Monday, April 28, 2008

Guadalajara Grill - Tucson, No Mas Taco Bell

I had planned on posting a grilled strip steak recipe today, but some loyal members of Crabby Nation pointed out that I'd promised a review of a Tucson Mexican restaurant. Well, my public has spoken, so here we go...

For many of the last seven years the Crabby family has spent a week vacationing in the Scottsdale area. During that time we've watched both Phoenix and Scottsdale explode before our eyes. There is a vibrancy and energy in Phoenix that simply does not exist in the upper mid-west. The downside of all this growth has been the So-cal-ification of Arizona. With each passing year, Phoenix feels
less and less like its own city and more and more like an L.A. ex-burb.

If Phoenix is Los Angeles, then Scottsdale is Beverly Hills, an enclave of wealth, beauty and entitlement. It is a city of million dollar starter homes, $3 million dollar second homes with $250,000 Bentleys, all tended and maintained by fashionably pilloried illegals. The women are trophy wives, buffed and polished to a high sheen, with any flaws or signs of age quickly exercised or surgically excised. Parts too small are inflated, parts too big are suctioned. These women, when they die, will not so much be embalmed as they will be recycled.

I love it.

If Scottsdale is the movie star and Phoenix her slightly older, not quite as pretty sister, then Tucson is the hard living, little talked about but much sighed over cousin. Where Scottsdale is organic produce, spas and designer clothes, Tucson is bodegas, taquerias and tattoo parlors. Scottsdale is green and groomed, Tucson, sere and hardscrabble. Unlike Scottsdale, Tucson is original, forthright and without affectation.

It was with that background that we visited Guadalajara Grill, 1730 E. Prince Rd, Tucson, 520.323.1022. When we travel I spend a lot of time on the internet trolling for the best places to eat, Guadalajara Grill kept coming up. Close to the University of Arizona campus it sits in a somewhat threadbare but safe neighborhood. Don't let the surroundings put you off, it is a place well worth the visit.

Whereas Binkley's dances on the chef's knife edge of pretentiousness (and occasionally falls over), GGrill is a straightforward and clear presentation of Mexican cooking. Salsas are prepared fresh table-side, to your heat preference. Tortillas are handmade on-premises.

The quesadilla appetizer was a delicate blend of Mexican cheeses, onions and chiles with just the right amount of heat. CrabCake2 had Carnitas and Skirt Steak Fajitas, that have nothing to do with the fajitas you get at Chiles. The pork and beef were ridiculously tender and perfectly seasoned.

The high point of the evening was the main course which SSSal and I shared, Molcajete Ultimo. A Molcajete is a Mexican mortar bowl made out of volcanic basalt rock. Our meal consisted of shrimp, beef, sliced chicken, onions and peppers sauteed and then served simmering in a tomato-chicken based broth. The molcajete had been heated in a hot oven and the broth stayed simmering for five minutes after the meal had been served, and remained warm for at least 25 minutes.

While the bowl is only the serving vessel, it succeeds in keeping everything warm while you serve yourself. The meats were succulent and the simmering sauce a great balance of spicy heat and delicate tomato flavor. SSSal and I finished the meal by trying to sop up all the broth using our remaining flour tortillas. If you've only ever had Mexican food of the Chipotle's, Qdoba ilk, then you need to make an effort to find true Mexican cooking and experience what you should be eating. You'll never eat Taco Bell again.

Dinner for three with a margarita, agua and a cerveza came to $40 with tip. This does not include the tip for the salsa lady or the money I slipped to the strolling Mariachi Band that sang at our table. When they asked me what I wanted to hear, (not wanting to look terribly caucasian I skipped over La Bamba), I asked for Besame Mucho (translated lyrics below).

There you have it, Guadalajara Grill. If you're ever in Tucson, check it out. Also, if you have great or poor restaurant experiences you'd like to share with the rest of Crab Nation, feel free to post those experiences in the comments section.

Next Time: Balsamic and Mustard Grilled Strip Steak.


Besame Mucho
(1940), written at the age of 15 by Consuelo Velazquez

English Translation (It just doesn't sound as romantic in English - even Sinatra sang it in Spanish)

Kiss me, kiss me a lot,
As if tonight was
the last time.

Kiss me, kiss me a lot,
Because I fear to lose you,
To lose you again.

I want to have you very close
To see myself in your eyes,
To see you next to me,

Think that perhaps tomorrow
I already will be far,
very far from you.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Great White Hunter Returns or Wine Wizard Bob, I Presume

Reminds me of my safari in Africa. Somebody forgot the corkscrew and for several days we had to live on nothing but food and water.
--W.C. Fields

Well he's back. Wine Wizard Bob survived the wilds of South Africa and has sent me a few notes about his trip. He was as captivated by the country and its people as I was. His two week stay was sponsored by a number of South African wine producers. What appears below are Bob's impressions and comments on the trip.

