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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, September 17, 2017

Fake Food

“Candy doesn't have to have a point. That's why it's candy.”

—Charlie Bucket, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

I’ve heard the stories—apocryphal no doubt—of great chefs who have a weakness for food that would appear beneath them: hot dogs, fried bologna sandwiches, and movie theatre popcorn. But should we really be that surprised? Are not all our feet made of clay?

If I were a celebrity chef, which I am most assuredly not, and if I were to be scandalized by a revelation of a weakness for something utterly déclassé, it would have to be imitation crab. 

A nice way to say fake crab meat. The American industrial-food complex at its best.

Ok, before you judge me too harshly, let me gather up some facts in support of my defense. Imitation crab is not really fake because it is actually a seafood product. Imitation crab is mostly surimi, which is a paste made from mild white fish (i.e., pollock, cod, or tilapia). 

Ok… but what is surimi you say?

Surimi starts with fish that is rinsed repeatedly to remove much of its odor, puréed with starches, sugars, and sometimes colorings, egg whites, and crab flavoring. It is then solidified into flakes or sticks using a curing method. According to our great protectors in Washington, DC, surimi should be about 76 percent water, 15 percent protein, and a combined nearly 8 percent carbohydrate and fat. 

Alright, I admit that was a less-than-stellar argument in favor of imitation crab.

But I do like it. My wife thinks I’m a bit touched when I come home from the store with my package of IC (imitation crab) that typically lasts only a couple of hours. It is almost always accompanied by a jar of cheap cocktail sauce. I’ll eat it as a midnight snack, but it can’t be beat as a hangover-reducing breakfast. 

I almost always eat IC in the summer, and especially when I’m at the beach. Why? Maybe because of my college days when I went to the beach for spring break. IC was cheap, yet relatively nutritious, and went so well with Coronas and G&Ts. You could throw two or three packages in a Ziploc bag into your cooler along with some beers and survive an entire afternoon on the beach. It was a great appetizer to go with the G&Ts that my friend Garrett and I would throw back while playing endless rounds of backgammon like a bunch of South Florida retirees. 

And so yes, IC is a seriously guilty pleasure. It’s not real food, but so what! Sometimes, food doesn’t have to have a point!

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Don't Just Cook...Create

How does one learn to cook? In the past, such skills were handed down from grandmother, to mother, to daughter. And the skills were based on cooking limited, traditional, and highly local ingredients. 

Of course, there weren’t a lot of us dudes cooking back then and the highfaluting probably didn’t even know where the kitchen was. 

Fast forward about two or three hundred years, and we arrive in the post-war baby boom. In America, at least, this means frozen foods, fast food, cake mixes, Jell-O, and microwave ovens. By this time, no one knows how to cook real food. Fast forward another twenty or thirty years and the Food Network arrives on the scene, with gastronomic gladiatorial contests like Iron Chef AmericaChopped, and Cutthroat Kitchen. And so it seems that everyone in America is cooking again. But are they really? Everyone seems more interested in food, and folks seem to be reading more foodie magazines, going out to eat, and buying cookbooks (I own about 72 myself), but are people cooking more? I’m not so sure.

Cooking is more than following a recipe, though there’s nothing wrong with that. I try new recipes from cookbooks all the time. After all, I don’t walk around with the recipe to Lobster Thermidor in my head. Same with baking, which is more like science and requires precise adherence to the dictates of a recipe. But for every day, run-of-the-mill fair, you really don’t need a recipe. In fact, it simply gets in the way. All you need are some basic skills and common sense. And besides, just because you’re cooking “everyday faire” doesn’t mean it can’t be good, so long as you follow a few basic “rules.”

Rule #1: Salt (especially) and pepper are your friends. Ask any chef and he or she will tell you that if they had only one “spice” to take with them to a deserted island, it would be salt. 

Rule #2: More mistakes are made by trying to cook things too quickly than anything else. Take your time. Cranking the oven up to 450 degrees so you can shave a few minutes off the pot roast may shave a few minutes off the cooking time, but it’s not going to make a better pot roast.

Rule #3: Know how to make a salad dressing and throw away any bottled salad dressings you have in your fridge. Vinaigrette is so simple and easy to make, and goes so well over a bowl of simple greens, why would you waste $3.59 on something made in a factory in Toledo, Ohio?

