Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A Day at Zion National Park

             It’s been an incredibly busy year so far.  In less than 5 months, I’ve published two E-books, several articles and shorts around the web, tried perilously to maintain my blogs, all the while still working my tukus off at the casino.  It was time for a break.

 The decision was made to pack up the car and head out of town for a day.  We’re big fans and supporters of the National Park system and one of the things on the bucket list is to visit as many of them as possible.  Dust off the National Park pass, we’re heading to Utah for a day at Zion National Park.  Less than 3 hours from Las Vegas, a perfect day trip destination.

While the beauty and splendor of our National Parks is nothing short of spectacular, nobody goes there for the food. Although plenty of concession stands and restaurants dot the landscape in and around the parks, the food is usually overpriced and a little dull.  So, in order to save a few dollars, we always pack in our own food.  However, throwing some lunchmeat and bread in a cooler and calling it lunch, ain’t exactly our style around here.

Lunch started a couple of days ahead of time by marinating some chicken tenders in a mix of orange juice, cranberry juice, salt, pepper, sugar, a crushed garlic and two whole cloves with a hint of fresh squeezed lemon juice.  After marinating overnight, it was lightly poached in the marinade, diced and mixed with some mayo, celery, onion, salt, pepper, paprika and dried cranberries.  Then we mixed up a pasta salad with elbows, mayonnaise, salt, pepper, hints of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, diced celery and diced red delicious apple.

The drive between Las Vegas and Springdale, Utah was less than 3 hours and the scenery was amazing, winding through mountain gorges and around the Virgin River.  After passing through St. George Utah, the country road into Springdale and the park entrance offered a few tiny hamlets and unrivaled views of the mountains.

After entering the park, we left the car at the visitor center and caught the shuttle bus around the park.  Riding up to the Zion Lodge, we got off the bus at several points and walked around a few minutes, soaking up the mountain views and trying to catch some glimpse of the wildlife, the next stop offered a small natural history museum and we spent some time perusing the native American artifacts of the canyon area.  Upon arrival at the Lodge , we entered the trial head to the Emerald Pools and hiked up the mountain to some amazing waterfall areas.  After hiking back to the lodge, we caught the bus once again and rode deep into the canyon floor and hiked a ways along the river.  Absolutely breathtaking is the only way to describe the natural beauty of this area.  Although we had armed ourselves with bottled water and granola bars to munch during the hike, it was time for some lunch.  We caught the bus back to the visitor center.

Not a seat to be found in the picnic area, so sitting in the back seat of the car, in the parking lot, we spread our awesome chicken salad on some fresh buttery croissants and ate our macaroni salad right out of the cool whip container we transported it in.  A side of sun chips, and we called it lunch. Not getting a table was okay; incredible scenery can still be enjoyed from the back seat. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Soup for Everyone!!


             A little chilly outside, windy and not a day to be outdoors.  This is the kind of day that I like to put on a pot of soup, bake a loaf of bread and hangout on the couch with a movie.  Soups and stews are my favorite cold weather fare, and probably the only thing I look forward to in winter.

            The history of soup is probably as old as the history of cooking itself.  The idea of combining various ingredients in a large pot was inevitable.

It is said that the modern restaurant industry was founded on soup.  Restoratifs (where the word for restaurant comes from) were the first menu items served in public restaurants of 18th century Paris.  Broth, Boullian and consommé soon followed.

When cooks of the middle ages made soup, what they were making was a dish primarily of a piece of bread or toast soaked in the liquid that was poured over it.  This was a means of consuming the liquid by sopping it up, an alternative to using a spoon.  The meal at the end of the day was always the lightest and the “sop” was an important part of it.  Thus making the last meal of the day the souper and later Supper.

And why do we eat soup and instead of drink it?  Etiquette experts say it’s because it’s part of the meal.  You consume it with a spoon instead of sipping it out of the container.

Next time your feeling soup coming on and want something a little different than the usual veg-beef or chicken.  Try this recipe for Sauerkraut Soup.  It’s one of my favorites.  Drain and rinse the sauerkraut depending on how acidic you want it.  I like to use the Bavarian style kraut myself, it’s a little sweeter.

