I saw a commercial today, one that’s known as a PSA, Public Service Announcement. I don’t ordinarily pay a huge amount of attention to these since most of the time they’re about things I either can’t do anything about, or have already done what can do for the cause. I can’t watch the ones for animal cruelty at all. But this one caught my attention for different reasons. It featured children, and despite what the ultra conservative christianist right believes, a gay man can be concerned about, and advocate for children without being a pedophile. It has never escaped my attention the irony of writing a food blog while many hundreds of thousands of children in our country go hungry. so I do what I can to raise awareness periodically, through my blog and through my Facebook page.
This particular commercial featured various children of various ages all saying approximately the same thing; I wish I was in school. It was summer and they were playing or reading or having fun one way or another while still wishing they were in school. At the end, a voice over said, “It’s hard to have fun when you’re hungry.” Then it segued into information to help combat childhood hunger. The web site is for Feeding America. I’ve posted the link down below for any who are interested.
I spent the better part of two hours wandering through the site and finding out more about its efforts. I highly recommend taking a few minutes to go through it. It highlights a very serious subject, but it doesn’t stress the hopelessness of the effort. It highlights the successes. It highlights the positive things that we can do. Simple things like supporting the corporations that contribute to end childhood hunger. There’s a crawling feed in one corner listing those companies. I was happy to note that Pepsi was one of those.
It also provides links if you need help. It provides information in a sensitive and discreet manner for services available in all states. It provides ways for organizations who aren’t listed in their outreach to become vested members so people who want to help, or need help, can get the information from their own community.
When I was in the 3rd or 4th grade, I went to a small neighborhood school. This was in upstate New York and the rooms were small to conserve heat. The cafeteria was slightly larger, but the thing I remember most about it was the lines of tables and all the kids trooping in to sit and eat. Some of us had brought our lunches from home, while others got their lunches from the school. After everyone was finished eating, we had to sit there while one of the cafeteria ladies brought out trays of leftover peanut butter sandwiches. If you were still hungry, you could raise your hand and get a half sandwich. My brother and I usually brought our lunches and were typically never hungry because of the size of our lunches. I was continually giving part of mine away. But it was agony sitting there when we wanted to be outside playing while they distributed these leftover sandwiches. I was always annoyed until one day. I saw the kid sitting in front of me and over to the right open his brown bag. He took out one cupcake, ate it swiftly, and crushed the empty bag into a ball and stuffed it into his pocket. I realized that was all he was going to have for lunch, as I sat there with two PBJ, an apple, and some cookies. I gave him one of my PBJs, and half the cookies, and half the apple. I was plenty full and felt good about feeding someone else. That I night I told my mom about it and had to reassure her that I had plenty to eat still. The next day, she packed three lunches, so I could give my schoolmate one. This continued for a few weeks, then he disappeared and I never saw him again. I assumed he’d just moved away or something, or maybe to a different school.
It started a lifelong obsession with feeding others, though. Sometimes I can’t do much except make others aware of the problem.
One of the first posts I put up on this bloggy thing was called The Rule. It’s a basic principle I try to live by where food is concerned and evolved over many years of learning from many people. My mom started The Rule when she told me that if I was afraid to try something, I’d miss out on a lot of things, maybe some things I’d like. In a nutshell, that’s The Rule. I firmed it and finalized it while traveling the world. “If hundreds of people are eating something with enjoyment, then I need to try it, cuz it certainly won’t kill me.” Most of the time, I’ve been very pleasantly surprised, like the time I ate a whole fish that had been baked in yogurt and garlic. Sometimes, it wasn’t so pleasant.
Like the time I tried deep fried crickets. I was in Laos, on a boat chugging up a river while enjoying an onboard picnic. The local staff I was working with had arranged the whole trip, even to having a couple of Pepsis for me. When they asked what I’d like to eat, I told them to select whatever they liked and I’d eat right along with them. We had some highly flavored rice, some fish, some pork, some roasted vegetables, and a large platter of deep fried crickets. They weren’t battered or anything so you could tell exactly what they were.
