Cooking Gift Sets: No, Says the Grinch

[ Here's a popular article from last year's holiday postings. Tom ]

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

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.
No gift sets - just plates, knife, fork and roast beast. 

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.

Wow - those eggs must be good....

...because I see that I just wrote an entire post without realizing that I had posted this separately about a month or so ago.

Eggs with Toasted Breadcrumbs and Herbs

First - my sincerest apologies for the long break between articles. Many of you may know that I've returned to the corporate world from the consulting world....I thought I was working long, hard hours before, but now......:)

Here's a simple dish inspired by Judy Rodgers of the Zuni Cafe (in S.F.). Toasted breadcrumbs along with fried eggs seems like an obscure combination - until you've tried it. Then it will seem to be an obvious combination, and one you'll return to often. The gentle crunchiness of small breadcrumbs with fried eggs is surprising. I've also used crumbles of leftover grilled polenta in this dish. 

Eggs with Toasted Breadcrumbs and Herbs
  1. Coarsely grind a few slices of rustic bread. Alternately, use Japanese panko breadcrumbs. Reserve a few tablespoons of crumbs.  
  2. Add a few leaves of fresh herbs (thyme is great). 
  3. Heat about 2 tablespoons olive oil in a non-stick or stainless skillet. Add the bread crumbs. 
  4. Right after the crumbs begin to brown, break 2, 3 or 4 eggs into the skillet, sunny-side up style.
  5. If you care to flip the eggs, sprinkle a the reserved crumbs over them first. 
  6. Top with an herb sprig, or a thin slice of crispy pancetta or bacon. 


4 Ingredients: White Beans.....a versatile addition to salads and main dishes

Braised Monkfish and Shrimp with Fennel, Tomato and White Beans

I get a little jazzed up about good beans. Think about a semi-fancy salad that has had small white beans sprinkled over the top. Or an Italian appetizer of white beans with garlic, olive oil and herbs (with maybe with a little pancetta or prscioutto). A hearty French stew or cassoulet.

But I also think of bean cooking as a total hassle. Soaking overnight, rinsing, etc. ending up with mush. So sometimes I've resorted to a can of 'high quality' imported white beans. Well, that's not too great a solution either.

Here's what might work best - soak dried beans for 'a while', then cook them with some aromatics until they taste  right. The longer you soak the shorter the cooking. Big beans take longer too. Keeping it that simple, and not obsessing about cooking times and procedures should help make bean cooking less intimidating.

1 cup dried white beans
1 carrot
1 small onion
1 bay leaf
  1. Soak the beans in cold water overnight, or for a few hours. Put beans in a pot and cover with cold water. 
  2. Bring to a simmer, stir occasionally and cook for 30 minutes or up to two hours. Taste a few along the way, and as soon as they have a texture you like, take them off the heat and drain them. 
  3. Add a little olive oil, salt and pepper. 

Serving suggestions: 
- Toss with olive oil, drained flaky tuna, chopped herbs and chopped hardboiled eggs. 
- Serve as an accompaniment to most any soup
- Mash a few tablespoons with fork, add garlic, herbs and spread on a cracker
- Use as a replacement for rice

Four Ingredients: Fried Eggs, Bread (or polenta) Crumbs and Herbs

I can't say these pictures are even in the ballpark for how good this tastes - just try it some weekend morning when you've got a slice of high quality bread lying around. There was some leftover grilled polenta in my kitchen so I crumbled that up. Big bread crumbs are probably better than the polenta.

  1. Pulse a piece of rustic bread in a food processor or blender to make coarse bread crumbs.
  2. Cook bread crumbs over med-high heat in oil or butter to toast. Reserve a few on the side. 
  3. Add two eggs. If you want to, flip them with a spatula after 2 minutes. Or do the sunny side up thing. 
  4. Sprinkle some chopped fresh herbs atop. Top with reserved crumbs. 
  5. Further, top with a slice of crispy pancetta, if that happens to be lying around your kitchen too. Bacon or bacon crumbles would be good. But frankly, the egg, crumbs and herbs don't need the pig.    

This dish was inspired by Judy Rodgers, Zuni Cafe.

