Friday, September 13, 2013

#FoodPornFriday a slice of Southwestern Strata

This is the first time I've featured something I personally cooked in a #FoodPornFriday post. This is a quarter of the Southwestern Strata that I cooked as part of my review of the Crunchy Bits gamer cookbook.

Care to join in the #FoodPornFriday meme? Link up below:

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Crunchy Bits a cookbook for gamers - a Big Dude review

A couple weeks ago there was a thread on Google Plus by +Greg Christopher talking about getting started with cooking. I chimed in as someone who is also just learning how not to burn down the house and make food I'm not ashamed to serve my family.

At one point in this conversation I received a private message from +Chuck Thorin who offered me a review copy of a gamer themed cookbook that he wrote with Kemberlyn Howard. I took him up on the offer immediately. How cool is it that I get to combine my two biggest hobbies, gaming and food.

So over the last few weeks I devoured Crunchy Bits: Recipes for Every Level of Culinary Adventurer. Okay I realize that saying it took a few weeks sounds like it took a long time, but between work, my two kids, and organizing various gaming events around the city I don't actually get much time to read.

The reason I devoured the book is due to the writing style which is awesome. As a gamer, this book is great fun to read. Lines like "A good pan is heavy. If you think its heavy enough to bash an orc's head then it's good to go." had me laughing out loud. That's laughing out loud at a cook book. The gamer jokes are found through the entire book and every recipe has a little back and forth between "The Cook" and "The Gamer." Adding to the theme; all of the side bar tips are presented as random encounters. Just check out the Temple of Culinary Evil picture I included to the right there. How cool is that?

The book itself, well at least the PDF copy which is what I received, is 181 pages. There's an intro section that give a ton of suggestion as to what you should have in your kitchen, clears up some terms, introduces The Cook and The Gamer and gives some very solid tips and tricks and traps to avoid (more gamer humor).

The rest of the book is broken into traditional sections you would see in most any cook book. There's Stocks, Breads, Pasta, Other Starches, Desserts, Eggs, Cheese & Legumes, Fish, Seafood & Shellfish, Meat (sub divided into Beef, Pork, Poultry, and Other Tasty Creatures), Salads, Sandwiches, Soups & Stews, Sauces & Dressings and finally Vegetables. Each section has an average of eight recipes.

Sadly there aren't all that many pictures of the dishes. I was really hoping to see this stuff before trying to cook it. One of the things I love to do is flip through a cook book and see something and think: "Damn that looks good! I'm gonna make that." For the recipes that do have pictures everything looks fantastic though. The dishes have a definitely southwestern U.S. feel. There's lots of spices and rubs, and The Cook seems to really like to add some heat to her meals. Even the corn bread has Jalapeno in it. It wasn't until after I finished the book that I found out the writers live in Texas which makes this all make sense.

Me trying that whole "mise en place" thing
The recipe directions are for the most part clear. I say for the most part, as this book isn't really written for a beginner cook like myself. It makes a few assumptions that you know what some terms are. I'm sure these are truly basic terms but for someone with only a small amount of kitchen XP I had to ask my wife quite a few questions and had to Google some things. I'm sure anyone who's read a Betty Crocker book would be fine. Hmm, maybe I should read one of those, eh?

So I couldn't do a proper review without actually trying to cook something from the book now could I? After a bit of deliberation I decided I wanted to try a recipe called Southwestern Strata. The Geek's line: "It's like lasagna and nachos make a love child" about this one had me sold. Two of my favourite cheese filled dishes in one.

Now that looks good
I cooked the dish with very little modification. As noted above, it seems The Cook likes things hot. So do I, but unfortunately my kids do not. So I had to tone down the spice a bit. Due to that I dropped the Chipotle peppers and chilies from the ingredient list. I also really dig Kraft Tex-Mex cheese mix and decided to use that instead of cheddar cheese. Otherwise I followed the recipe as written.

Things went pretty well. As usual there were a few mishaps. The first, was some frozen corn coated in canola oil all over the kitchen floor. The second, and more serious one, was that I overdid the tortillas a bit. The directions were to put them in the oven at 350 until crispy. It seems the ones I bought decided that they should go from soft to brown very slowly. Then go from brown to crispy to slightly burnt in under a minute. Next time I will watch them much more closely. The other problem I had, that was only a potential problem, is that I didn't use a big enough skillet. This seems to be a common trend with me, which you may remember from my Dutch oven fiasco. Everything did fit this time around though, just barely.

Now just to simmer away
The recipe was easy enough to follow, though I'm still not used to ingredients being listed in order of quantity instead of order they are used. I kept worrying I might have missed something, especially when the recipe said to add "seasonings." I personally prefer the other method (not sure if that's a U.S. vs. Canada thing or what). The whole meal took about an hour and a half for me to put together with the longest time being waiting for tortillas to crisp. Ends up our baking sheet only fits two at a time and the recipe needed four. So that doubled the time needed there.

The end result looked great. I was truly amazed when the whole thing actually cut into quarters without exploding. +Chuck Thorin warned me to make sure to let it sit and that definitely seemed to help. It smelled and looked great and tasted just as good. 3/4 of the entire thing was more than enough to feed our family of four and I'm sure if the kids were a bit older the whole thing would have been gone.

