Monday, March 12, 2012

Shrimp and Grits

What to do with a pound of leftover shrimp?

    Well, put it in my belly- for one thing. I looked around the kitchen and tried to see what fabulous way I could prepare the shrimp without having to go to the grocery store. 

    "Well, we have pasta- but that is likely not to be fabulous enough. I could throw them on the smoker, but I think Mariah will probably boycott if I pull out the whole rig after last weekend's adventure..."

    Then i remembered an episode of Good Eats where Alton Brown did some shrimp flambe. Then I got excited.

    That's right! You, me, Frank and Carl- we gonna get some shrimp:

    Yeah, that should work. The idea was extra intriguing because Mariah and I had been robbed Friday of a saganaki explosion due to poor showmanship and a greek restaurant's low ceiling.

Mariah contributed the awesome grits- which to be honest was about 85% of the work. From Mariah:

    I want to start this part of the post by saying that I am a Southern girl, that I can remember growing up being reared on the simple beauty of grits, but I can't. It isn't true. I hadn't actually had grits until I was in college, and even still I wasn't enamored with them.

    But then somewhere along the line I was introduced to polenta. Polenta is what I like to think of as grits' ritzy cousin who speaks with a European accent. They aren't entirely different because they're both ground corn-ness. Polenta is the grind of the whole corn where as grits are the grind of the hominy. It's really up to your own taste (I'd suggest fooling around with both before making your final decision- who's it gonna hurt?) but I prefer the polenta (think it has more flavor).
    Cugino stupido! Lo sono la farina di mais superiore!

    Anyways. Polenta can be prepared in a myriad of ways, but one way to prepare it is to prepare it like you were preparing grits.

    To cut to the chase here, the end product is smooth, creamy, sweet and salty and must be tried right away (for breakfast, lunch, or dinner). The recipe I used not only makes lots of the "grits" but also take them to another level.

    Bobby Flay may get on my nerves, but that Yankee sure knows his Southern food:

    2 cups water
    2 1/2 cups whole milk
    2 tablespoons unsalted butter
    Kosher salt
    1 cup stone-ground cornmeal (polenta)
    2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
    1/2 red onion, coarsely chopped

    In a medium saucepan, combine the water, milk, butter and 1 teaspoon of salt and bring to a boil. Slowly whisk in the cornmeal. Cook the grits over moderate heat, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, until thickened and the grains are tender, about 40 minutes.

    Meanwhile, in a medium skillet, heat the olive oil. Add the onion and cook over moderate heat until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and corn and cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic is softened, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

    Stir the corn and the goat cheese into the grits, season with salt and pepper and cook just until heated through. Transfer to a bowl and serve.

    ...or... you could take it another step further...

    Back to Ron:

    Ok, things are getting serious. Start here:

    Godspeed, old friend.
    Rules are:

    Use a 10 inch pan. Heat the on medium high heat empty pan until water droplets hop. Add the shrimp and then the precious, precious bourbon. Give the bourbon a few seconds to heat up and start to vaporize, then light with a long match or grill starter.

    Total Failure. Apparently, the heat was not high enough to get enough ethenol vapor for the fireworks.

    Take 2:

    Moderate success. I increased the heat and just left it on the burner:

    Get delicious, shrimp!


    We removed the shrimp from the pan with a slotted spoon and Mariah smartly added brown sugar and cinnamon to the bourbon/shrimp remains. We reduced it down a bit, plated the grits, then the delicous, perfect shrimp and drizzled on the bourbon reduction. We then sprinkled on some chopped green scallions.


    Creamy, flavorful, rich and savory grits. The corn pops in your mouth and contrasts with the spongy chew of the bourbon shrimp. Warm, filling, rib-sticking. Delicate, subtle- what else can I say?


    Saturday, March 10, 2012

    Tom Yum Soup

    Mariah ensuring these are de-veined.

    It is a cold and uneventful Saturday. Mariah and I decided to run up to the new Asian Market at the corner to see what treasure we could find. I tricked her into thinking it was a fact finding mission when in reality I had planned to pick up ingredients for a hot and sour Tom Yum soup.

