Thursday, August 22, 2013

Something From Nothing #15: Crispy Cocktail Crackers

You just might find this hard to believe, but I have the reputation of being, uh, shall we say, "thrifty". I'm not the least bit embarrassed by this.  I'm actually pretty proud of that fact, because this is why I can usually find a way to make something pretty good from not much of anything at all.

Fact is, you really don't need to spend much to make something delicious.  I hope that my Something From Nothing series proves that point and even helps you out when you find yourself in a culinary pinch. I've made main courses, breads, and desserts that hopefully don't cost you much money or an extra trip to the store.

Today's recipe is no exception.  This easy little cracker recipe is the answer if you ever need something to nibble on with drinks or just an extra little something to accompany a soup or salad.

True to this series, you can make these plain with just a couple of ingredients or throw in any spices, herbs, seeds or cheese that you might have on hand. If you are out to impress, this super simple little recipe is going to do the trick.  Just wait until you see the reaction when you tell everyone that you made these.

Rosemary and Seeded Crackers

Crispy Cocktail Crackers

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting rolling surface
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons vegetable or extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup water
Kosher salt for topping (optional)
Herbs, spices or seeds (suggestions follow)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Place flour and salt in a medium size bowl and stir well to combine.  Add oil and water and stir to make a soft dough.  Add a small amount of water at a time if dough seems dry and crumbly.  Divide into thirds.  Cover with plastic.

Dust rolling surface liberally with flour.  Take one piece of the dough and form it into a square.  Place it on floured surface and roll into a rectangle that is about 1/16" thick.  It should measure about 8" x 12".  With a knife or pizza cutter, cut into pieces measuring about 2" x 4".  I tried cutting mine into triangles and the tips seemed to burn before the wider parts were cooked, so I advise sticking with rectangles or squares for more even cooking.

Place dough on a non-stick cookie sheet, sprinkle lightly with kosher salt if desired and bake on the lowest rack in your oven for 5 - 10 minutes.  Cooking times will vary depending on how thick you roll your dough, so watch the first batch very carefully so you can better estimate your cooking times. Bake until crackers puff in places and they are a light brown.  Cool.

Repeat with remaining dough one third at a time.

Rolled thin and sprinkled with seeds, these crackers are now ready for the oven.

Serving suggestions:

For seeded crackers:  Mix 1 tablespoon sesame seeds, 2 teaspoons poppy seeds and 2 teaspoons fennel seeds together.  Just before baking, brush cracker dough lightly with water.  Sprinkle seeds evenly over the dough before baking.  Bake as directed.

Flavored crackers:  Mix flavors such as fresh rosemary, cracked black peppercorns, Parmesan cheese or dried herb blends (I like herbs de Provence and Italian seasoning) to taste into the dry ingredients before adding the liquid.  Roll out and cook as directed above.

Makes about 3 dozen medium size crackers

Sunday, August 18, 2013

It's Hatch Chile Time: Green Chile, Cheese and Onion Dip

I had planned to slip my next Something From Nothing post into this slot, but then an emergency happened, so that post will have to wait just a couple more days.  The emergency I'm speaking of came in the form of a large drum of Hatch chiles roasting outside my local Whole Foods. How the heck did it get to be Hatch chile time? Seems like it was just the end of school and then the 4th of July and now wham-o, it is almost September.

This kind of threw me into a mild panic because as much as I love late summer's Hatch chiles, I love mid summer more, and Hatch chiles mean fall is coming.  I think one reason I get so excited about them is that our fresh produce season is so short, so when good, fresh things show up in the produce section, I celebrate it.

If you're not quite sure what the big hullabaloo is all about, Hatch chiles are peppers that are grown in New Mexico's Hatch Valley which stretches north and south along the Rio Grande River.  The soil and growing conditions in this area contribute greatly to the consistent and desirable flavor of these chiles which range in heat from mild to quite hot.

So, OK, I'll get a grip on myself and come to terms with the fact that fall is around the corner.  That means that I have lots of good summer recipes to blog about and not much time to do it, so I better get busy.

One of my favorite recipes that really combines some of the greatest things about this time of year is my favorite little green chile dip.  This dip is a harmonious combination of roasted Hatch chilies, Gilroy garlic, green onions, sharp cheddar cheese and cilantro, all stirred in a smooth and creamy sour cream mixture. We really love this stuff and I think you will too.  So grab a handful of chiles and get roasting!

