Second Annual Clash of the Cooking Crews a Success!

My second annual Clash of the Cooking Crews at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital here in Michigan kicked off last week, and it was another fantastic success getting kids engaged with cooking and learning. Thanks to the Detroit Free Press for the write-up!

While Milford Muir took the top spot, all the kids came away winners, said Prepolec, who coached all the teams before and during the contest.

“They all did awesome, and all had nice presentations,” he said. “What was cool is they all did one egg omelet and realized it’s filling.” — Detroit Free Press

WXYZ-TV Channel 7 also came out to cover the event. . . Check out the kids in action learning how to cook healthy in the clip.

To learn more about Clash of the Cooking Crews, please visit the main website!

Are You Yearning for the Great Flavor of Mushrooms?

With Morel season just beginning my taste buds are yearning for some great mushroom flavor. With this really crummy weather, the season has been slow in arriving, so I’ve been making some mushroom duxelle to top my steaks and burgers and fulfill my desire for the taste. Mushroom duxelle is simply rough chopped mushrooms that are sautéed and then reduced with some liquids to make an incredibly flavorful sauce. It’s not overly saucy, but rather coats the mushrooms with just enough extra liquid to cover the meat it is served with.

Here are the tips: Clean and dry your favorite mushrooms and cut them into quarters or halves if they’re small. Get a large frying pan really, really hot. Then add a very small amount of vegetable oil (like one tablespoon). Toss the mushrooms in the pan and don’t stir them. The mushrooms will actually start to softly squeak as they initially shrink from the high heat. This technique is important, because it keeps the liquids from oozing out of the mushrooms and it lets you get a nice caramelization on them.

Once the mushrooms are cooked, add about a cup of Madeira or Marsala wine and reduce it until it is almost dry (au sec). Then add a cup of cream and once again reduce it in half. Then season with salt and pepper to taste. This stuff tastes incredible and will top a steak, chop or even a breaded eggplant and turn it into heaven!

Homemade Dessert? Or Bought From a Pastry Shop?

apple-pieI saw a killer-looking dessert the other day. It truly was visibly impressive. I HAD to have come out of a pro pastry shop. I still had that delicious dessert on my mind, and though that it quite possibly could be an incredibly easy dessert to whip up yourself if you don’t mind using store-bought ingredients.

So for those who are looking for a simple approach to impressing your guests, here’s what I would recommend: Buy a good quality apple pie. Turn the pie upside-down on a serving platter. Buy a very good quality caramel and chocolate sauce. Heat the sauces to soften them and pour them alternately on top of the upside-down pie. Then take a can of mixed nuts, or any nuts you prefer, and while the sauces are still warm, spread a healthy helping on top. Let the sauces cool to a thick consistency and serve.

This desert will wow your guests and it will taste incredible, and it just called for a little creative thinking. I strongly encourage you to make your own dessert next time around, if for no other reason but because cooking is fun and inventive!

Getting Creative with Mac and Cheese

It seems that for years, macaroni and cheese was something you fed to your kids that was made out of a box or something they had at their favorite cafeteria. Over the last several years, mac and cheese has made a tremendous resurgence — it’s become a staple on barbecue menus as well.

Then it got even more fashionable as chefs decided to add lobster to this home-down, low-cost goodie and charge a hefty price, classing it up and billing it the quintessential comfort food. It is kind of funny because classical chefs often shudder at the thought of mixing seafood and cheese (it is a sad paradigm, but a strong one nonetheless).

Well, mac and cheese IS one of the classic comfort foods that really gives you the opportunity to be creative. Besides adding seafood or pork products such as ham or bacon there are countless combinations of cheese that can add a phenomenal taste experience. And to experiment with these cheese combinations is really easy if you know the basics. I have seen some very good diners toss grated cheese into already cooked noodles and then pour a custard mixture (one egg or two eggs per cup of milk whisked together and seasoned), top it with bread crumbs and bake it. This does work well and it gives you kind of a custard-y creaminess. But I’m not crazy on how this process actually mixes the cheeses.

The classic way is to make a cheese sauce, which is referred to as a Mornay sauce. A Mornay sauce is just a Béchamel sauce with cheese melted into it; a Béchamel sauce is considered one of the five “mother sauces.” Béchamel is a fancy name for a white sauce and is made from finely chopped onions (or shallots) butter, flour and milk. You simply sweat the onions in the butter and add the flour. Stir that for a few minutes and then add the milk while whisking constantly. As it comes to a simmer it will reach its full thickness (you can strain out the onions at this point, but it isn’t necessary). Once you have it to this point you can start mixing in grated cheeses at your pleasure. Get creative and see what you come up with. Salt, pepper and a little cayenne are the usual suspects for seasoning. In fact try it with some of the small leftovers of cheese that inevitably accumulate in your cheese drawer and save some money as well. Next thing you know you’ll be naming a mac and cheese dish after yourselves!

