A Roast for Dinner Part 3: The Corn

This corn dish is the second side to my roasted pork loin, but really this is a side to the mashed potatoes! I love mixing corn with my taters! I have done it since I was a kid. Throw in the red pepper - I'm in side dish heaven.

This recipe is quick and easy. The toughest part is chopping the ingredients. I use canned corn here. I marvel at the Food Network cooks. It seems like most of them always roast whole ears then slice off the corn.  I've never had great luck with that. When I cook an ear of corn I eat it on the cob! I'm usually a purist and cook with fresh ingredients but corn is an exception for me.

Of all the peppers, the red pepper is my favorite. I think it's sweeter than a green pepper and there's no heat, unlike chilis. That combination makes it versatile and I use it in many of the dishes I create. I especialy love them roasted! I think that would have worked well here also.

Cooking an entire meal and breaking it up into my separate entries for the blog is new for me. I think this is how I'm going to approach the complex meals and bites that I feature here. It allows me to concentrate on the details of each element rather than a huge post, like my pumpkin feast, with a massive info graphic in the middle. Don't get me wrong, I still love to create giant recipe infographics. It's just a better work flow for me to break up the bites. I can still put them all together in the end but I guess I'll have to save that for the book.

I need to create a word for recipe infographics, any suggestion?

Eat well, cook often ...

Part 1: The Loin
Part 2: The Potatoes

A Roast For Dinner Part 2: The Potatoes

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The potato side dish for my roasted pork dinner contains not only cheddar cheese but a little fresh rosemary as well. I love the taste of pork with rosemary, but I left it off the pork and incorporated it into the side. I leave fresh herbs off meat when I am roasting it for a long time in the oven. They seem to crisp up and burn when bathed in heat for such a long period. If I had choose to use rosemary on the roast, I would have used the dried version and probably incorporated it into the brine.

I leave the skin on the potatoes for nutrients and looks. (I always do when using red potatoes) I add butter for creaminess, and mash it all together. It is simple and comes together in about 25 minutes. It's a great compliment to the tender pork loin.

Part 1: Perfectly Roasted Pork Loin
Part 3: Sweet Corn and Red Pepper Relish

A Roast For Dinner Part 1: The Loin

It’s a common belief that pork needs to be cooked into oblivion before humans can eat it safely. In my family, Dad is notorious for burning it on the grill. Most books say to cook it to an internal temperature somewhere between 170° and 185°. This will provide a dry and overcooked product.

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The misconception about how to cook pork comes from the fear of trichinosis. In the past, this was a legitimate threat and people commonly contracted it from eating pork that was under cooked. Today, trichinosis has been virtually eliminated because of legislation prohibiting the feeding of raw-meat garbage to pigs. As a precaution, the Center for Disease Control says that whole pork loin should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145° and rested for three minutes to eliminate any threat.

For this recipe, I soak a loin in a simple brine overnight and I roast it to 150° (a little extra just to assure my Dad it’s safe). Then rest it 10 minutes. The end result – a juicy, tender and safe slice of pork.

Roasting the pork to the right temperature is key to a tender and juicy bite – but the brine is equally important. I have preached about brine on this blog before. (Right here) I swear by it. It is the best way (beyond frying) to get juicy and tender pork or turkey.

It was time to get the facts about pork and the temperature it is supposed to be cooked, out into the world. I have been cooking pork until it's just cooked through for years and I can't tell you how many times I have heard it's not cooked enough. I never plate uncooked or unsafe pork. I just pull it from the heat at the right temperature. People are trained to think pork needs to be destroyed in order to eat it. It doesn't. You'll never go back if you try it.

For the test cook of this recipe I used the simple brine listed and then cut the loin in half and used two different rubs. What stood out after cooking it wasn't the rubs at all. It was the succulent pork! I decided then to make this column a simple and basic recipe that features perfectly cooked and seasoned pork. I can feature a new rub later on down the line. I thought it was more important to share the technique.

