Saturday, November 5, 2016

Around the World in 80 Dishes: Lebanon

It has been a few months since the last chapter of my personal culinary challenge, Around the World in 80 Dishes.  That last challenge was to make a main course from Pakistan.  I chose to make Karahi Gosht, which is a spicy lamb curry dish that could often be found in markets and street stalls.   While my challenge is to make main courses, I have always been intrigued by street food, which, for many, serves as a main course, whether for lunch or dinner.

So, my next challenge takes me to the country of Lebanon, where I will make a main course that could easily be served on the street and markets.  The main course is Shish Taouk (or Shish Tawook) This dish is common throughout the Middle East, although it is more because the preparation is common: marinating chicken cubes in yogurt and spices, followed by cooking the chicken over a fire.  While this dish can be found in many countries, including Turkey and Syria, I thought it would be a good way to introduce myself to Lebanese food.

The history of Lebanese culinary traditions is an ancient one, with many of the dishes being traced back to the Roman era and even the Phoenician civilization.  While they have their own unique origins, those culinary traditions also incorporate spices and cooking methods from the Turks, whose Ottoman Empire ruled over the lands that would eventually become Lebanon from 1516 to 1918, as well as the French who controlled the area until 1946. 

As with any country, dishes vary by region.  Lebanon has the coastal regions along the Mediterranean Sea, along with the fertile Bekaa Valley.  The fertile areas, which could support crop production, comprise only about 30% of Lebanon.  Yet, farmers are able to produce a wide range of fruits and vegetables, which serve as the basis of dishes served across the country, including its capital, Beirut, which was once known as the "Paris of the Middle East."  The capital was, and continues to be, a sort-of crossroads, one that has for centuries brought spices and dishes to a very small and very complex country.  


For this challenge, I am drawing from the Turkish influence over Lebanese cuisine.  Skewers of chicken, marinated in yogurt and spices and grilled over spices draws inspiration from the Turks.  Indeed, the name Shish Taouk comes from Şiş,which is Old Turkic for "skewer" and Takagu, which is Old Turkic for "chicken."  Yet, these tasty skewers of grilled chicken are served in restaurants and food stalls not only in Beirut, but in cities throughout the country. 

Recipe adapted from The Spice Kit
Serves 4

Ingredients (for the chicken):
2 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken
4 wooden skewers, soaked in water

Ingredients (for the marinade):
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons of olive oil
2 tablespoons of lemon juice
2 tablespoons of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon of tomato paste
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon baharat
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon oregano

Ingredients (for the sauce):
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
1/4 cup cucumber, peeled, seeded, diced
1/4 teaspoon garlic, minced
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon fresh mint
1/4 teaspoon salt

1.  Marinate the chicken.  In a large bowl, combine marinade ingredients and mix smooth.  Add chicken and evenly coat the pieces.  Cover and refrigerate 4-8 hours

2.  Prepare the grill.  Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit or an outdoor grill to medium high heat and lightly oil the grate. 

3.  Grill the chicken. Thread chicken on skewers and grill 4 to 5 minutes each side or bake 7 minutes each side until chicken is done. 


And, if you have Shish Taouk in one of those Lebanese restaurants or from one of those street stalls, that tasty chicken will most likely be served with a garlic paste sauce known as toum, hummus and tabouleh.  For this challenge, I decided to make a side of Lebanese tabbouleh. This side is a salad made from tomatoes, parsley, garlic, mint and onions   The dish originated in the mountains of Syria and Lebanon, and it spread from there.  As the story goes, the dish was mocked by some as simply a means to "scrimp" on meat. This critique was easily solved by serving the salad with some meat, like Shish Taouk.  

Recipe from NYT Cooking
Serves 4-6

1/4 cup fine bulgur wheat
1 small garlic clove, minced (optional)
Juice of 2 large lemons, to taste
3 cups chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
1/2 pound ripe tomatoes, very finely chopped
1 bunch scallions, finely chopped
Salt, preferably Kosher salt, to taste
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1.  Prepare the dish.  Place the bulgur in a bowl, and cover with water, by 1/2 inch.  Soak for 20 minutes, until slightly softened.  Drain through a cheesecloth-lined strainer, and press the bulghur against the strainer to squeeze out excess water.  Transfer to a large bowl and toss with the garlic, lemon juice, parsley, mint, tomatoes, scallions and salt.  Leave at room temperature or in the refrigerator for two to three hours, so that the bulgur can continue to absorb liquid and swell.

2.  Finish the dish.  Add the olive oil, toss together, taste and adjust seasonings.

*     *     *

In the end, both the Shish Taouk and Tabbouleh recipes are very good and, apart from the time taken to marinate the chicken, very easy to make.  This also represents a slight change in how I will approach future challenges.  In the past, I tried to make complex dishes, with many sides.  That was easy to do when it was just my Angel and me, but with our two little cherubs, finding the time to do such cooking is hard.   This dish represents my 24th challenge, leaving me with 56 to go.  If I am going to finish the overall challenge anytime soon, I will need to do these more than once every few months.  So, until next time (which hopefully will be soon)...


Sunday, October 30, 2016

Crab Bisque

Any blue crab soup that is described as "incomparably rich and delicious" is definitely worth trying.  I found the recipe for this particular blue crab soup in one of the cookbooks, Dishing Up Maryland.  The recipe is Crab Bisque.  It originated with the author's sister-in-law, Eleanor Van Dyke, who served it at her annual Christmas party.

A bisque is a cream-based soup that originated in France. Recipes for this soup first emerged in the 17th century, descending from pottage, a thick soup that was more of a puree. The early recipes involved the use of crustaceans, and, specifically, included pulverized crustacean shells as an ingredient.  The crustaceans used in these recipes were "crayfish," or rock lobsters.  If you want to see what some of those historical recipes look like, you should check out The Food Timeline, which is a great site for learning the history of particular recipes or ingredients.

