Tuesday, August 24, 2010

When My Mind Wanders It Often Returns with Some Great Cooking Tips. Here's Six.

I’m sorry it’s been over a week since I last blogged.  I had a migrate headache.

No. Not migraine.


You see, my mind has a habit of wandering, but occasionally it migrates. Sometimes it migrates so far I often fear I will lose it. Such was the case this past week.

While my mind was gone, I had some time to reflect. Here’s what I realized: I promised my blog readers timesaving kitchen tips and helpful cooking hints.

See? It’s right up there in the masthead.

Unfortunately, I haven’t lived up to my promise.

Sure, I’ve dished up some winsome commentary, lots of buffoonery, and a couple of good recipes, but there’s been a dearth of tips.

But wouldn't you know it? When my mind returned, it had in it's possession a bevy of kitchen tips. Here’s a good half-dozen, in no particular order.

Bon appetit!


A good way to avoid tears when chopping onions is to use a very sharp knife. You see, when we chop onions we damage cells and release sulfuric compounds and enzymes that are normally separate when the onion is intact. These compounds and enzymes combine to create thiopropanal sulfoxide, the substance that irritates our eyes. Using a dull knife damages more cells and thus creates more thiopropanal sulfoxide. Using a sharp knife damages less cells, and, therefore, creates less thiopropanal sulfoxide. You'll also get your chopping out of the way quicker.

Of course, the best way to avoid tears when chopping onions is to have your spouse do it while you go out and get the mail.

Testing the heat level of a scotch bonnet, habernero, or even a jalapeno pepper by biting into it is not, and never will be, a good idea.

Don’t reach for a glass of water; it will only make it worse. Instead, reach for some milk, yogurt or even ice cream. The casein in the dairy products attach themselves to the capsaicinoids in the hot peppers and haul them away (much like dish detergent does to grease).

Contrary to the opinion of many, soy sauce is not just liquid salt. If you want to add a little 'something' to gravy, soup, or broth, reach for the soy sauce before you reach for the salt. A couple of dashes of soy sauce will add what the Japanese call umami, the fifth taste we can perceive after sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Give it a shot.

So you bought a bunch of parsley for a recipe that called for 2 teaspoons. What do you do with the rest? One option is to place the remainder in a glass with water covering the roots. Set it in the fridge, replacing the water occasionally, and it’ll keep for a good while. If you don’t plan on using a lot in the short term, go ahead and chop all of your parsley (basil, cilantro, sage, etc) and place a tablespoon in each compartment of an ice cube tray. Add just enough water to cover and freeze. Then pop the cubes out into a baggie, label it, and toss it back into the freezer. Now when you need a ‘fresh’ herb for a stew, soup, or sauce, grab a cube out of the freezer and toss it in.

If someone declares that a certain brand of chocolate is better than sex, they are lying.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sometimes Dining Out Is a Lot Like Having Your Face Sucked through a Colander. Only More So.

I rarely go out to eat anymore. It's just too painful.

It's not that I harbor an aversion to letting someone else do all the cooking, serving, and cleaning up. It's just that, well, so many restaurants seem to do it so badly these days. Especially the serving part.

Of course, there are still establishments scattered around the country that will only allow you to serve if you are fortunate enough to have inherited the position from a parent or relative. I'm thinking of the likes of Charlie Trotter's in Chicago, or Le Bernardin in Manhattan, or even Bern's Steakhouse in my old stomping grounds of Tampa Bay. Landing a server position at one of those venerable institutions would be akin to winning the lottery.

No. I'm talking about the other 99% of the restaurants that dot our highways and byways. The ones where red-headed and barely post-teen hostesses greet everyone with a smile as sweet and natural as a packet of Splenda and gush, "So how are you guys tonight?" Even if the party is made up of a half-dozen septuagenarian women fresh from a late-afternoon game of bridge.

