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Sunday, December 20, 2015

Lucky Food

Gumbo Z'Herbs. Gumbo Aux Herbs. Green Gumbo.
The other gumbo.
Whether prepared with or without meat or with or without roux, the unusual gumbo z'herbs is always jam-packed with a multiple variety of greens. Green gumbo requires a lot of greens.While purists claim it should never contain meat or roux, some versions of this deep south gumbo pack the double punch of both. Although a meat-filled version is customarily cooked, served, and eaten on Maundy Thursday during the week of Mardi Gras, it's also served year round.

Unlike the more familiar gumbos of the deep south, gumbo z'herbs has deep rooted traditions that involve luck and good fortune. While almost any kind of greens can be used for gumbo z'herbs, tradition holds that an odd number ( 5, 7, 9, 11) insures good luck and that the number used reflects the number of new friends to be made during the year. Because pigs move forward when they eat, eating pork is a lucky symbol for moving forward. Because greens are the color of money, they represent wealth and good fortune. So, whether it's Fat Tuesday, Maundy Thursday, or any other day of the year, throw the dice, play the numbers, toss a pork-filled pot of green gumbo on the stove, and may the luck be with you.

A good gumbo takes time.
It begs to be slowly coaxed and courted.
Good things come to those who wait.
And chop.

Gumbo Z'Herbs.
I rinsed, chopped, and set aside individual bunches (about 3 1/2 pounds) of Elmwood Stock Farm black kale and beet greens, Quarles Farm mustard greens, Shelby County turnip greens, Hoot Owl Holler Farm Appalachian greasy greens, scallions, fresh spinach, watercress, collard greens, fresh parsley, and 1/2 head cabbage.


With the chopping out of the way, I cooked the greens in 12 cups water for 30 minutes, drained them (reserving the cooking liquid), pureed half the greens with a hand held stick blender, tossed the pureed greens with the chopped cooked greens, and set them aside.

To roux or not to roux?
I'm all roux. Not so much for the slight thickening it provides, but more for the subtle smoky and nutty undertones it imparts.

I placed a very large stock pot over a medium flame before adding 1/4 cup peanut oil, 1/4 cup bacon grease, and 1/2 cup flour. Using a wooden spoon, I carefully stirred the flour into the fats and let it slowly bind into a creamy paste. With full attention, I stirred the roux constantly until it slowly turned from blond to light brown to medium brown. Just before it went to the dark side, I added 1 chopped onion, 1 chopped red bell pepper, 1 chopped green bell pepper, and 4 chopped garlic cloves.

After letting the vegetables sweat, melt, and caramelize in the roux, I added 1 quart brown turkey stock, the reserved 12 cups greens cooking water, 4 tablespoons lemon juice, 5 sprigs fresh thyme, 4 bay leaves, and 4 heaping tablespoons Cajun seasoning (2 teaspoon salt, 2 teaspoons garlic powder, 2 1/2 teaspoons paprika, 1 teaspoons black pepper, 1 teaspoon onions powder, 1 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano, 1 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme, 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper).

I brought the liquid to a boil, added 2 pounds smoked ham hocks, reduced the liquid to a simmer, partially covered the stock pot, and let it gently ripple for 2 1/2 hours, skimming the scum from the surface every 1/2 hour or so.

At the 2 hour mark, I scooped the hocks from the gumbo, pulled the meat from the bones, added it back into the pot, and tumbled 2 pounds pan-seared pork sausage (in lieu of andouille sausage) into the gumbo.

After 30 minutes, I pulled the gumbo from the heat, spooned it over white rice, and dusted it with file powder (ground sassafras) before finishing with sliced scallions, blanched spinach leaves, and a pinch of cayenne pepper.

Tempered by the heat, mellowed with pork fat, and napped in nutty pot likker, the mixed greens surrendered their peppery bitter assertiveness to the long slow simmer, gently melting and swirling through the tender bits of meat. While the delicate ground sassafras (file powder) added subtle hints of woodsy root beer-like earthiness, the fresh scallions perked up the sleepy gumbo with biting wet crunch. Soulful. Soothing. Humble.

Gumbo Z'herbs.

Lucky Food.
Eat your greens.





Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Hot Crabs

With the turkey carcass broken down, hacked into submission, simmered into stock, and drop-kicked to the back of the freezer for a future something or other, I happily  left the sleepy holiday food orgy behind. I needed a wake up call. A  culinary slap in the face. While there might have been a gazillion different routes I could have taken, I steamrolled down a fiery road with blazing heat. Blistering heat. Pure chili heat.

I had enough turf, I wanted surf. As luck would  have it, we're smack dab in the middle of Florida stone crab season. Can't make it to Florida? No need to pack your bags for a road trip because the Lexington Seafood Company has stone crab claws flown in twice weekly during the October through May crab harvesting season. They're not your run of the mill crabs. Unlike Eastern Shore blue crabs or Pacific coast dungeness crabs, Florida stone crabs are harvested only for their claws. Depending on size and sex, only one claw is removed from each crab before it's tossed back into the water to regenerate another claw. Talk about sustainable. Cooked and chilled right on the docks after harvesting, the luxuriously rich and meaty lobster-like crab claws are fantastic served either hot or cold. I turned up the heat with a loosey-goosey riff on Singapore Chili Crab.


Chili Crab.
Since the claws were already cooked, I simply kept them on ice while I threw together a quick chili-centered stir fry sauce. Like any fast paced stir fry, having all the ingredients ready to go was key. Hello, mise en place.

I slid a wok over a medium high flame and drizzled 2 tablespoons of peanut oil around the edges of the wok, letting it stream down into a puddle in the bottom of the wok.  When the oil started to smoke, I added 1/2 cup minced shallot, 4 minced garlic cloves, 2 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger, and 5 dried chili peppers (re-hydrated in hot water). Just before the garlic browned, I added 3 tablespoons chili bean sauce, 1/4 cup tomato sauce, 3 tablespoons honey, 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce, 1 tablespoon fish sauce, 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice, and 1 cup chicken stock. I brought the stock to a boil, let it rip for 5 minutes to reduce, and briefly pulled it from the heat before adding 3 pounds jumbo stone crab claws (3 very large 1 pound claws) and sliced scallions.


After sliding the wok back over the flame, I covered the wok to warm the crab claws, added a slurry (1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon cold chicken stock), tossed the claws with the sauce, and tumbled them over steaming jasmine rice before finishing with slivered scallions and fresh lime juice.

At first glance, when pulled from the slippery cracked shells, the delicate snowy white sweet meat seemed innocent enough. As it flaked apart and fell into the sauce, all bets were off. Pick. Pop. Lick. Repeat. Down and dirty lip burning messy sticky finger food. I wore it well.

Chili Crab.
Fast.
Furious.
Fiery.
Fabulous.


Take it for a ride.
And feel the burn.



Sunday, November 15, 2015

Pop On Over

Fasten your seat belts, it's time for holiday family food gatherings.  The good, the bad, the ugly, and everything in between. Don't get me wrong, I adore the warmth, fun, and drama that comes into play during the festivities. Leading up to them? Not so much. The devil's in the details...the planning. Food is a powerful magnet. During the holidays, the force is very strong. Inevitably, during the planning process, that familiar "What can I bring?" thing always rears its head. Whether sincere, obligatory, volunteered, or assigned. it just happens. It's simply part of the family dynamic. That's when things get iffy. Sure, drinks, ice, and pies are safe bets. Can't go wrong there. It's the other stuff that really matters. The big guns. The have to haves. The must haves. The traditional stuff. Nope. Not going there. I don't want to be that guy. You know, the one who shows up with a bungled attempt of a cherished family heirloom recipe? Might as well smear giblet gravy across the stainless steel refrigerator and write "FAIL" with a buttered dinner roll.

Be careful what you ask for. One year, my family gathered for Thanksgiving in a small town in rural Ohio. I was tasked with bringing creamed onions. Simple enough, right?  Not only did I miss the meal because of a timing mishap, I forgot to bring the beloved time honored creamed onions that were, apparently, the soothing balm for a happy day. Joy.

