Tuesday, October 28, 2008

On How I got schooled in all things NASCAR, or I Ain’t a Virgin No More.

Let’s just say that I don’t think I’ve fully recovered from this weekend yet.

It all started on Friday. We were having stellarly gross weather. It was chilly, drizzly, traffic sucked; and it took me two hours to get to the Atlanta Motor Speedway after work. However, as soon as I got there, I was transported to a different, rather magical world.

I wasn’t sure how much I’d enjoy my time there, and frankly I was a little afraid of what was in store for us; but I have to tell you, I had the best weekend of my life. Our friends MA and Ken rent part of a block of campsites that the same people occupy year after year. I’ve never met a nicer crowd of folks. They immediately included the boy and I into their group and made us feel welcome. These aren’t the kind of people who pull up their shirts to get Mardi Gras beads (although there was quite a bit of that and other Things and Stuff going on at other campsites, but we ignored them for the most part). these are just good ol’ Southern folks who spend several weekends a year driving around to various races, make and eat great food, and drink a lot of bourbon and moonshine.

Speaking of moonshine....

The minute I got there, I was introduced to Billy Ray, a bounty hunter who lost his wife at Talladega (she passed away of congestive heart failure). He gave me a two-minute rundown of why moonshine is so important to NASCAR (and let me have a big swig of his bottle), and then the initiation started.

What initiation, you say? Yeah, that’s what I said too. Since it was our first time camping in the infield, the boy and I were marked as Infield Virgins and had to take part in the Infield Initiation. Our hosts take this shit very seriously, so there is no laughing during the ceremony, as I learned the hard way when the bucket I was wearing as a hat was slammed down hard on my head (I thought for a second that my nose broke, but fortunately that was not the case). Billy Ray was our Master of Ceremonies.

Me looking scared out of my gourd. It was scary at first; Billy Ray went from Nice Drunk to Mean Bastard Drunk in a matter of seconds (he then calmed down considerably and was nice again). Plus he was parading around a stick that eventually caught fire which he kept banging on our bucket hats and threatening to poke us with. I honestly have no recollection of what speeches were made, and the evening after this Ceremony took place is really fuzzy to me, so fuzzy that when I looked at the pictures the next morning I had no recollection of half of this even taking place.

After all speeches were complete, they made us drink a big huge cup full of moonshine, bourbon, Sierra Mist, Coors Lite, and hot sauce. We chugged it down...

... and surprisingly didn’t throw up afterwards, but did have to chug something else to get the taste of the brew out of our mouths.

I then ran around and sat on people’s laps and told them all how wonderful they were.

This is me sitting on Billy Ray (left) and Bob’s (right) laps. Bob plays Santa each year, and starts growing out his beard in April. Bob is the coolest Santa I’ve ever met. I don’t think they minded me sitting on their laps. Heh.

We made everything that we planned on making foodwise, but with one exception; we smoked the pork tenderloins instead of doing the cornbread stuffing with apples. We feasted on grilled oysters (some of our campsite friends are from Louisiana), chili, a gumbo that had alligator meat in it as well as the other usual ingredients, freshly caught trout.

This is Mr. Quinlan shucking oysters. He and his son, whom I also called Quinlan (I never caught their first names and everyone just kept calling them both Quinlan), and another friend of theirs did the majority of the cooking. As soon as they were done cooking breakfast, they’d take a brief rest and start on lunch. It was wild. I think I gained 5 lbs in three days of marathon eating.

We knew our friends Stephanie, Sperry, and Chris would be camping in the infield on Saturday, but we weren’t sure where they would be located. Imagine our surprise when Saturday afternoon three carloads of people (including about 20 of Chris' friends from Minnesota) pulled into the campsite directly next to us. It went all downhill after that (but in a good downhill kind of way, ya know).

From left to right: Ken, Greg, the boy, shotgunning a beer at 9 am on Saturday. Goodtimes.

It all happened far too fast; that’s usually the case when you’re having a good time. We’ve been invited back to the next Atlanta race in March 2009, and I’m totally there. It was an eye opening experience as well. If you want to see a slice of Americana, be included in something really strange, totally insane, and ridiculously fun, you need to not only get yourself to a NASCAR race but camp out there if you can. I’ve never seen a more patriotic crowd in my life. Also, they are fiercely loyal to whichever driver they deem their favorite, and take the whole thing extremely seriously. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.

Thank you to Ken and MA for including the boy and I in your lives.


Friday, October 24, 2008

On flooring it and hanging a left.

Although it’s raining like hell outside right now, I’m super excited because later tonight I’m headed down 75 South to the Atlanta Motor Speedway. I thought I’d not be able to get there until tomorrow morning, but as it turns out I have no after-hours deployments in the wee hours tonight, so I’ll go after traffic subsides. WEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.

The boy and Ken are already there. The boy called this morning to ask me to bring more blankets and maybe a knit hat or two, as last night was a wee bit cold. They set Ken’s camper up last night, and they’re right next to turn 4.... so if you tune in this weekend and happen to catch any of the NASCAR races, look for the drunky people shouting “HOOTY HOO!” standing on a camper right at turn 4, and that will be us.

