Fun Friday Recommended Reads

Happy Friday! Here’s a round-up of interesting stuff for you to read while bellying up to the crawfish table, raising the third glass in your wine flight, or camping out to see the big Kid Rock show:

Food Trucks Rolling Into (Dallas) Arts District,” Julie Tam, MSN.com.

Is Walmart our best hope for food policy reform?,” Tom Philpott, April 29, 2011, Grist.org.

Coca-Cola adds BPA to list of ways it doesn’t care about your health,” Christopher Mims, April 29, 2011, Grist.org.

Taco Bell may sue Alabama law firm over dropped beef case,” Fox News, April 26, 2011, NYPost.com.

Give a cluck: Ask Umbra on secret backyard chickens,” Ask Umbra, April 28, 2011, Grist.org.

Students fight to save innovative garden-based public school in Detroit,” Tom Philpott, April 26, 2011, Grist.org.

The Latest Food Marketing Trend: Fake Authenticity,” Jane Black, April 25, 2011, TheAtlantic.com.

Nourish launches video encyclopedia,” April 25, 2011, SlowFoodUSA.org.

Why Is Damning New Evidence About Monsanto’s Most Widely Used Herbicide Being Silenced?,” Jill Richardson, April 25, 2011, Alternet.org.

James Lewis Set to Open Restaurant Butcher Shop Vittoria Macelleria,” Jason Horn, April 20, 2011, MagicCityPost.com.

Alabama Tornadoes—Vital Information & Ways You Can Help 2011-04-29

Now that Foodiesaurus has her electricity back in service, she has prepared the following lists of information for victims and those who would like to help:

Donations and Volunteers

Hands On Birmingham

Donate to Mid-Alabama Red Cross

Alabama tornadoes: Salvation Army Accepting Clothing, Furniture & Food Donations + Volunteer

Here’s How to Help, Donate, and Volunteer

The Governor’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives: Donate to the Governor’s Emergency Relief Fund to Help Tornado Victims in Alabama

Alabama Tornadoes—How to you Can Help

Please Help Find These Missing People

How to find a missing loved one

State and Federal Agency Assistance—

Governor Opens Phone Line to Answer Storm Queries

Alabama Storm-Related Insurance Claims

Alabama Department of Transportation Road Closures

FEMA’s Disaster Assistance Website

SBA Stands Ready to Assist Alabama Residents

Another Broken Egg Cafe—Probably Worth It.

Today was day two of my tornado-related-power-outage-canned-food-diet. Because power will still be out at my abode for another whole day, I decided to travel North toward Birmingham to the suburban hamlet of Mountain Brook, Alabama.

Mountain Brook is the sort of place where nothing really too bad ever happens so I figured hot breakfast would go on there as usual. I was not disappointed. Just from looking at the folks at Another Broken Egg Café, in fact, you’d never have known there was total devastation not five miles away.

By way of background, Another Broken Egg Café is a chain of breakfast joints that hails from near my hometown in Louisiana. As it really only got rolling in 1996, the year I first moved to Birmingham, I never ate at one until it followed me here, opening this location in 2010. Today was my second visit to the Mountain Brook location.

I arrived at about 10:45 a.m. today and stood alone in the entry waiting to be seated. The place was not busy as it was a little late for breakfast and a bit early for lunch. Nonetheless, I was ignored by the first person to appear at the hostess stand. After few minutes, I was somewhat promptly given a table near the distant wall next to one of the waiter’s stands by an individual who seemed to greet me more out of pity than any actual interest in facilitating my meal. But hey, I was really hungry.

A waiter approached me almost instantly inquiring about my drink order. I asked about tea. He suggested unsweet. I asked about their hot tea selection. He mentioned Earl Grey, green, and spiced. I asked what brand tea we were talking. Demonstrating his complete disinterest in answering any questions that would require a trip somewhere else, he said, “I have no idea.” I ordered water.

The water was sullenly placed on the table a few seconds later as the taciturn waiter passed the table by. That was the last interest he expressed in my order for an inordinately long time—not even acknowledging my stares and subtle wave.

So operating on the theory that perhaps this waiter-of-few-words was not my actual waiter and definitely not to be dissuaded, I grabbed the attention of a second fellow who seemed to have tables in the vicinity. After a moment’s consternation, this hijacked waiter deigned to take my order and did so very pleasantly.

I ordered the Lakeshore Scramble—a mélange of scrambled eggs, baked bacon, onions, mushrooms, and ham smothered in melted Monterey Jack and cheddar, substituting fruit for the country potatoes, and served with a “crispy” English muffin.

