Friday, May 31, 2013

Broiling: The Bastard Child of the Kitchen

So what is broiling?  How do you do it?  Where does it come from?  Do I need a special piece of equipment to do it?  In my experience so many home cooks don't know what broiling is that they let a very useful cooking method go unused.  It is just another weapon in a cook's arsenal to make tasty and delicious meals. 

What is Broiling?

Let's start at the beginning with a quick and easy definition of broiling.  Broiling is a cooking method that involves intense dry direct heat coming from above.  It is like grilling except that with grilling the heat comes from below.  I must make a quick semantic note.  Broiling is term used in the US and Canada where as in other parts of the English speaking world, it is known as grilling.  This can get a little confusing but just keep in mind that these two cooking techniques are essentially the same except for some subtle differences.

Grilling vs. Broiling

As noted before, the big difference between the two is the direction of the heat source.  The other big difference is where you do the grilling/broiling.  Grilling is done outside on, well, the grill, while broiling is done under a broiler.  I will get to what a broiler is and where you can Find it.  The difference of location also leads to a more subtle difference.  You see, when you are grilling on a grill, you tend to get constant heat.  When broiling, you have to be careful otherwise you may get uneven heat.  It all really depends on your broiler.

What is a broiler?

Some people may be thinking, "I don't even have a broiler, so why should I be concerned?"  In my personal experience so many people don't know that they even have a broiler that they don't use it.  A broiler, simply put, is your oven on a different setting.  I am willing to bet that about 90% of all home ovens today have a broiler.  All it really is, depending on whether it is a gas or electric oven, is the top heating element providing the heat.  If you have a gas oven, then your broiler is probably located in a drawer type compartment with the same gas flame that heats the regular oven overhead. 

In either case, it is more than likely the oven has a broiler setting on the oven dial.  It is usually past the hottest temperature on the dial.  This is because the broiler setting brings the temp up to or over 500 degrees Fahrenheit.  This is the high heat part of the equation.

Now, remember when I said that with a broiler you may get uneven heating?  Well, that is because of the way an oven works.  This applies more to a electric oven.  A gas oven has constant heat, even when it reaches the desired temp.  However, an electric oven cycles.  When it reaches the desired temp, it literally shuts off, thus the uneven cooking.  The easy way to circumvent this is to leave the oven door opened a crack so the heat  is not trapped in the oven and the oven reaches its temp. 

How do you broil?

There are some easy guidelines to follow when broiling.  The first is get to know your equipment.  Do you have a gas or electric oven?  Is the broiler just on the temperature dial or is it an entirely different setting?  Once you have gotten to know how your broiler works, you can deal with the food. 

The first thing you have to think about is what you are going to be broiling.  You have to keep in mind what would be suitable for broiling like what would be suitable for grilling.  Since the cooking will involve high intense heat, you want something that can stand up to it.  Things that are too delicate and flimsy just don't do well under the broiler.   

One thing you can get away with is broiling something that might fall through the grates on a grill.  Just keep in mind that since it is a direct heat, chances are you are going to have to flip your item to get it to cook properly. 

When you are broiling it is important to have your food elevated to allow fat and other liquids to drip off.  Most ovens come with a broiler pan, which is a two sectioned pan with a dish part that catches the drippings and a top part that has slits cut into it where the liquid drips off.  Now, you don't really need a special broiler pan.  If you have a sheet pan or cookie sheet that you can fit a rack into, then you are set.   

Now you have chosen  your item to broil.  But how are you going to season it?  Well, simplicity is best.  However, if you do want to get a little more extravagant, keep a couple of things in mind.  Don't use seasoning that can burn easily.  Things like fresh or dried herbs or even pepper can burn and become bitter.  Save these until after the cooking is done.  When marinating, stay away from marinades with a high fat content.  High heat and fat could cause flare ups.  Knowing this should keep your food tasting  good.

