An Easy “Grill Pan” Dinner

Looking for a quick and easy meal the other night, I came up with this meal that was cooked all in my grill pan.

Chicken was marinated in Mojo Criollo, a Latin marinade of sour orange, herbs and spices.

There were a couple of leeks which I split in two and placed them cut side down to grill.

When the chicken was done, it was pushed to the side of the pan and I added fresh trimmed asparagus and grilled that until it was done too. Asparagus only takes a few minutes.

Sweet potatoes baked in the oven, a salad made by ‘shaving’ radishes, cucumbers, yellow pepper, and fennel, drizzled with rice vinegar and olive oil, salt and fresh pepper rounded out the meal.

Voila! Dinner is ready.

During this wonderful season of abundant fruits and vegetables, make sure you add more to your diet. The vitamins, minerals and fiber contribute to a healthy diet and contribute to manageable weight maintenance.

Indulge and explore white the season is right!

A story about blue crabs

St. Johns River, Florida

There was a time in my life when I lived on the St. Johns River, south of Jacksonville, FL in a small place named Switzerland.

We had a dock and a couple of boats and crab traps. The traps would get stuffed with chicken necks and then dropped in the river.

Most of the time, we could drop them right off the dock and get traps so full of blue crabs we couldn’t possibly eat them all.

So, we would build a bonfire on the riverbank, pull some coals to the side and place cast iron dutch kettles into the fire to

Maryland Blue Crab

boil water and then fill the pots with crabs, herbs, and seasoning, cover and put it back in the fiery coals to cook the crabs.

When they were cooked, the pot would be spilled all over the picnic table and another pot put into the fire.

Crabs for sale at the Maine Avenue Fish Market...

Friends, family, neighbors would all gather around, eat huge amounts of blue crab, drink beer, I think back then it was Rolling Rock and Heineken. It was great having everyone around talking, sometimes singing and having a great time.

1893 bird's eye view of Jacksonville, with ste...

1893 bird’s-eye view of Jacksonville, with steamboats moving throughout the St. Johns River (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The families we were with at the time had actually settled the area in the mid to late 1800’s. There were stories of Reggie Moreman sailing down the St Johns to locate and settle the highest point on the river. There were stories of pirate ships sailing down the St Johns to Black Creek to fill water kegs with the tannin water for long voyages; stories of Indians and smoke on the banks across the river near Green Cove Springs.

Two families tried to tame the once wild river banks. One with potato farming and the other established some of the first orange groves in the state of Florida. They had docks that would load with oranges for shipping to anywhere. When the groves got frozen out, they moved to southern Florida to grow pineapples in what is now downtown Miami.

The Moremans stayed in Switzerland, Florida. When I was there, we still ran through the remnants of the groves plucking ripe fruit from the trees before the first frost. Most were sour oranges due to the base stock being sour, but there were still a couple of sweet trees.

The crabs always ran like this in the deep fall, or was it spring? I can’t recall exactly what time of year it was, other than it was chilly, the night air dry and crisp.

This is one of my favorite memories of living on the riverbank  and eating crabs in Switzerland, Florida.

Calling the ferry, St. John River, NB, 1915 (?)

And well before the river got so polluted the fish sprouted two heads. (Really.)

Crab Cakes with Leeks and Corn

Crab Cakes with Leeks and Corn

Crab Cakes get so abused. Tender sweet succulent crab; why do so many ruin the delicate flavor by adding red or green peppers to the mix?

When I think of crab cakes, I think of the delicious flavor of crab, not a nasal hit of red or green peppers. While I love peppers, they do have their place. In my opinion, that place is not in a crab cake.

What is the star of your dish? Is it the crab? How much did you pay for the crab? Usually a lot of money or labor if you cleaned your own crabs. Why would you want to hide the star of your dish with the pungent flavor of red or green pepper?

