Beer Cooler Sous Vide Grilled New York Strip Steaks


*Or, as I like to call it, Bubba Sous Vide.

I've been reading about the magic of sous vide cooking for a while now. Chefs have been using the technique for years; it lets them cook food to a very specific level of doneness, using a water bath with an immersion circulator. If they want a steak cooked to perfect medium-rare, 128*F, they set the immersion circulator to 128*F, seal the steak in a vacuum bag, and put it in the water bath. The steak cooks all the way through to the temperature of the water, and stays at that temperature for as long as it is in the water. When the chef is ready to cook, they unseal the bag, sear the steak, and serve it. Voila - perfect medium rare from edge to edge.

Immersion circulators aren't cheap; professional models are out of the price range of home cooks. (Or at least this home cook.) Sous Vide Supreme came out with a model for home cooks last year - it is tempting, but at $500, I've been able to resist temptation so far.
*I'd love to get one, but I couldn't justify the $500 price tag, and the kitchen space it will use. I love my gadgets, but this seemed like a gadget too far.

Then, Kenji Lopez-Alt had a brainstorm. Instead of an immersion circulator and a vacuum sealer, he filled a beer cooler with hot water, and used a zip-top bags. The cooler traps the heat, keeping the temperature of the water steady enough to use as a sous vide water bath.

Kenji's Beer Cooler Sous Vide was a hack worthy of McGyver, and I loved reading about it. I put it on my "I need to try that" list, and...promptly forgot about it. That is, until I went grocery shopping for Valentine's Day dinner. My local grocery store had a great deal on thick cut New York Strip steaks. I grabbed a couple, then wondered how I could cook them to a perfect medium-rare.  (Perfect medium-rare is my quest.*  And it's tough with thick cut steaks.) Kenji's technique popped back into my head, and I knew what I had to do.
*My greatest shame is presenting my mom with a steak that is not rare. For all my skill as a cook, I have a problem with overcooking beef. What can I say? I get distracted sometimes. I was hoping a side effect of this technique would be more consistent results. It is easier to measure the temperature of a cooler full of water than it is a thin steak.

The process is simple: fill a beer cooler with water about five degrees higher than the temperature you want the steak to finish at, because the temperature will drop slightly. Season the steak, then put it in a zip-top bag, and seal the bag most of the way shut. Slowly lower the bag into the water to force out the air. Once the bag is almost all the way submerged, seal the top and close the cooler. Let the steak sit in the water bath for at least one hour, to cook all the way through to the temperature of the water.
*Timing isn't critical - the steak can't get hotter than the water, so it can not overcook. This is part of the beauty of the technique.

Remove the food from the bag, pat it dry, then sear on ripping high heat. I go two minutes a side, rotating 90 degrees after one minute to get a diamond pattern of browned crust on the meat. It doesn't need any more cooking than that; it is already cooked to the doneness you want by the water bath.

Instead of searing in a fry pan, I got my grill as hot as I could, then grilled the steaks for 2 minutes a side. I had nice browning, an impressive set of diamond grill marks. And the results? Oh...the results...Ohhhh...
*Sorry, give me a moment. I'm overcome by the memory.

This was, bar none, the best thick-cut steak I've ever cooked. An inch and a half of perfectly pink beef from edge to edge, with a thin browned crust on the outside. Not the usual gradation of red in the middle,  through shades of pink, then gray and overcooked, before getting to the brown crust. This was medium rare from one side to the other. And, tender? The long, slow cooking in the water bath leaves the juices in the meat. They don't get squeezed out during the cooking time. The result is buttery beef, the likes of which I've never made before.
*I can't wait to try this technique with prime grade beef. Or rack of lamb. Or a thick cut pork chop. Oh, and about that Sous Vide Supreme? Darn it, now I'm lusting after one.

Are you a home cook looking to try something out of the ordinary? Have you been on a quest for a perfectly cooked piece of beef? You have to try this out. Thank you, Kenji!

