Low Carb Antipasto

I’m an Italian-American. I’m also a diabetic. Pasta calls me sweetly, but tries to kill me. It’s a dilemma.

Some foods are just not in my healthy future. Fettuccine Alfredo, my luscious tasty friend, is right out. I’ve looked at alternatives but a poor substitute is worse than no fettuccine at all, so I just wish. But there are other families of food that I can modify.

Antipasto is a perfect summer food. In western Texas where I live, the temperatures amble up into the low hundreds in June- that’s above 38 degrees Celsius, for the civilized folks out there. The idea of roasting a chicken for dinner has all the appeal of getting dental work performed by one’s bitter ex-wife.

My family has several favorite recipes for antipasto (all from my mother, who is a wonderful cook). Alas, they all pretty much start with a pound of pasta. So I was looking for a pasta-free antipasto. What could fill the role of the pasta: a good, mild, filling base for the rest of the salad?

I’ve heard of various miracle noodles- shiritake, for instance- but could not find any in my local stores. I could use rice, but getting away from carbs is the idea. I have made antipastos and simply left out the noodles but they were dense, gloopy, and unbalanced.

I used to have a ‘recipe’ for pasta salad which was more of an algorithm- take one from this group, two from that group, etc. I’ll see if I can unearth it if there’s any interest- it was good because no matter what was on sale that week, a decent pasta salad could be made without worry.

A local supermarket had a good sale on cucumbers, which seemed like a good match to the job. They certainly won’t distract from the leading flavors, am I right? They lack the chew of pasta, but they have next to no carbs, so I grabbed four.

Peppers were cheap too, so I grabbed three healthy orange ones. Bell peppers tend to be sweeter as they get brighter- green peppers have little sweetness unless you caramelize them, and purple ones, while pretty, are a chore to eat.

I’ve recently been experimenting with different recipes of ranch dressing, so I have plenty of it in the fridge. I used two cups in this recipe. European antipastos frequently are moistened with oil and vinegar, but I was working from the memory of a recipe with a yogurt/mayo moistening, so ranch wins for today.

Cucumbers are not pasta. They made that obvious in my first attempt, which was more like a chunky summer soup than a salad- I had only drained the briefly, and they released a dismaying amount of water. The second batch worked my better, with more draining, but still left a fair puddle in the bottom of the bowl. I’ll try salting and pressing them next time.

  • 4 cucumbers
  • 3 bell peppers, colorful (orange, red or yellow)
  • 1.5 lbs flank steak, thin sliced
  • 2 cups ranch dressing
  • 4 oz capers
  • 1 onion, minced
  1.    Peel the cucumbers and halve them lengthwise. Use a spoon to remove the seeds, then slice each half in half again, and cut the spears into about 1/2″ sections.
  2.    Put the cut cucumbers into a gallon Ziploc bag. Cut one corner off (smaller than the pieces so that only water can get out) and suspend it over your sink. Let them drain for an hour or so. If you own a salad spinner, you might well use it instead.
  3.    Grill the steak over a hot fire until rare or medium but well-marked. let cool, then slice across the grain.
  4.    Core, seed and cut the peppers in 1/2″ or slightly larger cubes.
  5.    Add all the ingredients to a large bowl and mix.

Some possible add-ins would be crisp crumbled bacon, banana peppers, black olives, or cherry tomatoes.

UPDATE   Drop the steak, add in 1.5 lbs of chicken breast (cooked and rough chopped) and crumble a pound of bacon in. Chicken Bacon Ranch Antipasto.


Some years ago, my family spent a year in the Netherlands.

The Netherlands, aka Holland, have been a fantastic crossroads for hundreds of years. For such a small country, their culinary heritage is quite broad, from the predictable Germanic history, to Spanish influences from several attempted invasions from Spain, through a strong touch of Indonesian due to Holland’s colonial past.

Furthermore, Amsterdam is a remarkable city for food. I remember wandering through streets that seemed dedicated to Argentinian steakhouses. I found shoarma for the first time in Amsterdam. Many of the bigger metro stations had high-end supermarkets where you could buy a surprisingly good selection of ingredients for that night’s dinner. Yes, Amsterdam is a good city for a foodie.

