IMG_6952

In the past few months, food writers everywhere(Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, etc) have been talking a lot about Hot Chicken, the ultra-spicy fried chicken of Nashville. In the articles they write, they seem to enjoy hamming up the idea that “folks” from Nashville just can’t get enough of the spicy treat. They make it sound like, here in Music City, a stop for Hot Chicken is about as frequent as making a sandwich or a bowl of cereal at home. This is not unlike the way in which non-natives incorrectly assume that most Nashvillians spend their evenings at the Honky-Tonks–though we sometimes do.

Now don’t get me wrong. As someone who loves to read and loves to write, I understand the power of a good story. And I also understand the power of the human imagination. In this way, food without a story often lacks a certain depth. (‘a rose by any other name would (not) smell as sweet’). I guess, after all, I’m not really upset with Bon Appetit’s inaccurate depictions of Nashville food culture, or any food culture. I guess, after all, I’d just like to be clear to my readers (the few brave souls you are) about how this ever-popular, peppery, poultry plate is and is not regarded here in our fair city of Nashville.

IMG_6922

IMG_6906

Sure we don’t eat it every week or every month, but that doesn’t mean that this spicy-salty-sweet crispy fried chicken is not anything other than addictive. Because it is. I’m also willing to bet that, at least before Bon Appetit and Food & Wine gave it a write-up, there were not many people trying to make this stuff at home. But you should. In doing so, you’ll be gaining some experience with two dishes: Fried Chicken and Hot Chicken. You see, the two dishes are essentially the same thing, if not for the painful punch in the face rendered by a couple pieces of Hot Chicken. And it is a punch in the face. For some, spicy food is unpleasant and unnecessary; For others, it’s a great joy, something to be relished. It’s like the intensely glorious pain of a deep-tissue massage, but for your mouth. 

IMG_6960

So, let’s talk turkey (er, chicken):

Hot Chicken (adapted from–you guessed it!–Bon Appetit)

Ingredients:

2 lbs chicken thighs and legs, split

1 tbsp freshly ground black pepper

1 tbsp salt

2 eggs

1 cup whole milk

1 tbsp hot sauce

2 cups AP flour

vegetable oil for frying, about 10 cups

3 tbsp cayenne pepper

1 tbsp brown sugar

1/2 tsp chili powder

1/2 tsp garlic powder

1/2 tsp paprika

White bread a pickles, for serving

Season the chicken with salt and pepper and let it hang out, covered, in your fridge for about 3 hours. The salt will help to tenderize the meat. It will also help for the chicken to caramelize during frying.

Whisk the eggs, milk, and hot sauce in a large bowl. Then whisk the AP flour and salt in another bowl.

In a dutch oven, or a very wide rimmed pot, pour in your vegetable oil. It should be about a depth of 2”. Be sure that whatever you are using to fry the chicken has very tall sides, because the oil will expand dramatically when you begin to fry the chicken. And you don’t want to kill yourself. Set your stove on medium high heat. As the oil comes to temperature, let’s bread the chicken.

Working with 1 piece at a time, dredge the chicken in flour, shake off the excess, and then dunk it in the milk mixture. Then, dunk it once more in the flour mixture before placing it on a plate to rest. Once all chicken has been battered, you’re ready to roll.

When frying, work in batches. You don’t want to overload your fryer. The cold chicken will bring down the temperature of the oil drastically. That being said, don’t put more than 3 or 4 pieces into the pot at a time. Once in the hot oil, turn the chicken occasionally. Cook each batch for about 14 minutes, or until an instant read thermometer reaches blah blah blah. After you finish a batch, place it in a 250 degree oven to keep it warm.

Okay, the chicken is fried and delicious. At this point, you could eat. But you’re not going to. Instead, very carefully spoon out a 1/2 cup of the oil used for frying into a bowl that is not going to crack on you. Seriously, be careful. Into the oil, whisk the cayenne, brown sugar, chili powder, garlic powder, and paprika.

Throw down a few pieces of white bread and some pickles and stack a piece of juicy chicken on top. Lather the hot oil over the chicken and enjoy, y’all!

