Easy Ways to Elevate Your Recipes

Fresh Herbs

People are always asking me about my recipes, how I make them, how I make everything taste so CHEFFY.

Well, it’s actually just a few little tricks that you’ll see in pro kitchens ALL THE TIME, but not as much in the home kitchen.
Fresh Herbs
Here is my short list of how to many any recipe taste more professional!

– Use fresh herbs. Most home cooks rely on dried herbs and the difference is pronounced when you simply use a fresh herb rather than a dried one. Both have places in cooking: the dried herbs are generally more intense and work best when put in early in the dish so they get some cook time; the fresh herbs are generally more bright and fresh and work best when added at the end of a dish, so as not to cook out the flavor. Even adding a little freshly chopped Italian flat leaf parsley can make a meh dish come alive. Try it!

– Use more citrus. I’ll qualify this one by saying that Americans don’t use enough citrus. Most non-European, warm places use citrus liberally, mainly because it’s grown there. Try adding some lemon or lime zest to your next veg dish. You can add zest midway through cooking, but don’t add juice until the cooking is done or it will turn bitter on you. You’ll even start to find places where you prefer one citrus over another when you start using it regularly.

– I’ve said this before, but it’s still an issue I see a lot: season your food as you cook it. Salt is not evil. Salt is necessary for life and necessary to bring out the flavor of foods. Even bakers put just a little salt in sweets to bring out the sweet! Season the parts of a dish as you cook it, and check for seasoning once the dish is combined and/or done. Also be aware that potatoes suck up salt and you’ll need a LOT more than you think! Also, refrigeration will change your seasoning levels, so if you’re making a cold dip, check the seasoning before you serve it.

– Toast your bread and char your tortillas! When serving bread with dips, always toast it. Same for sandwiches. It seems like a small thing, but it gives more texture. I always put tortillas over a gas burner to give a little char to them. When I say char, I don’t mean burn them, I mean, just little bits of color with a touch of actual char. It definitely matters to toast tortillas. Even if you put them in a pan, just get them cooked!

– Roast your veggies! Roasting is my #1 goto for vegetable prep. It concentrates the flavours and is another restaurant trick. I make roasted veg for many recipes that don’t call for it, such as caponata. My caponata is SO flavorful because I roast the veg rather than simply sauté in pan. If you’ve never had a roasted beet or brussels sprout, I encourage you to try them! Totally different veg than boiled, I assure you.

It’s been my experience that many MANY foods that people tell me they dislike is actually due to the preparation. I feed people things they think they hate OFTEN. I take it as a personal challenge to get people out of their preconceptions and comfort zones with food. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve served something (usually a vegetable) to someone who ate it all, then they tell me that they’ve never liked [insert veg], but now they do! So, go back to the veg you think you dislike and try it again prepared in a different way. You just might surprise yourself!

That’s it! These things will make a big difference in your recipes! Give them a go and feel free to let me know how it goes!

Vegetarian/Vegan Mediterranean Buffet

Mediterranean Buffet

Mediterranean Buffet
Vegetarian Mediterranean Buffet

Since the Mediterranean spread I did at the condos was such a hit, I thought I’d share some of the recipes that were especially good! The whole buffet had dolmathes, couscous, white bean hummus, tsatziki, cilantro pesto, feta, lemons, olives and pita. Here are the recipes for my vegan dolmas, tzatziki, vegan couscous and vegan white bean hummus (some are not as large as what I do for catering; they are geared for the home cook). ENJOY!
dolmas and tzatziki
Dolmathes and Tzatziki

Vegan Dolmathes
**this will make about 20 dolmas**
Grape leaves (jarred, in the pickle aisle or the ethnic aisle)
1 cup basmati rice
1 cup red lentils
2/3 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup finely diced red onion
4 cloves minced garlic
2 Tbl minced dill
2 Tbl minced mint
1 Tbl Cilantro (optional)
zest and juice of 2 large or 3 small lemons
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
Olive oil

Bring 1.5 cups water to boil with 1 tsp salt. Add rice and cook for about 7-8 minutes. Add lentils and raisins and cook another 5-7 minutes. Rice should be done, but still have a little tooth. While rice/lentils are cooking, sauté onions and garlic with olive oil in a skillet to soften. When rice/lentils/raisins are done and all water is absorbed, add sautéed onions and garlic and the rest of the ingredients, combine. Add 1 Tbl olive oil to this and check seasoning.

