Flav’our Cooking School

Ample Bites journeyed to Forest Park, Illinois, a near west suburb of Chicago, to participate in a cooking class at Flav'our Cooking School. Our route from the far west suburbs during rush hour was circuitous but when we arrived in Forest Park we were pleasantly surprised by the updated downtown area on Madison Street where the school is located. There is a nice array of restaurants and boutique stores covering about a 5 block stretch. We arrived early enough to take in a glass of wine and Bruschetta con Prosciutto at Francesca Fiore, which was located a couple doors down from Flav’our Cooking School.

Upon arriving at Flav’our I was immediately impressed by the bright, open design of the store and cooking demonstration area. The high, ornate ceilings and tastefully displayed modern cookware give Flav’our an elegant and clean feel. The Chef/Owner, Denise Norton, and her staff do a very nice job of creating an inviting atmosphere for hobbyist cooks, like Ample Bites, to learn culinary techniques.

Our class consisted of Ample Bites and two friends along with nine other patrons. We were split into two 6-person teams with three on each side of two large butcher-block tables. These tables served as prep surface and dining table. As we cooked, we enjoyed a selection of wines by the glass, craft beers and complimentary water, tea and coffee. Ample Bites thoroughly enjoyed a couple pints of India Pale Ale.

Our teacher, a formally-trained Chef who is now a personal chef and culinary instructor, guided us through a Thanksgiving “Lite” menu that included Harvest Grain Salad with Orange Dressing, Turkey Potato Stew, Cranberry Compote, and Pumpkin Pie Pudding. At the end of the three hour class, we would enjoy the meal that we had prepared.

Our instructor facilitated the cooking process by organizing the needed cookware and ingredients for each of the four dishes. Our task was to read the recipes, follow the instruction and assemble each of the dishes. Along the way we were treated to some tips about preheating Dutch ovens, such as Le Creuset cookware, use of Silpat silicone pads for baking, and a slick – though not terribly safe – trick for mincing garlic.

I will not bore you with the details of each of the tips but I must comment on the value of understanding how and why to brown meat. The caramelization of the meat gives flavor to dishes like stews, chili, and braises. Three important tips to good browning are 1) preheat your cooking pan while it is dry, then add the oil to be used for browning, 2) space the meat with room to allow the juices to release and evaporate, even if you must do your browning in batches, and 3) be patient and allow the meat to brown, checking occasionally, and release from the pan.

Once our food preparation was complete and we began to eat our meal, the students in the class seemed to most enjoy the Harvest Grain Salad with Orange Dressing and the Turkey Potato Stew. You can find Ample Bites adaptations of the recipes for each below.

After years of being self-taught and learning from friends, family and The Food Network I thoroughly enjoyed my first formal cooking school experience and I expect to go back for more “training” after the holidays.

Turkey Potato Stew
(Adapted from recipe courtesy of Flav’our Cooking School, 2012)

Serves 4-6

3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 pound ground turkey
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp ground sage
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp dried oregano
1 large onion, diced
2 carrots, cut into coins
2 celery stalks, diced
1/4 cup dry white wine
3 Tbsp flour
2 cups beef or chicken stock
1 cup crushed tomatoes
4-6 medium red potatoes, cut into wedges
2 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp red wine vinegar
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup fresh parsley leaves, roughly chopped

Heat a large heavy pot with lid on over medium high heat. After about 5 minutes, add 1 tablespoon oil and swirl to coat the cooking surface. Add the turkey and season it with salt and pepper and brown. Flip halfway through and break the meat up with a spoon. Add the sage, fennel and oregano and cook for about 1 minute. Remove the browned meat from the pot and set aside.

Return the pot to medium-high heat. Add the remaining oil and swirl to coat the cooking surface. Add the onions, carrots and celery to the pot and season with salt and pepper. Saute until aromatic and tender, about 5 minutes. Add wine and deglaze the pot, scraping bits from the bottom of the pot. Add flour and stir to incorporate into the vegetables, stirring constantly for about 2 minutes to cook off flour taste. Add the stock slowly, stirring to incorporate into the roux and bring to a simmer to thicken. Add the tomatoes and potatoes to the pot and then add the browned meat. Add the thyme, vinegar and Worcestershire sauce. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for about 30 minutes. Stir several times during braising.

To serve, ladle into large bowls and garnish with parsley.

