Saturday, October 29, 2011

Iron Chef at Home - Battle: Cheddar!

Hey there!

I'm sure most of you have caught an episode or two of the TV show Iron Chef America. I watch it nearly religiously (well, whenever I'm home at 8 pm on a weekday); I really enjoy the way the competing chefs put together super-neat meals apparently out of thin air.

The basics of the program are this: A professional guest chef challenges one of the "Iron Chefs", the secret ingredient is revealed (each course needs to feature this ingredient as the central feature), then the chefs have an hour to whip together 5 courses. Once time has elapsed, the meals are served to a panel of judges who then score the meals based on taste, presentation and originality. The winner is the one with the highest score. And that's it!

Now, adapting this to the home cook is pretty much impossible, but I've heard of a variety of methods folks have made their own "Iron Chef" competition for fun. Good example: some campers at the Blue Skies music festival did a "Battle: Potato" after leaving a dozen spuds cooking in the campfire the night before.

So, sure enough, Kari and I gave it a go in our own way on . It really stemmed from her talking about making Broccoli-Cheddar Soup and my responding by saying "I could make mine and we'll compare". And from there the idea blossomed to do a "Battle: Cheddar". So, for a couple of days we set about cobbling our ideas, recipes (very much a departure from the TV show) until that Friday it was "go" time!

A big hunk of "secret ingredient"

We fleshed out the details to be that we would each make 4 dishes at the same time, then eat them in turn (one of mine, then one of Kari's and so on) and generally compliment how good we are at cooking. I had the insane notion of using the 1-hour time limit, but luckily Kari talked me out of it, especially since it took us about 2 and a half hours! And Kari skipped making her dessert, so we only had 7 dishes in the end. To be fair to ourselves, the people on Iron Chef are professionals, have 2 sous-chefs and their own kitchen set-up. Kari and I had to do it all ourselves while using only one kitchen (there was some close-calls in the running-into-each-other department).

That being said, it was really, REALLY tasty food and we had a blast making it. Now, Kari and I have very different cooking styles. She likes to find really interesting recipes on the Internet or in cookbooks and try them out, tweaking as she goes. Me, I like to make stuff up on the spot (or shortly before) and fix it as I go. This sometimes leads to ruined dishes, but I guess I have to be true to my rebellious nature. So, in the name of simplicity, and accuracy, I'm going to present my recipes as I conceived them, while linking the recipes Kari made to the original online resources.

If you're going to cook 7 dishes at the same time, you might want to unplug this!


First Dish - Potato-Bacon-Cheddar Frycake with Spiced Honey

This one started as a conceptual nod of the hat to the Czech fast food juggernaut known as smazeny syr, which is a breaded patty of Edam cheese deep fried, put on a bun and topped with a glob of mayo. Well, I didn't really think that would be a proper use of our "secret ingredient", so I started wondering what might make a good "patty"-like appetizer. And slowly, I conceptualized having a hash brown-type potato cake on the bottom with melted cheddar on top all breaded together. And then, naturally, I decided to throw in some bacon. I don't think further explanation is required. Well, of course, when it come together, not all the elements were working well - the potatoes weren't quite right and I'd chopped the bacon too coarsely. So, with my usual "frak it" attitude, I went ahead and made the "frycake" as best as I could. What I lost in best texture and presentation, I made up for in flavour. The idea of garlic-and-sriracha-spiked honey drizzled over top helped in that department.

The recipe below describes more what I should have done rather than what I actually did.
Serves 4



Boiling potatoes for the Frycake
- 2 potatoes, finely diced
- 4 slices smoked bacon, cooked and finely chopped
- 1/2 cup old cheddar, grated
- 1/2 cup milk
- 2 tbsp butter
- 1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs
- fat for frying (bacon fat, butter or vegetable oil)

- Boil potatoes until tender and drain.
- Add milk and butter and mash potatoes to desired consistency (thicker, but not lumpy).
- Stir in bacon and cheddar and form into patty.
- Heat fat for frying in a fairly large frying pan.
- Fry until both sides are golden brown and crispy and cheese has melted.
- Serve drizzled with Spiced Honey.

Spiced Honey on the left, Cheddar "Chips" on the right.
 Spiced Honey

- 3 tbsp honey
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tsp butter or olive oil
- 1/2 tsp maple syrup
- 1 tsp sriracha sauce


- Melt butter/heat oil in a frying pan and fry the garlic until golden (be careful not to burn it - discard any burnt pieces)
- Add cooked garlic, syrup and sriracha to honey and let sit for 30-60 minutes.

Here's how it looked on the plate (sorry for the failed crop job) - it could definitely use some refinement to the presentation, but MAN was it tasty!

