The Most Successful Cookbook on My Shelves

June 2, 2014

I have a fair number of cookbooks, but I’m by no means a collector. Compared to many of my friends, I have a relatively tiny collection, and that’s because I don’t use cookbooks that often. For the most part, cookbooks give me ideas. They help me come up with new dishes or combinations of ingredients. Occasionally, I’ll learn a new technique. I’ll even read a cookbook from cover to cover now and then, just because the writing and stories are so good. But for the most part, cookbooks are reference materials, to be picked up now and then for guidance and inspiration.

The first cookbook where I really started to look at how and what I was cooking, the guide that introduced me to Thai cuisine, the book that I’ve followed more recipes than any other book was The Frog Commissary Cookbook by Steven Poses from Philadelphia. An old girlfriend gave me this book as a Valentine’s Day gift over 25 years ago, and it’s as worn out as any cookbook I have. It’s not just dog-eared, it’s dirty. The binding is broken and pages are falling out. I’ve made at least 50 different dishes from that cookbook, and most of them have been great hits. The sour cream apple pie. The Asian chicken wings. The Thai curries. The crab and tarragon and tomato pasta dish. I could go on and on, and maybe one day, I will spend more time highlighting this wonderful cookbook.

But today, I want to focus on Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home. I’m not sure I’ve had a cookbook that has been as slam-dunk successful as this one. Everything that I have made from this book has been not just good, but amazing. His recipes have replaced the tried and true dishes I’ve made for years. Chocolate chip cookies? None can compare to the version in this cookbook, and except for having to chop your own chocolate, they’re really simple. His cream of cauliflower soup has become my family’s favorite soup — nothing else comes even close. I now dress my salads totally differently because of this cookbook. The newest item to make our “best of” list is his brownies. Brownies??? Yes, brownies. I mean, I thought I’ve had brownies every different way and had come to the conclusion that it was a dessert that would always be good, but would never be great. Well, these brownies aren’t just great; they’re fucking awesome. Why you ask? Well, it comes down to chocolate and butter. Chocolate in the form of lots of cocoa powder then with dark chocolate chunks added to the batter. And butter? Well, we’re talking about a 9×9 inch square cake pan of brownies calling for THREE STICKS OF BUTTER!!!! Nope, not a typo — there are 12 ounces of butter in this recipe. Even if cut into relatively small pieces, you’re going to get a couple of tablespoons of butter in each brownie. Holy smokes, these brownies are rich. Over the top without a damn excuse but 0h-my-god-they’re-delicious rich. My daughter made these brownies yesterday, and I want more. I’m channeling my inner Veruca Salt because I want more NOW!


photo (14)

The brownies are absolutely perfect on their own, or with a sprinkling of powdered sugar. A little soft cream would be great, too, but of course, we topped them with good old fashioned vanilla ice cream. I didn’t want to take the time to get a quality photo, because, well, once again, I’m a little impatient. So you’re stuck with a photo of ice cream hiding the most amazing brownie I’ve ever eaten.

Now I have to figure out what to make out of this book next. Because I’m a bit uneasy about displacing my current favorites. Like his carrot cake muffins. Or beef stroganoff. Ah, hell, I’ll just give in and be thankful that I have a cookbook that I can always turn to, and come out with something extraordinary.

Ad Hoc at Home Brownies

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup unsweetened alkalized cocoa powder
3/4 pound (3 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1-tablespoon pieces
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 large eggs
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla (recipe calls for vanilla paste, but I didn’t have any on hand — plain vanilla works)
6 ounces 61 to 64% chocolate, chopped into chip-sized pieces ( about 1 1/2 cups)

Preheat the oven to 350F. Butter and flour a 9×9 baking dish. Set aside.

Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, and salt; set aside.

Melt half the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat (or in the microwave), stirring occasionally. Put the remaining butter in a medium bowl. Pour the melted butter and stir to melt the butter. The butter should look creamy, with small bits of unmelted butter, and be at room temperature.

In a bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle, mix together the eggs and sugar on medium speed for about 3 minutes, or until thick and very pale. Mix in the vanilla. On low speed, add about one-third of the dry ingredients, then add one-third of the butter, and continue alternating the remaining flour and butter. Add the chocolate and mix to combine. (The batter can be refrigerated for up to 1 week.)

Spread the batter evenly in the pan. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until a cake tester or wooden skewer poked into the center comes out with just a few moist crumbs sticking to it. If the pick comes out wet, test a second time, because you may have hit a piece of chocolate chip; then bake for a few more minutes longer if necessary. Cool in the pan until the brownie is just a bit warmer than room temperature.

