Category — Summer

Summertime, Under the Cherry Trees

I could hear the excitement in my wife’s voice when she called me.

“I just called the farm this morning, and they told me that today’s the first day of cherry picking!”

Shortly after moving into the area, we had discovered a farm about fifteen minutes away, offering Pick-Your-Own produce throughout the growing season, and a thriving apple and pumpkin business in the fall.  While we had started with tomatoes (no longer offered, sadly), the lure of freshly-picked berries and fruit soon led us to establish a pattern, an ushering-in of summer marked by cherries, blueberries, and the occasional foray into black and red raspberries.  Of these, cherries are the most challenging, due largely to their very short window of availability.

Last year, we missed cherry picking completely because we had to be out of town for one weekend.  That’s it – just a single weekend away from home meant the difference between picking our own cherries or paying the markup at the supermarket for hardy, non-local varieties bred to survive cross-country shipment by truck.  It’s due to a combination of voracious families of pickers and a life cycle that sees cherries ripen and fall off of the trees within days.

This year, I was visiting the farm’s website every few days, hoping to see some sort of announcement regarding cherry season, but the blog remained mysteriously static as we entered the month of June.  But armed with her secret information, Jennifer decided to take her lunch break and go picking while the rest of the unsuspecting cherry-loving populace toiled away in their cubicles.  She came home with 27 pounds of cherries, filling almost three cardboard trays.

The next day, we went back for more.  Returning to the cherry trees, I could see why she had been so productive in such a short time – the trees were filled with cherries, making the use of a stepladder unnecessary.  Camping out in the midst of the branches and leaves of one tree, I made quick work of tugging gently on the ripe fruit, which popped out into my palm for transfer to my tray.  We only stayed in the field for a short while that day, knowing that the bulk of this year’s picking had already been accomplished.  A little over an hour later, we returned home with nine additional pounds of fruit.

That weekend, we lost a lot of sleep.  Planting ourselves firmly on the couch, we pitted cherries for hours as we watched movies, going to bed well past midnight only to repeat the process again the following night.  When it came time to transform the fruit into preserves, we discovered that 27 pounds of cherries never really reaches the magical temperature of 220 degrees that’s required to make the mixture firm up, no matter how long you leave it at a boil.  We canned them anyway, choosing to be satisfied with capturing the essence of summer, even if that essence wasn’t as set up as we would have preferred.

In the week that followed, I started thinking about those jars of loose preserves.  As I was driving home through typical rush hour traffic, I remembered that, when canning, jars that fail to achieve an airtight seal can always be reprocessed without any safety issues.  It then occurred to me that it may be possible to reprocess the cherry preserves in smaller batches in order to hit the right temperature.  When I got home, I opened four of the half-pint jars, dumping the contents into a saucepan over high heat.  Sure enough, within minutes the mixture was at a full boil, and soon the readout on our thermometer crept up to 220 degrees.

We reprocessed the smaller batch in boiling water, hearing the loud pop of the lids as they cooled on a kitchen towel on the counter.  Before going to bed, I grabbed one and turned it upside down, to find, happily, that the preserves had fully set.  Now, even taking into consideration that four half-pints turn into two half-pints when reprocessed, we still have enough cherries to last us well into the start of next year’s picking season.

August 9, 2011   Comments

Taking This Show on The Road

Edible Garden

Honestly, I have no idea how this happened, and in many ways it still feels like an odd dream that I will wake up from at any given moment.  Until that time comes, I suppose I can reveal to you that, on July 31, I will be giving a cooking demonstration on stage at the New York Botanical Garden, as part of their Edible Garden exhibit that runs from now through October 17.

As the driving force behind The Best Food Blog Ever, I receive a lot of food-related emails throughout the week.  Many are from marketers and public relations folks, letting me know about the opening of a new restaurant or the availability of a new product that would be of interest to my readership.  So, when I received an email from the New York Botanical Garden telling me about their Edible Garden series, I initially thought it was just an announcement, and that I was one of hundreds of others on an email distribution list.  As I read through the rest of the email, though, which talked about how chefs like Rick Bayless and Mario Batali and Sara Moulton would be taking to the stage to give cooking demonstrations, I reached the final paragraph, which began with this sentence:

“We hope that you will be interested in doing a cooking demonstration this summer or fall.”