You know the type and I know the type. It's the effervescent gum-popping blonde whose cell phone is surgically affixed to her ear. Or the middle-aged woman who is convinced she can take the orders from three different tables simultaneously and effectively. Or the gangly 20-something waiter with the dreadlocked ponytail and an order pad stuffed down the front of his pants.

I can sense some of you nodding in agreement.

However, I've been known to overlook my server's hairstyle, order-taking strategies, or technological accouterments if the food and service are exceptional. Heck, I own a cell phone and I once sported a ponytail. But there are occasions when it's hard to ignore certain examples of dining room buffoonery.

Like the time my fiancee, now wife, ordered warm apple pie a la mode. The waitress presented her with a pie that was nearly as cold as the vanilla ice cream that crowned it. When I pointed this out to the waitress she snatched it up and replied, "I'm sorry. I'll be right back."

You're probably guessing what happened next.

The waitress returned a few minutes later with the same plate of pie and ice cream, but after she had obviously nuked it for a minute or two in the microwave. True, the apple pie was now as warm as a baby's cuddle, but the ice cream had completely melted over the pie, creating a thick, dull white pool that oozed across the plate. Yum.

Or the time I ordered a chef's salad with Dijon vinaigrette on the side. When the waitress placed my salad in front of me, I kindly asked if she would bring my side of salad dressing. She said she had already added it. I stared at my naked salad as she continued, "I poured it down the side of the bowl just like you asked me to. It's probably all at the bottom."

Or the time I ordered a medium-rare rib eye and received one that was plainly well-done. When I pointed this out to the waiter he offered to take it back to the kitchen so the chef could fix it. (Short of firing up the time machine they must've had stashed back there, I'm not sure what the chef could've done to "fix" my steak).

Or the time my date ordered her eggs once-over-light and was presented with an order that was unmistakably scrambled. When I reminded the waitress that my companion had requested eggs over light the waitress replied that she had, indeed, seen the cook turn them over once, but she would go back and check with him just to be sure.

Hmm. Now that I think of it, being greeted at the door by a bouncy redhead with a "How are you guys, tonight?" doesn't sound so bad after all. Even if my 79-year-old mother is with me.

Now, hand me that colander, will ya?

Bon appetit!


Grilled Steak - Indoors

I believe getting a good steak is one of the reasons we like to go out to eat. For some reason, we just can't seem to duplicate that restaurant taste at home, especially if we choose to cook indoors.  It's true that high-end restaurants have access to cuts of beef that the average person doesn't. They can purchase dry-aged Prime beef, we're stuck with cry-o-vac Choice. But don't fret. Here's a recipe for great Choice grade steak that you can cook indoors. It may surprise you, but you won't need to fire up the broiler on this one. And unlike searing and cooking steak on your stove top, this version will not fill your house with smoke.

Prep Time: 5 minutes         Sitting Time: 1 hour        
Cooking time: 6 minutes    Rest Time: 3-5 minutes


2    6-8 ounce Rib-eye, New York strip, t-bone, top sirloin, or flat iron (my favorite) steaks, 1-inch thick.
4 teaspoons kosher salt
2 (or more) teaspoons cracked black pepper


1. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon salt on each side of the steak and let sit at room termperature for 1 hour. Sprinkle with cracked pepper and use your hand to press it into the meat. Preheat oven to as high as it will go (mine goes to 550 degrees).

2. When the oven has reached its highest temperature. Heat a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat until it begins to turn gray (about 10 minutes).

3. Pat the steaks with a paper towel and add them to the skillet. Immediately place the skillet on the floor of your oven and close the door. Cook for 3 minutes for medium rare. Open the door, flip the steaks then cook for an additional 3 minutes. Remove steaks to a warm platter, cover and let sit for a few minutes so the juices redistribute themselves.


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

South Beach, Part Two: Killer Deals, Cheap Eats, and Filching the Complementary Lemonade.

I discovered Miami’s Townhouse Hotel on the Internet. TripAdvisor to be exact.

