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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, January 20, 2015

Martinis at Noon

©2015 Chris Terrell
This past weekend, I made my annual pilgrimage to New York City. I had originally planned for six days in the Big Apple, but that pesky thing called work interfered, so I had to settle for a quick weekend instead. My trip had an inauspicious beginning from a culinary perspective. Dinner Friday night was a grilled chicken sandwich from Chik-Fil-A at the airport, scarfed down with a Good People Pale Ale at the bar next to my gate. At least Delta was feeling generous because the flight attendant gave me two bags of pretzels on the Atlanta to LaGuardia leg. But by the time I arrived at my hotel in New York it was 1:30AM, and I was hungry again. Thank goodness for an $8 can of Pringles from the mini-bar.

The next morning, after a quick continental breakfast at the hotel, it was off to do some serious shopping at my favorite book store: The Strand. Anyone who is serious about books, especially anyone serious about cookbooks, should visit The Strand. I’ve never seen so many cookbooks in one place. An entire corner of The Strand is covered from floor to ceiling with cookbooks—everything from gourmet Jewish food to vegan desserts. Of course, I couldn’t resist—I bought a seafood cookbook titled Fish: Recipes from the Sea. I justified this purchase by telling myself that I need to start eating more fish. Perhaps reading all these cookbooks had made me hungry, because breakfast had worn off. I grabbed a street dog from a cart on Broadway and East 13th Street—a guilty pleasure I enjoy every time I visit New York.

©2015 Chris Terrell
Probably not the best choice for dinner before the theater.
Saturday night was the highlight of the trip—Cabaret—my favorite musical of all time. But first things first: dinner. Finding a good restaurant for the theater can be challenging. The theater district is not known for its restaurants and many of its offerings are tourist traps or “institutions” well past their prime. One exception is Esca, which specializes in Italian seafood. (Esca is Italian for “bait.”) It was started in 2000 by Dave Pasternack, Mario Batali, and Joe Bastianich. The food is fresh and perfectly cooked, with an excellent wine list. The atmosphere is relaxed, yet elegant, and the service friendly and attentive. 

The next morning, breakfast consisted of a croissant, Starbucks, and the Sunday New York Times. Our plan was to see the Matisse Cut-outs at MoMA and have lunch at the Modern, but unfortunately the Modern is closed on Sundays. Instead, we went to what is becoming my New York “standby:” Brasserie, located in the iconic Seagram Building. 

©2015 Chris Terrell
Now that's a burger!
We were seated about five minutes before noon, and I ordered my usual Bombay Sapphire martini, straight up with a twist without any thought about the time. Our server then told me rather politely, that they couldn’t serve alcohol before noon. Really!? I expected this kind of treatment in Alabama but not the city that never sleeps! I’m not sure if this made me feel better about Alabama or worse about New York City. No bother, as it was noon by the time the drink made it to my table—no harm, no foul. Brasserie makes a damn good burger, which is what I got. They also make about the biggest burger I’ve ever seen!

It was during this trip to Brasserie that I noticed an unusual architectural feature. About halfway through martini #2, I noticed that the floor seemed to slant downward from the back of the restaurant to the front. "Wow," I thought, "these are strong martinis!" Laura had not said anything, so I figured it was just gin. But after several minutes of examining the restaurant from different areas of the dining room, I became convinced that there was a slight list of 3 or 4 degrees. I finally got the courage to ask our server, who confirmed this quirk. (Last time, we sat in the back at the “high end” so this slant was not as noticeable.) Maybe the thought is to keep the drunks walking in a straight line after happy hour. 

After MoMA and a quick rest at the hotel, it was off to the airport to return home. I got home rather late and hungry, so dinner consisted of a grilled cheese sandwich. It was a fun weekend, though without my usual NYC gastronomic adventures, but then again, must it always?  I’ve visited New York enough now that I don’t feel compelled to eat fancy meals 24-7 when I'm there. I mean, even Alice Waters probably eats a hot dog from time to time, right? Sure she does. So long as it is locally sourced!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Cook Like a Cook

How does one learn to cook? In the past, such skills were handed down from grandmother, to mother, to daughter. And the skills were based on cooking limited, traditional, and highly local ingredients. Of course, there weren’t a lot of us dudes cooking back then and the highfaluting probably didn’t even know where the kitchen was. 

Fast forward about two or three hundred years, and we arrive in the post-war baby boom. In America, at least, this means frozen foods, fast food, cake mixes, Jell-O, and microwave ovens. By this time, no one knows how to cook real food. Fast forward another twenty or thirty years and the Food Network arrives on the scene, with gastronomic gladiatorial contests like Iron Chef America, Chopped, and Cutthroat Kitchen. And so it seems that everyone in America is cooking again. But are they really? Everyone seems more interested in food, and folks seem to be reading more foodie magazines, going out to eat, and buying cookbooks (I own 33 myself), but are people cooking more? I’m not so sure.

