Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Margherita Pizza Stuffed Chicken Breasts

This recipe combines two of my favorite things: chicken and pizza. Usually, when I'm thinking of chicken and pizza it's because I'm making some type of pizza, and am planning to use a healthy dose of succulent shredded chicken breast as one of many flavorful toppings. For this recipe, however, I have decided to put a fresh and colorful margherita pizza inside of a perfectly baked chicken breast. For those of you in need of a little culinary education, a margherita pizza typically consists of tomatoes, mozzarella and basil. The colors of these ingredients, red, white and green, coincide with those found on the Italian flag (not necessarily coincidentally, I might add). I jazzed the three traditional ingredients up a little bit by adding golden brown pancetta, and using smoked mozzarella (to help create the smoky elements of a wood fired pizza) and sun-dried tomatoes (to enhance the tomato flavor some). The pizza "crust" is emulated by breading the chicken, as I would to make oven-fried chicken.

Stuffed Chicken with Spaghetti and Roasted Garlic Bread
Margherita Pizza Stuffed Chicken Breasts

Servings: 4
Total Time: ~ 1 hour (depending on your prep work speed)

A few star ingredients
4 chicken breast halves
8 oz. smoked mozzarella cheese, shredded
8 tbls. ricotta cheese
1/4 c. parmesan cheese + 2 tbls./breast for garnish
8 tbls. fresh basil, roughly chopped
1 small to medium pack sun-dried tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 c. marinara sauce
6 oz. pancetta
2 c. panko bread crumbs
2 c. whole wheat flour (white will work too)
2 eggs
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil for drizzling

1. Preheat oven to 375 deg. On the stove, cook the pancetta until golden brown and crisp. Remove from pan with a slotted spoon onto a plate lined with a paper towel to drain. 

Pancetta before
Pancetta after
2. Place all chicken breasts on a cutting board, and season all sides with salt and pepper. Once seasoned, create a pocket in each breast so ingredients may be stuffed inside. It is important to form each pocket without slicing all the way through the chicken. For a demonstration consult the bonus video below. 

3. Once all chicken pockets have been created, smear 2 tbls. of ricotta cheese on the bottom of each pocket. Reserve some of the mozzarella for last minute melting on top of the chicken breast. Now, evenly distribute the rest of the mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, basil and pancetta into each chicken pocket. Close up the holes as best as possible with toothpicks.

4. After the chicken breasts have been stuffed, pour the flour, eggs and bread crumbs into three separate dishes. Season the flour with salt and pepper. Beat the eggs. Mix a little pepper and parmesan cheese in with the bread crumbs. 

Breading station

5. With the breading ingredients prepared, it is time to bread the chicken. Make sure no tasty ingredients sneak out of the hole during this step. Coat the chicken with the flour first, then dip into the eggs and finally cover with bread crumbs. Place the perfectly breaded chicken on a greased (and foiled-line if you want to greatly reduce clean up time) baking tray. Drizzle each breast with olive oil.
6. Place the food in the oven and bake for about 20 minutes. After the allotted time, rotate the try (this is not necessary, but something I like to do). Continue baking for another 10 minutes. 

7. After about 30 minutes, remove the breasts and cover with marinara sauce (1/4 c. for each breast). Also, top with remaining mozzarella. Return to the oven for another 5 to 10 minutes, allowing the sauce to heat and cheese to melt and slightly brown.

8. Once the chicken is cooked completely through and the cheese has melted, remove from the oven and allow to rest for a couple minutes. Also, please remember to remove all toothpicks!

9. Garnish with a few basil leaves and parmesan cheese, and enjoy with your favorite Italian sides! I chose spaghetti and garlic bread. You'll have plenty of time to prepare your favorites while the chicken is in the hot box.

1. Anytime you're working with raw meats, especially chicken, always keep separate from other ingredients. When you're touching the chicken, only touch the chicken until you can wash your hands. After you've finished preparing the chicken, wash the cutting board, or use a fresh one if needed for anything else. Don't cut fresh ingredients with the same knife used to cut raw chicken. I don't mean to nag, but food safety should always be a top priority.

2. I didn't add the sauce and cheese until the last few minutes of baking for two reasons: (1) I wanted the breading on the chicken to have a chance to crisp up and brown in order to maintain its necessary pizza crust integrity. (2) I didn't want the sauce and cheese to burn.

