wants to be laughed at because they have feelings for some ice cream.

Fast forward to summer of 1994…

I had just started working…An arduous job pitching bales of hay for a hardware store. In the middle of August. All day, every day of the week, I hung out atop a truck, tossing that hay onto the ground for stacking. Oh yeah, I had to stack it at the end of the day. Well, this particular day seemed extra blistering, so I felt like some ice cream. I trundled myself up the block to the neighborhood Food Lion and stood under the first air conditioner vent for 2 or 3 minutes, just glad to get out of the hot sun. I strolled towards the ice cream freezer and noticed the words “Chunky Monkey” on the very first pint that faced me.

“What the heck is Chunky Monkey?” I had no idea, but the hot sweating impulse buyer in me was surely about to find out. Looked on the cover and I didn’t get past banana ice cream. I mean, there were other ingredients, but I didn’t see them. I only had eyes for the one that triggered a deep-seated emotion. Yes, sir, this was going to be a sweet end of the day.

Walked home down the hottest city block in the world, placed the new wonderfulness in the freezer, and showered.

I emerged..popped the top…dug the spoon inside…and I found CHOCOLATE…and walnuts. All of a sudden I was mentally lounging on that tractor tire in the schoolyard with my friends…nibbling on a nice cold bomb pop. Except this bomb pop had a spoon with some extra goodies…

“We’ll never be separated again,” I whispered to the spoon as I enjoyed a finally cool wind that blew the whole day away…

FAST FORWARD TO MUCH LATER IN LIFE:

It’s fall, and college hoops is about to start, and my ice cream addiction had to give way to things like PB2, and multivitamins, and supplements, in my never-ending quest to become 19 again and play basketball forever.

But some chocolaty banana love affairs simply won’t go away.

Love got triggered when the girlfriend called to say she was coming to visit, and she wanted banana bread…FRESH.

No, I didn’t know how to make banana bread. Found out the hard way that I didn’t have all the elements required, as I frantically Googled recipes in case I had time to go to the store. Naturally, I didn’t have that time. Shoot. But what I DID have was a pint of Chunky Monkey, some PB2, and some self-rising flour. And a very vivid cook’s imagination…

I looked in the cabinet to see what else I could throw in there to simulate bread in a pinch. I found a half-bag of dark chocolate chips, and an almost-gone tin of walnuts. And lo and behold, I found a banana. Ladies and gents, I was in business.

Now, if you’re wondering how I knew this would work, I found an old recipe for ice cream bread online beforehand. But I had to scramble and take a risk and remix it, because I was coming down to crunch time. I gave the ice cream time to soften, tossed what I had in a bowl, stirred it into the oven…and awaited Judgment Day. I say that to say, my girlfriend had a higher-plane palate than mine, and she was tough on food. In fact, there are restaurants that to this day, I can’t bring myself to go inside because of flashbacks. Fortunately, she had to stop for gas en route, so that bought me about 15 minutes to allow me to take the bread out and allow it to cool.

Doorbell rang and my pretty executioner sashayed into the kitchen, floating past the living room and the dog. I chuckled inside as she met the cloud of smellgood coming off the ‘bread’…but that chuckle had nervous undertones.

Then the magic words…

“Oh. Em. Gee. Did you just buy this?”

“No, dear, you asked for banana bread, so I made you banana bread.”

“But this is fabulous. There’s no way you made this. Come on, where’s the box?”

“No box. Look in the trash can?”

Then the next magic words…

“I will never eat anyone else’s banana bread, ever. This is SO good.”

I don’t remember the rest of that conversation. But I DO remember the recipe…And I’m going to give it to you…if and unless you can’t just run down the street and grab some bomb pops…

(Just so you know – I don’t think she ever ate anyone else’s banana bread to this day.)

(makes 2 9X5-inch loaf pans of ‘bread’)

DIRECTIONS:

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • Place all ingredients into large bowl and stir until gently incorporated.
  • Grease and flour 2 9×5-inch loaf pans.
  • Split the mixture between the two loaf pans.
  • Bake for 30-35 minutes, watching very carefully for the last 5 minutes to keep from burning
  • Remove and let pans cool completely.
  • Wrap one of the loaves in foil and freeze for future use.
  • The other – cut into 6-8 slices and enjoy!

Healthy BBQ Side Dishes With A Twist – Cauliflower Steak

“Whoa, Bert…slow down. You mean to tell me that cauliflower belongs in BBQ?”

Absolutely, positively, YES. That’s EXACTLY what I’m telling you. 

Let’s face it…cauliflower is pretty good by itself. And studies show that it’s kinda good for you.  Considering it’s 98% water (you know, that best and safest drink on the planet?)…it’s VERY good for you. And it tastes as good as it’s seasoned. 