    You maybe have had Tom Yum Soup before at your local Thai restaurant. You may have noticed that no two restaurants have identical-tasting soups. As is often the case with traditional dishes, there are a myriad of available recipes. The one I currently use is still evolving, but a conglomeration of a few I have found on the web.

    The Starting Point:

    • 2 stalks fresh lemongrass
    • 1 grated lime zest
    • 1 tablespoon hot chili/garlic paste
    • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
    • 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
    • 1 (8-ounce) can shiitake mushrooms, rinsed and halved
    • 1 pound large shrimp, peeled with tails on
    • 2 limes, juiced
    • 2 green onions, sliced
              1 Diced Red Bell Pepper

    Bring the stock to the boil over medium heat in a saucepan. Add the lemongrass, lime zest, galangal, and chiles. Lower the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes to let the spices infuse the broth.
    Uncover and add the fish sauce, sugar, and mushrooms. Simmer for 5 minutes. Toss in the shrimp and cook for about 8 minutes until they turn pink. Remove from the heat and add the lime juice, green onions, and cilantro. Taste for salt and spices; you should have an equal balance of spicy, salty, and sour.

    The Method: 

    If you are like me, you didn't know exactly what you are supposed to do to prepare lemongrass. It's a big, woody stalk of nothing.

    I am inedible.

    I did some research and came across a very convincing youtube video in an authenticating broken english which indicated the following method:

    1) Cut the thick root and and the useless grass end.
    2) Cut in half
    3) Peal away the useless woody layers to expose the tender lemony goodness

    4) Smack the holy hell out of it with a hammer or equally useful utensil to break down the cell walls and release the essential oils.

    I could probably have smacked this harder.

    Get your chicken broth to a rolling boil, reduce the heat to medium high and add the lemongrass, the chili paste and the galangal. Actually, a word on that.

    Can anyone confirm that galangal actually exists? I want badly to use it in place of ginger, but I can't find it anywhere. It might be hiding somewhere with kaffir leaves. I am starting to think it is a ruse and frankly- that name sounds made up.

    I found at the new asian market, they do not label the produce. Today I learned that this is not galangal:

    Anyone have any good recipes for Taro Root? I subbed in ginger- again. Throw that in the pot and zest an entire lime and add that (in place of the imaginary Kaffir leaves). Give this 15 minutes. You'll enjoy the time. It smells tremendous.

    After 15 minutes, lower the heat to medium high and add in the fish sauce, the sugar, the bell pepper and the mushrooms and give it another 5 uncovered. Some thoughts on the mushrooms:

    Does anyone know what the hell these are?

    I am not shiitake.

    These were not shiitake as I expected and due to the cryptic nature of the Asian Market's produce, I have no idea what they were. The were large and mild and what they lacked in shiitake funk, they made up for in tender meatiness. I could have cut them up, but i kind of wanted a little more chew. Mariah indicated that they looked like stingrays. She later confessed to a long-running phobia of stingrays. I may have enjoyed the soup more than her.

    I added the shrimp, ran for about 3 minutes and pulled it off the heat. Then I added the lime juice and the green onion.

    The Tweak:

    It never quite comes out right initially. In this case, I added a few tablespoons of additional sugar and probably a couple tablespoons fish sauce (to taste, of course). The idea is to have equal parts salty, spicy and sour. Generally, I find the sour and spicy dominate, but the savory is lacking and in general there is a lack of body. I try to add sugar to round out the body and then use the fish sauce to make the savory more prominent. You kind of figure it out.

    I serve it with some drizzled coconut milk and a handful of un-shredded cilanto. I like to splash a little sriracha sauce on as well for some extra kick. If you get the heat right, it doesn't overpower the flavor and leaves you staring into an empty bowl with a nice spicy buzz while you enjoy a tremendously fragrant kitchen.



    Accidental Taro Chips:

    So Mariah did some research and found out you can make crispy chips out of taro root, so I gave that a shot.


    I pealed the taro root and ran it through a mandolin. I preheated the oven to 400 and placed the slices on two cooking sheets. I brushed them with olive oil and sprinkled them with kosher salt. Then I baked them for 12 minutes, rotating pans at the 6 minute mark.

