Friday, June 29, 2012

Classic Fourth of July BBQ: Baby Back Ribs

Something that might have occurred to readers of this blog: In addition to loving all sorts of fried foods, Will and I enjoy using the grill as much as possible.  In fact, we’ve gotten quite creative for our uses of the grill: we use the rotisserie for whole chickens, lay a cast-iron griddle on the grill to get the juiciest burgers, put a mesh basket on to grill small pieces of kebabs, take advantage of the side burner to fry fish (so as not to stink up the inside of our condo).  And, of course, we also cook food actually, directly, on the grill!

One of our favorite summer meals—and one that announces summer holiday weekend! like few others—is baby-back ribs.  This is no quick char-it-on-the-grill-last-minute kind of meal. It definitely takes some planning and advance notice, but we would never go through an entire summer without at least one long-weekend rib dinner for Memorial Day, Labor Day, or, of course, Fourth of July.

Here is a preparation guideline to help you plan your big day:

Step 1: Procure your meat; remove the lining, wash and pat dry, and apply the rub.

Especially if you get your meat from the store—and not from a butcher who might respond to special requests—you would likely need to tear off the thin (and often tough) membrane lining on the underside of the ribs.  Some parts will be papery, others will seem fatty like sausage skin, and still other parts will seem like very persistent tape stuck on your meat.  Whatever kind it is, you need to tear it off unless you want to feed everybody some very tough ribs.

Then wash and pat dry your ribs before applying the rub.  As you know, we follow Steven Raichlen on most barbecue-related matters, and this time is no different.  While we do not choose to apply the “wet mop” (a little too vinegary for our tastes), we do religiously rub on the dry spices he recommends.  (Here’s a link to the whole recipe:

Don’t fuss about not having all the spices since some of them can be substituted or even skipped without hugely diminishing the flavor of your ribs.  If you only have light brown sugar or smoked paprika, that’s not a problem.  Especially for the spices you need in smaller quantities—like celery salt, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, dry mustard, and ground cumin—you can use your judgment and your own tastes about what will and will not be a deal (meal)-breaker.  For me, I’d sooner skip celery salt and dry mustard before foregoing cayenne pepper, garlic power, or cumin.  After you rub on the spices, let the meat rest in the refrigerator (4-8 hours, or overnight) while you get everything else ready.

Step 2: Bake your dessert.

If you are not lucky enough to use a grill for the ribs, you will need to make sure that your oven is free for your main course.  Even if you don’t need the oven for the ribs, it’s a good idea to get your dessert baked and done with.  A pie should be cooled enough to have thickened all the juices anyway, so giving yourself a few hours to prepare, bake, and cool the pie is altogether a good idea.

Obviously, apple pie is a traditional favorite for this holiday.  Cherry pie is tasty too. For the meal pictured, we decided to go with a Raspberry Rhubarb Crostata with a whole wheat crust.  (Click here for the Bon Appetit recipe:  Will thought that the dough seemed a bit more wet than it ought to be, and we didn’t want to risk the crust splitting open and spilling the fruit all over the hot oven.  So we opted to place the crust in a large round casserole-type dish.  It becomes an easy way to make a free-form crust for a pie.  Try it that way!

Step 3: Start your grill, start your ribs.

Though traditionalists swear by a charcoal grill (it gets hotter, smokier, more flavorful), we have a gas grill and find the convenience outweighs the small bit of loss in flavor of that choice.  So we preheat the grill at high and then lower it to medium heat once we are ready to cook.  Throw on the ribs meat-side up, close the grill, and cook for about 1½ hours, checking periodically to make sure that there are no major flare-ups or that the meat is cooking too fast or slowly.

Step 4: Make your creamy cole slaw.

We like potato salad, but it’s definitely cole slaw we choose to accompany ribs.  In the south, vinegary cole slaw is preferred with ribs, but we make our slaw creamy.  Really, no recipe is required.  Shred green cabbage very fine with a sharp knife (I opt for this, but you can shred it in the food processor).  Finely julienne a carrot or two.  If you have red cabbage as well, you can shred a bit of that too—for additional color.  No other veggies.  No onion, no green pepper, etc.  Just cabbage and carrots.