Four Ingredient Dishes

Quick and Easy Dishes in 10 Minutes
68 Fresh and Healthy Recipes
Dinner for 4 for $10
30 Minute Meals

 --- >  Link to a cranky review of Cooking Light magazine
 --- >  Link re: how long it takes to make a 30 minute meal, and why. Semi-cranky review of Rachel Ray

These lines are the stuff of popular cooking magazines and TV shows. They make me think of a line from a  literary journal (sort of) called McSweeney's. "Print submissions cannot be less than one word, and cannot be over 100,000 words, unless there is a compelling reason to have them longer or shorter, in which case you can do as you wish." Not sure that has much to do with Four Ingredient Dishes or cooking magazine headlines, but it is funny.


For decades Gourmet Magazine tried to publish really quick recipes that used only a few ingredients. Rarely did they work well, because they were too.....stripped down. No layers of flavor. Certainly a high quality ingredient here or there made a dish spectacular. But somehow I never thought they pulled it off on a regular basis.

The popular cooking magazines are worse because they promise so much, then deliver even less than what Gourmet tried to do. Jarred and pre-packaged ingredients, accessible but expensive produce (e.g., sugar snap peas), ill-conceived and ill-composed recipes.....I could go on an on. And I did. Follow the link to the article above.


A New Era of 4 Ingredient Dishes

Funny, though, during the last generation of chef and restaurant evolution, there have been major movements toward simple, high quality cooking that focuses on great ingredients, new pairings and even new techniques. This has resulted in a body of work, sprinkled here and there, that includes a number of excellent recipes / dishes / approaches that use few ingredients yet produce exceptional results.

For example - earlier today we had Fried Eggs with Toasted Breadcrumbs, as published by Judy Rodgers in the Zuni Cafe Cookbook. It might be a 2 ingredient dish - salt and olive oil can't really count.


  1. Bread
  2. Eggs
  3. Salt and olive oil
  4. Fresh herb(s) - optional
  5. Vinegar - optional.

The approach is to create a few tablespoons of breadcrumbs from a semi-fresh loaf of rustic / hearty bread (which also can be made with four ingredients - see this article from my other blog). Toss the crumbs in olive oil, heat in a pan until just starting to brown. Add a little more olive oil and crack a couple eggs into the pan. That's it. Optionally, flip the eggs for over-easy (adding a few breadcrumbs to the uncooked side before you flip). If you've got 'em, throw a few fresh herbs in at some point. Splash a little balsamic or sherry vinegar in the pan after removing the eggs, swirl it and immediately drizzle. Even better.

I just got this cookbook and am impressed. It's as much a cooking instruction book as it is filled with great recipes. I'm looking forward to working through it and will share a detailed review someday for you all.

First dish I made based on ZCC was Fish Fillets with Romesco Sauce and Asparagus. Excellent, Romesco was complex but time intensive.

Homemade Oriental Chicken Ramen Noodles

If you get a chance, pick up a copy of the new quarterly food / cooking publication called Lucky Peach. It's published by a really innovative literary / cutting edge group called McSweeney's. The cooking mind behind it is David Chang, who I always want to call Michael Chang, the tennis player. Chang has been the hottest young star-chef / restaurateur of the last few years.

A warning - the magazine is esoteric, at times raunchy, highly entertaining, informative, creative and geared primarily to high end cooking. BUT, there are a few really approachable recipes that anyone could tackle. Oh, did I mention the art? No. The journal is creative and  aesthetically brilliant  in several dimensions.

Anyway, you can find it most easily online. McSweeney's Lucky Peach.

The first issue is focused on Ramen, the real thing from Japan, not our $0.11 packages. And eggs. Why eggs? No clue. But hey - they're the publishers, they can do what they want.

As my readers, you know that I won't publish recipes directly from other's sources. But I will share the concept of this recipe, which Chang really presents as chicken soup (with noodles), not as ramen. However, the Asian flavors make it ramen-like (especially to closet packaged ramen lovers).

