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THE CHALLENGE OF DIETING

Posted: January 19, 2020 in Uncategorized
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Like many people, I’ve done my best over the last few years to avoid the obvious: I need to lose some weight. Every time I get my yearly check-up at the doctor’s, he tells me: “You need to lose at least 20 pounds.” I nod my head, as if I’m going to give it a try, then head straight for Fellini’s pizza in Providence, for a couple of slices. The next year: same thing: “You need to lose at least 20 pounds.” I nod….
When I was young, I was rail thin and could eat anything I wanted without gaining a pound. When I got older, my metabolism slowed down, but my love of food did not–in fact, it probably increased, as I learned how to cook really well.

OMG…that was one skinny dude!

Now, here I am, writing a food blog. I travel for food. I plan six meals ahead at any given time.  I’ll be 62 in March of this year, and I have a 13-year-old daughter. Do the math, and you’ll realize, like I did, that I need to take care of myself to be around for as many of her upcoming life events as possible.
With a trip to Florida in March and a trip to the Caribbean in April, I have two deadlines set in place for reaching weight loss goals. As I put it to my daughter: “I want to lose enough weight so that women won’t vomit when I take my shirt off!” (She responded with the typical teenage eye-roll.)

My version of lox and bagels: home-cured wild-caught Alaskan salmon, whipped cream cheese (fewer calories), onions, capers, and toast pieces. Lots of tasty bites here. (A sliced, hard-boiled egg would only add 78 calories.)

There are a million diets out there, and everybody claims they have the secret to weight loss. But no matter what diet you’re on, what it really boils down to is the simple mathematical equation of calories in…versus calories out.
My buddy, Lee, a PhD in chemistry, and someone that dropped 50 pounds last year, told me about an article written by an engineer that lays out the basics. You can find it here:
As he states, losing weight is simply thermodynamics: you need to eat less calories than your body burns every day. If you do that, you will lose weight.

My stir-fry has chicken breast, broccoli, white rice (Uncle Ben’s), some onion, and my “Chinese Mix” of flavors: soy sauce, hoisin sauce, chili garlic sauce, and sesame oil. My trick to add flavor to the rice without calories is to add beef bouillon when I cook it. (I use Better Than Bouillon.)

There is a way to find out approximately how many calories a day your body uses to maintain its weight. It’s called the basal metabolic rate, or BMR. In my case, I need about 2500 calories per day to maintain my weight. So, like my friend Lee, I chose a diet where I eat no more than 1500 calories daily…a deficit of 1000 calories per day.
At the end of 7 days, I have eaten 7000 fewer calories than my body uses. Since about 3500 calories make 1 pound, I should be losing 2 pounds per week, according to this math.
Now, there are many variables to this, but basically this thought process holds true.
And the best part is: is doesn’t matter what I eat. If I want to eat bean sprouts, great. If I want Taco Bell, fine. As long as I don’t go over 1500 calories a day, it doesn’t matter what I put in my gut. This is really helpful for people like me, who get bored of eating the same old stuff day after day–a sure-fire way to give up on a diet. Carbs, fats, meat, dairy…all OK within reason.

Fish is an excellent source of protein, and I never ate enough of it. Now, I make a bowl of tuna poke pretty often, and it’s absolutely delicious!

My buddy, Lee, is a diabetic, and stays away from carbs. He eats lean meats, seafood, and vegetables. That’s how he lost his 50 pounds. His son, on the other hand, lost weight by eating mostly fast food, but still counting the calories and not eating more than 1500 of them per day. He also lost 50 pounds.
I’m not a big junk food person. I don’t buy cookies, cakes or chips. Ice cream (my kryptonite) is a rare treat, and rarely sits in my home freezer. I don’t put sugar in my coffee, and I don’t drink juices or soda. But my biggest weight-gain mistake was thinking I could use unlimited amounts of so-called “healthy fats” in my recipes. I was pouring olive oil over everything…spreading pork leaf lard everywhere…and buttering my butter! Now I measure everything, drastically reducing my fats, and I can’t believe how many calories I’m saving!

Sprays can be extremely helpful in keeping your calories low. Just be careful: they say “zero calories,” but that doesn’t mean you can spray a ton in your pan! Regulations allow them to say “zero” if a single serving is less than 1 calorie. That’s why a single serving here is a spray of about 1/5 of a second! (Seriously!)

