Saturday, June 30, 2012

Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms

Today I'm cooking Portobello mushrooms on the grill, although these can easily be done in your oven as well.  Portobello (or sometimes spelled 'portabella') is really just a large brown crimini mushroom.  Once the little brown crimini grows up to be about 4" - 6" in diameter it is deemed to be a portobello.

How It Got Its Name
There as many theories on the heritage of the name I referred to Elizabeth Schneider's vegetable bible "Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini" for some education.  It seems that there are as many "origins" to the name as there are experts to quote them.  Here are some of the main ones:
•Named after Portobello Road in London which has many high end antique shops and other fashionable establishments.
•Named after a T.V. show called Portobello
•The portobello in Northern Italy is called "cappellone" which means "big hat".

Selecting the Mushrooms
Select plump, firm and solid mushrooms. Avoid the limp or dried looking ones. They should not be shriveled or slippery (which indicates decomposition).  The mushroom should have a nice earthy smell.
When you bring them home, remove the mushrooms from any wrapping and spread on a tray and cover with paper toweling.   Don't moisten the towel or the mushrooms and place them in the refrigerator in an area that allows the air to circulate. Avoid placing any other items on top of them. The mushrooms should keep about 5 days, although as in all things using them when they are most fresh is very important.

Grilled Portobellos
Of course you don't have to stuff the mushrooms to enjoy them on the grill.  Simply wash, remove stems and set mushrooms aside. Melt butter, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic & pepper together in a small pot or on the grill. Halve largest mushrooms or cut in strips. Brush the mushrooms generously with the melted butter and olive oil mixture. On a covered grill over medium heat, grill the portobello mushrooms stem-side down for about 8 minutes. Turn and grill the tops of the portobello mushrooms for 6 to 8 minutes longer. The grilled portobello mushrooms should be tender and nicely browned.

Stuffed Portobellos
I stuff Portobellos with a wide-variety of ingredients.  You can use everything from creamed chicken to deviled crab to your favorite spinich and artichoke dip.  Most commonly I use the following recipe, but as I said whatever you have on hand can make a good stuffing for these tasty mushrooms.

 4 Portobello mushrooms
1/2 pound Italian sausage (bulk)
1/4 cup bread crumbs
1 small onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 Tablespoons catsup
2 Tablespoons A1 brand steak sauce

Wash the mushrooms and remove the stems.  Set the caps aside and roughly chop the stems.  Add all of the agove ingredients to a mixing bowl along with the chopped stems and combine. 

Stuff the mushroom caps and place on the grill or in the oven for approximately 30 minutes (at 350F).  Baste with extra A1 steak sauce and serve.

I typically serve the mushroms outdoors with grilled corn and a side of garden fresh tomatoes.  Inside I often pair them with rice or potatoes.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Linguini, Clams, Garlic, White Wine: What's not to love?

This classic Italian dish is easy and quick to prepare.  Whenever I see fresh Littleneck clams in the fish case, I grab a couple pounds and prepare this meal.  Of course if you haven't previously prepared the dish, selecting the clams alone can be confusing.

Selecting Clams:  Littleneck clams are members of the Veneridae family, a large family of mollusks which includes many commercially valuable species. “Littleneck” is not a taxonomic classification, and people use it in varying ways in different parts of the world to refer to several different clam species.  When it comes to eating clams, smaller is often better, as they will be less chewy. So look for medium to small sized clams, rather than going for the biggest clams you see. Clams should be alive at the time of purchase; this means that that their shells will snap shut when tapped. Never select a clam that is already open or chipped, broken, or damaged in any way. Make sure to immediately unwrap them at home, so they can breathe, and store them in the refrigerator in a colander or another device which drains readily, allowing the bodily fluids of the clams to drain away rather than accumulating.

Preparing the Clams:  Just before cooking, soak your clams for 20 minutes in fresh water. As the clams breathe they filter water. When the fresh water is filtered, the clam pushes salt water and sand out of their shells. After 20 minutes, the clams will have cleaned themselves of much of the salt and sand. Then one by one, remove the clams from the water and use a firm brush and scrub the shells.  The clams are now prepared for cooking.  You may return them to the refrigerator until they go into the pot.

