"More Thanksgiving Stuff of Legends…"

November 25, 2010

Back in The Day, when I was a fledgling line cook on his way up the culinary food chain of Napa Valley, Thanksgiving had sort of become a Holiday of Accommodation for me.  With a new-found disdain born of my recent experiences working with “the real thing”, my thinking went that if it wasn’t straight out of Ecoffier, my wanna-be French nose was in the air immediately.  How could I possibly sit by and subject myself to overcooked green beans and dry Turkey after I had spent all week making Sauce Écrivisse, trimming bones for Carré D’Agneau En Croûte, and slicing beautiful loins of milk-fed Veal?  Would I, yet again, have to suffer through another meal of those “time-tested recipes” used by my Mom and Aunts for years?  I had become such an ass, as Thanksgiving up to then had been a perfectly fine dinner we all enjoyed together, over-cooked turkey notwithstanding.

One year, I decided to take the reins, and took the pompous ass thing to new levels.  I called my Mom to inform her that I would be preparing the most vital portion of the Thanksgiving meal: the bird, the stuffing and sauce.

“This year, we are having Red Wine and Cognac Marinated Turkey with Wild Rice, Sausage and Chestnut Stuffing, and Wild Mushroom Sauce, and I’m doing the cooking.”

“No, Mom, not gravy.  Sauce.”

“No, really I want to.  Mom, it’ll be great.  I can do it.  Mom…”

Mom grudgingly agreed; the grudging part came mostly from her being forced to relinquish the all-important control factor of the dinner.   But also, if I pulled off the coup I was attempting, she would finally have to admit my career choice was actually valid.  For years now, she had been patiently waiting for the day when I would put down the knives and pans, go back to school, and get “a real job”.

The recipe called for a 48-hour marinade of the massive 21-pound bird I had purchased.  At the time I was a true bachelor who worked in a restaurant kitchen, which meant that at home I had one or two old frying pans, a motley assortment of  utensils, and nothing in the fridge except Dijon mustard, beer, and a bottle of Old Crow in the freezer.  I ate at work.  So preparing the meal I was attempting, and doing so at home, meant borrowing pans of suitable sizes and a vessel to marinate a bird the size of a Dodo, from the Chef.  We were closed at the restaurant for Thanksgiving, and I assured him all equipment would be returned unscathed on Friday. 

Home, at the time, was up in Angwin, a sleepy little conclave of hippies and Seventh Day Adventist college students in the hills, nine miles up from the restaurant in St. Helena.  My parents’ house, where the clan would gather, was in Napa, twenty miles or so down-valley.  Without realizing it, I had become what every self-respecting Chef Di Partie dreads:  I was a Caterer.  Restaurant cooks have a saying, paraphrasing Nancy Reagan:  “Just say No To Catering”.  Catering is always fraught with the potential for disaster and the need to be constantly “stomping out fires” when the main course for the event goes sliding across the floor of a van en route to the site; or some essential ingredient is left back at the prep kitchen, thirty minutes away.  My Thanksgiving adventure would prove no different. I loaded the groceries, my frozen Pterodactyl, and all the equipment into the back seat my 1971 Chevy Vega (one of a series of $250 cars I had back then) and headed for home around 10:30pm in a driving rainstorm.

The Chevy Vega, even in showroom condition, was a poor excuse for a vehicle; and mine could never be confused with anything remotely resembling dependable.  It had transmission issues, bad suspension, and a passenger-side window that was stuck either halfway up or halfway down, depending on your philosophy and that day’s weather.  Of course I had no insurance, no valid driver’s license, and about three cups of gas in the tank.  I told you I was a true bachelor restaurant cook, didn’t I?  But pride and reckless youth were powering this adventure and so A-Catering I will go…

About halfway up the hill to Angwin, the Vega decided to live up (or down) to its reputation.  The rear axle of this 70’s Detroit P.O.S. is held together by a small horseshoe-shaped pin, which secured the right rear wheel to the axle rod and left rear wheel.  As I rounded one of several hairpin turns on the road up the mountain, with my little car Loaded For Bear with pots and pans, the World’s Largest Turkey, as well as 5 or 6 bags of groceries, this pin decided that a rainy night in November on a dark mountain road would be an optimal time to let go. It disintegrated, detaching the right rear wheel from the axle assembly and turning my car into a three-legged Billy Goat. The Vega’s right rear side dropped with a sickening thud and some disconcerting grinding noises. It’s a particularly odd sensation, to be looking out the driver’s side window and see your right rear wheel passing you on the left, and disappear over the cliff on the other side of the road.  I managed to limp the Vega off onto the narrow shoulder, and began to assess.

