Friday, August 26, 2011

THE TOMATO TRILOGY

Episode I
Homemade Spicy Ketchup

Using every last tomato your garden has to offer


Ketchup is cheap. I bet there is a bottle in your fridge right now. Why would you ever make it from scratch? The best reason I can think of is to use up a tomato crop. The biggest problem for most gardeners is consuming and preserving all the tomatoes the plants can produce. Show me a garden with a tomato patch and I'll show you tomatoes going to waste – and just waiting to be thrown at high velocity by a teenager.


Almost everyone I know who has a garden plants tomatoes, and they harvest buckets-full – way too many for all of them to be consumed. That makes a scary number of nature's baseballs to leave laying around. It is why making homemade ketchup is important for tomato growers. If you’ve run out of things to make with tomatoes, which most will, then make ketchup! For this recipe, I create a spicy Southwestern ketchup featuring cumin and cayenne pepper, perfect for spicing up a burger – and a delicious way to rid the garden of all the extra potential projectiles.

Episode II
Tomato and 3 Cheese Pizza
Feed the homeless with extra garden tomatoes

If I were homeless, I would roam the Midwest during August. Food wouldn’t be a problem because there are gardens everywhere and most of them are much easier to take a meal out of than a kitchen inside a home. Many gardeners have more tomatoes than they know what to do with anyway, and wouldn’t notice some missing to feed a hungry man.

I would make the following pizza recipe with a few extra tomatoes taken from a stranger’s garden in the night. To cook it, I would carry a small camping oven with me. I have no idea how I would get the three cheeses or the other ingredients.

For this recipe, the sauce is basil-based pesto and tomato slices join as a topping. The cheeses make this pizza creamy and decadent. All together, this pie would be a great meal for a homeless man and even better for a gardener getting rid of extra tomatoes. That way their teenage children have nothing to throw at the homeless man walking by the garden with a camping oven.


Episode III
Sausage-Stuffed Tomatoes
Ok, ok! The truth about all these tomato recipes

It was late August and I was 11 or 12. I had been trying all afternoon to get my timing perfect. I was laying in wait, hidden in the over-grown foliage of a fence row that lined our alfalfa field next to a gravel road. With me was a small bucket of over-ripe tomatoes I had discovered in my Dad’s garden. Like most tomato patches, a small bucket would never be noticed among the abundant crop that the plants yield.

This is the inspiration for all my tomato recipes. The world needs as many delicious tomato creations it can get so that there are less buckets of them to be found by a bored 12-year-old.

Hidden in the fence row, I was lobbing them into the road trying to make tomato paste on windshields.

I kept missing.

Out of frustration, I blew my cover, stood up and drilled a neighbor’s Ford Bronco as it passed. A grounding and a near-beating followed.

For this recipe, I stuff tomatoes with a sausage mix and mozzarella cheese. It’s a delicious treat and my latest attempt to rid the world of all uneaten garden tomatoes.

Eat well, cook often ...

Monday, August 22, 2011

A Cheesy Little Bite With Zing

The jalapeño was named after the town of Jalapa in Veracruz, Mexico and was first used by the Aztecs. Following the voyage of Christopher Columbus to the “new world,” it became popular all over the globe. In the 1990s, Texas declared the jalapeño “a culinary, economic, and medical blessing to the citizens of the Lone Star State,” and made it the state’s official pepper. 

My favorite jalapeño dish is the jalapeño popper. But most of the time when I get poppers in a restaurant or frozen at the store, they are served whole, breaded and stuffed with cheese. The end result is a large snack with a molten cheese center that ends up blistering some part of my face.

For this recipe, I create my own jalapeño popper. The peppers are diced, with seeds and ribs removed to limit the heat. They’re made small so that when served hot, the cheese doesn’t run all over your tongue and chin like liquid iron from a smelter. I added bacon to the mix and breaded it for a smoky, cheesy, jalapeño bite.

THE BACK STORY
My girlfriend and I had a conversation about jalapeño poppers before I wrote the introduction to this column. We both agreed that the most frustrating thing about eating poppers, which both of us love, was the fact that most of the time you end up with third degree burns on your chin after taking a bite. It was for this very reason I never eat poppers as soon as they're served. I always let them cool off for a bit before taking a bite.

That is why I made this version of the popper bite-size.

Also, I wanted to limit the amount of jalapeño consumed in each bite. One popper. One Jalapeño. That is the usual recipe. Eat three of four or nine (which I could do) and you're consuming a lot of capsaicin - the chemical that creates the heat. Too much of that makes for an unpleasant morning. With spicy food you need to focus on quality, because quantity can be painful.

I think that when Johnny Cash sang "Ring of Fire," he must have been thinking about some morning after getting hammered on Jim Beam and consuming 13 jalapeño poppers.

Eat well, cook often ...

Friday, August 12, 2011

Black Forest Puff Pastries



Black Forest is a type of cake or torte originating in Germany that features the insanely delicious combo of chocolate and cherries. I had heard of “Black Forest” vaguely in the past, but I really had no idea what it was. When I set out to make this treat I had multiple flavors to work with –  sugar and spices, pie and cake fillings, and a couple of yummy toppings. My experience creating dessert is limited so I wanted a number of ingredients at my disposal. I made combinations of the fillings and toppings in different forms using puff pastry for the dough.