Peppers have a dominate flavor, they overpower everything. Which is why they are the stars in the dishes they are featured. Stuffed peppers, sausage and peppers, red pepper hummus, roasted pepper salads, great dishes with strong dominate flavors.

If you didn’t guess already, adding peppers to delicate crab meat is a pet peeve of mine. I feel strongly about it. If you like peppers in your crab cakes, fine, I’d ask you though if you really know what crab tastes like.

Enough of that rant, on to the crab cakes!

Crab, any kind of crab, has a delicate flavor. Enhance the flavor with a dab of smooth Dijon mustard, sautéed shallot, roasted garlic and sliced scallions or chives and lemon zest. Hold the mix together with an egg and coat the outside of each formed crab cake with a layer of panko bread crumbs and you have an amazing cake for either an appetizer, entrée or salad. How to and the recipe are below.

Crab comes in many forms. You can purchase live blue crabs  or king or queen crab legs and boil your  own for a great outdoor dinner party.

Colossal size crab meat from Blue Swimming Cra...

Colossal size crab meat from Blue Swimming Crab. Courtesy of Newport International. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Crab comes in canned or pasteurized form in addition to fresh. Here is the translation as to what kind of crab you are getting according to classification:

  • Colossal Lump: Very large white, unbroken pieces of crab.
  • Jumbo Lump:  largest white pieces of crab meat from the body portion adjacent to the back fin appendage. may contain broken pieces.
  • Back fin: A blend of large lump pieces and special meat.
  • Special: Flake white meat from the body portion of the crab.
  • Claw: This meat is from the crab claws. It is darker in color but sweeter in flavor.
  • Cocktail Claws: Claw meat intact on the claw with the outer shell removed.

Colossal Lump is typically the most expensive. If you think of the labor that goes into cleaning a crab, you would understand why.

Cocktail Claw crab meat from Blue Swimming Crab.

Cocktail Claw crab meat from Blue Swimming Crab. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The other night there was a pasteurized can of jumbo lump in my fridge. We had crab in salads and make crab cakes.

There were leeks and corn in the fridge too so I sautéed a nice side to go with the crab cakes.

Leek and Corn Saute

2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil

1 shallot, sliced

1 clove garlic, minced fine

1 leek, washed and sliced thin

1 cup frozen corn or cut fresh corn from 2 ears

1/2 cup dry white wine or chicken stock

Salt and pepper to taste

Heat a saute pan over medium heat, add oil, shallot and garlic, stir.

Saute leeks and corn

Add rinsed leeks and corn, saute 2-3 minutes, add white wine and simmer until the pan is nearly dry. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Set aside and keep warm.

Crab Cakes

1/2 pound jumbo lump crab meat (or any market form you like but cocktail claws)

1 egg

1/2 cup panko bread crumbs

1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest and juice from 1 lemon

1 tablespoon minced shallots

2 scallions thinly sliced, white and green part

1 teaspoon minced roasted garlic

1 teaspoon old Bay Seasoning

Salt and pepper to taste

Optional: 1 tablespoon capers

To remove any cartilage that may still be in the crab meat, place the meat on a parchment lined sheet pan, place it in a 350°F oven for 2-3 minutes. Any cartilage will turn bright white or red and can easily be picked out.

Working in a restaurant, the sheet pan method is used to quickly identify any unwanted cartilage. This method also preserves the shape of the meat if using precious lump meat. High volumes of crab meat can be processed quickly this way.

Combine everything in a large bowl except the crab,  add the crab meat last so it does not get broken up too much.

Carefully, take a small handful and shape the crab cake between your thumb and forefinger as if you are making a hand gesture to say OK. This makes the sides and size consistent.

Roll each cake carefully in breadcrumbs.

Heat a saute pan with 2 tablespoons of oil. Cook the crab cakes until golden brown on each side. If you move them very little while cooking they won’t fall apart.

Serve with lemon, sautéed leeks and corn on the side.

Crab cakes with leek and corn

A Southern Staple: Simple Syrup

Bottle of simple syrup

This basic southern staple, simple syrup, is a must have in any kitchen or bar.

