The Party Ready Pantry

beach ballAre you party ready?

The summer time is party season.  From Memorial Day to Labor Day Americans will be taking to pools and patios from Bangor to La Jolla, Bellingham to Sarasota to get their party on.  Many parties are planned to the tees but just as likely they are hit and run parties.

“I don’t know what happened.  I went out to pick up the floaties from around the pool and when I stood up the grill was loaded with burgers and a band was warming up.”  It happens all the time.  The question is will you be ready when it happens to you?

Pantry Ready PantryA properly stocked pantry can be your safety line for spontaneous revelry.  Here’s what I like to keep on hand: cans of petit diced tomatoes, crushed pineapple, pinto beans ( I like Ranch Style), chick peas, sweetened condensed milk, jars of onion powder, garlic powder, Italian seasoning, cumin, chili powder and plenty of good olive oil.  In the fridge I like to keep fresh herbs, fruit juice, an avocado or two and plenty of cheese.  It’s always nice to have tortillas and bread on hand.  French, Italian or pita will keep for months in the freezer and will defrost in no time.

With the diced tomatoes you are just minutes away from a tasty dip.  Drain the tomatoes and stir in the onion powder, garlic powder, cumin and chili powder for a beach ballquick salsa to dip the chips.  Mash up the avocado and stir in a little salsa and a touch of lemon or lime juice and you’ve got yourself a tasty guacamole.  For a tropical twist leave out the tomatoes and substitute with crushed pineapple.  To see me demonstrate a few salsas click the image to the right.  In the mood for Italian?  Mix onion powder, garlic powder, Italian seasoning and fresh basil with those tomatoes for a bruschetta topping (this is where that bread comes in handy).

Drain those chick peas then toss them into a food processor with onion powder, garlic powder, fresh cilantro, mint, and cumin.  Pulse in a little olive oil and add a touch of peanut butter (or tahini if you can get it) for a quick humus, serve with pita.  Drain those pinto beans and mash them with onion powder, garlic powder, cumin and chili powder.  Place them into an oven safe bowl, top with shredded cheese and bake at 350 (American) until hot and bubbly.

key lime pie recipeFor dessert a ready-made graham cracker crust, four egg yolks and a can of sweetened condensed milk is just a 1/2 cup of fruit juice away from being a cool pie.  Lemon juice will yield a nice lemon ice box, Key lime juice naturally becomes Key lime pie (click the pic for my recipe) or get adventurous and see where a can of mango or passion fruit nectar leads you.  Just remember to add citrus juice after you have whisked the eggs and milk together – the acid in the juice will make the eggs start to set-up almost immediately.  15 minutes in a 350 oven will help it set-up but it is not necessary.

Culinary Secret: Balance

With all of the spices, herbs and other sundry ingredients at our disposal these days it is easy to get wrapped up in the pomp while forgetting about the circumstance.  It is so tempting to add an entire day of Food Network into one meal.  But it should not take longer to say a dish than it takes to make it.

Balance and Harmony: Asian FoodThese ingredients and techniques are not something you want to use in every single meal.  The pursuit of a truly great meal, or life for that matter, is balance.  This philosophy is practiced with great skill by chefs in Asia and France.

Just because you have a few tricks in your bag doesn’t mean you should perform them all.  Some things simply do not need embellishment.  I’ll try to give a few examples.

At my last chef post there was one recipe, chicken salad, on the menu that I was told I could not tinker with.  If you are doing a sweet application to a savory dish it is important not to lose the savory aspect of it.  This chicken salad was sweeter than most of our desserts.  It was putrid.  A cup of sugar to every pound of chicken.  The other ingredients were mayo, cinnamon, red delicious apples, celery and pecans.  All sweet or neutral flavors.  To make matters worse the chicken was not seasoned so there wasn’t even salt and pepper to counter all of the sweetness.  There was no balance.  To this day it is the worst dish I have ever served on a menu.

When doing a sweet/savory dish you need to add heat or acidity to remind the palate this is a savory dish.  Cayenne pepper or a touch of Tabasco would have made that chicken salad better.  Asian and Caribbean chefs do sweet/savory well because of their judicious use of chilies and/or acids (whether from citrus or vinegar): sweet and sour, sweet and hot.

Balance is important in textures as well.  A well balanced recipe will have two or more contrasting textures – crispy and tender, crunchy and soft.  Just a touch of resistance that gives way to something gooey is charming.

Another place to strive for balance is in the menu as a whole.  Do you have an entrée that is technically challenging?  Then make sure your other courses are simple to execute.  Not only will it make things better for the cook but also for the diner.

At my last post I made hummus from scratch.  My recipe was quite complex containing I believe 17 ingredients and none of them the traditional Tahini.  Everyone said it was the best hummus in the city. I didn’t use that many ingredients because I was trying to impress anyone.  I did it because every hummus I have ever tasted was lacking something.  They seemed to always feature one of three flavors – garlic, cilantro or cumin.  Well I want all three of them and in abundance.

Conversely my scratch made salsa was very simple; six ingredients.  Again our customers thought it was the best in town.  The main thing to remember is that if you start with quality ingredients then you do not need a lot of flashy stuff; a little bit will do.

If there is one thing I can give someone new to cooking it is the lesson of balance.

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Stuart in 80 Words or Less

Stuart is a celebrity chef, food activist and award-winning food writer. He penned the cookbooks Third Coast Cuisine: Recipes of the Gulf of Mexico, No Sides Needed: 34 Recipes To Simplify Life and Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor." His recipes have been featured in Current, Lagniappe, Southern Tailgater, The Kitchen Hotline and on the Cooking Channel.

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Stuart’s Honors & Awards

2015 1st Place Luck of the Irish Cook-off
2015 4th Place Downtown Cajun Cook-off
2015 2nd Place Fins' Wings & Chili Cook-off
2014 2015 4th Place LA Gumbo Cook-off
2012 Taste Award nominee for best chef (web)
2012 Finalist in the Safeway Next Chef Contest
2011 Taste Award Nominee for Little Grill Big Flavor
2011, 12 Member: Council of Media Tastemakers
2011 Judge: 29th Chef's of the Coast Cook-off
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Wing Cook-off
2011 Cooking Channel Perfect 3 Recipe Finalist
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Gumbo Cook-off
2011 Culinary Hall of Fame Member
2010 Tasty Awards Judge
2010 Judge: Bayou La Batre Gumbo Cook-off
2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Award Nominee
2010 Chef2Chef Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2010 Denay's Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2009 2nd Place Bay Area Food Bank Chef Challenge
2008 Tava: Discovery Contest Runner-up


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