Rule #4: Make soup. It freezes well, and is a great way to clean out the fridge.

Rule #5: Learn how to scramble eggs or make an omelet—there’s a reason Julia Child did a whole episode on this: Julia's Scrambled Eggs

Rule #6: Learn how to roast a chicken. It’s inexpensive; it’s good; and you can use what's left for stock (see rule #4). Here’s how Julia does it:Julia Roasts a Chicken

Rule #6: Learn how to make pan sauces, but keep in mind that everyone makes ‘em different. Nevertheless, here’s a video that covers the various ways to make one: Aussie Makes a Pan Sauce 

Rule #7: Don’t be afraid to use butter. Americans have been brainwashed into thinking that butter is bad.

Rule #8: Have one good, simple desert recipe that you can make in a pinch.

Rule #9: Everyone likes good bread. Everyone.

Rule #10: Never apologize.

That’s it folks. All you need to know in order to be a cook, rather than a heater-of-frozen-stuff.

Monday, August 14, 2017

California Dreamin'

“California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day.”

--The Mamas and the Papas

Ok, it’s obviously not winter as I write this (mid-August in Alabama); just the opposite—temperatures in the low 90s; humidity averaging 90+ percent; daily afternoon downpours. Alabama could be mistaken for Singapore, but for the pick-up trucks and barbecue. And if you’ve ever been in the Deep South in August, you’d take a winter’s day in New York City in a. . . you know the rest. But’s there’s a more pleasant alternative than a New York City winter to beat the, heat: Napa, California. And when it comes to Napa, there’s nothing like your first time.

My friends were envious and then downright perturbed when I told them that this would be my first trip to Napa. “You? Really?” “You’ve never been to Napa?!” I know, it’s like a Frenchman telling you he’s never had a baguette or smoked a Gauloises. I guess it’s part lack of opportunity, part distance, and part psychological. I had always thought of Napa as a Disney-esque playground full of Millennial yuppies. But the opportunity arrived and I didn’t turn it down, and off I went one day in a first-class seat to SFO. 

They should have served me crow on that flight.

When people talk of “Napa,” they typically refer to the entire Napa Valley. And when they do get specific, they only reference the towns of St. Helena, Yountville, or Calistoga, forgetting that there’s an actual town called Napa. 

For years Napa was a blue-collar town quickly passed over by busloads of wine-geek wannabes on the way to the big-name wineries. Passing by a local bar where you could find a sturdy local chardonnay next to a tap of PBR. These were places where the guys who worked the fields made the Napa Valley grow.

* * *

This Side of Paradise
©2017 Chris Terrell
It’s around 11:30 a.m. on the Silverado Trail, forty-five minutes since we crossed the Golden Gate bridge cosseted in damp, morning fog. Now we follow blue skies and crisp breezes. We’re looking for the Soda Canyon Store to meet Kent Fortner, the man behind Road 31 Wine Co. Kent is a fellow grad from our alma mater, the College of William & Mary. The name Road 31 pays homage to Kent’s Midwest upbringing in KansasRoad 31 runs through his maternal and paternal family homesteads. His logo is a ’66 green Ford pickup. But it’s also a real truck, one that belonged to his grandfather. He still drives it today. 

The Soda Canyon Store is not for tourists and thankfully so. It could also only exist in northern California. It’s like a high-brow handy mart, the kind of place where you could get a quart of oil for your truck, a gourmet sandwich, and a half-bottle of Kistler. 

At first, we weren’t sure Kent was there (Laura had not seen him in a few years), and then we heard “hey guys.”  (When Kent talks to you, it is with a combination of Midwestern friendliness and California casualness.) 

After a few minutes of catching up and a quick review of the menu, we order some sandwiches and head up Soda Canyon Road to Road 31 Wine Co. Kent’s green ’66 green Ford pick-up leading the way. Our rickety rental car struggles to play catch-up on the rutty, two-lane road. After a mile or so, we make a sharp right onto a steep hill shaded with oaks. Ahead are the caves where Kent ages his wine. 

Kent gives us a tour. We taste wine from his favorite barrel. We talk about French Oak. We talk about how Napa has changed with tech money; with tourists. Everything that kept me from here in the first place.

