Castle Ranch Steakhouse

I recently read a local blog post that called Castle Ranch a "hidden gem of a steakhouse". After reading their take and listening to their interview with the manager, I decided that it was time to see what was hidden just down the freeway.

A buddy and I go to dinner on occasion and we always go out for steak. When I told him about this new (to us) spot, we were both excited to try it. I told my friend that it was inside the local Holiday Inn, which explains the "hidden" reference in the blog post I read. Most folks would not expect to find an upscale steakhouse inside a Holiday Inn.

We arrived wondering what type of atmosphere to expect. Upon entering the restaurant I felt immediately comfortable. It was upscale, but not so much so that you can't wear jeans. This was a very strong plus for me, right out of the gate. It was classy, but unpretentious.

We were greeted by our server almost immediately and his demeanor matched the upscale-casual ambiance perfectly. He knew his stuff, but he was very welcoming and friendly.

As I read the menu I understood what the manager meant when in the interview he stated that their aim was to get back to basics. The menu doesn't try to be all things to all people. It's a limited menu that sticks to great steaks, with a few other offerings like Kurobuta pork shank, Atlantic salmon, and Idaho trout. What's very refreshing is that they use locally-sourced ingredients. For example, they feature Double R Ranch premium Northwest beef.

After chatting and perusing the menu, we both decided on exactly the same meal. This should certainly not be allowed among two dudes having dinner. It's just not right, but we went with it.

We decided not to get an appetizer and started with their Classic Caesar salad. There was plenty of it, and it was good.

Castle Ranch Steakhouse

For our main courses we chose the 10-ounce flank steak, with cheddar hash as our side. The hash is a great take on, of all things, funeral potatoes. It's a lovely concoction of shredded potatoes, cheese, bacon, and cream of mushrooom soup. They are simple, but very tasty indeed.

We both ordered our flank steak medium-rare, but I asked for mine to be closer to the rare side. Interestingly, mine (pictured below) was cooked perfectly while my friend's was pretty much just plain rare. I think the server may have given him mine by mistake. In addition to the hash, the meal included a medley of sauteed vegetables that were perfectly cooked.

Castle Ranch Steakhouse

The steaks were good, and the tenderness was great, but we both agreed that they were overly marinated. There was a distinct flavor of soy that overpowered the beef. I think they were simply marinated too long.

For dessert the manager treated us to their Xango (pronounced zane-go). It's a tortilla that is filled with cheesecake, lightly fried, dusted in cinnamon sugar and served with whipped cream and plated atop raspberry and chocolate sauce.

Castle Ranch Steakhouse

The dessert was an outstanding end to the meal. It was light and not overly heavy or sweet. I highly recommend it.

In conclusion, Castle Ranch is indeed a hidden upscale, but casual, gem. The atmosphere, service and food were great, with the only exception being our overly-marinated steaks. In retrospect one of us should have tried a different steak for comparison. However, that just means I'll have to go back, which I will do gladly.

Note: Although I've called this a "local review", I should mention that there are three Castle Ranch Steakhouse locations. In addition to the one here in Boise, they also have a location in Price, Utah and Sante Fe, New Mexico.

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Spicy Grilled Fish Tacos

To be completely honest, I had never even heard of fish tacos until I met my SoCal-born-and-raised wife. Even then, I thought that those two words belong nowhere even remotely close together. The idea seemed positively disgusting. This is what happens when you're raised in the Midwest, where tacos come only from a drive-thru at a place with a big fake bell on the roof.

Now that I am older, hopefully wiser (certainly grayer), and with broader culinary horizons, I am a true believer. Fish tacos are some seriously good eats.

At the risk of being ridiculed by those in the know, I will call these "somewhat authentic". Or, you might think of them as "Authentic Gringo Fish Tacos". I was going to use that for the post/recipe title, but I had second thoughts.

Shoot, call me and the recipe whatever you want. Let's get cookin'!

Ingredients
6 Talapia fillets
12 Corn tortillas
1 cup Southwest Slaw
1/4 cup Cilantro, chopped medium-fine
2 Tbsp Hot sauce (I use Frank's Red Hot)
Canola oil

Marinade
1/3 cup Canola oil
Juice of two limes
1 tsp Garlic salt
2 Tbsp Adobo sauce (from a can of chipotles in adobo)

Avocado Cream
1 large Hass avacado, peeled, seeded and diced (I recommend Calavo, of course)
1 cup Sour cream
Juice of one lime
2 tsp Your favorite hot sauce
1 tsp Garlic salt

Important: Make sure the fish is fresh! It should be firm, with good color, and a clean briny (not fishy) smell.