Okay. I confess. I am one of those nerds who scours the World Wide Web looking for killer travel deals that could only be explained as being posted by disgruntled employees intent on driving their employers to bankruptcy. I’m talking about incredible deals. Uber deals. Obscene deals.

Of course, several friends (…okay…many friends) think this kind of cyber sleuthing is a complete waste of time. That I should be spending my limited free hours on something more productive. Like farting or watching television.

But no. This is my hobby, thank you very much. And unlike other people’s addictive and life-sapping suburban hobbies like fantasy football, internet porn, and growing vegetables from scratch in that weed-infested plot of land most folks call “the backyard”, my hobby actually pays real dividends. Whenever one of my friends rags on me for spending so many hours hunkered down in front of the blue light of my laptop, I ask them when was the last time they scored a $450-per-night boutique hotel room with a full kitchen in Mid-town Manhattan for $90 bucks a night? Oops. Did I hear “never”? All right then.

So a couple of weeks before our scheduled trip to Miami, I snuggled up to the computer with a glass of wine, began my search, and made reservations.

We checked into our hotel just north of South Beach (which is also known as SoBe) in an area called Miami Modern (also known as MiMo). However, this area is not to be confused with the mainland Miami Modern section on Biscayne Boulevard (also known as MiMo BiBo). No. We were staying in that part of Miami Beach that showcases the grand architecture of Morris Lapidus and Norman Giller. Think Fontainebleau, Eden Roc, the Delano, and the Carillon.

We opted to stay at the less prestigious but infinitely more affordable Townhouse, which is located in a sub-section of MiMo called Low Cost Miami Modern (also known as LoCo MiMo). While not situated directly on the beach (it is a mere block away) the Townhouse makes up for it with a stunning roof top venue arrayed with enormous red and white striped umbrellas and lounges the size of inflatable life rafts. At least that’s what the pictures on the web site depicted. The roof top lounge would have made for several delightfully romantic evenings had it not been closed and under renovation. Oh well, at least there was a sushi bar in the basement.

But since I am not an ardent fan of sushi (preferring jelly rolls to California rolls), we brushed aside that option to explore some of the other venues/activities I’d found on the Internet. Here's a few (with price per person):

The Townhouse, of course. Which, in spite of the fact that the roof top lounge was closed, had a pretty funky vibe and a great continental breakfast. Not to mention the retro beach bikes they have for rent in case the brand new bikes you brought with you get stolen in broad daylight on a busy street even though they were secured with an elephant chain and industrial-grade padlocks. $85 bucks a night for two.

Christine Michaels’ Art Deco Walking Tour. Christine’s genuine enthusiasm, irresistible charm, and extensive knowledge raise her Art Deco Tour above just about any other tour I have taken. Plus, she’s prettier than the guy leading the ‘other’ Deco walking tour. $20 bucks (there were seven in our group – I think it’s $30 for two or four).

Café Charlotte. This little hole-in-the-wall storefront restaurant serves up remarkably delicious Venezuelan/Argentine food at a terrific price. No pretense or attitude. It's easy to miss, so keep an eye out. Under $10 bucks.

The newly renovated Fontainebleau. We wandered through this stunning ode to mid-century excess like we owned the place, helping ourselves to the complementary fresh-squeezed lemonade. Free.

Puerto Sagua Restaurant. This is a local joint in every sense of the word. It's always packed but they seem to find a place for everybody since turnover is quick. Great Cuban comfort food at a remarkably reasonable price, like, $10 bucks.

Spiga Ristorante Italiano. From the quiet ambiance to the delicious entrees to the attentive wait staff, Spiga sets itself apart from most of the other SoBe restaurants in its price range. $50 bucks with wine. Our anniversary. We splurged.

The Boardwalk. Riding bikes with the ocean breeze at our backs and the sun on our shoulders. Free.

Front Porch Café and Tropical Beach Café. Deliciously filling home-made breakfasts. $9 bucks and $7 bucks respectively.

