Friday, March 29, 2013

A Green Bean ain't no Plain Jane

Just look at these beauties! 

I'm one of those people who (firmly) believes that every plate must be rounded out. Balanced, if you will.  By this I mean, there simply must be something green on every plate. If not, I go a little crazy.  Have you ever seen photos in magazines of salmon and lentils? I love salmon.  I love lentils.  But a plate of salmon and lentils without something green? I can't even make this appetizing in my mind with no green.

Because of my green compulsion, green beans make a very regular appearance in our house. The beauty of green beans is that they are good for you, they are pretty neutral, they look pretty and they can play many roles.  Kids love them, adults love them and you can use them in a zillion ways.  But I think many families ignore green beans because (at least in the South) all they know is to boil them and maybe add a little salt.  Wake up!  The green bean is one of the most versatile vegetables I know.  You can do everything with them.  At the risk of sounding like Bubba Blue from "Forrest Gump," you can boil them, steam them, poach them, saute them, roast them, put 'em in a casserole, pickle 'em, make a salad out of them, etc, etc, etc.

Which brings me to tonight.  I was making simple grilled steaks, baked Yukon gold potatoes, salad and green beans.  I just got some "haricots verts" from Costco on Sunday.  <<It's funny that en Francais, "haricots verts" means "green beans."  But in America, "haricots verts" means "fancy little green beans." >> Whatever, I love them no matter what you call them, in any language.  Tonight I wanted my haricots to have a little "je ne sais quois" so here's what I came up withSince true French haricots don't need much cooking time (they are slimmer), I decided to gently simmer them in a vegetable bouillon with garlic and onion.   

Just chopped up about half an onion; whatever amount you want of course!

1 1/2 cups of water with two veggie bouillon cubes

Onions and garlic simmering in the bouillon

Yeah, I quit chopping garlic a long time ago; haricots verts from Costco

And, then just simmered for about 15 minutes and they were awesome!
Ridiculously simple, but yowza! I was really pleased with the result.  The flavor and crisp, cleanness of the green bean wasn't lost, but merely enhanced just ever so much by the other flavors.  I'm definitely making our G.B.'s this way more often.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Does anyone have Gordon Ramsay's phone number?

I had lunch with my mom yesterday at a long-established restaurant in Cayce, SC. This is just across the river from Columbia.  If you live here, chances are you've heard of this place at least and you've probably been there a few times.  It's never been a fancy place, but it's a local, neighborhood type joint that people are loyal to.  However, during my visit yesterday, it occurred to me that this place would be horribly, devastatingly, brutally ripped to shreds by Gordon Ramsay or Robert Irvine. Because I'm feeling generous, I'm not going to name the place, but I probably should.

If you can't handle the "F" word, skip this

The first thing Ramsay would say is "F#@& me!" what is going on here?  The decor, if you can even call it that anymore, is atrocious.  Old, outdated, has that dirty look no matter how often it's cleaned.  Dingy tile floor, crummy "restaurant" chairs, light fixtures that look like they're from a 1970's pizzeria like Shakey's.  Anybody remember that place?  The ceiling is black, with open rafters, exposing the duct work. While this can be a cool look in some venues, this is not one of them.  It just looks dusty and makes you wonder if something might float down and land in your food.  The table tops are sticky but not from food or drink, just that old chronic stickiness that you get from years of chemicals used to "polish" them and the build up of residue.  

Kickin' ass and takin' names

The menu is ok.  And, seriously, it's just ok.  I had a Caesar salad with grilled shrimp.  The dressing was really nice and the salad was NOT drenched in it, like some establishments.  The shrimp were steaming hot right off the grill, but it was evident from the color and flavor that they were frozen.  I mean, come on folks, we're a coastal state.  The shrimp are only 2 hours away and people send them up here every morning. But, the thing is, if you just want a quick salad, chicken wings, a sandwich, this place isn't horrible.  I'm just pointing out that it's not a spectacular menu that you'd write home about or rave about to your friends.  It's just ok.  Ramsay, however, would have spit out every bite of every dish in the place.  That's kind of his M.O., you know.

