Cold Weather, Hot Kitchen

I said in the introduction to this column, I remember having pot roast quite often when I was a kid. The first time I made it on my own, I was talking to Dad on the phone and I proudly told him what I was making. He quickly replied "I could care less if I ever eat another pot roast. Your mom burned me out on that stuff years ago." Judging by Dad's reaction, I guess I remember pot roast because we ate tons of it growing up.

A few years ago I made a recipe from Cuisine at Home magazine that featured a braising liquid made from beer and crushed pretzles. Sounds weird, but I have to say it was magnificent. Since then, I've paid special attention to the liquid I cook pot roasts in. It adds so much to the final dish.

I encountered a strange thing when I put this week's recipe together. The final plated dish worked better from a design stand point rotated 90° counterclockwise. In order to have the lighting appear the same in all the shots, I rotated all of the photographs to match the main art. It's a subtle thing, but all of the lighting is from top and bottom. That's because of the rotation. I light everything form the sides usually, because that is the way my photo station is put together. Overall, I'm pleased with design and presentation, it was a lot to put in a limited amount of space. I'm most happy with the introduction. I don't always get to hit the readers with a joke right off the bat but this week it's the first thing. With a dish called pot roast, there had to be a smart-ass marijuana reference.

I have been cooking indoors for the better part of 4 months now. Pot roast is a classic cold-weather dish and I'm glad I got to feature it in the column - but I'm so ready to grill something outside. I could grill out if I wanted to, but it's just not the same in a winter coat and gloves. Bring on the warmth! I need to get my grill on.

Cook often, eat well ...

Mariah's Gourmet Salad

My 9 year-old niece, Mariah, shares my love for cooking. She's into making salads. At first she would use loads of salad dressing, adding a glob with every ingredient she put in the bowl. This led to some soupy salads. In time, she has refined her skill and is actually quite good at putting together a side salad for dinner.

She was at Grandpa's and Grandma's recently and made a salad, only this time she was all about the presentation. It was her own little art project and she showed it off proudly. I decided to photograph it for her, like I do my own recipes every week. She was totally geeked-out that Uncle Justin was gonna take a picture of her creation. I was happy to do it ... And here is Mariah's salad.

Where Can a Guy Find Good Seafood in Fort Wayne, Indiana?

I love fresh seafood and it is very hard to find at an affordable price in the Midwest. I stumbled across a small seafood market in Fort Wayne and decided to check it out. It was a bit pricey but I couldn't pass on the fresh mussels. The monger told me he had just gotten them in that day. So I bought 2 lbs.

I decided to cook them in the morning. I left them in the plastic bag the monger had put them in for me and put them in the fridge. The next day I was disappointed to see some of the mussels had opened. After cleaning and throwing out the dead ones I was left with just over a pound.

I have never had mussels die off like this in an 18-hour period.

When I lived in New York City, the seafood was abundant and fresh, for obvious reasons, but this mussel episode is one of numerous troubles with bad seafood here in the landlocked Midwest. It seems that the only quality seafood that can be trusted is what can be caught and cleaned from the lakes around here or canned or frozen stuff from the market.

I'm going to New York in March and I think I'm going to go on a seafood binge. It's the only place I've lived where I can get seafood that I'm comfortable cooking with. I'm not just saying that as a food snob New Yorker. I have just really been frustrated by the lack of affordable, quality fresh seafood I find here in 'Busco. I've thrown away a lot of money on not-so-fresh seafood.

I'm happy with this weeks introduction and the design. I thought it was important to describe how to identify good from bad mussels and that was the main point of the intro. Seafood is hard to tell good from bad cause often it is a subtle thing. Mussels though, should be closed and alive when they are cooked and they should open wide during the cooking process.

I love the bowl I present the mussels in surrounded by the bread. It was a tasty dish to eat but looking at it made it even more appetizing. I think the photograph of the final dish represents that well!

I'm going to keep looking for great, fresh and affordable seafood here in the Midwest. And when I find it, I think I'm going to throw a huge seafood party in the middle of a corn field. My Indiana readers: do you have any suggestions? Where can a guy find great fresh seafood to cook in or around Fort Wayne?

Surviving the 2011 Snowpocalypse

The inspiration for this week's column is the worst snowstorm that I have ever witnessed. I lived through three blizzards when I was a New Yorker, but none of those prepared me for a blizzard blown by 54 mph winds over the open fields of Indiana.

The night before the storm really hit ‘Busco, my girlfriend, Nicole, and I braved rush hour traffic leaving Indianapolis in an ice storm. I thought that was the worst road trip of my life. Little did I know that it was just a warm up for what we were going to experience on the road the next night.

Work kept me until 8pm that night and the storm was in full force. Nicole was in the car with me again  as we got out on the roads – which even in the middle of Fort Wayne were treacherous. And getting home required 6 miles of driving on back roads.

As we turned off the highway the road conditions got worse in a hurry. Every time the wind gusted across the fields, the car would be enveloped in a cloud of snow – complete white-out conditions.  We just had to keep hoping that once the wind died down, we’d still be on the road.

And then – as we got further into the backwoods of Indiana – my windshield wipers froze.

I wanted to keep moving so I rolled down the driver's side window and drove about 10 mph with my head hanging out the window like the family pet (or Ace Ventura, for that matter).  I could see the road now, and although Nicole acted calm, I knew she was worried (Nicole interjects: Nicole was not worried. Nicole was scared shitless. But apparently she’s a pretty good actress.). She couldn't see anything and probably thought to herself that if we did eventually make it home, she would have to thaw my eyelids out with her hair dryer.

