Weeknight Cooking: Grilled Chicken with Cherry Cola BBQ Sauce REDUX

When this month’s Magazine of the Month, the July 2008 edition of Bon Appetit, hit the shelves, CC and I both looked inside and zeroed in on the same page: Mixed Grill with Cherry Cola BBQ Sauce.

Now there are many, many ways in which CC and I differ in our cooking techniques. The biggest one to note in this case is CC actually likes to spend hours of elaborate cooking while I like to simplify.

Case in point, I have turned the Mixed Grill with Cherry Cola BBQ Sauce recipe into a Weeknight Cooking segment! Behold: the REDUX!

And now for the confessional portion of this post. I have a guilty pleasure in the kitchen. It’s probably not something I should admit to, but I just can’t help myself. When I want a meal out quickly, and it involves grilling meat, there is one man that I turn to, one who never fails, one who is a lean, mean, grilling machine.

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Oh, George. You rock my world.

I love my Foreman grill. In fact, I’m thinking about starting a whole George Foreman category for this site – that’s how much I love it.

For my birthday last year, I bought myself one of the new “G5 Next Grilleration” grills with 5 removable plates. I love it. The plates can be popped right off and tossed into the dishwasher. If you use a George Foreman, something with removable plates is the deal.

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The only thing I’m not sold on is the whole “5 plates” that it came with. Truth be told, I only use the two grilling plates so I think I would have been just as happy with a cheaper model. To anyone who wants to pick up an affordable George, there’s a Next Grilleration 4-Burger Grill with Removable Plates available on amazon.com for only $40 plus tax and shipping. (The link goes to the grill on the amazon.com page if you’re interested.) If you want your George to be a little more classy in the “Platinum” look, you’re going to have to shell out $75. In my opinion, do your wallet a favor and settle for white – this way you can pay more for good food.

I wish I had taken more pictures of this and I’m not sure why I didn’t. Sorry. Since I was only cooking for two, I pulled out two boneless skinless chicken breasts and thawed them. While they were thawing, I put together the BBQ sauce. This is what takes the longest, because it will need time to simmer in the pot and thicken.

Cherry Cola BBQ Sauce
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 cups chopped onions
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 12-ounce bottles (ketchup-style) chili sauce
1 12- to 13-ounce jar cherry preserves or jam
1 cup cherry cola (regular, not diet)
1/3 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon (or more) hot pepper sauce

The directions from epicurious.com – it’s pretty straightforward:

Heat oil in heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add onions and sauté until golden, about 7 minutes. Add garlic and stir 1 minute. Stir in chili sauce, preserves, cherry cola, brown sugar, and vinegar; bring to simmer, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to medium-low; simmer uncovered until reduced to 4 cups, stirring often to prevent scorching, about 50 minutes. Stir in 1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce. Season to taste with salt and pepper and more hot pepper sauce, if desired. Transfer to bowl and cool completely. DO AHEAD: Can be made 2 weeks ahead. Cover and refrigerate.

Basically sauté the onions and garlic, then toss in the rest of the ingredients except for the hot pepper sauce, then stir it up and simmer until it is a nice saucy thickness – about an hour.

I forgot the hot pepper sauce, but it was still good. This sauce is pretty forgiving in terms of eyeballing ingredients and adding more or less of the ingredients you like. I eyeballed the jam, adding a little more than it called for. Go ahead and play around with it. Also, because I was making sauce for only two chicken breasts, I cut the sauce in half. That needs to simmer for about an hour, and it will get a nice thick texture.

I debated doing the rub and in the end I went with it. I’m so glad I did – the rub is the spice and salt needed to contrast with the sweet sauce. It’s really easy, too.

In a small tupperware container, I mixed together the following spices for the rub:

Spice rub:
2 tablespoons smoked paprika or hot smoked Spanish paprika
2 1/2 teaspoons dried basil
2 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 1/2 teaspoons onion powder
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

In hindsight, this was a lot of rub for only two chicken breasts. Next time I will cut the spices in half.

After my chicken thawed, I patted it dry with some paper towels, then I set it down on a plastic cutting board. To spread the spice rub on, I just took a little bit of it in my fingers, sprinkled it on the chicken, and then rubbed it around. The spice rub coated the chicken nicely and stuck on there just fine. So if you’re a first time spice rubber (okay, that came out a little weirder than I intended) never fear – the spices will stick, even though you’ve patted your chicken dry.

I then threw the chicken breasts on my George, which was set for medium. The lid was closed so I could get the spicy flavors of the rub into the chicken first. After about 5 minutes, I opened the lid and started basting with the sauce. The lid stayed open after that, and both sides got basted so it did get slightly messy – but that’s what the drip pan and dishwasher safe plates are for! As long as you aren’t glopping it on it won’t be a huge disaster – so don’t go crazy!

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So there it is on the George, cooking away. Periodically we would flip them over and baste with a little more sauce, but after the sauce starts going on, the chicken only takes another 10 – 15 minutes more to cook.