Run a knife around the edges, and invert the brownie onto a cutting board. Cut into 12 rectangles. Serve with dusted powdered sugar, soft whipped cream or ice cream. The brownies can be stored in an airtight container for up to 2 days, but if they last that long, there’s something wrong.

The Best Meal I Ever Cooked

December 21, 2011

Those of us who like to cook and eat can remember so many meals we’ve enjoyed, restaurants we’ve visited, tastes we’ve shared, dishes we’ve created. We remember meals with family and loved ones. We remember the roast chicken in Barcelona, the cheese steak in Philadelphia, the fish boil in Wisconsin, and the white beans in Florence. We tend to rank these meals: What were my top 10 dishes of the past year? What are my favorite restaurants in the Triangle?

But sometimes, an ordinary meal, something you’ve made or eaten dozens of times can be elevated by the circumstances. That is what happened to me a couple of weeks ago.

My father is 79 years old. He has had two open heart surgeries, suffered from emphysema, and a few years ago, was diagnosed with lung cancer. The effects of the cancer, the emphysema and then the radiation treatment left him with very little lung capacity and is on oxygen 24/7. It tires him out just getting dressed. Singing, the one activity he loved to do, is no longer an option. His vocal chords were damaged during one surgery and he doesn’t have enough breath to get out even a few notes. (And let me tell you, my Dad could flat out sing).

Quite frankly, living is quite difficult for Dad, and one of the other things he loved to do, eating, is also a chore. It tires him out. The flavors aren’t the same. Consequently, he’s lost about 35 pounds in the last six months.  I really don’t know how much longer he’ll be around.

I made it down to Florida a few weeks ago and spent a couple of days with my parents. My Dad’s spirits were pretty good, but he wasn’t eating that much. We went to a local Italian restaurant, and he ate a small slice of pizza. That’s all.

But he asked me the next day, as he always does when we’re together, if I could make some foccacia. He loves that simple flatbread, with some rosemary, olive oil, and sea salt.  I told Dad I’d be happy to make it, and I’d cook him dinner.

I decided on a simple dinner. Filet mignon, baked potato, roasted asparagus. For dessert, a molten chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream. I knew that my Dad would appreciate the thought, even if he couldn’t eat it.

Dad ate 3 sizable pieces of foccacia that day. I was very pleased that he enjoyed it and was able to eat so much. But then he ate the filet. And half a potato. And about 8 spears of asparagus. And the entire freakin’ dessert. He ate it all. He ate more in one meal than he had probably eaten in the prior three days. And I made it for him.

I’ve cooked a lot of great meals in my life, but this one tops them all. It wasn’t technically perfect. It wasn’t fancy. But it nourished my Dad. My sick Dad. And, after the meal, he sat back, looked me in the eye, and said, “Delicious. Thank you.”

Duck Fat Skillet Cornbread

November 28, 2011

I didn’t grow up with cornbread, and most of the time, the stuff I taste is just OK. It’s usually too dry or too sweet or too anything. I feel like Goldilocks, because I could never find the cornbread that was just right.

That changed a couple of years ago when my buddy Pableaux came through town on his “Red Beans & Rice Tour.” He’d visit friends. The friends would invite other friends. Pableaux made red beans and rice and cornbread. Everyone ate.

Pableaux’s technique was pretty simple: Heat up a cast iron skillet. Melt fat in the skillet. Pour melted fat into the cornbread batter. Stir. Add back to the skillet. Bake. And the thing is, this cornbread was just right. The bottom was good and crispy. The cornbread was moist, with the sweetness coming from the cornmeal, not a lot of sugar. And it was rich. I wanted a second piece. And a third. It was that good.

And so, Pableaux’s cornbread is now mine, as I use his technique, following the Lee Brothers‘ recipe for skillet cornbread. But where I differ is that I use duck fat. You can use shortening or butter or lard or bacon drippings, but I use duck fat, because I always have a lot around and, well, it makes the most kick-ass corn bread around. Now that it’s chili season, you need some kick-ass corn bread. So have at it.

Duck Fat Skillet Cornbread (Adapted from The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook)

3 Tbsp. duck fat
1-1/2 c. stone-ground cornmeal
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. sugar (optional)
1 large egg
1-1/2 c. whole buttermilk

Preheat oven to 450. Add duck fat to 12″ cast iron skillet and put in the oven. Allow skillet to get really hot! Meanwhile, mix dry ingredients in one bowl and wet ingredients into another bowl. Add the wet stuff to the dry and mix until it comes together. Carefully remove the hot skillet from the oven, swirl a bit to make sure duck fat coats the sides, then pour the molten duck fat into the batter. Stir until combined and pour batter into skillet. Bake for about 15 minutes until the top is golden brown.


