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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!

Friday, January 22, 2016

Oysters: The Foie Gras of the Sea

Three random thoughts about oysters:


No.1 We’ve all heard the expression, “It was a brave man who ate the first oyster.” Of course it was a man, because women have a hell of a lot more sense!. 

No. 2 Oysters are a lot like wine. They draw their flavors from their environment.  (There are 300 different oyster appellations.) They are sometimes sweet; sometimes briny; sometimes salty.

No. 3 Today, most oysters are farmed. They are affixed to tiles and raised out in the ocean. Later, after they have reached a certain size, they are transferred to what is deliciously called the “fattening beds.” These are always near the mouth of a river where the mixture of fresh and sea water induces the overgrowth of the oyster’s liver. Hence, you have “foie gras of the sea!”


***

I came to oysters rather late in life, or at least raw oysters. I would occasionally have fried oysters with cocktail sauce and fries during summer trips to the beach. My mom loved fried oysters, and my dad would eat them raw occasionally. But frankly I’m not sure how crazy he really was about them. 

About five years ago, I had dinner at Highlands Bar & Grill with some friends. Kyle suggested we get some raw oysters. Maybe it was the martini talking, but I said “sure, what the hell.” (One of my favorite scenes in Mad Men was the martini and oyster lunch between Don Draper and Roger Sterling.)

The oysters arrived in a large silver metal platter on a stand, the oysters nestled comfortably on a bed of crushed ice. There was also the obligatory cocktail sauce, lemons, and saltines. The fork was, of course, optional. After all, one of the joys of eating raw oysters is the slurping. If my memory serves me correctly, we had a selection of PEI (Prince Edward Island), Beau Soleil, Apalachicola, and Chesapeake. 

Ever sense, I’ve been a raw oyster fan, especially when I’m at Highlands Bar & Grill.

They say that the convert is the biggest zealot. I am when it comes to oysters, but my proselytizing has failed miserably.  Laura, half-heartedly tried one the other night at Highlands. She was gracious in response to my enthusiasm but, at the end of the day, not sold. This was my most recent failure at conversion. The first came during one weekend with my son Hampton, the pickiest eater next to Mikey. 

Hamp and I were at a soccer tournament near Mobile, Alabama. On the way home that Sunday, we stopped by Blue Gill for an early lunch. I ordered some raw oysters—fat juicy Gulf babies—and casually asked Hamp if he wanted to try one. I was shocked when he said yes! He put the whole thing in his mouth. I sat there, rapt attention and hoping that he may like them; a partner in crime!. And then his face contorted into a grimace. Crap!  















Hampton, then asked: “How are these cooked?” “They’re raw.” “What does that mean?” And my response—I should have known better—was: “not cooked.” 

I really thought the kid was going to toss his cookies right there in front of that nice family just in from church.

Damn! I thought I had a convert!

Friday, January 8, 2016

It's That Time of Year...Again

Well, 2015 is in the bag. A new year has begun. 

I’ve never been much on New Year’s resolutions. But this year may be different. I really need to get back to my running routine.  From Thanksgiving to New Year’s, it seemed that every thirty minutes someone put food in my left hand and a drink in my right.

But this is a food blog. No one wants to read about diets, cleansing, and exercise, even in January. So my Ten New Year’s resolutions will this year will by about food. Here we go.

Resolution No. 1: Make homemade bread. I’ve always been intimidated by bread and impressed by those who make it. But dammit, it can’t be that hard. I recently bought a copy of the Bread Bible, and this year I plan to put it to good use. Amen!

Resolution No. 2: Dust off my slow cooker. OK, I admit I’ve never been much of a slow cooker fan, which we called a “crock pot” when I was a kid. But that may change because I’ve noticed more and more foodie magazines have “gourmet” slow cooker recipes. Maybe this is worth a shot. As a single parent, this could be of value. So, one day in 2016, I will throw some chicken and oregano in the slow cooker, a/k/a crock pot, one morning at 7:00AM and see what I get at 7:00PM.

Resolution No. 3: Cook at least one vegan meal. Last week, we took the kids to New York and made a stop at Candle 79. My boys were skeptical—after all these are my kids who are as meat-centric as I.  But they were at least moderately impressed. I have the cookbook, and this year I plan on doing something with it.

Resolution No. 4.: Clean out my pantry. More accurately, cook a meal from the oils, sauces, rubs, pastes, mixes, and specialty salts and spices that I’ve accumulated from my and others’ various travels.

Resolution No. 5: Teach my kids how to cook because they need to know that the fridge is not a magic box that produces home-cooked meals by itself. Besides, I could use some help in the kitchen from time to time.

Resolution No. 6: Use a kitchen gadget that I’ve never used before. I’m a nut for kitchen gadgets. The problem is that I buy them and they quickly collect dust in a forgotten drawer. Somewhere I have a blow torch that, one day in 2016, will be used to make creme brûlée.

