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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Grilled Salmon and Warm Cherry Tomato Salad

Salmon is a versatile fish that can be cooked in any number of ways. Ample Bites likes Grilled Salmon the best. Other preparations include smoked, poached, planked, and salmon burgers or patties.

Grilled Salmon with a light coating of good olive oil, sea salt, and fresh ground black pepper brings out the essence of the main ingredient.

Grilled Salmon

Serves 4

4 8-oz salmon fillets
2 Tbsp good extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Heat you grill to a high temperature.

Brush the salmon with the olive oil and season with the sea salt and pepper.

Place the fillets skin side down on a clean, hot grill grate. Close the grill and cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Flip the fillets over, cover the grill again and cook for an additional 2 to 3 minutes for medium well done. If you wish to check the temperature of the fish it should read about 140F.

A perfect side dish for Grilled Salmon is a Warm Cherry Tomato Salad. The salad is light and fresh. The acidity of the tomatoes work well with the simple, meaty flavors of the fish.

Warm Cherry Tomato Salad
(Courtesy of Super Suppers Cookbook, Judie Byrd, 2006)

Serves 4 to 6

2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 tsp minced fresh garlic
2 pints cherry tomatoes
6 green onions, bias-sliced, or ½ cup finely chopped onion
2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tsp Kosher salt
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
½ cup chopped fresh parsley

Preheat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add garlic, cook and stir for 2 minutes.

Add tomatoes and green onion, cook and stir until tomato skins begin to burst. Stir in vinegar, salt and pepper. Remove skillet from heat. Add parsley, toss to combine.

An added plus for both the Grilled Salmon and the Warm Cherry Tomato Salad is the simple preparation. Both dishes can be completed in less than 30 minutes, which makes them perfect for a middle of the week dinner.

Shrimp Stock for Cioppino

Making you own Shrimp Stock, for use in zuppa di mare, Cioppino or seafood risotto, is easy and fresh shrimp stock adds a deep layer of flavor unattainable with the use of a vegetable stock.

Do-it-yourself shrimp stock does take some planning. Primarily, you need to save shells from the shrimp that you peel for cooking. Ample Bites always buys raw, frozen shrimp and freezes the shells in zip-top plastic bags until I have at least a loosely-packed quart.

These shrimp shells seem, at first glance, to be of little value but there is a tremendous amount of flavor clinging to them. To make the Shrimp Stock Ample Bites uses the following recipe:

Shrimp Stock

1 – 1 1/2 quart of loosely-packed shrimp shells
2 medium yellow onions, chopped coarsely
2 stalks of celery, chopped coarsely
2 medium-sized carrots, chopped coarsely
1 clove of garlic, peeled and smashed
2 tsp sea salt
1 bundle bouquet garni (5 sprigs of thyme, 2 bay leaves, 10 black peppercorns, 3 sprigs of parsley wrapped and tied in a piece of cheesecloth)
4 quarts cold water

Rinse the shrimp shells under cold water and place them in a stockpot with the remaining ingredients. Bring the stock to a boil over high heat, then reduce to a simmer for 10 minutes. Turn the heat back to medium and cook uncovered for about 30 minutes. Allow the stock to cool and then strain through a fine strainer. If you will not be using the stock immediately you can store it in the refrigerator for 2-3 day or freeze in a sealed plastic container for about one month.

What did I tell you? Really easy, right? The scariest part for most home cooks is the term “bouquet garni” If you have cheesecloth, kitchen twine and the listed ingredients, it takes 2-3 minutes to put this element of the stock together.

A favorite Ample Bites recipe incorporating shrimp stock is Cioppino, sometimes called a seafood stew. The following recipe serves six.

Cioppino

2 lbs russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2” chunks
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 16-oz can whole tomatoes, undrained, crushed by hand
½ tsp, crushed red chile peppers
5 cloves garlic, minced
2 medium yellow onions, roughly chopped
2 bay leaves, broken in half
1 medium green bell pepper, cored, seeded, and roughly chopped
1 cup shrimp stock or bottled clam juice
½ cup dry white wine
Kosher salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
18 mussels, rinsed and debearded
2 lbs boneless, skinless haddock or cod filets, cut into 1 ½” chunks
3 Tbsp minced fresh cilantro
3 Tbsp minced fresh parsley

Bring a large pot of slated water to a boil and add potatoes; cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, 12-15 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Heat the oil in a 6-qt pot over medium-high heat. Add tomatoes, chile flakes, garlic, onions, bay leaves, and peppers and cook, stirring often, until soft, about 12 minutes. Add fish stock, wine and salt and pepper and cook stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Add fish and continue to cook, cover, until all of the mussels are opened and the fish is cooked through, 5-6 minutes more.

