Author: James Cooper

Is that poison ivy?

Is that poison ivy?

Yes, the above picture is definitely of poison ivy. In this late spring/early summer season, the question “is that poison ivy?” comes up really often on-line and in real conversations with actual people. The slogan “leaves of three, let them be” is a little too general to be helpful and even then people still seem to be confused and hesitant.

The pictures here are of real poison ivy taken in June in southern Connecticut.

Note carefully from the photo– poison ivy has three leaves: the center one is symmetrical and the outer two are asymmetrical, with jagged edges along the outside. Just as important, the stems of the outer two leaves do not run through the center of the leaf, but are located closer to the inner side of the leaf. This is a distinguishing feature you can look for when you can’t decide whether or not you are looking at poison ivy.

Younger leaves may be reddish and shiny, but more mature leaves are just green. And the amount of the irritant urushiol is the same on plants of any age.

creeper-2

Now let’s look at the above picture of Virginia creeper, a 5-leaved plant that doesn’t look anything like poison ivy. The problem is that Virginia creeper frequently grows right alongside or among poison ivy plants, and though it is not an irritant itself, you can regard it as a warning that poison ivy may be nearby. You can see that in the next two photos.

You will also see poison ivy climbing trees. What you may not see at first is the huge hairy rope-like stem the leaves grow from. The whole root also contains the same urushiol oil and if you grab that rope to steady yourself while gardening, you need to go wash your hands and arms right away. Even in the winter, these “ropes” still can spread the urushiol irritant.

Jewel weed

impatiens_capensis_photo2_lgIf you have jewel weed (a wild impatiens variety) growing wild nearby, many people report that the juice from the stem will help remove the urushiol and reduce skin inflammation. This was supposedly a Native American remedy and has at least some utility if you can get to hot soapy water right away. However, it does not seem to have been studied. If you develop a rash, lotions like Calamine will help reduce the itching.

In your garden

Poison ivy has the annoying habit of showing up in your gardens from time to time.

in pachysandra

This happens more every year as the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere increases, and poison ivy loves it. You could put on heavy gloves and a heavy shirt and pull out the plants, but this usually leaves some roots behind which will eventually regrow. You can definitely kill poison ivy with Roundup, but in the garden it might kill valuable plants as well. A better choice is one of the commercial poison ivy killers: they all seem to contain triclopyr. This will kill broad leaved woody plants like poison ivy but leave grasses and the like alone.

Be careful in handling poison ivy debris: it all contains urushiol. Put the waste in a trash bag, never in the compost pile. And never burn it, since the smoke itself could still contain urushiol

Poison Oak and Poison Sumac

There are two other plants that secrete urushiol: poison oak and poison sumac. Poison oak has groups of 3 leaves that look rather oak like. Poison sumac is best recognized by the bright red stems. The Eastern variety has a rather short habit, while on the west coast, the bushes grow much taller. WebMD has very good pictures of all three plants. You will usually find poison sumac in or adjacent to swaps and wetlands, so unless you trudge through swamps you are less likely to see it.

Pacific poison oak is found mostly along the U.S. west coast, and eastern poison oak is mostly found in the southern U.S. It is somewhat similar to poison ivy and sometimes mistaken for it.

We try donuts made with Greek yogurt

We try donuts made with Greek yogurt

Bon Appetit recently published a delicious recipe for cake donuts made with Greek yogurt, which they called “yonuts.” The yogurt gives them just a little tang, and they are quite simple to make. You can probably have warm donuts for breakfast in about half an hour.