I’ve kind of neglected to mention to my mother where I’ll be spending the weekend, because she deems events like these rather “low class” and "full of low lifes” (her words), and scoffs at the idea of camping for the sole sake of seeing cars floor it and hang lefts. Her mind would be changed if I told her that a lot of the drivers date models who don’t dare show up at the track without their big ass Chanel sunglasses and 4+ carat diamonds. But frankly, I don’t feel like getting into this conversation with her, because she just won’t understand the draw and appeal of going to such an event, even if i make up a lie and say that Carla Bruni would be there.

I’ve got some serious grocery shopping to do after work. So far, on my menu, we’ll be making

Bobby Flay’s Cuban burgers
The boy’s chicken wings
Hippie tacos
Cornbread and apple stuffed pork tenderloin

I know MA has a bunch of food she’s bringing as well, so I think that between the both of us we’ll have enough to feed us all. There will be 6 of us camping there, but I’m sure we’ll be making friends and sharing food with the neighbors. Besides, I think we’re supposed to hook up with some friends of ours while out there. The brother of a friend of ours works for Brian Vickers, so I’m sure we’ll run into our friend and her boy while out there (hi Stephanie!).

Tonight, though, when I get out there, the minute I unload the car, I’m making some mulled wine. It’s definitely the weather for it. You don’t need to follow an exact recipe for this, but I’ll give you a list of what I put in mine:

One bottle of red wine – make sure you use a good drinkeable wine, but I wouldn’t spend over 10 bucks on it.
3-4 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
A dash or two of ground ginger, or a scraping of fresh ginger
small pinch of grated nutmeg
1 to 2 tablespoons of sugar
1 to 2 tablespoons of honey
the peel from one citrus fruit (tangerine works well - it's what i have on hand)
A squeeze of juice from said citrus fruit
A small amount (about half a shot) of brandy or cognac (optional)

Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan, and bring to a simmer. Taste it; I personally prefer it to not be too sweet, but you can always add more sugar or honey if you like (the dryer the red wine you use, the more sweetness you’ll need). Serve in heatproof mugs.

This drink totally screams fall and winter to me. One of my favorite memories of mulled wine (or a variation of it) is skiing down the slopes in the French alps with my mom, and stopping every now and then at one of those chalet restaurants to grab a hot wine, chug it, then get back on the slopes. Except we didn’t call it hot wine, we called it grog, and I’m pretty sure there was more than just a small amount of brandy or rum added to each of our cups. Hot wine makes skiing much more enjoyable, and I’ m sure it’ll make me feel as though tonight's rainy evening is not that big of a deal.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

tainted food and boys

my friend Caprice briefly dated this guy named Ryan years ago when we lived in Florida. Ryan and the boy i was dating at the time really loathed each other (to the point of stabbiness), so the four of us didn't ever hang out together. eventually, i dont remember exactly why, Caprice and Ryan broke up and he went back to his old girlfriend (he might have been still dating her during the time he was with Caprice - this was something like 15 years ago so you'll have to forgive my foggy memory). it was one of those un-pretty, decidedly unattractive breakups that we all sadly fall prey to once in a while.

a few months later i was at work, waiting tables during lunch rush, and we got slammed in about 2 minutes after opening. we usually had the same group of servers who worked during lunch, girls like me who were taking a break from college until they figured out what they wanted out of life, and some career waitresses as well. if we got a table of people we didn't care for, repeat offender customers like the weirdo middle-aged professor accompanied by a young female student (different student each time) or plain ol' someone we didnt want to wait on, we'd agree to switch tables with each other. so anyway, this particular day, we got slammed, and i looked towards the front entrance when who should be standing there but Ryan and his hoochie.

immediately, i turned to Lori, the daytime manager who was also waiting tables that day and begged her to take the table, as they went and sat in my section.

"No can do. I'm so deep in the weeds i think i'm gonna cry".
"PLEASE! i'll give you ten bucks to take it. he dumped my friend on her ass. i dont want to look at his face".
"Sorry, chach, normally i'd say yes, but i can't do it".

defeated, i slumped over to the table where Ryan and hooch were sitting, and took their drink order. i pretended not to recognize him at all, made myself pleasant, even though he was glaring at me so hard that i could feel his eyes burning into my brain. i came back with their drinks and proceeded to take their order.

"You guys ready to order?"
"Yeah, i'll have the chef salad, and could you please not spit in it".

i looked up, shocked, and my jaw dropped as i stared at him. his hooch was also staring at him, but in more of a pissed off way. clearly he hadnt mentioned to her that he knew their friendly server.