Since those early recipes, bisque recipes have branched out to include any crustacean, such as lobster, shrimp and crab, as well as shellfish such as oysters or scallops.  I have had lobster bisque many times, and, Clare's father makes a very delicious shrimp bisque.  But, my love for blue crab got me to thinking about a crab bisque.  Such a soup is particularly popular in areas like the Chesapeake Bay and North Carolina, where there is -- relatively speaking -- an abundance of blue crab.

Recently, my beautiful Angel bought a container of fresh jumbo lump crab meat from North Carolina. With that pound of delicious crab meat on hand, I decided to make that "incomparably rich and delicious" soup.  This soup does not fit within the traditional nature of a bisque, as the recipe does not incorporate the use of crab shells.  Nevertheless, it is a very delicious soup and it is one where you could adjust the richness of the soup.  The recipe simply calls for "milk."  This means you can use skim milk, 1%, 2% or whole milk.  Obviously, if you use skim milk, the soup will not be as rich as if you use whole milk.  For this recipe, I decided to use whole milk.  I also altered the recipe in one respect.  The first and second steps call for the use of the sauteed vegetables in a cheesecloth bag.  I decided to let the vegetable bag steep in the soup for an hour or two with the heat low enough to keep the soup warm but not cause it to simmer or boil.  This allowed for the flavors of the vegetables to be drawn into the liquid of the soup.

This recipe lived up to its billing.  The best part of the recipe is not just the richness, but the fact that it is very simple to make.  This simplicity will ensure that it will become part of the "rotation" of dishes that I go to when entertaining guests, much like Ms. Van Dyke.

Recipe from Dishing Up Maryland, pg. 172
Serves 4-6

1 pound Maryland jumbo lump crab meat
4 tablespoons butter
3 celery stalks, diced
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 tablespoons, all purpose flour
1 tablespoon dry mustard
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cups half and half
2 cups milk
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

1.  Prepare the crab. Pick through the crabmeat and remove any shells bits and cartilage.  Set aside.

2.  Saute the vegetables.  Melt the butter in a medium saucepan.  Add the celery and the onion and saute over low heat until they are translucent.  Remove the pan from the heat and scoop out the vegetables into the cheesecloth bag and tie the bag to the handle to the pan, so that the bag hangs inside the pan, close to the bottom. 

3.  Add the milk.  Return the pan to the heat and add the flour, mustard, salt and pepper, stirring until blended.  Add the half and half the milk and stir constantly until thickened.

4.  Add the crabmeat.  Add the crabmeat and cook over low heat for 15 to 20 minutes.  Remove the vegetable bad and sprinkle the bisque with parsley before serving. 


Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Curried Coconut Borscht

I have previously professed my hatred for broccoli.  However, there is something that I hate much more than broccoli ... beets.  Writing that last sentence, especially those five letters, b-e-e-t-s, just gave me the shivers.  My extreme dislike for beets is principally because of the taste.  I have just never been able to bring myself around to even accepting the flavor of beets.

It is not like I haven't tried.  Back in college, I studied abroad for a semester in Prague.  During our break, the class went to Moscow for the week.  We stayed at a college dormitory that had a cafeteria, where we had breakfast, lunch and dinner. Despite the passage of time, there is one thing that I clearly remember.  Every dinner began with with a bowl of borscht.  A bowl of thin, Communist-red broth.  That broth had the strong taste of beets.  It did not have any actual beets in it.  The absence of visible beets was a relief for me, as I grabbed the shaker filled with generic black pepper.  I would add a thin layer of the black and white pepper on the top of the red sheen of a soup.  It was the only way that I could eat borscht.

While it is not on my list of favorite dishes, borscht is a popular dish in Eastern European countries, including Poland, Belarus, Lithuania and Russia.  The dish originated with a sour soup made with pickled stems, leaves and umbels of the hogweed plant.  Over time, the recipe evolved from the hogweed to beet roots.  Other ingredients, such as cabbage, carrots, onions, potatoes and tomatoes were added to the dish.  The various ingredients could be chopped and added to the dish for presentation.  Alternatively, they could be pureed into the relatively thin soup that I ate day after day during my stay in Moscow.

By now, you may be asking yourself, why I am droning on about beets and borscht.  As it turns out, it is the Community Supported Agriculture or CSA time of year.  One of our weekly CSA shipments included a couple red beets.  Given my beet repertoire is as thin as the soup I know, I decided that I would try my hand at making the soup that I can barely eat.  I found a recipe for a curried coconut borscht, which made the beet soup seem more palatable.  I thought that the coconut milk could round out the tartness of the beets, while the curry powder could help to offset that taste that is so off-putting to me. The recipe also allowed me to use some other ingredients from my CSA, such as a sweet potato (in place of the potatoes called for in the recipe) and a few carrots.

I will be honest, I ate the broth.  It was good.  I also ate the carrots and the sweet potatoes.  But, I could not bring myself to eat the diced beets.  I tried, but I could not eat the beets.  Don't let my distaste for beets stop you from making this recipe, because, if you like beets, this soup is definitely worth a try. 

Recipe adapted from Fresh and Natural Foods
Serves 2

1 tablespoon of coconut oil (or vegetable oil)
1 bunch of scallions
1 shallot or 1/2 onion, sliced
1 cup of red beets, cut into large dice
1 cup of carrots, sliced on the diagonal
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4  jalapeno pepper, minced
3/4 tablespoon of mild curry powder or garam masala
1 tablespoon of dried ginger or 1 teaspon of fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon of turmeric
1 cup of potatoes, diced
1/2 can of light coconut milk
1 cup of vegetable stock or water
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 lime juiced
1 tablespoon of arrowroot (dissolved in 1 tablespoon of water)

1. Saute the vegetables.  Add the oil to a large saucepan over medium heat  Add scallions, beets shallot (or onion), carrots and saute until softened, about 5 minutes.  Add the garlic, jalapeno, ginger, curry powder (or garam masalam), turmeric, and saute until the spices are fragrant, about 2 minutes.  Add the potatoes, coconut milk, stock (or water) and brnig to a boil

2.  Boil the borscht.  Lower to a simmer and cook until the vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes.  Add lime juice, cilantro and arrowroot and cook until soup thickens slightly.  Serve hot.