I was at least two miles from home; and it was 10:30pm, and pouring rain.  Of course, this was back when Cell Phones were still the size of a shoe box, and pretty much a novelty item for people like Gordon Gecko, so I had no one to call and no way to call them anyway.  A triage of the situation called for leaving the Chef’s equipment locked in the dead car and hoping for the best.  I hoisted the bags of groceries onto my back, and started walking the last leg of the journey.  To add insult to injury, the last mile of the drive was up and over a 7% grade and down into town.

You never realize just how friggin’ heavy a 20-pound turkey is until it needs to be carried uphill, in the rain, in a plastic grocery bag while getting soaked to the bone.   Stumbling along a pitch-dark mountain road with six bags of groceries can cause one to ponder one’s career choices; and the drive and determination to not let Mom be right, yet again, and pull off my first Thanksgiving Dinner despite the obstacles, was fading fast. Just as I was seriously considering spinning the bag with the Turkey over my head and letting it fly for the first time in its life, headlights appeared behind me.  My next-door neighbor, a contractor, was on his way up the hill, returning home from tarping over an exposed construction site down in the Valley.  He zoomed up in his massive Ford F-250.  I loaded my stuff in the back and, after doubling back to the corpse of my Vega for the borrowed kitchen equipment, we arrived home and off-loaded.

The Thanksgiving meal was a roaring success, with the red-wine marinade turning out a bird that was juicy and magnificently bronzed.  The Wild Rice Stuffing and Mushroom Sauce were big hits too, even with my uncle, Big Mike, a staunch traditionalist when it comes to Holiday meals.  Friday was spent retrieving a used 1971 Vega rear end from the junk yard and I came away from that Thanksgiving with a new-found appreciation for the complexities of gray green beans, Durkee Fried Onions, and Sweet Potatoes topped with tiny marshmallows.

I suppose it could have been worse…


"The Accidental Tourist…"

October 25, 2010

Here’s a post I found, hiding out in my Drafts Folder.  It was trying to keep its head down, hoping I wouldn’t notice; but like that one big lobster hiding under the rock in the back of the tank, I spotted it. Still fresh, too…

Hartsfield-Jackson Airport here in Atlanta is, depending on what’s going on at Chicago’s O’Hare,  either the busiest or second busiest airport in the country.  It’s a hub for Delta, of course, but also a jumping off point for hundreds of flights from other airlines to Europe, the Caribbean, Mexico, and South America.   Its massive amount of connecting flights has allowed millions of people to be able to say, “Yeah, I’ve been to Atlanta…” even though they’ve never left the concourse; and with all that was going on here this past Holiday Weekend, it was surely at or near capacity.

Memorial Day Weekend is literally the kickoff of the College Football season, and here in The ATL we had Georgia State winning their inaugural game last Thursday, and Georgia Tech playing at home on Saturday.  LSU was meeting North Carolina in the annual Kickoff Classic at the Georgia Dome, while  The Dawgs were hosting their first drunk-fest of the season for sixty thousand up in Athens.  Add to all of that a NASCAR Race at Atlanta Motor Speedway half an hour south of here; Dragon-Con, the geek-fest Sci-Fi/Fantasy convention (that’s not just for nerds anymore by the way), The Black Gay Pride Festival at Piedmont Park, plus various and sundry other neighborhood festivals, and you wind up with upwards of a couple hundred thousand people rolling through the airport over the weekend.  At least the Braves did the highway traffic the favor of leaving town for a series against the Marlins.  Amongst the throngs wandering the vast terminals at ATL this weekend, trying to make the best of things during a 20-hour layover on his way to a business/vacation excursion in Buenos Aires, was a great friend of ours from New Orleans, now living in exile in Indianapolis.