Chile-Chocolate Brownies

September 19, 2011

My 10 year old daughter Clara has become quite the baker. She’s always surprising me with cookies, breads, muffins, and lately, even pies. But one of her favorite things to bake is also one of the easiest: brownies. She’s been making brownies for years, and she occasionally looks for a new variation on the tried and true standard chewy chocolate version that our family prefers.

Well, do I have a great variation for you: Chile-Chocolate Brownies from Sandra Gutierrez’s new cookbook, The New Southern-Latino Table. (It’s funny, but I’ve never met Sandra, but I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been told, “Oh, you two should really meet!” Even now, after receiving a complementary copy of her new book, we still haven’t met. Time to fix that!)

But back to these brownies. I recently read a local magazine’s take on this rich, dense and moist brownies, which combines two different types of chile powder, one in the brownie itself and a spicier, smokier chipotle for the glaze. This magazine said that if you’re making these brownies for kids, leave out the chile powder. Leave out the chile powder? Are you completely out of your mind??? Yes, this recipe would make a very nice brownie without the spice, but it would still be relatively ordinary. It’s the chile powder that makes this dish something special, something unusual, something truly memorable. And the amount of heat is really not that great. We had a bunch of kids trying these brownies, and they all loved them. Were they a bit spicy? Yup. But combined with the sweetness and all that chocolatey richness, it was a perfect combination. So please, try making these brownies, just the way Sandra intended you to (although you can leave out the nuts, if so desired — we did). But do not leave out the chile powders — it’s all the difference between a good brownie and a kick-ass one.

And the recipe is so simple, even a 10-year old can make it!

The recipe below comes directly from Sandra’s cookbook. We made just two minor variations. First, we did not include the pecans. We wanted a nut-free version. Second, rather than melting chocolate in a double boiler, we did our standard operation of combining the butter and the chocolate in a large Pyrex measuring cup, and melting it in a microwave, thirty seconds at a time, stirring after each cycle. If you’re wondering where to find the chile powders, check out a Latino store, but I was lucky enough to find both types at my neighborhood Whole Foods.

Chile-Chocolate Brownies

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 6 ounces unsweetened chocolate
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons ancho chile powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup chopped and toasted pecans (optional)

For the glaze:

  • 1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
  • 2 tablespoon cocoa powder
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 tablespoon coffee-flavored liqueur
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/4 teaspoon chipotle chile powder

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Butter a 9x9x2-inch baking pan.

Place the butter and chocolate in the top of a double boiler and heat over low heat, stirring occasionally, until they have melted and are well combined. Lift the bowl carefully from the pan so no water droplets come into contact with the chocolate mixture; let cool for 5 minutes and transfer to a large bowl. Stir in the sugar; add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition; stir in the vanilla. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, ancho chile powder, and salt; gradually add the dry ingredients to the chocolate mixture, beating well until fully combined. Add the pecans. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the center is set and the brownies begin to pull back from the sides of the pan. Cool brownies for 1 hour in the pan.

To make the glaze: in a medium bowl, combine the confectioners’ sugar, cocoa powder, butter, liqueur, vanilla, and chile powder; blend until smooth. Place the glaze in a pastry bag (or zip-top bag with a snipped corner), and drizzle back and forth over the brownies.

Cut them into 20 bars.

Makes 20 brownies


Note: This post is part of the New Southern-Latino Table Dinner Party!

Taco Ideas

September 15, 2011

For the third year in a row I’m throwing my own Tacos and Tequila birthday party on the 25th. This old man is turning 48, and  there’s nothing I like doing more than cooking for friends and family.

I typically make four different types of fillings for soft tacos, a red meat, a poultry, a seafood, and a vegetarian option. Sometimes I might make two red meats, depending on my mood.

I’m thinking about pork belly carnitas as one option, and maybe lamb for another red meat. Chicken? Not sure what to do. Suggestions welcome for that and the seafood selection. We fried a LOT of shrimp last year, but I may go with catfish this year. I just haven’t decided.

I have my friends bring tequila, beer and dessert. I do everything else.  And if I’ve actually met you in person, and you didn’t get an invitation, let me know. If we’re not too crowded, you’re welcome to join us.

And really, if you have any ideas for an interesting taco type, let me know. I’ve really not decided on anything yet.

Recipe Failures

April 27, 2011

Sometimes I come up with a great idea for a recipe, and it fails miserably.  This happened to me at lunch today, when I sneaked home to grab a bite.

We had a bunch of Easter ham in the fridge, a gift from a friend, and I was getting a bit tired of the regular old ham sandwiches I’ve had this week.  I wanted something different. Something I hadn’t had in ages.  Aha!  Ham salad!

