Taco Night on the Grill

 

I can’t get enough of taco night. Neither can my wife Amy or my daughters. We love it, and especially me, because I can do everything — with the exception of chopping with a knife or the food processor — on the grill. It makes for easy clean-up, and who isn’t for easy clean-up?

I cut my teeth on Tex-Mex in Austin, Texas circa 1984 (does Instagram have a filter for that?). At this point in my life I hadn’t eaten that much Mexican food. For the most part it didn’t exist in Indiana outside of Chi Chi’s and my inner punk rocker wouldn’t allow me to set foot inside any place that colorful or where the waitstaff could happily sing Happy Birthday table side.

Nevertheless, when I would slide into a booth at one of the many hole-in-the-wall eateries (many of them were Spanish-speaking only), I would order as many kinds of salsa as I could point to on the menu. I didn’t know this many kinds of salsa existed, or for that matter soft shell tacos, or the food love of my life, tamales.

As I ate my way around both sides of Highway 35, little did I realize I was becoming an addict, to Texas country music, chili, and to Austin itself. It was hard to come home, and once I was back in Indiana it didn’t take long before I began jonesing for Texas Hill Country, salsa included.

All About Grilled Salsa

The grill is a great way to make an old salsa recipe feel new.
I couldn’t even guess how many varieties of salsa there are in the world, but I do know I haven’t found one yet that can’t be made on the grill. I like a fresh raw salsa as much as the next person, but sometimes I like to shift the flavor and it is an easy thing to do on the grill.

Chile oils on your hands are not your friend.
Be careful with hot chile peppers. I used to go at them in the manly man way and just tough it out, but the night I rubbed my eyes after working with Thai birds I thought a different approach might be appropriate. If you choose to go with bare naked hands in handling them, just realize you will quickly find out just how many places on your body you actually touch and how many places are very sensitive to capsaicin oils.

Get in touch with your inner caveman or woman.
I used to put my peppers and tomatoes on the grill grate and then one day I just decided to plop them right on the coals. It sears them very quickly while leaving the interior raw — the best of both worlds. You can roast whole heads of garlic too, but they need to be left to the side of the coals so they cook and soften slowly or you will burn the cloves which makes them bitter.

Liquidy or dry, it all depends on your tomato variety.
A lot of fresh tomatoes have a high liquid content. If you use too many tomatoes, your salsa will be watery, which isn’t always a bad thing. If you want a thicker salsa, it is a good idea to use plum or San Marzano tomatoes.

The finishing touches matter.
To the finished salsa I always like to add a drizzle of olive oil for mouthfeel and a splash of acid, be it lime, red wine vinegar, or whatever. Make sure you season your salsa with salt and black pepper.

Corn tortillas or flour both can be warmed on the grill, and should be.
I prefer corn tortillas over flour and my preference for cooking corn tortillas is right on the grill. They puff up and blacken in spots and become yummo-licous. Just make sure after searing them to wrap them in foil so they stay soft and don’t dry out.

Choose your toppings accordingly.
Almost every person I have ever met who hails from Central America prefers green cabbage, sliced razor thin, to lettuce for their tacos. It gets even better when you dress the cabbage with a touch of red wine vinegar and olive oil. You probably won’t find a lot of sour cream or cheese on the table either. I tend to go for authentic Mexican but I like Tex-Mex too. If you want to go for healthy, grill up a bunch of vegetables to use for toppings and forgo the dairy altogether.

Grilled Salsa

Makes 1 to 1 1/2 cups

Depending on the kind and size of tomatoes you use, this salsa can be liquidy or firm. You will have to judge. Roma tomatoes have little liquid and work well for a chunkier salsa.