I admit, I had been skimming up to that point.  Reading that made me rewind to the beginning to review the entire message more carefully.  Martha Stewart.  Lidia Bastianich. Rick Bayless.  Dan Barber.  Mario Batali.  Me.  Something doesn’t quite fit here, and here’s a hint – it’s not Rick Bayless.  And yet, there is no mistake – the New York Botanical Garden is extending the invitations to a handful of food bloggers in this, the second year of the Edible Garden series, and I’m one of them.

Saying yes to this wonderful opportunity has kicked off a series of weird-to-me-ness that won’t stop until it culminates in my cooking demonstration on July 31.  The New York Botanical Garden needed a headshot, which I had to scramble to produce, considering the only profile photos that I have here are blurry (and I am drunk in all of them).  They asked if I wanted to promote my book, which I would love to, but I don’t have one.  They even asked me if I needed a prep chef, which is so many kinds of awesome that it almost makes me want to make something uber-complicated just to have someone chop stuff for me.  I get to play on stage with a Viking range, Anolon pots and pans, and an entire pantry of ingredients provided by Whole Foods.  It’s like Top Chef, only I get more than five minutes to come up with what I’m making.

I’m beginning recipe testing this week, and the good news is that I only need to come up with two or three dishes that are appropriate for the stage and which will provide samples for the audience.  Soup is one of them, I know for sure.

For those of you who want to come out and meet up, my stage times are at 1pm and 3pm, and July 31 is a Saturday.

July 12, 2010   Comments

In Search of the Biggest Bellies

I have enjoyed a family connection to New England ever since my brother graduated college in the early eighties and moved to Massachusetts for his first real-world job, where he has remained ever since.  So, throughout the remainder of my teen years, through high school, college, and law school, and continuing today into my married life, I’ve been trekking up through the highways and country roads of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut to visit him for inexpensive vacations featuring good times, free lodging, and great local cuisine.  At first, I went alone.  Then, I went with my wife.  On this most recent excursion up north, I went with my wife and my daughter.  Life goes on.

On one of those early trips, probably fifteen years ago, if not more, we found ourselves at the Atlantic Seafood Company, a restaurant in downtown Boston.  I had ordered a basket of fried clams, having been raised on those frozen orange boxes of Howard Johnson clam strips, which, despite having the texture of rubber bands, were actually quite tasty to my inner-city palate.  When the order came, I was dismayed to find, nestled among the traditional strips of fried clam, bulbous bits that came across as foreign, alien, and decidedly un-clamstrip-like.  I eyed my meal with growing suspicion.

Sensing my hesitation, my brother explained that these were belly clams that were local to the area.  Having not even suspected that clams had bellies, the concept was intriguing.  I fished a particularly large specimen out of the basket and popped it into my mouth, and,in doing so, triggered the start of a lifelong quest for the perfect fried belly clam.

It was unlike any other fried clam that I had tasted before.  Instead of having an antagonistic chew, the meat was tender and delicate.  The belly itself gushed when I bit into it, releasing a wave of clam juice and brine that was more evocative of the sea than any fried clam that I’d ever had before.  Instead of a thick wall of breading, these clams were lightly floured and fried quickly to retain their lightness.  I was hooked from the first bite, but also destined to be disappointed for years to come.

Ever since that fateful night, I have purposefully sought out fried belly clams, reviewing menus in seafood establishments and interrogating servers as to exactly how much “belly” was on the clams.  In nearly every instance, my order should have been accompanied by the tuba-sound of disappointment, as I was presented with plate after plate of sturdy clam strips, accompanied here and there by “bellies” that more closely resembled bubble wrap that’s already been popped than what I had eaten in Boston.  Belly clams may be native to the region, but finding true examples of them was largely hit-or-miss.

On our recent trip, then, to see my brother in Massachusetts and to introduce the baby to more family in Maine, I had fried belly clams on the brain.  I had done some research, which led me to this wonderful New York Times article on the subject.  To my surprise and delight, punching in the address of the Clam Box in Ipswich revealed that it was only a mere 2 hours from my brother’s house, in the direction that we were already headed on our way to Maine.

It was on.

