What’s Cooking Wednesday: On the Grill

On the spectrum of grills and grilling, this is how I view things:

Charcoal grill > Any grill > No grill


A few years ago, I moved into my first apartment with a porch and my first must-do was learn how to grill. Happily, I got a little cast iron Lodge hibachi grill as a housewarming gift (you know what’s really smart? giving a person who likes to cook stuff to cook with because they will often use it to cook for you).

Salad on the grill Grilling

For four years, I used the hell out of that thing. It’s just the right size to cook for one or two people, but I easily had enough space to grill a whole pizza or a few burgers when I needed to. It was fast to heat up, holds just enough charcoal for one meal (with enough left over to melt a few marshmallows), and took briquette (the kind most grocery stores sell in summer) and lump (the kind that looks like chunks of burnt wood) charcoal. I can guarantee there were weeks in summer I did not touch my stove in favor of cooking on my porch (yes, breakfast too–do you know how good grilled bacon is?).

As much as I love that grill, it has a few drawbacks. The lack of a lid is the biggest one, making it a challenge to cook larger pieces of meat for longer periods of time. Foil or a pot lid worked to melt cheese on a burger, but not so well for cooking, say, a whole chicken, or smoking anything. A little Weber or tabletop/tailgating grill would have solved this, but I really like how the cast iron maintained heat. That’s why my housewarming gift to myself with my new place (after I made sure there were no rules about grilling, and yes, being able to grill was one of my “must-haves” when I was looking to buy) was a small ceramic grill, a Kamado Joe Jr.

My baby

I love my new baby for a lot of reasons but it came with a bit of a learning curve. The biggest selling point for me: it’s easy to get temperatures really low (180º F), really high (900º F), and everything in between and hold that temperature steady for a very long time–the whole thing is essentially a brick oven with grill grates. The lid and the steady temperatures also mean I can cook larger things like chicken; smoke salmon, or even bake (some people get excited about a pulled pork on the grill, I’m excited about baking cobbler. Ok, and the pork too.).

Perfect way to end a warm spring day, strawberry rhubarb cobbler from #americastestkitchen cooked on my #kamadojoe. #atkgrams #grilling #bringonspring

Compared to my cast iron grill, the ceramic needs a little more attention and takes a little longer to get the hang of. It’s slower to heat up than my cast iron, and only uses lump charcoal. Also, with the cast iron I could see my food as it cooked and so was quicker to figure out how much charcoal to use, how to set my hot and cool spots, when to turn or otherwise fuss with the food. With the ceramic, the cooking is mostly hidden under the lid, so I’ve had to learn a bit more by trial and error (and a few overdone burgers). But as I figure it out, I realize how much I will be able do–baking pizzas at near-professional pizza-oven temperatures and smoking my own bacon, for instance.

Still smoking "Sasquatched" Don't forget to grill a few lemons

The difference between my two grills is essentially the difference between having a stovetop and having a full stove with an oven. I can cook nearly everything with just the first, but having the flexibility of the second gives me so many more options that it’s worth dealing with the learning curve.

If I had a porch big enough to have both grills out at the same time, I would, but for now I’m defaulting to my ceramic. My next place though…both grills.

What’s Cooking Wednesday: Spring Rolls!

Technically this was what was cooking on Tuesday, but let’s not nitpick. Last night I went to my first class at the new Fearless Food Kitchen on making one of my favorite dishes on earth, fresh Vietnamese spring rolls. It was fantastic!

Shrimp and tofu was my favorite combination

If you ever had Vietnamese spring rolls, you know they bear little resemblance to the deep fried versions at Chinese restaurants. These delicious bites are about as fresh as it gets: delicate (but sturdier than you’d think) rice paper wrappers stuffed with fresh herbs and vegetables, noodles, plus shrimp, pork, and/or tofu and dipped in a sweet, salty, peanut-y sauce. They’re also great for using up whatever bits and pieces you have in the fridge.

The group was small, maybe eight people–perfect for chatting and asking our teacher plenty of questions. I’ve made these rolls before but what I loved about the class was learning the little tips that only someone who’s been making them for decades knows–things like what order to layer the ingredients (protein on the bottom so it looks pretty when it’s done, followed by noodles, vegetables, herbs, then lettuce), how to roll them to keep all the good stuff inside and look pretty too. She even taught us that you could make a simple light soup from the broth made after cooking the shrimp and pork to serve with the rolls.

Great class in a beautiful space!