Ingredients  (serves 4 adults)

•2 pounds fresh clams, such as littlenecks, in their shells
•2 tablespoons olive oil
•4 garlic cloves, chopped
•1 medium onion, chopped
•1/2 cup dry white wine
•1 cup clam juice
•1 15-ounce can clams, rinsed
•Cold water
•1 pound linguini
•Grated Parmesan cheese
•1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
Heat olive oil in large Dutch oven or deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add chopped onion and sauté for 3 minutes, then stir in the chopped garlic and sauté for another 30 seconds. Add white wine and cook for 2-3 minutes then add the chopped clams and clam juice.  Reduce heat to low and simmer lightly while you heat the pasta water to boiling.

The basic ingredients for clam sauce.

Bring a large pot of cold, salted water to boil.  Add the linguini to the pot and cook according to package directions, approximately 8 minutes.  Add the fresh clams to the Dutch oven or deep skillet with the clam sauce.  They too will take about 8 minutes to cook, but check them frequently and when they open they are ready and should be removed from the sauce.

After removing the fresh clams from the sauce, toss in a handful of freshly grated Parmesan cheese and stir in.  This will help to thicken the sauce, although it is optional.  Transfer your nearly cooked (but still al dente) linguini to the sauce and continue cooking for another 2-3 minutes.  This permis the pasta to absorb the flavors of the sauce.

Plate the pasta and circle with clams.  Sprinkle with  chopped parsley and serve.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Summer Delights: BBQ Ribs, Roasted Corn, Blackberry Crumble

Summer is in full swing here in Chicago and with it come the many foods we associate with the season.  If you follow me on Facebook you know that I've been spending quite a bit of time in my gardens and what could be better than finishing off the day with dinner outdoors as well.  With temperatures now regularly in the upper 80's during the day, it is the perfect time for a one-grill meal that is easy to prepare with some advance preparation.

Julian's Rose Garden
After a days work in the garden I don't won't to prepare a complicated meal.  I want a dinner that I can put together quickly and easily using just the grill.  To make this happen, I did some 'prep' work a couple days prior.  So when the time came for dinner, I could just time adding the items to the grill and be assured that dinner would be ready shortly while I enjoyed a glass of wine while viewing my days handywork and keeping a watchful eye on the Webber.

Ribs:  Several days in advance I select a nice rack of baby back ribs.  Baby back ribs (sometimes also called loin ribs, back ribs, or Canadian back ribs) are taken from the top of the rib cage between the spine and the spare ribs, below the loin muscle. The designation "baby" indicates the cuts are from market weight hogs, rather than sows. They have meat between the bones and on top of the bones, and are shorter, curved, and meatier than spare ribs. In my opinion they are the best ribs for grilling having smaller bones than beef ribs and are certainly more tender and less fatty.

With that said, they take a good bit of cooking time so I prefer to do most of the preparation in advance.  I know some folks advocate simply pre-boiling the ribs for 10 minutes before grilling, but I  really feel you lose so much flavor in the process it is not worth the time you save.  Rather on a weeknight up to a week in advance, I roast the ribs in the oven covered in foil.  Once cool they can be refrigerated and stored and awaiting your final grilling.  Of course you can go right to the grill if you like and below I provide you with my detailed recipe.  Feel free to substitute the homemade BBQ sauce for your favorite bottled variety.  There are so many good options for sauces, you needn't feel guilty about making this choice to speed up your dinner.

Crushed Almond Cookie Topping
Berry Crumble:  As the ribs have been pre-cooked they don't take much time to finish on the grill.  So for this dinner, I start first with my dessert, the blackberry crumble. Start by heating the grill.  During the 10 minutes or so that takes, simply wash the blackberries, toss them with some flour and sugar and place them into individual oven-safe ramikins.  Sprinkle the top with some crushed almond cookies or your favorite crumb topping.  With the grill now heated and at an approximate temperature of 350F, place the ramikins on the upper grill rack, keeping the main grill grate free for your other food.  Bake the crumble in your grill with the lid closed.  The crumble will take about 45 minutes in all, so now we are counting backwards to ensure the meal is done at the same time.

