Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Pan Seared Salmon w/ Horseradish Dill Sauce

It's the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and I know this may seem like a strange recipe to post just before our holiday season kicks off.  However, I am actually making this for our Thanksgiving feast.  See we have a relative coming to dinner with dietary restrictions.  According to my Mom, he can't even eat turkey, which I find kind of unbelievable but if it's true, it's also cruel and unusual.  Anyway, she asked me to help her out and make a healthy protein that would look great on our table and that others may enjoy as well.  This dish popped right into my mind.

In my last post, I mentioned how I tend to cook Salmon in a foil pack and get creative with all of the ingredients I'll add to it.  However, if you talk to any chef and ask them how to season salmon, they'll say two words: salt and pepper.  I believe this to be true especially when it comes to a fresh, gorgeous filet.  So in addition to Asian style and Italian style, I also sear salmon in a pan with salt and pepper.  Then, I serve it with a fresh, horseradish dill sauce for an added dose of flavor.  This sauce looks creamy, tastes rich but is actually healthy due to it's Greek yogurt base.

So if you're in the same boat as me, and are looking for a healthy dish or even a fish dish to serve this Thanksgiving, try this one.  Or make this when all the festivities are over and you're trying to recover from days of indulging.  The recipe serves 4 but I'll be doubling it for our larger party.  Be sure to check my social media pages for the pictures.  @the_single_cook on Twitter and IG or search "The Single Cook" on Facebook.  

Ingredients: (makes 4 servings)
8 oz Salmon Filet, cut into 4 2 oz portions
Kosher Salt, to taste
Fresh Cracked Black Pepper
2 tablespoons Butter
2 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Horseradish Dill Sauce, recipe below


Arrange the salmon filets on a plate or plastic cutting board and generously sprinkle both sides with kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper.  Allow the filets to sit for 10 minutes.

Then, heat the olive oil and butter in a skillet until the mixture is bubbly and almost smoking.  Add in all four filets, skin side down, and allow them to cook over medium high heat for about 5 minutes or until the skin has become crispy and lightly browned.  Gently flip each filet over and sear the flesh side for another 5 minutes or until golden brown.  Remove the fish from the pans to a serving plate, cover loosely with foil and allow the fillets to rest/finish cooking for 5 more minutes.

Serve fillets with Horseradish dill sauce on the side.  You can garnish your platter with additional dill and lemon wedges.  Also, sautéed asparagus and white, brown or wild rice make great side dishes.

Horseradish Dill Sauce

1 6oz container Plain Greek Yogurt
2 tablespoons Mayonnaise 
1/2 a lemon, juiced
3 tablespoons fresh chopped dill
2 teaspoons fresh prepared horseradish
Salt & Pepper, to taste

Mix all ingredients together in a bowl.  Be sure to check the seasonings.  Add additional salt, pepper or horseradish to taste.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Asian-Style Salmon in a Foil Packet

I get asked the question all the time: How do I cook salmon without over cooking it? If I'm looking at someone who is truly nervous and/or a cooking novice I say two words: FOIL PACKET. Sure there are lots of ways to achieve the perfectly cooked salmon. I've nailed the pan sear and there's roasting but all of this takes practice and some...finesse. So when I'm trying to lead others in the right direction, I like to take them down the road that I know for certain will get them where they're trying to go, not the road less traveled. It's the foil packet that's, in my opinion, the easiest, sure-fire way to cook salmon WELL.

Usually when I make these packs, I do a version in a rosemary, lemon and wine sauce. You can check that recipe out HERE. Even though this is one of my favorite dishes, I do enjoy Asian-Style Salmon as well where I marinate the filets in teriyaki sauce and bake or grill it. I wanted to do this version in a foil pack but I also wanted to include my veggies, making this a super speedy meal. So I came up with some veggies that are quick cooking and that would compliment the Asian flavors: carrots, mushrooms, scallions and snow peas. Though the night that I made this, I lucked up and found an amazing "Wasabiyaki" sauce at Harris Teeter (I discuss this below), but no dang snow peas! I was so disappointed in H.T. but I decided to double up on the carrots instead. Just wanted to explain why the snow peas weren't pictured.

