Day 210 – National Strawberry Day

This day came along at the perfect time because I just happened to have a giant bowl of fresh strawberries sitting our fridge. I bought them after Valentines Day when, and here’s a tip for you, the price of strawberries goes down in the supermarket. That’s not a generally accepted trend in the produce buying world, just an observation from a guy who went to the grocery store on February 15th. I can only imagine the price reduction is because the supermarket bulks up on strawberries to entice romantically inclined Valentines celebrators into buying the world’s most sensual berry.  Maybe pair it with some chocolate, a little champagne?  The strawberry is the Barry White of the produce aisle.  But after Valentines Day, they go back to being an overstocked item on the shelves that only a quick sale will get them moving.  That’s when I bought them and they have been in our fridge ever since.  Thanks to modern chemical use in strawberry farming, they were still fresh and delicious.

Normally we go through at least a package of strawberries a week, sometimes two. Lola is a fan of having a nice fruit smoothie to start her day which she makes with strawberries, bananas, blueberries, peanut butter and yogurt.  That has been her steady breakfast food for months.  But recently, she has gotten tired of that.  That will happen after time.  She’ll start craving them again soon.  But because she went a smoothie hiatus, we have had uneaten strawberries in our fridge for over two weeks.  In any case, I was well stocked for National Strawberry Day.

My first thought for putting the strawberries to use was to make strawberry shortcake.  That’s one of Lola’s favorites and it’s so easy to piece together.  I would just have to slice up the strawberries, but them in a bowl and sprinkle in a little bit of sugar so the strawberries will start to break down and get nice and sweet and syrupy.  Then I would just buy some biscuits from the store and make some fresh whipped cream.  It’s that easy after you piece it all together, it tastes so good.  But I’ve made this before. It’s a summer staple. So I wanted to branch out just a little.  I searched for recipes and I found one for Strawberries and Cream Scones from my good friends at King Arthur Flour.  I have used their recipes before and they are always good stuff.  They are easy to follow and include extra tips to help the struggling baker, plus they are a New England based company out of Vermont. Lola is a fan of scones, so my plan was to make these so she could have them warm and fresh with her afternoon coffee.

I still have trouble with dough.  There’s something about making a good dough that doesn’t translate when you read it in a recipe.  I get impatient.  This recipe was pretty easy, but I knew when it said you had to add the cold butter to the flour mixture, it would give me trouble. It specifically said:

“Work in the butter, using a mixer, your fingertips, a fork, or a pastry blender; the mixture should be unevenly crumbly.”

What does work the butter in mean?   I tried doing this with a pastry blender, one of those tools in our kitchen drawer we have but never use, but that just clumped the butter together.  I tried to work it in with my fingers next and that seemed futile too.  I then tried the hand mixer.  That got the dough unevenly crumbly, I think, but there was still pieces of butter throughout the dough.  That’s when I just gave it the “good enough” and proceeded with the rest.  The next step was to add in the strawberry and cream mixture, and that was not easy either.  It got the dough super sticky, and it still wasn’t completely all together.  I folded in the fresh strawberries as best I could, then I scooped the dough out onto a baking sheet in little balls.  I then topped it with a glaze.  Glazes I get, so no problems there.  They went into the oven and in about 16 minutes, were ready to come out.

img_1262

First off, they didn’t have the scone triangle shape.  I guess you have to use a scone pan for that, although the recipe did say you can cook them on a regular sheet pan.  They looked were more like drop biscuits.  The edges were browning up and a quick peak at the bottom of the scones indicated that the bottom was done and close to turning towards a burn. I couldn’t have left them in the oven any longer.  But they seemed a little underdone.  I broke one open, and it looked a little doughy on the inside.  A quick bite and they seemed ok, but I wasn’t quite sure.  I figured I would let them cool for a few minutes.  In the meantime, Lola happened to pop in the kitchen and when she smelled and saw the scones, asked if she could have one.  So I made her a cup of coffee and had her be the official taster.

img_1264

Lola is a scone fan and I knew she would give me the straight truth.  One time, many moons ago, we stayed at a hotel in Provincetown and what Lola will always remember about that trip is that the hotel served the best scones she has ever had.  They were made fresh every morning and available throughout the day as a little snack.  I knew that was what my scones were going to be compared to, so I was ready for a let down.  To my surprise however, Lola said these were great.  They had a nice crunchy outside, like a biscuit, but a soft, doughy inside.  The strawberries added some nice sweetness, and the subtle glaze on top gave it a little extra.  She had two of them which is always a compliment.  I really thought I had messed these up, but apparently I did alright.  That was a nice surprise and I was glad I could deliver on an afternoon treat for Lola.

Today was also National Kahlúa Day. I thought that would be a fun one to celebrate as well. For those who don’t know, Kahlúa is a coffee flavored liqueur from Mexico. It was first produced in 1936 where legend has it that (according to Kahlúa) four guys came up with the idea of a spirit based on their love of fresh Arabica coffee and got to inventing and producing this now famous spirit.  It was an instant hit. They began importing to the US in the 1940s.  In 1949, the Black Russian (Kahlúa and Vodka) first made its appearance as the first signature cocktail for the company.  Soon after in 1955, the White Russian appears (Kahlúa, Vodka and Cream) which would later go on to great pop culture fame when The Dude from The Big Lebowski abided.  In 1977, the famous B-52 Shot (layered Kahlúa, Bailey’s and Triple Sec) started appearing at chic discos throughout the land, giving the coffee liqueur another boost in popularity. Kahlúa has grown to be one of the most best selling liqueurs in the beverage world and their name is now synonymous with coffee liqueur.  It’s great in coffee, in espresso martinis and kind of in everything.  It deserves celebration.

Knowing that it was also National Strawberry Day, I decided to make a drink that combined the two and there are no better examples of that than the Strawberry Mudslide.  The original Mudslide cocktail was allegedly invented during the 1950s at the Wreck Bar on Grand Cayman in the Cayman Islands. It was clearly made by someone that was craving a milkshake, because it has the same texture. It’s made with Kahlúa, Bailey’s and Vodka along with cream and sometimes ice cream. It’s blended together with ice so it comes out nice and thick with a little boozy twist. A Strawberry Mudslide is simply made by adding in strawberries. This would be prefect for the last of the strawberries I had, so when Happy Hour rolled in, I took out the booze and the blender, and made the drink.  When it blended, it was nice and thick, yet still pourable.  I had drizzled some chocolate syrup on the inside of a tall glass in a circular motion, then I poured the mudslide in giving the chocolate a fancy swirl look.  I just wished I had a bit of whipped cream to put on top.

img_1266

I didn’t know this, but a Strawberry Mudslide was the first drink Lola had at a restaurant when she was using a fake ID.  She was in Florida with her sister Katie (who was of legal drinking age at the time) at a Friday’s.  It must have tasted so sweet to her because the only thing better than a good cocktail is a good illegal cocktail.  Lola shared that with me tonight as I gave her the drink. It seems everything has a story.  I don’t think I have ever had a whole mudslide before. I’ve had sips and tastes, but never a whole one. I’m not one who goes for frozen drinks. I find them too hard. I end up sucking on a straw until my head hurts.  I’d rather drink it down at a nice clip. I will say it tasted great however.  I was still battling the suction of the straw because it was particularly thick, but it was tasty.  Definitely a boozy taste to it, but not too bad. Good sweetness from the cream and chocolate and a nice subtle strawberry flavor. It had everything. Very filling however. I don’t think I could have had a second.  Lola loved hers as well, although she wanted me to serve it to her wearing a red and white striped shirt with at least eight pieces of flair on my suspenders.

I like a nice celebration that takes care of an overstock problem I am having.  This day took care of some perfectly ripe strawberries that I thought I was going to have to throw out if they went another week without being used.  Plus I was able to enjoy them in two great recipes that made for special moments in the day.  That’s a pretty special way to celebrate. Some days, things just work out nicely.  Other times, I am scrambling all over trying to find the appropriate way to observe a day.  This day played right into my hand and it made for a great one.  I hope National Carrot Day is coming up soon – the carrots in our fridge are starting to look a little wonky.

Next Up: Mardi Gras

Day 209 – National Pistachio Day

Inspiration always comes when you are not expecting it.  I knew National Pistachio Day was coming. Throughout this quest, I have tried to look ahead at what holidays are coming up in the week ahead so I can plan. Some recipes take at least a day to prepare so I need to plan for the extra time or if I am trying to seek out a special food or event, I need to know ahead of time so I can track it down.  This quest gets kind of consuming because when I’m not celebrating or writing about it, I’m trying to plan what to do next.  Or at least I try.  It’s not always easy to look ahead when you have things to do in the moment.  In any case, this was one of those times that I knew something was coming (Pistachio Day) and throughout the week, I was stewing on how I should celebrate.

