Grilling Essentials

I’ve always loved grilling, especially throwing some nice cuts of meat on my Weber filled with charcoal. There’s nothing like the taste of food cooked over open flames. But this year I’ve stepped it up a bit and I think it’s for two main reasons: (1) We now have a partially-covered patio where the grill can sit conveniently and (2) I now work from home so I now have the time to fire up the coals on any given night.

People who see my grilling photos on Instagram often ask me about my tools and techniques so I’ll describe my grilling set up here. To begin with, I’m a charcoal guy. A few years ago I bought a cheap propane grill on Amazon to supplement my charcoal grill and I regret that decision. I thought the convenience of propane would be useful, but I still prefer the charcoal for the smoke and flavor and it doesn’t take that much more time.

My grill is a 10+ year-old Weber Performer Deluxe, which is their standard 22-inch kettle with an attached side table and a charcoal bucket. The grill includes a propane charcoal lighter system that I never used and I use the charcoal bucket as storage, but overall I’ve loved it. I notice they’ve made some improvements over the years, especially to the table material, the wheels, and the ash catcher. But my grill is still in pretty decent shape for how old it is and how often I use it. I did replace the cooking grate once because it got rusty over one winter, but I’d say that’s pretty durable.

Instead of the propane starter, I swear by the Weber Rapid Fire Chimney Starter. I never want to taste lighter fluid on my food, so I just dump all the charcoal in the top, put a wad of paper underneath, light the paper, and in 15 minutes the coals are lit and ready to dump. No muss, no fuss.

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The Kitchen Painter’s Tape Trick: The Next Level

Last year, there was a lot of fuss online about a Food52 blog post that revealed an old trick that restaurant chefs use to manage their kitchens. They use painter’s tape to label every container in the refrigerator with what’s inside and the date it went into the fridge. We started doing this last fall with our fridge and it’s been a game changer.1

Before that we often had to guess at how old some leftovers or partial ingredients were and many times we’d discover some old broccoli or other food that had turned long ago.2 But ever since, we now put a piece of tape on all leftover containers and we no longer have to guess when we had pork chops for dinner (“was it last Thursday or before that?”).

However, we were still having a problem. Our fridge is always full and there’s a tendency for stuff to get lost inside. (I call it the River of Food, where natural currents and rhythms tend to push older or less used food items to the back and down while newer and more frequently used items come to the front and eye level.)

So I had to take the hack to the next level. As you can see from the photo above, now whenever we make a label we make two. One goes on the container and the other goes on the front of the fridge, giving us a running tally of leftovers. When I notice something has gotten old, I hunt it down and toss it, without having to do the sniff test. When I’m looking for something for lunch, I’ll look to the older leftovers first. And when the list gets long, we know it’s time for a “Leftovers for Dinner” night.

Is it more time-consuming to make two labels for everything? Sure, but we’re also throwing away less food (good for the wallet and for the planet) and I may never have to smell rotting broccoli again. I’d pay a lot of money not to do that any more.

  1. Incidentally, we don’t obsess over the tape like the chefs do. We don’t care if the edges are ragged and not folded over.
  2. And by we I mean me because I am the official food smeller and tester. I have smelled some awful things in my day, wheezed the old-timer.

Great Turkey Gravy in 45 minutes

Quick Turkey Gravy

This Thanksgiving, I was responsible for the turkey and gravy and my family recipe for stuffing. (Melanie makes her own stuffing too because she likes a different style.1) I had the turkey recipe and the stuffing recipe ready to go, but I had left the gravy recipe to the last minute. I needed a quick turkey gravy.

I was going to make the Cooks Illustrated Turkey Gravy, but then I looked at what was involved: roasting veggies for an hour, simmering for 90 minutes, cooling another hour, cooking again. We were eating in an hour and I needed to start this yesterday!2

So I adapted. I put the gizzards and veggies in a saucepan and sautéed them for 15-20 minutes. Then I added 4 cups of homemade chicken stock plus all the turkey drippings, and 2 cups wine and thyme. Let that simmer for another 15 minutes. Strained it into a bowl and put 1/2 cup of oil in the bottom of the saucepan plus 1/2 cup of flour and cooked that into a roux for about 5 minutes. Whisked the strained liquid back in, added a dash of Worcestershire and a pinch of Accent flavor enhancer for umami and served a silky smooth quick turkey gravy that was one of the best I’ve ever made. All in under an hour. Whew!