Lunch is under a large oak tree in the middle of a vineyard of young grapes. The unofficial Road 31 mascot, a lab mix, keeps watch, occasionally begging for scraps. Laura and Kent talk about mutual friends they have kept up with, and others they have not. I casually interject when I hear a familiar name. Mostly, I'm more interested in the view. 

I’m mellow. Really mellow. I’m relaxed in a way I forgot existed. The kind of mellow that existed when I was in my twenties. Before serious work. Before serious life.  Maybe it is the cool breeze that has made it’s way from the Pacific or the second glass of pinot. Either way, I don’t care. I want to live here. This is the kind of place where people like Kent can make a living from their passion. This is the Napa I thought no longer exists. This is the Napa I want to survive.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Lunch Boxes

A few Sundays back, I was having brunch and happened to look up above the bar to find a row of old metal lunch boxes. (This is why I love brunch—you can eat at a bar and drink before noon!) They were sitting above a T.V. that was playing a DVD of T.V. commercials from the 70s. 

Kids today don’t take their lunch to school in metal lunch boxes anymore

Instead, they either use brown paper bags or, if they have more progressive minded parents, they take their gluten-free, non-PBJ lunches encased in soft-sided reusable faux lunch bag contraptions. If they are really fortunate, then they will have a re-purposed, fair trade model from Whole Foods.

But alas, they will never enjoy the fun of a metal lunch box, dented and rusting at the edges because it got left in the rain at the bus stop with paint that may or may not have lead and a Thermos bottle loaded to the hilt with BPA! That’s how we rolled in the 70s! Even the kids lived on the edge with their fake cigarette candy bubble gum!

When I was in grade school in the 70s, lunch boxes had been around for some time, with the first one appearing in 1935 with Mickey Mouse on it. By the time television hit its stride in the 50s and 60s, the movie/T.V. show-tie-in was in full swing.

OK, I'm not sure how they were able to breath on the moon!
Speaking of TV shows, my first lunch box was a Space 1999 lunch box. This piece of classic T.V. sci-fi melodrama was about the crew of a base on the moon called  Moonbase Alpha, and how they struggled each week to survive after a massive explosion throws the Moon from Earth’s orbit into deep space. It aired for three seasons (1975-77), and I think my first real crush was on the actress Barbara Bain who played Dr. Helena Russell. (Pictured above.)

I also had a bright green lunch box with dragsters on it. (No, not those kind!) I think I got this one after I went to my first drag race when I was in the 2nd or 3rd grade. My last one was red with Peanuts cartoons on it. I must have have read those strips about a hundred times. Poor ol' Charlie Brown never did get that kite out of the tree! 

And I remember the day I had to retire the Peanuts lunch box because one of my friends told me that once I went to Junior High, I would have to trade in my lunch box for a plain, brown paper bag. That was the day my childhood truly died.

I also think that we were a better country when metal lunch boxes ruled the schoolhouse cafeteria. It certainly made us better at logistics, or at least our moms. You see, moms had to pack a fulfilling, nutritious lunch in a space that was slightly larger than a paperback book after the Thermos was placed in there. My mom was the master at this. PB&J (again, this was the 70s—we lived on the edge) took up less space than a ham and cheese with iceberg lettuce—likewise, a bologna sandwich. Twinkies could be crammed in a tight space too. And we were all budding commodities traders: I’ll trade you a Twinkie for your Little Debbie oatmeal cream pie! And of course, there were the days I knew the larder was low. This usually meant a plain cheese sandwich made from the heals of a bread loaf and some desiccated carrot sticks. At least that was better than the kid who ended up with a green bell pepper at least once a week!

These days, when I pack my kids’ lunches for school, I recall those metal lunch box days fondly. And I feel that my kids are getting shorted compared to what I got. Though every now and then, I will smuggle something sweet and give them a “don’t tell wink”—the 70s still live!

Monday, July 10, 2017

Ice Ice Baby

A few days ago, we celebrated the U.S. of A’s 241st birthday.  We did so, no doubt, with plenty of beer, burgers, hot dogs, and fireworks. But what makes America—dare I say this?—great? What is this thing called “Murica”? Is it our big cars? Big houses? Hot dogs? Apple pie? No, it's something even more prosaic. It's ice. But it’s more than that, because many nations have ice, it’s rather the ubiquity of it that defines America and makes us stand tall above the other nations of the world. Ice is everywhere and it's generally free for the taking!