In a separate bowl, combine mayonnaise, a bit of white vinegar, some sugar, salt, and pepper (optional) until you like the taste and the consistency (which should be fairly thick still).  Add mixture to the shredded veggies and combine well.  Taste for seasoning and adjust accordingly.  Put your slaw in the refrigerator for at least one hour for flavors to meld.  Before serving, check for seasoning again and adjust.  You should find that the flavors change as the slaw rests, and that the mixture will become a bit more liquidy as well.

Step 5: Heat up baked beans, barbecue sauce, and eat!

We are almost ready to eat, and there are only a few simple steps remaining.  Final sprinkling of the dry-rub spices to turn up the flavor for the last 10-15 minutes of cooking time.  We love the flavor of the dry-rubbed ribs, but some people think “barbecue” means barbecue sauce.  A good compromise is to heat up a portion of barbecue sauce and serve it on the side.

You can bake your own beans if you’d like, but Bush’s has a large variety of excellent beans not worth challenging when you are preparing the rest of the meal.  So we open up a large can of beans, and heat.  Now, we are ready to eat.

Happy Holiday weekend!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Mixed Berry-Vanilla Smoothie and the Vitamix: My New Best Friends in the Kitchen

You know how learning a new word makes you realize how much that word is used by the rest of the world?  In fact, now you cannot even imagine that not-too distant past when you were so ignorant that you weren't able to squeeze that word into every conversational context?  Well, that sort of describes my relationship with the Vitamix.

I long ago registered hazily the existence of the Vitamix and knew friends who possessed them.  I walked past myriad demonstrations of its superior blending power in shops and department stores and tried to avoid having to make eye contact with the perky people leading those demonstrations.  What I needed though was to be bombarded with the Vitamix as I was the last few months to finally acknowledge and appreciate its significance.

At first it was Gwyneth Paltrow (of all people) who, months ago, re-jiggered my memory of an appliance called a Vitamix.  (The very first time I heard of it, I thought it was a vitamin-fortified drink…)  It was mentioned in an issue of Bon Appetit featuring her new cookbook that she loves the Vitamix’s ability to blend soups to a creamy consistency without the addition of cream.  Then I came across the Vitamix again in an issue of Food & Wine in which an amateur cook extolled its virtues in helping her make fresh almond milk every morning.  I casually mentioned the Vitamix to Will only to find out that he had himself just read about how Thomas Keller—in his Ad Hoc at Home cookbook—said that a Vitamix was an indispensable piece of kitchen equipment. 

We debated.  Do we really need another kitchen appliance?  As it is, we have no more room on the kitchen counter.  But didn’t we decide that we wanted to make more smoothies in the morning?  Wouldn’t a more powerful Vitamix help blend together the frozen mixed berries and vanilla soy milk into a creamier smoothie?  After all, our Oster blender—while fine with soups and sauces—seemed to whine pathetically whenever we blended frozen items in it.  But then again, the Vitamix is not inexpensive and thus not a frivolous purchase to make just because an athlete and an actress said in (advertisement-rich) magazines that they liked it.  Yes, almost as expensive as a New York City dinner that was over and forgotten about in 3 hours.  You can see how the rest of this debate raged on.

Ultimately, a routine shopping excursion to Costco proved the deciding factor.  They had a $25 instant rebate coupon when we were shopping there during our Vitamix debate phase.  That small but still unexpected piece of saving and the generous full 7-year warranty on the product (who else gives 7-year warranties on kitchen equipment?) made us feel that the product will give us at least 7 years of satisfactory use.  Our mental calculations went something like this: If we make a smoothie 100 days out of the year, then that is 700 smoothies over the life of the warranty, thus making each improved smoothie only ______ cents per serving, etc.  Never mind how much almond milk we could consume (but only if we had the Vitamix)!  We never had a chance.  The Vitamix came home with us that afternoon.

Though we are chagrined at our inability to resist impulse purchases, we are delighted with the purchase itself.  We’ve already used the Vitamix more in the past month than we used our former blender in the past two years.  A chilled asparagus soup (pictured below) blended to such a creamy consistency that it did indeed feel like cream had been added.  But really, the star of the show is the simple soy-berry smoothie which we do make about every other morning.

