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Sunday, March 12, 2017

My stint as a Florida Keys Cook Off contestant or Why I'll never be a Top Chef


On Monday, March 6th, I had the opportunity to go back to my culinary alma mater, The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College.  The reason being, a cook off contest to help promote the Florida Keys and Key West.  Area Food Influences and Bartenders were invited to join in on the promotional launch of The Florida Keys and Key West.  In the local Philadelphia area, our major train station, 30th Street Station, has been transformed into a laid back, beach chair and umbrella, clear water paradise.  Ads on our local online news source have been featuring gorgeous photos of the clean beaches of the keys.  The cook-off contest was sponsored by the Florida Keys Tourism Board and promoted locally by Kory Aversa of Aversa PR and Events (he's the force of nature behind the PR of Diner en Blanc Philadelphia!)  If you saw or read the hashtag, #FLKeysCookOff, it was our personal promo "code" to use on social media. 
Smoked Salmon Cones - little tasty rich bites


Creamy Cool Soup Shots with a Cilantro Habanero Kick and Coconut Rock Shrimp


Fine Palate Restaurant's Dragon Fruit Cocktail


Grouper Tacos!


Canapes


Mini Cubano Sandwiches


Punch with Spicy Salty Rimmed Glasses and Edible Flowers
The timing  of the event worked out perfectly for me - schedules at home synced up so that I could attend the event and that Liz, free in the evening, could come to support me.  The event featured foods of Key West - think conch fritters, coconut soups, Cubano sandwiches and all thing Key Lime Pie.  The pie, actually was the hook for me - I thought the contest was all about baking a key lime pie.  Little did I realize we had to bake a Key Lime Pie AND cook a seafood dish.  For drinks, there were 4-5 bartenders, from several fine watering holes and dining establishments were invited to make a signature Key West flair cocktail.  I was pleased to see friends from Fine Palate restaurant at 15th and Locust in the contest - with their sexy spice Dragon Fruit cocktail.



I will admit, that I entered into the event just for the fun of it and to see who I could see; to mingle, network, to have a bit of a lark.  I figured that while I'm not the best baker, I'm a darn good cook, so I might as well give it my best shot and have a good time.  Operative words here, best shot and HAVE A GOOD TIME.  I need to repeat that more often to myself.  Have. A. Good. Time.  I take things too seriously.  I arrived, with my culinary kit in hand, Bicycle-Chef gear tucked into my bag, and wearing my brand new, "Official" TheBicycle-Chef.com chef's jacket.  I was the only person in the contest wearing a chef's jacket, everyone else dressed casually.  All night long, I was mistaken for someone who either worked at The Restaurant School, or who was currently attending the school.  Oh well, I guess I both stood out and blended in.  Strike 1.
A Room full of Food Influences - and competition!
The very cute and talented, Chef Robert Stoky.
Top Gear for TheBicycle-Chef
Oye Vey it was a Pie Disaster
If only I had left the bottle of Tequila on the plate...
What is this thing? Cheesecake? Cake Wreck? Pie Disaster?

Yellow Tail Snapper with Margarita Salsa 3-Ways
24 contestants, ranging from  local radio personalities, Philly Gay Calendar coordinators, my good friend, LeAnne Lindsay of TinselTine.com, local bloggers and foodies, and other food influences were treated to hors d'oeuvres and sweets.  We met with the judges and FL Keys Tourism President and big wigs.  We were treated to a quick culinary demo by Chef Robert "Bobby" Stoky, and then we were let loose into our kitchens to bake a Key Lime Pie.  All ingredients were readied for us, along with kitchen gadgets.  I didn't need to bring a blessed tool, save for my lime zester.  Strike 2.    Strikes 3, 4, 5, and 6 came next.

Baking Science is real folks.  Food chemistry matters.  I baked a trial run "Key Lime" Pie the night before, and while I did not have Key Limes or juice, the pie was good.  For the contest, we could bring a "secret" ingredient to make our pie stand out.  I debated plenty on what to bring.  If I was making my own crust, I would have done pretzels in the crust.  The crusts were pre-made.  I was prepared for everything.  Like I said before, I take things too seriously.  I should have listened to my first thought - pretzels.  So I also brought almonds and a toffee, almond, pretzel candy I made (which I nixed but shared around the office the next day).  For the filing, I debated on using a splash of fresh lemon juice to brighten the citrus tang.  I also brought Tequila, to help booze up the pie and make it more like a Margarita.  I over-thought the baking part.  During the contest, I went for the Tequila and mixed up the order of adding citrus to the sweetened condensed milk.  There is a reason for why you put ingredients together in a certain order, especially in baking.  Chemistry!