If you can't find talapia, any mild white flaky fish would work. Mahi mahi, cod, red snapper, or halibut would be fine.

Spicy Grilled Fish Tacos

Method
Combine all of the marinade ingredients in a small mixing bowl and whisk to combine.

Put the fish in a gallon zip-top bag and add the marindade.

Slosh the fish and the marinade gently in the bag to ensure that all of the fish is coated.

Seal the bag (removing the excess air) and set aside to marinate for 30 minutes.

Spicy Grilled Fish Tacos

Mash the avocado on a cutting board with the side of your knife.

Combine all of the avocado cream ingredients in an medium mixing bowl and whisk to combine, then cover and refrigerate.

Tip: The marinade and/or avocado cream can be made up to a day in advance.

Start your grill and prepare for direct cooking over a hot fire (450-500º).

Remove the fish from the marinade and drain well.

Pat each filet dry with a paper towel.

Smear each side of each filet with a teaspoon of hot sauce, applying it as evenly as you can.

Oil the grill grate and both sides of the fish lightly with the canola oil. The oil on the grate will smoke, so wait for it to dissipate.

Put the fish on the grill and cook for three minutes.

Spicy Grilled Fish Tacos

Flip the fish over and cook for another minute.

Spicy Grilled Fish Tacos

Move the fish to a warm platter, drizzle the fish with lime juice, and cover the platter with plastic wrap.

Quickly warm each tortilla on the grill.

To serve, offset two tortillas by half, smear the inside with avocado cream, add some fish chunks (separated with forks), then top with about two tablespoons of slaw and some cilantro.

Or, serve it family-style so that everyone can build their own.

Enjoy!

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New Logo

Thanks to my buddy Hugh Griffith of interactionhero.com I have a brand spankin' new logo. Hugh is an extremely talented and accomplished interaction and visual designer, and I am very pleased with what he has come up with. To me it strikes a great balance of whimsical and professional, which is exactly what I was after.

Stay tuned for the roll-out of the logo in the coming days.

Thanks, Hugh!

Southwest Slaw

I made this slaw to go atop some grilled fish tacos (to be posted later) and it was a hit with the family. Aside from being good, it really doesn't get much simpler than this. Despite the name, this would be welcome in almost any situation where you'd serve coleslaw.

Ingredients
1/4 head Green cabbage
1/8 head Red cabbage
1/4 medium Red onion, sliced very thin (about 1/2 cup)
1/8 cup Cilantro, chopped medium-fine

Dressing
3 Tbsp Mayonnaise
Juice of two limes
1 tsp Garlic salt
1 Chipotle chile, in adobo sauce (canned)
1 Tbsp Adobo sauce (from the canned chiles)

Method
Combine all of the dressing ingredients in a small mixing bowl with tall sides, or a large tumbler cup/glass.

Blend the ingredients well with a stick blender, then set aside.

Slice the green cabbage thin (just under 1/4") and put it in a large mixing bowl. You need about three cups.

Southwest Slaw

Slice the red cabbage just like the green and add it to the mixing bowl. You need about 1 1/2 cups.

Add the sliced onion, cilantro, and the dressing to the bowl.

Stir all of the ingredients well.

Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Serve along side/on top of your food of choice and enjoy!

(Makes about 4 cups)

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Review: BBQ 25

Can you tell that it's officially barbecue and grilling season? I am posting yet another review, and there are more on the way. I am a bit backlogged, but that isn't a bad thing.

This time out I'll be giving you my thoughts on the new BBQ 25 by Adam Perry Lang, or "APL" as he is often referred to in various online barbecue forums.

Late last summer I raved about Adam's book Serious Barbecue, and I will rave about this book as well. This is a very different book, aimed at a somewhat different audience, but with the same great roots.

Here is a portion of how Harper Studio describes it:
While Serious Barbecue was the ultimate, comprehensive guide to contemporary outdoor cooking, Adam Perry Lang’s BBQ 25 is its ultra-simplified distillation, created for those times when resources are limited, and space and time are of the essence. Here are step-by-step, foolproof recipes for the 25 most commonly grilled meats-from rib eye to pork rib to chicken wings to sausages-presented in an easy-to-use, easy-to-clean, four-color, 64-page board book format.
I must say that I completely agree with that description. Put simply, it's a user-friendly distillation of the key recipes from his previous book.

