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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!

Monday, November 16, 2015

Where Are They Now?: Casseroles

What happened to the casserole? 

I just may try this one....
The casserole gets a bad rap. It is associated with uninspired family dinners --something harried housewives or new brides who lacked skill in the kitchen could easily make ahead. They also relied heavily on prepackaged like canned tuna or Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup. A Wikipedia entry on tuna noodle casserole states, without irony, that “Tuna casserole is convenient to the extent that it may be prepared using no fresh ingredients.” Wow, that sounds appetizing, doesn’t it?!

But casserole doesn’t have to be boring. I don’t think I’ve ever made one until recently for my supper club, and it was far from boring. So before I get into casseroles, let me digress.

I first heard of a supper club from one of my good friends and former law partners. I admit I was somewhat envious that I wasn’t a “member,” but I’ll save that discussion for my therapist. I was also intrigued. It sounded so grown-up, so sophisticated. I’ve wanted to be in a supper club ever since. 

And so one night about a month or two ago, still waiting for that invitation, I decided to form my own supper club. Maybe I was inspired by Groucho Marx’s famous quip about not joining a club that would have him as a member. And so I posted something on Facebook about starting one. The response was favorable; a charter was drawn up; and I was in business.

Then I got the email.

I forgot to mention that this crazy idea and Facebook post came about two weeks after a very frenetic behind-the-scenes experience for a nonetheless very successful dinner party; yet one that took about two days to clean up (yeah, that one: "Oh the Horror!").  Laura emailed me and asked me, and not without good cause, if I were crazy. “What are you thinking?!” She also stated that she would have no role to play and would certainly not clean up. (I must say that her stance softened a bit; she did both, with a smile – and not a forced one!)

I agreed to host the inaugural supper club dinner. I thought it was only sporting that I do so. But of course, being an attorney by training, I devised a few rules for the club. For one thing, each dinner was to have a theme, which is the responsibility of the host/hostess. Second, the host was in charge of the entree and the wine. Third, everyone else was to bring a dish—potluck—appetizer, side dishes, dessert, etc.

As the host of the initial supper club dinner, I decided that the theme would be “firsts” in the sense that everyone had to make something they had never made before. For me, that would be lamb and, initially, I thought about a roast rack of lamb. But then the memories of that last successful-but-frenetic dinner party came rushing back. So, I decided to keep it simple. I went with moussaka, which has lamb; is something I’d never made before; and is essentially a casserole that could be made ahead and thrown in the oven about an hour before the guests arrived.

Just because it’s a casserole, however, doesn’t mean it’s easy to make.

When I was kid, my friend and later first crush, Kristina Vacalis, whose family was Greek-American would always tell me excitedly whenever her mother made moussaka. She didn’t make it very often, and now I know why. It’s a labor of love.

Moussaka requires a lot—I mean a lot—of slicing of eggplants and potatoes and dicing of onions. And eggplant must be the most high maintenance vegetable out there. After you slice, it must be salted and drained to get the moisture out so it’s not soggy. After it’s salted, you must rinse it and pat it dry and then roast it. I must have roasted about 20lbs of eggplant two nights before the supper club dinner. And then there’s the meat sauce that goes into the moussaka, and then there’s the béchamel sauce that must be made. I’m glad I started two days before the dinner. 

But was it good?  Absolutely!  Despite the work, it’s worth it for a great dish.

And now I have my own supper club. Be careful for what you wish for, though.  Laura has made me promise not to host anything again for a few months.  Except Thanksgiving.  Oh, and except my annual holiday cocktail party.  And, well, given that, maybe there could be a small dinner party on the horizon in January . . . 

Like casseroles, old ways die hard.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Think Different. Cook Different.

A few weeks ago, on a rainy Sunday afternoon, I watched the movie Jobs—not the recent one with Michael Fassbender, but the one with Ashton Kutcher. I’ve always been intrigued by Steve Jobs. How could someone so brilliant, so revolutionary, be such a jerk at times?  But then again, do we really want our heroes to be saints? 

