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I'm a guy who likes to cook, eat, and drink, but not necessarily in that order. This blog is nothing fancy; just my random thoughts about anything that can be baked, roasted, or fried. Enjoy!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Italian Without the Pasta

Recently, I’ve discovered that Costco sells some great cookbooks. And nearly every time I go there to stock up on my two-years’ supply of toilet paper and four-gallon tubs of pub mix, I invariably find a one. As a result, I almost own Ina Garten’s complete Barefoot Contessa oeuvre. 

©2014 Chris Terrell
But during my most recent trip, I discovered something new and surprising: an Italian cookbook published by Phaidon titled, Vegetables from an Italian Garden. As you can gather from the title, it is dedicated entirely to Italian vegetable recipes. It is divided into four sections, one for each of the four seasons and the vegetables that are prominent during those seasons. And not a pasta recipe in sight.

For you see, “authentic” Italian food is not as pasta-heavy as its Italian-American cousin. In fact, in Italy pasta is not the main meal, as is typical in America, but a small preliminary course. So after I purchased this book, I decided I would make an Italian meal without any pasta. The only carbs on the plate would come from the garden, or at least someone else’s garden.

The Saturday morning of my pasta-less “experiment,” I headed out to the farmers market with nothing particular in mind. I find a farmer’s market a lot more fun when you go there without an agenda. After a few minutes, I grabbed a big, beautiful, fleshy eggplant. And, a few minutes after that, some cherry tomatoes. I find eggplant to be the most intriguing vegetable out there, though I rarely know what to do with it. Sometimes I buy one, only to watch it wither on my kitchen counter. This time, however, would be different. Because eggplant is so popular in Italian cookery, I was sure to find an interesting dish in my new cook book. I wasn’t disappointed.

What I found was a recipe for marinated eggplant, not marinated in vinegar or lemon juice, but rather olive oil, It turned out to be a flavorful summer dish. Here’s the recipe:


© 2014 Chris Terrell
Melanzane Marinate
(Marinated Eggplant)

Ingredients

1 large eggplant, cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
3/4 cup olive oil
1 chile, seeded and chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon capers, drained, rinsed, and chopped
10 mint leaves
salt and pepper

Preparation

Put the eggplant slices in a colander, sprinkle with salt, and let drain for about 30 minutes. Heat a heavy, nonstick skillet. Rinse the eggplant, pat dry, and brush with some of the oil. Add the eggplant slices to the skillet, in batches if necessary, and cook over high heat until golden brown on both sides. Combine the chile, garlic, capers, and mint in a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Make a layer of eggplant slices in a salad bowl, sprinkle with a tablespoon of the chili dressing, and continue making layers until all the ingredients are used. Pour in the remaining olive oil and let marinate in a cool place for at least 6 hours.


Next, it was time to turn to the tomatoes. Cherry tomatoes may be one of my favorite kinds of tomatoes. You can pop them right in your mouth; put them in a salad; or roast them, which is probably the best way to serve them. I found an excellent recipe for roasted tomatoes using balsamic vinegar! And while the recipe calls for regular tomatoes, cherry tomatoes work just as well, don’t require any cutting (put them in the roasting pan whole) and they cook faster. Here’s the recipe.

© 2014 Chris Terrell
Pomodori All'Aceto Balsamico in Forno
(Baked Tomatoes with Balsamic Vinegar)

Ingredients

4 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for brushing
1 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
8 tomatoes halved (or pint and a half of cherry tomatoes)
1 sprig of thyme
salt and pepper

Preparation

Preheat the over to 350 degrees. Brush an ovenproof dish with oil. Whisk together the oil and vinegar in a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Put the tomatoes into the prepared dish in a single layer, brush with the oil and vinegar mixture over them, and sprinkle with the thyme. Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 225 degrees and bake for at least another 1 hour. (If using cherry tomatoes, you can bake at the higher temperature for about 30 minutes.) Remove from the oven, transfer the tomatoes to a serving dish, and serve either hot or cold. 

