About Me

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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!

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

I Need to Find the Exit Ramp!

When it comes to vegetables, spring is the redheaded stepchild. Summer gets all the blockbusters like tomatoes, corn, cucumbers, and zucchini.  Even fall and winter veggies get more attention: pumpkin, beets, carrots, leeks, broccoli, and brussels sprouts  With the exception of asparagus, spring doesn't have too much, and what it does have doesn't seem to stick around for long. (In Alabama, we hold onto spring like a dog with a bone. We are lucky to get a few weeks past the A-Day game in Tuscaloosa before summer starts in.)  But perhaps the ultimate, short-lived spring vegetable would have to be ramps. It is also the most over-hyped, hyper-obsessed vegetable out there. In case, you've never heard of ramps (a/k/a allium tricoccum), they are nothing more than a wild onion.

The past couple of years, I have bought ramps, but I can never cook them before they go bad. One year, I made sure that this didn't happen. I asked the guy selling ramps at the local market—who frankly didn't seem all that enamored with them (which should have been a clue)—how he prepared them. With a shrug, he said simply that he just cooked them chopped up with scrambled eggs, like his momma always made 'em. "Really, that's it?" I asked. Surely, I thought to myself, there must be more to these things than that. After looking through the 75+ cookbooks I own, all of which say nothing about ramps, I took to the Internet.  Most of the recipes I found there were nothing more than ones where ramps substituted for onions, leeks, garlic, or some combination thereof. Eventually, however, I found one recipe that looked promising. It claimed to bring out ramps' pungent simplicity.  Here is recipe I found on The Crepes of Wrath:

Caramelized Ramps

Ingredients

2 bunches ramps, cleaned well
2-3 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
pinch red pepper flakes

Preparation

Cleaning ramps is a bit of work, but it's worth it! Fill a large bowl with cold water, then place your ramps in the water. Swish them around to remove as much dirt as possible, then remove them from the bowl and give them a second rinse under running water to remove any remaining grit. Change the water and do the same with your second bunch of ramps. 

Place the ramps on a dry paper towel, then top with another paper towel and pat out as much water as possible.

Clean the ramps by removing the tip of each stalk. Set aside (don't slice them - they're perfect as is).

In a heavy bottomed skillet, heat your butter over medium-high heat. Swirl around until browned and nutty, about 3-4 minutes. Add the ramps to the browned butter and cook over medium heat, turning occasionally, until the ramps are lightly charred and wilted. Serve with your favorite protein as a side, or enjoy them on their own.

And after much anticipation, we sat down for dinner and held our forks above these delicate spring denizens, quivering with anticipation. 

We all took a bite. 

Wow! 

Talk about being underwhelmed! 

The ramps had a decent flavor but their consistency left a lot to be desired. I thought they were a bit tough and stingy. Maybe these were simply not very good ramps. Perhaps I waited too long to cook them. Maybe I can't cook ramps. Or maybe, just maybe, ramps simply suck. 

At least for the next 365 days, I'll have to let the mystery be because ramp season ended about four hours after I bought these. I'll try again next year. In cooking, try anything twice or, in the case of ramps, maybe never.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Missing In Action

I've been missing in action. MIA. Plain and simple. My last post was on Sunday, January 21, 2018. I clearly flaked out the entire month of February. So what happened, you ask? Well, there's this annual awards ceremony where the prize is a hefty gold statute named "Oscar." I was in full-on Oscars mode.

Every year, I try to watch as many Oscar-nominated films as I can before the start of the Oscars on Sunday evening. This year I saw a personal record 49 out of 59 films (believe it or not some folks see all of them). This year, however, I had the good-fortune of seeing maybe half a dozen films before they were nominated. I also benefited from the fact that, because of the Winter Olympics,  the Oscar ceremony was held on March 4, later than the typical February showtime. 

And that's why there was no blog post in February. Simply not enough time between after-work trips to the movie theater and late-night double/triple features on iTunes, Netflix, and Amazon Prime.

So needless to say, I love the movies; always have. And I also love that movie staple: popcorn. Nothing beats popcorn at the movies, except maybe a box of Junior Mints.