The pistachio comes from the Middle East and are one of the oldest flowering nut trees in the world.  There is evidence that they were around in 7,000 BC and in fact legend has it that Nebuchadnezzar, the ancient king of Babylon, had pistachio trees planted in his hanging gardens. That means that pistachios are part of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  That’s quite a nut.  Although it’s not a nut. Technically it’s a seed – part of the cashew family (the same family that includes poison ivy). Pistachio trees flourish in warm climates which is why Iran continues to be the largest producer of pistachios in the world.  The tree was introduced to California in the 1850s and has since taken a liking to the sunshine on the West Coast.  Today almost all of the pistachios sold in the US come from California.  That wasn’t always so.  In fact, prior to the 1970s, most of the pistachios used to come to the US from Iran. However, after US-Iran relations became tense during the hostage situation of 1978, imports of Iranian products were limited which let the California pistachio industry take off.  When the pistachios were still coming from Iran, often the shells were spotted or blemished because they were not immediately hulled and washed.  To combat the spots, some marketers decided that dying the shells of the pistachio red would cover up any imperfections.  That’s why pistachios were almost always red in color prior to the 1980s.  The California growers got their act together and worked at proper washing and hulling of the pistachio, so the red dye was no longer needed.  Today, the true green color of the pistachio nut (seed) is what we know.

Earlier in the week, I was driving home from an appointment in Warwick and I got stuck in some traffic outside of Providence.  I was listening to NPR and a show on the channel called Here & Now.  The host was interviewing a chef out in California who was giving us pointers on what to make for your Oscar night viewing.  One of her suggestions used pistachios.  She was trying to make something that would represent California, home of the Oscar, and pistachios fall in that category.  It sounded delicious.  Then I remembered Pistachio Day was coming on Sunday too – Oscar Sunday.  It seemed too perfect.  I scrambled to make a note to myself about remembering the name of the show and the website where the recipe was posted.  I couldn’t find any paper, so I had Siri take a note for me and then I just hoped I’d remember I had taken a note on my phone.  Luckily, I did.

On Friday, when I was at the store, I picked up a bag of pistachios.  I had the choice of buying a tub of shelled pistachios or a bag of pistachios still in the shell.  The kind in the shell were about half the price of the shelled variety, so I went with that knowing that I could just sit down and shell the whole bag myself saving myself some money.  That’s what I did on Sunday morning.  I got two bowls – one for the pistachios, the other for the shells – and got to cracking.  I couldn’t help thinking of Laura’s Dad who was a known pistachio fiend.  In fact, he had a special pistachio basket that had two sides to it: one for the shells and one for the nuts.  He would sit in his chair watching a movie or the fights and just plow through a whole bag of them munching happily away.  They were probably one of his favorite foods.  My Dad was a fan too and I can recall him eating them in his easy chair, struggling with discarded shells, and just enjoying the special treat.  Had they ever met, maybe our Dads could have shared a bag of pistachios together.  I imagine that would look something like this:

I worked swiftly through the bag.  I knew I needed about a half-cup of pistachios for the recipe so I tried to curtail myself from eating too many so I would have enough.  The joy of a pistachio right from the shell is always a delight.  They’re addictive.  Even breaking open the shell is magic – part of the dance. I will say that when you are trying to shell a whole bag, your finger tips start feeling it.  You have that salty coating on the top of your fingers, you feel slight chips in your nails from sticking them into the open crevices of the nut. It’s an odd sensation.  Then you get the pistachios that only have a tiny opening and it’s a struggle to get them open.  Lola calls these “squinters.”  They just won’t open with your fingers.  You try, but it hurts your nails even more.  You try using your teeth which is a terrible idea, then you just give up.  I’m not sure why that feels like failure, especially after you have just gone through a couple of dozen of nuts, but you just wanted this one – the nut with the shell that wouldn’t relent.  You feel like that squirrel from the Ice Age movies. I only had a few squinters in the bag, five to be exact, so if they went to waste it wasn’t that big of a deal.  But it was the hunt that was driving me.  I finally discovered that if you take a paring knife, it is the perfect tool to pop open a squinter shell not unlike shucking an oyster.  Victory was mine and the spoils were a bowl full of shelled pistachios.

The recipe was for Ricotta, Lemon And Honey Tartine With Salted Pistachios.  That sounds complicated but it was super easy.  I made it at about 4 PM when we needed a little snack to tide us over until dinner (we had missed lunch for some reason).  You start by toasting some nice crusty bread.  When the toast is ready, you spread on some ricotta cheese with lemon zest, salt and pepper mixed in. Then you sprinkle on some chopped pistachios.  To top it off, you drizzle on some honey.  Really one of the easiest recipes I have ever made.

img_1257

Fantastic.  Really, they were great.  The lemon flavor mixes so well with the ricotta so in every bite you have this fresh citrus flavor, but you also have the saltiness of the pistachios and the sweetness of the honey.  And it’s all on this delightfully crunchy bread which was sturdy enough to hold it all without falling apart.  Maybe it was because we were super hungry, but these were one of my favorites. So fresh, filling and delicious.  Lola felt the same too.  We are going to make these again in the future.  I really felt this recipe came to me with divine intervention. I am not usually listening to the radio in the middle of the day, and almost never listening to talk radio about recipes.  But this one found it’s way into my ears, plus it was a pistachio recipe to use for celebrating an important day, which also happened to be Pistachio Day.  That’s serendipity, all tucked away in a neat little shell.

Later in the night, we watched the Oscars.  We always watch the Oscars, being the film buffs we are.  In fact, a few years ago, we did one of those Oscar movie marathons where you watch five Oscar nominated movies back to back in a theater.  That was an experience and what I most recall about it is the smell of the theater at the end of that day.  We have seen most of the movies up for awards this seasons, though we have not seen La La Land yet.  As we watched the telecast, we decided to have a little dessert and the perfect choice was of course pistachio ice cream, or gelato in our case.  Pistachio ice cream was always that weird green ice cream that you would see, but never wanted.  My dad would always go for it – it was his choice at any ice cream stand.  I can remember seeing it in his hand and being very curious about this green ice cream, but when I heard it was pistachio wanting no part of it.  I’ll stick to my chocolate chip.  But, when you get around to trying it, pistachio ice cream is pretty awesome.  We went with a brand called Talenti, which like I said, is actually gelato. But, they have some great flavors too and you can taste the quality in every flavor. Their Sea Salt Caramel is particularly good.  For today, we went with Sicilian Pistachio.

img_1259

This stuff was great too.  Creamy.  Great pistachio flavor in the gelato itself plus no shortage of roasted pistachio bits mixed in throughout each bite.  A wonderful little treat against the back drop of the Oscars.

I think I nailed today, thanks to my divine inspiration via NPR. We celebrated the pistachio nut in two delicious and unique ways (well three really if you count me munching on nuts right from the shell). We saw the savory side and the sweet side.  That’s a pretty diverse little ingredient.  We should have given it an award.  I can picture it now:  everyone dressed in gowns and tuxes, a hush comes over the crowd in anticipation, Warren Beatty slowly opening the envelope:

“And the Oscar for Best Performance in a Supporting Recipe Role goes to …. The Cashew!”   Hold on.  Let me see that envelope.

Next Up: National Strawberry Day or National Kahluha Day 

Day 208 – National Clam Chowder Day

As a proud Rhode Islander, you probably think I’d be all about the Rhode Island style clam chowder.  That’s the kind that is made with a clear broth and with quahogs, a bigger (local) clam.  You’d be wrong however.  I’m a traditionalist and I go with New England style – the creamier the better.  I want my oyster crackers to float on top of the soup, too light to sink into the thick, creamy chowder.  That’s when it’s best for me.

The folks at Eater.com, one of my favorite websites, recently published an article called “A Brief History of Clam Chowder” written by Cynthia Correa.  In it, they identified seven different styles of chowder ranging from the most popular creamy clam chowder of New England to the tomato based version associated with Manhattan and even a spicy South-of-the-Border influenced chowder from Cabo. Correa explains that a chowder is, “a soup or stew of seafood (as clams or fish) usually made with milk or tomatoes, salt pork, onions, and other vegetables. The definition of the soup varies depending what part of the country you’re in, but most include clams, potatoes, onions, and some form of pork. The biggest different between them is the broth.”  The New England style, with it’s thick, creamy milk-based broth, is the most popular and most famous (just ask Mayor Quimby).  This chowder became popular in New England in the 1700’s and was undoubtedly a recipe that has origins from the the French or British settlers who adapted the local cuisine to make this hardy and warming soup.  It was on the original menu in 1836 at the Union Oyster House in Boston, the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the country, and it is even mentioned in the classic tale Moby Dick.  Herman Melville loved his chowda.

