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Mikey’s This and That

A few random food observations on a snowy Madison Thursday afternoon…..

*Is there a reason why many canned soups have this gummy, almost plastic sheen of a taste these days? This is particularly true of so-called diet soups which I think use gummy fillers to make up for the loss of fat–i.e. loss of flavor. But they wind up making a chemical concoction that has totally turned me off of canned soup. I’ve been trying to make more of my own, which always tastes better, but it’s not always easy to find the time. Thankfully football season is over (well not really thankfully) which means more cooking for the week on Sundays with the wife.

*Salads just are not appealing in the winter. I sometimes find myself not getting enough vegetables in the winter, and a big reason is that I have almost no desire to eat healthy salads. That’s a summer thing, right? Maybe I need to make more soups. Where have I heard that before?

*I can’t believe Kristen fell on a sword on Top Chef: Seattle last week and didn’t throw Josie under the bus as she should have. I pegged her as the potential winner. I haven’t watched Last Chance Kitchen…but maybe she still can win if she won her LCK battle. But wow, Josie. Please go away.

*Speaking of Food TV, did you guys catch the first episode of that Rachel vs. Guy Celebrity cook off show on Food Network? That’s one of those reality shows that grabs its players from the depths of wherever they get contestants for Celebrity Fit Club. This season they’ve got the likes of Carney Wilson, Hines Ward and an actress and a socialite I’ve never heard of. And then there was Gilbert Gottfried. The poor dude doesn’t know how to boil water. So the first episode, he makes a peanut butter sandwich. Then, as he’s battling another contestant for elimination in the same episode, he makes a peanut butter sandwich AGAIN. Dude, who is your agent and why would they put you through that?

*I often profess my love for Trader Joe’s on here. But I’ve come across something that’s amazing even by their standards. This Speculoos Cookie Spread. It won their award for customer favorite product of 2012, so I bought a jar. Holy smokes. It’s like peanut butter-like crack in a jar. I don’t even know what it is made out of…but it’s like a “butter” that is sweet and has cookie pieces and hints of cinnamon and….well, just go try it, and if you don’t love it, then you don’t like food. It’s impossible to not like it.

What’s the obsession with green onions?

I came to realize well into my adult life that, while I may not be allergic to them, my belly just does not like green onions. Or, as my grandfather would say, “They don’t like me.” The thing is, though, I try. I love the taste of green onions. One of my favorite holiday foods growing up was green onion chip dip. But for whatever reason, if I eat more than a few of them, I have to reach for the Alka-Seltzer.

But let me tell you, avoiding green onions is almost impossible. If you like Mexican, Chinese, Thai or anything Southwest, you are likely going to encounter this vegetable. They are chopped up and added to wonton soup, stir fries, dumplings, quesadillas, spinach dip or get this–Taco Bell’s Mexican pizza. No joke, I have had to ask for my fast food Mexican pizza with no green onions. If I forget, I have to pick them off the top–but they have this way of multiplying and frustrating me. I have to look at ingredients before buying them.

Oooh, these Trader Joe’s dumplings look delicious–oh wait, green onions are the third ingredient. I took a Thai cooking class a few months ago and we made egg rolls and spring rolls from scratch, and guess what was in them? Same with the dumplings we made. Oooh, Southwest corn and chile dip! Wait, green onions. Hey, what’s Bobby Flay making? Oh, there he goes with the green onions.

I guess the one saving grace is that oftentimes the green onions are added as a garnish and can be omitted or scraped off before they immerse themselves in whatever dish it is. But as I mentioned earlier, they get tough to pick out, especially if they are stuck to melted cheese.

Then sometimes I think, “Hey, maybe I should try green onions again.” After all, I don’t like raw onions either, but I do love them grilled or caramelized or stir-fried….or, in onion rings. So recently I tried grilling some green onions that we received from our local CSA. Maybe the charred version would be okay to my insides. The result? Delicious, but the same old green onion indigestion or heartburn or whatever it is came right back. So I guess it’s something I’ll have to continue to avoid, and well, there could be worse things to have an aversion to I guess!

And hey, if you like green onions, more power to you, and you can have mine.

Andrew Zimmern’s crazy awesome wings

So a couple weeks back, I happened on an episode of Food Network’s Best Thing I Ever Made, which is the replacement for Best Thing I Ever Ate, for which I think they just ran out of ideas and categories for. And Andrew Zimmern was on there. You know, the guy from Travel Channel who has a show called Bizarre Foods, and eats some of the absolutely craziest things that anyone would ever put in their mouth–including one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever seen–bull schlong. Quite honestly, I drew the line right there and haven’t watched that show since.

