Tales from the Kitchen: Using a Mandoline

It was the perfect Christmas morning: Presents were all unwrapped, everyone was joyful with their new bounty, and it was now time to start thinking about the family dinner. With a mimosa in hand, we were off to the kitchen.

I begin working on my assigned dish. a Spanish Potato Tortilla. While it is a dish with a number of steps, nothing is overly complicated. Essentially the steps are slice potatoes, fry potatoes, saute garlic & onion, combine everything with eggs, and cook in a pan.

Fast forward about 10 minutes later, and I’m running my newly shortened thumb under cold water, with the hopes that maybe, just maybe, the bleeding will stop. For you see, on this fine Christmas morning I decided to use a mandoline.

Mandoline Slicer

For those not familiar with a kitchen mandoline, it is essentially a plank with a blade in the surface. By offsetting the blade, you can make uniform slices of food very quickly by sliding the food back & forth on the surface. In order for the device to work well, the blade needs to be sharp. Very sharp. Every time I’ve seen one used on a cooking show, the host always cautions “be careful of your fingers”.

I always felt that this warning was only met for kitchen plebeians, surely not for me. Turns out, it was meant for me.

On my second potato, I wanted to make sure I was getting every last slice. That last slice happened to also include my thumb. Because of the nature of the cut and the location, it was a bleeder. Thankfully the local urgent care center was open, and an hour later I was back in the kitchen finishing the dish. On a quick aside: every nurse commented “I’ve seen so many of these cuts, I won’t touch those things.”

Mandoline Thumb Injury

Thumbs-up!

The moral of the story: as much as you love cooking, you are not a professional cook. You do not have the hundreds or thousands of hours in the kitchen that create the muscle memory that keeps you from getting injured. If you ever meet a professional cook or chef, look at their hands – they’re mangled. Their paws are covered in scars, burn marks, and typically will be missing a tip or two.

So, when you’re stepping into the kitchen, don’t be a hero. Use the guard. Take your time chopping. Be wary of hot oil.

 

 

My Relationship with Food

For some reason, this topic has been bouncing around in my head recently. Maybe it has something to do with training for my first triathlon, simply trying to eat better, or the explosion of people praising the benefits of “clean eating”. Regardless of the inspiration, I’ve been feeling the need to discuss my relationship with food and how it seems to drive so many of gastronomic decisions.

CCFA - Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of AmericaWhile I’ve posted before about where I first started my passion for cooking, one’s relationship with food is a different beast. Cooking is about creation and sharing with others; a relationship with food is what happens when you’re plowing into a pint of Ben & Jerry’s after a long week or pushing mashed potatoes around to make it look like you ate more than you did. The first is social, the latter is deeply personal.

Now, I could talk about how I was overweight in my early teen years, but it really started when I was 14. That’s when I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. For those not familiar with this wonderful illness, it’s an inflammatory illness of the intestines. A simple analogy would be that it’s the asthma of the gut… but instead of not being able to breathe, you can’t digest food.

Not digesting food leads to a world of issues: weight loss, loss of appetite, or chronic diarrhea for the food that you don’t vomit. I hope you can see that I’m painting a pretty picture. When someone with Crohn’s is having a flare-up, it usually means that they either vomit anything they eat, or it goes through them faster than a bullet train. The body’s natural reaction is to not want food, as it causes discomfort on a good day or crippling pain on a bad one.

So it was at the age of 14 that I was told that I had Crohn’s and would need to change how I live my life. Oh, did I forget to mention that this in an incurable illness with no known causes? My bad.

Back in the 1990’s, the typical treatment plan for patient in flare-up would be heavy dose of steroids like Prednisone. This was more of a band-aid, as it was simply an anti-inflammatory drug, but it worked in the short-term.

Now, think about twisting your ankle or breaking a bone. Aside from the acute care, you need to rest the injury to give your body a chance to heal. How do you do this with your digestive track? In the hospital, it means nutrients & fluids via IV. After discharge, it means a heavily restricted diet.

One of the side-effects of Prednisone is the desire to eat EVERYTHING. So, here I am sitting in a hospital bed, suddenly feeling better because of the medication and having a huge surge in appetite. But, I’m not allowed to eat, so I would sit there dreaming of food that my healing body wanted. I would often leave the hospital with a list of foods that I missed.

Now I’m in my formative teen years with a relationship with food that looks something like this: I’m healthy and eating what I want, then I start to get sick and food is what sends me into a downward spiral, then I’m not eating, then medicated and hungry for food… Rinse and repeat.

You can see how I became a little conflicted with food. It truly is a love/hate thing, and it took me until my 30’s to realize that I didn’t need to go to the extremes with food, i.e. avoiding it all together then eating every guilty pleasure under the sun until my body raised the white flag.

While I still in enjoy fried, fatty goodness, I’ve been concentrating on how to take the food experiences I love and make them healthier. I’ve used my years of Crohn’s diets as inspiration. I mean, I have 17-years of culinary exposure that includes being vegetarian, carb-free, gluten-free, no-fiber, and more… there are ways to take the beneficial aspects of these diets and make them work in every day life and make good food.

So, this is why you’ll see some posts that are all about things covered with cheese and then others that involve wrapping a hamburger in lettuce. Healthy food can be good, and bad food can be enjoyed. The public just needs to be more conscience about all of this and make better choices. A weekend of fatty fried food should mean that you should have a week of salad. Your choices have consequences, and they need to be acknowledged.