  • Create a three ingredient chicken stock - water, chicken, salt - simmered (not boiled) for an hour or a little more. The simmer concept is a simple yet critical  technique. Remove the chicken and cool. 
  • In parallel, create a concentrated vegetable stock (called a nage) using Asian ingredients such as ginger, Sichuan peppercorns, garlic, shallots, scallions and so on. 
  • I substituted leeks for onion, which added further subtlety. 
  • Combine the stock and nage. Add cooked noodles and chunks of chicken. 

The subtle Asian seasonings were sublime. 

Two Skewers for Grilled Swordfish

Mark Bittman published a little e-book called "What I Grill and Why". It's only available on Kindle, but if you have a Kindle it's worth far more than the 99 cents it's selling for at the moment.

The best thing I discovered in it was his technique for using two skewers to better grill chunks of fish. A single skewer allows a line of fish pieces to individually stick to a grill grate, then spin around the skewer when trying to remove it. Two skewers allows for a more unified solid 'rack' of fish pieces, which can better be released from the grill.

AWESOME idea. It will work for most firm-fleshed fish.

Bittman provides a recipe that marinates swordfish chunks in lime juice, sesame oil, soy sauce, cilantro and Tabasco. I used a sprinkling of red pepper flakes instead of cilantro. With freshly caught swordfish from the gulf, it was wonderful.

Sichuan Style Grilled Salmon and Cracklin's

There's a common Sichuanese technique used for braising or roasting whole fish in which scallions, garlic, ginger and herbs are placed into large slits cut into the sides of the fish. But most everyday cooks are intimidated by cooking whole fish.

A great variation of the whole-fish, slit-flavoring concept is offered in Jamie Oliver's book and TV series "Jamie At Home".

He cut slits into the flesh side of salmon fillets and stuffs them with fennel fronds. Drizzle both sides with olive oil, salt and pepper, then grill.

For my Sichuanese version I used scallion, garlic, ginger, cilantro, and drizzled with a light mixture of soy sauce, Xiao Xing rice wine, and sichuan peppercorn oil. If you don't have access to Chinese markets, you can substitute sherry and hot-sesame oil for the last two ingredients.

Over high heat, grill whole fillets skin side down for about three minutes. A careful flip and few minutes of grilling on the other side and you're done.


As the skin side was grilling it should have gotten charred a bit. Carefully, with a sharp knife, you can begin to peel off the skin while the other side of the filet is cooking. In the picture above, I've just begun to peel it back. Don't worry if it breaks into more than one piece.

Once the whole skin is off it's probably time to remove the filet from the grill. Now take the skin and put the non-charred side over the hottest part of the grill to crisp it up. This may take up to 4-5 minutes, and you should turn the skin to ensure both sides are cooked to a crispy texture.

I'll admit it doesn't look too pretty at this stage. But I dare you to make it from the grill to the kitchen without tasting the craklin' and then having one more immediately.

You can break the craklin's up and sprinkle them over the whole salmon filet, or serve individual salmon portions with a nice size chunk of cracklin'.

Not the clearest picture, especially of the craklin'
between the pasta and salmon -
but it's best of the bunch from a smile perspective.

It's Too Hot To Cook Outside

Houston temps have been hovering in the high 90's for months, with 'feels like' temps over 100. For months! Most quick trips to the grill result in a shower and fresh shirt - even if you're cooking just one quick item, such as the huge slab of salmon stuffed with fennel we cooked last night.

Indoor versions of summery foods can be accomplished under a broiler when your patio seems like a sauna. My method for roasting red, yellow or orange peppers in large strips under a broiler is easier than the time consuming process of roasting and turning a whole pepper on a burner or grill. Of course the technique  works on an outdoor grill too.

The indoor dishes we've enjoyed lately all rely on the chopping, carmelizing and roasting techniques that I've described over the last few weeks.
  • Sweet and Sour Roasted Pepper Strips with Sesame Oil. This dish is nothing more than roasted peppers with 1/2 a teaspoon each of sugar and rice wine vinegar, with a pinch of salt and a couple drops of sesame oil.

To my friends in NY, Chicago and DC who have been complaining about the heat.....In Houston our heat stays for 5 months and always has the humidity. But we do get to grill in December. And don't be makin' fun of me for staying inside sometimes.

