Stuffed Acorn Squash

Did you mother ever tell you not to play with your food? Well, when you are a chef you are allowed, even required, to play with your food everyday.

People eat with their eyes before they eat with their mouths, goes the mantra at culinary schools everywhere. Creative plating is as essential as choosing the freshest ingredients and balancing flavors, colors and textures in a recipe.

Stuffed Acorn Squash

Stuffed Acorn Squash

It’s the chef’s role to make the food “pop” for their guests. How can I make this dish memorable, I always ask myself.

Garnish is one solution. A little peice of green onion, a sprig of parsley or a few stategically placed red pepper strips can add color to the plate. Think about an strawberry fanned over an orange slice on the side of a breakfast plate, and you’ll see what I’m driving at.

Another way is to give the plate “height.” In one restaurant, we used to make a lamb shank we (privately) called “Poke-you-in-the-eye lamb shank” for the way the bone protruded up out of the plate. Alternating vegetables into tall stacks bound together with a little onion confit or a tab of mashed potato is another example of adding height to a dish.

But I like to use squash as a vehicle, especially this time of year.

Squash is inexpensive, nutritious, flavorful and, most important, looks amazing on a plate. Butternut, pumpkin, acorn, spaghetti, carnival, calabasa. The list of squashes available right now is a long one. Each has its distinct color and shape.

When I saw a couple of beautiful acorn squash at the Farmers Market last week, my mind gears immediately started to turn, thinking about how to stuff them like a cornaecopia.

Cooked acorn squash stand up on the plate really well. You can cut the tops off them like a jack-o-lantern, fill them with your filling and bake them. Or you can cut them in half and plate them like one of those decorative overturned wheelbarrows with wildflowers sprouting out of them.

Either way, your guests will be impressed by your creativity, as well as your cooking skills.

So, go ahead. Play with your food. Your mother will be so proud!

Stuffed Acorn Squash

1 acorn squash

1 TBS butter, divided into 2 tabs

2 TBS EVOO

1 lb ground turkey (or beef or lamb)

2 cups brown rice, cooked

10 oz package frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and drained

1/2 medium onion, diced

2 carrots, peeled and diced

1 celery stalk, diced

2 serrano peppers, ribs and seeds removed, diced

2 cloves garlic, crushed

4 oz crumbed Feta cheese

2 TBS dried thyme (or 1 TBS fresh)

1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

1/2 cup beef stock

1/4 cup grated parmesan

Sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste

2 sprigs fresh rosemary or other herb for garnish

1. Preheat oven to 375F. Cut acorn squash in half and use ice cream scoop to remove seeds and strings. Spray sheet pan and both sides of the squash with pan spray, then lay orange side up on sheet pan. Put the butter tabs inside each half, season with salt and pepper and cook until soft, about 45 minutes.

2. Place cast iron skillet on heat. When hot, add 1 TBS EVOO. When smoking, add turkey and brown until done, about five minutes. Drain fat if necessary and remove to side plate. In same skillet, add the other TBS EVOO. When smoking, add onions, carrots, celery, and serrano peppers and cook until onions translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, thyme and cayenne and cook another minute.

3. Return turkey to pan, along with rice, spinach, Feta cheese and beef stock. Stir until heated through, about 2-3 minutes. Season to taste w/ salt and pepper.

4. To plate, place acorn squash at top of plate and push down so the “bucket” is at an angle. Use a serving spoon to fill each squash with filling to make it look like it is pouring out of the squash. Sprinkle with parmesan and garnish with rosemary sprig.

What fun plating concepts are among your favorites? Share your ideas in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Stir Fry Secrets

You’ve probably been in Asian restaurants where the menu is 30 pages long and there are literally hundreds of items listed. When I was a culinary student I used to wonder, “Isn’t it
expensive to prep for so many different dishes every day?”

Here’s the secret they don’t want you to know: Although there may be hundreds of dishes, they are all combinations of only a handful of basic ingredients. Each dish is a pairing of couple different vegetables (such as onions, peppers, pea pods, etc.), combined with a few kinds of proteins (chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, etc), then served with your choice of starch (white rice, soft noodles, fried noodles).