But where did this association with movies and popcorn come from? It likely started in the 1930s during the Great Depression when the cheap diversion movies offered became very popular.  And what better accompaniment to a cheap diversion than a cheap snack?! It didn't hurt that movie theater popcorn was not easy to replicate in a 1930s kitchen, making it even more of a special treat.

Eventually TV started to put a dent into the movie theater business but not Americans' desire to have their movie theater popcorn. Suddenly, there were numerous contraptions and methods to make popcorn at home, some better than others. My favorite, and the one that got me through various 1970s disasters movies and the original Planet of the Apes franchise, was Jiffy Pop!

For most of us, Jiffy Pop was the first time we got to use the stove by ourselves. Jiffy Pop also taught us to be patient; to pay attention. There was no selfies or snap chapping. Constant vigilance and constant motion was key to successful Jiffy Pop. Otherwise, your house would smell like someone set Fido on fire!

But the real game changer occurred in the 1980s—a double whammy—with the arrival of the VCR and the microwave oven. The VCR we had in my house in the early 80s were about the size of a Prius. The VCR further hastened the decline of the movie theater. Then the VCR was replaced by the DVD player, and that declined with the arrival of streaming services. Microwave popcorn almost killed Jiffy Pop. (I sometimes see it on aisle 7 at the Piggly Wiggly.) 

So back to the Oscars...

This year, I hosted my first Oscars party. I went all out with the decorations. I even had a miniature Hollywood Sign in the front yard. 
Movie #49: Marshall
I also made dishes that were themed to go with each of the nine movies nominated for best picture. Here they are:


Call Me By Your Name: Negroni. The movie takes place in Italy, so what would be better than a classic Italian cocktail.


Darkest Hour: Pol Roger champagne because that was Churchill's favorite.

Dunkirk: A selection of French and English cheeses with little French and British flags.

Get Out: Black and white cookies. Of course!

Ladybird: Chips and salsa. (Critical scene in the movie takes place in a Mexican restaurant.

Phantom Thread: Cold asparagus salad with vinaigrette. Reynolds Woodcock likes asparagus, but if prepared with too much butter.

The Post: Pastrami on rye sandwiches. There is a scene in the movie in which sandwiches are served to the hungry reporters franticly banging on their typewriters in order to make deadline.

The Shape of Water: Shrimp cocktail. Enough said.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: Pigs In a Blanket

A good time was had by all. Walter walked away with three mini-Oscars, one of which was for guessing the most winners: 19 out of 24! There was Oscars bingo. There was trivia. There was speculation about who had "work" done.

But there was one more necessary thing, because otherwise it wouldn't have been an Oscars party. 

You guessed it.

There was plenty of popcorn!




Sunday, January 21, 2018

Leave the Shotgun; Take the Fried Chicken


“To know about fried chicken, you have to have been weaned and bred on it in the South. Period.”

—Jim Villas





Fried chicken. No other food is more associated with the South. 

And as is the case with many things in this country, but even more so in the South, neither the bird nor the cooking method is indigenous. Columbus may have given chickens to America in 1493, but it was African slaves who gave us fried chicken. (Lord knows what the Brits would have done to this noble bird!) And even though fried chicken has taken over the world (KFC is the #1 fast food restaurant in China), its home will always be here in the South.

The first written recipe for fried chicken appeared in 1824 in Martha Randolph’s Virginia House-Wife. Her recipe differs little from what should be followed today: cut-up pieces of chicken, dredged in flour, sprinkled with salt and pepper, and fried in hot fat. Seems pretty simple, right? Wrong! Not surprisingly, Southerners have serious disagreements over the proper way to make fried chicken. But one thing we all agree on is the proper way to eat it: with your fingers.

No one in the South consults a cookbook on how to make fried chicken. You simply know how it’s done. What training one does receive comes from observation—typically a mother or grandmother; occasionally an aunt. 

My mother made the best fried chicken. She would stand over the chicken as it sizzled in the skillet, carefully turning it over with a fork until it was crisp and golden brown. It was a staple growing up. And her fried chicken was just as good cold as hot. She would wrap cold fried chicken in wax paper and bring it along for family picnics or long road trips to the beach. 

It’s been a long time since I made fried chicken—too long. But this past Sunday, fried chicken called me back home. I made it for Laura for the first time. I made it for Forrest for the first time since he was a little boy so, in a sense, it was the also first time for him. 