Several years earlier, I was asked to bring bread for a family Thanksgiving meal at my father's house. Normal. Regular. Bread. Well, I couldn't leave well enough alone and decided to get all fancy pants. Now, keep in mind,  that was years before I stepped foot into a professional kitchen or classroom. Naively thinking that all breads fell under the vast umbrella of bread, I meticulously conjured up a gorgeous and highly aromatic loaf of orange bread. Brilliant, right? With hints of ginger and cirusy orange, the bread had a soft crumb and beautifully burnished crust that was somewhat reminiscent of an overly sweetened brioche.  Was it tasty? Yep. Was it the ideal sopper for puddles of turkey gravy? Hardly.

A couple of years ago, during a lakeside family get together, I slipped a layered roasted red pepper, eggplant, pesto, and goat cheese terrine onto the festive holiday food table, nestling it between a few cheese-topped casseroles. It certainly popped. I'll leave it at that. Enough said.

The learning curve never ends. Nowadays, unless a special request pops up, I tend to err on the safer side of caution.. That said, safe doesn't have to be boring.

Popovers are wonderful things. Whether baked in a traditional sense with only flour, eggs, milk, butter, and salt, or jazzed up with  a few add-ins, the airy puffs are incredibly versatile. Because they're simple to throw together, whimsical, and a wee bit flamboyant, popovers are perfect for the holidays.

Blue Cheese and Chive Popovers.
For the ultimate pop, stick to the rules.
Have everything at room temperature.
Preheat the popover pan.
Don't peek while they bake. Just don't.

After preheating the oven to 450 degrees, I sprayed a 6-cup popover pan with nonstick cooking spray, filled each cup with 1/2 teaspoon melted unsalted butter, and set it aside.

I cracked 6 large organic Elmwood Stock Farm eggs into a large mixing bowl, added 2 cups room temperature whole milk, broke the yolks, and whisked the two together until the eggs were lightly beaten.. Using a large fine mesh strainer, I sifted 2 cups Wiesenberger Mill unbleached all purpose flour and 1 teaspoon salt into the beaten eggs. After whisking the eggs and flour together for 2 minutes until they were thoroughly blended, I folded 1/2 cup snipped chives into the batter and let it rest before sliding the buttered popover pan into the oven to heat for 2 minutes. When the butter started to crackle, I pulled the popover pan from the oven, filled each cup 3/4 full with batter, and dropped 2 ounces of Boone Creek Creamery blue cheese crumbles into each popover cup.

I carefully placed the pan onto a parchment covered sheet pan, slid the pan into the oven, set the timer for 20 minutes, and let them rip before lowering the heat to 350 degrees for the final 15 minutes.

After pulling the popovers from the oven, I used a sharp paring knife to poke each popover (releasing the steam to avoid deflate-gate), and piled them onto a wire rack to cool.


To play up the subtle undertones of the melted blue cheese, I tapped into the natural pairing of fruit and cheese by tumbling the chive-flecked popovers onto a bread board alongside Quarles Farm Spiced Apple Conserve and Big Swing Farms Honey Pear Butter. After feathering salty ribbons of prosciutto to the side, I finished with thinly sliced Reeds Valley Orchard  apples and pears.



Buttery.
Salty.
Sweet.
Fresh.

Fasten your seat belts.
And pass the bread, please.






Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Skillet Potatoes

My grandmother baked marshmallow topped cinnamon-spiced sweet potato pies every week for me during my entire first year of college. Every. Single. Week. Sure, I was more than happy to have those pies. As a lowly freshman locked up in a towering dormitory like a prince-less Rapunzel, my only food was sourced from the student cafeteria accessed with my prepaid meal card. Her home baked sweet potato pies felt special. Eventually, my grandmother's relentless pie punctuality forced me to share the abundance with my dorm-mates. In the beginning, we were all happy. Every day felt like Thanksgiving. Was it too much of a good thing? Yep. Somewhere between pie #23 and, lets say, pie #30, the charm started to wain. Pie overkill. Nobody wanted sweet potato pie. I didn't want pie. Yet, they kept coming and coming and coming. Weeks passed. Months passed. My dorm-mates shunned me. Any time I stepped off of the elevator with my weekly pie in tow, dorm room doors slammed shut like syncopated thunder claps. "Incoming." "Pie  Boy." "Duck and cover." Slam. Slam. Slam. Because I loved my grandmother and embraced her efforts to love me with food, I ate every last bite of those damned sweet potato pies. And loved them.

I didn't touch a sweet potato for years after college. I never told a soul or explained my aversion at family gatherings. I simply passed on any and all sweet potato offerings. All of that changed when I discovered the savory side of sweet potatoes. While still somewhat sweet, once the potatoes dropped the marshmallow toppings, brown sugar, maple syrup, and seasonings that helped them masquerade as pies, I fell back in love with them. Hook, line, and sinker. Nowadays, I'll  roast multi-colored peeled baby sweet potatoes and toss them into salads with  bright acidic vinaigrettes, deep fry paper thin shards for chips served alongside spiced dippers, or layer slices with gruyere cheese and heavy cream in a long baked gratins.

Although my grandmother wore me out with her barrage of sweet potato pies when I was a kid in college, I'm happy for it now. Sometimes, rediscovered gems are the most precious gems.


Let's face it, there's nothing really sexy about bushels and bushels of potatoes found at our farmers markets. They're big, clumsy, dirty, and boring. Yep, I went there. That said, I totally respect the labor of love that goes into growing and harvesting them. Growing up on a farm in Western Kentucky, all of the potatoes (russet, new, red, sweet, purple, baby, fingerling) were the workhorses of our country garden.


Skillet White Sweet Potatoes.
Not quite an Anna and not quite a gratin. A playful riff on both

Right off the bat, I wanted a punch of flavor to tip the potatoes over to the savory side. I dropped 3 fresh rosemary sprigs and 2 whole peeled garlic cloves into a small cast iron skillet along with 1/2 cup olive oil. After bringing the oil to a gentle ripple, I steeped the rosemary and garlic for 5 minutes before pulling it off the heat to cool.

While the infused olive oil cooled, I peeled 4 large (about 3 pounds) Casey County white sweet potatoes, sliced them 1/8" thick on a mandolin, and set them aside.

After brushing the bottom of a large cast iron skillet with the infused olive oil, I shingled the potatoes (vertically) around the edges of the skillet, worked my way toward the center of the skillet, and finished with a quasi potato rossette (for lack of a better term).  I brushed the tops of the potatoes with the flavored olive oil, sealed the skillet with foil, and slid it into a preheated 350 degree oven. After 50 minutes, I removed the foil, cranked the oven to 425 degrees, brushed the potatoes with melted unsalted butter, and returned them to the oven. When the exposed edges started to brown and char ( about 35 minutes), I pulled the sweet potatoes from the oven to cool before finishing with fresh rosemary and delicate dried chili threads.

Here's the deal. The potatoes crisped on the bottom from the heat of the skillet and on top from the high heat of the oven. The slices that fused together in between were meltingly soft and tender. Even through the bits of caramelized char and crispiness, the inherent earthy sweetness of the potatoes stayed true to form. While the rosemary and garlic grounded the soft sweetness with subtle savory undertones, the chili threads added whispers of biting heat.

Simple.
Savory.
Sensational.

Not my grandmother's sweet potatoes.


Friday, October 16, 2015

Leaves

After retiring from the army, my father moved our little clan to Port Oliver, a small community in Western Kentucky, to live on the farm with my grandparents. While he was happy to be home,  he always had  plans to build our own home somewhere else on the property. While the house couldn't be too far away (or too close) , it needed to be secluded and very private. The farm, with rolling meadows, forest patches, fields, ponds, and lakefront access, edged the steep twisting banks of Barren River Lake. With plenty of options, he chose a site nestled  across an undulating meadow not too far from my grandparent's farmhouse.