Anyway, this is a great weeknight meal. Prep takes about 20 minutes, it all cooks in 25 and clean up is a breeze because you just toss the foil. Plus this meal is incredibly nutritious. Salmon is packed with protein and following my measurements, you get one and a half servings of vegetables and you can always add more. Plus all of the veggies I listed above are so good for you, not to mention the added health benefits of ginger and garlic. So give this a try. The recipe serves two but can easily be doubled. Enjoy!

Ingredients: (Makes 2 servings)
1 cup Carrot Slices or Matchsticks, divided
1 cup Snow Peas, divided
1 cup Baby Portobello Mushrooms, sliced, divided
3 Scallions, sliced, white and green parts divided
4 Cloves Garlic, grated or minced, divided
4 tablespoons Ginger, grated or minced, divided
6 tablespoons store-bought Teriyaki Sauce*, divided
8oz Salmon Filet, cut into 2-4oz portions
Salt & Pepper to Taste
Additional Tool: Heavy Duty Aluminum Foil

*I used a “Wasabiyaki” Sauce I found at Harris Teeter.  I highly recommend it because the wasabi added an extra kick of heat in this dish.  If you like your food mild, simply use regular teriyaki.  If you like extra heat and cannot find this sauce, simply mix a few drops of Sriracha Hot Sauce with the teriyaki sauce.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. 

Tear off 2 sheets of heavy-duty aluminum foil, approximately 12-by-24-inches each, and lay them on your countertop (If you’re just using regular foil, you may want to double up).

Dividing evenly, place the carrots, snow peas, baby bellos, and the white parts of the scallions in the center of the two pieces of foil.  Lightly season the vegetables with salt and fresh cracked black pepper.  Sprinkle a few pinches of ginger and garlic over the vegetables.

Next, top the veggies with the two pieces of Salmon.  Lightly season the filets with salt and pepper and sprinkle remaining garlic and ginger on top.  Carefully transfer both pieces of foil with the fish and veggies to a large baking pan or cookie sheet.  

Gently fold up the sides of the foil to partially cover the veggies and fish (you don’t want the liquid to run) and pour 3 tablespoons of teriyaki sauce over each piece of fish.  Fold the foil completely over the fish and seal the edges to form your two packets.  

Place the pan in the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes.  Carefully open the packets and transfer fish and vegetables to a plate, being sure to pour any remaining sauce over the fish.  Garnish with the green parts of the scallions.  Serve with brown rice or skip it for a carb free meal.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Baked Egg Over Spinach & Grits

This baked bowl of deliciousness all started with me trying to recreate a dish I had at a restaurant.  I don't remember what it was called but it involved polenta, sauteed veggies and a poached egg.  It was so deliciously simple that I thought "I can make this!" (as I tend to do).  Though as many of you already know, I'm a grits girl and no matter how skilled of a cook I claim to be, there are just some techniques I am NOT here for and poaching eggs is one of them.  So when I decided to recreate this dish I replaced polenta with grits and got the idea to bake everything in the oven, including the egg.  This way, I keep the runny yolk but loose all the hassle. Voila!

Though there was one problem: I got a serious craving for this dish on a day that I was low on everything.  All I could find in the way of veggies was spinach and half a red onion.  So unlike the restaurant version, which had all kinds of vegetables, mine was going to be a bit simpler. But like the restaurant version it was going to be meat free.  Even though I knew bacon would be amazing in this dish, I just didn't have any. So I carried on with my meatless meal, being sure to season everything WELL.  You'll find salt, pepper and paprika in the ingredients along with butter and parmesan cheese.  The latter can be omitted if you want to make this healthier but those seasonings and flavors combined with the runny yolk are almost sinful.  And while we're on the topic, the runny effing yolk!  Oh em gee.  It is everything in this dish and even though I thought poaching an egg would tough, I found this method to still be tricky.

See I have made this about 6 times now and I admit that I over cooked the egg twice.  The dish was not ruined, it just wasn't the same.  Overall, I learned that the trick is to have aluminum foil and patience.  The 20-25 minutes that this dish required may feel brutal but don't rush the egg and don't be afraid of the yolk and some giggle.  I'm telling you if you were never a fan of runny yolk, you will be the president of the fan club after this dish.  It's that good.

