Monday, May 31, 2010

Foodbuzz 24x24: A Swanky Outdoor Barbecue Party

I have different sets of friends. Don’t you?

Do you have friends you socialize with at work, who, come Monday morning, hear all about your other friends that you hang out with on the weekend? Or a group of friends you do a particular social activity with who don’t know the other friends you meet up with for the occasional happy hour? Yesterday I pulled together some people from my various groups of friends to celebrate the unofficial arrival of summer with a backyard bash. I was lucky that Foodbuzz chose my proposal to host a party where the food was influenced by all the places the boy and I have lived, our backgrounds, and our family histories; we ended up with an eclectic menu that tied well together.

As I write this today, as the rain is beating against the windows while I snack on what’s left of the tapenade, I am thankful that we were graced with such good weather yesterday. The rain avoided us altogether which was perfect, as we had both grills (one charcoal, one gas) and the smoker going.

I knew that the boy and I would make the most of using our grills and smokers, but I didn't want the menu to be traditional grilled fare, such as hot dogs and hamburgers, hence the swankiness of the menu.

On the menu:

. Tapenade with toasted baguette
. Roasted red pepper, chipotle, and white bean dip
. Vidalia onion dip
. Grilled clams with prosciutto and Sriracha
. Grilled artichokes with chipotle vinaigrette
. Smoked and grilled wings
. Grilled asparagus and haricots verts, tied with leeks and drizzled with a garlicky balsamic vinaigrette
. Red and yellow tomato salad with buffalo mozzarella and basil vinaigrette
. Beef tenderloin, slathered in roasted garlic, then smoked
. Jalapeno-stuffed and grilled pork tenderloin
. Cedar plank grilled salmon
. Vanilla Pavlova topped with sliced Georgia peaches, whipped cream, and a raspberry-peach coulis
. Chocolate mousse cake
. Signature drink: a pitcher of sweet tea vodka and lemonade (this and vodka mixed with San Pellegrino Limonata are my two go-to drinks this summer. I can't seem to get enough of them!)

In deciding the menu, the boy and I chose some of the foods we like the best. Some of them are influenced by where we currently live, such as sweet tea vodka and lemonade, the Vidalia onions used in the dip, the Georgia peaches used in the Pavlova. I was super excited a few days back to find the first of the season's peaches at Nell's Produce Stand on the corner of Old Alabama and Nesbit Ferry Roads. The peaches sat in a bowl on the dining room table all week, where i've set up my home office, and the smell of them has been intoxicating. I knew right away that i'd have to incorporate them with whipped cream and meringue. Pavlovas seem to be one of my go-to desserts for dinner parties, and this one did not disappoint.

There's a long running joke in this house that the boy would eat chicken wings every single day of his life if given the opportunity. As it is, he makes wings pretty regularly around here. Lately he's been making them on the charcoal grill. He'll smoke them first with some hickory chips, and then give them some good grill marks before moving them to the cooler side of the grill to finish cooking with the grill lid down. While these were doing their thing, he grilled some clams. These take but a few minutes; they are ready once they open up. Top each clam with a bit of prosciutto and a dollop of hot sauce. The briny clams instantly transport me back to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, where the boy is from, and where we lived together for five years.

The grilled asparagus and haricots verts are a throwback to my French roots. I love simple vegetables grilled then drizzled with vinaigrette. Not only is this a super healthy way to cook the vedge, the grilling gives them good flavor, which is only enhanced by a vinaigrette made with balsamic and sherry vinegars, olive oil, Dijon mustard, minced garlic, salt and pepper.

The beef tenderloin couldn't be easier to fix. Roast a head of garlic, and once cool enough to handle, push the cloves out with your fingers into a bowl and mash along with a teaspoon or so of olive oil and some salt and pepper. With your hands, slather this all over a nice beef tenderloin that has been trimmed of all the fat, and truss it. Trussing is just a fancy name for tying things up with twine. If you do this, you can fold in the tapered end of the tenderloin and tie that part together, as it will ensure even cooking all over. If not, some parts of the tenderloin will be more cooked than other parts. We put this 7 pound tenderloin in the smoker (which had been prepped with a mixture of both hickory and apple chips) and let it smoke to an internal temperature of 145 degrees F, which took about 2 1/2 hours.

