Project Wonderful

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Bitchen' Bourbon Barbecue Sauce

With yesterday's orgy of smoked meat - thanks to the opening of Schmidt Family Barbecue - I'm on a serious BBQ bender right now. And after the discussion about the fact that Schmidt's doesn't offer BBQ sauce, I decided to quell the angry masses and make my own.

Although it's got several ingredients, this recipe really couldn't be easier to make, and uses bourbon to help imbue the final sauce with an amazing flavor. If you think the best you can do for BBQ sauce is Sweet Baby Ray's, look out: this one will change your mind.

The recipe uses ketchup as a base, but you could easily omit the ketchup and roast up some fresh tomatoes into a sauce that will dramatically improve the flavor.

It's also relatively mild when it comes to the pepper. I'm not a big fan of peppery BBQ sauce, so feel free to tart it up with your favorite heat. A 1/3 tsp should be more than enough, but your mileage may vary.


1/2 onion, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 cup of bourbon whiskey (always use good bourbon. Life is too short for cheap booze)
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tbs salt
2 cups ketchup
1/4 cup tomato paste
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
2 tbs liquid smoke
1/2 cup of brown sugar, packed
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp ground mustard
1/2 tsp dried basil

In a large saucepan, combine the onions, garlic and bourbon.

Simmer till the onions have absorbed the whiskey and turned translucent, about 10 minutes. 

In a mixing bowl combine everything else. 

It helps to mix this up first, before adding it to the pan.

Bring the heat to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and let it bubble slightly for about 20 minutes. 
After simmering, toss everything in a blender for about 30 seconds to get a smooth texture.

Be sure to remove the center section of the blender top and place a towel lightly over the opening. Otherwise you will decorate the ceiling and walls of your kitchen with scalding barbecue sauce. 

Pour that pitcher full of awesome into a bowl and let it cool. 
The sauce should be fairly thick. If you want it a little thinner, add a little more apple cider vinegar.

After it cools (I placed the bowl on top of an ice pack), use a funnel and pour the sauce into a mason jar. You should have just slightly more than enough for a full jar. 

Label and date the jar, toss it in the fridge and you're good to go. Because its made fresh, without chemicals and preservatives, it probably won't keep more than a month in the fridge. Around my house, this sauce wont keep for more than a week, but that has nothing to do with it going bad.


Monday, October 28, 2013

Restaurant Review: Schmidt Family Barbecue

It doesn't take much to appreciate Texas barbecue: Just dig in and enjoy the magical harmony of smoke and meat as it blissfully dances across your palate. But to be considered a true Texas BBQ aficionado, one needs to know a little about the tiny town of Lockhart and the BBQ feud (barbefeud?) that took place there.

Back in 1900, Charles Kreuz, Sr. (pronounced "krites") opened a small meat market and grocery store in Lockhart. Refrigeration wasn't as advanced as we have it today, so to prevent the unsold meat from spoiling, Charles would cook the the best cuts over a BBQ pit and use the lesser cuts for sausage. Customers loved the BBQ and the Kreuz family ran the market until 1948, when long-time employee Edgar Schmidt bought the business.

When Edgar passed away in 1990, he left the building to his Daughter Nina. However, while Nina owned the building, Edgar's sons Rick and Don owned the business, and the family couldn't see eye-to-eye on things. As a result, the brothers moved Kreuz Market to a new location down the street, while Nina opened Smitty's BBQ in the old building. The feud - along with a couple of other fantastic BBQ joints that opened in the area - helped to put Lockhart on the map as the official Barbecue Capital of Texas.

The third generation of Schmidts have now taken over the business. This year, Rick's son Keith, along with his brother John, sister Susie Schmidt-Franks (Don's daughter) and Susie's husband Chad Franks realized that the world craved even more of the smokey mana of the Gods, so they joined forces and opened Schmidt Family Barbecue in Bee Cave.

Managed by Nina's son, and former Smitty's pitmaster John Fullilove (and how can you not love food made by a guy who's name is "Full of love"?), the new restaurant draws on the century-old family heritage to bring the classic Texas-style BBQ to the Hill Country.

