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November 13, 2014

Tools of the Trade: Some Perfect Christmas Gifts

There will be some new posts coming soon. This is the first. So now we're past the days of summer and for many, BBQ season is about to end.  For me, not so much. At first, I was going to write this as an end of summer post. I also had a tailgating thought was well but it didn't work as well as I hoped. The thing is time got away from me. Then it dawned on me. We're headed into the holidays. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Years. What does it take to make good BBQ? Apart from patience and some proper techniques, one thing makes life MUCH easier. Tools!!! You need good tools in the kitchen, right? So why not for your BBQ grill (especially if you do or plan to do a great deal of BBQ-ing)? So if you're looking for some gift ideas, consider getting something on the lines of what I'm sharing here. I think your loved ones (specifically those who BBQ and cook a great deal) will appreciate and may not see it coming.

You have tools for indoor so why not have some for the grill? The following are tools I've used over the years. Most of what you see here are what either my parents have or what I bought for them (replacing older items). I think you'll find this interesting and may inspire some of you to rethink how to BBQ. These tools have made my BBQ life (as well as my parents)  MUCH easier. I would recommend all of these. Get them when you can. Now some may debate about using these items but I can say first hand that they've made life easier. So do you want to think outside the box for Christmas gifts this year? Well here are some suggestions I think your BBQ fan will enjoy.

Lets start with the first picture. Now at first glance, you might focus on the coal in the middle. That's not the focus. As you can see, there are 2 empty baskets next to the pan in the middle. These coal baskets are very handy. My Dad started using them a few years back. It's very easy to control the fire (especially for those grilling with indirect heat. We were doing direct grilling on this day.


The coal baskets are nice since they not only help with controlling the fire, but it makes life easier in two key ways. The first is that the baskets represent a pile. The coals are placed in each basket so if you need to play with the coals, it's a bit easier to do. You won't have to worry about the coals sliding all over creation either. If you need to stoke the fire, no problem. Just move the basket in question, add the coals and let it catch fire. You also won't be tampering with the risk of killing the fire altogether. Now these baskets work best in a kettle style grill. On that day, Dad was cooking some meat by the direct grilling method. Otherwise, that middle pan is filled with water. 


These are grilling baskets (above and below). These are best used a few different ways I use them mostly for vegetables. It seems to work nicely. I like to do bigger vegetables like potatoes, tomatoes, onions and garlic with the top basket. In other words, the food is easily contained and less mess for the cook. The grill grate below is great for a few things. You can cook meat on them (making the need to clear the grill easier). I also use the grill grate to do cook things like asparagus. 


Below is a chimney charcoal starter. Make sure it's strong enough not to melt. 

If you use charcoal, you should consider getting one of these chimney starters. 



Now this is where things can get interesting and seeing how I think. On the left is a grill scraper brush. That pretty much speaks for itself. Use that to clean and scrap the grill. That speaks for itself but notice the blade on the top of it? Having that helps break some of the bigger pieces. As a reminder, it's best to scrape the grill while it's still hot. Now look at the picture opposite the brush (above right). Now on the surface you see the charcoal chimney, tongs and a broken shovel. Now what would I use tongs and a broken shovel for when BBQ-ing. Well, the tongs are old and I used them to manipulate the coals. I use them to either move them around or if I want to move a couple hot coals, I use the tongs the same way I would use them for meat. The shovel? I have a feeling you're VERY curious about what I do with that (especially a broken one at that). If I have to move around coals (more than a couple) or remove them from the fire, I use a shovel and an grill glove (which you will see below). 


OK. So the "beer car chicken" phase had taken a life of its own. Now on one hand, you can use what you have on hand. On the other, you could be losing some good juices where you can make a great gravy or sauce. Now you can use one of these chicken stands. This one can hold a very large chicken. Now if you want to slip a beer can underneath the rack. I prefer to eat the chicken flavor myself but to each their own. This particular stand is pretty large (about 10-12") so there will be plenty of room for the bird to cook properly. In other words, this style of rack, unlike a beer can, will also help cook the chicken internally.  The  lower base fans outward where the bird can also rest more naturally. Not to mention eliminating any issues or concerns with the beer can's ink (aka, dye used on the can cross contaminating the chicken). Not to mention possibly inconsistent cooking temperatures (one part of the can being warmer than the other). Heat also can penetrate the interior of the chicken better without something blocking the chicken's cavity. This stand doesn't do that. 

Remember the BBQ glove I mentioned? Well below is where you will see it. If you go this route, make sure they are HEAVY and insulated. The one my Dad & I use is made of suede and is more of a mitten-type. The next gloves I will buy will be finger/glove type. I think you'll be fine regardless of which direction you go. It's all a matter of preference. What style fits you best? Only you would know that. 


                              Now anyone who doesn't have at least one of these, you are making your effort to BBQ ribs harder than need be. What a shame!!! If you're debating on getting a rib rack, I would say you really should get one (at least depending on how much you want to do.My parents had a rib rack but it had served its time. It was time to replace it. I actually bought this for them cor Christmas. It was what they needed and the price was right. They LOVED it.                                                                                                                                                                    
  

There are several types of racks. This is one that is more common but now, you will see the racks where they can be stacked vertically 2-3 high. The style I just mentioned probably work better in a larger smoker box versus a kettle grill. 
     


If I get a little ambitious, I  might get between 6-8 ribs on this rack (4 in the actual slots, 1 on each side and MAYBE put 2 in one slot). It helps keep even cooking while grilling with indirect heat. The rib rack you see here is 5 years old as of now. 

These paraffin starters are the absolute best!! There are also sticks that help start fires. Regardless, do not use lighter fluid in your charcoal grill. I HOPE I don't need to tell any of you that. 

Most of the tools shown here will work well not only in the grill, but in the oven as well. You can get use of these items 365 days a year. So while this post focused more on BBQ tools, many of these items can be used inside as well. Most of the tools I have mentioned here are HEAVY steel. You're MUCH BETTER OFF buying a more expensive rack or grade than something cheaper. In other words if you can bend it, don't buy it. It won't last at all and you're be sorry you did. Most of them are 18/10 steel  (18% chromium, 10% nickle). The result along with durability, is easier to maintain, rust and stain resistant as well. 

Most of the tools here are at least 5 years old. Just like a good pot or knife, these tools will serve you well as long as you take care of it. Most people have purchased at least one cheap pot or knife. I have not. I learned from many (such as my Mom) that if you get something like this, get the best you can afford. Something you won't throw away in under 5 years. Think of these tools as a similar investment. Remember, quality is key. If you buy a rack, stand or anything like I shared here, get good product. What's the old saying? You get what you pay for. I would also ask this of anyone who sees this. If you do take mu suggestions, let me know how it turned out. Tell me if they liked it and if they did, how soon did they get to use it? Seriously. I would like to know. 


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