Glenn was one of those in attendance at “The Last Supper” at our house the Saturday before Katrina.  In true NOLA fashion, we decided to have a dinner party rather than do the sensible thing and prepare for evacuation the next day.  We cooked a grand Asian dinner with homemade potstickers, dumplings, and several other dishes, for a dozen guests.  Earlier that day, when we had ventured over to the West Bank to shop at a great Asian market in Algiers for supplies, was when we first noticed the lines of cars at all the gas stations, people preparing to evacuate.  I had seen the hurricane news on Thursday night after I’d gotten home from work (when I lived in California, I could never conceive of watching the Weather Channel for any reason; but down in the Gulf, people literally live by it during hurricane season).  That Thursday night, Katrina was beginning her march across south Florida and I figured it was hitting land and would lose steam and that would be that.  After our trip across the river on Saturday, we turned on the Weather Channel and saw Katrina filling the entire Gulf of Mexico; so we decided we would go ahead and fiddle while Rome burned, have our party, but pack the car and skee-daddle on Sunday morning, along with everyone else and their brother.  Glenn had left the next day, too, along with all the other party guests. So, long story not-so-short, we hadn’t seen him except during a brief visit he made to Napa over two years ago.  We just had to get together, airport crowds and traffic be damned.

So, after a quick excursion downtown to watch the Dragon-Con parade Saturday morning, it was off to the airport to pick up him and his new girlfriend.   We began making our list:  lunch at JCT on the Westside, then maybe on to King of Pops or Morelli’s for sweets.  Or should we hit Murphy’s in Virginia-Highland for brunch and then a visit to Green’s for some wine browsing?  We settled on JCT and two bottles of wine to go with lunch.  We had to pass on the frozen treats in favor of JCT’s irresistible Rum-Soaked Coconut Cake, followed by some lounging at home.

Except we didn’t have time for lounging, as my wife and daughter had pending appointments to get their hair done at a salon, half an hour north in Buckhead.  So, being a one-car family for now, the plan was for me to ferry the two of them North, then return to pick them up after I had gone back home, picked up Glenn and dropped him back at the airport, another fifteen minutes past our house to the South.

On the way to the salon, we get a phone call from another of the thousands landing at Hartsfield-Jackson over the weekend; our friend Jimmy from California had just arrived in town for a wedding.  We hadn’t seen Jim since we drove off from Napa last June, so we decided to try to work him into the schedule for a cocktail.  We arrive at the salon to find out that the hair appointments were two hours earlier and had been missed.  So, it was back into the car, back South for twenty minutes to pick up Glen; then another 15 minutes back down The 85 to the airport to drop them; and then back up to Buckhead to meet Jim.  Jimmy lived in Atlanta for about 8 years, so touring him around was not an issue.  We met him for drinks and appetizers on the patio at Nava, a Tex-Mex place that we discovered, on this visit, is decidedly a few years past its prime.  We had a great visit with Uncle Jimmy, though, and he went off to follow the rest of his agenda for the weekend, and we headed home.

It was on the final drive South and home that we began to realize our priorities as tour-guides are a little skewed.

My wife’s cousin and his wife have recently re-located to Atlanta for her internship at a local hospital; and when his mother-in-law visited from Mexico he took her, all in a single day, to the Georgia Aquarium, World of Coca-Cola, Stone Mountain, the Zoo and practically every other attraction known to man.  Now it’s not to say that we haven’t been to, and mostly enjoyed, many such places that are on the top of most tourists’ lists.  But Glenn and his new girlfriend are dedicated food and wine nuts like us; so our itinerary for  today had excluded the traditional spots in favor of those of a more culinary nature.  Asking us to show you around town is a little like asking the guy emerging from an AA meeting for directions:  “Go two blocks down, take a left at Joe’s Bar, head south until you pass two Package Stores, and turn right at the Irish Pub on the corner…”   We’ll take a pass on World of Coke in a hot second if it means we get some of that Coconut Cake.

A Place Holder: "Many Parts Are Edible…" (The Redux)

September 16, 2010

We’ve been reviewing our Atlanta “Bucket List” of restaurants we’d like to try, looking at menus on websites, reading reviews, etc.  One that we are considering has not one, but two different preparations of two different kinds of testicles (notice that everything is coming in two’s here…)

Now, I am as open minded as the next guy, maybe more so when it comes to what I will and won’t put in my mouth (yikes, the double entendres are coming hot and heavy here this morning!) but I would think one type should be sufficient for anyone.  These guys must be digging really deep into their butcher’s product list.

