Seventh Rule of Cooking Club

Outdoor grilling and smoking requires every bit as much planning & preparation as cooking in the kitchen.

Yesterday’s bimonthly meeting of the On On Gourmet Hash House Harriers was a grilling cook-off. Ditalini and I were the designated hosts, so we set up a new Fortress of Smoke™ on the concrete pad where our hot tub once resided: a charcoal kettle grill, a charcoal smoker, and a gas grill.


The Fortress of Smoke™

A lot of the planning & prep was making sure the right grilling tools and pans were in place. Late in the morning I fired up the smoker to prepare our contribution, a large brisket of beef and a rack of pork spareribs, pre-rubbed the day before and stored overnight in the refrigerator. The meat, ready at 4 PM, went into a warm oven, wrapped in foil so it wouldn’t dry out.

Other On On Gourmets arrived at 5 PM and we got to work on the rest of the grilling. This wasn’t our biggest turnout, since some of our members were away for Easter, but our core group was there: in front, left to right, Anitra Spezzatino & Ditalini deMenthe; in back, Manzo Spezzatino, Magret de Canard, & yours truly, Crouton deMenthe.


On On Gourmets

Magret made a grilled vegetable platter with asparagus, carrots, red pepper, and summer squash: marinating the vegetables at home and cooking them, with Manzo’s help, at our house on the gas grill. Anitra also prepped her dish at home and cooked it on the gas grill: ginger-soy-lime marinated shrimp.

When everything was ready, I cut up the ribs, carved the brisket, put a bottle of home-made barbecue sauce on the table, and we sat down to our feast:


Brisket & ribs, marinated shrimp, grilled vegetables

I said it was a cook-off, and I’d like to say we were all winners, but actually we were all supposed to use grilling recipes from celebrity chef Bobby Flay, and since Manzo & Anitra were the only members who followed the rules, I guess I have to say their shrimp won! But really, everything was fabulous.

Thanks to good planning & preparation, that is!

Our next cooking hash will be in May, and this time we’re going to do something different: rather than cook at a member’s house, we’re going to go out to a famous local Spanish restaurant, Casa Vicente, for tapas.


Sixth Rule of Cooking Club

When doubling Cajun recipes, don’t double the cayenne.

The On On Gourmet Hash House Harriers met again Saturday night, this time at the home of Giacomo “Hercules” Mandriano, where we were joined by Giacomo’s brother, Washington DC refugee Giuseppe “Pastoso” Mandriano, hiding from the wrath of the Blizzard of 2016. I usually know what people’s names mean, but Pastoso was new to me so I looked it up. It means “mellow” in Italian. What an odd name. Anyway, here we are, posing for an Ellen DeGeneres-style group selfie:


L to R: Magret de Canard, Ditalini deMenthe, Anitra Spezzatino, Manzo Spezzatino, Crouton deMenthe, Giuseppe “Pastoso” Mandriano, Giacomo “Hercules” Mandriano

Our theme was Cajun, specifically the cooking of the late chef Paul Prudhomme. Magret de Canard made shrimp, the Spezzatinos a cucumber salad and a jambalaya, the deMenthes pecan praline candies for dessert. The brothers Mandriano helped with the prep, while I chopped peppers, celery, and onions; as we have done before, everyone participated in the cooking.

A few photos (sorry, I forgot to take one of the shrimp, which we gobbled up as an appetizer).


Ditalini’s pecan praline candies


Chaos in the kitchen, pt I


Anitra’s jambalaya


Crouton chops!


Chaos in the kitchen, pt II


Dinner a la Paul Prudhomme

It was a fabulous dinner, and spicy too (see Rule #6). We marveled over Giacomo’s kitchen and utensil collection, the biggest and best we’ve encountered to date, and we collectively thank him for his hospitality.

The next meeting of the On On Gourmet Hash House Harriers will be in March. Our theme will be outdoor barbecue and grilling, using recipes from Bobby Flay. Ditalini and I are hosting, which is only right, since it is I, Crouton deMenthe, who invented the Fortress of Smoke™.