The coals used to light the 16-foot-long, 4 1/2 ton fire pit were collected from the pits from both Smitty's and Kreuz Market - which have been burning steadily for 113 years - and carefully transported to Lakeway in a ceremony I can only imagine looked like a Texas version of the Olympic torch relay.

We got there at 12:30 with about 50 people already ahead of us, but the line was moving quickly and no one seemed to mind.

Opening day is always a tough time to critique a new restaurant. Usually there is a long break-in period where the staff works out the kinks in the operation, but one foot inside the door and you could see that this was already a well-oiled machine. The crews were quickly slicing up the brisket, chopping up the ribs and serving it up with little delay. They knew they were going to be swamped with customers and staffed accordingly.

Fair warning: A thing you need to know when coming to Schmidt's: there's no sauce. None. That may be a bit shocking to some folks, and there were several customers wondering where the sauce was, but the Schmidt family holds fast to the belief that good barbecue doesn't need to hide behind sauce. And you know what? They're right. Good 'cue should be measured on the quality of the meat alone; naked and un-accosted, for all the world to see. 

They also begrudgingly offer forks for the more civilized folks, but to be honest, the best utensils to eat BBQ with are right at the end of your arms. 

In a word, the meat was extraordinary. 
The brisket had a solid, well defined smoke ring, good bark, and was perfectly cooked. Tender, flavorful, and delicious.

The sausage ring was surprisingly lightly seasoned. Most Texas hot rings are filled with an abundance of pepper, but this one had a nice balance of spices and was stuffed in a casing that gave a decent snap, but wasn't so tough that you needed to work at it to get through it. It was also SUPER juicy, so make sure to lean forward when taking that first bite.

About the only thing that I was a bit surprised about were the pork ribs. They were nicely cooked, juicy and tender, and had a flavorful rub on them, but they left the silver skin on. To me, this is a BBQ faux pas. That piece of membrane makes it difficult to sink your teeth properly into the rib and it's just tough and inedible. Removing the membrane is a chore, and perhaps they skipped this step in their efforts to make sure that the ribs would be ready for opening day. The ribs are VERY GOOD, but removing it would be the thing that I feel helps make them one step better.

The food was served on butcher paper the way it's been done for over a century, and comes with the obligatory slices of white bread, onions, and pickles. The pickles were cut a little thicker than most BBQ places and that was a nice touch. I quickly slapped together an open-face brisket sandwich - and this is the point that I wished I had some BBQ sauce to go with it. I'm thinking of sneaking some homemade sauce with me in a little bottle next time I visit.

We also tried the potato salad, coleslaw, and beans. The potato salad and slaw were very good, but really nothing to write home about. The beans, however, really surprised me. I don't know how they did it, but the flavors were absolutely incredible. Hearty and delicious, they went great with the rest of the BBQ.

There's also the usual assortment of banana pudding and pies, but apparently no cobbler. Not that I had room for any desert after powering through all that wonderful smokey awesomeness, of course.

With a long lineage of expert preparation, the old-school tradition of smoking quality meat and serving it without pretense continues with the new restaurant. From its strong family roots in the BBQ Capital of Texas, the new Schmidt Family Barbecue in Bee Cave is sure to please even the most discerning of BBQ aficionados.

Long may its smoke fill the air!

Friday, October 25, 2013

Pan-Seared Pork Chops With Sauteed Collard Greens

Here's a great recipe for a fall evening. Classic pork chops served with sauteed collard greens.

To add some additional flavor and to help prevent things from sticking, we use small cubes of pork fat, called "Lardons." There's nothing fancy about this. I trim the fat off of a ham (leaving some of the meat attached), place the cubes in a bag and toss them in the freezer for future use. 

This recipe also uses some rendered bacon fat, which is the perfect thing to do with those drippings after cooking bacon. Naturally, this is not the healthiest of ingredients, but thankfully you aren't using a whole lot. For a pound of collard greens, you are using maybe 1 tablespoon of bacon fat and perhaps 1/8 of a cup of lardons. If you wanted to make this even healthier, you could substitute all of that with two tablespoons of olive oil, but you wouldn't get that great bacon flavor in the final mix, so your mileage may vary. 