And before I stop typing I just want to be clear that I typically don't overhype dishes like this. But like I said, here I am 6 baked eggs later and I still may make this again this weekend.  It's becoming my go-to weekend breakfast.  So when YOU make this (cause I know you will), feel free to use the veggies you have on hand or those that you like; this is very versatile.  Also, this recipe is written for one portion (Because it's definitely going in my cookbook for singles) but it's super easy to double or quadruple.  If you do, bake it in individual dishes or use a large casserole dish and serve family style.  Another helpful hint is that you can prep the grits and the veggies in advance, cover with saran and store in the fridge for 48 hours.  When you're ready, pre heat your oven, throw the egg on there and boom! Breakfast!  Though I must admit that when I prepped an extra dish for the next day it ended up being that night's dinner.  Again, it's that good! Enjoy!

1 teaspoon Kosher Salt
¼ teaspoon Fresh Black Pepper
¼ teaspoon Smoked Paprika (or sweet)
1 tablespoon butter, divided
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons red onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 cups baby spinach, loosely packed
¼ cup Quick Cook Grits
1 cup water
2 tbsp Parmesan Cheese (plus more for garnish)
1 egg

Special tools: 
Small “Au Gratin” Dish (click HERE to view online, medium to large ramekins also work)
Aluminum Foil


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a small saucer, combine the seasonings: salt, pepper and paprika.  Then in a small sauté pan, heat half of the butter and the oil.  Add in the red onion and sauté until soft, about 5 minutes, then add in the garlic and sauté for 30 seconds more.  Next, add in the spinach, add a couple generous pinches of the seasoning mixture, and sauté everything together until spinach has just wilted.  Remove pan from the heat.

In a microwave-safe bowl, combine grits and water and microwave on high for about 3 minutes.  The grits should be slightly runny, not too hard as they will continue to cook in the oven.  Carefully, remove grits from the microwave and season them with the remaining butter, parmesan cheese, and a couple more generous pinches of the seasoning mix.  Stir to combine.  Pour the seasoned grits into a baking dish (Feel free to add an extra sprinkling of seasoning as pictured).

Next, top grits with sautéed spinach, leaving a hole in the center.  

Gently crack the egg and add it to the center of the dish.  The egg whites may spread out, but the yolk should be in the center.  Season the egg with the a bit more seasoning mix and then cover the dish loosely with aluminum foil and carefully place the dish in the preheated oven.  Bake for 20-25 minutes.  You are looking for the whites to be just set and the yolk to be runny.  I suggest checking after 20 minutes. If the egg whites are still undercooked, cover and bake 5 minutes more.  When egg is cooked, carefully remove dish from the oven.  Allow to stand for 5 minutes before placing the dish on a plate.  Sprinkle with extra parmesan cheese and enjoy. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Cucumber & Tomato Salad

Ok so 3 things about this recipe:

1. This is a bit of a throwback to my childhood.  My Mom used to make this all the time when I was a kid and it was definitely my favorite salad.  She would simply toss diced cucumber and tomato with Wishbone's Zesty Italian Dressing and call it a day.  As a working mom of two, I will certainly cut her some slack but here I make my vinaigrette from scratch and while doing so, I stumbled upon an amazing dressing.  Which brings me to my next point...

2. This is an accidental "copy cat" recipe.  Like I said, I've always loved this salad and one afternoon when I was at Noodles & Company, I ordered it as a side.  It was a tiny little bowl of cucumber and tomatoes in an amazingly sweet and tangy dressing that I INHALED because I loved the dressing so much.  "What's IN this?" I kept wondering as I ate.  But I couldn't figure it out!

I ordered the salad from then on, but it wasn't until the other week when I decided to make my own cucumber and tomato salad that I finally figured it out.  As I looked in my pantry to make a vinaigrette, I realized (amazingly enough) I had tapped out of all of my vinegars except for one: Rice Vinegar.  I grabbed it, smelled it and figured it would be fine.  I combined it with the ingredients listed below and when I tasted the salad I screamed (In my head): NOODLES & COMPANY!!  That's their secret: the rice vinegar.  And hey, maybe I'm wrong but this tastes just like their version and I found it equally addictive.  Not only did I inhale a few servings, but when I served this for some friends, it disappeared then as well.

