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Planking 101: Cooking with Cedar Wood

July 16, 2015 Menu No Comments

One of the latest trends for grilling salmon, whether it’s at your house or at a restaurant, is using cedar planks. Cooking with cedar planks allows the salmon to absorb the natural smoky flavor, cook evenly without having to flip, and makes for great presentation when serving. The only caveat to planking is that you need a good chunk of time to prepare the planks prior to cooking. Because the planks are wood (naturally), they are susceptible to burning and charring…and rather quickly! You need to soak the planks prior to cooking to avoid instant burning. At least two to six hours is recommended. Unless you are cooking over indirect heat, chances are that your planks will still char up a good bit, and getting more that 1-2 uses out of the planks are very slim.

Not only are planks disposable, they can also become a bit costly. The average price that I found for for planks was $8-12 for a two pack. Not very cost efficient, if you plan on planking often. Because grilled salmon is one of the dishes that I really enjoy making, I decided to give planking a try. To avoid using my planks in a one-and-done fashion, I purchased a stainless steel plank saver tray from Sur La Table. Reasonably priced at $10.95, the plank saver’s purpose is to protect the planks from direct flame contact, for longer life and better cooking results. Soaking the planks for at least 1 hour is still recommended.


The stainless steel plank saver.

I seasoned the salmon directly on the plank with olive oil, salt and pepper, skin side down. I cooked the salmon over indirect heat at 350˚ for 20 minutes. While it didn’t quite pick up as much of the cedar taste as I was hoping for (this could just be attributed to the brand of cedar planks that I used), the salmon was moist, flaky and quite tasty. Without a doubt, one of the best pieces of salmon that I’ve ever grilled. The plank saver also did its job quite well. Aside from minor discoloration and slight warping, the plank survived the flames and was in great shape after grilling. With a quick wash-down, the plank is ready to go for another round. By using the plank saver, I’m sure that I will get a handful of uses out of one plank.

Side by side view of an unused and used plank.

Side by side view of an unused and used plank.

Post-grilled plank, after using the plank saver. Minimal warping and discoloration.

Post-grilled plank, after using the plank saver. Minimal warping and discoloration.

Bottom of the plank. No charring or burn marks on the plank.

Bottom of the plank. No charring or burn marks on the plank.

I am still a novice at grilling with planks, so I can’t give you many tips or tricks just yet. For detailed tips on planking, visit www.cedargrilling.com.

To order your own plank saver, visit www.surlatable.com. The dimensions of the standard plank saver are 12″ x 5″. An extra large version measuring 17.5″ x 7.75″ is also offered for $14.95. Keep this in mind when purchasing cedar planks, as the planks do come in various sizes.


Green Olive Crusted Salmon

January 25, 2015 Entrees, Menu, Salads No Comments

Yesterday I made an impulse purchase while shopping at my local Italian specialty shop. I’m a big fan of Spanish green olives, whether pitted or stuffed with sharp provolone or creamy gorgonzola cheese. When I saw the jar of San Giuliano Green Olive Spread, I was quickly sold. This is basically a green olive tapenade spread, which is traditional made with pureed olives, capers, anchovies and olive oil, and used as a topping on hors d’oeuvres, breads or meats. This particular brand had simple ingredients of olives, sea salt and olive oil, but still made for a nice jarred condiment to keep on hand.

I had planned to bake some salmon for dinner, and occasionally stuff it with pesto (which is a popular recipe on this blog, by the way…you can find it y clicking here). Since I had no pesto on hand, this was a perfect opportunity to put the olive spread to good use. I did a basic preparation of the salmon (olive oil, salt and pepper, lemon juice and some fresh thyme that I had on hand), and placed it in a high-heat oven. About half-way through baking, I added a thin coating of the olive spread to the salmon and let it bake through. It was a great addition to the salmon, adding a nice, zesty tang to the lightly seasoned fish. I also made a warm spinach salad with cannellini beans and grape tomatoes, which was a beautiful complement to the salmon. You can find recipes for both the salmon and the warm spinach salad below.

I have seen other brand jars of olive spread on the market, and although I haven’t tried any of them, I’m sure they would all work well with this dish or as a condiment spread. If you’re feeling a bit adventurous, search out a tapenade spread on line and give it a go!


