Top Tips Worth Repeating

There are so many little things that make the difference between the success or failure of a dish, or its elevation from just okay to really superb.  They bear repeating, if I’ve mentioned them in previous blog posts:

  1. The best baked potatoes – lightly coat your Idaho baking potatoes with a little olive oil and then rub all over with Kosher salt.  Bake at 425 for an hour, rub off the excess salt with a double thickness of paper towels, squeeze gently and score down the middle with a fork.  Add your dressing of choice – mine is sour cream blended with S&P and a bit of horseradish.  The potato skin will be crisp, the interior moist.  Never ever bake a potato in foil unless you’re burning brush in your yard and choose to roast a potato on  a tree branch.  The foil will steam it.  Blech.
  2. Reduce your sauces. Whether it’s a stew or a braise, do not be tempted to thicken a sauce with cornstarch or flour.  Simply remove the solids, add a bit of honey and butter, and turn the heat up to medium high to reduce your sauce to a glossy and flavor-filled reduction.    Note – this does not pertain to gravy, where your turkey will require a gravy made with a roux base to achieve oohs and aahs.
  3. Never buy bottled salad dressing.  Period.  Same goes for cocktail sauce and tartar sauce. Making your own is far superior, takes no time, and is totally under your control.  Rule of thumb for any vinaigrette – oil to vinegar ratio is 3:1.
  4. Use panko whenever a recipe calls for breadcrumbs.  Less absorption of cooking fat, crunchier outcome.
  5. Never waste the lemon rind.  Grated lemon zest should be added to just about any recipe requiring lemon juice.  A little bit goes a long way – so flavorful.  To discard a lemon having used only its juice is wasting so much of its essence.
  6. Butterfly a whole chicken for roasting – lay it atop a bed of thickly cut onions, carrots, celery, and whole garlic cloves.  Do whatever else you do with your chicken recipe, but reduce the cooking time to about an hour at 425 for a 4-lb bird.  It cooks faster, the juices flavor your vegetables, and it cuts up nicely with poultry shears.  Adding white wine or vermouth along the way doesn’t hurt either.
  7. Grill your sandwiches with a schmeer of Hellman’s Light mayo on the bread – skip the butter. Really flavorful, and much better for you.  And if you’re grilling a ham & cheese or turkey & cheese, sandwich the sliced cold cuts between a slice of cheese on each side.  Obviously this helps melt the cheese much better.
  8. Lightly brush your steaks with either Kitchen Bouquet or Gravy Master before seasoning and grilling.  Really kicks up the flavor, helps develop a nice crusty exterior.
  9. Buy your herbs & spices in bulk, especially those you use most often.  Kept in your cupboard in foil bags (Frontier brand), they will stay fresh for a couple of years.
  10. Never use dried parsley or cilantro.  Self explanatory.
  11. Marinade recipes usually call for twice as much as you’d need.  Cut back by half.
  12. Make your stews with chuck, not round.  Round is dry and flavorless, lacking the marbling of fat that add tenderness and flavor…
  13. …and buy your chuck as a whole roast – cut it into chunks the way you like it, not like puny pieces of cat food (Julia’s expression, not mine).
  14. Balsamic vinegar is nice in any recipe calling for red wine vinegar.  And a reduction boiled down with a bit of brown sugar is lovely drizzled over salad that’s been lightly tossed with EVOO, S&P.
  15. Grate or shred your own cheese – especially if you have a food processor or high-powered blender (for grating).  More economical, the whole chunks stay fresher longer until you need to use them grated or shredded in a recipe, and the flavor difference is worth bit of the effort.

Italian Shrimp & Sausage Pasta

Last week it was jumbo shrimp on sale at Stop & Shop.  This week it was Brat Hans chicken sausages, all varieties, and locally grown grape tomatoes on sale at Whole Foods.  Tonight, it’s wondering how to combine these ingredients with fresh herbs for a pasta dish that requires only a simple green salad and maybe a crusty roll to absorb any errant sauce.

Drawing on two favorite recipes – the NYT classic recipe for scampi, and another I’ve done for a lemony shrimp & basil pasta with tomatoes, this is the dish that sprang to mind – an Italianate version of scampi but with half the shrimp replaced with the sliced pre-cooked sausages, and the quartered grape tomatoes tossed with herbs, cheese, a bit of olive oil, salt & pepper.

As with Asian cuisine, preparing the mise en place is key to making this dish come together quickly.  I’ve prepped the shrimp & sausages, combined the tomatoes with the herbs & cheese, chopped the garlic, halved the lemon, measured out the linguni and poured my Knob Creek on the rocks (essential for the chef, not part of the dish).  All that remains is to bring this together and serve with a salad of arugula & romaine, my new favorite combo of greens (see Italian dressing in previous post).