On the other end of the scale from the excellent steakhouses, the street food there is well worth checking out too. All of western Europe has frite stands (known as French fries to Americans, chips to the Brits), but the frites in Belgium are famous, and Amsterdam is just a short train ride away from Brussels.

Belgian frites (vlaamse frites) are thicker than the classic American shoestring fry. The ‘secret’ is that they are fried once at moderately hot oil, then left to cool, then fried again in hotter oil. They get a crispy crust and a wonderful flavour that shoestrings will never have. Generally, they’re served with mayonnaise.

Many Americans find the idea repulsive- but give it a try. If you simply must have ketchup, it is generally available, but mayo is traditional and very good. The Dutch have a fascination with mayonnaise that is hard to fathom- I’ve had sushi with mayo, in Amsterdam- Not my favorite.

Anyone who has read my blog knows my abiding affection for garlic. Knoflooksaus, which is a garlic mayonnaise, is widely available in frite stands and became my favorite sauce for frites the first time I tasted it, in a small shoarma shop just off the Dam Square in Amsterdam.

Since I’ve returned to the States and gone lower-carb, frites haven’t been a major part of my diet, but I still enjoy them time and again. I developed this recipe for a small batch of knoflooksaus just for those rare occasions when I have frites. I’m sure it could scale up but small batches are kinder to my diet!

  • 1/4 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • (optional) 1 tsp parsley
  1.    Mix all ingredients.
  2.    Let rest at least 30 minutes.
  3.    Serve with frites, spiced lamb, pita chips or crisp veggies.

Lamentable El Paso Barbeque

On North Loop, we found The Ribs Smokehouse. We’ve been there before and found it to be fairly good food at attractive prices, but we apparently came at a bad time this visit.

Decent presentation. Submediocre food.
Decent presentation. Mediocre food.

The Ribs is decorated and lit like a fairly clean sports bar. Five or six TVs showing the same football game, country and western decor, and the ambiance of a pretty good working-class bar. The tables have quite nice smoked  peanuts to snack on while your food is cooked.

We visited on a Monday night and found one friendly but overworked waitress serving four groups. We ordered combo plates- pulled pork (which was our favorite from our previous visits), brisket, ribs, onion rings and a variety of sides.

The food was just plain badly made. The pulled pork was the best of the lot- juicy and flavorful, but just above room temperature. The brisket and ribs were dry, the onion rings simultaneously overdone and cold.

The mac and cheese had significantly underdone noodles (think almost crispy). The asadero cheese sauce at least was interesting but with the dish served at just north of room temperature, it was not nearly enough to save the dish.

To look on the bright side, the service was quick, the restaurant is clean, the prices are fairly good. The cornbread muffins were almost fresh. Maybe we just got there after some catastrophic failure of all of their kitchen equipment. But the cool, dry food was a real let-down.

We ate here before and enjoyed it. I can only say that if they were not training a new cook that night, they should be.

Grilled Pizza Bachelor Style

I’m not a bachelor, but sometimes I do think back on the simple days when I had no worries beyond how to stretch a twenty to cover a week’s groceries.

small pizza on grill
It doesn’t get much simpler than this.

This week, friends delivered my long-neglected gas grill. It lit up perfectly, as though I hadn’t left it in the raw desert for a year. And I remembered why I’d missed it so.

Gas grills are simple creatures. Turn the knobs, sacrifice the hair on the back of your hand to the fireball, and you have a cooking tool that requires nothing more than a cold beer and a steady hand.

My son came home from school right after I set the grill up. He’s a fan of pizza, and with my Nu-Wave dying we hadn’t had pizza for a few weeks, so I made a simple bachelor pizza.

Necessity is the mother of invention. Poverty is at least an uncle. I didn’t have yeast but I have large tortillas- there’s a crust. simple tomato sauce, cheese, some giant pepperoni, and we had a thin-crust pizza in about ten minutes.

