Soooo…we have a new cooking toy! Nope, not a new spatula or frying pan or garlic press or egg separator. Tonya donned her Sherpa cap, strapped on the crampons and headed to the exotic and majestic region of the Himalayas where she hired local guides to help her make the arduous climb to the hidden source…Okay, okay, a little poetic license here as I exaggerate a bit. We are now proud owners of a Himalayan Salt Block!
What is a salt block and what does it have to do with cooking? A salt block is a slab of pure salt mined in the Himalayas and recently has become a fashionable way to cook, cool or serve foods. The salt block is resistant to bacteria and adds a natural seasoning while food is cooking or curing. The block can be heated up over 500 degrees and retains heat long enough to cook on after removing it from the heat source or can be frozen and used to to mix slab ice cream!
Since the block is made of pure salt there is a possibility of cracking if not heated properly so any recipes should incorporate plenty of time to pre-heat the block to the desirable temperature. The rule of thumb is 20 minutes on low, 20 minutes on medium and 20 minutes on high, then using the ‘sizzle test’ by sprinkling water on the block. Or you can by an infrared thermometer, which is cool because the thermometer uses a laser and is a great way to entertain pets while waiting for the block to heat up!
The block can be tempered on the stove-top or on a grill and then used in the oven for pizza or even cookies! A block heated to 500 degrees works great for searing rib-eye steaks or cooking most seafood and many varieties of vegetables.
Lime-Marinated Salt Block Shrimp Tacos
1 lb peeled and deveined medium shrimp
¼ cup fresh lime juice
2 tbsps olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tsp salt
1 tsp white pepper
1 tsp chili powder
(Mix together and marinade shrimp for 1-2 hours)
4-6 small warm tortillas
Toppings of choice
Cook shrimp on 500 degree heated salt block, 2-3 minutes a side until no longer pink. Place shrimp on warm tortilla and cover with your favorite toppings such as salad greens, salsa, avocado or sour cream.
Of course, you don’t have to own a salt block to make shrimp tacos! Just cooking marinated shrimp on the grill and adding to a tortilla is a great substitute for traditional meat tacos and the shrimp cook pretty quick. The salt block does eliminate the need for skewers and help to keep from dropping shrimp through the grill grate!
For great information and recipe ideas for salt blocks check out Mark Bitterman’s book Salt Block Cooking.
Now for a beer! Since our first experience with the salt block cooking took place during the winter I decided to wash the shrimp tacos down with a Jolly Traveler Winter Shandy brewed by The Traveler Beer Co out of Burlington, VT. While I usually avoid wheat beers and beers that contain fruit, this beer was quite tasty with a hint of spiciness and oranges. (click here and let the sled dogs take you north)
February is a busy month, not only for everyone but for our family as well. In fact sometimes it’s so busy there is an extra day added every four years just to catch your breath. There is the Super Bowl, there is Presidents Day, there is that Hallmark-created ‘holiday’ that has men ordering flowers online and paying for overnight shipping or running to Walgreens late on February 13th…Tonya and I celebrate our wedding anniversary around the same time as well.
Our family also has several birthdays in February including nieces, as well as Tonya’s mother, which is the inspiration for this recipe. The family takes birthdays pretty seriously and it usually involves either cake or some sort of dessert. As Tonya started her culinary journey with cakes and desserts, it’s only natural, and usually expected, that she creates many wonderful cakes for friends and family.
This cake is another great example. What better combination than bananas and…chocolate? You have a fruit…which is healthy…and you have chocolate, which is…chocolate…It’s banana bread with icing!!!
Banana Cake with Double Chocolate Icing
¾ cup of butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 tsps vanilla
1 ½ cups mashed bananas
1 ½ cups buttermilk
3 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
¼ tsp salt
1 ½ tsps baking soda
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Combine butter and sugar. Mix well. Add eggs one at a time, beat well after each egg. Stir in vanilla and bananas until well combined. In a separate bowl stir together flour, salt and baking soda. Alternately add the buttermilk and flour mixture to the banana mixture, beginning and ending with the flour. Pour into greased and floured nine-inch round cake pan. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean. Remove from oven, cool slightly, then remove from pans.
1 cup butter, softened
1 lb powdered sugar
1/3 cup cocoa
2 oz unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
¼ cup milk
1 tsp vanilla
Cream butter in a mixer. Stir in powdered sugar. Add cocoa and unsweetened chocolate. Mix well. Stir in vanilla and milk. Mix well. If icing is too stiff, add more milk until desired consistency. Ice the Banana cake layers.