"I loved the country; I just hated getting there. It takes about 17 hours out of Washington, D.C. The only thing worse was getting back; it took even longer thanks to a refueling stop in Dakar Senegal (Africa's most western point). The travel was figuratively and literally a pain in the butt."

"Once you're there the living is inexpensive, delicious and full of vistas. I love a country where the exchange rate is 8 to 1; I couldn't wait to spend those 1000 rand notes."

"While the exchange is 8:1, I'd rate the wines of SA at about 3:1 versus the value of their French/California counterparts, (i.e., a $30 SA wine would cost you about $100 for the same quality French or Californian)."

"What?! They drive on the wrong side of the road? I hope the gas and brake pedals are the same! Driving on the left isn't that complicated, but crossing a not too busy street on foot is both exciting and dangerous."

"The shanty towns are amazingly poor. Six to ten people in a corrugated hut, no running water or electricity. Literally, dirt poor."

"We were out driving one day and the bus suddenly came to a stop. There were baboons crossing the road. No it wasn't a political rally, these were actual baboons!"

"I tried eating everything they put in front of me; I had ostrich, impala and kudu. By far the three best foods in SA are the squid, a fish called Kingklip and the Karoo Lamb."

"Best meal I had was at a winery named Tokara. Amazing food."

"One day I had lunch at a restaurant called La Vierge, (The Virgin). After a lovely meal with views of the vineyards, mountains and sea, I needed to find the men's room. Well, down the stairs to the right, through the doors and tada!!!, three urinals facing floor to ceiling windows. Not for the shy."

"Far and away the world's best celebrity wine maker is Ernie Els. In fact he may be a better wine maker than golfer at this point. His top of the line red wine is about $90 and easily worth it. The worst celebrity wine makers? Arnold Palmer, (stick to iced tea & lemonade), Mario Andretti and Larry Bird, (the Larry Legend Cabernet is just putrid)."

"The wines I tasted were all bargains compared to what you'd have to pay here in the states for equal quality. There were some clunkers but even those were priced appropriately. Here are the winners, some of these will be easy to find, others will be very difficult, but you may get lucky:

Graham Beck Rose Champagne, $20. Think fancy French pink bubbles, but from France it would cost $100.

Ken Forrester Petit Chenin, $10. A smidge of peach flavors with a nice crisp finish. A summer guzzler.

Fairvalley Pinotage @ $10 and Kanonkop Pinotage @ $35. Pinotage is a uniquely SA wine grape, when it's done right it's delicious, unfortunately 90% of the time it's done poorly.

Any wine from the unfortunately named Raats Family Winery. Chenins around $15 and Cabernet Francs up to $30. These may be tough to find.

Bouchard-Finlayson Wines. They make 3 Chardonnays and 2 Pinot Noirs. All fantastic. They are just now building a US presence.

Finally, at all cost, avoid SA sauvignon blanc, unless you like the flavor of asparagus & jalapeno in your wine.

Well there you have it, CrabbyCook's first travelogue. If it ever crossed your mind to travel to South Africa, by all means do it; it will be the experience of a lifetime.

I'll leave you with a quiz. Identify the book and author of the following lines:

I watched the coast. Watching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you-- smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, Come and find out.

Good Luck.

A special Crabby request. If you find any of the wines WWBob and I recommend could you please post a comment telling everyone where you found the wines (regardless of location).
Please note, the photos are those that Crabby gleaned from the internet.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Flank Steak Stir-Fry and The Laws of Thermodynamics

Get it hot. Cook it fast.

The one constant that I see across nearly all timid cooks is a fear of heat. They're afraid of burning things, of setting the oven too high, of overcooking dinner,
of torching the house.

Cooking is all about heat transfer. Cooks take ingredients, expose them to heat, and transform those ingredients into something tasty. There are three main ways to transfer heat, you can boil, fry or bake. Now there are nuances but these are the primary methods, (I know that ice cream making doesn't fit because it's cold transfer, but let's face it, ice cream has more to do with magic than actual cooking).

Baking is a dry method. Put roast in hot oven, wait, eat.

Boiling and its tamer cousins poaching, simmering and steaming are a wet methods. Put pasta in hot water, stir, wait, pour sauce on, eat.

As far as I'm concerned those are the two methods most likely to result in overcooked food. They require temperature testing along the way, and if you get distracted, you end up with shoe leather.

By far my favorite form of cooking is frying/sauteing. The point of sauteing is to sear the outside of your ingredient locking in its juices, then add flavor in the form of some sort of sauce that cooks while the main finishes.

