About Me

My photo
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!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Food and the Written Word

There is a strong connection between poetry and food. Both are fundamentally emotional responses to the world we smell, taste and touch. Both can be profoundly personal and obtuse; mysterious, if not down-right opaque. Consequently, it is not surprising that many poets through the ages, from Ovid to Frost, have written about food, eating, and drinking. Recently, I discovered a book titled, The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food & Drink, edited by Kevin Young, a young American poet. (Here’s a review from the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/22/books/the-hungry-ear-poems-of-food-drink-kevin-young-editor.html?_r=0 ). 

Mr. Young has complied over 100 poems dedicated to food and drink, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Here are three of my favorites from this book that—as we approach Independence Day—are so quintessentially American:

After Apple Picking

My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree

Toward heaven still.
And there's a barrel that I didn't fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three

Apples I didn't pick upon some bough. 
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,

The scent of apples; I am drowsing off. 

I cannot shake the shimmer from my sight

I got from looking through a pane of glass

I skimmed this morning from the water-trough, 

And held against the world of hoary grass.

It melted, and I let it fall and break. 

But I was well 

Upon my way to sleep before it fell, 

And I could tell 

What form my dreaming was about to take. 

Magnified apples appear and reappear, 

Stem end and blossom end, 

And every fleck of russet showing clear. 

My instep arch not only keeps the ache, 

It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round. 

And I keep hearing from the cellar-bin 

That rumbling sound 

Of load on load of apples coming in. 

For I have had too much 
Of apple-picking; I am overtired 

Of the great harvest I myself desired. 

There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch, 

Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall, 

For all 

That struck the earth, 

No matter if not bruised, or spiked with stubble, 

Went surely to the cider-apple heap 

As of no worth. 

One can see what will trouble 

This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is. 

Were he not gone, 

The woodchuck could say whether it's like his 

Long sleep, as I describe its coming on, 

Or just some human sleep. 

      —Robert Frost

The Fish

As soon as the elderly waiter

placed before me the fish I had ordered,

it began to stare up at me
with its one flat, iridescent eye.

I feel sorry for you, it seemed to say,

eating alone in this awful restaurant

bathed in such unkindly light

and surrounded by these dreadful murals of Sicily.

And I feel sorry for you, too—

yanked from the sea and now lying dead

next to some boiled potatoes in Pittsburgh—

I said back to the fish as I raised my fork.

And thus my dinner in an unfamiliar city

with its rivers and lighted bridges

was graced not only with chilled wine

and lemon slices but with compassion and sorrow

even after the waiter removed my plate

with the head of the fish still staring

and the barrel vault of its delicate bones

terribly exposed, save for a shroud of parsley.

         —Billy Collins

I, Too, Sing America

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"

They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

      —Langston Hughes

Friday, June 21, 2013

Being in Love with Cooking Is Never Having to Say You’re Sorry!

Everyone who loves to cook and cooks often will, at some point, make something that is simply wretched. Something just plain awful and which looks nothing like the one in that glossy photograph in the cookbook. For example, I recall one morning when I had this burning desire to make hash browns. After a cursory glance at a recipe, even before I had my morning coffee (big mistake!), I made something that only barely resembled hash browns—but if only hash browns were GREY!

Though I doubt she ever made grey hash browns, Julia Child recounts a similar event in her memoir, My Life in France, which involved eggs Florentine for a friend she had invited over for lunch:  

I suppose I had gotten a little too self-confident for my own good: rather than measure out the flour, I had guessed at the proportions, and the result was a goopy sauce Mornay. Unable to find spinach at the market, I’d bought chicory instead; it, too, was horrid. We ate the lunch with painful politeness and avoided discussing its taste. I made sure not to apologize for it. This was a rule of mine. I don’t believe in twisting yourself into knots of excuses and explanations over the food you make. When one’s hostess starts in with self-deprecations such as “Oh, I don’t know how to cook . . . ,” or “Poor little me . . . ,” or “This may taste awful . . . ,” it is so dreadful to have to reassure her that everything is delicious and fine, whether it is or not. Besides, such admissions only draw attention to one’s shortcomings (or self-perceived shortcomings), and make the other person think, “Yes, you’re right, this really is an awful meal!” Maybe the cat has fallen into the stew, or the lettuce has frozen, or the cake has collapsed— eh bien, tant pis!
My Life in France, pp. 89-90. 

