Monday, September 24, 2007

Beer Can Chicken: Not Just for Frat Boys

what PBR is good for
Beer in a can reminds me of college. I think of the frat boys chugging it, then smashing the cans on their foreheads, or making huge pyramids of the empties. "Shotgunning" is another frat boy activity that comes to mind when I think of beer cans. For those of you not "in the know" about such hi jinks, this involves making a hole in the side of an unopened can (usually done oh-so-safely with a ballpoint pen), then putting one's mouth over the hole while popping open the top of the can, creating a rapid flow of beer into said mouth. So, you're probably getting the picture----I don't exactly have a high-class opinion of beer in a can (or frat boys, for that matter---excluding my dear husband, who, of course, couldn't possibly have participated in such shenanigans!). Beer Can Chicken, however, is an entirely different story. Whether or not you like beer, you will love this recipe. Even your kids will love it, and I promise they won't be smashing cans on their heads after dinner is over.

The best part about Beer Can Chicken is that it is almost impossible to ruin. If you have an outdoor grill and a can of beer, you're halfway to success. Instead of using cut-up chicken parts, Beer Can Chicken uses a whole chicken. By cooking it whole, it retains more moisture and is more flavorful. In addition, by cooking the bird in a bit of an unconventional way, you are just about guaranteed a juicy result.

First preheat your grill to high heat (or about 450 degrees) while you prepare the chicken for cooking. To prepare the bird, rinse it under cold running water, then pat it dry with paper towels, inside and out. Season the cavity with salt and pepper, or your favorite poultry seasoning. Then rub some oil all over the outside of the bird, and season it as well. The last step of preparation is easy; pop open a can of beer and have a few slugs. Because we always tend to have bottled beer in our house, I have been known to fill an empty diet Coke can about three quarters of the way with beer, which works equally as well. The key is to have the can only partially full, to avoid overflow onto your grill grates.

Now comes the fun part. Take your chicken by the wings, and stand it up on it's hind legs. Place the beer can, right side up, into the bottom cavity (yes, it looks as unfortunate as you may imagine), and prop it right on top of the grill grates. You may have to reposition the legs in order to keep it from falling over, since the goal is to have it standing straight up. Now, close the grill cover and leave it to cook for about an hour. Because no part of the meat is touching the hot grill grates, it is not necessary to open the cover to check, flip, or prod your bird. The combination of the indirect heat source and the moisture of the beer steaming through the meat will allow it to cook slowly and evenly, and it can be left alone.

After about an hour, use a meat thermometer to test the temperature in both the breast and inner thigh. The internal temperature should reach 160-165 degrees in the breast, and about 180 in the thigh. Or, you may simply use your observational skills. When you make a small incision into the meat, is it no longer pink? Are the juices running clear? If yes, your bird is likely cooked. A smaller bird may be ready after only an hour, while a slightly larger bird may need an additional fifteen or twenty minutes. Once the meat is thoroughly cooked, allow it to rest for approximately 15 minutes before carving. This period of rest lets the juices redistribute in the chicken, instead of running all over your cutting board and rendering the meat dry. Once carved, you'll find a juicy, succulent, delicious chicken, that is perfect for a small gathering or family dinner. And no, it will not taste like beer! The beer does impart some flavor, but it is subtle and likely unidentifiable. All you'll taste is good, moist chicken!

So, pop open a can of beer, and make the most of the end of grilling season! No frat boys required!

Beer Can Chicken

1 4-5 lb. whole chicken, giblets removed

1 can beer

2 T Olive oil

Salt & pepper

Preheat your gas grill to high.
Wash and pat dry the chicken, and rub the outside with olive oil.

Season the bird, inside and out, with salt and pepper.

Spill out (or drink) about 1/3 of the beer, and place the can inside the bottom cavity of the chicken.

Place the chicken/beer can, standing up, in the center of the grill grate.

Turn the center burner off, leaving the front and rear burners on medium-high heat.

Close grill cover and cook for approximately 1 hour.

Using a meat thermometer, check internal temperature of breast and inner thigh. It should read 160-165 degrees in the breast and 180 in the thigh.

Continue cooking until chicken reaches above temperatures.
Remove to a platter and allow bird to rest for 15 minutes.
Carve and serve.

Serves 4.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Cookbooks for a Cause on September 22, 2007

Since I began teaching cooking classes about two years ago, I am frequently asked to contribute to a wide variety of local charitable causes. They aren't asking for money, per se, but rather a service to be auctioned off at a charity event (a cooking class, party, or specially prepared meal for the highest bidder). Early on, I enthusiastically agreed, eager to help a worthy cause while getting a little exposure for my new business.