There now, little waitstaff. That wasn’t so hard.

The food arrived after a short interval. And it was immediately clear the kitchen was not a stingy as the service.

The eggs were served in a large gratin with a generous side of blemish-free fruit and an English muffin that may be been a tad overbilled as “crispy.” In fact, the breakfast was far too much to finish, and you know I tried as it was delicious! The quality of the ingredients really shone through, and the cook’s execution was flawless (except the partially toasted muffin—but honestly, does toasting really improve an English muffin?). Even the whipped butter was fabulous (and I’m a big fan of butter, so I should know.)

In writing this review, I found myself in a bit of a quandary, however. You see, once when Foodiesaurus was a little girl, she had a little surgery to remove her appendix. It was back in the stone ages, so you understand this was no outpatient procedure!

During the week of recovery spent in the hospital, Foodiesaurus was given nothing to eat but green Jello. (She loathes Jello to this day.) Then one fabulous day, our favorite food-obsessed dinosaur in seven-year-old form was finally given her first solid food—a hospital hamburger and fries. I don’t know what Foodie would have thought of that burger under normal circumstances, but I can assure you, as things stood in that moment, that was the best hamburger she had ever eaten or will likely ever eat again.

Accordingly, I am forced to wonder if the food at Another Broken Egg was really as good as I thought or if it was just a heck of a lot better than canned tuna and pistachios. For now, I will consider the food at this place several notches above other chain breakfast joints, (I’m looking at you IHOP!) but with service that is every bit as snotty as any five-star New York eatery.

Wear your big diamond (or maybe your little one, I can’t tell), and enjoy!

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Stones Throw Bar & Grill–an Oasis in the Middle of Nowhere

Perhaps it’s unfair that Stones Throw Bar & Grill exists in the former Standard Bistro site, within fairly easy driving distance of Highland Avenue a/k/a the Birmingham Foodie District. In any other town where I’ve lived, except possibly New Orleans, this would easily be the best restaurant around.

When compared with restaurants run by perennial James Beard nominees, Frank Stitt and Chris Hastings, or even 2011 semi-finalist, Chris du Pont (a New Orleans import), however, Stones Throw pales–but only just a bit. And for Mt. Laurel, the developer-created-small-town just off Highways 41and 280 in North Shelby County, this place is an oasis in a desert of country-come-to-suburbia pizza and hamburgers.

It is fine dining in a relaxed and decidedly “unstuffy” establishment. And if you chose to dine on their patio, you will enjoy a serenity and quality of air the aforementioned places, in their very urban settings, cannot approach.

The food ain’t bad either. In fact, it’s really very good. My dining companion and I were eating a fairly restricted diet this evening so we ordered virtually the same meal–a green salad featuring local produce and a braised lamb shank on a bed of wilted spinach instead of minted risotto (the latter of which sounded amazing, BTW).

A generous selection of rustic bread preceded the salad. The hearts of baby romaine forming the salad’s foundation were perfectly light, crisp, and unblemished. It was topped by perfect proportions of blue cheese, bacon, walnuts, and cucumber with a light drizzle of blue cheese dressing, although my companion substituted balsamic vinaigrette.

The lamb shanks were also generously proportioned–think: Yabba-Dabba-Do time–without being embarrassing. The meat was tender and without a trace of “wild” flavor, which to me indicates it likely originated in New Zealand where ranchers butcher lambs smaller than their American counterparts. The spinach wilted in EVOO was tasty and perfectly textured, just as you’d expect from a chef of this caliber.

If you’d ever eaten at the Standard Bistro, you’ll find the decor not much changed. It’s a modern interpretation of an elegant dining room furnished the 1920’s, appropriately set in the retro-styled Town of Mt. Laurel. But as I really enjoyed the space before, I rather glad they kept it as it was. The service was really very good–attentive, timely, and accommodating without hovering.

All in all, if you are looking for a change of atmosphere in your fine dining or live in North Shelby, Stones Throw Bar & Grill will easily become one of your favorite haunts, if it isn’t already.

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Posted with WordPress for BlackBerry.

Fun Friday Recommended Reads

Happy Friday! Here’s a round-up of interesting stuff for you to read while waiting for your kid to finish up that letter to the Easter Bunny or the President:

Stocking the Broke-Ass pantry, and the magical three-day chicken,” by Broke-Ass Grouch, April 21, 2011, Grist.org.

Deep Flavor, No Browning Required,” John Willoughby, March 28, 2011, NYTimes.com.

