Friday, January 28, 2011

How Metal Mark conquered the dreaded Omelet!

I (finally) made a decent omelet.

I have now been alive here on planet Earth, the third rock from the sun, for 40 years now. Many of those years, I have made breakfast for either myself, friends, girlfriends, parents, room mates, various couch sleepers, neighbors, freeloaders (see neighbors) and now She-Ra. It's been a treat, honestly. I love breakfast. Most important meal of the day, right? That's what 'they' say. And I love to cook. But one thing, one thing!, has eluded me the entire time I have manned the griddle and fry pan, one thing that I adore and some claim to make the best one ever.

I'm talking about the omelet.

I don't know why. Can't explain it. All the hints, recipes, watching of breakfast line cooks, watching Jamie Oliver do it on YouTube and trying again and again and again only yields one certain outcome: Your omelet that I am making you is now a “scramble”.

I'd do all the flips, the folds, the clever tricks and...nothing. Disaster. Luckily for me though, being a huge Top Chef fan and oft watcher of the Food Network, I found that a LOT of people, celebrated chefs and celebrity cooks included, can't make a decent omelet. It's not an easy task. It's not the impossible mission but, it can be done. Heck I watched a young, fresh out of culinary academy kid make an exceptional omelet at a resort here in Tucson. Boy had skills yo. Fluffy, perfect eggs, right amount of ingredients, cooked impeccably; I gorged that thing down and told myself that one day, one day!, that I would master the art of the omelet.

Soooooo, after much research, some “air flipping” practice and watching, yet again, that skittish Jamie Oliver do it online, along with a few other 'normal' cooks, I finally came up with a master plan. On a recent day off with She-Ra, I entered the kitchen, prepped and prepared myself to make an omelet.

Here's what I did and, hopefully, some of you out there that can't make one or have never attempted due to the daunting task that it is and could possibly be, will find my play-by-play instruction here helpful, even in the most minuscule way.


We had jumbo eggs, so I used 2 each. Cracked them into a bowl and mixed with a tablespoon or two of milk. I use 1% and that seems to be alright. Little salt and pepper and, get this, I add a dash of Worcestershire sauce to the mix. Why? Brings out a bit of the meaty flavor in the yolk. Try it. Trust me.

Now, here's the important part – you gotta whisk like a mofo. For real. That's the key to nice and pillowy eggs, beat them into submission. Not gonna lie here, my wrist hurt a bit. But, hey, cooking isn't for sissies you know.

Get your skillet or non-stick pan on the stove and turn the heat up to Medium High or 6 or 7 if you have an electric stove (which we do...unfortunately). Put in a pat of butter and immediately turn the pan so the butter coats all side of it. Do NOT let the butter turn brown. Scorched butter sucks and it'll make the eggs taste yucky. Once the pan is hot, the butter is perfectly melted, it's time to add the eggs.

Pour them in but DO NOT STIR! Let them cook for about a minute or until the bottom is set. With a spatula, a good quality, heat resistant one that's fairly wide, push on an edge of the eggs ever so gently while tilting the pan to allow the still liquid eggs to slide underneath. Repeat this step with all sides until there is no liquid left.

Now, what you got in your pan is a big bright yellow pancake. That's what you want. It should move easily around the pan (if not, get a better non-stick pan or use a little extra butter next time) but loosen it with that spatula just to be sure.

This part can get a bit clumsy, one step I always screwed up. Flip those eggs over! Hey, I got a little on the back of the stove so it's okay if some spills. Just do it quickly, using the spatula to ease it in. Cook for a few more seconds. But not too long. Just until there is no uncooked egg left.

Here comes the fun part. Adding your ingredients. She-Ra, knowing that I wanted to make omelets on our day off, had supplies ready to go for the filling. She got some ham, green pepper, red onion and good Wisconsin cheddar cheese. That's right dear reader. We figured if I'm gonna make omelets, they might as well be Denver style.

In a straight line across the center I added the ingredients (the cheese was shredded of course). Once I was happy with the filling, which looked awesome, I then folded one side over so it lined up with the other side. I then flipped the whole folded omelet over and let it cook for a few more seconds. Once I saw just a hint of browning, I immediately transferred it to a ready plate.

At the same time I had hash browns going in another skillet. Hey, if you're going to go, you gotta go.

The end and pleasing result of my omelet attempt was this:

Not bad right? And, oh, was it good. Sure, I've had plenty of omelets before, a lot being far more exquisite than the ones I made that morning, but, still, it felt good not to be afraid of the dreaded making of an omelet.

Then we watched Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and took a nap.

There it is. Quick, painless, easy and so delicious. Just wanted to share my experience on becoming a non-omelet virgin. It's a good feeling. Liberating really.

Now I gotta try crepes....

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Bar Food or Pub Grub. Whatever. It's the best food in town.

The best food in town? Go to a bar...

One thing that celebrity chef and author Anthony Bourdain has championed is the non-demonizing of street food and pub fare. The guy has literally eaten at the best restaurants, with some of the best chefs, in the world!, but yet he still craves meat on a stick served by a humble cart vendor more than any truffle infused foie gras or some molecular gastronomy puzzle with aromatic foams that you have to figure out before stuffing it into your maw .

