Tuesday, April 14, 2015

2015's Season of Super Hots

It's time for gardening again, finally! This summer we are again growing some super hots at The Little Lake House after taking a summer off and growing only the "milder" Serrano, Habanero and Jalapeno peppers. Instead of going with more ghost peppers, Cayennes or Aji Limons we are trying some new varieties instead.

Thanks to my good friend Paul Quick, from Quick's Hot Spice, which by the way is a website you really need to check out, we have several pretty exciting varieties to grow this year. Paul makes his own hot pepper seasoning blends and has some pretty big-name local customers! Anyway, over chatting about the upcoming garden season I mentioned that I had not started any hot pepper seeds in time, and would be stuck seeing what the local nurseries have in stock, and Paul offered some of his extra seedlings! Folks, I tell ya, it's all about who you know!

Pretty fantastic selection of pepper plants!
So what do we have growing this year? Hang on to your antacids folks. It's about to get warm in here.

First up, the Kraken Scorpion. The Kraken Scorpion comes from Fords Fiery Foods. This pepper is known as an F3 chocolate scorpion x bhut assam jolokia. The pods are LARGE and brown in color, often larger than a baseball or small bell pepper. I am super excited to grow this guy! Pictures I found online are gorgeous big shiny peppers, and from what I hear, ridiculous heat!

Hot banana peppers from a couple summers back
The Infinity Naga is next on the face-melting list. Of all the peppers in the world, this one surprises me the most, for the mere fact that it was created by a British chili breeder. My experience with British foods, in the years I lived there, was bland and unexciting so I was quite surprised to read that in Lincolnshire, Nick Woods created this pepper that held the Guinness World Record for the hottest pepper for a whole two weeks before being unseated by the Naga Viper. Topping out at 1,067,286 on the Scoville Scale, this little pepper is not playing around. Serious heat!

Our first successful ghost chili in the garden in 2013.
I have been planning on growing unusual tomatoes, like blue cherry tomatoes, brown tomatoes, so of course, I was thrilled to find Paul had included a chocolate brown pepper, the Black Congo. This Caribbean pepper is quite a striking beauty with it's dark and shiny skin and deep chocolate color. It's a Habanero, but is much hotter and larger than the common Hab we see in the stores. Apparently it's a favorite in fruit salsas but I think I'd prefer it in a savory dish.

Paul always adds a little sample of his spicy pepper seasoning
blends- you need to get on the website and get some!
Peppers not only taste delicious but many of them are quite decorative as well. In my hunt for odd colored veggies, purple peppers kept appearing in the garden catalogs, and also in my goody package from Paul! I can't wait to see the Morango. This Portugese pepper is probably one of the most exciting varieties I have ever grown. Little peppers grow in clusters like little bouquets of pepper happiness. They are purple too! This is going to be so much fun for me!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

A Tale of Two Srirachas

Sriracha certainly has become the "It" condiment lately. From being in the news on the verge of being shut down, to home cooks coming up with emergency recipes to make your own, seems like I'm seeing sriracha, or "rooster sauce", everywhere. The Chef loves the stuff. He puts it on everything I swear. Without sriracha, Dragon Noodles would be just........noodles. No spicy mayo for my sushi or my Asian slaw for burgers. What a dull and ketchupy place this would be.

A while ago I happened upon a Kickstarter campaign for a new product and it really peaked my interest.  A few student athletes from Colorado Mesa University were partnering with a local business person to creat a new, fresh and all natural sriracha sauce. No processed sugar, no preservatives, but tons of flavor. They chose to raise money via Kickstarter, a popular crowdfunding resource for entrepreneurs, and had no problem reaching their goal. 

Photo courtesy of RMS's Kickstarter campaign.
Fast forward to production- the initial fund raising drive allowed the students to join a business incubator in Grand Junction with a commercial kitchen, and off they go. They wisely made use of local ingredients such as organic garlic from the Hobbs Family Farm in Avondale, rare Fresno peppers, organic agave nectar and natural sea salt to create their version of sriracha sauce. They also made their sauce more unique with the addition of 100% organic turmeric, cumin and rosemary. I had no idea these spices were in sriracha sauce!