Harvest Grain Salad with Orange Dressing
(Adapted from recipe courtesy of Flav’our Cooking School, 2012)

Serves 4-6

1 cup uncooked wild rice
5 cups water
1/2 cup pine nuts
1/4 pound asparagus, ends trimmed
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil plus more for drizzling
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp orange zest, finely grated
1/4 cup orange juice freshly squeezed
2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
1 shallot, finely diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup dried tart cherries or cranberries
1 Granny Smith apple, diced
4 cups mesclun greens

Put rice and water in a medium pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until rice puffs and is tender, about 30 minutes. Drain and reserve the rice.

Preheat oven to 350F. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Put the pine nuts on the pan, place in the oven and toast until lightly browned, 8-10 minutes.

Heat a grill pan or grill until hot. Brush asparagus spears with oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill until asparagus is al dente, about 1-2 minutes per side. Remove from heat and cut the asparagus into bite-sized pieces.

Put zest, juice, vinegar, mustard, shallot and garlic in a medium bowl. Whisk to combine the ingredients. Drizzle in oil while whisking constantly. Taste and adjust seasoning and oil to vinegar level.

Put wild rice, pine nuts, asparagus, berries and apples in a medium bowl. Add a portion of dressing to lightly coat the ingredients. Toss to mix and add more dressing, as needed. Put mesclun in bowl and coat with some dressing. To serve create a bed of mesclun on each plate and top with the grain salad. mixture.

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Ample Bites Farm Update #3

Despite an extended drought and a string of high temperatures in the 90s the Ample Bites vegetable garden is in full bloom. The green beans have recovered from an early season infestation of some type of bug, probably an aphid of some sort. The garden has already yielded several meals worth of lettuce and spinach and a few zucchini – with many more to come soon.

The tomato plants look like they will produce a bounty of beautiful and delicious fruit.

Less than a month from juicy tomatoes

The mustard greens are the most recent harvest.

These beautiful, healthy greens were prepared using the following recipe:

Mustard Greens with Chipotle and Bacon

Serves 10

2 ¾ lb curly mustard greens (2-3 bunches), stems and coarse ribs discarded
4 bacon slices, cut crosswise into ½-inch pieces
3 Tbsp EVOO
1 tsp minced canned chipotles in adobo
½ tsp salt

Coarsely chop greens, then cook in 2 batches in a 6-8 quart pot of boiling salted water uncovered, stirring occasionally, until wilted and tender, about 5 minutes. Transfer with a slotted spoon to a large bowl of cold water to stop cooking process. Drain greens in a colander, pressing gently to release excess moisture.

Cook bacon in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium heat, stirring, until crisp, 4-5 minutes. Transfer with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain, reserving fat in skillet. Add oil, chipotle, greens and salt to fat and cook, stirring occasionally, until heated through, 2-3 minutes. Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle with bacon.

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Fresh Fish

After spending the better part of the last month on or near the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean, and the streams of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan Ample Bites has an even greater appreciation for the value of quality, fresh fish. All three venues yielded fish that was caught the same day I prepared them or when they were prepared by a local restaurant.

If you are not catching your own fresh fish avoid the big grocery stores and find a local fish house. In Pass-A-Grille, Florida friends introduced us to Schaner’s Land & Sea Market where, as the store name implies, they have a huge selection of fish as well as meats and poultry. Schaner’s did not disappoint the shrimp we purchased from this local store were the star of a gumbo I prepared. In Murrell’s Inlet, South Carolina we purchased fresh and prepared shrimp, fresh grouper, crab spread, shrimp spread, and shucked raw oysters from a couple of local fish stores including Seven Seas on very north end of Business 17.

Making Shrimp Gumbo with large, sweet, fresh shrimp was a particular favorite of Ample Bites. See my previous post for the recipe. If you can’t get fresh shrimp where you are you can have them shipped from Cajun Grocer where they are flash frozen and shipped on dry ice.

Here in the Midwest, there is nothing quite like catching, filleting and cooking fish caught from the chilly waters of the Northwoods. Our bounty included mostly Northern Pike.

If you only have access to frozen white fish, like tilapia, halibut or catfish, try the following recipe which will summon a few of the aromas of a seaside barbecue.