The best chowder I ever had was at our wedding and was made by famous local chef Mark Rodrigues. Really, it was that good. We had it again recently at a party for his parents where the chowder was served and it was just as good as I had remembered.  He makes his own clam broth which is the key to it all, so he says. But I think there is more magic in his chowder there than he’s letting on. Nonetheless, people who take their chowder very seriously, like we do, get pretty judgy when it comes to chowders and Mark’s still stands the test of time.

img_4742

Like I said, chowder connoisseurs can be judgy and are always trying to point out their favorites. It’s not for bragging rights, but more to share a treasure in the chowder eating world.  My thought for how to celebrate today was to find out who serves the best chowder in Newport and sample some.  Coincidentally, because it was National Clam Chowder Day, the local blog What’s Up Newp published an online poll for the best chowder in Newport.   A very non-scientific poll, but it delivered some answers for me.  Out of the roughly 500 people who participated, One Bellevue at the Viking Hotel came in first with the Black Pearl a close second and the Brick Alley Pub in third.  I had heard people go crazy for the Black Pearl chowder, so that was no surprise.  The Viking is always a leader in these kind of polls too, so that was not an upset by any means.  I’m sure both chowders are great.  But as the they day marched on, my desire to leave the comforts of home and battle Newport traffic on a warm Saturday afternoon was waning. I know thats sounds like a copout, but sometimes you have to follow your gut.  Without the energy and the funds to go restaurant hopping, it’s not a  very fun task.  I decided to stay local.  I’ll try those chowders when it’s more sunny and have more energy.

I went with my old standby: Clement’s Market.  They have a soup section there that offers hot soups ready to go.  You never know what the options will be, so I took a chance that one of their six soups would be chowder.  It was.  Hot and creamy New England Clam Chowder.  I ladled out a quart to take home.  The soups at Clements are made my Blount which is a local soup company based out of Warren, RI and Fall River, MA.  Clements sells the soup prepared hot but you can also by a frozen bag of the soup which you just take home, drop in some boiling water and have restaurant quality soup when it’s ready.  Blount make a Thanksgiving Everyday Soup which is a creamy turkey and rice soup with good warming spices.  It’s been one of our favorites, and now we hear that Becky and family are huge fans too. I get excited every time I see it as an option in the soup circle at Clements.  In fact, I may even give an audible exclamation of joy when I see it there as an option.

The Blount family were originally in the shellfish business in the 1880’s.  After 1938, when the infamous hurricane almost destroyed the oyster industry in Narragansett Bay, company founder F. Nelson Blount introduced the bay quahog as a source of protein and he was able to focus his efforts in that direction and turn his business into an empire. He started selling chopped clams to soup giants nationwide including the legendary Campbell’s brand.  Eventually Blount would start making their own foods.  Today they are no longer in the shellfish business but are having quite a successful go in the soup biz.  They are the largest producer of clam chowder in New England and they produce soups for home and restaurants under the Blount, Legal Sea Foods and Panera Bread brands.  I had no idea.  I just knew their chowder was really good.  On a small side note, F. Nelson Blount purchased the narrow gauge Edaville Railroad in the 1950’s, so he is also behind that little gem of an amusement place for kids of all ages (and middle-aged, out of work bloggers).

I brought the chowder home and served it up to Lola and it was the perfect dinner.  Nice and creamy.  Good chunks of potatoes.  Hint of bacon in the background and of course good clam portions and flavor (but not too much).  That’s the delicate balance of a good clam chowder – if it starts tasting too clammy, I’m out.  But not this chowder.  This chowder was perfect.

img_1245

As if this day needed more to celebrate, today was also National Chocolate Covered Nut Day. I was debating on whether or not I should celebrate this knowing that the chowder would be enough, but it was kind of my back-up plan.  Lola was at a shower for most of the afternoon on Saturday, and currently, thanks to a dead battery, we are down to one vehicle.  That left me without transportation for the day which meant that I might not be able to get out and go to Newport for chowder or even to the store for ingredients to make my own.  So if that didn’t work out, I knew I had to come up with a back up plan.  Chocolate covered nuts were perfect because they were super easy to make.  I had found a recipe from a website called Thesisterscafe.com.  I had never heard of this site before; I had just done a search for chocolate covered nut recipes and they came up on the second or third page.  However I just realized that the site is from five sisters who started the blog as a way to share their recipes with each other.  I can’t seem to get away from this five sister thing.  I bet you a Mellow family five sister blog would be quite a read as well.  I’ll see if I can get that going.

This recipe called for three type of chocolate chips: milk chocolate, semi-sweet and white.  You melted the three together and then you scooped some mixed nuts into the melted chocolate.  When the nuts were all covered in chocolate, you scooped them out in spoonfuls so you have little clusters.  You line them up on parchment paper and just let them cool and set. I didn’t have any nuts in the house, so I walked up the hill to the Dollar General. That place is becoming quite convenient for these types of emergencies.  I also knew exactly where to find the nuts, so I may becoming a regular there.  I got what I needed, walked back home and got the chocolate melting right away.  It really only took about fifteen minutes from start to finish to make these – so simple.

img_1247

When they were set, I took them off the sheet pan and packed them in some Tupperware.  I naturally gave us each a couple of clusters to sample as well.  This was a hit. I was a little skeptical about the combo of the three chocolates, but they really worked well together.  Plus the salt from the nuts was an added bonus.  Mixed nuts were a great choice too, because you were getting different nut flavors in every bite: peanuts, almonds, walnuts.  Really, really good.  I imagine if I used non-dollar store quality nuts, it would be even better. Lola thought they were great too, even giving me an “Oh My God!” which always means she’s a fan.  The five sisters steered me right.

What was kind of a lazy day turned out to be quite a celebration.  On paper, I wouldn’t say clam chowder and chocolate covered nuts are a great combo, however they made for a great day today.  I like any day that has me eating a bowl of clam chowder. It’s one of my favorites.  It’s making me miss the summer.  Nights when you stop somewhere along the beach for a nice cup of chowder and watch the sunset.  You are a little sun-drenched.  Little tired from a day at the beach.  But you’re happy and content and the chowder never tastes better.  Those days are coming.  I can almost taste them.  When those days come, I’ll have my spoon and oyster crackers ready.  Maybe I’ll bring some chocolate covered nuts too.

Next Up: National Pistachio Day 

Day 207 – National Tortilla Chip Day

I feel like we’ve celebrated this one before, so I looked back at the past 206 days and realized we haven’t.  We’ve celebrated the corn chip back on Day 181, but if you recall, the corn chip is different than a tortilla chip.  It’s all about Nixtamalization (process by which the corn, or other grain, is soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution, usually limewater, and hulled making it more easy to grind).  A Frito is a corn chip.  A Tostito is tortilla chip.  If you don’t know the difference between a Frito and a Tostito, I’m not sure we can be friends.  Or at least I’m never having you make the nachos.  Tortilla chips would be the only acceptable chip for that.

Tortilla chips are made from corn tortillas.  They are basically the same corn tortillas that are used for tacos, except they re fried or baked until they are crispy.  They come from Mexico where they are known as totopos or tostadas and they continue to be a rich part of the Mexican diet and culinary tradition.  Their modern day popularity dates back to the 1940’s when food pioneer Rebecca Webb Carranza was trying to think of something to do with the rejected or misshapen tortillas that would come out of the machine at her tortilla factory in Los Angeles.  Waste is always the mother of great ideas, so Carranza took the tortilla rejects, cut them up into the now famous triangle shape, fried them up, salted them and then sold them for a dime a bag at her tortilla factory.  The rest, they say, is history.  Now tortilla chips are a staple at any Mexican restaurant, a top seller in the chip aisle at the grocery store and well, pretty much everywhere.

Tortilla chips are great by themselves, but they really find stardom when they are paired with other food items.  Salsa.  Guacamole.  Queso cheese.  In those cases, the tortilla chip actually becomes a device for shoveling the other food into your mouth.  It’s needed however.  Otherwise how would you eat it?  A big spoonful of Queso?  That would be delicious, but socially awkward.  Plus the saltiness and crunchiness of the tortilla chip brings its own delightfulness to any party.  It’s the combination of the two tastes that really make the dip shine.  It’s not just the salsa, it’s the chips and salsa.  The tortilla chip knows it’s a stud and carries the other food (both literally and figuratively).

The tortilla chip reached pop culture stardom back in 1993 when George Costanza on the television show Seinfeld was at an out of town post-funeral gathering and he essentially sparked the great “Double Dip” debate that still rings out today.  I’m not sure why there is a debate about this.  Double dipping (taking a bite out of a chip and then dunking that same chip back into the dip for another bite) is wrong.  There is nothing that has been in your mouth that should ever go back into a communal plate of food.  The only variation of this is when you eat your chip carefully and you can take two dips from the same chip making sure that the tainted part from your first bite never touches the dip again.  Risky, but acceptable.  Double dip violators should be immediately stopped and called out for their party fouls. It’s a violation against humanity.

