Grilled Blue Cheese and Bacon Quesadillas, What a Great Idea

Can you steal an idea if part of it was yours?

If you can, then I've stolen the idea for this post from my friends Sarah and Andy (who you might remember from such posts as Smoking and Freezing). A few weeks ago, Sarah and I were talking about the grilled pizzas she was planning to make for some out-of-town friends. One of her favorite pies is a bacon and apple pizza covered with sharp cheddar cheese.

I told her it sounded fantastic ... and then suggested how to change it. (I do this a lot, which either makes me egotistical, condescending or kind of a dick. Probably all three.) Bacon and apple go great together, but why not pair them with blue cheese instead of cheddar? The tang of a good, creamy blue cheese is the ideal accompaniment to smoky bacon and tart, sweet apples. Cheddar, on the other hand, pairs great with, um, beef.

Giving my advice the consideration it deserves, Sarah went home and whipped up a bacon, apple and cheddar cheese pizza. Her guests loved it.

Still, I'm right. Like basil, tomato and mozzarella, blue cheese, apples and bacon are natural allies. I'm not breaking new ground, mind you. These ingredients have been brought together for years, especially in salads, but also in desserts, sandwiches and main courses.

Although the combination is classic, bringing them together in a quesadilla isn't.

DSCN5428 I've been putting off doing a quesadilla post for a while. As much as I enjoy a warm, crusty quesadilla (it's like a hot taco!), it seemed too easy to bother with. Basically, it's two flour tortillas stuffed with something (including cheese) and heated until the contents melt together and the tortillas become golden brown and firm. Serve it with some guacamole and sour cream and you're good to go.

And then I noticed that Steven Raichlen included quesadilla recipes in a couple of his books. So game on.

Their simplicity is their beauty. You can go traditional and use queso blanco, beans and peppers, or you can play around with the ingredients and use, I don't know, blue cheese, bacon and apple. Instead of sour cream, you could use crème fraiche, which is similar, but has a milder, creamier flavor.

While I'm just talking about cheese, meat and fruit, the blue cheese, bacon and apple have a way of dressing up the quesadilla, or at least breathing some new life into the dish. And crème fraiche just sounds fancy.

More importantly, the ingredients are perfect for a quesadilla. The flour tortillas are unobtrusive and the strong flavors of the ingredients remain distinct even as the blue cheese, warmed by the heat of the grill, envelops the crunchy bacon and crisp pieces of apple.

DSCN5439 To accompany the quesadilla, I picked up Schneider Weisse hefeweizen (Yup, a German wheat beer to go with my Latin quesadilla filled with blue cheese and apples.). Admittedly, the hefeweizen has more to do with the season than the meal, but it works well with the quesadilla. Just as cold winter evenings have me craving dark stouts and wee heavy Scotch ales, the sticky hot days of summer trigger a longing for the smooth, sweet flavors of a good German hefeweizen.

And when it comes to pairing a beer with a dish that has such strong flavors, the hefeweizen is a good match. The mild banana flavors compliment the quesadilla's sweet apple and tart cheese, and the unfiltered beer has enough body to stand up the rich blue cheese and salty bacon.

Besides, it's hot and I want a hefeweizen.

So I don't know if I stole the idea for the quesadilla from Sarah and Andy or a cheese plate I had at some point. Wherever the idea came from, it works. Is it better than a bacon, apple and cheddar cheese pizza? Who can say? (I can, and it is.)

Grilled Quesadilla with Blue Cheese, Bacon and Apple
(Makes four servings)

DSCN5414 8 flour tortillas (two per quesadilla)
4 oz. of blue cheese, crumbled (I like Maytag)
1 package of thick cut bacon, or three strips of bacon per quesadilla, fried and diced into small pieces
1 Granny Smith or similar tart apple, diced into cubes or small pieces (squirt a little lemon juice on the apple pieces to prevent them from browning)
1 small container of crème fraiche
1/2 lb. of queso blanco, shredded

Quesadillas cook very quickly, so you need to have all your ingredients prepared beforehand. And if you're using a gas grill with flavorizor bars, take them off. The tortillas need direct exposure to the flame in order to brown and char properly. If you're using a charcoal grill, you're fine. 

You'll notice I have queso blanco in the ingredient list. It's literally the glue that will hold the quesadilla together. The blue cheese will get nice and gooey, but not enough to bind the tortillas. And because the queso blanco has such a mild flavor, it won't get in the way of the much bolder flavors of the other ingredients.

DSCN5417 When your grill is ready and all your ingredients are assembled next to it, start building the quesadilla by scattering some of the queso blanco on a tortilla, and then add the bacon, apple and blue cheese, and then add a little more queso blanco on top. Carefully slide or place the quesadilla on the grill, directly over the heat, and cover with the other tortilla.

Close the lid and let cook for two minutes. Open the lid and check the bottom tortilla. If it's starting to brown and char a bit, carefully flip the quesadilla. Grill for another two mintues or until the bottom tortilla browns and then remove from the heat.

Halve or quarter the quesadilla (or not, whatever), add a dollop of crème fraiche and enjoy.

Don't call it a comeback! Chicken wings on the grill, Super Bowl on the TV

DSCN4830 Next week's game has all the makings of being the best Super Bowl since 2002. Both the Saints and Colts have great story lines and last weekend's championship games point to a fantastic match up in the works. (With all the connections to Louisiana, a pot of gumbo and a case of Abita wouldn't be a bad call.)

So what better time to restart the old grilling column? I've been a bit busy lately with beer bar profiles, homebrewing and expanding the family. As a result, I haven't cranked out a grilling column since Oktoberfest. Shameful, I know. But I'm sure everyone has been dutifully grilling throughout the college and NFL seasons, right? Right??

If not, it's time. This is the Super Bowl, people, so let's get back on the horse. And what better way to get back on the horse than with chicken? (That made a whole lot more sense when I wrote it.)

As we all know, chicken wings have become the official food of football. The people who argue that pizza or nachos are the preeminent game food are the same people who argue that baseball is still America's pastime. Ignore these people.

DSCN4838 The beauty of grilling chicken wings this time of year is you don't need to spend that much time outside with them. Toss them on, glaze the hot wings a couple times when they're nearly done, and pull 'em off. That's it. I'm a proponent of year-round grilling, but I hate spending time outside during the winter. (Well, winter up here. If I were writing this post back home in Tampa, I'd be outside in shorts. Your winters suck.)

For this post, I did the wings two ways: buffalo style, or hot wings, and jerk. For the jerk, you marinate the wings over night. For the hot wings, you glaze them on the grill and prepare a blue cheese sauce while they cook (but it'll be better if you make it the night before). Most importantly, this is all stuff you can do while drinking beer. I know, I did.

So skip the bars, buy a couple packages of chicken wings and make sure you have propane in the tank (or charcoal in the bag). This is the Super Bowl, so it's time to do it right. And the only way to do it right is to do it on the grill.

(This is the point I usually make a beer recommendation. Not this time. As I mentioned, I've been homebrewing, so I'll be drinking my own during the big game. I will say this: with all the pre-game analysis, festivities and what not, and then the game, Super Bowl Sunday is a marathon, not a sprint. While I'd love to spend the day sucking down Hopslam, the 10 percent beer would lay me out before kickoff. So shoot for something a little lighter, like Oskar Blues' Mama's Little Yella Pils, Abita's Turbodog, or Clipper City's MarzHon. All three are great beers that will treat you right all day long.)

Grilled Jerk and Hot Wings
(makes a lot of wings)

Hot Wings

DSCN481820-25 whole chicken wings (I don't separate the drummette and the wingette. Life's short, give everyone a whole wing.)
1 large 10 oz. bottle of hot sauce (I buy something cheap and relatively mild. In this case, I used Tapatio.)
3 tbs. honey
1/2 stick of butter (room temperature)
Salt and pepper to taste
Vegetable oil

Blue cheese sauce

1 pint of Greek yogurt
1/2 cup of soft, crumbled blue cheese
2 tsp. of garlic powder
2 tsp. of onion powder
1/4 oz. of lemon juice
1 tbs finely chopped fresh chives
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Jerk Wings

20-25 whole chicken wings
1 onion, chopped
2/3 cup of green onions
1 tsp. thyme (dried or fresh)
2 tsp. salt
3 tsp. allspice
1 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tbl. crushed red peppers
2 Serrano or jalapeno peppers, chopped
2 tsp. black pepper
2 tbs. soy sauce
1/2 cup of vegetable oil
Several dashes of Tabasco

DSCN4804 The night before, marinate the jerk wings and put the blue cheese sauce together (I know I said you could do that while the chicken cooks on the grill, but the sauce will be better if it has a night to come together.). For the jerk wings, combine all the ingredients except the chicken (if I didn't point that out, someone would have) in a food processor. Pulse until the ingredients form a very loose paste. Spoon the ingredients onto the chicken wings -- making sure to coat them thoroughly -- cover and refrigerate overnight.

For the blue cheese sauce, add all the ingredients except the chives into the Greek yogurt, taste and adjust the seasoning as necessary. Cover and refrigerate. Scatter the chives on top before you serve.

