5 tips for building a BLT sandwich that hits the spot

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In the summer South, a fresh “mater” sandwich is an annual seasonal rite of passage. How that sandwich is assembled is completely up to the consumer (though the ingredients are obviously not open to debate for anyone with the idea it must be done only one way), enabling foodies to get quite creative in finding the perfect recipe.

My favorite way to enjoy a tomato sandwich is the BLT, or bacon, lettuce and tomato, which goes a step further than its simpler “mater” cousin. Just a plain BLT always does the trick for me, but it really hits the spot when I take a little extra care to enhance the sandwich.

On a recent summer day, I made Molly and me a couple of BLTs for lunch, and I spent some time experimenting to jazz up our meal. The whole experience—making the food and then really enjoying it—got me thinking about the keys to perfecting such a longtime regional food staple.

Here’s a five-item, must-do checklist for making your own great BLT.

1. PICK LOCAL TOMATOES: For “mater” sandwich and BLT purists, there may be no more important choice than using a fresh, local tomato picked from the garden. If you don’t have a garden or know someone who does, consider your options at a local farmer’s market. A fresh tomato free of preservatives and pesticides will absolutely be more flavorful and much juicier. Our go-to tomato source in summer is a small network of home gardeners that are family members and neighbors. Once you have the right tomatoes, sprinkle the cut slices with a little salt and pepper to really make them pop. That’s what my grandpa always did, and I understand why every time I take a bite.

2. CHOOSE FRESH GREENS: The L in BLT stands for lettuce, but that’s not a requirement. You can go with another green, or no green at all if that’s not your thing. (Folks who like true “mater”-only sandwiches go with mayo and fresh white bread only, not needing the bacon or the lettuce to be complete.) Nice fresh spinach leaves are my favorite because of their flavor, their crunch and their lack of extra moisture. When you have a juicy tomato, you don’t really need other “wet” ingredients to find the right sandwich balance.

3. SEASON AND CRISP THAT BACON: Normally, a little pepper is nice, but I recently went farther with a light sprinkling of pepper and a slight caramelizing process with brown sugar. The result was a sweet and savory bacon that had even more flavor. Whatever you do, even if it’s no seasoning at all (after all, it’s bacon, right?), you’ve got to establish a crunch. My mama’s right: limp, chewy bacon is never good. If you end up with bacon that troubles you in the crisping attempt, try a few minutes on aluminum foil in the toaster oven, or slide each piece onto a toothpick and bake it in the oven. (That last one’s a trick we learned at a bed-and-breakfast inn in eastern North Carolina.)

4. GET SAUCY: Duke’s mayonnaise might be the most preferred choice of “mater” and BLT sandwich aficionados. That’s a fine standby that’s been delighting home chefs for decades, and for many foodies this is where you can stop reading this step and go on to the next. But we also live in the aioli and specialty-mayo age. How many times have you read a restaurant menu and seen the word aioli or something akin to “chipotle mayo”? There’s so much you can do to jazz up a sauce to slather on a sandwich. Recently, I decided to create a sweeter mayo, so I combined two teaspoons of Duke’s with a teaspoon of local honey. The result was an even fancier sandwich.

5. MAKE A SOLID BREAD SELECTION: I know many tomato lovers who prefer plain white bread for their “mater” sandwiches. Again, that’s an OK choice, but the BLT begs for a more solid selection. You need something that can hold up against the juiciness of the tomato, the greens, your sauce selection and that crunchy bacon. (As Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper would argue, it’s all about the moisture barrier between the juicy vegetables and the bread.) If I’m using white sandwich bread, I like to lightly toast the slices or even grill them in a pan on the stovetop for a little more heft. To go a step further, consider selecting an even heartier bread, such as potato, brioche or ciabatta.

Finally and most important to always remember when you’re cooking at home, this is your #FoodieScore, and your taste will guide your ingredients and your results.

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5 Tips for Easier, Better Burger Grilling

 

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The family backyard barbecue marks the arrival of spring and summer for many of us. And as amateur domestic chefs, there are few things that thrill us more than firing up the grill (either gas or charcoal) and cooking our favorite homemade burgers to share with the most special people in our lives.

