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Avoid Dinner Anxiety this Valentine’s Day

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

Even though I’m a fairly laid back person with an “anything goes” attitude, my wife stresses, and has since we started dating, about choosing where to go for dinner. I’ve seen her almost have an anxiety attack trying to decide between Italian food and burgers for dinner, because she was scared I wouldn’t like the menu. Special occasions like Valentine’s Day are even worse, spending days of planning for one dinner. I’ve always told her to go with her gut feeling, pun intended, when choosing a restaurant. If the menu looks good and the ambiance seems nice, go ahead and make a reservation or if you’re already at the front door, get the next table available. Remember, it’s just food; we’re not talking major surgery here. The company should be more important than the appetizers.

reviewI’ve seen too many people pass over a restaurant because of one bad review. We’ve all had bad days, and I’m sure we don’t want everyone to judge us by that one bad day, so why judge a restaurant because of one bad day or review? Give it a shot; it might be one of the best meals you’ve ever had.

Some of my most memorable meals have been at hole-in-the-wall, “what the heck is Yelp?”, the owner is the chef, restaurants. There was a great Indonesian place in London, where everything was served family style, and even after 20 years, I still remember the seafood curry. I couldn’t tell you the name of the place or where to find it, but I definitely recommend it.

Then there was this Cuban café in Montego Bay, Jamaica where I learned to truly appreciate slow roasted mojo pork. I think we ate there at least a half dozen times during our stay. Sandwiches or dinner plates, it didn’t matter, it was all delicious. Also, I might have developed a slight addiction to authentic Cuban pork sandwiches during my visit, something that I’m still living with to this day.

On one of our last trips, my wife and I stopped in a Peruvian restaurant for a cocktail and ended up staying for an hour trying different ceviches and tiraditos. It was a perfect way to kill some time, and a few pisco sours, while trying some new cuisine.

The same holds true for cooking at home. I can’t remember a single chef in my career that went home every night and made a four-course dinner. I hate to admit it, but during the busy seasons, they knew me by name at the local fast food drive thru.

A nice bowl of pasta with sautéed veggies and shrimp accompanied by a glass of chilled white wine is all it takes to make a romantic dinner at home. Over the past few years, my wife has started to develop her own list of go-to recipes that she can make off the top of her head. I’ll come home to a freshly made bowl of Soy-Miso Soup with Veggies and Poached Eggs or Mediterranean Chicken with Orzo, Feta and Peppers. Just getting to enjoy someone else’s cooking can be a most meaningful gift.

valentines-dayIf you can’t decide between cooking a meal at home or going out to a restaurant for Valentine’s Day, try splitting the difference, and coming to one of our Valentine’s Day classes. If all you want to do is sit down, relax and enjoy each other’s company, our demonstration Romantic Valentine’s Dinner is the perfect way to go. If you’re looking for something a little more engaging, try our Hands-On Valentine’s Feast. Remember, the company is the important part.

To quote Anthony Bourdain – “Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.” Just remember to get off every now and again to stretch your legs.

Out with the Old, In with the New

Wednesday, December 24th, 2014

As we roll into a new year at The Chopping Block, we have lots of exciting changes planned. Granted some are a little more exciting than others (stay tuned for a big announcement in the coming week), but I always look forward to the release of new wine vintages. Due to the limited space on our list, every time we bring on new wines, we have to say goodbye to others.

Some of my favorite bottles to go are the Hedges Red Mountain DLD 2011, Foxen Pinot Noir 2010, and Fiddlehead Happy Canyon 2011. While I would like to keep them all for myself, I think my wife might have an issue with that much wine in the house. So, we are offering these wines, along with a few others, at 15% off while supplies last.

rieslingThe new additions include a dry Riesling from Ravines Winery in upstate New York. Finished in a completely dry style, this aromatic wine has notes of white flowers and orchard fruit with a vibrant acidity that pairs with richer seafood dishes.

moratWhat would a winter wine list be without Burgundian Chardonnay? Not very exciting, that’s what. With supply running out of the St. Veran “Champ Rond”, the Gilles Morat Pouilly-Fuissé was the perfect addition. Rich notes of peaches and white flower are balanced by spice and mineral notes, resulting in a balanced wine that can be enjoyed over the next few years. Since there is no new oak used in the fermentation and aging of this Chardonnay, it maintains a freshness and finesse that goes better with seafood, especially shellfish, than some of the richer sauces normally associated with Chardonnay.