I made an entire meal when I did the second cook. To compliment the loin, rosemary-cheddar mashed potatoes and a sweet corn relish with red pepper join the party. The step by step instruction for these recipes will be featured here in the next two posts. It's perfect for any dinner fiesta.

Part 2: Rosemary-cheddar mashed potatoes
Part 3: Corn and red pepper relish

Eat well, cook often ...

The Great Pumpkin Feast

I have a theory about pumpkins and Halloween. Back in the old days, when people subsisted on the land, families lived on what was growing on the farm. That meant October was filled with a steady diet of pumpkin and other winter squash. If a hard-working farmer was forced to eat pumpkin every night for a month, I can see why he might take great pleasure in plunging a butcher knife into one and carving it into a spooky decoration to scare small children for Halloween.

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For this recipe, roasted pumpkin is the star of a feast featuring a spicy soup and flat bread which includes spinach and ricotta cheese. The soup is smokey with cumin. The heat is in the seeds that are sprinkled on just before eating. I wasn’t thrilled with this flat bread when I first tasted it. But, other than spaghetti squash, I have never really liked any of the winter squash varieties.

It was when I witnessed my niece slurp chunks of pumpkin off her slice – like a shop vac picking up gravel – that I decided to use it. She and my Mom loved it. If you like pumpkin, you’ll like this. I call this flat bread and not pizza because it contains no sauce and pizza crust was just the easiest option to deliver the toppings. I could have used a number of different breads to the same effect. (For the newspaper version of the column I did call it a pizza.)

While I was making a recipe for spaghetti squash the week before last, I ate it 4 days in a row. I was really tired of it to say the least. My opening thought about pumpkins and Halloween and taking pleasure in carving a pumpkin is what popped into my head. I wrote it down, like I do when any peculiar thought comes to me, something I started doing while I was a working stand up comic. When I started to think about what I was going to make for this week, I decided to incorporate pumpkin. I created this pumpkin feast because of a quirky paragraph I wrote the week before. Ironically it was inspired by another member of the winter squash family. Sounds crazy but here we are.

I really had never made anything with pumpkin before.

I started by roasting it al dente. I knew that I would be applying heat again to it, so I didn't want it to be complete mush when I pulled it from the oven. The first batch I roasted, I seasoned the pumpkin with different spices. I realized then that pumpkin itself is an acquired taste and, unlike beer, I hadn't really acquired a taste for it. The spices didn't help. The second batch I seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper and went from there.

For the soup, I was inspired by potato-leek soup. I replaced the potato with pumpkin. I start with the smokey flavor of bacon and end with the compliment of cumin. The seeds feature smokey chipotle and contain the zing for the dish. If I made this again, I would serve it as a shot with the seeds going on right before it is consumed. I could see this as a gourmet appetizer for a fall party.

For the flat bread, I choose to compliment the rich and creamy flavor of pumpkin with ricotta cheese and spinach - and it worked. As I mention in the introduction, I just don't care for the flavor of pumpkin. The soup features bolder flavors that mask it, the flat bread is all about pumpkin. I really thought my efforts were a bust until other family members – who happen to love pumpkin – couldn't get enough of it. The recipe wasn't bad, it was my dislike of pumpkin that soiled it. I rarely eat pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving and have only ever enjoyed the seeds. The soup I would make again for myself, but I'll never crave the flatbread. I would make it for my family but, if I were to make it for myself, I would replace the pumpkin with artichoke and shower it with some fresh grated ... oh wait, that's for another post.

Eat well, cook often ...

Italian Style Spaghetti Squash

Squash has been dated as far back as 7,000 B.C. in parts of Mexico and South America. According to The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, explorers from Europe originally thought squash were melons and were delighted to find them everywhere they went in the new world. Another example of a modern food staple of the western world that was discovered in the Americas. I'm starting to think that the diet of most Europeans before they began exploring consisted of grass, tree bark and the flesh of what ever animal they weren't currently using as transportation.

