Tuesday, September 30, 2008


First, a note on why my blogs always seem to go nowhere in the end - I have so many things to get done its hard for me to find the time to write, especially when I've got 60 pages to write for grad class by the end of November. However, I will do my best to find some time to jot down some notes and thoughts about my culinary trials and tribulations. That said...

Sandwiches could be one of the most meaningful invention in history, right up there with the wheel, the atomic bomb and wireless Internet. Meat and other tasty goodness tucked between two pieces of bread? Unreal. The Italians really nailed it on the head with the panino, which literally means "little bread". It should be noted that panino is the singular form, while the ubiquitous panini is the pluralization - it is very bothersome that all the sandwiches at Panera and other places that serve them call them a panini - when one orders mozzarella and portobello panini you should get multiple sandwiches!

One of the biggest misconceptions is that you need to buy a panini press in order to prepare this delicious treat in your own home. Why spend a bunch of money on a huge machine that only has one purpose? Here are the only two things you need, and it's great because you can use these two things for other purposes: a grill pan and a wide casserole pot or Dutch oven. A good grill pan is a great thing, because it lets you do things you would normally do on a grill indoors, so it serves more purposes than just preparing your panini. A large pot...well, you should already have one of those. (Note: any grill pan will do, but the square ones give you more cooking surface)

Here's what you do - cut your bread, put in your sandwich fillings, assemble, preheat the grill pan to medium, then put your sandwiches on the pan. Throw a piece of aluminum foil on top of the sandwiches, put the stock pot on top, and throw in as many heavy things as you can find to press those sandiwiches down. Cook for about 6-7 minutes, flip cook 6 minutes more, then serve. Nirvana in a sandwich.

I usually like to go with a southwest-style panino of smoked turkey, pepper jack cheese, tomato and some homemade chipotle mayo. Steph is true to her Italian roots and prefers roast beef, provolone and some of my sun-dried tomato relish. My mom apparently made one the other day that was bacon, cheddar and apple, which sounds delicious and I may just make it tomorrow for dinner. I'm looking for new flavor combinations - any ideas?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Quick & healthy breakfasts

I love all manners of breakfast meat. Bacon, sausage, Canadian bacon, ham...all delicious fruits of the magical animal that are wonderful in the morning. However, as much as I would love to partake of this tastiness every morning, there are two things holding me back: the time it takes to prepare and the ridiculous amounts of fat that go along with eating them. I'm always on the search for a breakfast that I can prepare very quickly, that has good flavor and substance, and is tasty...demanding, aren't I?

Thanks to the influence of my wife, I've become a big fan of the Vanilla Almond Crunch Special K, but since I'm not a daily milk drinker, the milk isn't always great to my system. I like to eat eggs, but eating too many isn't exactly the best for the cholesterol. Bringing this topic up at lunch one day, one of the women I work with suggested I try what she does - she makes flax seed muffins on the weekends, halves and toasts them with a little bit of butter in the morning (she does this for herself and for her 2 kids).

Reading about flax seeds, it turns out they're super-high in omega-3 and antioxidants and are nice and high in dietary fiber. All in all, a tasty addition to my attempting-to-improve diet. So here's what I've adapted from what I've read:

1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 1/2 cups ground flax seed
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 tbsp baking powder
3/4 tsp nutmeg
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
2 cups milk
1 egg
1/2 cup chopped almonds
3/4 cup blueberries

Preheat oven to 350. Mix all dry ingredients. Beat together the milk and egg. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and mix. Fold in almonds and blueberries. Pour into non-stick-sprayed muffin tin and bake 25 minutes. Let cool 10 minutes in tin, then remove and cool completely.

They came out pretty good for the first time through. I may add a little more sugar or maybe sprinkle sugar on top to make a nice crumbly topping. Can't wait to see how they taste tomorrow morning.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


It doesn't matter how many times I try olives, I don't like them. I should like them, but I don't.

It makes me sad. Damn you taste buds.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A week's worth of bentos

As I'm packing up a new batch of soboro (made with 90% lean beef this time) and finishing up some pulled BBQ chicken, I'm feeling reflective of how the 1st week of bento lunches went.

Time: Except for being lazy with not making the pepperoni/cheese skewers the night before, packing up both Steph's and my lunch usually takes a maximum of 10 minutes. Talk about great when I'm trying to get out the door in the morning.

Portions: The only thing I eat during the day that I don't bring along in my bento is an apple. Not bad. I try to space out when I eat everything over a time period of 11:00 to 1:00, during free moments during my day. Smaller bites more often is good, and one of my coworkers has made it a point to make sure to really talk during lunch so we eat slower. Good stuff.

Taste: I am never wanting or craving anything, as I try to balance the sweet/salty combination of foods. I like eating raisins and almonds, especially, and I've been noshing on dried blueberries from Wegmans, even though they look like rabbit poop.

I've also been cooking so I get more leftovers, which makes me kick myself that I never did this in the past. All in all, a successful first week on the lunch front.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Sesame Grilled Chicken with Peanut Noodles

Made this tonight for dinner - an absolute winner.
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tbsp fresh ginger, minced
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 3 tbsp rice vinegar
  • 1 tsp hot sauce (I used Tabasco)
  • 3 tbsp brown sugar
  • 2 tbsp toasted sesame oil
  • 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (I sliced these into cutlets)
  • 1/4 cup smooth peanut butter
  • 1/2 lb Asian noodles*
Bring water to a boil & preheat your grill to high. Meanwhile, whisk garlic, ginger, soy sauce, vinegar, hot sauce, brown sugar and sesame oil in a small bowl. Take 1/4 cup of this mixture and toss it with the chicken. Add the peanut butter to the rest and whisk until smooth. Add the noodles to the boiling water, stir and cook until done. Drain and toss with peanut sauce, adding soy and hot sauce to taste. Grill the chicken, then slice and serve over the noodles.

Easy, quick and DAMN delicious. I reduced the hot sauce from 2 tsp to 1 tsp, but feel free to play around with it. I think next time I'm going to throw some sliced scallions on top when its finished, just for a little extra flavor.

*We have an Asian market near us, so I got dried Asian noodles that took literally like 2 minutes to cool. You can use thin spaghetti if you don't have access to Asian-style noodles. Maybe even soba or udon would be good.

My Don't-Eat-So-Damn-Much Diet

I'm a pretty big guy, and because I've got a large frame I can pull off a little extra weight without much of a problem. However, I got on the scale about a month or so ago and it hit 240, a number I haven't seen in college. It made me reevaluate all the crap I was eating and the snacking I was doing. Hence, the Don't-Eat-So-Damn-Much diet.

I know it sounds silly, but my biggest problem is that I am hungry ALL THE TIME. So, in order to compensate, I'm really trying to focus on eating smaller meals, more often. I know that eating plan sounds a bit cliche, but its keeping me from wanting to devour an entire cow.

Here are some of my rules for the Don't-Eat-So-Damn-Much diet.
1) Portion control - I try to limit everything I eat during the school day to whatever is in my bento box. Even at dinner, I'm trying my best not to gorge myself (despite the best efforts of my mother-in-law, who refused to accept that I was full after 4 chicken cutlets and 2 helpings of potatoes).
2) Balance - I don't get wrapped up in counting carbs, because I need the energy to keep me going during the day. However, I am trying to get my carbs from better sources such as whole grains and fruits.
3) Hydration - I drink tons of water over the course of the school day, at least a gallon. Combine that with my drinking of water at home, and I'm doing my best to stay as hydrated as possible, which leads us into our next rule...
4) No caffiene - I have pretty much cut out all caffiene intake. No more regular coffee, no more Diet Wild Cherry Pepsis, nothing. Even for the house, I only buy soda that is caffiene free (Sprite Zero or diet ginger ale).
5) Veggies - I really don't like eating most veggies, so I am trying to force myself to eat them and enjoy them.

I know these may sound like the same-old repeated means of trying to eat right, but I'm not imagining the 4 lb I've lost in the last 2 weeks.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Epoisses, king of all cheeses

I'm in the midst of making some more pepper and onion confit, so I'm hoping I don't scorch this batch like I did the last time.

So I was grocery shopping at Wegmans early this morning, trying to avoid the hurricane-overreacting crowd. Now, I will *always* walk past the cheese shop/showcase because A) I love cheese and B) there's a 75% chance they're doing some sort of sampling. Sadly, no such luck this morning, but I did notice they had little rounds of cheese in a wooden little box with a sign that said "Just Arrived". I'm a sucker for signage, so I look closer, and what is it? EPOISSES!!!

It's a cow's milk (unpasteurized!) cheese that is then ripened while being washed down with some local French brandy. It's also hand-scrubbed to make sure all the lovely bacteria get spread all over the surface of the rind that forms. If you want to know more, check out what Wikipedia has to say. When I've had it, I've had it on a tiny cracker with some dried fruit or quince paste. It's creamy and pungeant, with a bit of a tang from the salt and the brandy they wash it with. Quite simply, if you're a fan of cheese, this is the real deal and you owe it to yourself to go try and find some.

Two things you should be warned about with Epoisses:
1) The price: For a little wheel about 6 inches in diameter was $25. It's well worth it, in my opinion, but it is more for special occasions than everyday eating.
2) The smell: Epoisses was voted 'worlds smelliest cheese' back in 2004. It smells in a most delicious and pervasive way, but it will definitely smell up your entire refrigerator if you don't take care of it.

Brillat-Savarin (who was so influential in the development of French gastronomy that they named a cheese after him) referred to epoisses as king of all cheeses. I am inclined to agree.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

First Day of School!

So I woke up a bit earlier than normal for the first day of school (5:00 AM), just to make sure I had enough time to pack up my lunches. Both took 10 minutes, start to finish. Kickass!

My bento consisted of the following:
- Upper left: pepperoni and cheese toothpicks (totally swiped the idea from Leslee over at This Little Bento) and some almonds
- Lower left: Wegmans fat-free vanilla yogurt w/ raspberries
- Right: Soboro over rice with furikake

Steph's bento consisted of:
Upper left: raw red pepper and sugar snap peas
Upper right: pepperoni & cheddar toothpicks
Lower left: onigiri with furikake and baby carrots
Lower right: mini chicken burgers w/ teriyaki sauce

Things that worked:
- Getting everything together in the morning was a breeze since mostly everything was premade.
- Made up the pepperoni & cheese picks the night before...total timesaver in the morning.
- The raspberries and yogurt was a morningtime improvisation, and worked like a charm. The yogurt didn't leak or splash around.
- Steph was able to eat her bento at room temperature, which is the way it is supposed to be

Things to improve:
- I ordered fun reusable skewers, sauce bottles and other stuff. Can't wait until they get here.
- Had to microwave the soboro because the box had to be refrigerated due to the yogurt. Want to figure out an alternative way of packing fruit without needing to keep cool.

Quick shout-out: I know some of you have chatted with me about starting to pack your own bento boxes. Please please please post any suggestions or war stories or what not about what works and what does not. Also, if you're inspired and want to see some good-looking bento and a great blog to steal some ideas from, go check out Leslee's This Little Bento. I've gotten tons of good ideas from her, so go check her blog out!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

First bento!

There's a photo of my first bento, made for Steph this past Sunday. Clockwise from the upper-left are the following:
- Sweet onion and pepper confit, glazed with soy and mirin
- Pan-fried chicken miniburgers, glazed with teriyaki sauce
- 100-cal Chips Ahoy snack pack
- an onigiri sprinkled with some sesame salt furikake

Not as decorative or as fancy as the ones at Just Bento or Lunch In A Box (but definitely check the artistic ones for some amazing work), but it's a start!

Monday, September 1, 2008

Alex's Rule of Cooking #1

As you have probably figured out by now, I'm a big nerd who likes to read cookbooks for fun. However, reading through recipes has given me plenty of knowledge when it comes to cooking. The most important thing when trying to cook anything is to be prepared, which leads us to Alex's Rule of Cooking #1: Always have your mise-en-place ready before you start cooking.

What is mise-en-place, you ask? It's French for "everything in place", and its the first step to being an ass-kicking, name-taking home gourmet. Here's how to achieve mise-en-place nirvana:

1) Read through your recipe at least twice, because many recipes have hidden ingredients written into the method that may not necessarily be in the initial list (this is usually water, salt and pepper, but you don't want to be fumbling for a measuring cup of water when your pot is in serious need of deglazing - have the stuff premeasured!).

2) Have all your ingredients measured and prepped and ready to go. I am a sucker for small, stainless-stell prep bowls, and I've got something like 20 of them in various sizes. Not only can your ingredients be measured out and ready to go, but then can be mixed as needed according to your recipe. Here's a picture of my setup for the soboro that I cooked this morning:

In this picture (clockwise, from the left), I've got the ever-tasty meatloaf mix of beef, pork and veal, the Asian trinity of ginger, garlic and scallions, sesame oil, soy sauce & oyster sauce, sake and sugar. Why not put the aromatics in the same bowl if they're all added at the same time? The same goes for the soy and oyster sauces.

3) Have everything within reach, especially if you're doing quick cooking over high heat. There's nothing worse than having to walk away from the skillet to grab a forgotten ingredient, which will lead to a scorched pan, for sure. It also maintains your organization and allows you to focus on the cooking rather than the ingredients.

Trust me, mise-en-place is your friend. Get everything all set before you turn your stove on, and you'll be preparing meals twice as good and twice as fast as you did in the past.