31 October 2009

A tale of weal and woe.

As this is October, the month of Hallowe'en, I feel it is only appropriate for me to tell a scary story. This is a tale of weal and a tale of woe. And ultimately, it is a tale of poor planning and bad results. I am solely to blame. I will carry the guilt of my choice for the rest of my life.

We are traveling across California for vacation. We've visited some really beautiful and fantastic places. Sequoia National Forest.



And we've had some good meals. And even some memorable meals. But this is not that happy meal story.

Family vacations are often a tale of negotiation and compromise. I wanted to visit Santa Barbara, and sample the fabulous wines. My wife wanted to visit Sequoia National Forest. The little one loves sea critters, so wanted to visit the Monterey Aquarium. Fitting these in requires a bit of planning, and a lot of driving.

Big Sur

After a long day drive from Monterey to Santa Maria (at the gateway to wine country), we were tired. We'd been in and out of the car all day, and seen some spectacular sights along the coast. We'd made reservations, via Priceline, at the very cute, extremely old, and slightly rundown hotel, the Santa Maria Inn. It's the perfect setting for a ghost story.

Santa Maria Inn claims to have had all kinds of famous guests. Gregory Peck. Clark Gable. Jack Lemmon. Walter Matthau. You'll notice, of course, that they are all dead. Curious...

Well, as I said, we were tired. Exhausted even. So we decided we would eat in the hotel restaurant. The dreaded "Garden Room". I quote from their brochure:
Embraced by a crackling fire and a casual, yet elegant atmosphere, our guests enjoy true personal service and fresh, imaginative California Cuisine.
Hmmm. We should have noticed the warning signs: The maitre d' in a cheap suit. The monogrammed plates, bowls and glasses at every table setting. The smell of 40 years of stale cigar smoke.

We nearly escaped. We sat at the table, looking over the boring, standard menu for nearly ten minutes before a waiter even looked at us. I glanced over at my wife and said, "If we wait 2 more minutes, I want to leave. This is ridiculous." If only. One minute after that statement an annoyed-looking waiter graced us with his presence. "Would you like something to drink?"

We were ready to order. Everything. And we did, a glass of pinot noir for me, a glass of cabernet for my wife and a glass of milk for the little one. The milk would prove to be the only good choice. Chicken tortilla soup for my wife. A caesar salad with "seasoned" tri-tip steak for me. And a cheeseburger and fries for my son. These are simple things. Hard to screw up. You almost have to try to screw them up...

The wine that arrived was not good (this is in wine country, mind you). It had clearly been open for a few days, and had that lovely oxidized flavor. The milk seemed to go down well. The soup? Simply appalling. It was CostCo brand spaghetti sauce with cheese and stale chicken in it. Not even any seasoning. Yuck. The caesar salad - well, the lettuce wasn't rotten, and the Kraft dressing they drenched on there was of a quality to be expected from Kraft. The seasoned tri-tip? Neither seasoned, nor tri-tip. Indeed, it had been cooked and cooked again, based on the dryness of it. The cheeseburger? Thankfully my son didn't notice that it was a pre-cooked burger that had been microwaved for him. Gross.

Towards the end of the meal, the waiter handed us a comment card and asked us to fill it out. But where to start? "Dear sir/madam: Please steam clean the drapes and carpet. Wash the walls. Throw out the menu. Hire a cook. Just start over. Sincerely, your customers."

Now this isn't the worst meal of my life. I've had worse. But at $52.00 for the meal, this was without a doubt the worst meal, dollar for dollar, that I've ever sat near, much less eaten.

When you see the warning signs, flee. Don't ask questions. Don't look back. Just run, and don't even think about who you're leaving behind. Leave your family behind. (This is a horror story, remember, there's only ever one survivor in those stories). There will be plenty of time to mourn them later...

29 October 2009

Bbq brisket


Brisket day is my favourite day (and incidentally, my wife's favourite meal). I get up early (around 6 a.m.). Start the fire, rub the beef, and then tend the fire all day. I know I won't be going in to work, or leaving the house, so I have time to read, relax and have a nice relaxing drink. I love brisket day.

