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July 7, 2014

The Independence Day Weekend Feasts

OK. Pretty short & sweet. This is the fruit of my family's labor for our Independence Day feast. I also did the Ribfest locally here. I posted this to show that I'm:
                                        a. still alive.
                                        b. still interested in writing here.
                                        c. sharing something I feel some may enjoy.

Before I go any further, I must give thanks to those who fight and serve our country. Thanks to our military people as well as our first responders as well. I thought it would be the right thing to do is to start and end with something to give thanks for. I understand what sacrifices have been made for me to be free. It's not free. It comes at a price, often times the life and limbs of someone willing to fight for it. I took this poem which says it all (1).
"The 4th of July
It's time for the "Barbecue"
And the "Fireworks" galore!
And the "Beer" and the "Friends"
And the "Burgers" for sure!

But most important
And I really must say
Is that "America" got
Its "Independence" today!

Yes in "1776"
The famous politician
Senator "John Hancock"
Had signed the petition

That stated that our country
Was "free" from all others!
And that we would "only be governed"
By our "American brothers"!

So while we are celebrating
This "great day of fun"
Let us always remember
What our forefathers had done!" 

- Billy Nardozzi

Washington & Armistead (2)


Since I'm on the subject of freedom, this picture has been distorted over the years. Most people know who the man on the left is. That's obviously George Washington. What about the man on the right? Who is he? Is he Washington's "servant" or someone of the like? Not exactly. The man on the right is James Armistead (Lafeyette). He was a slave who served in the Continental Army, led by Maruis de Laffayette (French Military Officer). Armistead fed bad intelligence to to Lord (General) Cornwallis and General Benedict Arnold, who Armistead informed them that he was a runaway slave. Many consider him our firs Double Agent. His intelligence information that he gave to other US Spies was crucial in the Battle of Yorktown. Lord Cornwallis would eventually surrender. 




                                         Ok. So here's my dinner for Independence Day. From where the fork is stuck (going clockwise). Mac & cheese. My cousin made this. He did use a medium sharp cheddar and I thought it was very good. The prep is probably not much different that what you might do yourselves. He wasn't pleased with the outcome and then again, the cook is often the most critical of what they made. Mom made some baked beans. I REALLY was hoping to make them but time didn't allow me to. You can see the potato salad, which my cousin brought with him. Although store bought, it got the job done. My parents did the chicken and ribs (next to the potato salad). My Mom gave my Dad an electric smoker so they did the chicken on that. The ribs were done on the Weber kettle grill. He tends to play with spices a bit (as do I). So I know he used Kosher salt, black pepper, some cayenne (more for some color) I can say for sure. Remember to pull the membrane off the back of the ribs. He normally does 4-5 racks/session at about 3-4 hours for each session. You can see the spaghetti tucked in their as well. There was no meat but with all the meat we had on hand, it's wasn't needed. Finally, you can see the grilled hot dog. We have a flat surface which we cook certain items on. I think I'll need to do a tools post soon. It may provide some further insight on how I, along with my family, use our grills.   



So I visited the local Ribfest a couple of days later (as I usually do). I go to them really more for some inspiration more than the eating (although the latter never hurts). So this is the winner of the Best Ribs (overall and Kid's selection). Over the years, I've really enjoyed their food. The sauce you see here is legit. VERY spicy. A chilehead's dream.  The burn is immediate. I think I go some side pieces this time arounf



Now this caught my attention. Notice the mac & cheese? This is the first year the vendors (some of them anyway) sold that. This version was a touch smokey but good. I think the cheese was a mild cheddar but wasn't sure. The shake up was non-alcoholic but very good, made from oranges and lime. I'll need to make this one day. This could make a great mix with a tea. 

I figured since I mentioned the importance of freedom and what this holiday means. I figured this song would be a good way to drive that point home. This version was done just after the 9-11 attacks. I've heard a few versions of this song but this was pretty moving. It was on October 28. 2001. Game 2 of the MLB World Series, which featured Arizona Diamondbacks playing host to the New York Yankees. The song, the soldiers draping the outfield with a giant American flag & the closing Air Force flyover was quite moving. At a time when people felt low, see quickly a song can lift the spirit. Ray Charles really let his heart flow. Although he sang the song many times over the years, how appropriate was him to be there in that moment. God Bless America!!!