To serve, transfer fish stew to a large serving bowl and sprinkle with half the parsley and cilantro. Place the potatoes in another serving dish, sprinkle with remaining cilantro and parsley and serve alongside stew.

Ample Bites hopes you find the value in saving shrimp shells for Shrimp Stock. Enjoy the Cioppino while the weather is still relative cool. Mangia!

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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.

Rios D’Sudamerica – 2010 West Armitage, Chicago

The Ample Bites family had an early dinner at Rios D'Sudamerica on Saturday night. The restaurant, which is located in Bucktown, serves authentic Peruvian food in a beautifully decorated space with very high ceilings and tasteful murals of the sights and scenes of South America. Rios overs a large menu including a number of fish, poultry and meat entrees.

The stars of the menu are the ceviches. We enjoyed the Mixto Ceviche which featured white fish, squid and shrimp in a lime and coconut-based marinade that also included a touch of ginger and habanero pepper. The ceviche is served with a piece of boiled potato, sweet potato and some hominy. Our waiter explained that the purpose of the starches is to offset the acidity of the marinade. He, of course, was right – the balance of the starches with the ceviche was amazing.

The entrees were served with a basket of bread with a puree of smoked jalapeno peppers as a condiment. This spicy sauce was very powerful but it added a different and enjoyable flavor to the warm crusty bread. We enjoyed our appetizer with some Peruvian lager and the house Cabernet Sauvignon.

Our appetizer of Jalea de Mariscos en Salsa de Cebolla, a breaded fried calamari dish topped with a fresh tomato and onion salsa, was an interesting departure from the typical dish served with a marinara sauce.

The AmpleBites party enjoyed four different entrees which were all served with a hearty portion of rice. The Arroz con Pato was a dark beer marinated leg and breast of duck served over an aromatic cilantro rice. Pollo Relleno was a breaded chicken breast that was stuffed with a combination of spinach, ham and chihuahua cheese, pan-fried and then served with a white rice and cream sauce. The Arroz con Mariscos featured a combination of shrimp, clams, squid and mussels served paella-style with a brandy, white wine broth. The Moqueca de Pescado was a halibut steak which was steamed in coconut milk with garlic, tomatoes, onion, peppers and cilantro infused palm oil.

All of the servings were generous in size, especially the two Arroz dishes. The majority of the entrees were priced just under $20. The ceviche, at $14, was well worth the price, in fact, we all agreed that the ceviche with a cold beer and a basket of the bread with the pepper puree would be a nice light meal for about $20 plus gratuity.

As we were leaving, our waiter reminded us about the Sunday Brunch, priced at $13, which we were told featured a wide variety of dishes. I suspect that one of the Ample Bits party, a new resident of the Bucktown area, is likely to be back soon for the brunch.

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Coffee-brined Grilled Pork Chops

Our weather this spring has been amazing and this Sunday is no different. One of my favorite things to do on a day like today is to grill thick, juicy pork chops. I find that brining pork chops help to keep them very juicy and flavorful even when seared on a very hot grill.

One of my favorite brines uses black coffee instead of simply using water. We usually have a little left over after breakfast. If that is not enough, I’ll brew just a little more. If I plan far enough ahead, like I did this week, I’ll save a couple days worth of leftover coffee for my brine. The recipe for my brine and grilling instructions for the chops follows.

Coffee-brined Grilled Pork Chops

Serves 4

4 1 to 1 ½” thick center cut bone-in pork chops
4 cups black coffee, cooled to room temperature
4 Tbsp Kosher salt
2 Tbsp honey
2 Tbsp maple syrup
1 Tbsp dried sage leaves
1 Tbsp dried thyme leaves
EVOO
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Dissolve the kosher salt into black coffee in a large non-reactive bowl. Add honey, syrup, sage and thyme, mixing thoroughly. Pat pork chops dry and immerse into the coffee – spice brine. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours. Remove pork chops from the brine, rinse under cold water and pat dry. Allow the pork chops to elevate to room temperature before grilling.

Brush the pork chops with good olive oil and season on both sides with salt and pepper.

Preheat gas grill to high (500F+) for at least ten minutes. Sear one side of the pork chops over high heat for 3 – 4 minutes, rotating the chop 90 degrees halfway through. Reduce the heat to high indirect with burner directly below the pork chops turned off. Flip the chops to the other side and cook for another 3 – 4 minutes, again rotating 90 degrees halfway through.

Remove the pork chops from the grill, cover and let stand for 5 minutes before serving to allow the juices to redistribute within the meat. Before serving drizzle with chops with a small amount of a very good olive oil.

Today, I am combining the pork chops with Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Red Onions, see my earlier post for the recipe for this dish, and baked acorn squash. The squash recipe can be found below. For a starch with this meal, I like to use a rice or mashed potato to soak up all of the pork chop juices and the buttery goodness from the squash.

