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Blackened Chicken & Zucchini Carpaccio with a Butternut Squash Vodka Sauce

About a month ago, a foodie friend told me that he found an old recipe for a butternut squash pasta sauce, from back before tomatoes were available in January. Here at the Garlic Press we’re big fans of savory preparations of butternut squash, so a vodka sauce quickly came to mind when we were brainstorming what our “spin” on the sauce might be. The sauce turned out really well and required just a few ingredients.

This dish was born out of an interest in highlighting the sauce and making use of the test kitchen’s new Shun mandoline (which I endorse highly). Zucchini as “pasta” has been an idea that we’ve bounced around the test kitchen since well before the Garlic Press was formalized. Until the mandoline came into our lives, though, we had only experimented with zucchini as a substitute for lasagna, which is nice if you want a lighter dish. Recently, however, we’ve had the opportunity to slice the zucchini so thinly that it barely held together when handled. The result of a marginally thicker cut than this was a zucchini carpaccio similar to a pappardelle noodle or lasagnette. Pappardelle comes from the Italian verb “pappare” which means “to gobble up,” and it is typically paired with very rich sauces. The zucchini carpaccio’s texture and shape lined up nicely with this pasta and as a result worked beautifully with our rich butternut squash vodka sauce.

The zucchini carpaccio is not technically a carpaccio, as that is traditionally a term reserved for thinly sliced raw meat or fish. Carpaccio has only been around since about 1950, so it isn’t exactly stepping on anyone’s national or ethnic culinary tradition to use the term to refer to paper thin, raw slices of vegetables with sauce as a carpaccio. In fact it is an increasingly common appropriation on menus across the US and Europe. That being said, we wouldn’t advise going crazy with the term. Vegetables that are well-suited to this technique include zucchini, beets, and jicama, among others.


1 large zucchini

3 chicken breasts (butterflied)

Blackening Seasonings

  • 3 parts fresh ground black pepper
  • 1 part sea salt
  • 1 part paprika
  • 1 part garlic powder

1 medium butternut squash

3 cloves of garlic

1/4 cup vodka ( Svedka will do nicely)

1/4 cup parmigiano-reggiano cheese, freshly grated

chicken broth (amount variable based on size of squash)

1-2 tsp. sea salt

1-2 tsp. coarsely ground black pepper

2 tbsp olive oil (alternatively, bacon grease, which is what we used)

Enough focaccia to make 6-10 toast points (you’ll ruin at least 3)


Set the mandoline almost to its thinnest setting. Cut the ends off the zucchini and slice it on the mandoline (alternatively, use a wide peeler and a firm hand to slice the zucchini). Set the zucchini aside. Cover the chicken breasts in an even coating of the blackening mixture and place it on a covered plate in the refrigerator. Peel and coarsely chop the butternut squash. Boil the squash for 3-4 minutes, drain, and add to a blender or food processor. Add the 1/2 of the oil/grease and pulse. Begin adding stock and pulsing the squash until you reach the consistency of tomato sauce. Chop garlic and add it to a medium pot along with the other 1/2 of the oil/grease. Sweat the garlic on low heat for 3-5 minutes. Add the squash mixture to the pot. Grate  the cheese and add it to the pot, stirring until melted. Turn off the burner. Add the vodka, stir it in and turn the heat back on to medium-high. Add salt and pepper to the sauce and bring it to a boil. Stir, reduce to simmer, and cook covered for 30-45 minutes. Heat your grill or griddle pan to a high heat, about 350 to 375 degrees. While the sauce cooks, cut the focaccia into long 1/4-  1/2 -inch thick strips and brush lightly with oil. Cook the chicken for 3-4 minutes on each side or until the juice runs clear. Grill the bread lightly. Assemble 3 plates as shown in the photo above. Enjoy!

