Saturday, October 30, 2021

Chef Bolek's Scariest Moments in the Kitchen

Halloween is the time of year when everyone thinks about everything that is scary or spooky. While this particular holiday does not rank among my favorites, I nevertheless got to thinking about what are some of the scariest things that I have prepared in the kitchen since I started this blog thirteen years ago.

I also decided to write this post. I figured that, over those thirteen years, there had to be some misfires, some disasters, or even some questionable dishes that were probably better left un-posted. Then, while going through my old posts, I remembered the cardinal rule of my personal culinary blog: Don't Post the Disasters! For the most part, this rule worked. It probably prevented the scariest dishes from ever seeing the light of day.  

Still, the "word" scary can have different meanings in different contexts.  For example, it could mean the ingredients that strike the most fear in the eater. It could also mean the most frightening-looking dishes ever presented to a guest. Keeping this in mind, here are some of the scariest things to ever grace this blog: 

Top 3 Scariest Ingredients

Over the years, I have cooked with many different ingredients. The idea of learning about those ingredients, how they are used, and their place in the cuisines around the world have propelled me to try things that, as a kid or even as a young adult, would have sent me fleeing in terror.  Here are three dishes that contain some of those ingredients. 

1.  Fried Lamb's Liver and Heart (Khalyat Alkadba Wal Galoob). This dish comes from my Around the World in 80 Dishes personal culinary challenge.  It was the challenge for Libya Don't get me wrong, this offal dish was delicious. The combination of two spice mixes (bzaar and hararat), along with hot chile powder turned this recipe into an amazing dish. I think that, for the average person, a plate of lamb hearts and lamb livers would be scary and off-putting. That is why this dish made the list. 

2. Pig Trotter Curry (Kangchu Maroo).
This is another dish from my Around the World in 80 Dishes personal culinary challenge. It was the challenge for Bhutan. Unlike the recipe for lamb's liver and heart, this recipe did not have multiple spice mixes. It is a simple curry, with only garlic, ginger, and chiles. These ingredients provided flavor to the overall dish, but the absence of those spice mixes meant that one could taste more of the pig's feet.  I loved this dish and it has always been on my list to re-make.  

3. Pork Offal Meatballs (Frattaglie di Mailale Polpette).
While the last dish included pig's feet, this particular dish goes one or two steps further (pun intended). It includes pig neck and pig tails, which were boiled together with the pig's feet to make meatballs. The triumvirate of pig parts was a little difficult to handle and probably could have used a little more binding to keep them together. Needless to say, these are not your Italian grandmother's meatballs. They were still delicious, and, in some respects, just as good as regular meatballs. 

Top 3 Scariest Dishes

While I have done my best to ensure that none of my failures ever see the light of day, I have to admit there are some dishes that still made the blog.  These dishes fall into the "what were you thinking" category.  Here are three of those dishes: 

1. Lobstercake Sandwiches. This dish was my effort to recreate an amazing Lobster Burger dish that I had at Chef Michel Richard's Central. That dish had big chunks of lobster meat held together by the smallest amount of binding.  My "re-creation" was more like a soupy Frankenstein. Frozen lobster meat (bad choice), bolstered with scallops, bound together with a "soup" that left me scrambling to try to save the dish. The end result barely resembled a lobstercake. I couldn't even cut the cheese correctly for the picture.

2. Rockfish with a Trio of Sauces.
 This dish haunts the cook in me.  What was I thinking? Quite frankly, I had the idea of creating a "stop light" trio of sauces that could complement the flavor of rockfish (which I love).  I should have just looked at the red sauce, stopped with the idea, and made a different dish. Each of the sauces was basically an uninspired puree of a different bell pepper.  The only true difference between the sauces was the color. This recipe leaves me shaking my head, and, would most likely leave Chef Gordon Ramsey saying, "what the f___?" 

3. Dungie Cakes with a Yellow Pepper Saffron Sauce.
The last dish draws inspiration from the last two recipes: a forgettable "cake" with a regrettable "sauce." The cake, which was made from dungeness crab, turned out slightly better than the lobstercake, but what really doomed this recipe is the sauce. I can already hear the calls of "c'mon man." A yellow pepper sauce with saffron? Saffron turns everything yellow. What's the point? To have those little red strands poking through the gloppy, yellow mess? Who is going to see the strands with the diced onion and peppers littering the plate?

