Friday, May 31, 2013

Welcome Summer!

Today is hot-hot-hot! I LOVE IT! Hooray and welcome, Lady Summer!

Today I am making a luscious Gazpacho.

Hello, I'm Luscious Gazpacho.

Oh, I have been craving this for weeks, but it's just not the same unless the world is sweltering outside when you get that first icy spoonful. You know what I mean? Gazpacho is THE soup for hot weather; all the vegetables and fresh herbs are in season and bursting with flavor. Over the years, my recipe has evolved tremendously.  I make a slightly less spicy Gazpacho than most restaurants: feeding a family with different tolerances for heat, anyone can shake a little hot sauce (or raw garlic paste) in, but once it's there, it can't come out!

I also don't top my Gazpacho with Sour Cream. Seriously, I have a pet peeve about this when I see this soup garnished this way in local restaurants, as if it's a Southwestern dish  - even more disappointing, places that do this? their Gazpacho usually seems like a watered down bowl of salsa. Blecch!  Gazpacho is from Andalusia, folks. There's enough culture and history and variations within that wonderous region of origin to keep any cook blissfully exploring for years, without mucking it up and trying to make it into "cowboy food". I do NOT want to see any jalapenos or habineros or chilies anywhere near Gazpacho. Ever.

Gazpacho is a dish that has deep historical roots, back to the ancient Moors and Romans conquering the area we know as Spain. Some versions of Gazpacho are even made with almonds,  melons, and other fruits. And they WORK. If it's a culinary cousin of anything, that would be another hot-weather personal favorite of mine, Panzanella. (If you have Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking - she has a great recipe for Panzanella. All of her recipes are fantastic. But back to Gazpacho...) It's odd, but of all the many, many recipes I delight to take in different directions, playing with the ingredients and preparation techniques, flavor profiles and cultural elements, when it comes to Gazpacho, I suddenly get all traditional and conservative. I do part of the soup by hand - no food processor to make the chopping faster. I'm incredibly nit-picky about not letting any damn bell pepper seeds into my soup making it bitter. I  use a blender for a small part of the soup brothy base... it's a wonderful time saver and I don't have a problem with the "frothiness factor" like I would with the mess a mortar and pestle make. The one thing I don't do which is traditional is put stale bread into the mixture.. but I always serve and this soup with generous amounts of crusty breads. There is a true marriage there that should be honored.

So, before I give you the recipe, let me explain the technique, so that the crazy ingredients list will make some sense. I promise, there's a method to my madness. The chunks of vegetables that you eat with your spoon should all be uniform, and it's better when you can get a bite of all of them at once on any spoonful - but that means you need to cut them into very small dice - not fine, not minced, but I go for about 1/4 inch cubes, without getting obsessive. (Oh, quit laughing. Really. I could be much worse.) I then coarse-chop more of the same vegetables to go in the blender to be pureed. My home KitchenAid blender had THE most powerful motor of all of the models I could find, and it wasn't cheap, but it isn't a professional kitchen blender (those run in the $450-$800 range). I'm careful about not overworking my blender, so I chop things up before they go in, and use plenty of liquid to get it all moving. To make the liquid "broth" part of the soup, I do it in two batches in the blender: the first is a puree of all the vegetables, plus olive oil, salt, pepper, red wine vinegar and Worcestershire sauce. The second is all my fresh herbs, lemon juice,  and the rest of the tomato juice. This way, you get all the favors combined in the broth. The two ingredients that don't get pureed are 1) the garlic - that gets minced down to paste, with kosher salt so that there are no chance of biting into an oversized chunk that the blender missed, and 2) the tomatoes. Since we are using tomato juice as the puree liquid, and it already has all the seeds and skins removed, there's no reason to make more work peeling and seeding tomatoes. One final thing: I like to refrigerate all of the ingredients before starting, so they are cold while I'm working with them.. that way chilling the made soup takes less time.

