Pepper Steak

2 03 2009

Every Valentine’s day the local butcher shop has beef tenderloin on sale.  And every time we get tenderloin we make a roast (this roast) because, well, it’s really good.  I tend to stick with winners when dealing with expensive cuts of meat.  As a result I’d never made a filet steak and now I had a perfect opportunity.  You see, I was planning a surprise dinner for Karen.  One thing I’ve learned is that if you’re planning a surprise dinner and they might come home late, a roast is a bad idea.  If you think that special someone is coming home at 6:30 and she comes home at 8:00 then you’re stuck with a really overdone roast.  But steaks cook quickly.  Steaks can be prepared while they watch, preferably after the kids go to bed.

Most of my culinary knowledge comes courtesy of Alton Brown.  And it is on his show that I was first introduced to Steak au Poivre.  (Here’s the recipe)  It’s got just a few ingredients.

Pepper, cream, and brandy works for me

Step one is to season the meat all over with salt.  Then crush the black peppercorns and press them into the meat, covering both sides.  Then cook the steaks.

No I didn't set off the smoke detector

When the steaks are done take them out and let them rest.  Then pour in some brandy and let the alcohol cook off.   Now I’ve read elsewhere (like Anthony Bourdain’s cookbook) that to make the sauce you need veal stock and demi-glace, but Alton just adds heavy cream and that’s good enough for me.  Let it reduce until it coats the back of a spoon.  You’re done.

It's almost done here, but not quite

Now I looked for more interesting things to serve it with than merely potatoes, but I haven’t seen many who mess with tradition.  Who am I to disagree?  I served mashed potatoes and a green salad that, I’ll admit, I asked Karen to make.  But I made 2/3 of dinner.

Nice dinner, yes? Only if the kids are asleep.

I did, however, overcook the steaks.  They were medium well to well, just a tiny bit of pink in the middle.  Too bad.  I’d rather they moo in pain when I cut into them.

My first fry

24 09 2008

A while ago I posted about eating chili cheese fries from the Hot Dog Shoppe back home.  Since I’m not back home any more I decided to try my luck making my own chili cheese fries.  I say luck because things don’t always go so well when I try out a new cooking technique.  I’d never deep fried anything at home, and the possibility of me burning down the house (again) added a little excitement to the kitchen.  And I needed the distraction since Big Ben was getting sacked 147 times by the Eagles on Sunday.

Step one of my quest involved tweaking my chili recipe.  I decided on something less chunky than my usual awesome recipe, and to use ground beef because it would allow the chili to flow down into the fries, melding the flavors and, wow, I’m making myself hungry again.  ANYWAY since I’ve been making my own Italian tomato sauce for a while now I figured it’s a simple thing to make a more midwestern tomato sauce.  Of course I did.  Here’s how it went:


1lb. ground sirloin
2 Chipotle chiles
1/2 red bell pepper
1 medium onion
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1Tbsp. Chili powder 
1 1/2 tsp. Cumin

FIrst thing I did was roast the tomatoes.  Don’t ask why, I just did.  Until the skins were charred and easy to remove.  Then I diced up the onions, bell pepper, and garlic and put them in the pot with a little canola oil to sweat.  Once the onions were translucent I added the tomatoes and Chipotle chiles.  I let that simmer for about a half hour and then pulverized it with a stick blender.  In a separate pot I browned the ground beef and then combined it with the tomato sauce and added the chili powder and cumin and let that simmer a while.  Done.


I shredded some orange cheddar and monterey jack cheeses and tossed them together in a bowl.  Done.


1 gallon canola oil

This was the fun part.  I went out and got a mandoline slicer just for this occasion.  Check out those blades.

Very cool.  It slices fries like this:

Impressive, huh?  Here’s where I originally put the plate to catch the cut fries.

Yeah, that first set of fries ended up on the table instead of the plate.

So I went to my source for all things culinary (That would be Alton Brown) for advice on deep frying.  I learned that peanut oil is most used for frying, but we’ve got a peanut allergy in the house so we’ll just play it safe and get something else.  Safflower oil (whatever that is) has the same high smoke point as peanut oil, but we can’t get that out here in the country, so I had to use canola oil, whose smoke point is 435°, which was a surprise to me.  