IMG_6839

For the past few months, I’ve been on a non-stop beet binge. I must admit that, with all of the attention beets had been given in every little hipster kitchen and all across the blogosphere, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. If you yourself have not fully explored the wonders of beets, I will serve as a messenger come back from the other side to say, with complete confidence and excitement: beets are immeasurably versatile, nutritious, and most importantly, damn delicious.

But if you’re really gonna try out this whole beet thing, you’re gonna have to throw away your notion of what beets are. And that means you’ll need to throw away the image you have stored away of a can of beets being opened and then sucking and gurgling their way out onto a serving plate, all in one cohesive, gyrating mass, indented with corrugations of the rusted aluminum can in which they sat for (no doubt) years, ribbed for your pleasure. That must go.

I’d like to apologize to the folks at home, or to anyone who was offended by such an image. As a means to quell your repulsion, I will direct you to the very real, very natural, very earthly photographs of beets in just a few of their multifarious incarnations.

IMG_6454IMG_6541

In an effort to rid myself of that memory and to help beets shed their tired cloak of shame, I’ve been treating them with all kinds of respect in my kitchen. Perhaps the simplest and most delicious way to prepare beets is to roast them. That’s right; lather them in a bit of oil, a generous sprinkling of salt, and wrap them in aluminum foil. Throw them in a 400 degree oven for about an hour. The result is strangely delicious, because beets, unlike most foods, don’t call out for seasoning. Sure, you can dress them up however you like (I’ve provided a recipe for that), but beets are so complex that they don’t really need much to make them taste incredible.

IMG_6827

So here’s my thought for an interesting and satisfying way to serve beets: enter Golden Beet Tartare. Now, technically, a tartare implies that something is both finely chopped and also raw, as in steak tartare or tuna tartare. In this case, we will be working with beets that are not raw, but instead are roasted. This is a tartare in that the components are finely chopped, and that it begins with a briny and bright, egg-enriched emulsion. Also similar to a steak tartare, this dish has an assertive onion-y kick, thanks to freshly chopped scallion.

But the big difference is thus: a traditional steak tartare has a taste profile that pulls from the flavors of France: briny capers and anchovies, bright, snappy cornichons, dijon mustard, fresh parsley, and yellow onion. If you’re thinking, “screw this golden beet tartare! I want to make the real thing!” then look here. If you’re still with me, great. To give the beet tartare some interest, it’s flavors center more on those of asia: toasty sesame oil, rich soy, rice wine vinegar, chopped scallion, and hot chili oil. You need to eat this.

Golden Beet Tartare

Ingredients:

2 medium-sized golden beets, roasted

1 egg yolk

1/4 cup safflower or vegetable oil

1 tbsp toasted sesame oil

2 tsps soy sauce

2 tsps rice wine vinegar

1/2 bunch chopped green onion, green only

few sprigs of cilantro

hot chili oil

Remove the greens from the beets, but don’t toss them. They can be cooked down in the same way you might cook collard greens. Give the beets a good wash, but don’t peel them. Coat them in oil and salt them liberally. Then wrap each one in aluminum foil. Place them on a pan in a 400 degree oven for about an hour. Once done, let them cool in the fridge.

Meanwhile, let’s make our sauce. This one start with an egg yolk. Crack the egg and separate the yolk from the white, using your hands. With minimal space between your fingers, the white should naturally pull away from the yolk. Place the yolk in a large mixing bowl.

Okay, so now we’re gonna make something very similar to a mayonnaise or an aioli. That means our goal is to mix the oil into the yolk, so that the two thicken and emulsify into a thick sauce. In everything I’ve ever read on aioli or mayonnaise, the advice seems to be that one should whisk the crap out of it. But I’ve found the contrary to be true.

Pour in the oil a few drops at a time, all the while stirring slowly to incorporate the oil and the egg. As you continue, you’ll start to notice long strands of proteins in the yolk being strengthened by  fats in the oil. If you’ve done your job right, once all the oil has been slowly poured in and well mixed, the sauce should adhere to the whisk when it is held up. Into your emulsion, add the toasted sesame oil, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, and chopped green onion. Mix well.

