Monday, January 10, 2011

Taco Salad

It seems like everyone now days has quick meal recipes.  Pretty much every chef is putting out 30 minute meal cook books and The Food Network has a hand full of shows devoted to this half truth way of cooking.  Thousands of products have flooded the market promising to save time in the kitchen.  Don't fall victim to all the crap on TV claiming to be the best thing since sliced bread.  I call 30 minute and quick easy meals half truths because not anyone can make that dish in 30 minutes or less. The only reason the chefs on TV can do this is because they have most of their prep work finished.  Also, the more skilled you are in the kitchen the faster and more efficient you become.  I'm not the biggest fan of the super fast supper movement, but I do have a few recipes up my sleeve that are extremely easy and can be made quickly.  One of my favorite meals to make when I would rather be spending my time with my amazing wife and adorable daughter is the American classic taco salad (a little contradictory, I know).  Taco salad is a very versatile dish. It can be eaten as an entrée or a side dish.  It's the perfect summer barbecue salad and it's a great winter meal.  It is both a refreshing salad and a warming Mexican inspired dish.  Taco salad is one of my comfort dishes and usually takes me about 20 minutes (45 for a less experienced cook) to make.  This recipe is my contribution to the quick fix food movement although I don't sacrifice taste for time.  Every recipe you look up for taco salad is basically the same, however I always try to add my own flare to any dish I prepare.  Taco salad gives you the opportunity to experiment with spices and other ingredients, so it's a very good dish to expand your culinary skill sets.  The big difference with my recipe is I add avocado, lime juice and I make my own taco seasoning.  This might not seem like a huge departure from the rest of the world's taco salad, but I assure you that it's enough to make a huge difference.  Taco seasoning is one of those things that everyone buys and never thinks to make their own, which is completely ludicrous!  I will never in my life buy another packet of taco seasoning now that I know how incredible easy it is. You can mix a bunch to keep in the spice drawer for all those times that you will need it.
Taco/burrito seasoning:
1 tbs hot chili powder 
1 tbs Spanish paprika 
1/2 tbs cayenne powder
1/2 tbs garlic
1/2 tbs cumin 
1/2 tbs oregano
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp kosher salt
This recipe is enough for about 2 lbs of meat and is great for pretty much everything. 
Taco Salad: 
1lbs 80/20 ground sirloin
1/3 c water
2 tbs taco seasoning
2 Roma tomatoes diced
2 avocados pitted peeled and cubed
1 tbs lime juice 
2 heads of roman lettuce
2 c shredded cheese (Sargento authentic Mexican blend)
1/4 c Thousand Islands dressing
1/4 cup French dressing
1 bag nacho cheese Doritos

Brown meat over medium high heat.  While meat is browning start dicing up tomatoes, avocado and lettuce.  Toss tomatoes and avocado in a large salad bowl with lime juice.  Fold in lettuce, cheese and dressings.  Do not mix in Doritos!  When meat is browned drain off fat, and place meat back over heat and stir in the water and taco seasoning.  Cook  hamburger for about 5 minutes over medium high heat to cook down water, when water has reduced by at least half remove from heat to cool.  Taste the hamburger before adding it to the salad mixture if the seasoning is to spicy you can add more water to the mix, let it cook for a couple minutes, then drain off the water.  This will remove some of the spices but won't take away all the flavor.  Add cooled meat to salad mix and serve.  Crush the Doritos and add them to each serving.  If you add the Doritos to salad mix before it will get really soggy and the left overs aren't so great.  
This salad is great! The Doritos give a nice crunch and cheesiness, the avocado gives a smooth creamy texture and the lime juice really gives the salad a little tartness that opens up all the other flavors like the acid of the tomatoes and the bite of the chili powder.  This dish is very balanced and full of flavor, if you don't try it, you're crazy!   

