I am happiest when I am entertaining. I am a firm believer in the adage, “we eat with our eyes.” Whether you are hosting your son’s groom’s dinner, or you’re simply having the next-door neighbors over for an impromptu supper…always pay attention to how the table is set, keep the kitchen clean and make sure the final plates look beautiful. There is nothing wrong with putting on a little performance. Have good lighting, background music, cocktail napkins, the correct drink-ware and make time to visit with your guests. Think about your menu ahead of time…proper planning allows you to be a part of the fun rather than stuck outside on the grill or in the kitchen.
Corned Beef and Cabbage (Yep, I'm Irish)
A little corned beef and cabbage story…
Sometimes cooking cabbage in a slow cooker can smell up the house. There is no delicate way to put it, it stinks. When we first moved to Florida, I thought the problem was solved. Since it is March, just open up all the windows, and let it cook. Well, we ended up with a different problem. Every fly on the Gulf Coast smelled the wonderful Irish dinner cooking and came to visit. When I came home from work, every screen was black with flies! It was more than a little creepy sitting at the dining table with the constant buzz of flies crawling all over the outside of the house. Later on in life, I came up with a better solution. Cook the corned beef and cabbage separately (I boil it in a stockpot an hour or so before the corned beef is ready). Marry them together before serving, but with enough time for the cabbage to soak up the good corned beef flavors.
You do not need a $4000.00 smoker to enter the world of smoking. I have been incredibly successful using some very simple tools.
The Brinkman Electric Smoker was my first machine. It looked like R2-D2 and plugged into a standard 110 volt outlet. There is a coil in the bottom of the unit which you surround with some chunks of presoaked wood. The wood smolders to create the smoke and you place your meats, fish or poultry on the upper shelves. The unit also has a water-pan to help moderate the temperature and keep the interior moist. I found an external probe thermometer that I permanently installed which helps me monitor the inside temp. I always use a remote probe in the meat, as well. But, the electric unit was not the best for slow smoking large muscle meats, like pork shoulder or rib roasts.
Enter your standard charcoal Weber kettle grill. I love smoking with this piece of equipment. Kingsford now has charcoal with the smoking wood already infused. Pecan is my favorite, although I still soak chips and toss them on the coals. If you use the Weber kettle for smoking, splurge and invest in the Weber Char-baskets. These will make your life easier when trying to split up hot coals.
My Dad loved pizza. Sloppy, traditional crust pizza with everything on it. He grew up in Rockford, Illinois and the region boasted some great Italian restaurants. He used to describe one of the local joints, detailing the appearance of the guy making the pizzas. Something about a dirty t-shirt and a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth. He said some other things that I can’t repeat, but he always gave the guy credit for making the best pizza.
Dad loved to make his own pizza. Sunday night was his night to cook. Mom made the huge post-church Sunday dinner, Dad did the late evening supper, usually right after The Wonderful World of Disney. Chef Boyardee with a twist…and a couple of martinis. He always “doctored” it up with good Italian sausage, green peppers, onions, tomatoes and whatever else we had in the fridge. Lots of shredded mozzarella cheese. He used some beat up rectangle sheet pans reserved for his cooking. They may have had the occasional rust. Just look away…that’s what we did. I remember waiting for the pie to come out of the oven. Longest wait in the world when you are 10 years old.
I also make my own pizza. I moved on from Chef Boyardee. I use Martha White crust mix, Green Mill traditional sauce, fresh Italian sausage and plenty of fresh veggies. The wait to come out of the oven? Still agonizing. I now understand the martinis, as an important part of the recipe.
This seafood story happened fairly recently. My wife and I were visiting Orlando, Florida and we stayed at a hotel with a full, in-room kitchen and an outdoor grill. I will repeat that…our room had a full kitchen! Needless to say, it became the happiest place on Earth (we were close to Disney). One of my favorite fish fillets to grill is grouper. When I ran restaurants in the Tampa Bay area, I cooked up a lot of grouper. So, I figured it would be an easy find at one of the local Orlando fish markets. Not so much. We hit several fish mongers, including one that was in a super sketchy part of town (and you could probably buy more over the counter than fresh fish). Sorry, no grouper. We were discouraged, but we had one last stop to make. Walmart. Yes, the Walmart in Orlando, Florida had an excellent selection of fresh fish. Needless to say, we had an awesome meal of grouper, asparagus and a fantastic sauvignon blanc. When it comes to seafood procurement, never leave any stone unturned.