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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, February 25, 2014

You Say “Tow MAH Toh” I Say “Tow MAY Toh"

For dinner the other night I roasted tomatoes, and it got me thinking about the Academy Awards of all things! (I know this seems odd, but it’s how my brain works—bear with me here.) In particular, I realized that the tomato resembles a Hollywood movie star.  Like those stars and starlets gliding across the red carpet, everyone goes gaga over the tomato. The tomato is the Scarlet Johansson or the Keira Knightley of the food world—the smooth shiny, bright skin; the perfect balance of sweetness and acidity; the versatility. And like a beautiful movie star who must “go ugly” to win an Oscar (think Charlize Theron in Monster), tomatoes now have the “ugly” heirloom in order to be taken seriously by the urban foodie hipster.

But how did the tomato become such a star? To push this analogy to its limits, the tomato, like Norma Jean and many other movies stars, comes from humble roots. (No pun intended!)

The tomato is originally from present-day Peru, once part of the Inca Empire. After the Spanish conquered the Incas, the tomato made its way to Spain in the 16th century, and from there to Italy, France, and even England. (Though for anyone who has tasted traditional English “food,” it is clear that the tomato was wasted on the English.)

Today we cannot imagine food without the tomato. In France, there would be no ratatouille; in America, no pizza; in Italy, no spaghetti.  Until the 18th century, however, the tomato was thought to be poisonous and remained ornamental, going by such lyrical phrases as “Peruvian Apple,”“Acacia Apple,” or the “Love Apple” in France. Thomas Jefferson apparently stood on the steps of Monticello and ate a tomato publicly to prove that it was not poisonous.

While the tomato today is no longer considered poisonous, it is not without controversy.  The tomato has become the boîte noire of modern food production; a tempestuous melange of food, history, geography, and even politics. 
And the epicenter of this controversy resides in California. (Ironic, huh?!) 

As Evan D.G. Faser & Andre Rimas point out in their 2010 book, Empires of Food (2010), “[m]odern agriculture reached its apogee in California.” More specifically, they note that “[i]n the annals of human agriculture, rarely has any fruit proved as profitable as the California tomato.” Point of fact: tomato processing is now the second-largest processed food business in North America after frozen potatoes.

Of course this revolution in food production has fed a lot of Americans, who spend less on their food than just about any people on the planet. And of course, every revolution has its counter-revolution. Enter the “slow food movement,” the “locavore movement;” the “heirloom tomato” movement. 

And while I don’t fault all these movements—they have their merits—they may be based on a false premise. Food has never, truly been “local” or truly “natural.” Even the most non-GMO wheat, corn, barley, or carrots ever grown are all derived from  variants genetically modified over many generations in the ancient world. (Granted, we can do it a lot faster now and maybe faster than our bodies can adapt to the changes.) And food and flavors, like people, have always migrated from place to place. As Faser & Rimas state: “[a]part from inside a patch or two of Amazonian bush or a forgotten New Guinean gully, there’s no such thing as a purely regional cuisine. Promiscuity in foodstuffs is part of human nature.” 

So, when food gets political, as it is wont to do these days, don’t forget that there never was a “golden age” where we were in harmony with food production. Of course, this is not to say we shouldn’t be mindful of the future—just don’t forget about the past. And don’t forget that “ugly” ain’t always better.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Father of the Modern Restaurant

"La bonne cuisine est la base du véritable bonheur.” [Good food is the foundation of genuine happiness.”]

This past Friday, as we all know, was Valentine's Day. Next to flowers and heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, dining at a nice restaurant is perhaps the most popular Valentine's Day tradition. But I wonder how many of those love birds knew that they owed their dining experience to Auguste Escoffier, perhaps one of the greatest of French chefs.  

France awarded Escoffier the Legion of Honor
in 1920, the first for a chef.
Escoffier’s contribution to the modern restaurant trade began as a field cook during the Franco-Prussian War, where his emerging skills were tested by learning to improvise with scanty rations and horse meat. But his career took flight when he collaborated with the hotelier César Ritz at the Savoy Hotel in London. It was Escoffier who made the Savoy world-famous. 