Liz's Half-Blendered Gazpacho
Makes 8-10 Servings


3 cloves fresh Garlic, pasted with Kosher Salt
1/2 med. Red Onion, fine chopped
1/4 med. Red Onion, rough chopped for blender
1 large Red Bell Pepper, seeded & de-ribbed, fine chopped
1 large Red Bell Pepper, seeded & de-ribbed, rough chopped for blender
1 1/2 Green Bell Pepper, seeded & de-ribbed, fine chopped
1/2 Green Bell Pepper, seeded & de-ribbed, rough chopped for blender
1 large Cucumber, peeled, seeded (seeds can go in blender), and fine chopped
1 large Cucumber, peeled, rough chopped for blender
3 large firm Roma Tomatoes, diced
1 64 oz. can Tomato Juice
2 tsp Worcestershire
1/4 cup Red Wine Vinegar
1/4 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1/4 bunch fresh Italian Flat Leafed Parsley, plucked from stems
1 bunch fresh Basil, plucked from stems
1/2 bunch fresh Tarragon, plucked from stems
1 bunch fresh Chives, rough chopped for blender
Juice of 2 fresh lemons
Kosher Salt for garlic paste, and then to taste (about 2 tsp.)
Fresh ground Black Pepper, to taste (about 1/4 tsp.)

First make garlic paste by mincing the garlic as fine as possible, then, using small pinches of Kosher salt, work it with the side of your chef's knife into fine, even paste. Place in the bottom of large bowl. As you chop the rest of the vegetables, divide them, placing the fine chopped ones in the large bowl, and the rough chopped ones loosely in the blender carafe. To the blender carafe, add in the Worcestershire, Vinegar, Olive Oil, salt & pepper to taste, and then just enough tomato juice to cover. Cover with lid and puree until smooth. Pour into large bowl with the fine chopped vegetables. In the same blender carafe, then add the fresh herbs, lemon juice, and the rest of the tomato juice, and puree until smooth but not liquefied. Stir into the large bowl with the rest of the soup. Then stir the soup so that all of the vegetables, garlic paste, and broth get well-combined, and place either on a large bowl of ice, or refrigerate. Serve with large amounts of crusty bread, extra olive oil, and garnish either with shaved ice or ice cubes.

So... how 'bout that Food Porn? Here ya go!

Making fresh Garlic Paste, chop the garlic:

Chop. Chop. Chop. Chop. Chop.

No,... smaller!
 Good. Now, paste:
Mush, mush, mush SCRAPE! Mush, mush, mush, SCRAPE!
All pasted, and into the Big Bowl. Looks like more than 3 cloves doesn't it?

Now the rest of them:

LOOK at this gorgeous onion. It's almost too pretty to chop.

Almost. Heh.

Here's an idea of the sizes of the rough cut vs. the fine chop on the onions. Sorry the picture isn't great. Stopping, washing my hands, just to snap pictures between each step drives me crazy when I'm "in the zone" is really hard! (This is why I'm a chef, not a photographer)

The fine cut, in a small teaspoon - I thought this was a good gauge for size.

Ok, on to the cucumber! If you've never seeded a cuke before, here it is. Cucumber seeds aren't bitter like bell pepper seeds, and these were nice, fresh, "well-hydrated" ones, so I just tossed the pulp into the blender. No sense in wasting it if it tastes good.
You have NO idea how hard it is for a totally uncoordinated geek like myself to take a picture with one hand and hold a spoon in a cucumber with another. Seriously. There's a reason they don't let people like me do brain surgery, folks. Tip Jar's on the right. Just sayin'.
(Must not nibble the chopped veggies... must not nibble the chopped veggies...)
Slicing the cucumber into strips, before chopping.

The cucumbers are a lot softer than the onions and peppers, so they barely need to be chopped much at all for the blender:
(Crunch, crunch, crunch).. Ok, so maybe there's two slices less cucumber in the final soup than the recipe says. Shoot me.

Rubies, Emeralds, Jade, Amethysts and Pearls surrounded by Silver... treasures beyond measure in my kitchen.

And now, the soup practically makes itself. Puree #1: the veggies in the blender, before adding the Worcestershire, vinegar, oil, salt, pepper and tomato juice... it's only about half the carafe, but it makes such a thicker, richer broth with the vegetables in, really helps the flavors marry.
Just enough to get it moving... save more juice for the herbs, they make the machine work harder.
Puree done! Notice the nice, bright color -- that's the cucumbers doing their job, and why I go heavy on the red peppers, but use barely any green peppers. When the fresh herbs get pureed, the result is very dark, so this helps the soup not look like swamp water.

