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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!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Cry Havoc, and Unleash the Dogs of War!

When referring to one's first day back at the office after vacation, I'm sure most of us have used the phrase, "re-entry's a bitch!" The same could be said for taking down the Christmas tree. I've always gotten a live tree, and every year I vow to get an artificial one for the next because the mess the real ones create. 

Getting the tree down this year was particularly taxing. Maybe the tree was kinda dry from the start. It took me over an hour to vacuum up the pine needles. (And I keep finding them in odd places—sock drawer!?)

© 2013 Chris Terrell
Alas,  poor Xmas tree!
As you can imagine, getting my place back to some semblance of pre-Holiday order felt like a battle that I was on the verge of losing. Think A Christmas Story meets the Sommeyou'll poke your eye out kid with that tree branch!

But I was determined to get 
it done. I even forgot to eat lunch. So by late afternoon, with the energy from my small bowl of Cheerios long gone, my stomach was really roaring. But what to eat?! Plenty, if you counted the 23 boxes of chocolate-covered cherries, pralines, truffles, nuts, and caramel popcorn that I had collected as gifts over the past several weeks. No, I needed real food. But want could I cook that would be low fuss and fill my belly?

Vive la Napoleon!
And then it hit me! Having battled the Christmas tree all day, what would be more appropriate than Chicken Marengo!? A dish named for a battle! This would be perfect. It would combine my love of cooking and eating with my love of history.

Whether true or not, the story goes that after Napoleon defeated the Austrians at the Battle of Marengo, his personal chef created the eponymous chicken dish out of ingredients he could find in the nearby town. Supposedly Napoleon enjoyed it so much, he had it served to him after every battle. (Though, probably not at Waterloo!) 

Chicken Marengo


1 (2 1/2 lb.) chicken 
2 tablespoons oil
2 heaping tablespoons butter (this is a French recipe after all!)
1 handful of flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 shallot, chopped
1/3 cup of flour
Generous 3/4 cup of chicken stock. (I prefer chicken stock—Swanson—and despite the reference.)
Generous 3/4 cup of white wine (I use a dry Chardonnay (Chablis) or un-oaked American.) 
Salt and pepper
7 ounces of button mushrooms, chopped
2/3 cup of tomato paste


Cut up the chicken. (Or like me, ask the butcher nicely to do it for you. I recommend cutting it into six pieces and use the wings for something else, as they will be overdone.) Heat the oil and butter in a dutch oven, such as Le Creuset or Staub. Pat the chicken dry with a paper towel and then generously apply salt and pepper. Then add the chicken pieces and begin to brown them over medium-high heat. When they are half-browned, remove the chicken to a plate. De-glaze the pan with the white wine and then add the parsley, shallot, flour, and stock. Stir so the flour is incorporated. Return the chicken to the pan and cover and cook gently (i.e., low) for one hour.

©2013 Chris Terrell
Chicken Marengo, or at least my version of it.
After an hour, remove the chicken and add the tomato paste and mushrooms and stir to incorporate the paste. Return chicken to the pan, cover, and cook for another thirty minutes.

Place the chicken on a serving plate and cover with the sauce. Voila!

Roasted Brussels Sprouts

©2013 Chris Terrell

Now, of course I needed something other than the chicken. I needed something green, which had been missing from my Holiday diet. And this being winter, you can never go wrong with Brussels sprouts. One of my favorite vegetables, though I must admit that I hated them as a kid. Brussels sprouts are a great vegetable because they are so versatile. One of my favorite ways to prepare them is the simplest: roasted with olive oil and salt and pepper.