Unfortunately, grilling can be a hassle along with the fun. It takes skill and patience to cook good beef on a grilltop. And it takes energy and time to guide and maintenance your grill through the process.

But grilling burgers doesn’t have to be all pain and no pleasure. Here are five very quick and super simple tips I’ve discovered that I guarantee will both improve your cooking results and increase your enjoyment in the grilling process. Cooking is a science, and you should experiment and find your own tricks, but it doesn’t have to be a rocket science process.

1 – MIX IT UP: Season and blend your own beef. No doubt, it’s easier to use frozen or pre-prepared fresh patties. But if you really want your burgers to impress your diners and yourself, buy fresh ground beef and mix in your own seasonings. It takes a little more effort but not much more cost, and you’ll thank yourself when everybody (you included) takes the first bite.

2 – TAKE SHAPE: Press a thumb print into the center of each patty before cooling (see tip No. 3) and cooking them. This indentation will help your patties hold their shape during cooking, instead of swelling in the center and shrinking on the outsides.

3 – COOL IT: Flash freeze your burger patties after you hand-shape them. We’re not talking long here so that your burgers turn into frozen patties. Just 15-20 minutes or so in the fridge or freezer or long enough to cool the meat so that it holds together better on the grill. This will keep you from dealing with your fresh meat trying to fall apart on the grill.

4 – DON’T CROWD: Don’t put too many burgers, or other foods, on your grill surface at any one time. Your meat, and everything else for that matter, will cook better with space around it. No matter your cooking method, you get better heat on your food if you’re not distributing it to more items. So be sure you allot enough time and be patient with the cooking process.

5 – KEEP IT CLEAN: When you’re done cooking and after your grill cools down, go ahead and clean it up before putting it away for next time. (I use a charcoal grill and have found that soap pads and warm water work wonders on a dirty grill top. I clean it and then store my grill grate in our pantry until the next use. And I go ahead and remove all of the used coals from the bottom of my grill to be ready to add fresh coals the next time I grill.) You’ll thank yourself when you get ready to grill next time and you don’t have to go through a long process to clean before you begin cooking.

What are your best tips for grilling out? Share them in our comments section or on social media. Find us @foodiescore on Facebook and Instagram, or on Twitter at @Foodie_Score.

Gooey Chocolate Cobbler

As our family prepared to gather for a July Fourth cookout, my mom searched for a fruitless cobbler recipe that could accompany homemade vanilla ice cream. She discovered this recipe for Chocolate Cobbler on Pinterest, a haven for a never-ending supply of foodie ideas both sweet and savory. There were several versions, but this one was the simplest, she said. It also has a very unique preparation method.

Ingredients

1 cup self-rising flour

3/4 cup sugar

2 tablespoons cocoa

1/2 cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 tablespoons melted butter or margarine

 

Steps

1. Mix your ingredients and pour into a greased 9×9 or 8×8 glass baking dish.

2. Mix 3/4 cup of brown sugar and 1/4 cup of cocoa and sprinkle over the batter in your dish.

3. Pour 1 3/4 cup of hot tap water over everything in your dish and DO NOT STIR.

4. Bake at 350 degrees for 40-45 minutes.

5. Serve immediately if you want a dish with more of a saucy consistency, or let the dish cool for a while to serve a dish more like a pudding with a cake-like top.

 

This paired perfectly with our homemade vanilla ice cream. It’s also a dish that you can add nuts, fruit, or chocolate or other sweet baking chips to for embellishment.

Molly’s Take: This dessert is a perfect accompaniment to ice cream and it can also stand alone. It has a great soft pudding consistency and is sweet without being too sweet. The use of cocoa rather than any type of melted chocolate is the secret behind that just-right sweetness, and it also gives it a great homemade taste. Give it a try! It’s super easy to make and would be a delicious warm treat in winter, as well as a delectable summer treat, like we had, with ice cream or whipped cream.

Matthew’s Take: I thought it was interesting to pour hot water over what was essentially a brownie-type batter to make this cobbler. My mom and I thought it would be more of a liquid consistency because of that, and it was when it first came out of the oven. But we let it cool for a while as we ate dinner, and by the time we were ready for dessert it was a tasty pudding-like cobbler accompaniment to our ice cream. If you want a cobbler with more of a crispy crust, this would not be the recipe for you. But it was a delicious dish with great flavor and a nice smooth texture, and I would absolutely recommend it. I give the Gooey Chocolate Cobbler an A for taste and an A for ease of baking.