So, their recipe is

  • 2 ½ tsp baking powder
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 1 cup Greek yogurt
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • 2 Tb melted unsalted butter, cooled
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 5-6 cups vegetable oil for frying (peanut or canola)
  • 1 cup confectioners’ sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • Zest from ¼ lemon
  • ¼ cup water (or less)
  1. Mix the dry ingredients in one bowl
  2. Mix the egg yolks, yogurt, melted butter together with a whisk
  3. Mix in the granulated sugar and vanilla extract.
  4. Slowly add the flower mixture and mix with a whisk, or eventually a wooden spoon. The batter will be a bit stiff.
  5. Roll out the batter on a flour board or floured parchment. You may need to flour the top side, too.
  1. Cut out the donuts using a donut cutter, or a circular cookie cutter. In the latter case, we found you could dig out the donut hole with a cookie scoop. Dust off any excess flour before frying.
  2. Heat the oil to 350˚ F (use a thermometer) and cook the donuts 3-4 at a time. BA suggests 2 minutes per side, but we found that a bit too long. We recommend 1 to 1 ½ minutes per side. Turn them when they are brown.
  3. Drain the donuts on a wire rack until cool.
  4. Meanwhile, mix the powdered sugar with water until it is thin enough to dip the donuts in, but don’t overdo it. Mix in some zest from ¼ lemon.

frosting

  1. Dip both sides of each donut in the icing and let them dry briefly.  Eat at once.

We ate them as soon as we could. This recipe makes 9-10 donuts. They are still pretty good the second day. You should probably rewarm them in the microwave for 15 seconds or so.

Meal kits: we try out “Gobble”

Meal kits: we try out “Gobble”

Previously we have written about Freshly, a meal delivery service that provides completely prepared, microwavable meals, and we weren’t all that thrilled. This article is about meal kits, which send you the ingredients and simple preparation instructions.

There are an awful lot of meal services out there trying to get you to subscribe, and one of the better rated ones is strangely named “Gobble.” Their slogan is “Make dinner in 15 minutes,” and this seems to be about right. We ordered three meal kits for two, for $73.93, or $24.64 each. They come delivered iced, but not frozen and so well sealed, they lasted nearly a week in the refrigerator until we’d tried all three. You will probably need a couple of cooking pans, a bowl or two, and perhaps a knife to chop up salad ingredients.

Spring Pot Roast

The first one we tried was “Spring Pot Roast,” with fava beans and asparagus. The meal kits come in several little sealed packages, one for the beef, one for the legumes. The asparagus was loosely packaged, but fresh, and the other envelopes were a red wine demi-glace, a shallot-garlic confit (which seemed to have little flavor), lemon gremolata and fried garlic bits.

Putting this one together was pretty simple. You put the beef cubes, red wine glace and some water in a covered pan and cook for five minutes.  Meanwhile, you cut the asparagus into short “batons.” You saute the beans as asparagus in a little oil and then add the garlic confit.

You put half of the beans-asparagus mixture on each place, divide the beef mixture over them and garnish with the lemon gremolata and fried garlic.

I found it pretty good, although my wife didn’t agree. Each portion was nominally 560 calories, and it left us feeling hungry. Of the three dinners, we liked this one the least.

Fortunately, the overall package came with two cookie dough puck that you could bake into cookies in 14 minutes, and we did.

Miso Glazed Pulled Pork Sandwich

pork plated

Our second meal was the miso glazed pulled pork sandwich with Gochujang aioli. It was really simple to put together. First you toast the brioche bins in a pan for a few minutes and set them aside. You heat the shredded pork, add the miso glaze and heat 2-3 minutes more. You chop up the lettuce, slice the Persian cucumber and mix with the shredded carrots to make a bit of a salad that you dress with Nuoc Cham (fish sauce). This salad was also to contain the cilantro which we decided to omit.

Then you put the supplied mayonnaise in a small bowl and add the gochujang paste, a mild Korean fermented red pepper paste. To assemble, you put half the salad on each plate, the buns on top, spread the mayo over the buns and distribute the pork among them. You can put a little salad on top as well, but there is so much pork it doesn’t all fit.

We thought these sandwiches were outstanding, and at 1120 calories each, were plenty filling.

Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo

chickn plated 2

This pasta dish also came with spinach and broccoli, and that same shallot-garlic confit the first meal also utilized. For this dinner, you brown a couple of small chicken breasts in a pan, and then roast them in the oven along with the broccoli at 450˚ F for six minutes. Then, you take out the chicken, simmer the broccoli with some water while covered, and then plate the broccoli while keeping the chicken warm. Oh, and that pan that was in the oven is going have a really hot handle, and burning your hand when you put the lid on is not improbable. And I’ve been cooking for 50 years! I think it might be better to steam the broccoli in a small saucepan instead.

