Sunday, May 25, 2014

Patent Pending!

(So excited. I've been waiting for months to write this post!)

Ladies & Gentlemen, may I proudly introduce the secret project I've been working on for the better part of a year:

Philadelphia Cheesesteak Dip

Yo. 'Sup.
Now, before you ask, no that is not "wiz wit"... it's white American, not wiz, that makes this dip so absolutely friggin' awesome. American is how more than 80% of people around here actually order our cheesesteaks,  not that I have anything whatsoever against wiz. Many, many, many a 3 am bar crawl has ended with me sitting outside of Pat's in the freezing cold, mopping every last drop of wiz drippings off the paper like it was my only hope of Eternal Salvation. But for this delicious dip... the American just rocked, and that's what I went with.

My Cheesesteak Dip has THE authentic Philadelphia taste youse only get within driving distance of the Liberty Bell.
Made from real shaved steak, not industrialized meat mush pressed into sheets. 

This particular batch has onions & sweet peppers. Yes, I've already figured people are going to want as many varieties as there are ways to order a cheesesteak, so the future holds at least: Chicken Cheesesteak Dip, Buffalo Chicken Cheesesteak Dip,  and Veggie Steak Dip made with Portobello mushrooms and grilled peppers and onions.

Frozen, microwaveable. This is the 1-pound package, I also do a half-pounder. 
Seriously, it is ready in five minutes, faster than the pizza guy can deliver. And unlike making homemade cheesesteaks your whole house doesn't smell like grease and onions for two days afterwards.

The dip won't "break", ie: it never becomes greasy, hot or cold. Stays creamy even refrigerator-cold... can be used as a filling for pizza crust or soft pretzel dough. Can be served in a crock pot to keep it hot for the whole length of a party, though it never lasts that long.

No trans fats.  Gluten-free. None of those naughty carbs from the roll you'd have from a sandwich. And it even is made with onions & peppers here....Vegetables! When you really think about it, my Philadelphia Cheesesteak Dip, eaten right out of the bowl? it's practically a Health Food!

I am not someone who can keep my mouth shut very easily, so when I spend the better part of a year working on a project, one that has been such a labor of love for me... and I couldn't TALK about it... OMG, the agony!

So, now I can finally say how I came up with the idea itself. Last year, building the Shore House Shoobie Menu, I knew I needed frozen dips to be one of the components. But most popular party dips that I could think of, like hot artichoke & crab, or buffalo chicken dip, are made with cream cheese. And you have to make them fresh and heat and serve them; they don't hold, and they don't freeze. Cream cheese breaks when you take it to extremes of temperatures, leaving blobs swimming a pool of oil. Yuck.

And looking around in the appetizer section of the grocery store freezers, you find mostly starchy things, like little hot dogs, puff pastry, mini pizzas, or empanadas...but dips? Creamy dips? Not that many. And those that are out there tend to be inferior to what a home cook can make fresh. The cream cheese problem.

So I looked online and you wouldn't believe how long I searched, all in vain. I spent days combing through articles on entertaining, recipe databases, and general cooking websites for make-ahead entertaining, but the best "make-ahead" recipes for hot dips seemed to be only to mix the ingredients and put them in the fridge 1-3 days before your party.. I needed something that would stay in a freezer for a month, and come out perfect afterwards. And ready-to-serve - no adding ingredients or fussing around with it. AND, knowing my clients well, it couldn't take forever to heat up, either. 25 minutes was my original goal, for a pound of dip to go from freezer to table. I wasn't thinking of being microwaveable at all at that point, since I've always made dips in the oven, not the microwave, I was focusing on freezer stability and excellence of  serving quality.

But I had an idea, about using a cheese other than cream cheese. Many cheeses freeze beautifully, and melt perfectly well. There are a ton of cheese products on the market that take advantage of this. And I was thinking about my most popular dip that I'd gotten the most compliments on when I made it fresh - Buffalo Chicken Dip, the kind that is creamy and hot and has shredded chicken meat in it. Lots of recipes for this dip, it's very popular. Most of them include both cream cheese and blue cheese. It's delicious. Very satisfying as an hors d'oeuvre, you get the meaty, the creamy, the hot and the crisp of the chip that brings it to your mouth, all in one Perfect Bite. Strangely, I started focusing on how meaty the dip is - you shred up at least three big boneless skinless chicken breasts to make a batch - and THAT was when it hit me that the shredded chicken meat itself was what makes that dip so good. And I thought about this constantly, most especially when I was cooking. I love cooking. It's like meditating, at times, I feel so connected with the Divine.  I was actually stirring a pot of another dip I make when all of a sudden, it was like BONG! meat-and cheese --Hello, CHEESESTEAK! of course then, having grown up here and loved steak sandwiches my whole life, the idea for a Philadelphia Cheesesteak Dip had just popped up right in my head. I could practically taste it already.

