Friday, September 30, 2011

If You Can't Say Something Nice...

Someone once told me that if you can't say something nice about something, then don't say anything at all.

I think that's good advice.

And it may just explain why an eerie hush fills the room whenever I happen to enter...

But enough about me.

In this week's post I will attempt to comment on a few topics. And if I can't say something nice, then you will have to endure the silence.

Bestselling Florida writers who are real people. I've had the privilege to meet and chat with a few great writers over the past couple of years. Sure, these guys hail from Florida, but they are no strangers to best-seller lists. Here's what impressed me: They were willing to chat with folks that loved their work. Why does that impress me? Because I've met other artists who couldn't give a rat's ass about the "little folk" who wanted to express their appreciation for the artist's work and how it added to their lives. Of course they overlook the fact that it's these "little folk" who buy the art that gives these snobs an opportunity to appear before the cameras and commence to snubbing the same "little folk" that put them there. So, here's a hat's off to Carl Hiaasen, Tim Dorsey and Randy Wayne White. Great writers who are also real people. I'm sure there are more, I just haven't met them yet.

Artists who despise those who pay their rent.

Locally grown tomatoes and other produce. By locally grown I'm talking about the produce you grow in your own backyard. Back in the day, when we had some real land, my wife planted a garden that produced wonderul tomatoes, squash, peppers, corn and watermelon. When we eventually moved to the inner city, we didn't have that option. Nor did we in the suburbs. The next best thing? Visiting local markets (and even good grocers) who offered something much like that she grew in our backyard.

Florida mass-grown tomatoes.

McDonalds' coffee. Okay, leaving aside all the concern about fast food and the ubiquitousness of this particular franchise, the fact is, McDonalds serves up some great Joe. I know, I know, there are legions of fans for the offerings of that other ubiquitous franchise called Starbucks, but I for one, always thought that their bitter and over-priced coffee tasted like...oops...I almost violated my principle. So...back to Mickey Dee's coffee. It's great and at a great price.

Starbuck's coffee.

Real frozen veggies. I've been a fan of frozen veggies since I learned to mash them with my gums as an infant. Sure I love fresh, but oftentimes frozen can be fresher. Steamed or nuked, I love most of them. And in soups? They can be a life-send. No salt. No addititves. Just the real thing. Gotta love it.

New-fangled processed steamed or boil-in-the-bag-with-sauce frozen veggies.  

Pasta dishes made from scratch. How easy can this be? Boil some noodles and add a simple homemade sauce (or yes, even from a jar or can.).What will it take? 10 or 15 minutes? It's fed generations and it's fed it well. Here's to simple food!

Processed pasta dishes in a can or the frozen food aisle (can you say Chef-Boy-R-You-Kidding?)

Chicken Goujonettes. This is the original bite-sized chicken recipe created by the French. Real chicken breast fillets pounded and sliced into strips, a wholesome egg and butter coating, seasoned with spices, and dredged in breadcrumbs, then sauteed in oil (rather than deep fried.) Great for lunch, dinner or snacks.

Fast food chicken nuggets.

This is a start. I know I will think of more. But again, enough about me. What inspires you to speak out? And what drives you to silence?

Let's hear what you have to say. But remember, if you can't say something nice...


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It. And If Your Recipe Sucks, You Better Not Fix It Either.

I was on stage this past weekend at the Shrimp & Grits Festival in Jekyll Island, Georgia. And let me tell you: this is a wonderful event. Why? The location (on the grounds of the historic Jekyll Island Hotel) is magnificent. So is the staff. And everyone who attends.

Yes, ambiance, history, great folks, and a gentle sea breeze wafting thru the trees made for a wonderful day. In fact, it is usually so wonderful, many attendees make a weekend of it.

Of course the centerpiece, culinary-wise, is the Shrimp & Grits. Hundreds line up to savor this low country dish prepared by pros and amateurs alike as part of a grueling cooking competition. Heck, they even bring in a few celebrity chefs who show you how it's done on the Cooking Stage. (Yeah, that was me up there clad in the very non-Georgian Caribbean shirt, baggy cotton beach pants, and flip-flops.)

But here I must offer a caveat.

I'm from New York. Born and raised there. Just outside the city. Then my parents moved to Tampa Bay where I finished out high school. After high school and through college I lived in South Florida. Then I drifted back to Tampa Bay with my wife to start a fam.