Portion control is essential. I’ve found that I really don’t have to change many of my recipes in this livethelive blog, which is all the food I love. I just have to control my portion sizes. For example, a ribeye may be a delicious source of protein, but it’s also loaded with fat. (That’s why it tastes so good!) So now I only eat a small, 4-ounce serving at mealtime, not the 12-ounce slab I was eating before.
Having a deadline or a goal really helps. As I said, trips to Florida and the Caribbean, where I’ll be showing my gut to the world, is plenty of incentive. So I made a decision back before the holidays that I would start on January 2nd.
When I started my 1500-calorie-a-day diet, I was bloated from alcohol, salt, fat, and simply eating too much rich food. But once the diet really started rolling, I could step on the bathroom scale and see the bloat was diminishing, and rather quickly. At this point, it’s easy to deceive yourself in thinking that this is “real weight,” when it’s not. It’s just your body reaching its natural plateau. But that’s OK. When you see the weight go down, even by a tenth of a pound a day, it gives you the incentive to continue.
After about a week of bloat loss, the real diet and weight loss began.
The human body is full of constant change. So even once I started and steadily maintained my 1500-calorie-a-day diet, Lee told me not to expect to be dropping 2 pounds per week like clockwork. Some weeks, my body will retain more water, perhaps from eating too much salt. Some days, I’ll go to the bathroom more, some less. My bathroom scale itself may be off by a little, too. So what I see when I step on the scale needs to be taken with a grain of salt (pardon the pun.) On any given day, my weight can actually be plus or minus 2 pounds of what my scale shows.

Find a protein drink or bar you like. It can really help when the cravings get bad. But make sure you choose one that is low in sugar!

The secret of this diet (or any other diet for that matter) is persistence. Don’t give up because your scale hasn’t moved. Your body is going through changes–big changes. And if you maintain your diet, you will see results eventually…the keyword being: eventually. Over the course of a month or two, you will see significant results.
The secret for me is to find the food I like and then eat it in reasonable quantities. Variety is also really important, or I’ll get bored and give up. Other than avoiding too much salt, I have few dietary restrictions. So I’m able to eat whatever I want within my calorie guidelines.
So as you read this blog this year, you’ll see that many of my recipes haven’t changed, with the exception, perhaps, of fats used in cooking, because that’s one of the top calorie culprits. It doesn’t matter if you’re using butter, bacon fat, or healthy olive oil, all fats have a lot of calories, whether they’re healthy or not.
Another key to my diet’s success–and this is the one that everybody hates!–I write down every single morsel of food I eat every day, and then calculate how many calories that entails. Not everyone can be this anal, but I have no problem with it. Once I set my mind to it, it just comes naturally. I have a date book where I write my morning weight every day, and then everything I eat that day, with individual and total calorie counts. (Counting calories is easy, now that we all carry phones that let us simply Google that information.)
Using a simple digital kitchen scale (one that weighs ounces and grams) is KEY to making sure you’re not overeating. Buy one immediately!

Yes…I write it ALL down!

Fortunately for me, even alcohol can be included in this diet. That’s not to say that I’m boozing it up! I only allow myself alcoholic beverages on Friday and Saturday nights. At 100 calories for a 1.5 ounce shot of 80-proof booze, I can have 2 3-ounce martinis for a total of 400 calories. Of course, that still counts in my 1500-calorie-a-day plan. So that means I eat less…which can get me a little loopy on weekends! But as long as I’m not driving, that’s not a problem! Drinking alcohol gives me the munchies…so I have to be very careful with that.

Having a seat at great bars, like the world-famous Bar Hemingway at the Ritz in Paris, is a passion of mine. My diet still allows me to sip a fine cocktail without guilt! I choose drinks that are low in sugar.

Follow this diet and you, too, will succeed. It doesn’t matter if you need to be gluten-free or not. It doesn’t matter if you’re avoiding carbs or not. It doesn’t matter if you’re vegan, vegetarian, or a total carnivore. Keto, Atkins, whatever. What matters is counting your total calories per day…and sticking to the diet every day…no cheating. No business lunch excuses, breakfast buffets, and 48-oz. steaks.
A great tip is to start by eating everything you love, even if it’s not really good for you, just in smaller quantities. Don’t eat real junk food, but worry about total calories first, not whether what you’re eating is “health food.” (Like my buddy, Lee’s, son who still lost weight eating Taco Bell.) Your first goal should be to limit calories. Then, as you get comfortable and progress, start making better and healthier food choices. Anyone who starts a diet by chewing celery after a lifetime of steak and potatoes is going nowhere!
After I reach my goal weight, which is my wedding weight of 217 pounds (that’s a 21-pound drop), I can choose to continue my diet or go back to my daily intake of 2500 calories to maintain my new weight. (That’s still fewer calories than I was consuming every day before I started the diet, but after 1500 a day, it’ll feel like I’m cheating!)
What I’m learning with this diet, as I cook healthier, measuring how much fat I put in a pan before frying…cutting my huge steaks into smaller pieces and trimming off the fat…is that I never want to go back to my old way of eating again. I can still eat anything I love…just a little bit less.

I cut the middle out of my bagel and weigh it!

 

That right there, after cooking, is 90 calories. Nothing brings the flavor like bacon!

 

My breakfast sandwich: the bottom of an everything bagel, a strip of bacon, and a fried egg. 349 calories, including a tablespoon of butter! A sprinkle of everything bagel seasoning adds flavor and just a couple of calories.