  • 1small head of garlic
  • 3 or 4roma tomatoes
  • 1 or 2heirloom variety tomatoes (Box Car Willies or Wisconsin 55 are good)
  • 1poblano pepper or 3 jalapeños or your choice
  • 3 to 4half-inch-thick slices of red onion, left intact
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • Handful of cilantro
  • Splash of red wine vinegar
  • Drizzle of olive oil
  1. Fire up your charcoal grill. Let the coals get blazing hot.
  2. Wash the vegetables.
  3. Place the garlic off to the side of the coals where it will brown the paper skins but not burn the cloves. The garlic will take the longest to cook of everything. Let it get good and brown on all sides.
  4. Now place the tomatoes and peppers right on the coals. Let them blister and blacken. Remove them to a tray. Let the juices collect in the tray.
  5. Place the grill grate on the grill and grill the onions until they are caramelized and soft.
  6. If you plan to grill more stuff, like a nice skirt steak, you will probably need to add a few more coals to the fire. You be the judge.
  7. Peel the pepper, being carful not to spill or lose any pepper juices. I remove the seeds and, obviously, the stems. Put peeled peppers, tomatoes, onion, and peeled roasted garlic cloves into the bowl of a food processor. Add the tomato and pepper juices that collected in the bottom of the tray.
  8. Add a two-finger pinch of salt, some pepper, half the cilantro, the red wine vinegar, and olive oil. Pulse the processor until the salsa reaches your desired consistency. I like this particular salsa smoother than most but still chunky. Taste the salsa and adjust the seasoning as necessary.
  9. Pour into a serving bowl, garnish with cilantro, and serve
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The Best Burger in the World

The Best Burger in the World

The sacks on the table, dotted with spots of grease and limp from French fry steam, are from Burger Chef. I have a plain cheeseburger. It is the first burger I remember eating. I eat them with glee and in anticipation of the next time my father would pile us into the back of the metallic green Plymouth Fury and drive us the short distance to the shopping center to pick up dinner from the shiny new burger spot.

Shortly thereafter, we packed up and moved to the country. Everything changed. That’s not to say we didn’t get to eat at burger joints anymore — we just didn’t get to eat at them as often. We didn’t eat at Burger Chef all the time to begin with, but at the new house there were no eateries close by.

At our new home, the height of my formative years, if we ate burgers, it was from the grill on our porch. The burger meal was best on the weekends when we came off the boat after a long day on the lake waterskiing, tubing, and swimming. We were wet, sunburned, and wrapped in beach towels. As we walked up the hill from the water, fresh-cut blades of grass stuck to our damp feet and, at the top, we sat down to the table on the back porch deck with wet hair and water-freckled arms. A pot of long-cooked green beans speckled with bacon, a plate piled high with boiled corn on the cob begging for butter, thick slabs of sliced Early Girl tomatoes, and a stack of juicy burgers hot off the charcoal grill waited for us, courtesy of my mother.

At the table we built our own burgers. Mine was always the same, 1 1/2 slices of American cheese, mayo, thickly spooned onto the top bun, Boston lettuce, and two thick slices of homegrown tomato. By the time I got close to finishing the sandwich, the soft Kaiser roll was soaked with tomato and beef juices, making the last sloppy bites the best — napkin mandatory.

But when you leave home, you stretch your wings, or at least I did, and you experience the world without the watchful eyes of your parents. You do things you shouldn’t and you do things you should. But I figured I’d get it out of my system, experience as many possibilities as I could. I won’t settle on any one thing until I have none left to try:

The Hinkle Burger: Caramelized onions smashed into the patty which is griddled on a big steel flat top. Double cheese means two slices on a single patty, not two patties. College. My first true love. The burger, fries, and blueberry milkshake is a hard memory to run from.

White Castle: A plate of sliders, double cheese with extra pickle. The break-up girlfriend. A friend with benefits.

And then there is the fall I spent in Austin as a newspaper intern. The jalapeño burger, theschnitzel burger, the Tex-Mex burger, the BBQ bacon burger, the Cordon Bleu burger, and the breakfast burger. Incorrigible. Notches on the burger bed post.

The Wheel-In Diner. Post graduation. A goober burger. Peanut butter slathered on a bun, a burger, and your choice of toppings. Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson.

