Random Appetites: Go Cups

New Orleans and Las Vegas are the two cities I know of where it’s perfectly legal for you to walk down the street with your beer or cocktail in hand. Consequently, if you’re in a wandering mood, you can request your drink be put in a Go (or Geaux, in The Quarter) cup rather than the usual glass or whatnot and mosey on down the way. While many places use coated paper cups or Styrofoam, some have capitalized on this and have printed plastic cups for their to-go orders. These also make useful “throws” during Carnival season (beads are not the only thing thrown from parade floats, t-shirts, cups, footballs and other items are quite popular).

Of course my recent move was what had me thinking of to-go items and this post has been a result of such stream of consciousness thought. If you’d like something more potent with your Random Appetites, check out these three wine-related articles that came, of all places, from Entrepreneur.com while I get back to digging my way out of cardboard purgatory.

This Winery’s Vintages Speak for Themselves

Art is Science at Six Sigma Ranch

Experience the Luxury of Hall Wineries

And, finally, a quick reminder that next week’s Random Appetites will post on Monday under a new name! Even if you read this through RSS, please stop by the some time next week to see the new, fresh look of Random Acts Comics!

Random Appetites: Fast Feasts

As much as I try to avoid it, sometimes I do succumb to the lure of the drive-through for those busy nights or just the don’t-wanna-cook blues. With the move this coming weekend and trying to pack and clean and not put anything else into the apartment before the truck arrives, fast food is probably on the menu as I get later into the week.

The problem, though, is that no one place has the perfect everything available on their menu. Since driving to 3 or 4 locations isn’t generally viable and sorta kills the time savings these quick fixes offer, we generally have to sacrifice one part of the meal for the sake of another, depending on what we’re craving the most. If I had my druthers, though, my “perfect” combined meal would be:

  • Burger King’s Chicken Tendergrill (formerly known as a chicken Whopper)
  • McDonald’s French Fries
  • Wendy’s Caesar Side Salad
  • Arby’s Jamocha Shake

And, of course, all the calories & cholesterol removed from the above, lol.

What would your perfect quick cuisine consist of?

Random Appetites: For the Love of Peeps!

Ah, yes, those sugared puffs of piped marshmallow fluff. I’ve found you either love ’em or hate ’em, and I happen to love ’em. Unfortunately it’s more of a love-hate thing, since they make me verrry sleepy if I eat more than a couple at a time. Sugar overload makes me sleepy, go figure. But even if you don’t like to EAT the bunnies, chickies and other figures that feature prominently in many holiday candy aisles (but mostly Easter) there is much more to their fluffy little heads.

Have you ever heard of peep jousting? It’s simple: place two peeps–each fitted with a toothpick lance under one, uh, wing–facing each other on a paper or other microwave-safe plate. Pop them into the microwave for just a bit (30 seconds should be enough) and watch who stabs who first.

Here’s a lovely, commentary-rich video of the event http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I18FIrE5xfk but don’t let that stop you from trying it yourself!

Of course, if you’re into less blood sugar-thirsty peepitude, I came across a couple of sweet books on the confection, but not like you’d expect. Check out Peeps: A Candy-Coated Tale or Peeps Ahoy!: A Candy-Coated Adventure on the High Seas. Or, if you’ve hit the local Dollar Store and found lots of peeps for only a few pips, check out Peeps: Recipes and Crafts to Make with Your Favorite Marshmallow Treat to use up your sugary score.

Random Appetites: Fail-Safe Foods

This week’s strips got me thinking about that moment we all have: someone’s coming for supper and we don’t have much time to prepare. What to make?

I think everyone should have at least 1 fail-safe meal they can whip out at a moment’s notice when the need arises. Mine happens to be a heavenly rosemary rissotto that I usually pair with chicken breasts. Simple and virtually fool-proof. Granted, rissotto isn’t exactly quick–taking 30 minutes on average–and needs constant stirring but the end product is a nice, rich comfort food that is sure to please most guests.

Another common fail-safe dish is (or, at least, was) linguine with clam sauce. A little more daring, true, because not everyone eats seafood (and some may be allergic!) and there’s a real danger with over-cooking clams, but the requirements for a good clam sauce can be kept on hand for any emergency.

What’s your fail-safe food?

Random Appetites: What’s for Dinner?

That’s got to be one of the most hated questions ever (right up there with the 10th ‘why’ from a child), right? Even if you’re only asking yourself.