Reserved turkey giblets and neck, cut into 2-inch pieces
1 medium carrot (or a handful of baby carrots) cut into 1-inch pieces
1 stalk celery, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 small onions, quartered
4 cloves garlic, peeled
4 cups chicken stock
2 cups dry white wine
1 tsp thyme, dried
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup oil, canola or sunflower or other neutral flavor
1/2 tsp Accent flavor enhancer (optional)
Dash of Worcestershire sauce
Salt and ground black pepper


  1. Place the roasting pan with turkey drippings on a stovetop burner (if you can), set it to high heat and add the chicken broth. Simmer while scraping the drippings for 10-15 minutes.
  2. If you have a burner available while the drippings and chicken stock deglaze, put a large saucepan on it and add the turkey parts and vegetables, plus 1 tsp salt. While the roasting pan is deglazing, sauté the veggies and giblets over medium heat for 15 minutes, until the vegetables are soft, but not browned and the giblets and neck have started to leave a fond on the bottom of the pan.
  3. Add the drippings and stock to the saucepan along with the wine and thyme. Simmer for 15 minutes.
  4. Strain through a mesh sieve into a bowl and discard the solids. If you have time to let it cool and sit, you can skim off the fat that rises, but my turkey did not have so much fat in the pan and the gravy did not come out greasy. You could replace some of the oil in the next step with turkey fat.
  5. Put the oil in the saucepan over medium heat and the sprinkle the flour over the top. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon for 4 minutes until it starts to turn brown.
  6. Whisk the broth back in slowly, whisking constantly to avoid lumps. Bring to a boil and then reduce to medium low. Add the Worcestershire and Accent, if using, and simmer for 10 minutes or until it is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. (Dip your spoon, turn it over, run your finger down the middle. If the part you didn’t touch remains coated in gravy while the part in the middle stays clear, it’s thick enough.)
  7. The gravy should be slightly saltier than you expect because it will then be perfect on your turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes. Add salt, if necessary.
  1. The problem is that my family recipe include sausage meat and green bell peppers, which are anathema to her in stuffing.
  2. I looked at their Easier Roast Turkey and Gravy, but that would have meant preparing and cooking the turkey differently and my turkey was already done.

The Reason Your Coffee Tastes Weak May Not Be What You Think

One of the most common myths and misconceptions about coffee has to do with what makes it stronger or weaker. I often hear people say something like, “This coffee tastes weak, so I’ll reduce the amount of water,” or “I don’t like my coffee too strong so I use fewer grounds.” Unfortunately, these adjustments will produce exactly the opposite of what the speakers intend. This is because they misunderstand the chemistry involved in brewing coffee.

Most people think of coffee like it’s a solution, i.e. one item dissolved in another. And if you want the solution to be strong, you add more of the solute to the solvent. For example, you dissolve a tablespoon of sugar in a cup of water. If you want it to be more sugary, you add more sugar or reduce the amount of water. You concentrate it.

But coffee is not a solution. It is an extraction1. The coffee doesn’t dissolve into the water; the water extracts the flavor compounds out of the grounds by passing through them. The difference is seen most clearly in that with the sugar-water, once dissolving is completed, you don’t see sugar; but after brewing coffee, you still have the exact same amount of coffee grounds.

So if you pass too little water through the grounds, you will have weak tasting coffee. Pass too much water through the same grounds and you extract too much from the coffee. That’s because once you’ve extracted the good-tasting compounds, what’s left are bitter compounds.

In the end, while some coffee aficionados come up with special recipes of their own, for most people, the best ratio of water to coffee doesn’t change from one cup of coffee to another. Basically, you want 6 ounces of water for 2 tablespoons of coffee grounds.

What if you want to make your coffee stronger or weaker? Well, there are other factors that influence the strength of your coffee, including the amount of time the water is in contact with the grounds, the temperature of the water, how coarse or fine the coffee is ground, how fresh the coffee is, the kind of roast of the coffee, and the type of coffee, including where it is grown and under what conditions and how is processed.

For most people, you’ll primarily want to look at the roast. In general, a darker roast will give you a stronger-tasting cup of coffee, although the caffeine will be lower because the longer cooking time that makes it darker also breaks down the caffeine molecules. Conversely, a lighter roast makes a milder cup of coffee with a bigger caffeine kick.

In the end, it’s all about the chemistry and now we’re seeing the answer to that question we all asked in sophomore year in high school: When am I ever going to use chemistry in my life? Now you know.

N.B. Thanks to GeekLady for double-checking my chemistry on this post.


