This whole thing started with the croutons entirely because I am cheap. I cannot stand to throw food away and, dammit, onion poppy seed hamburger buns come in packages of eight. I just needed two for a sandwich project. So I had six left over, staring at me every time I opened the pantry door. Taunting me to do something with them.
So I made croutons. I actually have a beef with store-bought croutons and I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t make their own. Store-bought croutons are generally hard as rocks and exhibit all the taste of a hardened cube of sand. And since I have become a dedicated package ingredient reader after several alarming revelations about processed foods, I just don’t want any preservatives or other funny stuff in my croutons. Plus I have to tell you if you make these with melted butter rather than olive oil, you will just end up eating them straight out of the bag without any trip to a bowl of salad.
Once I had my croutons, I had to have something to put them on. Talk about the chicken and the egg. Decided on a Chicken Caesar Salad since that’s also a beef of mine. Why are they so bad at restaurants because they’re so good with a homemade dressing and some grilled chicken?
The croutons store in the fridge for a few weeks. They never last that long at my house. I’ve eaten two bags of them already. Without the salad.
Trim the chicken breasts of any fat or cartilage and sprinkle with the BBQ rub. Spray one side of the chicken with oil and grill for 4-5 minutes, oiled side down. Spray the other side, flip and grill for an additional 4 minutes or until the internal temperature is 160 degrees as determined with a digital probe thermometer. Remove from the grill and reserve.
Combine the garlic and parsley in a small bowl. Add the anchovy paste, mustard, lemon juice, mayonnaise and hot sauce. Combine thoroughly and chill the dressing in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
Put the romaine lettuce in a large bowl. Cut the chicken into strips or cubes and add to the lettuce along with the dressing. Toss thoroughly. Sprinkle with salad with the Parmesan cheese and serve.
Life used to be so sweet and we didn’t even know it then. Before the recession (which one?). Before the newspaper industry took a nosedive. Back when there was such a thing as an expense account. Which is how I got acquainted with a sassy little dish at Merchant’s restaurant in Nashville called Five Pepper Chicken.
Merchant’s was actually in the middle rung of the expense account ladder. At the tippy top was The Wild Boar, sadly no longer with us. Dinner at The Wild Boar took a minimum of four hours and cost, oh, approximately $500 for a party of four – excluding wine (which was never excluded). Of course, I never paid that. Our kindly Uncle Gan Nett took care of the bill. He had deep pockets back in the day. He once rented out the entire property of Blackberry Farm, a very pricy resort in East Tennessee, for a management retreat. At which, of course, nothing was accomplished but at which we could fish for our own trout in their stocked pond and have them served to us for breakfast. Oh, yes. Those were the days.
Most of the luxury dinners involved job candidates. In the hinterlands, Uncle Gan Nett squeezed every nickel from the poor wretches who toiled in the shabby small-town newsrooms. But should they get a call from the Mother Ship for a job interview, they saw the promised land – complete with an expensive bottle of French wine and jumbo crab claws.
Even with all the filet mignon, lobster tails and truffle-studded mashed potatoes, my favorite expense account meal was the Five Pepper Chicken at Merchant’s. The chicken was studded with a combination of sweet and fiery peppers and bathed in a luxurious lemon cream sauce. It never occurred to me to ask for the recipe because A. I assumed my expense account joy ride would last forever and B. I thought they would never take it off the menu.
I was wrong on both counts. So I have recreated it here. But it’s not exact. I am missing a pepper and I can’t figure out which one. So here is my four pepper version of Five Pepper Chicken. It’s still utterly delicious and even I can afford to make it.
Trim the chicken breasts of any fat and season them with the BBQ rub (use your favorite). Heat the vegetable oil on medium high in a large heavy skillet and sauté the chicken breasts on both sides until browned and cooked through (160 degrees internal temperature using a digital probe thermometer). Reserve.
Slice the four peppers into thin strips, removing the seeds and veins. Add a little more oil to the pan and add the peppers. Saute over medium heat until they are tender and beginning to brown. Reserve.
Add the chicken stock to the skillet and boil, reducing it by half. Add the cream and continue to boil until the sauce is reduced by half. Add the lemon juice and Parmesan cheese and mix thoroughly. Add the chicken and peppers back to the pan to warm them through and serve.
I was making supper the other night – pork chops, dressing and fried apples. And it occurred to me there are certain things that just “go together” – food combinations that I return to again and again.