This style of syrup is used all over the world for lots of things, not just in the south.

It is, however the secret to true southern iced tea.

Simple syrup is easy and quick to make and there are endless ways to use it in the kitchen and bar.

Basic Simple Syrup

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 cups water, enough to cover the sugar by 1/2 inch.
  • 3-4 drops lemon juice

Put sugar in a sauce pot

Add water to cover sugar by 1/2 inch; add 2-3 drops of lemon juice, stir

Bring to a boil; boil for 1-2 minutes

Place a ‘sign or symbol’ to signify pot is hot;
Put the pot away from accidents to cool

Method:

Put the sugar in a sauce pot, add water to cover the sugar by 1/2 inch. Stir well.

Place the pot over high heat; add the lemon juice and bring to a boil.

Stir, not constantly, but often enough to prevent scorching on the bottom.

Once the mixture comes to a boil, the sugar will turn clear. Allow to boil for 1-2 minutes, turn off.

Cool the mixture before transferring to a jar or bottle.

While the sugar syrup is cooling, put some kind of “sign or symbol” on the  handle so others know the pot and contents are hot and to leave the pot alone.

Use caution and place the pot well to the back of the stove out of harms way.

Sugar burns are very nasty and go really deep. Avoid at all costs, especially around children.

The syrup is shelf stable. Keep it handy to sweeten iced tea, lemonade, tea or coffee, use it over fresh fruit, in meringues, or even in marinades and specialty bar drinks.

You can infuse flavors into simple syrup, add a vanilla pod, lemon, lime or orange zest, fruit puree, basil, lavender, or mint for a few ideas. Be sure to strain the flavor elements out before using. The vanilla pods or herb leaves do look nice in the bottle.

My favorite way to use this syrup is to splash some into iced tea and top with a lemon wedge.

The perfect thirst quencher!

Iced Tea and Simple Syrup

Potatoes Au Gratin

I have been on a comfort food kick the past few days; Potatoes au Gratin are one of my favorite creamy delicious side dishes.

We always had them as a kid sometimes from scratch and sometimes from a box. The box variety always fascinated me.

The clear plastic looking chips, the powdered sauces, pour over boiling water and bake. Voila! Potatoes au gratin or Scalloped Potatoes all from a box. It was amazing stuff.

Making the same potatoes from scratch is far more satisfying, both nutritionally and esthetically.

First you have to get some good starchy potatoes – russets are the best as they are a ‘high-starch, low moisture’ category of potato.

Peeling is your option, but be sure to scrub them clean.

Have everything ready to go before you start slicing the potatoes so they don’t turn colors on you.

If you don’t know what I mean about potatoes turning color, take a slice and just let it sit out on the counter or on a plate. Look at it again in 5 minutes. It is oxidizing with exposure to air. Process potatoes quickly to avoid this color change happening.

“Green” on the potatoes is called “Solanin” and it is a sign of a potato that has been stored incorrectly with an exposure to light.  To avoid green potatoes, always store potatoes in a cool, dark place.

While it would take quite a bit of solanin to cause severe damage, it is an intestinal irritant. Simply cut away the green with your peeler. It isn’t very deep.

Do not store potatoes in the refrigerator, the cold converts the starch to sugar. Restoring to room temperature, over a few days will convert back to starch.

I made this dish for Robert and me but it would easily feed four. I used an All-Clad oval stainless baker pan, you can use any oven-proof dish you want. Adjust the quantities if using a large pan.

Potatoes Au Gratin

Serves 2-4

  • 1 or 2 large russet potato, peeled and sliced thinly
  • 4 whole large shallots, peeled and sliced thinly
  • 1/2 container Herbs and Garlic Boursin cheese (or 1/2 cup any shredded cheese of your choice)
  • 1 cup heavy cream, brought to a boil
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • Salt and pepper
  • Optional: Monterrey Jack cheese to top and get all golden brown

Method:

Thinly slice potatoes and shallots by hand or use a mandolin.

