Grillin’ And Chillin’ (II)

Tonight’s cookout featured split lobster tails — purchased from Greenhead Lobster Co-Op, just a few steps away — and grilled ears of corn.

Lobster tails are easy to cook on the grill — slather some butter and garlic and paprika on them and grill them about four minutes each side, flesh side and shell side — the corn is, too. We cooked it in the husk and it came out perfectly. It’s not a surprise to the grillmeisters out there that everything tastes better with some char on it. It’s definitely true, though.

H/T to the Red Sox Fan/Birthday Boy for the corn grilling concept.

The Comfort Of Cooking Shows

Since we’ve been up in Maine we’ve spent a number of evenings watching competitive cooking shows.  There are two reasons for this.  First, our cable provider offers a surprisingly limited number of options.  And second, there’s just something pleasing and comforting about competitive cooking shows that seem to fit well with the crazy period we are experiencing.

1407187942730We’ve watched and enjoyed Guy’s Grocery Games, Chopped, Big Time Bake, and Beat Bobby Flay.  The shows all follow a kind of playbook.  The contestants are introduced, we learn where they are from, and we hear about their backstory and what they are going to do with the money if they win the competition, so “rooting interests” can be established.  Then we meet the judges and see what curious culinary curveballs are going to thrown at the contestants — who must try to whip up an entree that uses, say, pickle-juice popsicles or ingredients that they can balance in a pizza delivery box.  And, of course, the competition proceeds pursuant to a clock countdown, so there’s always the risk that a contestant will fail to get their food on the plate before time is called.

Why do we like these shows?  For one, the contestants inevitably end up impressing you with their know-how, poise, and creativity, whether they win or lose.  You can pick up some useful cooking tips and techniques along the way, too.  But mostly, for me, there’s a comfort in the fact that the shows and contestants are all good-natured, nobody takes the competition super-seriously, and the stakes just aren’t that high.  The contestants would all like to win the money, or the trip to some tropical location, sure, but they are going to do just fine, regardless.  And they are working on food, not life or death scenarios — and most of the dishes they produce look pretty darned good.

It would be interesting to know whether the ratings of cooking shows has increased during this crazy time.  And I also wonder:  when the world does return to normal — as it will one day — and we get back to a more robust cable system, will we still watch these shows, or will the need for the simple comfort they provide have vanished?

Local Sodas, Local Pops

Fortunately, there’s still a lot of regional flavor in the United States.  Despite the spread of standardized fast-food restaurants, and despite consolidation of businesses, when you travel around the country you can nevertheless find unique local food items that you’ve never heard of in your home territory.

What Midwesterners call “pop,” and people in the Northeast call “soda,” is a good example of that pleasant reality.  Coke and Pepsi might dominate the drink aisle, but most stores in most parts of the country reserve some shelf space for regional beverages.  If you go down to North Carolina, for example, you’ll find a cherry-flavored concoction called “Cheerwine.”  In Texas, the famed local option is “Big Red.”  In the Midwest, it’s Vernor’s.

Maine is well known for “Moxie” — which has actually been named the official drink of Maine.  Moxie was initially invented as a tonic and is made with roots and herbs that are supposed to help with your digestion.  Even its fans admit Moxie is an “acquired taste,” and I haven’t been brave enough to try it yet.  But Kish and I have become addicted to another regional offering:  diet Polar Orange Dry sparkling beverage.  It’s a tasty, brisk drink that has a lighter touch on the orange flavor than the other orange sodas I’ve tried, which pretty much punch you in the face with overpowering orangeness.  (I’ve always thought they gave Orange Crush that name for a very good reason.)  The Polar orange option has a much subtler, less cloying, more refreshing approach.  We’ve been shamelessly guzzling it during our stay this year.

But that raises a problem:  diet Polar Orange Dry isn’t sold in Columbus.  We’re either going to have to wean ourselves off this stuff, or stock the car with cases of it for the drive home. 