Sunday, September 25, 2016

Blackened Planked Salmon

If someone were to ask, "what is your favorite way to prepare salmon," then I would probably answer grilling it on a cedar plank.  The use of wood planks to grill food goes back a very, very long time, originating with the Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest.  Women would then tack the salmon to long slabs of wood, usually alder or cedar, or they would tie the fish to the planks using vines.  Those wooden slabs were then placed over a fire and the salmon was allowed to cook slowly, absorbing the flavors of the wood and smoke.

That traditional practice may still be performed in some Native Americans in the northwest; however, in my case, the use of planks involves a cookie-cutter piece of cedar wood that gets soaked in water for more than an hour, fitted with a piece of salmon  and then placed on top of a fire or in a grill.  After about fifteen minutes or so, the plank is removed from the fire, the fish is removed from the plank and dinner is served.  The whole process seems far less idyllic than the process used by Native Americans.

Indeed, I am no stranger to using cedar planks.  I've made several salmon dishes in this manner.   I've made a traditional plank salmon (well, as traditional as traditional can get).  I've also made something fancier with planks and salmon, namely, the Imperial Salmon, a plank salmon with a crab imperial.   However, this time, I was looking for a different way to make planked salmon.  It got me to thinking and it did not take me long to think of something new.

As much as I am a fan of using smoke to impart flavors into meats, I am also a fan of blackening spices.  This recipe combines both ... blackened planked salmon.  It is a bayou meets the northwest thing, a combination of two sets of regional flavors that works in many different, but delicious ways.  To put it simply, it is the right combination of spice and smoke that can appeal to someone who, like myself, loves barbecue.

A Chef Bolek Original
Serves 2

Ingredients (for the salmon):
2 six ounce fillets of salmon
1 cedar plank

Ingredients (for the blackening spice mix):
1/2 tablespoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1.  Prepare the spice mix.  In a bowl, mix all of the spice mix Generously rub the mixture on both sides of the salmon.  Cover the fish and let rest for one half hour.

2.  Prepare the salmon for the grill.  Preheat a grill on medium.  Brush the cedar plank on both sides with three tablespoons of oil.  Place the salmon on the plank and cover evenly with the onion slices.  The onions do not just add flavor, they protect the fish from burning while it cooks. So make sure that the onions cover both the tops and the sides of the fish.  Drizzle some oil over the onions.

3.  Grill the salmon. The grill should be hot enough to ignite the plank when you place the plank in the grill.  Let the plank burn around the fish.  Once the plank has burned, cover the grill.  Continue to grill the salmon until medium rare, or 130 degrees Fahrenheit, which should take about ten minutes. 


Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Leg of Lamb Barbacoa

It all began with the Taino, who were the native inhabitants of the West Indies.  They took their meat, marinated it with herbs and spices, and then cooked it over an open fire.  The Taino called their cooking "barabicu," which translates into sacred pit.  

Enter the Portuguese, Spanish and English.  As explorers made their way through the West Indies, they encountered the Taino and their way of cooking.  The Spanish brought that cooking method to what is now known as Mexico, where it took root and ultimately became barbacoa.

True barbacoa involves the slow roasting of meat over a fire, usually in a pit lined with leaves from the agave plant.  The meat would be served with one of the many moles or salsas that are well known in Mexican cuisine. 

I have always wanted to make barbacoa.  However, there were some obstacles.  First, my beautiful wife would not look very kindly upon myself digging a pit in the backyard to cook meat over a flame.  Second, even if I took the time to dig that pit, I don't have any agave leaves to line that pit in order to cook the meat.  Third, even if I had dug a pit and lined it with agave leaves, I probably would have been too tired to cook and would have went to Chipotle to get barbacoa soft tacos. (Interestingly, I have never had barbacoa at Chipotle; instead, I rather have the carnitas.)

In any event, I have always wanted to make barbacoa.  Rather than dig a pit, I decided to use my smoker.  I have also wanted to smoke some lamb.  Given the multitude of lamb barbacoa recipes, this provided the perfect opportunity to check off a couple of things on my "to do" list. 

I found a recipe for lamb barbacoa on the Saveur website, which also included a very interesting and delicious tomatillo sauce.  The combination of tomatillos and jalapeno peppers usually results in a good sauce that works well with a wide range of proteins, from beef to lamb, and even chicken or turkey.  In this case, the combination of ingredients made a great salsa that worked very well with the lamb (as well as the steak that I had a few days later).  

One note about this dish.  The Saveur recipe called for the use of lamb shoulder.   Sometimes, I have a hard time finding lamb shoulder at the stores around where I live.  Leg of lamb, however, is plentiful.  I also happen to really like leg of lamb because, if you cook it right, it is amazing.  Even if you overshoot the temperature (which I did a little in this case), the meat can still be tender and juicy. After it was cooked, I chopped the meat for use with soft tacos, as well as sliced some of the leg for lunches at work.

Recipe adapted from Saveur
Serves Many

Ingredients (for the lamb):
1/4 cups distilled white vinegar
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
6 dried guajillo or similar chiles, stemmed and seeded
5 garlic cloves, chopped
2 whole cloves
2 whole allspice berries
1/4 medium yellow onion, roughly chopped
1 leg of lamb, about 5 pounds
Freshly ground black pepper

Ingredients (for the tomatillo salsa):
1/4 pound of tomatillos, husked and rinsed
4 cloves of garlic
2 medium yellow onions, quartered
2 jalapeno peppers ,stemmed
1 teaspoon sugar
1 bunch cilantro, stemmed
Kosher salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1. Marinate the lamb.  Puree the vinegar, salt, oregano, cinnamon, chiles, garlic, cloves, allspice and onion in a blender.  Season lamb with salt and pepper on a baking sheet and rub all over with the chile puree.  Refrigerate overnight. 