That other guy, Andrew Zimmern, just likes to eat penis and balls. 

Thing is, honest people like honest food. Sure, I crave a coursed meal now and then. I like presentation and complex flavors with clever sauces and new fusion ideas. Who doesn't? If you like to eat, much like I do, you gotta break the wallet now and then and treat yourself to some 4 star luxury.

But that's on the rare occasion. Me?, I love hearty and fun food. Hands down. Heck my good pal Tavish the other day, while munching on a rotisserie turkey sandwich I made for She-Ra, blithely exclaimed “I could eat sandwiches everyday. No doubt about it. Best thing ever.” And, you know what? He's right.

If you take those basic elements that most of us here in the States hungrily crave on a regular basis, put it in your favorite local pub or dive bar and, viola!, an instant recipe for least in my opinion.

So, I've gone on about the wonders of Tucson and the fact that it is relatively hidden from the rest of the culinary world. Oh sure, they may know about the Sonoran hot dog and, yeah, they watched Adam Richman on Man vs. Food conquer the OMFG burger at Lindy's on 4th, but what about Acacia at St. Phillips Plaza? Did you know that executive chef Albert Hall has won multiple awards for his savory cioppino and the fact that the salmon, which he bronzes in a sweet honey pecan glaze, is flown in from a lake in Scotland? Oh yeah. That guy and place rules. Or that Pastiche, outside of its world influenced menu, has, literally, the best mac and cheese plate ever? You put gouda and bacon in anything and I'll eat it. Thing is, eating in Tucson is so much fun and I have found three distinct bars that have some of the best food in town.

Let's check it out...

First up is the Boondocks Lounge. Now, if you live in Tucson and drive or bike or walk or stumble anywhere near midtown, you know the Boondocks. Its that place with the big wine bottle that says...Boondocks Lounge. It's around 1st and Ft. Lowell. You cant miss it. I know you've seen it.

Now, the Boondocks, outside of being a full service bar with live music most nights, is home to the Range Riders Grill. Nothing fancy, nothing we aren't fully familiar with, the Range Riders Grill offers up some of the tastiest vittles in and around Tucson. The burgers are huge, juicy, hot and can come served with a fried egg on it, a red wine reduction or even peanut butter. Their sandwiches are just as amazing. She-Ra's favorite is the 'Velocifero' which features thick smoked bacon, turkey, sauteed onions and Swiss cheese which is then grilled on rye bread. Me? Well, if I'm not chowing down a guacamole burger, I love their club sandwich which is piled high and paired so well with a cold frosty mug and a game of Battleship So freaking good.

And on Fridays? You have to go in for their fish fry. Huge portions of battered cod served with fries and down home coleslaw for like 6 or 7 bucks. Unreal. Plus they serve breakfast everyday (except Monday) till around noon serving up flapjacks, scrambles, omelets, huevos rancheros and french toast. Trust me here, the Boondocks rocks!

And their wings? Ugh. I usually judge a place by the quality of their hot wings. Once we bit into their, we knew we were hooked. Every time they come to the table or bar we must look like a couple of ravenous cannibals; mouths literally covered in bright orange Buffalo sauce and a basket full of sucked to the marrow bones.

Now, this find and curiosity lead us even further down the way from our safe haven of our neighborhood. And if you know us, we really don't like to travel very far for food or drinks. It's usually in a good half mile radius that we can usually be found dining and wining. But we ventured out to North Oracle after hearing that the hidden, yet conveniently located, dive Joe and Vicky's served up some great pub grub.

We thought we'd start with something simple. So we got nachos. If you know She-Ra, then know this – the woman loves nachos. It was late afternoon after doing a bunch of errands and a beer and a plate of cheesy chip goodness sounded nice. When the nachos arrived, I felt like Sylvester Stallone in “Cliffhanger”. It was the K2 of nacho land. “This?”, I think I cried out. “Is a snack?” It was supposed to be an early appetizer before dinner, which we planned on cooking and eating in an hour or so. That meal got pushed back till 10pm. Why? Because we're dumb and we ate the whole friggin thing.

Joe and Vicky's also has fish specials, bountiful burgers, yummy sandwiches and the usual suspects you'd expect in a bar food line up. They are all hearty, delicious and worth enduring during karaoke night. I didn't even care that this guy was murdering (and not in a good way) “Margaritaville”. I was face down in my meatloaf and garlic mashed potatoes. I couldn't hear him. My stomach was singing for me (in the good way).

You so have to go on Mondays and do their “All you can eat” tacos. What better way to end the most grumbled-about day then a non-stop taco orgy in a funky yet cozy place while watching the Wildcats lose? Sounds good to me. But, check this out:

One night we were craving Chinese food (or for those Dude Where's My Car? Fans “Chinese Fooooooood”) and there's a great place next door to Joe and Vicky's. While we waited for our order, we popped in for a drink while we waited. Once settled in, I looked up to see what their dinner special was (oh, I forgot to tell you, they have nightly specials) and I was regretful in my wanting of kung pao chicken when I saw written in dry erase marker: Wasabi crusted pork loin with seasonal vegetables and cheddar marbled twice baked potato. You have got to be kidding me? That is served here? So, your job is to not make the same mistake we did.

