About Me

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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, March 18, 2015

Long and Low

We all get stuck in a rut from time to time. I know I do. After all, I try to write a new post about every seven to ten days and frequently I have a hard time coming up with something new to write about. Cooking is that way too. Life gets in the way. Between work, the daily schlep to school, homework, soccer practice, and everything else in between, it becomes harder and harder to avoid the temptation to pick up the phone and order a pizza. And when one does summon up the energy to cook dinner, it is very easy to throw a piece of chicken on the grill or open a box of Kraft mac-n-cheese—not that there’s anything wrong with Kraft mac-n-cheese!

But there’s a way of cooking that has been around a long time that results in a good meal and allows for a bit of relaxing. I’m talking about braising. Braising is a cooking method that uses a little liquid and barely simmers at a low temp on the top of the stove or in the oven. In other words, long and low. The great thing about braising is that it gives you time to help the kids with homework, grab a cocktail, or if you are sans kids, play a quick game of Assassins Creed.

Braising is a very old method of cooking that has changed over time. Originally, braising was carried out directly on the hearth, cooking food slowly in hot embers. Fortunately for your local fire department, braising no longer requires an open hearth. While braising was typically used for tough pieces of beef, it also works well with tender chicken or fish, especially turbot or halibut. Braising can occur on the stovetop or in the oven. I prefer the stovetop, but either way you should use a good heavy bottom pot. A Dutch oven (Staub or Le Crueset) is a must.

Going back to life getting in the way of a good meal…

I keep a Costco-sized bag of frozen chicken breasts in the freezer for quick night dinners. Now, I know that nothing is more banal in our modern, homogenized world than skinless, chicken breasts. But they are convenient. And here’s where the braising comes in handy. With this technique, you can transform that boring chicken breast into a pretty decent meal. Of course, skin-on chicken thighs or chicken legs are the bomb when it comes to braising! But in a pinch, at 7:00PM on a Monday night with fractions and spelling practice closing in, the chicken breast will have to do.

After I’ve thawed the chicken breasts in a bath of hot water for about 15 minutes, I pat them dry and season them with salt and pepper and lightly coat them with flour. Then it’s time for a good sear in the Dutch oven using about two tablespoons of olive oil. (Maybe if no one is watching, I will use a bit of butter! Like Julia Child, I love butter!) After browning the chicken breasts on both sides, I remove them from the Dutch oven and set them aside. I then add some onion, garlic and mushrooms, and sauté until browned. I’ll then de-glaze the  Dutch oven with some white wine, vermouth, or white port. (If you’ve never cooked with vermouth, you’re missing out!) At this point, I add chicken stock, fresh thyme, parsley, and maybe a bit more white wine or vermouth. The amount of liquid should cover half or 3/4th of the chicken. I braise on the stove top at very low heat for about an hour to an hour and a half. 

When finished, I remove the chicken and add some flour to thicken the sauce. Another approach is to strain the liquid and remove the excess fat and reduce if necessary. Beurre manié (roux) can also be added, but this seems to defeat the whole purpose. 

What do I call this concoction? French chicken, of course!  But you could just as easily think of it as your easy working day meal, simpler to prepare than you think and more rewarding than another pizza delivery.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Happy Birthday!

© 2015 Chris Terrell
Yeah, that's a big flask!
Today is my 45th birthday. And like last year, I was fortunate to celebrate my birthday over an entire weekend, highlighted by a wonderful dinner at The Inn at Little Washington
But mine was not the only birthday worthy of celebrating this past weekend. On Saturday, March 7, this blog survived its second year of operation. (Let's hope the terrible twos apply only to children!) 
And like last year, I wanted to list my ten favorite blog posts, with a brief intro about the post and my favorite passage from it. But unlike last year, these are not ranked. Rather, I listed them simply in chronological order. That way, you can put them in what ever order you wish. (Click on the title for a link to the full text of the post.)

This post addressed how food in America has changed since the 1970s, including my relationship with food since my childhood in the 1970s.  

I still remember my first “fancy” meal. My family had recently moved to the outskirts of Washington, DC, from a small town in southeast Virginia. This was my first foray into the big city. (Before that I had confused Richmond, Virginia, with New York!) We went to lunch at a now-defunct chain called The American Cafe. In keeping with its name, this restaurant sought, with typical American exuberance, to reproduce Parisian brassiere food for the masses. Being a 12-year member of the American masses, I thought this place was the bomb! I ordered the crepe suzette and discovered that there was more to food than bologna sandwiches and cheese doodles.

