Saturday, May 26, 2012

Holy Smoke!

Memorial Day weekend is considered the official beginning of summer and for many of us, that means barbeques will be ablazin’. Time to take off the cover of your grill and clean it up to get it ready for the weekend’s cooking and entertaining.

If you’re like us, and especially if you live in milder climates like Southern California, you’ve probably already started grilling. It can be almost a year-round activity where we live, and we like it that way. Grilling is great for many reasons: it’s quick, clean up is easy, and you don’t have that cooking smell in the house, which is especially unwelcome when you’re making fish.  It’s also a nice alternative to baking or roasting, sautéing or pan-frying.

I’ve done some reading about smoking recently and thought it was appropriate for my post on grilling. I’ve not done much smoking myself, but found myself buying wood chips on sale somewhere not too long ago with the intent to learn how, so I am going to use them this weekend. My grill has a “fancy slot” on one side where you can slide out a narrow tray and lay in some wood chips. It is the perfect sized tray for laying down rosemary twigs. I’ve done that when grilling chicken. It’s also nice for beef. The smoke from the burning rosemary gave the chicken great flavor. Smoking food imparts a wonderful depth of flavor to foods. You can still marinade the food first, but then when grilling, the smoke adds another dimension resulting in layers of flavor that can be very interesting.

We have a gas grill and I like it a lot better than the carcinogenic charcoal variety. I just don’t like the taste of lighter fluid, thank you very much. Whichever kind of grill you have, you can smoke. (Of course, you can just go out and buy a smoker)! But you don’t need one, a regular grill will work just fine. Depending on the type of grill you have, the prep work is a little different. Here’s how to do it.

Charcoal Grills

Arrange coals on one side of the charcoal grate and leave the other side empty to create two heat zones. The empty side is for cooking foods that require indirect heat; you can also move food there when you get flare-ups. To smoke, once coals are lit, scatter soaked and well-drained wood chips evenly over the charcoal. Wait for smoke to appear before you begin cooking.

Smoker box containing wood chips
Gas Grills

Gas grills are a little different because they require preheating to generate smoke, and wood chips need to be contained.  You can either purchase a metal smoker box or make your own placing chips in a small foil pan. Cover the top with aluminum foil, then poke holes in the foil to let the smoke out. You can even just use a piece of aluminum foil and fold it into a packet, again poking holes on top. Before you light the grill, remove cooking grates and place the aluminum pan directly on bars, preferably in a back corner. Replace cooking grates, light grill with all burners on high, and close the lid. If you are using a box, place it on top of the grate, directly over a lit burner. When smoke appears, turn one burner off completely, adjust remaining burners according to your recipe, and begin cooking.

Smoking Success

1. Start raw. Meats should be raw. The smoke won’t permeate cooked meat as well.
2. Don’t overdo it. Don’t add too much wood else the end result might be bitter. Better to start out with a small amount and add more next time.
3. White smoke is good, black is bad. White smoke layers food with the intoxicating scents of smoldering wood. If your grill however lacks proper ventilation, or your food is directly over the fire and its juices are burning, a black smoke will taint your food and give it a burned taste.
4. Don’t peek. Every time you open the grill, you lose heat and smoke – two of the most important elements to a great meal. Open the lid only when you have to tend to the fire or flip the food.
5. Keep the air moving. Open the vents on your charcoal grill and position the coals on the side opposite the lid vent. The open vents will draw smoke from the charcoal and wood below so that it swirls over the food and out the top properly, giving you the cleanest smoke.

Wood chips
The type of wood chips you buy will determine the final flavor. Here’s a guide to wood flavors:

Alder – Delicate smoke flavor. Good with fish (salmon and sturgeon), chicken and pork.
Apple – Slightly sweet but also dense. Good with beef, poultry, pork - especially ham.
Cherry – Slightly sweet and fruity. Good with poultry, game birds, pork.

Maple – Nicely smoky, somewhat sweet flavor. Good with poultry, vegetables, ham.
Oak – Assertive, but pleasing. Good with beef (particularly brisket), poultry, pork.
Hickory – Pungent, smoky, baconlike flavor. Good with pork, chicken, beef, wild game, cheeses.
Pecan – Rich and more subtle than hickory but similar in taste; burns cool, so ideal for very low-heat smoking. Good with pork, chicken, lamb, fish, and cheeses.

Mesquite – In a class by itself - a big bold smoke with a little bitterness. Good with beef and lamb.

I’ve included a simple grill / smoke recipe using the herb rosemary for you to try.

Grilled Lemon Rosemary Chicken

Rosemary, cut into 1-2” pieces, can also be used as a smoking medium. The thicker, woodier stems located near the base of the plant are especially well suited for this. Use the top of these stems for the more delicate “leaves” that end up getting chopped.


