Archive for the ‘cheese’ Category

I started this post last Wednesday. The past few days have been a bit rough. The restaurant has been very busy and we were down one person for the past few weeks. This changed today though, as we had someone start who worked for us in the past and she was able to plug right in.

To give you a bit of background our restaurant is small. We have 38 seats inside and 12 outside. Total square feet is 1,200 and there are 6 of us. Nancy is the creative genius and overseer of the operation, baker and chef. Myself, chef dishwasher. Megan, our superstar chef de cuisine has been with us for almost 4 years. Lisa, is the focused prep and line cook. Joannie the great baker (who probably doesn’t need to work, but does because she loves working with me so much) and our counter person Anna who just started back with us today. Last, but not least is Mike who handles a ton of deliveries for us and makes sure the lunch caterings are ready to go out the door.

With only 5 employees in the cafe, if you are missing one person you can really feel it. On average we have a full restaurant everyday and most days we handle 3 to 5 catering delivery orders that go out before the lunch rush. We make all of that food in the midst of steaming milk for the latte people, scrambling eggs for the breakfast burritos and corralling pastries for the “just coffee ma’am” men who change their minds when they see a tray of hot scones hit the counter. The best part is, we do it with a 87 square foot kitchen. Imagine that if you can. Most of you probably have a larger walk-in closet than our kitchen.

Anyway getting back to food… you can tell by the last few posts we’ve been eating pretty rich lately and I’ve missed a few days of exercise. We had frittata last weekend as well as spare ribs on Sunday (post coming on that one) still doing some research. We had a lasagna with an excellent bolongese sauce Nancy made as well.

I was hoping to get home a little earlier last Wednesday, so I could try out some low calorie chicken tacos. I love tacos plain and simple and believe me I need to start making some lower calorie, lower fat food for a few days and get myself back in line. Nancy leads a bible study and was going to be heading out early, so the goal was to get home, work out and make dinner so we could eat together before she had to leave. The evening didn’t work out as planned.

Nancy left while I was working out, said she would pick something up on the way. I had no desire to cook anything so I pulled out one of my standbys… a Trader Joe’s, Trader Ming’s meal in a box. There are three different versions, Pad Thai, Kung Pao and Peanut Satay. They are actually pretty darn good.

The noodles are in one package, the sauce in another. You open the box, remove the noodles from their package, put back in the box, mix with the sauce and warm in the microwave for 2 minutes. Viola! You have a meal. The best part is they are only about 550 calories, which is what I’m shooting for at dinner.

So, if you haven’t tried them, give them a shot.

Okay, back to chicken tacos. The recipe is inspired from a few different versions I looked at on Food Network. I was able to make them on Thursday of last week, but due to chaos and craziness it has taken me until today to get the text done. They were excellent, so easy to make and tasted great. You can literally make them in 1/2 hour after work and enjoy a filling and low calorie meal.

Low Fat Chicken Tacos


  • 8 corn tortillas
  • 1 1/4 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast cut into small cubes or strips
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 4 teaspoons canola oil
  • 1 large yellow onion
  • 1 bell pepper, seeded and sliced into strips
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and minced or not seeded if you like it really hot
  • 1 tablespoon cumin
  • 1 cup store bought salsa or make your own
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 2 sliced scallions and 1 large tomato chopped for garnish
  • 1 cup low fat sour cream, or the real stuff
  • 1/2 cup of shredded cheese

Pat chicken dry with paper towels to remove moisture. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet, preferably not non-stick (the chicken will not brown as well), over high heat just until oil starts to smoke. Add the chicken and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, until browned on all sides. This is going to take about 4 to 6 minutes. If the bottom of the pan becomes full of liquid and the chicken is poaching instead of browning, pour off the liquid. You want the chicken to brown, not steam or poach. If the chicken starts to burn you can add more oil and/or turn down the heat. You want the brown bits to form on the bottom of the pan, this will add flavor later.

When the chicken is browned remove from pan to a bowl and set aside. Reduce the heat to medium and add remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. When hot add onions and cook, stirring until they are tender, about 5 minutes. As the onions release their liquid you can start to scrape up the browned bits that have formed on the bottom of the pan. You will notice that they mix in with the onions and your mouth with start to salivate at this point.

Now add the bell pepper, garlic, jalapeño and cumin. Continue to stir so as not to burn the garlic, and cook for 3 to 4 more minutes until peppers are bright, but still remain crisp.

While this is finishing up, take your tortillas, place them on a plate, cover tightly with plastic wrap and place in the microwave for 1 minute. This is the quick way to warm through your tortillas without having to warm up the oven. It works fine! The plastic wrap holds the moisture in as they warm.

Now stir in the salsa and the chicken you set aside. Cook, stirring and bringing up the remainder of the brown bits on the bottom of the pan until the chicken is hot, about 3 or 4 more minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the cilantro. Spoon into the warmed tortillas and garnish as you see fit. Pig out!