My thoughts on the dish

For me, this dish was a huge winner. The deep rich flavor of the sauce was perfectly complemented by the warm and peppery blackened chicken. The freshness of the zucchini carpaccio was an excellent contrast to the butternut squash and chicken. The overall dish had the comfortable, homey appeal of Italian and New Orleans cuisine but with a couple of surprising and contemporary (not to mention healthier) twists. Overall the Blackened Chicken & Zucchini Carpaccio with a Butternut Squash Vodka Sauce was a big hit both times that we tested it, and I hope to make it again sometime soon, perhaps with a Hennepin Farmhouse Saison.

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The finished pork, awaiting the caress of a roll.

I don’t know about you, but here at Garlic Press we like us some Bar-B-Que with a ferocious passion that goes nearly unmatched by any of the other loves in our lives (and we are a passionate bunch when it comes to good eating and drinking, among other things…) I’ve wanted to take a crack at making some pulled pork for a long time, however a certain somebody that I share living space with is not a fan of this style of BBQ. Sacrilege I tell you! Fortunately for my taste buds I found myself in a house with no food to speak of (thanks to recent snow storms…) and a girlfriend who was away all week watching her sister. This was the perfect opportunity to whip something awesome up. I figured you can’t really screw up pulled pork too badly on a first pass, and it would leave me with something delicious to eat for the rest of the week. With that in mind I dug my car out (finally) and went to Wegmans to acquire the necessary goods that I didn’t already have. So anything but spices, but the beauty here is that it’s not really an overly complicated ordeal to bring this together in terms of ingredients.

I had already settled on needing something mildly spicy, as compared with my normal ingestion of wildly hot food (more to come on that front in the near future) so, while I considered obtaining hotter peppers, I settled on a big bag of dried Chile de Arbol peppers that I have at home. They provided the proper heat and flavor – I can’t endorse using anything else in retrospect. On a side note, I love Wegmans – it’s nearly impossible to go in and buy just what you need. Anyhow, since this recipe takes all day to cook, and it was now late afternoon, I opted to make it the following day. I engaged a friend, Luis, to stop by and join me before he takes a long trip and he was certainly happy to provide some company on the vague promise of some form of delicious dinner – food like this is best enjoyed with others.

Before we get to how to whip this up, let me share this: I expected to like the pulled pork if only because I had been dreaming of having some for weeks, and beyond that I hoped it would actually be delicious. It turned out perfect, so good in fact that Luis demanded that upon his return I remake it so we can sit down and try our hand at eating a whole batch at once – a measly ~5 lbs of BBQ between two people – at his expense. I look forward to it. I also look forward to eating this for every meal until it’s gone (it was already consumed for breakfast, lunch and another dinner prior to completing this write up, so I’m well on my way.) With that self-glorification and four straight meals of pork out of the way, let me share with you how to create this symphony of sweet, spicy, tangy and porky on your palate that (if you’re like me) will give you an intense food buzz… or maybe that was the Nugget Nectar Luis and I were drinking in anticipation. Either way, win!


  • Pork shoulder roast (whatever fits in your slow cooker, I got 8 lbs and cut it roughly in half to make it fit)
  • Grill seasoning (I used my own, any grill seasoning would be fine here)
  • 2 medium onions
  • 1 green pepper
  • Numerous dried Chile de Arbol
  • 1 cup apple cider
  • Malt vinegar
  • Tabasco
  • Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ Sauce
  • Rolls
  • Corn starch


Slice onions and chop green peppers and pull out a number of chiles, whatever you are comfortable with. I like things quite hot so I used two palm-fulls. Drop about half of the onions into the bottom of the slow cooker, along with some of the chile peppers. Place pork roast on top of this and cover with grill seasoning.

Drop the rest of the peppers, onions and chiles on top of the pork and pour the apple cider over it. Grab the Tabasco and malt vinegar and give a few good shakes of each on top of everything. I also gave a few extra shakes of crushed red pepper for good measure.

