Thursday, February 26, 2009

Standing in Line at Hot Doug's

Last weekend we were in Chicago for a wine conference. Now, if you know us, you know that everything we do is done in the context of food. Our day's schedule, our visits with friends and family, and especially our travel is all related to food. So of course it is no surprise that far in advance I began my research of the foodie world in Chicago so we would not miss out on a unique experience.

Did I say unique? You might have caught Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations show about Chicago. I did, and was intrigued by this little corner restaurant with the funny play-on-words name that offered French fries cooked in duck fat on Fridays and Saturdays. Oh, and this is a "sausage emporium" and offers every kind of sausage from foie gras to elk to traditional red hots. I just HAD to get there to try this popular Chicago eatery. Did I mention that there is always a line waiting to get in? See the expression on Bob's face. I guess I forgot to tell him.

It wouldn't have been a bad thing to stand outside for an hour waiting to get a hot dog and fries, but we're talking Chicago in February. Mother Nature was kind to us; it could have been colder. Actual temp was 20 degrees, snow, and 20+ mph winds...I figure the wind chill with the snow thrown in made it about 50 below. Did I mention that Chicago is known as the "windy city?"

For as long as we stood in line, the line never got shorter. The brick wall provided some relief from the wind, but I came to the conlusion that we were pretty much insane. At least we were in good company of other insane hot-dog-duck-fry starved people.

From time to time, the door would open, small groups of satiated diners would spill out, and then from the frozen masses in line there would be an audible inhalation of slightly warmer air laced with droplets of duck fat, our promise of warmth and salty, greasy deliciousness to come. Of course, I wasn't worried about the thousands of calories and grams of fat to come because I had shivered for at least 45 minutes. Doesn't that burn 137 calories a minute? (Well, something like that, I'm sure.)
The Legendary Duck Fries!

And this is why I almost sacrificed the little finger of my right hand to frost bite. (It was ivory and without feeling for at least 30 minutes while its companion digits were rosy.) Here, in this wonderful photo below, is a traditional Chicago Dog with Everything. Everything being caramelized onions, mustard, neon green relish, celery salt, sliced tomato, and a long pickle spear. The hot dog was my favorite part. The fries were good, but not good enough to stand in line for an hour for again. I'm glad I did it once, though.

And I'm sure that Anthony Bourdain was lying on a beach in some warm clime laughing at all his insane fans who risk life and limb to follow his lead. I think I'll draw the line, though, at some of the "nasty bits" he claims are so delicious.

Bon Appétit!
Chef Debbie

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

What's Your Beef? Deciphering those confusing labels!

Leslie Cole is my first guest blogger. When I read her blog on deciphering beef labels I was so impressed with her ability to make the beef marketing industry's efforts to sell us "healthier" beef easy to understand that I wanted to share this information with you. I emailed her for permission and she quickly and graciously agreed for her post to appear here on At The Table.

What's your Beef?
by Leslie Cole, The Oregonian
Tuesday February 17, 2009, 12:05 AM

Grass fed? Grain finished? Organic? Free-range? How do you know, and what does it mean?

When I read the press release, something didn't seem right: At a taste test conducted by Oregon State University, Portland elementary and middle school students compared hamburgers made from grass-fed beef and grain-fed beef. And there was no clear winner.

What? Two burgers, one from a grass-fed animal, the other -- perhaps more familiar to most kids -- from an animal fattened up on grain, and the kids didn't prefer one over the other? Maybe that's because they weren't really tasting grass-fed beef.

While the press release used the term grass-fed, it also talked about how the cattle ate grain for part of their lives. Seems the writer was a bit confused, as were the several news services that picked up the story and ran it without question. Does a muddle about a PR message really matter to anyone? Yes, indeed, because it's further evidence of the rampant confusion about so-called "green" food in the marketplace.

Plenty of consumers are looking for more healthful, responsibly raised beef and are willing to pay a premium for it, but they may not be buying what they think they're buying. Is it organic? Grass-fed? And do any of these "green" terms really mean that the cow led a happy life frolicking in a local farmer's field?

Thanks to confusing marketing terms, we might think we know, but often we don't. The problem is this: Most labels are vague or oversimplified, and the terms are widely misunderstood. Restaurant menus and well-meaning butchers consistently make mistakes, which doesn't help.

The confusion certainly isn't slowing the growth of this segment of the beef market -- the brands touting "healthy practices" are booming these days. While "healthy" beef still is only about 3 percent of total U.S. beef sold, it's growing in volume and value by about 30 percent a year, including in Oregon.