The last scene in the movie has Jobs narrating what would become one of Apple’s most famous commercials: Think Different. Interestingly, this version never aired. Jobs’s narration was replaced with Richard Dreyfus. I think Jobs’s version is better. Here's the original commercial

Julia Child and Steve Jobs were also outsiders who thought “different.” Jobs was an orphan who never graduated from college, and tall, gangly Julia Child could hardly boil water at 37, before began working on her iconic—though very much an insider’s—cookbook.

There is one scene in the movie Jobs where Steve Jobs complains to Steve Wozniak that the transistors are not straight. Wozniak replies, with a certain degree of frustration, that no one will see them anyway. Walter Isaacson’s biography on Jobs, on which the movie by the same name is based, examined this in more detail. Jobs really did care and insist that even the parts that no one saw were perfect. 

Of all the cookbooks, I own (and I own a lot), Childs’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking is still my favorite, even if I cook from it the least.  Even so, there are many times when I simply marvel at the detail and the precision. The recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking require focus and attention to detail. Many of the steps are like the transistors in the Apple I—your guests may not notice them, but you will.

Jobs once said that “[l]ife can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is—everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.” I think these words could just have easily come from Julia Child.

So maybe the next time I want to try something new, something different, I’ll engage in a bit of a thought experiment: Steve Jobs and Julia Child in the same kitchen! That would be crazy, but then again, here’s to the crazy ones!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Where Are They Now: Chipped Beef on Toast?

It starts here.
Chipped beef on toast was once a mainstay on diner menus, but now it is about as rare as a plain cup of coffee at Starbucks. 
For me, living in a solidly middle class family in the 70s, chipped beef on toast was simply creamed beef. But to others, like my dad who had served in the Army, it was “Sh*t On a Shingle" ("S.O.S."). I’m not sure what my Dad thought about having S.O.S. for dinner, but if it brought back bad memories of basic training, he never showed it: “This is great dear!”
Chipped beef on toast was all-too frequently served to members of the Army during World War II. Before that, it sustained families struggling during the Great Depression because it was cheap and easy to make. Beyond that, no one seems to know where it came from. Some say Pennsylvania Dutch country. However, I suspect it’s even older because we have been mixing meat, gravy, and bread for millennia.
A lot of folks down here in Alabama have either never heard of chipped beef on toast or, if they have, then they’ve never tried it. Yeah, it is assuredly a mid-Atlantic/Northeastern dish, but it is no different than biscuits and gravy. And like any other well-worn traditional dish, there are many different ways chipped beef can be served. Some folks even serve chipped beef on waffles.
So what is chipped beef you ask? Nothing more than thinly pressed, salted, dried beef. It is sold in small jars rolled up like pieces of paper. Hormel and Armour sell most of it. It is certainly not something you will find at your local Whole Foods!
And the sauce? Well, here’s where I learned something interesting. The sauce that makes chipped beef on toast what it is, is really nothing more than a homespun Béchamel sauce. Maybe chipped beef on toast is not so plain Jane after all!. 
And so, now you ask, what is Béchamel sauce? 
Béchamel is a white sauce made by combining hot flavored or seasoned milk with a roux. The classic recipe for béchamel calls for milk flavored by heating it with a bay leaf, a slice of onion and a blade of mace or some nutmeg. Celery, carrot, ham, and/or mushroom peelings may even be added. This is then left to steep for thirty minutes. 
Armed with my new knowledge, I decided that I would tackle S.O.S. and try and improve upon it by making a Béchamel sauce and using something other than wonder bread for the toast.
But I also wanted to tackle perhaps the biggest issue with S.O.S.: saltiness. The dried beef used for S.O.S. is very, very salty. I read, however, that in the Army they would sometimes soak the beef in water overnight to leech out the salt. I tried it. It worked!
The finished product: for better or for worse.
At the end of the evening, the real test was whether the kids would like it. I loved it back in the day, but let’s face “back in the day” ain’t what it used to be. I stood there in rapt anticipation whilst they took their first, cautious bite. Minutes seemed to pass before they both said, “this is awesome!” 
Nailed it! 
Here’s the recipe:
The Insouciant Chef’s Chipped Beef on Toast (a/k/a S.O.S.) 
2 Jars of Hormel Dried Beef (2 ounces, sliced into 1/4-inch pieces)
2 tablespoons of butter
2 tablespoons of flour
1 cup whole milk
2 Bay Leafs
1 teaspoon of Worcestershire Sauce
1/4 teaspoon of fresh ground nutmeg
Salt and Pepper to taste
4 slices of good, fresh bread (Italian or French bread)
For the Béchamel
Take the butter and melt it. Then add the flour and mix until you have paste. Whisk it for about five to eight minutes and then add the warm milk which has been steeped with the bay leaf and nutmeg for about 30 minutes.
Then add the beef. Mix it. And then pour it over the toast.

