Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Gag Me with a Twelve Pound Cheeseburger!

Few sayings ring truer than the chorus of Bruce Springsteen's "57 channels (and nothin' on)." As if to demonstrate television's inability to grasp the concept that more is often less, we've recently witnessed an explosion of programs that fuse cooking with reality television, including a slew of contrived chef talent search shows like Fox's "Hell's Kitchen," Food Network's "Chopped," and Bravo's "Top Chef." Unlike the popular (and often quite good) "Iron Chef America," the only meaningful ingredient in these programs is manufactured drama. You can almost hear the bumper now: "Somebody's gonna cry tonight, and it ain't from the onions!"

These kitchen cum "American Idol" shows are now having to make room for an growing list of food-travel programs. Not that this is anything new. "Forty Dollars a Day" helped launch the prattling chipmunk empire of Rachael Ray, and the irascible and versatile Anthony Bourdain has brought feasting on the obscure to television for almost a decade. But now if you are not content with Bourdain's exotic locales, you can always stay tuned to the Travel Channel and catch Andrew Zimmern ingesting deep-fried tarantulas or perhaps pickled emu beaks, all while cooing, "...ooh. Wow. I mean, it's so... so... like what you would not expect." His program is a little like watching "Fear Factor" without the put-on screaming.

"Man vs Food" host Adam Richman pauses before abusing his intestines on camera.

Yet few shows deliver more colon wrenching excess than the Travel Channel's newest hit, "Man vs Food." It's what you might expect if you combined a hairier version of Zimmern with Johnny Knoxville from MTV's "Jackass." The show's host, Adam Richman, visits everyday fare hotspots around the country and then sets about doing something ludicrous like attempting to eat fifteen dozen oysters in an hour or a dish of curry so hot that even the restaurant's chef wears goggles during its preparation. Anyone who has paid attention to the billboards while driving along Interstate 40 through Amarillo probably understands the creative genius that inspired this show. You guessed it, one of Richman's earliest stops was at the Big Texan Steak Ranch where he takes "the restaurant's legendary 72-ounce steak challenge." According to the show's website, it remains the most popular episode.

Like "Jackass," Richman has inspired adoring imitators. Who can argue that these budding media stars aren't on to something?

I mentioned "Man vs Food" to a few of my students in class today, and several gave it a hearty endorsement. This left me confident of the Travel Channel's ability to sell advertising space for domestic beer and AXE body spray. But I can't help but feel that somewhere in a darkened apartment a self-conscious calorie counter sits on the couch weeping as he watches Richman gack down a nine pound pistrami sandwich and tries not to think about the grim stack of Lean Cuisines lurking in his freezer.

One wonders what culinary frontiers Richman will cross in future episodes. Perhaps he'll eat five pounds of spicy crawfish boil and then use the restroom without first washing his hands. Maybe it'll be an eating contest with Takeru Kobayashi, who we used to see obscenely stuffing Nathan's hot dogs down his gullet. No doubt it will be scintilating. Cable television would deliver no less.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Alcohol Improves a Berry Disappointing Season

It's been a cold spring in these parts, and it doesn't seem as though it has been a particularly bountiful year for Mississippi or Louisiana strawberry growers. That was why it was only more surprising when I discovered that our local big-box purveyor had southeastern berries for sale. They were from Eubanks Farm in Lucedale, Mississippi - in the southern tip of the Magnolia State at approximately the same latitude as Ponchatoula, Louisiana.

Unfortunately, while they weren't quite the plywood variety grown in California, like most grocery store berries, they were a little hard. I've yet to make it to a decent u-pick operation this spring.

But we should remember that alcohol can and often does rescue us from our most bitter disappointments. I can hardly claim any originality in using Cointreau to extract the best out of mediocre strawberries. This preparation yields a light desert that is perfect when you want something sweet after dinner but not terribly much more to eat.

(Makes two portions)
Core 5 to 6 medium strawberries and thinly slice
Macerate in a bowl with Cointreau and two teaspoons of sugar
Serve on small plates with a rim
Pour on creme fraiche (or in a pinch, half & half)
lightly sprinkle with cinnamon (which is really what makes all the difference).

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Antoine's by way of Oxpatch: Tilapia Meuniere

A "hungry" portion of tilapia meuniere.

A number of completely unrelated factors led me to try something new in the kitchen last Friday evening. We've been staying true to the vow of meatless Lenten Fridays this year, and not without some effort. Certainly we are doing a lot better with it than with our resolution to quit swearing for Lent - but that's another story entirely. For us, this has meant seafood on Friday. (And yes, vegetarian friends, we realize that in your universe, fish is meat. Please bear with me.)