3. Lastly, I just wanted to say that even though it may seem like I'm serving you a summer salad right at the beginning of fall, I'm doing this because now is the perfect time to to make it. The other week when I decided to make this, it was because my Mom STILL has tomatoes coming off her vine and probably will for the next few weeks.  If any of you grew tomatoes this summer or have friends or family that did, you may find yourself with an abundance NOW.  And let's be honest, we can get tomatoes year round but I found that when a bag of tomatoes was forced upon me, this was the perfect way to use them up so that they wouldn't go bad.  I hope you enjoy! Oh and if you found yourself suck with a few little green tomatoes, I've got a great recipe for those HERE.

Cucumber & Tomato Salad

Ingredients: (Makes approx 6 servings)
5 medium Tomatoes, 1 inch dice
1 large English Cucumber, 1 inch dice
1 cup Red Onion, 1 inch dice, layers pulled apart
1/2 cup Rice Vinegar
3 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 1/2 teaspoons Dried Dill Weed
2 teaspoons Salt
1 teaspoon White Sugar
1 teaspoon White Pepper
1/2 teaspoon Garlic Powder

In a large bowl, combine tomatoes, cucumber and red onion.  Then, in a smaller bowl, whisk together the vinegar, oil, dill, salt, sugar, pepper and garlic powder.  Pour vinaigrette over the veggies in the large bowl and gently toss to combine.  Cover bowl with saran and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.  The longer this sits, the better it gets.  Just make sure to give the salad a fresh toss right before serving. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Greek Orzo Salad

This pasta salad is the side dish for the amazing Greek entree that I created last week: Chicken Souvlaki w/ Tzatziki sauce. I actually was just going to post the chicken and save the orzo salad for the cookbook (it's actually a round two recipe for my Stuffed Peppers! Good stuff will be in that book!). However, I ventured onto twitter today and saw that Barilla Pasta is requesting that folks share their pasta salad recipes. Since I'd just finished this one, I thought I'd go ahead and post it because I think this pasta salad should definitely be featured. 

Whether you're serving this with other Greek Food or not, this is a winning salad! It's summertime fresh with the veggies and dill and all of the colors will really brighten up your table. Enjoy this one and look out for the other recipes shortly!

Greek Orzo Salad

Ingredients: (makes 4-5 side servings)

1 Cup Barilla Orzo
3 tbsp evoo
1tbsp white vinegar
1 tsp Dijon mustard
Salt & pepper to taste
Garlic powder to taste
8-10 grape tomatoes, halved
1/2 English cucumber, diced (medium sized)
1/4 cup red onion, minced
2-3 tbsp fresh dill, roughly chopped
2/3 cup feta cheese, cubed


Fill a medium sized pot 2/3 of the way full with water, place over high heat and bring water to a boil. Add a generous pinch of salt, then the pasta and cook according to package directions. When pasta is al dente, drain and add to a medium sized bowl. 

While pasta is cooking, whisk together oil, vinegar, mustard, salt, pepper and garlic powder in a small bowl. Pour over warm pasta, then add tomatoes, cucumber, onion, dill and stir to combine. Top with feta and enjoy. This is even better when allowed to chill in the fridge.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Easy Crock-Pot Pulled Pork

Of all of the recipes I've ever written and posted on this blog, I'm thinking this one has the least ingredients.  Just a handful in fact, and that's because I got some serious help from Trader Joes.  I purchased their BBQ/Coffee rub with the intention of trying it out on steak, but then, when I decided to make pulled pork for my 4th of July cookout, it was put to good use sooner than planned.

See, I've made pulled pork in the crock-pot before.  I've tried a couple different recipes.  One where I've made my own rub (meh).  Another time, I simply seasoned the pork with salt and pepper and threw it in the crock-pot with 1 liter of coke (tried and true southern method I found on the net).  Both times, the pork came out fork tender, but I must say that when I made it this way, using the TJ's rub, it was tender and flavorful.

