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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Beer Can Turkey and Panzanella Stuffing

It was a small family gathering this year, just Chiko and I plus my dad and his wife. We decided to try a few variations on the classics this year and were quite pleased with the results. We've been brining our turkeys for the last several years, and this really helps keep the breast meat moist. I tried a new brine recipe this year, consisting of maple syrup, brown sugar, soy sauce, garlic and fresh herbs from my garden. It gave a delightful sweetness to the bird and also helped develop a beautiful bronze color to the skin. One other thing I tried this year that was a little different, was that I cooked the Turkey standing up "beer can chicken" style. I used the holder from my Turkey fryer to keep the bird upright, placed it in a roasting pan and cooked it in the oven on 350 for about three and a half hours. This kept the bird from laying in it's own juices and developed a beautiful crisp skin all over.

For the dressing we went away from the sausage stuffing of my youth, and tried a variation on a recipe that I found in the November 2002 Bon Apetit magazine for mushroom and leek stuffing. I wanted to make it lighter and less gummy than the standard bread based stuffing, so I didn't wet it down with broth in the traditional manner and made what I am calling my Panzanella Stuffing because I used large toasted croutons like those found in the Italian bread salad.

I started off sauteing a blend of shiitake and trumpet mushrooms, to which I added finely sliced leeks, garlic, white wine and fresh herbs.

While this cooked down, I cut up a loaf of rustic whole wheat bread into one inch cubes and toasted them in the oven with a little olive oil.

When the veggies were sauteed and the bread was browned on all sides, I tossed them all together with a couple of lightly beaten eggs.

All of this went into a baking dish and into the oven at 350 for about 45 minutes. The moisture from the veggies, plus the eggs were just enough to bind it all together, and yet the bread remained crisp and had lots of air pockets in it. Sliced and topped with gravy it was just right.

Instead of the same old mashed potatoes, we made a blend of winter root vegetables (red and gold beets, baby potatoes, baby turnips and radishes) that I first braised in chicken stock for about 40 minutes before draining them, dressing with olive oil, salt and pepper and roasting them in a hot (450) oven for about 20 minutes to caramelize.

For the wine, we stayed firmly rooted in the Veneto, starting with a pair of wines we brought back from our trip to Verona in January. These were wines made by the owners of the Agriturismo that we stayed at. The first, a white known as Lugana, is particular to a small region at the southern tip of Lake Garda. We drank it with our appetizer course, beautiful wild white shrimp from the Carolinas, that Chiko sauteed with garlic and cayenne pepper in the Gambas al Ajillo style of Catalonia.
The next wine was a Cabernet, also from our Agriturismo in Peschiera del Garda, which we served with the pasta course, fresh pumpkin ravioli from Whole Foods, simply boiled and tossed with melted butter and sage leaves. Finally, to complement our main course, we enjoyed a 2003 Sartori Amarone. By the time we were at the table, I had completely forgotten to bring the camera and take pictures, so you will have to imagine how everything looked when it was done!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Even Our Dogs Are Foodies

We have a three year old Wheaten Terrier named Jamie, and she has been the pickiest of eaters ever since we got her. She simply doesn't like dog food, no matter what brand we try. Placed in front of her she'll pick at it, walk away and eventually come back to begrudgingly eat it hours later. Human food is a totally different story, she will swipe food off the counter, and I even caught her licking the bottom of a hot bbq grill trying to get at some of the smokey goodness of a slow cooked pork shoulder. Over the years I have cooked for her from time to time when I was worried about her (such as when she was sick or when she got depressed after our other dog passed away). These forays into dog cuisine were random in nature and usually consisted of simple things like eggs (either scrambled, or sunny side up with the yolk still runny) mixed in with her regular dog food. Sometimes I would save the rendered fat from a chicken, beef roast or a smoked pork shoulder (think bacon meets schmaltz) and use it to wet the dog food. These little tricks would usually get her eat a little bit more, but she rarely finished her food and I always had the feeling that I was the adoptive father of an anorexic pooch. We got a new puppy a few weeks ago (a standard schnauzer), and she is the polar opposite of Jamie. Jessie eats everything in sight, begging and pleading for her food, and seemingly devouring everything in the bowl before it hits the floor. Once she's done with her own food, she runs over to Jamie's bowl and finishes the usually untouched contents.