The chief problem with this plan is that decent seafood is pretty expensive in Oxford. There is an independent gourmet grocer on the other side of town, but most of their fresh fish is simply way out of our budget, even if our table has trended toward much smaller portions of meat than either Jessie and I grew up knowing. I would no more buy seafood at Wal-Mart than I would purposely listen to a Kenny G album. This leaves us with the K-Roger. Those who know me well understand that I generally dislike "Krogering" for a variety of reasons. Alas, they have a seafood counter of sorts, and it is in our price range.

Examining the contents of Kroger's seafood case is a little like viewing an exhibit on global aquaculture. Selections run the gambit from Mississippi catfish to Vietnamese shrimp. My loyalty to Louisiana means that Asian shrimp are simply out of the question. And no, I don't really feel like fixing salmon. Besides, for the last week I've had trout meuniere on the brain (this recipe from Brigsten's is a little more complex than what you will find below.) Or maybe something involving pompano. Yet by now, you will have guessed that the Oxford Kroger has neither of these in stock. My eye quickly settled instead on some small tilapia filets, of which four set me back a mere $5.15. A junk fish to many, my farm-raised tilapia have all of the class of a weekend trip to Dollywood. But who says you can't still have fun in Pigeon Forge?

I suddenly got excited about the prospect of turning this inexpensive meat, er, fish, into something special when we got home. The idea that I'd be able to blog the results, if they were successful, also appealed because many of our friends and readers of this blog can certainly appreciate saving a few bucks on dinner. But the traditional trout meuniere preparation found in my Galitoires or Antoine's cookbooks just wasn't going to cut it with our modest finned friends. Fortunately, with a few easy modifications, the tilapia made for a creditable stand-in for its more expensive cousin.


4 tilapia filets
panko bread crumbs
flour for breading
2 eggs
1 lemon
1 shallot
5 tablespoons of butter (sorry, this recipe is inexpensive, but not low fat.)

This goes together very quickly, so go ahead and get all of your ingredients together while your large skillet is warming up on a medium-high setting. Don't use super high heat or you will burn your butter, which you definitely do not want in this instance. (I know that some of the recipies, including that for Galitoire's meuniere butter, instruct you to carefully brown it. That's not what I did here.) For those who are unsure, this recipe is super easy.

Finely dice 1 small or 1/2 large shallot (about 2 tablespoons)
Extract juice from 1 lemon
Beat eggs for egg wash & put in a pan.
Set aside another pan for panko, and yet a third with flour. Season the flour with salt & white pepper
Bread the tilapia filets by washing in egg, then flour, then egg again, then panko

Put 3 of your 5 tablespoons of butter in the hot pan & melt. (I used my fancy non-stick Scanpan, but in retrospect, a cast-iron or other heavy conventional pan would be better as your sauce will be tastier if "bits" stick to the bottom.)

Brown the tilapia in the butter on both sides. For those of you who are new to this, make sure your pan is hot enough. The butter should be only the nearest edge of singeing. Do not flip until ready. Luckily, you should be able to see the panko start to brown around the bottom edges of the filet. When brown all around, flip carefully. Plate the filets when both sides have fully browned.

Add the remaining butter to your hot pan and whisk to speed up the melting. Once melted, add in your diced shallots. These will carmelize almost instantly - within 3 or 4 seconds - if diced finely enough. The contents of the pan should turn a pleasant brown color. At this point, deglaze the pan with the lemon juice and whisk to make sure all of those tasty bits are in your sauce. Pour this steaming goodness over your plated filets. Garnish with the diced parsley.

In the end, you will have tilapia meuniere for four modest or two hungry diners. Because everything else save the shallot and the lemon are likely in your pantry, the total grocery bill came in well under $8. (Okay, parsley and panko are staples in my kitchen, but maybe not yours.) With any luck, it'll allow you to keep both your Lenten and budgetary obligations.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Hunt Begins for New "Worst Restaurant in Oxford"

A king its own right. A king of awfulness. The location of the now-defunct San Francisco Bread Company
at 1501 W. Jackson in Oxford, Mississippi.