Be careful when slicing on a mandolin! Slicing on the mandolin ensures even slices so they cook at the same rate.
HINT: Slice shallots by hand.

Butter the dish, place a single layer of sliced shallots on the bottom of the pan, top with potatoes laid in a single layer, top with shredded cheese, spoon 1/4 cup of warm cream, sprinkle with salt and pepper, drizzle a light sprinkling of flour and repeat layering until the dish is full. The top layer should be cheese.

Here is the layering sequence again:

  1. sliced shallots
  2. sliced potatoes
  3. cream
  4. salt and pepper
  5. flour
  6. cheese
  7. repeat leaving cheese as the top layer

Butter the dish, layer shallots then potatoes

Notice how the potatoes are shingled into a layer

Sprinkle flour over the cheese and potato layers

Keep alternating layers to the top

Top with cheese and bake

Place the filled dish on a parchment paper lined baking sheet to catch all spills. Place in a 400°F oven for 1 hour or until the dish is bubbling and golden brown on top.

We usually gobble these up pretty quickly but if you have any leftover, cut them into shapes and reheat either in the microwave or the oven until nice and warm in the center.

Variations on the theme:

  • Scalloped Potatoes: Leave out the cheese and make sure enough cream covers the top slightly. Top with breadcrumbs; Bake the same way.
  • Add your favorite herbs for an herbal variety.
  • Use different cheese: Goat cheese, Havarti, Asiago, fontina, add some bleu to the mix.
  • Use cheese that you know will melt nicely. If you want to make this with cheddar, please add some hoop cheese to it for melting purposes. Cheddar does not melt well all on its own.

I’m sure your family will enjoy this as much as mine does. Your home will smell wonderful as they cook. Since they are in the oven for so long, it is a good time to plan a baked chicken or pork chop to go along with the potatoes.

Sometimes I’ll have a plate of just potatoes au gratin for lunch, if there is any left over.

Plated Potatoes au Gratin

Mushroom Risotto

I made mushroom risotto just to see if there could be any left over to make the risotto balls Frugal Feeding made. Only he called them Rosemary and Garlic Arancini. I suppose that is the correct Italian name for them more than “risotto balls.”

By any other name they are still just as good.

Let’s make  Mushroom Risotto and if you have any left, you can hop over to Frugals site and make the Arancini.

But first a note on how to clean mushrooms:

Think of them like little sponges. if you run them under water or (horrors!) soak them in a bowl of water to ‘clean’ them, you are water logging the poor little mushroom. The mushroom will release that water while you cook, you will not get a good color on them when cooking. Instead of saute, you will be braising them.

Instead, wipe them with a clean towel, trim the tough part of the stem (shiitake – remove the entire stem, it is tough) your are ready to go.

Portobello mushrooms can be ‘peeled’ to create a prettier mushroom. Use a spoon to scrape out the gills and then peel the lip of the mushroom to remove the top layer, peeling towards the top middle of the mushroom cap.

Save the scraps for flavoring stocks for soup or sauces.

Peeling a Portobello

Use a spoon to scrape out the gills

1 peeled Portobello and 1 not peeled ; see the difference?
Save those scraps! Freeze them.

Mushroom Risotto

1 cup arborio rice

2 tablespoons finely minced shallots

1 tablespoon  fresh minced garlic

1 cup cleaned and sliced fresh mushrooms of your choice

White button and shiitake mushrooms

If you use Portobello mushrooms, be sure to clean the gills out from under the cap. They turn everything a dark, almost black color.


1 up to 1 quart of warm chicken stock

If you use a stock that has salt in it, adjust your salt flavor at the end. Salt concentrates as liquids evaporate.

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 cup Parmesan cheese, shredded, not graded

1 tablespoon butter

Salt and pepper to taste

Cook the mushrooms first in the same pan you will cook the risotto. This allows the mushrooms to develop that deep flavor for which mushrooms are so famous.