I prefer to do as large a brisket as I can, because the time it takes to properly get the collagen in brisket to break down will dry out a smaller brisket. I aim for a 12-14 lb brisket.

This is my go-to brisket recipe, discovered on bbq.about.com. I've been doing it this way for a few years.

Rub the meat with:
5 tablespoons paprika
2 ½ tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons garlic powder
2 tablespoons onion powder
4 teaspoons black pepper
4 teaspoons dried parsley
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon dried oregano
¼ teaspoon hot chili powder
Heat the smoker to 220°F. Toss the brisket in the smoker, fat side up. Meanwhile, wet some chunks of mesquite wood.

The real skill with brisket is holding the temperature of the fire. Keep the smoker at 200-220°F through a combination of charcoal and wet mesquite fragments. Aim for 11 hours for a 12 lb brisket. Turn once during the cook to turn it so the other side is facing the fire. It's done when you can no longer pick up the brisket using a bbq fork (i.e. the meat starts to pull apart). Brisket is the easiest and hardest thing to cook. You don't have to do much, except control the heat. But don't undercook it, or it won't fall apart properly. And don't overcook it, cause you'll have a brisket biscuit.


Let rest for 20 minutes before slicing against the grain. Serve with a nice, homemade barbecue sauce (on the side), a nice homemade bread, and some vegetables. Delicious.

Served with:


27 October 2009

Chocolate bourbon cake

Last Christmas, I thought I had decided that I would make a pie for our Christmas Day dinner. And then I found this recipe for bourbon chocolate cake. How could I resist? It has chocolate. And bourbon. And chocolate! Don't serve this to kids. The bourbon is *powerful*. But it blends well with the chocolate.

2 sticks (8 oz.) unsalted butter, softened, plus more for the pan
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the pan
5 oz. unsweetened chocolate
¼ cup instant espresso powder
2 Tbsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup bourbon, rye, or other whiskey, plus more for sprinkling
½ tsp. kosher salt
2 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. baking soda
Confectioners’ sugar, for garnish (optional)
Gently melt the chocolate in a double boiler. Cool.

Preheat your oven at 325°F. Grease a 10 cup bundt pan. Then sprinkle flour into the pan. Then rub it with more butter. Then sprinkle in more flour and dust out all the loose flour into the sink.

Put the cocoa and espresso powder into a measuring cup, and pour boiling water in until you get a total of 1 cup of the liquid/powder mix. Stir until dissolved. Top up to a cup and cool. Pour 1 cup of your favourite bourbon in.

bourbon and coffee

Meanwhile, cream the butter in a mixer until light and fluffy.

creamed butter

Beat in the sugar. Then the eggs, one at a time. Beat the eggs until completely mixed in before adding the next egg. Beat in the vanilla and baking powder and chocolate, blending well after each addition.

chocolate batter

Beat in 1/3 the bourbon/coffee/cocoa mixture. Then beat in half the flour. Then 1/3 of the bourbon mix. Then the rest of the flour. Then the last of the bourbon mix. Got it? Pour this delicious, vaporous batter into the cake pan.

Bake for an hour and ten minutes to an hour and thirty-five minutes. To test if it's done, stick a toothpick in it, if it comes out clean, it's done.

Pull the cake out and cool it on a cooling tray. The first time I prepared this cake, I removed the cake from the pan rather too rapidly and ended with a blast of alcohol vapor to the face. It was a little bit exciting. But really, let the cake rest for 20 minutes on the counter, then remove it from the pan, and let it cool.


Dust with confectioner's sugar before cutting and serving.


This cake is rich, bourbony and delicious. And it would be *great* served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

22 October 2009

Grilled scallops

Grilled scallops

Okay, so you've just driven for 5 hours through awful southern California traffic. You're exhausted, but you want a nice, Sunday-evening dinner. How about grilled scallops?