1 It’s also a suspension, but that’s not really relevant to my point.

A Night Out with Alton Brown’s Eat Your Science Tour

I’ve watched every episode of Good Eats, both seasons of Feasting on Asphalt, and the one season of Feasting on Waves. I’ve got the cookbooks. I listen to the Alton Browncast. I even pepper my everyday conversation with references to unitaskers and refer to stuff that isn’t fit for eating with “That is not good eats.”

I am an Alton Brown fan.

So when I heard six months ago that the current leg of his touring show “Eat Your Science” would be coming through Boston this weekend, I knew what I wanted for my birthday. So I picked up a couple of tickets, put the date on my calendar and waited.

It was a rough week this past week. On Tuesday, I got to sit with a dying friend for what is probably the last time. On Thursday, I had a very long day working a banquet for my day job, spent all day Friday editing audio, video, and photos from the event, and then had a board meeting on Saturday morning. I was wiped. But by Saturday afternoon I was energized and excited for the show.

Leaving the kids with grandma, Melanie and I headed into the city for dinner and the show. We were going to get sushi at this trendy new place, but it was packed so we headed across the street to one of the best known Vietnamese places in Boston, Pho Pasteur. That was indeed good eats.

For the show itself, the entry lines were long and nearly every one of the 3,000 seats was filled. We had a small glitch going through security as I had forgotten to leave my Leatherman multitool at home1. I thought I was going to have to choose to lose the tool to get into the show or potentially miss the beginning to run back to the car. Luckily, the head of security had pity on me. After all, it’s an Alton Brown show and I was carrying a multitasker.

The show itself was a lot of great laughs. It’s not a cooking demonstration show. Alton is the first to admit he’s not a chef. Think of it more like a cross between a stand-up routine, a magic show, and an episode of Whose Line Is It Anyway?

The first part of the show featured a bit exploring what Brown would do if he were the god of food, including ending the reign of Sriracha as a trendy food with a song called “Sriracha” sung to the tune of “Maria” from West Side Story. He also started an interactive bit in which he would make all the rats in the world taste like bacon that was supposed to include participation from an audience member, but the woman acted all weird and he ended up having to abort. There was also a very funny story involving breaking tortilla chips, a late-night visit to the refrigerator and an old blind dog.

Next was another audience interaction in which a woman was brought up from the seats to pick a terrible cocktail recipe at random, which would then be improved by the application of science and liquid nitrogen. This one worked out much better.

After intermission, most of the time was talking about popcorn, including one of Alton’s signature mega-cooking constructions, in this case a massive rocket-shaped hot air popper. This also included an audience member and was very funny. Finally, there was a Q-and-A featuring questions gleaned from audience members over Twitter.

All in all, it was a great show with lots of fun and lots of laugh, showcasing Alton’s showmanship, his rapport with his audience, and his great improv skills.

It was also a great night out for me and Melanie, with just a few downsides. The Wang Center’s seats have about 16 inches for your knees, which was torture on Melanie, plus the seats were about 16 inches wide, which was torture on me. And up where we were sitting it was crazy hot and humid, especially since we dressed for late October, not midsummer. Getting home also took forever, probably because of everybody going out for Halloween weekend, but that wasn’t terrible since we got to have good uninterrupted conversation in the car.

On the whole, however, it was all worth it to see Alton Brown, who I’ve watched and followed for years and admire for his approach to food, but also to how to live like a gentleman. The next time he’s on tour, I hope we can see him again. Next time we’ll spring for better seats though.

  1. It is, after all, part of my daily carry.

Recipe: Grilled Eggplant with Cilantro-Chile-Mint Sauce

This recipe combines two different recipes from Milk Street Kitchen that have Israeli and Iranian origins. The first is Grilled Eggplant with Sesame and Herbs and the second is Broiled Eggplant with Chilies and Cilantro. The latter includes as one of the ingredients a sweet-and-sour mint dressing called Sekanjabin.

What I have done is taken the cooking technique of the grilled eggplant and combined it with the flavors of the broiled. What results is a wonderfully creamy, spicy and sweet vegetable that’s good on its own, but is also very good spread on some crusty bread. We’ve now made it three times in the past month and we can’t get enough of it.

So here’s what you do.


2 medium eggplants (1 to 1½ pounds each), halved lengthwise
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
6 garlic cloves, finely grated
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
1/2 cup minced fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons chili-garlic sauce
2 tablespoons sweet-and-sour mint dressing (see below)


Start a charcoal fire in your grill and bank the coals on one side to create a two-zone cooking space, or turn on half the burners on your propane grill or set your oven rack so that eggplants on a baking sheet are six inches from the broiler element and pre-heat the broiler.