Witness Country Natural Beef (formerly known as Oregon Country Beef), which started in 1986 with 14 eastern Oregon ranches and now encompasses more than 100 cattle ranching members as far away as New Mexico, Hawaii and North Dakota. Premium "natural" meat brands such as California's Niman Ranch have been so successful that stores including Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe's and New Seasons now offer similar house brands, which use the term "natural" on their labels ... implying something, but what?

"I think it comes down to the consumer understanding what they're purchasing," says Gabrielle Homer, an executive for Painted Hills Natural Beef in Fossil. "We want them to get what they want."

So do we. School is in session.

LESSON NO. 1 All beef is grass-fed, but very little is true "grass-fed beef." That's because all cattle eat grass, at least for the first few months of life. But to call a steak "grass-fed" and comply with the American Grassfed Association and the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service's official definition, the animal must only eat mother's milk, grass or hay for its entire life. This takes more time, and more land, so relatively few folks are doing it.

By comparison, most U.S. mass-produced beef cattle leave the pasture by 6 months of age to live out their lives in a feed yard or feedlot, where they're fattened up quickly on high-calorie grain. So-called "naturally raised" beef is a hybrid: They spend more of their lives on the range, but at 14 months of age, they, too, head to a feedlot to eat grain for three to six months; this allows for more-marbled meat, producers say.

It's up to you to decide which you prefer, but here are three questions to ask if you want true grass-fed beef: Did the animal eat any grain? Was it 100 percent grass-fed? Was it grass-finished, or grain-finished (translation: What did it eat during those final months of fattening)?

LESSON NO. 2 Most grass-fed beef lives out its life on the range, but some goes to a feed yard (where it eats hay, not grain). "The thing people want when they get grass-fed beef is that bucolic cow on green grass," says Carrie Oliver, whose Oliver Ranch Web site ( is dedicated to preaching truths about artisan beef and steering shoppers to top producers. "(A feed yard) is not necessarily bad," Oliver says. "It's just not what people expect."

LESSON NO. 3 "Natural" means nothing. Love the idea of cattle romping in open pastures and munching on special, additive-free grains? "Natural" doesn't get you there. On food packaging, "natural" simply means the meat product contains no artificial ingredients, and that it was minimally processed. In other words, the steak wasn't pumped up with a sodium solution to make it more tender.

"Naturally raised," on the other hand, indicates a set of practices ranchers and beef companies have followed with their beef cattle. But exactly what it means depends on the brand.

"Right now the majority of claims on naturally raised animal products are defined by the individual company," says Billy Cox, spokesman for the USDA's agricultural marketing service. "It depends on the company what their definition of 'natural' is. That's confused a lot of people in the marketplace."

Under most brands, it means no hormones given to animals, no antibiotics and an all-vegetarian diet. Ranchers supply documentation and sign affidavits to become part of such groups as Country Natural Beef or Niman Ranch, and USDA has the authority to audit the paperwork.
A nationwide standard is on the way: USDA just wrote rules, though they're not yet in effect, outlining requirements for using the term "naturally raised." To use the marketing claim, producers must raise animals without added hormones and most antibiotics, and feed 100 percent vegetarian rations (no animal proteins).

One thing that lots of "green" beef eaters don't know is that most "naturally raised" animals spend three to six months in feedlots, which are thought by many to be a source of environmental, worker-safety and animal welfare problems. But again, the picture is nuanced.
Oregon's midsize operations have more space per cow and better living conditions for animals than the industry norm. Betty Fussell, author of the new book "Raising Steaks" (see accompanying story), spent time at dozens of feedlots around the nation, including Beef Northwest Feeders in Boardman, and concludes that those "in the right location and on the right scale can be run humanely and soundly. If they are not an ideal way to fatten cows, neither are they in themselves the devil's work. The details matter."

LESSON NO. 4 There are no, or few, guarantees. Proponents of organic food scored a huge victory when USDA's national organic program passed, with uniform standards for producers and certifying agents verifying producers' claims.

But guess what? Most "naturally raised" beef -- the lion's share of the green market -- isn't certified by an outside party. Despite the pending USDA regulation governing the term "naturally raised," producers only need submit adequate paperwork to make the claim -- there's no requirement for third-party verification. Beef producers can pay for certification with inspections by independent groups, such as the Portland-based Food Alliance, or Humane Farm Animal Care, but many opt not to because of the cost.

