Saturday, January 29, 2011

Guest Chef Night ... Creating the Menu

With less than a month to go before both Clare's father, Frank Savage and I will be guest chefs at Rag's Italian Bistro, we have been busily working on creating our menu.  I have to say that designing a menu of several courses for thirty or more people is a rather difficult task.  Some of the guests are vegetarians and do not eat meat; some eat seafood while others do not.  So, Frank and I have to design a menu that will appeal to a large group of people with diverse preferences. With all of in mind, Frank and I have put a lot of thought into each dish to ensure that the meal as a whole will be a great success.

And, with all of our planning, we are proud to announce our menu.  With Italy being our inspiration, we have designed a traditional meal beginning with an appetizer, a "prima" or first course, followed by a "secondo" or second course with a side, and finish with a light dessert. Although still subject to change, we will be serving the following menu at Rags Italian Bistro for the Guest Chef Night on Monday, February 21, 2011:

Antipasta: Mushroom Gratinate
Based on a recipe from Lidia Bastianich, this is not just your ordinary crostini.  A slice of fresh, lightly toasted bread that is smothered with mushrooms, garlic, and fresh herbs, and then topped with grated Parmigano Reggiano cheese. 

Prima: Chickpea and Escarole Soup
This Sicilian soup combines a lot of healthy and tasty ingredients together for a great experience.  Chickpeas and escarole cooked in vegetable broth with the rinds of Parmigiano Reggiano rounds.  This soup will provide a lot of flavor without filling you up. 

Secondo: Couscous alla Trampanese con il Pollo o i Pesci
This is a dish from the Sicilian town of Trampani, that brings together all of the culinary influences that have enriched the island of Siciliy. Frank and I will be making two versions of this couscous and offering guests a choice of the couscous with fish or couscous with chicken.

Contorno: Green Beans with a Cherry Tomato Salad
This is a cold side dish featuring cooked green bean with a cherry tomato salad tossed with a lemon vinaigrette dressing.  This side dish is based upon a recipe from Julia Child.

Dolce: Ricotta Cheese with Honey and Toasted Walnuts  
Fresh ricotta cheese, drizzled with honey and toasted walnuts.  A light way to end the meal.

Now, I'll turn my attention to possible wine pairings for this meal.  More to come ...


Thursday, January 27, 2011

Birrificio Montegioco Demon Hunter

Italy has some great craft brewers ... Birrificio Barley, Birrificio del Ducato, Birra Baladin, and Birrificio Grado Plato just to name a few.  But I kept seeing reviews for a beer called "Demon Hunter" that is produced by Birrificio Montegioco. So, when I came across a bottle of Demon Hunter at State Line Liquors in Elkton, Maryland, which has a wide range of craft beers, I decided to buy a bottle.

Montegioco is a small town in the Piedmont region of Italy and, from that little town, Birrificio Montegioco produces a range of beers with names like Runa, Ratweizen, Draca, and Bastarna.  The Demon Hunter or "La Cacciatrice" is based upon a Belgian Style Dark Ale.  Popping the cap on the bottle sounded more like opening a champagne bottle than a bottle of beer.  As I began to pour the beer, I noted that it pours a deep amber with a significant amount of foam. Indeed, the beer seemed to act more like a sparkling wine rather than a dark ale.

The beer also defies the Belgian Style Dark Ale in certain other respects.  For example, the Demon Hunter is lighter than other Dark Ales that I've tried.  In addition, Belgian Style Dark Ales often have aromatic elements and tastes that remind the drinker of raisins, figs, plums and prunes.  The aromatic elements of the Demon Hunter give the drinker a lot of brighter, more summery fruit, like strawberries, raspberries, plums and grapes.   These fruit flavors are also present in the taste of the beer, although they have to compete with the malts and the yeasts, which provide flavors more traditionally associated with beer.   As the beer warms, the complexity of the beer continues to entice the drinker.  Overall, this is a very good beer and, with an ABV of 8.5%, it is one that you should enjoy at a leisurely pace.

I would ordinarily recommend this beer (and, do not get me wrong, I do recommend it), but I feel like I should disclose that the 1 pint, 9.4 fluid ounce bottle costs more than $20.00.  It is also fairly difficult to find, being only available at stores like State Line Liquors in Elkton, Maryland or Binny's Beverage Depot in Chicago.


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Cuscusu (Sicilian Couscous with Fish)

The largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily, has a very interesting history, which has left its mark on Sicilian cuisine.  The Greeks brought farming to the island.  The Romans turned Sicily into a breadbasket for the mainland.  However, it is the Arabs that brought changes that have endured in the cuisine of Sicily.  Arabs brought irrigation to the island, as well as a host of fruits and vegetables that are not just common, but perhaps synonymous with the cuisine, such as eggplants, oranges, pistachios and lemons.  Arabs also introduced spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and saffron.  And, finally, Arabs introduced couscous.

This recipe is from a cookbook called Regional Italian Cuisine, which provides more than 200 recipes from every region of Italy.  The recipe requires everything to be made from scratch, including the fish stock used when steaming the couscous.  And, while I would ordinarily make my own fish stock, I decided to try to modify the recipe to make it easier for people to cook.  The first step to making the recipe easier is to substitute seafood stock for the fish stock, thereby allowing people to use fillets rather than whole fish to make the recipe.

I also made a couple of other adjustments.  First, cuscusu, like many Italian fish dishes (such as brodetto) usually is made with different types of fish.  However, that can be a little costly, as fish can be expensive.  So, I decided to make this dish with one fish, halibut, which is a more economical way of making this dish.  Second, I did not have any fresh parsley, so I skipped adding the parsley at the end.  But, in the future, I will definitely make sure that I have parsley to add as a garnishment.

The following is my adaptation of the recipe from Regional Italian Cuisine.  The original recipe can be found at pages 288-289.

