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Monday, February 6, 2017

How We Do Super Bowl Sunday - Buffalo Fried Chicken, Home Organization & Lady Gaga

I’ve previously expressed my disinterest in the Super Bowl, but none-the-less it managed to permeate my weekend. We were generously invited to watch the game with some friends which had been our intention to do, football with gays is palatable enough, but we fell far behind our major Sunday To-Do list (thank you Saturday night decision making skills…) and decided not to leave the house. 

After spending the better part of Saturday reorganizing the office, and most of Sunday hunched over reinventing the basement system, by the time dinner time (and kick-off apparently) rolled around I was in quite the mood. You see, in a perfect world Mark is the organizer and I am the decorator, separate and sequential roles. Mark, however, is under the impression that organizing is some how a collaborative effort. I don’t get it, I always end up staring at him blankly while he dives down rabbit holes of rearranging, categorizing and labeling. I’ll occasionally get to vote yes or no on a throwaway question, or he’ll ask me to step in for heavy lifting, but other than that, it’s painfully dull and decidedly non-collaborative. His prized Christmas gift this year, a label maker, made the process even more excruciating in that it meant constant silent delays in progress as he typed, formatted and printed the dozens of tiny labels that now cover every box, bin, drawer and shelf in our home. We have a shelf dedicated to and labeled for “Small-Med Plastic Storage Containers” …Who has signage for storage for storage?!?! Anyway…

I hit a breaking point at about hour 3 and made a break for the kitchen. I don’t know if it was the proliferation of Super Bowl, Football and Gaga talk on social media or my frayed nerves, but I was craving fried food like nobody’s business.

I decided to use the guise of “Super Bowl Sunday Cooking” as an excuse for making Buffalo Fried Chicken. And yes, I do create internal narratives about all my meals, normally to justify indulgent ingredients but sometimes just because I’m crazy…What? you don't? I can’t be the only who does this…anyone?

I digress...Naturally, I wanted to take buffalo chicken to the next level so I quickly decided a roasted Brussels Sprouts and blue cheese hash would be the perfect traditionally thematic yet Instagram appropriate fancy base for my dish. I made my own Buffalo sauce (butter, more butter, hot sauce and butter) and made a quick gluten free batter using cornstarch, maseca, and unsweetened coconut milk. I cut chicken thighs into nugget sized portions and dredged them adding some salt, garlic powder, pepper, and paprika for color and flavor. Prep and frying were quick and easy and the Sprouts roasted simultaneously, overall, this was a surprisingly simple way to Super Bowl comfort food success.

We finished eating just in time for the Gaga Half time show. After a tumultuous 2016 we ended our cable relationship with Comcast (my face may be on their watch list) so I had tried to think ahead and figure out a way to stream the event live. But in the moment of truth, every which way I tried didn’t work. I was panicking. I texted my friend in desperation to see if her techie partner would have any solutions to save my night. She instantly FaceTimed me and we watched the show together in the darkness gasping and yasssing as Gaga recreated the soundtrack to my coming out story through each stop in her musical catalog…Fitting end to a trying (and frying) Sunday...

Buffalo Chicken Nuggets with Buttermilk Brussels Sprouts Hash

  • 1.5 lbs Brussels Sprouts - Stemmed and sliced thin (almost like cole slaw)
  • 6 oz Buttermilk Blue Cheese (or whatever type you prefer) - crumbled
  • 1.5 lbs Boneless-Skinless Chicken Thighs - cut into "nugget" sized pieces
  • 1 tablespoon evoo
  • 1/3 cup Corn Starch
  • 1 cup Maseca
  • 1 cup Unsweeted Coconut Milk
  • 6 tablespoons Salted Butter
  • 1/4 cup Your Favorite Hot Sauce + more to taste
  • 1 tablespoon Worchesterchire Sauce
  • 1 tablespoon White Vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon Black Pepper
  • 1 teaspoon Garlic Powder
  • 1 teaspoon Fine Salt
  • 1 teaspoon Paprika
  • 2 cups vegetable oil (for frying)

Preheat oven to 400F. Toss sprouts in evoo and spread in large glass roasting dish. Cover with blue cheese crumbles. Roast for 20 mins, tossing halfway through, they should be bright green when you remove from the oven. While sprouts roast. Combine cornstarch, maseca, coconut milk, salt, pepper, garlic powder, and paprika in a medium mixing bowl. Add water as needed to achieve a runny but smooth batter texture (like you're making pancakes). Dredge the chicken in the batter and ensure even coverage. Heat the frying oil to in a high sided pot (to avoid splatter). Once hot, fry the chicken in batches, carefully turning the nuggets throughout for about 7 minutes or until golden. To make the sauce, heat a stick of salted butter in a small sauce pan. Once melted add hot sauce, vinegar, and Worcestershire sauce and stir until thoroughly combined. Put in a large mixing bowl and when nuggets are fried, toss them in the bowl until evenly coated. Serve immediately atop sprouts hash and top off with a few blue cheese crumbles.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Chili Without Borders - And Super Bowl Fever

Super Bowl Sunday is right around the corner and that has me in the mood for Chili!

I’m totally kidding, I don’t watch sportsball. I’ll be over here checking twitter for reactions to Gaga and googling the best ads at work on Monday…

That being said, it IS chili season. The depths of winter is the best (and really the only appropriate) time for this cold weather comfort food. The first months of the year bring the depressing gray skies and camouflaging layers of clothing that both make chili so appealing and wardrobe friendly.

