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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!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

When In Doubt, Fry It!

A good friend of mine once said that he wouldn’t eat anything unless it could be placed between two pieces of bread or fried. He couldn’t be closer to the truth. In the South, folks love fried food. Heck, we’ll fry just about anything that moves or grows in the ground: fried chicken, fried catfish, fried okra, fried green tomatoes, and even fried pickles. 

© 2014 Chris Terrell
A few months back, I got a deep fryer for my birthday. And life being what it is, I didn’t get the chance to use it until recently. And then the dilemma. What should I fry first? I thought about french fries, which I’ve made before, but I wanted something different. Fried chicken? Didn’t want to wait for the chicken to marinate over night in buttermilk. 


Then it hit me in the middle of the produce section at the local Piggly Wiggly. I grabbed the arm of a young kid mechanically stacking tomatoes into a pyramid: “Hey, do you have any okra!” Once he recovered from my sudden burst of enthusiasm, he pointed rather vaguely to where I saw a lonely package of okra nestled between some yellow squash and zucchini.

Like a lot of things in the green food genus (a/k/a vegetables), I wasn’t a big fan of okra growing up. Maybe it was the way my mom prepared it. I don’t think she ever fried it, and if she had, I would have gobbled it up. Because let’s be frank, the best way to prepare this quirky little veggie is to fry it. 

But before I give away my secret for making okra, let’s ponder the question: what the heck is okra? Like a lot of foods considered “Southern,” okra came to this country on the backs of African slaves. (The past is ever present even in Southern foodways. As Faulkner noted, “[t]he past is never dead. it’s not even past.”) 

File Photo: USDA
The  West African word ukru ma became the English word “okra.” And in Bantu, the language in Southern Africa, the word for okra is ngombo, which the word “gumbo” comes from. Gumbo and okra have been used interchangeably. And gumbo wouldn’t be gumbo without okra.

So how do I make fried okra? Let me start by pointing out that I’m not a big fan of okra fried in heavy batter, the kind one would find in most meat-and-threes. (If you don’t know what a meat-and-three is, then check this website out for a good definition and directory of where to find them in the South: Directory of Meat-and-Threes)

© 2014 Chris Terrell
Cut the okra crosswise and place it in a Ziploc bag with cornmeal, salt, pepper, and some cayenne pepper, and shake it like a wet dog. Place it in the fryer for about five minutes at 355 degrees until the okra turns a nice dark green and the cornmeal is a golden brown, and what you end up with is something that disappears like popcorn.

After the last piece of fried okra, my mind began to think of what I should fry next. It would have to be fried chicken because I’ve never made fried chicken in a deep fryer. I grew up on fried chicken made in a cast iron skillet on the stove with a moderate amount of oil. In fact, this is how a lot of Southerners made fried chicken before the invention of commercial and later home deep fryers.

All this talk about fried food perhaps begs the question. Why do Southerners like fried food? Who knows? Why do the French like cheese? Why do the Germans like sausage? Why do the Italians like pasta?  Perhaps we like the foods we like because that’s what we know and what we grew up with. 

It’s part of our history, good or bad. Just like okra.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Play Ball!

© 2014 Chris Terrell
Spring has sprung and summer is just around the corner. And here in Alabama—with highs recently in the mid 80s—summer has certainly arrived. And along with the return of warmer weather comes the start of baseball season. 

This past Saturday night, I watched the Birmingham Barons take on the Pensacola Blue Wahoos. (The Barons won 2-1 in a stunner in the bottom of the 9th.) The Barons play at Regions Field, a new downtown ballpark with a great view of the city. The night was perfect for a late spring ball game. The sky was clear—which was nice considering it had been overcast and rainy earlier in the day—with the temperature in the low 70s and a slight, cool breeze. 

Baseball’s relaxed, deliberate pace is a nice respite in today’s always-on world. It never demands your attention to the same extent as football or basketball. This is what makes baseball the most sociable of spectator sports. You can actually sit down, relax and have a real conversation with a real human being, yet never miss the essence of the game. 