This recently occurred to me one night walking down a dimly light hallway to my hotel room, having just arrived from the airport.  Around the corner from my room was an alcove, and above it was a sign that simply read "ICE." Inside, an attentive ice machine hummed with stalwart efficiency. 

This was a large, convention hotel (39 floors in all). By my rough calculation, there had to be at least 90 ice machines in the building, not including those standing watch in the bars and restaurants. That's a lot of ice. I'm not sure the iceberg that sank the Titanic contained that much frozen water. 

But then again, hotels have had a long association with ice and ice machines.

Back in the day, the first thing I did when we stayed in a motel--after testing the T.V., of course--was take the little plastic bucket with the plastic liner and get some ice. It made little difference that we wouldn't need all that ice, in fact we didn't use it most of the time, it was just...what...you...did. 

And so that night, out of habit, I grabbed my bucket and shuffled to the ice machine, and with a cacophonous roar, old faithful filled my bucket to the rim with clear, clean ice. Unfortunately, there was no minibar in the room and the bar downstairs had closed. And in the morning, I had a bucket full of clear, clean water. 

I don't think I've ever seen an ice machine in a European hotel. 

And what is it with the Europeans and ice? If you have ever visited Europe and asked for a Coke with ice, you'd be luck to get three, but more likely, two diminutive ice cubes. Europe has trains that travel 200 mph and amazing highways, so surely they have mastered the mundane engineering that goes into designing and building ice machines. This is likely one reason the Europeans are lousy at cocktails. Cocktails require ice (or at least the good ones) and lots of it. 

Maybe we use a lot of ice in America—and let’s be honest here—because we can. We can afford to produce tons of ice for cocktails, ice cream, and ice sculptures at wedding receptions. Ice has always conveyed a sense of luxury and decadence. After all, the Romans had ice and snow mixed with their juices and wines for cooling effects. Though  likely apocryphal, the Roman emperor Nero would have snow and ice transported by runners from the mountains to Rome. Top that Pax Americana! 

There’s a lot of talk out there about American decline. I don’t see it based on the 24 oz. cups filled to the brim with perfectly shaped cubes of crystal clear manmade ice. I’m not going to worry until I have to ask for a fourth cube of ice at my local McDonalds. At that point, I better have my passport ready and a fast car to the border.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Authenticity is In the Eye of the Beholder

The most overused word in the foodie universe these days is “authentic.”  And, to avoid accusations of hypocrisy, I freely admit that I have probably used the word myself. How many times have you heard someone mention—usually with a tone of self-satisfaction—a restaurant where the food was the authentic embodiment of some country or people’s cuisine (usually the more exotic the better)? Really, how would they know? Have they actually been to Kerala region of India? 

So what does it mean for a particular dish to be “authentic?” More importantly, authentic to whom, when and where?

The increased culinary emphasis of authenticity is a blessing and a curse—the product of the increasingly diverse nature of culinary options in America today. Thirty years ago, we couldn’t have talked about an “authentic” Indian or Vietnamese restaurant because we were lucky to have a third-rate Chinese restaurant serving lo mien. Now, we have cafes offering banh mi sandwiches with southern style barbecue sauce. But does that make that banh mi any less authentic than one served from a truck in Hanoi? 

A recent trip to Huntington, West Virginia, provides a perfect example. I was in town on business; it was late; I was hungry. Like many of us, I grabbed my iPhone and pulled up the Urbanspoon app and found a place called Black Sheep Burritos and Brews. It got a pretty good rating and seemed halfway decent, so I decided to give it a try. I thought I’d find the typical burrito there, but to my surprise, they served one with Hawaiian pork-confit with a grilled pineapple glaze, shaved red cabbage and fried plantains; and one called the “Bulgogi,” with ginger and sesame marinated flank steak, kimchi, and cilantro Dijon and smoked  cashews. The one that really caught my eye, however, was a curry burrito. Vindaloo spiced chicken with smoked peach chutney, seasoned rice, all topped with a curry sauce.  Of course, this is not even remotely “authentic” Indian, but then again neither is chicken Tikka masala (the national dish of England).

