Monday, October 31, 2011

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Beautiful Sou-oop!

Tonight, we had a few friends over, and I made soup. Beautiful soup. We've started this as a new social thing, so once a month, we invite some friends over for a meal. Last month, I made pizza. Tonight, it was soup.

Stock is pretty easy, and you can make it from leftovers and unused bits from other meals. I buy chicken breasts with the bone in for meals, and in the summer stick the bones in the deep freeze until it's cool enough to use the stovetop for several hours at a time. Like, say, this week, when it's been delightfully cool, with lows in the forties. Easy-peasy, just drop some bones and some vegetable scraps (tops of onions & carrots, and potato skins leftover from preparing other meals - I've also added basil, bell peppers and other veggies that I've had laying about) in a stockpot, add water and boil it for 30 minutes, then let it simmer for 3-4 hours, adding water as needed to keep it at a constant level.

I measure it into freezer containers, let it cool and skim the fat off the top, then freeze it.

Tonight, it was chicken vegetable soup and potato-leek soup.

The first is super-simple (NPI), just cut up 2-3 carrots, 3-4 potatoes and a large onion into 6-8 cups of stock, add some chicken (I had about half a roast chicken left over, and chopped that meat into nice little bits) and bring to a boil, then simmer for several hours with the lid on, and season to taste - I used a little bit of sea salt, some black pepper and a pinch of thyme. Your Spices May Vary.

Potato-leek soup is a little more work, but rich and creamy and worth the effort.

Slice 2 leeks, all the way up until you're cutting the green part and mince a clove or two of garlic.  Melt half a stick of butter in a stock pot and drop in the leeks and garlic, cook them until they're getting soft, but before they start to caramelize.  Pour in 6 cups of chicken stock and add 3-4 large potatoes, peeled and sliced.  Cook until the potatoes are mushy (that's a technical term) and remove the stock pot from the stove and run the soup through a blender a cup or two at a time until it's thick and, well, soupy.  Pour the blended soup into the stock pot and put it over low heat for a bit, then pour in a couple of cups of half and half, and then a cup of heavy whipping cream.  Get it heated all the way through, stirring it to keep the cream from scorching.  Serve hot with some sharp cheddar or Double Gloucester, or serve cold with sour cream and bacon crumbles.

I baked bread to go with it, using Julia Child's recipe from The Way To Cook.  Two round loaves, and 4 mini baugettes.  

Super tasty, but I might be a wee bit biased.

I'm very happy now that it's soup season again.  There's a Cajun deli near my house, so I'm thinking I'm gonna pick up some Andouille sausage and make some Cajun minestrone this winter.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Holidays Are Getting Closer... AND LEON'S GETTING LAAAARGER

No offense to any of my readers named Leon.

We're heading into the home stretch for Winter holidays - Halloween Monday, then Thanksgiving (for us folks in the US), then Christmas and New Year's.  I'm looking forward to all of them, especially Thanksgiving, because I loves me some turkey, yes.

We'll be here in Austin for Turkey Day, probably with the In-Laws, and then the day after Thanksgiving, it's our annual Potluck/Turkey Carcass Soup Leftoverpalooza, where we invite everyone we know to empty their fridge of leftovers and come over for pie and homemade soup.

Christmas will be in Georgia, with my parents, then we should be back home in time for our usual New Year's Eve - deciding about 10 PM or so that "it's midnight somewhere in the world, let's have a glass of champagne and get some sleep".  Yeah, we live wild and free, baby.

You folks got your plans made yet?

Next post:  Soup, stock and a couple of recipes for it.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

BBQ Sauce

As even a casual BBQ eater knows, there are a variety of sauces, rubs and dips available out there.  They originally varied geographically, but in our mobile society, you can find then everywhere.  Purists make their sauces from scratch, simmer them for hours, can them and age them.

I don't have the time for that, so I'll tell you how to make your own sauce, the way I learned.  The basic recipe I got from my father, who in turn learned it from his friend Mickey, who grew up in Tennessee.*  I've made my own modifications, and never written it down before now.  There aren't any exact measurements, because it's not about precision, it's about taste.  I taught this recipe to a friend once, and he spent the entire time writing down everything I said, estimating "so, about a quarter cup of sugar?" and stuff like that.  I almost couldn't do it - it's like the story about how the centipede could walk just fine, until someone asked him how he coordinated his legs, and then he was thinking about it so much, he couldn't walk.