CUSCUSU (Sicilian Couscous with Fish)
Serves 4-6

1 and 2/3 cups of couscous
1 big pinch of saffron
1 pinch of ground clove
1 pinch of ground nutmeg
1 pinch of cinnamon
1 and 1/2 to  2 pounds of mixed fish
6 cups of seafood stock
2 cups of flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 bay leaf
2 whole cloves
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste

1.  Prepare the fish and saffron.  Cut the fillets into even sized pieces, rinse those pieces and set aside in a refrigerator.  Dissolve the saffron in a few tablespoons of the stock.

2.  Cook the couscous.  Pour four cups of fish stock in a pot, with the bay leaf and whole cloves.  Bring the fish stock to a boil. Add the couscous in a heat resistant sieve or colander.  Moisten the couscous with the saffron and water.  Place the couscous over the boiling fish stock and cover.  Steam for about twenty minutes, periodically fluffing up the couscous, until it is done.

3.  Cook the fish.  Meanwhile, bring two cups of seafood stock to a boil in a deep pan or pot.  Place the fish in the stock and simmer for about five to ten minutes on medium. 

4.  Season the couscous.  When the couscous is done, season it with the salt, pepper, ground cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg and place on a preheated platter.

5.  Plate the dish.  Top the couscous with the fish and sprinkle the chopped parsley.


For more about the history of Sicilian cuisine, check out In Mama's Kitchen and Wikipedia.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Pollo alla Birra (Roasted Chicken with Beer)

I recently bought Lidia Bastianich's newest cookbook, Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy, because I was very interested in her recipes from the various regions of Italy.  Much of my Italian cooking is inspired by Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna and Abruzzo.  However, I bought the book to read and try Lidia's recipes from other, perhaps lesser-known regions, such as Basilicata or Trentino-Alto Adige.  With respect to the latter region, Trentino-Alto Adige is a mountainous region in northern Italy along the border with Switzerland and Austria.  Given its mountainous terrain, as well as its location, the cuisine of Trentino Alto-Adige has characteristics that are drawn more from German cuisine than Italian cuisine.

Perhaps the German influences explain the recipe for Pollo alla Birra (Roast Chicken with Beer), which was amongst the recipes that Lidia gathered from the region of Trentino-Alto Adige. Lidia leaves open the type of beer to use in the recipe, although she notes that, in testing the recipe, she used a pale ale and a brown ale, such as the Brooklyn East India Pale Ale or the Brooklyn Brown Ale.  Lidia also notes that the darker the beer, the more sweetness would be imparted onto the chicken.   I happen to have some leftover Old Miser from Franklin's Restaurant, Brewery and General Store.  It is an English Strong Ale, which has a very well developed body, primarily due to the use of select malts and molasses.  I thought that the molasses used in making the beer would add some complexity to the flavor of the chicken.  But, you can use really any beer in this recipe.

One other note: although the recipe calls for parsnips, I decided against buying a bag of parsnips because I do not normally cook with them.  However, you can substitute any root vegetable or, in this case, I substituted some potatoes that we had lying around the kitchen. 

POLLO ALLA BIRRA (Roast Chicken with Beer)
Adapted from Lidia Bastianich's
Serves 3-4

1 whole chicken
1 carrot, peeled, halved crosswise and quartered
2 medium onions, peeled, quartered through the root
2 medium parsnips (or other root vegetables),
     peeled, halved crosswise and quartered
2 tablespoons of fresh sage leaves
4 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
1 1/2 cups of chicken stock
1 1/2 cups beer (I used an English Strong Ale)
1 cup apple cider
2 teaspoons of kosher salt

1.  Prepare the chicken.  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.  Rinse the chicken thoroughly.  Trim the excess fat of of the chicken and season the chicken (inside and out) with salt.  Although Lidia suggests kosher salt, I used sea salt.

2.  Cook the vegetables and chicken on the stovetop.  Scatter the onions, carrot, parsnips (or other root vegetables), sage, cloves and cinnamon stick in a heavy six-quart ovenproof pot.  Set the chicken on top of the vegetables.  Put the pot on the top of the stove, add the stock, beer and apple cider.   Bring the liquid to a simmer over medium heat.  Cook, uncovered for about fifteen minutes on top of the stove.

3.  Cook the chicken in the oven.  Put the pot in the oven, cover the chicken and roast the chicken for about thirty minutes, basting the chicken with the pan juices at least two or three times.

4.  Continue to cook the chicken in the oven.  Remove the cover and continue to roast for another twenty to thirty minutes, basting frequently, until the chicken and the vegetables are cooked through and tender.

5.  Finish the dish.  Remove the chicken to a warm platter and surround with the vegetables.  Meanwhile, bring the pan juices to a boil and reduce by half.  Cut the chicken at the table and spoon some of the pan juices over the meat.

The chicken was cooked perfectly.  The meat was very juicy and full of apple flavor from the cider and sweetness from the beer.  As I continue to pick at the meat from the bones while I write this blog, I am satisfied that I have successfully prepared Pollo alla Birra for the first time.  And it will not be the last....


Sunday, January 23, 2011

Tuscan Vegetable Soup with White Beans and Parmesan

I feel honored to be the first guest blogger for Chef Bolek’s blog.  It is hard to compete with Keith’s words and history, but I will try. 

I knew how much Keith loved me when he was willing to accept a vegetarian in his life.  Keith often jokes about his master plan to convert me to being a meat eater again, but in the meantime, he enjoys trying new vegetarian friendly recipes with me.  Keith’s mom made this recipe for me the first Christmas I shared with his family.  It was very good but a great deal of preparation is involved.  After making it myself, I know his mom and dad love me too.

I made this soup this past Christmas for our guests and it turned out very well.  The soup is an interesting mix of beans, cabbage, tomatoes, celery, carrots and zucchini.  There are a couple of options for enhancing this soup, such as adding toasted slices of bread to the bottom of the bowl and spooning the soup over the bread.  I did those options this past Christmas and would recommend them when you make this recipe.