The very first thing you read about deep frying in Alton’s book is that it’s scary.  Hot fat contacts the water in your potatoes and causes bubbles, and if that overflows your pot and you’ve got a gas range your house burns down.  Because of this I kept my fire extinguisher handy and I didn’t take any pictures during the frying process.  Two reasons: I didn’t want to be distracted, and I also didn’t want any evidence for my homeowner’s insurance to use against me.  Alton says to use a two step frying method.  He suggests 2-3 minutes at 300° then take out the fries and let them cool to room temperature, then back in the oil at 350° for another few minutes until they brown.  That way they’re flaky on the inside and crispy on the outside.  Here’s the problem, though.  When I did this the oil went back down all the way to 215° when I put the fries in the first time.  And the second time the oil went down to 275° or so.  As a result they were in there for 10 minutes or so the second time while the oil got back up to temperature.  So I’m thinking if I ever do this again I’ll ignore that first frying step.  The potatoes will steam on the inside while the oil is heating back up.

And then, right after I put the second batch of fries in and the bubbles reached all the way to the tippy top of the pot, when my horror was at its zenith, my sister called.  Karen told her politely that I’d call her back, I was too busy screaming.  She didn’t hear me shrieking in terror, but trust me, I did.  But alas, the oil did not boil over and the house did not burn down.  I didn’t need my trusty fire extinguisher.  And the fries were darn good.

My real culinary roots

30 06 2008

Alton Brown has a show on the Food Network called Feasting on Asphalt, in which he travels the country, avoiding interstate highways, and samples local road food. So far he’s traveled Route 66 and the Mississippi River in seasons 1 and 2. Apparently he’s going to the Caribbean for season 3 so I hope to see roti and doubles when it airs in September. But should Alton ever in the future travel the Ohio River I have a suggestion for the perfect stop on his trip.

Just like on the show

This is a really bad map I pulled from yahoo. If you start at Pittsburgh you can see the Ohio river snaking its way northwest. At the point where the Ohio River stops going north and decides to head south it is met by a tributary, the Beaver River. Travel up this waterway several miles to New Brighton and you will come to the birthplace of a western Pennsylvania icon.

The Brighton Hot Dog Shoppe is a cultural phenomenon, centered mostly in Beaver County. Yes, I said “centered mostly.” They have 11 locations.

I know what you’re thinking. Anyone can do hot dogs, what’s so special? Come inside and you will see. Enter in the middle of the lunch rush and you will pick your way through the teeming mass of people to the order counter. You don’t have a lot of choices, to be honest, and you will most likely order what will turn out to be an unremarkable hot dog. But on the side, in its own little plastic basket (or Styrofoam container if your oder is to go) waits the pinnacle in road food eatery:

Chili cheese fries.

This is what I miss most about home. Made daily on location, these skin-on french fries are a thing of beauty. Back when I was a kid my hometown didn’t have a McDonald’s until I was 12 years old. When they finally showed up they set up shop right next door to the Hot Dog Shoppe. This was very convenient for us, because we used to hit the McDonald’s drive thru for the burgers and then swing next door for the fries.  Ask anyone in town, we’ve all done it.

But it’s not just the dogs and fries that made this establishment the local legend that it is. Why is it that everywhere you turn you’re talking to someone who just ate there last week? One word: Marketing. No, not marketing. Branding. When you leave the Hot Dog Shoppe you take a piece of it with you.

Every now and then they change designs, but the basic theme remains the same. Hot dogs with arms and legs doing all sorts of things.  There’s usually a seasonal theme, and here they are at a picnic cooking, well, hot dogs. Reminiscent of Eskimo Joe’s out in Oklahoma, the Hot Dog Shoppe has its own merchandise. Except here they take it a step further. To ensure that you’ll remember where you ate that last meal, every drink is served in a to-go cup just like this one. And I’m not stretching the truth too much when I tell you there’s at least one of these in almost every pantry in the county.

So there you have it. The first rule of being a successful restaurateur. Good fries plus really weird cups equals a gold mine.