Well, I quickly learned that once the word is out that you are a willing participant, the calls for donations start pouring in. At first I was flattered to be asked, then I became panicked that I was giving away the farm before I'd even built the barn, then I simply became overwhelmed. It was time to take control of my charitable giving!

One afternoon, while attending a lecture by a well-known restaurateur, a thought suddenly occurred to me; why not start my own charity event? By doing so, I could choose the type of event, how and when I held the event, and which charity or charities would benefit from the event. Naturally, it would have to be related to cooking. My mind was racing through dozens of ideas when the lecturer said something that clicked. She was talking about how she had some of her old cookbooks on a shelf in her restaurant for people to browse through---and bang! I had my idea. A cookbook sale! Donated cookbooks, sold to the public, money to a charity. That was easy! Now I had to get to work planning.

I put out the word that I was collecting cookbooks on my website, in my Secret Ingredient e-newsletter, and on a popular local website. I even had a "girls' night out" cocktail party for my friends and asked them all the bring any cookbooks they no longer used. Soon I was getting emails and phone calls from all over town asking to donate cookbooks. Within a week I had over 100 books. Some people donated one book, some gave five, and others gave me huge boxes full. Some of the books were older, some looked "gently used" and others were practically new. With less than a week until the sale, I have well over 300 books, and they continue to pour in.

The variety of books was also astounding. There were books on vegetarian and healthy cooking, baking, and cooking for kids. There were ethnic books ranging from Chinese cookery to Middle-Eastern appetizers and Italian desserts. There were also quite a few on microwave cooking, which surprised me, for a reason I can't explain. I received a large number of big, hard-covered, beautiful cookbooks, worthy of being called "coffee table" books, but also found myself sorting through an equally large number of pamphlet-type cookbooks, either put out by a food company (like Hershey's), or by a small kitchen-appliance company (like Cuisinart).

This year I chose QUOTA International of Fairfield County to be the recipient of the First Annual Secret Ingredient Cookbook Benefit Sale. I wanted to start with a local charity, and one that could really use the money. I hope the sale is a huge success and I am able to present QUOTA with a very nice check. I also need to be realistic in the first year of doing anything, but I'm optimistic and hopeful that the sale will meet or exceed my expectations.

This year's sale is Saturday, September 22, 2007 (go to for more details), and although it has been a lot more work than I anticipated, I am very excited to kick off what I hope will be an annual event for many years to come.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Eating Well at The Ranch

I recently travelled to Lenox, Massachusetts to the Canyon Ranch resort, which is a spa dedicated to health and one's overall well-being. Each day there is a diverse schedule of activities and classes, which include various types of yoga, Pilates, strength training, aerobics, dance, and even West African Drumming. In addition, guests at the Ranch can participate in many outdoor activities, such as guided bike rides of all levels, hikes, and canoe or kayak trips. In between all this activity, you'll find all sorts of lectures on well-being, cooking demonstrations, and of course, dozens of spa services designed to pamper. You certainly won't be bored during your stay, but you WILL work up quite an appetite each day. Luckily, the Canyon Ranch dining room is top notch (and one of my favorite parts of visiting!).

Canyon Ranch is a place promoting good health and good habits, so naturally, the dining room is committed to healthy eating. To say it is a "health food restaurant" would be doing it a disservice, because it is much more than that. Yes, the food is very healthy (they even give the calorie count, the fat content, and the fiber content for each and every item on the menu), but more importantly, everything tastes wonderful. The range of ingredients used in the kitchen is mind-boggling. Many ingredients are not ones most people are familiar with, so each trip to the dining room is a new adventure. Jicama (pronounced HICK-a-ma), quinoa (KEEN-wa), and tempeh (TEMP-ee) are commonplace on the menu, but you'll also find lots of familiar food prepared in new, healthier ways too (roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, chili, and even baked ziti!).

The chefs at Canyon Ranch also put many interesting twists on traditional recipes. For instance, instead of stuffing a chicken breast with bread stuffing, they stuff a small quail with blueberries (delicious!). Instead of pairing baby lamb chops with traditional garlic and rosemary, they are encrusted with a "Zahtar" rub, which includes sesame seeds, sumac powder, thyme, and oregano, to name a few. They even find a way to make breakfast burritos interesting, by filling them with chicken sausage, steamed broccoli and low-fat cheddar cheese. Eating at the Ranch definitely can be a bit adventurous, but if you're willing to try a few new things, you'll find some new combinations and flavors you may have never otherwise tried, but will certainly love.

