Friday, December 30, 2011

The Juicy Lucy

I love Food Network.  I don't think we go through one single day without watching something on it.  My daughter recognizes chefs by name and just the other night proclaimed who was going to be chopped because his dish wasn't "balanced."  I swear she said that; Neil and I almost fell out!

I think it was Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives where I saw a piece about 2 restaurants in Minneapolis that battle over who serves the Original Juicy Lucy burger.  The Juicy Lucy is a burger with tons of ooey, gooey, American cheese oozing out from the inside of the patty.  Interestingly, Neil lived in the twin cities area for many years and he's never heard of this phenomenon.  Nonetheless, we have been destined to try one.

The J.L. isn't difficult to make, but there are a couple of details that I think are important.  They are as follows:
  • REAL CHEESE.  I shouldn't have to put this in all caps, but the American public has been duped by marketing execs for decades.  Kraft Singles are NOT real cheese.  Real the package.  Don't buy anything that is called cheese food, cheese product, cheese thingie.  It should simply say American Cheese.
  • Kosher salt and a good, healthy dose of it.  You have to season meat.  Period.  Don't believe me?  Watch Food Network.  You'll see more people get their asses handed to them because they failed to just add some salt to the meat.  
  • Technique.  Practice makes perfect.  The key here is to seal the patties together really well so you don't have any cheese rupture toward the end of cooking.  You want all that gooeyness to stay inside where it belongs.
  • The right meat.  You can't get a good, juicy hamburger that holds together well from 90/10 meat.  It's gotta have some fat in it to bind it and to flavor it.  If you want to make burgers for dinner, buy the meat that day and cook them fresh.  You'll notice the difference for sure.

Measuring out what we need
Divide into two thin patties, stuff and put back together
Cook 'em up old school in cast iron
Viola!  Final product
So, our Juicy Lucy's were a great success!  The little one gave it her signature "10-thumbs up."  Neil hardly said a word as he was busy devouring his and I've changed out of my jeans and into yoga pants! You know what I'm sayin'. 

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

All ham is not created equal

Here in the South, we like pork.  We grow up eating pork chops, ham, ribs, BBQ (all year long!), bacon and sausage of all varieties.  Most people in other parts of the country are familiar with these pork preparations too, but there's one thing that you can only get here.  Country ham.  It's different.  In a good way.  It's Southern.  

I first realized that not everyone gets the ham thing when I was in Colorado one time.  Hardee's is a Southern-based fast food chain that has been serving breakfast biscuits since about the time I was 8 or 9.  When my sister moved out to CO, she was surprised to find a Hardee's in Fort Collins.  When I visited, we decided to swing by for a biscuit.  Of course, I ordered my old stand-by, the ham biscuit.  I unwrapped the biscuit and exclaimed, "What the hell is this??"  It was a beautiful Hardee's biscuit filled with sliced, pink, DELI ham.  I thought, "OMG, they mixed up my biscuit with a hot ham 'n cheese!"  But, then my sister looked at me, almost apologetically and said, "Oh yeah.  They don't get the whole country ham thing here."  

***SCREECH***  They don't get it?  What's to get?  Ham biscuits are made with country ham.  Period.  End of story.  Deli ham on a biscuit?  It's an abomination, that's what it is.

If you're unfamiliar, country ham is a style of curing.   A whole ham is smoked and salt cured, sometimes up to 3 years before being packaged in a cloth sack and hung up in your butcher shop.  It's a big ham too; the whole enchilada.  Picture all those European cooking scenes with sausage links, hams and upside down chickens hanging around the butcher shop.  

Most people seem to always think of country ham & red-eye gravy.  But it's also good just warmed up in a skillet and served with eggs, grits, toast, etc.  And of course, on biscuits. In fact, down here, it's not uncommon to find little mini ham biscuits at even the  most formal bridal showers or other elegant affairs.  But here's a tip:  remember that scene in the American President when Prez Shepard sends Sidney that Virginia ham?  Bad idea.  You can't cut up a whole country ham at home.  Unless you keep a table saw in your kitchen.  

Why am I telling you this, you must surely be wondering?  Last year, my sister and her husband received a whole country ham at Christmas from a friend.  They stared at it.  And stared at it.  They wielded knives at it but then thought better of it.  Hmmm.  What to do?  They bought an electric knife.  That helped.  Little by little, they sawed away at this big boy and finally the last of the country ham had been cut and happily consumed.  Then, just a few days ago, <<Ding Dong>> the doorbell rang.  There at the door was a cheerful delivery man holding that familiar cloth sack with you-know-what-inside.  
So, long story're still awake, right?  At the end of our Christmas weekend, our parents transported that big lump of yumminess back to Columbia.  They found a butcher who sliced the entire thing  for FREE.  Free is oh-so-good.  So, now, we all have delectable country ham ready for immediate use!  