An hour before you're ready to grill, remove all the chicken from the refrigerator, as well as the butter. Brush the chicken you're using for hot wings with a light coat of oil. Season with salt and pepper.

DSCN4812 Whether you're using a gas or charcoal grill, set it up for indirect cooking (charcoal: hot spot on one side, cool on another; gas grill: two outer burners on, two inner burners off). When the grill is hot, put all the chicken on and close the cover. Grill the chicken for 30 minutes. Open the lid and flip the chicken. Also, swap the pieces of chicken that are farthest from the heat with the pieces closest to the heat. Close the cover and keep grilling for another 30 minutes.

During this last half hour put the wing sauce together. In a sauce pot, combine the hot sauce, butter and honey. Simmer over medium heat until the ingredients coalesce. After the wings have been on the grill about an hour, start brushing the sauce on the chicken.Close the lid and cook for 5 minutes. Add another coat of the wing sauce and grill for another five minutes.

Pull all the wings off the grill, get the blue cheese sauce out of the fridge and go watch that game.

Oktoberfest: Grilled Schweinshaxe und Bier!

Image043 If you like pork and if you like beer, then you're in the throes of your favorite holiday and mine: Oktoberfest.

I don't know whether it's the glutton, the drinker or the German in me, but damn I love this holiday immensely (Well, not too immensely. I don't wear lederhosen or anything.). Thirty-three might be a little young to have a bucket list, but if I were to put one together, celebrating Oktoberfest in Bavaria would be toward the top. Hell, I'd even strap on a pair of lederhosen for the occasion (when in Rome, after all).

Just the idea that thousands of thousands of people getting together to drink maerzen and eat all manner of pork while singing beer halls songs is enough to get me down right frothy about the holiday. Then I came across the photo blog Orr Shtuhl posted on the Washington City Paper's Young & Hungry blog. Man, those pictures nearly made me say, "Screw the job, I'm going to Deutschland." Seriously, if you've ever thought about going over for the grand celebration you need to check out those photos.

Here at home, we've distilled Oktoberfest down to sausages, beer and sauerkraut. Let me make this clear: I love sausages, beer and sauerkraut. A lot. I mean, last year I had my buddy Carlos at Canales Meat make me a five-foot bratwurst. That's love, people.

But there's much more to German cuisine than brats and sauerkraut, even in the beer halls. So this year I decided to have a few friends over an Oktoberfest celebration featuring another staple of the beer hall: schweinshaxe.

Schweinshaxe is the roasted front hocks - or shins - of the pig. With all the recent interest in offal and charcuterie, pork hocks still fly under most Americans' radars. However, my wife, who studied in Bavaria, says schweinshaxe is as common as bratwurst and pretzels.

Given how easy it is to prepare and how unctuous the meat is (thanks to the fat and skin surrounding it), pork hocks should start making their way onto more of our menus.

However, the up side of pork hocks' obscurity is their price. I bought eight hocks from Wagshal's Market for $17. Along with the beer-braised brussel sprouts and potato pancakes, the roasted hocks easily fed seven people.

Image022 In Germany, hocks are typically braised, but I wanted to make sure the skin got crisp. So after braising them for a couple hours, I stuck them on a spit for 30 minutes. Afterward they looked like retirees in Miami - tanned and crispy. Beneath the crunchy skin was moist, soft pork covered in warm fat. I pulled a piece of meat off the bone and dabbed a little stone ground mustard on top. It was porky nirvana. 

Now, you can't have Oktoberfest without beer. And with all due respect to American brewers, Germans make the best German beer. Whether it's hefeweizen or the maerzens traditionally made for Oktoberfest, German brewers simply do those styles better than we do. They just do.

Image047 Keeping in the spirit of things, I hopped in the car and headed over to the German Gourmet at Bailey's Crossroads. You like German stuff? They got German stuff, including one of the best selections of German beers in the area. Rather than going with an Oktoberfest beer, I grabbed a 5 liter keg of Einbecker's Mai-Ur-Bock. It's a faintly sweet, well-rounded amber lager that is made for pork and potato pancakes. Sure, I should've grabbed the Paulaner Oktoberfest instead, but I knew I can find it on tap around the city. But give me some credit, I did get a mini-keg.

Roll out the barrel, baby! Prost!

Grilled Schweinshaxe with Beer-Braised Brussels Sprouts and Potato Pancakes
(Makes eight servings)

8 pork hocks, skin on
9 Yukon gold potatoes, skinned, shredded and drained
Image017 6 onions (yellow or red), 2 chopped roughly and 4 cut into thick slices
2 stalks of brussels sprouts (or two bunches)
3 carrots, chopped roughly
3 celery stalks, chopped roughly
2 bay leaves
16 oz. container of sour cream
3 thick slabs of bacon, diced
2 eggs
5 16 oz. bottles of beer
Canola oil
Whole pepper corns
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper to taste

To begin, place the pork hocks, carrots, celery, bay leaves and the two roughly chopped onions into a pot and cover with water. Salt the water generously, cover and bring to a boil. When the water comes to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for two hours.

As the pork braises, shred the potatoes, draining off all the excess liquid, and cook the brussels sprouts. For the brussels sprouts, place in a pot and cover with two beers, a half cup of water and a table spoon of salt. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Cook for 30 minutes covered. If the brussels sprouts are tender after 30 minutes, drain the liquid from the brussels sprouts. Otherwise, cook for another 10 minutes.

Image029 Heat a frying pan over high heat. When the pan is hot, add the bacon and brussels sprouts, reduce to medium high heat and cook until the bacon is crispy and the sprouts have browned some, about 15 minutes. Remove from the pan and cover loosely to keep warm. 

In a sauce pot, pour the remaining three beers and a dozen or so black pepper corns, and bring to a boil. Once the basting liquid is boiling, turn the heat down and reduce the liquid by half.

When the pork hocks are cooked, pull them out of the pot, pat dry and stick on the rotisserie rod. Load the pork hocks on the grill and cook using medium heat for 30 minutes. Baste with the liquid every 10 minutes. Also, grill the slices of onion.

Image019 As the pork hocks spin, beat the two eggs and combine with the potatoes.  In a hot pan, add a couple tablespoons of oil. As the oil heats, take a portion of the potato mixture, form it into a patty and place in the pan. Season with salt and pepper. Cook for three minutes or until a brown crust forms. Turn, season and cook the potato pancake for another three minutes.

When the potatoes, onions and pork hocks are cooked, plate them with the brussels sprouts and top the potato pancakes with the grilled onions and a dollop of sour cream. If you haven't already, tap the keg and pour the beer.

The Politics of Food: Foie Gras


Some how the enlarged liver of water fowl has become a flashpoint in the animal rights movement.

To some extent, I understand their concern. To some extent, I don't.

I don't mean to be obtuse. Foie gras is an interesting topic. For anyone who doesn't know, foie gras is the fattened liver of ducks and geese. People either love it or loathe it -- if they even know what it is. Those who love it do so because it is a wondrously rich and delicious delicacy. Those who don't, don't because making foie gras requires the birds to be force-fed more food then they normally eat so that their fatty livers grow even fatter.

But in the larger scheme of things, why does anyone really care? As Mark Caro rightly points out in his book, "The Foie Gras Wars," foie gras is nothing more than the liver of unnaturally obese ducks that a limited number of wealthy people plunk down $20 to eat at expensive restaurants. Surely there are more important issues for people to worry about. But it is foie gras' relative obscurity and exclusivity that makes it such a perfect target for animal rights activists and sympathizers, Caro argues.

As he notes in his book, "foie gras (a) has a funny French name, (b) is enjoyed by the relatively affluent, (c) remains unknown to your average Tyson chicken eater, (d) is liver, and (e) is made from ducks. We like ducks."

This fondness of ducks, and concern that they're subjected to torture, is the reason protesters harass restaurateurs, demanding that all foie gras is pulled from the menu. However, the picketing and protesting can have the opposite effect. Damien Brassel, chef and owner of New York's Knife + Fork restaurant, responded to protesters by adding it to his tasting menu, according to the Village Voice. Other restaurants in New York, D.C. and elsewhere have done the same.

While researching this topic, I spoke to a local chef who's worked with foie gras for years. Like the fur protests of the 1990s, the chef said the foie gras protests are a passing fad and would not consider pulling the controversial dish from the menu.

Now, I like foie gras. Of course I also like beef, pork and chicken. But the main difference between foie gras and the Holy Trinity of American meat is scale. Given the enormous amounts of beef, pork and chicken we eat, the industries that provide those products to us are understandably large. And large companies have lobbyists, legislative clout and well-funded marketing departments (Beef, it's what's for dinner; Pork, the other white meat; The incredible, edible egg; etc. and so forth.) 

In contrast, the small amount of foie gras produced in the U.S. comes from two farms: Hudson Valley Foie Gras in New York and Sonoma Valley in California.

So despite the various problems and abuses in the beef, pork and poultry industries over the years, not too many people are chucking bricks through restaurant windows because there's a burger on the menu.