Alton, are you listening?

Yes, I still cook sometimes

12 05 2008

It’s been a while since I posted about food. This was Mother’s Day weekend, so that means we make some special things for Mommy that we hope know she’ll like. And it doesn’t count unless I feed her something I’ve never made before. If you’re going to make something awful, why not do it on Mom’s special day? But the boys helped me this time, so she had to say she liked it, even if she didn’t.

For months I’ve been dying to try what Alton Brown calls the world’s best banana ice cream. Since we just got an ice cream attachment for the stand mixer, I figured why not. So early Saturday morning I had Isaac go downstairs with me to help me freeze the bananas. After reading the reviews of the recipe I knew to peel them first. After they were frozen and thawed I assembled the ingredients and had Isaac and Jonathan put them in the food processor. After that it was just chill and run the ice cream maker.

That was pretty easy, but then I thought banana – chocolate swirl ice cream would be even better. I saw in one of Emeril’s cookbooks that he uses 6 ounces of chocolate and 2 tablespoons of oil to make vanilla – chocolate swirl ice cream, so that’s exactly what I do. It didn’t swirl. The ice cream froze the chocolate into rock hard ribbons dispersed throughout the dessert. Yummy, huh?

But then I thought “That was too easy, Karen will never let me get away with just that.” So I made this strawberry – almond cream tart to go with the ice cream. Desserts are a lot of fun to make. For this I also read the reviews so I knew to omit half the sugar from the strawberry topping and to add a little extra butter to the crust. It came out really well, thanks to our Carolina strawberries that were very sweet. We’ll have them locally in another month or so I think.

So the desserts went over well, and the everyone enjoyed them. Except for Isaac, who only ate the ice cream. The boys were very proud that they got to help make it. The biggest hit of the day, though, was a beverage made from cran-raspberry juice and soda water. Karen raved about it. Of course she did, it took no effort.

What if this was a sports car blog?

3 01 2008

If this year’s Christmas takings were indicative of what kind of Christmas gifts I can expect in the future then I’m never stopping this blog.

So what did I open on Christmas morning? Well, Karen got me Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, which is good reading in case you’ve been thinking about opening your own restaurant.

My sister got us some custom printed aprons, and these came with opening instructions. I was to open my present first,

Order yours today!

Then Karen was to open hers.

Too shay

I’m looking to market these in local Wal-Mart stores.  I’ll get them on the shelves, I know the overnight stockers.

My sister also sent a “Giant Art Jar” for Jonathan.  When this arrived I took a quick glance at the packing list and thought for sure I’d seen “Giant ANT Jar.”   I was on my way to Starbucks to get her kids some chocolate espresso beans when I realized my mistake.

A dear friend who visits this blog once a quarter got us a set of Alton Brown’s plungers, perfect for measuring and doling out those sticky ingredients.

Look!  It’s Alton!

Thanks, Michelle. Your copy of Why Mommy is a Democrat is on the way.

So how cool was that? Best Christmas Ever.  These presents give me the idea that people actually read this blog. Pretty soon I’ll get an ego like Stephen Colbert. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention what Aliyah gave me.

Boycott the doughboy

4 11 2007

biscuit, butter & honey goodness

The biggest shock I received while working in the dairy section at Wal-Mart was just how little cooking we do as Americans. From TV dinners to frozen pizza, so much of what we eat is prepared for us. And no item brought that home to me as much as those Pillsbury biscuits.

I can understand why the crescent rolls are big sellers. I’ve looked up how to make them. They’re time consuming and difficult to prepare. But biscuits are supposed to be a staple of southern cooking, aren’t they? Don’t they come together so fast that your oven may not even have time to preheat? Well those things flew off the shelf. There’s even a local restaurant owner that stops by Wal-Mart and buys them out twice a week. Appalled, I decided to make some myself thinking that if I, a northeastern boy, can make biscuits, then anyone can.