Heat up your grill as hot as you can. Really, really hot. Pat the scallops dry, and brush with olive oil. Grill the scallops on each side for 4 ½ minutes. Serve with lime-fish sauce, sautéed gailan and steamed rice. Light. Fast. And delicious.

20 October 2009

Santa Ynez Wine Tastings

Wine with bbq? Hell, yes. And living in California, wine is abundant and inexpensive. We took a quick trip to the Santa Barbara wine region a few weeks ago, and had a fantastic time sampling the local wines.

Wine country

The Santa Barbara wine region was made famous in the movie Sideways a few years ago, and most online resources focus on doing the same tour as done in the movie. We weren't really interested in visiting famous wineries as we were in visiting excellent wineries. We stayed in Santa Maria, an hour north of Santa Barbara, and explored the Santa Ynez wineries from there. I'll point out a few of our favourites. Most places charge $10-20 per person to taste 4-6 wines, and most of them give you a wine glass. Some of the glasses are even nice (though not all, See Parker, Fess).


Firestone. This was our favourite inexpensive winery. Several solid, good tasting wines, for a decent price. We visited Firestone on the same day we went to Fess Parker, which was much more disappointing. Fess Parker is a famous large production winery. Their cute little glasses that come with the tasting have a little etching on them that looks rather like a turd (but apparently is supposed to be a beaverskin cap). Anyway, Fess Parker sells solid wines at exotic prices. Hit Firestone instead, for good, inexpensive wine.


Foxen was one of our favourites. They had many wines we liked, including a fortified dessert wine (called Mission Accomplished). Simple grounds, with two different buildings for tastings, their staff was super-friendly, and gave our two-year old a temporary tattoo which he talked about for the next 2 days.


Bridlewood certainly had the nicest grounds. When you drive into the vineyard, you drive under a canopy of trees that makes you feel like you're in New England, not in the deserts of southern California. Nice touch. The wines here were very good, particularly their syrahs. I could have happily taken several of their syrahs home with us.

Zaca Mesa

Zaca Mesa was good fun as well. They had an enormous chessboard out front (with pieces the size of my son), which provided 20 minutes of good fun for us. The wines here were really innovative and fun, using several types of grapes we'd never heard of before. Roussanne? What's a Roussanne?

Kenneth Volk

And finally, our absolute favourite, Kenneth Volk. The photo at the top was taken in the back of his tasting room. Every wine we tried here was interesting and tasty on several levels. They were complex and delicious, with long and interesting finishes. And we tried a *lot* of different wines here. We were so enthralled, that for the first time, we joined a wine club and look forward to receiving many more of their wines. Tasty, complex and delicious. These were world-class wines.

We'll be visiting this area again.

15 October 2009


What do you put beside a lovely slab of meat? My good friend Dr. Ricky introduced me to a fabulous way to prepare greens for dinner. You start with a green. For example, kale. Or cabbage. Or gailan (a.k.a. Chinese broccoli), available at your local Asian grocer.

Chopped gailan

Chop it up to separate the stems from the leaves. Gailan is a pretty sturdy green, and will need some serious treatment to make it delicious. Melt some:
duck fat
in a sauté pan with a tight-fitting lid over medium-high heat. Toss in the stems and sauté for a few minutes until they start to soften. Toss in the leaves.

Sauteeing gailan

Toss in the duck fat, and sauté for a few minutes. Put the lid on to trap the steam, and steam the gailan in the duck fat for a few more minutes. They're done when they've softened to the point that they're chewable, but not mushy.

Cooked gailan

Toss with a bit of kosher salt and serve hot. I generally don't even start this dish until everything else is done because it's so fast. It's rich, slightly bitter and the duck fat and smooth it and make it a spectacular side. And gailan is substantial enough that it even holds up as a leftover (unlike so many lesser greens). Great stuff.

