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!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

When a Man Is Small, He Eats Twinkies!

M.F.K. Fisher, in her essay, When a Man is Small, wrote “[w]hen a man is small, he loves and hates food with a ferocity that soon dims.” Later she writes, “[S]ome foods are utterly delicious, and he thinks of them and tastes them with a sensuous passion which too often disappears completely with the years.”

This essay got me thinking about the foods I once loved but haven’t eaten in years and, quite frankly, would find revolting if forced to eat them now, even on a deserted island with Kira Knightly. These were foods that I once gobbled up with a mindless intensity, blissfully ignorant of their blandness, chemical notes, or over-processed and over-salted construction. But damn did I love them at the time! While I would like to say that the following chronological list reveals some kind of culinary growth, each one is as banal as the one before it. Here they are: Vienna Sausages, T.V. Dinners, Hostess fried fruit pies, and Hot Pockets (don’t judge!).

OK, let’s start with the Vienna Sausage. That round, little, pale “sausage,” tightly packaged seven to a can. (This was actually a trivia question during trivia night at a local bar recently!). True story:  when my twin boys were just starting out on solid foods we gave them cans of what appeared to be Vienna sausages, but which were actually called “meat sticks.” I’m not kidding! I guess this was a marketing improvement?!  Well, I had to try one and, “oh my God!” I bleated, “these taste like shit!” Neither I nor my boys have had “meat sticks” since!

Moving up the culinary hierarchy, my next stop is an icon of Mad Men America: the T.V. Dinner! I’m talking about that aluminum, four-sectioned,  school-lunch-tray variety of the late 60s and 70s. Damn, did I love T.V. dinners. (When my Mom pulled one from the grocery sack, I got more excited that a senior citizen yelling “bingo!” at Shady Pines nursing home!) My favorite variety was fried chicken, perhaps because I grew up in the South; though this probably irked my Mom—though she didn’t show it—because she made damn good fried chicken. Of course, there was always that mystery desert at 12 O’clock. It was either some kind of chocolate or cherry concoction.

Speaking of cherry concoction, the next item on my list is the Hostess fried fruit pie. I must have eaten one of these every day for lunch for six or seven years. They came in various fruit flavors: cherry, blueberry, apple, and peach. As if the caloric count was not high enough, they also came in cream flavors, such as lemon, chocolate, and vanilla. My favorites, however, were the fruit ones, especially blueberry. Recently, I was in a handy mart getting some water and Gatorade for one of my son’s soccer games, when I spied one of these puppies. Out of curiosity, I flipped it over to take a gander at the calorie count. (We didn’t have these in 1981, or if did, we ignored them!). Holy shit! It was something life 4,235 calories. That’s enough to feed an entire village in the developing world! Hell, that’s enough to feed half of Hollywood!

So, let’s move onto high school and college. Now we’ve come to the Hot Pocket. I have no idea who came up with this concept. And hopefully the person who did has been convicted as a war criminal at The Hague. For those of you who are not familiar with the “Hot Pocket” concept, it is a pastry (almost like an empanada) filled with cheese and some kind of “meat product”—not to be confused with the aforementioned “meat stick”. The Hot Pocket is placed in some kind of sleeve (at least it was) and put in the microwave for a couple of minutes. What comes out is benign looking, but filled with a molten core hotter than Three Mile Island. How I got through 11th and 12th grade and 4 years of college eating these things I do not know. But damn I loved them at the time.  The last time I ate one was June 22, 1993, and it made me deathly ill. I’ve not eaten one since. If I’m going to get sick on food now, it better be locally sourced foie gras or P.E.I. oysters.

What I knew now, I didn’t know then. And what I truly enjoyed then, I find vile now. Nonetheless, that doesn’t diminish the apparent joy such food gave me then. Everything is relative. Going back to Fisher’s essay I mentioned above, she wisely, and more eloquently than my oscitant ramblings, captured how our taste in food changes and how food changes us over time:

But we must grow old, and we must eat. It seems far from unreasonable, once these facts are accepted, for a man to set himself the pleasant task of educating his palate so that he can do the former not grudgingly and in spite of the latter, but easily and agreeably because of it.

So the next time you go to the grocery store and take your buggy down those aisles of highly processed exemplars of American industrial acumen, say to yourself: “Wow, I thought the frat parties were bad enough…. !”

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Chili! Football!

© 2013 Chris Terrell
Chili and college football: 
Like Sonny & Cher!

Now that football season is in full swing, my culinary thoughts turn to chili, even if the thermometer still peaks into the 80s here in Alabama in mid-September, just a few days before the official start of fall. Chili is the ultimate dish for cooler/cold weather, which is my favorite time of year to cook. Full, rich food and crisp, cold air pair together like foie gras and Champagne. 