To understand why someone would vandalize a restaurant and threaten its staff over a duck, it helps to understand how foie gras is produced. Foie gras is made by artificially engorging ducks or geese a few days before slaughter (a process known as gavage or noodling). The forced-feedings cause the birds' livers to increase in size because that's where they store fat. Gavage may be considered a grotesque process by some, but consider that the birds naturally do this to a lesser extent every year to prepare for migration.

For the daily feedings, a worker holds a bird (typically a duck in the U.S.) between his legs and slides a metal or rubber tube down the bird's throat. The bird is then force-fed about 10 ounces of grain. This can be a rough way of feeding an animal, but ducks and geese swallow their food whole. So as long as the worker is careful, the process shouldn't cause the animal much discomfort, and certainly no injury.

But are the workers always careful? I'm sure not. Judging by the videos and accusations made by the Humane Society and PETA, gavage is a highly cruel process suffered by filthy, injured animals forced to live in wretched conditions.  The problem with these videos, it seems to me, is they highlight the worst cases not the typical cases. As such, they distort the issue. Rather than discuss the issues involved with producing foie gras, animal rights groups dredge up imagery and anecdotes about farms with the very worst animal husbandry practices. The way in which these operations treat their livestock has nothing to do with foie gras, it has to do with the way they treat their animals. And whether we're talking about ducks or cattle, abuse is abuse.

For her The Village Voice article, writer Sarah DiGregorio visited Hudson Valley Farms to witness first-hand their production practices. Although Hudson Valley is a favorite target for protesters, DiGregorio found no signs of abuse, even going so far as to personally inspect the esophagi of freshly slaughtered ducks. Caro took similar tours, including of Hudson Valley, while working on "The Foie Gras Wars" and found no signs of torture or abuse either.

During the feedings, DiGregorio said the ducks didn't seem to enjoy being held between the worker's legs and force-fed, but the animals did not appear to be tortured. Once the 10 to 15 second feeding was over, the birds calmly walked off.

That's an important point. Hudson Valley doesn't raise its birds in cages. The animals are raised in sanitary environments and allowed to wander around in large, open areas. Farms in Canada and Europe have been known to raise their birds in cages. As a consumer, you have the ability to decide whether this is important to you. If it is, then make sure you're buying foie gras from farms that raise their birds in cage-free environments. If you don't care, that's fine too. At least you know there's a difference.

Like veal, foie gras is not an easy issue. Everything we eat, whether it walked the earth or grew from it, has political, moral and nutritional implications. And as we must eat to live, we should be aware of the consequences, and not merely cherry pick the issues we decide to fight for or against.

If you choose not to eat foie gras, fine. If you choose not to eat veal, fine. But I will. And I will do so being well aware of what I'm eating and secure in the knowledge that people like Forrest Pritchard at Smith Meadows Farm, and the folks at New York's Hudson Valley Farm, are producing these products in a sustainable, conscientious and humane way.

Foie Gras Three Ways

(Makes a lot of foie gras)

For these dishes, I went online and ordered 2 pounds of Hudson Valley foie gras from D'Artagnan. That much will easily feed 10 people a reasonable amount of foie gras. Remember it's all fat. Really, really delicious fat. But don't eat it regularly or your cardiologist will tell you to lay off it for good.

As for the recipes, they include two American techniques (grilling and searing) and one French technique (cru au sel: raw with salt). To be fair, the use of two American techniques and one French is a misrepresenation of foie gras cooking techniques. The grilling and searing techniques represent most, if not all, of the American approaches to preparing foie gras. Cru au sel is but one of a great many ways the French have come up with to prepare foie gras. In fact, I had to cajole the chef who worked with me on these recipes (who's training is classic French cuisine) to allow me to try the grilling technique (this is a grilling column). Fortunately, it worked out (to my relief and the chef's surprise).


Grilled Foie Gras with Gastrique of Porter
(for two)

2 4 oz. pieces of foie gras
2 tbs. of honey
2 tbs. of balsamic
1/2 cup of porter (I used Flying Dog's Road Dog porter)
Kosher salt

Typically, foie gras will come in two lobes, with one lobe larger than the other. The larger lobe has more veins than the smaller. If you cut your pieces from the smaller lobe, you are less likely to encounter veins. Use a hot, thin-bladed knife to cut on the bias through the lobe of foie gras in order to render the two 4 ounce pieces. Also, make sure to work with cold, not frozen, foie gras. As foie gras warms, it will begin to melt like butter.

Once your pieces are cut for grilling, get your grill as hot as possible. When it's ready to go, salt one side of the foie gras and place it on the grill for 30 to 45 seconds. If you want a cross hatch, turn the foie gras 90 degrees. If not, allow to grill another 30 seconds or so. Turn the foie gras and grill for another 30 seconds or so. Remove from heat and set aside.


In a medium, non-reactive pan -- on the stove or grill -- combine the honey, balsamic vinegar and cook over medium heat until the mixture starts to caramelize. The consistency should be syrupy. Remove the pan from the heat and slowly add the porter; reduce by half. This should take about 5 minutes. When the sauce has thickened, place the foie gras in the pan and allow it to finish cooking, about 2 minutes.

Remove the foie gras from the pan, and sauce it lightly. Serve it with the remainder of the beer.


Seared Foie Gras with Peaches
(for two)

2 4 oz. pieces of foie gras
1 peach, peeled, halved and sliced (or cut into a fan)
1/2 cup of dessert wine, such as Sauternes or Beaumes de Venise
1/2 cup of veal stock
Kosher salt
Freshly cracked black pepper
Himalayan Pink Salt or other finishing salt

To begin, heat a high-quality aluminum pan (do not use Teflon) over high heat. Season one side of the foie gras with Kosher salt.


When the pan is very hot, place the foie gras in it, seasoned side down. Because the foie gras will begin to melt immediately, you do not need additional fat in the pan. Also, it will smoke ... a lot. After 45 seconds or so, a crust will have formed on the bottom. Turn and cook the foie gras for another 45 seconds or so. Remove the foie gras from the pan.

Turning down the heat to medium, place the peach into the same pan, which is now coated in rendered foie gras.  Sear for 30 to 45 seconds and remove from the pan.


Add the wine to the pan and cook off the alcohol, about three minutes. Add the veal stock, stir and allow to reduce by about half. This should take 3 to 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, and return the foie gras and peach to the pan. Warm the foie gras and peach, while gently basting, for about a minute.

Plate the foie gras and peach, and sauce lightly. Finish with the cracked black pepper and pink salt.

Cru au Sel
(for 8-10)

In this simple, classic French preparation, the foie gras is cured rather than cooked.

1 lobe (approximately 1 lb.) of foie gras, cleaned of all veins
5-6 cups of Kosher salt
Approximately 1 tbs. finishing salt (such as the pink salt)
1/2 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper
Crackers (or toasted brioche or baguette)
1 container of Membrillo (quince paste)

Allow the foie gras to come to room temperature for about 30 minutes. Disturbing the liver as little as possible, gently work through the underside of the lobe, identifying the veins and any bloody bits, with the tips of your fingers or the tip of a boning knife. Return the lobe to its original shape as best as possible.

Place 1-2 cups of salt into the bottom of a container big enough to hold the lobe of foie gras. Roll the cleaned lobe of foie gras in cheesecloth to keep its bits together (if any pieces came off during cleaning, these can be added back to the middle of the lobe and secured with the cheesecloth). Gently form the lobe into a loose log shape, tightly closing the ends of the cheesecloth, and place seam-side down into a container. Do not place it seam-side up, or too much salt will enter the interior of the log. Pour the remaining 3-4 cups of salt over the top of the lobe, and allow to cure for two hours.

After curing, remove the lobe and rinse in cold water, removing all salt. Lay a sheet of aluminum foil down on a flat surface, then cover with an equal size sheet of plastic wrap. Lay the foie gras on top, roll up, and twist tightly to form a perfect cylinder. Place in the refrigerator for at least three hours, or until ready to serve. Before serving, remove the log from the fridge for 15-20 minutes, slice into disks with a hot knife, and serve simply with a sweet jam or membrillo, finishing salt, pepper, and toasted brioche or baguette.

Additional photos of the foie gras, including the preparation, can be seen here.

The politics of food: Veal

I'm passionate about food, but I know it's just food. Once past the palate, it's all more or less the same. It's just fuel to keep us going until the next meal.

Nevertheless, food is political. Since Jesus broke bread with his apostles, food has always been more than mere sustenance. Food shows status and the lack of it. It's a statement about political leanings and personal choices. Food can bring people together and drive them to war.

Vegetarians swear off meat because they believe we no longer need to consume animals. Animal rights protesters picket restaurants to protest the use of certain ingredients. In the past few years, some of these groups have gone so far as to vandalize restaurants, intimidate staff and harass customers because they disagree deeply with the products on the menu.

Atop many activists' lists are surely veal and foie gras.

Few products seem to stoke people's anger more than the enlarged liver of water fowl and the meat of baby cows. And I think this anger is too often based on ignorance and agendas.