According to (yes, that's a thing and it's coming up on February 23rd) the origins of chili are shrouded in myth and mystery. There are theories that a Spanish nun, alive in the 1600’s, had a transatlantic spiritual experience with Native Americans, after which she recorded a recipe for a venison based version of the dish. Mexico is often credited with its invention, but any Mexican will adamantly deny any association with “chiles con carne” (peppers with meat). There is some consensus, however, that the first written and recorded recipe came from J.C. Clopper , a historian of sorts, hailing from the Houston area, who, while never using the word ‘chili’ describes a traditional peasant dish with stewed meat and peppers in an article describing life in 19th century San Antonio, Texas. In the 1880’s “chili queens” were selling bowls of meat and vegetable hash in market stalls in the city, and by 1898 the name “San Antonio Chili Stand” was featured at the Chicago World’s Fair. The humble dish is often credited for keeping starvation at bay throughout the Great Depression due to the inexpensive yet nourishing  nature of the ingredients, but by the 1960’s it had been elevated to executive levels. President Lyndon B Johnson was famously a chili lover, so much so his wife, First Lady Ladybird Johnson was said to have had cards bearing his favorite ‘Pedernales Chili’ recipe mailed to thousands from the White House.

Chili is arguably as American as apple pie, no matter where it came from. It’s an amalgamation of ingredients, that likely arose out of necessity  for economy with available food, flavored by inputs from varied cultural traditions and changing times, and is now beloved nationwide. Despite its ubiquity and national proliferation, there are decidedly diverse regional schools of thought on the proper ingredients for chili. Divisions so stark and opinions so strong (beans vs no beans for example) they have sparked many a heated dinner table argument on the “rules” of chili from place to place.  But really I can’t be bothered with the debate…

Let’s be honest people, you throw a bunch of different things in a pot, mix it together, heat it up, and let it simmer until all the flavors combine to complement and elevate each other. It’s the way the ingredients balance each  other and work together that makes it so good….It doesn’t take a genius to see the obvious “American Melting pot” metaphor, but these days, it’s clear some people just don’t get it… When we respect, honor, and elevate each other, we improve ourselves and the condition of everyone. That’s why for my latest chili-potluck at work I decided to put an even more inclusive, global spin on my submission and created the recipe for “Chili Without Borders”. I used garbanzo beans from the traditions of the middle east, curry squash from south asia, roasted chiles from latin America (sorry Mexico, I had to), and spice combinations drawing inspiration cuisine from all across the globe, achieving, in the end a depth and complexity of flavor that even I didn’t know was possible for humble chili.

I’m aware that chili as protest piece and crock pot as soap box is eye roll worthy to some, but it’s my simple way to demonstrate that diversity truly does make things better (and more delicious).

Chili Without Borders

  • 1 medium butternut squash – peeled, cleaned  and cut into 1.5” cubes
  • 3lbs ground beef
  • 1 can pinto beans – drained
  • 1 can garbanzo beans – drained
  • 1 can black beans - drained
  • 1 large yellow onion – chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic – minced
  • 2 cans tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup roasted poblano chili peppers - diced
  • 2 tablespoons Wood Smoked Paprika + more to taste
    • This is a critical piece, you must have a nice smoky paprika for depth
  • 2 tablespoons garlic powder
  • 2 tablespoons + 1 tablespoon evoo
  • 2 tablespoons curry powder (I like a sweet and spicy variety)
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon ground coriander
  • 1 tablespoon ground mustard or Chinese mustard (prepared)
  • 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper + more to heat preference
  • 2 tablespoons + 1 tablespoon evoo
  • Salt, pepper and red chili flakes to taste
  • 4 oz sharp cheddar cheese (optional) – grated


****This recipe is meant to be malleable and adapted to your taste or current mood and serves 8-10  depending on your appetite and portion control capabilities****

Preheat oven to 450 ° F. Line a baking tray with foil. Toss cubed squash with garlic powder, curry  and evoo in a large mixing bowl until well coated. Spread evenly on foil. Bake for 30-35 minutes, check with a fork around 20 to make sure they are not getting too mushy, but brown/crispy parts are encouraged (hence the high temp).

While squash roasts, heat evoo in a medium sauté pan over medium heat. Add onions and garlic and cook until the onions are translucent. Add ground beef and break into small pieces with a utensil. Brown the meat, but watch the heat to ensure it does not burn. Once there is no more pink visible, you can take a moment to drain the excess fat depending on the fat ratio of the ground beef you used. Turn the heat to low, and add your tomato paste, all the spices, and the beans. Mix well and cook, on very low heat, until squash is done roasting. Add roasted squash and incorporate all ingredients, taste at this point. Add additional salt, pepper or spices to your preferred savory or spice level. At this point you can put on a very low burner (like a simmer option) or put in a crock pot on low and allow to cook and let th flavors marry for at least an hour. Serve hot with the grated cheese on top, and preferably some sour cream and corn bread.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

México Moment - Elote Pizza

I, like many of my family and friends, have been having a moment since, well, November 8th of last year. Ever since January 20th, as New Yorker cartoonist David Sipress recently (and aptly) put it, I’ve struggled with the fact that “My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane.” When the executive order including provisions to “Build the Wall” was signed on January 25th, I was thrown into a decidedly México Moment. Like so many other acts and declarations since, then, this one really stung.

Having lived for the better part of two years in the Pearl of the West, Guadalajara, in the state of Jalisco, México, I returned  home to the United States, thoroughly enamored with México and Mexican culture. As I struggled with the implications of the anti-Mexican rhetoric splashed across all media, I found solace in my nostalgia for the sights, sounds, tastes and people of my second home south of the border. A dinner party the night after the executive order felt like the apt venue to show solidarity in some small way and honor beloved México in the food I prepared. After all, food is love, and yo amo México.

‘Elote’, a word that has its roots in México’s indigenous past, coming from Nahuatl, the storied language of the Aztecs and most of pre-Colombian México, is a ubiquitous preparation of corn on the cob  that can be found in the streets, prepared in restaurants and served in the home throughout the year (a blessing of a nearly seasonless climate) across nearly all of México’s 31 states. Usually served on a stick, Elote is a corn cob, grilled over coals until blistered and then dressed with hot chile paste, salt, cheese (usually queso fresco or cotija), mayonnaise or crema (sour cream), and finished with lime (Side Note: ‘Esquites’ is the same ingredients mixed with the corn shaved off the cob and served in a cup or a bowl, equally as delicious). Elote is distinctly Mexican, colorful and a vibrant mix of sweet, smoky, savory, spicy and sour flavors, in my opinion, one of the best traditional street foods in the world. If you ever find yourself in México, seeking a snack in the heat of the midday sun, look around for the nearest Elote cart, they’re never too far.