They were sitting on a bed of fresh greens and steaming slightly. I saw the delight in everyone’s eyes as they reached for the fried bugs. Now, I’ve eaten fried bugs before, grubs, grasshoppers, even worms and snails. They’re usually pretty good dipped in chocolate or drowned in sauce. These, as you can see, were boldly proclaiming exactly what they were. I put one on my plate and watched as the others popped them into their mouths and chewed. Okay, I thought, and in went the cricket. It crunched and squirted and exploded inside my mouth. It wasn’t bad, a little like beef liver with crunch. Then it came time to swallow and I managed to get most of it down, but choked a little on the last bit. I had to take a large swallow of water and by that time, my mind had tripped into high gear, reminding me exactly what I was eating. Then there were a few legs still in my mouth hanging on. Took a while to finish it off.
I’m a meat eater. I love my vegetables, but I want my steak or pork or chicken, pretty much at every meal. I’ve had the primary meats prepared in just about every way imaginable. I’ve enjoyed most of them, but I do tend to insist that they get cooked. I’ve tried sushi but never enjoyed it. One time, in Paris, I ate raw beef known as Steak Tartare. Basically, it’s high quality beef that’s been chopped or minced quite finely, and seasonings added to it. It’s served cold, many time with a raw egg on top. Sometimes, it has a cold sauce made from the blood juices flowing off the beef as it’s prepared. There are variations on the theme, but it’s just a raw hamburger without a bun. I like my steak rare, so I figured tartare would be the next logical step. It was delicious, but I found the consistency to be a little rubbery. I’ve had it a few times and generally liked it.
One time, I was in a restaurant with my in laws. I happened to be sitting next to my niece who was about five at the time. I’ve eaten escargot many times, and since it was on the menu under appetizers, I decided to have some. Mostly, the make them, the snail is sautéed in butter and garlic. When done properly, they are tender, chewy, and full of garlicky goodness. These were good and my niece asked what I was eating. She was well used to my sense of humor even at that young age so she didn’t believe me. She turned to her mom and said, “Mom, Uncle Joe says he’s eating snails!” Her mom told her I was and added that I’d give her one if she wanted. She turned into a little girl and said, “Ewwww! No!” But most times, snails are good.
It’s not secret that I love Mexican food. I like nearly all Hispanic flavor palates. I like the earthiness and spiciness of the flavors, and the unexpected bite of peppers and chilies. When I was a kid, one of our neighbors used to make home made candies and preserves. I wish now that I’d paid more attention to what she was doing because she came up with some of the oddest creations, but with the most amazing flavors. One time when I was at her house, she offered me a piece of candy. It was red, and jelly-like, and covered in a sugar crust. I was hesitant since I wasn’t familiar with it, but remembering my mom’s saying about trying stuff, I took a bite and a wonderful, fruity, tangy flavor filled my mouth. She’d made it out of prickly pear cactus fruit!
I’d grown up with cactus but had never heard of eating one before. Another time, she asked me to try a homemade jelly and handed me a small piece of toast with a green spread on it. I took a healthy bite and the flavor was sweet, and hot, and really good. She’d made jelly out of jalapeno peppers. It was quite a sensation, not one I’d want to put on peanut butter.
Once I was in Tijuana working, and my colleagues and I decided to go to the upscale restaurant across the street. It was still a little early for their time frame, so we had the place to ourselves. We sat and had our drinks before ordering and suddenly the chef was at our table with a new appetizer he was working on. They were mini tacos, two for each of us, and free! We jumped on that, and they were so good! He wanted our opinion and would we ever order them again, etc. We finally got around to asking him what was in them. It was not a meat I was familiar with. He was having trouble translating, but we finally understood. They were Tongue Tacos! Tasted really good, and I got to finish all those that the others didn’t want anymore. I kept thinking about to a comedienne who said she could never eat tongue because she didn’t like the think about tasting something that might be tasting her back.
So that’s The Rule. Hope it encourages you to take step outside your comfort zone and discover something you might like. Like Tongue Tacos or Deep Fried Crickets, or even Garlic Butter Snails.