Baseball also may be the most food-friendly sport. Baseball’s pace makes it easy to eat and drink—two other great social endeavors.

© 2014 Chris Terrell
So what food goes well with baseball? (We all know what drink goes well with baseball: beer! Just like there’s no crying in baseball, there ain’t no white zinfandel either!) I would argue that the hot dog is the quintessential baseball food. Watching a baseball game without a hot dog and an ice cold beer just wouldn’t be baseball. Another great baseball food, and perhaps the simplest, are roasted peanuts. And of course, one cannot forget about Cracker Jack.

Over the years, other food items have been added to the baseball culinary firmament, especially ones that reflect the local cuisine. For example, here at Regions field, you can get the Magic City Dog (barbecue sausage with coleslaw, sauce, and spicy mustard). At AT&T Park, where the Giants play, they have wine carts that sell California wine and Ghirardelli  chocolate. At Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles, you can find crab cakes and crab soup. During a Marlins home game in Miami you can grab a Cuban sandwich. And finally, if you are going to watch the Colorado Rockies play, you can munch on some fried Rocky Mountain oysters (a/k/a bull testicles).

The list goes on and on. These days, major league ballparks seem to be in some kind of gastronomic arms race—each trying to out do the other in the variety and “gourmet-ness” of the dishes offered. But for me, nothing beats a simple hot dog on a warm spring night, peanut shells piling up at your feet, and the crack of a baseball bat. 

Ground zero of the Republic my friend.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Medium Rare

“If God did not intend for us to eat animals, then why did he make them out of meat?”

—John Cleese

© 2014 Chris Terrell
OK, spoiler alert: this blog post is probably going to irrritate my readers who are either vegans or vegetarians (you three know who you are!). I’m sorry—I can’t help myself. Warm weather tarried, and I’m anxious to get going with the grill. I will atone later with a blog about my favorite vegetables; but for now, let’s talk steak!

When I hear the word "steak," I recall memories of Saturday nights in the summer when my dad would fire up the charcoal grill, and my mom would make a wedge salad with her homemade dressing of mayonnaise and ketchup. I don’t remember the rest of it because I never got the recipe before it was lost. 

Steak has always been a dish reserved for special occasions. This holds true for restaurants that specialize in steak, whether you call them “chophouses,” “steakhouses,” or something else.

Steakhouses are, and probably will remain, decidedly male-oriented. Now I’m probably going to alienate my female reader base (you two know who you are!), but there’s just something about grilled meat and the Y chromosome that go together. Guys can go to a steakhouse or fire up the grill and talk sports, commiserate about the opposite sex, drink copious amounts of booze, and eat lots of steak. Besides, when us guys are suppose to be sensitive, empathetic, and cooperative, while at the same time drinking kale smoothies, going to a steakhouse is one of the few acts of rebellion we have left.

A few paragraphs back, I alluded to the nostalgic moment triggered by the smell of grilled meat. Just writing about steak and steakhouses reminded me—in a very Proustian way—of a memorable steak dinner I had many years ago in Atlanta with some high school buddies. It was at a steakhouse called The Cabin, located on Buford Highway. It is no longer there, but that night I had one of the best steaks I’ve ever had. Plus, martinis, wine, and cigars after dinner. And this was just the start of the night!

But a night out at a fancy steakhouse is not necessary to enjoy a good steak. Perhaps that explains its popularity. In this country, we can easily find a good cut of beef at the local supermarket; it’s not too hard to cook; and we can tap into that primal fear and awe of fire. 

Speaking of primal, steak for us guys has been helpful in a lot of ways. In the movie Dead Poets Society the teacher, played by Robin Williams, asks the all-boys class why men write poetry? He responds, “to woo women!” The same can be said for a steak (as long as your girlfriend is not a vegan or vegetarian—but there are ways around that): men also cook steak to “woo” women!