Broiling is just a misunderstood and underutilized method of cooking.  Just think of all the things you could do if you wanted to grill and just don't want to be outside.  Or simply don't think of broiling as the ugly sister of grilling.  Broiling is a useful way of cooking all on its own.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Review of Fadi's Mediterranean Grill on Beechnut

   One of the things that I love about Houston is that it is so multicultural.  You can find great cuisine from all over the world in Houston.  And not only can you find it, but chances are that it will be good.  My wife and I dined at what is turning into one of our favorite Mediterranean places, Fadi's Mediterranean Grill

    Fadi's is set up cafeteria style where you can go down the line and pick out your food.  One of my favorite things about Fadi's (besides the food) is the fact that they allow half orders.  This gives patrons a chance to not eat as much food if they are not as hungry or, and more importantly to me, it gives people a chance to try multiple things without breaking the bank. Oh, and you will want to take advantage of that because Fadi's is not short on choices.  I commonly get half orders of stuff just so I can try them out.

   For tonight's meal my wife and I both went with our standard entree, the lamb shank.  She also had some tabouli, a half order of roasted garlic and mushroom hummus and a side of dolmas.  To accompany my lamb I had a half order of the same hummus, a half order of a yogurt, dill, and walnut dip, and a full order of the grilled vegetables.  I also had an order of varied "pickles".  We both also got pita bread.

   My original plan was to start with the "weaker" dishes and move on to the stronger ones, but the truth is there weren't any really bad dishes here.  So, I guess I will start with some of the shared stuff and move onto the entree.  The dolmas, or stuffed grape leaves, were delicious.  They were stuffed with rice and had a nice tangy bite as from lemon.  All this was underscored with a pleasant mint flavor.  The dolmas were also nicely constructed.  They held up to being bitten into or even dipped.

  The yogurt dip was exquisite.  It was rich, thick and creamy.  It had the consistency of a nice cream cheese dip.  The flavor was quite good, highlighting the yogurt, while still  showcasing the walnuts and dill.  Speaking of which, the dip had some nice walnut pieces mixed in.  What I liked best about the dip is that it played well with others, whether that be mixing it with the lamb or intermingling with the hummus. 

   That leads me to the hummus.  Fadi's really knows how to make hummus. I would even venture to say that this is one of the best things about Fadi's.  There is always at least two or three types of hummus to choose from.  This iteration is one that I won't soon forget.  The hummus itself was full bodied and lush, almost feathery.  It was thick, but not too viscous.  The flavor of the chickpeas and tahin never overpowered the roasted garlic and mushrooms.  In fact, it was as if the hummus was just the vehicle for the other flavors, giving it a much more robust flavor profile.

   The grilled vegetables I had were quite nice.  First of all, they were served as a cold dish, not hot.  This was a delightful surprise.  The vegetables were thickly cut so they really held up to the grill.  They were soft, but nut mushy.  Truth is that they still had just the right amount of bite to them.  If I had any issues with them it was just that they could have used a little seasoning.

   The tabouli my wife ordered was also marvelous. It was parsley heavy giving it a nice fresh feel and taste.  Now, some might not like their tabouli to be proportioned like that.  For her, it was just right.  The tabouli was quite zesty, having been flavored with a great deal of lemon juice and spices.  It was a cooling side dish for a hot summer evening.

  For those of you who might now know, happiness is fresh, warm pita straight out of the oven.  And that is exactly how Fadi's serves them.  They have a working oven right where you can see it and they are cranking out fresh hot pita.  The pita works well with your dips or to make makeshift wraps at your table.  One of my preferred things to do is to dab some hummus and yogurt dip on the pita and wrap it all around some tasty lamb.

   Now we reach the pièce de résistance: the lamb shank.  If you love lamb, then you need to eat at Fadi's.  This is one of the best places to eat lamb that I have found in Houston.  If you know of a better place, PLEASE TELL ME!!  Now, why is this lamb shank so good?  To start, the meat is so tender.  More than fork tender.  Melt in your mouth tender.  You can just practically look at it and it falls off the bone.  It has been so masterfully cooked that even the connective tissue is appetizing forming a slightly gelatinous morsel bursting with flavor.  The meat itself is quite flavorful.  You can tell the meat has been cooked for a long time very slowly allow the meat to absorb the flavors.  The liquid is then used to make the sauce for the lamb combing tomato, lamb, and other savory elements.  If I have anything bad to say about the lamb, it is only a very minor point of contention.  The accompanying vegetables were a little bland.  But the truth of the matter is that you don't really get the lamb shank for the vegetables.