* - Correction, the recipe here is based on my father's own recipe, Mickey's recipe was mustard based.  This is what happens when you rely on your memory instead of asking questions.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Pigs, And What They're Good For

There's something about the smell of a whole pig cooking over carefully banked coals that's just right to me.  It started for me when I was a wee tot, growing up in Atlanta.  We lived then in a nice, middle-class neighborhood in the northeast of Atlanta.  The houses were built in the 1920s and 30s, there were oaks and dogwoods and all the trimmings of that existence.  A group of families started having a pig roast every September, on Labor Day weekend, and inviting everyone to come.  My father was a part of that, and he and the other men would set up camp in a local park on Saturday morning, where they had a permit to dig a pit and cook the pig.  They'd set up a couple of awnings and haul in coolers full of Pabst Blue Ribbon, unfold their lawn chairs and dig a pit, lining it with cinderblocks.  The fire was started with the proper ceremonies -  wood would be stacked in, doused with lighter fluid and a lit match would be thrown in, causing a mushroom-shaped fireball to jet up towards the tops of the poplars around the roasting site.  Shortly thereafter, someone would show up with a huge (to me) dead pig in the back of his car, which would be carefully set on a steel pipe/fencewire rack, and once the fire had died down and the coals were spread out evenly, it'd be manhandled on to the pit.

The children of the neighborhood were segregated by age - those under 5 didn't come at all, 5-10 could stay until nightfall (when their mothers took them home), but the kids 10 and up - oh, what a treat!  We were allowed to stay up all night long!  As a rule, most kids didn't manage that - sometime around 1 or 2 in the morning, their fathers would find them curled up in their sleeping bags, sound asleep and worn out from the excitement.  Some of us, though, made it through the night.  By the time I was 11, my older brother and his friends had figured out that after 10PM or so, the dads stopped paying close attention to the beer coolers.  This led to some experimentation, never to dangerous excess, but I look back and cringe at the thought of something like that happening today.  The past is truly a foreign country, as L. P. Hartley wrote.  My brother Scott and his friend Beau were like Gods to me - Scott 1 year (FIFTEEN MONTHS, he used to insist, to put more space between us) older and Beau a year older than Scott.  As much as Scott and I fought (and like most brothers, we fought a lot), I wanted more than anything to have his ability to be casual and easy talking to girls.  He'd even kissed girls, lots of them!  Beau was... well, he was the kid in our neighborhood that, if you'd come up with a dare so dangerous, so wild and ridiculous that no sane person would contemplate it, because even admitting you'd considered it would get you a swift spanking, if you had a stunt to try that made your knees buckle thinking about, you'd ask Beau.  Ride a skateboard down Dead Man's Hill?  Beau did it first.  Take a 10-speed bike over a five-foot tall ramp?  Beau did it, and survived without a scratch.  Beau was (and still is) funny as hell - he could reduce me and the other kids in our circle into helpless, pants-wetting laughter with a word.  When Beau and Scott teamed up, you never knew what was going to happen, but you knew in your bones it would be dangerous, thrilling, terrifying and, occasionally, bloody.  They introduced me to beer, and tried to make sure that I didn't do anything too stupid (apart, of course, from drink the warm beer they provided).

The taste of stolen beer, the feel of the can in my hand, the sounds of the neighborhood men talking and telling dirty jokes drifting across the park towards us, the sight of the tennis courts in the moonlight - these and more come flooding back to me when I smell a pig cooking.  It's the scent of my youth.

By dawn, the men were either sitting and silently watching the coals, or snoring gently in their chairs.  As the sunlight washed over the park, we kids scurried to hide our empties and clustered around the firepit to warm up.  Someone would put an enamel coffeepot on the fire, and under an awning, my father would get eggs and bacon going on the camp stove.  We spent the day wound up and strung out from lack of sleep, but unwilling to show weakness in front of the younger kids, who listened with awe as we told them about drinking beer, and repeated the jokes we'd overheard and only half understood.

Around noon, the pig would be done, and it was pulled off the fire and chopped.  If your hands were fast, you could grab a hard, crispy chuck of pigskin to chew on, dripping with fat.  BBQ sauce was produced, and other neighborhood residents showed up to set up tables and put out side dishes - potato salad, loaves of white bread, beans, and always at least one pasta salad.  When it was all ready, folks lined up and paid their money.  My father (a preacher, though running a contracting company at the time) would say a short prayer and it was time to dig in - paper plates were piled high with pork and sides, people sat at picnic tables, or stood around balancing soggy plates in their hands.

I'm a little older now than my father was then.  I live in a nice neighborhood in Austin, but it's not as close-knit as we were in Morningside.  We moved out of Atlanta in 1982, and I spent high school living on a farm.  The pig roast moved out of town with us, and became a part of our Easter celebration (about which more at a later date).  A pig roasting is, for me, a trip back to that foreign country that was my youth.  It's a glance back at what was, and a reminder of how things are different now - some for the better, some not.

"The only constant is change." - Heraclitus

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Cook's Journey

I'm turning into one of those cooks, the ones that can't make anything the exact same way twice, because they're always futzing about with the recipe, trying a pinch more of this, a little less of that, and a whole lot of "Hey, maybe we substitute these for those and flip the whole arrangement the other way and how does that work?"