In the end, it is good to go back to acknowledge one's shortcomings. It is the only way that we learn. For example, I have learned that I am never going to do a stop light trio of sauces. I have also learned that, since that day, I have made some dishes with amazing sauces.  And, finally, while I may not be the biggest fan of Halloween, I do love trying scary ingredients. 

To everyone, I hope you have a Happy Halloween and 


Friday, October 22, 2021

Pumpkin Spice Mix

For those who know me, they would also know that a post about pumpkin spice is an unlikely subject for this blog. There are many reasons. You may ask:

Would you like it in your coffee?  
Would you like it in your tea?

I would not like it in my coffee.  
I would not like it in my tea.
I don't like it here or there.
I don't like it anywhere.
I don't like pumpkin spice.
About it, I can't say anything nice.

Would you eat it in a cake?
Would you drink it in shake?
I would not eat it in a cake.
I would not drink it in a shake.
I don't like it here or there.
I don't like it anywhere. 
I don't like pumpkin spice.
It is not worth the added price.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. I don't like pumpkin spice.

But, I love my family and everyone was getting together for a virtual baking event. The recipe for our event was a pumpkin swirl cheesecake. One of the ingredients listed in the recipe was one and one-half teaspoons of "pumpkin pie spice."  While I may have dozens of spices in my kitchen, there is not a single bottle of pumpkin spice to be found. 

So, I went looking for a recipe online to make a pumpkin spice. Needless to say, there are a lot of recipes for pumpkin spice on the Internet. There is one common feature of these recipes: they all start with cinnamon and ginger (more of the former than the latter), but then the recipe turns into a sort of choose-your-own-adventure. Mace or nutmeg. Allspice or cloves. It is as if one could end up with multiple configurations of what could be pumpkin spice.

I did not want to have to choose between spices. I wanted a recipe that was more straightforward. A recipe that called for mace and nutmeg, allspice and cloves. After all, I have all of those ingredients.  I should be able to use them all. I eventually found that recipe on The Kitchn website. A pumpkin spice recipe that called for all six of the ingredients (cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cloves, nutmeg and mace). 

Once I stopped looking, my mind turned to a rather ironic fact. I hate pumpkin spice, but I love every ingredient used to make that spice.  I freely use all of those ingredients (as called for) when I make spice mixes, such as masalas and curries. A quick glance at the label cloud to the right shows there are 18 recipes with allspice, 41 recipes with cinnamon, 30 recipes with cloves, 52 recipes with ginger, 0 recipes with mace and 15 recipes with nutmeg. Clearly, I don't have any problems with the ingredients that go into pumpkin spice. 

Perhaps my dislike of pumpkin spice comes from its commercialization. It seems like everything is "pumpkin spice" this time of year.  Now, I am back to hating that spice. 


Recipe from The Kitchn


  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground mace
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg


Combine all of the ingredients together and stir until well-mixed. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to one year.


Friday, October 15, 2021

Asari No Sumashijiru (Japanese Clam Soup)

There is something to be said about simplicity. A handful of ingredients - water, lemon, clams, salt and cilantro - combined in a basic preparation. The end result is a soup is a dining experience that transcends many of the dishes that I have had at a lot of fancy restaurants. 

This recipe - Asari No Sumashijiru - has made me rethink much of what I have thought about cooking. I spend a lot of time looking for recipes that incorporate a range of ingredients, utilize new cooking (and sometimes complex) cooking techniques, and produce some very delicious dishes (which, if my photography skills were a little better, would look as good as they taste). But this five ingredient dish, prepared simply by boiling the clams, turned everything on its head.

A sumashijiru is a simple, clear soup with certain specific components. There is the suiji, which is the stock (or water), and the wadane, which is the solid ingredient. There is also the tsuma, a garnish that adds color, and the suikuchi, a garnish that adds fragrance. 

Each particular component is clearly present in this recipe. The suiji is water, flavored by the solid ingredient or the wadane, which are asari (clams). The tsuma is the Japanese cilantro and the suikuchi is the use of lemon juice and zest.   