For our meal I decided to turn this dish into a main course. I would do this by incorporating the ingredients into a pizza and in doing so, diverge ever so slightly from the traditional preparation. Now I would normally have made own quick pizza dough, but work, followed by therapy, followed by traffic (counter productive I know…) meant I wouldn’t have time to let it rise before our guests arrive, so I cheated and bought my favorite brand, Brooklyn Pizza Dough. It’s sold frozen, but I let it defrost at room temp while I unloaded my crazy on my therapist for an hour, and it was ready to go by the time I got home.

Corn can be hard to come by in January in the mid-Atlantic, good corn that is, but thanks to our southern neighbors I was able to find some in my local grocery store, purchased, thankfully still free of a 20% import tax (cough cough). Knowing my time constraints the night-of, I broiled the corn cobs until blistered the night before we were to host dinner, shaved them and chilled them in the fridge. I picked up some queso fresco, which I knew would crumble very well, and queso Oaxaca from my favorite Mexican grocer on Eastern Avenue, which, while not traditional to Elote, would add the critical melt factor to the pizza topping. One of the critical aspects to good Elote is mayonnaise or crema (sour cream of sorts), which add that enigmatic, umami tang and pulls the whole dish together. Initially, either of these on pizza sound downright revolting (though I have been seen dipping a slice in mayo very late night), so how to achieve that je ne sais quois creamy note so crucial to the Elote preparation, was a momentary conundrum. My workaround was to incorporate mayo into the chili paste. Normally, Elote is dusted with dried chili mix or rubbed with an oily, almost ground, paste which imparts the fiery color and bite to the sweet yellow corn kernels. I combined sea salt, dried morita and chilacate chiles, red pepper flake, and paprika (for color) with mayonnaise and took my immersion blender to it. What resulted was almost paste, kind of sauce, sort of aioli, with the most brilliant blood red color I could have asked for, success!

I brushed the dough with some roasted garlic olive oil to give a nice base flavor. Then spread the corn and evenly dusted with grated, crumbly queso fresco. I cross hatched long pieces of string-cheese like queso Oaxaca for maximum ooze effect then drizzled the umami-chili concoction generously overtop. When I pulled it from the oven, a quick squeeze of lime (not too much or it would have been soggy) and Elote Pizza was born.

Dinner conversation that night was not entirely bereft of the usual dinner party frivolity, but it was marked by political discourse and the associated topics and emotions, ranging from despair and despondence to anger and agitation to action. Dinner did its part as a delicious and reverential nod to a time honored Mexican culinary tradition and a celebration of a cuisine and culture I hold close to my heart. Elote Pizza as solidarity comfort food.

Elote Pizza

  • 1 ball Brooklyn Pizza Dough – rolled to desired size and thickness and dusted with corn meal
  • ¼ cup garlic infused olive oil
  • 4 ears sweet corn
  • ¼ cup mayonnaise
  • 1 lime
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 5 dried morita peppers
  • 2 dried chilacate peppers
  • 1 teaspoon paprika (get a bright red variety)
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flake
  • ½ pound queso fresco – grated
  • 1 medium ball queso Oaxaca – pulled into long strings


First, blister the corn. This can be done by rubbing the cobs in olive oil then grilling, broiling, or using a brûlée torn until the kernels begin to blacken and pop. Once, blistered, shave off the cob and set in a small bowl (can be done a day ahead and kept refrigerated).
Preheat oven to 400F. Using a blender or a cup with an immersion blender, puree the dried peppers, paprika, salt and mayonnaise into a thick paste-like aioli, it should be pourable but not runny or liquid. Brush dough with garlic olive oil. Spread corn evenly across the top. Repeat with queso fresco. Place strings of queso Oaxaca in a cross hatch pattern as if it were a pie crust. Drizzle chili paste generously across the top. Bake for 10-20 minutes depending on crisp factor but at least until the cheese is melted and the crust golden. Immediately upon removal from the oven, drizzle with the juice of half of a lime (being careful to avoid creating any soggy parts). Serve immediately.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Pasta Therapy - Eating my feelings and Cacio e Pepe

In the aftermath of last week’s election result and the reactions to it, I have been struggling with how to approach my blog. I wasn’t sure if it was OK to write about food (as I write this I am still not sure). Could I even have the clarity of thought to write anything coherent (much less appetizing)? I was, and still am, overwhelmed.

As a son to a mother, brother to a sister, a survivor or sexual assault and a gay man, the result was a disappointing and troubling blow. To many others though, the outcome and the reactions from both sides of the ideological spectrum, were more even more traumatic than I can ever conceive.  Centuries and layers upon layers of oppression were thrust into the headlines and laid bare for raw, often careless, public discourse and dissection. Deep wounds to identity were ripped open anew, groups that had been making incremental progress were knocked back into the battle trenches, and for many, their future in this country is now in peril. I am heartbroken.

I will continue to process, to mourn, grieve, seethe, plan and to listen. This is only the beginning and my response, the action I take, will be a careful and deliberate process.

We all need to think, but we also need to eat, and I need to cook, which is why I decided to write.

Food is nourishment at its most base and a carnal pleasure at its heights. Cooking is meditative and transcendent. It is an escape from the weight of reality, an opportunity for creative expression and emotional release. It is a way to explore and connect with cultures that are not one’s own and share and celebrate in our own. Food offers a way to commune with family, friends, neighbors, and relate to others in an authentic and essential way.

Preparing and sharing a meal is how I give and receive that is what I will write about...

