Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Fried Cheese Stick That is Going to Get Me Onto Chopped

So. I tried out for Chopped..... I can visualize the producers sitting in their dark screening room watching audition tapes now......(doodley doo! doodley doo! doodley doo!)......(that was the sound effect from Wayne's World when they would do a dream sequence).........(just forget it)

Justin on Tape: "And that is why I think I will be the Chopped: Amateuer champion."

Producer #1: "We could take this guy if we could find a demographic he would do well with."

Producer #2: "Hmmmm....How big is our Assisted-Living Home viewer group?"

Temp: "Not big."

Producer #1: "Maybe we can pick up some viewers among  Female 45-50Year Old Owners of 15 or  More Cats?"

Producer #2: "Nope, his dishes have too many vegetables. I've got it! Criminally Insane, Vision Impaired Alien Abductees?"

Producer #1: "Genius. Get us Justin from The Jacked Up Grill!"

Doodley Doo! Doodley Doo! Doodley Doo!

Seriously, I REALLY want them to pick me. Chopped on Food Network gets a stupid amount of airtime at our house, and I have always wanted in on that action. Their Amateur episode is coming up, and I put my name in the hat. I'm sure about a jillion other people did, too but a guy can dream....

In the DIY audition video, they wanted you to talk about food, so I cooked a few dishes to put on camera, and they turned out pretty fantastic. Hopefully my food will woo them more than my massive head.

My dishes included Flat Iron Steak Chimichurri, Fennel Salad and a new one, fried halloumi cheese with orange.

Recipe for the cheese is at the end.

One question on the audition was "Tell us about any thwarted culinary dreams."
My answer, honestly, was that my culinary dreams are coming true these days. I am getting better and better in the kitchen, I am cooking more refined dishes for more people, I have a following (2 people) online, A recipe of mine was featured in a blog I really respect (Beyond the Flavor), and my cooking is going to raise some money for a great cause (Blue Ridge Area Food Bank), AND I get to cook in a real restaurant in October.

So no matter what happens with Chopped, my cooking career, er, hobby is looking really good, especially with the crazy, blind alien abductee crowd.

Pan Fried Halloumi Cheese with Orange Salad
makes 4 servings

8 slices halloumi cheese 1/4 inch thick
1 ripe orange, cut into supremes (supremes means the meat is cut out with no white membrane)
1 jalapeno pepper finely diced
1/2 red onion, finely diced
juice of 1 lemon
2 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp honey
juice of 1 lime
panko bread crumbs

For the dressing, mix the onion, jalapeno, honey and lime juice until it's pretty runny. This works best when done earlier in the day, so that the honey can really soak up the heat from the peppers.

Halloumi is a very firm cheese that has some weird chemistry that keeps it from melting like normal cheese when it gets hot. This stuff can even be placed on the grill, and it will keep its shape. It is important to cook it long enough for the heat to get all the way through, though, because it can be rubbery if it's raw.

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium high heat. Press the cheese on both sides into the bread crumbs, and then gently place into the oil. Don't mess with it for at least 2-3 minutes, so the crumbs get golden brown and crispy. Gently flip and do the other side for 2 more minutes.

Remove from heat and drain on a paper towel.
Place the cheese on the plate. Stack a few of the orange slices on top, and drizzle with the honey dressing. Getchyo fork ready!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Go By the Hat Store, Things Just Got Real.......

Fight Hunger with Food. And Beer.

So here's how it's going to go down.

Sunday, October 14
Brookeville Restaurant

Five Courses of Jacked Up Grill Classics

Beer Pairings From Local Breweries

Support Hungry Neighbors via the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank

Donation Suggested: $50 per person

Who knows what a carbon footprint is?  That's how much "carbon based" energy or resources you burn up when you do something. For example, if you go to Disneyworld, you can theoretically measure how much oil, gas, plastic, coal and whatever else it cost the world for that trip to happen, and that is your carbon footprint. Now there are gigs out there that let you supposedly negate your carbon footprint by buying interest in clean energy and recycling and rehyrdation of mummies and cuddling unicorns and stuff like that, and then you feel better about that tenth trip down Space Mountain and that fifth burrito in Little Mexico at Epcot. The concept has been a revelation to me lately.

What is your food footprint? I am a big guy. It's no secret to both of you who read this blog that we like our food over here. I like to eat out, and I REALLY like to cook, and by the time you add up all the groceries and the gadgets and the charcoal (and the beer), a lot of money gets involved. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But last month, a few days before hosting a large dinner party, my wife and I went on a trip to DC for our anniversary. We ate at a fancy restaurant, and we had the time of our lives, but at some point it hit me that about 30 feet from where I sat eating my butter poached steak, there was a guy with a cardboard sign begging for change. How rotten must it feel to have a pang in your stomach from lack of calories, when you can see a guy your age through the window eating a $50 steak? That upset me. Now I don't think it's wrong to be successful. I don't think it's wrong to indulge in anything, especially food. However, the concept of my own food footprint got right up in my face after that.