"I'm sorry... what did you say?"
"i said, DON'T SPIT IN IT".

i think i laughed.

i got a pretty decent tip from them (she paid). i wonder if he ever told her how he knew me - probably not.

the thing is, i hadn't even thought of spitting in his food. if there is one thing i never did in all my years of waiting tables and tending bar, that was to fuck with customers' food. i may have not liked a lot of my patrons, especially this particular one, but i didn't think to do anything funky to his food that would, God forbid, lead to me losing my job (there weren't many available jobs in Gainesville in those days). so i may not have liked the jackass who broke my friend's heart, and i probably should have asked him to leave the restaurant when i first saw him come in, (and frankly, he should have turned around when he saw me and walked out the door), but it didn't occur to me to screw around with his food.

but there are people out there who wouldn't think twice about it. a lot of guys on the line would talk about phlegm globbing food if it was going to a customer they didn't like. after that fleeting moment of vindictivness has passed, after you've dropped a piece of food on purpose, put it back on the plate and sent it out, does it really make you feel that much better? i guess a lot of people would answer Yes to that question, but i just dont get it. i once had to be the middleman in a fight betwen a cook and a customer. the customer sent the food back saying it was too spicy to eat, so the cook, angry that his food got sent back, poured hot sauce all over it and had another server send it back out when i wasn't looking. i had to deal with the angry patron, pushing him out of the swinging doors that led to the kichen while he shook his fists and screamed; meanwhile the cook was just laughing it up. i just don't get that mentality.

i had one last Ryan sighting a few years later. i was hanging out with my ex (the same guy i had been dating when Caprice and Ryan were dating) one night at a crowded bar; it was about a week or so before i moved to Savannah. actually, i have no idea why i was hanging out with the ex, but i do remember ignoring him and pretending he wasn't there because he was being his own special brand of dick. so anyway, who should slide up to the bar right next to me but Ryan , with some sorority girl on his arm. Ryan and I recognized each other immediately, and i began to laugh. Ryan also recognized my ex, and this made me laugh even harder, because he probably thought that the horrible ex and i were still together. the ex had no idea what i was laughing about, didn't recognize Ryan, and was really pissed off at me because he thought Ryan and i were making eyes at each other.

i took a cab home.

Monday, October 20, 2008

french onion soup and a croque monsieur for lunch

It finally feels like fall here in Atlanta, and I love it. i love the change of seasons, although they’re saying on the news that it’s just a little unseasonably cooler than it ought to be right now. I don’t mind.

Today I’m wearing a thin fabric scarf loosely wrapped twice around my neck and tied in the back. I thought I looked good, fashionable, with the season. The PM from Chicago flew in this morning, and when he walked through the office door I said, “Hi”, to which he replied, pointing at his neck, “Hi. You trying to hide a hickey?”.


I woke up yesterday morning bright and early, and even though it was so cozy and warm in bed, I hopped out of bed because I had a hankering for some soup. And not just any soup, I wanted French onion soup. I rushed off to the grocery to pick up a few things, and while there I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a hot Croque Monsieur along with a bowl of soup for lunch?”, and I agreed with myself that yes, indeed, I would like that very much, and I knew a couple of boys at home who wouldn’t mind it either.

I normally make French onion soup with red wine, but I didn’t have any of that handy and I couldn’t go out and get some – Georgia laws are ridiculous and backasswards, one cannot buy alcohol on Sunday - so stupid. However, I did have plenty of white on hand, so I had to make some modifications to a recipe I had, and it turned out fine. You can also add a dollop of booze, like Cognac or brandy, before the final simmer, but my Courvoisier bottle is almost empty, and i like to save it for when i get an hankerin' for a good steak au poivre.

French Onion Soup

2 ½ pounds onions (I used a combination of Spanish and sweet), halved and thinly sliced into half moons
3 sprigs fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 stick unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon flour
1 cup dry white wine
5 cups beef stock (preferably your own)
1 cups water
1 teaspoon black pepper
grated or sliced Swiss cheese
grated parmesan cheese

Put butter and oil in a large Dutch oven, and turn heat to medium; once melted, add the onions, thyme, bay leaves, brown sugar, and salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until onions are caramelized (this step will take close to an hour). Turn the heat down if the onions start to burn. Add garlic and cook for 2 minutes. Add flour and cook for 1 minute while stirring with a wooden spoon. Add wine and cook for 2 minutes, stirring and scraping up any yummy brown bits on the bottom. Add stock, water, and pepper and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, 30 minutes. Taste for seasoning (you might need more salt).

Slice your baguette on the diagonal into thick rounds and toast them (you’ll need enough rounds to cover the tops of ovenproof soup bowls, so figure out how many rounds you’ll need based on that).

Turn broiler on. Ladle hot soup into ovenproof bowls, top with a baguette round, some grated Swiss and parmesan, and put under the broiler. Keep an eye on this so that it doesn’t brown too much, it should take a couple of minutes (don’t walk away). Carefully remove bowls from broiler and let sit for a minute before digging in. The cheese will be piping hot and you might be unfairly rewarded with a huge blister on the roof of your mouth if you get greedy and dig in too early.