To balance out the new white wines, we need some new interesting reds. The 2011 Domaine Vincent Prunier and the 2011 L’Ecole Merlot were the perfect fit for the gaps in our list. The Domaine Vincent Prunier is classic French Pinot Noir, light in body with cherry, raspberry and earthy notes. Balance acidity and tannins make this the perfect matc for everything from roast duck to beef stew.

ecoleLastly, the L’Ecole Merlot, a great full bodied wine with notes of dark cherry, blackberry and cola. Hailing from the Columbia Valley in Washington, this cool climate version of Merlot shows more acidity and tannins than a warm climate version that tends to be more fruit forward, sometimes even being mistaken for Cabernet Sauvigon. Merlot is most famous as a blending grape in Bordeaux, but is planted to some degree in most of the world’s wine producing regions, and while the movie Sideways might have affected people perception of Merlot, some of the most sought after wines in the world, St. Emilion, Pomeral and Fronsac are all primarily Merlot, with other grapes used to finish the blend.

Stop by and grab one of these new additions or take advantage of our end of vintage sales. Either way, have a happy holiday and a joyous new year.

Fun Fact

After the movie Sideways came out, Merlot sales didn’t actually drop. Pinot Noir sales increased so much, that it gave the appearance the Merlot had dropped off.

Mashed Potatoes 101

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

Most culinary recipes or terms have a specific order or procedure. Mire poix is two parts onion, one part carrot, one part celery. A vinaigrette is three to four parts oil to one part vinegar. Even a potato gratin has some definition to the dish, thinly sliced potatoes, usually some form of cheese, either grated or in a sauce, placed in a dish and cooked under a broiler until golden brown.

Now, mashed potatoes, per Wikipedia, is a dish prepared by mashing boiled potatoes. Good, I’m glad we clarified that. Now everyone knows the most common version: Russet potatoes, butter, milk or cream, salt and pepper. Even this has some subtle variations such as substituting Yukon potatoes, adding roasted garlic to the milk or cream or folding in some freshly chopped herbs at the end.

But the variation doesn’t stop there. There are no less than 50 different ingredients that can be added to mashed potatoes, depending on what culture your recipe comes from. Everything from Indian to Spanish to Italian, all qualify as mashed potatoes.

Two of my favorite versions are Roasted Garlic, Herb and Olive Oil Mashed Potatoes and Curried Mashed Sweet Potatoes, which we will go over later.

Now regardless of what recipe you are using, there are a few key rules that will help make your mashed potatoes the favorite at family holiday.

  1. Always let your potatoes sit for a few minutes after draining. This will allow all the excess moisture to evaporate, removing more of the unwanted water. Water is the enemy of fluffy mashed potatoes, especially when using Russet potatoes. Excess water will make your potatoes stiff and glue like.
  2. Salt! Potatoes are one of the few vegetables that you really have to try to over-salt. There is nothing worse than having a perfectly cooked and prepared batch of mashed potatoes fall flat due to lack of seasoning. Salt is your friend and will elevate your mashed potatoes to Super Star Status.
  3. Use a good masher. You either want to use a food mill or a high quality hand masher. Personally, I’ve got a food Rosle food mill for large batches and a Danesco Action Masher for smaller batches. We carry both at The Chopping Block. They are multi-purpose and can be used for other tasks in the kitchen. Side note #1: I’m not a fan of single use tools, waste of space and money.
  4. Don’t let the potatoes cool completely before working with them. The cooler they get, the harder it is going to be to mash them and get the right finished texture. If you are using butter or any other fat that is solid at room temperature, it will become thicker as the potatoes cool off.

Now that we have established the basic rules for mashed potatoes, let’s go back to the original definition. In case you forgot, here it is again – make a dish prepared by mashing boiled potatoes. Try experimenting with different flavor profiles to match your meal. Bacon, cheddar and chive sound good. Blue cheese and caramelized onion? Yup, that works. Celery root, potato and parsley, with a nice cut of steak? Delicious!