Once the beets have chilled, remove the outer skin (this can be done most easily with your fingertips). This slice the beets into thin rounds. Cut down through these rounds to make long, thin strips. Then slice again, so that the long strips become tiny cubes. When well chopped, mix the beets with the sauce, ensuring that the mixture is well incorporate.

Plate the tartare immediately, garnish with cilantro and hot chili oil. Serve with toasted bread, or, to continue the asian theme, eat them with toasted nori crackers.

IMG_6811

Ever wonder why foods so often considered refined and fashionable originated, in actuality, from the poorest rungs of society? In today’s food culture, it’s curious how what we often cherish deeply is the sense that what we are eating is an exotic and mysterious delicacy. I am not to be excluded from this accusation. In fact, it’s safe to say that my cravings for food seem to fall into one of two categories. If I’m in search of the familiar (a hamburger and fries; biscuits and gravy), I’ll seek out the real deal, the most authentic spot, the epitome of that flavor. In other words, if what I crave is the familiar, I’m not in search of surprises. I’m in search of the hallmarks of what makes that food great.    

This is, of course, quite different from when I crave the mysterious. In search of what is exotic and unknown, my hope is to be caught off-guard, to be carried away to another land, swept out to strange waters, heart aflutter, body afloat.

This was how I was introduced to gazpacho, a bracing ‘liquid salad’, served ice-cold. Before I ever knew its name or what it was made of (or certainly how to prepare it), I knew of the idea of ‘cold soup.’ Though eating something cold and refreshing on a hot day seems obvious and practical to me now, this was not the case when I was five years old. It was 1992: Bush and Yeltsin proclaimed an end to the Cold War, US forces were leaving the Philippines, the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed. But all I could think about was a “little town, in a quiet village, every day like the one before.”

IMG_6781

Yes, I could not stop watching Disney’s animated feature film “Beauty and the Beast.” I could go into why the movie was so enthralling (the juxtaposition of the beautiful and the grotesque: the idyllic french village, (just as Belle herself) unaware of its beauty, situated so close to the dark and towering castle, as cold and brooding as the master himself), but I won’t. You’re probably wondering how a Disney film has anything to do with gazpacho. We’ll get there.

In one scene, Belle is lifted from her despair when the oddly endearing residents of the castle (Lumiere, Cogsworth, Ms. Potts, and Chip) regale her with the fineries of food and drink. As the music swells, a parade of pâtés, gastriques, and other delicacies fans itself out upon the table. I can remember one day at my grandmother’s house, as she watched this scene with me. She being of swiss-french origin, I imagine the mention of ‘ragout’ and ‘souffle’ got her thinking about her own childhood food memories.  As the scene continued, she told me about ‘vichyssoise,’ a cold soup her mother often served when she was young. For whatever reason, despite my deep interest in the film, I found myself more interested in a bowl of cold soup. And though I thought about it countless times in the years that passed, I would not confront the cold bowl of soup until my sophomore year of college. I was at the swanky restaurant Jonathan at Gratz Park, and the first course was a summery strawberry gazpacho with basil and mint.  At such a clean, correct establishment, I was convinced that this little bowl of bright, fragrant liquid was the food of high society, the elixir of kings and magistrates in far-off lands. But I was quite wrong.

IMG_6800

What I did not know was that gazpacho has long been a food for the poor. And that it began as a cold bread soup, made with garlic, almonds, olive oil, and grapes. Not surprising, considering Columbus would not bring over tomatoes from the New World until sometime after 1492. What I’ve come to learn about gazpacho is that its most consistent feature is its variation. No two gazpachos are alike. They’re subject to the whim and whimsy of the cook, and more importantly, the ingredients she has on hand. In other words, you can’t mess this up.

The version I made used tomatoes of all color and shape, green bell pepper, deeply charred poblano peppers, a jalapeno, balsamic vinegar, a glug of olive oil and a handful of fresh herbs.