I was really, really pleased with the outcome. The mess the whole dish makes is minimal and, with clean up, there’s not a lot of effort going on here. To make it feel even more like an outdoor event, we took our meals to the patio and ate them with a side of sweet corn and leftover cherry soda. Now that I’m looking at the picture, I think cornbread would have rocked with it. Hrm. Next time…

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It’s (pseudo) BBQ, ya’ll!

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MoM July ’08 Bon Appetit: Mixed Grill w/Cherry Cola BBQ Sauce – Smoke ’em if you got ’em

Editors Note: From our Magazine of the Month, the July 2008 issue of Bon Appetit, comes the Mixed Grill with Cherry Cola BBQ Sauce.

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Photo Courtesy of Bon Appetit

To date, I have had less than impressive results from any kind of smoking or wood plank cooking.  And yet I am drawn to this sisyphean task not through some macho sense of “if it aint bar-bee-qew it aint man cookin!” but because… uhm… because it’s cool.  Ok I kind of petered out at the end there, didn’t I?  Damn.  Started real strong too with the Sisyphus reference.  Ok fine, here’s the recipe:

Spice rub:
2 tablespoons smoked paprika or hot smoked Spanish paprika
2 1/2 teaspoons dried basil
2 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 1/2 teaspoons onion powder
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Mixed grill:
1 13x9x2-inch disposable aluminum pan (to catch drips)
4 to 4 1/2 pounds baby back pork ribs, cut into 4 slabs
2 cups (or more) wood chips (cherry, alder, apple, or hickory), soaked in water 1 hour
4 6×31/4×2-inch disposable mini loaf pans (for wood chips if using gas grill)
Vegetable oil (for brushing)
4 skinless boneless chicken breast halves, pounded with mallet to 3/4-inch thickness
8 fully cooked smoked sausages (such as chicken-apple), pierced in several places with fork

Cherry Cola BBQ Sauce
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 cups chopped onions
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 12-ounce bottles (ketchup-style) chili sauce
1 12- to 13-ounce jar cherry preserves or jam
1 cup cherry cola (regular, not diet)
1/3 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon (or more) hot pepper sauce

For spice rub:
Mix all ingredients in small bowl to blend. DO AHEAD: Can be made 2 weeks ahead. Store in airtight container at cool room temperature.

For mixed grill:
Remove top rack from grill. Place foil drip pan in center of bottom rack; fill halfway with water (if using 2-burner gas grill, place drip pan on 1 unlit burner).

Prepare barbecue (medium heat). Sprinkle ribs with salt and 3 tablespoons spice rub. If using charcoal grill, light briquettes in chimney and pour half onto rack on each side of drip pan (you’ll need to light more briquettes in chimney to replenish 1 or more times during grilling). If using 3-burner gas grill, light burners on left and right, leaving center burner off. If using 2-burner gas grill, light burner on side opposite drip pan.

Drain wood chips. If using gas grill, stack 2 mini loaf pans and fill with 1 cup drained wood chips. Stack remaining 2 mini pans and fill with 1 cup drained wood chips. Place pans on flame. If using charcoal, scatter 2 cups drained chips over coals. Brush top grill rack with oil; return to barbecue.

Place ribs on grill rack over drip pan. Cover barbecue; grill until meat is coming away from bones, turning and repositioning every 30 minutes and adding more wood chips to pans as needed, about 1 1/2 hours. Maintain barbecue temperature at 350°F, opening vents wider for more heat or partially closing for less heat. Transfer ribs to rimmed baking sheet; cool.

DO AHEAD: Ribs can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill. Remove drip pan from barbecue.

Lightly brush grill racks with oil. Prepare barbecue (medium heat). Sprinkle chicken with salt and remaining spice rub. Place chicken, sausages, and ribs on grill racks; cover and grill 7 minutes, turning occasionally. Brush ribs with 1 cup cherry cola sauce; cover and grill until chicken is cooked through and ribs are glazed, turning frequently, about 5 minutes longer. Transfer sausages to platter; transfer ribs and chicken to cutting board. Cut pork between bones; cut chicken crosswise into 3/4-inch-wide strips. Transfer to platter with sausages. Serve with remaining cherry cola sauce.

Ok here is the rig I came up with to smoke this thing:

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I set it up to as close to 350 as I could get, and let it go for a while.  Then I realized I was reading the temperature gauge wrong and was cooking it at 300 instead of 350.  Which is why I wasn’t seeing the billowing plumes of smoke I was hoping for.  So I cranked on another burner, and low and behold:  Smoke!!

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Ok, well it was smoke RIGHT before I took this picture, I swear it.  There seems, as David St. Hubbins once noted, to be a fine line between stupid and clever.  As well as nice wafting smoke, and “Bunny, can you come out here and extinguish the dog, please?”  The best smoke I got was, ironically enough, when I turned off all the burners to take the ribs off.  Then it was smoking like crazy.  So I left it out there for a while.