Julian's Slaw with Bacon Pieces
If you haven't prepared cole slaw in advance, now's a good time to do it as both the ribs and the corn take only about 15-20 minutes on the grill.  Then clean and oil the corn.

Corn:  Sweet corn is not yet in season here in Chicago, but our local produce shop has been getting some nice, sweet ears in already.  Give the corn at your store the test by pushing a fingernail into a kernel.  It should pop with juice quite easily.  If it does not, it is old and dry and should be avoided. Always remember that sweet corn immediately begins to convert its sugars into starch after it is picked.  As such, you need the freshest corn possible.  I always try and cook it within a day of purchasing it for this reason.  If you've let yours sit for too long, you might want to sprinkle the ears with a little sugar and instead of dry grilling, wrap it in foil to help retain moisture.  It won't have those nice brown grill marks, but it will taste better.

Extra BBQ Sauce on the Side
Bringing it Together:  Now it's time to slap those ribs on the grill and get them warmed up.  They are already fully cooked so getting them good and hot is all that's required. (Remember to remove them from the foil before grilling.  The grill should be medium-hot and not on high to avoid flare ups.)  Getting them hot only takes about 10 minutes, with a turn half way through.  Add the corn to the grill and apply the BBQ sauce to the ribs and let them cook turning once and rebasting with the sauce halfway through.  Turn the corn and the ribs at about the same time, but cook with the grill closed as much as possible.

Now we simply turn off the grill and sever the dinner.  The dessert can cool while you are enjoying this quick to prepare summer feast.  And later when you are ready for something a little sweet, enjoy the berry crumble, perhaps with a small scoop of icecream on top.  Mmmmm!  Finger lickn' good!

BBQ Baby Back Pork Ribs
  • 2 (2 pound) slabs baby back pork ribs
  • 1/2 cup table salt
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • coarsely ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon ground red chili pepper


  • 2 1/4 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup minced onion
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1/2 cup tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup white vinegar
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons honey
  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons liquid smoke flavoring
  • 2 teaspoons whiskey
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 tablespoon dark molasses
  • 1 tablespoon ground red chili pepper

    1. Cut each full rack of ribs in half, so that you have 4 half racks. Using 1/2 cup of table salt and 1/2 cup of white sugar, mix with 4 cups of water and stir to dissolve. Place the ribs in a large zip locked back or a pan. Cover with the brine mixture and refrigerate for one hour.
    2. Preheat oven to 275F degrees.Remove ribs from brine and pat dry with paper towels. 
    3.  Sprinkle salt and pepper and 1 tablespoon red chili pepper over meat. Wrap each half rack in aluminum foil. Bake for 3 1/2 hours  (cool and refrigerate for later use, or transfer to the grill after they come to room temperature.)
    4. As the y cook, make the sauce.
    5. Sauce: Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Cook and stir the onions in oil for 5 minutes. Stir in water, tomato paste, vinegar, brown sugar, honey, and Worcestershire sauce. Season with 2 teaspoons salt, 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, liquid smoke, whiskey, garlic powder, paprika, onion powder, dark molasses, and 1/2 tablespoon ground chili pepper. Bring mixture to a boil, then reduce heat. Simmer for 1 1/4 hours, uncovered, or until sauce thickens. Remove from heat, and set sauce aside.
    6. Preheat your outdoor grill.   Oil the grill grates.
    7. Remove the ribs from the foil wrapping, and place on the grill. Grill the ribs for 5 minutes on each side until heated through. Then brush sauce on the ribs while they're grilling for another 10 minutes watching the ribs to ensure they do not burn.               

    Saturday, June 9, 2012

    Oliver Cromwell and Berkshire Pork

    Recently a friend wondered why I don't post more about grilled pork as he is a big fan of pork chops and the like on the grill.  You might think I don't cover this much because outside of a high heat searing and finishing over medium heat, there isn't much expertise required for chops on the grill.  But the truth is, finding really good pork to cook on the grill is not easy to do, even here in the midwest.  Oh you can find all sizes and cuts of pork for the grill, but most of it is a very light pink color that is low in fat, low in pH and produces a bland, dry dinner.  So while I love a good pork chop on the grill, unless I can get my hands on premium pork, I don't generally bother, sticking instead to other pork recipes, as shown below for Grilled Stuffed Pork Tenderloin. 