Here’s how you make it:

Charred Poblano Gazpacho

Ingredients:

2 1/2 lbs fresh tomatoes

1/2 large red onion

1 large cucumber

4 cloves garlic

green bell pepper

2 poblano peppers

1 jalapeno

1/2 bunch of parsley

1/2 cup olive oil

3 tbsp balsamic vinegar

salt and pepper, to taste

To get started, we’ll char the poblano peppers. If you have a gas burner, awesome. Fire it up and let the peppers sizzle, pop, and char over the open flame. It might feel odd to intentionally burn something in your kitchen, but it might be your only chance to do so and feel proud of it. If you don’t have a gas burner, heat an ungreased cast-iron pan on the stove and wait until it’s screaming hot. Place the peppers in the pan and turn occasionally. Once fully charred, wrap the peppers in foil to steam. After 5 minutes, chop off the tops of the peppers and pull out the seeds. Now we’re ready to roll.

To make this, you’ll need a blender or food processor. Traditionally, it would have been made with a mortar and pestle. While that sounds romantic and artisanal, it’s also highly impractical and probably very annoying. There are a couple ways you can put this recipe together. In the picture at the top of the page, I blended the first four ingredients, which yielded a soft pink liquid. I then blended the rest separately for a deep green garnish. The tomato puree was then accented with the pepper-herb puree. This was done for aesthetics only, and it’s not at all necessary. To make things easier, you can throw everything into your blender and give it a spin.

Once smooth, taste it. Should it be sweeter? If so, add a little sugar. Is it not quite zippy enough for you? Add a few more drops of vinegar. Does it seem generally lackluster? Add a little salt. When you’re satisfied, transfer it to a large bowl and let it cool completely. It’s best served incredibly cold. And though this is all about freshness, I will say that gazpacho is best on the second or third day, as the flavors of the vegetables and herbs begin to meld.

As for serving, you’ve got plenty of options. It’s great with white wine or a crisp lager. You can also elevate it with a healthy spoonful of jumbo lump crab or a few large pickled shrimp.

Enjoy.

IMG_6757

 

Here in Nashville, the undisputed champion of vietnamese food (at least, in my opinion) is a little hole-in-the-wall joint called Kien Giang. Though the menu boasts a nearly exhaustive list of vietnamese offerings, regulars come for the big, steaming, fragrant bowls of Pho. There in the bowl, perfectly cooked rice noodles luxuriate in a complex, elixir-like broth so nuanced it borders poetry, seeks the sublime, and attempts to utter the ineffable nature of the cosmos. It’s little wonder I’m not trying to give you the recipe for that. I wouldn’t have a clue where to start.

So let’s keep it simple, shall we? Delicious in their own right are the vegetable spring rolls: crisp carrot, crunchy lettuce, a mess of fresh basil and mint made neat when wrapped in a tiny bundle of chewy rice paper. And what made this snack even more special was the fact that, for the first time in my life, I have the chance to use vegetables from my own garden. That’s right: the herbs and lettuces you see above are the work of my own two hands.

IMG_6727

The Recipe:

Vegetable Spring Rolls with Peanut Sauce

Ingredients (for the spring rolls):

1 bunch of romaine lettuce

handful of mint

handful of basil

2 large carrots, cut into matchsticks

2 spring roll papers

Ingredients (for the peanut sauce):

1 tbsp soy sauce

1 1/2 tbsp peanut butter

1/2 tbsp rice wine vinegar

1/2 tbsp chili oil

Before you begin to prep your vegetables, fill a large pot with water and put it on a burner to warm. You’ll want hot but not boiling water. By the time your vegetables have been prepped, the water should be at a good temperature. Before I give you any instructions on how to cook and then roll the rice papers, I should tell you that patience and a sense of calm will do you well. I can almost guarantee that the first couple tries will be failures: the rice paper will fold upon itself into a complicated mess, or it will tear, or you’ll drop it into the water. You will likely curse, sigh loudly, and yell “why didn’t we just order from Hunan Palace?!?” to your significant other (or your dog, perhaps). Just accept the initial failure of the first few attempts; it will get better.