You wouldn't like me when I'm angry!

 Here's what really bugged me and got me thinking of writing about this.  I had a straight shot view of the kitchen and waiter/waitress station.  Our waitress was a pleasant young lady but I witnessed a few things from her that were alarming.  Some of it could be chalked up to her youth & inexperience, but when you own a restaurant, you have a responsibility to train ALL employees, regardless of their experience, to proper food service techniques.  And, what I'm getting ready to tell you, does in fact go back directly to management and ownership because they are guilty of it too...

The first thing that caught my eye was my waitress, directly across from us, stopped to put her foot up on a booth seat to tie her shoe.  This caused my eye to go straight to the floor of the kitchen.  If you've ever spent any time in a commercial kitchen, you know you don't want to roll around on the floor or smear the bottom of a kitchen shoe all over your skirt or nice new pair of khakis.  But, that's what the next customer seated in that booth was going to get. Next, she got a rag and wiped off this same table and I watched her take it back to the server station and just hang it up on a hook.  Not thrown in the laundry or even rinsed out, just hung up for next time.  From there, she went and found a carpet sweeper and cleaned up around the table (I love to watch this while I'm eating).  Now, it's admirable that she's cleaning the dining room and tables, etc.  but from this point, she returned to the kitchen to pick up an order.  Have you picked up on what's missing here?  No handwashing.  At. All.  From shoe tying, to dirty rag wiping, sweeper handle to plate of food.  Now, know this:  I am not a squeamish type, but this really disturbed me.  

So, now I am fixated on these table rags hanging on hooks.  I saw multiple waitresses and two guys who appeared to be in management roles use, reuse, hang, rehang these rags without once rinsing them or exchanging them for clean ones.  This explains a lot of that table stickiness I bet.  I also can't stop looking at everyone's shoes and how clean/dirty they appear from walking around on a kitchen floor. Every server I saw carried dirty drink glasses back to the kitchen by carrying them with their fingers down inside the glass.  This isn't really so bad, as long as they are washing their hands as soon as they put them down.  But, sadly, no. About now Gordon Ramsay is screaming at the top of his lungs and goes marching into the kitchen.  Unfortunately, he'd probably start inspecting the kitchen and the walk-in and about to have a stroke.  

I think the reason I wanted to write this for you, while not disclosing the name of the restaurant, is to point out that many places we all frequent are often not what they seem and certainly not what we expect or deserve.  Serving food and drink to people should be handled with the same degree of care as dispensing medication.  Your product is entering another person's body and can either make them healthy or sick. I have no doubt that any restaurant owner I could ask would say they, of course, do not want to make anyone ill.  But, I think what happens is that after years of business, restaurants can become complacent.  Like with this place I'm talking about:  they have loyal regulars, they have been successful in business for years and years and people keep coming in.  But, when you see something day after day, your brain stops noticing it. Like a dirty kitchen, like servers not washing hands, like rags not being washed and replaced often enough.

We all want to believe that a restaurant that invites us in, takes our money and feeds us is doing everything right because they want to take care of us. Sadly, it's just not always the case. Some places are poorly run, dirty, unsanitary and the management just doesn't care. But, I'd like to think that most, especially locally owned businesses, really are dedicated to their clientele.  As is the case with this well-established restaurant, I just think they've gotten comfortable and unconsciously slack in their daily procedures. At least that's the benefit of the doubt I'm willing to give them.  However, will I go back?  At this point, I'm going to have to say no. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Simple, Sublime *Key Lime*

I met Neil in 1997.  He was born in Florida, but when I met him, he'd recently landed in SC after 15 or so years in the Norse Land (you may know it as Minnesota).  Over those years, he'd been back and forth to FL, since his parents had moved back down thereAs we got to know each other, I learned a lot of interesting things: practically everything in America was invented in MN ('cause they spend half the year locked up in their snowed in houses just thinking up stuff?), when racing jet skis on TV, wear bathing trunks with a drawstring waist (MOOON over Miami), Ducatis are the only motorcycles worth owning and most importantly, real key lime pie is NOT green.