Escoffier became obsessed with kitchen reform. Perhaps because of his military experience, he created the hierarchal brigade de cuisine that is still used today in most restaurants. Another innovation attributable to Escoffier and that almost every restaurant patron experiences even today, is the printed menu with the courses listed sequentially. He was also the first to outfit waiters in ties and aprons. And perhaps to the disdain of Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsey, Escoffier banned shouting and alcohol in the kitchen. Escoffier also  published Le Guide Culinaire, a book still used in culinary schools throughout the world. Thus, it is safe to say that Escoffier made cooking a profession.

Escoffier may even have been a nascent feminist! He enticed English women to eat in a restaurant, at a time when respectable women simply refused to dine in public. (There’s a scene in a recent episode of “Downton Abbey” that alludes to this.) He is known to have named numerous dishes after women (e.g. Peach Melba). Ever the charmer, Escoffier was once quoted in the New York Times as saying that “[n]othing adds so much zest to a good dinner as to have a pretty woman sitting opposite you.” Charm indeed!

Escoffier died at the ripe old age of 88 on February 12, 1935, only a few weeks after his wife. Surprisingly, Escoffier's wife cooked all his meals when he was home. Of his wife, Escoffier said that “Mme. Escoffier cooks far better than I do.” 

So for all you romantics who enjoyed a Valentine’s Day meal with impeccable service, beautiful printed menus, and enticing dishes with exotic names, you have Escoffier to thank.  Bon appetit!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Thirty-Six Hours in New Orleans

“New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin.”  ― Mark Twain

© 2014 Chris Terrell
That New Orleans is a major gastronomic destination can hardly be disputed. Within its confines, one will find food both low-brow and high-brow, and everything in between. Everything from po-boys and red beans and rice to high-end French. What may be less evident is how New Orleans became the center of creole cuisine that we know today.

It is a port city that, over many, many years, welcomed an immense variety of humanity: French, Africans, Spanish, Portuguese, and Asians. As a port city, somewhat isolated from the rest of the United States, it cultivated a certain openness and joie de vivre that fostered culinary experimentation. After all, the unofficial motto for New Orleans is "
Laissez les bons temps rouler"—“let the good times roll!”

I love New Orleans. I love its insouciance; its practiced shabbiness. 

A few weeks ago, I had  the opportunity to share my love of New Orleans with my two boys. This was their first trip to the Big Easy. We left around 2:00PM on a bright, clear, somewhat warm Friday afternoon. They were out of school because of the recent snowstorm that had hit Birmingham earlier in the week. It is not a bad drive from Birmingham to New Orleans. A straight shot on interstate the whole way.

We would stay at a condo in the Warehouse District with my dad and his significant-other, Veronica. The kids were excited for different reasons. My son Hamp, who has a strong interest in anything martial, was looking forward to the WWII Museum. My son Forrest, who has a strong interest in anything that can be eaten, was looking forward to the restaurants.

By the time we settled in and I had parked the car, it was close to 8:00PM. We were all pretty hungry. Though I was unfamiliar with the Warehouse District, there was no shortage of places to eat. It was late, and we were not necessarily looking for fine dining. We ended up at Lucy’s Retired Surfer Bar on the corner of Girod and Tchoupitoulas. This worked out well. Hamp and I both got hamburgers, which were quite good. Forrest got the special: catfish over rice, which was also quite good.

The next morning was another clear, beautiful day. After I had a quick run along Old Man River, we headed off to the WWII Museum. Breakfast that morning was a surprise. We came across the Crescent City Farmers Market at the corner of Girod and Magazine. It is open every Saturday from 8:00AM to Noon. I grabbed a croissant and some chicory coffee. Forrest grabbed a muffin the size of his head. Fully fueled, we headed off to the museum

After the museum, it was pushing noon. We were all hungry. One thing that Hamp (the non-foodie son) and I share is a love—some would say, a passion—for pizza. For me, pizza and beer is one of the perfect food-drink combinations. But beer, pizza, and Saturday afternoon is the perfect food-drink-time combination. Now the trick was to find a pizza place without knowing where to go. I’m a big fan of Urbanspoon. I pulled out my iPhone and fired up my Urbanspoon app and found a place that looked promising: Dolce Vita on St. Charles. It had a 100% rating. 

