Random Thoughts on Cooking

DIY flower pepper

Strange, I don’t like growing flowers, but I like using them in food. This summer I’ve been experimenting with lavender. It has a hint of spiciness that reminds me of anise and the aroma is more soothing than floral.

But where do you find supplies of dried, edible flowers? It took me awhile but I found plenty of dried flowers available in bulk at a local grocers, Mustard Seed Market. The flowers were intended for make-it-yourself tea, but I saw other possibilities…

I’ve been mixing lavender in with fresh strawberries or peaches, but when I ran across Flower Pepper at Trader Joe’s I started understanding the savory potential of lavender. Now doing a little online digging I found that apparently there’s a Chinese spice called Sichuan, or flower pepper, that’s added to dishes in various forms and has the effect of numbing your tongue. Never tried that, but it sounds interesting. It’s neither a pepper, a flower or even a chile pepper. And this isn’t the kind of pepper I’m making here. Instead, I’m suggesting adding some zing to the sometimes underwhelming tabletop pepper. Yeah, see where I’m going?

The best part–you don’t need to buy flower pepper, you can make your own variety using whatever dried flowers catch your interest. The Trader Joe’s mix includes lavender, rose, calendula, and cornflower petals. The mix is 1:4 flowers to peppercorns. So far, I’ve used the flower pepper to marinate pork cutlets, but I can see how it would add interest to lean meats like tilapia and other white fish. To do this at home, simply place peppercorns into the grinder along with your selection of flowers. I’ve just started fiddling with pepper, I’m thinking of what dried Mexican jicama flowers might do to enliven enchilada sauce. Hmmm….

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When mom gets sick…

Normally I don’t get sick. (I credit my commitment to eating at least a little dark chocolate each day–hey, it’s high in anti-oxidants; it’s nearly as good for me as my daily vitamin. Really.) For the occasional sniffle, I pop in a cough drop or two, I’m done. Upset tummy, I grab a banana, I’m good. But my middle daughter gave me a doozy of a head cold that I’m still trying to get over. Excuse me while I grab yet another tissue.

While I don’t like being sick (I know, I know, no one does), I’ve noticed it’s had a few benefits. I wanted to share a couple–

Hot stuff in the kitchen

Mr. Squid believes hot, spicy food helps cure colds. I’m game, especially since my part in making the meal was staying in my three-blanket- deep cocoon on the couch while catching slight whiffs–between Kleenex rounds–of celery seed, cayenee pepper, tomato, paprika and a dozen other spices that Mr. Squid melded into a shrimp etouffee. He’d been wanting to try a Cajun dish for quite some time and seeing my red nose must have been inspiring. He served the etouffee over wild rice with tilapia and sauteed asparagus. Clean plates all around! Mine included.

Baking on her own

Meanwhile my oldest wanted to make a knock-out cake for a get-together with friends. I’ll admit, usually I’d be inclined to hover over her and give countless ‘helpful suggestions’ while she mixed. Well, I couldn’t hover, not with the Kleenex habit. We talked through the recipe together, I sent her in the kitchen and she whipped up her first cheesecake. Count me as a proud mama, especially since I got a slice out of the deal.

I’m sure I’ll get over this cold soon (no doubt another slice of cheesecake will help), but it’s been nice to enjoy a little foodie TLC in the meantime.

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Inspired by Man v. Food: The Italian Melt

Lately, when friends or family come to visit me in Cleveland they have one restaurant request: Melt. I’ve got to thank The Travel Channel and Adam Richman for that. When Richman visited Cleveland, he took–and won (sorry for the spoiler!)–the Melt challenge. The grilled-cheese-on-steriods packs 13 different cheeses, 3 slices of bread, and a hearty helping of fries to make for 5-pounds of food. Yikes! No way, I’d ever want to eat that much food in one sitting.

But what I did like about his trip to Melt, and the popularity of the restaurant, is that grilled cheese sandwiches are considered, cool, even trendy. Now I haven’t had a Melt sandwich yet (so far the lines have been way too long for me, despite the host assuring me, “It’s not too bad, 45 minutes or so, and that’s pretty short for us). I wasn’t up for waiting. Neither were my kids–so I grabbed some ingredients at the store and told Mr. Squid, “Surprise me.” He did.

Using a few finds from our garden (okay, my basil plant that has survived a whole month–that’s a record for me and growing greens), and sauces and such from the fridge, he came up with ‘the Italian.’ That’s the only name I could come up with for this creation, but if you have a better one, please do tell!

*Note: Mr. Squid has two ‘must-dos’ when it comes to grilled cheese. The first is that all of the main ingredients need to be heated before adding them (“No one likes to bite into a cold part of a hot sandwich”) and second that the slices should be crisped and the cheese melted separately before putting them together at the end.