And while I’ve always made fried chicken in a cast iron skillet with about an inch or two of oil, this time I would use the deep fryer. There were, however, a couple of challenges. First, the fryer must have gotten detained in customs because it would only give me temperatures in celsius. (Thanks to Google, this was not a serious obstacle.) Second, I had no idea how long to cook the chicken or at what temperature. All my previous experience was based on a cask iron skillet: 20-25 minutes with frequent turns of the chicken. Temp was easy: get it just to the smoking point. 

And notwithstanding my fretting, it turned out great. We all gobbled it up with gusto. 

The next evening, there was still more chicken left to be fried. By this time, I had a better feel for the deep fryer. But there was still room for fretting because I was trying to get some chicken made before I had to take Laura to the airport. 

“We’re cutting it close on time, dear!”

“Just a few more minutes babe; it’s almost done!”

I dropped Laura off at the curb with her two pieces of fried chicken wrapped in foil, still warm. We crossed our fingers that she would get them through TSA. When I got home, and after I began to fry the remaining pieces of chicken to get me through yet another Birmingham winter weather event, I got a text from Laura proudly saying that the fried chicken made it safely through TSA, and that she had already eaten the chicken while sitting at the departure gate. I had to smile at the thought of my wife at Gate B-2 unabashedly eating some homemade fried chicken. 

Maybe I’ve made a Southerner of her yet. 

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Snow Day Redux!

Last month, way back in 2017, we experienced a rare, and frankly welcomed, event in Birmingham: a snow day! And though typically such days are the cause for much panic (see what happened in 2014), this one presented itself as an opportunity for good food and drink. 

What follows is my “you-are-there-account” of this blessed event.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The weather reports slowly roll in with talk of a “winter weather event” for Central Alabama. But no fear, sayeth the weathermen, there will be little if any accumulation—maybe a quarter of an inch. Relieved, the somnolence of a pre-Holiday office shuffles along unabated, stopping only to nibble on the stale cookies gifted by an indifferent vendor. I pay little attention to the forecast, focusing instead on wrapping up some last-minute lose ends, before bundling up (it’s cold!) and heading out the door.

Driving home from work, I absentmindedly listen to NPR and think about the remaining items on the to-do list for my upcoming, annual holiday cocktail party. Snow is the last thing on my mind. My internal debate as to whether we should have a bourbon- or champagne-based punch is suddenly interrupted by the Prius with the “Coexist” sticker, driving 10 miles an hour too slow in the left lane. 

I get home and quickly jack up the thermostat. It’s not supposed to be this cold in Birmingham in early December! Tired, and knowing that I will soon tear up the kitchen for the upcoming holiday party, I order a pizza. Besides, maybe the stars will align, and I'll have a snow day to cook for the party.

 * * *
Seven hundred miles away, Laura stands in line waiting to board a plane to Birmingham that surprisingly is on time. Like Birmingham, it is also very cold in Washington, D.C., though it lacks “winter snow event” forecast. She arrives on time, if not a tad early, and we settle in to watch It’s a Wonderful LifeWe both fall asleep somewhere around the scene where George gets his wish.

The weather report is still calling for maybe 1/4 of an inch of snow. Having done nothing to get ready for this party, I could really use an extra day. Fingers crossed.

Friday, December 8, 2017

We wake up around 6:00 a.m. to see what even most people in the South would call a “dusting.” The weather reports are holding firm. Oh well, off to work I go. 

I check my phone. There is a text from my office. My heart skips a beat. Yes! The powers that be have designated today as a “Code Yellow.” This means, in the inexplicable logic of corporate America, that I am not expected to go into the office because of inclement weather, but if I stay home, then I must use PTO (“paid time off”). Thankfully, I can work from home.


Without the usual water cooler banter and jammed copier distractions of the office, I get a respectable amount of work done from my dining room table. Then, around, 9:15 a.m., I look up from my laptop and gaze out the front windows to discover copious amounts snow falling—my hilly street covered in six inches of snow. Accumulation has quickly passed the 1/4 of an inch mark, so calmly promised a mere 24 hours hence. 