Empty this out into the big bowl of fine chopped vegetables, give it a good stir, especially to get that garlic paste off the bottom. The soup already tastes good now, but don't adjust the salt just yet. Put your herbs into the same blender, with the fresh lemon juice and more tomato juice - you don't need to rinse out the carafe before doing Puree #2, it's all going to the same place.

Puree and add this all into the big bowl. Really stir it up well. NOW taste it, and you'll be glad that you used cold vegetables to make this - you get a better inkling of what it's going to be once it's really well chilled. Adjust the salt, but not too much, the flavors will come together even better after a day.

What? Oh, you were wondering about that "ice cube" eh? No big secret - throw a couple sprigs of leftover tarragon and some strips of lemon zest into a muffin tin, fill with water, freeze. If I was going to entertain, I'd take time to boil the water first to get crystal clear ice, I'd maybe add lemon juice and parsley leaves as well. A big pile of shaved ice or granita works well, too.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

THIS Absolutely, Positively Does Not Suck...

(Must. Not. Eat. Client's. Dip.) ... 

(Must. Not. Eat. Client's. Dip.) ...

(Must. Not. Eat. Client's. Dip.) ...

Clams Casino Butter.
Whew! it's in the freezer now.

Today is a busy day in the kitchen, I'm cooking up a storm, so not going to write much, other than to say how psyched I am to have a gig for this weekend: my first Shore House Shoobie Special. One of the items ordered was my Clams Casino Butter dip. 

Dude, you know how good that looks? It tastes 10 times better. It is such a "Shore" thing... but instead of dealing with a sink full of sandy clams and the shells stinking up the trash, the clams are already in the dip. It goes from the freezer to the microwave to the table in 10 minutes flat.

Monday, May 13, 2013

This Might Suck

 "It was a brave man who first ate an oyster"~ Jonathan Swift

Only about a year and a half ago, I got my first Crock Pot slow cooker from Santa Claus. I had not seen the point of getting a Crock Pot, because I can do a braise perfectly well on the regular stove using my existing heavy-bottomed pots. Boy, I had no idea how much the slow cooker would free me, or make it so easy to make homemade soups (our whole family are big soup eaters)... within three months, my Crock Pot had become my new best friend. In 6 months, I decided it tied my 1978 "poppy red" Betty Crocker Easy Bake Oven as the Greatest Christmas Present Ever.

And NOTHING had ever come close to the Easy Bake Oven before. Nothing. Not even jewelry.

Yes, I really am that much of a cooking geek.  I don't know how I lived without my Crock Pot. I am addicted to it so much that I secretly dream of getting a SECOND one... with the locking lid feature,  this time.

In the first few months of getting to know my new best little kitchen buddy, I came across a recipe at that I just HAD to try: a simple Slow Cooker Pulled Pork recipe that has an accumulated rating of almost 5 stars from over 2,500 people. It couldn't be easier. You put the pork in the crockpot, add a can of root beer, and walk away for 7 hours. That's it. Drain it, mix in your favorite BBQ sauce, and slap it on a bun. Delicious. The only thing we change at our house is instead of using a whole pork tenderloin, we just buy the pork shoulder roast (sometimes called "in the basket" due it the way it's wrapped up in a net at some grocery stores) and we usually use 2 cans of root beer because my particular model Crock Pot is the largest capacity one they sold.

After trying out that recipe, it sparked a lot of ideas in my own creative little chef head when it comes to cooking liquids... one one hand, I had already "learned" to always use flavorful liquids for poaching, on the other hand, it hadn't occurred to me to use the ease and convenience of already prepared juices or soda! Hellooo!

But we are big on eating chicken in our house. We live in the area of the country where Perdue Oven Stuffer Roasters are available, so for any readers on the West Coast who've never heard of these, go here to see what I'm talking about. It really is a 6-8 POUND chicken. Incredibly meaty. They even have a built in "pop-up" button to tell you when the chicken is cooked so you get absolutely PERFECT, juicy, succulent chicken every time. I grew up with a roast chicken for Sunday dinner meaning that the whole family was fed, and we had a leftover carcass in the fridge with enough meat still on it for us all to "pick at" for making lunches and snacks for the rest of the week. They are so taken-for-granted here in Philadelphia that the first time I had to grocery shop when I lived out in Seattle, I was so horrified by the chickens that I went to 3 different grocery stores... 2-3 pounds? Are you kidding? I came home to my husband and told him that all I could find were, "the scrawny, bony chickens that our East Coast chickens beat up on the playground." When I moved back, I never took our nice big chickens for granted again. And yes, I am also big on planning meals out so in the summer time I'll cook a chicken when the day is coolest (early morning) so I don't overheat the house and overwork the AC at the hottest part of the day - the late afternoon - and so we can have "cold" dinners on really hot days, and a carcass for pickin'!

