Not Quite Four Cheese Tortelloni - Acini de Pepe with Herbed Goat Cheese and Orange

Acini de Pepe with Herbed Goat Cheese
I haven't shared too many recipes lately, so allow me to catch up a little with this simple one that I accidentally created for a recent dinner party.

After making a few complicated appetizers I was prepared to make tortelloni from homemade pasta and fill them with an herbed goat cheese mixture. The pasta dough was ready but I kind of ran out of time. Actually, I lost the teenaged helpers I had been counting on. No worries. This wasn't some fancy dinner party, it was a casual get together. Remember my holiday cooking tips? "#10 - Don't sweat anything".

So we cooked some good dried pasta, tossed it in olive oil, salt and pepper along with a very small amount of the herbed cheese filling that had been intended for the tortelloni. Then dollops of the herb mixture were dotted onto the top of the warm pasta. Some of the mixture melted, some stayed together in....dollops, I guess. I did top it with some strips of oven dried orange peel. Over the top of all this I squeezed the juice of half an orange.

I used a small ball-shaped pasta called Acini de Pepe, which I understand to be Italian for "peppercorns", which is the exact size and shape of the pasta. This is a really good pasta to use for a crowd, because even just a pound of it will a lot of people as a side dish. Why, you ask?

Have you ever wondered why angel hair pasta seems to be more filling than say, fettucine or spaghetti? Maybe not. But most people think so. The reason is that there's more surface area in one pound of very thin pasta than there is in a pound of larger pasta. Thus, more water is absorbed, the pasta gets a little denser, and you get a little fuller. The peppercorn pasta has this same characteristic. We served seven adults and had leftovers, even though most people went back for seconds.

Acini de Pepe with Herbed Goat Cheese and Orange

1/2 cup ricotta cheese
4 ounces plain goat cheese
3 tablespoons milk or cream
1/4 cup good quality parmesan
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
1/2 teaspoon fresh rosemary
4 fresh sage leaves
--- If using dried herbs, use half the amounts and just a pinch of sage
1/2 of one orange
1 pound Acini de Pepe (small ball shaped) pasta
  1. Mix ricotta, goat cheese and milk or cream until texture is smooth. Add parmesan.
  2. Finely chop all herbs and add to cheese mixture along with salt and fresh ground pepper. Cover and allow to chill for at least 30 minutes.
  3. Cook pasta according to package directions, usually about 10 minutes. Drain and toss immediately with a drizzle of olive oil, salt, pepper and two tablespoons of the cheese mixture.
  4. Put pasta into a serving bowl, and while pasta is still warm drop teaspoons sized dollops of herb cheese mixture across the surface.
  5. Squeeze the juice of half an orange over the pasta and cheese.
  6. Optional: Cut long strips of orange rind with the "digging" edge of a citrus zester. Place on foil and cook for 30 minutes in a 200 degree oven. Break dried orange rind over pasta.
Note: since the advent of microplane graters, I rarely use a traditional zesting tool. However, to cut the long strips of orange rind I mentioned I use one. There might be a microplane version, but I haven't seen one yet. If you need one of these tools, here's a good one from amazon: OXO Zester on amazon.com.

Kitchen Gadgets I Hope You Don't Get For Chrstmas

Greetings from the kitchen Grinch. At least the Kitchen Curmudgeon. If you're a ""gadget person", you may not appreciate the holiday sentiment I'm about to share. Hopefully, most of y'all will smile at some point in reading this article.

Most of the major cooking catalogs reach my house - Williams Sonoma, Sur La Table, Chef's Catalog and my favorite Cooking Enthusiast (which originated as Professional Cutlery Direct). I tend to quickly browse them to catch up on the latest trend they're pushing (pannini presses, this year's coffee making solution, and so on).

As I thumb through these catalogs, the gadgets and specialty tools especially stand out to me.....because so many of them are useless. Sure you could use a dedicated tomato slicer, avocado slicer, avocado masher and so on.....or you could use a sharp knife or a fork. The gadgets tend to break, not work all too well and get lost in a drawer somewhere. You'll probably forget you even have most gadgets after a year.

As I scanned one catalog's holiday edition full of inexpensive kitchen gift items, I chuckled with glee with counter arguments for what a good, or improving cook should use instead of the gadget of the day. Here are my thoughts about this year's gadgets. At least they're very colorful, the bunch of 'em.


Silicone Pinch Grips
What you should really use: Dry towel
Yet another specialty item to find, wash and clutter your drawers.


Citrus Juicer
What you should really use: Your Hand
Use your other hand as a strainer to catch seeds.
If your citrus is so hard that you can’t squeeze it by hand, it’s past ripeness.



Pot Clip Utensil Rest
What you should really use: Small plate, bowl or decorative spoon rest.
Hovering utensils over a hot pot will burn or heat up.  

3-in-1 Peeler
What you should really use: One good peeler, or a sharp knife
Ceramic peelers are intensely sharp. You’d be surprised how
many items can be peeled with a sharp knife with just a tiny bit of practice.



Individual steak button thermometers
What you should really use: Instant read thermometer
Can be used for all temperature taking.

Chop-2-Pot folding cutting board
What you should really use: Chef’s knife
It just can’t be that hard to scrape cut items off a cutting board into a prep bowl or pot.



Mini cleaver 3.5” blade
What you should really use: Chef’s knife
Cleavers are for whacking huge hunks of meat and thick vegetables.
Unless you’re an elf, how could you need this?
Actually, this seems kind of dangerous to me.

Garlic Chopper
What you should really use: Chef’s knife
Crush garlic with the flat side of your knife,
it then peels easily,
then chop the garlic with your sharp knife. Really.  


