Monday, June 23, 2014

Cheating in the kitchen- Sushi Salad

I'm officially hooked, ok? Hooked!! I knew it was going to happen. First came the California roll, then the Las Vegas roll, the nigiri, the sashimi, the tempura shrimp mango roll. I can't help it! I am in love with sushi! Even worse, I love making it!! But who has the time?

During the summer months I can literally subsist on salads. No cooking! (or very little anyway) and I am always researching things- grains, cooking methods, new ways to make old favorites, updated versions of older recipes, you name it. It was just a matter of time before I tried to figure out a way to simplify this whole sushi-rolling business and come up with a way to enjoy all those flavors on a weeknight without spending hours rolling, and rolling, and rolling. Just..... a matter..... of time.

Actually, it kind of came to me in a roundabout way. Mulling over the ingredients for sushi in my fridge, and dreading the whole rolling thing, but living too far away from a sushi place..... and cruising the internet I came across a website that had salad ideas. VINTAGE salad ideas. You know the stuff- the Jello, the mayonnaise, the peas and shredded stuff. Apparently people used to be quite fond of making rice salads much like the pasta salads I make these days.

Rice salad. Fresh vegetables. Rice..... sushi rice...... SUSHI SALAD!!!!!! It was like the clouds parted and Confucious himself spoke to me! Now this is an idea I can get behind, and talk about easy. 

Let's get started with No-Roll Sushi Salad

You will need:
  • one recipe sushi rice (get directions HERE)
  • 1 lb cooked, cleaned shrimp
  • 1/4 cup carrot, diced
  • 1/2 medium cucumber, seeded and cut in small chunks
  • 1/2 cup chopped celery
  • 1 mango, peeled and cut in small cubes
  • 1 avocado, peeled and cut in small cubes (toss with small squeeze lime juice)
  • nori sheets or fresh kale
  • pickled ginger (optional)
  • 2-3 tb black, or toasted, sesame seeds
  • soy sauce
  • wasabi
  • 1 cup mayonnaise (NOT Miracle Whip!!)
  • 1-2 tb Sriracha
Make your rice- Prepare the sushi rice as directed, using rice wine vinegar and sugar. Set aside to cool while you prep the other ingredients.

Prepare the shrimp- thaw if frozen. I used frozen cooked shrimp to save on prep time but you can buy fresh and cook them, just be sure to chill them well. Rinse the shrimp and make sure they are deveined and free from shell bits. Remove tails. If you have small shrimp, leave whole. Larger shrimp need to be cut into bite size chunks. 

Prep all your vegetables- cut up mango and vegetables. If you are using kale instead of nori (and I am, I am NOT a fan of nori really), rinse the leaves well and cut into strips. If you are using nori, crumble up a sheet or two, as much as you like. You can add the nori NOW or wait until later when you serve it, so it doesn't break down and get mushy. 

Assemble the salad- In a large bowl place the sushi rice. Add all the vegetables, shrimp and sesame seed. Toss.

Make the dressing- In a small bowl combine the mayo, Sriracha, a dash of soy sauce and wasabi to taste. If using pickled ginger, finely mince it and add to dressing. Pour about half the dressing over the salad, toss again. Serve with additional dressing, wasabi, and crumbled nori sheets on the side.

It's bright, it's colorful, it's brimming with fresh sushi flavors and I didn't have to spend tedious time pressing, stacking and rolling!I love the sweet mango and the creamy avocado mixing with the crunchy celery and carrots. I needed to amp up the wasabi a bit so don't be afraid to add plenty. Now I can get my sushi fix anytime I want to just as quickly as making a tossed salad.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

In Victory Lane with Sherri Logan Williams

My experience so far with blogging and Facebook has really been loads of fun. I have learned so much- about food and about writing. Along the way I have met some wonderful people and made some amazing friends. Friends who inspire me to work harder, work better, and perfect my techniques. I have learned new skills and refreshed old ones I haven't used in years. Admittedly, I went through a cooking dry spell in my life. Big changes were taking place and I didn't like any of it. I withdrew from who I really was and became a very negative and withdrawn person. That is, until I met some great foodie friends and the fire was reignited.

