Monday, November 25, 2013

Thanksgiving Sides

As Thanksgiving (one of my favorite holidays) quickly approaches, many of us have already made or are in the process of making plans.  I, as I do most years, plan to take in all orphans, wanderers, and stragglers from my social group.  Given that it is sometimes difficult to travel on Thanksgiving I decided some years ago that I would have a place where all those unable to go home could go and not spend Thanksgiving alone.  To that end, I have hosted what I call Epic Thanksgiving over the past few years (pictures and another post later).  Yesterday I was speaking with my best friend about Thanksgiving and he was asking my opinion about how to make a good gravy.  As we spoke I also told him about some of the side dishes I was going to make.  He got so excited that he asked me to write down the recipes and send them to him.  Never one to jump on an opportunity to write in my blog, I agreed I would share my recipes with him and with all my readers.

During the years I have served Epic Thanksgiving I have made a side dish that is so popular, it is requested every year.  My sweet potatoes with blue cheese and bacon are so popular that one of my friends half jokingly requests a small casserole dish be made especially for him.  I ran across this recipe when I was working at Central Market and have made it my own.

2-3lbs sweet potatoes
1 cup milk 
1/2 lbs bacon (thick cut preferably)
2 cups blue cheese
Salt and Pepper to taste

1. Dice bacon into small pieces and render the fat. Remove bacon and save the fat.

2. Peel the sweet potatoes and cut into large pieces.  Boil in water until soft, as if preparing for mashed potatoes.

3. Warm the milk in a sauce pan.

4. Mix soft sweet potatoes with milk, bacon fat and salt and pepper.  Adjust the seasoning to your taste.  If you don't want to use bacon fat, butter can serve as a substitute.

5.  Spray a casserole dish big enough to hold all your potatoes with cooking spray. Add your potatoes and spread evenly.

6. Top with bacon and blue cheese evenly over the top.

7. Bake in a 350 degree oven until everything is hot and cheese is melted a bit.  This dish can be prepared a day ahead of time and just baked the day of serving.

My next side dish is something I will be making for the first time this year.  I usually change out the vegetable side for the meal. One of the previous years I made some balsamic roasted Brussels sprouts.  At work as of late I have made some balsamic glazed roasted butternut squash with kale.  I decided to make a hybrid of these two recipes.

2-3 lbs butternut squash peeled and diced.
2-3 lbs Brussels sprouts halved
1 lbs kale chopped
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4-1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and Pepper to taste

1.In a large pot bring about a half gallon to a gallon of water to a rolling boil.  While the water comes to boil, fill a large bowl a fourth of the way with ice.  Fill to half with water.

2. When the water is at a boil, drop in your Brussels sprouts.  Leave them in there just long enough for them to become fork tender and bright green.  Usually between 1-2 min.

3. Once they are tender, use a spider or slotted spoon to fish them out and immediately drop them into the ice water.  Once all your sprouts are cooked, you may drain them.

4. Using the same boiling water you can do the same thing to your kale.  The kale will take significantly less time in the hot water.  (Note, you will have to make a new ice bath or use the same one provided you did not  dump it out to drain your sprouts.)

6. After draining both the kale and the sprouts, dry them off with a towel.

7. Mix the brown sugar, balsamic vinegar, olive oil and salt and pepper together until smooth.

8. Toss the butternut squash and the Brussels sprouts with the sugar and vinegar mixture.  You can toss the kale too if you would like.  Just know it will result in crunchy kale which is not bad.

9.  Roast vegetables in 350 degree oven for about 20 min or until butternut squash is tender.  I usually check mine after 15 just to be safe.

10.  If you have not previously tossed your kale with everything do so now.  The heat of the other vegetables will heat up the kale.

11. Serve and enjoy!

Last, this is how I make my giblet gravy using the drippings from the roasted turkey.

1 cup flour
1-1 1/2 cups white wine
2 cups chicken stock or broth
Giblets from the trukey
Fat and drippings from the turkey, preferably still in the roasting pan.
Salt and pepper

1. Place roasting pan with fat and drippings over heat and get the fat hot.

2. Add the giblets and saute in the fat allowing them to brown.

3. Add the flour and mix with the fat to make a roux.  Allow to cook for about a minute. If the roux looks too doughy, add more fat, such as oil.  If it is too liquidy or fatty add more flour.  The roux should be smooth.

4. Add the wine and scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen all the tasty bits.  The liquid will become very thick from the roux.

