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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, August 3, 2015

Wine, Wine Lists, and the Disappearing Sommelier

There are two recent dining trends that have me thinking. The first is the rise of the tasting menu. The second is the disappearing sommelier. Tasting menus are very popular these days, but they run the risk of becoming victims of their own success. They seem to be getting longer and longer and less cohesive. When done right, they are sublime, but there really is not much margin for error. Another complaint is that they can be thematically incoherent, becoming another attempt by the chef to show off.  If you have suffered through an overdone evening of molecular gastronomy run amok, you know what I am talking about.

And then there’s the wine pairing. I usually get the wine pairing option because it can be fun to try many different wines and experience how they pair—and sometimes don’t—with the courses. Another interesting facet is that wine pairings reveal how the sommelier and the chef view the meal. Many times, however, it’s the sommelier’s view because, believe it or not, chefs don’t really think about how wine pairs with their dishes. (One famous chef who shall remain unnamed once told me that he simply drinks Burgundy with most of his meals.) 

However, I sometimes miss studying the wine list while I finish the last of my cocktail; thinking about what I might like to try; what my companion might like, and finding just the right bottle to make everything come together. And this is where the rise of the tasting menu with wine pairings correlates with the disappearing sommelier, at least one that is visible and with whom you can have an actual conversation about the wine that interests you for that meal.

I suspect that a lot of diners prefer wine pairings because they are intimidated by wine lists and certainly by the sommelier. And even if that is not the case, then diners are embarrassed to ask for the sommerlier’s  help. As you might expect, a lot of us guys would rather ask for directions before asking for help from a sommelier, especially if said request occurs on a first date.

This is unfortunate because a good sommelier is your best friend. The stereotype of the haughty, arrogant stiff, trying to sell you the most expensive bottle is long gone—if it were ever true in the first place. (One of the best sommeliers I’ve ever encountered, as well as the least pretentious and condescending, was Aldo Sohm at Le Bernardin. And if there’s one place you should be intimidated about the wine list and the sommelier, it is Le Bernardin!)

In the same way you should be truthful with your doctor or lawyer, you should also be truthful with your sommelier. Besides, it’s not like the sommelier is going to tell you that you only have six months to live or that your ex-wife is going to get your bass boat and half your 401K!

Also, don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Sometimes red wine goes with fish and chicken (though I don’t think the same can be said for white going with steak – champagne is another story – champagne goes with everything!). Pork, however, can go with white or red. Zinfandel goes very well with barbecue. And when it comes to spicy Asian cuisine, nothing works better than an Alsatian Gewürztraminer.  

While the sommelier doesn’t expect you to be an expert, he or she would probably prefer that you know what you like; what you can tolerate; and what you despise. More importantly, however, the sommelier would really prefer that you tell him or her what you like, can tolerate, and what you despise. Be honest, don’t say you like this or that wine because it’s the latest “it” wine. Really, your job is not to impress the sommelier.

Price is another sensitive issue. No one wants to look cheap. As a result, it has been said in certain circles that the worst bottle of wine to order is the second cheapest one on the list. No one wants to appear to be cheap, but then again they don’t want to buy an expensive bottle, so they go with the one just above the cheapest. This is really the bottle the restaurant wants to get rid of.  Restaurants can read us like a cheap paperback on this point. Rather than fall into this trap, you should be up front with the sommelier and let him or her know what your price range is. Again, a good sommelier will find something in your price range. And there’s nothing wrong about seeking out value in a wine list. 

What I’ve found during the many hours spent in restaurants eating and drinking wine, both high and low, is that, at the end of the day, having the sommelier help you with a wine selection is like a conversation with a friend you’ve not seen in a while. Awkward at first, but by the end of the encounter, you wonder why you don’t meet more often. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Way Down South....

“The past is never dead. It's not even past.”

― William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

In the South lately, the past has been very much part of the present. The most visible symbol of our complicated history—the Stars & Bars, the Confederate Battle Flag, the Rebel Flag; you pick the name—has been front and center in the news. And while the candidness with which Southerners are now facing the issue of what “The Flag” really means is new, the weight of our history is certainly not. 