3. The cooking time will vary depending on the size of each breast, and even the power of your oven. The new oven I use cooks a little quicker than the old one, despite the exact same temperature setting. If you use a convection setting, then the cooking time is reduced even further. You're chicken is done when the juices run clear. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Hometown Gem

Location: Redlands, CA
Date: Aug. 19, 2011

When it comes to frozen treats, I am undoubtedly an aficionado. Give me a nice deep bowl of softend ice cream with a spoon and I'm a happy guy. Hand me a tall thick shake and I'll keep drinking until a brain freeze stops me cold. Take me to a self-serve frozen yogurt site and I tend to lose all control. A little bit of this and a little bit of that turns into a whole lot of probiotic-rich frozen yogurt by the time I make it to the scale, and have to pay for every single ounce I unwittingly acquired. Yes, the probiotic emphasis does help me mentally justify spending close to $10 for one sitting's worth of frozen yogurt's fat free (see, I did it again) creamy goodness. However, despite my overly consistent cravings for soft frozen desserts, I had been deprived of one intriguing type of cool treat until recently.

I found it easy to blame the fact that I've never had frozen custard on my lifelong residency in Southern California. Fortunately, my frozen custard problem was remedied by a picturesque little brick building in Redlands, CA.

I don't know why I hadn't been to, or even heard of, this place before I decided to Google the best places to eat in the Inland Empire, hoping to find a local chow spot worth my time and money that I hadn't been to before. In fact, it doesn't matter because my previous ignorance is irrelevant now. Google led me straight to a hometown gem! Oh, and there was a bonus...

Theron's offers sandwiches too! This revelation only meant one thing: my sister and I would be making the 15 minute drive to try some sandwiches and frozen custard.

After a slight detour, we arrived at a small brick building unobtrusively positioned just off the street specifying its address. Two surprises greeted us after entering and ordering: there was no inside seating, and ordering a sandwich meant that you could also receive a kid-sized cup of custard. Perfect!

Chocolate and vanilla frozen custard
When asked if we wanted the custard before or after the sandwiches came, it didn't take long to answer, "Now!" Who doesn't want dessert first when given the opportunity? We took our pre-sandwich offerings outside and situated ourselves in the shade of one of many vibrantly green trees. I was responsible for the vanilla because it is my favorite ice cream (and now frozen custard) flavor ever. Vanilla is a flavor that never fails on its own, and effortlessly plays host to any variety of ice cream (or frozen custard) topping or mix-in imaginable, no matter how creative or farfetched your sweet culinary mind becomes. Custard is richer than ice cream thanks to a heightened egg incorporation accompanied by a decreased integration of air during the production process. Sitting in the heat of another summer day, the cool temperature of the custard was instantly inviting. However, any ice cream, frozen yogurt or smoothie, for that matter, would have provided the same heat relieving benefit at that time. What really did me in was the texture and authentic vanilla flavor. The extensively chilled custard was rich, creamy and smooth. Each bite warranted a pause as the custard gracefully melted, and released its refreshing army of vanilla flavors to coat the inside my mouth, as if tasked with the mission to invade and takeover each of my defenseless taste buds. Before the battle was over, however, our sandwiches arrived.

Nevada Street w/ ham
My sister's choice was first up. She order the Nevada Street sandwich, replacing roast beef for her favorite lunch meat, ham. White bread, mayo, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, red onions and cheddar cheese were all cast in supporting roles. Each ingredient is clearly identifiable, and, as strongly supported by the few scattered crumbs left behind in the picture below, successfully collaborated with one another to create a recipe for tasty triumph.

Pleasing the picky palate of my sister is not always easy, but Theron's seemed to have done so effortlessly.

Zanja Special
Now, this behemoth is my kind of sandwich! Known as the Zanja Special, this midday meal between scrumptiously supportive swirled rye bread features perfectly sliced, melt-in-your-mouth pastrami, a welcoming amount of vinegary mustard, deliciously sour sauerkraut, fresh and crisp red onions and, last, but certainly not least, wholesomely holey Swiss cheese. Typically, when I eat out, I order items not readily available at home. Swirled rye bread, pastrami and sauerkraut are all ingredients that I hardly ever have on hand, so I couldn't wait to try the Zanja Special. The first thing that impressed me was the bread-to-meat ratio. In the perfect sandwich, there should be enough meat to necessitate a slight press on either side of the sandwich in order to allow your mouth to wrap itself around all ingredients, but enough bread to prevent the I-need-a-fork-now-because-I've-ran-out-of-bread-with-three-bites-of-sandwich-insides-to-go-and-don't-feel-like-carnivorously-using-my-hands scenario. Theron's certainly delivered a sandwich meeting this arguably picking culinary requirement of mine. I couldn't fit my mouth around each bite without slightly squeezing each piece of bread together. The flavors took it from there. The pastrami was not in short supply, and possessed a desired saltiness without being overly fatty. The sauerkraut was, well, sour, but slightly sweet, thus played nicely with the pastrami's salty side. A pleasant texture was provided by the onions' crisp nature. The presence of the Swiss cheese helped tame the vibrant mustard so its vinegary bite never became overpowering. Finally, the swirled rye was hearty enough to accompany the strong flavors of the sandwich without every becoming too dry.