Were were given 50 minutes to bake our pies.  I was the only person who took ALL 50 Minutes!  I added way too much lime juice and Tequila to the condensed milk and I add my eggs into the mix after, not before.  A Key Lime pie is so simple to make, typically 3 ingredients - a can of sweetened condensed milk, 3 or 4 egg yolks and the juice of Key Limes, maybe the Zest too.  Pour into a graham cracker crust, bake for 20 minutes. Chill.  Done.  Bing. Bang. Boom.  I was all Boom and then BUST.  I don't think I've ever had a bigger baking disaster, not since I made some Coffee/Mocha Mousse for a Valentines's Day Dinner that turned into a sickly sweet mortar that we couldn't get out of our fancy glasses or swallow down without gagging.  But I digress.
What is this thing, called Key Lime Pie?
Because I reversed the order of eggs to condensed milk, and had too much liquid, my pie wouldn't bake, and when it did bake and started to set, it rose too high, like a soufflé.  I took it out of the oven at the 49.5 minute mark, and refrigerated it immediately.  It rose and collapsed into a crazy, craggy mess.  My finished pie had the texture of cheesecake.  Don't ask me how.  It was no silky custard that's for sure.  Strike 3.  But I wasn't out yet.

Over-all winner of the FL Key's contest went to Colleen Kennedy, blogger from Soufflé Bombay.  After the event, I realized I knew who she was, so I wrote to congratulate her. She's a wonderful blogger, with insightful posts and beautiful photographs.  Plus, she's a local gal who's really making it in the world of blogging and twitter events.

I knew for certain that any thoughts I had to win the contest and win a trip to Key West were dashed.  Oh well, there was always the cooking portion to conquer!  I figured, I still had this thing.  I got this, I thought.  I got this. HA! Strikes 4 and 5 here.


Turning Salsa into Sauce
The cooking portion was to make a Yellow Tail Snapper, either using one of the recipes provided, or to make our own, signature, Key West-inspired dish.  Always one to want to be different, I decided to do what I do best, just cook and work with the ideas that work for me.  The makings of a tropical salsa were on hand - I embellished with more Tequila, using the onions, jalapeños, peppers, tomatoes, mangoes, limes, oranges, garlic and bananas on hand.  Slamming Margarita Tropical salsa whipped together.  Cut the fish into two pieces. Filleted them open, stuffed some of the salsa into the fish. rolled them up, pinned them together with toothpicks that I brought (always prepared!), and let the fish marinate with the salsa for a bit. Then I saluted the fish roulades that I made, to brown them on the outside and finished them in the oven.  I took the rest of the salsa and divided into two portions.  One I cooked down into a sauce, the other I left as a tropical salsa fresca.

My finished fish featured Margarita Salsa 3-Ways: Cooked, Sauted and Fresh.  My fish was amazing! I got this! I got this!  Until I didn't have it.  The fish looked beautiful.  It as fresh, perfectly cooked and had true magazine photo spread appeal.  The judges seemed to like it.  The flavors were nuanced, I had that whole, layers of flavor thing going that I love to do.  I was hopeful, even a bit gleeful that I might just maybe win for best fish dish.  Doh!  Strike 6.

The very fun, engaging and charismatic fellas, Steve McCann and Chris Balbi of PhillyGayCalendar, won for best fish dish.  I think they used (and maybe bribed the judges?!!) the bottle of Kahlua they brought.  However they cooked their fish, according to Hugh E. Dillon of Philly ChitChat, their dish had a secret kick of ginger.  I'll give them props - they were a fun duo.

In the end, I had a great time, I saw a few friends, realized I knew a bunch more people, who I had wished I had the chance to talk with at the party, and I went home feeling really good about my cooking ability.  We also went home with a great swag bag filled with some fantastic goodies, in a  beautiful Lands-End Style tote bag.  It was fun.  I learned things.  It was a good night out.  It's not always about winning, it is about how you play the game, bake the pie, and cook the fish!