They joy of bachelor cooking is that almost any substitute will work. Don’t have tortillas? Pita bread, lavash, or sandwich wraps will work. Any spaghetti sauce can work. I used muenster cheese buy7 mild cheddar, colby, or monty jack will work fine- just avoid the stronger cheeses. Make this with gorgonzola and I won’t be held responsible!

My gas grill is an old friend. It has a few quirks, lacks a few knobs, and doesn’t cook things quite as evenly as a younger, better grill might. If you’re blessed with a good grill you may not need to rotate the pizza while it is cooking.

  •    1 burrito-sized flour tortilla.
  •    1/2 cup tomato sauce
  •    1 cup shredded or sliced mild cheese
  •     1 oz pepperoni
  1.    Start the grill on high. Clean the grates.
  2.    Pour the tomato sauce in the middle of the ‘crust’ and spread it almost to the edges. Ideally it should cover the ‘crust’ thinly enough that you can still see the crust a bit- if there is too much tomato, the pizza will be soggy.
  3.    Spread most of the cheese evenly over the tomato sauce.
  4.    Add your pepperoni and/or other toppings.
  5.    Place the pizza on the grill and lower the cover.
  6.     Every three minutes, rotate the pizza 90 degrees to keep cooking even.
  7.    Pizza is done in about ten minutes. The crust should be neither floppy nor brittle- if you lift up an edge and can see just a bit of charring and the whole bottom sort of a dark blonde, the pizza is ready.


Lament the death of my favorite gadget

My NuWave oven has died, after six months of moderate use.

I called up the company, but they would not cover the warranty unless I had a receipt, which I did not. They offered to sell me a full-price replacement, but my budget doesn’t stretch that far. I very much enjoyed the NuWave while it worked. Some day maybe I’ll get another.

So, I’m going to change focus from my once-loved NuWave to the gas grill. Expect me to start trying out hobo packet recipes, dusting off my grilled chili, and questing for the perfect grilled brat. It’s getting to be perfect grilling season in El Paso anyway.thumbs_down Nuwave-Infrared-Oven

Do you have a favorite grill recipe, or one that you’d like me to try to improve? Let me know!

The Red Lobster: better seafood than you’ll find at the shore!

This afternoon, my wife and I were out scattering money around El Paso (otherwise known as shopping and paying bills). While we were on the East Side, between Best Buy and AT&T, we both looked at the Red Lobster and decided that it would be this month’s splurge.

We moved from New England a few years ago, and while western Texas is awesome, we do miss seafood. Red Lobster hasfish chips always been reliably decent food, so we came in for lunch.

We were seated and the manager, Hector, was covering our section. He was personable and very knowledgeable about their menu. I was particularly pleased with the excellent lighting- the restaurant was gently lit, but had excellent light on the table. With my vision, that is a rare treat.

El Paso is about twelve hours’ drive salmonfrom any shore, if you have a heavy foot and no fear of speed traps. Our expectations were modest. We were absolutely blown away.

Hector runs an excellent restaurant. Many big chains are impersonal, unhurried, unworried; here, we found the service to be swift, friendly, and very attentive.

I ordered fish and chips, a safe old standby. Andrea optimistically ordered the Atlantic salmon.

Food presentation has never been the strong suit of most restaurants, but here, it was like finals week at a good culinary academy. Foods were well plated, attractive and balanced.

I can honestly say that this was the best fish and chips I’ve had in the US. The fish was tender and moist, inside a perfect crust. I would have been impressed to have such good fish right at the shore.

Andrea, with her beansAtlantic salmon, was even better off. The salmon, with its hint of soy and lemon, was nearly perfect. Flaky, succulent, with perfect grill lines, this was a plate that would have been right at home in the best restaurants in Cape Cod or Hilton Head. The green beans were sauteed in brown butter and were good enough to match the salmon’s excellence.

We came in expecting nothing more than a decent meal, and left feeling as though we had dined royally. The East Side Red Lobster is a treat, with food and service much better than we had expected. We’ll be back!