(Let me get this out of the way: I like veal and foie gras. I like them a lot. It was my interest in these products, as well as the controversy surrounding them, that led me to learn more about them and how they are produced.)

Most people, I believe, know little about veal and foie gras production. Most people are probably unaware that veal is a byproduct of the dairy industry. Therefore, the more cheese we eat, the more veal dairy farms will produce. And I do not believe most people know much about the process the French call gavage. It is central to foie gras production, so whether you plan to eat foie gras or protest it, you should be familiar with the forced feeding technique.

During my next two posts, I will explore these two products and provide recipes. In the end, you may be no more inclined to eat veal or foie gras than before. That's fine. At least you will know more about these products and why you may or may not want them on your plate.

When produced properly, veal and foie gras are fantastic products. When produced under poor conditions, they are every bit the epitome of suffering and animal cruelty that organizations like the Humane Society, Society for the Protection of Animals and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals claim they are.

Of course, every meat product we eat has or has had problems. Unfortunately, there is not a segment of the American agricultural industry that been free of abuses and abusers. Upton Sinclair might have exposed some of these issues a century ago, but as Robert Kenner showed in his film Food Inc., there are still plenty of problems today.Is the solution to stop eating meat? Some would say so. But given the numerous problems with the industrial production and importation of fruits and vegetables, maybe we should give up those foods as well.

That doesn't leave us with much, though.

Fortunately, we seem to be more aware of these issues today and interested in alternatives. That has given rise to farmers markets, Whole Foods, Yes Organic Markets, as well as organic and free-range options at traditional grocery stores like Harris Teeter and even Wal-Mart.

Despite becoming more educated about the food we eat, veal and foie gras remain taboo. They shouldn't be. The production of veal and foie gras can be every bit as humane as pasture-raised beef and free-range chicken.

Veal touches a nerve for two reasons: the way in which the calves are raised, and the age at which they're sent to slaughter.

Traditionally, veal calves are male dairy cows, which don't develop as much muscle (meat) as beef cattle. And because male dairy cows don't produce milk, only a small number are raised to adulthood for breeding purposes. The rest are used for veal (if they weren't used for veal, they would probably end up as dog food).

The common way dairy farms raise veal calves in a hutch, or box, which restricts their movement, thereby keeping the meat as soft as possible. When a calf reaches about 250 to 300 pounds, it's sent to slaughter. Understandably, this method bothers a lot of people (by the way, this is very similar to the way most industrial chicken farms raise their birds).

Forrest Pritchard doesn't raise his calves in a box. He also doesn't raise dairy cows. On his Smith Meadows Farm near Berryville, Va., Forrest raises beef cattle on pasture land. A few of the calves are regularly pulled from the herd at four to five months for veal.

Forrest said he does this to give his customers the option of purchasing veal. It also doesn't cost him any extra money. The traditional method of raising calves for veal requires building hutches, having a building to house the hutches, hand feeding the calves powdered milk and grain, and cleaning up after them.

Forrest simply allows the calves to remain with the herd until they naturally wean from their mothers. Although this is a cheaper, more humane way of raising the veal calves, Forrest notes that most dairy farms don't have pastures. Therefore, dairy farms might see the hutch method as their best alternative.

As for slaughtering a cow at four months, keep in mind that many livestock animals are slaughtered at that point or earlier. Pigs, lamb and turkeys are slaughtered at about four to six months. Chickens go to slaughter at around 8 weeks.

Despite raising veal calves in a humane way, Forrest says he still faces complaints and criticism for selling veal. Some of these folks change their mind after learning more about Smith Meadows Farm and Forrest's sustainable approach to agriculture. Some don't.

Admittedly, I've never been very comfortable with the hutch method, though I've eaten a fair amount of veal. However, with the rise of free-range veal, I see few reasons to go back to the traditional product. But there are differences.

Image003 Free-range veal tastes different, looks different and is not nearly as tender as box-raised veal. Just as grass-fed beef has a richer, purple color than regular beef, Forrest's pasture raised, grass-fed veal has more color to it than pale pink grain-fed veal. His free-range veal is also lean, and has more omega 3 fatty acids and healthy cholesterol than hutch-raised veal. As for the flavor, it tastes a bit more like beef than traditional veal.

Because Forrest's approach to farming emphasizes allowing the animals to develop naturally, he has "zero interest" in foie gras. Smith Meadows Farm recently began raising ducks, and Forrest will sell duck livers, but foie gras is out of the question because it requires the liver to be artificially enlarged.

I'll get into that in my next post.

Image057 For this meal, I picked up a couple veal porterhouses from Forrest (actually, I picked them up from his wife Nancy at the Del Ray Farmer's Market) and a bottle of Ozzy from Baltimore's stellar brewpub, The Brewer's Art. The sustainable agricultural and local craft beer movements really go hand-in-hand. Both emphasize small-scale, high-quality production to create artisanal products for a local market. The Brewer's Art's Ozzy is a faintly sweet, Belgian style ale that comes in at about 7.25 percent ABV. A 22 ounce bomber of Ozzy can be found at a few D.C. area stores that have decent craft beer selections. But if you've never had it from the tap, it's well worth the drive to Baltimore.

Grilled veal porterhouses with tomato and basil salad
(Makes two servings)

Image043 2 pasture-raised, grass-fed veal porterhouses
1 pint of green zebra tomatoes, quartered
1/2 pint sun gold, or similar orange or yellow tomatoes, halved
1/2 pint of cherry tomatoes, halved
1 bunch of fresh basil, left whole
1 lemon, halved
6 oz. of goat's milk feta
2 oz. of canola oil
Olive oil
Balsamic vinegar
Salt and fresh cracked black pepper

To get started, pull the porterhouses out of the refrigerator 30 minutes ahead of time, lightly coat both sides with canola oil and season generously with salt and black pepper. Keep them on the counter while you start your grill.

While you're waiting for the veal and grill to warm up, prep the salad by combining the tomatoes and feta. I went with goat's milk feta because it is a little less salty than sheep's milk feta and worked a lot better in this salad.

Image015 When the grill is hot, make sure you are set up for off-heat grilling by having a hot spot (directly over the coals or a couple burners on high) and a cool spot (an area without coals or a couple gas burners off or very low). Place the veal chops on the hottest part of the grill and close the lid, allowing the meat to sear for two minutes. Open the lid and give the chops a quarter turn to create hash marks. Close the lid and allow the meat to sear another two to three minutes. When a brown crust has formed on the meat, flip it and sear for another three minutes with the lid closed. After three minutes, move the veal to the cooler part of the grill to finish cooking with the lid closed (five minutes more for rare to medium rare, and seven minutes for medium).

This is a bit longer than I would normally cook veal chops, but because the meat is denser they require a longer cook time.Image032 Once the veal steaks are cooked to your liking, remove them from the grill and cover loosely with aluminum foil. Allow them to rest for 10 minutes. While the veal is resting, place half of the lemon face-down on the grill. The heat will caramelize the lemon, reducing its citrus bite and increasing its sweetness.

Also, finish the salad by gently adding in the basil leaves, seasoning with salt and black pepper, and dressing with the olive oil, balsamic and the juice from the other lemon half. By the time you're done with the salad, the lemon will be grilled and the veal will be ready.

Drizzle the hot lemon juice over the veal porterhouses and enjoy.

Grilled Chicken: Twelve months in the making

Image044A chicken recipe. Of course I have a chicken recipe.

I mean, I should have a chicken recipe, right?

In the year or so I've written this grilling column, I covered blood sausage, octopus, pork butt, eggs, oysters, fish, shell fish, French toast, and giant brats. Surely somewhere amongst all that I did a chicken post.

Well, not really.

A while back, my buddy Jason was in town to do a book signing at the American History Museum (Jason's a Lincoln historian, which is interesting until you're two hours into a yarn about Mary Lincoln's shopping habits. That's about the time I wish Booth would sneak up on me.). Jason spends much more of his time thumbing through old records than in front of a grill. So he asked me if I had a recipe for grilling chicken.

Of course I do. I'm the grilling guy and chicken is one of the most common meats Americans cook, indoors and out. Then I checked the Website. In the past 12 months, I've covered chicken twice. Twice! And neither post had anything to do with grilling.

So, time to address chicken.

During Jason's visit, I also learned that he'd never tried thyme. Thyme, people. It's one of the most common spices in our collective cupboard. It's not like the guy hadn't tried grains of paradise. Jason hadn't tasted an herb only slightly less popular than oregano. (To be fair, I introduced Jason to shrimp six years ago. Afterward, he was convinced he could feel them in his stomach. But still.)

This put me on a mission. I needed to come up with a recipe for grilled chicken and thyme. And as good as dried thyme is, I would use the fresh stuff growing in my backyard. The problem is, depending on weight, a standard chicken takes about 45 minutes to an hour on the grill. By then, the fresh thyme would be charred and denuded of any flavor. Instead, I decided to use an old barbecue technique. More on that in a minute.