Then, you boil the fettuccine, drain it and put it in the pan and add the spinach leaves and the alfredo sauce, along with that garlic confit. Finally, you plate the pasta and sauce and add the slice chicken breasts on top. You sprinkle with sone grated cheese, and most important, add the packet of chili flakes to keep the dish from being bland. We thought is was very good, and at 1050 calories it should have been more filling that it turned out.

Probably, my only real criticism with Gobble is that they are a weekly meal kit delivery service, but the deadline to make changes or skip a week is a whole week before. So, I ended up with another set of meals we hadn’t planned on arriving this evening, including one with a diminutive piece of salmon that looked like it wasn’t even enough for one. It says it weighs 10 oz.

Overall, we think Gobble is a very good meal kit service, and we will probably order more in the future.

 

 

 

 

We try ‘Freshly’: delivered meals of little distinction

We try ‘Freshly’: delivered meals of little distinction

Freshly has been advertising heavily on TV and the Internet, promising “meals cooked by chefs and sent to you fresh.” The meals aren’t terribly expensive, amounting to $8.99 per meal in small quantities and $7.99 per meal if you commit to 12 per week.

We too advantage of an introductory offer and ordered six meals, figuring that we would order the second six after we’d tried them out.  As you will see, we never got that far.

We placed our order on March 30 for 6 meals: two each of

  • Slow-cooked Pork and Herbed Gravy with Skillet Kale and Roasted Potatoes
  • Steak Peppercorn with Sautéed Carrots and French Green beans
  • Homestyle Chicken with Butternut Mac and Cheese

We got an acknowledgment that they would be delivered on Friday April 3, and they did come late that afternoon, but after our dinner plans had already been decided as homemade pizza.

The meals come packed in an insulated box surrounded by two sheets of frozen gelatinized water-ice. The meals were cold but not frozen and we quickly refrigerated them. Their literature says that they should keep for at least 5 days, or you should freeze them to keep longer. They also noted that we should use them fresh by the Use By dates, which were April 9 and 10. You can heat any of them up in the microwave in around 3 minutes.

Pork

Saturday April 4, we decided to try the Slow-cooked Pork and Herbed Gravy. We supposed there would be real pieces of pork in the dish, but it was for the most part present only in very small granular pieces, like bits of ground beef. These meals are not for hearty appetites, the pork dish was rated at 420 calories, and the portions were small. But we are dealing with the old Catskills joke here: “The food is terrible and such small portions.”

The pork mixture had an unpleasant aftertaste that grew with each bite. We found we had some leftover homemade applesauce in the refrigerator, and by alternating bites of applesauce with the pork mixture, we were able to finish eating it. The Skillet Kale was another story. While there are number of well-known techniques to reduce the strong flavor of kale, they didn’t seem to have used them. It allegedly contained turkey-bacon crumbles but we didn’t notice them. The taste was simply vile. We rated this dish as one of the worst dinners we had ever had.

steak

But we still had two more meals to try. Steak Peppercorn with Sautéed Carrots and French Green Beans seemed innocuous enough, so we had it for dinner on Tuesday April 7, long before the April 10 Use By date. The beef was actually Flat-Iron Steak, but their literature seemed to indicate that they had marinated it in something, so it was fairly tender.

beef cut opneHowever, by the third bite we knew we were in trouble. There was a taste and aftertaste that was so strong it began to make us feel nauseous, and we didn’t finish it. The carrots and beans were no better. My companion asked, “how can they screw up carrots?” They too had a different, unpleasant aftertaste and we ended up tossing both meals in the trash. The steak is supposed to be “topped with a creamy peppercorn sauce,” but we really didn’t detect this at all.