May 11, 2014

Mother's Day Lobster: Revisited



Mother's Day. What a nice day. A chance to let Mom have a day that is specially for her. This is pretty similar to what I did before but there were subtle changes this time around. I really enjoy making dinner for my parents (when I can). Here's the journey of a road I've traveled once before.




I call the the "Bend Test" for asparagus. Now before I go any further, this particular spear is one that founds its way into the dishwater. So needless to say, that piece was the sacrificial lamb. If you're wondering where you should cut the asparagus, I have your solution. As a rule, I generally cut 2" to 3" from the bottom and one I'd call safe (those end pieces won't cook since they're too hard). The "Bend Test" is what it implies. Take the spear, holding it from the bottom, and try to bend it (I bend against the counter top). Wherever it snaps, that's where you can cut it and give you a guide on where to cut the rest.  This has worked for me and serves as a reference point. 


As usual, asparagus. I chopped about 2" off on the average. I got a little ambitious today. My Dad and I were grilling steaks (filet mignon, which are seen below). I began cooking these as I normally do, in some boiling water but only did it for about 6 minutes (versus the normal 10 minutes). Then I kept it simple, adding salt, pepper and grape seed oil. After doing that, I took them outside to the grill and finished them there, cooking them for about 3 minutes. The result was good. 



These are the steaks Dad and I did on the grill. I put the bigger pieces on direct heat for about  8-10 minutes per side. The smaller piece was done not quite as direct (just off the coals) for fear of overcooking it. I prefer my steaks medium rare but can live with medium. My Dad marinated them overnight. So before grilling, I placed the meat at room temperature for about 30 minutes. I patted the marinate the meat dry with a paper towel once the meat reached room temperature. I've noticed that since I do that, my steaks have turned out much better. They seem to cook more evenly. 


Now above are the grilled asparagus I finished on the grill. Cooked fork tender and didn't overcook them. I was VERY happy with how they turned out.  Now you notice the sausage? That's andouille sausage I bought locally. Now even though I live in the Chicago area, the place I got them from is legit. They were just as good as some of the mail order sausage I've bought. My folks, who ate fresh andouille in New Orleans, they liked it very much as well. I figured since I had the grill out, I would cook them. I'm deciding on what dish I'll make with it and probably decide over the next couple of days.


Here is the lobster. On the left is the uncooked, thawed version. Since I'm allergic, Dad did this part. The place he gets them from arrive in the morning and chances are, sold out by the end of the day (between retail and restaurant customers). If you click the picture, you'll notice that the meat is absolutely flawless. the raw version has no spots, blemishes or discoloring. The reputable sellers do not tamper with them at all (e.g., solutions, phosphates, etc). This is a cold water lobster tail. As I understand, cold water lobsters tend to be much sweeter in taste. Unlike warm water lobster, they also don't have a "fishy" taste. They're also more expensive but you do get what you pay for. On the right is the finished version. The result of cooking at 375 degrees F (or 190 degrees C) for about 30 minutes. My Dad kept it simple as it relates to seasoning, using only salt, pepper and accent. 


After some hard work, the finished product! My Mom's special Mother's Day dinner is complete. Here is the lobster, all 1.6 lbs of it (served with mashed potatoes and asparagus). Dad & I had steak off the grill (see below). I added sour cream on my potatoes. I got two pieces of meat (which I ate one later), Dad ate one and decided to give the last piece of steak to my Uncle (his brother; my grandmother and he live in the same town). 