Green Olive Crusted Salmon

2 salmon filets
olive oil
sea salt and black pepper
juice of 1/2 lemon
1-2 tbspns green olive spread (to your liking)

Preheat oven to 450˚. Lightly drizzle salmon with olive oil, season lightly with sea salt and black pepper. Squirt juice of 1/2 lemon on salmon. Place salmon, skin side down, on a lightly sprayed baking sheet or a non-stick pan. Bake 5-7 minutes, or until salmon starts to turn a light pink. Remove from oven, spread a light coating of olive spread on top of salmon, return to oven. Bake another 10-12 minutes, or until salmon is completely cooked through and flaky.


Warm Spinach Salad with Cannellini Beans and Grape Tomatoes

1/2 bag fresh spinach leaves
1 tbspn olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
juice plus zest of one lemon
1/2 cup cannellini beans
handful of grape tomatoes
salt and pepper

Pre-heat nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add olive oil and garlic, heat until garlic starts to become fragrant. Add spinach leaves, stir to coat. Add juice and zest of lemon, stir to coat. Add beans and tomatoes, continue to stir. Once spinach begins to wilt, remove from heat. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

olive salmon


My ‘Chef for a Day’ Experience in New York City – Part 2

August 23, 2013 Menu No Comments

Last week I introduced you to Camaje Bistro and Lounge, and to chef/owner Abigail Hitchcock, as I shared with you highlights of my day in the Camaje kitchen. Today I am going to share with you the fun stuff…the menu and the tips and tricks that were passed on to me! Before we go any further, let me explain to you why you will not find step-by-step recipes in this blog post. My day in the kitchen was kind of free-form. As Chef Abby was guiding me along, we didn’t focus on specific measurements to the tee. While some ingredients needed measurements, a good portion of the seasonings were eyeballed and adjusted to taste. This was actually very comfortable for me. I’m Italian – nobody in my family follows exact recipes! Chef Abby also told me right from the get-go to absorb what I could that day, even if it wasn’t what I was used to doing. If I were to decide to try it another way on my own time, all the better. I encourage each of you to do the same, not only with recipes on my blog, but with all recipes in general. With that said, let’s head back to the Camaje kitchen!

Our meal for the day was broken up into three courses: an appetizer, a main course and a dessert, along with a fine bottle of wine to complement the meal. All courses were selected by my wife when the reservations were booked, so fresh ingredients hand picked by Chef Abby from the farmer’s market were all on hand that day. I had a hand in preparing, plating and presenting every course, and we were given plenty of time to enjoy each course before I headed back into the kitchen for the following round.

1st Course: The Appetizer

Our first course was Roasted Eggplant and Goat Cheese Napoleon. Chef Abby had me start the day’s duties by slicing up a beautiful Italian Eggplant (the short, bulbous variety that are a light purple and white tye-died color) into 6 even pieces, about 1/2″ thick.Right off the bat this was a bit different for me. We cook eggplant often, but I always prefer to remove the skin and slice the eggplants thin. Curious and excited to see where we were going with this this, I sliced away, then brushed each side with canola oil and seasoned with salt and pepper, then into the oven it went. The next step was to mix equal amounts of goat cheese and cream cheese, along with some finely chopped chives and some fresh thyme. A little heavy cream was whisked into the mixture to slightly thin it out. Once the eggplants were done roasting, and were golden brown on both sides, we assembled by alternating layers of eggplant and layers of the cheese, until each plate was three layers deep, served over a spring mix salad. My first dish out of a professional kitchen was a hit! The roasted eggplant and the creamy cheese filling melted in your mouth. Honestly, I could make an entire meal out of this dish alone. While I am still a fan of thin-sliced eggplant when preparing cutlets, the thicker and meatier slices were definitely the way to go with this dish!


2nd Course: The Entrée

Our second course was Sautéed Wild Salmon with a Lemon & Herb Beurre Blanc and Market Vegetables. Because salmon doesn’t take long to prepare, we started with the vegetables. Chef Abby picked up some nice purple potatoes, which she had me slice in half, then drizzle with some oil, salt and pepper, then place in the oven for a nice roasting. If you never had purple potatoes, they are a fun addition to your plate if you are looking for presentation. The outer skin is a very dark purple color, and when you slice them open you find a fantastic purple swirl that holds up when cooked (kids also find them fun to eat!). We then sliced some fresh leaks, fennel, smashed garlic and tomato, seasoned with some salt and pepper and sautéed it in oil until the veggies were soft and their flavors were married together.