I’m a little busy at the moment, and haven’t done a food cartoon post for a while so here you go! Enjoy!
I enjoy being outside. I don’t get the allergy attacks so many other people get. And lots of time, I don’t feel the heat or humidity. Sometimes I do, but not often. I like to canoe, and I like to kayak. I like to walk along wooded trails, and hike up the side of mountains. I sometimes enjoy gardening, other times don’t. I like bicycling around town and on long bike trails. I like wearing a backpack, or a day pack. I like futzing around with the various and sundry equipment needed for all these activities.
I like to prepare foods for the outside. Picnics are great. My parents made certain that all us kids could make a picnic, but also appreciate a picnic, wherever it took place. It never mattered what we were eating as long as it was outdoors. I once had a picnic with a bunch of friends driving down a mountain in pouring rain sharing cheese, crackers, grapes, wine, water, and soda. Of course, the driver was not having wine and was aggravated by that. But we had a fun time enjoying the food and company, even the rain since it was in the desert where rain seldom falls.
I’ve pre-made many things for picnics, like beef jerky, or hot chocolate mix. But mostly I like to take fresh foods to make at the picnic site, if possible. One incident stands out. My ex-wife and I were visiting my family just before we got married so we were in Arizona. My brother and his first ex-wife and their two kids (I’ve talked about them plenty in this blog) all decided to go for a picnic bonfire. We took potato chips, hot dogs, hamburgers (raw), buns, sodas, etc. The full complement of food for a good picnic bonfire. We figured we’d find wood out there to use for the fire. Well, not so much. Where we ended up had no wood lying around, and only one tree of any note anywhere in sight. We had a little hand axe so I start chopping away at a branch. I know how to chop wood so it comes off pretty quickly and it was working well. Until the handle broke off and the metal head went flying off into the dirt and rocks. We tried to chop using just the head of the axe but it wasn’t happening. We had a good time, though, with cold hot dogs in buns. My ex-wife still laughs about the expression on my face as that axe head flew away from me.
Another time, in Virginia, I took my niece and her friend for a hike in a nearby park. I promised that after the hike we would stop for burgers and fries, then watch a movie at home. We were walking along and I found some berry bushes so I gave some to the kids. A little later I pointed out some wild garlic and some wild onion. A little later, we watched in silence as an owl flew away from us with a mouse in its talons. Still later, we watched almost breathlessly as a turtle laid eggs in the moist earth. While we were sitting eating, I asked if they wanted to do this again. My niece replied, “What for? We didn’t see anything good!” I couldn’t help chuckling at the attention span of a six year old, then reminded her of the owl, the turtle, the berries and she finally decided that we had seen good stuff, but still wasn’t sure she wanted to do it again. Her favorite part was the burgers and fries and the movie.
Way back, when I had just graduated from high school and still active in my church, I “adopted” one of the younger kids and became a surrogate big brother for him. He’d hang around with me; we’d do stuff together; I’d help with his homework. I was talking to another friend about a hike I’d taken about a month before, telling him about a fairly large rattlesnake that I’d nearly stepped on and how startled me and the snake both were. My “little brother” perked up and asked if we could go for a hike sometime. I was more than a little leery. He was excitable, scatterbrained, and tended to forget things pretty quickly. Hiking in the desert can be dangerous if you’re not paying attention, so I told him I’d think about it. I talked to his parents and they were okay with it as long as I was okay with it.
So I had a talk with him and tried to impress on him how serious it could be; that he had to listen to what I said; he had to follow my directions. He agreed with everything I said, so I told him I’d pick him about 9am on the next Saturday and we’d head out. I told him to bring a canteen of water and I’d bring everything else. When I showed up, he proudly showed me his new canteen that he’d bought at an Army Surplus store. It was the standard round canteen with cloth covered sides and a strap almost as long as he was tall. It held two quarts of water, way more than enough for our day hike. We drove to the area I’d selected and I pulled out my day pack.
“What’s in there?” he asked.