My Dad knocked it out of the part with the lobster. He normally goes to one of the best places to get the top seafood. He'll buy these 2 to 3 times each year and this is one of those times. She prefers staying in and having what she wants instead of going out someplace and possibly having the meal messed up. That's before adding the melee of the crowds, and overlapped or completely wrong reservations. I still have my Mom as well as both grandmothers (ages 92 and 96 respectively). My parents insisted that I learn how to cook and I did at a young age. I'm glad they did because I'm amazed how many PEOPLE (MALE and FEMALE) that can't do it. I understand and appreciate having them in my life because many I know aren't so lucky. What a lucky man I am. Saying thank you to my Mom wouldn't scratch the surface. 
Taken from http://logos.co/1024/royalty-free-lobster-chef-logo-by-seamartini-graphics-4628.jpg

May 5, 2014

The Social Media World is a Stage

(1)

This is somewhat different from what I would normally write. I am not saying I know everything on this subject but will share what I have learned. Social media is still in its infant stages. I began studying E-Commerce about 10 years ago (I need one class for a certificate). Since the late 1990's, it is AMAZING to see how connected we really are. In the moment, I (being in the United States) could have a conversation with someone in the UK, South America or some other part of the world. It wasn't long ago where we could only connect to the Internet via computer or laptop. In 2001, I was part of the first GSM (or Global System for Mobile Communications) test group and market launch (by an American wireless provider). I saw where everything was going and sure enough, all the time tables were as planned. As a result, we can access media via phone, laptop, or tablet as well as computer.

OK. With that said, WHY would a food blog want to address technology? Well, over the last few months, it's come up a lot on Google+. So many of the new platforms that have popped up just make my head turn. So what profiles do I use? Let's start with Google+ and a link to my profile page:  https://plus.google.com/+JohnDuncanemptyplateadventures/posts). I find it pretty easy to use and the layout basic. The flow is very nice and I can control the content as well as who sees it. The boards (or communities as they call them) are more than plentiful and food-related topics boards are a big part of that. Facebook was a platform I tried to use but frankly, a bit more involved that I wanted to be bothered with. You can't get a custom link unless you get at least 25 likes (unlike Google+ where you can get one if it's not being used). Setting it up made me so mad I just said forget it. It's not worth it. I choose Google+ over Facebook and more than likely won't revisit the latter (at least for my blog).

Pinterest (http://www.pinterest.com/emptyplateadv/) is another that's taken off of recent. This platform is SO EASY to work and the concept is so clear you get it from the start (I was in beta when I joined). I REALLY find my creative juices flowing when I see a series of pins (e.g., pictures that you "pin" onto one of your boards. As of now, I have 58 boards of my own each covering it's own subject (and 95 total boards). The downside is that the interaction is not as good as other platforms. You can like and comment in pins but it's a little different than than the other platforms I mentioned. Sometimes, you may think you're getting some new interaction with your times (e.g., someone either liked, pinned or comment on one of you pins), it's something that you already saw. Not always accurate. Still a nice platform and am working on bridging more of my blog with my Pinterest page.

I'll address the two that I use the most along with the ones I mentioned. First is YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/user/emptyplateadventures). The nice thing about that is the obvious viewing of videos. There are MANY (and I do mean just that) cooks that are of note. The best thing is that so many hobby cooks as well as some professionals contribute. ANY subject you can think of (food related or not) you can find here. I created several playlists covering different subject matters. I've learned a few things from other cooks. Some hosts are much better than others. Not to mention you can watch video anytime you wish. The commercials pre-video can be a bit of a pain, but most you can skip many after 5 to 15 seconds.

(2)

Twitter is absolutely amazing. To being with, there are so many food-related discussion sessions. In fact, as I write this, I'm on #FNIChat (or Foodie's Night In) right now (Monday's at 3PM CST). There are also many other sessions as well. #FoodieChats happen ever Monday at 7:PM CST. #PantryChat happens ever Tuesday at 3PM CST. The nice thing is that the people genuinely have fun. If someone new comes, they're welcomed in the session. Most average between 60-90 minutes in length. I can't forget #SundaySupper either but I rarely make that one for long. This takes interaction to a new level. During any of these sessions, you are interacting with people from around the planet. I've been in sessions where we had people from the UK, South Africa, Austalia, and Singapore on one session. Imagine doing this 15 years ago. The nice thing is that you have the discussions on either one feed or #hashtag subject matter. You could do this without the headache of multiple windows open. VERY easy to keep straight. As well as being in real time, your followers can see and interact with you. Most people follow those with the same interests (then again, that should be brutally obvious). Unlike an old chat session, you can actually block someone from interacting with you (I've only blocked one person on @emptyplateadv  but eventually unblocked that person).