It all reminded me of a something I posted over a year ago on the topic of “parts is parts”; so here’s a redux for you, with apologies to Euell Gibbons and his 70’s TV ads hawking Grapenuts (which to me have no parts that are edible).

I’m leaving for Miami tomorrow for what will hopefully be the last in a month-long series of interviews.  I’m hoping that I finally land this gig so next week I won’t  find myself putting a checkmark in a box to answer questions like “Did you look for work?” or “Was there any reason (other than sickness or injury) that you could not have accepted full time work each weekday?”

Until then, if you haven’t already, please “Enjoy!”

“Many Parts Are Edible…”

This morning our cat caught a bird. This was not an unusual occurrence as he is a  formidable hunter and does not discriminate. We have found, at various times, parts of mice, lizards, snakes, gophers and birds on our back patio. The weird part is his surgical precision in removing the entrails from his trophies. The whole bird was left this time, minus the heart. “Sweet Jesus, Everett, they took his heart!” But he is an animal after all, and they do eat each other, given the chance.

Somewhere along the line of history, we humans decided it is not okay to eat each other, that cannibalism should not be a philosophical choice. Where and when this occurred I do not know, but I am sure it was well before the first Hannibal Lechter movie came out. I am also unsure whether this was a gradual process, such as the backlash against smoking (the Surgeon General warns that cannibalism can lead to low birth weight), or if it was one of those epiphanies where mankind slapped its collective self on the forehead and said, “You know, eating your Uncle Tony is not polite”. We stopped eating each other, and decided that sacrificing ourselves to the gods was counter-productive as well. So we turned on our friends in the animal kingdom.

I don’t know how it came to be that offal (and what a perfect, if misspelled, name that is!) like Sweetbreads were considered a delicacy; or how it was discovered that liver was good with bacon, but I am happier for it. However it occurred, we do eat some very strange things in restaurants. We are eating straight fat (lardo, another perfect name!), fat back (just add in “hairy” and this would be perfect, too), beef cheeks (from the face as well as the other end), shanks, ribs, knuckles, feet, tongues, kidneys, brains, and stomachs. And that’s just at the taco truck. I have seen Pork Blood Jelly on menus at Chinese restaurants and of course the ever-popular tripe at Italian and Mexican restaurants.

We have decided that it is not only okay to eat animals, but we have to eat each and every part of them. This idea probably stems from the early Caveman’s philosophy that using every part of the animal was economical. Killing a Mastadon is a bitch of a lot of work and we might not get to do it again for a while, so sit up straight and finish your hooves.

The vegetable kingdom is not without its “how the hell did they figure out you could eat this?” foods either. Jerusalem artichokes (a somewhat less than perfect name) are a puzzler. They grow deep in the ground, have a shape that makes peeling unbelievably difficult, and you have to have a hundred of the little bastards just to make a bowl of soup. Hearts of Palm, that staple of mediocre Country Club lunch menus everywhere, is really just that: the heart of a palm tree. It was probably a guy with a seafood allergy stranded on a desert island that figured that one out. And Tapioca: it’s made from the cassava root which is basically poisonous unless cooked well enough to remove the toxins. How many dead Sous-Chefs did it take to perfect that technique? “Eh? Henri ese dead? Vee vill need to kook it more, no?” Salsify is a root vegetable that is so face-twistingly bitter coming out of the ground that it has to be cooked several times in milk or some other liquid to make it palatable; and the trendy new vegetable item at haute cuisine places is purslane, or red amaranth. It’s a weed, people. After the constant battle I wage with this invasive, prolific gardener’s bane, I can almost understand the satisfaction derived from eating it. If it had guts, I’d go spit them out in the melon patch, like my cat with his bird parts. Take that, bitches, and don’t let me see you around here again!

"You Gunna Eat That?…"

April 28, 2010

Chef just returned from a junket to the Far East where he was invited to speak at a couple of Wine and Food trade shows and an Asian Sommeliers Conference.  Truly though, you can really only go on a “junket” to the Far East.  This is the proper use of the word.  No one ever says they are going on a “junket” to, say, Reno; or Fresno.  No, a “junket” has to be a trip to some place so far away they show it with one of those maps of the world, like in an Indiana Jones movie, that has the little animated airplane with the moving red line behind it as it hops from city to city, country to country, continent to continent.