The Corner Bistro. Dream big. The big city cheddar burger. Served on a toasted English muffin. As close to a corner office as I want to get.

The stuffed blue cheese burger, mushroom and Swiss, bacon California Reuben pizza Cajun 1/2 pounder Swedish meatball foie gras wagyu … and ground short rib burger. All delicious but nothing more than meaningless hotel rooms on an endless road trip because in the end, you discover, there is nothing like the comfort of home,  The Lake House Burger.

The Art of Honest Fried Chicken (A Lifestyle Choice)

Frying chicken, at its best, is a state of mind formed much in the same way as the quiet back beats of a porch-sitting session with a dear friend. It has a rhythm. It is good company on a sunny summer afternoon. It is pointless to rush. Futile, even. Besides, the comfort of a good friend comes from the effortlessness of meaningful conversation and is further heightened by the knowledge you have nothing you would rather do. Continue reading →

Farmhouse Chicken Salad

Farmhouse Chicken Salad

Look at the three lazy beasts lying on the cool concrete floor of the garage and you might think it’s the dog days of summer. If I’m in need of another sign, I don’t look any further than the Indiana state fair, which starts this week. The dog day heat always coincides with the fair but not today, and maybe not this year.

Of the three dogs lying there, not one so much as lifts an ear as I walk by.

It has been a good summer, hardly hot at all, with just the right amount of rain. The garden is going gangbusters: I have a basketful of green beans in my hands right now, and we’ve come to that moment when we can’t give away enough row boat-sized zucchini. The only thing we are short of is chicken, but we’re in the midst of raising a second flock for the winter freezer.

But today, for some reason, I want to shirk my familial duties and avoid the hot stove, and any other tasks altogether. If I’m going to cook today, it will be in the cool of early morning. At the back door I take off my mud boots, put on flip flops, and head to the kitchen. I need coffee. I fill the teapot with water, put it on the stove, and set up the French press.

While I’m waiting for the teapot to heat, I head into the pantry to retrieve a couple of big blanching pots. While I have a minute to spare, I do some light organizing of misplaced pantry goods and forget why I’m there in the first place. The teapot throws a hissy fit and it’s not until I’m halfway to the stove that I remember why I even went into the pantry.

The girls started back to school today; Lynn began kindergarten. It’s been seven years since I haven’t had a little one underfoot. This morning the only one talking is the fan, whizzing away in the window. The house is full with cool morning air and quiet.

After a cup of coffee, I make it back to the pantry for those pots. I told myself that this year, when both girls are in school, I’m going to set up a routine for myself. This morning I’m going to prep some meals ahead of time. Hopefully, I’ll get more done in less time and maybe make a little time for myself.

Three serious prep tools:

1. Big pot blanching: This is important enough that in The French Laundry Cookbook, Chef Thomas Keller devotes the entirety of page 58 to the process. It’s mostly for green vegetables or veggies like cauliflower or white asparagus (while they’re white they will still benefit from blanching). The idea of big pot blanching is that you bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a rapid boil. When you drop the green vegetables into the pot, the water should never stop boiling. The salt and heat set the color of the vegetables, keeping them vibrant, while still allowing you to cook green veggies until tender. It also uniformly seasons your vegetables. Chef Keller calls for a cup of kosher salt to a gallon of water. Personally, I find that excessive for the home cook and I have found 1/4 cup of salt to a gallon of water to be sufficient.

With most vegetables you need to have an ice bath ready to shock (cool very quickly) the item being cooked in order to stop the cooking as quickly as possible. An ice bath is nothing more than a large bowl filled with ice and cold water. For a large quantity of vegetables, you might have to add more ice.

2. Boiling: When you boil a potato with the skin on, you should cook it until a knife slips almost to the middle but experiences some resistance near the center. Drain the potatoes into a colander. Do not run water over them. This lets the potatoes become tender through carry-over cooking. If you were to run hot water over the potatoes, the skins would peel off like paint. Do not halve or quarter the potatoes until you are ready to use them.

