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, June 11, 2018

Enjoy the Ride

On Thursday morning, June 8, my soul got sucker-punched with news that Anthony Bourdain was dead. He had killed himself in the room of a small, yet elegant hotel in eastern France. 

Like many who have followed this culinary bad-boy through the years, I was genuinely sad for someone I had never known and now—despite my deepest desires—never would. The narrative in the coming days focused mostly on the “why?” of his death. (Don’t get me wrong, suicide is a serious issue and, perhaps, Bourdain’s death will increase some awareness.) But, I couldn’t help but think that, like so many celebrity deaths (God, Bourdain would have hated that moniker), the focus should have been on his full-throttle, no-regrets life.

After the sudden death of someone close to me, I read a book on grief. I was skeptical. I don’t do “self-help.” In fact, I don’t remember the name of the book or the author. However, I do remember its one, basic premise: life is gift. There’s no room for melancholy or anger, but only joy given by the life of another. I don’t know why Bourdain killed himself—I wish he hadn’t—but I cannot and will not focus on that. I will focus on the gift he gave to those who love food; those who love to travel; and those who love to travel and eat food with friends, family, and strangers.

I never knew Anthony Bourdain, much less met him. I even had a crazy dream that one day he would read this blog, and I would be “discovered.” I could have then spent the rest of my days tagging along as the goofy sidekick on his T.V. shows. 

When someone passes, your brain taps a reminder of when you first met. Sometimes, it is distinct and immutable, like a photograph. For others, it is fuzzy and indistinct. Bourdain is the latter. I started reading and watching him only when I really started to care about cooking and food and how it defines us. I can't tell you when that was.

Bourdain changed over time. We all know about his demons—demons that may have caught up with him in the end—but his writing and view of the world changed. He evolved from a “me” to an “us.” By that I mean, his early writings, especially Kitchen Confidential, were about him and his life in the world of the kitchen. I love that book by the way. I listened to it while training for my first marathon. It got me through some cold mornings. I also love that book because I worked in a restaurant kitchen when I was a teenager. I guess there was a certain degree of simpatico there. 

But his later writings, and particularly his shows, were more about the place of food; about the uniqueness of a culture’s cuisine and what it said about them and how they saw the world: from Southern barbecue served from a trailer in the Mississippi Delta; from pasta at a trattoria in Rome; to spicy noodles in a Shanghai alleyway. In each instance, he would sit down and talk. Really talk to people. Go back and watch his shows carefully. Each time when he talks about politics, culture, race, ethnicity, or anything that sits on the third rail of our modern existence—ready to ignite—he did it while sharing a meal. There was little, if any, fire. It’s pretty hard to damn someone when you are breaking bread.


A few nights ago, I had a good friend over for dinner. His girlfriend was going off to med school, and he wouldn’t see her for a while. I was addled by personal and professional bullshit, as well as Bourdain’s sudden death. Needless to say, we were a little down. I typically do most of the cooking, and my friend always begs to contribute. This time, I told him to make something from Bourdain’s latest cookbook in his honor. He did: sautéed mushrooms, which we both like. He was dismayed that the mushrooms were not sliced thin, like the recipe called for. That was perhaps the best tribute.  Tony wouldn’t have given a rat’s ass. All that mattered was honest food, good drink, good friends, and honest talk. That’s what we served that night for sure, well past midnight. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Unlike Bud Light, Light Sauces Ain't Dull

When one thinks of French sauces (and I do almost daily), four words come to mind: cream, butter, and high maintenance. Those who have cooked have (and will) experienced a collapsed Hollandaise sauce or runny beurre blanc—a sillage of failure in the kitchen. But not all French sauces are thick, creamy, and heavy (not that there is anything wrong with that—they have their time and place). There are French sauces that don’t require constant fussing over a Windsor pan; sauces that are light and built on a foundation of fresh herbs, vinegar, and olive oil—more like dressings than sauces. Two of these—one I’ve been using for several years and one I recently discovered—are Sauce Ravigote and Sauce Vierge.