Included are two of my favorite variations for mashed potatoes, but let your imagination run free.

Roasted Garlic, Herb and Olive Oil Potato Cakes

2 pounds red skin potatoes

½ cup quality extra virgin olive oil (Frantoia, Lucini or similar)

2 or 3 cloves of garlic

2 sprigs of thyme, rosemary or sage

Salt and Pepper, to taste

Place the olive oil, garlic and herbs in a pot and cook over low heat until garlic is lightly toasted. Strain the oil and save.

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In a separate pot, boil the potatoes in salted water until knife tender, about 20-30 minutes, drain and let rest for about 10 minutes or until there is no longer steam coming off the potatoes.

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Once the potatoes have stopped steaming, mash them until all of the big chunks have been broken up, then start slowly adding the warm olive oil until the desired consistency is reached. If you are just making mashed potatoes, you can make them a little softer, if you want to make the potato cakes, leave them a little firmer.

After you have reach the desired consistency, season with Salt and Pepper.

To make the potato cakes, make hamburger size patties out of the mashed potatoes and pan fry them over medium high heat until golden brown on both sides.

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Enjoy with grilled fish and lemon aioli.

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Curried Sweet Potato Mash

2 large sweet potatoes

1 can coconut milk

1 tsp sweet curry powder

1 -2 T honey or brown sugar

1 tsp fresh or ½ tsp ground ginger – Optional

Cilantro – Garnish

Salt and Pepper

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Peel the sweet potatoes and cut into large dice. Boil in salted water until knife tender, drain, and let steam for 5 – 10 minutes.

Mash the potatoes until all the large chunks have been broken up. Add in the curry powder, honey and ginger.

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Add just enough coconut milk to thin the potatoes to the desired consistency. I’ve never used the whole can unless I’m making a batch for 20 people.

Season with salt and pepper. Garnish with Cilantro and enjoy.

This makes a great side dish for the holidays. The curry adds depth, but doesn’t overpower, so it can be served with pork roast or seared duck breast for a more traditional meal.

Side note #2: I’m sure you noticed in the picture that the coconut can is upside down. That was intentional. Lazy line cook trick #245 – Coconut milk cans are a pain to open from top, so, shake the can to mix coconut solids and water back to together, open can from bottom, then, if there are any solids left, you can scrape them out with ease.

Side note #3: Both of these recipes can easily adapted to be vegan, plus they are free of any of the major allergies, so you can make them for anyone!

Want more mashed potato know how? Watch Shelley’s video where she uses the Rosle Potato Masher.

 

 

 

 

Spanish-Style Braised Short Ribs are Long on Flavor

Friday, October 24th, 2014

There are two things I will always try at a restaurant if they are on the menu: short ribs and duck. While neither one is all that difficult to cook, there are a few key factors that I look for in the dishes. For short ribs, they should tender, flavorful, but not so cooked that they completely fall apart on the plate.

The same holds true for duck legs, be it duck confit or slow roasted duck thighs. If they are serving duck breast, it should be medium rare. Even though most people think of duck as fatty and rich, the breast meat itself is fairly lean and, as a result, like beef tenderloin, can become dry and chewy if overcooked.

A couple of weeks ago, one of my friends invited me over for dinner to try out a new short rib recipe and never passing on the opportunity to try short ribs, I accepted.

His new recipe was Braised Catalan-Style Short Ribs, which to my surprise, were braised in white wine, instead of red wine and contained almost no tomato. Staying true to traditional Spanish flavors, notes of cinnamon, paprika and almonds were present in the final dish. And yes, they did pass the short rib test: tender, flavorful and not overcooked. In fact, they were so good that I had to make them for myself the following weekend.

Braised Catalan-Style Short Ribs

3 pounds bone-in beef short ribs

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large onions
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Kosher salt and pepper
2 plum tomatoes, grated, using only the inner pulp
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 bay leaf
1-1/2 cups dry white wine
1-1/2 cups water
1 sprig fresh thyme

Picada:

1/4 cup whole blanched almonds
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 slice hearty white sandwich bread
2 garlic cloves
3 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
8-oz oyster mushrooms

Season the short ribs with salt & pepper and sear them in a heavy cast iron pot in olive oil. Get a little caramelization on them and then set them aside.

