Tyler Philips

OTR: Alchemist Coffee Co. (Washington, D.C.)

Tyler Philips wants you to drink better coffee.

The founder and co-owner of Alchemist Coffee Company, headquartered in Washington, D.C., Philips knows from his more than decade and a half in the restaurant and service industry that coffee can (and should) be better across the board.

And he thinks he’s found the way to do it.

“Bringing high quality coffee to more people, to a wider audience is why I started doing this,” Philips said in an interview at his retail and production facility in the Brookland neighborhood of Northeast D.C.

Tastemakers, a food incubator, in Washington, D.C. (JW on the Road)

Philips specially brews coffee designed to be charged with nitrogen — commonly referred to as nitro coffee. He works out of Tastemakers, a food and restaurant incubator of sorts, that brings together more than 40 food entrepreneurs in a shared commercial kitchen and food-hall-style retail environment. Philips has been in the space since January 2018.

‘Really amazing fruit’

From his time working in restaurants, bars and coffee shops across the D.C. area, Philips saw the problem — when coffee was great, it was exceptional, but with that also came the risk of coffee that was adequate, inconsistent, or bad.

“It’s not just this shelf-stable drug that sits in your cabinet that you want to pull out and drink to get some energy,” Philips said. “It’s actually an amazing fruit with a lot of complexity and a lot of variation depending on where it’s grown.”

Even as the specialty coffee industry grew across the U.S. and internationally, Philips said there was room for a better product that emphasized the level of quality and passion growers and roasters bring to the product.

“It has a huge variance in terms of flavors that are really, really, really delicious, really, really, really wonderful, but are hard to access right now consistently,” Philips said.

From Alchemist’s launch in 2015, until late 2018, Philips’ coffee was only available cold.

It was a problem he knew he would have to solve.

But last fall, Philips cracked the code: the nation’s (presumably) first hot draft coffee. The coffee comes out at 170 degrees and also has a crema-like foam on top from the nitrogen.

Draft coffee — hot and cold — starts to solve the consistency problem that specialty coffee has faced as the industry has pivoted from niche coffee fans to the mainstream.

Draft Iced Coffee
A draft coffee to go from Alchemist Coffee’s retail space (JW on the Road)

Take pour-over coffee, for instance. A customer picks a specific coffee, usually one that comes from a single origin point (think a single farm in a single country). Then, the barista measures a specific amount of coffee, and a specific amount of water. The barista grinds the whole bean coffee to a specific size, based on the coffee’s individual characteristics. Then, pours hot water (usually at a specific temperature) over the ground coffee through a device that looks like an open-face drip coffee maker at a certain rate of speed over a certain amount of time. The customer pays a higher-than-average price for that coffee with almost no guarantee that they will like the flavor of the coffee or that that barista did every step of the process perfectly.

“You just have to hope that the coffee’s fresh, that it’s roasted well, that it’s properly developed, that the person brewing it is not going to make a mistake and that the grind setting has been dialed in,” Philips said. “You just kind of have to hope that all those things are true, and yeah, at great shops a lot of the times they are. But sometimes they’re not.”

Philips said draft coffee is “right up there with the best of pour-overs,” and overcomes several of the dilemmas that specialty coffee pour-overs present — namely the ability to taste a coffee before committing to a hefty price tag.

“If you see a menu of pour-overs, you can’t taste a pour-over before you drink it,” Philips said. “Having the ability to taste something before you shell out four, or five, or six bucks for it is nice.”

In addition, Alchemist’s batch brewing and production method cuts down on waste. Kegged coffee also lasts up to 30 days, “so you don’t need to worry about throwing out coffee every night.”

Philips sources his coffee from four roasters — Ceremony (in Annapolis, Maryland), Heart (in Portland, Oregon), Counter Culture (in Durham, North Carolina) and Tim Wendelboe (in Oslo, Norway) — and brews it hot to specifications he has ironed out over the now nearly four years that he’s operated as Alchemist Coffee.

Then, he flash chills it. Putting it in a keg and charging it with nitrogen preserves the coffee for a longer duration by removing the oxygen from the keg, prohibiting the coffee from going stale or losing its freshness.

Alchemist Coffee's Retail Place
Alchemist Coffee’s retail stand at Tastemakers in Washington, D.C. (JW on the Road)

A server or bartender — at one of his more than 50 wholesale accounts or at his retail stand at Tastemakers — pulls on a standard beer tap outfitted with a nitro tip. And out comes the coffee, cold, crisp and as fresh as the day it was brewed. In addition, the coffee boasts a Guinness-style nitrogen foam head on top, giving it a beautiful appearance.

Addressing cold brew

Cold brew coffee — brewed by steeping ground coffee in room temperature water for long periods of time — has been around coffee circles for the better of the last decade, but hit the mainstream scene in 2015 when Starbucks introduced it nationwide. Some shops — like the Gregory’s Coffee chain — serve exclusively cold brew as their iced coffee offering.

Also in 2015, Portland, Oregon’s, Stumptown Coffee Roasters started charging their cold brew with nitrogen to provide the same frothy texture Alchemist’s coffee presents.

But the end products, Philips said, are different.

By brewing hot, Philips said Alchemist Coffee extracts the flavors that make coffee taste like coffee in the most effective and efficient way.

“A lot of the soluble compounds which make up the flavor of coffee do not dissolve well in cold water,” Philips said.

Chemical elements and compounds in coffee that make the drink taste bitter, acidic, sweet and complex don’t dissolve effectively in cold water. The two main selling points for cold brew to many customers — an extra caffeine jolt and a lack of bitterness — are compelling. But well-roasted and brewed coffee can provide a more-balanced beverage that brings out flavors the day-to-day coffee drinker may never have known were possible.

“One of the reasons why cold brew tends to be stronger than other coffees is because caffeine is very water soluble,” Philips said. “If you want to get a beverage that tastes like coffee, you have to use a lot more ground coffee in the [cold] water than you otherwise would with a hot coffee.”

The end result, Philips said, is something that mimics some of the flavors of coffee, but with more extracted caffeine due to the solubility.

Cold brewing coffee, however, can help soften some flaws in coffee, Philips said.

“If you have a high quality coffee that tastes amazing, and then you cold brew it, you’re not going to get a lot of that flavor,” Philips said. “You might get hints, or traces, of it, but if you have coffee that has certain flaws in it, if you cold brew it, it will taste fine. So, cold brew certainly has its uses.”

For Philips, Alchemist is about more than delivering that caffeinated product — it’s about introducing people to an incredible coffee experience.

“If you’re trying to introduce people to amazing coffee that will give them a nice, exciting experience that will open up their minds a little bit to what coffee could be, you have to brew it hot,” Philips said.

Introducing hot draft

While Philip believes he has a superior product to cold brew when it comes to the nitro coffee market, there was still something missing from his product suite: hot coffee.

“I knew, OK, I have to find a way to serve it hot,” Philips said. “Can I build something? Is there a way for me to heat it up? What can we do?”

The solution came when Philips discovered a draft technician headquartered outside of Chicago who created a hot draft system to serve hot chocolate at a stadium.

After the discovery, Philips brought a keg of his coffee to the technician’s headquarters to test it out and “it came out really well.” Enter hot draft coffee.

The machine is still undergoing wider production as of this writing. Philips has one of the first units produced at his retail location at Tastemakers.

“It tastes great, and it just gets around so many of the things that stand in the way of restaurants serving high-quality coffee,” Philips said. “The cleaning is very minimal, the training is very minimal.”

Hot Draft Coffee
Hot draft coffee pours with the same crema-like foam that the iced nitro offering has. (JW on the Road)

Serving the restaurant industry

The potential to bring hot draft coffee to a wider audience solves two key problems in the food and beverage industry, Philips said: a lack of mass-market, high-quality specialty coffee, and the inability for restaurants to serve great coffee with the ease of other beverages.

In the restaurant industry, even some of the most renowned restaurants struggle to be able to devote the time and energy necessary to brew specialty coffee well, Philips said.

The coffee industry — namely through specialty coffee shops — has grown into one where precision shines, and the flavor of the beverage you’re served is dependent upon that precision. In restaurants, that time and attention to precision is ordinarily reserved for the food — not for the coffee.

“Despite the best of intentions, despite everything else on the menu having a lot of thought and passion and craft put into it, coffee kind of falls by the wayside 99.9 percent of the time,” Philips said.

But hot draft — and the original nitro iced coffee offering — solve that problem for restaurants. Alchemist Coffee brews coffee with the requisite amount of precision, puts it in a keg and charges it with nitrogen.

All a restaurant has to do is hook that keg into its tap system.

“The infrastructure and training to serve delicious coffee is already there,” Philips said. “If we do all the hard work of sourcing high quality coffee, making sure we brew it when it’s fresh, pay close attention to it, use the right water, use a good grinder, then restaurants and bars can serve a high quality coffee using systems already in their wheelhouse.”

Draft Iced Coffee 2
Alchemist’s draft coffee, not cold brew, is available at more than 50 locations across the D.C. metro area. (JW on the Road)

Serving high quality coffee from roasters like Wendelboe and Heart would be akin to restaurants serving high quality wine and beer — something most restaurants already do quite well, Philips said.

“Restaurants don’t make their own beer, they don’t make their own wine, but they have a ton of delicious wine and beer there,” Philips said. “[With hot and cold draft coffee] restaurants can focus on food, and coffee can just be one of those things where they can offer a high quality product without having to literally brew it themselves.”

In addition to saving servers, bussers and other restaurant staff time, a product like Alchemist Coffee’s offerings offers a visually attractive product over a standard cuppa. The coffee, both hot and cold, pours with a thick Guinness-like froth head.

“It has a beautiful appearance, and people respond to it,” Philips said. “It looks special, it doesn’t just taste special, which is important in the world that we live in.”

‘A step in the right direction’ for specialty coffee

For the specialty coffee industry, hot draft is “a step in the right direction” toward access to high quality coffees in the mass market, Philips said.

Getting those high quality coffees in front of as many consumers as possible, though, is a challenge even the largest and most successful specialty coffee companies haven’t cracked yet. Some coffees that win international competitions sell for more than $100/pound green (or raw), but the average consumer doesn’t have the equipment to brew them for their money’s worth at home.

So, specialty coffee companies are investing a “ton of money” in ways to make that happen, Philips said.