 

WHAT I’VE FOUND….
Bad…
1 tablespoon of butter has 100 calories. I used to load my 400-calorie everything bagel with 300 calories of butter…and then I had breakfast! A tablespoon of whipped butter has only 50 calories, so I use that instead.
Same thing with mayonnaise. I love Hellman’s. But it’s got 90 calories per tablespoon. Enter Hellman’s Light: 35 calories and I can still indulge!
Cheese is not a dieter’s friend. It’s a calorie and salt nightmare. And light cheese tastes like crap. So I stick to small amounts of lower calorie cheeses, like feta (70 calories per ounce) or whipped cream cheese (40 calories per tablespoon), and save pizza for very rare occasions.
Good…
Boiled Shrimp is our friend at just 80 calories for 4 ounces, and lots of protein.
A hard-boiled egg, which I love, is just 78 calories…an excellent protein bomb that fills you up. (And don’t worry about the cholesterol unless you’re eating a dozen a day!)
You can still have bacon! My thick-cut bacon is 90 calories a slice after frying. Now I have one slice for breakfast instead of six! (Read the package.)
A diet saves you money! I can’t believe how much less food I buy at the supermarket! Sure, I’m buying more veggies, but a steak that used to be one meal is now three! As a nation, Americans eat way too much food, and what we eat is mostly unhealthy. A diet that focuses on veggies and lean proteins is good for any body. Michael Pollan’s quote is more valuable now than ever: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
A successful diet is all about being creative. I can’t have a BLT in the usual sense anymore, and that’s my all-time favorite sandwich. But I can have BLT lettuce wraps that drastically cut the calories and still satisfy my cravings.

My BLT. Limiting the bacon and mayo makes it diet-friendly.

 

Adding that strip of toasted bread really adds to the flavor and texture!

Of course, any exercise you do in addition to this diet is only a bonus. If you use a treadmill or stationary bike, it will tell you just how many calories you’ve burned. You can subtract that from your daily calorie count.
You WILL lose weight if you diet without exercise. You WILL lose weight FASTER if you diet AND exercise, assuming you don’t gorge after your workout. You will NEVER lose weight eating the same junk, thinking you can “work it off.”
As I write this blog, it is Day 17 of my diet and I’ve lost 9 pounds! But for the last couple of days, my scale has been holding steady, teasing me…taunting me!  I know I’ve got to keep doing the right thing…and that’s going to get me through those days until I step on that scale and see that downward movement again.
I can do it! So can you!

I started a serious diet a few days ago, with the goal of losing some significant pounds before I travel in April to one of my favorite islands in the world: St. John in the USVI. This will probably be my tenth trip, but the first since the island was devastated by Hurricane Irma a few years ago. It’s time to return and pump some money into the local economy!

One of the drinks I’m dreaming about is a Caribbean classic. When traveling to St. John, a must for my friends and me is an all-day catamaran sail to the British Virgin Islands, to the home of what I call the Greatest Beach Bar on Planet Earth: the Soggy Dollar Bar.

One of the tastiest rum drinks you can make, and one that certainly brings you back to the Caribbean, is the legendary Painkiller. It was invented on the tiny island of Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands, at the Soggy Dollar. Located on White Bay, a stretch of the whitest sand in the Caribbean, surrounded by beautiful turquoise waters, there is no dock. You have to anchor your boat offshore and swim…hence the name: the Soggy Dollar.

 

Pre-Irma: after the hurricane, the Soggy Dollar, too, has changed, I’m sure. But it will be good to be back!

 

Daphne Henderson was the owner of the Soggy Dollar years ago, and she is credited for inventing the Painkiller, which used Pusser’s rum, a British rum that is available here in the United States. Charles Tobias, a businessman that received permission from the British Royal Navy to commercialize Pusser’s rum in 1980, tasted the Painkiller and realized the potential of this amazing drink. He took some Painkillers home to the island of Tortola, where he experimented in recreating that drink, coming up with what he thought was something that was as good as—if not better than—the original. He called it the Pusser’s Painkiller.

Tobias never found out what Daphne Henderson’s original recipe was, but when he brought his own Pusser’s Painkillers back to the Soggy Dollar, and had a tasting battle between the two recipes, his recipe apparently won 10 out of 10 times. With 5 Pusser’s bar and restaurant locations, Tobias quickly made the Pusser’s Painkiller the signature drink of these now-famous establishments…and perhaps the most popular drink among the sailing community in the US, Caribbean and West Indies.

Woody’s in St. John makes a good Painkiller to go, but nothing beats the Soggy Dollar!

 

PUSSER’S PAINKILLER

4 parts pineapple juice
1 part cream of coconut
1 part orange juice
grated nutmeg
Pusser’s rum

Combine the first 3 ingredients, with lots of fresh grated nutmeg in a glass with ice. How much Pusser’s rum you use depends on how hammered you want to get! A Pusser’s #2 uses 2 parts rum…a Pusser’s #3 uses 3 parts rum…and a Pusser’s #4 uses 4 parts rum!

I’ve had several Pusser’s #4’s back in the day when there was a Pusser’s bar in Cruz Bay, St. John, many years ago. I’ve also sampled them in the BVI on Tortola.  But I still prefer going back to Jost Van Dyke and knocking back a few of the originals at the place where the Painkiller was born, The Soggy Dollar Bar.

