It’s Gumbo Time!

There’s one very simple formula I’d like you all to remember: cold weather + gumbo = happiness.

So, recently, when the temps dropped below 50 degrees, I fired up Grandma’s cast iron chicken fryer and got busy. And it’s good I’ve done this a couple of ten times or so, because taking pictures with one hand while making a roux this dark with the other ain’t easy.

Now, when we talk about gumbo, there’s really only two varieties though each has endless variations. Those two are seafood gumbo and gumbo ya-ya. Seafood gumbo is a Creole version of the stew with a lot of Afro-Caribbean influences. It is good just about any time of year, and it’s the kind they mostly make in New Orleans. Even though I was raised on this kind, at some point, I crossed over to the dark side—to Gumbo Ya-Ya.

Gumbo Ya-Ya is the kind they make in Cajun country, around Lafayette. The recipe is simple: it features a very dark roux redolent of chocolate and dark French roast coffee and features no seafood at all; just the Holy Trinity, andouille (prounounced “an-Dew-ee”), duck or chicken, and spices. The most difficult thing about Gumbo Ya-Ya is the technique. And that’s what this blog post is all about.

First, the recipe. The one I have used and likely will always use is published in “The Commander’s Palace New Orleans Cookbook” by Ella & Dick Brennan. There’s lots of great recipes in there for all kinds of classic New Orleans dishes, but the only page that is splattered and beaten up in my book is page 38.

Oh, yeah, I made Bananas Foster that time and set off the fire alarm when I lit the rum to deglaze the pan. Of course, earlier that same night, my roux had set off the smoke alarm (two different kinds of alarms, sheesh), but then I stopped using canola oil. Smoke problem solved. Not sure what do about the rum. Flaming alcohol is gonna flash. But that’s another post.

Second, the shopping. You want to get about a five pound roasting chicken, although I’ve used a four-pound or two, three-pound fryers with success. But truly, the bigger the single chicken, the better, as it will have fewer bones than two chickens of an equivalent weight. For all ingredients, I try to buy organic.

Concerning the sausage, andouille outside of Louisiana can be a bit strange. So if you can, try to find a Louisiana brand, like Richard’s. Usually, it’s going to be precooked and in a vacuum-sealed pack like a smoked sausage. A quick shop at Publix and then at Kroger, however, failed to turn up the right stuff on this go round so I got the fresh kind at Whole Foods.

You need about a pound, although I use up to a half pound more to make up for a smaller chicken, if I can’t get the five pound one. If using fresh sausage, put it whole in a pan in a 400-degree oven for about 20 minutes or until it is firm, easily sliceable, and thereby pot-ready.

Instead of the vegetable oil called for in this particular recipe, I now use ghee or clarified butter. The roux will be cooked at very high heat until it almost burns (it’s very exciting). And every vegetable oil I used smoked too much and gave the finished stew an off flavor. The organic ghee worked perfectly, however, with very little smoking until the very end and added a richness to the dish I really preferred.

When making the gumbo that is the subject of this blog, however, I experimented with lard in an effort to really layer the pork flavors as well as the chicken ones the recipe is designed to highlight. Although the gumbo tasted fine, the lard actually smoked more than the butter and I was missing that richness I mentioned above, so I’m going back to clarified.

Now for chicken stock, the Brennans suggest making yours from scratch. I have a better idea. Kitchen Basics, baby. Available in just about any grocery store, costs about $4, and beats that panties off of anything else. Use either regular or unsalted. (I prefer unsalted.) You will need two Tetra paks of it. Oh, and shake well before opening (or hold your finger over the little flap if you open it before shaking. Made that mistake before…).

Finally, you need flour, celery, white or yellow onions, bell peppers, garlic, and white rice, kosher salt, cayenne pepper, and garlic powder. (See quantities below.) You will also want to obtain a clean, paper grocery bag. How you manage to come by it or ascertain it’s degree of cleanliness is between you and your bag boy.

Third, the prep. Pretty simple, but you need to know how to disjoint a whole chicken—and don’t cheat and get a cut-up one. They suck. So, you get to busy and after you disjoint everthing and cut the breasts across and in half, leaving out the back, you get ten pieces. And trust me, people, do leave out the back. If you don’t, you and your friends better at least practice up on that Heimlich maneuver.

After your pieces are cut, place them on a flat sheet, pizza, or jelly roll pan and season both sides with kosher salt, garlic powder, and cayenne pepper. Set aside for half of an hour.  While you are waiting for those seasonings to sink in really well, you will want to cut up your veggies.