Now in my opinion Tonya’s cakes are best paired with a glass of cold milk but try this beer I bought at The Casual Pint located in Franklin, TN. (click here to virtually visit The Casual Pint)
The beer is an oatmeal stout from New Holland Brewing called The Poet. New Holland is based in Holland, MI and The Poet is one of their year-round brews that has a malty and, of course, roasted oats taste that pairs well with chocolate.
It’s Mardi Gras time!!! King Cakes and Beads!!! And Gumbo!!
Well, neither Tonya nor I were born in Louisiana. We do not claim any Cajun allegiance. The last time either one of us were near Louisiana is when Tonya recently drove through the northern part of the state to visit friends in Sulphur, LA. That being said, we both have grown to appreciate good Cajun food over the years and certainly enjoy sampling various Cajun dishes whenever we have the chance.
Here’s the problem. We often find ourselves disappointed by some of the Cajun food offered at local restaurants. I’m not saying we are “Cajun food snobs” (wow, is there such a thing?) and there are certainly some excellent Cajun restaurants serving great Cajun cuisine around town. What has happened over time is that we have figured out that we can make many of the dishes at home and not to brag (but I will), we make a Chicken and Sausage Gumbo that rivals, or is better than anything you can get at many restaurants. In fact, we have served it to several friends from the State of LA and they are very complimentary of the gumbo and agree that its some of the best they have tasted!
One of the secrets? The ROUX!!! Yes, getting the roux just right can make the difference between a so-so gumbo and a rockin’ gumbo. Roux is a mixture of flour and oil that is used for thickening. The key is getting the roux dark enough, which takes patience while you constantly stir the mixture over medium heat to avoid scorching. There is a time element involved but it is worth it! I think this is the main reason that a lot of gumbo found at restaurants is a little lacking…they don’t spend the time with the roux and this results in a thin and watery gumbo that may only be helped with plenty of hot sauce.
Another secret? Plan ahead. This is one of those recipes where you have to set aside some time for preparation. Tonya and I have a system that has us sharing the roux stirring while the other works on cutting vegetables or browning the sausage and cooking the chicken.
Keep in mind that this is our version of Cajun gumbo. There are many versions of gumbo such as Creole gumbo that usually contains seafood, so feel free to experiment by adding shrimp or craw fish. Just make sure you include the Holy Trinity: onions, celery and peppers!
Chicken and Sausage Gumbo
1 lb smoked sausage (andouille, turkey sausage or kielbasa)
3-4 lb whole chicken, cut up
¼ cup Vegetable oil
½ cup flour
1 large onion, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
1 cup celery, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups frozen okra
2 qts water
2 tbsp creole seasoning
1/8 tsp hot sauce
½ cup green onion, chopped
¼ cup parsley, chopped
Hot cooked rice
Slice and quarter sausage, brown in heavy pot, remove and set aside. Brown chicken in sausage drippings, remove from pot and set aside. Combine vegetable oil and flour in pot, stir CONSTANTLY over medium heat until dark brown – like dark chocolate but be careful not to burn. Add onion, celery, peppers and garlic. Cook until tender. Add water, simmer for 45 minutes. Add chicken, creole seasoning and hot sauce. Cook uncovered for an hour. Remove chicken. Add okra, green onions and parsley. Debone chicken, chop and add back to gumbo along with sausage. Heat thoroughly and add parsley. Season to taste with additional creole seasoning or hot sauce and serve over hot rice.
This is the spot where I usually recommend a beer I think would go good with the dish…or just talk about a beer I like… but I want to also mention a hot sauce. The last time we made gumbo we tried a new hot sauce called Double Dog Dare Ya! It’s a hot sauce made from ghost peppers and is ‘literally’ one of the hottest sauces I have tasted! It comes from Hillbilly Gourmet out of Louisville and just a few drops will light you up! It’s even hotter than their Dare Ya! sauce which comes in at 1.2 million on the Scoville scale. (click here to link to their hot webpage)
Now for a beer. You would think I would suggest a beer associated with Louisiana such
as Abita or Dixie Brewing but I want to rave about the beer I had recently called Cooter Brown American Brown Ale made by Jekyll Brewing located in Alpharetta GA. As it name suggests its a brown ale with a hint of chocolate and malt with mild hoppiness…just my style! (click here and let Jekyll show you their beads!)