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.
I cannot discuss Mustard Chicken without giving you a little background on Reno, where I found the recipe. If you want the recipe, just scroll on down. But we are heading down Memory Lane, my friends. Come along, will you?
It was wild living in Reno. I moved there from the Bible Belt to (eventually) marry King Daddy, sort of like a mail-order bride but not. Despite my intense devotion to the South, Reno may be the best place I ever lived. The first week I was there I went into a grocery store and noticed that not only was there a wine section, completely (and to this day) unheard of in parts of the South, but there was a spirits section and a little gray-haired lady was giving out martini samples. Why, yes, I’d love a martini sample!
We lived in an apartment for a year and would do our laundry at the Duds and Suds, complete with a bar and slot machines. These people in Reno have no shame. I just loved that about them. Because we were both in the media, we would get invited to fancy casino parties with obscenely large shrimp cocktails, prime-rib carving stations, unlimited bar privileges and closed circuit boxing matches.
And many of my favorite people lived in Reno. There was the millionaire newspaper magnate who literally lived in a chicken coop as a child, wore the same $10 wedding ring for more than 40 years and essentially paid for our honeymoon in Hawaii just because he knew how broke we were (by the way, I did not ask him to do this – he just walked up to me in the smoking section at the paper and gave me a $2,000 check). He took me around and introduced me to important people, not because he had a need to impress me but because it was the nice thing to do. Rollie Melton was, above all else, a nice guy. He lost a lot of weight at one point and his $10 wedding ring disappeared down a sink drain at one of the casinos. He cried.
There was the newspaper columnist who caused me untold headaches as his boss at the Gazette-Journal. He just pissed off everyone. I liked that. One time, Cory wrote something bad about a hot dog place and the owner angrily demanded a meeting with us. The hot dog guy was a rotund 5-foot-3. Cory was a lean 6-foot-4 or so. Cory sat next to this guy in my closed-door office, his knees grazing the edge of my desk we were in such tight quarters. And he just took it. And I wanted to say to the hot dog guy: “First of all, your hot dogs suck. Second of all, you’re sitting next to a former Green Beret who could – at any moment given the slightest whim – rip your lungs out through your nose.”
There was the district court judge who also refereed many of the high-dollar boxing matches we watched while eating our shrimp cocktail. His name is Mills Lane and his famous sassy instructions to heavy weights was: “Let’s get it on!” He was a Georgia boy who also embraced Reno. He officiated at the wedding of a friend of King Daddy’s in a hotel conference room. After pronouncing the groom and bride as husband and wife, I believe he yelled, “Let’s get it on!” He had no pretense.
People in Reno were and are originals. It’s a city where – old or new – you are embraced if you just love the city back. Which I did with a great passion that exists to this day. So if any of you are Reno mockers, you just let me know and I’ll set you up a little meeting with Cory.
But I digress in a major way and I sincerely apologize. Mustard chicken. Far and away King Daddy’s favorite meal. New to Reno, anxious to impress my soon-to-be husband and insanely fearful about never finding a job there, I spent a lot of time checking out free cookbooks at the library. And I found Mustard Chicken in a Bed and Breakfast cookbook. I don’t remember the author but I know it wasn’t called Mustard Chicken. But I have been making it on Oct. 23 for 24 straight years and I will now claim it as my own. Like any good Southern recipe, it has only four ingredients: chicken, sour cream, Dijon mustard and honey. It is imperative that you serve it with buttered egg noodles.
Here’s to the pirates, the renegades and the oddballs – many of whom I met and became friends with in Reno. Life is so much more interesting when you hang out with the right crowd.
Heat the oil over medium heat in a large skillet. Salt and pepper the chicken breasts and sauté them in the oil until both sides are beginning to brown and the chicken is cooked through. Set aside on a plate.
Drain any excess oil from the pan and add the sour cream, mustard and honey. Blend and add the chicken back in the pan along with any juices that may have accumulated.
Sometimes it’s hard to put into words what it means to be Southern, either by birth or by choice. As many of you know, I was born a Yankee. But I got here as quick as I could and have not over-stayed my welcome yet going on almost 50 years.
My great friend, Danny Bonvissuto, who is Southern through and through, shared another great Southern woman’s definition of the South. It’s from the noted actress Alfre Woodard being interviewed in this month’s Gun and Garden (which, by the way, is the most improbable name of a magazine ever):
“You want to know something? You can leave the South, but it never leaves you. And I think we feel confident because of that. If you are Southern, you never run out of company. Because it lives in your head and in your heart. It is a well inside you that keeps you from ever being lonely.”