Caldo de Birria


I discovered this stew at a Mexican restaurant in Tucson. So far I’ve found only one other local restaurant serving it. I’m told it’s street food, highly regarded as a hangover cure. What impressed me was its rich beefiness, reminding me a bit of German oxtail soup: a thick broth with plenty melt-in-your-mouth meat at the bottom of the bowl, served with garnishes to sprinkle on top: cilantro, onion, lime, sometimes finely-diced cabbage; tortillas on the side to mop up the broth.

My recipe is a work in progress. English-language recipes are few and far between; when you do find them they differ significantly on ingredients and are often geared to the preparation of industrial quantities of the stuff. But I am determined, and to that end I asked the waiter at the Mexican restaurant to see whether the owner would share her recipe. Here’s what he brought back:

IMG_2762If you can’t read it, it says “beef or goat, easy on cinnamon, chile California, garlic salt, easy oregano, onion.”

As this hand-written recipe should tell you, making caldo de birria is an art. Comparing this restaurant’s recipe to others I’ve found, the general idea is to use beef and sometimes one other kind of meat (goat, spare ribs), water, a purée made from chiles, onion, garlic, and spices (cinnamon, oregano, sometimes cloves, bay leaf, salt & pepper). This restaurant uses chiles California; other cooks use a combination of guajillo, ancho, mulato, or cascabel chiles. Making the chile purée is a bit of an effort, but I knocked it out in an hour, and it was my first time. I’ll give you the details below.

So with that as background, I made my own step-by-step recipe, with ingredients sized to serve four to six people. I was pretty happy with my first effort; happy enough to commit my home-made recipe to the cooking blog. Sure, I’ll tinker with it next time, but the basics are here.


  • Stew
    • 4 dried guajillo chiles
    • 4 dried ancho chiles
    • 1 cup hot water
    • 1 lb top round, cubed for stew
    • 1 1/2 quarts water
    • 1 quart beef broth
    • 1 onion
    • 6 garlic cloves
    • 2 dried bay leaves
    • 1/2 tsp dried thyme
    • 1 tbsp ground cumin
    • 1 tbsp oregano
    • pinch of cinnamon
    • 1 or 2 cloves (optional)
    • salt & pepper
  • Sauce
    • 1/2 cup red wine vinegar
    • 2 garlic cloves
    • 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
  • Garnish
    • 1/2 cup diced onion
    • 2 limes, cut in wedges
    • 1/2 cup chopped cilantro
    • corn or flour tortillas


Chile purée: put on a pair of disposable kitchen gloves and keep them on while working with the chile peppers (very important). Bring a pot of water to boil, reduce to simmer, and soak the dried peppers for 20 minutes. With tongs, remove the peppers and place on paper towels to drain. Pull the stems from the peppers and discard. Slice the peppers in half, scrape out the seeds and membranes and discard. Put the cleaned peppers in a food processor or blender with one cup of hot water and purée. Strain the liquid from the purée into a bowl and set it aside. Throw the pulp away. Here are some photos:

IMG_2741 IMG_2745 IMG_2748

Stew: put water & beef stock in a good-sized pot. Add the meat, garlic cloves, and onion (the onion does not stay in the finished stew, so rather than chopping it up, peel a whole onion and score it deeply on one side so that it won’t come apart in the stew as it cooks and can be fished out later with a slotted spoon). Bring the stew to a boil and cook for 1 hour. Add the bay leaves, thyme, chile purée, cumin, cinnamon, oregano, cloves, salt & pepper. Reduce heat to simmer and cook for another hour or so, or until the meat is tender.


Sauce: some recipes call for a sauce to be served on the side, presumably to be stirred into the stew to taste. Frankly, the sauce did nothing for me and I won’t bother to make it again. I will also note that neither of the two restaurants where I tried caldo de birria served it with sauce. If you want to try it and make your own decision, just purée the ingredients in a blender, then set aside for later.