The most important reason to have all your veggies prepared before starting the roux is that a big bowl of this stuff is what you use to put out the roux just before it bursts into flames. I don’t care how quickly you chop. You will not have time for prepping veggies once your roux is started. Don’t even think about it!

In Louisiana, we refer to this particular combination of veggies as the “Holy Trinity” because it is these three ingredients always used together that gives many dishes in Louisiana their distinctive flavor. The Trinity is similar to a French mirepoix of onion, celery, and carrots, but instead of carrots, we substitute bell peppers.

So, coarsely chop 2 cups onion, 1-1/2 cups celery, 2 cups bell pepper. Put the mix aside in a bowl within an arm’s reach of the stove. Trust me. You will not have time to dash across the kitchen when you finally need it.

Then, separately, mince 1-1/2 teaspoons fresh garlic and, although the recipe calls for minced andouille, I like mine sliced diagonally. It’s a thing.  Take 2-1/2 cups of flour and put it in the clean, paper grocery bag I mentioned earlier.

If you want to go traditional, you will also want enough dry, white rice to make about 4 cups.  It like cooking butter in mine.

Fourth, let’s light this candle! After a half hour has elapsed from seasoning the chicken (and by the time you finish all of this prep, you should have no trouble with this requirement at all), place the seasoned chicken pieces in the paper bag with the flour, fold the top, and either turn the bag over while holding the fold shut or give it a gentle shake until the chicken is just coated with flour. Remove the chicken to a platter and reserve 1 cup of the flour that’s left in the bag.

In Grandma’s cast iron chicken fryer I inherited that’s been seasoned for like a hundred years (aren’t you jealous, you should be), heat the ghee until it’s around 299 to 399 degrees and fry the chicken pieces until the coating is just brown. Don’t worry about cooking it all the way through until done. The chicken will finish in the stew. This step is really just to give the hot butter some chicken flavor.

       

Once all the chicken pieces are browned and set aside, the party really gets started when you add 1 cup of the reserved flour from the grocery bag to the very hot oil to make the roux (i.e., fried flour).

 Now repeat after me: once I start the roux, I will not take my eyes off of it for one second, nor will I ever stop stirring until it is finished, no matter what.  **You can call them back. You cannot save a scorched roux.**

And so you CAREFULLY stir, and stir, and stir, getting into every nook and cranny of the pot. Do not splatter the roux onto anything with nerve-endings unless you hate them and can make it look like an accident. The only more painful burn is a melted sugar burn when making candy. Roux burns will make you cry. Don’t do it.

But if you keep your flame high and your fingers crossed and are very, very good, after about fifteen minutes of constant, unerring attention, your roux will be the color of dark chocolate but will not smell burned. Amazing.

Observe:

 

 

 

 

 

Once you reach that dark chocolate color, immediately turn off your flame, add the chopped veggies (but not the garlic), and keep stirring the roux and veggies until those veggies are tender. The smell is incredible and will make your neighbors jealous. And, yes, the roux is hot enough to cook celery, onion, and bell pepper soft with no extra heat. Remember how I told you roux burns will make you cry?

 

 

 

 

Next, place a stock pot or large, heavy saucepan next to your chicken fryer on the stove. Now that the veggies and roux are cooled and not burned because you stirred them like I told you, dump the roux-veggie mixture into the stock pot and pour in your well-shaken and not spilled chicken stock. Bring the stock-thinned roux-veggies mix to a boil, while stirring. Lower heat to a simmer and add the garlic, sausage, and chicken you set aside earlier.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now ignore for about 1-3/4 to 2 hours. Well, maybe not the ENTIRE time. You should probably come back and give it a little stir from time to time, making sure you scrape the bottom to avoid stickage. You know just for funsies.

 

Taste and adjust the salt and, if you like, toss in a few dashes of Tabasco. Hey! It’s your party….

Cook your white rice and serve the gumbo over the rice in bowls with a plate either under or nearby each bowl for the bones your guests will inevitably find.

NOTE: if you or one of your guests is weird about bones in their meat (yes, those people are out there), I have achieved the same flavor and yet avoided table side freak outs by deboning the chicken after frying but before adding it back to the roux-veggie-stock mixture.

The meat goes in the pot directly but the bones are placed in cheese cloth, tied closed with butcher’s twine, and hung like a cachet inside the pot suspended by the other end of the twine tied to the pot handle. Once the gumbo is cooked, just pull out the bag of bones and discard.

Rawr!