 1 lb sauerkraut
4 c beef stock

2c chicken stock
2 onions, chopped
3 slices bacon
1 ts paprika
1 tb tomato paste
1/2 ts caraway seeds
salt, pepper, and dill to taste
2 large potatoes, peeled, sliced, and soaked
1/4 lb diced cooked ham
2 bratwurst, cooked and sliced
Put 3 cups of the stock (1/2beef,1/2 chicken) in a medium/large pot, add the sauerkraut, and simmer for 30 minutes. Sauté the onions with the bacon until they are taking on a little color and starting to caramelize, sit to the side until the stock and sauerkraut are done. Add the paprika, remaining stock, tomato paste, and caraway seeds to the stock and sauerkraut pot. Then add the bacon and onions, and the drained potatoes, and simmer everything for 30 minutes. Add the bratwurst and ham, and simmer another 15 minutes or until the meat is heated through. Add more stock if necessary to adjust the consistency.  Serve with a crispy sourdough or pumpernickel bread.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Toast to Beer

“Beer is proof that god loves us” Ben Franklin
I think we got it all wrong.  I’ve wrote and published before that it was the pursuit of bread and bread baking that led our earliest ancestors to cultivation of crops and the beginning of civilization.  Maybe it was something else!

Several thousand years ago, no one knows exactly how all it occurred, but a piece of bread or grain became wet and a short time later, it began to ferment, one of our ancient ancestors decided it would be a good idea to drink this and beer was born.  The ancient Sumerians were able to replicate this process and are the first recorded civilization to brew beer. Ancient Sumerian pictograms of what is recognizably barley show bread being baked then crumbled into water to make a mash, which is then made into a drink that is recorded as having made people feel "exhilarated, wonderful and blissful!"   Could it be that baked bread was a convenient method of storing and transporting a resource for making beer? 

Beer is recorded almost from the beginning of the written record several thousand years ago.  The builders of the pyramids were paid in beer and chemical testing on clay pots dug from archeological sites indicate the content was beer at one time. 

Beer seems to have played an important part of our world history!!

One of the provisions on the Ark of Noah was beer.

When Christopher Columbus landed on the shores of the new world, he found the natives making beer.
The Puritans landed at Plymouth Rock because the beer supply was low.

The first commercial brewery opened in New Amsterdam (NYC, Manhattan) after colonists advertised in London newspapers for experienced brewers.

William Penn (founder of Pennsylvania) operated commercial brewery.

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had their own private brew houses.

Samuel Adams operated commercial brewery.

Soldiers in the revolutionary army received rations of a quart of beer a day.

Today, beer is making a comeback.  For a long time, beer was considered the drink of rednecks and the uneducated.  Wine snobs turned their noses up at the thought of beer.  I remember sitting through services where the minister preached the evils of “that nasty beer that only a cockroach could love”.  Micro brew houses have become popular. Chefs and Sommeliers are beginning to add beer pairings to their menus.

Hey, take a look at the history of beer and have a little respect will ya.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Steven Reichlan, How to grill


I have two favorite things, grilling and bbq.  I’m blessed to live in a climate where I can grill all year long.  During those hot summer months, I cook almost exclusively on the grill.

Steven Reichlan is one of my culinary heros, and he’s done it again with this book.

“How to Grill, the complete illustrated book of barbeque techniques” is a must for any grill jockeys library.
Easy to follow instructions, with lots of photo illustrations make this a very user friendly step by step guide.  He not only gives you delicious recipes, but each chapter teaches you actual techniques that you can use….your not only learning recipes, your learning how to use your grill to the fullest.  Both beginners and experienced grill jockeys will find something to learn from this book and I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Dinner, Improvised.

It’s getting close to payday and pickins are a little slim around here.  Gonna have to try and whip something up for dinner.

Look in the fridge…mmm….some leftover pork roast that I need to use up, okay, start there.

Hunt through the cabinets a bit, hey…there’s a can of pineapple hiding behind the tomato sauce.

Open the pineapple and pour the juice in a pan…..lets take half the pineapple chunks and puree them to thicken the juice a little into a sauce and add it all back to the pan. 

Peek in the fridge again….yay….there’s some soy and teriyaki sauce.  Add some of that to the pan.  Needs a little sweetener to offset the saltiness of the soy and acidity of the pineapple.  Some brown sugar would be perfect here.

No brown sugar…darn it.  Wait…brown sugar is just molasses mixed with cane sugar.  I have a bottle of molasses in the fridge and some white sugar, let’s just add a little of both in the pan and mix it up.  Taste? Not bad, could use a little heat though.

What’s in the spice cabinet? Mmmm….a touch, just a little, cayenne would really set this off in the absence of chili flakes (remember to add that to the shopping list).  Awesome!…some ground ginger (fresh would be better) wouldn’t hurt this either.

Alright….dice up that pork roast and add it in the pan and let everything simmer for a while.  Should serve this over rice….get that started too.

A quick check of the freezer, lookie here…..some frozen mixed veggies.  Lets put those in the steamer with some salt, pepper and butter.