    My favorite pork comes from a breed of pig call "Berkshire" which are black in color.  Berkshire pigs are said to be Britain's oldest pig breed, originally bred around the market-towns of Faringdon and Wantage, in the Vale of the White Horse which was then in the English county of Berkshire.

    Cromwell on his Farm
    by Ford Madox Brown
    The story of their 'discovery' is attributed to Oliver Cromwell, one of only two commoners ever to head England, who while wintering with his troops in the shire of Berk in the 1640s, found this succulent treat.  Here they were introduced to the taste of a unique black pig with white spots on its legs, ears and snout. The reputation of Berkshire pork was born when Cromwell’s soldiers returned home with stories of remarkable flavor and quality. For years after, England’s royal family dined on Berkshire pork from a special herd maintained at Windsor Castle.  Today's animals descend from the herd maintained by the Monarchy for 300 years.

    Eventually American pork producers imported Berkshire pigs for the U.S. market. During the 1940s and 1950s, Berkshires won more top championships for quality pork than any other breed before or since.  Unfortunately modern agriculture ushered in mass production techniques to produce uniform pork products. Over the years, the number of Berkshire shrank to less than 1 percent of America's total swineherd, which is why getting your hands on a quality Berkshire chop, roast or tenderloin is exceedingly difficult.

    Three prize pigs bred by Prince Albert
    at Windsor Castle by H. Stafford 1829-1843
    Berkshire pork is prized for it juiciness, flavor and tenderness. Its higher fat content makes it suitable for high-temperature grill cooking, unlike most pork you find at the supermarket which even advertises itself as 'the other white meat.' (We all know how well white brease chicken meat does over a high-heat grill.)   Now finding Berkshire pork is one thing, paying for it is another.  It's typically two to three times the price of regular pork.  But if you can't find or afford it, at least make sure that the pork you do purchase is a rich red color when compared to other similar cuts.  This will be your indication of a higher pH level and thus a more tender, flavorful meat.

    And if all of the chops are a pinky-white color, consider a different cut, such as the tenderloin.  Now I know you are going to say that too can be such a dry cut of flavorless meat unless you marinate it (or buy it this way) and I agee with you.  However if your butcher has a fresh, crimson tenderloin on hand, consider stuffing it and then grilling it, as shown here.  Even a lower-quality piece of fresh (not previously frozen) tenderloin will do well in this recipe.

    Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Stuffing

    One single fresh tenderloin (about 1 1/2 pounds) is used in this recipe and feeds four. Be careful of vacum packs, as they often contain two or more tenderloins strung together and the meat is not particularly fresh.  Avoid these if at all possible.  With regard to the stuffing, I use olives and sun dried tomatoes to stuff the pork in this recipe, but you can really use any stuffing of your choice that isn't too bulky. You may do all of the preparations well in advance, even the day before if necessary.

    Outer Seasoning
    2 teaspoons packed brown sugar (dark preferred)
    1 teaspoon kosher salt
    1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

    1/4 cup pitted kalamata olives
    1/4 sun-dried tomatoes (rinsed of oil and chopped)
    4 anchovy fillets in oil
    2 garlic cloves
    1/2 teaspoon thyme
    1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
    dahs of pepper
    1/2 cup fresh baby spinach leaves

    Add all of the above except the pepper to your food processor.  Pulse 10-15 times until well chopped.  Season with a dash of pepper.  As the kalamata olives are somewhat salty, no additional salt is necessry in the stuffing.  The spinach leaves will be laid on top of the stuffing as noted in the recipe.