Resolution No. 7: Drink more Champagne. It goes with everything, especially hot dogs. I may re-think SEC football this fall by serving Champagne instead of the “Champagne of Beers.”

Resolution No. 8: Cook more Indian and Asian food. I’ve got the basics of French cooking down, which are really not that difficult. But have you read the average recipe for an Indian dish? It reads like the re-entry sequence for the space shuttle! I’ve got to master that!

Resolution No. 9: Outdoor parties. This one is tied in with a real new year’s resolution. Buy a house where I can have a grill and an outdoor patio. Yeah, I’m giving up the downtown hipster vive for the quasi-burbs.

Resolution No.10: Be more creative. This year I want to create a dish that I can really call my own—maybe combine Asian or Tex-American flavors with classic French cooking techniques.  


Well, there you have it. My 2016 Foodie New Year’s Resolutions. Tune in around December, and I’ll let you know how they turned out. I promise I will be more successful than those New-Year’s newbies at your local gym. 

Monday, December 21, 2015

Vive la French....Dressing

When I travel for business, I try to find at least one decent restaurant. And the only way I can get a decent meal in a decent restaurant is to blow my $50 per diem food budget. $50? Really?!  Hell, I can’t even have a non-boozy lunch for that price! A good meal on the road is a necessity—the perfect antidote after a long day of surly TSA agents, cramped seats on planes built during the Reagan administration, and meetings that would try the patience of a Buddhist monk.

I typically have good luck finding something, but the most recent business trip was different. This was Yuma, Arizona. I spent three days there without hazard pay. 

©2015 Chris Terrell

No, it's not 1975, but 2015!
Anyone who tells you that business travel is glamorous has never spent three days in Yuma. Dorothy Parker, when describing Los Angeles, reportedly once said that “there’s no there there.” Obviously, she never visited Yuma. The city is flat, uninspiring, and laid out in a Matrix-like grid with liquor stores, tattoo parlors, and tamale stands. It is also stuck in some kind of time warp, like 1975 came and went, leaving behind motels and restaurants with signs that disappeared from the rest of the country years ago.

On the first night there, I did manage to find a steak restaurant called “Hunter Steakhouse.” It got decent ratings on Trip Advisor and Zomato, so what the hell. The sign out front read proudly, “Established 1970.” When I opened the door, I almost expected steam to escape, much like Doc Brown’s DeLorean in Back to the Future. It was 1975; I was four years old; and I was having dinner with my parents in a steak restaurant in Burlington, North Carolina.

Hunter Steakhouse had the same wooden railings and red vinyl booths; the same wood-beamed walls and ceilings; and white tablecloths with burgundy napkins. Large pepper mills were housed in special racks throughout the dining room. The carpet was clad in browns and greens. The chandelier lights were covered with miniature shades. This place was old school.

An earnest, efficient maitre’d escorted me to my table. With a teutonic flourish, he snapped my napkin authoritatively into place. Next came the drink order. And while it may not be fair, I judge a steak restaurant on the quality of its martinis. There’s just something about starting off a steak dinner with a well-made martini that just can’t be beat. Hunter Steakhouse passed the test. Another requirement is good bread, and lots of it. Again, they didn’t fail here. The server delivered a whole sourdough loaf with a ramekin filled with whipped butter. Ah, butter! 

My love for butter began in that steakhouse I mentioned earlier. In my mind, my parents went there all the time, though truth be told, it was more likely a few times a year on special occasions. I wasn’t crazy about the place—too grown up; too dark; no T.V.  What I did like was the bowl on the table full of little paper squares with two-inch squares of butter covered with wax paper that read in bold red letters, “BUTTER.” I would grab a square, tear off the wax cover and gulp down the pat of butter in one quick bite. I would then repeat this process a dozen times until, during a lull in my parents’ dull conversation, my mom finally noticed and took the bowl away from me.

The other item on the menu that I looked forward to was the French dressing! Being five, I was usually uninterested in salad unless it came with lots of croutons, cheese, and French dressing. Yes, that sweet, ketchup-based, day-glo red dressing that is such a rare find on today’s menus. (Even Hunter Steakhouse in Yuma, Arizona didn’t have any.) But back in the day, no restaurant worth its salt would be without French dressing. And just as French dressing will forever be associated with the 1960s and 1970s, so will balsamic vinaigrette be tied to the late 20th and early 21st Century food scene. I could go the rest of my life without being offered balsamic vinaigrette dressing by an earnest, yet dull, server at the local Olive Garden or Applebee’s. 