Poires à la Crème

© 2013 Chris Terrell
And this being Christmas, I had plenty of pears sitting around from Harry & David. Pears make a wonderful, yet simple desert. I referred again to my trusty I Know How to Cook cookbook and found a recipe for Poires à la crème (Pears with Creme):


12 small, firm pears
1/2 cup superfine sugar [you can take regular sugar and grind it in the food processor]
Crème Anglaise (see below)

Peel the pears, leaving the stems attached. Place the sugar, vanilla, and 1 cup water in a large pan/pot and slowly bring to a simmer. (You can omit the vanilla if you put vanilla in the crème anglaise.) Gently simmer the pears in the syrup for 30 minutes, or until the pears are tender. Remove and drain. Increase the heat to medium-ugh and boil to reduce the syrup to half its volume.  Pour over the pears. Make a thick crème anglaise with the milk, sugar,  and egg yolks. Coat the pears with the sauce.

Before I get to the crème anglaise, the question may arise as to which pears to use.  I used what I had on hand, which were your run-of-the-mill barlett pear. They are great for grabbing as a snack, but if I had my druthers, I would have gone with bosc or comice pears.

Because bosc pears have a firm, dense flesh they are ideal for baking, broiling, or poaching. Some would describe their taste as "woodsy" or "honey-sweet." Comice pears are Rubenseque, with a full and round shape. They have a custardy flesh and a mellow sweetness that make them a good dessert pear.  

What really makes this desert work is the crème anglaise, which I had never made before. I had always heard of it, but never made it. It is physically hard work.  When the recipe states that you are to stir constantly, they are not kidding! I stood over that pan for a good twenty minutes whisking until I thought my arm would fall off. But it was worth it. The crème anglaise had a rich, custard flavor that was silky smooth in texture. Next time I make chocolate fudge cake, I'm going to pour this over it.

Here's the recipe for crème anglaise:


Generous 2 cups whole milk

Scant 1/3 cup of sugar
6 egg yolks
2 teaspoons of vanilla extract


Place the egg yolks in a bowl and whisk until smooth. In a large pan (preferably a Windsor pan), bring the milk and sugar to warm simmer. Pour the milk into the bowl with the egg yolks and whisk. Then pour this mixture back into the pan, add the vanilla extract and gradually thicken over low heat stirring almost nonstop. The mixture should thicken until it coats the back of a spoon. Do not let it boil. And you really have to stir the hell out of it.

There you have it. A late-winter, French, post-holiday meal. Enjoy. I did.

Bon appétit! And Happy New Year!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Ho! Ho! Ho! And a Bottle of Rum!

Every family has its traditions. And every family has its Christmas traditions. White lights or colored lights? Open a present or two on Christmas Eve? Ham or turkey? 

©2013 Chris Terrell
Santa Needs Some Help
And of course, all families have their own culinary Christmas traditions. Like Thanksgiving, there are certain dishes that simply must be made every year.

For me, Christmas was, and always will be, all about the baking—my first true love when it comes to cooking. For me, Christmas is a Bake-a-Palooza!  

When I would come home from college, the first thing I woud do is take over my Mom’s pristine kitchen and wreck the hell out of it, making pumpkin muffins, candy cane cookies, and mincemeat pie. You should keep in mind that I was an only child and thus there was only the three of us. That’s a lot of food, even for Mario Batalli! 

But each recipe had to be made.

Let’s start with the pumpkin muffins. I found the recipe in The Christian Science Monitor in an article about New England bed and breakfasts. It’s a pretty simple recipe. The muffins had a great flavor, but were very dense. Many years later when I had misplaced the recipe, I Googled it and found out that about two weeks after I had clipped out the recipe (pre-Internet days), I discovered that the first recipe had a mistake. The corrected recipe added about a cup more of flour. Wow! Since then the recipe is much improved. Alas, I don’t make them any more because I think I was the only one in the family who really liked them.