But the haters still don’t want to believe…

“Where does cauliflower fit into a grill? How’s it gonna take grill marks? Who’s really gonna eat that outside of vegetarians and vegans?”

Well, sweetheart, YOU’re gonna eat it. And it’s going to look good as well as taste good. And it actually fits very nicely into any grill. And it’ll be as good as the flavor of the wood smoke that you use for any other meat or vegetable. 

Now, most people see cauliflower as just a vegetable. Today, hardcore BBQ friends, we’re going to prove otherwise. 

Start by grabbing 8 of the largest cauliflowers you can find. You know, the huge ones, even in the organic section. Cut the sides off 6 of the cauliflowers lengthwise, about ⅛ of an inch off each side. After all, these will become steaks, and steaks are big and juicy, right? 

This should leave you with 2 whole cauliflowers and some great pieces. Those, we’re going to turn into cauliflower mashed potatoes, to continue the healthy streak we’re on. But we’ll get to that in a second. 

Spritz both sides of each cauliflower steak with olive oil. Then apply celery salt and pepper to both sides of each steak, and rub the spices in very gently. Keep in mind we’re going to treat this just as we would a beef steak, with a few modifications…

And now, slap them right on your preheated 350 degree grill for about 4 minutes total per side. Two minutes on the first side, then turn on that side 180 degrees for perfect grill marks. Flip sides and repeat the process, ensuring consistent grill marks on both sides. Once these are achieved, move quickly to the top rack of the grill to avoid burning and to add smoky flavor. DO NOT. I repeat, DO NOT leave them in the grill for more  than 2 minutes afterwards. You want something you can cut into, not try to pick through grates of a grill. Always remember, this is a steak and we must treat it as such. 

Now for the carne asada flavor. In a mortar or a food processor, you will have previously blended the following to taste (I didn’t use measurements because this is based on preference. As long as it tastes like steak, you’re good):

  • Cumin
  • Celery salt
  • Paprika
  • Dehydrated onions
  • Garlic powder
  • Avocado oil
  • Chili powder

Ensure that you have enough paprika and/or chili powder to achieve the desired steak color and taste.

Remove the steaks quickly and set them on a rack. Brush the carne asada flavor on all sides of the steaks. Serve immediately to maintain the tenderness of the steak. It should have a mouthfeel that suggests medium-well preparation.

Bon appétit!!

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 15-20 minutes

Servings: 3 (Two ‘steaks’ per guest. Feel free to add more if you need to)

INGREDIENTS:

6 of the largest cauliflowers you can find – the larger the better!

For the ‘Carne Asada’ drizzle – blend and adjust the following to taste:

  • Cumin
  • Celery salt
  • Paprika
  • Dehydrated onions
  • Garlic powder
  • Avocado oil
  • Chili powder

DIRECTIONS: 

  • Preheat the grill to 300-350 degrees. You want it hot enough to leave
  • Cut ⅛ inch off the sides of each cauliflower, then halve them. This should leave you with 2 solid 1-2 inch steaks.
  • Dust with oil, celery salt and pepper.
  • Place steaks on a preheated grill, and heat directly for no more than 4 minutes total on each side. Every 2 minutes, rotate the steaks at 90 degrees to ensure proper grill marks and heat evenly.
  • Once you have finished directly heating the steaks, place them on the upper rack to allow them to absorb gentle smoke. Do not allow them to rest for more than 5 minutes because you don’t want to lose any firmness – you want to be able to cut them and get the full steak experience.
  • Remove steaks from heat and brush with the Carne Asada drizzle that we mentioned before.
  • Serve while hot and firm to the knife.

Cream in your…guacamole?

So, when most of us have guacamole, there is some sour cream, some chips, and some tequila nearby. And the idea is that our guacamole is expected to be creamy, right?

So why do y’all look at me funny when I hit you with the sour cream and the tequila in the guac? All the traditionalistas can’t stand it…until they try it.

Allow me to drop the science on you.

Avocado, per The Flavor Bible, blends well with all of the ingredients required for wonderful guacamole. Sour cream is a recommended matching flavor for avocado. Not only that, one of the listed flavor affinities (comparable flavor groups) for avocado is avocado+jalapeño chiles+cilantro+cumin+garlic+lime+onion (which sounds eerily like the ingredient list for great guacamole).

And here’s where it gets good… Tequila is also a recommended matching flavor. Which means in a small amount, the brightness of the flavor will make your guac practically jump onto the chip!

So…open your minds, open your palates, and open your bowls…this recipe will make you rethink guac as you know it.