The only way to accomplish searing is to have a very hot pan. By hot I mean red-hot, I mean smoking, I mean toss in the food and get a little flash of flame. Now I know that's intimidating. I rarely let the pan get hot enough, mostly because I'm impatient. But you have to fight the urge to start too soon. A hot pan does all the work for you; it makes cooking so much easier.

Get it hot. Cook it fast.

A new motto.

Probably the zenith of sauteing is Chinese wok cooking. Here's a recipe that is very easy to make, if you remember the motto.

Crabby Stir-Fried Flank Steak

1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup white wine (Japanese cooking wine adds a nice touch)
1 tsp sesame oil
1 TBSP minced garlic (use the store bought jarred stuff if you're in a hurry)
1 tsp potato starch, (arrowroot or flour is acceptable)
2 TBSP cooking oil (preferably peanut oil or safflower oil - NOT olive oil)
1 Beef Flank Steak

I serve this over steamed rice that takes 25 minutes to cook, so... Mix soy, white wine, sesame oil, minced garlic and potato starch in a both. Stir well to combine. Slice the flank steak across the grain.

Flank steak has clearly defined striations typically running the "long way". You want to slice the steak in 1/8" to 1/4" thick slices across the grain. This helps to insure more marinade absorption and a more tender final product. Place the sliced steak into the bowl with soy mixture. Pour yourself a glass of wine.

Start cooking the rice according to the box instructions. Mine takes 25 minutes to be cooked, during the first 18 minutes I sit back and watch TV and drink my wine, very civilized.

With 5 minutes to go on your rice, turn the heat to high under your wok or saute pan. Let it sit on the heat for at least 1 minute. After a minute hang your hand about 5 inches above the wok/pan. It should be getting pretty warm. If you can only stand the heat for a few seconds you're ready to go.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Have everything ready to go. The table needs to be set, the meat mixture should be in next to you, a spatula or tongs or wooden spoon need to be handy. "Mise" your "place" and everything will be OK.

Pour in the cooking oil. Gently swirl the pan to distribute the oil, the oil should shimmer on the bottom of the pan.

Take the meat mixture, and at arms length, pour it into the pan, trying to cover as much of the bottom of the wok as possible.

Now it's going to be noisy, it's going to be messy, but hang in there, you're almost done.

Do absolutely nothing for 30 seconds. After 30 seconds quickly stir the meat, trying to turn the uncooked side down onto the pan side. Cook 45 seconds longer.

Serve over rice. I usually add some blanched vegetable that I quickly saute to bring back up to heat, in the attached pictures it was sugar snap peas.

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Active Cooking Time: 2 minutes 45 seconds (estimated)
Passive Cooking Time: 22 minutes 15 seconds
Clean-Up: This is a toughie. If the wok is really hot it's actually easier to clean afterwards. The problems is the stove top will get a little messy form the splatter. Lets call it 15 minutes total.

That's it, 30 minutes beginning to end, with ample wine sipping time. This approach works with chicken, pork, fish and (God forbid) tofu. You can also add other things to the marinade like hot pepper flakes to give a little kick, or a little honey to sweeten it up (watch out with the honey though, too much and the sugars will burn).

OK. Next time we get an installment from Wine Wizard Bob about his trip to South Africa. Until then, remember, you can do it, you can cook.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Bacon Wrapped Pork Roast & Other Things I Don't Understand

There are some recipes I just don't get. I don't understand the attraction, I don't understand why people are drawn to the food. From time to time I'm going to visit some of these recipes and try and make them better.

One thing I just hate is anything in my Jello. I don't like grapes or cherries or any fruit for that matter. I've even had, no lie, shredded lettuce in Lime Jello covered with sour cream!!! Who in God's name thought that was a good idea? Anything beyond a dollop of Cool Whip is pretentious and preposterous.

It's not just Jello, I don't like anything in aspic. Or head cheese. Or anything floating in any sort of viscous, gelatinous liquid. I'm sure that's a reason I didn't care for Binkley's Fruit Caviar course.

Another "cooking technique" I don't understand is wrapping things in bacon. I love bacon. I love the things usually wrapped in bacon, (e.g., scallops, pork roast). But when you cook those same things wrapped in bacon, they both turn out worse. Bacon Wrapped Pork Roast? Come on, let's take some pork and wrap it in, I don't know, how about some pork? It's porcine genocide; it's a veritable pork jihad. What's next chicken omelets?

Well, as I'm fond of saying, "that which you resist, persists". When it comes to food, I'm daring. I'm a risk taker. I'm a donkey on the edge. So, I will now embrace the enemy, here's my recipe for pork roast wrapped in bacon.