The Grinch on Cooking Gift Sets + A Grinchy Conclusion

Who Hash Gift Set, $49.99.
Includes one can Who Hash produced by hash artisans
from rural Whoville and one inexpensive can opener,

One more thing.....I'm not a big fan of cooking gift sets. Especially Any Gift Set That Includes a Food Product. The quality of the food and gadgets is likely poor and the price likely high. In one catalog alone I saw gift sets for:
  • Paella
  • Pizza
  • Whoopie Pies
  • Donuts
  • Ebelskivers
  • Fondue
  • Cupcakes
  • Grilling with BBQ Rub
  • Moroccan Tagine
  • ....and my favorite, the Himalayan Salt Block set
None really looked like a fair value to me. The sets included gadgets you probably wouldn't use, the quality looked questionable, prices high-ish. Bah.


Grinch with 3x larger heart

Yet, in appreciating that the Grinch himself opened up to new possibilities and embraced the positives of Christmas in Whoville, I too, can open up with a positive ending to my Grinchy ramblings today.

Months ago you may have read my thoughts on the Kitchen Tools You Can't Live Without. It's a pretty short list of essentials that every good cook should have. Picking a few items from that list, and a few others we rely on, here's a very short list of favorite kitchen tools. Most are easily found even during last minute shopping, or might be worth exchanging for if there were some impractical cooking items in your stocking.



Keeping a knife sharp is far more important that what you paid for it.


Less expensive than Pam, better taste from your own choice of oil.

How well does a rounded spoon scrape a pot / pan?


Easy to clean up, replaces many blender and food processor tasks
Better than a mesh strainer, a key for sauces, large capacity,
easy to clean, and can double as a regular strainer / colander.

Organize Your Holiday Dinners and Improve Your Results


I do a lot of cooking. Besides cooking three to five times per week for my family, there are parties at home, large family gatherings and vacations, and I even cater a few parties for friends.  Along the way, I learned how to be highly organized to make large scale cooking faster and more reliable. Today I'll share some of my tips, a few of which I hope are new to you.

To put the following advice in perspective, I can recall spending days preparing a complex Christmas or Easter meal. Now I can throw a fairly sophisticated party for 15 to 25 people and usually start cooking for a few hours the night before, followed by cooking for some or most of the next day, but never all of the next day. And that's for pretty high end, complicated cooking.

How? I've become better organized before the cooking even starts. You can too, even of you only cook "big" once or twice per year.

Tip #1. Write out your menu 'formally' and keep it updated when it changes. Don't rely on a simple scrap of paper or a few emails exchanged among y'all. List  the name of the dish and each subcomponent,  like rice for gumbo. Even for a simple party with a couple dishes, this helps.

Example:

          Pork Potsticker Dumplings                                            Page 44, Land of Plenty (cookbook)
            -- Lime Dipping Sauce
            -- Sweet and Sour Roasted Pepper Strips

          Andouille and Shrimp Gumbo                                        http://www.whattomcooked.com/
            -- Steamed Rice
            -- Crusty Bread
            -- Assorted Hot Sauces

2. Assemble all your recipes in one place. I used to stack up a few issues of Gourmet magazine and a several cookbooks loaded with bookmarks and cook my way through them. Then I started photocopying favorite recipes. Not bad, but it's even easier now because you can print out most recipes from your computer.

From these individual recipe pages you can assemble a clip board or stapled sheaf of recipes all in one convenient place. If you can't get a one-page copy then note the cookbook source on your menu.

Menu and recipes from 2010 Homecoming Dinner
3. Create a master ingredient list from all your recipes. This is not a shopping list (at first). It's a checklist, and it will be a time saver later.

Use Word or Excel to quickly capture the ingredients and quantities. Then you can sort the list by ingredient type and sum up the totals. This sounds excessive, but last week I did it in 20 minutes for a menu that had 8 different dishes, with 16 components (sauces and accompaniments). 

Use this master list to check off what you have on hand vs. what you need to buy. The end result is your shopping list.

Taking this approach will make it almost impossible to forget an important ingredient. If you didn't plan like this and then forget something, someone will spend 20 minutes running to the store. See the lyrics to Robert Earl Keen's classic song Merry Christmas From the Family for a hilarious example.

Or you might skip / substitute an ingredient and not have as good a dish in the end.

4. Be willing to shop at more than one store. It would be convenient to make one giant trip. But if your stores are like mine, there are definitely certain better products at one store than another. In fact, there are some stores here that don't even carry certain items, mostly specialty, but another does. In the end, you'll have a better meal of you get your favorite version of an ingredient. Some preparations about about quality, not time savings.

5. Make as much in advance as you can. Of course you knew this. But let's take it a step further......

6. Create a timeline for when you will be preparing each dish. It doesn't need to be down to the hour. But writing "Fri PM", "Sat Early", "Sat Anytime", "Last Minute" next to each dish (and component) on the menu will help.

You don't have to stick to this plan, but it helps outline what can be done early and what must be done late. You don't need graphs and charts....but it helps. I'm KIDDING. Don't do that.


7. Fill your sink with hot soapy water as soon as you start cooking. This sounds nuts. The usual approach is to pile up a mountain of pots, pans, bowls and utensils, then take a big break and wash them all. Sure, they might be filled with water to soak off the big crud. This is different.

Instead, as soon as you're done with an item or two, toss them into the hot soapy water. Let them sit. If you need one of those items again soon, a quick wash and rinse will have it in your hand in no time.

You might end up using the same pot twice, instead of getting two pots dirty. You get to quickly re-use cooking tools right when you need them. Of course, on a long day of cooking you'll change the water a few times. But it will seem like you barely did any dishes at all by the time you're done.

8. Use painters tape and a Sharpie. You say, "Whaaaaaaat?". Really. This is one of the best tips I can give you, and is something chefs do routinely to identify items in storage containers.

Create a simple label for any item that you can't identify clearly. Two dark sauces in jars? Make a label. Tupperware / plastic ware that you can't see through? Get a label.