Recipe: Beer Cooler Sous Vide Grilled New York Strip Steaks

Grilled Baby Bok Choy with Lime Dressing


I wanted to know what else I could do with bok choy, an ingredient that always looks good at the farmers market this time of year. The answer from my loyal readers - grill it!
*Why didn't I think of that? It should have been obvious to me, Mr. Winter Grilling, Mr. Everything tastes better grilled.

Recipes for grilled bok choy all use the same basic technique. Purchase baby bok choy - small heads, 4 to 5 inches long, are better for grilling.  Split them, then trim the leaves on the top so they won't burn on the grill. Toss the bok choy in a flavorful vinaigrette, then grill until tender and cooked through.
*Martha Stewart's recipe was the first one recommended, and was a good one. What do you know - Martha knows what she's talking about!
**Kidding! Just kidding! I may have some issues with Martha, but when it comes to recipes, I love her perfectionism. Her recipes just work.

Most of the recipes had an Asian flavor profile; bok choy is an Asian vegetable, after all. (It is sometimes called Chinese cabbage). I was serving it with a grilled steak, so I wanted a western flavor profile. I tossed the bok choy in a lime vinaigrette before grilling (using my lemon dressing basic technique). The sweet and sour of the vinaigrette punched up the tender and crisp bok choy; the tart dressing made it a perfect counterpoint to the grilled beef.

Looking for something new to do with bok choy? Try this one out.
*And - thank you to everyone who recommended grilling bok choy - you were right!  Tami (aka  Dine In Diva) suggested the Martha Stewart version within seconds of my asking the question.  Thank you, Tami!

Recipe: Grilled Baby Bok Choy

Korean Grilled Beef Lettuce Wraps (Bulgogi)


Bulgogi makes me ask: Why haven't I heard more about Korean grilling? It is beautifully simple; thin sliced beef with a quick marinade, served in a lettuce wrap.
*And then it is topped with with kimchi. I'm not sure I'm sold on the kimchi part. But the rest? Genius.

For bulgogi, you want a tender cut, one that would be used for American steaks.  My favorite is rib eye, but New York strip or sirloin are also good. The steak is sliced very thin, marinated in a sweet soy marinade, grilled quickly, wrapped in lettuce, and served. It is quick enough to cook on a weeknight, and uses pantry ingredients (though my parents may differ).  And the taste? My wife demanded I make it again. She's the one who usually asks for me to cook more vegetables.

The only hard part about Bulgogi is slicing the beef. You can cut the beef yourself, 1/4" to 1/8" thick, from a small roast.
*This requires a steady hand. Steadier than I am able to muster. The one time I tried to slice the beef myself, they were anywhere between 1/2" thick to 1/8" thick...sometimes in the same slice.

I go to my local Asian market; they carry thin-sliced rib eye in the freezer section. If you don't have an Asian market nearby, see if the meat counter at your local grocery store can thin-slice a roast for you.

Recipe: Korean Grilled Beef Lettuce Wraps (Bulgogi)

Family Dinner: Topic Of The Day


I've been cooking dinner for my family for over ten years now. This is supposed to be a good thing for all of us. Studies done by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse show family dinners are a great way to stay connected with your kids. Regular family dinners correlate with better grades, less drug and alcohol abuse, and healthier bodies.

I agree with the research.  I love making dinner every night.  I strongly believe that our family dinners are a good thing. But...I have a problem. In my head, we all sit down, enjoy a healthy meal, chat about our day, and enjoy our time together. In the real world? More often than I would like, we sit down to dinner, and this happens...
DADCOOKSDINNER
So, who wants to tell us about their day?

BEN
(Pokes at food) Can I please be excused?

TIM
I do not LIKE THIS FOOD. Hmf.

DADCOOKSDINNER
No, you can't leave the table until everyone tells us about their day. Natalie, why don't you start. How was your day?

NATALIE
Meepo. Meepo. Meepo. Meepo!