Generally, sauce ravigotte refers to any vinaigrette with capers, herbs, and onions. I’m not sure where I discovered this sauce, but it has served me well. It makes a great base for pasta salad, tomato salad, or crudités.  While there are as many different versions of sauce ravigotte as there as Parisian cafés, here’s my version:

Sauce Ravigote

Ingredients

¼ cup pure olive oil
½ cup vegetable oil
2 TBL tarragon vinegar
1 TBL Dijon mustard
1 TBL finely chopped parsley
1 TSP finely chopped thyme
1 TSP finely chopped shallots
1 TSP finely chopped white onion
A few capers
1 TSP kosher salt or 1/2 TSP regular granulated salt
½ TSP freshly cracked black pepper

Directions 

This is very simple: put all ingredients in a 1-pint screw-top jar. Shake well. Nets ¾ cup



Pasta with Sauce Vierge
and some Bacon!
The latest sauce I’ve discovered is Sauce Vierge, which literally means “virgin sauce.” Like Sauce Ravigote, it comes in myriad varieties. The sauce is best if macerated (fancy lingo for letting it hang out in the fridge for a while). 

It works very well with seafood (more on that later), and on greens, tomatoes, or even pasta. 



Here’s the version from Eric Ripert that I really like:

Ingredients

1 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 teaspoon finely minced shallot
1 tablespoon minced parsley
1 tablespoon minced tarragon
1 tablespoon minced basil
1 tablespoon chopped capers
1 tablespoon chopped Nicoise olives
Juice of half a lemon

Preparation:

Place the extra virgin olive oil in a mixing bowl and add the shallot, parsley, tarragon, basil, capers and olives. Stir to combine the ingredients and transfer to a small container. The sauce can be made a couple hours ahead and kept at room temperature.

Now it gets interesting. 

A buddy of mine insists on almost always ordering fish in a fine restaurant because it is the one thing he doesn’t cook at home (and he's a good cook!). Why? Cooking fish is hard. Most fish is delicate and each one cooks differently. One can throw a tuna or swordfish steak on a grill at the beach in the summer with a beer in hand and not really think twice about it. But you would never do that with a Dover sole?

One of the best ways to cook fish, especially delicate fish, is by poaching. Poaching is a method of gently cooking food in a liquid at low temperatures (165-180℉). The liquid can be water, flavored with oil or butter, or stock. Poaching doesn’t impart the strong flavors like sauté or roasting. Consequently, poached fish needs a fairly stout sauce to provide the flavor. Sauce Vierge: enter stage left!  


Les filets du turbot pochés
a la sauce vierge aux tomates.
What kind of fish is good for poaching, or more importantly, what kind of fish is bad for poaching? Some fish have muscle enzymes that will make them mushy if they are cooked slowly: flatfish, tuna, mackerel, sardines, and tilapia. A good rule of thumb is that oily fish don’t take to poaching. (Oil and water don’t mix!) Fish that are good for poaching include halibut, turbot, sole, flounder, and salmon.  

Now, I don’t know about you, but I sucked at high school chemistry. The only way I got through it was that my lab partner was the salutatorian of my high school. God bless her! If you use butter or olive oil in your poaching water, then you should add an acid such as wine or lemon juice to balance the Ph. Without the acid, the butter or oil (an alkali) will turn the fish into an unappetizing yellowish or off-white color. 

Now, let’s put all this science to good use….

Going back to Ripert’s recipe, here’s how to poach fish for the Sauce Vierge (he used halibut; I used turbot, which is quite similar):

Place a large sauté pan on medium-low heat and add the water, the extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice, lightly season the liquid with salt and white pepper. Season the slices of halibut on both sides with salt and white pepper and place in a single layer in the warmed poaching liquid. The liquid should come about halfway up the fish, adjust if needed with more. Cook the fish for about 2-3 minutes, then flip the slices and cook on the other side until they are just warmed in the center.

One final note about poaching:  it doesn’t generate a lot of mess—no greasy pans or pots to soak or scrub, which for me is great because I’m notorious for tearing up a kitchen when I cook.

Bon appétit!

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

I Need to Find the Exit Ramp!

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

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

Caramelized Ramps

Ingredients

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

Preparation

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

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

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

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

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

We all took a bite. 

Wow! 

Talk about being underwhelmed! 

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

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

Monday, March 12, 2018

Missing In Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So back to the Oscars...

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


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


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

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

Get Out: Black and white cookies. Of course!

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

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

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

The Shape of Water: Shrimp cocktail. Enough said.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: Pigs In a Blanket

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

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

You guessed it.

There was plenty of popcorn!




Sunday, January 21, 2018

Leave the Shotgun; Take the Fried Chicken


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

—Jim Villas





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe I’ve made a Southerner of her yet. 

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Snow Day Redux!

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

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

Thursday, December 7, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 8, 2017

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

Sunday, December 10, 2017

What's the French Word for Turkey?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s what I love about Paris.