At noon, we packed up the car and headed northeast, bound for Portland.  I programmed the address for the Clam Box into our GPS, and by the time our breakfast began to wear off, we were leaving Interstate 95 and cruising through narrow coastal roads on the way to Ipswich, catching fleeting glimpses of the Atlantic Ocean between the houses as we sped along.  As the road curved ahead of us, I spied a small, single story building shaped like a massive takeout box – a takeout box full of clams, to be precise.

Pulling into the sunbaked, gravel-covered parking lot, I trotted to the main entrance to find a short line of customers waiting to get inside.  The queue was not unlike the scene at Pat’s Steaks in Philadelphia, and it moved just as quickly and efficiently.  While we were standing in line, I craned my neck to review the menu, which was posted above the order windows, and which only yielded more questions than answers – what, for example, was the difference between a “plate”, a “mini-meal”, and a “box”? Chatting with the woman behind me, who happened to be a 29-year veteran devotee of the Clam Box, I determined that the difference lay in the number of sides.

We soon reached the window and placed our orders.  On a small whiteboard that was posted next to the main menu, a thick blue marker had been used to post the note “BIG BELLIES ON REQUEST”.   I asked the woman for the mini-meal of big belly clams, and my wife ordered a plate of native clams.  We shuffled into the dark, nautically-themed dining room and waited for our number to be called on the PA system.  The kitchen is fast, no doubt because they only serve a few items, all fried.

When our order was ready, my wife returned from the pickup window with a plastic tray that overflowed with huge plates of fried seafood.  As it turns out, ordering “big belly clams” by name actually did make a difference, as the clams in my order were a bit larger, belly-wise, than those that occupied my wife’s plate.  There was little distinction, though, to the taste – both the native clams and the belly clams featured a bright flavor that would be a revelation to anyone who’s ever been limited to frozen fried seafood.  These clams were the absolute ideal representation of what a proper fried belly clam should be – plump, light, full of clammy flavor, accompanied by a nice dish of cole slaw, with fries and onion rings on the side.  A paper cup of tartar sauce, spiked with fragments of sharp pickle, paired perfectly with every bite.

Traditions are good things, and perhaps there is nothing better than realizing that you have taken your first step in creating a new one.  This was a meal that was definitely worth repeating, and will undoubtedly become a regular occurrence on our subsequent trips to New England.  Our stop at the Clam Box served to bring me back to one of my fondest memories of the past, while making me yearn for that day in the future where I get to introduce my daughter to the taste of a real fried clam.

June 14, 2010   Comments

One Final Tribute to Summer, in a Pot of Sauce

I used to dream about San Marzano tomatoes, gladly shelling out three times the cost of a can of “regular” plum tomatoes for 28 ounces of pure Italian summer joy.  The low acid San Marzano variety is less sweet than other tomatoes, yielding an absolute superior flavor when used as the base for sauce.  They grow only in the small town of San Marzano, near Naples, and they are subject to the strict regulations of Denominazione di origine controllata that are used to certify authenticity of origin.

With all of this in mind, I was excited to be able to order San Marzano tomato plants for the garden this year.  They’ve provided a steady crop of plump roma fruit throughout the summer, and last weekend I harvested the last of the ripe tomatoes from the plants, along with a handful of basil.  The tomatoes sat on the kitchen island for a few days while I devised a proper way to say goodbye to summer.

As it turns out, the best use of San Marzano tomatoes will always be as the primary ingredient in sauce.  Since they are less sweet, and carry less moisture than other tomatoes, they’re not really the best thing to slice and eat like their larger beefsteak cousins.

I started by peeling the tomatoes (cut an ‘X’ into the base of each, place into boiling water for about 30-45 seconds, then hold under cold running water and strip the skin), slicing them in half to let the seeds drop into the sink.  I placed a generous mound of chopped garlic into a puddle of olive oil in a saucepan, letting that heat gently as I roughly chopped the tomatoes, tossing them into the pan once the garlic turned golden and aromatic.  A splash of white wine to the pan, then I let the whole thing cook slowly, breaking the tomatoes up with a spoon.