Gardening 2014: What I’m Planting This Year

tomatoes_0093It’s garden-planting time again and I’m excited. The length of this winter and the coolness of spring have been onerous and my cabin fever is busting out. It’s finally time to put some wonderful ingredients in the ground and watch them grow.

My gardening skills have really ramped up over the past few years. Tomatoes, peppers, herbs and eggplant are now staples that are reliable and plentiful. But last year I added kale and arugula and tried cilantro again with limited success. This was for various reasons.

I planted kale in a planter and it just wasn’t enough. I need a small patch in the garden. The arugula I planted last year was rocket arugula and it just wasn’t the right kind. I really love baby arugula, and this year I’m going gang busters on getting a good crop. The light bitter taste is an incredible foil for fresh fruits and tangy cheeses such as chevre. Cilantro seems to be the holy grail for me. It starts off good and then just turns to seed and thins out. I need to do some homework because I need more!

Making fresh salsa is one of the pure joys I get out of my garden. My tomatoes and my peppers are perfect for the cause, but I’m tired of having to buy cilantro because my crop is a bust. But this year, I feel a winning streak coming on. And this year I’m going to grow some zucchini. We don’t eat a lot of zucchini because I burned my family out on it many years ago. They cried ‘no mas.’ But I have a new strategy. Instead of growing it for the full grown fruit, I’m going to cut the blossoms early and stuff them. Stuffed zucchini blossoms are the real deal and I’m going to grow a plant just for that.

So as you can see my enthusiasm is bubbling up for a good harvest. Go out and get your hands in some dirt and have some fun too!

Boost Nutrition with a Power Smoothie!

strawberriesPower smoothies can be quite tasty and a great way to build nutrition into your diet. My wife encouraged me a few months back to try some smoothies for breakfast instead of my traditional single egg. I liked the idea, and after purchasing a capable blender (Vitamix) I started kicking them out.

I always use some amount of frozen fruit, so ice isn’t necessary (usually its blueberries). I find smoothies to be very robust; you can throw just about any fruit in them and they turn out pretty good. But following my wife’s suggestions I made sure a handful of “super foods” were in the base. For starters, I always have a cup of raw kale, flaxseed and blueberries in my smoothies. (If that doesn’t scream healthy, nothing does.) When I started making them I would add some orange juice to help it mix, but I have switched to organic carrot juice and it tastes great. My core fruit combination for flavor is strawberries, pineapple and banana. Whip that all together and you get delicious, filling and healthy all in one glass.

For extra measure I try to make it a light meal right after a workout instead of for breakfast. The body absorbs nutrients more readily for about a half an hour after exercise. Power smoothies have been a really pleasant addition to my diet. It’s flavorful and it seems to give me a little extra energy. Try it yourself!

Tips for Making a Quick and Tasty Bolognese

bologneseWhen I have excess ground beef in my fridge, and the family has had enough burgers for a while, I often take that meat and turn it into Bolognese sauce. I don’t eat a ton of it myself, because I’m not interested in investing in a new and larger wardrobe. But I love the flavor (I taste quite a bit of it while I’m making it). It’s one of my kids’ favorites and always gets chowed down quite readily.

There are a few simple tips to making Bolognese (meat sauce or ragú are also common terms) and they basically involve a little patience in the kitchen. The foundations of these sauces are ground meat (beef or Italian sausage most typically), mirepoix with garlic (a combination of diced onions, carrots, and celery, which is also referred to as soffritto), tomato paste, tomatoes, wine and herbs (usually basil).

To make these sauces really tasty you need to brown or caramelize every element sequentially until you deglaze with wine and add the tomatoes and herbs. So you start with the miropoix and sauté it until it gets a consistent light brown hue (not burnt!). Typically the meat is added second and browned and cooked until all the liquid has been evaporated. Then you add the tomato paste and let that turn slightly brown and it starts sticking to the bottom of the pan. This process is called “pincé” in classical terms. Using a wooden spoon, keep rubbing the bottom of the pan to build up the brown without burning the tomato paste. These steps are the foundation and will bring you a great sauce.

I vividly remember Food Network Chef Anne Burrell telling of her time doing an apprenticeship in Tuscany and being scolded by her mentor because her vegetables (mirepoix) were raw in her sauce. She simply hadn’t cooked them long enough to develop their sugars. So heed the lesson and go make some exquisite sauce of your own.

One last tip. When you’re finishing the sauce with salt and pepper for seasoning, remember to balance the acid in the sauce with a pinch of sugar. This will depend on the acidity of the tomatoes, but do it to taste and see how it adds a beautiful balance.

Try these recipes featuring Bolognese sauce: