Thursday, December 24, 2009

on december 23rd and frisee aux lardons.

So every Christmas Eve since we’ve been together, the boy and I have crab cakes. We’ve also been eating Caesar salad as a side, but this year I think I’m over that. I’m kind of over Caesar salad in general, and I cant pinpoint as to why, but that’s beside the point. I just don’t want to eat it anymore. So I spent some time this week worrying about what side would be good enough for our crab cakes. The boy suggested frites but as we’re having potatoes cooked in duck fat on Christmas Day, I wasn’t keen on that idea either. The other night we were playing the Who Game and I paused the cartoon (you've got to be nuts to play the Who Game along to the movie version) in order to gleefully announce to the boy that I had it! I knew what we were going to eat with those crab cakes on Christmas Eve! And that would be frisée aux lardons. And then I remembered a story about one December 23rd when I was a kid and had frisée aux lardons for the first time. Although it’s not really a story. It’s just one of those memories I have and I’ll open up that window for a bit to let you look at it.

When I was a little kid, we lived on Boulevard d’Argenson in the very upscale but extremely vanilla Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. The apartment had a tremendous amount of light and if you leaned out of the living room windows, you could see the top of the Arc de Triomphe. The elderly woman who lived in the apartment before us died in the living room. Why I remember that, I ‘ve no idea. And what does that have to do with a salad? Nothing. Anyways.

I’m not quite sure how old I was, maybe 9? But it was December 23rd, and my mom’s friend Odette came over with her son, who was a couple of years older than I was (and whose name escapes me at the moment). Incidentally, it was thanks to him that I developed an interest in Tintin comic books, as he had the entire collection (I only had two, and I wish I knew where those copies were now, probably festering in a box in my parents basement). I don’t know why I remember the date of this particular visit, other than I spent the evening with my mom’s friend’s son jumping up and down on my parents bed, which is something that I was never allowed to do EVER – what kid is, really? But my mom was being uncharacteristically lenient that night, so we spent probably the better half of two hours jumping up and down on the bed and having a great time. And I remember what we ate for dinner that night, only because it was the first time I’d ever been introduced to this particular dish. My mom made frisée aux lardons. Frisée is one of those bitter lettuces that looks like it’s had a perm. I love it, but it’s one of those acquired taste lettuces, because of its bitterness. And I remember being thrown off by the fact that the dressing was hot – hot bacon vinaigrette to be exact – and holy cow was it good.

I spent another notable night in Pittsburgh making frisée aux lardons for my friend Caprice, while we danced around her kitchen to En Vogue’s Never Gonna Get It playing at full blast volume. But that was in October 2004, not Christmastime, and what does that have to do with right now? Nothing. Just reminiscing here. Play along with me.

Our friend Charles, he who sends the odd gifts, sent us a hunk of slab bacon and a Virginia ham for Hanukkah (we are not Jewish and he gets a kick out of oddball things like sending us a ham for Hanukkah – don’t ask, I don’t get it either). We’ll be using some of that slab bacon for tomorrow’s salad.

This is one of those recipes I have not a single measurement for. Except for the bacon, and that amount is really up to you. I haven’t made this in a while, and I’m doing it from memory so here goes:

Frisée aux lardons, for two

¼ to 1/3 rd a cup of diced up slab bacon (you can use regular bacon if you like, try to get thick cut if possible)
Red wine vinegar
Dijon mustard
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
A few handfuls of washed and dried frisée leaves, or other bitter greens, or another kind of lettuce that will stand up to heat and not wilt immediately (this is not the time for baby spring mix)

Put leaves in a salad bowl. Put however many leaves you want in there.

In a large skillet set over medium heat, sauté up the bacon bits until golden all over. Remove with a slotted spoon to a plate to drain slightly, set aside. Keep pan on the burner but turn the heat off from under it.

If you have a ton of bacon grease left in the pan, discard some of it. You’re making the dressing out of this. You can add a bit of olive oil to the pan if you want – this is purely up to you. I prefer my dressings to be a bit more acidic than the average person, but normally the ratio is something like a couple of tablespoons of acid (whether it’s vinegar or lemon juice) to 1/3rd cup of oil. I think.

Splash in some red wine vinegar, sprinkle in some salt and pepper, and a dollop of good Dijon mustard (by “good”, I don’t mean store brand, I mean get your mitts on some Maille or Amora brand, or even some Grey Poupon), and whisk together with the fat/oil (this may steam up or smoke a bit; who cares, keep whisking). Pour this over the greens, toss in the bacon bits, toss it all together and serve.
I’ve seen this with a poached egg on top and that would be totally grand as a meal in itself, but as a side dish to the boy’s Maryland style crab cakes (the only kind of crab cake worth having), without poached egg is the way to go.

Merry Christmas to you all.

Friday, December 11, 2009

it's that time of year again

The boy hitches a ride to work every day with our friend Ken. Sometimes Ken has to leave early or go in late or whatever, which takes some creative scrambling on our part to get the boy around. Yesterday, Ken was leaving work early to go to his kid’s school play, so the boy bribed his boss into letting him leave early as well (it was either that or walk home from Stone Mountain, and I don’t know if you guys who are not living in the ATL know, but Stone Mountain is pretty far away from Alpharetta, where we live). So the boy calls me as they’re driving home to tell me that I need to make a candy apple later that night. And I’m all, DUDE.

You’re probably wondering what the big deal is, since I make these every single Christmas to give away to the Chosen Few (see here, here, and here). But this year I haven’t even begun to think about them yet. I mean, it’s only December 10th for crying out loud. Give me a week or so and I’ll get on it. plus, those things take a fair amount of shopping and mise en place. First, one must pick out The Right Apple. Secondly, one must scour the baking aisles of the grocery stores trying to find a good deal on quality ingredients. I’ve entertained the idea of making my own caramel for these things, but I haven’t gotten around to that yet; I normally buy bags of individually wrapped caramels and use those. But all that planning and shopping and assessing my chocolate stash takes time and effort. Plus I had already been to the grocery store yesterday and didn’t feel like going back out.

Fortunately, while assessing my baking goods stash (sitting on the kitchen floor digging through the right hand side cabinet of the kitchen island) I found three bags of caramel left over from last year. I always have a fair amount of chocolate on hand, as you never know when a batch of chocolate mousse or cookies need to be whipped up. I had a couple of Granny Smiths in the fruit bowl, so when the boy got home, I put him to work peeling the wrappers off of caramels and helping with melting the chocolate in a double boiler on the stove.

An overview of what you’ll need to do in order to produce a fancified candy apple:

1. Wash apple. This is a necessary step or the initial coating of caramel will just slip right off and pool at the bottom, and then you’ll be pissed. Wash with Veggie Wash or rub with a mixture of baking soda and water; rinse; let air dry.

2. Melt caramels in a saucepan with a tablespoon or so of water. Stir often. Do this on low heat and do not walk away. Trust me on this.

3. Those bags of caramels come with popsicle sticks, so use one of those to stick into the top of your apple. Making your own caramel and no popsicle stick? Improvise. Bamboo skewer (a sturdy one) or fork will do. Plunge it into the top of your apple securely. Dip apple into melted caramel mixture, using a spoon or rubber spatula to coat the apple evenly.

4. Place apple on a cookie sheet or plate or whatever flat dish you have that you’ve put a bit of parchment or silpat on. You want that apple to come back off in order to get to the next coating, so the parchment or silpat is crucial. Store in a cool place for a few minutes (fridge, outside, garage).

For this round, since I was only supposed to make the one apple, I double coated it by coating it once in caramel, letting that set in the fridge for a few minutes, then coating it again. Each bag of caramels should evenly coat 4 small apples, unless you’re double dipping. You don’t have to double dip them, but I had the extra, so I did.