Monday, December 27, 2010

Deep Fried Turkey

The absolute best way to have turkey is deep fried!  I have roasted, barbecued, smoked and rotisserie cooked turkey with great success but the deep fried will always, in my opinion, be the best.  To the excitement of all my loving family, I served a deep fried turkey for Christmas dinner and paired the delightful fowl with some great side dishes.  Garlic red skin mashed potatoes, asparagus sauteed in butter and balsamic vinegar, glazed carrots slow cooked in chicken stock, homemade cranberry sauce topped with blueberries, a brazed artichoke heart salad with roasted pine nuts, grated Parmesan and a pesto vinaigrette and to-die-for fresh homemade braided French bread.  Everything was fresh and from scratch and incredible. Do yourself a favor, the next time you have a big dinner to cook take the time to work from scratch, it will pay off.  If I thought that this blog wasn't going to be way too long for anyone to take the time to read I would describe everything in great detail and put all my recipes up, but I will stick to the main attraction of the dinner-the amazing turkey!  Some people say that you should either brine or inject your bird. I say, why not both?  I brined my turkey for 32ish hours, turning the bird once about half way through.  My brine recipe goes like this:

4 cups water 
1 1/2 cups kosher salt
2 tbs black pepper corn
1 tbs fennel seed
2 tbs crushed bay leaf
2 tbs whole coriander seed
2 c Chardonnay 
2 tbs minced garlic 
2 tbs thyme 
1 tbs caraway seed
1 tbs savory
Pour all ingredients into a pot and bring to a boil stirring often.  Almost all the ingredients are dry so make sure that you remove from heat as soon as the brine mix comes to a boil.  We want to activate the dry seasonings not cook them down. We also want to make sure that all the salt has dissolved.  Let the mix cool down to room temperature.  Place your thawed cleaned turkey into the container of your choice, breast side down, and pour in brine then fill with ice water till turkey is completely submerged.
For my injection:
1/2 c Sauvignon Blanc
1 1/2 sticks butter
2 tbs minced fresh sage
2 tbs minced garlic
Simmer all ingredient together on low to medium heat for about 15 minutes to release all the full aromas and flavors of the sage then inject the turkey as much as possible.

Remove the turkey from the brine and place it in a clean sink for a couple hours (about 4 or so) before you fry your turkey to allow it to get to room temperature and to allow the bird to dry as much as possible.  Please never be dumb enough to drop a wet frozen turkey into a hot pot of oil. It can kill you! I suggest using peanut oil for frying and so do all the experts.  I always followed the rules of frying that stated 350-375 degrees, but when you drop your bird into the oil the temperature drops about 100 degrees. When that happens you have to crank up the heat and spend the 45 minutes that it takes to cook the turkey just to bring the oil back up to cooking temperature.  I did a little research and found some experts who tempt danger by bringing the temperature up to about 450- 475 degrees so when they drop in the turkey the oil drops down to just the right cooking temperature.  * Disclaimer- 440 degrees is about smoke point of peanut oil which is the most dangerous the oil can be so I, nor anybody, would never ever recommend that you try this at home.  I do have to say that when I tried this technique it worked beautifully, and now that I have mastered the technique I will be using it every time.  The turkey came out so amazing, the skin was crispy and full of flavor it was had to not eat it all before I was finished carving the turkey.  The white meat was so moist everyone choose the white meat over the dark meat.  It's pretty amazing when the white meat is actually more juice than dark meat.  There was a wonderful buttery flavor to meat and every couple of bites you would get a burst of sage and garlic.  This turkey was awe inspiring, I wish I had some left overs.  Needless to say my turkey this year turned better then any turkey I have ever cooked in the past.  Be adventurous, deep fry a turkey.  