Bacon-Wrapped Pork Roast, the Crabby Way

6 - 8 Cloves of garlic, chopped
1 Tbsp Rosemary leaves, chopped, fresh if possible
1 Tbsp Thyme leaves, chopped, fresh if possible
1/2 cup chopped Italian Parsley
1 tsp Olive Oil
Ground Pepper
1 Boneless Pork Loin Roast approx. 2 lbs.
4-6 Slices of Bacon (for this meal I prefer a thick cut maple smoked version)

Pre-heat your oven to 400 degrees.

Bring the pork roast to room temperature.

In a bowl combine the garlic, rosemary, thyme, parsley and olive oil. Mix into a paste. Add pepper to taste. Why no salt? The bacon is going to add plenty of saltiness, if it's not enough. add some when you serve, then go call your doctor and explain your high blood pressure.

Have your roasting pan or Le Creuset ready. Rub the entire pork roast with the garlic mixture and then place the roast in the pan. Cover the roast with strips of bacon, slightly overlapping the pieces until the entire top side is covered.

Now, put the roast into the 400 deg. oven for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, turn down the temperature to 350 deg. (don't open the oven door!!!). Roast for an additional 45 minutes. After an hour, using an instant read thermometer, check the temperature of the meat at its thickest point. It should read somewhere between 135 and 145 degrees. I remove my pork roast at 140 deg., if you then left it rest for 10-15 minutes the temperature will continue to rise to about 145 deg.

At this temp when you cut the roast it may be slightly pink in the center. This is OK. If you bought your pork from a grocery store or reputable butcher, you're safe. Trichinosis is virtually non-existent in this country. There's nothing worse than overcooked pork, (except maybe overcooked lamb). Now, if you bought your roast from the back of an Amish buggy, that's another story altogether.

The high heat at the start of the roasting process is enough to get the bacon crispy while rendering the fat. Serve this with a nice Gewurztraminer or Petite Syrah.

Enjoy, and remember, you can do it, you can cook.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Binkley's Restaurant, or "A Crab's Got To Know His Own Limitations"

Pavarotti sang. Tiger Woods plays golf. Kevin Binkley cooks.

There are times when you just have to sit back and watch genius at work. You can get frustrated learning that you're never going to get to their level, or you can be inspired to push yourself.

Last week the Crabby family vacationed in Arizona. What follows isn't so much a restaurant review as a grand tour of what great cooking can be. In a subsequent post, I'll rant on restaurants and explain how I look at them, but today is about how food can become art; art that you can see, smell and taste.

Binkley's sits in an unassuming strip mall in the dusty, increasingly fashionable former cowboy town of Cave Creek, Arizona. The restaurant is owned by Kevin and Amy Binkley. Kevin trained at the Scottsdale Culinary Institute, subsequently rising to Executive Sous Chef at the acclaimed Inn at Little Washington, as well as working at Thomas Keller's French Laundry in Napa Valley.

Translation: The guy knows food.

When dining at great restaurants I always try and do two things. If offered, I always go for the tasting menu; it's a great way to experience the widest variety of the chef's talents. I also make it a point to order things that may be a little out of my comfort zone. Besides the main menu, Binkley's is famous, (infamous?, notorious?) for its slate of Amuse Bouche, (Bouches, Bouchi?).

SSSal and I both ordered the 5-course tasting menu. What follows, in order, as best as I can remember, is the evening's meal. Before you freak out about the amount of food, the amuses are small, single bites. The tasting menu portions are at most, half the size of ala carte servings.

Amuse Bouche 1: Parsnip Soup with white ruffle oil and white truffle powder. Served in a demi-tasse cup, the truffle powder rims the cup ala salt on a margarita glass. Amazingly smooth with just the right balance of earthy flavors.

Amuse Bouche 2: Prosciutto wrapped, blue cheese stuffed fig in a port wine foam. Tangy, sweet and tart.

Course 1- Cold Appetizer: Langoustine Ceviche. Tasso ham, celery gelee, butternut squash, menegi onion and lemon accompanying lobster ceviche. Very light. The ceviche was sliced razor thin, and the accompaniments provided great tastes to go with the langoustine. The most intriguing thing to me was the celery gelee, think celery jello, but so much subtler.

Amuse Bouche 3: Pomme Souffles. Potato souffles, (think very light and airy french fries), served with various dipping sauces, (truffle ketchup, sweet dijon mustard and a southwest "barbecue sauce" were our favorites).

Amuse Bouche 4: Diced Soppressata salami mixed with date relish and served with a deep fried sweet potato chip. Perfect blend of sweet and salty, though I thought the sweet potato chip didn't add much.

Course 2 - Hot Appetizer: SSSal: Seared Diver Scallops with porcini mushroom, bluelake beens, pearl onions and curry cream. Beautiful light curry flavor and a sauce as smooth as silk.