Now let’s talk about the candy cane cookies. For any of my 15 readers who survived the 70s, you may recall those “card clubs.” You know, the ones where you would get a set of cards once a week/month on subjects ranging from great movies of the last 50 years, to great historical events, to great recipes! As part of your introductory offer, you would also get a handsome plastic container to keep all those cards. Well, my Mom signed up for one of these sets. A Time-Life recipe-of-the-month card collection. And buried in one of these sets was a recipe for candy cane cookies. They were red and white and looked just like candy canes! Of course, they required enough red food coloring to keep an entire 1st grade class awake for days! But I made these every year until—you guessed it—the family got sick of them. 

Same thing with the mincemeat pie from a jar. Not many Anglophiles in my family. ’Nuf said.

OK, let’s fast forward to the latest holiday baking tradition. This one is a hell of a lot more fun: rum cake!
©2013 Chris Terrell
The "Secret Ingredient"
Nothing embodies the boozy side of Christmas like rum cake. I mean really! Alcohol and cake. Who ever came up with this combination was a freakin’ genius! I’ve been making the rum cake for about three years now. Screw the pumpkin muffins! This one gets people excited.

The recipe is from Southern Living which shouldn’t be a surprise because no one does alcohol and the holidays like us folks down South! Keep in mind that this recipe is not without its hazards. For example, don’t let your nine year into the kitchen with a distracted dad who forgets that that glass of dark brown liquid is NOT Coca-Cola. Oh wow! Still haven’t lived that one down.

©2013 Chris Terrell
The Finished  Product!
Anyway, for adults, making rum cake is   fun as hell. The trick, of course, is to buy more rum than you actually need to make the cake. (I prefer Myers's.) And trickier still is to stay sober long enough to finish it! So, after many years of baking during the holidays, I may have found something to stand the test of time. This year, I put on the faux fire on the TV; some Christmas music from Frankie on the stereo; fired up the oven; opened a bottle of rum; and made a rum cake. And if no one eats it, I don’t care. The holidays are about traditions we keep, even if they go unwanted.  

Fruitcake anyone?

Here are the recipes for the pumpkin muffins and the Southern Living rum cake:

Pumpkin Muffins


8 oz. raisins, soaked in water

3/4 cup water

15 ounce can of pumpkin

1 3/4 cups sugar

3/4 cup eggs (about 4 large eggs)

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon each of cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon

1/2 cup salad oil

2 1/2 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking powder


Place all ingredients, except raisins and oil, in bowl and mix thoroughly. Add oil and raisins, and blend just to mix raisins in. Place in well-greased muffin tins and bake in pre-heated 400-degree oven until golden brown. Makes 2 dozen.

Southern Living Rum Cake


1 ½  cups butter, softened
1 ½  cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 egg yolk 
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons grated lemon rind
½  cup dark rum 
¼  cup banana liqueur*
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½  teaspoon baking soda
1/8  teaspoon salt
1 cup whipping cream
Rum Syrup 
Powdered sugar


Beat butter and granulated sugar at medium speed with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add eggs, egg yolk, and vanilla, beating until blended. Add lemon rind, beating until blended. Gradually add rum and banana liqueur, beating until blended. (Batter will look curdled.)

Stir together flour and next 3 ingredients; add to batter alternately with whipping cream, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Beat batter at low speed just until blended after each addition. 

Pour batter into a greased and floured 10-inch Bundt pan.

Bake at 350° for 55 to 60 minutes or until a long wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean.

Cool in pan on a wire rack 15 minutes. Pierce cake multiple times using a metal or wooden skewer. [Writer's note: I use a fork.] 

Pour Rum Syrup evenly over cake. Let stand 45 minutes. Remove from pan; cool completely on a wire rack. Sprinkle evenly with powdered sugar before serving.

NOTE: *¼  cup dark rum may be substituted for the banana liqueur [Author’s note: I’ve never made this cake with the banana liqueur. Doesn’t sound good to me.]

Rum Sauce


10 tablespoon butter 
¾  cup sugar
¼  cup dark rum
¼  cup banana liqueur*


Melt butter in a 2-quart saucepan over medium-high heat; stir in remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, stirring often; reduce heat to medium, and cook, stirring often, 8 to 10 minutes or until slightly thickened. Remove from heat, and cool 10 minutes.