    Poi-tato Chips?

    They were.....fine. Basically, if you ever find yourself with an accidentally purchased taro root, here is a good way to get rid of it. If not and you have a desire for something crisp and crunchy, may I suggest a yukon gold?

    .....I guess.

    Tuesday, March 6, 2012

    Running the Smoker

    I think I am close to graduating from smoker neophyte to smoker novice. When it comes down to it, the basic operation of the smoker is pretty simple- you just have to know what you are doing. Trial and error (and more error) has been a useful teacher in this regard and I thought it might be helpful to chronicle some of the things I have learned in hopes that others do less stupid, stupid things to try to get this thing to work.

    My Rig:

    I know that's right!

    Basic rig. Two pans, two grill surfaces. Open bottom. Bullshit thermometer (ideal temperature? screw you Brinkmann!) Nice big door to feed the fire and regulate the temp. No frills, no gimmicks.

    The Charcoal

    I understand that lump charcoal is better. I get that. I just can't get it to burn evenly, and you know what? It isn't that much better. I honestly cannot tell the difference in taste between the bullshit, temperamental, time-wasting lump charcoal and the regular old, time honored, freedom-loving Kingsford briquets.


    Now this is not to suggest that Kingsford briquets will make this cake. It is possible that I have made some mistakes:

    Verderben den Geschmack jetzt!

    Yeah. So don't use the match-ready briquets. I spent an angry, windy saturday last fall watching my Michigan Wolverines get beaten by the michigan state spartans while my pork butt was slowly infused with poison from mistakenly purchased match light briquets. It was a rough day.

    ahhh..... yep. that's it.

    But the short version of this is that after 10 hours, I got the pork up to 185. I got it to pull, but it kind of tasted like I marinated it in kerosene. This was frustrating. So, so frustrating.

    Lighting the Coals:

    Obviously, don't use lighter fluid. Just give it about 20 minutes in the chimney. You get a cleaner and more consistent burn. I like to pour about 30 unlit briquets into the charcoal pan, then pour my chimney primed coals over those. This is a nod to The Minion Method, which i have not gotten to totally work, but it definitely simplifies things at about hour 3 of a longer smoke. After pouring the coals, i quickly put in the water pan and the lower grill surface, place the top on and let the heat start to rise.

    The Water Pan:

    I have spent some time messing with this. Use the water pan. I have done a few briskets with a water pan and one without, and there is literally no comparison. The water pan keeps things moist chiefly, but maybe more importantly it keeps the temperature more even. Heating the water sucks up energy and makes it tougher for the coals to get the smoking chamber too hot. Also, the water vapor keeps things nice and moist- and this benefits the meat. 

    I have tried using spice infused apple cider and beer and name your cool flavorful liquid, but honestly- if you have a rub on the meat, it isn't going to make a huge difference. For beef, go for it. For pork and poultry, if you really want to give it a shot. 

    With chicken, i like to let the water pan dry out. If you fill it at the start and cook at 220, it will completely evaporate around the 3:45 mark. When this happens, the temp will spike to about 245 (with the door shut). You will start to hear some sizzle and smell some chicken fat rendering and (most importantly) the skin will start to crisp up a bit.

    Maintaining the Heat:

    I over-thought this for about 8 months. It is easy. Charcoal make fire. Fire make hot. This is basically it. Never ever, ever ever, ever use water to try to lower the temperature (this is just plain stupid). Never, ever, ever ever, never try to regulate the temperature by messing with the lid. The only way to regulate temperature is to open the door to ventilate and to add to or reduce the number of burning coals. Period. Also, watch your hardwood. If you use hardwood chunks and they flare- you may find yourself with a 40 degree spike (and some nasty creosote flavor). If you find your temperature dropping after a couple hours, prime some coals in the chimney and add them in. 