Crabby: Sweetbreads with sauce gribiche. Crabby loves sweetbreads, yes I know they're brains or glands or something wierd, but I love them. Sauce Gribiche is made from hard-boiled eggs, banyuls vinegar, mustard, cornichons, olive oil, capers and herbs. Think of the best egg-salad you've ever had and you're getting close.

Amuse Bouche 5: Fruit Caviar suspended in some sort of liquid. I don't have a good description of this amuse, but I can say it just didn't work for me. The tastes just didn't quite meld.

Course 3 - Fish: SSSal: Kampachi with baby bok choy, radish, lotus root, purple scallion, coconut couscous and chili oil. A type of Hawaiian Yellowtail, amazing flavor in the skin of the fish.

Crabby: Olive Oil poached Halibut, with baby carrots, spinach, cipollini onions, wild rice and caramelized onion broth. Fish was very moist and delicate, the onion broth was spectacular.

Course 4 - Meat: SSSal: Duck with red wine poached seckle pear, strawberry jam, sugar snap peas and baby turnips. Beautiful use of fruit. The snap peas were served with the husks broken open exposing the peas inside.

Crabby: Leg of Veal with clam shell mushrooms, salsify (think white carrot), fava beans and nettle coulis. Leg of veal was new to me. Again, all the sides combined for great mouth feel and taste.

Amuse Bouche 6: An intermezzo of Sorbet. Mango for SSSal and Asian Pear for Crabby.

Amuse Bouche 7: Blackberry and Pineapple lollipops.
Amuse Bouche 8: Meringues (with a faint hint of anise)

Amuse Bouche 9: Two drinks, A chocolate mouse malt and a strawberry float with strawberry Dip'n dots in homemade ginger ale (absolutely fantastic).

Amuse Bouche 10: Candied Mint on a dollop of whipped cream. Perfect.
Amuse Bouche 11: Raspberry foam frozen with liquid nitrogen. The raspberries are somehow pureed and then brought to a froth before they are frozen by the liquid nitrogen (320 deg. below zero). When you eat the foam, it doesn't so much melt as it evaporates in your mouth, leaving just the essence of raspberry flavor.

Cousre 5 - Dessert or Cheese: SSSal: An assortment of chocolate. Crabby: an assortment of three cheeses.

That's it, by this point my bouche had been seriously amused. I know it sounds like a lot of food, but remember, the amuse bouches are small bites, taken together they probably amounted to the same food as the meat course. This is a meal not about bulk but about taste.

The only vague complaint we had was that the meal took two hours. With sixteen courses fifteen more minutes would have been just right, but given the coordination that's involved in something this complex, I have no real complaint about the pace.

For me, the greatest flavors were the caramelized onion broth and the sweetbreads with sauce gribiche. I didn't love the fruit caviar and the asian pear sorbet was only OK. But understand, these aren't complaints, this was a spectacular meal with insight into how a truly talented and creative chef thinks and works. Everything is designed to show off the food. Even the large white plates are used more as a canvas than conveyance.

SSSal and I split a glass of champagne and a bottle of Paul Hobbs 2006 Pinot Noir. Cost of the meal, $82/person without wine, tip or tax. A steal if you consider the work involved. By all meals, if you love food and tastes, dine at Binkley's if you ever get the chance.

Binkley's Restaurant
6920 E. Cave Creek Rd
Cave Creek, AZ

In an upcoming post I'll be tell you about an equally great meal at the far other end of the cooking spectrum, a neighborhood Mexican joint in Tucson.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Asparagus & Victoria's Secrets

There are many stereotypes about the Midwest.  For the most part they're accurate.  People do seem a bit friendlier.  The pace is a bit slower.  People are generally a more conservative.

While I've adapted to all of those changes, after 18 years there is still one thing I still can't get used to, the lack of spring.

Here in the upper Midwest spring is binary.  It's either on or off.  Even when it does arrive it only stays for a couple of weeks, and then it quickly gives ground to summer.  In the Midwest, spring is an express train passing through town.  One day it's the dregs of winter, then a few days of warmth, then the oppression of summer sets in.

In the northeast spring is slower.  Spring is coy.  Late February always brought at least one day in the 60's.  By March, snow was aggressively receding, and the first flowers of the year started to appear.  Sure there were snow storms in March and April, but you knew it was just winter's final rasp.

For every snow storm there was another day of skin temperature breezes.  The air has an earthiness that smells of re-birth.  Birds singing over the sun glistened dew covered lawns.

Spring teases.  Spring entices and seduces.  Spring promises.  Spring is lingerie.