Every time I see this lady, she is wearing a ribbon !!
Some people come into your life and they just exude happiness and positivity. Sherri Logan Williams is one of those people. She is beautiful, funny, and such a fantastic cook. She encourages others to get in that kitchen and pour out your heart. She sure does, and it shows by the incredible amount of contests and competitions she has won, newspaper articles, TV appearances, and I'm not just talking local here- she won a Super Bowl food contest and was on Good Morning America for Pete's sake !! How can that NOT be inspiring?  In spite of all her winning and basically becoming a celebrity in the foodie world, she remains humble and family focused. Always ready to give advice, share a recipe, or help out a friend, she is the perfect example of what a lady is.

Spicy BBQ Pulled Pork Stuffed Pepper Minis
Since Sherri is fresh off a couple big contests- and WINS, I might add, I thought this might be a great time to catch up with her and share her incredible story with you guys. Maybe she will inspire YOU as well !

Orange Marmalade Jacked Up Whiskey Smoked Drummies
1. Sherri, you have GOT to be the WINNINGEST competitive cook I have ever seen!  How many contests have you won over the years?    How young were you when you won your first and what did you prepare?

I have won over 60 contests. I was 48 years old when I entered my first and that was about 3 1/2 years ago. My first wins were at the Let's Eat Flavors of the Emerald Coast. I took First Place in Appetizers for my Emerald Coast Shrimp Sliders; First Place in Soups for my Spicy Chicken Pozole and was the overall winner. Check out the cookbook at .

2. Do have you a favorite type of contest? I know I'd really like baking or canning contests- what is your cooking niche? 

My niche would have to be anything and everything savory. I love cooking different cuisines using bold flavors and ingredients on hand or easy to find at your local grocery stores.Grilling is one of my favorite cooking methods.

3. How did you get started in competitions? What inspired you?

One day on my way to work, I was listening to the Steve Harvey Show. They were having a recipe contest. I had never entered a recipe contest before. I said to myself "what do you have to lose?" I answered, not a darn thing. I didn't tell a soul that I had entered the contest. I knew if I got a call, it wasn't a prank. I got the call and that was the beginning of my crazy food adventures. I was one of three finalists. We all got a trip to Atlanta to be on the Steve Harvey Morning Show. I didn't win, however it was at that time the greatest feeling I'd ever felt about my cooking. I told my hubby that if I never won another contest, those 15 minutes of fame was worth it and I'd cherish it for the rest of my life. Well, my 15 minutes of fame is still alive. LOL.

Fava Bean Salad with Grilled Smoked Paprika Shrimp
4. You certainly are an inspiration to cooks all over the country, maybe even the world! Has anyone ever said to you "Oh my gosh Sherri, if I hadn't met/read your page/etc I never would have had the guts to do this" ?

I'm always honored and humbled by the comments and messages that I get from people literally across the world telling me how I've inspired them to cook. That's what it's all about! That's my joy and happiness.

5. You've been to the World Food Championships in Las Vegas. What was that experience like?

I've been blessed to have been to the World Food Championships the last two years. I can't explain the feeling that you have except it's an epic experience. One of the most fulfilling things is getting together with my foodie friends and having a Big Food PARTY! Win or lose, it's an amazing adventure.

Sherri is taking over Las Vegas with Adam Feinberg, chef  and
owner of Fein Tasting Foods and BBQ assistant pitmaster with
Crazy Coyote competition team in Colorado.
6. I see from your latest photos from Macy's Great American Grilling Guru contest that you got to meet Cat Cora! That's so exciting ! Have you met other "celebrity" chefs and who were they?

I've met a few: Chef Cat Cora, Chef Sam Tolbert, Dr. BBQ, Chef BenVaughn, Chef Sunny Anderson, Chef Simon Majumdar, Chef Nadia G, Chef Eric Greenspan,Chef David Gaus, Chef Anderson and Chef Vic Vegas.

7. It's hard to believe you are not a professional chef. Your pictures, plating, techniques and choices of ingredients who stand up to ANY professional chef. Have ever had any formal culinary education or do you just enjoy getting down to business in the kitchen?

I've had no formal culinary education. I'm self-taught and enjoy getting down to business in the kitchen.

8. Would you ever consider auditioning for a show like Chopped or Food Network Star ? Why or why not?

I recently did! To be continued.........

9. What's in the future for you, besides more fantastic dishes- Cookbook? Teaching?

I want to have interactive cooking classes with our youth and others. I want them to see that cooking can be fun. It's a skill that we all need to learn. A cookbook is in the future, but right now I'm just enjoying sharing my love and passion for any and everything cooking. Cooking is my medicine and therapy.