Italian Sausage, Roasted Peppers and Carmelized Onions - from the Frankies

This recipe was adapted from a great recipe by the Frankies, two guys from Brooklyn named Frank, from their book The Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion and Cooking Manual.  This cookbook is written to please any level cook. They share traditional Italian-American cooking (note: not Italy-Italian), supplemented by skills and techniques they developed as high-end chefs. They now deploy this talent at their two classy neighborhood-hangout restaurants in New York. 

This recipe is incredible. Yet I've modified it a little, to further make it a more efficient everyday dish for a busy cook. I believe they serve this dish with polenta (as have I, but that's a different kettle of fish). I suggest pasta and a quick par-boil of the sausage. 

Parboiling the sausage can can be done simultaneously with  carmelizing onions and  roasting peppers. Cooking pasta (or polenta if you're comfortable with that) can be done simultaneous to cooking tomatoes in the recently combined onion/pepper mixture.  After a very quick soapy rinse the same pot gets used for pasta. 

Note: There are only 4 ingredients in this dish + pasta (and olive oil, salt and pepper, which don't count). It's about technique and ingredient quality (the sausage and tomatoes). 

Italian Sausage with Carmelized Onions and Roasted Peppers

8-10 Italian sausage links
3-4 red and yellow peppers
2 large onions
A 28 ounce can of San Marzano tomatoes
1 pound pasta, a large shape such as rigatoni 
  1. Perform these three steps in parallel with each other to the greatest extent you can. All can be done hours in advance (put the sausage in fridge).  
    • Fill a pot big enough to cook a pound of pasta about halfway with water. Bring to a near-boil and cook 8 Italian sausage links for 10 minutes, then remove. Sausage will not be fully cooked. 
    • Preheat a broiler (or grill). Slice red and yellow peppers (and green if you want) around the core into four large segments. Place skin-side up on a foil-lined pan and broil until skins are browned. Set aside to cool. Details on this technique are here
    • Slice one or two large onions. In a large skillet, heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil at medium high, add onions and cook for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low. Cook for 20 minutes more (30 minutes total).  Details of this technique HERE.
  2. Perform these two steps in parallel as best you can: 
    • Remove casing from sausages and break apart. Add to carmelized onions.  Cook over medium heat until sausage is slightly browned. 
    • Peel skins off peppers when cool enough to handle.    
    • Add peppers and a 28 ounce can of San Marzano tomatoes. Add salt and fresh ground pepper.Cook for a while. Five or ten minutes will do, a half hour or a little more is even better. 
    • Cook pasta per package directions and drain. Fresh pasta (yet another fish kettle) would be absolutely over the top here. I actually have details on how to select and cook 
  3. Pasta into large serving bowl. Pepper, onion, sausage over pasta. Add grated Romano or Parmesan. Basil if you've got it. 

The technique of cooking several ingredients separately is common in some super high end kitchens (think Thomas Keller) to allow each ingredient to be cooked to a desired done-ness and retain it's texture at a desired level. The opposite approach - creating a melthing pot of flavors, has is own distinct benefits. I like what happens in this dish - as it takes an immigrant classic and brings it up a level.

Printer Friendliness for 163 Recipes and Articles on Be A Better Cook!!

Apologies to my Kindle readers - this doesn't apply (yet) to Kindles. 

Many of you have asked for printer-friendly versions of my recipes and articles. For some recipes, but certainly not all, I've provided links to a printer friendly archive. 

I'm pleased to announce that ALL past and future articles on Be A Better Cook are now available in printer friendly format!!

Just look for the "Print Friendly" icon at the bottom of each article and click. Not only can you print, but you can edit out any section you don't want, email the article / recipe or even create a PDF. Way cool. 

Technique: Roasting Sweet Red Peppers in Four Slices

Two red peppers cut into four large slices, charred
This method for charring the skin and roasting red, yellow or orange bell peppers has become  my favorite technique for indoor broiling or outdoor grilling. This approach is easier than roasting a whole pepper which requires turning it occasionally to char each side. 
  • Cut the peppers into four panels and lay them skin side up on a foil-lined pan. 
  • Broil the peppers for around 5 minutes, until they are mostly charred all over. Time depends on heat of broiler and how close/far pan is to the heating element. 
  • Remove from the oven and let them just sit on the pan until cool. For some reason, they don't need to be covered and the skins will still peel off nicely.
No step needed to "place peppers in a bowl and cover", "put in a paper bag and shake",or "peel skins holding peppers under a cool stream of water if still very hot".  Definitely no steaming hot cores that can singe your fingertips. 

