Treat Them Well

Pots and pans are some of the most important tools a cook has. They need to be well cared for.

First, let’s talk about cast iron pans. They are WONDERFUL! They can go from stove top to oven to finish off a fritata or steak (to name a few.) Once your cast iron pan has been seasoned, never EVER wash it with soap. NEVER. There are at least three theories on how to properly “wash” a cast iron pan after use. Regardless of the method you use, make sure to FULLY DRY the pan with paper towels or a dedicated dish towel when you’re done. If it looks a little gray when dried, add a splash of oil to the pan and rub it in to the pan to keep it happy.

  • Add water to the pan, put it on the stove, and “boil it” clean, scraping bits loose as needed with a spatula, then rinse.
  • Add coarse salt to the still-warm pan, scrub with a kitchen cloth, then rinse
  • Use stainless steel scrubbing pads (pictured below) with hot water to scrub off bits of food left from cooking

Now, let’s talk about non-stick pans. Never ever use a metal tool to do ANYTHING in a non-stick pan. EVER. You can scratch the teflon, which will end up ruining your pan/pot. Trust me – I let someone else use my pans, and they all got ruined. Use wooden spoons and plastic or rubber spatulas. Give those pans the respect and love they deserve.

And even though the pots and pans SAY they’re dishwasher safe, PLEASE don’t put them in the dishwasher. Yes, it’s convenient. Yes, it saves time. But it can ruin your pots and pans. Again, give them the respect and love they deserve. Wash them by hand. Let them air dry on the stove.

Frosted Sugar Cookies

Frosted sugar cookies are my very favorite. Since Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, I thought I would share my favorite recipes for sugar cookies and frosting with you.

  • 1 C unsalted butter (room temperature)
  • 1 C granulated sugar
  • 1 1/2 t vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 1/2 C All Purpose flour
  • 3/4 t baking powder
  • 2/4 t s

Combine the butter and sugar until creamy. Add in the egg and vanilla. In a separate bowl, combine the dry ingredients, and gradually add to the butter/sugar mix until smooth. Separate the dough into 1/2 or 1/4, wrap in plastic wrap, and form into a disk. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours. You can leave it in the fridge for a full 7 days, if needed.

Roll out the dough on a floured surface (flour your rolling pin, too!) to about 1/4″ thick, cut shapes, and place on a cookie sheet. Bake at 350 for 9-10 minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack. Ball up unused dough and roll back out, keeping in mind that the dough is now warmer and more floured than the last batch. They will likely be thinner, and require less time in the oven!

Once the cookies have all been baked and cooled, it’s time to frost them!

  • 3 C sifted powdered sugar
  • 1/3 C softened unsalted butter
  • 1/2 t vanilla extract
  • 1-2 T milk

Combine butter, sugar, vanilla, and 1 T milk. Gradually add more milk, a few drops at a time until the desired consistency is reached. Divide into as many parts as you like, add food coloring. Add to piping bag(s), use an offset spatula to apply a base coat, then pipe any decorations/text as desired.

Yields about 2 dozen cookies (or more)

Soup’s On!

One of my favorite things to make is soup. I love spending hours prepping vegetables, creating broths, and bringing a soup together.

The heart of any soup is the broth. And the heart of the broth is the bones. The bones (and the meat, of course) are what gives the broth it’s base flavor. Since I work mainly with poultry stock, I’m going to focus on that.

Whenever you cook a whole bird, or just a turkey breast, for that matter, you should always boil the carcass before discarding it. You don’t have to make a soup out of it right away – you can put it in a zippered freezer bag and toss it in the freezer for later.

A staple in creating a soup or broth is mirepoix. Mirepoix is the French term for the diced onion, carrot, and celery that is cooked in a little oil until it begins to soften. You want to have a 2:1 ratio of onion to equal parts celery and carrot. The size of the dice is completely up to you. Larger dices will take longer to cook. This is the first step in the process of creating a broth. Once the celery and onion start to turn translucent, add some water to the stock pot and stir to loosen anything stuck to the pot. Next, add your carcass, and cover with water. Place the pot on the stove over medium heat. Add any herbs you like to the pot (I typically use rosemary, thyme, and a few cloves of crushed garlic) and let simmer for a few hours. Check the pot occasionally, adding water as needed to keep the carcass covered.

The amount of time you simmer your carcass is up to you. I typically shoot for 3 – 4 hours. But if you want to stop when the remaining meat pulls away from the bones easily, go for it. What you do next is VERY important.

When you’ve decided the broth is done, carefully remove the carcass and any bits of fat floating around. Now you’ll need a second pot, and a fine strainer. Place the strainer over your other pot, and carefully pour your stock through the strainer. If it starts to get full, stop.

Photo Credit: The Food Network

Carefully pick through the contents of the strainer, and discard any remaining bones or fat, moving the meat and vegetables into the pot below the strainer, or into a separate bowl if you only want the stock. Repeat as necessary until the original pot is empty. Put the new pot on the stove on medium-high heat, bring to a boil, then skim the fat off the top using a ladle or serving spoon. (TIP: If you don’t have any herbs floating around in your broth, save the chicken fat you’re removing in a glass container and keep it in the refrigerator to use later – you can use it as a substitute for butter or oil in another recipe)

If you’re going to use the stock right away, there are endless possibilities for what you can do. Here are two things I often make with the broth.

1: Dice up a block of queso blanco (the one I get is similar to Velveeta, with diced up hot peppers in it) and toss it in the pot, in a few batches, stirring often to help it melt – make sure to cover all areas of the bottom of the pot so nothing sticks and scorches. Once all the cheese has melted, add in heavy cream and some pico de gallo (see last week’s post for the recipe!) for a spicy, creamy soup.

2: Add more of the herbs to the broth, tasting often, and add some noodles (There’s a tasty recipe here -just roll your dough at least 1/8″ thick or thinner) or dumplings (I find that Pillsbury Grands biscuits make great dumplings – just tear small-ish bits off, roll into a ball, and drop in to the pot) for a hearty soup.

You could also just freeze it, with the meat and vegetables in it, to use another time. Just don’t let a good carcass go to waste!

If you were aiming for just a stock, you’ve got a bowl of chicken/turkey and vegetables you have to do something with. You could turn the meat into chicken salad by adding diced celery (raw) and mayo, and season with some dried rubbed herbs, salt and pepper. In the summer, I like to add diced red, yellow, and orange bell peppers to mine. Let chill in the fridge for an hour or two (to allow the seasonings to absorb into the mayo), then make yourself a nice sammich!

You could also make it into a pot pie, or a casserole of some sort, but you’ll want to add a lot of seasonings because most of the flavor was left in that pot of broth.

Pico de Gallo

Pico de Gallo may be one of my very favorite condiments. Tomato, onion, jalapeno, cilantro and just a hint of lime juice combine for a tangy, spicy kick to any dish.

  • 4 Roma Tomatoes
  • 1 medium red onion (you can also use yellow onion)
  • 2 small limes
  • 3 or 4 jalapenos
  • 1 bunch cilantro
  • 1 dash kosher salt
  1. Dice the onion – you want a fairly fine dice, so that you don’t get a big mouthful of raw onion. Place the diced onion into a medium sized bowl.
  2. Take the limes, one at a time, and roll back and forth on the cutting board while applying a small amount of pressure. This will loosen the interior membrane, making it easier to squeeze. Cut into quarters, and squeeze over the diced onion. The acid in the lime juice is going to start “cooking” the onion, which will take some of the bite out of the onion’s flavor.
  3. Add a dash of salt to the onion, stir, and set aside
  4. Dice your tomatoes. You want the tomatoes about 1 1/2 the size of the onion. Add the tomatoes to the bowl with the onions.
  5. Take the jalapenos, one at a time, and roll them the same way you rolled the limes. Slice in half and, using a measuring teaspoon (1/8″ works best) scrape the seeds and membranes out (image 1) and discard. Julienne (thinly slice) the jalapeno (image 2), then dice into fairly small pieces (image 3) Add to the bowl with the tomato and onion.
  6. Wipe your cutting board down to remove the juices from the tomato and jalapeno, or flip the cutting board over. You want a dry surface for the cilantro.
  7. Grab your cilantro, and arrange the bunch so that the leaves are all pretty much lined up where they stop, chop the bare stems off, and discard. roughly chop the leaves and any stems that are left in the bunch (OR go through and pick the leaves off the remaining stems if you want. I usually don’t bother) Add the chopped cilantro to the bowl with the rest of the ingredients.