10. If you could spend a day cooking with ANY chef in the world, famous or not, who would you choose, and why?

It would have to be Michael Symon. He is my food idol, can cook like nobody's business and he has that infectious laugh that can bring sunshine to any cloudy day.

Broiled Brown Butter Lobster Scampi
It's been a real honor to get to know Sherri. She makes me want to work harder and become a perfectionist, not only in technique, but plating and photography. Just one look at her food photos and you'll know what I mean.  Living in Florida, she posts a lot of photos of amazing seafood creations, which makes me completely jealous. I swear I rarely see this woman without an apron on and a blue ribbon pinned somewhere. That brings out the competitor in me too.

You can follow Sherri's cooking adventure on Facebook at Cooking with Love and Passion.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Grilling up some delicious !!

Chances are, when you think about Iowa the first thing you think about is pigs or corn. That's ok, Iowan's have a proud heritage rooted in agriculture and feeding the world. We are the home of the World Food Prize.  Iowa averages around forty million hogs a year, which amounts to about one-third of the nation's total hog production. That is A LOT of bacon! But we're not cooking bacon today, we are cooking up some pork chops!

This summer a very exciting opportunity came my way- a chance at a partnership with the Iowa Pork Producers. My assignment? Pick one of over 2,000 pork recipes from the website, prepare it, and then tell everyone about it. Included in the deal were some great gifts and coupons to pay for the pork. How's that for a great opportunity?

Cooking is such a passion of mine. It's an art form, a way to express myself in a way that is unique to me. It's a science. Recipes are formulas. Some work, some don't. It's a hobby. Canning, baking and recipe development are things I enjoy working on. And for some, it's a career. It was so hard for me to pick just one recipe. Just think how many different cuts of pork are available. Roasting, broiling, grilling, smoking- it took me three days to decide.

One recipe beckoned to me. It spoke to me. It said "Hey Monica........I have Riesling in my ingredients."  How can I say no to that? Riesling is my favorite wine of all wines. Maybe it's my German heritage. Whatever the case, I knew this recipe was the one. So off to collect the ingredients I went. Beautiful boneless pork loin chops, a little on the thick cut side, fit the bill perfectly. Fresh lemon, some beautiful organic vegetables to serve alongside, and a great bottle of German Riesling and I was ready to cook! 

A quick note about cooking with wine- always, always, always choose a wine you would drink, maybe even with the same meal. Don't go cheap because it's "just for cooking" and never EVER choose cooking wine. If you are taking the time to prepare a wonderful meal, don't ruin it with junky wine. I chose Barefoot Riesling because it's less sweet than others, great for cooking, and I actually enjoy drinking it- it's a good sipping wine.

So let's talk about the recipe. I chose Carolina Riesling Pork Chops

The ingredients are:

  • 8 top loin pork chops, about 1/2 inch thick
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper, coarsely ground
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 12 cloves garlic, minced (2 tablespoons)
  • 8 ounces mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 cups dry Riesling
  • 3 TB fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream

The method:

Sprinkle the pork chops with salt and pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in large skillet over medium high heat. Add half the chops. Brown chops quickly for 1-2 minutes. Remove from skillet and keep warm. Add remaining oil and brown the remaining chops. Remove from skillet. 

Reduce heat to medium low, add garlic to skillet. Cook and stir for 30 seconds. Add mushrooms. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes or until tender and moist. 

Remove skillet from heat. Add Riesling and lemon juice to mushrooms, return skillet to heat. Return chops to pan, bring to boil. Reduce heat and cover, gently simmer on low heat for 30 minutes until internal temperature reaches 145 degrees. Stir in cream. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer until slightly thickened.

I served the pork chops with roasted potatoes and steamed fresh green beans. I also used some chopped fresh parsley when finishing the sauce. I found it easier to remove the chops when I added the cream- it was easier to stir the sauce. And of course, I served the remaining Riesling with dinner- it was perfect!

The pork chops were so tender and delicious. I'm so glad I chose a thicker cut, they didn't dry out during cooking and stayed juicy. The sauce was creamy and mushroomy and the Riesling added the perfect acidic element to tone down the richness of the cream. The garlic added the perfect touch and I chose baby portobello mushrooms because they have a bit of an earthy flavor, a little more depth than white mushrooms. The chopped fresh parsley was the bright herbal touch I wanted to achieve.