Spring means asparagus.  Today will be the first of two asparagus recipes.  This one is from SeaShell Sal and is admittedly a touch difficult.  The results are spectacular, though, and don't worry, spring is here, what can go wrong?  

Asparagus-Ricotta Tart with Comte Cheese
Bon Appetit, April 2008

1 sheet frozen puff pastry (half of 17.3-ounce package), thawed
1 egg, beaten to blend
1 pound slender asparagus spears, trimmed
1/2 cup whole-milk ricotta cheese
4 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 ounces thinly sliced soppressata or other salami, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2/3 cup grated Comté cheese (about 3 ounces), divided


Preheat oven to 400°F. Roll out pastry on floured surface to 13x10-inch rectangle. Cut off 1/2-inch-wide strip from all 4 sides. Brush strips on 1 side with some of beaten egg, then press strips, egg side down, onto edges of pastry to adhere, forming raised border. Brush border with egg; reserve remaining beaten egg. Transfer to baking sheet. Chill while preparing filling. (See tips below)

Steam asparagus just until crisp tender, about 3 minutes. Transfer to bowl of ice water to cool. Drain. Cut off top 2 to 3 inches of asparagus tops; set aside. Coarsely puree remaining asparagus stalks in processor. Add remaining beaten egg, ricotta, 3 teaspoons oil, and salt; process until thick puree forms. Transfer to bowl; stir in salami and 1/3 cup Comté cheese; season with pepper. Spread mixture evenly over pastry. Sprinkle with remaining 1/3 cup Comté cheese. Toss asparagus tips with remaining 1 teaspoon oil; arrange tips over filling.

Bake tart until filling is set, about 25 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Market Tip: Comté cheese is a semi firm, Gruyère-style cow's-milk cheese. It is available at some supermarkets, cheese shops, and specialty foods stores.

Crabby Tip:  Serve this tart warm, otherwise the cheese overwhelms the other flavors.

Tip No. 1: Using frozen puff pastry makes this recipe fairly easy, but you have to let it thaw about 40 minutes out of the freezer, on the counter. Don't be shy about flouring the granite counter or board to roll it out on. Be gentle, the pastry is soft. Use a ruler or measuring tape to get the exact rectangular shape. Cut the pastry with a serrated knife and it will go easily. 

Tip No. 2: Strain the egg after you beat it so that any globs are removed. This will give you a smoother wash. Save the globs and add them to the ricotta with the leftover egg wash. (Even though this seems a fussy step, it makes all the difference.)

Tip No. 3: Transferring the pastry to the baking sheet is a little tricky. Ask a friend to help and use two of the largest spatulas you own. Have the baking sheet right next to the pastry so you don't have to go far. 

You can prepare all the ingredients, make the filling and blanch the asparagus while the pastry is thawing so this takes less than an hour to assemble.  

I'd serve it with champagne or sparkling wine.  A California Domaine Chandon Blanc d'Noirs, $15-20, would be a great accompaniment.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Orange-Ginger Fish & Jimmy Buffet

Note: In the following, the names have been changed to protect the not so innocent.

With apologies to Jimmy Buffet.


I hate fish.

That's why I eat them.

"She came down from Cincinnati..."

The day broke hot and humid with no signs of the storm to come. We were on Grand Cayman, the largest island in a group of three a couple hundred miles south of Cuba. The day charter sailed out of Governors Harbour. Captain was an ex-merchant marine by the name of Crosby; Crosby seemed to be only a few degrees south of 70, others said just south of 80. His wife, some said third, some said fourth, was from Cleveland and worked the galley; she hadn't yet seen the shady side of 45.

An hour of sailing brought us to the reef hard by the cut. We put on our snorkel gear and hit the water. Under the boat, the depth was about 40 feet. There was a gently rising slope as you approached the coral wall, finally getting to a point where you were wading in 3 feet of water.

The cut led to open ocean. Inside the wall was lukewarm, body temperature bath water, the waves brought a chill, melted ice from down deep. A lot more than a chill runs in on those waves.

"Fins to the left, fins to the right, and I'm the only bait in town."

In the water we were immediately surrounded by fish. Angel Fish, Yellowtail, Grouper, Eels, Stingray and, off in the distance, the malevolence of a lone barracuda. My sister-in-law Louise and I were snorkeling together and soon found ourselves inside a horseshoe shaped part of the coral. We were in about five feet of water, behind us the depth quickly dropped to 20 feet.

"Just inside the reef are the big white teeth of the sharks swimmin' up from the sand."

The first thing I felt was a push on my right side. Next came the muffled sound of an underwater yell. Louise had pushed me and was pointing to my left. Heading toward us, out of the deeper water, a 5 foot shark.