Giving it a try...

She likes it!

Second Dish - Beer-Broccoli-Cheddar w. Egg Salad "Crouton"

Kari got this one from the Food Network and stripped it down. There was no "Bavarian wheat beer" but rather a Creemore offering, but I don't remember which variety. Here's the original recipe post:

Broccoli and beer - how could you go wrong?

The result was terrific and my gal tweaked the recipe for the egg-bacon mixture that topped the "crouton" to include some super-tasty smoked paprika. It gave it an extra element of smokiness that was just awesome...

... And what a gorgeous presentation!

That's one helluva crouton!

Mmmm, slurpy goodness!

 Third Dish - Shrimp "Gratinée"

Alright, I don't really know if the term "gratinée" (or gratin) quite applies to this recipe, since most "gratin" involves topping a kind of casserole with cheese and breadcrumbs for browning. I didn't do that here. Really, this was a kind of shrimp and veggie sauté that I transferred to a pie dish, covered with cheese and set under broiler until the cheese was bubbling and golden. OK, so maybe "gratinée" is accurate... Either way, I had fun making it and thoroughly enjoyed eating it!

Shrimp "gratinée"


- 1/2 pound thawed and peeled medium shrimp
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 red pepper, finely chopped
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 2 stalks celery, finely chopped
- 1 cup (200 g) white or cremini mushrooms, quartered
- pinch dry basil (or 1 tsp fresh basil, chopped)
- pinch dry oregano (or 1 tsp fresh oregano, chopped)
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- handful baby spinach leaves, rinsed clean
- 4 kalamata olives, sliced (optional)
- 1/2 cup grated old cheddar
- 2 tbsp flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped


- In a large frying pan, heat oil on medium heat
- Once hot, add garlic, onion, red pepper and celery and sauté for about 10 minutes.
- Add shrimp, mushrooms, salt, pepper, basil, oregano and wine and sauté for another 10 minutes.
- Add spinach and olives (if using) and stir-fry until spinach has wilted.
- Turn on broiler
- Transfer mixture to an oven-proof dish and place under broiler until cheese is bubbling and golden.
- Top with parsley and serve.

You kind of need a glass of white wine with this dish

Fourth Dish - Cheddar Dumplings in Tomato Sauce

This tasty bit of cheesy goodness was Kari's and, unfortunately, it was the plate that broke our bellies' back. It also was a bit overdone. But the non-burnt parts were lovely!

Here's the recipe Kari originally used, but she used her own tomato sauce recipe, which is her secret, but the dumplings were super-tasty. Unfortunately, they were pretty dense and after 4 dishes full of cheese, that was about all we could handle.

Fluffy goodness!


And, after all that feasting, the inevitable outcome was:

Full of cheddary goodness and snuggling a cat. Life is sooo hard!

Now, there are still three dishes that we made but didn't get a chance to eat. I'll present those in a subsequent post.

So, the lesson learned from Iron Chef at Home? Well, for me, it's that the best part of kickass cuisine is always the preparation! Although the eating part isn't too shabby either...

Until next time, make sure your kitchen is the second most exciting room in your home!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

So bad, it's good! (and vice versa)

OK, we all know that I tend to go a little crazy with some of the meals I make. There's a reason my size 34 jeans aren't quite as roomy as they once were. But, what can I do? I love making food and someone's gotta be there to taste test it!

But once in a while I think I go too far. An example of this comes from one recent evening, as I was watching the Food Network yet again. This time I was tuned to a show called Eat Street, which is all about the burgeoning food truck industry across North America (although in Ottawa, said industry has quite a ways to go).  On one episode they featured a place called Pig Vicious out of Austin Texas. Naturally, their shtick is bacon. And being obnoxious crust punks (that's a compliment in my circles). Anyhoo, one of their tasty treats was Bacon-Wrapped Pickles. I know what you're thinking, CRAZY! Well, stand back, because they deep fry that muther!

I'd seen all I needed, I jumped up and declared that this was going to be part of the "nibblies" meal Kari and I were trying to figure out for that night. And I did it! God help me, I did it! And you can do it too! Just consider yourselves warned: unless you have a bucket of water nearby, DO NOT eat more than three of these! One of these is probably half your daily sodium intake.