I have a pretty good idea of which option we’ll be going with. 

 

Corn Reborn

Last night we had fresh corn on the cob as part of our outdoor cookout — and once again I realized just how much I like to eat corn on the cob.

It’s an annual rite of self-discovery.  At some point every summer, corn on the cob is on the menu for a cookout, and I chomp through one ear and enjoy it so much I promptly have another.  (You can’t stop with just one ear of corn!)  And thereafter corn on the cob remains on the summer dinner menu for as long as it is available, and then it vanishes from the plate — forgotten until next summer comes, a new bumper crop of local corn waiting to be shucked hits the stores, and the cycle of food revelation happens all over again.

Corn on the cob is one of those seasonal foods that is so closely associated with its season they are almost synonymous.  You can’t really imagine eating ears of corn when it’s 10 degrees outside and there is snow up to your kneecaps.  Corn on the cob demands to be eaten outside on a summer’s day, so you don’t have to fret about the flying debris that is produced as you bite and bite and bite again, in staccato fashion, moving down the rows of corn like the ear is an old typewriter carriage, until your mouth is filled with juicy sweetness and your lips are slathered with butter.  It’s just a fun thing to eat, and you can’t help but feel a bit like a kid again when you’re doing it.

I like mine lightly buttered, with no salt.

 

Grow Your Own

Russell has the proverbial green thumb. He’s been growing his own vegetables up in Detroit for some time, and before we came up to Maine he gave us some plants to bring along.

We’ve replanted the vegetables into a little bed I’ve created among the rocks, with some garden soil and cow manure mixture added to the native Stonington soil to give them a kick start. I’ve been attentive to watering as do weeding, and I’m happy to report that our Detroit transplants are thriving in the cooler Maine climate and are growing like crazy. They are pretty to look at, too.

Our little garden plot includes broccoli, celery, kale, lettuce, and Brussels sprouts. We’ve already eaten some of the kale, which was quite good — but I suppose it’s natural to think that when the food is fresh and something you have grown yourself. Now, if only I liked broccoli . . . .

A Dummy’s Palate

Stonington and Deer Isle are blessed with an excellent local coffee house, 44 North.  (44 North is the latitude of Stonington and Deer Isle, in case you are interested.)  The shop roasts its coffee right here, and its location in Stonington, at the edge of the downtown area, is a classic, comfortable place to sit and drink a cup of coffee and enjoy a cookie or a scone — in normal times when social distancing doesn’t require that you drink your joe outside, that is.

But here’s the problem:  whenever I go into 44 North to get some of their fine, fresh ground coffee, I feel overwhelmed, like a junior high school algebra student sitting at a table listening to a bunch of college physics professors talking about the finer points of their lates calculus equations.  I might get that they are chatting about math in some mysterious sense, but that’s about it.

It’s the same with 44 North’s terrific coffee.  I love the smell, but when I taste it I just can’t appreciate the subtleties of the roasting and preparation process.  I’m sorry to admit that, when it comes to coffee, my palate is not only not educated, it hasn’t even begun its schooling.  Sad to say, I’ve got a dummy’s palate.

This week, for example, I bought two bags of coffee.  One, the Colombia, is described in the “tasting notes” on the bag as having a “sweet and spicy aroma with a rich dark chocolate body.”  The “tasting notes” on the other bag, the Sol Y Luna Blend, refer to “bright raspberry and dark chocolate.”  But try as I might, even squinting in a physical effort to maximize the discernment of my taste buds, I cannot detect the raspberry — or for that matter the dark chocolate.  I can enjoy the sweet and spicy aroma of the Colombia and when I take a slug I can recognize that it is a darker roast than the Sol Y Luna (at least, I think it is), but that’s about it.  They both taste to my poor dummy’s palate like coffee — excellent coffee, to be sure, but still coffee.

Well, at least I can enjoy the smell of the coffee grounds when I open the bag.

Eating Out (Again)

Last night, to celebrate the end of our 14-day quarantine, we went out to eat at the Harbor Cafe. It was our first dinner out in three months.