Since we hadn’t had much to eat, we broke out one of the Homestyle Chicken dishes, with Butternut Mac & Cheese. At first, we though this was going to be a winner, but by the third bite, the chicken tasted odd, although reasonably tender, and we couldn’t finish it either. The only thing we can say is that the mac and cheese was OK. But the green beans had the same off taste as the other vegetables, and we couldn’t finish them either. This may have been the “fragrant garlic oil” but we didn’t note any garlic flavor.

chicken

Now, we’ve eaten in lots of restaurants in a lot of places, and there have been a number of misfires in all those meals, but this is the only time we can think of where we really couldn’t finish the meals because they were absolutely terrible.

We immediately canceled our subscription to Freshly and they sent us nice polite acknowledgement. However, they’ve placed a cookie in our web browser’s database that keeps us from browsing their website further unless we renew our membership. This is unprofessional. Fortunately we have other browsers we could use to look up their prices and policies.

We obviously don’t recommend Freshly at all.

 

 

Quick lava cake in the Instant Pot

Quick lava cake in the Instant Pot

This very easy recipe was suggested by another (unsigned) online one. This is a simplified and briefer version. Even if you don’t want to go shopping just now, you probably already have the ingredients for this simple dessert. You just need chocolate chips, eggs, butter and sugar. There is no problem mixing some partial bags of various types of chips you might have around: they’ll all work fine.

  • ½ cup unsalted butter (1 stick)
  • 1 cup chocolate chips
  • ¾ cup confectioner’s sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 6 Tb flour
  • ¼ tsp salt
  1. Put the butter and chocolate chips in s medium mixing bowl and slowly melt them together in the microwave. I suggest 2 minutes at halt power and then may 30 seconds at full power. Stir with a wooden spoon. Add another 30 seconds if needed.
  2. Whisk in the sugar.
  3. Mix in the 3 eggs, one at a time and add the egg yolk,
  4. Add the vanilla
  5. Add the flour and mix until smooth. This whole thing will take about 5 minutes.
  6. Butter 4 ramekins or spray them with non-stick spray.
  7. Add batter to each ramekin using a large cookie scoop. We used two scoops for each one. Leave enough room for them to rise.

  1. Add 1 cup of water to the Instant Pot and set the four ramekins on the trivet.
  2. Close the pot and cook at high pressure for 9 minutes in a 6-quart pan, or 7 minutes in an 8-quart pan.
  3. Release the pressure quickly and let the cakes set for a couple of minutes.
  4. Run a knife around the rim of each ramekin and invert each one onto a plate. They should come right out.
  5. Serve with ice cream or whipped cream, with a side of slice strawberries of you have them.

cake uncut

You can make the batter ahead, or serve the cakes on two days, but the lave cakes are best served warm. But even cold, they are still pretty good!

ramekins

Ziggie and Mad Dog’s steakhouse—Islamorada

Ziggie and Mad Dog’s steakhouse—Islamorada

If you think that a steakhouse called Ziggy and Mad Dogs is not likely to be of interest, you may be partly wrong. According to the history on the menu, the restaurant was founded in 1952 as Ziggy’a Conch by Ziggy Stocki. And in 2005, Jim Mandich, who had played for the Miami Dolphins as “Mad Dog” Mandich purchased the restaurant. He and his partner Randy Kassewitz refurbished it and opened it as a steakhouse called “Ziggy and Mad Dog’s.”

While basically a steakhouse, the menu does include chicken, pork chops, veal chop and some seafood and pasta. The outside of the restaurant maintains the informality of the original, although the inside is somewhat more formal. But with ESPN playing on TVs in every room, it has a bit of a sports bar atmosphere about it, rather than the décor you might associate with charges approaching $200 for two (with tax before tip).

tables

Every few minutes a drop of water would fall on my head, probably from a leaking air conditioner in the ceiling, which I didn’t find endearing. The waiters are pleasant and knowledgeable, but as steakhouses go, we’ve had better for the same price range.

Our two salads: the Mad Dog Wedge and Mixed Baby Green with Goat Cheese (each $12) were good enough but not much better than you might find at Applebee’s. They also bore little resemblance to the photos on their website.

ribeye

Our Cowboy Ribeye ($40) had a crisp burnt crust and served with Bearnaise ($4 extra) was properly served medium rare. But with the crust obscuring the contours, it was difficult to delineate the bone to cut around it. However, the meat we found was juicy and tender.

medallions

The Smothered Medallions ($36) were easier to work with and more tender, as it was a filet mignon with caramelized onions, au poivre sauce and stilton bleu cheese. It was probably the better choice.

onion ringsIn our mind the Garlic Salted Onion Rings ($8) were the best thing on the menu. They were crunchy and dry to the touch and not a bit greasy. We were very impressed.