Then the wind picked up.

The head-out-the-window trick was working until we drove into a snowdrift that had completely covered the road. I attempted to push the car out while Nicole drove, but the car was already getting buried in snow. My uncle – who lives with my aunt about a mile away from where we were stuck – has a plow, so I called him to get us out.

While we waited, two neighbors who live nearby noticed our car stuck in the road and came to investigate. They probably wanted to meet the idiots who were trying to drive through that blizzard. I'm grateful they came to help, because we needed all of them to get the car out of the drift, even with my uncle’s truck doing the heavy-pulling.

After the car was out, we followed my uncle in the plow back to his place. The snow was so bad that along the way, he got stuck (in the plow!), then we got stuck again. But, eventually, we made it to the safety of his house.

Once we arrived (and calmed down) it was like we were joining a blizzard party. My cousin, her husband and their two-year old were also stranded there. As we hung out and swapped our stories of "that is the worst damn snow storm I've ever seen", the focus slowly became: "What are we going to eat tomorrow?"

My aunt had a pound of sausage in the freezer and two boxes of biscuit mix in her pantry. She set the sausage out to thaw and in the morning I whipped up a sausage gravy with some flour and milk. Nicole made the biscuits, and we treated the blizzard party to a stick-to-your-ribs biscuits and gravy breakfast.

Later in the day, the roads were slowly being cleared and we knew we would eventually get home, but not for awhile. Again, I went to my aunt’s pantry. I found some cans of mixed vegetables, canned chicken, chicken base and a package of egg noodles. The perfect ingredients for a huge pot of soup, which is featured in this week’s column.

Being stranded at my aunt and uncles house was actually quite fun. We had beer, a full pantry and each other. In hindsight it turned out to be great experience. (Nicole interjects again: But not so great that we’re going to drive through another blizzard anytime soon.)

Normally, if I were making this recipe for the column, I would have used fresh vegetable and chicken. I do think fresh ingredients would enhance the flavor of the soup. It was fun and easy, though, to just open some cans and throw them together in the pot.

I'm really happy with the design this week. The soup is made in four parts: creating the base, steaming the noodles, sauteing the onion and garlic and then putting everything together. The layout reflects this four-step process well and helps the piece flow together. Again, like the two previous weeks, the use of a bowl or plate with color for the final plating of the dish really provides pop for the largest piece of art in the recipe.

The weather man is often wrong, but if there is even a chance of six inches of snow with 40 mph sustained winds – stay off the roads!

Until next time. Cook often and eat well...

Chili: Thick and Chunky

The most unhealthy chili dish I've ever come across was the invention of my Dad. Last summer I saw him fry potatoes, spread them on a plate and then dump a can of hormel chili on top. Tasty yes. Healthy No. It is a culinary spectacle I am glad to have witnessed but at the same time HORRIFIED to have witnessed. Thank God Mom does the lion's share of cooking in their house.

This recipe was fun to create. It's one version of a dish that nearly every cook has their own versions of. Chili is versatile, and, as I elude to in the introduction of the column, it's an artistic culinary statement, an expression of the cook and the cook's interest in flavors. There are millions of chili recipes because there are millions of cooks. Red Chili, white chili, green chili, gray chili (for the not-so-good cooks) -- the list goes on and on.

I make chili several different ways. This chili is a my mild, thick and quick version. It can be eaten in a bowl, but because of its thickness it also makes a good chili topping for dogs or nachos – even pizza. Just throw it on a pre-made crust with some taco sauce and cheddar cheese - oh wait. That's for a later recipe.

I chose to add beans to this chili. Usually I don't, but I wanted this version to go a little farther and be a larger amount. It's much cheaper to "beef" up chili with beans rather than another pound of beef.

How do you know when chili is done? It's a big question for many cooks. I think it depends on the ingredients. For this recipe, the cooking time is quick. I do this so some of the vegetables retain a slight crunch and individual flavor. If chili is spiced based without the chunky vegetables and more "soupy" you would want the pot to simmer for a while, so that all of the flavors blend and become one flavor, Traditionally, that is the way chili is created. There are chunks of meat or beans but every bite has a well developed flavor that is the same. The chili in this recipe provides hints of green pepper, onions and beef because it isn't cooked very long and some of the ingredients retain their individuality.

This is my second recipe using a colorful dish for the final plate. I love the turquoise blue bowl against the red chili, with green pepper accents. I'm impressed with how the dish ads to the visual presentation. I wish I would have started using colorful dishes earlier – it's just a great detail, and I'm obsessed with the details.

I hosted a party this weekend at my aunt's house so that my family could meet my girlfriend. I decided to make chili and cheesy bread, the last two recipes featured in my weekly column. To make the chili go further I tripled the ingredients and added 4 cups of water. For the cheesy bread I left off the tomato and fresh basil and topped it with just the compound butter and mozzarella cheese. I also tripled the ingredient list. Both were a hit (along with my girlfriend).

I was happy that the dishes turned out so well -- especially for feeding such a large group. Sometimes when you create a recipe in bulk it takes away from the overall taste of the dish, but the bread and chili worked very well for feeding 25 hungry members of my family.

Chili maybe the most popular dish to have a country of the same name. I've never cooked a pot of anything called Mexico or Australia ...

Until next time. Cook often and eat well ...