I ran back to the internet to search to find a recipe, specifically, and I was shocked it didn't already exist in the universe. Oh, there was some lady from the Midwest who had obviously never seen a real cheesesteak in her existence on this mortal plane, who obviously had gone to Denny's or some other bastardization that has "Philly Steak flavor" on the menu, and she was mixing browned ground beef with (hello, mine adversary) cream cheese and cheddar and I think some taco sauce, calling it "Philly Steak". Seriously....ugh. Don't get me started. I actually recoiled when I read it. Poor Brent and Zizi watched me stomping around on a righteous rant for days after that.

But then it was all I could obsess over, for weeks. I constructed and deconstructed every permutation of a cheesesteak dip in my head a million times.  From 10-layer dip structures (way too crumbly, there would be crumbs of meat falling all over people's floors making a damn mess) to chunks or slices of cheese mixed in with the meat (would burn people's mouths when hot enough to spread, then coagulate into a greasy solid brick in minutes after coming out of the oven -- wouldn't "hold" for the length of a party,  not to mention the hell of scrubbing out whatever bowl it was served in.) This is where being a chef in the kitchen, and my "other" side of my career fundraising and planning events came into play... if you want to make a party dip, it really helps understanding the logistics of how food works at parties. You need something that can be put out and picked-at, over extended periods of time, and still is as fabulous if a guest comes back for a second (or 10th) bite 45 minutes later. You want something that people love so much, each bite makes them want to take another bite.

So I tinkered. I played. I wasted untold amounts of different cheeses and pounds and pounds of shaved beef, finding the right ratio of meat-to-cheese, finding the right "structure" that will hold itself together. For that flash of inspiration, Edison had it right... I really did need to put in the other 99% in perspiration. Not a brick, not a soup.... a real party dip. That didn't crumble or fall apart.  A stable mixture that holds its emulsion, thin enough to scoop right out of the bowl with a thin slice of crusty bread (I confess, I like bread rounds better than crackers myself - crackers are stronger than sliced baguette, though) and thick enough that if I heaped it up on the bread, I could lift it to my mouth without it running down the back of my hand, or falling on my outfit.

And then, the unexpected happened. Well, part of it I should have seen coming: my beloved fiance, a man who's never met a slab of steak he didn't love, came home from work, when I was not physically present in the kitchen. (GASP!) The next thing I knew, I come down to an empty bowl that had been full of dip, in the sink. He'd found it, heated it, and eaten the whole thing in the time it took me to finish up a Facebook comment,"I thought it was for us since it wasn't down in the garage freezer!" (This was his story and he's still sticking to it.) A-hem. "For a guy who wasn't raised Catholic, someone's certainly caught onto the better-to-ask-for-forgiveness-than-permission concept quickly enough around here. Marrone." Sez I. It screwed up that batch's experiment. I had been testing ratios of meat to cheese at the time, and I had, as all the rest of my experiments, been reheating them from frozen on a sheet pan in the oven, which usually took about a half hour. There had been 4 ramekins with different meat-to-cheese ratios I'd made that day, that I was freezing to reheat the next day to check the results.

But... wait....I was puzzled on two levels. First of all, he'd just eaten 12 ounces of cheesesteak dip, all by himself, in less than 5 minutes as a "snack" less than a half hour before our family dinner was to be served... (MEN! SHEESH!) but then... how the HELL did he heat it up?! The oven had a chicken roasting in it! Answer: he'd microwaved it.

It worked in the microwave?? It didn't break or separate into grease?

That lead me down the path to testing all of my samples both ways. I even gave the "beta testers" double samples - additional ones to try in the microwave when they also did a sample in the oven, to see the difference it made outside of me controlling the experiments.

THAT lead me to researching microwaveable packaging, and doing more batches... until I got a good master recipe that worked exactly as I wanted, that was thick, and rich, and meaty, and succulent and savory and everything it should be to be a real Philadelphia Cheesesteak, in party dip form. Freezable and microwaveable. And I was kinda in LOVE with the microwaveable cooking of this for one very big reason... I KNOW my client base, and one thing when you have a party, you want your kitchen to be clean when people see it. If you cook cheesesteaks from scratch, the wonderful greasy meat, onions, peppers, they have a very strong, distinctive smell. It's mouthwatering at first, but it's strong, and it lingers, and most people don't want their house to smell like a bar & grille at a party and for days later. Instead of heating the dip up for the long time it would take in the conventional oven (especially from a frozen state) heating it up int he microwave frees up the oven for other hors d'oeuvres to bake. That shorter heating time also cuts down on cheesesteak smell perfuming the whole house - definitively more attractive to me and my clients for entertaining purposes.