I won’t go into a step by step on this one, but I will say that the sauce was nice and balanced, and got better as it cooked.  The spice rub is very nice, and pounding the chicken flat is a great way to make sure it’s cooked before the outside is all dry and horrible.  And I don’t know who out there pokes holes in their sausages before they cook them, but that kinda crap don’t fly ’round these parts, Buck-o.

The completed dish, sans flambe:

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~Citizen Chef

Chocolate Chunkers

I’m a serious baker. You might even call me hardcore. I don’t walk around wielding a spatula in one hand and a hand mixer in the other, but I do feel pretty hardcore about baking – and even more so about cookies.

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Photograph courtesy of Dorie Greenspan and Alan Richardson

Everyone loves cookies. No one is unhappy when they see them. They’re compact and portable and can be picked up and eaten like finger food. Sure, you could make a cheesecake – but you have to put it on a plate and eat it with a fork, making it difficult to stand and eat at the same time. A cookie, for the most part, can be held in one hand and nibbled on. It’s a happy treat.

Like every connoisseur, I’m picky about the kind of cookies I make. Every Christmas I make a few different kinds, box them up and send as gifts. A lot of love goes into making food for friends and, if you’re looking for a treat to send, cookies, for the most part, travel well. Also, myriad of different kinds exist to suit everyone’s taste: chocolate, vanilla, butterscotch, fruited, nutty, shaped, rolled, dropped, spicy, creamy, chunky, crispy, filled, frosted – and more.

My preference is drop cookies. In case you’re unsure of what that means, a chocolate chip cookie is a type of drop cookie. Using a spoon, you scoop up the batter and drop it on the baking tray. The reason I like drop cookies is that, once you’ve made one kind of drop cookie, you’re ready to make ’em all. They’re also sturdy, meaning if you pick them up there’s not much of a fear of them falling apart. People who aren’t as accustomed to fussy baking that involves twisting, rolling, freezing and cutting, or futzing would do well with drop cookies. Most baking is an exact science, but most drop cookies are very forgiving.

I purchased a new baking book called “Baking, From My Home to Yours” by Dorie Greenspan. Dorie, and her book, received a James Beard Award. For the unfamiliar, it’s like the Academy Awards of food.

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The cookie section is substantial and looks amazing. Ninjas, our mission is clear: Attack the cookie and brownie section and leave no survivors. Or, at the very least, no leftovers.

The first cookie I baked caused me to think of some friends of mine that I started sending cookie boxes to. He loves salt, she loves sweet and a lot of chocolate. This cookie marries both tastes perfectly.

Chocolate Chunkers
1/3 cup all purpose flour
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 3 pieces
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
2 large eggs at room temperature
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
6 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped into chunks, or 1 cup store-bought chocolate chips or chunks
6 ounces premium quality milk or white chocolate, chopped into chunks, or 1 cup store-bought chocolate chips or chunks
1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped nuts, preferably salted peanuts or toasted pecans
1 cup moist, plump raisins (dark or golden) or finely chopped moist, plump dried apricots

The list looks intimidating, but it’s not. I promise.

The instructions in the book say: Set your oven rack in the center and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line your baking sheet with parchment.

After that, I start to diverge into some shortcuts that I’ve developed over the years.

A drop cookie recipe will usually start off by telling you to take the dry ingredients (flour, cocoa powder, salt, and baking powder) and sift them together. I don’t. There’s definitely a reason for sifting the ingredients together, creating a beautifully light and lump-free structure to your cookie, but it is time consuming and messy, and makes for more clean up. For now, I’d say skip it. Just trust me.

No? Okay, I’ll tell you what. The next time I make these (it will be very soon) I’ll sift and then come back to tell you of any significant difference in the cookie. For now, skip it.

Set a heatproof bowl over a pot of simmering water. You only want a couple inches of water in the pot and do not let the bowl touch the water. That’s very important.

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Blurry pictures. Also very important.

Turn the burner on to a medium low setting. Into the bowl put your butter, bittersweet chocolate, unsweetened chocolate and stir occasionally, just until melted. For you short-cutters out there, if you turn the burner on to medium, you’ll need to stir it constantly. When it’s done, the chocolate and butter should be “smooth and shiny but not so hot the butter separates.” Remove the bowl from the heat and set it on the counter to cool.

In a new, large bowl, beat the eggs and sugar for 2 minutes, until they are a pale yellow and foamy. If you’re using a stand mixer, set it to medium-high. If you’re using a hand mixer like I do, you really only have two options for speed: Off and Flinging Batter Everywhere. So, hand held mixer ninjas, please be careful. What I do is scrub out my sink and then put my bowl in it. This lowers the batter to wall ratio while increasing the batter to bowl ratio.

I don’t have a mathematical formula to explain that. Sorry.

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When you’re done with that, beat in the vanilla extract, then scrape the bowl with a rubber spatula, making sure you get all of the sugar granules. Reduce the mixer to speed (or, for hand held mixers, change the setting and pretend something different is happening) and add the melted butter and chocolate mixture. Mixing only until incorporated. So, barely a minute of mixing. Scrape the bowl again, then on low speed (or imaginary low speed – whatever you’ve got) start adding the dry ingredients.