One additional note about the clams. The recipe called for manila clams, which resemble short-neck clams (or little neck clams). Little neck clams are the smallest type of clams that one will find either in grocery stores or in restaurants. 

However, I had middle-neck claims on hand when I made this recipe.  Middle neck clams are, as their name suggests, mid-sized clams. They are basically cherrystone clams. Generally speaking, I prefer middle-necks or cherrystone clams because of their size. In my humble opinion, they are the "Goldilocks" of clams, not too small so as to barely register when you bite into them and not too big so that they are too tough when you bite into them. In the end, I think the middle-neck clams worked as well as manila clams or little-neck clams. 

Whatever clams you have, or if you need clams (go out and get them), you should make this recipe. It is truly amazing how something so simple can be so profound.


Recipe available at The Spruce Eats

Serves 4


  • 1 pound manila clams
  • 5 cups water
  • Kosher salt, to taste
  • 1 lemon, zested
  • Mitsuba (wild Japanese cilantro), for garnish


1. Cook the clams. In a medium pot, bring water to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and add a bit of salt to the water (approximately 1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt). Add fresh clams directly into the boiling water.  Cook until all the clams open. If there are any unopened clams, remove them from the pot and discard.

2. Finish the dish. While the clams are are cooking, zest the lemon using a microplane or a peeler.  Serve four to five clams in small soup bowls and pour broth over them. Garnish with lemon zest and Japanese parsley. Serve immediately. 


Thursday, October 7, 2021

Sea You At the Bottom

While I may say that I never buy anything based on a label, even I have to admit that is not always the case ... especially when the label has Cthulhu on it. Recently, I came across another Cthulhu-inspired label on a beer.  This one is for the Sea You at the Bottom, a farmhouse ale from D.C. Brau in collaboration with the Sea Line, a seafood and oyster restaurant just a ball's throw from Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. 

The thing about a "farmhouse ale" is that the name is not a style. Instead, it refers to a range of styles, that differ from country to country. The styles include saison, biere de garde, gueze or sahti (if you happen to be in Finland). These beers tend to have orangish to golden colors, with a lighter in body and a noticeable dryness in the taste.  Some of these styles, such as a saison, also have elements that could work well with oysters, such as citrus (think lemons) or pepper notes.

Yet, a farmhouse ale is hardly the type of beer that one would associate with Cthulhu. If someone is going to brew a beer that will feature Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'naghl fhtagn (the full name of the literary beast), one would expect a darker beer, such as a Russian Imperial Stout, along the lines of the The Death of Cthulhu brewed by Virginian craft brewer Adroit Theory. 

D.C. Brau and the Salt Line nevertheless went with a farmhouse ale brewed with oysters. (The oyster part was as compelling of a reason for me to purchase the beer as the image of Cthulhu on the label.) Conceptually, I guess, the oysters are what ties the beer to the waters from which Cthulhu emerges. Yet, oysters don't live deep in the ocean. They are usually found in brackish waters that are eight to thirty-five feet deep. If one wants to be true to the them, one should consider brewing a beer with squid. (Surprisingly enough, someone has brewed beer with squid ink.)

In any event, D.C. Brau did a great job with Sea You at the Bottom worked very well. The beer pours a golden hue, with only a thin layer of foam that recedes as quickly as the sea foam.  The aromatic elements of the beer track a typical saison, with some citrus notes and some other less recognizable, but pleasing elements.  As for the taste, that is where the oysters truly reveal themselves. The brewers used Skipjack oysters from the Chesapeake Bay. Named after the iconic vessels that once plied the bay to dredge for oysters, the Skipjack is an average-sized oyster has been with a mild salinity but meaty texture.  That salinity, which gives the oyster its briny flavor, is noticeable in what I could only describe as a "salty" element. That element is not too pronounced.  It took several sips before I could identify it amongst the more traditional citrus notes that one would expect in a saison.  That was not a bad thing, as the Sea You At the Bottom is a very drinkable beer.

This beer presents a very good case why oysters can be used in styles other than stouts. I purchased a four pack from D.C. Brau for $14.99. If you happen to make your way to the Salt Line in Washington, D.C. or make a stop by the D.C. Brau brewery, I would definitely try or buy this beer.  Until next time ...