Tucked under maple, oak, pin-oak. an elm trees, my father built the house of his dreams from the ground up. Using salvaged everything, he nestled our home into the landscape as if it grew out of the ground. Utterly organic, our grey/teal-stained wooden house breathed with the changing seasons. While the house was spectacular in every season, it was a real showstopper during fall. I loved it there. Year after year, as the trees matured, everything seemed to grow more beautiful.

My last autumn in Port Oliver was bittersweet. We spent months struggling with my father's cancer diagnosis and the whole package that accompanies that sort of news. The struggle to balance fear, hope, and joy was a tightrope balancing act. Intermingled with the necessary trips for treatments, my dad and I celebrated birthdays, took long drives in the country, watched a lot of televisionenjoyed a bounty of summer produce, and had spirited bourbon-induced conversations about everything under the sun. I was surprised how much the pure innocence of  joy outweighed the other emotions most of the time. We held fast and lived in those moments.


By the time autumn blitzed Port Oliver in a brilliant patchwork of color, my father was well into his battle with cancer. Country drives, bourbon, and tomatoes had become distant memories replaced with tender reflection, fodder shocks, pumpkins, and cheap white wine. Even then, it was a happy time.

On one particular day, when the late afternoon shadows were deep and long, Dad wanted to take a walk. Off we went, as best we could, with walker in tow. Shuffling through the sloping yard under rustling wind-swept trees, he started picking up leaves. One by one. Maple. Oak. Pin-Oak. Elm. Red. Yellow. Orange. Green. Burgundy. Brown. One by one, he shared his respect and joy for each  fallen leaf. I simply listened. As the sun dropped into a distant field, I walked my father back into the house and pressed those leaves into the ragged pages of my journal.

The following year, Port Oliver was also a distant memory. I used those very leaves to mold delicate replicas of kiln-fired clay memories for my family. The leaves still inspire me.

Double Chocolate Pumpkin Tart with Autumn Pastry Leaves

Pumpkin
So, canned puree or fresh puree? Some folks say it doesn't matter.  Maybe it doesn't matter. That said, for the last few seasons I've found that the local sugar pumpkins we find at our farmers' market are downright fabulous. In fact, making fresh puree might be easier than opening a can. This year, I took easy to another level by simply roasting the pumpkins whole. Boom. Yep. Whole.

For venting purposes, I used a sharp paring knife to slice the tops off  two 1 pound Scott County sugar pumpkins,  placed the lids back into place, and slid the pumpkins into a 350 degree oven to roast for 1 1/2 hours. When the pumpkins started to  collapse and were knife tender, I pulled them from the oven and cracked them open. Pumpkin carnage. After scooping out the seeds and stringy membranes, I slipped the flesh from the tender skin, pureed the pulp until velvety smooth, scraped it into a bowl, and set it aside.


Tart Shell
For the underlying chocolate crust, I pulverized enough thin dark chocolate wafers in a food processor to measure 2 cups. After tossing the crumbs into a mixing bowl, I added 4 tablespoons sugar and 6 tablespoon melted unsalted butter. I mixed the crumbs with the butter, scraped them into a 9" tart pan with a removable bottom, used a straight edged measuring cup to firmly press the crumbs into the pan, and  chilled the shell in the freezer for 15 minutes to set the crust before sliding it into a preheated 350 oven to bake for 12 minutes.



Pumpkin Filling
I spooned 2 cups of fresh pumpkin puree into a large mixing bowl, added 1/2 cup white sugar. 1/4 cup light brown sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/4 teaspoon salt, a pinch ground clove, a pinch ground allspice, a pinch cardamon, 2 large eggs, and 1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream. To lighten the filling, I whipped the mixture with an old fashioned  hand held mixer until it was fully incorporated, and it poured into the cooled chocolate tart shell. I lined a sheet pan with parchment paper, slipped the tart onto the pan, and baked it in a preheated degree oven 450 for 15 minutes, reduced the heat to 350 degrees, let it rip for 55 minutes, pulled it from the oven, and placed it onto a wire rack to cool before sliding the tart into refrigerator to chill.

More Chocolate
I wanted something a bit firmer than a classic heavy cream and chocolate ganache. After shaving 3 ounces bittersweet chocolate ( 70% cacao) into tiny shards, I tumbled the chocolate into a bowl, added 2 ounces (1/4 cup) melted unsalted butter, and 1 tablespoon light corn syrup. I warmed the mix over a low flame, gently stirred the mix until it melted into a loose glossy glaze, poured it over the chilled  pumpkin filling, carefully tilted the tart to swirl the chocolate into an even layer, and tossed it into the refrigerator to set.

Leaves
I threw together a very basic pastry dough by pulsing 1 1/4 cup sifted flour, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4 cup chilled cubed butter, and 1/4 cup ice water in a food processor. Just as the dough came together, I formed it into a flat disc, wrapped it in plastic wrap, and slipped into the refrigerator to chill for 30 minutes.

I didn't have any of those cute leaf shaped cookie cutters that seem to pop up everywhere this time of year, so I free-handed a few leaves on parchment paper, cut them out, and set them aside. I rolled the dough into a 1/8" thick circle, used my parchment paper stencils to cut out the leaves,  carefully slashed veining into the leaves, transferred them to a parchment paper-lined baking sheet, and chilled them for 30 minutes. After brushing the leaves with an egg wash (1 egg yolk mixed with 1 tablespoon heavy cream), I slid them into a blistering 475 degree oven for about 12 minutes. When they were beautifully browned, I removed them to a wire rack to cool, pulled the chilled double chocolate pumpkin tart from the refrigerator, and scattered the leaves over the top.


Topped with buttery crisp pastry leaves, the airy spiced pumpkin filling had all the nuanced warmth of classic pumpkin pie. Suspending the pie between layers of chocolate took it to another level and gussied up those familiar flavors with self-indulgent sass.

Chocolate in the pumpkin patch.
With a  few autumn leaves.

Fabulous.



Thursday, September 24, 2015

Boozy Bluegrass Chili

Everybody loves chili. Whether filled with ground beef and beans (sacrilege in some parts), strictly vegetarian or vegan, lightened up with chicken, or loaded with long braised meats, a hearty bowl of chili hits the spot when cooler weather slowly sets in. For some folks, there are hard and fast rules for chili based on history and tradition. I get it. That said, I'm a rule breaker.

With all due respect to the iconic Bowls of Red from Texas, the pasta-based Cincinnati 2-3-4-5-Ways, or the fresh green chile stews of New Mexico, there's still room in the chili world for other regional riffs on chili. Spiked with Kentucky bourbon, filled with local vegetables, packed with local grass-fed beef, and kicked-up with dried chile peppers, boozy Bluegrass chili might give the big boys a run for their money.

I've done my share of cooking with bourbon. Heading up the Culinary Art: Bourbon-Style Cooking School (four bourbon-infused courses prepared and demoed for hundreds of people) at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival for a couple of years gave me lots of time to play with bourbon and food. The pairing is fantastic. Whether applied in sweet or savory preparations, the inherent undertones of smoke, vanilla, caramel, honey, and oaky spice  can lace food with complex layers of flavor. Yep. All of that. And...it's just downright fun.

Stand down, chili police.

Bluegrass Bourbon Chili.
Braised chili takes time. While there's nothing really complicated about the process, a little organization and mise en place goes a long way before kicking back with a shot of bourbon and letting the chili cook itself.

The building blocks.
Chilies.
After toasting 3 dried Ancho chile peppers, 2 dried Guajilla chile peppers, and 1 dried
Pasilla chile pepper in a dry cast iron skillet, I scooped them into bowl, poured 2 cups boiling water over the peppers, and set them aside for 30 minutes to soften. When the peppers were pliable, I pulled off the stems, removed the seeds, and dropped them into a blender. I strained any seed stragglers from the soaking liquid, poured the liquid into the blender, added 1 cup Makers Mark Bourbon, blitzed the peppers into a fine puree, strained the puree into a bowl, and set it aside.