Serves many

1 pound of dried cannelloni (white kidney beans)
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons of fresh thyme
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1/4 head of green cabbage, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
2 cups chopped fresh tomatoes
4 celery stalks, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
3 carrots, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
10 cups of vegetable stock
2 medium potatoes, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1/2 cup of fresh basil, chopped
1/2 head of red cabbage cut into 1/2 inch pieces
6 3/4 inch thick slices of 7 grain bread, toasted (optional)
1 cup of grated Parmigiano Reggiano
Additional olive oil (optional)

1.  Place beans in a heavy large pot.  Pour in enough water to cover beans by 3 inches. Soak overnight.  Drain beans.  As an alternative, you can buy canned white beans.  Just make sure to rinse the beans before suing them.  

2.  Heat 2 tablespoons in a very large pot over medium heat.  Add onion, thyme and garlic.  Saute for five minutes.  Then add the green cabbage, tomatoes, celery and carrots.  Saute for an additional ten minutes.

3.  Add the beans, 10 cups of stock, potatoes and basil.  Bring to a boil, cover, and reduce the heat to allow for the soup to simmer.

4.  After 1 hour, add the red cabbage and zucchini.  Cover and allow the soup to continue to simmer until the vegetables are tender, which should be about twenty more minutes.

5.  Add toasted bread slices to soup and remove from heat; let stand for 10 minutes.

6.  Stir in cheese.

7.  Divide soup among bowls.  Top each with ground pepper and additional olive oil.

And, as Keith would say ...


Saturday, January 22, 2011

L'Abri de la Tempete Corps Mort

Located in an old fish processing plant on the Isles de Madeline, there is a craft brewer called L'Abri de la Tempete or "Shelter from the Storm."  The brewer's location, on an archipelago in the middle of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, provides the brewery with, not only character, but also the ability to make some very interesting and unique beers.  One such beer is "Corps Mort," or the "Dead Man."

The "Corps Mort" is a "salty" barleywine that, according to the brewer, is inspired by a rocky outcrop near the brewery.  Not only is the beer inspired by the locale, it is brewed using local ingredients, including smoked grains that are used by Le Fumoir d'Antan, a local smokehouse on the Isles de Madeline, that specializes in smoking herring and mackerel.

The Corps Mort pours a reddish color with a good layer of foam.  The aromatic elements of the beer suggest caramel, molasses or brown sugar.  The sweetness of the beer's aroma deceives the drinker, because the taste of the beer is anything but sweet.  Instead, the beer is intensely smoky.  What may seem like molasses to the nose, tastes like chipotle or ancho pepper to the tongue.  The smoke flavors comes from the grains that, as noted above, were used in the smoking of the herring.  (It is also the reason why the beer comes with the warning that there may be traces of smoked herring in the beer!)  As the beer warms, the smoky flavors become smoother.

The Corps Mort is also very dry, leading the drinker to sip it more like scotch than a beer.  This is a good thing, because the beer should be enjoyed slowly.  There is no reason to drink it fast.  First, the ABV is 11%, so it packs a punch.  Second, it is an excellent beer that should be savored.

This beer is available at Gilly's in Rockville, Maryland and other beer stores that sell a lot of craft beers.  The Corps Mort sells for more than $10.00 for a twelve ounce bottle.


Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Brew Kettle Copperhead Red Amber Ale

Often times, when I am in Cleveland, I visit a brewpub called the "The Brew Kettle Taproom and Smokehouse" in Strongsville, Ohio.  The Brew Kettle began as a brew on premises business, where people could brew their own batch of craft beer, using one of dozens of recipes.  I've made a couple of batches of beer at the Brew Kettle with my dad, with the last one being the East India Trading Company's Perilous Voyage Imperial Pale Ale.  We used the Brew Kettle's recipe and we were able to brew an excellent beer.

The Brew Kettle was such a success, that its owners decided to open The Brew Kettle Taproom and Smokehouse.  Guests are able to have some of the Brew Kettle's own beers, which are produced by the Brew Kettle Production Works, which operates a twenty barrel system to produce a line of beers such as the Big Woody, Erie Gold and Copperhead Red.

The American Amber Ale style gets its name from the amber hue of the beer, which is contrasted with the lighter color of other beers like pale ales.  The amber ale also contrasts with pale ales in other ways.  The amber ale is brewed in a way to achieve a balance between the malts and hops, which results in a beer that is mellower, less bitter and a smoother body than a pale ale.

The Copperhead Red is a good example of an Amber Ale.  When poured, the beer displays some reddish or amber hues, along with a good amount of carbonation.  The nose of the beer gives hints of the hops' citrusy aroma to the drinker, which is balanced by an equal hint of the two-row malts that may have been used to produce this beer. 

When drinking this beer, the malt flavors predominate up front.  The flavors of the two-row malts, along with the hint of caramel malts, give this beer a very good taste for an amber ale.  These flavors also suggest that the brewers have tilted the balance of the beer a little more toward the malts than the hops.  However, the taste of the hops comes out with the finish, completing the beer.

This is a beer will not overwhelm you with either malts or hops, because I don't believe that it was brewed with that intent.  Instead, it is a beer that provides you with a little of each, malts and hops, that leads to a very good drinking experience.

While The Brew Kettle bottles its own beers, those beers are distributed primarily in Ohio.  You can always pick up a bottle at The Brew Kettle Taproom and Smokehouse.  I strongly suggest a visit to the restaurant, because you can have the beer on tap along with a plate of pulled pork nachos, which are always very good.


For more information, check out the Beer Judge Certification Program.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Erath Oregon Pinot Noir (2006)

Earth, from which the grapes come.  Heart, from which the wine comes.  Taken together, you get  Erath.  The founder of Erath Winery, Dick Erath established one of the first vineyards on Chehalem Mountain in Oregon.  He and his winery also produced the first wines commercially in Dundee Hills.  The winery has thirteen vineyards, with names like Leland, Prince Hill and Quail Run, where Erath grows Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Gewurztraminer.

Both Clare and I visited Erath Winery's tasting room while we were in Willamette Valley.  We were able to taste four or five of their wines, including the Pinot Noir.  The Erath Pinot Noir is made with 100% Pinot Noir grapes from Willamette Valley and is aged in 25% French Oak barrels. 