Ok, because we skipped the dry ingredients in the beginning, we have to make sure everything is completely incorporated and mixed up. What I do is, add the smaller amounts of ingredients first.

Toss in the salt, baking soda, and cocoa. Mix it with your mixer. Scrape it down and add the flour. Scrape again, and mix for a few minutes more.

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This “technique” (aka shortcut) really comes in handy when you’re working with a cookie that calls for more flour. A good example is your basic chocolate chip cookie, which can call for 2 or more cups of flour. In that case, add your smaller ingredients to the bowl and mix thoroughly. Then add one cup of flour. Mix thoroughly. Add the second cup. Mix thoroughly. A baker would probably tell me what I’m doing is wrong but for our purposes, it’s fine.

By now the dough is thick, smooth and shiny. Using the rubber spatula, mix in the semi-sweet and milk (or white) chocolate chunks, nuts and raisins. Don’t use the mixer!

The dough will contain more “crunchies” now.

About the nuts. Most recipes say nuts are optional, and they certainly are. However, to get the full wow factor of this cookie, you’ll really want to add the nuts for salt.

Now, about the raisins. My raisins were old and dry. They looked like – well, I won’t bother telling you. To plump them up (and I really wish my picture of this had turned out) take a bowl of hot water and put your raisins in them. Let the raisins sit for a few minutes, then drain and pat dry (very gently so you dry them and don’t squash them back into their previous state). The hot water will plump them up, and they’ll be ready for your cookie.

Now, drop the dough onto your cookie sheet. Using a tablespoon, take heaping scoops of cookie dough and put them onto the sheet, a couple of inches apart from one another. These cookies will not spread, so whatever shape you leave them in on the cookie sheet – that’s what they’ll look like when you take them out. My suggestion would be to put them on the cookie sheet, then very gently mold them into a relatively round shape so they look pleasing.

Bake the cookies, one sheet at a time, for 10 – 12 minutes. The tops of the cookies will be a little dry, but the interiors will be soft. Remove them carefully with a metal spatula and let them cool on a cooling rack.

Grab a glass of milk and enjoy.

The Next Food Network Star, Week 6

Okay, let’s get a show of hands here. Who else thought Adam was going to say, “Who else can say Rachel Ray jerked my chicken?”

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I did.

This past episode of the Next Food Network star finally shows the contestants doing something quite appropriate: Guesting on Rachel Ray’s show. Each contestant was given a little Brownie Scout as a helper, and then asked to put together a simple recipe that they and their helper could demonstrate to an audience within a 4 minute time frame. The twist was that it was going to be on Rachel Ray’s daytime show.

The contestants met with Rachel beforehand, and she gave them some advice: Food television is about storytelling. You’re cooking and showing the viewer how to do it, but you’re always telling them a story that gets people involved with what you’re doing.

I was happy to see Aaron rise to the challenge and really shine in front of the audience. His presentation was well done and, according to the judges, the food was good. Adam was another one who did well, yet the judges confessed to him that they are still not confident in his cooking abilities.

Those two were the highlights. The lowlight was Lisa, who shut down in front of the camera. She was off to a decent start, then got overwhelmed and stopped talking. Rachel Ray had to carry the rest of the segment for her. It was a shame, because she really did get a nice start.

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The rest was really uncomfortable to watch. Shane and Kelsey, two of the stronger cooks in the competition, fell short during their air time. Kelsey even made Rachel Ray cook her eggs, while Kelsey did little else other than just stand there.

In the end, Shane was kicked off. This really, really surprised me. I checked Bob Tuschman’s blog (one of the Next Food Network Judges) today. He had gone into the elimination thinking they would be saying goodbye to Kelsey. However after speaking with Shane, the judges felt that, although Shane’s culinary training and skill is very good, he hasn’t had a lot of life experience to really share passion for cooking. Instead, when Shane gets in front of a camera, it feels more like a stiff set of instructions, rather than story. Bob’s blog post is pretty short and quite enlightening if you wanted to head over to the Food Network’s site and take a quick read. Here’s a quick excerpt:

So, heading into the evaluation, I’m definitely thinking it’s Kelsey’s turn to say goodbye. But in the course of our long evaluation, I ask Shane about the origin of his passion for French food. I was stunned to hear that he had never been to France. Ever. He had simply taken a cooking class in French technique and that was the source of his “passion.”

Now, Shane is a talented, mature, and extremely likeable young man. But it became clear to me that he’s still just the student repeating back the teacher’s words. That’s good for your GPA, but not good for television. Shane will be a talent to watch. But he’s just not ready yet. So, unfortunately, it was au revoir to Shane.

The video segments are being featured on Rachel Ray’s Daytime Show website – but keep in mind that what you’re seeing there is a little different than what aired on The Next Food Network star, due to the ways the Producers wanted to portray the challenges.

Strawberry Granita

No BBQ is complete without a really great dessert. Search your feelings, Luke. You know it to be true.

