Friday, May 27, 2011

Memorial Day Weekend – Three Full Days to Prove that Most
 of Us Can’t Cook Outdoors

To me there is no better way to kick off the summer than to have a national three-day holiday. And to me there is no better way to show that most of us can't cook outdoors than to give us three full days to prove it.

You noticed I said "us."

That's because I was one of those who could not cook outdoors. And couldn't for many years. Now don't get me wrong. I could start a fire and hurl something on it. But it wasn't really what I would now call "cooking." It was more like "cremation." I'm sure I am not the first backyard cook to have been cited by the sheriff for abusing an animal corpse during a cookout.

And do you know what was really sad? I didn't even know I couldn't cook outdoors. I mean, how hard could it be? Just start up a raging fire in the old kettle grill and toss a hunk of raw meat on it. Cook it for a beer or two, then yank it off, hack at it 'til it resembled servings, and pour some barbeque sauce over it. Then call everyone to the table and serve it with the canned baked beans the wife re-heated, the potato salad that Aunt Minnie brought (geez, I hope she kept it in the fridge this year), the chips and dip that John and Julie from next door brought, and of course the two bags of ice that cheapskate Uncle Willy brings every year to keep the beer that everyone else bought cold.

So what's not to like?

Besides the food and Uncle Willy?


Like many of us who cook outdoors, I had no reference point. That is, until I met Eddie and Michael. These two friends are not related, but you will often find them at the same cookouts. Eddie does the fish and other assorted seafood. Michael handles the beef and pork. They both excel at grilling veggies.

The first time I saw them in action and tasted the items that came off the grill I wanted to be them. But when my wife looked over at me from across the picnic table in a near-swoon as she sampled the beef and shrimp hot off Eddie's grill and sighed, "Why can't you grill like Eddie and Michael?" I knew the gauntlet had been thrown down.

So I made it a point to study these two men until I could match their technique and glorious results. It took a couple of years, but here's what I learned:

1. Buy good food. As a rule, I've always bought good cuts of meat and fish whenever I planned on cooking indoors. But outside? What's the point? I'm only going to char it to hell. Why spend $10 a pound on a filet-of-somethin'-somethin' when I could buy a hunk of backyard-somethin'-somethin' for under $3 a pound? It made complete sense until I tasted Eddie's salmon steaks with lemon butter and Michael's filet mignon with a glace to die for.

Now, I have to say this, Michael manages one of the top restaurants in the city so he is able to get the really primo cuts of meat that I could never hope to buy. Eddie? He's a regular guy like me, but he buys his cookout entrees from the butcher and the seafood market, so I had no excuse. Right then I made a vow to never buy my meat and seafood in large opaque packages from the "Must Sell Today by Five-Thirty" bin of my grocery store again. That decision in and of itself made a huge difference.

2. Cook on a clean grill. Many of us pride ourselves on the thick layers of of goo that cling to our grates from past barbeques.  I once believed that this accumulation not only added subtle flavor to the food, but the layers of grime and blackened fat drew off all of the impurities in the food I was grilling.

Boy, was I  wrong.

When I had a piece of jumbo grilled shrimp fresh off Eddie’s grill and did not detect even a hint of overcooked venison I was sold.

3. If you cook at night, use light. When I watched Eddie and Michael whip up some late night surf and turf I was surprised that they did so with the outdoor spotlights on. I had always thought that the true and most iconic way to grill outdoors was in whatever light the twinkling stars and glowing moon could give you. Either that or a flashlight. The smaller the better so as not to ruin the overall ambiance.

Once again, I was wrong. When I turned on the lights on my deck I was amazed at how much control I had over whatever items I had on the grill. I mean, they were not backlit by the roaring flames in the kettle where everything, regardless of how rare or well done they were, all resembled solid black lumps on the grate.

4. Pay attention. The last important lesson I learned from these two grill men was their penchant for paying attention to whatever they had on the grill. By doing so, they knew when to turn each item, when to move them to cooler parts of the grill, and when to remove them for serving. Sure, it may be much more fun to throw something on the grill and then join everyone else in the limbo dance by the pool, but your steaks, shrimp and chicken breasts will taste much better after a few minutes on the grill rather than the time it takes for everyone to prove to everyone else that now that the limbo pole is a mere 18-inches from the ground they can still make it under, even after six consecutive (unsuccessful) tries.