5. Put apples back in the fridge/cool place for about an hour to ensure that final coat of caramel stays put.

6. After it’s rested, melt some chocolate chips in a double boiler (pyrex bowl over an inch of simmering water in a saucepan). You don’t necessarily have to use chocolate chips. I found a quarter bag of peanut butter chips lurking in my baking stash, so I melted some of those too in a separate bowl. In order to make the chocolate smooth, you may have to add just a teensy bit of canola or vegetable oil and stir with a rubber spatula. When melted, remove apple from fridge and dip it in the chocolate, coating with a rubber spatula or spoon. You could put the melted chocolate in a squeeze bottle and spray it on the apple that way. I’ve done all kinds of methods. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t look pretty to you, because whoever is the recipient of this apple will think you’re the next coming of Martha Stewart and be totally freaked out by your craftiness.

7. Anyway, once you’ve coated the apple with whatever melted mixture you have, place it back on the flat dish and put into the fridge again until ready to bag and use. At this point, you can also roll the apple in chopped nuts or cover in M & Ms or chopped up candy. I happened to have some silver dragées lying around that I found for cheap at Fresh Market last year (I know! “cheap” is not usually associated with Fresh Market. I was lucky). So I coated the top of the apple with those.

A note about the bags to use. If you go to Party City or Joann’s or Michael’s to purchase the bags, do ensure you pick up the larger size. The regular sized bags that are labeled “treat bags” are too small to fit the apples in. Sometimes these larger bags take a bit of hunting down to acquire. I’ve bought them from the Container Store before, but only as a last resort when I couldn’t find them anywhere else – they are not cheap there. I found some colorful stripey larger treat bags at Joann’s a while back and bought all they had. Once you’ve gently stuck your apple in the bag, set bag upright and tie closed with some decorative ribbon or with the twisty tie that comes with it. keep in a cool place until ready to give.

I ended up making two apples last night since I had so much melted caramel that needed to be used up. One is for the boy’s boss, and the other is going to my friend Ryan who I’m going to see tonight (hi Ryan!) who didn’t know until now that she’s getting one today. She’ll get another later on when I end up making the 18 apples (plus or minus a few) that I originally planned on making sometime next week or the week after. Ryan and I are supposed to write a book together, and we will if I can ever get off my lazy ass and go see her.

above photo is fuzzy cos it was taken with my phone and then i messed with it in Photogene and probably made it too bright.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

you know what i'm going to miss tomorrow? this:

what, you can't see that? let's zoom in, shall we:

aye yai yai. i miss that dog.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

are you ready? (or, T Day minus 1)

are you a list maker? i am. i've got lists all over the place, tucked away in books and in piles on the coffee table (much to the boy's dismay). a few years ago when i discovered Google Docs, my life was transformed. i keep all kinds of random junk up there, lists of stuff to take camping, lists of things i want to do in life; but most importantly, this is where i keep an excel spreadsheet of all the Thanksgiving food that the boy and i have made in the past three years (you can read about our Thanksgivings past here and here and here).

on this spreadsheet i mark down the name of the dish, the source (which cookbook, website, what part of the boy's brain the recipe is stored in), and a high level of the ingredients list so that i can get an idea of what the grocery bill will be before heading to the store. this year i'm also logging a reverse countdown of when dishes need to start cooking - countdown begins around 4 or 5 pm (when we sit down to eat) and goes backwards to yesterday, when i started making a few things like cranberry sauce and pecan pie.

this system works for me. what works for you?

a few weeks ago, we splurged and bought one of those countertop convection ovens, and frankly i've no idea how i got through life without it. i mean, i really don't know how i got through all this marathon cooking in the past without something like that in my life. i could have really used that thing this past summer when running our regular oven was unthinkable because the heat would be intolerable. yesterday i successfully made my first pecan pie in it (used regular bake function, not convection - i was afraid the pie would turn out too browned before its time). for the record, pie crust and i are not friends. i've not had great success with it, but i also haven't been practicing as much as i should have. this time around i think i did okay. i think part of my problem is not having enough patience to deal with it. pie dough is very finicky, it likes to stay cold and not be manhandled. i started the dough last weekend and froze it until the day before yesterday, when i took it out and let it thaw in the fridge. i used a Cook's Illustrated recipe for partially cooked crust, which uses both butter and shortening. the true test will be tomorrow when i bite into it, but so far i think it turned out alright. i need to work on making pretty edges à la Martha Stewart, but this is a good first attempt.

you know what frightens me? most pecan pie recipes call for a cup of corn syrup. the idea of that makes my teeth ache. i found a recipe (Cook's Illustrated) that calls for 3/4 cup of it, but i also figured What the hell, it's Thanksgiving. i've done so well on this Detox Plan, a little glucose won't kill me. Yet.

pecan pie reminds me of my Dad. he used to make it every year when i was a kid, and i believe that the recipe he used was one found on the side of the bottle of Karo Syrup. i never much liked the stuff growing up. in fact, i'll be honest, i don't think i've ever eaten pecan pie before. i made this one in honor of our friend Ken who is from South Georgia. Ken told the boy that he loves pecan pie, so i made him one. i will say that i was pretty happy with myself when i tasted the batter; perhaps that missing quarter of a cup of corn syrup is the key. i think pecan pie and i can be friends.

incidentally, how do you pronounce "pecan"? seeing as this is Ken's pie, i am now pronouncing it "Pee Can" (the South Georgia way), but others pronounce it "P-Cahn". my mom calls it "Pay Can", so i grew up with a distorted way of saying it even though my dad is Southern by birth. which team are you on?

wishing you all a fantastic Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A blathering dissertation on ... well, I’m not quite sure what (or, T-Day minus 8)

So I’m sure you’re wondering, especially after that last post, how the whole Great Detox of 2009 is going. Why, thank you for asking! It’s going really well, and I’ve managed to drop a few pounds in the process (the whole working out 6 days a week thing helped the pound loss too). And that whole thing I droned on about regarding not depriving myself, well it’s true. I’m not depriving myself. For example, last Friday night, the boy and I went out to eat someplace swanky, and I had scallops crusted with a layer of Asiago cheese, fresh pasta bathing in a pepper cream sauce, WARM CHOCOLATE CAKE! WHIPPED CREAM! And three glasses of Veuve Cliquot (or was it four? Bah, who’s counting). I had a grand ol’ time. The boy was eating lobster tail and we both dared each other to “do” a shot of butter (the butter in the ramekin which accompanied his lobster). I might have bet him 5 bucks to do it (which he didn’t), and let me tell you I was nearly tempted myself. Alas, the butter stayed put in its wee little ramekin.

I know it sounds as though we are starving ourselves, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m eating roughly every 3 hours or so. Breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner. The snacks have been mostly good quality granola bars and fruit – I’ve eaten enough pears to fill a tree. Thank God for pear season, seriously. Those things are so good, I can’t get enough of them and I’ve been eating them daily (along with apples and bananas) for two months straight. Gone is the white rice, replaced by brown rice, which if you’ve never had it before, tastes a lot better than white. Gone are potatoes – for the most part. I made Brunswick stew the other night with some leftover smoked pork the boy made, and I did cut up a few red potatoes to toss in there, but not as many as I previously would have. I’ve become friendly with all the different squash varieties in the produce aisle, things I’d never heard of before. They beckon me from their bins, all shades of red and orange and brown and green. I treat them all as I would a butternut squash (perhaps boring, but this works for me). Peel (if I’m in the mood, sometimes I don’t peel). Chop into cubes. Toss on a baking sheet with salt, pepper, a handful of chopped herbs (whatever I have available, sage is always a safe bet), and a carefully measured out tablespoon of olive oil. If you’re worried that the oil amount won’t cover it all, toss with your ridiculously clean hands to ensure even coating, or even use a pastry brush. You can even toss in a couple of roughly chopped garlic cloves for a bonus burst of flavor. Bake at 350 or 375, depending on your mood, and test with a fork after a half an hour. It could take up to 45 minutes. You can smoosh these up into a purée, or you could toss in the blender with some stock and call it soup. Or you could serve as a side. It’s pretty damn tasty and very healthy.

So we’re not using butter in our cooking (except for that whole shot dare thing), and we’re not eating cheese, and I’m being very frugal in my doses of oils when sautéing anything. During every trip to our local friendly Kroger grocery store, I have to walk through the cheese department on the way to the produce; and do you know that blue cheese has a wee little pipsqueak voice? It does! You’d never know, seeing as it’s strong in flavor – you’d think it would be all bellowing at me. But it calls to me in its pipsqueak voice, and I ignore it. Because I know when I really want to eat some, I will. Just not right now. Everything in moderation.

Segue into Thanksgiving. Yes, I’m going to eat my Dad’s stuffing. Yes, I’m going to make a big humongous village- sized crème brulée. And pear caramel cheesecake! And DEEP FRIED TURKEY (oh, and a roasted one too, for good measure). and the most buttery, sour creamed, dairy-filled, smoothest mashed potatoes ever. And homemade yeast rolls. Like I’d mentioned in a previous post, part of why I’m doing this whole GD of 2009 is that we’re coming up on the Big Eatin’ holidays. And big eating is about to begin. So next Thursday we’re going to eat like pigs, and be thankful that we can do such a thing. Then we’ll be back to lighter food by the weekend. And I’ll send the boy to work with the remnants of Thanksgiving dessert to share with his people (best not to keep things like that around the house).

This exercise in moderation (or quality control, or quantity control, whatever you want to call it) has been eye opening in a way. It makes me appreciate all the foods that I am not indulging in, such as the taste of butter, or a good ice cream. I savor those flavors even more now that I’m not having them all the time. We took three hours over dinner on Friday; we could have taken less time, but we were totally enjoying the hell out of ourselves, taking pleasure in each and every bite of food. People always envy restaurant critics, but lately I’ve come to realize I could never have that job – I think that my appreciation of food in general would wane. Eating out wouldn’t be enjoyable anymore; it could become trite. I hope I never get to that point in my life.

the above squash, a mix of butternut and red kuri, were blended into tasty soup.

my dad's cornbread and pecan stuffing, or T minus 9 and counting

Recent phone conversation with my mom.

Me: so what are you and Dad doing for Thanksgiving?
Mom: we might go to Phoenix to see your brother... but, tu sais, I don’t think I weel go. Your brother, he wants to fry the teur-kee. (audible shuddering heard through the phone).
Me: what’s wrong with that? fried turkey is delicious.
Mom: mais, eets so fattening! eets greasy! Quelle horreur! Well no wonder you are fat, you eat that?
Me: yes and it’s not nearly as fattening as you think. If you deep fry something on super high temperature, the oils won’t seep through (enter into scientific monologue)...
Mom: (cuts me off) Non, mais, that ees wrong. Teur-kee is not fried! And where do yoo put the stuffeeng? Eet falls out. You cannot fry the stuffeeng, non?
Me: well, no it can’t be stuffed if you fry it. so just make the stuffing on the side.


Me: mom? Hello? Are you still there?
Mom: Mais... stuffeeng ees not made on the side! Stuffing is in the teur-kee! Mais, nobodee makes it on the side! Non, that’s it, I am not going to Phoenix.

I didn’t bother to tell her that for the last 9 years, I’ve been using my dad’s stuffing recipe and cooking it on the side as a dressing instead of in the bird. She already had a mental vision of me chowing down on a whole fried turkey by myself. I am currently the Golden Child, so I’ll milk that 15 minutes for all it’s worth.

I think what’s great about Thanksgiving as a whole is that everyone in the US celebrates it, no matter what other country they’re from. The Vietnamese ladies at the local nail salon I go to were only too eager to tell me about what they would be eating for Thanksgiving the last time I was there and asked them about it (I had a somewhat difficult time keeping up with their chatter though. Also, I found it interesting to note that their husbands or brothers did most of the cooking, daily or Thanksgiving or otherwise). My mom holds on to her French identity quite fiercely, but tends to abandon it somewhat come Thanksgiving. She once told a French-born cousin of mine that she needed to give the traditional Thanksgiving a chance. My cousin is somewhat anti-American, which makes total sense don’t you think, considering her husband makes a fantastic living making money in the US and they live quite lavishly in some swanky house in Palo Alto.

I find it interesting too that people like my mom, who is always on the up and up when it comes to gourmet foods in general, simply cannot fathom cooking the stuffing on the side rather than in the bird. She falls into that Old Guard of cooks, the ones who’ve been making their turkeys the same way since 1950 or 1960 (in the case of the boy’s grandmother, who’s been making hers the same way since WWII, and this year is no different). The side dishes have changed (my mom hasn’t served cranberry sauce from a can since I was a wee tot), but the turkey remains the same. There is something quite comforting about this. I’m all about traditions and have a few of my own, but I’m also all about trying new things. Although frankly, there isn’t anything new anymore about people cooking their stuffing on the side anymore.

This is my dad’s stuffing recipe, which I’ve adapted somewhat from the original because I’ve added a few ingredients (like apple) and switched out the breakfast sausage for andouille and bacon. I don’t use the turkey neck and the giblets like my dad does, nor do I shove the stuffing in the bird cavities. You can if you want to, though. I have no idea where the original recipe was taken from – I want to say one of those Time Life cookbook series that were popular in the early 1970s. My dad faxed me a copy of it with my mom’s scribblings in the margins, and over the years I’ve added my own scribblings.

You can make your own cornbread here, or use those packaged dried bits. They're going to get rehydrated anyway, so in the interest of time, they're not a bad choice to use. my personal preference is to do something in between. This is when those 80 cent packages of Jiffy brand corn muffin mix come in handy. make two packages of cornbread a couple of days before the Big Day and store whole in a zippy lock type bag until ready to crumble up into the stuffing.

Mr. Phillips’ cornbread and pecan stuffing

all this is to taste. you can add less or more of each item.

1 lb breakfast-type sausage, or if you want more of a kick, andouille sausage
couple strips of bacon cut up into bits
1 ½ cups chopped onions
½ cup chopped celery
3 to 5 cups of coarsely crumbled cornbread (start low, add as you go if you want - 5 cups seems like a lot to me)
1 ½ cups chopped pecans
1 chopped apple (Granny Smith holds up well)
¼ cup bourbon or whiskey or cognac or sherry
¼ cup chicken stock
¼ cup chopped parsley
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)

1. In a large skillet, cook onions over medium-low heat with a pat of butter, a drizzle of olive oil, a teaspoon of sugar or brown sugar, stirring often. it will take a long while for them to caramelize, but you want that tasty good flavor, so start those and do something else in the meantime. when dark and browned and caramelized, remove from pan with a slotted spoon into a large bowl and start on sausage.

2. Remove sausage from casing and over medium heat, brown the sausage, breaking up with a fork and mashing the meat as you go. When no trace of pink is left, remove with a slotted spoon to a paper towel lined plate. Discard most of the oil. You can use the same pan to cook a few strips of bacon or use another pan. When bacon is crispy, remove to paper towel-lined plate.

3. Discard most of the oil in the skillet, but leave some for cooking and flavor. Sauté the celery until soft. Remove from skillet and put in the large bowl.

4. Add the drained sausage and bacon, the pecans, apple, cornbread, bourbon, chicken stock, herbs, salt and pepper to taste. Mix gently. Taste to see if you need to add more of any herb or seasoning. If it's not moist enough, add a touch more chicken stock. If it's too moist, add more cornbread. Place the whole of this into a buttered casserole dish and bake on 375 for 30 to 45 minutes (depending on your oven) until nice and hot. If you're making this the day before, cook for 30 to 35 minutes, and reheat the next day. Toss it into the oven right when the turkey comes out until it's warmed through.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

tasty peas (not really a recipe)

Amazing the things you can find lurking in your freezer. There I was leaning into the deep freezer in the garage, digging around for nothing in particular, when I came across several half-full bags of frozen vegetables. I was looking for a side to go with a seared piece of fish for lunch, so I immediately put on a pot of water to boil.

Tossed that half a bag of peas (about 8 oz) into the boiling water which I’d salted liberally, and let the peas swim around for a minute or two; then drained them and tossed into a bowl. Chopped up some mint I had leftover from a chimichurri marinade I made for last night’s dinner; tossed that into the pea bowl. Used up the half an avocado leftover from last night’s salad; chopped that up and threw into the bowl. Grated in some lemon zest; squeezed in the juice from half that lemon. Salted liberally. Drizzled in a wee bit of olive oil. Gently mixed it all together, and there I had enough for two lunch sides for me (one for today and one for tomorrow).