These days pork is a whole different meat than a generation ago. The old cooked-to-death dried up pork chops are a thing of the past. Leaner and healthier, today's pork should be cooked to 145 degrees and rested for 3 minutes before serving. This keeps the pork juicy and delicious. In this particular recipe the chops were so tender and so flavorful with the Riesling adding a nice fruity flavor to the sauce- not in a sweet way, but in a "winey" way. Pork goes perfect with mushrooms too. The mushrooms add an earthy note to the dish, and garlic- you can never go wrong with garlic!    

Now.......for the FUN part- the giveaway!!! The Iowa Pork Producers Association has put together a fun giveaway pack for me to send to one lucky reader. So fire up your grills, and get ready to cook something amazing.

The prize package includes:

  • $50 in pork coupons
  • A 3-piece grilling tool set
  • A bottle of Iowa-made barbeque sauce
  • "Pork. Be Inspired" grilling apron
  • Meat Thermometer (to help you grill that pork to 145 degrees)
I'd like to give a BIG thank you to the Iowa Pork Producers for this wonderful partnership opportunity and for providing the pork for this recipe. I will be making many, many more recipes from the website.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

*****NOTE: Contest limited to US residents, please.

Original recipe can be found on the Iowa Pork Producers' Website by clicking here-

Monday, June 16, 2014

Foodie Field Trip- The B&B Super Market

It's so very rare that The Chef and I have some time off on the same day so when we do, we like to spend time doing something we both enjoy. Oftentimes, it's cooking. Sometimes it's a movie. Once in a while we explore a foodie destination, and this time, it's one we kept saying we were going to visit, but just never got around to it. Today, we finally did!

Somethings never change, and sometimes that is a GOOD thing. It sure is in the case of B and B Market in Des Moines. They have been serving customers for over 90 years. It is no big giant supermarket. There is no produce section to speak of. The few shelves stock some basics but they are not overflowing. It's not the groceries on the shelf that have made this family business so popular- it's the meat counter.

Really, B&B is more of a butcher shop than anything. They are famous for their meat. The craft of butchery has been handed down through several generations of Brooks family members and continues today. Meat is cut right there in the shop. Like your steak a particular thickness? They will do it. Want to just pop in and pick up a "meat package" for your freezer- a pre-packaged selection of beef, chicken, and pork- you can do that too! They have many different combinations to choose from.

They have a nice selection of sausages and lunch meats and cheeses, ready to slice-to-order. The Chef was a little put off by the head cheese, but that brought back a lot of memories of my German mother loving that stuff. All the Italian standards were present, salami, capicola, provolone- you name it. Nothing was sliced and placed in piles like you see at the big stores. You order it, they slice it. Fresh. Period.

They aren't just famous for the meat. Killer sandwiches. If that doesn't tell you what's up, I don't know what would. The store has a deli counter that serves up freshly made sandwiches and sides. These sandwiches..... how about a burger called The Quadzilla? Four 1/3 pound patties with cheese and toppings. Deli sandwiches with stacks of freshly sliced deli meats and fresh toppings, on Italian bread. "Dad's Killer" is the big daddy of sandwiches. Forget Subway! This is the real deal!

Tenderloins that are hand-battered, yes, you read that right, battered. Something I have never had before, in The Land Of Tenderloins. It was unlike any tenderloin I have ever had. The batter was so much more crispy and flavorful I didn't leave a crumb behind. I got the small and it was BIG!! We didn't even bother with sides. The Chef had his Quadzilla put away in under five minutes.

We even got ice cold Coke in the old fashioned glass bottles. I haven't had one like that in more than thirty years (yes.... I am old....)

B&B is such a fun, nostalgic place. There is a seating area if you'd like to eat-in, basically a great big winding lunch counter with stools, decorated with framed vintage newspapers of big news events, sketches of the "old neighborhood" and other memorabilia. It reminds me of growing up. We lived right next door to another old neighborhood grocery store. Yes, I think in a case like this, change would be a BAD thing.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Happy Hour- Kinky Pink

I absolutely detest the dreaded "wine cooler." Who are they kidding, it's not wine at all and it doesn't make you "cool" one bit. Some of the other malt beverages are ok. I was a HUGE Zima fan in the 90s but of course, I was probably the only one, because they quit making it. I was so bummed.