An Oven Stuffer Roaster is so badass huge it won't fit in my Crock Pot, unless I cut it up first.

Having said that, Perdue also makes "fryers", though it might boggle the minds of West Coasters to realize our "fryers" here on the East Coast weigh in at a whomping 4 1/2 pounds.  (I wasn't kidding when I said our chickens can beat up your chickens after school lets out. Yo. Our chickens are Rocky Balboa Chickens.) Which brings me to today... I stopped by the grocery store and discovered, to my delight, that the whole meat case was filled with things on sale. WOOT! They must've thought that families were going to be cooking Mom dinner instead of taking Mom out to dinner yesterday...which doesn't make much sense, Mother's Day being the biggest restaurant night of the year... but it did mean great "Managers Specials" and I scored 4 fresh, Perdue frying chickens at (drumroll)  79 cents per pound!

Mwahahahahaha! Time to get creative!

“If you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original.”
Ken Robinson,
The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything

And NOW you understand why I say, This Might Suck. It might. Because that recipe for Root Beer braised pork has had me batting my eyelashes at the Ginger Ale... specifically, the Canada Dry Green Tea Ginger Ale, for weeks now.

Today's Snark: Notice they list the ANTIOXIDANTS in all caps at the top of the label. So I know this is HEALTHY.
One one hand, I'm sure that original root beer recipe would work to make BBQ Chicken sandwiches, no problem. But I love the flavors of Asian Foods. And I love ginger most of all. I have been wanting to do chicken in ginger ale for months. I threw in some green onions, rice vinegar, and a teeny bit of some ginger-flavored soy sauce. But even with all my training and experience, even I sometimes get worried about screwing up miserably. Not every creative experiment works out the way I planned (the infamous 1998 "bacon flavored cream sauce" made from a roux of real bacon fat was hands-down The Most Disgusting Thing Ever. Worse even than my mother's Pork Chop hockeypucks, if such a thing can even be imagined.)

You'd better taste better than you look, bird.
Maybe you'd think, since they get wonderful, delicious food 99% of the time, my family would give me a pass for the occasional culinary artistic flop, wouldn't you? They don't. When their spoiled little palates aren't pampered and lavished with epicurean transcendence, I might as well've scraped the sewers and put it on a plate. Sheesh. Talk about pressure to perform. I'm creating today BECAUSE the chicken was such a good price that I bought 4 of them, and roasted 3 for other recipes (one of which being "Plan B: Chicken Quesadillas" in case this Ginger Ale Asian Chicken doesn't turn out as hoped for.

Plan B - "Glamor shot" Notice Perdue doesn't bother to put the pop-up button indicating the chicken is done perfectly in these. Sending you the subtle message to OBEY THE MARKETING that you SHOULD ONLY be buying an Oven Stuffer Roaster if you're gonna do any roasting around here, and any Culinary Rebels deserve to choke down sawdust-dry chicken.

If they didn't want me to learn how to be a Rebel, they shouldn't have sent me to a strict, private, girls-only Catholic school.

Minimum safe cooking temperature for poultry is 165°F... with the temperature taken in the thigh meat between the leg and body, where the meat is most dense.

So as you can see, Plan B is in place, and yes, we'll be having chicken several days this week. And while this may seem crazy at face value, what I haven't mentioned is that our PTA has its biggest event of the year this coming weekend that we are gearing up for all week, I have "Softball Snack mom" duty for an away game on Thursday, and poor Brent is scrambling to cover extra hours at his shop this week due to a perfect storm of other people's family health and vacation times. But the Great Experiment in Ginger Ale Chicken is taking place, as dreamed-of. If it doesn't completely suck, I'll post up a recipe and a picture of the finished product.

And now, back to the kitchen with me... where I belong.

