My All-Time Favorite Guacamole

This post goes out to my dear friend and fellow home chef, Ron Burmeister, who showed me this method for making some stunningly delicious, garden fresh homemade guacamole with nothing but a chef’s knife, a cutting board and a spoon.

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I generally make one avocado’s worth of guacamole for every two people I plan to serve. Here are your proportions to scale for each avocado you use:

  • 1 avocado
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 tbsp. minced red onion
  • 1 tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 tsp. fresh lime juice
  • Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
  • Small pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)

Start by cutting the avocado in half lengthwise and removing the pit. Using the tip of your knife, carefully make a few cuts into the flesh of the avocado across and then down, and scoop it out on to your board with a tablespoon. Mince the garlic clove and then use the flat of your knife blade to mash it into a paste.

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Now combine all the ingredients and begin to roughly chop up the avocado, occasionally scooping and blending everything together, until it reaches the desired consistency. I like mine somewhere between chunky and creamy, like so:

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When you’re done, scoop the finished product into a serving bowl and voila!, you have some delicious, super fresh guacamole to enjoy as a dip or as an accompaniment to your favorite Mexican cuisine, in this case some chorizo tacos. We munched those bad dogs down with a big happy grin on our faces, and can’t wait to do it again. I hope you’ll enjoy this one as much as we do. Until next time: Eat well, my friends!

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Pie Practice

Here I am again, coming off another long stretch of dereliction of my blog-posting duties. In my defense, the last month-plus has involved an extended vacation, complete with the indescribable joy of hurricane evacuation traffic (that’s sarcasm, in case you were wondering), followed by a lovely ten-day visit from my out-of-state daughter, and whirlwind efforts to get Lolly’s personal training business off the ground.  Here’s a link if you want to pay a quick visit.

Despite all that, I have been in the kitchen more than a few times.  Today, in fact, I had the privilege of teaching a class at Williams-Sonoma on pie-baking, which will be the subject of today’s missive.  In the interest of full disclosure, however, I must say that my bookish understanding of pies far outweighs my actual practical experience in pie-baking.   There’s a reason for that. You see, for the past 26 years I have been married to a diet and fitness nut.  Lolly tends to be (how can I say this diplomatically?) very “particular” about her diet.  She frequently informs me that the things I eat will make me fat, or cause me to die a thousand horrible deaths, or make my brain ooze out my ears in my old age.  As you might expect, I have gotten very good at ignoring her about all that.

Thus, you may be surprised to learn that, whatever her other dietary hang-ups, Lolly loves pie — but only as a theoretical construct.  She loves the idea of pie far more than the actual eating of pie.  She loves the acquisition of pie, whether home-made or store-bought, and she loves the presence of pie in our home.  Sometimes she may even deign to partake of a tiny slice of the devilish stuff.  But after just one solitary nibble, that pie is on its own. It falls to yours truly to undertake the herculean task of polishing off that bad puppy, to save it from a fate in the wastecan.  And then she wonders why I get fat.

I say all that to illustrate that I don’t do a lot of pie baking at home. So when the store manager asked me to do a class on from-scratch pies, I thought it wise to make a little practice run, particularly considering that they were providing a formula for the pie crust that deviated from conventional wisdom. You see, normally pie dough is tricky to work with at best, and normally must be kept very cold to achieve good results. That involves refrigerating the dough at least for a few hours before rolling it out to form the crust. Today’s method, however, dispenses with that heretofore indispensable practice, so you can understand why I might raise an eyebrow.

Nevertheless, it works.  Both at home and in today’s class I enjoyed great success with this pie method and wanted to pass it on to you.  This recipe is for apple pie, but obviously you can substitute any fruit filling you like.