“My water, for one, plus our lunch. I brought hot dogs and buns, mustard, ketchup, potato chips, homemade cookies, and a couple of apples. We’ll build a fire out there and cook up the dogs. But we’ve got a ways to go before then.”
“Can I carry something?” He was excited and wanted to contribute.
“You don’t have a pack, and you might need your hands for something.”
“I’ll be careful.”
I rooted around my car and found a brown paper sack from something and put the buns and the jar of mustard in it, and gave it to him. “Be careful with this. And careful with your water.”
We started off and immediately he started asking questions. What was that bush? Is this the way to the mine? Have I ever started a fire rubbing two sticks together? Was I ever bit by a snake? How dangerous are tarantulas? Boy, it was hot out. Did we bring enough water? During all this, he was swinging his new canteen, enjoying the heft and the weight. Just as I was about to warn him, the strap broke, the canteen hit a rock, and quicker than you would imagine, two quarts of water leaked out to be absorbed by the sand. We both stopped.
He was horrorstricken. Not only did he not have his new canteen, he had no water for the day. I mentally figure the amount of water I had, and what I’d likely need, and what I’d done in the past and knew that I had plenty for the both of us. I also had two small plastic bottles of water I’d frozen the night before that was slowly melting in my pack. I decided to use this as a lesson.
“What are you doing to do?”
He tossed away the canteen in disgust. It had split on the bottom so there was no water at all in it. “I don’t know.”
“Well, first, you’re going to pick that up and carry it out of here. It didn’t grow there and doesn’t belong there. You brought it in, you take it out. First rule.”
He grudgingly picked it up again. “Do you have enough water for the two of us?”
“When two people are hiking in the wilderness [we weren't far from home, but it was still pretty wild] and there’s an accident, they take care of each other. Second rule. So yes, I have enough water for the two of us as long as we use it wisely.”
“Should we head back?” We were barely thirty minutes into a two hour hike in, and two hour hike back.
“We don’t have to, if you don’t want to. But we should think about shortening our route.” I outlined where I had planned to take him. “Instead, here’s what we’ll do.” I explained the shortened route to him making sure he understood what we’d be missing.
“So, no way to see the mine?”
“If you’re up for it, we can. But we’ll be mighty thirsty when we get back to the car.” I always kept a bottle of water in it for emergencies. Even hot water is better than no water. “And, if there’s an accident or emergency, we’ll wish we’d shortened the route given the amount of water we have.”
We shortened the route. Just before lunch, after several more minor accidents which dwindled our lunch down, we were staring at a dry wash where I wanted to eat before heading back. It was at the bottom of a fifteen foot scree. A scree is a loose, sandy, rocky hillside. It’s difficult to get a purchase and you don’t want to go down it straight, but at an angle. I explained to the kid what I was going to do, and that he was to wait until I got to the bottom before he started so I could help him if he needed it.
I reached the bottom and noticed a fall of sand and rock to my right. Moments later, a small paper sack rolled down and smashed in a yellow explosion against a rock. I quickly turned and caught him before he landed amidst the broken glass. I guess I should have told him to count to ten when he saw me reach the bottom. We had a lunch of cold hot dogs, cold water, and homemade cookies.
It wasn’t bad, and the trip back and the plunge into the swimming pool in my back yard was even better.
Okay, so I like to read and watch TV and learn all about all kinds of different things. Recently, Partner/Spouse and I were watching an episode of America’s Test Kitchen and saw a new technique for battering stuff that was completely new to us. They were making Eggplant Parmesan. It looked amazing.
We’ve been looking for ways to eat healthier and more cost effectively. We’ve also been looking for ways to incorporate more vegetables into our diet. I’ve had eggplant only a few times in my life and both times it was grilled (one of those was on a pizza!) I like grilled eggplant so I knew I’d like eggplant other ways. Partner/Spouse has had eggplant many more ways than I have and has usually enjoyed it. But this technique was eye opening for us.