So, here's how you make them:

Deep Fried Bacon-Wrapped Pickles (for 8 pieces)


- 2 high-quality dill pickles, quartered into spears
- 8 strips bacon
- 8 toothpicks
- 1 cup vegetable oil for frying


- Take piece of bacon and wrap tightly around pickle spear.
- Affix bacon into place with toothpick (otherwise the bacon will unravel while cooking, as you can see in the picture below).
- Place oil in a small saucepan, allowing for enough depth to deep fry pickles. Heat oil on medium-high (to test if the oil is ready, flick a drop or two of water into the oil from a couple of feet back. If it sizzles, the oil is ready for frying).
- Drop pickles in one at a time into oil using slotted spoon or tongs. Fry 4 pieces at a time (so two batches total) for about 3-4 minutes or until bacon has reached desired crispiness.
- Remove from oil using slotted spoon or tongs. Place finished pickles on paper towel to drain oil.
- Serve with Homemade Ranch Dressing (recipe to follow).

Deep Fried Bacon-Wrapped Pickles! BOW DOWN! Also, they kinda look like severed Mummy fingers, so if you're having a Halloween party, these might fit that bill too!  

So, of course if you're going to be this decadent, you need a dipping sauce too! So, as Deep-Fried Pickles in a pub normally come with Ranch Dressing, we figured we'd make our own. I left the task to Kari who went to the Internet to find our how it's made. She found this:

Now, we were missing buttermilk and sour cream,  but these were replaced fairly effectively with yogurt and cream cheese. Also, a couple of drops of liquid smoke helped give the dressing a flavour more complimentary to the bacon.

So, basically stir together all the ingredients you see in the picture to the left, add some liquid smoke and there you go!

There was some cheating involved in this "Nibblies-o-thon". We made sliders (mini-burgers) but they were store-bought President's Choice "Smokin Stampede Brisket Mini Beef Sliders". That being said, we did top them with homemade Bruschetta  (with some chopped Kalamata olives thrown in for good measure). I don't know if Bruschetta Burgers are a thing, but it worked pretty well here!

Bruschetta Sliders and a six of beer, sounds like a good night to me!

So, once everything was compiled, here was the entire spread:

It ain't health food, but sometimes you gotta go for artery clogging goodness!

And that is that! It was a tasty meal full of salty treats. Not something to do on regular basis, but we all need the occasional junk-food-esque pig-out (or at least a sampling).

Until next time!


Thursday, October 20, 2011

Building the Bases Yourself

One of my favourite aspects of home cooking is making something from scratch that most people would never dare to. Things like spice blends, sauces, condiments and curry pastes are usually store-bought and most cookbooks will assume that on the reader's behalf. You'll often see in cookbooks entries like "2 tablespoons store-bought xyz".

Unfortunately, most store bought "mélanges" feature the same problem that all processed food does: too much goddamn salt or too boring a flavour! So, today I'm going to show a few examples of blends, mixes and pastes that I make myself and find a damn sight better than anything I can find at the supermarket. Let's first look at Thai Red Curry Paste.

Thai Red Curry Paste

In the case of most Thai cooking, most recipes, including curries, ask for more salt than I'm comfortable using. But at least when you make it yourself you get to control the amounts of whatever the ingredients are. So, if you think the recipe's calling for too much salt or spice or whatever, who says you have to follow it to the letter? Cooking is always, ALWAYS about making food you want to eat the way you want to eat it.

I first came across this Red Curry Paste recipe in a cheap little 5$ softcover Thai cookbook and have been tweaking it for years. But the basics as presented do make for a tasty, tasty curry. Now, most Thai Red Curry Paste recipes call for something called "shrimp paste", which is pretty much what it sounds like. Thing is, shrimp paste contains a metric frak-ton of sodium, and it goes bad a lot faster than someone like me can use it. So, I stopped bothering. I never found the shrimp paste added that much to the curry. Also, this allows for a vegetarian curry paste without really sacrificing any flavour.


- 10-12 red Thai chili peppers (also called "Bird's-eye peppers"), seeded and ribs removed - basically, using rubber gloves, slice each chili in half with a sharp knife, cut away all white parts (the "ribs") and rinse away the seeds under cold water. The seeds and ribs provide most of the heat. If you want a more fiery paste, keep some or all of the seeds and ribs. Don't say I didn't warn you though!
- 4 shallots, thinly sliced (I wouldn't recommend substituting onion in this case)
- 3 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 tbsp chopped galangal (similar to ginger with more of a licorice flavour, available fresh at most Asian grocers) - substitute with ginger if not available
- 2 stalks lemon grass, chopped (you only want the soft middle part of the lemon grass, discard the wooden exterior)
- 5 fresh kaffir lime leaves, chopped (substitute with dry if fresh not available. Both can be found at Asian grocers, especially Thai ones. Go figure!)
- 4 fresh cilantro roots, chopped (when buying a bunch of fresh cilantro, chop off the roots and set aside to use for curry pastes)
- 10-12 black peppercorns
- 1 tsp ground coriander seeds
- 1/2 tsp ground cumin seeds
- pinch of cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp shrimp paste (purely optional)
- 2 tbsp olive or vegetable oil


To make the paste, all you have to do is toss all the ingredients into a food processor and pulse, adding a bit of oil at a time, until everything is well blended and "pasty". See below.

