Monday, July 30, 2012

This Month's Flavor: American Grill

It is grilling time once again, with July and August being the peak months for outdoor cooking activity.   Granted, I know at least a couple of die hard individuals out there who insist on standing at a grill just outside a gaping garage door during bone-chilling January just to satiate their cravings for grilled meats sporting braised grids and dripping with sweet and spicy sauce.  In my household, the grill typically gets shrouded and relegated into the shed for the winter months, the last cookout occurring sometime in late October.  By that time, huddling around the warmth of the flames or sipping a glass of merlot around the fire pit while Brian grills is usually requisite.  Whether enjoyed in the crisp and colorful months of autumn or during the hazy days of summer, everyone loves a cookout.  It is the nationwide quintessential American pastime that symbolizes summertime.  In recent years, the fine culinary art of the grill has become more popularized than ever by grilling gurus that include Steve Raichlen and Bobby Flay.

First established in the southeastern United States, four key areas rival for the honor of boasting the best barbecue: Texas, Memphis, Kansas City and North Carolina.  Original barbecue technique called for slow roasting pork over a wood platform for several hours.  The result was tender meat laced with the flavors of wood smoke.  This was barbecue.  Not to be confused with grilling.  Grilling is what most of us outdoor cooks perform.  Grilling basically means cooking food more expediently over a hot grill, and the traditional barbecue flavors are imparted through additives such as aromatic wood chips, cedar planks and flavorful ingredients for seasoning.  Do not, under any circumstances, confuse the two terms.  Those who participate in serious team competitions to strive for the best true barbecue don’t like it!  Food editors won’t like it either.  Many casual cooks tend to use them interchangeably.  If a diehard Texas barbecue chef gets wind of such an uttered grievance, the punishment will be swift banishment to a cell where you will be served exclusively bread and water.  The bread will not be grilled Texas toast, either.

The aromatic tale of hickory smoke, spices and tangy sauce entices and beckons, a mouthwatering invitation for outdoor gathering.  Cooking, dining and socializing outdoors is as casual and relaxing as entertaining can get.  A backyard cookout with a select group of close friends and family is a regular occurrence in most households.  Larger affairs with longer guest lists take to the local parks and beaches.  Either option offers the perfect atmosphere for social scene cookery.  The head chef who swelters at the grill gets a helping hand from a whole crew of sous chefs.  While he or she craftily wields the tongs to turn the ribs, others are relegated to contributing salads, sides, appetizers and desserts.  There is often a designated bar tender who has been drafted into duty as well.  The proper carriage while attending these functions is as follows: mingle and socialize with a drink in one hand; the other hand must remain free to lend assistance in cooking and, of course, nibbling.

All grilling involves flaming action.  However, the most heated topic of debate among grill masters involves how the fire gets started.  Purists like my husband swear by charcoal, insisting that this is the traditional method of grilling and that gas grilling does not impart the same blackened, authentic grilled appeal to the food.  Gas grill enthusiasts tout the instant gratification factor of simply pressing a button and the grill is ready to go.  Perhaps gas grillers are more ravenous and to wait the extra fifteen minutes could purge them into the throes of starvation.  Guess it hasn’t yet occurred to them that you do get to eat while the grill heats up too!  Brian and I always enjoy a homemade dip or a cheese platter or some other appetizer with a cool cocktail while waiting for the coals to glow.

The next topic of debate among barbecue chefs and grill masters alike surrounds the formula for perfect barbecue sauce, and it is a formula that might leave some chemists stumped.  First there is the decision of whether or not to create a tomato-based sauce, a mustard-based sauce, or an Asian glaze.  Then the actual ingredients for each come into the arena.  Even a mustard sauce spurns further discussion: do we want painfully hot mustard sauce or milder variation with sweet nuances of honey?   When it comes to traditional barbecue sauces, sweeteners can mean brown sugar, molasses, honey, maple syrup or the incorporation of fruit, as in peach preserves, blackberry jam or grape jelly.  Even beverages sometimes get poured into the mixing pot, including any of the following: beer, tequila, whiskey or bourbon and even coffee.