After our lovely instructor gave us a spring roll assembly demo, we all got to make as many rolls as we liked with our favorite mix of ingredients. It was great fun to try different variations and especially to see what other people were making. The only think I’m bummed about is that I missed how to make the dipping sauce! I know it involves peanut butter and possibly hoisin. I hope someone in the class reads this and shares what I missed, it’s probably my hands-down favorite part of eating spring rolls.

Dipping the rice paper wrappers Beautiful!

If you’re looking for a fun way to spend an evening, try out one of the Fearless Food Kitchen classes (and class volunteers get to take the class for free in exchange for some help prepping and cleaning up–totally worth it in my opinion). They have a class tonight on making seasonal salads that sounds awesome and I’ve heard great things about the juicing and smoothie classes too.

Recipe to come soon!

What’s Cooking Wednesday: Leek Butter, Fancy Melty Cheese, and New (Easier) Canning Rules

Leek Butter, aka The Best Thing Ever
If you find yourself with an overabundance of leeks this time of year, I beg you to try this: slice and rinse leeks to remove any dirt or grit. In a big pot over medium low heat, melt a good hunk of butter (I used about 1/2 a stick for four monster-sized leeks). Add leeks, stir to coat with the butter, and add a good pinch of salt. Cover and cook the leeks, stirring occasionally, until they’re very soft and let off much of their liquid. Uncover, turn the heat up slightly and continue stirring occasionally until all the liquid has cooked off and they are just starting to brown and stick to the bottom of the pot. Turn off the heat, cool, and store in the fridge or freezer.

I’ve been eating through this like it’s going out of style. I’ve been spreading it on egg sandwiches, grilled cheese, and can’t wait to stir it into soups, pasta, or just eat it with a spoon. It’s the simplest, most delicious thing I’ve eaten so far this fall and I can’t get enough.

Speaking of Grilled Cheese…
I will never, ever get around to doing this but oh I would love fancy cheese that melts perfectly like good old American cheese in its plastic wrappers.

New Streamlined Canning Process
Most of canning season is over, with the exception of apples and cranberries, but it’s still worth noting that the guidelines have changed to make things a little easier and less intimidating. Here’s the detailed information about the change but the short version is that you don’t have to simmer the lids in water and you don’t have to pre-sterilize the jars as long as the recipe you’re making calls for at least 10 minutes of processing.

I think both of these things make sense, and honestly, I’ve been doing both since I got comfortable with the process. I wash my lids with soap and set them in a bowl of water I ladle out of my canning pot when it starts simmering (one less pot on my stove) and I put my jars in the pot while it heats up just so everything is close to the same temperature (less chance of shock and a cracked jar that way).

I have no pictures of any of the above, but this seems empty without a picture so enjoy this sunset from my porch earlier this summer.

Crazy storms mean very cool sunsets #Chicago #edgewater #sunset #summerinthecity #summerstorms #summer #nofilter #lovemyporchview

End of summer garden update

Summer officially ends in a few hours, which made me realize I haven’t really talked about my garden since June. I’m calling this my “practice year”–for having no clue what I was doing, my garden did pretty well in its first year. Next year I’ll remember to fertilize much more often, be a little more on top of the weeds, and not be afraid to thin things out. The folks at Peterson Garden Project also deserve a lot of thanks for answering a ton of questions and saving my tomatoes!

How did your garden do?

June garden in full swing
First real slicing tomato
Wall of peas
Purple tomatillos

Successes Continue reading

Putting down roots

As my kitchen (really my entire apartment) is currently in a state of utter disarray, has been for the past few weeks, and will be for another few, my cooking of late has pretty much consisted of salad (and often take-out salad at that). I’ll explain in a minute, but for now, an update on the garden, which is so far blowing my expectations away. Here are a few highlights:

StrawberryBaby lettuce Tomatillo flower

As for the reason for the kitchen chaos? I’m moving! Today I’m officially a first-time homeowner in Chicago.


I did say I wanted a change and I think this counts. I wasn’t planning to leave the ranks of the apartment-dwelling when I started looking for a new place in April, but everything seemed fated to make this happen. I’ve never been one to take the view that renting is throwing money away, it definitely has its perks and benefits, but I’m really excited about this step–and my new porch! Kitchen! My own laundry! I can’t wait to start cooking and sharing projects from my new space soon.

One of the best parts about the new place though? It’s closer to my garden! Here are some more pictures, including my plot layout and how the view has changed since mid-May: Continue reading

Final thoughts – The Cooking Lab, Part 4

So we come to the end. As a wrap-up, last week’s class had a great concept and was fun to execute–come to class and cook. That’s all. No recipes, just some ideas of what we’d like to try based on what we’ve learned the past three weeks.

