And all the fixins… Cooking Class at Chef’s Catalog store

Colorado Springs friends, there are still a couple of openings for my Holiday cooking class this Monday at the Chef’s Catalog outlet store on Centenial.  I will be preparing (and you will be eating) a variety of new twists on Holiday side dishes.  The class runs from 6 to 8 and is $65.00 per person which includes wine.    You also get a 15% discount on anything you purchase at the store that evening.  Sign up through the store at 719 272 2700, for more information look here Hope to see you all there.

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How you like them apples????

So it’s snowing outside… finally. The ninth of November  is pretty late for a first snow here in Colorado Springs; the football season is half over, my garden has been dead for a month, my skiing and snowboarding  friends have started to panic… it really is time.  I need the four seasons, how else would I know that I am getting older… or what to cook.  The local grocery store is currently selling: asparagus, raspberries, pumpkins, tomatoes, cabbage, green beans and rutabagas.  So it is obviously:  spring, summer, fall, summer, fall, summer, and winter.  I believe in eating local… sort of.  There are 2 million people living on the front range of the Rockies here in Colorado (a relatively infertile patch of land)… no way we are all eating local; unless, of course, we follow the Donner Party School of Local Cannibalism.  I do, at least, try to eat seasonally.

Speaking of which…it is dinnertime.  I would love to slow cook something: a stew, a chili, a roast leg of… err….lamb, maybe with some fava beans and Chianti.  But sadly, it is already late, and unless I want to eat at 10:00 I best choose something else.  The aforementioned grocery store did provide some clues.  Three dollar artichokes, five dollar cups of raspberries, ten different varieties of apples for less than a dollar a pound… I can take a hint.  So how do I like them apples…??

Tonight I like them with pork, specifically boneless pork loin chops.  As most everyone knows… pork loin is as lean as chicken breast.   Thanks to a spectacularly successful marketing plan (the other white meat) and an equally successful breeding plan, being called a pig just doesn’t sting like it used to.  I’m sure that they have lower body fat than me… and most of you.

The problem is, like skinless chicken breasts, turkey, and the skinny Donner’s, they’re just so dry.  One solution: drench them in fatty gravy… but that sort of defeats the point.  Second solution:  top them with something healthy, like apples.  Third solution, cook them properly: well-seasoned, quickly, over a very high heat.  Tonight I choose solutions two and three.

For pan searing I prefer thinner chops, around ¾ of an inch thick without a bone.  The bone, which does add flavor, makes for uneven cooking.  Pat the chops dry with a paper towel and season LIBERALLY with salt and pepper.  Slice a cored apple, peeled or not.  Heat a large sauté pan until it is very hot.  If you use a traditional stainless pan you will need to add some oil with a very high flash point like canola or peanut.  Now is not the time for your expensive extra virgin olive oil.  I don’t recommend a non-stick pan unless you are fortunate enough to have a really good one like a Scan-Pan.  These miracles somehow “brown” things and are still nonstick.  Cheaper pans just “gray” things.  A well-seasoned cast iron pan also works well.

To see if the pan is hot enough flick a little bit of water into the pan… it should sizzle instantly and evaporate in a few seconds.  NOTE: DO THIS BEFORE YOU ADD ANY OIL TO THE PAN.  Turn on your hood and or stove top vent, disconnect any nearby smoke alarms, and put on pants if you are not already wearing them (especially men).  Seriously though, if you only use a small amount of oil it should be fine.

Add your oil, just a touch, then your chops, swirl once to make sure they all get a tiny bit of oil on them then step away.  They will smoke; they may spatter but leave them alone, except for perhaps an occasional shake.  Give it only around 3 minutes for the first side;  if the pan was hot enough and you seasoned them well they should be nicely golden.  Flip them and immediately turn the heat down.  Cook the chops an additional 3 minutes, then remove them to a warm plate and cover with foil.   Turn the heat back up and add all your sliced apples.  The chops should be cooked through, but just barely (it is no longer considered dangerous to eat medium pork).  Here it gets a bit freeform…  the liquid in the apples will help deglaze the pan, all the little brown spots on the pan will release and make the apples taste better.  If the apples are sweet add a bit of cider vinegar.  If the apples are sour add a touch of honey.  White wine, garlic, mustard, sage… all would be welcome.  You won’t need a ton of salt if you seasoned the chops well, in fact the meat might taste too salty without the sweet and sour from the apples.  Some rice or potatoes, a salad or a vegetable, and you have a well-balanced meal fit for a snowy night.  Here is a recipe for you measurers

Tomorrow… winter tailgating ideas… just in case you get stuck in the mountains during the Superbowl.