    Cut the tenderloin in half horizontally, stopping about 1/2 inch from the edge so the halves remain attached.  Lay the tenderloin open and cover with plastic wrap.  Pound the tenderloin into a rectangular shape about 1/4-inch in thickness.  Remove plastic wrap and trim any odd edges.  Sprinkle with a pinch of salt and pepper and spread the stuffing over all but the top 2 inches of the tenderloin, then cover with baby spinach.  Roll the tenderloin away from you being careful to keep in all of the stuffing, creating a tight cylinder.  With the seam side facing down, tie the pork tenderloin with five pieces of butchers twine, evenlyl spaced as shown.  Refrigerate until ready for grilling.

    Heat the grill to high heat and clean the grates as usual.  Lightly oil the stuffed pork tenderloin and sprinkle evenly with the outer seasoning (brown sugar mixture).  Leaving one burner on high, turn off all other burners and place the tenderloin over the unlit burners. (If using a charcoal grill, place coals only on one side of the grill.)   Turn after 15 minutes, and cook another 15 minutes, or until the meat reaches 140-150F.  Cook with the grill closed and ensure the grill maintains a cooking temperature of 350-375F.  If the temperature does not quickly return to 350F after turning, light additional burners on low.

    Transfer tenderloin to a cuttting board and let rest, loosely tented with foil, for about 10 minutes.  Remove the twine and slice into 1/2 inch thick servings.  Pour any clear drippings from the cutting board onto the roulades of pork.   If you prefer a sauce, consider a light mushroom sauce, which goes nicely with the pork.  However, these pork roulades will be juicy and flavorful without a sauce.  This recipe also works just as well in your oven during the fall and winter seasons.

    Saturday, June 2, 2012

    Gone Fishin' - and a guide to great fish fillets meals

    Growing up I enjoyed many a fishing trip with my mom and aunt. I was born late in life, so by the time I was 10 they were in their 50's, but still felt the need to ensure I had the fishing trip experience.  We didn't often catch enough to make dinner, but just the attempt was rewarding in so many ways.  I still chuckle when I remember one of our first outings where we hauled a full bag of charcoal down a large embankment lakeside, followed by our fishing tackle and of course easels and our other painting supplies.  (What fishing trip could be called complete if you weren't painting the scene while waiting for a nibble!)  We had coolers of food (should our efforts not be successful), lawn chairs and other necessary supplies. After a full day of fun which did not result in a fish dinner, we attempted to return to the car with all of our supplies. The car was now up the embankment which was damp and slippery.  We fell multiple times and began laughing so hard at our folly that we eventually collapsed and enjoyed the moment before finally working out how we would get that very heavy bag of charcoal up the hill to the car.

    "Rustys Day at the Lake" -Rick Short
    Today they say fish is good for the heart because of its if nutrients and low fat qualities.  While that may be true, I think most fisherman would tell you just spending time in the tranquil surroundings while fishing is equally as good for the heart and mind, whether you are young or old.

    But in this fast-paced world it is unlikely you will be catching your own dinner, so today I'm only talking about fillets of fish, boneless and skinless, which you assumingly got from your local market.

    Throughout much of America, a traditional 'fish fry' is a common site.  You often find them served on Friday's because of the country's Catholic population which dates back to a time when those of that faith were prohibited from eating meat on Friday.  While that is no longer the case, the tradition of a fish dinner on Friday still remains.  With all of the news about beef and other issues from too much red meat, fish fillets are a good, easy way to provide your friends and family with a delicious and, if prepared well, healthy dinner.

    Some of you are no doubt already saying you don't like to cook fish because of the lingering odor it can leave in the house. Cooking fish outdoors is a great alternative and I give you my favorite recipe for that below. In the house however, there are a couple techniques and fish choices you can make which pretty much take care of the fish odor.  The best of these is to soak the fish in milk for 20 minutes, then drain and pat dry.  Of course, baking fish is healthier than frying and this is how I usually prepare fish when having dinner for just 2-4 persons.  Baking it with a white wine also helps to ensure your home doesn't smell like fish the next day.