Just order food at Joe and Vicky's and leave the kung pao for later.

Last on the list (even though I know there is more out there, so stay tuned for our tummy rumble inspiring finds) is a place that we were just at recently and actually holds a pretty special place in both of us. Right next to the Loft Cinema, across from Rum Runner and Chuy's, at Country Club and Speedway, is a place that some refer to as “the Gutter”. It's actually called The Red Garter and used to be a much more rough and tumble establishment. In fact, it was one of the first bars I went to when I moved to Tucson. Let me tell you, this was a year before the AZ smoking ban in bars so the place was choking in a swirl of cigarette smoke clouds. I nearly died. Dude, I'm from California. I wasn't used to this. But luckily the laws changed as did the ownership.

Now it still looks the same, a little cleaned up, but one thing for sure, they got themselves one of the best cooks in town who is a grill and fry basket wizard. This guy must weigh around 400lbs and can only be seen once in a great long while. To catch a glimpse at the genius behind a fantastic homemade spicy wing sauce, that is slathered on thick and generous wings and drumettes, or the BBQ beef, is like waiting to see if the Do-Do bird will emerge from it's nest and stretch its wings in the bright morning fairy dust sun. I, honestly, have only seen his back. And, oh!, what a back it is. Not to be rude, but he obviously takes pride and samples of his culinary handiwork.

Once again, the burgers. Unreal. How many adjectives and anecdotal whimsies can I conjure up to describe meat between buns? I don't know. I honestly don't care. But recently, on a chilly night after running around the greater parts of Tucson in search of decorations and giveaways for an upcoming work related party, we stopped in, cold and starving, and ordered food. She-Ra got the wings (you just have to) and the steak fingers. If you know what Lucky Wishbone is then, look out Lucky Wishbone! This guy has you beat. I was nearly half dead from the recent goings-on at work, which has our kitchen turned upside down with new systems and organization while at the same time dealing with an upcoming and daunting new menu rollout, and I just wanted a burger. I got the BBQ sauce with bacon and cheddar and a side of spicy curly fries. I'm not gonna lie to you here, I was silent in my ravaging of the items that filled the large wicker basket, as tears of near thankfulness and appreciation welled up in my quivering half mast eyes. That and the sauce was rather tangy. As were the curly fries.

I have never had a poor meal or snack at the Garter, and I suspect that I never will. That is, as long as the stout prestidigitator behind those closed flap doors keeps churning out the bar bite mastery that he has been in all of his glorious secrecy.

Plus, and here's where it gets good, for our 4 year anniversary, She-Ra ordered to-go from the Garter: 2 pastrami sandwiches, which we ate while watching The Empire Strikes Back on the back wall at Dannys. Now, I am a pastrami purist, a whore even, and I will be wrought to tell you flat out “This sandwich is amazing” or “You ruined my lunch. Worst...pastrami...ever. Now I have to kill you!” And there are a few places in town, one that claims to be “just like New York” and “Kosher” but couldn't be farther from the truth, that claim good pastrami, and I've had a few, but there is one here in Tucson that I always return to. You want a good, honest, broiled, piled mile high and real pastrami sandwich? Go to the Red Garter. Tell 'em Metal Mark sent you. Sure, they'll look at you, shrug and mutter “Who?” but if word gets back to the chef de grande le sorcerer I know he'll perk up his meaty head and perhaps crack a brief smile. Only because I've spoken to him.

In my dreams.

Well, kids, there you have it. Three of my current top picks for amazing bar food and pub grub...or whatever you wanna call it. If you have any suggestions of your own, just contact me and I will be there sucka. Why?

Because. Dude...I'm so hungry right now.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

And now, may I present....Arugula!

Arugula: My seemingly stalwart obsession.

Heavy Metal. The Muppets. Rotten movies. Vans sneakers. Hoodies with obscure doom metal or skateboard logos on them. Olive drab baggy shorts. My wife to be She-Ra. Tater-tots and pastrami.

You'd think that the above mentioned would be my daily dose of dedication and even obsession. And, to be honest, they are. It's true. Those things are with me most everyday. Especially She-Ra. I can go a day or two without tater-tots.

But let's say for, oh, the past year or so, maybe, one thing has been a staple in both our refrigerator and on most shopping lists, something that most people don't either A) care about or B) really know about. It's not anything complicated, upscale or even hard to come by. In fact, it's waiting for you right now at you local chain grocery store.

I'm talking about arugula here. 

That's right. Call them “rocket greens” or “pepper leaf”, due to it's slightly tangy and peppery flavor, but know this dear Homeskillet reader: Arugula literally goes good with anything.


I have used it in tacos, on casseroles and omelets, in sandwiches, burgers, salads and pasta. The stuff, with it's not-too-soft-not-too-crunchy approach seems to make a lot of my favorite dishes just pop with that extra punch of leafy greens and spice.

Now, I'm totally sure you are quite aware of arugula and have eaten it on several occasions. So I hope you're not all “Dude, Mark, what gives? This blog sucks!” All I wanna do here is share some of my experiences and my seemingly wont go away routine in using arugula. The stuff is just awesome...or so my tastebuds seem to think.