Now, when you think about the $80 we could’ve shelled out for a round of Margaritas (see previous blog), I think we came out ahead, don’t you?

And while we’re talking about eating well, but on the cheap, here’s my take on a dish that Café Charlotte is noted for.

Bon Appetit!


Pabellon Criollo is Venezuela’s national, and certainly most popular dish. It is loosely translated as “Creole Flag” because when it is served, with the shredded beef on the left of the plate, the steamed rice in the middle, and the black beans to the right, it resembles the Venezuelan flag. “A caballo” simply means “on horseback” and refers to the optional fried egg topping. This looks like it takes some time to make, but remember, most of the cooking time is spent simmering the beef.

Prep Time: 15 minutes Cook Time: 30 minutes Simmer Time: 1 – 1 ½ hours


2 pounds flank steak

¼ cup olive oil

2 cups chopped onion

1 bay leaf

5 cups beef broth

1 red bell pepper, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced or crushed

½ teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon oregano

1 15-oz can chopped tomatoes

salt and pepper to taste

1 egg for each serving


1. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Pat dry steak and sear on both sides until brown, about 4 – 5 minutes per side.

2. Remove from skillet and place in a large pot or Dutch oven with 1 cup chopped onion, bay leaf and enough beef broth to cover (about 5 cups). Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer for 1 – 1 ½ hours until meat is very tender.

3. Remove the meat and set aside to cool. Strain the broth and reserve. When the meat is cook, shred with your fingers or a fork.

4. Reheat the skillet over medium-heat and add remaining olive oil. Add the remaining chopped onion and the red pepper. Sauté until the onions are soft and translucent, about 8 – 10 minutes. Stir in the garlic, cumin and oregano and sauté 1 – 2 additional minutes.

5. Stir in the shredded meat, chopped tomatoes and salt and pepper to taste. Add enough reserved broth to moisten the mixture (you may freeze remaining broth for other uses). Simmer for 15 – 20 minutes, adding broth as necessary to keep the mixture moist.

6. Meanwhile, fry an egg for each.

7. Serve each portion topped with a fried egg.

Serve with steamed white rice, black beans, and fried plantains.

Monday, August 2, 2010

You Could Bathe a Small Child in That Margarita. But the Sink Would Be Cheaper.

My wife and I visited Miami Beach a couple of weeks ago. If it weren’t due to the fact that Kassav was scheduled to perform at the Jackie Gleason Theater, we wouldn’t have even considered submitting ourselves to the stifling mid-July heat and humidity that transforms the normally balmy South Florida air into molten Jell-O.

Frying eggs on the sidewalk? Ha, mere child’s play. We saw two guys grilling brats in mid-air as we drove by Flamingo Park.

Anyway, we checked into our hotel at four pm then wandered down to Ocean Drive to scope things out. For those of you who have never visited South Beach, Ocean Drive is flanked by beachfront Lummus Park to the east and three-story Art Deco hotels, clad in the pastel colors that made Miami Vice famous, to the west. The hotels also house cafés that spill out of their lobbies and onto the sidewalk where umbrellas the size of flying saucers shield diners from the blazing sun. Since the sidewalks are clustered with tables, it only leaves a narrow pathway for pedestrians to amble through in single file. Two can walk abreast if they are anorexic. Severely overweight tourists are forced to use the street.

Most of these cafés also feature gorgeous but aggressive young women with mysterious accents accosting passersby with discount cards for lunch, dinner and 2-for-1 drinks. We had only walked two or three blocks, fending off a half-dozen of these young waifs, when the heat and humidity began to take its toll. We were parched. The constant sight of couples nursing drinks under the shade of billowing umbrellas didn’t help.

And, oh, what drinks!

I knew it was only an illusion created by the clever shape of the glasses (wide as a hubcap but shallow as a thimble) but they still looked like you could bathe a small child in one. As sweat pooled around our feet and soaked into our flip-flops, we decided it was time to dive into one of these enormous margaritas.