Really nice and bright, and a great way to use up the random things one can find in the fridge and freezer.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

breaking news: this just in!


i bought turkey bacon today.

i feel like i'm cheating on my good friend Regular Bacon. do you think Reg will ever forgive me?

the true test is in the taste, so we'll see how that goes when i chop Fake Bake up into bits and toss it into a pot of beans later. we shall see....

ah, who am i fooling.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

my friend Ryan's turkey chili, with which I ran off and did my own thing

A detestable dish sold from Texas to New York City and erroneously described as Mexican.**

Hoo wee! Lemme tell you right now that I am in no way going to add to the controversy over “Which state has the best chili” or “What is authentic chili”. For many years we, in this house, made only Texas-style chili because the boy didn’t like beans. Well, he likes them now – or if he doesn’t, he eats them because they are pretty good for you, plus it gives him endless fodder for fart jokes. And who doesn’t love a good fart joke?

One of the best quotes I’ve found which encompasses how I feel about chili is this one by Carroll Shelby, the race car driver and chili-starter-kit-maker (which I totally borrowed from the International Chili Society site)

The beauty of chili to me is that it's really a state of mind. It's what you want when you make it. You can put anything in there you want, make it hot or mild, any blend of spices you feel like at the time. You make it up to suit your mood.

And that settles that for me.

Over the weekend when the first cold winds blew through Atlanta, we began using our fireplace for the first time this season. I love the change of seasons, and I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I love all the foods associated with the change of seasons. All the lovely fall vegetables, pears, apples, and an endless list of stews and soups. Last Saturday night while I was trolling Facebook, my friend Ryan posted that she was making turkey chili with her stepdaughter, which immediately sparked my interest. I’ve never made turkey chili before. Our chilis are usually beef-centric. In the last month, the boy and I have spent a lot of time really thinking about the food we’re eating, due to that whole Lifestyle Change thing I wrote about in the previous blog post, which has led to less red meat in our diet. I tell ya, healthy eating is not easy. And by that I mean you have to really consciously put effort into meal planning. You can’t just grab a Stouffer’s frozen lasagna, toss that in the oven and call it a day (not that there is anything wrong with Stouffer’s lasagna – I realize it’s a great convenience to have and we’ve eaten our fair share of them when we didn’t have the time to plan anything, but have you seen the list of ingredients?). Here’s the thing: we still may not have the time to plan meals, but we make the time. That’s the thing about Lifestyle Changes, you must force yourself to make the time for working out and planning meals, and next thing you know it becomes second nature. If that means devoting a few hours on the weekend to sitting down and making a list, and cooking big vats of soup that will feed your family all week, well, make that time. Besides, you can cook together, and I find that cooking with people you love is a very harmonious and nice way to pass the time.

So anyhoo – Ryan was busy making turkey chili and I immediately commented on her FB status that I wanted said recipe, which she graciously typed up and sent over. The original recipe was her own creation, so I was really honored that she took the time to put it down on paper for me. She is good people. We are going to start a project together soon, but I’m not going to say much more about that now. It’s still brewing in the dark part of our brains, although we really do need to get on that. Ryan, let’s talk soon!

I took her recipe and ran with it, put my own twist on it. Keeping with Mr Shelby’s quote from above, I think you should do the same. I’d love to hear what variations you made!

My friend Ryan’s turkey chili, with which I ran off and did my own thing

1 lb. ground turkey
1 lb. turkey sausage (hot or sweet, depends on what you like) removed from the casings OR 1 lb. turkey kielbasa (smoked or not, up to you), chopped up into pieces
4 cups chicken stock
1 small can diced green chilies
3 cans of beans, drained (great northern, cannellini, red kidney, black beans, a combo of whichever you prefer)
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 carrots, peeled and chopped up small
2 celery ribs, chopped up small
1 can of corn, drained
½ green pepper, chopped up (you can use a whole pepper. I only had a half left in the fridge)
½ jalapeño, chopped up small (keep the seeds if you want it spicy. Hell, use the whole jalapeno)
½ of a 28 oz can of whole tomatoes
Chili powder
Dried oregano
Cayenne pepper
Kosher salt
Black pepper

1. Heat a nonstick skillet to medium /medium- high and brown the turkey meat and the turkey sausage together, breaking up with a wooden spoon, until it’s brown. If you are using turkey kielbasa instead of turkey sausage, leave this out for now and just brown the ground turkey. When there is no more pink left, drain the meat and set it aside.

2. In a large heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, add one tablespoon of olive oil and heat it on medium. Add the onion, carrot, celery, garlic, green pepper, and sauté this together, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon and scraping up the bottom as you go along. Add the drained turkey meat and if using, the chopped up kielbasa. Then add (to your liking):

• a tablespoon (or more) chili powder (start with a couple of teaspoons if you want it less spicy)
• a tablespoon (or more) each of cumin, paprika, and dried oregano
• ½ teaspoon cayenne powder (you can always add more later if you want more spice)
• ½ teaspoon of salt (you will probably add more later, so keep the salt to a minimum now and add later on – you can always salt more but you can never take it back)

3. Using half of the canned whole tomatoes, squeeze a few of the tomatoes into your pot to break them up a bit (using your impeccably clean hands!). {Save the remaining tomatoes for another day or for pasta}. Add the can of green chilies. Let this cook together for a bit, stirring occasionally.

4. Add 3 to 4 cups of chicken stock or chicken broth, and stir. Bring to a simmer, and let that cook for a few minutes. You can add more broth if it’s too thick. Then add all the beans (that you’ve drained), stir well while scraping up the bottom, and let the whole thing simmer. Let simmer for however long you want, half hour or so. Taste for seasonings – salt, maybe more chili powder or cumin or cayenne. You can always add hot sauce to your bowl when you eat it.

** Quote from a Mexican dictionary, courtesy of Food Timeline

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

the D word.

Things are changing around here. In my last post I wrote about eating enjoyable (read: really fattening tasty yummy stuff) in moderation, as I’m a firm believer in that (moderation, that is). In the past two weeks, the boy and I have embarked on what I’d like to call a “lifestyle change”. I use the term “lifestyle change” as opposed to “diet” – the word “diet” is so negative, don’t you think? In modern times we’ve put such a depressing twist on the word. I remember as a kid watching Dexatrim ads on TV which brainwashed women (including my mom, who as far back as I can remember has always been on a diet) into thinking they could take pills and lose a ton of weight quickly! Almost instantly! And the energy they had! A positive side effect to this is that they’d also have an impeccably clean house.

The word “diet” means a “Habitual course as of living or, esp., feeding; hence, food and drink regularly provided or consumed; fare” (my 1941 version of Webster’s Collegiate never steered me wrong. And yes, I still consult books and sometimes prefer to do that over searching the internet. I find books so much more romantic; so be it). The Latin diaeta came to be associated with the Latin word for day, dies. Which then ran off with ‘day’s journey’, ‘day’s work’, ‘day appointed for a meeting’, hence the modern use of the word diet not only referring to food but to daily conference. Anyhoo.

So for a short while (or maybe a long while) we’ll be engaged into eating lighter meals, as in: lighter in calories and fat. This has, as you can imagine, been a little weird getting used to. I’ve had to rediscover how to sauté onions without a good pat of butter and a nice drizzle of olive oil. I’ve actually been forcing myself to measure out by teaspoonfuls how much oil I’m using, if any. EGAD. I KNOW. THE SKY IS FALLING.

I’ve started to adjust my habits; it will take some time. It’s like learning how to cook again, in a way. It’s also bizarre to be reading every label of every jar and container I put in the grocery cart at the store. You’d be amazed at how much crap we willingly ingest on a daily basis. it's pretty gross.