First, let me tell you about America’s Test Kitchen, or ATK as it’s often referred to. It’s a show on PBS that’s been airing for nearly ten years. Their sole purpose is to investigate specific recipes and standardize them for taste and quality and repeatability. They accept no dollars for advertising or sponsorship so they are able to be as honest in their evaluation and testing as possible. They will take a single recipe and tweak it and fuss with it for months to get a consistent, tasty, reliable, and repeatable results. They use thousands of people across the globe to test their recipes before they print them or put them on the show. They test everything, from restaurant favorites, to old time standards that “everyone knows how to make.” I’ve seen them remake deviled eggs, crown roast, beer can chicken, and Boston Cream Pie. They do everything! They also test kitchen equipment, and taste test ingredients. My dream is to visit their studio so I can be one of their testers.
Now let me tell you about the technique. I’m sure it’s one you’re all familiar with. When you want to create a great crunchy coating for something you’re frying, you follow the same process. You dip it in beaten egg, then dredge it in flour, dip it in egg again, then dredge it in flour or a crunchy coating of some kind. Fry in oil at a medium-high temp for a few minutes on each side and you have a wonderful crispy coating on it ready to eat and enjoy. Super simple, super messy, and super delicious.
I’ve used this technique for cooking all kinds of things. It’s reliable. I don’t like messy things, and I don’t like waste, but this is totally worth it. Chicken nuggets, chicken fingers, fried fish, tempura anything, all of it enhanced with the double dip process. Add seasonings to the flour portion and it’s all good.
ATK took that double dip process and turned it on its ear.
Eggplant Parmesan is eggplant sliced into consistently thick slices, breaded and fried, covered in sauce and cheese and baked until hot and the cheese is melted and golden. ATK’s thoughts, and mine as well, is why work so hard to make a crunchy coating only to cover it in sauce and make it soggy? So they looked at main parts of the whole dish.
First, they looked at the crunch factor. The whole point of the dish is to make a good piece of eggplant crunchy and cheesy, then add sauce as a counterpoint.
Second, they looked at the cheesiness of the dish. It’s named Eggplant Parmesan so there should be a good cheesy taste to it and it should have a good flavor of parmesan cheese in there somewhere.
When they looked at the crunch factor, they noted that all the recipes called for the same double dip and dredge process. While that works, it creates a very heavy crust and sometimes doesn’t maintain the crunch, particularly if it sits around for very long. So they decided to reinvent that process. First, they knew that using panko bread crumbs would escalate the crunch factor since the process to make the bread crumbs creates smaller crumbs that are much more crunchy than regular bread crumbs. They also hold that crunch factor better. Then they looked at the double dip and dredge method. They realized it was mostly to get the flour coated with egg to make a batter that would fry up into a crunchy goodness. Knowing all this, they created this method.
They took two eggs and beat them into a bowl. Then they added two tablespoons of flour directly to the egg and mixed them into a fluffy batter. In another bowl, they poured out enough panko bread crumbs for the amount of eggplant they had. By dipping the eggplant into the batter and letting the excess run off, then dredging in the panko and frying, they accomplished in one step a much better product than had been achieved before.
This worked nicely until they added the sauce and cheese and baked. The coating became soggy and the cheese slid off the eggplant.
So they looked at the cheese and sauce. First, they made a standard Bolognese sauce but used as many fresh ingredients as they could to raise the brightness of the sauce. That being done, it was set aside to simmer until needed. Then they looked at the cheese on the dish. Usually it called for a clump of mozzarella placed on top of the eggplant to melt along with some parmesan for browning and strong flavor.
What they ended up with was parmesan mixed in the panko crumbs and fried onto the eggplant. Then, a clump of equal parts of grated mozzarella and fontina was put on top of the fried eggplant which was then broiled to melt and brown the cheese. Once that was done, the eggplant was placed on a plate and about a quarter cup of the sauce was put on top of it.
Wonderful cheesy flavor in all parts of the dish; crunchy coating where it was needed; sauce to cover but not create a soggy mess. It was wonderful.
But the best part was the battering part of the recipe. I’m probably going to use that over and over. I made this yesterday for the Thursday pot luck, and boiled up a pot of spaghetti to go with it. It was a hit. I’ll let you know next time I batter something and how it turns out. I’m thinking this will work great with mushrooms!