Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Grilling Neophyte

I've been traveling like a dog for the past two months. Hence the dearth of posts. Sorry about that and thanks for your patience. I think I'm back home for a bit so pledge to get back on the posting band wagon. So without further ado. . . .

One of my resolutions this year was to learn how to grill. While it may seem fairly innocuous to some, it's always intimidated me. I guess I've been of the opinion that the grill is part of the male domain. Right up there next to taking the trash out and putting up the Christmas lights. Yet I pride myself on being a Modern Woman so figured it was high time to face the grill-fearing music. And I will go ahead and acknowledge the fact that we're halfway through the year and I'm just now getting around to this resolution.

Santa Barbara has been living up to its June Gloom moniker this year, which means we get socked in by a cold, gray, misty marine layer until about 2 pm each day. You start the day off in jeans and a sweatshirt, but then find yourself donning a tank tank and flip flops in the afternoon to soak up the glorious rays of Vitamin D spilling forth from the vibrant blue sky. It's weather schizophrenia for sure. But the evenings are also epic weather for grilling. After being on the road so often of late, I've been hankering to get cooking again. And coming off a week of gluttony in Vegas, salads seem to be appropriate. I absolutely adore the late sunlight hours of summer, but the downside is that it can be creeping up on 8 o'clock at night before I start to think about dinner. Despite the hour last night, I felt inspired to uncover the grill and take a shot at grilling.

Of course I thought it wise to begin with the remedial chicken breast. I had earmarked a recipe for a grilled chicken Caesar salad which I'd been saving for such an occasion. I honestly wish someone had filmed the whole endeavor as it was quite humorous. I'm pretty sure I bought a very low-entry grill (which would be gas for you hardcore charcoal fundamentalists), however, I still felt completely incompetent trying to operate it. I can be a fairly inquisitive person, much to the annoyance of many, and have a deep need to always understand what I'm doing, so the whole time I'm asking questions out loud — to no one but myself, mind you:

"How many burners should be turned on to cook 3 chicken breasts? "

"Am I supposed to cook with the lid up or down?"

"I know, righty tighty, lefty loosey. But which direction is OFF for the gas?"

I kept expecting my dear neighbor, Chris, to hear my confusion, take pity on me and come to my rescue. I'm glad he didn't though. I will spare you the drama (rest assured I did figure out how to turn off the gas), but I survived. I actually did better than that. I'm quite proud to say the meal was delicious. The chicken was juicy and flavorful, the grilled romaine had an alluring smokiness, and the toasted garlic croutons could be habit forming. The dressing made it all come together. If you think you don't like anchovies, well you do! It's the perfect balance of salty, tangy and fresh. The simpler the dish, I think the more challenging it is to pull it off. Grilling all the components of this iconic dish really elevated it and made it seem special. It was also fast and easy, which is great when you start cooking dinner at 8 PM. And if you take away one thing from this entry, please try grilling romaine. It will make you rethink lettuce.

Even if my meal was beginner's luck, I have some newfound confidence about "cooking in a man's world." Hmm, what's next on the grilling docket? Would love to hear any favorite grilling recipes for minor leaguers.

I still hate taking the trash out though.

Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad
Slightly adapted from Food Network Magazine

1/2 cup olive oil
4 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 Tbsp herbs de Provence
2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breasts
3 cloves garlic
2-4 anchovy fillets, chopped (Get Crown Prince flat anchovies in olive oil. They're the best!)
Juice of 1 lemon
4 1/2-inch thick slices of focaccia or French bread
4 romaine lettuce hearts, halved lengthwise
3/4 cup parmesan cheese, sliced with vegetable peeler

Place 1/4 cup of olive oil plus next 5 ingredients in a ziploc bag and add chicken breast. Let marinade for at least 2 hours.
Preheat grill to medium high. Mix remaining 1/4 cup olive oil with 2 chopped garlic cloves and puree with anchovies and lemon juice in a blender until smooth; season with salt and pepper.
Grill chicken for approximately 7 minutes a side or until done. [That's the funny part of the directions coming from someone who knows nothing about grilling. That's how long I cooked it for and it was perfectly done but I feel the need to put out a disclaimer.]
Brush the romaine with 1-2 Tbsp of the dressing and grill until marked, 1 to 2 minutes per side. Brush the bread with olive oil on both sides and grill, turning until toasted, about 2 minutes. Rub with the remaining garlic clove. [If you're sensitive to garlic, then skip this or just rub it lightly over the bread.]
Chop the lettuce, bread and chicken and transfer to bowl. Toss with more dressing as desired, the parmesan and salt and pepper to taste.

Monday, June 7, 2010


I think most people grew up with a fairly confined diet. Not confined in a boring sense, but more like normal or indicative of your family or region. What you eat seems ordinary . . . until you realize not everyone eats like that. As a child, I found it both alarming and exhilarating. Through the years, it's become an enlightening process for me, and one that I really enjoy. I've definitely become acquainted and even extremely fond of food that otherwise would've been absent in my life. And that would flat out be a crying shame.