NOTE: *1/4 cup dark rum may be substituted for banana liqueur. [Author’s note: I’ve never made this cake with the banana liqueur. Doesn’t sound good to me.]

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Party On! Part 2

“For just one night let’s not be co-workers. Let's be co-people.”
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)

© 2013 Chris Terrell
Don't have too many of these at the holiday office party!
This is the time of year in which adults are thrown back against the current to their teenage years. The anxiety! The hormones! The embarrassing moments! The cliques! The guy who pukes on his shoes! I’m talking about the holiday office party, of course. Actually, a better term is “work party” or better yet, “work function,” because it can be more work than fun and "function" because it feels like one of those medical procedures that you must get every year once you’ve reached a certain age. There are many different types of office parties depending on where you work and in what kind of industry you work. (Lawyers can be pretty wild when let out of their pinstriped cages.) To better understand the myriad office parties/work functions (or any party for that matter), I decided to compare them to some of my favorite movies. And to keep this blog entry as closely related to food as possible, I’ve quoted a line from the movie that relates to food or eating. I’ve now decided to make this a fun movie game: find the foodie quote in movies not ostensibly related to food.

The Godfather (Part I or II)

“Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”

These are the office parties where your boss expects you to attend. In fact, it is probably required. When you get the invitation, you can hear your boss, sitting in the cold recesses of his top floor corner office, speaking coldly to his secretary: “I'll make him an offer he can't refuse.” These are typically invite-only parties, reserved for “upper management.” This fact creates envy amongst your co-workers who were not invited, thereby adding to the stress of the evening. If they only knew that you would prefer to trade in your invite on some kind of invite exchange and stay home with a six-pack of PBR, a pizza, and the latest episode of Game of Thrones.

The Graduate

Mr. Braddock: Ben, this whole idea sounds pretty half-baked.

Benjamin: Oh, it's not. It's completely baked.

This is the kind of party in which a boozy Mrs. Robinson wanna-be is in attendance. She spends the whole night trying to drag you into the back corner, whilst telling you how bored she is. This particular party guest, however, is in excellent shape for her age (expensive Pilates classes) and shows up one step ahead of the competition in terms of how many drinks she’s had. Her dress is expensive and low-cut and she always stands too close, with one hand glued to the small of your back.  Now don’t get me wrong, I thought Anne Bancroft was hot as hell in that movie and Benjamin Braddock was a fool at first, but it is a lot different when your office party’s version of Mrs. Robinson is the wife of an executive VP who wants you to marry their daughter. Of course, you spend the whole time worrying that you don’t drink too much and do something stupid. To borrow a line from the movie above: “women are more dangerous than shotguns.”

Another use for this movie reference would be the party with the really bad food; food that tastes like…shall we say….plastic? Oh come on, you remember:

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

Forest Gump

“My momma always said, ‘Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.’”

Remember Bubba Blue from Forrest Gump? He was the guy who talked about 2,465 different ways to prepare shrimp: “You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, saute it.” Well, this is the party where there’s always that one guest you try to avoid—maybe it’s Bob from accounting or Janice from the mail room—who thinks you are their best friend (or at least the only person too polite not to run away) and who proceeds to talk your ear off, as you try to figure out how to talk to that cute new girl in HR. They will tell you every boring detail of their otherwise dull life, as you try and pull away, reflexively drinking from a beer that you finished about twenty minutes ago. 


“Why do they insist on announcing dinner like a damned cavalry charge?”

This is the office party where we know how it's going to end, and we know that it is going to end badly.  Like Mr. Fleet in the crow’s nest who first sees the iceberg dead ahead, the sense of inevitable doom is palpable.  These office parties are more typical for smaller companies  where everyone knows each other; the hierarchy is rather flat; and the workforce is young. Think dot com start-up or even a restaurant. I’ve been to these parties. Eventually, someone gets way too drunk. Someone gets way too belligerent. And someone gets way too frisky. And like The Hangover, Parts 1-16, no one ever remembers a damn thing in the morning. As a result, no one gets fired!

