Thursday, January 29, 2009

Destination: Florida?

Above photograph stolen from icanhascheezburger

For the next couple weeks I will be cruising around the Sunshine State and hope to post some of my economical epuricean findings therein -- that is, if I'm not too busy ordering pina coladas from sinewy cabana boys and watching this guy do his nightly show in Key West. I have a lot of restaurant recommendations from Roadfood and can't wait to sink my teeth into the following Floridian specialties:

-Stuff made with datil peppers, found all over the northeastern coast
-Ropa vieja, or really any Cuban specialty, in Little Havana, Miami
-Apalachicola Bay oysters on the half shell
-Hogfish, especially if it's hugged by a sesame seed roll
-Key lime pie, obvi
-Lots of BBQ (we tend to forget Florida's still part of the south)
-Some good mullet (and I mean the fish and the hairstyle, both abundant in these parts)
-Some good cooter (and I mean the turtle but not the ladyplaces)

Non-Floridians tend to associate Florida with geriatrics, Disney World, congestion, spring break, endangered manatees, endangered little Cuban boys on rafts, George W. Bush's first election, and violent crime. And by non-Floridians, maybe I just mean me. You would wonder why I want to go there. The main reason is that it's like 50 degrees warmer there than it is here in icy, miserable DC. Besides that, it's a mecca of honky tonk Americana, one of my favorite things. And, I'm quickly and happily learning, it's a mecca of good eating, my absolute favorite thing. I can't wait!

Also, if anyone has any good recommendations for cheap-but-not-scary motels, restaurants, and things to do, pass them along! For now, I'm planning on taking I-95 to Savannah, then switching between I-95 and A1A down Florida's east coast with a few days in the Miami area and Everglades National Park and quite a few days in the Keys (southernmost point of the U.S.!), coming back up along the Gulf Coast, posssssibly hitting up the panhandle, and coming back home through Atlanta, with a stop in Blacksburg, VA, to see the bro. Whew!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

He's Just Not That Into Food

Above photograph stolen from the New York Times

There are many things about Barack Obama that I really like, a couple things I don't like, and one thing that truly makes me nervous about the fate of this country: he is a notoriously finnicky eater. A Newsweek article a few months back noted that most presidential candidates gain weight on the campaign trail, understandably, since it is really just a tour of America's folksiest barbecue joints and roadside diners. But President Obama, who, according to this same article, once requested his pancakes "to go" (we can easily assume he skipped the drippy syrup and butter, if he touched them at all), actually lost weight during his campaign. Yeah, yeah, the man has a lot of nervous energy, even melancholia, which probably has a lot to do with his success. But think about it: if he gets his pancakes to go and eats pretty much the same thing (salmon, rice, vegetable) every night, what will he do at foreign policy dinners? "Thanks, Vlad, but I'll pass on the potatoes. Gotta watch the carbs. Yeeahh, doesn't vodka come from potatoes, too? Do you have any unsweetened iced tea?" I sense a looming international fiasco! Then again, maybe Putin and Obama could make peace over a smoke.

Much talk has been made lately about Obama's 2001 appearance on Check, Please!, a Chicago public television show dedicated to local restaurant reviews. The blogs are now pinning Obama as a bona fide restaurant critic after a merely skin-deep discussion of Dixie Kitchen and Bait Shop, located in his old legislative district. When asked what he ordered at his last visit, Obama replies, "the Southern Sampler, just because I couldn't make up my mind." Though he claims to "eat there quite a bit," he seems unattached to the cuisine. For him, the camaraderie this unassuming neighborhood diner creates is far more remarkable than any particular entree.

Fine, but thinking about Obama in relationship to food became most troubling when Sanders and I began planning a menu for the inauguration party we hosted yesterday. To represent Obama's adopted hometown, Sanders was in charge of Chicago-style hot dogs and Polish sausages. (We should've also represented Obama's newest adopted hometown with half-smokes, but that's an embarrassing subject for our new president.) I had a harder time deciding what to make. Internet research on Obama's favorite foods revealed...only that he's not that into food. So I decided to delve into recipes from Hawaii and Indonesia, two places where he spent portions of his childhood and teenage years. I admit I was getting a bit precious about this menu-planning, but that's just what I do. The food had to be cheap, seasonable, and able to feed a crowd, so most Hawaiian recipes I found were out: too much fish, too many exotic fruits, and too much Spam, oddly enough. But I did come across a great Indonesian (not sure how authentic it is, but it is at least Indonesian-inspired) recipe on my new favorite food blog, It was unusual enough to be a conversation-piece, and tasty enough that a few people asked me for the recipe. I plan to make it again this week, not only because I now have many of the ingredients left over, but also because I can't stop thinking about it. I do not know if President Obama would ever eat it, but that wasn't really important to me in the end. I'm contented that, despite his picky habits, Barack Obama inadvertently expanded my culinary horizons!

Recipe: Vaguely Indonesian Red Rice Salad

Adapted from Serves 8, with reservations. I tripled it for the party, and with only about 15 people at my house, there were no leftovers. If you are planning to serve this as a main course -- it's certainly filling enough for that -- the amounts below provide for about 4 servings. Red rice is not available in most grocery stores, so now's your chance to explore the Asian market. H Mart in Wheaton sells 4-lb. bags for $5.99. You could also use basmati rice, but the red is just so purty. Heidi at 101cookbooks uses macadamia nuts and basil. I am too cheap to buy macadamia nuts, so I used peanuts, and basil this time of year is so wilted and pitiful that I used cilantro instead. Also, if you are doubling or tripling this recipe, I would not double or triple the amount of soy sauce. I learned this the hard way. A quarter-cup, which Heidi uses, is plenty, even when the recipe is doubled.