OK. Let's get down to brass tacks here. Now, for my day job, I'm a pizza chef at a local busy bar/restaurant. It's a fun gig and gives me lots of room to experiment and get inspired. Not that I could serve this dish up to customers, but it is one that I took home and found to be quite tasty.

1 cup tomato sauce
1, 12 inch, pre-baked pizza crust (try to get it as thin as you can, Boboli is just too doughy)
2 chicken apple sausages
2 cups real mozzarella cheese
½ cup sun dried tomatoes
½ cup organic artichoke hearts
Some garlic
Pinch of parmesean cheese (the parm/romano shake mix works well too)
And, of course, 2 cups of de-stemmed arugula

First, pre heat your oven to 350 degrees. Next, combine the tomato sauce, as much mined garlic as you like, along with a bit of parmesean in a bowl or whatever and set aside. Cut up the sausages into pepperoni sized bits but make them kinda thick. Brown them, just get them brown now, none of that over cooked business because, most likely, they're already pre-cooked and let 'em cool down a bit on some paper towels to let the excess grease soak out.

Spread the pizza sauce on the dough. Add the mozzarella. Then add the artichoke hearts, sun dried tomatoes and the sausage. Place it in the oven for about, oh, 15 to 20 minutes, or at least until the cheese is nice and bubbly. When its done, top that bad boy with the arugula and, blammo!, pure, but simple and easy to make, awesomeness.

Here's another really fun way to use arugula. Trust me, it works...

High quality, bakery fresh sourdough bread
A juicy organic hothouse tomato
An egg
The arugula

Toast that bread. Sizzle up that bacon. Fry the egg in the (but not all of) bacon grease, sunny side up is the way I like it. Take one piece of bread, add the arugula, then top that with a tomato slice, add the egg and top that with the bacon. For real.

I guess you can add some mayo or whatever, as long as it's something like the Kraft reduced fat mayo with olive oil which is, oddly enough, the healthiest option on the shelves right now. Go figure.

One day, bored and left alone, with a veggie drawer full of fresh arugula and a pantry full of crap, I decided to make one of my favorite “so not good for you but oh so utilitarian and yummy” things, which is pesto. Now, you can add pine nuts but, to be honest with you, I never cared much for pine nuts with my pesto. It's just a bunch of lil' nuts getting in the way of my pesto. I'm all like, “Hey nuts! Get out of my mouth! What do you...”

Wait. That sounded wrong.

Anyway, this is what I did:

4 cups of fresh arugula
A tablespoon or 2 of garlic
1 cup good quality olive oil
½ cup of parmesean
Salt and pepper to taste

I've tried the blanching of arugula (boiling it for like a few seconds then tossing it into an ice bath) but it just didn't make much sense. I just threw everything into my prep machine and hit “Maim” and after a few seconds of a bright green tornado on my kitchen counter, wa-binga!, some badass pesto man. And you can totally use this on anything: pasta, pizza, sandwiches, eggs, crostinis (add some pancetta and tomato to that crostini while you're at it)...whatever. It's a spicier version of the standard basil pesto fare. 

Plus, She-Ra has a great appetizer using arugula. Just slice a granny smith apple and cut it into planks. Place arugula on the apple slice and top it with fresh smoked salmon. Totally simple but de-fxxking-lish.

So there you have it. Some thoughts and ideas on my ever so constant craving for arugula. And this is just the beginning.

Don't even get me started on endive... 

Friday, January 14, 2011

Are you ready for this? The best pizza in Tucson!

Restaurant Review: Vero Amore

OK. I set it off a while back with the battle of the Sonoran hot dogs here in Tucson. Some same BK is the best while others insist that its El Guero Canelo. Me?, I like them both but I still think the best Sonoran hot dog can be found in any of the countless taco trucks and wagons across Tucson. It's how both of those two restaurants, which now have expanded into other locations due to their success, got started and it just feels and tastes more authentic to me.

I was gonna say “muy authentico” felt lame.

Alrighty then. You ready for this one dear readers, food fans and gastro-nerds in and around Tucson? I am now gonna lay out a smackdown that would probably get me killed anywhere else (I still might get jumped though) in either Chicago, California or New York.

I am now going to say who gets my vote for the best pizza in Tucson.

But first! Let's take a little tour shall we?

Recently I asked some friends on Facebook what their favorite pizza is and why. Back in my home state of California, which is famous for its California Pizza Kitchen style concoctions, usually ranging from BBQ chicken with grilled onions or shrimp scampi or even a peanut butter and jelly one. In the bay area, one that kept coming up was Zachary's, which is a deep dish style pizza place. It's true. When the fog rolls in and the beer flows like wine, Zachary's delivers the heartiness and flavor that any Chicago style pizza fan can admire. In my hometown of Carmel, it's Allegro's which features said PB&J amongst a slew of wild and inventive creations. But Allegro's is thin crust which some, for whatever reason, have a problem with.