Seal up your slow cooker and set it to high and a timer for 6 hours. Find something entertaining to do…

If you do this on the weekend, or work at home as I do, be prepared for an increasingly delicious smell to waft in from your cooking area. After 6 hours are up, pop open your slow cooker for an awesome site:

Push the vegetables to the side and remove pork to a separate bowl. Clean any fat off the bottom and shred it as best as possible with a couple of forks and a knife. Pour the rest of the contents of the slow cooker through a strainer and retain the juices. Place drippings in a container and put in the freezer to allow the fat to congeal. Dump the onions and peppers in with the pork and combine well – they should fall to pieces and mix in nicely. Add BBQ sauce to taste – I used about half of a 28 oz bottle. If you don’t have access to Sweet Baby Ray’s be sure to use a somewhat sweet sauce as it compliments the tangy heat that the peppers have imparted very nicely. Mix well and return to the slow cooker. Set to high for 5-10 minutes to bring to a near-boil, then mix well with a spoon and set to low or keep warm and let sit for at least another hour and don’t touch it.

After 30 minutes or so the fat should have solidified out of the drippings, scrape it off or pour through it as your health needs dictate and warm slowly in a saucepan. When volume has gone down slightly, 15 or so minutes, whisk in a touch of corn starch to thicken the sauce and get some rolls in the toaster. From here it’s all up to you. I ran my forks through the pork one more time to shred it a bit further, then piled it high on a roll with a little extra Ray’s and some of the sauce and served it up with some freshly steamed broccoli, coleslaw from Wegmans and a pickle. As this is a hot dish I suggest a pale ale at least, and if you go hotter as I did an IPA will help cut the sauce so you can enjoy every bite. Enjoy!

I know it's not the best shot, but whatever. It was dinnertime.

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I love this label.

Not long ago I was driving Cari to the airport in Raleigh, NC and while passing through Hillsborough we decided to kill some time by going to a co-op market I had seen along the way. The Weaver Street Market is worthy of an article all it own, so I’ll reserve that for the spring and go back when their patio is open. After a brief tour we found ourselves in a brightly lit and magnificently stocked beer aisle. To my delight there was a nice selection of 750ml bottles including some of my favorite Belgians and Belgian style ales.

After five minutes Cari was staring at me impatiently and I had to make a decision. My eye was caught by a bright blue and gold label and I had made up my mind. My pick was an ale by Brewery Ommegang in upstate New York. They have been brewing only Belgian style ales since opening in 1997. As I found out, they’ve developed quit a recipe and expertise in their 13 years of brewing.

I think what first drew me to the Hennepin was the label, as I don’t often go for saisons. The contemporary design juxtaposed against the boast of Belgian providence and the words “BOTTLE CONDITIONED” said to me that this bottle is making a bold statement, and I like that. I initially intended to let the brew age in my closet for six months or so, but after less than four weeks I cracked it open. While it was still winter, I decided to put their claim, “Hennepin is the perfect ale for all seasons” to the test.


After my initial pour which produced a solid head, I was overtaken by the color which is vibrant and golden not unlike the label. The ale developed a good head and lots of bubbles. In fact the beer was surprisingly carbonated, which I think suits such a bright summery ale. The first sip gave me a mouthful of bubbly head, which tastes bright, wheaty, and slightly of citrus.

The nose is a touch astringent and reminds me of spring flowers and verbena in a wet burlap sack… in a good way. Saisons can often have a surprising nose, something about the spices and aromatics being welled up by the high carbonation make for quite an experience. In this case it did a wonderful job of setting the tone for the overall tasting.

Initially my first full sip past the head was light and a touch buttery. Hennepin is quite hoppy and floral but less so than an IPA or Triple Ale.  Its only a touch bitter at the end. Notes of wild flower honey, ginger, and coriander were a nice surprise. The ginger really helps it live up the the “for all seasons” claim on their site. The finish is very crisp and clean with notes of citrus and flowers. The after taste is barely perceptible, and pleasant.

The Rating: Highly Recommended

A layer of foam hangs pleasantly around the glass as the ale recedes, as if to say good choice. Overall I loved this ale. I had it with some wheat crackers and Dubliner from Kerry Gold, some walnuts, and some toast points with honey.