“There’s a ton of money being put into specialty instant coffee, there’s a ton of money being put into pods, like specialty pods — not Keurigs, but getting high quality coffee and putting it into a pod,” Philips said.

And while work on those products continues and may see some results down the road, hot draft is a way for restaurants, bars, and coffee shops to cross that bridge now — at least with the coffee Philips offers. (Tim Wendelboe, a Nordic roaster whose coffee Alchemist carries and serves hot and cold, won the World Barista Championship in 2004 and the World Cup Tasters Championship in 2005.)

Hot draft can lay the groundwork for a world where baristas are more like sommeliers, instead of brewers, Philips said.

Now, in coffee shops across the country, baristas generally spend most of their time — both behind the bar and in trainings — on technical skills, but with a company like Alchemist supplying precisely-brewed and quality-controlled coffee on tap (hot and cold), those same baristas would be able to spend more time on studying the characteristics that make coffee special and truly embrace a sommelier-like position.

“To me, this hot draft coffee machine is a step in the right direction, and it tastes way better than any pod that I’ve ever had,” Philips said. “I give people a taste of it and they’re like ‘I had no idea coffee could taste like this.’ That’s exactly what I want to hear.”

From Mockingbird to Alchemist

Philips has worked in restaurants and coffee shops since he was 15 years old, and later got experience in bars. Those jobs, he said, formed both the business case for what became Alchemist Coffee, and the passion that went into the product.

In college, while attending Longwood University, Philips worked at a bakery literally called “The Bakery” that taught him about quality and integrity in the product.

“Incredible bread, incredibly good wine and beer, in Farmville, Virginia, at a time where there was nothing,” Philips said. “That kind of introduced me to good food, and having integrity for what you do in the food industry, and having pride in what you do, and not taking the easy route.”

Fast forward several industry jobs later, Philips became a bartender/barista at Mockingbird Hill — a now-defunct sherry-focused bar in Washington, D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood. In addition to sherry, though, Mockingbird Hill opened in the mornings on weekends and had a coffee program curated by Cory Andreen — 2012 World Taster’s Cup Champion and co-owner of Motel Coffee, formerly known as Brewbox — a cafe in Berlin.

On any given Saturday, Mockingbird Hill had nearly two dozen specialty coffees from all over the world available to serve via pour over. Customers could also purchase coffee cocktails, a weekly coffee of the day and nitro iced coffee.

“It wasn’t perfect, but oh my God, it was way ahead of its time,” Philips said.

The best seller though, for that coffee program, was the nitro coffee.

When Mockingbird Hill ended its coffee program, Philips knew his next move: take nitro coffee wholesale to serve the same industry he had spent so much of his life in.

With the purchase of some equipment, and the creation of a production space in the kitchen of his apartment in Alexandria, Virginia (where he lived with his wife, Heather), Alchemist Coffee was born.

“We converted the kitchen to the production space because the oven had a 220V plug which I needed for my brewer,” Philips said. “That meant our actual cooking had to be done on the grill outside or on our single convection plug-in burner.”

In the beginning, however, Philips continued to work multiple jobs — including bartending while he got his company off the ground.

Alchemist Coffee Co Sign
(JW on the Road)

“I started off doing this coffee company part time,” Philips said. “I was bartending. It was difficult to do — working in the evenings and then trying to drag yourself out of bed in the mornings to brew and sell and deliver coffee. It’s two different extremes.”

Eventually, after about a year and a half, Philips “was burnt out” and had to decide if he “wanted to continue to pursue bartending or try to make this idea actually work.”

He left his service industry jobs to take Alchemist Coffee full time.

In February, he brought on a partner to help with the day-to-day operations of Alchemist Coffee. Aaron Banschick was Philips’ employee first, but later bought into the business to support Philips’ vision.

“It’s great to work with someone who shares my vision for what great coffee service can look like,” Philips said.

Philips, his wife and their newborn child now live in a D.C. apartment not far from his space at Tastemakers. It has a fully-functioning kitchen.

Looking forward

Now that Banschick has joined the business, Philips’ main focus continues to be “brewing and selling good coffee,” but that doesn’t mean that’s all to expect from the future of Alchemist Coffee.

Draft Coffee and Tea
Nitro Iced Coffee (Left) and Nitro Hibiscus Tea (Right) are available at both locations of Washington, D.C.’s The Coffee Bar. (JW on the Road)

The company’s more experimental offerings are on tap at their Tastemakers retail facility, including a hibiscus draft tea, a seasonal chai, three coffees and a kombucha. Two coffees, from Heart and Wendelboe respectively, are also available on the hot draft system.

Last month, Alchemist released its first wholesale tea offering — a draft hibiscus tea to The Coffee Bar. The Coffee Bar, which has carried Alchemist Coffee offerings since July 2017, has two locations in D.C.

“The hibiscus tea is something extra we do for fun,” Philips said. “We’ve been serving it for a year at our retail booth, and due to the positive response, we figured it’d be a nice add-on for our wholesale customers.”

With hot and cold draft coffee (and eventually tea), Alchemist Coffee and Tyler Philips are still rooted in just one focus: “bringing high quality coffee to more people.”

OTR, short for “On the Road” — This series highlights a particular restaurant, place or experience. To be clear, these are not reviews, but instead a look inside an organization, a meal or flavors. While I think there’s a place for reviews (and maybe a place for reviews here sometime in the future), there are establishments and food worthy of noting and celebrating. That’s what these posts are about.

Ninja Foodi

ITK: Ninja Foodi

I own a weird amount of cooking equipment. I’ve got a Kitchen Aid, an Instant Pot, a food processor, pots, pans, a mini-blender, a normal blender, a waffle-maker and more. It’s already too much (trust me, my family tells me every time I move).

Someone like me should not be in the market for a new kitchen implement.

But here we are.

Ninja Foodi
The Ninja Foodi cooking during a “bake/roast” cycle. This cycle circulates hot air at a specific temperature into the pot. (JW on the Road)

Let’s talk about the Ninja Foodi — it’s an electric multi-cooker (think about a pressure cooker and slow cooker having a baby and still being able to do each of the respective tasks that their parent products do) plus an air fryer (we’ll get there), and, in some models, a dehydrator.

Since they started hitting the scene, I’ve been skeptical of air fryers. The reason things fry in oil is science. It’s a reaction of fat with a surface material at a certain temperature. At best, I can see how air fryers — which basically blow a lot of heat downward onto something that was probably lightly coated in oil (needing way less oil than immersive frying) — can provide a similar texture and browning effect, similar to baking or broiling in an oven. Melissa Clark, a great cookbook author and food writer for the New York Times, recently wrote a great piece about the allure of air frying. Clark ultimately wound up disappointed.

There’s certainly a place for this concept in your kitchen, especially if you cook 1,000 things at once, but is it worth the investment?

With the Foodi, Ninja has taken an already eight-to-10-part device and added three or four more parts to it. In addition to the pressure cooking functions, the Foodi also enables baking at a steady temperature in its small cavity, (think breads, pastries, etc.) in addition to air frying (which Ninja almost always calls crisping). Some models also have a dehydrator built in.

If it seems too good to be true, I get it. It sort of is.

What excites me most about the Foodi is not where we are right now with it, but instead where we can go. Devices like the Foodi (at a slightly lower price point) can open a ton of culinary creativity for the average home cook, the same way the Instant Pot did. If home cooking takes a step forward with each device that allows the everyday consumer to make a more flavorful and elegant meal, the Foodi is that step.

Here’s the important point I’ll make before we dive in: If you don’t already own an electric multi-cooker, and you want to get one, the Ninja Foodi is easily the best one I’ve used. If you do own a multi-cooker, don’t rush to replace it. Yet.

Digesting the Foodi

Most of my approach in the kitchen is derived from Alton Brown. I like simple tools that do a bunch of different things. The Instant Pot (which I already own and love) doesn’t really abide by his rules (he prefers a stovetop pressure cooker), and while I’m not certain he’s on the record about it, I can only assume he’s not a big fan.

But the Foodi feels like it could be different — mainly because of who is behind it. Let me introduce you to Justin Warner.

Warner, formerly the chef and mind behind Brooklyn’s Do or Dine and the author behind one of my favorite cookbooks out there, thinks about food in a way I envy so much. He’s creative, but takes the same methodical care to process that Alton Brown does. They’re friends. And Warner considers Brown a mentor. In fact, he even addresses it in the foreword to Kenzie Swanhart’s “Ninja Foodi: Complete Cookbook for Beginners.

“I am quite possibly the last person you would expect to write the foreword for this book,” Warner writes. “I was mentored by Alton Brown, a culinary titan, who has no use for unitaskers that clutter precious counter space.”

Warner goes on to write about how he was skeptical initially about the electric pressure cooker fad. In fact, that same skepticism lead to him working with Swanhart (who wrote the aforementioned cookbook) and the Ninja team to develop the Foodi.

In his foreword, Warner laments the problems current electric pressure cookers (like my trusty Instant Pot) face:

  • They don’t offer the same control as a stove
  • They don’t create “textural juxtaposition” — Warner’s way of saying that food coming from a pressure cooker is kind of flat texturally.
  • They don’t reliably sear
  • They don’t have enough space to manipulate ingredients
  • They don’t deliver “restaurant quality” results

Despite my love for the ol’ Instant Pot, I completely agree with Warner’s assessment. Especially the last point. While I loving going out “On the Road” (had to), I also believe deeply in the ability of home cooks to create food experiences that are close to restaurant quality. Unless you’re making a soup, or a protein in liquid, with few exceptions, the multi-cooker doesn’t offer you that texture that even a pot roast, chicken or the like, can offer you in a restaurant.

The Ninja Foodi solves all of these, Warner says. Let’s find out if he’s right.

About the test

During a weekend at my girlfriend’s parents house, I delightfully discovered a Ninja Foodi in their pantry. It’s the 6.5 quart model, without the dehydrating function. As of this writing, it runs for $210 or so on Amazon (yes, that’s where all my affiliate links point to — disclaimer at the bottom of this post).

Over the course of about 48 hours, I made four recipes from Swanhart’s cookbook. I specifically used recipes that used pressure cooking and crisping to make sure I was getting the most out of the device.