Finally, I needed a little protein to go with this meal. I didn’t want to make a trip to the store, so I pulled out some frozen chicken breasts (also from Costco!) and grabbed my copy of The Silver Spoon. As I’ve written in this blog before, this is the only Italian cookbook you will ever need. Here’s what I found:

Involtini di Pollo alle Acciughe E Capperi
(Chicken, Anchovy, and Caper Roulades)

Ingredients

4 salted anchovies, soaked in water and drained
4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
3 tablespoons drained and rinsed capers
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, thinly sliced
1/4 cup white wine
salt and pepper

Preparation

Lightly pound the chicken with a mallet. Divide the anchovies and capers among the chicken portions, roll up, and secure with toothpicks. Heat the butter and oil in a large skillet, add the onion, and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Add the chicken roulades and cook, turning frequently, until browned all over. Season with salt and pepper, increase the heat to high, pour in the wine, and cook until it has reduced slightly. Lower the heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Transfer to a warm serving dish.

Now I was all set. And after it was all ready, I invited a neighbor over to share my non-pasta, Italian meal. And while one can have a great Italian meal without the pasta, you wouldn’t want to have an Italian meal without good company and good conversation. After all, it just wouldn’t be “Italian.”

Friday, July 11, 2014

Pizza: As American as Apple Pie!

“You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I'm not hungry enough to eat six.”

—Yogi Berra

Apple pie? 

Fuggetaboutit! 

Without a doubt, pizza is the most American of American food. Based on my limited research (i.e., Google), we consume about 3 billion pizzas a year or 9.44 pizzas for each and every American! This really should not come as a surprise. After all, have you ever met someone who didn’t like pizza? I know that if I did, I would promptly banish them to Outer Mongolia!  

And despite how “American” we may think pizza is, it has been around in some form for a very, very long time, before American or even Italians discovered it in its most popular form today. The ancient Greeks made flat breads covered with oils, herbs, and cheese, and the Romans covered theirs with cheese and honey, flavored with bay leaves. But pizza as we know it—with tomato sauce—didn’t originate until tomatoes were brought back from the New World in the 16th Century. 

Pizza here, however, was a Johnny-come-lately. It really didn’t really take off until after World War II, when American soldiers who had been stationed in Italy, created a demand for the pizza they had tasted and enjoyed in Italy. Speaking of Italy, if you love pizza, then you must make the pilgrimage and taste it from the original source. In Italy, it is safe to say that pizza is not junk food. It is made with fresh tomatoes, fresh basil, and about half the cheese as its American cousin.

Americans, being the mongrels that we are, took the simple and elegant Italian pizza, and ran with it, creating a crazy and nearly endless list of flavors: hamburger pizza, pizza with clams, alligator pizza, potato and bacon pizza, BBQ pizza, Mexican pizza, and Hawaiian pizza (controversial, but one of my favorites). Tonight, in fact, I tried a pizza I’d never had before at a place called Pies and Pints in Morgantown, West Virginia. This pizza is called the Grape Pie, and it is exactly what it says it is: red grapes, gorgonzola cheese, and rosemary. Admittedly, I was skeptical, but it was pretty darn good. 

The two competing styles of pizza in America are deep dish and New York Style. New York style consists of a thin—Chicagoans would say flimsy—crust which requires a special technique to eat by hand. You take the wide end in your hand and slightly crimp the sides together so the tip doesn’t flip forward. Of course, you could avoid this if you simply used a knife and fork. But many consider this heresy. In fact, the mayor of New York, Bill De Blasio caused quite a stir when, shortly after his election, he was seen eating pizza with a knife and fork. He defended himself by noting that, being of direct Italian heritage, he was eating pizza in the traditional way Italians eat it. De Blasio Eats Pizza  On the complete opposite spectrum lies Chicago style pizza (sometimes called deep-dish), which is served in something that resembles a round cake pan with crust that can be as high as three inches and stuff to the gills with cheese and sausage. Pretty fitting for the City of Big Shoulders.