Our two scoops of gelato brought the bill to $189 before tip including two drinks and two glasses of wine.

Overall, this is a pleasant enough place, but we wouldn’t repeat the experience. There are so many better restaurants in the mid Keys to try.

 

Pierre’s: elegant dining in the Florida Keys

Pierre’s: elegant dining in the Florida Keys

Pierre’s, in Islamorada, is one of the most elegant restaurants in the Keys. Where informality usually reigns, Pierre’s features a more formal atmosphere with excellent French fusion cuisine and highly trained staff.

place settingPierre’s is situated in an old plantation-style house, with a lounge on the first floor and an elegant oak-paneled restaurant on the second floor. An elevator is available just behind the desk where you check in. On warm(er) evening you can also dine on the veranda, where you can also watch the lovely sunsets.

The dinner menu features vegetarian dishes, seafood, beef, chicken and lamb dishes as well as appetizers that include soup, salads, caviar, crudos, ceviche, charcuterie and a cheese board. While not inexpensive, dinner at Pierre’s will probably be the bets dinner you will have on the Florida Keys.

cheese platter

We started by sharing the cheese platter, which included s triple crème, a bleu cheese, and several harder cheeses, unfortunately not identified, fig mostarda, nuts, grapes and crostini. It was plenty for two, and a few bites for four, but everything was a rich and thoughtful selection.

grouper

For entrees, one of us chose the Local Catch Meuniere with Crab. The local catch was grouper, apparently only four hours out of the ocean, served with roasted fingerling potatoes, beurre noisette, haricots verts, Pierre’s garden parsley salad with pickled shallots, bell pepper rings and Meyer Lemon olive oil, and topped with crab. The fish was moist and tender with just a hint of acid from the Meyer lemon.

lobster curry

For our other entrée we ordered the Florida Lobster Curry, served, amusingly, in a coconut shell, over forbidden black rice and braised baby bok choy, all served with a Thai coconut curry sauce. This was certainly one of the most imaginative presentations we’ve ever seen, and the lobster was perfectly cooked without being in any way tough.

For desserts we ordered a traditional chocolate tart, which was chocolatey rich on an excellent crust, and a white chocolate cheesecake, which was both lighter and more flavorful the typical cheesecakes and definitely worth your attention.

Overall, our experience at Pierre’s was outstanding. The waiter and servers were courteous and knew what they were doing. Our only criticism was a long wait for the check.

Beware, however of their dark, unlit black spiral staircase, and take the elevator instead. It is really hard to see the steps. Be sure to ask if you can’t spot the elevator.

dining room

M.E.A.T. – An outstanding burger place in Islamorada

M.E.A.T. – An outstanding burger place in Islamorada

M.E.A.T. Eatery and Taproom has restaurants in Islamorada and Boca Raton. They both features single and double burgers, as well as pulled pork, blackened fish, hot dogs, chicken sandwiches and variations like the Cow and Pig Burger. Their hamburgers are called the Nancy Pants, and come in single and doubly variations. And on top of that, all of their delicious fries are cooked in duck fat!

Their taproom features a dozen or more beers on draft, and many more by the bottle. They also offer wines by the glass and bottle.

wings

Among their Fun Foods, suitable for starters are their unusual Chicken Wings: House Smoked and topped with a Honey Chipotle BBQ and Bleu Cheese Crumbles. They were featured on Diners, Dives and Drive-ins, and winner of the Best Sauce in the South Florida Wingfest. They wings are, grilled, not fried and the idea of saucing them and adding bleu cheese crumbles is a great one that I may steal for my own kitchen. You get eight pieces for $13.95. I think we finished six of them! They were really terrific, and fortunately they offer wet-dry wipes and napkins alongside.