At almost $100 more than the Instant Pot and close to $150 more than a stovetop pressure cooker, does the Foodi justify the expense with enough bang for my buck?

The food

During my four tests, I made:

  • Banana Bread French Toast
  • Chili-Ranch Chicken Wings
  • Creamy Polenta and Mushrooms
  • Black and Blue Berry Cobbler

I picked these four items for a few reasons, but mainly because I only had a little less than two days to do it. In addition, I wanted to explore the range of food this device could put out.

The cooking

At least by my count, the Foodi comes to pressure faster than an Instant Pot, which cuts down on the overall time it takes for the food to get from raw to on the table.

Banana Bread French Toast

Easily the best food I made in the Foodi was the French Toast recipe from Swanhart’s cookbook. Three of the four recipes, actually, all called for a multi-purpose pan to put inside the pressure cooker. Since I was cooking in my girlfriend’s family’s kitchen, I didn’t want to guess which of their pans were pressure cooker friendly, so I constructed mine out of heavy duty aluminum foil. It worked.

Ninja Foodi French Toast Pre-Cook
The Ninja Foodi, with a homemade aluminum foil pan, with the ingredients for a Banana Bread French Toast inside, before the pressure or roasting cooking cycles. (JW on the Road)

The French Toast recipe called for cubed pieces of bread, doused in the requisite vanilla-milk-egg mixture, plus bananas, cream cheese and pecans. It pressure cooked to soften everything and meld the flavors, then using the “Bake/Roast” function, crisped the top after adding butter, maple syrup and pecans. The dish was flavorful — way more so than could be achieved on a stovetop — and full of texture. Warner was completely right here. My mouth lit up tasting the sweet flavors mixed with the ooey-gooey goodness and balanced by the crisp top and the pecans that were so delicately toasted by the roasting function.

Banana Bread French Toast
Banana Bread French Toast, made in the Ninja Foodi (JW on the Road)

I started with this recipe because it was unlike anything I had ever cooked in a pressure cooker. I wanted to see what the Foodi could do, and with a recipe like this one, you could so easily see the benefit.

Chili-Ranch Chicken Wings

I made wings in the Instant Pot and finished them on the broiler for a Super Bowl a few years ago. They were my favorite wings I’ve ever made at home. Since the Foodi’s claim to fame is the addition of an air-fryer, I knew I had to give wings a spin.

Chicken Wings
Seasoned Chicken Wings in the crisping basket of the Ninja Foodi (JW on the Road)

To make them in the Foodi, I seasoned them appropriately (this time a mix of salt, pepper, powdered ranch dressing mix, hot sauce, butter and paprika) and tossed them in the crisping basket that comes with the Foodi. (Note: You can also cook the wings down straight from frozen using the pressure cook function, but the wings I bought were raw and not frozen). Using the AirCrisp function (as recommended by Swanhart), the wings cooked in two parts with a shake in between to make sure different parts of the wing got crispy.

Chili-Ranch Chicken Wings
Chili-Ranch Chicken Wings, cooked and crisped in the Ninja Foodi (JW on the Road)

Swanhart’s chili-ranch chicken wings were really good wings. They weren’t amazing. They also weren’t fried or super crispy. But they were really good, and if I owned a Foodi, I’d probably make them a lot more regularly. They were much easier and on-par, however, with the Super Bowl wings from years ago.

Creamy Polenta and Mushrooms
Creamy Polenta and Mushrooms that wasn’t so creamy. Still flavorful and tasty, though. (JW on the Road)

Creamy Polenta and Mushrooms

The other two dishes I made in the Foodi ended up being mildly disappointing, though I’ll contend that it wasn’t the Foodi’s fault, but either my fault or the recipes I used. The Creamy Polenta and Mushrooms just wasn’t creamy. Though perhaps if it had been, the way the polenta and the mushrooms crisped on top during the AirCrisp cycle after the pressure cooking cycle may have made a pretty perfect dish.

Black and Blue Berry Cobbler
Black and Blue Berry Cobbler, which ended up more as a fruit soup than as a a traditional cobbler. (JW on the Road)


Black and Blue Berry Cobbler

The Black and Blue Berry Cobbler made borderline fruit soup. The dish starts from frozen fruit that is drizzled with the corn starch slurry present in so many cobblers. After a pressure cooking cycle, the liquidy fruit mixture was topped with a crumble that browned well during the AirCrisp cycle, but mostly submerged into an even-more-liquidy fruit soup by the end of cooking.

Did I still eat this? Yes. Did I still love it? Yes. Was it a cobbler? No.

The verdict

The Ninja Foodi is a really great electric pressure cooker and a perfectly good air fryer all in one.

Is it a game-changing air fryer that makes it so you never need oil again? No (at least not as much as I’ve tested so far).

By my testing, conceptually there’s probably nothing you can do in a Foodi that you can’t first make in an Instant Pot (or other multi-cooker) and then broil in the oven (if your oven has a broiler). Yes, it is an extra step and an extra dish, but taking that extra step and using that extra dish is more economical than $200+.

Caveat: If your oven doesn’t have a broiler, you should probably buy a Ninja Foodi.

If you already own and regularly use an air fryer and an electric multi-cooker, fear not! By my testing, the Foodi is probably not worth replacing your two perfectly good items with one.

If you’re looking to regift them, either separately or together, and you’d like to save counter space and get a device that holds its own really well, the Foodi is your option.

Looking ahead

I would like to do more testing on the Foodi.

I’m really curious about the dehydrating function, I’m curious about how to use the device to really control temperature environments. I also think the four recipes I made from the Swanhart’s cookbook took me less time than they would if I cooked them either conventionally or in an Instant Pot-like device.

This November, Warner will release his own cookbook for the Foodi. That could change the game for this device, and his careful look at what you should and should not cook in this thing might be the determining factor.

But: I’m not rushing out to buy one right now. The price tag is steep enough for a kitchen device that I can’t justify it. Yet. More testing and time, though, could change my mind.

This post contains affiliate links through Amazon’s Associates program. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. Ninja did not provide me with a unit to test for this post. I read Swanhart’s cookbook via my Kindle Unlimited subscription.

ITK, short for “In the Kitchen” — With these posts, I’ll take you into my kitchen. We’ll talk about particular techniques, recipes, tools or ideas that I’m learning or working on. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a professional chef by any means. Instead, I’m an avid home cook and believe in enabling everyone to have the chance and opportunity to cook every day, whatever form that takes. This series takes you with me as I do that.*

CY, short for “Challenge Yourself”— Inspired by a particular show on the Food Network, I love creating meals/dishes with just a few random ingredients that I find at the grocery store. Here, I’ll share with you what works (and what doesn’t!) and how to incorporate that into your daily life as a home cook.

CY: Cheez-It, Instant Ramen, Marinara Sauce & Venison Sausage

This post contains a recipe. Here’s an auto-scroll to: Cheez-It Shakshuka.

The thought behind Challenge Yourself was so that my faithful readers (and those close to me — which, who are we kidding? Those are the same folks) can suggest crazy food combinations for me to try to make happen.

Finally, with this edition of Challenge Yourself, I have ingredients assigned to me! This time from my lovely girlfriend Samantha, who thought THIS would be fun.

Well, do I have a recipe for you.

CY Ingredients: Marinara, Cheez-It, Maruchan Instant Lunch, Venison Sausage
The ingredients: Marinara sauce, Cheez-Its, Maruchan Instant Lunch with Chili Piquin and Shrimp, andVenison and Pork Sausage with Jalapeños. (JW on the Road)

The CY Ingredients:

  • Cheez-It (4.5oz box — the small one!)
  • Smoked Venison & Pork Sausage with Jalapeños (Semi-Dry)
  • Marinara Sauce (24oz jar)
  • Maruchan Instant Lunch with Chili Piquin & Shrimp

The approach

As soon as I saw the marinara sauce, I knew I had to go with shakshuka. Shakshuka (sometimes spelled Skakshouka) is a dish originating from Tunisia that contains a tomato sauce base with peppers, garlic and a few other spices. There are different versions of shakshuka in different regions of the world, but it’s most commonly found in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking now.

Note: Want to recommend ingredients for future challenges? Let me know in the comments or via the contact page.

The challenge with starting a shakshuka from a jarred marinara sauce (this was Newman’s Own brand) was that it comes already seasoned. In addition to tomato sauce, the ingredients list for this jar also contains salt, carrot puree, olive oil, dried onion, dried basil, dried garlic, dried fennel seed and black pepper.

I put the marinara in a saucepan over low heat and added a little bit more black pepper and let it slowly come up to a warm temperature.

Instant Lunch in Marinara Sauce
When you add the Instant Lunch noodles to the marinara sauce, the structure of the styrofoam vessel will remain until the noodles warm and mix in with the sauce. (JW on the Road)

Then, I opened up the instant lunch — while Maruchan makes a variety of ramen-like products, this was the one that comes in a ready-to-eat styrofoam cup — cut the styrofoam off the chunk of noodles and dropped the noodles into the marinara. Just like it would if you added boiling water to the ramen, the warm marinara sauce helped break down the ramen into a more cooked-noodle-like texture. After the ramen was thoroughly mixed into the sauce, I tasted it.

Surprisingly, the chili piquin seasoning that came mixed in with the instant ramen (not in a pack like the stuff you get in the little bag for less than a dollar) was very dormant and instead only provided some subtle heat to the sauce. I had expected to have to do more flavor melding, but somehow it all blended all together well.

The noodles themselves were there. Noodles are not a traditional part of shakshuka, but I left them in for more texture and body.

As for the shrimp part of the chili piquin shrimp flavor? I honestly have no idea where the shrimp went after I added the noodles to the marinara. Was it a seasoning? Were there chunks? I have no idea. I didn’t taste it. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t there, but the flavor virtually evaporated.

Caveat: I cooked this dish at my grandma’s house in Pennsylvania, and she’s got almost none of the normal pantry essentials I keep on hand. If I were home, I’d probably have added shrimp stock (which I always keep on hand and make after I cook or eat shrimp) to help bring out some shrimp flavor and make this truly representative of the challenge ingredients list.

Either way, the sauce wasn’t bad with a little black pepper added, but I added some red pepper flakes, paprika, dried thyme and some cumin to pull out the cajun flavors (supposedly) present in the chili piquin mixture. While the paprika, red pepper and thyme made the dish more cajun-y, the toasty cumin balanced it with the black pepper, garlic and more Italian-y flavors.