We brought back a bottle of the 2006 Pinot Noir for us to enjoy at home and we recently opened the bottle.  The wine poured a nice ruby red and aromatics are nice, full of cherries and other fruit. According to the winemaker's notes, which I found on the website, there are black cherry aromas, with sweet mandarin orange.  While I could smell the black cherry, I was not quite getting the orange.  The winemaker also says that, as the wine opens, aromas of clove, vanilla, anise and caramel, some of which I found to become more prevalent as I drank the wine.  

The wine is milder and less earthy than other Pinot Noir wines that I have tasted.  I definitely was able to taste the cherry, as well as hints of the clove.  The milder taste of this wine makes it very drinkable, one that could be enjoyed with just about any meal. 

The 2006 vintage is sold out.  Nevertheless, I still post wines like this Erath Pinot Noir because, the wine is so good that I would definitely consider buying a more recent vintage.  To be sure, there may some differences in a wine from year to year.  However, given the history of the winemaker and the 2006 Pinot Noir, the odds are that I would be getting a great wine.

Erath is one of the more widely available Pinot Noir wines from the Willamette Valley.  You can find it at stores like Rodman's.  More recent vintages sell for about $18.99 a bottle.


Sunday, January 16, 2011

Around the World in 80 Dishes: Cuba

After having Hushuur in Mongolia, my culinary adventures take me half-way around the world to ... Cuba. The cuisine of Cuba reflects its history and culture, influenced by a melange of Caribbean, Spanish and African foods and cooking techniques.  The European influences are more predominant in Western Cuba, while the Caribbean and African influences are more present in Eastern Cuba.  And, for my personal culinary challenge, I decided to draw from the entire island with a main dish of Ropa Vieja, with a side of Congri (red beans and rice).  And, for good measure, I decided that I would also make my own Cuban sofrito.

I've had Ropa Vieja at Cuban or Latin American restaurants before, so the dish is not new to me.  However, I've never made that dish before.  I have also never made Congri or my own Cuban sofrito before.  So, this challenge represents some firsts for me and, as you will see, there will not be any lasts.


Ropa Vieja means "old clothes" in Spanish and it is a dish that is not only enjoyed in Cuba, but also in Panama, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.  This dish originated in the Canary Islands of Spain, which served as the last stop before the voyage to the Caribbean and the first stop when returning from the Caribbean.  In the Canary Islands, the dish was made with beef, chicken or pork, with garbanzo beans and potatoes.  However, in Cuba, it is just made with the meat, no beans or potatoes are added. 

In making this dish, I worked off of two recipes, which had different ways of preparing the dish.  The first way to prepare the dish (which is done by 3 Guys from Miami) is to prepare the meat separately from the sauce.  The second way (which is done by Taste of Cuba)  is to prepare the meat and cook it in the sauce.  The second recipe also included the use of sofrito, which I wanted to make as part of this challenge.  So, I combined both recipes, by first preparing the meat separately by simmering it in a broth with vegetables for a couple of hours and then preparing the sauce in the same pot, thereby enabling me to use the broth and browned bits in the sauce.  I also used some sofrito, in addition to the vegetables called for in the recipe, to give extra flavor to the sauce.

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients (for the beef):
2 pounds of flank steak
5 tablespoons of olive oil
1 large onion, sliced
1 green pepper, diced
5 cloves of garlic, chopped
Flour for dusting

Ingredients (for the sauce):
2 onions, diced
2 green peppers, diced
1 can of crushed tomatoes
4 ounces tomato paste
4 cloves of garlic, mashed with 1 teaspoon of salt
1 cup of red wine (I used Tempranillo)
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons of ground cumin
Olive oil for sauteing
Salt, to taste
Black pepper, to taste
6 ounces of sofrito (see recipe below)

1.  Brown the flank steak.  Dust the flank steak with flour, as well as salt and pepper the beef.   Heat the olive oil to medium high.   Brown the flank steak in a dutch oven or a deep cast iron pot.

2.  Simmer the steak with the vegetables.  Add enough water to surround the meat without covering it.  Add the onion, garlic and green pepper.  Simmer covered for about two hours. 

3.  Shred the steak.  When the meat is fork tender, then it is done.  Remove the meat to a platter and shred it. Discard the vegetables but save the broth.

4.  Prepare the sauce.  In the same pot that you cooked the meat, add additional olive oil for sauteing and heat to medium high.  Add the sofrito, along with the onions, garlic, and green pepper.  Saute until all of the vegetables are tender, which should be about ten minutes. Add the tomato paste, crushed tomatoes, cumin, red wine and bay leaf.  Also add a few ladles of the broth.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Let the sauce simmer for ten minutes.  Add the shredded beef and continue to simmer for about ten more minutes.  


Ropa Vieja is usually served with or on top of rice. As with prior challenges, I try to make a complete meal whenever I can, including side dishes and beverages if possible.  One of the most common rice and bean dishes is Moros y Christianos (Moors & Christians), which is made with black beans and white rice.  However, as I noted above, I wanted to draw from the entire island of Cuba with this challenge.  The Ropa Vieja, with its European history, represents the western part of Cuba.  I needed a recipe that represents Cuba Oriente, or the eastern part of Cuba.

So, I decided to make Congri, which is a variant of Moros y Christianos.  Instead of using black beans, recipes for Congri call for the use of red beans.  This dish is very easy to make, especially if you use canned beans instead of dried beans, which saves time in terms of cooking the beans.  It is also a very fragrant dish, as the oregano and thyme, combined with the tomatoes, will fill the kitchen with wonderful scents. 

CONGRI (Cuban Red Beans and Rice)
Adapted from Whats4Eats
Serves 4 to 6

2 cups red beans
2-3 tablespoons of olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 bay leaf
1 cup of rice
1 3/4 cup of chicken broth
1 tablespoon of red wine vinegar

1.   Saute the vegetables.  Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium flame. Add the onion and bell pepper and sauté until the onion is translucent. Add the garlic and sauté for another 1 to 2 minutes.