    2 thick skinless Cod fillets
    1/4 cup bread crumbs
    3 tablespoon melted butter
    1/4 tsp. salt
    1/4 tsp. pepper
    1/8 tsp. dried Italian Seasoning (or just oregano)
    1/4 tsp. granulated garlic
    1/3 cup white wine

    Soak the fish in milk for 20 minutes, drain and pat dry.  Preheat oven to 400F.  Mix the bread crumbs with the seasonings.  Spoon in 1 tablespoon of the melted butter and stir to combine.  Place the remaining melted butter in a flat dish and turn the Cod fillets coating them in the butter.  Add the white wine to a baking dish and place the cod fillets in the dish.  Bake for 20-25 minutes or until done when tested with a temperature probe (interior of the thick fillets should be approximate 150F.)


    2 lb. skinless Haddock, Orange Roughy or Tilapia fillets
    Dijon mustard
    Salt and pepper to taste
    1/2 c. bread crumbs [Panko style preferred for crispness]
    1/4 tsp. salt
    1/4 tsp. pepper
    1/8 tsp. dried oregano
    1/4 tsp. dried parsley

    Soak the fish in milk for 20 minutes, drain and pat dry.  Mix bread crumbs with salt, pepper, oregano and parsley.  Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.  Grease flat baking dish and heat it thoroughly in the preheated oven.  Spread fillets lightly with Dijon mustard on both sides. Sprinkle lightly with additional salt and pepper. Roll in seasoned crumb mixture.  Place the fish fillets in the preheated baking dish. Bake at 450 degrees for about 10 minutes or until done (thin fillets like Tilapia will cook more quickly)


    When frying, it's helpful to have a long-handled, slotted spoon and long handled tongs.  For this recipe you can use a heavy cast iron skillet stove top, an electric deep fryer indoors or an outdoor gas deep fryer with or without the basket.  Always dip tools in hot grease first so food will release quickly. Have a shallow pan nearby to set hot tools on between uses.

    When deep frying, I recommend using a cooking thermometer or an electric deep fryer with built in temperature gauge. This will assure you are cooking the fish at a safe temperature.  Place the thermometer in the cool oil and allow it to come up to temperature as the oil heats.  Placing a cold thermometer into very hot oil could cause it to break.  

    The oil is ready when it is 350F-375F.  I prefer to start cooking fish at the higher temperature, as the temperature will fall when you begin adding the fish.  Cooking at a lower temperature will result in greasy fish fillets. 

    When cooking large quantities of fish outdoors, it's helpful to place the raw fish fillets into ice chest to hold until ready for cooking, as you fry in smaller batches.  After batches are fried, they are best sent to the table immediately.  If you have a large crowd this means you will continue to cook while groups begin eating.  While the following recipe serves 4 adults and is designed for the stove top technique, you can simply scale up the recipe to serve any number for a large outdoor fish fry.  

    1 1/2 pounds catfish fillets
    3 tbsp seasoned salt
    1 tbsp Old Bay seasoning (or spicy paprika) (optional)
    14 cup fresh lemon juice
    2 tbsps parsley leaves (minced or dried)
    2 tbsps minced garlic
    3/4 cup yellow cornmeal
    1/4 cup all purpose flour
    1 cup peanut oil (or vegetable oil)
    sprinkle of salt
    malted vinegar and/or tartar sauce for serving

    If frying in the house, soak the fish in milk for 20 minutes, drain and pat dry. Place the catfish in a shallow bowl or baking dish. Season the fillets with 1 tablespoon of seasoned salt. Add the lemon juice, parsley, and garlic. Turn the catfish several times to coat evenly. Allow mixture to stand at room temperature for 10 minutes.

    Combine the cornmeal, flour, salt, Old Bay and the remaining spices in a shallow bowl. Begin heating the oil over medium-high heat.   While the oil is heating, remove the catfish from the marinade and dredge a few pieces in the cornmeal mixture, coating evenly. Dredge only the number of pieces that will fit into the first batch.  When the oil reaches temperature, add the catfish, in batches of similar sized pieces, to the hot oil and fry until golden brown on both sides, turning once, about 6 minutes in all until golden brown.

    Remove catfish from the skillet/fryer with a slotted spatula and drain on paper-towels. Season with salt while hot and serve immediately with additional vinegar and sauce.

    Fried fish is traditionally served with baked beans, cole slaw, hush puppies, french fries and iced tea.