A year or so ago I discovered Kinky, the liqueur. They make a pink and a blue version, both versions are delicious and fruity, and it's a lower alcohol liqueur so it's good for shots without caused unnecessary behavior problems (we've been there, right girls?). A couple weeks ago a friend mentioned to me that she had tried a "Kinky drink that's like Smirnoffs" so my interest was immediately piqued! I was on a mission to find it!

Of course, none of the stores near the Little Lake House had it. I was not surprised. It takes new things a while to make their way out here, if ever. Lucky for me I was able to catch a ride to a bigger store in a bigger town and Voila !!!! They had them!! I grabbed a 6 pack to sample and made my way home to tuck them safely in the cold fridge for a future happy hour.

24 hours later......I am having Happy Hour! Imagine that! These are really good !!! Fruity and refreshing, I thought they tasted a lot like pink grapefruit and mangoes. They have 5% alcohol, which is similar to a light beer, really, so they are a good summertime sipper! 

Grab some friends, some Kinky cocktails and hit the beach!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 55: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Monday, June 9, 2014

Trending: Inside the World of Competition 'Que

Imagine the scene- dozens of RVs and camping setups line the roadway. Stacks and stacks of coolers lined up and ready to go. The haze and smell of smoldering apple and cherry wood. Brightly colored banners of logos, team names, cute cartoon pigs and cows. Lawn chairs and beer cans sprinkled about the grounds. You're at a barbeque competition and things are about to get pretty interesting around here.

These teams mean business- big business. From hobbyists to professional chefs and restauranteurs, the barbeque pitmasters take this competition VERY seriously. To them, it's the Olympics of ribs and brisket, chicken and pork butts. The competition is tough, and losing even tougher. Reputations are at stake, bragging rights are on the line, and some of the best 'que is about to be sampled. What does it take to be a winner? The perfect rub? The right kind of wood? Will that smoke ring take you into the winners' circle? 

With the incredible popularity of food television it's no wonder shows like BBQ Pitmasters and BBQ Crawl have thrust this craft into the spotlight. Bobby Flay's Barbeque Addiction makes it seem so easy. These shows go way beyond the humble backyard grilling party. The teams have attention grabbing names: Smokin' Triggers, Wood Chick's BBQ, Slap Yo Daddy, and many more. Pitmasters like Johnny Trigg, Shad Kirton, Ray Lampe and Bubba Latimer have become household names and are celebrities in their own right. They love what they do, and they are committed. Winning means everything.

But have you ever wondered who are the lucky souls that get to judge all this expertly prepared barbeque? I'll admit, I never have- I was more interested in following the teams and watching them go to great lengths to hide their secret ingredients from their competition, but then a friend of mine, Janice Squire, who I have known since we were teenagers, and now lives in Texas, the heart of barbeque country, happened to mention she had been a judge in the Recess on the River competition in Smithville, TX., hosted by the International Barbeque Cookers Association. Well, I just had to ask her a few questions about this! So let's find out what Janice had to say about her barbeque judging experiences-

1. I was so surprised to see you say you had been a judge at a barbeque competition. How did you get involved in this?   We were invited by folks who had judged other contests. In this particular contest, we didn't need to be prequalified for judging. We just followed the rules.

2. Barbeque is obviously HUGE in Texas. How would you describe the perfect Texas barbeque?   Perfect barbeque is tender and juicy, yet not quite falling apart, has a nice bark and well rounded flavor profile.

3. What is YOUR personal favorite barbeque style- wet, dry, etc? Spicy, sweet?   My favorite flavor profile here is moist, a hint of sweet and spicy and plenty of sauce. Just a little salt and pepper. A bit of savory after flavor is pleasing.

4. How about meat- what is your favorite kind of meat to have barbequed?   As a semi-finalist judge we sampled about 15 pork ribs first. They must be the same cut. About an hour later we sampled a little over 15 brisket entries. Personally, I like all types of meat but I prefer the taste and texture of grassfed organic beef and humanely raised pork.

5. What's the most unusual thing you have seen in a competition? This was my first experience so nothing seemed unusual to me.  I did learn that most of the meat is brined. Personally, I usually brine with Himalayan or Celtic sea salts.

