Project Wonderful

Friday, January 24, 2014

Baconberry Muffins

January 24th, 2014: The date of the great Austin blizzard. Nearly a WHOLE QUARTER INCH of frozen rain fell and the entire city came to a screeching halt. 

So since I was trapped (TRAPPED!) in the house, a thought occurred to me over breakfast: 

"You know, bacon and blueberries taste pretty good together."

And with that spark of inspiration came... 

the Baconberry Muffin: an overloaded blueberry muffin, topped with a candied bacon streusel. 

There's a few steps to this treat, but the results are pretty mind-blowing. This should make about 9 regular-sized muffins.

  • 5 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup (half stick) butter, cut into pieces

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup white sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 egg
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 1 1/2 cup fresh blueberries

    For the streusel:

    In a large skillet, cook the bacon pieces over medium-low heat until crisp. 

    Transfer the bacon to a plate with paper towels to drain. 

    Pour off the bacon drippings from the pan, (save that!) and wipe the skillet clean with a paper towel. 

    Return the bacon to the pan.

    Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of brown sugar over the bacon and cook over medium-low heat until the sugar has melted and has coated the bacon pieces. 

    Transfer the bacon to a baking sheet or a large bowl to cool a little.  
    CAUTION: molten sugar can be incredibly excruciatingly hot.

    Once it has cooled to the touch, dump the sugary bacon onto a cutting board and chop it into small bits.

    In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, granulated sugar, and the remaining 2 tablespoons of brown sugar. 

    Then using one of those pastry cutter/ dough blender thingies, add the butter pieces and cut everything together until its a coarse, crumbly mix If you dont have a pastry cutter, a couple of knives in a scissor-style will work.
    Fold in the bacon bits and set the mixture to chill in the fridge.

    For the Muffins

    Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C).

    Line the muffin tin with muffin liners.

    Combine 1 1/2 cups flour, 3/4 cup sugar, salt and baking powder.

    Place vegetable oil into a 1 cup measuring cup; add the egg and enough milk to fill the cup. Mix this with flour mixture.

    Fold in blueberries.

    Fill muffin cups right to the top, and sprinkle with crumb topping mixture.

    Bake in the middle oven rack at 400º for 25-30 minutes until the a toothpick stuck into the center of the muffin comes out clean.

    Pull them (carefully) out of the muffin tray and set them on a wire rack to cool.


    Sunday, January 19, 2014

    The Clemenza Sauce

    42 years ago, a relatively obscure Italian director made a little movie.

    “Come over here kid, learn something. You never know, you might have to cook for 20 guys some day.”

    A lot has been said about this scene from "The Godfather" and Peter Clemenza's spaghetti sauce. A kitschy gimmick from a superb film,  gastronauts have scrutinized the scene for decades. Tons of foodie blogs have posted their versions of this thing. Everybody seems to have their own unique way to do it. Mario Batali has his own version of it. One guy wrote a book about it (and for $2.99 you can have it on your Kindle.) One blog tried to fancy it up by using rapeseed oil and adding carrots, celery, bay leaves and sprigs of thyme. Seriously: Rapeseed oil and sprigs of thyme. You won't find a more effective example of how to tear the living soul out of a cultural icon's body than that.

    Apparently the scene appears in Mario Puzo's original novel, but the recipe is only in the film. Director Francis Ford Coppola explains:
    "I wanted to get an entire recipe in so people could learn how to make tomato sauce. First you put in some olive oil and some garlic and you brown some sausage. When the script came back to me, Mario had crossed out 'brown some sausage,' and changed it to 'Then you fry some sausage.' He wrote, 'Gangsters don't brown, gangsters fry." 
     - "The Godfather Legacy" by Harlan Lebo

    The main problem with this scene  - performed beautifully by Richard Castellano -  is that while it's a great piece of cinema, it's actually terrible when it comes to cooking instructions. They left something out. A crucial step to getting the most flavorful, richest sauce possible. Most people completely overlook it, but it improves the sauce one notch better. You wanna know the secret? OK, but I'm only telling you because we're friends:

    In the scene, Clemenza is seen dumping the meatballs and sausage into the pot already cooked. This implies that the sausage was fried up in a separate frying pan and then added to the stock pot. Now, do you really think they would dirty up a separate pan for this? Of course not. This is one pot cooking here! Clemenza fried the meat in the pot, then took it out and used the grease from the sausage and a little oil to help fry up the garlic and start the sauce.

    And this is a classic cooking technique. Those browned bits (or fried bits if you're a gangster) that get stuck to the bottom of the pan are pure flavor. When you pour in a liquid like broth or wine and stir with a wooden spoon, it lifts those stuck bits off the pan and dissolves them into the liquid. In French cooking, they call this a "fond", which means "foundation" and that's exactly what this is providing for this recipe: a starting point for a great sauce.