Hunger affects so many more people than you know. In fact, statistics say you KNOW someone who is skipping a meal so they can pay their power bill. Or pick up their prescription. There are kids out there who think boiled potato night is like Christmas. Nobody likes to get a guilt trip laid on them, but THIS IS REAL. We all need to eat. It's the great equalizer for us. So let's stop pretending it's too big a problem, or that it's someone else's problem, or that there are enough soup kitchens that people can go to, or that we gave enough at the office. Let's stick it to empty stomachs right now, and I'll even give you a good time for your troubles.

The good folks Jennifer and Harrison Keevil of  Charlottesville's own Brookeville Restaurant have been generous enough to let The Jacked Up Grill take over their kitchen and dining room on Sunday October 14 for a Dinner To Fight Hunger. This is just me, an amateur, cooking the best locally sourced dishes I can come up with, but I promise I haven't seen anyone spit any of my cooking out lately, and you may even be surprised. There will be five courses, and each will be paired with a craft beer from one of our excellent breweries.

How does serving all this food to a bunch of white folks help starving kids? Good Question. The only thing we ask for attending is a donation of $50 per person, which will go directly to the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank. If you don't know their story, look them up here. This outfit serves MILLIONS of meals per year, and they are EXTREMELY good at it. There are 20 seats available for this dinner. EVERY PENNY of your $50 is going directly to the Food Bank. The folks there can turn each dollar into FOUR meals, and our goal is $1,000, so unless you need serious math help, that means 4,000 mouths will be fed with what we do on October 14. I'd say if I burn the shrimp that night, it will still taste better than that steak did in DC.

Food is good. Food makes people happy. That's why I cook. I know $50 ain't no joke to lots of us, including me, but I promise you the food will be worth it, and you will meet some incredible people. But think about what you're doing to help your neighbors. If you leave Brookeville that night thinking your money wasn't well spent, let me know, but if I have learned anything in my life, I have learned that the most rewarding things you can do are the things that cost you something. You won't regret it, and you can enjoy every bite knowing that someone else is going to eat well because of what you did.

Plus, at the last dinner I did, everyone got free stick-on mustaches, so there you go.

Seats are filling up fast, so if you want to attend, email me at jackedupgrill@yahoo.com, and I'll put you on the list.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Magical Bacon. Also, How to Ruin Perfectly Good Clams.

On a hill in Madisonville, Tennessee, there is a verdant green hill with a non-descript cinder block building about half way up painted with the logo "We Smoke 'Em." The unaware traveller might think that this is a simple Tennessean's expression of what to do with the mushrooms that grow in cow poo. The discerning pork enthusiast will look at that block house with a knowing smirk, however,  while salivating in the jowls thinking about the magical bacon curing inside.

 Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams is a family business that follows age old principles of pork production to create truly transcendental bacon, prosciutto and country hams, and you should all keep your coronary arteries open just long enough to get a taste of their magical products. Tennesse, the perfect state (my home state), is the perfect place to raise pigs who produce the perfect bacon. Heritage breed pigs are an important factor in perfect bacon, and Benton's uses these. For perfect fattiness, the pigs need to eat a natural, evolutionarily correct food source, which happens to be acorns. Tennessee's abundant wild oak tree forests are perfect for these, and Benton's pigs roam free and eat a diet exclusively of acorns. Having the right pig on the right diet is one thing, but Benton's seals the deal by dry curing the bacon for months at a time using brown sugar, salt and intense hickory smoke. I'm sure lots of bacon producers can boast similar checklists. But there is something about Benton's that makes high end restaurants all over America pine for their stuff. I had to have some.

It took about a month and a half for my bacon to arrive due to the long backorder. It wasn't really expensive. It cost less than Oscar Meyer per pound (you have to order at least 4 pounds at $4.29 per pound), but the shipping costs add enough so that it's not something you want to do every day. When it arrived, even the outside of the box was perfumed with delicious smoke. I thought about eating the cardboard, but I knew my wife would judge me, so I refrained.

There was a lot of pressure on this bacon. I'm not going to lie. When I fried some up to add to my clam broth tonight, I had high, high hopes. I separated out two slices and diced them up to go with my standard clam preparation. At once, I noticed the intense smoky smell, even before it hit the pan. It is almost acrid. The entire kitchen was soon smelling like a 19th century smokehouse. The fat content in the bacon was about twice what you see in typical bacon. You could tell something was different about it as it warmed up in the pan. It started to turn translucent and melt much more quickly than usual. The rub on the outside (simply brown sugar, salt and sodium nitrate) was very thick, and the edges started crisping immediately. It was almost upsetting to stand over the pan, because the smoke smell was burning my eyes. By the time I got it crisp, there was a huge amount of renedered fat in the pan, and the bacon pieces were golden brown. I tried one (ten) of the little pieces, and they truly were like nothing I have had before. The smoke is not overpowering in flavor, but it is definitely intense. The flavor of the red meat and the fat is like a cross between the best bacon you ever had and a really fine piece of tender country ham. I can totally see what all the fuss is about.

Now for standard bacon strip consumption, Chef Craig Hartman's Redeye Bacon from the BBQ Exchange is pretty tough to beat for me. But for flavoring of other dishes, this Benton's bacon may be my new go-to.