SOGGY2

Thanks to my buddy, Dr. Chezwick for the photo, taken years ago. My daughter is now 13, and ready for a “mock” Painkiller! Dad wants the real deal!

 

This is a really delicious grilled steak full of wonderful Thai flavors. You do need to marinate it overnight, so keep that in mind. The overnight marinating is key to the intense and unbelievable flavor of the beef.

The original recipe called for skirt steak, but I didn’t have any in my freezer. I did have a fat ribeye, though, so once I thawed it, I sliced it lengthwise to get two large, thin steaks which would easily suck up the marinade I was going to make. And the ribeye was nicely marbled, so it stayed juicy and tender.

 

image

 

 

1/4 cup toasted sesame oil
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons grated ginger
2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons chopped dry roasted unsalted peanuts
2 scallions, minced
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
1 tablespoon fresh squeezed lime juice
1 tablespoon chile oil
2 lbs. beef ribeye (or skirt steak or beef flap)
1/4 cup chicken stock (homemade is best)

In a bowl, whisk together the sesame oil, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, cilantro, peanuts, scallions, sugar, lime juice and chile oil. Transfer half of it to a shallow dish.

Add the steak to the dish and turn the meat to coat it well. Cover and refrigerate the beef overnight. Refrigerate the other half of the marinade in a separate container.

The next day, light a grill. While it’s warming up, get out a sauce pan and pour the chicken stock in along with the reserved marinade. I like to heat it to combine it well, but not letting it reach a boil. Remove it from the heat and let it come to room temperature. This will be the dipping sauce for the beef.

Take the marinated steak out of the fridge and let it come to room temperature. Season it with salt and pepper, and grill it over high heat until it’s medium-rare, about 5 minutes.

If it’s too cold to light a grill, or if you just want to use the oven, heat a cast iron pan on the stovetop, add a few drops of avocado oil or pork fat, and sear the beef on both sides before placing it in a pre-heated 375-degree oven to finish cooking.

Devour the beef with the dipping sauce!

 

Recently, I received a wonderful surprise delivery of fresh venison and bear meat from my buddy, Bruce, a hunter.
Bruce was fortunate enough to get two deer this year, and was nice enough to share some of that meat with me. I save the tenderloins to cook very simply: I slice them into medallions and dust them with a little bit of flour before sautéing them in a pan with butter, onions, and mushrooms. Those medallions, along with some farm fresh fried eggs, are truly the breakfast of champions! I learned all about that from my father-in-law, born and raised in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a hunter from a very young age out of necessity: he was 1 of 17 children! Hunting with his father was simply the only way they could feed his large, poor family.
I also make jerky with the venison backstrap, which I think is superior to beef jerky. Wonderful flavor. I bring bags of it to work and it’s quickly devoured by my co-workers.

Bear meat is very dark, almost like liver.

I’ve only had bear meat once before, and again, that came from my father-in-law, who made summer sausage out of it. It was pretty tasty, but somewhat gamy…nothing a swipe of mustard couldn’t fix!
So when Bruce brought me some ground bear meat, I wasn’t sure what to do with it. He suggested that it’s best used in a recipe where you add seasonings to it…we’re talking meatballs, tacos, etc….or a chili or stew, where you cook it low and slow. Either  way, the meat needs to be cooked thoroughly, as it’s common to find a parasite in bear that can cause trichinosis. The general rule is “season it like beef, cook it like pork.”
I did some research and found that bears are omnivores, so the meat tends to taste like whatever they ate last. If that happens to be salmon, the meat can have a fishy, unpleasant taste. If he last ate berries, it could be really good. Bear fat can ruin the taste of the meat, so it tends to be butchered very lean, which also makes it somewhat dry and flavorless.
I figured the tacos were the way to go, since I use a lot of seasonings. Here’s my basic taco seasoning recipe…
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
1 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon crushed pepper flakes
1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
1 teaspoon paprika
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 Spanish onion, finely chopped
olive oil

Sauteing it well!

 

I start with some olive oil or bacon fat in a pan, and saute onions until they’re translucent. Then I add the bear meat, and cook it well, adding the seasonings at the end.

I topped the seasoned bear meat with cheese, beans, and a tomato and onion salsa. I also drizzled a little bit of Thousand Island dressing on the top. (Personal preference) I used flour tortillas and the tacos were actually pretty tasty!
These days, when black bear populations get out of control in some areas of the northeast, hunters are allowed to step in and reduce the population. But back in the early 1900’s, bear meat was commonly hunted and cooked. We can thank Teddy Roosevelt for saving the bear when, ironically on a bear hunt, he refused to shoot a bear that was tied to a willow tree. A toy company marketed a stuffed bear to commemorate the incident, and the teddy bear was born. After that, bears had a cuddly image (think Smokey and Yogi), that kept people from eating it.

Let’s face it: there’s no such thing as healthy eggnog. This recipe is delicious but is also a heart attack in a glass. I post it every year because my friends just love it.