Now even though I've gone down my Southern road in this post, I'm not going to talk to you about old standards like biscuits or red-eye gravy.  Instead, I want to share with you one of our favorite recipes from my Dad.  He originally got this from a magazine that featured a recipe from a restaurant in Charleston.  Over the years, we've all tweaked it a little and since that restaurant isn't around anymore, I think we can claim it as our own now.  

Dad's Kiwi Shrimp
  • 2 Tbs olive oil
  • 1 1/2 oz country ham (if you don't have the real deal, you can use proscuito
  • 1/3 chopped shallot (remember these are not scallions, which is another name for green onion)
  • 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1 lb shrimp (peeled and deveined of course,  duh!)
  • 2 med. kiwis, peeled and cubed
  • 1 cup cream  (don't rob yourself by using milk here)
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/8 tsp pepper
Heat oil over high heat.  Saute ham, shallots & red pepper for about 30 seconds.  Add wine & boil until reduced by half (about 2-3 minutes)

Add shrimp, kiwi and cream.  Reduce heat to med. low.  Cook shrimp until they are pink and remove them from the skillet.  Boil the sauce 2 1/2 to 3 minutes.  Add shrimp back in, salt & pepper.  Serve over rice.

Lick your lips and smack Loretta; 
this is some good damn eatin'

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Asheville Eats

I hope this post finds you all well and happy after celebrating Christmas or Hanukkah.  I'm sure everyone has had their fill of other people's holiday tweets, Facebook posts and photo sharing, so I'm not going to do that to you.

Instead, I want to tell you about a little restaurant we checked out while in Asheville over the holiday.   My sister Katherine took us to Universal Joint.  What a cool, cute, funky little place!  It's totally got the kind of vibe that gets me and Neil going.  It's an old gas station building that has been turned into a local microbrew and sandwich shop.  There are photos of what the place looked like in the old days as a gas station and the garage's roll-up doors are still in place.  The garage contains a bar, tables and displays a chalkboard with a pretty extensive list of microbeers.  We chose to eat in the garage.  There is also outdoor seating available.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Better Not Quit My Day Job

I've baked off and on my whole life.  But, in recent years, things haven't been going so well.  I've concluded that I would flunk out of pastry chef school on the first day.  If I had to roll out dough for a living, I'd be living without any dough ($).  Is it this annoying rolling pin that always sticks no matter what I do?  Is it the temperature in my house?  Is it bad luck?  Is it just me?

The wunderkind decided that this year, Santa needed gingerbread men instead of a traditional cookie.  I have been nervous about this project.  Hey!  Maybe that's it; psyching myself into failure?  Last night, I dreamed about having to roll gingerbread dough.  So, bright and early I got my gingerbread baker hat on.  Needless to say, it's been a stressful and trying endeavor. Just like I thought it would be.

I chilled the dough for 2 hours, just like the recipe said.  Time to roll it out and then freeze it...this dough is sticky, soft, not really like a cookie dough at all.  Then, there's my <bleep> rolling pin with gingerbread goo stuck all over it.  I improvise with a plastic cylinder sprayed with Pam.  I got it rolled out into a thin sheet, but it wasn't pretty.  Then, after the 20  minutes in the freezer, separating it from the parchment paper was quite a feat.  Took me and Neil together.  And, as we all know, the purpose of parchment is that stuff doesn't stick to it. 

So, we managed to get 4 gingerbread men into the oven.  They look like they are supposed to; a Christmas miracle!  

Yeah, we decorate cookies in our bikinis...what of it?
R) my cookie  L) Viv's Santa cookie
The Miraculous Gingerbread Men

But, the remainder of the dough in the fridge is weighing heavy on my mind.  Should I bolster myself to fight with this dough again and crank out as many little men as possible?  Or, assume that Santa doesn't need more than 4 gingerbread men and just call it a day?  And, before someone tells me that Martha Stewart has a good, easy recipe let me say this:  I officially loathe M.S.  but I DID go to her site and used this recipe.  Damn, maybe it IS just me.  

Merry Christmas everyone!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Peas in a Pod

Our friend "Scarby" shares my opinion that soup is very UNDER-rated.  I think people think since it's liquid and in a bowl that it can't be filling or satisfying.  It's a shame because they are so wrong and really missing out.  