Garnish: I like the onion, cilantro, and cabbage finely diced. The lime is a good accompaniment too. I understand sliced radishes are sometimes used as a garnish.


Serving: serve in bowls with sauce, garnish, and tortillas on the side.


Fifth Rule of Cooking Club

Know your coconut milk products.

The On-On Gourmets cooking club met Saturday at the home of Anitra and Manzo Spezzatino for an evening of Thai cooking and consumption. Three new members attended: Pomodoro Calde, an experienced cook with years of experience preparing Thai food for guests at her resort in Fiji, and two mutual friends, Manière d’un Chien and Giacomo “Hercules” Mandriano. Pomodoro, Manière, and Giacomo are members of the Hash House Harriers, as are the rest of us. Also in attendance: Crouton & Ditalini deMenthe, Magret de Canard.


Pomodoro & Manière, center



We invaded Anitra’s kitchen, somewhat to her consternation, to prepare Tome Kha Gai (chicken-coconut soup), Gaeng Kiow Wahn Gai (green chicken curry), Kung Yai Pad Som Makahm Bpiak (shrimp with spicy tamarind sauce), and Tad Mun Pla (fish cakes with chili dip). The only items that had been prepared beforehand were Anitra’s appetizer, fried cauliflower stalks with a peanut dipping sauce, and Ditalini’s dessert flan, not exactly (or even remotely) Thai but somehow just right after all that spicy food.

A few photos:


Pomodoro preparing tamarind sauce, with Manzo & Anitra observing


The finished meal


Fish cakes w/dipping sauce


Ditalini with her flan, Anitra with her camera

About Rule #5: here’s what you need to know about coconut milk products. Our green chicken curry, prepared with cream of coconut instead of coconut cream, was an unexpectedly sweet taste adventure!

Our next cooking club adventure will be at the home of Giacomo “Hercules” Mandriano, and our dinner will be based on recipes from the late chef Paul Prudhomme.


Ditalini’s Oxtail Soup

IMG_1887When I was a kid, living in Germany with my USAF family, one of my favorite dishes was ochsenschwanzsuppe — oxtail soup, a thick and flavorful beefy broth. In later years, married and living in the USA, I’d sometimes pick up a package of Knorr Oxtail Soup Mix, surprisingly good for an instant soup mix, with a rich flavor and smell close to what I remembered of the real thing.

Yesterday Ditalini cooked up a pot of real oxtail soup, adapting a recipe from a German cookbook. She added some root vegetables to make it her own, actually more of a stew, but the broth itself was the oxtail soup I remember, sinfully rich and tasty.


To make a brothier oxtail soup, just leave the stewing vegetables out of the ingredients.

The oxtails you’ll find at the grocery store or butcher shop probably don’t come from actual oxen, but from regular beef cattle. I’m sure they taste the same.

Preparation time: about three hours, but a lot of that is sitting around while the soup simmers.


  • 2-3 tbsp olive oil
  • pot vegetables:
    • 1/4 cup finely-chopped onion
    • 1/4 cup finely-chopped carrot
    • 1/4 cup finely-chopped celery
    • 1 tbsp finely-chopped garlic
  • 2 packages oxtails (6-8 oxtails cut in 2″ lengths)
  • 1 quart water
  • 1 quart beef stock
  • 1 bay leaf
  • pinch of thyme
  • 5 or 6 peppercorns
  • roux:
    • 2 tbsp butter
    • 1 small onion, finely-diced
    • 4 tbsp flour
    • 1 cup of broth from the pot
  • stewing vegetables:
    • 2 medium potatoes, cut in 2″ chunks
    • 2 carrots, ditto
    • 2 stalks celery, ditto
  • pinch of paprika
  • 1/2 cup madeira or sherry
  • salt


Brown the oxtails in a little olive oil and remove from pot. Now sauté the finely-chopped pot vegetables. Return the oxtails to the pot and add the water, beef stock, bay leaf, thyme, and peppercorns. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for 2 hours.