While the filling is cooling, unjar and rinse the grape leaves. Carefully unwind and separate them and trim off any long stems. To fill, lay leave stem+vein side up, with stem towards you. Add in about a teaspoon of filling for smaller leaves, up to a tablespoon for large leaves. Compact the filling and roll like a cigar once, then fold in side leaves and continue rolling. You’ll get a feel for this after a few. Pile the rolled dolmas into a dish and top liberally with olive oil. Serve at room temperature. Serve with tzatziki if you’re not vegan.

1 cup Greek yogurt (I use Fage full fat for best taste)
2 small Persian cucumbers, diced
1 Tbl garlic paste or 3 cloves very finely diced garlic
1 Tbl minced dill
1 Tbl minced mint
zest and juice of 1 large or 2 smaller lemons

Mix together, season to taste, let sit for at least a half hour for best taste.

roasted veg
Roasted Veg for Couscous

Israeli Couscous and Roasted Vegetables
1 cup Israeli couscous, prepared (do not use butter if vegan)
2-3 small golden beets, peeled, small (1/4-1/2″) dice
2 small eggplants (Chinese are good) or one large one, small dice with skin
2 small zucchini (or one large) small dice with skin
1 large red bell pepper, small dice
1 med red onion, small dice
2 cloves garlic, minced
zest and juice of 2 small or one large lemon
2 Tbl minced parsley
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
Olive oil

Prepare Israeli couscous as directed. Preheat oven to 400F.

Put beets, eggplant, zucchini, pepper and onion on a baking sheet, coat liberally with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast in oven for about 20 mins, or until the veg is soft and has some colour. Put couscous in a big bowl while still hot and add garlic, zest and juice of lemons, parsley and cinnamon. Add in roasted veg and combine. Add about a Tbl of olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Serve warm or room temp.

White bean hummus and sides for mediterranean buffet
Hummus and sides for mediterranean buffet

White Bean Hummus
2 cans great northern beans, one drained, one drained about half
3 Tbl tahini
1 Tbl garlic paste (or 3 cloves garlic, finely minced/pasted)
zest and juice of one large or two small lemons
2 tsp zatar spice blend (optional)
olive oil

Put beans, tahini, garlic paste, zest/juice of lemon and zatar in blender. Start blending and stream in about 2 Tbl olive oil. If it’s too tight, you can add a little water or extra lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper.

Catering and Private Chef

Caprese Salad

I’ve been doing a catering gig for a condo building in Buckhead for about 2 months now. I do their Friday night cocktail parties. I do not make much money, but it’s a good gig and I’m getting some solid resume fodder from it.

tailgate catering spread
Cocktail Party catering

I also help a food truck guy with his food truck prep, which is a good paying gig – just a small one.

I am looking to add a couple more catering or food prep or even private chef clients to my roster, so if you or someone you know is looking for help, keep me in mind!

I’ve set up a section of the IndigoDragon site with my chef info and pix of my food – hop over there and check it out!

Caprese Salad
Caprese Salad

You can get ahold of me via email (misangelaspam at gmail dot com), FB or IG. I can’t put my phone number here, but if you have it you can call or text me! Thanks!!

Ponderings About Food

We were watching my current favourite TV food show, Ugly Delicious with David Chang the other night. It was the Home Cooking episode, and it brought up some interesting thoughts about food and our relation to it.

First of all, let me go on about Ugly Delicious. This show is probably the most cerebral food show I’ve ever seen. Bourdain’s No Reservations was along the same lines, but Ugly Delicious really gets into some deep thinking – which I adore. (Chang was a friend of Bourdain’s and had a chapter in The Nasty Bits.) David’s partner in this show and his magazine Lucky Peach, Peter Meehan, is a food writer who also owns a huge food oriented book store that I really need to go to. These two explore food in a way I’ve never seen in a show before. They look at the roots of it, the people who make it, the people who consume it and the social contexts of all this. It’s brilliant, really. You should watch it.