I used the Croque Monsieur recipe from Barefoot in Paris, recipe which can be found here . Since Gruyère can be a bit on the pricey side sometimes, I used mostly Swiss, with some Conté that I already had on hand leftover from a Costco run a while back. These are definitely a knife-and-fork kind of sandwich, as cheese will ooze out all over the place in a very pleasant sort of way.

I thought that this might be a cheese overkill kind of lunch, what with the gobs of it in the sandwich and béchamel, but how often do I eat this way? It was the perfect meal to welcome the first good autumn weekend we’ve had.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

smoked duck and andouille gumbo

i like to read in the bath. as long as i have some Mister Bubble to keep me going, i can read until the water turns cold. i normally don't take bubble baths in the summer, because it's just too damn hot, inside and out. but now with the advent of fall upon us, i've been taking leisurely bubble baths after my afternoon work out. not only does it help soothe the muscles, but it helps quiet my overly active brain.

a week or so ago, when the wind started to blow cold one evening, i hopped into the tub along with The Soup Peddler's Slow & Difficult Soups: Recipes And Reveries, which actually isn't mine; it belongs to J, who used to live with us in Maryland but i guess it got gobbled up amongst all of my other cookbooks and now it's MINE ALL MINE MUHahaha. (Okay, just kidding J, you can take it back now. but can i borrow your How to Cook Everything book?). so i was flipping through the soup book when i ran across a recipe for smoked duck and andouille gumbo, and since the recipe looked doable, and as we have a smoker, i told myself i'd be making it soon. the boy said it sounded good, and besides, it would give him an excuse to use the smoker. as if he needs an excuse to use the smoker. that smoker has gotten more use than the oven has in the past couple of months.

Gumbo Day turned out to be this past sunday; actually it started saturday night when we quartered the duck and put it in a brine. and by "we" i mean the boy, who's far more handy with a knife than i am.

don't be daunted about cutting up a duck; it's similar in structure to a chicken, so do as you would with a chicken. it's goose that you ought to be afraid of. okay, kidding. don't be afraid to cook a goose, but do be warned that it's got a whole other bone structure than what you're familiar with, and can be a pain in the ass to dissect. but that's for another blog post.

the thing about this particular recipe in the book is that it basically stunk. i read it a couple of times through on sunday morning, and i didn't care for the lack of direction it gave for smoking the duck (the authors assumed you would know how to do this, which fortunately for us we do, but what about anyone else?). and i didn't care for their directions on how to make a stock. not that i need directions on how to make that, and i'm not going to give you any myself but i will direct you to people who do (see further below for links on how to make stock). now i guess you could use canned stock, but then why would you? it's not very often that you get to eat duck - and since you're using the reserved fat to make the glorious roux, why ruin it with oversalted canned stuff from the store? you really have no excuse for this particular recipe. it's already going to take you a good half a day to smoke the duck and do everything else, might as well get up a little earlier and make a day out of it... and this coming from the person who does have some containers of store-bought stock on hand. you can read the pros and cons of using store-bought stock in Ruhlman's manifesto. i do realize that he's right, though. making stock is easy and better for you, as you are controlling the ingredients that go in. it's time consuming, which turns some people off, but that is what days off are for. i'm an advocate of making my own yogurt and absolutely will not buy any at the store, which is kind of the same thing with stock. i ought to make it more often. i have no excuse.

back to the recipe itself. i found the ingredients list shamefully lacking things that will brighten up the gumbo. we ad libbed a bunch at the end, and i (sort of) took notes of what we did so that i could rewrite this thing.

i don't suppose you need a smoker to make this; you could use one of those smoker boxes and put it on your regular grill, keeping an eye on the juice (if gas) or stoking charcoal often. because the thing about smoking is it has to be low and slow. the duck will take you around 2 1/2 hours to smoke (if not more), and that's after it was quartered. if you keep it whole, it will take much longer.

we've found a lot of good duck smoking tips on the web, notably from this source. behold the power of Google. let your fingers do the walking.

Smoked Duck and Andouille Gumbo
loosely adapted from "The Soup Peddler's Slow & Difficult Soups: Recipes And Reveries", by David Ansel and Liza Ferneyhough
makes at least 10 good sized servings

for the brine:
1 quart of apple juice
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 cup kosher salt

for the stock:
several chicken carcasses plus whatever bones you salvage from the duck
mirepoix (50 % onion, 25% celery, 25% carrot), chopped up in big hunks
bouquet garni (thyme, parsley, a bay leaf or two, tied up with kitchen string)
a tablespoon or so of peppercorns

for the rest:
1 duck
1 cup flour
2 onions, diced
3 stalks celery, diced
2 green bell peppers, diced
1 lb andouille sausage, sliced in half lengthwise and then into half-rounds
1 lb okra (you can use frozen, pre-chopped)
1 6 oz can tomato paste
couple tablespoons of thyme, basil, chopped up
dried oregano
several pinches of cayenne
several pinches of white pepper
1/4 cup of hot sauce (such as Texas Pete)
a few dashes of Worcestershire
filé powder
couple cloves of garlic

the night before you're making this, cut the duck up into quarters, saving wings and backbone for stock the next day. cut incisions into the duck fat layer, without piercing the meat (see video on previous post). make a brine by bringing the apple juice, peppercorns, salt to a simmer on the stove for a few minutes. remove from stove and cool the liquid down with many ice cubes. place duck pieces in a tupperware or bowl large enough to house it comfortably, pour the brine over, cover it well and put in the fridge overnight.