Browning the oxtails

Cut up the stewing vegetables and set aside.

Make a roux in a separate frying pan with butter, onion, flour, and a cup of broth from the pot. When the oxtail soup has simmered in the pot long enough, add the roux and stewing vegetables, the paprika, madeira or sherry, and salt to taste. Cook uncovered until the stew vegetables are done.

Ditalini took an additional step: before adding the roux and stewing vegetables to the pot, she fished the oxtails out of the broth with a slotted spoon, let them cool, then picked the meat off the bones and returned the meat to the pot.


Removing meat from the bones before returning to the pot (roux cooking on the side)


Fourth Rule of Cooking Club

Don’t overload electrical circuits.

Members of our cooking club met last night at the home of Magret de Canard for our second attempt at a do-it-yourself dinner, this time to cook our own meats and vegetables on raclette grills. Everyone had a role to play in preparing dinner beforehand: Houskový took charge of the roasted potatoes, Anitra and Ditalini chopped meats and veggies for grilling, while the rest of us — me, Manzo, Gina, and Magret — whipped up dipping sauces. A small amount of wine was consumed during the prep session.


Community prep work: Gina Cannoli, Magret de Canard, Manzo Spezzatino, Crouton deMenthe

Once all was ready we sat down and started cooking veggies and meats on two electric raclette grills. That is when we learned the fourth rule of cooking club: Anitra noticed a distance lack of sizzle on the grill at her end of the table. Fortunately Magret had a long extension cord and we were able to find a working plug on the other side of the room. Before long both grills were sizzling away.

raclette grillRaclette cooking is German, similar to Swiss fondue and Korean tabletop barbecue. You cook your meet and veggies on the grill while you melt cheese in little trays that slide into recesses below the hot grill top. The dipping sauces went very well with our meat (beef, chicken, and shrimp) and veggies (broccoli and quartered mushrooms); as for the melted cheese, some of us put it on our roasted potatoes while some of us dipped bread in it.

I almost forgot — Magret had another project for us, preparing our own desserts. She cut sheets of puff pastry into squares and gave us all chocolate and hazelnut chunks for filling. After we filled our pastries and folded them over into triangles, Magret put them aside on baking trays, then put them in a preheated oven as we finished dinner. Dare I say even more wine was consumed at table? But you already guessed that.


Cooking club: Gina Cannoli, Crouton & Ditalini deMenthe, Anitra Spezzatino, Houskový Knedlík, Magret de Canard

So: two successful community cooking projects in a row now. It really is more fun when everyone has something to do, and we’re thinking about other DIY ideas for future meetings. Next time, though, we’ve agreed to go back to our original scheme: picking a single chef and assigning different courses to members to prepare at home and bring to the hosts’ house. Our July hosts are Anitra and Manzo, our chef is Emeril Lagasse, and we’re cooking Cajun.


Crouton’s Fire-Roasted Tomato Salsa

I hate grocery store and chain restaurant salsa, with its chunks of tomato and green pepper swimming in tomato-flavored water. Here in Tucson a local restaurant called El Charro makes its own salsa, thick, smooth, and … even though the main ingredient is tomato … not tomatoey. I love it and have been attempting to duplicate it at home. This is the closest I’ve come to date. I think it’s very, very close.



  • 2 (14 oz) cans diced fire roasted tomatoes
  • 1 (4oz.) can diced green chiles
  • 1 jalapeño, diced (include seeds for extra heat, remove seeds for less)
  • 2 1/2 tbsp lime juice
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 tbsp vinegar
  • 1 tsp chili powder
  • 1 pinch dried red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp powdered cumin
  • 1/2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp sugar


Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor and pulse until the salsa is smooth and thick, as in the photo. Pour into a container, cover, and refrigerate.


