Sunday, July 31, 2011

Philly cheesesteaks in New Jersey.

The doggy days of summer are starting to get to me, that is to say I am getting lazy.  I am not feeling an urge to stand by the hot kitchen stove.  All I want to do is chill by the pool with a glass of summer wine and play hooky from work.  So when I had to feed a whole bunch of kids a nice feeling meal, I thought of street food.  After all, it is quick, easy, and does not include a list of ingredients a mile long.  I was so lazy that even burgers were not an option, so when I saw shaved beef in the store I immediately thought of Philly cheese steaks.  Ultimate decadent street food, when cooked right.  Born on the streets of Philadelphia in the 30’s, originally it was chopped steak served with sautéed onions in a soft roll.   The original version sold at the Philly Italian market was made without cheese.  Provolone was added later.  There are horror stories of major rivalries, which include the famous Cheese Wiz or Provolone question.  The standoff continues even in my household, with my husband in the Provolone camp and myself firmly on the Cheese Wiz side. 
The whole process takes 20 minutes, I promise and is too simple to screw up.  So if you have a soft spot for ultimate street food or nostalgia for the streets of Philly, go ahead and try these. 

Philly Cheesesteaks. ( makes 6)
2 med yellow onions thinly sliced
1 bell pepper any color thinly sliced
2 cups of sliced button mushrooms ( optional)
2 lbs of shaved beef steak
1 lbs of thinly sliced Provolone cheese or Cheese Wiz
6 freshly baked hoagie rolls.
1 tbs butter
Olive oil
1 tbs of sugar
Salt and Pepper to taste

Preheat  a large skillet.  Melt the butter and olive oil.  Add mushrooms if using and let the brown on all sides.  Do not salt the mushrooms or they will take a longer time to brown.  Lower the heat to low-med, add the onions and the peppers.  Add sugar, salt and pepper.  Cook the vegetables on low heat stirring often until translucent and start to caramelize. 

In the meantime preheat a griddle on the grill or stove.  Make sure it is piping hot.  Add a little bit of olive oil and cook the shaved meat in batches, taking care not to overload the surface.  Season the meat with salt and pepper.  When the meat is cooked through and well browned, stir in the onion mixture. 

Split each hoagie roll length wise and line with cheese.  Cover the beef mixture with cheese slices and let them melt for a minute or so.  Using two spatulas separate the meat, onion and cheese mixture into six equal portions and place each in the hoagie roll lined with more cheese.

Keeps the teens happy and that says a lot!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Travels and tastes of Virginia

It is no secret that I love food, but more than food I love wine and travel.  And when you can put them all together into one experience, this makes my perfect holiday.  Last summer, before this blog was born, we went away to our first wine tasting weekend up to the New York Finger lakes region.  The trip left me mesmerized and I wowed to take the same type of trip every year to different wine countries. What can possibly be better than driving through beautiful country sides, from vinery to vinery, taking in the sites, the scents and the buzz?   This year, we decided on Central Virginia’s Monticello region mostly for practical reasons, not knowing what to expect in terms of wine or countryside.  The trip was unforgettable.
Central Virginia is absolutely beautiful, covered in gorgeous meadow farms.  The long narrow roads, winding in the woods.  The little ponds and lakes and bright houses with rocking chairs out on the southern porches.  There is just a hint of the Southern charm peeking through in people and places you encounter.  It is the glimpse of a house flying a Confederate flag instead of the US one, it is the fields covered in wild flowers, it is country music played in the streets of Charlottesville, and the beautiful vineyards nested between the rolling hills.
The wineries range from tiny, one obsessed winemaker owned, to huge Napa style castles.  Some have manicured grounds, complete with anything you need to hold a grand event from a wedding to a polo match.  Some feel almost amusement-park-like, and some are reminiscent of a friend’s living room. 
Virginia is United States third largest wine producer behind California and New York states.  Unlike New York, which produces excellent whites and only a few well deserved reds, Virginia’s reds are much more mature, balanced and varied.  You will find excellent Cab Franks, Merlot and even Petit Verdot, as well as many very successful Bourdoux style blends.  The whites are drier and cleaner, with the Viogneer and Chardonnays as predominant grapes.  After last summer’s Riesling fest up in Finger Lakes, this was a nice surprise. 
With over fifty wineries in a Monticello region, you can’t possibly visit them all in three days.  We certainly tried.  And my basement wine racks are now the proof, as they are filled completely.  I am sure that sometime this winter I will be opening a bottle of wine, and question my reasons for buying it.  I would say that the boozy buzz of all day tastings does leave you to deal with a few misfortunate purchases, but for the most part, there will be no regrets.
We stayed in the most charming bed and breakfast, which in my opinion is the only way to travel to experience all of the region’s character.  It was brightly painted houses, done in the true southern country style.  Thirteen acre property filled with gardens, vines and roaming ducks and chickens. 

A swing set and a beautiful garden has a feel of a doll-house, not quite real, perfect for truly taking your head on complete vacation

The breakfast veranda, reminded me of summer houses we used to rent when I was a kid.  Always brightly covered table, with the feel of permanent summer.  I just can’t imagine this place in the winter, although it must be beautiful.

A gazebo to spend a lazy afternoon, I swear the place has hypnotic powers because your mind stays completely still there.

The endless vineyards,
farms, meadows and ponds. 
I could hardly belive that a hussle and busse of any city even exists anywhere.

It really made me long for a simpler life.

The winery highlights included Pollak winery which had the most amazing Merlot and the grounds with the pretties pond.
Blenheim Vineyard had the best wine, their woman winemaker's touch leaves all of their wines soft and balanced.
The Glass House winery which is done in the very original style of the tropics.  The winery only opened in December of 2010, but the wine is surprisingly good and the grounds are beautiful.

And this is that moment of the day, when all wine tastes pretty much the same and the life is at it’s greatest.

A very needed shot of espresso at the  right time ( right after the buzz starts to wear off and you remeber why a hangover is not the most pleasant way to end the day)

When the you need something other than wine, stop at the local brewery and pick up these jugs of beer to take home - or dink on the spot if you can

If you are feeling brave take a long, wild, very winding road through the woods up to the Stone Mountain Vineyards. If you don't wet your pants driving up there, you will be rewarded with the most amazing view of the valley. 

And on the way back to your busy, crazy life, stop by a truck stop and pick up the real deal southern BBQ and sweet tea.  The kind that can only be found on a side of the road, and has to be eaten on the hood of the car.

Vigrinia was unforgettable and I hope to go back one day.  But for now, every time I open a bottle of it's wine, I will go back to the lazy bright afternoons at the High Meadow B&B, to the fields buzzing with bees, to the sunshine peaking thrugh the branches of the magnolia trees.  And of course to the wonderful tastes and sites of Virginia's wineries and sweet, perfect fruit that is responsible for so much joy in the world.  Because ultimately it was all about the wine.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

My very best Chili - seriously!

When I think of chili I think of a bunch of cowboy boot and hat wearing tough guys standing around some frontier town with their guns ready to draw.  Very intimidating picture, but seriously, I think of the 400 yearly cook-offs that take place throughout the country, each cook claiming the most authentic, the most balanced and correct version of a poor man’s stew.  Also very intimidating.  If I were to join one (even the one held yearly in Brooklyn!) would I be laughed out of the park?  What can a girl with the Jewish-Russian background know of proper chili, but I actually think, I got this one in the bag.  It did take quite a few experimental rounds but well worth it.  So maybe next year, I will put away the intimidation and join the fight for the best chili in town, guns blazing and all.
Contrary to a popular belief chili did not originate in Mexico.  If it did, it would still be there today, but it is not, aside from few touristy places.  Chili was the poor man’s stew, the first colonist around South west in 1600 and 1700 hundreds would cook something known as “Spanish stew”, which was no more than a clay pot filled with scraps of meat, minced very fine, beans, bread and lots of local peppers.  The meat was so expensive and hard to come by that it had to be stretched out by adding lots of other things.  Also the meat was basically scraps, which were tough and required a long stewing process to make them palatable. 
Chili is not a name of the dish, as there are thousands of ways to make it, but is named after the tremendous variety of chili peppers that grow in the South West region of US.  The chili became more mainstream with the invention of the chili powder, which no one can claim as their own invention.  It is believed that whoever invented the chili powder deserves a slot in history close to Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite.
I prefer to make Texas style chili, which is all meat and no beans.  I played around quite a bit with meats and spices and finally settled on bison meat as I find it the leanest.  I also find that it adds a bit of ‘gaminess’ to my chili, which I think it traditionally had.
Now comes the spicy questions, how hot can you take it?  In the recipe below I give suggestions for adjusting the spice.  Ultimately, everyone will come up with their comfortable level of heat.  Just to clear things up, my family likes the chili very spicy, but since I normally cook for a bit of an extended audience, I try to tune things down just to please the majority. 
Now another question is how to serve the chili.  Some serve it over rice or pasta (shocked?  This is how it down in Cincinnati).  I totally think it should stay on its own with just a few condiments. 

My best Chili
Note: the recipe below is for 4 lbs of meat.  It can be easily adjusted up or down.
4 lbs of ground bison.  You can substitute by using beef, but stay with a very lean ground meat. 
2 med Spanish onions minced
5 cloves of garlic minced
1 cup of bacon finely sliced (Optional)
1 pint of beer (I like ale)
½ cup of olive oil
36 oz of crushed fire roasted tomatoes
1 cup of beef stock
1 tbs of toasted ground cumin
1 tbs of smoked paprika
1 tbs of chili powder
1 tbs of Mexican style chili powder
1 tsp of ground cinnamon
½ tsp of ground nutmeg
1 tsp of ground ginger
1 tsp of cayenne pepper (optional - omit or half if trying to keep the heat down)
1 tbs of ancho chili powder
2 chilies in adobo minced (optional - omit or half if trying to keep the heat down)
2 tbs of adobo sauce
2 tbs of honey
2 tbs of soy sauce
1 lime
 Salt and pepper to taste

Combine all dry spices and mix them together.

In a heavy bottom pot such as a Dutch oven, heat a bit of olive oil and brown all the meat in batches.  Set aside.  If using bacon, brown it until crispy and set aside. 

Using the bacon fat, or olive oil sauté the onions on low heat until tender.  Add the garlic and sauté a few minutes.  Add all the dry spices and the canned chilies in adobo with the adobo sauce.  Let cook a few minutes on low heat, stirring often.

Add the honey, soy sauce and beer and scrape all the brown bits of the bottom of the pan.  Let the mixture cook for 3 – 5 minutes.  Add back the meat and the bacon (if using), tomatoes and salt and pepper to taste.  The liquid should cover all the meat, if not add the reserved beef stock.
Cover and simmer for 2.5 – 3 hours.  Stir once in a while to make sure the bottom is not burning.  Half way through check for seasoning and add salt as needed.
The chili is best the next day after it had time to mull over in the fridge.  I like to reheat and squeeze 1 lime into it just before digging in.

Serve with few corn chips, shredded cheese and scallions on the side. Avocado and sour cream also make popular condiments for chili, especially for those who need to cut the spice factor.

Of course a nice glass of beer doesn’t hurt either! Enjoy!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Best Party Sangria

Believe it or not Sangria and wine based punches date back to antiquity. The quality of European water was so poor that that the common practice of adding alcohol to it was a mere sanitation necessity.   Wine diluted with water as added herbs and spices was consumed by everyone kids and adults alike.  The actual Sangria recipe originated somewhere in the Southern Spain.  The region produced great citrus and fruit but was not a great red grape region.  Winemakers were adding citrus and brandy to inferior wines to spice them up.  Sangria was really not a common drink in the United States until it was featured by the Spanish at the New York World Fair in the 60s. 
Now though it is the ultimate summer party drink.  It goes great with BBQ, it is easy to drink in the heat and it sure as hell has potential to make your party quite fun when consumed by guests in great quantities.
Sangria was traditionally made only with red wine, however I love white sangria.  I find it less abrasive and easy to drink.  I am not a fan of adding any sugar or sweet fruit juices to it, after all it should not taste like juice. Let the wine and brandy do their own talking.   I think the natural sweetness of the wine can just be amplified with fruit.  The very traditional method of mixing just the wine, brandy, fruit and spices can produce a very balanced and pleasant tasting drink. 
One more thing, Sangria needs time to have all those flavors marry, so always make your Sangria the day before serving.  And make a lot, last thing you want is to run out in the middle of a party.

White Sangria
Note: The recipe is for 5 litters of wine, but can be adjusted up or down easily.
5 litters of dry white wine (I like Chablis or Pinot Gris) – for God sakes don’t skimp on the wine.  You do not need to spend a fortune but pick a wine that you would drink on its own.
2 cups of brandy or cognac
3 ripe peaches or nectarines  
1 apple
1 lemon
1 orange
½ cup of blueberries
2 tbs of fresh ginger minced very fine
1 cup of orange juice
1 cup of seltzer or soda water

Heat the orange juice until very hot and mix with ginger.  Let stand for 1 hr until the juice is infused with the gingerly goodness. Strain and mix with wine, brandy and seltzer.  Cut up the fruit into byte size pieces, add to the wine.
Let stand overnight, serve chilled but not diluted with ice.

Enjoy but beware of the hangover!

I think this is a happy customer; he may have been drinking for a while.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Tiramisu for 4th of July

As holidays go, in book, nothing beats the 4th of July.  Think about it, it is the middle of the summer holiday which is celebrated by all citizens, regardless of their religious or philosophical affiliation.  Unlike Thanksgiving, there are no family obligations and unlike Memorial and Labor days there are no exams or back-to-school worries for the kids and parent s alike.  It is the freedom holiday, freedom from school year, freedom from the cold weather and the only regret I usually have around 4th of July is the fact that adults don’t have summer breaks.    As long as it doesn’t rain….
Of course 4th of July is as much about food as it is about freedom, fireworks and beach weather.  The ultimate BBQ, pot luck feast that is probably going on in most backyards right about now.  Unless you live in a tri-state area and your party just got re-scheduled for tomorrow because it is raining “cats and dogs” over here. 
Next time you decide what to contribute to a 4th of July feast (or any other day for that matter), I strongly suggest making a tiramisu.  It is delicious and luscious desert, it can be made to feed as many people as needed and it doesn’t need to be backed, which is ultimately everyone’s goal in the middle of the summer.  I give a classic tiramisu flavor a few twists of my own by playing with the liquor flavors and adding a layer of sour cherries which are in peak season right now.  I soak the pitted cherries in rum overnight and use their natural juice and rum jus to flavor the coffee, cognac soaking liquid.
And of course if you are feeling particularly patriotic this holiday, go ahead and decorate the whole thing as an American flag...after all we do live in a great country, let’s not forget that!

Tiramisu (makes 9” by 13” dish)
6 egg yolks
1 cup sugar + 1 tbs
16 oz of mascarpone cheese at room temperature
2/3 cup of heavy cream
½ cup of cognac
¼ cup dark run
¼ cup Kahlua
1 cup strong coffee or espresso
4 packages lady fingers (you will need about 50 in all)
1 – 1 ½ lbs of sour cherries pitted
1 oz of bitter sweet chocolate ( very cold or frozen)
Raspberries and blueberries for decoration ( optional)

Make the Zabayon cream by combining egg yolks, sugar and 1 tbs of cognac in the heat proof bowl.  Whip over boiling water (make sure the surface of the water does not touch the bottom of the bowl – or your eggs will scramble) until pale yellow and thick and ribbons appear. 

Whisk in the softened mascarpone cheese.  Whip the heavy cream until thick, add 1 tbs of sugar and whip to combine.  Fold into the zabayon until you have a thick pale yellow smooth cream.

Combine the liquid from the soaked cherries with the leftover cognac and coffee. Soak each lady finger in the coffee mixture for a few seconds and layer the bottom of the 9” by 13” glass dish. 

Top with the layer of cherries and then a layer of cream.  Shave some of the chocolate on top of the cream.  Repeat with another layer of soaked lady fingers and cream.  I usually do not add the cherries to the second layer as I find that to much fruit begins to overpower the subtle coffee and cognac flavor.  Smooth the cream on top with a spatula. 

Shave some of the chocolate on top and refrigerate overnight.  Tiramisu needs at least 6 hours to fully soak thru and for all the flavors to mingle together.  It is best the next day but can be made a few days in advance as well.  If needed it can be frozen and then defrosted in the fridge.

So go ahead, enjoy the beautiful desert, BBQ and summer fun and don’t forget to appreciate the freedoms and opportunities that this beautiful country has to offer!