Tomatoes.
While any good quality canned tomatoes would have been great, I took advantage of our late season farmers market tomatoes. I peeled 1 1/2 pounds Pulaski County Yellow Giant, red Mule Team, and purple Cherokee heirloom tomatoes. Because there were so few seeds to fret over, I simply chopped the tomatoes into large chunks, tumbled them (with juices) into the pepper stained blender, pureed them until they were velvety smooth, and set them aside.

Fresh peppers and the other stuff.
Smitten with the gorgeous array of Casey County market peppers, I went on pepper overdrive. I seeded and diced 1 yellow bell pepper, 1 red bell pepper, 1 green bell pepper, 2 red sweet banana peppers, I hot banana pepper, and 3 green chili peppers. After chopping 2 medium sized Lincoln County candy onions into a large dice, I tossed them into the pepper pile before peeling, seeding, and dicing a smallish Casey County butternut squash.


Where's the beef?
Booya. Marksbury Farm grass-fed shoulder chuck roast. After slicing the 2 pound roast into 1 1/2" cubes, I dusted the meat with ground ancho powder, ground cumin, ground coriander, salt, pepper, and flour. I gave the pieces of meat a quick toss and set them aside.

The fun part.
After cranking a flame to medium high under a 3 quart dutch oven, I drizzled the pot with vegetable oil, browned the meat in batches, and removed the pieces to a side plate before tumbling the fresh peppers and onions into the sizzling oil. As the vegetables started to sweat, I added 2 minced garlic cloves, 2 tablespoons tomato paste, 2 tablespoons cumin, 2 tablespoons ground ancho, 1 tablespoon smoked paprika, salt, and cracked black pepper. When the tomato paste caramelized around the sauteed vegetables, I carefully deglazed the pot with 1/2 cup Makers Mark bourbon, let the bourbon reduce by half, scraped up the fabulous sticky bits, and poured the spiked pepper puree into the incredibly hot pot. Boom. Splash dance. As the splattering molten puree calmed to a gentle ripple, I added 2 cups of the reserved fresh tomato puree, 2 tablespoons Oberholtzer's Organic Sorghum, 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar,1 cup beef stock, and 2 cups chicken stock. I brought the liquid to a boil, reduced it to a simmer, tumbled the meat (with their juices) back into the pot, covered the chili, and slid it into a 350 degree oven.

After 2 1/2 hours, I added the cubed butternut squash and a bit more stock to loosen the chili before returning it to the oven for another hour. During the last 15 minutes, I mixed 2 tablespoons Weisenberger white corn meal with 4 tablespoons of the hot chili broth and swirled it into the chili as a slight thickener.

After pulling the chili from the oven, I splashed it with a shot of bourbon and let it rest for a few minutes before finishing with fresh parsley, slivered scallions, and sliced Casey County jalapenos.

Broken down by the long cook, the tender meat simply melted into the chili. Tempered by the tomatoes, peppers, onions, and butternut squash, the bourbon added subtle caramel notes that played nice with the soft smoky sweetness of the sorghum and the tingly creeping heat of the dried chiles. While the scallions and parsley brought fresh onion grassiness to the party, the sliced jalapenos provided biting fiery crunch.

Bluegrass Bourbon Chili.
Game day.
Sunday.
Fun Day.
Any Day.

Kick back and give it a shot.









Thursday, September 17, 2015

Drums

Classically, timbales are sweet or savory custards baked in drum-shaped molds. With savory versions, creamy minced meat, fish, or vegetables are folded into timbale molds and baked before being turned out for presentation. Nowadays, almost anything packed into a drum mold can be tagged as a loosey-goosey interpretation of a timbale. Most folks might be more familiar with the iconic molded pasta/meatball/salami/mozzarella/sauce-filled Italian timbale (timpano) triumph from the movie 'Big Night". A brazen beauty. That said, not all timbales have to be dramatic over-the-top centerpieces large enough to feed a crowd. They can also be dialed back for more intimate affairs. Drum roll.  Size doesn't matter.

Spaghetti Squash Timbales with Arugula-Lemon Basil Pesto

As our farmers markets segue from summer into fall, varieties of winter squash are quietly nudging out the darlings of summer. I'm not quite ready to completely let go of those darlings, so I took the middle road with a gorgeous Casey County spaghetti squash and a few handfuls of Pulaski County chocolate cherry tomatoes. Balance.

Pesto.
I tumbled 1 cup baby arugula, 1 cup lemon basil, 2 cloves garlic, salt, pepper, lemon zest, and 1/3 cup toasted pecans into the bowl of a food processor. After processing the mix until it was finely minced, I slowly drizzled in 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil (with the motor running). When the mixture was smooth, I added 1/2 cup grated parmigano-reggiano, gave it a few quick pulses to blend in the cheese, scraped the pesto into a small bowl, covered the top with plastic wrap, and slid it into the refrigerator to chill.

Squash.
I adore spaghetti squash. When cooked, it shreds into delicate, almost translucent, pasta-like threads. Typically, I halve the squash, remove the seeds, and roast it cut side down in a 350 degree oven until it's incredible tender and a wee bit caramelized. For a change, I wanted to avoid any toasted sugary caramelized bits, so I bellied up to the microwave. Using a heavy sharp knife, I split the squash in half, scraped out the seeds, placed both halves on a microwavable dish, added 1/2 cup water to help it steam, covered the squash with plastic wrap, and microwaved the squash on high for 20 minutes. After carefully removing the squash from the microwave, I removed the plastic wrap and let it rest.  When it was cool enough to handle, I used the tines of a fork to gently pull the strands from the body of the shell and tossed them into a bowl to cool.

Bechamel.
I didn't want to kill the squash with a heavy sauce, so I threw together a small batch bechamel as a binder. After melting 1 tablespoon unsalted butter in a small sauce pan, I added 1 tablespoon flour, salt, pepper, and a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg. When the roux started to bubble, I drizzled a 1/2 cup warmed milk into the pan, whisked the sauce until it napped the back of a spoon, and pulled it from the heat to cool.

Timbales.
After buttering 5 4oz. ramekins, I placed buttered parchment paper on the bottom of each ramekin before dusting the ramekins with a mixture of finely grated parmigiano-reggiano and toasted bread crumbs.

I tossed the spaghetti squash with 1 cup of the arugula-lemon basil pesto and the reserved bechamel. After twirling the creamy pesto faux pasta into the individual ramekins, I added a bit more cheese for good measure, gently tamped the squash into the molds, slid the timbales into a 350 degree oven, and let them rip for 50 minutes before pulling them from the oven to rest.

While the timbales were still somewhat warm, I ran a knife around the edges of the ramekins to release the squash and turned them out onto plated puddles of pesto. After dabbing the tops with a tad more pesto, I finished with halved/quartered chocolate cherry tomatoes and fresh lemon basil leaves.

Tucked inside the crisped outer shells of each timbale, the delicate wisps of spaghetti squash snapped through the creamy bechamel, hints of garlic, and the nutty parmigiano-reggiano undertones of the peppery arugula pesto. While the perky basil added bright lemony freshness, the tomatoes provided sultry popping wet sweetness.



The middle road.

Simple.
Fresh.
Fantastic.






Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Planted

Fried eggplant parmesan can be a fabulous thing. Unfortunately, more often than not, most versions usually end up over-sauced and cheese laden. By the time they bake off in the oven and absorb all of the other ingredients, they resemble swollen cheese-packed tomatoey eggplant sponge cakes. Over wrought and heavy handed with the happy crunch factor lost in translation. Trust me, I've hammered my share doing that very thing. Sometimes, less is more.

It's been a great season for eggplants at the farmers market. While some things have suffered from our incredibly wet summer, eggplants are everywhere.

Fried Eggplant.
Redeeming the crunch factor.

Fry it once, use it twice.

