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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, August 24, 2014

Where'd You Go Joe?!

© 2014 Chris Terrell
In my last post, I wrote about school cafeteria lunches from my childhood. One obvious dish I failed to mention was the sloppy Joe! I loved sloppy Joes growing up. We got them at least once a week at school (Friday?). And my mom would make them too. She used a can mix called Manwich. I can still recall their ad slogan: “A sandwich is a sandwich, but a Manwich is a meal.” And yes it was, albeit a messy one, and that was part of its charm—the one time a kid was allowed to be messy at dinner.

The sloppy Joe was born in 1930—the height of the Great Depression—in a diner in Sioux City, Iowa. It was named after the cook, a guy named “Joe.” Other than that, his true identity is long-forgotten. 

And then I got to thinking. Does anyone eat sloppy Joes anymore, especially kids? I’m not so sure. Maybe sloppy Joes have an image problem—perceived as being unhealthy and overly processed, anathema to our locally scored, organic food zeitgeist. I suspect that Alice Waters would rather choke on an organic rutabaga than eat a sloppy Joe. 

Of course, this is unfair. A sloppy Joe sandwich is nothing more than ground beef, onion, green pepper, tomatoes, and seasoning. As such, it is really no more “unhealthy” than a hamburger, which, as far as I know, is doing quite well in America. Think of the sloppy Joe as a deconstructed hamburger. 

I asked my kids if they had ever had a sloppy Joe, and they said “yes.” I was surprised because I was pretty sure I had never made them one. They said it was during a trip to the lake and a friend’s mom had made one. I asked, “from a can?” “Yes,” they replied. Feeling somewhat guilty that I had never made them a sloppy Joe sandwich, I decided then and there that for dinner that night, sloppy Joes were on the menu. Except mine would be from scratch.  Here’s the recipe:

Sloppy Joe 

2 tbsp. canola oil
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
1/2 green bell pepper, cored, seeded, and finely chopped
16 oz. ground beef
2 cups canned tomato sauce
4 tsp. Worcestershire
2 tsp. chili powder
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Tabasco, to taste
4-6 hamburger buns, toasted

1. Heat oil in 12″ skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and pepper and cook, stirring, until soft, about 6 minutes.
2. Add beef and cook until browned, stirring so that the meat breaks up into small pieces, about 8 minutes.
3. Add tomato sauce, Worcestershire, chili powder, salt, pepper, and Tabasco; cook, stirring occasionally, until reduced and thick, about 10 minutes.
4. Divide between buns and serve.
And like the hamburger, the sloppy Joe can easily shed its work-a-day clothes, throw on some Armani and, voila!, go gourmet. Just think of the possibilities. A tandoori sloppy Joe, a foie gras sloppy Joe (hell, Daniel Boulud has a foie gras burger!), a southwestern-style sloppy Joe with chipotle peppers and ancho chili powder. I think the sloppy Joe’s renewed day in the sun may be quickly approaching. All it needs is a bearded hipster to put it on the menu in a restaurant in Brooklyn. Instant rock star status!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Remember When School Lunch was a Big Deal?

With the start of another school year, I tried to recall my earliest memory of school or, more specifically, my earliest memory of school lunch. Third grade was as far back as I got.  

At that time in my life, I was living in Suffolk, Virginia, and attending Andrew J. Brown Elementary School. Unlike the food-product served in school cafeterias today, the offerings at A.J. Brown were pretty good There was homemade fried chicken, collards, mac-‘n-cheese, green beans, meat loaf, and homemade cakes and pies. Another interesting feature of lunch at A. J. Brown was that you couldn’t take your tray away until the teacher monitoring the lunch room that day had inspected it and made sure you had eaten enough. Can you imagine that today?!