Roasted peppers on left, ready to be sliced or chopped

Lemon Chive Potato Salad - via an Ice Bath

Lemon Chive Potato Salad

Lemon Chive Potato Salad
Serves 12-15

5 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, chopped into 1/2" cubes
1/3 cup mayo
1/3 cup sour cream
4 tablespoons fresh chopped chives
3 lemons - zest scraped off with a microplane grater; juice squeezed
2 medium celery ribs, very finely chopped
Kosher Salt and Fresh Ground Pepper

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add at least one tablespoon of Kosher salt.
  2. Add potatoes and cook approximately 7 minutes.  Test a piece at 5 minutes, then every minute thereafter to  get perfect doneness. Immediately plunge into an ice bath. Drain when cool.
  3. Combine rest of ingredients then gently stir into the drained potatoes.

Technique: Ice Bath

Doesn't that phrase sound fancy and complicated? Ice bath. 

It's nothing more than a bowl of water with ice cubes. 

It's also a technique that can  take your vegetable cooking skill from novice or capable all the way to expert in no time. Here's why. 

One of the hardest things to do is to get a food, especially a vegetable, cooked to the right temperature. Especially if you're cooking in boiling water. Even if you do get it near-perfect, the residual heat in the vegetable allows it to keep cooking. 

The solution? Ice bath. Especially if a vegetable can be served cold or room temperature. As soon a veg in boiling, salted water gets to perfect doneness, use a mesh strainer, a perforated / slotted spoon or any utensil to dump the vegetables into a bowl of icy water. In a matter of minutes the heat will dissipate and you have perfectly cooked vegetables. 

(Why does spellcheck keep flagging the word doneness? And spellcheck? It wants spell check. I beg to differ.)

Here are some guidelines: 
  • Use a really big bowl of ice water. Who cares, it's just water. And ice.
  • When testing a single piece, skewer it on a fork and dip it into the cold ice water for a few seconds, then taste to see if it's done. 
  • This technique is particularly well suited to cooking green beans (especially thin French haricot verts) and potatoes - as each hold heat easily. 
  • When I mentioned a mesh strainer, I was picturing (and suggesting) the contraption in the picture above. It's often called a spider strainer, because it looks like a spider web. You can buy one at amazon by clicking here. But the shipping will probably cost more than the strainer. The best place to get them is at Asian markets. 
  • If the vegetables you're cooking are not going to be served room temp, you can use the same technique but just stop the cooking a little earlier than totally done.

One of the testaments to the importance of this technique is how heavily Thomas Keller relies on it. He's been considered the best chef in the country for quite a few years now. His book Ad Hoc At Home is supposed to be geared to home cooking. But like him, it's actually quite, well, particular. Just like him. Though I did meet him at a book signing once and he was quite nice, even though it was the end of the evening. 

Summertime.....and the Lunches Are Easy

If your household is like ours summer lunches are pretty easy. Kids often make their own simple sandwiches, fruit is out in bowls all day (really), the kids grabs some crackers, cheese, a yogurt or something reasonable as a snack. Even if there are a few batches of mac and cheese, or a couple hot dogs warmed in a microwave, its a far cry from school lunches. Especially with summer camps, vacations and the myriad of special programs almost every kid does.

For most of the year we perform a juggling act to get a decent lunch out to our kids on school days - balanced by the dreaded phrase (to us) - "Yes, you can buy today". Watch any episode of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution and you might not say that again.