The chops are seasoned with "essence," which is a recipe that I stole from Emeril Lagasse. The ingredients are listed below. I made a batch of this stuff a while ago and am still using it. If you don't have the time to make the essense, use your favorite seasoning you have on hand. (Mom used to always just use seasoned salt, which works just fine.) I also added a little dried rosemary just because I love cooking with rosemary.

2 pork tenderloin chops, bone on
1/8th cup of lardons
1 tbs bacon fat
1 bunch (about 1 lb) Collard Greens
1 green apple, sliced into thin chunks
1/2 onion, sliced or diced
1 clove of garlic, minced
1/2 cup of apple cider vinegar
2 tsp of "essence"

Essence recipe:
2 1/2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried thyme

First the prep work:

Wash the collards and trim the stems off (save them for the sautee). 
Then stack the greens together, roll them into a cigar shape and slice them into 1/4' strips. This is known as a Chiffonade
This allows the greens to cook evenly and in much less time than just chopping them randomly. 

Dice up the collard green stems, slice the apple into thin chunks, dice up 1/2 an onion and mince up 1 clove of garlic and have this ready to go. 

Now we're ready to get the fire going. 

Add the lardons and the bacon fat to a medium sized pan under low heat until they render out to a liquid.

Once that's done, turn the pan up to medium-high heat, lay the chops in and season with the essence or your favorite seasoning. 

You want to get a nice sear on both sides. These chops were fairly thin, so a minute or two is all you're going to need.

Once they're cooked, set the chops aside to rest.

Add the chopped apples, onions and collard green stems and saute them until they just start to cook. 

Once the mixture has cooked a little, add the vinegar to help deglaze the pan.

Deglazing helps to lift the browned bits that were cooked onto the pan while cooking the pork chops. Think of these as flavor pockets! Normally deglazing is done with wine, but in this recipe, apple cider vinegar does the trick. 

Add the minced garlic at this point.

Once things have started to simmer again, add the collards.

By this time, the house should begin to fill with the sensational smell of apple cider vinegar and garlic. Pure bliss, as far as I'm concerned.

Cook the collards till they have reduced somewhat, aprox 5 minutes, then add the chops back on top of the greens and cover, cooking for another 2-3 minutes. You're just warming the meat back up at this point and the cover keeps everything moist and delicious.

Then you're ready to serve. 


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Toasted Pumpkin Seeds

As part of my on-going series of stuff to do with pumpkin, I would be remiss if I didn't mention pumpkin seeds.

I love these things. They are one of the great seasonal snacks of Fall. And they're good for you, too:
A 1/4 cup of seeds contains almost half the recommended daily amount of magnesium and they are a great source of zinc, plant-based omega 3 acids, anti-oxidants, fiber, and may also help improve insulin regulation in the body and increase the good HDL cholesterol we need. 

OK, they're healthy when they are raw, or toasted without anything else added to them. This recipe uses brown sugar and a little salt, but it's not a huge amount, so they're still pretty healthy. It's better than eating a ton of tortilla chips from that roasted tomatillo salsa recipe I posted a while back. 

And around Halloween, they are the perfect thing to snack on once all the jack-o-lantern carving is done. 

I've been craving these things since the beginning of October, but because I still have about 7 cups of pumpkin puree taking up space in the freezer, I havent had the space available to get this year's pumpkin and go to town munching on the seeds. 

But my girlfriend showed pity on my addiction and brought home two cups of organic hulled pumpkin seeds from the store for me to play with. God I love that woman. 

Normally I use the seeds without bothering to shell them. It's too much work and too little payoff and when you toast them right, they get nice and crunchy and easy to chew. But since these were already shelled, I decided to give these a go. This recipe should work with either shelled or un-shelled seeds.

These are a great snack, but just be careful that you don't eat them all in one sitting. 


