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Archive for April, 2010

This Saturday was The 1st 8th Annual Grilled Cheese Invitational, and Choo and I came ready to eat, grill, and hopefully win.  The morning was my kind of morning, with a nice overcast sky that would help keep the day somewhat cool once the marine layer burned off. We arrived at 9 AM to sign up with the other competitors:

This year, there were categories for professionals and amateurs;  even though it’s been about six years since I’ve cooked professionally, I decided to play fair when the application asked if I had ever worked as a chef or cook.   This did, however, allow for more awards, so more people had chances to win, which I consider a good thing.  Then again, it did put me in the pool with The Big Boys, which meant I needed to bring my A-game.

Since we arrived well before the Invitational was open to the public, Choo and I took a little time to explore the site.

The competitor’s area, just before the storm:

Some of L.A.’s popular food trucks arrived to sell their versions of grilled cheese and other fabulous snacks:

Even though I didn’t get a picture of their truck, I hit the Sweets Truck to get a caffeine fix for the two of us, along with a Red Velvet and a Carrot Cake Whoopie Pie (I sampled both, and chose the Carrot Cake, which was fantastic)–perfect for a mid-morning sugar rush while we settled in to a nice spot under a tree.  We camped out until our heat rolled around at 2:55, getting a chance to hit all the free samples supplied by the fantastic people of Tillamook and meeting some of our fellow competitors.

 

Some of my friends remember my run-in with The Chicken.  He was back. 

And he brought a friend.

Oh, great.  A double batch of nightmares!

Finally, it was grilling time.

Setting up my station:

Now, let’s talk about my sandwich.  I called it Peary’s Got The Blues, and entered it into the Honey Pot (the dessert category).   The PGTB had a homemade Vanilla Pound Cake, Mascarpone & Cambozola cheeses, homemade Pear-Port Butter, homemade Dulce de Leche, and Toasted Hazelnuts.  It took some work to create the perfect sandwich–in theory, I knew all the flavors would make a perfect mesh, but my problem was when I grilled the sandwich, by the time it was browned, the cheeses broke and when I sliced it, everything would squish out into a puddle.  I finally came by a solution (which I’m not going to share, but it’s what I spent 2 years and $32K for culinary school for) and it worked.   I mean, how could pound cake fried in butter not be awesome?

No, we didn’t win, sadly.  I gave it my best shot, and we had a good time, which is really what it’s about, right? 

I do have one thing I really need to get off my chest, because the action of one person really burned my britches.  See,  there was a group of people from the general public who signed up to become judges; they were responsible for getting samples and checking off on the ballots they received.  Most everyone we encountered was polite and curious about our sandwich, and we received a great amount of positive feedback.  Unfortunately, there was one guy who collected samples, ate his share, then dumped his stack of plates with the ballots untouched at the corner of my station.  This was so wrong on so many levels, since, first of all, dumping a stack of used plates right next to where I’m preparing food is disgusting.  Then, for not just myself, but speaking for the other competitors who lost a ballot due to this jerk’s actions lost a vote, when we compete, we’re putting our time, our energy and our money into being a part of this competition.  To not vote for our entries is theft, plain and simple. 

So, Mr. “Judge,” you’ve won this very special award:

Go on, hang it on your wall.  You earned it. 

Other than that hiccup, it was a great day, and I was thrilled to see Jodie & Sparky, who we hung out with before the competition, win first prize in the Amateur Kama Sutra category (a mini-ciabatta stuffed with a bbq-ish chicken, bacon, and some lovely super-melty cheese that really deserved the win). 

Now it’s time for me to start plotting for next year’s event.  I’m already thinking the keyword there just might be pralines.

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So, let me tell you what’s happening on Saturday:  The 1st 8th Annual Grilled Cheese Invitational will be going on near Downtown Los Angeles, and I’ll be competing.  I was there last year (in fact, here’s a picture of Choo while I was grilling my sandwiches), and this year, I’m back and In It To Win It.  Or, something like that–it’s more about the fun and the cheese, especially since the prizes pretty much amount to plastic trophies and bragging rights. 

Now, I’m not going to tell you what my entry is, but I will tell you that I’m competing in the Honey Pot (the dessert category), and I’m going to share what one of the components of my sandwich will be:  Dulce de Leche. 

Caramel?  With cheese?  Oh, trust me, it works, I promise.  I will reveal all, along with any interesting cheese stories, come next week. 

Anyway, back to the Dulce de Leche. 

I love this stuff.  LOVE.  And if you have milk, sugar, a vanilla bean, a little baking soda and above all, patience, you can have your own, too.  I used Alton Brown’s recipe, even though I made plenty of it during my Border Grill days–it’s essentially the same thing except Alton uses a vanilla bean. 

If anything, do it to make your house smell AWESOME.  No candle could compare to the lovely caramel scent that comes from this. 

