Sunday, October 11, 2015

Advice for Judging a Chili Cook-off

I had the honor of serving as a judge for the 4th Annual Brookhaven Chili Cookoff yesterday. I arrived early to the sight of a tent village with chili-scented steam billowing overhead. With no further ado, I was shown to a table and asked to rate the chili (and Brunswick stew) samples of 18 of Atlanta’s top restaurants including There Brookhaven, Smokebelly BBQ, Seven Lamps, and Farm Burger from 1 to 10 with ten being the best. I was quite happy that I had done some homework before my stint. According to the experts, chili should be judged on the following criteria:
  • Color – The chili should look appetizing. 
  • Aroma – The chili should smell good.  The smell should be a good indicator of the taste.
  • Consistency - Chili should have a good meat to sauce ratio.  It should not be too thick, watery, grainy, lumpy, or greasy.  
  • Taste – The chili should taste, well, like chili. And, it should taste good. This is THE most important factor.  The taste should consist of the combination of the meat, spices, etc. with no particular ingredient being dominate. And, contrary to what most Texans believe, it should not be so hot that you cannot taste the other flavors.
  • Aftertaste - The aftertaste or bite is the heat created by the various types of spices and or peppers.
While judging by taste is always going to be subjective, the goal of any judging process is to limit that subjectivity as much as possible. The Brookhaven Chili Cookoff also gives a “People’s Choice” award for the crowd-selected favorite. Each attendee is given a token to vote for their chosen chili.

The following insights might be helpful in selecting your favorite chili or on the off chance you are ever asked to judge an informal cookie bake-off in your friend’s kitchen or ribs at your neighborhood cookout.
  1. Consider taking a Gastric Acid Secretion Inhibitor. Many OTC antiflatulents (e.g., Beano, Gas-X, Zantac) need to be taken in advance of eating so be sure to read the label carefully.
  2. Eat Before You Judge. This sounds counterintuitive, but it is easy to confuse being famished with genuinely liking something. Have a light breakfast or lunch before the judging begins.
  3. Pace Yourself. This is easier said than done. Take a small bite of each entry. If it is forgettable with no chance of making it to the winner’s circle, abandon ship and move on to the next. Judge each chili on its own merit.
  4. Cleanse your palate. After each tasting take a sip of water, beer, or milk (best for neutralizing the effects of capsicum in chilies). Plain saltine crackers are good cleansers as well. 
  5. Be candid, be consistent, and be decisive. Don’t be ashamed to be honest. You were selected to be a judge, so your opinion counts. Make notes in the margin to help you remember if needed. No one else is going to see them accept the score counter. 

Friday, October 2, 2015

Easy Peasy Lemon Posset

I admit it. I have a sweet tooth; an insatiable one actually. Since we are trying to watch our weight, I avoid keeping treats in the house to escape temptation. Tonight the cravings were so bad, I went rummaging through the pantry (dried beans, sugar), the freezer (peas, pizza pockets), and the fridge (kale, radishes, lemons, a little leftover cream and parmesan). I was desperate, so I took to the internet. This is the part where I say, “I love Google!” I entered sugar, cream and lemon in the search bar and found posset. Of course, I had forgotten about this old-school gem!

In Merry Olde English days of yore, a posset was a drink made from hot milk laced with ale or wine and spiced. It was popular in the Middle Ages as a remedy for colds and minor ailments and a sleep-aid. In the early 17th century, a drug-laced posset was employed in Shakespeare's Macbeth to knock out the guards outside Duncan's quarters.

Using just three ingredients, it seems almost magical, and sets up almost immediately. The wonder of food science in front of your very eyes makes this a quickest, easiest dessert, like ever. Curdled cream becomes a thickened, creamy dessert; similar to lemon curd or key lime pie.

1 cup heavy cream (whipping cream will work too)
1/3 cup sugar
Juice and zest of one medium lemon
Nutmeg (optional)

In a small saucepan, heat the cream and add sugar, stirring to dissolve. Bring the cream to a low boil and continue to boil for 5 minutes (give or take). Watch the heat very carefully and don’t let the cream boil over.

Remove the cream mixture from the heat and stir in lemon juice and zest. Let the posset cool for about 10 minutes before pouring into ramekins. This custard is very rich, so I recommend using smaller dishes. I used these proportions (which makes two nice servings) because I only had 1 cup of cream leftover from another recipe, but this formula can be very easily doubled, tripled, etc.