The other thing I noticed was that the recipe, when I didn't freeze the samples, stayed creamy and soft in the fridge. So I froze some and then thawed them before using them.. and it held up nicely. Which lead me to thinking about how this could be used at cold temperatures for things that hadn't been cooked yet - like putting it into stuffed crust pizza. Or another beloved Philadelphia traditional delicacy: soft pretzels. Yum.

And of course the little devil on my shoulder has given me other ideas. For deep fried cheesesteak balls, like risotto arancini, but so much more sinfully delicious. Or chicken breasts, stuffed with chicken cheesesteak mix and then grilled. Or those little baby bell sweet peppers... wouldn't they be fabulous filled with cheesesteak dip, then topped with breadcrumbs and baked?

I am never going to be thin again. Nope. Not a prayer. There are too many delicious ideas that I've had that I still have to figure out the recipes for. The world is going to have to wait the 7 1/2 years for my gorgeous Zizi to turn 21 for there to be a real Hot Mama Tarditi at Hot Mama Tarditi's Gourmet-To-Go-Go... and I'll just happily be Hot-Flash Mama, the one who cooks up the magic in the kitchen and shops in the plus size department.

I love how my cheesesteak dip has turned out. I made hundreds of batches until I got it just right. I had a few very close friends and family sworn to secrecy and taste it and test it for consistency and flavor and how it heated up from frozen. This was NOT a year of successful dieting... but I just thought, "Screw it, I'll sacrificed my body for the good of my Art!" Totally worth it.

And yes, I knew what I had when it proved to be microwaveable. Back when I lived in Seattle for 6 long years, and had to wait 6 months between visits back East to satisfy my cheesesteak cravings, I dreamed of cheesesteaks many dark, rainy days and nights. Trying to make them there, from Steakums and crusty french breads for rolls just didn't cut it. It wasn't right. It wasn't the real true experience for which my Philadelphia soul yearned. It's something about the water here, and the air, and the way the meat gets shaved so thin, by the skilled hands of people who can slice deli ham so thin you can read the newspaper through it. There is a taste that nobody can duplicate, and it tastes like Philadelphia, like my beloved Philadelphia, my home, and I missed it so much, I was so homesick and heartbroken for it, that I wished someone WOULD bottle it and sell it. Or freeze it and ship it. And so I knew the minute I nailed it: God had used me to answer my own prayer, years later. This is the true taste of Philadelphia, and it can go anywhere in the world where thing can go frozen, finally. Created with pure love, for my beautiful, beloved Philadelphia.

That was why I suddenly clamped down my mouth, and my little typing fingers, and this blog went silent. And my Hot Mama's Facebook presence all but disappeared, too. I couldn't advertise or sell it or show off my beautiful dip to anyone, even though I was so happy and proud of it I wanted to shout it to the whole world from the rooftops. I only had a year to do the next step. I had to change my whole business plan, too. I was formerly married to a software engineer who at this point has probably lost count of how many patents his work has generated, and in the years of our marriage, when I lived in Seattle during the Dot Com Boom, boy the thing everyone was talking about was Intellectual Property. What it is, how you prove it's yours, how you maintain your claim to it, how you protect it.  Only unlike software code jockeys, I have no legal team down the hall, just waiting for my fingers to pause... I had to go learn about patents, then research the Prior Art, and then I had to face the scariest part - to take the chance that I will fail to secure the rights to what I've created. THAT CAN STILL HAPPEN. You don't buy a Patent, you just apply for one, and many, many, many get shot down. Even after you've paid a lawyer the last scrapings of your savings, the last hope that you won't be homeless and destitute a year from now, I am still gambling and this could still lose.

But I hope it doesn't. And now that the application's in, I can finally put "Patent Pending" on my packaging, and sell this, my delicious Cheesesteak Dip, as a real product, to customers and in stores.

I want the whole world to taste the majesty and wonder that is a true Philadelphia Cheesesteak. And I want to be able to go anywhere, anytime, and never be 5 minutes away from being able to HAVE an honest-to-God-Himself real Philadelphia Cheesesteak. And I think I've nailed it. I do.