Monday, December 13, 2010

Chinn Chinn Asian Bistro

It's not hard to find a good restaurant. Pretty much every town has one, but not every town has a great restaurant.  In a small town West of Kalamazoo called Mattawan resides a gift to gluttony.  Chinn Chinn Asian Bistro is one of those great restaurants that stands out among the many culinary creators in Southwest Michigan and one of my absolute favorites.  Chinn Chinn's is also my lovely wife's favorite place to eat.  She would be very unhappy with me if I went there and didn't bring her something home.  It's the perfect place to spend special occasions.  My wife and I have had many meaningful dinner dates with the great staff of Chinn Chinn's.  Everything I have ordered off Chinn Chinn's menu has been absolutely amazing. I have yet to get something I haven't absolutely loved.
Whether it be lunch or dinner, everything coming out of their kitchen is consistent and perfect.  Because this place is so great and so well loved you really need to get there about an hour earlier than you want to eat, maybe even earlier for dinner time.  They also allow you to order off menu, so if you want their absolutely incredible steak medallions in black bean Marsala sauce for lunch you can go ahead and ask for it.  Their steak medallions in black bean Marsala sauce is one of my favorite dishes of all time.  Recently I had lunch at Chinn Chinn's with some co-workers, which gave me the perfect opportunity to blog one of my favorite eateries ever.  Chinn Chinn's lunch menu is delightful in its simplicity: pick your meat, pick your sauce and pick two sides.  A menu that one would expect from a fast food style restaurant but done so incredibly well.  My boss started us out with a tasty Mongolian flat bread filled with wok, tossed vegetables and roasted pork, then covered with incredible sauce.  This flat bread appetizer could be eaten as a meal on it's own.
On this trip I ordered their beef with the Mongolian sauce and for the sides I went with sesame noodles and, of course, crab Rangoons.  I think it might be against the law to eat at an Asian style restaurant and not order crab Rangoons.  Chinn Chinn's makes the best crab Rangoons.  Their Mongolian beef is hands down best in town.  The meat is melt in your mouth succulent, and the sauce was exactly what the menu said it was going to be.  Every bite has an even flavor profile of garlic, black pepper, sweet and tangy BBQ and the slite heat from the blackened chilies.  If you live anywhere in the surrounding area you need to make your way to Chinn Chinn Asian Bistro.  When I have friends and family in town Chinn Chinn's is the place I take them too.  I have never heard anyone say anything negative about Chinn Chinn's and if I ever do, I think I will have to have some words with that person because Chinn Chinn's is the best!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Butternut Squash Soup

I was originally going to title this blog Butternut Squash Bisque, but when I started researching the dish I found that bisque is not quite what I thought it was.  A true French bisque is made from the stock of crustaceans like lobster, crab, shrimp and other crustacea like creatures.  Now days anything pureed and made with cream is called a bisque.  Wow, I'm starting to sound like Alton Brown.  I really enjoy researching the history of food. I think it is really important to know the true origins of a dish especially if you plan on being a great chef.  So what if I am starting to sound like a huge nerd, I'm okay with it.  
Squash is one of those ingredients that I think most people forget they can use or are even afraid to use. After all, it's not the easiest vegetable in the garden to work with.  Butternut squash soup is one of those dishes that I believe people really like, but are afraid they can't make.  If you think this is a difficult dish to make, it's not. It's actually pretty simple.  There's not too many different variations in all of the recipes I looked at.  I wanted to make my recipe stand out so I focused on the creamy aspect of the soup.  I wanted my soup to be as creamy and silky as I could get it with out making it too thick or take away from the consistency of the soup.  I decided to go with cream cheese which gave the dish the texture and creaminess that I wanted, and also a little cream cheese tang which added to the overall goodness of the dish.  I like to eat my butternut squash soup with a little more cream and nutmeg than what I put in the pot.  Nutmeg gives a great sweetness that works really well with the savoriness of the squash and the sweetness of the cream.  My recipe is enough to feed about 8 to 10 people.
Creamy Butternut Squash Soup:
2 medium butternut squash peeled and cubed
2 tbsp olive oil
4 tbsp butter
1 c diced sweet onion
1 1/2 c diced carrots
4 c vegetable stock
2 cups water
Kosher sea salt to taste
Fresh cracked black pepper to taste
Fresh grated nutmeg to taste 
1 c heavy cream
4 oz cream cheese
-Start with the oil, butter and onions in a large stock pot.  Cook on medium heat until tender.  Add squash, carrots, vegetable stock, salt, pepper and nutmeg.  Cook on medium high heat until squash is tender and turns from orange to yellow.  Puree soup in blender and pour back in to stock pot.  Turn heat down to low medium and whisk in heavy cream and cream cheese.  
Serve with some cream and a dash of nutmeg.

Don't be afraid of this recipe, it's really easy and delicious.  Squash takes longer to cook than you would think, but the time invested is well worth it.  It's December and it's cold outside.  Make some soup to warm yourself up.  I hope you enjoy this dish as much as I do.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Hot Cocoa