Anyway, he was in Singapore for a few days, then Hong Kong.  I asked him if he ate anything really cool, and he told me tried Durian in Singapore.  A Durian is an Asian fruit both prized and despised at the same time. It is praised for it’s custard-like texture, flavor that defies definition as to whether it is sweet, savory, or fruity because it is all of the above.  But the most endearing and revolting quality is the smell.  It is like eating creamy pineapple-strawberry-custard that smells like ripe fontina.  Definitely one of those “how the hell did anyone figure out you can eat this” kind of foods.  The Durian, even in it’s whole, uncut form, is so pungent that these signs are common on public transit in Singapore:

And while there is no posted fine, trying to carry a concealed Durian would be like trying to covertly eat Cornuts at your desk when you were in fifth grade;  there is just no way you’re not getting busted.

The other bizarre yet delicious food he mentioned trying was whole fried baby pig at Lei Garden, a Michelin One Star restaurant in Hong Kong.   These are not Terrier-sized suckling pigs, the little beauties you see turning on spits at Hawaiian Barbecues, or lying on a platter with an apple in its mouth.  These are small, barely football-sized little guys, pulled directly from the tit, then fried whole so they have a crackling skin and bones you can crunch and eat like you were eating a whole quail.

If you have ever been to a “wet market” in Asia, you know that this is by no means the most bizarre thing eaten in the region.  A culture that has no compunction about eating frogs, dogs, rats, or horses is not going to even blink at the idea of eating a just-born porcine.  And being the dedicated pork aficionado that I am, it is certainly an intriguing idea.  I just don’t know how I feel about it.  I don’t know if I am grossed out by the very thought of it, or afraid that I might really like it.  Then what would I do?  It is certainly not a food product one finds readily available at Safeway, or even the local farmer’s market, here in the U.S.  Will I find myself at the local pig farm with a burlap bag over my shoulder, cutting through chain link fences at midnight while my assistant holds a torch, saying something to him like, “Come, Igor.  There is wild work to be done…”  Or will I take to the streets and protest in front of the farm, carrying a sign that says, “It’s not a ‘Procedure.’ It’s Bacon!”

Anyway, I’m off on a something of a little junket myself tomorrow.  SNMT will be on a brief hiatus as I am leaving for a four day trip to Atlanta that will bring fresh meaning to the old saying, “Write if you find work…”  More on this story as it develops.

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"Stuff I Miss, Part One"

April 20, 2010

At the risk of sounding more old and crotchety than I already am, here are the first entries for a list I may or may not choose to add to later, of “Stuff I Miss”.

Being able to use the word “retard” with out feeling bad about it. I’m never making fun of a retarded person when I use the word, just comparing them to someone.  And would they even know it if I was?  Side note:  why do the care-givers for the “disabled” always dress them in bad clothes and give them a really bad bowl-cut hairdo?  Don’t they stand out enough already?  How many “normal” people do you see wearing green pants, an orange sweater, and red shoes?  Besides on a golf course, that is.

Food cooked “en croûte”. I love me some Feuilletage.  We used to make Carré D’Agneau En Croûte when I worked for Chef Masa at Auberge du Soleil back in the 80’s, and it killed!  We seared the rack, topped it with a Persillade that had fresh mint, brunoise carrot, shiitakes and shallots, and a little whole grain mustard; then we applied the pastry-wrap.  It would get an egg-wash, then into the oven for about 15 minutes for a gorgeous med-rare.  You had rings of brown, flaky pastry, the bright green of the vegetables, the seared brown crust of the meat, and a beautiful pink/red center.

Wrapping stuff in Puff Pastry has gone the way of the DoDo, as has making the Feuillete from scratch, like we used to at Auberge.  It is one of those Old School processes that has about 200 steps and needs everything to be at the perfect temperature, and added at just the right time, then rolled and folded over and over, just so.  Get the butter too warm or too cold, roll it into the dough wrong, or work it too much, and it all goes to shit and you end up with dough that’s flat as a pizza crust.  Making puff dough is one of those things that people once did for themselves many eons ago, like making rope.  Stuff that maybe your Grandpa knew how to do, but now it’s so much easier to just buy it.  But, seriously.  Beef Wellington, anyone?