So in the rest of the months since I last posted, I've worked hard to find commercial kitchen space, and I'm working with two labs testing the product as part of my patent application, and getting the FDA food label, so that it can be sold across state lines. I feel like I've been cramming for and taking a final exam 5 days every week for the past 10 months - US Gov websites for the Patent and Trademark Office, FDA, and USDA are not exactly light fluffy reading for my little blonde head. I'm especially paying attention to the health and safety regulations and requirements, because I want to do everything by the book and with the strictest and highest standards. No slacking or cutting corners for my precious creation - the integrity of my product and my practices is absolutely crucial. I've also got to finish designing the packaging itself, which I have absolutely not talent or skill for in the graphic arts.

So much I've had to learn, and it's been a bit overwhelming to say the least, and there were times I wanted to pour it all out here on the blog, but I couldn't, until now. YAY!

Neil Gaiman. One of my favorite authors, he gave a Commencement Speech to the University of the Arts Class of 2012 that went viral on the internet, "Make Good Art" and I think I've watched it dozens of times now. His soft, calm voice has kept me sane when I would have run mad. Someday, I hope I can meet him and thank him, and offer him a bowl of Cheesesteak Dip, that speech got me moving forward again many times when I'd get frozen with fear.

So, one final look at the cheesesteaky goodness of Philadelphia Cheesesteak Dip, my art, my creation, my homage to my home.

Youse hungry? Jeet?

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

New Year, New Recipe!

I definitely made the Naughty List this Christmas, if the scale has any say in the matter. Life was a Banquet, and I was not one of the poor suckers starving to death this year - Auntie Mame would have been proud! Between cookies, family feasts,  party dips,  hors d'oeuvres, pastries, my personal introduction to the Peppermint Bark Martini*, and several pickup gigs who wanted homemade Mac & Cheese, I am now sporting the jolly round belly that shakes when I laugh like a bowlful of jelly.

It just so happens, this year I also have an added reason to harden my New Years' Resolve when it comes to dieting: my wedding is in 269 days. So, needless to say, I'm pulling up my great big baggy chef pants and hitting the kitchen for all I'm worth.

What? You thought I'd say gym? Yuck. Nothing tastes good in the gym. Salty, maybe, but eww. The only thing to eat around there is bottle water.  This is a cooking blog, people! we COOK our way thin around these parts! Look at this wonderful warm pot of goodness, and tell me you wouldn't rather smell this than whatever that funk is coming off the weight bench:

Ooh, ahh. White Bean & Sausage Ragout with Kale & Tomatoes. I feel thinner already.

THIS is lovely. It smells like heaven. It is warm, and wonderful, and completely delicious and anyone would eat it any time of year - but I gotta say, given how fierce the winter weather has been this year already, SO much more satisfying than a salad. And, you still get a good hearty crunch, unlike most stews. It has ridiculously hedonistic amounts of sausage in it, enough that you're going to do a double-take when you see it all piled up in your crockpot. It is still also freakin' amazingly healthy, packed with nutrients and protein and very low fat;  plug it into any calorie counter and see for yourself. Also? The portion size is enormous. Volumetrics, baby, for the win!

AND it's one of those incredibly flexible recipes that you can do all kinds of playing with to suit your own tastes. Yes, it's playful. I'd rather play than work(out) any day. I lifted the original inspiration for this recipe from Cooking Light. I'm not always a fan of their stuff; they tend to run on the spicy side as a way to boost flavor as a substitute for fat. I get why they do that, but I wish they'd do more experimenting with a wider range of cooking techniques and ingredients instead of "bringin' the heat" so often.

That being said, let's talk a moment about what is called a ragoût in French, which is pronounced "ragoo" just like the familiar jars of Ragu tomato sauce from the supermarket shelves. While an Italian ragù is a sauce for pasta, and ALWAYS has meat as an ingredient,  the French ragoût is really a stew served as a main course and the meat is optional. The word in French comes from a verb that translated means "to wake up the taste". So, the closer-to-Rome heritage of pasta as an early course in an Italian meal, served before the entree, waking up your taste buds with meat, while in the countryside of France, meat being more scarce, they were counting this vegetable-laden, possibly meatless stew as the main meal. Two Romance languages sharing the same etymology evolved into two completely different culinary heritages, both are distinctly true to their own cultures and histories, even though the word sounds exactly the same when spoken. Though I will say this, once you've tasted a REAL Italian ragù? After a life of the jarred stuff we all grew up with? You may find yourself mentally shouting J'accuse! J'accuse l'imposteur! as you wheel your shopping cart past that shelf every week. And to make all of this even more confusing, the recipe I've prepared is the French form of the food - as stew - but I've used Italian flavors for the ingredients and seasonings. It's just an orgy of multiculturalism around here. Because America. You're welcome.