My buddy, Rick Sammarco, a wicked talented bartender, credits his father, Al, for this eggnog. The original recipe calls for a lot more of everything. I’ve cut it down to a “more reasonable” size.

A word about salmonella: If you’re concerned about it, you need to decide what works for you. Some recipes tell you to make your eggnog weeks in advance to “sterilize” the drink with all the booze you’ve added to it. I’m not sure that really works. As for me, I use raw eggs in my Caesar salad dressing and in other recipes, so I’m willing to risk it here.

If you’re lucky, some stores–(though very few of them, and none near me)–sell pasteurized eggs. They say the taste is a bit funky, but that it does remove the salmonella.

 

eggnog

 

1.5 quarts vanilla ice cream (I use Breyer’s)
1 pint half & half
15 whole eggs (raw)
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
At least 3/8 cup of each:
spiced rum (I use Captain Morgan)
whiskey (I use Crown Royal)
brandy (I use E&J)

 

Let the ice cream soften 1 day in the fridge. Mix the ice cream, eggs, vanilla, half-and-half in a blender.

Add the spices and liquor. Blend until it’s frothy.

Taste, and add more cinnamon and nutmeg if you like.

After it’s fully blended, let it sit in the fridge, covered, for at least 12-24 hours for the flavors to blend. Even longer is better.

 

 

I’ve had Clams Casino in many different forms. Back when I worked in Italian restaurants in New York, we would make a breadcrumb mixture, press it onto a freshly opened whole clam, and then place a small piece of bacon on top before it went into the oven. It was good, but the clam often stuck to the shell, and many people didn’t want to gulp down a whole clam like that.

 

Oyster knife (left) and a clam knife (right.) Different tools for different jobs.

 

When it was time for me to make my own recipe, I decided that I would chop the clams and mix them into the breadcrumb mix, so that every bite was the same.

 

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/3 cup finely chopped Vidalia or other sweet onion (about a 1/2 an onion)
2 garlic cloves, squeezed through a garlic press
1/3 cup dry white wine
1/3 cup unflavored bread crumbs
1 tablespoon fresh Italian parsley, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
Freshly cracked black pepper
2 dozen medium neck clams
1/3 lb. bacon, cut in small squares to fit the clam shells
Heat the olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Add the onions, and sauté them until they’re translucent. Add the garlic, and cook for 10 seconds. Add the wine and simmer for a minute. Add the bread crumbs, and stir the mixture until it becomes thicker, like a paste. Add the parsley and oregano. Season with pepper. (There’s going to be plenty of salt in the clam juice and bacon, so no salt is needed.)

The bread crumb mixture.

Remove the pan from the heat and let it cool.
It’s time to open the clams. If you know how to do that, open them over a sieve with a bowl underneath so that the clam meats and juices are captured. Discard any broken shells, but save the good ones.
If you struggle with opening clams, this method makes it a little easier: Bring a large pot of water to boil, and drop the clams into it, about 10 at a time, for 30 seconds. Don’t let them open! Remove the clams with a slotted spoon and place them in a bowl to cool. Continue doing this in small batches until all the clams have been in the water. You’ll find this makes opening the clams much easier. Then proceed as above.
Once you’ve shucked all the clams, let the clam juice sit for a bit, so that any grit settles to the bottom of the bowl. Then pour off the clean clam juice and add it to your bread crumb mixture. (Don’t worry if it looks soggy at this point.)

Looking a little soggy, but that’s OK.

I like to hand chop the clam meats instead of using a food processor. You want tasty clam chunks, not too big but not mush. Add the clams to the the bread crumb mix.
At this point, if the clam mix looks very soggy, simply add a little more bread crumb to dry it out.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Line a large baking sheet with foil. Separate the clam shell halves and wash them, making sure you don’t have any shell fragments left in the clam shell.  Fill them with the clam mixture, mounding them slightly, and placing each one on the baking sheet.

Clams and bacon…delicious!

Cut the bacon in small squares to fit the clam shells. Place a small piece of raw bacon on the top of each clam.
Bake until the clams are just cooked through, the topping is golden, and the bacon is cooked, about 30 minutes.

This makes a great appetizer, but it’s hard to just eat a few!

My dog, Fellow, is so used to my crazy work schedule, that he really gets unhappy if I miss his 4AM and 4PM feeding times. That creates a problem on weekends, when I’d like to get a little extra sleep…”little” being the operative word, since he lets me “push it” to about 5:30AM before he really starts to whine.

This morning, when we set the clocks back an hour, that meant I got up at 4:30 instead of 5:30. There was no way I could fall back asleep, so I did the next best thing: I cooked.

Making koldūnai is a labor of love…one that takes time. And I had that this morning…in spades!

 

 

I think I spent half of my childhood in the kitchen, watching my Mom and grandmother make koldūnai (kohl-doo-nayh), the Lithuanian version of a pierogi, by hand at lightning speed. They would roll a simple dough into a log about 1″ in diameter, then cut it into 1″ pieces, twirling each piece between their fingers to make a flat pancake, filling each with a small spoonful of meat or mushrooms, then fold it over, crimping the edges to make a crescent-shaped dumpling. It blew my mind that they could crank out over a hundred of these little masterpieces in no time, placing them on a cookie sheet and freezing them until it was time to cook.