OK guys, here are some tips and recipes to get ready for that steak dinner this Saturday. Turn the iPhone off, get a baby sitter if necessary, and fire up the grill!

© 2014 Chris Terrell
Steak with bĂ©arnaise sauce. 
There’s no such thing as the perfect cut. Go with what you like. I prefer New York strip, which has a great flavor and is easy to grill. A lot of people like the fillet, which has a wonderful texture, but it really needs a marinade or sauce like bĂ©arnaise because it really doesn’t have a strong flavor profile. And if you get something bone-in, such as a Porterhouse or T-bone, it will take longer to cook. 

In this day and age, we are scared to distraction about salt. Salt is what makes a steak a steak. Generously salt and pepper your steak and keep in the fridge for a couple of hours before putting it on the grill. (There is a different rule if you are cooking in a pan indoors—see below.)

How do you know that it’s done? The answer? You won’t, or least not to the certainty that us risk-averse Americans would like. It really takes practice. The best rule is to err on the side of undercooking. If one of your kids or your lady friend complains that it’s too raw, you can always cook it some more. Physics, on the other hand, will prevent you from “un-cooking” it if it comes out like a hockey puck. I rely on the “touch test.”  Here’s a good video of what I’m talking about: Testing Steak by Touch

Let the meat rest. This is very important for two reasons. First, it allows you to grab another beer. Second, it allows the steak to redistribute its juices. If you were to cut into the steak immediately after taking it off the grill, all those juices would run out and you would end with a dry piece of shoe leather. Patience, my Padawan. The steak should rest about 10-12 minutes. Again, this allows time for you to set the table and open up another bottle of that Bordeaux you’ve been saving.

Heretofore, I’ve been talking about grilling steak. This assumes that you all have access to big-ass grills; Big Green Eggs; etc. Well, there are ways to make a great steak that doesn’t require a grill, especially for those folks like me who live in a downtown loft. (This is also for that one reader who lives in New York.) This is a method of cooking steak that is highly popular in Parisian bistros. I must say that even if you have an outdoor grill, you should give this a try.

Bavette Steak

Start with your favorite cut of meat, though the beauty of this recipe is that you can use “lesser” cuts of meat such as skirt or flank steak. Bavette is what the French call flank steak.

Thinly slice two shallots and a tablespoon of thyme or rosemary; set aside.

Let the steak sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes to an hour. Liberally season with kosher salt and freshly crushed black pepper.

Bring out grandma’s big ol’ cast iron skillet; put it on high heat; and drizzle some canola oil into the pan. When it just barley starts to smoke, place the steak in the pan. 

After a few minutes when there is a good sear (the meat should “give” easily), flip it over and—here’s where it gets interesting—place a 1/2 stick of butter on top of the steak. As the butter melts, you want to baste the steak. (To do this, tilt the pan slightly and with a metal spoon, poor the melted butter on the steak in circular motions at a rapid pace. You want to cook the steak with the hot, melted butter.)

After you have done this for about five minutes, flip the steak back to the original side for about two minutes and then set aside to rest. (You will probably need a break too!)

While the steak rests, pour about 1/2 cup of good red wine in the pan and deglaze it. Then place the shallots and cook for about two or three minutes or until soft. Turn the heat down to medium and add the thyme or rosemary and mix it all together. Keep it warm while the steak rests. Pour the sauce over the steaks. Voila!

OK, I know this all sounds incredibly fattening—steak and butter. A regular American Heart Association nightmare! But a recent Wall Street Journal article, titled “The Questionable Link Between Saturated Fat and Heart Disease,” really got my attention. The article went on to say that the conventional wisdom that eating too much saturated fat causes heart disease may not be that wise and the link is quite tenuous. Of course, saturated fat = animal fat = a nice big juicy steak.

Could steak be ready for a comeback? I hope so!  But then again, it never went away completely.