There is one soup that goes largely ignored.  Then, when it does catch one's attention, it often receives a bad rap.  I'm referring to the "lowly" split pea soup.  It just so happens that this is one that Neil and I both absolutely love.  Yesterday just seemed like the right kind of day for a big pot of soup.  So, I pulled out the crockpot first thing in the morning and got busy.

By 6:00 we had a big, steamy, gorgeous pot of soup for supper.  This was Viv's first time with split pea and I'm happy to report that it got a thumbs up from our resident mini-gourmet.  Neil and I were so pleased with it that we were already discussing making more to keep in the freezer.  Today, Neil was bitterly disappointed at how little we had left over from last night. I have to admit:  it was damn good.  I should have called Scarby and offered him some, but I was greedy and kept it all for us.  But, in the spirit of Christmas, I type this entry in order to share it with him!  

If you're interested, here's what I did:

1 lb split peas, sorted and rinsed
2 cups of chopped ham
3 carrots, chopped 
1/2 chopped onion
2 cloves minced garlic
1 bay leaf
1/4 cup minced parsley
1 Tbs seasoned salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1 1/2 quarts water

Layer the ingredients in this order in the crockpot.  Don't stir it up.  Slowly add the water.  Don't stir it up!  Cook on low for 8 hours.  Remove the bay leaf and dig in.

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Monday, December 19, 2011

Delucca's: New and Improved

Small, family run, "holes in the wall" are some of my favorite types of eateries.  You may have read my post about Delucca's before.  Today, it's time for an update.

First, they've moved.  They've gone down Hwy 378 closer in to Columbia and are in that little strip center right next to the entrance of the Riverbanks Zoo's Botanical Garden.  Second, it's a newer shopping center than the previous one and they've been able to get a larger space.  There are actually two dining rooms now.  They still have the same dark red & gold color scheme, but everything is new and fresh.  Third, Brenda still works there, but we didn't get to see her today.

Delucca's new location certainly indicates that they are ramping things up a notch.  It has the feel of an upscale restaurant now as opposed to the cozy familiarity of the previous location.  I can only assume that means they are enjoying success and I'm happy about that, to be sure.  My only concern is that they have done away with their lunch menu.  I've only eaten at Delucca's for lunch and each time I've been there, the restaurant has been full.  Now, the only items that fall within what I consider an acceptable lunch price range is the pizza, paninis and wraps.  I just cannot and will not allow myself to order a $14 pasta for lunch.  And this is a shame, because their pastas and chicken with risotto and awesome dishes but I guess I won't be having them as lunch anymore. I hope making this change doesn't chase off their former booming lunch business.

But, back to the food.  My dad DID bite the bullet and order pasta. It was the penne with roasted vegetables and meatballs. 

Sorry this is kinda blurry

 His comments were that the meatballs were tasty and there were plenty of them.  The vegetables were well-cooked and he enjoyed it.  But, he made the same comment about the price for a lunch time order.  Mom ordered lasagna.  This is probably her favorite dish on Earth;  well, 2nd favorite.  The woman is a fool for turkey & dressing.  She said today it was "ok."  It has been better in the past. Well, we all have our days.

Beef lasagna

Vivian and I split a 12" pizza.  I was glad that Viv suggested it because I've never gotten around to trying their pizza before.  We got off easiest on the price.  We ordered 1/2 cheese for Viv and 1/2 pepperoni for me and we rang in at $7.50.  

That's just beautiful
This is good pizza, folks, and if you know anything about me at all, you know I am a pizza aficianada.  The crust is homemade and you can taste it.  The sauce was light yet full of flavor.  Some pizza sauces end up feeling heavier than the actual pie, but not this one. I can only assume it's made in-house because it was so fresh tasting.  The cheese is outta sight.  Very creamy, milky mozzarella and they don't skimp on it.  Pepperoni is pepperoni and is perfect any way you slice it.  Definitely will indulge in this pizza again!

Lastly, I'm going backwards to salad.  Mom, dad and I all had a caesar salad. 

Homemade croutons make me smile
I've always loved Delucca's caesar, but today was exceptional.  The romaine was so crisp and delicious, the homemade croutons were wonderful as usual and they serve their yummy dressing on the side.  Too many restaurants don't understand the caesar and drown it in dressing, completely ruining the whole thing.  I trust that the Delucca's folks would properly dress my salad, but I like that they give the customer the responsibility to dress to their liking.  I just think it's a really great caesar salad.

