Down-home American Cuisine

Two weeks ago, Chow suggested we invite friends over to her house and cook a dinner that relied on a new cookbook she had received. The cookbook contained only “down-home” classic American dishes, organized on a state-by-state basis. Of course, I’m up for trying to cook almost anything in the kitchen, especially if it is someone else’s kitchen!

The main course of the meal was “Kansas Fried Chicken”. Having a lot of relatives in Kansas and having lived there a year before moving to Thailand, I can’t rightly say what distinguished fried chicken as “Kansas” fried chicken. This was only my second time trying to make fried chicken and I have to say, keeping the oil temperature consistent around the 350 F target is a pain in the neck.

The end result turned out pretty well. The chicken isn’t brined or marinated. Simply pat it dry, sprinkle liberally with salt, pepper, and paprika, and then dredge in a mixture of flour, salt, pepper, and I added some chile powder. The result was super. The chicken remained moist and with sufficient salt, very flavorful. Afterwards, I used a few tablespoons of the oil to make the best gravy I’ve ever made.

If you have gravy, you might as well have some biscuits, right? These were another recipe from the cookbook and, oddly, they used vegetable oil rather than a solid fat such as butter or Crisco. The texture was tender although I think my biscuit recipe (from my mother) is better. The Crisco in the recipe gives it a flakier texture.

Side dishes included a baked spinach casserole. The bread crumbs Chow used were panko, the Japanese bread crumbs used in tempura. The dish was very dry; not sure if something more was meant to be added to the greens. It was tasty, though.

The asparagus side dish was fantastic. It used cream of mushroom soup straight from the can, spread in alternating layers with the asparagus and then baked. On the top are crushed Cheese-It crackers. 

Used this opportunity to break out a jar of the pickled green tomatoes and shallots that I made a month ago. These were great. I need to figure out somewhere to get a larger quantity of green cherry tomatoes so I can pickle more.

Dessert was a cherry and blackberry pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Nice and simple, keeping with our Americana theme.

 

Tawn Makes Pineapple Fried Rice

The evening after Andy and Sugi’s wedding, the newlyweds were off at a family dinner so Tawn and I invited Andy W and Kenny over to our condo for dinner. Sugi’s family had sent us home the night before with a pair of very ripe Maui Gold pineapples, so Tawn offered to make pineapple fried rice.

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Chef Tawn busy in the kitchen. We had to buy a few items such as the raisins, the pack of which I carried with me back to Kansas City to leave with my sister’s family, since the friend we’re staying with in San Francisco doesn’t like raisins.

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Dinner started with a fresh mango and pineapple smoothie. Healthy treat to whet the appetite.

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Filling the hollowed-out pineapple with the fried rice. The top shell is placed over the rice and then it is baked in the over until fragrant.

A short video of Tawn removing the top of the pineapple!

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The finished product! It was really tasty.

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For dessert: green tea ice cream.

 

Food in LA: Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner

One of our dinners, per my sister’s request, was at Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner restaurant at Knott’s Berry Farm amusement park in Buena Park.  Knott’s Berry Farm is “the other amusement park” in Orange County, located just up the road from Disneyland.  Jennifer requested that we go to Mrs. Knott’s as she had fond memories from a visit there when we were children.

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The history of Knott’s dates back to 1920, when Walter Knott and his family sold berries and preserves from a roadside stand.

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In 1934, to make ends meet, Knott’s wife Cordelia (1890–1974) reluctantly began serving fried chicken dinners on their wedding china. For dessert, Knott’s signature Boysenberry Pie was also served to guests dining in the small tea room. As Southern California developed, Highway 39 became the major north-south connection between Los Angeles County and the beaches of Orange County, and the restaurant’s location was a popular stopping point for drivers making the two hour trip in those days before freeways.

These days, the wait for dinner is still long.  Admittedly, we were a larger group than normal – about 10 people – but the wait was still about an hour.

