Category Archives: Food

The Spices of Life

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Over the last couple of months, I have eaten a lot fewer calories but have paradoxically tried so many new flavors. I’ve always been a spice and sauce person but it’s been amazing ingesting a metric ton of new flavors. Only in the presence of fresh french fries have I felt slightly cheated; otherwise, I think of all the people around me who aren’t trying all these crazy spices and flavors – and feel pity. Eating differently has opened my eyes to an entire buffet of weirdness.

My friend Jackie gave me a jar of tomato achaar, an Indian condiment made with a base of tomatoes. I paused for a moment of silence when I tried it, reflecting on the part of my life I lived without knowingly trying its deliciousness. This led me back to variations of tikka masala and curry and experimenting with my own versions of pico de gallo, which is quite possibly the closest approximation to the gods ever devised. There are a couple of local Mexican restaurants which probably want to ban me for picketing for more pico de gallo. They can keep the entrée or throw it out if they’ll just give me an entire bucket of pico.

Hidden Valley makes a sauce mix flavored as spinach & artichoke which is incredible on almost anything. Weirdly, I’ve never used it as directed. It could be a floor cleaner for all I know. McCormick expanded its selection by a factor of 10. There are so many versions of wasabi, horseradish, chipotle, garlic and lemon and lime spices that I’ve often started weeping with joy, which startles other Wal-Mart shoppers.

My wife Dawn either says, “Mmmmm” in admiration of the smells wafting through the house or “Gross,” as the concoctions I’m ingesting causes her eyes to water or her nose to collapse in on itself in horror.

At this point, I can only assume that some of the neighbors are convinced I’m perfecting a new recipe for meth, one punctuated by new flavors. Since I bought a new stove with a different oven in part to be able to cook more conveniently, it is possible that if the police are using thermal imaging to surveil me in my alleged drug lab, they too are convinced. During the hottest parts of summer, I’ve used the oven almost every day, even when the roof was about to spontaneously combust.

Until a large hole opens in my abdomen from the complex craziness of all these flavors, I’ll take it as a sign of optimism.

By the way, I’m still a terrible cook with a vulgar palate. But I’m smiling. I can see why people risked getting in boats attempting to find shorter trade routes to India.

The spice must flow, indeed.

Robinson Farms and Roasted Everything

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In a weird twist, my favorite fruit and vegetable stand, operated by an older gentleman named Jim (who I’ve written about before), accepts credit cards and now has a Facebook page. (Link at bottom…) Anyone who hasn’t included him on their routes is missing out.

I stopped in today for just a watermelon and departed with tomatoes, a cantaloupe, watermelon, and cucumbers. Once home, I made a plate of cut tomatoes, with a dash of red wine vinegar, curry, Tajin, and a few sprinkles of mozzarella. I’d tell you how good it was, but I would have to slap you for knowing how much I enjoyed it. PS: I ate basil, garlic and onion tomatoes for breakfast, directly from the can. I sprinkled them with Tajin and lemon pepper. I noted that people around me experienced burning eyes and dripping noses but the symptoms seemed to dissipate a few hours later.

I’ve discovered that I love roasted chickpeas. Just to be obstinate, I’ve been experimenting with a variety of roasted items. I made roasted black beans over the weekend. Last week, I bought a new stove with the intention of using it until it catches fire. I do most of the cooking, but my wife Dawn is by far the better cook. Being ignorant of what is supposed to work is half the fun for me. Most of the things I prepare for myself probably fall under the category of “chemical weapons” as far as she’s concerned. I’ve started rating her reactions based on the duration of her eye rolls once she sees what nonsense I’ve been preparing.

To appease my bottomless potato chip and french fry hunger, I’ve been making sliced potatoes in the oven a lot lately. Over the weekend, I made a marinade of sesame sauce and curry. I almost needed CPR it was so delicious. It’s true that the cat almost vomited when he smelled it, but I doubt cats are accustomed to catching sesame-curry mice in their native fields.

I’ve always known how much more I prefer the spices and sauces to the actual entrée, but it’s getting a little ridiculous. At some point, you can expect to find me dipping strips of cardboard into 23 little separate dipping bowls.