    I don't bother to use my probe thermometer to monitor core temperature until the very end of my smoke. I know i am not anywhere near optimal core temp, so I hang the probe from the upper grill surface such that it doesn't contact the meat or any metal. I am so, so lazy that now I use a remote module that allows me to sit in the house and drink beer and keep constant tabs on my grill temp without getting off the couch. I strong recommend this.

    The Finish

    I almost always finish in the oven. I am not smoking in the middle of the woods or on the moon or on the top of a mountain. I have an oven 20 feet away and frankly, after 5 hours- you aren't getting any more smoke in that meat. If you are a purist and want to do it all on the smoker, put your probe in a thick spot that doesn't contact a bone and wait for optimum temp (165 for poultry, 185 for pulled pork and brisket). If you want delicious food, put it in the oven and let it finish. Your house will smell like delicious smoked meat. You will like.


    Monday, March 5, 2012


    I woke up one snowy Saturday a few weeks ago and I thought about how cold it was outside and how even after a few cups of coffee how miserable it would be to leave the house to go get a bagel. And Barry's Bagels are damn delicious (a Toledo favorite!), but its just so, so cold outside.

    "What can I do?" I thought. "I'm just one man."

    This was the point at which I decided I was going to be the kind of guy who could make his own bagels. "How will my life change?" I wondered. "Will I have to make all new friends? Will people in the bagel-making community ever accept me?"

    And could bagel making change my life? Will I ever be the same person? I mean look what happened to this guy:

    Time to make the bagel?
    In short of 15 years, he ended up like this:

    I am guessing this guy did not enjoy a lot of bagels.

    But I threw caution to the wind. I decided to let my yeast flag fly- with delicious results.

    I pulled the recipe from here:

    Simple. Quick. Bagel-y

    Makes 1 dozen bagels
    1 teaspoon instant yeast
    4 cups bread flour
    2 1/2 cups water
    1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
    3 3/4 cups bread flour
    2 3/4 teaspoons salt
    2 teaspoons malt powder
    1 tablespoon malt syrup, honey, or brown sugar
    Finishing touches:
    1 tablespoon baking soda for the water
    Cornmeal for dusting the pan
    Toppings for the bagels such as seeds, salt, onion, or garlic
    I like to start Saturday afternoon. I make the sponge with some warm water and I place it on the stove's range with the oven at 350 below. This brings the temperature to about 85 degrees- which the yeast seems to enjoy. I cover first with plastic wrap (which clings to nothing but itself) and then with a tea towel. I let it rise for two hours until it looks like this:


    After the sponge has risen, I pour it into Mariah's Kitchen Aid mixer, which almost sort of works. I add in the yeast and the barley malt syrup first, then raise the bowl up and slowly add the flour. And one point, the dough hook starts to freak out a bit because the dough is too thick. If you are smart, you will know when this happens. If you are me, you will smell the motor being destroyed and rush to shut off the machine.

    At this point, you just need to knead for about 10 minutes. The idea is to knead it until it gets good and stretchy and then finally roll it into a foot long tube. Then you just cut it into 12 equal pieces:

    Equal-ish. Math is hard.

    Then you just roll each segment into a ball and place on parchment paper on a cooking sheet. Give it about 20 minutes covered with a damp tea towel. I like to put it on the range again with the oven at 350. I figure that gives me the best shot to get optimum rising. After about 20 minutes, the dough will have risen noticeably. To test if it has risen enough, see if the dough ball will float in a bowl of cold water. Unless you really screwed it up- it will. Then punch your thumb through the ball and make it look like a bagel. At this point you can cover it with the damp tea towel and put it in the refrigerator until you sober up in the morning.

    The morning is simple. And what a great way to wake up knowing that delicious bagels are just a few steps away.

    Start to boil 4 qts of water in a stock pot on high. When your boil starts to roll, add a tablespoon of baking soda. Preheat your oven to 500.

    Throw in the bagels two at a time. Boil on each side for 1 minute and then place on the parchment paper. Once you have all 12 done, crack an egg and add a little water. Apply the eggwash to the top of the bagels. Add your toppings. I like 4 kosher salt, 4 sugar and cinnamon, 4 grated asiago cheese.