That simple.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Where Are They Now? (New Series)

I'm starting a new series for this blog called, "Where Are They Now:... ?" The posts in this series will appear from time and will be about foods or dishes that you don't see much anymore, either in restaurants or at home. Each one will begin with the title: Where Are They Now: [Insert Dish or Food].

In putting together the list of topics for this series, I discovered that a lot of them were based on foods or dishes from the Seventies. This makes sense personally but historically as well. How Americans ate really began to change when the Seventies gave way to the Go-Go 80s. Let's face it, for those who remember, the Seventies were kinda glum. There were the last dying gasps of Vietnam, Watergate, two oil crises, the hostage crises, and....disco. We cannot forget about disco. The food we ate, especially at home, reflected this period. It was simple, cheap, easy to make and unpretentious. And many times, not very good.

As for the personal, many of these foods or dishes resonate with me in both positive and negative terms. Some of them I loathed—others I loved. But love or hate, they bring back a lot of memories from my childhood. (Yes, I went all Proustian  there again—it's a common theme on this blog.)

Finally, I'm going to do something different for this series. I'm going to let my dear readers (all 10 of them) decide which of the following topics receives the honor of being the first post. And who knows? If this works out well, I may do other series as well. 

Ok, here's the list: 

Liver & Onions
Shish Kabobs
Beef Stroganoff
Stuffed Green Bell Peppers
Jello Salad
Chipped Beef & Toast
Corned Beef & Cabbage
Chicken a la King
La Choy Pre-packed Chinese Food
Hamburger Helper
Beanie Weenies
Vienna Sausages

The polls are now open!

Friday, September 18, 2015

Buon Appetito! (Part Two)

©2015 Chris Terrell
When we met last, I was one week away from leaving for a quick trip to Rome for Labor Day weekend. During my trip, I had the opportunity of discovering whether the real Rome lived up to the romanticized Rome, at least when it came to food. Surprisingly, it did.

Some observations:

  • Yes, the Italians eat a lot of pasta, but small portions;
  • Italians don't really walk around snacking on food like Americans, except for gelato; 
  • The mozzarella is a 1,000 times better than what we get here;
  • The wine is good and inexpensive; and 
  • Like France (my favorite foodie destination), it is hard to get a bad meal in Italy. 
Well, except maybe at McDonald's. 

Yes, I ate at McDonald's in Italy! Bear with me here, there's a method to my madness. Whenever I travel overseas, I like to have one meal at McDonald's because, invariably, there's always a few things on the "menu" that we don't have back here in America—items that are intended to invoke the indigenous cuisine of that particular country. For example, Belgium and France have the Le Croque McDo, which is Micky Ds version of a croque-monsieur. You can also get Macarons in a French McDonald's. Score! In China, you can get a mashed potato burger....hmmm. But my favorite, and though not international, is McSpam & Eggs in Hawaii.