But when I saw him dial up this recipe for “Grandmother’s Chinese chicken wings” and my mouth was watering right away. My mouth is watering as I type this, because I tried these things two Sundays ago and they were phenomenal. I made them again this past Sunday and I may make them every Sunday until the end of time. They were that good. And it’s not like they are crispy–you make them in a large pot and essentially stir fry them for like an hour. But holy crap, the sauce is like a parade of flavors–sweet, spicy, tangy, soy-ee. Anyway, I get it. I get why he tried to re-create these for years before a friend came across the recipe from a Chinese grandma. You have to get a few ingredients you may have trouble finding–dried chiles, star anise, sake and mirin. But you can usually find stuff like that in a store like Whole Foods, or giant grocery like Woodman’s here in Madison.

So do me a favor and do Zimmern a favor and try these wings for your next party. They will go FAST.

Mikey gives props to…..

Cooking Light Magazine–I’ve mentioned on here before that I am on Weight Watchers. Yes, it sometimes affects and stifles my creativity as a home cook, but it also opens up possibilities and challenges me. Well, I recently started subscribing to Cooking Light Magazine. And of all of the food magazine recipes I’ve made lately, almost everything we’ve tried the past two weeks from their 25th anniversary edition have been phenomenal. Here are a few you can try that we did:

Chef JimCreamy Four-cheese Macaroni & Cheese–You will not believe how few calories this is per serving. I defy anyone to find me a full-fat recipe that is as good as this one.

Chef JimCheesy Meat Loaf Minis–Some of the best meat loaf we have ever had. It helps that you can use full-fat cheddar, and being in Wisconsin, we have some good cheddar.

Chef JimTop Chef: Seattle–I need to be honest. I am a fan of the Top Chef brand, but have found Curtis Stone hosting Top Chef Masters to be grating. And their new Life After Top Chef is kind of so-so. But the original, which now is in Season 10 for Top Chef Seattle, remains one of the best shows on television, cooking show or otherwise. Bravo to Bravo and to Magical Elves production. I mean, I’d rather look at and listen to Padma Lakshmi than Curtis, and Tom Colicchio is like the Godfather of the show, but every season they do not disappoint with the collection of chefs, and with the episodes and challenges. It’s just a fun show to watch and guaranteed to make home chefs inspired.

Chef JimHome Run Inn Frozen Pizza–This is hands down the best frozen pizza on the planet. It comes from Chicago, so I’m not sure if they ship beyond the proximity of the Midwest, but my goodness. The crust is ridiculous–it tastes like fresh bakery bread. The sauce is perfectly simple with no garlic whatsoever, unlike many sauces on other frozen brands that ruin the pizza that way. The cheese is just mozzarella. And now they have thin crust varieties that are Weight Watchers friendly–for real.

Two food items from Bullz-Eye’s Holiday Gift Guide

I was asked to write up a couple of cool products for Bullz-Eye.com’s Holiday Gift Guide, and I thought I should share them here with you. Both are already getting much use here in Mikey’s Kitchen!

NFL Crock-Pot® Slow Cookers

Chef JimWhen we saw an ad for these NFL logo slow cookers, our resident New York Giants fan had to have one. Crock-Pot slow cookers have traditionally been marketed to women, and they have always been a great kitchen staple across America. The concept is awesome—you put meat, vegetables, potatoes, and/or rice, canned tomatoes, broth and whatever else your recipe calls for, let it cook slow for 8-10 hours and you have dinner ready when you want. For Sunday football, these are great for chili, hearty soup, or for keeping hot dogs warm in a slow cooker full of water. And what better way to tailgate than to show off your team logo while you’re doing so? Another great feature of this particular slow cooker is that there are latches on both sides in order to clamp the lid on tight, and also a small hole in the cover to allow steam to escape. So the NFL themed Crock Pot is efficient AND looks great on Sundays.

The Essential James Beard Cookbook

Chef JimWe love to cook, but as hard as it can be sometimes, we try to stay on the healthy side. Of course, like most guys, we do like to make steaks, burgers and wings and some heavier soups, chilis and pastas. Indulgence is something reserved for holidays or for special Sundays. Such is the case with the new James Beard cookbook—a compilation from 12 of Beard’s books. We thumbed through it and noticed that almost every recipe calls for A LOT of butter. Beard was an American chef, but there is no doubt that some of his techniques are classic French. And on that note, the two recipes we tried were Gruyere soup and Beef Bourguignon Saute. Total amount of butter for both recipes—somewhere around two sticks. But the thing is, these recipes were fairly easy—time consuming, but easy. And the best part was that we learned so much, like taking a cooking class from a master. In particular, we learned how to make an amazing sauce for the beef dish. But wait, there’s more—literally. There are 450 recipes, including appetizers, pasta, soups, entrees, sides and desserts. In other words, we have 448 more to try.