Now, when I talk about chili I mean chili con carne—with meat. None of this vegetarian or, God  forbid, vegan stuff for me. (Anthony Bourdain referred to veganism as the Taliban of vegetarianism.) I need serious protein to sustain me through the highs and lows of your typical grind-it-out SEC football contest.

Speaking of SEC football, I recently made my first batch of chili for the season during a highly hyped SEC game involving a love-him/hate-him quarterback and a love-him/hate-him football coach. I certainly needed more than chili to get me through that one! At least a six-pack!

I’ve been making chili for many years now. In fact, it may have been the first thing I made on my own for myself. (I don’t count the “Rookie Cookie” recipe from the kiddie section of the newspaper when I was a kid—I think it was something made with peanut butter.) I started off with a recipe from The Joy of Cooking and went from there. The great thing about chili is that it's cheap; you can make a lot of it to last you several days; and it gets better after a day or two. 

I never make my chili the same way twice, but here’s a pretty decent approximation of how I make it. I know there are several long-running feuds in the chili world: beans vs. no-beans; tomatoes vs. no tomatoes; blah, blah, blah. I don’t care. Take this recipe and flush it for all I care (this is chili after all!) or modify it as you see fit. 

The Insouciant Chef's Game-Day Chili

Serves 6-8.


2 lbs ground chuck or ground sirloin
1 15 oz. can of peeled whole tomatoes (crushed by hand)
2 8 oz. cans of light red kidney beans, drained (sometimes I go with dark in late winter….)
1 large red or Spanish onion, finely chopped
2 medium green, bell peppers, finely chopped
2-3 cloves of garlic, minced
3-4 chipotle chilies in adobo sauce, finely chopped with sauce from the can depending on how hot you like it
Ancho chili powder
Chili powder
2-3 medium bay leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
Sour cream, cheddar cheese, and sliced green onions to garnish


Brown the ground meat in a sauté pan over medium-high heat until nicely browned.

Drain the fat and place meat into a large stock pot or Dutch oven.

Sauté the green peppers and onions in olive oil or butter for a minute or two and then sweat them for about 5 mins. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant (about a minute) and then add to stock pot.

Add everything else (add the powders until you get the desired heat) and heat to a very mild simmer and stir occasionally for about 2-3 hours while you watch football.

Garnish with some sour cream, cheddar cheese, sliced green onion, and serve with tortilla chips. Serve with good beer, though by this time in the game you have moved on to the PBR. And savor the victory if your team wins.  (Mine did, by the way!)

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Friend Me on Facebook and Follow Me on Twitter!

As I hope my readers have noticed, I try to make my posts thoughtful. At least in the sense, that I put a lot of thought into them. This, of course, takes time, which is why, with a busy job and two kids, I do well to publish one post a week. There are times, however, when a random food-related thought pops in my head or I come across something on the Internet that is interesting. None of these necessarily warrants a full-blown post. Consequently, I've created a Baked, Roasted, or Fried Facebook page (www.facebook.com/bakedroastedfried) and an Insouciant Chef Twitter feed (www.twitter.com/ctt3970). These will also have the added benefit of allowing more interaction with my readers. Consider these blogosphere's version of an amuse bouche!

Bon appétit!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Restaurant Review: el barrio restaurante y bar

El Barrio (Spanish for “the neighborhood), is located in Birmingham’s increasingly hip loft district. Don't let the name fool you, however, this is not your standard Tex-Mex restaurant. This is Tex-Mex with a twist because the chef/owners are not your typical Tex-Mex kinda guys. Brian Somershield and Geoff Lockert are graduates of Frank Stitt’s French-inspired kitchens, while the chief de cuisine, Neville Baay, is a classically trained private chef from New Zealand, who didn’t know anything about Mexican food before coming to El Barrio. No matter, because these guys are taking local, fresh Southern ingredients, classical cooking techniques, and using Mexican flavors as a building block to put together some of the most creative dishes in Birmingham.

For example, take their meatloaf. This is not June Cleaver’s meatloaf, but rather chorizo meatloaf with spinach, cotija-mashed potatoes & ranchera sauce. This being the South, there is even a corn dish, called Elote Asado (grilled corn on the cob, cotija, cilantro, chile and lime) and okra with fried with masa and served with spicy cabbage, chipotle, sour cream, cilantro and lime. Of course, you can still get tacos here, which you can order al a carte. There is the classic al pastor, made with chile-marinated pork and charred pineapple salsa. This is my favorite. Then there is the barbacoa, made with slow roasted beef, queso fresco, chipotle, cilantro, onion; and veraduras, made with avocado, charred corn, jicama, pico de gallo, pepitas, and house-made sour cream. There’s even a hamburger, the Barrio Burger, which is juicy and served with pickled onions and spicy mayo. Either bring a friend or ask for a to-go box.