(Some commentators have gone so far as to say that, but for the peculiarities of the South, the United States would be some kind of North American Sweden. I find this pretty ignorant. There is no special immunity against prejudice that one obtains merely by being born north of the Mason-Dixon line.)

But the truth is that the South is different—in good ways and bad—but no more so than any other region or any other people at any other given time during the long span of human history. However, one way in which we are proudly different is food. Yet, here again, history gets in the way. Most of what we call “Southern” cooking is the result of the forcible extraction of one people from their home and placing them on tightly packed ships to bring them to a foreign land thousands of miles away. Collards, black-eyed peas, peanuts, yams, fried chicken, okra, were brought to this country on the backs of African slaves. Such good food that, when combined with the food ways of the Scotch-Irish, created what we call today “Southern Cuisine.” Without slavery, this so-called Southern Cuisine would have never been. But does that make it bad? Should it be boycotted? I don’t think so, based on the meat-and-threes here in Birmingham, packed with whites and blacks. History be damned.

And then there’s that name: Birmingham. No article or NPR news spot would be complete without a reference to Birmingham, as if this city—like a fly in amber—is stuck in 1964. If you want to know how far removed Birmingham is both psychologically and temporally from 1964, go downtown and eat. You can start by eating sushi, prepared by a chef from Nepal; have modern Tex-Mex prepared by a chef from New Zealand; Indian down the street in a restaurant owned by a family of immigrants. Or if Vietnamese or Korean barbecue is your thing, you can have that too. And in any one of these places, you will find mixed races couples or same-sex couples and no one bats an eye. 

Of course, we still can’t resist some good ‘cue on game day—again, history dies hard down here.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Oh the Horror!

"As a matter of cosmic history, it has always been easier to destroy than to create.”
—Mr. Spock, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

How many food blogs do you know that start with a quote from Star Trek? Not many, I hope. 
This quote resonates with me based on my recent experience hosting a dinner party. For anyone who has ever hosted one, dinner parties take a considerable degree of planning, hard work, and, most importantly, impeccable timing. The goal is to avoid scrambling around at the last minute or, even worse, spending all your time in the kitchen cooking rather than socializing with your guests. I know this rule, and I know to follow it, but a few weeks ago I broke it like a two-year old with a new toy. Damn, did I screw up!
Typically, I start pulling things together at least several days before the big event. For example, I will buy the non-perishable items and clean and iron the linens about two or three days out. I will make any soups, dressings, or sauces the day before. On the day of the dinner, I make the dessert in the morning and then get the flowers and perishable items and bread that afternoon as well. 
For whatever reason, this year I got a terribly late start. I didn't get started until 10:30AM on the day of the dinner  when I finally walked out the door to do the grocery shopping. Because I got sidetracked with a bite to eat at lunch, I didn't get started until 2:30PM—a mere four hours before the guests were to arrive!
I started with Ina Garten’s recipe for orange chocolate mousse, which I had not made in a very, very long time. It was really like trying a new dessert on your guests, which is a big no-no. Needless to say, it took me a lot longer to make than I thought. The next thing I know it’s 4:30PM, and I’ve not started the chicken with forty cloves of garlic, much less the amuse bouche I was planning to make. Quickly, I made an executive decision and texted my guests to come at 7:00PM instead of 6:30PM. Thirty precious minutes!
©2015 Chris Terrell
This photo is not staged!
Then I panicked. And that’s where the mess in the kitchen started to build up. My mom always preached about “cleaning up as you go along.” It’s also a maxim taught in all the culinary schools and I know it to be true. I’ve tried like hell through the years to live by this rule, but I just can’t seem to do it. Others can. I know, I’ve seen them do it. I can usually follow this advice better when I’m not rushed. As the time ticked away, the pots and pans piled up higher and higher.
Thankfully, the meal turned out fine, especially the mousse, and after a “few” bottles of wine, I don’t think any of us even noticed that I had completely destroyed the kitchen.
©2015 Chris Terrell
Breakfast of Champions!
(No plate because they were all dirty.)
The next day, Laura and I paid the price. After I had a hot dog for a late breakfast, we began the slow, painful process of rebuilding my kitchen. There really should be some kind of culinary Marshall Plan for times like these. 
After an hour, we had to take a break, and in between viewings of old Mad Men episodes, some progress was made slowly through the day. (Full recovery wasn’t achieved, however, until 5:34PM, the next day.) Late in the afternoon, we gave up and ordered pizza and returned to Season 3 of Mad Men.
While I paid a heavy price for my poor planning, it was well worth it. We all had a great time (even if I was a tad bit stressed at times). Spock may be right—it is easier to destroy [a perfectly good kitchen]—but it’s a hell of a lot more fun to create, and even more fun to enjoy that creation with others.
©2015 Chris Terrell
Peace in our time!