the next morning, get yourself some coffee and prepare to make stock. this will take you a while, so start early. i usually start with the largest pot i own, and add two or three carcasses that i've saved from roasting a chicken, which i've dug out of the freezer, and throw in those duck wings and neck from the night before. add mirepoix and bouquet garni, and water to cover. i'm not going to give you a dissertation on how to make stock, because there are several excellent resources out there. a quick Google search pulls up:

- from Simply Recipes

- a video on the Epicurious site - i havent watched it myself yet, since i'm not on the home computer. looks like Bon Appetit has a video on their site as well.

- plus i bet you that some of the French cookbooks on your shelf have directions on how to make stock, so go take a look through them.

turn smoker on and bring it to 225 F. rinse the duck, pat dry with paper towels, and salt and pepper the pieces. place duck in smoker, skin side down with a clean drip pan to catch that all-important fat (you'll be using it later, so it's important that the drip pan is clean). using dry wood chips (we used apple), smoke for 2.5 hours or until the duck reaches an internal temperature of 165 F.

remove duck from the smoker, put it to the side until it's cool enough to pull the meat off. with your hands, shred meat into whatever size pieces you want that look good to you, and set aside until later in the recipe. throw out the layer of fat that remains on the duck. don't throw the bones out; put them straight into the stock you've got going on the stove.

your stock will probably take a few more hours, so keep it on low, skim the scum off the top every once in a while, and go do something productive like paint the guest room... which is what i was supposed to be doing this weekend. anyhoo....

by then, your stock should be ready. strain it, discarding all the solids. put it back on the heat and let it reduce a little bit more.

make roux: strain the reserved duck fat drippings, and add 3/4 cup of it to a large Dutch oven over medium heat. if you don't have 3/4 cup's worth, you can use peanut or canola or vedge oil to make up the rest. immediately add 1 cup of flour and start stirring like mad with a wooden spoon. this next part will take you about an hour (no lie), so make sure you've got a movie going in the background or some music. i wouldnt walk away from a roux, especially one made with such a decadent base. just stir and stir with a wooden spoon. you might have to add a tablespoon or more of flour as you go, if the roux is too liquidy. as the authors state, "you're attempting a controlled burn of the flour".

again, low and slow is the way to go. when in doubt, lower the heat and keep stirring like crazy. you want a dark roux. this will be the final color of the gumbo, so it's important that you get it right. finally, after you've had a Guinness, and when the roux reaches the color you want (preferably a dark lovely caramelly chocolate), add the chopped onion, celery, and peppers. stir to combine thoroughly, ensuring that all the vedge is evenly coated. let this cook for a few minutes, and add the garlic.

move your stock, which is now happily ready, next to your Dutch oven, grab a ladle and get ready to go. slowly add a couple of ladlefuls of stock to the rouxed vedge, and stir. that liquid will be absorbed pretty quickly. add a little more and stir. basically, add as much liquid as you feel comfortable with, to get the consistency you want. keep in mind that once you add the okra, it will get even thicker. it's hard to gauge how much stock you'll need; you will need a lot, but you'll probably end up with extra, which is never a bad thing. just freeze it for another use.

stir in the andouille, okra, tomato paste, herbs, cayenne, filé, hot sauce (to taste - we used about a quarter cup), whatever else you're using. i don't give exact measurements on some of these ingredients, as i tend to like things a bit on the hot side, so add and taste, see how you like it. add salt (to taste - sort of. you dont want to oversalt it, yet you still have another 15 mn of simmering to go, so err on the undersalty side. you can always add more but can't subtract).

Simmer for 15 more minutes. serve over rice with some crusty bread hunks. and then go wash the clothes you wore all day and take a shower, because you're guaranteed to be smelling like a smoked piece of meat yourself.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that the original recipe didn’t require a brine, and called for steaming the duck first before smoking it. I think a brine is vital for this – after all, you’ll be smoking the duck, which could possibly dry it out. Brining brings moisture to the meat. Also, the idea behind smoking it is cooking it slowly via smoke. If you make the mistake of steaming the duck first, the chances of you getting meat that is completely permeated with lovely smoke flavor is kinda slim.

I did say I had problems with the recipe, and these are just a few of the changes we made.

Monday, October 13, 2008



i wanted to post a different video, one where the boy cracks the backbone of the duck, but apparently the video is far too big for blogspot. and i'm not really familiar with technology and stuff and can't figure out (yet) how to post the biggun'. and i'm not a good cinematographer either.

anyway, this duck, which i named Hans for no particular reason, was broken down last night, then brined overnight, so that we could smoke it today. and what would i be smoking it for, you ask?

all good things to those who wait.