If fish can saunter, that's what this shark was doing. I didn't sense it was aggressive or angry, just curious. It had closed the distance between us to about 15 feet when it happened. As the shark approached, Louise pushed me again in the direction of the shark. By now the distance had dropped to less than 10 feet. I raised my hand toward the fish and with the flick of it's tail it turned around and was gone.

"Looking for some peace and quiet, maybe keep my dreams afloat."

My close encounter was over. I turned toward Louise to thank her for pushing me toward an oncoming predator, but found her gone. I poked my head up out of the water to find her.

Some say people can't walk on water. Some say only Jesus could pull off that feat. I'm here to tell you that you're all wrong. Because there she was making about 20 knots, the SS Louise moving back toward Crosby under full steam.

We still talk , Louise and I. Though now, whenever I'm swimming and I hit a cold spot, I always look over my shoulder just to be sure.

Today's recipe is very easy and comes from a food blog called Beyond Salmon. Enjoy.

Fish with Balsamic Orange Ginger Glaze
from Helen Rennie at

Fish Options: salmon, halibut, steelhead trout, arctic char or pretty much any relatively thick fillets that are not too dense.

Serves 4

4 fish fillets without skin (6oz each)
2 Tbsp honey
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
2 tsp soy sauce
1 Tbsp orange juice
1 Tbsp orange zest
1 inch of ginger, peeled and minced
2 tsp oil
Salt and pepper

  1. Preheat the broiler and wrap a broiler pan with foil.

  2. Season fish generously with salt and pepper on all sides.

  3. Combine honey, balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, orange juice, orange zest, ginger, and oil. Mix well and coat fish with this mixture. Fish should be only lightly coated, as too much of the glaze can burn under the broiler.

  4. Broil fish 4 inches away from the flame just until browned, 3-5 minutes. Pour the rest of the glaze on top of fillet and finish in the 425F oven until done. The total cooking time (broiling plus baking) should be about 8 minutes per inch of thickness. To test for doneness, separate the flakes in the thickest part and look inside. Fish is done when a trace of translucency remains in the center.

If the fish is fairly thin, you may be able to get away with just broiling it for 5-6 minutes. This is a bit of a tough call, but the arctic char in my picture was done this way. Then again I like my fish done medium to medium well.

Note: I did not forget to tell you to flip the fish. Cooking it only on one side allows the glaze to really caramelize on top.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Feasting At The Tree of Knowledge

Thanks to the internet, I believe that cookbooks are going the way of dinosaurs, believable home run records and newspapers. Why buy an entire book for just a couple of recipes? Why pay any money at all when every recipe in the history of man is available for free somewhere on the net? Nope, cookbooks are well on their way to being relegated to the dustbins of history. (Whatever a dustbin is).

SeaShell Sal and I own over 45 cookbooks. This does not include cut up magazines, or stuffed notebooks. We're often asked about them. Which ones we like, which ones we hate. The truth is I've never found the perfect cookbook. Like food, some are too dry, some are overproduced and others are just plain bad.

That said, today they still have some value. For novice, expert, and everyone in between, it's always helpful to be able to quickly pick up a hard copy of something in order to inspire or inform. I mean really, who is going to go over to their computer in the middle of preparing dinner and try and find out the exact measurements for a hollandaise. No chance, you're going to have the book open to the page, ready and waiting to help.

So here are my recommendations for the books every cook should own. I've categorized them into five groups.

Group 1 The Reference Library

"The Joy of Cooking", Irma Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker. Anyone who has ever expressed the least amount of interest in cooking has been given this book. It is the reference bible of cooking. A bit like reading the dictionary, but like a dictionary, indispensable when you need it.

"Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1", Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, Simone Beck and Sidonie Coryn. Julia's version and still the best. A bit more interesting to read than Joy, and chock full of useful info.

I've also heard a lot of good things about Bitman's "How to Cook Everything", though I have no personal experience with it.

Group 2 Technique and Cuisine Specific

"Baking with Julia", Dorie Greenspan. A collection of baking recipes from Julia Child's extensive list of friends. SeaShell Sal loves this book.

"The Silver Spoon", Phaidon Press. This is the Italian "Joy of Cooking". Though really I think of it as the Mediterranean Joy. Some poor illustrations and the occasional lapse in measurement detail (probably lost in translation) keep this book from being number one on my list. You could cook from this book for the rest of your life and not be bored.

"Italy Al Dente", Biba Caggiano. Surprisingly more traditional and approachable than Silver Spoon. This book is worth it just for the risotto and pasta recipes.

Group 3 The Everyday Library

"Everyday Italian" and "Giada's Family Dinners", Giada DeLaurentiis. You all know my love for Giada. These are two books that make cooking flavorful meals fast and easy. Recipes are clear and to the point. Ingredient lists rarely get very long and, best of all, she's happy to take shortcuts to make the process even easier.