When we were ready to eat, I adjusted the seasoning of the sauce with sea salt, then added about a 1/4 cup of half and half.  It’s amazing to see and taste the differences between a plain tomato sauce and one that’s had a little dairy added to it.  Slivers of basil, stirred into the sauce at the very last minute, provided the perfect herbal companion.

And, at the time of this writing, it’s only three months before I can place my order for next summer’s tomato plants.  Until then, I’ll have to make do with what we’ve canned.

October 16, 2009   Comments

The Birth, Life, and Death of the Perfect Summer Tomato

Here’s an ugly confession: I’m very bad with keeping up with our garden.  I always begin the summer filled with great expectations of abundant crop yields, but by the end of July find myself with a box of bolted lettuce, cilantro that has since gone to seed, various weeds, and an eternal, neverending supply of mint.

With this firmly in mind, this year I built a second square foot garden exclusively for tomatoes and peppers.  I ordered a variety of tomatoes, some of which were cherry tomatoes for a deck box, from chileplants.com, which were shipped to me in the first week of June.  Overall, I planted four tomato plants in the 4-foot square box – two San Marzano plants, one Ramapo Hybrid (which was a substitute for the very popular Rutgers VFA) and one Mortgage Lifter, which produces particularly impressive beefsteak specimens.

As it turns out, I’m glad that I only planted four plants.  Given the rain that we’ve had (so much so that I never had to break out the sprinklers this year), the tomato plants thrived, growing outward in all directions.  They were relatively quiet during the first half of the summer, but a few weeks ago I noticed clusters of San Marzanos, and a fairly plentiful supply of Ramapo and Mortgage Lifter types.  Then, about a week later, the tomato plants really start to peak, yielding a bounty of robust red fruit at an alarming rate.  This required much discipline to remind myself to check the garden every afternoon to make sure we didn’t lose any to gravity.

On Sunday, we picked a particularly ripe Ramapo and let it sit on our kitchen island until yesterday, when we finally cut into it.  It turned out to be the most perfect summer tomato we’ve ever had.

Here’s the thing about tomatoes – so long as the skin remains intact, without any bruising or blemishes, a tomato will continue to ripen on your kitchen counter for several days without rotting.  As each day passes, the tomato will continue to concentrate its flavor, becoming a pure distillation of summer, barely contained by the thin layer of protection provided by its skin.  If you can time it just right, if you can abstain from eating it until the very last moment, when the essence of the tomato threatens to burst through its fragile shell, you will have one of the most memorable tomato experiences of your lifetime.

We decided to turn this perfect summer tomato into a simple meal of tomato sandwiches.  The preparation is as easy as can be, just layer freshly sliced tomatoes onto bread that’s been spread with mayonnaise, and top with some sea salt, black pepper, and sliced onion.  The sweetness of an ultra-ripe tomato plays nicely with the sharpness and crunch of the raw onion, and the sea salt just brings the whole thing together.  The result is an instant summer memory, one so strong that it will sustain you even through the darkest, coldest days of winter.

September 4, 2009   Comments

New York Stories: On the Floor at the 55th Summer Fancy Food Show

Imagine a place where you could sample the best, most perfectly ripened cheese you’ve ever had, followed by a bite of decadently rich chocolate, which is then even further enhanced by a shot of red wine, all finished off with a spoonful of the finest extra virgin olive oil to ever cross your lips.  Now imagine doing that every hundred feet or so, over and over, until even the notion of a single sea-salt encrusted artisanal paper thin wafer seems grossly unappealing to you.  That, in a nutshell, was our weekend at the 55th Summer Fancy Food Show at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York City.

To say that it’s possible to tour the entire Fancy Food Show in a single day is much like saying that one could see all of the artwork in the Louvre in an afternoon.  Sure, you could do it, but it would involve a lot of running through crowds, you would only catch a superficial glance of each piece, and you wouldn’t enjoy yourself in the least.  And, in perhaps the greatest of parallels, your feet and legs would hurt for days.

Consider the numbers – 140,000 food products from lands both near and far, large and small.  Two floors of exhibit space, ranging from narrow booths hosted by small producers to immense, towering pavilions representing entire countries.  Over 2,300 exhibitors from 75 countries, all vying for the attention of over 24,000 visitors, each booth with its own selection of samples.  Given those numbers, and the vastness of the Javits Center itself, The Fancy Food Show is at all times exhilarating, exhausting, and overwhelming, yet I find myself already counting the days until its return to the East Coast next year.  The scope of the Fancy Food Show is so gloriously outlandish, I may never want or need to go to any other food convention.  Only next time, I’ll be much better at pacing myself.