Chicken pieces: breast, thighs, drumsticks, whatever you like.
A pinch each of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Freshly pressed lemon juice
Olive oil
1 tsp. finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves
Rosemary stems, cut into 1-2” pieces, placed in your smoking contraption

Mix together the salt, pepper, olive oil, lemon juice and chopped rosemary. Marinade chicken in this for as long as possible, ideally 12-24 hours. I like to place my marinade and meat in a large Ziplok bag and put it in the fridge the evening before I plan to cook it. The next morning, I’ll give the bag a turn, so that the other side of the chicken now rests in the marinade. When ready to grill, remove chicken from bag and discard both marinade and bag.

Follow directions above for placing your wood chips on your type of grill and grill away! Chicken takes about 8-10 minutes per side, over medium heat, depending on thickness. Better to cook it more slowly, on a lower flame for longer, than too quickly.

Delicious with roasted potatoes and other roasted veggies, or a big salad, and of course, a nice white wine, like a California Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio.

Wishing you a glorious summer of happy grilling.

Source: Better Homes and Gardens Magazine, May 2012

Monday, May 21, 2012

Around the World...Italy

I’m in love with Italy.

There is no place more romantic, in my mind. When I think of Italy, all sorts of images come to mind: delicious fresh food, luscious fruit-forward red wines, rolling hills of olive orchards, cypress tree-lined country roads undulating through the countryside, multi-generational families dining together at long tables under pergolas of grape vines, lovers and friends gathered at the piazzas in the evenings, laughing and gossiping; the architecture and the history, of course. But what I admire most of all is the Italian’s appreciation for La Dolce Vita (the sweet life), the unhurried way in which they live their lives and savor each day. What is there not to love (aside from the corruption, the country’s general lack of organization, the constant labor strikes, and the Mob)?

I have been fortunate to have travelled to Italia twice. Between the 2 trips, I’ve seen Venice, Florence, Sienna, Pisa, Rome and a lot of little towns in between. I can’t say there is any place I’ve visited that I didn’t just fall in love with and want to move to. Visions of a life similar to Francis Mayes' in "Under the Tuscan Sun" came to mind.

I’m also always game to watch any kind of documentary on the Romans, the Italian Renaissance, the brilliance of Galileo, Da Vinci and Michelangelo. I’m really in love with this place – can you tell?

It should come as no surprise that I really love the food. When I close my eyes while eating Italian food I can take myself back to this country without the expense of actually travelling there. I can go there in my mind and “see” the romantic images that I keep in my mind’s eye. It’s a cheap vacation.

But, since I’m such a fan of all things Italian, I am having a hard time finding the one recipe to post here that exemplifies all that I love about Italian food. What to pick? Dio mio! The choices are endless.
Vicia faba
I decided to venture into unknown territory again, and prepare something new to me: fava beans. Heard of ‘em, seen ‘em, never had ‘em. Can you believe it? And since they are in season this time of year, and were at my Farmer’s Market this weekend, I picked up a few pounds.

Vicia faba, more commonly known as fava beans or broad beans, are not only eaten in the Mediterranean (although, along with lentils, peas, and chickpeas, they are believed to have become part of the eastern Mediterranean diet around 6000 BC). The bean is actually native to north Africa and southwest Asia it, but can be found in countries all around the world: China, Thailand, the Netherlands, Portugal, Greece, Pakistan, Iran, Ethiopia and Egypt. Favas are especially popular in Latin American countries such as Colombia, Peru, and Mexico. But many of us still tend to identify the bean with Italy.
There is a little work getting these to the table. Preparing favas involves first removing the beans from their pods, then parboiling the beans to loosen their exterior coating, and then removing that before cooking. But no matter what you read about favas, they all claim the work is well worth it. So I decided to give it a go.

As you may recall from several previous posts, I love purées. They make great side dishes and healthy dips for vegetables. Fava beans make an incredibly rich purée, perfect to serve in small portions alongside roasted chicken or pork.

Fava Bean Puree

Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 5 minutes
Total Time: 25 minutes
Yield: About 1 1/2 cups Fava Bean Purée


3 - 3 1/2 lbs. fava beans
Sea salt
1 cup chicken stock, vegetable stock, or water
1/3 cup heavy cream
2 Tbsp. butter
Shell fava beans. Bring a medium pot of water to a boil, add enough salt to make it taste as salty as the sea. Blanch beans for about 1 minute. Drain the fava beans and remove the shell from each bean (see step-by-step instructions for shelling fava beans).
Put double-shelled fava beans in the pot with the stock or water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer, and cook until favas are very tender, about 5 minutes.
Whirl favas in a blender or food processor with the cream until very smooth. Return to pot and heat to warm, stirring in the butter just before serving.