I bought some chips at the store today.  I picked up a brand called Santitas Tortilla Chips.  These are billed as ‘restaurant like’ chips and they have some similarities to the kind you would find in a nice Mexican restaurant.  They are crunchy, plenty of corn flavor and nicely salted too.  They have a good thickness – not too thick but strong enough to lift up a nice scoop of guacamole.  I’m a fan, plus they are only $2 a bag which is usually cheaper than other brands. Come to find out, they are made by Frito-Lay, so they are an offshoot of their more expensive Tostitos brand, but I honestly like their taste better.  Now I just needed a way to prepare them so I could truly celebrate the tortilla chip.  I of course thought of nachos which are the byproduct of the tortilla popularity.  Everyone loves some good nachos, but I like my nachos fully loaded: cheese, beans, tomatoes, garlic, lettuce, sour cream, pulled pork – the works.  While that’s tasty, it doesn’t really highlight the chip.  The answer, I decided, was to go old school and create the nacho in its most basic form of just chips and cheese.  The original.  The nachos that we probably all first tried.  The movie theater nachos.  The 7-11 Nachos.  I bought a can of Rico’s Hot & Spicy cheddar sauce and when the time came, I opened it up and heated it up on the stovetop.  I didn’t know it at the time, but Rico’s brand was started by the Liberto family and it was Frank Liberto who invented the concession stand nacho (that’s the official name of this kind of nacho) in 1976 when he began selling them at Arlington Stadium in Texas. I was making my own concession nachos tonight and I had selected the one cheese that started it all.  When the cheese was hot, I poured it out onto a plate of tortilla chips.

Friday! #nationaltortillachipday #cheeseplease #ricoshotandspicy

A post shared by Dan Lederer (@dans_holiday_adventure) on

What can I say about these that you wouldn’t have already guessed?  They were awesome.  Crunchy salty chips with gooey melty cheese.  The cheese was actually spicy too which was a nice touch.  I like a little heat in there.  It was filling however and after a respectable portion each, Lola and I were starting to feel that “I ate too much cheese” feeling.  But worth it.

As usual, I still thought I had to do a little more, so earlier in the night I started making a Chicken Tortilla Soup.  I wanted to make a dinner that would highlight the tortilla chip and most suggestions I saw involved breading your protein with crushed up chips.  That’s when I thought of Chicken Tortilla Soup.  What I didn’t realize until later is that this soup highlights the corn tortilla, not the chip.  But that’s ok, I could still serve it with some crispy tortilla strips.  That would work perfectly fine with this tomato based chicken soup. I found a recipe from the Pioneer Woman Ree Drummond which was nice and easy.  Tortilla soup as a rule should be nice and easy.  I cooked the chicken.  Chopped up my veggies and started adding all to the pot.  I added in the broth, tomato paste, beans and more – then let it simmer.  It smelled great too.  When it was done, after we had recovered from our nacho cheese coma, I scooped it into bowls and topped it with fresh avocado, cilantro, sour cream and of course fresh tortilla strips.

img_1243

Although I’ve never made it before, chicken tortilla soup is always a nice delight.  It’s not very heavy and the combination of all the spicy flavors with the tomato and chicken broth is perfect for someone that loves Mexican or Tex-Mex food.  The fresh garnishes also bring a lot to the party.  In fact, the soup is a celebration of freshness.  This is a good soup that we’ll enjoy over the next few days too.  The chips added a good crunchiness to it all, and some saltiness.  A great combo and a nice subtle nod to the diversity of a hardy tortilla chip.

What’s my favorite chip?  Easy, Officer Jon Baker (that’s a joke for anyone that watched tv in 1980).  But the Tortilla Chip comes in a close second. It’s great as a vehicle for the delivery of other great foods like salsa and guacamole and of course cheese, glorious cheese.  It is the foundation for the invention of nachos, which is one of the greatest food inventions of the last century.  And still, it’s good all by itself.  A thin corn crunch with a good salty flavor.  Can’t get better than that.  Today I saluted their awesomeness.  That’s something I’ll keep doing as long as they keep putting tortilla chips on the table next to something I can dip it in.  Don’t worry though – I won’t double dip.

Next Up: National Clam Chowder Day 

Day 206 – National Banana Bread Day

Some days are easier to tackle than others.  Today I woke up knowing it was Banana Bread Day.  I’ve been watching our bananas for the last few days.  The recipe I use calls for three bananas that are on the overripe side.  You know the kind of banana I’m talking about: the yellow skin is overtaken by streaks of dark brown and black spots.  They are the vagrants of the fruit world – doomed to be passed over by any fruit seeker. They even smell overripe.  Too banana-y, if that’s possible.  These bananas however are perfect for baking so I was keeping my eye on them.  I knew I needed the three so I kept watch on the supply.  The bananas were probably at peak ripeness on Monday.  By Tuesday night, they had started to lean towards the dark side.  On Wednesday they continued towards the darkness – more black spots on the skin, more banana aroma in the air.  All I had to do now was make sure that Lola didn’t eat one.  She could make a sudden move for a smoothie which would be fine use for a banana like this, but would foil my inventory plans for making a bread.  Fortunately, Lola went smoothie-less.  When I woke up on Thursday, I had three bananas perfect for baking.

Then I just made a banana bread.  I made my coffee first and when that was brewing, Lola left the kitchen to go take a shower.  That gave me the opportunity to have the kitchen to myself.  I wanted to get the banana bread cooked early in the day so I could enjoy it in the afternoon.  I also had an appointment at noon, so I would be leaving the house later that morning, which meant I was facing some time constraints.  This was perfect.  I pulled down the recipe which is in our All Star Recipe Box.  We have two recipe boxes.  One is chock full of all kinds of recipes which we have collected over the years, most of which we have never even made. It’s more of an idea box. The other box contains the recipes we use pretty frequently.  It was originally gifted to Lola by her sister Becky who filled it with copies of all her Mom’s tried and true favorites, so it holds a certain nostalgic value.  But the recipes in there are also our stars.  Over the years we have added in more – my fudge recipe, my chocolate ball recipe and even the banana bread recipe (which is actually a Becky recipe).  In the event of a catastrophe that makes us leave our house with just ten minutes to get out, that recipe box is on the short list of things to grab (along with all my Warrant CDs).

I gathered up all the ingredients.  I tried to work fastidiously.  I would put ingredients away immediately after I used them. I cleaned dishes as I went, so the sink never filled up.  I made good use of space.  I’ve made this recipe a ton of times, so I knew what I was doing.  In no time I had the batter ready and poured into a loaf pan.  It went into a 300 degree oven for about an hour and a half.  I had the kitchen cleaned up before Lola was out of the shower.  That was efficient work, if I do say so myself.  I then went about my day as usual knowing I wouldn’t have to worry about trying to crank out a loaf (hee hee) for the rest of the day.

img_1225

My banana watch this week mirrors the actual history of the banana bread. Bananas were first sold in the United States in the 1870’s and had become immensely popular by the turn of the century.  But because there was no refrigeration or cold storage solutions, bananas would spoil pretty quickly, as they tend to do. That’s when bakers started to take the overripe bananas and meld them into their cooking.  This coincided with the invention and production of baking soda and baking powder (both invented in the mid-1800’s).  These ingredients are used in all sorts of baking but are essential for making quick breads – breads that are leavened using chemicals.  That’s the category a banana bread would fall in along with your soda breads (St. Patrick’s Day is coming!).  The invention of banana bread comes from the necessity of using up all their produce (the overripe bananas) and the innovation of baking short cuts (the baking powder).  The first banana bread recipe in print appears in 1933 by the folks at Pillsbury, although the first breads probably showed up in the kitchens of hard working Americans trying to feed their family on a budget and trying to use up those damn bananas.  (Info from “Banana Bread History“)

When the banana bread had come out of the oven, it had filled the kitchen with the delightful smell of baked goods.  That’s a joy to have in your house, especially in the morning.  I let it cool for a bit, but then removed it from the loaf pan.  Thanks to my expert flouring of the the pan along with some Crisco, it popped right out fully in tact. That’s always a worry about baking loaves – you don’t want it to fall apart out of the pan.  This one was perfect.  I went about with the rest of my morning.  At noon, when I was leaving, I noticed Lola had just cut into it.  The smell must have finally broken her down.  She had her piece in the toaster oven with a slab of butter on top.  Toasting the bread with the butter on top is a recent discovery for Lola.  She likes how it distributes the butter evenly and also means you don’t have to tear up your slice while trying to spread cold butter across the top.  Butter is essential to enjoying a good piece of banana bread.  It just pairs well.  It gives it extra moistness and also that creamy flavor.  It brings out the goodness of the whole piece and especially makes the taste of the nuts shine through.  I asked Lola if I had passed muster on this one and I had.  She was loving her morning snack.