That doesn't mean ranchers are trying to break the rules; in fact, it's in their best interest to pursue practices that keep animals and the land healthy. "There are all these people who are trying to scratch out a living in central and eastern Oregon," says Brett Meisner, sales consultant with SP Provisions, which sells Cascade Natural Beef, a brand that works with about 10 Oregon and Washington ranches. "They're doing great stuff, and they don't get credit for it."

If you're skeptical, do some homework. Go to a farmers market and talk to a rancher. Check out the Web sites. Call and ask questions.

LESSON NO. 5 Beef is like wine. Finally, let's not make assumptions about taste. Beef is much more complex than marbling, natural or organic. "It's a heckuva lot more like wine," says Oliver, who hosts blind tastings of artisan beef for groups around the country. "There are other things that influence taste besides marbling." Breed, diet, stress on animals, regional differences and aging have much to do with taste, which can be all over the spectrum, and all still good.

One common misconception is that grass-finished beef is too lean to taste good. "If it's been well-raised and aged well, you can have absolutely delicious, full-flavored meat," Oliver says. "And I think that surprises people." Oliver suggests looking past vagaries on the label, doing your homework and finding producers you can trust.

In the conventional cattle system, it's all about marbling (USDA grade) and yield. Now that we have more beef options, we should explore them, even if it means doing a little more work to find what you want. "The truth is, there's a lot of natural variety," Oliver says. "If we can find a way to celebrate that, we'll be better off."

What do the labels mean? Here are commonly accepted definitions of terms found on meat labels. (To learn more about what's behind specific brands or certification programs, check Consumer Reports' eco-labels center:

Grass-fed: Though all cows eat grass for a portion of their lives, true grass-fed beef eats only grass or hay for the duration of its life. For ranchers who rear cattle on grass, it's not just about food, it's a philosophy, encompassing range management and holistic raising of animals. Asking for "grass-finished" or "all grass fed" is the best way to find this type of beef.
Grass-fed, grain-finished: Common practice for "naturally raised" beef, where cattle spend up to a year on pasture before going to a feed yard to eat corn or another vegetarian ration for fattening and extra marbling.
Naturally raised: Implies no hormones added to feed, no antibiotics administered and 100 percent vegetarian feed, and that cattle had access to pasture for a bigger portion of its life than commercial beef.
Organic beef: Beef that grazes on pasture that's certified organic and eats only certified organic grains. You won't find much Certified Organic beef at the meat counter, partly because of the shortage and expense of organic grain and the cost of certification, which some producers don't want to shoulder or pass on to customers.
Free-range: A term usually applied to poultry. The corollary for cattle is "pasture-raised," meaning livestock spends many months on pasture, as opposed to conventional beef that spends much of its life in confined feeding operations.
Vegetarian diet: Feeding rations did not contain ground-up animal parts.
No antibiotics, no added hormones: Antibiotics and growth hormones are feed additives in conventional beef operations. If this is your issue, ask producers if theirs is a "never, never" program, meaning the animal hasn't been given growth enhancers or antibiotics at any point in its life. Some programs interpret "none" as nothing given 120 days before slaughter. USDA Prime, Choice, Select: A measure of intramuscular fat or marbling, with Prime having the most, Select the least.
Dry aged: The traditional process of placing a whole carcass in a refrigerated room and allowing enzymes to break down muscle fibers and develop flavor. Done by only a handful of producers and butchers.
Wet aged: Beef vacuum-packed in heavy plastic held at 34 to 38 degrees for seven to 28 days. Meat becomes more tender, but flavor isn't as concentrated as with dry aging.

Leslie Cole: 503-294-4069;;

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Buche de Noel

I know that this is a strange month in which to post my Buche de Noel to my blog, but I just realized that I hadn't shared this first effort at making the classic French Christmas cake. I had so much fun making it that lately I've been thinking of creating another holiday cake along the same theme. What about making some substitutions and making a decorated Easter cake? We'll see. In the meantime, here is the method I used for this Buche de Noel, which was a combination and variation of several other recipes all adapted to my tastes.

The Hungry Fox Buche de Noel

Serves 12

Chocolate Genoise Sheet:
3 large eggs
3 large egg yolks
Pinch salt
3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup cake flour (spoon flour into dry-measure cup and level off)
1/3 cup cornstarch
1/4 cup alkalized (Dutch process) cocoa
Special equipment: 10 by 15-inch jelly-roll pan, buttered and lined with buttered parchment

Set rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees. Half-fill a medium saucepan with water and bring it to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat so the water is simmering. Whisk the eggs, yolks, salt, and sugar together in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer. Place over the pan of simmering water and whisk gently until the mixture is just lukewarm, about 100 degrees (test with your finger). Attach the bowl to the mixer and with the whisk attachment, whip on medium-high speed until the egg mixture is cooled (touch the outside of the bowl to tell) and tripled in volume.