Mixed Berry-Vanilla Smoothie (a recipe for 2):

1 cup Vanilla Soy Milk
1 cup Frozen Mixed Berries (of any kind)
Optional Add-in: ½ peeled banana or mango

Vitamix blender

1) Pour soy milk into blender.  Pour in the cup of frozen mixed berries.  If you are adding banana or mango, you can add that in now too. 

2) Take the center of the lid out and fit the lid of the Vitamix with the “tamper” (the thing that looks like a small plunger) and snap the lid on.  Have the Vitamix at the “Variable” power and at speed 1 (from 1-10) before turning the power on.

3) Turn the power on and then turn the speed dial to 10, and then the power to “High.”  You might or might not need to jiggle the tamper in the middle—depending on whether an air pocket gets trapped.  Blend until the consistency is to your liking.  Then return to “Variable” and “1” before turning the machine off.

(Note: The speed dials are for my Vitamix 5200.  Other models might have slightly different numbers and power designations, but the basic idea is the same: you should move from lower variable speed to higher rather than just starting at High power.)

To your health! 

Friday, June 15, 2012

Roast-Your-Own Gourmet Honey Sesame Cherry Almonds

Everywhere we turn, there is yet another nutrition story giving testimony to the health benefits of almonds.  It’s a “superfood” that could even help you lose weight!  It’s a “good fat” that gives you energy!  You should keep bags of almonds around as substitutes for unhealthy snacks!  Well it’s a good thing that they are so good for us, because they are also very tasty to boot and can be somewhat addictive.

So, everywhere we turn, there is yet another almond product that is being sold, another nut mix that is being advertised.  Will and I have consumed several of these products, and perhaps some of our favorite mixes are part of the Sahale Snacks line.  We find their Barbecue Almonds (Mild Chipotle + Ranch) almost too salty to let the other flavors through, but both Glazed Almonds (Cranberries, Honey + Sea Salt) and Pomegranate Pistachios (with Almonds, Cherries + Black Pepper) are excellent.  We look forward to trying out more varieties.  (Here's a link to their products if you are interested in seeing more varieties:

In the meantime, I decided to try roasting my own nuts, and I’ve had a fair amount of success with these attempts.

Pictured below is Maple Rosemary Mixed Nut Roast, with walnuts, pecans, and almonds:

A simple Honey Smoked Almonds might actually be Will’s favorite:

Probably the most versatile mix—one that includes dried fruits, another good-food item—is Honey Sesame Cherry Almonds.  Although I originally intended to replicate Sahale’s Glazed Almonds, my mix turned out quite different—more sesame-y, less sweet, less glazed.  Not better, but different.  Here’s my recipe:

Honey Sesame Cherry Almonds


3 cups almonds (unroasted)
½ cup dried cherries halved (or ½ cup dried cranberries)
¼ cup sesame seeds (untoasted)
¼ cup honey
2 T butter
(Optional dash of cayenne pepper or a small splash of vanilla extract)
Kosher salt, to taste
Turbinado sugar, to taste


1.  Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Mix almonds, cherries, and sesame seeds in a large bowl.

2.  Microwave honey and butter together in a measuring cup at 10-15 second intervals until the butter is melted and the mixture is combined (stirring between intervals).  Lightly salt (more of that later) and, if you are using cayenne or vanilla, add to the mixture in cup.  Combine well and then pour the liquid over the nut mix and stir well to coat almonds.

3.  Spread the mixture in a single layer on a half-sheet pan (large baking sheet with raised sides).  Roast for 25 minutes, making sure that you take the pan out of the oven to stir about halfway through the cooking time.  Stir again after the full roasting time.  Carefully (they will be hot!) taste one to see if the nut is roasted to your liking.  If you want it a bit more roasted—browner, crunchier—you can return the pan to the oven for another 3-5 minutes.  I do not recommend roasting for longer since nuts will get a little harder, and cook a bit more, as it cools on the sheet. 

4.  Once the nut mix is out of the oven, sprinkle some kosher salt and turbinado sugar evenly over the still slightly wet nuts.  You could start with ¼ teaspoon increments of salt and ½ teaspoon increments of sugar and then continue according to your taste.  Mix well, cool completely, and then take a fork to break apart nuts that stuck together.

