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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!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Don't Forget the Fruitcake!

Around the holidays, I try to remember the less fortunate. I get toys for the angel tree at work. I put money in the Salvation Army kettles at the Piggly Wiggly. I buy a fruitcake. 

You know, that multi-colored, dusty brick sitting alone and and ignored? (I don’t think a new fruitcake has been made since 1978; they just get passed from family to family, year after year.) Maybe it’s Christmas, but I tend to get sentimental at this time of year, and I’ve always felt a bit sorry for fruitcake. Let’s face it: fruitcake has to be the most maligned and ridiculed food in the Western world.

A few years ago—I don’t remember when or where—I had a bite of fruitcake and realized that I actually liked it. So now, I’ve taken up the cause, and I buy one every Christmas. And just like the ones my mom bought, mine go mostly uneaten. One of my boys likes it, and other one hates it. Maybe liking fruitcake is the result of a recessive gene.

Fruitcake shouldn’t be feared. It is nothing more than cake with dried fruit and nuts. So based on that definition, fruitcake has been around a long time. The Romans ate a type of fruitcake that consisted of pomegranate seeds in a barley mash.  From there, it spread to the rest of Europe and then on to Aisle 4 at your local supermarket. 

It is also worth noting that what we as Americans consider fruitcake is much different than the fruitcake from other parts of the globe. The Italian panettone and German stollen are technically fruitcakes, but much more popular and tastier than the US incarnation —kinda like comparing Olive Oyl to Raquel Welch and Marlene Dietrich. I particularly like what they do with fruitcake in the Bahamas. Not only is the cake itself drenched in rum, but so are the ingredients. 

And while I don’t eat fruitcake very often, when I do it’s Claxton. This iconic fruitcake has been made in Claxton, Georgia, for a hundred years. But just because Claxton has been around a long time, doesn’t mean it's not in step with the times. Claxton now makes something called ClaxSnax, which according to the company’s website is “Claxton Fruit Cake by the slice, individually wrapped for freshness.” What’s next ? One hundred calorie “ClaxSnax” packs? (For the record, that would be a piece of fruitcake the size of a quarter—have you read the calorie count on the back of the box?!)

I’ve been told that fruitcake is not that hard to make and can actually be made quite well. The jury is still out on that one and besides, the holidays are nearly done and I’m done with cooking, so maybe next year. Until then, grab a fruitcake from your local grocery store at half-off and scarf down the last few fatty calories before the new year when we all will be forced to hit the gym!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Party Like It's 1975!

©2014 Chris Terrell

All set!
It’s December, and the holiday party circuit is in full swing. Even so, these days it seems as if that circuit is not as daunting as it was for our parents in the 1970s. Back then, grown-ups were always having parties or friends over for dinner, along with casseroles, cheap jug wine, big hair, big collars, and lots of music. With that kind of holiday party mojo, the 70s may have had it going on after all. Maybe there was more to the 70s than Sonny & Cher and fondue.

Two years ago, I made the fateful decision to have a holiday party that paid homage to those days. I got a Christmas tree decked out in tinsel and blinking colored lights, a blow-mold Santa and snowman, and a vintage punch bowl. The year after that, I did it again, and then again this year for the third time. I guess it’s an annual thing now. (It’s always the Saturday after the SEC Championship in case you’re down this way next year.) One friend even said, it wouldn’t be the holidays without my annual party. 

This year I decided to go big and invite more people—a lot more people. The only drawback was that I couldn’t cook the food as I had done for the first and second annual holiday parties. I had no choice but to have my party catered.

As much as I enjoy cooking, especially for friends and family, having the party catered was a great idea. I entered the home stretch a lot more relaxed and a lot less stressed, which obviously made the party more enjoyable. But this was also the first party I had catered. In the past, I've resisted it because I thought it would be too expensive and because it felt like cheating. 