3. Poaching: There are lots of ways to poach something, but one of my favorite ways is to poach it in its own juices. This always reminds me of sous vide, which is sort of the same thing but without all the fancy equipment. Basically, you’ll want to poach in vacuum-sealed freezer bags (which are not the same as regular Ziploc bags, though Ziploc does make vacuum-sealed bags, too). I have also accomplished the same thing by wrapping a chicken in two layers of plastic wrap followed by a layer of foil. It holds out the water and keeps in the juices.

Depending on what you’re poaching, it may be a good idea to completely submerge the item (as is the case wth a whole chicken). I simply place a heavy, heat-proof plate on top to keep things submerged.

Farmhouse Chicken Salad

Serves 4

For the chicken:

1 whole chicken, 2 1/2 to 3 pounds
A handful of fresh herbs (thyme, parsley, chives, and tarragon)
1 small onion, peeled and julienned
1 
small carrot, peeled and cut
A handful of celery leaves
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

For the salad:

1 
juicy lemon
1
 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 
teaspoon Dijon mustard
3 
tablespoons cooking juices (from the bottom of the poaching bag or from the tray on which the chicken was resting)
1/2 
cup carrot, grated on the large holes of a grater
1 1/2
 cups green beans, blanched in a large pot, then cooled and cut into 1-inch pieces
6 
red potatoes, boiled, cooled and quartered   
1/2
 cup celery, thinly sliced
1/4 
cup sunflower seeds, roasted and salted by you
A healthy handful of arugula (wild rocket is good, too)
1/4 
cup mix of basil, tarragon, chives, and thyme, minced
1/4
 cup blue cheese

  1. Place the chicken, a pinch of salt and pepper, and all the aromatics into a vacuum pack bag, or if you want, just poach it with the aromatics (but you won’t have the juices for the dressing). Vacuum seal the bag and place it into a large pot. Cover with cold water by at least 6 inches.
  2. Bring the water to a high simmer, around 180 to 200˚ F. Let the chicken poach for 2 hours or until cooked thoroughly. Remove the chicken from the pot, then cut open the bag, being careful not to lose the juices. Let the chicken cool. Once it’s cool enough to handle, remove the skin and pick the meat from the bones.
  3. For the salad dressing, combine the juice from the lemon with the olive oil and broth or fat. Add the mustard and whisk to combine. Taste and add a pinch of two of salt and a few grinds of pepper. If it’s too tart, add more chicken broth or olive oil.
  4. With the exception of the blue cheese, combine the remainder of the salad ingredients in a bowl. Season the salad with salt and pepper. Toss to combine and then add the dressing. Toss again, top with the crumbled blue cheese and serve.

Grilling: Tips, Skirt Steak and more…

Skirt Steak with Greek Salsa

I use a pair of kitchen tongs and quickly flip a steak, pull back to let my hand cool for a split second before diving in again behind the safety of the tongs to flip another. The hair on my forearm recoils from the heat. Even with a long pair of kitchen tongs I can’t bear the sting of the glowing coals like I used too.

I have lost my commercial kitchen hands. The hands that could take the heat without flinching, the same hands that could grab thermonuclear plates, or could move steaks around on a grill without ever noticing the heat. The heat abused hands that were once this line cooks badge of honor.

The wind shifts, a wisp of white smoke blows back. My eyes catch a little before I can turn and shut them. The smoke underneath my eyelids stings and my eyes begin to water. Continue reading →

The Troublemaker Blend 6

Meatball Po' BoyI was given an assignment and just like in high school I have blown it off.  I procrastinated.  In all actuality if this was school, the PR company my teacher, well, I failed with a big fat F.

Because my parents taught me right from wrong, I am going to complete my homework and turn it in.   It is the right thing to do.  I expect no mercy from the teacher.  None.