Why am I telling you this? Because grits was about as common in my dietary regimen as ham hocks would be at the annual pot luck at the Beth Emeth synagogue down on the Boston Post Road in Larchmont.

When I finally moved to Chattanooga (the real south) in the late eighties, I had my first sampling of grits. As a cook and connoisseur of all things food, I felt I needed to give them a try. Needless to say, I was under whelmed.

Oh, they didn't taste bad.

Bad had nothing to do with it.

It was the taste that was lacking.

Perhaps you've never had grits. If so, let me describe them for you. Did you ever work with papier-mâché when you were a kid? Did you ever eat any of the goop before you dipped the newspaper into it? Of course you did. We all did.

Grits are a lot like that.

Except grittier.

So imagine throwing a couple of handfuls of sand into your papier-mâché goop before tasting it. Yeah. That about sums up grits.

But wait! I hear the southerners chiming in: You need to add salt! (Evidently lots of salt.) And grated cheese! (Gobs of cheese.) And butter! (One stick or two?) That way, the lowly grits will rise in your culinary estimation. Of course, with a couple of tablespoons of salt, a cup or two of grated cheese and a stick of butter, even a carburetor would taste good.

So I decided to stick with the oh-so-dependable (and tasty) home fries sauteed in onions and peppers for my breakfast. Or any other time when grits might be an option.

Until I tried shrimp & grits.

Now I'm a bona fide grits fan. Maybe it was the shrimp that did it. Who knows? But now I'm a fan.

And here's the interesting thing. There are not a lot of variations with this dish (as there are for chili, marinara sauce, beef stew, etc.) Why? Because it is good from the get-go. So if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

But being a wise-ass chef, I had to try.

So while I didn't change the basics, I did make a few minor alterations. I cooked my shrimp in with the grits and I made a shrimp gravy to serve over the grits. And according to the crowd I cooked for at the Festival, it was a winner.

Of course, if it did suck, I wouldn't have bothered to fix it. And neither should you. But it didn't suck, so I will fix it. Again and again. For breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Go ahead and give it a shot. Even if you're from the Bronx. And if your lover tells you that they don't eat grits, heck, tell 'em it's papier-mâché. They'll love you for it!




Prep Time: 5 minutes                Cook Time: 30 minutes


3/4 pound large shrimp, peeled and de-veined
1 tablespoon olive or canola oil
1 clove garlic, crushed or minced
pinch of cayenne pepper
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt  (use less if your bacon is very salty)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 slices bacon, chopped
1 small onion, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1-1/2 cups water
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon hot sauce, or to taste (Frank's or Tabasco are fine)
1/2 cup quick grits (not instant)
4 ounces good extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated (about 1 cup)
2 or 3 scallions, green part only, sliced for garnish


1. Preheat oven to 375º. Toss the shrimp with the oil, garlic, cayenne pepper and 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper in a small bowl. Refrigerate while preparing the grits.

2. Sauté the bacon in a 10-inch skillet over medium heat until crisp, about 8 - 10 minutes. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and place on a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Add onions and sauté until soft and translucent. About 5 - 7 minutes.

3. Stir in the water, cream, hot sauce, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper and bring to a boil. Slowly stir in the grits, reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring often, until the grits are thick and creamy, about 5 - 8 minutes.

4. Remove from heat and stir in the grated cheese. Remove shrimp from the fridge and place on top of the grits in a circle, pressing on each one until they buried about half-way. Place in the oven and bake until shrimp are cooked through, about 5 - 8 minutes depending on the size of the shrimp. (Or you may add the shrimp to the skillet and cook over medium , stirring, until shrimp are pink and cooked through.)

Ladle shrimp gravy (below) over all and sprinkle with chopped scallions and bacon bits.


Prep Time: 5 minutes            Cook Time: 30 minutes


1 slice bacon, chopped
1/4 cup minced onion
1/2 cup diced red bell pepper
1/4 cup diced celery
1/2 pound large shrimp, coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
pinch dried red pepper or to taste
1/2 cup shrimp, chicken, or vegetable broth
1/2 teaspoon browning sauce (Kitchen Bouquet is fine)


1. Sauté the bacon in a 10-inch skillet over medium heat until crisp and brown, about 8 - 10 minutes. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and place on a paper towel-lined plate to drain.