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So here goes…

For the apple filling:

  • 4 lb. whole apples
  • ½ cup light brown sugar (firmly packed)
  • 6 tbsp. sugar
  • ¾ tsp. cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • ¼ tsp. nutmeg
  • 2 tbsp. cornstarch
  • 1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice

For the pie crust:

  • 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tbsp. sugar
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 8 oz. cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
  • ½ cup ice water

And for the final assembly:

  • 2 tbsp. cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
  • Egg wash made of 1 egg and 1 tbsp. water, well beaten
  • 4 tsp. sugar

A few of the necessary tools:

  • Apple corer/slicer
  • Sharp kitchen knife
  • Dutch oven
  • Large mixing bowl
  • Pastry cutter
  • Rolling pin
  • Wax paper

When making a fruit pie there are three main stages: 1. Make and cool the filling; 2. Make the crust; and 3. Assemble and bake the pie.

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First, preheat your oven to 400, then let’s start with the apple filling. Peel the apples, then core and cut into the desired shape and size. Some folks like slices, others like hearty chunks of varying sizes, and still others prefer their filling cooked down to something closer to a jelly. Whatever floats your proverbial boat – it’s your pie, after all. Do whatever makes you happy.  The same thing goes for your choice of apples. I made one pie with a blend of fuji and gala, and two others with all honeycrisp.  All three were amazingly delicious.

In a Dutch oven combine your cut apples with all the other ingredients except the lemon juice.  Cover the pot and cook over medium flame until the apples reach the desired degree of tenderness, stirring occasionally.  The “textbook” says cook them al dente, but I like mine a bit softer than that.  Whatever your preference, as the apples are nearing the end of their cook time, remove the lid, reduce the heat to low, and cook uncovered for the last 5 minutes or so to let the sauce thicken a bit. Remove from the heat, stir in the lemon juice, and allow the filling to cool to room temperature, which will likely take a good hour or more.  Needless to say, the requirement for this cool down time can make it helpful to pre-make your filling before baking day and set it back so it’s cool and ready to go when you need it.

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Moving on now to the pie crust.  An essential principle to keep in mind when making your crust is this:  cold is your friend. That is because butter is a key component of the dough and you want to keep it from softening too much or even melting.  For example, when cutting the butter in to cubes, try to limit contact with your fingers to avoid softening the butter.  Also, in a pie crust we want to minimize gluten development, and keeping things cold is a good way to do that.

In a large mixing bowl, combine all the pie dough ingredients except the water. Using a pastry cutter, work the butter into the dry mixture, cutting and blending until the mixture reaches the consistency of a coarse meal. The larger chunks of uncut butter should be no larger than pea-sized. Don’t work it so much, however, that it becomes sandy in texture. You want some of those small chunks of butter to promote a flaky finished product. When you reach the desired consistency, add the water, spreading it out in the dough as much as possible, and stir it in with a fork until the dough begins to pull together.

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Now comes the fun part, rolling out the dough and getting it into the pie plate. In my experience, wax paper is your best friend for this step.  Lay a sheet of it on your work surface and turn the dough onto it. It will still be dry and loose, so use your hands to shape and compress it into a ball. Cut the ball in two pieces and set half aside for the moment – this batch makes both the top and bottom crusts, so we’ll work each one separately.  Lay another sheet of wax paper on top of the first ball, press it into a rough disk, then roll it with your rolling pin. Work from the center to the outer edges to form a circular shape at least 12 inches in diameter, and of an even thickness between 1/8 and 1/4 inch. Carefully peel off the top layer of wax paper, and use the bottom layer to lift the crust and center it in the pie plate. Make sure the crust is gently settled all the way into the bottom of the plate around the entire circumference. Using a sharp knife, cut away the excess dough overlapping the edge of plate, leaving enough just to reach below the lip.

Now repeat the rolling procedure with the top crust. However, after removing the top layer of wax paper, we’re going to cut some leaf-shaped vents in it, and reserve the leaves for a decorative touch. With that, it’s time for the final assembly of our pie.

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Into your crust-lined pie plate, pour your cooled fruit filling. It is extremely important that you not pour hot filling into your unbaked crust – this will unleash the hounds of doom in the form of a soggy, poorly formed bottom crust when it comes out of the oven. Next, sprinkle the remaining 2 tbsp. of cold butter cubes over the filling then lay the top crust over your pie, making sure it is properly centered. Again, use your knife to cut away the excess. When that is done, use your thumb and first two fingers to pinch up the edge of the crust, working all the way around. Brush the entire pie crust, including the edges, with the egg wash. Position the leaf cut-outs between the vent hole and brush them with the egg wash as well. Lastly, sprinkle the pie top evenly with the remaining sugar.