Lastly, I want to thank the folks at Barely Escape.  Their stated purpose is  “to provide Colorado Springs & Manitou Springs with a resource to escape the mundane!  Our focus is on locally owned businesses that are elevating the community’s landscape.”   Somehow they found me… and think I fit the bill.  Check them out at

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Too many taste buds…

Grilled cheese and tomato soup…enough said.  Why this combination is so tasty defies explanation… sort of…  at least in the western hemisphere.  In elementary school, or maybe junior high, I learned that there were four flavors: salty, sour, bitter and sweet.  As a chef I learned that balancing these four flavors is what makes food taste good.   Consider the hotdog.   A hotdog tastes… salty.  So what then would make it taste better, perhaps something sweet… or sour… better yet sweet and sour?  Enter the ketchup, or relish, or mustard.  This basic balancing act is found in everything from salsa to sushi to salad dressing (see earlier post).  The problem is that there are two more flavors: spicy and Umami.

You are all, no doubt, familiar with spicy, but what the @#$% is Umami?  Wikipedia has the really long answer, but the short answer is cheese.  Umami is a Japanese word for which we still haven’t settled on a definition.  Savory is often used as a descriptor, as is meaty.  It was first “discovered” over a century ago when a Japanese scientist isolated monosodium glutamate as the reason seaweed tasted “so good”.  While I may disagree with their assessment of seaweed, and you may fear and hate the dreaded MSG, a century of research has proved that the same glutamate chemicals that make things “umami” are found in things like mushrooms, bacon, cheese… and tomatoes.

So back to tonight’s dinner… while waiting in my eye doctor’s office yesterday I read this month’s issue of Martha Stewart’s ”Living”.  Her article on gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches definitely inspired this evening’s meal:  a small pot of homemade tomato soup and three tiny grilled cheese sandwiches.  I used Pepperidge Farms “very thin” bread, but if you have a bigger crowd use healthier, thicker, multi grain bread: and split the sandwiches between several people.  Martha had a ton of great combinations… none of which I used exactly but still check them out here.

My choices: Cotswold and bacon,  Gruyere and Prosciutto, and Mushroom Brie with honey mustard and apples. Add that to the tomato soup …Umami overload.   And while this is not the healthiest meal I’ve ever eaten…  its still less than two ounces of meat and 3 ounces of cheese…  Once again let’s hear it for stinky cheese.

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Tomorrow’s dinner… granola

One of the things I say at every cooking class that I teach is:  “Give it a try… if it sucks, throw it away and order a pizza.”  Well not anymore.   I had a small surgery on one of my eyes today and the last thing I wanted to do was cook or go out.  So I ordered a pizza, my first delivery pizza in a couple of years.  Have they always been this bad?  So my new motto will be: “Give it a try, if it sucks throw it away and eat a bowl of cereal.”

Now if there was just  someone to come to my house and make dinner for me…

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Celery salt, salad, and the Jersey Shore

Long before MTV discovered the Jershey  Shore, my Grand Parents did.  Even before Atlantic City legalized gambling, Ralph and Myrtle bought a cottage two blocks from the Atlantic in a tiny town named Avalon.  As a kid we spent at least a week or too there almost every summer.  And every summer, at every dinner we had a green tossed salad, and every time it had the same exact salad dressing.

Like most people of her generation she didn’t buy salad dressing she made it.  It was, as I would later learn, a pretty basic Vinaigrette with one distinct difference… a pretty substantial dose of celery salt.  She either measured all the ingredients every single time or made a 50 gallon batch every decade or so, because it never varied.. ever.  A few years ago, visiting my brother in Texas, I had it again.  It was exactly as I remembered it from at least a decade before.  She had given him the recipe, he followed it, and it was dead on.  Grandma Wilson made the same exact vinaigrette every time.  I, on the other hand, have never made the same dressing twice.

Vinaigrette needs 3 things vinegar, oil and salt.  I have 1936 edition of The Boston Cooking School Cookbook, originally written in1896 by one Fannie M. Farmer.  The very first entry in the salad dressing chapter is:

Basic French Dressing

  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/4 cup vinegar, red wine vinegar, lemon juice or half vinegar and half lemon juice

Place ingredients in small, covered bottle or glass jar.  Chill thoroughly.  Just before serving, shake vigorously 1 or 2 minutes.  Make up a larger amount and keep on hand to use in many ways, to marinate meat or vegetables as well as seasoning and salad dressing.