2. Add the onion, red pepper and celery and sauté until tender, about 8 - 10 minutes. Add the shrimp and sauté until they turn pink and opaque, about 2 - 3 more minutes.

3. Remove shrimp and vegetables with a slotted spoon and reserve in a bowl. Add the broth and browning sauce to the skillet. Season with salt, pepper and dried red pepper. Bring to a boil then simmer for 1 - 2 minutes. Return the shrimp, vegetables and bacon to the sauce and heat for 1 more minute. Serve over shrimp & grits.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Got a Book Inside You? Trust Me, You Might Be Happier with a Really Good Steak

When I was in NYC for a conference a few years ago, I sat down next to this guy on the subway. You probably know the type: Wall Street...Freshly scrubbed face...Leather satchel...Three piece suit the color of money...

Anyway, we got to talking and he asked me what I did for a living. I told him I was a writer. His eyes lit up and I knew his admiration for me increased.

It always does.

You see, there's something about meeting an actual writer that intrigues people. Especially women. Beautiful women.

If I had known this 30 years ago I would've told every girl I met that I was a writer. Even if the only thing I'd written off was my last girlfriend. Why? Because telling a woman that you're a writer ranks right up there with telling her that you work with autistic children.

Or that you train seeing-eye dogs.

Or that you collect food for Somalia.

And telling any buxom blond or sexy brunette that you write instructional materials on training seeing-eye dogs for autistic children in Somalia would no doubt hit the "I want to have your children" trifecta.

Unfortunately, I learned this all too late. Now I just impress strangers on subways. Or if I'm lucky, I'll light up the eyes of that three-martini matron at the cocktail party who laments the fact that her recently retired husband just strained his back "leaping to a conclusion."

Ah...if I'd only known then what I know now...

But I digress.

So... I was on the subway chatting with this young-enough-to-be-my-son businessman and told him that I wrote books for a living. After he spent a moment in utter admiration, he sighed and said that, he too, had a book inside him.

Needless to say, I've heard this a gazillion times. "Don't we all," I responded.

He said, "No, really. I do. I just ate a copy of War and Peace."

Then he got off at the next stop.

I'm not sure where I'm going with all this. Perhaps it's to say that if you do have something inside of you that is just dying to get out then perhaps now is the time to do it. Cookbook. Novel. Short story. Poem. If it's clawing at the door of your soul, perhaps you need to let it loose.

But you must do it right. Otherwise you might be better off ordering a la carte at Mortons Steak House.

As in any craft, you'll need to work at it. Sweat over it. Hone it and perfect it. Offer it up for critique. Re-write it. Then re-write it again. Send it to a good editor. Then rewrite it again.

But above all, stick with it.

I've met many a writer who grew disenchanted because, after a whole two months, their blog follower count didn't quadruple...Or they received a dozen or so rejection letters from agents...Or their best friend (even worse, their spouse) laughed and said, "You have something that needs to be said? What happened, did that gorilla who pounds her fist on the floor to communicate with her trainer die or something?"

Listen, if what you have to say is worth hearing, people will listen. But as in most things, much of it lies in the presentation.

You have a book inside you? Let it sing. But not after you've taken out all the sour notes. You found a recipe that sounds delish? Make it. Then tweak it. Then make it again. 

The ladies (or men) will love you for it. .

Carpe diem and bon appetit!


Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Best Things in Life May Be Free, but Here's Some of the Absolutely Best Kitchen Gear You Can Buy Dirt Cheap

I thought it would be nice to set aside the wiseguy blog persona I've featured over the last few posts to offer my readers something that would be deemed by most as "useful."

Or at the least, "inoffensive."

We all know, or at least should know, that the best things in life are free.

Think about it.

The passionate kiss from your lover. The snuggly-hug from a child. A walk in the sunshine after a chilly rain. The warm wet nose of a puppy against your cheek. The aroma of a simmering soup prepared by a loved one. The offer to pick up your bar tab by the half-lit stranger next to you because you remind them of their long lost cousin. Or the fact that the neighborhood kids never tagged you with the nickname "Groinhead."

But even though the best things in life are, indeed, free, there are a couple of really good things that you can pick up dirt-cheap.

And I'm going to list them and tell you where to find them.

However, when I first mentioned this to my editor she said only a complete jackass would recommend items to people without getting a percentage of the action.

My response?

Look at my blog, dear. I have no ads or sponsorships. Why start now?