Guys that follow their shot in a basketball game. You see it a lot in the NCAA’s during March Madness, but as soon as these guys sign to play in the Pro’s, it’s “let it fly and say goodbye.”

Use of Punctuation. And, while we’re at it: that key that says “Shift” on your keyboard?  It can be used to put a capital at the beginning of a sentence or a proper noun, if you would just press it every once in a while.  I am a purist in this sense, and I even know where the semi-colon is on my phone. I actually use it in text messages.

The White Courtesy Phone. Remember those?  Running through the airport to get to your gate, and hearing yourself being paged to the White Courtesy Phone was always a quandary.  Do you stop and make a grab at your chance at temporary celebrity? (“He must be important, he’s on the White Courtesy Phone!”)  Or do you just keep going, knowing they are just trying to find you to tell you what you already know, that you are late and everyone is on the plane is pissed.  Some airports had more than one color and  I always wondered what the difference was.  Most people got the page to the White Phone, but sometimes there was a Green One next to it.  Was that like the Superhero phone? Only the Uber-Important got to use the Green Courtesy Phone.

The Personnel Department: Gone are the days where you got to do your own hiring and the Personnel Office just kept the records and let you live or die with your choices.

Now everyone has to go through “Human Resources”.  Call your Director of Human Resources “Personnel Manager” and watch them bristle.  Human Resources people use the combined psychology of Mister Rogers and Hannibal Lechter to come up with interview questions like “If you were a tree, what kind would you be and why?”  Back when I was a line cook/sous-chef, most of my job interviews usually consisted of a brief once-over of the resume and “When can you start?”   Got my knives in the car, where’s an apron?

"So, where do you see yourself five years from now?"

At one corporate-owned and operated restaurant I managed, they interviewed a guy for a dishwasher job FOUR TIMES, and they still didn’t hire him.  By the time they finish the process, it’s taken so long that you’ve learned to get by without whomever it was you were trying to replace. When you see the smoke coming out of the chimney on the Admin Building change colors, you’ll know they’ve finally made a decision and hired someone.  I mean, we’re just looking for a part-time hostess for the season, not a new CEO.  Check their references, let me know if you find any violent felonies on their record, and shut the fuck up.  And people wonder about the spike in workplace violence…

Burning stuff in the incinerator. Every school and apartment building used to have one, and most families had an old 50-gallon oil drum in their backyard for burning stuff like newspapers, garbage, your sister’s Barbie.  I know that they are gone because of environmental impacts, air pollution, fire safety, respiratory health and insurance concerns, amongst dozens of other completely sensible and valid reasons.   But there was nothing like channeling your inner-Pyro as a kid, and seeing which stuff melted the fastest and looked the coolest as it shriveled in the flames before literally going up in smoke.  Next!

The Cranky Old Man Next Door: You know the one.  The bitter, old guy that used to swat at you with his broom if you climbed on his fence; or laid out his iron garden rake, with the points sticking up, just waiting for you to ride your bike across his lawn.  He was fond of yelling shit like “Hey!  You kids get out of there!”  He was always complaining that young people had no manners any more, and when I was a kid blah de blah, blah, blah… Oh, wait.  That’s me.

"Welcome Aboard…"

March 29, 2010

Our first meal of vacation was, of course, at an airport:  Perry’s on Terminal 1 at SFO.

Back in the days when I was constantly job shopping for a better waiter gig, I would always laugh at the ads on Craig’s List or in the papers, looking for waiters at the airport.  What self-respecting professional would ever want to work at the airport?

But sitting here by myself (we opted for two separate tables for our party of 3, rather than wait any longer for a three-top) and watching the crew at Perry’s run around, I can’t help but think it wouldn’t be such a bad gig after all.

Captive audience: Never a slow day at the airport.  Only days that aren’t quite as busy as others; and we were in Perry’s, not the cheapest game in town, by a long shot.  Even though it’s on the terminal concourse, there are still penny tiles on the floor, wainscoting on the walls, the servers are wearing white shirts and ties.  And, even thought the selection may not be as extensive, with the “airport mark-up” it’s in about the same price range as the freestanding versions. We ordered a club sandwich, a burger, and a bowl of clam chowder.  My wife had a cocktail, I had two drinks, and it was $81.  With 20 or so people waiting in line for one of the 30 or so tables, plus a dozen barstools, the numbers are definitely working in the server’s favor. Even with all the Euros, the cheap-ass business travelers, and families of four getting ready to blow their wad in Disneyland, you are still going to make bank.  The sheer numbers will insure it.