I believe that the flavor not only came from the rub but the onions and garlic I decided to add as well as the fact that I seared the meat first before adding it into the crock-pot.  Also, I didn't use as much liquid as I did when I used coke, because I remembered how much liquid the pork produces on its own.  These subtle choices resulted in excellent pulled pork that got rave reviews at my cookout!  And whenever I get raves, I always feel compelled to share the recipe.  This one is definitely full proof and definitely "semi-homemade."  Like I said, I added fresh onions and garlic to a store bought rub AND I also bought the barbeque sauce (Sweet Baby Ray's for the win!).  So literally anyone can make this.  It's cheap and easy! It would be perfect for your next cookout.  Feed a crowd on a dime!

Ingredients: (feeds 6-8)
5 lb bone-in pork shoulder or pork butt
1 extra large white onion or 2 medium onions
4 cloves garlic
½ cup Trader Joes BBQ Rub, or your favorite (McCormick Packets are great, purchase 2)
1 ½ cups chicken stock or broth, divided
¾ cup vegetable or canola oil
2 cups store bought barbecue sauce, plus more for serving


Preheat cock-pot to low.  Slice the onion and arrange on the bottom of the crock-pot.  Roughly chop the garlic cloves and sprinkle over the onion.   Pour one cup of the chicken stock over the onions and garlic.

Next prepare the pork by placing it on a large plate or cutting board and trim off any access fat.  Rub half the spice rub into one side of meat, flip and rub the other half of the spices into the other half of the meat.  Be sure to cover every inch with the spice and press onto the sides as well.

Allow the rub to set while preheating a dutch oven or large cast iron skillet to  high.  Add in the oil and then gently add in the pork.  Sear for a few minutes or until a golden crust has formed.  Then rotate until browned on all sides.

Once completely seared, quickly transfer meat to the crock pot, placing the meat on top of the onions.  Then, use the remaining ½ cup of stock to deglaze the pan, scraping up all of the bits from the bottom.  Pour the stock into the crock pot, cover and cook on low overnight or for 8-9 hours.

Once cooked, transfer meat to a bowl or deep container.  Pour everything from the crock pot into a strainer to separate the juices from the onions.  Discard the juices, add the onions back to the pork and using two forks, shred the meat.  Mix in the two cups of BBQ sauce and serve with buns, coleslaw and additional sauce.  Enjoy!  

Meat removed from crock-pot.

Strained juices.

Used 2 forks to shred the meat. Though I barely had to. So tender!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Summer Sides, Soups and Sweets!

Happy 4th of July to you all!  I don’t have any new recipes to share, unfortunately, but I do have news! I’ve enrolled in an online writing camp for the month of July called Camp NaNoWriMo.  It’s an online writing community that gives you the tools and support you need to reach your goal of writing 50,000 words in 31 days.  I learned about NaNoWriMo from Meg, my good friend from graduate school, who participated last November to write a novel, which is actually what the writing community was created for.  But lucky for me, they’ve created a camp in July where they invite you to work on any project that you like. 

I’m finally working on my cookbook and this project has perfect timing because I am off for the summer and though my business Popcorn Queens keeps me very busy, what I’m learning from this experience is that you can get so much accomplished in a single hour.  Or, as the "writing sprints" that we’re encouraged to participate in have taught me, in just 15 minutes you can type a lot of words.  So I’m finding the time somewhat effectively, but this is only day 3.  2,535 words so far 47,465 words to go.  I’ll report back at the end of July and post any significant dishes on the blog throughout the month.

In the meantime, I decided to share some of my favorite summer recipes today in case anyone needed inspiration.  Another thing I learned while working on my cookbook is that I have so many recipes on here.  I never thought I measured up to other food bloggers but this is my 66th post and about 50 of them have been recipes.  Regardless of what anyone else is doing, I think that’s a lot!  It’s time for the cookbook.  Anyway enjoy the Sides, Soups and Sweets!

My Summer Sides

I sent this to my Aunt’s 4th of July cookout last summer because I couldn’t go.  Halfway through the day I got a text: “Your Slaw is a hit! It’s almost gone!”  I have to admit this dish is a labor of love (slicing and dicing a ton of apples) but it’s so refreshing and healthy, your guests will appreciate it!

My roommate told me that one of her co-workers had her dying lauging because she was complaining about how much she hates the 4th and what she hates the most: Potato Salad!  It sits out, gets runny and gross, I get it.   Make this German version instead!  Mayo free, best at room temperature and has tons of flavor.