BEN
Naaataaalie, stop that!

DADCOOKSDINNER
Natalie, please stop. That's annoying.

MOM
Can you tell us about your day?

NATALIE
...

DADCOOKSDINNER
(Getting exasperated) Natalie, Mom asked you a question. How was your day?

NATALIE
Awful.

MOM
Awful? Was it really that ba...

NATALIE
Ben wouldn't let me use the computer! He kept pushing me off and playing his games!

BEN
I did not!

NATALIE
Did too!

DADCOOKSDINNER
Hey...

BEN
Well, you hit me!

NATALIE
Did not!

BEN
Did too!

DADCOOKSDINNER
HEY! THAT'S ENOUGH YOU TWO!

BEN
...

NATALIE
Did not.

TIM
I do not want this. May I please be excused?

Yes, even for DadCooksDinner, family dinner has accusations, threats, and whining. But what I find even worse is this:
DADCOOKSDINNER
So, what did you learn in school today?

BEN
Nuthin'

DADCOOKSDINNER
Nothing?

BEN
(Shrug)

As they read this, my parents are laughing so hard that tears are rolling down their cheeks. One word answers?  Payback.  It's the "May your children grow up to be just like you" curse. I was the king of one word answers when I was a kid. (How was your day? Fine. What did you do today? Nothing. Did anything interesting happen? Shrug.) My goal was just to get away from the table as quickly as possible. And, usually, my kids have the same reaction. Dinner seems to be a hassle to them, something that gets in the way of interesting stuff, like the TV, the Wii, the computer, and their friends.

This has been one of my biggest frustrations with dinner. How do I get the kids to open up and talk? How do I get them to stop bickering? And, maybe more important, how do I stop lecturing at them? I want family dinners to be something my children look forward to, not something they endure. Occasionally, we catch lightning in a bottle, and a topic catches their interest. Usually, we are met with silence, short answers, or (sometimes even worse) long rambling accounts of how their lives would not be complete without some new video game. *We had to make a rule - no talking about video games at the table.

I was stumped, until I came across the same great idea in a pair of books. I first stumbled across it in Steve and Annette Economides's Cut Your Grocery Bill In Half, and then in Laurie David's The Family Dinner. Both books said that you have to plan what you will talk about. Don't expect kids to be brilliant conversationalists out of the blue. (Especially if you aren't one yourself. Ahem.) Use a topic of the day to get the conversation going!

This was a light-bulb moment for me. Or, maybe, more of a "Doh! Why didn't I think of that?" moment.
Both books have lists of fun questions you can ask to start conversations. Here are my top five topics from these books that have worked at our table:
  1. What I like about you is...(Pick a person, go around the table, and say something nice about them. Then move to the next person at the table.)
  2. What are you grateful for this week?
  3. What was the best thing that happened to you this week, and the worst?
  4. If you could go anywhere for vacation, where would it be?
  5. What is the bravest thing you've ever done?

Fun is important. One of the books talked about the question: "How was your day?". From a kid's perspective, this isn't a question, it's a trap. Give the wrong answer, get a lecture. "You need to improve your study habits, be nice to your brother and sister, and get a better group of friends." No wonder the day was fine, with no details!
*And I have to confess...I'm terrible about this. I love my kids, and want to make everything better. The moment they tell me about a problem I try to "fix" it. Unfortunately, that usually results in me lecturing at them. Part of what I learned is I'm as guilty as the kids are.

Here are our ground rules, which are still evolving:
  1. No interrupting! Listen to whoever is talking. Passing an item around to designate who gets to talk is a great idea. We go with "Spanky", the huge wooden cooking paddle from Michael Ruhlman. That way, I get to say "Don't make me use Spanky!", and they start giggling.
  2. Respect the person and their answer. You can ask questions (when they're done talking, see #1), but no making fun of answers. No "that's dumb", no "what kind of an answer is that". This is a chance to practice good manners.
  3. One conversation. This is related to both interrupting and respect. When the conversation is flowing well, sometimes it splits, and it helps to bring things back together.
Tim's turn!