We were in luck. The next café had a few empty tables. The girl manning the sidewalk released her grip on a fleeing family of five and greeted us in an English dialect that could only have been acquired from a childhood spent raking dirt on a farm in a former Soviet Socialist Republic that surely ended in -stan.

“Two for table? Dinner?” she asked with a smile as bright as the sun.

“No. Just drinks,” I replied, my lips puckering at the thought of cool lime-infused tequila washing over my taste buds. “The 2-for-1 special.”

“This way,” she said as she led us through a sea of couples enjoying their frozen concoctions. But just before we sat down, I did something I’ve never done in a bar or café.

I asked her how much the drinks were.

I don’t know what drove me to it. I’ve been in lots of bars from Orlando to New York to Chicago to LA. I’ve had $12 dollar martinis off Central Park and $2 bottles of PBR in Portland. I figured South Beach would be at the upper end. Maybe $10 bucks for what must surely be a mostly-fruit-juice margarita. But still. I asked.

"So. How much are the drinks?"

“How much?” our petite hostess echoed, scrunching up her nose as if that sort of question had not been covered in training.

“Yes. For a Margarita.”

“$29 dollars.”

I gasped.

“Not counting tax and tip,” she added.

I crunched the numbers in my head. $29 for the drink. 7% sales tax. 2% food and beverage tax. 1% homeless and domestic violence tax on food and beverage. Then the 20% tip that is automatically and inexplicably added to all tabs in South Beach regardless of the service. Some cafés even add a surcharge that goes to their favorite charity.

It came out to almost $40 bucks. Yep. $40 friggin' bucks.

But we were hot. We were in the shade. We were on vacation. And it *was* 2-for-1. We certainly could spare $20 bucks apiece for a large margarita, couldn’t we?

I pulled out a chair and found myself saying, “Okay. We’ll take the 2-for-1 one special. I’ll have one. My wife will have the other.”

“Sorry. No sharing. One drink special per customer. You each have to buy one.”


She waved her hand toward the other restaurants that dotted the boulevard. “Everywhere the same. This is South Beach.”

The calculator in my mind whirred and buzzed. $80 bucks for two orders of margaritas? I looked around at the other tourists enjoying their drinks and wondered if they knew how much their final tab would be.

I shuddered as I heard a couple to my left order a second round. Cha-ching. $160 bucks worth of drinks for those two.

To my right, a Fabio-look-alike leapt to his feet and tossed his chair aside while screaming something that vaguely sounded like Portuguese. The woman with him looked mortified.

I assumed he had just received his tab.

Oh, my. Looks like they'd ordered appetizers, too.


I turned back to our hostess. “No thanks,” I said.

We wound our way back out to the sidewalk and continued our journey south until we spotted a lonely café off the beaten path. A waiter clearing tables out front invited us in for the "mojito drink special."

I smirked. “How much?”

“$5 bucks.”

I smiled, grabbed my wife’s hand and wandered into the cool and shade.

Sometimes it pays to ask.


I know you can buy bottles of margarita mix. In fact, margaritas made from mix are what most of us are accustomed to. It’s what restaurants use. And although it’ll do in a pinch, or if you’re throwing a large party, there’s nothing quite like a margarita made from scratch. Here’s one such recipe. It'll cost a tad more to make it from scratch than from a mix. But be careful, once you taste it, you may never go back to a mix again.

Kosher salt for rimming the glasses
1-1/2 ounces good tequila (blanco, 100% agave nectar)
1 ounce fresh lime juice
1/2 ounce Cointreau (or Triple Sec for a sweeter margarita)
Fresh lime slices for garnish

1. Place the salt in a shallow dish or saucer. Moisten the rim of the glass with a slice of lime then dip into the salt.
2. Fill the glass with ice (crushed is optional). Add tequila, lime juice and Cointreau. Stir until chilled. Garnish with a slice of lime and serve immediately.