Halfway through the Zanja Special, I realized I still had frozen custard left. It was melting fast, leaving me with only one option. I finished it happily as its cool sweetness helped counterbalance the bold flavors of the sandwich. With a fresh palate, I was ready to enjoy the rest of my lunch, and did so with great contentment.

Image courtesy of Ally Schmitz
Great food in a quaint setting is sure to give anybody that coveted, "Ahh!" feeling feverishly sought after during any culinary adventure. Whether its for a more flamboyant custard offering with mix-ins galore, or another satisfying sandwich, I'm sure I'll return to Theron's for another escapade at some point because its flavorsome offerings are minutes away from my own backyard.

What's your favorite noteworthy hometown gem? Share below and let the whole world know, or at least the small portion of the whole world taking advantage of the great opportunity to read this blog.

Interested to learn more about Theron's Frozen Custard? Check out their website here.

As always, thanks for reading!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Triple D Time-out: The Coffee Cup

Location: Boulder City, NV
Date: Aug. 9, 2011

This mini culinary adventure was my second Triple D stop during my recent trip to Vegas. I'm a huge fan of breakfast cafes with great tasting food sans all the hoopla often inherent with finer breakfast establishments. The morning meal is supposed to be the most important meal of the day, so why not enjoy it comfortably without worrying about your wardrobe or blowing up your wallet first thing in the morning? Now, I have no problem splurging on fine dining for dinner, but nothing beats the comfort of a hearty meal in the AM from a great cafe where you can just show up as you are and fit right it. Don't take my word for it though, ask the cyclist who was enjoying a steaming cup of coffee and some nutrient dense mid-ride fuel at the inviting bar decked out in his fitted spandex (which, by the way, is infinitely more comfortable on long rides than drag-inducing loose attire) and helmet nestled on top of the adjacent comfortably cushioned bar stool.

It's right across the street!
I find the best cafes off the beaten path in tranquil locations where leisure trumps the fast paced bustle of the real world everyday. Located in the historical district of Boulder City, NV, and neighbored only by Mom and Pop souvenir and antique shops, The Coffee Cup undoubtedly fits the mold. It's situated in a setting reminiscent of a time long, long ago...a time I can't personally relate to, but my grandpa may vividly remember. Despite the fact that my birthday occurred much more recently than times when a setting like this was the norm, I do appreciate opportunities to pause and step back in time. The pleasant camaraderie constantly looming in these low key eateries makes me wish more existed, and keeps me coming back to similar places anytime I can.

License plates from near and far
  The decor inside was put up with the classic throw-anything-and-everything-on-the-walls-and-it-will-work mentality. Knickknacks from surfboards to pictures to old water skies graciously adorned the walls, giving costumers a vast variety of interesting objects to gaze at while waiting for the main event with friends and loved ones. The wall that caught my attention first, however, was their wall of old license plates. It instantly took me back to my favorite place in the San Diego area to get a big, juicy bacon cheeseburger. Hodad's, like The Coffee Cup, also utilizes old license plates as unconventional interior decorations. Thus, associating this cafe to one of my favorites had my mouth watering, and taste buds ready to indulge minutes before I had even peaked at their menu!

Upon gazing at the menu, my eyes instantly gravitated towards the boxed "South of the Border" breakfast items. My only question for the friendly waitress: How is the Pork Chile Verde different from the Pork Ranchero Sauce? The Pork Ranchero Sauce has a few added ingredients and a little more spice. More spice?! Spicy food is my favorite...I'll have the Huevos Rancheros! How would you like your eggs? Poached!

Huevos Rancheros
Yeah, I know! The menu claimed the Huevos Rancheros are "smothered in our Pork Ranchero Sauce." They weren't kidding! I could have just eaten a bowl of the Pork Ranchero Sauce on its own. The huge chunks of pork were fall-off-the-bone tender...if I may use an old culinary cliche. There actually wasn't a single bone on my plate though, so maybe I should save that line for another day. However, I can attest to the delicious meat being fork tender. All I had to do to get a bite-sized piece was simply touch the top of the pork along the grain with the side of my fork and, seemingly instantaneously, the pork separated. Carefully poking the exposed pork with the prongs of my fork (so it wouldn't separate further, of course), I took that first bite, and found myself immediately at peace knowing that I had just embarked on a "South of the Border" culinary adventure that would not soon be forgotten.