   Fadi's is a place where you get a wide variety of choices.  You get to decide how much and which food you want.  So next time you are looking for a place to eat, whether it be by yourself, with another person, or a large group, give Fadi's some consideration.
Fadi's Mediterranean Grill on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Review of Plate and Bottle in Rice Village

    This review is not for a restaurant, but for a wine shop rather.  Given that I would hope most of the people who read this blog enjoy good wine as much as good food, I cannot in good conscience let this little jewel slip away without mentioning it.  I am talking about  Plate and Bottle located in the Rice Village.  It is tucked away between Peas and Pod and Brian O'Neil's and is literally across the street from what has now become Torchy's Tacos.  Its location is one that appears to have been at one point and time a residential home.  That definitely adds to its charm.

    My wife and I first discovered Plate and Bottle soon after opening when we noticed that the prior business, a dance studio, had been replaced with something else.  We were intrigued by the name and decided to step in and see what the new place was all about.  Once inside we were warmly greeted by one of the proprietors.  She explained to us what Plate and Bottle was and what some of her goals were.  Since they had just opened up and were still trying to get settled in a lot of what was being planned was still not set into motion.  While talking to the proprietor, my wife and I explored the shop.   The proprietor explained that she was hoping to not only sell wine, but also have tastings, classes, and private wine pairings.  My wife and I actually ended up buying a bottle that evening.

      Plate and Bottle is a place that has a lot going for it.  It is quaint, intimate and the people who run it are knowledgeable.  While it is small, it still has a good variety of wines available. They truly spanned the spectrum from reds and whites and from all over the world.  The other nice thing about this shop is that you don't need to have a platinum credit card to buy here.  The price points are as varied as the wines.  Now, this place may not have same selection as say a warehouse liquor store, but it does have someone who probably knows each and every wine in that place and has probably tasted them all.

   Now you might be thinking, "That is all well and good, but I am not a big wine drinker."  Well, it just so happens that Plate and Bottle also caters to beer lovers as well.  They offer a nice selection of quality craft beers from around the world.  Chances are they might be able to help you find a nice beer to go with that fancy dinner you were planning.

    Plate and Bottle also has tastings (both beer and wine) very often.  Being on their mailing list, I am always getting emails inviting me to their next tasting.  It is a nice chance to try new things.  More often than not, some sort of gourmet food that pairs well with the wine or beer.  Several weeks ago there was a tasting for Belgium beer with some nice Belgium chocolates.  The great thing about the tastings that they are being served by people who know the wine.  If you have any questions, you have someone right in front of you that will know the answer.  The other great thing about them is they are very nonchalant.  You come in, try the wines, ask your questions and move on or linger about if you'd like.

    From visiting the website, Plate and Bottle has expanded its services to include home delivery, gift packages, event coordination, and has a partnership with Ruggles Cafe Bakery.  So, I would say to go check this place out.  Get in on the mailing list.  Visit the website.  Visit the ACTUAL LOCAL.  I would wager money you find something you like.

 Plate and Bottle on Urbanspoon

Monday, May 27, 2013

Review of Buffalo Grill on Academy & Bissonnet Houston, Texas 77005

    Being Memorial Day, my wife and I decided to have brunch out today.  Knowing we had a plethora of options, we decided on trying someplace new.  We decided to try The Buffalo Grill.  Without giving away too many details, all I have to say is that I have not had a more underwhelming eating experience in quite a while.

    The first thing I noticed when we arrived was that there was quite a long line. Out the door long.  Buffalo Grill is a counter service establishment.  The kind where you order your food, pay for it and then call your name to come get it.  I was a little apprehensive about the wait, but one, it was probably going to be a similar wait at other places, and two, it was a pleasant so the wait outside would not be too bad.  Luckily for us the line moved at a pretty good clip.  Once inside I had a chance to peruse the menu and was intrigued by many of the offerings.  I decided on the Huevos Rancheros with an ala carte order of bacon while my wife ordered the pecan pancakes.