Easy up-sells on the booze: Every table I heard order a cocktail was asked if they wanted a single or a double.  Of course we want doubles!  We are about to get on a plane, put our lives in the hands of a pilot who is most likely NOT Captain Sully Sullivan.  If you don’t count the warm Miller Lite on the plane, this could very well be my last civilized cocktail beverage.  That, and the little electronic pour-controls on the bottles at most airports are only going to yield you, at best, an ounce and a half.  So, hell yeah,  Double that puppy up!

Never gonna see them again:  Unless they wear coveralls, a pilot’s cap, or stewardess (I know, I know, but I’m old school)  uniform, you are never going to see them again, ever.  So that amazingly cranky bitch?  Gone.  The lady with the incredibly bratty kids?   Gone.  Leave-un, on a jet plane.   Don’t think that they’ll be back uh-gain…

No frills service: Table maintenance?  Fuhgeddabahdit.  Most of the people are within earshot of their gate, killing time.  When it’s called, it’s “Check please!”   Up they jump, their half eaten burgers and the backwash in their beer glass still on the table. Gotta go!

Serve them in order of departure time: Let’s face it, nearly everybody at the airport is in a hurry.  Whether it’s in a hurry to get to their gate, their plane, meet their party, or maybe just out to minimize the amount of time they are actually in an airport, they are all on the run.  So when they ask you at airport restaurants, how much time you have, it may seem they are being courteous and understanding of your situation.  Not really; they just want to determine where your burger will be in the queue.  If you tell them you have 45 minutes, as I did, guess how long you will be there?  They will move you to the back of the line, in favor of the all the people with experience enough not to commit to a set time frame.  When asked how much time he had, I heard the guy next to me say,  “Never enough…”

And the kicker: The built in excuse. Burger’s overdone?  Drink’s weak?  Fries cold?  Whadya want pal?  You’re in the friggin’ airport!

"Slap-Yo-Mama-Good" Fried Chicken

February 16, 2010

I have spent quite a few years eating and drinking, and I pride myself on being willing to try anything, and I do mean anything, that is intended for ingestion by human beings.  I have eaten food from Hawker Stalls in Malaysia that our hosts for that vacation called “botulism on a stick,” and avoided like the plague.  Fried Chicken Livers and Waffles for breakfast at Elizabeth’s in the Warehouse District in New Orleans; Starling (tiny blackbirds) brains prepared by a French Chef I worked for; Sea Cucumbers, which I am still not sure are animal or vegetable, at Daimo in Emeryville for a Chinese New Year dinner (“Let’s give this to the round-eyes; see if they eat it…”); Durian, the World’s Stinkiest Fruit: tastes like smoky pineapple, smells like ripe Fontina; and anything and everything that comes from a Taco Truck (although I have discovered you don’t call tacos made from tongue “Tacos de Lengua”, as that term has an entirely different meaning to Mexicans, and has nothing to do with eating…food that is.)

So even though my Cast Iron Stomach has rusted a bit over the years, I am still quite adventurous when it comes to food; so you have to go a ways to find “the best I’ve ever had” of anything.   But last night was one of those rare food epiphanies where my eyes were opened anew to something I’d had hundreds of times before:  Fried Chicken.

Up until last night, I think the best Fried Chicken I’d had was at Wyatt’s Country Kitchen, located on a pretty scary stretch of Memorial Drive in Decatur, GA.  Wyatt’s is a double-wide mobile home with a screened-in front porch for a dining room, and a big smoker bolted onto the back.  He puts out ribs, collards, and butter beans “like you read about” and, on Sundays only, does Fried Chicken.  Gotta get there early, too, as the after-Church crowd will eat it all up if you don’t, and they are usually sold out by 2pm.

But last night we were celebrating our friend Kim’s birthday, so my wife and I made dinner:  Killer Mac-N-Cheese (recipe for that at another time, as it too was so-o-o-o good it deserves it’s own post) and what will forever be known as “Slap-Yo-Mama-Because-She-Should-Have-Made-It-This-Good-For-You-All-Along” Fried Chicken.  Or, just slightly more succinct, “Kim’s Birthday/Valentine’s Day Fried Chicken.”