Next up was preparing the salmon. Chef Abby gave me the choice of grilled or sautéed. Since grilling is my usual choice for salmon, I went with sautéing so that I could take advantage of learning some new tricks. The prep was very easy, simply seasoning each side of the filets with salt and pepper, then placing them skin side up into a searing hot pan with some oil. Once the flesh side was cooked (about 5 minutes), we flipped the filets and put them skin side down. You’ll notice that the skin will start to curl once heated. After a few minutes, we flipped the filets to skin side up again, then placed the pan into the oven. The fish will continue to cook in the oven, without having the oils burn off. The outside ends up well done and slightly crisp, while the inside remains moist and full of flavor.

Last was the Beurre Blanc sauce. This is a quick and delicious sauce that is made up of a finely chopped shallot, fresh lemon juice, white wine, salt and pepper, fresh herbs (we went with the classic basil and parsley combination) and chunks of cold butter. You simply sauté the shallots in the wine and lemon juice until the liquid is almost evaporated. At this point you want to lower the heat and add the butter a few cubes at a time, whisking until blended. You want the butter to soften, but not cook in the pan. Melted butter is not the objective here. Season with salt, pepper and the fresh chopped herbs, and you end up with a heavenly, creamy and delicious sauce. Because of the delicate nature of this sauce, it can’t be made ahead of time. Once the sauce was done, we plated the salmon over the vegetables and topped with the sauce.

We eat salmon at home…a lot. Its our go-to fish. And I’ve prepared it a number of ways, my most famous being stuffed with pesto. This dish that I made with Chef Abby…off the charts! There is nothing like cooking with fresh ingredients, and this dish could not have proved that point any more. Chef Abby encouraged me to taste while seasoning throughout the entire cooking process, which no doubt made for better judgement and preparation. Two courses down, two thumbs up!


3rd Course: The Dessert

I’ll admit, this part of the meal is what I was waiting for all day. The choice that Daria selected for us was Caramelized Banana and Roasted Chocolate Crepes. Everything about this dish screams ‘winner’. I’ve made caramel sauce before, and anyone could slice bananas in their sleep. But making crepes? Lemme tell you…this was the biggest challenge of the day for me. A crepe, for those that do not know, is like a very thin pancake. You make a batter out of flour, eggs, milk, and sugar (if you are making sweet crepes). For savory crepe recipes, try leaving out the sugar and allowing the savory flavors to stand out. Unlike pancakes, you need to work fast. Very fast. Using a hot pan coated with oil or butter, you ladle the batter into the pan, and then you move the pan around to make an even, thin layer. After about 15 seconds, when the top starts to dry and the bottom becomes a golden brown, you shake the pan to loosen it and with a flick of the wrist, you give it a flip. You can use a spatula if needed…but Chef Abby made sure that we didn’t need no stinkin’ spatula. Chances are the first crepe you make will be a dud…as was mine! Luckily, the batter that we made was enough for a good 4-6 crepes. By the third crepe, I pretty much had it down. We then made a basic caramel sauce (heated butter and sugar), added in our bananas, and finished it off with some melted chocolate. We then gently folded the caramelized bananas into the crepes, plated them and topped with powdered sugar. Although a few of the crepes may have broken mid-flip, with just a few creative folds nobody would know the difference. If I said this dessert was off the charts, I would be lying. It was miles beyond the charts. No, I am not kidding, and yes it was THAT GOOD. Rich, decadent, gooey….HEAVEN.


Bonus: The Tips and Tricks!

As I said in part one of my Camaje recap, not only is Chef Abby a creative and knowledgeable chef, she also takes high interest in and has a thorough, educated understanding of the science of foods. Aside from guiding me through the A-MA-ZING meal mentioned above, Chef Abby was very gracious throughout the entire experience to share a few tips and tricks, such as:

• Avoiding teary eyes when slicing onions or shallots: most people, including myself, tend to shed a few tears when slicing onions. What causes this? The liquids that are extracted from the onion when rough-chopped (quickly rocking the knife over the onion, when mincing). This method, while quicker, is actually squashing the onion and is extracting the juice from the onion, which then helps produce tears in our eyes. Instead, try to delicately slice the onion, making sure to cut straight through instead of mincing. Also, be sure to keep the root end of the onion in-tact. This helps keep the onion together a bit more, and prevents it from falling apart while slicing. The onion may start to spread a bit, but can be kept under control with your fingers.

• Getting the smell of garlic off of your hands: when Chef Abby asked how I handle this, I confidently said “you use some lemon juice”. Nope. While the lemon juice does mask the garlic aroma, it doesn’t remove the scent. Next time, try rubbing your hands on your stainless steel sink, then rinse with water. Voila! No more garlic scent on your hands!