A scoop of rice…add the sweet/sour (sorta) pork over the rice and some veggies on the side.  Not the most authentic Asian meal I’ve ever made, but not bad for a throw together.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Grilled Pizza

Spring is upon us, it’s time to clean up those grills and get ready for the season. I have a true love affair with my grill and anyone who spends enough time around my house will figure out quickly……nothing, and I mean nothing, not even dessert, escapes being cooked on the grill around here.  One of our family favorites around here, Pizza, is no exception.  That smoky taste on the crust from the charcoal is unbeatable.  I love a sausage and mushroom.

I like to start with a very simple tomato/basil sauce.  Nice and flavorful and won’t overpower the other ingredients.

Start with ¼ cup oil on low heat, add two finely chopped cloves of garlic.  Sweat the garlic until it’s nice and aromatic.  Add two 14oz cans of diced tomatoes, juice and all, 3 tbsp of dried basil, a tbsp of sugar, a tbsp of tomato paste and ¼ cup of tomato sauce, a splash of red wine, salt and pepper to taste.  Put it over low heat and allow it reduce by half.  Once reduced, blend until smooth and put aside to cool.

Saute about 3 cups of baby portebello mushrooms in butter with a little olive oil, salt and pepper.  When almost done, add splash of your favorite wine and allow to simmer until tender.

Get some good Italian sausages, I like the Johnsonville brand.  Remove the sausages from the casings and scramble with some salt and pepper.  Remove the sausage from the pan, medium dice an onion and lightly sauté it in the fat from the sausage.  Put all ingredients aside, you want them cooled down when you add them to the pizza on the grill, they will heat as the crust cooks.

To make the crust is fairly simple.  Measure 1 cup of luke warm water, add 2tbsp of olive oil, 1 tbsp of sugar and a package of active dry yeast.  Let it sit for about ten minutes until it gets bubbly.  In a separate bowl, mix 3 cups all purpose flour and 2 tsp of salt.  If your using a stand up mixer then slowly add the water mix while using the paddle attachment, mix on medium speed just long enough to moisten and mix a light dough.  Don’t over work the dough or it will be tough.  If it’s too sticky add a little bit of flour, if too dry add just a little more water to get the right consistency.  Once the dough is mixed, put it into a lightly oiled bowl, cover the dough with plastic wrap and cover the entire bowl with a towl.  Put in a warm place and let it rise for at least an hour or until doubled in size.  When it’s done rising, remove it from the bowl to a floured surface, shape it into a ball and cut it in half.Set up your gill for indirect heat.  If  your using a gas grill, turn on your two outside burners and leave the inside burners off.  With a charcoal grill, simply move the coals to one side of the grill.
This will effectively turn your grill into an oven. When grilling anything, use either a chimney starter or (as pictured) an electric starter.  NEVER use starter fluid, it can leave a pretty nasty taste if not cooked all the way off before the coals are ready.

While the grill heats up, start shaping your dough.  Start by shaping it into a ball.

Press down with the palm of your hand.

and working from the center, start shaping the dough outward.

use a rolling pin if you need to.  It takes some practice to get this technique down.  Don’t worry if the dough isn’t perfectly round.  I think an odd shape adds a more rustic, homemade feel to the pizza.  The idea is just to get a good thin crust.  It will rise a bit when it hits the grill.

Notice, I worked on a sheet pan.  Not only does this keep my counter fairly clean, but I also don’t have to try and lift the dough off the counter onto a vehicle to carry it outside.  Make sure the pan is rimless and very well floured so it will just slide off the sheet pan onto the grill.

Carry the crust out to the grill and slide it onto the side of the grill opposite the heat.

Have all your toppings standing by.  Close the cover of the grill and let it cook for about 5-7 minutes.  Then, using a pair of tongs, rotate the crust so the far side gets closest to the heat and let it cook another 5-7 minutes.  When it has nice char marks and a nice golden color, slide it on the sheet pan and flip it over.

Start adding your toppings.

close the lid and allow to cook until all the cheese has melted and the toppings are heated through.  About another 7-10 minutes.


Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Enormity of it all

I’ve been doing this for a while now, and I’m still amazed at the size and scope of things.  Working in catering and banquets at a 4 star resort and casino on the Las Vegas strip is a constant challenge as we consistently put together parties often number in the thousands and at times upwards of ten thousand.  I’m often asked “how do you guys do that?”

Humongous Corporation decides to have their annual convention with us.  They want us to put together a party of 4000 attendees.  Concurrently, Notsogrande Corporation wants us to put together their annual meeting of 2500 attendees.  Meetings are held with sales and the executive chef.  Tastings are done, menus are agreed upon and checks for upwards of a million dollars are written.  Banquet event orders are drawn up, and sent to the various departments involved.