And wouldn’t you know it, Alton made biscuits on Friday’s Good Eats rerun. So I got to see a master biscuit maker in action: Alton’s grandmother. And on Alton’s online recipe for biscuits she even comments that the recipe on the back of the bag of White Lily flour is hard to beat. I live in rural Pennsylvania so I can’t get White Lily flour. So I got this:

Biscuit flour in PA

Gold Medal has their own recipe for biscuits on the back of their bag. Nicole from Pinch my Salt actually posted the recipe on the back of White Lily’s bag. She also did her homework and listed the protein content for all types of flours. That way I knew I wasn’t too far off with this flour. Way cool. (Go vote for her as the best food blog.) So should I use Alton’s recipe, White Lily’s or Gold Medal’s? Well since I’ve got Gold Medal flour I used their recipe.

See, it says “better for biscuits.”  That’s why it costs so much.

Except I didn’t. I watched Good Eats and Alton said to replace some of the shortening with butter and it will taste better. I am fearless in the face of substitutions!

Looking around at the different recipes out there I must say that the one on the back of Gold Medal self-rising flour has twice the fat as all the others. I mean, EIGHT tablespoons of shortening? Really? I tried to use less, but it wouldn’t crumble the way the bag said it would. Oh, and another thing. Grocery stores here in Podunk don’t have all this low fat or fat free buttermilk. No, these biscuits were made with WHOLE buttermilk. Schedule my bypass for next Tuesday please.  (UPDATE: Karen tells me that the local Wal-Mart sells low fat buttermilk, but I really haven’t been in there since I picked up my last paycheck.)

I apparently used a very large biscuit cutter because I only got eight biscuits out. That’s what, one tablespoon of fat per hockey puck, right? They may not have been much to look at,

ugly and ready for the oven

but they browned up kind of nice. And with all that shortening in there my biscuits definitely had flaky layers. They didn’t all rise the same, though, because I made them in my 12 year old toaster oven.

golden brown delicious and full of fat

Okay, so here’s the point. These weren’t a home run, but they were a hit. Even the kids ate them. If a self-proclaimed wannabe in the kitchen can do this well on his first try then anyone can do this. These turned out good and I’ll definitely do it again. Next time I’ll try a recipe with less fat.

See you at the gym.

Read the rest of this entry »

Sponsored by the letters A and B and the number 59

7 08 2007

dulce de leche is Spanish for happy

Inspiration can come from everywhere. For cooking, mine usually comes from the first two letters of the alphabet, which, when placed in, well, alphabetical order, are really the initials for Alton Brown (cue Good Eats theme music). He dedicated a show to milk, and in it he showed how to make your own cottage cheese. Ew.

But before that he showcased two desserts that I swore I would attempt. He made a tres leches cake and dulce de leche. It’s August, it’s ungodly hot, and there was an awesome ice cream topping staring me in the face. I had to make it. Now.

I had several reasons for being confident in this recipe. First, it only had four ingredients. Second, the directions included mixing everything in the pot and letting it simmer for three hours. “Sounds like soup,” I thought. I make good soup.

Step one was to pour the milk into the pot. Isaac did that:

Cooking is easier when the kids do the work

Step two was put in a cup and a half of sugar into the pot. Isaac did that too. At this point he said “I’m bored,” and left the kitchen. “Your patience will be rewarded” echoed in my head. He was gone when time came to add the baking soda so I did, and I added the vanilla bean as well.

Karen told me a while ago that “yummy” or “yum” is not masculine enough and shouldn’t be used in my blog any more. But Alton uses words like “goodness” and “happiness” to describe food. So let me just say that dulce de leche is Spanish for happy.  Happy eating, that is, not cleaning.  This was very hard to clean up afterwards.

The Food Network is channel 59 on my cable box.

This is why I get the food network

25 06 2007

Good Eats is by far the best food show ever. If my kids watch your cooking show and say “Play that again, Daddy” you know it’s great. And he always uses the most important phrase in any cooking show: “You’ll know it’s done when…

I made cinnamon rolls this week. I’d made them before (and by “I” I mean Aliyah made them, but it was my idea) and they’d turned out great. This time I figured I’d document the process for posterity.