I did grill over the weekend. I discovered that there is a word for ‘lazy vegetarian,’ too. The word is “Reducetarian.” Dawn and I are quite fascinated with white meat ground turkey breast. It’s great in everything. Yesterday, I substituted almost all the white ground turkey with roasted corn I prepared in the new oven and tomatoes for my half of the dish.

In case I forget, if you don’t know what “Tajin” is or the incredible taste it can add to both fruit and vegetables, I would recommend it to anyone interested in trying something new. You can get it in single-serving packets or larger bottles. Start with the “Clásico” variety.

The prancing cat has nothing to do with my commentary. But everyone likes prancing cats.

Robinson Farms   (< Click for link.)

The Best Damn Roasted Cucumber Recipe Ever Devised

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Expert Cooking Advice From X Teri, Noted Chef

As a noted expert in the field of cooking, I’ve figured out the whole “Roasted Cucumber Slices” thing.

I made some today with lemon juice and Tajín. Dawn at least tried them when I said, “They evoke the taste of fried green tomatoes.” She popped one in her mouth and immediately puckered up. She then reminded me she doesn’t like fried green tomatoes. I’m glad Fannie Flagg is still alive, otherwise, my wife’s reaction would have earned her a downgrade in reputation.

If you’re interested, I deviate wildly from most of the recommended websites in regards to roasted cucumber slices. Some sites recommend low temperatures such as 170 for longer times. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

First, heat the oven to at least 400. Spray a metal cooking sheet with your favorite cooking spray.

As much as I love parchment paper, you don’t need it for this unless your cucumbers are more desiccated than the mouth of a starving vampire.

(Real men will note that they should use axle grease for the cooking sheet. But on the other hand, real men don’t know how to cook roasted cucumber slices: it’s in the rule book under “No.”)

Before putting the seasoned cucumber slices on the pan, heat it in the oven for 3-4 minutes. You should also count to 180 in a foreign language while you wait. It won’t help you cook any better, but it will give you a pretentious air necessary to be regarded as a “good cook.” (And not the “Breaking Bad” kind of cook, either, no matter how pretty Blue Ice is in the summer sunlight.

I prefer using smaller cucumbers. Wash them but don’t peel them. Only people who think limited-edition collector’s plates peel their cucumbers. Just don’t do it. Slice the cucumbers into very thin slices. You shouldn’t need an electron microscope, so don’t fret about how thick they might be. Whatever you think “thinly sliced” means, do that.

So help me god, if anyone mentions using a mandoline to slice the cucumbers, I will come to your house and shave the hindquarters of your favorite pet. Mandolines are simply not permitted in American households. If you have one, please stop reading now, get your mandolin from the kitchen, then throw it out the back door wherever you live.

For additional points, chop as quickly as humanly possible. Try to do it like that android on the “Alien” movie did the knife trick around fingers. Professional chefs worry too much about safety in the kitchen. We’ve been eating for thousands of years and no one has gotten seriously injured yet. Note from the lawyers: that last statement is false, so unless you are Republican, ignore that last part.

In a bowl, (the slices – not you), splash the slices with lemon juice as if you are doing a Catholic mass on Saturday morning. Add whatever seasoning you wish: curry powder, lemon pepper, Tajín, cheese sprinkles. If you aren’t sure, try it on there. Cucumbers are cheaper than opinions at a NASCAR rally.

Place the cucumber slices on a single level on the warm cooking sheet. Do not make neat rows or patterns when you do this. It annoys normal people to see neatly arranged things we’re all going to eat anyway.

Put the pan in the oven. (Where else would you put it?)

Don’t do anything for 10 -14 minutes. At 10-14  minutes, keep a cautious eye on the slices. They will turn from almost crispy and tinged with brown to flaming to the ceiling if you blink too long. Personally, I love almost everything even if it is burned. But for you normal people out there, you need to be cautious.  Except for the pyros: you guys can set the oven for 500 and leave it for 4 days if you want. (You only live once.)

One thing you need to understand about roasted cucumbers slices is that they simply don’t taste the same once heated and dried. If you take the time to make these and anyone in your family refuses to try them or appreciate the effort, borrow a gun if necessary and repeat your request that they at least try these delicious slices of heaven. Fire a warning shot if you don’t notice a dramatic increase in enthusiasm as your loved ones stuff their faces with these things.

