Real, Honest Food with Sam the Cooking Guy & Just Grill This

Grilled Whole Trout with Sam the Cooking Guy

Forget about the 12 Emmys.

Sam Zien, better known as Sam the Cooking Guy, is just a regular guy who likes to cook real, honest food.

Okay, It's hard to forget about the Emmys.

But, Sam the Cooking Guy is down-to-earth and easy to talk food with.  He gives home cooks carte blanche, or complete freedom, to use short cuts. I love it whenever I have permission to cheat, especially when it tastes this good.

Frozen shrimp? Check. Ditto, frozen scallops and steaks.  Pizza crusts?  Cooked chicken breast? A big up.  

Sam compares cooking to riding a bicycle. You get on and you pedal.  The more you do it, the better you get.

The Canadian-born everyman of cooking started out just like everyone else - by opening the refrigerator door, peering in, and trying to figure out what would be good to eat. He began by grilling for his wife.

"I would go out and do the burning," Zien recalled recently. "Kelly and I would pretend it was good and eat it."  But, the more he grilled, cooked and experimented, the better the food tasted.

Along the way, he discovered his life's work.  

Originally, he intended to create a TV travel show for regular people who wanted to discover far flung places in uncomplicated ways. Poised to start, September 11th happened and with it, the way we live and travel was altered forever, so Zien had to rethink his idea.

Since everyone eats, a food show seemed like the next best option. 

Now, he's host of a regular half hour show Just Cook This, Thursday nights on Discovery Health, which is taped in his San Diego, CA, home, complete with wife, kids, and dogs. 

His third book, Just Grill This, (Wiley, softcover, US$19.95, 256 pp), is now out.  In our house, I've designated it as the go-to cookbook for the men in my life who love to eat but aren't very skilled in the kitchen.

Sam had some great ideas for my 12-year-old son, who is excited about learning to cook, and my boyfriend who wants to learn to cook, but is intimidated by food that requires more than five ingredients.

For my son to try, he recommended trying the Fry Dog, a basic hot dog made with great kosher hot dogs, topped with French Fries and spicy mayo.  We made a souped up version, adding our own twist with melted cheese and chili.

Think chili cheese fries over a hot dog. Delicious!

For my boyfriend, Sam suggested making Sesame Grilled Meatballs, a success story for any new cook.  A grill, a bag of defrosted fully cooked meatballs, skewers, hoisin and chili sauce, sesame oil and chopped green onions - you're in business.

There really is nothing like grilled meat on a stick.  

"Meatballs," he said. "Yeah, meatballs. Just do it. I love giving my guests a job. I hand them the appetizers. It gives them something fun to do and frees me up to do other stuff."

Just Grill This! Flipping through this third cookbook, it's easy to get whipped up about dinner - or lunch, or snacks, or drinks or dessert for that matter. This cookbook and his others are not only fun, but filled with recipes that are accessible for home cooks of all experience levels.  The same warmth and wit that makes Sam the Cooking Guy so approachable in person and on TV comes through in print.  

Among his favorite recipes are Sweet Sticky Ribs, Cedar Plank Salmon and Grilled Catfish Sandwich. Popular with his kids are what his sons call Sam Pockets, round refrigerator rolls flattened and stuffed with any filling you can dream up, then baked about 20 minutes or until lightly browned.

Keeping a well-stocked pantry is essential for happy, well-fed people. There are a few basic essentials that Sam the Cooking Guy recommends.  Contrary to popular belief, there is no shame in a shortcut or frozen food. 

On a trip to Hong Kong, he watched fascinated as women shopped for fresh foods to cook, thinking they were doing their daily food shopping. What he discovered was that these home cooks made a trip to the market for each meal. The reality for most households is that grocery shopping has got to be done far less frequently, but that doesn't mean food has to be industrial, fast food, bad for you or boring.

Kitchen Essentials

  • Sauces - Hoisin, Teriyaki, BBQ, Chili
  • Frozen Foods - Shrimp, Scallops, Steaks
  • General Foods - Olive Tapenade, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Kosher Salt & Fresh Ground Black Pepper

My new favorite is the Whole Grilled Trout.  It fits right in with my favorite kitchen theory: the meal should look really fantastic, appearing complex, but really a breeze to prepare. On the plus side, you can use any whole fish for this recipe.

"This is about really good, honest food. Simple.  You make it. You eat it. It tastes great," Zien said.


The art of simple food

Last week I picked up a used copy of Alice Water's The Art of Simple Food at my local library book sale.  It was perhaps the best and most satisfying $5 I've spent recently.

Though it isn't a new cookbook, it is indeed a delicious revolution.

The chapter I'm digging into, pardon my corny self, is Salads.

There is no meal or side dish quite so simply elegant and satisfying as the salad. When Waters writes, "I love salad. I love to wash it. I love to eat it. As far as I'm concerned, a meal withut one is incomplete," I feel as if she has channeled my thoughts exactly.

So it is with great delight and anticipation that I peruse her writings on the composed salad, the art of combining and arranging ingredients on a plate. I anticipate the mesclun and fresh herbs from my edible garden- if I can wrest them from the digging squirrels - as mainstays on many a happy plate from my kitchen.

The joy of salad making for me is the infinte variety.  From fresh seasonal vegetables and fruits to tasty roast leftover meats to slivers of nuts and cheese, there are many and diverse ways to build a lovely salad. 

Here is a recipe using one of my favorite ingredients, the beautiful beet.