Mark and I spent the weekend following the election in New York City, an attempt at some semblance of return to normalcy. It was kind of a blur. We hung out with friends, shopped, spent time with his family and watched a beautiful dance production in which his sister performed (Rules of the Game). The entire time there was a palpable weight to the mood in the city. People were glued to their Iphones rapt with the flood of articles and images on social media. They either sought out human contact, smiles and eye contact lingering just a little longer than usual or they anxiously avoided interaction all together, downcast eyes and walking with a quicker than normal clip (even for New Yorkers). We passed by and stood with the protests several times. I was struck by the sheer numbers, and immediately my thoughts and emotions were kicked back into overdrive. After the exhausting weekend and 3-hour drive back to our beloved Baltimore, I was drained and out of F’s to give when it came to dinner. Add to it the Sunday scaries and dread of work looming on Monday, I would have eaten anything salty, fatty and starchy and felt good about it. I was on the verge of ordering takeout when I realized I could achieve my salty, fatty, starchy comfort food goals by my very own hand. I would be my own therapist through the preparation and then eat my feelings with Mark by my side.

When I was studying abroad in Rome I became addicted to a very simple, yet decadent and satisfying dish called Cacio e Pepe. Cacio e Pepe is quintessentially Roman and has been around for centuries. I would argue it was the original Mac & Cheese in its ubiquitous comfort food status. Anthony Bourdain so reveres this dish that he’s touted it as the “greatest thing in the history of the world.” I tend to agree with him on most things; this is no exception.

“Cacio” is a general term for cheese throughout Italian culinary tradition, but is also the name of a semi-soft sheep’s milk cheese from the Roman countryside, and “Pepe” means, you guessed, it Pepper. “Cheese and Pepper” is the perfect combination of pasta, sharp and salty Italian cheeses, and butter, intensified by a healthy dose of fresh ground pepper. It’s not ooey-gooey like an alfredo, but more like a carbonara, a thick and even coating of cheese sauce envelopes the pasta and delivers all the flavor. Traditionally, Cacio e Pepe is prepared with a long, thin spaghetti, but one can use anything like egg tagiolini, bucatini, or vermicelli. Over the weekend, I dragged Mark to Eataly, one of my favorite places to get culinary inspiration. Due to the ridiculous weekend crowds that plague that place, I only had a few minutes before he was overwhelmed and insisting we leave, but it was just enough time to snag some Cacio di Roma from the cheese case, and pick up a pound of extra-wide fettucine made with farro, the newest addition to the ancient grain trend (see what I did there?). Little did I know at the time but I had the makings of a delicious dinner in hand. The fettucine would be ideal for Cacio e Pepe, the ample surface area for sauce coverage and flavor delivery. The chestnut color of the pasta would not only look beautiful on the plate but it is also indicative of the caramelly and nutty tones that the farro brings to the flavor of the pasta. The sweet notes would play perfectly with the savory Cacio and requisite Pecorino Romano to come.

The preparation of Cacio e Pepe is very straightforward, again, perfect for my post-election-Sunday mood. I brought some salted water to a boil. While the water warmed, I ground 2 tablespoons of black peppercorns in my KRUPS spice grinder. I spread the ground pepper in the bottom of a large sauce pan and turned on the heat as I dropped the pasta in the water. Heating the dry peppers is called toasting and allows the oils to release and the fragrance and flavor to intensify. Another approach would be to “bloom” the ground spices by doing the same process but “wet”, with the addition of oil or butter. Blooming is a great way to bring out additional flavor while mitigating some of the risk of scorching your spices, which is easy to do when toasting. Either way, blooming or toasting, it is worth the extra effort for the flavor the process imparts, just don’t forget about your spices on the heat.

I cooked the pasta for about 5 minutes then drained, reserving some of the cooking liquid. I added butter to my toasting pepper and turned up the heat, allowing the butter to melt into a paste. Then I added the reserved cooking liquid and brought it to a simmer. I stirred in the grated Cacio de Roma I bought in NY and some of my favorite Pecorino Romano from Whole Foods (it’s sinfully salty and addictive), then immediately added my cooked pasta. I turned the heat down and continuously tossed the pasta until it was evenly coated, the starches in the water helping bind the cheese to the bands of fettuccine. I plated on my bright white dinner plates for the maximum color contrast and it was prettier than I imagined, the deep brown, almost chocolately tones of the pasta looked luxurious and downright radiant following their butter and cheese bath.

Mark and I savored our dinner together. While we ate I explained the history behind the dish, how it is a symbol of american traditions born of immigrant pasts, affirming we are stronger (and more delicious) together. I regaled him with memories of my precious time in Rome and made plans for our trip next fall when I hope to share my most cherished places and things. We reflected on the pleasures of the weekend and the challenges and tragedies of the week, and ate until we could no longer move. I am no closer to any resolution on the gut wrenching events unfolding, nor do I expect to be, but I am grateful for Cacio e Pepe, for an evening shared with the man I love, friends and family with whom to celebrate and commiserate, and the wonders of pasta therapy.

Cacio e Pepe as Therapy  

  •          1lb Fresh farro fettuccine (or equivalent portion egg tagliolini, spaghetti, bucatini or similar)
  •          2/3 Cup grated pecorino romano
  •          1/3 Cup Cacio de Roma or parmigiano reggiano
  •          1 + 2 tablespoons salted butter
  •          2 tablespoons fresh ground black peppercorns


Bring salted water to a boil in a large pasta pot. Grind peppercorns and spread in the bottom of a large non-stick sauce pan. When water is at a rolling boil, drop in pasta. While pasta cooks, approx. 5 minutes, toast the peppercorns dry over medium flame, being careful not to scorch or smoke. When pasta is cooked drain in colander but reserve ½ cup of the cooking liquid and set aside. Add 2 tablespoons of butter to the peppercorns and turn up the heat. Cook until the butter melts and the fragrance of the pepper corns fills the air (I love this part if you can’t tell). Add the reserved cooking liquid and bring to a simmer. Stir in the grated cheese and add cooking pasta immediately. Toss continuously with tongs until the pasta is evening coated, serve immediately. Finish with a pinch more pecorino romano.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Mail Order vs Market - A review of Relay Foods