UPDATE: So the flavor of my Ginger Ale Chicken was just fine. The texture was a little too soft this time around but I cooked the chicken on high for 7 hours. (Not intentionally - Life Happens, lol) Next time I'll use boneless skinless cuts and reduce both the setting and the cooking time. After cooking, we mixed Soy Vay Veri Veri Teriyaki and served it on a bun with Granny Smith apple slices. Delicious. Soy Vay has a bunch of recipes over on their site that look great, too, btw.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Not Gonna Get Rich Bloggin'...

Yes, it's made out of a screw-top, gallon-sized wine jug. My parents are beaming with pride right now.
So you might notice some changes to the blog today. The good news for you, Dear Readers, is I got shot down from Google AdSense. Once I finally waded through about a dozen links, and their help forum, to figure out why, it looks like the powers that be don't want any alcohol in blog posts. Seriously? The Temperance Movement rears it's ugly head ... in 2013? Riddle me this, Batman:  exactly how is a gourmet cooking blog supposed to avoid alcohol, when Vanilla Extract is 70 proof? Oh, wait, "that doesn't count because.. um... well.. just we say so! We want to have our cake but not admit to eating it! Waaah!"

If I plan to write with any kind of integrity on cooking, I can't pretend I never use alcohol based ingredients. Poach a fish? Court Bouillon has wine. Zabaglione? Wine. Risotto? Wine, or even fortified wine on occasion. Bananas Foster Flambe? Dark rum and banana liqueur. Egg Nog at Christmas? You BET I'm killing off all that salmonella from raw eggs with copious amounts of ethanol. Sheesh. I'm not editing out wine and spirits from this blog. Period. I'm over 21 and I'm a grownup. I will say, I expect that if you are consuming alcoholic beverages, YOU are also a grown up, and doing it as a mature, responsible adult, of legal age, and in enough moderation not to risk the health or well being of yourself or anyone else. Exactly the same way that many of the recipes I make include the use of butter, heavy cream, bacon, and other various forms of delicious saturated fats, and if you don't employ some kind of moderation and nutritional sanity in consuming them, and also eat more green, healthy plant based foods more often than the delicious saturated fats, you will clog up your arteries and you will die. And when I talk about using basic kitchen tools and equipment and cooking food, you won't go sticking your hands down the garbage disposal while it's running, or putting your face over the burner to see if fire is hot, or test if your knife is sharp enough to chop through a chicken carcass by testing it out on your own fingers. There. That's my disclaimer.

And I've added it to the widgets on the sidebar, with a Pay Pal tip jar for those who might want to support my writing. The Tip Jar probably looks familiar to anyone who's been to my house in the last 4 years: we keep it as the Disney Bank to save up for our family vacations. As you can see, we have a lotta savin' to do before we'll be Hoop-Dee-Doo'in it again. Hint, hint.

I've also added a little Gift Shop over at Cafe Press. Nothing profound. Just some T-shirts, hats, a big-sized mug and an apron with the blog name and tagline.

However, I will (nervously) say... I'm working on a frozen food project right now. The idea being people could actually BUY my Hot Mama's Hot Dips, frozen, online. And at the Farmer's Market, and the Co-Op, and the Grocery Store, and Costco... lol, obviously, it won't be from Cafe Press, when that happens! I've been working on finding just the right packaging all week, and I've found an eco-friendly product I really, really like that I think would be a VERY nice presentation, and also keeping in line with my own business ethics and the mission of the company. Hot Mama Tarditi's Gourmet-To-Go-Go proudly supports "Buy Fresh, Buy Local"  and firmly believes in sustainability and responsibility to the future. I can cheerfully cut into my profit margin for packaging that is healthy for the planet. I might have to wait a few extra years to buy my first Tesla Roadster,  but I'll spend those years sleeping like a baby every night.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

My Heart Literally Yearned For This

That weird-looking little round green thing is a caper berry. If you think it looks cute here, you should see it stuck to a skewer sticking out of a Bloody Mary or two - freakin' ADORABLE!

I read a funny Facebook meme last week, someone was figuratively going to start killing people for over-misusing the word literally. Hopefully they will read the whole post before throwing their little hissy fit at my title, though it's kinda fun to imagine somebody sitting at their computer throwing grammar hissy fits. Hehehe.  Must be nice to have problems like that. There, They're, their, honey! Go outside, eat an apple, and breathe - life's too short already.