Instead of dunking the entire paper into the water, hold the upper half of the paper while submerging the bottom half. Then, turn the paper as if you were turning the steering wheel of your car. After one revolution, the entire paper should be wet. Place it flat on a clean surface. Pack it with the carrot, lettuce, and fresh herbs, being sure to leave a quarter inch of space on either side. Roll it as you would a burrito, tucking in the sides to avoid the innards falling out. Place the rolls in the fridge while you make the sauce.

For the sauce, simply mix all the ingredients together. Slice the rolls on a diagonal (or leave them intact) and serve.

Enjoy.

IMG_6058

It was in high school that I first began to cook. Sure, in middle school I dabbled with quesadillas and even the occasional triple-decker ham sandwich. But as my own adolescent machismo manifested itself in strange ways, I felt the desire to experiment with multi-step cooking projects: cinnamon rolls from scratch, homemade pizza, grilled chicken with rosemary, lemon, and garlic. I watched a fair share of the Food Network (just as I’m sure most red-blooded American boys did). It was an odd relationship I was having during the hours of 4-10pm EST. All those mascaraed heads, delivering every sentence (regardless of its import) with a chuckle, were often making food that I wanted to eat. Was it perverse to love that which I hated so very much?IMG_6533

There was, however, one Food Network host who seemed somehow different than the rest. She seemed not at all focused on what she was wearing. Her mind was instead considering how to make an unforgettable menu for a weekend at Martha’s Vineyard; or the most delectable apple crostada for her precious and hobbit-like husband, Jeffrey. And that seemed admirable to me. I am, of course, talking about Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa (whose feet I have never seen–though I imagine they are silky soft and well-manicured). My respect only deepened when I found that long before she had ever hosted a cooking show she was the nuclear policy analyst for the White House.IMG_6531

On one such episode, the contessa showed America how to cure salmon. This seemed alchemical to me, as I was sure that uncooked salmon would cause instant death.  Then again, around that time, I was also sure that rare meat and uncooked eggs would do just the same. But as I assumed that this was not Ina’s first rodeo and that she was, indeed, still living and breathing and seeming generally serene, I figured it was safe enough to eat after all. The sad news, however, was that in those days my options in itty-bitty Lawrenceburg city did not offer fresh, high quality(much less wild-caught) salmon. In fact, the only fresh fish available would have been whatever you could snag on the end of your cane pole down at the salt river (perch, catfish, the occasional striped bass). But here we are, some 10 years later, and I’m finally curing my own salmon. I’m strange folk, as this is a special moment in my culinary life.

Ahem, the recipe:

Cured Salmon

Ingredients:

1 lb wild-caught salmon (1-inch thick, skin-on, bones removed)

1 bunch of fresh dill

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cups kosher salt, coarse

1 tbp fennel seed

2 tbsp black peppercorns

Place the salmon skin-side down on a large piece of plastic wrap. Trim off any long stems from the dill and place it on top of the salmon. In a separate bowl, mix together the salt, sugar, peppercorns and fennel seed. Pour the mixture evenly over the dill. Wrap the salmon tightly and place it in a rimmed pan. This is important because as the salmon cures in your fridge, the sugar and salt will begin to draw out moisture from the fish, thereby replacing it with sweetness and savor.

Once wrapped and in the pan, place a flat plate or dish on top of the salmon and weigh it down with a few heavy cans. Place the dish into the fridge for 48 hrs. After 48 hrs, unwrap the fish, toss the dill, and rinse the fillet under cold water to remove excess salt and sugar.

When you’re ready to serve it, slice the fillet as thinly as possible, being sure to cut long slices. As for service, you could keep it classic and throw it on an everything bagel with a schmear, thin sliced red onion, capers, and more fresh dill. Or, you could get all fancy and serve it with grapefruit, super thin slices of fennel fronds, a splash of gin, and a drizzle of good olive oil.

Enjoy.