Personally, I lean toward New York style pizza. Also, I must confess that pizza is my biggest weakness: the one food I cannot live without; the one food I would eat as my last meal on death row. I probably eat pizza at least once—sometimes twice—a week. For me, the best night of the week to eat pizza is Friday while watching a movie. Second best is Saturday while watching SEC football. Of course, the perfect drink with pizza is beer—hands down. My favorite flavor is pepperoni with red onions, though I’m partial to green peppers and mushrooms too.  And speaking of pizzerias, here’s my random list of favorite pizzerias from around the country (though they are heavily weighted to where I live, Birmingham, Alabama):

Birmingham, Alabama

Slice: http://slicebirmingham.com

Davenport’s: http://davenportspizza.com

Cosmo’s: http://www.birminghammenus.com/cosmos/

Atlanta, Georgia

Fellini’s Pizza (Ponce or Peachtree locations): http://www.fellinisatlanta.com/fellinis.html

Savannah, Georgia

Vinnie Van Go-Go’s: http://vinnievangogo.com

New York City

Lombardi’s (apparently, the oldest pizzeria in America): http://firstpizza.com

Lexington, Virginia

Frank’s Pizza: http://frankspizzalexington.com

Rome, Italy

Just about any random trattoria. 


Well, those are my random musings about pizza. Makes you kinda hungry doesn’t it? If so, then go online or pick up the phone and order a pie. And that’s another great thing about pizza in America, it’s just so damn convenient!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Dinner Party

I’m a big fan of Mad Men, especially the show's portrayal of of the Sixties. It’s not just that everyone seemed so cool and classy, but that everyone seemed to have had such great dinner parties. They started off with a cocktail, an elegantly lighted cigarette, fondue, crown roast, and chocolate mousse. Of course, this is probably far removed from the truth. But no matter.


© 2014 Chris Terrell
Is it just me, or has the dinner party fallen a bit out of favor in American culture? These days we are more likely to get together with friends at a restaurant or bar and order some pizza, watch a game, and call it quits. Nothing necessarily wrong with this, and it is in keeping with the relaxed nature of American culture in the early 21st Century. And besides, a dinner party—or any party for that matter—takes a lot of work. But then again, there’s a lot to be said for sitting down, sharing a meal, and having an adult conversation—no TV; no kids; and no iPhones. With all this in mind, I decided, after many years of having dinner parties for work events and for clients, to throw one just for fun and just for my friends.

Before I even got to the planning, the cleaning, the shopping, or the cooking, however, I had to find a date. This turned out to be the hardest part about the whole endeavor, something that almost made me throw up my hands and call the whole thing off!  What was it? It was finding a date that worked for everyone! This took—and I’m not kidding—about eight months! “Can’t do that weekend, my son has a soccer tournament.” “Nope, the in-laws are in town.” “Out of town on business that night.” “Sorry, going to Davos.” (Ok, I made that one up.) However, I stuck with it, and finally we all agreed on June 21, 2014: Midsummer’s Eve. 

Once I had the date nailed down, I then began to spend a fair amount of time thinking about the menu during my morning runs. Because the dinner would be held on Midsummer’s Eve, I thought I should keep the meal light, and I didn’t want to make anything new for the first time (see “Rule #2” below). I also decided to serve dinner in courses, not to be fancy, but for a very practical reason, namely, my dinner table simply isn’t big enough for all the food to be served at once. 

I started with a simple salad—butter lettuce and radishes and a vinaigrette  I don’t really follow a recipe for my dressings. I go with really good olive oil (Ravida), Dijon mustard, white wine vinegar, shallots, egg yolk, salt and pepper. (And please, don’t ever buy that stuff they sell in bottles at the grocery store—it’s not real salad dressing!)

Next, I served gazpacho. I used Ina Garten’s recipe, which has never done me wrong. Gazpacho is great in the summer and it can be made a day before. In fact, it is better after a day or two. Taste it before serving, because cold foods sometimes need more salt and pepper. Here’s her recipe:

Ina Garten's Gazpacho

Ingredients

2 hothouse cucumbers, halved and seeded, but not peeled 
3 red bell peppers, cored and seeded 
8 plum tomatoes 
2 red onions 
6 garlic cloves, minced 
46 ounces tomato juice (6 cups) 
1/2 cup white wine vinegar 
1/2 cup good olive oil 
1 tablespoon kosher salt 
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper 

Preparation

Roughly chop the cucumbers, bell peppers, tomatoes, and red onions into 1-inch cubes. Put each vegetable separately into a food processor fitted with a steel blade and pulse until it is coarsely chopped. Do not overprocess! 