It was a little weird, being served by masked wait staff, but the restaurant had erected plexiglass barriers between booths and had implemented procedures to address social distancing, including having a designated “in” door and “out” door to ensure that people don’t bump into each other. And patrons are required to wear their masks until they are seated.

The masks and procedures made it a different experience, but it was a great pleasure to be served a hot meal and an ice-cold beer again. I got the fish and chips, and can honestly report that french fries truly are a revelation after a three-month respite.

We enjoyed our meal and gave our server a hefty tip. Working in a mask can’t be fun, and waiters and waitresses still have to make up for their shutdown period. We all should be generous with the people whose jobs were closed down due to the coronavirus.

The Cooking Impulse

I’ve found that, as the coronavirus shutdown/closed-up period has continued, I’ve become a lot more interested in cooking.

I’ve always liked baking — as any faithful reader of this blog knows — but I’ve not done a lot in the cooking category.  Before the shutdown, I’d head to the office for work, come home after a long day, and as often as not just make myself a plate of meat and cheeses for dinner — often stopping at Katzinger’s Deli on the way home to get some special items.  Kish would offer to whip up something more elaborate, but meat, cheese, and crackers really seemed to hit the right spot.  

Since the shutdown, however, I’ve been working remotely — which means I’m either setting up my laptop on the kitchen island or somewhere near the kitchen.  Maybe it’s because I’ve been in close proximity to the refrigerator and the stove, but I seem to be thinking about cooking more than ever before.  I’ve made a lot of stews using odds and ends from the cupboard, and given our little crock pot a serious work out in preparing briskets, chicken, chili, and other dinners.  More recently, though, my attention has focused on the grill and the stovetop.  On Monday I made a very tasty pasta with smoked mussels, clams, and a variation on Alfredo sauce, and last night I prepared some succulent Panko-crusted chicken breasts.  Tonight, weather permitting, I’ll be grilling out.

As with everything else that has happened during this crazy period, I wonder if this development represents a lasting change, or whether when things get back to normal the cooking impulse will be felt no more.  I can’t say for sure, but I can say this:  as much as I have enjoyed my dalliance with cooking, I’m definitely looking forward to going to a restaurant in the very near future.   

Cooking With “Liquid Gold”

We’ve learned a lesson during this shutdown period:  if you are ordering groceries for delivery in order to comply with a mandatory governmental quarantine, you really need to be specific about what you want.  Otherwise, you run the risk that the person who is doing the shopping for you will make a judgment call that might not be what you intended.

We learned this lesson this week when we placed a delivery order and one of the items was “American cheese.”  We were thinking of the Kraft singles for use in grilling cheeseburgers, but what we got instead was a box of Velveeta “liquid gold” cheese — which definitely stirred some childhood memories.

In the Webner household of the ’60s, a brick of Velveeta was a staple of the family refrigerator.  Who doesn’t remember opening up the foil wrapper and gazing at that soft, golden brick still bearing the traces of the foil wrapper that indicated that the cheese had been injected into the packaging in liquid form.  (Presumably, that’s why the package calls Velveeta “liquid gold.”)  Unlike other cheese, Velveeta could not be cut and eaten by hand, unless you wanted to squish the cheese and end up with a thick cheese residue on your hands.  Instead, Velveeta was specifically designed for melting and cooking purposes — like gooey grilled cheese sandwiches, or even more gooey macaroni and cheese.

We haven’t had a brick of Velveeta in the fridge for years, but it doesn’t look like it has changed one bit in the intervening decades.  The packaging and presentation looks the same, although the box now helpfully notes that Velveeta has 50 percent less fat than cheddar cheese.  Back in the ’60s, the fat content of Velveeta — or for that matter any other kind of food in the family fridge or cupboard — was not something that was disclosed, or even considered. 

