For the Ones That Didn’t Get Away

Posted in Ramblings, Recipes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 12 April 2013 by slonaker

I think I had mentioned in an earlier post that I was never much of a “fish” person until I met my wife, who’s from Canada.  In British Columbia, fresh fish is as common as fresh beef is here in Texas.  In the years we’ve been together, I’ve gotten HOOKED (yeah, pun intended) on salmon, halibut, mahi mahi……yum, yum. yumyumYUM!!  They’ve got a gold mine up there in wild Coho and Sockeye salmon!  Amazing fish.

Prior to her, my idea of fish was fried catfish.  I still can put away a good platter of fried catfish, but I’ve grown to love grilled fish as well.  You just can’t hardly beat a nice fillet of red fish (or just drum), amberjack, grouper, tuna, WHATEVER over a hot bed of mesquite coals.  Special care, though, needs to be made to protect from two things: 1) flare ups, and 2) overcooking your fish.

Grilled Salmon

Grilled Salmon

Fish, by nature, are oily creatures.  This natural oil is like kerosene to a fire – it doesn’t take much before you’ll walk out and your grill is ABLAZE and your fillets look like charred strips of shoe leather.  So, always keep a good eye out on your grill – heck just stay outside with a good, cold glass of Pinot Gris or something equally tasty.  You can keep flare ups in check by keeping a little spray bottle of water to spritz the coals once in a while.  Fish cooks really fast, so there’s no worry about losing your fire by shootin’ a little water on it to keep it civil.  Grilling fish shouldn’t take much longer than 10-15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fillet.

Now, just as important about flare ups, is the seasoning of your fish.  Sure, mesquite smoke by itself adds a lot of flavor.  And fresh fish from the sea has a good measure of salt already in it, but you should always season your fish just to bump it up that much more in the levels of “awesome” flavor.  Check out “Grillin’ the Plank” for a great fish seasoning recipe.  Below is a really good “marinade” for fish.

Grilled Fish Marinade

Using a 2-cup glass measuring cup place these ingredients in this order (only way I know how to do it):

Juice from 1 lime
1 heaping teaspoon of minced garlic (approx 2 cloves)
1 tsp minced ginger
fill to 1/2 cup mark with vegetable oil
fill to 3/4 cup mark with soy sauce (use the “lite” variety to cut down on the salt)
fill to 7/8 cup mark with rice (or white) wine
couple of splashes of liquid smoke
1 Tbsp of your favorite Cajun seasoning (Old Bay, Emeril’s, etc)
1 bay leave, broken into thirds

Stir all ingredients real well and pour over 1 lb fish fillets in a flat glass baking dish – making sure to get marinade under the fish as well (you can flip the fish halfway through the marinating time).

Let marinate for no more than 1 hour.

Discard marinade when you grill the fish. **Make sure you round up those bay leaf pieces off the fish, too!

Whether you’re using charcoal or gas, you’re looking for a medium-high heat.  AND, unless your grill has some pretty narrow slots, you may want to get one of those aluminum sheets with the holes in them (like the one pictured above) for grilling your fish.  Fish can fall apart fairly easily and pieces will go EVERYwhere other than on the platter!

Fish Grill w/ Corn/Pineapple Salsa

Fish Grill w/ Corn/Pineapple Salsa

[HANDY TIP] If your fillets have skin on one side, start your grilling with the skin side UP.  You only flip your fish once and, this way, when you flip it, the skin will then be on the bottom side making a nice “tray” for when it’s time to take it off the grill.

Now, if you REALLY want to take this to the next level, try this fresh “salsa” on your fish!

Sweet Corn/Pineapple Salsa for Grilled Fish

1 cup frozen sweet corn kernels
1/2 red onion, coarsely chopped
1 can pineapple chunks (packed in its juice), drained
1/2 cup cilantro leaves, washed and de-stemmed
1 jalapeno, seeded and finely chopped (optional)
1 large avocado, diced
juice from one lime
salt & pepper to taste

Place first four ingredients (and jalapeno, if you want) in a large bowl and gently mix together to blend.  When you’re ready to serve, add the avocado, lime juice and salt & pepper and fold those into the corn/pineapple mix.  Serve over the grilled fish or on the side.



Get Stuffed!

Posted in Ramblings, Recipes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 7 April 2013 by slonaker

There comes a time in everyone’s life when they have to make some hard decisions: Bacon? or Sausage?  Seriously, though, the days of high fat, high calorie, cholesterol spiking foods come to a close and it breaks my heart because I dearly love those dishes I was brought up on oh so long ago.