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Today, squash is divided into two primary families, summer squash, most abundant in late summer, and winter squash, which thrives in the fall. Summer squash, such as cucumber and zucchini, have edible skin, soft seeds and require little cooking. Winter squash, like pumpkin and acorn, have tough skin, hard seeds and require an ample amount of cooking time.

For this recipe, I use spaghetti squash, a winter variety, which resembles its namesake pasta when cooked and removed from its skin. The first recipe features a hearty mixture composed of sausage, onion, fresh peppers and store-bought traditional pasta sauce that tops the squash – which works well as a delicate and tasty substitute for spaghetti pasta. The dish can easily serve as the center piece of a meal. The second recipe features spaghetti squash tossed with basil pesto, this dish works best as a side.

I have been waiting all summer to cook home-grown spaghetti squash and substitute it for none other than - spaghetti! My Dad had planted it in the garden, and I knew that there would be copious amounts by the fall.

There always is.

Gardeners all over northern Indiana have little stands out near the road to display and sell their leftover bounty from the garden. It starts with tomatoes, cucumber and zucchini in late summer, then slowly, as fall sets in – the pumpkin, acorn and spaghetti squash slowly take their place.

What amazes me about these stands is that they are unattended. There is only a list of prices, like four cucmber for $1, and a jar or container to put the money in. You could take as much as you wanted and not leave a dime or even steal the money in the jar – but that rarely happens. It's a karma thing. I bought three tomatoes at one of these stands recently and written on top of the money jar was "My God is Watching."

A fresh vegetable stand in Northern Indiana.
I almost left double the amount.

These stands are a great representation of the openess and optimism of the rural Midwesterner. People in other parts of the country might call it naive, but I believe that comes from the somewhat-synical world view that most urban dwellers must develop to survive in places dominated by grift and the grifter.

In more than a decade living in New York City, I saw nothing that I could compare to these goodwill vegetable stands. Don't get me wrong, there are many awesome things created purely from goodwill in the Big Apple. You just don't find the buying and selling of goods at a road-side stand based on an honors system. They were a site to see last summer, my first in the Midwest since the late 1990s, and a great source of fresh vegetables at a price grocery stores or farmers markets couldn't compete with.

Eat well, cook often ...

Herb-Garlic Tortilla Chips and Fresh Guacamole

My favorite kind of tortilla chips are what is usually found at Mexican restaurants. They are made from corn or flour tortillas that are deep fried, seasoned according to the chef’s tastes and usually served with a salsa made at the establishment. It is the perfect start to any meal.

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The first party I ever catered, I started the meal with my own tortilla chips and fresh salsa. The chips alone received the most compliments. I think they were memorable because it stood out from the ordinary tortilla chip found anywhere from grocery stores to vending machines. The chip gave the entire meal a gourmet feel.

For this recipe, I make homemade tortilla chips and fresh guacamole. I start by infusing oil with fresh herbs and garlic, which imparts a unique and aromatic flavor into the corn tortilla chip when fried. I then season it with salt and fresh grated parmesan cheese. The unexpected flavor from the chip makes this snack impossible to stop eating – Not to mention, the tasty and fresh guacamole that goes with it.

I have had this recipe for a long time. I started writing my column a year-and-a-half ago and I usually challenge myself to create something new each week. It makes the job easy to use a treat I had created long ago. I saw the flavored-oil technique on the Food Network's Tyler's Ultimate, I think he used it for fish and chips. Somewhere a long the line I thought it would be a good way to flavor tortilla chips.

I have made these chips a number of times and I have never had leftovers.

The guacamole is something I picked up at a cooking class taught be Sue Torres, chef and owner of Suenos in New York City. It was the first cooking class I had ever taken and it was a ton of fun. I learned a lot about making fresh salsa as well as the guacamole. I highly recommend taking classes or attending demonstrations regardless of experience, there is always something more to learn.

My family requests the guacamole more than any other dish I make, it's always a hit. Seriously, my family tears into a platter of this stuff like werewolves on a veal farm.

I decided to create this for myself this week while enjoying an afternoon of football – and thought it was time to share it here.

Eat well, cook often ...