(sorry for the second reference to Silence of the Lambs in two days. i've got that movie on the brain).

the sounds in the background are (a) the tv in the kitchen was showing The Ninth Gate, and (b) the tv in the living room was playing a commercial for bad 70s rock.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

oh la vache! *

In keeping with theme of this week (all things Mediterannean and North African), I decided to make lavash. Lavash is another common thread amongst the countries in those regions; everyone has their own version of it and call it something different. But it's basically the same thing: a flat bread. I've got an enormous amount of hummus at home, and I'm out of pita, so I decided to make lavash crackers.

When we moved to Alpharetta, the boy got a job baking bread at the now-defunct Rainwater (Chef Jay Swift was running the kitchen back then – he's now opened 4th & Swift in town, and I'd love to go there some day). The boy made breads until some spots opened up in other parts of the kitchen – it's not that he's not fond of bread and pastry making, it's just not his "thing" (having said that, all the awards he won in culinary school were for bread and pastry, so go figure). The lavash cracker was one of the restaurant's signature breads that they provided in baskets to every table, and those first few months of his tenure there, the boy would come home and tell me animated stories about how much he loathed making it. I'm really not quite sure why, although I'm sure he's told me why and I just plumb forgot. They used this set of rolly flattening machines to get the lavash to the just right thickness, and I think every once in a while the damn thing would break or not work properly. It's been ages now since he's even made it, but when I told him this week that I was going to make lavash, he snarled. Funny how those kinds of memories stay with you forever. I bet you that even in 25 years if I mention the word "lavash" to him, he'd still snarl.

To be honest, this was probably the easiest bread I've ever made. Ridiculously easy. You can make it in the space of a few hours, or you can start it and plop it in the fridge overnight, like I did. You will be required to knead the dough by hand, because it is pretty tough, and I don't think your stand mixer can handle it. it almost reminds me of pasta dough in it's consistency, just not as smooth.

After spending the night in the fridge, i took it out to bring to roomish temperature yesterday afternoon while i went and did something else for a while (attended a production call, if you should know). and then i retrieved the pasta roller attachment from my kitchen aid mixer, because i thought, Why not? it has the consistency of pasta, and if they used something similar at Rainwater, why can't i?

it just seemed to go much quicker using the pasta roller attachment, but if you don't have one of those, you could always definitely use a good old fashioned rolling pin and give your shoulders a workout.

i split my portion of lavash in two to make it easier to smoosh through the roller. i started with the widest setting first, only making one pass through each setting until i got the lavash to my desired thickness (i went through 4 settings and stopped there). after i passed each piece through the second setting down, i cut those pieces in half since they were getting pretty long; i ended up with four long, thin strips of dough. this is the dough after going through the first setting; and it will look not unlike those strips of skin that Buffalo Bill took off the backs of his victims in The Silence of the Lambs. well, it did to me.

the original recipe calls for bread flour; but apparently i'd run out of it some time ago and hadn't remembered to buy more. i used regular all-purpose flour, and the end result turned out really well. the next batch i make will be made with bread flour, because i'm curious to see what the difference will be.


adapted from "The Bread Baker's Apprentice", by Peter Reinhart

Makes 2 sheet pans of crackers

1.5 cups all purpose or bread flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon yeast
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/3 to 1/2 cup of water (room temp)
seasonings (i used kosher salt, za'atar, black sesame seeds, paprika, cumin. you can use any mixture of whatever you want that you think might go well).

In a mixing bowl, stir together the flour, salt, yeast, honey, oil, and just enough water to bring together in a ball. you may not need the whole 1/2 cup of water.

Sprinkle some flour on the counter and transfer dough to the counter. Knead by hand for at least 10 minutes. The dough will feel not unlike pasta dough, if you've ever kneaded that before. When ready it should feel really smooth and firm. Oil a bowl and put the dough into the bowl while rolling it around to coat it. cover with plastic wrap and put aside for 90 minutes or until it's doubled in size. Alternatively, you could put the bowl in the fridge overnight and take it out a couple of hours before using, until come to room temperature.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Here you have two options: you can roll by hand, or if you've got a pasta roller, you could use that.

if rolling by hand:

Sprinkle flour onto the counter and transfer the dough there. press the dough into a square with your hand and dust the top of the dough lightly with flour. roll it out with a rolling pin into a paper thin sheet. you may have to stop from time to time so that the gluten can relax. cover it with a kitchen towl or plastic wrap if it needs resting. When you've rolled it out to desired thickness, let it relax for 5 minutes. Line sheet pans with parchment or silpat; carefully life the dough and lay it on the parchment. snip off excess dough with scissors if it overlaps.

if rolling by machine:

cut dough in half, and starting with the widest setting on your roller, pass each piece of dough through only once. move down to the next setting and pass it through once. you may have to cut your dough lenghts in half vertically if it starts to get too long. go down to the next setting and pass the dough lengths through once. do this until you've reached your desired thickness (i did mine through 4 settings. When you've rolled it out to desired thickness, let it relax for 5 minutes. Line sheet pans with parchment or silpat; carefully life the dough and lay it on the parchment. snip off excess dough with scissors if it overlaps.