I came back home in the afternoon and was ready for a snack too, so a piece of banana bread was the perfect cure.  I didn’t toast mine.  I usually do, but for some reason, maybe because it was so fresh, I just ate it at room temp.  I did put butter on it of course.  So good.  It gave me the energy boost I needed to make it to dinner.   I was going to use the banana bread for dinner too and make a recipe from Bobby Flay that I have made before. It’s for Banana Bread Waffles with Bananas Foster Sauce.  These are unbelievably good if you have the time to make them (and really having banana bread is half the recipe).  But I wasn’t feeling much for a sweet dinner, plus I was a little shy on my banana inventory, so I skipped it.  Nope, my celebration today was just a nice fresh piece of homemade banana bread in the afternoon.  That was everything I needed it to be.

Next Up: National Tortilla Chips Day 

 

Day 205 – National Margarita Day

This was a tough one for me.  Not that celebrating a margarita is hard.  It’s rather enjoyable.  I’ve done that several hundred times.  Really.  That’s what kind of makes celebrating it today so odd.

As many of you know, my previous job was for a company that sold a bunch of margaritas.  It fact, it was kind of their thing.  And I, being the company man that I am, made sure I was enjoying the fruits of our collective labor throughout my career there.  I was never a big fan of a margarita before I started with the company.   They were always too tart or too sour or too tequila-y.  Then something changed. I think it started the moment I tried their secret recipe during my rigorous training – man these suckers were good!  That was back in 1997.  Over the next 19 years I would go on to enjoy a lot more margaritas.  In fact, the last twenty years of my life were surrounded in some way by margaritas. That sounds like a Jimmy Buffett song.  My song however ended in August, rather abruptly at that.  Now I’m still trying to figure out where a nice frothy margarita fits in my life.

The margarita has been around since the 1930s although tequila has been around for centuries.  There is debate as to the root of the actual margarita drink.  The most popular tale says that it was invented by bartender Carlos “Danny” Herrera at his Tijuana-area restaurant, Rancho La Gloria, around 1938.  An aspiring actress named Marjorie King was allergic to all hard alcohol other than tequila and she asked Herrera to make her a drink.  He came up with the margarita.  Another story puts the margarita as the invention of a wealthy Dallas socialite named Margarita Sames who claimed she whipped up the drink for friends at her Acapulco vacation home in 1948. Among her well-connected guests was Tommy Hilton, who eventually added the drink to the bar menu at his hotel chain.  However that story has a few holes in it as Jose Cuervo began advertising using the name margarita in 1945.  What is known for sure is that the first frozen margarita machine was invented in 1971 by Dallas restaurateur Mariano Martinez.  That invention made the frozen cocktail much more accessible and consistent.  It has become the crutch of the chain restaurant world for making frozen margaritas. (Info from Smithsonian.com)

Margaritas have been popular since their advent and keep growing in popularity as more and more people discover this delicious cocktail.  Yes Jimmy Buffet has contributed to that popularity.  He’s helped the masses associate it with carefree days at the beach.  And even though I’m not a fan, there’s nothing wrong with that philosophy.  That’s how we should celebrate a drink like this.  It’s perfect for the beach, but it’s perfect in the dead of winter too.  We recently made it through a tequila shortage that increased prices on margaritas nationwide and that led to it plateauing in popularity.  We should also pay attention to the current administration’s claim that they will pay for a wall by placing a tax on all Mexican imports.  That would cause a steep increase in tequila prices.  Jimmy Buffet is going to get angry.

Last year on National Margarita Day I was in New York City as we were part of a televised segment on Fox & Friends.  We drove there from New Hampshire with a truck full of margarita supplies, set up at the studio at 5:30 in the morning and served those knucklehead anchors a tasty margarita during their show.  In retrospect, seeing how much our so-called President likes watching morning news, I wonder if he was watching?  He would have probably said we were “tremendous.”  We did a lot of work behind the scenes to make National Margarita Day a thing.  Not that it was just us making it happen, but we were early adapters to acknowledging the day as a holiday of importance to a Mexican restaurant.  We pushed it.  We made it into an event at our restaurants.  Thinking back, our work at making these national days significant definitely influenced the start of this quest.   It’s probably where the germ of the idea began.  That’s why it was weird to celebrate National Margarita Day today.  It was like celebrating your anniversary after a divorce.

I’m a trooper however so if today called for a margarita, I would not let my baggage stop me.  I was going to grab the tequila and go (also a possible Jimmy Buffet song title).  When happy hour rolled around, I decided to make myself a margarita.  I busted out the margarita essentials: tequila, triple sec and margarita mix.  This quickly brought back memories of my old job as I was using some tequila I had received as a ‘professional sample’, I was using a margarita glass that I had acquired at some point through the restaurant and I was using the restaurant’s signature margarita mix.  I still had some in our fridge.  It was probably a little older than you would want, but knowing the sugar content of the mix, I was pretty sure it was well preserved.  It smelled fine too.  I will say that they had the best margarita mix.  It was sweet and sour, made fresh in the restaurant and would make the prefect margarita.  It always makes a nice and frothy drink (as long as you shook it properly).  I have been told that there is a fresh margarita mix in grocery stores now called Natalie’s which is pretty fantastic too.  They sell Natalie’s orange juice at Clement’s Market, but not the margarita mix.  I may have to petition them to bring it in.  That’s my back up plan once my current supply is gone.  The margarita is two parts tequila, one part triple sec and then three parts margarita mix.  Then shake like hell.  That’s what I did and a perfectly foam-topped margarita poured out into my glass.  Because it was still light out and somewhat mild, I went outside for my first sip.  This was basically me hoping for the arrival of Spring.

img_1217

Just like I remembered.  Frothy, sweet and sour.  I used Corazon tequila for this which is a bit stronger than what I usually like for a margarita.  I prefer a nice blanco or plato tequila, like Hornitos. Corazon has a strong tequila taste which made it not as smooth of a cocktail as I had wished, but still damn tasty.  It’s a great sippin’ tequila however.  The key to a margarita to me is that froth on top.  That’s how you can tell it’s nice and fresh and that the bartender gave it the shaking time it needs to become magnificent.  It may have been bittersweet, but it was as delicious as ever.  In fact, I ended up having two (just to be festive).

Someday I’ll figure out what this all means.  There’s lots of things that I was part of over the last 20 years that I was proud of and have given me great memories.  I don’t think because we have gone separate ways that I have to give up custody of tequila, tacos or margaritas.  I can still enjoy them for what they are.  I can also still smile at the happy times I have had with them over the past two decades.  I can (and will) still celebrate.  I won’t let them stop me.  They can have their celebrations, and I’ll have mine.  I can be grateful that they introduced me to the delights of a margarita.  I can know that my history  of enjoying margaritas has a lot of markers inside their restaurants.  That’s ok.  It’s the future history that will be the most tastiest and matter most.  That’s where I’ll take this.  Today, I’ll just raise my glass and toast the beverage: the beverage that changed my life.  Salud!

Next up: National Banana Bread Day 

 

Day 204 – National Sticky Bun Day

I started National Sticky Bun Day off with some bad news.  We were out of milk.  I knew this going to bed.  I just didn’t feel like going to the store the night before (and I was mad at myself for forgetting to pick some up earlier in the day when I was actually at the store).  I knew we had enough for one cup of coffee so Lola would not be left out in the cold.  She usually wakes up first and getting that first cup in her is essential.  I knew going to bed that I would just go out first thing and pick up a half gallon from Cumberland Farms to get us through.  No big deal, I just forgot about it overnight.  Then when I opened the fridge in the morning, I remembered.

I threw on a baseball hat and hopped in the car. Cumby’s is right up the hill from us so it’s never a big deal.  I went inside, grabbed the milk and headed towards the check out counter.  That’s when I remembered it was Sticky Bun Day.  I took a short detour over to their pastry case just to check out what was there.  You never know what Cumby’s has in store for you.  There, on the top row, carefully displayed on a parchment paper lined tray, was what I was looking for.  I grabbed two, put them in a box and made my purchase.  I was home minutes later and the water for my coffee was on the stove.  When the coffee was ready, I grabbed my goods and walked into my office as is my usual routine, although this time I had some sweet baked goods with me.

img_1208

For a gas station convenience store, Cumberland Farms makes some pretty good pastries.  It was fresh, with lots of cinnamon which gave it that warming taste.  The inside was moist and they don’t skimp on the glaze.  In fact, that’s a trademark of all Cumby’s baked goods – cover it in glaze.  You can’t go wrong.  It was tasty, and another pleasant surprise that came fresh from the Farm.  I enjoyed my coffee, my sweet treat and that’s how I celebrated Sticky Bun Day.

