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San Francisco’s Grilled Cheese Invitational

I can think of no better way to spend a Saturday than in the throes of fierce competition, especially when it involves viscous, melted cheese. The Grilled Cheese Invitational delivers on this front, providing an outlet for the creation of grilled cheese perfection en masse. Anything is game in this no-holds-barred match (except flame throwers, sadly), so I’m sure there’ll be some outlandish concoctions. “Can you grill like a butterfly and sting like a bee?” I’m not really sure what this means, but I hope to find out this weekend.

NorCal Regional Grilled Cheese Invitational, February 21, 2009, noon–5pm, Dolores Park, San Francisco.

If you don’t live in the San Francisco Bay Area, there are also grill-offs coming up in Austin and Los Angeles, with “more to come” in other places. Or you could host your own grilled cheese competition at home and challenge your friends.

Tasty Blog

Nina Simonds—cookbook author, Gourmet correspondent, and the person who, a long time ago, opened my eyes to the possibility of food greatness (another story)—has a video blog, Spices of Life, about (mostly) cooking and healthy eating.

The site is low-tech and friendly, with features like a guide to basic dim sum and a sit-down with a professor from the Harvard School of Public Health, who explains how to order a low-fat meal from a Chinese restaurant. This week’s feature is a visit with Ming Tsai, chef of Wellesley, Massachusetts’s Blue Ginger and host and executive producer of PBS’s Simply Ming, who makes healthy fried rice with Simonds. No big surprises—use canola oil and brown rice—except the idea to use kale, which turns everything you cook into health food. But it’s still a short, sweet guide. Here’s the deal:

1. Heat canola oil in a wok.
2. Sear a pound of shrimp in the wok, but take them out before they’re fully cooked.
3. In the same wok, add more canola oil, then the aromatics: two tablespoons ginger, two tablespoons garlic, a bunch of scallions, a chopped medium onion. Cook long enough to take the rawness out.
4. Add to the wok four ribs of chopped celery and three grated carrots, then six cups of shredded kale, then two tablespoons of naturally brewed soy sauce, then five cups of precooked brown rice.
5. Add the shrimp back in, toss it all together, and serve it garnished with scallion greens.

Happy New Year back to you, Ming!

Bacon Beyond Belief

Bacon is so popular as to seem inescapable these days, so it would be impossible to inject any more shock and awe into the topic. Right?

Meet the Bacon Explosion, which according to the New York Times has “swept the Internet.” And why wouldn’t it? The four-pound log of bacon and sausage basted with barbecue sauce flies in the face of our health-conscious times (not to mention common sense). It’s already been the topic of three different threads on Chowhound. And no doubt is giving the Bacon Mat Cheese Roll a run for its money.

Guess the bacon backlash hasn’t quite taken hold yet.

Image source: Flickr member rick under Creative Commons

Stuck for Super Bowl Food Ideas?

Holy Taco has created the most beautifully gluttonous and disgusting Super Bowl party food idea yet: an entire football stadium made of snack foods.

You’ll need about a pound each of guacamole, queso dip, and salsa for the field, plus 58 Twinkies, a pound of bacon, and one bag each of Nacho Cheese Doritos, Cheetos, tortilla chips, and Chex Mix for the stands. Then there are incidentals like 15 Vienna sausages with cheddar cheese helmets for the players, and Slim Jims for the goal posts.

I don’t have anything clever to say about it, but I do admire that they stuck to their guns when it came to the “blimp.” At the end of the ingredients list it says: “20 Oz. Football-Shaped Summer Sausage (optional) (on second thought, no, this isn’t optional. Go buy one.)” This bad boy then gets suspended over the stadium on a string.

Oh, and they say the whole thing is 24,375 calories, costs $86.47, and has a “total deliciousness” score of “1 Billion trillion, dude. One billion trillion.”

Bittman’s 10-Minute Stock Put to the Test

Chowhounds have been debating the merits of Mark Bittman’s New York Times piece on what to keep in your pantry and what to toss for a few weeks. Now Serious Eats has put the following section to the test:

“OUT: Bouillon cubes or powder, or canned stock.

“IN: Simmer a carrot, a celery stalk and half an onion in a couple of cups of water for 10 minutes and you’re better off; if you have any chicken scraps, even a half-hour of cooking with those same vegetables will give you something 10 times better than any canned stock.”

Serious Eat’s Michele Humes reports: “I sampled every brand of chicken stock in my grocery store, using batches of the real stuff and the ten-minute wonder broth—is my skepticism apparent?—for comparison.” Her findings? Homemade was optimal, but Bittman’s vegetable 10-minute method yielded a “surprisingly fragrant, but utterly tasteless, vegetable tea.” Kitchen Basics Natural Chicken Stock was good in both quick soups and sauces.