So here is the recipe, it's easy, and it's as cheap-cheap-cheap as you can get without eating birdseed. Because let's face it, the holiday bills for most folks mean their budget this month is on a renewed diet as much as their body is. Having a heart bigger than your wallet is never a sign of bad character. I'll also post the nutrition info from Oh, and a heads-up before I send you off to make this on your own, so you don't end up cussing my name in both languages: my crockpot is huge. 7 1/2 quarts. And this doesn't all fit with the Kale added. I stirred the fresh raw Kale into our individual bowls at the end of cooking for our family's first serving, then dumped in the rest when we had the "room" in the pot. And it's even better reheated.

Final hint:  Chop the Kale first and the chicken last or use 2 cutting boards AND sanitize your chef's knife. The kale is added RAW, it won't get brought to a boil, so you aren't cooking it long enough to kill cross contamination. Use the same safe handling procedures and care with raw chicken sausage exactly the same as any raw chicken.

White Bean & Sausage Ragout with Kale & Tomatoes
Yield 12 servings, about 18 oz. each


1 large bunch fresh Kale, washed and roughly chopped width-wise across the rib (like you would chop Romaine lettuce for Caesar salad ) approximately 12 cups

1 large white onion, small chop (about 2 cups)

Garlic, 2 cloves, peeled and thin-sliced

2 lbs. Mild Italian Chicken Sausage (I used Natures Promise brand from our local Giant for both my recipe and the nutrition calculator), cut into 1-inch chunks, skin on, while raw

Tomatoes, canned, diced in juice, 28 oz. can

Great Northern Beans, 2 1/2 pound can (40.5 oz), drained and rinsed.

Pacific Natural Foods Organic Free Range Chicken Stock - 1 box (32 oz)


The easy way: Keep the Kale, raw,  in a separate bowl until soup is finished cooking. Place all of the other ingredients in a crockpot and cook on high 4 hours. 5 minutes before serving, stir kale into stew. Serve in generous portions.

The more-work, more-gourmet way: Brown the sausage in a pan first (doesn't need to be cooked through - just browned on the outside,  a classic braise technique) , then add the onions and garlic and cook until translucent. You may want a tiny drizzle of olive oil to help the onions. Add all into the crockpot,  deglaze the pan with some of the stock, scraping up the fond, and add all that into the pot as well. Add the tomatoes and beans. Cook for 3-4 hours on high. 5 minutes before serving, stir the kale in.

The "But Liz, I Hate Kale" way: Substitute 12 cups of fresh washed spinach leaves for the Kale. Or use a combination of spinach leaves and some fresh chopped basil (1/2 cup of fresh basil is a LOT of basil).  If you want some crunch and don't mind the stringiness, use fully grown spinach leaves (I'd wash them 3 times in warm water, then chop them and wash them again in a colander) - it saves money, but adult spinach is so annoyingly sandy. Ugh.

Other ideas for playing with this recipe: different beans, different flavors of chicken sausage (our Giant has chicken sausage made with sundried tomatoes... that's my next pot), spicier chicken sausage, adding more chopped vegetables into this (the original recipe called for zucchini, but my crew won't go for it. sigh.) I'd use fresh tomatoes (peeled) when they are in season. Throw in a Parmesan rind to flavor (would add calories, but taste great) Up the garlic, maybe try some lemon peel or rosemary.

Oh, so here's the awesome nutrition information: I really did put the whole recipe into MyFitnessPal and divide it by 12 servings, so yes, you can eat 1/12th of a pot for a mere 320 calories! For that you get 7 grams of fiber and 26 grams of protein (all that sausage and beans, very satisfying) and 24% of your day's Iron, with only 8 grams of fat. Not bad, huh?

And how kid-friendly is it? My kid ate it up. Loved it. Happily ate leftovers 2 nights later. Asked me to make it again in the future. The Man even took some into work for his lunch, with no suggesting on my part (I had actually hoped to have the leftovers for my own lunches for my slimming - doh!). I think the reason this recipe is so good, better, really than expected, was because being in a stew lets the chicken sausage stay nice and moist, unlike how it compares to pork sausage from being grilled as a preparation method. I don't think this would taste better with a pork or beef sausage, to be honest, it might be too fatty and greasy. The chicken sausage worked great.