We’ll be using every ounce of this unexpected brick for cooking, because in the shutdown period, it’s “waste not, want not.”  Yesterday we made scrambled eggs with the “liquid gold,” and it still melts as well as it ever did.  

Sketchy Stuff First

When you’re stuck at home by governmental edict and need to be mindful that you can’t simply go out at your whim to replenish your supplies, what is your approach to how to address the available resources?  More specifically, do you consume the good stuff first, knowing that at the end of your shut-in period your future self will be dealing with the dregs and cursing your present self for total selfishness, or do you hit with the sketchy items first, secure in the knowledge that your future self will be reveling in the good stuff later and thanking you for your foresight and sacrifice?

I always adopt the latter approach — which is why, last night, I tried my first few cans of “hard seltzer.” 

I’ve seen younger people trying this stuff, but had never been tempted myself.  A global pandemic and mandatory isolation periods have ways of imposing their will upon such preferences, however.  A few cans of the stuff were in the refrigerator, and since I wanted to preserve our limited supply of beer and wine, I decided to give it a try.  Last night I sampled the “ruby grapefruit” and “black cherry” flavors.

In looking at the can, I can see why people might drink this stuff.  It’s low carb, and low calorie.  It’s also low taste — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing when you’re talking about an over-the-top flavor like “ruby grapefruit.”  I braced myself for the first few sips, thinking that it might be horribly cloying.  Fortunately, the folks at White Claw took a more subtle approach.  It’s still the flavor of grapefruit (not exactly the taste I’m going for in an alcoholic beverage) but at least it’s not at the pungent, hit you over the head level.  That said, in my view the black cherry flavor was more potable — although it still isn’t a flavor I would choose for an adult drink, and reminded me more of the kind of beverage you’d get as a kid at an amusement park.

Flavors aside, the hard seltzer is definitely a light and refreshing beverage, and as someone who’s gone the low-carb route before in the desperate twilight struggle against unnecessary pounds, I can see its appeal from that standpoint.  It’s not going to replace a cold beer in my book, but it’s not undrinkable.  Once we get out of the house and get a chance to hit the grocery store, I might actually try some other flavors, and stock the refrigerator with a few cans in anticipation of the next global pandemic.

Ban The Buffet

Several fast food restaurants — including Burger King and Popeyes — have announced that they are shutting down self-serve soda fountain areas as their restaurants are reopening to in-restaurant customer service.  Those areas are seen as potential sources of coronavirus transmission (as well as being wet, sticky, and messy, incidentally).  If customers want to get a refill on a drink, they will need to go to the counter and ask for one rather than refilling their cups themselves.

replace-food-shields-sneeze-guardsI think this is a good step for a lot of reasons, and I hope the reasoning soon expands to encompass other “self-serve” monstrosities — like “salad bars” and buffets.  Risk of infection and disease transmission aside, I’ve never much cared for places where all of the food tends to end up at room temperature and you’re looking at eating something from a chafing dish that somebody else has already picked over.  I have a reflexive aversion to food that needs to be provided with “sneeze-guard” protection.  I also don’t like practices that allow businesses to fob off a share of the work that should be performed by paid employees to their patrons instead.

And let’s face it — buffets and self-serve food don’t exactly bring out the best in people, do they.  If you’ve ever been to a buffet — be it on a cruise ship, at a Las Vegas casino, or a hotel’s breakfast offering — you know that buffets tend to encourage appalling gluttony.  It’s embarrassing to watch, really.  No one ordering breakfast from a menu is going to ask the waitress to bring them three separate dishes, but it’s pretty common to see people surreptitiously going back for multiple helpings of waffles at the hotel “breakfast bar.”

Maybe we’ll be able to get back to the idea that people should actually be seated at restaurants, and served by wait staff.  And who knows?  Maybe getting rid of self-serve options will help our economy recover from the government-ordered shutdowns and encourage the hiring of more employees.  I’d gladly contribute a nickel or dime of added cost for my cheeseburger to accomplish this greater good and make America the land of the buffet-free.