Scattered, smothered and capped

Our family Thanksgiving dinner is going to be relatively late in the day – I’m not even headed over to Dad’s until about midday – so I thought I’d have a hearty breakfast to tide me over. Thankfully, Waffle House was there for me.

There’s been a lot of discussion about stores being open on Thanksgiving – and I’m not going to step into that minefield – but I’m sure glad Waffle House is. Every Waffle House has a 24-7-365 schedule. When they opened in Shelbyville, the ribbon-cutting ceremony included something that takes place at virtually every Waffle House opening. They tie a key, representing the key to the front door, to a helium balloon and release it, saying it won’t ever be needed again.

The chain’s disaster planning is said to be without peer in the restaurant industry. The restaurants have generators, and have pre-printed limited menus that that can be used if external factors prevent the restaurant from normal operation.

In fact, the company is so good at staying open that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has what’s called the “Waffle House Index” as one of a number of metrics it examines in the early stages of a disaster. If the Waffle Houses near the disaster scene are open but offering a limited menu, it’s a serious disaster. If the Waffle Houses near the disaster scene are closed, well, it must be a really serious disaster.

So I had a cheesesteak omelet this morning, with hash browns scattered, smothered (onions) and capped (mushrooms). I tipped 30 percent, not knowing if the waitress had volunteered or had been made to work the holiday. If I’m the only one who did that, of course, it’s a pretty feeble gesture, but maybe others will think the same way.

Saute, can you see?

There are a lot of things I love about Southern cooking, but one thing I’ve never liked is the way we cook the life out of green beans. I like mine with a little bit of snap. Anyway, I was in the produce department of our fine French grocery store, Kro-zhay, this afternoon and found this on expiration day special:


There’s nothing fancy, just some grape tomatoes, very thin green beans (haricots verts?) red onion and a packet of balsamic vinegar.


The directions were simple: heat oil in a skillet. Saute the veggies at medium-high heat for two minutes, then add two tablespoons of water and steam covered for two minutes, then a minute more uncovered to let the water evaporate. Then add the vinegar and cook just until the vinegar is warm. Season with basil, salt and pepper.

It turned out pretty well:


The onions were soft and just a little browned, the grape tomatoes were soft and bursting, and the green beans had some snap to them. Absolutely delicious, and something I could easily make myself without the kit.


I feel like I owe Debra Snellen an apology.

Debra – and I’m sure I’ve told this story before – is the co-founder and executive director of LEAMIS International Ministries, the group with which I take my foreign mission trips, and she’ll be my traveling companion on our trip next year to Sierra Leone (no, we don’t have new dates yet, and may not until after the first of the year).

Earlier in her life, Debra lived with the Inuit for several years, and ever since that time, she’s had a thing about anyone wasting food. She’s much too nice to make a scene about it, but if you know her and see some egregious case of food being thrown away you can just see the gears in her head turning and little wisps of smoke coming out of her ears.

Well, a few weeks ago I bought a super-cheap box of frozen hamburger patties. They weren’t good. I ate them from time to time, hoping that the tomato and onion would make up for the sins of the patty. I had a couple of patties left tonight and I decided that I would cook them with some rice and make a sort of ad-hoc “dirty rice” recipe, thinking maybe the seasonings and the rice would make up for those lousy patties.

It was terrible. I ate two-thirds of a bowl, never finished it, and just now I threw the rest of the saucepan-full into the garbage and found something else to eat.

Sorry about that, Debra.

Invited the wrong cousin to the party

I found some beef at UGO today that I thought might be good for jerky, and I decided to have some fun with the marinade. I had some leftover cooking wine (the salted stuff you can buy in the supermarket) from something I had cooked the other day, and some A1 sauce. I combined them with a little bit of honey, some liquid smoke and some red pepper flake.

The marinade didn’t taste exactly as I had imagined it, but I figured it would turn out OK. It didn’t seem as salty as I had been expecting, and so later I added a little salt to the marinade. I let the beef sit for four hours, and then got ready to put it in the dehydrator just before I headed to play practice.

The meat didn’t look right either – its color wasn’t what I was expecting when I pulled it out of the marinade.

It turns out that Kroger uses the exact same shape and size plastic bottle for its red cooking wine and its red wine vinegar. I had partial bottles of both in the cupboard, and I had made my marinade with vinegar instead of the cooking wine. The color of the meat was turned a little gray because the vinegary solution had denatured it a little bit (the same thing that happens to fish when you make ceviche – the acid produces changes in the meat similar to those that would happen from heat).

Anyway, there was nothing unsafe about the jerky, and so I went ahead and put it in the dehydrator. It’s nearly done now, and I tried a piece or two to test just now. It’s not up to my usual standards, but it’s certainly edible. It’s got a little bit of an unexpected tangy flavor, not bad but just not what I wanted. This was not one of those culinary mistakes that turns out to be a good thing.

