Mediterranean Improv

It’s been a beautiful sunny day here in the Cincinnati area, and I got to spend the day in the demo kitchen at Williams-Sonoma, followed by a relaxing almost-spring walk around the neighborhood with Lolly.  She is finally near fully recovered from her mishap a couple months ago with my chef’s knife, which means she’s back to her normal workout regimen and a new healthy eating push.  For Chef Dave, that translated into “Make me something Mediterranean and not too fattening.”  Although I have several cookbooks in that vein, tonight’s dinner was improvised based on some ideas I picked up from flipping through those volumes.


On the plate we have harissa grilled chicken, Greek-style mashed potatoes, and sautéed balsamic green beans. These are all super-simple dishes and will come together fairly quickly. I’ll take each of them one at a time, and these are scaled for two diners:

For the chicken:

  • 2 large chicken breast halves
  • ½ cup mayonnaise
  • 2 tbsp. harissa sauce

If you’ve never encountered harissa before, it’s a traditional and fairly common Mediterranean and Middle Eastern relish made of red chili peppers. It’s got some definite heat to it, so use more or less to suit your preference. Harissa is also available in a dried spice form. If you use that instead of the sauce, one teaspoon should be plenty.

Pound the chicken breasts to about ½ inch thickness, then slice them lengthwise into two pieces. Combine the mayo and harissa in a large bowl until well mixed, then add the chicken and stir until the pieces are completely coated with the mixture. Grill the breasts until they reach an internal temp of 165°, which shouldn’t take long at all, and they’re ready to serve.

For the mashed potatoes:

  • 1 lb. russet potatoes
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • ½ cup whole milk
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Juice of ½ lemon
  • 1 tbsp. chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • Kosher salt to taste

Peel the potatoes and cut them into 1-inch chunks. Place them into a saucepan and add cold water until it covers one inch above the top of the potatoes. Bring them to a boil and cook until tender, which should take about 15-20 minutes – I test them by poking with the tip of a paring knife until it meets no resistance. Drain the potatoes and add the butter to melt.

When the butter is melted, add the rest of the ingredients except the parsley, after which you will need to mash the potatoes by any handy means until more or less creamy – I use a handheld mixer. Lastly, stir in the parsley and you’re ready to serve.

For the green beans:

    • 8 oz. fresh green beans
    • 1 medium shallot
    • 2 tbsp. olive oil
    • Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
    • 1 tbsp. balsamic glaze

Partially cook the beans by blanching or steaming until tender but not too soft. Meanwhile, slice the shallot lengthwise into thin crescents. Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high flame, sauté the shallot for about a minute, then add the beans and season them with salt and pepper. Continue sautéing until the beans are tender and develop a little brown color. Drizzle the balsamic glaze over the top, toss to mix and then remove from the heat and you’re ready to serve.


And with that, all three dishes are finito.  For the more adventurous among you, spoon a little more harissa onto the chicken for some extra bazinga.  Plate them up and munch them down with big happy grins all around.  Tasty and kinda-sorta healthy at the same time.  Who knew?!?  Until next time: Eat well, my friends!



My Best Bourguignon Ever (So Far)

You haven’t truly lived until you have enjoyed the indescribable pleasure of a rich, hearty bowl of savory beef bourguignon.  My condolences to all my vegetarian readers out there – you don’t know what you’re missing.  I’ve been experimenting with various recipes for years, and picked up a very respectable one in culinary school, but what follows is an evolving recipe which, with my latest tweaks, recently resulted in my most successful iteration of this classic French beef stew to date.  This dish is an all-afternoon love affair, so plan on at least 4 hours for total prep and cook time.