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Prices have gone up over the years (by about 100 times) but the menu remains pretty much unchanged.  Frankly, this was more food than I wanted to have, as I was more interested in the boysenberry pie than anything else.  Walter Knott was responsible for naming and popularizing the boysenberry, a blackberry, raspberry, loganberry hybrid cross-bred by Rudolph Boysen of nearby Anaheim.

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The interior of the restaurant, made up of several medium sized dining rooms, looks very run-down, badly in need of a makeover or, at least, a deep cleaning.

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Buttermilk biscuit – okay, but not nearly as flaky or tasty as mine.

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Rhubarb compote served chilled as a starter.  Very, very sweet.

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Very sad salad.  “Farm fresh”?  Pathetic, really.

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The main course itself – three pieces of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and corn.  The food was okay, although I found the chicken a bit oily and, like pretty much all chicken in the US, the meat lacked any discernable flavor.

The dessert – the boysenberry pie with ice cream – was pretty good.  So good that I managed to not get a picture of it!  But overall, the meal proved the conventional wisdom that things are better in our memories than they are in real life.  At least I was surrounded by family, so in good company for an otherwise mediocre dinner.

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A nearly full moon climbs over the structure of GhostRider, the park’s wooden coaster.

 

Tawn Cooks: Pineapple Fried Rice

The only gifts we’ve ever had appear on our doorstep are pineapples, and both have been left by givers unknown in the past month.  About three weeks ago we returned home to discover a medium-sized pineapple, a variety that is very juicy but also a bit tart, sitting on our doormat.  No card, no message, no hint of who left it.

No wanting to waste a perfectly good pineapple, Tawn decided he would make pineapple fried rice.  While you don’t see it much in my blog, Tawn actually cooks and is quite proficient.  When we lived in the United States and he was going to school, he prepared a lot of our dinners.  Since we’ve moved to Thailand, I do most of the dinner preparation so you have precious few opportunities to see his culinary skill.  Let me use this opportunity to fix that.

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Iron Chef Tawn, armed and ready to cook.

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Today’s challenge ingredient: pineapple.

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First off, fry some Chinese sausage.  Once starting to brown, add some crispy pork and fry for another few minutes.

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Add the pineapple and fry for a few minutes until it begins to brown slightly.

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Add rice.  We like using whole-grain rice cooked the night before.

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Mix rice into other ingredients on high heat.  Add turmeric.  You can add other spices if you wish to customize the flavor.

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Once almost finished, add some raisins.  We added some pine nuts, too.

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Finished dish, carefully plated to look like a pineapple.  Very tasty weekday evening treat.  This week’s champion: Iron Chef Tawn!

 

Home Fried Chicken and Mashed Potatoes

Frying foods at home is one of those “beyond my comfort zone” aspects of frying.  It tends to make a mess and smells up the house.  More than a year ago I tried a cold oil method to fry French fries, and that turned out pretty well.  But I haven’t done much frying since.  Last week my attention was caught by a Cooks Illustrated recipe for fried chicken that uses less oil.

The long and the short of it is that they decided on a method that uses frying in a shallow amount of oil to help form a nice crust on the exterior, followed by oven baking to finish cooking it through. The results is supposed to be a evenly cooked chicken with nice exterior crunch without as much oil and without as much hassle from deep frying.

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You start by placing the chicken pieces – I used boneless breasts – in a buttermilk and salt brine, combined with cayenne pepper and other spices for several hours.  Would you believe I cannot buy bone-in chicken breasts at the store?  I have to get a whole chicken for that.  Obviously they aren’t butchering their own chickens.

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While waiting, I prepped some long bean.  These two-foot long beans look like green beans and are just a little less crispy.  Good alternative, though.  I stir-fried these with a splash of balsamic vinegar, a sprinkle of salt, and some slivered almonds.

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Next, prepare a coating of flour, baking powder, a little salt, and more spices.  The trick here is that you add just a bit of buttermilk and start stirring it, so you form little clumps that make the chicken’s crust more substantial.