Part of this lifestyle change has also meant that exercise is a huge part of it. We’re working out 6 days a week, for at least one hour. Part of this is because we are now embarking on what I like to call The Big Eatin’ Months, celebrating food holidays like Thanksgiving and all the office parties and cocktail parties that lead up to Christmas. The other part of this is because I hit 40 this year and I’ve noticed changes in my body – not reacting as it should, not able to drop a pound as easily as I used to, hangovers harder to get rid of – major discrepancies from when I was younger. And also, I recently saw a picture of me from behind, and WOW was that ever disappointing. But I’m not going to bore you all with that melodramatic crap; after all I am here to talk about food. When you think of that old word “diet”, the kind my mother would go on ( is still on, has been on as far back as I remember), you immediately think of deprivation. Here’s the deal: if I want French fries, by God I’m going to have them. I just won’t have any more of them for the rest of the week (or month). If I want French fries cooked in duck fat with a side of crispy bacon dripping with maple flavor, I sure as shit am going to eat them. But I’ll not eat them again for a while. I will feed the craving, and then I don’t need or crave it again for a while.

In order to make lighter food taste appealing, you have to season it properly and use a lot of herbs (this is not a new idea, I’m not reinventing the wheel here, but it makes total sense). The other day while stretching after one of the most strenuous workouts I’ve ever endured, I got to thinking about tomato basil soup. Actually, the guy on the DVD I was following was talking about tomato basil soup, and the idea stuck in my head. And now that we’ve solidly moved forward into my favorite season of all time, soup is welcoming. This particular soup is also a great way to use up the last of the summer basil, mine which is wilting and yellowing outside, not knowing what to make of this weather. I could also make pesto and freeze it for one dark, dismal winter day when I’m needing a bright burst of sunshine; and as much as that sounds appealing, I do not want to tempt myself with gobs of olive oil and parmesan cheese at this moment. I can see myself caving and tilting my head far back, mouth open wide, and dropping handfuls of freshly grated parm into my mug. Not a good idea.

This recipe is adapted from one in the first Barefoot Contessa book. As much as I do love basil, I thought the original amount called for was pretty hefty (four cups worth), but you can always add more if you feel the need to.

This will make 3 to 4 quarts, and I’m thinking it might freeze beautifully.

Roasted Tomato Basil Soup, adapted from The Barefoot Contessa

3 pounds Roma or plum tomatoes, cut in half lengthwise (they don’t have to be super ripe, as the roasting will help bring out their flavor)
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided (2 for tomatoes, 1 for onions)
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 ½ teaspoons black pepper
2 medium onions, chopped
4 to 6 garlic cloves, minced
¼ to ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (adjust to your spice likeness)
1 28-oz can of plum tomatoes
2 ½ cups (packed) basil leaves
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
1 quart chicken stock or vegetable stock

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. On a large rimmed sheet pan, toss together the tomato halves, the two tablespoons of olive oil, the salt and the pepper. Line the tomatoes cut side up and roast for 45 minutes. Remove from oven and move to the side while you get your stock pot on.

2. In a large stockpot on medium heat, heat the 1 tablespoon olive oil and sauté the onions, the garlic, and the red pepper flakes for 10 minutes. You may find that you need more olive oil, but I found this amount to be plenty. Once onions start to brown and caramelize, add the canned tomatoes, the basil, thyme, chicken or vedge stock, the roasted tomatoes and whatever juices that accumulated on the baking sheet. Bring to a boil, stirring frequently and breaking up the whole canned tomatoes, then bring to a simmer for 40 minutes, uncovered. Remove from heat.

3. Blend with a stick blender, regular blender, food processor, or food mill. If you are using a regular blender or food processor, remember to blend very small quantities at a time, lest hot liquid come shooting out, burn the crap out of you and leave you with a nice aromatic mess to clean up. Not that I have any experience in that.

4. Taste for seasonings (salt and pepper); chances are you will need a copious amount of salt, but salt a little at a time, tasting as you go until you are satisfied. If you’re making this to eat at a later date, wait until the soup has cooled to room temperature before salting. Why do I do this? I’m not sure. I probably saw it on TV someplace.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

good side effects spoken here

Remember when WOW chips first came out? Do they still even make WOW chips? I was a student living in Savannah at the time (late 1990s), and my landlady was the first to tell me about them. My landlady, Alice, was a loud Southern character who grew up on an old plantation outside of town. She was very skeptical of foreigners and non-Southerners (once calling a Chinese student That Chinaman), but decided I must okay because my Dad was born in Mississippi. She mostly talked to me about food and dieting. One afternoon she treated her tenants to a cookout and brought over several bags of this new WOW potato chip, then spent the rest of the afternoon yakking my ear off about how wonderful they were because even though she considered them “diet food”, they were just like a greasy potato chip, and Alice was all about the greasy potato chip. So I’m sitting there listening to her and eating WOW chips by the ton, and I started to agree with her. Those things didn’t taste half bad! But as the afternoon wore on, my stomach started to feel a bit odd, and later that evening I found myself in the bathroom a whole hell of a lot. I won’t take you down that visual of a road, but let's just say that it wasn’t until the next morning that I saw the warning label on the side of the bag that announced to no one in particular that said chips could potentially cause you to have a case of what my friend Patty calls The Dire Rear. Good times.

Anyway, all that to tell you that if you want a chip, eat a real chip. I mean, how often does a person eat chips anyway? (Ok don’t answer that question). It’s the same for me at Starbucks. I never go to Starbucks anymore; but if I do, and if I happen to order a Mocha, why on earth would I order it fat free and with no whipped cream? Why deny myself the simple pleasures of life? It’s not like I’m downing Mochas every day. Everything in moderation. You have to balance it all out. Yin and yang. You catch my drift.

Duck fat is one of those things that should be eaten in moderation. It’s also one of those “simple pleasures of life” that I hold right up there with clean sheets, eating an Oreo that’s been dunked into a very cold glass of milk, and riding a bike with no hands (look Ma!).

You can purchase duck fat or obtain your own by slowly cooking a duck on low heat. It’s kind of hard to find a place that will sell the fat raw unless you’re super friendly with your butcher (you can find it rendered and packaged ready to go via Froogle, but frankly i'm a bit skeptical of that finished product). The average grocery store will not carry it. In Atlanta we have this wonderful institution called the Dekalb County Farmers Market, and they sell it there. They also sell pig fat for those days you get a hankerin for some rillettes.

So what exactly is confit? The general definition is a duck (or goose, or piece of pig) cooked very slowly in its own fat, then stored in the same fat used to cook it in. A newer definition of the word describes confit to be a vegetable or fruit cooked to a jam-like consistency; if you watch Top Chef you’ll have noticed the chefs like to throw that one around a lot. But I’m not talking vedge here, I’m talking duck.

Duck fat by itself is a wonderous thing and will freeze beautifully. I’m not sure how long it’ll stick around in the fridge, I’ve seen reports varying from two months to whenever. I lean on the side of whenever. Fats were used as a preservative back in the old days before refrigeration, so I’ve no trouble keeping a container of it around in the fridge to have handy.

Earlier this summer, the boy and I made the pilgrimage to DCFM; since it isn’t exactly la porte à coté, we make the most of these trips and stock up on all kinds of dried goods and spices. The main reason for our trip, though, was to secure some duck fat and buy a duck or two, as we were making duck confit. I could bore you with the details of what we did to render out the fat, but instead I’ll direct you to the Very Excellent blog Sugarlaws, which demonstrates it and shows gorgeous photos of goldeny goodness.

so now we have containers of duck fat in the fridge and freezer to have around for when you need a tablespoon or two of it. To use in what, you say? How about some fried potatoes? Or as my friend Darrel likes to call them, Fancy Duck Taters.

In order to get your taters to be Ducked and Fancied, you will need to start by par-boiling some potatoes until they are nearly cooked all the way through, then let them cool. how many potatoes per person? that depends on your appetite. one medium sized Yukon should yield enough fries to serve one person, but if you're a glutton or just simply really enjoy fries, i would err on the side of More Potato.