As a bonus, if you make them as I indicate, they are very low in calories.

You’ll note that your life is suddenly awash with happiness and peace. It’s an inevitable change once you start following my cooking advice. 450 Ukrainian diplomats can’t be wrong.

 

PS: If you don’t trust me, you can Google recipes for these yourself. Be warned, though. There are a LOT of weirdos on the internet these days, some of whom are masquerading as good cooks.

 

 

 

 

Hot Springs: Fork You

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Hot Springs is a town of aromas. While the tourism board would like to entice you with outdoorsy scenes of frolicking on the lake, the reality is that this town is one which holds its center due to the eateries. Forget the “National Park” logos; this place is a silhouette of a grill, surrounded by 2,000 forks trying to get inside of it. If you are trying to avoid eating like a newly-awakened 15-year coma victim, this place is not for you. Even the ambulances yield to people trying to make turns into the parking lots of the local places to eat.

Last night, people who for some reason like me invited me along for a culinary trip to the Back Porch Grill, a steakhouse on the lakeside. I, of course, balked at eating meat as I usually do and instead had delicious grilled asparagus, salad, baked potato, vegetables, and a napkin. I ate the napkin by mistake, as I thought it was some sort of crépe. I also had some avocado quarter fries, which are cardiac-event starter packs, if you’ve never had them.

Earlier today, I parked the car a couple of miles from where I’m staying and walked. Yes, there are ‘better’ places to walk recreationally, but my old habits often flare up and insist that I do some urban walking. Being in another place allows me to stroll through as if I’m a traveling dignitary, one whose mission it is to see as much as possible while not feeling self-conscious. Walking a trail might connect you to nature, but walking the streets gives you a window into the place you’re visiting. And, instead of bears, you might be accosted. Being the keen mind that I am, instead of walking when it was cooler, I instead waited for clearer skies to ensure that my head might catch on fire. (It’s a fact that the sun is at least a million miles closer to Earth here in this part of the state.)

It’s difficult to walk and focus when you’re distracted by almost visible waves of cooking aromas. If I were a food critic, I’d say my review would be this: “There’s too much of it.”

Within a block of where I parked, I could count 20 places to eat, ranging from Colton’s, BBQ, pupusas and Southern-Style. (PS: ‘Southern-Style’ simply means it’s been murdered with oil and/or suffocated in gravy, much like my arteries.)

When I walked past some older apartments, a man sitting on the stoop near the street raised his hand and offered a bit of wit about the heat. I, of course, asked him, “Are you saying I’m whiter than a set of bed sheets and will burn like my mom’s toast or are you saying I’m too old to be doddering around?” He laughed and slapped his thigh. He asked, “What’cha listening to?” and pointed to my headphones. “Il Volo,” I said and he nodded his head as if he had just seen the group live in concert in Amsterdam. “Keep your head cool,” he told me, as I walked away. I’m not sure if he meant for me to be cautious about the heat or adopt a lighter philosophical touch in life; one never knows in these situations.

When I doubled back to intersect with the main road near Oaklawn, a couple arguing in Spanish approached me from the other direction. I turned down my headphone volume to hear them. In an argument as old as time, they were arguing about where to go eat, with the woman objecting to walking so far when there was BBQ just five minutes away. To them, I was invisible. As we drew close, in Spanish I said, “Colton’s has BBQ and what he wants.” The woman’s eyes widened and she said, “¿Qué dice?” (“What?”) So, I stopped long enough to point them toward Colton’s, where they could both eat exactly what they wanted without walking two more miles. I felt like a tourism guide at that point. (A nosey one, too.) I’m sure they reminded themselves to not assume they couldn’t be understood, even if it was some white-legged guy wandering the streets who might be eavesdropping.

While I was ambling about the town, I received a couple of texts, informing me that we were scheduled to dine at Fisherman’s Wharf again. When my wife texted to tell me, all I could think of to reply was, “Til death do us part.”

I have life insurance where I work, so death while eating wouldn’t be a terrible way to go. In fact, I’d agree that it’s likely.