I grabbed a separate pan. In this case, it was a 10-inch cast iron skillet. This pan was eventually going to be the vessel that the shakshuka comes together in, so best case scenario, it’s a pan that can go into the oven. In the cast iron, I dropped just a dash of olive oil — seriously a very small amount — and put in half of an onion, diced.

Sausage and Onion Cook in Cast Iron
The sausage and the diced onion cook down together in a cast iron skillet. (JW on the Road)

While the onion was cooking, I took the sausage out of the package and tasted it and got almost entirely salt and heat (hello, jalapeños). I chopped up the rest of the sausage, which was semi-dry, into small bits.

Once that onion started to color and became aromatic, add two cloves of garlic minced and the sausage. The goal here is for the sausage to pull in some of the aroma of the garlic and onions along with some of the fat from the olive oil to help balance (just a little bit!) the raw heat in the sausage from the jalapeño. I also really wanted to crisp up the sausage so that there was some different textures at play in an otherwise soupy shakshuka.

Once the onions and garlic had cooked down to my liking, and the sausage appeared browned enough, I added the marinara-ramen mixture on top of the onions and sausage and mixed so that all of the components could come together equally. When that started to bubble on the stove, I reduced the heat.

In my grandma’s small hand food processor (basically an immersion blender with a very small food processor attachment), I ground the cheez-its into a powder. Now yes, I realize I have already done the pulverize technique for a CY post before (forgive me).

Cheez Its and Eggs Top the Tomato Sauce
Raw eggs sit atop the tomato sauce mixture which has been topped with powdered Cheez-Its. (JW on the Road)

I heavily covered the top of the tomato mixture with the cheese powder. I was looking for a thick enough layer that you knew for sure that the Cheez-Its were there. If you’re going to do it, do it.

Then, in traditional shakshuka fashion, I cracked three eggs into the bubbling mixture and covered it. Then I topped that powder and eggs with more shredded mozzarella cheese. This is a cheesy dish and I will not apologize for it. I did my best to leave the area where the eggs were open so you could see the eggs when cooking.

Shredded Cheese with Eggs & Cheez-It Powder
Atop the ground Cheez-Its and eggs, add some additional shredded cheese (this is a blend between cheddar and mozzarella, but I would recommend just mozzarella). Leave the yolks of the eggs as uncovered as you can so that you can see how cooked the eggs are. (JW on the Road)

Another weird caveat: My grandma doesn’t have an oven (long story), so I left this on the stove covered until the eggs were just barely cooked through — I was able to tell by the texture of the whites. If I were home for this, I’d pop it in a pre-heated 300ºF oven on the top rack for about 5 minutes to cook the eggs on top. 

Shakshuka is a weird dish to plate, but again, partially due to my grandma’s limited serving and cookware, I served this in a bowl making sure to get at least one egg per person. I wouldn’t judge if you ate it out of the cast iron itself though. Rustic.

The verdict

This should not have been as good as it was.

There’s no way that you should be able to take those ingredients and put them in a cast iron pan with little to no extra work and that it should be a dish that still makes me salivate months after first making it. The texture of the crispy sausage worked perfectly. You could taste the flavors I (tried to) develop in the marinara-ramen mixture. Most surprisingly, you can taste the cheez-it flavor even in the mozzarella cheese mixture. It weirdly works. I don’t understand how, but it really does.

If this were not a challenge, though, I would of course do things very differently. I’d make the tomato sauce base from a mixture of canned tomatoes and fresh tomatoes, reduce it down into a sauce and develop seasonings (fresh thyme & other fresh herbs) along the way. I’d ditch the noodles from the ramen if I didn’t “have” to include them. The noodles did provide some good body in the sauce mixture; however, they’re just not really supposed to go with shakshuka. If anything, the noodles probably seeped flavor from the sauce (maybe that’s why I had to amp up the cajun flavors). I think this would be better without them.

With the cheez-its, while I’m not sure I want to willingly use them again to make a dish like this, I think the powdered cheese mixture added great flavor (salt!) to the cheese mixture, and definitely has me thinking more about dried cheese and how that can impact a dish.

The non-forced ingredient that was a game changer here, though, was the onion. It balanced the sausage well and provided a great aroma. It helped break down the overall “prepared” taste of a lot of these foods and started down the path of tasting like something real.

I’ve already made shakshuka several times since this initial cook — none of those efforts have included cheez-its or venison sausage, but if I open my cabinet one day and those items are there (they actually are right now), I would probably do this again.

It was good. Like really good — in a very guilty-pleasure hunch over the cast iron on the stove and eat kind of way.

Plated Cheez-It Shakshuka
One beautiful egg atop a sauce mixture containing instant ramen, marinara sauce, pork and venison sausage and cheez-its. (JW on the Road)


Cheez-It Shakshuka

Serves 3

Time: 5 minutes to prep, 25 minutes to cook


  • 1 24oz jar marinara sauce
  • 1 Maruchan Instant Lunch with Chili Piquin and Shrimp
  • 2 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 2 tsp smoked sweet paprika
  • 1 tsp dried thyme
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 yellow onion, diced
  • 8 oz La Villa Ranch Smoked Venison & Pork Sausage with Jalapeños Semi-Dry
  • 1 4.5 oz box of Cheez-Its, ground
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 cup mozzarella cheese, shredded


  1. In a medium saucepan, warm marinara sauce over low heat until warm but not yet bubbling. Remove Instant Lunch from packaging and add to the sauce. Mix until combined and noodles are equally distributed.
  2. Add the black pepper, red pepper flakes, paprika, thyme and cumin, and mix intermittently until mixture is lightly bubbling, approximately 5-7 minutes. Remove from heat.
  3. In a 10-inch cast iron skillet over medium heat, add olive oil until shimmering. Add diced onion and minced garlic and cook until it begins to look translucent and is fragrant.
  4. Chop the sausage into small, but uniform pieces. Size is up to you, but you want something that is not big enough that it occupies a full spoon but not too small where it gets lost in the sauce. My cuts were probably half an inch long and a quarter of an inch wide.
  5. Add the sausage (all of it!) to the onion mixture and cook for approximately 10 minutes until onions are lightly browned and soft and sausage is crispy and has darkened in color.
  6. Pour the marinara sauce mixture on top of the sausage mixture and stir to combine, ensuring that the sausage, onions, garlic and noodles are evenly distributed throughout the pan.
  7. Warm until sauce begins to bubble.
  8. Cover the sauce mixture with a thick layer of ground Cheez-Its. It won’t be all of the Cheez-Its from the box (but seriously save these and coat anything with them, they’re sickeningly good).
  9. Crack 3 eggs equally distributed across the surface of the cast iron. Note: You can definitely use more eggs than this and do slightly smaller portions to serve more people, but it’s up to you.
  10. Top the Cheez-Its and eggs with a layer of shredded mozzarella — about 1/2 cup.
  11. If cooking on a stovetop, cover with a glass lid so you can see when eggs are fully cooked. If finishing in an oven, put pan into preheated 300ºF oven on the top rack directly under the broiler and check after 5 minutes to see if egg is cooked. You’re looking for light and fluffy whites around the edges.
  12. Serve one egg per person in a bowl or on a plate with a grind of fresh black pepper.

CY, short for “Challenge Yourself”— Inspired by a particular show on the Food Network, I love creating meals/dishes with just a few random ingredients that I find at the grocery store. Here, I’ll share with you what works (and what doesn’t!) and how to incorporate that into your daily life as a home cook.

Buddha's Hand

KYI: Buddha’s Hand

This post contains recipes. Here’s an auto-scroll to the recipes: Buddha’s Hand Pancakes, Buddha’s Hand Gin or Buddha’s Hand Bloody Mary.

The grocery store is almost always an intimidating place for so many reasons.

Every once in a while, while you’re walking around the store, you see something startling.

And that is where today’s ingredient comes in.

Picture this: You’re walking around the store, grabbing some lemons, maybe some limes and you see this:

Buddha's Hand in the Grocery Store
What is this crazy fruit next to other citrus in the grocery store? (JW on the Road)

A little closer…

Buddha's Hand at the Grocery Store
Buddha’s Hand, seen here at Central Market in Austin, Texas, is known for its “fingers” full of pith and zest. (JW on the Road)

What. Is. This. Thing.

The answer? Buddha’s Hand.

On the outside

This citrus, with a sturdy base reminiscent of a rectangular lemon, has long, curly extended “fingers.” I feel weird calling them fingers because they are coming from a fruit.

The origin of this so-called “fingered citron,” or citrus medica of the sarcodactylis variety comes from either northeastern India or China, though questions remain about exactly where or how the fruit developed. Some scholars say Buddhist monks carried the fruit from India to China around the fourth century, while others believe it grew naturally in the Yangtze River Valley.

Now, Buddha’s Hand grows in warm, temperate climates, including California, Texas and other warmer regions of the United States. The plant is, however, susceptible to frost and highly extreme heat, so consistency is key when trying to grow it.

I found it in a standard grocery store in Austin, Texas in early October as a seasonal item; however, I’ve found it off-season as well in Asian markets and other specialty stores, so the availability really depends on your region and the type of store.

The University of California at Riverside has a great breakdown here of what to know about the science behind Buddha’s Hand.

When you pick up a Buddha’s Hand for the first time, you’re looking for something crisp and clean — not sticky or blemished. The “fingers” may appear slightly shriveled or dented, that’s OK. When I say blemishes, I mean huge, obvious markings that would indicate mishandling.

If you hold one up to your nose, you should immediately smell citrus. Like a lemon (the Buddha’s Hand is closely related to the lemon family), you’ll smell the sourness that lemons produce, but with a faint sweetness.

Like posts like this one? Check out KYI: Jicama for a deep dive into “the humble tuber that deserves a spot on your plate.”

In fact, Smithsonian Magazine reports that the aroma of Buddha’s Hand is “so good that its presence in a home is better than potpourri.” Yeah, they’re right here. It’s great. My apartment smelled like Buddha’s Hand for the weeks I had it on hand. It was delightful.

OneGreenPlanet recommends adding the peel of Buddha’s Hand to vinegar to make a disinfecting citrus spray. Good tip.

Oh, right. One more thing on Buddha’s Hand in the store: it’s, uh, expensive.