Refrigerate until set. Depending on how thick you want the pudding, it may take up to 2 hours. Top with a sparse grating of nutmeg (sounds a bit odd, but it’s quite a good match). It is traditional to serve with shortbread cookies, but sadly there were none in the pantry.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

10 Tips for Taking #FoodPorn Photos on Your Smartphone

Today, we are taking a little break from our regular cooking (and eating) regimen, to bring you some food photography tips. For the first time, this year Taste of Atlanta is sponsoring a #FoodPorn Photo Patrol in The Kitchen Workshop. Festival-goers will receive expert tips and tricks for taking a drool-worthy photos of their food. The photo patrol is made up of skilled photographers and influential food bloggers who will be on-hand during each seminar to offer valuable insight for capturing that perfect photo of any delicious dish. Believe it or not, I was asked to help with this new venture. In preparing for my session, I put together a list of my top tips and tricks:

1. Keep Your Lens Clean – Duh! This may sound like a no brainer, but your smartphone is a workhorse. You take calls, text, and post to social media all the while taking your phone in and out of your pocket or purse. The lens gets gunky without you even realizing it. One good swipe with a soft cloth is usually enough to remove smudges and dust.

2. Use Basic Composition Rules - Follow the “Rule of Thirds.” No, it is not another "Game of Thrones" variant. This is a tried and true method to ensure your pictures are balanced. Imagine your phone screen divided into a grid of 9 squares (3 by 3); your smartphone may even have an option to display this grid right on your screen. The idea is to place your subjects along those grid lines or at the points where the lines intersect.

3. Minimize Clutter - If that spoon, napkin or busy background doesn’t add to the photo, it detracts from the photo. If you choose to accessorize your photo, use muted colors and tones that do not distract from the focal point. Plain white plates are the best option for showing off your meal and readers can see what the food actually looks like.

4. Take Photos Under Natural Light – Okay, so this is not ALWAYS possible, but you should avoid using your camera’s flash unless absolutely necessary. Move around to find the best light source. Don’t feel confined to taking photos in your kitchen. Experiment with using a flashlight to backlight your pictures for a different lighting effect and to reduce shadows.

5. Get Close But Not Too Close - Focus on what is most important in the shot, but don’t zoom in so much that viewers can’t tell what the food is. Getting close is not the same thing as using the zoom. We have never had much success with zooming on a smartphone. Zoom tends to be out of focus It is always better to crop than to zoom.

6. Take Photos From Multiple Angles - Some plates of food look better from above, or from the side, or at a 45-degree angle. Try moving around the plate and taking photos at various angles so you can pick your favorite later. You can also change the angle of a picture when you edit as well to move the focal point or emphasize a point.

7. Edit, Don’t Filter – This will probably not be a popular tip with Instagram-loving millennials, but take some time to actually edit your pictures on your phone before uploading them to your blog post or social media channels. Trust us, it is worth the time and effort. There are dozens of photo editors available for iOS or Android phones. Find one you like and are comfortable with rather than using the over-used preloaded filters available on Twitter and Instagram.

8. When All Else Fails: Quantity Over Quality - When you are trying to take pictures of a dish you are actually preparing for a meal, all of these tricks sound great, but there is little time to shoot photos while pots are boiling over, kids are yelling, dogs are barking, and hubby is losing patience. It is much better to take too many pictures than to miss a shot altogether. This is when you just start shooting and hope to get something usable before everyone has eaten your blog post!

9. People, Yes People - Pictures of folks actually chowing down on tasty food are a good thing, but always be sure to get their permission before posting on your blog or social media sites. Try including photos of hands when your friends get tired of looking like pigs on your Facebook wall.

10. *Bonus* Backdrop Tip - At a restaurant, place a napkin or menu under the plate and alter the angle of the shot to get the restaurant name or even the name of the dish in the photo. This is especially helpful if you are at a food festival like Taste of Atlanta where you are photographing dishes from more than one source.

Don't forget to enjoy the view from beyond the camera screen. And, taste the food! You'll need to be able to describe it to your readers!