My initial reaction when I read the words, “We’re eating at Fisherman’s Wharf tonight” was one of shock. I felt exactly like a fallen soldier from the Battle of Gettysburg might feel if he were resurrected and forced to relive and die on the bloody battlefield. I decided the analogy was unfair, as the soldier at least would have been armed. It would be awkward for me to start shooting the lights and windows out at a restaurant for bad service or food. Entertaining, too – just illegal.

For me, it’s more about the banter and interaction than it is the food at group meals. Large groups tend to take longer than trimming Methuselah’s toenails and the truth that food and service vary wildly. I’m glad just to be included. Everyone who knows me also knows that I simply can’t get bored, not even when the place I’m eating at is willfully trying to poison me or get me to run from the establishment in tears. There are times, though, when we need to be able to go out and dine and throw penalty red flags at the waiters and or managers at restaurants. Trying to get 3 people fed is a Ninja Warrior Challenge; with 20 or more, it would be easier to shoot them all and hide the bodies.

It’s weird how people will stand over their sinks and eat raw hot dogs for supper but insist on spending 12 minutes discussing the subtlest differences in dressings for their organic Hungarian carrot casserole appetizer. (This is the “Nathan Rule” of eating, by the way.)

My last visit to Fisherman’s Wharf was so epic that I followed up on the visit with an Iliad-length review, one which I published under a pseudonym. It’s a good thing, too, because it literally started an internet war on Zomato (Urbanspoon) and another review site. This pleased me to no end, I must admit. When we went to eat there, the meal took so long that I established residency in 7 other states just waiting to finish it. Also, I invented a new time measurement standard: the FW. I packed so many jokes into that review that I thought Netflix was going to pick it up as a series. When we left the restaurant, it had taken so long that I quipped to the staff that I needed to see a breakfast menu. In short, that visit was the de facto standard for “terrible,” if terrible could be defined as “being tortured while both angry and amused.”

By the way, the restaurant is on a scenic arm of the lake. It’s beautiful. But beware. Most people eat outside on the deck, with “outside” being the key word. Hot Springs can be hotter than a Republican fact-checker at a debate. I speculate that even though it’s outside, the staff has a secret thermostat for the areas where large groups congregate to dine. They get irritated if you jump off the railing and into the lake, no matter how much you start sweating. They get really irritated if you throw them into the lake. That waiter Pete is still mad at me to this day.

For a few years, all of us have amusedly laughed at Fisherman’s Wharf for our last experience, if only because we weren’t allowed to purchase the business and bulldoze it in frustration. It’s located on the lake and could be one of the best places to eat in the state of Arkansas. It should be, but a commitment to quality is much more difficult to maintain, especially when available staff seems better suited to watch Mystery Science Theater 3000 than dealing with hungry miscreants like me.

So, in a town which memorializes great food, I’m going to instead return to the gastronomical scene of the crime and revisit my sins. While I’m optimistic that everything will be different, I can’t shake the foreboding that the Book of Life might be open there, awaiting my presence to inflict a new level of torment upon me. Perhaps I will get “time served” credits for being willing to return? I did try to arrange a revisit last year but was slapped and thrown into the trunk of an abandoned 1972 Dodge Dart just for daring to bring it up. Nevertheless, some anonymous sadomasochist decided for us all this year. I also can’t shake the idea that each time we visit this restaurant that we aren’t part of either a prank tv show or one of the reality cooking shows where the guests are fed pig testicles and sprayed with goat urine – and not the expensive brand of goal urine, either.

Joking aside, I would love to be proven wrong and have the best meal possible. If not, I’m taking my snorkel mask with me.

PS: ‘Concealed Carry’ in these scenarios means you have a bag of snacks hidden in your purse, even if you are a man. It would be embarrassing to die of starvation at a restaurant, don’t you think?

Jim & His Produce Stand

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Looking for something good? Go see Jim at his produce stand over by Don Tyson Parkway. He’s there most days early and until 6 p.m. His place is near the intersection of Ivey and George Anderson. If you’re coming off Don Tyson, it’s toward the eastern end of Don Tyson Parkway, near Butterfield Coach. There’s a balloon-laden sign where George Anderson Road intersects to catch your eye. East Springdale is truly bereft of many of the benefits of the other side of our town, without a doubt, but I sometimes speculate that the new parkway was built just so that people could get to Jim’s with less delay.