Baked Acorn Squash with Sage and Asiago

Serves 4

2 Acorn squash, halved with seeds removed
8 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into eight pats
1 Tbsp maple syrup
1 Tbsp honey
2 Tbsp dried sage leaves
8 oz Asiago cheese, grated to a medium texture
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

On a baking sheet lined with foil, place two pats of butter in each half of squash, season with salt and pepper, drizzle with each with roughly ¼ of the syrup and the honey, and sprinkle with the dried sage.

Bake for 40 minutes. Check the doneness of the squash with a metal skewer. If the skewer pulls out easily after insertion, the squash is ready. If not, cook for an additional 5 minutes at a time, checking doneness each time until done.

When the squash is cooked, sprinkle the grated Asiago over the squash and bake until the cheese is melted, then serve immediately.

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Two More Recipes from The Olive Mill

Ample Bites will not be cooking again until Sunday because of family plans tonight and tomorrow night. The Sunday menu will be a good one, so please check back for the recipes and photos.

Here are a couple more great recipes using the olive oils and balsamic vinegar from our friends at The Olive Mill:

Marinated Mushroom Salad

A simple salad is always a welcome compliment to any entree.

1 Tbsp OLIVE MILL Cherry Balsamic
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1/4 tsp dried oregano
1/4 tsp dried tarragon
1/8 tsp each Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsp OLIVE MILL olive oil, such as Kalamata
1 1/2 cup sliced fresh mushrooms
1/2 cup cherry tomato halves
8 pitted ripe olives, halved
Lettuce, rinsed, dried and chopped

In a small bowl, combine the first six ingredients. Gradually whisk in oil until blended. Add the mushrooms, tomatoes and olives and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour. Toss the mushroom salad with the lettuce and serve immediately.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Red Onion

The Ample Bites family loves Brussels Sprouts. This recipe is a very easy and savory way to prepare these healthy vegetables.

2 – 3 lb Brussels sprouts, rinsed, trimmed and halved
1 red onion, quartered and thinly sliced
3 Tbsp OLIVE MILL olive oil, such as Ascalana
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp Kosher salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp OLIVE MILL White Lemon Balsamic

Preheat oven to 350F. Line baking sheet with a thin coating of olive oil.

In a large bowl, toss the sprouts, onion, oil, sugar, and salt and pepper. Spread the vegetables on the baking sheet and roast for 35 minutes, stirring halfway through. Remove from the oven and drizzle with the balsamic vinegar. Toss well, re-season with salt and pepper to taste and serve while warm.

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Field Trip to Freddy’s Pizzeria

To describe Freddy’s as a pizzeria is a colossal understatement. Freddy’s does have their own pizza but their menu includes dozens of homemade Italian speciality dishes that are available for lunch, dinner and catering. This storefront operation opened in 1968 and has served generations from the same location at 1600 South 61st Avenue in Cicero, Illinois.

Our field trip today included three generations of the AmpleBites’ family including my father-in-law, who grew up with his parents less than two blocks from Freddy’s and my wife, Sandy, who visited the store often while teaching 2nd grade at an elementary school in the neighborhood on Austin Boulevard.

The store, not including a small three-season’s dining area, is slightly larger than the typical living room. It is packed with shelves brimming with dried pastas, sauces, oils and vinegars. One wall is lined with a freezer case loaded with stuffed pastas, all ready-to-cook, as well as, waters, juices, and soft drinks. The ceiling is hung with dried sausages and prosciuttos.

The balance of the store is dedicated to an array of delectable breads, cheeses, and hot and cold prepared dishes — from which it is nearly impossible to make a meal selection because they all look so appetizing. Finally, if you have any room left — or if you came to Freddy’s just for this — they have a case of different flavored gelatos and ices that rivaled any I have seen in Rome or Florence.

Our trip was ostensibly to visit the old neighborhood and stop for lunch, which we did. To order our lunch meal we jumped in a tightly packed line with the local residents, police and fire personnel, and a few more of us outsiders. The authentic Italian sub sandwiches and fresh seafood salad, loaded with calamari, mussels and shrimp, were amazing. My daughter’s slice of pizza, made this morning, was saucy, cheesy and, by her account, as good as advertised.

Despite the chaos of lunch line the service was efficient and we were soon eating our meal thinking about what we should bring home to reheat for dinner.

For an appetizer, we enjoyed slices of the home-cured pepperoni and crusty italian bread and, of course, some of the leftover seafood salad from our lunch.

Then for dinner, after a lengthy debate about the delicious choices, we selected a lemon chicken and artichoke hearts dish that we supplemented with some leftover stuffed red peppers and potatoes.