We are big fans of spicy foods, which is how Sriracha, jalapenos, and chipotles fit in to the picture. I love the smokiness that a bit of chipotle gives a dish. Take a can of chipotles in adobo from the grocery store (found in the International Foods aisle), and blitz in a blender. This will keep a very, very long time in your fridge in a container with a tight-fitting lid. Use a teaspoon or so to add some depth of heat and flavor to a vinaigrette or a dip.

I would like to thank all of my friends, old and new, who were able to enjoy this wonderful evening with us, and especially would like to thank Foodbuzz for making it all possible. I'm left with great memories and new ideas for our next dinner party.

PS tomorrow i'll post the recipe to the pork tenderloin, which was a bit hit at the party (here's lookin' at you, Darrel).

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The fundamentals: garlic

I decided that every now and again, I’m going to write about one lone food item in all its glory, kind of a back to basics in a way. This idea started because while out at a function recently, I told people I write a food blog and each one of them asked, “Oh! What restaurants have you reviewed?”. Why did everyone automatically assume that I blog about restaurants? When I told them that, No, in fact I write about the food I make (and occasionally gripe about my mother), each and every one of them looked perplexed. It dawned on me that a lot of people either don’t cook or don’t know how to cook.

Which is actually great, in a way. Please go out and support your local restaurants, by all means! And I don’t mean any disrespect towards food bloggers who solely write about restaurant food. There’s definitely a huge market for that out there, and I enjoy reading those blogs. But treading water in the low tide of the economic ebb most of the time, I tend to cook at home a lot since it’s less expensive. The more you practice cooking, the better you’ll be at it.

Garlic has been long rumored to help fight heart disease, but that was debunked by a Stanford University study a few years back. It’s one of the oldest cultivated plants in the world; doctors and shamans have been using it to help cure a variety of ailments over the centuries. I’m not sure whether or not it truly helps heal anything in particular, but it is full of vitamins (B6 mostly) and is very healthy to eat. When buying garlic, choose firm heads that feel slightly heavier than they look, and don’t buy any that are spotty or have the papery hulls falling off all over the place. I enjoy using garlic in my cooking, and it is prevalent in the cuisine of Provence, where my mom’s family is from. I love to grate a raw clove on a microplane grater and add that to vinaigrette for salad. But what I especially love to do the most is to roast it.

Put a head of garlic on a cutting board and cut the top part off, exposing a few of the tips of clove heads. Now, here you can do one of two things. This fancy little clay dish with a lid pictured above is a garlic roaster. I’m not a huge fan of one-trick-pony utensils in the kitchen, but it was a gift, so I use it. Before using it, you must first soak it in a sinkful of water for about 15 minutes (both dish and lid). After you remove it from the water, put your guillotined garlic head on the dish, drizzle it with a smidgen of olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, put the lid on and put it in a COLD oven. Only after you’ve closed the oven door should you turn on the oven heat to 350 degrees F or even 375 degrees F. Leave it in there for 45 minutes to an hour (your house will smell heavenly, and chances are you will too) then remove from the oven and let rest on a trivet, putting the lid to one side to cool.

If you don’t have a fancy garlic roaster, a piece of tin foil will do just fine. Just put the garlic head in the middle of it, give the garlic the same olive oil, salt, and pepper treatment as above, and wrap the garlic not too loosely but not too tightly either in the foil until you have a nice little shiny package.

Place it in a cold oven and roast at the same temperature and for the same time as above. When you remove it from the oven, let it sit on a trivet or plate but refrain from opening up the package, or else you’ll get garlic-infused steam burns. Not fun (trust me on that).