Green Chile, Cheese and Onion Dip

2 medium size green chiles (Hatch, Anaheim or Fresno), approximately 4 ounces
3 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
2/3 cup sour cream
2 green onions, light and dark green parts thinly sliced across
1 small bunch cilantro, stems removed and finely chopped (about 1 packed tablespoon)
1 large garlic clove, crushed
1/4 teaspoon freshly squeezed lime juice
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin (I love toasting cumin seeds then crushing them)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese

Place chiles on the flame of a gas grill or gas burner on a stove. This can also be done by placing them on a non-stick pan under the broiler element of the oven.  Watching carefully, cook until the outside skin blisters and turns black, turning them to cook on all sides.

Remove and place hot chiles in a paper or plastic bag to steam for 5 minutes or so.  As soon as the charred skin becomes soft, remove the chiles from the bag and gently scrape off the skins with the edge of a knife.  Chop chiles; set aside.

Place cream cheese, mayonnaise and sour cream in a medium size bowl.  Add the chopped chiles, onions, cilantro, garlic, lime juice, cumin, salt and pepper; stir well.   Fold in cheese. Cover and refrigerate at least 30 minutes.

Serve with vegetables or chips.

Friday, August 16, 2013

What's Between the Buns: Diary of a Build a Better Burger Winner

I've had the great fortune to have participated in some pretty amazing cooking contest events.  When I started doing this almost 10 years ago there were some big contests out there with some big prizes. At the time there were two big contests with $100,000 prizes, National Chicken and Southern Living.

Unfortunately, two years after my one and only trip to the Southern Living event in 2006, it was permanently discontinued.  Then in 2009, it was announced that the National Chicken Cook-Off was being suspended indefinitely after 60 years and 48 cook-offs.  Many of us still mourn its demise.

The National Beef Cook-Off was also a big one back then with a cook-off trip and a $50,000 purse. Thankfully it is still in existence but with an abbreviated, convoluted trip structure of some sort, and only half of the prize money of the past.  I'm not complaining by any means, just reminiscing about the good old days.

When I was fortunate enough to have won the very first Ocean Spray Ultimate Recipe Contest in 2007, I took home a check for $25,000.  After just a couple of years they reduced the prize money and winners then received a check for $10,000.  Still not too shabby, but less than half of what it once was.  After not seeing anything about it in a couple of years, I fear this once exciting contest has gone by the wayside too.

Of all the contests that have come and gone, there is one that has only gotten bigger and better over the years, Sutter Home's Build a Better Burger.  Over the past few years the prize money in both the beef and alternate categories have increased from $10,000 to $15,000 for alternate and a very respectable increase from $50,000 to $100,000 for the beef.  I have tried my best for the better part of 15 years to get an invitation to compete, but it has eluded me every year.

In a few days the entry period for this year's BBB will be a mere memory.  Like thousands of others, my best burger recipe will be in the stack for Sutter Home's attention and approval.  Suffering from recipe rejection and burger exhaustion from years of entering, I am only working on one recipe this year, but it is a masterpiece according to the best taste tester ever, my dog Jack.  I can only hope that this will be my year.  Jack assures me that it is.

Last year my friend Erin Evenson competed and won this contest with her Seven Train Caramelized Green Curry Burgers with Crispy Watercress Salad, Roasted Cashews, and Minted Basil Aioli.  Looking for some sort of leg up on the competition, I recently asked her if she had any insight into what they might be looking for because it is apparent that I have no clue.

Erin let me in on her plan to publish a post about her BBB experience on her new blog, We Eat in Sound.  I'm so happy she wrote about it.  Her post is an informative and detailed account of her experience at this contest.  After reading it, I thought it would be fun to link up to her post and let my readers join in the burger fun and introduce you to her blog too.  So if you'd like to go behind the scenes of this great contest and see how Erin brought home the grand prize, please click here.  Thanks Erin for sharing your experience with us.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Grilled Romaine Salad with Pan Roasted Tomato Vinaigrette

One of the things I love about traveling is discovering new foods and recipes. My recent trip to California yielded more than just a nice contest win.  It also provided me with a recipe discovery that I am now addicted to.

This trip I finally had to break down and eat a grilled romaine salad.  I was starving, it was served to me, I ate it and loved it.   For some reason this dish never really appealed to me, so I've always taken a pass on it.  I've seen it on menus and on the internet, but I never really felt the desire to try one. I had no idea what I was missing.

If you love grilled salads and have been eating them for years, I have to ask you why you didn't tell me how good they are?  I thought we were friends!  Friends tell each other these things! So, if you have been passing on them too, I am here to tell you that while you have your grill fired up this summer, go ahead and throw a little romaine on there.  You can thank me later.