Baja Fish Tacos with Grilled Napa Cabbage Slaw
(Courtesy of “The Gardener & The Grill”, Karen Adler and Judith Fertig, 2012)

Serves 4

Slaw
1 large head Napa cabbage, cut in half lengthwise
Canola oil, for brushing
1 cup assorted baby greens, such as spinach or Boston lettuce
8 green onions, chopped (white and green parts)
¼ cup tarragon vinegar
¼ cup sour cream
½ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ tsp sea salt

Fish
1 ½ pounds mahi mahi, catfish, halibut, tilapia, or other mild white fish
¼ cup Red Hot Blackened Seasoning (see recipe below)
8 flour tortillas, for serving
8 lemon wedges, for serving
1 ½ cups salsa of your choice, for serving

Preheat grill to high heat. Reduce to medium high before grilling.

Brush the cut sides of the Napa cabbage with oil. Coat the fish fillets with Blackened Seasoning.

Grill the cabbage, cut side down, directly over the heat for 2 to 3 minutes or until the cabbage has grill marks. Remove from the grill.

Grill the fish directly over the heat, flesh side down first, for 4 to 5 minutes per side, or 10 minutes per in of thickness, Turn only once to grill the skin side, halfway through grilling.

Slice the grilled cabbage and place in a large bowl. Stir in the greens and green onions. In a small bowl, combine the vinegar, sour cream, lemon juice, and salt to make a dressing. Pour the dressing over the cabbage mixture and toss to blend.

Place some of the grilled fish on each tortilla. Top with about 1/3 cup of the slaw and roll up, soft taco style. Serve with a lemon wedge and a small ramekin of salsa.

Red Hot Blackened Seasoning:

In a glass jar, combine ¼ cup paprika, 1 ½ tablespoons garlic salt, 1 tablespoon granulated onion, 1 ½ teaspoons each dried oregano, dried basil and cayenne pepper, ¾ teaspoon dried thyme, 2 ¼ teaspoons each of black and white pepper. Cover the jar with a tight-fitting lid and shake to blend.

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Ample Bites Farm Update #2

Despite a paucity of rain the Ample Bites Vegetable Farm is coming along nicely. In fact, we have already harvested some of the lettuce, spinach and radishes and used them in a salad.

The tomatillo plants that Sandy was given by a co-worker, and nurtured by our neighbor while we were away, did not survive. The beans are under siege by some sort of bug and a couple of the potato plants seem not to be emerging. Otherwise, all of the plants are doing very well thanks to some watering by friends and family and Sandy’s persistent weeding.

The farm really looks cool with the emerging plants and the hay that we have placed around them to help subdue the omnipresent and aggressive weeds, which seem to grow as quickly as any vegetable with or without water.

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Ample Bites Farm Update

Phase two of the planting of the Ample Bites vegetable farm is nearly complete.

Plot ready for planting of tomatoes, peppers, cucumber and squash

The month-old plantings of onions, beets, lettuce, carrots and beans are coming along nicely. The potato plants have been in for a couple of days. Today we planted the tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and squash. Seeing the plants in place is a joy and makes me think about the tastes of summer.

In order to plant every thing we need to re-till the soil by hand and shovel and pull out the weeds that have grown in the month since the plot was roto-tilled. After the plants were in the ground the areas between them was covered with a layer of newspaper and a topping of straw. The final step was watering the plants, and the newspaper and straw to keep it from blowing away in the strong winds.

Now we have our fingers crossed for a nice soaking rain that is predicted for the overnight hours. Rain water seems to bring nutrients that we just can’t get from the well-water available to us at the garden plot.

Now it time for Ample Bites to hit the shower to rinse the sunscreen and dirt and soothe some tired old muscles.

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Summer Farmer’s Markets

Using fresh, local food products will enhance your spring, summer and fall meals. In the Fox Valley of Illinois there are a number of different farmer’s market options available to you. The fruits and vegetables from these markets will taste like nothing you could possibly buy at even the best grocer. The meats and cheeses are typically produced organically and humanely which also has a noticeable influence on the flavors of these items.

Follow the Ample Bites link Fox Valley Farmer's Markets to Local Summer Food Markets the Kane County Chronicle Farmer’s Market Guide and explore the many options available in the Fox Valley

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The 2012 Ample Bites Vegetable Farm

The Ample Bites vegetablefarm” is ready for planting.

After seeing Thomas Keller’s garden plot directly across the street from The French Laundry in Yountville, California, his iconic Napa Valley restaurant, Sandy and I were impressed by the value of having an abundance of high-quality fresh produce ready to go from the ground to the kitchen and onto the table the same day.