While the eggs are whipping, stir together the flour, cornstarch, and cocoa. Sift 1/3 of the flour mixture over the beaten eggs. Use a rubber spatula to fold in the flour mixture, making sure to scrape all the way to the bottom of the bowl on every pass through the batter to prevent the flour mixture from accumulating there and making lumps. Repeat with another 1/3 of the flour mixture and finally with the remainder. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake the genoise for about 10 to 12 minutes, or until well risen, deep and firm to the touch. (Make sure the cake doesn't overbake and become too dry, or it will be hard to roll.)

Using a small paring knife to loosen the cake from the sides of the pan. Invert the cake onto a rack and let the cake cool right side up on the paper. Remove the paper when the cake is cool. Storage: Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for several days, or double-wrap and freeze for up to a month. Yield: 1 (10 by 15-inch) sheet cake

Coffee Buttercream:
4 large egg whites 1 cup sugar 24 tablespoons (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened 2 tablespoons instant espresso powder 2 tablespoons rum or brandy 1 Chocolate Genoise Sheet, recipe follows.

Whisk the egg whites and sugar together in the bowl of an electric mixer. Set the bowl over simmering water and whisk gently until the sugar is dissolved and the egg whites are hot. Attach the bowl to the mixer and whip with the whisk on medium speed until cooled. Switch to the paddle and beat in the softened butter and continue beating until the buttercream is smooth. Dissolve the instant coffee in the liquor and beat into the buttercream. Turn the Genoise layer over and peel away the paper. Invert onto a fresh piece of paper. (May trim edges if crisp or tough.) Spread the layer with half the buttercream. Use the paper to help you roll the cake into a tight cylinder Transfer to baking sheet and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or until set. Reserve the remaining buttercream for the outside of the buche.

Meringue for Mushrooms
3 large egg whites, room temperature
1 pinch cream of tartar
1 cup sugar, less 3 tablespoons
1/2 teaspoon vanila extract
1 ounce semi-sweet chocolate, for assembly
Cakes & Frostings

Using an electric mixer fitted with the whip attachment, whip the egg whites and cream of tartar on medium speed until frothy. Increase speed to medium-high and whip until soft peaks form.
Decrease the speed to medium and dust in the sugar, a tablespoon at a time. Once all the sugar has been added, whip the mixture on high speed until fluffy and stiff. Using a plastic spatula, gently fold in the vanilla.

Transfer the meringue into a piping bag fitted with a No. 12 straight piping tip.
Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Pipe a dozen quarter-sized disks onto the sheet to make mushroom "caps." Then pipe a dozen half-inch "stems" onto the sheet.
Bake at 250 degrees for till hard.

To assemble mushrooms: Melt the chocolate over a double boiler and set aside. Using a skewer, carefully tap a nail-sized hole into the flat side of each disk. Dip the pointed top of each stem in the chocolate and gently fix each stem into the nail sized whole of each disk.
Dust lightly with cocoa powder.

For Chocolate Leaves:
6 ounces semisweet chocolate
1/2 tsp. Crisco shortening
Silk leaves

Melt chocolate and stir in shortening. Cool slightly. Paint underside of leaves thickly and refrigerate. Gently peel leaf from chocolate.

For Finishing:
Cocoa powder Confectioners' sugar

Unwrap the cake. Trim the ends on the diagonal, starting the cuts about 2 inches away from each end. Position the larger cut piece on the buche about 2/3 across the top, anchoring with buttercream. Cover the buche with the reserved buttercream, making sure to curve around the protruding stump. Streak the buttercream a fork or decorating comb to resemble bark. Transfer the buche to a platter and decorate with the mushrooms and chocolate leaves. Sprinkle the platter and buche sparingly with confectioners' sugar "snow." Storage: Keep at cool room temperature. Cover leftovers loosely and keep at room temperature.

Bon Appétit!
Chef Debbie

Friday, February 20, 2009

Don't Throw Away Food!

I paid $1.59 for one green bell pepper today. I'm sure you all remember that this past summer peppers were ridiculously expensive so, relatively speaking, that $1.59 seems like a great deal! Kinda like gasoline....$1.79 (what I paid yesterday here in SC) is far less than the almost $4/gallon that we were paying just a few months ago. But that is still way too expensive.