Also - use different sized zip-lock bags, which are often better short term storage containers and rigid ones, since they take up less space. Most have a white space so they can be labelled.

9. Determine in advance which pots and pans you'll use for cooking at crunch time and which serving bowls, platter and baskets to use. Get them out at one time so you don't have to dig for them along the way.

Label the serving dishes (see #8) if want, so you don't forget what you planned. For complicated parties and catering, I sometimes label the pots and pans. If I do, I never am short the pan I need when I need it.

Usually I just place all the serving dishes on the kitchen or dining room table. If anything can be temporarily stored at room temperature, like crackers or many vegetables, place them in their serving dish prior to opening or prepping them.

10. Don't sweat anything. Have a glass of wine while you're cooking. Relax. Burn a dish? Throw it away. You'll have plenty of food. Get too busy and skip a planned dish? Who would know (maybe keep that menu to yourself)?

Cooking is about sharing your love and talent with friends and families. Enjoy it.


Updated Simple Shrimp and Lobster Cocktail for Holiday Parties


This is a great simple recipe. If you use it for a holiday cocktail party, you can claim a certain amount of "retro" feel, but also surprise the quests / party goers with the sophisticated flavors that really come out. You can also claim the sauce is called "Rose Maria Sauce", which is accurate. It's a British phrase for ketchup and mayo sauce.

I read the ingredients for this recipe and thought of the mayo/ketchup salad dressing my Mom made in the '70's. But the addition of lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce and Brandy caught my attention. It was shockingly refreshing.

When I made this I went over the top, as I had homemade ketchup on hand, and whipped up my own mayo (literally, of course, it's whipped). But I also made a “regular” version of it using a jar of mayo and off-the-shelf ketchup, to see if it would work as well, and it did.

Shrimp and Lobster Cocktail with Rose Marie Sauce
Serves 8-10

1.5 pounds medium shrimp, preferably 16-20 or 20-25 count, peeled
2 medium lobsters, approx. 1.25 pounds each.
       If you don't want to wrestle with lobsters, add another half pound of shrimp.
Seasonings: 1 bay leaf, 12 whole peppercorns, 1 lemon sliced
1 head Butter lettuce
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 tablespoons ketchup
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon good quality brandy (not flavored in any way)
1 small lemon

  1. Prepare an ice bath - a large bowl of water with a handful of ice cubes.
  2. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil – add seasonings and simmer about 3-5 minutes.
  3. Add shrimp, cook for 2 or 3 minutes depending on size of shrimp. Remove shrimp with a slotted spoon and put in the ice bath. Let cool for 2-3 minutes, then drain.
  4. Cook lobsters in boiling water for 10-12 minutes, one at a time. Plunge into ice bath, or run under cool water until they can be handled.
  5. Combine ketchup, mayo, Worcestershire sauce and brandy. Season with salt and pepper, then squeeze the juice of the lemon into the sauce.
  6. Toss shrimp and lobster pieces in sauce, serve over butter lettuce.
Garnish a sprinkling of lemon zest, or cayenne pepper, or chives whole or finely chopped, most anything could make a nice garnish.

Incredible Leftover Turkey Soup

Unless you had a second Thanksgiving dinner (like we did), you're likely out of turkey by now. But you may have a little rich brown turkey stock in the freezer.

But, don't you usually say to yourself, or aloud, that you should cook turkey more than once a year? You probably can still buy a whole frozen turkey and cook a week or two from now. Or just pick up a whole fresh turkey breast, roast it and thaw some of that delicious stock. Then make this soup.

I've been trying for years to make a decent soup with turkey leftovers after Thanksgiving. Some have been good, maybe even a little better than that. But none have ever been excellent  until I accidentally hit on this one last night.  It's right in line with my frequent advice to rely on fresh herbs, but also is very, very east to make. I didn't realize how easy until I just wrote it down now. So, give it a try, or file it away for next year.

Rich Turkey Soup with Sherry


 
1 to 1.5 pounds leftover turkey meat, roughly torn or cut into 1-2" pieces
1/2 a large onion, chopped finely
3 medium carrots, in 1/8" sliced rounds
4 medium garlic cloves, lightly smashed and skins removed
2 quarts rich brown turkey stock
4 sprigs fresh thyme
4 sprigs fresh, or 1.5 teaspoons dried tarragon
1/3 cup dry sherry, such as Amontillado or Fino - do NOT use "cooking sherry" from the grocery store - you'll poison your palate and be scarred for life. 
  1. Saute onion, carrot and garlic until slightly softened. Season lightly with kosher salt and fresh ground pepper.
  2. Add stock and herbs, bring to a boil.
  3. Reduce heat, check seasoning and simmer 15 minutes.
  4. Add sherry and simmer 2-3 minutes.

Rich Turkey Stock - One Thing That Will Make Your Thanksgiving Dinner the Best Ever

Dear god, that sounds like a headline from Cooking Light magazine or something. Sorry about that.

For quite a few years now I've made a large batch of rich turkey stock a few days or the weekend before Thanksgiving. I strongly recommend you do the same. Here's why:
  • The recipe is very easy to make, with surprisingly little time and effort.
  • The rich stock will make several of your thanksgiving dishes richer and more tasty than ever. I use it in gravy, stuffing and for braised vegetables.
  • It can save you a few dollars while massively increasing quality, compared to buying the ubiquitous cans of stock that suddenly appear en masse in the grocery stores in early November.
  • You'll start the "thanksgiving kitchen smells" a few days early!