Here in Tucson the reigning champion of the pizza war is Brooklyn Pizza on the hip stretch of 4th Avenue. This is about as close to real New York style thin crust pizza as you can get here in Southern Arizona. It's delicious, it's near perfect and it's open late, which is always good after catching a show or boozing on 4th to grab a huge slice of Brooklyn. For me, one up on Brooklyn's pizza, as far as flavor and dough is concerned, is Upper Crust pizza on the corner of Campbell and Grant. The dough is a bit thicker, which I don't mind, but the textures and quality of ingredients are just outrageous. I absolutely love Upper Crust pizza, not only for the taste, but it's also next to one of my favorite hidden Thai restaurants and across from Bookman's, a fantastic used book and music store.

There's also Magpies Pizza, which is good, but I always found their sauce and cheese to be a bit gloppy. And, of course, Old Chicago, where I work as the daytime pizza chef, which is great but corporate run so the ability to improvise and change things up is minimal.

The aforementioned are all great contenders in the Tucson Pizza Cage Match of Death. But who, in my humble and always hungry opinion, is the real winner?

I'll tell you who.

It's Vero Amore.

That's right. You heard it from the source. I said Vero Amore, that little bistro of a place next to Basha's supermarket and a nail salon on Swan and Camp Lowell, along with their bigger and fancier location at
Dove Mountain up in Marana, has, indeed, the absolute best pizza in Tucson. But why? Oh why do you say that Vero Amore has the best pizza in Southern Arizona?

Because there is nothing else like it within a good 100 miles.

Here's the scoop:

Two brothers, Aric and Joshua Mussman, came across the absolute best pizza one day. It was simple, fresh, vibrant, full of rich and complex flavor yet subtle in it's demeanor and approach. It was a true, true, Neapolitan pizza, straight from the birth place of pizza and they were hooked ever since.

Aric and Joshua then had a brilliant idea. To bring this flavor and concept to Tucson. But, before doing so, they literally had to become “masters” of the Neapolitan pizza. So, the two brothers gathered up what they could and signed up to be trained by world renown Neapolitan pizza expert Peppe Miele at his Verace Pizza Napoletana academy (or VPN for short) out in Marina Del Rey California. Once certified and confident of their abilities, Aric and Josh hooked up with chef Scott Brayer and began creating and designing pizzas that were within the strict guidelines of the VPA while also gathering a sumptuous wine list, regional salads, pastas and authentic antipastos. In 2006, their dream was realized when they opened the doors of Vero Amore (which means “true love”, which is exactly what their pizzas are) and it is still growing and catching on since.

She-Ra and I were totally oblivious of it's awesomeness for quite a while. Seeing as she is good friends with the Swan location's manager, who kept insisting we have to drop by and see for ourselves how amazing Vero Amore is (to which we were all “Yeah, but it's too far” or “It's kinda pricy”...both of which are false), we relented one day and popped in to say hi and have a bite.

We've been hooked ever since.

First off, the Caesar salad. Now, you can get any ol' Caesar in any ol' place. Heck, Old Chicago has one and it flies out of the front line window (I know, I make them now and then). But it, like most other Caesar salads, is missing something, something that I, for the most part, can't stand. It's the anchovies. Yes, that's right. If you're going to make and serve a “real” Caesar salad, you better believe you're not going to be shy with those little salty bites from the sea. And for tastebuds sake, don't overdo it on the mayo or cream, it just makes it bloopy. Vero Amore has that perfect balance of anchovy and cheese and served on fresh organic romaine? Absolutely perfect.

But (now here's what this whole blog is about) the pizzas are what makes, and will make, Vero Amore famous. Using custom built brick fire ovens, kept at a continual temperature of 800 degrees (for those in Europe or Canada, uh...I'm not too hip on Fahrenheit or Celsius or whatever, so you do the convergence) and ingredients shipped over from Italy and placed on handmade house risen dough, what comes from the kitchen to your table is a wonder to see, smell and, of course, eat.

Something simple like the cheese-less Pizza Marinara is something to savor. It's just fresh tomato sauce, oregano and garlic. That's it. And you know what? It's amazing. Or, and this one is a favorite of yours truly, the Pizza Bianca al Prosciutto which is without sauce and topped with their homemade mozzarella, real parmesan, prosciutto and arugula. I'm sorry, but I am a bit of an arugula whore and the prosciutto just melts in your mouth. She-Ra is a big fan of the Pizza Lussuria, which features their tangy tomato sauce, garlic, mozzarella, crushed red peppers and Genoa salami. I don't know how they do it but I'm sure glad they do, that salami, with the perfect marbling and cooked in a real wood burning oven, absolutely dissolves, oh so slowly but with enough bite to stick around and tease, on your tongue and tastebuds. It's freaking unreal. Dude, I'm getting so hungry right now. 


Vero Amore does have a lunch menu that serves up fresh and hot paninis, all of which, except for their Chicken Caesar, are served with spring mix, tomatoes and onion and you can choose from salami, prosciutto or peperoni or just the veggie. There is also homemade panna cotta for desert and a wide selection of Italian beers and wines to choose from.