Just received this lovely press release: CONGRATULATIONS TO FARM255 IN ATHENS, GA

FARM255 IN ATHENS, GA, WINNER OF GLYNWOOD’S 2011 GOOD FOOD ENTREPRENEUR HARVEST AWARD

Co-owner Olivia Sargeant to Receive their Award at a Ceremony in the Hudson Valley and Speak at a Public Forum on October 24 in Manhattan

Cold Spring, NY, October 11, 2011 — Glynwood, the agricultural non-profit whose mission is to save farming, has announced that Farm255 in Athens, GA is the winner of the 2011 Good Food Entrepreneur Award. The Harvest Awards were created by Glynwood in order to highlight innovative work being done on a community level to increase access to fresh, locally-produced food and to recognize leaders across the country whose exemplary work support their regional food systems.

This year all of four of the Harvest Award winners will participate in a panel discussion open to the public to take place on Monday, October 24 at the 92YTRIBECA in downtown Manhattan. Moderated by Glynwood President Judith LaBelle, the winners will discuss their work, their challenges and the models they’ve created to increase their community’s access to locally produced foods. Guests will have the opportunity to speak with the winners at a reception immediately following the event, where they will enjoy small plates prepared with regionally-produced food by top New York City chefs.

About Farm 255–
Co-owners Olivia Sargeant and Jason Mann have created an ingenious model of vertical integration in the sustainable agriculture sector by developing a cluster of businesses that support each other: Full Moon Farms, their own farm operation which supplies up to 50% of the produce served at Farm 255 and also supplies food to 45 families via its CSA; Farm Cart, a food cart that serves “street food” at the farmers market; Farm Burger, two neighborhood burger joints using 100% local, grass-fed beef; and Moonshine Meats, a collective of pasture-based-producers that raise all the meat for Farm 255 and Farm Burger, in addition to operating a CSA for families in Athens and Atlanta, GA. Everything is raised using sustainable and organic agricultural methods. This creative business model has proven to be successful: it supports the owner-farmers of Farm 255, the member-farmers of the cooperative, and the health and wellness of the patrons of their businesses.

Farm 255 also acts as a community hub, serving as a meeting place for those who appreciate locally grown fare and for those who want to learn more about it. Co-owners Olivia Sargeant and Jason Mann consider themselves agricultural entrepreneurs who wear many hats – as mentors for beginning farmer interns, young cooks and service industry professionals; as educators, teaching classes to local Future Farmers of America high schoolers, as well as lecturing at the University of Georgia; and as food activists, providing ongoing awareness about the importance of supporting local food systems to their community.

“We believe,” says co-owner Olivia Sargeant, “that our tireless work within our extended community has been a key piece to introducing the South to a new perspective on farming and food that positively contributes to all points on the food supply chain.”

The complete list of 2011 Harvest Award Winners–
The Glynwood Farmer Award: Sean Stanton, Blue Hill Farm, Great Barrington MA
The Good Food Entrepreneur Award: Farm 255, Athens GA
The Award for Connecting Communities, Farmers and Food: Buffalo Hump Sanctuary, Pine Ridge SD
The Wave of the Future Award: AmpleHarvest.org, Newfoundland NJ

About Glynwood–
Glynwood’s mission is to save farming by strengthening farm communities and regional food systems. The goal is for small- and mid-sized farmers to thrive, on the land and in the marketplace. Located in the Hudson Valley and operating its own sustainably managed farm, Glynwood’s unique niche is to empower communities to support farming and conserve farmland through its community programs, public education and leadership in environmentally sustainable agriculture. Major Glynwood programs include Keep Farming™, the Modular Slaughterhouse Initiative, the Glynwood Institute for Sustainable Food and Farming, and the Apple Project: Saving Orchards with Cider, [and this year’s organizer of Cider Week in NYC, Oct 16 – 23]. To learn more about Glynwood and its initiatives, visit www.glynwood.org.

For additional information please contact Geralyn Delaney Graham, geralyn@resourcescommunications.com or telephone 281. 980. 6643.
Learn more about Glynwood’s work to save farming www.glynwood.org

Geralyn Delaney Graham
Principal | Resources Communications
5230 West 43rd Street I Houston TX 77092
o/ 281.980.6643 | cell/ 917. 826.5094

Farm Burger Supper Series–I’ll be back (if I can get to the phone fast enough)!

Hungry diners await the chefs' offerings at Farm Burger's Summer Farm Supper No. 4.

Let me just tell you upfront: the life of a food blogger does not suck. Which is a good thing because the pay really does. But every once in a while, gustatory curiosity (and my continuing need for high-quality content) leads me to an event I might otherwise never have noticed. And every once in a while, I have an experience that ends up being pay enough. (Well, almost.)