*Helloooo new BFF! Where have you been all my life!?! I love youuuu!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Cool As A Cucumber

"Do I look like a frolicker?!" ~ Mrs. Patmore to Mr. Carson when she is accused of frolicking with Ethel
It's 96°F and humid and I have decided that the stove is OFF tonight (even if the cook isn't) and as luck would have it, the English Cucumbers just happened to go on sale this week. There's nothing like cucumbers to really keep you cool when it's hot outside. What better time to put on my pseudo-British accent and pretend I'm Mrs. Patmore trying to feed people at un-air-conditioned Downton Abbey? Here we all are, in the sweltering heat, waiting for the Royal Baby to be born, celebrating that the Queen of England signed marriage equality into law earlier this week, and these particular English Cucumbers happened to come from a hothouse in Canada (hey, it's still part of the Commonwealth). Even the title of this post, the expression, "cool as a cucumber" comes from a very amusing piece written by the English poet, John Gay, in 1732.

English cucumbers rock. And in this particular recipe, they really should be used. The regular cucumbers you see in the grocery store each week have a tougher skin and are slightly more bitter and crunchy, while the English cucumbers are going to give a more silky texture in the final soup and it will taste better. Also, as a personal note, I've been to England and the authentic cucumber sandwiches served at Afternoon Tea? Oh yeah, totally different with English cucumbers. Accept no substitute. (Now if only we could get real clotted cream around here my life would be complete.)

So what could top a nice cold Cucumber Gazpacho? One that has the very, very last of my precious Italian olive oil drizzled as the final touch when we eat it. I can't get this in the States, I have to beg bottles of it off of relatives who go over for vacation. Sigh. This is the kind of olive oil that is so delicious, you never cook with it... you only have it on it's own, or maybe with a little bread, to fully appreciate the taste. My God, the way it tasted when I first cracked open that seal... instant "sore throat" from a single spoonful. It was AMAZING. Alas, superb olive oil doesn't age like fine wine... the best it will ever be is when it's running straight from the olive press. It has a year of "life" to it at most, and should be consumed by the expiration date - which is next month. You could say, I rationed out our consumption perfectly this past year, but it deserves a respectful final meal - bread, cucumber gazpacho, and a hot, hot summer day when these are the Main Meal, and proper  attention and homage can be fully paid.

So long, Old Pal.
When I win the lottery, I'm going to have whole cases of this stuff flown over every month. 

What? You have a problem with Italian Olive Oil being used with English Cucumbers in a Spanish soup? Not Anglophile enough for you? That gives me all the excuse I need for THIS clip, hehehe.

Not exactly a Merchant Ivory film, was it? Still one of my absolute favorite movies ever.

My English Cucumber Gazpacho also has plenty of very, very good quality olive oil in the soup - along with a LOT of white wine vinegar and fresh lemon. I go easy on the raw garlic in this: only one clove. It's a big clove, but just one. You can always add another in - but it gets stronger and better, if you let the soup sit for a full day before eating it, so start with one and then adjust to your own taste.

English Cucumber Gazpacho
Makes about 2 Quarts

9 English cucumbers, divided (8 peeled & chopped for soup, 1 diced or thin-sliced for garnish)
1 1/2 cup very good Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 cup water (I use the chilled water from our Brita pitcher in the fridge)
1-2 cloves Garlic, pasted with Kosher Salt
1 cup White Wine vinegar
Juice of 3 lemons
3 tsp Kosher Salt
½-1 tsp (a very generous grinding) Black Pepper

Optional: ¼ Cup superb quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil to drizzle for garnish

Peel 8 of the cucumbers and rough chop. In small batches puree in the blender with the oil, water, lemon juice, garlic paste, salt & pepper and pour into a large metal bowl set over another bowl of ice. The way I do it is put most of the liquid ingredients in the first and second batches, puree them well, and then use that soup base for the rest of the cucumbers… it takes about 4 batches to do all 8 cucumbers in my blender. And, as I’ve said before, I have a very powerful-motored blender for this purpose, I don’t think it would turn out as smooth in a food processor. Chill the soup thoroughly, for at least 2 hours in the fridge, and also chill the bowls you will serve it in - don't put 32-degree soup into 75-degree bowls straight from your kitchen cabinet. You can then garnish with the 9th cucumber, or drizzle olive oil, or even croutons would be nice. Bread and gazpacho and olive oil always work well. 

I am serving this with a "heavy" salad made from cooked beets, wild rice, sliced almonds, and chevre, and also with plenty of Italian bread.

Now, there's really not much to the method, so there wasn't much to photograph. But on a hot day, who wants to work any harder than they have to?

Step 1 - Blenderize it

Step 2 - Nest the bowl in a bigger bowl full of ice, then put them in the fridge for at minimum 2 hours, better yet overnight.