What to choose...

Ok, there was a bit more to it than that, it wasn’t just an Iron Chef-style free-for-all. Shelley and Mario talked with each of us about our ideas during class, how to turn them into complete well-balanced meals; went over the importance of preparation, timing, and planning (I do love a good plan), concepts of plating and presentation (like a painting, white space on a plate is important). One of the best things I’ve taken away from this series, though, is that a single dish doesn’t need to be perfectly balanced with all flavors as long as the entire meal has balance: a rich, savory main course and a simple salad lightly dressed with an acidic vinaigrette can be perfect.

Shrimp salad with toasted mustard seeds

The two things I knew I wanted to try were making mayonnaise and a butter-based pan sauce, two things I haven’t gotten quite right at home. Since I love shrimp, Shelley helped me come up with two meals: a shrimp salad in an avocado half, topped with toasted mustard seeds (one of my favorite flavors from week one) and a few herbs; and shrimp sauteed with garlic, deglazed with chicken stock and lemon juice, finished with butter, and topped with an herb salad.

Continue reading

Feeling saucy–The Cooking Lab, Part 3

What do cream of potato soup, mayonnaise, and a delicious, buttery pan sauce have in common? More than I realized after last week’s class, it turns out. (Also, we got to play with fire.)
It's like a Rorscach test in fire. I see a pterodactyl.In some ways, this session of Cooking Lab has been the most challenging to recap. We covered a lot, but (if you’ll excuse the pun) it boiled down to two simple words: fat and fond.

Continue reading

Facing Fears – The Cooking Lab, Part 2

What intimidates you when you cook? For me—and plenty of others if the rest of my classmates were any indication—the fear of burning a dish is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to cooking intuitively. That was essentially the fear we confronted last week.

Examples of dry cooking methods

Officially the topic was understanding the parallels in dry cooking methods—mainly sautéing and roasting—to get that good, tasty brown crust on the outside with an evenly cooked interior. We learned the science of why it’s harder to get evenly cooked meat straight out of the fridge (let meat rest at least an hour at room temp before cooking) or straight off the pan (meat continues cooking off the heat). We learned how water slows down browning; that’s why it’s so important to pat meat and vegetables dry. Continue reading

Taste vs. Flavor – The Cooking Lab, Part 1

Indulge me a second: get a handful of Sour Patch Kids, close your eyes, and plug your nose. Pick a “kid” and chew it. What do you taste? Sour? Sweet? Anything else? Unplug your nose. Now what does it taste like?

In case you missed it on Facebook, I just started taking the new Cooking Lab series from The Chopping Block. Shelley, the owner and chef, wrote a fantastic post about the background for this class. I consider myself skilled enough to follow a recipe, even to make adjustments here and there; I can (more or less) put together a meal based on what I have in my fridge or cupboard. But I want to know how this all works. Shelley’s article gets at why I rarely take cooking classes and why I’m so incredibly excited for this opportunity.

I want to know why certain flavors go well together. How do different cooking methods complement different flavors or ingredients? If something tastes too sour, too sweet, too bitter, how do I fix it? Shelley calls this “intuitive cooking;” to me, knowing how to answer these questions will improve my cooking and, hopefully, how I write about food as well.

I wish I had the time and space to share everything I’m learning, but I thought it would be fun to share one or two of the best lessons from each class. First up, taste versus flavor and using herbs and spices.

Our teacher, Shelley, at The Chopping Block Continue reading

To-may-to, ta-mah-to

Last weekend I found myself channeling my amazing Italian grandmother as I stood over 30 pounds of tomatoes I kind-of sort-of accidentally-on-purpose brought home. I’m sure this would have been nothing to my grandma in her canning prime (I remember what the cellar of my grandparents’ farmhouse looked like, and the shelf my dad tells me my grandpa built especially for her and her jars), but this was only the second year I’ve put up tomatoes. Go big(ish) or go home, right?

I need to buy stock in the Ball company

It turned out to be a pretty awesome success and I managed to put them all up in one perfect fall Sunday, even with occasional breaks to watch the Browns get their first win and the Bears beat the pants off the Steelers. By the end of the night, I had 22 jars of various sizes and only 2 tablespoons left in the pot. I call that a day well spent.

I had enough tomatoes to experiment with, so I wanted to try three different styles: whole, crushed, and sauced. I found that each style has its pros and cons, but it’s worth making a little of each. As for the type of tomato to use, I like Romas because they’re on the smaller side, which makes them easier to get into jars, and don’t have a ton of water that needs to cook out later, but you can use whatever tomatoes you like to cook with.