Cheeseburger with Homemade Cherry Cola BBQ Sauce

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My favorite cheeseburger hands down is a basic burger: maybe something with cheese, lettuce, tomato, a little mayo. That’s usually what I seek out the first time I’m visiting a spot known for its cheeseburgers. Next on the list after the “classic” version is some version of barbecue cheeseburger. I love the combination of meat, bun, cheese and barbecue sauce.

My taste for barbecue sauce on cheeseburgers is why the “Bronco Burger” was an attractive option when we recently planned a cookout at our house.  The Bronco includes, among other delicious features, a homemade cherry cola barbecue sauce that offers a bit of a kick. The accompanying mozzarella cheese provides a cool down effect that pairs nicely with the sauce.

This burger recipe was a fun one to make alongside Molly. As I grilled the burgers in the backyard, she made the barbecue sauce in the kitchen. Let’s dive right into what you’ll need to make your own Bronco Burgers, along with the process for putting the burgers and sauce together.

Burger Ingredients

1.5 pounds ground beef of your choice

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon prepared chili powder

1 teaspoon onion powder

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Sandwich Ingredients

mozzarella cheese of your choice

hamburger buns

sweet onion slices

dill pickle chips

Barbecue Sauce Ingredients

1 tablespoon butter

1/2 cup chopped onion

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

1.5 cups ketchup

1.25 cups cherry Coke (or your preferred cola)

1/4 cup light brown sugar

1/4 cup cherry preserves

1/8 cup red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

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Sauce Directions

1. Melt butter in pan

2. Add onion and garlic and saute.

3. Whisk in remaining ingredients.

4. Bring to a boil on medium-high heat. Cook until mixture thickens.

The sauce will take you about 45 minutes. It takes a while to thicken in some cases.

Serve warm.

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Putting your burgers in the fridge or freezer to get them nice and cool before putting them on the grill will help them hold together better as they cook. This is especially important if you’re cooking with fresh ground beef.

Burger Directions

1. Mix your cumin, chili powder, onion powder, salt and pepper into your meat.

2. Patty out into the size of burgers you’d like to eat.

3. Use your fingers to make an indentation in the centers of both sides of the burger patties to prevent them from forming a dome as they cook.

4. Refrigerate your burgers until you’re ready to grill them.

5. Grill until burgers are done as you desire.

6. Arrange burgers with cheese, pickles and onion on your buns and then top with preferred amount of barbecue sauce.

 

Molly’s Take: One step is left out of this phenomenal burger recipe: Enjoy! The sauce is killer and, despite the time it takes to cook, surprisingly easy to make. Drizzled on top of a perfectly-seasoned burger bursting with flavor and combined with the smoky taste and the texture of mozzarella, all sandwiched between a solid, fresh bun — this sauce is the microphone that makes that burger sing. Add in some pickles and onions and you’ve got a flavor explosion the likes of which I’ve never had at home in a homemade burger. In other words, if you’ve got a minute and a hot grill, try this and tell us what you thought.

Matthew’s Take: These Bronco Burgers are as tasty as any barbecue-sauced cheeseburgers I’ve had, and it’s all because of the barbecue sauce. The spice mixture that goes into the patties has its own role in this #FoodieScore experience, and the mozzarella cheese, pickles and onions create a nice mixture of textures and flavors, but it’s the homemade sauce that provides the lasting impression. And the best part? You can refrigerate the sauce and continue to use it on pork, chicken and other foods for a few weeks after making it. This is a winner if you like barbecue cheeseburgers. I give this one an A for taste, an A- for cost (you may have to buy some spices and items you won’t have on hand), and I give it a B for ease. The sauce took Molly some time and attention to cook. But hey, that’s the point. It wouldn’t be the same with a bottled barbecue sauce.

$5 S’mores Dip for the Family

What do you need to make this s’mores dip? Three ingredients and a cast iron pan. That’s it! This is by far one of the easiest desserts you can make. We found a similar dessert on Pinterest, but decided we wanted to make it even simpler by using regular marshmallows instead of cutting the giant marshmallows into smaller pieces. It just made sense! Here’s a look at your ingredients.