Now if you have it, and like it, I'd say instead of wine or beer with this, stick with the English theme and drink hard cider with this... Strongbow is my personal favorite, and is widely available in the states. If you haven't tried it yet... You're welcome! Otherwise, meh... Iced Earl Grey is pretty fine on a hot day and wouldn't be amiss.

Stay Cool, everyone!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

World's Most Expensive Casserole

It's called 'Shroomy Crab Mornay Casserole, and it has two and a half POUNDS of Phillips Jumbo Lump Crab under those Old Bay Seasoning-flavored potato chips. OH YEAH BABY!
I got a call from one of my clients a few weeks ago, who wanted me to fill their freezer with various casseroles. The client asked for the Chicken & Ham casserole that I've posted up on Facebook before  - my own family begs for this so often I could make it in my sleep. But then, the client had other ideas, and I was absolutely delighted. They wanted to go off-menu in terms of variety and flavors from my Shore House Shoobie Menu, and among the ideas of what they wanted was a crab meat casserole. Holy smokes!

I'll confess, even though I've worked with caviar, 18K gold leaf, foie gras, truffles, duck, escargots, lobster, and other ingredients that are just off-the-hook expensive, when I got the order for this casserole my first gut feeling was not joy but intimidation - and my response to the client - was, "Are you absolutely sure you want a Crab Casserole?" Not becasue I ahven't worked with crab before - I have, many times, but because of the sheer quantity of crab it would need, I knew this was going to be one badass mother of a grocery bill, even before I hit the store. When I'm working with any ingredient that costs $44 per pound, let's just say the food commands my undivided attention and deepest respect, coupled with a sincere and fervent desire to not screw it up. Just the ingredients alone for this, and yes, I added them up, came out to $146.02. If I charged my client at the normal restaurant markup of a 30% food cost, that's $486.73. For one 9x13 casserole. In a restaurant, if they did them in individual servings, they would sell this at $61 each.

No pressure there!

On the other hand, what an awesome opportunity. Ingredients at this level deserve to be handled beautifully, and allowed to shine on their own merit. Only the highest, most expensive restaurants could dare consider keeping this on the menu, and most likely, they would skimp on the amount of crab meat, or use a lower quality to cut the cost. Or both. This is why being a catering chef is so much fun as opposed to being a restaurant chef -we get so many more opportunities to be creative, and we can have chances like this to just run with the food, and make something amazing and special.

So of course I started with my Culinary Artistry book. It's my go-to tool for when I want to build my own recipe. If you haven't heard of it, it's a cookbook (THE cookbook) for skilled cooks who have already mastered the techniques of cooking, and are ready to just let their muse run wild. It has no recipes, just various lists of classic flavor combinations that go well together, plus some fun reading thrown in in the form of stories and menus and answers to the question "What 10 Ingredients Would You Want If You Were Stranded On A Desert Island" by various well-known chefs. The authors are Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page. I've had 3 copies of this book over the past 15 years - not because I've lost it or let anyone borrow them, but because I've worn them down to pulp using them.

I spent about 4 hours mentally building the recipe - trying things out, cutting them, getting way over the top (wild mushrooms, anyone?) and then simplfying it all down again. The thing was to not take away from that exquisite crab. What it came down to was a classic American casserole - the mandatory Campbell's Cream of Mushroom included - with tiny baby button mushrooms that had been sauteed in butter and sherry, sour cream, Mornay sauce, twisty egg noodles and a kiss of fresh tarragon. And then, in a nod to our region, I topped it with Utz potato chips that has the Old Bay Seasoning flavor.

The only thing I would do differently if I was doing it for my own consumption is I would add some tomatoes, but the client is located at the Jersey shore, so really, this is going to be sublime paired with a simple fresh Jersey Tomato & Grilled Sweet Corn salad, or even just sliced tomatoes. This is going to make an exquisite summer meal.

‘Shroomy Crab Mornay Casserole
Serves 8-10 (Makes one 9x13 sized casserole)


2.5 lbs (5 cups) Phillips Jumbo Lump Crab Meat  (Canned or the plastic containers doesn’t matter, but I only use Phillips brand ever, and yes, it’s hard to find and expensive, but you get what you pay for)
1 can Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup (Family-sized can)
16 oz. Sour Cream
6 oz. baby button mushrooms, wiped, trimmed, and thin-sliced
 ½ stick butter
Mornay sauce
Madeira or sherry – 2 oz
1 large pkg Egg Noodles
Tarragon, fresh, fine chopped, 2 Tbsp
Bag of Old Bay Seasoned potato chips (I use Utz “The Crab Chip”)