13 October 2009

Butter-poached lobster

Soon to be dinner

So, rumor on the street is that the lobster fisherman are suffering. Prices are down, both due to people cutting back on luxuries, but also to a surplus of supply (lobster fisheries are one of the few fisheries that are actually doing really, really well). So that translates into an enormous drop in lobster prices. The last few weeks, lobster has been selling for $6 a pound at 99 Ranch in San Diego.

So I *love* lobster. Boiled lobster and lobster bisque in particular. But I recently read about butter-poached lobster over at Michael Ruhlman's blog and in The French Laundry Cookbook. So of course, I had to try it. Well, the lobsters at 99 Ranch are enormous, so I purchased one 5-lb live lobster for my wife, my 3 ½ year old and me.

We start with a crazy-huge pot o' boiling water, a crazy huge empty pot with lobster in it, and a decent sized pot with ice-water in it.

Last home for the lobster

Pour the boiling water on top of that enormous live lobster. Don't worry, it's a quick death.

A quick end

Put it on the stove, and boil for 4 minutes (for a 5-lb lobster, shorter for a smaller one). I wrestled that enormous lobster out of the pot (this was the second-biggest challenge of this meal). A 5-lb lobster is really, really big.

Tear the claws off, and toss them back in the water for 3 more minutes.

Cooked and de-clawed lobster

Put the body and tail into the ice water to cool off.

Stop the cooking in ice

Toss the claws in there when they're done. You want to halt the cooking. Once cooled, pull out the meat. If you keep it in the shape it's in, it'll be prettier. It's not necessary, but it is pretty cool to serve lobster that hasn't been overly handled.

Tearing off the tail

So, I'm going to spare you, dear reader, from the photos I have of tearing apart a 5-lb lobster. The tail was no problem, but as it happens, the claw shells are significantly thicker in a 5-lb lobster. Let's just say I pulled tools out of the garage to get this thing open. We'll leave it at that, yes we will...

Now, you have all the lobster meat out of the claws, the tail, the knuckles. If you want (I want!), dump the green stuff out of the lobster shells and save the shells for making a stock later. It's easy to freeze them now and make a stock later.

Now start the butter sauce. You'll need:
1 oz water
1 lb butter, chopped into smallish chunks
Heat the water and one chunk of butter in a thick bottomed saucepan over low heat. I use my million-year old Le Creuset saucepan my mom got at a garage sale for a few bucks. Stir constantly to emulsify the butter in the water.

Beurre monte

As the chunk melts and emulsifies, add another chunk. Repeat with each chunk until you have no butter left, this will take 10ish minutes.

Beurre monte

Stir. Stir. Stir. When all of the butter is emulsified in there, warm it to 150°F. Drop the lobster meat in there.

Poaching lobster in butter

The nice thing about poaching shellfish in butter at this temperature is that it's pretty challenging to overcook it. Aim for 10 minutes in the butter, but if you have to hold it in there longer (up to 20 minutes total) while you finish the sides, that's okay. Serve garnished with chives, and drizzled with the butter sauce.

Poached lobster in butter

This lobster was perfectly cooked, delicious and the creamy sauce was really super. I love lobster, and this is maybe the best way I've ever had it served.

What REALLY surprised me, was that this 5-lb lobster was too much for the 3 of us. I was sad to have leftovers, because I was certain the leftovers would be disappointing. But this leftover butter-poached lobster was the best lunch I have ever taken to work.

Delish. Served with a delightful pinot noir:


12 October 2009

Smoked apple crisp


I recently joined the Outdoor Cooking Guild, and the first challenge was to use apples on the grill. I just returned from a weeklong vacation, so had to put something together rather quickly (I confess, I returned from the vacation a bit tired - aren't we supposed to be well-rested after a vacation?). Anyway, what's easier than a nice crisp?

I started making the crisp topping before grilling main course:
¾ cup rolled oats
¾ cup brown sugar
a touch less than ½ cup butter
¼ tsp cinnamon
Mix the dry ingredients.

crisp topping

Cut the butter into the dry ingredients and set aside.