Growing up in a semi-Mexican household in South Texas, the use of pork, beef, and chicken in everyday meals was commonplace.  Fish was cooked MAYbe once a month.  But, Carne Guisada, Picadillo, Aroz con Pollo, and the like were the mainstays.  I loved every bit of it and kick myself for not paying attention to how Mom did it.  Yeah, I’ve got some of her hand-scribbled recipes on note paper somewhere but, if you’ve spent any amount of time in the kitchen, you KNOW there are “methods” used that simply don’t get translated into a recipe.

So, when it came time me to make some of those “hard decisions,” I was struggling with doing without for quite a while.  Oh, I really don’t mind (and have come to enjoy) having fish more often – reversing the ratios of red meat vs fish and chicken dishes each week.  We still get bacon, but it’s usually half a slice wrapped around a jumbo scallop rather than eating half a package in a weekend.  But, the one thing I felt I was really missing out on was the SAUSAGE! There’s just something about a really good smoked sausage for breakfast, lunch or dinner that just elevates the dish so much more.  You’d be hard pressed, though, to find any food item that has more fat, more calories or more cholesterol than a link of sausage.  And I was missing it!

Then along comes TURKEY to the rescue!

We were trying some commercial turkey Italian sausage in a dish one night and found it that it’s pretty darn GOOD!  I was struck by the fact that, if the spices are done right, you really can NOT tell the difference in flavor.  So, that presented me with a challenge – and I love a challenge….  What if, I could make my OWN turkey sausage and get back some of those delicious meals I felt I’d been missing out on?

Turkey Breakfast Sausage

Turkey Breakfast Sausage

I started scouring the ‘net, looking for sausage recipes and, really, you can substitute turkey meat in just about any sausage recipe that calls for the use of pork or beef.  I found some recipes for a breakfast sausage, culled the ingredients for what I thought I would like in mine and came up with a WINNER!

3 lbs ground turkey *
3 tsp sage
3 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp black pepper
1 1/2 Tbsp brown sugar
scant 1/2 tsp marjoram
1/4 tsp red pepper flake (or to taste)
3/4 tsp ground ginger
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/8 tsp ground clove

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl really well to be sure everything gets blended.  If you’re using a mixer, be careful not to turn it up too high or too long.  Hand mixing about 5 minutes should do it.

If you’re going to make this into links, add 3 oz of ice cold water to your mix and immediately stuff into casings.  Otherwise, cover and refrigerate 24 hours, then divide into 6 oz portions, bag and freeze.

This makes for EXCELLENT pan sausage to use with scrambled eggs for taquitos or just as patties.

Smokin' Turkey Sausage

Smokin’ Turkey Sausage

* You can buy Jennie-O ground turkey meat in 3-lb packages.  I use turkey “meat” rather than turkey “breast” because using just breast meat tends to be too dry.

If you make this sausage into links, put them in the smoker!  They make for EXCELLENT smoked sausage for pan frying later. Or just throw them on the grill!


On a Lighter Note….

Posted in Ramblings, Recipes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on 5 April 2013 by slonaker
Bun Ga

Bun Ga

My wife and I LOVE Vietnamese food and Vietnamese cooking.  We were introduced to this dish by one of our favorite restaurants, “Pho Saigon.”  And we order it regularly when we go there.  But, some days we like to make it at home – and there’s no reason why you can’t either!  Once you look at the picture, though, you may be saying, “what the heck does this have to do with grilling???” Well, one of the ingredients, the chicken, you DO grill and you should use one of my favorite off-the-shelf marinades, too.

This dish, in Vietnamese, is called, “Bun Ga” (bohn – GAH) and it’s a rice noodle salad with grilled chicken.  The pork variety of this is called “Bun Thit Nuong” (bohn-thit-NOONG) and is equally delicious.  I can’t decide what makes this dish so good: either the grilled meat with that special marinade, or the fish sauce dressing that goes all over it. Pho Saigon makes this dressing and I would give a king’s ransom for their recipe.  I’d pour that over ICE CREAM, it’s that good.  They usually bring a small bowl of it when serving this salad, but I always ask for an extra one – it makes a great dipping sauce for their Imperial Rolls, too!  I think my recipe for it comes close, but I know it’s either missing something or I added something theirs doesn’t have.  But, it’s still good.

Anyway, you’ll love serving this dish to guests who you want to both impress and keep the dinner (or lunch/brunch) light.