Some parings:

  • Dubliner irish chedar from Kerry Gold or even better a Keswick Cheddar
  • Crusty bread with honey and sea salt
  • Coriander crusted tuna, cooked rare
  • Arugula
  • Frites with a lemon aioli

For more great beer reviews visit our friend’s blog, A Beer For Everyone.

Today’s Micro Recipe

Today for a post workout snack I made a red cabbage wrap filled with beef. My plan was to get a boost of vitamins, protein, and flavor. Cabbage, particularly the red variety is one of the healthiest foods in you market. It’s great for men’s health issues and as a general detoxifier particularly of the lungs. I spiced things up with ginger and sriracha both known for aiding in weight loss and circulatory health.

Overall it turned out to be a tasty 10 minute meal, that was well worth the work and easy to manage with aching arms and hands.


1 large washed red cabbage

2-3 oz ground beef

thin slice of ginger

1/2 clove garlic

3 thin onion slices

handful of shredded carrot




Cook the beef with the garlic and ginger in a wok or pan with steaming rack. Remove and set aside. Add water and steaming rack to pan/wok. Place beef, carrot, onion, salt to taste, and sriracha to the cabbage leaf. Roll it like a burrito. Secure with toothpicks. Place on steaming rack when water comes to a boil. Steam 5 minutes.

Total time 10 minutes, serves 1.

We have begun posting new micro recipes to our twitter feed once again! Check them out here.

Also, check out our friends; Embrace Food and A Beer For Everyone.

Lentils Take the Lead

Lentils are a consistently underrated protein, so we’re featuring a lentil dish again. This time we decided to go with a Spanish flavor profile, because we were thinking about our trip to Barcelona last March. When we brainstormed flavors and ingredients, a short list came together almost immediately.  Simple but powerful savory items –  such as peppers, grilled vegetables, onions, almonds, olives, and garlic –  were reminiscent of the cuisine in Spain. We didn’t have any olives in the test kitchen, so we shrugged and chose to use some yellow rice instead. The goal of this menu was to make the lentils the star, rather than highlight obscure or possibly expensive ingredients.

The week prior, I had made paella so we decided to develop a Spanish-style sofrito as a base for the lentils. Additionally, a lucky find at a discount store had yielded some grapeseed oil the day prior. The oil was used to tie the asparagus together with the lentil salad. We did this in an effort to not only depart from the commonplace olive oil, but to build a nutty base note for the almonds to work with. Deviating again from the Iberian standard, red onion and orange bell peppers were used. The choice was a matter partially of convenience, as we were out of red peppers. However, the red onions happen to be our preference, even though we also routinely stock the yellow variety. In this dish the more colorful onion added visual punch and bigger flavor. Subtlety was not the approach we chose for the centerpiece of the dish, and it payed off in the end.

When the dish was served, it was better than we had hoped, so I ran for the camera. The new oil made the asparagus warmer, richer, and more complex than the same preparation with olive oil.  Furthermore, the slightly unconventional sofrito lifted up the lentil to a new level of savory, nutty, and aromatic delight.


1/2 cup yellow rice (I know – it is a shortcut… but saffron is $15 an oz., and lentils are the star here.)

1/2 cup lentils*

1/4 cup diced canned tomato

1/2 red onion

1/2 orange pepper

2 cloves of garlic

14 small to medium asparagus spears

3 tbsp grapeseed oil (divided)

3 tsp sea salt (divided)

3 tsp black pepper

1/4 cup chopped almonds

2 cups chicken stock (divided)


Begin cooking the rice in chicken stock (set aside when done.) Add grapeseed oil to a medium pan. Julienne the orange pepper and onion. Coarse chop the garlic. Chop the almonds and set them aside.

Heat the pan to medium and add the garlic, orange pepper, and onion. When they start to brown, remove them and reserve the oil in the pan. Add the tomato to the pan and salt. Reduce the liquid by about 1/3. Add the lentils and remaining stock and cook for 30-35 minutes.