According to the Smithsonian story, Buddha’s Hand runs about $24 a pound on average. At Central Market (an incredible grocery store in Austin, Texas that allows me to drink beer or wine whilst shopping), they were $6.98 per pound, which, comparatively, was very reasonable, but still way more expensive than your run-of-the-mill lemon or lime.

The price and the challenges associated with growing the citrus are probably why you don’t have a Buddha’s Hand in your fruit basket right now.

That said, despite the price, I can’t encourage you enough to give this fruit a try. It’s got enough similarities with citrus that we already know to make you feel sort of comfortable handling it, but is different enough to make the experience of using it exciting and different.

Look inside

Inside, Buddha’s Hand is all pith. The fruit has absolutely no juicy pulp inside.

This may be scary for some fruit or citrus enthusiasts — no pulp? No juice? What ever can I do with this item? (Read on!)

Like lemons or other citrus, the shelf life for Buddha’s Hand is pretty extensive — I had mine for several weeks, initially in its full form, and then in broken down with individual fingers sticking around for more than a month in the refrigerator.

This produce purveyor recommends using Buddha’s Hand in any recipe that calls for lemon zest, including biscotti, fruit compotes, casseroles and soufflés. The Kitchn recommends candying the pieces — something I considered but ultimately didn’t get done.

Oh! And The Kitchn also recommends making Buddhacello — a play on limoncello. While one of my recipes contains an infused alcohol (spoiler alert!), I did not do this and am regretting it every day. If you do it at home, let me know.


Much like the approach that Melissa’s Produce recommended, when I cut into a Buddha’s Hand for the first time, I immediately had two thoughts about exactly what my recipes for this post were going to be.

One relies on the zest of the Buddha’s Hand, while the other relies on the infusions that other sites also recommended.

I also threw in one semi-recipe that I did that added a punch of flavor — but the base of this one isn’t fully refined yet, so stay tuned!

Buddha’s Hand Pancakes

buddha's hand pancakes
Buddha’s Hand Pancakes, made with Buddha’s Hand-infused sugar and served with zest and a hot honey maple syrup drizzle. (JW on the Road)

This recipe relies on using the zest of the Buddha’s Hand to infuse sugar with the citrusy flavor. You can swap out Buddha’s Hand here for lemon, lime or even orange(!) to bring a different flavor.

Candidly, I was shocked at how well these turned out.

I’ve eaten a good deal of pancakes in my life, and these actually ended up pretty near the top of the list. It’s a great blend of sweet and savory (especially with my recommended syrup concoction) with a great balance provided by the citrus here.

The pancake portion of this recipe is a modified version of Alton Brown’s “Instant Pancake” mix recipe. Instead of making a full batch, I shrunk it down to one portion and swapped out the buttermilk for almond milk.

As I’ve said in other posts, I try to cook dairy free as much as I can to spare my girlfriend’s stomach, and somehow the almond milk here contributed a superior texture in these pancakes compared to most pancakes I’ve had before (my theory is that the acid present in the infused sugar thanks to the zest helped add the acidity that Alton tries to achieve here with buttermilk, but I am not scientific enough to know if that actually was the case or not).

All I know is these were good, and I am making them again with other citrus (or Buddha’s Hand if I can get it!) very soon.

NOTE: This recipe’s time element does not include the week or so that I recommend you allow for the sugar to infuse. You can do this recipe without any extra infusing time (the zest in the sugar will allow for some of that flavor). But time is a big asset here. That said, I’d say not much changed in the flavor of the sugar between about one week and any additional time, which is why I recommend a week here.

Serves 4

Time: 15-20 minutes


For the infused sugar

  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • Approximately 2 tbsp of Buddha’s Hand zest (from 2-3 fingers, more is better depending on how much citrus flavor you’re looking for)

For the pancakes

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 3 tablespoons Buddha’s Hand infused sugar
  • 2 eggs, with yolks & egg whites separated
  • 2 cups almond milk
  • 4 tablespoons butter, melted

For the syrup:

  • 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • 2 tbsp hot honey
  • 2 tsp Buddha’s hand zest


For the infused sugar

buddha's hand infused sugar
After churning the Buddha’s Hand zest and the sugar together in a food processor, allow it to dry to avoid clumping. (JW on the Road)
  1. Zest the Buddha’s Hand fingers until you have about 4 tbsp of zest.
  2. Combine the sugar and zest in a food processor and pulse until zest and sugar are combined.
  3. Empty processor bowl onto a baking pan, lined with foil. With the foil, construct a “pan” on top of the baking pan by folding the edges of the foil so that it contains all the sugar evenly. The foil “pan” will help you to then maneuver the eventual dried sugar into a vessel of your choosing without losing all of the sugar.
  4. Spread the sugar evenly on the foil and allow to dry at room temperature for at least 6 hours, but preferably overnight. There will be more moisture than you expect in the zest and if not allowed to dry, the sugar will clump with the zest. You’re looking for a dry, coarse sugar mixture.
Buddha's Hand Sugar in the Pancake Mixture
Note the difference in color where the Buddha’s Hand sugar (yellow-ish) sits against the AP Flour. That’s what you’re looking for. (JW on the Road)

For the pancakes

  1. Whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, kosher salt and Buddha’s Hand infused sugar.
  2. In one bowl, combine the egg whites and the almond milk. In another, mix the yolks and the melted butter.
  3. Combine the two liquid mixtures and mix thoroughly. (Honesty Note: I’m not sure the science of why Alton recommended to do it this way; however, when I tried mixing the eggs, butter and almond milk together without separating them first, the pancakes were not nearly as fluffy OR flavorful as they were with his recommended approach).
  4. Mix the liquid ingredients with the dry ingredients and just barely bring the mixture together. Don’t overwork this — it shouldn’t be smooth. There absolutely need to be lumps.
  5. Put a nonstick skillet or very-well-seasoned cast iron skillet (I prefer this approach!) on medium-high heat. Alternatively, you can use an electric griddle set to 350ºF (that’s my stepmom’s move). You’ll know it’s ready if you drop water on the surface and the water looks like it’s dancing across the surface. It’s a party in the pan that will soon be in your mouth.
  6. Grease the pan with butter (or vegan butter if that is your persuasion, works either way!).
  7. Gently ladle in about 3/4 of a standard-sized ladle onto the pan and allow to even out. Sizzle is a good thing here, it means it’s working.
  8. When you start to see the edges brown, flip it and allow to cook for 90 seconds if you’re looking for an ooey-gooey interior or 2 and a half minutes or so if you want a more cake-like texture. Either way, you need that second side to be as solidified as the first. The pancake won’t release from the pan until that has happened so don’t force it!
  9. Repeat as needed to use up all the mixture.
  10. Serve what you can eat immediately with a pat of butter that melts on top of the warm pancakes and the syrup below. Freeze the rest in a gallon-sized freezer bag. They’re great reheated.
Buddha's Hand Pancakes Topped with Syrup
Top the Buddha’s Hand Pancakes with a maple syrup with hot honey and Buddha’s Hand zest included. (JW on the Road)

For the syrup

  1. Combine all the ingredients with a fork in a small bowl. Drizzle the amount you’re looking for onto your pancakes. Enjoy.


Buddha’s Hand Gin

buddha's hand gin
Dripping Springs Artisan Gin, infused with Buddha’s Hand Fingers. Halve the fingers and put them in a pint-sized mason jar to infuse. Allow to infuse for about a week. (JW on the Road)

This is a pretty self-explanatory recipe, and should be used for a great citrus pop to whatever gin drink you’d prefer. I chose gin over vodka or other spirit here because of how well the citrus plays with the juniper and pepper notes in gin, but this process will also work with any liquor of your choice (tequila, anyone?).

I think this makes a great gin and tonic, but it also sips pretty nicely neat. It would probably be bonkers (in a good way) in a French 75. Yeah, I said bonkers.

Serves: Approximately 8 shots

Time: Less than five minutes prep, about 1 week to infuse


  • 8 Buddha’s Hand fingers, halved lengthwise
  • About 1 1/2 cups gin of choice (I like Dripping Springs Gin made just down the road from Austin)


  1. Place the halved Buddha’s Hand fingers vertically in a pint-sized mason jar.
  2. Top with the gin — if the 1 1/2 cups doesn’t make it to the top of the jar, don’t be afraid to continue adding gin to cover the fingers. We’re looking for total submersion here.
  3. Allow gin to rest and infuse for about a week, though flavor will start appearing almost immediately. Shake at least once per day. I recommend taking a small taste every day and if the flavor begins to get too acidic or strong, remove the Buddha’s Hand fingers and strain the gin into a clean jar. (Another programming note: Buddha’s Hand is completely edible, and after sitting in gin for awhile, it’s, uh, a pretty delicious snack.
  4. The gin should last you for a month or more (if it sticks around that long). The occasional particulate may show up in it (a byproduct of the infusion). That is totally fine. If you’d like, you can strain it through a cheesecloth for an extra-fine strain, but who doesn’t like a little grit in their gin?


BONUS: Buddha’s Hand Bloody Mary

buddha's hand bloody mary
The key to this Bloody Mary is charring the Buddha’s Hand finger with a torch (look close to the liquid!). It caramelizes the sugars in the Buddha’s Hand and adds a toasty-ness to the citrus. (JW on the Road)

OK, look, I don’t have my Bloody Mary mix figured out yet. It’s fine, and even passable, but I know I can do better. Stay tuned. I’m not going to include a list of ingredients here, because I really only made this riffing, but if you give it a try, let me know.

The char on the Buddha’s Hand finger caramelizes some of the sugars on the surface and adds a toasty zest to the drink. You can achieve a similar, albeit sweeter effect if you candied the finger and served it that way.


  1. (optional) Infuse gin or vodka with Buddha’s Hand. (Bloody Mary’s are obviously traditionally vodka, but why not just use the gin you made above?). For mine pictured, I used non-infused vodka (Tito’s), but I can’t imagine a world where infused spirits would not make this better.
  2. Combine infused/non-infused vodka with the Bloody Mary mix of your choice.
  3. Take one Buddha’s Hand finger and char using a blowtorch (or a kitchen torch that you would use for creme brulée. I used a blowtorch though).
  4. Serve mixed drink with bruléed finger and other toppings of your choice.