I hope these tips will revolutionize your outdoor cooking experience as much as they have mine. But why settle for plain old ribs and potato salad? Why not go for the gold and create a backyard meal that will have the neighbors talking for years? Below I'm offering a traditional cookout item with a tropical twist. You may live in Minnesota but you need to give this a shot. Remember, we are cooking outside the lines.

And if your uncle Willy offers to bring the ice again this year, tell him to bring five bags. Cuz in addition to those beers we want to keep cold, we're going to whip up some frozen margaritas and daiquiris…

Caribbean Grilled Ribs (serves 6)


3 pounds St. Louis style ribs

For the dry rub:
1 large onion, finely chopped, (about 1-1/2 cups) 

1-1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

3 teaspoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon thyme
1-1/2  teaspoons allspice

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground hot pepper flakes

1-1/2  teaspoons ground black pepper

1/4 cup soy sauce

1-1/2 tablespoons olive oil oil

1-1/2 tablespoons cider or white wine vinegar

For the sauce:
3 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, chopped (about 1-1/2 to 2 cups) 

6 cloves garlic, minced 

3 tablespoons minced ginger

1-1/2  cups  dark rum

1-1/2 cups ketchup

3/4  cup molasses

3/4  cup red wine vinegar

3/4  cup pineapple or orange juice

1/4 cup light brown sugar 

1-1/2  tablespoons ground allspice

3/4  teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon kosher salt

3/4  teaspoons fresh ground black pepper

1. Combine dry rub ingredients and  rub over  ribs, cover and refrigerate for a few hours or over night.

2. Prepare a fire in the grill for indirect heat or preheat your oven to 350° if it's raining.

3. Grill ribs over indirect heat in covered grill, turning occasionally, until ribs are very tender, about 1- 1/2 hours (or roast ribs on a rack in shallow pan in the oven for 1-1/2 hours until tender.)

4. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onions and sauté until soft and translucent, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and sauté 2 additional minutes. Stir in the remaining ingredients and  simmer until thick.

5. Baste the ribs with the sauce during the final 15 minutes of cooking. Cut ribs into 1- or 2-rib portions and serve with remaining sauce


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

I Need Your Help. Hey, Put Your Wallet Away. I'm Not Talking About That Kinda Help.

A couple of posts back I announced that Table for Two - The Cookbook for Couples would soon be produced in e-book format.

That sounded like good news to me.

Until I saw a few cookbooks in e-book format.

Now I'm not so sure.

You see, I'm somewhat proud of the book's cover and interior design. Not that I can take any credit for it. You've already seen my extraordinary graphic arts talent in a previous post.

No, the book looks good due to the efforts of Ms. Rebecca Russo (cover) and the good folks at Principle Creative (interior). However, I am still proud of the results and am thrilled that these folks pulled down some awards for their work. I may not know a Quark from an Adobe, but I do have a sense for good design. And that's why I'm having second thoughts about this e-book version.

E-books work great for novels and other books that contain basic running text. This is because e-books are made to display standard block paragraphs with minimal formatting. Oh, and they don't have pages and page numbers because e-book readers come in various sizes: from an iPhone to a Kindle to your desktop computer screen. You won't see the same screen view on a Blackberry as you would on a Nook or a laptop computer.

If it's a novel or non-fiction narrative it really doesn't matter; you just keep scrolling through as you read. Cookbooks, on the other hand, are laid out differently. One recipe per page (at least in mine), lots of indents, bullet points, lists, and get my drift. E-books do not play well with these. In fact, if the publishing world was a sandlot baseball game, the e-book would be "steady catcher". It can't pitch, slide, field, bat or even scratch its own privates. It's pretty much good at one thing: reading novels and articles on the go.

Oh, and then there's the index. A good index in a cookbook is a necessity as far as I'm concerned. But since e-books cannot have page numbers, an index is pretty much useless. I've even seen e-books that contain the index from the print version but had to include this caveat:

Note: Entries in this index, carried over verbatim from the print edition of this title, are unlikely to correspond to the pagination of any given ebook reader.

Of course my response to reading that in an e-book I just purchased would be Where's The Fries?!

