Pick of the month, June ‘08

Just making it in the month. With about 9 hours to spare.

If only I could just transpose my thoughts, into cohesive rather than disjointed and often polarized clumps, directly to a post. Because I’ve spent a lot of time over the past month, thinking about radishes. It’s that gathering-typing-editing-and-finally-posting process that gets me, every time.

I first took notice of this petite root vegetable a few years ago, when a friend mentioned growing them in her garden. How odd, I thought. Radishes. But I added them to a few early-summer salads, witnessed in my friend’s garden how easily they grew, and added them to our own garden the next summer. They grew better than anything else that year — which is simply a testament to the fact that they’re hard to kill here in the early months of summer (I’m referring to the red, summer variety, the one most commonly seen in supermarkets). We stuck to the basics in using them, adding them to green salads, and occasionally to a corn salad or two.

But their delightful crunch can lend texture and freshness to other applications as well. They were called for in a Cook’s Illustrated recipe for enchiladas, as an optional topping (along with onions and avocado). We gave it a try, and who knew? Their mild, cool kick perfectly complemented the spiciness of the enchiladas. But my favorite use to date, I stumbled upon just a few weeks ago. I was at a friend’s house, flipping through a recent issue of Food & Wine. It was the issue that highlights America’s top new chefs, and each bio gave a recipe from the honoree. I took one look at the dish prepared by Chicago’s Giuseppe Tentori, and started hounding my hostess for pen and paper. His Quinoa Salad with Pickled Radishes and Feta looked like a divine summer treat, perfect for a light lunch or side for a Mediterranean-inspired supper. I jotted down the details about the pickled radishes, and made them the next week.

Reminiscent of the Pickled Red Onions that I’ve promised (and thus far failed) to detail in a post, these bright pink radish slices topped about everything I had for lunch that week. Green salads, rice salads (a summer staple in our household), even turkey sandwiches. They sport a typically pungent, pickled bite, and give a welcome lift to any lunch standby that’s got one foot over the state line of Boring. You can find the whole recipe at the link above, but I’ll retype the super-easy instructions for pickling the radishes:

Pickled Radishes (sourced from Food&Wine, August ’08)

  • 1 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
  • 4 medium radishes, very thinly sliced

In a small saucepan, bring the red wine vinegar to a simmer with the sugar. Remove from the heat and add the radish slices. Let stand until cool, about 1 hour.

Give this a try, because there’s not much to lose. Have I mentioned how cheap radishes are, this time of year? Your local farmer’s market is a good buy, but you can also pick up a bag of them at the grocery store — my bag had about 20 radish bulbs, and was $1.50. Wasn’t it Peter Rabbit and friends who frequently munched on radishes? Turns out they were thrifty little bunnies.

Father’s Day french toast

I had these grand plans. Had sticky buns on the brain, and wanted to make them for Tim on Sunday (because, you know, Father’s Day is all about him and all, and if I wanted sticky buns, surely he did, too). But this thought didn’t occur to me early enough to make the classic, brioche-based recipe from The Bread Bible (you need to start Rose’s process about 3 days out), something I’ve been meaning to do for quite some time now. It was Saturday afternoon, and I pulled out another recipe, not for classic sticky buns, but for cinnamon rolls. Same general idea, just maybe a little less sticky. But even that plan, when laid out, fell through. The night got away from me (and getting up at 4am was simply not an option, no matter how great a father he is).

And if you think that my lack of willingness to sacrifice precious sleep is a bit sad for my husband, it gets worse. Due to a few circumstances beyond our control, I found myself sending my husband to the grocery store on Saturday night, with the primary purpose being to purchase the very ingredients I would be using to make his celebratory breakfast. I guess it wasn’t enough that he had to actually tell me exactly what he wanted me to buy him as a gift. A surprise? On Father’s Day? I can only hope to return to that ability, in a bright, shining, post-childbearing future.

But the silver lining in all of this is that it was a really good breakfast. An upside of Tim doing the shopping was that he got to pick out his own bread, and he interestingly brought home a lovely multigrain hearth loaf (a far cry from the white, egg-y brioche that inspired the whole breakfast idea). I relied on our tried-and-true french toast recipe, from The Joy of Cooking, and it once again did us right. Not too sweet, and endlessly modifiable. Some quickly-thawed frozen blueberries (my favorites, Wyman’s wild) and Grade B Maple Syrup from Trader Joe’s made just the right toppings. And you can’t forget the bacon or sausage on the side, to provide salty contrast.

A breakfast so good, it overshadowed the Father’s Day Ice Cream, made later that day (a scoop each of mango sorbet and toasted coconut ice cream, straight from the pages of The Perfect Scoop). Maybe someday I’ll write about it, because it’s already gone, and we’re sure to make the combination again.

One of those nights when you’re glad no one was invited to dinner.

Anyone out there know how to fry chicken?

I proved last night that I can make a real disaster of the process. Which stinks, because I love homemade fried chicken. And I’ve only actually attempted it a few times in my life, last night’s foray providing by far the worst results.