This morning, when I pulled up, Jim was out, busily arranging his array of fruits of vegetables: okra, tomatoes, corn, watermelon, cantaloupe, peaches, blackberries, blueberries, potatoes, and several other things. He guarantees the quality of his produce. His stand is deceptively spartan; trust me, you’ll find much more than you expected to when you walk up to see for yourself. It’s a trick older people seem to have mastered.

In case I forget to mention it, he also keeps some of the produce in a refrigerated trailer, as well as stocking it with both seeded and unseeded watermelon. In this day of political unrest, I recommend the seeded variety, both for the better taste and for the excuse to spit frequently.

Most people take a casual glance at me and don’t recognize the vegetable fiend that I am. You’d think 75% of my meals are comprised of pork rinds washed down with Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. As I often boast, I look exactly like you’d imagine a bowling pro would look like, or the ‘before’ picture in the back of most magazines. Most of my problem is that I’m a lazy eater. Even though vegetables can’t run from me, they do require effort. (I often eat a can of spicy tomatoes directly from the can for breakfast, a fact which causes more than a few wrinkled brows.)

This morning was a fresh 65 degrees, the dew still on the grass, and the produce stand cloaked in the shade of the trees behind it. More importantly, though, the smell of ‘fresh’ slapped me. I wanted to run over and take a bite out of one of the tomatoes on the far end. (He had green tomatoes, too, which made my mouth water and remember Cotham’s and the other kitchens of good cooks.)

It’s not just the produce that’s good. It’s the moments you can stand and talk to the owner, a 78-year-old man with some interesting stories. He might tell you about that fateful day back in ’94 when a drunk driver slammed into him doing 80 mph; his face still carries the scars of the misery, but his voice and laughter erase any misgivings which might accompany them.

I admit I went a little crazy today with my selections. Jim ignored me and insisted that he help carry my purchases to the car. I left with cucumbers, watermelon, cantaloupe, tomatoes, corn on the cob (he has shucked and unshucked), and peaches. I stopped short of filling the car because it’s just two of us most days at my house, although I tend to eat for three myself, just in case the zombie plague hits us without warning – it never hurts to have a small blubber reserve for those contingencies.

But, if you’re looking for something beyond the store produce, beyond even the busy farmer’s markets in NWA, I recommend a visit to Jim’s. It’s hard for me to pinpoint how pleasing it is to drive up to his stand on an early Saturday morning, anticipating not only the delicious variety of food but also seeing the owner standing there, appreciating the words and the business.

PS: I always tip him, which catches him off-guard. Just tell him to pass it along as a gift to his grandson and he’ll smile as he accepts it.

 
You’ll leave with more than you arrived with, even if by some miracle you don’t buy any produce.

Newport Potatoes, Aziz Ansari & ‘Master of None’

 

 
This post will be of interest to those who cook or watch TV, and probably even those weirdos who cook while watching – and perhaps even Peeping Toms who watch those who do either or both. I think I’ve covered the potential fan base of this post adequately, except to remind you to stop cooking in the nude.

Comedian Aziz Ansari’s second season of “Master of None” is on Netflix. It’s one of the most genuinely comedic shows I’ve watched in a long time. It also connects on a deeper level, pinging a depth of emotion and shared experiences that’s difficult for most shows to approach. The nuances are clouded inside a veneer of comedy but I find this to be the case with most shows that I appreciate.

While watching the latest season, I laughed like a diseased jackal when I heard that they too had a recipe for “Newport Potatoes,” a recipe that my mom perfected through countless meals in my youth.

Here’s the recipe for Newport Potatoes: use the regular mashed potatoes recipe, except ensure that a careless and/or drinking chain smoker is in the room and involved in making the potatoes. They’re called “Newport Potatoes” due to the popular Newport cigarettes. My mom tended to make “Winston Potatoes,” though.

(Note: At one point, Newport cigarettes accounted for almost 1/2 of all African-American cigarette sales. I loathe including true facts in my posts, but this one was interesting enough to warrant a detour from my usual tomfoolery.)