We were not disappointed. This was some of the best pizza I’ve had outside of NYC! Believe it or not, the chef and owner, Bogdan Mocanu, is not Italian, but Romanian! He grew up cooking with a wood-fired oven and was trained in John Besh’s restaurant, Domenica, so he knows what he’s doing. The story of how he ended up in New Orleans is interesting. He had a food truck in Baton Rouge, but it got totaled by a drunk driver. Only in Louisiana! Bad for him, but good for us. 

By this point, my enthusiasm and love of walking and exploring new places had taken its toll on my little tour group. My dad, Veronica, and the kids were tuckered out and ready to nap. I dropped them off at the condo, and after a quick 15-minute power nap myself, I grabbed my camera to take some photographs in the French Quarter—a “target-rich environment” for any photographer. 

© 2014 Chris Terrell
© 2014 Chris Terrell
That night we had 8:30PM dinner reservations at Cochon, a restaurant that I had been trying to get into for the last three trips to New Orleans. Because I had some time, and happy hour had just arrived (isn’t it always happy hour in New Orleans?!), I decided to meet up with two dear friends who live in New Orleans: Victor and Jennifer. Victor is an amazing jazz pianist who teaches at the University of New Orleans and Jennifer owns a children’s clothing store in the Garden District on Magazine. 

We conspired to ditch our kids and meet for drinks at Delmonico on St. Charles. Delmonico is one of Emeril Lagasse’s restaurants. Now, I don’t know about the food, as I’ve not eaten there (Victor and Jennifer agree that its good), but if the food and service is anything like the bar, then “bam!” I’ve got to try it. I had a Sazarac—of course!—and a rum punch (emphasize the word “punch”). Both drinks were perfect. And the service! Usually, I time my second drink so that there is a little bit left in the first one, so as to ensure no lag time. No need!  I had barely taken another sip after I placed my rum punch order and “bam!” there was my drink. Gotta go back to this place!

© 2014 Chris Terrell
As I mentioned, dinner that night was at Cochon. “Cochon” is French for “pig.” An appropriate name, for this place is all about  pork! And speaking of “pig,” we pigged out! 

Here’s what we had: 
  • Wood-fired oysters with chili garlic butter 
  • Shrimp & tasso ham with charred greens & field peas 
  • Fried livers with pepper jelly & toast 
  • Smoked pork ribs with watermelon pickle 
  • Rabbit & dumplings 
  • Oven-roasted gulf fish “fisherman’s style 
  • Oyster & sandwich 
  • Macaroni & cheese casserole 
 And for dessert we had:
  • Farmers cheese and Meyer lemon pie 
  • Chocolate peanut butter pie with candied spicy peanuts 

After we stuffed the last bite into our mouths and paid the bill, we then made the long oscitant walk back to our condo, groaning with delight at the awesome meal we had just had. 

We slept in late the next morning and then headed off to Cafe du Monde for beignets and cafe au lait. But before heading back to Birmingham, I gave in and took my kids for a stroll down Bourbon Street. Okay, so I may not win parent of the year, but at least it was a Sunday afternoon. Bourbon Street was relatively calm. After picking up some king cakes at Rouses on Royal street, we had to hit the road and head back to Birmingham.

© 2014 Chris Terrell
A few days later, I got to thinking about New Orleans. I recalled that in law school I made jambalaya all the time. It is a great dish—cheap, simple, and sustaining. Having just been to New Orleans, I decided I would make it again. When I made jambalaya back then, I relied heavily on The Joy of Cooking, my one and only cookbook. Consequently, I cracked open the latest edition and looked up the recipe for jambalaya. 

I was a bit  underwhelmed. 