Every trip Jessie and I have made to rent a movie over the last four months has always included some detached speculation about when the San Francisco Bread Company located next door to Movie Gallery would go out of business. It was never a question of "if," mind you, but a definite "when." The dining room seemed ominously dark Wednesday evening when we rented Australia, and a drive-by yesterday did little to change our impression that the franchise operation had gone legs-up. Since I had been wrong several times before in declaring the beast dead - the SFBC had been an artful practitioner of playing possum - I resolved to toe the corpse this morning on my way to campus. I pressed my cupped hands to the cold glass to get a better look inside. An artificial Rose of Sharon standing gaudily next to a soiled comfy chair seemed not to comprehend what the barren pastry case, upended chairs, and scattered paper products on the floor silently understood. The establishment that had earned our esteem as "the worst restaurant in Oxford" was no more. I considered casting my eyes heavenward in the expectation that I might see a gliding ring of vultures but remembered that even carrion have culinary standards.

Our one and only visit had come last September during one of Jessie's periodic hankerings for Panera Bread - more specifically, their broccoli cheddar soup. Since the nearest Panera location is in suburban Memphis, and she had long since crossed the "hungry and feed me soon" line, a sixty mile drive was out of the question. As chains go, I like Panera well enough. It is a good concept, and when properly executed delivers upon pretty much everthing it promises. As an aside, Panera offers recipes for many of their dishes online, including soups - but not the ever-popular broccoli cheddar. I'll be trying this copy cat version soon to prepare for future random cravings. Those who share Jessie's soup tastes but lack a personal chef should know that they can buy it pre-packaged at Costco.

At first glance, San Francisco Bread Company seemed to hold out promise as being a fellow player in this achingly bourgeois restaurant niche, yet something wasn't quite right. We've all seen the familiar horror picture trope where out-of-towners enter a quaint but strangely empty hotel and are subsequently punished for their stupidity in chosing to spend the night by being hacked into pieces by a lawnmower blade-weilding psychopath in a hockey mask. We suffered no physical harm, but neither were we smart enough to get back in our car when we were unable to ascertain whether or not the place was still in business by the time we tried the front door.

We began shedding our expectations, including soup of any kind, not long after crossing the threshold. In spite of being squarely within the dinner hour, the place was empty save one employee who hunched at a table and faintly mouthed the words to her copy of Chistopher Paolini's Eragon. Nobody seemed to notice our presence, so we studied the menu selections. That is to say, the remaining selections, for someone had taped copier paper on the menu board so as to obscure some of the entrees and all of the prices. By this time, our reader had stepped away from dwarves and goblins long enough to alert a compatriot to our presence, and, with a deep sigh, returned to her perch and book.

We placed our order, which came fast enough, and headed to the fountain drink dispenser with sandwich baskets and empty paper cups in hand. Drinks filled, Jessie and I selected a table, sat down, and took the first full measure of the dining room. Other than the quiet mumbling of the employee, the only sound in the dining room came from a wall-mounted television tuned to CNN with the volume turned very low. It had the effect of giving the space all the cheer of a Jiffy Lube waiting area. Which, in retrospect, may have been appropriate.

To say that the soda was flat doesn't begin to describe the thin cola syrup water in our cups. We tried again, but all of the fountians were equally lifeless. Perhaps it was the scent or taste that set Jessie off, but she ate very little of her tuna salad sandwich. As for my meal, it included a variety of mystery-meat roast beef reminiscent of the humorously-named (and no connection to the singer) Charlie's Pride brand sold by Wal-Mart. It was also of a salinity more suitable for use during Commodore George Anson's 1740-1744 circumnavigation of the globe than for deli sandwiches. We left the restaurant with the taste of buyer's remorse in our mouths.

Subsequent internet surfing revealed that ours was not an isolated incident. Google reviews included that of "Elizabeth," who said after a February visit "the girl had her face smashed against her hand while we ordered and was very rude. They seemed mad that we wanted to dine in, and then my meat on my turkey wrap was FROZEN! gross! They were rude, weird, and no one was eating in there during lunch. Sketchy..." Gross indeed, Elizabeth. "Charley" echoed our own sentiments by pondering, "how this restaurant stays open, I have no idea." Wonder no more, my friend.

One does wonder, however, what will happen to SFBC's prime West Jackson location. We can only hope that this dreadful establishment is gone for good. Then it will be time to crown another as "the worst restaurant in Oxford." Suggestions are welcome, but consider that crappy dining experiences and sub-par food at overrated establishments do not necessisarily constitute the sort of utter wretchedness that SFBC embodied. For instance, it is neither shocking nor noteworthy that the International Buffet will cause gastrointestinal distress or that the young waitresses at Old Venice Pizza are rude. So discern for the true bottom, the dining experience that both underwhelms and frightens. The one unparalleled in its very afulness. But for now, the king is dead.