All are quick cooked in very hot oil, usually in the same wok.

Obviously, there are variations. Sweet and sour chicken is breaded in a tempura batter, deep fried and served with a sweetened vinegar sauce. In egg foo young , vegetables are fried with an egg and flour mixture and served with a brown sauce. Moo shu sauce is made with sweetened plum puree.

But you get the idea.

Which brings us to why stir fry is the ultimate in budget cooking. Open your refrigerator and look around. Maybe you’ve got some leftover chicken, a half an onion and some garden fresh jalapenos. Guess what? You are now in the stir fry business!

Stir fry is one of the best ways to use up whatever leftovers you have laying around. Or you can buy a couple simple items and create an all-new quick and easy meal for your family.

Since I’m already spilling the beans, here are a couple of other stir fry secrets:

  • A little goes a long way: If you only have a small amount of leftover protein, you can stretch it out by mixing it with lots of inexpensive vegetables and rice or noodles. Kind of like ancient Chinese hamburger helper.
  • Rice and noodles don’t cost anything:  Okay, maybe they cost something, but it’s pennies per plate compared to other starches like potatoes or pasta. Filling up a plate with lots of white rice is a tasty and nutritious way to improve your family’s grocery budget.
  • Use the same basic marinade: Marinade chicken, pork, beef or shrimp in a little freshly crushed garlic, minced ginger, soy sauce and sesame oil and you will get an Asian influenced meal that won’t bust your wallet. Always keep these items on hand (ginger freezes excellently), and you will always have a quick and easy go-to meal guaranteed to please your family.
  • It’s thickened with the cheapest things on earth: Mix 1 TBS corn starch to 1 cup of water (this is called a “slurry”) and add it to your stir fry. Bring it to a boil, reduce heat and let simmer for five minutes and you’ll get a thick, flavorful
    stir fry that rivals anything from your local chop suey palace. In fact, that’s
    exactly same thing they do!

Want to make your stir fry more exotic? Spend a little more for baby corn cobs, water chestnuts or bamboo shoots. Or stop by the produce section to pick up some enoki mushrooms or bean sprouts. Easier still, during the last minute of cooking, throw in any leftover nuts you have lying around, such as cashews, peanuts or pecans.

Here’s a simple recipe I recently made that incorporates all of these ancient Chinese secrets.

Stir Fry Beef and Broccoli

Stir Fry Beef and Broccoli

Stir Fry Beef and Broccoli

For the rice:

1 cup dry white rice

2-3/4 cup chicken stock

1 TBS butter or EVOO

Salt and pepper to taste

For the protein:

6 oz leftover cooked flank steak (you can use any beef, chicken or pork you have)

2 cloves crushed garlic

1 TBS minced ginger

1 TBS sesame oil

3 TBS low-sodium soy sauce

1 tsp rice wine vinegar

½ tsp red pepper flake

For the stir fry:

½ red (or white or yellow) onion, sliced

½ yellow, red or green pepper, julienned

1 garden fresh jalapeno, sliced (seeds and ribs included)

½ cup sliced mushrooms (totally optional)

1 small to medium head of broccoli crown, separated

A couple of green onions, sliced at an angle

1 TBS chopped parsley (only because I already had it)

For the thickening agent:

1 cup water or chicken stock

1 TBS corn starch

1. Marinade the beef in the other ingredients between 10 minutes and 24 hours, depending on how much time you have. The longer you marinade, the more flavor will be aborbed by the beef. But don’t worry: all the flavor is going in the pan anyway.

2. Make rice however you prefer. I have a rice steamer, which is SO easy: Just dump in all ingredients, turn it on and forget about it. Perfect every time. Here’s a link to another easy way to cook rice.

3. Heat a large pan over a high flame. When hot, add oil and allow to get smoking hot. Add all the vegetables except the broccoli, scallions and parsley and cook until onions transluscent, about 2 minutes.

4. Add the beef and all the marinade and toss around. Cook until heated through, about a minute. Stir in the broccoli and thickening agent (liquid and corn starch), stir, reduce to low heat and cover. Cook about five minutes, stirring once or twice.