Rich Turkey Stock
6 pounds turkey wings, drumsticks, and thighs
3 onions, cut into halves, skin on
3 celery stalks, cut into 3 pieces
3 carrots, cut into 3 pieces, skin on

Fresh Herbs: 10 parsley stems, 1 bay leaf
Spices: 10 whole black peppercorns, kosher salt
Equipment: Large roasting pan, large stock pot, thermometer (candy, oil, or instant read)

  1. Preheat oven to 500°F.
  2. Place turkey parts skin side down in a raosting pan. No oil or seasoning needed.
  3. Roast for 30 minutes, then turn peices over and roast another 20 minutes until golden brown.
  4. Transfer turkey parts to a large stock pot.
  5. Add vegetables to the fat in the roasting pan. After 10 minutes stir vegetables around and cook another 10 minutes, until golden brown.
  6. Transfer veg to stock pot. 
  7. Place roasting pan on stove (use two burners) and add 2 cups water. Turn heat to medium high and scrape up brown bits until they are released from the bottom of the pan.  Note: if there is excessive oil in the pan, drain some off before adding the water.
  8. Add the liquid and vegetables to the stock pot.. Add parsley stems, bay leaf, peppercorns, salt, and 4 quarts water.
  9. Bring water to 180 degrees and cook at that temperature  for 3 hours. Do not let the stock boil.
  10. Pour stock through a Chinois or large strainer discarding solids. If you wish, strain the stock a second time using a layer of paper towel or cheesecloth.

Stock before straining


Roasted Turkey Pieces


Roasted Veg

What Did You Think of the Show "Master Chef?"

Many of you know that I was a finalist to appear on the reality cooking show Master Chef, with Gordon Ramsey. One step further and I would have been on TV.
Auditions for the second season are underway, and the producers have even contacted me directly to try out again.

What do you think? Many of you saw the show, with both it's ups and downs. I'm certain I cook as well as any of the finalist, or even the young winner. But, is it a show you'd like to see me on? Do you think it's worth the publicity - both positive and negative - to be associated with a show like that?

I'm thinking it over. Let me know what you think......you can email me (Tom) at tmcguff@gmail.com.

Chicken Breasts with Capicolla, Mozarella and Herb Roasted Tomatoes

This dish is almost "stuffed chicken, only easier, because you don't have to carefully carve out pockets, nor flatten the chicken breasts.

The only thing to pay close to is the done-ness and browning of the chicken. If you cooked the chicken for the complete 40 minutes that the tomatoes roast, you'd dry out the breast. Adding the chicken part way through cooking, then using the broiler for browning, solves these problems. The exact cooking times may vary based on the size of your roasting pan and specific of your oven. Just make sure the chicken is cooked through. If it's browned and beautiful too, it's a bonus.

In the corner of the picture below you'll see fresh fava beans and peas with butter and lemon.



1.5  pounds boneless chicken breasts
1/4 pound capicolla (regular or hot), very thinly sliced
1/3 pound mozzarella cheese, cut into roughly rectangular pieces
1.5 pounds plum tomatoes, quartered
1 pint yellow cherry tomatoes
Fresh herbs: bay leaf, thyme, rosemary
Staples: Olive Oil, Salt and Pepper
Equipment: Roasting Pan
  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Line a roasting pan with quarters of plum tomatoes, unseeded, and the yellow cherry tomatoes.  
  3. Add 2 bay leaves, 3 thyme sprigs, 2 rosemary sprigs, salt, fresh ground pepper and olive oil. Add a splash of balsamic vinegar. Toss together. If fresh herbs are unavailable, substitute each sprig with a teaspoon of dried.
  4. Roast vegetables for 25 minutes.
  5. While vegetables roast, place chicken breasts in a large bowl, season with salt and pepper, then drizzle with olive oil and toss together. .
  6. Slice each chicken breast lengthwise, being careful to not cut all the way through.
  7. Layer 2-3 slices of capicolla in this fold, then add a rectangle or two of mozzarella. See picture below to see uncooked breasts lined with capi and cheese.
  8. After vegetables have cooked 25 minutes, remove from oven and place the chicken breasts on top of vegetables and herbs, pocket facing up. 
  9. Cook for another 15 minutes. Turn over to broil to slightly brown the tops of the chicken and capicolla and completely melt the cheese (it may brown a little).
  10. Serve over rice or pasta or with bread.


 

Awesome Simple Dinner Technique

 
In my last column I covered the herbs and spices I suggest you ought to have on hand in your spice drawer, spice rack or pantry. I'll follow up with a review of the pantry staples I think are most important to have.

 
But, like you, I've been really busy lately with two teenagers and a grade schooler, swim meets, parties and just plain life as we know it. So before I go into another list / lecture about staple foods, I'd like to share a simple, simple technique for a one-pan meal that I've used several times during the past few hectic weeks. 

The technique comes from Jamie Oliver, and the idea is that you line a roasting pan with vegetables, herbs and seasonings, toss them in oil, then place a main ingredient over the top and roast for about 40-60 minutes depending on the main ingredient. While fresh herbs are the best choice for great results, you can use dried if that's all you've got. Substitute a little less than one teaspoon for each "sprig" of fresh herbs in the recipes that follow the next posts.

Slight variations in this roasting formula have produced: 

and my own creation:
  • Chicken Stuffed with Capicolla and Mozzarella over Roasted Tomatoes and Fennel
Below you'll find a small gallery of photos of these dishes. In the next post, my recipe for the stuffed chicken. Next week, I promise, we'll discuss pantry staples. How exciting!! Well, it's exciting for me, and I hope for you too.

Chicken Legs with Crispy Pancetta
Drippings toast the homemade bread cubes on the bottom layer
to create incredible croutons

Italian Sausages with Herb Roasted Tomatoes

Chicken Stuffed with Capicolla and Mozzarella
over Herb Roasted Tomatoes and Fennel


 

Sorry for the long break

I've had a busy and even unexpected schedule the past couple weeks - out of town job interviews, birthday parties, swim meets, gotcha day party (anniversary of adoption) and even a impromptu hole-in-one celebration (my second).