School lunch was a big deal because you got to socialize with your friends, free of the prying eyes of the teacher. You talked about the reigning king of kickball, the upcoming math quiz, or what you were going to be for Halloween. It all seemed so important at the time, and maybe it was. Certainly more so than mortgage payments, your 401K, or the next business trip to Des Moines.  However, there was also a certain element of surprise or dread. “Oh, I hope they have chicken pot pie today! I hope there’s no meat loaf today!” (Though I actually loved the meatloaf.) 

Unfortunately, things only went downhill after that. By the time I reached high school (at this point, we were living in the D.C. suburbs in Northern Virginia), I was stuck with tater tots, pizza in the shape of a rectangle, and hamburgers made of mystery meat. We did get taco salad on Tuesday. By junior year, however, I was making my own lunch. 

And let’s talk about that high school pizza. To this day, I have no idea what the hell that thing was. What I do know is that it was not pizza, as most members of the human race would recognize it. (Yes, I was a pizza snob even at the young, precocious age of fourteen.) On the first day of high school as a freshman, I ordered one of these things—about half the size of an asphalt roof shingle, with about as much flavor, and promptly suffered a gag reflex. I never ate one again during my remaining four years of high school.  Forget water boarding, the CIA should simply serve one of these things to the leader of Al-Qaeda and end the War on Terror in about six months. 

My kids go to a small private school without a cafeteria.  I should  add that the school is also a tad bit crunchy. This puts Dad in a bit of a bind. I have to balance convenience at 9:00pm on a work night with the diktats of the gluten-free, GMO-free, organic, locavore movements. Of course, I fail miserably. My lunches, though packed with Teutonic efficiency in about five minutes flat, will usually contain Doritos and PB&Js, which surely put me on the latest hit list of the Food Police. I do, however, pack some fresh fruit and granola bars. That counts for something! Maybe I should channel my inner A. J. Brown Elementary, and send them to school with meatloaf.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A Poor Thing, Poorly Treated

Recently, I traveled to Ireland for the first time. We stayed in Dublin, but ventured out into the countryside for day trips. I had never been to Ireland, though I was well acquainted with its reputed beauty and the warmth of its people, both of which proved to be true.

Like many Americans, I had preconceived notions about Irish food—lots of cabbage and potatoes—but I was pleasantly surprised. Dublin in particular has a vibrant, modern, and creative restaurant scene, far removed from Irish stew, bangers and mash, and fish and chips. Of course, these traditional dishes can still be found in Dublin’s pubs, which can be found on nearly every street corner. And don’t get me wrong, I like a good basket of fish and chips as much as the next guy. Simply put, the humble potato is not going away any time soon.

No other food is as tied to a nation’s history and identity as the potato is with Ireland. But this wasn’t always the case. Prior to English colonization in the 17th century, the traditional Irish diet consisted of livestock, dairy, and grains. When the English arrived, many Irish were stripped of their rich farmland and forced to rely on less productive land. Consequently, the Irish resorted to the growing of potatoes, which fortunately thrived in the wet Irish soil and yielded more vitamins and protein than corn, wheat, or oats. Served with a bit of herring, potatoes could provide a farmer or laborer with three square meals a day.

But reliance on a single crop led to disaster: The Famine. On the eve of the Famine, three million out of a population of eight million depended solely on potatoes for sustenance. Eventually, one million died and another million left for North America, Britain, and Australia. The Famine is not forgotten even today in Ireland. There is a memorial to it in Dublin. It depicts gaunt and exhausted peasants, some of whom carry their dead or dying children on their shoulders. It is no wonder the potato is perhaps the most political of vegetables.

But despite this history, the potato remains as an important and valued part of the Irish culinary repertoire.  Potatoes have endured for the simple reason that they make wonderful dishes, though rarely as the main star. They are more like that veteran character actor without whom the leading actor wouldn’t be nearly as effective. But as M.F.K. Fisher pointed out: “to be complimentary is in itself, a compliment.” 