5. Add the stock/broth stirring vigorously so as to avoid lumps.

6. Add salt and pepper to taste and strain your gravy.

7. For added flavor, take the giblets and chop them up and add them back into your gravy.

8.  If your gravy is too thick you can add more liquid to thin it out.  If the gravy is too thin, you can add a cornstarch slurry to thicken it up

9. If you gravy has a dough like taste to it, just allow it to cook a little longer over low heat.

So, these are my side dishes for this Thanksgiving.  You may ask why there is not recipe for a stuffing.  Well, my wife takes care of that.  If she is feeling generous, she may do a guest post and give up her family secrets.  I will post more about how I make my bird later.  For now, I hope you enjoy these and I hope they help.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Sweets by Belen

What do you think of when you think of great desserts?  Probably cakes and pies hailing from the United States or maybe even parts of Europe.  Some may even go as far as thinking about Mexico.  Well, what if I told you about desserts from Peru? I was introduced to Ms. Belen Bailey via email encouraging me to try something different from your typical desserts and sweets.  Always the intrepid foodie willing to be adventurous, I agreed to meet her.  Belen is the owner and operator of Sweets by Belen, a "food truck" specializing in desserts with a South American (Peru in particular) flair.

Belen Bailey came to the US from Peru to be a teacher, not a cook or baker.  In fact, she was a Spanish teacher for 12 years.  However, during that time Ms. Belen told me that she missed the home cooking form her mom and grandmother and would often contact them to find out how to make things from home.  It was during this time that she discovered her true passion for baking and making sweets.  During our conversation Ms. Belen told me that the reason she changed careers was not because she did not enjoy teaching, but rather because she enjoyed baking more!  She did the baking thing only as a hobby and part time enterprise for 7 years before fully committing to making baked goods full time a year and a half ago.

In a way she does not have a food truck in the traditional sense. Where most food trucks will sell their product out of said truck, Belen uses it more as a means to get her business around.  The truck (more like a van) is used to make deliveries or get product from point a to point b.  Rarely does she actually sell out of the truck, but it can be prominently seen so as to indicate where she is.

 A good portion of her business come in the form of catering, either from her website or from customers who have ordered from her in the past.  Belen told me that she even does cakes and other baked good for some restaurants that either don't have an in house baker or just don't know how to do the things she does. 

I met Belen at the Rice University farmer's market where she can be found every Tuesday from 3:30 to 6 pm.  It was actually at farmer's markets (specifically the Kingwood farmer's market) where Belen first started selling her wares.  Now she not only does the farmer's market scene, but also does food festivals as well.  The festivals are a good way to get here name out there.  A majority of food trucks sell savory dishes so Sweets by Belen provides a good alternative.  Even if there is another dessert truck, it is a certainty that they will not offer what Belen has.

When I walked up to her stand, Belen had a full array of sweets out on display.

Banana Breads and Merenguitos
Various Sweets

 One of her more popular items was the alfajores.  These are little shortbread cookies with dulce de leche sandwiched in between them and coated with confectioners sugar.  Belen makes them in three varieties: traditional, pecan, and chocolate.  At the market she was selling them in packages of 6 cookies.  The cookies were marvelous.  Light and crumbly but not too sweet so that the dulce de leche could provide the sweetness and shine on its own.  I would highly recommend these to anyone.

Traditional Alfajores with one missing.
The most popular item with the kids, however, were the ice pops.
Exotic and more traditional flavors available.

Have to keep them frozen.
 These cool treats were basically just tubes of frozen goodness.  Using the most traditional recipe with the most basic ingredients, Belen creates magic.  She has flavors ranging from the well known, like strawberry, passion fruit, and mango, to the more exotic like chirymoya , lucuma or chicha morada.  I opted to try something different so I chose the chirymoya.  It had a taste that while different it was not unfamiliar and all together enjoyable. Belen mentioned that having chirymoya had gotten her a number of Vietnamese fans seeing as how the fruit is now cultivated over there.

Belen was nice enough to give me some things to try at home with the wife.  So here at home we tried the banana bread and the merenguitos.  The banana bread has liquour infused raisins that Belen infuses herself.  The merenguitos are small meringue "cookies".  They are just basically meringue piped into a shape and baked until hard.  The banana bread was delightful.  The infused raisins played well with the bread and did not overwhelm it.  And while not my favorite, the merenguitos were also good.  They provide an interesting alternative if nothing else as far as sweets go.