  

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Ricotta

© 2015 Laura Flippin
A few years ago, I developed this sudden desire to make cheese. I bought a book on cheesemaking and read it cover to cover. But like many of my other stillborn hobbies (e.g., painting, fountain pens, Civil War re-enacting), neither curds nor whey ever graced my kitchen. So it was interesting when I opened up my newest food magazine to which I’ve subscribed—I think I’m up to five now—and saw an article on homemade ricotta, and then just a few days later, I came across this piece on ricotta by the New York Times’ Melissa Clark. (Watch how Melissa Clark makes ricotta.). Maybe the food gods were trying to tell me something. 

The word “ricotta” literally means “re-cooked” in Italian and has been made there since the Bronze Age. Traditionally, it is made by reheating the whey left over from cheese making and adding an acid, like lemon juice or even vinegar. It is technically not cheese but a diary product.

Ricotta cheese is slightly sweet and low in fat—similar to cottage cheese. You can make it as creamy or as dry as you like, with small curds or big curds, depending on your preference. When I made it, it was soft, with small curds and spread on a slice of fresh French bread, it was delicious. Because of its sweetness, ricotta makes an excellent “cheese” for dessert, either simply with fresh berries and other fruit, or in cheesecakes.

Of course, you probably don’t have extra whey sitting around because you, like me, aren’t making cheese. Also, it’s not like you can drive down to the local Piggly-Wiggly and buy some whey. (Even Whole Wallet doesn’t carry it.) So most recipes for making ricotta at home call for whole milk and cream, which is probably close enough. It is also ridiculously easy to make. Here is the recipe from Fine Cooking (Apr./May 2015) I mentioned above:

Homemade Ricotta

With so few ingredients, the quality of each is very important. The better your milk and cream, the better your ricotta will be. A high-quality sea salt will also make a difference. This recipe is easily halved. 

Yield: about 4 1/2 cups ricotta

Ingredients

1 gallon whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 Tbs. flaky sea salt,such as Maldon
1/2 cup fresh, strained lemon juice (from two large lemons)

Preparation

Line a colander with 3 to 4 layers of lightly dampened cheesecloth, and set it in a clean sink or large bowl.

Clip an instant-read or candy thermometer to the side of a heavy-duty 7-to 8-quart pot. Put the milk and cram in the pot and slowly warm it over medium heat, stirring occasionally with a silicone spatula, until its’ 185 degrees, about 20 minutes.

Remove from the heat, stir in the salt, and then slowly pour the lemon juice over the surgance of the milk. Once all of the lemon juice has been added, stir gently for 1 to 2 minutes to encourage curds to form.


Gently ladle the curds into the prepared colander. Fold the ends of the cheesecloth over the curds to loosely cover. Drain until it reaches your desired consistency, 30 minutes for a soft ricotta and up to 24 hours for a very firm, dry, and dense ricotta. Transfer the drained ricotta to an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 3 weeks.


Monday, June 8, 2015

Stack 'em High!

