Monday, December 22, 2008

The Gin Rickey

It's been a while since I've blogged, and I apologize for that. My only hope is that die hard readers are still checking back and RSS might reel in some old-timers. I've traveled, done a bit of writing, completed a few projects, and most importantly, sipped on some of the finest spirits around; which brings me to my current journey, cocktails. I've never considered myself a "mixed drink" person, short Margaritas and White Russians, but what kind of well rounded individual would I be never knowing the simple yet complex flavors of the Gibson or the Orange Blossom. I'm still can't abide cloyingly sweet drinks that require a laundry list of ingredients to make, and I would much rather have a simple, well made drink that contains only the freshest ingredients.

Which brings us to the Gin Rickey. What better way to start my voyage into the overwhelming world of cocktails than with this classic. It's sharp, refreshing, clean, and potent. Enjoyed by the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, this drink was a classic during the 20's and 30's. I make mine with Bombay Sapphire Gin due to its complexity imparted by no fewer than ten exotic herbs and spices. I know many people are turned off by the juniper flavor of gin, but I've managed to convert several gin-haters these past few weeks. A good, inexpensive, starter gin with more citrus flavor than juniper is New Amsterdam Gin by E&J Gallo. It works great in a Gin Rickey, but won't be quite as complex as Bombay.

Before I go into the recipe, a brief word about cocktails. Really great cocktails are made from the best ingredients. This doesn't mean that you need to put $60 tequila in a margarita, that would probably be a waste. Tequila of that caliber is meant to be sipped straight up or with a splash of water; the lime juice would completely overpower the subtle flavors of the tequila. What you should be using is silver tequila that says somewhere on the bottle "100% de agave." That indicates the tequila was made from pure agave juice, otherwise it could contain 49% sugar. Learn the trademarks of a quality spirit, and purchase one appropriate for the drink you are making.

And fruit. A margarita contains lime juice, orange liquor, and tequila. Nothing else. And if you're reaching for a little plastic bottle that looks like a lime or, even worse, a neon green bottle of mixer, just stop. Go out and seek fresh lemons and limes. Too expensive you say? Try buying limes at La Esquinita or GFS. Both have pretty decent deals, and will keep you off the wagon for some time. La Esquinita often has very fresh limes no more expensive than 6/$1.00. Bottom line, nothing beats freshly squeezed orange, grapefruit, lemon, and lime juice. Grab some quality olives for your martini. People will rave about your cocktails, and you'll be enjoying drinks of higher quality than can be purchased in Peoria. I can't think of any bar in Peoria that uses freshly squeezed juices in their cocktails, which is a damn shame considering the price you pay.

The Gin Rickey:
2 oz. Gin
3/4 oz. Lime Juice
Club Soda
Lime Wheel

Pour the gin and lime juice into a chilled high ball glass filled with ice cubes. Stir with a bar spoon to dilute slightly. Top with club soda and stir gently. Garnish with the lime wheel. Serve with two straws.

A few notes: I can't stand lime wheels. They look nice, but you really can't squeeze them without making a mess, and you don't get much juice from them. I prefer a lime wedge or a twist. I use a twist in mine because the drink has the perfect amount of lime juice already. I also prefer my Gin Rickey in a rocks glass rather than a high ball. Just personal preference, I guess.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Comfort Food, Literally

What do you do when your furnace is FUBAR, you're contemplating a giant investment that feels like a rushed decision due to the ever looming possibility that your water pipes may freeze, your house is already at a nippy 48º F, and tonight's low is predicted to drop to 28º? Make a frittata, of course. And think of other recipes to bake, or any excuse to keep the oven on for a while.

The idea behind this recipe was to clean out the fridge and freezer. I found a half of a bag of frozen spinach, a handful of frozen peas, a few sun-dried tomatoes, a couple cloves of garlic, a bit of half-and-half, six eggs, a sorry looking chunk of onion that had been hanging out in my fridge door for a while, and a nice chunk of handcrafted provolone from the Amana Colonies.

This dish is dead simple. First, sauté the diced onions and minced garlic in butter before adding the spinach, peas, and sun-dried tomatoes. Cook off any excess water from the spinach. Meanwhile, beat the eggs with about a cup of half-and-half. Season this mixture with salt, pepper, paprika, and a bit of cumin. Pour into the spinach mixture and stir gently to evenly incorporate all the fillings. Top with the shredded cheese, reserving a bit. Bake in a preheated oven at 350º F until the filling is nearly set. Top with the remaining cheese and broil until lightly browned.

Now, I know the isn't technically a frittata, but rather a "savory in baked egg" as I learned in culinary school, but saying frittata sounds less pretentious. The main difference is that a true frittata doesn't have the liquid component of the milk or cream, and is partially cooked on the range before finishing under the broiler. I, however, wanted to use up the leftover half-and-half in my fridge and keep the oven on for as long as possible. Also, my method makes the frittata much easier to remove from a stainless steel pan.

Anyway, my new furnace should be installed Monday, and today is much sunnier than yesterday allowing my house to reach a more comfortable 56º F. On, the upside, my new furnace is more efficient, but I probably won't use it enough to realize any actual savings.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Free Doughnut!

Some Krispy Kreme shops are giving away star-shaped doughnuts with patriotic sprinkles, but the franchise here in Peoria is simply handing out one free doughnut to anyone sporting an "I Voted" sticker. I chose the pumpkin spice doughnut, which was pretty tasty - just hope I don't relapse into my dark doughnut addiction.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Need a New Camera

Buddy by the Lake

Recently I've been taking a lot of pictures with my iPhone. It's 2MP camera takes only a fair picture, but is always available when I need it. What I need is a 5MP or better camera with a slim profile that I can keep with me at all times to catch those fleeting moments that seem to be happening lately. Ideally, it would have a fully manual mode; something that seems to be lacking from many lower end point and shoot models I've seen. Also, it would be sleek and unobtrusive enough to keep in my pocket all the time, and a price tag that doesn't exceed $150. Oh well, a person can dream, huh?

I was able to remove some of the noise from this photograph while sharpening it a bit (not and easy feat), and also increase the exposure a bit. Anymore tweaking would really bring out the digital noise, but it's OK because I kind like the underexposed shot; I think it works for this near dusk setting. (There, I hope I've successfully justified this mediocre photo.)

Sunday, October 26, 2008


-Bertolt Brecht

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Q on the Cheap

Earlier this week I was fortunate enough to get my hands on some decent pork butt for 99¢/lb. I purchased two for school, and one for myself while carefully planning my method of attack. I faintly recalled Alton Brown smoking some salmon in a cardboard box, and wondered if it would work for pork (he smokes his pork in a terra cotta planter). My main concern was not being able to keep the temperature up to 210ºF on such a chilly day (Hi 57ºF). I decided to move forward with the plan and collected the various things I would need: a medium sized cardboard box, a couple of wooden dowels, a cooking rack, a drip pan, an electric burner with extension cord, a cast iron skillet, a digital probe thermometer, and hardwood shavings.

First, I cut a trap door in the box for easy changing of the wood shavings. Then I punched holes in the sides and inserted four pieces of dowel to support the drip pan and the cooling rack. In the bottom, through the trap door access, I placed the electric burner and the cast iron skillet full of cherry wood shavings. I punched the probe of the thermometer through the top of the box so that I could monitor the air temperature inside, and closed up the box with the burner set on high to preheat.

Meanwhile, I removed the pork from it's 8 hour brine (a 3% salt and sugar solution), and patted it dry. I assembled a rub from freshly ground chile de arbol, chipotle, guajillo, and pasilla, along with powdered habanero and paprika. I also added a bit of freshly ground black pepper, coriander, and cumin to round out the flavors. Donning a pair of latex gloves, I liberally applied the rub to the pork ensuring that all surfaces were thoroughly coated. I put the pork into the smoker and sealed everything with tape.

I was able to get the smoker up to about 195ºF for short burst of time, but largely unable to maintain a temperature of over 200ºF. I decided the best course of action would be to build a second box that surrounds the main smoker, leaving a two inch air gap between the two boxes. This worked remarkably well, allowing the internal temperature of the smoker to cruise up to a stable 205ºF. I smoked the pork in this environment for about 7.5 hours, changing the wood shavings about every 90 minutes. When I took the pork out of the smoker, the internal temperature of the meat was 140ºF. I wrapped the meat in aluminum foil and continued to cook it in a 325ºF oven until the internal temperature was 170ºF. Alton calls for 190ºF for pulled pork, as it will shred more easily at that temperature. However, I prefer sliced meat at the lower temperature to the sometimes dry pulled pork. I will admit that the brine absolutely ensured juicy BBQ, and I was more than happy with the results.

To finish off the Q, I whipped up a vinegar based sauce from Valentina Black Label hot sauce, rice and cider vinegars, honey, black pepper, and a pinch of brown sugar. I prefer the tanginess of a vinegar based sauce to the thick, sweet, tomato based sauces found at the store. If you need a recipe, there are tons available online.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Hot 'Lanta

Last weekend was a fantastic voyage to Atlanta which was centered around visiting the world's largest aquarium and spending valuable time with good people. Various meals were consumed, but none especially blog-worthy. The Fernbank Museum was largely underwhelming, the Zoo a bit depressing, but the Aquarium was stellar. It was really tough to get decent shots in the aquarium with the low light levels, but I got a few that I'm happy with. Without further ado...


Little Yellow Fishes

Jenny at Fernbank

Blowing Bubbles

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Jamaican Jerk Chicken

Jamaican Jerk Chicken is one of my favorite dishes to grill. I usually marinate the chicken for about 24 hours, but it's not absolutely necessary. This is not 100% authentic, if such a thing even exists with this recipe. And none of the recipes I've seen call for tomatillos, but I think they add a great citrus quality and a nice tang. When you make the sauce, it's better to roast the chilies, garlic, and onion over a fire until they are a bit blackened. The garlic can be roasted in the paper, and peeled afterwards. It's really just like making a salsa, except we are going to puree it a bit more.

For the Salsa:
5 medium tomatillos - husked, roasted, and halved
1/2 onion - roasted, peeled, and diced
3-4 garlic cloves - roasted, peeled
1-2 habanero chilies - roasted, stemmed, and halved
1 large lime - just the juice
1/2 tsp allspice, ground
1/2 tsp cinnamon, ground
1/2 tsp thyme, dried
2 tsp ginger, fresh, minced
1 Tbsp brown sugar, dark
1 Tbsp rum, dark
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, or fresh herb of your choice
TT black pepper
TT salt

In a blender, chop up the garlic, habaneros, and lime juice. Add the remaining ingredients and puree until nearly smooth.

For the Chicken:
Marinate the chicken in this sauce for about 24 hours. Grill the chicken over hot coals until it is charred. Move the chicken to indirect heat and cook with the grill lid on until done. While the chicken is cooking, heat the marinade until boiling and reduce it slightly. Dunk the chicken in the sauce before serving, and serve a bit more of the sauce on the side for dipping.

Serving suggestion:
Add a couple of tablespoons of the Jerk Sauce to your favorite rice pilaf recipe. (Make sure the sauce is boiled before consuming to kill any bad bugs from the raw chicken.)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Help Identify This Snake!

This snake was found in Fulton County, Illinois. If anyone knows what it is, please let me know. Sorry the quality is so poor, I took the picture with my phone and could not get much closer to it.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Lazy Buddy

I haven't posted any puppy pictures in a while, and I'm really missing my dog after spending the weekend away from him. So here he is being lazy on my deck.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Woking Out

I'm so far behind on blogging it's not even funny, but I have a few posts in queue that I will finish as I have time. These photos were taken a few weeks ago, and document my experimentation with Thai cooking over a charcoal fire. I use hardwood lump charcoal that basically resembles partially burnt blocks of wood. They have several advantages which include being easy to light, burning hotter, lacking chemical additives, and they make a cool clinking sound when you pour them out of the bag. The downside is that they are more expensive than briquettes and burn up much more quickly.

Whenever I need to ignite a small to medium size batch of coals, I turn to my chimney starter. It's a very simple device that suspends coals in a tube over a single sheet of burning newspaper. In about fifteen minutes, you have a container full of red hot coals to dump into your grill, sans the lighter fluid taste. In this case, I decided to put a small grate directly atop the chimney starter (to allow some airflow) and heat my wok directly on the grate. The heat was high enough to achieve "wok hei" or the "flavor of the wok." This can only be achieved over very intense heat, and is not always possible on a consumer gas range; not to mention it can cause more than a little smoke.

I decided to make Pad Se Ew again, and declare this experiment to be a success, although I can't take credit for it. I'm sure this has been done thousands of times before, and I've even seen Alton Brown cook with a wok over a turkey fryer. It was a bit of a pain to cart everything outside, but it was worth it not to have the house smell like a Thai kitchen for two days (not that it would necessarily be a bad thing). Now I just need to spring for a better wok!

Lump Charcoal in a Chimney Starter

A REALLY hot wok

Seared Tofu - This kind of sear can only be done in a wok.

The Finished Pad Se EW

Monday, September 8, 2008

Sushi at Kobe

A few weeks ago, Becka and I ate sushi at Kobe in Bloomington. It was fantastic! We sat at the bar and had a terrific time while the chef prepared these outstanding creations. This was probably the best Sushi I've had outside of Chicago, and I only wish I had my camera to take better quality pictures than what I got with my phone.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Pad See Ew!!

Tonight, was my first attempt at Pad See Ew, a Thai dish that centers around rice noodles cooked in a thick soy sauce. I found that I can get my Thai fix from it without having to round up all the ingredients necessary for Pad Thai. Which is not to say that there aren't a few odd ingredients in the mix. Luckily, all of them can be found locally at Lin Hing.

I could walk you through the entire recipe, but Chez Pim does a far better job of explaining it than I ever could. I followed her instructions carefully, but you will need to adjust the sauce accordingly if you like yours sweeter or more sour. I substituted tofu for pork, but did not take the time to marinate it. I just hit it with a splash of the fish sauce while I cooked it, but it would have benefited from a bit of the thick soy sauce. Since I didn't marinate anything, I omitted the oyster sauce and the dark sesame oil. The Chinese Broccoli is worth seeking out; I prefer it to regular broccoli hands down, and it's dirt cheap at Lin Hing.

All in all, it turned out extremely well. I see a lot more Thai food in my future... Next up, Papaya Salad!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Thirst For Lamb

It doesn't happen often, but when I get the urge for a Gyro I will travel to the ends of the earth (or at least the city) to get one. Unless, of course, I'm in the mood to make them from scratch. In this case, I did travel to the end of the city; to Pita's Mediterranean Wraps on the North side of Peoria.

Pita's makes their pita bread from scratch and bakes it in a brick oven. They are a bit thinner than a regular pita, and available in two sizes, 8" and 12." They were fresh and yeasty with the characteristic brick oven flavor; better than most pitas I had in central Illinois. I ordered the 8" gyro with a side of 3 falafel. The gyro came wrapped in foil and the falafel in a little paper boat, all of which were nested in a paper-lined plastic basket. I got rid of the foil, cut the gyro in half, and rescued the falafel from their greasy little boat which provided a much better presentation for the photograph. The gyro meat was standard fill, and the wrap as a whole wasn't very hot. I was disappointed/concerned about this, but I didn't get sick. On the other hand, the falafel were very hot and a bit greasy. The leading flavor of the falafel seemed to be nutmeg, which I though was a bit odd. I prefer falafel with a bit more herb and garlic flavor, but these were acceptable. The total meal was around $8.00, not including tip.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Purple Berries

Western Eggplant (left), Asian Eggplant (right)

Saturday morning I had the pleasure of going to the Farmer's Market in Bloomington. Unfortunately, I slept in and missed all the tomatoes. On the bright side, I found these beautiful eggplants and just had to take a photo. I did not, however, take any actual eggplants with me. I really love them, but have a hard time justifying spending money on an item with such little nutritional value. Besides being a healthy source of fiber, they have little to offer. I will surely plant a few when I get my garden going, though, because I really enjoy cooking with them.

I hate to leave you without any recipes, so here's a link to some Alton Brown recipes that are very good. I've tried the pasta and Baba Ghannouj.


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Smooth Move

Recently, Becka has inspired me to bring back an old favorite of mine, the smoothie. One of my first (edible) concoctions as a child consisted of Orange Juice Concentrate, Ice, Milk, and a touch of water blended until smooth. It was my attempt at the coveted Orange Julius which was only to be found at the mall; and in retrospect, was far better than the actual product. As my smoothie making skills developed, I began to learn about tropical fruits, berries, and yogurt. I was always skeptical about yogurt because I couldn't stomach the smell, but after I tasted it in a smoothie I was hooked. I also began to omit ice, substituting frozen berries, but occasionally I'll use a bit of ice to stretch a smoothie on a hot day. Becka has also taught me to add a dose of peanut butter for extra protein in breakfast smoothies; it's a nice touch.

Smoothies are generally pretty fool proof, but as I have been consuming them on a daily basis (sometimes twice a day), I have been weighing my ingredients to ensure portion control - it's a chef thing. Also, my real blender has been out of commission for a while, so I've been using an immersion blender which is adequate, but not as nice as the real deal. It is, however, easier to clean which I am a fan of.

For my breakfast "energy" smoothie:

First, the blender jar goes on the scale and gets zeroed out. The following ingredients are added by weight and in order:

1 oz water
2 - 250mg capsules of Guarana, discard the capsules (or 1 - 200mg caffeine tablet, crushed)
1 - 600mg capsule of Panax Ginseng Rush, discard the capsule
- swirl the powder into the water to hydrate

1 ripe banana, about 3.5 - 5 oz
3 oz strawberries, frozen - or substitute fruit
3 oz pineapple, fresh - or substitute fruit
3.5 oz yogurt, plain lowfat. NOT non-fat!
2 oz peanut butter - optional

Blend well, and add water or milk to thin to the desired consistancy. You can add sugar or honey if necessary, but I never need to. This recipe will yield about 20 fluid ounces of smoothie and contains 180 mg of caffeine, unless you opt for the 200mg pure caffeine tablet.

For my afterwork smoothie (as pictured above):

Same methodology as before:

1 ripe banana, about 3.5 - 5 oz
5 oz strawberries, frozen - or substitute fruit
5 oz pineapple, fresh - or substitute fruit
4 oz yogurt, plain lowfat. NOT non-fat!
2 oz peanut butter - optional
A splash of white wine to thin. And by "a splash", I mean at least a glass (5-6oz).

I used Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, but a sweet white wine would be acceptable if you're into that sort of thing. Failing that, tequila works nicely - just make sure it's "100% de agave." And you might not want to use 5-6oz, unless you do - then go for it! This recipe yields about 24 fluid ounces of smoothie.


Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Homemade Hot Wings

The advantage of making hot wings yourself is that you can make them extra spicy. Traditionally, Buffalo Wings are deep fried (unbreaded) before being tossed in Frank's Hot Sauce and butter. It's generally cheaper to buy your wings whole and separate the paddles from the drummies, but these wings came frozen from GFS, pre butchered.

I always completely thaw my wings before roasting, spray them with oil, and season with salt and pepper. Then I bake them on a sheet pan at 425ºF for about 30-40 minutes, flipping halfway through. I let them cool for a few minutes while I make a sauce. Generally, I put about a tablespoon of butter in the bottom of a bowl followed by a multitude of hot sauces that I keep around. This particular sauce was based on a mild hot sauce similar to Frank's and spiced up with El Yucateco habanero sauce and a touch of Sriracha. I put the very warm wings in a bowl with the butter and hot sauces and toss until the wings are coated and the butter has melted. Yes, tossing is really the best way to do this (you might want to do it over the sink if you are hesitant). If done correctly, the butter should incorporate into a nice sauce and not "break." The sauce should adhere to the wings and not run off into a greasy mess all over the plate.

Hope you enjoy!

Lookin' Out My Back Door

Here's what I had the pleasure of waking up to the other day. This beautiful sky led to a peaceful commute in the rain.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Gjetost and Apple Phyllo Pastries

I made these pastries yesterday to use up some leftover phyllo dough that I had in my freezer. I was in a hurry, so I didn't quite thaw out the dough enough, which explains why the pastries have a few cracks in them.

I should start by saying that Gjetost cheese is a firm, brown, goat's milk cheese from Norway. You may have to look a bit to find it, but it's out there; I've heard Whole Foods and Cost Plus World Market stock it. Surprisingly enough, I found my block at Hy-Vee. The cheese has a predominate caramel flavor that is balanced by the tang of goat cheese; perfect for desserts, in my opinion.

For the Filling:
Peel, core, and small dice 2 Granny Smith Apples. Sweat in butter and season with a pinch of cinnamon and nutmeg. After the apples have softened a bit, cover with water and simmer until nearly dry, stirring occasionally. Add about 2 Tablespoons of REAL Maple Syrup and continue to cook until most of the moisture has evaporated. Add about a ¼ - ⅓ cup finely chopped Pecans and remove mixture from heat. Cool over an ice bath, and incorporate 4 oz of diced Gjetost cheese when cool.

Lay one sheet of phyllo dough horizontally on a cutting board, and brush lightly with melted butter. Place another sheet directly on top of that one and brush with butter. Repeat once more so that you have three sheets of phyllo dough with butter in between and butter on the top sheet. With a pastry wheel (pizza cutter) cut the dough into 3 or 4 equal strips (cut horizontally so the strips are shorter). Apply about 1 - 1 ½ tablespoons of filling to the base of each strip. Carefully fold the filling into the strip using the flag fold technique (also the technique used to make triangular paper "footballs" in grade school). Lay each pastry on a sheet pan and brush lightly with butter. Bake at 400ºF until golden brown and crispy.

These are probably the best Apple Pastries I've ever eaten. Don't be scared of this recipe. Phyllo can be a bit tricky to work with, but it's worth the effort. Handle carefully and work quickly to keep it from drying out. You can also cover it with a clean towel to keep it from drying out as fast. You can wrap any filling, sweet or savory, in phyllo dough if you just follow a few simple rules. The filling should always be tasty enough to be eaten on its own. It shouldn't be too runny; you can use bread crumbs or cheese to help bind it. Don't overfill. It's such a versatile technique, and I recommend everybody try it once.


Monday, June 9, 2008

Taqueria El Porton

Well, it's been a while since I've had the chance to blog, but it's good to return with a restaurant review. Taqueria El Porton is an authentic Mexican restaurant in downtown Bloomington. Although it's considered a hole in the wall (my favorite), it's clean and well maintained inside.

Becka and I ate there on Sunday during our 12+ mile bike ride, and I had no way to take pictures. I liked the place so much, however, that I returned this morning and got the exact same meal so I could take photographs. It was worth it.

(On Sunday) I started my meal with a Negra Modelo which was very cool and refreshing. Becka ordered a horchata that was from a mix and had a slight "off" taste. Kinda tasted like a candle shop smells, in my opinion, but it was still good and unbelievably huge! I'm guessing 32 oz, and it was only $2.50.

The waitress promptly delivered the complimentary chips and salsa. The chips were very thick and crunchy with a minimal amount of salt. Perfection. Two salsas came with them; salsa roja and a moderately spicy roasted tomato salsa. Both were delicious and homemade.

Becka ordered the Burrito Asada, and reported that it was very meaty and cheesy. Half of it filled her up. Although I did not try it, it looked delicious. I attempted to order a small order of Menudo, but they no longer make it. Very disappointing, although I would bet money that on Sunday mornings the cooks whip up a batch for all the employees.

I ended up ordering a Lengua Taco, a Chorizo Taco, and a Sope al Pastor. The Lengua (beef tongue) was super tender; probably the best I've had in Central Illinois, and the Chorizo was also tremendous, if not a bit greasy (nothing unusual here). The tacos were assembled traditionally with two tortillas, a heap of filling, and cilantro and onions; a style I believe is know as "con todos" (with everything). Some lettuce and tomatoes would have been nice, but they were still excellent. The sope (fried masa "boat") was homemade and had great masa flavor. It's far better than the pre-made sopes that many taquerias use. The pastor (pork, shepherd style) was excellent, full flavored, and succulent. Sopes are sometimes hard to find around here, so when you see them on the menu, go for it.

(L to R) Sope al Pastor, Chorizo Taco, Lengua Taco

Taqueria El Porton is just damn good Mexican food. You can't go wrong!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Backpacking Fun

Becka and I embarked on our first camping trip (together) at Weldon Springs near Clinton, IL on Saturday. We originally wanted to go to Shawnee National Forest, but I was kinda turned off by the holiday gasoline price gouge.

The park is very nice, but I wouldn't want to camp anywhere but the two backcountry sites, which are very beautiful - once you find them. Weldon Springs pays no attention to the little things such as signs, maps, or reservations. According to the map, the trail that led to our campsite had only two intersections. In reality, there were about 10 forks in the trail; only two were marked with signs of a skier or a hiker. After hiking a few miles out of the way, we found our campsite. It was very lovely.

My Hennessy Hammock is an asymetrical hammock that allows you to sleep across the curve, nearly flat. I can even sleep on my side in it. I love the way it rocks you to sleep at night. It's the best sleep I've ever had outdoors - and it's extremely light - just under two pounds.

Buddy and I Filtering Water From the Creek

Cooking Blueberry Pan Muffins. I forgot the pan attachment ring for my Jet Boil, so I had to fashion a pan rest from firewood.

Blueberry Pan Muffin Close-up

Sandy, Becka, Me, and Buddy in front of my Kelty four season tent.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Looks Great, Tastes...Well...

After crafting a delicious Roasted Tomatillo Salsa and a Pico de Gallo, I opened a brand new package of fresh masa to make some tortillas. Often, I use Masa Harina (a flour that is mixed with water and salt to make "instant" masa) or fresh masa made at the local Mexican grocery. This time, however, I purchased a tube of yellowish masa that was manufactured in Chicago. Upon opening, I noticed a distinct sour odor that I was a bit unsure about but couldn't classify it as bacterial. There was no expiration date on the package, which I thought was odd, but I continued to make tortillas anyway. They tasted "off," but not necessarily rotten; I thought perhaps it was just a different type of masa that I wasn't used to. Eventually, I just decided to throw away the entire batch. I know fresh masa only lasts a couple of days, and figured that this masa was past its prime despite containing preservatives.

I wish I could tell you that these tacos were delicious, but that's far from the truth. They were merely edible; anything else would be an over statement. The lesson here is to always buy the freshest masa, use masa harina, or make your own masa.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Brown Rice Sushi

A close chef friend of mine recently reported decent results using brown rice for sushi. Taking his advice, Becka and I whipped up the Good Eats sushi rice recipe. The substitution of short grain brown rice required a much longer cooking time (about 40 minutes) and some additional water. At first we didn't think it would be sticky enough to make nigiri, but it performed perfectly. We were concerned the flavor might overpower the fish, but it wasn't overwhelming. The texture was a bit toothier, which was a drawback, but the sushi was still pretty outstanding.

Bottom line: we will most likely use brown rice for healthier, "non-white bread" sushi and stick to authentic sushi rice for special occasions.

Pickled Ginger, Salmon Nigiri, Crab and Cucumber Maki, Crunchy Clam Maki, Salmon and Avocado Roll, Cucumber Garnish.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Puppy Picnic

Sunday was so beautiful that Becka and I decided to have a picnic. I made roasted veggie sandwiches that were decent, but not especially photo-worthy.

Becka, however, made a quick pasta salad that was as tasty as it was beautiful. She tossed Penne Pasta, Broccoli, Grated Carrot, Edamame, Slivered Almonds, Green Onions, and Chili Flakes with bottled Caesar Dressing and some Lemon Juice. A bit of salt and fresh ground pepper tied everything together. I was skeptical about the Caesar Dressing, but somehow it just worked. As you can see, it was dressed perfectly. Outstanding!

We both got a bit of sun and the puppies had a blast exploring. I didn't want to ruin the moment by taking a bunch of pictures, but I was happy with the above shot.

Thursday, May 1, 2008


Monday, I stopped in for a light supper at Sushigawa. It was packed! I couldn't believe how many people were there for a Monday night; especially for sushi. In Peoria. Anyway, I'm glad they are doing well unlike so many other restaurants in the area. I did notice, however, that the prices have gone up; not surprising.

I really wanted a light supper, but ended up ordering several greasy items; not entirely on purpose. First, I ordered a shrimp and vegetable tempura appetizer that came with two shrimp, two carrots, one zucchini, one onion ring, and fried soba noodles as a garnish. It was accompanied by a mild, unremarkable, soy based dipping sauce. Everything was decent, but fairly greasy. The carrots were a bit plain - I had hoped for something slightly more exotic. They were cooked perfectly, though.

Next, I ordered a Yellowfin Tuna and Green Onion Maki. It was very nice, but would definitely have benefited from more tuna. Hastily, I ordered a Spicy Fried Crab roll, that I though was going to be a spider roll (deep fried soft shell crab with cucumber, avocado, etc.). But it turned out to be a deep fried, inside out roll, with loads of spicy crab meat on the inside. It was hard to tell, but the crabmeat seemed authentic with little to no surimi involved. After reviewing the menu, I found my beloved Spider Roll, but time was not on my side. I went without.

I tried ordering some red bean ice cream to go, but they were out. Very disappointing. The meal came to just under $20 and I was satiated. I've had better food there, but it was not terrible. I have no qualms about returning.

How do they stretch the shrimp out that long?

I hate plastic garnishes.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Eating Healthy

Roasted Salmon Salad with Red Chili Raspberry Vinaigrette and Walnuts

For the Salmon: I followed a method I found in the March 2008 copy of Cook's Illustrated. Basically, their method for roasting salmon involves heating the oven and a sheet pan to 500ºF while prepping the fish. Usually, you would portion the side of salmon into individual fillets and cook it in batches according to size, but I was lazy and just roasted the whole side which meant that the "shallower" end would be well done when the large end was medium rare. The next step is to score the salmon skin in a large crosshatch pattern being careful not to cut into the flesh. A sharp knife is essential here.

I seasoned the salmon with salt and pepper before rubbing on a nice coat of spicy brown mustard, followed by a thin layer of dark brown sugar. I pulled the hot sheet pan from the oven and placed the salmon on it skin-side down. I placed it back in the oven on the bottom rack and immediately lowered the temperature to about 275ºF. I roasted for about 8-9 minutes. The salmon should be medium rare; cook a few minutes longer for well done - which is okay if you prefer your salmon dry and "sticky" (I'm referring to the tendency of overcooked meats to stick to your teeth, momentarily gluing them together while chewing).

Caution: Using my method with the brown sugar will most likely set off the smoke alarm when the sugar melts onto the sheet pan. Omitting the sugar will make for an easier cleanup. An old restaurant trick is to place the salmon onto an unlubricated pan causing the skin to adhere, and using a spatula to separate the meat from the skin for a nice presentation. However, it's a bit tricky to remove the skin from the pan during cleanup.

For the Vinaigrette: Place one tablespoon of Chili Raspberry Jam into a large mixing bowl (you can substitute any preserves you have). Add about a table spoon of Rice Wine Vinegar (or other mild white vinegar) and whisk thoroughly. Whisk in about two tablespoons of decent olive oil and season to taste with salt and pepper. As with all vinaigrettes, add a bit more vinegar if it's not tangy enough, or add a bit more oil to tame the vinegar bite. This last step is very important; it's the key to a good vinaigrette.

To Assemble the Salad: Chop, rinse, and dry about half a head of green leaf lettuce. Place it in the mixing bowl atop the vinaigrette and season with salt and pepper. Toss with the vinaigrette until evenly coated and place on a chilled plate achieving as much height as possible. Gently place several slices of salmon on the greens and garnish with walnuts. Sprinkle the rim of the plate with habanero powder or cayenne pepper.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Tonight, I put together a few leftovers that I had: Some Prime Rib, Fingerling Potatoes, Italian Bread, Horseradish, Cabernet Sauvignon, Onion, Garlic, and Domestic Parmesan.

Now, what's for dessert?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Milk, Old School.

It's been quite some time since I've had Oberweis milk, but now I'm considering buying it on a regular basis. It's not a decision that I am entirely comfortable with, but I think it's the right thing for now. It's the juggling of politics, environmental awareness, and taste that I struggle with when trying to be a good consumer.

Let me be clear, Oberweis is damn good milk. Period. But I thought that I would publicly express some of my concerns and praises for this product.

1. Fresh, clean, natural flavor. Oberweis milk is pasteurized at 173ºF instead of 185ºF (according to their website), which helps to prevent a cooked milk flavor.
2. Oberweis gets its milk from small to medium sized dairies.
3. Oberweis does not allow the use of rBGH growth hormones.
4. The glass containers do not impart any off flavors to the milk.
5. The glass bottles can be reused - the ultimate form of recycling. I really, really like products that you don't have to throw away or melt down to recycle.
6. Glass is

1. I strongly disagree with Jim Oberweis's politics. Namely, his "21st Century Energy Policy" which focuses on oil drilling in Alaska, ethanol, and nuclear power.
2. It's more expensive than the most brands - about a penny more per ounce than Prairie Farms for the same quantity.
3. Oberweis milk is not organic. They claim the only thing keeping it from being certified organic is using non-organic cow feed. They also assert that the quality of their milk is better than cows that have been fed organic food.
4. They don't indicate exactly where they get their milk, so there is no way of telling how far the milk travels to reach my grocery store. I can say with some certainty that it travels at least from North Aurora, IL.

At this point, I'm not sure if the good outweighs the bad. I really would like to support local agriculture and purchase organic milk. If anyone knows of a local dairy that packages in glass, let me know. I would even consider purchasing local organic milk that is packaged in cardboard if the taste is not significantly altered and the price point is reasonable. But as far as I'm concerned, nothing beats glass.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Oh, Buddy...

Sometimes Buddy likes to make faces.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Old Stock Ale

My buddy Ben brought me a hand-picked four pack of North Coast beers for Christmas; one of which was a 2004 Old Stock Ale. I was super appreciative since I requested that all my gifts be perishable last year, and this beer is fairly difficult to obtain (not to mention pricey). And they have been resting quietly inside my chill chest for months.

The Old Stock Ale packs a whopping 13.25% ABV, which is quite apparent in the first sip. I detected a heavy caramel character countered by smooth bourbon tones. I have not tried any of the newer models, but the 2004 seems to have a more mellow characteristic than I would expect a younger version to have. To revel in a pint of four year old ale is not something one does daily, but I strongly recommend the experience!

Nothing like relaxing with this beer as the sun falls...

Monday, April 7, 2008

Grilling Season Is Here!

I know, I know, you can grill in the winter, but it's just not as fun.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Breakfast at 2:00pm

Leftover potatoes from grilling last night, onions, garlic, organic eggs, brown ale, and plenty of habanero sauce.

Rock Island Trail

Josh and I hit the trail yesterday after I purchased a new inner tube for my rear bike tire and installed it at the trailhead. The weather was outstanding for riding, and I'm not the least bit sore today. We only rode about six miles due to some off-road riding that left us exhausted. The ground is much too soft for that kind of nonsense. Also, I've got some severe shifting problems with my bike that I was unable to fix while riding (eg. adjusting the cable tension). This was most prominent when my bike wouldn't downshift while riding through the grass - it's definitely time for a tune up.

I did manage to snap a few good shots, but I wish it were closer to dusk. For fear of a ticket, we made sure that we were back before then; plus there were flat iron steaks to grill and beer to drink.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Putman Park

Today was a bit chilly, but offered decent enough weather for a trip to a park where I spent a lot of time as a youth. I took Buddy along for an early evening walk and caught a nice photo of him stopping by the edge of a lake for a drink. As far as wildlife goes, we saw two geese, three deer, one hawk, and a variety of songbirds.

To see the rest of this set, visit my flickr page.