On the morning we took the train to Bologna—the foodie capital of Italy and the home of the Culinary Institute of Bologna—we grabbed breakfast at the McDonald's across the street from Termini station. I ordered prosciutto on toast and a cafe Americano. I was thinking, "We're in Italy, this has to be good because this is the home of prosciutto, right?" Wrong! What I got was a lukewarm ham and cheese sandwich. I should have stuck with the Egg McMuffin, or whatever they call that in Italian.

At least all the other meals we had, made up for this momentary lapse of reason. So here's a re-cap of our culinary journey.

Friday, September 4th

Ristorante Nino
11 Via Borgognona

By the time we walked to the Trevi Fountain, sans water, as it was being renovated, and a brief respite on the Spanish Steps, we were pretty hungry for dinner—even more so because we took a nap rather than have lunch.

©2015 Chris Terrell
I found out about Ristorante Nino in an article in The New York Times. It has served traditional, home-style Italian food since 1934. And there's a reason why this place is still around. The fresh mozzarella we had as an antipasto may have been the best I've ever had. And talk about fresh! If you closed your eyes, you would actually see and smell the green, grassy Tuscan pasture where the cow that provides the milk for this cheese lives. 

For our primo I had fettuccine with mushrooms and Laura had the fettucino bolognese. Both were excellent. For my main course, I had ascé di Nino, which was a minced beef dish. Laura got tagliata, which is sliced steak seasoned with black pepper and parmesan—simple, but good. We washed all this down with a Cabot Mentin 2008 Domenico Clerico Barolo.

Saturday, September 5th

Il Sorpasso
31 Via Properzio

Our first full day in Rome didn't have the best start. We had tickets for the Vatican Museum but had to endure a torrential downpour for 40 minutes under two tiny travel umbrellas that could have collapsed under at any minute. Fortunately, the rain stopped and the sun was shining brightly over St. Peter's when our tour ended around noon.

We headed over to Il Sorpasso, in the Prati neighborhood.This is usually only a ten minutes’ walk from the Vatican. I say usually, because it stretches to 25 minutes for two Type A American tourists who stop and argue over the map not once, but twice!  

Il Sorpasso is a cozy little restaurant that thankfully was devoid of tourists, something I always take as a good omen.  We started off with a great selection of local charcuterie and cheeses followed by tagliatell funghi (yes, again!) for me and orechietti pomodoro for Laura. Our wine was a 2014 St. Michael Eppan Alto Adige.

Saturday, September 5th

L'Asino d'Oro
Via Boschetto 73, Rome

In English, the name of this restaurant is "The Golden Donkey," named after a well-known Italian story. But don't let the the name fool you. My notes for this restaurant begin simply with: "O.M.G.!"

But it almost didn't happen. 

On this trip, we were trying to be somewhat spontaneous, not a easy task for two Type A people. (See above reference to map reading.) And on this night, we really didn't have any plans for dinner. Luckily, I found L'Asino on an app called "Eat Italy" that I had downloaded just before we left. It may turn out to be the best app I've ever downloaded.

When we arrived at the restaurant around 9:00PM (very continental!), we discovered that they couldn't seat us until 10:00PM without a reservation. I was pretty hungry and didn't want to wait. We tried another restaurant that looked promising but the wait there would have been about 20 minutes. We really wanted to try this restaurant, so we hurried back and put our name on the list. Then, in order to kill some time, we went in search of a bar.

[Here comes another digression.]

Another instance where America and Italy, and most of Continental Europe, differ widely lies in what constitutes a bar. The bars in Italy are not really bars in the American sense. They are nothing more than a cafe that happens to serve some liquor and beer behind a cramped, standing-room-only bar. (And don't even get me started what most European bartenders can do to a martini!) If you want more of the kind of bar we are used to, then look for ones that describe themselves as "American Bars." 

But unlike an American bar, you are likely to get a plate of complimentary tapas to accompany your drinks. This came in handy that night because we were both hungry.  Laura had a glass of wine, while I had Jack Daniels on the rocks. Kinda hard to screw that up.