Pancakes. Flapjacks. Hotcakes. Griddle Cakes. Whatever you call them in your neck of the woods, they are awesome in their deliciousness. Seriously, have you ever met someone who didn’t love a good pancake? In fact, the whole world loves some kind of version of the pancake. The French have their crêpes, those delicate, thin pancakes perfect for wrapping around fresh strawberries or Nutella. The Chinese also make thin pancakes—Mu Shu Pork would be the same without them. And in some real sense, even a Mexican flour tortilla is a pancake.

Then there’s the question of syrup. For the kids I would keep Aunt Jemima on hand, even though you can’t beat real maple syrup. Growing up, we were a Log Cabin family, but somewhere along the way I strayed and became a fan of Aunt J. Finally, there’s also the issue of which goes better with pancakes. Sausage or bacon? I’m a sausage guy myself (wow, that sounded bad!), but only sausage links. My boys, on the other hand, are solid bacon supporters.  

Pancakes have been a staple with my kids for some time. When they were little, I would take them to the local McDonald’s—one of those with the playground—on Sunday mornings and get them “hot cakes” (what McDonald’s calls pancakes) with sausage. I’d watch them crawl around those plastic tube thingies while I read the Sunday New York Times. I would have joined them but my middle aged dad-butt would have gotten stuck. Other times, I would take them to IHOP or The Pancake House, and many times I would make them from scratch at home.

©2015 Chris Terrell
A Labor of Love!
The kids, now 13, have outgrown the McDonald’s playground, replaced with X-box and soccer. So Sunday morning pancakes have fallen by the wayside. But that changed on a recent Sunday morning.  I decided that, after a long hiatus, I would make pancakes. I had everything I needed: flour, eggs, vanilla extract, sugar….but wait. The recipe called for milk. I had no milk! While I did have a pint of skim milk, it had expired about 16 days ago. The local grocery down the street is closed on Sundays, and I was too lazy to get in the car and drive to the local Piggly Wiggly. And then I remembered that I had a big box of Mini Moos from Costco! And while it only took about 75 Mini Moos, I got the required cup and three quarters of milk required for the recipe. Mission accomplished! And this time, Forrest wanted blueberry pancakes.

Here’s the recipe I used. It’s from The Joy of Cooking, and I’ve been using it since high school—it’s never let me down.

Pancakes

About sixteen 4-inch pancakes

Whisk together in a large bowl:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt

Combine in another bowl:

1 1/2 cups milk (or 75 Mini Moos)
3 tablespoons butter, melted
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract

Mix the liquid ingredients quickly into the dry ingredients. Spoon about a 1/4  to 1/3 of cup of batter per pancake onto a non-stick pan at medium high heat. 

Here are some good tips from The Joy of Cooking:

  • Ignore lumps and don't over mix the batter—it will make the pancakes tough.
  • Superior results are achieved when batter is rested, covered, and refrigerated for 3 to 6 hours before cooking.
  • To test if the griddle is hot enough, place a few drops of water onto the surface. If the water bounces and sputters, the pan is hot enough. If it the water sits and boils, it is not. If the water evaporates quickly, then it is too hot.
  • If the griddle is not hot enough, the batter will spread out too thin and the pancakes will not rise enough. 
  • Turn the pancakes only once. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

It’s That Time of Year: Fire Up the Grill!

Once that patty of browned beef was laid on a bun for the first time, the hamburger shimmered into existence philosophically.  Because the burger has a kind of inevitability to it; it is a gastronomic endpoint, like sashimi or a baked potato. Its basic design cannot be improved upon.

—Joel Ozersky—


Even though astronomically the first day of summer is several weeks away, it unofficially began on Monday, May 25, 2015. Memorial Day. For most Americans, this means firing up the grill and grilling hamburgers. This year, I traveled to Williamsburg, Virginia, to spend the weekend with Laura, her family, and some dear friends from our college days who now live in the ‘Burg.