2.  Add ingredients.  Add the tomato sauce, beans and herbs.  Simmer for ten minutes.

3.  Add more ingredients.  Stir in the rice, broth and vinegar.  Season everything with salt and ground pepper.  Bring to a boil and the reduce, cover and simmer for about fifteen to eighteen minutes.

4.  Let the rice stand.  Remove from the heat and let stand for five to ten minutes.  Stir lightly and serve.


A sofrito is the term for the combination of finely cut ingredients that are sauteed in oil.  In Spanish cooking, a sofrito is the combination of garlic, onions and tomato, which are sauteed for a period of time in olive oil.  In Cuba, a sofrito has one additional ingredient ... green bell peppers. You could also add other ingredients, such as white wine, cumin or cilantro, but the basic recipe calls for five ingredients: garlic, onion, tomato, bell pepper and olive oil.  So, I stuck with that recipe, which is used by cooks and chefs as the basis for many dishes, including Ropa Vieja.

Adapted from Whats4eats
Makes 1 1/2 cups 

1 tomato, seeded and diced
1 onion, finely diced
1 green pepper, finely diced
1/8 cup of olive oil
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup olive oil

1. Saute the vegetables.  Heat 1/8 of a cup of olive oil over medium.  Add the onions and garlic.  Saute until the onions are translucent.

2.  Continue to cook the vegetables.  Add the diced tomato.  Stir and continue to cook until it reduces a little.

3.  Add olive oil.  Remove heat and stir in the 1/4 cup of olive oil.

Overall, I think this meal was a great success.  I was able to prepare the Vieja Ropa very well, cooking the flank steak to a point that it shredded easily.  Preparing the flank steak separately from the sauce also made the whole process a lot easier, reducing the mess of trying to pull the steak out of the sauce to shred it.  It also provided me with an additional ingredient to flavor the sauce, namely the broth in which the steak and vegetables had been cooking for two hours.  And, as for the final product, the Vieja Ropa was very good, the cumin balanced well with the tomato, although the flank steak was a little chewy.

The Congri was excellent.  The rice was cooked perfectly and was a very good counterpart to the red beans.  This dish can be modified to make it vegetarian by substituting vegetable broth or vegetable stock for chicken broth.  You could also use water instead of broth or stock, although I think that will lessen the favor of the dish.  I will definitely make this meal again, especially the Congri. Until next time....


For more information on Ropa Vieja, check out Wikipedia and for more information on sofrito, check out Wikipedia.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Pesci e Patate al Forno (Oven Roasted Fish and Potatoes)

This is a recipe that I created myself, inspired by a Patate al Forno recipe, which is a dish of oven-roasted potatoes and tomatoes that is made in Abruzzo and Apulia.  The layers of potatoes and tomatoes, with a generous sprinkling of cheese is a great side dish.  However, I was trying to make a main dish.  So out with the tomato and in with the fish.  In this case, I bought some halibut, although any fish will do. 

This dish is fairly simply to make, requiring only fish, potatoes, sage, olive oil and a lot of grated cheese, along with salt and pepper.  The key is to slice the potatoes as thinly as possible, so that they cook fast.  Also, you should grate the cheese as finely as possible, so that it can brown faster.  And use a hard cheese, like Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano Reggiano.

This dish is very "user-friendly," because you can tweak it any way you want.  You could add some diced garlic, shallots or onions.  You could also use other herbs, such as rosemary or basil.  You could even use different fish, although that will most likely change the cooking times. 

PESCI E PATATE AL FORNO (Oven Roasted Fish and Potatoes)
A Chef Bolek Original
Serves 2-3

About 1 pound of fish, cut into even sized pieces
4 medium-sized potatoes, peeled and sliced thinly
1/4 pound of Pecorino Romano, grated finely (at least)
4-5 tablespoons of olive oil
Sage, chiffonade (cut into thin strips)
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste

1.  Prepare the baking dish. Spread the olive oil along the bottom and sides of a glass casserole dish.  Then lay the potato slices on the bottom of the dish, making sure that the entire bottom of the dish is covered.

2.  Assemble the fish and potatoes.  Place the fish on top of the potato slices.  Salt and pepper the fish generously.  Apply a liberal amount of Pecorino Romano and sage.  Cover the fish with the remaining potato slices.  Once again, apply a liberal amount of Pecorino Romano and Sage.

3.    Bake the fish.  Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.  Place the casserole dish in the oven and cook for about 35 to 45 minutes.  When the cheese begins to brown and the fish begins to flake, it is done.

4.   Plate the dish. Plate each piece of fish with a good amount of the potatoes. Serve immediately.

This recipe is my quick and easy version of much more complicated recipes.  Overall, it turned out well.  Both Clare and I enjoyed this dish.  I'll be making it again, perhaps with some of the tweaks I mentioned above.


Friday, January 14, 2011

Oysters with a Sun-Dried Tomato and Parsley Mignonette

Sweet Oysters -- or Choptank Sweets -- are "aqua-cultured" or farmed oysters from the Chesapeake Bay.  These oysters are not raised at the bottom of the bay or on reefs, but in floats just below the surface of the water where they feast on algae.  The oysters are also removed at various points in their development to remove barnacles, mussels and other organisms from their shelles.  The result is a meaty oyster that is low in salinity and briny taste.

However, unlike other oysters, like Chesapeake oysters, the shells of Sweet Oysters are more brittle, making them harder to shuck.  (I'm speaking from experience.)  Once they are shucked, you are greeted with a meaty oyster that is actually sweet in taste (hence, the "sweet" in the name).

When thinking of the mignonette for a sweet oyster, I tried to think of flavors or tastes that would provide a contrast.  The first things to come to mind were earthy flavors.  The sweetness of the oysters are subtle and, therefore, the earthiness of the contrasting flavors also have to be subtle.  So, I chose sun-dried tomatoes and flat-leaf parsley for the mignonette.  The result was very good.