As is clear from this blog, I relish the opportunity to visit our local farmers markets for as many of my cooking needs as possible. Unless we're out of town for the weekend, I usually carve out some time either Saturday in Fells Point or Sunday under 83 checking out the goods from around the region. It's both ritual and utility. I shop for what I need and take a certain pleasure in the process of strolling the stands, comparing the goods and day dreaming about meal plans for the week ahead. I'd like to say this market loyalty comes out of some deep-seeded belief in the local food movement and to reduce the carbon footprint related to my produce and protein consumption, but that would be a self-congratulatory stretch. I do support the ideals of #eatlocal, you know, reducing shipping costs and environmental impact, spreading nutritional literacy, supporting farmers, artisans, and agrarian communities, and generally believe in the small-scale agriculture movement, but it's the not the reason I pull myself out of bed and grab my totes in the morning, just being honest here.

I get up and go because love the social aspect; running into friends and neighbors, some in various states of recovery from Friday or Saturday nights, milling about my neighborhood in search of edible treasures, it's such a comforting ritual and soooo Americana. From the moment I wake up I look forward to my first (of two) cup of Cafe Latte'da seasonal coffee to get me going.  Freshly fueled I spend my next hour or so speaking with farmers, artisans and craftspeople, often getting great recipe ideas for ingredients from the people who grow and make them. As trendy, or mainstream as the idea of the farmers market may have become, it is still a way to support local producers and a way to connect with the community in a personal, physical, and sensory way.

 All that said, one could understand why I have never been one for mail order food services. Blue apron and the like are out, I take too much pride in planning and executing my own meals from soup to nuts. There are specialty services that provide CSA style shares of meat or other niche products, but I do not have the freezer space for storing the volume they provide, so I haven't had a chance to try. I did give Relay Foods a try a year or so ago, but found the disconnect from seeing my purchase, mainly the meat selections, to be off-putting and I quickly lost interest, deferring to Pahl's HogsHickory Chance Beef and the like. With daily produce and specialty meats off the table, and full meal preparation services never in the running, I am squarely outside the demographic for mail order food products. Until this week...

Faced with a rather specific recipe to prepare this week, paired with a shortage of skin-on pork belly at my usual Whole Foods, I decided to give Relay Foods another try. Relay explains that they want to "make shopping for quality, healthy, and sustainable groceries simple and easy...We're here to help you connect to and learn about the people who grow your food, and to empower local producers by providing the online resource for learning about their products and practices." I get it, take the sustainable, low carbon foot print, farm-to-consumer concept digital. They add in community enrichment, rewarding their employees and creating a place where consumers are proud to spend their money. All of which I can totally get behind, and would even consider paying a premium for, as long as they execute.

Full disclosure, my recipe is for Porchetta. Preparation is a slow and deliberate process involving herbed pork loin wrapped in crispy pork belly roasted to perfection. I'm cooking for 4 that evening so I need a significant portion, roughly 3 pounds of porn loin to 3 pounds of skin on porn, enough to completely engulf the loin, skin-side out, end to end. This is important context to this story as my specific need impacted both my decision to use Relay and the quality of my experience. 

The Experience

Ordering on relay is easy. The user interface is pleasing and simple to use with convenient categorical drop downs and search bars. They even break out categories like "organic" or 'grass fed' so one can narrow the search. Not useful to me with my explicit need/intent, but one thing I thought noteworthy, is the addition of recipes ideas that are linked to searches performed. For example a search for "Ground Lamb" produces recipes for Mediterranean Pita, Lamb Kofta, and stuffed portobellas in addition to the actual product offerings, a nice touch. I did not take the time to evaluate the quality of the recipes, but the relevance and aesthetic appeal of the photography was very good.

The first issue when using services like this is availability. Relay can be slightly deceptive, allowing you to search for anything, returning results for most everything, but only once you've clicked into the item does it tell you whether something is in stock. As someone with an immediate need, I would value the ability to easily filter by "In stock" items in my searches. I can see, however, to the casual browser, why seeing all product offerings, agnostic to current availability might be valuable and be good for meal planning, pantry stocking, and recipe ideas for the future. 

This time Relay had what I needed and in stock (or so I thought, more on this later). I found the pork belly quickly. Quite conveniently, the first selection, Timbercreek (a Charlottesville, VA farm) and pasture-raised (animal feelz), was indeed skin on and came in packages approximately 1.5lbs in weight. Perfect! I thought, i would just simply buy two. At that point I proceeded to the check out and discovered that there was a new wrinkle (or at least I think it's new). There was a $5 Minimum Order handling charge for sub-total under $25. This immediately reduced the convenience factor that drove me to relay in the first place. It totally mitigated my ability to find and order the specific item and amount of product I needed without ancillary considerations. So I made a choice.

Faced with this "minimum Order" conundrum, I decided to take this opportunity as writing fodder a critique the product and service experience as a whole. 

I had never previously used Relay for anything other then protein. I figured that would be a rather narrow review, so in order to add  more value I expanded the product categories. I needed a fennel bulb (fronds on specifically), a head of cauliflower, leeks, and dried rosemary (I just ran out). Conveniently I figured these would offer a good cross sectional way to evaluate quality, price and over all value. The vegetables have very clear quality measures: freshness, firmness, cleanliness, and in the case of the leek and fennel, the crispness of the green parts. The rosemary would be an easy way to evaluate value as the price for an explicit amount (oz weight) of a packaged product would be easy to compare across vendors. Faced with this "minimum Order" conundrum, I decided to take this opportunity as writing fodder a critique the product and service experience as a whole. 