Word of caution: For those with nut allergies, this does have peanuts as an ingredient.  The “wok oil” listed below also has peanut oil in it.  You can easily use vegetable or canola oil and eliminate the peanuts for topping.  It won’t detract that much from the dish overall.

I would advise, also, to do a little prep work when making this.  Actually prep work or “mise en place” helps a great deal whenever you’re cooking, entertaining, wanting to impress that special someone….whatever.  It allows you to:

  1. Look like a professional chef
  2. Cook more efficiently
  3. Have more time to being a host

So, with that in mind, let’s begin.

First, we’ll make the “Nuoc Cham” or fish sauce dressing:

1/2 cup water
1/4 cup fish sauce *
3 Tbsp sugar
2 Tbsp lime juice
1 Tbsp sweet chili sauce
2 tsp “wok oil” **
1 tsp minced garlic
1 tsp red pepper flake

* Try the “Three Crabs” brand of fish sauce – great flavor and less salt
** Wok oil is a blended oil you can find in some supermarkets and most Asian markets that has peanut oil, sesame oil, ginger and garlic

p_480_320_62F34CD2-687B-486D-9579-6465705CB2E7.jpegCombine all ingredients in a glass measuring cup or (non-reactive) bowl and stir well to dissolve all the sugar.  When the liquid appears clear, cover and store in the refrigerator for 24 hours.

There’s emphasis on keeping this in the fridge for at least 24 hours so all the flavors meld together.  When you’re ready to serve, strain it through a sieve into a clear bowl or (better still) a glass dressing bottle.

For the meat:

You’ll need 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (or you can use the pork equivalent – boneless pork ribs work GREAT).  Drizzle enough Mama Sita’s Barbeque Marinade* over the chicken to give it a nice glaze (not too much).  Marinade for 2-4 hours, then grill until done.  Let rest and slice thin for placing on the salad.

For the salad:

1 head of leaf lettuce, sliced in thin strips
2 carrots, shredded
1 can bean sprouts, drained
1 package of thin rice noodles (looks like dried angel hair pasta)
1 cup cilantro leaves, rinsed and de-stemmed
1/2 cup peanuts, chopped

Have all of these ingredients prepped and into separate bowls for either assembling or letting your guests make their own.  The rice noodles, you’ll need to drop into a pan of boiling hot water for about 3-4 minutes to soften.  Then drain and leave in the colander over a bowl.

Putting it all together:

Take 4 rather large salad bowls.  Separate the leaf lettuce into each one.  Then take the rice noodles and separate them into the four bowls.  Continue assembling the bowls with the carrots, bean sprouts, cilantro leaves and then the chicken.  Sprinkle peanuts over each to finish.

When your ready to serve, drizzle the Nuoc Cham over each and away you go!

Wanna really add some “zip”?0002446306109_500X500

Nothing gives Asian cuisine a good kick like Sriracha sauce.  It adds the heat without the “sting” you get from the direct contact of peppers.  Just drizzle it over the top of the salad, as little or as much as you want.  GREAT compliment to this dish.


The Marriage of Two Loves

Posted in Ramblings, Recipes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 4 April 2013 by slonaker

Chorizo and Hamburgers! ’nuff said??  If you’ve never had really good Mexican chorizo (Spanish for “sausage”), then you have NOT lived a life.  Notice, though, I said, “REALLY good…..”

Don’t confuse Mexican chorizo from it’s Spanish cousin.  The seasonings are different, the texture is different…. Yeah, they’re both “chorizo,” but nary the two will be the same.

Spanish chorizo is more of a link-style sausage that is smoked and/or dried.  It has all of the flavorful ingredients you’ll find in other chorizo: pork, paprika, chili powder, etc.  The dried variety is GREAT for tapas or just eating on the road.

Mexican chorizo, however, is fattier and meant to be crumbled and fried like hamburger meat.  Depending on how MUCH fat is in it, you’ll want to drain that grease before you proceed with anything else you plan to do with it.  Now, a REALLY good beef chorizo has a lot less fat (believe it or not) and sometimes doesn’t need draining.

It is Mexican chorizo I crave and the one I’m talking about here – so from this point on, when you read “chorizo,” I mean the Mexican-style.  That said, there are still are about as many brands of chorizo out there as there are other sausages with about as varied of ingredients as you can find.  There’s pork, beef, pork and beef, and turkey.  I’ve had several different ones, with the exception of turkey – I make my own of that kind, but that’s for another blog entry…..

chorizo-de-san-manuelSo, back to what I said about a “REALLY good” chorizo.  The best commercially made chorizo I’ve ever had is made by the Guerra family down in “the valley” of South Texas and is labeled “Chorizo de San Manuel”.  They have a pork and a beef kind that is out-of-this-world good!  Their beef chorizo is one of those that doesn’t need to be drained after cooking. Just add eggs, potatoes, and cheese, slap that on a tortilla and you’ve got the best taquito out there!  OR, find you some Oaxaca cheese – a white, soft, Mexican cheese similar to mozzarella.  Shred that in your cooked chorizo and serve it on a warm tortilla.  One of my favorite restaurants in San Antonio calls it, “Queso Flameado.”  …..oh my…..

But, shifting back to the subject here.  Anytime you grill a hamburger, you’ve catapulted yourself to greatness.  Sure, a pan fried hamburger is good, but there’s something about GRILLING a burger on a Saturday evening with a good (big) glass of red wine that just makes the weekend that much more memorable.  Now, take that hamburger meat and add CHORIZO to it…..NOW we’re talking “WOW!”  You’ll want a good, lean (if it’s possible) chorizo to do this.  You don’t want a really fatty kind that’s going to flare the crap out of your grill the instant you lay the meat on it.  That beef chorizo I spoke of earlier would be a good one to use in this recipe.

So, for this recipe:

Chorizo Hamburger Sliders

Chorizo Hamburger Sliders

8 oz chorizo
1 lb ground beef (or turkey)
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
salt & pepper to taste
shredded mozzarella cheese
1 large avocado, sliced
red onion, sliced
2 tomatoes, sliced
6 whole wheat buns

Combine first 3 ingredients in a bowl, adding salt & pepper if desired.  Shape into 6 patties.  Grill on med-high heat for about 7 minutes, flip once and grill another 7 minutes.  Top each with shredded cheese a couple minutes before removing.

Serve on toasted bun with sliced avocado, red onion and tomato.

Makes 6 burgers (or 10 sliders)

Grillin’ the Plank!

Posted in Ramblings, Recipes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 1 April 2013 by slonaker

20130401-141658.jpgNow, I’d like to know who it was that first thought of taking a fish and slapping it onto a wooden plank over an open fire to come up with something so magically DELICIOUS!

I had my first cedar plank salmon at my stepson’s house a couple years ago. Until then, I thought using cedar wood was “taboo” because of the resins. But, the aromatics and the flavor of using that cedar plank is just amazing!

The other thing you have to understand is, I wasn’t really a “salmon” kind of guy up until a few years ago. Growing up in S Texas, there ain’t a whole lot of (fresh) salmon to be found here. I was a Gulf waters fish eater. Still am, really.  Drum, grouper, flounder, etc are our main stays. And, of course there are those fresh water varieties, of which I mostly preferred catfish.

However, my bride persisted – being from the “great white north” she loves salmon, and thankfully we can find it here in our super-duper market. Every once in a while, I’d sneak a taste of her fish and eventually grew to like it.

But, it was that wonderful cedar plank experience that tipped me over the edge and I can’t remember now the last time I’ve had catfish. Probably wouldn’t like the taste anyway ……. NAH! I’ll always be a catfish fan……

So, if you want to try doing a cedar plank salmon (or any fish) yourself, and I STRONGLY urge you to try it, here’s what to do:

If you have the means, you can make your own planks – apparently there’s no special “treatment” done to the wood other than cleaning the sawdust residue from the sanding of the plank.  Otherwise, you can find them just about anywhere that sells fresh fish.  The key to using a cedar (or alder, maple, apple, cherry or hickory) plank is to soak it.  There are several schools of thought on this – it can be anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours.  I tend to lean more towards the 3 hours because I want a good steam to come up from that plank without the risk of a “flare up.” If you’ve never seen cedar wood burn…’s like INSTANT fire!  So, you have to keep an eye on it and have a spray bottle of water handy to spritz out any possible flare ups.

Okay, that said, it’s time to get the fish ready.  Now, I’m working with salmon here but, just like there are many different planks you can use, there are also different fish that work well on them.  Mahi Mahi, tuna, drum, flounder….just about any fish can be “planked.”

So, the Ingredients:

  • 1 fish fillet (as big as you want …. and still be able to fit on the plank)
  • Seasoning (below)
  • 3 green onions, sliced
  • one lemon, sliced
  • 4 pats of butter (margarine….whatever….)

Seasoning – try this:

  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp cayenne
  • 1 tsp dry mustard
  • 2 Tbsp dill weed
  • 1 Tbsp paprika

Mix these ingredients together in a bowl you can cover and save.  Sprinkle on the fish as generously as you want as (you can see) it’s pretty light on the salt, but LOTS of flavor.

After you’ve seasoned the fish, add the sliced green onions on top – just layer it all over the fish.

Now take the lemon slices and arrange them on top of the green onions.  This will add the lemon flavor and some moisture as it’s cooking.

And, finally, add the pats of butter on the very top.  This will melt and ooze and flow all over everything and just drive you crazy!

Take your plank, with the prepared salmon, and place it over a medium-high fire on your grill.  Again, keep that spritzer bottle handy.

Depending on how big your fish is, the cooking time varies from 20-30 minutes.  It takes time for your plank to heat up, build up the steam it needs to infuse that flavor in your fish.  You’ll know it’s ready when you see it start to flake.  Don’t let it go too long because nobody likes dry fish!

Want to make a cool presentation?  Just take the plank off the fire and place it on a large platter or cookie sheet with large lettuce leaves underneath (purely a Martha thing, but……).


The Joys of Brining!

Posted in Ramblings, Recipes with tags , , , , , , , , , on 31 March 2013 by slonaker

It’s wasn’t until I got my (new) smoker that I even considered “brining.”  I worked for one of those national fried chicken chains over a summer…..about a hundred some-odd years ago….. and you’d think, because THEY brine their chickens, that that notion would’ve stuck with me – although, I can still cut a chicken into 8 perfect pieces today, thankyouverymuch!

But, brining is nothing new, of course.  It just never occurred to me that it was something I should be doing with my BBQ’ing.  …..until now……

Want to know the secret to a great, smoked pork butt?  BRINE IT first!  Brining is much like marinating but it is more salt-based to lock in moisture in meat that would otherwise dry out when cooked for long periods of time (ie, BBQing or smoking).  This is a rather simple brine for an 8-lb pork butt.

Brining Pork Butts

Brining Pork Butts


4 cups water
1/3 cup sea salt *
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
1/3 cup pickling spice
1 Tbsp black peppercorns

* some folks prefer Kosher vice sea salt – your preference

In large pot, bring water to boil. Lower to simmer and add rest of brine ingredients. Simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Take off stove and cool to room temperature (adding a few ice cubes will speed this process up a bit – but only a few).

Place pork butt in a two-gallon Ziploc (or a brining bucket, if you have one) and pour in the brine.  Squeeze as much are air as you can when sealing it up.  Refrigerate for 24-48 hours.

Remove and rinse pork butt to get all the pickling spice bits off.  Score the fat layer in a diamond pattern. Then, using a brush, apply a thin layer of yellow mustard to the meat. Then apply whatever rub you want, covering the meat entirely. Place in large bowl, cover and refrigerate overnight.

Set smoker for 225°-235° (depending on ambient temp outside). Place pork butt on rack, fat side up, and smoke for 12 hours. Pecan or apple wood chips work great for this!  You can use a water pan to add even more moisture (you lose a bit of the “bark” by doing this, but….).  I’ve used leftover apple wine, some apricot wine, beer, whatever flavor(s) you want to add is only limited by your imagination.  GO WILD!

Remove from smoker, cover with foil and allow to rest in a warm oven for 60 minutes.  Then sit back and watch the meat just FALL APART!

Smoked Pork Butt

This would’ve been a lot “prettier” but we started pickin’ at it too soon….

Szechuan Sesame Chicken

Posted in Recipes with tags , , , , , , , on 30 March 2013 by slonaker


1 Tbsp soy sauce
1 Tbsp rice (white) wine
1 Tbsp sweet chili sauce
1 Tbsp water
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp minced ginger
1/2 tsp Chinese 5-Spice

Combine all ingredients, stir well to blend, set aside.

5 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut in bite-size pieces
3 Tbsp peanut oil
1 Tbsp sesame oil
1 tsp chili oil (optional)
Flour (rice flour works better)
Fresh ground black pepper
Sesame Seeds
2 green onions, chopped

Heat oils in large skillet on med-high heat. Dredge chicken pieces in flour, shake excess and place in hot oil. Grind some fresh black pepper, to taste. Allow the chicken to cook on one side before gently tossing and cook on all sides until crispy (about 20 minutes).

Stir sauce again and pour, quickly, over chicken. Stir chicken continuously to coat with sauce. Keep stirring, gently to not break the coating. When sauce has evaporated, take skillet off the burner, sprinkle with sesame seeds and green onions and serve with white rice.