Well that pretty much sums it up in a nut shell.  I love old cook books; before people felt the need to have a “signature” recipe for even the basics. But thats another post….   Mrs.  Farmer then goes on to list about 50 different “Special French Dressings” including my favorite “Lakewood Dressing”, I googled this (in quotes) and according to the big G this is only the second time EVER that “Lakewood Dressing” has appeared on the internet.  That’s pretty crazy.

Back to vinaigrette… something sour, something salty, some fat, usually some thing sweet, herbs and spices, garlic, onion etc…  In my pantry I have 12 different vinegars, 4 different oils, 5 different sweeteners, 21 spices, 4 different salty things, and 5 different types of onions… by my math that is 100,800 possible variations.  Add just 10 different cheeses to the mix and you have a million possibilities…technically one million eight thousand but whose counting.

Here are a few to get you started:

  • olive oil, lemon juice, red wine vinegar, oregano, basil, shallot, mustard
  • balsamic vinegar, orange juice, olive oil basi
  • rice wine vinegar, ginger, honey, canola oil and a few drops of sesame oil
  • Port wine vinegar, blue cheese crumbles, sugar, canola

Follow the basic proportions written so many years ago and use your imagination.  Taste it before you put it on your salad and if it isn’t good just throw it out.  There is probably a bottle of ranch nearby.  In the mean time I’ll see if I can scare up Grandma’s recipe…  I know that one works.

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The grand experiment…

There is a grand experiment underway and we are the rats.

Today I attended a food show put on by my areas largest restaurant supply company, who shall remain nameless, to protect the (not so) innocent.  I was in search of disposable containers for my business and all the major manufacturers have booths there.  I’ve been to this particulal show many times in the past, but this year was different for me.

This company sells good things: meats, fish, vegetables, fruits, dairy.  Most years I’ve run around the show, trying to negotiate deals on these staples for whatever restaurant I was cheffing for at the time.  This year, with no shopping list and only a few booths that I needed to visit, I paid more attention to EVERYTHING that was available for sale, and it scared me.  Every other vendor was frying something.  There must have been, literally, 20 different purveyors of breaded chicken; premade everything, from innocuous healthy sounding things like vegetable soup to the truly bizarre like “deep fried cheese shooters”?!?!?  Unfortunately that vegetable soup had 37 ingredients… and only eight were vegetables.  Look at the can of soup in you cupboard to see some of the other 29.

Think about the 10 restaurants nearest to your house, how many are chains?  How many things on their menus do you think they prepare in the building from scratch?  Guess again.  Chains survive by consistency; consistency is not achieved by well-trained prep cooks faithfully following recipes.  It is achieved by automation and centralized production.  To make their products consistent, shippable and shelf stable they use the same ingredients that are in the frozen dinners you have in your freezer.  Ingredients you can’t buy on any aisle in the grocery store.

Ingredients that your great-grand parents NEVER ate, your grandparents ate only towards the end of their lives,  your parents ate only after they had you, that you ate rarely as a kid but often now, and that your kids have eaten since they started on solid food. (I belong to GenX so adjust that timeline accordingly)  As humans, we have been eating meat and vegetables for thousands and thousands of years.  How long have we been eating disodium guanylate?

What do the long term studies tell us about the safety of “food additives”?  Hard to say, because there aren’t any.  Prepackaged, preservative filled food is a modern invention, as is the consistent consumption of restaurant food.  Our children will be the first generation whose primary diet is prepared outside of their homes, by strangers, using ingredients they can’t spell.

Preliminary results are not promising… epidemic child obesity, diabetes, food allergies.  It’s not looking good for us.

Perhaps it isn’t the food, maybe its video games.  Who knows, but personally I choose to eat a traditional diet.  For many of you this would be a difficult choice.  In today’s world there doesn’t seem to be enough time to do everything right; but is food, the fuel that you put into your body every day, the right place to cut corners and save time?  My solution:  less time on the hamster wheel more time in the kitchen.

This weekend try this 13 ingredient Vegetable soup recipe by Alton Brown (8 of them are vegatbles)

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Its always Thanksgiving in India

10 years ago almost no one I knew had even heard of Garam Masala… fast forward to present… they sell it at Wal-Mart. Like blackening seasoning or BBQ sauce, there is no real consensus on exactly what is in Garam Masala. This blend of spices from India is an important part of many curries but can be used in sweet dishes as well. I’ll bet if you looked at 100 recipes you wouldn’t find 2 that were exactly the same. You will see that they all have a few things in common: cinnamon, cloves, bay leaves, nutmeg, mace and a whole slew of seeds (cardamom, mustard, coriander, caraway, fennel, etc…).