Midnight in Paris

“[B]ut I will say that we both like Indian food, not all Indian food, but the pita bread, we both like pita bread, I guess it’s called naan.”

This is the office party you haven’t been to in a long time, or one in which old friends or a girlfriend plans to attend, or even an party at the company or firm where you worked for many years. As a result, you have very unrealistic, if not downright romantic, notions about what to expect at such a party. As Gil discovers, the idealized past wilts in the blazing noonday sun of the present. But like the dialogue in Midnight in Paris, the conversation amongst old friends is relaxed and nostalgic and, like an old sweater, it feels comfortable even if a bit tight around the middle.

Well, there you have it—the unofficial five categories of office parties explained through the movies. Think of this as a public service announcement, for if just one of my 14 readers can better survive a holiday office party, then my life is certainly complete. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Party On! Part 1

© 2013 Chris Terrell 
The holidays are all about parties. We are either going to them; avoiding them; or hosting them. Personally, I like parties during the holidays. The holidays are a great time of year for parties because everyone is generally in a good mood; work has started to slow down so you have the time to go; and if it is a work party, then you can actually tolerate the boss.

Last night was my second annual holiday party. I guess I’m now fully committed to this being an annual event, or at least I hope so. The first one was a bit rough, but better than some other inaugural voyages—Titanic anyone? 

Last year around September/October, I decided to host a Christmas party for the first time. I had always wanted to have a holiday party and, overcoming years of inertia, I took the plunge and sent out invitations. Once you’ve done that you cannot turn back! Then it hit me. Oh my God!, I’ve never done this before by myself!  (Not sure that the Super Bowl party in law school counts.) And like any self-respecting type A person, I put together a to-do list. This involved a daily checklist of things to do; items to buy; things to order; food to make. The last one was particularly taxing. I wanted to cook nearly everything myself. This required that I start cooking four days before the party, not to mention all the cleaning and polishing of wine glasses and the cleaning of my loft apartment the day of the party.  Needless to say, I was exhausted by the time the party started. Hell, I was slipping on my loafers and throwing back the last of my whisky when the doorbell rang with the first guest!

But of course, the party was great; my guests had a wonderful time and so did I....until the next day. In addition to the obligatory hangover, all that hard work had worn me down to the point that I came down with mono. Yes, the “kissing disease.” But it wasn’t because anything that happened that night. Hell, I was too busy refilling wine glasses! And let me tell you, getting mono in high school is bad enough, but as a middle-aged single guy…well, let’s not go there!

For my own physical and mental health, I was determined that this year would be different. Yes, the meticulous checklist was dusted off, and yes, there was plenty to do. This year, however, I decided to play it smart, or at least a little less dumb. First, I ordered wine glasses from a local rental company. Why in the hell should I wash and polish wine glasses on a work night? Second, instead of roasting a pork loin, along with the homemade rub and barbecue sauce, I ordered a HoneyBaked® ham. (I did make some special mustards to go with it.) Third, I hired a cleaning service to clean my loft the day before the party. Fourth, and here’s the real genius move: I took the day off from work before the party.

With all this free time, I went the extra mile and did a little more decorating and made another dish that I didn’t make last year. But more importantly, I was not as tired (sans mono helped), so as to focus more on my guests. Some old favorites from last year were back, like caramelized bacon and parmesan crisps (more on that later). After doing this for two years in a row, I’ve learned a few things. While I'm no expert, here are the Insouciant Chef’s ten rules for hosting a great holiday party:

1. Put your guest list together early and send out the invites just after Thanksgiving. The party circuit gets crowded real fast.