Friday, October 1, 2021

In Search of Orange Gold: Part One - An Introduction

Maura Judkis of The Washington Post once referred to it as Maryland's "magical fairy dust." The mere label suggests that a sprinkle will confer magical properties upon the subject.  In this case, "[s]prinkle it on almost any seafood -- or even beer or doughnuts -- and it becomes even more delicious." Judkis adds, "[i]t is one of the infallible constants in the universe; practically science. (There is an exception though, as even this magical fairy dust can't help a McDonald's McFish sandwich.)

That magical substance is Old Bay. One cannot truly understand the love that is created for this spice mixture unless he or she has spent some time in the State of Maryland.  It does not take much,  just a few days, and perhaps less if he or she happens to be hanging around any of the local crab shacks. It is that smell, which borders on indescribable (at least in my humble opinion). It is the texture, how it gets on your fingers as you eat those crabs.  And, most of all, it is the taste. How that combination of flavors complements the sweetness of blue crab meat or shrimp. 

Indeed, polls have shown how much people who live in the Free State love Old Bay. In fact, they seem to love it more than anything else. According to one poll, Old Bay had a favorability rating among Maryland residents of 83%. That is a higher rating that Marylanders have for their governor, or, for that matter, any other politician. Marylanders love Old Bay more than they love their sports teams, as 83% far exceeds fan support for football and baseball teams in the Old Line State. Simply put, Marylanders love Old Bay more than just about anything and everything else.
(Illustration: Maximilian Franz)

My history with the spice mix is to put it, "mixed" (pun intended). I have lived in the area for more than thirty years. My first true encounter with Old Bay came while I was in college. I was elevated to the position of steam cook at a local D.C. crab house where I worked during the summers. My job was to pack and steam pots with live crabs and blanket them with Old Bay, which came in containers that had the height of a kindergartener. I also had to cook those pots. I worked long hours in that kitchen. The combination of steam, sweat and Old Bay meant that, every night after work, I reeked of the spice. It had infiltrated everything: my clothes, my shoes and even my skin.  No matter how often I washed my clothes, the smell never went away. 

For years after that job, I never really cared for Old Bay.  I also went a long time without eating crabs (partly because of my experience working in that kitchen and partly because, quite frankly, I could not afford to purchase them). As time went by, my disdain for the spice faded, forgotten as I moved on to new jobs and new adventures. 

I eventually found myself living in Maryland with my beautiful Angel.  Slowly, but surely, I was reintroduced into steamed crabs.  I was no longer cooking them, but eating them. We went to local crab houses once in a while -- never the one where I worked -- and enjoyed a dozen crabs (or a crab feast, which was the all-you-can-eat small crab experience). As a tray of those crabs were presented to the table, we would be greeted by that smell of Old Bay.  When we ate those crabs, the wet, grainy texture of the mix as it got on your fingers while eating the crabs, provided a completely different experience. I had been won over, and, I have since become a big fan of the spice mix.  I even began steaming my own crabs, using Old Bay in the same manner that I used to as a steam cook.

I am not the only person to have been won over by Old Bay.  During the coronavirus pandemic, the demand for the spice mix increased substantially. The current owner of the recipes and rights, McCormick Foods, had to cut back production of its less popular spice blends in order to keep pace with the increasing demand for Old Bay.  That demand is not just in Maryland. As the PR people at McCormick like to say, "born on the Bay, loved in the USA."

The heightened popularity of Old Bay got me to thinking about just how this spice mix originated. It did not simply appear one day on store shelves or in restaurants.  There is a history.  I wanted to explore that history, which has led me to research and write a short blog series entitled In Search of Orange Gold. As it stands, this series will cover a range of topics, beginning with what preceded Old Bay, followed by the person who created the mix and how Old Bay developed over the years and decades.  I will also explore the ingredients that go into Old Bay and how the mix is used in a variety of recipes.  Finally, I will use my best effort to recreate the spice mix based upon what I have learned (given the actual recipe is a closely guarded secret hidden somewhere in the headquarters of McCormick Foods). 

I hope that you will find these posts as interesting as I found the subject matter to be when I wrote them.  To find all of the posts in this series, you can check out my Other Projects page. Until then ...