Here are your ingredients to make six very satisfying servings:

For the main stew:

  • 10 oz. thick cut bacon, sliced into 1” pieces
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 3-4 pounds beef chuck roast, trimmed and cut into bite-sized chunks
  • 20 baby carrots, cut in half
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • ¼ tsp. pepper
  • 3 tbsp. flour
  • 2½ cups full-bodied dry red wine
  • 2½ cups beef stock
  • 2 tbsp. tomato paste
  • 3 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 1 tsp. dried thyme
  • 2 crumbled bay leaves

For the glazed onions:

  • 8 oz. white pearl onions, peeled
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • ½ cup beef broth

For the sautéed mushrooms:

  •  1 lb. baby portabella mushrooms, trimmed and quartered
  • 4 tbsp. butter

 As far as your choice of wine is concerned, you have a lot of latitude. I chose a Merlot because I had just enough in a bottle I had opened the night before, but you’ll also get great results from a cabernet, zinfandel or practically any red Bordeaux.

And here we go. Start by preheating your oven to 325 degrees.

The first step, and an extremely important one, is to remove excess moisture from the beef, as this will prevent the desired browning during the initial cooking step. I do this by coating a large sheet pan with a couple layers of paper towels, spreading out the beef chunks in a single layer, then covering with another layer or two of towels. Let it sit for at least 10-15 minutes, and even help it along with a gentle pat or two.

When that is done, heat the olive oil in a large dutch oven over medium heat. Add the bacon pieces and cook until it is browned and the fat is rendered.  Remove the bacon to drain on a paper towel, leaving the fat in the pan.

Over medium-high heat, brown the beef in the bacon fat for a few minutes on one side. Resist the urge to turn the pieces, and work in batches to avoid overcrowding the pan, like so:


Allow the beef chunks to develop a rich brown sear on the bottom, then remove with a slotted spoon and set aside, repeating as needed until all of the beef has been seared on one side.  Trust me, this works.


Next add the carrots and onions to cook in the remaining fat until they become tender and aromatic. Remove them to join the partially cooked beef (no worries, they’re all going back in together momentarily), and pour off the excess fat.

Return the beef, vegetables and bacon to the pan and season with the salt and pepper. Then sprinkle on the flour, stir through, and cook for about 5 minutes.  Add the wine, beef stock, tomato paste, garlic, and thyme, and bring the mixture up to a simmer.  And with that, it’s time to cover the pot, pop it in the oven, and let nature take its course as you sip some more of whatever wine you used for the recipe.  That reminds me of a joke I saw somewhere recently: “I like to cook with wine. Sometimes I even put it in the food.” Anyway, allow your dish to braise in the oven, covered, for about 3 hours.

As you’re nearing the end of the cook time for the main stew, you will want to start preparing the onions and mushrooms.

For the onions, heat the butter and oil in a skillet over medium heat, and cook the onions for about 10 minutes until brown on all sides. Add the beef broth, cover and cook gently for about 15-20 minutes until the onions develop a brown glaze.

For the mushrooms, heat the butter in a sauté pan over medium-high heat and cook the mushrooms for about 10 minutes, until they develop a deep, rich brown color.  When the cook time is finished on the stew, stir in the onions and mushrooms.


And you’re done!  Adjust your seasoning with some salt and pepper, and serve it up by itself or over some cooked noodles, with a hunk of crusty French bread on the side. We were ooh-ing and aah-ing our way all the way through this dish, with big happy grins all around – definitely my best result yet for this dish.  Give it a try and let me know what you think.  Until next time: Eat well, my friends!



Cuban Comfort Food (by any other name)

My first encounter with today’s dish was during a college tour trip to Manhattan.  We were visiting Columbia University with our son, who was then nearing graduation from high school.  When the time came to grab some lunch we popped into a Cuban joint across Broadway.  Sadly, in the intervening five years the place has closed, but it was there I sampled Ropa Vieja for the first time and was instantly hooked by this savory, bright-tasting meaty concoction.


Recently I made some Ropa Vieja for some friends whom we hadn’t seen in some time.  One of them was born and raised in Honduras, so when I introduced the dish by its Cuban name, she didn’t recognize it.  All that changed, however, the moment she took her first bite.  She instantly brightened up and said: “I know this dish. In Honduras we call it salpicón.  This is just like my dad made it.  This is comfort food for me.”  Needless to say I was deeply gratified at her enthusiastic response, despite the fact that I had cooked up this down-home Honduran fare entirely by accident.