Mix everything together, cover, and refrigerate for at least an hour to allow the flavors to marry.

The Perfect Grilled Cheese

Admit it. Sometimes you just want a grilled cheese. I’m right there with you. It’s one of my guilty pleasures. But not all grilled cheese sandwiches were created equal!

Yeah, white bread and American cheese will work. But if you want the mother of all grilled cheese, you need some amazing ingredients. Let’s start with the bread.

You want a hearty bread with a nice crust. Sourdough bread makes for an incredible sandwich, because it will get nice and crunchy when grilled. It holds up well to whatever fat (more about that in a minute) you choose to use in the grilling process.

Now the cheese. There are infinite choices here. Go for a cheese that will melt nicely. If you’re slicing your own, go for thin slices. I’m partial to sharp cheddar and cream cheese, Colby Jack, Swiss, Bleu and white cheddar goat cheese. Other good choices are provolone, Monterrey Jack, Muenster, Gouda, and Fontina. Shredded cheese is also a great option, just make sure to grate your own. Buying shredded cheese is a waste of money – buy a big block instead, because you can get slices AND shreds from one block.

The fat. This is a controversial topic. Some say butter. I’m partial to bacon fat. I save the fat that’s left over when I make bacon. I keep it in a jar in my refrigerator. Pick your poison. Just promise me you will NEVER use margarine. That stuff just makes a soggy sandwich.

The extras! Bacon, tomato, avocado, pickled onion, pickles… And seasonings! Don’t be afraid to add a bit of your favorite herbs or spices. They add an extra layer of flavor that can blow your mind.

Grilled cheese on sourdough, white cheddar goat cheese, yellow tomato, and bacon.

Now that your mind is racing with possibilities, let’s make that sandwich!

First, you want to turn your non-stick or cast iron pan on on LOW to medium-low heat. Yes, low heat. Trust me. This is going to help you get a nice crust on the bread, and gooey cheese without burning it. You want to let the pan heat up before you start to cook. Now assemble your sandwich, leaving the top off. Bread on the bottom, cheese, seasonings, toppings. BUT don’t stack too high. In a minute you’re going to add the fat to the pan, and the magic will start to happen.

Add your butter, bacon fat, chicken fat, whatever to the pan and let it melt. Once it’s melted, swirl the TOP piece of bread in it and remove, setting it (dry side down) aside. Now carefully lay the other half in the pan, making sure to swirl it through the fat to get an even coating. Add any other toppings you want, and put the top on (dry side down.) Now you wait.

I like to cover my skillet while the grilled cheese cooks, to help the cheese get nice and melty. Make sure you move your pan around (turn it a quarter turn every so often) to ensure you get an even grill on the bread, because pans don’t heat evenly. Check the bottom slice occasionally, and flip the sandwich when the bottom is a nice golden brown.

After flipping your sandwich, you will need to babysit it, because the second side will cook faster than the first. Don’t be afraid to take the pan off the heat for a minute or two, to slow down the cook. Once both sides are nice and golden, flip it back onto the first side you grilled, and remove it from the heat. Turn your burner off, and go check Facebook or something. Your sandwich needs a few minutes to cool. Trust me.

After at least 3 minutes, flip your sandwich onto a cutting board. Pull the top up a little, and see how fluid the cheese is. If it’s still dripping, leave it alone. If it’s dripping onto the cutting board, flip it over! You don’t want to leave that cheese on the cutting board! The 5 minute mark seems to be the sweet spot for me. Slice that thing in half diagonally ( aka on the bias) and enjoy!

Go forth, and make yourself an amazing grilled cheese! Feel free to come back and tell me all about it!