2.  Make the tomatillo salsa. Place the tomatillos, garlic, onions and jalapenos in a four quart saucepan and cover with water by one inch.  Bring to a boil over high heat and cook until slightly soft, about 5 minutes.  Drain vegetables and reserve 1 cup of the cooking liquid.  Puree boiled vegetables, reserved liquid, sugar, cilantro, salt and pepper in a blender.  Set aside.

3.  Smoke the lamb.   Prepare the smoker and the fire until the temperature is between 225 and 250 degrees Fahrenheit.  Place the lamb, fat side up in the smoker and add a piece or two of mesquite wood for the smoke.  Cook until a thermometer reads 190 degrees Fahrenheit.  Remove, let rest and then shred the lamb.  Serve with corn tortillas, the tomatillo salsa and other accompaniments.


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Linguine with Red Clam Sauce

Recently, my sister and brother-in-law bought me a shellfish grilling grate.  It combines two things that I really love ... shellfish and grilling.  Once I had the grate, I immediately began thinking of different recipes that I could make.  The grate can be used to grill all sorts of shellfish, from mussels, to clams, to oysters.   For me, the appropriate starting point was the grilling of clams.  

I still needed a recipe.  My mind turned to a recipe of pasta with clams.  The Italians would call it spaghetti alla vongole or spaghetti with clams.  I looked at a few recipes, and settled on one from Food & Wine magazine.  The recipe called for the use of packaged clams or for fresh clams that would be steamed with the sauce.  I decided to adapt that recipe by using not only the packaged clams, but also adding a step for grilled clams.  This meant that the recipe would have double the clams, which, like most culinary things, meant it would be twice as good.

The use of grilled clams was truly an inspiration.  Grilling clams is much better than steaming clams.  For one thing, the grilled clams were perfect, just the right texture and sitting in a little bath of clam juice.  Quite a few of those clams never made it to the final dish, because I kept eating them as I prepared the pasta and sauce.  Nevertheless, the process of grilling clams produced a briny, tasty shellfish that elevated this traditional pasta dish into a completely different and much better experience.   

Recipe adapted from Food & Wine
Serves 4

1 bag of little neck clams
1/4 cup olive oil
4 large cloves of garlic, chopped
2/3 cup of dry white wine
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
Pinch of dried red pepper flakes
3 cups of canned crushed tomatoes in thick puree
     (one 28 ounce can)
1 cup bottled clam juice
1 1/4 teaspoons salt, more, if needed
3/4 pound of chopped clams, drained (about 1 1/2 cups)
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black  pepper
3/4 pound linguine

1.  Grill the clams.  Heat a grill on high heat.  Arrange the clams on the grill rack and place on the grill.  Cook the clams for about 5 to 7 minutes until all clams have opened.

2.  Begin the sauce.  In a large frying pan, heart the oil over moderately low heat.  Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.  Add the wine, thyme and red pepper flakes; bring to a simmer.  Cook until reduced to about 1/3 cup, about 5 minutes.

3.  Continue the sauce.  Add the tomatoes, clam juice and salt.  Raise the heat to moderate and bring to a simmer.  cook, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 10 minutes.  Add the chopped clams and bring back to a simmer.  Continue simmering until the clams are just done, about 1 minute longer.Stir in the parsley and black pepper.  Taste the sauce for salt, and add more if needed.

4.  Cook the pasta.  Meanwhile, in a large pot of boiling, salted water, cook the linguine until just done, about 12 minutes.  Drain and toss with sauce. 

Friday, July 15, 2016

Steamed Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs

H.L. Mencken once remarked, "there is a saying in Baltimore that crabs may be prepared in fifty ways and that all of them are good."  That saying may very well be true; but there is one preparation that almost all Marylanders will agree is the best: steamed with Old Bay.  And, in order to achieve perfection, one must use blue crabs from the Chesapeake Bay.

My introduction to Chesapeake Bay blue crabs takes me back more than twenty years, when I worked as a steam cook at a local crab house.  I packed pots full of feisty blue crabs, alternating between crabs and Old Bay, and watching the pots dutifully as those green and blue crabs turned to the emblematic reddish-orange.  It was a part-time job, which I worked in the evenings and on weekends during the summer to earn money during college.  The crab house had steam pots on two levels and I had to carry pots up and down stairs.  It was hard work; and, for years, I swore that I hated it.  But, as time goes by, I look back fondly to my time in that kitchen for two reasons.  First, I made a connection with the other cooks, all of whom were from Cameroon and were working that job as an evening/weekend job while they were getting their masters degrees in engineering. Second, that was where my love of cooking and eating blue crabs began.

The blue crab -- also known as Callinectes Sapidus -- is truly a remarkable creature. That Latin name translates as "beautiful savory swimmer," but that hardly describes this crustacean, let alone its importance to the economy and the culture around the Chesapeake Bay.  Since at least the 1600s, if not long before, native Americans, English Colonists and others relied upon the blue crab as an important source of food.  The love for the sweet taste of blue crab meat led to overfishing, stressing populations throughout the bay.  Other environmental and man-made factors further pushed numbers of blue crabs further downward.  However, for nearly 100 years, local and state governments in the Chesapeake region have worked very hard to protect and grow the species, with mixed success. 

These conservation efforts have led to various restrictions when it comes to the commercial and recreational crabbing.  Those restrictions have, in turn, led to less crabs in restaurants and in stores, as well as higher prices.  Personally, I am willing to accept those consequences if it means that this important animal and resource will be around for future generations to enjoy. 

With all of this said, I only have steamed blue crabs every year or two years.   The crab feast usually takes place at a restaurant, which usually carries a very hefty tab at the end of the meal.  Recently, I went "back to my roots" and steamed some crabs.  It was a feast enjoyed by not only myself, but my beautiful Angel and her parents.

There was one obvious question: how to steam the crabs? Back at that crab house, steam pots were prepped using only water.  Once they were blazing hot, crabs were added, one layer at a time.  With each layer of crabs, a healthy amount of Old Bay was sprinkled over the crabs.  Then the next layer of crabs were added to the pot, followed by more Old Bay, and so on and so on.   