KYI, short for “Know Your Ingredients” — So much of what we cook with, use in the kitchen or eat at a restaurant on a daily basis has no real knowledge behind it. With this series, we’re going to look at some of these ingredients (common or otherwise) and how to use them in a way that can really change how you cook (and eat).

Corn Flake Cauliflower

CY: Corn Flakes, Tea, Cauliflower & Ham

This post contains a recipe. Here’s an auto-scroll to: Corn Flake Cauliflower.

When I was thinking about this blog, I was very excited about so many things. The Challenge Yourself series was pretty high among them.

The goal here is this: Take four (or more, I guess) ingredients that are seemingly random and create something that’s (hopefully) good. The risk? If it’s bad, I’m still committing myself to writing about it. I really want to encourage folks (and myself) to get out of their comfort zone and cook ambitiously, even if it’s going to fail. Pizza is only a phone call away.

Orange cauliflower, corn flakes, canned tea, ham steak. (JW on the Road)
Orange cauliflower, corn flakes, canned tea, ham steak. (JW on the Road)

The CY Ingredients:

  • Orange Cauliflower
  • Corn Flakes
  • Ham Steak
  • Ginger Lime Iced Tea

The approach

The ideal situation for this series as always to have someone else recommend the ingredients for me; however, when it came time to put this post together, no one had time to recommend anything or go to the store with me. So instead, I purposely tried to grab ingredients that didn’t go together. They needed to not have a natural fusion, and include a “wild card.”

Note: Want to recommend ingredient sets in the future? Let me know in the comments or via the contact page.

Did I pick these ingredients subconsciously knowing what I would do? I don’t think so? But who knows.

Looking at these ingredients, I couldn’t help but think about the moment that cauliflower is having right now. In some places, you’re just as likely to see “Buffalo Cauliflower” on a menu as you are their poultry cousins.

So, looking at these ingredients, a sauce-covered cauliflower seemed like the way to go.

To start, I pulled out my pot and emptied the can of ginger lime iced tea into it over high heat. Before dumping it in, I took a quick taste of the tea. It reminded me of the drink that came from the powdered iced tea mixes I drank in my childhood. Sweet with an aftertaste of citrus. Kinda tastes like summer.

Honestly, I couldn’t really detect the lime or the ginger at all in the tea — something I knew I’d need to pull out of it later if I wanted it to stand out.

While the tea was warming up on the stove, I opened my pantry to take a look at what else I had. Right away, hoisin stood out to me. Hoisin is a thick, sweet and subtly spicy sauce commonly used in Chinese cuisine. It reminds me a lot of American bottled barbecue sauce, but with a heavy dose of soy, chiles and garlic.

If you’re adding hoisin to this sauce, you’re instantly taking the dish into Asian territory. I followed the hoisin with some soy sauce and a dash of sambal. With those two ingredients, the main approach was to add some salt and some heat to work with the sweetness from the tea and the hoisin.

Looking back now and writing this, I probably would’ve added a dash of fish sauce here as well. That could’ve avoided the back and forth balancing act that I struggled with next.

When I tasted that, however, the acidity of the sambal and the salt of the soy sauce overpowered, so more sweetness was in order to balance.

Enter Mike’s Hot Honey. I love this ingredient. They normally pay people (influencers!) to use it in recipes and on Instagram. I’m not one of those lucky ones, but I love it just the same.

The hot honey is made by blending honey and chili peppers, so it brings the sweetness but also brings a really slow-burning spice.

With sweetness, spice and salt all holding their own, I just needed a dash of acidity to balance it out. I used apple cider vinegar because it’s my go-to vinegar in my pantry, but also because it wouldn’t alter the color of the sauce.

Simmering Tea Sauce
The sauce — made of tea, hoisin, soy sauce, sambal, hot honey, apple cider vinegar and vegetable stock — simmers to reduce in size and become syrupy. (JW on the Road)

Thanks to the addition of the vinegar, the flavor of the sauce was pretty well balanced, but it needed 1) more quantity and 2) to be backed up by a supporting flavor. I added about 1 and a half cups of vegetable stock and let it simmer down until reduced by almost half. After the reduction, the sauce was more syrupy in texture.

Consider for a moment the ham steak. It’s something I haven’t seen since I lived with my parents and it was a quick-ish weeknight meal. Ham steak is great, but it’s a bit limited in terms of its scope. The best way I knew how to handle it was exactly how it had been cooked for most of my childhood, but with the addition of the tools I’ve learned to use since.

While my parents would basically heat up a ham steak in a nonstick pan on the stove and then finish it on a sheet pan in the oven. I heated up my cast iron pan to as hot as I could get it, tossed in a just a little bit of vegetable oil and seared the ham steak fast and hot on both sides and then put it in a 300 degree oven to keep warm while I dealt with the rest of the ingredients.

Anytime I see a cereal or a grain product that isn’t a rice or a pasta, I immediately think about how it reminds me of breading for a fry. I didn’t want to fry anything here, but the texture of the corn flakes was certainly going to be useful. Using a spice grinder, I churned some corn flakes until they were a delightfully sugary powder.

Ground Corn Flakes
Ground Corn Flakes (JW on the Road)

Before removing the corn flakes from the grinder, I added two teaspoons each of ground ginger and lime zest. Remember what I said earlier about the lime and ginger flavors being muted in the tea?

I cut the cauliflower into florets, tossed with the sauce I had reduced in the oven, and coated in the corn flakes mixture. I put the coated cauliflower in an oven-safe container and baked it on 400 degrees for about 15 minutes to soften the cauliflower.

Orange Cauliflower after Baking
Orange Cauliflower after baking the first time (JW on the Road)

Then, I added some additional sauce and some additional breading to the top and put it under the broiler for about 5 minutes to get a nice crisp.

While the cauliflower crisped, I pulled out the ham steak and diced it and tossed it in a little bit of the remaining sauce.

Afterward, I pulled out the cauliflower, mixed in the diced ham and plated over rice and topped with toasted sesame seeds.

The verdict

Good! Think sweet and subtly spicy. The cauliflower would be great on a skewer at a cocktail party and is just good and interesting enough to probably make someone ask you what it is.

Reminds me of a great play on general tso’s chicken, or maybe even sesame chicken. Somewhere in there.

Admittedly, it kinda feels like I phoned in the ham steak, but the salty burst of flavor that comes from the ham mixed with the cauliflower was great. I’m also glad I included the ginger and lime zest in the corn flakes breading — it really amped those flavors up in a way that complements the dish.

All in all, a good first step. I’d make it again. In fact, I probably will.

Corn Flake Cauliflower
The cauliflower and ham, plated on top of rice and topped with toasted sesame seeds. (JW on the Road)


Corn Flake Cauliflower

Serves 4

Time: 5 minutes to prep, 40 minutes to cook, 1 minute to assemble


  • 2 12 fl oz cans of lime ginger iced tea
  • 1/2 cup hoisin
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp sambal
  • 1 tbsp Mike’s Hot Honey
  • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1 1/2 cup vegetable stock
  • 1/2 cup corn flakes
  • 2 tsp ground ginger
  • 2 tsp lime zest
  • 1 ham steak (approximately 1 pound)
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 orange cauliflower
  • 1/4 cup brown rice, cooked
  • 1 tbsp sesame seeds, toasted


  1. In a medium saucepan, combine iced tea, hoisin, soy sauce, sambal, hot honey, vinegar and vegetable stock. Mix together and simmer on medium-high heat until mixture is reduced by about half. This will take about 20 minutes.
  2. In a blender, food processor, or spice grinder, combine corn flakes, ginger and zest. Grind or pulse until powdery.
  3. On the stovetop, preferably in a searing hot cast iron pan with a tablespoon of vegetable oil, sear both sides of the ham steak until browned. Keep warm in a 300º oven.
  4. Break down the cauliflower into florets. Set aside leaves or excess stalk for later pickling. Remove the ham steak from the oven and turn it to 400º.
  5. Toss the cauliflower in the saucepan with the sauce. Remove from pan and coast with about 3/4 of the corn flakes mixture.
  6. In an oven-safe pan, bake the cauliflower for 15 minutes. Remove from oven, coat with more of the sauce and the remaining corn flakes. Make sure to save a little bit of the sauce for the next step. Then, turn your broiler to high. When it’s on high, put the cauliflower under it for 5 minutes.
  7. Dice the ham steak and toss it in the remaining sauce.
  8. Remove the cauliflower from the oven, mix in the diced ham steak.
  9. Serve the cauliflower and ham combination on top of rice and top with the sesame seeds.

CY, short for “Challenge Yourself”— Inspired by a particular show on the Food Network, I love creating meals/dishes with just a few random ingredients that I find at the grocery store. Here, I’ll share with you what works (and what doesn’t!) and how to incorporate that into your daily life as a home cook.

Grilled Peach Pound Cake

ITK: Grilled Peach Pound Cake

I hate those long blog posts that don’t show me the recipe at the top. This is one of those — click here to auto-scroll down to the recipe.

Here’s a surprising thing: I’m not really a dessert person.

Whoa! OK, OK, stop shouting! I love dessert. I really do. I just never think about it.

I don’t think about it as an essential part of the meal — and even when I’m cooking for a large group, dessert is almost always the afterthought (except for one recent occasion, but that’s another post).

Last month, I went to Georgia (it’s kinda funny that two of my earliest posts on this site are going to be rooted in the same trip) to visit family, and ended up cooking a few dishes for them while I was there. When you’re cooking for my family, though, dessert or a dessert-like activity, is very much expected.

It was a mild summer day in August; I could feel the days of “we’ll throw something on the grill” fading into the embrace of winter’s inevitable chill. So in homage to our favorite propane-fueled cooking implement, I knew I needed a grillable dessert.

Let them eat cake

Pound Cake
Alton Brown’s Pound Cake (recipe link below) fresh out of the oven. I prefer using a pie or cake pan for this to get a thinner, but still-thick-enough version of the cake that serves as a good vessel for fruit and can still stand up to grilling. (JW on the Road)

Which lead to my next thought: What pastry/pie/cake is delicate enough to still feel like dessert, but is sturdy enough to withstand being handled on a hot grill? Also, what would look really appealing with grill marks?