Most of my readers should know by now that I am an inveterate menu planner, and this year was no different. I wanted to go whole hog—Southern hog that is. Menu version 1.0 consisted of fried chicken, potato salad, Southern style green beans, grilled corn, and brownies. Version 1.0, however, never made it out of Beta. After taking into account food allergies and a general consensus that I should try and cook a tad pit healthier, I developed Version 2.0. 

My friend Andrew would bring over pork shoulder and grilled vegetables; I would grill bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs with chimichurri sauce, grilled corn with chili-lime cilantro butter, and kale salad. Dessert would be mango mousse (essentially pureed mangos folded in with Chantilly cream). Unfortunately, poor logistics meant that the corn never hit the grill. But we had plenty nonetheless.

©2015 Andrew Langer
But the more interesting menu item of the night was Andrew’s. What he calls Grilled Cabbage

Here’s the recipe:




Grilled Cabbage
(Courtesy of Andrew Langer & Jorge Jimenez-Rojo)

Ingredients

1 head cabbage (about 2 lbs)
1 package bacon
1/4 cup Barbecue Sauce
1/2 stick butter, sliced into six pieces

Preparation

1. Cut bacon crosswise into small pieces. Sauté until cooked, drain, and set aside.

2. Core head of cabbage, leaving the rest of the head intact, so that there is a cavity 3-4 inches across and several inches deep.

3. Take aluminum foil, crumple and make a ring, 3 inches in diameter (see picture).

4. Mix cooked bacon and barbecue sauce together. Lay 3 slices of butter in cavity, add bacon mixture, then lay three more piece of butter on top.

5. Turn grill to high and pre-heat until temperature reaches 300+ degrees. Put aluminum foil ring on grill, put cabbage on ring. Close grill..

6. Cook cabbage for 60-90mins [though I think 45 mins to 60 mins is plenty], rotating cabbage head with tongs every 15 mins. When cabbage is soft all the way through, it's done. Don't worry if exterior leaves start to char—they will fall off when you take the cabbage off the grill.

As I mentioned earlier, Memorial Day Weekend is when a lot of folks fire up the grill for the first time. Now Laura has a grill (charcoal), but the discussion Saturday morning quickly moved to whether she needed a new grill—a gas grill. I know there are a lot of purists who will not use anything but charcoal. But you can’t beat the convenience of a gas grill. I’ve had both, and I’ve found that I’ve grilled a lot more with a gas grill than with the charcoal version. Besides, Laura’s place in the ‘Burg is a second home, and things should be as convenient as possible. So, after a quick trip to the local Ace Hardware and some haggling, we got a real good deal on a Weber floor model. The new grill worked beautifully, notwithstanding a major flame-out in the grease trap which was a bit too close to the propane tank for my tastes!

So let me get back to burgers because that’s where this blog post started. Despite the fact that my fried chicken and potato salad got nixed, I did get to make hamburgers Saturday night and again on Monday afternoon before heading to the airport. 

I have several rules when it comes to making hamburgers. First, always buy 80/20 beef if you can find it. It’s getting harder and harder. Your best best bet is the local Piggly Wiggly or Wal-Mart. But honestly, 80/20 makes the best burgers. Period. Besides, it’s not like you eat these things every day. I then put a generous amount of kosher salt and ground black pepper on each burger. Sometimes I will put a bit of onion powder on as well. I then place the burgers in the fridge for at least an hour. Cold hamburger meat holds together better while grilling and allows you to get a good char on the outside without overcooking the inside. 

But most importantly don’t overcook the burgers. Start on one side with the lid open. (If you close it, you will start to cook the burger before you can get a good char.) Once you have a good char on one side, flip. You will only flip once! At this point, place your cheese of choice on the burger and close the lid. Personally, I prefer blue cheese. Dress the burger anyway you like. I like to keep it simple—lettuce, red onion, tomato, ketchup, and mustard. But sometimes I like to chop up some chipotle peppers in adobo sauce and add that to the ketchup for an extra kick. 

Finally, toast your buns dammit! Melt some butter and brush it onto the outside and insides of the buns and toast them on the grill. Your guests will thank you.