When barbecue originated, pork was primary meat used.  Southern traditions like barbecued ribs, pulled pork and pork chops all graced the menu.  Beef followed, hitting the grill in the form of hot dogs, burgers, steaks and brisket.  Today, no meat is excluded from the searing grill top.  Chicken, duck, fish and seafood all get their chance to shine.  Grilled vegetables are a healthy side dish alternative, from eggplant rounds to skewered cherry tomatoes to slices of zucchini.  Even fruits have earned a supporting role on the grill, from grilled peaches to garnish a pork chop to grilled pineapple served with vanilla ice cream for dessert.

Just as within our kitchens, international flavors have been embraced in our outdoor cooking projects as we welcome the spices and marinades from every continent.  Moroccan spice rubs, Mexican salsas and Asian marinades have all transformed our grilled meats into flavorful entrees. 

The abundance of corn, which grew ideally in the humid southern climate, gave rise to corn bread as the favored accompaniment in the originating barbecue setting.   Today, the traditional outdoor cooking side dish of grilled corn on the cob, slathered with butter, remains a perpetual favorite.  Spiced butters can be mixed to lend the corn an added facet of flavor, tailored to echo the ethnic flavors of the entrée.  Try butter with finely grated lime zest and chili powder for a southwestern flare.

Potato salad, Cole slaw and macaroni salads are traditional outdoor menu standards.  While a basic potato salad containing hard boiled eggs, celery and onion is an old fashioned charm that promises to be satisfying and delicious, potato salads have evolved to include an infinite array of ingredients, from blue potatoes to blue cheese, bacon, nuts, green beans, etc.  For one example, try my recipe for this variation, a Smokey Potato Salad with Blue Cheese and Pecans

Cole slaw has been reinvented from the ubiquitous cabbage and carrot mixture to include a host of other ingredients as well.  One of my favorite side dishes for an Asian seasoned grilled meat entrée is an Asian slaw, made with long shreds of broccoli stems and carrots, plus bean sprouts, scallions, red pepper, an Asian sesame vinaigrette and a handful of peanuts, cashews or crunchy wasabi peas.  I have seen fall Cole slaws that contain shredded fennel and apples, plus walnuts and sometimes dried cranberries in addition to the cabbage and carrots.  The longer ingredient lists of most newer Cole slaw incarnations benefit from lighter, vinaigrette type dressings that won’t smother the flavorful salad.

Appetizers can be conjured on the grill.  Examples include bruschetta with prosciutto, peppers and mozzarella, grilled shrimp for plunging into cocktail sauce, and chicken satay served with the traditional Indonesian peanut sauce.

There have been some unexpected new surprises to come off the grill, one of them being pizza.  A couple of years ago I embarked on producing a pizza on the grill.  It was amazingly quick and so good.  Have a tray with all of the toppings ready grill side.  Toss the pizza crust dough on the grill, wait a minute, flip it.  Immediately and quickly arrange all of the toppings on the crust and close the lid of the grill.  The activity level during that thirty seconds of topping the pie is performed at a frenetic pace.  However, once your close the lid, wait one minute, open the lid and voila!  A perfect pizza ready to eat, dinner in THREE minutes!

Next time you fire up the grill, throw another shrimp on the barbie, grab yourself a good cold craft brew, and then whip up Brian’s simple barbecue sauce to paint over chicken, ribs or chops.  Serve that up hot with some grilled corn on the cob and that potato salad in the aforementioned link and you’ve got a winning barbecue dinner to feast off of.


Brian’s Smoke n Whiskey Barbecue Sauce
2 12-ounce bottles chili sauce
½ cup brown sugar
1 cup white wine vinegar
2 6-ounce cans tomato paste
4 tablespoons Jack Daniels Whiskey
4 teaspoons liquid smoke
salt and pepper to taste
Hot Sauce to taste (we like it hot! Brian used about 6 tablespoons)

Combine all ingredients in a medium pot over medium-high heat.  Bring to a boil.  As soon as the mixture begins to boil, reduce heat and simmer for ten minutes.  Makes 3 cups of barbecue sauce.