First sauté the mushrooms in the butter until they are browned, then pour off the excess butter into the pot you will make the Mornay sauce in, and splash the sherry into the mushrooms. Bring to a boil then turn off heat and allow the mushrooms to absorb all the sherry. Set aside.
Second make the Mornay Sauce: (Mornay is Béchamel with cheese added)
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups warmed milk (microwave 2 min is fine)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
pinch freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
2 ounces grated Gruyere (can substitute Parmesan if desired)

To the reserved mushroom butter, add another tablespoon and melt it, stirring, so that the butter is creamy and melted, then add in the flour – whisk quickly and keep stirring to make it smooth and cook the flour. Make blond roux, fully cook it but not brown, then slowly whisk in milk letting it thicken, and allow to come to a boil, season with Salt, Pepper & Nutmeg. Then gradually whisk in cheese until it’s fully incorporated and smooth – not sticky or stringy. Taste it - the flavor of the cheese should be subtle, not overpowering. Don’t worry about it being thick – that’s what you want. Set aside until you are ready to make casserole sauce. For casserole sauce: Mix together the Mornay Sauce, cream of mushrooms soup, sour cream, and mushrooms. Taste. Adjust seasoning if needed. Cook the pasta – firm, of course, for casseroles. Drain the pasta, cool it under running water, and immediately toss with about 2 cups of the sauce to coat the pasta. Gently, gently, gently fold in Crab Meat being careful to not break up the lumps, tarragon, and more sauce to your desired consistency, dispersing crab evenly through the mixture. Then pour into well-greased casserole dish. Top with crushed Old Bay Potato Chips. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes or until heated through, or freeze.

So, the funny thing is, as I was posting on Facebook about making this recipe, one of my friends told the story of how she had recently ordered a "crab mushroom casserole" from a restaurant. She joined in the conversation with the advice not to put "too many mushrooms" in it - because when she got her order, it was almost ALL mushrooms and hardly any crab.  She felt cheated, and now is forevermore suspicious of  "crab casserole" on any menu again - and who can blame her? What a bad experience! How many times have we all gone out to eat, seen something that sounds wonderful, notice it is reasonably priced, and then when you get it, find that it is not what you expected?

But that's what happens far too often. When a chef makes a menu up, it's incredibly fun to create and be inspired... but you have to do the "perspiration" behind the inspiration or in reality it's going to fail. Crab on the menu sounds wonderful. Crab that goes missing from the kitchen, or doesn't sell and gets thrown away, is death to a restaurant. You need to cost out your recipes, control your portions, and take seasonality and your customers into account. You can't put a $60 entree onto a menu where everything else is priced under $25. They cut quality or quantity or both, in order to hit a price point and make a profit. And then we all lose - the chef is making lower-quality food, the customer is feeling the kitchen over-promised and under-delivered, and nobody's really happy.

Except MY customers! Who get 5 cups of the best premium crab on the market, to 1/2 cup of mushrooms. Mwahahahahahaha! (The benefits of paying for groceries separately from my time.. my clients get a lot more bang for the buck than going to restaurants, and can have higher quality.)

Now, you may be wondering why, when I went to so much trouble to make up this recipe, would I share it this openly. I'll tell you why - weddings are on my mind this week. I am very happy there's about to be a lot more of them. And there are NOT a lot of really elegant, really easy recipes out there that would be doable for a home cook... and could potentially be made six weeks to a month in advance and frozen uncooked. How awesome is that? The night before the wedding, move the casserole(s) from the freezer to the fridge to thaw, and then they should only take about 45 minutes to bake - check the internal temperature with a thermometer, but you only need to bring this up to 140 degrees  in the center - the seafood is already fully cooked, and there are no raw eggs used.

This would make a fabulous entree for a Brunch or Lunch Wedding for some bootstrapping DIY couple who are on a tight budget. Especially for a small, intimate wedding of 25 or less, this would make an easy, elegant main course. I'd buy or rent single serving porcelain ramekins and bake them on a baking sheet, instead of cutting a big tray for portion control... but if you were having a buffet, then you could make this in a large pan. Top it with Panko break crumbs tossed with Old Bay Seasoning instead of potato chips. And yes, they could substitute cooked lobster or shrimp into this as well.  Pair it with an heirloom tomato salad or a melon salad (crab and melon really work together) or mixed baby greens, some artesian breads, and it's a perfect meal.

A lot of love and joy went into creating this, and I'm very proud of it.

Now THAT is a crab-to-mushroom ratio to rival the Ritz!