Ok, I don't want to get off track, so let me get the train going toward the topic of my post today, which is "Don't Throw Away Food!" Maybe I should have chosen the title "Don't Do as the FoodTV Chefs Do!"

Look at this photo (above) of a green bell pepper. I've noticed the latest "trick" the TVNetwork "chefs" use to dissect a bell pepper is to stand it up with the stem end on the top and slice straight down around the stem and the seeds. They use the pieces of the walls of the peppers and discard the large square bottom and all the trimmings around the stem. Oy Vay! That irritates me to no end!

I saw an interview one time with Chef Mario Battali (who is a real chef and restaurateur and extremely respected for his talents and his business acumen) where he addressed the concern of restaurateurs everywhere...the slim profit margin. He said that he visits all his restaurants and personally checks to make sure food waste is at a minimum, because that can really cut into the bottom line in an industry with a very low profit margin. The example he gave was seeing a cook cutting off the top and base of bell peppers, using only the walls and discarding the rest. Sure, that might have saved a bit of time cleaning peppers, But Chef Battali said that his cooks were throwing away a third of the pepper by cleaning it that way. He was incensed just talking about it!

So, in watching several of the TVNetwork shows the other day and seeing the "chefs" clean peppers this way, I thought of Chef Battali and of my own frugality in the kitchen. With few exceptions, almost every piece of every vegetable or animal product can be used and should not be thrown away.

Trim and clean with precision and save the scraps to make meat and vegetable stocks. Even brown onion skins can be saved to color Easter eggs. (This was the only way my grandmother made Easter eggs. She said her father thought the dyes were not healthy for children to ingest, so this is how HER mother made them.) For the scraps that simply cannot be used, such as the scaley pineapple rind, save these to add to your garden compost pile.

I don't know about you, but I can't afford to throw away food! If you want to know how to make use of those scraps, shoot me an email with a question and I'll find you a good way for you to play with your food!

Bon Appétit!
Chef Debbie

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Chicken Stewed with Chiles

Fat is full of flavor. That is a fact, and when we try to cut fat from our foods we need to replace that satisfying flavor with something else, and the bold flavors of chile peppers are a really great way to do that.

If you've never cooked with dried chiles, try this recipe. First of all, dried chiles are easily found at almost any grocery store...even at Wal-Mart...and they are dirt cheap. I like to buy them at the Latin food markets because they sell them loose and I can pick up just the amount that I need, but if you can only find them bagged, buy them that way and they will keep almost forever.

Pasilla and Guajillo chiles are what I used in this recipe for Chicken Stewed with Chiles. They are considered to be mild (as chile peppers go) but their heat can vary from one to the next, so be sure to taste them so you can adjust the heat in your stew to suit your taste. The stew will not be as hot the second day as it is the first because the flavors have a chance to balance.

Most recipes using dried chiles begin by roasting the chiles, and this recipe that I've created is very traditional, so get out your cast iron skillet or heavy-bottomed pan and roast your chiles as I did in the above photo. Then, while they are cooling, in a non-stick skillet brown the chicken breasts. They should be nice and brown, as this one is below.

After the chiles are roasted and cooled enough for you to handle, slice the stem off, slit the side and remove the seeds. Discard those. Then slice the peppers into thin slices, as I did in the photo below.

Toss all the vegetables and the dried chile slices together in a non-stick pan and saute until they start to soften. (Above) Add the wine and reduce by half, then stir in the remaining ingredients and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the chicken breasts back into the stew and continue simmering for 15 - 20 minutes until the chicken is cooked through. (Below) It should be nice and thick and will smell unbelievably good. You can eat it now, but it's so much better if you wait one more day.

This serves 6 people and here's the approximate nutritional breakdown:

360 Calories; 6g Fat (17.0% calories from fat); 53g Protein; 14g Carbohydrate; 4g Dietary Fiber; 138mg Cholesterol; 718mg Sodium.

Stewed Chicken with Chiles

3 pounds chicken breast, no skin, no bone, R-T-C
1 1/2 cups sliced green bell pepper
1 1/2 cups sliced red bell pepper
2 cups onions, chopped
2 each pasilla peppers
2 each guajillo peppers
6 cloves garlic, sliced
14 1/2 ounces canned diced tomatoes
1 cup white wine, sauvignon blanc
1 cup chicken stock
Salt & Pepper to taste

1. Heat cast iron skillet over medium heat until hot. Place dried peppers flat in pan. Roast until heated and fragrant (do not burn), then turn and warm other side. They will be soft and pliable. Remove to cutting board and allow to cool till you can handle them. Slit side of each pepper and remove seeds. Slice off stem and then slice pepper cross-wise into 1/4 inch slices. Set aside.