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With that, this bad boy is ready to go in the oven. It’s a good idea to put a foil-lined baking sheet beneath your pie plate to catch any drippings. Bake at 400 for about 45 minutes until the crust reaches a nice medium brown and the filling is bubbly. Remove your finished pie from the oven, and cool it on a rack for at least an hour before serving.

There you have it, yummy home-made apple pie without too much fuss or muss. The results, if I may say ever so modestly, were stupidly delicious and received rave reviews all around. Even Lolly had two – count ‘em, two! – pieces of my practice pie, and the ones that I baked at the store didn’t last long. Big happy grins all around. Give this method a try for yourself and let me know how it works for you. Until next time: Eat well, my friends!

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Persian Jeweled Rice – A Vegetarian Delight

It occurred to me that over the past couple months I have been severely delinquent about keeping up with my blog posting – life in the big city, and all that – so I thought I should remedy that with a post that is colorful, delicious, healthy and … believe it or not … vegetarian. Lolly and I are just finishing up a two-week vegetarian fast which, by the by, has done wonders for my middle-aged waistline as I close in rapidly on the Big Five-Oh. We made this dish early on, and every bit of it was devoured.

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As the name suggests, this is a traditional Middle-Eastern dish, often served during festivals or other special occasions. The blend of nuts and berries are representative of emeralds (pistachios) and rubies (cranberries), with saffron and orange zest adding a lovely golden color. The base of the dish is basmati rice. For best results, to prevent clumped, sticky rice you will want to rinse it thoroughly before cooking. I usually put it in a large bowl, add plenty of cold water and work it with my fingers until the water turns cloudy. Then I pour off the water and add new, repeating until the water stays fairly clear, which takes maybe five or six rinses. This method will give you beautiful individual grains when your recipe is finished. For this dish, after you are done rinsing, soak the rice in fresh water for an hour before cooking.

Here are your ingredients to make 4-6 servings:

  • 2 cups basmati rice
  • 2 tbsp. milk
  • Pinch of saffron, ground with a mortar and pestle
  • 6 tbsp. olive oil, ghee or clarified butter, divided
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 black cardamom pods
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 12 whole cloves
  • 1 cup blanched almonds (whole or sliced as you prefer)
  • 1 cup unsalted pistachios
  • 2 large onions, sliced thin
  • 2 tsp. of kosher salt, divided
  • 1 cup dried cranberries
  • 3 cups of water
  • Zest of 1 orange, in thin strips

Warm the milk in a small saucepan, remove it from the heat, and add the saffron to let it steep and release both its color and flavor.

In a large, deep skillet, heat half of the oil or butter over medium-low flame and add the bay leaves, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. Sauté them for a couple minutes until the aromas begin to release, then add the nuts. Cook for maybe 5 minutes, stirring only a couple times, until they develop a golden color and are well infused with the spices, then remove them from the skillet and set them aside for now.

Next add the rest of the oil or butter to the skillet, kick the heat up to medium, and sauté the onions with 1 tsp. of the salt until they are well caramelized and even a little crunchy, which will take probably 10-12 minutes. When the onions are done cooking, drain the rice and add it to the skillet along with the nut-spice mixture and the remaining salt, as well as the cranberries, water and orange strips. However, you may want to reserve some of your orange zest strips for a garnish.

Bring this final mixture to a boil, then back it down to a low simmer and cover the skillet tightly. Resist the urge to lift the lid – as long as your heat is back down to low it will finish cooking to perfection in about 15 minutes without needing to stir. When it’s done, give it a quick fluff and remove the bay leaves and cardamom pods. Turn it out onto a serving platter, garnish with your reserved orange strips, and voila! You’re chowing down Persian style – and healthy vegetarian for good measure. We enjoyed this with a big happy grin on our faces as usual, along with a lovely quinoa, orange and fennel salad. Until next time: Eat well, my friends!