• How to chiffonade basil: while we were preparing the herbs for our sauce, Chef Abby asked if I knew how to chiffonade basil. When I told her that I wasn’t familiar with the term, she asked what I do to slice my basil. I said “well, I grab a few leaves, roll them tight like a cigar, then make thin slices that produce ribbon-like cuts”. Turns out I knew how to chiffonade basil all along!

• Select your oils accordingly: olive oil always seems to be the go-to oil when preparing meals, especially Italian meals. While rich and flavorful, olive oil has a low heat tolerance, thus will burn and smoke up when added to a high heat pan. Canola oil has a high heat tolerance, and is the better choice to use for high heat cooking.

• Cleaning leaks: when leaks are plucked from the ground, they tend to carry lots of dirt within their folds. To help remove the unwanted dirt, simply soak the leaks in cold water for a few minutes. The dirt will fall from the leaks and will pool up in the bottom of the bowl like wet sand.

• The wonders of Fleur de Sel: translated to “flower of salt”, it is a hand-harvested sea salt that falls under the variety of finishing salts. Used as a seasoning accent when plating rather than when cooking (just a small bit is needed), it adds a candy-coated texture when added to moist foods. We added a pinch to our sliced tomatoes in our salad. BOOM! Like magic, the tomatoes had a beautiful crunchy exterior. Again, just a bit goes a long way.


So there you have it, my friends. A recap of one of the most fun and fascinating days that I am sure to never forget, thanks to my wonderful wife, Daria, and my new friend, the gifted and talented Chef Abigail Hitchcock. I am sure that I am leaving out some details here, as there was so much to info that I absorbed. Hopefully my story and pictures have helped give you an idea of the wonderful experience that I had.

And if you are wondering, yes, Chef Abby did indeed pass along the recipes that were used to influence the day’s meal. I consider them a special gift and will treat them as such, therefore I chose not to post them word-for-word. But if you ask nicely, maybe I’ll invite you over and personally make one of the dishes for you. However, I make no promises on prerfectly-shaped crepes.


Camaje Bistro & Lounge is located at:
85 MacDougal Street, New York, NY 10012
Phone: 1 (212) 673-8184
E-mail: info@camaje.com

For more information on Camaje Bistro, click here.

To read more about Chef Abby, click here.

To view a preview video of Camaje’s Dark Dining event, click here.



Bow Tie Pasta with Spinach and Salmon in White Wine Sauce

August 16, 2011 Menu, Pasta No Comments

Heavy winds, nasty rain and a bit of Sunday laziness kept me from my usual summer grilling this past weekend. The trade-off was that I was able to spend some quality time in the kitchen preparing a couple of meals for the week. We were in the mood for fish, but I wanted to get a little pasta going as well. I decided to saute some spinach and salmon in white wine sauce, and mix it with bow tie pasta. The dish was quick and delicious…the perfect cure for a blah-zy Sunday afternoon!

Bow Tie Pasta with Salmon And Spinach in White Wine Sauce

1 lb bow tie pasta
1 box frozen chopped spinach, thawed and strained
2 6-oz salmon fillets
4 tablespoons butter
2 shallots, chopped
1/4 cup white wine
olive oil (to drizzle on salmon)
juice of 1 lemon
salt and pepper to taste
reserved pasta water (about a half cup or so)
breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese for topping

1. Season the salmon with some salt. pepper, lemon juice and olive oil. Place salmon in a foil-lined baking dish, bake at 375º for about 30-35 minutes, until flaky. Remove from oven, flake and set aside.

2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Just before you’re ready to add the pasta to the boiling water, melt the butter in a large pan over medium heat. Add the pasta to the boiling water.

3. Add the shallots to the butter, stir. Let simmer until translucent, for about a minute. Next, add the wine to the butter and shallots, stir. Let simmer for a few minutes, to allow the alcohol to burn off.

4. Add the chopped spinach and flaked salmon to the wine sauce, mix well. Most of the wine sauce will be absorbed. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Keep warm in pan until pasta is al dente.

5. Remove pasta from water, reserving about a half cup or so of pasta water. In a large bowl, toss the pasta with the salmon and spinach mixture. Slowly add a bit of the pasta water, one ladle at a time, to your liking.

6. Plate the pasta, top with some breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese.

Serve with crusty Italian bread and white wine!


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