Bagels for instance.

I can still recall vividly the first bite of a bagel I ever had. I was living in Panama (probably in 3rd grade) and had spent the night at the Healy's. While I was accustomed to biscuits at breakfast, they served up bagels. My mom was fairly fanatical about manners so I knew I could only say, "Thank you" upon being handed this odd doughnut-shaped roll. But I've always been a bread lover so immediately took a bite. And oh what a glorious moment that was as I savored the soft yet slightly chewy doughy goodness. My friend Suzanna poked me and said encouragingly, "It's even better if you put cream cheese and grape jelly on it!" I was thinking, "What? First you hand me this novel baked good and now you're throwing in cream cheese for goodness sakes?! What the heck is cream cheese?!" In short my parents were stunned when I came home and told them I wanted to start eating bagels with cream cheese for breakfast. This was coming from a girl who didn't want anything besides butter touching any bread — ever.

I was an admittedly picky eater as a child, but my parents always made us try at least one bite of everything. And I'm glad they did because I've definitely broadened my confined diet over the years as a result of their attitude. Although I absolutely adore many of my familiar foods (i.e. fried catfish, fried green tomatoes, fried chicken, chicken fried steak, fried oysters, fried . . . .), I equally love all the wonderful things I've now adopted into my standard fare. Balsamic vinegar, hummus, chorizo, edamame, couscous and quinoa, to name just a few.

Uh, quinoa? What the hell is that? That was pretty much my first response upon formal introduction. Well, that and wondering how on Earth do you pronounce it. It's one of those words like "toile," which rhymes with "y'all" and obviously completely rejects the whole phonetic spelling concept. I saw the word referenced in a vegetarian cooking magazine (which of course was not picked up until I moved to California) and assumed it was pronounced "quinn-owah." The locals here had a heyday with that one. It turns out it's pronounced "keen-whah." I was like, "Whatever, you hippies. My fried chicken can kick your tofu's ass any day."

My ego has recovered now, and I must say I heart quinoa. It's super versatile, quick cooking, fail-proof and extremely healthy. I love it so much, I even buy huge bags of it at Costco. But most of all, I love it because it tastes and feels like you're carb loading when you're really protein packing. Quinoa is actually a protein-rich seed (once considered sacred by the Incas) and cousin to leafy greens like swiss chard and spinach.

So what can you do with it? Basically use it anyway you'd use rice or couscous. It lends itself well to being "doctored up." You can make a southwestern rift (with black beans, corn and cilantro), a Mediterranean version (with sun-dried tomatoes, chick peas, and broccoli) an Asian spin (with mushrooms, bok choy, ginger) . . . I think you get my drift. My new favorite recipe follows. It's the perfect picnic dish! And got many rave reviews from several quinoa virgins yesterday. Try it in the name of diet expansion. You'll like it. You'll wonder how you could've managed without quinoa for so long.

I'm still working on vegamite though.

P.S. I forgot to take photos so this is courtesy of Marina, our picnic host.

Greek-Style Quinoa with Grilled Shrimp
adapted from Fitness magazine

1 lb shrimp, shelled and cleaned
6 Tbsp olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 tsp coarse salt
1/2 tsp ground pepper
1 cup grape tomatoes, halved
3/4 cup Kalamata olives, halved or quartered
1 yellow bell pepper, chopped
1 large shallot, chopped
1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
1/3 cup fresh mint, coarsely chopped
4 oz feta, crumbled
1 cup quinoa
2 cups water

Place shrimp, 2 Tbsp olive oil, 2 Tbsp lemon juice, 1 minced garlic clove, 1/4 tsp salt and pepper in a bowl.
Bring 2 cups water to a bowl in a 2 qt pot and add quinoa. Return to a boil and then reduce heat to medium and cook quinoa, covered, for 12 minutes. Remove from heat and let sit covered for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat 2 Tbsp olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add remaining clove garlic, shallots and bell pepper. Saute until soft, approximately 5 - 7 minutes. Remove and place in a large bowl.
Add tomatoes, cut side up, in the same skillet and cook over medium-high heat for 2 minutes or until starting to char. Add them to the large bowl, along with chopped olives, feta, mint and parsley. Mix in quinoa.
Heat a grill pan on high heat and then add shrimp (without marinade). Cook 2 minutes on one side or until shrimp is starting to get opaque and then flip. Cook additional minute and remove from heat. Add to the quinoa mix. You may want to cut shrimp in half before adding.
Drizzle with remaining 2 Tbsp of olive oil and lemon juice. Can be served warm, cold or at room temperature. Keeps in the refrigerator for several days. Yields: 6 servings.