SIDE NOTE: Adding a layer of mayonnaise to your bread before grilling in the fat adds a whole new layer of crispiness and flavor. If you’re using a softer bread (ahem, plain old white bread), add the mayo! Coat both slices of bread with an even layer of mayo, place the slices mayo-side together, and assemble as above. Add the butter to the pan, and when it’s beginning to get frothy, place the assembled half, mayo side down into the pan. When you flip the sandwich, add a tad more butter to the pan.

An exerpt from Appetites, A Cook Book by Anthony Bourdain

This is going to be the best grilled cheese of your life. Take good care of it. 

Finally, A Recipe!

Most of my recipes have no measurements. I’m told the best recipes don’t either. So bear with me!

My signature dish is Shepherd’s Pie. Technically, it’s Cottage Pie because I rarely use lamb in mine, but I digress.

Tools needed: large skillet, stock pot or saucepan, casserole dish, sheet pan, whisk, spatula, piping bag (optional)

Mise En Place (what you need)

Mince

  • Ground beef
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Red wine (cooking wine is fine)
  • Rosemary, garlic (minced), thyme, salt, pepper
  • Carrots roughly diced
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 can peas (optional)      
  • 1 stick butter (not margarine)
  • 1/2 C+ all purpose flour
  • Beef Stock

Mashed Potatoes
Potatoes, milk, butter, 1/2 block cream cheese, salt & pepper

Topping Cheddar Cheese grated

First, preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

I’m not going to go over the mashed potatoes, I think you can figure those out on your own. Just make sure you have the potatoes smashed up fairly well before you even think about adding milk. Milk should be added, sparingly, at the end to achieve the consistency you want.

So the mince. Put a large skillet on the stove, medium heat. Dice your onion and garlic. Add a dash of olive oil to the hot pan, then toss in your garlic and onion. Let them cook for about a minute, then add the ground beef. With a spatula, flatten the beef into one large patty as best you can. Add a big pinch each of rosemary and thyme, making sure to rub the leaves between your hands to release the fragrance and flavor of the dried herbs. Add a little salt and pepper, and slowly brown the meat. After a few minutes, divide the patty into smaller patties, and flip to brown the other side, adding a few dashes of Worcestershire and a splash or two of the red wine. When the meat is almost done, drain the fat, and begin mincing up the beef. (The meat is going to continue to cook after you do this, so it doesn’t need to be completely cooked) Add more Worcestershire (at least 1/4 C) and a little more red wine, along with enough beef stock to almost cover the top of the meat. Reduce the heat to low, and simmer while you dice up your carrots. Taste your meat mixture and adjust seasoning as necessary to suit your palate. Stir in your carrots and peas (if using) and continue to simmer until the liquid is reduced to about half.

Now you’re going to need a roux to thicken the sauce. Melt your butter and slowly whisk in 1/2 flour, adding a little at a time. You want to end up with a roux that won’t run off your whisk when you lift it from the bowl. Add small amounts of flour as necessary.

You’re looking for a roux similar to this photo.

This is very important: bring the meat slurry up to a boil. If you don’t, you will end up with a nasty raw flour taste in the meat. Once you’ve got decent bubbling going on, add a half a whisk full of roux to the mixture, and whisk in to distribute, then continue to stir for a minute or two. Pay attention to what’s going on with your sauce. Is it thickening? Give it a minute, and watch what it does. Give it a few more turns with the whisk. If it’s not thickening up, add more roux, and continue the process until you’ve got a good gravy look to it. Taste it again, and season if needed. Turn your burner off, and move the skillet to another burner. Leave it alone.

If you haven’t already made your mashed potatoes, do that now. The more you make this recipe, the easier it will be for you to cook both simultaneously. Potatoes take about 15 minutes to cook (less if you dice them smaller). If you’re going to pipe your mash onto the top, fill your piping bag now.