I hate that I didn’t think of that first because she is exactly right. And she’s also right about what makes the South a unique place:
“I like that people touch each other there. They fight. They don’t back away from human contact. The South is like a family. There is more social engagement. There are more real relationships between cultures, age groups, economic groups. The people are alive. The region is a huge, breathing organism. My husband is from an old New England family. And I’m just saying, if you boil some meat instead of frying it, you aren’t going to be telling any good stories.”
You tell it, Alfre. And, of course, that comment about frying instead of boiling (who does that?) made me think of fried chicken, a topic of conversation that’s never far from my thoughts). I will say that I have fried many a chicken over the years, but I don’t do it often because King Daddy would not be able to fit through the door if I did. For my money, this recipe from Bon Appetit is the best fried chicken ever. Here’s the link but you can also just use this version below.
2 teaspoons plus 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1½ teaspoons paprika
¾ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon onion powder
1 3–4-lb. chicken (not kosher), cut into 10 pieces, backbone and wing tips removed
1 cup buttermilk
1 large egg
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon cornstarch
Peanut oil (for frying)
Whisk 1 Tbsp. salt, 2 tsp. black pepper, paprika, cayenne, garlic powder, and onion powder in a small bowl. Season chicken with spices. Place chicken in a medium bowl, cover, and chill overnight.
Let chicken stand covered at room temperature for 1 hour. Whisk buttermilk, egg, and ½ cup water in a medium bowl. Whisk flour, cornstarch, remaining 1 Tbsp. salt, and remaining 1 Tbsp. pepper in a 9x13x2″ baking dish.
Pour oil into a 10″–12″ cast-iron skillet or other heavy straight-sided skillet (not nonstick) to a depth of ¾”. Prop deep-fry thermometer in oil so bulb is submerged. Heat over medium-high heat until thermometer registers 350°. Meanwhile, set a wire rack inside a large rimmed baking sheet.
Working with 1 piece at a time (use 1 hand for wet ingredients and the other for dry ingredients), dip chicken in buttermilk mixture, allowing excess to drip back into bowl. Dredge in flour mixture; tap against bowl to shake off excess. Place 5 pieces of chicken in skillet. Fry chicken, turning with tongs every 1–2 minutes and adjusting heat to maintain a steady temperature of 300°–325°, until skin is deep golden brown and an instant-read thermometer inserted into thickest part of chicken registers 165°, about 10 minutes for wings and 12 minutes for thighs, legs, and breasts.
Using tongs, remove chicken from skillet, allowing excess oil to drip back into skillet; transfer chicken to prepared rack.
Repeat with remaining chicken pieces; let cool for at least 10 minutes before serving.
So King Daddy and I were discussing the University of Tennessee football schedule this evening. We are, of course, always completely convinced that the Vols will have an undefeated season each and every year. Sadly, we have been proven tragically wrong the past few years.
But this year, we begin the season with Austin Peay – pronounced “Pee” for those of you who are not from around here and famous for it’s football cheer: “Let’s go Peay!” Then we play Western Kentucky. Alrighty, we should be 2-0 after the first two weeks. Then, sadly, things go downhill from there. But we have a new coach and nobody on the team has been arrested yet, so I think we may have a shot this year. My late and beloved father-in-law, Paul Harbin, always thought the Vols would win every game no matter the shortcomings of the team. I am channeling Paul right now. Divine intervention, if you please.
Win or lose, a girl and her King have to eat. So hop on over to the Char-Broil LIVE site for my grilled chicken enchiladas. It’s perfect do-ahead food just in case the Vols are ahead and you’re actually hungry.
Let’s just say when I told the Gourlays we were going to see the ugliest statue in Nashville and we found out it cost $6 each to look at it, I just whipped out my phone and showed them a photo of Athena at the Parthenon. That’s back-door touring, a concept I learned last week from Richard, Candy, Nick and Mia Gourlay of London, England.
This is a story so improbable I can barely wrap my brain around it. The Gourlays come to America to visit Candy’s best friend and her husband in Washington, D.C. Beyond that, they apparently have no schedule, no agenda, no actual plan of any sort. Who does that? Candy’s best friend directs them to a couple in rural Virginia they have never met. Jody Jaffe and John Muncie greet the Gourlays with great enthusiasm, invite them to stay with them and back-door tour them around their neck of the woods.