2. Plan your menu carefully. If you like to cook, then come up with some items that are tasty and easy to eat (i.e., with one hand); are easy to make; and can be made a few days in advance.

3. Play music. Nothing is better than a party with music. And nothing is better during the holidays than holiday music. Make sure the playlist alternates between slow/laid back and upbeat.

4. De-clutter. Get the unread magazines and knickknacks out of the way. Throw away the old pizza boxes and take the recycling out!

5. Clean, especially the bathroom. As for the bathroom, put out some nice guest towels, but have some of those disposal paper towels handy, for a couple of reasons. One, you really don’t want people using the nice guest towels. Two, there are plenty of folks who know they really shouldn’t use the guest towels, and so will walk out of the bathroom with wet hands and then have to shake someone’s hand. Awkward! Also, if you keep a scale in the bathroom, put it away. Nothing reminds someone about how much they are eating during the holidays than a scale.

6. Flowers. OK, I’m probably going to lose my man card on this one, but you really need to have flowers when you have a party, especially fragrant ones like paper whites or lillies. Put some in the bathroom. (It’s more gracious than placing a big can of Glade on the toilet tank cover.)

7. Don’t forget about your guests. Greet them at the door; welcome them and thank them for coming; take their coat; offer them a drink. And if something didn’t turn out the way you liked it, take a page from Julia Child and don’t apologize. And no matter how small your place is, always walk your guest to the door and thank them again for coming and wish them a safe trip home and a happy holiday.

8. No matter how tired you may be, let people stay as late as they wish. People really know when to leave anyway. Besides, some of the best conversations I’ve had with guests are when there only about three of us left; the wine is in fifth gear; and the clock is getting a bit late in the day.

9. Don’t let your guests clean. This can be a tough one, because there is always that one guest who, believe it or not, likes to clean and genuinely wants to be helpful.  The best advice I’ve ever heard is to tell this person something like:“I appreciate that you want to help, but I’ve not seen you in ages, and I’d rather spend the time talking with you. I can clean some other time.”

10. Have fun. This should be obvious, but hosting a party is stressful. It requires a lot of planning and hard work. And if you are like me, you want everything to be perfect. (To me the most stressful part is the first few minutes after “go time.” The party is suppose to start at 6:30pm and at 6:31pm there are no guests, and you are convinced no one is coming!) This goes back to Julia Child’s advice about not apologizing. Your guests are happy to go to a party for several hours without kids; without work; without anything but good cheer, food, and drink. Isn’t that what the holidays are all about?

OK, what about the recipes I mentioned earlier?  I did promise you recipes. Well, here are the two things that I’ve made for the 1st and the 2nd Annual Holiday Party that have been a hit, Ina Garten’s caramelized bacon and parmesan crisps.

Caramelized Bacon (Barefoot Contessa Foolproof)

Makes about 15-20 hors d’oeuvres 
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup pecans
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1/2 pound thick cut bacon

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In food processor, combine sugar, nuts, salt, pepper and cayenne until finely ground. Add maple syrup and pulse until moistened.
Ina suggests using a wire baking rack on top of a sheet pan lined with foil, but I used a slotted broiler pan lined with foil with good results. Whatever you use, be sure the fat has a place to drip to prevent sogginess. Cut bacon in half and spread evenly with sugar mixture. Bake 25 to 30 minutes and let cool to room temperature before serving.

Parmesan Crisps (Barefoot Contessa Foolproof)

Makes 15 Crisps


1 (4 oz.) piece of Parmesan Reggiano cheese (without the rind)
1 Tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme leaves
1/2 kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 sheet pans with parchment paper.

Grate the parmesan cheese, using the large grating side of a box grater, as a you might use to grate carrots. Combine the Parmesan, flour, thyme, salt, pepper in a bowl and mix well. 