I returned to shopping and quickly found all the items I was looking for, once again, in stock. Points earned back for availability there. I found organic leeks for just $2ea (not bad, but not farmers market cheap), a head of organic cauliflower for $350 (regularly $4, decent deal), a fennel bulb for $3.50 (size varies so much, hard to tell if this was going to be a good value), and 5oz of organic dried rosemary from Frontier Natural Products Co. (good brand) for $4.50. I would have to wait to evaluate the produce items in person to judge the quality and value, but I immediately recognized the deal I was getting on the rosemary. Whole Foods is notoriously expensive, so that brand and quality is not surprisingly price at over $6 for the same size package. What affirmed my bargain was encountered McCormick and even store brand rosemary a Safeway, all at higher prices for the same or smaller weight. Early points for value.

I proceeded to the check out having slightly begrudgingly made it past the $35 mark. I learned as I followed the prompts that Relay now offers more comprehensive home delivery, but at a cost. For me, this doesn't really add any value. The drop off location is so close to my home, that it is actually better than lugging grocery bags from from mid workday trips to Whole Foods (I walk to work FYI). I can see someone who orders with regularity or makes larger purchases benefiting from this feature. I even learned they do afternoon deliveries, so the challenge of being home to receive perishables (and stoop stealables) is somewhat mitigated. All options considered, at Monday at 2pm, I placed my order for  the 5:30pm - 7pm pick-up in my neighborhood the following evening. I thought I could sit back and relax and my porchetta was destined for success.

The next day I got the confirmation email , this once is like the second level confirmation of availability because clearly with perishables, something could go wrong during packing etc. To my chagrin, the pork belly that was supposed to be 3lbs, the perfect amount for my recipe, and $22, had been reduced to just one package at $6.53, so I took that to mean just over one pound. I was outraged, and clearly went off to a sympathetic co-worker who understands my culinary neuroses (and general insanity). I fired off an email in reply explaining the specific need for my recipe, how that was the sole reason for my return to Relay, my dismay at expanding my order to meet the minimum, and the reluctant acceptance based on my ability to review the service for this blog. I explained I appreciate the price revisions, but essentially all utility was lost and they might have even ruined my dinner party. If you know me, you'll already be assuming I wasn't gentle.

I got a replay in exactly 8 minutes. It was apologetic and Marlee immediately informed me they had located additional stock and would offer to send it to my home the next business day, free of charge. We went back and forth about sending to my home vs to my office based on the need to received and store it properly and Marlee was more than accommodating. We settled on home delivery based on the afternoon timing of shipping and I breathed a hesitant sigh of relief. 

Tuesday evening arrived and I made my way to the Patterson Park Public Charter School pick-up location, just a few blocks from my home. I waited behind just one other customer to receive my produce and diminutive pork belly. I was home, bag in hand, in less than 20 minutes door to door. More convenience points!

I pulled the items from the bag. Rosemary was as expected. The cauliflower was firm and fresh but was Calorganics brand, and packaged in plastic, which is fine, but doesn't really align with the local, “know your producer”, low carbon footprint ideal which Relay espouses and to which I try to aspire. The leek, however, was bright green at the ends, and thick, a good specimen, still just a decent value at $2. The fennel was a medium bulb, clean and firm. The best part was there was significant frond structure (critical to my recipe) and they were crisp and fragrant, high quality. The small pork belly was from the stated producer, thick, and with a clean golden skin, a nice piece albeit smaller than I had wanted. All in all the quality was very high, cost related value equivalent to the farmers market or slightly worse (aside from the rosemary which was exemplary), but I was yet to truly realize the convenience factor as 2.5lbs of pork belly were still outstanding. 

Throughout the day Wednesday, I received notifications that my package was out for delivery as well as offers to track it, I declined as I had faith in Marlee's ETA. Turns out the final arrival time was somewhere around 7, so Mark was home and able to receive. I did not get home until after 8, so there was no impact to my meal prep plans for the evening.

All in all the experience was not bad, but I am reluctant to say it was great, so I will settle for a soft, low-grade good. In typical finance professional form I expected an STP experience! I wantedhands-free, not having to complain and deal with working out the availability issue, but that's life I guess. The quality of product both produce and packaged was high (the only points off was for the packaged cauliflower) and the value was comparable to what I think are quite economical prices at farmers markets, so in that sense high value made even better by the bargain I got on the rosemary. Ultimately I do have to award points for Marlee and her quick and comprehensive customer service and issue resolution, just wish it never had to happen. All that said, I think Relay, and mail order groceries in general, are better suited for the casual browser or someone who has need of readily available staples. Relay is a great site for browsing, seeking inspiration and stocking up, due in large part to the excellent protein selections. It is not ideal for someone like me with a very specific and time sensitive need, all convenience is lost with one availability hiccup.

Relay is admittedly just one option in this ever expanding field, and this is simply a review of my experience within specific use case restrictions. There are great CSA options with farmers or coops, lots of pre-portioned services (Blue Apron and the like) for those with less time and interest in the creative process, and some intriguing specialty providers like Butcher Box or Hatchery that offer more focused products like grass fed beef or new or unique artisanal ingredients. I plan on exploring some of the specialty services, but for specific recipes and general shopping pleasure, I am going to stick with my beloved Baltimore farmers markets. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Channeling Ina - Career Aspiration & Relationship Goals Soup

My fiancé Mark is very into soup. This may seem like an unremarkable characteristic, but he is someone for whom it is so difficult to cook, that any preference or affinity is notable. Honestly, he is so particular about food that it is often hard for me to find meal ideas that will be both satisfying to me and “acceptable” to him. He refuses to eat bacon, abhors sausage, is finicky about quantity and type of cheese, and generally sparing with constructive feedback on the occasion he does like something. As someone with a formidable cook book and recipe collection and kitchen skills to boot, he is extremely reluctant with menu ideas when asked, but all too quick to shoot down many a proposition. For more on this topic, stay tuned for my other blog “Marrying Mr. (Always) Right – An Engagement Story” coming soon…  

All that said, soup seems to be his culinary kryptonite, a good one can bring him to his knees. So I am always eager for the weather to turn cooler so I can start playing with new recipes and old favorites each fall. 