Anyway, aside from my fangirling, this show always leaves me thinking about it after I watch an episode. The episode we watched the other night was about home cooking, and it in, Chang and Meehan go to Chang’s family’s Thanksgiving feast. They cook the “white people” food and Chang’s mother does the Korean food. (The spread was MASSIVE!!) During the episode, Chang talks of his childhood spent watching his mother and grandmother in the kitchen, learning how to do the family recipes. He went to culinary school, where the French methods rule, and felt that his Korean food heritage was somehow less than the fancy French cuisine he learned in school and cooked in the restaurants he worked in. It took him a very long time to come around to the fact that his family’s comfort foods may not be pretty, but they are ugly delicious and they deserve to be represented in the world of cuisine. That’s what spurred him to open his first restaurant, Momofuku.

All this discussion about home cooking, made me reflect upon my own upbringing and the foods that I remember the most. I mostly remember my grandmother’s cooking. It was never fancy, but always good. We always had a massive garden (1/3 – 2/3 acre or so) and I clearly remember watching my Gran putting up Silver Queen corn (cream style), green beans, tomatoes (YES Alton Brown, you CAN can tomatoes!!) and making blackberry jelly. I also remember her making fudge and what she called cream puffs, but were actually éclairs, and chocolate pie (my favourite!). She’d make Stack Cake with homemade apple butter at holidays.

Speaking of holidays, my Aunt and Uncle (mom’s brother) would always host the holiday family gatherings. It was mostly Aunt Vera’s family and my grandmother’s sisters and brothers. There’d be a HUGE buffet with turkey, dressing, green bean casserole, all the standards. Some of the women would bring things, but it was mostly my grandmother and aunt who did the cooking.

Years later, we were visiting a friend’s grandmother during Thanksgiving and of course, we were encouraged to eat. So we did and I was surprised to find that her grandmother’s cooking was almost identical to what my family made. So, there’s your proof that cooking is indeed regional, perhaps more than even I suspected it was!

So, back to the family foods thread. My mother was not what I’d call a great cook. She knew all the standard stuff (regional dishes), but when she married my father, he demanded that she cook like his mother did. Apparently his mother was a fan of overcooked, very greasy food. So my mother cooked the stuff that he liked and in the way he liked it. Then came the 70s and casseroles – OY, so many casseroles. My mother could make a good fried chicken and a good turkey, but most everything else was mush. And she did not like to cook, so I really believe that her dislike of it is what ruined the taste and made her food unremarkable. My dislike of her food is why I started cooking for myself. I tell you, if the food culture back then had been what it is now, I’d already be a chef with 35 years experience. I watched Julia Child and Jacques Pépin when I was a kid and was fascinated, so the desire was there even then.

Then a friend on FB mentioned kids’ anxiety and how it seems to be related to being over scheduled, and how this has made them anxious if they don’t have something to do. She mentioned sitting on the porch snapping green beans with her grandmother as a kid – as I did. THAT got me to thinking about how perhaps all this stimulation and busy-ness could have something to do with the proliferation of all these chef boxes with prepped food that you just have to cook. For me, food prep is my happy place. I don’t listen to music, I just get into a groove of cutting and measuring and enjoying the process. I think that kids who’ve been brought up with helicopter parents and every minute scheduled and monitored don’t have the ability to just BE. They really can’t just do nothing or enjoy the simplicity of snapping green beans for an hour. We were never scheduled as kids. We thought up things to do or wandered around the neighborhood. I remember making up commercials and acting them out when I was bored. Kids don’t do that now, they are scheduled, anxious and antsy. No wonder the thought of an hour of standing in one spot cutting veg is horrifying to them!

It makes sense to me that kids brought up with never having downtime would be terrible at food prep. It is a meditative process. Ask anyone who does it for a living! Anne Burrell once commented on her cooking show that shelling peas is one of her favourite things to do, but she “doesn’t get to do it” now that she’s an executive chef. Notice the GET in that sentence. It’s not a chore, it’s something she LIKES to do. I totally feel that way, too. I can’t WAIT to do prep all day. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true. (Now, ask me that after doing it for six months in a restaurant kitchen! LOL I might have a different view!)

