Monthly Archives: January 2014

No Rules

            As far as I’m concerned, there are no rules when it comes to cooking.  Yes, there are some common sense principles to guide us so that we don’t outright ruin the food – we must be teachable – but rules are optional.  When I originally began pondering this idea, I was fresh from watching an Iron Chef America episode where chocolate was used in every course.  It was especially intriguing, given that there was very little dessert offered among the courses.  Chocolate in a savory dish?  Isn’t there a rule against that? Apparently not, according to the Iron Chefs.  

Shortly after that rule-smashing episode I went exploring at the grocery store and came home with sun-dried tomatoes and banana pepper rings.  I had no recipe in mind – I just dig ‘em.  For lunch that day, we decided to have tuna salad   and I thought it would be fun to add both the tomatoes and peppers, with a splash of spicy brown mustard.  For The Wife this was a bit of a stretch – thankfully, it was a successful stretch. You see, I come from a loaded tuna salad family: sweet pickle relish at a minimum, sometimes eggs, apple if we got really ambitious, and pecans if Younger Brother and I were not involved in the meal.  Then I married into a family that defined tuna and mayo thrown together in a bowl as tuna salad.  So for a while I lived in the least common denominator rather than make two different batches.   When we lived overseas, tuna and mayo were easy to come by, but sweet relish was a rarity, so it turned out to be an easy paradigm to live under.  On the other hand, during our first week as expatriates in that Kingdom of Far, Far Away we were treated to tuna salad with mandarin oranges and raisins.  I was thunderstruck.  A fruit other than apple in my tuna?  It was so simple, yet added so much flavor.  Perhaps this is where my interest in grilled fish with fruit salsa was born.  You never know.

Have sun-dried tomatoes and banana peppers ever been used in tuna salad before?  (Or since?) I don’t know.  And it doesn’t really matter.  I branched out, I enjoyed it, and I would do it again.  But in the interest of full disclosure, there are also times I branch out and enjoy it but don’t do it again.  As the Iron Chef judge said about her chocolate entrée, sometimes once is enough.  On that matter I just have two words: lamb fries.

They were great.  Once.

They were great. Once.

The premise behind my rant is this: there’s a first time for everything.  Not a very original phrase, I grant you, but I can’t think of a better way to say it, either.  As the historians surmise, men ate raw meat before lightning struck it once – or perhaps they dropped a bit of wooly mammoth in the fire and realized it was better that way.  I’m sure Glug thought his neighbors were crazy when he saw them dropping their meat in the fire at the All-Day-Grunting-And-Dinner-In-The-Cave meeting the following week.

Who was the first person to pour milk on their cereal?  I pondered this as an older child, and decided to try Cranapple juice on Cheerios as a snack.  Sure, it was different, but it was a good different – I ate/drank it many times after that and have good memories of the combination.  My experiment was completed long before Googling was possible, but since then I have searched and discovered that others have followed my lead in breaking the cereal/milk rule.  I found references to orange juice, coffee, yogurt, Bailey’s Irish Cream, and melted butter – just to name a few – all poured over dry cereal.  I felt vindicated.  (And for the record, I offer this disclaimer: I am not recommending that anyone eat a bowl of Bailey’s and Wheaties in the morning – certainly not the breakfast of champions.)

Even Son has been subtly trained in the idea of “almost anything goes.”  When I was but a youngster, we were gifted a shaker of Tony Chachere’s Cajun Seasoning, and began to use it in just about everything that required salt and pepper.  I brought that habit to the marriage, and eventually bought a separate salt-shaker just to add a little class to our Tony’s on the table.  The Wife didn’t understand – she thought that if I was adding Tony’s to her food, it must mean I didn’t like it.  It took a while to convince her that it was just like adding salt –   the label even says so – and I was only enhancing the already wonderful flavor of her meal.  Son, who didn’t like to use common toothpaste because it was too “spicy”, soon picked up on the Tony’s habit. Go figure.  He went through a phase when he would shake it on his breakfast toast, his cheese sandwiches.  Daughter, not to be outdone in the rule-breaking category, eats a Nutella-on-white-bread sandwich several days a week.  (No Tony’s.)  No rules.

Put it on the pedestal it deserves.

Put it on the pedestal it deserves.

In the end, can we just agree that rules are relative?  Most chefs turn their collective noses up if steaks are cooked much beyond medium, but my Maw-in-Law doesn’t know that rule.  If her steak doesn’t get confused with a charcoal briquette, she sends it back.  Rules or not, it is still wise to employ common sense.  If you live in a pork-free zone as we did for ten years, and you get your hands on a Boston butt, you take exquisite care of it and don’t play.  It’s not worth the risk of ruining it with over-experimentation.  But if you live near the Piggly Wiggly and can afford to toss a failed experiment in the trash if necessary, I say go for it.  Put some chocolate in your casserole or glaze your ham with a Cranapple juice reduction.  Just go easy on the Kahlua in the morning – that’s not what they mean by Special K.