This year, I feel like I am distinctly channeling Ina Garten in her new book, Cooking for Jeffery, in which she describes her passion for cooking for the people she loves through anecdotes and recipes of her husband's favorite dishes. This blog is totally the same thing...;-)

Throughout the autumn months, I scour the weekend markets looking for the best ingredients that can be stewed or pureed to soupy perfection, all in the name of eliciting praise from Mark. Don’t get me wrong, I also cook for myself, but there is sometime so satisfying about satisfying another, especially a very particular romantic partner. I can impress myself with something simple like perfectly poached eggs anytime, but hearing the happy sated sigh of a dinner guest or fiancé after that first taste of something you have labored over for hours, maybe even days, oh it’s priceless. It is safe to say that one of my greatest pleasures in life is cooking for others. Lucky for him, Mark serves as beneficiary (and challenging critic) of my endeavors on a daily basis.

Preparing dinner is a nightly ritual in our household. One that is as deliberate as it is (usually) delicious. As ridiculous as it may sound, I find myself laying in bed Sunday evenings, mulling over my take from the farmers market and planning meals for each night of the week. From the simple to the complex, dinner for two or for many, it’s what lulls me to sleep and gets me through the work week. I spend down time at the office searching out interesting recipes, maybe a twist on an old favorite, or something new I can adapt from some foreign cuisine. I muse on narratives for my meal prep and service, devising interesting and amusing ways to describe my inspiration and execution. When we have dinner guests, I plan conversation around the meal, from the sourcing of the ingredients to recording the recipe as a party favor. I am always thinking about plating, garnish, serving dish, and ultimately how I am going to Instagram my creation. 

I am literally, for better or for worse, an aspirational food and lifestyle personality.

One recent evening, I was feeling particularly “Ina” so I decided to roast a chicken. In typical Barefoot Contessa style, I put it in a cast iron dutch oven with a ton of fresh and dried herbs, I wanted an intensely roasted and perfumed bird. Once done, I pulled the meat and made a decadent herbed chicken salad, perfect for our lunches during the week (Mark informed me promptly upon returning home for work, there was too much mayo, see what I mean?).

 I saved the carcass and tossed it back into the pot after sweating some mirepoix (carrots, onions, celery) with garlic and leeks. I used sherry to deglaze the base and added tarragon, thyme, bay leaf, sage, fennel seed, anise, rosemary and lots of black peppercorn before covering the bones with water and setting to boil. I let it cook for several hours, adding a bit of salt as I tasted along the way. The fragrant herbs filled my house with the most wonderful and comforting smell, and the hours of cooking lent the liquid a hue so dark I could barely see through. I allowed it to steep and cool covered overnight then strained it in the morning. The flavor was as intense as the color, the bay leaf and fennel adding smoky depth and floral highlights that I had not anticipated, but was delighted to achieve. I divided the pot in two and poured half into a silicone large format ice cube tray, the kind you would use for making single blocks for scotch or whisky. I carefully popped them in the freezer and saved the rest of the stock for later in the evening.

When I got home from work I pre-heated the oven and set a head of cauliflower on a baking tray. I brushed the entire thing with garlic powder infused olive oil and roasted it for nearly an hour. As it neared completion I started to char some leeks in the bottom of my soup pot. I added the reserved stock from the refrigerator as they started to brown. Once the cauliflower was roasted I dropped it carefully into the stock and covered with additional water. While that came up to a boil, I cleaned and chopped a celeriac bulb (celery root) and dropped it into a small sauce pan with a cube of stock and some water. The bracing scent, strikingly reminiscent of raw green celery, filled the kitchen as it mingled with the melting stock. I chose to add this ingredient based on a cherished family recipe Mark shared with me soon after we moved in together. I have been waiting for the chance to use it and to try my hand at creating culinary nostalgia, when I spotted one at the market last week, I just couldn’t resist.

I boiled both pots for close to an hour, letting them reduce significantly and cooking the cauliflower and celeriac to a point they could be broken apart by a spoon. Then I took my immersion blender to the once firm vegetables. Once pureed, I combined the pots and added a cup of cream and around ¾ cup of parmigiano reggiano (ok, maybe a little more). I blended until silky smooth. While I was roasting the cauliflower, I had also cleaned and chopped some cremini mushrooms and tossed them in the oven, covered in white truffle oil. I pulled them out after about  40 minutes after they had gained a golden brown glisten, the scent of the truffle taking over the kitchen. Once the soup was satin smooth and reduced to the point of sticking to the back of the spoon, I served the egg-shell colored cream in colorful bowls floating a few dark, rick, roasted mushroom slices on top. I finished with a pinch of sea salt and a generous twist of fresh ground pepper. The result was delicious. The earthy, charred and garlic infused cauliflower played perfectly with the slightly astringent celeriac. The complex and fragrant stock brought it all together with the salty finish of the parmigiano taking the decadence to just the right point. Mark LOVED it. His only critique was that it could use a little heat. As someone who over seasons nearly everything I make to the point that my brow sweats, this was an affirmation of my successful demonstration of restraint, and I was happy to pass him the cayenne.

Soup and relationship success.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Gay Camping & #Zoodles...

So I am going Gay-camping this weekend. No, not glamping, and certainly not the real rustic stuff so many bearded and Teva wearing folks engage in during the summer months. This is truly Gay-camping. Generally defined as sleeping in a tent at a resort with all or some of the following features; a pool, restaurants, cocktail bar, a place likely clothing optional, but definitely scandalous Speedo friendly…Think of it as beach-bar meets night-club meets the forest... I've already packed five of my smallest and brightest pieces of swimwear for the next two days (guilty). 

Naturally, I am panicking about my body. Should I decide to wear one of my briefest briefs, I don’t want to be cavorting in the woods having to wonder from what angle I might be seen. I mean, I’m not super concerned about the judgment of my friends nor the central Pennsylvania public I may encounter, but I hold certain aspects of my vanity close to my heart. I just want to be prepared.