Better Bouillon Cubes

I always feel like a loser when I use bouillon cubes, particularly to make soup and not just to flavor a pilaf or something. Besides the fact that I feel I should be making my own stock, the bouillon cubes I use either taste WAY too salty and MSG-y (if I got the ghetto Knorr kind) or too bland (if I got the ones from the health food store). Happily, I discovered a Chowhound thread on bouillon cubes that talks about delicious ones, and where to find them. Turns out you can get a lot of them online. What a great thing to have on hand next time I’m feeling lazy.

DIY Body Frosting

Was I the only one worried that I might have to cut body frosting out of my budget because of the recession? God bless for this just-in-time-for-Valentine’s-Day Make Your Own Edible Body Paints recipe. Why, it’s simply cornstarch, gelatin, glycerin, and a “flavoring of your choice!” I’m thinking: truffle Parmesan, or simply “Cajun.” Hot stuff!

How to Add Whole Grain Without Adding Grit

To eat healthier, I’ve been swapping out all-purpose flour with whole wheat pastry flour in all of my non-dessert baked goods: muffins, waffles, pancakes, cornbread, biscuits, etc. (Personally, I’m content to let dessert just be dessert—I don’t feel the need to try and health it up since it’s for special occasions anyway).

For the day-to-day food I eat, I’ve switched to whole grain, but in the past when working whole wheat flour into baked goods, I’d replace only half the amount of all-purpose flour the recipe called for to avoid that unpleasantly bitter flavor and gritty texture that regular whole wheat flour can impart. But because whole wheat pastry flour is a finer grind than regular whole wheat flour it’s barely noticeable in heartier baked goods. You can swap out the given measurement of white flour completely, easily making whole grain versions of your favorite recipes.

Last week I made cornbread this way and nobody noticed. Weekend waffles have been whole wheat for months. They still taste great, and their crispy delicate texture hasn’t been compromised. Last night’s batch of blueberry muffins were whole wheat, so I felt like I was actually eating something nutritious for breakfast today. I tried it in my favorite pie crust recipe when I was making a quiche and it worked well—though I wouldn’t use it in a fruit pie’s crust, just because I wouldn’t want the extra hint of wheatiness in my sweets.

Would I swap in whole wheat pastry flour in a chocolate cake recipe? Hell no. But for savory baked goods, and stuff I bake for a meal, rather than a dessert, it’s a go.

I’ve used the whole wheat pastry flour from Bob’s Red Mill with good results, but usually I just pick it up in bulk at my neighborhood hippie health food store for a little less money.

Obama’s Inaugural Lunch Menu Revealed

It’s the news foodies have been waiting for: what President Obama will eat for his first meal in office.

The theme of the 2009 inauguration is “A New Birth of Freedom” (honoring the 200th anniversary of President Lincoln’s birth), so the luncheon will feature some of Lincoln’s favorite foods like wild game and root vegetables. The president, his family, and members of Congress will be dining on seafood stew in puff pastry, duck breast with cherry chutney, herb-roasted pheasant with wild rice stuffing, molasses whipped sweet potatoes, winter vegetables (which curiously include asparagus and wax beans), and a dessert they are calling cinnamon apple sponge cake, which is more like an apple charlotte made with brioche.

One thing that surprised me was that two out of the three wines will be from Duckhorn Wine Company. How it got this near-monopoly over the beverage category is beyond me. I wonder if California Senator Dianne Feinstein and California Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (who are both part of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies) might have had some pull in getting their state’s wines represented?

For more inaugural inspiration, check out our inauguration dinner menu.

(Almost) Instant Dinner

When people used to complain to me that they didn’t have time to cook anything for dinner, I always brushed it off as laziness or poor planning. But now that I’m working and have a five-month-old daughter at home, I’ve fallen into this dilemma more times than I care to admit. For the last two nights, my husband and I have had this for dinner: Night One my husband has grape Popsicles, I have leftover oatmeal. Night Two my husband has half a watermelon, I have nothing. To make matters worse, we made a New Year’s resolution to save our money and not go out to eat, so picking something up on the way home has been out of the question.

With the situation getting more dire by the minute, I scoured the refrigerator for something—anything—I could throw together to make a meal. I spotted some chicken stock I had made over the weekend, which I put on the stove to simmer with a handful of mushrooms. I let that cook for a few minutes, then added a couple of spoonfuls of miso and scallions. Within minutes, the house was once again warmed by the smell of home cooking. The soup was light and brothy and absolutely delicious; it filled our bellies and for the first time this week we went to bed satisfied.

No more will I look down my nose at busy working people who visit the prepared-foods section more than once a week. I now understand, and you can bet I’ll be at the grocery store this weekend stocking up for next week’s meals.

Miso Soup with Mushrooms and Scallions
4 cups chicken stock or broth
1 cup sliced mushrooms
2 tablespoons miso paste
3 scallions, thinly sliced

Bring the stock and mushrooms to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook until the mushrooms are tender. Remove from heat, stir in the miso and scallions, season with salt and pepper, and serve.