A nation’s cuisine is not monolithic. It is inaccurate to speak of one kind of “French,” “Italian,” or “Indian” food because what people eat varies so widely within their own borders. Classic haute cuisine in Paris would be foreign to people raised on the rustic stews of Southwest France. The red sauce that Americans associate with Italian food is rarely found in the cuisine of Northern Italy. And what most Americans consider “Indian”—a country of a billion people—comes from just one rather modest-sized region. If anything, authenticity is a concentric circle that expands outward from the home to the larger world. The authenticity of my mom’s fried chicken did not extend past the front door, and North Carolina style barbecue ceases to exist once you drive into South Carolina. Authenticity is also about time, as much as place, because like any human cultural endeavor, cuisines evolve over time. For example, what is “American” cuisine? Is it jelled veal from colonial New Hampshire (yes, this is a real dish) or a turducken? 

With the world getting smaller and the international travel ever more routine, maybe one day there will be something called “world cuisine,” the last concentric circle. Pizza is seen as American more than Italian, with a pie from a NYC pizzeria no less authentic than one from the Piazza Navona in Rome. Heck, you can get chicken Vindaloo burrito in a small restaurant in Huntington, West Virginia!

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

What Happened to Lunch?

“The three-martini lunch is the epitome of American efficiency. Where else can you get an earful, a bellyful, and a snootful at the same time?”
—Gerald Ford

Please let me work here!
No one goes to lunch anymore, at least not during the hours of nine to five, Monday through Friday.
Grabbing a burrito at Chipotle while picking up dry-cleaning, or grabbing a sandwich at the corner bodega, or grabbing a protein bar that is scarfed down between emails at your desk doesn’t count. Doesn’t come close. I’m talking about a real lunch at a restaurant with friends, colleagues, or one’s spouse. Do any of us really remember when that happened? 
When did we become so dull?
I’ve come across several reasons during my extensive research for this post (wink-wink): lunch has gotten more expensive; more people are working from home; pressure to be more productive. Yeah, that all sounds good—after all it was written by people who actually get paid to write—but my theory is more intoxicating: no one drinks at lunch anymore. It’s an antique, like the 9-volt battery. 
Back in the day, the three-martini lunch was lunch. Now it’s a unicorneveryone has heard of it, but never seen it. But they did exist, at least according to some wistful old-timers I knew when I first entered the work-a-day world in the mid-1990s.
Believe it or not, work is getting done here.
Of course the three-martini lunch was once more manageable. The drinks themselves were half the size of today’s titanic tipples. One could easily spend two hours at The Palm on Madison avenue and give your liver time to do its magic before that 2:00 p.m. meeting with the client. (In fact, that client was probably with you at lunch and, if you were lucky, there would be no need for a 2:00 p.m. meeting.) And during this two-hour excursion, there were plenty of oysters and steak to soak up that gin or vodka (if you were so inclined). And the nicotine from those Lucky Strikes surely helped. 
R.I.P. Mr. Moore. I miss the 70s too.
The three-martini-lunch was a big deal because not everyone could imbibe. It was typically reserved for the boss…the partner…the CEO.  And yes, ladies, it was pretty chauvinistic. But then again, do you want your boyfriends/husbands hanging out with you while you get a mani-pedi? More importantly, the three-martini-lunch meant that you had arrived; you were somebody because you could eat steak and drink alcohol in the middle of day and not get fired.
And that’s why going out to lunch at work is dead. Hierarchy is dead. Democracy is in. Bosses are now expected to eat at their desks like their “colleagues” in the cubes. (Who, by the way, doesn't get a door to close while eating a ham sandwich.) Really? This is progress? Morale would increase considerably if us plebes were allowed, or even expected, to leave the building for lunch. Besides, most of us would rather do that that read some TPS memo and smell the leftovers from Tuna-Melt-Tuesday. 
The return of the three-martini lunch could even restore some civility and commonsense to our divided politics. Can you image the possibilities if Sens. Mitch McConnell and Bernie Sanders sat down and threw back a few? (Ok, I don’t see Bernie drinking a martini, but maybe a can or two of Schilitz?)
I know bringing back the three-martini lunch may be a fool’s errand. But all revolutions begin in the minds of the nostalgic. So come now my fellow workers and break those shackles that tie you to your desk and a reheated Hot Pocket! Let’s grab a burger and a beer and dare the boss man to fire us!