Let's talk chicken. Not long ago, I started shopping at the H St. farmer's market. It's small, but the lineup of purveyors is solid. Among the vendors who show up every Saturday is a Mennonite farmer and his sons. The guy brings all kinds of beautiful cuts of meat, including free-range chicken.

Admission: Until that day, I had not cooked a free-range chicken. I'm all about the free-range movement, but I'm lazy and was happy with the birds I bought at Eastern Market and the grocery store. Then I read Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall's excellent book on butchery and sustainable farming, The River Cottage Meat Book. The guy lays out all the moral and culinary reasons we should eat free-range raised animals and support the farmers and butchers who provide the products to us.

So I bought a $16 free-range chicken and tossed it on the grill for an hour ... and served if half cooked to my buddy Columbo and his wife (Columbo, by the way, has never let me forget the first time I attempted beer-can chicken many years ago. The outcome was much, much worse.)

Turns out, thanks to all that walking around, free-range chickens have denser meat than the cage-raised birds we're accustomed to buying and eating. Consequently, free-range birds need to cook a lot longer.
All this is a long-winded way of setting up my latest recipe: grilled free-range chicken with thyme.

Image020 As I said, an hour on the grill will destroy fresh thyme. So instead of adding the herb before I cooked the bird, I incorporated it afterward - by seasoning my cutting board.

It's common when doing barbecue to season your cutting board with salt, pepper, butter and whatever other seasoning you're using before carving the meat. That way the juices mingle with the seasonings, and the seasoning adhere to the interior of the meat.

The same principle applies here. I simply covered my chicken with canola oil, salt and pepper, and threw it on the grill for an hour and 40 minutes. After I pulled it off and let it rest, I drizzled quality olive oil onto my cutting board and shook some salt and pepper over top. Then I covered it all with about a handful of thyme.

Image012 When it came time to carve the chicken, I set the bird on the board and slid my knife through the crispy skin exterior to the pool of seasonings beneath the bird. The result was a perfectly grilled chicken coated in olive oil and thyme. Just for good measure, I squeezed a lemon over top and scattered a little more thyme.

The chicken was delicious and the thyme works great with it. However, for all the moral virtues of raising chicken in a free-range environment, the flavor didn't translate. And when you're spending twice as much and cooking it nearly twice as long, you expect more than a clear conscience at the end of the meal. Unfortunately, my free-range chicken tasted like every store-bought bird I've cooked on the grill. 

There you have it, a chicken recipe. It may have taken a Lincoln historian, a Mennonite, a Polk County blogger, and a James Beard Award winning book, but I finally produced a grilling recipe for one of the most common foods we eat.

Image045 To go with my ubiquitous meat, I picked up a ubiquitous beer: pilsner. Hands down, pilsner is the most popular beer style in the world, thanks in large part to the Belgian pilsner brewed in St. Louis, Mo. But don't let that "American pilsner" fool you, pilsner tastes good. You just have to keep the rice and corn out of the malt. Well, Monteith's brews the best pilsner I've had in a long time. The New Zealand brewery's golden pilsner is rich and slightly crisp, perfect for these sweaty D.C. days. It also pairs well with the subtle flavors of a dish like grilled chicken and thyme. As much as I love IPAs, the hoppy flavors would overwhelm the thyme. Now, because pilsner is the world-wide favorite, there are plenty to choose from, just steer clear of the Belgian stuff.

Grilled free-range chicken with thyme
(Makes 2 large servings or four small)

1 4 lb. free-range chicken (if you don't use a free-range bird, reduce the cooking time down to about an hour)
1/4 cup of fresh thyme
1 lemon (optional)
Canola oil
A good quality olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

To get started, pull the chicken out of the refrigerator so it can loose some of its chill, and start your grill. For this recipe, you will be doing all indirect grilling. That means if you're using a charcoal grill, set up your fire to one side of the grill and plan to grill the chicken on the other side. If you're using a gas grill, light all your burners, but be ready to shut the middle ones down when you put the bird on (this way, the middle grates will be nice and hot when the chicken goes on.)

Butterfly the chicken by removing the backbone (you can have your butcher do this for you), thoroughly coat the skin with canola oil, and season generously with salt and pepper.

Image004 When the grill is ready, place the chicken on the cooler side of the grate breast-side up (if you're using a gas grill, place the chicken in the middle of the grill, turn the center burners off, but keep the left and right burners on). Shut the lid and look to maintain a temperature of about 350 degrees.

Entertain yourself for an hour and 40 minutes.

When you open the lid, the skin should be golden brown and crispy. Remove the chicken from the grill and allow to rest for 15 minutes. In the meantime, coat your cutting board with olive oil, and season with salt, pepper and most of the thyme. Transfer the bird to the board and cut it up. If you want, squeeze a lemon over top (few things are better than hot chicken and fresh lemon juice).

Before serving, drizzle a little more olive oil on top and scatter the remaining thyme. You can either serve the chicken rustic style straight from the cutting board or transfer it to a platter. Whatever you do, make sure you drag the meat through that oil and seasoning. Doing so may make the extra money and time seem worth it.

Succulent smoked pork butt: 24 hours of ease

Image034 I barbecued last weekend. I didn't grill. I didn't satay. I stuck nine and a half pounds of pork butt in a smoker for 23 hours.

I barbecued.

And let me tell you, there are few endeavors easier and more satisfying than taking the time to slow cook a large piece of meat. Every phase of the process -- from the preparation to the cooking -- is simple. But because we live in a world of instant gratification, the idea that you'd spend a full day and night cooking one thing is unfathomable to many people. Of course, that's why it's so damn impressive.

I will admit that once you start barbecuing, you're committed to barbecuing. Sure, you can crack a couple beers and zone out in front of the TV for a while, but you're not going anywhere. At least you shouldn't.

Barbecuing is a pretty laid-back endeavor, but you should stick around while it's going on. After all, you do have a fire smoldering in your backyard. This style of cooking is great for special occasions (again, investing that much time in a single meal is impressive) and weekends you know you'll be hanging around the house.

Image021 In my case, my brother and niece were in town. So the day before they flew home to Florida, I hosted a barbecue in my backyard. A few friends, a few cold beers (more on that below) and several pounds of succulent pork, pulled from the smoker a few hours before the first folks arrived.

As has been well documented in any number of cookbooks and Food Network specials, there's a whole culture surrounding barbecue. It's regional, technical and at times competitive. Again, barbecuing a piece of meat is easy. The difficulty is in the details.

Barbecuing can be as easy as buying a $12 pork butt (which comes from the shoulder) and a bottle of commercial barbecue sauce at the grocery store. Slow cook the pork for 20 to 24 hours at around 225 degrees and sauce the smoky meat when you're done. It can also be as difficult as making your own rub and sauce, sourcing your Berkshire pork from a particular farm or butcher, using injections, mop sauces and fussing over the wood and whether it's wet or dry, pine or maple.

All that extra work will produce pork that tastes better than the shoulder that was smoked naked and slathered with Stubb's. But that difference might be important to you. It sure is to me.

I tend to fall somewhere between lazy and obsessive. I make my own sauce, use Steven Raichlen's Memphis rub recipe, inject my pork with apple cider and keep a pan of water and apple juice underneath the shoulder to keep the exterior of the meat as moist as possible during the long cook time. That might sound like a lot, but it really isn't. The hardest part of smoking is getting up in the middle of the night to stoke the coals and add a little more wood (which you should do every three to five hours).

In the end, I have an unctuous pile of moist meat that I slather in homemade barbecue sauce and slap on two pieces of bread (no coleslaw, please.). It's a hell of a meal that requires little more than time and wood.

Image057 Because I was hosting a summertime barbecue, I had to go with a summertime beer. In this case, I played favorites: Great Divide's Titan IPA. There are few IPAs on the market better crafted than this bold, rich, hoppy IPA from Colorado. At 6.8 percent ABV, it's a bit bigger than some IPAs, but it's well balanced and delicious. Some could argue that Titan is too rich, too bitter for an out-doors event in July, that a wheat beer or pilsner would be a better fit. All that may be true. However, Titan is delicious any time of year, and the smoked pork butt covered in a spicy barbecue sauce has a lot of big flavors that Great Divide's IPA stands right up to. I understand that this is the season of lagers and limes, but I can't support fruiting the beer. No sir, I need a Titan.

Smoked pork butt
(serves many)

Photo 1 8 to 12 lb. pork butt (make sure to factor in the weight of the bone)
1 1/2 cups of rub (As I said, I like Steven Raichlen's barbecue rub. But don't be afraid to play with the ingredients if it's not to your tastes. You want more brown sugar? Add more brown sugar. Want more salt? Add more.)
1/2 gallon apple cider
1/2 gallon apple juice
3 cups of barbecue sauce (I make my own, but feel free to use your favorite commercial brand.)
Enough aluminum foil to wrap the pork butt
Wood, lots of wood (Depending on your smoker, you either need a mixture of logs, wood chunks and chips, or charcoal, wood chunks and chips. If you have a barrel style grill and smoker, you'll need several logs, and about 2 bags of large wood chunks and 3 bags of wood chips available at any hardware store. If you have a smaller bullet smoker, go with a bag of charcoal, 3 bags of large wood chunks and 3 bags of wood chips.)