There's a cool video on YouTube that captured the event as it happened. I'm in it, barely, just look for the dork in the chef's jacket that's not an employee or student at The Restaurant School! Lol.  Here's the link!  https://youtu.be/xOJ3IvoriKs



Friday, January 27, 2017

Vegetarian Red Beans and Rice - three ways to cook


UPDATED: January 27, 2017, with details on slow cooker & INSTAPOT methods.  This recipe has been tried and tested and it works so well that it deserves yet another go around.  The true secret is to saute your vegetables to bring out the most flavor and to soak the beans, soak them overnight.

Laissez les bon temps rouler!  In honor of Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday or Fat Tuesday - I made a pot of vegetarian red beans and rice.  This dish is definitely in the category of one pot meals made in the style of the Big Easy's cheap-n-easy.  It includes a mess of the Cajun Holy Trinity with a smattering of carrots, a whole lotta Tabasco or Hot Sauce of Choice, a chipotle pepper and some nice old red kidney beans.  Let it cook down in and after a few hours you got yourself a big ole pot of spicy goodness.  As much as I like my meats, sausages and other porky treats - this loose interpretation of red beans and rice was made out of necessity so I could have a vegetarian meal option to take to my kosher workplace.  If you use enough vegetables, a good chipotle pepper and let the beans cook long enough, you will not miss the meat.  Besides, you could have something on the side if you need or crave that extra protein.  


The main thing is letting the beans cook down long enough that the begin to fall apart. If the beans you have are old and they just never get to that mushy stage, feel free to smash them a bit with the back of a spoon or an old fashioned potato masher.  The main thing is that the beans just cook and cook and cook and make their own "bean gravy", absorbing all the spice and smokey heat of the chipotle pepper.  Season with salt AFTER the beans are cooked down not before. 

 Remember to taste before you season, as the dish cooks, cools and sits, its flavors will develop even further.  I made this dish on Saturday and ate it on Sunday.  It was when I reheated it that I seasoned it with salt and additional Tabasco Sauce.  As for using okra - I know I'm mixing my meals here, making my red beans and rice morph into some sort of mumbo gumbo. I like okra and I wanted something else in the dish. Skip it if you don't like, don't have or can't find okra.  By the way, frozen okra is far easier to find in most grocery stores and works great. You can also stir in frozen collard greens towards the end of the cooking time too. 

For the Instpot Method,  I found that upon the 2017 cooking, in my instapot, adding in the frozen okra and collard greens after it cooked for 15 minutes and the pressure came down, I only had to cook it for another 5 minutes for the okra and greens to cook into the mixture.  I would say the total cooking time was around 1 hour 15 minutes - allowing for the sauteing, pressure to build up and come down and some rest time.



Vegetarian Red Beans and Rice Ingredients:

  • 2 Tablespoons Vegetable Oil
  • Large Onion - small dice
  • 2 Celery Stalks - small dice
  • 1 Red and 1 Green Bell Pepper - small dice
  • 2 Medium Carrots - peeled & small dice
  • 5-6 Garlic Cloves - minced
  • 2 Cups Red Beans - picked over, rinsed and if time permits, soaked for 4 hours to overnight
  • 2 Bay Leaves
  • 1 Whole Dry Chipotle Pepper
  • 4 Cups Water - or 3 Cups Cold Water
  • 1 Bottle of Hop-style IPA Beer, like Hop Devil IPA (optional but it tastes so much better w/the beer!)
  • 1/2 Tablespoon Freshly Ground Black Pepper
  • Tabasco or Hot Sauce of Choice - to taste
  • 2 Cups Frozen Okra - Optional
  • 2 Cups Frozen Collard Greens - Optional
  • Kosher or Sea Salt - to taste
  • 2 Cups Cooked Rice for Serving - White Long Grain is Traditional or use Brown Rice or a more nutritious option
Directions - Stove Top Method.  For Slow Cooker & Instapot, see below:
  1. Pick over the red beans and discard any pebbles, stones or beans that are split or misshapen.  If time permits, soak the beans in cold water for two hours or overnight.  Drain and rinse the beans and set aside.  
  2. In a large stock pot or heavy bottomed pot, such as a Dutch Oven, heat the vegetable oil over medium high heat until the oil begins to shimmer.  Add in the onions, celery, bell peppers and carrots; sweat the vegetables for 10 minutes, or until the vegetables begin to take on a bit of color (but don't let them burn or caramelize).  Next, add in the minced garlic and saute for 2 minutes.  
  3. Add in the soaked red beans, the bay leaves and the chipotle pepper.  Pour in 4 cups of cold water, or enough water and the bottle of beer to cover the beans and vegetables by 1 to 2 inches.  Bring the mixture to a boil and then reduce heat down to lowest setting.  
  4. Keep the pot at a gentle low simmer for as long as it takes for the beans to cook down and become tender - so tender they begin to fall apart.  This may take 2 to 3 hours.  Keep an eye on the pot, adding more water as needed.
  5. As the beans cook down, the mixture in the pot will go from recognizable pieces of vegetables in a watery broth to looking like a pot of dark brown mush.  When this happens, taste the beans, seasoning with the black pepper, hot sauce and salt.  Add in the okra and collard greens (if using it) about 15-30 minutes before the mixture is finished (towards the end of the cooking time, when the mixture is all cooked down. Cool the mixture and refrigerate.
  6. At serving, season to taste with salt, pepper and hot sauce.  Serve hot over rice.  Makes 6-8 servings. Recipe can easily be doubled to serve a larger crowd.  