   Since we had both had coffee at home we ordered juice.  They offered two sizes of cups, my wife and I choosing the smaller of the two.  I had the grapefruit and my wife the orange.  The juice was quite good.  It tasted fresh squeeze since both had a bit of pulp, which I am personally a fan of.

   When I was waiting in line and trying to decide what I wanted to eat I had whittled my way down to the huevos rancheros and the biscuits and gravy.  I ultimately chose the huevos rancheros because I wanted to give Buffalo Grill an opportunity to impress me.  As much as I love biscuits and gravy, you would be hard pressed to screw those up.  So, for those you not in the know, huevos rancheros are basically fried eggs served over tortillas (corn traditionally) and topped with some kind of salsa.  The ones from here came with refried beans, pico de gallo, and your choice of a green chili or ranchero sauce.  They were also accompanied by two flour tortillas.  I decided to have some of each.

   Sadly, they did not even begin to live up to expectations.  The first problem was that everything was under seasoned.  While I am always for erring on the side of caution when it comes to seasoning, (you can always add more but never take out) this was just bland.  The next thing I noticed was that the tortilla on which the eggs were served was a flour tortilla.  That in and of itself could have been forgiven if it were not for the fact that ALL of my tortillas were seriously undercooked and chewy.  It seems as if they did not know how to properly cook tortillas.
   Another problem with the dish was the fact that the sauces as a whole missed the mark. The pico de gallo was more white onion than anything else. In fact, it had very little of anything else.  Good pico de gallo is tomato heavy with the other ingredients playing the supporting cast, but still being strong enough to make their presence known.  The ranchero sauce was just a weak tomato sauce with some nopales thrown in.  The biggest offender on the plate was by far the green chili sauce.  It looked like leftover gravy with some green chili thrown in to give it flavor and color.  To make matters worse, it was lumpy!  What's worse then lumpy gravy?  I know, lumpy gravy made to pass off as a green chili sauce. If there was some good on the plate. it was the eggs themselves and the beans.  They managed not to screw those up. 

   My wife had the pancakes.  When you order the pancakes you have your choice of one or two as well as a variety of fruits and nuts.  She choose two pecan pancakes with an egg on the side.  If there is one thing you can say about the pancakes is that they are freaking HUGE!

Big as yo' face, big.  After that, the pancakes were uninspired.  They were a little flat.  I am used to nice fluffy pancakes that have a propensity for absorbing syrup.  I asked my wife her opinion about the pancakes and her answer was, "eh, they were ok."  Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

   The best part of our meal was the peppered bacon. It was nice and crisp.  Had good flavor and a nice trim of pepper.  An ala carte order comes with three pieces, so I had enough to share with my wife who also agreed that it was quite good.

   Maybe it was my mistake for ordering something so Mexican specific from a non Mexican restaurant.  And maybe it works well for the intended audience, but I am a little fearful of what I would get if I ordered the migas.  I think my compatriots in the kitchen die a little every time they send stuff like that out. 

Buffalo Grille on Urbanspoon

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Review of Little Napoli Italian Cuisine on Westheimer