All to say that I've not shared anything with you gentle readers for a couple weeks. The complaint department at BABC wasn't overloaded with outraged readers - so I appreciate your patience.

So now we return to our regularly scheduled cooking advice and recipes........

Tom

Fennel and Coriander Crusted Tuna with Garlic Chive Aioli

Here's something magic that you can do with just a few spices from your drawer. It's a combination of flavors that don't make their way into dishes too often in this combination - but the end result is hardly unusual or overly powerful. It's just.....well, delicious. I've served this crust on tuna to young kids as well as adults with sophisticated palates. It works for everyone.

If you want to go a step further, blend garlic, lemon, chives and some salt and pepper into mayonnaise to serve atop or next to the tuna.

And an even further step is to make the mayo from scratch....but that's a story for another day.
 

Fennel and Coriander Crusted Tuna

  
2 tablespoons fennel seed
1 tablespoon whole coriander seed
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 1/2 pounds tuna steaks (1 inch thick or more), 4 to 6 portions
Olive oil
  • Prepare grill.
  • Toast fennel, coriander and pepper over medium heat, about 3 minutes. Grind spices and add salt.
  • Coat tuna with olive oil. Sprinkle with spice mixture, press down. Sear tuna until. Rare center is about 2 minutes per side. Optional: refrigerate 1 hour, then cut into slices.
 
Garlic Chive Aioli
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
Zest of one lemon
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoons fresh chives
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • Whisk all ingredients in small bowl. refrigerate for at least an hour.

What Herbs and Spices Should You Have?



Part of Herb Garden
From top, clockwise:
Rosemary, Sage, Thyme, Lavender, Chives
Oregano is hidden behind the sage

The Spice Drawer


Fresh Herbs You Ought to Grow and Use Regularly

Thyme – a workhorse across many cuisines. Very easy to grow.
Basil – summer herb, can be grown indoors in pots.
Rosemary – strong contributor to many cuisines. Very easy to grow.
Bay Leaf – a small tree, more powerful fresh. Can be potted to retard size.
Chives – a wonderful, gentle taste. Purple chive flowers are edible.
Mint – grows like a week. Many varieties with differing taste.
Oregano – least appreciated fresh herb. Unique. Easy to grow.
Sage – grows easily, beautiful purple flowers in spring. Several varieties.
Tarragon – tender, difficult to grow, but worth it. Awesome fresh herb.

Dry Versions of Herbs You Should Stock – just in case

Oregano
Thyme
Rosemary
Sage
Bay Leaves
Tarragon – especially important because the fresh plant is so delicate


Dried Spices and Herbs You Should Have On Hand At All Times

The list below is in priority order based on importance to good and interesting cooking.

Kosher Salt
Whole Black Pepper
Ground Cumin – it's surprising how versatile a little cumin is.
Whole Fennel Seeds – a truly secret ingredient, with a familiar taste
Whole Coriander Seeds – my super-secret ingredient – surprising bright citrus taste
Cayenne Pepper
Dried Red Pepper Flakes
Paprika – Hungarian, of course
Chile Powder – a few variations (like ancho) or home-ground are good additions too
Fresh Vanilla Bean – really no substitute
Cinnamon, ground
Cinnamon, sticks
Nutmeg and metal grinder - not pre-ground
Chinese 5-Spice Powder – Unique blend, store-bought is OK. Homemade better.
Dill – not a big fan, as it's overused in most home cooking

Spices and dried herbs for Advanced Cooking or Exotic Dishes

Again in somewhat priority order based on frequency of use

Whole Yellow Mustard Seeds
Smoked Paprika – Pimenton (Sweet, Bitter and Hot versions)
Sichuan Peppercorns
Ground Coriander
Marjoram – oregano is easily substituted
Whole Allspice Berries
Turmeric – adds bright yellow color and a little unique flavor
Saffron – most expensive spice in the world. No flavor substitute.
Curry - you can make your own blend which is better than store-bought
Star Anise
Whole Cloves
Ground Cloves (very small portion – buy a small amount from a bulk seller)
Dried Yellow Mustard
Cardamom Pods
Pickling Spices – you can assemble your own blend from other spices
Poppy Seeds
Aniseed
Caraway Seed
Ground Ginger (not a substitute for fresh ginger) – mostly for desserts/cakes
Chervil
Savory

Spices You Should Never (or Rarely) Use:

Onion Powder – use an onion. PLEASE.
Garlic Powder – use real garlic. PLEASE.
Onion Flakes / Dried Onion
Garlic Flakes / Dried Garlic
Dried Parsley – use fresh, or skip it.
Dried Chives – use chives, which can also be cut and frozen

A Couple Other Staples That Live in My Spice Drawer

Vanilla Extract
Almond Extract
Sesame Seeds – buy in Asian markets for best deal, or Asian section of grocery
Black Sesame Seeds – Use almost interchangeably with tan sesame seeds
Instant Coffee (Italian) – occasionally used for tortes, flourless cakes, etc.
   

Buying and Storing Dried Herbs and Spices

I had lunch with my friend Katy last week. She told me she spent the whole summer focusing on cooking. At one point she asked a chef friend for advice about what to have on hand in the kitchen, but didn't get useful advice in return.

I knew I could help.

We'll start with spices and dried herbs, then in future weeks cover pantry and vegetable staples. I've broken down fresh herbs, spices and dried herbs into groups based on how often you'd likely use them - at least related to the cooking advice and recipes you get from me.