Because this restaurant is built on a Tex-Mex chassis, you can still find chips and salsa and margaritas on the menu. But even these staples are given the El Barrio twist. The salsa is made fresh daily and is a little bit different every day. Some days, it may have corn, while other days, it could even have pineapple or mango. You just don’t know. 

Now let’s talk about the margaritas. El Barrio serves four different margaritas, and I must confess that I’ve tried them all and, yes, all in one evening. They are the El Barrio
(Sauza, Patron Citronge, lime, orange, & tamarind); the Tradicional (Cazadores, Grand Marnier, and lime); the Grapefruit Margarita (Sauza, lime, and grapefruit); and the Mescal (Monte Alban, El Jimador, lime, and agave nectar). While the El Barrio usually works in a pinch, if it is a Friday night, and I’m happy the work week is done, and I’m feeling particularly festive, then I go with the Mescal.

All this great food is served in a casual, but chic setting with reclaimed, rustic wood, zinc-top tables, and lights made from industrial roof-vents. (Think nice jeans and crisp plain black t-shirts.) One side of the restaurant consists of a floor-to-ceiling, Diego Rivera-inspired mural of curious complexity. Finally, all this is served by an efficient and attentive, but friendly wait and bar staff. 

Show up hungry, but be prepared to wait. El Barrio doesn’t take reservations, and the place fills up quickly. By  6:15pm you're waiting at the bar (not such a bad thing, however).


el barrio restaurante y bar 

2211 2nd Ave. N., Birmingham, AL

Rustic, casual chic and cool lighting; large mural worth a table with a view. 

Sound level
Loud and lively.

Chorizo meatloaf, Al Pastor tacos, and Barrio Burger

Drinks and wine 
The wine list is not extensive, but has some good basics in all price ranges. Your best bet is to stick with Spanish or South American reds. My favorite is the Spanish red, Atteca Garnacha. Of course, the aforementioned margaritas never disappoint.

Tue–Fri Lunch: 11am-3pm
Tue–Fri Dinner: 5pm-10pm
Saturday Brunch: 10:30am-2pm
Saturday Dinner: 5pm-10pm
Closed Sunday & Monday

Not Accepted.

El Barrio on Urbanspoon

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Fast Food in France! Mon Dieu!

Here's an interesting article I came across in this morning's Wall Street Journal, about how the Parisians are dealing with fast food: 


Keep in mind that this is the Parisian's version of fast food, what they call "fast good" ("good" rhymes with "food" in French). This equates to our food truck trend here—i.e., locally sourced ingredients of high quality.  But here's where it gets interesting, the French don't have any experience with tortillas, edible corn, or the kind of beef cuts we use here. As a result, French suppliers are having a hard time catching up to this new trend. Anyway, when you read this, you'll get a chuckle about the fact that the French don't know what to do with a warm tortilla, or that they think a cheesesteak is "cheese cake!"

And finally, I can't help but be reminded of the real contribution America is really starting to make in the Cartesian world of French cuisine, even if it is the humble cheesesteak! 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

If You Want to Work in a Restaurant, Read This First!

This is not where I worked.
© 2012 Chris Terrell

Everyone has been to some kind of restaurant. Even a McDonalds could pass for a restaurant at 1:00am, drunk after a Judas Priest concert.  And, if by chance there’s someone who has not been to a restaurant, then he’s hiding out in Pakistan somewhere—but we got that guy anyway, and I’m sure he was not reading blogs about food. But how much does the restaurant-going public really know about what goes on in the kitchen? Sure, most restaurant-goers are pretty familiar with the “front of the house,” which consists of the hostess (almost always female), the bartender, the server, the busboy, etc., etc. What about the kitchen—the “back of the house?” I suspect that few restaurant patrons—even those who have the time and money to visit La Bernadin on a regular basis—have no clue what goes on back there and, quite frankly, they wouldn't want to know. 

In my younger years, I worked, for a time, at the local outpost of a national chain restaurant. I will not name the restaurant in case the parent company’s legal department actually reads this blog, but it was one of those restaurants with miscellaneous bric-a-brac hanging on the walls; at least one steak dish with some kind of bourbon glaze; and at least one Jalapeño Pepper Popper appetizer on the menu. Maybe even one of those fried onion things. 

You get the picture.

I started off as a prep cook. Now why I chose to work as a prep cook is a bit of a mystery. I think it was because even at a young age, I had a latent interest in food and cooking. Perhaps another reason was a sense of adventure. A friend of mine at the time had been working at the restaurant in question as a busboy, and his stories about the kitchen were inspiring. The kitchen staff where the “bad boys” of the food world: they smoked, cursed like sailors, and spoke in a sex-infused patois that bordered on sheer poetry. 