Some of them could be considered odd or quaint. I have always served King Daddy’s favorite mustard chicken with buttered egg noodles. To do otherwise would be unthinkable. It just wouldn’t be right. On Sloppy Joe night, the Joe must be Manwich and it must lean along side Tater Tots. With ketchup. Ditto the ketchup with fried chicken livers.
Braised short ribs require mashed potatoes. Last night I was provisioning the refrigerator for KD because I am heading to Bunny’s tomorrow to help her unpack at her new home. I made the short ribs and mashed potatoes, but stuck some garlic bread in the oven for another meal. KD actually asked for garlic bread with short ribs. I was horrified. They don’t go together. Turkey sandwiches. Just turkey, mayonnaise, iceberg lettuce, salt and pepper. No cheese. Cheese and turkey don’t go together.
Fish and rice go together. Fish does not go with potatoes or pasta. Flat chicken and green noodles. Only a classic in our home, I’m sure. It’s just breaded chicken breasts and thin spaghetti with pesto. But the chicken breasts must be thin and the noodles must be thin, also. The calorie count is not thin. Corned beef hash with English muffins and blackberry jam. The hash must be from a can. And you must fry it with onions until it is crispy. The jam can be seedless or not. That’s where King Daddy and I part ways. He likes the seeds.
A wedge salad demands blue cheese dressing and bacon. Diet Coke must be present with hamburgers and French fries. Iced tea does not go with hamburgers or French fries. Iced tea does, however, go with chicken salad. I don’t know why.
So what foods “go together” for you? What are your odd and quaint combinations? I hope you disagree with me. It’s always more fun when you do.
That old Billy King, what a rascal. No one’s ever heard of him save the fact that he invented one of my favorite comfort foods, Chicken a la King.
King was a hotel cook at the Bellevue in Philadelphia. His obituary in New York Tribune in 1915 had this to say:
“The name of William King is not listed among the great ones of the earth. No monuments will ever be erected to his memory, for he was only a cook. Yet what a cook! In him blazed the fire of genius which, at the white heat of inspiration, drove him one day, in the old Bellevue, in Philadelphia, to combine bits of chicken, mushrooms, truffles, red and green peppers and cream in that delight-some mixture which ever after has been known as ‘Chicken a la King.’ “
There wasn’t a restaurant in the greater Chicagoland area that didn’t serve Chicken a la King in the 1960s, but you can barely find it now. What a shame since we have something in 2014 that Billy could never have dreamed about – supermarket rotisserie chicken. Rotisserie chicken comes under the heading of “I can’t make it better.” I am a purist when it comes to Chicken a la King. I only use the white breast meat, saving the legs and thighs for another use. You can also poach chicken breasts for this recipe, but why would you do that? The package of chicken breasts will cost more than the entire rotisserie chicken and they won’t be half as good.
Prepare the puff pastry shells according to the package directions
Heat the butter in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the shallots and mushrooms. Saute until the shallots are translucent and the mushrooms are browned. Add the Madeira and deglaze the pan. When all the alcohol has evaporated, add the flour and stir thoroughly.
Turn the heat down to medium and add the chicken stock and heavy cream. Stir until the sauce begins to thicken. Add the parsley, thyme, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings if needed.
Add the chicken and the frozen peas. Heat for 3-4 minutes until the chicken and peas are warmed through. Serve in the puff pastry shells.
We are getting ready for the Mayhew/Harbin/Mayhew Family Reunion. And, as always, if we do not lay in enough supplies, we might starve. Tammy, my daughter-in-law, has already stockpiled the entire freezer section of the Piggly Wiggly because she is the snack lady and a pox will be upon her if she runs out of Pigs in a Blanket and Stuffed Potato Skins.
We barely made it through the last reunion with the few ingredients we had in the refrigerator
So I made a little trip to the grocery store just in case Tammy forgets the cheese puffs and Bunny, my mother-in-law, does not produce adequate amounts of ham dip and chicken biscuits.
Just a few things. Let’s see. Bacon-flavored smoked almonds. Protein and pork. Have to have those. Crunchy Cheetos – a nice contrast to the softer cheese puffs my granddaughter prefers. Thirty-two ounces of sour cream to make two “servings” of onion dip. Josh, my stepson, has a habit of sneaking out to the refrigerator in the middle of the night and absconding with the onion dip. I shall leave a container under my bed for safe keeping.