You used to have two choices if you wanted to try this delicious blend: the mystery reddish powder in the Wal-Mart jar, which no doubt is heavy on the cinnamon and light on all the expensive spices, or buy individual jars of all the different seeds and spices, mix them, toast them and grind them. The second option produced a much better result but was expensive and inconvenient. In the last few years a few different bulk spice stores have opened in Colorado Springs and they all offer a new option: premixed “whole” Garam Masala. By the way, if Colorado Springs has a spice store there is one near you. The only things that get here first are new chain restaurant concepts. You do still have to toast it and grind it yourself, but it only takes 10 minutes and your house will smell delicious for days. And… it will save you from having to buy a lifetime supply of mace and trust me one jar of mace is a lifetime supply.

Enough already… “what’s it taste like?”
Chicken…oh wait that was last post. It tastes unique, different, like something you’ve never had but that reminds you of a lot of different things. Many people tell me it reminds them of Thanksgiving, I think that is because Americans only cook from scratch and use spices twice a year: Thanksgiving and Christmas. The cinnamon and nutmeg taste like pumpkin pie and eggnog. But if it will convince you to try it, I’ll play along.

 Tonight’s comfort food remake: Butternut squash soup with Garam Masala and yogurt. I’ll post a recipe with tested proportions but squash soups are all incredibly easy. Sautee an onion in some fat, I’m using light olive oil. Peel and cube a squash. Add the squash to the pot add enough stock to cover (more stock thinner soup, less stock thicker soup), I used chicken. Cook until the squash is soft, puree in blender, add some cream or half and half if you like, today I didn’t but if it was having company for dinner I probably would. Season with your freshly ground Garam Masala, start with a little, stir, taste then add a little more. Don’t forget to salt and pepper it. I garnished it with toasted pumpkin seeds from Whole Foods and a dollop of Greek yogurt sweetened with a little honey.

 For you advanced beginners out there, here’s a picture of a great presentation idea you could use. All told almost no fat, lots of squashy goodness and it will warm up your taste buds for the Holidays to come.
One last thing, be very careful blending hot soup in your blender. Do it in very small batches, hold the lid on with a towel using lots of force and pulse it a couple time first. If you just flip it on the air in the blender expands superfast resulting in burns and butternut soup on your ceiling. The easiest and safest way is to use one of those wand blenders right in the pot.  Enjoy

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Tastes like chicken…

So close to the official launch of that I can taste it.  And it tastes like chicken, or rabbit, or rattlesnake, or frog legs, or alligator, or turtle, or finger,  or something else that they say says tastes like chicken. You know what chicken tastes like?… whatever sauce or marinade has been put on it.   Now chicken skin… that tastes like delicious, crispy evilness.

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Of Mangos and Men

True Story: this evening while shopping for my dinner I overheard a young soldier ask the woman next to him “What should I be looking for in a mango?”  This being Colorado Springs, he might as well have asked the floor, and, not surprisingly, she gave him a “beats me” kind of shrug.  Being a former Boy Scout and a personable chef it was my duty to assist him.  I introduced myself, gave him a card and helped him pick a ripe one.  In retrospect I probably should have told him how to cut it up; which is definitely trickier than buying one.  Mark, if you are reading this, check out this link from “the National Mango Board”???  , who knew there was a National Mango Board???.  It will be helpful.

A few minutes later he approached me again and asked me for some ideas to change up his chicken soup.  Honestly, this surprised me a bit.  It has been so many years since I looked at a soup recipe that nothing immediately popped into my head.  I started in on the basics…onions, celery, carrots; sautéed until soft, stock (he won’t use bouillon) but he already knew all this.  I suggested a dollop of Greek yogurt but that was ruled out by dietary needs.  I think I only gave him 2 decent suggestions: first, thyme; he had never used that before (I hope he doesn’t use too much), and second, a splash of red wine vinegar at the end to brighten the flavor (again, not too much.)

To me soup is a living entity. I never know what it will be until it is done and I can never hope to make the same one again.  It begins with a mood, is changed by the market, and finds its special place in the world from the stuff hanging out in my cupboards and refrigerator.  Wow… I sound like a hippie.  My fellow chef James Davis reminded me of a recipe for Lime Tortilla Soup that I wrote for the Blue Star cookbook.  Apparently, it is a bit difficult.  I wrote it at a time when I had not yet grasped that food is simple, and that soup is just soup.