Here’s how Mr. Squid put ‘the Italian’ together:

  1. First, he added a little basil olive oil to the griddle and then placed thin slices of Roma tomatoes, strips of fresh basil and grated Parmesan cheese on top. He let that heat just until the Parmesan started to melt and then set it aside.
  2. Next, he heated a combination of roast beef and smoked turkey on the griddle.
  3. Now that all the mixins’ were heated, it was time to put the sandwich together. He used thick cut Italian deli bread that he’d coated with a thin layer of butter. On the top piece he also added mayo mixed half and half with Balsamic vinegar.
  4. He placed both on the griddle then added the tomato-basil mixture to the top piece followed by sliced peperoncinis for a bit of vinegar spiciness and then a slice of Swiss cheese.
  5. On the other piece of bread he added a slice of American cheese followed by the deli meat.
  6. Once all the cheeses are melted, he carefully pressed the two sides together and pressed them down with the spatula.

There you go–grilled cheese worth the wait. Plus, I didn’t even have to tip the waiter. One of these days, I gotta go to Melt, but for now I’ll keep letting my hubby and kids come up with tasty grilled cheese combos.

Your turn–do you have a favorite grilled cheese creation? Are you a Man v. Food watcher?

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Pineapple sage and my mother’s garden

Borage, or starflower

“I was so excited when I found borage at the nursery,” gushed my mom recently. Borage, or starflowers are edible, beautiful and just happened to be a regular sight on our dessert plates growing up. (My mom would also freeze starflowers in ice molds to suspend in punch bowls during parties; I loved it.) Frequent visitors to MKES might wonder where I got my hankering for trying new flavors. Maybe from frequent trips to my mother’s garden to trim edible flowers, like borage, or pansies, to dress up dishes. Now, I have none of my mother’s gardening skills, but I do love experimenting with spices, ingredients and techniques in the kitchen.

Pineapple sage

And herbs? We had mint, chocolate mint, parsley, sage, rosemary, and oregano thyme. Just the other day I asked my mom what kind of basil she had in her garden. “Sweet, cinnamon, Thai…” I have no pictures of my own gardening efforts to pass along, I’ll just have to rely on hers for now. Update: I have kept my indoor basil plant alive for a week now. It’s looking good although the cilantro plant didn’t even make it 3 days.

a peek at my mother's herb garden

Your turn–what culinary skill did you learn from your mom? And hey, if it’s how to read the back of a box of brownies, that counts!

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What do you do with purple carrot juice?

Good question, huh? You may not have a friend who passes along cool food finds like purple carrot juice (thanks Sarah!), but you might have a fridge or pantry with ingredients you need to use. Maybe you just can’t recall why you bought coriander seeds or orange vinegar in the first place. Or maybe you found a new fruit or veggie at your farmer’s market or grocers that you’d like to use.

When you’re looking to use a new ingredient, here are a few ideas to get you experimenting…

Taste it. I know, I know, that sounds obvious, but you might be surprised. I was sure that purple carrot juice would have a sweet, mild taste, something similar to the flavor when I roasted them. Poured myself a big glass. The pungent juice had an almost molasses-like taste and a strong steamed carrot smell. I’m sure some people like drinking it straight but I figured the best way for my to enjoy the flavor–and the nutritional punch–was to put it into something.

Bake it in. Since the flavor mimicked molasses and went well with veggies, I decided to replace some of the apple sauce in my favorite bran muffin recipe with the purple carrot juice. I swapped out 2 Tablespoons. The juice gave the muffins a slightly darker color and a hint of carrot I liked. I’m thinking next I need to try it in carrot muffins. Doesn’t that sound tasty? Or add it to fruit leathers?

Marinate with it. Mixing new-to-you ingredients in marinades is a great way to play with the flavors. I thought the carrot juice would work well with a strong soy sauce-based marinate. I wouldn’t use it in Mexican dishes, but Asian or standard BBQ marinades, toss some in!

Sauce it. Now about BBQ–lately we’ve been doctoring our BBQ sauces, either making our own from scratch (recipe coming) or tweaking our favorite bottled variety. My hubby starts with about 1 cup of juice–usually cranberry for a bit of tartness–and he boils it down by half until it thickens slightly. Then he adds 1 1/2 cups bottled BBQ sauce and then tweaks it with spices according to what we’re putting it on. Last week it was ground ancho chiles to go along with shredded pork. I’m thinking the black carrot juice would make for a cool BBQ sauce. I’m going to give it a try. But at your house, think tossing pureed or fresh squeezed juice into sauces and dips. Better yet, let your kids think up the combinations. One of my favorite Asian dipping sauces is simply equal parts lime juice and soy sauce. Hum, I wonder what apricot-soy would taste like…

Your turn–any ingredients that you’ve been wanting to use but weren’t sure how to use ‘em? Any ingredient experiments that worked well, or maybe tasted awful?

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3 secrets to better shish kabobs

Food + stick = bliss. Yeah, I’m talking shish kabobs one of my favorite reasons to fire up the grill. But kabobs are deceptively tricky–the meat/veggie combo means you have to balance getting your meat cooked just right while not burning the veggies past recognition.