With the pet food scare earlier this year I started thinking about really cooking food for the dogs instead of buying it. I began researching the issue, and found it hard to get actual recipes for homemade dog food. The closest I got was a series of ratios (40% meat 30% whole grains 30% vegetables). Figuring that this was a relatively logical starting point, I made up my first batch of dog food last week using boiled chicken thighs, brown rice, oats and a bag of frozen mixed vegetables. I removed the skin and bones (reserving them along with the stock for my own personal consumption), mixed the chicken with the rice and veggies, and passed it all through the meat grinder attachment of my stand mixer.

Chicken thighs seasoned with a bouquet garni from my
herb garden, after all we're not animals!

A mixture of brown rice and oats, cooked in the rice cooker.

Frozen mixed veggies (ya gotta cut corners sometimes!)

The secret ingredient, anchovies! They add vital omega 3's,
plus that special stinkiness dogs love.

I chose the meat grinder instead of a food processor because I was worried about the texture getting too gummy. The resulting product had the consistency of damp sawdust, and had the wonderful flavor of a chicken and vegetable stew.
Ready to grind!

This attachment cuts without crushing. I've used it before to make vegetarian "sausages" from whole grains and legumes.

It tasted so good that I put a big spoonful in a soup bowl,
added more chicken stock and ate it for dinner myself !

To my delight, when I fed it to the dogs they both wolfed it down with gusto. Jamie could not be dislodged from her food dish, licking the bottom till it shone like a mirror. It is a world of difference, serving them freshly cooked meat and veggies, and obviously they know the difference. I do worry about if this is nutritionally complete, but on the surface the combo of whole grains, veg and protein would seem to the the trick. I'll talk to the vet to make sure, but at least I know that they like the taste.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Tailgating With the Parrotheads

Went to a Jimmy Buffett concert at the Mohegan Sun Casino last night and had a blast. We made sure to get there early to check out the freakshow that always accompanies a Buffett concert.

His fans are really dedicated. Many people set up tents and tiki bars in the parking lot, broke out their grills and blenders and chowed down on cheeseburgers and Margaritas.

Taking care to look for sharks!

For our own tailgate we opted for some beautiful wild Maine scallops and Gulf shrimp, which I marinated in lime juice, chipotle pepper and cilantro.

We ate them grilled with whole wheat tortillas, jicama salad and plenty of cold beer!

The concert was fantastic. Jimmy started with Willy Nelson's "On the Road Again", and went on to play a mix of new music and old standbys. The band was very interactive, and the crowd was into it. The crew had spent time in the parking lot earlier in the day filming the tailgate parties, and during the show they were projecting scenes from the parking lot onto giant screens throughout the arena.

A combination beer cooler and motorized scooter,
that just can't possibly be legal!

We rocked out to Brown Eyed Girl and hugged tight during Come Monday.... It was a great time for sure!

Thursday, August 23, 2007


I've always been facinated by stuffed foods such as spring rolls, filled pastas, beggars purses, etc. Something about biting through the outer wrap to discover what's hidden inside is fun for me. I was playing around with a sushi recipe and came up with this bite sized delight consisting of risotto wrapped in prosciutto. You can use any risotto recipe you like (I like mushroom and saffron), just let it cool to room temperature so the starches will firm up.

Place a square of plastic wrap in the palm of your hand,
then add a 2 inch square of thinly sliced prosciutto

Top the prosciutto with a tablespoon of risotto

Pull the corners of the plastic wrap together like a beggar's purse

Twist tightly to form a ball

Unmold onto a plate and repeat

I like to drizzle them with balsamic vinegar and top with shaved Parmigiano Reggiano. Serve them as an appetizer for cocktail parties. Vegetarians could use braised whole spinach leaves instead of prosciutto for the outer wrap. You can also do this same dish Japanese style by using thinly sliced fish filled with sushi rice.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Prius Schmius

When I decided that I wanted a hybrid, it had nothing to do with my mode of transportation. Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of the environment and I'm all over the alternative fuel issue. We have one VW diesel and are in the market for another, and we are trying to locate a local source of biodiesel fuel. IMHO, biodiesel is the best option for the short term as a realistic alternative fuel (after all, Rudolph Diesel originally designed his engine to run on peanut oil, and it was the big auto/ big oil industry that convinced him to alter his engines to run on petroleum). Hydrogen fuel cells requires too much infrastructure to be viable anytime in the near future, and from what I've heard gas/electric hybrids get crappy "real world" mileage ( I drive 30-40,000 highway miles a year and that is simply not the hybrid's forte). Chiko's Jetta TDI wagon gets a genuine 40 mpg, can haul a ton of stuff and when loaded with domestic biofuel is relatively non-poluting and will not support foreign terrorists (for the time being I'll stick to "no comment" when it comes to redneck boys who grow corn and blow up federal buildings). Enough of my alternative fuel rant, on to the Frankenstein monster that inhabits my deck.