In unrelated news, I made this beautiful bowl of clams with linguine in a white wine bacon garlic sauce, and was extremely excited about eating it. Most of my clam cooking has been done with farm raised clams, which usually come pre-cleaned. The ones tonight were fresh from the sea, however, and they were jam packed with sand. I soaked them in cold tap water for about 15 minutes before steaming, but apparently fresh wild clams need more like an hour to expell all of their sand. Oops. The first one I bit into was like chomping on a wet paper towel full of sandy grit. It was awful. But in between tooth breaking gnaws, I could taste how delicious the broth was, which was really frustrating. Epic Fail.

Moral to the story, soak wild clams for a really long time in cold water so they don't save a little surprise for you.

Basic Delicious Clam Broth
1 pound small clams (littleneck or cherrystone clams are the best)
1/2 bottle good dry white wine
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 vidalia onion, diced
2 roma tomatoes, diced
1/2 stick butter
2 strips bacon, diced
salt and pepper to taste
fresh chopped parsley

Soak clams in cold, fresh water for AT LEAST AN HOUR IF THEY ARE WILD CAUGHT.
Some say salty water works better, and some even say putting corn meal in the water makes the clams eject their sandy poo more efficiently. Whavev, just make sure they eject it. Sand equals a deadly bite.

Fry bacon over medium heat until lightly crisp. Remove bacon from fat. Add butter and sautee onions and garlic in bacon fat for 4 minutes over medium heat, until translucent. Pour in wine and scrape brown bits off the bottom. Raise heat until boiling, and add clams to liquid. Cover, and after about five minutes, the clams should be open and done. Discard any clams that didn't open, and pour the broth over pasta. Add the clams on top and sprinkle with fresh parsley and grated fresh parmesan cheese. Serve with crusty bread for dipping.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Shaved Fennel Salad with Bacon Vinaigrette. Ya, I Said "Salad." Come On, YOLO.

YOLO. Pretty sure it means "You Only Live Once," but with these internet things, you never know. I look at food pictures on Pinterest, which is a great place for ideas, but I also see a lot of YOLOs, "Call me later, maybe?"s, "I can has cheeseburgers," "Hey Girl..."s, "Keep Calm..."s, E-Cards and what not, and 99.9 % of it means absolutely nothing to me. The generational gap prevents me from trying to keep up with that kind of stuff, because I'm pretty sure that if I thought too hard about whatever the heck a "Meme" is, a wormhole would be created, and the world would end in fire. However, YOLO has struck a chord with me. Not because the stuff on Pinterest that uses it is funny, because it certainly isn't. It just sounds good to say. YOLO. Sure, it's just carpe diem for a generation who have never turned the corner of a page down in a book, but it still is a fun concept. YOLO. Since I discovered its meaning (thanks, Google), I have been saying it out loud in my mind at the end of almost every mental sentence (Mentance? YES. New word created. I'm Pinning it...).

Tonight, when sorting through my recent recipes to decide what to write about, I was all "Oooh, this salad was boss! and awesome!" (Bossome? YES. New word #2). Then I was like "Wait a minute, stupid. You can't write about a salad. You are the Meat Guy." (not a stage name). Then I totally came back with "Get up off me, Inner Monologue. I made a killer salad, and I'm writing it up. YO-Friggin-LO."

And there you have it....

Lots of people have never cooked with fennel at home, because it's one of those weird things at the store that you always see but never buy. Plus it smells like licorice, which is nasty. However, fennel is an extremely versatile ingredient that adds subtle complexity and great flavor to lots of dishes. I am a total fennel convert, and it really makes a great salad. I found this recipe online, changed it slightly to my taste,  and paired it with my own bacon vinaigrette, and it is a new staple at our house.

Shaved Fennel Salad with Bacon Shallot Vinaigrette


  • 1 medium-large zucchini, sliced paper thin
  • 2 small fennel bulbs, trimmed and shaved paper-thin
  • 2/3 cup loosely chopped fresh dill
  • 1 bag arugula
  • 1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled     
  • sprinkle of sunflower seeds                           

    • For Bacon Vinaigrette

      • 3 strips bacon, cut into small pieces
      • 1 small shallot, finely diced
      • 2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
      • 1 tbsp dijon mustard
      • 1 tbsp honey

    • For Fennel Salad

      1. Adapted from 101cookbooks.com.
      2. In a bowl, marinate fennel, zucchini and dill in vinaigrette for 20 minutes. Place arugula on plate dry, top with fennel mixture, then top that with feta, sunflower seeds and bacon bits
    • For Bacon Vinaigrette

      1. In a skillet, brown bacon pieces, then remove onto a paper towel. In the bacon fat, cook shallot over medium low heat for 5 minutes, or until soft and brownish. Place shallots on towel with the bacon. Allow bacon fat to cool, then mix rendered fat, vinegar, mustard  and honey with a whisk until emulsified. Season with salt and pepper.  Add bacon and shallots to dressing and mix thoroughly. Add small amount of olive oil if needed.

    This also goes great with a fried squash blossom on top. We did this for THE DINNER, and it added just one more level of awesomeness.

    So there you go. I posted a practically meat free salad. YOLO, my friends.