    Place your bagels in the oven at 500 for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, reduce the heat to 450 and rotate the cooking sheets. Pull out the bagels when they are nicely browned.

    yes, please.

    Let them cool, enjoy and suddenly you're a guy who makes bagels.


    Smoked Chicken (with sausage stuffing)

    A happy byproduct of this winter-that-never-was has been my ability to routinely run the smoker (with delicious results). We have enjoyed a couple briskets, some smoked chickens and a few other Brinkmann-related adventures.

    This Saturday I decided to smoke another chicken. I did one a few weeks ago and was literally stunned by how tremendously tremendous the bird came out. I decided to modify my recipe a bit and stuff the bird and see how it turned out.

    I started again with a Brine Marinade:

    The Brine:

    • 1 quart warm water
    • 1/2 cup honey
    • 3 1/2 ounces kosher salt, approximately 3/4 cup
    (dissolve the salt and honey as full as possible before proceeding with the marinade ingredients)

    The Marinade:

    Cayenne Pepper
    Chipotle Chili Powder
    Onion Powder
    Precious, precious Bourbon (1 cup)

    (Outside of the bourbon I didn't measure anything, and I only measured the bourbon as I could not conceive of parting with more than a cup. No chicken is worth more than a cup of Bulleit Bourbon. Period. Anyway, my basic plan was to keep it savory, have the cumin smell dominate and get a little bit of heat to brighten up the breast meat.)
    That's a 6lb roaster. She grew up in the suburbs and has never known a day of stress in her life. 

    I gave the bird 24 hours in the brine marinade. In a perfect world, she would have been in a gallon zip-lock bag to ensure even distribution of the brine marinade, but life isn't always so simple. I used a lock tight container and flipped it over ever 4 hours or so.

    After 24 hours, I removed the bird and thoroughly washed off the brine (inside and out). I patted dry with paper towel and applied the rub. There are good rubs out there to try, but honestly, I just threw this one together. As long as you don't go crazy (ground TicTacs and ketchup?), I think you are going to be ok. Mine was largely paprika, chili powder, onion powder, thyme and brown sugar. I waited to add the salt until the last step (the crisping of the skin) because i didn't want to chance drying out the breast.

    Soon enough, my precious....soon enough.
    The Stuffing:

    I set the bird aside to allow it to approach room temperature so as to ensure a more even cooking. This move was met with much consternation, but I am pretty sure this was safe. (Please don't tell my mother.) In the mean time, I got to work on the stuffing.

    Alton Brown and I are in a bit of tiff over this. Gone are they days where Alton and I skipped hand in hand through the golden meadows of gourmet cooking. I feel like ever since he lost all that weight he thinks he's a little too good for me. I caught him smoking a pork butt in a flower pot and I changed our relationship status to "Its Complicated". Then I read up on his thoughts on stuffing the bird. Alton seems to think that unless you put the stuffing in a plastic bag, you will be killed. His theory is that you basically have to choose between overcooking the bird or undercooking the stuffing (the latter of which apparently will result in instant death). I am not a scientist (technically), but i am not sure this is Fugu life or death scenario. At any rate, I decided to be cautious, and remove the stuffing from the bird prior to serving and bake it to 165. This seemed to cover the required delicious chicken-y goodness quotient relative to likelihood of suffering salmonella poisoning.

    I used Ina Garten's sausage stuffing recipe because it seemed pretty clean and simple and had sausage in it:

    Sausage and Herb Stuffing2008, Ina Garten, All Rights Reserved

    • 16 cups 1-inch bread cubes, white or sourdough (1 1/2 pound loaf)
    • 2 cups medium-diced yellow onion (2 onions)
    • 1 cup medium-diced celery (2 stalks)
    • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
    • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
    • 1 cup chicken stock
    • 1 cup dried cranberries
    Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.
    Place the bread cubes in a single layer on a sheet pan and bake for 7 minutes. Raise the oven temperature to 350 degrees F. Remove the bread cubes to a very large bowl.
    Meanwhile, in a large saute pan, melt the butter and add the onions, celery, apples, parsley, salt and pepper. Saute over medium heat for 10 minutes, until the vegetables are softened. Add to the bread cubes.
    In the same saute pan, cook the sausage over medium heat for about 10 minutes, until browned and cooked through, breaking up the sausage with a fork while cooking. Add to the bread cubes and vegetables.
    Add the chicken stock and cranberries to the mixture, mix well, and pour into a 9 by 12-inch baking dish. Bake for 30 minutes, until browned on top and hot in the middle. Serve warm.