2. Rinse, dry, and trim fat from chicken breasts. Heat nonstick pan sprayed with cooking oil spray over medium-high heat until hot, then lay breasts onto hot pan. Season with salt and pepper and allow to brown without turning on the first side, then repeat on the second side. Remove to platter.

3. In same non-stick skillet sprayed with cooking oil spray, saute bell peppers, onion, garlic, and dried peppers till vegetables begin to soften. Add wine and simmer rapidly until reduced by half. Add undrained canned tomatoes and chicken stock. Simmer rapidly, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes. Nestle the chicken breasts into the stewed vegetables (pour any juices from the plate into the stew, too), reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer gently for 15 - 20 minutes or until chicken is no longer pink in the center. Cool and refrigerate overnight. (This allows all the bold flavors to learn how to cooperate with each other!)

4. When ready to serve, gently heat the chicken in the stewed sauce over medium heat on the stove. Remove chicken pieces; slice, and serve by themselves or on a bed of rice and topped with a generous spoonful of the stewed vegetables.

Bon Appétit!
Chef Debbie

Monday, February 16, 2009

Having Fun with Black Bean Soup

The other day I had lunch with Brent Evans of the Personal Chef Network at Rippington's, one of my favorite lunch spots in Waxhaw, NC. He reminded me that we hadn't had lunch since last September, so we had a lot of catching up to do, exchanging industry news and info, sharing our favorite cookbooks, and family news.

I had my usual Reuben sandwich (which is just so delicious that I always get it), and Brent ordered a cup of black bean soup as a precursor to his bacon-Swiss burger. Our server brought Brent his cup of soup and that was the first thing I've tasted at this restaurant that was disappointing. Great flavor, but it wasn't soup. It was completely puréed and so thick that it was more like a black bean hummus and would have been great served with pita chips. There was no garnish, either, just a cup full of dark mush.

That got me thinking about black bean soups I've made in the past. I usually just throw things together (that's called "dump" cooking) but of course I want to give you some concrete measurements so that you end up with a good product since this is the first time you'll be trying this recipe. In fact, it is irritating to me that TV "chefs" these days never seem to measure anything. I think that's the new "make it look easy" gimmick, but when you are trying a new recipe it's important to measure accurately. You can always adjust seasonings later.

Just as important as the soup here is the garnish. You'll have a bowl of deliciousness, but it will all be one color. The garnish will add color, but also flavor, and will make each bite more interesting. Some things that I suggest (in any combination) are diced avocado, diced red onion, diced hard boiled egg, cilantro leaves, whole kernel corn, diced seeded tomato, sour cream, a lime wedge (for squeezing over) and a drizzle of dark rum. Maybe you can think up some about tortilla chips? Shredded lettuce? The possibilities just might be endless! Have fun playing with your food!

Cumin-Spiced Black Bean Soup
from The Bon Appetit Cookbook

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/4 c. chopped onions
4 garlic cloves, peeled & chopped
1 1/2 teaspoon dried or 1 tablespoon fresh thyme
3 (15-oz.) cans black beans, drained (reserve 1 c. liquid)
3 1/2 c. (or more) low-salt chicken broth
1 (28-oz.) can diced tomatoes in juice
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 1/2teaspoons hot pepper sauce

Heat oil in heavy large pot over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, and thyme; saute until onion is golden, about 8 minutes. Add beans, reserved 1 cup bean liquid, 3 1/2 cups broth, tomatoes with juice, cumin, and hot pepper sauce. Bring soup to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until flavors blend and soup thickens slightly, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes. Cool slightly.

Working in 2 batches, puree 2 1/2 cups soup in blender until smooth. Mix puree back into soup pot. Bring to simmer. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Ladle soup into bowls and serve with garnishes.

Bon Appétit!
Chef Debbie

Friday, February 13, 2009

Molten Chocolate Lava Cakes

Oh, this is too easy. Far easier than you have ever imagined, so go for it this Valentine's Day for your special sweetie and impress the one you love.

We went to our daughter's house yesterday for lunch and I volunteered to bring dessert, so I whipped up the batter for these cakes early in the morning and put it in the fridge in the custard cups covered with plastic wrap on a tray. Then we drove to Sumter with our dessert sitting on the back seat and I baked them while we were clearing the table after lunch. Did you ever imagine these cakes are that foolproof to make?