Sautéed Mushrooms

  • 1 pound mushrooms of your choice, cleaned and sliced
  • 2 tablespoons oil or clarified butter
  • 1 shallot sliced
  • 2 clove fresh garlic smashed and minced
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme
  • salt and pepper to taste

Heat the pan over high heat, add oil.

Add mushrooms sliced shallots, garlic saute until they begin to develop color and start to release their juices. Add white wine to deglaze and cook until the pan is nearly dry.

Now add the rice and continue with the risotto recipe below.

Note: This is a great way to saute mushrooms for any other way you want to eat mushrooms, steak, Quiche, soup

  • Heat the chicken stock in a pot and have it nearby with a ladle.
  • In the same pan you cooked the mushrooms above, add the rice.
  • Saute for 2 minutes. Stir to coat the rice with the mushroom goodness in the pan.
  • Ladle about 8 ounces of warm stock into the rice pan.
  • Stir to combine and continue stirring until the stock has been absorbed.
  • Repeat 3 more times.
  • Taste the rice, there should be a slight bite to the grain, known as “al-dente.”
  • The last addition will be 1/2 cup white wine, stir until the wine has been absorbed.
  • Stir in the Parmesan cheese and the butter.
  • Adjust seasonings and serve.

Warm chicken stock, have a ladle handy

Saute the mushrooms, shallots, garlic, thyme and wine to develop flavor in the mushrooms before adding rice. Cook down to nearly dry again.

Add rice, saute to coat the rice with oil and mushroom jus

Add warm stock and stir until absorbed

Stir until all stock has been absorbed; add more stock

Add more stock and keep stirring

I learned to make risotto the old-fashioned way; by stirring a lot. Stirring makes it creamy. There are some methods where you cook it much like you do plain rice. I don’t find the results as creamy as the stir-like-a-madman method.

Besides, it gives your arms a decent work out.

If you want to make risotto and hold it for serving later, take it only half way through the steps of adding stock. Cool it down.

When you are ready to finish, heat more stock, add the rice and finish the cooking process.

Serve immediately as risotto can get quite gluey as it cools down after it finishes cooking.

I made enough to have some leftover for the Arancini but when I went to make them, there was no leftover risotto.

So the myth continues, there is no such thing as leftover risotto.

I haven’t seen much leftover wine either.

Why is that?

Robert said to just make more risotto and make the Arancini immediately.

I think he just wants more risotto.

Mushroom Risotto

“Feed Me Chef!”

Our dear friend June had a mile marker birthday recently. Our gift to her was to go out to the “Feed Me Chef” dinner at Zink American Kitchen in Charlotte, NC.

Robert and June

What a wonderful experience! The premise of the Feed Me Chef dinner is to sit around the bar area that is right up to and nearly in the kitchen. The chef will then create a 5 course meal for you of their choosing.

You can watch the kitchen in action

Sitting there, you get a birds-eye view of the kitchen operations from gearing up, getting slammed with the dinner rush and then slowing down slightly as we left 2 hours later.

The hostess had called earlier in the day to ask about allergies, diet restrictions and if there was anything in particular we wanted. These parameters were given to Chef Amy who in turn gets to be creative and create a 5 course meal.

The kitchen crew operated very well together. There was clear communication, effective movements and great looking food. Everyone knew their job and did it well. It was great entertainment.

And you want to know something? In this open kitchen all the crew, both front and back of the house, were so polite not only to the guests, but most important, to each other.

“Please, thank you, you’re welcome, excuse me”, all used frequently amongst the staff even when they were at their slammed best. How refreshing.

Chef Amy Kumpf

Our chef this evening was Amy Kumpf who was delightful, fun, charming, very skilled and knowledgeable in her craft. If was a lot of fun to watch her and her crew work through the dinner rush, very smooth.

She planned a menu for us and paired the wine for each course. Settling in, our meal began.