And how does it compare? First off, let's talk about the original Rooster sauce. It's pungent. Smooth. Vinegary. Hot. The vinegar taste is apparent immediately and the heat quickly takes over. It's obviously blended and strained as it's very very smooth. It's good. It's familiar.
Rocky Mountain on the left, Rooster on the right.
Then I tasted the Rocky Mountain Sriracha. What a refreshing change! Now, if you want sriracha strictly for heat, this is not going to be your go-to sauce, but if you want great fresh pepper flavor, more of a chunky consistency with bits of pepper and seeds throughout, less vinegar and more pepper flavor this is the sauce for you. It's not as hot as the other sriracha but it more than makes up for less heat with better flavor. This stuff is amazing. AAAAAAmazing.

You can get your own Rocky Mountain Sriracha by clicking HERE. I highly recommend you try it. I'd also like to mention that a portion of their proceeds are donated to charity, so that makes me appreciate what these guys are doing even more.

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."

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Kitchen 101- The Aromatics

If you have ever watched a cooking show you have certainly heard of either the terms "mirepoix" or "the holy trinity"- both without doubt the backbone of flavor building in modern cuisine. Every good cook needs to master the basic aromatics to build delicious dishes on the best foundation as possible. Basically an aromatic is anything that adds flavor to your dish. Let's talk about some of the basics.

Mirepoix- This is one of those old old old classics, originating in the early 1800s France. It's truly one of the most important, universal flavor foundations with variations in just about every cuisine in the world. Carrots, celery and onion comprise the classic mirepoix and cooks use this as a base for soups, stews, braises, stocks, casseroles and many other dishes. It is generally made of equal parts of the three vegetables. I cannot imagine making a stock without it. I roast the bones and the vegetables to bring the most flavor to my stock.

The Holy Trinity- You just cannot make good Cajun or Creole dishes without the famed Holy Trinity. Popular Chef Paul Prudhomme coined this nickname back in the early 1890s and it really stuck. Similar to mirepoix, the trinity consists of equal parts chopped onion, celery and bell pepper. Gumbo just wouldn't be gumbo without it. No jambalaya has ever been made without the trinity. It is also often seen in TexMex and southwestern recipes as well, with the onion and bell pepper being big flavor builders for those types of foods. You don't need to stick to strictly green bells either- using red or yellow bells brings a lot of color to your dish.

Herbs and bouquet garni- Imagine if you made a pot of soup, let's say chicken soup, and all you used was some broth, some meat, and a few noodles or vegetables. It might taste like chicken, or it might taste like the vegetables, but it really wouldn't be a very memorable bowl of soup. How do you get all that great flavor? Herbs of course. Four or five sprigs of thyme, and four or five sprigs of parsley tied together and tossed into the pot add such a beautiful background of citrusy, herby freshness. Bay leaves, chives, rosemary, oregano, marjoram- any herb you can tie in a bundle or tie up in a square of cheesecloth (so you can easily fish it out later) make wonderful aromatics. 

Citrus and garlic- Roasting a whole chicken or turkey? Skip the bread stuffing in the bird and instead stuff your bird with a couple quartered lemons, or a handful of garlic. The best part? You don't even have to peel all the garlic! Just cut a head of garlic in half crosswise and it's ready to go. The heat from roasting cooks and steams those wonderful aromatics inside that bird and it infuses the meat with amazing flavor and moisture. Stuff a handful of fresh herbs in there too. 

Now you have the elementary basics- get cooking!

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Food Culture

I was driving home by myself today after a job interview and decided to stop into Half Price Books real quick and see what they had on the shelves. They moved to a new bigger location a while back and I hadn't been there yet. Only one section was of interest to me today, and after making a couple selections and heading home, I found myself thinking about food culture, and how much my "hobbies" are influenced by it. I asked myself, what exactly IS "food culture" anyway? What does that mean?

So I broke out the laptop when I got home and did a little research. The first thing I found was a definition, from ExperimentalStation-  the cultivation, distribution, preparation, and appreciation of delicious and healthy food. Sounds pretty spot on. The Huffington Post  and numerous other websites have an entire sections on their websites devoted to food culture. I'm obviously onto something here. If I had to come up with a definition of food culture I think I would say that food culture is a combination of food-influenced experiences, from the basic vegetable garden to food-centered travel, education, and entertainment with people of similar interests. 