Despite their strong commitment to healthy living, Canyon Ranch still understands the power of a sweet treat at the end of a meal. In addition to a daily fruit plate, you'll also find chewy homemade cookies and homemade fruit sorbets and ice cream on the dessert menu. The ice cream (served with fat-free hot chocolate sauce) is rich and creamy, and is created in unusual flavors, including my favorite, Basil-Mint (out of this world!). There are also daily specials, which included delicacies like Raspberry Risotto Pudding, Boston Cream Pie, Chocolate Mousse, and Strawberry Shortcake during my visit. While many desserts are lower in fats and sugars than what we're used to, the chefs make no bones about the fact that the desserts aren't exactly health-food. The key is portion size. For those of you who love the over sized desserts found at most American restaurants, you'll likely be disappointed, however I found the portions to be perfectly satisfying.

Canyon Ranch is definitely not all about the food--- it just happens to be one of the highlights of staying there. After a full day of yoga, biking, hiking, and perhaps a facial, you'll be more than ready for a wonderful, healthy, satisfying meal...that someone else prepares for you. Now that is a great day!

This is my version of a salad I enjoyed at Canyon Ranch. I added lean, white meat chicken for protein, and a balsamic vinaigrette for a little tangy kick. By omitting the dried fruits I found in the Ranch's salad, and adding fresh strawberries, I lowered the calorie count too (dried fruits are high in sugar and calories).

Simple Strawberry & Spinach Salad with Chicken

Serves 4

4 cups baby spinach leaves, washed and dried
2 breasts of skinless, boneless chicken, cooked and diced
8 fresh strawberries, sliced
2 oz goat cheese
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup balsamic vinaigrette
Salt and pepper

Divide the spinach onto four plates. Top with diced chicken and sliced strawberries.
Break apart the goat cheese and divide amongst the four salads.
Place balsamic vinegar in a measuring cup and while whisking, add olive oil in a slow drizzle to form a vinaigrette. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Pass dressing in a small gravy boat or creamer, so guests can use as much or as little as they like.

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Monday, September 3, 2007

Christmas in August

Christmas Cookies in HDR

While most people spend August at the beach, on vacation, or simply enjoying the balmy weather, this year I found myself all wrapped up in Christmas cookies. In my line of work as a cooking instructor and food writer, I often find myself looking several seasons forward, as I develop classes and magazine articles. This August, despite the heat and desire to eat light, I was up to my apron strings in cookie dough.

As I contemplated a December "Holiday Baking" class, as well as a magazine article on Christmas cookies and holiday cookie traditions, I found it a bit difficult to wrap my mind around the idea of baking in 90 degree weather. So before I pulled out my stand mixer and turned on the oven, I headed to the library for some inspiration.
The librarians definitely looked a little bewildered as I checked out stacks of holiday baking books. "Getting an early start, are you?" one asked. "My, you're certainly thinking ahead!" commented another. With a smile and a swipe of my library card, I was well on my way to a near-certain sugar-induced food coma.

I read about the history of cookies, and specifically how they became associated with Christmas. I learned about various ethnic holiday traditions, and which of those traditions were brought to America with the many waves of immigration. I spoke with five local women who do a tremendous amount of baking around the holidays, after convincing them to fast-forward their brains four months because I had a September 1st deadline. Then it was finally time to head to the kitchen and bake.
I tried two recipes for chocolate cookies----my standby chocolate mint cookies (an old Bon Appetit recipe), and a new recipe which called for the cookies to be dipped in confectioners sugar before baking, which created a beautiful result. In the end I decided to combine the two for a chocolate mint cookie that looks like a brown and white peppermint swirl candy.

I then moved on to bright and colorful holiday wreaths, loaded with green food coloring and red cinnamon hot candies for decoration. I made two types; one with a marshmallow base and one with a white chocolate base. My extended family was certainly a bit perplexed when I showed up to our vacation rental house with Tupperware containers full of little Christmas wreath cookies, but no one complained about having to test the results, particularly my two little girls!

I moved through biscotti, bar cookies, and finally gingerbread cookies, made from a recipe submitted to me by a local baker. Since I will be publishing the latter, I was careful to note any changes I had to make to the recipe, to be sure it was easily replicable by a reader. I rolled the gingerbread into cut-out cookies, used the dough for drop cookies, baked with and without parchment, and with and without insulated baking sheets. I then froze a portion of the dough to test its longevity in the freezer. The last test was to see how long the cookies stayed fresh tasting in an airtight container. It was finally time to clean up the kitchen, draw up a final description for my December class, and draft my magazine article.

It is now Labor Day, and I feel as if Christmas has come and gone---only without all the stress of buying gifts, decorating the house, and cooking large, extravagant holiday meals. As a result of my August holiday cookie extravaganza, I've added a few new recipes to my holiday dessert table, designed a unique cookie class for my students, and completed a fun article featuring some local women who log in about as much time in the kitchen as I do. Who said summertime isn't for baking? Merry Christmas!

To check out my class schedule, including the "Holiday Cookies" class, go to

Be sure to look for my article "Let Them Eat COOKIES!" in the December/January issue of Fairfield Magazine.