Here’s what I did:

  • Decided to veer from the Paula Deen recipe I used last time (perhaps a subconscious departure from anything having to do with her, since anytime I hear or see her name my head is filled with a visual of the recently-acquired, deer-in-headlights, cooped-up-on-smack stare that beckons from her magazine covers and FoodTV recreations). Instead, printed out an Alton Brown recipe (reinforcing my husband’s belief that I would pack up and leave our family if Mr. Good Eats showed up at our door with a couple of plane tickets to Jamaica).
  • Marinated my chicken parts for 24 hours in buttermilk.
  • Made Tim stop on his way home from a long and exhausting day of meetings north of Atlanta to pick up a new candy/deep-fry thermometer, since the one I pulled out of my utensil drawer was broken.
  • Used almost an entire can of crisco.
  • In my heavy-bottomed, stainless-steel, deep-edged fry pan, kept the oil as close to 325º as possible (without going over by more than 5º).
  • Followed Alton’s instructions to a tee, with the exception of using only half the recommended seasoning (2 Tbsp of kosher salt for 4 pounds of chicken seemed like a lot). I drained the buttermilk-soaked chicken, sprinkled on the seasoning, dredged the pieces in flour, and fried away.

What happened next was not, based on my frustrated after-the-fact google searches last night, that unusual. The coated skin of my chicken was too dark, too quick. It was suggested that 10-12 minutes per side would adequately provide the “golden-brown” crust so desired, but my chicken was closer to a shade of “burnt umber” in just 7 minutes. So I flipped it, and the other side browned just as quickly. Too brown, I removed the pieces from the oil to drain. A quick check of the internal temperature said that the legs were right at 180º, the required safe temp. I left the first batch on the racks to drain, and started on the second. This time, I didn’t let them get as dark, and then made my true fatal mistake: didn’t take the internal temperature of the pieces.

As Tim and I scarfed down the dark-brown whole chicken leg quarters, we both got concerned as we neared the bone. Things just didn’t look right. We tossed those pieces, and cut into the dark-brown legs and thighs; they were fine. But when Tim reached for one of the pieces from the second batch, he cut into raw chicken. It was enough to make my appetite disappear completely, and as I looked at my greasy kitchen, dusted with flour and littered with half-eaten chicken parts, my cooking soul was shattered and deflated. I swore off frying chicken, for the rest of my life, and set to microwaving the salvageable pieces (I intended to use half the batch in a recipe the following night).

But you know, I’m not going to be able to let it go. I will be haunted by visions of perfectly-fried, tender and moist chicken — perhaps even dream about it. I will perform searches of foodie websites and thumb through old cookbooks, looking for the words of wisdom that will solidify the optimal modus operandi for poultry-frying. I might even stalk Alton himself, not with a plan of escaping to Jamaica, but so he will tell me what the hell I did wrong. I WILL NOT REST UNTIL THE SKIN IS GOLDEN AND THE MEAT ONE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY DEGREES.

Well, maybe. A nap sounds really good right now.

Granola muffins: same song, different verse.

How many ways can I consumingly sing the praises of granola? I had almost forgotten this way, until Sunday morning. Like a memory once lost, these morsels came to me in a flash of thought, a cartoon lightbulb of flavor, and I could instantly taste them. A little dig for the recipe, and half an hour later, we were enjoying a hearty weekend breakfast.

To give you the history: the recipe is from a card I picked up at The Fresh Market, in Knoxville, Tennessee. The year was 1997, and if you’ve been with me here at TFF for a while, you may remember from a previous post that I was looking to change my eating ways. The Fresh Market provided the loveliest grocery experience I’d had to date, and quickly became my favorite place to shop (though I had to exercise great restraint; it’s not cheap, and I was an underpaid teaching assistant). They would intersperse recipe cards throughout the store, no doubt to encourage you to purchase the necessary ingredients, and I found this one next to the bin of bulk granola. I took one, bought some granola (marketing mission accomplished), and went home to bake.

They totally hit the spot, and for the rest of grad school, I made a half-batch (using a half-egg is difficult, and at some point I figured out I was ok if I didn’t halve that ingredient) almost every weekend. They are very hearty muffins — not at all fluffy — and are only mildly sweet, beckoning for a good slathering of butter and jam or honey. Their goodness depends a good deal on the kind of granola you use — and I recommend that you experiment. I have found that my homemade granola doesn’t work very well, since it is a very chunky granola. I also don’t like to use most supermarket boxed granolas, since they tend to also be too chunky, and entirely too sweet. The best ones I’ve found are the bulk granolas you can find at a whole foods store — or, homemade if it’s of a thinner consistency. I made Sunday’s batch with the “Super Nutty granola” from the bulk bins at Earth Fare, and they were quite nice.

So when you tire of eating your healthy breakfast in a bowl, go for these. And let me know your preferred granola results!

Granola Muffins (courtesy: little recipe card from The Fresh Market)

  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 cup all-purpose or whole wheat flour (whole wheat works great)
  • 3 Tbsp sugar (or less, if your granola is very sweet)
  • 2 cups granola
  • 3 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt

Heat oven to 400º. Grease or oil bottoms-only of about 12 medium muffin cups. In a large bowl, lightly beat the egg, then stir in the milk and oil. In a separate bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, granola, baking powder, and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, and stir only until the flour is moistened (batter will be lumpy). Fill muffin cups about 3/4 full. Bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Remove from pan to cool.