You call this a diet?

For the last couple of months, I’ve been on Weight Watchers, trying desperately to lose a few pounds at the urging of my doctor, who wasn’t too pleased at how high my blood pressure was. I lost 12 pounds and my blood pressure was a near-perfect 124/80 when I had my follow-up visit. Weight Watchers indeed works, and it’s not as difficult as you might think. I’m still on it but have been slacking a little and I know I’m going to veer a little during the holidays, but I know I need to eat good most of the time. And most of the time, this diet is not too bad.

This photo is of an egg sandwich I made this week and is a typical breakfast on this diet for me–a whole grain English muffin, scrambled egg, 2% slice of American cheese, turkey sausage patty, and this particular time–a super thin slice of pan seared salami, adding only a half a WW point but enough of a slice to give it some real salami flavor. It was like a meat lover’s egg sandwich and only 8 points.

I’m not telling you this to preach. I’m telling you this because sometimes diets can seem daunting when they really don’t have to be. And I know many of you will contemplate dieting or eating better during or after the holiday season.

Mikey’s kitchen tips

Happy Friday folks. I had this idea to come up with some kitchen tips for you, some that I learned quite a long time ago when my mom and brothers taught me how to cook; some from knowledge I gleaned on my own. Anyway, here are three tips and we’ll try to do this once a month or so…..

Perfect scrambled eggs–I can’t believe how long it took me to figure out how to properly cook eggs. In the past, I would scrambled the egg in a bowl and add it to a frying pan and almost seem like I was racing against time to try and cook the egg. Then for whatever reason, it struck me that scrambled eggs did not have to be rubbery and/or burnt around the edges. Maybe I saw Gordon Ramsay yelling at some chef on MasterChef or Hell’s Kitchen. Maybe I just figured it out on my own. Regardless, here is what to do–scramble the egg lightly and add a pinch each of Kosher salt and pepper. You can add a splash of milk too if you like, but I typically don’t. Anyway, heat the pan over medium-low heat and spray with cooking spray or add a tiny bit of butter. Add the eggs and stir gently, not leaving the stove. Just as the eggs begin to set, turn off the heat and stir a little more until just set and I mean JUST set. The result should be creamy and awesome eggs.

Soup add-ins–Lately I’ve had an obsession with raw jalapenos. If you’ve ever had pho, you might have had it with sliced jalapeno like this, but when I saw it done, I had to do it myself. But I took it further. I add raw, very thinly sliced jalapeno pepper to all of my soups, even if I make canned chicken noodle. It adds a great blast of heat, but natural, clean heat. Another thing I like to do is to add steak to soup, generally a soup that is already beef-based or a vegetable soup. I like to use tenderloin or sirloin, and the trick is to sear it on a grill or grill pan, for a minute or two on each side, and the key is to make sure it’s still not cooked in the middle. Of course, I’m not advocating to eat raw meat. Slice it very thin, and then add to your soup just as you’re about to eat it, and let the hot soup finish cooking the meat. That way you don’t have rubbery steak in your soup.

Football season = smoked meats time

One of my favorite things about football season is that while there is a chill in the air outside (for the most part, as even in Wisconsin we have some pretty warm weather through September) is that it’s a great time to break out the indoor smoker my wife bought me a few years ago. And while typically I make chicken wings in my Cameron Indoor Smoker, and occasionally ribs–the first two weeks of the season I went a tad healthier to honor the fact that I’m trying to lose weight.

Last week it was chicken tenders–extremely easy as I put them in the smoker frozen, sprayed with cooking spray and sprinkled with salt, pepper and other spices. The cooking time is minimal compared to the low and slow time needed to “tenderize” wings and ribs. I am pretty sure the chicken smoked for about three hours and came out perfect, albeit maybe slightly overcooked before I finished the tenders on the grill. I mixed up some homemade ranch dip by mixing light mayo, light sour cream, a splash of vinegar, onion and garlic powder and salt and pepper. Perfection.

Then yesterday I made a flank steak in the smoker. And it was made even more perfect by the fact that I was in Nashville this past weekend, and picked up some Loveless Cafe dry rub–an awesome sweet, spicy and savory blend to rub on meat before grilling or smoking it. I had the steak in the freezer, so also put that right in the smoker frozen and rubbed it generously with the spice mix. Then I smoked it for about four hours until tender and slapped it on the grill for about five minutes. Done deal: meat snacks! It’s like homemade jerky, but more like a combination of thick steak and jerky that is nicely smoked and seasoned.

