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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!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

It’s That Time of Year: Fire Up the Grill!

Once that patty of browned beef was laid on a bun for the first time, the hamburger shimmered into existence philosophically.  Because the burger has a kind of inevitability to it; it is a gastronomic endpoint, like sashimi or a baked potato. Its basic design cannot be improved upon.

—Joel Ozersky—

Even though astronomically the first day of summer is several weeks away, it unofficially began on Monday, May 25, 2015. Memorial Day. For most Americans, this means firing up the grill and grilling hamburgers. This year, I traveled to Williamsburg, Virginia, to spend the weekend with Laura, her family, and some dear friends from our college days who now live in the ‘Burg.

Most of my readers should know by now that I am an inveterate menu planner, and this year was no different. I wanted to go whole hog—Southern hog that is. Menu version 1.0 consisted of fried chicken, potato salad, Southern style green beans, grilled corn, and brownies. Version 1.0, however, never made it out of Beta. After taking into account food allergies and a general consensus that I should try and cook a tad pit healthier, I developed Version 2.0. 

My friend Andrew would bring over pork shoulder and grilled vegetables; I would grill bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs with chimichurri sauce, grilled corn with chili-lime cilantro butter, and kale salad. Dessert would be mango mousse (essentially pureed mangos folded in with Chantilly cream). Unfortunately, poor logistics meant that the corn never hit the grill. But we had plenty nonetheless.

©2015 Andrew Langer
But the more interesting menu item of the night was Andrew’s. What he calls Grilled Cabbage

Here’s the recipe:

Grilled Cabbage
(Courtesy of Andrew Langer & Jorge Jimenez-Rojo)


1 head cabbage (about 2 lbs)
1 package bacon
1/4 cup Barbecue Sauce
1/2 stick butter, sliced into six pieces


1. Cut bacon crosswise into small pieces. Sauté until cooked, drain, and set aside.

2. Core head of cabbage, leaving the rest of the head intact, so that there is a cavity 3-4 inches across and several inches deep.

3. Take aluminum foil, crumple and make a ring, 3 inches in diameter (see picture).

4. Mix cooked bacon and barbecue sauce together. Lay 3 slices of butter in cavity, add bacon mixture, then lay three more piece of butter on top.

5. Turn grill to high and pre-heat until temperature reaches 300+ degrees. Put aluminum foil ring on grill, put cabbage on ring. Close grill..

6. Cook cabbage for 60-90mins [though I think 45 mins to 60 mins is plenty], rotating cabbage head with tongs every 15 mins. When cabbage is soft all the way through, it's done. Don't worry if exterior leaves start to char—they will fall off when you take the cabbage off the grill.

As I mentioned earlier, Memorial Day Weekend is when a lot of folks fire up the grill for the first time. Now Laura has a grill (charcoal), but the discussion Saturday morning quickly moved to whether she needed a new grill—a gas grill. I know there are a lot of purists who will not use anything but charcoal. But you can’t beat the convenience of a gas grill. I’ve had both, and I’ve found that I’ve grilled a lot more with a gas grill than with the charcoal version. Besides, Laura’s place in the ‘Burg is a second home, and things should be as convenient as possible. So, after a quick trip to the local Ace Hardware and some haggling, we got a real good deal on a Weber floor model. The new grill worked beautifully, notwithstanding a major flame-out in the grease trap which was a bit too close to the propane tank for my tastes!

So let me get back to burgers because that’s where this blog post started. Despite the fact that my fried chicken and potato salad got nixed, I did get to make hamburgers Saturday night and again on Monday afternoon before heading to the airport. 

I have several rules when it comes to making hamburgers. First, always buy 80/20 beef if you can find it. It’s getting harder and harder. Your best best bet is the local Piggly Wiggly or Wal-Mart. But honestly, 80/20 makes the best burgers. Period. Besides, it’s not like you eat these things every day. I then put a generous amount of kosher salt and ground black pepper on each burger. Sometimes I will put a bit of onion powder on as well. I then place the burgers in the fridge for at least an hour. Cold hamburger meat holds together better while grilling and allows you to get a good char on the outside without overcooking the inside. 

But most importantly don’t overcook the burgers. Start on one side with the lid open. (If you close it, you will start to cook the burger before you can get a good char.) Once you have a good char on one side, flip. You will only flip once! At this point, place your cheese of choice on the burger and close the lid. Personally, I prefer blue cheese. Dress the burger anyway you like. I like to keep it simple—lettuce, red onion, tomato, ketchup, and mustard. But sometimes I like to chop up some chipotle peppers in adobo sauce and add that to the ketchup for an extra kick. 