Ten o'clock finally arrived. It was worth the wait.

For our antipasto, we got an omelette with figs. The figs tasted like they had been picked off the tree around 8:00PM that night. Hard to go wrong with the sweet and savory combo.

For our primo, I got octopus with panzanella and melon and we split a dish of fettuccine with wild boar. For our main course, I had lamb meatballs with blue cheese and pears. Laura ordered rabbit with herbs, peppers, pine nuts, and black olives. It was clearly the best meal we had in Rome and one of the best meals we've had, period.

Oh, and the wine was damn good too: Casanova di Neri, 2008 Brunello, a wonderful wine that was about $50 cheaper in Rome than in the States.

Sunday, September 6th
Lunch & Dinner

Not much happened on this day from a culinary perspective.  We slept in. Had pizza at a nondescript restaurant in the Campo di Fiori; dinner at the hotel. I guess the jet lag caught up with us.

Monday, September 7th

Osteria del Cappello
Via Dè Fusari, 9, 40123 Bologna

As much as we loved it, we decided it was time to leave Rome. We picked Bologna because it was a relatively short train ride (2 hours) and the foodie capital of Italy. (It's the home of the Culinary Institute of Bologna.) 

After several spats about who was better at navigating the streets of Bologna and a tug of war with the map, we found Osteria del Cappello on a short side street, where it has resided since 1652. 

We started with a prosciutto platter and a bottle of Lambrusco: CeCi Otello NerodiLambrusco 1813. Keep in mind that lambrusco, or good lumbrusco, is a great food wine and should not be confused with what our parents drank in the 1970s while sitting on the bearskin rug watching Sonny & Cher!


Trenitalia #3557

©2015 Chris Terrell
No, this is not an episode of Jersey Shore;
that's a real cop.
Sandwiches from the dining car. Yeah, it was a major let down after lunch in Bologna, but the late lunch meant that we were not hungry before the two-hour train ride back to Rome. Besides, we had more fun sitting outside at a bar watching six police officers take 51 minutes to decide whether to arrest two hapless guys in New Balance sneakers. You have to love Italian inefficiency. 

Tuesday, September
Lunch & Snack

UA Flight #971
Somewhere over the North Atlantic

After such wonderful food, we had to slum it with airplane food. At least we were in business class, so not too bad. And the G&Ts were free!

So, there you have it. Our culinary adventure to Rome. Did it live up to my expectations? Yes. I found the food to be every bit as good as I remember and as I expected. Italians love to eat and they love food, and that is reflected in the quality of the meals I had. And like the French, the Italians are all about tradition and respect it highly. As Tara Gresco of the New York Times wrote recently, "When it comes to cooking like a Roman, there may be no absolute truth, but there are well-defined limits." 

Unfortunately, there were no limits to my waistline when I returned.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Buon Appetito! (Part One)

In a little over a week, I’m heading to Rome for Labor Day weekend. The decision to go was made on a whim and, without too much exaggeration, shortly after watching the Mad Men episode where Don and Betty go to Rome for a quick holiday. 

It’s been sixteen years since I was in the Eternal City. And while a lot has undoubtedly changed, much has probably stayed the same—the chaotic traffic with Vespa scooters careening around the Colosseum; the well-dressed Italians; and most importantly, the delicious food. Because of my lengthy absence, I wanted to do some homework on the latest food scene in Italy. I wanted to know Italians actually eat, as well as how they eat. 

For many Americans the food in Italy is a big selling point. After all, we Americans love our spaghetti, pizza, and ravioli. Compared to the heavy wurst of Germany or the funky cheese and Escargot of France, Italian food just seems like home. But what we call “Italian” food in this country, remains a distant cousin to true Italian food. Take pasta for example. In America, it’s almost always the main course and a big one at that. In Italy, by contrast, it is only the third course—called primo—in a traditional ten-course Italian meal And yes, Italians do eat pasta almost every day (especially Romans) but they don’t get fat. Really?! Well, that’s because instead of a bowl of pasta that comes with its own ZIP code, an Italian pasta dish may weigh in at a mere 3.5 ounces.