Like any sane person, I have responded to my last minute realization of this (and lack of physical preparation), by attempting to crash diet. My general disdain for the minutia of the work week and the need to maintain civility at home, eliminate starvation as an option because the #hanger is real.

So, as I poll my family for donations of tents and other camping supplies in preparation, I have decided to give my cooking a more extreme health slant in the days leading up to the trip (see preview pic).

You’ve all seen the stop-motionesque 30-second Facebook videos from Tasty, or received the Pinterest recipe board notification from someone in whom (ironically) you are not interested at all,  espousing the incredible versatility of a Spiralizer, the glory of guilt-free zucchini pasta, and the picture perfect creation you can whip up with your eyes closed (riiiiiggghhhttt). 
#zoodles #whatisthat

Needless to say I am not a fan, for many reasons. Not least of which is the trend factor. I honestly do not want to hear about another “fast and fresh” dinner where you swap out something good (pasta) for something nutritionally void and infuriatingly bland (squash in general).  I especially don’t want to see your poorly lit, badly composed, over-filtered picture of soggy squash and some indistinguishable sauce captioned with the hash tag #zucchininoodes #lowcarb #cleaneating or the absolute worst - #zoodles. Honestly, #zoodles is unforgivable, it’s like tagging #broccolicheddar and posting a sad picture of soup. Only #zoodles is worse because it's unnecessarily abbreviated. I can’t with #zoodles, I’ll just be over here reposting your gram as #uglyfood.

Anyway, in case that rant wasn’t clear, I’m not into Zoodles, at least not until last night.

So last Saturday my fiancé and I took a trip to Williams Sonoma, and among other artifacts of our particular brand of consumerism, we picked up some European made Swissmar vegetable peelers. Kind of like a hand-held mandolin. Completely unnecessary, but like most things, they came home with us anyway.

#broccolicheddar #uglyfood
I had never even thought about making zucchini noodles until I first experimented with this new tool by shaving some carrot into a salad recently. The pieces came out long, and very thin, like orange spaghetti. I should have known it then, but Zoodles were undoubtedly in my future (ugh, I can’t believe I am typing that).

Flash forward to my current impending woodland Speedo sporting body panic phase, and the timing was perfect.

I picked up a basket of four large summer squash at the Sunday farmers market, mixed variety with a good diversity of color, bright yellows and greens would be perfect for my dish (and the photo to follow). I decided something simple, like a basic Bolognese Ragu would be ideal for this first foray into the world of alternative noodles. I started my onions and mushrooms for the sauce, and browned some lean ground beef to begin. After I deglazed with red wine, added tomato puree, seasonings and turned it down to simmer, turned to the squash. The process of making the Zoodles is likely easier with a Spiralizer, but I think my tool actually results in a finer cut, one more delicate and akin to angel hair than say a bulky Bucatini. I cooked the Zoodles very briefly in some olive oil, garlic powder, and too much salt. Too much salt turned out to be a life saver, as I was forced to rinse the Zoodles very briefly under cold water, which stopped their cooking and prevented them from getting too soggy. I returned them to my large pot and added the meat to my simmering sauce. I plated like I would any spaghetti dish and begrudgingly admitted to myself that the Zoodles looked brilliant under the light on a stark white plate. I topped with the Ragu and finished with a generous pinch of shaved parimigano for a rustic effect.  Needless to say the picture was flawless, and fortunately the flavor the same (but I mean, who’s shocked?).

In reality, I don’t know if it was due to the texture from my slicing tool, or the error I made over salting then rinsing, but the Zoodles were absolutely delicious. I know my sauce is delicious, so I was starting from a good place, but I was pleasantly surprised at how satisfying the Zoodles were in flavor, texture, and as a vehicle for the Bolognese. They definitely, and could not possibly, offer the chew or olfactory pleasure of real pasta, but for my current dietary predicament, they really fit the bill. In fact, my fiancé’s reviews were even stronger, and if you know how picky he can be, that is the proof in the pudding.

So, am I am fan of Zoodles? No, never will be, Zoodles isn’t going to happen, it will fade like Acai berries and Greek yogurt, and live on only in the most basic of kitchens and Instagrams.
But, if faced with less than a week until I have to be in Speedo shape, and if done just right, they are a wonderful stand-in for pasta. 

Enjoy, my one and probably only #Zoodles…because Gay-Camping.

Zoodles Bolognese

  • 4 Large Summer Squash
  • 16oz Lean Ground Beef
  • 1 medium White Onion – diced
  • 4 oz Cremini Mushrooms – Sliced and cleaned
  • 28 oz Tomato Puree
  • 1 Small Can Tomato Paste
  • 2 Tablespoons Garlic Powder – Divided
  • 1 Cup Red Wine
  • Dried Herbs to Taste: Bay, Basil, Oregano, Thyme
  • Salt and Pepper to Taste
  • 3 Tablespoon EVOO – Divided
  • Shaved Parmigiano Reggiano to Taste


In a large sauté pan, over medium heat, sweat the onion in the evoo until begins to be transparent, about 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and stir occasionally to keep form sticking as they brown. Turn the heat up and add the red wine, as it sizzles it will pull all the tasty pieces sticking to the pan into the liquid to add flavor to the sauce. Turn heat back to low and add the so tomato puree and seasonings stirring until completely incorporated. Allow to simmer on low while you cook the meat.
In another pan over medium heat, brown the ground beef and add the tomato paste about half way through, 8 minutes total. Drain excess fat and add to the simmering sauce.
While sauce simmers, use a Swissmar peeler, Spiralizer or mandolin to make long thing slices of the squash. Once all 4 are sliced into thin spaghetti- like noodles, toss in a hot pan with evoo and top with garlic powder and some salt. Just allow them to warm and get coated with oil, if they actually cook they can get soggy. Remove from heat and use a utensil to place Zoodles on a plate. Top with a ladle of you warm sauce and finish with shaved parmigiano reggiano.