If you want more details and pics, An also reviewed this place on her blog, Driving Reasons. If you do visit the Red Lobster, let them know that you heard about them here!


The Restaurant Supply Warehouse and you

I have a teenage son. He eats roughly his cheeseweight in peanut butter during any given week.

Last night, I bought a new super-jumbo bottle of store-brand PB. This morning, there is a scraped-clean bottle with a butterknife in it. I’m not certain that he used any bread.meats

Big-box membership stores like Costco and Sam’s are a good start, but when faced with this kind of voracious appetite, I decided to skip the middleman. I visited the Shamrock Food Service Warehouse, on Gateway Boulevard in El Paso.

Shamrock is a big, clean, well-lighted popcornstore, selling industrial quantities of food and the equipment to prepare it. Their prices ranged from pretty good to amazing, as long as you want to buy substantial quantities.

Most home cooks won’t be able to take advantage of every sale; it’d be quite a long time before I could run through fifty pounds of onions, for instance. But a five pound bucket of creamy peanut butter for seven bucks? I can deal with that!Sauces

Shamrock has three walk-in coolers- Produce, Dairy, and Meat/Cheese. I was in short sleeves, so I sort of hurried through them, but the prices kept me there, shivering. $2.50 a pound for mushrooms, in El Paso?
cleaning supplies


I even found some of my Oriental-market staples such as banh pho noodles there, for very attractive prices.

If you’re cooking for a large or hungry family, check out your local restaurant supply warehouse. If you have a large freezer, you’ll be able to take advantage of even more deals.

The Spice Must Flow!

The spice rub is mailed out, first class. You should see it this weekend or early next week.

When you’ve used the Pixie Dust, please come back to this post and leave me a comment telling me what you made, how it turned out, and what you think I should call the spice rub.

Pork with Black Bean Sauce

Produce section of Oriental market
I love these places. Like a trip to another culture, without getting groped by the TSA.

Black bean sauce, made with fermented soybeans, is a staple of American Chinese restaurants. I’ve never been favorably impressed with it before, though; in restaurants it usually tastes like a bland version of oyster sauce.

When a friend rhapsodized about the flavor of black bean sauce (and sent me a baggie of black beans to try), I decided to experiment. Everybody who tried it is glad that I did.

My local supermarket had a good sale on boneless pork chops, so black beans and pork it shall be.

My friend Google and I sorted through a number of recipes. I started by rejecting any that had major ingredients that I lack, but they all did- how many of you have Shaoxing wine on your shelves? I didn’t have sherry, gin, or anything even close, so I subbed in some rice wine. (Update: Shaxing is cheap in my local Oriental market- I have some now)

Once I found a recipe that I liked (I liked it because it cooks the food in batches, as I’ve read is typical in mainland Chinese cooking), with substitutions that seemed rational, I waded in.

Cheap pork chops usually come with a generous layer of fat. Mine were no exception. I trimmed them and sliced them into large, regular chunks. I tossed them into a quart ziplock bag with a soy-based marinade and left them in the fridge for two hours.

Soy sauce is salty. Soaking pork (or chicken, fish, or other frequently-dry meats) in a salty water solution is also called brining. It’s part of the koshering process (on chicken… I don’t think that there is a process to make pork kosher!). It can turn even lean chicken breast moist and flavorful. In this case, since I had removed all the obvious fat from my pork chops, it meant that I would get juicy pork instead of dusty dry meat.

Garlic and ginger are a classic flavor combination in Cantonese cooking. I cut the ‘rind’ off of about an inch of ginger root and minced it, then pressed the garlic cloves.

The original recipe had called for red bell peppers and water chestnuts, both of which are now on my shopping list. For tonight, I added two cans of straw mushrooms and a chopped onion instead.

My stove is a basic American range/cooktop. It I were working in a Chinese restaurant, or had hit the lottery and owned a Wolf range, there would be a lot more heat available, to the point that things would cook much more quickly. Since I’m dealing with wimpy heat, I do not need to (for instance) discard the garlic and ginger after cooking them- on a better stove they would be burned to bitterness but their flavor would have blessed the oil. In this case, I leave them in, because I like them, but if you have a better stove than I do, beware that they may burn quickly.