But wait!  That’s a cinnamon roll!?!

Is a cinnamon roll a sticky bun?  I don’t know to the answer to that.  This was sticky for sure. It was a bun too, so I guess on the surface level it qualifies.  But what’s the difference?

The internet told me that the key difference is found in the sticky part.  A true sticky bun is cooked in a pan which is coated in sticky ingredients (like honey or syrup) as well as some chopped nuts or other ingredients.  The rolls are cooked right in that goop and when they are done, the pan is inverted so your finished buns have the sticky stuff on top.  These types of buns have been around since the 1500s and find their origins in Germany.  They migrated to the States through the Pennsylvania Dutch who brought many of their German delicacies along with them to the New World.  A cinnamon bun, probably more famous thanks to the creation of the Cinnabon franchise, is a cousin to the sticky bun.  The bun is made in the same fashion, but the topping is either an icing, a frosting or a glaze.  It’s not as sticky, but still as tasty.  Next time you are in an airport sitting next to someone enjoying a nice big Cinnabon, you can approach them and share this knowledge with them.  Everyone loves talking to strangers when they are eating a giant cinnamon roll.

Well this was a dilemma.  Did my feasting on a cinnamon roll count for my sticky bun celebration?  It was kind of filling, so going out and finding a sticky bun wasn’t a priority for me. Plus it was hard to find a bakery online that said they specifically sold sticky buns.  I was going to call around, but that was a phone conversation that didn’t play well in my head as I acted it out:

Bakery: Hello?
Me: Hi there, do you have sticky buns?  hehehehe
Bakery: Excuse me?
Me: giggle-giggle-hehehehhe.
Hangs up

Nope, not an easy call to make.  I’m too immature for this quest at times.  Nonetheless, I was agonizing over this dilemma all afternoon.  I found a bakery in Providence, The Seven Stars Bakery, which is kind of famous for their sticky buns (they are kind of a famous Providence bakery in general), but going to Providence was a little bit out of the way for me.  I found some good bakeries in the area, but none specifically said anything about their sticky buns.  I had come to terms with letting my cinnamon roll be my sticky bun celebration for the day, although I felt I had let the team down.  As a last ditch effort, I scanned the internet for recipes.  I wasn’t much into making my own dough, but maybe I could find something easy enough.  The first recipe that came up was from a website called   The Spruce and the first line of the recipe said that you start by buying crescent rolls.  I was now interested.  The rest of the recipe looked super easy.  I realized that I could make this.  I got up and made my daily trek to Clements Market.

This recipe was about as easy as any recipe I have used.  I did make one slight change to it however.  After looking at a few other recipes for sticky buns, I noticed they use a filling of cinnamon and sugar inside the dough.  This recipe just had you use the whole roll of crescent dough, no filling inside.  I decided to add some, so I carefully unfurled the dough into one flat sheet, I liberally sprinkled a cinnamon and sugar mixture on the inside, then rolled it back up.  From there, I proceeded to follow the recipe.  I melted the butter in the oven with the nuts in the pan.  I added brown sugar and maple syrup to that.  I cut the roll of dough into eight pieces and then dunked each piece into some more sugar and cinnamon. Then I arranged each piece of dough into the pan on top of the sticky mixture.  It baked for about 18 minutes.  When it came out, I let it rest for a minute, then I inverted it onto a plate so the buns were topped with all the sticky stuff that was on the bottom.

img_1211

Out of the oven.

img_1213

Inverted.  Ready to eat.

When they were halfway done cooking, Lola shouted out randomly, “Whatever you’re cooking smells awesome!”  She’ll do that from time to time.  It was late in the day and we were both probably a bit hungry, so warm cinnamon in the air will make you start salivating.  When it was time to flip the pan, I had Lola come over to help me film it (the filming didn’t go so great), but she was right there for the first sight of the sticky topped buns.  Oh wow.  Did they look good.  I put one on a plate for Lola so she could taste it fresh from the oven.  She was in heaven.  Her eyes closed in ecstasy as she savored every bite.  The roll was fresh and moist with a slight crispiness to it as well.  But the star was the sticky part which was pretty much a candied combo of sweetness with a layer of pecans.  These were top notch and as a testament to that, Lola had a second one.  A success, and definitely a sticky bun celebration.

That was a day filled with some big ups and downs.  A tumultuous National Sticky Bun Day.   It started with no milk, got better with a cinnamon roll, started darkening when I realized I ate the wrong thing and then rose to greatness with a great new recipe.  What a rollercoaster.  I guess that’s the mysterious allure of the sticky bun: the seductress of the pastry case.  Another great lesson on this quest.  To never give up.  The answer is always right in front of you, and it could just make for a tasty ending.  So if you ever pick up the phone and someone on the other end asks you if you have sticky buns, you can proudly answer.  There’s no shame in sticky buns.  Only deliciousness.

Next Up: National Margarita Day 

Day 203 – National Cherry Pie Day

I saw Warrant in concert once.  You know, Warrant – the eighties glam metal band.  They played my college back in the late eighties.  They were the opening band for Eddie Money.  I remember heading to the show declaring to all that would listen that I was going to catch a drumstick or some item from the band that would be tossed in to the crowd.  I’m not sure why I was declaring that, maybe just to make the night a little more interesting.  But I made my intentions known.  There was no assigned seating.  Most people had taken seats in the bleachers, but we assembled on the floor directly in front of the stage.  There was a surprising amount of room up there too.  Warrant came on and nobody really knew who they were.  They were ok, I guess.  I wasn’t really into that kind of music, but they were entertaining enough.  Then Eddie Money came out.  During his first song, the guitar player exuberantly tossed his guitar pick  into the crowd.  I watched it go up and land in a big open space on the floor.  I casually walked over and picked it up.  No one else was even making a motion to go get it.  That’s how I got my guitar pick form Eddie Money. My mission had been fulfilled.  I don’t remember it being a very good concert.  I think that was the height of Eddie’s substance abuse era.

I mention Warrant because they had the hit song “Cherry Pie.”  That song came out probably a year or two after I saw them, but it kind of put them on the map.  In any case, that song was going through my head today on a loop.  It was National Cherry Pie Day and I couldn’t think about that without hearing that stupid song.  What an awful song too. It’s put a dark mark on actual cherry pie for me.  That’s the power of music, I suppose.

It’s hard to ruin cherry pie because as far as pies goes, it’s right up there.  At least in reputation.  I actually don’t think I’ve ever had a real cherry pie.  It’s just the kind of pie I would like though.  Nice flaky crust on the outside.  Fruity, sweet filling on the inside.  Even the bright red color of the cherry filling is enticing.  I can picture it being served warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.  That’s a party right there.

Pies have been around for centuries, dating back to the ancient Egyptians, although the first pies were usually made with meat as a hardy meal that would be easy to eat.  Fruit pies came around in the 1500’s and Queen Elizabeth I was supposedly the first recipient of a cherry pie.  Maybe she is the muse that inspired Warrant.  Maybe Warrant was touring the National Museum in London one day and were collectively inspired by her triumphs as one of England’s most noted monarchs that the song just burst from their inspired souls.  I’m sure that’s the story.  Queen Elizabeth had that effect on people.

I am still not ready to make my own pie crust.  A good pie crust makes or breaks a good pie, and also makes or breaks a good baker.  I’m not there yet.  I don’t have the patience for dough.   The rolling it out, the being gentle with it – I rush too much.  When a pie comes up on this quest I always try to take the easy way out like a pre-made crust or buying someone else’s pie.  That’s my story today, but I do realize I need to step up at some point and meet the challenge of making my own pie crust.  Lola has made a good one before.  It’s one of her many secret talents.  Maybe I’ll have her show me on the next pie day.  3/14 is right round the corner.