Dulce de Leche

  • 1 quart whole milk
  • 12 ounces sugar, approximately 1 1/2 cups
  • 1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Directions

Combine the milk, sugar, vanilla bean and seeds in a large, 4-quart saucepan and place over medium heat. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has dissolved. Once the sugar has dissolved, add the baking soda and stir to combine. Reduce the heat to low and cook uncovered at a bare simmer. Stir occasionally, but do not re-incorporate the foam that appears on the top of the mixture. Continue to cook for 1 hour. Remove the vanilla bean after 1 hour and continue to cook until the mixture is a dark caramel color and has reduced to about 1 cup, approximately 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Strain the mixture through a fine mesh strainer. Store in the refrigerator in a sealed container for up to a month.

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After a few weeks of perfectly warm and sunny weather, we folks here in Southern California got hit with a bit of rain today.  Big deal, you’re probably thinking to yourself if you live anywhere but here, but here in Los Angeles, it’s kind of odd when it rains after the end of March.  We really don’t know what to do with ourselves. 

Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the rain.  It’s still coming down as I write this, and since both Choo and Kiddo are in bed dreaming big dreams, I have everything turned off so I can listen to it. 

Still, the funniest thing I overheard today, while in the parking lot of the local u-pick farm and farmstand was a man worrying over the whole family getting pneumonia while spending the morning in barely drizzling 58° degree weather.  Yeah, we’re a city of weather wimps. 

It was a perfect day for me to go stomp around in the fields;  I picked a nice mess of fava beans, some red leaf lettuce, and a bag full of leeks.

I love that shade of green.  This was a new experience, pulling leeks out of the ground.  It really was incredibly satisfying to do it, to tell the truth.  By the way, for my Southern California readers, we were at Underwood Family Farms in Moorpark.   We get out there about twice a year, once around this time, and again in the late summer–luckily, they do the farmer’s market circuit, so I see them at the Calabasas, Encino, and Hollywood farmer’s markets–it’s an easier trip.  Highly recommended, especially if you’ve got kids.

I digress.  Back to soup!

I pulled out seven slender leeks, which, once home, were washed, trimmed, and sliced into thin half-moons. 

These were tossed into a soup pot with a few tablespoons of melted butter waiting for them.  This soup calls for the leeks to be cooked on a low heat, slowly, until they’re glossy and soft, and you know that if you pulled out a bite of them, they’d melt in your mouth. 

When the leeks are tender, after about 15 minutes, a few sprigs of thyme get tossed into the pot.

I don’t know about you, but I really like fresh thyme.  The one thing I don’t like about it is trying to strip the leaves from the stems–it’s one of those fiddly jobs that just gets in the way of things.  But, you know what’s great?  When making a soup or a stew with fresh thyme, it’s okay to just throw the whole stem in during the cooking process.  The heat and the simmering will cause the leaves to come off the stem, and all you need to do is just fish the stems out at the end. 

To these lovely leeks, add four large-ish peeled and chopped russet potatoes.  I like using russets for this soup for the fact that they do fall apart, creating a thick texture.  The one warning is to not overcook and overwork the potatoes–depending on how big the chunks are, the simmer time shouldn’t be more than 15-20 minutes–just long enough so the potatoes are tender and will easily crush with the back of a spoon. 

Once the potatoes are in, then chicken stock (or vegetable stock) is added, just enough to cover the potatoes.  In this case, a quart was the perfect amount.  Bring the pot up to a boil, then turn down to low to simmer for about 15 minutes. 

Now, I used an immersion blender–I feel like I get more control on pureeing than what I get out of a regular stand blender.  If you don’t have an immersion blender, don’t fret, you can use a regular blender, but only puree about half of the soup, and smash some of the larger chunks of potato.  Only pulse the blender a few times to smooth it out–if the potatoes are overworked, what will happen is too much of the starch in the potatoes get released, and you’ll end up with wallpaper paste.  This is a soup where chunks are good and are to be expected. 

This is, also, where you put in some half and half.  Or heavy cream, if you’re daring.  Or low-fat milk, if you’re not.  Season with salt and pepper to taste. 

My perfect end to a rainy Sunday: curling up on the couch with a blanket and a steaming bowl of soup, and watching The Simpsons with the family.

Potato-Leek Soup

  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 2 cups thinly sliced leeks (white and light green parts–appx. 6-7 leeks)
  • 6-8 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 4 large russet potatoes, peeled and chopped
  • 1 quart chicken or vegetable stock (low-sodium or homemade), more if needed
  • 1/2 cup half and half
  • Salt & Pepper to taste
  1. In a large soup pot, melt butter on low heat.  Add leeks and sweat for about 15 minutes, until soft and tender, stirring occasionally.
  2. Add thyme sprigs, saute for one minute.  Add potatoes, and add enough stock to just cover contents of the pot. Bring heat to medium-high and bring to a boil.  Turn down to low, and let simmer until potatoes are tender, about 15-20 minutes.
  3. Turn off heat, and with an immersion blender, pulse to puree soup, but still leaving somewhat chunky. 
  4. Stir in half & half and return to a low heat for a few minutes.
  5. Season with salt & pepper to taste. 

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