Halve the eggplants lengthwise from stem to bottom and score the surface in a diagonal crosshatch pattern, being careful not to cut through the skin.

Take 1/4 cup of olive oil and brush the four surfaces generously until all the oil is absorbed. Eggplant is very absorbent and it should take it all up. Season with salt and pepper. Meanwhile, put the grated garlic in the remaining 1/4 cup of oil and set aside.

Place the eggplant halves cut side down over the fire on the grill for 5 to 10 minutes until they are deeply browned, then flip over onto the cooler side of the grill. Brush in the garlic-oil mixture, being sure to get the garlic deep into the scored crevices. Cover the grill and cook for 30-40 minutes more or until a skewer pushes through the eggplant horizontally without resistance. Remove from the fire.

(If broiling, after the tops are golden brown, then reduce the oven to 475° to finish cooking.)

In a spacious bowl, combine the cilantro, chili-garlic sauce, and sweet-and-sour dressing. Using a fork and a spoon, gently scrape and mash the eggplant flesh, either leaving it in the skin or scooping into the bowl. If leaving in the skin, divide the cilantro mix among the eggplant halves and mix together. Otherwise, mix the mashed eggplant with the cilantro-chile mixture and serve in a bowl.

Sekanjabin (Sweet-and-Sour Mint Dressing)


1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons cider vinegar, divided
1/2 cup honey
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 ounce fresh mint, leaves and stems


Combine honey, salt, and 1/2 cup cider vinegar in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer. Reduce for about 7 minutes, until it’s about 1/2 cup.

Remove from the heat and add the mint, mixing to combine well. After it has cooled, strain into a bowl. add the remaining cider vinegar and stir. Refrigerate for up to 1 month.

Cooking Tip: Save the Drippings

With a family of 7, buying family packs of food at the grocery store is a given. And one of the common packs we’ll get is bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs. A package of 14 or more pieces at 99 cents per pound is very economical and versatile. What we’ll usually do is bake the whole package at once, in a half-sheet pan on a rack in the oven, then serve half of them for dinner and bone and freeze the other half for another meal.1

But there’s one special byproduct here that you don’t want to overlook. After cooking the thighs, that sheet pan will be filled with golden goodness. You might be tempted to think it’s just rendered fat and toss it, but it’s much more.

Before you clean up your pan, pour the juices off into a gravy separator, or if you don’t have one, a container with lid to stash in the fridge. If you use the separator, the drippings at the bottom can be separated out now, but if you don’t have one, you can just scoop the fat off the top tomorrow.

You could throw away the fat, but if you have a good recipe that calls for some chicken fat (what they call in Yiddish schmaltz), then save it by all means.

But the rest of it, those golden and now gelatinized drippings are pure chicken flavor. The next time you’re making a soup or sauce for chicken, add some of this and you’ll boost the richness and chicken-y flavor a hundredfold.

Just be forewarned, it won’t keep forever. Use it within a week or so to be sure. But it should freeze just fine too.2

  1. Of course, we save all the bones for stock, but that’s another tip.
  2. After all, it’s essentially just super-concentrated chicken stock.

No Spice For You, You Racist

I used to buy all my spices from Penzey’s Spice online and did so for a number of years, but that all changed in June 2014 when they decided to send out an email to their customers pushing gay marriage in our faces. My response:

Now Rod Dreher writes that Penzey’s is at it again, this time excoriating people who voted for Trump as racists in need of being called on the carpet and required to make amends, you know, to the guy who sells them spices:

Whether any of us like it or not, for the next four years the 80% of this country who did not just vote for an openly racist candidate are going to treat you like you are the kind of person who would vote for an openly racist candidate.

You can get angry at everyone else for treating you like you just did the thing you just did, or you can take responsibility for your actions and begin to make amends. If you are lucky and younger family members are still coming over for Thanksgiving, before it’s too late, take a moment and honestly think about how your actions must look through their eyes. Simply saying “I never thought he’d win” might be enough. But if you have the means, leaving a receipt from a sizable donation to the ACLU or the SPLC accidentally laying around where you carve the turkey, might go over even better.

Or we can just buy our spices from someone who doesn’t hate us for our politics. I switched my spice purchases to The Spice House in 2014. Rod has done the same, while reporting the irony that doing so might be especially galling for Bill Penzey:

While looking around online to see what Bill Penzey’s problem is, I discovered that his sister Patty Erd and her husband Tom run a competing (but much smaller) spice business, called The Spice House. Bill Penzey Sr. and his wife started the business in the 1950s, and Patty inherited it. Bill Jr, her younger brother, started his own catalog company, Penzeys. I have no idea what the Erds’ politics are — far as I know, they could be commies, or they could be Trumpkins — but they don’t seem to make a habit of getting on their high horse and insulting their customers.