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For the flavor base, we start with sofrito, which is a generic term for a cooking base in Spanish-influenced cuisine. For this dish, I started with olive oil, some of the beef fat, onions and the plum tomatoes.

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Once the onions were translucent, I added the smoked paprika and cinnamon and toasted them for a minute or two until they became fragrant. Next, deglaze with the white wine, making sure to get all the brown bits of goodness off the bottom and sides of the pot (aka fond). Add in sugar, water, thyme, bay leaf and the seared short ribs.

Cook on medium-low heat for 4-6 hours. The short ribs should eventually be tender enough to pull apart with a fork, but not so cooked that they start to turn to mush.

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While the short ribs are cooking, I sautéed the mushrooms in a little olive oil and finished with the sherry vinegar. The Picada is a thickening paste used in Spanish cuisine. Lightly toast the almonds and bread and combine with the garlic in a blender, or mortar and pestle if you want to be really authentic. Blend all the ingredients together then add in chopped parsley and olive oil.

During the last 10 minutes of the short ribs cooking time, add in the mushrooms and Picada to thicken the sauce and add the finishing flavor profile. Serve with roasted potatoes and a nice glass of Spanish Priorat.

Note: the short ribs are much better the second day, after they’ve had time to cool in the broth.

Want to learn more about the beauty of braising? Our Back to Braising class covers all you need to know about this slow and low cooking technique perfect for fall and winter. 

West Coast is Best Coast

Friday, September 12th, 2014

At least that is what all of my friends from San Francisco and Seattle like to chant every time we go out. And while I don’t know if I completely agree, the craft beer scene in San Diego gives some validation to the saying. With over 70 microbreweries in the San Diego and surrounding areas, craft beer is the norm, not the exception. While some have nationwide distribution, others are literally still in the “garage” stage with very loose tasting room hours. There is so much enthusiasm in the beer scene that a lot of the bars we went to didn’t even serve Bud Light or Miller Lite, or if they did, it wasn’t posted anywhere.

Our first stop, mainly because it was a few blocks from the hotel and we were thirsty, was the Mission Brewery downtown. Now this is not your glamorous bells and whistles tasting room, this is an old brick and stick warehouse in an industrial part of town that has the tanks on one side and the taps on the other. Great beer, cheap tasting pours and the fact that the kitchen “opens” when the food trucks show up, usually around 3pm, make this an awesome stop. Since you walk through the warehouse doors to get in, it just adds to the character.

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Another great stop is Ballast Point’s Tasting Room where ¼ and ½ pour options allow you to mix and match your way through their selections. If you’re more on the adventurous side of beer drinking, try their Indra Kunindra, a dark stout with flavors of curry, coconut and lime leaves with enough spice to keep the palate excited. Ballast Point also makes a Blackberry Sour that is really refreshing when it is warm outside, or unseasonably warm as San Diego was. It has this distinctive sour-ness and acidity that is would be a great pairing with vinaigrette based salads or braised duck.

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We also ended up at Karl Strauss’ a few times, because let’s be realistic, how can you go wrong with Jalapeno Cheez-whiz sauce and beer basted pretzels. Their Happy Hour specials made this a frequent afternoon stop after being in the sun all day and with numerous locations, we were never more than 10 minutes away.

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The one thing I noticed where ever we were was how much care was also put into the food. Even at the local beach bar, there were no jalapeno poppers or mozzarella sticks on any menu, but fresh tuna tacos, braised short rib sliders and Mexican shrimp and grits instead.

So head out to California for some warm weather and cold beer and see for yourself if West Coast is best coast!

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David Indriksons is a Lead Class Assistant at The Chopping Block with a background that goes from small scale bistros to large scale catering and everything in between. In addition to a great love of food, he is a self-admitted travel junkie that enjoys hanging out with locals around the world and trying new cuisine. Outside of TCB, he enjoys skating, snowboarding, and playing with his dog, Caesar.