I wasn't always like that - when I was a callow youth, I learned just enough to be dangerous in the kitchen.  Oh, I thought I could cook, but it was clumsy and frequently terrifying.  Every once in a while, I'd screw up in just the right way and make something not just edible, but tasty.  That just served to make me go back in and cook some more, with usually unappetizing results.  The chocolate chip cookies I baked made me think I could do more, and I made brownies (but forgot the sugar).  I baked sugar cookies, but was out of vegetable oil so I used olive oil.  Seriously, I look back and want to reach through time and shake myself.

About 3 years ago, I lost my job.  Well, not so much lost, as got it pulled out of my hands and shipped overseas.  I'm only a wee bit bitter, because some things have worked out better for me.  I've had time to be with my kids, and while the money's been tight, I've also been able to devote more time and energy to cooking with Real Food, not foodlike products.  My wife, Mel, has a good job, and we're doing OK.  Not great, but OK - which in this economy, I guess is better than OK.

At first, my focus was on getting something on the table, anything.  Lots of macaroni & cheese, some simple recipes that aren't really cooking, just assembling ingredients.  That got boring, though, and convenience food is expensive.  We've got a nice selection of cookbooks - several editions of the Joy of Cooking, Julia Child's The Way to Cook, some regional cookbooks and others.  I started poring through those, googling lists of ingredients to find meals, and eventually, I'm not sure when, I was actually cooking, not just painting by the numbers.

It's a good feeling, even when the kids turn their noses up at whatever I've cooked.  I still screw up occasionally - the grouper filet I cooked was, while not a disaster, certainly not terribly edible.

Mel teases me that, if I wrote a cookbook, it'd be full of recipes like:

Serves 4
First, catch a rabbit....
I like to work backwards, and see how the type of ingredients you start with change things.  I've brewed beer, made butter, cheese and pasta.  I lived on a farm during high school, so I've raised chickens, turkeys, pigs, ducks, geese, goats, rabbits and cows, and slaughtered and dressed most of that list.  I've grown my own vegetables and fruit, and helped can them.  It's fascinating, though not always efficient, both in terms of money and time.

I have my "go-to" recipes - or, rather, recipe frameworks - and I try to work themes around them.  We're slightly limited in that Mel, by ethical choice, prefers not to eat mammals.  It's a choice I respect, though I'm more catholic in my animal flesh consumption.  So it's a lot of chicken, turkey, fish and shellfish.  When she's out of town on a business trip, I'll often grill some burgers or steaks for me and the kids.

Lately, I've been trying different grains - white rice led to brown rice, and from there to quinoa, orzo, risotto, polenta, red rice, wild rice.  Finding the right combination of spices and flavors to make the chicken and grain and vegetable complement each other is, right now, trial and error.  As I go along here, I'll post some photos and describe some meals - the successes and the failures.

Next time, I'll talk about pigs and what they're good for.

Preparing for More Readers, Comment Policies and Suchlike

As I get more posts written, and word of mouth spreads, I'm looking forward to getting some regular readers, and being able to engage with them via the comments.

With that in mind, I'm going to lay out a few policies now, in hopes that it'll make things easier going forward.

  1. I'll do my best to reply to any question directed to me, as long as it's (a) not too personal and (b) phrased politely.  "Why do you think pork makes better BBQ than beef?" will get an answer, while "HEY, YOU %&##!@!!!, WT#@^&# DO YOU MEAN TEXAS BBQ SUCKS?!!" will not.  
  2. In fact, since I'll be moderating comments, the latter won't even get published.
  3. I'd love to see folks interacting in the comments, but please don't be rude, don't threaten other posters, don't talk about illegal stuff - in short, don't be dumb, and don't be a jerk, or I won't publish your comments.
  4. More of a pet peeve than anything else, but please try to keep your grammar and spelling readable.  I know I might have commenters for whom English is not a first language, and I'll make allowances for that, and for everyone else, I'll grit my teeth and not be a jerk about it, but as a courtesy to your fellow readers, spell check and shoot for complete sentences with proper punctuation.
  5. I will not post recipes here if they come from a published cookbook - I don't want to violate copyright, and will err on the side of caution.  When possible, I will list the page number and title of the cookbook.
  6. Please don't spam in the comments.  As I said, I'll be moderating, but I really don't need to read any comments telling me how my naughty bits can be made bigger, or how I can meet "s3xxie russian bride for make happy marrying".  
  7. If you've got a business related to the subject of this blog (restaurant, kitchenware, organic food, etc), I'm OK with the occasional mention in the comments.  If I get enough readers, I'll even do a post from time to time highlighting my readers' businesses/favorite links - as long as this policy isn't abused.
  8. Other rules may be put in place as necessary.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Lunching Out

I'm generally a simple man when it comes to dining out, especially at lunch.  I don't look for much, just good food, at a good price, served by people that don't want to waste a lot of time chit-chatting.