The Summer Farm Supper No. 4 on Thursday, August 11, 2011, at Farm Burger in Decatur, Georgia, was such an event. And luckily for all involved, it is part of an ongoing a series!

At the helm this evening were two chefs, Ryan Smith of Empire State South and Zeb Stevenson of Livingston Restaurant + Bar, ready to show what they could do with ingredients provided by Farm Burger affiliates Moonshine Meats and Full Moon Farms in Athens, Georgia.

Chefs Zeb and Ryan take a well-deserved bow.

The rest of us were just along for the exquisite ride knowing only that for about $36 we would get something like four courses. Nonetheless, the event sold out completely leaving a decent-sized waiting list of the tardy but hungry.

The menu was posted on the Farm Burger blog two days ahead of time, and I was intrigued. The line-up included parts of the cow and pig I’d never experienced before along with some unusual parts of other animals, too.

Dinner was served at several communal tables set throughout the restaurant and at the bar. I was seated with a group of three and another pair to round out our table of six with a great view of the kitchen.

Patient patrons at the bar.

As my fellow diners arrived, we were provisioned with a pre-appetizer snack of puffed beef tendon dusted with a finely grated, hard, white mystery cheese.

Puffed beef tendon by candlelight.
 

It was paired with a refreshing and delicately sweet fig-rosé spritzer concoction.

Summertime Sipper--a kind of fig-rosé spritzer

 

 

 

 

Now just where on the animal this tendon was originally located was never revealed but the secret in no way diminished my enjoyment of this oddly alluring treat. (You will note I followed a strict “don’t ask; don’t tell ” policy through most of this meal. It was probably for the best.)

Check out the size of that beef tendon.

My closest analog with the texture was pork rinds but with a slightly sticky finish you would expect from an ingredient containing so much collagen. There was obviously some delicious fat involved, perhaps tallow, the buttery flavor of which only intensified its beefy goodness. And even though each tendon was about the size of a dinner plate and I was putting them away like I had just returned from a two week stroll across the Gobe desert, I still had plenty of room for the remaining courses—six remaining courses to be exact.

Next on deck was a sampler basket featuring three items, potted chicken liver with a rhubarb mustard, something called “scrapple,” which appeared to be something formed into a cube, enrobed in an herbed crust, and fried then topped with cured egg yolk, and something else called a beef heart “kifto” topped with a bit of crispy beef belly. (You will note, the chefs served not only inspiring food but also gave me an edumacation.)

Red basket sampler. (Potted chicken liver on the right; Scrapple topped with cured egg yolk in the center; Beef heart kifto on the left.)

The potted chicken liver was as you would expect—smoothly pate-like—and the rhubarb mustard was a served atop a subtly-sweet jelly (or maybe it was the jelly. No one at my table seemed able to tell). The scrapple simply reminded me of a really moist baked kibbe—only fried. And the shredded beef heart was an interesting deep red color and velvety texture with an unexpectedly delicate flavor. So far, so good.

Course One.

But the meal was only just beginning as course one was finally served. This course was to be a cold melon soup redolent of watermelon juice and containing a large, succulent shrimp, a sliver of “lardo,” and sweet, raw onion slivers, served as a “shooter.” (I refused to shoot, preferring a more lady-like sip that allowed me to actually taste this excellent dish.)

Those who did try to shoot it failed miserably, however, as it was a bit too much volume and the shrimp was really too large to allow much success. So, effectively, this was soup was served sans spoon. Alright then.

Along with the soup was a trout “rillette” spread upon on a whole wheat crostini. The rillette reminded me of a really awesome fish mousse—and that is good—because apparently it is prepared something like a pate. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s 3 for the chefs to 1 for the foodie. But, hey, I’m on the board.

What remained of Course Two by the time I took the snap. Yu-um. (BTW, the long brown things are fried pigs ears. I know, right?!)

Next up was a quartered and cherry heirloom tomato salad with slivered and fried pigs ears, basil, and goat cheese in a lovely vinaigrette. Yum. As in each course so far, there was a hint of sweetness about this dish, but as in each prior course, only as a delicate note far in the background. In this case, that note was provided by the perfectly garden-ripe tomatoes and the vinegar.

Course Three.

Course three was thinly-sliced pickled beef tongue, shaved fennel, summer veggies (in this case diced tomatoes, thin slices of raw okra cut on the diagonal, red and yellow bell peppers, and slivered sweet onions), and chili vinegar served family-style on a wooden plank. Once again, the chefs transmuted random organ meat into an unexpected delight.