Note: Adding the salt and sugar at this stage insures that they adhere to the nuts (providing that perfect combination of salty and sweet).  The addition also helps the mix become less sticky.  You will probably find yourself periodically taking a fork to break apart nuts that stick together, but hopefully you will eat them all before the process gets too tiresome.

Now you have your own gourmet nut mix that costs just a fraction of those you purchase!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Lavender Scones, Take Me Away!

I have two very fond travel memories of lavender.  In early June 2004, Will and I were driving around Provence—staying in Avignon, to be precise—and got a glimpse of lavender fields.  The lavender wasn’t in full bloom yet, but there was enough of a promise there to enable me to imagine lush rows of lavender later in the season.  We haven’t made it back to see the lavender as our subsequent trips to France have brought us only to Paris, but we dream of spending more time in the French countryside, hopefully sometime in the not-too-distant future.   

We did more recently (in late June 2010) get to see lavender in full bloom when we visited Ali’i Kula Lavender farm in Maui (click here for their website:  I don’t know what was more heavenly—the scent of lavender or the beauty of the purple rows.  It also helped that the higher elevation of the farm allowed us a brief respite from the heat of Hawaii in late June.  Between the cool breeze, the scents, the views, and the gift shop's unique lavender items (a jar of strawberry-lavender-pepper jam full of sweet-herby-spicy goodness came back with us), the visit to the lavender farm was almost surreal-ly beautiful.

One of the items at Ali’i Kula Lavender farm gift shop was something I have been seeing a lot more of lately: lavender scones.  In fact, culinary possibilities of lavender have exploded such that I see lavender in tea, honey, ice cream, truffle, cake, chutney, etc.  At home, I sometimes add a ½ teaspoon of dried lavender flowers to a pot when I brew Earl Grey.  Alternatively, I stir into my already brewed tea a teaspoon of lavender honey that my sister-in-law gave me. 

Of course, a perfect accompaniment to afternoon tea is lavender scones, and I would like to share a recipe here.  I modified this recipe from Bon Appetit’s May 2012 issue for a slightly smaller yield with a bit more intense flavor of lavender.  I also prefer to use a food processor for preparing scone dough since handling the cold butter as little as possible yields the most flaky scones.  If you want to make 16 with a milder lavender flavor (or don't possess a food processor), here is a link to the original BA recipe:

Lavender Tea Scones
(Makes 12)


2 cups flour
½ cup sugar
2 t baking powder
½ t salt
½ t baking soda
1 ½ t dried lavender flowers
½ c (1 stick) cold butter
2/3 cup buttermilk (and some more for brushing)
1 t grated lemon zest
1 t vanilla extract
1 T turbinado sugar

Optional Accompaniments:
Lavender honey and/or Lemon curd


1.  Preheat oven to 425 degrees and line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper.

2.  Sift together into the bowl of a food processor the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda.  Pulse briefly to combine, and then add the lavender and pulse again.  Cut up the cold butter into smaller pieces (about ½ T each) and then pulse a few more times until the mixture is still loose and crumbly, with most of the butter incorporated but with some visible larger bits of butter.  Put flour-butter mixture in a large bowl.

3.  Combine buttermilk, lemon zest and vanilla extract.  Pour liquid mixture into the bowl with the flour-butter mixture, and then stir with a large fork or spoon just until the wet dough comes together a bit.  (See picture below to see how wet the dough should look.)

4.  On floured parchment paper or a cutting board, knead the scone dough a few turns just until it comes together and is relatively smooth, and then—just with your hands, not a rolling pin—form a rectangle about 9x6.  Cut horizontally once and then length-wise twice so that you are left with 6 squares of 3x3.  Cut each square diagonally.  You should have 12 scones.

5.  Place all scones on baking sheet, evenly spread apart.  Then brush with extra buttermilk, and then sprinkle turbinado sugar.

6.  Bake for about 12-13 minutes, until the scones are lightly browned.  Remove from oven, and then let cool another few minutes before removing the scones from the cookie sheet.

(Note: Refrigerate scones that you will not be eating within 2 days.  Scones are best served slightly warm—with little bits of crusty ends—so reheat in a 325 degree oven for 5-7 minutes to warm and to re-crisp.) 

Serve with lavender honey or lemon curd.  Tea is always a nice accompaniment too.  Take in the fragrance of the warm lavender scones, and then wait to be transported to Provence or Maui!