6. Barbeque teams are well known for their clever names and outrageous rigs. Did any really stand out to you? Favorite names or teams?  We got a laugh out of the team names but spent most of our time in the pavilion judging anonymous entries. We stayed for the awards ceremony too.

7. Can you break down the different things you look for when judging an entry in a barbeque competition? What are the basic requirements and are bonus points awarded for anything?  There were five criteria for judging: appearance, aroma, flavor texture and seasoning, but with one overall rating.

8. Many of the competition barbeque folks are pretty well known- do the judges get to hang out with the "celebrity chefs" at all? Did you recognize any famous names?     Didn't see any celebrities at this particular competition but several had barbequed for celebrities before.

9. Is there any special training required to be a judge? Any official governing body? Any sort of certification or credentials required? This one had no certification necessary, though plenty of the other judges had done it before. The folks conducting us had plenty of schooling in showing us the rules. One fork and knife per taste, then discard it, clearing your palette with a variety of items provided between tastings. No talking about the food you're eating, and take your time. It entry is judged on its own merits.

10. Finally, let's say you are having a special get together for 200 friends and family. What would be the perfect barbeque menu for you?   Wow, 200 is a lot of folks! I think it would be homespun style in a backyard or park. The menu would include brisket, burgers, chicken, beans, fresh lemonade, sweet potato salad and coleslaw with a vinegar based dressing. As for dessert- fresh peaches on the grill- yum!

Now, let's get the perspective from the other side, from a competitor. Jason Crees hails from Adel, Iowa and is the pitmaster for Jaestar BBQ. He and his team compete in the Kansas City Barbeque Society sanctioned events all over the midwest. As you can see, these guys have it down to a science- just look at a few of the many awards they have won!  I asked Jason ten questions about his experience and here is what he had to say-

1. Jason, how long have you been competing in barbeque?  This is my third year competing. I compete in contests sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS). They are the largest organization in the world and sanction contests in the US as well as other countries around the world. In KCBS competitions we compete in four main categories: chicken, pork ribs, pork shoulder/butt and beef brisket.

2. Were you in a culinary profession before this or was it just a passion you really wanted to get into?  Cooking has always been a passion of mine. My mom owned restaurants and I grew up in them. I am a competitive person by nature, so once I started learning how to barbeque, competitions seemed like a great next step.

3. I had no idea barbeque was so popular in Iowa. Do you think there will ever be a competition in central Iowa? Are competitions separated by divisions/regions?  This is one area I think that a lot of Iowa are in the dark about. There are actually quite a few contests in Iowa. A good resource to find them is to go to the Iowa BBQ Society's website. They have KCBS sanctioned contests and local, unsanctioned contests listed there. I think there are around 15 KCBS contests in Iowa this year! With KCBS,there is no separation by division or regions. They have an overall point system that they rank teams. They have them for each of the four categories and an overall ranking. One other thing that many people don't realize is that Iowa teams are some of the best in the country. In the past five years or so Iowa BBQ teams have won the Jack Daniels World BBQ Championship twice, the American Royal World Series of BBQ three times, the Sam's Club National BBQ Tour two out of three years, as well as many KCBS team of the year category and overall Top Ten finishes. It is not uncommon to go to an Iowa competition and have a good portion of the top 20 teams in the country competing. There isn't another state that can claim all of that!

4. Barbeque is so big now with all the tv shows and huge winners, some of the competitors have become celebrities of sorts. Have you ever competed against someof them? Ever hang around with them at competitions?  Television has been great for increasing the popularity of BBQ and BBQ completions. I think that participation increased around 17% last year, making it one of the fastest growing "sports" out there. I have competed against a lot of the BBQ celebrities and have become friends with quite a few of them.

5. When you set up your cooking/camping area for a competition, what's the overall atmosphere like? Is there a camaraderie between the teams? Is it like one big party or everyone sizing up the competition?  There is definitely a camaraderie between teams. Some of the best people I have ever met in my life are BBQ competition people. This is not just the other teams, but judges, organizers, contest reps and volunteers at events. Having competed in such a vast number of states has also allowed me to meet and become good friends with people across the country. Friday afternoon and evening we are all usually busy at our sites prepping meat and getting everything ready to go on the smoker. Usually around 8-9 pm we start wandering around socializing with each other. It is also not uncommon for us to have potluck meals on Friday night.