So now what? What should you do with all those cloves of roasted garlic which has scented your house so lovingly? You could mix a clove or two with a bit of mayo for a roasted garlic aïoli. A traditional aioli like my grandmother used to make uses raw garlic, but the roasted garlic will do just fine. Smoosh a clove of it into vinaigrette, or whip some into mashed potatoes. The food combination possibilities are endless. But my very favorite way to eat roasted garlic is to smoosh a clove on a slice of toasted baguette and sprinkle some parmesan cheese on top.

Roasted garlic keeps very well for about a week in the fridge. Leave it as is in a tightly covered Tupperware container, and as you need them, smoosh out a clove from its papery hull with your fingers (and wash your hands really well!)

Monday, May 17, 2010

a letter about envy, and France.

do you ever find yourself envious, so green it makes you want to scream? back in February, i bought Gael Greene's memoir, and then placed it on the shelf in my room where it just sat. i'm fascinated by what little i know of her, but never wanted to read it out of fear, because what little i know of her makes me kind of jealous.

tonight, may 16, after some wine, i grabbed the book off of the shelf and read the last bit in the book, "Gael Greene on Gael Greene". and it did nothing but fuel my envy. envy is not a pretty emotion. i read these few autobiographical passages and i am upset that i did not write them myself . i could have; they, in a way, represent me, perhaps as i once was, or always wanted myself to be. especially on this particular day when i am so homesick for France that i could cry.

it's not often that i'm homesick for France. in fact, i do love living in the U.S, having the opportunities that i do. but here i am, a month before my 41st birthday and i find myself wanting more out of my life. the need to travel back to Europe. my mom's studio in the very antiseptically clean lower 17th arrondissement, an area nobody loves but which i loved walking the empty streets at night - the best part about living in vanilla-land is that nobody else is around past 10 pm, the streets belong to you. fortunately, you'll never find a soul in the Porte Maillot area late at night.

Dear Gael Greene, when i grow up, i want to be you. isn't that juvenile? i think so. but surely my life is far from over. if i could, i 'd jet off to France like i used to. i've sat in the Deux Magots and soaked it all in, wishing i'd remember every detail. i walked past the Louvre at 7 am on my way to meet a work client (very un-French, that time of morning; but it was necessary), watching the sun rise through the panes of glass of the pyramid. i walked the length of the rue de Rivoli all the way up to the Place de la Concorde, stopping several times along the way for un demi - for the early September heat caused all residents to flee their un-airconditioned rooms and people watch in the cafés.

i will most likely regret this outburst of feeling tomorrow, but so be it.

Dear France, will i ever see you again? The pain i feel tonight seems surreal, naive , and very silly. so be it.

me in the garden at the Hotel Etoile-Pereire, 1998

Saturday, May 8, 2010


today is one of those days when I could use a Pastis. So I’m drinking one.

what's a Pastis, you ask? it's what little old Frenchmen drink. It’s anise flavored (anise is similar to licorice, but not in the same culinary family) and refreshing on a hot and humid day, such as the day we are having here today in Atlanta. In the Provence region of the south of France, where my mom’s family is from, it is widely drank. Actually, I’m fairly certain that my grandfather drank it all year round, although it's technically an aperitif, which is meant to be drank before dinner.

Little old men sit in village cafés and town squares and play boules or pétanque, which is the French version of the Italian game of bocce ball, and drink a Pastis or three while the day slowly unfolds. Summer days in Provence are much like the lazy summer days in the American South. People drink in life slowly, nothing is rushed.

Most countries seem to have a licorice flavored alcohol. There’s absinthe, which I once had an icky experience with; the Greeks have ouzo, which my old boss from the Mediterranean restaurant in Florida where I worked drank constantly; Sambuca from Italy; Jägermeister from Germany, which is extremely popular with college kids in the US (Jäger and I are no longer friends since one night when I was 23 – but that’s another story). The people from Provence have Pastis, made from one part Ricard or Berger (two brands of the liquor), two parts water, and a couple of ice cubes.