This was my first trade show since launching The Best Food Blog Ever, and the difference between industry events such as the Fancy Food Show and public conventions can be summed up in a single word: Power.  At conventions that are open to the public, the audience attends for a leisurely experience, and the vendors pull in customers by selling products, giving away coupons, and increasing recognition of their brand.

At a trade show such as this, though, and especially in New York City, the stakes are exponentially higher.  I glimpsed badges for retail buyers, trade affiliates, manufacturers, and distributors, some of whom had the potential to make purchasing decisions worth millions of dollars.  In some booths, men dressed in somber gray and black business suits sat in plastic folding chairs, hunched over paperwork, hashing out details of deals in progress, the intimacy of their discussions in stark contrast to the cacophony of the crowded exhibit floor.  Whenever we walked up to a vendor, you could catch the subtle downward glance at our badges – are we buyers for a major supermarket chain?  Restaurateurs looking for the next brilliant ingredient?  A guy with one of those whatchamacallits…a “blog”?  Compared to these movers and shakers, I barely registered a quiver.

We arrived at the Javits Center about a half hour after the show opened on Sunday morning.  After receiving our badges, we entered the exhibit hall armed with the same strategy that has consistently worked for us in many other conventions – start at one end of the hall and work our way up and down the aisles.  Only this time, as we neared the end of the third aisle, having tackled Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Germany, Morocco, Turkey, and half of France, we checked the time to discover that nearly two hours had passed, and we still had thirty aisles left to explore on the upper level, representing the remainder of the international vendors.  Seventeen more aisles of domestic products from states such as Texas, Virginia, and New York awaited us on the lower level.  In the hours to come, we would only be able to cover about half of the show floor before the exhibit halls closed for the day.

But, oh, how those hours were filled with decadence.  The best vendors were eager to chat and share the stories behind their products.  Some booths were staffed with representatives who demonstrated a full command of every nuance of their wares, fully capable of explaining the differences between their cheeses, for example, and those of other producers.  Others tempered their enthusiasm when they saw that I was not representing a major buyer.  In any case, we were able to sample chocolates, baked goods, jams, cheeses, and all other manner of edible nirvana.  Whenever we came across a particularly outstanding product, we’d take some literature, or ask for a press kit.  As the afternoon wore on, our plastic handbag grew portly and strained against our fingers.

In all, we spent about nine hours over the course of two days at the Fancy Food Show, and boy, do we have stories to tell.  For now, those stories have yet to be written, and you’ll just have to be a patient for a little while longer – I expect to spend at least two weeks, if not more, on the New York Stories, recounting both the Fancy Food Show as well as other food adventures.  Just as the Fancy Food Show can’t be experienced in a single day, I can’t possibly do justice to the weekend in a single entry.

I can tell you this – I ate the world’s hottest chile pepper at the Fancy Food Show, and we caught the whole thing on video.  Maybe I’ll tell you that story first.

In site news, The Best Food Blog Ever has been selected as the Blog of the Day for July 6 on the official website for the Julia & Julia movie.  I’ll be interrupting the New York Stories series for an entry about Julia Child on that day.

July 1, 2009   Comments

And We’ve Got to Get Ourselves Back to the Garden

I built my first garden box two years ago, which coincided with the onset of the first summer in our new home. Having settled in September, there was little that we could do with the property save for putting down a thin layer of mushroom soil and reseeding with better-than-contractor quality grass seed. When the warm weather finally returned, I was itching to test my newfound freedom to plant, grow, and harvest to my heart’s desire.

There was only one small problem – I had never tried my hand at gardening before. Having grown up in the inner city, where the only grass in sight was either contained in a small park, or growing between cracks in the sidewalk, I never had the opportunity to put spade to soil when I was young. When we were young, poor, married, and renting, I once planted one of those hydroponic basil plants from the grocery store in a pot on our front porch – and, to my surprise, it grew as high as my hip, bestowing upon us a wealth of pesto that summer. That gave me the reassurance that yes, I could grow things successfully, if only I had the space and resources.