Finally, toast your buns dammit! Melt some butter and brush it onto the outside and insides of the buns and toast them on the grill. Your guests will thank you.

And that’s it. Another Memorial Day weekend for the history books. While I think the healthy option was a good idea, I’m glad I got my burger fix in because Memorial Day without burgers is like New Year’s Day without luck and money. And just like a good burger can’t be improved upon, neither can a Memorial Day with wonderful friends and family.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Please Place Your Tray in the Upright and Locked Position

©2015 Chris Terrell
We’ve heard it before: “air travel ain’t what it used to be.”  This appears to be especially true when it comes to airline food. It gets worse and worse, assuming you get anything at all.   

But are we expecting too much from the airlines when it comes to food? They are constrained by weight and space and so don't have a lot to work with. There’s also the issue of heat. One can’t exactly sauté mushrooms on an open gas stove in a Boeing 767. Even so, the food could be better.

Of course, it wasn’t always so. I’m old enough to remember the days when even in coach (a/k/a “economy class”), the stewardess (dated myself!) would serve lunch or dinner with real silverware and linen napkins. And she did so with a smile on her face and the kind of attention that you sometimes get in business class on a transatlantic flight. Why? Because out of the 160 seats on that Boeing 727 from New York to Miami, only 120 of the seats were occupied thanks to regulation.

In the early to mid-70s when I began my flying career, airlines were regulated by the federal Civil Aeronautics Board (“CAB”). Since 1938, the CAB had regulated all domestic interstate air routes as a public utility. The CAB set the fares, routes, and schedules. The CAB also was obligated to ensure that the airlines had a reasonable rate of return. In other words, the airlines were guaranteed a profit, albeit not a big one, but a profit nonetheless. This meant that Eastern Airlines could afford serving lunch with silverware in a less-than-full airplane.

In 1978, this all came crashing down with the passage of the Airline Deregulation Act. This law abolished the CAB and removed government control over fares, routes, and market entry. The goal was to increase competition, which would mean lower prices for consumers. Believe it or not, the law actually worked. After adjusting for inflation, it is generally cheaper to fly today than it was in the 1970s. (I'm not sure about the competition part because we have about the same number of airlines as we did in 1978.) Of course, cheaper fares mean more people flying. And therein lies the rub when it comes to airline food. With increased competition and no guaranteed profits, the airlines have had to cut costs. And the first thing out the window was the semi-decent food. 

These days we're lucky if we can get a diminutive package of pretzels or peanuts (Southwest may be the only airline left that offers both.) About the only time any of us will get a meal on plane, much less a decent one, is on an international flight.

But at least it sometimes gets interesting. 

Several years ago, I was on a Delta flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg, South Africa, when breakfast arrived at hour 13 of a 15 and a half hour flight. To this day, I have no idea what I was served. It was some kind of orange, yam-like thing.  I also have no idea why it was breakfast food. I guess it made sense because we were flying to South Africa. (The food on the return flight was much more "American.") 

But perhaps the best example of food following the route was an Air France flight I took from Atlanta to Paris. Even though we were in economy, the flight attendants walked up and down the aisles with large baskets full of french bread. Later in the evening, I walked to the back for another glass of French wine. I pointed at the bottle on the drink cart, and the female flight attendant, without saying a word, and with a classic Gallic  shrug, told me “sure.” Vive La France!

What I find interesting is that, as the quality of airline food has declined and essentially disappeared, the quality of food in airports has increased, especially in terms of variety. I’ve had great wine and food at a wine bar in Dallas’s Love Field; a really good Cuban meal at the airport in Miami; and my home airport in Birmingham now has some pretty good barbecue. Hope springs eternal.

The only downside is that, because there’s no food service on airlines anymore, people bring food onto the airplane. This has created a different set of problems. Have you ever sat next to a fellow passenger with an order of garlic rice and falafel? 

But oh well, air travel is still pretty amazing. We can now travel distances in hours that took our ancestors weeks, if not months. As the comedian Louis C.K. once said, “You’re sitting in a chair, in the sky!” Good point. So, maybe we should all just relax, wait until we land to get a good meal, and leave the falafel at home.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Yes, Of All People, I Ate at Applebee's!