The night before you get started, add the rub to the pork butt, cover and return to the fridge. The next day, pull the pork out of the fridge and inject it with as much apple cider as you can (probably a cup of cider or so). When you're done, leave the pork on the kitchen counter and get started on lighting the smoker.

With my old bullet, I liked to begin with charcoal and then add the wood chunks. This gets the wood burning really well. When the fire dies down and the wood coals are hot, fill the liquid tray 3/4 full with a 50/50 mixture of water and apple cider, put the top grate back in place, stick the pork in the smoker skin side up and close the lid. Every 3 hours or so when you check your fire, add a few charcoal briquettes and another handful of wood chips. This will envelop the pork butt in smoke for a good 10 minutes, which is ideal. Remember, you want the meat to be seasoned with the smoke, not taste like a Marlboro.

Image001 If you're using the larger smoker, get your wood started. Once it's burned down a bit and you've started a respectable bed of coals, place a pan underneath where you'll be placing the pork (the far side of the smoker from the fire), fill the pan with the 50/50 mixture of water and apple juice, and place the pork on the grate above. Once the pork is on and the lid is closed, toss a handful of wood chips on the fire and walk away.

Whenever you check the fire (and make sure the temperature remains around 225 to 250), check to see how much liquid is still in the pan. If it's low, add a bit more. Repeat every few hours.

If you're smoker runs a little hot, 20 hours may be sufficient. The pork is probably cooked in a few hours, but it takes much more time to reach fall-apart tender. If you end up hovering around 225 or less, shoot for 23 to 24 hours. In either case, for the final two hours, wrap the pork butt in aluminum foil. This will give the meat a last minute steam that'll make it a little more succulent.

Once the pork is done, remove it from the smoker and let it rest covered in foil for at least 30 minutes. After that, open it, pull it and eat it.

Grilling Pizza: Easy or hard, it's all up to you

Image022 When two American icons meet, there is much joy.

There is also much prep work.

America might be the land of cheese burgers and apple pie, but if we were honest, we'd admit that our true culinary love is pizza. There's just something about tomato sauce, baked dough and cheese that makes us happy.

So it was only a matter of time before I got around to writing about grilled pizza. That time came a couple weeks ago in the form of an e-mail that said: "Hey, when are you going to write about pizza on the grill?"

The e-mail was from Jason Storch, the guy behind this little Web site. Admittedly, I'd been considering a grilled pizza post for a while. My friend Eldora makes great pizzas on the grill, many of which I've devoured greedily. But the idea of whipping up dough bothered me. I'm not a very good baker. It's too precise, too unforgiving. I like a little room for adjustment should I work myself into a corner.

You screw up something on the grill or the stove and you can probably fix it. You screw something up in the oven and you're starting over.

Well, I'm here to say that my fear of baking was unfounded, at least as it applies to pizza dough. Relying on a grilled pizza dough recipe Steven Raichlen included in his BARBECUE! Bible cookbook (which I doubled), I was able to produce six reasonably good pies. And with a little more practice, I'll be the Papa Effing John of the grill.

There are three things to know about grilling pizzas: few things are more bad ass than pulling hot pies off a Weber, never use more than three toppings, and prepare everything ahead of time. Everything. The actual act of grilling pizzas is very fast and very easy. It took me all of about five minutes per pie. Preparing to grill a few pizzas, however, took me two days.

Image007 I will say that grilling pizza can be as easy or as complicated as you like. If you're like me and seem to enjoy doing everything the hard way, you'll make the pizza dough, you'll make the sauce, you'll plan on making "unique" pizzas, you'll make three different "unique" pizzas, etc. etc. If you're sane, you'll make the dough and buy some jarred pizza sauce, pepperoni and decent cheese. The route you take is up to you.

And let's face it, when you pull a couple hot pies off the grill, no one will care about your homemade sauce or the thought you put into the toppings. Why should they, you just produced an American icon from a grill that's usually relegated to cooking chicken breasts?

You, my friend, have just done something bordering on magical.

Image043 To celebrate my accomplishment, I cracked open a couple Gordon beers from Oscar Blues. Gordon is a big, bad double IPA. It's hoppy, boozy and in a can. For anyone who hasn't joined the canned beer movement, now's the time (Hell, even Esquire and the Post are on board). The enemy of beer is light. It converts some of the hop chemicals into 3-methylbut-2-ene-1-thiol, which creates that skunky flavor that ruins beer. That's why so many beers come in dark brown bottles. Although brown glass isn't terrible at filtering light, aluminum is better. And those old fears that the aluminum affects the flavor of the beer can be put to rest. Modern cans, such as the ones used by Oscar Blues, include a liner that protects the beverage from its container. 

Oscar Blues was one of the first craft brewers to use only cans in their production, but other brewers are beginning to follow.

Grilled pizza three ways
(Makes four servings)

For the pizza dough
Rather than plagiarize the great grill master, I will simply say that a Google search of "Steven Raichlen grilling pizza" will produce his dough recipe and a video demonstration by the man himself. That said, if you don't own a copy of his BARBECUE! Bible and consider yourself a grilling enthusiast, you are missing out on a valuable resource of techniques and recipes.

For the sauce
1 16 oz. can of San Marzano tomatoes, crushed
1 tbs. of basil, dried or fresh chopped finely
1 tbs. of oregano, dried or fresh chopped finely
1 tbs. of thyme, dried or fresh chopped finely
2 tsp. of sugar
6 heads of garlic, minced very finely
Salt and cracked black pepper to taste

For the Sopressata pizza
1/4 lb. of thinly sliced Sopressata
6 oz. of sharp cheddar cheese (I used aged English cheddar, but buy what you like), shredded

For the breakfast pizza
2 strips of bacon, diced
1 egg
2 tsp. of chives, diced
6 oz. of gruyere cheese (or Swiss), shredded

For the lamb and goat cheese pizza
1/2 lb. of ground lamb
6 oz. of goat's cheese, divided into four disks
2 tsp. of mint, dried or fresh chopped finely
2 tsp. of thyme
2 tsp. of salt
2 tsp. of cracked black pepper
1 yellow bell pepper, roasted and sliced very thin

Prepare the sauce the day before. Although it can be whipped up in a few minutes, a couple hours on the stove deepens the flavor. Combine the ingredients, bring to a boil, taste, and add salt and pepper. Cover and cook at low heat for an hour. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed. Cover and cook for another hour. Taste again. If you're happy with the flavor, let the sauce simmer for another 30 minutes with the lid partially off so some of the steam can escape, allowing the sauce to thicken. Stir, taste one final time and if the sauce is still a bit soupy, simmer on low heat for another 15 minutes. Once the sauce is done, stick it in the refrigerator until you need it.

Image033 If you're planning to make the Sopressata pie, the only thing you need to do is shred the cheese, get the Sopressata out of its package, and warm up the pizza sauce on the stove or in a microwave.

When you're ready to grill, drizzle some olive oil onto a baking sheet and spread the pizza dough out on it, making sure to coat both sides of the dough. When the dough is spread out (it'll look a little like a Rorschach test) and the toppings are next to the grill, toss the pie on to the hottest part of the grill. After a minute, check to see that the bottom is baking by feeling (with a spatula) for firmness and looking for grill marks. At about a minute and a half, you should be able to flip it over. Add the cheese (adding it to the hot dough ensures that it melts) and close the lid. After about a minute, check the underside for doneness and slide the pizza to a cooler part of the grill. Add the sauce and the Sopressata, and close the lid for another 2 minutes. Remove the lid, remove the pizza.

Image039 If you're making the breakfast pizza, you need to shred the cheese, fry the diced bacon and crack the egg into an egg cup or bowl ahead of time. As with the Sopressata pizza, make sure you reheat the sauce before you begin.

When you're ready to grill, drizzle some olive oil onto a baking sheet and spread the pizza dough out on it, making sure to coat both sides of the dough. When the dough is spread out and the toppings are next to the grill, toss the pie on to the hottest part of the grill. After a minute, check to see that the bottom is baking by feeling (with a spatula) for firmness and looking for grill marks. At about a minute and a half, you should be able to flip it over. Add the cheese (adding it to the hot dough ensures that it melts) and close the lid. After about a minute, check the underside for doneness and slide the pizza to a cooler part of the grill. Add the sauce and bacon, and close the lid for another minute. Using a spoon create a small well in the middle of the pizza for the egg yolk to rest in, and if you own a brulee torch get it out. With the torch at the ready in one hand and the egg cup in the other, carefully lay the egg into the well. As the white begins to run for the edges, hit them with the torch, they'll cook immediately (if you don't own a torch, I wish you luck). Close the lid and allow the pizza to cook for another three minutes or until the egg white is cooked. Remove the lid, remove the pizza.