This sauce is so quick to make, very easy, no chopping involved.  It is the most basic sauce, containing the tomato factor (the chili sauce), the sweetener (brown sugar), the sour facet (the vinegar) and a thickener (tomato paste).  The flavor enhancements for this sauce come from the liquid smoke, whiskey and hot sauce.  This sauce is versatile, it will work on grilled ribs, chicken and pork chops.

Tools of the Trade

Just as a surgeon proudly picks up scalpels and hemostats and forceps from a surgical instrument tray in order to deftly carry out an operation, the devoted grill master welcomes the assist of a good set of barbecue tools.  There are entire sets available, packaged in tool cases of their own, or pieces can be purchased individually.  If you can splurge, it’s actually more beneficial to buy separate tools of better quality, piecing together your own set to suit your needs.  Stick to tools that are made exclusively from metal, they will be more durable in the elements of extreme heat and flame flare-ups.  The tools should be specifically designed for grill use; they will have extra long handles to keep a safer distance between your hands and the food that is being tended.  Basic necessities include a spatula, a meat fork, tongs and at least two brushes for sauces and seasoned oils – yes, there will be meals when you will need more than one.  Tongs should have teeth in the design in order to better grip the food that is being turned; otherwise your hovering and eager golden retriever will end up enjoying the rib that slipped off onto the ground (sorry, puppy, not good for you!).  When it comes to skewers, stick to flat variations so that the shrimp or cherry tomatoes don’t spin every time you go to flip the kebab.  Personally, I like those packages of long, disposable wooden skewers that can be found in most supermarkets in the seasonal section when grilling accessories are displayed.  You simply soak the skewers in a pan of water for the day, thread them with the food to be cooked, toss them away after dinner.  Soaking the skewers prevents creating an additional fire, and the non-slippery wood surface prevents the spinning foods that don’t end up cooking evenly.  If you like to sauté veggies or simmer sauces at the grill, a cast iron skillet and a small cast iron saucepan will also be valuable.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Catch the Summer Berry Berry

Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, oh my!  The luscious little gems of summer are back and ripe for your enjoyment.  I recently purchased some fresh locally grown blueberries from our neighborhood farm stand.  Resembling my favorite gemstone, the sapphire hue was as intense as the blueberry flavor.  There is not a summer snack more addictive that a cool, refreshing, juicy and perfectly ripe berry.  

Just gazing upon the headline photo to my blog site, those assorted berries, glistening with raspberry sauce and cascading over the sides of the extra creamy cheesecake, appear to be mimicking a pile of jewels.  The crimson raspberries masquerading as rubies, the sapphire-imposter blueberries and the deep garnet-like strawberries, it’s no wonder that chefs reach for berries more than any other option for luxuriously decorating their pastries.

Berries can be grown in the home garden with ease, provided defensive methods are employed in the form of netting.  The one season when I attempted to grow strawberries without such cover-ups yielded more appreciation by the birds and rabbits than by Brian and I.  Ah well, live and learn.  When opting to grow berries, remember to grow numerous plants in order to reap a significant bounty for enjoyment. Most berry plants are perennials, making them the garden gift that keeps on giving.  For those of you who possess black thumbs, or whose yard is host to voracious herbivores such as groundhogs and bunnies, check out your local farms.  Many of them welcome visitors to pick their own berries.  If there happens to be a wild berry patch nearby, grab some baskets and send the kids on a mission.  Be warned, however, that eating is more fun than picking and hauling: left unsupervised, your kids will likely return with few berries in their baskets, far too many in their tummies, all evidenced by purple tongues.  Think light dinner for them that evening!

Berries can be enjoyed in numerous presentations.  In simplest form, a simple bowl of berries topped with a mascarpone whipped cream is my choice method of berry consumption.  I like to combine strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries.  The good news is that with the exception of the strawberries, which need to be hulled and halved, there is no preparation work involved with the others. 

Fruits salads that highlight berries with other summer delicacies are also delicious.  Blackberries pair nicely with sliced nectarines, and strawberries are a nice addition to balls of honeydew and sliced peaches.  Slices bananas, strawberries and orange segments are another winning combination – just ask the Tropicana think tank that released an orange juice emanating that very flavor combination.