And at approximately 9:57 a.m., local time, I get another text. My office is now officially at “Code Red,” which means we…are…closed…! I quickly draft an out-of-office greeting for email, slam down the cover of my laptop, and triumphantly  proclaim, “Snow day!” I’m met with a quick response from the troops at home (school is closed too): “What’s for lunch?”

I will not starve during this blizzard. The larder is full and not just with bread and milk. The wine collection in the basement would make a Bond villain blush, and the bar has been recently re-stocked. This has the potential for a snowy, boozy lunch. 

I dig out the gas grill on the deck, fire it up, and grill some Mahi Mahi with a soy, maple, and ginger glaze; roast broccoli with garlic, lemon, and marjoram; and whip up some creamy, yellow grits from Lakeside Mills. Oh, and a nice bottle of Torrontes. Who doesn’t like a simple lunch?

Later, we realize that we still need provisions for the next day’s holiday cocktail party. We are concerned about the roads, so we start out on foot because our street looks less than helpful. It’s below freezing, and I look like Nanook of the North as we set out. We hit the main road and quickly realize that maybe we wussed out for no reason. After the third Prius whizzes by, I decide to walk back to the house and get the SUV. 


The main roads are a breeze. We quickly arrive at the Piggly Wiggly and get the ingredients we need to finish the holiday party menu: caramelized bacon, parmesan crisps, and and pimento cheese.


Back at home, we make pasta with marinara sauce and some charcuterie we are saving for the party; we drink some of the wine we were saving for the party; and we discuss our good fortune for getting a snow day on a Friday that didn't keep us completely housebound. 

Of course, we watch White Christmas. After all, Mr. Bing Crosby and the gang didn't let snow deter them from putting on a great party, and neither will we!


And of course we fall asleep about 45 minutes into the movie. But after all, snow days and party planning are hard work!

Sunday, December 10, 2017

What's the French Word for Turkey?

©2017 Chris Terrell
A few years ago, I took some heat on social media for straying from the tried and true at Thanksgiving. Rather than make a pumpkin pie, I made a big, fat, rich chocolate cake. This year, I took the non-traditional route a bit farther and went to Paris for Thanksgiving. Odd choice indeed, considering that the French don’t celebrate Thanksgiving  and, in fact, find it a bit weird. But off we went nonetheless. 

Thanksgiving Dinner was at Verjus, one of my favorite restaurants in Paris that I always visit when I’m there. The owners are American. It is discrete and welcoming at the same time—the perfect combination of American and French culture. Besides, it is so charming to have your French server refer to gravy as “sauce.” 

And an American affair indeed! Not a Frenchman in sight. In fact, the two tables next to us were populated with Alabamians—Auburn fans who would, unfortunately for this Tide fan, get their reward two nights later. 

The next day we went French. We didn’t go shopping, though I was surprised to find one aspect of Thanksgiving had embedded itself into French culture, at least in Paris. I saw numerous signs throughout the City of Light proclaiming the glory of Black Friday. We moved on, and I channeled my inner Frenchman and gave a Gallic snort.

We were off to have lunch with Fabien, one of Laura’s partners in her firm’s Paris office. As we waited in the overheated lobby, I couldn’t help but notice how the women and men dressed. So elegant and chic. I was certainly not the first Anglo-Saxon who slumped in his chair, sighing at his frumpiness.

Fabien arrived, and we were briskly off for a leisurely lunch at a small French restaurant populated by professionals enjoying their quotidian pause déjuener. On each table was a bottle of wine and bread. 

The French have a reputation of Continental licentiousness, undeservedly so. Actually, the French are masters of restraint. They don’t snack (a vice I cannot shake),  and they drink just enough wine at lunch so that they go back to the office and put in another five or six hours. (Yes, the French do work.) In our age of celebrity chefs, with cooking as sport and dining that is increasingly didactic, I think we sometimes miss out on what it means to share a meal with someone. 

And that’s what I love about Paris. 

Monday, November 20, 2017

Thanksgiving: A Holiday that Ages Well

I must confess. I wasn't crazy about Thanksgiving when I was younger. In fact, I don’t think I really started to enjoy (or at least appreciate) Thanksgiving until I went off to college. I guess I had to leave before I could appreciate coming back. 