2 cups of pumpkin seeds 
1 tbs olive oil
2 tbs brown sugar
2 tsp pumpkin pie spice
1/2 tsp salt

First, preheat the oven to 300 and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil

This is two cups of shelled organic seeds. 

Add all the ingredients into a bowl.

Mix them together thoroughly. That's kind of a psychedelic looking image, but that's what I get for trying to get an action shot. of the mixing process.

This is what it should look like mixed. 

Spread them onto the baking sheet in a single layer, or as close to a single layer as you can. 

Bake in the over at 300 degrees for 10 minutes, stir the seeds lovingly, allowing the aroma of pumpkin pie spice to fill the house, and bake for another 10 minutes.

Let them cool a little before tossing them into a bowl and serving. 


Thursday, October 10, 2013

"Healthy" Pumpkin Cupcakes

As part of my continuing series on using pumpkin in the Fall (and because I still have several pounds of puree to get out of my freezer),  I grabbed a recipe from Dani Stout over at her blog Ancestral Nutrition and gave a go at her "pumpkin cupcakes with maple cream cheese frosting." The recipe is actually pretty simple and it uses almond flour and honey  - so it's technically healthy - or at least healthier than using flour and sugar.

I learned a couple of valuable lessons with this recipe:

The first, is that my friend's new Ninja Blender is sharp. REALLY sharp. Like, gushing-blood-from-the-laceration-inflicted-by-catching-the-blender-blade-as-it-falls-out-of-the-food-processor-attachment-thus-saving-severe-injury-to-your-girlfriend's-foot kinda sharp. Holy Hell! I didn't even feel the blade sink into my hand. A thorough washing of the equipment (and my hand) and a large bandage and I was back in business.

The second is that if you intend to use cream cheese for a frosting, dont freeze it. Freezing creates crystals inside the cheese that then gives you a completely different texture to the frosting. No matter how much whisking you do, its going to come out watery and curdled.

Here's the recipe:

For the muffin:
1 cup pumpkin puree
2 cups almond flour
1/2 cup honey 
2 eggs 
1/2 cup milk 
2 tbsp cinnamon 
1 tsp baking soda 

For the frosting:
1 1/2 cups cream cheese
1/2 cup butter (one stick) 
1/2 cup maple syrup (always use the good stuff. Its not cheap, but its pure)

First, preheat the oven to 375...

I had almond meal, which is much coarser than flour, but blending it for a few minutes makes it a much finer texture. 

Add all the other ingredients to the flour and blend until its a smooth batter.
Pour the batter into lined muffin tins and place them in the oven for about 25 minutes - or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the muffin comes out clean.
For the frosting, whip the cream cheese, butter and maple syrup together, toss it in a zip-lock bag, cut a tiny corner off of the bag and pipe the cream onto the cooled muffins. 

The finished product. It stuck quite a bit to the paper lining. A bit more than I like, but at least it left me with a muffin tin that I didn't need to spend a lot of time cleaning. 

The texture was perfect and the taste was amazing.

For an added touch, Dani mentioned that you can dust the top of the icing with coconut sugar to make it more fancy, but I promise you that they will not be sitting long enough to dust them with sugar. 


Thursday, October 3, 2013

Pan Seared Duck Breast With a Red Wine and Blackberry Reduction

Earlier this year, I helped a friend slaughter a couple of ducks at her house. She raises them for the meat and I was enlisted to help out. Getting paid in duck breast is not a bad gig, if you ask me. And I figure if you're a meat eater, you should know where your meat comes from and how it gets to your plate.  This is not a task I take lightly or for granted, and the entire process was done with the utmost respect to the bird and to cleanliness. 
His name was Bentley. He was a beautiful, mature Muscovy (Cairina moschata) that had one wing that was bent in a weird way. Not sure if he broke it at an early age or what, but no matter how deformed he may have been, Bentley was destined for greatness.

Muscovy are one of the few ducks that have claws on their feet and the little bugger put up a fight as I was carrying him to the chopping block. Bentley managed to sink a claw into my palm that thankfully didn't get infected. 
Bentley in the foreground, hanging out with one of his friends after a date with the axe. 