I included the liquid from the tomato and chile cans, and the salsa is plenty thick. You can drain the liquid from the cans first if you like it thicker. I seeded the jalapeño in deference to Ditalini’s tastes; you can leave the seeds in for a hotter salsa. The pinch of red pepper flakes is optional (I put them in when Ditalini wasn’t looking). I used regular old McCormack chili powder for this batch, but next time I may try chipotle chili powder instead for a smokier flavor.


Third Rule of Cooking Club

Pull your own weight. We come to cook, not just to eat.

Last night we tried something different. At earlier meetings, members prepared their assigned parts of the meal at home. Once we gathered at the host’s house we sat right down to eat.

Ditalini and I hosted this meeting, and we decided we’d have everyone come empty-handed, then prepare a meal together with ingredients we’d purchased ahead of time, with members chipping in later to cover the cost.

Our community project was paella. We assigned roles: one member prepped and cleaned the seafood, another prepped the veggies, another cut up the chicken, sausage, and pork, another browned the meat, another made the sofrito to mix with the rice, and so on. It took us an hour, plus the 25 minutes the paella baked in the oven. The kitchen was a madhouse. We had a ball.


Anitra & Ditalini browning chicken


Manzo & Houskový assembling the paella

We used a paella recipe from the Spanish food volume of the old Time-Life Cookbooks from the 1970s. It was heavy on seafood (lobster, shrimp, clams, mussels) and meat (chicken, pork, linguica sausage).


Paella in the oven


The finished paella

We welcomed a new member to the cooking club last night, Recto Alpaso, and put him right to work cutting the linguica.


Houskový Knedlík, Manzo Spezzatino, Anitra Spezzatino, Magret de Canard, new member Recto Alpaso, Ditalini deMenthe

Dilalini wanted to make a Spanish dessert, and flan was the obvious choice. She did a fabulous job of it, especially for a first effort: we’ll definitely do this again.


Flan à la Ditalini

Magret de Canard thoughtfully brought along Brazilian finger food (actually a dessert, but we ate them as appetizers), a treat from her younger days in São Paulo. The Portuguese name for these slices of cheese with guava paste on top is goiabada, popularly called Romeos & Juliets. As you can see, we had already made a dent in them by the time I remembered to take a photo.


Magret’s Romeos & Juliets

The idea of getting together in one kitchen to prepare dinner together was a great success, and we’re going to do it again at our next meeting in a couple of months. I’m not sure we’ve settled on exactly what it is we’re going to cook together, but Magret is hosting, so we know it’ll be great!


Spring Cleaning

You may notice blank spots where photos used to be on some of the older recipes here at Crouton’s Kitchen. Over the years we uploaded a lot of cooking and food photos to the server our blog lives on, and we were running out of space. This morning I moved those photos from our server to Flickr, where we have plenty of storage. As I find time, I’ll fill the blanks with Flickr-hosted photos. Dilalini and I are sorry for the inconvenience, but we promise it’s just temporary.

Update (3/1/15): The photos are back, as promised. Who loves ya, baby?


Photoblog: an Italian Family Dinner

Yesterday Ditalini and her Aunt Radicchio made three pounds of gnocchi and a big pot of sauce.


Gnocchi (from Ditalini’s family recipe)

When it comes to rolling and shaping gnocchi, there’s some twist of the wrist thing I never quite mastered, but Aunt Radicchio, now the matriarch of Ditalini’s Italian-American family, passed the secret on to Ditalini, who passed it on to our daughter Escargot, ensuring that proper gnocchi will continue to be prepared and served on these shores for many years to come.


Italian meat sauce (from Ditalini’s family recipe)

Ditalini’s family, the della Fagiolis, makes sauce with two kinds of meat. Here at Château deMenthe we normally use ground beef and Italian sausage. Aunt Radicchio was in charge of yesterday’s sauce, which she prepared with a browned, medium sized chuck roast and hot Italian sausage. In compliance with family tradition we removed the meat from the finished sauce and served it on the side after tossing the gnocchi in sauce and adding some Italian parsley for looks.

Ready to serve, with the roast & sausages on the side

Does that look good? You’d better say yes!