Only a few of my fellow diners had ever eaten tongue, but we all agreed this must be a great example of it. The tongue had been sliced across the grain and was so thin as to eradicate any hint of toughness and leave only clean meat with a texture that nearly melted in your mouth.

Course Three upclose.

Even more surprising to everyone than how much we all enjoyed tongue, however, was how much we enjoyed raw okra. The diagonal slicing and other mystery preparation resulted in a crispy and totally un-gooey freshness none of us okra-eaters expected.

And then suddenly, it was time for course four. The craziest part of this, the final savory course, was its incredibly underwhelming description and family-style iron skillet presentation. I mean what was so hot about sausage, ribs, and warm barley salad? Well, as it turns out: a lot.

The magical Course Four. (Warning: Objects appear less impressive than they actually taste.)

Like the huge burst of incredible fireworks that immediately precede the end of a Fourth of July display, course number four simply blew me away. Without hesitation and unblushingly, notwithstanding all prior praise for pork and pork products previously reviewed in this blog, I can truly say these were the best, ever, to-end-all, to-die-for ribs and kielbasa that shall forever haunt my dreams.

The only consolation is that these unassumingly titled components were so far in a class by themselves that they almost defied the categories from which they sprang, and so, in my mind are set aside—incomparable with any other food sharing those respective names. Hey, if they weren’t, I could never eat pork again. (Yes. They were that good.)

Course Four.

And the barley salad was pretty good too. In fact, in the presence of any other meat, the salad likely would have been star of this particular show. Here, however, it was merely something to pass the time between brief sojourns through the outskirts of pork heaven.

“What was so awesome, then?” you may ask. Well, for starters, the fat of the sausage was practically drinkable. And the meat was sensuously textured, amazingly well-seasoned, and absolutely perfectly prepared. So perfectly, I wondered whether one nanosecond of cooking time in either direction would have ruined its delicately balanced flawlessness. My God! I can hardly believe I’m talking about sausage here.

Strangely, the rib came in second to the sausage in a photo finish. That’s weird to me because I have never before in my life preferred anything to a spare rib. Not that there was anything wrong with this one.

The Chefs bask in the afterglow of their triumph in Decatur.

In fact, there was everything right about it. The exterior was almost imperceptibly crispy with a delicate crust of lightly distributed and (once again) subtly sweet sauce. Until now, it had been my experience that most ribs are defined by the sauce and the meat is either good or not good.

In this instance, however, Chef Terry’s restraint allowed the magnificence of the pork to shine through. His delicate application of the condiment enabled this rib to achieve a perfect balance of flavors that elevated both the sauce and the meat to a level I have never known. Truly divine!

The "Goodbye" Course

After this incredible burst of light and sound, we metaphorically sat around playing with sparklers in the form of the “Goodbye Course” of fried blueberry pies dusted with lime sugar and served with a side of savory whipped yogurt. Again, it was a triumph in any other context.

How HUGE are those blueberries?

 

 

 

Following as it did the almost religious experience of course four, however, I couldn’t help thinking of it more as a palate cleanser. Something akin to a nightcap before I hit the road home to mull over all that I had learned at this meal and to swear silently that I will never miss attending another Farm Burger Supper ever again.

Rawr!

The Original Pancake House–Did You Know How Good This Place Is (at least the one on LaVista Road in Atlanta)?

The Original Pancake House. If you’re like me, you’ve probably driven by, like, 53 of these and never once stopped. Well, I’m here to tell you, my friend: quit doing that!

One reason I’ve never stopped, other than the low-carb diet since 2003, is my apparently whack belief that one pancake/waffle/denny’s/shoney’s establishment is more or less like another. And usually, that has been the case. But The Original Pancake House on LaVista Road NE in Atlanta (or OPH(L) for short), may be the exception to the rule.

My first visit to OPH(L) was during a mid-morning peak time one recent Saturday; the next was a “shoot-a-canon-through-it” mid-morning weekday. Both times I sat at the bar. Both times I placed the same order: two eggs over easy, sausage, three pancakes with sugar-free syrup, coffee, and water.

(You can infer from this that I enjoyed the first breakfast so well that I just wanted a repeat, and not that the menu was in any way not pages and pages of deliciousness described. It certainly was the former.)

Whereas most “diner” eggs are greasy and/or over-cooked, OPH(L)’s over easy was textbook with a perfectly soft, not overly runny interior. (Frankly, I wish I could make them as well.) Whereas most “diner” sausage is a dried-out, crusty, rubbery puck, OPH(L)’s was tender yet cooked through, perfectly-seasoned, and moist with what seemed like actual pork fat. Mmmmm.