Wont say too much about this except, like my Apple Slaw, my family really loves it.  My Mom even asked me for the recipe yesterday.  Corn is just one of those vegetables that everyone loves and grilling it, only makes it better.

My Summer Soup

This recipe has been in my family for years and I just love it.  I’m even planning on making this in the next couple of weeks because it’s HOT out there!  Another refreshing, healthy option for you all!

My Summer Sweet

I like this recipe for the summer because well, pineapples are tropical right?  (even if they come out of a can) Also there’s no icing.  It can sit on your outdoor picnic table for hours and you don’t have to worry about them.  Plus, Pineapple Upside Down Cake is a crowd favorite on the low.  I never knew until I made these how many people rank it as their favorite dessert.

Please make one or all of these during your holiday weekend or any time this summer!  And Share! Share! Share! (@the_single_cook on Twitter & IG -- The Single Cook on FB)

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

April's Eatin'

I'm down in Florida visiting my best friend. Before I came down, she told me that she wanted to take me on a food tour. Amazingly enough, I've never been on one so of course I was game. She sent me a link to MiamiCulinaryTours.com and out of the 3 or 4 options, we both agreed that the Little Havana Food Tour was the one. We both love Caribbean cuisine and judging from the tour's description, we were going to learn just as much about Cuban and Cuban-American culture then we were about the food. So $56 later, (minus $10 w/ the offer code TWITTER) we were all set for a day of food and fun. 

Throughout the entire 2.5 hr tour, I photographed everything. The food and anything else I thought was interesting. The pictures are below and all I can do is hope that they captured this amazing experience! 

We met our tour guide on Calle Ocho (8th Street) in a contemporary art gallery (one of many in Little Havanna now). We checked out the amazing art and then we were taken to our first stop: El Pub. After we walked past the little window (for coffee to-go) and a huge food counter (for the regulars) we were escorted to a long table in the dining room. Above us, the World Cup was playing and then little shots of Cuban coffee were put before us. Our tour guide said this was the perfect introduction to Cuban Culture. Then came the food! 

First course was Empanadas filled with ground beef and onions. Our guide made a point to tell us that they are handmade from scratch and even though empanadas are really from Argentina (I kind of want to confirm this) they are very popular on Calle Ocho and in Cuban cooking. These were quite tasty! 

After the empanadas, out came our 2nd dish. She said the name a few times and I wish I had written it down, though let's be honest, I probably would've butchered it anyway. But I do know they were Tostones or green plantains filled with chicken. The chicken was cooked in spices with a little tomato and onion. It was quite different but delicious. After eating these I wish I had Guy Fiere privileges because I wanted to go into the kitchen to learn how to get the plantains to form into these little cups. Quite the mystery. 

After El Pub we walked a few doors down to another authentic Cuban restaurant for one of the most famous Cuban dishes: The Cuban Sandwich. I've eaten this sandwich a few times but never like this. On the tour we got "The Midnight Sandwich" which was the Cuban but with a sweeter bread. See just like any other Cuban Sandwich this one had roasted pork, ham, cheese, pickles and mustard. But we were told that this version was created for the cigar makers who would get off work at midnight. They would be hungry and looking for something filling but with some sweetness since it was dessert time. Well a chef created the Sammy you see below and it became so popular that people started asking for it this way; the "midnight" way. I wasn't expecting to like it but it was quite good. The bread reminded me of potato bread and it somehow worked with the other ingredients. 

After eating ALOT, it was the perfect time to take a break from food and explore the other cool things Little Havanna had to offer. The first was a real cigar factory. 

This gentleman Pedro Bello Sr. gets to sit outside of his well known cigar store because he is the holder of the Crystal Leaf Award; the most prestigious in the cigar industry. Mr. Bello is treated as a tourist attraction while his son and grandson continue to hand roll cigars inside. 

Not sure if this is his son or grandson but man he was hot. (I'm a sucker for a nice smile)

After the cigar shop, we walked through Domino Park which was set up for the elders in the neighborhood to play...you guessed it! Dominoes! And chess. The integrity of the park is upheld by a few rules that include: no gambling, no drinking, no weapons, just to name a few. So hustlers were not welcome, just men and women who truly enjoyed the game. 