After slicing a bulbous Casey County globe eggplant into 1/2' slices, I halved a few slender Jessamine County Asian eggplants and tossed them into a colander with the sliced globes. To leach out some of the bitterness, I salted the eggplant slices and let them drip/drain for 30 minutes before rinsing them under cold water and thoroughly patting them dry. I set up a standard breading station for my eggplant-palooza. Highly seasoned flour (salt, pepper, garlic powder) in one dish, beaten egg wash in a second dish, and parmigiano reggiano-studded panko bread crumbs flecked with minced chives, rosemary, basil, parsley, and thyme in a third dish.

Using the wet hand/dry hand method, I dusted the slices in the flour, dipped them through the egg wash, dredged them in the herbed breadcrumbs, and set them aside.

Simple Eggplant Parmesan.
After bringing 1/2 cup vegetable oil to 350 degrees in a cast iron skillet, I carefully slipped the breaded eggplant slices into the sizzling oil and shallow fried them until  they were golden brown before removing them to a dish towel to drain. I wiped out the skillet, slid the crispy eggplant cutlets back into the skillet, shingled thin slices of fresh mozzarella cheese over each piece of eggplant, nestled Boyle County tomatoes (still on the vine) into the cheese, slid the skillet into a 450 degree
oven to bake for 20 minutes, and finished the deal with a quick spin under the broiler for the last couple of minutes. When the tomatoes started to blister and collapse over the oozing cheese, I pulled the skillet from the oven and let the simple riff on eggplant parmesan settle down before finishing with fresh basil, extra virgin olive oil, and flaky sea salt.

Although blanketed in the creamy melted mozzarella cheese, the eggplant remained crisp from the high heat of the oven and cast iron skillet. Slippery gooey crunch. Where's the sauce? It took a mere whisper for the incredibly ripe blistered tomatoes to pop open and seep their sweet warm juices over the bubbling cheese, spilling into puddles around the charred edges of the mozzarella and eggplant. While the tomatoes provided just enough subtle sweet acidity to cut through the rich cheese, the basil added hits of freshness. Simple. Fresh. Perfect.

Eggplant Milanese.
As a bright side kick for the eggplant parmesan, I breaded and fried the slender Asian eggplant halves until they were beautifully browned, dabbed them with a dish towel to soak up any excess oil, and topped the tubular slices with fresh baby arugula before finishing with a spritz of fresh meyer lemon juice, lemon slices, salt, coarsely cracked black pepper, and and crisped parmigiano fricos. In true Milanese fashion, the lemons and slightly bitter baby arugula countered the fried earthy meatiness of the eggplant with biting acidic freshness. Light. Bright. Fabulous.


Fried Eggplant.
Two for one.
Embrace the crunch.



Thursday, August 6, 2015

Fire & Ice

Although I spent most of my summers on the Eastern Shores of Maryland and Virginia, years slipped by before I tasted raw oysters on the half shell.

Back in the day, wild oyster beds dotted the waters of Little Tom's Cove in the small town of Chincoteague, Virginia. Accessible by boat or by foot during low tide, the few oyster beds offered some of the finest oysters on the Eastern Shore. Fed by the Atlantic tides, the Chincoteague "Salts" were (and still are) prized for their high briny salinity. During our summers on the beaches of Maryland and Virginia, we were certified ameteur clammers and crabbers. Whether we were holed up in a tent on Pine Grove Campground or comfortably bundled up in a swanky Chincoteague house, we hunted and gathered clams and crabs to prepare for ourselves. We left the oystering to the big guns. Deep fried, broiled, baked, frittered, or stuffed, fresh Chincoteague oysters were restaurant treats reserved for special occasions. Even then, we never ate them on the half shell.

That all changed on one particularly hot day during one particular summer on the Eastern Shore.

We did our crabbing from the causeway that separated the oyster beds in Little Tom's Cove from the blue crabs in Swans Cove Pool. While we never gave the oysters beds much more than a passing glance as we baited our twisted strings with chicken necks, I always had my eyes on those mysterious bumps in the water. At high tide, they seemed to float like jagged beached whales. Hunched. Lifeless. Silhouettes against the quiet sea. Although I secretly yearned for the unknown adventure, I was stunned when my father announced, out of the blue, that he and I were going to hit the oyster beds at the next low tide. Still haunted by the unfortunate hook-in-my-scalp incident from a previous deep sea fishing escapade (again, his idea), I was filled with excruciating awe and dread.

Tides are funny things. On the beach side of the deal, not much changes with low/high tides. Sure, the beaches get thinner or wider, but they still stay fairly neutral. In the inland coves and waterways, the tides change everything. Low tides reveal the underbelly of the sea. Grayish green muck. Cracked shells. Dead crabs. Slimy kelp. Bubbling holes. Gurgling muck. Icky stuff. The underworld.

Oystering with my father. Yep, all in a days fun. Of course, we assumed it was low tide. It looked low. After parking on the sandy edge of the causeway, we grabbed a couple of buckets from the back of his orange GMC and headed into the underbelly. Scattered around the cove a few hundred yards from shore, the oyster beds appeared easily accessible.  That was hardly the case.  Every footstep seemed herculean as the muck swallowed my white sneakers and tiny legs like smelly decomposing quicksand. Although horrified, I embraced the plentiful enormous cracked shells of dead horeseshoe crabs and used them as stepping stones. When we finally reached the first of several oyster beds, we got down to business and zoned out.  Moving from bed to bed, like hens pecking into dirt, we plucked oyster after oyster from the craggy beds until our buckets were filled to the rim with what appeared to be nothing but oyster shaped rocks. We were so taken with ourselves that we didn't even notice that the tide had gently crept back into the cove. High tide. There we were, perched on a damn oyster bed hundreds of yards away from our tiny orange truck, stranded at sea. The only solution seemed simple enough. We had to walk/swim/wade/float/sludge back through the murky underbelly carrying our heavy oyster-filled buckets. My father was fine. I was a kid. I knew what lurked beneath the steel-blue water. Plodding through the lapping chin-high sea,  I tilted my head into the fiery sun to keep tidewater out of my mouth, eyes, ears, and soul. With my submerged water-logged bucket dangling from my forearm like a cheap plastic purse, I slowly squished through the muck with kelp-shackled ankles and  unseeable things swimming between my legs. Feigning bravado, I never gave up or abandoned my prized oysters. The young boy and the sea. When we finally reached the embankment that kept the cove waters at bay, we climbed the slippery slope, tossed our oysters into the truck, drove away, and left the conquered beds floating in our dust. At sunset, after the emotional dust settled, I tasted my first raw oysters straight from the sea. Splashed with Tobasco, I swallowed them whole, gulping one after another until I oystered myself out. Happy boy. Well played, Dad.

Oysters With Watermelon Granita and Grilled Watermelon.


Whether dressed to the nines with the clean acidity of a classic mignonette or chased back with the biting heat of a horseradish-spiked cocktail sauce, I'll take oysters any way I can. To embrace the heat and height of the season, I changed things up a bit and brought watermelon to the summer party.




Ice.
After halving a gorgeous Lincoln County Sugar Baby watermelon, I sliced one half into small triangles (rind on) and chopped the other half into 1" cubes (rind removed). I tumbled 4 cups cubed watermelon pieces into a blender, added 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice, and blended the watermelon into a ruby red puree. I poured the puree into a 9"x 13" glass dish, showered it with lime zest, slid it into the freezer, and used the tines of a fork to scrape the frozen granita every 30 minutes until it resembled vibrant watermelon snow.

Fire.
Just like any grilled fruit, watermelon takes on deep smoky sweet flavors when grilled.  I lit the coals on one side of a charcoal grill, let the flames reduce to glowing embers, and spread the coals around the grill. For kicks, I brushed the watermelon slices with jalapeno pepper jelly before sliding them onto the hot grill along with a few halved lemons and limes. When kissed by the heat, the natural sugars in the watermelon and pepper jelly caramelized the sweet flesh of the watermelon. When they started to char, I pulled them from the heat, diced a few into tiny pieces, and set them aside.