Cheese. Five different kinds of cheese. And crackers. Two kinds. Little Smokies. One must have Little Smokies for that mid-morning pick-me-up. Tammy and I need to keep up our strength for the long drive (two minutes) to the spa for our pedicures. Dark chocolate Reese’s peanut butter cups. Quick energy for making our way out to the porch to read. Bacon. Seriously, how can you survive in the wilderness that is just five miles from Dollywood without bacon?
Oh, and Danish Butter Cookies. Honestly, King Daddy should not be eating Danish Butter Cookies. Well, none of us should. But we will. And dried apricots. Because we want to set a good example for my granddaughter, Puddin’.
By the way, here’s a photo of Puddin’ eating a funnel cake. Because we don’t have enough food in the house, Bunny always takes her and Noah to get funnel cake. I realize when she’s 13 Puddin’ will hate me for this. But right now Nana is willing to take the risk.
And here’s Bunny teaching Puddin’ how to create a massive sugar overload by dumping three pounds of candy sprinkles into canned icing for cupcakes. As I said, we try to set a good example.
I can’t even remember how many reunions there have been, but not a single one of them involved kale or carrot juice. I believe we have our priorities straight. Bless our hearts.
The Peoples of the South are, of course, petrified. As you can see from this weather map of tomorrow’s weather, there are “minus” signs. The Peoples of the South do not understand. What is a minus? And there are dangerous arrows around Memphis pointing directly in my direction. What are those arrows? I do not know, yet I am very afraid.
So I went to stock up at my beloved Publix and I could see that other Peoples of the South had seen the same map. We understand these life and death situations better than most. A few weeks ago we had flurries. I don’t even want to talk about it.
As you can see, there are exactly three buggies at the Publix where there are usually about 180. Yes, that means others sense the impending disaster. And they’re all inside. I think I hear screaming.
It’s just as I feared. The Peoples of the South are most fearful of running out of milk and bread during a disaster. The woman next to me fainted when she realized there was no 2 percent left. Fortunately, the paramedics revived her and assured her she could get by on skim until the thaw.
Eggs. The symbol of life. And death. Death by starvation. I take the last carton, even though I already have two in my refrigerator. Perhaps I will attempt to whip up a frittata as my frigid hands grasp the cold handle of a cast iron skillet never to be warmed again because the power is now off and my life is ebbing away. Oh, the iron. Or irony.
But I must live on for King Daddy, for he would surely starve without me. So I load my buggy with staples such as cornbread mix, chili fixin’s, bacon, lingonberry preserves, Smokehouse Almonds and the latest issue of People magazine. As I said, the Peoples of the South have our priorities straight. As I huddle under a blanket with my dying flashlight, I will at least dimly perceive the brilliance of Kim Kardashian’s make-up tips.
Not to be ungrateful, but this is the time of year when anyone who has a hobby or a collection of any kind knows that something wicked this way comes. Poor Bunny, my mother-in-law, was graced with a precious plenty of bunny items every Christmas, including some from me. She finally switched to flamingos just to get a break.
For me, it’s grilling items. Some of them have been fabulously useful and genuinely appreciated. But there’s a lot of trickery out there in the grilling world. Here’s a guide to the worst grilling accessories ever invented.
My suggestions for the best tools a grilling enthusiast needs are over on the Char-Broil LIVE site. Hop on over there and take a look. Two shopping days left until Christmas and my recommendations are easy to find and won’t break the bank. Plus there’s a yummy recipe for my dad’s favorite grilled chicken.
I have to tell you, around this time of year I love all the talk about how to roast or grill a turkey. Yes, you have to have turkey on Thanksgiving just as you have to leave cookies and milk out for Santa Christmas Eve. But does anyone really love, love, love the turkey? I don’t care if you put a bow tie and a top hat on it. Turkey is still going to be bland and, once out on a buffet table for an hour or so, dry.That’s why I don’t bother brining mine. Too much trouble for too little payback.
Sides are king on Turkey Day. I’m all about the mashed potatoes, gravy, dressing and cranberry sauce. I’m also about trying new sides to change it up a bit.
Curried fruit compote
Green bean and corn casserole
Curried fruit compote has been around at least since the ’70s because that’s when I started making it. It is the only acceptable use for canned fruit that I know about. And green bean and corn casserole is what the classic green bean casserole wants to be when it grows up.
The fried chicken livers, nestled between the fried potato wedges and foil-wrapped chicken biscuits
King Daddy and I will drive absurdly long distances for food. We once drove 2 1/2 hours from Reno to Gerlach, Nevada – which is perilously close to a ghost town – to eat ravioli at Bruno’s Country Club, which in no way qualifies as a country club. The ravioli was damn good.