     So, this is not the first time I have dined at Little Napoli. Nor will it be the last. Quite honestly, this is probably one of my favorite Italian places in Houston. This, however, will be my first official review of it. I might do more at a later date since I enjoy the food so much and I am always trying to order something different. Speaking of food, it has everything from pizza to the classics. This place should cover everyone.
    So tonight my wife were having a little mini celebration.  When we were talking about what to do for dinner I suggested Little Napoli because one of the things that I absolutely love about this place is its atmosphere.  It can be great for a casual dinner with friends or accommodate you when you want something a little more intimate.  The lighting is nice and low without being dark.  The music selection is varied ranging from slow romantic music to a peppy Italian ballad to something from the Rat Pack's repertoire. 
   Another I love about the place is the the overall volume is very subdued.  It is not quiet by any means, but I can hear myself talk and hold a conversation with another person without having to resort to screaming.  Maybe this has something to do with the fact that almost every time I have ever been to Little Napoli it has never been full.  Some might see this as a negative, but I see it as quite the opposite. It helps keep the intimacy in my opinion.  Even if the place fills up, I have the feeling that the noise would still not be a problem.
   Now, let's get to the food.  For tonight's repast I ordered the crab cakes as the appetizer.  The plate came with two crab cakes that were covered in a nice pink sauce (mix of tomato and cream) with chunks of tomato and bell pepper that gave the sauce some substance.  The crab cakes themselves were expertly cooked.  Nice and crispy on the outside with a soft and moist, but flaky interior.  They were masterfully seasoned and had a good ratio of crab meat to bread crumbs.
    My wife ordered a staple of ours at Little Napoli: the braised beef and tortellini.  The dish is served in a nice creamy sweet Marsala sauce and has sliced portobellos as well as the tender beef and four cheese tortellini.  There is a reason why this is one of our favorite dishes here and why it is sometimes difficult to stray and try something different.  This dish just screams comfort.  Like your favorite blanket in the cold winter months or a warm hug from your grandmother.  The Marsala sauce is nicely balanced without having an overwhelming flavor of alcohol or being overly sweet.  It is the perfect cream coverall for this dish.  The beef itself is also superbly done.  Both tender and flavorful indicating that they take time to slow cook it to get it just right.  In fact, it would not surprise me to find out if the beef were cooked in Marsala wine and that cooking liquid was then reserved and used to make the sauce.  As for the tortellini, well, lets just say they know how to cook pasta.  It was nice and al dente.
   My choice for the evening was something I had not had here before.  I decided to try the veal piccata for the first time.  I was a little apprehensive at first because one, veal is something that very easily can be done wrong, and two, the piccata sauce did not have any capers as it normally does.  Instead, the dish was made with sun dried tomatoes and artichoke hearts.  The whole thing was also served on a bed of capellini (angel hair) pasta.  As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about.  The veal was cooked to perfection, keeping its tenderness while not turning chewy or tough.  The sauce was magnificently done.  It had all the hints of the white wine while drawing acidity from the lemon juice, tomatoes and artichokes without ever becoming too tart.  The pasta once again was expertly cooked.  Angle hair past is one of those finicky pastas that you have to treat with kid gloves.  Cook it just a bit too long and it falls to pieces.  Not the case here.
    Another great thing about Little Napoli is the wine selection.  It is vast and it is varied.  It has something for everyone and a wide spectrum of price points.  Having arrived at the tail end of happy hour (from 2-7 pm), my wife and I both choose the house shiraz which was a new selection.  I had previously order the house wine and had never been disappointed, especially considering the cost.  Now can I say this was the best wine I have ever had?  No.  But was it fairly good?  Yes, especially if you let it breath from a moment.
   As much as I enjoy Little Napoli, there are a few points of contention I have with it.  First of all, the small salads which are served before the entrees are really just uninspired.  The consist of basically one cucumber slice, one tomato wedge, one ring of a white onion, and bunch of lettuce drenched in vinegar with a bit of seasoning.  You can't really call it a vinaigrette because you would need oil for it to be considered one.  If there was any oil, you could have fooled me.  I enjoy vinegar, but this was just too much.
  Another problem with Little Napoli is the service.  It is not that it is bad necessarily.  The problem lies in that it can be piece meal and confusing at times.  When we walked in, my wife and I were seated by one server who also gave us menus, asked if we had been helped by another, and had our order taken by a third.  When the third waiter asked for our orders, my wife ordered her wine and I ordered our appetizer since I had not made up my mind about what to get yet and also thinking that our original server would take our orders for our entrees.  When our appetizer came out is when we finally gave our entree orders and my wine order, to which our server seemed surprised about. Maybe this was just something caused by the restaurant being not quite so fully, maybe not.  After the point where the staff decided who would be attending us, the service was just fine.
   So, that is just one of my dining experiences at Little Napoli on Westheimer.  This place is well worth looking into for a nice casual evening of Italian dinning or maybe something a little nicer without going into full blown "nice restaurant" category.