I saw a recipe from Pillsbury for making cherry pie that was as easy as could be.  You take the Pillsbury pre-made dough.  You put one piece in the bottom of a pie pan, you scoop in two cans of cherry pie filling and then cover it with another piece of the dough.  You have to cut some holes in the top and make it look all nice-nice, but that’s about as easy as it gets.  The whole pie filling in a can is a great shortcut for making pies.  It gives you the perfect consistency for a pie filling with the right amount of sweetness, and you don’t have to peel, core, de-pit, prep or any of that rigamarole.  You just open the can and go.  Sure, the purists are gasping right now, but it is an easy time saver.  In the end however, I decided not to go this route.  The real reason was that I wasn’t feeling like making a trip to the store for pie crust and filling only to have one piece and see the rest go to waste.  Waste has been a big part of this quest and I’m always trying to reduce.  It’s hard to give away three-quarters of a pie.  I just wanted something small too I could have one serving and be done.  That’s when the answer hit me like Steven Sweet slamming his drumsticks on his Zildjian cymbals: Hostess Cherry Pies.

img_1207

I will say that the Hostess brand was not my first choice.  I thought first about McDonalds. They used to sell a cherry pie, alongside their apple pie.  To the best of my knowledge, they no longer carry them, or only bring them back on occasion.  I never had one, but I always remember seeing them there and having friends that liked them.  I was willing to give it a try today.  What could be wrong about a cherry filling wrapped in a flaky dough that is fried (yes fried) to perfection?  But none such luck.  That’s when I remembered the Hostess Fruit Pies.  Again, these were something that I never had as a kid growing up.  Pie was not my thing, so I never wanted anything to do with them.  In fact, I was never very keen on any Hostess products.  They just didn’t taste good to me – they had that commercially made taste to me, even as a kid.  But I was always intrigued by them on display in the stores.  The fruit pies especially.  They had that wax paper wrapper that was unlike any other packaging.  It was like a little treasure.

The wax paper packaging is gone now and now they come in a box.  That’s it – just in a box – no inside wrapper.  The box is branded in the unmistakeable Hostess look and colors, so you know you are getting a Hostess product. When I slid it out of the box, I thought to myself that this is a donut, not a pie.  It is completely covered in a sugar glaze.  I never knew about this.  It’s a good size and in fact the perfect size I was looking for to celebrate this day.  The instructions on the box said to microwave for 15 seconds so I did that and while it was warm, it was not unbearable to hold or eat.  It tastes like a donut too.  It does have a nice flaky crust and the pie filling is sweet like you would want in the center of the pie, but the glaze gives it that donut taste.  Again, not a bad thing.  It kept its form with each bite I took which is important in a handheld pie.  All in all this was a pretty good pie, although that’s using a very loose definition of what a pie should be.  But it did say Cherry Pie right on the box, so you can’t deny its qualifications.

Today was Presidents’ Day too so I thought that celebrating Cherry Pie on this day was kind of right.  It was George Washington who chopped down a cherry tree, inevitably to make a pie, who would later famously fess up to his overeager tree cutting.  That’s the guy we are celebrating today, so what better way to do so then by partaking in a slice of honest cherry pie.  Just seems honorable.  And maybe I didn’t make my own pie or even have a pie that was served as a slice.  That’s ok.  It celebrates the diversity of the pie world – the different traditions for eating pie throughout our land.  Yours may come on a plate with some ice cream, mine came from Cumberland Farms in a box.  This land is made for you and me, so lets all share our cherry pies and celebrate what this land is all about.  “Tastes so good make a grown man cry, Sweet cherry pie, oh yeah.”

Next Up: National Sticky Bun Day 

Day 202 – National Chocolate Mint Day

Two great tastes that taste great together.  They are a natural pair.  The chocolate for the sweetness, the mint for that cool, refreshing sensation.  I’m not sure who first paired the two together, but they deserve a reward. Chocolate was originally served as a drink which was often very bitter (this was before it was made with sugar), so it’s safe to assume that to spice up their hot chocolate, some folks added in peppermint leaves or oil to give it a little some-some.  That’s probably where it all started.  When chocolate evolved into candy form that we know today, the marriage of mint and chocolate evolved along with it.  In the early 20th century, tea houses and dinner halls served mint sprigs and dark chocolates after desserts for patrons to ‘chew for good breath and aid digestion’.  From there, thin mints started appearing at local chocolatiers (dark chocolate covered mint) and rose quickly in popularity.  Those were always one of my grandmother’s favorites.  Mine too.

Perhaps the most famous chocolate mint candy is the Andes Candies which first showed up in  1921.  The little rectangles had (have) two layers of chocolate with a layer of green mint in the middle, all wrapped nicely in a shiny green wrapper.  We used to give these out at the first restaurant I worked out when we presented the check.  As you casually dropped the check on the table, you would hold out the tray to every guest which presented Andes candies, matches and cigars as a small gesture of thanks.  Nice touch.  It eventually changed to being just a tray of Andes candies because I’m sure the cigars and matches were not inline with current smoking trends (not to mention expensive).  I ate a lot of Andes candies in those days.  They were just there in a giant box at the waiter station and you could grab one for a quick burst of chocolate energy and some fresh breath. It was the perfect mid-shift snack. Andes candies were actually first made by a guy named Andy.  They changed the spelling from Andy’s candies to Andes (like the mountain range) because men did not like giving their ladies chocolate with another man’s name on it.  Men can be very insecure.

After Eight chocolate candies are another popular variety of mint chocolate.  Those came to be in 1962 and are billed as a highfalutin relative of the thin mint.  They are super thin which gives them a slightly different texture and taste as the mint part melds more congruently with the chocolate.  They are named After Eight because they are sophisticated – not something you would partake in during the day.  No, these mints are intended for nighttime when adults are out enjoying the spoils of life.  Lola’s Mom was a fan of these and always bought a box of them for the holidays that she would bust out after dinner.  It was a sweet little treat to share with friends and something she would savor.  I try to buy a box for our house every holiday, although they have been increasingly harder to find.  But when I do find them, Lola always notices and appreciates it.

1951 was a big year for chocolate mint as that was the year the Girl Scouts first introduced the Thin Mint cookie, the crispy chocolate covered mint biscuit.  This is the most popular Girl Scout Cookie accounting for 25% of all Girl Scout cookie sales.  That surprised me.  I would have thought that the Samoa was the top-seller, but nope, the mint takes the title every year.  That does give you insight about how popular the taste of chocolate and mint together can be.  Top selling.  Those Do-Si-Dos have to start pulling their weight.

I was looking at some recipes for what I could make for chocolate mint day.  When I celebrated the Peppermint Patty (another fine chocolate mint combination), I had found a recipe for a homemade patty that I wasn’t able to make on Peppermint Patty Day (I was in New York).  That was in the back of my mind as a possibility.  Then I saw a recipe for Chocolate Mint Fudge and that seemed more like me. It had been a while since I made fudge and experimenting with some flavors might be an added twist.  I read through a few recipes and got the essence of the process.  The recipes were pretty much made the same way I make my usual fudge, they just change up how you flavor it in the end.  I felt I could easily adapt this to my own recipe (well, the Fluff recipe).  I went out and got the supplies I needed.  At the store, I had a little bit of a conundrum.  I needed to buy mint extract to make the mint fudge, but the store carried peppermint extract and just mint extract.  This confused me and I wasn’t sure what would be best.  I went with the straight mint extract.

When I got home, Lola was on a walk so I had the kitchen to myself so I started making the fudge.  Like all fudge, I started with the base which is essentially butter, evaporated milk, sugar and Fluff.  You combine all that and bring it to a boil stirring constantly (and carefully – this stuff burns like a mofo if you get it on your skin).  After boiling for five minutes, you remove from heat and add in your flavoring.  For chocolate fudge, it’s usually a teaspoon of vanilla and two bags of chocolate chips.  My idea for the chocolate mint fudge would be to split the base into two pans and add mint flavoring to one and chocolate to the other.  I poured out half the super-hot fudge base into another pan (I just eyeballed it).  To that pan I added a half teaspoon of the mint extract and one bag of white chocolate chips.  I also added a few drops of green food coloring just to get a nice green hue.  I stirred that up until everything was all melted together and combined. In the other pot, I used a half teaspoon of vanilla and one bag of semisweet chocolate chips.  I stirred that up too.  I then scooped out the mint fudge into a lined baking dish.  When that was all scooped in,  I poured the chocolate mixture out over the top of that so all the fudge was now in one pan.  I then cut a knife through the mixture hoping that would create a swirly effect and combine the two.  I then put it aside to chill.  It smelled nice and minty.

img_1195

I actually made this on Saturday night because I knew that it would take some time to harden before Sunday (National Chocolate Mint Day).  On Sunday morning, I took the fudge out of the pan (it comes out in one big brick) and cut it up into pieces.  I even gave it a little try.  It was good – a nice smooth, soft texture.  The mint flavor was strong. In retrospect, I think that maybe I should have gone with peppermint extract because it tasted a bit more spearmint-like than I had intended.  I think the peppermint would have been the better mint flavor.  I think too that dark chocolate would have been better as well because the sweetness of the semisweet chocolate was kind of lost in the mixture.  It was still good, and maybe I was being overcritical.  I cut it all up and put it into little containers.  We were heading out to a lunch to celebrate some Mellow sister birthdays, so I brought a little container for everyone so they could celebrate Chocolate Mint Day too.