Friday, September 18, 2015

Eggplant Mutabbal Will Enthrall

We included one lone eggplant in our yarden, this year. It remains the stalwart producer in our otherwise fading collection of summer vegetables. To quote New York Times columnist, Mark Bittman, “It’s safer to label [eggplant] a food like no other, beloved and appreciated worldwide and deserving of respect, not as a meat substitute, but as a treasure in itself.” Agreed. Eggplant is pretty fabulous!

One of our favorite ways to enjoy eggplant is one of the easiest, the eggplant dip most Americans know as baba ganoush. However, what most people call Baba ganoush is actually “mutabbal.” True Arabic baba ganoush is a dish of cooked eggplant mixed with onions, tomatoes, olive oil, while muttabbal is made with eggplant, sesame, garlic, lemon, and frequently cumin.

Both are typically served with toasted naan or pita triangles. Whatever you may call it, this is an incredibly tasty spread that can be made in advance and improves if made a day or two in advance.

1 large eggplant
1 clove of garlic
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon sesame oil
½ teaspoon cumin powder
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place the eggplant on a cookie sheet. The eggplant will ooze a bit so you should consider place it on aluminum foil. Bake for about an hour.

Remove the eggplant from the oven and let it cool. Once cooled, remove the stem and peel. The outer skin should slide off the flesh fairly easily. Cut the skinned eggplant in pieces, put in a bowl and mash them with a fork. Add the mashed eggplant, lemon juice, oils, and cumin and mash again with a fork until it's mixed well. If you prefer the dip to be more smooth, you can blitz all the ingredients in a food processor.

Taste the dip and add salt and pepper accordingly.  Garnish the mutabbal with the chopped parsley and serve with pita chips, toasted naan or crudité.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Char-mingly Good Cabbage

The term cabbage is a derived from the French word, caboche meaning "head." The cabbage family is large and includes kale, collards, kohlrabi, and Brussels sprouts. In years prior to local farmer’s markets and Whole Foods, most of America was relegated to mundane heads of white cabbage, which because it was wildly inexpensive, made it’s way to the dinner table far more frequently than anyone preferred. It was most often finely shredded and drenched in some sort of creamy sauce and served at every cookout ever. During winter months, it was boiled or braised and served with pork chops and ham or as sauerkraut served with sausages.

Had any of us known how outrageously delicious grilled cabbage was, it would have been a dinner time game changer. Grilling cabbage adds a smokiness and char in addition to caramelization that occurs when the natural sugars boil at temperatures above 300 degrees. The flavors run deeper and the sugars get sweeter. The blackened edges or “char” (the burnt bits), add yet another layer of flavor and texture.

1 head of cabbage
3 tablespoons olive oil
Juice of a lemon
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

The best way we've found to grill cabbage is to cut it into large wedges, leaving the core intact. This helps to keep all the cabbage leaves together as it grills, and gives you plenty of surface area for charring. The idea is to char the exterior on all sides while cooking the interior so that it is soft but not mushy with a tiny bit of raw crunch at the core. You want the edges get a little blackened, and the cabbage to be warmed through. Because it can be difficult to control, the exact temperature of the grill, it is important to pay attention to the smell and appearance before flipping the wedges over or removing from the grill.

While the cabbage is grilling, mix together the olive oil, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, and salt and pepper whisking until smooth and creamy.

For times when grilling is impossible or impractical, you can char your cabbage under the broiler of your oven. Set the broiler on high heat and place the cabbage wedges in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment or foil. Place the baking sheet under the broiler and cook for about ten minutes or until the edges chars nicely. Remove the sheet from the oven and flip the wedges and broil for another 10 minutes or so to char the second side. Make sure you are running your vent fan, as there will be a strong smell as the outer leaves burn.

Once cooked and cooled, the wedges can be served whole (like a wedge salad with bleu cheese dressing and bacon bits) or sliced to make a chopped-style salad as we prefer. Even without dressing, it is pretty darn good with a smoky flavor that penetrates deep into its layers, with a great contrast between the nutty sweetness of the charred exterior and the fresh crunch of the center.