 

 

Always on the lookout to make my job easier, I discovered a new tool a couple of years ago: a device that makes faster work of koldūnai production, though they do come out much smaller. It’s a ravioli maker, and the Lithuanian purists I chatted with on social media didn’t like it. I was willing to give it a try if it meant that I could save myself a lot of time.

 

 

Simply roll out a sheet of dough on top of it.

 

 

Add a spoon of filling (in this case, ground beef) in each area.

 

 

Then roll out another sheet of dough on top of that and press down with a rolling pin.

 

Voila! Out pop 37 mini-koldūnai at once!

 

I first tried it with gluten-free dough, with limited success. The dough needs to have elasticity for the device to work properly and that’s something that is sorely lacking in any gluten-free dough I’ve made over the years. Gluten-free dough tends to dry out quickly and simply break rather than bend. But, that said, I managed to make a decent amount of them so that my wife, who maintains a gluten-free diet, could enjoy them, too.

 

Always great to have a helper in the kitchen!

 

One of the main reasons why I prefer Lithuanian koldūnai over Polish pierogis is the filling. For me, standard pierogi fillings like potatoes, cheese, and sauerkraut just don’t cut it. My Mom would mix ground beef with chopped onions sautéed in butter, a couple of eggs, and milk crackers soaked in milk. She’d add salt and pepper, then spoon that mixture into her koldūnai.

The other stuffing, usually reserved for special holidays like Christmas Eve and Easter, was made from mushrooms. Italy may lay claim to the porcini, but the fact of the matter is, Lithuania is porcini heaven. And when they’re dried and reconstituted, their incredible flavor is so intense, you don’t need many of them to flavor a large amount of regular button mushrooms. We’d get our dried boletes from relatives in Lithuania every year. Mom would place a handful in some boiling water and let them steep until they swelled up and could easily be chopped and added to the other mushrooms. She’d then pour the mushroom liquid into the pan as well, not wasting a bit of that magical porcini flavor. The mushrooms were simply sautéed in butter, cooled, then used to fill the koldūnai.

 

I found that my Mom’s log method was too much work. I roll the dough out into a sheet with a rolling pin, then cut circles with a glass. Yes, that’s mac-and-cheese in the forefront.

 

A few years ago, I decided it was time to try my hand at making koldūnai. As I recall, my Mom simply mixed water with flour to make the dough, kneaded it into a log, and off she went. I decided to go with the rolling pin and glass cutting method in addition to the ravioli maker, because I wanted to compare the classic crescent-shaped koldūnai with the newer mini’s.

The biggest challenges I had with making my own koldūnai was my own clumsiness and lack of experience. Once I got the hang of it, things moved along steadily, and it didn’t take long for me to make a decent batch–not all perfect, but not bad for a first try.

 

The rolling pin method.

 

This time around, I made four kinds of koldūnai: traditional (ground beef as well as mushroom) and non-traditional (mac & cheese and pulled pork.)  Patty’s Pierogis, a restaurant in nearby Fall River, Massachusetts, and featured on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” is where my daughter first had mac & cheese pierogis. She was instantly hooked and begs for them every year.

Here’s my beef recipe…

1/2 onion, finely chopped
1 pat of butter
1 lb. ground beef
1 egg
1/2 cup breadcrumbs (I use gluten-free)

I make my gluten-free breadcrumbs with Udi’s frozen GF bread that I toast, then chop in a food processor. I think it tastes better than store-bought GF breadcrumbs in a can, and it tastes as good as regular breadcrumbs.

Finely chop the onion and sauté it in the butter until translucent. Let it cool, then add it to 1 lb. of thawed ground beef. Add the egg and the breadcrumbs. Season with salt and pepper. Mix the ingredients thoroughly and keep the meat in the fridge until you’re ready to use it.

 

Two pots of boiling salted water: one for the meat-filled koldūnai, and one for the mac-and-cheese filled koldūnai.

Two pots of boiling salted water: one for the meat-filled koldūnai, and one for the mac-and-cheese filled koldūnai.

 

In my childhood home, you cannot possibly serve koldūnai without sour cream on the side and without spirgučiai (spir-guh-chay), chopped and fried bacon and onions that are sprinkled on top.

1 lb. bacon, finely chopped
1 large onion, finely chopped

In a large pan, fry the chopped bacon until it’s almost crisp. Never drain the fat! Add the chopped onions and cook until they are soft. Set aside.  (My Mom always kept a stash of spirgučiai in a container in the fridge, and sprinkled them on anything and everything.)

 

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Making the dough is simple.

2 cups all-purpose flour (gluten-free or regular)
1 cup water

I don’t use salt in the dough because I boil the koldūnai in salted water later.