Image035 And if you're planning to make the lamb and goat cheese pizza, do as I say not as I do. For this post, I decided to make a few startlingly big lamb meat balls. They're impressive to look at and they remind me of the first meatball pizza I had years ago, which had nothing more than cheese, sauce and a gigantic meatball in the center. Well, I'm here to tell you that the giant meatball works better on paper than in practice. So enjoy the picture, but brown your lamb meat off in a pan or make several bite-size meatballs.

To get started, brown the lamb with the mint, thyme, salt and pepper, or combine those ingredients and form them into tiny meatballs (really folks, trust me). If you're making meatballs, preheat your over to 350 degrees. Brown a couple sides of the meatballs and then stick the pan into the oven for 15 minutes. For the bell pepper, toss it on a gas grill whole for 15 minutes, or until a char forms on the skin. Remove from the heat and place in a bowl, and cover with plastic wrap. After 10 minutes, the heat from the pepper will have steamed it enough that you can easily remove most of the charred skin. Now, cut the pepper into long, thin slices. (If you don't have a gas grill, cut the pepper into long, thin slices and sauté over medium heat for about 10 minutes.)

When you're ready to grill, drizzle some olive oil onto a baking sheet and spread the pizza dough out on it, making sure to coat both sides of the dough. When the dough is spread out and the toppings are next to the grill, toss the pie on to the hottest part of the grill. After a minute, check to see that the bottom is baking by feeling (with a spatula) for firmness and looking for grill marks. At about a minute and a half, you should be able to flip it over. Add the sauce and close the lid. After about a minute, check the underside for doneness and slide the pizza to a cooler part of the grill. Add the goat cheese and lamb, and close the lid for another 2 minutes. Remove the lid, remove the pizza.

West End Farmers Market

Broccoli at J&W On the first Sunday in June, I headed out to Alexandria to visit the West End Farmers Market.  The market is located in Ben Brenman Park, adjacent to the Cameron Station complex of condos and shops.  It struck me that a park was a fantastic place to host a farmers market and I wondered why there weren’t more park/farmers market collaborations.  As you’re driving into the park, you can immediately pick out the familiar white tents indicative of farmers markets the world over.  The background of the lush green grass that only seems to grow in state funded parks made the tents pop out all the more.  The market, in its third season, was originally conceived by Julie Bryant, a former coffee shop owner, with the assistance of Susan Birchler.  Since its inception, the market has grown to 25 vendors, ranging from fresh produce and meats to homemade chocolates and Virginia wines from North Gate Vineyards.  As I walked around, it was apparent this was a regular community gathering place, as vendors greeted customers by name and chatted about their plans for the upcoming week.  Water bowls were left out for dogs by the vendors, a welcome treat considering the warmth of the day.  And the vendors themselves were all happy to chat away about their offerings, giving serving suggestions and telling their own little stories.  A real sense of community has been created in this market and it is a shame it’s not more metro accessible.  By car, it’s a quick trip outside of DC and well worth the drive.

My first stop was J&W Valley, where the two ladies manning the table were shelling English peas.  While they had the peas for sale in the pods, they were also shelling them for their customers’ convenience.  Their easy manner and the table’s set up reminded me of the many farm stands that dot the Georgia landscape (I’m a Southern Girl, what can I say).  It was at J&W’s stand that I spotted the first broccoli of the season.  Considering my love of stir fries, I was quite happy to see the lovely green bunches.  I picked up a large container of the shelled English peas (I may be from Georgia, but the city has softened me…no shelling of peas for this girl) and about two pounds of the broccoli.  I resisted the temptation to pick up some of the spring onions and beets, opting to pace myself for once. 

Grubby Girl Lotions As I continued on, I noticed there were a number of local artisans with booths at the market.  I later learned most of the artisans only sell at West End on the first Sunday of every month.  A man was setting up his collection of paintings and sketches not far from a woman with various crafts on display at her own booth.  A cute booth accented with wooden shelves caught my eye, so I wandered over to find out more.  The shelves were peppered with glass bottles of oils and artisanal soaps, vaguely reminiscent of a Bath and Bodyworks.  The vendor, Grubby Girl, sells handcrafted bath and body products made from all natural ingredients grown on Meeting House Farm.  The farm is home to over a dozen bee hives and a garden of herbs and vegetables, all of which are used to make the Grubby Girl line of products.  The soaps are hand crafted into shapes ranging from flowers to stars and with names like “redneck” and “farm person”.  Unfortunately, no one was manning the booth when I walked by, but I remembered the name so I could look it up online later.  Their products are sold at farmers markets and specialty stores throughout Virginia. 

Fleurir Chocolates I stopped dead in my tracks when I stumbled upon Fleurir Hand Grown Chocolates, mostly because I saw the word “chocolate” on their sign.  Another customer was standing at the table when I walked up, so I quietly listened as Robert Ludlow, the chef behind Fleurir’s chocolates, rattled off the various flavors in each four piece box.  The flavors include standards like caramel and 85% dark chocolate but are mostly unique combinations created by Ludlow himself.  The cheesecake flavor tastes exactly as if chunks of the dessert have been dipped into chocolate and served on a platter.  The almond amaretto starts out as a simple chocolate.  Just when you’re thinking “so where’s the almond”, the flavor of almonds hit your taste buds and then mellows into a lovely finish.  The most unique flavor combination is the Ginger Rogers, a dark chocolate infused with mint and dotted with bits of crystallized ginger.  The chocolates are all made from locally sourced ingredients and use fresh cream and butter.  Sold in boxes of four assorted flavors, the chocolates aren’t cheap ($8 a box) but they’re great for an indulgent, occasional treat. 

I had heard about Tom’s Amish Store through various local food blogs, so I was happy to see his sign at West End.  The booth is littered with homemade jars of jams and jellies, loaves of fruit breads and other goodies made from the Amish.  Tommy Tompkins, the Tom in Tom’s Amish Store, has a friendly and easy demeanor that reminded me of someone’s kindly grandfather.  When I first walked up, he was talking with a woman he obviously has known for years.  Joking back and forth, the two could have easily been mistaken for a married couple.  She asked him about the cheeses he had that week and he cut off a piece for her to try (while slyly putting in a compliment about her appearance).  He gave me an easy smile as the lady decided on which cheese she wanted.  He managed to make her not feel rushed while acknowledging me, something many vendors can’t easily do.  With a wave and a promise to get together soon, she headed off with her cheese and he turned his attention to me.  I asked him about the cheeses he had and he first showed me an 18 month aged soft cheddar.  Like all the products he sells, the cheese is crafted by the Amish and aged in a cave Tommy helped them build.  The cheese had a silky texture and a robust flavor, perfect for a picnic of cheese, a baguette and fruit.  I got a block of the cheese, surprised to find out it only cost $3.50. 

Fresh Garlic - Westmoreland Farm I had gotten so distracted by the baked goods, cheese and chocolates, I almost forgot I was there for produce.  That’s when I hit upon Westmoreland Berry Farm’s stand, the same vendor I bought my first strawberries of the season from back at the opening of the Crystal City Farmers Market.  The farm, located in Oak Grove, Virginia, hosts a wide variety of “on the farm” activities, including tours, wagon rides and a “goat walk to the stars”.  The farm also allows people to come pick their own berries during their harvest months.  Known for their sweet berries, Westmoreland also sells peaches, apples, pumpkins and gourds from their orchard.  The stand wasn’t just a testament to berries though.  They also had garlic, onions and other greens.  I had already picked up a big batch of strawberries earlier in the week, but I couldn’t resist the first garlic of the season, so I picked up a bunch along with some onions (still attached to their green stalks). 

On the Gourmet Olive Oil Perched at the end of the market was a truck, festooned with big chalkboards.  One chalkboard touted their meat offerings, which included ground bison!  I noticed people going in and out of the truck, which confused me until I realized the vendor was On the Gourmet.  On the Gourmet is a mobile purveyor of local meats and dairy products and gourmet chocolates, crackers and oils and vinegars (to name just a few of their offerings), offering home delivery to locations up to 20 miles of Vienna, Virginia.  I have heard about On the Gourmet from other DCFoodies writers, as well as the boards on Don Rockwell, but had never actually seen the truck myself.  When I stepped inside, I was reminded of a tiny general store, with artisanal products artfully arranged to catch the eye.  Retro bottles of soda are juxtaposed with high end products like truffle infused olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar.  Boxes of Lucy’s Cookies, gluten and dairy free cookies, in varying flavors were stacked together next to a basket of “deep discount” items.  I dug through the deep discount basket, finding chocolates, cookies and crackers, among other things.  I picked out a box of olive oil and sea salt artisanal crackers (to go with my cheese, naturally) and headed out of the truck.  I could have easily stayed inside for hours, perusing their products and sampling; the truck seems designed to encourage foodies to explore its offerings.  Although I was tempted to pick up practically everything I saw, I stuck to the crackers and a few pounds of the ground bison. 