A Chef Bolek Original
Serves 2-3

12 fresh oysters, shucked (I used Chesapeakes, but any will do)
4 tablespoons of sun-dried tomatoes, chopped finely
2 tablespoons of flat leaf parsley, chopped finely
1 shallot, diced
2-3 tablespoons of white vinegar

 1.  In a non-reactive bowl, add the shallot, sun-dried tomatoes, parsley and vinegar. Mix all of the ingredients well. 

2.  Spoon the mignonette over the oysters.


To learn more about Choptank Sweets, check out Sustained Seas.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Sam Adams & Weihenstephan Infinium Ale

It is not very often that one comes across an attempt by a brewery to create a new beer style.  And it is even less often to find that new beer bottled in a champagne bottle.  And it is truly a unique experience to have that new beer be a collaboration between Sam Adams and Weihenstephan.  

Everyone knows about Sam Adams, but not everyone knows about Weihenstephan.  About a thousand years ago, it was a brewery run by a Benedictine monastery.  The brewery then became the Bavarian royal brewery and, today, it is the Bavarian state brewery.  Although it is a state brewery, it operates like a private business, guided by the principle of "class not mass."

The Infinium is marketed as a beer that combines European brewing with American innovation.  Brewers of Sam Adams and Weihenstephan worked for two years on the recipe of this beer, which marks the first champagne beer (i.e., the new beer style).  To make this beer, the breweries followed the Reinheitsgebot, which is the law passed in 1516 to maintain the purity of beer by limiting its ingredients to malt, hops and water.  The law was later amended to add yeast.  Using these four ingredients, Sam Adams and Weihenstephan have created a beer that is a first.

When you pour the infinium, the carbonation is about the same as a champagne.  So you need to pour it carefully.  The brewers say that the beer should have a fruity, spicy aroma, which I think is what I could smell after pouring the beer.  The brewers say that the use of Noble hops should impart a a soft citrus and floral flavor.  The flavors that I tasted were not necessarily soft citrus and floral, they were a little more a combination of bitter and fruity.  That is not necessarily a bad thing, but I when I think of soft citrus and floral, I think of a beer like the Fleurette.  At least for me, this beer does not achieve that result, but it is still a very good beer.

The beer is sold in champagne beers for $18.99 a bottle, which is a little pricey for beer but actually cheap for good champagne.


For more about the Infinium, check out the Sam Adams website.  For more about the Weihenstephan, check out its website.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Roasted Garlic Hake over Heirloom Tomato Parsley Salad

For those who read my blog on a regular basis, you know that every once in a while I will try to make a dish completely based on my creation without any recipes.  This time I took several elements to create what is, at least for me, a fairly complex dish.  And, while I still have to work on presentation, I think that I am on the right path.

This dish starts with large portobello mushroom caps, which serve as the "dish" for the Heirloom Parsley Salad.  The hake, which is a flaky fish similar to cod, is then laid over the top of the salad.  The dish is finished with some shaved Parmigiano Reggiano.  For a dish that I thought up as I walked through the produce and seafood sections of a Whole Foods, it turned out very good.

A Chef Bolek Original
Serves 2

2 large portobello mushroom caps
1 package of small heirloom tomatoes, deseeded and diced.
1 head of garlic
1/2 bunch of flat leaf parsley
1 scallion, diced
2/3 to 3/4 pounds of hake
Ground pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons of flat parsley leaves
Salt, to taste
2-3 tablespoons of olive oil

1.  Prep the mushrooms and garlic.  Clean the portobello caps and remove the stem and remove the gills.  Cut the garlic head in half horizontally.  Place one half on each cap.  Wrap in foil and add to an oven preheated to 400 degrees.  Let cook for ten minutes and remove.  Remove the garlic and cover the caps.  Return the garlic to the oven, wrapped in in foil for at least another ten or fifteen minutes.

2.  Prepare the salad.  While the caps and garlic are in the stove, prepare the heirloom salad.  Add the diced heirloom tomatoes and diced scallions in a bowl and mix well.

3.  Prep the roasted garlic. Take the roasted garlic and remove about four or five cloves.  Dice and then mash the cloves.

4.  Cook the fish.  Heat the olive oil over medium heat.  Add the roasted garlic and saute for a couple of minutes.  Then add the hake.  Saute for about five minutes and flip. Saute for about three to four minutes more until the fish is opaque and begins to flake.

5.  Prepare the dish.  Start with the mushroom cap.  Place the flat parsley leaves on the mushroom cap.  Spoon the heirloom salad on top of the parsley.  Place a piece of the hake at a diagonal with the cap.  Then top the exposed heirloom salad with some Parmigiano Reggiano.

For something that I created on the spot in a store, this recipe turned out well.  Like I said above, I still have to work on the presentation, but both Clare and I enjoyed this dish.  Maybe my "Iron Chef" skills are improving.  Until next time ...


Monday, January 10, 2011

Widmer Brothers Barrel Aged Brrrbon

Oregon is home to a lot of craft breweries.  And I mean, a lot.  Like the most craft breweries per capita of any state in the nation.  One of the more well known Oregonian craft brewers is Widmer Brothers.  The Widmer Brothers -- Kurt and Rob Widmer -- have been brewing beer since 1984.  Their claim to fame is that they pioneered the American-style Hefeweizen.  That beer is quite successful, because you can find it at a lot of restaurants and bars across the country, not to mention in six packs in beer and wine stores.

Yet, Widmer Brothers Brewing is about more than a Hefeweizen.  The two brothers have what they call their Brothers' Reserve, which is a series of one-time beers.  The first two beers were Cherry Oak Dopplebock and the Prickley Pear Braggot.  But, as the days get shorter and colder, fruity beers are no longer "in season."  Instead, winter brews are in, and the third Brothers Reserve is a winter brew called Barrel Aged Brrrbon.

As the name suggests, this beer is aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels. But before one gets to aging the beer, the brewery starts with 2-Row Pale, Carapils, Caramel 10-L, Caramel 80-L, and Dark Chocolate malts, as well as Alchemy Hops for bittering, along with Simcoe and Cascade hops for aroma.  Once the brewing is completed, the beer is aged for four months in the bourbon barrels.