I found my answer in pound cake. Yes, pound cake — the calorie-laden cake that very notably consists of ONE FULL POUND EACH of sugar, flour and butter. Pound cake is as good as it is bad for you. Most of all, though, thanks to the massive amount of flour, pound cake is hearty.

From a flavor standpoint, think about the sweetness that a full pound of sugar brings to the party. It’s subtle at first, but if you really think about pound cake, sugar is the most dominant flavor, and when you add high heat to sugar, beautiful things happen.

So pound cake on the grill for just a few minutes to get those standout grill marks against the light yellow interior of the cake. The char elevates the moderately flat pound cake from a one-note sugar fest to a complex, toasty and (surprisingly) aromatic delight.

Adding the fruit

But the dessert needs more. Perhaps a local flair.  What’s Georgia known for? Peaches.

Grill-Ready Peaches & Pound Cake
Peaches and pound cake, ready to hit the grill (ft. La Croix Apricot). (JW on the Road)

I drove over to the closest grocery store, which happened to be a Publix (named Food & Wine’s No. 5 best grocery store in the U.S.) and grabbed pound cake (pre-made, I was under a time crunch!) and peaches.

It’s no secret that peaches are GREAT on the grill. Visually, they’re stunning in the same way the grill marks are on the pound cake. Flavor-wise, grilling peaches tastes kind of like the best peach cobbler you never made. The classic peach flavor remains, but gets smokier. The juiciness thickens, the sugar caramelizes, the flesh darkens. Oh man.

Now we’re really getting somewhere. Two grilled items. Complex and delightful flavors. Let’s finish strong. Whipped cream.

A “new” kind of whipped cream

Can we talk for a second about whipped cream? If you’re not buying it from a compressed air canister, it’s often kinda disappointing. For a while, I would whip heavy cream, add sugar and vanilla extract and call it a masterpiece.

It was good, sure, but was it really better than the pressurized cans of sweet, creamy deliciousness past? Not really.

For the first time ever, right here on this blog, I’m announcing that I am going coconut-milk-whipped-cream-first.

Here’s how it works: Buy a few cans of full-fat coconut milk from the grocery store (any brand will do, just make sure it’s not a reduced fat variety). chill the can in the refrigerator for at least two or three hours, but preferably overnight, then crack the can and scoop out the cream on the top with a spoon into a bowl.

When you’re doing this, try to avoid getting the liquidy coconut milk/water from the bottom in the bowl. You’re looking for pretty solid cream here. When you’ve got a decent amount (it could take 2 cans), save the liquid coconut milk for another use (or chill it again and see if more cream rises to the top!). Then, with a whisk (if you’re a savage) or with an electric hand mixer, beat the cream until it thickens and gets more airy.

Whipped Coconut Cream
Using a hand mixer, whip just the cream from the top of a can of chilled coconut milk. The whipped cream will have the same texture and maybe even more flavor than its dairy counterpart. (JW on the Road)

Coconut whipped cream tastes better with nothing added to it than heavy cream ever has or will. I added a small dash of vanilla extract while whipping to really bring it home, though. Just like with standard whipped cream, you can totally add sugar — I Just don’t think this needs it.

This whipped cream works perfectly on the top of the grilled pound cake and grilled peach, but it has other uses as well — it’s a great base for a dairy-free ice cream that actually stands up to freezing in a home freezer (also another post).

Plate the dish pound cake first, then peach. You can line up the grill marks if you’re going for parallel or criss-cross them if you really want to activate my neuroses. Scoop some of the coconut whipped cream into the cavern where the peach pit once was and dust lightly with cinnamon or your warming spice of choice (turmeric, cardamom, ginger or even black pepper could all be pretty good depending on your tastes).

Oh hey, one last thing before I give you the recipe — I wrote this post through the narrative of coming up with this dish for a family dinner. For that, I bought a pre-made sour cream pound cake. It served the purpose at the time, but I always prefer homemade when you have time (the photos from this post are mainly from me tweaking this and recreating the dish for the purpose of this blog).

The recipe of pound cake is obviously quite simple (a pound of everything plus some eggs), but I really like Alton Brown’s. Alton’s also got a slightly-lower calorie buttermilk version, which I’d imagine is great, but haven’t tried yet.

One note on Alton’s recipe — he recommends bread pans or a bundt pan. I actually tried these in normal 9inch pie pans (and I think one cake pan, but who knows the difference) and really liked the thickness it provided for this recipe. Since you’re eating the pound cake topped with fruit, we’re definitely looking for something a little on the thinner side, but still thick enough that it can stand up to the grill.

Grilled Pound Cake
Pound Cake on the Grill. (JW on the Road)

Alright, here’s the recipe:

Grilled Peach Pound Cake

Grilled Peach Pound Cake
Grilled Peach Pound Cake (JW on the Road)

Serves 8

Time: 10 minutes to prep, 5 minutes to cook, 1-2 minutes to assemble


  • 1 pound cake (made in a 9-inch pie/cake pan, sliced in 8 even triangular pieces)
  • 2 peaches
  • 1 can coconut milk (13.5 oz), chilled for at least 3 hours, if not overnight
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon, toasted and grated fresh on a microplane if possible


  1. Cut the peaches in half, like you would an avocado and remove the pit. Scrape out any grittiness that may remain from the pit. Slice the peaches into triangles, two from each half of the peach. Base the triangle cuts on the sizes of the pound cake you intend to plate them with.
  2. Remove your coconut milk from the refrigerator. Open it up, and skim the cream off the top of the water below and into a mixing bowl. Be delicate and don’t scoop deep. Skim until you begin to see dark water below. Remove as much white cream as you can without incorporating too much of the actual coconut milk.
  3. Using an electric mixer, whip the cream on high speed until it becomes light and airy, mimicking the texture of traditional whipped cream.
  4. Preheat your grill, putting all burners on high heat. This is going to be a very quick cooking process, just to warm and get grill marks.
  5. When grill is preheated, place the peaches and the pound cake down onto the grates. Close the lid and allow the grill to work its magic, approximately two to three minutes. It may smell like burning — that’s good — it means char is occurring.
  6. Flip the peaches and the pound cake to char the other side. Be careful with the peaches and don’t force them off the grill before they’re ready. They’ll pull lightly away from the grill grates when a char is apparent. If they stick after more than four minutes, delicately scrape them from the grates with a metal spatula in an attempt to preserve your grill marks.
  7. Remove the peaches and pound cake from the grill and prepare to plate
  8. On a plate, place the pound cake with the best char side facing upward. On top of that, place a charred peach slice (or two!). Top that with the coconut whipped cream and dust with the cinnamon. Photograph and serve.

ITK, short for “In the Kitchen”  With these posts, I’ll take you into my kitchen. We’ll talk about particular techniques, recipes, tools or ideas that I’m learning or working on. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a professional chef by any means. Instead, I’m an avid home cook and believe in enabling everyone to have the chance and opportunity to cook every day, whatever form that takes. This series takes you with me as I do that.

KYI: Jicama

This post contains recipes. Here’s an auto-scroll to the recipes: Jicama “Ceviche” or Spiced Jicama Mug Cake.

Jicama. It’s that massive onion-shaped potato-looking vegetable you probably pass in the grocery store without ever noticing.

But, then again, maybe you’ve picked one up, felt the waxy skin and dropped it back in its place, trying to wipe your hands of the greasy exterior only to find that it is not an exterior that lingers on your fingers.

Scientifically dubbed pachyrhizus erosus, jicama is a root vegetable native to Mexico. The vegetable is also sometimes referred to as a Mexican yam bean or a Mexican turnip.

Interior of Jicama
The interior of jicama — its texture is mealy with a slightly sweat flavor. (JW on the Road)

The bulb that we know as jicama actually grows from the root of the same name (which is also edible!). On the exterior, it’s yellow and papery, while inside it’s crisp and mealy, reminiscent of a combination between a raw potato and a pear.

Flavor wise, raw, it’s mild. There’s a subtle sweetness, but it’s otherwise pretty bland. It’s high in carbohydrates, specifically dietary fiber, and only contains small amounts of protein and lipids. The vegetable is very low in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium.

A quick search online results in proclamations that jicama is “the humble tuber that deserves a spot on your plate,” or “the most exciting vegetable you’re not eating,” or even “your new favorite vegetable.”

But with all that said — what do people actually do with this vegetable? How do they eat it?

CookingLight writes that in Central America, jicama is “often sold by street vendors and commonly eaten raw, and seasoned with lemon or lime juice and chili powder.” The Kitchn reports that jicama sticks can “stand up to a carrot stick any day.” The site also recommends jicama in salsas,  slaws, spring rolls or stir frys.

When preparing a jicama, you might be tempted to try out a vegetable peeler to remove the papery (but surprisingly thick) skin from the flesh inside. As long as you exercise proper caution, I actually recommend using a chefs knife. Just be careful.

When it comes to cooking it myself, I wanted to try to come up with two quick recipes that highlighted jicama in two very different forms — one savory and one sweet. Jicama has notes of both of these in its raw form — it is a vegetable and feels like one, but also has the mealy interior reminiscent of an apple.


One of the many uses of jicama that you’ll come across online is as a texture ingredient in ceviche. Ceviche, a serving of raw fish cured with acid (usually citrus), exemplifies freshness. The acidic bath that ceviche sits in brings a pop of flavor to your mouth that hits salt and sour perfectly. When you pair that with the subtle sweetness of the jicama, you get a bite that has a more complex texture than traditional ceviche but brings all the flavor that you want.

This recipe is more “ceviche” than ceviche. It can be served to vegan and vegetarians. For an added flavor bomb, add shrimp or raw fish to actually make it ceviche, but I like it quite a lot on its own. The acid really softens the texture of the ceviche, but not in a way that makes it mushy or unpleasant.

Jicama “Ceviche”

Jicama “Ceviche” — diced jicama “cured” in a rice wine vinegar and lime solution. (JW on the Road)

Serves 4

Time: 10 minutes to prep, 1-2 minutes to assemble


  • 1/2 jicama, diced into 1/4″ – 1/2″ cubes
  • 1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
  • 4 tbsp soy sauce (low sodium)
  • 2 tsp sambal
  • 1 tsp Mike’s Hot Honey
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • Zest of one lime
  • Black pepper (for garnish)


  1. Place the jicama in a medium bowl.
  2. In a small bowl, vigorously whisk together the rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, sambal, honey, oil and lime juice until combined.
  3. Pour the liquid on top of the jicama and chill for 10 minutes.
  4. If the jicama is resting in liquid going more than halfway up the bowl, strain some of the liquid and reserve for another use.
  5. Garnish with lime zest and black pepper to taste


I have a confession to make — I have a bad habit of raiding my cabinets for something delicious to eat at random times. It’s not always late night eats or in-between snacks, but sometimes I just want to whip something delicious up really fast and really easily.