Then Jody, who I have known for 30 years, sends me an e-mail. The Gourlays, particularly Richard, love music and they have decided to come to Nashville. Could I offer any suggestions? Of course, as any good Southerner would, I immediately insert myself into the vacation dreams, if somewhat vague, of strangers from London. I offer suggestions. I offer to meet them for lunch. And entirely because they are completely charming and scandalously funny, I adopt them for several days. They seem to be very agreeable to this.
I feel the need to clarify here that the Gourlays are not some odd (well, perhaps a bit odd in a pirate kind of way) family who just drops in on strangers hoping for the best. Richard is a venture capitalist and Candy is an author. They could have stayed at the Ritz-Carlton and just skimmed the surface of the American landscape. But they didn’t. They created an adventure for themselves and all of us lucky to come in contact with them were happy to go along.
Here’s their Nashville back-door tour.
I meet them at Jim and Nick’s BBQ restaurant for lunch. I didn’t even think to ask if they are vegetarians. Watching them attempt to order is hilarious. They have no idea what anything is on the menu with the exception of salad and a fruit cup. I realize immediately that I have fallen in love with them because they order almost one of everything – smoked chicken, ribs, brisket, pulled pork – and then pick off of everyone else’s plates, including mine – the stranger they have known for half an hour. This is the way I love to eat. I feel we are forming a bond.
So, naturally, I am not letting go of these people yet and I offer to back-door tour them around the Civil War sites of Franklin. I’m appallingly ignorant of Civil War history, but I do not tell them that. Richard called it the Bones, Blood and Bullets tour. Very back door. We see the undercroft at my church, which was a Civil War hospital and home after the fact to…well…bones. We see the blood stains on the floor at Gallery 202, also a Civil War hospital. We see the musket ball holes at the Carter House. We see the Confederate Cemetery at Carnton Plantation. Of course, we do not take any actual tours because that would violate the back-door touring rule. They rely on my sketchy knowledge. I try to sound confident.
Their last day in Nashville we continue the back-door tour, with a visit to the Farmer’s Market (where they engage a BBQ vendor in lengthy discussion of rubs, which they have never heard of, and the anatomy of a Picnic Shoulder). We see the Parthenon and Richard says he will now not have to travel to Greece because why would you do that when you’ve already seen an exact replica in Nashville? We tour through Belle Meade and make fun of the people who live there knowing full well that they would never let in pirates like us. And we have lunch at Harding House because I want them to try fried green tomatoes and pimento cheese.
Candy eating a fried green tomato
They loved them. And everything else about Nashville and the South and their improbable, completely unplanned adventure in America. They have redefined travel for me. As Richard put it: “We are totally a back-road, idea-free zone.” And I am immeasurably grateful that they stumbled into my world. Or I stumbled into theirs.
So, Candy, here are the recipes for fried green tomatoes and pimento cheese. If you can’t find the ingredients in London, I will personally deliver them. I’m ready for a back-door adventure of my own.
Sometimes, simple is really more than okay. My friend, Chef Christo Gonzales, asked me one day how I come up with all these recipes. Well, my friend, I told him, what I write about is what I’m actually cooking. I don’t have a test kitchen. I have a real kitchen. And I don’t like cooking the same five things over and over again.
Trust me, I don’t pass along the failures. You will never read about my fish Jello or my rotting corned beef in a slow cooker. Why would you want to do that? But I’ve been at this for quite awhile now and, humbly, I don’t have many failures. You can ask King Daddy about that and he will be brutally honest because he’s a lawyer and lawyers have to undergo some blood ritual that ensures they will always tell the truth. No jokes about sharks here, please.
So after I feed King Daddy something slightly complicated or rich, it’s nice to return to something simple. This recipe has no fat and negligible calories, which is what we needed after consuming the entire pan of blackberry cobbler the other night. Moderation in all things. Or at least a balancing act.
“Don’t touch that!” I yell at King Daddy just as he hoists his knife and fork to dig in to a grilled pork tenderloin glazed with red pepper jelly. “I haven’t taken the photo yet.”
This, dear friends, has become the occupational hazard of food blogging. At least for our spouses or significant others. “Don’t touch that!” can be heard all across America at dinner tables where food must be memorialized before it is eaten. Food bloggers are completely unaware of our surroundings as we zoom in on close-ups of whatever’s on the plate. We do not find this behavior off-putting in the least.
This sort of hit home today at a special preview for Pollo Tropical, a new restaurant opening in Cool Springs tomorrow (2017 Mallory Lane or, in girl directions, in the old KFC across from the Kroger shopping center). Pollo Tropical specializes in grilled chicken and Caribbean flavors much-loved by this Florida girl who has missed her plantains, flan and sangria (yes, it’s a fast casual restaurant that serves booze – extra points). While I captured the food in rapturous detail, King Daddy captured us, the food bloggers. And I am a little taken aback. Here we are: Nerds on parade.