Somehow my kids finagled a 'tradition' of getting a "Lunchable" once a year, on the last day of school. It's the only time they get something like that for lunch. Sadly I read the label on Amy's lunchable and might have to eliminate the practice:

Wheat flour
Reduced Iron
Thiamine Mononitrate
Folic Acid
Whole Wheat Flour
Soybean Oil
Vital Wheat Glutin
Mono- and Diglycerides
Soy Lecithin
Guar Gum
Caclium Proponate
Sodium Stearoyl 
Xantham Gum
Natural and Artificial Flavor
Sorbic Acid
Tomato Paste
Modified Food Starch
Garlic Powder
Onion Powder
Citric Acid
Dried Basil
Sea Salt
Potassium Sorbate
Xantham gum
Natural Flavor
Pasteurized Part Skim Milk
Whey Protein Concentrate
Milk Protein Concentrate
Sodium Citrate
Sorbic Acid
Cheese Culture
Cellulose Powder
Pasteurized Part Skim Milk
Whey Protein Concentrate
Milk Protein Concentrate
Sodium Citrate
Sorbic Acid
Cheese Culture
Cellulose Powder

The apparent duplication of the last 10 or so items on the list is not a typo. 270 calories, 90 calories from fat. But the cardboard tab that had the nutrition information is 100% recyclable. The container, of course, is not.

It's easy to mock such a product, so here are some more useful and thoughtful articles about home cooking you might enjoy. They might even provide some inspiration now for the school lunch season coming up in August/September.

Fresh Corn with Red Peppers and Cumin

We've enjoyed a summery dish of fresh corn with red peppers for many years. We cut corn off the cob, sauté it with scallions and chopped red peppers, seasoned with cumin and garlic.

Oddly, the southwestern-style flavorings for this dish were passed on to me in the cookbook Cuisine Rapide, by Pierre Franey, a classically trained French chef. In the 80's and 90's Franey published a weekly column in the New York Times called The 60 Minute Gourmet, which was a precursor to what Bittman writes today.

These two men share a lot of common ground. They believe that people should cook at home more often; they make home cooking more accessible and less intimidating than most people take it to be, and they strongly promote the use of simple fresh ingredients and a small number of flavorings to create a wonderful dish.

In his cookbook Franey calls for a slightly different proportion of ingredients than I recommend. Here's my version:

3 ears fresh corn, shucked, cut in half cross-wise, then cut kernels off lengthwise with a large knife
1 large red pepper, chopped
1/3 cup green onions, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
1 clove garlic, chopped
Salt and fresh ground pepper
----- Heat oil and butter in large skillet over medium-high heat
----- Add all ingredients to the pan and sauté about 3 minutes, until slightly softened.

Many people don't realize that corn is very widely grown throughout China. In fact, you'll see field upon field of corn, often  in proximity to enormous rice paddies. Something that really surprised me on a trip to the Sichuan province a few years ago, was to find virtually this same preparation of corn and peppers on the menu at a local restaurant. No cumin, but otherwise identical. A recipe is included in the one truly authentic Sichuan cookbook, Land of Plenty, by Fuscia Dunlop. In the Sichuan version, the corn and peppers are simply cooked in peanut oil and seasoned with salt and pepper.

Grill-Steamed Vegetable Packets

After sharing thoughts about summer vegetable chopping yesterday, here I present a simple technique to get mixed vegetables onto your grilling menu with little fuss and easy advance preparation. Yes - this approach is just like the "hobo dinners" or whatever that campsite foil package dinner deal is called. We're just taking it upscale a little.

The advantages of using this approach are:

  • The vegetables can be chopped hours in advance
  • You can grill-steam the packet(s) somewhat in advance of the prime-time grilling window (e.g., burger / steak / whatever grilling) because these veggies are great at room temp. 

Grill-Steamed Vegetable Packets
Two large packets to serve 6-8 people

2 red peppers, chopped into 1/2" pieces or larger
2 yellow or orange peppers, chopped into 1/2" pieces or larger
1 red onion,  chopped into 1/2" pieces
4 medium zucchinis, ends trimmed, halved down the center, sliced into "1/2 moons" about 3/8" thick
   --- Trust me - 1/4" is too thin, 1/2" is ok, but I think in between is perfect.
4 medium yellow squashes, trimmed as zucchini
   --- You can salt and drain the zucchini and squash if you'd like.
   --- Let them drain for 15-20 minutes, then gently wipe with a paper towel
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, chopped (or 1 teaspoon dried).
   --- You can add plenty of fresh oregano, but be spare with the dried stuff.
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