Prep time:15 minutes

INGREDIENTS: 

  • 5 large ripe Haas avocados

  • 3 cloves garlic, minced and pressed into a paste

  • ½ tablespoon coarse sea salt

  • ½ of a large red onion, roughly diced and divided into 2 piles 

  • 1 cup (8.0oz.) sour cream

  • 1 tablespoon (0.5oz.)  lime juice, freshly squeezed

  • 1 tablespoon (0.5oz.)  lemon juice, freshly squeezed

  • 1 shot of top-shelf tequila, preferably silver

  • 1 roma tomato, finely diced with the seeds and pulp removed

  • 1 jalapeno pepper, finely chopped with seeds separated

  • 1 cup freshly chopped cilantro

  • 2 teaspoons cumin powder

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Peel avocados and remove pits. Set aside in a large bowl or molcajete (the thing that the waiter crushes up your guac live at your table).

  2. In a separate mortar and pestle, place the minced garlic, one of the piles of red onion, and the seeds of the jalapeno. Crush the ingredients into a smooth paste with the sea salt. 

  3. Using a silicone scraper, scoop the paste into the bowl/molcajete with the avocados.

  4. Combine the avocados in the bowl with the remaining ingredients. Best practice is to use a potato masher, but you can use a food processor if you are pressed for time. 

  5. Cover with plastic wrap, placing the pits of the avocado inside and resting the plastic wrap on the guacamole to keep from browning. 

  6. Refrigerate at least an hour before serving to allow the flavors and the heat to meld. 

Jalapeño brine is your friend…ask your local chicken…

Hello all!

Apparently, there is a trend sweeping the nation for “hot chicken”, jump-started by our friends in Nashville. The hotter it gets, apparently, the better it tastes. So, in the spirit thereof, I searched for an ingredient to spark the flavoring process – because it’s never too soon to start flavoring, marinade or otherwise. Where do most of us look first for heat? Peppers, you guessed it. And the first pepper I think of when I think of heat – jalapeños. So I dashed to the fridge, I found a jar…with jalapeño brine left over. No peppers, just brine. Just. Brine. Hmmmmm… light flicks on and I grab the first chicken I see and lower it into the jalapeño bath:

The great thing about jalapeño brine is that you don’t have to add any more heat. You can just dissolve the sugar into it and brine your chicken for at least 3 hours or overnight.

Thank me later…

From the request lines…Chicken Marsala…with a twist…

I love my followers! Every once in a while, they give me direct inspiration for dishes that they want to see on the blog- and they toss me the occasional curve ball! Example: I just got a request for stuffed chicken Marsala. Sounds exciting to me! This is going to involve copious amounts of mushrooms, of course, in the true spirit of the dish…

First and foremost, you must have Marsala wine. NOT that bisulfate-laden swill they call cooking wine in the grocery store. I mean something you would actually consume yourself and/or feed to others. Without displaying the brand – take your butt to Total Wine and grab something like this:

And ensure that you have balsamic reduction, to counteract the sweetness. After all, you’re going to reduce an entire bottle of vino, and you don’t want all sweetness:

So when you start the reduction, along with the roughly chopped onions and mushrooms, it will start out looking like this:

We’ll come back to that.

Now, as far as the chicken to stuff, I chose to use the breasts and thighs, if for no other reason than their superior surface area and general tenderness. The catch: I removed the thigh bone, and left the rib bones in the breast. Why one and not the other, you ask? Well, if you leave the bone in the breast, it will improve the moisture, and it also keeps you from over-processing the meat. Removing the bone from the thigh enables you to roll the stuffing, also to preserve moisture. As shown:

As you can see, the breast is close to still being whole, so that all moisture will be kept inside the meat and the skin will keep the stuffing from spilling. You can use toothpicks or twine to bind- I just chose not to.

And the thighs, with bones removed, roll around the stuffing quite neatly.

Speaking of stuffing…simple. In your food processor, pulse walnuts, spinach, and Asiago cheese. This stuffing will not interfere with the sweet tang of the Marsala. Promise!

You don’t even need to add oil to this, as the walnuts provide enough. And their muted nuttiness balances the Marsala for the chicken.

After the sauce finishes reducing and thickening (after about 45 minutes on high heat) it should look something like this:

Notice how the mushrooms have soaked in the flavor, even as they shrink during the cooking process. They will be juicy with Marsala in each bite.

While I waited for the sauce to reduce, I browned the chicken, skin side first, in a cast-iron skillet and then sent to the oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit (177 degrees Celsius). As you can see, the breasts opened some, but the stuffing didn’t move:

As it sits gently in the Marsala bath atop Mount Mushrooms:

And, a close-up of a stuffed thigh: