Daily Archives: December 4, 2013

Treat Your Guests to Homemade Bar Snacks

Okay, I’m a chef, but that doesn’t mean I’ve never been stuck for an idea on what to serve my guests when they stop by Chez Loren for an impromptu visit.

The truth is, it’s MUCH easier for me to plan a six-course meal than it is to decide just what I want to offer my friends when it’s just a casual visit for drinks and snacks. I mean, I’m thinking they’re expecting more than chips, dips and peanuts.

In that respect, I have the same problem as most people, except the expectations are greater and the bar’s a little higher. Yet, sometimes, the answer to these age-old, obvious questions is staring us in the face the whole time.

Sometimes, I forget about those simple, delicious, easy-to-make bar snacks served at the restaurants I’ve worked in. You know, bar snacks! Those little (or not so little) bowls, platters and baskets of tasty morsels and edible concoctions sitting on the bar at your favorite watering hole?

These generally inexpensive treats are exactly what people crave when they’re hungry, so why not take a cue from restaurants (especially those that make it their business to treat their guests right)?

A while back, I decided to make it a point to save space in both my pantry and freezer for a few items that make great, impromptu bar snacks when those situations arise, and I thought I’d share a few of those ideas with you.

Now keep in mind, I’m not really trying to fill people up. I’m just giving them something to nibble on in an effort to be a good host. On the other hand, I’d like them to remember what they eat.

First, keep in mind that you can impress people just as much with inexpensive ingredients (and a little creativity) as you can with jumbo shrimp and cocktail sauce (actually, maybe more).

Try these ideas:

  • Season Popcorn with unexpected flavorsPeople like interesting seasonings in unexpected places. I keep a well-stocked pantry of seasonings like Cajun seasonings, curry powder, dry herbs and spices, and I like to use them on popcorn. It turns this inexpensive treat into a conversation piece.
  • The same goes for crackers. Melt some butter, paint it on some plain crackers, add some zesty herbs or seasonings and bake them in a 350 F oven for 15 minutes. They’re warm, re-crisped and re-purposed.
  • Cook pasta like penne, elbow mac or farfalle (bow tie) until aldente. Drain pasta well and fry in oil until crisp. Then add a special seasoning while they are still warm. Do the same with egg wrappers or won ton wrappers cut into bit-sized pieces.
  • Got a potato? A potato peeler? Zip off some thin, long strips and fry up some of your own potato chips!
  • If you have some fresh Parmesan cheese in the house, shred it. Then, heat a non-stick fry pan on medium-high heat and lightly sprinkle a 2”-round diameter of it, leaving little spaces between the shreds. Lightly brown, flip over and do the same to the other side. They’ll be crispy cheese treats that are lighter than air!
  • I keep a single loaf of frozen bread dough in my inventory too. It only takes seconds to bring back to a soft dough on the thaw cycle of your microwave oven, with a little massaging every 15 seconds or so. When fully thawed, I cut it in four long strips, roll out into a rope, and then cut it into 1-inch segments. Next, poach them in a solution of 2 cups water to ¼ cup baking soda for 1 minute. Drain, sprinkle with coarse salt, and then bake in a 350 F oven for about 20 minutes or until medium brown. Presto! Homemade soft pretzel bites that I serve with any spicy mustards I have on hand–a HUGE hit anytime I’ve made them.

Entertaining doesn’t have to be expensive, and in the case of these simple ideas, it only takes a little time and imagination to treat your guests to a memorable snack this holiday season.

Dining on the Rhine: A Culinary River Adventure

It’s a dreary, grey, late-December day in Michigan. Yet amid the chaos of a busy shopping week at Nino’s, I allowed myself the luxury of a few free mental moments to anticipate the vacation I’d recently planned: cruising on the Rhine River in Europe.

When I planned it, August seemed like an eternity away. But to my surprise, I was one of the last to book this cruise before it sold out. I later learned that European River cruises are very popular and often sell out nearly a year before sailing. Then again, when you consider that most of the river cruise ships in Europe take on less than 150 passengers per voyage, it’s easy to understand that it’s also a matter of supply and demand.

Now a cruise of 150 or fewer people may sound strange when you read about the new ocean-going mega ships that carry many thousands, but river cruising is everything those huge ships can’t be, and that is small, personal and extremely accommodating. Their size, or lack thereof, is also dictated by the width and depth of the rivers they sail, the low clearance of the bridges (some centuries old) and the many locks they must pass through in order to travel from one end of the continent to the other.

Yet it’s all part of the experience and the charm of traveling the river. It’s the charm of enjoying a late breakfast while passing through the majestic Rhine Gorge as you stare with wonder at storybook-like castles and sheep grazing on hillsides. It’s also the charm of sailing past quiet meadows with farmers so close to the ship you can shout hello and see their cheerful, warm faces and hear their faint greetings in the golden, afternoon sunlight. These cruises provide sights, sounds and personal enrichment beyond what the brochures promise.

Unlike many on board my river cruise who flew directly to Switzerland, I began my personal enrichment by stopping in London and Paris first. And what can I say about either of those magnificent cities that hasn’t been glorified in prose or painted by the masters? Even though I was only able to spend a full day in each, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to once again breathe their air, take in their sights and enjoy a couple of great meals. And they didn’t disappoint.

In London, it was Fish & Chips, which I will blog about in the weeks ahead. Then, the following day, after only a 2.5-hour, high-speed train ride under the English Channel, it was culinary shopping in Paris’ Les Halles and a not-to-be-missed dinner at Le Fouquet’s, right on the bustling Champs Elysees. And I also have an upcoming blog and video about my culinary shopping in Les Halles, which you’ll want to check out.

The cruise began at the foot of the southernmost navigable part of the Rhine in Basel, Switzerland. Basel is Switzerland’s 3rd-largest city and is located exactly where France and Germany intersect, which makes it an international destination and a region full of enormous diversity, both cultural and culinary.

My ship, the Avalon Felicity, was built in 2010 and only took on 138 passengers. I was fortunate to have a beautiful room with a balcony on the top deck of what are only three levels of rooms. The rooms, large by cruise standards, are full of amenities, including a full bath with glass shower, queen-sized bed, flat-screen TV and sitting area. I didn’t speak with one person who didn’t love his or her accommodations.

After a welcoming reception and dinner, the Felicity set sail for Strasbourg, France, while we enjoyed our first night on board. Unlike an ocean vessel, you feel no movement of the ship on the water and no motion discomfort–nothing but a smooth, peaceful glide. And the mandatory safety meeting so common on ocean ships? Forget it–piece of cake. That’s mainly because you’re never more than steps from the shore and because if the ship ever sprang a leak, it’s likely the top deck would stay above water if it sank.

Strasbourg was wonderful, and I took the opportunity to join a group tour into the Alsatian wine area and sample some local wines before returning to the city for shopping and then heading back to the ship for a 7:00 pm dinner. It was a tough decision for me to make because one of my other choices was a trip to the Black Forest, home of the famous Black Forest cake.

Dinner, by the way, was always five courses, with all-inclusive accompanying wines and/or beers from whatever area we were cruising through. My glass, like everyone else’s all week, never seemed to be empty. They really take good care of you! The food is cooked by European-trained chefs and was very well prepared.

The menu each evening included a first course, soup or salad, intermezzo, entree and dessert. Each evening’s choices were planned to complement the wines and cuisines of the local areas, with additional standard choices for those less adventurous. Having said that, the recipes were adjusted to Western tastes, and the portions were always just right. The chefs also accommodated dietary requests.

You can see video pictures of some of the dishes I ordered and get a feel for what river cruising is all about by viewing my Dining on the Rhine video:

From Strasbourg, we continued northward to the German cities of Speyer, Heidelberg, Mainz, Rudesheim, Koblenz, Cologne and finally through the Netherlands and into Amsterdam, stopping to enjoy each city’s cultural highlights while still having free time to shop and enjoy a bite of food at various restaurants, cafes and beer gardens.

From a chef’s point of view, river cruising is one of the most satisfying and rewarding ways to enjoy a multi-city culinary journey. Just unpack your bags and enjoy a week (or more) of no worries and no reservations. I really enjoyed my cruise, and I’d highly recommend it.

At the end of the day, the only thing left on your plate is the anticipation of which dishes might tempt your appetite and a sense of adventure as you watch the world sail by.

Michigan Asparagus with Hollandaise Sauce

Michigan Asparagus Is IN and on Nino’s Shelves.

Every year, I look forward to the 1st crops, because for my money, nothing beats our locally grown “spears,” especially when they’re “shown off” with a great recipe. A recipe that doesn’t mask their flavor or hide them amongst a half dozen other ingredients. A recipe that lets you enjoy all of asparagus’ sweet flavor and tasty goodness.

And that recipe would be for a sauce: Hollandaise.

Hollandaise sauce is one of 5 “Grand Sauces” that all chefs and devoted cooks learn to make early on. It’s also one that non-professionals are told is just too difficult to attempt.

Truth be known, if someone told you how easy it is to make (and I’ll give you a couple of tips to help you out), you’d probably eat out less often. And chefs get nervous when their dining rooms aren’t full.

The mystique of Hollandaise continues.

So to help you enjoy your new crop of Michigan asparagus, I’m going expose the “Hollandaise Myth” and give you simple tips for these “Spears with NO Peers.”

Hollandaise is made from only 5 ingredients, but it’s the 2 main ingredients (egg yolks and butter) that can give you real headaches if you don’t to pay attention to what you’re doing.

Here’s how you avoid the headaches, and to show you, we’ll make an average-sized recipe of hollandaise.

Before you begin to cook your egg yolks, in a microwave on the defrost setting, melt 1 ½ sticks of butter until the fat separates, and then skim off that clarified butter and reserve.

Second, squeeze the juice from a half lemon and reserve.

Now, you’re ready to start.

Choosing the right bowl and saucepan to make your hollandaise is super important. You want about a small-to-medium-sized saucepan and a mixing bowl that nests within the saucepan, leaving at least an inch of space from the bottom and an inch or so lip at the top. This way, you can easily lift the bowl in and out of the pan as you cook your yolks.

Next, put only a half inch of water in your saucepan and bring it to a simmer. You should have a space between the bottom of your mixing bowl and the water, and that will mean your egg mixture will be cooking gently over the steam and not directly on the water.

Place 2 egg yolks in your mixing bowl, and for each yolk, a half egg shell of water–in this case 2 half egg shells.

This step will help you to cook your egg yolks into a “pudding.”

Place the bowl over the simmering water, and using a whisk, beat the egg yolk mixture on and off the steam heat (about 15 seconds each round). This method will take a bit longer to turn this raw mixture into a thickened egg pudding, but it will also prevent your mixture from cooking too fast and turning into scrambled eggs.

When the egg mixture is sufficiently cooked, the whisk will create tracks in the mixture. This will let you know it’s time for step 2.

Remove the water from the saucepan and lay a damp kitchen towel or paper towel over its mouth. Replace your bowl and nest it in snugly. This neat trick will allow you to do the next step more easily.

This step gets everyone in trouble now, but if you just take your time, there’s NO reason you should ever have a problem.

You’re going to make an emulsion here by SLOWLY–and the key word is SLOWLY–adding the clarified butter to the cooked egg “pudding.” That means whisking somewhat briskly while adding the clarified butter in very small amounts, especially at first.

Start by drizzling in less than a tablespoon; don’t dump it in all at once. Drizzle it in a thin stream.

Once that is incorporated, add another, the same way.

After the 3rd tablespoon, you’ll notice the mixture is getting thicker. Now is when you begin to whisk in a bit of your squeezed lemon juice–about a teaspoon.

Continue alternating butter and lemon juice until they’re both used up.

The hard part is over, now all you have to do is add a few drops of Tabasco® sauce and salt to taste.

Done.

Now, if you like Bearnaise sauce, which is a derivative of Hollandaise, omit the Tabasco, and simply add the following, which needs to be simmered slowly over medium heat until it is nearly a paste.

2 TBSP Dried Tarragon Leaves
1 TBSP Chopped Fresh Shallots
¼ Cup Cider or Tarragon Vinegar
¼ Cup White Wine (nothing too sweet)
¼ tsp Cracked Black Pepper

Nothing beats Hollandaise sauce over fresh Michigan asparagus!

When Life Gives You Lemongrass, Make Lemongrass Dressing

I happen to love Asian dishes of all sorts.

What I like the most is the infinite variety of contrasts and harmonies of taste, smell, and textures, which when skillfully prepared, creates the unmistakable flavors of these ancient cuisines.

Of course, if you’ve developed a yen for the dishes of this region, you’re no doubt a big fan of many of the distinctive ingredients that form the foundation of many of their flavors.

Many ingredients are obvious and would make anyone’s top-10 list. Among those would be soy and teriyaki sauce, rice, sesame oil, ginger, garlic, mirin, miso, 5 spice, chilies, cilantro…and the list continues.

Of what I’ll call the “2nd tier” list, there’s one herb I particularly love.

Although its leaves look quite “un-leaf-like,” the long, slender leaves of this stalk-like grass have an unmistakable smell and (especially) FLAVOR, which makes it one of the most important ingredients in Thai cooking.

It’s Lemongrass.

Lemongrass, as its name suggests, is blessed with the unmistakable (and somewhat potent) flavor of lemony citrus. It’s used in soups, sauces, marinades, dressings; on fresh fruit; in sweets of many kinds; and even in tea.

Lemongrass is a greenish, yellow-grey stalk, generally about a foot long and about a half inch in diameter at its base, tapering upward. Although you can purchase it dried, there’s no sense in doing that when fresh lemongrass is readily available at Nino’s. The main reason is because it’s so easy to use, but the flavor of fresh is SO much better; do yourself the favor.

So just how do you use Lemongrass?

Easy peasy….
1. Peel away any old, dry outer leaves.
2. Cut about the top third of the stalk off and discard.
3. Trim the bottom ¼ inch off and discard.
4. Slice in half lengthwise and then into thin ¼ discs (about 1/8th inch thick).

Lemongrass is very fibrous and is often finely minced (like ginger) to extract is volatile oils and flavors and make the resulting pulp easier to enjoy. It’s used both fresh and cooked.

If you’ve never used Lemongrass and you like citrus flavors, you really should give it a try. Here’s a recipe I think you’ll enjoy as a starter.

My Thai Lemongrass Dressing and Marinade is a fantastic standalone dressing over fresh greens and fruits, but it’s also a marvelous marinade for chicken and fish. Just allow the meat or fish (or even shellfish) to rest in this marinade for 1 to 2 hours, and then sear or grill.

You can brush additional marinade over while cooking.

Thai Lemongrass Dressing and Marinade

Makes 1 cup or 2 servings

¼ Cup Lime Juice, Fresh
2 TBSP Fish Sauce (Nuoc Mam)
1 TBSP Honey
1 Stalk Lemongrass, Trimmed & Minced
1 tsp Serrano Chili, Minced
1 TBSP Garlic, Minced
1 TBSP Ginger, Minced
2 TBSP Cilantro, Chopped
2 TBSP Mint, Chopped
½ Cup Peanut Oil
1 TBSP Sesame Oil

1. In a non-reactive bowl (stainless steel or glass), whisk together all ingredients.
2. Allow to chill and blend the ingredients together for 1 hour before use.