IMG_0865Wow, the dish came together so quickly that I neglected to take a snapshot of the finished product.  Please trust me when I say it was a superb amalgam of the two recipes I drew from, and the spicy Italian sausages balanced nicely with the shrimp.  Sure to be repeated, and maybe a photo next time!


(serves 2)


12 large raw shrimp, shelled and patted dry

2 fully cooked spicy Italian chicken sausages, sliced on the bias ¼” thick

2 plump garlic cloves chopped

1 cup quartered grape tomatoes

Italian parsley, fresh oregano & basil roughly chopped to yield ¼ cup

3 tbsp grated pecorino romano

2 tbsp butter

2 tbsp + 1 tsp extra virgin olive oil divided

½ cup dry white wine or broth (such as lobster broth made with Better than Bouillion)

juice of ½ lemon

6-7 ounces linguini cooked and drained


In a small bowl combine the tomatoes with the herbs, 1 tsp olive oil, S&P to taste, and the grated cheese. Set aside.

In a large skillet, heat 1 tbsp of the olive oil on medium and sauté the sausage slices until lightly browned and remove to a plate. Heat the remaining olive oil with the butter and sauté the garlic until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the wine or broth, S&P to taste, and simmer about 2 minutes until reduced by half.

Add the shrimp and sauté until they turn pink, 2-4 minutes. Add back the sausages to rewarm. Remove from heat and stir in the lemon juice. Toss this with the pasta and the tomato-herb-cheese mixture and serve with crusty bread and a green salad.

Moroccan-Spiced Grilled Chicken

Our local health foods store gets their Bell & Evans chicken delivery every Friday afternoon, so it’s become my ritual to shop there for the whole chickens and boneless thighs they put into the freezer marked down by $2-$3, depending on size.  Every week, a whole chicken and a package or two of boneless thighs, which I prefer over boneless breasts for kabobs or whole grilled pieces.

It surprises me how often they have a surplus of whole chickens on sale in the summer, given how easy it is to either butterfly it or break it down into 8 pieces for grilling.

Tonight we’re having the whole chicken 4.5 lb which I’ve just broken down – two thighs, two drumsticks, and four pices of breast, two with the wing attached, two from the rest of the breast.  Actually, after discarding the wing tips and gizzards (no I don’t save them for stock), this bird weighs about 4 lbs.  Plenty for dinner and then leftovers to either shred over a salad for a cool dinner, or turn into a unique chicken salad.

The spice paste is something I adapted from a recipe on Epicurious, and have used in colder weather as a coating for roasting the chicken with vegetables.  But I discovered a few weeks ago how well it works for grilling.  Important with any marinade is to make sure you rub some of it onto the actual flesh, pulling back the skin a bit to do so.

And when it’s all rubbed and ready for the grill later tonight, it looks like this:


Spice Paste Ingredients – combine in a food processor and blend to a smooth paste:

3T olive oil; 3T fresh lemon juice; 2T sweet Hungarian paprika; 1T ras el hanout (a Moroccan spice blend available in supermarkets, or you can make your own blend*); 1T fresh mint leaves chopped; 1T kosher salt; 2t grated lemon peel (or, in a pich, dried lemon or orange peel); 1t black pepper, 1 plump garlic clove.

Rub all over the chicken, under the skin, and refrigerate at least one hour or as long as overnight.  Grill over indirect heat, about 375-400, for about 30 minutes.  Serve with a fatoush or Greek salad and basmati pilaf to complete the meal.

*ras el hanout blend: 1 t ground cumin; 1 t ground ginger; 1 t kosher salt; 3/4 t black pepper; 1/2 t cinnamon; 1/2 t coriander; 1/2 t cayenne; 1/2 t allspice


Jordan Marsh Mega Blueberry Muffins

There was a segment on local TV recently featuring the gentleman who baked those amazing, incomparable blueberry muffins from Jordan Marsh that we all loved as kids.  Say Jordan Marsh to anyone over 50 today, and two things immediately come to mind.  The Enchanted Village, and the blueberry muffins.  Not necessatily in that order.  For me, the muffins always came first, especially when I worked there during my college years at the cosmetics counter.  At least once a week I’d come home with a box of six muffins – a pastry box tied with string, which I wish I had today for the four mega-muffins I baked using their recipe and tips from the baker himself.

You can, of course, use a normal-sized muffin tin, and this recipe will produce 8-10.  But I have only a mini muffin tin for making tartlets and a 6-well giant muffin tin for making oversized muffins and Panera Cobblestone Knockoffs.  So my effort turned out 4 gigundo muffins.