Sausage squares

This is what I brought to the T-G coffee today.

1 pound breakfast sausage
1 can Ro-Tel (or equivalent) tomatoes and chilies, drained, reserve small amount of juice
1 8-ounce bar cream cheese or lower-fat Neufchatel cheese
4 ounces sharp cheddar, grated
2 cans refrigerated crescent roll dough

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Brown sausage in skillet. If brown sausage bits are stuck to the bottom, deglaze pan with a small amount of the reserved Ro-Tel juice, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to loosen and dissolve browned bits. Add drained tomatoes and cream cheese. Reduce heat and stir until cream cheese has melted and mixture is well-combined. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly.
Line a baking sheet with cooking parchment. Unroll one can of crescent roll dough, as one large rectangle, onto the parchment. Pinch together seams and perforations as much as possible. Spread sausage mixture evenly on top of dough, going almost to the edge. Sprinkle with grated sharp cheddar. Unroll other can of crescent roll dough and place on top, again trying to pinch together seams and perforations.
Bake about 20-25 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven and allow to cool 15 minutes. Cut into squares or rectangles using a pizza cutter.
Spiciness of recipe can be adjusted by using hot or mild sausage and regular, mild or extra-hot Ro-Tel.

A saucy tale

Lizano SauceWalk into any restaurant in Costa Rica and you will find a bottle of Lizano Sauce (or one of its imitators) on each table. I discovered it during a mission trip to Costa Rica in 2008, and it was love at first bite. I bought a big plastic bottle of the stuff and hoped it wouldn’t burst in my suitcase on the flight home.

I’m not exactly sure how to describe it to you. It’s not a hot sauce. The bottle says “salsa” only because that’s the Spanish word for “sauce”; it’s nothing like the salsa you think of from Mexican or Tex-Mex cuisine. My fallback description is that it’s sort of like steak sauce, but with more of a cumin flavor to it. I’m not sure that description really does it justice. Whatever it is, I love it. You can use it as a condiment or as a marinade.

I was thinking about Lizano Sauce just the other day, while I was out walking. There are some online sources, such as Mo Hotta Mo Betta, where it can be ordered here in the states, and I bet it can be found at World Market in The Avenue in Murfreesboro. I was thinking that if I ever get back over to the Avenue (I can’t remember the last time I’ve been), I would look and see.

Meanwhile, both Jason Reynolds and I had, separately, eaten at Taco Plus / Tortilleria Gonzalez in Shelbyville, and we’d been recommending it in the newsroom. So we decided to go out for lunch as a group today. We had a lovely meal. The business consists of a restaurant, a little Latino grocery, and a tortilla factory. After you’ve eaten in the restaurant, you pay your bill in the grocery. As the six of us were standing around, waiting our turn at the cash register, I wandered around the Latino grocery … and found Lizano Sauce on the shelves. I’d never seen it anywhere else in town, not even in the Latino aisles of the regular grocery stores.

Needless to say, I added a big ol’ bottle to my restaurant tab. Now, I just need to figure out what to have for dinner tonight that I can put it on.

However you do it, cruet

A passing flavor in a snack mix I had this morning made me, for some reason, crave Good Seasons Italian salad dressing. As I think I posted on Facebook a few weeks back, or maybe it was here, I have three Good Seasons cruets – but not one plastic lid for any of them. And you really need the lid to shake up the dressing without making a mess. So, when I was picking up salad fixings at Kroger today, I ended up buying a fourth cruet (or maybe not – they claim the cruet is free with the purchase of the two envelopes of Good Seasons Italian salad dressing mix which come in the package). I feel wasteful. Of course, you can use the cruet to come up with your own vinaigrette flavors, without their seasoning packet, and the cruet has the helpful lines for measuring water, vinegar and oil.

I had a wonderful salad for dinner tonight – romaine, ham, tomato, crumbled blue cheese and croutons, plus of course the Good Seasons. Yummy.

Billy Joel didn’t start the fire

This is my day to get to the paper an hour earlier than normal, and so I took a long lunch today and ran to the grocery store for a few items. While there, I picked up some frozen egg rolls and brought them home for lunch. No problem there, but I also bought some hot Chinese mustard to go with them. I almost didn’t buy it, because it was more than I wanted to spend (especially when you compare it to regular mustard, one of the cheapest condiments out there).

I wish to now state, publicly, that the hot Chinese mustard was a poor decision. I would also like to send a special shout-out to the makers of Pepto-Bismol.