And that’s it. Another Memorial Day weekend for the history books. While I think the healthy option was a good idea, I’m glad I got my burger fix in because Memorial Day without burgers is like New Year’s Day without luck and money. And just like a good burger can’t be improved upon, neither can a Memorial Day with wonderful friends and family.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Please Place Your Tray in the Upright and Locked Position

©2015 Chris Terrell
We’ve heard it before: “air travel ain’t what it used to be.”  This appears to be especially true when it comes to airline food. It gets worse and worse, assuming you get anything at all.   

But are we expecting too much from the airlines when it comes to food? They are constrained by weight and space and so don't have a lot to work with. There’s also the issue of heat. One can’t exactly sauté mushrooms on an open gas stove in a Boeing 767. Even so, the food could be better.

Of course, it wasn’t always so. I’m old enough to remember the days when even in coach (a/k/a “economy class”), the stewardess (dated myself!) would serve lunch or dinner with real silverware and linen napkins. And she did so with a smile on her face and the kind of attention that you sometimes get in business class on a transatlantic flight. Why? Because out of the 160 seats on that Boeing 727 from New York to Miami, only 120 of the seats were occupied thanks to regulation.

In the early to mid-70s when I began my flying career, airlines were regulated by the federal Civil Aeronautics Board (“CAB”). Since 1938, the CAB had regulated all domestic interstate air routes as a public utility. The CAB set the fares, routes, and schedules. The CAB also was obligated to ensure that the airlines had a reasonable rate of return. In other words, the airlines were guaranteed a profit, albeit not a big one, but a profit nonetheless. This meant that Eastern Airlines could afford serving lunch with silverware in a less-than-full airplane.

In 1978, this all came crashing down with the passage of the Airline Deregulation Act. This law abolished the CAB and removed government control over fares, routes, and market entry. The goal was to increase competition, which would mean lower prices for consumers. Believe it or not, the law actually worked. After adjusting for inflation, it is generally cheaper to fly today than it was in the 1970s. (I'm not sure about the competition part because we have about the same number of airlines as we did in 1978.) Of course, cheaper fares mean more people flying. And therein lies the rub when it comes to airline food. With increased competition and no guaranteed profits, the airlines have had to cut costs. And the first thing out the window was the semi-decent food. 

These days we're lucky if we can get a diminutive package of pretzels or peanuts (Southwest may be the only airline left that offers both.) About the only time any of us will get a meal on plane, much less a decent one, is on an international flight.

But at least it sometimes gets interesting. 

Several years ago, I was on a Delta flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg, South Africa, when breakfast arrived at hour 13 of a 15 and a half hour flight. To this day, I have no idea what I was served. It was some kind of orange, yam-like thing.  I also have no idea why it was breakfast food. I guess it made sense because we were flying to South Africa. (The food on the return flight was much more "American.") 

But perhaps the best example of food following the route was an Air France flight I took from Atlanta to Paris. Even though we were in economy, the flight attendants walked up and down the aisles with large baskets full of french bread. Later in the evening, I walked to the back for another glass of French wine. I pointed at the bottle on the drink cart, and the female flight attendant, without saying a word, and with a classic Gallic  shrug, told me “sure.” Vive La France!

What I find interesting is that, as the quality of airline food has declined and essentially disappeared, the quality of food in airports has increased, especially in terms of variety. I’ve had great wine and food at a wine bar in Dallas’s Love Field; a really good Cuban meal at the airport in Miami; and my home airport in Birmingham now has some pretty good barbecue. Hope springs eternal.

The only downside is that, because there’s no food service on airlines anymore, people bring food onto the airplane. This has created a different set of problems. Have you ever sat next to a fellow passenger with an order of garlic rice and falafel? 

But oh well, air travel is still pretty amazing. We can now travel distances in hours that took our ancestors weeks, if not months. As the comedian Louis C.K. once said, “You’re sitting in a chair, in the sky!” Good point. So, maybe we should all just relax, wait until we land to get a good meal, and leave the falafel at home.