As a whole, I'm a big fan of social media. There are other sites I have joined that are currently in beta mode (test phase). Grokker is currently in beta mode (http://grokker.com/profile/john-duncan/53275c925a55187425000151). This is pretty much video driven and flows similarly to YouTube. I think social media is a fantastic way to interact. As of now, I have not joined Instagram and media of the like. RIGHT NOW, I don't think I have the time to add that. I think the pictures could serve to be beneficial. Instagram has a VERY large and wide audience and believe that I will make my way there soon. THIS is the new media and anticipate more growth in this area. It's easy to promote from within and a ready and waiting audience. I have a feeling this is only the beginning. I don't think we've even scratched the surface. Click and mortar- a marriage made in heaven. The world wide web has made the entire world a stage. You can decide what your stage will be. By the way, the influence for this title came from an album from Rush, not Shakespeare.

Works/Materials Cited:
1. Janet P Caldwell, "The Play, Stage":
http://www.janetcaldwell.com/the-play/the-play-stage/

2. Nicky Shaw, "The World's Stage":
http://www.nickyshaw.co.uk/productions/the-worlds-stage/

April 21, 2014

Leg of Lamb: Easter Sunday




Well. Yesterday was Easter. This is the Christian holiday where the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Probably the holiest of weeks for Christians like myself. It's the center of the faith. The lamb also had some important significance. In Exodus, it was the blood of a Passover lamb that was painted over the home's of the children of Israel. Every door with the lamb's blood painted over it, the Angel of Death passed that home. Lambs were also part of daily temple sacrifices in the Old Testament as well. Jeremiah also wrote about one being like "naive as a lamb
being led to slaughter (1) and through that, Israel would be redeemed through this sacrifice. Lamb was also a big item in Passover feasts as well (in particular, in the Old Testament days). In the modern day, I'm not as certain. I've heard debates on both sides (specifically, eating the entire lamb and how the lamb is prepared. Some of those who don't is due to what I understand as the Paschal sacrifice. (2)

The pictures you see are of the lamb my parents and I ate. This was Easter dinner last night. We also had sweet potatoes and white asparagus. In the moment, I was not going to touch on this. Then I recalled that I did an Easter lamb recipe a while back. Mom, as usual, did a wonderful job with it. Unlike the lamb recipe I did before, this one was much simpler. The breakdown is below.  
1. Mom purchased a 7-lb leg of lamb. I know you can get a roast or something of the like. The leg is VERY flavorful and obviously, more meat to enjoy. The bone was also left in. 
2. What did she use to season it? Pretty simple. She used Kosher salt, crushed pepper, a touch of oregano, some granulated garlic (since we had no fresh garlic on hand)  & rosemary. Maybe next time, I could create some sauce to compliment it instead of using a crust as I did before. 

3.  She roasted it at 325 degrees F (or 190 C) for about 4 hours (25 minutes/pound). She cooked it to rare to medium rare for a couple of reasons. The first is she knows that's the way I like it. Also, there's a pretty simple trick to cook it a bit more. Just put it in a skillet of stove flat top and cook a piece to your liking. I don't suggest going past medium. Next time and if time allows, I'll pull out the grill and do it there. I touched on making a side sauce like something cream-based. The thing is the meat itself is good on its own. 


As you can see, sometimes the simple works better than the complex. Any other questions, feel free to ask. Sorry I didn't show this plated so I hope this does the job. 


Work Cited:
1. Jeremiah 11:19 (The Message)
2. "Eating Lamb for Passover", Ask Rabbi Lerner, http://judaism.about.com/library/3_askrabbi_c/bl_pesachlamb.htm