    You'll note I did not bake the stuffing in a 9 X 12 bowl. This is because I am not a coward. Also, it is worth pointing out that her recipe is actually "dressing" as "stuffing" would indicate the materials was stuffed somewhere other than into grateful faces.

    All of you are not going to fit in my chicken. All of you will fit in my belly.

    I let the stuffing cool a but and then I straight up jammed it into the chicken. I do not know if this is the preferred method of installation, but I have never stuffed a bird before- so I kept it simple.
    After stuffing, I trussed the chicken to ensure even cooking and to keep the stuffing from un-stuffing. I used Brian Polcyn's trussing method as he seems like a guy who knows that he is doing:

    So the bird is brined, marinaded, rubbed, stuffed and trussed. On to the smoker!

    The Smoker:

    What can I say about my smoker that Seal has not already said so eloquently?

    There is so much a man can tell you,
    So much he can say.
    You remain,
    My power, my pleasure, my pain, baby
    To me you're like a growing addiction that I can't deny.
    Won't you tell me is that healthy, baby?
    But did you know,
    That when it snows, 
    My eyes become large and the light that you shine can be seen.

    There used to be a graying tower alone on the sea.
    You became the light on the dark side of me.

    I started with regular old Kingsford briquets in the chimney. I got them nice and hot and poured them into the charcoal pan. I quickly added the water pan and the grill surface and covered. I have toyed around with apple cider and other flavored liquids for the water pan when I have smoked pork, but in this case between the brine, the marinade and the rub I had so much going on, i decided not just stick with water.

    I find that in cold weather, a full chimney gets me to about 210-225 with the vent door open. I threw on a mix of apple wood and hickory chips (3:2) and let the smoker warm up. I threw the bird on breast side down, covered and walked away.

    My handy remote thermometer allowed me to sit in the nice warm house with  refreshing beer and watch my alma mater beat the Nittany Lions to put them in a position to tie for the Big Ten Basketball Championship (more on this later). I set the alarm on the thermometer to 225 and made a few adjustments to the coal and kept the smoke consistent until the end of the first hour. After the first hour, I turned the bird over (breast side up) to prevent the breast from drying out.

    After that it was more refreshing beer, more smoke and some slight adjustment to the coals to moderate the temperature.

    Then the snow came...

    As I watched the Spartans blow a 10 point halftime lead (at Breslin) dark clouds were forming behind the ample tree line of Densmore St. I continued on unaware of the impending disaster as I happily celebrated my Michigan Wolverines' first Big Ten Basketball title since 1986.....but something was wrong. Somewhere buried under the sounds of my elated cheers and the din of the television broadcast, a little digital alarm was sounding: the snow had taken it's first victim.

    The following morning, there were 3.5 inches on the ground, but late in hour 3 of my smoke it was just starting to accumulate. My grill temperature feel from 220 to 145 degrees in about 10 minutes. The core temperature of the breast was 154 degrees, so i opted to cut my losses and finish the bird in the oven.

    Fortunately, I had been cooking the excess dressing at 350. I untrussed the bird, and scooped out the stuffing- which I added to the dressing in the oven. I put the bird in a roasting pan (breast side down), drizzles with olive oil, sprinkled with kosher salt and baked uncovered until the core temperature reached 165 (and the skin was crispy and delicious).

    Just off the grill

    and finally:

    This is after almost dropping it.

    The meat is moist and tender. The smoke flavor with the marinade is just tremendous. The rub with the crispy skin is just about perfect. The stuffing killed no one (not even close). The method is fairly involved (lots of steps), but not difficult at all. Take a nice quiet weekend, buy a six pack of a nice IPA, and hope a blizzard doesn't knock your smoker over.