©2015 Chris Terrell
How the Mighty Have Fallen!
I’m not a big fan of chain restaurants.* The food is generally uninspiring and pretty much the same. There are but so many ways one can deep fry something or slap a Bourbon barbecue sauce on a slab of meat. I guess my biggest compliant is one of value, which is interesting because the marketing departments for places like TGI Fridays or Applebee’s have convinced people that they offer good food at a good price. But by the time, you’ve had a couple of Summer Squeezes (real drink from the Applebee’s bar menu) and some Churro S’mores (real appetizer from Applebee’s menu), and….

OK, I have to stop here. This thing called Churro S’mores is a real appetizer, or “app” in Applebee’s-speak!  It consists of some kind of bread with a toasted marshmallow and chocolate dipping sauce. This is listed in the “bar snacks” section of the menu. Really?! Why the hell would I get this at a bar?! What full-grown, gainfully employed, self-respecting American male is going to drink a martini and eat this concoction?

OK, sorry about that digression…..

And so you order the Bourbon Street Steak and the Bourbon Street Chicken and Shrimp (both real items—these guys obviously love New Orleans!), Triple Chocolate Meltdown (real) for dessert, and now you are out about $60 for a party of two after tip. You’d be better off to go to a local mom-and-pop restaurant. The food would be better, and you’d be helping the local economy.

But the more important question is how did I end up at an Applebee’s on a Sunday afternoon? The short answer is: soccer. This past weekend, I fulfilled my annual paternal duty of taking one of my sons to the state soccer tournament in Decatur, Alabama. If you’ve ever been to Decatur, well you’re not missing much, and this comes from someone who lives in Alabama, so I’m used to being under-whelmed. Our team did better than expected, but after the last game on a Sunday afternoon, we were hungry. Someone suggested Applebee’s. I could have easily protested but my food-snobbery is well established amongst the soccer parents. I relented mainly out of curiosity. I saw this as a sociological experiment. What makes people go to Applebee’s? Am I missing something? Can it really be that bad? Maybe it has improved since the last time I went to one on a business trip on April 23, 1997.

The staff was pleasant enough and the beer was cold. But the food? It is what it is. I got the Thai Shrimp salad, which was not too bad after I added a bit more salt and pepper. More importantly, the kids enjoyed it and had a good time.  At the end of the day, I was not completely disappointed because my  expectations were met. I mean really, I don’t go to McDonalds expecting seared foie gras and black truffles.

By now, I’m sure the casual reader of this blog is thinking, “this guy’s a real snob,” and I probably wouldn’t blame you. But I’m not. I eat in hole-in-the-wall BBQ joints; Mexican restaurants, hot dog stands and love every bite. The difference is that these are restaurants owned by real people who love what they do. Not some homogenized chain restaurant with a menu created by marketing lackeys. 

But then again, chain restaurants are as American as apple pie. It all started in 1940 along the Penn Turnpike, where motorists could turn off the Pike and pull up to a building that resembled a New England town hall with a painfully bright orange roof and turquoise blue cupola. Howard Johnson’s or HoJo for short. This was arguably the first franchised restaurant, founded in 1925 in Quincey, Massachusetts, by Howard Deering Johnson. It was famous for its fried clam strips, chicken pot pies, “Frankforts” (HoJo’s version of a hot dog), and 28 flavors of ice cream (including peppermint stick). I grew up on HoJos. No road trip to Florida would be complete without dinner at HoJo’s, where my mom would invariably order the fried clam strips, while I quivered in anticipation of the peppermint stick ice cream that came with a sugar cookie shaped like a delta wing jet plane. They also had a birthday club, and I recall going to the local HoJo’s for my annual complimentary birthday cake. 

At HoJo’s peak, there were over 900 orange roofs across America. Today, only two restaurants remain.  

How the Mighty Have Fallen Too
I really have no way of knowing if the food at the HoJos of my youth were any better or worse than your local Applebee’s today. I do know that they just felt different—full of youthful promise. Only in that optimistic era could you have a restaurant as garnish as a HoJos. There’s a reason, Howard Johnson’s figured prominently in an episode of Mad Men. The title of that episode is Faraway Places. How apropos. 

So here’s a modest proposal to myself. The next time I’m asked to go to an Applebee’s, I won’t complain or make some snarky comment. I’ll just squint and pretend it’s 1975, and I’m five years old eating a chocolate birthday cake with some peppermint stick ice cream. 

That sounds pretty inspiring, don’t you think?

* Fast-food joints are excluded from my definition. Who doesn’t like a good fast-food burger now and then? And besides, we all know these are not really restaurants.