Alton showed me how to make them but some of these things I don’t have access to. Like a stand mixer.  Wanna know a good reason to get a stand mixer? I couldn’t quite get the butter mixed in all the way at the beginning with a whisk. Not soft enough I guess. See?

it was the best i could do

So I made Alton’s recipe with some changes. Here is my whisk attachment:

my whisk attachment

Here is my dough hook:

my dough hook

Have I told you that I hate my oven? Well, not for long. The oven switched off again. I swear the previous owners left just before everything in this house broke.  So twice now a $30 Wal-Mart toaster oven bought twelve years ago has come to the aid of a $2000 Jenn-Air downdraft convection oven.

It’s not just that the range is broken, what about my cinnamon rolls? They were half cooked after an hour. See what happened to my nice quiet Monday morning breakfast to finish off Karen’s vacation week? We went from this:

peaceful breakfast

to this:

rolls in the toaster oven, cooked 4 at a time

It’s still a great recipe, and if I can do it on the first try you know it’s good. I’ll have to do this again once our new oven is delivered.

Serious Yum

20 04 2007

Have I said in the past that I’m a food network junkie? There are certain shows that I check almost every day to see what’s on and if it’s worth recording. Most Bobby Flay shows are good, and anything Alton Brown is great. I also like Mario, but he doesn’t do cheesesteaks.

I saw cheesesteaks on Good Eats and also on Throwdown, so I know what I’m doing. Heck, on Throwdown they had a master cheesesteak artist from Philly show us all how to make them. So now I’m an expert. Karen kept asking “Are you sure that’s how you do it?” and I kept saying “Tony Luke did it that way, so I’m doing it that way.” Name dropping gives me an air of credibility. Truth be told, I’m not even sure what kind of steak he used. But Bobby’s recipe was online, so I went with his, and Karen got a 1-pound sirloin from the butcher. She sliced it as thin as she could, which was pretty darn thin. I was skeptical because from what I’ve seen the meat is supposed to be deli thin, but it turned out to be very tasty.

Step 1 of this procedure is as follows: Open a can of Spaghetti-O’s for the kids. Seriously, this food is for me. Karen cut up the steak, so I set to work on everything else.

Ever see an instruction in a recipe and think “I’ve heard that word before, but how do I do it?” I like cookbooks that don’t assume any previous cooking knowledge and have good illustrations. I found one (Alton Brown of course) so now I can julienne cut an onion. Aren’t I special? I know it’s not authentic, but in our house onions just don’t happen without peppers and mushrooms. Karen was disappointed I didn’t throw in some garlic too. Those are creminis and shitakes in the picture.


I grated some provolone and it didn’t melt like I’d hoped. It was good, but it needed more than just residual heat to melt I suppose. Perhaps cheddar or american next time.

Makes me hungry right now

You know you want some. Do I even need to say it was yummy? Perhaps some hot peppers next time as well. Karen says jalepenos and serranos aren’t hot, but she does appreciate the effort.

Presents for Mark

15 03 2007

I’m hard to shop for.  I admit it.  Karen has a heck of a time finding birthday and Christmas presents for me.  And to make matters worse, I’m always home, so she can’t buy something online and keep it a secret.  So last week, when she found something online that was a good idea, she bought it so she could keep it until my birthday, or father’s day or whatever.  But then she made a mistake.

She told me it was coming.

Not exactly, she just said “Don’t open that box when it arrives.”  So naturally I assumed there was something for me in it.  Now I’m happy, and I spend all afternoon staring at the box, imagining what’s inside.  Not really, but when she finally came home from work she told me that it was for my birthday.  In six months.  Like I’m gonna let that go by.  Long story short, she looked on despondently while I ripped the box open, revealing a present that she was excited to give me – when the time came. 

It was a cookbook.

Well, not really, more like a theory of cooking book.  Alton Brown’s I’m Just Here for the Food.  It’s got lots of food science knowledge that I’ve been lacking.  Very cool.  Except, two things strike me when I think about this as a gift:

  • I no longer have an excuse to ruin dinner, and
  • Karen doesn’t like my cooking

Actually I think it’s a very nice gift and I’m very happy with it; I’m just sorry that Karen is now going to have to think of something else when the time comes, or just count this as my present when father’s day arrives.