Sandy has had a garden – or as she has called it a “farm” – for years. Initially her “farm” was next to our home. After a home addition made it difficult to find a place in the yard with enough space and suitable sunlight, the “farm” is now located in the communal garden plots that are operated by the St. Charles Park District. The basic plot of about 20 feet x 20 feet is rented for $25.00 from about the 1st week in April until October 31st. The James O. Breen Community Park, where the Ample Bites plot is located, is divided into a total of 233 plots. Many of the gardeners rent more than one plot and a handful of the regulars have had the same plots for more than a decade.

The Park District does an initial pass with a roto-tiller in late March or early April, which is enough to churn under the weeds that have grown up during the late fall and early spring. We have found that a couple hours of roto-tilling is necessary to get the soil ready for planting. Once the soil is tilled and weed barrier is in place, all we need is some warmer weather to start some of the heartier items like onions, potatoes, spinach, lettuce, peas, and beans.

The vegetable garden will, as always, be organic. No herbicides or pesticides will be used. Weed control is done initially by the weed barrier and then later by hand-pulling and mulching the weeds and grasses.

Next month the summer vegetables such as tomatoes, bell peppers, jalapeno peppers, Anaheim peppers will be planted once we are fairly certain we will not have any more frost. Frost can occur in the Chicago area as late as mid-May.

The initial photos of the “farm” are far from exciting. Once we have vegetables sprouting, blooming and producing fruit, you will see much more compelling images and, of course, dishes being prepared using the bounty of the “farm“.

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Confessions of a Juicer

No, this is not what you think. Ample Bites is a juicer but not like a former athlete who relied upon performance-enhancing drugs to boost performance and build muscle. After using a blender to make healthy and nutritious smoothies for a couple of weeks, I decided to make the leap into world of making and consuming homemade juices. These juices won’t make you “huge” but they are performance enhancers that have been proven to improve health, contribute to longevity, and boost energy levels.

After doing a some research and considering the recommendation of a co-worker of Sandy’s who recently bought a juicer I decided to purchase a fairly basic centrifugal juicer — the Hamilton Beach Big Mouth.

The Hamilton Beach Big Mouth Juicer

This model was inexpensive which allows for a later “upgrade” to another unit, if necessary. The Big Mouth is very simply designed and very easy to use. Because the Big Mouth only has six parts, including the motor base, clean-up only takes a few minutes.

Six, easy to clean parts

The raw fruits and vegetables are fed into an opening on the top of the juicer. Juice is pumped out of the back of the unit into a pint-sized receptacle that can be used as a drinking glass. The pulp is ejected into a large container in the front of the juicer.

Centrifugal juicers like the Big Mouth are good for processing juices from harder fruits and vegetables like apples, celery, carrots. Softer fruits, such as bananas and strawberries, and small-leaved vegetables, like parsley, produce a lot of waste with a lesser percentage of the juice being extracted. There are expensive juicers with slower extraction processes that are more effective with the softer foods but for me the cost premium is difficult to justify.

Most juice recipes are very simple. The recipes typically include four to six fruits and/or vegetables. Certain recipes use water or another liquid to thin the finished juice product. Other recipes include nutritional supplements such as flaxseed.

Juice Ingredients

With the Big Mouth juicer the feeder opening is large enough that very little chopping of the fruits and vegetables is necessary. To operate the Big Mouth there is a simple On-Off switch. Once the ingredients have been processed through the juicer it is usually necessary to stir the juice to thoroughly mix it.

The next step is to drink up and, by all means, share the juice with a friend. Try the two savory juice recipes below

Fresh Peppy Parsley Juice

Peppy Parsley
(Courtesy of The Juice Lady’s Living Food Revolution, Sherrie Calbom)

Serves 1

1 cucumber, peeled
1 carrot, scrubbed well, green tops removed, ends trimmed
1 stalk of celery with leaves
1 handful of parsley
1 kale leaf, with rib removed
1 lemon, peeled

Tomato and Spice
(Courtesy of The Juice Lady’s Living Food Revolution, Sherrie Calbom)

Serves 1

2 medium tomatoes
2 dark green leaves such as kale
2 radishes
1 small handful of parsley
1 lime or lemon peeled
1 jalapeno pepper

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Thermapen – The Best Kitchen Tool Ever!

The Thermapen is the best tool AmpleBites has ever acquired.

After going through dozens of old-fashioned dial thermometers, cheap instant read thermometers, and timer-thermometer units, I finally made the decision to invest $100 in the Thermapen. I could not possibly be happier with a kitchen tool than I am with the Thermapen.