Thing is, the Swan Ave. location is so small, they have to keep the menu down to the very basics: about 2 or 3 appetizers, 4 salads, a dozen or so (amazing!) pizzas, some paninis (served only at lunchtime), and a ravioli, calzone, linguine and lasagne dishes. The Dove Mountain location is much larger and has an expansive menu, including mussels and steamed clams on their appetizers, a Cobb salad (made with a wasabi ranch dressing) and a good dozen or so pasta entrees, including chicken marsala, tilapia orleans and a Mediterranean dish with pesto cream, pine nuts, sundried tomatoes, kalamata olives and gorgonzola cheese. Not only that, but they have a full bar where the Swan Ave. place has just beer and wine. And sodas and stuff. But...that stuff doesn't interest me much.

So, there you have it! My vote on what I consider and deem the best pizza in Tucson. You're just going to have to try it out to find out for yourself. I mean, you're not going to get a buffalo chicken pizza at Vero Amore nor one oozing with salsa or the infamously damned “Meat Lovers” combo. And a stuffed crust pizza? Are you insane? What are you...a stoned 10 year old? Only conglomerates that despise their clientele would pull off such a gut-bombing feat of horror.

Vero Amore is fresh. It is flavorful. It is refined and it is divine. It is simple and it is perfect. Sure, I crave a Brooklyn or Upper Crust pizza now and then. Heck, we're pals with the bartender at No Anchovies down on University, so, yeah, we stop by there on the occasional afternoon or evening. But when we are craving real ingredients, composed by real chefs that know and love what is absolutely right and responsible about real Neapolitan pizza, which is usually the case here, we go to Vero Amore, hands down the most authentic pizza you'll find in Southern Arizona.

There. I said it.

Look, you're just going to have to go there to find out for yourself. Here's their website:

And when you do visit Vero Amore, please tell me what you think. Because I know it's going to be good. Because that's what Vero Amore is.


Wednesday, January 5, 2011

What I saved and ate from the depths of the freezer and vegetable drawer.

The “What I found dying in the crisper and freezer” quick dish.

Here's the thing: I really, really, hate to waste food. It's just as bad as wasting time, or money or hopes that the new Creed album is gonna be “just dynamite!”. If I buy the food, you better believe that I'm gonna use the food.

Well, sometimes that just doesn't work out.

The other night, as She-Ra was pulling in yet another double, I decided to check out our over stuffed vegetable crisper. Post holiday shopping and stocking, our little cabinet at the bottom of our small jammed-to-the-max fridge was beginning to get annoying. I could see tops of celery peeking out of the opening and the tips of plastic storage bags filled with radishes, half a cucumber and arugula kept getting caught every time I closed the thing. Seeing as I was getting ready to cook a nice hearty meal for when She-Ra finished work, I decided to go through the veggie drawer and see if I couldn't consolidate or even toss out some of the stuff in there.

Most of the produce was good. Recently purchased, cleaned and stored properly in airtight bags or those crinkly plastic bags you throw them in at the grocery store; the bright greens, reds and yellows of the vegetable collection was waiting patiently to be used and appreciated. Then...I got to the bottom of the drawer.

Underneath all of the good stuff was a straggle of questionable and obviously forgotten food. I tossed the withering lot onto the counter top and when I was done I closed the drawer and the fridge and surveyed those that were left behind. It broke my heart to get rid of such decent produce, although their time of acceptance was pretty much past due. Sure, normally I'd just throw them into the bin and be done with it. But then, as I looked down at the sorry bunch, I got an idea.

I then opened the freezer, reached way in the back and found what I had thought I saw a day or two ago as I was shoving chicken breasts and recently made stock into the cramped and frigid space. There, on the counter, was what could be a fair, but not very interesting, dish. So, to warm up before doing the “real” cooking, I threw together this quick meal of almost dead produce and a left for dead item from the freezer.

Here's what I had:

1 chicken breast suffering from frost bite

2 old ass squishy tomatoes

1 iffy white onion

1 sad and wrinkly russet potato

3 “dude, I totally forgot that I had these” Thai red peppers

3 could-be-thrown-out-but-not-just-yet scallions

But I knew I had to add some decent items, so I also used:

Couple cloves of garlic

Good pull of olive oil

Kosher salt and pepper

I immediately tossed the chicken into a bowl and let warm water wash over it, saving it (just barely) from the terror of deep freeze burn and to expedite the thawing process. As it thawed, I cubed the potato, diced the tomatoes (which was rough seeing as they mushed even under my uber sharp serrated knife), cut the onion into thin slivers and finely chopped the peppers and scallions.

Once the chicken was thawed and, to my surprise, didn't look all that bad, I cut it up into about inch sized pieces. I placed my skillet, which is a sort of half wok/half frying pan, on the stove and added the olive oil and garlic before turning it on a med-high heat. Trust me, in most cases, you want to add your oil and garlic into your pan before you turn it on. This prevents burning and the flavors don't get destroyed.

Then I added the onion. Then the potato. Once the onion was translucent and the potato was kinda soft, I added the tomatoes and red peppers and kept mixing and mixing for a few minutes. At the last minute, before adding the chicken, I threw in the scallions.