I'll spare you all the gory details of the process and just say that I came home with two beautifully butchered duck breasts as payment for my work as a skilled executioner.

Last night was a special occasion, so I decided that the time was right for Bentley to strut his stuff as the main course of an awesome dinner. 

Duck breast is actually very easy to prepare, but most people think it's a real fancy thing for a chef to make, so it works perfectly with my secret mission to make incredible food that looks complicated, but is actually really simple. 

First comes the side dish. 

Preheat the oven to 375...

Wash, peel and slice up two sweet potatoes into 1/4 inch chunks.

Add about a half of a sliced onion and toss with two tablespoons (or one "glug") of olive oil and a little salt and pepper.

Place the sweet potato/onion mixture between two sheets of aluminum foil and fold it up to make a packet (or bag.)

Put this on a baking sheet and bake it in the oven at 375 degrees F  for about 30 minutes. 
This should give you just enough time to prepare the main course.

Now on to the duck...

Here's Bentley! Or at least a part of him. This is one breast, which is plenty for two people.
Use a sharp knife and slice just the skin every 1/2 inch. Try not to cut into the meat.

Then turn it and slice the other direction so you have a cris-cross pattern of slices through the skin. 

This helps the fat to render out, leaving you with crispy skin. 

Season the breast with salt and pepper and place it skin side down into a hot skillet with a tablespoon of olive oil.
I used too much oil in this shot. You don't need a lot.

Sear the meat till the skin is golden brown.

When ready to turn (about 5-7 minutes,) reduce heat and turn the breast over to simmer for another 10-15 minutes.

You can see how much fat has rendered out of the skin, leaving only crisp awesomeness. 

Pull the breast out of the pan and let it rest for 10 minutes. I put mine on a plate with aluminum foil tented over it.
By the way...

The reason why you let the meat "rest" is that during the cooking process, the protein chains inside the meat shrink, forcing the meat's juices to push to the center. By letting the meat rest after its been cooked, the protein chains start to relax and expand back a little bit allowing the juices to be re-absorbed into the fibers of the meat. This way the flavorful juices stay in the meat and not on the cutting board.

While the meat is resting, turn your attention to the sauce...

About pan sauces
When you cook a piece of meat in a dry pan, fats, proteins, carbohydrates and sugars come out of the meat and brown up on the surface of the pan. In French cooking, this is known as "sucs" (pronounced "Suuke"). They become the base for most pan sauces - which the French then call "fond." (which means "base.") 

To make a long story short, these browned bits contain a lot of flavor, so to make a sauce out of them, you add liquid to the pan - usually wine - that helps to dissolve the browned bits, and form the base of a flavorful sauce. This is known as "deglazing" the pan.

This recipe comes from Robert Irvine at the Food Network:

1 cup red wine
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1  cup chicken stock
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 pinch of dried rosemary (fresh works too)
2 cups of blackberries
2 tbs unsalted butter

Pour off any excess oil, leaving the browned bits (the "Sucs") remaining in the pan. Add the wine and balsamic. Use a wooden spoon to scrape up the sucs to get them to dissolve into the wine. Let this reduce to about half.

Add the chicken stock and let the sauce reduce again down to about half.

When ready, add the berries, the brown sugar and the rosemary and let this cook for about 3 minutes.

Pour the sauce through a strainer into a bowl, then wisk in two tablespoons of butter to finish.

Here's the duck sliced up into portions. Notice that all the juices have remained in the meat instead of on the cutting board. 

Place the duck slices on the plate and drizzle the sauce around and on the meat.

Add the sweet potatoes to the side and you are done.


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Pollo En El Fuego No Es Bueno

If you recall my recipe for Teriyaki honey glazed grilled chicken thighs, I mentioned the following:
"Beware of flareups! The fat from these are going to drip down and cause lots of flames, so make sure you work your grill with a safety zone - a cool section of the grill that you can move the meat if the flames start getting crazy. You want a little char taste, but you dont want them burnt."
Well I made that recipe again the other night and while I had the chicken on the grill, I popped back in to finish working on my blog post about pumpkin bread. About 2 minutes of working on the computer, I looked through the window to see heavy smoke coming out from the BBQ. So I walked out there, assuming it was a typical flare up.