Cold weather has arrived in the Midwest, and with it comes snow, colorful lights, holiday fun, family gatherings and one of the best things ever, HOT COCOA!  There is nothing better after playing in the cold then bundling up with loved ones and a hot cup of hot cocoa.  Pretty much every culture has a hot chocolate type of drink. The Netherlands have chocolademelk made with bitter bars of chocolate which are not as sweet as the American counterpart. The Italians have cioccolata densa, thickened with cornstarch making it a warm thin version of chocolate pudding.  The Aztecs started drinking it 2,000 years ago believing it was a gift from the gods, and it's hard not to agree. Every time I drink it I have a pleasant, blissful feeling that brings me back to childhood.  Chocolate in any form is a holy experience.  Here in the US we make primarily hot cocoa, but in most other countries hot chocolate is the drink of choice.  The difference being that hot cocoa refers to the powder mix which has most of the cocoa butter removed, and hot chocolate is made with melted chocolate which has the cocoa butter.  Pretty much all forms of the drink have the same basic ingredients: chocolate, sugar and cream.  The store bought powder verity of hot cocoa has powder milk in it so you are able to make it with hot water, but personally I prefer the richness and creaminess of whole milk.  I still use a powder mix, but I make it myself.  The store bought stuff can't hold a candle to homemade, that goes with out saying.  For my powder mix I like to use a bitter dark chocolate and I always use a Dutch process chocolate.  Dutch processed chocolate has a much better texture, darker color and a little bit milder cocoa flavor.  This year I made a big container of powder mix, which should last about a week,  but all I have to do is heat up some milk in the microwave or on the stove top, mix in the powder and I'm ready to guzzle!  What's nice about hot cocoa is you can customize it as much as you want.  Add some Cream-DE-Menthe, nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla or even a little chili powder to spice things up.  Personally I like a little vanilla and some mini marshmallows.   I suggest making a big container so you can enjoy it all season long.  So this recipe will be for the purpose of making a great big container.

10 oz. Dark Dutch cocoa powder ( about 1 & 1/4 c)
30 oz. White granulated sugar (about 3 & 3/4 c)
1 tbsp Kosher sea salt
Sift all together and store in a air tight container.
To make one cup.
Microwave about one minute for every cup.
Stove top pour a little more then one cup in a small sauce pan heat on a low temperature till milk is steaming.  Stir often and make sure milk doesn't get too hot or you could end up with a pot of sour scolded milk, not tasty at all.
Pour about 1 heaping tablespoon into the milk, mix well, pour in to your favorite holiday mug and smile as you sip.
When you heat milk on the stove top you have opportunity to make hot chocolate as opposed to hot cocoa.  This takes a little more work for about the same outcome as the powder.  The powder is a lot more versatile, you can add some to your morning coffee or sprinkle it over baked goods or even make enough to pour in to jars and give out as Christmas gifts.  If you want to try a stove top version here is a recipe.

For one cup.
1 c Milk
2 tbsp Grated Dutch melting chocolate
1 & 1/2 teaspoons White sugar
Heat all ingredients in a small sauce pan and heat on low till steaming.  Stir constantly!  Milk and chocolate can both scold so you must pay attention to the pot.  This recipe calls for less sugar because of the cocoa butter.

Hot cocoa is one of those things that makes cold weather worth having.  Hot cocoa creates memories. Everyone can remember a time in their childhood when hot cocoa melted away the frost of sledding and building snow men.  Hopefully my daughter will remember playing out in the snow as a child and warming up on the sofa with her family and a delicious cup of her daddy's hot cocoa.  Enjoy this recipe, share it with friends and family. Everyone deserves to feel the warmth and the love of the season.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Food Dance!