Combine the ingredients in a bowl, mixing with your hands. Keep adding flour in small amounts until the dough isn’t wet and sticky. When it forms a nice ball, remove it from the bowl and place it on a floured surface and knead it a bit more. Cut the ball into quarters, and work with these smaller pieces of dough.

If you’re using the ravioli maker method, each quarter will  make one sheet of dough for the top or bottom of the ravioli maker. If making them by hand, each sheet will give you about 8 crescent-shaped koldūnai.

For the rolling-pin method, roll each quarter out until the dough is about 1/8″ thick. Cut circles out of the dough using a cookie cutter, rocks glass, or whatever else you have handy. Add about a teaspoonful of filling in the center of the dough, then fold the edges over and pinch them with your fingers. Flip it over and pinch again, making sure none of the filling seeps out. A tight edge means the koldūnai won’t break open when you put them in boiling water.

 

Who knew a rocks glass had more uses than just to hold a great Manhattan?

 

Some stuffed with mac and cheese!

 

I recently discovered these “pierogi makers.” You lay the dough in them, add your filling, and then close them. They automatically crimp the edges for you.

 

I always double-check the crimped edges, because your koldūnai will fall apart in the boiling water if you don’t seal them well!

 

Place the koldūnai on a sheet pan dusted with flour, and when you’re done, place the sheet pan in the freezer.

 

Ready for the freezer!

 

Sometimes the chef gets punchy after making koldūnai all day long!

 

Get a large pot of salted water boiling. Drop the koldūnai in gently, being careful not to overcrowd them. If the dough is thin, the koldūnai will be ready when they float up to the surface. A thicker dough will need longer cooking. The best way to know if they’re done is by taking one out, cutting it open and having a look (and taste!)

When plating, sprinkle generously with spirgučiai, and serve with sour cream on the side.

 

 

My conclusion: When all is said and done, the old ways are still the best. Although the ravioli maker did a good job, in many ways it was just as time-consuming. And the finished mini-raviolis did not have the dough-to-filling ratio that I find so satisfying with classically made koldūnai. We sampled both side-by-side, and there really was a difference. I’m sticking with the classic methods for now! Mom will be proud.

 

The hand-painted Christmas trees in the photos are from our friend, Don Cadoret, an artist here in Tiverton, RI. Check out all of his work at: http://www.doncadoret.net.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Years ago, at Le Saint-Amour, a great restaurant in Quebec City, the dish I ordered had these small strange-looking root vegetables sitting next to my roasted duck entrée. They resembled tiny twisted parsnips…or caterpillars! I needed to know what these things were, and so I asked my French waiter, who came back with a piece of paper that had the word “crosne” written on it. He said: “I don’t know how they say it in English.”
Back at the hotel room, I went right to the laptop and started a search online and discovered that crosnes (pronounced crones) are also known as Chinese artichokes, and although they are somewhat common in European gardens, they’re really difficult to find in the states.
The leaves look like mint, but don't have a fragrance.

The leaves look like mint, but don’t have a fragrance.

 

The plant is a relative of mint (though the leaves have no aroma), a perennial, is easy to grow, spreads on its own, and has those small, convoluted and delicious root clumps (known as tubers to gardeners.) So what’s not to like? Well, apparently, it’s not the gardeners that don’t want to deal with them…it’s the chefs! The tubers are very small and need a little extra effort to make sure they’re washed clean before cooking. They don’t need to be peeled (now that would be a pain) but to many chefs, even the washing is too much of a hassle.
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As a Master Gardener and food nerd, I found all of this pretty interesting so I searched for sources to buy crosnes plants. It took a while (most growers were in Europe or Great Britain), but I finally found a source in Oregon that sold the plants and I bought a few for my home garden.
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Much like mint, crosnes are pretty hardy and are tough to remove once well established, so they need to be planted in an area where you don’t mind if they take over. The tubers are ready to harvest October through November, and as long as I leave some in the ground over the winter, the crosnes will be back again the next year. Seems pretty low-maintenance for such a delicious treat!

 

 

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As for preparation, a light saute in olive oil and butter (or lard), and a little salt and pepper, is all they need. They also go well with a deep, rich demi glace reduction like I had with my duck at Le Saint-Amour.

Cooler fall weather always gets us craving for comfort foods, and this is one we discovered on a trip to Spain in 2014. Croquettes are the Spanish equivalent of chicken nuggets: they’re found on every kids’ menu…and my daughter ordered them just about everywhere we went! So it’s no surprise that I “got the order” to make a batch of croquettes at home!

You can make these days ahead of time and then freeze them, re-heating them whenever you have guests. These are way better than your average snacks when that football game is on!

 

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I found a great recipe for croquettes in Saveur magazine, and decided to try it out. I was a bit clumsy at making them at first–they do need a bit of finesse–but by the end of the batch, I got the hang of it. And to make them gluten-free, I simply substituted GF flour and breadcrumbs for the all-purpose flour and Panko. (The best tasting GF breadcrumbs are the ones you make yourself. Buy a loaf of sliced gluten-free bread, like Udi’s, and toast it in your toaster oven. Crumble the slices into a food processor, processing them until the breadcrumbs are the size you like.)

 

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2 lbs. raw potatoes, peeled and cut into 1″ cubes
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 onion, minced
1/4 to 1/2 cup heavy cream
6 oz. cheddar cheese, grated
6 oz. ham, finely chopped
salt and pepper
1 cup all-purpose flour (or gluten-free flour like Cup4Cup)
2 eggs
2 cups Panko breadcrumbs (or gluten-free breadcrumbs)
avocado oil for frying

 

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Peel the potatoes, cutting them into 1″ cubes. Boil them in salted water until tender. Drain them and set them aside.

Melt the butter in the same pot the potatoes were in, then add the onions and sauté them until they’re translucent. Put the potatoes back in the pot and add 1/4 cup of the heavy cream. Mash the potatoes with a potato masher until smooth. Add more cream, if needed, but be careful not to make it mushy.

Add the cheese and mix until it has melted in. Add the ham and mix again. Season with salt and pepper.

Pour the contents of the pot into a metal bowl and place it in the freezer to cool, stirring every 10 minutes until the mashed potato mix is cold, but not frozen.

Line up three bowls: all-purpose flour (or GF flour) in the first bowl, eggs (scrambled) in the second bowl, Panko (or GF breadcrumbs) in the third.

Remove the mashed potato mix from the freezer, and with floured hands, grab enough to gently roll a small meatball in your hands. (I’ve found that starting with a round shape makes it easier to work with.)

Roll the ball in the flour, then the egg, then drop in the Panko and roll again. With the ball in your hand, gently squeeze into a tubular shape, and then place it on a sheet pan lined with non-stick aluminum foil. Continue with the rest of the potato mixture. (You may need to add another scrambled egg or two if you run out.)

Once you’ve rolled all the croquettes, place the sheet pan in the freezer for 20 minutes to firm up.

Heat a pan with 2″ of oil to 350 degrees. Remove the croquettes from the freezer, and working in small batches, fry them until golden brown. Place them on paper towels, and quickly season lightly with salt while hot.

 

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The croquettes freeze really well, so this batch goes a long way. Once they’ve been fried, let them cool completely to room temp. Place them in freezer bags and store them in the freezer. When it’s time to cook them, let them thaw for about 15 minutes, then place them in a pre-heated 325 degree oven and cook for 15 minutes.

 

I’ve been experimenting with my coffee rub, one that combines coffee with cocoa powder, brown sugar, salt, garlic and onion. I’ve tried it on various cuts of beef, on chicken, and pork…and it works well on everything!

 

A Berkshire pork belly, cured for several weeks, then rinsed.

 

I took some of the rub and cured a beautiful Berkshire pork belly with it, to make bacon. I simply scored the fat side of the belly, then massaged both sides of the belly with the rub, and placed it in a container in the fridge for several weeks. I flipped it over every few days to allow both sides of the belly to come in contact with the liquid that formed when the salt in the rub extracted moisture from the meat. After several weeks, I removed the belly from the container and rinsed it well with clean water, drying it with paper towels. I then re-rubbed the pork belly with more of the coffee rub and placed it in the smoker for 2 hours at 250 degrees, smoking it with hickory, my favorite wood for bacon.

 

The pork belly, re-rubbed and ready to smoke.

 

It just so happened that on the weekend I was smoking the belly, I decided to smoke a couple of racks of pork ribs for myself. These also came from a beautiful heritage Berkshire pig, and I coated them with the coffee rub, allowing them to rest in the fridge for 24 hours putting them in the smoker.

 

The Berkshire pork ribs, rubbed and ready to smoke. I cut the racks in half for easier handling.

 

Since the ribs and belly were in the smoker at the same time, the ribs first smoked at 250 degrees with hickory along with the bacon, for about 2 hours. Once I removed the bacon, I dropped the temperature of the smoker to 225, and smoked the ribs for 2 more hours. I then removed the ribs, sprinkled them with a little more coffee rub, and wrapped them in aluminum foil, before returning them to the smoker for another hour.

 

 

The ribs, and the bacon, were absolute perfection!

 

 

The ribs, smoked for several hours.

 

Re-sprinkling a little coffee rub on the ribs.

 

Wrapping the half-racks in foil. Some go back to the smoker, some head for the freezer to be enjoyed later.

 

Since I had 2 full racks of ribs, more than enough for several meals, I cut each rack in half before smoking for easier handling. Once I wrapped them in foil, I let a couple of them cool on the counter before placing them in a freezer bag and putting them in the freezer for future use. Already smoked and cured, all I’ll need to do is take a foil package out of the freezer, and place it in a 250-degree oven for a couple of hours to warm the ribs up and make them fall-off-the-bone tender.

 

The ribs, after another hour in the foil.

 

Here’s my coffee rub recipe. Make a lot of it and use it on everything from burgers to whole chickens to pulled pork sandwiches.

 

3 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon Kosher salt
1 tablespoon ground coffee (use your favorite)
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
1 teaspoon granulated onion
1 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder

 

Rib perfection!