Problems with all the other thermometers included a lack of accuracy, poor battery life, and a lack of durability. Of course, the most significant of these problems is accuracy and, unfortunately in Ample Bites’ experience, the lesser thermometers tend to understate the temperature. There is nothing worse than buying a nice roast, piece of fish or poultry, cooking it to the desired temperature according to the thermometer only to find that the food has been overcooked. Once the meat is overcooked salvaging a decent outcome with gravy or au jus is possible but the essence of the center piece of the meal has been unalterably changed.

The Thermapen is a durable, versatile, extremely simple to use, and – most importantly – highly accurate instant read thermometer. The thermometer reads the temperature of the air or the food as soon as the probe is hinged away from the body of the Thermapen. The body of the unit fits ergonomically to the human hand and the probe folds into a tap when it is not in use. The temperature read-out is very easy to read, even for those with vision as poor as Ample Bites. The long-life battery fits easily into the handle. The entire unit is designed to by moisture resistant but, like almost any instant read thermometer, it cannot be submerged in liquid.

Some instant read thermometers can take as much as 2 or 3 seconds to reach a final reading. The Thermapen reads an accurate temperature instantly. This may seem trivial but it is it not. Most roast and grilling recipes work best when the oven or grill are closed for the highest percentage of cooking time. The longer you wait for the thermometer to come up to a final temperature the more the integrity of the recipe is compromised. Quickly getting an accurate read from the Thermapen has tremendous value, especially for recipes with shorter cook times.

Because of the simplicity of its design, the Thermapen is quite versatile. In addition to the Thermapen’s ability to quickly check meats and baked items, the Thermapen can be used to produce consistent quality foods. Ample Bites uses it to the temperature for water for doughs just right. Setting and maintaining the temperature of cooking oil for frying and pan frying is critical to producing multiple batches of consistent foods.

As you can surmise from my glowing review, Ample Bites thinks that the Thermapen is the best kitchen tool ever. You can get your own directly from ThermoWorks or through retailers like Amazon. Ample Bites recommends that you throw away the rest of the thermometers you have amassed over the years, buy the Thermapen, use the heck out of it.

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Cook’s Illustrated Has Great Tips and Classic Recipes

Ample Bites is a long-time reader and follower of Cook's Illustrated. This publication, which can also be followed on their Facebook fan page, offers a variety of recipes, cooking tips, information about ingredients, and reviews of cooking products and equipment.

Many of the CI recipes focus on best cooking practices for classic dishes like fried chicken, prime rib roast, lasagna, baked goods, and oven-roasted halibut, to name a few. CI’s recipes are well-written, easy to follow, and, from Ample Bites’ experience, yield outstanding results.

A regular feature in Cook’s Illustrated is a section called Quick Tips. These tips are provided by readers. Readers whose tips are published receive a complimentary 1-year subscription to the magazine.

My favorite from the current, April 2012 CI Quick Tips, was submitted by Peter Walker of Bellingham, Washington. He shares the use of parchment paper to wrap panini-style sandwiches before placing them on the panini press (or George Foreman-style sandwich grill). Wrapping the sandwich allows the heat of the press to cook the sandwich without the juices and cheese drippings leaking out. This technique makes the clean-up of the press virtually unnecessary.

Other Quick Tips used regularly in the Ample Bites kitchen are the placement of a folded dish towel under a cutting board to eliminate any rocking or sliding of the board and storing the remaining section of a tomato cut-side down on a piece of plastic wrap to preserve for use up to a day or two later.

The April 2012 Cook’s Illustrated also features an ingredient section titled Shrimp 101: How to buy, prep and cook juicy, tender shrimp. This two-page feature shares all of the basics of buying and preparation in easy to understand descriptions and illustrations.

The buy/prep page explains the sometimes confusing terms of count-per-pound (Jumbo 16/20, Extra-large 21/25, Large 26/30, Medium 41/50, Small 51/60) and recommends the 21/25 size for most applications. The other valuable topics discussed in this article are the sources of the shrimp (US Gulf of Mexico, Asia, and South America), as well as, the freezing and defrosting techniques including the importance of buying IQF, individually quick-frozen, shrimp. The basics of thawing and deveining are also explained very clearly.

The cooking page describes the four “foolproof” methods of pan searing, grilling, poaching and stir-frying. If you have a copy of this article it is one to clip and save for ready-reference any time you are cooking shrimp.

For valuable tips, reliable recipes and understandable information about food products and equipment, Ample Bites highly recommends Cook’s Illustrated.

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