Everything today is all about speed and convenience, which is seen mainly in food.  Super markets, whole sale foods, fast food, and cookie cutter chain restaurants have become the unfortunate norm in our society.  It's so normal not to know where our food comes from.  Not too long ago people put food on their table knowing where and who the food came from, and they knew how fresh the food was.   It has become harder to  find fresh locally grown foods. Luckily Kalamazoo has a great local food following with a wonderful farmers market, lots of local chefs supporting the fresh local movement and a great, all local, all fresh restaurant called Food Dance!
Kalamazoo has great restaurants, but not everyone in town uses all local fresh food like Food Dance does.  Food Dance is one of those local gems that really puts a lot of work into their fresh local menu, and when you taste their food you instantly appreciate what the kitchen is plating.  I love Food Dance. I'm always happy with what I order and I really like that they change their menu to fit the local harvest season.  I personally think that the fall season has the best ingredients to offer.  Food Dance did not disappoint with their fall weekend breakfast menu. I ordered their Roasted Butternut Squash Scramble which was perfect for a chilly, rainy, fall morning.  The eggs were nice and fluffy. If you have never 
tasted farm fresh eggs you are missing out. There really is a difference in flavor.  The scramble had green onions, great apple wood bacon, incredibly fresh farm cheese and, of course, butternut squash.  The squash was a great idea for a scramble. The sweetness of the squash went perfect with the saltiness of the bacon and the sour cream-like cheese balanced the whole dish.  A very smart scramble. Everything was put together very well, with every ingredient adding it's own great flavor to the mix and when you get a fork full with every ingredient your pallet has a breakfast experience that it has never had before. Squash for breakfast, what a great idea!  The plate came with a side of home fried potatoes that were so good, I could have eaten them all day they, and the absolute best cinnamon roll I have ever had ever.  The cinnamon roll was super soft and fluffy, perfectly baked.  A lot of places put to much cinnamon on the inside. Food Dance put just enough buttery cinnamon goodness so you could taste everything about the roll and not just the cinnamon.  They topped the whole thing off with an awesome frosting that tasted like the pâtissier married a glazed doughnut with cream cheese frosting, amazing!  
If you read my blog regularly you know how much I love biscuits and gravy, so of course I had to get a side to go with my scramble.  This was some great biscuits and gravy, it would take me too long to describe to you how great it is so I will just say that it is the best biscuits and gravy in town by far.  I have eaten biscuits and gravy almost every where in town and Food Dance has raised the bar.  
Food Dance is a great restaurant and I strongly urge everyone to give it a try, and help support local fresh foods.

Monday, November 15, 2010


It's time I delve in to making pasta.  I make a lot of pasta dishes, so I buy boxes of pasta.  Of course the convenience factor is nice, but what does the pasta actually taste like?  I can't taste the olive oil or if the flour used was of a good quality.  If I think about the flavor of boxed pasta I don't think of taste at all.  I have had homemade pasta in the past and there is flavor, an actual taste to the pasta itself, and from what I remember it was good. So, why am I robbing myself and my family from this great dining experience?  
When I sit down to write a recipe or make something for the first time I go through the same ritual, Wikipedia, Food Network and  I like to research the dishes history and how it was originally made and what its evolution has been.  I look at about 10 different recipes see what they have in common and what they do differently and why.   Based on my research, I will then adapt the historical points with dish commonalities and mix in my own taste.  This usually takes about an hour or two but in the end I am a lot happier with the way the dish turned out.  I used to just throw stuff together thinking I was creating magic when in reality I was over seasoning, over complicating and underwhelming the food.  Take some time and research a dish some time before you make it. You will notice quite a difference in your finished product.
I decided to use a standard pasta recipe with no frills:

1 lb. All purpose flour (This turns out to be about 4 c)
1/4 c Olive oil 
4 eggs and 1 egg yolk
1 Pinch Kosher sea salt
3-4 tbs. cold water
On a clean, dry surface, pile all of the flour and with your hands. Make a hole about 10 inches wide but keep the walls of the flower high so the well will hold all of the liquid.  
In the well, pour all the remaining ingredients and whisk with a fork, avoiding the flower until all the wet ingredients are mixed well.  Start to add flower as you whisk being careful not to break any walls of the well.  Once enough flour has been incorporated into the mixture to make it very thick, you can use your hands to mix everything into one ball.  If the dough seems really dry and crumbly, add a little bit more water until you have a consistent, and almost smooth dough.  Knead the dough with all your weight over top of it for about 10-15 minutes, this is very important.  If you don't knead the dough well enough it will not have the shine and smoothness that we all love about pasta.  Wrap the finished pasta ball in plastic wrap and let it sit for an hour before you use it.
The only thing I had trouble with was rolling my pasta out.  I don't own a pasta machine so I had to use my rolling pin with my 1/16th inch spacers which are still kind of thick, although it would have been great for fettuccine.  I used my pasta for ravioli which turned out great but the pasta was way too thick.  I really liked making my own pasta and will be making it again.  I want to try to make spaghetti noodles to go with my red gravy.  I will be investing in a pasta machine-I don't think my arms could take rolling out another batch of pasta.  If you’re brave enough, have the time, and love pasta go ahead and give this recipe a try It was very rewarding to know that I made the pasta I was eating.  I hope your experience is as rewarding as mine was.