Bottom line: in the few e-book cookbooks I've seen, I was most unimpressed with the layout (recipes running from page to page with nary a break between them, no columns, lists hard to read) and I certainly missed a usable index. Oh, and then there's the fact that they are not margarita proof.

So here are my questions:

What do you think?

Have you seen or used a cookbook on an e-reader?

What was your impression or experience?

If you have one, would you buy another?

Thanks for your input!

Oh, and since I see you still have that wallet out, could you spot me a couple of bucks for a drink? I left my wallet in the car...

Monday, May 16, 2011

What Steve Carrell, Tina Fey and The Second City Taught Me About Cooking

Before I embarked on my career as a full-time writer - or as my friends would snidely put it: "creatively unemployed" - I spent several decades doing inner-city youth work. Which means that I spent a lot of time with guidance counselors, teachers, coaches, pastors, and many a frustrated parent trying to come up with ways to make a difference in kids’ lives.

At times it was grueling. Sometimes even discouraging.

And many times supremely rewarding.

Like the times when we did things together that none of us could've done alone.

Like when me, 15 to 20 teenagers, and a handful of adult volunteers would take those whirlwind trips to Chicago. To eat in world-class restaurants. Roam through the Art Institute and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Attend plays at the Steppenwolf and Touchstone Theaters. And take improv classes at the Second City.

Yep. To see the likes of Steve Carrell, Tina Fey, Scott Adsit and others before they 'made it big.' To run into them afterwards in the deli across the street and tell them how much we enjoyed the show. And to take improv classes where we were all taught a great lesson: to learn to say "Yes, and..." rather than "No, but..."

Let me explain.

Many of us believe that we're funny when we put down someone else. Or we respond to someone else's joke by trying to outshine them with a different joke of our own. That doesn't work in improv where teamwork is the rule of the day. When someone starts a sketch, the others on stage don't respond with a completely new idea ("No, but..." thinking), they respond by building on the original idea ("Yes, and..." thinking).

For instance, Actor One might start the sketch off by saying: "This ballet performance is the best I've seen in ages."

Actor Two says: "No, we're not at the ballet. We're at the zoo."

Don't you just feel the air being sucked out of the room?

There's a tug of war. One actor might win. One won't. But it's the audience that will be the real losers.

Now compare it to this:

Actor One says: "This ballet performance is the best I've seen in ages."

Actor Two says: "Yeah, but whose idea was it to use real camels?"

You see the difference? The ballet and the zoo ideas merge and create new possibilities. Both actors win and the sketch may move in a direction that neither of them anticipated. And the true winners? The audience.

And this is how I often cook. When I read a recipe I rarely ever say, "No, but..." Instead, I take what's offered and build on it with a "Yes, and..."

I found a recipe for pork tenderloin the other night. It sounded good, but not great. Rather than toss it ("No, but...") I decided to give it a shot with some tweaking ("Yes, and...). So I built upon a good foundation and expanded on it by adding to the marinade and creating a sauce to finish it off.

Both my guests and I were the richer for it.

So go ahead, pull out those cookbooks. Even mine. But feel free to use them as suggestions and build on them.

And once you get it down in the kitchen, feel free to apply the "Yes, and..." philosophy to other parts of your life.

I have. I believe it's not only made me a better cook, but a better human being as well.

Can I get a "Yes, and..."?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

As American as Mom and Apple Pie

I love Mother's Day.

It is truly a holiday that celebrates the heroes of our age (or any age for that matter).

Not to take away anything from July 4th, Veteran's Day and Memorial Day. I know that I would probably not be writing this if it weren't for the brave American men and women who paid the ultimate price for my freedom.

Heck, without them we all might've found ourselves working in a non-air conditioned plant for a dollar a month adding melamine and other toxins to baby formula for the health and economic well-being of The State.

Well...At least the males of The State since so many females, and yes, future moms, are aborted (for the good of The State, of course). Can you say, "Nice revolution you got going there, Chairman Mao."? Hmm...I knew you could.

So yes. I salute those great men and women - past and present - who guarantee our freedom.

But the truth of the matter is: most of us would not even be here if it weren't for moms.

"Wait," I hear some of you saying. "Don't you mean all of us wouldn't be here if it weren't for moms?"

Perhaps. Except that I have a few friends who, in spite of their loud cries of denial, have questionable pedigrees.