It was a freak warm day in February and the 60 degree temperature had everyone turning up in downtown Newport.  It took us about 15 minutes to find a parking spot.  After we found one, we went and had a great lunch at Plumby’s which is the burger bar on the top floor of the Brick Alley Pub in Newport.  It was our first time here and it was outstanding. Cheers to the folks at the BAP for all the do.  We were lucky to know some people on the inside (thanks Tina and Mike) so they had a table all ready for us.  It was a great little afternoon where we got to celebrate some birthdays.  I also got to hold our nephew Calix who is a smily little guy that fills your heart and I also got to talk about rhinoceroses with our niece Savannah who can be a silly little girl.  I gave Savvy a piece of fudge to test and she liked it.  She methodically ate away at the mint part until she had only chocolate left.  Then she nibbled away at that.  She was a fan.  I then gave everyone their little tub of fudge.  Early reports said that it was a success (Tara and Mike, two noted fudge enthusiasts) gave it the thumbs up, so maybe it is better than I think.  I don’t think Lola has tried it yet.  She gives me the straight truth, so I will wait to hear her opinion.  You know this is a crazy quest when I have a whole tray of fresh fudge in the house and Lola doesn’t even know it’s there.

All in all, a pretty fine way to celebrate National Chocolate Mint Day.  I’ve been a fan of chocolate mint since I was young.  My grandmother would get a box of thin mints as a Christmas present every year (she was easy to buy for) and I remember waiting for her to open the box so I could get one.  Something about that combination.  It’s just meant to be. I also learned a new recipe for fudge today.  I like being able to explore with new flavors.  When I open Dan’s Fudge Packing Emporium, it will be nice to offer more than one flavor. I think I still have some more testing to do, but it’s always fun to test.  And I can always find people willing to give it a try.  That’s another good thing about chocolate mint  – it brings us together whether it’s indulging in fudge after a great lunch as a digestive or by supporting our local Girl Scouts by stocking your cabinets full of Thin Mint cookies.  That’s a powerful and delicious combo, and well worth our celebration.

(Some source info from Foodimentary.com)

Next Up: National Cherry Pie Day 

Day 201 – National Drink WineDay

I drank wine today.  The end.

img_1191

There wasn’t many choices on how to celebrate this day.  It wasn’t wine appreciation day or cook with wine day, it was plain ol’ drink wine day.  The action I needed to take was right there in the name.  We happened to have a bottle of wine at home so I uncorked it, let it breathe for a second, then poured us a glass to go along with our dinner (a nice steak in Montreal Steak Seasoning, fresh asparagus and rice).  I also made a little fresh guacamole too.  The wine was a red blend from Josh Cellars.  It was a delight on the nose with a fruity aroma and a wonderful oaky afterbirth (that’s how Lola describes wine when she’s trying to sound sophisticated.)   It wasn’t actually oaky – more fruity.  But we are not connoisseurs by any means.  It was just a tasty red wine.

I made sure we finished the bottle because it was Drink Wine Day.  I felt like leaving any would be a disservice to the holiday.  So even after dinner, I kept filling up my glass.  We ended up finishing it in respectable time.  There’s always a little disappointment when you don’t finish a bottle.  It’s tainted if it hangs around over night, like some unwanted party guest that stayed the night.  It sits on the counter for a few days, and then finds a home in the sink and then the recycling bin.  Not tonight though.  Good to the last drop.

img_1192

When I was trying to think about how I could write about this, I started thinking about wine in my life.  This is what you think about when you wake up in the middle of the night having to pee because you drank a bottle of wine and can’t get back to sleep.  The thoughts come at you rapid fire.  Here are some of them:

  • My family was never a big wine drinking family.  In fact outside of my Mom having a white wine with ice on occasion, I barely remember ever seeing red wine in our home.
  • My first wine experience that I remember was driving to a party at a park on the day after a prom.  I was with a friend who decided we should stop and buy some alcohol.  He was feeling a bit daring I suppose, so we randomly stopped at a package store on the way. We were 17 years old and it was the middle of the day.  My friend had no ID.  He just went in and made a purchase, just like that.  He bought a bottle of red wine.  We were excited about having been served, but we are also stuck without a wine opener.  We ended up McGyver-ing it and pushing the cork into the bottle.  Then we took turns passing the bottle back and forth taking swigs.  Ah youth.
  • I got sick on drinking too much red wine once.  Don’t recommend that.  We were at a Christmas party for work and while we were sitting at our table listening to speeches and ramblings, I started drinking the big bottle of red that was at our table.  That night would go down in history as the “Ornament Incident” because at some point, as a joke, I started taking Christmas ornaments off the decorative trees and smashing them on my forehead.  I thought it was funny, like I was a modern day Gallagher.  I was pretty much put to bed that night for the safety of mankind with a slightly bleedy forehead and a belly full of red wine.  Then I got sick.  Oh my.  The colors.  That will put you off red wine for a while.
  • I remember one of the first diner parties that I ever hosted.  Everyone came over and brought a bottle of wine (which was nice) so we probably had a table of a dozen or so people and probably 15 bottles of wine.  It was like everyone had their own bottle.  That was a fun night with a lot of laughs.  It made me feel very adult.
  • Wine is a way to be an adult.  It just seems more mature than beer guzzling or shot drinking.  Must be the stemmed glassware.  I remember the times when you first go to someone’s house whose nice enough to make you dinner.  That’s when you bring the bottle of wine and you feel like you are an actual adult. A rite of passage.
  • One of the first restaurants I worked at had a regular guest who was pretty much a functional alcoholic.  He’d come in after work every day (he was an accountant) and have a glass of chablis and chain-smoke More cigarettes all night.  He was never really pleasant – just kind of there.  But then some nights, he’d get sloppy.  Or he’d leave and then come back and be super drunk. I have this image in my mind of a sloppy, unkempt dude, falling over in his stool, cigarette ashes all around him, slurring every word.  It was kind of gross and why I’ll never drink chablis.  I can still smell it on him. I think I had to finally give him the lifetime ban for something he did. That’s the dark side of restaurants.
  • Whenever I buy a bottle of wine, I go by the little Wine Enthusiast signs that they put on the shelf.  If it gets a good rating, I’m interested.  I know that’s just point-of-sale advertising, but it gets me every time.  And usually, I am not disappointed.
  • Empty wine bottles in your recycle bin are never quiet.  Whenever they are moved or dumped, they make a lot of noise like you are announcing to the whole neighborhood, “Hey – I drink a lot of wine!”
  • Some restaurant advice: when you open a bottle of wine at dinner in front of a guest, the bottle should never touch the table.  That’s why the waiter corkscrew is such a valuable tool.  You use the blade to cut the foil at the top to expose the cork (put the foil in your apron or pocket – never leave it on table), then you turn the screw into the cork.  When the screw is all the way down, you use the edge of the corkscrew to pull the cork out.  This is a basic tool – a lever.  If for some reason you need more leverage to get the cork out, don’t use the table.  Use your leg if needed. When the cork  comes out, unwind it off the screw and place it in front of the guest who ordered it (they can smell it if they want to), then gently wipe the top of the bottle with the napkin you should be using for service.  Pour a sip for the person who ordered the wine so they can taste it. They are tasting it to see if it’s gone bad, not to see if it meets their standard. When you pour, always slightly twist the bottle at the end of the pour so it does not spill.  Also, wipe the top between every pour. This helps that rogue drop of wine from landing on someone’s pretty white dress.  Once you get the wine approval, pour off a glass to each of the other guests and then finally top off the orderer’s glass.  Make sure you leave a little in the bottle so the table can pour some off later.  That’s wine service in a nutshell.
  •  A downside of wine at a dinner party is the wine glass.  First, they are fragile so inevitably you will have some breakage.  That’s never a problem, but it just sets you back for a few minutes.  The other issue is that the glasses need to be cleaned by hand.  You have to be careful as you scrub them because they are so fragile and then they take up so much space on your counter when they are drying.  I never mind washing dishes, but when I see wine glasses, they always bug me. I push for using disposable cups when I can, but am usually shot down.

Wine has been used for celebrations for thousands of years, so I can add nothing new about why we should celebrate it. It is just a way to toast the goodness of every day, even if that goodness is just a bounty of grapes that were made into a delightful beverage. Although I’d never consider myself a wine enthusiast, it really has been part of my life for all my adult years.  It’s in all the pictures of parties I have been to and all the holidays I have celebrated (well, the actual holidays – not this quest).  It marks joy in our life, the fun, the adventure and even the pain too.  There is probably no spirit more worthy of being in a glass that we hoist to toast all the goodness of life.  Just like our ancestors have done, we too will thank the gods for all they have bestowed upon us and sip our wine as a little thank you for all life is and what is to come.  L’chaim!

Up Next: National Chocolate Mint Day