Eventually, it became a holiday I looked forward to more than just about any. (Until Christmas-with-Children grabbed the #1 spot.) Speaking of children, Thanksgiving is something of a bummer for kids—no presents and no candy. And the food is not exactly kid friendly, except maybe the turkey. (Even pumpkin pie is not a big hit with most kids.) Thanksgiving really is more of an adult holiday; one that is better appreciated as the years pass by. 

Thanksgiving is also a unique holiday. It is not religiously based; it is not nationalistic; and it does not come with all that gift-buying stress. (I mean, really? Does Aunt Marge really need another cat book?!) It is a holiday based on a simple premise, and the manner in which that premise is celebrated is simple, yet ancient: food, friends, family, and a warm hearth. In some respects, we should be thankful that we have such a uniquely American holiday like Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving can be as simple as one would like (one year when my Mom was really sick, we ordered everything from Honey Baked Ham) or as complicated as one would like. Personally, I think Thanksgiving is best when simple and homemade, even if the turkey is dry and the stuffing/dressing tastes like styrofoam.  And then there’s that “one dish.” The one dish that must be made every year, no matter what. Every family has one. For me, it was my Dad’s oyster casserole. He made it every year and, God bless him, he was the only one who ate it. In retrospect, it was probably pretty good and, most likely, I would eat it today. Each Thanksgiving dinner is as unique as the family that prepares it.

That’s another thing I like about Thanksgiving. The memories: sweet and sad; good and bad; friends and family gone. This is why it is the holiday for adults. Only with the passage of time can one truly appreciate Thanksgiving. This is made even more poignant when you glance over to the kids’ table and see your children laughing and, with each passing year, enjoying this day just a little bit more.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Past Is Never Dead, But Maybe It Should Be

"The good old days are so alluring because we were not around, however much we wish we were."

                      —A.O. Scott

This coming weekend is homecoming at my alma mater, William & Mary. It is also my graduating class's 25th reunion. Ugh, nothing like a reminder that your "glory days" lie a quarter of a century in the past. But based on what I actually ate in college, it was far from glorious.

Let's start with the dining hall (or the Commons as it was called at W&M—how fitting). It was all-you-could-eat and the only thing it had going for it. Even with the hyper-metabolic rate of a nineteen-year old, I didn't need two cheeseburgers, two orders of fries, and a soft-serve ice cream cone for dessert. Maybe things have changed, but back then I'm pretty sure those burgers were manufactured in a factory in Ohio, flash-frozen, and then shipped in a refrigerated truck that drove off the line in the early Johnson administration. 

Now W&M did try to offer a dining option relatively more palatable than the frozen pizza and tater tots at the Commons. I think it was called the "Market Place," and it was closer to my dorm than the Commons, so I usually ended up there. The problem was that this was not an all-you-can-eat establishment. You had a certain monetary limit on your meal plan. For example, you may get $8.00 for dinner (1989; do the math; it's called inflation). But even back then, $8 didn't get you much, unless you could live off of a salad or a single slice of pizza. By the way, I've never met someone who ate only one slice of pizza. It's like going to a ball game and having one beer and one hot dog. What's the point?!

So what was left? Sadly, not much. I had a small microwave and a small refrigerator (covered in R.E.M. and U2 stickers). I also had some kind of electric tea kettle that boiled water, a very dangerous contraption. That was my kitchen.

My memory is hazy, but there were a lot ramen noodles and cans of tuna fish (mixed together). And hot pockets, which I've referenced in another blog post.  There was a lot of cereal. There were a lot of bologna sandwiches. That was it. If I had written a cookbook in 1990, it would have fit on the back of a postcard.

My last option was eating out. We didn't have a lot of options in Williamsburg, Virginia, back in the late 80s and early 90s. It was also expensive for a college student. If you had $20 to spend, you damn well made sure that most of that went toward buying a couple of pitchers of Miller Lite! Hey, beer has calories! 

But this coming weekend, we don't plan on having hot pockets and ramen noodles. We will have a real, grown-up cocktail party with good food and expensive hooch. We'll talk about the "glory days" and how much fun we had and the crazy stuff we did. But if someone who looks a lot of Michael J. Fox shows up with a crazy looking Delorean and offers to take us back to October 1991 or thereabouts, we will politely decline and return to our canapés and champagne.