While you wait, clean the asparagus and toss with grapeseed oi,l sea salt, and cracked pepper. Heat the oven to 400 degrees and place the asparagus in while it heats. Cook the asparagus for 10 minutes or until a fork will slide into them easily and remove.

When the lentils have 5 minutes left, turn on the oven’s broiler to High. Add the onion, pepper, and garlic back into the pan, and do not toss yet. Broil the asparagus until they start to develop color and remove them. Add a spoonful of grapeseed oil and the chopped almonds to the lentils, toss, and serve.

As always, enjoy this in good health. For pairing, we recommend a glass of Cava or a young semi-dry to fruity Rioja.

From the Checkered Pig Fan Page

Amazing Brisket is a Rare and Beautiful Thing

Brisket is easily my favorite food ever, and I take it upon myself to seek it out anywhere I go in the United States. From New York to South Carolina and all the way out to Chicago, the nation is falling in love with barbecue, and I am both an evangelist and critic of this slow-cooked succulent style of preparing meat. Without hashing out the history and minutia of barbecue,  it involves smoking meat and cooking it over low heat (except in the North, where it is generally cooked with direct heat) producing a smoky, juicy product that is more tender and delicious than the particular cut could otherwise be.

With brisket, the process is especially important because the cut comes from the breast of the cow and it is full of connective tissue and dense muscle. However, connective tissue results in big flavor when it breaks down with fats and saturates the surrounding meat. As a result, what starts as the toughest part between the hoofs and horns can transform into a truly magnificent piece of beef. The very nature of the cut is such that good and mediocre preparations are miles apart. In my experience, most barbecue restaurants don’t make very good brisket. Either they rush it, over- or under- season it, cut corners in smoking or preparation, or at times they just don’t understand the cut, and then in the end the brisket will be dry, tough, and flavorless.

The Pig is King

As I mentioned, when I travel I make a point of eating at barbecue restaurants whenever I come across them. So far I haven’t had the pleasure of testing the barbecue in either Oklahoma or Texas, which is a problem I hope to remedy. Brisket was originally a cowboy cut,  and I imagine it is very good in Texas. That being said, the best barbecue places I have found are a Texas style barbecue restaurant in Kentucky (the name of which I now forget), and surprisingly (for me, anyway) a small place in my home town. On a trip to visit my family over the summer I discovered the Checkered Pig, and my life has changed. Well, at least my standards in good brisket have changed.


Checkered Pig is apparently named for, and equally well known for ,their pork shoulder – but who cares when the brisket is this good. Don’t get me wrong, the pork is great, and they win awards for that as well, but the brisket is so good I will literally eat it all day. In fact, last week I did eat Checkered Pig’s brisket all day. I went to the Danville location for lunch and settled up to a New Castle, a brisket sandwich, and fries. The Brown Ale is great with brisket, but that’s beside the point. The sandwich is cheap and piled high with brisket in a regular bun with a bit of sauce. It is strictly a no-frills affair, and for good reason. Even with a slosh of the excellent house-made hot sauce and BBQ sauce, I could easily bite cleanly through the sandwich without losing brisket on either end, a rare feat for a dish like this.

The ease with which I ate my meal speaks to the tenderness and texture and quality of the meat. The texture is perfect – just a little spring on the tooth and then it melts on the tongue. The taste is buttery, smoky, spicy, and beefy. Looking at a slice of the meat you can see a distinct thick pink smoke ring all the way around, and you can taste the time and effort that went into creating that marker of good smoked meat. The bark (or ‘crust’ for the non-barbecue-aficionados) is crunchy, subtle, and full of flavor. You can easily detect paprika, onion, garlic, sugar, molasses (likely from brown sugar,) and many other spices. It is beefy perfection between bread.