Now, we were told, it was time for dessert! Our guide took us to a traditional Cuban bakery for a delicious sweet pastry (didn't get the name of this one either) filled with a Guava jelly. She told us this pastry is usually eaten for breakfast, amazingly enough, and the even more popular version has cheese mixed in with the filling. I would love to try that kind but this...it was perfection! 

We left the bakery and ended up in a fruit stand/juice bar. We were given a juice pressed from Cuban Sugar Cane to wash down our pastry. It's pictured below. I was surprised to find it sweet but not too sweet and therefore quite refreshing! 

The fruits available came from Cuba and other parts of the Caribean and South America. A couple folks on the tour purchased some and a few even got  coconut water to go.

Last but not least we ended up in Azucar Ice Cream Shop (azucaricecream.com) for one more round of dessert. This stop on the tour was a bit different from the others. The shop hadn't been open for decades, there was adequate seating and credit cards were accepted. However, this shop is on Calle Ocho because a Cuban-American woman named Suzy Batlle opened it after working in business for years to honor her Abuelita (or Grandmother). Her Grandmother had a passion for creating ice cream flavors with Cuban influence and Suzy wanted to share this deliciousness with the masses. Bless her! 

The flavor I ended up with was Cafe con Leche which, interestingly enough, was topped with Oreos. One word: phenomenal! 

But before settling on that flavor we were told that we could try as many as we wanted and I swear I tried all that were available (about 24 each day) or close to it. Though as you can see from the flavor list, she has created TONS of unique combinations that places this shop far above the average. 

All in all, my first food tour exceeded my expectations. I was inspired in so many ways and it only made me want to do more. I'm hoping to continue this "April's Eatin'" portion of my blog with more food tour and restaurant experiences because any good cook has to get out there and eat! 

Friday, June 13, 2014

My First Cooking Competition


It's been ages since my last post, and I do have some recipes on the way, but I thought I'd take to my blog to share my experience participating in my first cooking competition.  This post is long, but it's the whole story! From start to finish. The good, the bad, and the tasty!

When I saw the email calling for cooks and chefs to compete in the Eat for Charity Event in DC, hosted by the American India Foundation, I knew I had to apply.  They basically were looking for someone just like me: amateur chef with a signature dish who wants to see how good their food really is.

Well that was me all right, and even though I knew that my Shrimp & Grits (pictured right) were definitely considered my "signature dish" and had to be my competition dish, I thought hmmmm "Shouldn't I make popcorn?" I mean, in case some of you don't know, I have a Gourmet Caramel Popcorn Business that needs to be promoted and I was not sure Mama Popcorn Queen would approve of this.

But then I quickly remembered why I chose to go into business with my Mom.  Even though she's tough and wants me focused only on Popcorn Queens, she still knows me better than anyone and she knew that I had to do this.  "Go ahead and apply," she said, "Just try to figure out some way to promote the biz."  And that was that.  I filled out the application and on May 15th I was sent an email saying I'd been selected as a contestant.  At that moment, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  I just knew that I had been chosen and I wanted to win.

As we got closer to the competition (taking place on June 7th) more and more details about the event were shared and I got more and more nervous.  Here were the most nerve racking ones:

  • No cooking allowed on site. No hot plates, no refrigeration.
  • Each contestant had to prepare 150 small plates for 150 people.  Yikes!
  • You had to present your dish to 3 judges, 2 of which are well known chefs in the DC area, the other the owner of a Gourmet Food Market in Dupont Circle (There's your popcorn connection Mom!)

As much as these tid bits of information scared the crap out of me, I decided to embrace them as challenges that real food competitors face.  As I came up with my budget, shopped for 150 people, and planned how I was going to make a dish like Shrimp & Grits OFF SITE, I remembered all the episodes of Top Chef I'd watched where curve balls were thrown at the "cheftestants." I told myself, you always wanted to do this April!  Step. It. Up. 