Here is the recipe/procedure; not as complicated as many I have encountered, just way, way better.  Were I you, I would not change a thing the first time through, as even the most seemingly insignificant alteration may yield sub-par results.  You might even have to come over here and use our stove and skillet to be sure you get it just right:

  • 12 Chicken Thighs and 12 Legs (us White Folk don’t be eatin’ us no White Meat)
  • 1/4 cup Kosher Salt for The Brine, plus about a teaspoon more for breading
  • 1/4 cup granulated Sugar
  • 1 tablespoon Chile Powder (I used a blend made by “El Guapo” available on that little rack of Mexican spices that almost every supermarket in California has; 98¢ for an ounce)
  • 1 tablespoon dried Oregano
  • 2 pints water
  • All purpose flour for breading the chicken pieces
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Oil for frying (Carole used a mix of Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Canola that that we bought at Safeway, I think, plus a little peanut oil she found in the cupboard).

Step 1:  The Brine

(This is not one of those brining procedures that starts out with “Five days ahead of time, put the chicken in a brine of…”  No, I brined the chicken pieces for only about five hours.)

Put the 1/4 cup Kosher Salt, the sugar, the Chile powder, and the oregano in a bowl large enough to accommodate all the chicken and the water.  Add the water to the bowl and whisk it until well blended, and the sugar and salt have melted.

Put the chicken in the brine and submerge it.  Put the bowl in the fridge.  You might need to push the chicken down into the brine occasionally, but my bowl was wide enough that I really didn’t need to.

When ready to start frying, remove the chicken from the brine and rinse under cold, running water, and let drain in a colander.  After they have drained a while, place chicken pieces, skin side up for the thighs, on a sheet pan lined with two thicknesses of paper towels.  Use another wad of paper towels to pat the top of the pieces dry.

Step 2:  The Fry

Put a couple of cups of the AP Flour in a Zip-Loc bag with the teaspoon of Kosher salt, and twenty twists or so of the black pepper from your pepper mill.  Put the drained, dry chicken in the bag and coat well, a few pieces at a time.  Place floured chicken on a sheet pan with a rack and let sit while you finish your breading duties.

Once all chicken pieces are floured, put your Big-Ass Cast Iron Skillet on a medium-high flame and let it heat for a minute or so.  Pre-heat the oven to 325°.  Add enough of the oil to cover the bottom of your B.A.C.I.S. to a depth of about a 1/4 inch.

Re-flour the chicken pieces a few at a time as you fry them in batches, using the same flour from the first breading (Don’t re-flour the all the chicken at once; do them a few at a time, and wait until just before it is their turn in the pan).

Now comes the only really tricky part in the whole operation: the actual frying.  My wife is the Fry-Mistress; and her technique, while partly instinctive by virtue of her Mid-Western gene pool, has been finely honed over the years.  Knowing when the oil is too hot, not enough, etc, is a skill that only comes with practice; but generally speaking, slower is better.  I can’t give you an exact temperature because checking the oil’s temperature with a thermometer is just not how she rolls.

Knowing when to turn the bird is also critical, as she turns the pieces but once.  The chicken last night fried at a pace that allowed her to put it in the pan, then come out into the backyard to socialize and have a cocktail, returning to the stove at just the precise moment to make the turn.  So, to time it precisely, make yourself a Cosmo, go chat for about 15-20 minutes, then flip.   Another important part of the frying procedure, apparently, is to yell “DON’T FLIP IT!!!” at your husband, from the backyard, if you happen to look through the kitchen window and see him even approaching the stove.  (“Hey, I’m not touching it!!”)

Fry the chicken until beautifully golden brown.  Put crispy, beautiful pieces of chicken yumminess onto a sheet pan with a rack, to keep warm in the oven while you finish frying the rest.  Some of the pieces from the first couple of batches can be returned to the hot oil in the pan to re-crisp them, if you feel it necessary, before serving.

To those of you adventurous enough to try this Best Fried Chicken of All Time recipe, I will just say, in advance, “You’re welcome…”

"Slap-Yo-Mama" Chicken

You'll want to slap yo mama, but please don't...