Despite having steamed hundreds of crab pots in my time, I still checked the Internet to see how others steamed their blue crabs.  I was quite surprised by what I found.  There were many recipes for "Chesapeake Bay" blue crabs that called for steaming the crustaceans in a mix of water and vinegar or beer and vinegar.  I could see the use of beer (after all, it is used in many other seafood preparations, such as spiced shrimp), but vinegar? I tried to find some explanation for why vinegar was used to steam crab, I could not find any.  To make matters worse, some recipes called for apple cider vinegar, while others called for white distilled vinegar or, in one case, red wine vinegar.  While I  gave a passing thought to using white distilled vinegar, I ultimately decided to forego the ingredient.

As for the use of beer, there was no question that it would go into the steam pot.  The only question was which beer to use.  Many use a basic brew -- like Budweiser (or, if you are from Baltimore, Natural Bohemian a/k/a Natty Bo).  I wanted to use a local brew.  I also decided to follow the chef's rule when it came to using alcohol in recipes: namely, use something you would serve with the dish or that you would drink.  I am not a big fan of Budweiser or Natty Bo.  That left me perusing the alteratives at a local beverage store, I came across Flying Dog's Dead Rising, a summer ale brewed with, of all things, Old Bay.  I thought that would be a good beer to use for the steaming of blue crabs.  After all, the crabs will be steamed with Old Bay, so why not use a beer that was brewed with the spice mixture?

Having Old Bay in the beer and on the crabs was not a concern for me.  The reason goes back to what I learned at while cooking at that crab house. Old Bay has a lot of salt in it, and, the crab house managers wanted a lot of Old Bay on the steamed crabs because it made people buy more beer. When I steam crabs, I do so for myself, my friends and my family.  I am not interested in trying to sell beer to them or, for that matter, encouraging them to drink more beer.  More importantly, while I like the taste of Old Bay, I love the taste of blue crab meat more.  I want to be able to taste the crab first, with a little Old Bay on the background.  Therefore, as I pack a crab pot, I use a fair amount of Old Bay, covering the carapace of the crabs.  However, I make sure that the crabs are not caked with the stuff.  Once the crabs are finished steaming, I also sprinkle a little more Old Bay on the right before they are served.

Finally, a couple of notes about packing steam pots.  First, it is important to have a pair of thick rubber gloves or a long set of tongs.  You do not want to have your fingers caught in the crab's claws or, worse, to be bitten by a crab.  This leads to my next point: never pick up a crab by its front.  As you can see, that is just asking for trouble, especially if you are not using gloves or your tongs are not long enough.  Instead, you should always try to grab the crab from behind,  While you could try grabbing the crab from the abdominal segment 2, there is a chance the crab can get you depending on how far in you grab it. I find the best spot to grab a crab is just above its coxa, which is shown in the diagram above.  If you grab the crab on its body above the coxa and dangle it, the crab is not going to be able to grab you.

Second, and finally, while it is good to pack a fair amount of crabs into the steam pot, it is important not to over-pack the pots.  You want steam to get in between the crabs so that they cook evenly and completely.  Once they are in and ready, close the pot and leave it alone for about 20 to 25 minutes.  Once they have their bright reddish-orange color, they are ready to be eaten!

Serves Many

4 dozen medium blue crabs
Old Bay
2 bottles of beer
3 cups of water

1.  Prepare the steam pot.  Add the beer and water (or, if you must, vinegar) to the steam pot (which is a pot that has a steam tray, i.e., a tray elevated from the bottom of the pot).  Cover the pot and heat it on high heat until steam starts coming out of the edges of the cover.

2.  Pack the pot.  Working as quickly as you can under the circumstances, add the crabs to the pot.  Once you have a layer of crabs, add some Old Bay to the crabs.  Then add the next layer of crabs and then some more Old Bay.  Keep adding crabs and Old Bay until the pot is mostly full, making sure that you do not overpack the pot.

3.  Steam the crabs.  Cover the pot and allow the crabs to steam for about 20 minutes.  Once the crabs are the bright reddish-orange color, then they should be removed from the pot and served immediately.


Friday, July 8, 2016

Big Bob Gibson's Loaf Pan Chicken

Anthony Bourdain once said, "Barbecue may not be the road to world peace, but it is a start."  For my latest barbecue project, the road begins in Decatur, Alabama.  The city of Decatur boasts of itself as "a Charming City on a Grand Scale."  This Charming City is the home of Big Bob Gibson's Barbecue, which is a fixture of Alabama barbecue.

Big Bob Gibson started serving barbecue from his home in 1925.  It was a new adventure for Gibson, who previously worked on the railway.  He established his restaurant in Decatur and, over time, his children and grandchilden have continued the tradition.  For more than ninety years, Big Bob Gibson became especially known for its smoked chicken, which are served in a tangy, white barbecue sauce.  This sauce is made from mayonnaise, vinegar and horseradish. This recipe is on my bucket list of barbecue projects.  However, for my first barbecue chicken project (yes, to date, I have never smoked chicken, I focused on pork, beef and turkey), I decided to try Big Bob Gibson's Loaf Pan Chicken.

Chris Lilly, the pitmaster at Big Bob Gibson's describes this Loaf Pan Chicken as a "dummy proof alternative" to beer-can chicken.  "Dummy proof" seems like a good starting point for my first effort at smoking chicken.  The use of the loaf pan is ingenuous, as it captures all of the chicken's juices, along with the marinade to help keep the chicken as moist and flavorful as possible.   Best of all, this recipe is very easy to do.  Once you get the heat in the smoker going, you just place the chicken in the loaf pan on the grill grates.  After a couple of hours, it is done and ready to be served.  

In the end, I can attest to pitmaster Lilly's characterization of the recipe as dummy proof.  The reason is that a novice such as myself was able to produce a very moist and tasty chicken.    The skin on the breast and the legs was just crispy enough (although some of the skin on the sides and back did not crisp due to the liquid in the pan).  The meat was flavorful, with a combination of flavors from the smoke and both rubs. 