In college, I discovered the humble mug cake. Yes, the mug cake. The Pinterest-inspired Internet sensation that can make a quick single-serve dessert that is almost as delicious as it’s full size counterpart.

However, with just a little bit of extra time and seasoning, you can make a mug cake that takes a vegetable like jicama and incorporates it into a delicious sweet treat.

Caramelizing Jicama
Diced jicama in a pan with butter, sugar and cinnamon. (JW on the Road)

The key to the below recipe is playing up the subtle sweetness in the jicama and amplifying the mealy texture inside. As I wrote earlier, it’s reminiscent of an apple, so why not embrace it full force? Enter the Spiced Jicama Mug Cake.

Spiced Jicama Mug Cake

Spiced Jicama Mug Cake
Spiced Jicama Mug Cake (JW on the Road)

Makes 2 mug cakes

Time: 5 minutes to prep, 10 minutes (total) to cook, 1 minute to assemble


For the spiced jicama filling:

  • 1 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1/4 jicama, roughly diced into small cubes
  • 4 tbsp sugar
  • 2 tsp cinnamon

For the mug cake:

  • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon, plus more for garnish
  • 1/2 cup coconut milk
  • 4 tbsp butter, melted
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • Coconut whipped cream (about 2 tbsp, but to taste — recipe in this post)


  1. Melt 1 tbsp of unsalted butter in a medium pan over medium-high heat.
  2. Add jicama to the pan and top with sugar and cinnamon, mix in pan to combine ingredients with butter.
  3. Cook for 6-8 minutes until jicama has softened and cinnamon is toasty and aromatic.
  4. Remove jicama from pan and set aside, being careful to scrape out any syrup-y bits that may remain in the pan with a spatula.
  5. In a small bowl, mix flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, coconut milk, melted butter and vanilla extract until combined. I use a fork here to do this combination and then scrape anything stuck to the fork down with a spatula.
  6. Divide mixture between 2 mugs.
  7. Microwave each mug on high for 2 minutes until cake is loosely formed and steamy.
  8. Top cake with jicama mixture and syrupy bits.
  9. Garnish with coconut whipped cream and a dash of cinnamon.

KYI, short for “Know Your Ingredients” — So much of what we cook with, use in the kitchen or eat at a restaurant on a daily basis has no real knowledge behind it. With this series, we’re going to look at some of these ingredients (common or otherwise) and how to use them in a way that can really change how you cook (and eat).

OTR: Gunshow (Atlanta, Ga.)

The blocks surrounding Gunshow are pretty unassuming — a few restaurants, a few bars and a coffee shop or two — but perhaps unknown to pedestrians walking by is that on the corner of Garrett Street and Bill Kennedy Way sits a culinary marvel.

Opened in 2013, Gunshow is a concept from Kevin Gillespie, the Atlanta-born chef, former Top Chef contestant and restaurateur behind Red Beard Restaurants.

The idea: Each night, a handful of chefs (there were 7 the night I went) develop a few small plates designed to be shared across the table.

When the restaurant opened, Atlanta Magazine called it one of “the most promising, perplexing, interactive, and utterly ballsy restaurants Atlanta has ever seen.” The Infatuation — a localized restaurant review website focused on “honest opinions” — described the Glenwood Park spot’s menu as one where “squid ink rigatoni [is just] as likely to pop up as mapo tofu or squash blossom dumplings.”

Inside the building, the restaurant feels open. There are few walls, and every seat in the house has a pretty decent view of the kitchen, which occupies a full side of the space.

According to the restaurant’s website, the name is a tribute to Gillespie’s family and the time he spent with his father going to actual, literal gunshows.

As for price, the bill can certainly get away from you here. The key is Gunshow is an experience. It’s the kind of place you go to for a celebration of life, food and drink. You’re going to want to try everything on the menu, and you should. So save it for a special occasion — or make it an annual treat, since it will be different every single time.

How it works

As you get seated, a server explains that one of the only times you will see him or her will be to ensure that your drinks remain filled. For the food, you’re completely in the hands of the chefs.

Shortly after you begin sipping your beverage of choice (and let me tell you, there are some choice beverages here), the chefs begin circulating and showing off their initial courses. From that moment on, you’ll be presented with a whirlwind of a dozen or so dishes and many choices of custom cocktails.

Because the exact menu changes regularly, you can never really guarantee what you’ll get at Gunshow. That’s the beauty of it.

On the table

Let’s dive in a bit on what was on the menu for our early-August feast:

Gunshow — After School Special Cocktail
The “After School Special” cocktail with rye whiskey, blackberry barolo chinato, créme de cassis, caraway and green peanut oil. (JW on the Road)

The cocktail program at Gunshow would’ve been the best part of the restaurant almost anywhere else, but because the food was so innovative and exciting, the cocktails took a backseat — and that’s a-ok here.

Not pictured: the three-to-five more cocktails I photographed (and consumed).

Roasted Wild Striped Bass
Roasted wild striped bass, served on top of summer beans and sweet peas, with spicy peppers and a pistachio puree. (JW on the Road)

This bass dish was the first plate to hit our table. I loved the colors here, specifically how the crisped fish stood out from the bright green purée on the bright white round plate. This dish was the most expensive singular small plate on the menu, coming in at $20.

Chilled Dashi Okra
Chilled dashi okra served in a tomato broth with a sesame custard. (JW on the Road)

I’m a big okra fan always, and the take on it here was really exciting. The okra itself surged with flavors of dashi (a Japanese fish stock made with kelp and dried, fermented tuna flakes), but was rounded out really well by the acidity in the tomato broth.

Summer Succotash
Summer succotash with whipped pimento cheese, shishito peppers, tempura’d pickled green beans and chanterelle mushrooms. (JW on the Road)

What a take on succotash! In heritage American cooking (in my home state of Pennsylvania, New England and in the South as well), succotash is typically a mix of lima beans, corn and some other vegetables. At Gunshow, they pay homage to that with those two elements, but add some chanterelle mushrooms and serve it alongside lightly-tempura-fried pickled green beans and a whipped pimento cheese. This dish worked best when you got a little bit of everything together.

Dhaba Chicken
Dhaba chicken served with okra pakora, eggplant and raita. (JW on the Road)

My father lost his mind over this dhaba chicken (spelled on their menu daba).

In India, a dhaba is a roadside restaurant that generally serves local cuisine, but doubles as a truck stop that gives weary travels and drivers a break from the road. This dhaba chicken dish pays homage to those roadside restaurants and comes with an okra fritter (called pakora in Indian cuisine), some rice and a raita dipping sauce. Raita is a condiment made from yogurt, cucumber and mint.

Beef Heart Polpetta
Beef heart polpetta on top of an olive polenta cake and topped with anchovies and a take on a puttanesca. (JW on the Road)

A polpetta, or meatball, made of beef heart? You crazy for this one, Gunshow.

The savory flavors of this dish hit perfectly with just the right notes of acidity over and over again. My Dad and stepmom wouldn’t try this, but my girlfriend and I took care of it. More for us. This was probably among the top three for me.

Beef Tartare BLT
Beef tartare “BLT” with bacon fat mayo, and local tomato, served on top of a lettuce cream. (JW on the Road)

Keeping with the beef theme here, let’s try some raw.

Again, another dish my folks wouldn’t touch. I, on the other hand, will eat raw beef any chance I can. This take on beef tartare is intended to mimic a BLT (bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich). The raw beef is coated in a bacon fat mayonnaise and comes with fresh, local tomatoes. The coolest part of this dish? Lettuce cream! I didn’t know I needed puréed lettuce in my life — this plate told me I have been missing out.

Grilled Georgia Peach
Grilled Georgia Peach with fried feta, marinated tomatoes, fennel and sherry. (JW on the Road)

It’s Georgia. You’ve got to have a dish with a Georgia peach.

Gunshow must’ve known exactly the way I feel about peaches. I’m a big fan, but love them most when they’re grilled. Something about the way the sugar in the peaches caramelize when it hits the grill blows my mind every single time.

This time around, the peaches were not even the most outstanding part of this dish. Instead, it was this fried feta with a sherry sauce drizzled on top. The sherry complemented the sweetness of the peaches perfectly, while the saltiness of the feta shined when fried. We got this plate just as we were transitioning into dessert, which was the exact perfect place for it.

Old Fashioned Banana Pudding
Warm, old fashioned banana pudding. (JW on the Road)

I randomly got cravings for banana pudding before Gunshow, now I randomly get cravings for THIS banana pudding. No fanciness to describe here — just simple, delicious, perfect banana pudding.

Fig Tart
Fig tart with a sesame caramel, coffee, chocolate, yuzu and white chocolate ice cream. (JW on the Road)

Every time I eat anything white chocolate, I tell people that it’s not real chocolate. I don’t know why. It’s just what I do.

If white chocolate has a home, it’s here, with figs and sesame caramel with flavors of coffee, chocolate and yuzu (a lemon-y citrus fruit).

Final thoughts

I’ll be at Gunshow again. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

It’s not just a meal, it’s not just a celebration, it’s not just a dinner. It’s an education. It’s an experience.

JW on the Road (the blog) is kicking off with this post for a reason — Gunshow embodies everything that this site will hopefully be about. I can’t do it as well as these chefs can, but I can take you along on the journey. That’s what it’s all about in the end, anyway.

How do I eat this food?

Gunshow is in Atlanta, Georgia, southeast of downtown and not too far from the historic Oakland Cemetery. Reservations open up on Yelp one month in advance of when you plan to go, so mark your calendars.

OTR, short for “On the Road”  — This series highlights a particular restaurant, place or experience. To be clear, these are not reviews, but instead a look inside an organization, a meal or flavors. While I think there’s a place for reviews (and maybe a place for reviews here sometime in the future), there are establishments and food worthy of noting and celebrating. That’s what these posts are about.