So, as I often warn people, check your potatoes before eating, to ensure that it’s black pepper in the spuds instead of cigarette ash. (Not that cigarette ash tastes bad or causes gastric distress.)

Screaming Leaves an Aftertaste

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This isn’t a funny anecdote. I wrote it quite a while ago and like so many of the things I write, I filed it away, almost forgotten. This week, I fortuitously encountered someone ranting on almost the same subject, yet with an inability to capture the essence of what was bothering about her.

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In the book “Like Water for Chocolate” (Como Agua Para Chocolate), Tita lovingly shares her recipes and story. The principle point is that the cook’s emotions and aspirations merge with the food she prepares. Those consuming her food would cry her tears, feel her ecstasy, and experience her life through her food. When I read the book in Spanish the first time, I learned a few cooking points, but I also got a revelation into the content of human spirit – and yet another glimpse into the possible world I would enjoy living in.

By way of full disclosure, I’m unqualified to judge cuisine, as vittles are more aligned with my appetite. I am qualified to recognize the discomfort I have in the way some people decide to run their places of business, though. Charge more for your food if it is necessary and allow those working for you to enjoy a more human experience. I do not want to witness anyone being scolded, berated, or demeaned while I’m enjoying the great luxury of dining. (If I want that, I’ll invite my sister-in-law to eat with me.)

One particular local chef enjoys one of the best skill reputations in the kitchen. (He’s not the chef with an Italian name, either.) Unfortunately, he is also highly regarded as being a mean bastard to many people who’ve worked with him. Like the book (and movie) I mentioned, I don’t relish the idea of frequenting a restaurant owned or operated by someone who might contaminate the spirit of my food with his penchant for tirades. I’m frustrated frequently enough by my own mistakes and anger without ingesting those of another person.

I’ve had people over the years volunteer stories about this skilled chef. None of the stories originated from me inquiring – all of them extemporaneously emerged, so to speak. They all share the common theme of the chef being gifted, yet tormented by a lack of understanding of his inability to treat others as equal human beings. A few times, the stories have sprung forth with swift surprise. One of the most memorable came from a former chef working at Logan’s, opting to wait tables if it meant he could work in a place not dominated by anger and finger pointing. (PS: The food at Logan’s that day was exceptional.)

The last time I entered one of the chef’s restaurants, he was in my vicinity being loudly vicious to an employee who was clearly struggling. No matter how good the food could have been, all I could picture was the employee seriously considering giving the chef a knock to the head with a stack of plates. The chef focused solely on his own angry voice, oblivious to the human distress he was feeding. It diminished everyone witnessing it. That time, I saw and heard the anger – and felt the contempt personally. The stories became true to me. The chasm between allegation and confirmation becomes shallow when you witness the behavior, doesn’t it?

As for the employee receiving the public rant, I wish he would have taken the plates and hurled them like Olympic culinary Frisbees through the windows. It wouldn’t have helped him, but what a victory for decency it would have been. I would have stood and applauded his rashness.

I left with a bitter aftertaste that had nothing to do with the food served that day.

As I see or hear this chef receive praise, I remember that his success doesn’t affect me directly. It affects me as a person, however. I know that he must be screeching at those he hires, saucepans echoing as they clatter against stainless steel counters, plates cracking with the force of dropped velocity. Justifying behavior that diminishes people is indicative of a larger problem, in my opinion.

I would rather eat bologna or cheese sandwiches if it guarantees that no one preparing my food is subjected to the likes of this storied gourmand. Monetary success built on animosity is a hollow measure. I wonder to what great heights this chef might have reached had he chosen a light touch with his fellow human beings.

I never comment on the chef when I see him mentioned on social media. It seems appropriate for me to let it pass and hope that the stories accumulate to some critical mass at some undefined future time. Being human, I will admit that it pains me a little, though. I know that for every word of compliment he receives, he is dishing out an appetizer of avoidable reprimand to someone in his presence. I wonder if he knows in his heart of hearts how many stories are floating around, tarnishing his reputation as a human being. There’s no glaze or gastronomical flourish to remove that bitter taste.