Little Napoli Italian Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Friday, May 24, 2013

Helpful Suggestions for Ordering Counter Side

So, let  me start this post by giving a little explanation.  Most people might be wondering why I, someone who works in the kitchen, would have a valid idea or opinion about ordering at a counter.  Well you see, where I work is set up to I am not only the one preparing the food, but I am also taking your order and serving you.  The way it works is that after I finish prepping everything, I set up a hot line where the customer comes up to a counter of sorts, look at the food and order it.  I think the purpose of this set up is that there will be a better connection from the food to the customer.  After all, who knows the food better than the person who prepared it.  But I digress.  Throughout my years at this job I have found that some customers have some habits when it comes to ordering that just really irk me.  Therefore, I am providing you some insight into what someone on the other side of the counter is thinking.  Hopefully these suggestions are taken to heart and you can improve your next counter side order experience.

My first suggestion is that when you go to order, be ready to order.  I know this might seem intuitive, but I have on more than one occasion encountered someone who came up to me with no clue what they wanted or how they wanted it.  I am not saying don't take your time to make up your mind.  What I am saying is don't expect for everyone to wait for you while you do it.  The worst case of this is when there is a line behind you.  You are just gumming up the works for everyone.  If you are waiting in line, take that time to familiarize yourself with the menu or, as in that case of my place of employment, what food is being served.  That way when you come to the person who is going to take your order/serve your food, you know exactly what you want.  If there is no line, then take as much time to do these things before ordering.

My second talking point ties directly into my first.  When you are ordering please know what you are ordering.  I have lost count the number of times someone has asked me if my vegetarian dish has any meat in it.  Another example of this is asking if what I am serving is something completely different than what it actually is (mashed potatoes vs potato salad).  While every person is entitle to know about the food they are about to consume, It is very irritating when the information is readily available and provided to you. In the case of my job there is a sign in front of every station indicating what is being served and other pertinent information (such as vegetarian dishes or if it contains common allergens).  If you want to know specifics about the dish, such as what fat was used to prepare it or what spices, then I will gladly tell you.  When you come up to me and ask if my spinach and mushroom lasagna has any meat in it, that gets under my skin. 

The final piece of advice is quite simple.  Pay attention.  I mean, that is just a good idea in general.  When you are ordering please respect me enough to give me your full attention.  Our interaction will be short lived and then you may go on about your daily life.  However, if when you come to me and you are on your smart phone or engaged in a conversation with someone else, our interaction will not go smoothly.  An order may be as simple as I want that, but what if there are options?  What if I can't hear you or need clarification on something?  Be giving my your full attention we can address this situations effectively.  I don't want to have to flag you down or snap my fingers to get your attention whenever I need an answer or have a question.  Hopefully you can see that paying attention also pertains to the other two points quite closely.  If you are paying attention, then more than likely you will be looking at the menu or the food so that you can determine what you want and order it once I get to you.

I hope most people take this post for what it is.  As someone who deals with people everyday I have just made some observations and would like to pass them along to others so that they may avoid being the customer that the people behind the counter talk about after he is gone.  I know we are not perfect and I know that on more than one occasion I have done one or more of these things, but I also know I am conscious of them and therefore try to avoid such behavior.  If all this post does is make one of you a better customer, then I couldn't ask for anything more.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Garnish: Not Just Gratituous Greenery

OK, so what is a garnish? What does that mean? Quite simply, a garnish is just something that makes food look better and gives a little pop. Most people think that garnishing food is only reserved for restaurants or the Martha Stewart types out there. I am here to let you in on a little secret. Garnishes don't have to be elaborate or hard. Even the simplest little touches can add a world of eye appeal to a dish or plate.

The basics of garnishing can be broken down into a few guidelines. First of all, your biggest allies are color and contrast. Food is beautiful. Nature has provided us with such a wide palette for us to use that even Bob Ross would be jealous. So, use that vibrancy to your advantage. Chopped herbs, such as parsley or cilantro, provide us with bright greens. Red bell peppers and match stick carrots are some examples of colors outside of your standard greens. The important part is to garnish your food with something that will help it stand out. This is where the contrast comes in. You would not garnish some steamed broccoli with herbs because they will just now show up. However if you use the red bell peppers or the carrots then you have used contrast to great effect. You want that garnish to show up, otherwise what is the point.