Grilled Romaine Salad with Pan Roasted Tomato Vinaigrette

Tomato Vinaigrette:
2 tablespoons light olive oil or vegetable oil
About a cup of grape tomatoes (16 or so), cut in half
1 small shallot, thinly sliced then chopped
1 large clove garlic, crushed
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon chopped fresh basil
1/4 teaspoon fresh thyme

Pour light olive or vegetable oil into a small non-stick frying pan over a medium high heat.  When the oil is hot add the tomatoes, turning them cut side down.  Cook for approximately 2 minutes or until they are beginning to soften and turn brown.

Add the shallot and stir.  Cook for an additional 2 minutes or until the shallot begins to soften.  Add the crushed garlic and cook for 1 minute longer, stirring frequently to keep the garlic from burning. Add the salt and pepper, stir well to coat and remove from the heat.

Immediately stir in the extra virgin olive oil, vinegar, mustard, water, basil and thyme.  Stir well and set aside to cool.  Dressing is best served at room temperature.

Grilled Romaine:
1 small - medium head of romaine lettuce
1-1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Salt and Pepper to taste

Preheat an outdoor grill to high or indoor grill pan to medium high.

Remove outside leaves from romaine, trim the root end of all brown discoloration and cut any brown or dry ends from the tops.  At this point you can either leave the lettuce whole or cut it in half lengthwise (if it is left whole it will be crisper after grilling).  Either way, drizzle the outsides with the oil. Spread oil evenly over the lettuce with a brush or your fingers.  Sprinkle exposed areas with salt and pepper.

Place lettuce on the preheated cooking surface.  Cook for 1 - 2 minutes. Turn and repeat every 1 - 2 minutes or until there are dark brown grill marks on all sides.  Remove and transfer to a serving plate.

If lettuce was left in tact to grill, cut in half at this point.  Top each half with half of the Pan Roasted Tomato Vinaigrette, and chopped bacon and Parmesan shavings if desired.  Serve immediately.

Serves 2

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Great Garlic Cook-Off 2013: Carnival-style Fish Sticks with Lemony Jalapeno Mayonnaise and Spicy Apple Kohlrabi Slaw

You might recall that this time last year I wrote about my trip to the Gilroy Garlic Festival and the Great Garlic Cook-Off.  You remember, the one where I was mistakenly awarded 2nd place and the garlic crown that goes with it, only to have it quickly revoked in front of hundreds of people. Yep, that one.  Well, believe it or not, I entered again this year in hopes of going back and bringing that 2nd place prize home.

Not only do I love Gilroy's location in the central part of California, but this cook-off, although not the biggest in the country, is quite prestigious in the contesting world because it is all about the food. No voting or or social media elements involved whatsoever.  Just great food with garlic, and as everyone knows, great food always contains garlic.  So when I was invited to compete for my third time, I couldn't have been happier.

As with every contest I have been involved in, I always feel like I have it in the bag until I get a glimpse at the competition. After looking over the other recipe names, I thought this year had some especially inventive and delicious sounding dishes with some pretty impressive competitors behind them.  I honestly figured I didn't have a snowball's chance in hell of winning anything, but what the heck.  I decided to go anyway and enjoy a weekend in a beautiful part of the country, eat some wonderful food and maybe have a cocktail or two with friends.

This year I competed with a recipe that I called Carnival-style Fish Sticks with Lemony Jalapeno Mayonnaise and Spicy Apple Kohlrabi Slaw.  In a nutshell it was cubes of super fresh halibut on the end of a wooden stick, deep fried in a light and crispy tempura batter, complemented by a creamy dipping sauce and a fresh coleslaw side.

The inspiration for the fish part of my dish came partially from a fish corn dog appetizer that I was served some months ago at a cooking school opening here in Denver, and partially from America's love of food on a stick. It seems like everyone is putting something on a stick these days, be it cake, pie or meatballs, everyone loves eating a "pop" of some sort. Up to this time I had avoided this trend, but I thought that this really captured Gilroy's festival spirit this time of year.

The number one rule of this cook-off is that all recipes must incorporate 6 cloves of garlic.  Last year, even though I did use the required amount of garlic, it lost a great deal of its flavor during the cooking process, which cost me points with the judges. Remembering that problem, I decided to really showcase the garlic this year and not cook it at all which presented me with another problem, I needed to add the remaining garlic to a dish with flavors that were strong enough to hold their own.  Enter the spicy coleslaw.

OK, everyone knows about coleslaw, so I figured I needed to make mine really different and exciting for this competition.  In addition to the usual cabbage, for my slaw I added lots of crispy sweet apple, minced onion and some pleasant, slightly radish/cabbage/turnip tasting kohlrabi.

This isn't the prettiest kohlrabi bulb I've ever seen, but you get the idea.