After each vegetable is processed, combine them in a large bowl and add the garlic, tomato juice, vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Mix well and chill before serving. The longer gazpacho sits, the more the flavors develop. 

Next came the main course: shallow poached halibut with sauce vierge. This recipe comes from Eric Ripert, a true god in the culinary firmament. The sauce can be made the day before, and the fish takes no time at all to cook. (You can use turbot too, which is a little cheaper than halibut.) Here’s the recipe:

Eric Ripert's Shallow Poached Halibut with Sauce Vierge

The Sauce Vierge

1 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 teaspoon finely minced shallot
1 tablespoon minced parsley
1 tablespoon minced tarragon
1 tablespoon minced basil
1 tablespoon chopped capers
1 tablespoon chopped Nicoise olives
Juice of half a lemon

The Garnish

4 ripe tomatoes sliced thinly, about 1/4 - inch
1/2 cup thinly sliced basil
Halibut
4 (6-ounce) Halibut filets, sliced lengthwise into thirds, about 3/4- inch thick
2 cups water (more if needed)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground white pepper

Preparation

To make the sauce, place the extra virgin olive oil in a mixing bowl and add the shallot, parsley, tarragon, basil, capers and olives. Stir to combine the ingredients and transfer to a small container. The sauce can be made a couple hours ahead and kept at room temperature.

Make the plates just before cooking the fish by fanning the sliced tomatoes in a circle in the center of four plates and season lightly with salt and white pepper.

Place a large sauté pan on medium-low heat and add the water, the extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice, lightly season the liquid with salt and white pepper. Season the slices of halibut on both sides with salt and white pepper and place in a single layer in the warmed poaching liquid. The liquid should come about halfway up the fish, adjust if needed with more. Cook the fish for about 2-3 minutes, then flip the slices and cook on the other side until they are just warmed in the center.

With the fish, I served what was perhaps the most popular item of the night: creamed corn, a perfect summer dish. But this wasn’t just any creamed corn, but Thomas Keller’s recipe. I’ve written about this recipe before. It is the real deal. The best recipe for creamed corn out there. And while I don’t usually follow recipes to the letter, this one I do. In fact, Thomas Keller’s recipes are so precise they really leave little room for experimentation. But that’s OK, because his recipes are damn-near perfect. Here it is:

Thomas Keller's Creamed Corn from Ad Hoc at Home

Ingredients

6 ears of supersweet white or yellow con, shucked
1 large lime 
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
Kosher salt
3/4 to 1 cup heavy cream
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped chives

Preparation

With a sharp chef's knife, cut vertically down each ear of corn to slice off the kernels. 

Grate the zest of the lime, preferably with a Microplaner grater, set aside. Cut the lime in half.

Melt the butter in a large frying pan over medium heat.  Add the corn, squeeze about 1 tablespoon lime juice, or to taste, over the corn, and season with salt. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until all the liquid has evaporated, concentrating the flavor, and the corn is beginning to sizzle, about 15-17 minutes.

Stir in 3/4 cup cream, the cayenne, and the lime zest. Continue to cook for 6 to 8 minutes, until the cream is absorbed by the corn. Add up to 1/4 a cup of more cream if desired for a creamier texture. Add salt to taste and stir in the chives.

Serves 8

Finally, there was dessert. This came from one of my favorite dessert cookbooks of all time, Short & Sweet by Melanie Barnard.  All her recipes are simple, yet elegant. In fact, your guests will think you spent the better part of an afternoon working on it. Again, this is something that can be made ahead of time, about three or four hours before dinner.

Raspberries in Chantilly Cream

Ingredients

2 cups heavy cream, chilled
1/2 cup seedless raspberry jam
1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons raspberry liqueur, such as Frambois
4 cups fresh raspberries

Preparation

Whip the cream with the jam, powdered sugar, and liqueur until it's thickened and forms very soft peaks. (The cream can be prepared up to 2 hours before serving and refrigerated.) Divide the cream among 4 shallow desert bowls. (Or martini glasses for a more dramatic effect.). Sprinkle the berries over the top of each desert. Serve immediately. (You can also put the raspberries in the bottom and the cream on top, if you want to have the entire desert completed beforehand.)