  1. Prep all the vegetables and toss with half the olive oil, the balsamic, oregano and S&P. This can be done up to 3-4 hours before cooking. 
  2. When grill is warming / fire starting, lay out two large pieces of heavy duty foil. Drizzle one tablespoon of oil on each sheet and spread it around. Put half of the vegetable mixture on each sheet. 
  3. Wrap the sheets into a package, rolling from the sides and sealing at the top. You can use more than one piece of foil and can wrap this package almost any way you want - tightly, loosely, whatever - just get it fairly well closed for grilling, allowing the ability to open the top and check doneness of the veg. 
  4. Place packets on hot grill for about 10 minutes. The heat of the grill, thickness of the foil, the size and amount of vegetable will all modify how long it takes to cook these through. 
  5. The main thing is to not overcook the vegetables - you'd eat most of them raw or nearly so anyway - so underdone is better than overdone. If they are a little under done you can keep the package closed for a few minutes off the grill. If they come off the grill perfect, open the packages widely or turn them out into a serving bowl. 
  6. Before final serving taste and adjust salt, pepper, or even a touch more oil or balsamic.   

Click on this link for a printer friendly version of this recipe

Technique: Chopping Summer Vegetables

It's summer. You'll be making salads, grilling vegetables, and maybe even harvesting some homegrown ingredients from your backyard garden. The farmer's markets are beginning to go really wild.

In short, you'll be chopping some vegetables sometime soon.

There's ONE thing you really need to know - it's all about the knife.

Eventually, if you chop enough vegetables you'll get faster and more precise. Given enough different vegetable related dishes, you'll learn different ways of tackling the same vegetable, depending on how it is to be used (think sliced vs. chopped tomatoes). But no matter what, if you don't have a good, sharpened knife, it will be more laborious and potentially painful in more ways than one.

For what it's worth, I recommend an inexpensive but durable chef's knife - the Victorinox 8" Chef's Knife.  Even if you splurge on or already own an expensive knife, all that's really going to matter after the first 6-12 months is how sharp you keep the blade. In fact, in some professional kitchens, knife sharpness is more than a matter of pride - it becomes a competition among chefs.

Except for cutting bread and boning meats/fish, I use my large chef's knife for 98% of my chopping. Maybe 99%. Literally. And I even know what that word means.

Enough already - here are some handy tips for summer vegetable chopping (with a large chef's knife):

  • Cut fresh corn in half, then stand the cut ends on your cutting board like a tower. Run your knife from top to bottom to cut off the kernels. You'll need exactly FIVE vertical cuts to remove all the kernels - no more, no less. 
  • The fastest way to chop tomatoes is to cut them in half end to end, then again into quarters. At this point it's easy to push the seeds/juices out of each quarter. You may need to trim the whitish core and the stem pit (or whatever that dark thing is called that holds the tomato to the vine). After seeding the quarter, cut big chunks, or more vertical, thin slices, which can be chopped crosswise into little 1/4" cubes. 
  • Cucumbers - trim each end, cut in half, place the fat middle end on the cutting board, like suggested for the corn. With just a little practice you can trim the peel off from top to bottom, not taking off much, if any flesh. So - no need for a peeler. After trimming, slices or quarters are easily obtained. 
  • Snozzcumbers - you're on your own. I can't recommend a viable approach. Hopefully the BFG is not reading this note. 
Toss cucumbers, zucchini or squashes into a colander with a generous sprinkling of kosher or sea salt. Let them sit for about 20 minutes - and they'll lose a lot of the water that would otherwise end up watering down your dish. 

  • Chop the stem portion of a bell pepper, as if beheading it (the stem is the head). After slicing this top open, you can trim vertically, four times around the core and seeds, to create big flat pieces of pepper.  When you trim this way, run the knife edge right along the inside of the white spines - you don 't want that part - it's bitter. 
  • A similar technique works well horizontally for small peppers, usually needing just three cuts.  
  • After cutting large heads in half or quarters, I like to cut broccoli and cauliflower from the stem end toward the "leaves", making small cuts that allow the "trees" to fall apart. The bigger trees get more of the same treatment. 
When chopping anything into tiny pieces, keep the tip of your knife anchored on the cutting board rock/press the broad end (nearest the handle) down to chop through. Steady the food with your non-cutting hand. Yes, you can and should tuck your fingertips "under" (curl them back a bit) for safety. Also, pretend in your mind that you're a professional chef (you already have a very sharp knife, right) and your in chopping competition with the dude/dudette next to you. It doesn't take too long to get fast, faster and fastest. But do watch those fingertips. 