Antoine Augustin Parmentier
Next to Ireland, no other country has embraced the potato more than the French. After all, the French gave the world the eponymous French fry! The French owe their love of the potato to Antoine Augustin Parmentier, an 18th century military pharmacist and French agronomist who promoted the potato most of his adult life. (He discovered it while he was a prisoner of war in Westphalia during he Seven Years War.) Until Parmentier came along, the French considered the potato unwholesome, fit only as food for cattle or the destitute. 

When the potato was used (which was rare indeed), it was used in the form of a flour, mixed with wheat and rye to make bread. To prove that the potato was more than a mere culinary bit player, Parmentier once served dinner to Benjamin Franklin made up entirely of potatoes. Ironically, Parmentier won a prize for the potato from the Academy of Besançon, which held a contest for the discovery of plants likely to be of use during a famine.  And, on a more pedestrian note, in 1904 the Paris Metro opened a new station named for Parmentier, adorned with references to him and his beloved potato.

Enough history! This is supposed to be a food blog after all!.  What are my favorite potato dishes? Well, French fries would be the first, and most obvious, choice, but then there’s potato salad, potato-leek soup,  and mashed potatoes. The most decadent but simple potato dish is Gratin Dauphinois. It is divine on a cold winter evening with a big juicy steak and a glass of red wine.  So here they are—my favorite potato dishes. Enjoy and remember that along with a tasty dish you may be getting a little bit of history too.

The Insouciant Chef’s Potato Salad

Take about 6-8 red potatoes and peel and dice them into 1/2 inch cubes. Boil the potatoes until tender and then cool and stop them from continuing to cook by rinsing with cold water. In a large bowl, mix with diced celery (one cup), red onion (1 cup), mayonnaise (3/4 cup), dijon mustard (1/4 cup), 1/4 cup sweet pickle relish, and salt and black pepper to taste. Of course of all these ingredients can be adjusted to suit your taste—I rarely make my potato salad the same way twice. I like to take a potato masher and mash some of the potatoes to give the salad a bit of a creamy texture. You also don’t have to use as much mayo this way.

The Insouciant Chef’s Mashed Potatoes

Start with about 4-6 russet potatoes. Peel and chop into 1/2-1 inch cubes.  Drain and rinse. Put the potatoes through a ricer into a large mixing bowl. Add to the potatoes, cream (1/2 cup), butter (1-2 sticks), sour cream (1/2 cup) and salt, and white pepper to taste. Use a hand mixer and mix until super smooth.

Potato Leek Soup (Served Cold it is Vichyssoise) 


3-4 cups or 1 lb., peeled potatoes (Yukon Gold), diced
3 cups or 1 lb. thinly sliced leeks, including the pale green parts
2 quarts water
1 tablespoon salt
4-6 tablespoons heavy cream
2-3 tablespoons butter
2-3 tablespoons minced parsley


Simmer the potatoes and leeks in a 3-4 quart saucepan with the water and salt partially covered until tender—about 40-50 minutes. Purée with an immersion blender. (If you have one, and you want a super silky soup, use a Vitamix!).  Remove from heat, and just before serving, add the butter and cream. Garnish with parsley. 

N.B. The great thing about this soup is its variation. You can add ham, bacon, or mushrooms. 

Gratin Dauphinois

Preheat oven to 425 degrees


2 pounds starchy potatoes
1/2 clove unpeeled garlic
4 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1 cup (4 ounces) grated Swiss cheese
1 cup boiling milk or cream


Peel the potatoes and slice them 1/8 inch thick. Place in cold water. Drain when ready to use.

Rub the baking dish with cut garlic. Smear the dish with 1 tablespoon of the butter.

Drain the potatoes and dry them in a towel. Spread half of them in the bottom of the dish. Divide over them half the salt, pepper, cheese, and butter.

Arrange the remaining potatoes over the first layer and season. Spread on the rest of the cheese and divide the butter over it. Pour on the boiling milk.

Set the baking dish in upper third of preheated oven. Bake for 20-30 minutes, until the potatoes are tender, the milk is absorbed, and the top is a golden brown.