The form and layout of this book are revolutionary for cookbooks. As you can somewhat see in the picture below, it is packed with great need-to-know information that is presented in a way that people think about cooking.

Review: BBQ 25

It starts with the meat cut and equipment list in graphical form, then moves into the ingredient list, then a graphical depiction of the major process steps, then into the actual process. Again, the format is very refreshing and easy to use. Oh, and it has the same outstanding photography of the previous book, just much smaller.

If you are a grill and barbecue cook, you simply cannot go wrong with this book. It's small, very concise, and packed with must-know basics. However, like the previous book, it will stretch your boundaries and bring great new flavors to the table.

Get it, read it, and use it!

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Verdict: The Big Easy® Smoker, Roaster & Grill

I've cooked on The Big Easy® Smoker, Roaster & Grill several times over the past week. Despite my early misgivings regarding the overall build quality of this unit, I will say that its performance has definitely surpassed my expectations.

You may recall that my first cook was roasting two chickens. This was clearly a success, but it only tested one of the three cooking methods that this unit boasts.

Last night I decided to try filling the supplied chip/pellet box with some Jack Daniels pellets while grilling some steaks. My thought was that the smoke would give me a more authentic grilled flavor.

I fired The Big Easy up and let it preheat on high for 15 minutes. I put a grill surface thermometer on the stainless steel grate (seasoned earlier) and, as you can see, it hit 525º. This is a good temperature for grilling.

Verdict: The Big Easy® Smoker, Roaster & Grill

I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised at how much smoke this thing produced. It was almost overwhelming for what I was after. You can easily get 75-90 minutes of smoke from one load of pellets. I don't know how chips compare, but the manual states that you can expect about an hour.

I cooked the steak to medium-rare, and the flavor was outstanding. The heat was consistent and about as even as one could expect.

Verdict: The Big Easy® Smoker, Roaster & Grill

Tonight I cooked several more steaks, minus the smoke box, and the results were equally impressive, as the picture at the top of this post attests. I will say that the more you load up the grill grate, the less impressive the grill marks.

My verdict on this unit is that it is great for those that want an easy-to-use cooker that will allow them to grill, roast and smoke. In short, I think it lives up to its name. It's simple to use and produces good food with very minimal fuss. The downside is that its grilling capacity is limited, with a grate that is only a 15" in diameter.

Special Deal: Use the promo code SZTBEPRO when you order here and receive 20% off.

Additional posts about this cooker:
First Look
First Cook
Big Easy Turkey

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Onion Marmalade

Here is a quick, easy and very tasty condiment that would be great as a grilled steak or burger topping. I am going to use it to make what I hope will be a stellar appetizer, but you can use it as a ready-made alternative to sauteed or caramelized onions.

Despite the name, this is most definitely savory rather than sweet.

Ingredients
2 medium Yellow onions
1/2 cup Red wine vinegar
3 Tbsp Butter
2 Tbsp Molasses
1 Tbsp Sugar
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp Black pepper
1/4 tsp Ground ancho chile

Method
Peel the onions then cut them in half from pole to pole.

Cut the halves into half-rings, keeping them together, then cut the half-rings into thirds. You should have about 3 1/2 cups.

Onion Marmalade

Melt the butter in a medium sauce pan over medium-high heat.

Add the onions and cook them, stirring frequently, until they are just translucent (about five minutes).

Reduce the heat to medium, sprinkle the onions with the sugar and continue to cook them, stirring frequently, until they are just starting to brown (about five minutes).

Onion Marmalade

Add the remaining ingredients and bring just barely to a boil.

Onion Marmalade

Continue to cook, stirring frequently, until about 3/4 of the liquid has evaporated (about 8 minutes).

Onion Marmalade

Reduce the heat to low, cover and cook another 10 minutes.

Remove from the heat, uncover and let cool.

Onion Marmalade

Put the cooled marmalade in jars and refrigerate. It should easily keep for a week or two.

(Makes about 1 1/2 cups)

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First Cook: The Big Easy® Smoker, Roaster & Grill

In my last post I gave my first impressions of The Big Easy® Smoker, Roaster & Grill from Char-Broil. Now it's time to see how this bad boy performs. I figured that a roasted chicken is a great place to start.

I started with two chickens that were as close in weight as I could find. They were both within a couple tenths of an ounce of 5 1/4 lbs in the package. By the time I drained and trimmed them, they were probably right at five pounds.

As for prep, I trussed them and seasoned each liberally inside and out with my bold rub. This is essentially the same as my standard mild rub, but with half the sugar and double the chiles and pepper.