Red Beans and Rice, in a Jar!
Instapot method - with chunkier cut veggies,
okra, and collard greens.  One of my best batches yet!

Instapot Method:  

  1. Saute all the aromatics in the pot set to saute, for 30 minutes.  Mostly because I was doing other things.  
  2. Saute long to really develop the vegetables flavors, and again, to cook them down.  I had filled the pot with onions, celery, peppers, carrots, and garlic, and when I was done the saute, it had cooked down by more than half of the volume, plus all the liquid they gave off evaporated!  
  3. Next added in the beans, beer, water, bayleaf, seasonings, etc.  
  4. Set the time to bean mode, cooked for 15 minutes.  Let the pressure come down naturally, for 15 minutes, then carefully released the steam; open lid, add in frozen okra (and this time I also added in a generous handful of frozen collard greens for more veggie oomph!. 
  5. Reseal, and set the time on manual for 5 minutes to cook further. Let pressure come down again, 10-15 minutes, then open the pot. Stir, mash the beans if needed, slighlty.  Season to taste with salt and hot sauce.  
  6. Remove chipotle pepper and bay leaves.  Serve over rice.  Or chill in a shallow pan before refrigerating.  The red beans will taste better the next day once they had a chance to sit and allow the flavors to marry.
  7. Total cooking time was about 1 hour and 15 minutes! Tasted like my 10 hour method, if not better!

Friday, January 13, 2017

Polish Foods - Crushiki and Stuffed Cabbages

Krushki or Crushiki - no matter how you spell it or what your background is,
 a fried dough product with powdered sugar is Delicious!


Just realized that I never posted the Polish Foods Recipes from when I did Living Well with Pat Nogar's show in December.  Lord Have Mercy!  I don't know where the past 2 months have gone, but I can say, we've been busy with holidays, parties, events, and work work work.  Herewith are the recipes I made/shared on television.  I really must thank my good friend, Lynnette Nagle for her family recipes.  Without her, I would not have had anything to make, share or talk about.  She saved me and gave me something that I never got from my own family - treasured recipes that make memories.


Crushiki Ingredients:
  • 3 Cups Unbleached White All-Purpose Flour (if you want, you could use a half and half combo of AP and Whole Wheat flours, just to feel a tad bit less guilty!)
  • 6 Egg yolks
  • 1 tablespoon and 1 teaspoon of White Rum (or a light Whiskey)
  • 1 Cup Sour Cream - feel free to use low-fat Sour Cream, but not Fat-Free
  • Canola or Vegetable oil - for frying
Directions:
  1. Preheat vegetable or canola oil in a stock pot - heat to 350 degrees.
  2. Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl until dough forms, similar to pie dough. Do not over-mix.  Form the dough into a ball, then wrap in plastic wrap and let rest and chill for ½ hour.
  3. While oil is pre-heating, roll out the a quarter piece of the dough on a lightly floured surface.  Roll the dough out very thin - then cut it into narrow strips using a pizza wheel cutter if you have one.  For authentic Crushiki, tie each ribbon of dough into a loose knot
  4. Fry the dough in the oil until golden brown, about 1 minute. Do not add too many pieces of dough to the oil or else the temperature will drop too drastically, causing the dough to absorb too much oil.  Remove the ribbons and place onto a sheet tray lined with paper towels to absorb any excess oil.  Continue frying the dough in batches until it is all rolled out and fried.
  5. Dust generously with powdered sugar and enjoy!  Will keep for up to 3 days, covered in a large container or in a large plain paper bag.