Now I come to the pancakes served with authentic—wait for it—butter. These were probably among the very best examples I have ever tried. They were not oversweet, dry, chewy, loose, wet, lumpy, or any other bad thing. In fact they were cakes of steamy, firm, buttery pure love.

Now granted, being a Louisiana dinosaur, I happen to think the pinnacle of pancake syrup is Steen’s Cane Syrup, a kind of Cajun blackstrap molasses. So I’m admittedly no maple syrup connoisseur. But to my taste, even the sugar-free syrup they served (I forget the brand) was actually indistinguishable from real maple syrup in taste and texture.

What’s more the coffee was fresh, strong, and bottomless, and the service was reasonably attentive and welcoming. Sitting there at the bar was like a trip back to a simpler time when people enjoyed a little gossip with their brunch. Apparently, that hasn’t changed much along with the now-retro 1950’s décor.

All-in-all, I found the Original Pancake House to be a great way to spend both the morning and about $10 a head.

Rawr!

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Farm Burger–The Best Thing to Happen to the Hamburger in (at Least) 35 Years

In 1976, when I was a wee hatchling, I had an abdominal surgery that required me to live for a week on the contents of I.V. bags and an apparently limitless supply of neon green Jello. Once healed, I was allowed to pick my favorite food to end this weeklong abstinence. (Kind of like the opposite of a prisoner’s last meal.) All-American, patriotic kid that I was, I chose the hospital hamburger and fries.

Now, if you’re probably thinking, “ugh,” I certainly don’t blame you. But let me tell you, that hamburger was the best, most succulent, sweetest, flavorful, fresh ground bit of heaven I have ever experienced on a bun—until now.

Farm Burger on West Ponce de Leon in Decatur, Georgia, has opened my eyes to what flavor a lowly burger is still capable of. The measures they have taken to ensure your burger enjoyment are total extraordinary and involve taking the Chipotle concept of using locally-sourced meats and produce to the next level. In short, they raise their own grass-fed beef, pastured pork and chicken, and fabulous vegetables on farms in nearby Athens.

That’s right. Most, if not all, of their meat is sourced from an affiliated farm, Moonshine Meats, while the veggies grow up on the nearby Full Moon Cooperative.

The first time I visited Farm Burger, I was struck by its cool, unpretentiousness and the overcrowded parking lot. The restaurant shares a building with dry cleaners, so after a certain point in the evening, all the parking is for the burger joint. And that’s what it is—newer, cleaner, and hipper perhaps, but still retaining that comfortable, familiar burger-joint-hangout vibe.

Upon entering, you are supposed to line up on the left next to stacked cases housing a very interesting beer selection and review the paper menu found in baskets along the wall and the chalk board describing the specials. You can order at the front or skip the line and take your seat at the friendly bar.

The basic burger costs $6 and is available with a wide variety of toppings and sides making possible several thousand different burger combinations. The toppings range in cost from “free” to $2 extra if you go really exotic. (I was unclear if the listed price was per topping or would allow you to choose as many as you want from the list. The free stuff is so interesting, I haven’t felt the need to find out yet.) All rings and fries are real and made in-house. Go figure!

There are also lunch and daily combos and special “blackboard burgers” available every day. You could also choose from their snack menu, which looks awfully yummy in an odd sort of way. And for dessert are ice cream floats, including one of my favs, a Young’s Chocolate Stout float. (Beer and ice cream, I know. But it really works.) Farm Burger also offers an alternative veggie burger, but why? why? why would you do it?!

My first burger there was pretty simple—medium with iceberg, red onions, house pickles, and FB sauce—hand cut fries on the side and a Young’s Chocolate Stout. [Intake of breath] *sigh* Fabulous.

I had begun to doubt the world’s ability to bring me a burger like this. I had begun to believe I would never again experience the crispy, slightly smoky exterior with perfectly cooked, moist, flavorful, grassy sweet interior of a proper ground beef patty sandwich ever again.

The vegetables too were crisply fresh, without blemish, and proportionally-sized, and the bun was buttery toasted. Most importantly, perhaps, the dressing atop the burger enhanced and did nothing to diminish my enjoyment of the meat, which is clearly the star of the show. The fresh fries obviously cooked in fresh oil served admirably to create an interval between bites of burger helping me appreciate the next bite even more.