Whatever you prefer to call it, here is what you will need for 6-8 servings:

  • 1 cup beef stock or low-sodium beef broth
  • 1 can (15 oz.) crushed tomatoes
  • 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 green bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 jar (4 oz.) pimentos
  • 4 tbsp. tomato paste
  • 3 cloves minced garlic
  • 2 tsp. dried oregano
  • 2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1 tbsp. sugar
  • 2 ½ to 3 lb. flank steak
  • ½ cup green olives, sliced
  • ½ cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • ¼ cup vinegar
  • Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
  • Fresh cilantro for garnish

You can do this dish either in a slow cooker or using a Dutch oven braise.  Either way, combine the stock or broth, tomatoes and paste, onion, garlic, peppers, pimentos, dried spices and sugar in your cooking vessel and mix well.  Season the flank steak well with salt, and cut it into pieces of about a half-pound each. Push the pieces down into the sauce until they are completely covered.  Cover and cook on low heat, about 8 hours for a slow cooker or 3-4 hours for a Dutch oven.

When the steak is quite tender, transfer it to your cutting board and shred it with a pair of ordinary forks, like so.

IMG_0993 (1)_edited

Return the shredded meat to the pot, along with the olives, cilantro and vinegar. Adjust your seasonings with salt and pepper, then cover to cook for another 30 minutes or so.

And with that, you’re ready to serve it up with a garnish of fresh cilantro.  Ropa Vieja is a great stand-alone dish, but also goes very well over a bed of rice.  We served ours with a side of my signature Cuban black beans, and there were big happy grins all around – even if we were actually eating Honduran food.  Until next time: Eat well, my friends!





Strawberry Pavlovas – Gluten Free Yumminess

Thankfully neither I nor Lolly have much to worry about in the way of dietary restrictions. Yes, we try to keep things reasonably balanced and healthy, and she does have an allergy to kiwi (and also shrimp, if her more recent paranoia is to be believed), but otherwise we eat whatever makes us happy. Occasionally, however, I cook for friends where gluten sensitivity is a problem, so one of my go-to dessert options is Strawberry Pavlovas.


These are basically baked meringue cakes that are made with no flour. They are also very low fat until you put the whipped cream on top. Here is what you will need to make 6 servings:

  • 1 pint strawberries
  • 1/4 cup sugar + 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3 egg whites
  • 1 tbsp. cornstarch
  • 3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3/4 teaspoon distilled white vinegar
  • Whipped cream for garnish (optional)

Preheat the oven to 275 degrees. Line a baking sheet with a sheet of parchment paper.

Hull and chop or slice the strawberries according to your preference, then toss them in a bowl with the 1/4 cup of sugar until they are evenly coated. Refrigerate them until the pavlovas are ready to serve.

In a food processor, mill the 3/4 cup of sugar using the pulse button until it reaches a fine texture (or simply use extra-fine sugar). In a medium bowl, whip the egg whites with an electric mixer until they are foamy, then add half of the fine sugar and whip until stiff peaks form. In a separate bowl, sift the rest of the fine sugar with the cornstarch. Add this to the egg whites along with the vanilla and vinegar and blend until incorporated.


Spoon the mixture into 6 piles on the parchment paper. Use a spoon to create an indentation in the center of each pile.


Bake for 40 minutes, then turn off the oven and leave the pavlovas in the oven untouched for at least another 20 minutes to finish.  Remove them from the oven and allow them to cool completely.

To serve, simply top the pavlovas with the strawberries and pipe on some whipped cream.  These are always a big hit whenever I make them, even for us non-gluten-sensitive types.  The cakes are sweet and crumbly, with an interesting chewiness to the texture.  Prepare for big happy grins all around. Until next time: Eat well, my friends!



My Favorite Seafood Bisque

This week we’re coming off the drama of Lolly attempting to amputate one of her own digits while working in my kitchen last Wednesday evening.  She disrespected my razor-sharp Shun chef’s knife and, not surprisingly, it bit her.  So, after a trip to the ER for some stitches, she has sworn off cooking in any form for the foreseeable future.  But she has not sworn off eating as long as I’m the one taking my chances with those viciously sharp implements of doom that populate my kitchen.  And tonight she wanted seafood bisque.