The downside to table topics: I have to be prepared! Coming up with an age appropriate, neutral topic can be difficult. Sometimes I get caught and don't have a topic for discussion. Then I ask for suggestions from the kids. So far, someone has always come up with a good one.
*Economides recommends having topics on cards, so you can pick a card when you're out of ideas. I want to check out these Table Topics question cards for exactly that reason.

Another good idea from both books: the topic of the day doesn't have to be a question. Mix in some games or quizzes. David likes to have a book of obscure words nearby, to see if the kids can spell and define them. The Economides family would do Mad Libs as a group activity - someone would ask for the parts of speech, fill them in, and then read the results to the table.
*So far, our favorite game was "My friend doesn't like P's. What can you give her to eat?". The trick is, she won't eat anything with the letter P in it, not peas. (My friend loves bananas, but hates peaches.) Each person names a food for my friend to eat; if the answer has a P in it, she doesn't want it. Tell them they have to figure out the connection in what she doesn't like, and keep going around the table until someone figures it out. Then, play an elimination round - each person gets five seconds to answer, and if the answer has a P in it, they're out.

Why am I telling you all of this?  Because Topic of the Day has been a huge success.  Yes, the kids groan when I say "Time for the topic of the day!" But they always participate, and our family dinner conversations are much more relaxed and free-flowing. Isn't that what time together should be about?

What do you think? Any other family dinner suggestions?  What do you do to make everyone want to come to the table? Any topics you love to talk about? Leave them in the comments section below.

Related Posts:
Weekly Dinner Plans (A requirement for family dinners- no plan usually means no dinner.)
Family Dinners and Busy Kids

Adapted from:
Steve and Annette Economides: Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half
Laurie David: The Family Dinner


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Pressure Cooker Pork Stew with Sweet Potatoes and Prunes



We've been pounded by snowstorms this winter. I'm in the mood for comforting braises. If it seems like I've been working the pressure cooker hard, well...there you go.

Pork Stew with Sweet Potatoes and Prunes, made in the pressure cooker, is now a regular in my recipe rotation. I've made pork stew with sweet potatoes, and pork stew with prunes. Pam Anderson combined them in Perfect One-Dish Dinners. She makes the recipe in a pseudo-pressure cooker, tightly wrapping aluminum foil over a dutch oven. I have a pressure cooker, so I adapted her recipe to work with the real thing.

The first time I made this recipe, it was for my in-laws. Then, a few weeks later, I cooked it for my side of the family. Diane asked for it again this week, to fight the ice storm we were having. Make a recipe three times two months? I never do that; I'm a fickle cook, always moving on to the Next Big Thing. I realized I have a new favorite on my hands.

Why is this recipe so good?  The sweet potatoes and prunes melt completely under pressure.  The result is pork coated with a thick, earthy, and very sweet sauce. This is one of the few stews my kids eat without prompting - they love dipping bread into that sweet sauce.

Looking for a pressure cooker recipe stew to hold the Snow Miser at bay? Give this one a try.
*Don't have a pressure cooker? That's OK - use Pam's aluminum foil braising technique as described in Lamb Shanks with White Beans.  Or see my notes below...

Recipe: Pressure Cooker Pork Stew with Sweet Potatoes and Prunes

Slow Cooker Mexican Shredded Pork (Pork Tinga)


Pork shoulder and slow cookers were made for each other. Slow cookers try to overcook everything; most meat dries out during the long cooking time. Pork shoulder gets better the longer it is cooked; it needs long, slow cooking to melt all the fat and connective tissue it holds. Properly cooked pork shoulder is juicy, and shreds at the touch of a fork. It is the perfect cut for stews, braises, barbecue, and today's recipe, slow cooker Mexican shredded pork.

Shredded pork is a great weeknight dinner. I start it in the morning (on low heat) or at lunchtime (on high heat), and come dinnertime I have a roast that is tender and ready to be pulled apart. I use the shredded pork for taco night, and then I get creative with the leftovers. I've used it in soups and topped it with cornbread to make tamale pie. But, I usually serve it in cheap white hamburger buns. If I want Tex-Mex sandwiches, I top the pork with salsa and shredded cheese; If I want something more southern, I add barbecue sauce and dill pickles.

Recipe: Slow Cooker Mexican Shredded Pork (Pork Tinga)

Frito Pie with Buffalo Chili


It's time for my Super Bowl chili recipe. This year I'm serving a Texas standard: Frito pie.

Frito pie is traditionally made by ripping open a bag of Fritos, topping them with chili, and covering with Velveeta. It is against everything I believe as a locavore...but if Frito pie is wrong, I don't want to be right. The crunchy chips, gooey cheese, and beefy chili make for a killer combination.*
*And by killer, I'm talking both amazing taste, and cardiac arrest. Don't make this a regular in your meal plan, OK? Serve it with some vegetables at least. And would it kill you to tuck in your shirt and stand up straight? Um...ahem...sorry, got stuck in Nagging Dad mode there.

Robb Walsh's fancy Frito Pie with Venison Chili was my target - it is clearly Frito pie, but it has enough real ingredients in it to get over my "eat local" objections. Instead of venison, though, I used buffalo. When I was in my fanatic weight loss mode, I would always substitute buffalo for beef. Buffalo is very lean, and tastes just like beef, only more so.*
*I'm sorry if that doesn't make sense. It's just...beefier. It makes me think of grass fed beef. Try some; you'll see what I mean.
**I buy my buffalo it from Red Run Bison Farm; they sell Buffalo at my local farmers market and supply my local health food store

I tried a new chili technique in this recipe: I replaced chili powder with a paste made from dried chiles, as suggested by both Robb and Kenji Alt. I followed Kenji's suggested combo of fruity (California), hot (arbol), and earthy (pasilla) chiles. Then I ignored his misguided hostility to smoky flavors in chile, and added a dried chipotle chile as well. Kenji, I love your writing, and you are a great source for ideas...but I can't make chili without adding chipotle.
*If the dried chile paste sounds like too much work, take the easy way out and use chili powder -see the variations section.

Recipe: Frito Pie with Buffalo Chili

What Do I Do With: The Bok Choy Issue



My question about what to do with Celeriac brought in some great ideas.  My favorites were:

  • Mashed celeriac (just like mashed potatoes, with or without some potato)
  • Celeriac soup (made like potato-leek soup but substituting the celeriac for the potato)
  • Celeriac remoulade (julienned celeriac tossed in a mayonnaise vinaigrette).  

I liked the suggestions so much that I may make this a regular feature.
*I really, really loved the celeriac soup.  Delicious.  Thank you for the idea, Tom!

My next cry for help is about Bok Choy.

Bok Choy is one of the stars of winter farmers markets.  Even in the depths of our cold season, I can find good looking Bok Choy.  But what do I do with it?  I think of it as an Asian vegetable; it is commonly referred to as Chinese cabbage.  So I stir-fry it, or I...well, I stir fry it.

I have two stir-fry recipes for Bok Choy, and I use them over and over.  My base technique is to separate the white stems from the leaves and slice them both thin.  Then I stir-fry the stems with some garlic, ginger and red pepper flake until crisp-tender, and finally add the leaves to wilt.  One of my recipes is to  finish the Bok Choy stir-fry with a light lemon sauce.  The other is to sprinkle on salt and Szechuan pepper to taste.  I love both these techniques, but I've already used them this month, and I bought  more Bok Choy at the market last weekend.

So, faithful readers, I'm asking for help.  What do I do now?  What do you do with Bok Choy?  Any new stir-fry sauces I should try?  Any other ways you like to cook and serve it?  Please leave some ideas in the comments section below.

Thank you!