Recipe: Marinated beet salad

Alice Waters, "The Art of Simple Food"

Beets of different colors make a very beautiful salad.  Dress the red ones separately so their color doesn’t bleed all over the others.

  • 1 pound beets (red, Chioggia, golden, or white)
  • Salt
  • 1 teaspoon vinegar (red wine, sherry, or white wine vinegar)
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil.

Trim the greens to 1/2 inch from 1 pound beets (red, Chioggia, golden or white).

Wash thoroughly. Put them in a baking dish with a little water (enough to cover the bottom of the dish to a depth of 1/8 inch) and sprinkle with salt.

Cover tightly and bake the beets in a 350°F oven until they can be easily pierced with a sharp knife, 30 minutes to 1 hour, depending on their size. Uncover and cool. Cut off the tops and roots and slip off the skins. Cut the peeled beets into small wedges or 1/4-inch dice and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon vinegar (red wine, sherry or white wine vinegar) and salt.

Let stand for a few minutes to allow the beets to absorb the flavor. Taste and add more salt or vinegar as needed. Toss with 1 to 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil.

Serve alone, or with other salads.



  • Substitute fresh orange juice for some of the vinegar and toss with grated orange zest.
  • Toss with 1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs such as mint, tarragon or cilantro.


Hail Caesar - salad recipe Cardini dressing maker's original


Of course an Italian dreamed up the Caesar salad.  That he was an Italian living in Mexico makes the story more interesting.

If you've ever seen Cardini salad dressings on the shelves while browsing the supermarket, then you've seen the by-product of Cesare Cardini's original invention, the Caesar salad. It's said that Cardini's original recipe had no anchovies but relied on Worcestershire sauce for its distinctive slightly salty and savory flavor.

Since its creation in the 20s, the Caesar salad has seen numerous transformations with endless recipes available to try and to tweak. It's hard, if not impossible, to find Caesar salad made table side. Too many restrictions are placed on the use of raw egg due to the fear of salmonella.

Some have substituted coddled eggs, but I remain a purist and live dangerously, I suppose. When making Caesar dressing, I use the freshest eggs I can find and wash the shells thoroughly.  Since hens lay their eggs through a "vent" or passageway shared by their intestines and salmonella bacteria is transmitted through fecal matter, this is a pretty important consideration.

Toss a head of romaine and you'll hit a recipe for Caesar salad.

There are updated versions with grilled chicken or grilled shrimp, and some like the one I made last night feature my favorite fruit, the avocado.

You may be hard-pressed to find a Caesar with egg or anchovies in restaurants, which I find depressing - almost as sad as the limp, overdressed salads topped with a few nondescript croutons that are passing as the famed Caesar.

Below is an eggless recipe, which is tasty, but really would benefit from the creamy emulsification created by the addition of a raw egg.  But, in my house, we have one person is afraid of raw egg consumption, so we made this version to suit her palate.

Eggless Caesar Dressing

3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

juice of one lemon, about a quarter cup

1clove garlic, mashed

6 anchovy fillets

1/4 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano

salt and pepper to taste

In a blender or food processor, combine all ingredients and pulse until smooth.  May be kept in the refrigerator for two to three days.

What's for dinner: roasted lamb breast & winter root vegetables


I was in the farmer's market early Saturday morning, buying parsnips and lusting over organic rabbit.

My son discovered that Mr. McGregor did not have Peter Rabbit's best interests at heart as we pondered a bag of freshly dressed bunny. 

While I envisioned braised rabbit with wild mushrooms and perhaps some couscous, my son was busy grilling the market woman on the farmer's means of skinning the rabbit. I grew up around outdoorsman, so I know the drill. It was fun seeing him bridge the gap between what we eat and where it comes from.

The rabbit in 2-3 lbs portions at at $6.99 per pound was out of this week's budget, but will definitely make the menu in coming weeks. If you want your rabbit fresh, buy soon because bunnies apparently get lazy in the summer months, so there are fewer to eat!  You can, however, freeze whole rabbit up to a year and pieces up to nine months.

Since I already had lamb breast, an economical and delightfully delicious cut if a bit fatty, my quest was to pair it with some root vegetables for a meal that all went into the oven while I relaxed on the couch and listened to music.  Along with a few stalks of celery, the parsnips, carrots, and baby potatoes (red, purple, and white) made the cut. 

Parsnips are a new addition to my repertoire and a happy one at that.  I love the flavor - a little sweet, a little nutty.  They played nicely with my other root vegetables and all made fast friends with the lamb. 

Roast Lamb Breast

3-4 pounds lamb breast

1 Tbs kosher salt

4 garlic cloves, finely minced

2 sprigs of rosemary, leaves cleaned from the stem & finely minced

1/4 cup of white balsamic vinegar

drizzle of extra virgin olive oil

At least 24 hours before roasting, clean the lamb breast with cold water and pat dry with a paper towel.  Then rub the breast with kosher salt, front and back, following with the garlic and rosemary.

Roasted Parsnips, Carrots  & Potatoes

3 medium parsnips, peeled and cut in slices

4 medium carrots, peeled and cut in finger-sized chunks

3 baby purple potatoes, quartered

3 baby white potatoes, quartered

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon herbs of Provence

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 cup water

In a mixing bowl, coat vegetables with the olive oil, then add salt and herbs. Transfer to a glass, clay baking dish or a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet. Add water. Roast uncovered, tuening gently once or twice during roasting, for 45 minutes to one hour in an oven preheated to 400 degrees Farenheit (200 degrees Celsius).  Serve with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice to brighten the flavors.