Meatloaf: Score! (March 5, 2014)

If my blog posts this past year have a common thread, it is probably nostalgia. There seems to have been a lot of writing about comfort food. Well, this one is about the ultimate comfort food: meatloaf! 

I must admit—I love meatloaf. No, not the early 80s arena rocker, but the other meatloaf. Yes, that much maligned all-American dish. How many times did we hear the refrain in all those family sitcoms from the 60s-80s in which one or more children is heard moaning: “Oh no! Not meatloaf…again!” But I think the hatred for meatloaf is urban legend; a falsehood; a conspiracy by the Broccoli Growers Association. Kids really like meatloaf. Why? Because it tastes damn good and it has ketchup in it; that’s why!

Cooking In French (April 6, 2014)

The next best thing to eating in Paris is strolling through her markets for your next meal.

It was a mild evening, so we kept the windows open. Candles, flowers, jazz on the stereo, and the rhythmic sound of the Parisian police car completed the scene. At one point, I thought: “How Parisian!”  But it wasn’t really Parisian, any more than it was Italian, Spanish, American, or even Russian. We were doing what everyone likes to do: have a nice meal with loved ones and talk about the day. This time, the day just happened to have been in Paris.

History Is Not Even Past In a City Like Paris

In 2014, I was fortunate enough to make another trip to the City of Lights. This is one place I'll never get tired of writing about, especially the cafes.

What makes a Parisian cafe such an institution, however, is its pace. While the waiters hustle about, the guests sit and eat and drink and talk deliberately. Time seems to stand still.  And of course, a demitasse of espresso is a down-payment for a long-term lease to sit on the sidewalk and people watch throughout the afternoon.

Medium Rare (May 5, 2014)

More nostalgia...more comfort food...

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. 

Play Ball! (May 15,201

OK, there's nothing gourmet about ballpark food, but the lowly deserves its share of the limelight from time to time, especially when it relates to America's pastime! 

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.

I did a lot traveling in 2014, and I discovered there's a strong connection between travel, food, eating, and memory.

On the flight back to Birmingham later that day, I got to thinking about the connections between travel and food and memory. Without traveling too far by modern standards, I had had lunch at a deli that served pimento cheese, reminiscent of home; an Indian restaurant thousands of miles from India that reminded me of a long-ago trip to London; and brunch at a French restaurant that brought back memories of leisurely strolls in the 5th Arrondissement. This notion of travel and memory was captured recently in a great travel article in The New York Times by Liesl Schillinger (Read article). In it, she returns to a small village in central France where she had stayed one summer as a young girl. She states that “[i]n the mind, geography converges; beloved landscapes, villages, cities, countries, all become one, in the borderless scrapbook of memory.”  

Her sentiments are equally true when it comes to food. And just like my memories of my travels will be no less idealized than Schillinger’s, I will also one day do the same about the meals I had one weekend in Washington, DC, in the late spring of 2014. As Anthony Bourdain once said: “Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life.”

I’m already journey proud for the next course!

Eggs Were Definitely First! (July 31, 2014)

I picked this post because it's about one of my favorite foods; its zen-like perfection; and its Miagi-esque complexity. 

At one point in his book Medium Raw, Anthony Bourdain lists several things that everyone should know how to cook. One of these is the omelet. I couldn’t agree more, but I would add one more item: scrambled eggs. Scrambled eggs are deceptively complex. Because of their simple preparation, there is little room for the aspiring chef to hide mistakes. And what is the most frequent mistake made by a home cook? Overcooking. Most folks scramble eggs until they are devoid of any last ounce of moisture or silkiness, leaving dried tasteless clumps better served to the condemned. Simply put, scrambled eggs require a lot more attention than most would think. As M.F.K. Fisher noted: “This concoction is obviously a placid one, never to be attempted by a nervous, harried woman, one anxious to slap something on the table and get it over with.”

This was one of my more self-deprecating entries—needling the foodies of the world (including me). 

The increased culinary emphasis of authenticity is a blessing and a curse—the product of the increasingly diverse nature of culinary options in America today. Thirty years ago, we couldn’t have talked about an “authentic” Indian or Vietnamese restaurant because we were lucky to have a third-rate Chinese restaurant serving lo mien. Now, we have cafes offering banh mi sandwiches with southern style barbecue sauce. But does that make that banh mi any less authentic than one served from a truck in Hanoi? 

And no blog about food would be complete without a post about the uniquely American insanity that is Thanksgiving!