So what did I learn from this dinner party and the others that I’ve had in the past? I came up with ten “rules,” and while not exactly The Ten Commandments, they are certainly easier to follow. 

The “Rules”

1. Focus first and foremost on the menu. The menu takes careful planning.  You must accommodate your guests’ tastes, preferences, and food allergies, but more importantly, you need to create a meal that doesn’t make you a slave of the kitchen. No one wants to go to a dinner party and see the back of the host’s or hostess’s head, frantically whisking the hollandaise sauce.

2. Don’t cook anything that you’ve never cooked before. You’re guests are not Guinea pigs!

3. Have a signature cocktail. This avoids the problem of making personalized drinks from the bar. Make it easy by having it pre-mixed and in a pitcher so that your guests need only add ice and pour. 

4. Flowers. And flowers on the table. Nothing fancy, just simple arrangements. 

5. Play music. I prefer mid-Century, West Coast jazz, like Paul Desmond.

6. Make a charcuterie platter.

7. Greet your guests at the door and see them to the door when they leave.

8. And most importantly, never apologize. (Though I admit that I violated this rule several times during the evening because I felt the halibut could have been seasoned more.

9. Keep it simple and casual.

10. Most importantly, have fun!


Well, there you have it. My Midsummer’s Eve dinner party. I know it sounds like a lot of work, and it was, but also entirely worth it when you see everyone laughing and having a good time. And besides, I got to enjoy the leftovers of that creamed corn for several days!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Cocktails in the 21st Century

I know the term mixologist is trendy now, and I’ve resisted using it to a large extent. But I think I understand the intent behind it. Putting together a great cocktail is not easy—it requires considerable skill, finesse, and creativity. Somehow the quotidian phrase “bartender” just doesn’t seem to fit. 

So what makes a good cocktail? Like a fine writing pen or an Italian sports car, a good cocktail is all about balance and harmony. The flavors and alcohol should compliment each other. Naturally, a cocktail should have an alcoholic kick, but too much and you’ve got the equivalent of an 80s one-hit-wonder band. If you want just alcohol, and only alcohol, then have a shot of tequila. 

Speaking of alcohol, we are in the midst of a renaissance—a focus on craft and flavor. This is especially the case with gin, with craft distillers who focus on botanicals. Hendricks probably started the trend, but there is now so much more. Two of these newer gins on the market that I like are Green Hat (made in Washington, D.C., and named for a bootlegger who serviced members of Congress during prohibition) and G’ Vine Floraison (French). The forward flavor profile of these gins is such that they can be drunk on the rocks without any tonic or if so, very little. For a martini or traditional G&T, however, the old standbys are Tanquerray and Bombay. 

On the darker side of the spectrum, bourbon’s erstwhile cousin, rye, is making a big comeback. My favorite rye is Bulleit, with Rittenhouse a close second. Rye is not as sweet as bourbon and has a subtle spiciness or even woodiness. Don’t think of ordering a Manhattan with anything other than rye.

While those who drink should always have a “go-to” cocktail (a well-made classic gin martini always works any time of the year, especially around lunch time!), it never hurts to try something new. For me that opportunity came knocking during a recent visit to Barmini in Washington, D.C., José Andrés’s latest mixology venture.

Unless you know exactly where to look, you will walk right past the entrance to Barmini. After all, Barmini is not the kind of place you just wander into off the street. You must make a reservation because drinking here is a deliberative, contemplative act. And you don’t just stroll through the front door. Instead, you push a button and someone let’s you in like an old speakeasy from the 1920s.