The problem with producing the perfect BBQ dessert is that, 9 times out of 10, preparing the rest of the BBQ takes so long that the dessert ends up being an afterthought: store bought ice cream, store bought popcicles tasting faintly of sugar water and, the worst offender of them all, brownies made from a box. Why do that to yourself? After going the extra mile for some amazing grilling and accompaniments, the lasting impression of your BBQ shouldn’t be store bought anything.

Your dessert problems are solved, people: I have discovered BBQ dessert awesomeness.

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A couple of weeks ago, I picked up a magazine called “Tastes of Italia”. The cover had a picture of a raspberry granita on the front. The name is something I only remembered from college and associated with a cheap alcohol drink at a bad party. (Note to college party goers: Regardless of how many ditsy drunk girls tell you it tastes good, it doesn’t.) Although the dessert does not call for alcohol, nor does it contain any of the things I remembered in the drink, I passed the recipe by.

The next time I flipped through the magazine, I stopped at the article and looked at it again, then reluctantly decided against it. I’m not sure how many times I flipped through the magazine and followed the same pattern, reluctantly looking at the recipe, but at one point I decided to just go ahead and give it a shot.

It’s easy, involves the decadence of fresh fruit, and is cold – the perfect way to wrap up a BBQ. Aside from the impressiveness of having a fresh fruit dessert at your table, it’s perfect for those who aren’t as gifted at baking. How I handled the dessert portion is that I prepared the granita right before worrying about the rest of the BBQ food, then threw it into the freezer to chill. The dessert prep takes 15 – 20 minutes total, and that includes clean up.

The recipe can be made with many different fruits – raspberries, blueberries, etc. If you use raspberries, my recommendation would be to strain out the seeds after pureeing. For watermelon, omit the lemon zest. The original recipe called for raspberries, but strawberries happen to be cheaper right now so I grabbed those instead.

Strawberry Granita
2 cups pureed strawberries
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups water
1 rounded tablespoon of lemon zest

Wash your berries, cut the tops off (for strawberries), and toss those beautiful babies into your blender.

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Put the puree in a large pot along with the water, sugar and lemon zest. Turn your burner onto medium-low and cook long enough so that the sugar crystals dissolve. Remember to use a rubber spatula to scrape the sides, so you don’t miss sugar crystals that need to be mixed in. The cooking process only took a few minutes for me – the mixture was a nice lukewarm temperature when it was ready.

Pour the mixture into a glass baking dish and set it in your freezer. Let it chill for a couple of hours. The recipe says two hours, but mine took about three.

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When it is frozen, it will be a soft-frozen, much like a sorbet. Take a fork and run it through the granita, breaking it up. It will look grainy.

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Serve cold. I thought it tasted a lot like a fresh and frozen Strawberry Julius, but the AwK admin thought it tasted like pure win.

Want to spruce it up a bit upon serving? The “glasses” you see in the photo are actually plastic. I picked them up for a couple of dollars each in my local grocery store’s picnic section: They are kid-tested, dishwasher safe, and AwK approved.

Happy BBQ’ing.

Tuscan Burgers Bruschetta

July is grilling month here at Amateurs with Knives, and I’m going to kick it off by reviewing what went on my Weber this past Independence Day.

These babies:

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Photo courtesy of Sutter Home

A couple of years ago I received a book called “Build a Better Burger”. The book is a compilation of the winning burgers from Sutter Home Winery’s Build a Better Burger Contest.

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This is a pretty nifty book to have. If you like to grill and you like burgers in a wide, creative variety of proteins, this is definitely one to have on your shelf. Each burger has a photograph (ok, I like pictures in my books – go ahead and make jokes) and the instructions are very simply laid out so as not to intimidate even the most novice chef. Each burger also has a wine pairing listed.

Each BBB contestant must be an amateur, otherwise they are not eligible to win the prize. Still, that doesn’t stop professional chefs from entering, and the published book does note some of the professional burgers, even though they were not prize winners. Still, the most exciting and creative awards have gone to the amateurs. This is one of them.

Tuscan Burgers Bruschetta

Tomato Topping
1 ripe tomato, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
3 tablespoons minced fresh basil
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Patties
1 scant cup loosely packed crumbled Gorgonzola cheese
2 tablespoons finely minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
3 tablespoons chopped onion
2 pounds ground round
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Vegetable oil, for brushing on the grill rack
4 thin slices prosciutto or unsmoked ham slices
1/2 pound coarsely grated Fontina cheese

Bruschetta
1 oblong loaf crusty Italian bread, sliced diagonally into 12 (1/2 to 3/4 inch thick) slices
Extra virgin olive oil, for brushing on the bread

This particular burger won third prize in 1993, and is paired with Shiraz (Syrah).

There’s really not much to making a burger. Fire up your grill, mix up your burger stuff and throw that sucker on the fire!

Instruction #1: “Prepare a medium-hot fire in a charcoal grill with a cover, or preheat a gas grill to medium-high.”