Let me know how it goes and what changes you have made! -Joe

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Pizza has a special place in my heart. I’ve made, warmed up, ordered, picked up, reheated and plain ate a ton of pizza over the past 30+ years. My favorite pizza of all time was the Tombstone pizza that my dad would buy for me in the bars of Blair, Wisconsin. This is where my dad grew up and we would visit my grandfather every few years for vacation.

You see my grandfather was a bit of a bad ass, actually much more of a bad ass than my dad. When I started going back to Wisconsin at the tender age of 12, I was always allowed in the bars. Everyone knew my grandfather and even though he was in his ’70s at the time, they respected and still feared him. They would break the rules, hence I was never bothered in any of the bars, would have full run and, well, occasionally I could have a bit of beer.

Back then my dad, grandfather and I would go fishing all day long, almost every day then many nights we would take a trip to one of the 17 bars in Blair, population 1,100, circa 1980. Between playing pool, sneaking a drink here and there and well, eating pizza, I had the time of my life.

Rivaling my childhood pizza memories was the trip Nancy and I took recently to Italy for our honeymoon. I couldn’t get enough pizza when I was there and I think I ordered some almost every day, 17 days in total. True Italian pizza is in my opinion is the best you can get. Yes I love all types, but the thin crispy crust with a few toppings, it’s simplicity at its best.

Fast forward to present times… Even though I’ve eaten 100s and 100s of pizzas, unbelievably I’ve never grilled one on my barbecue. I’ve thought about it quite a bit, but for some reason, I guess I chickened out. I end up throwing them in the oven. Good but not great!

So this past Sunday I finally worked up the courage to give it a try and let me tell you, it was awesome. I did take a shortcut and used dough I purchased at our local bread shop and I used Trader Joe’s pizza sauce, but the basil was from our garden and I used fresh mozzarella for one of them and shredded mozzarella and pepperoni for the other.

By all means you can make the dough yourself. I’ve done it before and it’s very rewarding. But all you have to do is call the local bread shop. We purchase ours for something like a buck per pound.

This post is for all of us who don’t have a ton of time and want to get some great pizza on the table, after work, without any hassle. Better yet, invite all of your friends over, purchase a bunch of different toppings and throw an awesome party. Your guests will be talking about it all summer long.

Grilled Pizza Margherita or Grilled Pizza Whatever

  • 1 Bottle of TJ’s Pizza Sauce or Homemade Sauce
  • 1 pound of Pizza Dough – Divided then formed into two balls
  • 6 to 8 ounces of Fresh Mozzarella cut into cubes
  • 6 to 8 Fresh Basil Leaves, medium sized
  • Optional – caramelized onions, Pepperoni, Salami, etc, etc.

Set up your grill. If using charcoal then you will want to light about 40 coals. When ready spread them out on one side of the grill so you have a cool side and a hot side. If using a gas grill, light all the burners, close the lid and heat to high. You will then turn the front burner off completely when ready to grill the pizza. This will be your cool zone.

Lightly oil a large baking sheet or cookie sheet. Take one of the balls of dough and using your fingers and hands stretch the dough into a rectangle. I suggest about 13 or so inches long and 9 or so inches wide. Don’t worry about it being perfect, it’s to eat not to hang on a wall. The important thing to figure out is how thick you like your crust, so experiment with this part. It will be fun. Repeat with other ball of dough.

Prepare your ingredients, sauce, cheese and toppings. You want them ready and in reach once your dough hits the grill.

You will want to grill one at a time. Practice makes perfect. Gently lift the dough and drape it over the hot zone of your grill. Depending on the heat of your grill you will leave them there for 1 to 3 minutes. You are looking for nice grill marks a crisp and hardened bottom. If the top starts to bubble don’t worry about it.

Using two spatulas or tongs or a combo turn the dough over and move it to the cool zone on your grill. Working quickly brush the top half with 1 tablespoon of olive oil, apply the sauce, cheese and basil leaves or the other ingredients you are working with. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Slide 1/2 of the pizza back over the hot zone close the lid. Every 30 seconds to 60 seconds rotate the pizza and close the lid so that the cheese melts on the top and the crust doesn’t overcook. You are looking for a nice crunchy crust, golden brown, some charring, but not burnt.

Enjoy! Please share ideas for toppings and your pizza grilling experience.

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On Thursday of this past week I had to have a tooth removed. No, it was not because of bad oral hygiene and yes I do brush my teeth two to three times per day and floss fairly regularly. Actually I cracked the tooth some time back and it was not getting better. I had the dentist do a root canal last year, but it never worked. Now I guess I need to figure out if I should get a bridge or implant and what the heck the difference is.

In true fashion of my family, even though I just had a tooth pulled, had a huge piece of gauze in my mouth and I couldn’t feel half of my face, I was thinking about what I should have for dinner. Ice cream sounded really good, yogurt and pudding might do, then Nancy suggested polenta. Wow, great idea actually. I love polenta. It’s a super simple dish and can be spruced up many different ways. In fact one of the favorites in our household is to make a sugo, or meat sauce and serve it on top of creamy polenta with some vegetables on the side.