Add some of your rendered and saved duck fat to frying pan or large skillet. You’ll need enough to coat the bottom of the pan, plus a couple of tablespoons. Turn the burner on high, then when the fat has melted and is hot enough , kick it back down to medium-high. An old trick to figuring out if the oil (or fat in this case) is hot enough is to stick the handle of a wooden spoon straight down in it, and if bubbles form around the spoon, then it’s ready.

You can do a test run, like we did in these pictures, by frying up a few potato slices to see if the fat is hot enough; and besides it’s nice to have some fries to snack on while the main batch are cooking away. Slide your potato slices into the fat and cook, occasionally basting them with the fat. When they are crispy brown on one side (this should take a few minutes), flip them over to cook on the other side.

When the potatoes are golden brown on both sides, remove them from the fat and place them onto one of those wire cooling racks you use for baking that you’ve placed over a cookie sheet and sprinkle with kosher salt and pepper. If you don’t have one of these cooling racks, you could use a paper towel-lined bowl and toss the potatoes around, salting and peppering liberally.

We ate these with a spatchcocked chicken (otherwise known as butterflied chicken or chicken-under-a-brick, which we’ve made here and here).

We don’t eat this way every day, in fact I’d say for obvious reasons, you shouldn’t eat potatoes cooked this way very often. Remember that whole “Everything in moderation thing”? however, the side effects of these potatoes are quite the opposite from WOW chips: a case of the full and happy belly. No Dire Rear here.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Yeah yeah. i'm about to get all locavore-y on your ass. But just mildly locavore-y.

Every once in a while, I’ll swing by Nell’s Produce Stand , which is located in the parking lot on the corner of Old Alabama and Nesbit Ferry Roads, across from Mt Pisgah school in Alpharetta. I’d been going to them about once a week all summer, as they carried the best peaches from South Georgia, for cheap too. Looky here:

Look how big this sucker was, and it was full of flavor too! You’d think a piece of fruit this big would be bland and unsatisfactory, but no.

It’s no longer peach season, but I swung by there today anyway as I remember seeing some juicy figs there a couple of weeks ago. However, I was disappointed to discover that fig season is no longer. According to the guy hosting the stand today (I forgot to ask his name), Georgia had a wee small window of fig season, a bit less than a month it seems like. By the time I gathered all the fig recipes I wanted to use (such as the fig preserves from last month’s Food and Wine magazine), the figs were gone. I am sad.

They did have these little babies though.

These are Scupperdine grapes. According to the guy at the stand, they’re cousins to the Muscadine, which I’ve heard of because those type of grapes make a mighty tasty French wine (Muscadet). According to a tiny bit of Google research (ok, I did about 10 seconds worth), American Scupperdine is a cross between Scuppernong and Muscadine grapes, for what that’s worth to you.

So what are they like?

Well, for starters, I always inevitably open up the bag the minute I get back in the car, and I’m hit in the face with an intense grapiness, for lack of a better word. You know what grocery store grapes smell like? Intensify that by 200%. So then you pop one in your mouth, and it’s not at all what you expect. A hard skin easy to break through with your teeth, with a soft milder interior, they’re very much like candy and reminiscent of a grape flavored Now and Later. It’s been probably 25 years since I last had a grape-flavored Now and Later, and there I was experiencing it again – except this stuff isn’t fake AND it’s good for you. The skin gives the fruit an almost sour side, but you soon forget it as your mouth becomes engulfed in an extreme grapiness. I ate about 5 on my way home (and I live less than a mile away), spitting the seeds out of the car window as I drove along. Very classy, I know.

I also bought these skinny Japanese eggplant, provided by a farmer in Rincon GA (Rincon is right close to Savannah). I’ve never seen Japanese eggplant that slender, even at the Super H. I foresee myself cutting these in half lengthwise and grilling them, sprinkling with salt and pepper and drizzling with a bit of olive oil.

Nell’s Produce also has some non-local stuff, but I only buy Georgia-grown there. Why not? Support your local farmer.

Off soapox now.

Definition of locavore can be found here.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

comfort food in a not so comforting moment

The Atlanta area got hit with some major ridiculous weather the past couple of days, which has left roads blocked, damaged, flooded, people stranded and sadly, worse. I myself didn’t go in to work – they evacuated my building yesterday mid afternoon anyway, as it was losing power. I can work just as well from home, and in fact get a lot more work done without constant interruptions from the riff raff at the office.

The boy hasn’t been so lucky, as he’s had to go in to work. I knew that after a long day with a commute from hell that he’d want something warm and comforting for dinner, something that once he walked in the door and smelled the aroma in the air, would make it worth coming home to. So I roasted a chicken.

I’ve mentioned before that roasted chicken is one of my favorite comfort foods, and fortunately it doesn’t take a long time to prepare. i’ve been using this recipe for years, but even I will admit that sometimes I don’t feel like messing with the chicken every 20 minutes, flipping it around and whatnot. You can just throw it in the oven for an hour and 10 minutes and it’s pretty much done.

If you’ve got a v-rack, like the one pictured above, use that. A lot of roasting pans these days come with one. I have an adjustable one, but a stationary one is just fine. If you don’t have a v-rack, you could use one of those grid-like cooling racks used for baked goods and put that on top of a lipped sheet pan, or make a bed of celery stalks/carrots/potatoes, and place your chicken on top of that. I prefer to have the chicken elevated off of the roasting pan because if I don’t, the bottom part of the chicken against the pan will sit in it’s own melted fat; while this is not necessarily bad at all, it makes for a kind of whitish area and flabby skin – unappealing really.

I do a couple of things to the chicken before tossing it onto the rack. Earlier in the day, or even the night before, take a stick (or half a stick – depends on personal preference) of butter out of the fridge and let come to smooshable room temperature. Preheat your oven to 375 F. Put the room temperature butter in a bowl and add things to it, things like dried herbs, herbes de Provence, lemon zest, fresh herbs – it’s really up to you. There are no measurements for this, just add what you have that sounds good. I would watch how much dried herb you put in though, because too much dried herbs can really be too much. Then, mush all this together with your (very clean) hands, or with a fork if you’re squeamish about that stuff. Set aside while you prep your chicken.

Get a small bowl of kosher salt and have that handy, as well as some canola or vegetable oil – you want these separate from their original containers so as to not contaminate them with raw chicken. Remove store packaging from the chicken (the supermarket chickens I get are around 3.5 to 4.5 lbs. in case you’re wondering), reach into the cavities (both ends) to fish out any parts that might be shoved in there – discard parts if you’d like, or save them for another use. Rinse the chicken under cold water then pat dry with paper towels. Set the chicken on a plastic cutting board.

You’ll want to do something about those pesky chicken wings that are sticking straight up in the breeze. I usually bend these back out of the way, like so:

It might need some coaxing, but it’s doable. Get over your squeamishness now – this is not the time for wilting violets.

Next, take a small handful of the compound butter you made earlier and very carefully push it under the breast skin trying not to rip the skin. Put as much of it under there as you’d like on both sides. Shove whatever butter is left into the cavity. You can also shove any number of things in the cavity, such as the lemon used earlier for zest (cut in half), a bulb of garlic cut in half or even just a few cloves, a handful of parsley, etc.

Now, douse the entire chicken all over with the canola or vegetable oil. Make sure all exposed surfaces are coated. Liberally coat all over with the kosher salt.

Put the rack onto a roasting pan. Using spray oil or even just a paper towel folded up and coated with canola oil, grease up the rack you’re using. Place chicken on top of the rack. Dump about a half cup of water into the bottom of the rack. This will prevent flare ups when the chicken fat starts dripping down into the bottom of the pan. Put chicken in the oven for 1 hour and 10 minutes. Check the temperature of the breast, it should be 160 F. I usually cook my chickens anywhere between 1 hour and 10 mn to 1 hour and 20 mn and it’s done. Remove chicken from the oven and let rest to the side. You can wait a few minutes and remove the chicken from the rack onto a carving board (remove from rack using clean kitchen towel or an old pair of oven mitts) and tent with foil.