It seemed like such a good recipe eighteen years ago, but not now. It lacked flavor. No worries. I took the basic recipe and improved upon it.  Maybe I've changed. Maybe I'm a better cook. Anyway, here's my version:

The Insouciant Chef’s Jambalaya


3 tablespoons butter
16 oz. andouille sausage 
1/2 cup red wine
1 medium chopped yellow onion
3 garlic cloves minced
1 medium green bell pepper, cored, seeded, and diced
1/2 cup diced celery
1 cup extra long-grain rice
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 cups warm chicken stock
14 1/2 oz. can of whole tomatoes with juices
1 tablespoon of dried thyme 
1 tablespoon of dried oregano
2 tablespoons of paprika
1 tablespoon of cayenne pepper
salt and pepper to taste


In a dutch oven, melt the butter and add the sausage and brown. When the sausage has browned, pour in red wine and de-glaze the pan, then add the onion, green pepper, celery, and garlic and simmer over low heat for about 2 minutes. Then add rice and tomato paste and stir to coat.

Add chicken stock and tomatoes (crushing tomatoes by hand).

Add bay leaf and other spices and simmer for about 45 minutes to one hour until thickened and rice is soft.

Salt and pepper to taste. (Of course, you can adjust the spices as you wish depending on how spicy you like your jambalaya.)

Bon appétit!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Snow Day!

If you were any where near a television last week, then you saw the coverage of Snowmageddon 2014 here in Birmingham, Alabama. Yeah, I know you Yankees get a laugh watching us Southerners have a collective freak-out over two or three inches of snow. Well, it doesn’t take much; we don’t keep a lot of snow-removal equipment sitting down because snow here is about as rare as a non-SEC team winning the national championship in college football. Maybe we should have taken that win by FSU as a premonition? And can we talk about freak-out? I’ve seen my Yankee friends pass out from the 90+ degree heat/90% humidity we get down here in August.

©  Chris Terrell 2014
Doesn't look like a dusting to me!
After my car got stuck for the third and final time, I locked it up and walked about 3 1/2 miles to my apartment in downtown Birmingham. (And yes, the roads did look like something out of The Walking Dead.) After warming up and changing out of my work clothes, I met up with some buddies to walk around and enjoy the snow day (the office would certainly be closed the next day). And because there’s not much else to do on a snow day, we reconnoitered the area to find a bar that was open. 

©  Chris Terrell 2014
The Long Walk Home
It didn’t look good at first. Paramount: no; Carrigan’s: no; The Collins: no; Pale Eddies: no; Urban Standard (quasi-bar): no. Our last chance was Rogue Tavern. Yes, it was open!  Needless to say, being the only bar open in downtown Birmingham during Snowmageddon 2014, it was packed! 

Remember how excited we were as kids when we got a snow day? But have you seen what happens to a bunch of respectable adults snowbound in a bar!?  

                                                                                  © 2014 Chris Terrell
Because so many people were stranded downtown, Rogue was an eclectic mix of urban hipsters, legal secretaries, overworked lawyers, and bankers. The drinks sitting on everyone’s tables reflected this diversity. In addition to the typical craft brews, there were plenty of chardonnays and scotches. As I said, for a bar, the food at Rogue isn’t too bad, and they ran out quickly. I think my friend Jim got the last hamburger in Birmingham that Tuesday night. 

Not surprisingly, I slept in a bit late on Day Two of Snowmageddon 2014. Because getting to the store was not an option, and there was nothing much to do, at least until the next happy hour, I decided it was time to clear out the fridge and do some cooking. 

In the freezer, I found some ham and black-eyed peas. This formed the basis for a ham and field pea soup. Though, I didn’t have any vegetable stock, I took some carrots, celery, and onions and tied them up in some cheese cloth and placed them in the water. Something like a giant bouquet garni. Bingo! Vegetable stock! And in a couple of hours, with a bit of cayenne pepper and ancho chili powder, I had soup!

Next, I took some eggs, plain yogurt, and lemons I found in the fridge and made a lemon yogurt cake from an Ina Garten recipe. And, with a few lemons leftover, I made lemon-pepper chicken paillard from a Bobby Flay recipe. A quick vinaigrette and some green leaf lettuce and “voila!” I had dinner. After dinner and a good movie, it was off to The Collins (now open) because the office would be closed the next day too! 

You gotta love snow days!