I think this is valuable advice for amateur cooks everywhere. We cannot be perfect. Besides, us mere kitchen mortals should take comfort in the fact even the great Julia Child made a dish which she described as “vile.”  This pressure to be perfect in the kitchen has become worse in our media-saturated age. As Melissa Clark of the New York Times once pointed out in her column, A Good Appetite, “food porn” in foodie magazines and T.V. shows has created a “cult of foodie perfectionism.” (Melissa Clark, No Apologies Necessary When a Dish Goes Awry, New York Times, p. D1, Oct. 10, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/10/dining/renaming-a-dish-gone-awry-a-good-appetite.html?_r=0 ) So, we should all fight the urge to stress out about the meals we make and by all means, don’t apologize. It’s probably not as bad as you think. But, if it really is that bad, then the hell with it!. Just order a pizza!  

Saturday, June 15, 2013


Any serious foodie must, at some point before they die, visit Paris. If good food is a religion, then Paris is Rome, Jerusalem, and Mecca all rolled into one. And if there is a liturgy for the foodie religion, then it is the pastries of Paris, which you simply cannot ignore. They rest like jewels in the windows of Paris’s patisseries, which seem to be on every corner. And in these windows, rest little circular shaped gems, in a variety of hues, from pale green to red, yellow, and orange. They are macarons! 

© 2013 Chris Terrell

Macarons from The Tart Bandit

For the uninitiated, the macaron is a sweet, meringue-based confection made with eggs, sugar, and icing. Please don’t get the macaron confused with the the macaroon. The latter is a a coconut-based concoction. (Don’t get me wrong, I love macaroons too!)

Unfortunately, I cannot get back to Paris to eat my fill of macarons, at least not until we have our own flying cars, like the Jetsons, or a transporter like the ones in Star Trek. For those like me who live in Birmingham, however, there is an easier option: The Tart Bandit

The Tart Bandit, a/k/a Mary-Claire Alford, is a local pastry artist who makes the most fabulous macarons I’ve ever tasted outside of Paris. In fact, hers are just as good, if not better, than some of the ones I've had there. (They are certainly better than the ones made by Ladurée-you macarons fiends know about whom I speak!) She has a booth at Pepper Place Market, every Saturday, or least every Saturday that I’ve been there. I was there today, and—lucky me—I got the second-to-last bag of orange-flavored macarons. Four to a bag and, unfortunately, I had to share two of them with my boys.

So, if you live in Birmingham and you love Paris or if you love macarons, then I strongly suggest you seek out the Tart Bandit. You will not be disappointed. Her website is: www.tartbandit.com

Thursday, June 13, 2013


A couple of weeks ago, I bought a pasta maker from Sur la Table. 

Like a sleek Maserati!
I’ve always wanted to make my own pasta. In fact, I placed making it on my informal list of New Year’s resolutions. I also got a bag of King Arthur “00” pasta flour and a drying rack. I was good to go. What I found surprising was how easy it is to make homemade fresh pasta. I made a linguini with beef braised in Marsalla. Not a bad performance for opening night. But before I get too far down the road of chronicling my pasta adventure, let’s talk a little bit about this magical food.

In terms of ingredients, pasta is about as simple as it gets. It is made from durum-wheat flour, water, and eggs.  (A popular, but false belief, is that Marco Polo introduced pasta to Italy from China, but the first known reference to pasta can be traced to Sicily in the Middle Ages.)