The inside is nothing like the 1920s, however. I would describe it as a combination of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Gene Wilder version) and 2001: A Space Odyssey


Corpse Reviver 2
© 2014 Chris Terrell

I started with the Corpse Reviver #2, which consists of gin, lemon, Contreau, Lillet Blanc, and absinthe rinse. It certainly woke me up!
Clover Club Cocktail
© 2014 Chris Terrell


I also tried the Clover Club Cocktail, with gin, lemon, raspberry, and egg white (a classic cocktail ingredient). Then on to the Cedar and Agave, which is añejo, Benedictine, agave orange bitters and …. smoke! Here’s where it gets interesting. The best part of this drink is how the smoke gets into the drink. The bartender starts with a cedar plank and, with a blow torch, sets fire to the plank. When it begins to smoke, he places the glass over it and traps the smoke. A square block of ice is carefully inserted into the inverted glass and flipped over. At this point, he adds the liquid, along with a twist of orange and a violet flower. Voila!



There is also food at Barmini which is just as good as the drinks. (Barmini is the bar side of Andrés’s restaurant next door called Minibar.) I started with the banh mi burger, lobster roll, and finished with a grilled cheese. 
© 2014 Chris Terrell
Banh Mi Burger

© 2014 Chris Terrell
Lobster Roll

© 2014 Chris Terrell
Grilled Cheese
Even though Barmini certainly has that cool, trendy vibe, the service is not snooty but friendly and gracious. The seating also lends itself to meeting new friends. We sat at a communal table, which is how I discovered the Cedar and Agave—a dapper man in his early 60s who reminded me of Roger Sterling from Mad Men—was enjoying one and highly recommended it. 

America in the early 21st is in the midst of a golden age for cocktails. I say America because the cocktail is quintessentially American. But more importantly, bars today are full of restless creativity. And that’s what really makes America so unique.

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Journey of a Thousand Memories Begins with the First Bite

The Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend was bright and clear in Birmingham as I made the short drive to the airport. After navigating through the TSA line behind a rather addled young woman who acted as if she had never been in an airport, much less a TSA security line, I settled into a chair at my gate and began to feel a bit journey proud. This odd phrase refers to that feeling of anticipation or excitement one gets on the eve of a trip. One dictionary in the late 19th Century used the phrase thus:“I have heard New Englanders speak of a person as ‘journey-proud,’ meaning that one is so elated on the eve of a journey as to care nothing for food.” This was certainly one guy who wasn’t so journey proud that  he couldn’t enjoy some good food.

I landed at Reagan National Airport a little after one in the afternoon. Even though my stomach was calibrated to the Central Time Zone, I was hungry. Breakfast had been nothing more than a granola bar and a piece of string cheese. After all, I wanted to ensure a good appetite for lunch, which would be at Bayou Bakery in Arlington, Virginia, just across the river from Washington, D.C. 

Bayou Bakery is a quirky little bakery and deli with a Cajun theme. This is the kind of place that serves deviled eggs, pimento cheese, and collards as appetizers. I got the Bayou BLT: Benton’s bacon, oven cured tomatoes, and arugula on Texas toast. I washed all this down with a sizable glass of Abita Andygator. And Alabama fan that I am, as I ate underneath an outsized LSU flag on the back wall, I couldn’t help but recall a trip to New Orleans to watch the National Championship with two dear friends from high school. 

After a bit of shopping, it was time for a nap to restore my batteries for the next meal: dinner at Rasika, an Indian restaurant in D.C.

The first time I had Indian food was in college. I was skeptical at first but coaxed into it by a pretty girl who was Indian-American.  I was pleasantly surprised. I didn’t have Indian again until a few years later when I visited London. I stayed in a hostel near the Bayswater tube stop, an eclectic area with a fair amount of Indian restaurants nearby. I figured that because I was in London, I should have Indian take-away.  One of my roommates suggested a place he thought was good. Though the name is long-forgotten, I almost feel as if I could find it by instinct alone. In my mind’s eye, I can see the front entrance with hanging stings of beads and a statute of Shiva against the side wall. 

My roommate warned me to ask for mild because Indian food in London is notoriously spicy. Of course, the male competitive Y-chromosome kicked in, and I ignored his advice, much to my detriment.  As I sat on the floor in the communal room of the hostel, with my new-found friend staring at me intently, I carefully opened the container of curry and began to sweat immediately.  After three glasses of water, the feeling that I would die alone in a foreign country receded somewhat. Given this experience, it was many, many years later before I would eat Indian food again. 