I love these sorts of instructions because the whole “medium-hot fire” thing sort of makes me laugh. It’s fire. Fire hot! I really can’t set it to anything other than flaming inferno. Maybe this is why the AwK admin does all of our grilling…

To make the topping, combine all of the ingredients, including salt and pepper to taste, in a bowl and mix well. Set aside.

The topping rocked. In fact, I had some leftover so the next day so I stuck it on top of a piece of ciabatta and ate it. All that was missing was a glass of wine. True story.

To make the patties, combine the Gorgonzola, parsley and onion in a large bowl. Add the beef and season with salt and pepper. Handling the meat as little as possible to avoid compacting it, mix well. Divide the mixture into 6 equal portions and form the portions into patties to fit the bread slices.

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When the grill is ready, brush the grill rack with vegetable oil. Place the patties on the rack, cover and cook for 5 minutes. Turn the patties and cook 4 minutes. Place a slice of proscuitto on each patty and top with Fontina, dividing equally. Cover the grill and continue cooking the patties until done to preference, 1 to 4 minutes longer for medium.

To make the bruschetta, while the patties are cooking, brush the bread slices on each side with olive oil. Place on the outer edges of the grill rack, turning once, to toast lightly.

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Yes! A photograph that didn’t come out blurry!

To assemble the burgers, spoon half of the tomato topping on 6 of the bruschetta slices, then top with the patties, the remaining tomato topping, and the remaining bruschetta.

Dig in!

Travels in Asia

Preface

Whenever I watch Anthony Bourdain or Alton Brown go to a new and exciting place that they have never been to and eat the foods there, they are always quick with a pithy saying or have the perfect adjective for describing how something tastes. I realize that the reason for this is often editing; and in many cases, long nights with a writer. But I can not help but feel inferior when I go on a great culinary journey as I did this year and am stuck without the right words to say to express exactly how good the food really was. I am still going to give it a try here, so sit back and try to enjoy the trip. It should be somewhat shorter than my trip and hopefully you will hear a perfect adjective somewhere in here. Without further ado, here is my take on the foods of Malaysia.

A year in the planning and several thousands of dollars spent; on Monday, June 9th (around 11am) my wife and I found ourselves being picked up by an old friend of mine at the Kuala Lumpur Budget Airline Terminal in Malaysia. For me, it was a culmination in a five year wait to introduce the women I love to the food I grew to love while working overseas many years ago. Let me just add that if one is interested in going to Malaysia to experience all of these great flavors, one should be prepared to spend A LOT of time in an airplane (and in our case, an airport). The flight that took us from Minneapolis to Tokyo (2/3 of the way to Malaysia) was 12 hours in the air. (Not overall time with boarding and taxing and stuff… No sir. This was from wheels up to wheels down!) I should also add that my wife and I had to spend 5 hours sitting in the Bangkok International Airport with all of our luggage while we waited for the airline check-in to open (due to a bonehead move on my part). But forget all of that, forget the smell of my unwashed (for almost 2 days) feet. Forget that my wife and I barely had 4 hours of sleep between the two of us in the past 36. We were at our travel destination, at last!

A brief background interjection here: In 2001, I began a 3 year working relationship with a certain Mr. Eng Keong How starting in Singapore and then over the years, moving to Malaysia. I did Linux training for him and helped him arrange train the trainer courses in Singapore, and all over Malaysia. One of the first students of these classes was William (more about both of these guys later in the articles). After four visits to these guys in their home court, I knew what to expect food-wise, and though I tried to verbally prepare my wife for the onslaught, she was not ready for the mass of food that my old friends threw at her.

Day 1 in Kuala Lumpur

So Mr. How picked us up at the airport. I should mention that Mr. How used to be a tour guide and he is very passionately in love with his country. He is (and should be) very proud of almost everything Malaysians have done and knows where to go to show them off. We started with a short tour of the policital center (where they had just recently moved the Prime Minister’s palace) and Technology center (where the Dell/Microsoft/HP/etc buildings are all congragated). But enough up the touristy stuff.. Where’s the food? You may be asking yourself. Actually, I was surprised that we didn’t get food stuffed into our face from the moment we arrived, but we actually waited at least an hour after our plane touched down. Mr. How took us some place he hadn’t even taken his family to yet, so this was a new find for him. We had some nice dishes at a local hawker (think Mom and Pop food court as it is the closest thing we have here) place. Chicken Feet soup anyone? Actually.. It was pretty good, though the bones in the feet make it a little difficult as a first dish to really get into using chopsticks. The broth was perfect though. Very clear and quite tasty. The rest of that first meal was all things fish paste related. Far be it for me to complain, since I love fish paste, as does my wife. Fishballs, stuffed squash blossoms, and everything else was pretty good except this one plate which had something really, REALLY sour in it and it messed up any of the oral Feng Shui I had going on with all of the other good food. My wife and I were so out of it from dehydration, tiredness and jet lag that we didn’t remember to get a picture of this meal.