Don't believe me? Then you haven't met my friend Alan.

But back to moms.

Here's the deal: Moms put up with a lot.

Think about it.

Our moms cleaned up all the crap in our diapers when we were little ones. And most moms have been cleaning up our crap ever since. I know my mom has.

When my dad was murdered back in 1976, my mom went on to start several successful businesses and helped put three of us through college. One of us went on to be an accountant. One a teacher. And one a dreamer.

I'll let you sort out who was who.

And even though she felt that I would've been a great lawyer, flying a desk just isn't in my genes - the genes that she herself and my dad passed down to me (I couldn't picture either of them flying a desk).

No. Instead of flying a desk, I chose to fly by the seat of my pants. Which, incidentally, is not something one should list under "Applicable Skills" when typing up a resume'. Trust me on that one.

Anyway, my mom has supported me both spiritually and financially throughout my years of successful self-employment and self-unemployment. I am highly skilled at both. It's even on my resume'.

So here's to moms.

My first cookbook was dedicated to my wife. The next cookbook will go out to my mom.

And if you don't have a book that you can dedicate to your mom, stop by and tell her you love her with some flowers and an apple pie.

I know she'll love it.

And if she's like my mom, she'll even offer to clean up the mess.

God bless moms!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

How to be Clairvoyant. And a Damn Good Cook, Too.

I recently found out that Robbie Robertson released a new album, “How to Be Clairvoyant.”

Somehow, I knew that was coming.

Now...Do I still need to buy the album?

Anyway, I’ve been a fan since he was in The Band which, by the way, goes down in the annals of history as one of the best obvious names of all time. Right up there with “The Greatest” (Muhammad Ali), “She who must be obeyed” (Rumpole of the Bailey), “The Restaurant at the End of the World” (Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy), "The Lincoln Memorial" (Washington, DC) and “The Blog Stud” (me).

But even though they had a name that rocked, what rocked more is that their lead singer played the drums. (I can already hear some of my younger readers asking, “What are drums?” To that I reply, “Look it up on Wikipedia.”)

Seriously, Levon Helm was one of the few drummers that could sing lead. (Please folks, don’t cite Ringo.)

So in a brief twinge of nostalgia I watched some clips from The Last Waltz on YouTube and spun some tunes from the Best of The Band on my CD player.

It’s funny how, in spite of the goofy clothes and occasional goofy stage antics, the songs hold up remarkably well. Just ask anyone who has listened to “The Weight”, “Stage Fright” or “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” And we won’t even get into BB King, Cole Porter or Vivaldi. Old is good. Often it is better.

And I find that it also applies to recipes. The good ones stand the test of time. I’m reminded of that every time I crack open a cookbook by Pierre Franey or James Beard. I not only say that because their books hit the shelves 50-some-odd years ago, but also because the recipes they contain were passed on to them from cooks who learned them 50 years or more before them.

The late great theologian and Yale professor Jaroslav Pelikan once said that, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead.” And that traditionalism was “The dead faith of the living.”

In some ways, I think that sentiment applies to cookery. Great cooking has passed the test of time and is worthy to be emulated. Faddish - or "-ism" cuisine is more risky. I’ll give these babies a shot, but I know it’s a gamble. (However, I'm well aware that some of these will find their place in the corpus and canons of cookery. But it will take time.)

So yeah, I'll give the "-isms" a shot. On weeknights, maybe. But when it comes time to presenting an elegant weekend meal to my lover or a group of dear friends? I’m hedging my bets with tradition.

I’ll also throw some Cole Porter, Vivaldi, BB King or The Band on the stereo.

And I predict a good time will be had by all.

Monday, May 2, 2011

I Was Going to Post Something Cute, But...

It's late Sunday night.

This is about the time I post some more blog buffoonery.

But this Sunday night is also when I heard that our Navy Seals took out Bin Laden.

Somehow, posting my thoughts about what I plan to make for breakfast or supper doesn't seem so important.

Instead, join me in giving thanks.

Not so much for the death of another (although evil) human being, but in the fact that perhaps dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of other innocent lives may have been spared by this action.

Join me in raising a glass to the men and women in the armed forces who brought this about.

It's a severe mercy. But it is, indeed, mercy for us all.

God bless, and I'll see you in a few days.