So, when it came time for us to become older, slightly less poor, married homeowners, it was an imperative that I at least try my hand at gardening. I didn’t want to rip up large tracts of our backyard, though, which is already quite modest. Then, one day, I came across a copy of the book Square Foot Gardening, and it showed me the light.

Square Foot Gardening is a great solution when space is at a premium. Using inexpensive materials, you build a box, fill it with soil, then plant a different crop in each square foot. The first year I did this, I learned quite a few useful lessons about seed spacing, soil amendments, pest management, and growth rates. The thyme, sage, and chives that we planted two years ago have survived through two winters – so much so that the sage plant, once a resident of a single square foot of territory, now has grown to tower over five neighboring square feet. The chives, well-behaved at the beginning of spring, now bend under their own weight. These crops are performing too well for me to consider the risk of moving them, so this year I decided to build a second square foot garden, which, as a side benefit, gives me the opportunity to document the details here.

Ingredients

4 planks of cheap wood, 4 feet long
Screws
Weed blanket

Helpful: A drill

2 big bags of organic garden soil
1 bag of manure/humus (not hummus)
1 bale/bag of sphaghum peat moss
Maybe some more soil

I’ll begin with the raw materials. I started with four planks of wood, bought from the local big box hardware chain, which will run you about $5 per piece (you don’t need to get the good stuff). I chose 4 foot long pieces, which will yield a 16 square foot garden. Since I couldn’t remember where I put the screws that I had used two years ago, I had to pick up a box of deck screws for $7. The third and last piece of this puzzle is a weed blanket, which is a roll of dark fabric which will cost $15 to $25 depending on how much you buy.

Using three screws per corner, and preferably with the aid of a power drill fitted with a Phillips head screwdriver bit, join the four planks of wood together to form a square.

Take your square out to the site of your future garden (or, if it’s a nice day, just do your screwing, um, outside). Cut enough weed fabric to act as a “floor” for your square foot garden, and place the wooden frame over it. Alternatively, you can also put the frame down first, then tuck the weed blanket under the edges and corners. It’s okay if you need to cut more squares and overlap them. The purpose of the weed blanket is to serve as a barrier between your good soil and crops and the various grasses and weeds that are presently growing in your yard.

Now comes the fun part, adding the soil. Since the square foot garden is going to become a source of food, you want to select the best quality soil that’s available. I chose organic soil as my primary component, then added a bag of manure and a bag of sphagnum peat moss. The organic soil will serve as a home for your seeds and plants, but the manure will feed, fertilize and provide essential nitrogen to your growing plantlings, and the moss will help to retain moisture in your new garden so your fragile plants don’t dry out if you get a heat wave in the early days of your garden.

Empty all of the bags into your square foot garden frame, and use either your gloved hands or a spade to mix and fold until everything is evenly distributed. If you’re not planting or seeding immediately, this would be a good time to take a hose and spray down the box until the soil is saturated. If you’re a stickler for perfection, you can drill screws into your wooden box at one-foot intervals and tie twine or kitchen string to delineate each square foot plot.

Now comes the really fun part. Go to the nursery, buy some seeds and herb plants, and get down with your bad garden box building self. Take note of what you are planting – vegetables that need a lot of growing space, such as zucchini, won’t do well in a box environment. Pay close attention to seed spacing – you want to plant one (at most, two) seeds every inch in your chosen square foot plot. For my first square foot garden, I planted carrots, and did not heed the “one seed per hole” rule, and ended up with spindly carrots that looked like little orange mechanical pencil leads.

If this is your first garden box, here are some helpful hints. Plant things that you know that you’re going to welcome and use in the kitchen – so thyme, sage, basil, oregano, and rosemary are good “universal” herbs, and then branch out by choosing some seeds or plants that you’d like to try. Definitely include leafy greens, such as lettuce and spinach, which offer a sustainable crop of salad ingredients throughout the summer. Generally, it’s better just to buy herb plants at a nursery or garden center and replant them, since they’ve gotten a head start on growing in a greenhouse for a few weeks. The basil, especially, will be a source of pride for your green thumb, since the warm weather makes new growth on basil plants an almost daily occurrence.