The pork was juicy and tender on its own, but the flavor was brought to a whole new level after soaking in its ranchero bath. The spiciness of the sauce never came on too strong (I can handle some spice though, so some may think its a little spicier than I did), but the mildness of the tomatoes did help cut through the spice to switch up the flavors and keep me interested. Refried beans were buried at the bottom of this palette pleasing pyramid, and helped thicken some of the juices while also bringing a desired salty element. The tortillas brought a nice crunch to the party, preventing the texture of the dish from becoming too one dimensional. The eggs were perfectly poached, and, by "perfectly poached," I mean once I cut into the egg, its runny yolk spewed out in lava-like fashion, adding a whole new rich saucy element. Oh, and who doesn't like gooey, melted cheese? It's like the cherry on top for any hearty egg dish! The hashbrowns were good too, but my sister ate most of them, as I was too enthralled eating bite after bite of the delicious Huevos Rancheros without stopping. In fact, when I took my last bite, I could've licked the residue left behind on the plate, but, uh, that would've just been plain gross! Instead, I figured it best to maintain my dignity, and simply finish sipping my coffee.

For those of you who enjoy a morning sugar rush by devouring sweet, dessert-like meals, try this on for size...

Chocolate chip and peanut butter waffle
If you're a waffle lover like my sister, you would quite possibly be in waffle heaven at this place. They have a diverse list of just over 10 ingredients ranging from sweet to savory, including fruits and nuts, to choose from, and encourage you to build your own waffle. Well, this place isn't a build-a-waffle so you don't actually build them...just choose your favorite ingredients, tell the waitress, and a cook will build it for you. My sister chose chocolate chips and peanut butter for her mix-ins. She also requested it be piled high with their fresh and fluffy whipped cream. I took a bite and it was very good. Chocolate and peanut butter are an epic sweet and salty combination. The waffle was crisp on the outside, but warm and a little chewy on the inside...two desirable qualities for any waffle. The whipped topping was very light and never tasted too heavy. Sweet breakfasts are my sister's thing though, as I prefer hearty, savor dishes like the tasty one featured above. My sister really enjoyed this though, so, if sweets for breakfast is your thing, you'd be undoubtedly satisfied as well.

The Coffee Cup has a lot to offer and I encourage any of you to stop by next time you're in the area. The drive from Las Vegas is a breeze, the quaint setting is a nice change of pace from crowds constantly congregated up and down the strip, and the food, well, I already told you about the food, but if you need a reminder scroll back up the page. If you can't stop by anytime soon, you may learn all about The Coffee Cup here, and wish that you could!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Punch-drunk Barley

I like rice, but I'm really a fan of grains in general, so when I have the opportunity to test out a new grain, I'll do it. You won't even have to ask me twice!

I prepared this side dish to accompany my Lasagna-styled Enchiladas, thus found it fitting to utilize Southwestern flavors in order to allow the two separate dishes to come together as one cohesive meal. The "punch" comes from the Fresno chile, and the "drunk" comes from a little brewski. The dish worked. I liked it. I hope you will too.

Punch-drunk Barley

Servings: 4 to 6
Total Time: 50 min.

The drunken grain and its partner in culinary perserverance
1 tbls. olive oil
1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 Fresno chile, diced
1 c. pearled barley
1/2 c. good Mexican beer
2 c. chicken stock
4 oz. can diced green chiles
1 tsp. cumin
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tbls. cilantro, chopped
Juice and zest of 1 lime

The starting lineup
1. Rinse the barley and begin heating a pan with olive oil on the stove. Apply a medium flame so the oil gets hot, but doesn't burn. If the olive oil reaches it's smoke point, you're probably going to want to start over.

2. Test the temperature of the oil by tossing a couple pieces of chopped onion into the pan. If you get a nice sizzle, the oil is hot and ready to go! Toss the rest of the onion in, along with the Fresno chile, and allow everything to sweat for a couple minutes.

3. After a couple minutes, add the barley and, finally, the garlic. Adding the garlic at the end will help prevent the pieces from burning, which is especially important if your garlic is cut into small pieces. Season with salt, pepper and cumin. Give the barley a few minutes to toast and the onions and peppers a chance to brown.

The starting lineup browning and toasting away
4. By this time, you should have some bits of deliciousness stuck to the bottom of your pan. Never fear, that's why the beer's here! Deglaze the pan by pouring the beer in. It's gonna steam, so watch your hands. With a wooden spatula, scrape the bottom of the pan so all of the caramelized bits release their grip. Allow the beer to cook down a little, but add the chicken stock before it completely evaporates. Bring the liquid to a boil.