After playing around with a couple of flavor combinations, I decided to dress my slaw with a honey mustard type dressing.  To kick up the flavor of my dressing I then added the remaining 5 cloves of crushed garlic and a tablespoon of grated fresh horseradish.  It tastes kind of like a sweet and sour coleslaw with the volume turned all the way up. I loved it.

Spicy Apple Kohlrabi Slaw

OK, so there's my inspiration and recipe development process.  Now I had to come up with an eye catching name and clever presentation for my dish.  I always like to give my recipes a descriptive yet clever name that will catch the eye of the judges during the initial round.  I like for my titles to give them just a little information about the dish, but not too much so they want to take a closer look at what's going on.  Since any given contest could have hundreds, if not thousands of entries, something needs to help your recipe stand out to make that first cut. Your recipe will never have a second chance to make a first impression.

Never underestimate the power of presentation at cook-offs.  Some cook-offs only allow for you to present on a plain white plate, but if you have the option, doll it up.  Gilroy encourages you to be creative with your presentation.   This year I chose to play on my theme and served mine the way I thought it might be served in a festival setting starting with a large brown cardboard "boat" as my base.  I then lined that with a newspaper looking printed tissue that I bought from a local fish and chip shop.  I then used smaller individual containers inside to hold my fish sticks, slaw and mayo.  I later heard from one of the judges that this pushed my dish over the top.

Well, if you haven't guessed by now, I didn't win second this year as I had hoped, I won first.  Like I said before, I didn't think I had a chance against the other contestants, so when that first place crown was placed on my head I was more than surprised.  And the best part of all?  Well, in addition to the $5,000 dollar prize of course, the best part is that I got to keep that crown this year.

Even though it had a pretty rough trip home, my garlic crown has pride of place on my wall.

Interested in entering next year? The call for entries will take place sometime in September so it isn't too early to start thinking about your recipe.  To get an idea of the types of recipes they are looking for, click here to see some of the winning recipes from the past and read more about this festival.

Carnival Style “Fish Sticks” and Lemony Jalapeno Mayo with Spicy Apple Kohlrabi Slaw

Spicy Apple Kohlrabi Apple Slaw:
1/4 of a small head of green cabbage (about 12 ounces), shredded
1/6 of a small head of purple cabbage (about 8 ounces), shredded
1 medium size bulb of kohlrabi, peeled and julienne sliced
2 large apples, peeled and julienne sliced
1/4 of a small purple onion, finely diced

Slaw Dressing:
1 tablespoon grated fresh horseradish
5 cloves of garlic, grated
3 tablespoons stoneground mustard
3 tablespoons vegetable or light olive oil
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
3 tablespoons honey
1 – 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

Place the cabbages, kohlrabi, apples and onion in a large bowl and toss well; set aside.
For the dressing, place all of the ingredients in a small jar with a tight fitting lid and shake well.  Pour over the cabbage mixture and toss again.  Cover and refrigerate while the fish is prepared.

*If making this recipe more than an hour or so ahead, leave out the horseradish until right before serving as it gets stronger as it sits. 

Lemony Jalapeno Mayonnaise:
1 cup mayonnaise
1 clove garlic, grated
1 large jalapeno, finely diced (remove half or all of the seeds and membranes for a milder flavor)
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Carnival Style Fish Sticks:
1 – 1/2 pounds meaty white fish (such as halibut or cod)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 egg, beaten
1 cup ice water
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
12 wooden craft sticks or wooden skewers
Salt (optional)

Place fish on paper towels and gently press out all the moisture, making sure it is very dry; set aside.

Heat a deep fryer or deep frying pan filled with enough oil that it comes up at least 2” at the sides, to very hot.

While oil is heating, place flour, sugar, salt, egg ice water and vegetable oil in a bowl and mix well to combine.  Transfer to a tall, skinny container (such as a quart mason jar); set aside.

Cut the fish into 12 – 2 x 3” cubes (the thicker the better for cooking).  If using a wooden stick like I did, make a small pilot hole in the top middle of the fish with a small paring knife. The pilot hole should be much smaller than the stick so that it fits tightly. Push the stick or skewer in the middle of each piece of fish, stopping about an inch from the end. Holding the end of the stick, dip each piece of fish into the batter in a swirling motion, completely covering the top of the fish and just a bit of the stick.  Gently shake the excess batter from the fish before putting it directly into the hot oil.  Very carefully hold the stick just a moment to seal the batter so the fish sticks won’t stick together.  Drop fish sticks into the oil and cook until they are a golden brown being careful not to over cook.  Drain on paper towels.  Sprinkle with salt if desired.

Serve with Lemony Jalapeno Mayonnaise and Kohlrabi Apple Slaw.