Whichever size you use, it’s essential that you butter not just the inside of each well, but also the perimeter around it, as the batter will spread.  You fill the muffin tin cups very full and get that cap that spreads out – the quintessential muffin-top.



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Since mine were mega-muffins, I reduced the temperature to 350 and added 10 minutes to the baking time.  That was just right to have a toothpick inserted into the center come out clean, no uncooked batter clinging to it.

Husband and I will be sharing one of these for dessert tonight (after having Lamb Kefte Burgers and salad) – just as we share a single cobblestone from Panera.  So far. I’ve tasted only a bit of the muffin top that fell off, and it has me excited for the rest!

Gingery Shrimp Stir Fry with Snow Peas

It’s been a while since Ronicooks has done an Asian dish, and once I saw that a 2 lb bag of frozen 21-25 per pound easy-peel shrimp were on sale for $11.98 at Stop & Shop yesterday – the deal was sealed.

Searching my favorite NYT cooking site for inspiration, I came across a dish called Stir-Fried Shrimp with Snow Peas and Ginger.  However, the recipe called for only 1 paltry tsp of ginger and 2 tbsp of garlic.  Also, not nearly enough sauce, and nothing for a bit of heat.

So I did what I usually do – used it for basic idea and made it better.  I always add way more ginger to any recipe calling for it (the exception being baked goods).  Doubled the sauce, added much more ginger and scallions and way less garlic, and added a bit of heat.

The photo is from the NYT site, since I wanted to serve this piping hot from the wok and not waste time with photography.  The recipe, however, is almost entirely my own.  Please to visualize this with more sauce and presence of slivered scallions, over a bed of jasmine rice:





The shrimp: 24 jumbo shrimp shelled and deveined (1-1.25 lbs), brined for only 5 minutes in 2 cups water with 1 tbsp salt – then rinsed and patted dry

The veggies: 6 ounces snow peas with strings removed and 1/2 cup scallions thinly sliced on the diagonal

Sauce: 2/3 cup chicken broth combined with 1 tbsp lite soy sauce, 4 tsp saki, 1-1/2 tsp sugar, 1/4 tsp white pepper, 1 tsp Chinese chili sauce or Sriracha, and 1 tbsp cornstarch

Aromatics: 1/4 cup minced ginger root and 2 plump garlic cloves minced

Cooking oil: about 3 tbsp peanut oil or other vegetable oil – not olive oil


Set up your mise en place.  Prep the shrimp and refrigerate.  Make the sauce in a measuring cup and keep a chopstick in it for stirring up the cornstarch if it settles.  Get your veggies and aromatics prepped.

When ready for cooking – heat a large wok and add 2 tbsp of the oil.  Add the shrimp and stir fry until they’re pink, 2-3 minutes.  Add remaining tbsp oil with the aromatics and stir-fry another few seconds to combine.  Add the snow peas and stir fry until they’re bright green but still al dente, about a minute.  Stir in the sauce mixture, swirling it around the sides of the wok.  Stir fry until it’s thickened, stir in the scallions and serve.  Very nice over a simple jasmine rice.  You wouldn’t find any better at your favorite Chinese restaurant.

Roasted Butterflied Chicken

In the summer (right around the corner) we often enjoy chicken under a brick, basically a chicken that’s been butterflied with the backbone removed, marinated, and weighted down with a press for grilling.  The rest of the year, I like to roast a chicken in its butterflied state.  It’s quicker and easier to prepare as a one-pan meal, with the chicken spread over a bed of vegetables.

Tonight we’re having our chicken which has been marinated in a mixture of olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and plenty of dried herbs – herbes de Provence, oregano, and more thyme, salt & pepper – laid over a bed of carrots, fresh fennel and onions, and surrounded with halved red potatoes.  I’ve tossed all the veggies in the chicken’s marinade and it will roast for just about an hour at 425.

IMG_0582It’s all done by eye – no specific measurements, but here’s a rundown of what I used:

1 4.5 lb Bell & Evans chicken with backbone and wingtips removed

About 1/4 cup each extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice + the grated zest from that lemon

About 1 tbsp each herbes de Provence, thyme, and oregano

2 plump garlic cloves minced

A generous sprinkling of kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper

A splash of dry vermouth over the chicken about halfway through the roasting

Marinate the chicken for as long as you wish in the fridge, then lay a bed of this in your roasting pan:

5 carrots, 2 bulbs fennel, one sweet onion – all cut into large slices or chunks and tossed with some of the chicken marinade

Lay the chicken on top of this, and toss a few halved red-skin potatoes in the rest of the marinade and lay it around the chicken.  Roast at 425, basting occasionally with an juices and splashing about 1/3 cup dry vermouth over the chicken.

Cut into serving pieces with poultry shears, and serve with the vegetables and some of the pan juices.