Meanwhile, peel, seed and chop 3 apples into small chunks. Fire up the grill, aiming for around 375°F.

peeled apples

Toss the apples with:
2 tsp fresh lemon juice
¼ tsp vanilla
Immediately prior to putting on the grill, pour the topping over the apples.

assembled crisp

Put on indirect heat, toss a few wet chunks of hickory onto the fire, close the grill and smoke for 10-15 minutes, or until the sugar is nicely caramelized and is bubbling nicely.

smoking crisp

Serve with a dollop of vanilla ice cream, or by itself. Fast. Easy. Simple. Delicious.

serving the crisp

11 October 2009

Gourmet is dead. Long live gourmet!

A few months ago, I fired Gourmet magazine. While I was on vacation last week, they sent me this letter:
Dear Bbq Dude,

You've got the insider's knack for knowing where to go. What to order. Where to shop, stay and dine the world over. How to re-create top chefs' best dishes in your own home.

Or at least you did... until your GOURMET subscription expired recently.

Wait, I used to be cool because I subscribed to Gourmet? And now I'm not cool, so I should subscribe to be cool again? Really? I remember what it was like to be 14. It wasn't that much fun the first time around, and I'm rather surprised that a food magazine is trying to get me to relive that era of pimples and insecurity.

And, as it happens, turns out that I'm ahead of the curve. I'm a trendsetter. Condé Nast closed Gourmet magazine. While most news agencies have treated the death of Gourmet as a huge blow to quality food-writing, I, for one, greet the news with more relief than sorrow. Gourmet was already dead. Condé Nast just finally pulled the plug.

08 October 2009

Flaky scones

Two years ago we took a vacation outside of Québec City in Canada. We stayed in a lovely little condo with our very good friends from Baltimore. Although our plan was to split the cooking, they did almost all of it. Who can complain? She's a great cook. One morning, I came up the stairs, and these beautiful scones were coming out of the oven. How could this not become part of our repertoire?

This recipe comes from The Bread Bible, my favourite bread book:
1 cup unsalted butter, cold
4 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup sugar
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup currants
Chop up the butter into chunks and freeze for 10-15 minutes. You want them to be firm, but not rock hard. Meanwhile, put a pizza stone into your oven, and fire up the oven to 400°F. Sift the dry ingredients together, then crush the frozen butter into lumps into the dry ingredients. I use my hands, and flatten the butter into the butter into little pancakes that are as thin as I can get them without warming them up with my fingers.

Butter flour mix

Add the cream, mix until all ingredients are wet. Then mix in the currants, or, if you have no currants available, try chopped dried cranberries or dried blueberries (blueberries are crazy expensive, though).




Dump the dough onto a dry, floured surface, and flatten into a roughly 10 x 12 inch rectangle with a rolling pin.

Flattened dough

Fold in half.

Folding dough

And roll again.

Rolling dough

What you're trying to do is create multiple layers here. Each time you fold over and roll it, you're doubling the layers.

Folding dough

Repeat the folding and rolling multiple times. The book calls for 3 times, I do it more like 8. But the critical part is that the dough not warm up. It needs to be cold, and the butter needs to not melt. Roll out one final time, and cut the dough lengthwise down the middle.

Cutting scones

Divide each half into triangles, and transfer to a *non-greased* cookie sheet. If you grease it, it'll spread when you cook it. There's enough butter in there, it won't stick. For frack sake, don't butter the cookie sheet.

Cut scones

Toss it into the oven on the pre-heated pizza stone. Bake the scones 15 - 20 minutes, until they've browned slightly around the edges.

Baked scones

Pull out of the oven, and serve. The recipe I have calls for cooling, etc, but really, these things smell good, they taste good, and when you tear them apart screaming hot, they are DELICIOUS. (It's really hard to go wrong with butter and cream). They flake apart, and look at those layers coming apart in that photo. Tasty. This is one of my favourite breakfasts. Serve with chai.