Transfer your meat mixture into the casserole dish, filling just over halfway. Use an additional casserole dish if necessary. Spread your mashed potatoes over the top (or pipe on) so that they almost come up to the top of the dish. Place your casserole dish on top of the sheet pan. If you’ve piped the mash, put everything in the oven, and cook for about 1/2 hour – you want the tips of the potatoes to start to color slightly, remove, top with cheese, and put back in until the cheese is bubbly. If you didn’t pipe the mash, top with the cheese, and put into the oven. Leave in for 1/2 or so, until the cheese is nice and bubbly.

DON’T FORGET THE SHEET PAN under the casserole dish. It will catch the sauce that will inevitably bubble over.

A few notes about this recipe.

  • Your carrots should still be slightly crunchy. They will add a nice texture to the dish.
  • If you don’t like rosemary or thyme, don’t use it. I won’t be insulted. I’ve tailored the dish to my own tastes. Add or remove ingredients as you see fit. Just make sure you are tasting it… a LOT while you’re making it.
  • Feel free to mix in some minced lamb (or even substitute it completely for the beef)

The Journey Continues

I don’t know if it was the quitting smoking that made me realize I actually liked certain foods that I thought I hated, or if it’s true that your tastes change over time. It’s probably a bit of both.

I thought that ALL bell peppers tasted the same. And therefore, since green peppers tasted like dirt to me, I wouldn’t like red, yellow, or orange peppers unless they were cooked in something (and therefore tasted like what it was cooked in). WRONG! Taking green peppers out of the picture (they’re a waste of space, really) opened a whole new, colorful world to my tastebuds. If you cook them correctly, low and slow in a bit of olive oil and just a touch of sugar, they are actually nice and sweet! And (spoiler alert!) they are even tasty raw. And I rarely say that about any vegetable. Except carrots. Please don’t make me eat cooked carrots.

In 2016, some dear friends of mine opened a sandwich shop around the corner from where I work. At first I chose the safest options: shredded bbq chicken with cheese and slaw, for example. One day I decided just to let the chef create something for me. The “Take It or Leave It.” Now I don’t remember what was on that sandwich, but there was something new on it I’d never eaten before. And so it began. I went there for lunch every day. And every day, I let the chef decide what I was eating – I would choose either tacos (not like taco bell…. but anything he could dream up went into a tortilla, and therefore was a taco) or sandwich. And every day when I came in, the chef gave me something new to try. I had pickled rhubarb, pickled beets (I don’t like red ones, but yellow ones and rainbow ones are tasty), pepitas, dragon fruit, jicama… the list goes on and on.

One chef in particular from that restaurant (it has since closed it’s doors) has an affinity for creating spice blends. And of course, that led me to want to learn about herbs and spices. I started going to the local Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings, and would buy new herbs I’d never (consciously) tasted. Every trip was an adventure!

If you’re in the Toledo area, go find Chef Drew and Toledo Flavors at the Farmer’s Market and get yourself some amazing spice blends!

In the spring/summer, there are fresh herbs to be found at the Farmer’s Market, and cheap! In the fall/winter, you can find dried herbs if you look hard enough. My recommendation is to buy a LOT of fresh herbs when you can. Chop some up and freeze them. Hang some up to dry, to use in recipes later. And, of course, use them fresh! You can prolong the life of fresh, cut herbs by placing the stems in water – just make sure to change the water every few days. If they start to wilt, use them up, freeze them, or dry them. Just don’t let them go to waste!

You can also grow your own herbs, of course. I gave that a try this past spring. It was a semi-success. Being the nerd I am, I named them after my favorite celebrity chefs. My basil (AKA Gordon) did quite well as you can see. The cilantro (AKA Tony) did okay, but cilantro doesn’t yield much per seed, so next spring, I’ll use a bigger pot and a TON of seeds.

If you’re going to grow your own herbs, make sure to do some research on each herb you want to plant. I also had rosemary and thyme, and neither made it because I missed the part where those two only need watering once or twice a week. I drowned those poor girls!

So I guess the moral of today’s story is not to assume you won’t like something based on a previous experience with it. You might be surprised by what you taste! Be adventurous (especially when someone else is paying!) and try something new. You never know… it might be the BEST thing you’ve ever had!