Banana Bread w/ Infused Raisins

Merenguitos: Baked Meringue Cookies
 While talking to Belen she told me that she only uses all natural ingredients in all of her confections.  She also tries to use local ingredients too as much as possible, although some of the more exotic fruits she has to ship in frozen.  Right now you can find some of Belen's handy work at both of the Phonecia Specialty Foods locations.  So next time you find yourself in a farmer's market or food festival, keep an eye out for Sweets by Belen and try something out.  I promise you it will be worth it.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Why I Cook: A Chef's Manifesto

To start, I think we have to answer a more fundamental question: why do we eat?  The most basic of answers is a simple biological necessity.  If you don't eat, your body starves, shrivels up and dies.  But there is of course more to it than that.  If not, then why not just "evolve" food into a nutrient rich paste from which we can all derive our sustenance?  Why then did Homo erectus start using fire to cook food?  The answer lies in our love of food.  I don't think anything else could be far more rudimentary and primal than a love for food.  I mean, who does not have that one comfort food?  You know that one favorite meal or dish that can be eaten at any time for any reason.  From that love of eating comes the love for cooking.

I love to eat.  I love food.  And I want to make good food that others want to eat.  It all starts from wanting to make good food; to make something special.  From knowing that if you combine A with B, you not only get C, but you get something that is so much more than the sum of its parts.  That C is something that A and B could never achieve alone.   This drives me to make good, nay, great food.  This is why I hate serving anything that is only ok or even worse, bad.  It is such a disappointment when I make food and I know I could have done it better.  And lord knows I have had my fair share of disappointments.  But from each disappointment I have seen it as a chance for growth and improvement.  Every time I have failed I have learned from it.  I have seen what I did wrong and how to do it better or correct the mistake and make sure I never do it again.  That is why I now make one hell of a kick ass picatta sauce.  But for every mistake, there are countless other triumphs.  That is where I derive the most satisfaction.

Let me explain. For me personally there is nothing more satisfying than when I hear someone compliment my food.  When someone says that what they have eaten that I made is great, it pushes the primordial pleasure centers of my brain.  I think it is the same sense of satisfaction that comedians get from laughter and great musicians and actors get from applause.  I love hearing this from my friends and family.  But it truly has weight when I hear it from strangers and customers who come through my place of employment.  I say this because while I know friends and family give comments sincerely, I also know that part of it comes from the relationship we have.  When a customer writes an email to the executive chef or comes back and tells me personally, I know my food has caused them enough joy to go out of his or her way to let me know about it.  And quite frankly, they really have no incentive to do so.

For this reason, whenever I go out, I make an effort to let the crew in the kitchen know if they have done a really good job.  I know at least one of them will appreciate the compliment.  As a member of the same industry I know what it takes to produce a great meal.  It takes time, dedication, knowledge, sweat and sometimes a little blood and tears.  So next time you go out and have a truly great meal, let the guys in the kitchen know it.  If there is a comment card, fill it out.  If there is not, just tell your server to let them know how much you enjoyed your meal and appreciate the effort put into producing it.  Trust me, it goes a long way!

One thing that I have discovered about cooking along the way is that it is really not as difficult as some people might make it seem.  Sure, it is not without its share of difficulties and there are some things that take some more advanced skills and know how to produce, but the thing you most need to cook is "ganas" or willingness to do so.  Some of the best food ever produced is also some of the easiest and most simple.  Just take the humble grilled cheese sandwich.  Who does not love grilled cheese?  All you need is two slices of bread, some cheese and a skillet.  With a little effort you now have some deliciousness.  If you really wanted to, you could even dress it up.  Use two or three different types of cheese.  Add some fresh tomato slices.  Add bacon!  See?  See how simple that is.  All it takes is a little effort.

I know the biggest thing that probably keeps people from cooking more is fear.  Fear of the food not being edible, much less good.  Fear of wasting time or money on something that you can't eat.  I understand that.  But here is the thing: you have nothing to fear.  If you have never cooked anything before then start small and basic.  Use recipes.  Do your research.  After a while you can move on to more difficult dishes and meals.  If you keep it up long enough you might even reach the point where you don't need a recipe or if you use one, you use it as a guideline.  Whenever you are cooking, just keep this in mind: what's the worst than can happen?  You produce something inedible.  OK, throw it out, learn from it, and try it again at a later point.  I once made pork chops with Worcestershire sauce that were awful.  I learned never to do that again.   Always remember that there are plenty of pizza places around. 

So in the end, I hope this sheds a little light on why some people love to cook.  I also hope it encourages everyone to get in the kitchen and give it a shot if you don't do so already.  Don't eat just for the sake of eating.  Enjoy your food.  And if you make your food, I guarantee it will taste that much better.