The Spice Drawer

Buying Dried Herbs and Spices

But don't forget. the only shortcut to becoming a great home chef is to use fresh herbs. Here's my article about fresh herbs, The Only Shortcut to Becoming a Great Home Cook, if you want to review that advice. But, we do have off seasons, don't always have indoor potted versions, sometimes a plant dies or is devoured by caterpillars (parsley) and we need to rely on dried versions. Spices and seeds - well, they're mostly in dried form anyway, so they're the main subject of this discussion.
  • I try my hardest to NOT buy the major brands of dried herbs and spices such as McCormick's or Spice Island. The are often on grocery and warehouse shelves for years. Notice the pale colors. Notice how many look like crumbled sticks and twigs instead of dried leaves. No thanks.
  • Morton and Bassett provides high quality products and are distributed nationally. They're my go to choice, unless I have access to......
  • Bulk spice purveyors - some towns have a gourmet shop or even a dedicated spice shop.These are great sources if you have them. Many grocers now have bulk spices. They're a great value, and usually, but not always, as good or better than pre-packaged spices. You need to test and taste bulk spices, compare them to prepackaged and make your own decision which is best. There's a lot of variation. But bulk is often the best bet for quality and price.
  • Mail order - Penzey's out of Madison, Wisconsin has an enormous selection of high quality spices for sale online and through catalogs. They're good, but I don't tend to shop for a whole bunch of spices at one time, so I don't turn to them often. I wish I used more of their products though. They are good.

Storing Dried Herbs and Spices

Do not leave jars of spices and herbs in a kitchen with direct sunlight. The sun will accelerate the loss of taste and color of the herbs/spices. Store them in a pantry or kitchen drawer.

Here's how it worked out for me. I graduated from spice rack (college) to spice hanging basket (lame 1980's decor) to spice shelf which gave way to the full on spice drawer. Maybe the spice drawer came about because Morton and Bassett labels the top of their bottles. I also have an unnatural phobia of lazy Susan turntables, where kitchen spices are often stored.

In the next post, I'll provide my recommendations for your spice drawer / rack / shelf. But not your hanging basket. That was a bad idea even in the '80's.
  • Fresh Herbs You Ought to Grow and Use Regularly
  • Dried Versions of Herbs You Should Stock – just in case
  • Dried Spices and Herbs You Should Have On Hand At All Times
  • Spices and Dried Herbs for Advanced or Specialty Cooking
  • Spices You Should Never (or Rarely) Use
  • A Couple Other Staples in the Spice Drawer
Next week I'll run through pantry staples and standard vegetables to have on hand at all times. You might also want to review my prior recommendations of Kitchen Tools You Can't Live Without.

Fingerling Potatoes with Bacon, Sage and Lemon

A little backwards this week. Here's a recipe. Commentary / advice / rambling thoughts to follow.

Prep - prior to tossing and roasting


You need to make this dish. I've been on a Jamie Oliver tear for the past few weeks, with good reason. Yesterday I saw a recipe that called for coring medium sized potatoes, then stuffing them with bacon, an anchovy, a sage leaf and lemon zest. Stunning presentation, but all I had were fingerlings - too small to stuff.

So I halved the fingerlings and used similar ingredients, mixing a little anchovy paste with lemon juice. Roast for 25 minutes. Unbelievable. You can't stop eating these.

Fingerlings are a nice, but expensive, shortcut in the kitchen. They usually just need a gentle rinse and never need peeling. So preparatiaon is super fast. The trick is if you can find fingerlings at a great price. Spec's flagship store in mid-town Houston has them for about $1.50 per pound.


Fingerling Potatoes with Bacon, Sage and Lemon

1-1/4 pound fingerling or baby potatoes, mixed colors and sizes
4 slices thick cut bacon, cut into 3/4" pieces
1 lemon, zested, juice reserved
1 teaspoon anchovy paste, or 1 anchovy mushed up with a fork.
1 tablespoon olive oil
4-6 fresh sage leaves
2 sprigs fresh thyme
  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  • Rinse the potatoes, and slice all by the smallest ones in half lengthwise.
  • Mash anchovy paste into lemon juice to combine
  • Toss potatoes with lemon zest, oil, bacon pieces, lemon juice mixture, sage and thyme.
  • Season with salt and fresh ground pepper.
  • Roast for 12 minutes - check doneness, and roast for 8-12 more minutes. Turn pan if your oven heats unevenly.
  • Serve immediately or at room temp.
  •  
    My herb garden

    Thyme on bottom left, sage on right.

Jamie Oliver's 'Proper' Chicken Caesar Salad


Third go-round in a week with Chicken Caesar.
This time used non-romaine. Doesn't matter. This is incredible.

I'm not quite sure how the word 'proper' slipped into the title Jamie Oliver gave this salad, excepting that the word itself is a common Britishism. I'm going to step on the toes of his so-called proper salad by showing you a picture that clearly has arugula, radicchio and endive in addition to romaine. So there.

I'm quite excited to share this recipe and technique. Last week I got copy of Oliver's book Jamie at Home, and have actually made this caesar salad three times since. Granted, I had a lot of croutons and caesar dressing left over after making a double batch for the homecoming dinner. But it was so good we kept making it every other day.
There's a technique offered in this recipe that I've never run across. Toss rustic bread cubes in olive oil and rosemary, then place chicken legs atop the bread cubes. Actually, toss the chicken with the oil and rosemary first, then place them atop. As the chicken roasts for an hour, the drippings will infuse the croutons as they crisp up. 45 minutes into cooking, lay strips of pancetta or bacon over the chicken, and let that crisp up and also drip into the croutons. Have I said enough? You want to make this right now, don't you?

<>  <> 
Chicken Legs and Pancetta over Rosemary Croutons

I've read several recipes from Jamie At Home, and seen eipsode of the TV show, and they frequently make me want to stop what I'm doing and cook that dish. He's got quite a palate and a great imagination for simple but innovative technique - as proven above.