On my next trip, we sat outside on the front patio, enjoying the beautiful evening, and watching the dry cleaner’s customer’s pick-up at the drive-thu. Strangely, the setting did nothing to detract from our enjoyment of the meal.

I started with beer-battered onion rings with smoked paprika mayo, and got the daily combo burger which came with fries. The rings were outstanding. Beer-battered in the tempura-style, they were light, crispy, non-greasy, and perfectly complemented by the mayo. My companions got fried okra which was similarly battered and properly fried but served not as “rings.” Each piece was cut longitudinally, instead, allowing us to experience the okra spear in a totally new way.

The burgers did not disappoint either. Mine came with aged, smoked Gouda, caramelized onion, bacon, lettuce, and spicy mustard. Once again, ummmmm.

In short, it seems this burger can do no wrong. It has the power to cure the sick, help the lame to walk, bring home the bacon, and fry it up on a pan, whether dressed simply or done up in the most modern fashion. Like the perfect wingman, the sides complement without competing. I will be back to Farm Burger so many times, they’ll have to name a booth after me.

Rawr!
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Coffee Rani on Lee Lane is my go-to coffee, salad, breakfast, brunch place on the North Shore

Wherever I am, I tend to work sans office. No office generally means I work from either my home office, my hotel, or a coffee shop. Luckily, when I travel to Covington, Louisiana, there are several coffee options that don’t involve a certain company from Seattle (not that there’s anything wrong with them). My favorite is Coffee Rani located on charming Lee Lane.

I have eaten here at least three times since arriving a week or so ago and each time have been gratified by the quality of the food and the large, pleasant sunny environment that doesn’t leave you reeking of java. And the coffee’s pretty good too—although, the staff usually doesn’t know how to make an Americano. But no worries! Just order a cappuccino, instead, which they do very well.

The first time I ate lunch, I tried the Magazine featuring chopped egg, bacon, almonds, cabbage, cheddar-provo and topped with a lovely chicken salad, tomatoes, and cucumbers with blue cheese. Awesome and awesomely filling! The egg was fluffy and well-cooked, the bacon not overly-salty or underly-meaty, and all-in-all the salad was very, very filling.

Even so, after several more hours of work, I found room for the red velvet brownie. The very tempting pastries here are not made in-house. But the cashier was kind enough to steer me toward the items delivered that day when I asked her for a recommendation. The brownie is a combination of red velvet cake batter and brownie batter, topped with cream cheese icing, and it is large, moist, and good. Very good.

The next time I was there, I had the Soprano. This also-very-filling salad is described as pesto grilled chicken, tomatoes, marinated artichoke hearts, marinated mushrooms, olive salad, feta, creamy parmesan topped with a cheese tweel. What was served, however, was even better than described with two variations: I detected no pesto on the chicken (boring and hardly ever done properly anyway), but the tweel turned out to be cheese and pesto grilled black-brown.

That tweel is right up there with the most surprisingly good things I’ve eaten. A moment more on the grill, however, and I fear the basil would have burned and the effect ruined. As it was, however, the browned pesto brought just the right amount of crunch and tang to the apparently-tapas-inspired-salad party. In my mind, A+ for creativity/lucky mistake and execution/happy accident.

Today, I arrived early for lunch and found they were still serving breakfast. One bacon, egg, and cheddar-provo croissant and single cappuccino fairly dry, please. On top of the very good coffee with a nice solid foam was served a massive breakfast sandwich. (There’s no skimping on the portions here, for sure.)

There must have been three fluffy scrambled eggs in there as the whole sandwich was at least four or five inches in diameter and the egg layer was folded. The bacon was mercifully not overcooked and neither were the eggs. Although the cheese was shredded and unmelted bits were observable through the croissant hole, the heat of the sandwich rendered the part under the top half nice and gooey. I even enjoyed the red grape and sliced orange garnish.

In the final analysis, although the service at Coffee Rani can be young and inexperienced at times, the kitchen is really very good, the portions are fresh, large, and filling (as they don’t skimp on protein or fat), and the coffee and pastry are pretty nice too. That pistachio cake is calling my name.

Rawr!
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Martin Wine Cellar–Still Awesome After All These Years

If you’re like me, every so often you enjoy a spot of wine. Or three. So a few years ago, when I last lived in the Greater New Orleans area, a favorite hangout of mine was Martin Wine Cellar.

Not only does Martin Wine Cellar offer a dazzling array of wine and liquor with knowledgeable staff to go along with it, they also are one of the best places I’ve found in the GNO for salads, sandwiches, and deli items. The sandwiches, in particular, are innovative, exceptionally fresh, and combine ingredients in a way more reminiscent of Hippy lunch counters than a New Orleans deli. And it is good.