Garnished with one of our teeny, tiny limes

Up until this point, key lime pie never really piqued my interest. At. All. But, turns out, it's Neil's most favorite dessert on Earth.  But, as he was making me aware of this, he also educated me of something I'd never heard before.  Real key lime pie isn't green.  Lime pie is green, perhaps.  Food coloring helps too. But a real key lime isn't the same as the big limes we all see on a regular basis.  No, key limes are tiny.  

See the size of these little babies?
Seriously, like the size of a ping pong ball and that's considered a big one.  And, key limes are way more tart than "regular" (Persian) limes.  In fact, these little green orbs will turn your cheeks inside out...that's how tart we're talking about!  So, Neil advised me of this:  if you see a "key lime pie" in a restaurant that is green, know this:  it's not real key lime pie. Just say NO.

Soaking up some sun
 Well, here we are all these years later and we're married and have a wonderful little girl. And, I've been making key lime pies for awhile now.  The first time, I bought a bag of key limes from the grocery.  Like I said, they are tiny.  So, I cut them all in half, clutched them in my fingers and juiced them one by one. When it was over, I could hardly unclench my fists and was convinced that I'd just given myself incurable arthritis. I vowed that as much as I loved Neil, this was his one and only homemade key lime pie.  
The life saver
Well, lucky for him, I was browsing around Williams-Sonoma one day and lo and behold!  I discovered you can BUY key lime juice in a bottle!  Now, this was a game changer, indeed.  I bought a couple bottles of (really) expensive juice and ran right home to bake up a pie. Months later, my sister was visiting and saw this primo juice in my fridge and said something like, "You know you can get this in the grocery store, right?"  Bahh wuhhh?  So, my little sister drove over to the Piggly Wiggly and returned with four bottles of key lime juice for the price of my two Williams-Sonoma bottles.  But, no we're in business!  I can make Neil's fave anytime I want.  Easily, inexpensively and all year long.  Good thing for him, because I was never juicing those little limes by hand ever again. Never, ever, ever, again. Period.

Fast forward to today.  I now have the most awesome juicing tool ever invented.  Good thing too, since this Christmas, my parents found a key lime bush that has been cross-bred with a loquat, so it can withstand colder temps than they have in Florida.  So, now we're growing our own key limes on the patio! I wouldn't be so excited about this if it were not for my juicer, especially since I'd vowed never to juice those things by hand again!  Of course, you just can't beat the bottled juice, but if you want to go old school and juice yourself, you must get one of these.  Plain and simple.

You just need this for any kind of citrus juicing...go get one!

 This weekend was St. Patrick's Day.  We were having corned beef and cabbage at my inlaws' house on Sunday.  The only thing I had on hand that I could whip up quickly that was remotely "green" was key lime.  I was able to harvest one of our tiny baby limes to garnish and the pie turned out terrific as usual.  The crazy thing is how easy this recipe is.  Most of the time, you use a graham cracker crust, which is quite delicious.  But one day at the grocery, I came across a granola crust, which I'd never seen before.  I used one for this latest pie and it was terrific.  In fact, it was better than a plain ol' graham cracker crust.  I think this will be my new "go to" for these pies.  

The low-down on key lime pie is this:  don't waste your time with "regular" lime juice, either juice your own little tiny key limes or buy the key lime juice...there IS a difference!  A half cup juice, 3 egg yolks and a can of condensed milk.  Mix until smooth, pour into pie shell and bake at 350 for about 15 minutes.  

Another must-have:  egg separator

Good eggs are important

Look at that beautiful yellow!

Freeze egg whites in individual packages for future recipes
Then, cool for about 10 minutes before refrigerating.  Garnish as you wish, but rest assured, it wil be happily consumed decorated or plain Jane!

Garnish or dive right in...your call!


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