Jamie Oliver's Proper Chicken Caesar Salad

I'm not going to give the detailed recipe for this dish here. The cookbook is newly published, and I encourage you to buy it. On the other hand, you barely need a recipe - especially for the crouton, chicken, rosemary part of the dish. The dressing, well, the proportions would benefit from reading Jamie's book. There's a link below so you can order a copy from amazon.
  • About 8 chicken legs
  • Enough large cubes of rustic bread to cover the bottom of a roasting pan
  • Toss chicken and bread in olive oil and add fresh rosemary leaves. Bake for an hour at 400 degrees.
  • Shred chicken off the bone after it cools enough to handle.
  • Caesar dressing: anchovies, a small amount of garlic, a liberal amount of high quality parmesan cheese, a good couple squeezes of lemon juice, olive oil in triple the amount of lemon juice. Stir together and season with fresh black pepper.
  • A couple hearts of romaine lettuce (or other mix if you prefer).
  • Toss all ingredients together. I recommend very lightly dressing the salad to let the other flavors, tastes and textures shine.

Remember the Naked Chef? He Grew Up.


There was a show on some years ago called The Naked Chef, featuring Jamie Oliver. At the time he was a 20-something, high energy, flash in the pan, or so I thought. The title, the opening scenes where he zipped around on a little moped/scooter/thing, the frenzied British banter, it all did nothing to connect with me. I may have look at an episode or two, but even if the cooking was good, I just didn't want to like this guy.

Guess what? Jamie is grown up now with a cozy house in the country where he makes family meals for his wife and kids. He's committed to home gardening, taking it almost to a commerical scale. The frenzied energy is still there, but it's focused directly on the kind of cooking I keep preaching about: fresh ingredients and fundamental techniques.

OK - his imagination and flavor combinations are so far beyond my creativity that I'm embarrassed.  But this is also why I encourage people to rely on a small library of excellent recipe sources, rather than continually wandering the world of improvisation with average results.

In his latest book, Medium Raw, Anthony Bourdain of Kitchen Confidential and No Reservations fame, one of the most influential food celebrities, puts Oliver on his short list of cooking talents he respects.

Funny, now Jamie Oliver is like Gordon Ramsey to me. I saw him, wrote him off, only to later learn that the TV exposure, the restaurants and publication empire was based on a foundation of truly excellent cooking and innovation.

I first saw a couple episodes of his current show, Jamie At Home on the cooking channel. The first two I saw had such delicious looking recipes that wrote them out by hand from the TV episode. I made a couple of them right away. A few weeks later I ran into a companion book for the series.

Rather than give any "lessons" or advice this week, I'm just encouraging you to watch his show or buy his book. Besides many, many great recipes for any level of cook, it's beautiful in photographic and graphic design terms. The book also has extensive text on growing and harvesting a range of vegetables at home, including rhubarb, cabbages, carrots, lettuces, actually, more than I can reasonably list here.

In the next post, I'll share the concept of one his recipes, which I made three times in the first week I had the cookbook, "Proper Chicken Caesar Salad". It uses a simple, but incredibly effective and innovative technique. 

Some of the other recipes I've made are Kefta Kebabs with Pistachio and Spicy Salad Wrap, Rhubarb Bellini, Warm Strawberries with Pimm's. I plan to make Asparagus Potato Tart, Zucchini Carbonara and Hot and Sour Rhubarb with Crispy Pork and Noodles. Again, you'd be surprised that these recipes have fewer ingredients and less complex techniques than you'd ever imagine, based on the titles.

Caesar Salad
I cheated a little the third time I made it in one week,
by adding some mixed greens we had on hand instead of just romaine.

A Kinda Fancy Version of a Chicago Style Italian Beef Sandwich




This is a surprisingly simple recipe which can be put together in a matter of just minutes of active cooking time. Don't let the seemingly long list of ingredients and sub-recipes fool you. It is EASY. Though this is absolute heresy, you could use left over steak and make a small batch of sauce on its own. I did that earlier this week and it was quite surprisingly good, though the texture of the meat differed from the true Italian beef sandwich.

I'm not sure if other cities or regions offer anything exactly like Chicago style Italian beef sandwiches. Sure there's French Dip, but the specific taste of the Chicago is unique. I guess owing to Jay Leno, people outside Chicago now know a little about it. the two key aspects of the style are that the roll is soaked in beefy "juice" prior to serving, and the pepper toppings are fairly unique to the sandwich.

There are two Chicago style approaches to the toppings, roughly. Of course, many people put both on the same sandwich.

  • Hot - which means giardiniera, a spicy mix of peppers, onion, cauliflower and other vegetables. Even "mild" giardiniera is fairly spicy.
  • Sweet - which implies pan roasted bell peppers. Usually green, sometimes green and red.


I had some giardiniera on hand, but Margie and the kids would probably pass on the spicy version. In fact, most of them would pass on the sweet version too, but whatever. So I went "High End Sweet", and slowly cooked onion, garlic and fennel with red, orange and green peppers. I added a few fennel seeds, dried oregano (bowing to local tradition) and hot pepper flakes. It looked like this, and was delicious.



Chicago Style Italian Beef Sandwiches

Beef

3-5 pound beef roast (rump, bottom, sirloin) or leftover steak
1.5 teaspoon each of dried basil and oregano
5 medium garlic cloves, sliced
2 cups beef stock
1/2 cup red wine
Salt and fresh ground pepper
     --- Combine all ingredients and marinate for 4 hours or overnight.
     --- Place beef on a rack in a roasting pan and pout marinade into pan
     --- Roast in a 350 degree oven for 2-3 hours, until internal temperature is 140 degrees
     --- Let beef rest at least 30 minutes, or chill in fridge.
     --- Reserve all the liquid, and keep warm in the roasting pan or a separate pot
     --- Cut paper thin slices, preferably with an electric slicer.