Now, I need to turn my attention to that white barbecue sauce.  That will be for another time and another blog post. 

Recipe from Big Bob Gibson's BBQ Book, pg. 123
Serves 4

Ingredients (for the chicken):
3/4 cup apple sauce
3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 whole chicken, 3 1/2 pounds

Ingredients (for the dry rub):
1 tablespoon turbinado sugar
2 1/4 teaspoons paprika
1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons garlic salt
3/4 teaspoons celery salt
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander

1.  Prepare the smoker.  Build a fire (wood or a combination of charcoal and wood) for an indirect cooking by situating the coals on only one side of the cooker, leaving the other side void.  

2.  Prepare the chicken.  In a small bowl, stir together the applesauce and Worcestershire.  Holding the chicken over a 9 x 5 x 3 inch loan fan, pour the mixture over the chicken, making sure the chicken is thoroughly coated both inside and out.  Let the excess liquid drip into the loaf pan.  In another small bowl, combine the dry rub ingredients and mix well.  Coat the entire chicken, both inside and out with the dry rub.  Place the chicken into the loaf pan, breast side up. 

3. Smoke the chicken.  When the grill temperature reaches approximately 300 degrees Fahrenheit, place the loaf pan on the grill grate away from the coals, close the cover and cook for 2 hours, or until the internal temperature of the chicken thigh reaches 175 degrees Fahrenheit.  Let the chicken cool a bit in the pan before cutting into serving pieces. 


Sunday, July 3, 2016

Spiced Shrimp and Tomato Kebabs

If you follow this blog long enough, you will learn that I love to make kebab recipes.  I have a special fondness for Persian kebabs, such as Kebab e Chenjeh or Advieh-e Khoresh kebabs.  I even search out relatively obscure kebab recipes, such as the Uighur Lamb Kebabs. Truth be told: kebabs are becoming my most favorite kind of food.

The only drawback to kebabs is that my beautiful Angel, Clare, does not eat red meat or even most meat.  This leads me to search for different kinds of kebabs to make.  I could make vegetable kebabs, but who wants a skewer with a bunch of plants?  A skewer that goes over a fire should have meat on it, at least in my humble opinion.  In any event, I look for different things that I know my Angel will eat ... like shrimp.

That led me to this recipe from Food & Wine magazine for Spiced Shrimp and Tomato Kebabs. The key to this recipe is the marinade, which combines a lot of flavors -- ginger, cilantro, basil, mint, cayenne pepper, paprika, lime and honey.  This marinade combines some heat with sweet, and herbal with citrus.  With the use of that citrus (lime juice, I erred on a shorter period of marinating time (about an hour to an hour and one half).  After all, I want kebabs, not ceviche.

The best thing about kebabs is how easy they are to make once the meat is marinated.  Just thread some sticks and throw them on the grill.  Add a side dish, such as the saffron rice that I used in this instance, and you have the makings of a delicious and fast dinner during the week. 

Recipe from Food & Wine
Serves 10

1/4 cup thinly sliced peeled ginger
4 garlic cloves
1/4 cup packed cilantro leaves
2 tablespoons packed basil leaves
1 tablespoon packed mint leaves
1 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 teaspoons honey
2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
40 large shrimp (about 2 pounds), shelled and deveined
1 pint grape tomatoes

1.  Prepare the marinade. In a food processor, combine the ginger with the garlic, cilantro, basil, mint, cayenne pepper, paprika, lime juice, honey, salt and 2 tablespoons of olive oil and puree.  Scrape the marinade into a large bowl, add the shrimp, and toss to coat.  Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or up to 4 hours. 

2.  Prepare the skewers.  Thread the shrimp and tomatoes onto skewers.

3.  Grill the skewers. Light a grill and oil the grates.  Grill the skewers over high heart, turning once, until the shrimp are lightly charred and cooked through and the tomatoes are just beginning to burst, about 6 minutes.  Serve right away.


Sunday, June 26, 2016

Paprika Marinated Pork Loin Roast

While I have many culinary influences (you can check on the lower right hand side of this blog), the one culinary influence whose work that I perhaps enjoy the most is Andrew Zimmern.  Andrew has an incredible story about how he entered into the world of cooking and cuisine, which I have heard him speak about in the past.  What I enjoy the most about Andrew Zimmern's work is his love for not just the cuisine, but the people and cultures behind the food.  That is one of the reasons why I am such an avid watcher of his shows, like Bizarre Foods.  

Not only do I watch the shows, but I also follow Andrew's website and Facebook page.  From time to time, he posts recipes on his Facebook page, like this one for a Paprika Marinated Pork Loin Roast, which inevitably ends up in my Facebook timeline.  I often share those recipes on the Chef Bolek Facebook page.  The sharing operates like a "bookmark," allowing me to note a recipe that I want to cook, like that pork loin roast recipe

The Paprika Marinated Pork Loin Roast recipe is not one of Andrew's own recipes.  Instead, it is a recipe by Alexandra Raij, and it comes from her book entitled The Basque Book.  The cuisine of Basque country has always intrigued me.  The Basque spend more than twice as much of their disposable income on food than Americans, which suggests a love of food.  And Basque food is very good food.  While the Basque have always viewed themselves as being different from the rest of Spain, this recipe highlights some commonalities ... like pork and paprika.

While I could go on about these cuisines (which would make a great Around the World in 80 Dishes post), I think it is time to focus on this recipe.  My beautiful Angel bought a large pork loin for me from a local store, which provided me with the perfect roast to make this recipe.  The recipe itself it fairly easy.  Two rubs -- a garlic rub and a paprika rub -- and then roast the pork loin.  The easiness belies the delicious end product, which was truly an amazing pork dish.  