I'm still in shock this actually stayed
together enough to quarter
My wife commented that she really enjoyed the corn in this and I agreed. The combination of the sweet corn and slightly spicy sauce was a good combo. I think it would have been better with some more heat actually and I regretted cutting out some of the spice (though I realize that I would have 1/2 a strata left if I did this, as my kids wouldn't have touched it).

Overall I'm pretty impressed by both the recipe and by the book. The layout may not be the best, it could use some more pictures and the stuff you should own section has more stuff than I think I could fit in my house let alone my kitchen but that is all outshined by the writing and if the Southwestern Strata is any indication, the recipes themselves. I've never thought I would have fun reading a cook book, I expected something like that to be a form of homework, but reading Crunchy Bits was actually a lot of fun. It may not be the best starter book for n00bs like me but if you've got the basics down and you are a gamer I can't not recommend this book. I thank +Chuck Thorin for giving me this review opportunity. I very much enjoyed it.

You can buy Crunchy Bits over at Lulu both in PDF and Print

Friday, September 6, 2013

#FoodPornFriday - I almost forgot.

You've got to click on this one, for some reason blogger is really compressing it.
I seriously almost forgot about #FoorPornFriday. I don't know if it's because it was a short work week or if it was due to the fact I was nervous about cooking dinner tonight (post about that coming Sunday). Whatever the reason it wasn't until 7:30PM today that I realized I hadn't put up a #FoodPornFriday post. Well better late than never.

What you see here is the best lunch I've had in a very long time. It's also the best meal I've had at The Twisted Apron and that is saying a lot. This is a pork schnitzel sandwich topped with aged cheddar sauce and julienne apples. There's a side of ham and black bean soup to go with it. This sandwich was fantastic! The one problem, it was the lunch special of the day. This isn't on The Twisted Apron's regular menu, which is just wrong. So I mentioned this to the waiter and then even emailed them when I got home. I was very pleased when they replied that we may just see this on their Fall menu as a regular item.

As it's so late in the day I'm going to skip over the linky thing this week.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Tried an Essex County classic: Ducks on the Roof in Amherstburg

We spent more time than usual in the county lately. Last weekend we drove out to Amherstburg to check out Art By the River. Last Friday to start of the Labour Day weekend, we went out to Leamington and spent the day at the splash pad and Seacliff beach. On the way home we took highway 20 and went through Kingsville, Harrow and Amherstburg and tried to catch glimpses of the Tall Ships. Near the end of that trip home we passed by Ducks on the Roof. This is one of those places that's been there forever, a place my grand parents used to like to eat at. While passing my wife noted that she always wanted to try it. So we headed back out there last night.

Lots of wood, and ducks.
Ducks on the Roof was easy enough to find. It's on highway 20 about five minutes past Amherstburg. Which means it's about a 45 minute drive from most of Windsor. The place was very inviting with an unassuming outside and a very clean wood filled interior. Ducks on the Roof was, appropriately, filled with ducks. Brass ducks, wood ducks, decoys and more. Overall it had a very old school feel. Somewhat like a banquet hall. It brings back memories of the Legion and the Knights of Columbus while being more cosy and nicer than both.

French Onion soup and Walkerville Ale
The menu was a bit of a jumble. It looks like it started as one thing and then they decided to add an every night fish special. Then they decided to add a gluten free menu. Lastly they decided to offer a $20 Four Course meal option, which is also every night. It's kind of frankensteined. Their website shows this off well with different links to no less than 10 different menus. Having it all in a book in front of you it wasn't that bad though. It reminded me of The Lumberjack which I think suffers from the same problem of adding on to an originally large menu.

My wife went for the Every Night Fish Special which gives you a choice of 7 different seafood options for $15. She specifically chose the Coconut Crusted Tilapia. I went for the 4 Course Dinner Menu that included soup of the day, salad bar, choice of 1 of 7 entrees and desert. I'm a huge fan of schnitzel so went for the Breaded Pork Schnitzel in Mushroom Gravy.

Pork Schnitzel and Fettuccine Alfredo
The service was impeccable. I don't remember the last time we were treated quite this well. The waitress was very friendly and open and was very accommodating. For example the soup of the day was cream of mushroom. When she announced this I must have made a bad face as she immediately offered me some alternatives, from which I chose a small French Onion. The treatment was doubly impressive as we showed up very late. The restaurant closes at 9PM and we had reservations for 8PM. Even with the late hour they almost insisted I get coffee with my desert (A fantastic slice of Pumpkin Pie).

The food was great. It was exactly as advertised. Traditional casual food. It has that better than home cooked taste with no pretense. You won't find alioli, panko crusted or red pepper mayo here. You will find a perfectly cooked piece of meat in a traditional mushroom sauce. It's a style of food and cooking that I really enjoy.

Coconut Crusted Tilapia
Something about the place makes me want to bring the family here. I guess it's that KofC/Legion feel or something. This just seems like the perfect place to celebrate a birthday, or to have a family Christmas gathering. I would feel very comfortable at Ducks on the Roof sitting at a table of 16 and enjoying some great food.

Overall I was very impressed and didn't regret the drive out to the county at all. I'm very glad we tried the place out and I fully expect we will head back out there sometime. They have a very appealing sounding Sunday Brunch that I think would be well worth the trip. I also may just choose to host the next family get together there.