Not terribly "red", is it?

Really authentic Curry Paste is done up in a mortar and pestle, but it's time consuming and fairly coarse, which doesn't allow the flavours to blend as well. At least that's my opinion.
So, now all you have to do is use this homemade paste instead of store bought, and you'll make this version of Red Curry better by leaps and bounds. Trust me!

Spice Blends

Spice blends are one of my all-time favourite ways to play with flavours in fun ways that reflect what I like best. Now, I'll admit making your own spice blends is somewhat labour intensive. Who wants to whip together a curry powder from scratch when so many shops offer a wide and delicious variety? And in many cases, I'll agree. I've never bothered making my own curry powder, garam masala, herbes de provence, poultry seasoning, etc...

But there's at least one that I've come to find indispensable (Can you guess which one? Hint: it starts with a "b") and I think any BBQer worth his tongs should at least try to make their own personalized rib or pulled pork rub at some point. Which brings me to the next recipe.

In my last post, I talked about a local multicultural supermarket called Grace Ottawa that sells dried Guajillo, Arbol, Cascabel and Mulato chillies. Well, the next spice blend is one I invented using all four and a few other ingredients. But before I get into the recipe, I figure a little description of each chilli is warranted:

- Guajillo chillies

These are long, thin, fairly mild with smoky undertones and fruity/cocoa flavour. Think dark chocolate covered raisins.

- Arbol chillies

These are thin and quite small, basically similar in appearance to the Thai bird's-eye chilli but longer. These have a fairly straight-forward chilli heat and flavour, reminiscent of cayenne pepper but a little brighter. Essentially you could grind up a bunch of these into powder and use was a replacement for cayenne pepper with very little difference in flavour and heat.

- Cascabel chillies

These look a little like bell peppers, but much smaller (about the size of a small plum) and have a flavour similar to guajillo chilis, but with a bit more heat. They taste a bit like red wine.

- Mulato chillies

Mulato chillies are a bit weird looking, they're wrinkly like a raisin. They have minimal heat and a sweeter flavour with hints of licorice on top of the guajillo's fruity/chocolatey flavour. These are a common ingredient in molé sauce.

So, those are just a few chillies among many others commonly used in Mexican cooking, but also adapted by chefs around the world.

Now, the great thing about dried chillies (and many dried ingredients) is that with enough effort and patience, ANYTHING can become powder, which means anything can become a spice blend, and by extension, a rub for meat.

Another neat dried item I've found in multicultural/Asian groceries are dried kaffir lime leaves. While I prefer using fresh lime leaf when cooking Thai food (see above), I like the ability to pulverize into a powder that can add amazing flavour to spice blends.

Another fun seasoning to work with is star anise. Star anise has a (VERY!) strong licorice flavour and it's easy to go too far and it'll overpower whatever you're making. So use it sparingly.

When working with star anise, you'll only want to use part of the pod, unless you want enormous licorice flavour.

So, now to put all these crazy flavours together along with some friends in what I like to call Four Chilli Powder (I know, I'm Mr. Originality).

Four Chilli Powder Spice Blend

Before you get started on this, go buy a cheap coffee grinder. GO! NOW! OK, got it? Good, because without some kind of spice grinder, this whole effort is kinda futile.

Ingredients (adjust amounts and ratios as you see fit)

- 1 guajillo chilli
- 1 mulato chilli
- 3-4 arbol chillies
- 2 cascabel chillies
- 4-5 dried kaffir lime leaves
- 1/2 tsp whole coriander seeds
- 1/2 tsp whole cumin seeds
- 1/4 star anise pod (2 "arms" and seeds contained within)
- 2-3 green cardamom pods (you can crack the pods and just use the seeds, but I find the "shells" also infuse flavour. Whatever part of the pod doesn't get properly ground you can throw out)
- 1/2 tsp salt (I like to use smoked salt)
- 1 tsp smoked paprika (optional)


- In batches, depending on the size of your spice grinder, grind all ingredients until they become a powder (or as powdery as you want)
- Mix everything together in a bowl and store in glass jars
- For rib or pulled pork rub - Mix 1 part spice blend to 2-3 parts brown sugar (depending on how spicy you want to make your meat) and rub onto meat 12-24 hours before cooking, wrapping in plastic.

So, there you go, a couple more examples of how you can make your own personalized pastes, blends, etc. If there's one thing I encourage in the kitchen, it's to give your food your own touch! Enjoy! Play! Have fun! And if it sucks, at least you tried!