That night, after a much needed 4 hour rest and showers; we got to meet an old food favorite of mine, Bakut Teh (pronouced BAKUTAY). Roughly translated, it means “Meat and Bones with Tea” and it is a wonderful dish of long slow braised pork with Chinese herbal “Medicines” – the Chinese believe just about every herb and aromatic is a medicine, which works for me! It is a simple dish and it is simply served with rice and tea and these wonderful little soft croutons for sopping up the gravy. Unless you have A) smelled this dish, or B) tasted it; you simply have no idea how good pork can be, even in a ramshackle makeshift restaurant.

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This particular batch was made with ribmeat, which was a different consistency than the shoulder meat that I am used to in this dish. There is a reason that after two solo visits and this joint visit with my wife that this is my second favorite dish in all of Malaysia. The pork is “falling off the bones” done and the braising liquid as you can see in the picture, is full of the oils and fats from the pork.

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You can also see in the picture a plate of our usual veggie which was just lightly stir-fried with sesame oil and some soy and then sprinkled with some crunchy bits. Notice near the top of the picture, the big bowls of garlic and chilies? The smaller white dipping bowls with a combo of those chilies, that garlic, and some soy (and sometimes a vinegary sauce too!); that’s your basic Malaysian condiment selection. You dip everything into that custom-made mixture and enjoy! With a nod toward Rachel Ray, Yummo! (Sorry, it really describes that dipping sauce.) The green bowl contains soft croutons and the blue bowl has some of the “gravy” with some croutons soaking in it. My wife interrupted me mid-dunking. The two brown pots contain the actual dish and the smaller of the two actually has some organ meats in it, I think you can make out some stomach on top on the right hand side. Thanks to my seriously messed up cropping, you can only see part of the teapot (Tea is a very important part of this meal!) but you can see that we were drinking tea with this meal out of little glasses, though you can’t see the ice that we used to keep it cool. If you look to the very left of the picture, you will see something I thought was interesting. You can see the white spoon handle, and next to it on the table are the remnants of some of the ribs. It is common practice, if the restaurant doesn’t provide a bone bowl, to simply use the table to get rid of parts you can’t eat. It is really too bad that they haven’t developed a way for smell or taste to be captured into a picture, because this really is great food. Later in the trip, we were given the special Chinese herbal “sactchels” for making Bakut Teh at home. I will keep you posted on how it turns out.

After some more touristy stuff (like visiting the KL Tower – think Space Needle in the middle of a city in the middle of a jungle), we stopped off at a stall which served shaved ice with syrup called Aic Kachang and it was declared “a very cooling thing”. The Malaysians are very concerned about the body staying cool, which for someone of my size is virtually impossible if I venture outside at all. The tempurature when we touched down was about 90 with about 70% humidity, at about 9pm when we were eating this dish, it was about 85 and 80% humidity. Again, my wife and I were fading fast and we didn’t think to take any pictures. I have had numerous deserts like this all over the pacific, but this was the first one with a “surprise” in the bottom. Apparently, they put a hollowed out section of the ice first and then fill it with sweet beans, jellies (think thin strips of finger jello), and beyond all food common sense, kernels of corn. Then they pile the shaved ice on top and put two different kinds of syrup on it. One was a fruit syrup, my wife thought it was maybe lychee, and the other was a condensed milk (or perhaps coconut milk, there were “discussions” about this between me and my wife, but it was never discovered and every food vendor does it differently). It was almost a sweet and savory kind of ice cream dish. Especially when you bit into a red bean and jelly at the same time. This wasn’t our first exposure to corn overseas. In fact, earlier in the night, we saw a food cart with a blazingly sign selling cups of corn, with or without butter. Nothing else.. Just corn. I am from the midwest, and I didn’t have to travel over a day in the air to eat something I could have at home, so I avoided most of it. But the sweet corn kernels in the shaved ice, which quickly turns to a sweetly flavored soup in the Malaysian heat (even at night), was actually pretty good. I wouldn’t make it at home, except to freak out my friends, but it wasn’t bad. Of course, Mr How could never let us survive with just some shaved ice, so along with that, we had some satay…

I have a couple of comments about satay and I want to air them out right now. On a recent episode of Top Chef, they served something called satay and I didn’t understand it. It did have “satay-like” elements, but there are a couple of specifics to satay. 1) It has to be grilled, usually slow grilled and fanned so that the coals don’t burn the meat. And 2) It must have a peanut sauce! This is where Top Chef confused me, as almond butter doesn’t come close to a spicy peanut sauce except, of course that it is also a nut well sort of. We won’t even get into the whole “peanuts are not nuts” thing. Satay is usually the name of the sauce, often a closely guarded secret like rib rubs. And it is ALWAYS peanut-based. In fact, many Malaysians often refer to satay sauce as peanut gravy. Even vegetarians like satay, as they (as do I) consider the sauce the satay, not the meat or style of cooking, and they will dunk small bits of red onion and cucumber into the sauce and gnosh away happy as can be without a single grilled thing in their mouths. SO, grilled meat with some sort of ground nut mixture does NOT equal a satay. Ok?!? Rant over.