Durum wheat is the hardest wheat that humans can grow. (The name comes from the Latin word for "hard.")  It is this hardness that gives pasta the ability to retain both shape and firmness when cooked. Durum wheat is high in gluten and is used only for pasta, never for baking, cereal or other purposes. It also gives pasta its yellow-amber color and nutty flavor. 

And all those different shapes! Unlike Italian politics, there is a logic to those varied pasta shapes. Tubular shaped pastas (e.g., ziti and penne) are best with hearty, meaty sauces like ragù. (The true Bolognese sauce—NOT the stuff in the jar with the little gondolier on the label!). Ribbons like pappardelle should be used for creamy sauces—think, “the wider the noodle, the heavier the sauce.” Rods, such as spaghetti are better with olive-oil or tomato-based sauces., and the thinner the pasta, the more delicate the sauce. And finally, chunky sauces should be served with short pastas that have lots of ridges to hold the sauce.

And let’s not forget the fascinating names the Italians have come up with to describe their pasta. Some of my favorites: 

Fusilli—“little spindles”
Linguini (“linguine” in Italian)—”little tongues”
Orecchiette—“little ears”
Spaghetti—"little strings”
Tortellini—often goes by the name ombelichi di veneer and means "Venus's navels", in Bologna; only the Italians!

Now let’s talk about the pasta I made. Well, first there’s the recipe I used. One of my favorite cookbooks and probably the best all-around Italian cookbook out there is The Silver Spoon. It’s the Italian version of The Joy of Cooking. Here’s the recipe for pasta dough:

Fresh Pasta Dough (Basic Recipe)

Serves: 4

Preparation: 40 min., plus 1 hr. resting and drying
Cooking: 2-3 min. (unfilled)

1¾ cups bread flour, or preferably Italian type “00” plus extra for dusting
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 egg yolk

Sift the flour into a mound on the counter. Make an 8-inch well in the center. Beat the eggs and the yolk together, then place in the well. Using your fingers in a stirring motion,  gradually incorporate the flour [this is the hardest part], then knead for about 10 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and satiny. 

Check out that technique!
If the mixture is too soft, add a little extra flour; it it is too firm, add a little water by running some water over your hands, then kneading the dough with wet hands. Shape the dough into a ball and let it rest for at least one hour. The dough can be made 24 hours in advance and kept wrapped in plastic wrap in the refrigerator. 
Doesn't he look cute!
Roll the dough out on a lightly floured counter or use a pasta machine to make thin sheets by passing the dough through the rollers starting with the widest width. Pass the dough 3-4 times through the two widest settings, folding the dough in half lengthwise between each roll. Continue to roll the sheets more thinly. Hang the thin sheets of pasta to dry.

When the pasta sheets feel leathery, they are ready to be cut. [I skipped this step and cut the pasta immediately and then hung the cut pasta to dry; it really didn’t seem to make much difference. 

Note the intense concentration!

Of course, I have no basis of comparison, and there’s probably a grandma in Sicily who will send me some hate mail once she reads this!] If the pasta is dried too long, the pasta will crack. [This is why I cut first because I knew I would get distracted by the baseball game on the TV and forget about that damn pasta dough!] 
It is best to cook the pasta right away after drying and cutting by immersing in a large pot of boiling salted water. If you are not going to eat the pasta right away, then blanch the pasta by immersing it in the boiling water for 30 seconds. Drain, rinse in cold water, and repeat, and then toss in a little olive oil. Store in a plastic bag in the fridge or freeze. To cook, immerse in salted boiling water. Note that fresh pasta takes only a minute or two to cook until al dente, or has a little “bite” to it, which is what al dente means. 

And here’s the final product:


So, go ahead and give homemade pasta a try. It is not that hard and so rewarding. Of course, I am not giving up on keeping a few boxes of fettuccine or linguine in the pantry. When that pasta fix kicks in, one cannot wait!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

My Francophile Version of the Grilled Cheese Sandwich

The grilled cheese sandwich is a classic, not because of its complexity or difficulty but because of its simplicity. That simplicity, however, gives one the ability to make this humble sandwich his or her own. As my regular readers of this blog should know by now, I love anything French-food related: French cheese, wine, deserts, bread, etc. As a result, I’ve created my own version of the grilled cheese that I call a French grilled cheese sandwich. Here’s how I make it. 