When we arrived at Rasika, I quickly noticed that there were a lot of Indians dining there. I took this as a good sign. After all, if you go into a barbecue joint in Boston, Massachusetts, and everyone says things like “ya’ll” and “yes ma’am” then you know you’re going to get some good ‘cue! We didn’t have reservations, which are hard to get anyway, so we ate at the bar. Eating at the bar in a restaurant is a great experience. It provides instant conviviality. It’s not just the alcohol that makes folks more friendly, it is the setting. You’re sitting close together and facing forward with nothing really to look at, except the hopefully, ever-present bartenders. It is a lot like being on an airplane—another captive setting with alcohol.  

We started with the Palak Chaat, which is crispy baby spinach with a sweet yogurt, tamarind, and date chutney. (Indian food would not be the same without chutney.) For my entree, I had chicken tikka masala. Yes, I admit that this is not real “Indian” food. The menu even referred to it, truthfully, as the “national dish of England”!  To top it off, we also enjoyed the Lamb Kathi Roll – succulent tandoori lamb with roti and mint chutney.

On Memorial Day, we had brunch at Le Diplomate, a restaurant about as close as one can get to being in Paris without buying a ticket on Air France. It is a beautiful restaurant, though it lacks the worn-down, languid charm, and savor faire of a true Parisian bistro. 

When you first walk into Le Diplomate, you notice a marble-topped table piled high with baguettes and other French breads. And beyond that a large oak bar, with a vintage, yellow bicycle surrounded by framed Tour de France jerseys on the wall. The scene is completed with red leather banquettes, tiled floors, and pages from vintage French nudie mags on the walls of the bathrooms.

Brunch was an upscale interpretation of classic Parisian brasserie cuisine: a French 75 for an aperitif; pommes frites, then a bottle of Côtes de Rhône; a baguette provençale with French salami, idiazabal, cornichon, mustard vinaigrette; and profiteroles for dessert.

On the flight back to Birmingham later that day, I got to thinking about the connections between travel and food and memory. Without traveling too far by modern standards, I had had lunch at a deli that served pimento cheese, reminiscent of home; an Indian restaurant thousands of miles from India that reminded me of a long-ago trip to London; and brunch at a French restaurant that brought back memories of leisurely strolls in the 5th Arrondissement. This notion of travel and memory was captured recently in a great travel article in The New York Times by Liesl Schillinger (Read article). In it, she returns to a small village in central France where she had stayed one summer as a young girl. She states that “[i]n the mind, geography converges; beloved landscapes, villages, cities, countries, all become one, in the borderless scrapbook of memory.”  

Her sentiments are equally true when it comes to food. And just like my memories of my travels will be no less idealized than Schillinger’s, I will also one day do the same about the meals I had one weekend in Washington, DC, in the late spring of 2014. As Anthony Bourdain once said: “Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life.”


I’m already journey proud for the next course!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

When In Doubt, Fry It!

A good friend of mine once said that he wouldn’t eat anything unless it could be placed between two pieces of bread or fried. He couldn’t be closer to the truth. In the South, folks love fried food. Heck, we’ll fry just about anything that moves or grows in the ground: fried chicken, fried catfish, fried okra, fried green tomatoes, and even fried pickles. 

© 2014 Chris Terrell
A few months back, I got a deep fryer for my birthday. And life being what it is, I didn’t get the chance to use it until recently. And then the dilemma. What should I fry first? I thought about french fries, which I’ve made before, but I wanted something different. Fried chicken? Didn’t want to wait for the chicken to marinate over night in buttermilk. 

Stumped. 

Then it hit me in the middle of the produce section at the local Piggly Wiggly. I grabbed the arm of a young kid mechanically stacking tomatoes into a pyramid: “Hey, do you have any okra!” Once he recovered from my sudden burst of enthusiasm, he pointed rather vaguely to where I saw a lonely package of okra nestled between some yellow squash and zucchini.

Like a lot of things in the green food genus (a/k/a vegetables), I wasn’t a big fan of okra growing up. Maybe it was the way my mom prepared it. I don’t think she ever fried it, and if she had, I would have gobbled it up. Because let’s be frank, the best way to prepare this quirky little veggie is to fry it. 