Oysters on the half shell.
I had a dozen or so Blue Point oysters sitting on ice that I'd picked up from The Lexington Seafood Market. Working very carefully, I cupped each
oyster with a dish towel and used an oyster knife to pry open the hinged end of the oyster shell before slicing through the muscle on the top half of the shell to release the oyster.  After cleaning the shells with a dish towel, I used the oyster knife to slice the oysters from the bottom shells
before nestling them into crushed ice.





I spooned the perky granita onto the oysters, tumbled a few grilled watermelon bites into the shells, and scattered thinly sliced serrano  peppers over the granita before finishing with Harmony Hill organic pea microgreens.





Tucked beneath the granita, the plump oysters popped with a soft brininess that countered the icy sweet/tart crunch of the frozen lime-spiked watermelon, the fiery heat of the peppers, and the crisp freshness of the microgreens. Spicy. Sweet. Salty. Tart. Wet messy business.
Fabulous.



Summer on the half shell.

Ride the tide.










Monday, July 27, 2015

Shipwrecked

Some accidents are happy accidents. Case in point? A simple little salad to take on the run for a snack between events. I tumbled diced cucumbers, tomatoes, and candy onions into a small disposable container.  After drizzling them with extra virgin olive oil, I splashed the market vegetables with white wine vinegar before crumbling fresh chevre over the top. Nothing fancy. No big deal. Here's the deal, salads on the go get jostled around. By the time I got around to eating my marinated salad, the goat's cheese had swirled through the olive oil and vinegar, creating an unexpected cheese-speckled vinaigrette for the cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions. A happy accidental win.

As haphazard as it was, I've found that it works with any vinaigrette. Whether homemade or store bought, it just doesn't matter. Fleck fresh chevre into a vinaigrette and let the creamy bits float around or whisk them into a creamy emulsion. The combination is unexpected and fantastic.

Heirloom Tomatoes with Tomato-Chevre Vinaigrette.

It's high tide for tomatoes at the farmers market. All shapes, sizes, and colors undulate like waves over endless seas of tomatoes. While I fall for the pretty ones like most folks, I'm always lured by the siren song and drawn to the uglies. Happily serenaded and shipwrecked.

The beasts and the beauties.

The Beauties.
After quartering/halving a few meaty Orange Persimmon, sugary Sun Gold, mellow Yellow Roma Banana Legs, smoky Chocolate Cherry, plummy Indigo Rose, and achingly ripe red Carmellow tomatoes, I tossed them with slivered candy onions before finishing with a scattering of fresh basil.


The Beasts.
Armed with a few "Uglies But Goodies" from Henkle's Herbs and Heirlooms, I went full out tomato on tomato with a tomato vinaigrette. I've done the cheesecloth-lined drippity drip pure tomato water thing. While it's a great way to capture the essence of tomatoes, it takes a very long time (up to 24 hours) for the magic to happen. Drip...drip.........drip. To harness the same essence without all the fuss, I simply cored the tomatoes, sliced away the dried splitting seams, chopped the tomatoes into 1" pieces, pureed them in a blender (seeds and peels), passed the puree through a fine mesh strainer, mashed the pulp to release every drop of tomato-ness, and set the jus aside.

To whisk or not to whisk? Although emulsified creamy vinaigrettes are fine and dandy, they can be a bit heavy handed when dressing fresh summer tomatoes, so I kept it loosey-goosey by opting for a broken vinaigrette. I combined 1/4 cup tomato jus with 1/4 cup white wine vinegar, 1 teaspoon local honey, and 1/2 cup olive oil. After adding a pinch of salt and ground white pepper, I gave the mix a gentle stir before flecking creamy bits of Bluegrass Chevre into the vinaigrette.

Gorgeous heirlooms kissed with a fresh tomato-chevre vinaigrette.

Vibrant summer sweetness.
Soft bright acidity.
Subtle creamy tang.
Tomatoes on tomatoes.

Fabulous.

















Monday, July 13, 2015

Pucker Up

Goodness knows, I've pickled just about everything under the sun. Name it and I've pickled it.
Although  I gave up full blown pickling and canning a couple of years ago after putting up loads of pickles only to give every last jar away, I still dabble in the pickling biz. Nowadays, I keep vinegar-marinated summer cucumbers in the refrigerator all summer long and whip up small batches of quick pickled what-nots from time to time. Quick pickled red onions, carrots, okra, turnips, and radishes are great to have on hand when bright bites are needed for perky acidity. All in all, I've never met a pickle I didn't like or love. While my love for all things pickled is steadfast, my shameless lust for fermented stuff is unbounded. Merely thinking about the fabulous fermented funk of kimchi. saurkraut, injera bread, fish sauce, gouchujang, or anchovies, pounds my inner drums. To ferment or not to ferment? Sure, some of the heavy hitters (like fermented rotting fish) might be better left to the big guns, but some things are manageable enough to easily and safely throw together on a smaller scale.  Case in point? Half sour and full sour pickles. Unlike vinegar-based processed pickles, half and full sours are brined in a simple salt/water solution and left to stew in their own juices. When the natural sugars react with the salty brine, the lactic fermentation transforms the vegetables into lip pursing pucker-tastic jewels. Prio-biotic lacto-fermented treasures.

Half and Full Sour Pickles.
Simple pickles. There's no need to drag out a huge enamel canning pot, sterilize a drawer full of lids, dig for tongs, or search for funnels. Sour pickles are very basic. Cucumbers. Salt. Water. The most important thing might be the brining solution or the ratio of salt to water. Some folks swear by a lower ratio (3%) while others stand by a higher ratio (10%). I fall somewhere in the middle with a 5% ratio or 1 tablespoon salt per 1 cup water.

After slicing the blossom ends off of 1 pound smallish Stonehedge Farm kirby cucumbers, I thoroughly washed them in iced water before cramming them into a quart mason jar with 5 sprigs of fresh dill, 4 garlic cloves, 2 bay leaves, 2 tablespoons whole allspice seeds, 2 tablespoons whole coriander seeds, 2 tablespoons whole Tellicherry peppercorns, and 1 sliced Fresno hot pepper.

I dissolved 4 tablespoons of kosher salt in 4 cups of filtered water and filled the jar with enough brine to completely cover the cucumbers. Now, sticky uppy bits are not a great thing. The cucumbers must be covered and submerged in the brine for proper fermentation to occur. If not covered, the wrong kind of bacteria could take over. Not a good thing. I used a small demi-tasse saucer to weigh down the cucumbers and keep them submerged.

Gurgling living food needs to breathe.  If sealed too tightly, the gases from the fermentation have nowhere to go and could...well...explode. I've had my share of gaseous brined saurkraut mishaps. After  making sure the pickles were submerged in the brine, I covered the mouth of the jar with layers of cheesecloth and secured the cloth with a rubber band. Although hardly high tech, I knew the cheesecloth would keep the bad things out of the pickles while still allowing them to breath and let the gases escape.

Covered and banded, I nestled the quart mason jar into a bowl ( to catch whatever might bubble over) and placed the bowl/jar/cucumbers in a cool dark corner of the garage.

Here's the deal. The great thing about sour pickles is that the process is fairly quick. Saurkraut can take up to 6 weeks to ferment. Depending upon the desired level of rot, kimchi might take months. Half sour pickles might be ready to go in 5 or 6 days. Full sours hit their full pucker punch in about 2 weeks. The level of sourness is totally subjective. Tasting  along the way is key.

After 3 days, I peaked under the cheesecloth to see if anything was happening. With some bubbling action going on, I knew the pickles were off to a good start, so I slid them back into their little hide-away and left them alone.

After 8 days, the somewhat shrunken pickles bobbed away in the murky and cloudy brine. It wasn't pretty, but it was normal.  I snacked on a few pickles, covered the jar, and decided to let them go for another week. The full monty. Full sours.