The starting lineup brought to a simmer
5. Allow everything to simmer for 40 to 45 min., or until the barley is cooked, but retains a slight chew. Cover the pan so the liquid doesn't all evaporate.

6. Once the barley is done cooking, toss the lime juice, zest and cilantro into the pool. Stir everything together. Give it a taste to test your seasonings. Adjust if desired and taste again, preferably with a different spoon. Finally, serve and impress!

1. Barley can easily be substituted for rice or any other grain of your choosing. Remember to adjust the cooking time and amount of liquid used depending on your grain of choice.

2. A beer like Corona goes very well with lime, which is why I picked it. Don't let me stop you from experimenting though!

Lasagna-styled Enchiladas topped with Fire Roasted Corn + Avocado Relish and Chipotle Crema

I find it quite enjoyable to combine cultures in the kitchen, and that's exactly what I've done here. A Mexican staple collaborates harmoniously with Italian culinary style to present a meal featuring some of my favorite flavors in an unconventional, but oh so intriguing manner.

The flavor profile largely favors Southwestern foods, but I wanted to do more to highlight the Italian culture than simply construct an enchilada like a nice big pan of lasagna by using corn tortillas as I would lasagna noodles. To do this I incorporated ricotta cheese, as is typical when making lasagna. The ricotta's presence helps politely remind your taste buds that, although the inspirational Mexican flavors are sitting in the VIP lounge, Italy is still on the guest list and a force to be reckoned with.

Lasagna-styled Enchilada with Punch-drunk Barley
 Lasagna-styled Enchilada topped with Fire Roasted Corn + Avocado Relish and Chipotle Crema

Servings: 6
Total Time: 40 to 50 min.

Some featured ingredients
1.25 lb. ground turkey
1 tbls. olive oil
1 can red enchilada sauce (net wt. 19 oz.)
8 corn tortillas
1 each red, yellow, green peppers, sliced
1/2 yellow onion, chopped
2 c. ricotta cheese
1/2 lime
1 tsp. cumin
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 - 1 c. shredded cheddar and jack cheese
Fire Roasted Corn + Avocado Relish (recipe follows)
Chipotle Crema (recipe follows)

1. Preheat oven to 375 deg. Turn a burner to medium and begin heating a pan with olive oil. Once heated begin cooking and browning the turkey. Season with salt and pepper to taste, or add fiesta lime seasoning if you have it. Also, pour a little enchilada sauce over the meat during the cooking process so the meat retains some moisture.

2. While the turkey is cooking, lightly coat tortillas with olive oil, salt, pepper and bake. Place tortillas in the oven for about 5 min., or until tortillas begin to crisp and turn golden brown. This will help add a little flavor and texture. You may bake the tortillas while the oven is preheating.

3. Prepare the vegetables by slicing the peppers and chopping the onion.

4. Add some flair to the ricotta cheese by mixing in a few drops of lime juice and zest, cumin and pepper.

5. Once the oven is preheated, turkey browned and tortillas baked it is time to construct the meal.

Pre-bake construction
 6. Coat the 8 x 8 in. pan with cooking spray to ensure nothing sticks (this isn't completely necessary, but something I like to do just in case). Smear a little sauce on the bottom of the pan and layer with 4 tortillas. Use half the ricotta mixture to cover the tortillas. Top with half the turkey. Finish the layer with half the peppers and onions. Pour a little more sauce. Repeat the process to build the second and final layer starting with the last 4 tortillas. After pouring the rest of the sauce over the top of the final layer, cover with cheese.

7. Tent loosely with foil, so the cheese and edges don't burn, before placing in the oven for about 40 min., or until heated through and vegetables are tender.

Baked and ready to eat!
 8. Allow the cheese to brown by removing the foil for the last 5 to 10 min.

9. Let the dish sit for at least 5 min. to facilitate cutting. Portion into 6 servings and top each with Fire Roasted Corn + Avocado Relish and Chipotle Crema.

1. It can be difficult to keep the turkey moist, but you may easily use any meat of your choosing. You could also make it vegetarian by leaving the meat behind and adding a greater variety of vegetables!

2. Crisping the tortillas may be skipped because the tortillas will soften again during the baking process. However, I like to flavor each component of a dish so each layer continues to build flavor, and decided baking the tortillas was a great way to add flavor. Some edges that didn't get covered remain crispy as well, thus adding a pleasant textural contrast.

3. Let the cheese brown to your liking. Personally, I would have let the cheese get a little more brown, but my family and I were pretty hungry, so I got a little impatient and decided it was time to eat!

Fire Roasted Corn + Avocado Relish

Makes: about 2 c.
Time: 5 - 10 min. (depends how fast you can chop!)