Jason in the kitchen with "Dr. BBQ" Ray Lampe.
6. Are the teams pretty hardcore about preserving secret formulas and recipes? Does Jaestar have their secret formulas?  What's really interesting is that we are all using very similar rubs and sauces. The secret comes in how much of them we use, how we mix and match or how we blend them with other ingredients. One of the other pretty amazing things about competition is how willing teams are to help each other out. We all come to a competition wanting to win, but if I forgot something or needed something I would have ten teams there ready to help out. I was ready to hang it up about mid way my first year of competing. One of my friends gave me some advice on rubs and sauces and it helped me move from a bottom of the pack finisher to finishing in the Top Ten. If someone is truly needing help and struggling, most of us would be willing to help out and give advice to help correct what they might be doing wrong.

7. What is your favorite part of competition- which meat do you like working with the most and which do you like the least? How about the most unusual food?  Nothing beats hearing your name called at awards. Second to that is being able to relax and do something that I love with great friends. I like brisket the best because it is considered the most challenging to cook. Contests can be very easily won or lost on brisket and I have been on both ends of that. I don't know that it's unusual but I have smoked salt, butter, cheeses and made my own bacon. Nothing too exotic. An interesting one is you can smoke water, make ice and then use it in cocktails.

8. Home many competitions do you normally compete in every year? Is it seasonal, since you're based in Iowa or do you travel to warmer states also?  I will probably compete in 30 competitions this year. I mainly compete in Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas and Minnesota, but I will travel to other states. Last year I competed up until the middle of December at a contest in Georgia. This year, a friend and I am setting up a west coast operation and plan on competing in Arizona, California and Nevada this fall and winter.

9. How did you come up with your team name?  The back story is long and boring on the name. I have used it as my email address since around 1995. I was filling out my first BBQ contest application and couldn't think of a name. My email address was listed so I just added BBQ to the end.

10. Are there any champs out there that you'd LOVE to go head-to-head with- and beat? I have competed against many of them. Some days they win, some days I do. In KCBS competitions, each entry is judged separately from the next. This is no comparative judging. You may finish better than someone else but there are a lot of variables that play into it. You may not have been judged by the same people or maybe hit a hot or cold table. Now if we are talking about a heads up competition, comparative cook, there are a lot of teams that would be fun to compete against. I could easily come up with a list of 10 teams from Iowa, but Darren Warth with Iowa's Smokey D's would be towards the top of the list. He can cook well and win any given week, anywhere in the country and has done so consistently for eleven years.

I don't know about you guys, but this sounds like a wildly fun-filled experience. Seeing and hearing the passion these folks feel about the food, the barbeque, the history, their rigs (and let me tell you, some of them are INCREDIBLE), it's like the Super Bowl. If you ever get the opportunity the check out a barbeque competition or festival, you absolutely MUST do it! I know I plan on it. The barbeque bug is highly contagious. Who might get bit too......

****BIG thanks to Janice and Jason for spending time talking with me and allowing me to use their pictures.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Lasagna Fresca on Friday

Most people probably don't think of lasagna as a summertime or "light" food. Rather, we remember the gooey, melty, cheesy pan of awesomeness that lasagna can be. But it doesn't have to be! I know the last thing I want to do on a hot and humid summer day is fire up the oven and have something heavy baking for an hour. Instead, I like this lighter, more summery and definitely fresh version of lasagna.

This lasagna reminds me of caprese salad, or bruschetta, without the bread. The combination of freshly sliced tomato, cheese, fresh basil- so classically Italian and such a modern take on traditional lasagna. You can drizzle the rolls with just a little bit of balsamic vinegar before rolling up if you like too (I like to reduce it slightly and keep it on hand in the fridge)- brings out the caprese influence big time.

I love to make this and close my eyes as I sit down to dinner, imagining myself at a quaint little trattoria or sidewalk cafe in the early evening, the warm breeze barely blowing, olive trees shading me from the sun. A perfect glass of wine, the best fresh bread you can imagine, and this dish.....

Even the marinara sauce doesn't have to be something you have had to cook for hours all day. I love to buzz some tomatoes in the food processor, add a touch of garlic and some fresh basil, freshly cracked black pepper- again, light and fresh. Makes the perfect topping for this dish. Make sure you stick with Roma tomatoes, or if you find them- San Marzano tomatoes. Regular tomatoes will work but they tend to be too juicy and the dish will be too liquidy. Not what you're looking for at all.