"The Silver Palate Cookbook", Julee Rosso and Shiela Lukins. SS Sal's favorite to cook from, especially appetizers.

"Slow Cooker Cooking", Lora Brody. A Crockpot book? Are you some sort of crackpot. No. I know that everything out of a crockpot tastes basically the same, wet and stringy. Not with Brody. This is a great book during the long winter months in the upper midwest.

"Weber's Real Grilling", Jamie Purviance and Tim Turner. The perfect book for the spring, summer and fall in the upper midwest. Hundreds of recipes, each one with a photo.

Group 4 The One-Offs

I'm not going to list books in this category. This is the place for cookbooks that have one really great recipe and nothing else. I have a number of these books.

Group 5 What Was I Thinking

This group is a lot like a cowboy hat bought on ski vacation, it seems like a good idea at the time, but just looks really stupid when you get home. This group is populated by books with lots of really pretty pictures with recipes written by semi-literate chefs. If you've ever bought a cookbook at a popular local restaurant, chances are you own a book in this category. I won't be sharing my shame in this category either.

That's it. In the end the true test of a cookbook is are you cooking from it. If you've tried 3 recipes from a new book and don't like any of them, chances are high that it's a loser.

If you want to jump in I recommend The Silver Spoon if you're adventurous, the Giada books if not or Weber's Grilling for the upcoming months. Just remember you can buy them through my amazon link on the left column of this page.

Talk to you soon.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Beef, BBall & Brownies, (Part 2)

This post was going to be about baseball, the other BBall that's important this time of year, but I got distracted watching TV the other night. No I wasn't watching Giada, I was watching "Hell's Kitchen" with British Chef Gordon Ramsey.

If you haven't seen this show, noted chef Ramsey spends an hour each week bellowing at a dozen chef wannabes, culminating in the dismissal, execution-style (or is it gangland-style?) of the worst contestant. All this is done in the confines of some Southern California restaurant called "Hell's Kitchen", (conveniently, the kitchen and dining room of which is filled with small cameras capable of observing all the action). What allegedly makes the show interesting is that every other word out of Ramsey's mouth is either the F-bomb or the S-bomb. If the language weren't bad enough, he does it with a venom and vigor usually saved for the political talking heads on FOX or CNN. Think Marine drill sergeant with a truly severe case of Tourette's syndrome helped along with a nice dose of amphetamines.

Now, I have no sympathy for the contestants. They're all food professionals of some experience and, by now, should be completely aware of Ramsey's reputation as a cursing , bile spewing dervish. Ramsey berates the cooks, hurls food like a two year old and is perpetually telling the chefs to, "do it again". In short, it's great TV. The high point of the early episodes comes when, with the customers leaving and the imperious maitre 'd complaining, Ramsey finally snaps and says, "ahhh, F***, shut it down, they've all left".

That whirring sound you hear is Edward R. Murrow spinning in his grave.

The people I don't understand are the ones who come to eat at the restaurant. In every season to date, no one has been served a full meal during the first three episodes. The customers all show up, dressed to the teeth L.A. style and then are video taped complaining that they haven't been served in three hours.

People, you're going to a restaurant named "Hell's Kitchen", what did you think the experience was going to be like? Here's a tip, watch a few episodes of the show and bring a lunch. You're not going to be eating anything during the first few weeks.

Well folks, no cursing or food throwing today. Here's the promised Espresso Brownies recipe. They are a decidedly adult dessert, but are a great finish to the barbecued beef from the previous post. They are rich, so cut them small and let those with a high sugar tolerance have multiple pieces.

SeaShell Sal tells me the only tricky part is the frosting, so take your time with that part. I'll be back soon, until then, well you know: You can do it, you can cook.

Espresso Brownies
courtesy: Giada DeLaurentiis
from, "Everyday Italian"

Nonstick vegetable oil cooking spray
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons water
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons espresso powder
1 (19.8-ounce) box brownie mix (recommended: Duncan Hines)
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, room temperature
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Spray a 9 by 13-inch baking pan with nonstick spray. Whisk 1/3 cup of water, oil, eggs, and 2 tablespoons espresso powder in a large bowl to blend. Add the brownie mix. Stir until well blended. Stir in the chocolate chips. Transfer the batter to the prepared baking pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the brownies comes out with a few moist crumbs attached, about 35 minutes. Cool completely.

Meanwhile, dissolve the remaining 2 teaspoons of espresso powder in the remaining 2 tablespoons of water in a medium bowl. Whisk in the vanilla. Add the powdered sugar and butter and whisk until smooth. Pour the glaze over the brownies. Refrigerate until the glaze is set. Cut into bite-size pieces. Arrange the brownies on a platter and serve.