According to Widmer, when you drink this beer, you should be able to smell caramel and vanilla and taste the soft oak flavors with a sweet but subtly dry finish.  When one takes a sniff of this beer, they are greeted with a subtle, boozy whiff of bourbon, with the vanilla aroma.  As you stare into the dark brown beer before you, the beer looks like it has been aged.  The brown color has a look that suggests something more like a hard liquor than a beer.  Despite the aroma and the look, the beer does not overwhelm you with a bourbon taste (unlike some other bourbon-barrel aged beers that I've tried).  The bourbon flavor is smooth and complements the flavors that are typically found in a beer.  I have to say this is one of the better barrel aged beers that I've ever had and I would recommend it to someone who has not tried this style of beer before. 

As one would expect, the Barrel Aged Brrrbon has an ABV of 9.4%.  It comes in a 22 ounce bottle for about $12.99.  I found this beer at Whole Foods Market.  Given it is a limited, one-time production, it will become harder to find as time goes by. 

For more information about this beer, check out Widmer Brothers.


Sunday, January 9, 2011

Oysters with a Lemon Basil Mignonette

A mignonette is a sauce with two principal components, namely vinegar and shallots.  Those two ingredients are just the beginning, because you can add a variety of ingredients to make different mignonettes to match or pair with different types of oysters.  I have previously made a Peach Champagne Mignonette and a Mango Habanero Mignonette.  Every once in a while, especially when I see oysters at a grocery store, my mind starts racing and I try to develop new mignonettes for the oysters.

Recently, I was standing at the seafood counter at the local Whole Foods when I saw an iced bin full of Chesapeake oysters. Just as their name suggests, these oysters are cultivated in the Chesapeake bay where they are second in the hierarchy of food in the Mid Atlantic region.  (Blue crabs are and will always be at the top of that hierarchy.)  Most Chesapeake oysters that you find in stores are farmed; very few are actually "fished" from the bay.  Chesapeake oysters are very delicious, being very meaty without being too briny.

This mignonette pairs two classic flavors ... lemon and basil.  The key is that you must have fresh basil, dried basil will not work.  You should also use the zest of the lemon, in addition to the juice, because the zest (which is edible) adds a nice visual element to the mignonette.

A Chef Bolek Original
Serves 2-4

12 fresh oysters, shucked (I used Chesapeakes, but any will do)
1 lemon
1 shallot, diced
6 medium to large size basil leaves, chiffonade

 1.  In a non-reactive bowl, add the shallot, basil leaves (to chiffonade, stack the basil leaves, roll them tightly and slice them.

2.  Zest the lemon and make sure the zest is strips, as opposed to grated.  Add the zest to the bowl.  Then add the juice of the lemon to the bowl.  Given the lemon juice is acidic, I have left out the vinegar because it would make the mignonette to tart and acidic.

3.  Mix all of the ingredients well and spoon over the shucked oysters.


Saturday, January 8, 2011

Sokol Blosser White Riesling (2007)

Back in 2009, when Clare and I were visiting Willamette Valley vineyards on our honeymoon, we had the pleasure of getting a behind the scenes tour of Sokol Blosser, which is a great vineyard and winery in Dundee, Oregon.  After the tour, we returned to the tasting room, where were had the opportunity to sample some great wines, such as Sokol Blosser's Pinot Noir.  After finishing our tasting and as we were buying a couple of bottles of wine to take with us, one of the tasting room employees pulled out a little bottle of "ice wine."  The wine was Sokol Blosser's 2007 White Riesling.  He poured a little sample for each of us and, after we sipped the wine, we added a bottle to our order.

White Riesling grapes -- or Johanissberg Riesling grapes -- generally produce dry wines that are sweeter than other white wines.  However, when the vineyard allows the grapes to continue to ripen on the vines after the harvest, the flavor of and the sugars in the grapes becomes more concentrated.  The result is a much sweeter wine, with a higher alcohol content, that usually makes a good, if not great, dessert wine. 

Rather than open any bottle of bubbly to celebrate the new year, Clare and I decided to open our bottle of Sokol Blosser's 2007 White Riesling.  The wine pours a beautiful, light gold color.  As you take in the aromatic elements of the wine, you get a sense of candied peaches and apricots.  These aromas are also very pronounced in the taste of the wine.  As you drink the wine, you get a smooth, sugary experience of tasting apples, peaches and apricots.  You also get an interesting contrast, as you can also taste pears hiding behind the other fruit. As you drink the wine your tongue and mouth get coated with a sugary feeling that does last for a while. 

This dessert wine is very good and I would highly recommend it.  The wine is generally available for order over the Internet at $40.00 per bottle.


Friday, January 7, 2011

Insalata Caprese

The Insalata Caprese or Caprese Salad -- with tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and fresh basil -- is perhaps one of the most well known "salads" to come out of the Campania region in Southern Italy.  It is not so much a salad as it is an appetizer.

The appetizer was created by a small restaurant on the island of Capri during the 1950s for customers who wanted a light lunch.  Those customers would ask for a tomato and some mozzarella cheese.  Later, the restaurant added arugula leaves (or basil leaves) on top of the tomato and cheese.  And, right before serving it, the restaurant would dress the "salad" with olive oil.

A great Insalata Caprese depends upon the freshness and quality of the ingredients. First, only vine-ripened, fresh tomatoes should be used.  Look for tomatoes that have a good red color, with no bruises.  Second, only fresh mozzarella should be used.  Never use cheese that has been processed in any way.  Third, look for fresh basil leaves, preferably large leaves with no black spots or other blemishes.

Ideally, the presentation should consist of one slice of tomato, one slice of mozzarella cheese and one big basil leaf.  However, in reality, it is hard to find a tomato that has the same diameter as a batch of Mozzarella cheese, let alone to find a basil leave that is large enough to cover the tomato and the cheese.  So, this is where a little creativity may be helpful, as is shown by the recipe below.

Serves 4

4 medium sized, vine-ripened tomatoes
1 batch of Mozzarella cheese
1 package of fresh basil
2 to 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
Ground pepper, to taste

1.  Prepare the tomatoes.  Slice the tomatoes about one-quarter of an inch thick.  Try to ensure that all of the tomato slices are about the same size.  As for the slices that are too big or too small, just eat them as you prepare the dish.