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Thai Curry Cod and Rice

Rejoice, ye lovers of fresh cod, and be glad, O connoisseurs of Thai curries, for today the two are one!  For behold, the marriage of these two fine foods has come to pass, and there was much feasting.

Okay, that’ll be enough of that nonsense. The point is that this one-skillet dish pulls together one of my favorite varieties of fresh fish with the rich, spicy goodness of a creamy Thai red curry over a hearty bed of rice and vegetables, finished with a note of bright citrus.

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This recipe will feed 4 hearty souls with probably a bit leftover:

  • 2 tbsp. peanut oil
  • 1 ½ cups long-grain rice
  • 8 oz. white button mushrooms, stemmed and sliced
  • 1 can (8 oz.) sliced bamboo shoots
  • 2 tsp. fresh grated ginger
  • 3-4 green onions
  • 2 ¼ cups water or unsalted chicken stock
  • Fine sea salt and white pepper to taste
  • ½ cup coconut milk
  • 2 tbsp. red curry paste
  • 1 ½ to 2 lbs. skinless cod loins, cut into 2” chunks
  • Lime wedges for garnish

A quick note about your knife work: separate the whites of the onions from the green tops. Slice the whites into rounds, and then slice the green tops on the bias, as these latter will be part of your decorative garnish.

In a large straight-sided skillet, heat the oil over medium flame, then add the rice, mushrooms, bamboo, ginger and onion whites, and sauté for about 2 minutes until the mushrooms begin to sweat and the ginger becomes aromatic. Add the water or stock, along with a generous pinch of salt, bring it to a boil, then back the heat down to low.

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Cover the skillet and let it simmer for about 10 minutes until most of the liquid is absorbed.  Meanwhile, whisk together the coconut milk and curry paste in a bowl. Pat the cod pieces dry with paper towels, and season them with salt and pepper. When the rice mixture has finished its cook time, arrange the cod pieces on top, drizzle with about half the curry sauce, then cover the skillet again.

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Continue to cook on low heat until the cod is tender and flaky, about 10-15 minutes depending on how thick your cuts are. If you’re not sure, temp it with your instant read thermometer to 140°.   When it’s done, sprinkle the onion greens on top, and plate it up.

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The extra sauce is available for drizzling, and a squirt of fresh lime juice creates the perfect acidic finish. We both enjoyed this immensely, doubly so because it falls within my definition of a healthy meal. Rather predictably, we munched it down with a big happy grin on our face. Give it a try and experience the joys of home-made Thai cuisine. Until next time: Eat well, my friends!

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Summer Vegetable and Orzo Casserole

It’s a beautiful, sunny summer day here in Cincinnati, so today we’re cooking to suit the local climate. That means we’re keeping it light, healthy and yea, even vegetarian. Today’s offering is a very simple Italian-themed one-pan pasta and vegetable dish that both vegetarians and carnivores alike will find very satisfying. It gives a bed of richly seasoned orzo pasta topped with broiled squash, tomatoes and parmesan cheese, and the whole thing is accented with fresh herbs.

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Here are your ingredients for 4 servings as a meal, or 6 if you choose to serve this as a side dish:

  • 1 ½ cups grated Parmigiano Reggiano, divided
  • 1 cup orzo pasta
  • 2 shallots, minced
  • 3 tbsp. minced fresh oregano leaves (or 1 tsp. dried oregano)
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • Red pepper flakes to taste
  • ½ tsp. Kosher salt
  • 1 zucchini, sliced into ¼” pieces
  • 1 yellow squash, sliced into ¼” pieces
  • 4-5 plum tomatoes, sliced into ¼” pieces
  • 1 ¾ cups vegetable or chicken stock
  • 2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
  • 2 tbsp. chopped fresh basil leaves

Preheat your oven to 425. In a large mixing bowl, combine the ½ cup of the cheese, orzo, shallots, garlic, red pepper and ½ tsp. of salt. Spread this mixture into a 13” x 9” baking dish, then layer the tomatoes, squash and zucchini on top in a shingle pattern. Pour the stock over the vegetables, making sure the orzo is evenly saturated, and bake for about 20 minutes until the orzo has absorbed the stock.