Through my own natural selection, I thought that two of the flavors, cherry and chocolate fudge, stood out and made for the tastiest treat. At the time, I believed I had discovered culinary gold. I told my girlfriend about my revolutionary dessert. She said “sounds like Black Forest.” My mom said the same. I looked it up. Cherry and chocolate fudge may not be a culinary revelation invented in my kitchen, but it is the star of this week’s recipe.

BACK STORY
Before I started creating this column I had literally made three desserts in my life. I don't really have much of a sweet tooth. Nine times out of ten, if given the choice, I'll take the ribeye steak over the cheesecake. Really, it's more like 49 to 50 odds. Growing up, my mom always had two or three different boxes of Little Debbie snacks in the cupboard. Nutty bars were my favorite. There was never any limitation to me eating them. I lived on them from the age of 11 to 18*. They say that a child who is denied sweets growing up craves them as an adult. If the opposite is true, I am a shining example. I always take savory over sweet.

I really go crazy when I create a dessert for the column. I load up on flavors and just try different things. It's really fun. The savory dishes are easy for me. Cook it once and I know how to adjust it to make it right. Usually it take four or five different experiments to get a dessert right. The black forest pastry recipe is the third attempt - I must be getting better at desserts!

*When I went away to college my Mom went from buying five or six boxes of Little Debbie snacks to 2 boxes per week, and I also lost 10 pounds.

THE COLUMN
The introduction here is the absolute truth. I thought I had discovered this amazing thing. Which is naive for any cook to ever think about a recipe. Chances are always that it's been done before -- especially when you are talking about a simple flavor combo like chocolate and cherry.

FINAL THOUGHTS
Clean design, tasty treat. Not as magical as a Little Debbie, but really, what is?

Eat well, cook often ...

Friday, August 5, 2011

One of the Best Pork Chops You'll Ever Eat


My first experience using a brine resulted in the most delicious turkey I have ever eaten. My second experience was a culinary disaster.

I was at the family campground for a summer vacation from New York when I challenged my uncle to a pork loin throw down.

My uncle makes money on the side cooking pork for large parties with a giant cooker that he could tow to the Grand Canyon if he had to. He is a pork cooking samurai. I was not fazed by this. After all, I was the young blood in the family who was showing a lot of promise in the kitchen with the grilled pizzas and fresh herbs that my elders had been noticing.

My aunt had a whole loin thawing. I said let's brine it! She said no. My uncle would be cooking it in the roaster. This was where I got ahead of myself. I was still a couple of bits of knowledge away from really understanding how to experiment with food. But as any young and ambitious man would do, I decided to challenge a tribal elder. "Let's cut it in half. You take a piece and I'll take a piece. We'll serve it side by side tomorrow night at diner!" My uncle agreed.

The challenge was on.

My aunt gave me half and kept the other for my uncle. I proceeded to get a box of kosher salt and dump about 4 or 5 cups into a gallon of boiling water with some dried herbs. I let it cool completely, then submerged the pork for an all-night bath. I had visions of my family biting into succulent pieces of pork loin so tender and juicy that they thought they were biting into a rib eye at a high-end steakhouse.

The next morning, I removed the pork from the brine. I could tell right away there was something horrifically wrong. The salt hadn't created a surface barrier to lock juices in, it had cured the pork. It turned the entire chunk of meat into a salt-riddled mess. I had used about 10 times the amount of salt I needed for a brine. As I learned the hard way, the most important aspect of brining is the ratio of salt and/or sugar to water.

But I was determined. The show would go on!

Near dinner time, I took the pork from the fridge and sliced it into chops. I grilled them and served it along side my uncle's typical award-winning loin. The salt did me in. The final cooked product, which was grilled, was so salty that it was virtually inedible. I hadn't just served a lesser product in the competition.

I served a nightmare on a plate.

My relatives were polite and said things like. "It's different. I'm not sure if the brine really worked."

Hell no it didn't work! Two bites and you'd be dehydrated from the amount of salt in your body! I took my lumps. It was not my day for this round of culinary combat.

I would like to have a rematch sometime. My skills have matured and now I can actually serve up a mean pork loin, but for now my uncle still has the title.

THE COLUMN
In the paper these ran as two separate columns, both of which I was very proud of. The chops ran first and the next week were followed by the pasta salad. Space in print is limited and the meal had to be divided into two columns.

But the web presents a forum where space is unlimited!

For this post, I have created a visual recipe with no space limitations. It is a "poster" of the meal I intended to create. Instead of publishing my blog as individual blog post I redesigned and combined two columns as a "summer barbecue web exclusive." It just another adventure in the renegade world of being a visual food writer.

FINAL THOUGHTS
This piece has roughly 500 words and 19 photographs. I have been very pleased over the last year at how my style of visualizing a single recipe has evolved. Honestly, I'm stunned with how this turned out.The combination of two recipes that appear on a single plate takes the presentation to a new level. It's visualizing a meal – not just one tasty bite. I am going to start to model my column after this. I will keep featuring single recipes, I'm just going to do them in series like this that sometimes feature meals or spreads for a party. It seems to be the next logical step. ALONG with getting a book of my first 50 columns published, of course.

Eat well, cook often ...