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Time for Donuts

I think it’s time we talked about donuts.  I know they come up a lot in my travelogues, but I’m pretty sure I have never devoted all my allotted words to the subject.  And why not now, when just about everybody is resigned to the fact that it’s the holidays – all diets are off and all gym memberships are inactive until January 2, anyway.  A perfect time to explore the exciting world of fried dough.

Ultimately, that is what we are talking about – fried dough.  And we have been frying dough for a long time.  The form may have changed, but even in the book of Leviticus (verse 12, chapter 7) the Hebrews were instructed to present offerings of peace and thanksgiving in the form of fried cakes of fine flour. Sing it with me now: “I eat donuts, this I do, for the Bible tells me to.” (That may not be the way you learned the song, but people add verses to hymns all the time.)  A plain donut straight from the hot oil through the glaze waterfall is definitely something I can be thankful for.

My Kind of Freshness Movement

My Kind of Freshness Movement

Let’s camp here a moment, near the hot oil.  I’ll go out on a limb here and say that a fresh, hot donut as   described above has no real equal when one takes into account the total experience.  It’s almost as if one is biting into sweet, sticky air.  There is a shape until a bite is taken, then the dough practically melts in the mouth.  This is why I look for the illuminated “Hot Donuts Now” sign whenever I am in the vicinity of a Krispy Kreme store.  (Some will even give you a free one if you make it in under the glow of the red neon.)  This is why at Shipley’s I scan the scene prior to placing my order to see if there are hot ones on the rack.  I may still have a sausage roll, apple fritter or blueberry cake in my clutches, but if there are hot, plain, glazed donuts available, I must have at least one.  I must.  And this is why I practically inhaled (to carry forth the air analogy) two of the round beauties at work not long ago, just after having a perfectly good low-carb breakfast at home before I arrived.  I have no willpower with hot donuts.  I attribute some of my behavior to my parental units, who taught me early in life that even a day-old donut is pretty good heated, a habit made even easier with the invention of the microwave.  (Yes, kids, there was a day in my lifetime when they did not exist. I am that old.)

Allow me to make another blanket statement: I am not a donut snob, per se.  I’ve just finished John T. Edge’s book, “Donuts, An American Passion” in which he speaks both of corporate giants (like Krispy Kreme) and local artisanal donut makers.  Though I am normally the anti-champion when it comes to chain restaurants, with donuts I make an exception.  I like the fact that a hot glazed Krispy Kreme in Columbus, Mississippi, is essentially equal to a hot glazed Krispy Kreme in Kuwait.  And I can testify that they are.  I have not had a Shipley’s as far away as Houston, TX, but I have had them in Oxford, and the same principle holds true.  Even the blueberry cake I had at the Dunkin’ Donuts in Dubai satisfied the same craving as it did here in the US of A.  Which brings me to another point in my “I am not a snob” soliloquy.  My favorites outside of a hot glazed are apple fritters and blueberry cake, hands down (and sticky).   But I will not turn away from any other flavor or filling if that’s all that’s left in the box.  No uppity donut critic here.

John T. also mentions that in a pinch, he has been known to deep fry canned biscuits with holes cut in the center.  I can also testify to the surprising goodness of that recipe, and its crazy simplicity.  I tried the same method last week with canned cinnamon rolls with mixed success, but I won’t let that deter me from trying again.

Neshoba County Fare

Neshoba County Fare

Another childhood favorite in the donut category is the dunkin’ stick.  The idea, I assume, is to dunk the stick in coffee or another appropriate beverage.  That may be good, but I prefer just to eat them out of the wrapper, right outside the service station where I tend to find them most often.  Yes, I could probably buy a whole box from any Little Debbie purveyor, but having a whole box of dunkin’ sticks at my disposal is a dangerous wager.  There is an undefinable flavor found in these pastries and a texture that is hard to match in any other.  Though I will say that a good cruller does share some of those ethereal characteristics.

Donuts are inspiring.  Edge also wrote three other books about iconic American foods: fried chicken, apple pie, and hamburgers & fries – all were subtitled, “An American Story.”  But donuts are “An American Passion.”  Dough for thought.  Comedian Tim Hawkins has been heard to say that eating a Krispy Kreme is like eating a baby angel.  A bit irreverent, perhaps, but clearly he has been affected profoundly by the experience.  The heavenly beings are also evoked by writer and humorist Roy Blount, Jr, who said, “Krispy Kremes are to other doughnuts what angels are to people.”

I have had a donut sundae: donut base topped with ice cream and other decadent toppings.  I have had donut cobbler: so sweet it sets your teeth on edge but so good you don’t care.  I have had a donut burger: don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.  I have made donut French toast: try it with a cake donut, it just works better.  Donuts are a paradox: international but local, timeless but ephemeral, sinful but angelic.  Eat a hot one soon.

Donut French Toast

Donut French Toast

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