A refreshing relish full of bright flavors and tantalizing textural contrasts.
I debated calling this a guacamole, but there are so many great ingredients that the avocado isn't the only star. They all just work very well together to add a variety of flavors and textures without overpowering each other. The corn adds a very nice crisp, charred flavor while maintaining its inherent sweetness. The avocado is soft and creamy, coating every element of the relish. The jalapeno adds a kick. The lime brightens everything with its acidity. I could go on and on, but I'll stop here and tell you to make this and find out for yourself right now!

1 ear of corn, grilled
1 avocado, chopped
1/4 yellow onion, chopped
1 jalapeno, diced
1 roma tomato, chopped
1 med. tomatillo, chopped
1/4 c. chopped jicama
2 tbls. cilantro, chopped (roughly chopped is fine)
Juice and zest of 1 lime
Salt and pepper to taste

1. To grill the corn, heat your grill to medium and remove the corn's husk and silk. Coat the corn lightly with canola oil, salt and pepper. Grill until corn is nicely charred on all sides.

2. Remove the kernels and combine with the rest of the ingredients in a bowl and mix.

3. Allow the relish to cool in the fridge for a bit so the flavors can really come together.

Chipotle Crema

Makes: 6 oz.
Time: < 5 min.

It's kind of like the cherry on top, only it isn't a cherry!
I did it again! I've called upon the good ol' Greek yogurt to healthify my Chipotle "Crema."

6 oz. plain Greek yogurt
1 chipotle pepper in adobo, chopped

1. Combine both ingredients in a bowl and stir.

All done! Pretty easy, huh?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Grilled Salm-wich with Pickled Red Onions and Parsley Aioli

Salmon is my favorite type of seafood to cook at home because it cooks well in a variety of methods and is typically the only seafood my sister will eat. It's easy to find and somewhat reasonably priced, although the price has gone up over time coercing me to use it more as a home-cooked delicacy rather than on a weekly to biweekly basis.

I made this sandwich for a family dinner on a Friday night and it turned out to be quite a hit. The pickled onions and parsley aioli played well with each other as the acidity of the onions was counterbalanced by the smooth, cool and creamy texture of the aioli. Neither of the condiments overpowered the salmon, thus allowing the fish to remain the star.

The bun was no afterthought either. An old college roommate and good friend of mine once told me that anybody can make a decent patty, but what really sets a good burger apart from an ordinary one is the bun. At the time we were comparing different burger joints we'd been to in San Diego, but I decided the same theory should be applied here as well. Sticking the salmon between any two slices of bread would have done the fish no justice. The bun I used for this sandwich is an onion roll, soft and warm, that goes well with the garlic in the aioli and helps pick up some of the onion flavor from the pickled onions.

Grilled Salm-wich with Pickled Red Onions and Parsley Aioli

Serves: 4
Total Time: About 20 minutes

2-3 cups boiling water
1 medium red onion
1 c. white wine vinegar
1/4 c. sugar
1 tbls. whole black peppercorns
1 clove fresh garlic, chopped
1 tbls. dried oregano
2 lbs. skinless salmon
2 tbls. olive oil
1 tbls. dill (I had to use dry, but if you have fresh please use it!)
1/2 fresh lemon
1 bag mixed baby greens
1 fresh tomato, sliced (bonus points if it's home grown)
Parsley Aioli (recipe follows, make in advance)
Salt and pepper to taste
4 good quality onion rolls

1. Begin making the pickled onions by bringing 2-3 cups of water to a boil. This water is used to blanch the onion, so make sure all of the onion slices can be submerged.

2. While the water is boiling, thinly slice the red onion. Once the water begins to boil, place the onions into the pot and allow to simmer for about 2 minutes.

3. As the onions blanch, pour white wine vinegar and sugar into a small saucepan. Turn on the heat and add black peppercorns, garlic and oregano. Allow the mixture to come to a boil and simmer for about 3 minutes so the flavors may all come together.

4. After the onions have finished, remove from heat and drain. Place them into the vinegar liquid after the mixture has simmered for the allotted time. Allow the onions to simmer in the liquid for an additional minute or two. Finally, pour the pickled onions into a jar and set aside. Let the onions cool to room temperature before using.

5. Prepare the salmon by cutting the fish into four uniform pieces. Drizzle 1/2 tbl. on each piece of salmon. Use your fingers to rub the oil around and coat both sides of the fish. I tend to use very little oil when I cook, but if you need a little more go for it. Set the salmon aside.

6. Preheat a griddle on your stove top to medium-high. Apply a layer of cooking spray or oil to ensure the fish won't stick.