Now, the thing that came to my mind was that everything that I am using in this here “I refuse to let food go to waste” quick dish is that no component or ingredient would be the main feature. The chicken had been in the freezer for, whoa, I don't know how long and the veggies were sadder than a Pixar movie. (Just to note, I love Pixar movies it's just that, well, they always make me cry, so....that's what I meant) So, essentially I was making a sort of weird curry or rendered gravy for the chicken because, lord knows, it was meant for far better things a long, long time ago in a recipe far far away.

Once I added the chicken, getting it fairly brown on all sides, I lowered the heat and covered it. Then I set to prep for the real dinner I had planned for when She-Ra got off work, which was chicken masala over herbed jasmine rice with a endive and arugula salad with this spicy yogurt dressing that I kind of made up as I went along; thankfully I love Indian food so it was kinda easy. (By the by, that dinner was amazing, if you want the recipe, you know how to reach me)

After turning the chicken over a few times over the course of, oh, let's say, 10 to 15 minutes, I checked the chicken to see if it was cooked properly.

To my surprise, it was tender and juicy.

I took the concoction off of the stove and this was the result:

I know. Not the most attractive thing but, you know what?, it wasn't half bad. In fact, after adding some more spice, salt and a wink of hot sauce, it was actually quite tasty. So I put it in a tuperware container and had lunch for tomorrow.

At work the following day, I microwaved the rescued food mash and enjoyed it during a slow time in the kitchen. A co-worker came up to me and asked “What's that?” I just looked at him and said, “I have no idea. But it's pretty good.”

Here's the point in all of this: In the age of mass consumption and even more waste, it's good to know that with a little imagination and basic skill, you can turn what most would consider trash into a tasty dish. Mind you, if the items are moldy and the protein a good solid gray and smells like my old roommate's shoes, then, yes, please go ahead and feed it to the compost heap. Still, you should try doing what I did sometime. It probably wont be the greatest thing you've ever eaten but, hey, look at this this way:

You did what you could and you did your part.

Good luck everyone. And have fun....which is exactly what cooking is!

Monday, January 3, 2011

The "I have to get this one out of the way" post: The Sonoran Hot Dog

"The Sonoran Hot Dog: Tucson's tuff turf and taste war!"

Alright kids...let's get this over with.

OK, I have a food blog now. I live in Tucson Arizona. What do those two things combined usually mean? Yep, that's right. I now have to write about the infamous Sonoran Hot Dog.

Don't get me wrong here, I plan on uploading tons of recipes and keeping a detailed journal on our culinary mishaps and misadventures, but, c'mon now, if you eat and cook in Southern Arizona there is one thing that is made perfectly and rather expediently clear:

Tucson has the best hot dogs in the world.

Oooooh! Did you hear that one? I just heard the squeals of protest from around the major continental US. Yes Chicago, your hot dogs are incredible. The poppy seed bun, the bright yellow mustard, the relish and the kosher pickle spear, the onions, the tomatoes, even the lil' chiles and dash of celery salt does indeed make yours quite the tasty contender. And you too Boston, with your “rippers”, those deep fried meaty tubes sent from Valhalla, with the bean-less chili...but you tend to put ketchup on those dogs so, well, many in the hot dog eating arena might just raise their proverbial battleaxe of tradition and wanna swipe your Bears and Bulls lovin' head right off. Oh and don't think I didn't get the jeers and quips from you too Coney Island. Where would the world be without Nathan's and your annual hot dog eating challenge? In the dark I predict. In the no Joey Chestut and mustard squiggled foot long dark.

But, check this out: I've had them all. I love them all. Thing is, tradition can be taken a bit further in my humble and gastro-nerd opinion. I like eating hot dogs. I like eating Mexican food. (Strike that...I LOVE eating dogs and Mexican food). So why not combine the two? Indeed!

The Sonoran dates back to the 1960s, but did not become popular until the 80s, brought over from Tucson's neighboring south of the border township of Hermosillo, which is the capital of Sonora. Essentially, a Sonoran Hot Dog is just a beefed up version of the American variety, but with a tangy and savory flip. When vendors came to the states to make a name and new life for themselves, they took recipes and ingredients from their native city and gave the plain' ol hot dog a kick in the cajones.

A typical Sonoran Hot Dog is thus: A frank, either grilled or cooked on a griddle, sometimes its deep fried but that is very rare, is placed in a soft roll then (and this is where it gets good) is covered, no, slathered in mesquite smoked bacon, diced tomatoes and onions, yellow and cojito cheese (which is a finely grated and slightly salty Mexican cheese) tomatillo and/or red chili sauce, pinto beans, mayonnaise (you heard me), mustard and served with a fresh roasted green chili. Oh my have no idea.

Unless you live in Southern Arizona then, yes, you know what I'm talking about here.

I'm telling you, I had no clue as to what I was in store for when I moved to Tucson from San Francisco. The Sonoran Hot Dog was my second meal here in the old pueblo, the first being a delightful brunch at a cafe called The Blue Willow but I'll discuss that place later. As my wife to be and reason for transplanting myself into a city I have only driven though (twice) from my security blanket of the California coast, where I have lived my whole life, was driving me around my new digs and getting me acquainted with Tucson, it was nearing lunch and she pulled the car into a dirt lot.