Tossing a handful of berries into a morning cereal adds another dimension of flavor and texture, as well as incorporating another component of daily nutritional requirement and thus resulting in a more balanced breakfast.  Berry toppings also add a special splash of color and flavor when ladled over pancakes or waffles.

As one of my longest and closest friends enjoys doing, berries can be cooked down and jarred into preserves and jams.  My friend harvested so many wild blueberries from her property that she had little choice in using them up but to transform them into some of the best blueberry jam I have ever savored!  It was the perfect way to consume an English muffin every morning.

Berries are often baked in such sinfully tasty edibles as muffins, pies and cobblers.  Who would say no to a blueberry crumb cake with their cup of java?  The neutral hue of a creamy palette of cheesecake becomes an enlivened backdrop when bold red raspberries are incorporated.

Berries are also perfect additions for rounding out a salad, adding sweet flavor, bites of juicy texture and eye-popping color to balance the other ingredients, as in my recipe for spinach salad with strawberries, goat cheese and pecans:
That recipe works equally well with blue cheese and blueberries.  Either way, turn it into a main dish salad by adding coarsely chopped, cooked chicken or duck breast, both of which marry well with berries.

Strong flavors that are characteristic of duck stand up well to being paired with berry-studded pan sauces.  Brian recently prepared grilled duck with a raspberry-chipotle sauce that was sublime.  The sweetness of the raspberry was the perfect counterpoint for the spiciness of the chipotle chili, all syncing perfectly with the grilled duck.

Berries are often highlighted in summer beverages.  Such boozy delights as frosty strawberry daiquiris, raspberry rumrunners and blueberry martinis are the perfect summer libation.  Chambord is a sensual raspberry liqueur that can be enjoyed straight up, mixed into cocktails and even added into cooking and baking recipes for an extra kick of raspberry flavor.  Wineries, such as Long Island’s Osprey’s Dominion, play with berries for conjuring lighter sips such as strawberry wine to accompany the lighter, summer fun fare.  When it comes to craft breweries, it seems as though everyone is getting into the blueberry ale act this season, including Long Island’s own Blue Point Brewery.  Then there's one of my personal favorites, Framboise, a raspberry lambic from Lindemans.

One of my summer favorites to highlight raspberries is to make this raspberry sauce and ladle it over vanilla ice cream with white chocolate truffles:

Vanilla Ice Cream with White Chocolate Truffles and Raspberry Sauce


1 ¼ cups sugar
1 1/3 cups whole milk
3 cups heavy cream
3 teaspoons Madascar bourbon vanilla extract
1 package Lindor white chocolate truffles, chilled

8 ounces seedless raspberry jam
¼ cup sugar
1 pint fresh raspberries
3 tablespoons Chambord

Using a hand held mixer, beat the milk and 1 ½ cups sugar until the sugar in well incorporated.  Add the heavy cream and the vanilla and beat on high speed for about three minutes.  Transfer the mixture into the container of an ice cream machine and process according to the manufacturer’s directions.  Coarsely chop enough of the white chocolate truffles to make 1 cup.  When the ice cream has five minutes left to process, stir in the white chocolate.  After five minutes, transfer the ice cream to a freezer-safe sealed container and store in the freezer overnight.

For the sauce, stir together the jam, ¼ cup of sugar, half of the raspberries and the Chamboard in a medium saucepan over low heat until the sugar is dissolved, the jam is melted and the berries have begun to become incorporated into the mixture.  Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.  Gently stir in the remaining raspberries.  Scoop the ice cream into dessert bowls and ladle the sauce over each serving of ice cream.

Note that this sauce is delectable when ladled over cheesecake, panna cotta, pound cake, waffles and pancakes.  For a sauce that highlights all of the best-loved berries of the season, use a combination of fresh strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries, keep the Chambord and choose a strawberry or blueberry jam instead of the raspberry jam, if desired.