Mist the tops of the dough with water from a spray bottle and sprinkle a covering of seeds and spices onto the dough. you can alternate bands of seasonings or sprinkle them all over, up to you. you can precut the dough into triangular shards with a pizza cutter or ridiculously sharp knife (if using a knife, be careful not to pull too much on the dough when running the knife through). if you don't want to precut them, you can always break them into shards once they are done baking.

Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, keeping an eye on them to ensure you get even browning. you might have to switch the sheet pans around from top to bottom half way through baking. Once they are browned to your liking, remove pans from oven and let the crackers cool in the pan for 10 minutes before snatching one and running off with it.

I'm not sure how long these will keep; i've got mine stored in a Ziplock baggie right now, but i plan on taking them to a party later where i'm sure they'll be snatched up.

*Holy cow! But it's a play on words. Lavash, la vache.... get it? yeah. Clear as mud.

Friday, October 10, 2008

totally unrelated to food

jerell is the richard blais of this season's project runway. so pissed that although he kept winning challenge after challenge, he got kicked off in the end. man's got incredible talent and will go far.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

on tabbouli

tabbouli (can be spelled different ways, including tabbouleh) is probably the healthiest thing i make. i ate it in abundance when i worked for a mediterranean restaurant in florida. during the time when service was slow, all the servers and cooks would sit around on the tall stools in the bar area picking the stems off of parsley and putting the leaves into huge oversized bowls (lord, i picked parsley for countless hours - that brings back some memories). i've seen it made with different ratios of bulgur wheat to parsley; at this particular restaurant, it was mostly parsley, around 4:1. i think (i could be wrong; i often am) that the ratio of bulgur to parsley changes depending on where one is located in the Middle East (like harissa - each North African country has its variation on it). so i'm not really going to give you a recipe for this; it's more of a guideline. i make it and i taste it along the way, and if i think it needs more of a certain ingredient, i'll add more.

what you'll need:

1 cup bulgar wheat
1 cup parsley leaves (at least)
1 cup mint leaves
1 cucumber
1 bunch of green onions
red onion
1 tomato
juice from 2 lemons
olive oil
an abundance of salt

soak the bulgur wheat according to the package directions. if your package doesn't have directions, pour the grain into a large bowl. if you want, you can squeeze some lemon juice over this and add some salt and pepper. frankly, i don't know if this makes any difference to the finished taste, but i like to do it this way. add 2 cups of boiling water, cover tightly with a piece of plastic wrap and put to the side for about a half hour or so. at this point, you can fluff it up and see if it's absorbed all of the liquid. if you taste it and it is cooked (as in, doesn't have a raw bite anymore), yet there is still liquid in the bottom, drain in a fine mesh sieve and set aside until ready to use.

roughly chop the parsley and mint and put into a large bowl (you could use a food processor for this, but i find that the leaves get processed into almost nothing, and i prefer a bigger chop on them myself). chop up the green onions (both white and green parts), and add to bowl. dice a quarter of the red onion and add to bowl. cut the cucumber in half lengthwise, seed it, roughly chop and add that to the bowl. i like to keep the skin on the cucumber, as i think it keeps longer that way without going mushy. if you've properly cleaned your produce, you shouldn't be squeemish about eating cucumber skin anyway.

stir all of this together, and add a liberal amount of salt, some black pepper, a couple of teaspoons of olive oil, and start adding lemon juice a little at a time. this is where you taste it as you go - do you need more lemon juice? more salt? prefer more red onion to give you more bite? well, chop up some more and add it. you might also feel as though it needs more mint or parsley.

when it's to your liking, e.g. not oily, but properly seasoned, it's ready.

oh, and that tomato? i do like tomato in my tabbouli, but i cannot stand smooshy tomato in my tabbouli. if you plan on serving this right away, chop up a tomato and add that now. if, like me, you plan on eating this for a couple of lunches in a row, don't add the tomato now. bring along a container of tabbouli, some pita wedges, and throw that tomato in your lunch box, and when you're ready to eat at your desk while surfing around on the spice house, fish out your pocket knife and roughly chop the tomato up into the salad. serve in between the pita wedge like a little sandwich.

what, you don't have a pocket knife? i thought everyone had one.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

dear jamie mcmurray: i'm sorry i almost crashed into your truck

so i'm driving home from work this morning around 11:30 am, because it's allergy season and i've got a sinus headache from hell that no amount of Allegra or fresh, unblemished, clean air can cure. sitting in front of a computer was making my brain itch, and not in a good way. so i was on my way home and merged onto 285 East and nearly crashed right into the biggest, brightest Barney purple truck. i saw the Crown Royal emblem on the side, and my first thought was, "Cool! whisky!", and then i realized that it was Jamie McMurray's truck, probably carrying all his car parts and whatnot, followed by several RV's and a string of other drivers' semi trucks on their way back from Talladega.