I did not grow up in a "barbecue" tradition. We grilled regularly, but that was always direct heat applied to hot dogs, hamburgers and Italian sausage via a gas grill. About 10 years ago I was on a business trip in Florida and happened upon a place called Sonny's Real Pit in a strip mall outside Orlando. Slow cooked pork and chicken with just a dry rub and sauce served on the side... I was in heaven. Living in an apartment where a simple gas grill was something to be investigated by the major case squad, my opportunity to explore "true cue" was limited. I eventually acquired a Cameron's stove stop smoker as an interim step on my journey.

The Cameron is an indoor smoker that works quite well and I continue to use and endorse it to this day. It is essentially a "half pan" with a false bottom, a food rack and a tight fitting top. To utilize it, place finely chopped wood chips in the pan, cover the chips with the "false bottom", insert the rack and the food to be smoked (preferably in that order) and loosely place the top on the pan. Set over medium high heat until smoke emerges, then close the lid, reduce the heat to low and wait for the yuminess to occur. It works great for hot smoking things like fish, and I even managed to do slow cooked baby back ribs by pre-cooking them in the oven, smoking them in the Cameron, then finishing them under the broiler. For apartment living it was pretty damn good. Once we purchased our own home, I knew it was time to take the plunge.
While dear friends, who shall remain nameless, were purchasing high end gas grills that looked good but don't cook worth a damn, I invested in a $150 Charbroil Silver Smoker from Home Depot. This versatile horizontal offset smoker can do dual duty as a ginormous charcoal grill as well as a slow smoker.
How a horizontal offset smoker works

I grilled burgers and sausages in the main chamber and also made some passable barbecue, but I found that burning charcoal in the side smoker box was very unforgiving when it comes to maintaining the slow, steady heat needed for true barbecue.

My first attempt to simplify the heat regulation process was to place an electric hotplate in the side smoker box and use it to ignite/smolder my wood chips. This worked fairly well, but unfortunately my deck's electrical circuit is tied into my master bath and every time I wanted to smoke meat and my wife wanted to use her hairdryer we would trip the circuit breaker. It was also difficult to generate enough btu's to heat the main chamber on windy or cold days.

Next, I tried placing a small "tailgate" style propane grill into the side smoker box and used that to generate the necessary heat. Frankly, that worked very well, although the maximum amount of heat I could produce was limited due to the total btu's of the unit.

I used the aforementioned setup until just recently when I purchased a basic "el cheapo" gas grill from Wal-Mart, extracted the burners and regulators, and placed them inside my side smoker box (this required more than a little drilling and hack-sawing to accomplish). The results have been phenomenal. The side smoker box itself, with those two large Pratt and Whitney wannabe burners, gets to over 700 degrees without a problem.

I have actually placed a pizza stone in the side smoker box and used it to make bread and pizza due to the intense heat. The main smoking chamber can be readily maintained at a temp of 200-225 degrees thanks to the heat of the side box and a steel heat baffle to distribute the temps evenly.

Beef Brisket After Nine Hours at 225 Degrees

I call it a hybrid because when I want to grill for a large group I can still load the main chamber with charcoal and cook down a ton of burgers, and yet when I want to slow cook some a brisket, boston butt or even an underblade chuck roast, all I need to do is call upon the propane portion of the grill. The adventures of Jon and his Silver Smoker are many and varied. Stand by for details!

Ribs, Chicken and Pork Butt Taking a Smoke Bath

Friday, July 20, 2007

Be afraid... be very, very afraid....

This is where I will go to get crazy, culinarily speaking of course. At I will try my best to stick to Japanese related culinary posts, but this is the place where I will dig into my own dark underbelly and explore MY four basic food groups; fat, sugar, salt and alcohol. Many posts to follow.......