As for the first point, having a party catered is really not that more expensive than making it yourself, especially when you account for the fact that the caterer gets the food wholesale and has the economy of scale that comes with lots of help and a commercial kitchen. You can also save some money by using your own platters and not hiring a server or bartender. As for the second point, it helped that I still made a couple of my “signature” dishes that have become hits and, quite frankly, were expected by my guests to be on the table: Caramelized Bacon and Parmesan Crisps, both of which are Ina Garten recipes. They were gone well before the chicken bites, roast beef on rolls, or the shrimp cocktail that caterer brought.

Even with a caterer, however, a party done right still takes time and effort. I had to get my place cleaned up; flowers ordered and picked up; beer and wine iced down; food plated; punch made; and candles lighted. Hard work yes, but very much worth it. 

Earlier I mentioned that our parents made it seem so easy, but it probably wasn’t it. They didn’t have microwaves to heat things up. Good food was harder to come by and more expensive. Hell, they actually had to change records on the turntable! They did have one advantage, however. Back in their day, there was no Internet, no cell phones, no social media. Our parents didn’t need Facebook to stay connected. That’s what parties were for. 

Don’t get me wrong. This post is not meant to be some kind of where-have-all-the-good-old-days-gone kind of rant—just the opposite. Besides, if there is one thing I noticed this year during my party. I notice that very few people were looking at their iPhones, texting, or even taking photos and selfies and posting them to Facebook. So, we may not have as many parties as we once did, but they’re not extinct. So play some Sonny and Cher on your iPod, throw on some bellbottoms, and put some Riunite on ice! The 70s are back baby!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Thanksgiving With Military Precision

In the early morning hours on the Monday following Thanksgiving weekend, I stepped on the bathroom scale and squinted at the three-digit number staring back at me. Yep, the holidays had officially begun!

This year’s annual, gut-busting holiday of excess and family neurosis had commenced the previous Wednesday evening on a flight from Birmingham, Alabama, to Williamsburg, Virginia. Because there are no direct flights from Birmingham to anywhere, my two sons and I had to connect in Charlotte, North Carolina. And, as we’ve all heard a million times before, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is the busiest travel day of the year. Moreover, Charlotte is not one of my favorite airports. It is spread out, and invariably I seem forced to travel from Concourse A to Concourse E in about 15 minutes in order to make my connection. This time, however, my connecting flight was in the same terminal as the flight from Birmingham. Feeling the holiday vibe, I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best…

Our journey had begun propitiously enough in Birmingham when we sailed through a hassle-free, friendly TSA screening, with an on-time departure. After a smooth flight with prompt drink service, we landed early in Charlotte! As we walked off the plane into Concourse E, with its all-too-expected smell of fried jalapeƱo poppers from Chili’s Too, we were hit with the cold reality of modern air travel, posted in white Helvetica type: FLIGHT DELAYED! 

Our flight was at least an hour late, though it turned out to be more like an hour and a half. But the real kicker was that there was only one bar in Terminal E, obviously added as an afterthought. It had about as much square footage as an Airstream camper and a line of about 25 people waiting for over-priced, precisely-measured, cheap well drinks. After waiting without success for about 10-15 minutes for the privilege of commandeering a mere 18 square inches at the bar, I gave up.

We did finally make it to Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport around 10:15PM. Laura picked us up and, in about 20 minutes, we arrived at her house in Williamsburg. We were tired but wired and didn’t go to bed right away like we should have. We all stayed up too late having a few drinks, laughing, and telling tall tales. (The kids played Xbox.) But eventually we all ambled off to bed for some much-needed sleep.

For me, Thanksgiving is food’s high holy day. I know for others it’s all about friends and family and while that’s important, I must confess that for me, it’s all about the food. I also love to cook on Thanksgiving. This year, I volunteered to do most of the planning and cooking, coming up with the menu, making the shopping list, and doing some, but by no means all, of the shopping. Several times, I got the obligatory “why don’t we just go out?” or “why not just order from Honey Baked Ham?” Sacrilege, I cried! 