The Numbers

Taste 5 of 5

Appearance 5 of 5

Texture 5 of 5

Then I Went Back For More…

The brisket is so good, in fact, that after it settled I got back in my car and went to their drive-through for dinner. Yes, it is so popular, they need a drive-through window in addition to the main restaurant. Sadly, state law prohibited them from passing me a six-pack through the window along with my dinner. The above photo was my dinner – well, there were also fries, a sweet potato, and hush puppies, all delicious in their own right –  but who wants to hear about starch when there’s a steaming delicious pound of meat on the plate. In short, if you’re ever in Martinsville or Danville, VA,  GO TO CHECKERED PIG. If you live in Greensboro, NC, just hop on 29 N, and Checkered Pig is less than an hour away.

For more information (and barbecue worship) check them out on Facebook. The previous post on The Garlic Press is a video of the guys from the Checkered Pig in competition.

Checkered Pig on Urbanspoon

Checkered Pig has a restaurant in my home town, and it’s amazing! I’m re-posting this video from a 2008 competition they won in the run up to a review of their brisket that I’m writing.

Winter = Chili

In the winter months, a steaming bowl of one sort or another is often the best way to keep yourself full and warm. Chili is a classic and each region has its own distinct style. In many cases, chili seems to be one of those dishes that people are leery about experimenting with or branching away from their  standard. In the Southeastern U.S., where I’m from, chili is almost always beef, tomato sauce, red or black beans, some garlic powder, onion powder, and chili powder served with some shredded cheddar cheese on top. It’s  generally quite good and filling but a bit dull after awhile. Some years ago, I had the pleasure of judging a chili contest in southern Virginia, and the chilies ranged from very good to pretty awful. What struck me the most was that the most deviant or innovative recipe simply added some fresh orange juice to the typical mix. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big proponent of the power of simplicity in cooking, but I think the combination of meat, beans, and sauce lends itself to a bit more creativity.

My goal in the test kitchen was to attack traditional chili with creativity and ramped-up spices. You see, lately I have been taking dishes from where I grew up and combining them with elements of other ethnic and regional cuisines. A few weeks back, I experimented with a tomato-based barbeque sauce infused with black tea and chai spices. Surprisingly, the sauce was a great success, so I decided to try concocting a Chai Chili.

Some of the flavors of chai are regularly paired with beef, so I felt that it could work. Cinnamon, for example, is used commonly in Mexican and Southwestern cuisines to flavor beef.  I chose to keep the spice mix simple as to avoid overpowering the wonderful play between beef, mushroom, beans, and tomato. The fusion of Indian and Southern flavors seemed a bit too strange at first, but I recalled a red bean dahl I’d had once, and I knew this would work.


1/4 lb 80/20 ground chuck

1/4 medium sweet onion

3 cloves garlic

12 oz canned tomato

16 oz red beans

8 oz black beans

1 cup beef broth

1 tsp cinnamon

1 1/2 tsp black pepper

2 1/2 tsp chili powder

1 beef boullion cube

1 bag Chai-flavored tea (Stash or Good Earth are my preferred brands)

2 tsp coarse sea salt, to taste

6-10 mushrooms, quartered (avoid those terrible button mushrooms)

1 Tbsp olive oil OR butter


Brunoise the garlic and onion. Quarter the mushrooms and set aside. Add the oil/butter to a medium pot and heat to medium heat. Sweat the garlic and onion, and once the onion is clear, add the beef. Season the beef while it is cooking and stir until it is lightly browned.

At this point, add the tomato and reduce the heat to low. In a small sauce pot bring the broth to a boil, add the bag of tea, and remove the pot from the heat and let sit for 5-10 minutes. Add the stock to the chili pot, and toss in a boullion cube and the vanilla. Raise the heat and bring the mixture to a boil. Add the beans and mushrooms and reduce to a simmer and cover. Cook for 20-30 minutes or until the beans and mushrooms are tender. Serve and enjoy. The recipe should make 3-4 bowls.

Judging the Chili

The chili turned out even better than I had expected! It was warm with a hint of spice and reminded me of the chili I ate growing up and the great bowls of curry and red beans I’ve been devouring for the last few years. The vanilla added a lot in the background without taking over the dish. Generally, I was pleased with the results and everyone in the kitchen was surprised and pleased when I told them about the special twist.