Freddy’s is about an hour or less from most suburban Chicago locations and is well worth the trip. I know AmpleBites will be back very soon.

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Healthy Fruit and Vegetable Smoothies

This trend is coming soon to the Ample Bites household. Sandy and I have both been introduced to some amazing smoothie recipes during the last couple of days. We feel compelled to give healthy smoothies a try.

Adding smoothies to our diet allows us to take in more vitamins directly from quality food sources, increase consumption of dietary fiber, and purported benefits including both healthy weight loss and increased energy. I sure can’t think of a downside to the smoothie trend … heck, you can even use up herbs and vegetable, like parsley, cilantro, celery and carrots, leftover from recipes made earlier in the week.

With the aid of a blender or smoothie maker and recipes like those in the Runners World article and the Parsley, Kale and Berry Smoothie from Bon Appetit magazine below, these delicious smoothies are easily within your reach.

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Parsley, Kale, and Berry Smoothie
(Courtesy of Bon Appetit, April 2012)

Before blending

Serves 2

Puree 1/2 cup (packed) flat-leaf parsley (leaves and stems), 4 kale leaves (center ribs removed), 1 cup frozen organic berries (such as strawberries or raspberries), 1 banana (cut into pieces), 1 teaspoon ground flaxseed, and 1 cup water into a blender until smooth (add water if too thick).

Calories: 100/serving Fat: 1 G Fiber: 4 G

I’ll let you know how this works out for Ample Bites. If you are already caught up in the trend or you are just starting to make your own healthy smoothies, let Ample Bites know about your favorite recipes and smoothie maker reviews.

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Good Old Grilled Cheese — A Hot and Trendy Comfort Food

Grilled cheese sandwiches have become a fast food and food truck trend that are bringing one of the all-time great comfort foods to more and more people and an even higher level of recognition.

These sandwiches are easy to assemble and simple for the home cook to perfect. Since the variety of ingredients that can be incorporated into a grilled cheese sandwich is only limited by the number ingredients available where you live and shop, the variations of grilled cheese sandwiches to be made are limited only by the imagination of the cook.

Worldwide there are many varieties of sandwiches that can be considered a grilled cheese, including the well-known pannini. In this “Bite” I am going to focus on the more Americanized versions using white breads like sourdough, ryes and whole-grain wheat breads.

Ingredients
Different cheeses melt at different temperatures and some cheeses lend themselves to being cooked in a sandwich better than others. Among the best cheeses to use are cheddar, Monterey, Colby, swiss, muenster, havarti, provolone, American, goat cheese or feta, brie, and fontina. There are, however, hundreds of other cheeses to that can be used.

Meats, vegetables, and condiments can be added to the bread and cheese ingredients in various forms and combinations.

Thinly sliced lunch meats work best because the fairly quick skillet grilling process effectively warms these meats. Raw or prepared vegetables such as tomato, onions, mushrooms, peppers, and herbs provide additional flavor and consistency. Condiments can include the more common pickles, catsup, mayonnaise and mustard or more exotic items like pestos, hummus, olive salad, cranberry sauce or sauerkraut.

Generic Recipe
To make a grilled cheese sandwich you will heat a tablespoon of butter in a heavy-based skillet over medium heat. Once the butter has melted, place the assembled sandwich into the skillet, pressing it slightly, and cook until the bottom of the bread is golden brown. This should take 3 – 5 minutes. Flip the sandwich over (you may need to add more butter depending on how absorbent the bread is) and cook until the other side is golden and the cheese is melted, about another 2 – 5 minutes.

Much as with any simple meal, one of the keys to making a good grilled cheese sandwich is limiting the ingredients to just a few very good quality items. Experimenting with different ingredients is fun and it can be especially rewarding when you hit on a great combination. If you have a limited amount of time to experiment and try one of the recipes below.

Bacon, Cheddar and Tomato
Using a sourdough bread, add two slices of crisply cooked bacon and a slice of tomato with two slices of medium cheddar cheese.

Pesto, Provolone and Mozzerella
Using a heavy-bodied white bread, spread a thin layer of pesto on the inside of the bottom and top slices of bread and place a slice of mozzarella and a slice of provolone between them so the pesto and cheeses melt together when cooked.

Swiss, Mushroom and Onion on Rye
Using a dark rye bread, spread a thin layer of mayonnaise or Thousand Island dressing on the inside of the bottom and top slices of bread and place two slices of swiss cheese along with sauteed mushrooms and onions between them before cooking.

Feta, Pancetta, Basil and Tomato on Wheat Bread
Using a whole-grained wheat bread, brush a light coating of 1/2 olive oil and 1/2 balsamic vinegar on the inside of the bottom and top slices of bread and place two large basil leaves, one large slice of tomato, a thin slice of pancetta, and generous amount of feta cheese between them before cooking.

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