So, I heated a tablespoon of peanut oil over the full (wimpy) heat that my stove provides, and swirled the oil to coat the wok. I added the ginger and garlic and sauteed them for a few minutes until they were aromatic, then added the veggies.

Onions are great communicators. When they start to become translucent (about eight minutes for me) they are ready to scoop out into a bowl and move on to the meat. If the onions start to brown, or get crispy, you’ve cooked them a bit too long, but it is not a tragedy.

I added another tablespoon of oil, swirled and heated it, then added the pork. I generally like to play with food, but it is important to leave the pork alone for four minutes or so so that the surface that is on the wok gets crispy. Once that happens, stir the pork up so that another surface gets cooked. Once two surfaces have cooked, stir it one more time, add the veggies, pour on the sauce, and cover the wok for the next five or ten minutes.

As a side note, trichinosis is really nothing to play with. If all of your pork pieces are very nearly the same size, pick three of them and cut them open. If they are white all the way through, you are good. If there is even a hint of pink, please don’t kill your guests. Let the mix cook for another few minutes and check again. If your pork pieces are a bit more ‘free form’ and not the same size, pick the biggest three you can find for the investigation.

Traditionally, this would be served on rice. Tonight I felt like being good (I try to stay low carb) so I just served it as is, with no starch.

  • 2 lbs boneless pork chops, all fat trimmed, sliced into even cubes
  • 2 TB soy sauce
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1/4 tsp white pepper
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 3 TB fermented black soy beans, well rinsed
  • 2 TB oyster sauce
  • 2 TB soy sauce
  • 1 TB sesame oil
  • 1 TB cornstarch dissolved in 2 TB water
  • 2 TB peanut oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 cans straw mushrooms, drained
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
  • 1″ of ginger root, peeled and minced
  1.    In a quart zip lock bag, mix the 2 TB soy sauce, baking soda, salt, sugar, pepper and water. Once the powders have dissolved, add the pork and refrigerate for at least one hour.
  2.    In a small bottle or cup, mix the black beans, oyster sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil, cornstarch and water. Stir it well and set aside.
  3.    Add one tablespoon of oil to the wok, swirl to coat, and put over high heat. When the wok is hot (you should be able to put a drop of water in the wok and have it jump and dance, not just steam away), add the ginger and garlic. Stir often for two to three minutes, until your kitchen smells like a gingery garlicky paradise.
  4.    Add the onion and mushrooms and stir well. Keep the veggies moving every minute or two until the onions start to become translucent, then scoop all the veggies out into a bowl. Use a paper towel (carefully, it is easy to burn yourself doing this) to wipe out any stray bits of garlic.
  5.    Drain the pork in a strainer to let the marinade run off. Discard the used marinade.
  6.    Add the last tablespoon of oil and swirl the wok. When it comes up to temperature, add the pork to the pan.
  7.    Leave the pork alone for three to five minutes, until it is crackling quietly and has formed a nice brown grilled appearance on one side, then stir it so that another side gets to brown up.
  8.    Leave the pork alone for another three to five minutes. When it has browned on the second side, stor it once more to expose another side to heat, then add the veggies and sauce.
  9.    Cover the wok and let it cook, stirring occasionally, for about ten minutes, then take out the largest three pieces of pork you can find and cut them open to check that they are completely cooked.
  10.    Serve over rice or rice noodles, or on its own.

Spice Rub mini-news

I’m printing up cards now. They look bad- my printer is old and junky- but the spice rub will be the real thing. Should be in the mail tomorrow morning.

A friend pointed out that Pixie Dust is kind of a wimpy name for a spice rub. Anyone have suggestions for a better name? let me know, now or after you’ve tried the rub!

UPDATE The spice rub is packaged up, ready to mail. I’ll get it mailed out either tomorrow morning or Monday morning.

Eat well, have fun, enjoy life.