Next to consider that the best way to garnish is simplicity. Some chefs (professional and amateur) have great skill at creating works of art with food; carving roses out of tomatoes or sculpting faces into vegetables. However, this is unnecessary to successfully garnish a dish. A garnish can consist of all most anything from a single leaf or sprig of an herb to a strategic sprinkling of something colorful. Therefore, you don't need surgeon like skill to garnish food. Also keep in mind that less is more. This is a garnish after all. It is just there to be a little highlight, not take center stage.

OK, so lets get to what you can use to garnish. Simply put, anything can be used as garnish. That being said, I was taught at school that whatever you use as a garnish it must be edible. That doesn't mean that it will eaten or even that it has to be an integral part of the plate. The garnish can just exist as just that. So let me give you some examples of some simple garnishes you can use at your next dinner party. The very first one is one that I have already talked about, but is also one of the easiest and most versatile. I am talking about chopped herbs. As long as you know how to handle a knife you can chop herbs. All you have to do after that is sprinkle them on your food to give it a touch of green. The beauty of herbs is you can even mix and match. Throw some rosemary and basil into your parsley for a nice fresh Italian herb mix. Mix in some oregano with your cilantro the next time you make enchiladas. Herbs can also work when you leave them whole. By whole I don't mean entire bunches or even big long sprigs. They still have be cut down to size to fit your plate. Single leaves or a sprig placed in the middle of a dish are very elegant and very simple.

Another example of some simple garnishes are nuts and berries. These are pretty much self contained and need little to know work from you. These work wonders for cheese plates or desserts. Once again the key is that less is more. Some berries off to the side add a little color to your plates.

Vegetables themselves also work as wonderful garnishes. Simply shredding some vegetables, such as carrots or cucumbers, will work as a garnish. Or you can always use thinly sliced radishes to provide some flair. Here is a way to dress up your cucumbers the next time you add them to your salad. Instead of completely peeling them, use your peeler in alternating striped fashion. Pretty much any vegetable that has color can be added as a garnish, whether you are slicing, dicing or just shredding them up. If you want to get really fancy, edible flowers are available for your garnishing needs. Please don't think that you can just use anything out of your garden however. Remember what I said earlier about everything on the plate needs to be edible?

After reading this I hope you will play around with and start adding some garnish to your dishes.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Bolognese Sauce

A little preface if you will.  At my current job, I am in charge of the Italian food station.  That means I prepare the daily special as well as preparing the sauces (marinara, alfredo, and pesto) for the pasta bar.  This is an area that I am enjoying very much and am quite good at, if I do say so myself.  Therefore, I will probably write a series of post about Italian food and my work at this station.

That being said, I am covering a quite tasty sauce today. Bolognese sauce, if you have not already figured it out, comes to us from Bologna, Italy.  It is a ragu, in other words, a meat sauce.  If you want to stay traditional, then Bolognese is often slow cooked with vegetables and minced or ground meat such as beef and pork(pancetta) and served only with certain types of pastas.  That is all fine and good.  I am sure there is many an Italian grandma that could thoroughly school me on the finer points of a well made Bolognese sauce.  However, I am here to show you how to make a simply and quite tasty version.

The basics of this sauce are essentially: meat, mushrooms, and tomato.  Now with those basics you could very easily make a Bolonese sauce that would be serviceable, but lets face it.  We want some pazaz!  So, what do we bring to the party to give it a little more flair you ask?  Herbs and spices to start.  Nothing helps Italian food like some nice herbs and spices.  Some black pepper and salt for seasoning, parsley for color and oregano, rosemary and a hint of thyme for flavor.  Onion and garlic will serve as your aromatics.  If you really want to get fancy, you can always add some shallots.