So, to recap:  Delucca's is in a new, larger location.  Lunch menu is gone.  Pizza and caesar salad are money.  Check them out, if you haven't already found them.
Delucca's Italian Grill and Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Just in the (St.) Nick of time!

This past Saturday was my Sunday school class party.  As usual, I pondered for a couple weeks what would be my dish of choice.  I tend to be a last minute kinda girl.  I always know that I'll have a great idea, whip it up that day and take it along.  Only this Saturday, I miscalculated.  Big time.

I was working a special event at K.D.'s Treehouse.  Santa was there.  There was a jump castle, face painting, book signings, arts and crafts and of course, shopping in the store.  All of a sudden, it dawned on me that I had failed to make a decision and hit the grocery store that morning, as I had planned.  So, my mind went into overtime/panic/oh crap! mode.  Then it hit me.  An easy as pie little hors d'oeuvres that my parents taught me many years ago.

So, I grabbed the red phone and made an emergency call to Neil.  I gave him the list.  Told him "Go, go, go!  Meet me at home.  And hurry, man!"  

I beat him home, so I got a giant pot of water on the stove.  Just finished changing clothes when he arrived.  Placed two bags of tiny red potatoes in the boiling water.  Cooled with cold water.  Waited a little bit; had a glass of wine.  Then, the assembly line started.  I was actually pretty proud of how efficient the two of us were in cranking out our little hors d'oeuvres. 

**So what am I talking about?** 

What the heck are those things?

New potatoes with a shallow hollow made in the middle, sour cream and topped with black caviar.  Inexpensive, easy to make and (thank goodness) can be made REALLY quick.  We managed to get all this done and still get to the party on time.  So, next challenge is this:  what if everyone hates them?  Well, one friend told me that she'd never had caviar before but tried it and liked it.  Interestingly, her major obstacle was the sour cream, but she determined that she actually liked it combined with the salty roe.  At the end of the evening, she told me she'd eaten 8 of them.  I had a few other people tell me that they hadn't had caviar before either.  They were amazed to know that you can buy it at Publix and it's not expensive. At the end of the night all we brought home was an empty platter.

BTW:  this is a fantastic accompaniment to a whole smoked salmon (or whatever smoked fish you prefer.)  Try it!  You'll like it!  

Monday, December 5, 2011

Fox Field...Wow, not so sure

Neil and I are very passionate about locally owned businesses, especially restaurants.  We seek out mom 'n pop joints, holes in the wall, the stuff that Guy Fieri looks for.  So, a few months ago, when our friend Kathy moved Utopia down the street, a new establishment moved into her old space.  Fox Field Neighborhood Bar and Grille.  Since they've been there, I've been observing and asking around.  Here's what I learned up until now:

Saturday, December 3, 2011

When Life Gives you Lemons... thank the citrus gods!  While in Florida, we scored big.  And I mean BIG.  Aunt Kathy has a friend who keeps her flush with fresh produce.  Including about 4 buckets of fresh lemons that I spied in her mud room.  Here's me:  "Hey Aunt Kathy, whatcha gonna do with all those lemons?" I said innocently.  Well, you guessed it.  A bucket of lemons made the trip back to SC.

But, don't be fooled my friends.  Don't feel all blase about my lemon score. You guys haven't seen lemons like these.  They are monsters!  But, in a good way.  Check this out:
I am are tiny golf girlie man

As a teenager, I came across a recipe for lemon squares.  From that point forward, my family expected me to make these for every Christmas, every party, etc.  I loved doing it because I loved the fact that they all loved my lemon squares. Then, I went away to college and kind of forgot about my sweet little yellow babies.  Yet, here I am today staring at these enormous Florida lemons and it all came rushing back to me.

You can surely guess what ensued.  The funny thing is that the lemon square needs 2 Tbs of lemon zest, which most recipes will tell you will require about 2 lemons.  Also, you need 1/2 cup of juice, which most recipes will tell you requires about 6 lemons.  Not so Chez Akre. I needed but ONE of Aunt Kathy's to satisfy both of these ingredient needs.  I'm tellin' ya... these are some damn big lemons people! 

In cooling mode

Finished product with a dusting of powdered sugar
And, to make matters even better, I still have more lemons.  Even so, I'm thinking of calling Kathy to see if she can FedEx me some more.  I can make lemon squares for gifts!  Homemade lemon curd.  Lemon meringue pie.  Lemon sorbet.  And, oh yes, if life gives me lemons, I can make lemonade.


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