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Take the chicken out of the brine and dredge it in the flour mixture, being sure to pat on a nice thick coating.  Easier said than done!

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While waiting for the oil to heat, I finished the mashed potatoes.  These keep nicely covered at a very low heat with a bit of butter on top.

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Time to fry!  Temperature control is a pain.  My thermometer doesn’t reach to the bottom of the pan so when there isn’t much oil, I don’t get an accurate read.  I ended up scorching the bottoms of the chicken just a little.  D’oh…  After about five minutes in the oil (turning half way through the time) I transferred the chicken to a rack placed in a baking tray and finished for about twenty minutes in the oven.

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Despite the slightly burned exterior, the end result looked pretty nice.  Tasted good, too!

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Inside was nice and juice, thanks to the brining.  Yum.

 

French Fries – Cold Oil Method

There are certain cooking techniques with which I am not very familiar.  Deep frying is one of them.  Part of this is because all I have is a small condo kitchen.  There is not a nice outdoor kitchen for “heavy duty” cooking, the type that imparts a lingering smell in your furniture, carpets and draperies.  Lack of familiarity doesn’t quiet my curiosity, though.  In fact, it heightens it.

That is why, when Cook’s Illustrated published a recipe for “Easier French Fries” using a cold oil method in the July/August 2009 issue, I was intrigued and eager to try it.

Conventional wisdom holds that to make good french fries you need to rinse the cut potatoes to remove excesses starch and then fry them twice, once at a lower temperature to cook the potatoes and a second, more brief dousing in the oil to form a crisp crust.

That is a lot of work.  Frankly, I’ll just walk down to McDonald’s instead of going through that much work.  As the author of the CI article explained it, they broke with conventional wisdom and achieved exceptional results along with a few added benefits.

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Their first break with tradition was to abandon the Russet potato, which they found to be too dry and starchy for this single-fry method.  They chose instead the Yukon Gold, which is waxier in texture.  Our local markets don’t identify the different potato types by name but I picked up some that looked like Yukons.  Squaring the sides, I cut them into batons about 3/8″ wide.  No peeling beforehand and no rinsing after.

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Next, place the potatoes in a Dutch oven or other heavy, deep pan along with the oil.  Peanut oil was recommended but as that wasn’t readily available here, I used canola oil.  I also added a few tablespoons of duck fat left over from a previous cooking project.  A little duck fat or bacon fat will add more flavor to the fries.  How do I know this?  Because they add flavor to anything!

This cold oil method is attributed to a recipe from Jeffrey Steingarten, a food write whose approach to food (and life) and style of writing appeals to me.  It was attributed to the method of Michelin-starred chef Joel Robuchon.

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This is where the process really breaks all the rules.  You put the pan on the stove top and turn the heat to high until the oil is boiling.  During this time you do not stir the fries at all.  After the boiling starts you continue to cook for about fifteen minutes or until the potatoes are limp but the exteriors are starting to firm up.

It is only at this point that you start to stir the fries, gently unsticking any that have caught on the bottom of the pan or each other.  After the fries are golden and crisp you can pull them out and drain them on paper towels, paper bags, newspapers, or whatever else is handy.

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The resulting fries were very tasty, if just a little overcooked.  But who is going to complain when you have freshly made french fries sitting in front of you?

I mentioned that the author of this method discovered a few unexpected benefits.  Not only does this cold oil method result in a lot less splatter and, subsequently, a lot less “fried food” smell inundating your house, it also results in fries that absorb a lot less fat.  Based on some scientific analysis, the CI lab found that fries cooked by the cold oil method contained about one-third less fat than the conventional twice-fried method: 13% versus 20%.  When I went to pour the oil back into the bottle, I was surprised to discover that it refilled the bottle nearly to the top.  Only a few tablespoons had been lost in the entire process!

Now, I don’t know that I’ll be making french fries again anytime soon.  But I’m glad I gave them a try.