Baking time is the wild card here. The longer you bake them, the less "lava" there will be. Baking time depends on your oven and also on the type of container you use...ceramic, stainless, foil, etc. So experiment a bit (your friends and family will love eating the experiments!) until you get it just the way you want it. But even if you accidentally bake these to the no-goo stage, they will still be full of chocolatey deliciousness! As my daughter said, "This is so good I don't want it to end!"

This is based on a recipe given to me by my good friend and fellow foodie, Pam Hegler. Thanks Pam!

Molten Chocolate Lava Cakes

4 oz. good quality 60% chocolate (Ghirardelli's)
1/2 c. salted butter
1 c. powdered sugar
2 eggs
2 egg yolks
6 T. flour
1 c. heavy whipping cream
1 T. granulated sugar
Dash cinnamon
1/4 tsp. pure vanilla extract
4 (4 oz.) custard cups, ceramic or foil disposables
Berries of choice for garnish (optional)

Preheat oven to 425 °. Lightly spray 4 custard cups with cooking oil spray. Place cups on baking sheet. Microwave chocolate and 1/2 c. butter in large bowl on high 1 minute or until butter is melted. Whisk until chocolate is completely melted. Stir in sugar until well blended. Whisk in eggs and egg yolks till light, then whisk in the flour. Divide the batter between prepared custard cups. Bake 13 – 14 minutes or until sides are firm but centers are soft. Do not over bake! Let stand 1 minute. Carefully run a small knife blade around cakes to loosen and invert onto dessert plates. Top with whipped cream and serve immediately. Batter can be made a day ahead – pour into prepared custard cups, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Bake as directed.

For Whipped Cream

With wire whisk, whip cream until beginning to thicken, then add sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla. Continue whipping until desired consistency. This can also be made a day in advance.

Bon Appétit!
Chef Debbie

Southern Pimiento Cheese

Whether you call them "pimientos" or "pimentos," they are the key flavoring ingredient in this really yummy and versatile Southern cheese spread. Try it in a sandwich on plain bread, use wheat or rye bread to make tea sandwiches, or make a grilled pimiento cheese sandwich to have with your tomato soup. Put a dollop of creamy pimiento cheese on your next steak or burger for an extra burst of flavor. Slather it on celery or cucumber boats for snacking. Serve it with crackers, pita or bagel chips when your friends stop by.

There are as many versions of Southern Pimiento Cheese as there are Southern cooks; this is my favorite and was given to me by my friend and neighbor, Anne McManus, who used to bring it to the office for a special treat.

Southern Pimiento Cheese

1 (8 oz.) block extra sharp cheddar cheese
1 (2 oz.) jar chopped pimientos, undrained
3/4 c. Kraft Real Mayonnaise (not salad dressing)
1/8 tsp. coarsely ground blacky pepper
6 generous dashes McIlhenny Tabasco pepper Sauce

Finely shred the cheese (or purchase it pre-shredded) and combine with remaining ingredients. Chill for at least an hour to blend flavors before serving. Note: Feel free to adjust the ingredients to your taste. I always double this recipe, and I like lots of black pepper and heat so I add more pepper and Tabasco, too.

Bon Appétit!
Chef Debbie

Bottoms Up!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Chicken Livers with Caramelized Onions and Madeira

Anthony Bourdain calls them "nasty bits;" they are properly referred to as "offal," but we just call them "yummy!"

Chicken livers is what we had for dinner tonight, and although for years we have enjoyed The Wagon Wheel's Thursday lunch special with bacon, mashed potatoes and brown gravy, this recipe I found in Food and Wine was healthier and oh so delicious. Here it is!

Chicken Livers with Caramelized Onions and Madeira
Adapted from Food and Wine Magazine

Serves 4

Cooking oil as needed
4 cups sliced onions
Salt and black pepper
20 ounces chicken livers, each cut in half
1/2 cup Madeira
1 large hard-cooked egg, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

In a large frying pan, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over moderate heat. Add the onions, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/8 teaspoon of the pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are well browned, about 15 minutes. Remove the onions from the pan and put on a serving platter in a 200 degree oven.

In the same frying pan, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil over moderately high heat. Season the chicken livers salt and pepper. Put the livers in the pan in two batches and cook until browned. Turn and cook the other side until browned. The livers should still be pink inside. Remove the chicken livers from the pan and put them on top of the onions.