As always, the recipe below is modified a lot according to my own tastes and budget, and my modifications are in parentheses. Despite the long ingredient list, this dish is actually very easy.

2 C water
1 C red rice
2 T oil (I used 3 or 4 tablespoons, as vegetables got dry too quickly)
4 shallots, chopped (I had only two shallots, so I added one small onion)
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 large red chili, seeded and chopped (I used a dried chili, and did not seed it)
1-in. piece of grated ginger root (I used 2 T ground ginger, but I LOVE ginger)
1 t ground coriander
1 large carrot, thinly sliced
1/2 lb. green beans, trimmed and chopped
1/2 C coconut milk
1/4 C soy sauce (this was too much soy sauce for my taste, so I used about 2T instead)
1/2 t molasses (mine was about 3 years past its prime, so I omitted)
4 large eggs, boiled and peeled (forgot about these, didn't hurt)
1/2 C julienned basil (I used cilantro)
1/4 C macadamia nuts, toasted and chopped (I used peanuts)
1 lime, quartered

Bring water to a boil in a medium stockpot. Rinse and drain the rice, and add to the boiling water. Keep heat high until it returns to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and cook for 45 minutes or until water is absorbed. Reduce heat to low and let stand for 10 minutes, then remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.

In large wok, saute pan, or Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high. Add shallots, garlic, chile, ginger, coriander, carrot, and green beans. Stir-fry till vegetables are crisp-tender. Add coconut milk, soy sauce, and molasses and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and add rice. Stir in basil and macadamias, then toss everything together. Before serving, arrange hardcooked eggs on top. Serve with squeeze of lime and arrange lime wedges on top, if desired.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Two Economical Epicureans Under One Roof

Just before Christmas, my good friend Mike Sanders, fondly known as Sanders, Sandy, or The Colonel, moved into my house, fondly known as the Kentbury Kompound. Since we already knew each other so well, the adjustment to living with a roommate again has been relatively painless, and it's nice to have someone around who's both considerate and funny and potentially able to save me from the antisocial cat lady I might otherwise become. Sanders, meanwhile, is slowly discovering the joys of feline attention. Just don't bring up the rogue turd he found in his laundry basket; it remains a sore subject.

One thing is certain about our new housing arrangement: I am and will continue to be eating a lot more meat than I used to. (Oh, and another thing is most thrillingly certain: my kitchen now contains a big blue Le Creuset dutch oven!) Sanders is a legendary master of the braise and the grill and probably a whole list of other methods that I've never even tried. And he sure does eat a lot of pork products for a Jewish guy.

The other night, living up to his surname, he made the absolute best homecooked fried chicken I have ever eaten. My own experimentation with fried chicken has resulted in nothing but soggy skin and dried out meat, but Sanders has it down. Now, I probably should also point out that our house came the closest to burning down that it ever has – flames erupted from the stove, but we calmly smothered them with a pot lid. So maybe that's the secret to good fried chicken: get the oil so hot and use such an overabundance of it that the pot catches on fire. A small price to pay for what you're about to eat.

Okay, don't do that, but do read Sanders' thorough instructions below for fried chicken that is both incredibly delicious AND fire-safe. We make mistakes so we can learn from them. In his words:

Recipe: The Other Colonel Sanders's Fried Chicken

I use this recipe (loosely adapted from an Epicurious recipe) to fry chicken thighs, which I prefer because they are juicier than other chicken parts, meaty, and inexpensive (economical!). But I'm sure it would work equally well for other chicken pieces.


10 chicken thighs (bone-in and skin-on, otherwise, don't even bother!)
2 eggs
3/4 - 1 cup of half and half (if you must substitute, do not use low-fat or skim won't do the job)
1/2 cup water
2 - 2.5 cups regular flour
generous amounts (a tablespoon or two, I'd say) of thyme (dry), paprika, cayenne pepper, and garlic powder
salt and pepper to taste (I prefer Kosher salt)
copious amounts of peanut oil (see below for guidance on how much to use).


1) Season chicken thighs with salt and pepper. Beat together the eggs, half-and-half, and water and pour over the chicken pieces (they don't need to be submerged, just enough to marinate). Set aside for about half an hour, turning the thighs occasionally to ensure both sides get good exposure to the liquid.

2) Pre-heat the peanut oil in a large, heavy pot. Use enough oil so that several chicken thighs can be fully submerged for cooking. Heat the oil to between 350 - 375 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature is very important to getting good results, so I highly recommend using an oil thermometer (they're inexpensive). If you don't have one, good luck to you. All I'll say is that much oil takes some time to heat up, so turn the burner on pretty high and give it at least 10 minutes.

SAFETY ALERT: Do not fill the pot up all the way! Oil expands, and it can easily overflow the pot and start a fire if you use too much (learned the hard way, folks). As a rule of thumb, I'd say fill the pot no more than 2/3 full.

3) Combine the spices and the flour. Remove the thighs from the liquid (be sure to let the excess drip off) and dredge very thoroughly in the flour mixture (be sure to get all the nooks and crannies). Shake off the excess and set aside. This can be done in batches just before cooking.

4) When the oil is ready, carefully drop a few pieces of chicken in the oil. Using a metal slotted spoon (preferably one of those deep-frying wire/mesh spoon dealies) gently and constantly move the thighs around in the oil to prevent them from getting charred on the bottom of the pot. Flip thighs once or twice during cooking. The thighs should be fully cooked in about 10 minutes depending on their size. (Use an instant read thermometer to check; they should be just shy of 160 degrees internal temp).

5) Remove thighs and place on a paper towel-lined platter. Immediately season with a bit of salt and tent with aluminum foil while you cook the other batches.

Serves 5 - 7 people (unless they eat like me, then it's more like 3 - 4).