An interview with folk musician Charlie Parr

In my other life, I am a music publicist. And one of my clients is Duluth based folk musician Charlie Parr, who is a global icon in Americana/folk circles. For good reason, too. The publicist in me says you should all listen to Charlie Parr (he re-released fan favorite albums 1922 and Glory in the Meeting House yesterday on House of Mercy Recordings and has a new studio album due in early 2013), but Charlie has an interesting method of cooking while on tour in his van — he cooks meals on top of his exhaust manifold. Well, being a foodie and music publicist, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to discuss this cooking method with Charlie and share it with all of you…..

Mikey’s Kitchen: When did you start cooking on your manifold and what was the first dish you made?

Charlie Parr: Year’s ago, at least 20 or so. I started with real simple re-heating stuff and made brats, warmed up corn-bread, heated up sandwiches.

MK: How long does it take to heat up any given dish?

CP: There are many variables, such as the weather. If it’s raining it won’t work, if it’s cold out, you may need to construct a simple air-dam to trap some heat, if it’s real hot you can’t go too far. Generally, all things being equal, I can get sufficient heat to warm something through in 20 miles or thereabouts. Cooking things like beans or veggies, or meats will usually go to about 50-75 miles depending on the dish. A nice melt-sandwich can be had in 30 miles depending on the weather. This is all freeway, by the way, traveling in traffic changes everything and is harder since if you cook in hot weather and your commute is 30 minutes in traffic, you’ll end up burning your breakfast burrito. It needs checking at about 15 minutes or less if you’re idling to see how it’s going. If you have a Dodge Van from about 1965 or so you can open the doghouse at the top while you’re driving and check it that way. But I don’t have one of those.

MK: What dish works the best with this method?

CP: I like making mixed veggies or black beans and rice. You start with three layers of tin foil with the folds at the top, make it easy to open and close since you’ll be checking and stirring once, add a bit of water for steam, and plenty of spice (I like Sriracha). If you’re using rice, the instant kind works best unless you’re cooking them separate (need a V8 for this). Make sure everything is mixed well and let her go for 30 miles–then stop and check and stir, re-wrap and maybe grab a new hot spot and go another 30-40 miles and it should be ready to eat.

MK: What limitations do you have cooking this way?

CP: Things that need to be checked a lot. Seafood is hard unless it’s precooked. Potatoes take a while and often need to be given more water about halfway through. Meat is hard unless it’s ground or in a sausage form, then it’s very easy. Things that need direct contact with heat (steaks, etc) are out since you’re really steaming everything and can’t apply direct heat (the food would get dirty/oily). Tin foil is the only thing I’ve found that conducts heat well enough to cook – I’ve tried little pans, foil pans, tin cans and those work sometimes, but tin foil works all the time and rarely leaks if you wrap it carefully.

MK: What you have you not tried yet that you would like to?

CP: I’ve started doing a few bread-style things and want to do more. I also have been meaning to do Toad-in-the-hole for some time, and I also got a vegetarian cookbook that I’m going to dig into and try some things. Emily’s (Charlie’s wife) not into this, though, so I can only really cook when I’m touring on my own.

For more information, please visit www.charlieparr.com

A delicious lunch–burger and spicy ketchup

I have a confession to make. I have many items that were sent to me that I have on tap to review, and I will start hammering those out in the next couple of weeks. Good for all of you for content, good for me for content, and good for my publicist friends who are being patient!

Now, I have another confession to make. I love burgers, and I found these most excellent Kobe beef burgers at Trader Joe’s. You let them defrost for a day in your fridge (or under cold water in the package if you have less time), and either grill or make in a skillet on your stove. Yesterday I remembered that I bought some Melinda’s Habanero Ketchup, and so I paired the two items for lunch. Even better, I picked up a nice big kaiser roll at the grocery store to put it on. Man, I’m getting hungry again.

So since it was about 95 degrees at lunchtime, and my deck is right in direct sun, I cooked this burger inside, with a dome over the pan to keep the steam and juices all locked in. And for some burgers, you just can’t load on lettuce, tomato or even (gasp!) cheese. So I did this the way I like it–a little salt on the burger, and then just the ketchup on both sides. And I lucked out too by cooking the burger perfectly–a little pink in the middle, and with the juices intact. And with the spicy tang of the ketchup, it was a masterpiece.

The downside? I had to finish working rather than take a long nap.

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