With the pan removed from the burner, add the Madeira to deglaze the pan. Return to the burner and boil rapidly, scraping the bottom of the pan to dislodge any brown bits, for 1 minute or until getting thick. Pour the sauce over the livers and the onions. Garnish with the egg and parsley and serve.

I served this with an inexpensive Marques de Caceres Crianza Rioja and it was a perfect pairing!

Bon Appétit!
Chef Debbie

Monday, February 9, 2009

Making Snickerdoodles with a Cutie!

If you want to make great memories, just bake with your children! On a recent snowy winter day, I was lucky enough to have my granddaughter join me in the kitchen to make Snickerdoodles, a classic Pennsylvania cookie that is as fun to say as it is delicious to eat.

While you and the little ones are having fun playing with food, don't forget this is a great opportunity to reinforce hygiene and kitchen safety rules: Wash hands, keep hair pulled back, let grown ups be in charge of hot things, sharp things, and electric things.

Most of all, make sure that you take into account the age of your helper so that everyone can have a great time. Chef Mary is only 3 years old, so her Snickerdoodle job was to roll the dough into balls and then roll the balls in the sugar-cinnamon mixture and place them on the cookie sheet. She pressed each ball lightly with her little fingers and was so proud of a job well-done! (I doubled the amount of cinnamon-sugar mixture because I knew a good bit of it would end up on the counter and floor, and it did!) I forgot to take a picture of the finished product because we got busy eating them right away!


Makes about 2 dozen

1/2 c. salted butter
1 c. granulated sugar
1 large egg
1/2 tsp. good vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. cream of tartar
1 1/2 c. all purpose flour
2 T. granulated sugar, reserved
1 tsp. ground cinnamon, reserved

Cream the butter and sugar; add the egg and beat until smooth. In separate bowl, whisk together the baking soda, cream of tartar, and the flour. Add the dry ingredients to the wet and beat till smooth. (You might have to finish with a wooden spoon because the mixture will be stiff.) Cover and let rest for 10 minutes in the fridge. Combine remaining sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl.

Using a 1-oz. scoop or a tablespoon, form cookie dough into balls and roll in cinnamon-sugar mixture. Arrange cookies on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, about 2 inches apart, and bake in a 375 degree oven for about 12 minutes or until golden around the edges. Remove to a rack and cool. Great dunked in coffee or milk!

Bon Appétit!

Chef Debbie

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Best Burger

Bob and I were so hungry for a really thick and juicy hamburger lastnight. I'm a certified fitness chef and am also trying to maintain a healthy diet, but sometimes you just have to give in to your cravings, and I think that's ok as long as you don't make a habit of it.

It was very late and Red Robin was on the way home and we know that restaurant is famous for its gourmet burgers, so we wheeled in. (It's also been voted the best family restaurant by Charlotte Observer readers.)

Of course, we'd waited so long to have dinner that we were starving. (Dontcha know that you will ALWAYS over eat if you let yourself get to the point of starvation, and then your body will hoard every single one of those calories you consume!) But there's a certain freedom to tossing care to the wind and not even thinking about calories or fat grams. We WERE, after all, looking for a thick juicy hamburger! Not a turkey or tofu burger, but a hot, juicy, salty beef burger piled so high with condiments that it's hard to wrap your lips around!

We were not disappointed. It took all of 2 minutes for us to decide to each have the Sante Fe burger: a thick beef burger layered with corn chips, lettuce (at least we had a healthy veggie!) ancho mayo, guacamole, and a roasted poblano all stuffed between tender layers of onion roll. Mmmmmmm. Of course that came with a "bottomless" basket of hot and crisp steak fries and, in honor of our feast from the Southwest, we each ordered one of Red Robin's signature margaritas. No salt, of course, as we are cutting down on our sodium intake. hehehe

Bob and I both agreed that the burger we had at Red Robin was the best we've ever had, and that's saying a lot as one of Bob's professions is being a professional connoisseur of burgers. He said, "Now THAT'S a burger I'll come back for any time!

But in the cold light of dawn as I gazed at the nutritional value of that burger alone (Red Robin provides this info on their website) I realized that we will save that particular burger experience for very occasional splurges. Last night, with that delicious-satisfy-our-burger-craving sandwich, we each consumed 1047 calories and 64 grams of fat. I didn't even bother checking the fries and margaritas, but went out to the kitchen, opened the fridge, and fixed us hard boiled eggs and fresh grapefruit for breakfast.