5. For plating, pile white rice in center of pasta bowl. Use a slotted spoon to arrange stir fry beef and broccoli. Garnish with green onions, chopped parsley and maybe a few more red pepper flakes.

Now you know the secret.

Budget Cooking – Language Barrier

Not long after starting my first job in a professional kitchen, I learned an important lesson – you probably won’t be speaking much English.

Depending on the restaurant, you might find yourself awash in a sea of Farsi, Italian, French, Spanish or Chinese, or a combination. One friend who spent time in Tunica, Mississippi, casino kitchens told me most dish rooms there spoke exclusively Senegalese.

In Chicago, I’ve found that Mexican Spanish is the most common kitchen language. In high school, I suffered through two years of Spanish, but that didn’t really prepare me for having to converse everyday in a fast-paced, dangerous kitchen where I was the only one who didn’t speak the common tongue.

I had to learn on the fly, and I did, mastering the essential curse words first. They were directed at me often enough, so that part was easy. Learning a handful of other commonly used Spanish phrases (“Get the hell out of the way!” “Why are you just standing there?” “Put out that fire!”, among others) brought me almost up to speed. Emphatic gesturing and pantomiming took care of the rest.

In one kitchen, a Mexican radio station blared day and night, and I soon became an aficionado of the top ten popular songs, often singing along when one of my favorites played (Check out Gloria Trevi, one of my favorites from those days, chewing up the scenery in the video below).  In another, I celebrated when the Bulls won two world championships in Spanish (“Los Toros son campeones del mundo!”)

But the language barrier worked both ways. I once worked with a small-statured dishwasher named Nardo. Like many Mexican men, he had a very macho attitude and,
perhaps because of his size, he constantly tried to impress with his swagger and masculinity.

One day, Nardo pulled me aside and asked me in Spanish, “How do you say, ‘I’m a
tough guy, a macho man?’ “ I whispered a few words in his ear.

Not long after, Nardo planned to return to Mexico. On the eve of his departure, he came to say goodbye dressed in brand new cowboy boots, a frying pan-sized belt buckle, a beautiful pearl-buttoned cowboy shirt, all topped off with a shiny suede ten-gallon hat. As the restaurant staff gathered in the kitchen to say goodbye, Nardo gestured for silence.

“I am a drag queen!” he announced, to howls of laughter.

Sorry, Nardo, I couldn’t resist.

Here’s a Mexican-influenced recipe that was one of my favorite during  my bachelor days. It’s fast, easy and super inexpensive – nothing is cheaper than rice and beans. Plus, you can put just about anything you want in it and it’s going to taste great, with just the right amount of heat. I still love to make this whenever my wife is out of town.

Frijoles Negros y Arroz (Black Beans and Rice) 

½ white onion, diced

1 jalapeno, ribs and seeds removed, diced

1 clove garlic, minced

1 TBS EVOO

1 cup whole grain white rice (not instant, please)

1-3/4 cup chicken stock (or water plus tsp chicken base)

1 can black beans

2 ea chorizo sausage (or any kind of sausage)

½ tsp chili powder

½ tsp cumin

1 tsp dried thyme

1 TBS hot sauce

Salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat small pot until hot, then add EVOO. When it gets to smoking temp, add onions and jalapeno, stir and cook until onions translucent, about two minutes.

2. Add dry rice and stir until every kernel is coated in oil. Cook for about one minute until you smell a nutty aroma. Add the chicken stock bring to boil. Stir, reduce to simmer and cover. Cook until all liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes.

3. While rice is cooking, sauté chorizo, either whole or remove from skin and cook in chunks. Meanwhile, drain and rinse black beans.  When sausage is cooked through,
add black beans, garlic, cumin, chili powder, thyme and hot sauce. Heat through. Fold in  rice when it’s ready. Season to taste with S&P.

Serve by itself, or with tortilla chips or small corn or flour tortillas, slightly warmed.

If you have leftover corn on the cob, cut it off and add it in. Have a small can of diced tomatoes? Great. Both go great with this.

This can be served either as a side dish or as the main entrée. It’s very inexpensive, with chorizo or whatever sausage you use being the only relatively costly item. I priced the whole thing at $2.35, feeds two.

I am a drag queen! Still cracks me up.