Food for Thought
Another great way to enjoy berries is when they’ve been baked into a pie.  Berry pies are perhaps the easiest pies to make, as the berries don’t need to be cut up or peeled.  Easier still, for my fellow Long Islanders, take a leisurely drive along the eastern north fork to Briermere Farms.  They make the most amazing pies, from the traditional strawberry-rhubarb to some other delightful combinations that highlight not only the berries, but other summer fruits as well, such as peach-raspberry, peach-cherry, etc. 

July is National Blueberry Month, so be sure to pick up some blueberries at your local farm stand or famer’s market.  What to do with them?  It just so happens that July 30th is National Cheesecake Day!  Consider making a blueberry cheesecake crowned with a whipped cream-rimmed blueberry topping like the one pictured above.  Need inspiration?  Read about cheesecakes in my CNN ireport:

Monday, July 9, 2012

Ingredient of the Month: Liquid Smoke

As July heats up and ushers in a national holiday with backyard cookouts, home cooks abandon the ovens of their kitchen and turn their taste buds toward the grill.  Everyone loves a barbecue; there is just something about the flavors of such fare that defines summer.  Have you ever pondered how smokey nuances manage to permeate even the foods that never touch the grill, such as a potato salad or a pot of beans?  It’s magic, captured in a cute little bottle that can usually be located near the meat displays of most supermarkets.  The substance is called, simply, liquid smoke.  

I love this stuff.  When you want to add just one more facet of summer barbecue flavor to a side dish, or even amp up a homemade barbecue sauce, this is the easy shortcut.  This product is all natural; the ingredient list on a bottle of liquid smoke couldn’t be shorter: water and hickory smoke concentrate.  A little goes a long way; one bottle will last an entire season, as only a minute amount is required to impart the flavor into your culinary project.

The brand most commonly found in markets is called Wright’s, named after its creator, Ernest H. Wright.  Wright was a pharmacist in Kansas City, Missouri, with a lifelong interest in chemistry.  He began to dabble with burning wood in order to collect the liquid from the smoke’s condensation from within the stove’s pipe.  Upon enlisting some friends as guinea pigs to sample a ham that he prepared with this liquid condensed smoke, compliments and requests for seconds led to the bottling and selling of the flavor enhancer in 1895.  

Today liquid smoke is prepared through a method called destructive distillation.  Smoke is produced through a controlled burning process of wood chips, condensed and then combined with water.  While Wright’s Liquid Smoke is enhanced with hickory, other brands may utilize other woods to vary the flavor of the smoke.

The list of culinary uses for liquid smoke is lengthy.  It is essentially a seasoning used to add a smoky flavor to anything.  It can be used in a homemade marinade or barbecue sauce recipe for meats.  It can be added to soups, stews, chilis and even dips.  For those who like to cure their own meats, it is one of the components of a curing solution as is typically used in bacon.  I have added liquid smoke to baked beans as well as a potato salad dressing.  My easy recipe for this potato salad follows.  For another excuse to play with this smoke sensation, see my recipe for Smokey Chipotle Mashed Potatoes:

Smokey Potato Salad with Blue Cheese and Pecans

2 pounds baby Yukon gold potatoes, quartered
1 ½  cups mayonnaise
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
½ teaspoon liquid smoke
¼ teaspoon black pepper
½ cup chopped red onion
½ cup chopped celery
1 cup pecans
1 cup crumbled blue cheese

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat.  Add the potatoes and reduce the heat to medium high, allowing to boil until the potatoes are tender, about fifteen to twenty minutes.  Drain the potatoes and allow to cool to room temperature.  Meanwhile, in a large serving bowl, whisk together the next six ingredients to make the dressing.  Add the potatoes, red onion and celery and toss well to combine and coat.  Stir in the pecans and the blue cheese until combined.  Serves 3-4.

Mr. Wright was definitely onto something.  This entrepreneur with a lust for chemistry experimentation has since inspired a whole population of epicurean chemists, if you will, as we experiment with various ingredient combinations, always striving for the next level of flavor experiences.  A word of caution: it is easy to become obsessed with use of this ingredient, particularly when creating your own recipes and you just want to add that last kick of smoked flavor.  You will begin to covet that little bottle as your own secret weapon in culinary cook-offs.  Once you start this method of smoking, it truly is a challenge to quit!  Then again, why would you want to?