After 15 days, I slid the pickles into the refrigerator to chill. Sour pickles can last for a month in the refrigerator before they start to soften. They're fantastic as snacks, piled onto fatty deli sandwiches, or served with anything  barbecued. I treated the pickles like big boy cornichons and tumbled  them onto a cutting board alongside bourbon-spiked chicken liver pate topped with snipped chives and extra virgin olive oil.

Sour.
Salty.
Simple.

Pucker up.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Silks

Fire. Heat. Smoke.

It's summertime and the grilling is easy.

Can anything possibly be better than grilled locally grown fresh corn on the cob slathered with melted butter and doused with salt?

Yep.

Elotes. Mexican street corn. Smeared with mayo or crema, rolled in cojita cheese, sprinkled with ground chili, and brightened with fresh lime juice, elotes ups the ante on our beloved grilled summer corn candy.

It's simple, fun, and downright fabulous. Don't let the ingredients form a roadblock. Sure, there's the whole mayo thing. Can't tolerate mayo? Use crema, sour cream, or butter. Want to take a leap of faith? Try a teeny weeny bit of jarred mayo or whip up a batch of airy, tangy, creamy, and easy homemade mayo. Don't want to bother with sourcing cojita cheese?  Crumbled feta or good quality parmesan are a great substitutes.

Celebrate summer. Snag a few ears of fantastic corn and fire up the grill.

Elotes.

Mayo.
Scratch made mayonnaise is unbelievably simple to throw together.

After cracking 1 whole Elmwood Stock Farm organic egg into a small mason jar, I added 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar, 3 tablespoons neutral canola oil, 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice, 1/4
teaspoon dried mustard, salt, pepper, and a pinch of sugar. Using a hand held immersion blender, I creamed the mix before slowly drizzling in an additional 5 tablespoons  canola oil. Within seconds, it emulsified into a creamy dream. A mayonnaise miracle.  I slid the mayo into the refrigerator to chill and fired up the grill.

Corn.
There are no rules when it comes to grilling corn. Shucked or unshucked? Soaked or dried? Wrapped or naked? It's really doesn't matter, if you keep an eye on it during the process. The caramelized toasty bits are fine. Cinders, not so much.

I was lucky enough to stumble across fresh (newly harvested) Lincoln County corn at the farmers market. Still damp from the morning harvest, the fresh corn was a total win.

So, I'm a husk on kind of boy when it comes to grilling corn. The silks are another matter. Some folks don't bother removing the silks before grilling because they burn away from the heat and flames. Well, I guess I fall in the middle. You see, I grew up on a farm with a zero tolerance for corn silks. My father had kitchen drawers filled with very odd corn silk removing gadgets. No silks allowed. Period. Ever. Although I'm not quite that fussy, I removed some of the silks.

After peeling back the husks, I scraped away most of the silks, loosely formed the husks back over the corn, and tied the ends with a few wayward husk scraps.

When the fire died down, I spread out the glowing coals, and tossed the ears onto the grill. While I didn't bother soaking the corn, I did spritz the ears with water after they hit the heat. I poured myself a glass of wine, sat down next to the inferno, and turned the ears of corn every few minutes. As the husks burned away, bit of corn kernels singed and caramelized from the heat. After 10 minutes or so,
I pulled the corn from the grill and scraped away the burned husks before peeling back the inner husks to reveal the candied corn. Steamed. Charred. Caramelized. Gorgeous.

While the corn was still warm, I brushed it with the lime spiked mayo, tumbled cojita cheese over the top, dusted it with ancho chili powder, and finished with fresh lime zest before scattering lime wedges and fresh cilantro to the side.

Crunchy sweet summer corn. Light creamy mayo. Salty cojita cheese. Spicy ancho chili. Bright fresh lime. Perfect.

Not into a corn facial or wearing elotes on your face, hands, hair, and elbows? Try esquites, the daintier street corn salad version. Simply cut the corn off the cobs after grilling and toss the kernels with all the remaining good stuff.

Summer has arrived.
Get your grill on.


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

If You Grow It, I Will Come

So, fresh fennel really doesn't scream summer. I get it. Typically, it's thought of as a vegetable  most wildly available from autumn through spring. Well, think again. It can pop up at farmers markets in the early summer before it bolts and goes to seed. I stop by the farmers market two or three times a week, so not much gets by me. If someone plops a few bulbs of fennel between summer white cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, and baby squash, I'm all in. Expect the unexpected. If you grow it, I will come.

While the bold licorice crunch of raw fennel is fine and dandy when shaved into salads or shredded into slaws, I prefer the softer subtle punch of cooked fennel. Braising and/or roasting fennel draws out the natural sugars and allows it to caramelize into tender anise-flavored fennel candy. That said, cooking it until tender doesn't always relegate fennel to an aromatic flavor boost for sleepy stews or braised meats. Come summertime, it can stand on its own.

Roasted Fresh Fennel with Marinated Sun Gold Tomatoes.

Roasting fennel straight up produces a nice charred crunch that lacks a little love. Sure, it's all fennely, but it's also somewhat  harsh.  I've found that a braise/roast combination allows the fennel to cook through and soften before it caramelizes.

I sliced the stalks from 2 medium sized Stonehedge Farm fennel bulbs (fronds reserved), removed the tough outer portions of the bulbs, sliced each bulb into quarters, and set them aside. After cutting the green tops from 3 Boyle County purple candy onions, I added them to the fennel quarters and tossed everything with extra virgin olive, salt, and cracked black pepper before tumbling them into a shallow saute pan. I splashed the vegetables with a 1/2 cup white wine, covered the pan with foil, and slid the pan into a preheated 425 degree oven.  After 25 minutes, I removed the foil, flipped the fennel quarters, and returned them to the oven to roast for an additional 30 minutes. During the last 10 minutes, I brushed the quartered bulbs on all sides with equal portions of fresh lemon juice and local honey.

When they were beautifully caramelized and softened, I pulled them from the oven to cool.

Although the throngs of vine-ripened large tomatoes haven't quite stormed the market, multi colored heirloom cherry tomatoes have definitely arrived. I quartered 1 pint of Marion County Sun Gold tomatoes and tossed them into a bowl. After showering the little jewels with snipped chives, I seasoned them with salt and cracked black pepper. I didn't want to get all fiddly with an emulsified vinaigrette, so I simply drizzled the tomatoes with 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil and 3 tablespoons of white wine vinegar before tossing them with the broken vinaigrette.

After an hour or so, I tumbled the marinated quartered tomatoes over the fennel and finished with a few whispers of delicate fresh fronds.

Served at room temperature, the quirky salad meets side dish would pair wonderfully with grilled meat, chicken or fish. The subdued sweet anise undertones of the caramelized fennel poked through the light agro dulce (sweet and sour) glaze of the lemon and honey.  While the bits of char added slight candied licorice crunch, the perky tomatoes provided bright sun kissed freshness.

Roasted fennel with tomatoes.
An unexpected summer scream.
Fabulous.




Friday, June 19, 2015

I Never Sang For My Father

Even at a young age, my father was my hero. Although I vaguely understood all the sacrifices he made as a single military father, I felt his devotion.  Back in the day, widowed fathers gave their children over to aunts or others to care for the kids. He didn't. I'm still not sure why. He was a busy guy. Big time army man. When my mother passed away, he didn't hesitate to pack us up and move us back overseas. Although we must have been a burden, I never felt like a burden. He did the best he could to make a life for us in foreign lands surrounded by strangers. Don't get me wrong, I knew something was different. We were different. I was different. Everyone else had mothers and big families. We simply had each other and a few lovable revolving nannies.

My father was kind and strong, but not overly sentimental. He was army through and through. He could burn my little soul with one stern look or melt it into puddles when he smiled. I shot for smiles.