Recipe from Alexandra Raij and
available at
Serves 6-8

1 cup of kosher salt
10 cloves of garlic
1/2 cup of water
1 boneless pork loin roast (about 5 pounds)
1/4 cup Spanish paprika (hot)
1/4 cup Spanish paprika (sweet)
1/3 cup olive oil

1.  Prepare the garlic rub.  Combine the salt and garlic cloves in a food processor and pulse until you have a rough paste, about 15 times, then add the water, a little at a time, pulsing to form a thick but smooth paste.  Rub the past onto the pork roast, covering evenly and cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.  Rinse off the garlic paste and pat the pork dry.  

2.  Prepare the paprika marinade.  In a small bowl, stir together the hot and sweet paprikas, then stir in the oil to make a paste.  Smear a thin layer over the pork loin and wrap the pork loin in plastic wrap.  Refrigerate overnight.

3.  Roast the pork loin.  Let the pork loin come to room temperature.  Preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.   Unwrap the loin and scrape off any excess paprika paste to keep it from burning.  Place the loin in a baking dish or a roasting pan with a rack, place in the oven and immediately turn down the heat to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.  Roast for 45 minutes to 1 hour and 25 minutes, until an instant read thermometer inserted into the center of the loin registers 145 degrees Fahrenheit.  The timing will depend upon the thickness of the cut.

4.  Finish the dish.  Let the meat rest for 10 minutes, tented with foil, then slice and serve immediately.


Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Fabes con Almejas (Beans with Clams)

If you want clams, you have to be ready to shell out some clams. That got me to thinking about why we some use the word "clams" to refer to money.  It seems that the reference is to clam shells, and may have originated with the practice of Native Americans in what is now known as California.  Those Native Americans -- the Miwok -- strung small clam shells together for use as currency. 

Fast forward a couple of decades and clams are no longer money.  Instead, they cost a lot of money.  Recently, I was standing in front of my local seafood counter.  The sign read little neck clams ... $0.45 cents each.  Forty-five cents for what barely constitutes a bite of clam. The only alternative was to buy a bag of little neck clams.  That would set me back $18.99. Either way, these clams were very expensive.  However, I do love clams and it has been a very long time since I have cooked with them.  A very long time. 

So, I decided to spend the clams for the clams.  I had a recipe that I wanted to make ... Fabes con Almejas or Beans with Clams.  This recipe hails from the northern Spanish region of Asturias and, according to many, it is a staple of Asturian cuisine.  This stew incorporates ingredients that embody the region, clams from the coastal shores and Fabada beans from the inland.  These two ingredients -- along with onions, garlic and bay leaves -- are melded together with some Spanish wine to produce a stew that is cucina povera (a phrase used by Tuscans to describe peasant food).

That is the irony of the dish, at least in my case.  Fabes con Almejas is a peasant dish, something that would grace the table of the poor.  They could grow the beans themselves and head out to the coastal waters to forage for the clams.  Go across the pond, and, this simple dish becomes fancy fare ... to the tune of more than $19.00 for just the clams.   And, without having grown any Fabada beans, I had to spend another couple of dollars for some beans, such as cannellini beans. That peasant dish becomes a fancy meal.  Rather than feeling cheated for having to spend a lot of money for something that could otherwise be very cheap, I just feel blessed that I have the money to put food on the table for my family. 

Recipe from Culinaria Spain, pg. 208
Serves 4

1 pound of white beans
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove of garlic, chopped
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper
1 pound of clams
1 cup white wine
1 tablespoon chopped parsley

1.  Prepare the beans.  If using dried beans, soak overnight in cold water.  

2. Cook the onions.  Heat the olive oil and add the onions and garlic.  Saute until the onions are translucent.  Add the beans and just enough water to cover them.  Season with the bay leaf, salt and pepper and let simmer over medium heat for an hour.  Stir several times during cooking and add more water if necessary.

3.  Cook the clams.  Clean the clams and discard any clams that are opened.  Add them to the beans and pour over the wine.  Once the clams have opened, add the parsley.


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Farm to Brewery in the Free State

Recently, my beautiful Angel, Clare, organized a surprise for my birthday.  She kept all of the details under wraps, except one: we would be having a picnic.  That's it: a picnic.  All of the other details, such as where we were having a picnic were a mystery.  While a picnic with my wife is a birthday treat in and of itself, I knew that she had other plans.  I also know that she knows me very well.  Just how well she knows me was reinforced when I learned of my surprise: a tour of a couple of Maryland's Farm to Breweries.  Farms + Breweries = a very happy and intrigued Keith!

The Farm-to-Brewery movement in Maryland was sparked by a bill passed by the state legislature a few years ago.  That bill created a new license -- known as the Class 8 Farm Brewery License -- which allows farms that grow hops to produce their own beers.  Not only could farmers produce their own beer, but the license allows them to sell the beer on premises, as well as to distributors or individual customers.  However, farmers are limited to just 15,000 barrels per year (that's 1,840,000 pints of beer).  The farmers must also use at least one ingredient grown on the farm, such as barley or hops, (the other ingredients do not have to necessarily come from the particular farm in question).

The first stop in our tour was Red Shedman Farm Brewery & Hop Yard.  The name "Red Shedman" hearkens to a story of the owner's father about a mysterious stranger who lurked in the red shed in the yard.  The father told the story to explain the source of mysterious sounds -- the bumps in the night -- to his frightened children.

Needless to say, the Red Shedman now refers to the Farm Brewery, whose buildings are all decked out in a solid barn-red color.  The farm cultivates Cascade, Chinook, Columbus, Nugget, and Crystal hops,  It does so only on one-half acre of land, which is a small area compared to the 70 acres of grapes grown by Linganore Cellars, which is owned by the same family. Nevertheless, that half-acre of hops makes its way into the beer, such as the Pump House IPA.