I usually don’t like it during the rest of the year, but on a hot day, there is something about the cloudy diluted beverage that satisfies and quenches. You can find Ricard in any good liquor store, but the bottle I have was hauled back from Marseille, therefore having special meaning for me. i've had it a number of years, but it only gets touched on hot days, such as today.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

you jerk!

So I went to Jamaica once, but I don’t remember eating anything jerked. In fact, the only food item that I remember eating was the beef patty flaking all over me as I ran through the terminal at the Montego Bay airport, all while chugging a Red Stripe. Hey, I have my priorities (and on that trip, it was beer). The trip wasn’t memorable for the food; it was memorable for the day and a half it took my friend Patty and I to get to our resort due to wonderful Hurricane Gustav; the wallet stealing incident (Patty’s); the never-ending hangovers (both of us); the boatloads of Indian soap operas that I watched on the hotel TV; the Canadian naval officers who were shocked, SHOCKED I say! at American behavior (not ours, for once); and a guy named Ricky or Ronnie or whatever his name was, a swinger from Denver, who insisted on following me around all over the place.

When I read this laundry list over, it doesn’t appear that I had a good time, but I really did. Honestly. Anyway.

I’ve made all kinds of jerk marinades and sauces over the years, and they’ve all had variations from one another. I liked this marinade recipe from Weber’s Real Grilling because I could toss it all in the food processor in the morning and keep it in the fridge until I was ready to use it later that night. My time these days is quite limited, what with starting my new Fancy Corporate Job and all, so if I can spend 10 minutes in the kitchen in between conference calls, I consider that useful therapy. In the past I’ve made the recipe listed on the side of the McCormick bottle of Jerk Seasoning, and that was fine; but these days I’m trying to stay away from putting additives and crap in my food if I can help it.

If you’re using a store-bought jalapeño and you like your food to be spicier, toss another jalapeño in the food processor. If, however, you’ve got some lovely homegrown jalapeños, such as I plan to have later this summer when my newly potted plant starts gushing out fruit, then use only one. It’s been my experience that homegrown hot peppers tend to have a lot more kick than store-bought, a LOT more. Plus they’re better for you (you won’t see me putting chemicals or Round Up anywhere near my plants).

I also think this would be good with some baked tofu instead of chicken (if you’re into tofu, that is). You could marinate cubes of tofu beforehand and either pan fry or bake in the oven. Just switch out the chicken stock for veggie stock if you want to keep it all vegetarian.

A note on the chicken: this is a great use for leftover chicken, if you roasted one up and have bits left over. This last time I made this, I roasted 3 bone-in-skin-on breasts on 350 for about 45 minutes or so, first dabbing them with a bit of canola oil and salting them liberally. You could go the extra step and marinate the chicken first in the jerk marinade, and then either bake or grill them that way. If you are going this route, save some of the marinade or make extra of it; you’ll need some for the sauce.

Jerk Chicken Pasta Toss
This feeds many. At least 5 or 6 people.

adapted from Weber’s Real Grilling

. ½ cup (or one small) onion, roughly chopped
. 1 jalapeño pepper, roughly chopped
. 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
. 2 tablespoons soy
. 2 tablespoons vegetable oil (such as canola)
. ½ teaspoon ground allspice
. ¼ teaspoon garlic flakes (you could use a regular clove of garlic if you’d like)
. ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
. ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
. ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
. 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Toss everything in a food processor and process until smooth.

For the rest:

. 3 or 4 cooked chicken breasts, or about 3 cups of cooked leftover chicken, or 3 chicken breasts marinated in some of the marinade, then grilled/broiled/baked, however method you prefer. Once they’re cooked, either chop up or shred into medium sized chunks.
. 1 green pepper, diced (not too small)
. 1 onion, diced (not too small)
. Olive oil
. 2 to 3 cloves garlic, microplaned or minced
. 1 ½ cups chicken stock
. ½ cup white wine
. Approx. 3 tablespoons to ½ cup jerk marinade/sauce
. ¼ cup chopped cilantro
. Juice of one lime
. Salt & pepper
. ¼ cup heavy cream (hey – you need some fat in your diet. The cream balances the whole dish out. And it’s not like you’re pouring it straight down your throat).
. One package of noodles. I usually get whole grain egg noodles for this dish, but I’ve made it before with linguine and it turned out swell.