With a measuring spoon, spoon level tablespoons of the mixture onto the prepared sheet pans, spreading each round into a 3-inch disk. Toss the mixture each time and scoop from the bottom of the bowl to be sure you get some flour in each spoonful. Bake in the middle of the oven for 8 to 10 minutes, until golden brown. 

Cool on the pans for 5 minutes, loosen with a metal spatula, then cool completely on a baking rack. Serve at room temperature. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

"Your Table Is Ready" Part I

© 2013 Chris Terrell
Restaurants have been around for a long time. (Some educated folks believe they arose in China during the T’ang Dynasty, 618-907 AD.) Restaurants cover the spectrum: from whole-in-the-wall burger joints to gastronomic versions of Mt. Olympus. Why do we go to restaurants? Again, the reasons are as varied as there are restaurants. Perhaps it is to celebrate a promotion at work; a birthday; an anniversary; closing of a business deal: or just plain laziness—you just can’t pull it together to make meatloaf for the kids. Which restaurant we choose varies as well. A restaurant like Per Se or Le Bernadin would be great for a special occasion, but you would not want to eat there every day even if you could afford it. Time and place matter too. Sometimes the best meal is a conch fritter on the beach in Key West, with a special companion watching the sun set over the Gulf. 

For you see, eating is a social endeavor. And that may be the primary reason we go to restaurants. One of my kids is not much of a foodie, a somewhat distressing circumstance considering I am one who likes to eat and cook and write about eating and cooking. He is simply not very adventuresome and very picky. 

What is interesting, however, is that he loves—simply loves— going out to restaurants. And one day, it finally dawned on me: he likes the excitement; the people bustling about; the music playing; and the menu with all its choices (even if he’ll order the chicken fingers for the 145th time). But he’s also on to something. Eating, and eating in restaurants, is a fundamentally social affair for one of our planet’s most social of animals. And for this reason no one really likes to dine alone. (Though there are times I really kind of enjoy it.)

Yet in our age of celebrity chefs, with cooking as sport and dining that is increasingly didactic, a lot of people may be losing sight of why we eat out. It seems like a lot of people have this sense that they must go to the latest “it” restaurant by the latest “it” chef. I admit that I’ve been guilty of this too. In going back to the question I asked above, maybe I should have asked, “how do we pick the restaurants we do?” I think it depends on the circumstances; why are we going out to eat in the first place?; and, more importantly, who do we want to share a meal with?  I really got to thinking about this recently in planning a trip to New York at the first of the year.

I love New York. It is one of my favorite cities in the world (Paris being the other one). When I go to New York, there are really only three things on the itinerary: museums, shows, and restaurants. The first two are pretty easy. The last one is hard as hell for a lot of reasons. The most obvious being that New York has just shy of a gazillion restaurants. The other is that getting a good table, at a good restaurant, at a good time on a Saturday night is about as easy as getting a private audience with the Pope.

And when it comes to trips, and New York trips in particular, I approach with them Teutonic zeal. Every detail is considered. I even plan for spontaneity! And so with a trip to New York, in which going out to dinner will be center stage, I employ what I call the “method” when picking restaurants. Of course, I start with asking friends and family for recommendations, but usually that source gets tapped out pretty quickly. After that, I have several factors I employ when picking a restaurant in New York. Here they are:

1. The Menu. This is the first thing I look at. I always read the menu of a restaurant before I visit. One thing I like to see is a menu that is unified. I don’t want something that looks like Wikipedia. Have you seen the menu at your neighborhood Cheesecake Factory?! That thing is 15 pages long and has every thing from spaghetti to peanut-bourbon-glazed blackened flank steak! (And what the hell is that anyway?!)

2. Location. Where is the restaurant? If I’m staying in Midtown, which is typically where the best hotels are located, I may get tired of eating in the same Midtown restaurants. Maybe I’m feeling adventuresome, so I’ll go to Korea Town or the Village. Maybe I’m feeling trendy and hip, so I’ll hit Brooklyn or the Lower East Side. Or, if I’m going to the theater district, then obviously I want a restaurant in the Theater District.