This recipe is my adaptation of one that I found in an older edition of the Williams-Sonoma Cooking at Home book. Every time I have made this dish so far, it has been extremely well received.  It’s doubly enjoyable because it’s super-easy and comes together in under an hour beginning to end. Here is what you will need for 6 servings:

  • 2 tbsp. unsalted butter
  • 1 medium shallot, chopped
  • 2/3 cup dry white wine
  • 1 qt. seafood stock
  • ¼ cup long grain rice
  • 1 tbsp. ketchup
  • 2 lobster tails (about 4 oz. each)
  • 1 lb. imitation crab or lobster meat
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • ¼ tsp. cayenne
  • ¼ cup dry sherry

A quick note on ingredients:  I use imitation meat for this dish for a couple reasons.  First, the taste is beautiful and so is the color.  Second, a full pound of real crab or lobster meat will cost you multiples more without making a dramatic difference in the taste, and the color will actually be less attractive, in my humble opinion.  Imitation crab or lobster meats are both made predominantly of Alaska pollock, which is a respectable fish in its own right, so they’re basically interchangeable, and unless you’re a hardcore New England purist about your bisque, the imitation stuff will work just fine.

So let’s get started already.  In a large sauce pan, melt the butter over medium heat and sweat the shallots until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the wine and, when it has begun to boil, stir in the stock, rice and ketchup. Bring the heat up to high just until the mixture begins to boil, then back it down to low and cover the pot to simmer until the rice is cooked, which will take about 20 minutes.

While that is going on, bring a separate pot of water up to a full boil. Add the lobster tails and cook them for 4 minutes, then remove them from the water to your cutting board to cool until you can handle them comfortably.  Using a pair of good kitchen shears, cut through the shells and remove the tail meat.  Carefully remove the dark colored vein at the top center of the tails, then dice them up and set them aside for now.


Back to your main dish, when the rice is finished, remove the pot from the heat and add the imitation meat.  Now it’s time to puree the soup.  My tool of choice is my handy-dandy Cuisinart Smart Stick immersion blender, but you can also use your Vitamix or similar stand blender if you work (very carefully) in batches.  Either way, blend the soup to a smooth, creamy consistency, then whisk in the cream, salt and cayenne, followed lastly by the sherry. Return the pot to low heat to maintain serving temperature, and stir in the reserved lobster meat to add a little texture to the finished dish, but keep back some of it for garnish.


And with that your bisque is ready to serve. Garnish with a light sprinkle of cayenne and some of those last bits of reserved lobster meat, add a little crusty buttered bread on the side, and you’re off to the races. We absolutely love this dish, and there are big happy grins all around whenever I make it. Until next time: Eat well, my friends!



Thai Chicken and Spinach Soup

For my two-year blogiversary (no, that’s not really a word, in case you were wondering), I decided it would be fun to circle back around to where I started things two years ago – with Thai food. Lolly has been pestering me to make her a Thai soup with lots of coconut milk and bright, authentic Thai flavors, so this dish seemed to fit the bill. This is another interpretation of the traditional soup Tom Kha, which was featured some months ago in my earlier post A Pair of Thai Classics.  Same basic idea, but with the flavor profile heading off in a little different direction. Also, this version is much heartier and comes across more like a stew than a soup. I made this in a slow cooker over the space of about 6 hours, but you can get the same results in about half the time simmering on the stovetop.