So, over the past week, I have been perfecting a recipe for a party dip. It's a very, very good dip. So good, in fact, that in having a very small group of people test it, I'm also having them sign nondisclosure agreements because it is a super frozen product, and I've been combing through the US Patent Office website to see what my options are, and I need to get the ball rolling as I only have a year once it becomes public knowledge.

The downside to recipe development is the tasting. Most people would think that's the upside, but it's not - you taste dozens of "Not quite right" until you get the DING! And sometimes it's a texture thing, not a flavor thing, that keeps you tinkering with the recipe. Sometimes it's a food chemistry thing - this happens frequently in commercial recipe development - the recipe works great in a small batch, but once you start scaling it up (Making, say, 20 dips instead of 1 - which would still be a tiny little batch compared to commercial production), the ratios of ingredients don't hold stand up to  produce the same consistent product. My dip, needless to say, has cheese in it... imagine eating cheese for 4 hours each day for a week. Yeah. I hit the point where the dip was coming out my ears by Sunday. At this point, I might never walk past a wheel of brie without flipping it the bird again.

It's not like I'm thin to begin with, and it's not like about half my booty hasn't been made out of Bearnaise Sauce for the last 15 years... but, seriously, I got to the point where I looked at Brent and somewhat fearfully confessed, "I know you are LOVING this project I'm working on, but if I don't eat a bucket of some kind of green vegetable matter soon, my heart is going to come exploding out of my chest like the monster in Alien!" He laughed. Oh, suuuure... he's under 30 and still immortal. I remember those days. Bastard. He would eat nothing but sides of beef wrapped in bacon for two meals a day if I let him get away with it; three, if I gave him a vat of Deitz & Watson Smoky Horseradish sauce for dipping it in.

Hence, my lunch today was, by design, on the Lighter Side. Not just in terms of calories and good monounsaturated fat, but I craved lemon, and vinegar, and the crunch of blanched asparagus. Craved a nice healthy salad. Craved something vegetarian.

But I'm swamped,  and only had about 15 minutes to make my own lunch today, because I'm running around like a crazy woman, making up samples, printing out nondisclosure forms,  writing blog posts about the rambling dustbunnies in my brain, and letting them come out to hop around for you , dear reader.... Are they fricasseeing dustbunnies, do you think?

Seriously, be glad you don't live with me. My twisted mind goes off on tangents like this all day long.

So here's what I threw together. Honest to Blog, it took longer to wait for the water to boil before hand while I did other things, and take the pictures afterwards, than it did to make this salad:

Asparagus Cannellini Bean Salad with Lemon Pesto Vinaigrette
Serves 2


1 bunch fresh Asparagus snapped, woody stems discarded
1 19 oz. can Cannellini beans (also called white kidney beans) (I used Progresso)

For the dressing:

Pesto Sauce - 1 heaping tsp. (I used Buitoni, pre-made "light" pesto. Really.)
White wine vinegar - 1 Tbsp.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil - about 3 Tbsp.
Zest of 1 lemon
Lemon juice - 1/2 lemon
Salt & Pepper to taste

Start by putting a big pot of water on to boil, unsalted, and while that is heating up, wash and snap the asparagus, throw way the woody stems. Set up one large bowl of ice cubes and water for refreshing the asparagus after you blanch it. Using a colander, rinse the beans thoroughly under cold running water.
In a medium-sized bowl (big enough that you will be able to toss the asparagus and beans in once they are ready) make the Lemon Pesto Vinaigrette by first putting the pesto in the bottom of the bowl, and then, using the tines of a fork (or you could dirty a wire whisk if you wanted - I didn't) beat in the vinegar and then, very slowly, drizzle in the olive oil as you are beating to get a nice fluffy emulsion.

Toss the beans gently into the dressing so they have a little extra time to absorb the dressing, and season with a little salt and pepper - you can adjust more later. Cut a few thin peels off the lemon for zest, then halve it to squeeze in a few minutes. By now the water is boiling, so throw in all the asparagus, and count slowly 30-35 seconds (I go by color - brightest green wins). Using tongs, remove the asparagus from the boiling water and plunge into the ice bath, and leave there for a few minutes to chill fully. While it is chilling, cut away any pith from the underside of the lemon peel and finely slice or mince the zest ( I did a little of both - mixed the minced into the salad, used the sliced zest to garnish). Once the asparagus are nice and cold, move them to paper towels to gently dry, (you don't want them to water down your nice handmade dressing, right?) then place them in the bowl with the beans and dressing. Give everything a good toss to coat the asparagus with the dressing, then squeeze the lemon half over all of the salad, and adjust the salt & pepper, and divide onto two plate, arranging as you like. Garnish with extra lemon zest.

And yes, now that I've told you all of that, let's get a certain fine point of cooking out of the way, since this is only, like, my 5th post here on the Hot Mama Tarditi's Gourmet-To-Go-Go Blog: never, never hesitate to use a good-quality pre-made product when it suits the purpose of the recipe, especially when it's just for your own self to enjoy. If I was making this for a client? I'd use fresh. For entertaining, if we had a party? Fresh. But just me when I'm hungry (or my kid's school lunches?) - whatever's on hand that we need to use up around here before it would get thrown away works fine for us.

I'm not that kind of snotty, foo-foo, nose-in-the-air chef. Can't stand 'em.

I'm talking about the pesto sauce I used today. Of course I can make my own pesto sauce. And, at the end of the summer, when the farmers are begging for people to haul it away by the Hefty bagful, I will make my own pesto sauce! Gallons of it. From scratch. Using the really good olive oil and pine nuts and Parmesan. And I will freeze it and enjoy it all winter until it runs out - on burgers, on pasta, swirled into soup, spread on bread - until we run out of homemade again. When you use it as a condiment, you go through a lot of pesto, and you keep it on hand as par stock. At least we do. Our favorite homemade cheeseburgers around here are made from buffalo meat patties, topped with pesto, fresh mozzarella, and tomatoes. The point being, having something like that on hand makes a "gourmet" lunch yours in less time than it would take to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, so don't get overly hung up and stressed out on the whole "must be made from scratch" mindset; the point is to just enjoy Great Food.

And not have your heart literally explode out of your chest. Like in Alien.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

You Can't Go Wrong With Bourbon

Hello all! The Kentucky Derby is upon us this weekend, and many people are going to parties for the occasion. One of them happens to be my cousin Barbara, who asked me this week for a really easy recipe for dessert.

Now, let me just say, there IS such a thing as the classic Kentucky Derby Pie. And it's completely scrumptious. Think of a chocolate chip cookie, made into pie form, and that's pretty much what it tastes like. Some variations use more chocolate, some are almost a modified pecan pie, some have bourbon and some have walnuts... but really, when it comes to pie, and especially one made with those particular ingredients, is there any WRONG way to do it? No. No there is not. Pie is it's own virtue. Happiness, on a plate.

But when you want to make a dessert for 25 people at a party, Kentucky Derby Pie is not the way to go if you want "Easy". First of all, getting six slices per pie, you'd need to make 6 pies... and unless you're someone like me who's used to bulk cooking, that's a bit much for anyone.

Now let me tell you all a dirty little secret of mine: I like eating desserts, but I'm not overly fond of making them. When it comes to creating food, I think in flavors, and taste recipes in my mind as I'm making them up. So, when I have to think about sweet-sweet-sweet, I can't do it for very long, or I find myself looking for the nearest bag of pretzels, extra salt, please. One of my pet peeves is that desserts are becoming over-sugary as Americans are getting so addicted to no-calorie or low-calorie sweetened products that our collective palates are demanding a bigger sugar hit from foods that normally you don't think of having any sugar in them (breads are a classic example - have you tasted the soft pretzels at Wawa these days? Like a salted doughy sweet roll. Poor Maria Nacchio is turning over in her grave.). So what happens to the real sweets when your supposed-to-be-savories all have a higher sugar content and your palate is desensitized? Exactly. Oversweetened. And then you get companies who've already identified customers like me as a market segment, and have come up with an even more intense work-around to try to keep me coming back: the salted caramel trend. Salty and sweet at the same time... it lights up more of the "yum" braincells all at once. Where one was a sparkle, that, my friends is the whole fireworks grand finale over Cinderella's Castle, at least when you are a supertaster.