Let's look at those basics again for just a second.  First of all, what do I mean by meat?  Well, generally I am speaking of ground beef.  That being said, you can just as easily use ground turkey, chicken, or pancetta.  Hell, Italian sausage works well with it too.  As far as the mushrooms go, you can go wrong with your everyday white buttons, but once again feel free to experiment.  The tomato part of the equation is also variable.  You can go with ripe tomatoes you picked and diced yourself, although this would add time to your cooking.  You can just as easily open up a jar of your favorite pasta sauce and use that.
Me personally like to use a combination of canned tomatoes (Italian style or with garlic and olive oil) and tomato paste. 

So, let's get stared.  First thing, first.  If you are a culinary professional, then you are taught that before you even get started on the cooking you must get everything prepped.  That means chopping your garlic and herbs, dicing your onion and slicing or chopping your mushrooms if they have not been previously processed.  For the garlic  and herbs keep in mind that while fresh is always better, dried can work. Once you have done this you can begin cooking.  First step is to add a little oil to your sauce pan and heat it up.  Next add your aromatics (onion and garlic) and cook until they get translucent and you can really smell them.

Next add your meat and brown.  Now, you don't have to cook it all the way through. You also have the option of adding your seasoning at this point.  I'm talking about the salt and pepper and all the herbs except the parsley.  After you have browned your meat you can add your mushrooms and cook them a bit Afterward add enough water to mostly cover everything and turn up the heat to full.  This will help that water boil away while it finishes cooking the meat.  If the meat is still in clumps you can break it apart as it cooks.  One other note, if you want to reduce the fat used to cook the sauce, skip the oil in the pan and just add the water at the very beginning.  You won't get browning, but you will still cook everything together.

After the meat is cooked and the water is mostly boiled off, add your tomatoes.  I use canned tomatoes and tomato paste so that I can control the consistency of the sauce.  Too thick, add some more tomatoes.  Too thin, then more paste is needed. Keep in mind that if your sauce is ever too thin, add some tomato paste.  After you have gotten your sauce to the consistency you like, taste it and adjust the seasoning.  Just keep in mind you can always add more, but you can't really take it out. 

Now, just let the sauce simmer for about 15- 20 min.  At the end of this time, add your parsley.  The reason you add it at the very end is so that it keeps its bright green color longer than if you added it earlier.  In fact, another option is just to sprinkle it over the top of the sauce as a garnish.

It is now ready. Just serve it up over or tossed with your favorite pasta. Lastly I just want to say two things: First I have never claimed that this was an authentic Bolognese sauce.  It is just what I have made at work.  Secondly I know I have not included amounts.  This is just general guidelines for making Bolognese sauce.  But for those who need more specific amounts, well here you go:

1 Lbs meat
1 lbs mushrooms
1 onion
2 cloves garlic
1/4 cup parsley
1-2 tablespoons oregano
1-2 tablespoons rosemary
1-2 teaspoons thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
1 or 2 cans of tomatoes
1 can tomato paste
1 jar of tomato pasta sauce

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Mexican Shrimp Scampi

This is a recipe that a co-worker and I came up with.

1 lbs uncooked shrimp
3 tbls olive oil
2-4 tspn cayenne pepper
Salt and Pepper to taste
2 tbls butter
2 roma tomatoes diced with seeds removed
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 lime juiced
3 tbls cilantro chopped

Toss the shrimp with the olive oil, salt and pepper, and cayenne making sure all the shrimp are coated.

In a large saute pan, heat the butter.

Saute the garlic and tomatoes until they become aromatic.

Toss in the shrimp and cook until they become pink.

As the shrimp finish cooking, add the fresh lime juice.

When the shrimp are done, add the cilantro and toss together.

Serve this dish over some white rice or with warm corn tortillas.

As they say necessity is the mother of invention, this recipe came from our necessity to do something with some shrimp.  We were tired of just using the same old seasoning packets that were on hand.  So we looked to see what was available in our small refrigerator and pantry.  At first we thought we would make a cream sauce since we had both half-and-half and crema Mexicana.  However, this did not work because we found the much more interesting and rich ingredients listed above.  When we were done making our little concoction we found out that it worked out well and was quite tasty.  I figured it reminded me of scampi, but with a Mexican flair.  Therefore we have the birth of Mexican Shrimp Scampi.