The BEO sheets are received in the banquet hot kitchen, banquet cold kitchen and the bakery.  Prep sheets are drawn up and food is ordered.  Humongous Coporation wants a buffet style event with Pasta, Prime rib and Risotto with several vegetable side dishes.  Notsogrande wants a fully plated banquet event of steaks, crabcakes, potato gratins and veggies.

A couple of days before either event occurs, steaks are marinated, vegetables are trimmed, cleaned and panned.  Prime ribs are spice rubbed and everything is placed on speed racks and carefully marked.  All foods down to the last vegetable are counted according to the number of guests and size of portion.  The next day, steaks are taken out of the marinate and placed on the grill, just long enough to make those pretty grill diamonds.  They’re then placed on sheet pans to be finished in the oven later.  Both events are lasting several days, so prep work begins on the following days meals.  Breakfast and lunch are also being provided.  Chicken breasts are marinated and later grill marked for lunch services.  Bacon and sausage (several varieties) are panned and prepped to go into the oven. Gallons of scrambled eggs are pre set to be cooked in the morning.

The day of the first events, the set up teams arrive.  Blueprints have been drawn with every detail of the room setup right down to the placement of the last fork on the last table.  Tables and chairs are brought in, decorations are placed.  If needed, stages are built, sound systems are set up and lighting is placed.  Humongous event will include cooks on stations right in the room who will slice meat and heat risotto and pasta to order for guests.  So “Action Stations” are set up with small stoves, hot places and heat lamps for them to work.

Meanwhile, banquet hot kitchen is cooking the Prime ribs, Cooking pasta and making gallons of Red sauce, cream sauces and Bolognese sauces for service.  Crab cakes for Notsogrande have been partially fried in the deep fryer and are finishing in the ovens along with the steaks.  Gratins were made the day before and have been heated to service temperature along with the veggies.  Two long steam tables are brought in, each with a conveyer belt on each side and steam wells in the middle.  Gratins, steaks, crab cakes, carrots and asparagus are placed in the wells.  5 cooks line up on each side of each steam table and as plates move down the conveyer, each cook places an item on the plate.  Every item is placed exactly on the plate as the plate in front of it.  Every plate has to look exactly like the plate next to it.  As the plates come off the conveyor, they are put in stacks of 5 and placed in a hot box, 120 plates to a box.  There will be upwards of 20 hot boxes.  As the hot box fills up, its moved into the hall way and tied into a train.  When six boxes are trained together, they’re pulled to the service stations outside of the banquet hall.  Approximatly 53 minutes later, we’ve plated 2400 meals.  Not done yet, there are still some special needs meals, gluten free, vegetarian, kosher etc that need to be done.
At the same time, cold kitchen is working on their conveyor belts plating salads and bakery is getting breads and desserts ready for transport to the banquet hall.  The best way to describe it all is controlled chaos.

At this time, an army of waiters and waitress arrive, numbering in the hundreds, they will be divided up, assigned stations and tables and send to whichever banquet hall they will be working that nights.  Bartenders arrive with their portable stations and begin setting up their stations inside the event room.

Cooks are assigned action stations for Homongous and head out to their stations just about an hour before the even begins.  Cooks and helpers are assigned back of house stations for Notsogrande and take their place outside of the banquet hall.  As the hot boxes are checked and rechecked, the banquet captains inspect the food and make sure that stewarding brought down all the large vats of ice tea, coffee and water.  Desserts and breads arrive from the bakery and cold kitchen sends down the salads.

Humongous event begins.  Servers are running food from the back of house to the action stations and buffet setups.  Carvers are busy cutting meat and other cooks are tossing pasta with various sauces and others are tossing risotto.

Notsogrande event begins.  Servers run salads and dressing to each table then line up at the hot boxes and plates are handed out 8 at a time on large service trays and taken into the banquet hall and served to the guests.  There is constant radio contact between the cooks and kitchen..always a glitch and something needs to be done or was overlooked and, of course, the one person who always wants something special and has to be taken care of quickly.  Everyone is fed, desserts are passed out and the entertainment portion begins.  Tables are bussed and cleaned off. 

The food portion of the night is done.  However, dishwashers will work through the night cleaning up from the events. Dishes and glasses are washed and silver is polished. The set crew will return and tear down and reset the room for the next event.

As all this was happening, there was still a crew in the kitchen.  These meeting will go for several days, more prep needs to be done.  The next crew of cooks will arrive at 4am to start breakfast and there are still the smaller events, wedding receptions, family reunions..etc that need to be attended to as well.  Tomorrow comes another day and another corporate convention.