And lastly, don’t ever, ever plant mint in your garden. Even though I thought I had pulled every inch of mint root from my first box, I’m still finding it cropping up in the strangest places, and nowhere near where I had initially planted it.

You can find Square Foot Gardening at Amazon, and if you pick up a copy using this link, a portion of the proceeds of your purchase will go to support The Best Food Blog Ever. Thanks!

June 11, 2009   Comments

How to Grill Chicken

There’s something quite primal about cooking over fire – tossing something raw over smoldering coals, hearing the fat sizzle as it melts and drips into the flames, the smell of wood and meat and smoke comingling briefly before being carried off by the breeze of a slightly chilly spring evening.  Three years ago, one of the deciding factors in our electing to purchase our first home was our leasing company’s ludicrous prohibition on outdoor grilling – those were dark years, and I swore to never go that long without grilling ever again.

I now have my own deck, and on it sits a steel monstrosity forged in the very bowels of Amish country, three hundred pounds of black metal that serves as my mechanism for transforming meats into meals.  My name has become a grilling word.

I used to think that everyone knew how to grill, but now I’ve come to reconsider my presumption after having witnessed the embarrassingly cringe-worthy performance of someone who was unfamiliar with charcoal and afraid of fire.  I’ve never seen a situation where more food ended up under the grate, withering away on the coals, than on the grate where it belonged.

So, with that, I’m presenting a short primer on how to grill chicken -  specifically, chicken thighs.  For newcomers to the thrills of outdoor cooking, chicken thighs are fairly forgiving, because their uniform size and shape, combined with the amount of fat that is laden throughout the meat, means that there is a very low likelihood of ruining dinner.  And with the long Memorial Day weekend coming up, there’s a good chance that more than a few of you will be grilling for a crowd.

When you’re shopping for chicken thighs, try to select pieces of poultry that are roughly the same size, to ensure that they will all cook at the same rate.  When you get them home, rinse each piece under cool running water, then pat dry with a paper towel, season with salt and pepper, and transfer to a plate for transport to the grill.  Pick up a nice bottle of barbecue sauce, one that’s hopefully not too sweet and not packed with corn syrup, or make your own.

About an hour and a half before you plan on eating, start your coals, preferably in a chimney starter (which allows for the preparation of coals without the chemicals of a liquid starter – hover over the link for a picture).  I presume you are cooking with charcoal – if you aren’t, I can offer no guidance, since I’ve never used propane.  Once the coals have turned ashen, about 20 minutes, spread them in your grill, mounding slightly on one side, and set your grate into place.

Now comes the part of grilling that’s filled with fun and danger.  Using tongs, place your chicken thighs, skin down, on the grate over the higher portion of the charcoal mound.  Squeal with delight as the fat from the chicken skin drips into the fire, causing massive flareups!  Don’t panic – just take your tongs and move the chicken pieces that are over the flareups to the side of the grill that contains fewer pieces of charcoal, and wait for the flames to die down.  Every so often, move the chicken pieces around and flip them over – your goal is to achieve a nice char on both sides of each thigh.  Treat it like a big game – the fire wants to eat your chicken, and you have to play keep-away.

Once all of your chicken is browned, with a nice, crisp skin, move the thighs to the cooler part of the grill (skin up) and close the grill by setting the cover on it.  Open the vents slightly to let air through.  During this time, the grill will act as an oven, roasting each chicken thigh to doneness.  Since the thighs are dark meat, they will remain moist even if left in the grill for a few minutes longer than needed.

You’ll notice that I haven’t yet called for barbecue sauce.  A lot of novice grillers make the mistake of putting their barbecue sauce on their chicken/ribs/whatever too early, which only serves to insulate the chicken from browning properly.  It also guarantees that the high heat of grilling burns the sugars in the sauce, resulting in a carbonized, blackened mess.

After about 35 minutes, pour some barbecue sauce into a small bowl and equip yourself with either a large spoon or, preferably, a basting brush.  Take the lid off of the grill, flip each chicken thigh over, and splash a dollop of sauce on each piece, using either the spoon or brush to coat each chicken thigh evenly with sauce.  Flip each thigh over, so that the skin faces up, and repeat.  Replace the cover, cook for 10 to 15 minutes more, then serve.