But before I give away my secret for making okra, let’s ponder the question: what the heck is okra? Like a lot of foods considered “Southern,” okra came to this country on the backs of African slaves. (The past is ever present even in Southern foodways. As Faulkner noted, “[t]he past is never dead. it’s not even past.”) 

File Photo: USDA
The  West African word ukru ma became the English word “okra.” And in Bantu, the language in Southern Africa, the word for okra is ngombo, which the word “gumbo” comes from. Gumbo and okra have been used interchangeably. And gumbo wouldn’t be gumbo without okra.

So how do I make fried okra? Let me start by pointing out that I’m not a big fan of okra fried in heavy batter, the kind one would find in most meat-and-threes. (If you don’t know what a meat-and-three is, then check this website out for a good definition and directory of where to find them in the South: Directory of Meat-and-Threes)

© 2014 Chris Terrell
Cut the okra crosswise and place it in a Ziploc bag with cornmeal, salt, pepper, and some cayenne pepper, and shake it like a wet dog. Place it in the fryer for about five minutes at 355 degrees until the okra turns a nice dark green and the cornmeal is a golden brown, and what you end up with is something that disappears like popcorn.

After the last piece of fried okra, my mind began to think of what I should fry next. It would have to be fried chicken because I’ve never made fried chicken in a deep fryer. I grew up on fried chicken made in a cast iron skillet on the stove with a moderate amount of oil. In fact, this is how a lot of Southerners made fried chicken before the invention of commercial and later home deep fryers.

All this talk about fried food perhaps begs the question. Why do Southerners like fried food? Who knows? Why do the French like cheese? Why do the Germans like sausage? Why do the Italians like pasta?  Perhaps we like the foods we like because that’s what we know and what we grew up with. 

It’s part of our history, good or bad. Just like okra.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Play Ball!

© 2014 Chris Terrell
Spring has sprung and summer is just around the corner. And here in Alabama—with highs recently in the mid 80s—summer has certainly arrived. And along with the return of warmer weather comes the start of baseball season. 

This past Saturday night, I watched the Birmingham Barons take on the Pensacola Blue Wahoos. (The Barons won 2-1 in a stunner in the bottom of the 9th.) The Barons play at Regions Field, a new downtown ballpark with a great view of the city. The night was perfect for a late spring ball game. The sky was clear—which was nice considering it had been overcast and rainy earlier in the day—with the temperature in the low 70s and a slight, cool breeze. 

Baseball’s relaxed, deliberate pace is a nice respite in today’s always-on world. It never demands your attention to the same extent as football or basketball. This is what makes baseball the most sociable of spectator sports. You can actually sit down, relax and have a real conversation with a real human being, yet never miss the essence of the game. 

Baseball also may be the most food-friendly sport. Baseball’s pace makes it easy to eat and drink—two other great social endeavors.

© 2014 Chris Terrell
So what food goes well with baseball? (We all know what drink goes well with baseball: beer! Just like there’s no crying in baseball, there ain’t no white zinfandel either!) I would argue that the hot dog is the quintessential baseball food. Watching a baseball game without a hot dog and an ice cold beer just wouldn’t be baseball. Another great baseball food, and perhaps the simplest, are roasted peanuts. And of course, one cannot forget about Cracker Jack.


Over the years, other food items have been added to the baseball culinary firmament, especially ones that reflect the local cuisine. For example, here at Regions field, you can get the Magic City Dog (barbecue sausage with coleslaw, sauce, and spicy mustard). At AT&T Park, where the Giants play, they have wine carts that sell California wine and Ghirardelli  chocolate. At Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles, you can find crab cakes and crab soup. During a Marlins home game in Miami you can grab a Cuban sandwich. And finally, if you are going to watch the Colorado Rockies play, you can munch on some fried Rocky Mountain oysters (a/k/a bull testicles).

The list goes on and on. These days, major league ballparks seem to be in some kind of gastronomic arms race—each trying to out do the other in the variety and “gourmet-ness” of the dishes offered. But for me, nothing beats a simple hot dog on a warm spring night, peanut shells piling up at your feet, and the crack of a baseball bat. 


Ground zero of the Republic my friend.