    Clemenza knew this. Coppola knows this. Now you do too. Welcome to the family.

    Here's another little trick:
    Whenever you make a sauce for a main course, use a wine in the sauce that's similar to the wine you'll be drinking with the meal. This is known as a flavor bridge and it's a common trick used in wine pairing.

    And now that you're armed with the secrets, go forth and make this fantastic sauce.

    2 (28 ounce) cans crushed tomatoes - Get good stuff. San Marzanos are great.
    2 cans of tomato paste
    1 28 ounce tomato can of filtered water
    3 garlic cloves, chopped
    4 sweet Italian pork sausage
    1 lb of meatballs (from my classic meatball recipe)
    1 bottle of good (drinkable) dry red wine. (Chianti works great)
    1/2 tsp dried oregano
    1 tsp dried basil
    1 tsp onion powder
    1/4 cup sugar

    "You see, you start out with a little bit of oil..."
    In a large sauce pot, add a little olive oil and grill the sausage links. Don't cook it completely at this step: you're just browning it on all sides.

    Slice the sausages into 3/4 slices. At this point you can leave them on a plate, ready to go back in with the sauce, or you could go one step further and brown the cut sides in the pan as well. Turn them over after a minute or so and THEN pull them out onto a plate 

    "Then you fry some garlic..." 

    Toss the garlic into the pan and sweat it till it's aromatic and just starting to turn translucent. Don't over-brown it or it'll turn bitter. 

    Add "a glug" of the wine to the bottom of the pot. You want to hear it sizzle. 

    With a wooden spoon, scrape/ rub off those cooked bits that are stuck to the bottom of the pan. This is known as "deglazing" and its a great way to add flavor to the sauce. 

    "Then you throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste, you fry it; ya make sure it doesn't stick."

    Add the tomatoes tomato paste and one can of filtered water to the pot and increase heat to high.

    "You get it to a boil; you shove in all your sausage and your meatballs; heh?"

    add the sliced sausage, meatballs, the dried oregano and basil.

    "...And a little bit o' wine. An' a little bit o' sugar, and that's my trick." 

    Add another "glug" or two of wine to the pot
    Add the sugar and let everything come to a boil.

    Reduce to a simmer and stir frequently for the next 3 hours. Yes, THREE HOURS. The longer it slowly simmers, the more the flavor of the sausage and meatballs are going to mix with the wine, sugar garlic and tomatoes. Everything compliments each other in a little tarantella of awesome.

    There's a couple of ways to serve this. My mom always just dumped the cooked spaghetti into the sauce and stirred it around. Some people like to put the un-sauced pasta in a bowl and let people pick and choose.

    But for me personally, I like to add just a little sauce to the pasta to get it all coated and keep it from drying out or getting sticky.

    To plate, I put a serving of pasta in a warmed dish, add three meatballs and a few sausage slices and then a big spoonful of sauce over everything. Finish off with some freshly shaved parmigiano reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese and one or two whole leaves of basil for garnish.  Serve with some nice crusty bread and a bottle of wine and you're done. 


    Sicilian Style Meatballs

    I'm not going to say that this is my Grandmother's recipe. She was old-school Italian and either had an encyclopedia of Italian culinary knowledge in her head or just made it up on her own. I don't know. But her food always came out amazing. So while this recipe isn't exactly hers, it's one that she would have definitely approved of.

    Using pine nuts in the meatballs is apparently a Sicilian variation, although Francis Ford Coppola's mother says its Neapolitan. Wherever it came from, its a great addition to the mix and makes the meatballs really stand out as something special. Especially since pine nuts are ridiculously overpriced.

    This recipe makes about 18 golf ball-sized meatballs.

    1 lb lean ground beef (85% is good)
    1 cup plain bread crumbs (you should make these yourself, but store bought will work in a pinch)
    1/4 cup milk
    2 eggs
    1 tbs onion powder
    2 tbs fresh parsley, chopped fine (or 2 tsp dried)
    2 cloves garlic, minced (or 1tsp pre-minced from a jar)
    1 tbs fresh oregano (or 1tsp dried)
    2 tbs pine nuts - lightly toasted
    1/2 tsp kosher salt
    1/2 tsp black pepper
    2 tbs grated Romano cheese (fresh is best, dried if you must)


    Soak breadcrumbs in milk aprox 15 min.

    Mix everything together in a big bowl. 

    Roll into golf ball-sized balls. Not too firm and not too loose. Too loose and they fall apart in the sauce. Too firm and they come out tough. 

    Refrigerate for at least an hour, up to 24 hours. 

    When ready, heat some (1 tablespoon) olive oil in a large cast iron pan on medium high heat until it shimmers. 

    Place the balls into the pan. Turn occasionally to brown on all sides, about 8-10 minutes. Don't over-crowd em; You'll have to do this in batches. 

    Transfer meatballs to a plate with paper towel.

    When all the meatballs are drained, transfer to your spaghetti sauce or serve em just the way they are.

    Good meatballs begins with good bread. Cut it into cubes and run it through a food processor, then toast them on a baking sheet. 

    Here's a trick to help blend fresh ingredients: chop the oregano and garlic together with the salt. 

    This mixes everything together and the coarse salt helps to reduce the ingredients even finer. 

    Kinda pretty like this. Right up to the point when we mash it all together with our hands in an carnival of meat-squishing bliss. 

    Look at my balls. Seriously. Just look at those delicious balls!

    Brown them on all sides about 10 minutes and place them on a paper towel to dry 
    and you are all set.

    From here, the meatballs are ready to go into the spaghetti sauce. And for a great sauce, I recommend my take on Clemenza's sauce from "The Godfather." 


    Saturday, January 11, 2014

    Upping Your Cooking Cred

    I'm not a big fan of the classic New Years resolutions, but I do believe strongly in the idea that the start of a calendar year makes an excellent opportunity to take a brief inventory of ourselves and think about what we can do to improve our lives.

    For me, one way I wanted to improve my life was by accepting and appreciating my passion for culinary hedonism. This is a fancy way of saying, "screw it: I'm in to food."

    However, you will never catch me calling myself a "foodie."  It's a silly, condescending, infantile, bastardization of a word. You don't call people who like to read "Bookies" so why in the Hell would people want to call themselves "Foodies?" It just reeks of negative, stereotypes: self-absorbed, self-important fanatics that pour into restaurants on Friday and Saturday nights, pursuing the latest "fad" in the cooking world; Some new ingredient or technique, some popular drink or fashion. A trend-follower; A culinary hipster. As one professional chef I asked referred to them, "some pretentious asshole that thinks they know my job better than I do."

    I'm much more of an "epicure" or a "gastronome." Even a "gourmet," if you must. But a foodie? Never.

    But I digress.

    If your goal is to become a better cook, there are a variety of ways you can improve without having to shill out thousands of dollars for a professional culinary school.

    Here are a few really good ways to learn more about food and cooking that cost nothing.

    Narrated (sparingly) by Anthony Bourdain, PBS' series "The Mind of a Chef" is an interesting look at food and the passion it can ignite in people.  According to their web page, the show "peers inside the processes and explores what drives and inspires the culinary vision of some of the country’s most innovative chefs." All of the episodes are up on YouTube, but they charge $2 to watch them. Instead, pay attention to when your local PBS station is airing the episodes and tune in. Its worth the effort.

    If you've never seen the Food Network show "Good Eats" you have no idea what you're missing. Alton Brown is a geek about food in much the same way that Neil Degrasse Tyson is about astronomy. He explains every detail and nuance of how to do do something in a fun, and mostly frenetic way. I always learn something new. And you don't even need to have cable TV to watch the show. Every episode is on YouTube. A fan of the show has put together an easy to read database of every episode and a link to its corresponding YouTube video. This is great reference to bookmark.

    If you are interested in the science of food perhaps even more than what you can get from Alton Brown, the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has their Science and Cooking Lecture Series online free of charge. This is a collaboration between Harvard and some of the top names in the culinary world and their lectures discuss in detail the science behind the food from elasticity to emulsions, polymers, sous vide, and more. Its a very detailed and often overlooked series of lectures.

    Want even more formal training? Think of ChefSteps as an online culinary school. They offer free classes in techniques, great recipes to try out and a whole lot more. More than a few professional chefs use this site for inspiration and resources and they get involved in their message forums. The result of all of this is that its a one-stop-shop for learning more about the culinary world. And its (mostly) free.

    Chef John over at Food Wishes puts together some great videos showing techniques and instructions for a variety of dishes. His stuff is always fun to watch and his friendly, casual approach makes learning the recipes very easy.

    And finally, you are looking for some good, basic instruction videos from an expert, check out some of the stuff that Gordon Ramsay has produced. His YouTube channel is updated regularly and has a great assortment of recipes to try out. And all of his videos are free of his ranting, screaming evil tyrant shtick.

    I would also encourage you to use YouTube to its fullest advantage. Look up videos by people like Jaques Peppin, Jamie Oliver, and Thomas Keller. There are a lot of videos out there that can show you some expert techniques. 