Here are your ingredients to satisfy 6-8 hungry souls:

  • 4 bone-in chicken breast halves (about 4-5 lb. total weight)
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 qt. chicken broth
  • Zest one lime, and juice of 3 limes
  • ¼ cup fish sauce
  • 3 tbsp. light brown sugar (packed)
  • 1 serrano chile, seeded and minced
  • 12 oz. small white mushrooms
  • 3 cups (about 2 cans) coconut milk
  • 1 can (8 oz.) sliced bamboo shoots
  • 1 bag (5 oz.) baby spinach
  • ½ cup fresh chopped cilantro leaves
  • Chopped cilantro and scallions for garnish
  • Cooked jasmine rice for garnish (optional)

Season the chicken breasts with salt. In a large capacity slow cooker or stock pot, combine the chicken broth, lime zest and juice, fish sauce and brown sugar, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Lay the chicken pieces breast side down in the liquid, and sprinkle with the peppers and mushrooms. The liquid should be enough to cover the breasts, or close to it anyway. In a slow cooker, cover and cook on low heat for about 4 hours, or on the stovetop simmer on low heat for about 2 hours.

When the chicken is cooked through, use a pair of tongs to pull it out of the broth and move it to your cutting board. The meat should pull easily off the bones. Using two forks, shred the chicken meat, then return it to the broth. Stir in the coconut milk, then add the bamboo shoots and spinach, pressing all the leaves down into the liquid. Put the cover back on and continue cooking on low heat for 1 to 1 ½ hour in the slow cooker, or about 30 minutes on the stovetop, until the spinach is tender.


And with that, you’re finished. Serve it up with some fresh cilantro and scallions. If you like, put a scoop of cooked jasmine rice in the bottom of the bowl before ladling in the soup. This dish is hot, hearty, healthy and satisfying. It will definitely fill you up and warm you up on a cold New Year’s Day. We chowed down on it with a big happy grin, and I’m sure you will too. Until next time: Eat well, my friends.


Fat Chicken – The Other Other White Meat

First of all, I would like to wish a Merry Christmas to all my dear readers, as I toast you with a glass of fine Glenlivet 18-year scotch while I write this humble missive.  Thanks for hanging around and reading my culinary ramblings for the past two years.

Okay, admit it – like us, you’re tired of always having turkey (or ham) for major holidays, but you don’t know what else would be a suitable substitute worthy of the occasion. I can cook a pretty mean turkey, but let’s face it, sometimes the same ole same ole gets a little … well … old.  So, what does our family do when this awful quandary presents itself?   We turn to fat chicken.  No, that’s not really the name of the dish, but it’s what we have been calling it for many years because that’s what you will be if you eat this recipe too often.  Lolly discovered it in a cookbook long ago, and it has been a family favorite ever since.


Christmas in the Johnson household this year has been a modest affair – just me, Lolly and our 21-year-old son Alex gathered for a simple holiday dinner.  The fireplace is glowing, the ground outside is covered with snow (in Kentucky of all places!), and from our kitchen wafts the fragrant aroma of fat chicken.  Here is what you will need to make 4 servings:

  • 4 boneless chicken breast halves
  • 2/3 cup unsalted butter
  • ½ cup bread crumbs
  • 1 tsp. dried basil leaves
  • 1 tsp. dried oregano leaves
  • 2 tbsp. fresh grated parmesan
  • ½ tsp. garlic powder
  • ½ tsp. kosher salt
  • ½ cup chopped scallions
  • ½ cup chopped parsley
  • ½ cup dry white wine

Preheat your oven to 375. Melt the butter by whichever method is most convenient for you.  In a shallow dish (a pie plate works very well), mix the bread crumbs, basil, oregano, parmesan, garlic powder and salt.  Pound the chicken breasts to a uniform thickness of about ½ inch.  Dip them in the melted butter, then coat them in the bread crumb mixture and place them in a glass baking dish.  Keep the rest of your butter, as you will need it soon enough.


Bake the chicken for about 45 minutes until it temps about 160. While that is in the oven, combine the reserved butter with the scallions, parsley and wine.  If the butter has begun to congeal, pop it in the microwave for 30 seconds and it will be right as rain. When the bake time is finished for the chicken, pull it out and pour the butter-wine-herb mixture over the top like so:


Then it’s back into the oven for another 5-10 minutes to finish and, voila!  You have fat chicken ready to serve to your nearest and dearest.  Plate it up with whatever traditional sides you would otherwise serve on your feast day, and munch it down with big happy grins all around.  Until next time, a very Merry Christmas to all, and eat well, my friends!