South Sings Catfish Blues,” Julie Jargon, April 14, 2011, Grist.org.

Who Owns Your Favorite Organic Brand (Infographic),” June 2009, MindBodyGreen.com.

Wendy’s Natural Cut Fries: Better Tasting, Yes. Natural, No,” Melanie Warner, April 15, 2011, Yahoo!Finance.

What doesn’t kill you makes you gourmet ,” Rebecca Solnit, February 17, 2011, Grist.com.

TV show follows evolution of exurbanites’ farm,” MARY ESCH, April 17, 2011, Yahoo!News.

Foods That Interfere with Birth Control Pills,” David L. Katz, M.D., MSN Health.

Gulf Coast Seafood One Year After the Oil Spill,” Justine Sterling, April 20, 2011, Delish.com.

Portuguese Green Olive Dip,” David Leite, July 20, 2009, Leitesculinaria.com.

Jim ‘N Nick’s is Raising the Bar in Bar-B-Q

Barbeque is to Alabama as gumbo is to Louisiana as chili is to Texas and so on.  In other words, people living elsewhere generally think that’s what we do best (or possibly at all). 

So naturally when I moved to Birmingham in 1996, I was on the prowl for the best of the best authentic slow-cooked spare ribs I could find.  Then, as now, there were a large number of barbeque joints to choose from.  But having sampled the famous, like Dreamland Ribs, and the not-so-well-known, like Full Moon, Golden Rule, or Johnny Ray’s, there was one barbeque joint I kept coming back to—the then-10-year-old local chain, Jim ‘N Nick’s.

And that was weird in a way.  I mean, how does a restaurant owned by a Greek-American kid who worked his whole life in an Italian restaurant end up making the best barbeque in the biggest city of a state known for the stuff?  Who cares.  He just does—still—to this day—15 years later.

In fact, Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q is better than ever and is no longer just locally known.  Everybody in the world now knows about Nick Pihakis (the aforementioned Greek kid).  He is a semi-finalist for the 2011 James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurateur.  That’s right.  Pihakis v. Steve Ells of Chipotle, Roger Berkowitz of Legal Sea Foods, etc.

If a James Beard Award nominated barbeque joint seems impossible, it’s only because you’ve never eaten at Jim ‘N Nick’s.  The Hamburger Dave or The Burger 1920, a Company Salad with shaved Parmesan and pulled pork, a big, meaty rack of 14-hour spare ribs, an onion ring appetizer or side, creamed spinach or spinach and artichoke dip, the smoked pork hot links, hand-cut fries, lemon icebox or chocolate or coconut cream or pecan pie, and even the complementary cornbread muffins are all the best I’ve ever eaten anywhere.  Moreover, at a time in our collective culinary history when the norm is for quality to tank as expansion occurs, Jim ‘N Nick’s has done the exact opposite. 

Back in the day, 11 years ago, for example, my favorite Jim ‘N Nick’s was on Highway 31 near the Riverchase Galleria.  It was head and shoulders above the others.  And even as late as three or four years ago, the Highway 280/Greystone location was still my least favorite of the Galleria, Five Points South, or Highway 280 alternatives.  

But then an unexpected thing happened: the quality got substantially better at the Five Points and Highway 280 restaurants.  Now they are all my favorite locations.  Hmm.

In other words, as this chain has expanded, the consistency between locations has not only improved but the overall food and even the décor is now better than it ever was.  Could Jim ‘N Nick’s recent emphasis of locally-sourced ingredients have anything to do with it?  I think so. 

And diners are not the only beneficiaries of this constant emphasis on improvement at Jim ‘N Nick’s.  Jim ‘N Nick’s has also benefitted ’cause, let me tell you, a similar salad at another fine local barbeque establishment goes for a good bit less than the one at Jim ‘N Nick’s and yet no one cares.  People literally stand in line for the good stuff.

So, 25-year-old barbeque chain, exceedingly great food, local ingredients, higher than average prices, James Beard Award semi-finalist, and lines to get in the door.  Yup.  That about sums it up. 

In short, Pihakis and company have found a way to raise the bar in barbeque.  What’s not to love?

Buon mangiare!

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Adventures in Pressure Cooking—Beef Short Ribs

Pressure cooking.  The very phrase evokes terrifying images of food dripping from ceilings.  But after considering the vastly improved safety reputation of newer equipment, finding braising had become a regular player in my cooking repertoire, rarely having time to babysit a pot for four to five hours, and discovering  I actually did have space to store yet another piece of equipment, the final decision to purchase one actually came upon me quite suddenly.

I was shopping for a wedding gift for a friend when I saw the model I wanted on sale.  The Fagor Splendid 10-Quart Pressure Cooker/Canner was a sight to behold, all shiny and simple-looking! 

And I figured I could always return it to the store if my loving husband objected to my evicting the Cuisinart Ice Cream maker from the big lazy Susan to make room for the new gadget.  But my sweetheart was all in favor of the concept.  He only awaited my foray into the breach before passing final judgment.

The only question remaining, what to prepare, was simply answered—my favorite braised beef short ribs recipe from the Whole Foods meat counter: .  Admittedly, I changed a few things….

In preparation for my first test, I carefully reviewed the instruction manual twice to be absolutely sure I knew how to lock the lid, pressurize the cooker, what to do in the event of trouble, and perhaps most importantly, how to avoid trouble to begin with(!).  Then I took the plunge.  While hubby was away—naturally.

I started by seasoning the organic, grass-fed short ribs and heating a tablespoon of lard (not olive oil) in the pressure cooker, on high heat on the large burner of my electric stove.  The lard got a little smokier than I might have liked, but bottom of the cooker distributed the heat very evenly, and the ribs browned beautifully, as did the onions and garlic I put to deglaze the pan in after removing the ribs. 

Next I added wine, canned tomatoes, beef broth, Worcestershire sauce, orange zest, and fresh rosemary.  (I also decided to add about one cup of filtered water to the mix, in addition to the amount of liquid called for by the recipe, to ensure the liquid wouldn’t steam away entirely during the cooking process.)  After bringing the liquids to a boil, I returned the ribs and juices to the pot. 

I also added all the carrots right away, rather than steam for 10 minutes, open the lid, add the carrots, and THEN return to steaming.  I also made the executive decision to omit the pearl onions.

So, I checked the amount of food and liquid in the pot, ensuring it was no more than the 2/3 full maximum stated in the instructions and sealed the cooker by lining up the two hash marks per the instructions, turning the lid clockwise to lock it.  Then I turned the dial on the operating valve to 12 o’clock (high), slipped the purple pressure lock toward the lid, and continued to cook on high heat to pressurize the cooker. 

The instructions explained that it took some time to pressurize after sealing.  In my case, it took about 10 minutes.  Upon pressurization the safety valve button popped up, deploying just as it should have, and I began timing the cooking at about 25% of the time the dish would have required in a Dutch oven—about one hour. 

The safety valve is a small, yellow plastic button that rises when fully pressurized and prevents the pressure lock from sliding open.  The safety valve will only fall when the pot is fully depressurized.  Only following such depressurization can the pressure lock be released and the lid unlocked.

After full pressurization, I lowered the burner heat to a setting of 4 and monitored the steam flow for about 10 minutes to ensure that a continuous, gentle steam flow was maintained from the operating valve.  Unfortunately,  the flow all but stopped, so I raised the heat to 5, after which the steam flow began again.  Per instructions in this event, I just extended the cooking time by a few minutes. 

Be advised, the cooker is not silent. You will hear the release of steam throughout the cooking process, but this is normal.

At the end of a little more than one hour, I opted to use the “automatic release method” and turned the dial on the operating valve to the “steam release position.”  Steam shot out far more vigorously than before and from a vent to the left of the dial as opposed to the vent at the top of the dial.  The steam stream was so powerful water, in fact, that it condensed on some utensils in a holder next to the stove!

After a few minutes, the steam pressure slowed considerably diminishing to nearly nothing, but the safety valve’s pressure indicator still had not fallen.  When I touched it, however, the pressure indicator button dropped, and I was able to slide back the pressure lock and turn the top half of the handle counterclockwise to unlock the lid.

And the results were… 

…amazing!  Not only were the ribs more tender than ever before, but they were also far more flavorful.  It was as if the pressure had forced the flavor of the spices, herbs, and aromatics farther below the surface of the meat than was ever possible at normal pressures.  Every flavor was blended with all of the others but was not lost.  Somehow, each ingredient was made simultaneously more intense as well.

Clean up of the cooker was also a snap.  The pot and lid were returned to sparkling new condition with very little effort using liquid dish soap and a scouring pad/sponge combo.  Even the light grey rubber gasket looked perfect with no tomato or red wine staining.  Fabulous!

In retrospect, my only regret is how long it took me to try this cooking method.  I already can tell my new-found love of pressure cooking is poised to evolve into a life-long passion.

Bon appetite!