Notice the steely concentration required to get a good shot.
Pollo Tropical thoughtfully displayed the menu on a table to keep us away from the actual diners.
Note the up-close technique of Dr. Carmen April, who writes Dinner with Nerds.
Sadly, we live for these moments. A table full of yummy food waiting to be photographed. Do I believe King Daddy was mocking us? Why, yes I do. I think he found our laser-like attention to every detail of a chicken wing or piece of guava cheesecake highly humorous. That’s okay. We suffer for our art.
So here you go. Our art:
Tropical wings served with a pineapple rum sauce (yea, more booze!)
Sweet plantains – the culinary rock-star of my youth. Oh, how I love thee.
Guava BBQ riblets – a hit from the menu. I don’t know anyplace else that serves these.
So laugh while you can, monkey boy. You didn’t hear it today, but you will soon. Don’t touch that!
Stay with me, here. It’s just chicken on a stick! With a few spices. Not difficult!
So King Daddy and I have been on an Asian kick lately. We’re so happy that the Asian people of various lands have found their way to the greater Nashville metropolitan area. When we moved here 20 years ago, it was a dry and dusty land with a Red Lobster here and there, and a Shoney’s on every corner. Yea, breakfast buffet! Not.
But now. Oh, joy! The peoples of China, Japan, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam have all found their way down I-65 and set up shop in various parts of town. This week, KD and I have enjoyed Pho, the famous Vietnamese soup; Pad Thai, a noodle dish that I weep with gratitude over every time I eat it; banh mi, the Vietnamese pork sandwiches and Pad See Yew, another Vietnamese dish that involves these totally delicious wide chewy noodles with beef and something green I can’t identify, but which is pretty darn tasty.
I love the food of the Southern people and am giddy with excitement over tomato season, but let’s be honest. Most of the food of the Southern people is fattening. You will not be able to stomach heading into the McDonald’s here and gazing upon the fine specimens of Southern gentility. Hogs at the trough. Not a pretty sight.
But the peoples of Asia are, by and not-so-large, slim. Something we can all aspire to, I’m sure you agree.
So last night, in celebration of our Asian brothers and sisters, I made Chicken Satay. Chicken Satay is the Asian equivalent of Jalapeno Poppers in that it is widely served as an appetizer. I did not use my own recipe, of course, as I have been far too busy developing a new version of Chicken and Waffles. But I found a terrific one on the internet that tasted better, actually, than the satay I’ve had in numerous Thai restaurants. Here’s the link. Be sure to make the peanut dipping sauce that goes with it. I took a photo of that, too, but quite honestly it looks like baby poop and I didn’t think that would entice you to try it. Some things don’t photograph well, including me.
These slender skewers of joy will make you weep with happiness.
8-12 skinless chicken thighs, cut into thin strips
1 package wooden skewers
¼ cup minced lemongrass, fresh or frozen
2 shallots or 1 small onion, sliced
3 cloves garlic
1-2 fresh red chilies, sliced, or ½ teaspoon to 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper, to taste
1 thumb-size piece galangal or ginger, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon minced fresh turmeric or ½ teaspoon dried turmeric
2 tablespoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons cumin
3 tablespoons dark soy sauce (available at Asian food stores)
4 tablespoons fish sauce
5-6 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
If using wooden skewers, soak them in water while you prepare the meat (to prevent burning). The kitchen sink works well for this.
Cut chicken into thin strips and place in a bowl.
Place all marinade ingredients in a food processor or chopper. Process well.
Taste-test the marinade – you will taste sweet, spicy, and salty. The strongest tastes should be SWEET and SALTY in order for the finished satay to taste its best. Add more sugar or more fish sauce (in place of salt) to adjust the taste. You can also add more chili if you want it spicier.
Pour the marinade over the meat and stir well to combine. Allow at least 1 hour for marinating, or longer (up to 24 hours).
When ready to cook, thread meat onto the skewers. Tip: Fill up to ¾ of the skewer, leaving the lower half empty so that the person grilling has a “handle” to easily turn the satay during cooking.
Grill the satay on your outdoor grill (medium high heat) or on an indoor grill, basting with a little of the leftover marinade. You can also broil the satay in the oven on a broiling pan or baking sheet. Place satay close beneath the heating element and turn the meat every 5 minutes until cooked (be sure to soak your wooden satay sticks in water before skewering). Depending on how thin your meat is, the satay should cook in 10 to 20 minutes.