Note: The image in this post is a logo from the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America. If you’re interested in learning more about this disease, please check them out.

Sidedish: Cilantro-Lime Rice

It always seems my downfall in menu planning is the side dish. I’ll take amazing efforts to develop a recipe for the entree, but pay little attention to the supporting cast members. This is really too bad, because it’s often the other items on the plate that make the main dish shine.

Cilantro Lime Rice

I feel like this issue comes from the fact that I like to keep my grocery bill small, and am lazy when it comes to preparation and clean-up. So, I love it when I can pull together a side that really elevates a meal, is cheap, and is super easy to clean-up.

This dish is adapted from Ree Drumond’s recipe for Garlic Cilantro Lime Rice. As I mentioned my laziness above, I removed the garlic from the recipe for super-easy prep, especially since I’m using instant rice from the microwave.

Easy Cilantro Lime Rice

2 cups of cooked white rice (I like the Uncle Ben’s Ready Rice – throw in the microwave for  90 seconds)
Zest of 1 lime
Juice of 1 lime (protip: zest BEFORE juicing)
Cilantro (I’ve found that fresh or dried both work – fresh delivering a lot more flavor)

  1. Cook rice according to directions.
  2. Combine all ingredients

I did say easy…

Credit photo to Ree Drummond

Shrimp Fra Diavolo with Spaghetti Squash

Fra Diavolo is one of my favorite Italian sauces, and the spicy tomato sauce pairs really well with seafood. In fact, I really only see it served as either Seafood or Shrimp Fra Diavolo. The best part of this dish is that it’s super easy to make, and requires basic ingredients.

Shrimp Fra Diavolo over Spaghetti Squash

While pasta is the natural go-to medium for the sauce, I prefer spaghetti squash. Spaghetti squash is a winter squash and usually starts to show in the produce section in late October. To me, it looks a bit like a yellow rugby ball.

The name comes from the fact that the flesh can be pulled out in long “noodles” after cooking. After posting a picture of this meal to Facebook, there was a thread on the various methods of cooking, which really makes it easy to prepare. It can be boiled, roasted, and microwaved. I prefer roasting, as it bring out some more flavor from an other wise bland vegetable.

A 1-2 pound spaghetti squash will produce more than enough “pasta” for two adults, with some leftovers. I think it keeps in the fridge better than cooked pasta, as it doesn’t have the starches or gluten that creates the big ball of cold noodles the next morning. Plus, the slight crunch of the squash noodles adds some great texture to the dish.

Spaghetti Squash
Roasting Spaghetti Squash

As I mentioned, there are several ways to prepare the squash, but I prefer roasting. It’s super easy.

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Slice the squash in-half, lengthwise.
  3. Using a large spoon, scrape out the seeds and core.
  4. Sprinkle the squash with salt & pepper.
  5. Place squash, cut-side down, on a cookie sheet.
  6. I like to then put enough water to come up about a half-inch on the squash.
  7. Bake in the oven 30-40 minutes.
  8. Let cool for 5 minutes, then use a fork to scrape out the flesh

Fra Diavolo Sauce

You can either use un-cooked or pre-cooked shrimp. For convenience , I usually have frozen pre-cooked, shelled shrimp in the freezer. Allow them to partially thaw 10 minutes before cooking.

Also, feel free to experiment with the level of heat. I like to have my fra diavolo cause me to start sweating, so I’ll even add diced cherry peppers.

10-12 large shrimp (about a half pound)
1 can of petite diced or pureed tomatoes (I prefer diced)
1/2 a yellow onion – diced (optional)
2 cloves minced garlic
1/2 tsp. of capers with brine
1 1/2 tsp dried oregano
Fresh basil
Tablespoon of butter
1/2 Tbsp. crushed red pepper flakes
2-2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
Salt & Pepper

1. Heat a large skillet with enough olive oil to coat the bottom.
2. Mix the shrimp, red pepper flakes, garlic, and enough olive oil to coat, in a bowl. Add to the skillet.
3. Cook the shrimp 3-4 minutes until they start to turn pink (if un-cooked). Watch that the garlic doesn’t burn.
4. Remove shrimp from the pan and set-aside.
5. Add the garlic to the pan, allow to soften (3-4 minutes). Season with salt & pepper.
6. Add the tomatoes and oregano.
7. Allow the sauce to simmer for 5-8 minutes. It should start to thicken.
8. Add the shrimp and any juices back to the skillet. Allow to simmer and complete cooking the shrimp.
9. Just prior to removing from heat, add in the butter (optional) and fresh basil.
10. Server over pasta or spaghetti squash.

Photo credit to Steamy Kitchen

Valentine’s Day Dinner

I was lucky enough to have a dinner invitation for Valentine’s Day this year, and my date blew me away with three-course, wine paired feast. Apparently this girl was trying to impress me.

1st Course – A tomato & shrimp bruschetta, served with a dry pinot grigio.

2nd Course – Petite filet mignon with a blue cheese cream sauce, garlic mashed potatoes, and green beans. We killed a bottle of Peju Cabernet Sauvignon with dinner.

3rd Course – Chocolate covered strawberries with prosecco.

Chocolate covered strawberries

Color me impressed.