The idea that I’d like to get across in this post is the thought provoking nature of Ugly Delicious and how much I really do think about food and how people relate to it. Everyone feels that their home cooking and comfort foods are no big deal and not worth cooking in a restaurant. BUT. Look at how dining out has changed in the last decade! Comfort foods are everywhere. There are grilled cheese restaurants FFS!! Pretty much all the ethnic foods you seek out are comfort foods for that culture. Western (European) cuisine has been about fancy and pretty for a very long time, and I, for one, am glad that we’re moving away from that. I really detest fussy food. Which is why I’m a great cook, but a terrible “Foodie”. I don’t like spending $100 a plate for things that I can replicate (even if they are fancy). I am almost always let down with fancy places, honestly.

I’m very, very happy that comfort food is its own culinary thing now. It is what I cook, what I’m good at, and hopefully what my customers will like. My recipes are literally from my kitchen. They may have exotic Asian ingredients, but they are truly what I cook for us. I don’t make much of the foods I grew up with, but I intend to remedy that. I’ve done canning for years and I’m going to try to see if I can channel my Gran and make some of her favourite desserts – especially that stack cake, which is an Appalachian regional item. I won’t make my own apple butter, but I am pretty sure I can make the cake part – it’s basically spice pancakes. I am a horrible baker, but I think I can give pâte à choux a go, and I know I can make pastry cream for éclairs. I’ve made chocolate pie before – it’s just pastry cream with chocolate in it. I am good with pies, madeleines, galettes and biscuits, but cookies elude me! Oh, and I can make lava cakes. I can even make soufflés, but cakes and cookies? Not so much. Come to think of it, Gran didn’t do cakes and cookies much, either. Perhaps it’s genetic! :D

I encourage YOU to think about the food you grew up with and your relationship with food. If you don’t cook, why not try some simple recipes? I’ve got dozens on this blog that are easy. If you do cook, do you make foods from your culture or region? Why or why not? Food sustains us, but it’s also a big part of our upbringing. I think that it is also an important part of our culture(s). I’m going to get out my Gran’s cookbook and see what I can find in there. I encourage you to do the same with your family’s cuisine. Bon appétit!

Harissa Coconut Slow Cooker Pork Ribs

Harissa Coconut Pork Ribs

Harissa Coconut Slow Cooker Pork Ribs
2.5# boneless pork shoulder ribs (sometimes labeled country style)
1/3 cup brown sugar
1.5 tsp cumin
1 tsp coriander
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 medium onion, large dice
4 cloves garlic, minced
1.5 Tbl harissa paste (You can find this at large Kroger stores. If you use powder, use 1 Tbl with 1tsp oil.)
2 small jalapenos or serranos, finely diced
1 small can coconut milk (unsweetened, or half a regular sized can)
1 Tbl soy sauce
1 tsp coriander
Juice of one lime
fresh cilantro for serving

Clean ribs of all surface fat. Combine next 5 ingredients in a large bowl and coat ribs thoroughly. Heat up a large pan with a couple Tbl of oil and sear the pork ribs. Don’t burn the sugar, but get them nicely browned; season lightly with salt and black pepper. Put ribs back in the spice rub bowl and set aside. Put 3/4 of the onion, garlic, harissa and chiles in the drippings from the ribs and cook over medium heat for 3-4 minutes. Add in coconut milk and soy sauce and bring up to boil, kill heat.

In a crock pot, spray the crock with food release such as Pam and put reserved onions in the bottom. Layer in ribs with any leftover rub and drippings. Then sprinkle second tsp of coriander and 1/4 tsp salt over ribs. Pour the veg and coconut milk mixture over ribs. Cook on low for 4-5 hrs or high for about 3-3.5 hours. Feel free to add a little water or stock if you feel they are too dry.

After the ribs are cooked and soft, remove from the crock pot and set aside. Put a screen sieve over a small pan and strain the liquids into the pot (OR if you like a chunkier sauce as I do, just leave all the veg in there and give it a quick whizz with the immersion blender to make the sauce). Let the sauce sit for 15 minutes or so, to let the fat rise to the top. Ladle off as much fat as you can, then put the sauce over medium heat and simmer until it thickens. If it doesn’t get as thick as you’d like, add a tsp of cornstarch dissolved in 1 Tbl water and boil for 2 minutes to tighten it up. After the sauce is done and off heat, add the lime juice. (Adding lime juice before a boil will make it bitter.)

Serve over polenta or grits with the sauce spooned over and fresh cilantro leaves on top. Or serve with broccoli or other veg for low carb.