And that’s why I recommend that my friends buy their spices from The Spice House. Rod also lets us know that the Spice House is offering free shipping to new customers on their first order by using the promo code NOPOLITICS.

Cooking Tips for Frugal and Tasty Dishes Out of Scraps

We have 5 kids and as you might imagine our food bill could be quite high so we work hard to make it all go further. We also like to make a lot of food from scratch, rather than buy processed or prepared foods. That means we’ve picked up a number of tips and tricks to help us as we cook.1

Save the Bones and Vegetable Ends

We make chicken stock from scratch on a regular basis and so we need both chicken bones and vegetables. So we regularly save chicken bones from whatever we cook, whether it’s a whole chicken or thighs or even takeout chicken wings. After dinner, they go into a zip-top bag and into the freezer. Likewise, when we’re preparing vegetables for dinner, we set the ends aside for later bagging and the freezer.

Not every vegetable is good for stock, though. We mainly keep onion skins and ends, garlic skins and ends, carrot tops, celery ends and leaves, parsley stems, some other root vegetables. Meanwhile, any vegetable or fruit bits that wouldn’t go into the stock goes into the compost bin.

Then when it’s time to make stock, everything goes into the big pot along with water to cover and a few hours later, what is usually trash for other people is transformed into amazing chicken stock.

Save Those Old Bananas

Something else to save in the freezer is old, mushy bananas. Your kids may be different but once spots of brown appear on a banana, mine won’t touch it. Now a lot of people know that you can save the bananas in the freezer for banana bread or smoothies, but there’s another option as well: Banana ice “cream”.

Lucy has a dairy allergy and she can’t have ice cream when the other kids have it so when it’s time for a treat, Melanie takes some bananas out of the freezer, puts them in a bowl with some chocolate powder and blends it up with an immersion blender. Nothing else is needed and with the chocolate it doesn’t even taste strongly of banana. Lucia loves it.

Save the Crusts and Bread Ends

We also make a lot of our own bread, although at the rate our kids eat it, we also buy a lot of loaves from the stores, whether packaged sandwich bread or whole loaves from the bakery. While the packaged stuff tends to disappear completely, there always seems to be some hard crusty ends leftover of the other breads. We save those ends, letting them dry out thoroughly and then put them, yep, in a bag in the freezer to pull out later for bread crumbs for recipes.

You could also use them to make croutons, which I intend to try sometime.

Save the Cooking Liquid

Living in New England relatively near the ocean, we have shellfish fairly often. When I’m making lobsters, shrimp or clams, I always save at least some of the cooking liquid, freezing it to use in sauces, soups, stews, gumbos, jambalaya, and other seafood dishes that require liquid. I’m always careful to filter it though because there can be small bits of shell or sand.

Save Lobster and Shrimp Shells

Likewise, I save lobster shells and bodies and shrimp shells to make seafood stock. Combine the saved cooking liquid and the stock and you have a very flavorful beginning to a pretty great dish.

  1. Many of these will be familiar to most people cooking regularly for large groups.

Cooking Tip: Save Your Drippings

To save time and money, we often buy a large package of chicken thighs at the supermarket and then bake and freeze them afterward. Then we can thaw them for recipes like enchiladas, soups, and the like.

We use a half-sheet pan with a rack to keep the thighs out of the fat and drippings and when I was cleaning up the other night, on a whim I poured the drippings into my gravy separator and put the drippings into the fridge. Today, making my lunch I noticed some leftover chicken and rice soup from a couple of nights ago. As you know, soup with rice tends to absorb all the liquid into the rice and needs more liquid. Water will just water down the taste so I added the lovely, unctuous collagen-rich drippings to it as I heated up the soup.


Oh my! That is so good. Like a chicken explosion in the soup. (okay that’s not as appetizing an image as it initially sounded.) What I mean is that adds so much flavor to the soup it’s incredible.

One slight wrinkle is that also adds a lot of saltiness. Luckily the soup needed more salt at the table so it’s not overpowering, but it is something to keep in mind. I could have tempered the saltiness by mixing the drippings with an equal part of chicken stock or water too.

The bottom line is to think like your grandmother (or great-grandmother, if your gramma is a Boomer) and use everything. Think before you throw something away. It’s probably good for something.

Hmm, I think that’s another post.

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