May 20, 2009   Comments

Yes, I Made The Ratatouille from Ratatouille

I stumbled across this photo while looking through my Picasa web album that serves as the host for all of the images on The Best Food Blog Ever.  I guess I uploaded it with the intention of writing about it and never did.  Since all I’ve seen for the better part of a week, when I looked out of my kitchen window, is not-melting-fast-enough piles of snow, I decided that it was time to write out-of-season again and try to pretend that we’re not weeks away from any true sense of spring.

In case this doesn’t look at all familiar, it is the dish from Pixar’s Ratatouille, which we’ve seen twice and absolutely love.  We had a dinner party planned, and I was inspired by the movie.  So, it was on one of those warm summer evenings last year that I got the crazy idea to try to replicate the titular dish from that movie.

The actual recipe that is represented here, and which appears in the movie, is Thomas Keller’s Confit Byaldi.  It’s a colorful mosaic of red, yellow, and orange peppers, tomatoes, Japanese eggplant, yellow squash, and green zucchini.

As would be expected, you spend the majority of your time in this recipe with the preparation and assembly – slicing all of the vegetables to an exacting thickness, then layering them in tight groups of seven colors in a spiral pattern in a roasting pan.  Beneath all of this is a simple tomato sauce accented with garlic, onion, and thyme, and the whole affair is liberally drizzled with a vinaigrette before being set into an oven for a couple of hours, then flashed under a broiler right before serving.

The result?  Sure, it’s pretty, but for the effort I probably wouldn’t attempt this dish again.  It takes quite a while to slice all of the vegetables (I used a truffle slicer, and even then it still took longer than expected), and in the end, the dish tastes exactly like its components – there’s no magical transformation, no ascension to some uber-level of otherworldly deliciousness, but then again Keller probably has access to better quality produce than I do.  It’s a great showcase for seasonal vegetables, to be sure, but you’d probably achieve the same overall taste with a quick chop, a saute in olive oil, and the addition of the same herb vinaigrette.

February 10, 2009   Comments

The Glorious Taste of Summer in the Dead of Winter

If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that we all tend to take a lot of things for granted.  Nowhere is this more true than with fresh summer produce, especially when we’re looking at single-digit temperatures with wind chills in negative territory.  Now, in the dead post-holiday slump that is otherwise known as January, summer seems so painfully lost in time, no matter if you are looking ahead or recalling last year’s crop.

It was with an immense sense of victory, then, that I snuck into my stash of canned tomatoes last week.  Having raided the local farm last August, we binged on fresh tomato sandwiches until we thought we would burst, and I slipped the last, best specimens into eleven Mason jars that were shuffled into a dark corner of the basement.  At that time, I told myself that one dark, bitterly cold day, I would thank myself for doing this.

That day, and many more like it, are upon us now.  I needed a sharp reminder of summer, something to get me through until the thawing frost gives way to new spring growth.  I wanted something simple and straightforward, so I went back to an old kitchen staple – spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce.

I dashed out into the yard, the frozen blades of grass crunching under my feet, and quickly snipped a few sprigs of thyme and a branch of rosemary from the garden, which is holding up amazingly well given the weather.  Hurrying back inside, I grabbed a Mason jar of canned tomatoes off of the bookshelf that we keep in the basement.

Starting with more than a few cloves of chopped garlic, set into a pan of olive oil over low heat, I set to making a simple pan sauce.  As the oil warmed the garlic and grew fragrant, I stripped the leaves off of the thyme and rosemary, coarsely chopping them and throwing them into the pan.  Just as the garlic began to color at its edges, I splashed in some red wine, then popped the lid off of the jar of tomatoes, shaking them into the pan.  A quick stir, followed by a gentle simmer for 45 minutes, yielded a garnet mixture that held the aroma of summer, its depth of flavor enhanced by the fall flavors of rosemary and red wine.

Dinner was as easy as boiling spaghetti and tossing the drained strands into the pan of sauce, with a small mound of grated romano to top it off.  Simple, restorative, and a reminder that no matter how cold, how barren the coming weeks become, summer will eventually follow.

January 12, 2009   Comments