Before you start gagging, I must confess that I’ve always loved ham salad — even when it’s the nasty grocery store deli case glop.  My love for ham salad came from my childhood, when my mother fed us a similar concoction that we called, “pickle and baloney” sandwiches.  My mom would buy a big hunk of bologna from the grocery store — not the pre-sliced stuff, but the solid, cylinder found in the deli case.  She’d break out the meat grinder and throw some sweet pickles into the mix.  It would be a course grind of bologna and pickles, and she’d pull it together with some Miracle Whip (no mayonnaise in my childhood home).  I loved that shit, and whenever I found a pickle and baloney sandwich in my lunch bag, I thought I was being treated to something damn special.

Over the years, my mother stopped making pickle and baloney, and she would buy ham salad from the deli instead.  It wasn’t the same as my old favorite, but I still liked the stuff.

And so, when I went home today, I was going to make some ham salad.  I mean, how hard is that — ham, pickles and mayo.  Maybe a little celery for some crunch.

But then I realized we had no sweet pickles.  Damn!  You have to have that sweet element to make ham salad work.

So, with no pickles, I had to come up with Plan B.  What is sweet that goes with ham?  I was thinking of what goes well with prosciutto, and of course, I thought of figs.  But it’s not fig season.  I do, however, have lots of fig preserves in the pantry.

THAT’S IT!  Ham and fig preserve salad!

So I minced up the ham, and finely chopped the fig preserves, added some mayo to bind it all.  A little salt and pepper.  Onto some bread it goes, and then I take a big bite.


It’s sweet.  Too sweet.  What I forgot is that the pickles didn’t just add sweetness, they added acidity to balance out the sweetness and to cut the overall richness of the ham and mayo.  My sandwich didn’t have that.  I could have added some vinegar, but that wouldn’t have kept the acidity with the fruit, which I wanted.

I ate half the sandwich and gave up, despondently.

Hmm, I wonder how mango chutney would work?

Adult Gingerbread for the Holidays

December 24, 2010

I love gingerbread.  It’s always been one of my favorite flavors, particularly when served warm with some soft cream.  It represents the essence of winter comfort food, not too sweet, with depths of flavor beyond most other desserts.  But that depth was sometimes illusory, as it was just a smack of molasses paired with a touch of ground ginger.  This holiday season, I wanted more flavor.  I wanted more complexity.  I wanted a goddamned adult version of gingerbread.

Thank goodness for Karen Barker.

Barker, the co-owner and Beard Award winning pastry chef of Durham’s Magnolia Grill, has the hand’s-down-bet-the-farm-you-can-take-it-to-the-bank-absolute-best gingerbread you’ll ever taste.  This isn’t one of those pale cakes that you whip together in 2 minutes that will still taste just fine.  This is a dark, foreboding-looking gingerbread, with three types of ginger, coffee, black pepper, and dry mustard in it.  It’s a gingerbread that has some kick, without being piquant.  It’s not a dense cake, but it’s really rich.  And when paired with something somewhat sweet, like Barker’s Hot Buttered Rum Raisin Sauce and some vanilla-nutmeg ice cream — oh, my.

And that’s what my guests were saying last week when I concluded a 6 course dinner party last weekend.  This dish is a winner.  This gingerbread means business.  And hell, yeah, I made three of those cakes, so there was plenty for breakfast the rest of the week.

Not-Afraid-of-Flavor Gingerbread

  • 2-1/2 cups flour
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/4 tsp dry mustard
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 8 Tbsp (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 Tbsp peeled, very finely chopped fresh ginger
  • 2 Tbsp finely chopped crystallized ginger
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 cup canola or vegetable oil
  • 1 cup molasses
  • 1/2 cup brewed coffee
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 cup orange juice

Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a 9X9X2 square pan or a 10X2 round pan. Line bottom with parchment paper, and butter the paper.

Whisk together the flour, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, ground ginger, dry mustard and salt.

With a mixer, cream butter with the sugar and the fresh and crystallized ginger. Add eggs one at a time to blend.

Slowly add the oil and then the molasses. Mix to blend.

Gradually add the flour and spice mix until just barely blended, scraping bowl as needed.

Heat up the coffee in a small saucepan to a simmer, add the baking soda, stir, and add to the mix. Add the orange juice until fully combined. The batter will be thinner than what you would expect.

Pour batter into the pan and bake at 350F for about an hour and a toothpick comes out clean. Cool in pan. Invert onto parchment paper, and then flip back over onto serving platter. Eat. And then eat some more.

From “Sweet stuff: Karen Barker’s American Desserts” by Karen Barker, University of North Carolina Press