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!

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. 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Let Us Honor a Great Man!

My Hero!
I love sandwiches! I mean really! It's like a four-course meal in one neat little package. You have meat, of course; vegetables (lettuce); fruit (tomatoes); and carbs (bread). I confess that there are many days, after a hard day's work, that I make a sandwich for dinner. So it is only fitting that in the waning hours of this day that I pay homage to John Montague, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, the inventor  of the sandwich who died this day in 1792. (It is rumored that he invented this little beauty as a quick meal that would not interrupt his inveterate gambling.) 

Therefore, in honor of the good earl, here are some musings about four of my favorite sandwiches:

There are several versions as to the origin of the Reuben. One is that Reuben Kulakofsky, a Lithuanian-born grocer from Omaha, Nebraska, invented it. Another account has Arnold Reuben, the German-born owner of Reuben’s Delicatessen in New York, inventing the “Reuben Special” around 1914. For me, I find the latter creation myth the most plausible because no other sandwich shouts NEW YORK! more than the reuben. I don’t know about you, but whenever I eat a Rueben, I start talking like Henry Hill from Goodfellas.

The Club Sandwich (probably my favorite, except for fried bologna—see below) is a sandwich with two layers of bread, usually white bread that is lightly toasted. (More on this in a later entry, but the world can be divided into “light toasters” and “dark toasters.”) It is often cut into quarters and held together by hors d'œuvre sticks.  (Classy!) In my opinion, the Club is best served with a crisp dill pickle spear (eaten last) and ridged potato chips. For me, the Club was my first “grown-up sandwich.” One popular theory is that the club sandwich was invented in an exclusive Saratoga Springs, New York, gambling club in the late 19th century. 

I was late-comer to the BLT. For most of my life, I didn’t like fresh tomatoes, though I loved tomato sauce and cooked tomatoes. Then one day, I gave a raw tomato—a perfectly vine-ripened specimen—a chance. Wow! My next step was the BLT. I couldn’t believe what I had been missing all these years! To make up for it, I ate a BLT for lunch every day for two weeks straight.

The PBJ is a classic. It’s like your first kiss—you will never forget when and where you had your first one. (Beth, behind the bushes in the front yard, third grade birthday party.) And like Proust’s madeleine, it will always remind you of Mom. The PBJ is also the only sandwich that has its own drink: milk. Milk and PBJs go together like champagne and foie gras. 

Of course this list could go on and on, so feel free to add to it. I know that many of you south of the Mason-Dixon Line are wondering why I did not mention the fried bologna sandwich. There's a perfectly acceptable reason. This sandwich is so perfect in every respect, it  deserves, and will get, its own blog entry.

Don't know about you, but I'm raiding my fridge for a late-night snack.

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!