I lifted the lid and was greeted with a full-blown, three-alarm fire. The accumulation of stuff that lands at the bottom of the grill had absorbed the drippings of the chicken and ignited in a not-so-nice melange of carcinogens.

The chicken wasnt a total loss as they had only been on the grill a couple of minutes, but controlling the fire meant a complete shutdown of the cooking operation: Break out the nomex gloves, shut off the gas, pull the chicken and veggies off the grill, pull the grates, and then close the lid to help snuff out the flames. Also at this point I was making a mental note where the fire extinguisher was located in case this required escalation of the issue. (pro tip) always have your fire extinguisher charged, nearby and accessible for this very reason.

The flames died down and several minutes later I was left with a mess. I knew I couldn't just start right back up again, so a complete tear-down was in order: scoop out the burnt muck from the bottom of the grill with a gardening shovel, placing it in a metal bowl (some of it was still glowing red) and scrubbing everything down with a wire brush.

About 20 minutes later I had a sparkly clean BBQ and was back to cooking my charred - yet still raw chicken. Since I was brushing it with the teriyaki honey glaze, it was easy to use the basting brush to clean off some of the excess char. The chicken was a little "tradge" looking but in the end, it still turned out pretty good. And my girlfriend was none the wiser.

So heed my advice and learn from my folly: If you've been using your gas BBQ all Summer, now would be a REALLY GOOD time to clean it out and prep it for winter.  (which, in my case means more grilling!)


Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Bread

There are hundreds of recipes for pumpkin bread out there. Here's one of them.

The recipe was originally stolen from Betty Crocker, but I've made a few changes to it. Specifically, there are no walnuts. I hate those damn things. Nasty little pockets of savory flavor in an otherwise wonderfully sweet and decadent cake-like texture. Horrible little things. Satans boogers. 

So if you are a fan of walnuts, you can add them if you want, but expect a lot of scorn and ridicule from me if you do.

Also, Betty Crocker says this recipe makes two loves. I'm not sure what ol' Betty is smoking, because I had enough to make three loaves with this batch.


4cups  all-purpose flour
2tsp  baking soda
1tsp  salt
1tsp ground cinnamon
1/2tsp ground nutmeg
2cups sugar
3/4cup butter, softened
1/2cup water
2 cups of pumpkin puree (you can use the canned crap if you want, but why?)
1cup plus 2 tablespoons miniature semisweet chocolate chips
2tsp sugar

First, preheat the oven to 350 (and remember to remove the cast iron pan you keep in it before doing anything else.)

Grease the bottom (just the bottom) of three regular sized loaf pans. I rub the end of a stick of butter onto the bottom of the pan. This seems to work pretty well.

In a large bowl, add the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg and mix until they are all combined. Set this aside.

Take the two cups of sugar and the softened butter and whip them till its creamed together.

Then add the four eggs, one at a time into the mix. Mix each egg in completely before adding the next egg. 

Add the pumpkin and the water, then slowly add the flour mix and mix on low until everything is combined.

Add about a cup of mini chocolate chips. Save a couple tablespoons of the chips.

Mix until everything is together. 

Pour the batter into each loaf pan. Add a little bit at a time until all the pans are even.
You will want to leave room for the batter to expand, so dont fill them to the top.

About this time, hand your bowl, mixer blades and spatula to your loving significant other.
Because you are awesome that way. 

Spread out the batter so its even and smooth. Clean up the edges whichever way is the best tasting.

Take the remaining two tablespoons of mini chocolate chips and sprinkle them over the top.
Then sprinkle the sugar over everything.

Into the 350 degree oven for about 1 hour and 5 minutes. It may need to go to 1:15. Just keep an eye on it.

Poke a toothpick through the bread. If it comes out clean, they're done.

Now the hard part: Let these cool for about an hour before cutting into them.

The end result. It was a very light and cake-like. Not at all like a typical pumpkin bread.

The chocolate chips add a nice touch.