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OK, so s’mores are messy, right? And sometimes it’s hard to find a summer family dessert that everyone will like. But if everyone likes graham crackers, marshmallows and chocolate? You’re set! Here’s how to make it:

Ingredients:

1 cup milk chocolate chips (about $2)

1/2 bag of marshmallows (97 cents at our local market)

1 box of graham crackers (about $1)

Instructions:

1. Take out your cast iron pan and pour the chocolate chips in the bottom as evenly as you can.

2. Cover the chocolate chips with about half a bag of marshmallows, or more if you want extra marshmallow on top. We found that leaving a little space between some of the marshmallows is fine, because they’ll expand and melt together.

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3. Cook in a preheated 450-degree oven for about 7 minutes. Don’t burn them! Just cook until the marshmallows are golden brown on top.

4. While that’s cooking, break your graham crackers into dippable pieces. (Usually into quarters.)

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5. Remove from oven, place the hot cast iron pan on a towel so it won’t burn the surface you put it on, and start dipping!

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Molly’s take: This dip is AMAZING. Five reasons you should try it: It’s easier than making actual s’mores, which take a lot of assembly. It’s less messy, because you’re not squishing out the chocolate and the marshmallow every time you take a bite. It’s super, dirt cheap – -all the ingredients can be purchased for just a few dollars! You don’t need to be a baker to do it–just pop in the oven for 7 minutes and you’re done. And, it’s an utter delight to your tastebuds. BONUS reason: It’s ultimately share-able and proven to bring a smile to people’s faces.

Matthew’s take: Anybody can make this dip. Bachelors. Families. Kids can even make it with adult supervision on the oven part, especially with how hot the cast iron pan gets. You could even make this dip by your fire while you’re out camping. As Molly said, this dip is better than the traditional s’mores because it’s less messy, easier to assemble and easier to eat. I give this dip a triple A+ for taste, presentation and cost. It simply doesn’t get much better than this.

Five-Minute Summer Cherry Limeade That Rivals Sonic’s

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Both sides of our family have a history of traditions in the kitchen. In 2013, Matthew’s mom, Chris, created a cookbook of recipes from her branch of the family. The book includes a heaping of sweet and savory dishes, and amongst all the food is an almost-hidden entry for Cherry Limeade. The drink took about five minutes to make, resembles punch and it rivals the limeades that Sonic Drive-ins sell. Here’s how you make it in about five minutes.

Ingredients

2-liter bottle of lemon-lime soda

1 10 oz. jar of maraschino cherries, with juice

1 cup fresh squeezed lime juice

1 cup sugar

Step one: Mix soda, cherries, lime juice and sugar in a large bowl or pitcher and stir. (The recipe suggests to chill all the ingredients before mixing.)

Step two: Cut wedges from a lime and cut a slit in each one to fix on the rim of your glasses.

Step three: Chill limeade for 30 minutes in the refrigerator.

Step four: Pour your limeade and cherries into each glass (with ice, as desired), and serve.

Molly’s Take: I’ve always loved lemonades and punch – and what’s better in the warm summers of the South than a delicious, cold, fruity, refreshing beverage? This is perfect for a party or just a simple get-together. The maraschino cherries give it a delightful punch of flavor. We happened to have lime soda in the fridge, cherries from a dessert we’d made and limes from a dinner we’d made. So it was super easy to put together. But it’s just as easy to pick up those few ingredients. Definitely worth a try!

Matthew’s Take: I’m a sucker for a good limeade when I visit Sonic. I’d rather get a limeade than any other drink on the menu. This limeade is as good as Sonic’s, and it reminds me of a punch you’d find at a wedding, birthday or other celebration reception. If you have the ingredients on hand, it really takes about five minutes to prepare, and it’s the kind of fancy-looking drink that would make someone ask what it is as they pass you on your deck or patio. I give this creation an A+ for taste, an A+ for presentation and an A for ease. While the preparation time is amazing, it’s not likely you always have cherries and fresh lime in the kitchen like we did when we decided to make this limeade.

Credit: This recipe is credited to Matthew’s cousin, Sherri Blanton.