So let's get cooking!

Lasagna Fresca

9 lasagna noodles- NOT the no-cook type
1 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella
15 oz container ricotta cheese
1 egg
1/4 cup parmesan cheese
4-5 Roma tomatoes
big handful chopped fresh basil
marinara sauce (use your favorite recipe)

Cook the noodles according to package directions. Drain but do not rinse. Lay in single layer on waxed paper and set aside. 

Slice the Roma tomatoes and allow to sit on paper towels for a few minutes if they are super juicy. Sometimes they are not very juicy and that's fine. We don't want soggy pasta here.

I am sad to say I was FORCED to buy supermarket tomatoes.
It's just too early for homegrown tomatoes in Iowa.
Mix one cup mozzarella, the ricotta, Parmesan and egg in bowl until well blended. Spread cheese mixture on lasagna noodles, spreading evenly. Top with slices of tomato, sprinkle with chopped fresh basil. 

I know you have seen this technique before, but believe it or not,
people have been making lasagna rolls long before Pinterest was invented.
Roll up and place seam side down in baking dish that has been spread with a small amount of marinara sauce. Spoon sauce over rolls and sprinkle with remaining cup of mozzarella cheese. 

Bake in 375 degree oven for 30-45 minutes or until hot and bubbly. 

My sauce was very simple- 5 cloves garlic, minced, sauteed in a tablespoon of olive oil until softened, 2 cups tomato puree and a tablespoon of chopped basil, simmered for a few minutes. It was light and fresh with great tomato flavor and no "heaviness" like cook-all-day sauce.

Do you know what else I like about this lasagna? No meat! We eat too much meat as it is. Serve this lasagna with a fresh tossed salad of mixed baby greens, olives, peppers, and a light balsamic vinaigrette and skip the fatty hamburger, sausage and meatballs this time. You can make that stuff again when it's cold outside! Instead of being heavy, in spite of the cheesy filling, the sliced tomato cooks softly, not to a mush and retains that freshness. The basil leaves just a touch of its anise flavor notes and the smooth ricotta is so delicious. I just skipped the salad and had a slice of crusty baguette to soak up the juicy tomato cheese remnants. Perfect easy dinner and looks impressive enough for guests.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Don't put all your eggs in one basket!

I came home from work today with an awesome plan for dinner. It's a gorgeous night after weeks of heat and humidity. Last night's rain and storms gave way to beautiful mostly sunny 70s and you can't ask for a better al fresco dining experience than a light dinner on your deck overlooking the lake. I'm thinking a nice French omelet with tomatoes and zucchini, with some mozzarella melted over- not a ton, just enough, a couple slices of buttery toast and something ice cold and refreshing to drink.

However, someone made pasta the other day and used almost the entire dozen eggs without letting me know. Scratch the omelet plans. Now what?

It's a good thing a chef also lives at the Little Lake House,and it's also a good thing that we keep a pantry fully stocked with the basics for just about every dish we like. Anchovies, capers, onion, garlic, olive oil and for something different, a jar of home-canned diced tomatoes with zucchini and garlic, fresh Italian parsley from the garden- a dish is born! The Chef's version of Puttanesca- with a couple switches to work with what we had, swapping the olives for zucchini chunks and creating a delicious version of the famous "whores' sauce." Many stories tell the legend of how this sauce was branded with that name, but it doesn't matter to me- it's just delicious!

The Chef's Special Puttanesca

1/2 cup chopped red onion
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
2 TB capers
salt, pepper
olive oil
1 pint (about 2 cups) diced tomatoes- we used home-canned tomatoes with zucchini and garlic
spaghetti for 2 servings

Heat several tablespoons olive oil in deep pot. Saute onion until softened. Add garlic, cook and stir to soften garlic but don't brown. Add 2 anchovy fillets to pot, breaking up and allowing it to "melt" into the oil. Add capers and tomatoes. Heat to boiling.

Cook the spaghetti til al dente. Drain well, then toss with tomato mixture. Divide between 2 serving plates, garnish with chopped fresh parsley and serve with Parmesan if desired.

This dish comes together so quickly and is impressive enough for guests. A fresh salad and some crusty Italian bread makes it a complete feast. It's easy to adjust up for larger groups too. Give it a try!