Here’s a few ideas for better kabobs:

Keep ‘em separate. I don’t grill the meat and the veggies together anymore. Nope. I make skewers with all one item to make sure I can grill it just right (confession: hubby mans the bbq). Chicken. Sausage. Peppers. Onions. They all get their own skewer.

Skewer savvy. Hey, but what about that lovely photo that has them combined?, you ask. I put them together post-grill. Yes, this takes more work but everything is cooked perfectly that way. Since I’m doing just one ingredient per skewer, I use larger skewers for the grill, then when I re-skewer I put the pieces on smaller ones. You can use the hole that’s already there or make a new one. If it’s just my family, I don’t even bother to re-skewer, I just put the cooked pieces in the middle of the table on a large platter. When I make these to take to a picnic, I’ll re-skewer then leave them in a just-warm oven until it’s time to go.

Photo credit: Goya

Mojo. Why go through all the trouble of creating your own marinade when you can use Mojo sauce? Goya has several varieties. I like criollo (basic) or chipotle. If your meat is frozen, let it sit overnight in the fridge to thaw in the marinade.

Your turn–kabob fan? Any tricks you want to share?

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My mother’s day meal

Note to self: remember to take the camera off landscape

Can I just say, I heart Mother’s Day–from the little handmade cards to the extra hugs (not to mention breakfast in bed!)–I enjoyed every minute of it. So today I wanted to thank my hubby and his little helpers for making it so memorable.

As requested, my hubby fixed Mexican food for dinner. He went all out–shredded beef taquitos (he marinated the meat overnight, bless him!), mushroom and chorizo quesadillos, rice and refried beans. And that’s a dollop of guacamole, fresh-made salsa and chipotle creme sauce on top. It was delicious.

For dessert, I talked him in to making crepes (well, it didn’t take much convincing). He filled the them with Ghirardelli chocolate, almonds, dried cherries, honey and walnuts and then thinned Nutella to slather on top along with a handful of raspberries. Mmmmm (and yes, I’m trying to get him to do a “guest” post on crepes). Happy Mother’s Day everyone! Now what to do with the one leftover crepe…

Crepes for a crowd

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Are you eating your tacos wrong?

My youngest eating her taco--notice the head tilt?

Did you know there’s a right way to eat a taco? Yup. Here it is: hold the taco together in one place with your hands and then to tilt your head to take bites. No taco tilting!

I know, this isn’t rock science. But there are those foods that you can pick out the real eaters from the dabblers. Take thin, chewy New York City pizza slices. I remember getting an education in how to eat a NYC slice when we lived there–always fold it at the sides. (Hey even the Emily Post Institute recommends folding your pizza slice, maybe she’s a New Yorker?) I had moved there from the West where you’d never dream of folding the thick slices.

So maybe it’s no surprise that tacos have their own eating etiquette: the head tilt. This keeps all the yummy fillings intact and from falling out the other side if you try to taco tilt. When our family visited Mexico City a few years ago we bought tacos from a stand in Chapultepec Park and joined others eating our tacos at nearby picnic tables. At the end of the meal, my plate was covered in carne asada pieces (yummy bits of barbecued, seasoned steak). I looked around to see clean plates. Non-taco tilters. My messy plate was a giveaway that I was still a taco novice–well, that and my baseball cap, sneakers and backpack.

So if you want to eat your tacos like a pro, tilt your head, not your taco!


Real Mexican tacos--no cheese, no crisped shells, lots of flavor!

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Why aren’t you eating…serrano peppers

Photo credit: Wikipedia

I’m celebrating Cinco de Mayo all week long with info and recipes all about my favorite Mexican foods. So let’s get right to it. Serranos. You have to look carefully at this picture, but the serranos sold at my local market are always green (squint and you’ll see ‘em in between the red ones).

I prefer the flavor and bite of serranos to jalapeno peppers in fresh salsas and guacamole. (And truth be told, serranos are much more common in Mexico than jalapenos anyway.)

See jalapenos have a strong initial heat at the front of your mouth. The zing is overwhelming to the point I can’t taste what I’m eating. But serranos have a different heat experience entirely. It comes at the back of your throat, a little sweet, tingling of heat, building as you munch.

I usually toss in a serrano or two whenever I want to add some heat to a Mexican dish. For a real kick, don’t bother seeding them. For you slow cookers out there–add these to the pot too (the heat will diminish the longer you cook ‘em).

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Culinary confession: I don’t like muffin papers

Muffin papers annoy me. Bad.

Follow me here–what happens when you use muffin papers? It’s nearly impossible to get every last crumb. Some of it always ends up trapped in the folds of the paper, especially when you try to eat it when it’s still hot (which I do. Constantly). Add to that, the outside of the muffin doesn’t get that golden, crisped texture when you use the moisture-trapping papers.

So yes, muffin papers are terribly convenient, but I try to avoid them in favor of perfectly browned, paperless muffins.

Check back in tomorrow for my favorite bran muffin recipe. (Promise–it’s not dry and even kids will ask for seconds.)

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