I put each one in a zip-top bag and marinated them for 36 hours. Whoa! That is a long time, but it was just because I couldn't find time to cook them sooner. Overnight is more than enough time.

First Cook: The Big Easy® Smoker, Roaster & Grill

Because I was in a hurry the night I cooked them, I took them out of the fridge and warmed each in the microwave (still in the bag) on defrost for about 2 1/2 minutes each. I would normally just leave them out at room temperature for an hour, but this worked well.

Next I preheated the cooker on high with the basket and half-racks in it for about 10 minutes. Then I removed the half racks, put the first chicken on the bottom of the basket, installed the half racks about an inch above the top of the first chicken, then added the second.

First Cook: The Big Easy® Smoker, Roaster & Grill

Although the instructions for roasting tell you to cook with the lid open, I was in a hurry and decided to cook with the lid down for 30 minutes then open it to brown the skin. This turned out to be a good plan.

Here is how they looked after an hour of cooking on high; 30 minutes with the lid closed and another 30 with it open. As you can see, the top bird was pretty brown, but what you can't see is that the bottom one wasn't nearly that brown, so I simply rotated them.

First Cook: The Big Easy® Smoker, Roaster & Grill

When I rotated them I checked the temperature in the thigh and they were at about 150º. They need to get to 165º, so I closed the lid and checked them again fifteen minutes later.

At 75 minutes they were at about 160º, so I opened the lid to give the skin a final crisp. I pulled them off at 90 minutes and rested them for about 15 minutes.

The final verdict with the family was unanimously great. My wife raved about how moist the breast was, and the shorties loved it as well.

I am really impressed with how well this thing cooked the chickens. It was easy and the results spoke for themselves. This is only my first cook, but I am intrigued to see how it smokes and grills.

Special Deal: Use the promo code SZTBEPRO when you order here and receive 20% off.

Additional posts about this cooker:
First Look
The Verdict
Big Easy Turkey

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The Big Easy® Smoker, Roaster & Grill

My friends at Char-Broil sent me one of their new Infrared cookers to test drive. This unit is a propane-fired smoker, roaster and grill that obviously builds on the consumer success of their Big Easy® Oil-less Turkey Fryer. The concept looks sound to me.

Here is how it's described on the Char-Broil site:
Between the outer wall and inner wall of this versatile cooker is a fully enclosed, specially designed propane burner. The heated inner wall radiates natural infrared heat that penetrates food evenly and seals the juices inside. The hot air that is generated escapes out of the top of the cooking chamber before it has a chance to dry out the food. The result is meat that stays moist and tender. The Smoker, Roaster & Grill can easily serve as the only cooker in the backyard.

  • Smoke: Place wood chips or pellets in the stainless steel smoker box

  • Roast: Roasting basket is an easy alternative to the traditional rotisserie

  • Grill: Grill meats and vegetables on the stainless steel grates with no flare-ups
Right out of the gate, I have to say that I was intrigued by what this unit boasts. The idea of a single unit that does all they advertise was, and still is, very interesting.

Here are my impressions of the unit as I opened, assembled and seasoned it:

Packaging
Although it appeared to have adequate packaging, the unit sustained a little bit of damage in transit. The bottom of the main cylinder was slightly out-of-round and dented in some places. This was easily remedied by bending things back into place. There were also a few other parts that were slightly bent and/or misshapen.

Assembly
This required about 30 minutes and it went very smoothly using the clear instructions that were included. I was especially impressed with how the fasteners were packaged on a single card with each part in a separate compartment.

Overall Build Quality
I'll be very honest and say that, in general, Char-Broil does not have a good reputation for using quality materials. My first impression with the materials used in this unit didn't really do much to change that impression in my mind. The metal is thin and and the whole thing seems somewhat flimsy as it goes together. On the plus side, I was impressed with the overall heft once it all came together. Of course, the proof is in the performance, which I'll get to later.

The Big Easy® Smoker, Roaster & Grill

The Big Easy® Smoker, Roaster & Grill

Seasoning
This cooker does require seasoning, but it's a brain-dead easy process. You simply coat all of the cooking surfaces and accessories with oil and run it on hight for 15 minutes, or until it stops smoking. It really couldn't be much easier.

The Big Easy® Smoker, Roaster & Grill

Overall First Impression
Once the unit was assembled and I fired it up for the first time to season it, I can tell that my early thoughts about the concept being sound remain. I think this thing might have some serious potential for those that don't want to deal with the muss and fuss that often accompanies more traditional outdoor cooking.