3. Cuisine. French bistro? Italian? Molecular Gastronomy? Gastropub? Seafood? Hot dog stand? Depends on my mood....and the time of day.

4. Price Point. For me, this too has a lot to do with my mood, because reasonably priced food and “laid back” are directly proportional to each other. I mean really? Who wants to kick back and wear jeans and a t-shirt and then pay $50 for a hamburger? (Even in New York!)

5. Atmosphere. I actually pay attention to this, believe it or not. Is the restaurant formal or kitschy? Is is sleek and modern or rustic? Again, goes back to mood.

6. The Chef. Ok, I know this contradicts what I said above, but I do pay attention to who the chef is....or isn’t. 

7. Reviews. I do look at reviews, even online ones from Urban Spoon or Yelp. Believe it or not, there is wisdom in crowds. When it comes to New York restaurants, The New York Times is hard to beat.

So, based on these factors, what New York restaurants did I pick and why? Patience dear reader. I will tell you when I get back, and I’ll tell you then if they held up to my expectations. In the meantime, I will leave you with a great quote about chefs and restaurants:

There is really no such thing as an original recipe…But cooks must feed their egos as well as their customers.” M.F.K. Fisher to Julia Child, October 4, 1968.

Tune in next month…

Monday, December 2, 2013

Going South for Thanksgiving

Last Thursday, like millions of my fellow Americans, I sat down and gorged myself on Thanksgiving dinner. And while we had the traditional turkey, our menu, because we live in the South, likely varied from that of our Northern cousins. The biggest difference being the “mess” of collard greens we ate.

Collard greens are about as Southern as it gets, though not without some controversy. They are either loved or loathed, even amongst Southerners.  Alex Albright of East Carolina University stated that “Southern childhood memories often focus on collard greens; either the pleasant, loving connection of grandma’s iron pot and steaming potlikker, or the traumatizing effects engendered by the first whiff of the unmistakable odor for which greens are famous.” 

I must admit that I didn’t really like collards much when I was a kid because of the smell and because they tasted too much like spinach (which I now love). Speaking of the smell, I've read that a whole pecan placed in the pot of cooking collards eliminates their pungent odor.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I discovered I liked them. To give you an idea how prevalent collards are in the South, they were served in my third grade school cafeteria in Suffolk, Virginia, and even at the hospital in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where my mother had cancer surgery. (And the collards at that hospital were really good! Only in the South!)

And don’t forget about the potlikker! Potlikker is the liquid leftover when the collards are done. For many in the South, it is the nectar of the gods and is best sopped up with corn bread. Joseph P. Caldwell, writing in the Charlotte Observer in 1907, stated that “The North Carolinian who is not familiar with potlikker has suffered in his early education and needs to go back and begin it over again.” And Richard Wright once wrote: “I lived on what I did not eat. Perhaps the sunshine, the fresh air and the pot liquor from greens kept me going.”

And of course, no self-respecting Southerner would enter the new year without collard greens, which are representative of prosperity. They are best enjoyed with black-eyed peas. 

Here’s how I make collards. Get a big ‘o mess of them (i.e., enough to feed a bunch of friends and family), and cut off the stems and cut the leaves into long strips. Place the collards in a big pot of water and bring to a boil. Once the water has boiled, pour off the water and refill the pot with fresh water. (This will take away some of the bitterness.) For greens that are particularly tough (winter greens), you may want to do this twice. For the second boiling, put some salt and pepper in the water, along with a big ham hock or salted pork if you can’t get a ham hock at your butcher. And if don't have a ham hock or salted pork, then go with bacon. In any event, get some dang animal fat in there! Some folks will put vinegar in the water while the greens cook, or you can add some when served. (I like Trappey’s Pepper Vinegar.) You need to let the greens cook at a low simmer for a least two or three hours. Eat and enjoy with friends and family.