There are other interesting difference between the way Americans eat Italian food (or how we eat generally) and how Italians eat Italian food. Here are some interesting "rules" the Italians follow.

Italians never drink cappuccino after 12:00PM, it is strictly a morning drink. So this means that, unlike us Americans, they never order a cappuccino after a meal. 

What about breakfast? Breakfast for Italians is quite different than ours. Denny’s would file for bankruptcy in Italy before the dinner rush on opening day. (For a lot of other reasons I can think of, there’s not a single Denny’s in Italy.) If you ask Italians what they had for breakfast, many will tell you, “Non mango niente”  (“I don’t eat anything.”) The typical Roman is likely to only have a quick espresso and a cornetto (Italian for “croissant”) on the way to the office. Of course, this leaves room for a wonderful, languid lunch at the piazza!

And speaking of when you may eat something and when you may not, there’s the issue of street food. Here in America, food trucks are everywhere and we eat on the street, in the park, in our cars, on the bus, on planes, on the subway, or just about anywhere. This makes sense for a country always on the move. But for Italians, eating in public or, even worse, eating while walking is just barbaric. In fact, Italy has passed a law that makes it illegal to eat within ten feet of a monument or fountain, which in Rome means one is essentially barred from eating anywhere outside. But like all rules, there are exceptions. For Romans, this means gelato and pizza bianco. These are allowed to be consumed outside, though gelato is typically a late-in-the-day snack and pizza is only eaten for lunch and never dinner. More rules!

Are the Italians more Type A than I thought? In about a week, I’ll find out. During my trip I will attempt to validate my research into these so-called rules, and I'll discover some new ones, much to my embarrassment. So, stay tuned for part two of this post—a summary of my delicious field research. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

If Plato Were Southern

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of staying at Blackberry Farm, located in the rolling foothills of East Tennessee. It is a beautiful a place, like an adult summer camp. But it is perhaps most famous for its food. And it lives up to its name. It is a functioning farm, and most of the ingredients are grown on the property, the dishes changing with the seasons.

After a long, hard drive up from Birmingham, which involved a 10-mile traffic jam in Chattanooga, Tennessee, that rivaled anything I’ve seen in L.A., we arrived just in time to watch the sun set over the Great Smokey Mountains. Because we knew we would be late, we had called ahead and moved our dinner reservations to later that evening. This gave us time to unpack, freshen up, and have a drink at the bar before heading to dinner.

Along with our drinks, we had some of Blackberry Farm’s famous pimento cheese. 

With the exception of fried chicken and barbecue, nothing is more “suthern” than pimento cheese, though deviled eggs are a close second. Just about every southern boy and girl has grown up with a pimento cheese sandwich in their lunch box.

The late North Carolina writer Reynolds Price once said that pimento cheese was the “peanut butter of my childhood.” So true. Food and memory are tightly wound together; even more so in the South—it is the common bond between young and old; black and white.

I remember my mom making pimento cheese sandwiches that we ate in the car on the way to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, my Dad driving through the nighttime darkness of the Great Dismal Swamp on a Friday night after a long day at work. Pimento cheese sandwiches were also a quick picnic lunch; a quick snack after school; and present many times at family reunions. 

There’s just something relaxing about a pimento cheese sandwich. Maybe that’s why they serve them at The Masters, the epitome of Southern gentility. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed that pimento cheese during happy hour at Blackberry Farm.

But as I got up to stroll over to dinner, I realized that life is not always so gentile or so conclusive. Like many things in the South (or life in general), pimento cheese engenders some rigorous debate, everything from how it should be made to whether it’s any damn good. And then I realized that maybe we all like the idea of pimento cheese more that we like pimento cheese itself.