And besides, I was already an incomplete jackass before I came up with this brilliant idea, so now I've at least completed something. (Are you reading this, ma?)

But truth be told, I have another reason for offering these suggestions. When I first started cooking I was overwhelmed by recommendations from what I would call the Food Snob Mob.

Perhaps you've met them. They're the one's who insist that in order to cook well you must purchase a set of copper cookware that would rival the GNP of some third world countries. Or a collection of knives that would set you back the price of a used car. Or that no serious cook would question the price of any kitchen gadget, even if it meant putting off your kid's appendectomy to do so.

Oh puh-lease. Are these folks in the dainty white uniforms for real?

Do you need good gear to cook good food? Yes. Does it need to drain your bank account and max out your credit cards? Absolutely not.

So here, in spite of the objections from those who insist I make some money off this, I'd like to offer some suggestions that will help take your culinary skills to the next level. And you won't have to sell off your youngest child or a spare organ to do so.

Pots and Pans

Wouldn't you just love a 9-piece tin-lined copper cookware set fresh off the boat from France? Me, too. But at $2,000 retail/$1500 on sale, I've unfortunately had to pass. Of course, one could settle for a really nice stainless steel All-Clad set for a mere $600 to $800 (and well worth it if you have the cash lying around.) In fact I almost picked up a set until my wife uttered what surely must be the five most dreaded words in the American parent lexicon: "Honey, our child needs braces."

So I had to pass on the French copper and All-Clad. But I've been around long enough to know every good craftsman requires good tools to do a good job. However, shelling out that kind of dough for great kitchen cookware just wasn't an option. And it may not be for you. If that's the case then you need to check out this wonderful set of stainless steel tri-ply cookware from Tramontina. Sure, it is not All-Clad but it comes very, very close. And the price? It will knock you so hard you might be the one needing braces.

Check this out. Under $150. I have a set that gets regular use and I've given some away on my webpage. Buy it here:

Tramonina Triply-Clad Cookware


When I'm doing a cooking demo, there's usually someone who asks what's the best investment they could make in their kitchen. I hear this from folks who are just starting out and from folks who are remodeling.

My answer?

A really good chef's knife.

Because a good knife will perform many tasks and will last a lifetime if well taken care of. I usually don't hesitate recommending one of the good German forged knives like Wustorff or JA Henkels. But these will set you back $100+. Which, to be honest, is not too bad for a tool that will give you a lifetime of service in the kitchen.

But if you begin adding other similar knives to the mix, like a paring knife, slicing knife, or bread knife, well, it starts to add up. Can one get an excellent set of knives at a reasonable price without resorting to those hawked on late-night infomercials? Absolutely.

And here you go. Forschner (the folks who bring us Swiss Army Knives) offers a set that has gotten rave reviews from the culinary world. And the best part? You can purchase a 3-piece set for half the price of one German chef's knife. Find the Forschner Victorinox Fibrox Chef's Set here:

Victorinox 3 Piece Knife Set

Knife Sharpener does one keep those knives sharp and in tip top condition? Well, honing them before each use on a steel is a given. But when it comes to sharpening? A great option is to find a professional knife sharpener in your area, but that may not be doable for many of us. If that is the case, then you can't go wrong with a Chefs Choice 120 or 130. But some may balk at a $120 price (which is not bad considering the fact that a sharp knife is a safe knife.) So how does something under $10 sound? Good? I thought so. Check out the Accusharp knife sharpener here:

Accusharp Knife Sharpener

Omelet Pan

Okay. One last item and we'll call it a day. I'm not a huge fan of non-stick pans with the exception of this: my omelet pan. And I must say, it gets a workout in my kitchen. So I knew I needed a good one. But I wasn't about to spend $50 to $100 for one.

"But," I hear someone yelling, "They'll last a lifetime. It says so on the label!" Um. No it won't. You can probably count on a year or so at the most before the pan loses it's non-stickness. So...knowing that I'm going to need to replace it frequently, I want a good pan that doesn't cost a lot. So I usually buy my omelet pans at my local restaurant supply store. They're well-made and cost a lot less than those you'll find in the high end gourmet shops. If you don't have a restaurant supply nearby, check out this baby from Sam's Club. A good pan at a good price:

Sam's Club 8" Omelet Pan

Well, that's about it for now. Hope this was helpful. What was the latest deal you got on great cookware? Let's give the Food Snob Mob a run for their money!