I crack open a bottle of wine and pour a glass.  What, that is what I would have done in high school,  just kidding mom and dad.  I never would have done that in high school.  I was more a Jack Daniels and Coke kid.  Did I just say that out loud? Continue reading →

A Drive-in Movie and Candied Lemon Sheet Cake

A lemon cake. That’s what I want. Something to replicate the Lemonheads from the snack bar at the drive-in movie theater. The sour pucker is perfect for the late summer heat. You could say I am fond of lemon. I always have been a borderline addict.

Sunday is family night and we are going to the drive-in again. We will make a picnic of it this time. I pack the 4Runner with food, sleeping bags, a couple of pillows, some lawn chairs, and bug spray. It isn’t a long drive to Mechanicsburg, over one state highway and up another. Other than the Welcome to Mechanicsburg sign, the drive-in theater is the only indication that you’re in a town. All the times I’ve been here, I’m still never sure whether there was ever anything more than the drive-in and one lonesome farmhouse. It’s all surrounded by cornfields — always cornfields.

There are ten or more minivans parked on the gravel road leading to the drive-in and everyone is waiting single file at the tollbooth-style gate. It’s always at this moment, waiting to get in, my elbow resting on the open window of the door, the sting of the hot sun on my already sunburned arm, that I look up at the two story, paneled movie screen and silently reminisce.

I remember the brightly colored muscle cars of the kids whose parents indulged them. My friends and I would wander the lot with sodas in to-go cups full of crushed ice spiked with Old Crow whiskey and bum cigarettes from each other. The noise of the B movies or horror flicks was background color to our youthful attempts at manhood. No one ever watched the movie; mostly we walked around, flirted with girls, and waited for a fight to break out because a fight always broke out.

The line starts to move and inside we follow the other cars, back in to our space, open the hatchback, and get comfortable. The scene could have come from the set of The Bevery Hillbillies: a red pickup truck with a bed full of people sitting in lawn chairs. Kids start playing tag, soccer, and Frisbee in the grass in front of the screen, passing away the time until it’s dark enough and the movie begins.

I set the cooler, which will also be our table, on the grass. The girls are off to look for their friends. Amy unfolds the chairs and we settle in for dinner and a movie. The herb roasted chicken legs, the potato salad, and the slaw are as good as always. Just as the movie starts I get out the pieces of lemon cake. It’s the real star of the show.

Serves 9 to 12

Candied Lemon Slices

  • 13 1/8-inch lemon slices, seeds gently removed
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • strips of zest from 2 lemons
Sheet Cake

  • 1 cup Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free Flour Mix
  • 3/4 cups sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 tablespoons candied zest, minced
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 sticks of unsalted butter, each gently melted in its own bowl and kept warm, plus more for greasing the pan
  • 3 tablespoons powdered dry milk
  • 2 large eggs, room temperature
  • 3/4 cups whole milk, warm
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure lemon extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 8 ounces powdered sugar
  • 3 tablespoons heavy cream
  1. Pour the sugar into a saute pan large enough to hold the lemons in a single layer. Place the lemons and zest in a single layer on top and then add the water. Place the pan over medium heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer.
  2. Simmer the lemon slices until the sugar syrup has reduced by half or more and the pith and rind of the lemon appear transparent. Carefully remove the slices and zest to a piece of parchment being sure not to let the pieces overlap. Let them cool.
  3. Grease a quarter size sheet tray (9 x 13 inches) with butter. To make the cake heat the oven to 375 ˚ F. Combine the flour, dry milk powder, sugar, xanthan gum, baking soda, minced candied zest, and salt. Combine half the melted butter with the eggs, milk, and extracts. While whisking add the dry to the wet ingredients. Pour the batter into the prepared sheet tray. Make sure the batter is evenly distributed so it rises evenly. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.
  4. While the cake is baking, make the icing. Combine the powdered sugar, cream, and remainder of the warm butter in a mixing bowl. Whisk until smooth. Keep the icing luke warm.
  5. When the cake has finished baking remove it from the oven and let it cool right in the sheet pan for 15 minutes. When the timer goes off pour the warm icing over the top and spread it out evenly with a spatula. Lay on the slices of lemon and let the cake cool. Refrigerate or serve cold.