The Pump House IPA -- a West Coast Style IPA, produced with farm grown hops and supplemented with Amarillo and Summit hops -- was one of six beers that I tried during our visit.  I also tasted the Utopia, a farmhouse Belgian Saison that was well balanced.  (The only negative I can say about that beer is that my sample kicked the keg and there was no more for a pint.)  I also tried the Suicide Blonde Nitro, which was an adept combination of a classic Belgian Wit and a dry-hopped India Pale Ale.  The Suicide Blonde featured the best of each style -- the lighter, fruitier aspects of a wit with the bitterness of the IPA.  I also tried the Lunatic Fringe, a "lightly aged" Habanero IPA.  This beer had just the right heat from the habanero peppers but still allowed someone who is not accustomed to such heat to enjoy the beer.  The last two beers that I tried were the Grinder Espresso Stout -- a Chocolate nitro stout blended with Colombian coffee -- and the Honey Bourbon -- a limited release aged in bourbon barrels.  All in all, the flight provided a range of beers that were very good.  The best of the beers was the Pump House IPA (although the Utopia was a close second).

After sampling the beers, we moved on to the second stop on the farm to brewery tour ... Milkhouse Brewery at Stillpoint Farm.   The Stillpoint farm raised sheep, cultivated hops and even had an apiary.  However, the owner was a home brewer and wanted to pursue brewing as a way to supplement his income. (After all, a farmer could make more money selling beer than selling hops.)  He worked with farmers, brewers and officials to help to pass the law that gave rise to the Class 8 Farm Brewery License.  The owner then opened the Milkhouse Brewery, which was Maryland's first farm-to-brewery operation.  

We sampled nine beers at the Milkhouse brewery, which spanned the spectrum of beer styles.  There was the Dollyhyde Petite Farmhouse Ale (a Belgian "Patersbier" made with honey from the Stillpoint farm), the Goldie's Best Bitter (dry-hopped with Chinook hops from the farm) and the Homestead Hefeweizen, which was a very good example of the style.  We also sampled a couple of IPAs, including the Throwback IPA and the Stillpoint SMaSH Pale Ale, both of which were good.  Another noteworthy beer was the Petite Summer Sour.  While Clare did not care for the beer, I thought it was very good for a sour.  The beer was tart, full of a lemony citrus character, and light on the tongue. It would make a very good palate cleanser.  We also had the Coppermine Creek Dry Stout, which was good, and a couple of other beers, whose names escape me at the present time.  Overall, the Milkhouse Brewery had several beers that were standouts, such as the Hefeweizen, the Summer Sour and one of the pale ales (whose name I cannot remember).

In the end, this little foray into the farm to beer movement was a great introduction to the types of beers that could be produced by farmers-turned-brewers.  It also provides us with a new way to support local businesses.   And there are more such local businesses to support, including Manor Hill Brewing, Ruhlman Brewing and even the Brookville Beer Farm, which will be opening close to where we live in the near future.

So, there will be more to come.  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Salmon Belly Masala

There is something magical about salmon belly.  The long strips of fatty meat, covered by a narrow stretch of skin. As it cooks, the fat begins to render, bathing the meat in the Omega 3 fatty acids that actually make this belly healthier to eat than pork belly.  Once it is pulled off the grill or removed from under the broiler (or a smoker), you are ready for tasting what might be some of the best that salmon can offer.  After you have tasted the fatty, tender meat, you are left asking yourself, "why the hell do I keep buying salmon fillets or steaks?"  Three little pieces of salmon belly have far more flavor and oh-so-good richness than a pound of salmon fillets or salmon steaks.

I am often surprised by the fact that I do not see packages of salmon belly in stores.  Fillets and steaks are everywhere.  King Salmon, Coho Salmon, Sockeye Salmon, Atlantic Salmon (don't buy). Package after package, fillet after fillet, steak after steak.  But, no belly.

Fortunately, a small, locally-owned store near me has been stocking salmon belly over the past few weeks.  This has led to some experimentation on my part with this wonderful ingredient. Before the experiments could take place, I had to have at least some idea of what to do.  I perused various websites and recipes.  The general theme is that salmon belly is best grilled (or broiled) or smoked.  The goal is to achieve a degree of oily goodness, while also crisping the skin.  This can present quite the challenge, as there is a lot of fats and oils in the belly.

Another challenge comes from the richness of the meat.  In my humble opinion, there needs to be something to contrast the unctuous nature of the ingredient.   I gave it some thought and decided that I would use a spice mix to create that contrast.  As for which spice mix to use, I decided that I would rely upon Indian cuisine well known for its mixes ... or masalas.

I focused my search on Indian and subcontinent recipes that included a masala or for salmon.   Based on those recipes, I developed my own spice mix.   The basis of the spice mix is garlic and ginger, along with garam masala.  I then added some small amounts of cloves and cinnamon, as well as some salt.  The end is a mixture that has a lot of spice, but no piquancy or heat.  The goal was to flavor the fat, not to make it burn.

I then decided to make kebabs.  The reason is simple.  As I noted above, salmon belly is very rich.  Too much salmon belly may be too much from some people.  By making kebabs, I can control the portion size, thereby ensuring that no one gets too much of a good thing.

I have made this recipe a couple of times and each time it has turned out well.  The key is to keep the skin side up, so as to allow the skin to crisp as much as possible.  It may not always happen, because the kebabs may not be in the broiler for a long enough period of time.

A Chef Bolek Original
Serves 2

1/2 pound of salmon belly, cut into even sized pieces
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon ginger powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup of vegetable oil
Red onions, for garnish
Fresh cilantro, chopped, for garnish

1.  Marinate the salmon belly.  Combine the garam masala, garlic powder, ginger, powder, ground cloves, ground cinnamon and salt.  Add the oil to a ziploc bag and then add the salmon belly pieces.  Coat the salmon belly with the oil.  Add the spice mixture and make sure each belly piece is coated with the spices.  Marinate for at least 1 hour.

2.  Prepare the skewers.  Place 3 pieces of salmon belly on each skewer.  Use a brush to brush some more of the marinade on each side of the salmon belly pieces.  

3.  Broil the skewers.   Place the skewers, skin side up, under the broiler for about 5-7 minutes or until done.  

4.  Finish the dish.  Place the skewers over rice.  Garnish with red onions and cilantro.