Sauce

If you don't cook the roast beef, and use leftover steak slices, use this recipe for sauce.
2 cups beef stock
1/2 cup red wine
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
(I swear, this is the first time I've recommended two dried herbs. But, we're trying to stay authentic-like)
Salt and Pepper to taste
     --- Bring sauce ingredients to a boil in a small sauce pan, then simmer while making peppers.

Peppers and Fennel

1 small red onion, sliced
1 bulb fresh fennel, white parts, sliced thinly
1 red pepper, seeded and sliced
1 green pepper, seeded and sliced
1 orange or yellow pepper, seeded and sliced
2 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano (again, an homage)
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste
Salt and fresh ground pepper
      --- Add 1-2 tablespoons olive oil to a skillet over medium-high heat
      --- Add onion and fennel and cook for 5-6 minutes
      --- Add remaining ingredients, cook for 5-6 minutes
      --- Lower heat to medium-low or low
      --- Cook for 5-6 more minutes, or until peppers are soft, but have not changed colors (gotten pale)

Sandwiches

8 thick sandwich rolls
      --- Add beef to sauce and let sit over low heat to warm through.
      --- To serve, use tongs to place beef into sliced rolls. The rolls CANNOT EVER be toasted, just in case anyone from outside Chicago gets any crazy ideas.
      --- Spoon additional sauce over the sandwich to make it as "dry" or "wet" as you prefer.
      --- Top with a generous portion of the mixed peppers.

Menu? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Menu!


You know that old saw, there's only one rule - there are no rules. It's pretty true for cooking. You can do anything you want. However, I do recommend that you focus on developing fundamental techniques, use high quality fresh ingredients and let a small number of good recipes help you along.

Last week I touted the value of a weekly menu, then gave a little update or two along the way. It was a great approach for our family. We had many fresh, interesting meals last week from that menu, then followed it up with hosting almost 30 people for a Homecoming dinner. Monday, we even had a little Bears-Packers Monday Night Football party, and a decent approximation of an Italian beef sandwich.
How did the menu work out? Here are some observations:
  1. There were a few changes along the way. Not a big deal, but I substituted one vegetable for another, made a second batch of mac and cheese because the first one was too spicy for some eaters, and changed the leftover night to earlier in the week.
  2. Actually, we had too much food, too early in the schedule. Then we had food leftover, as we headed into our weekend schedule, which differed from the prior weeknights. I hate having too much on hand then wasting food if it's not eaten in time, but it happened.
  3. The menu I composed was pretty darn "high end" in the sense that there were not one-pot meals, convenience foods, and I challenged the kids a couple times with specific ingredient or flavor choices.  I think if there was one "staple" or a dish that would "stretch", the overall menu would have been more powerful and efficient.
Note - this week, I'm not using a menu at all.  Was it bad advice? Not at all. This week we used leftovers on Monday to create our beef sandwiches. Tuesday was a high school swim team pot-luck dinner. As to the rest of this week we'll:
  • Wed: grill a simple meat and serve it with salad, vegetables and pasta (adding leftover sauteed pepper and onion from Monday's sandwiches).
  • Thu: Swim meet at 6pm. We'll munch on leftovers and sandwiches.
  • Fri: kid's sleepovers, a happy hour and an evening party. We'll probably warm a pizza. 
So where's that high-falutin menu planning now, you  ask? Dare I say "every other week"? Yes. Sort of. If last week's menu were simpler, we'd probably do something like that again. If this week weren't so hectic outside the house, we'd cook more elaborately.

The amount of menu planning kind of reminds me of how a baby or toddler eats. They might eat vegetables for five meals in a row, spitting out all other food offerings. Then for the next few days they'll eat nothing but fruit and meats. In the end, it doesn't matter too much, as long as over a shortish period of time, they get enough vegetables, fruit and meat.

I don't have an exact number in mind, but it you were to cook a fresh meal, say 12 times a month, you'd be cooking and eating well. Picture leftovers for most (say 9) of those meals, a few nights out - either dining or grabbing something quick on the run (like a pot luck dinner for the swim team) - and a few nights of truly convenient cooking. Like sandwich night. Or baked potato night. Or breakfast for dinner. Do the math and you've eaten quite well all month long.

And having a menu for the upcoming week, even it it's kind of loosely organized, will go a long way toward cooking that often. So actually, you do need a stinkin' menu. Here's a last story to demonstrate.

I was in the grocery store yesterday and saw a 30-something mom with two preschool aged kids in her cart. She only had about four items in the cart (yet a quarter of the way through the store), no shopping list, kids climbing all over the place, while she stood motionless, apparently thinking about what to make for dinner. No shopping list, anxious kids. Apparently, no plan. That doesn't help making cooking enjoyable. Be prepared.

Be A Better Cook - #1 in Kindle Food & Wine Category


Earlier today I was thrilled to learn that my Kindle readers have propelled my commentary here on Be A Better Cook to the #1 ranking in the Food and Wine category, though it might be a briefly held spot. Maybe more so, being #44 out of 4852 blogs in Lifestyle and Culture and #32 out of 2860 blogs in Arts and Entertainment also make me proud to share my thoughts with the world.

THANK YOU very much for reading what I have to share.

On the other hand, it's been a full week since you last read something here. Why? Well, I've been cooking. Like crazy.It will be another day or two until you see the next "instructional" installment of Be A Better Cook.

For entertainment, not insight nor instruction, I'll share the details in a separate entry tonight, outlining a crazy menu I served this weekend to eleven high school sophomores and about twenty of their parents.

However, this note also gives me the opportunity to encourage you to send me questions or feedback. Just drop me a note a tmcguff@gmail.com. I'd enjoy hearing from you.

"Bon Appetit"
-- Julian Child

"Happy Cooking"
-- Jacques Pepin

"I Need A Signature Signoff Phrase"
-- Me

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