Thursday, January 12, 2017


I am the proud recipient of a new "InstaPot" - the multipurpose 7-in-1 cooker that is a Slow Cooker, Pressure Cooker, saute, rice cooker, braise, and lord only knows what else it can do, smart-brained electronic. I've made a few things in it since it came into our house at Christmas. Steel Cut Oats; Mulit-grain brown rice; Pork loin with apples, onions, sauerkraut and black-eyed peas (for the New Year). and, a little bragging here - a batch of Vegan Black-bean Soup, It was a success, after a bit of tweaking. The soup definitely has gotten better as its "aged" the past two days.

The only issues I had w/making this batch of soup were - it was too watery, as I used too much water in the batch. That was cleared up by draining the excess liquid the next day after the soup settled and before I pureed some of the beans to thicken the soup.
My other concern or note is that the beans taste a bit chewy, in that i feel like we are chewing on the black-bean skins in a way that I've never noticed before when I made this soup in a regular pot on the stove. I soaked the beans for about a day - not a full 24 hours. The chewiness factor is minor, just something different about the soup.

The recipe was one I usually use -w/the addition of using a jar of one of my canned salsas for a flavor boost and "short cut". I also used a food processor to dice/mince my vegetables as a short cut method. The veggies were very finely minced - which is fine as you want them to be more of a puree than a stew-like soup. After the soup is done, I usually mash or puree some of it anyway, so that it's thickened and more uniform in texture.

Ingredients:
  • 1 Lb Dried Black beans - soaked
  • 1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
  • 1 large onion - finely diced
  • 2 large carrots - finely diced
  • 3 large celery stalks - finely diced
  • 3 Bell peppers - red/green - finely diced
  • 4 large garlic cloves - finely diced
  • Bunch of cilantro - finely chopped
  • 1/4 Cup Seasonings that included: Ground Cumin, Dried Ground Chipotle Peppers, Ancho Chili Powder, Black Pepper, Oregano, Thyme and a Dash of Salt (or use the best Mexican Spice Blend or Chile blend that you have, preferably w/out salt, so you can control the sodium content)
  • Zest and Juice of 1 Lime
  • 5 Cups Cold Water (when adding water, DO NOT GO ABOVE THE MAX Liquid line on the pot's insert)
  • 1 - 8 ounce Jar Salsa of Choice (I had a jar of my Garden Veggie Salsa from this past summer)

Directions:
  1. Soak Black Beans & rinse, set aside.
  2. Heat the instapot by using the saute mode. Heat the olive oil then saute the aromatics (onions-garlic:in the InstaPot until any water they give off evaporates & the veggies take on some colour - about 10 minutes.
  3. Next, saute the dried seasonings to bloom their flavor, stirring to incorporate - 1 minute.
  4. Add in the black beans, cilantro, water, lime juice & zest, and jar of salsa.
  5. Bean or Manual Mode- 15 minutes. Natural Pressure Release for 15-20 minutes, then carefuly vent the valve before opening the lid. Once the lid is off, carefully mash or puree or use an immersion blender to puree some of the soup so that it thickens. Taste and adjust seasons with salt, hot sauce, ground pepper and/or a dash of olive oil.
  6. Soup will improve in flavor after a day. Makes about 8-10 cups.

If the soup is too watery, strain off some of the water, after letting the soup sit and the vegetables settle to the bottom of the container. If the soup is too thick, thin w/a bit of water.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Live with Chef Denine and Living Well with Pat Nogar!







The tv spot on which I was a guest chef, Living Well with Pat Nogar, is now on the air as well as on the Lower Merion Township's website and cable access channels.  Here's the show!  I'll do a separate post of my recipes and photos.  I'm so excited to share this segment - Here is the link. If it can be embedded here on the blog, I'll be make the update.

https://lmtv.viebit.com/player.php?hash=TQcC9KpefhpB