April 7, 2014

The Stock Experiment



(1)
                                 So I was on a chat session a while back and a couple subjects came up. Actually, it was somewhat a debate. The thought was the use of crock pots/slow cookers and how someone would use them. The discussion was fun but civil. As it relates to the use of a slow cooker, I'm pretty neutral as I think about it. It depends on how much time I have and what I'm making. You might be curious of how the discussion went? Well, it went like this. The question was about the use of a slow cooker and how do you use them. Well. As you can see below, the responses were pretty spirited. Please notice the comment I placed in "italics" to set the table for what I'm writing about.
                                     So this is how it went down in a nutshell. There was more so if you're curious, use the #FNIChat and go to the date of the discussion. So being somewhat the outside thinker, I decided to try something different. Someone did mention using the slow cooker for making stock. I bought a whole rotisserie chicken from a local store. As I drove home, it dawned in me. What would I do with the carcass once I ate the chicken. Then decided to embrace a "Mind of a Chef" moment (or my version of it anyway). What if I decided to make a stock from my slow cooker? That's what I did and there were some pluses and minuses but neither were too difficult to overcome. As I said before, things on this blog do not always look pretty but it will taste good.


This is what I did first. I deboned the chicken (which you can see on the right) and separated the meat from the bones). You may not see this, but I did leave some meat on the bones (not very much but enough).  Then I took the remaining chicken meat and put it in the fridge. That was the easy part. 



Now before I put the chicken away, I decided to mix some tomato salsa and sun dried tomatoes for some extra flavor. 


Here's what remains of the carcass. Before I put the bones in the slow cooker, I decided to season the bones before I put them in the slow cooker. I covered the bones with grape seed oil (since I didn't have either olive or avocado oil). I used the basics (salt, pepper, and garlic powder since I had not fresh on hand) as well as 1/2 a yellow onion, Hungarian Hot Paprika (since I'm the only one eating this), peppercorns, and crushed bay leaves. I felt that would make a nice mix and figured than some of that flavor would stick to the bones and meat. 

This is the mix I mentioned just before adding to the slow cooker. 
What you see below is the result. I left this cook for 12 hours on low temperature (since I knew I was going to be gone all day). The result was pretty intense but good. That is what I went for. It took about 45 minutes to fully cool down. I took a strainer and took out most of the excess onion and all the bones. This stock was intense enough to the point where I could dilute it with some water and still be edible. I used probably 1 quart or so


I will revisit this stock within the next week or two. What I found out caught my attention. One of the pluses of this is that if you don't have time to sit in front of a pot, this could be a solid way out. As a whole, I'm very pleased with how this turned out. In other words, put on and forget it. While you do what you need to do, this stock can cook and will be ready when you get home. VERY convenient as I see it. Now the minus side. The biggest one is seasoning. Some debate one way or the other but most people I know season their stock as they go. In this case, I couldn't. I found myself seasoning this as it began to cool down. I did wait about 15 minutes before turning the cooker off but did begin to season the stock at that time. It took about 45 minutes for me to season it to my liking. It took about that long to cool down as well. In other words, the seasoning could be tricky to get right if you're in a hurry. If you wanted to thicken the stock, that could a trick especially with that much water (about 3 quarts). So if you want something thicker, you'll definitely want to do that in the early stages while the water is still cold. Or at the very least, consider that. You also must remember what you put in the stock (e.g., peppercorns in this case). I may also add the salsa after the stock has cooled down or at least more of it than I used. I did strain and put away the remaining stock (about a quart). 

So sure, I get it. It's cheating a bit. Not the pure "foodie" play. Let the cooker do the work for you.What can I do with a slow cooker that you can't do with a normal pot? Very little at face level but there's more than meets the eye. Drop it and forget it. If you're not home for long periods but need to eat, what are you going to do? Take out not only gets expensive but gets as played out as a Spice Girls song. I don't want to be rude, but I'm going to use what's at my disposal when it comes to cooking. This is especially true if you live alone. Would I PREFER to use s stove top? Absolutely. Sometimes, that isn't possible and the slow cooker is just one avenue to achieve a good meal. I won't say sorry for that. For a first time experiment, I think this turned out well. Soon, you'll see what I did with the remaining stock. I have a few ideas but need to give this more though. Now when you can say you've stood over a BBQ grill (charcoal) for over 6 hours, call me. I think that alone give me the right to cheat just a little bit.
   
   Work Cited:
1. Picture taken from: http://lumdimsum.com/2009/12/14/soup-nazi-herbal-cafe/