I must brag, but I think lesser mortals would have given up in the face of the obstacles before me. First, I wasn’t cooking in my own kitchen, which is always a challenge. Second, the kitchen was a tad small. Third, and most importantly, we only had one oven, prime real estate on Turkey Day.  The day was also complicated by our late arrival into Williamsburg on Wednesday night – leaving only Thanksgiving day to do all the cooking without the luxury to cook some things the day before. 

©2014 Chris Terrell
The work begins.
So what was my solution? With the precision that would have impressed Herr von Schlieffen, I put together a detailed cooking schedule. We even began with a kitchen staff meeting at 8:00AM. No, I’m not kidding! My staff consisted of Rob, Laura’s brother-in-law, who has experience in commercial kitchen’s; Laura, because she is great at organization and cleaning up after my messes; and Forrest, my son, who is developing a budding interest in cooking that I want to encourage. 

Because this is Thanksgiving, the schedule revolved around the turkey. And because we were planning to eat around 6:00PM, and with a sixteen-pound turkey, I would need to put it in the oven by 1:00PM to allow time for it to rest. So, by 12:30PM, I had to bake brownies, a pecan pie, pumpkin muffins, cornbread stuffing, and roasted root vegetables. Now, the schedule doesn’t seem so crazy, does it?!  Here it is:

  • Kitchen Staff Meeting

  • Prepare Brownies
  • Prepare Pecan Pie

  • Brownies into the Oven
  • Slice Red Onions

  • Soak Raisins for Muffins
  • Prepare Pickled Onions
  • Make Honey-Mustard Vinaigrette

  • Pecan Pie into the Oven
  • Prep Pumpkin Muffin Batter
  • Prep Root Vegetables
  • Prep Green Beans
  • Prep Potatoes
  • Prep Onions and Celery for Turkey

  • Pumpkin Muffins into Oven
  • Make Cranberry Sauce
  • Prepare Cornbread Mix
  • Clean-Up If Necessary

  • Cornbread into Oven
  • Prep Okra

  • Bloddy Marys!

  • Roasted Root Vegetables into Oven

  • Steam Potatoes
  • Fry Okra

  • Prep Turkey

  • Turkey into the Oven
  • Start Slow Cooking of Green Beans

  • Make Mashed Potatoes

  • Make Cider Glaze for Root Vegetables

  • Remove Cheeses from Fridge

  • Charcuterie Plate Served

  • Set Table and Prepare Happy Hour Cocktails

  • Happy Hour!
  • Warm Sides as NecessaryCarve Turkey

  • Carve Turkey
  • Plating

  • Dinner Served!

©2014 Chris Terrell
A man's gotta do 
what a man's
gotta do!
©2014 Chris Terrell
A Member of the Kitchen Staff Revolts!
We all worked well together and there was little drama—maybe the Blood Marys helped—though there was a balky deep fryer that refused to work. No sweat, we still got the okra fried. Most importantly, I only went into Gordon Ramsey mode once. Ok, maybe twice. We stayed on schedule and sat down to enjoy a delicious Thanksgiving meal around 6:30PM. (Dinner was delayed because the kitchen staff insisted on a shower before dinner.) I felt proud of what we had accomplished. It tasted great (though the stuffing was a bit dry—but isn’t it always!? – and some great gravy helped make up for that)  

Here’s the menu:


Roast Turkey with Chorizo Cornbread Dressing & Gravy


Garden Salad with Pickled Red Onions, Honey-Mustard Vinaigrette,
and Fried Okra “Croutons” 

Roasted Root Vegetables with Apple Cider Glaze 

Mashed Potatoes & Gravy

Southern Style Green Beans

Cranberry Sauce


Pumpkin Muffins


Pecan Pie

©2014 Chris Terrell
And unlike past Thanksgiving dinners, this year we didn’t scarf down our food, something I really appreciated. Instead, we had a nice leisurely meal with good conversation with a minimum of controversial topics. And like any good American family, we followed dinner with a tear-jerking viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life

In the end, a great home-cooked feast, family and friends, over-the-river-and-through-Charlotte-airport, and an evening spent watching Jimmy Stewart remind us that we are “the richest man in town” when we have all that.