We, of course, had to try the Nancy Pant Burger: 5 oz Angus Burger served with Cheese, Lettuce, Tomato & House Fries. One of us got the single and one of us the double. They were juicy and perfectly cooked, and unlike most such sandwiches, they didn’t fall apart in your hand (that much). These are truly great burgers, they were named to the Top 101 Burgers in America several years running.

condimentsIncidentally, the burgers come with several unique condiments: a specialty mango-chipotle ketchup and a caraway/vinegar mustard. The mayo is unchanged and classical ketchup is also provided.

The whole M.E.A.T. experience is fast and courteous, and completely unlike fast food emporia. You can pick up a menu from the bucket when you come in, and sit at any table or at the bar. When you decide what to order, you go to the counter and place it. They give you a receipt and a card to leave on your table so they know where to bring the food. They’ll deliver your drinks and food as soon as they are ready, or in two steps if you order wings as a starter.  Then, you pay on the way out. The food and service are terrific, and we’ll go every time we are in the area. Our bill, with two drinks was only $52, about one third of our Chef Michael’s bill. What a great place!

facade

 

 

 

Chef Michael’s in Islamorada

Chef Michael’s in Islamorada

If you look at lists of the top restaurants in the Florida Keys, Chef Michael’s always comes out near the top. Their sign features the hogfish, a local mild-tasting fish that can be prepared any number of ways. And they do.

outsideDespite the unprepossessing façade, Chef Michael’s is a fine restaurant with excellent food and a knowledgeable staff. Since our hotel was close by, we walked over about 5:45 only to find the place already very busy. They were able to get us one table, but take our advice, and make a reservation. People come from all over the Keys to eat there.

Their menu includes seafood as well as meat and poultry. Interestingly, while the actual fish they serve change daily, they offer the same preparations:

  • Pontchartrain – lightly blackened then topped with crawfish & shrimp in a piquant Creole cream
  • Ambassador —sautéed w/ crabmeat, shiitake’s, capers & key lime butter
  • Adriatic — grilled, then napped w/ our olive oil & herb concoction
  • Juliette — seared w/ shrimp, scallops, chardonnay butter & toasted almonds
  • Mixed Nuts —pistachio, cashew & macadamiacrusted, served w/ our “nearly famous” mango sauce 

as well as Grilled, Sauteed, Fried or Blackened.

For appetizers, we chose the Conch and Crawfish Fritters and the Bahamian Conch Chowder. The chowder was rich, spicy and filling, but we ate every bit. The conch fritters were excellent: mildly spicy and crispy and a remoulade dipping sauce.

Since hogfish was on the menu that night, we ordered Hogfish Pontchartrain, and while it looked at first like a small portion, it was incredibly delicious and very filling, especially with the crawfish and shrimp on top. The Creole cream went well with the fish and with the accompanying rice.

hogfish

We also ordered the Seafood Pasta, Shrimp, Scallops & Lobster, Oven Roasted Tomato & Basil Cream, which was a huge portion that might feed two or three people. But every bit of it was delightful, and way above what you normally get in seafood pasta dishes.   

pasta

Chef Michael’s is the kind of place where the waiters are really knowledgeable and happy to help you choose your food and wine. Our waiter also made it a point to stop by several times to make sure that we were pleased with everything. We were.

We have to admit we skipped desserts, but they appear to be house-made, and the Salted Caramel Cheesecake Brûlée and the Chocolate Toffee Mousse Cake both sounded terrific.

Chef Michael’s is not to be missed if you are visiting Islamorada, or the Keys in general.

 

Bob’s Bunz: breakfast in the Keys

Bob’s Bunz: breakfast in the Keys

Should you be staying in the Florida Keys, anywhere near Islamorada, around mile 80, you should skip your hotel or resort breakfast and head for Bob’s Bunz. They are both a bakery and a restaurant, and are open from 6 am to 2 pm, every day. They are noted for their fantastic cinnamon buns as well as delicious breakfast items, such as the fried eggs and Eggs Benedict we had this morning. The service is quick and friendly and the food excellent.

eggs

benedict

We’ll go back at least once more just to have the buns!

pastries