Meat sauce was out of the question on this occasion, seemed a bit much for my traumatized mouth and I didn’t really have the time or the desire to make something that would take too terribly long. In fact I was having second thoughts as I drove into the parking lot of Whole Foods about the time it would take to prepare proper polenta.

My grandparents on my mothers side are from Sicily and if I’m going to cook Italian food I like to do it right. I’ve never used instant polenta, but I hear it works fine. In fact it might be a good place to start for anyone who wants to get their feet wet. I like the huge level of satisfaction that comes with preparing polenta, standing at the stove and stirring and watching the dish for 30 or 40 minutes. I suppose you could even cook it for 60 minutes on super super low heat, but that is even too much for me. The end result is well worth it. The texture is creamy and smooth, so much more than the instant polenta I have eaten.

Howard McGee says “long cooking at the stove develops the corn flavor by the constant application of higher than boiling heat to the pot bottom and the exposure to air and drying that takes place at the surface.” In his book “On Food and Cooking” he also mentions “busy cooks can develop just as much flavor with less labor by partly covering the pot of just-thickened polenta, putting it into a low over 250 degrees, which heats the bottom and sides in a controlled and even way, and stirring only occasionally.” If you try this, or already have please post a comment and let me know how it works.

The key to making polenta is the pot you use. It must be a high quality, heavy bottomed number or you will have trouble keeping the grains from burning. We have a Le Creuset 5.5 quart round Dutch oven. Yes it was an investment at $200, but it has been worth every penny. In fact we use it almost every day for something.

So here I am, half my mouth is numb and I’m hoping that nobody will recognize me in the store because I can barely talk, mouth full of gauze, and I can’t smile at anyone because when I do only one side of my mouth works. It is scary to say the least. In fact I was looking at myself in the mirror before going into the store and the only way I looked presentable was if I keep my lips securely pressed together. haha. I was fortunate enough to get in and out fast. I picked up some medium ground yellow cornmeal (use medium or coarse), some Gorgonzola cheese from Italy and some heavy cream and I was ready to go.

When I got home I popped one of the pain pills the doctor prescribed and I got to work. It was going to be just Randy and I because Jacob was out with a friend for dinner and Nancy was catering a wedding rehearsal dinner.

Polenta & Gorgonzola (serves 4)

  • 6 1/2 cups of water
  • 2 teaspoons of Kosher salt
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 2/3 cups of medium or coarse yellow cornmeal
  • 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 3 ounces of Gorgonzola cheese, cut into small cubes
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Add salt and bay leaves to 7 cups of cold water in a medium pot and then stir in polenta. Some recipes will have you whisk in the polenta once the water is boiling, forget it, this is easier and you will not have lumps!

Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce to medium-low and continue cooking, stirring almost constantly with a wooden spoon, until polenta thickens and pulls away from the bottom of the pan, 30 or so minutes. You can walk away for a minute here and there, go to the bathroom, etc. Just make sure it doesn’t burn and stick to the pan. Turn off heat add cream and Gorgonzola and stir until the cheese melts. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to bowls and serve.

Other Possible Ways to Prepare

Instead of using water to cook the polenta, you can substitute a few cups of chicken stock or whole milk. This will make it creamy. If you want to make grilled polenta cook the polenta until it is thicker.

You can make the polenta into a gratin. Omit the cheese and the cream. After it is done cooking pour it into a buttered baking dish that will give you a layer about 1 inch high. Top with a cup, or more, if you like, of grated Parmesan cheese and broil until the cheese is melted and is slightly browned. You can then cut into squares and serve hot or at room temp.

You can grill it, again make sure it is fairly thick when you cook it. Omit the cheese and cream. Pour the polenta onto a board or into a pan. Let it cool for at least 10 minutes, can be longer, then cut into 1/2 to 3/4 inch slices. When ready to cook, brush with some olive oil and grill or fry with a little salt and pepper or brown them in a pan after heating up some olive oil.

You can also top the polenta with a meat sauce or a tomato sauce. In fact there are a zillion things you can do. Please share some ideas!

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Cheese – The Easy Way

I’m going to attempt to make some cheese… very simple cheese. I’ve never made cheese, but I’ve thought about it. At one point I purchased a book on how to make cheese, read much of it and was overwhelmed by what I read.

You have to have starters and packages of this and that and everything must be super sterile. You need cheese presses and depending on the type of cheese, you need a cool place to let it age. Hmm… I thought I would go buy a old refrigerator any put it in the garage so I could age my cheese in it. Well as always, my ambitions are much bigger than my ability to follow through.

So tonight I was reading Mark Bittman’s book, “How to cook everything Vegetarian” and found a recipe for Fresh Cheese, the Easy Way.

I’m going to make it sometime in the next few weeks. All I need is 1/2 gallon of milk, 1 quart of buttermilk, salt and cheesecloth. Let’s see how it goes. I will put it in my next omelet.

Edit – 6/10/08 – I made it tonight… Nancy wasn’t around and I’m waiting for her to come home to try some. I’m not impressed at this point. I used low-fat buttermilk which may have something to do with it. I may be too critical as well. More to come.

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