On a recent return to my old haunt, I found it much the same as I remembered only possibly better.  I enjoyed a walk down memory lane with the Californian, which is oven roasted, turkey, havarti cheese, avocado, sprouts, cucumbers, tomato, Creole mustard and mayo on wheat or pita. I opted for wheat with a side of Zapp’s Cajun Crawtaters because you only live once and life without Crawtaters isn’t worth living.

Back in the day, when I worked down the street, my lunch alternated between this favorite and my all-time most favoritest sammich in da whole wide world—the Eric (may be a fictitious name) featuring rare roast beef, Creole mustard, and pate. Mmmmm. But as Martin took this delicacy off of the menu many years ago and because I’m sure I remember its actual name, I doubted anyone remembered how to make it and so allowed the aforementioned Crawtaters to soothe my broken heart instead.

My niece enjoyed the chicken tenders and fries from the kids menu. She is a particularly slender 9-year-old, so there was some debate about whether we should select the three or five unit basket. Arguing she had “nothing” for breakfast, I was convinced to go five-piece. She later relayed that the definition of “nothing” does not include a “small” bowl of cereal. So I enjoyed at least one of the delicious, meaty portions of real, tender white chicken breast myself along with what seemed to be house cut french fries. The other we took home with the fries.

After lunch we strolled aisle after aisle of domestic and imported wine, selecting a bordeaux with good reviews for my later enjoyment and a bottle of “Who Dat?” cab for my brother-in-law, a big Saint’s fan. All-in-all a great day enjoying an old favorite that has, if anything, improved with age.

Bon Appetite!

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Adventures in Pressure Cooking—Boston Butt

Those of you familiar with this blog should be well aware of my serious obsession with pork. ‘Cause if pork were a person, I’d stalk it!

So when I recently spotted the most bea-U-tiful, locally-raised 4.43 pound Boston Butt with an Animal Welfare Rating of 4 I have ever seen in any Whole Food’s butcher’s case, naturally, I snagged first and planned later. The snow white fat rind covering the roast’s top and sides enrobed evenly-marbled pink flesh. I expected great things of this roast.

A quick Google search on my craptastic Blackberry turned up a John Folse recipe for “Soul Pork Roast.” It seemed like a good start. The “suggested” cook time was 2 to 2-1/2 hours in a 375 degree oven, but I had a better idea: 40 minutes in the ole new pressure cooker! So I promptly e-mailed to myself a link to the recipe’s site before setting off to find all remaining ingredients.

The roast came enrobed in one of those elastic nets, which I promptly replaced with a length of butcher’s twine. (No nasty rubber aftertaste.) I followed the rest of the recipe using lard as the oil and with only a two modifications—(1) instead of waiting to the green onions, parsley, and the dash of hot sauce, I included them with the stock, and (2) I added an extra cup of water to compensate for the loss of liquid through steam. (The extra water was likely unnecessary, however, given the relatively short cooking time.)

I didn’t wait to bring everything to a boil as suggested by the recipe either, and closed the pressure cooker right away, bringing the whole thing to full pressure at a medium high heat. Like last time, when I prepared beef short ribs, the pressurizing procedure took about ten minutes.

When the little yellow button popped up, I started a ten-minute timer and lower the burner temperature to slightly less than medium. After ten minutes elapsed, I checked the steam level to be sure it was steady and then reset the timer adding another half hour.

When the timer alerted the second time, I removed the cooker from the heat and performed the depressurizing procedure. I then plated the roast before carving.

In hindsight, the roast probably should have been cooked another ten minutes for a total of roughly 50 minutes as the very center of the roast was still a bit rare. Because I was serving only two, however, I simply saved that rare part to reheat the following day by searing it in a dry skillet.

The outside parts of the pork, however, were soooooo delicious! Tender and juicy, the roast’s thick, white rind had melted to a soft buttery consistency infused with the flavor of the stock and aromatics.

As with the beef short ribs prepared on my first foray into the world of pressure cooking, all of the seasoning penetrated the surface of the roast and seemed to infuse every bit of it in a way I never achieved using a mere Dutch oven.

All things considered, this really cheap cut of pork—already my favorite readily-available part of the pig—was just as fabulous a subject for pressure cooking as was cheap beef. And feeding four in about an hour for less than $25, the Fagor Splendid 10-Quart Pressure Cooker/Canner proved itself once again to be an appliance I should never have waited to try!

Bon appetite!

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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