First, I take a mixture of softened butter and mayo (a ratio of about 1.5 parts mayo—Hellman’s—and 1 part unsalted butter) and then spread this mixture on the outside of two pieces of plain white bread. This “insulates” the bread from burning whilst giving the cheese on the inside time to melt. Next, on the inside of the bread, I spread a mixture of Dijon mustard (I prefer Maille) and diced cornichons (about 3). Then I place about 2-3 ounces of thinly sliced comté on the bread, put the two halves together, and place in a nonstick pan on medium heat. I cook each side until golden brown or even slightly blackened in places (about about a minute to a minute and a half for each side). I use comté because it melts well and has a sweet, slightly nutty, flavor which balances nicely against the acidity of the dijon mustard and cornichons. Yum!

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Gin & Tonic

I don't know what reception I'm at, but for God's sake give me a gin and tonic.

—Denis Thatcher

Memorial Day is the traditional start of summer, even though summer doesn’t technically begin until the summer solstice around June 21.  But who cares, I’ll stick with the unscientific start date. Now that summer is officially under way, we can bring out our seersucker suits, white shoes, and….gin and tonics. 

The gin and tonic is the ultimate summer drink. (Though I was told by an Englishman in college that a gin and tonic can be consumed in the winter as long as it is during the weekend.) While the focus is on the gin and everyone has their favorite—mine is Tanqueray—most folks forget that the tonic is just as important, if not more so. Nothing destroys a good G&T than bad tonic. Unfortunately, most store-bought tonic is atrocious. It is nothing more than carbonated sugar water.

But what is tonic water?

British officers stationed in India invented tonic water by mixing soda water with quinine. Quinine is an anti-malarial substance derived from the bark of the cinchona tree. (During a safari in Africa, our guide told me that, based on my daily intake of gin and tonics during happy hour, I had obviated the need for my anti-malarial pills!) Being good Englishmen, the officers countered quinine’s bitter flavor by adding gin, sugar, and lemon or lime. Thus, in the land of the Raj, the gin and tonic was born!  Eventually, the gin and tonic made its way back to England, yet another contribution made by the Pax Britannica.

Because Britain was the home of the Industrial Revolution, there should be no surprise that Schweppes, a London-based sparkling-water company, added "Indian" tonic water to its line of products in 1870 and began the mass production of tonic water. Canada Dry stepped in and began making tonic water around 1890. Since then, these two companies have produced most of the world’s tonic water. And it is a far cry from the original. Until now.

In recent years, three companies have stepped in and halted the malaise, producing tonics that will certainly take one back to the glories of the British Empire. The sun will never set on these tonics. They are Fever-Tree, Q Tonic, and Stirrings.

Fever-Tree is made with Rwandan quinine and cold-pressed orange oil from Tanzania. It is more fruity than Q Tonic or Stirrings, but it is my favorite. It is not cheap, but worth it. A four-pack costs about $5-7, depending on from where you hale. 

Q Tonic takes a New World approach, using handpicked Peruvian quinine,  sweetened with Mexican agave. This tonic is a bit drier and more bitter than Fever-Tree. Its price point is comparable to Fever-Tree’s.

Finally, we having Stirrings, which offers tonic with a potent burst of bubbles. This one is the more “commercial” of the three, but still vastly superior to the big commercially produced stuff. It is a tad bit more reasonable too. A four-pack will put you back about $5 or $6.

One final note. It would be helpful to us gin and tonic drinkers if restaurants would take note of this trend in artisan tonics. Stop using that Barbarella soda gun machine-thingy! This is especially true for high-end restaurants charging me $8 for a gin and tonic. Hell, make your own tonic—gin is a jealous mistress!