So back to my cousin's dessert: I suggested, first, a bourbon sauce. It is the Kentucky Derby, after all. It's tradition! Drinking bathtubs full of bourbon in the middle of the Bible Belt is one of those things that makes America great, and gives me hope for our future! And, now that I've told you all about lighting up those fireworks, you'll see why I gave my cousin this recipe, with salted butter:

Dessert Bourbon Sauce

2 pounds of butter (salted is fine)
1 pound of dark brown sugar
1/2 - 1 cup of bourbon (depending on how boozy you like)
1 cup heavy cream

Put the butter and sugar into the pan, over medium-high heat and stirring constantly, wait for it all to melt together enough that the sugar is fully melted - no longer "grainy" - you can hear it against the back of the spoon and feel it in the texture. Once that happens, turn off the stove, slide the pan to a cool burner, and carefully stir in the bourbon... the reason I say carefully is because alcohol and high heat can flame (though it takes more than this... usually to make it flame for Bananas Foster, I have to get a full boil going and then light it). Once the bourbon is stirred in, return the pan to the hot burner, turn the heat back on again, and stir in the cream. Bring the whole thing a a boil (about 3 minutes) and then take it off and put it in a glass bowl. You can make this in advance, keep it in the fridge, then when you are ready to serve, just microwave it until it's warm - about 3 minutes, stirring at each minute to make it heat evenly.
She's going to get the salty-sweet-fatty hits on this sauce, and everyone is going to love it. And, if that is all Barbara wants to do? Serve this with some brownies or chocolate chip cookies, and she's done. If it wasn't still so damned cold around here, STILL!, I'd tell her to fold it into softened vanilla ice cream and slap it between soft-baked chocolate chip cookies for a grownup ice cream sandwich.

However, if that's not quite enough, and my cousin feels like getting more creative, but easy creative, I suggested pairing the sauce with This Bread Pudding. I love Allrecipes website. I especially love their 5-star rating system, and the fact that all the ratings get averaged by real users... when you get a recipe that has 4 1/2 stars from over 1,800 people? You know that recipe rocks. I use them a lot for research... like for this recipe for my cousin, I suggested to take that basic recipe, but then substitute a more appealing dried fruit for the raisins - like cherries or dried cranberries, which would give a more interesting flavor and color to her results. And that it was entirely fine to choose a different bread, or mix half wheat/multigrain and half white. I've even tasted a sweet bread pudding made from RYE bread before - and it worked! I couldn't believe how great it turned out when they brought it to me... the two girls I used to work with were superb cooks. Great palates. It was always a pleasure tasting their food.

I had a Chef back in culinary school who taught the class on how to design a restaurant, front and back of the house, seating flow, kitchen equipment. God I hated that class! Not because of the  subject matter, - that was very interesting -  but because the Chef made us do the project in teams. He came from the Fortune 500 side of the food industry, was really into the whole corporate mentality of MBA buzzwords this and Six Sigma that, and his personal favorite of these was synergy. That guy had A Thing for the word synergy to the point of fetishism, no lie, and was always jonesing to see it in action. He had the insane idea that this coveted synergy would happen only by giving us a massive project, with an impossible deadline, and then assigning groups so that each was a mix of the top students with the about-to-flunkouts. And when you have a running 3.97 GPA and have spent 5 semesters on the Dean's List, watching more than 60% of the people in your program drop out, the thought of a slacker-group-induced-C is enough to make you contemplate murder. The group I was in wasn't too terrible, truth be told. (Luckily for me, the Chef also had a huge crush on one of the students - they lived together for a time - and had set it up so his little F-boy was at least guaranteed a B for his miserable page worth of work, while the rest of us frantically pulled all-nighters.) However, our group, much to his personal annoyance, did not have synergy.

Why am I mentioning this? Because Bread Pudding does have synergy. If any food can be said to be greater than the sum of it's parts, Bread Pudding is the embodiment of synergy: stale bread, eggs, cream, butter, and some kind of flavoring ingredients, and POOF! Warm, velvety awesomeness that you can take in any direction and have a dish worthy of setting before Royalty. Bread Pudding dates back thousands of years - versions of it were made in ancient Rome, Egypt, the Middle East and India. It's like soup that way - across cultures and centuries people love Bread Pudding.

One time I even poisoned my ex-husband with it. But that's another story.

Have a great day, all!