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Remove the baking dish from the oven and switch over to the broiler. While that is heating up, drizzle the olive oil over the vegetables, season them to taste with salt and pepper, and then sprinkle the other 1 cup of cheese over the entire dish. Pop this under the broiler for about 5 minutes, until the cheese becomes brown and bubbly.  Pull the dish back out of the oven, let it cool for about 10 minutes, then sprinkle it with the chopped basil leaves, and plate it up.

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We enjoyed this as a light, healthy dinner as we sat on our back porch and soaked up the summer sun – dining al fresco as the Italians like to say. There were big, happy grins all around. I hope you’ll give it a try and enjoy it as much as we did. Until next time: Eat well, my friends!

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Suppli con Prosciutto e Basilico

I recently bought a shiny new deep fryer and couldn’t wait to try it out on this dish. This is my variation on a classic Italian offering called Suppli al Telefono, which are deep-fried croquettes of risotto stuffed with mozzarella, typically served with tomato sauce. The name, I am given to understand, translates as “telephone wires” and derives from the way the melted cheese looks as you pull these beautiful creatures apart. They make amazing appetizers or even the centerpiece of your dinner plate.

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For this version I decided to add some prosciutto and fresh basil (pardon me if I butchered the Italian language as I tried to name the recipe), but you’re free to choose whatever fillings make you happy. Maybe try them with some other kinds of fresh herbs, or some crisp-fried pancetta, or some seasoned chicken, or maybe a different cheese like fontina, or something more robust like gorgonzola. Use your fertile imagination. Just one small caveat – if you put meat in them, you will want to pre-cook it because the deep-frying process may not do that sufficiently from a food safety perspective. Also, whatever you decide to use for your fillings, be sure that the size and amount allows you to enclose them completely when you shape the suppli.

This recipe involves three distinct steps: 1. Making a risotto; 2. Filling and shaping the suppli; and 3. Deep-frying. Here are your ingredients to make an even dozen of these little beauties, which I am going to call 4-6 servings, depending on how hungry your guests are.

  • 2 tbsp. whole butter
  • ½ medium onion, finely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 ½ cups Arborio rice (or similar risotto-style rice)
  • 5 cups chicken stock, hot
  • 2 tbsp. chopped fresh Italian parsley
  • 1 tbsp. chopped fresh oregano
  • ¾ cup fresh grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 12 cubes of fresh mozzarella, about ½” each
  • 6 leaves of fresh basil, cut in half
  • 4 oz. small-diced prosciutto
  • 1 cup seasoned bread crumbs
  • Tomato sauce for dipping

Step 1 – Make the Risotto

In a deep skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Sweat the onion until tender, then add the garlic and sauté for about 30 seconds until aromatic. Next add the rice and mix it thoroughly so that the butter coats it evenly. Using a ½-cup ladle, start adding the hot chicken stock one scoop at a time, stirring thoroughly each time until all of the stock is absorbed into the rice before adding more. After all of the stock has been incorporated, reduce the heat to low and continue to cook another 10 minutes or so, until your risotto has reached a creamy al dente consistency. Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in the fresh herbs and grated cheese, and season to taste with the salt and pepper.

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Lastly, stir the beaten eggs into the mixture until completely blended. As you can easily imagine, this recipe would be a perfect use for leftover risotto if you happen to have some on hand – just be sure to blend in the eggs as a binder so the rice holds together for you. The next step is to transfer the cooked risotto to a clean flat surface such as a baking sheet or large cutting board, where you will need to spread it out evenly to cool.

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Step 2 – Filling and Shaping

While your risotto is cooling, prepare your fillings. Since I am using prosciutto I decided to pre-cook it – a simple sauté to render some of the fat and add a bit of crispness. Otherwise it was just a matter of cutting up some cheese cubes and plucking a bit of fresh basil from my outdoor planter.