 Just before we headed out, my boyfriend Rick nicely pointed out he was starving.  A table weighed down with baked goods caught our eye, so we stopped to see what she was selling.  The vendor, Treats by Gale, had a selection of homemade scones that looked rather tempting.  Gale King, the Gale behind Treats by Gale, began selling her baked goods on a small scale before making it a full fledged business.  Her treats include chocolate chip and white chocolate cranberry walnut cookies, brownies, scones and even a Caribbean Great Cake.  The scones were only a dollar and were the perfect size for a morning snack.  Rick picked up a cinnamon apple scone and I opted for a blueberry one.  She wrapped up our scones and encouraged us to pick up her business card, saying she sold her treats online too.  We thanked her and headed home, bags filled with more than just produce.  The West End Market has managed to create a neighborhood bazaar, offering a wide range of locally grown and made products in the middle of a suburban park. 

 New produce seen around the markets:

•    Garlic bulbs
•    Raspberries
•    Blueberries
•    Broccoli

Beet, Turnip and Goat Cheese Tortellini Beet, Hakurei Turnip and Goat Cheese Tortellini

For the pasta:

3 1/2 cups all purpose flour
4  large eggs
1 tablespoon olive oil
Pinch of salt

For the filling:

1 bunch beets
1 bunch Hakurei turnips
1 container Chevre goat cheese

Cut the beet and turnip bulbs from their stalks and wash them thoroughly.  Place the beets and turnips into separate pots filled with water.  Bring the pots to a boil and continue to let them cook until the beets and turnips are tender, about 20 minutes.  Drain the beets and dice them into small pieces.  Drain the turnips and scoop out the flesh, mashing it in a bowl.  Add the beets and the goat cheese and stir until everything is mixed together thoroughly.  Cover the mixture and put it in the refrigerator until ready to fill the tortellini.

Place the flour and salt in a large bowl and make a well in the middle of it.  Crack the eggs into that well and add the olive oil.  With a fork, work the liquid ingredients until a dough forms.  Take the dough out of the bowl and place it onto a surface dusted with flour.  Knead the dough until it becomes smooth and then form it into two round discs.  Wrap the discs in plastic wrap and allow the dough to sit for an hour.  Using either a pasta machine or a rolling pin, roll out one of the discs until it’s about as thin as a quarter.  Cut the pasta sheet into 2 inch squares.  Place 1/2 teaspoon of the beet mixture onto the center of a pasta square.  Take one corner of the pasta square and fold it over to meet the other corner, forming a triangle.  Pinch the sides of the square together, sealing the filling in.  You may need to wet the sides of the dough square a bit before sealing the tortellini.  If any filling squeezes out, simply wipe it off and make sure the tortellini is sealed.  Take your pinkie finger and wrap the pasta triangle around it, creating the tortellini shape.  Pinch the ends together to finish off the tortellini.  Place the tortellini on a plate dusted lightly with flour.  Repeat this until all the squares from both discs of dough are used. 

Once all the tortellinis are formed, bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it.  Add the tortellinis to the water carefully.  Cook until the tortellinis start to float to the top, about 3 to 4 minutes.  Remove from the water with a slotted spoon and serve with a simple sauce of browned butter and fresh herbs.

The West End Farmers Market is located at 4800 Brenman Park Drive in the heart of Ben Brenman Park.  The market is open on Sundays from 9 am to 1 pm.

Grouper Tacos and the Deadliest Beer!

Image049 Last year I did a post on grilled octopus tacos. A little bit of Greece. A little bit of South Florida. A little bit of a mixed response.

A reader wrote in and asked me where he could find a fish taco in the D.C. area as good as the ones he had in Southern California. I offered a couple suggestions, but the best advice I had was for the reader to make the tacos himself. (At the risk of alienating quite a few of you, I've had fish tacos in San Diego and didn't think too much of them. The fish was fine, but the corn tortillas were miserable.)

Now that the spring rains are slacking off and we're moving into summer, it seems to be the perfect time to do a fish taco menu of my own. And no offense to my West Coast friends, but the best fish for a fish taco is an ugly bastard swimming around the Gulf of Mexico: grouper.

God, I love grouper. Honestly, I really do. Every time I make it back to Florida, I try to eat two things, a Cuban sandwich and grouper. The duo has been a staple of Tampa since Cubans cigar workers founded the place.

Sadly, like many animal products too loved, grouper is in short supply. As a result of too many years of overfishing, the state of Florida instituted limits on how much can be caught every year. The state also passed a law preventing restaurants from trying to pass off faux grouper as the real thing. Clearly, we take our grouper seriously. 

Image003But if that means my grandkids will be able to enjoy the favor of those weird looking fish, then I'm all for it.

Fortunately, you can still find whole grouper at the Maine Avenue wharf. I spotted a few a while back when I was down there buying oysters for a previous post. You really can't miss grouper as they look like the bastard lovechildren of Mick Jagger and a Rockfish. Still, I can't say enough about the flavor and texture of the meat. I kid you not, cooked properly, and the plump, sweet meat will look like crab meat. Scratch that; what I should say is that lump crab meat looks like properly cooked grouper.

And grouper is easy to cook.

Back home, you're most likely to encounter a fat, fried grouper fillet, sandwiched between a soft, toasted bun. Maybe a bit of tartar and Tabasco to go with it. However, grilled and blackened grouper are nearly as popular.

So when reader "allen" asked me about where he could find fish tacos, I knew I had to enlighten D.C. on the many virtues of this beautifully ugly fish. After all, why go out and buy fish tacos when you can make them yourself? And if you toss down four pounds of whole fish on the grill -- and cook it properly -- you will be King Kong for the afternoon.

Because grouper is the focus here, I went easy on the spices. I made a roasted salsa and grilled scallion guacamole to accompany the fish (we are making tacos, here), but I kept the heat and stronger flavors in check.Image057

To accompany the tacos, I stayed with the nautical theme AND I GOT ON THE CRAB!! Rogue Brewery got together with Sig Hansen, the mean son of a bitch that captains the Northwestern fishing boat and stars on Deadliest Catch. In honor of Sig and his fellow crabbers, Rogue produced Captain Sig's Deadliest Ale.

The beer is a hoppy red ale (red crab, red ale, get it?) that Rogue refers to as an India Red Ale, which clocks in at a modest 6.2 percent ABV. I heard about this beer a couple months ago and have been eager to try it since (I found it at Whole Foods on P Street in Dupont). And as much as I enjoyed the beer, it wasn't the greatest match with the delicate flavors of the grouper tacos. The flavor of the hoppy beer is too much for the grilled grouper. I'd go with Oscar Blues' Mama's Little Yella Pils or even a hefeweizen.

Of course, if you don't go with Captain Sig's ale, how can you frighten your friends and neighbors when you scream: WE'RE ON THE CRAB!!

Grouper tacos with roasted salsa and grilled onion guacamole
(Makes four servings)

1 grouper (Carolina, Black, Strawberry, ect.) about 3.25 to 4 pounds
2 red tomatoes, halved
1 yellow tomato, halved
2 serrano chili peppers
1/2 red onion, diced finely
1 lime, halved
1 lemon, quartered
2 avocados
1 bunch of scallions (about 8 or so)
3 cloves of garlic
Package of 16 flour tortillas
Olive oil
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper to taste

Image004 This recipe is a little unusual in that the things that can typically be done ahead of time, like the salsa and guacamole, should be done afterward because everything involves the grill. To get started, remove the grouper from the refrigerator and cut three deep slices into either side of the body from dorsal to belly. Coat the fish with olive oil and season with salt and pepper, making sure to get the oil and seasoning into the cuts.

For this recipe, a charcoal grill works best because you can throw a few wood chips on the coals to give the fish that grilled at a beach bonfire taste.

Whatever you're using, fire it up. When the grill is ready, place the fish on the cooler side and close the lid and grill for 15 minutes. If you're using a charcoal grill, toss a couple handfuls of wood chips on the coals before closing the lid.

Image035As the fish cooks, coat the fruit and vegetables with olive oil, salt and pepper. After the fish has been on the grill for 15 minutes, turn it over, squirt some lemon juice on it and put the fruit and vegetables on the hot spot. Start with the tomato and lime halves face down. Cook for about 7 minutes. Check the fruit and vegetables. If they are developing a black char, turn them over. If not, leave them for another three minutes or so. Turn the fruit and vegetables, and grill for another couple minutes with the lid up. When all sides of the fruit and vegetables are thoroughly charred, remove them and the fish from the grill.

Squeeze the remaining lemon on the fish and cover it loosely with a piece of aluminum foil.
Seed one of the two serranos and place them in a food processor with the tomatoes, raw red onion and a finely minced clove of garlic. Juice the grilled lime into the food processor and pulse the mixture until chunky. Add salt and pepper to taste.

For the guacamole, chop the grilled scallions and mix them with the avocado, minced garlic clove and juice of half a lemon. Mix, mash and season with salt and pepper.

When the condiments are ready, take a few tortillas and toss them on the grill for about a minute per side. When the tortillas are warm, pull them off the grill, spread the guacamole, place a few pieces of grouper on top (no skin, no bones) and finish with a little salsa.

People, WE'RE ON THE GROUPER!  (I can't stop myself.)