Course #1

Yellow Tomato Caprese Salad

Yellow Tomato Caprese

Instead of using fresh basil, Amy fried the basil for the salad. The result was delicate umami touched with sweet tomato that danced around in your mouth with a party going on.

Amy reduced balsamic vinegar to a coating glaze which she drizzled over the assembled salad. She chose yellow tomatoes, delicious fresh mozzarella, fried basil and balsamic reduction.

Definitely whetted the appetite. It was beautiful and delicious.

To pair wine with this course, Amy chose Cooper Mountain Pinot Grigio from Willamette Vally.

Perfect pairing.

Course #2

Plancha Seared Snapper with Fire Roasted Tomatoes and Cucumber Salsa

Snapper in Tangine

This dish alone would be worthy to come back for again and again. Fabulous!

The cucumber salsa had mango, red peppers, mint, honey and other things. It was very well made, knife skills showed.

Fire roasted tomatoes are roasted and grilled with red peppers and blended to create  a lovely sauce they use on several dishes from pizza to our snapper. This was served in  crisp white Moroccan style tangine.

Tangine

Wine paring: Chamisal Vineyards 2011 Central Coast Stainless Chardonnay (unoaked) Crisp and perfect with the complex flavors of this dish.

Course #3

Hickory Salmon

Hickory Salmon with Slow Cooked Potatoes and Asparagus

Another genius dish. The potatoes went so well with the salmon, sweet 100 tomatoes are slow roasted to add a sweet acid punch to the richness of the potatoes and  salmon. Additionally on the plate were fennel confit and melted leeks. Eating this was a pure pleasure experience.

Wine pairing: For some odd reason I didn’t record the Pinot noir chosen for this dish. It was the only one we thought didn’t complement the food. We enjoyed the wine tremendously, just didn’t like the paring.

Perhaps another Pinot with a fruitier base as most US Pinots are known. This one was in the “Burgundian” style which made it rich and robust with full tannins. These rich robust wines are normally my preference. But not with this dish.

The sweet salty nature of the salmon and the delicate texture of the fish wanted something a bit milder.

Course #4

Grilled Flank Steak with Smoked Tomato Cream Sauce and Shaved Asparagus

Seasoned and grilled to perfection. The meat was tender, juicy and full of flavor.

Shaved asparagus was created by peeling asparagus length wise with a “Y” peeler. You can do a lot with a vegetable and a Y peeler. Here, Amy created ‘pasta’ for us with thin shavings of asparagus.

Grilled Flank Steak

By this time we were getting full.  So I tasted everything and then decided to bring the rest of this dish home to eat for lunch and jump into dessert.

Wine Pairing: Brazin Old Vine Zinfandel, Lodi, 2009

Course #5

Warm Apple Compote, Whipped Caramel Cream, Orange Confit, Dulche de Leche and Dark Chocolate

I got a pleasant surprise when the dessert chef came out. She was a student of mine. She said she was nervous but for no reason. Her dessert fit the bill perfectly. (No flour products – part of Junes diet; hence the asparagus pasta.)

Pastry Chef Sheena

Although our tummies were full, we managed to consume every bite.

Brilliant wine paring and fine ending to a great meal: Late  Harvest Mer Soliel

Apple Compote

Robert and me

All in all, we had a great meal and an outstanding evening. I could eat like that every time we go out. The idea of not knowing what your next course will be is intriguing.

We will have to do this again soon and I suggest you go find a place near you who does this kind of service. Ask at your favorite restaurant. Sometimes this style of dining is called a “Chef’s Table” and sometimes tables are in the kitchen. Depends on what the health code is in your area. You may discover such tables need to be reserved well in advance.

We had a delightful interaction with the staff. The entire evening was great fun.

Naturally, if you find yourself in Charlotte, NC, head over to South park and stop in at Zink and say “Feed Me Chef!”

You will be glad you did.

These photos were taken in low-light conditions of the restaurant with the i-phone 4.