Divide the risotto into 12 equal portions. Using a large flat spatula, lift a portion into one hand, then use the other to add the fillings and shape it into a ball, taking care to enclose all the fillings completely – especially the cheese since that will foul your oil if it leaks out when you deep-fry later.

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Technically true Italian suppli should be egg-shaped croquettes, but I found it easier to just keep them round. As each one is shaped, roll it in the bread crumbs until fully coated, and set it aside. When all 12 are done, you’re ready for the final step.

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Step 3 – Deep Frying

Although there’s no hard rule that says you must use a deep-fryer for this recipe, let me heartily recommend that you do – it’s just easier and will give you better results. If you don’t have one, use a deep straight-sided skillet with enough oil to completely cover the suppli when they are immersed. Either way, you will want your oil preheated to about 350°. Work in batches to avoid overcrowding, and cook the suppli in the hot oil for about 4-5 minutes until they reach the desired level of coloration. Pull them out and let them drain while you finish the others. It’s not a bad idea to keep them warm in a low oven while you continue to work.

When the frying is done you will want to serve these delicious babies up fresh and hot. I used a favorite tomato sauce for this dish, but a nice garlic-butter-herb sauce would also make an amazing accompaniment. Whatever you choose, dive right in and munch them down with a big happy grin on your face. Until next time: Eat well, my friends!

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Steak Monticello

Very recently a dear friend took a vacation to Virginia. While there she visited the Thomas Jefferson estate at Monticello – which, by the by, is a very cool place to visit if you’ve never had the privilege. Anyway, since she knows I love to cook she brought me back a packet of Monticello Herb Melange, a dried herb mixture from the same plants that have been cultivated at the estate for generations. My cook’s mind immediately set about trying to decide on a fitting use for such a worthy gift, and I believe I found it with today’s offering, Steak Monticello.

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As a preliminary matter I thought it would be good to let you know what is in this particular dried herb blend, at least to the best of my ability to reconstruct it. The proportions may not be exact but this should at least get you into the ballpark. The following should make about one-half cup of the dried mixture:

  • 2 tbsp. parsley
  • 2 tbsp. summer savory
  • 4 tsp. basil
  • 3 tsp. majoram
  • 2 tsp. tarragon
  • 2 tsp. thyme
  • 1 tsp. mint

For this recipe I chose a pair of New York strip steaks, and used about half of the herb mixture (about ¼ cup or 4 tbsp). I did two different things with it: a wet rub for the steaks to apply before cooking, and an herb-butter sauce to pour on prior to serving.

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To make the wet rub, use 3 tbsp. of the dried herbs. In a bowl, mix with 3 tbsp. vegetable oil, 1 tsp. of kosher salt and a few turns of cracked pepper.

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Preheat your oven to 400.  Dry the steaks thoroughly with paper towels, and preheat a cast iron skillet with just enough oil to coat the bottom, until the oil is nearly at the smoke point.  Rub the oil-herb mixture onto the top and bottom of the steaks, then place them in the hot skillet to sear.

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After 4-5 minutes a nice crust should form on the bottom. Flip the steaks, sear for a couple minutes on the bottom, use tongs as you also sear the edges, then toss the skillet into your hot oven until the steaks reach an internal temperature of about 135 – about 10 minutes depending on how thick your cuts are.

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While the steaks are finishing in the oven, make your butter sauce. For this I used:

  • ¼ cup whole butter
  • 2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tbsp. dried Monticello herb mixture
  • 1-2 cloves chopped garlic
  • 1 small sprig of fresh rosemary
  • Kosher salt and cracked pepper to taste

Just combine all of these ingredients in a small saucepan and melt the butter over low heat until everything is well blended and the flavors are thoroughly infused, and hold it warm.

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When your steaks are finished in the oven, remove them to a plate and tent them loosely with aluminum foil to rest for about 10 minutes.  Then you’re ready to serve with some of the butter sauce on top.  We plated up with a side of pan-fried russet potatoes and some oven-roasted eggplant and zucchini. Let there be no doubt that we munched these beautiful babies right down with a big happy grin on our faces. Many thanks to Brenda for her delicious gift. Until next time: Eat well, my friends!

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