7. Once the pan is heated, place each piece of salmon on the griddle. You should hear a nice sizzle as the heat sears the outside of the fish. Wait about 6 to 8 minutes (depending on the thickness of your fish), flip and cook on the opposite side for another 2-4 (again, depending on the thickness).

8. Set the fish aside and use the same griddle to lightly toast the insides of the onion rolls. Toast them to your desired crunch and remove.

9. To assemble the sandwiches, place the bottom half of a bun on a plate. Spoon out some pickled onions with a slotted spoon (it's no problem at all if they aren't quite to room temperature yet) and form a layer on the bun. Put the salmon on top of the onions and use the fresh lemon to squeeze a few drops of juice on the fish. Top with mixed baby greens, tomato slices and a generous dose of the Parsley Aioli. Cap everything off with the second half of the bun and enjoy!

1. The pickled onions can be made in advance and refrigerated. You may also choose to make more to store in the fridge for future meals, as I ended up using all of the onions for these sandwiches. Also, add more sugar if you'd prefer more sweetness to help cut the acidity of the vinegar.

2. It is important to let the salmon come to room temperature after it's seasoned. A uniform temperature will help the fish cook evenly. The salmon can be cooked any way you prefer. It can be baked, broiled, grilled, etc. I typically grill my salmon, but I chose to use the stove top because I needed to keep an eye on them while doing other things in the kitchen.

3. Obviously, the order in which you layer the sandwich is of minuscule importance. I was just going with it the first time I made these. Next time I may consider dicing the tomatoes a bit and tossing the greens and tomatoes in the aioli to top off the sandwiches. I may also smear some on the bottom half of the bun. Play around with it though. As long as the flavors are all there, it's all good.

Now, I have a confession to make when it comes to the Parsley Aioli. It's not really an aioli, in the sense that it's not mayonnaise-based. The creaminess comes from Greek yogurt! I don't prefer to use mayonnaise or other rich, fat laden creamy ingredients very often, so anytime I can experiment with Greek yogurt as a substitute, I go for it.

Parsley Aioli

Makes about 1 cup.
Total time: 5 minutes plus chill time

6 oz. plain, nonfat Greek yogurt
1 clove garlic
3 pickle slices (sandwich size)
2 tbls. fresh parsley
Juice and zest of 1/2 lemon
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Combine all components in food processor and blend until smooth and creamy.

2. Allow the aioli to chill in the fridge for a bit so the flavors can marry.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

A Taste of the Grill Master's Place

Location: Las Vegas, NV
Date: Aug. 8, 2011

When it comes to celebrity chefs, Bobby Flay is my favorite by far. His use of Southwestern flavors and vast variety of grilling techniques inspire my cooking just about every time I step into the kitchen. Since the majority of his restaurants are back east (completely on the wrong side of the country for me), there was no way I was going to miss an opportunity to visit his brainchild nestled within Caesar's Palace (and no, Caesar did not actually live there). Mesa Grill beckoned and I emphatically obliged.

My mouth began to water as my senses filled with the savory aroma of captivating modern Southwestern cuisine. In stride with my grandpa and sister, we were greeted by a smiling hostess and stacks of Mr. Flay's cookbooks (two of which I already own). Yes, table for three. Please seat us for lunch already!

What should I have? Something new, of course! The first intriguing dish: Blue Corn Pancake with barbecued duck and habanero chile - star anise sauce. I was a little confused thinking I'd be served a thick fluffy blue pancake with some duck on the side, so I asked about it. Apparently, the menu says it's a pancake because people don't know what a crepe is. People! A crepe is a very thin pancake associated with French cuisine. They can be stuffed with a vast range of flavors from sweet to savory to anything in between. Mesa Grill, we are all educated now, so please replace pancake with crepe on the menu. I also learned that the dish (which is on the appetizer menu) is a measly three bites. At thirteen bucks, the price per bite was just way too high.

Images from Microsoft Office Clip Art

My second choice was the Grilled Swordfish Club (another protein I've never tasted). Sorry sir, the swordfish hasn't arrived yet. Awesome. I respect and appreciate the fact that Mesa Grill gets their swordfish fresh daily, but if it can't swim fast enough to make it for lunch (understandable since an abundance of land separates Vegas from the sea) don't put it on the lunch menu.

Down two strikes thanks to a duck's undesirable price-to-bite ratio and a tardy fish, I asked the waiter for a suggestion. Smoked Shrimp Tacos and Salsas. Perfect.