As an accompaniment to the chicken, I also roasted some onions on the side. You could roast these after the chicken comes out of the oven (or even do it earlier in the day – this dish can be served room temperature). You could do it at the same time but adjust your cooking time, as the original recipe calls for them to be roasted at a higher temperature than the chicken. I will admit that I totally snagged this recipe from The Barefoot Contessa at Home, slightly modified. I absolutely love roasted onions. This recipe makes enough for two to three people as a side.

2 red onions
fresh thyme sprigs
juice of one lemon
1 teaspoon Dijon
2 cloves garlic, minced
1.5 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley

Preheat oven to 400 F. Cut onions in half root to sprout end, then peel each half, keeping root intact. Cut wedges of onion through theroot, that way the wedges stay intact. Put onion wedges in a bowl.

Make vinaigrette by mixing lemon juice, Dijon mustard, garlic, salt, and pepper in a bowl then drizzling in the olive oil all while mixing with a fork or small whisk. Toss vinaigrette with the onions. With a slotted spoon or by hand, move the onions to a baking sheet, and save the bowl with the vinaigrette in it. Put baking sheet in oven and bake for 20 minutes. Remove pan from oven and toss the onions or flip them with a spatula. Replace pan in oven for another 15 to 20 minutes until onions are browned and soft. Remove from oven, drizzle with the remaining vinaigrette, top with fresh parsley, and serve warm or at room temperature.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

detox food

So it’s been a crazy couple of weeks. Camping during Labor Day weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway was a blast – although the infield has turned into quite the zoo. It’s always been a circus, as you never know what is going to happen. I don’t talk politics on this blog (and I will never talk politics on this blog) but just to prove to you what kind of circus we are dealing with, let me present to you Exhibit A:

We were intrigued, to say the least. Like, What the fuck does that mean? So the boy went over to knock on the door of this guy’s camper, and who should emerge but a slack-jawed yokel with about 4 teeth in the whole entirety of his head. What came out of his mouth is not something I am comfortable with repeating on this blog. I’d like to say that the South has come a long way, but then sometimes you just have to shake your head at the few people left who are like that.

So I did mention we were camping in the infield at Atlanta Motor Speedway, right? Key word: camping.

This is my friend Erica. I made her pose for this just so that I could capture what was going on behind her and cherish this moment forever. These are two female campers in the infield bathroom at AMS. No matter that it was a humid sweatbox in the bathrooms, these chicks were straightening their hair and putting on a full face of makeup come hell or high water! You just never know who you might meet at AMS, possibly catch yerself a future husband, who knows! You gotta be prepared and bring the entire contents of your bathroom! God I love the South.

Erica introduced me to her favorite adult beverage, which she calls Freds. Freds are vodka and Fresca. I became very good friends with Fred on Saturday, probably too good. Picture me in a denim miniskirt and cowboy hat standing atop our friend Ken’s Ford F-150. Not the bed of the truck, atop. I was hooty hooing with the best of them. And then I fell backwards off the truck (what is that, a 5 foot drop?). I remember when it happened, and the only thought that popped into my pea brain was, “Gee, I hope I don’t spill my drink”. I remember the look on a friend’s face as I tipped backwards, and all the people standing on top of the converted school bus camped next to us whose mouths formed Os and eyes got wide. And I fell… and bounced on my ass, and got right back up. Had I been sober, I probably would have tried to break my fall by reaching behind me, therefore breaking my wrist or my arm. However, had I been sober, I wouldn’t have been standing on top of an F-150 in a friggin miniskirt screaming “WOOOOOOOOO!”

I did end up spilling my drink after all.

The rest of Saturday was spent drinking Red Bull while trying to sober up and apologizing to everyone and no one in particular about how sorry I was that I was drunk.

I spent about an hour walking around the pits people-watching. The people-watching in the pits is vastly different than what goes on in the infield. For one, it’s much cleaner and not as dusty as the infield. Secondly, the caliber of women changes dramatically. The pits are full of women wearing ridiculously expensive eyewear all blinged out to hell, and a ton of makeup. The infield is full of women wearing name brand knockoffs, not much in the way of clothing, and a ton of makeup. I didn’t get to see anyone famous there, but it was fun nevertheless.

We ate well (we always do). Steaks, stuffed and grilled jalapenos, smoked pork butt, Cuban burgers, more breakfast than anyone could eat. Billy Ray was handing out cigars, so I smoked one of those. I do love me a good cigar every once in a while.

Last weekend a friend of mine got married. A while back I had volunteered to make her wedding cakes, so I spent the three days before the wedding making 125 cupcakes (in 5 different flavors), the groom’s cake, and another small cake to put on top of the cupcake tree (all while juggling work). The wedding was beautiful, the bride was gorgeous, and everyone was pleased with my work.

But now it’s time to detox. I’ve been overindulging in a bit of everything, plus with all those evenings spent baking, the last thing I wanted to do was cook so we ordered out a lot; pizza, Chinese, whatever. My body started to rebel by feeling sluggish and not cooperating with me. I hate that feeling.

As a reward to myself for a cake job well done, I went and got a professional manicure and pedicure. When they’re done tarting you up, you get ushered to sit at a table that has built in fans under the tabletop for you to place your hands and feet that way the polish dries faster. I kind of hate this part because I am not a particularly patient person when it comes to nail polish drying. i want to get up and go and do something. So I’m sitting there, bored, flipping through a bunch of magazines I would normally never flip through, things like People and Women’s Health, and it was while on the last pages of what I think was Women’s Health that I came across a couple of pages of recipes. They weren’t even written like a normal recipe, just a few lines of text accompanied by a photo. The theme was Summer Recipes, so therefore light fare, and when I ran across this one particular list of ingredients I just knew that this would be the perfect way to start my detox week. i very carefully pulled my iPhone out of my bag so that I could gingerly type notes into it.

This makes an excellent portable lunch. You could dress the seafood in the morning while packing it up if you wanted to, but I kept both the dressing and seafood in separate Lock & Lock containers and dressed it at the last minute. Don’t dump all the dressing in, because you’ll probably only need about half of it; you can always add more but can’t subtract. In these photos I used halibut because it’s what I had on hand at that time, but I’ve since also made it with shrimp and it’s really just as good.

Couple of pinches of 5 spice powder
2 tablespoons soy
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 to 2 teaspoons grated ginger
1 clove garlic, minced
½ minced jalapeno or one of those spicy thai chilis
1 to 2 tablespoons minced bell pepper
1 to 2 minced scallions
2 cups cooked lobster, crab, shrimp, or other white fish that could stand up to this kind of dressing (I used halibut, which I’d broiled)
Salt and pepper

Mix all ingredients except seafood together. Add to cooked seafood and toss together.

The magazine suggested serving this on rolls or rice cakes. Personally I think rice cakes suck a bunch of ass, but I bought some for this purpose. And I will say I was totally surprised that plain rice cakes turned out to be the perfect vessel for this. The dressing is already rather strong flavored, so you don’t want something competing with it; and besides if you’re on The Great Detox Plan Which I’m Sure To Give Up On Pretty Soon, rice cakes are the way to go. You can always slather peanut butter on them and call it Snack if you’re not sure what to do with the extra.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Suck it, Trebek.

So I get teased a lot. People sometimes don’t know what to make of me because I grew up in France yet I’m into NASCAR. The two don’t go hand in hand, they say. You don’t seem like the type who likes NASCAR, they say. But you’re not a redneck!, they say. It’s kind of like Chuck Klosterman and his love for Pamela Anderson; you’d never think a guy like him would be into a “girl” like her. But there it is. I like NASCAR and I’m proud to be a fan. If you’ve been a reader for a while, you know that this wasn’t an overnight dealio. It grew gradually, and culminated in a race weekend last October at the Atlanta Motor Speedway.

My mother already thinks that living in the South has warped my brain; she’ll not know what to think once she finds out I watch this crap. Although I need not worry, because she’s probably never heard of NASCAR. Formula 1, yes. Stock car racing? Mais, c’est pour les ploucs**, she’d say.