Cooking is more than following a recipe, though there’s nothing wrong with that. I try new recipes from cookbooks all the time. After all, I don’t walk around with the recipe to Lobster Thermidor in my head. Same with baking, which is more like science and requires precise adherence to the dictates of a recipe. But for every day, run-of-the-mill faire, you really don’t need a recipe. In fact, it simply gets in the way. All you need are some basic skills and common sense. And besides, just because you’re cooking “everyday faire” doesn’t mean it can’t be good, so long as you follow a few basic “rules.”

Rule #1: Salt (especially) and pepper are your friends. Ask any chef and he or she will tell you that if they had only one “spice” to take with them to a deserted island, it would be salt. 

Rule #2: More mistakes are made by trying to cook things too quickly than anything else. Take your time. Cranking the oven up to 450 degrees so you can shave a few minutes off the pot roast may shave a few minutes off the cooking time, but it’s not going to make a better pot roast.

Rule #3: Know how to make a salad dressing and throw away any bottled salad dressings you have in your fridge. Vinaigrette is so simple and easy to make, and goes so well over a bowl of simple greens, why would you waste $3.59 on something made in a factory in Toledo, Ohio?

Rule #4: Make soup. It freezes well, and is a great way to clean out the fridge.

Rule #5: Learn how to scramble eggs or make an omelet—there’s a reason Julia Child did a whole episode on this: Julia's Scrambled Eggs

Rule #6: Learn how to roast a chicken. It’s inexpensive; it’s good; and you can use what's left for stock (see rule #4). Here’s how Julia does it:Julia Roasts a Chicken

Rule #6: Learn how to make pan sauces, but keep in mind that everyone makes ‘em different. Nevertheless, here’s a video that covers the various ways to make one: Aussie Makes a Pan Sauce 

Rule #7: Don’t be afraid to use butter. Americans have been brainwashed into thinking that butter is bad.

Rule #8: Have one good, simple desert recipe that you can make in a pinch.

Rule #9: Everyone likes good bread. Everyone.

Rule #10: Never apologize.

That’s it folks. All you need to know in order to be a cook, rather than a heater-of-frozen-stuff.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Luck and Money

©2015 Chris Terrell
Luck and Money!
A new year has arrived, and we will spend the next 40 weeks trying to shed the weight we gained during the previous 40 days. But before we hit the treadmill, there's one last food tradition left: black-eyed peas and collards. 

In the South, it is traditional to eat black-eyed peas and collards on New Year's day for luck (the peas) and money (greens). The green color of collards represents money--that's pretty obvious. What's perhaps less so is why black-eyed peas represent luck. One story is that during his infamous march to the sea in Georgia, General Sherman didn't burn the fields planted with black-eyed peas, thinking they were animal feed. Because of the black-eyed peas Sherman spared, many Georgians avoided starvation and ever since the blacked-eyed pea has been considered to bring good luck. 

Black-eyed peas are not just for New Year's Day. I grew up eating them on a regular basis. In my family, we served them with chopped onion and ketchup. 

I've always made my black-eyed peas separate from the collards, cooking the peas slowly over low heat with butter, onion, and a ham hock or bacon. This year, however, I tried something new—a recipe by Raleigh, North Carolina, Chef Ashley Christensen. In her recipe, she combines black-eyed peas and collard greens, appropriately naming it Luck and Money. John T. Edge, named it one of his favorite recipes in a recent issue of Garden & Gun. Here's the recipe, though I added bacon to mine:

Luck and Money
Chef Ashley Christensen, Raleigh, NC

About 6-8 servings

¼ cup canola oil
1 yellow onion, minced
2 lbs. collard greens, stemmed and chopped*
1 tsp. red pepper flakes, toasted (Toast the pepper flakes in a dry sauté pan over medium heat, tossing constantly until they become aromatic.)
½ cup white wine
2 cups cooked peas (Use your favorite field pea.)
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
2 tbsp. roasted garlic butter**
sea salt to taste
fresh cracked pepper to taste

Warm canola oil in a stockpot over medium heat. Next, add onion and cook until translucent. Add chopped greens, and stir to mix with onion and oil. Season lightly with sea salt and toasted pepper flakes. Stir for 2 minutes to allow the seasoning to permeate the ingredients. Add white wine, and cook the contents of the pot (still over medium heat), stirring every few minutes. Cook until tender, about 30-40 minutes.

Once greens are tender, stir in cooked peas and cider vinegar. Bring to a simmer and season with roasted garlic butter, sea salt, and cracked pepper to taste. Simmer for 10 more minutes, allowing all of the ingredients to incorporate.

*Stems in greens are a matter of preference. I like them both ways, but I also love to pickle the stems separately for garnishing deviled eggs, or Bloody Marys…anything that likes a pickle.

**Roasted garlic butter is made by mixing soft, roasted garlic cloves into soft butter in a ratio of 1:8, so 1 tablespoon of roasted garlic to 1 stick of butter. It’s great for finishing sauces and vegetables. If you prefer, you may just use plain butter. If using plain butter, add a couple of cloves of crushed fresh garlic in with the onion.