Shrimp is a protein I'm very familiar with, so I wasn't quite as excited about my shrimp tacos. From the waiter's description, however, I expected a lot more for the price. The shrimp was fine. The smoked flavor was there, but they were cooked a little too far. The stars of the dish were really the slaw and trio of sauces, which I'm sure wasn't supposed to be the case. The cabbage slaw was cool, crisp and vinegar-based - the only way I'll eat slaw. It added a nice acidic element to each bite and helped distract my taste buds from the mildly overcooked shrimp. Each sauce also helped keep the flavors interesting. There was a vibrant mango salsa delicately sweetening each bite. The spicy tomatillo blend shocked my taste buds with a polite wake-up call, balancing the mango's sweetness. Finally, the guacamole cooled everything down and topped each bite with a much needed creamy texture otherwise missing from the dish. Despite the fact that I prefer corn over flour tortillas, the tortillas felt like a presentation afterthought to me. I expected a presentation more creative than two tortillas folded flat next to a tower of shrimp covered with more herb garnish than necessary, but that's just me.

Fortunately, my sister had a much more satisfying dish: the Mesa Burger!

The bun was lightly toasted, soft and warm creating the perfect vehicle for the rich, meaty flavors of the burger and creamy sharpness of the cheddar cheese. The grilled onions were perfectly tender without an overpowering onion flavor. The horseradish mustard, however, may be my new favorite condiment. I enjoyed the unique spicy contribution it added to each bite. Furthermore, the Southwestern Fries may be the best non-sweet potato fries I've had. Salty, spicy, crisp, warm and tender in the middle - pretty much exactly what a french fry should be.

Unfortunately, the description I just gave you pertained to the second burger of the afternoon. Before taking a bite of my sister's original burger, a piece of the bun fell off and revealed a small little hair embedded in the melted cheese. Certainly not on the guest list, the waiter quickly escorted the hair-infused burger out and returned with round two. Nevertheless, there's no excuse for committing one of the cardinal sins of cooking, especially when the offender is a proud, prestigious establishment like Mesa Grill.

While the second burger was delicious and the fries were incredibly tasty, I think it's safe to sum up my overall experience in the words of my sister, "Bobby Flay got chopped!"

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Triple D Time-out: The Mad Greek

Location: Baker, CA
Date: Aug. 7, 2011

My duo of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives books (as seen on Food Network) sits at the top of my packing list anytime I trek away from home. With them, I have discovered mouth-watering burgers at a hole-in-the-wall joint in San Diego, and unbelievable soft baked pretzels at a classic German stop in Phoenix. Most recently, the books guided me and my sister to a couple memorable eats during our mini road trip to Vegas.

What initiated as a short visit to our grandpa's place quickly turned into a very tasty culinary escapade. Our first stop occurred in Baker at the Mad Greek Cafe. The outside of the cafe was protected by an array of Athens-inspired statues, and the roof was capped with a lucid sign boasting, "Best Gyros USA." The diner's intriguing facade, bold claim and Guy Fieri's stamp of approval was more than enough to lure me through the doors.

I had one thing in mind on my way to the counter...Gyros! Gyros, a ground mixture of lamb and beef, is one of the easiest dishes to associate with Greek cuisine, but not something I consume very often, so I was excited to order. About ten bucks and ten minutes later, my food was in hand and my sister and I set off to find a table. I sat down, eagerly opened my box of goodies (not originally including the shake or ketchup) and, well, a picture is worth a thousand words, so here you go...

My sister was responsible for the rich strawberry shake and golden fries. I focused on the tender gyro wrapped in a soft, warm fresh pita complemented by a cool tzatziki sauce (not pictured, sorry). The first bite included every component of the meal. The pita was warm and nicely seasoned with a slightly crisp exterior, balanced perfectly with a soft, chewy center. The vegetables sandwiched between the pita and meat added additional texture. The lettuce was crisp, cool and accompanied by ripe and slightly juicy tomato slices, adding subtle moisture to each bite. Chunks of the meat possessed a slightly charred exterior that added a subtle crunch and texture change to the more tender pieces. The icing on the cake, however, was the tzatziki sauce. Traditionally a cucumber-yogurt sauce predominantly seasoned with garlic and dill, the tzatziki added a much needed creamy contrast to the rich, succulent meat. As a bonus, the small bits of fresh cucumber added another layer of texture, while the bright white yogurt and vibrant green traces of dill brought a nice pop of color to the party.

Ultimately, the meal was very satisfying because I was able to sample flavors from a foreign culture that I am not normally exposed to. As far as the "Best Gyros USA" claim...I am not really in a position to judge. I enjoyed the textures and all of the flavors, but my only other experience with gyros took place in a dining hall during my time at college. With that said, I am qualified to answer the following question: Does the Mad Greek create a better gyro than my college dining hall? Hell yeah!

Check out Guy visit the Mad Greek here!