Two days before the event, I did my shopping at BJ's and my Mom found a great deal on Shrimp at Sysco (6 lb boxes at $8.50 a lb).  I was so excited about this deal, I forgot to ask her if the shrimp were cleaned.  I guess I assumed that they would be the "easy peel," deveined shrimp that clearly I've been spoiled with.  So the day before as I was doing my planning, I figured 1 hour would be enough time for peeling shrimp. -- BIG Mistake.  And I guess my subconscious picked up on this because the night before the competition, I had a horrible dream that everything went wrong.  I wont bore you with the details but I will say that when I woke up, I was so glad I woke up.

Right after my nightmare, I texted my Mom and told her about it.  She gave me the best reply:  "That's just the devil.  You're going to do great," she said. "Just don't go there expecting to win, go expecting to do your best."

It was exactly what I needed to hear, mainly the last part, which I repeated constantly in my head all day.  Especially when my friend Erica and I get to the kitchen, only to discover that the shrimp are not cleaned.  12 lbs of Shrimp that have to be peeled AND deveined.  I put Erica on it while I prepped other things but as we approached the 90 minute mark on the shrimp (remember I'd factored an hour) I had to jump in there and help.  And can I just say, as a side note, deveining shrimp is hands down the most tedious and disgusting job in cooking. #thatisall

Once we got the shrimp done, we were clearly behind schedule but I worked hard to get back on track.  Things were looking up until the point where it was time to cook my grits.  I was cooking them for 150 people and therefore had to use a huge pot.  The one I chose was tall as opposed to wide and what happened was, the grits on the bottom cooked so quickly and lumped together while the ones on top were still "raw."

As I was scraping these large lumps of grits off of the bottom of the pot, I literally thought I was going to cry.  It was 10 minutes past the time we were set to leave and I was feeling like I had to start the grits all over! Then, God stepped in.  Right when I was on the verge of a break down, the owners of Ravioli Revolution came into the kitchen.  (I guess I forgot to mention that Popcorn Queens rents a commercial kitchen that is shared with other food entrepreneurs) The guys came in and were instantly curious about what I was making, since it wasn't popcorn.  I told them but confessed that the grits were a disaster and it was looking like I wasn't going to make it.

"April!" one of them said to me "Grits are just like polenta, you have to whisk em! You can't be stirring the grits!"  He was right.  Any other time I've made grits, I've had a whisk but not this time.  "I don't have a whisk big enough for this pot! I don't know what to do!"  Then he said the magic words: "I have a big whisk in my station.  You're welcome to use it as long as you put it back."

My friend Erica runs over to grab the whisk, she comes back and it was like the clouds parted and the sun shone again! THIS WHISK was exactly what I needed (and just fyi I couldn't even find the whisk they gave me online, this one doesn't do it justice but will give you an idea).  I pulled the trash can over, dumped the big lumps into it and whisked my butt off until the grits were as close to perfection that I could get them.  Erica and I quickly loaded up the car.  We were about 20 minutes late but we were on our way.

We arrived at the venue Mad Momos (pretty cool place) and it was a race to get set up and begin serving.  As I was unpacking, people saw the shrimp and a crowd began to gather right away; good sign! Once I was ready, Erica and I had an assembly line going and started serving our plates.  I got amazing feedback on the dish and after several hours of what felt like hell, I finally started to have fun.  I realized, while serving, that even though cooking is hard work, I really love to do it because I love the joy food brings people and the conversations that come from it.

A guest and his plate. I did 150 of these!

When I had a spare moment, I went around and tasted some of my competitiors dishes.  I got a little worried, but I remembered what my mom said and I knew I had done my best work.  And really, so had everyone else so I knew there was a chance that I wouldn't win, but my friends and brother were there to vote for me and I even had quite a few strangers tell me they voted for my dish for fan favorite! yay!

My sous chef Erica and I toasting it up at the end.
All the compliments and kind words really felt great but at the end of the day, I didn't win and yes I was disappointed but I learned so much.  I learned that I can cook for large crowds. I learned that I do have what it takes to compete.  And I learned that you have to have support to be successful in cooking (and in anything really).  I don't know what I would have done without my friend Erica, my Mom, my Ravioli Revolution Superheros and of course my friends and family that came out to support me.

Overall, I didn't get a win but I'd definitely be selling myself short if I said my first cooking competition wasn't a success!