Throughout my life, Father's Day got lost in the ordinary days of summer. I never sent cards, wrapped gifts, or made any kind of deal about the whole thing. Father's Day was just June something or other. I called him on every Father's Day and that was enough. As a rambunctious trouble-shooting kid/teen/adult, he knew I loved him. I knew he loved me. We really didn't need the hoopla of a single day to point that out. When he got sick, everything changed. As he struggled to fight cancer, every day was Father's Day. Every day was precious and full. Me. Him. Us. Although  I couldn't take back the ordinary years of routine phone calls, every  ounce of love, respect, honor, and commitment poured out of my own fearful quest to connect during the tender days.  Eventually, our roles slowly reversed, rewound, and played back. Who was the dad? Who was the kid? We met in the middle. Simpatico.

I actually did sing for my father...once. The summer between 6th grade and 7th grade, I fancied myself a fine chanteuse. Although I couldn't sing a lick, I found my destiny. Armed with my battery powered cassette player and a lone cassette tape featuring Anne Murray's Snowbird, I wondered the fields of the farm singing along with my muse. As wonderful as she was, I was better. I was the complete package. The hip smiling family bands of the 70's couldn't hold a candle to my boyish puckered lips and smoldering eyes. I sang for the cows, chickens, ponds, trees,  blackberry bushes, rocks, or anything else that stood still to hone my craft. After several weeks of intense practice, I knew I was ready. Shrouded in secrecy,  I mounted a fierce snail mail letter writing campaign, promoting my self indulgent stratospheric talent,  to land an audition for a low budget variety show produced by a local Bowling Green television station. The world was my oyster.

One day, having returned home from my lakeside soft-serve ice cream day job, I received a letter congratulating me on my persistence along with a scheduled audition date. I had almost arrived. Blessed be Anne Murray.

That's when things got a bit iffy.  I was a kid. The television producers didn't know I was a kid. Bowling Green was 35 miles away as the crow flies, farther by car if driving on back roads through the hills and valleys of Allen County. You see, I needed a chauffeur to make my audition date. I needed a ride and had to face the music.

My dad spent a lot of time in his hot and humid woodshop. With lathes lathing and buzzsaws blaring, he didn't hear me enter his hallowed space. Beaming with confidence, I fessed up, told him my plans, and asked him for a ride to my audition. Sweaty sawdust dripped from his forehead. The singed heat of ripped wood burned my eyes. It must have been 110 degrees in that little shed. After turning off the saws and lathes, he cracked open a window and told me to sing my song. Suddenly wracked with nerves, I fumbled with the clunky buttons of the cassette player. Click. Rewind. Click. Fast Forward. Click. Pause. Click. Click. Click. Play. I cranked the volume as high as it could possibly go and belted out, "Beneath the snowy mantle cold and clean, the unborn grass lies waiting for its coat to turn to green...". On and on and on.  Anne and I sang the entire song. When I finished, it was so quiet I could hear chiggers crawling through my cotton socks. Dead silence. He didn't flinch. He didn't laugh. He didn't do anything. He closed the window  and simply said that he couldn't take me to my audition. Gentle giant. No excuses. No explanations. Game over. And with that, I shuffled through the gritty sawdust on my way out of the woodshed and closed the door on my cabaret career. Although somewhat relieved, I hadn't felt such disappointment since he flat out refused years earlier to buy me a chimpanzee as a playmate. Ever resilient, I moved on. I had frogs to gig, catfish to catch, and ice cream to scoop.

A few days after my unfortunate near brush with fame, I was catching up on some early morning Shirley Temple re-runs when I heard ridiculous noises spilling from  the front yard. Hell, I tried not to think much about the raucous because my dad was always wiring fences, splitting firewood, or just sawing things.  Although annoying, it was par for the course. After a while, the noises died down and he called me outside. Tucked into a corner of the front yard by a small stone wall and seemingly floating on air, he had fashioned a high bar. A. High. Bar. Towering 8' from the ground, he managed to jerry-rig, build, and firmly secure a 2"x 5' metal pole between two large mature maple trees. A horizontal bar of my own. I was dumbstruck. It was magnificent. Somehow and somewhere along the way, he'd remembered that I always wanted to become an Olympic Gold Medal Award winning gymnast. All I needed was a horizontal bar to hone my craft. My head filled with thoughts of double twist flips, release moves, and nailed landings. I knew big time gymnasts worried about those sorts of things and I wanted/needed to embrace that worry.  The world was my oyster...again.

That's what fathers do.
They help build dreams.

Oh sure, I never became an acclaimed cabaret singer or an Olympic gymnast. In the long run, it really wasn't about reaching those lofty goals. it was about the journeys.
And the dreams.


Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Pick One. Eat Five.

I was never a good strawberry picker. Whether dispatched to forage the family farm for wild strawberries or carted away to crawl around endless rows of ankle high berries through dusty U-Pick strawberry fields, I was that kid. You know the one? The grazer. The kid who ate everything. Pick one. Eat five. That was my game. Full belly. Empty baskets. Small hauls.

Not much has changed, really. Well, not that much. Nowadays, I don't pick a lot of strawberries.
When they're in season, I'll stop by the farmers market and nab a pint on my way to work. Like clockwork, they're gone before I get to work. Morning snacks. Stained fingers. Stained lips. Hulls on my shirt. Empty baskets. Happy country boy.

Last week, I changed things up a bit and stopped by the market after work. Game changer. Armed with full baskets of Henry County strawberries, I finally (and coyly) shared a few strawberries with Michael.

So, here's the deal. With strawberry season just getting under way, there will be plenty of time for shortcakes, ice creams, macerated sauces, and salads. With that in mind. I took my drive-by stash down an unexpected detour.

Grilled Spatchcocked Chicken with Fresh Strawberry-Bourbon Barbecue Sauce.
Simple and fun.

Mise en Place.
Barbecue Sauce.
After hulling and chopping 2 cups of Henry County strawberries, I tumbled them into a food processor before adding 2 cloves minced garlic, 1 minced shallot, 1/2 cup light brown sugar, 1/2 cup ketchup, 1/2 cup Woodford County Country Rock sorghum, 2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar, 1/4 cup Makers Mark bourbon, salt, and cracked black pepper. I pureed the mix, strained it into a sauce pan, simmered the seedless sauce for 35 minutes, and pulled it from the heat to cool.

Chicken.  
So, I really didn't want to get all fiddly with turning several pieces of chicken around the grill, so I spatchcocked (butterflied) a whole Marksbury Farm chicken. Grilling or roasting a whole spatchcocked chicken allows it to cook evenly and more quickly.  Using kitchen shears, I removed the backbone from the neck to the tail, trimming some excess fat along the way. To help the chicken flatten out, I flipped the splayed chicken over and sliced the piece of cartilage covering the center of the breast bone (some folks remove the entire breastbone), flipped it back over and cracked the bird until it was evenly flattened. Instead of removing the wing tips (personal favorite), I tucked them under the breast before seasoning the chicken with smoked salt and cracked black pepper. With the cock spatched, I set it aside.

Fire.
I stacked a heaping pile of charcoal into the center of the grill, lit it up, and let it rip. When the coals were ashen and ready to go, I scooped them to one side of the grill to allow for two heat sources. After tossing soaked hickory chips onto the glowing embers, I nestled the chicken onto the cooler side of the grill, closed the lid, and let the chicken cook for 30-35 minutes, turning and flipping it every 10 minutes or so.  When the internal temperature reached 165 degrees and the juices ran clear, I brushed the chicken with the strawberry-bourbon barbecue sauce and slid it over to the hot side of the grill. As the heat caramelized the meat, I turned, basted, moved, and babysat the chicken until it was burnished and lacquered with bits of char before removing it from the grill to rest.

Messy business. Held together by the candied sticky skin,  the tender juicy meat slipped off the bones with whispering ease. Pull. Swipe. Suck. Repeat. Finger food. Funny, while fortified with sorghum and brown sugar, the sauce wasn't achingly sweet. The bright sweet acidity of the strawberries balanced the mellowed caramel/vanilla undertones of the bourbon, the slight anise hints of the wilted basil, and the dark smoky sweetness of the Kentucky sorghum. Fruity. Salty. Sweet. Sensational.

Kentucky barbecue
with a strawberry twist.

Fire up the grill
and pass the bourbon.