  • Last, for now, smash garlic with the flat knife blade and the skin will fall off. Lay the knife blade over one clove, holding the handle, and with your other fist, pound once down against the blade. It is SO easy. 
Grilled Vegetables
Don't overgrill - you'd eat most any of these veggies raw anyway.
Add some oil, S&P and balsamic vinegar. 

Technique: Using Pasta Water to Make A Sauce

Garlic Pasta with a little crispy Prosciutto

You may see an instruction in some pasta recipes to 'reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking water'. It's a fairly important technique - but I've often taken that instruction somewhat lightly, especially if there are other sauce oriented ingredients in the recipe.

But if you boil this technique down to it's essentials (my apologies for the subconscious pun), it becomes more evident that there's power in it.

In the case I'll describe here, there are just 4 ingredients: pasta, cheese, olive oil and a garlic clove - does water really count?  It's easy to add simple ingredients like crispy prosciutto or pancetta, herbs, or just keep it plain, as seen in the orechiette below.

  1. Put pasta water on to boil.
  2. Slice one clove of garlic. 
  3. Add two tablespoons olive oil to a very small pan or skillet. Add the garlic and cook over low heat for 5 minutes - do not let the garlic brown. Remove pan from heat. 
  4. Cook pasta per directions (I recommend Barilla and DeCecco brands). 
  5. While pasta is cooking, grate 1 to 2 ounces of good quality Parmesan or Romano.  
  6. Just before draining, reserve about one cup of the pasta water (I use a 2-cup Pyrex measuring cup, with a handle). 
  7. Drain pasta, return to pot or serving bowl. Add garlic, garlic oil and cheese. Mix. Then add about 1/2 cup of the reserved pasta water. Mix. Keep adding pasta water about 1/2 cup or less at a time, stirring, to create a nice saucy consistency. 

Garlic Pasta with Roasted Mushrooms, Cauliflower and Grilled Hot Italian Sausage

Be Prepared for Disapointment

Inigo Montoya: Who are you? 
Man in Black: No one of consequence. 
Inigo Montoya: I must know... 
Man in Black: Get used to disappointment. 

According to my kids, The Princess Bride is widely accepted to my favorite family movie. Actually, it is. There are so many great lines - we repeat them all the time around the house. "You keep using that word. I don't think you really know what it means". "Anyone want a peanut?".  "Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line"!

As I was preparing to tell you all about a truly bad dish I made last week, the phrase "Get used to disappointment" came to mind. However, in the kitchen you don't want to "get used to", rather, you want to "be prepared for" some unexpected results

It happens to the best of us. 

To me, it usually happens when I improvise too much or too quickly. But sometimes I take what appears to be a great recipe and really foul it up. Usually, I missed some critical ingredient, measurement or step without realizing it. 

With that in mind, sometimes it doesn't matter if  you've got all the other elements of good cooking in order: fresh ingredients , a good recipe, sound techniques and good tools. There are times you just plain mess up, and can hardly recover, if at all. 

I was making a Spicy Sicilian Chicken dish from a Molto Italiano recipe (Mario Batali). GREAT fresh ingredients - as you might even see above on Kindle in B&W. Peppers, carrot, celery, potato, eggplant and even a few tomatoes are buried under that mound in the picture. 

The dish included a hearty handful of dried hot pepper and a few glugs of red wine. Fresh oregano too. How could this go wrong? I don't know. But,well, yuck. OK flavor, but not awesome. Texture - a little mushy (clearly my mistake). Color - Arggghhh. Pink potatoes and eggplants from the red wine. 

I'm still not sure what I did, but I'm in no rush to try this again soon. Not because of the recipe - it was me. I'll admit defeat, swallow a little disappointment and maybe try again in the winter. Yuck. 



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