You can also serve this puree on toasted bread and sprinkle on a little Pecorino or Parmesan, which also sounds good.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Wheat flour alternatives

Several weeks ago, I posted about gluten-free diets. I thought I’d add more information about some of the wheat “alternatives” that are available today for us to explore. When baking and cooking, consider incorporating some of these instead of the typical wheat flour that is so prevalent everywhere. Most of these alternatives are low in sodium, cholesterol and saturated fat, and are good sources of dietary fiber.

Buckwheat Flour
Buckwheat is not in the wheat family at all. Its flour has a distinctive flavor, and is used in an array of international dishes such as soba noodles, crepes and pancakes. Wheat-free and gluten-free (provided it has not been “cut” with regular wheat flour, as some manufacturers will do), it is a good source of magnesium and manganese.

Corn Flour
A finely-ground version of corn meal, corn flour can be added to bread, biscuit or pancake recipes. Cornbreads are richer and less crumbly when corn flour is substituted for corn meal.

Corn Meal
Originated in ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, corn is derived from gigantic domesticated grass. It is considered man’s first “genetically engineered” food. Cornmeal makes a flavorful and versatile ingredient in tortillas, breads and muffins. Gluten-free.

Garbanzo Flour
Used in Mediterranean, Indian and Middle Eastern dishes, garbanzo flour is made from finely ground garbanzo beans (chick peas). Good source of protein and copper, folate and manganese.

Oat Flour
Oats are a natural source of heart-healthy soluble fiber and oat flour can be mixed with other flours such as corn, rice, or buckwheat to create breads with interesting flavors and textures. Good source of thiamin, phosphorous, selenium and manganese.  Not always considered gluten free unless the package specifically says so (like Bob's Red Mill products).

Rice Flour (brown or white)
Nutty tasting brown rice flour is ground from whole-grain brown rice. It is a good choice for sauces, shortbreads, and for coating foods. Removing the bran from ground brown rice produces white rice flour and like brown rice flour, it has a grainy texture but a milder flavor. Both are gluten-free and often appear in gluten-free baking mixes.

Amaranth, legume flours, millet, quinoa, and sago are other grains that can often be found in flour form and are worth a try.

I really believe that eating a wider variety of foods provides greater health and well-being because we are taking in different nutrients from everything we eat.  I am going to experiment with more of these myself. If you have any recipes to share that highlight any of these ingredients, I sure would love to hear from you.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Thai Basil and Eggplant

On Sunday I went to the farmer's market to see what was going on in the world of veggies. I've been especially fond of this one Asian grower who has the most beautiful greens and veggies. Everything is super fresh and smells so good. Since this is the year to experiment and move out of my comfort zone, at this grower's stand, I can choose from a variety of new and "exotic" (at least to me) vegetables to do just that.

I've been in the mood for basil lately. It must be because the weather is warming up. I am really ready for the summery tastes of tomatoes, basil and zucchini. Not only did this Asian grower have Italian basil, but also lemon basil (oh, so tempting) and Thai basil. It would have been so easy to get the lemon basil. You know I'm a nut for anything lemon. But, I was reminded to be adventurous, so I decided on the Thai basil instead. After just one long inhale, I envisioned the basil in a stir-fry with eggplant, maybe with a little jasmine rice and tofu alongside. Thankfully, I had just bought some tofu and eggplant, so I was all set.

When I got home, I googled online recipes containing all these ingredients and found this one. It had good reviews, one saying it was "restaurant quality". I made it last night and it was really good.

Thai Basil and Eggplant Stir Fry

  • 1 cup jasmine rice, or cauliflower “rice"
  • 2 Tbs. peanut or coconut oil
  • ½ to 1 tsp. crushed red pepper, or to taste
  • 3 baby eggplants, cubed into bite-sized chunks
  • 1 medium-sized onion, diced
  • 1 medium-sized red bell pepper, seeded and diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 Tbs. rice vinegar
  • 3 Tbs. dark soy sauce, such as tamari, or coconut aminos
  • 2 Tbs. dark brown sugar or honey
  • 20 leaves fresh basil, shredded or torn
  • 2-3 scallions, chopped (optional)
  1. Cook jasmine rice according to package directions. Or if you’re low-carb, make “cauliflower rice” (search this blog for the recipe).
  2. Meanwhile, heat a deep skillet or wok-shaped pan over high heat. Add oil and crushed red pepper, and let sizzle for 10 to 15 seconds. Add eggplant and stir-fry 2-3 minutes. Add onion, bell pepper and garlic, and stir-fry for 3 minutes more. Add vinegar and soy sauce, or coconut aminos. Sprinkle with sugar (or honey), and toss for 1 or 2 minutes longer. Test the eggplant to make sure it's done to your liking (I find I like it cooked a little longer).
  3. Remove pan from heat, add basil leaves and toss to combine with eggplant. Serve over hot cooked rice. Sprinkle with chopped scallions if you like.
  4. Serves 2-3.

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