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 jalapeño 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.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Hero Worship

It’s not every day that you get to meet one of your heroes. 
My day arrived on the evening of Thursday, February 19, 2015, when I met Eric Ripert, the chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin in New York City. I had dined at Le Bernardin once before, several years back, and it was the most sublime meal I’ve ever had. I’ve been trying to get back there ever since. 
I have several credit cards with airlines and hotels so I can earn frequent flyer points. Like all credit cards, they are always sending you myriad emails touting the latest and greatest promotions. I usually hit “delete” immediately, but the one that arrived on January 21, 2015, caught my eye. I opened it, and here’s what it said:
Spend an evening experiencing the cuisine of internationally celebrated restaurateur, author, and television personality, Chef Eric Ripert. This culinary event hosted by Chef Ripert will take place in New York City at Le Bernardin's new private space.
CALL TO RESERVE: 1-888-xxx-xxxx
I called immediately and, for once, I didn’t mind being placed on hold. When the lovely lady from Visa answered the phone, I realized that I had left my work iPhone back at the office so I had no idea if I could do this thing on a random Thursday night in February. Rolling the dice, I bought two tickets for the event. Risky move, I know, but it all worked out in the end. Now, I just had to get to New York in the dead of winter!
If you live on the East Coast, you know that this has been a particularly harsh winter. Maybe I’ve been a good boy lately. Maybe, just maybe, I’ve racked up some extra Karma points because my plane from Birmingham to Washington left on time. (The plan was to fly to Reagan-National and meet Laura and then take the shuttle to Laguardia.) Unfortunately because of high winds at Laguardia, our flight was delayed. We were given the choice of getting off the plane and booking another flight or staying put and waiting until we could leave. We decided to stay and were rewarded when our flight left earlier than expected!
After an uneventful cab ride from Laguardia to the St. Regis, we chilled out before heading out to La Bernardin. 
The evening started with cocktails and canapés. It was a diverse crowd. Some were New Yorkers who were clearly regulars of Le Bernardin. Others were out-of-towners. I think one couple had traveled all the way from the West Coast.
After about 20 minutes, Ripert walked out from the kitchen and began to mingle with the crowd. I tried to “act like I had been there before” when I reached out and shook Ripert’s hand, but I’m sure the glazed foodie-groupie expression on my face gave it away. 
Before dinner, Ripert gave a brief cooking demonstration, showing how he made his famous tuna carpaccio. And while I consider my knife skills pretty decent, this guy never even looked down as he cut chives into perfectly symmetrical pieces!
Ripert is honest and unassuming when he talks about food. In fact, he’s almost shy. For him, cooking is a real creative endeavor. And unlike a lot of his contemporaries, Ripert has resisted the urge to open up restaurants in Vegas; Branson, Missouri; or Concourse D in Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport. 
Toward the end of the meal, Ripert made himself available for a Q&A session. I grabbed the mic for the first question. Here’s my question as best that I can remember: “Considering all that France has offered America and the world in terms of cuisine and culinary technique, what could the increasing number of American chefs in Paris offer France?” This was a loaded question of course, which my fellow diners responded to with nervous laughter. Ripert, however, answered it with grace. 
He said that the issue is no longer about one country versus another. Rather, it is about the whole world because chefs (including Ripert) learn from other cultures. For example, Ripert mentioned how he wants to incorporate Korean temple food into his menu after a recent trip to Korea. 
When Ripert did talk about the difference between American chefs and French chefs, the point of departure he chose to discuss was interesting. He said that working under a French chef can be brutal, if not abusive. He recalled many literal kicks in the derrière and demeaning language. If I recall correctly, Ripert said that his nickname was the French phrase for “bruised shoulder” because of the number of times he had been punched by the chef. In contrast, he said Americans were more constructive in their criticism and more collaborative in their approach. 

Ripert is a successful, classically trained French chef, with all the tradition and conservatism that that implies. Yet, he continues to create recipes that are both traditional and new—no easy feat. At the end of the night, we were all given a swag bag which, among other things, contained a signed copy of Ripert’s cookbook Avec Eric (With Eric). The recipes are built around themes, such as “Big Flavor,” “Artisanal,” “Craftsmanship,” and “Tradition.” In the introduction to the chapter titled “Tradition,” Ripert says “Traditional recipes are important maps to follow in order to create something new.” For anyone who has ever cooked anything—either their mom’s less-than-perfect chocolate cake recipe or the latest “it recipe” from The Food Network—this is good advice indeed.