So I was all ears when KD asked me the other day to accompany him to Centerville, Tennessee, for fried chicken livers. DO NOT TURN UP YOUR NOSE. If you’ve never eaten the fried chicken livers at the fastStop Market you have never lived a day in your life. Centerville is an hour from Nashville and I counted every mile marker.
Place and food are very intertwined in the South. Generally speaking, the more humble the place the more beguiling the food. Rules of rooting out the best food in out-of-the-way places:
1. If it looks condemned, go in.
2. If you see a BBQ joint and there’s no wood pile and an abandoned car in the back, keep on driving
3. If the name of the restaurant is the Kountry Kitchen and there’s a bunch of ancient license plates tacked to the outside of the building, you’ve found mecca.
So I was highly anticipating fried chicken livers at a gas station. I was slightly alarmed when we arrived and I found the fastStop Market to be disturbingly clean and modern.
King Daddy is a regular at the fastStop because he practices quite a bit of law in Centerville (I love how you “practice law” as though you will never quite get it right). He has eaten fried chicken livers there frequently and one or two leftover livers find their way back home for me. But I had never had them hot and fresh out of the fryer.
Gina serving up our order…nice goes a long way in the South and Gina is extremely nice
Oh, my. We hurried to the car with our box of fried chicken livers and several ketchup packets and did not speak for a full five minutes. King Daddy makes a mean fried chicken liver and I can honestly say they’re the best I’ve ever had. But these come in second just by a nose. I had to accompany KD to the Centerville Justice Center where he had a few cases to try. I will tell you that I admire his keen legal abilities and his talent at oration before the Bench, but I can honestly say the best part of my day was behind me.
I have no great story to go with Mediterranean Chicken. I started making this years ago because I just happened to have all the ingredients and it sounded like a good idea at the time. Now, it’s a go-to recipe because it just takes minutes. Have a can of whole tomatoes? Just dice them up. Don’t like kalamata olives? What’s wrong with you?
I will now tell you about my day. So the first thing is that it’s Halloween and the weather forecast is calling for torrential rain and straight-line winds. Trick or treating has been cancelled throughout Middle Tennessee. This is a good thing. I forgot to buy candy. Now, they’ve moved trick or treating to tomorrow night. This is also good because Halloween candy will be 50 percent off. I love it when a plan comes together.
The second thing is that I spent part of the day at work being a low-level personal shopper. I love this about my job. Basically, for those of you who think I just sit in my garage, smoking, drinking wine and writing this blog, I have a day job running a nonprofit that provides basic necessities to people in need. And today I got a call from a social worker about a homeless family that had moved into their first apartment. They had nothing but the clothes on their backs. Did we have anything we could give them? Yes, indeedy. We have lots of things to give them – new clothes, new cookware, super cushy pillows that I wish I had in my own house, personal hygiene products, cleaning supplies, lamps, decorative items. The social worker thanked me profusely. No, sweetie, you don’t understand. It is truly our pleasure.
And then, the most unexpected thing ever. I head to the grocery store to get the ingredients for tonight’s supper and there, in the produce department, is a man wearing a kilt. I mean it is Halloween, but this guy was not heading to a costume party. He was honest-to-goodness, sincerely, a Scottish guy in a cable-knit pullover, kilt and those funny shoes with the patches at the top. He was picking out onions. I wanted to take a photo with my phone, but that would have been rude. I now regret that I didn’t.
So enjoy the chicken. I hope your day was as interesting and fulfilling as mine.
Chicken, diced tomatoes and kalamata olives combine for a healthy Mediterranean weeknight meal.
4 thin skinless, boneless chicken breasts
Cavender’s All-Purpose Greek Seasoning (or your favorite seasoning)
1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained
⅓ cup sliced kalamata olives
½ cup chicken stock
1 garlic clove, minced
Juice of 1 lemon
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
Salt and pepper to taste
Season the chicken breasts with Cavender’s. Heat the vegetable oil in a heavy sauté pan to medium heat and add the chicken breasts. Saute for about 4 minutes or until nicely browned on one side. Flip each chicken breast and sauté the other side for another 4 minutes. Transfer to a plate, cover in foil, and reserve.
To the same pan, add the diced tomatoes, olives, chicken stock, garlic, lemon juice and paprika. Cook over medium high heat until the sauce thickens. Taste and add salt and pepper.