Slice the wedges into ½-inch strips and coat with the vinaigrette. Let the salad rest for a few minutes before serving to allow the dressing to saturate the cabbage.  Any leftovers can be refrigerated and served as a cold salad the next day and works well as a sandwich topping.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Classics Win at Atlanta Meatball Festival

Last Saturday, I headed out to Belle Isle Square in Sandy Springs for the second annual Atlanta Meatball Festival produced by Taste of Atlanta and hosted by Chef Linda Harrell of Cibo E Beve. Twenty two chefs were on hand under the big tent to share their best meatball creations in this "battle of the balls" where guests were each given a gold coin to use as a voting chip for our favorite meatball! Proceeds from the event benefit Second Helpings Atlanta, which is a social action non-profit serving as a conduit between food donors and the front line agencies which feed the hungry on a daily basis.

Of course, like most popular food items, many cultures claim to be the inventors. Case in point; the meatball is claimed to have been invented by the Chinese, Romans and the Persians and this year’s chefs certainly left no cuisine untested with their unique offerings like:
  • Braised Veal Meatball with Kimchi, Scallions and Charred Orange Vinaigrette from 1Kept
  • Lamb & Ricotta Meatball with Candied Garlic Sauce from 4th & Swift
  • Masala Meatball from Bhojanic 
  • Pork & Smoked Bacon Meatball with Honey Garlic Sauce from Community Smith 
  • Smoked Duck Meatball with Collard Green Kimchi from Food 101 
  • Turkey Poblano Meatloaf Meatball with Jalapeno Tequila Gravy from Madre + Mason
  • Shanghainese Lion's Head Meatball with Vermicelli Noodles and Cabbage from Makan
  • Fried Chicken and Champagne Meatball from Max's Wine Dive
  • Toragashi Spiced Lamb Meatball with Pita Almond Crisp, Tomato, Shisa Tzatziki Sauce from One Flew South 
  • Korean Dirty Rice Meatball from Rathbun's
  • Smoked Duck Meatball with Fire Roasted Poblano Puree and Cotija Cheese Cream from Smoke Ring 
  • Shrimp Meatball with Thai Coconut Curry and Jasmine Rice from STK Atlanta 

Even with all the innovative and original presentations, I couldn’t help but be attracted to the traditional sauce-smothered, Italian-style meatball (25 years of marriage to an Italian perhaps?) thus my gold coin went to Davio’s whose classic delicate meatball doused with balanced, gentle tomato sauce is the genuine article and worthy of the name “meatball.”

I must not be the only one with this same penchant for a traditional meatball since all three of this year’s finalists (who will compete in the Meatball Throw Down during Taste of Atlanta at the end of September) were made in the classic Roman style:
  • American Kobe Beef Meatball with Caciocavallo from Davio's Atlanta 
  • No. 246 Meatball from No. 246
  • Pork And Beef Polpette from Colletta

And a shout out to Morelli's® for sharing some Maple Bacon Brittle Ice Cream which was an excellent palate cleanser and to Angel’s Envy for sharing their amazing orange-spiked cocktails. Thanks to Brave PR for once again including us in this super enjoyable event again this year!

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Spanish Summer Paella with Beso Del Sol® Sangria

With summer coming to a close, we wanted to take advantage of the timing and the weather to have a little get-together with friends and family. As luck would have it, we also had a 3-liter "bag-in-the box" of Beso Del Sol® Sangria to get the party started!
Sangria is served throughout Spain and Portugal during summer at informal social gatherings, like a punch. Beso Del Sol® Sangria, which means “kissed by the sun,” is imported from Spain and made with high quality Spanish Tempranillo which is blended with a selection of fruits and citrus creating a light, fruity mixture that is mildly sweet and very refreshing.

What better way to enjoy sangria than paired with another Spanish tradition: paella. Paella is the Valencian rice dish widely regarded as Spain's national dish and is a major part of a nation's identity and self-image. During the age of European empire-building, nations would develop a national cuisine to distinguish themselves from their rivals.

After gathering all the obligatory ingredients: Valencia rice, saffron, and chorizo; we began putting the dish together. We also busted out the sangria operating under W. C. Fields' philosophy of "I cook with wine, sometimes I even add it to the food." The sangria is well-balanced and not too sweet with 8.5% alcohol (less than the 11% typical of wine) and a smooth finish.

1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
Salt and ground black pepper
Olive oil
8 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound chicken thighs, boneless and skinless
8 ounces Spanish chorizo, sliced
1 medium onion, chopped finely
1 red bell pepper, chopped
2 cups tomatoes, diced
2 cups Valencia rice (Arborio rice is a reasonable substitute)
3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, crumbled
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
1 cup frozen peas, thawed
1 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped
1 lemon, cut into wedges, for serving

Pre-heat oven to 350°F and begin heating 2 teaspoons of oil in the bottom of the paellera (a 12-inch round deep sauté pan or Dutch oven are a good substitutes.

Toss the shrimp, ¼ teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon pepper, 1 tablespoon oil, and 1 teaspoon of the garlic in a medium bowl; cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until needed. Season the chicken thighs with salt and pepper; set aside.

When the oil in the pan is shimmering but not yet smoking, add the chicken pieces in a single layer; cook, without moving the pieces, until browned, about 3 minutes. Turn the pieces and brown on the second side for about 3 minutes more and then transfer the chicken to a medium bowl. Reduce the heat to medium and add the chorizo to the pan stirring frequently. When the sausage is deeply browned and the fat begins to render, 4 to 5 minutes, transfer the chorizo to the bowl with the chicken and set aside.

Add enough oil to the fat in the Dutch oven to equal 2 tablespoons and again heat over medium heat until shimmering but not yet smoking. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until softened, about 3 minutes and then stir in the remaining garlic and chopped red pepper and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Next stir in the tomatoes and cook until the mixture begins to darken and thicken slightly, about 3 minutes.

Stir in the rice and cook until the grains are well coated with the tomato mixture, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in the chicken broth, wine, saffron, bay leaf, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Return the chicken and chorizo to the pot, increase the heat to medium-high, and bring to a boil, uncovered, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and stir in peas.

Transfer the pan to the oven; cook until the rice absorbs almost all of the liquid, about 10-15 minutes depending on your oven. Remove the paella from the oven and scatter the shrimp over the rice and return to the oven to cook the shrimp until they are opaque, about 10 minutes more.

To achieve the layer of crusty browned rice that forms on the bottom of the pan known as soccarat that is a traditional characteristic of paella, place the paellera back on the stovetop over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes. When done, let the paella rest for about 5 minutes before serving.

Once cooled, sprinkle the paella liberally with the chopped cilantro and nestle lemon wedges along the edges. Serve with a chilled pitcher of Beso Del Sol® Sangria for an authentic Spanish experience.

While the food items we sampled were complimentary, we received no additional remuneration. The opinions included herein are honest and unsolicited.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Atlanta's Got Balls - Meatballs!

Did someone say meatball? Living in an Italian household with hubby and two carnivorous boys, I think it is fair to say that I am somewhat of an expert on this topic. When I was invited to a preview event for the 2nd annual Atlanta Meatball Festival, I could not refuse. Executive Chef Linda Harrell invited four chefs from other Atlanta restaurants that will participating in this year’s Atlanta Meatball Festival into her kitchen at Cibo E Beve. Each chef prepared a signature meatball.

Photo Credit: Henri Hollis
The first meatball to arrive at the table was a perfect little package created by Chef Drew Belline of No. 246. A wonderful example of a traditional Italian meatball plated with a splash of pomodoro and a basil leaf. Yum.

Next up was a gluten-free meatball made with Springer Mountain Farms' chicken. This morsel created by host Chef Linda was lighter than its beefy cousins with a chunkier style marinara.

A “smoked” meatball from 7 Lamps Chef Drew Van Leuvan was a nice surprise. The meatball was made with beef and pork braised in a sincerely smoky puree of tomato and eggplant; a very nice adaptation on a classic. 

The biggest revelation of the evening came in the way of the duck meatball with a hoisin-style glaze served atop kimchi collards presented by Chef Justin Keith of Food 101. This was truly an exceptional meatball!

The last sample of the evening and winner of the “size matters” award was a humongous meatball in a well prepared tomato gravy came from Top Chef Ron Eyester of Rosebud who delivered his offering to the table with a mischievous grin as he said, “Ready to taste my balls?”
If these meatballs are a sample of what’s in store at this year’s Atlanta Meatball Festival, you better go buy your tickets now to join TasteATL at Belle Isle Square in Sandy Springs on Sunday, August 30 from 1:00 - 5:00pm for a mighty selection of meatball dishes, sweets, limoncello and more from more than 20 of Atlanta's hottest restaurants.

While the food items we sampled were complimentary, we received no additional remuneration. The opinions included herein are honest and unsolicited.
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