Although I had some concerns about the quality early on, I now think that the quality of this unit just might strike a balance between great and good enough, but I'll reserve judgment for now.

I cooked two whole chickens on it tonight and I'll share the results in the next post.

Additional posts about this cooker:
First Cook
The Verdict
Big Easy Turkey

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Western BBQ Burgers

There are few things in life that are better than a great burger. OK, maybe there are more than a few, but it really can't be all that many. This is especially true when you top the burger with a slice of cheddar, some grilled onions (as in actually on the grill), and some tangy BBQ sauce. We're talkin' about some serious USDA grade-A all-American fire-grilled good eats!

Let's break it down!

Ingredients
3 lbs Ground beef, 80/20
6 Buns
6 slices Medium cheddar cheese
1 large Sweet onion, sliced to 1/3" (six slices)
1/4 cup Water, ice cold
1 1/2 Tbsp Your favorite BBQ rub (or 2 tsp seasoned salt)
2 Tbsp Soy sauce
6 Tbsp Your favorite BBQ sauce
Kosher salt
Black pepper
Canola or vegetable oil

Method
Put the beef, BBQ seasoning, soy sauce and water in a large mixing bowl.

Use your hands to mix the ingredients very well. Yes, it's messy.

Divide the meat into six equal portions and form them into evenly-sized patties 1/2" thick patties (about six inches in diameter).

Sprinkle both sides of each patty with pepper.

Use your index finger to put a hole in the center of each patty and set them aside.

Western BBQ Burgers

Season both sides of each onion slice lightly with salt and pepper, being careful to leave the rings intact.

Lightly oil both side of each onion slice.

Start your grill and prepare for direct and indirect cooking (heat to one side) over a medium-hot fire (375-400º).

Grill the onions over direct heat for about two minutes per side, then move them to the cooler side of the grill.

Western BBQ Burgers

Lightly oil both sides of each burger.

Grill the burgers over direct heat for three minutes.

Western BBQ Burgers

Flip the burgers and cook them another three minutes.

Western BBQ Burgers

Move the burgers to the cooler side of the grill and top each with a slice of cheese and a grilled onion slice.

Toast the buns over direct heat.

Top each burger with a healthy drizzle of barbecue sauce.

Serve and enjoy!

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Asian Chicken on a Stick

The other night I had a pile of boneless-skinless chicken thighs on death row, so I thought I'd use them as an opportunity to work up a new recipe. It's nothing really fancy, just some Asian-marinated thighs grilled on skewers that I served over some fried rice and stir-fried veggies.

Ingredients
15 Boneless/skinless chicken thighs, trimmed of excess fat
10 skewers (I use bamboo)

Marinade
1/2 cup Soy sauce
3/4 cup Pineapple juice
3/4 cup Coke classic (a natural tenderizer)
4 cloves Garlic, crushed
1 Tbsp Ginger paste
1 tsp Chinese five spice
1/2 tsp Black pepper, ground fresh
1/2 tsp Red pepper flakes

Glaze
1/2 cup Chili sauce (Heinz, of course)
1/3 cup Hoisin sauce
1/4 cup Rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup Pepper jelly
1/4 tsp Chinese five spice

Method
Combine all of the marinade ingredients in a large zip-top bag, seal and shake gently to combine.

Add the chicken thighs to the bag, seal (removing the excess air) and squish the chicken around to ensure even coverage.

Put the bag in a bowl or baking dish and refrigerate for four hours.

Combine all of the glaze ingredients in a small sauce pan.

Bring the glaze just to a boil over medium heat.

Remove from the heat and set aside.

If you plan to use bamboo skewers, soak them submerged in water for at least an hour.

Asian Chicken on a Stick

Prepare your grill for indirect cooking at medium-high heat (about 375*).

Remove the chicken from the marinade and drain well.

Slide three chicken thighs onto a pair of parallel skewers (about an inch apart).

Repeat with the remaining thighs.

Asian Chicken on a Stick

Grill the chicken over direct heat for about two minutes, or until they are seared nicely.

Flip the skewers over and sear the other side.

Move the skewers to the indirect side of the grill and cook them until the internal temperature is 165* (about 10-15 minutes).

Asian Chicken on a Stick

Brush both sides of the chicken with the glaze and quickly move them over the direct heat for a minute or so. You just want the glaze to get sticky and lightly browned.

Flip the skewers over and cook another minute.

Remove the skewers from the grill, coat them again with the glaze.

Serve and enjoy!

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