Alton and Giada

I was thrilled, and blogged about it, a few months back when Alton Brown started his podcast, The Alton Browncast. One of the reasons I was so excited about it was that I thought it would be more like Alton’s long-running show “Good Eats” and his wonderful limited series “Feasting on Asphalt” and “Feasting on Waves,” and an alternative to what seems now to be his day job as the Ryan Seacrest of food competition shows.

I have, as regular readers of this blog know, become sick and tired of food competition shows. Food Network ruined itself by moving almost entirely into competition shows, and now its sister channel,  Cooking Channel, is starting to catch the disease as well. I used to enjoy the competition shows; I was a huge fan of the original Japanese “Iron Chef,” and I was originally a big fan of “Iron Chef America,” which Alton hosts. But they’ve been done to death – and that means they’ve had to become more and more gimmicky, and with more and more phony, hyped-up dramatic content. I’m sick of them.

I had hoped that “The Alton Browncast” would be Alton’s way of returning to his roots, and maybe represented a way of feeding his passion even as he paid the bills by hosting competition shows.

But Alton apparently considers the competition shows more than just a paycheck. The interview segment is the largest single part of “The Alton Browncast,” and except for ice cream mogul Keith Schroder every single guest he’s had has either been a competition show host, contestant or executive. Alton apparently still loves the form and is excited about hosting 43 different food competition shows.

That doesn’t mean the podcast isn’t worth listening to, though. Thankfully, the interviews aren’t exclusively about food competition shows. The latest episode, featuring Giada De Laurentis as the interview guest, gets into everything from gender roles to the nature of beauty. You also get a soap-opera-like tale of the six months when Giada refused to speak to Bobby Flay.  There’s also  news that Giada, Alton and Ina “Barefoot Contessa” Garten will be doing a live Thanksgiving dinner special together – and while Giada knows both Ina and Alton, the latter two have never met and each is intimidated about meeting the other.

The episode also, during Alton’s opening food talk segment, drops a bombshell about cooking pasta. When Alton was making “Good Eats,” he repeated the conventional wisdom that to make pasta, you need a huge volume of water, which you bring to a full rolling boil before adding the pasta. But Alton admitted that he’s now changed his mind on that – for shaped pasta, he now starts the pasta in cold water – and the pasta is done by the time the water reaches a simmer! That method may not be as practical for spaghetti, fettuccine and the like; long noodles sometimes stick out of the top of the pan until they’ve softened enough to slouch down into the water, but Alton said it would work for spaghetti too if you have a large enough pot.

In Giada’s honor, after the interview Alton talks about meatballs.

Listen to the episode here.

I believe I can fry

I just finished a portion of wonderful homemade french fries.

The men’s club at First UMC Shelbyville normally has breakfast on the second Sunday of each month. We’d been taking a summer break which I had thought, until last night, would be ending this morning.

I’m a part of the kitchen crew for this, and my normal job is to dice potatoes and onions and cook our home fries. The dicing takes about half an hour, from the time I arrive at 6:30 until about 7.

I had seen one of those as-seen-on-TV gizmos, a piston-style contraption that cuts a potato into perfect batons for french fries. I thought this might speed up the process; use the gadget to cut the potato lengthwise, then all I’d have to do with a knife is cut a stack of batons crossways into perfect dice. And it wasn’t that expensive; only $9.99 at one of the national drug store chains. I picked one up while I was out shopping yesterday.

I touched base with Andy Borders, the master of all things culinary at FUMC, last night to confirm that we were going to have breakfast today. Good thing I did; Andy had decided to put things off a bit longer.

Well, I decided to go ahead and get some use out of my gadget anyway – for its intended purpose. I bought a potato at the grocery store after church, and came home and fried it. The as-seen-on-TV gadget worked just fine, and was easy to use once I actually looked at the directions.

I’ve gone over this before, but if you’ve never made homemade french fries there’s a secret to it. The secret is that they have to be fried twice. After cutting the fries, you want to soak them in water (the longer the better, but I settled for a very brief soak today). Then, you fry them twice. You fry them once, at a lower temperature, until they are limp but cooked completely through. Then you remove them from the oil and set them aside to cool off. You crank the oil up to a higher temperature and fry them a second time, much more briefly, just to put a perfect golden crust on them.

This is also how the frozen french fries used by restaurant chains work. The first fry takes place at a factory, and the potatoes are flash-frozen afterward. Then, the fries are thawed and fried a second time at the restaurant. If you buy frozen french fries from the supermarket, you can either fry them a second time or else substitute that second fry with some time in the oven, which is what most of us do, and they come out just fine. The package generally gives you the directions for either approach.

But there’s something special about freshly cut, twice-fried french fries at home, seasoned just how you like them. They were fine just as they were, but I had a little A1 sauce on a few of them.