So many jars

Since it didn’t occur to me to take in-progress pictures, I’ll try to add some after the few final jars I plan to put up this weekend (just one more basket of tomatoes, I swear!). Otherwise I see a whole lot of pasta sauce in my future, thankfully my dad also sent me his old pasta maker. Or chili. I have plans…

**Quick note–These acidification, headspace, and timing guidelines all come from the National Center for Home Food Preservation, which is a fantastic resource on canning in general. You can also check out my Canning 101 post from last year for some tips.**

Whole or Halved Tomatoes

Pros: About as straight-forward as it gets. Whole tomatoes have the least amount of hands-on time (though that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the fastest or most fool-proof, see Cons). They can be transformed into crushed tomatoes or sauce depending on what you decide to make later.

Cons: While they’re faster to get into the jars, they take twice as long to process compared to sauce or crushed tomatoes. They also seem to have a higher chance of not sealing due to the air bubbles that inevitably get trapped in the tomatoes. It’s also hard to get whole tomatoes in anything smaller than a pint jar (very annoying if you’re left with just three and a half peeled tomatoes).

How to: Cut out the tomato stem, cut an X in the skin, quickly blanch in boiling water, and peel off the skins (reserve if you plan to make sauce).

To each hot, prepared jar add 1 tablespoon of bottled lemon juice per pint (a 1/2 teaspoon of salt per jar is optional). Press tomatoes into jars until the spaces between them fill with juice, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Remove any air pockets in the jar and adjust headspace by adding tomatoes as needed (halve or quarter a tomato as needed). Process in a boiling water bath for 85 minutes.

Whole tomatoes in their own juice (some of the liquid siphoned during canning, but as long as the jar seals, it’s ok).

Crushed Tomatoes

Pros: After canning whole tomatoes exclusively last year, crushed tomatoes might be my new go-to. They’re forgiving in terms of the amount of tomatoes you have and the size of jars you want to use (anything from half pints to quarts will work), and you can used any remaining whole tomatoes (or jars that didn’t seal) to make crushed tomatoes. I also think it feels less rushed than the process for whole tomatoes.

Cons: Really all I can come up with is that it’s a bit messier than canning whole tomatoes.

How to: Cut out the tomato stem, blanch, and peel (save skins for sauce).  Quarter enough tomatoes to measure about 2 cups. Transfer to a large saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Crush tomatoes to release juices.

Continue cooking at a simmer, stirring occasionally, while adding additional peeled, quartered tomatoes as you go. Continue until all tomatoes are added, then boil gently for 5 minutes.

To each hot, prepared jar add 1 tablespoon of bottled lemon juice per pint. Pack tomatoes into jars until the spaces between them fill with juice leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Remove any air pockets in the jar and adjust headspace by adding tomatoes as needed. Process pints in a boiling water bath for 35 minutes.

Crushed tomatoes with a lone air bubble.

Tomato Sauce

Pros: Tomato sauce has the potential to use up almost the entire tomato (skins and all), producing the least amount of waste. It’s also easy to adjust the thickness of the sauce depending on how long you let the sauce cook down on the stove before canning, and using the skins also helps to make a thicker sauce. Finally, you don’t have to go through the process of blanching and peeling tomatoes (my least favorite part of the process)

Cons: If you don’t have a good food mill or don’t feel like pressing the sauce through a fine sieve, this is probably not going to be your favorite method.

How to: Wash tomatoes very well. Quarter 6 tomatoes and place in a large saucepan. Crush tomatoes and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring to avoid scorching. Add more quartered tomatoes (and any leftover skins from making whole or crushed tomatoes), stirring and crushing as you go. When all tomatoes have been added, boil, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes are soft and juicy, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat.

Working in 2 cup batches, blend tomatoes, skins, and seeds until the sauce is as smooth as you can get it (it won’t be perfect). Press through a fine sieve or food mill to remove large bits of skins and seeds. Discard skins and seeds.

Return sauce to the pan and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring frequently. Reduce heat to medium-high and boil until volume is reduced by at least one-third for a thin sauce. For a thicker sauce, cook until reduced by half.

To each hot, prepared jar add 1 tablespoon of bottled lemon juice per pint. Pour sauce into jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace (note this is different than for whole or crushed tomatoes). Remove any air pockets in the jar and adjust headspace by adding sauce as needed. Process pints in a boiling water bath for 35 minutes.

Sauce made with whole tomatoes, including the skins.