Here’s the recipe:

Classic 1960s French Dressing

Ingredients 

1⁄2 cup ketchup
1⁄2 cup sugar
1⁄2 cup red wine vinegar
1⁄2 cup onion, grated
1 teaspoon paprika
1⁄2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 cup salad oil
salt and pepper to taste

Preparation

Add the ketchup, sugar, vinegar, onion, paprika and Worcestershire to a food processor bowl.
Pulse until blended.
With the processor running, slowly add the oil.
Check the seasonings.
Cover and refrigerate until needed

Sunday, December 6, 2015

I'm Thankful For Butter

©2015  Chris Terrell

Holidays On Ice!
It’s hard to believe that Thanksgiving was a mere ten days ago. The turkey and stuffing and pumpkin-everything have been replaced with tinsel and blinking lights. The last forkful of pumpkin pie was a starter’s pistol for the Christmas rat-race to follow.

This year, Thanksgiving planning began in August when I asked Laura if she would like to have her mother, sister, and brother-in-law visit Birmingham. Her expression when I mentioned this was somewhere between pity and horror. “Are you sure…you…really…want to do…this?” she asked me several times between that late August Sunday afternoon and Wednesday, November 25th.  

©2015 Chris Terrell

Not your typical Turkey Day salad!
The next step, of course, was the menu. I was told that, as wonderful as last year’s Thanksgiving meal was, it was a little heavy on the butter. I was politely asked to dial back my inner Paula Dean—less butter, more olive oil. 

Laura’s mom also wanted another chocolate cake. (Last year, she requested a chocolate birthday cake for Rob, Laura’s brother-in-law, on the morning after the Iron Bowl. If you can make a chocolate cake from scratch hungover, you can do anything.) Actually, I embraced the idea of chocolate cake for Thanksgiving because I've never been one for rules anyway. Besides, we were having pumpkin muffins, which I’ve been making every year since 1991.

©2015 Chris Terell
The Cake
Because Thanksgiving was on my turf this year, I had more time to prepare. Of course this didn’t stop me from over-planning. No joke, but this year I actually put together a three-ringed binder that I called the 2015 Thanksgiving Day Dinner Work Plan. It contained schedules, shopping lists, the menu, and recipes. I don’t recommend that you try this at home. Only professional Type As like myself can handle this kind of insanity. 

Here’s the recipe and planning schedule:



Wine
Schramsburg
Lioco Chardonnay
George Pinot Noir
Ca’Togni

Appetizers

Blackberry Farm Pimento Cheese
Bread-and-Butter Zucchini Pickles
Fried Okra
Charcuterie

Salad

       Endive with Roasted Yellow Beets, Pecans, &
               Sweet-Mustard Vinaigrette 

Soup

Carrot Consommé 

Sides

Orange-Cranberry Relish
Collard Greens
Haricots Vert
Sausage, Apple & Sage Stuffing
Roasted Red Potatoes with Garlic & Rosemary

Entreé

Turkey & Gravy (Duh!)

Dessert

Classic Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Ice Cream


2015 THANKSGIVING WORK PLAN
(Revised 11/24/15)

Thursday, November 19

Finalize: Shopping List, Thanksgiving Day Prep Schedule, and Thanksgiving Day Schedule

Saturday, November 21

✓Clean out Fridge & Freezer
✓Check Platters
✓Purchase Necessary Items at SLT (e.g., platters & cake pans)
✓Follow-up Text with Floral Designer
✓Purchase Decorations
✓Prepare Recipe Notebook
✓Double Check Shopping Lists

Sunday, November 22

✓Purchase Dry Goods  & Ingredients for Muffins, Cranberry Relish, Gravy, and chocolate cake
✓Costco Run (See Costco run shopping list)
✓Wash Linens
✓Purchase Ziploc Containers 
✓Purchase Frozen Turkey and begin to thaw
✓Make Zucchini Pickles

Monday, November  23

✓Prepare Cranberry Relish
✓Purchase Items for Pimento Cheese, and Carrot Consommé 

Tuesday, November 24

✓Prepare Blackberry Farm Pimento Cheese
✓Prepare Make-ahead gravy & Freeze


Wednesday, November 25

✓Purchase Remaining Fresh Produce
✓Prepare chocolate cake
✓Prepare Pumpkin Muffins
✓Fry Okra
✓Finalize De-cluttering & 
✓Roast Pecans
✓Wash Dishes & Tidy up as necessary

Thursday, November 26

See Thanksgiving Day Schedule

©2015 Chris Terrell

Dresden, 1945
A good time was had by all, especially because the chef had no major meltdowns. I emphasize major because there’s always a few radiation spikes when I cook. The consensus seems to have been that the carrot consommé, stuffing, and of course, the turkey, were the favorites.

At the end of the day, what you have on Thanksgiving makes no difference. Thanksgiving is more about the “how” than the “what”—how you decide to celebrate and how you decide who you will share the meal. 

By the way, I encourage you to make a chocolate cake. Be a rebel!


And now get back to shopping!

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 she began 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.) 
Ingredients 
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)
Preparation
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.