So here is how I make chicken soup these days.  Roast a chicken or buy a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store.  Pull all the meat and skin off the chicken.  Put the bones in a big pot with a couple of onions, a couple of carrots, some celery, a bay leaf and a couple of peppercorns.  Simmer this for a few hours, strain, save the liquid, toss the solids (do you eat the teabag?).  Sautee another onion, a few more carrots and a bit more celery until everything is soft.  Splash a bit of white wine in the pan and let it evaporate for a minute.  Add the stock and some dried herbs (your choice) and let it simmer for at least ½ an hour.  Bring to a boil and add some pasta, just before the pasta is cooked add the chicken meat.  Season with salt and pepper and maybe a splash of something sour… vinegar, yogurt, lemon juice…

Mark, sorry I wasn’t more help in the store, but you are on the right track… add something different to every soup you make from here on out… If it sucks: don’t use it again, toss the soup, and order take-out.  Seriously, it is just soup.

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Don’t call it a comeback…

With due credit given to Mr. LL Cool J, it would seem that Brussels Sprout are, in fact, making a comeback.  I can honestly say, I NEVER saw them on a menu between 1995 and 2005 (that’s when I stopped paying attention to what the cool chefs were cooking).  I certainly never put them on any of my menus.  I’ll even admit that I … ummm… don’t really like them, and on this I hardly think I’m alone.  However, the last two times I’ve eaten at “fancy” restaurants (one in Denver, CO and one in Portsmouth, NH) they have been on the menu.

When I eat out, I order things that I can’t make (due to ingredient availability) or, have never even thought of, e.g. any recipe involving the aforementioned sprouts.  So I tried them… in both cases the chef “hid” them.  In one case they were shredded before cooking, and in the other the leaves were carefully separated from the “head”.  By the way, I feel really bad for the poor prep cook who spends all day separating the leaves of Brussels sprouts.  But… both times, I liked them; much more than the last time I had them (around 1991 when I went off to college).  So I put them on my list of things to start experimenting with.

Fast forward to today…

My mom is a great cook, but like most of you she follows recipes, in her case to the T.  She will try anything once; but if after carefully following the recipe, she doesn’t like it… out it goes, to never be tried, or tinkered with, again.  OK, that is a bit of an exaggeration, and I know she’s going to read this, but you “I follow recipes” folks know who you are.  It surprised me then when today she sent me an original… “Braised Brussels sprouts with onions and red grapes”… something she “made up”. 

It instinctively made sense to me.  Brussels sprouts are bitter, grapes are sweet.  Bittersweet… that sounds like a great idea, add some bacon for salt and some white wine for sour and we may be on to something.   So with only an idea, as opposed to a photo copy of a recipe or a link, I set off to make this work.  First problem: finding Brussels sprouts.  Having never really looked, I was surprised that after going to two stores, I had to call four more before I found fresh ones.  My mother finds them in her garden.

You may have noticed (if you are one of my four dedicated followers (including my mom)) that I don’t post my own recipes.  That’s because I don’t have any idea of what really goes into them.  I post links from respectable sites because those recipes have, presumably, been tested for accuracy.  But in honor of my mother getting out of her box and cooking without a recipe, I will get out of mine and write one.

So without further ado…

Braised Brussels sprouts with red grapes

–          2  slices smoky bacon cut into small pieces

–          2 shallots sliced thinly

–          3 cups fresh Brussels sprouts (I quartered them, but feel free to peel them or shred them if you need to hide them from your family)

–          1 clove of garlic minced

–          ½ cup white wine

–          1 cup of red seedless grapes, halved

–          1 cup of chicken broth (boxed is fine by me)

–          Salt and Pepper to taste (yes you still have to taste)

In a large sauté pan, over medium heat cook the bacon until almost crispy.  Add the sliced shallot and cook for 2 minutes.  Add the quartered Brussels sprouts and garlic and continue to cook for 2 or 3 minutes.  Add the grapes and the white wine.  Cook for about 5 minute until most of the liquid is gone.  Add the chicken stock.  Return to a boil turn heat to low, cover and simmer until most of the liquid is absorbed and the sprout stems are tender, around 20 minutes.  Taste, season, taste again, season again, repeat if necessary, enjoy.

“So… Mr. Cool J would it be OK if I called NCIS Los Angeles a comeback?”

“Ok then… I won’t.”

“Yes Mr. Cool J.  I do understand that they only had small shirts in that style.”

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