2.  Prepare the cheese.  Slice the Mozzarella cheese into quarter of an inch slices.  Then cut each slice into halves or quarters depending upon the size of the cheese.  Place two to three slices of each cheese on the tomato, stacking them if necessary.

3.  Prepare the basil.  Chiffonade the basil leaves (i.e., cut them into long, thin strips).  To do a chiffonnade.  Take all of the basil leaves and stack them starting with the largest leaf on the bottom to the smallest leaf on top.  Roll the leaves tightly and then slice the leaves carefully, working from one end to the other.  Sprinkler the sliced basil leaves on top of the cheese.

4.  Finish the dish.  Grind pepper over the tomatoes, cheese and basil.  Drizzle the extra virgin olive oil over the tomatoes, cheese and basil.

Now, this is technically the end of the recipe; however, I usually add one more twist to the salad ... I add a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.  Traditionally, the addition of vinegar is frowned upon because of the effect that vinegar may have on the taste of the cheese.  However, I find that balsamic vinegar (as opposed to red wine vinegar or other types of vinegar) adds a sweetness to the salad that is very good.  And, I really love balsamic vinegar.  So, if you want, drizzle a little of some good balsamic vinegar over the tomatoes, cheese and basil.


For more about the origins of the salad, check out Epicurious.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

I'm Going to be a Guest Chef at a Restaurant!

Rags' Italian Bistro is a great little restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama.  The name "Rags" was the nickname of the father of the two brothers who own the restaurant, Johnny Lorino and Bobby Lorino, who are also Clare's cousins.  "Rags" was a food and beverage manager at several Birmingham area restaurants and even owned his own hot dog restaurant, where he served the dogs with his own secret sauce.  Honoring their father, the Lorino brothers have included the hot dog with the secret sauce on the menu of Rags, as well as other family recipes drawn from their Italian heritage.

On Monday nights, Rags has "Guest Chef Night."   The restaurant provides an ambitious cook or chef with access to the kitchen to prepare a special meal for at least fifteen guests  When I was in Birmingham last year, I went with Clare and her parents to Rags' on a Monday night when someone was being a guest chef.   While I don't remember her name, the guest chef prepared a delicious meal that included a salad, a salmon dish and two options for dessert.  

After that night, the thought of being a guest chef both intrigued me and intimidated me.  Back in college, I worked as a cook in a kitchen of a seafood restaurant, but, I never led a kitchen.  I have also never cooked at a level where I prepared entire meals for a sizable number of customers.   And, as my wife can attest, I get very nervous when I am cooking for large crowds.  So, quite frankly, I am not sure that I could do a "Guest Chef Night" on my own.  However, Clare's Dad, Frank, is an excellent cook who has made some incredible meals. 

So, together, Frank and I will be teaming up again as chefs for Rag's Guest Chef Night on Monday, February 21, 2011, which is President's Day.  We are planning for a multiple course dinner (appetizer or soup, followed by a main dish and concluded with a dessert) for our family and friends, as well as other customers who stop by the restaurant that night. 

Now, all we need is a menu, which is in the works.  More to come ...

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Privé Vineyard Le Nord (2006)

I've written a few times about my honeymoon with my Angel in Oregon and Willamette Valley.  I planned the honeymoon to provide us both with an opportunity to not just taste wine, but to learn about the process of making wine.  Oregon's Willamette Valley provided an excellent backdrop for this adventure and we were fortunate enough to be led by a very knowledgeable and friendly guide, Mike Thomas of Wine Tours Northwest.

Mike took us to over a dozen vineyards, wineries and tasting rooms throughout the valley, but the one that he considered to be the "prize" was a visit to a very small, artisan winery called Privé Vineyards.  Privé is a family owned and operated winery located in the Chehalem Mountains, where there is the Ribbon Ridge American Viticultural Area ("AVA") and the Chehalem Mountains AVA.  An AVA is the American version of a wine appellation; however, unlike the European counterparts (like the Italian DOC or DOCG), an AVA simply defines the geographic area where eighty-five percent of the grapes must come from when making the wine.  An AVA does not limit the types of grapes grown or the making of the wine.

Privé Vineyard consists only of two and one-half acres, divided into two plots named Le Nord and Le Sud.  Le Nord is a plot of one and one-half acres, while Le Sud is a plot of one acre.  The winery plants Pommard (Burgundian) clones in both plots, which are on Jory (or red clay) soil. 

Privé Vineyard is not open to the public; there are no tour buses pulling up and unloading dozens of people trying to live the Sideways experience.  Instead, we were fortunate enough that Mike was able to arrange a wine tasting with the winemaker, Tina Hammond, at the vineyard, one that both Clare and I believe to be the best wine tasting of the entire trip.

One of the wines we tasted was the Le Nord, which is a Pinot Noir made exclusively from the grapes of the Le Nord plot.  We loved the wine so much we bought a bottle of the Le Nord (2006), as well as other bottles, to take home with us.  Well, on New Years Eve, 2010, we opened our bottle of Le Nord, and drinking the wine brought back many good memories for both of us. 

The wine pours a deep, ruby red, which is suggestive of the nose and taste to come.  The aromatic aspects of the wine are full of cinnamon, cherries and other, more earthy scents.  I could sit and take in the aroma of the wine all night.  As good as the aromatics of the Le Nord may be, they are surpassed by the taste of the wine.  When you taste the wine, you get a strong cherry and blackberry taste, with some hint of pepper and spice.  Moreover, the wine is very smooth to drink.  I keep catching myself while drinking it to make sure that I don't drink it too fast so that I can enjoy this wine properly. 

Le Nord is perhaps one of the best Pinot Noirs that I've had from Willamette Valley.  I strongly encourage people to try this wine if you have the chance.  The wine is not widely distributed, as there are only about two hundred cases produced for a given vintage.  However, if you find yourself in Oregon and/or are lucky enough to come across a bottle, my suggestion would be to buy it immediately.  Then, when you have a special occasion, open the bottle and enjoy it with someone special.