    If your goal is to become a better cook, maybe some day even call yourself a chef, these are some great tools to help you. 


    Friday, January 3, 2014

    Toasted Pumpkin Seeds Version 2

    If you're like me, one of the best parts about the holiday season is the prevalence of pumpkin. I love pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, pumpkin soup, pumpkin muffins and just plain old carving up a pumpkin for Halloween. And one of the best parts about having these cheap gourds around is the toasting of the seeds into a crack-like snack for munching on.

    This is the original recipe I've been using for a couple of years, courtesy of

    No photos this time, because I was caught up in the roasting and pureeing of the pumpkin for my other blog post.

    But here's all the things you need to know:


    1 cup raw pumpkin seeds - rinsed and dried
    6 Tbsp white sugar, divided
    1/4 tsp salt
    1/2 tsp pumpkin pie spice
    1 Tbsp vegetable oil.

    • Preheat the oven to 250º
    • Spread the pumpkin seeds in a single layer on a baking sheet.
    • Toast for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, until dry and toasted. Larger seeds may take longer.
    • In a large bowl, stir together 2 tablespoons of white sugar, salt and pumpkin pie spice. Set aside.
    • Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.
    • Add the pumpkin seeds and sprinkle the remaining sugar over them.
    • Stir with a wooden spoon until the sugar melts, about 45 seconds.
    • Pour the seeds into the bowl with the spiced sugar and stir until coated.
    • Allow to cool before serving.
    • Store in an airtight container at room temp.


    Pumpkin Puree

    Now that the holidays are over, it's time to do some prep for the remainder of the winter. For me, that means making pumpkin puree for the variety of pumpkin dishes I like to make.

    We've had these pumpkins sitting on our dining room table since October. These also aren't pie pumpkins, just plain old jack-o-lantern style that we got at HEB before Halloween. They're pretty starchy at this point, but they'll still work fine for cooking.

    Start carving into them in a manner befitting their Halloween-ish upbringing. 

    Scoop out the guts, rinsing and drying the seeds for later toasting. 

    Cut up the pumpkin into chunks that will lay relatively flat.
    Place them face down on a couple of baking sheets.
    You'll probably want to hit the pans with some cooking spray, but it's not really a big problem.

    Into the oven they go.  350º - 400º for about an hour.
    You want to be able to stick a fork easily through the skin.

    The house smells really nice during this process. 

    After roasting the chunks, let them cool and you should be able to peel most of the skin right off.
    Not all of it will come off this easy, though, so you will probably have to break out the parring knife and cut the flesh away from the skin as closely as possible. 

    Then just drop the chunks into a food processor to turn them into mush.

    Voila: pumpkin mush.

    Two medium-sized pumpkins netted us 23 cups of puree.
    Labeled and now stored in the freezer, they are ready for the soups and breads and muffins to come.

    Wednesday, January 1, 2014

    New Years Lucky Foods

    Happy New Year, everyone!  I hope that your 2013 was a good one and that your 2014 is event better!

    For me, New Years Day wouldn't be complete without my traditional staple food of Collard greens, black eyed peas and cornbread. I'm originally from California, so I wasn't aware of this custom till I went over to a friends house several years ago and was introduced to the tradition. Now, I can't properly ring in the new year without this being on the menu for New Year's Day.

    While I was shopping the other day, the folks at HEB, handed me this short list of lucky foods for the new year and I thought I would share it with y'all.

    New year's Revelers in Spain consume twelve grapes at midnight - one for each stroke of the clock. This dates back to 1909, when grape growers in the Alicante region of Spain initiated the practice to take care of a grape surplus.

    Greens, including cabbage, collards, kale and chard are consumed at New Year's in different countries for a simple reason - their green leaves look like folded money, and are thus symbolic of economic fortune.

    Another lucky southern treat due to it's color resembling that of gold. To ensure extra luck, add extra corn kernels to represent golden nuggets. You can never have too much gold!

    legumes including beans, peas and lentils are also symbolic of money. Their small, seed like appearance resembles coins that swell when cooked so they are consumed with financial rewards in mind.

    The custom of eating pork on New Year's is based on the idea that pigs symbolize progress. The animal pushes forward, rooting itself in the ground before moving.

    Fish is lucky for a couple of reasons. Its scales resemble money and fish swim in schools, which invoke the idea of abundance.

    Although cake isn't necessarily considered healthy, a little indulgence can be a healthy thing for stress relief. Ring shaped cakes - sometimes with trinkets baked inside are a symbol of coming full circle.

    Cake courtesy of Gotham Gal.

    Happy New Years.

    And as always, ENJOY!