When talking about cultivation of food we can start right in the backyard of many Americans- in the backyard vegetable garden. Flower gardens are lovely but you cannot (generally speaking) eat them. As an Iowan I can tell you there is nothing better in the summer than a big fat juicy tomato, still warm from the sun and stifling humidity of the August garden, sliced and piled on a sandwich. There is nothing better, except maybe a big platter of steaming hot buttery Iowa sweet corn. I know I have many friends that share just this one commonality with me- we love to garden, and we grow our own food.

My garden, full of tomatoes, peppers, radishes, beans 
Another popular summer activity around here that definitely fits into the definition of food culture is the farmers market. I can't speak for every city, but Des Moines has one of the best farmers markets in the country. Every Saturday morning the entire Court Avenue District is transformed into a bustling outdoor market, with dozens and dozens of vendors- fresh produce, ethnic foods, handmade items, baked goods, garden plants, organic meats and eggs- everything you can think of. Food culture at it's finest and definitely fits into the distribution category of the definition. Besides the huge downtown market, many smaller markets pop up all over the city, the suburbs, and small towns across the state. You may choose not to have a garden, or may not be able to, but you still have access to some of the finest fresh produce in the world. For someone like me the farmers markets are a great source for vegetables and fruits that I don't want to mess with growing. I don't need a plantation sized garden AND I get to know some of the growers, meet friends, and before you know it, food culture is once again an influence on my life.

Culinary Fight Night, January 11, 2015
Preparation- in Iowa, be prepared to have your tastebuds rocked. Des Moines has evolved into quite an interesting place for exploring food culture. The city boasts some of the country's most progressive chefs and food professionals, and is home to some out of this world food-themed festivals and conventions. There was once a time when you had to book a hotel and flight to a much larger city to experience food and wine festivals and things of that nature, but not anymore. The state of Iowa has more than a hundred wineries, distilleries and breweries that produce some of the best products in the country. Des Moines is buzzing with them- a winery sits just south of downtown, which isalso home to several cool breweries. You can learn to make your own wine, brew your own beer, attend cooking classes of all kinds. Cooking competitions between professional chefs and home cooks are fun to attend. Des Moines and small towns alike offer some of the best restaurants around, all price ranges, all different kinds of cuisines, casual and kid friendly to starched tablecloth formal. You don't need to visit New York or Chicago for a James Beard nominated chef to prepare your meal- you can get that right here.

Appreciation.......oh I appreciate it alright. My own life is totally immersed in food culture. For me, reading a book means pulling a cookbook off the shelf and reading cover to cover. No sitcoms for me, rather I spend my television time watching cooking shows, documentaries about food, even movies that are centered around a common theme- food. With a chef in my life I am never without a wonderful meal or new way to prepare a dish. It's even grown within my family. One of my daughters gave up a successful corporate career to pursue a completely new career path- restaurant management. Just so happens she works with one of those James Beard Award nominees. She also shares her life with a chef- who has an impressive professional resume as well. For them, travel is to a food destination- weekend in New York City visiting Michelin Star restaurants for chefs' tastings, a quick trip to Austin to explore the food truck scene.

Being so immersed in food culture influences so many aspects of my life. My pop culture icons are completely different than, say, a hardcore sports fan's might be. I will stand in line for the chance to meet and get an autograph from a celebrity chef that I follow. It's actually kind of funny to think about it- how easily my interests morphed into this. I've always had an interest in cooking and certainly my childhood helped feed that interest- my dad was the 70s version of a foodie, always watching cooking shows on PBS, collecting cookbooks, and taking the family to all different kinds of restaurants at home in Minnesota, Iowa, on weekends in Chicago and even all over Europe. Not many elementary kids can say they ate steak tartare at a cafe in Stuttgart, or grilled trout caught minutes before (by my dad) and a catch-your-own place in Italy. It's safe to say, I grew up surrounded by food culture.

Home canning is a food culture all of its own.
It's not a bad thing, not at all. If anything it's a real gift. I feel like I can make informed choices about food, I know where my food comes from and I know how to prepare it so it retains as many nutrients as possible. I love trying new foods, learning new techniques and making new friends who share this passion. I can pickle my own vegetables and bake a dacqouise, bake a loaf of bread and fry chicken. I grow tomatoes in my yard and drive all the way to Kansas City to shop at Dean and Deluca for spices. Goofy? Sure, but why not have a little fun? Come to think of it....I feel like baking that dacquoise.......