Beach food. Why is it not better?

As mentioned in my last post, we just spent a fabulous week with friends at a beach in North Carolina. And the way I presented this — do I remember that my words foreshadowed a week of swimming not only in the ocean, but also in a sea of delicious morsels of heavenly provision?

And to be fair, there were some delicious morsels. Megan provided her usual supply of chocolate-covered-goodies from Trader Joe’s, fulfilling my unspoken (but strongly hinted) friendship requirement that wherever she goes, her “snack corner” must follow. She (with the grilling expertise of Will) also made a killer batch of fajitas, our inaugural meal at the beach. There were also a few other highlights:

  • One of the best pizzas I’ve had in a long time — from an Italian sandwich shop located a block away from our house. Montoros Deli Italiano is best known for their New York/Italian sandwiches, but they also bake their own bread and serve a sturdy repertoire of classic Italian desserts (we sampled the canoli and Napoleon cake, both ranking high on my list of sampled Italian-style pastries). Our last night we ordered one of their pizzas, and asked for topping recommendations over the phone. A very helpful Maureen Montoro assured us that their pepperoni is “the real thing,” so we settled on pepperoni, sausage, roasted red peppers, red onions, and mushrooms. When Tim arrived with the pizza, not only was it huge and boasting a delicious, perfectly hand-tossed crust, but the toppings were obviously sliced directly from the source just before cooking: the sausage was sliced lengthwise from the link; the pepperoni were huge circles of well-seasoned cured meat; the peppers roasted without being soggy. The biggest disappointment was the fact that we couldn’t finish it (our friends had left earlier, leaving Tim and I to share the pizza), and couldn’t bring the leftovers home with us.
  • A comforting bowl of clam and corn chowder, served as one of our appetizers at The Blue Gecko, our selection for the dining-out-alone-night of our trip. The chowder fooled me into thinking it was going to be an amazing meal; but alas, it fell short. Details to follow.
  • The fresh shrimp — caught locally — that I quickly sautéed and tossed with pasta for dinner one night. It’s rare that we get access to really fresh shrimp, and it was good to be reminded how it’s supposed to taste. Delicate, rich — with not an ounce of rubberiness.

So what ways, you might ask, was our week of eating a disappointment? Primarily, two:

  • It’s never easy to cook in someone else’s kitchen. Even one that’s more well-stocked than your own can lead a meal astray; it’s like driving a friend’s car and not knowing how to turn on the windshield wipers. In my limited experience with beach houses, this kitchen was the best one I’ve used; but still — the knives were dull, the cookware unpredictable, and the range — gasp! — electric coils. And who can blame them? Why would you furnish your beach house with top-of-the-line cookware when any renter can walk off with it, and no one’s the wiser? (Mental note: the next time I purchase a beach house, figure out a way to solve this problem for my houseguests…)
  • I’ll be honest with you: this line-item of beach-food-disappointment still has me wondering what is becoming of our world. To hell in a handbasket, I tell you. The local seafood restaurants? THEY DON’T SERVE LOCAL SEAFOOD. That’s right. All those open-air seafood markets — the ones right on the water, that the boats pull up to and unload their fishy bounty? THE RESTAURANTS DON’T BUY FROM THEM. Instead, they buy their seafood frozen, shipped in (not by sea, but by interstate and 18-wheels) by U.S. Foods, a national food distribution company. Why? Because buying fresh from the guy next door will cut into their profit margin. Which, after some quick mental calculations, estimating the price of frozen fish they’re buying, is about a 300% markup.(To quote my favorite two words from Gob on Arrested Development): “COME ON!!“This was a primary disappointment at The Blue Gecko; well, that, plus the fact that our entrées just weren’t very well conceived or seasoned (erring on the too-heavy side in that category). After asking our server what was local and fresh, she replied that “everything” was (we had the same response at Molly’s, another seafood place in town). But after speaking with a few of the seafood market workers, we learned that that simply was not true. And if that evidence is not scientific enough — after only half-consuming our “award-winning” entrée of sea scallops and grits, we were able to read a framed article boasting the award in question, at the restaurant. The article clearly listed U.S. Foods as the provider of the scallops in question.

    I’ll say it again: COME ON!!”

It probably didn’t help matters that my beach read this week included the last half of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It was like his primary point of industrial-agricultural irony was caricatured for me, right outside our sand-laden door. So sad. So very sad, we were. I mean, isn’t that one reason you visit the sea? To taste of the freshness of its food? And yet, we might as well have been at Red Lobster on Atlanta Highway.

But — and this is a big one. It was still a wonderful week at the beach, an opportunity for which I am quite thankful. And the only way these beach-food dilemmas will really effect us is in changing how we might eat during any future trips to the coastline. We’ll skip the meals out, and put more of our resources into buying fresh from the seaside markets and cooking at the house.

And next time, I’m packing my knives.