Tomorrow at 2 pm EST the gates to the infield at Atlanta Motor Speedway will open to campers, and I will be there in Sammy the Ford Escape following the boy and Ken who are towing the 1970s camper which will be our home until Monday. A month or so ago when I called AMS to buy our infield tickets, the lady on the other end of the line told me, in a surprised and pleased tone of voice, that the infield campsites were all sold out – unheard of. This is very exciting news. This means that me and a couple thousand other drunks will be hooty-hooing from our camp spots, and a fun time will be had by all.

Contrary to popular belief, the entire weekend is not just devoted to drunky-pantsing it (although drinking heavily is one of the fun factors, if drinking is your sort of thing). We also eat pretty damn well. This takes some pre-planning, as this year our communal campsites will probably host 25ish people (give or take a few). I’ve had people poke fun at me because I make massive Google docs filled with lists: packing lists, grocery lists, menus, etc... and all I have to say is: SUCK IT. I am a born planner. Camping with that amount of people without some sort of plan stinks. Once I am somewhere, I do not want to budge. I don’t plan on leaving the infield this weekend because I happened to forget something, which will force me to run to the closest Wal Mart. Don’t get me wrong - of course there are times where unplanning is fun, like when two of you are on vacation in the Bahamas or something, and you just want to let life unfold and roll with it. I am a huge fan of surprises. But when one has been unofficially designated the Project Manager for 25ish people camping in the infield, some order and preparation is necessary and vital for my sanity and the sanity of others.

Most of our friends are arriving Saturday, so Friday night will be grilled steaks for the three of us. Saturday is Wingapalooza – wings all day. The boy has been prepping chicken wings for a week or so now, cutting off the wing tips, freezing the wing parts in Foodsaver bags, preparing his spice mixture. All of this is necessary because there is nothing worse than having to butcher wings on a makeshift cutting board while camping, as the boy knows firsthand. The main focus of Sunday’s dinner will be Bobby Flay’s Cuban burgers, which we've made there before and are a huge success. I already have the aioli ready to go. I delegated several people to shop, so that one person wasn’t stuck with the astronomical grocery bill. Everyone is responsible for their own booze.

So here’s to you, whether you’re a NASCAR fan or not, or whether you’re one of those who poops on my planning (therefore not invited to join us, sucks to be you doesn’t it – YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE) . I hope you all have a great Labor Day weekend.

Go #14!

** But that's for hicks!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

the barefoot contessa's strawberry jam

my attempts at running have been thwarted by this muggy heat. there's no way in hell i'm going back out into that for a run after i get home from work in the afternoons - no way. this saddens me as i know it'll hurt when i do get back into running later this year.

i did take a few weeks off after running in the Peachtree Road Race, but being idle does not suit me. i get lazy and then hate the fact that i'm lazy, then beat myself up over it. what's the use of that? so i started using my elliptical machine again, which is inside the air-conditioned house. the boy has named it Sven, so that he can joke about me having a hot date with Sven later on. (side note: Sven??? seriously. what kind of name is that? the tall Nordic boys were never my type. not that i have a type. anyway).

so i'm back to watching a lot of crappy TV while on a hot date with Sven. we recently upped our cable package and now have Showtime, Encore, etc..., but let me tell you, there is usually not a damn thing on anyway. except for one day, while flipping around, i watched Ina Garten make strawberry jam. and as soon as i hopped off Sven (heh), i ran off to get the ingredients for this.

my mom is a good cook, although she tends to never follow recipes at all. she owns a lot of cookbooks but i doubt she's even glanced through a good portion of them. most of them are from places like the Zuni Cafe or Stars, places she's eaten where the food was lovely, so she felt compelled to buy the cookbook. she has handwritten recipes on index cards and the margins of ripped out magazine articles scattered around her kitchen, but when it comes down to following a recipe, she will go with her gut (with more or less success). this is why it's so hard for me to get a recipe out of her. if i've had a good dish at her house and ask for the recipe, she gets flustered and says, "Mais, i don't know, i don't measure, you just pour it in. Tu m'ennuies".

she has never been much into canning or preserving; although having said that i remember one summer weekend spending the day with her and my brother in the forest of St Germain en Laye gathering raspberries which grew wild all along the park lanes. we took every pot and deep bowl in the house we could find, and filled them all up. i remember the sweet smell of raspberries and sugar boiling away on the stove, and the jam she made from them. she never made jam again, preferring to buy it ready-made. but i wonder if that raspberry memory of mine is what prompts me to attempt jam every few years. i had very little success with preserving until i came across Ms Garten's recipe (see here for a ridiculous failed attempt a while back). because the strawberries that are available now are marvelously sweet, i've cut back the amount of sugar in the original recipe to 2 cups (3 cups just seemed like a whole hell of a lot). the end result makes two mason jar pints. Ms Garten says it will keep refrigerated for at least 2 weeks, but mine never does because the elves eat it up before it ever comes near going bad.

strawberry jam, adapted from Barefoot Contessa: Back to Basics

3 pints strawberries
2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons orange-flavored liqueur
1/2 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and small-diced
1/2 cup fresh blueberries

1. Wash and hull the strawberries. Cut the larger berries in half or quarters and leave the small berries whole. Place the strawberries in a Dutch oven and toss them with the sugar and orange-flavored liqueur.

2. Bring the berry mixture to a boil over medium heat, stirring often. Add the apple and blueberries and continue to keep the mixture at a rolling boil, stirring occasionally, until the jam reaches 220 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. This should take 25 to 35 minutes. Skim and discard any foam that rises to the top. Allow the mixture to cool to room temperature and then store covered in the refrigerator.

Monday, August 3, 2009

chickpea and kale curry

the other day when my buddy Caprice and i were busy chatting via gchat about various summertime salads, she passed along this recipe she’d made several times for a type of chick pea and spinach curry that could be done in the slow cooker. to me, this is fantastic, as it adds to my growing list of dishes i don't have to make in a traditional oven. Here in Atlanta we’ve reached that window of mugginess where I refuse to run the oven if I can help it – it will heat up the house indecently, make the A/C run overtime, and generally make me irritable as hell. The only time I’ve not been totally irritated while cooking in the middle of summer in front of an overheating oven was one time when the boy and I were working a catering job in Annapolis, MD a few years back. We had set up a makeshift kitchen in the client’s garage, but the client insisted we lower the garage doors when the guests arrived so that the guests would be spared seeing the hired help at work. The windows had been nailed shut, so there was no fresh air flow coming in. So as we’re plating stacked heirloom tomato and crispy pancetta salads, I looked down at the instant read thermometer in my jacket pocket to see that it was a mere 125 degrees F in that tiny garage (the boy later joked about how we were medium-rare). that sounds totally miserable – and it was, for a moment. But we knew it was temporary, and we knew we had to kick ass and make the food look effortless and elegant, so work our asses off we did. To this day the boy and I still laugh about that afternoon.

Caprice insisted that I use dried chick peas, as the difference between canned and dried is major. I promised I would, planned on making this dish over the weekend. then yesterday I forgot to buy dried chick peas (in my defense, I was thwarted by a hangover). I was kind of irritated with myself this morning when I realized this lack of judgment on my part, so I figured I’d use canned and cook it in a Dutch oven (no need to break out the slow cooker if I’m only cooking this dish for an hour). This is my version of the recipe, swapping kale for the spinach because spinach tends to shrink to about nothing, and I like a bit of texture in my cooked greens. I will make a mental note of trying this again with dried chickpeas.

This will make several lunches for me (3 or 4, depending on how hungry I am), with a nice squirt of sriracha to spice it up – totally untraditional to the origins of this dish, but I pretty much add sriracha or Texas Pete to a lot of things I eat. One day my stomach lining will thank me I’m sure.

chick pea and kale curry

2 15-oz cans of chick peas
1 cup chicken stock (or water, if you want to make this totally vegan)
8 cups kale, ripped into large pieces
2 15-oz cans diced tomatoes
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons garam masala
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped

1. Drain chickpeas, then toss into a Dutch oven with 1 cup water or chicken stock, kale, tomatoes, coriander, cumin, garam masala, turmeric, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, and pepper.

2. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and cook for one hour. Sprinkle in remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, stir in cilantro and serve.