i scrambled to grab my CrackBerry out of my bag, which made me swerve some more (good going there, Frenchie), so that i could take a picture of the truck and send it to the boy, because there was no way anyone would believe me if i told them that i almost smashed right into a NASCAR driver's truck.

all this to say that we're going to the race in a couple of weeks at Atlanta Motor Speedway. and not only are we going to the race, but we're going the entire weekend and staying in the infield. and just typing that sentence brought out my inner redneck. i feel a whole bunch of WOO HOOs and showing of much skin coming my way. and of course, the obligatory gettin' drunk on crappy beer.

our friends Ken and MA (she who shares the same birthday as i do) have a permanent camp spot in the infield for said race, and they go every year with their camper. they were gracious enough to invite us along, and as much as i just announced that i'm turning into a good ol' Suthun redneck, i'm also totally excited about this. because there is nothing i love more than people watching, and you just know that the people watching there will be stellar.

but most importantly, more important than snickering at ill-fitting clothing and drunk people, is the food. Ken, MA, the boy, and I need to discuss the food situation soon, because tailgating is very important. i believe that the smoker is coming along, as well as someone's borrowed grill. i need to start spending some quality time researching food that travels well, food that keeps well, and food that shares well. anyone got any ideas?

so, in case you were wondering (because i can hear your brain clicking away), i'm not an avid NASCAR fan, but the boy is, so i guess that makes me a fan by proxy. and i don't really have a favorite driver per se. i like the ones who kind of drive dirty and cause issues (surprised there? hee). they say that deep down, all girls like the bad boys. i'll just leave you to figure out who it is i like best (and just to let you know, there might be more than one).

Monday, October 6, 2008

chicken tagine with apricots and spiced nuts

i've been aching to make a tagine lately. there are whole weeks where i crave making fresh pasta; others where all i want are roast beast sandwiches. and this past week, i've been craving making something in my tagine.

i don't know if it's so much the food, or the act of making something in the tagine that i have been craving. all i know is that it's been far too long since i've used it, as it has been sadly underused this year.

i think that the last time i had a full on North African meal was for my birthday last year. we grilled a leg of lamb and made several tasty sides from Kitty Morse's "The Vegetarian Table: North Africa", with much success. My problem is that i wasn't sure how keen the boy would be with a lot of the "different" (or odd) ingredients that a moroccan/tunisian/algerian recipe calls for. fortunately, a lot of that cuisine can be influenced by french and spanish, so there are a lot of familiar ingredients that one might have laying about in the pantry, so no special store run is really needed.

and part of me thought, Whatever. if the boy doesn't like it, then i'll just have nice tasty lunches for the rest of the week. but seriously, i've no idea why i was so vexed. because between the boy and J (who is, happily, back from Yuma for good), they licked the platter clean, literally.

i used this recipe from epicurious as the guideline, and made the fennel slaw on the side . make an effort to find bitter marmalade. i bought some made with Seville oranges, as blood orange marmalade can be kinda hard to find. seriously take a look at the ingredients on the marmalade jars in the grocery aisle. most are not just made with oranges, but with pear and whatever other fruit. you don't want a sweet marmalade, so make an effort to find something worthwhile; you won't be disappointed. those clementines with ginger syrup which are also part of that menu look really good, and although i didn't make them this time around, i am keeping a mental note to make them soon, especially as clementines are abundant at the Super H of late.

so i served this with rice instead of couscous (which would be more traditional, but i felt like having rice instead), and i announced that dinner was ready rather hesitantly to the boys, and they both tasted it and liked it; however they both said that they were really surprised that it wasn't spicy (e.g: hot) as they thought North African food should be. and then it dawned on me that in the very back of the fridge i had a container of harissa, so i brought that out and made the boys help themselves to a heaping spoonful of it.

let me tell you right now that harissa rules. the dish was good without, but spectacular with. i don't know why i don't use it more often; i use sriracha on everything, so i might as well start using up my stash of harissa.

i can't remember where i got my recipe for harissa; but i do remember that you soak chilies and then blend the whole thing in the food processor. i jotted down some notes on how to make it, and that note has been living on the side of my fridge under a picture of Michael Steele that i got in the mail about a year or so ago. my scribble says:

handful chiles de arbol
soak in water 30 mn
coriander + cilantro ground
seed, stem chiles
blend all w/ garlic + salt
OO or water. sundried tomato
cilantro, dried mint

measurements are up to the maker. i did it to taste. i hate to say it, but sometimes one doesnt need exact measurements; you just do it.

all in all, i can't express how pleased i am that the boy liked this meal.

next up, i plan on making a lamb tagine, and i want to used preserved lemons, as i spent the better part of today making some while i was cleaning my office (sorting paperwork, throwing away a lot of crap, putting up three bags of clothes to give away, and washing windows, if you must know).

this picture? that's my mom on a camel, in marrakech in 2002. and those would be Prada boots she's wearing. because, as she always tells me with the most serious face, one must be fashionable no matter where one is.