A restaurant kitchen is pretty hierarchical. This is thanks to Auguste Escoffier, who created the brigade de cuisine. Though not as complicated as it once was, the brigade de cuisine functions much like the military (Escoffier was a former French army officer). As a prep cook, I was a corporal, about a half-step above the plongeur, or dishwasher—a mere private.  

I came to work around 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon before the dinner rush. It was my job to make potato salad, tomato salad, cucumber salad (all for the salad bar), bake potatoes, slice tomatoes, onions and prep lettuce for the line cooks. To slice the tomatoes, I had to use a circular slicer that spun at RPMs faster than a Ferrari 430. Of course, I didn't use safety gloves. Thankfully, I still have my fingers. 

And if in the fury to get everything ready for the dinner rush, a few items hit the floor, it didn't get thrown away; where do you think the three-second rule came from?  In a restaurant, you waste nothing, as long as you don't get caught. We didn't even waste the whipped cream that came in those pressurized cans. 

One of my jobs as prep cook was to make the desserts. This consisted of slicing pre-made pies, nuking them, slapping ice cream on the plate, and squirting whipped cream from a can. Once the cans where empty, it then became one of my unofficial tasks to yell “whip-it” to the line cooks and toss the empty can to a lucky recipient for a quick hit of NO₂. (These guys couldn't afford decent coke.) This was actually a valuable service I provided because it gave the line cook who caught the can, just enough energy to get through the returned steak that the customer wanted cremated (super-duper well done).

To me, the line cooks were gods. They were the real heart and soul of the kitchen. Without them, any kitchen would quickly devolve into chaos. These guys made the same dishes night after after night and exactly the same night after night. Absolute consistency was their hobgoblin, and that hobgoblin was damn good. They could keep track of a dozen dubs (tickets) and cook steak to the exact temperature using Buddhist mind tricks. Of course, you wouldn't want these guys teaching a Sunday school class. They dropped f-bombs like B-52s dropped real bombs on the Vietcong.  And they were so sexually demented and horny, you wouldn’t want them within 20 miles of a co-ed dorm. One of the line cooks in particular was fond of taking large tubes of hamburger meat and holding it in front of his crotch so as to gleefully hump anything in sight—male or female—while yelling “look at my whale dick!” Of course, this was before we knew anything about “sexual harassment”—it was the 80s for Christ sake!

It was also my job to keep the cooks’ mise en place (or meeze) fully stocked: sliced tomatoes, onions, melted butter, and various garnishes. Once I heard “86 tomatoes” (kitchen lingo for “I’m out of f**king tomatoes and I’ve got four f**king hamburgers that need to be plated, and you better get those those f**king tomatoes up here in the next 10 seconds or I’m going to rip your balls off and donate them to Dr. Frankenstein!”) Bodily harm from a guy who is 6’4” and has 90 pounds on you and tats with Chinese characters that read “kill” is a great motivator, let me tell you. I guess I did a good job, because on a few occasions I got to watch over the fry station while one of the line cooks ran out back to take a leak by the dumpster. That was about as close as I ever got to being a line cook.

If this all sounds stressful and sometimes dangerous, well it was. But it was also exciting, if not exhilarating. Remember a few paragraphs ago, I mentioned that a former military officer came up with how kitchens should be organized? Well, like the military, working in a kitchen is one of the more meritocratic jobs in this world. If you get your shit done and get your shit done right, and don’t screw your shit up more than once (maybe twice), show up on time, and work hard, then you will be rewarded with a kind of warped fraternal camaraderie. (Hell, I even admire the guy who chased me with that hamburger “whale dick,” even though his name is long forgotten.) 

I had several good friends who worked as busboys, and they eventually talked me into working the “front of the house.” They made the tips and cute hostesses sound so glamorous. (Another buddy of mine was biding his time to be a server and later manager—he really loved the restaurant business and still works in it to this day). 

However, I think the guys in the kitchen saw me as something of a traitor, maybe even a little uppity. And frankly, I felt a little guilty about moving to the front of the house, even if as a lowly busboy. And when I look back on those years, my memories of the kitchen are more dear. And I think I learned a lot more. I learned how to use a knife—I mean really use a knife; I learned how to have several things going at once; that wearing an apron and having plenty of kitchen towels on hand ain’t “girly;” being on time is important; and, finally, it is a damn hard job to get food on the table for several hundred people in a three-hour period. 

So, the next time your steak is not quite perfect, don’t forget how hard it is to work in the back of the house and don’t take it out on the front-of-the-house staff, because it wasn’t their fault. And, by the way, just try to forget about that three-second rule!