1. Get some water on to boil for your pasta. Once it’s boiling, toss in a handful of salt, then your pasta. Cook according to package directions, drain, and keep to the side.

2. Meanwhile, in a large deep skillet over medium heat, pour in about 2 teaspoons of olive oil, then toss in the onion and green pepper. Cook until soft but not brown, about 4 or 5 minutes (if the vedge is getting too brown, turn the heat down). Add the garlic, stir and cook for one minute. Add the chicken stock, wine, jerk, cilantro, lime juice, and stir. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil then turn the heat down and let it simmer for about 5 to 10 minutes. It will reduce a bit.

3. Slowly drizzle in the heavy cream and stir to combine. Toss in the chicken; stir to combine. Toss in the noodles; stir. Turn the heat off and plate up.

Patty at the bar near our gate, Hartsfield Atlanta Airport

Sunday, May 2, 2010

a blog post of tasty stuff

this post is dedicated to the boy, who's been complaining about the lack of so-called "tasty stuff" on this blog. i find my food to be quite tasty, so i don't know what he's bitching about; but nevertheless, here goes. i don't have it in me to type out any recipes, as i'm not yet properly caffeinated this morning, but i'll show you some beauts that we've been eating lately.

pigs. blankets. all golden and delicious. lined up like soldiers waiting for battle against hungry mouths. the mouths won.although, technically, these were cows n' blankets, as i used little beef smokies. those tend to be easier to find than piglettis.

grilled pork chops with a soy glaze.  we've been using George, the charcoal Brinkmann grill this year. poor ol' George hasn't been used in a couple of years, due to Some People in This House favoring Fred, the gas grill, a bit more (whoever can figure out why the grills are named the way they are gets a cookie).  I'm not going to get into a debate of charcoal versus gas once again; Fred is useful if i want to grill, say, one piece of fish for myself for lunch.  But i definitely prefer using lump charcoal. besides, the smell reminds me of cookouts from my childhood.

Smoked flank steaks, which were marinated overnight in soy, Pickapeppa, Worcestershire, red wine, vinegar, brown sugar, and garlic.  Delicious.

Pulled pork nachos.  i used blue corn chips for these (the contrast in colors is nice), topped with a bit of cheddar (smoked cheddar, if you like), and a slice of jalapeño.  toss in the oven on 350 F for a couple of minutes until cheese is melted.   If you smoke the pork butt first, you might want to save your money and use a regular sharp cheddar instead of splurging on smoked stuff, as the flavor of the smoked cheese loses when faced up against smoked pork. unless you smoke your own cheese, which is something i've yet to do but have on my list of culinary Things I Want To Make.

Speaking of pork, whether smoking a butt or roasting a loin, always buy a bigger piece to cook.  leftovers are fanatastic, and they freeze really well.  we either shred or slice it up, freeze enough for two portions in individual ziplock baggies, and defrost for when we need a lunch idea, like cuban sandwiches:

my mom gave the boy an electric grill and panini press for Christmas, and we've been putting it to good use on a regular basis. i never wanted one of those gizmos, always felt it to be a one-trick pony in the kitchen. i ended up using the hell out of it for indoor grilling all winter, and we make a variety of smooshed sandwiches at least once a week.

Smoked wings. Grilled first for marks, then moved to the other side of the grill while apple chips smoked away on the hot embers. 

falafel. wait - how did this one get in here? well, this one's all for me, as the boy deems this part of the "crap rabbit food" category. i made a batch of these recently and ate falafel for about a week straight till i could face it no more.

hmm. all the picture-gazing this morning has made me hungry. today's dilemma: what to make for dinner?