Over the years, at various jobs and in different cities, I've had a series of regular places.  There was the hot dog stand in a suburb of Birmingham, the BBQ place around the corner from a bookstore in Atlanta, the gyro place in the mall in Austin, the Scottish-themed short-skirt burger pub, the wing joint - at every one, I establish myself as a regular pretty quickly and cultivate the staff - I tip them, chat just enough to get to know them, and I order the same thing.  Sounds monotonous, but I usually can only afford lunch out once a week, or once every other week, so it's a welcome break from leftovers or homemade sandwiches.

At the wing joint near our house, I manage one a week or so - usually Wednesday, as that's the day my favorite waitress works.  Why favorite?  She knows what I like to order, and has a pint drawn up for me by the time I sit down.  We go through the normal social pleasantries, she confirms I want my usual and then I'm left in peace to read, or write a little in my notebook, while I nurse my beer and sometimes listen to a podcast.  The food there's simple, hard to mess up, and enjoyable.  Lots of televisions showing football or hockey or whatever sport is in season, but it's not one of those obnoxiously "sporty" places.

Lately, though, I've been a cheatin' man.  I've found a new place, and it's even more what I like.  It's called The Noble Pig, and these guys know some mother-lovin' sandwiches, lemme tell ya.  It's a tiny little place, in a tiny strip mall literally at the edge of Austin - across the highway, and you're outside the city limits.  They do almost everything there themselves - bake the bread, grind the sausage, cure the bacon, pickle the... pickly things.  I suspect the owners must've spent at least a few years on top of a mountain in Tibet learning the Art Of The Sandwich from some old wrinkly dude in a saffron robe, because their sandwiches are all simple, beautiful things of awesome power.

First time there, I ordered a Knuckle Sandwich - roast beef, cheddar, onions and horseradish on wheat - and thought I'd died and gone to heaven. I mean, just look at it!


I almost cried as I ate it, it was so good. I've always thought myself skilled in sandwich making, but I felt like this guy who's always bragged on how his mother pinned his art to her refrigerator, and suddenly he's sitting in front of a Rembrandt realizing that he's got nothing to compare.

I manfully resisted the temptation to lick the butcher paper clean when I finished, but it was a near thing.

This is a sandwich made by someone who cares about sandwiches, about food in general, about taking the time (and it takes time - nothing pre-assembled here, no sir!) to make something right.  These guys take their sandwiches seriously, and it's obviously a labor of love for them.

One downside, they don't serve beer - and I do love a nice pint with my lunch - but they have a good selection of quality sodas, and tea and coffee.

The Noble Pig is a stripped-down lunch experience.  The chairs and tables do their jobs - keeping you off the floor and food off your lap - the dining area is, no joke, smaller than my bedroom, no fancy pictures on the wall or potted plants cluttering up the place.  You get a sandwich and chips on a tray, with some butcher paper under it.  Ordering to go?  Here's a plain brown bag to hold it.  Have you ever seen those ancient men that do T'ai Chi?  Clean, simple moves, not a motion wasted, just the motions that must be made and nothing extra.  It's like that.

So I'm torn - old reliable, or the new hotness?

Well, Here I Am

I created this blog sometime in the last year or so, thinking that in my (ha!) copious free time, I could maybe do a little writing devoted to food, cooking and feeding people things that you hope they'll enjoy.

Now, finally, I'm forcing myself to set aside a wee bit of time to actually do that writing.

So, here I go.

Like most Americans, like most people in the First World, I've had a ridiculously complicated relationship with food. In most of the world, and for most of history, food was... food. You ate it, and didn't starve, or you didn't eat it, and you starved. Here and now, though, we find ourselves dithering over what kind of food to eat, the ethics of how it's grown/caught/processed, wondering if such-and-so is bad for us, or if eating that little thing there right now and today will make up for the bag of potato chips we wolfed down the other night after everyone else in the house went to bed.  And other things.  We invest our food with near-magical properties: oranges fight colds, celery scours our colons, fried food will kill you deader than a dead thing.

For a long time, I didn't have room in all that to just simply enjoy food, to anticipate it as I cook it, to savor it as I eat it, to remember it fondly once I'm done.

And that, I've discovered, is what I'm after with food.  It's more than just something to keep me alive as I run from a hungry hyena.  I love food, good food.  I don't eat as much as I used to, but I still prefer a good helping on my plate, if possible.  I love at least something of almost every national cuisine.  I'll try just about anything once, twice if I'm drunk.

This blog, it's going to be about me and food.  Some rambling philosophicalities like this, some stories, some recipes, some restaurant reviews.  I'll probably dive into beer, wine and spirits.  I'll try to update at least once a week, more often if interesting things happen to me, or I have a recipe to brag about.  Watch this space.