… All of that being said, the stall that was open at the time that we went, was middle of the road on their sauce. The two different grilled meats (chicken and port) were good. But it wasn’t great. The sauce was peanuty, but not very spicy. A quick dose of chilies brought the heat up for me a little. Keep in mind that the grilled meats of a satay don’t really have the smokiness of a normal US grilling as they don’t let the charcoal smoke much and the meat is more slow cooked over the fire than quick roasted.

One more side note, the BEST satay I have ever had was in Singapore. THEY know satay! I have had my fair share of satay in Malaysia and while it is usually good, it has never been as good as the stuff I had in Singapore. The funny thing is that in the states, the most common type of restaurant to serve Satay is a Thai restaurant. But we didn’t have any satay or see any satay hawkers in Thailand. (More about this later when we get to the Thailand part of the trip).

After our first day and some great foods, it was off to a very hard (the Malaysians believe in extra firm mattresses), but needed, bed for me and the Misses and a sense of wonder as to what the next day would bring.

Look for Part 2 soon(tm)

The Next Food Network Star, Week 5

This show is incredibly confused. Or maybe it’s me – that’s always a possibility.

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I occasionally watch the Food Network and, for the most part, there are a few shows I like. The hosts of the shows range in skill level from some crazy prepackaged concoction that you put into a pot and call dinner, to actual, proven chefs with their own acclaimed restaurants.

Most of the hosts, however, are somewhere in the middle. Lower middle. And I’m not knocking it – I’ve made a couple Rachel Ray dishes and there are some that aren’t so bad. She’s a huge phenomenon, millions of people love her, and she delivers exactly what the Food Network wants to achieve: Ratings (ha!) and to bring great meals to the home chef in a pleasing/entertaining manner. But now here comes this crazy “Next Food Network Star” competition they filled with contestants who have some sort of cooking background, but definitely not anyone they would have put into the The Next Iron Chef competition. Still, they’re trying to run this almost as if they were.

This week, our guest judge is Cat Cora, Executive Chef of Bon Appetit Magazine, and the Iron Chef who never seems to win a battle.

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Actually, that’s not true. According to wikipedia, she’s won more matches than Iron Chef Morimoto, and he is a certified badass.

So we start off with the camera challenge; making a dish with the provided ingredients, then describe the taste of the dish while you’re on camera. Cat Cora explains that each person should be specific about describing the dish, avoiding words like “delicious” and “flavorful” because those don’t really explain what the dish tastes like to an audience. Then the twist comes: contestants are put into pairs, and are told to swap dishes for the tasting portion of the competition.

I was sad to see so much failure going on, but I can only imagine how difficult the challenge was. I don’t think it’s something I could do, so I’m not going to start throwing stones. However, Chef Cora points out something very important, and that is a TV personality needs to be able to talk about absolutely anything at any given time.

In the end, Shane won the competition.

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I like Shane. He’s one of the younger contestants, but has proven himself to be likable and capable.

Then we move on to the second challenge, which is where things get really bizarre.

Cat Cora has invited the Bon Appetit staff to dinner. The contestants are put back into groups of two and are shown three very traditional meals that take many, many hours to prepare: beef Wellington, Turducken (eew), and coq au vin. The contestants are given 45 minutes to prepare their versions of these time consuming dishes and are asked to present them to the Judges and the Bon Appetit staff, with the bonus of the winning dish appearing in the August 2008 Bon Appetit magazine.

Danger, Will Robinson!

This is why I think the show is confused. Even Judge Bob Tuschman, Senior Vice President of Programming and Production said during the show – the Food Network is all about making cooking accessible to the home chef. No offense, but they aren’t delivering the upper echelon of dining. The Food Network is all about the stripped-down simplicity of Rachel Ray and the extra butter and bacon grease of Paula Deen. Granted, Bon Appetit isn’t exactly French Laundry caliber, but it is delivering a slightly higher culinary experience than most shows than The Food Network provides.

So why they have these cooks (not chefs) schlepping around in the kitchen so they can cater to the BA staff, I couldn’t say. The BA staff seemed disappointed with everything in every manner – from flavor profiles to the presentation. They even had a filmed statement from one of their photographers who said the dishes would not have been an acceptable shot.

Disaster seemed to strike each team at every turn. And Lisa, dear Lisa…

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Stop scrunching up the face! When she scrunches, she looks like a marmot and it confuses the viewers. If she simply smiled more, she’d win me over every time. I actually like her, but she tends to come off as stiff because she doesn’t laugh and smile as much. The judges continually tell her that she has a tendency to come across as cold, but I think that is partly due to her glamorous appearance. This may sound strange, but I think the haircut may come across as “severe” to viewers and she has to try harder to make herself seem more like the everyday chef. Lisa, please laugh more – you’re so very charming when you do.

In the end, Shane and Kelsey won the challenge with their beef Wellington, and their recipe will be printed in the August 2008 Bon Appetit magazine.

I can’t believe I’m still watching this show. Someone needs to do something to scale back the challenges to be much more appropriate.