The only thing that kept this particular sandlot from being totally desolate was a small food truck set up with an awning, some chairs, a table or two and a concession area.

“What's this?” I brazenly asked. “No way. A roach coach? Can't we just...”

“Trust me,” is all she said.

We got out of her car and walked up to the window. A sweaty Latino man stood on the other side. She-Ra then ordered four of something called “a Sonoran hot dog”. Hot dogs? Aww man. All I wanted was a sandwich or a salad bar. It was too hot and I was in no mood for a hot dog.

A few minutes later our order was ready. What She-Ra handed over to me literally changed the way I felt about food and eating. In each hand was a sloppy, gloppy, mayo and pinto bean concoction nestled in a warm cozy roll over a hot dog that was barely visible from the amount of stuff it was buried under.

“You're joking right?” I said.

“No jokes here dorkface,” was She-Ra's response. “Dig in.”

As I sat on that rickety chair, on a splintery wood table, in a town I had only recently was made aware that a major university sat at it's core, which I discovered almost a week before packing all of my belongings into a rental car and driving 14 hours to get here, as crackling Tejano music sputtered through a grease worn radio in the tiny portable kitchen, I took my first bite of a Sonoran Hot Dog.

Holy crap nuts, was it good.

Since then I've been on a crusade to find the ultimate Sonoran Hot Dog. Luckily for me, I live in a town that is literally split in two as to what restaurant has the best one.

Some say BK. The others El Guero Canelo.

Now, when I say BK, I am so not talking about Burger King...although it is funny that a successful taco stand restaurant is named such. BK started off, like many other thriving restaurants in Tucson, I was educated on, as a food truck, just like the one She-Ra took me to on my first full day in Tucson. Word spread that BK's food was so good, that folks from all over Tucson, and even neighboring cities, they would make the dry and dusty trek to get out to this brave yet humble outpost of a taco stand. Pretty soon, demand was so high that they had to actually expand into a real restaurant. Then another. There are now two locations of BK and each one is just as busy and flavorful as the other. The tacos and caramelos are amazing as is the overtly plentiful condiment area which overflows with red and green salsas, pickled onions, cucumbers, cheese and the most amazing green taco sauce I have ever tasted, like, ever (I got the recipe from the source, their salsa chef, ask me if you want it). Of course, the Sonoran hot dogs are incredible. Packed with flavor, toppling with toppings and if you don't get any on your shirt or face then you are probably eating or doing it wrong.

On the other hand, there's El Guero Canelo, which, just like BK, started off as a taco stand. Thing is, instead of expanding into other territories, the owners, Daniel and Bianca Contreras, decided to just build a bigger stand. Well that turned into an enclosed area which then became a spacious building like the one you see today on North Oracle road. Of course, they got so big that, yes, there is a second one on 12th Avenue. Which I have yet to visit. It's kinda far from where She-Ra and I live. The Oracle one is like right down the street.

El Guero Canelo's hot dogs are a bit bigger and heartier, in my opinion, than BK's, and this is a good thing. Not as messy but still jammed up with all the traditional fixin's as BK but with a meatier approach. El Guero Canelo feels a bit more authentic, which is where the debate and loyalty come in to play. 

BK is more playful and robust, each hot dog is done up with rows of mayo and mustard and stocked with large green chiles. El Guero Canelo has homier and flavor-centric dynamic with theirs, not going for the bells and whistles but more along the lines of “its all in there, we just don't feel like cleaning up after you”.

Both taste great. Both look good. But who is to say which Sonoran hot dog is best?

Um...everyone that lives in freaking Tucson!

Dude, this feud has gotten so out of hand, Food network had to step in and get their EVOO dumbed up hands and get involved. Their show, “Food Wars” stoked coals on the culinary fire to match wits with who has the best Sonoran hot dog. In the end, after much deliberation and ho-ha, the end result was BK.

This didn't surprise me. I love BK, love it!, but of course they went with the pomp and circumstance and not the “well, it looks okay” but tastes amazing version from El Guero Canelo. I don't know.

I still think that lil' taco stand in that dirt lot had the best hot dog.

Later, Adam Richman and his Travel Chanel show “Man vs. Food” came to Tucson, not just to sample the now infamous Sonoran hot dog, but to eat the “OMFG” burger at our pal Lindy's place down on 4th Ave. That thing is six half pound patties packed sky high with cheese and Lindy's delicious secret sauce. I did the smaller version, “The Hooligan”, which is four half pound patties. I didn't eat for a month afterward.

So, in the end (which is actually only the beginning) our dusty and dangerous desert metropolis has now made its mark on the world of eating. The Sonoran hot dog is a legend, in its own right and passage, but it is just an iceberg's tip of what this city has to offer as far as culinary amazement is concerned. Who would have thought? Before I moved here, I thought Tucson was just a dry sidewalk-free lawless bum patch with some never-heard-of-it university and some biker gangs. Well, it is all that and more. Hopefully the success and popularity, thanks to BK and El Guero Canelo, of the Sonoran hot dog will reach out even further to food fans far and wide. I mean, it's a frikkin bacon wrapped hot dog smothered in cheese, beans and salsa.

Dude. I'm so hungry right now...