When I was first married I had the brilliant idea to comb through my cookbooks each week, pick out recipes for supper and make out my grocery list so I only had to buy what I needed. I even categorized my list by the sections of the store to make shopping easier. And, really, this was a great idea–too bad the 1st husband never looked at the list I posted on the fridge and insisted on asking me, every day, what was for dinner. Sigh…

Amusingly enough, just before the dissolution of marriage #2 I found out someone else had the same idea I had 10 years ago but took it a few steps further, turning into an online service. That service? The Saving Dinner Menu Mailer.

Leanne Ely, the Dinner Diva [great name!], puts together 6 entree recipes with serving suggestions every week and makes them available to subscribers as a pdf file complete with a categorized, itemized grocery list. Nice, huh? And it’s really affordable, too, starting at $9.95 for a 3-month membership and only $29.95 for a full year. The Menu Mailer comes in three styles: Regular, Heart Healthy and Low Carb/Body Clutter, with vegetarian and kosher alternatives listed for most, if not all, recipes, plus breakfast and lunch suggestions.

I’ve used this service for several years and the only reason I didn’t renew last time is because I had over a year of menus saved to my harddrive and still hadn’t made it through all of them. (I cook 4 servings at a time so I only have to cook every other night and still have 2 dinners and 2 lunches for each night spent in the kitchen.) Overall, the recipes are easy, tasty and healthy with several fan favorites showing up often but enough variety overall that you really get a variety of dinner options week after week.

So if you’re continually stumped by that age-old question, there is help out there, if you know where to look.

Random Appetites: Slainte!

Happy St Patrick’s Day, folks! The day where even if you’re not Irish, you are!

When you think Irish food, most people think of corned beef and cabbage. Did you know, though, that this is only eaten in 2 counties (Dublin and Cork) and more a modern association at that? Be that as  it may, it still tastes awfully good so you might as well indulge whenever you’ve got a reason. And, according to a recent Iron Chef America episode, if you’ve got a pressure cooker you can have a very tender corned beef brisket in about an hour! (So there’s still time if you didn’t set up the slow-cooker this morning–my preferred way of “roasting” a brisket with a minimum of fuss.)

An unfortunate trend in many places, on St Patrick’s Day, is to serve unnaturally green beverages. If you want to drink beer today, avoid the cheap, food-colored stuff and have a Guinness or Killian’s Red or something that’s at least remotely Irish and tasty. If mixed drinks are your bag, have a good shot of Bailey’s over ice as you toast your neighbors “Slainte!” (pronounced, at least so I’ve heard, SLAN-tah and means “[to your] good health”) But please, for the love of Mike, stay away from the green creme de menthe!

Random Appetites: Sources of Inspiration

While some people are true wizards in the kitchen, throwing random ingredients together and, more times than not, ending up with food that is edible and yummy. But even those people–most of ’em, I’m convinced–had to start off with training wheels: a few good cookbooks.

Now, I can do my fair share of positive-outcome experiments (though, as Todd can attest, more than once he’s come over for dinner and I’ve said: Just in case, there’s always pizza!) but I also have a _huge_ collection of cook books that I pull ideas out of regularly. Sure, Culinary School helped with the collection a lot but I actually had a good starter set going before then. My rate of acquisition may have slowed in the last few years but those stained and wrinkled pages stand out from the others with barely-cracked spines. Here are some of the books that I reach for when I don’t feel like cooking solo.

The Kitchen Companion Great all-purpose kitchen reference book. This one has basic recipes for a lot of simple things and base mixes you can do yourself but the thing I love the most is the amount of charts in this book! For each cooking method and each type of food that can be subjected to it you have charts showing how long it will take to cook, what temperatures it should be done at and so one and so forth. It’s a gem of a book and out of print, but used copies are pretty easy to find.

Marcella Cucina Authentic Italian cuisine and the source of my most favorite Risotto recipe ever. This is one of those cookbooks that can also be read cover to cover because the little anecdotes make it read like a foodie novel of her travels through the Italian regions of food.

The New Orleans Cookbook and River Road Recipes: The Textbook of Louisiana Cuisine are where I turn when I want some home-style comfort food. The latter is a Junior League cookbook so features the names of all the contributors or and some duplicates versions of the same dish and always heavy on the butter and cream. The former includes touches of culture notes and a few stories here and there, but is a good city guide to New Orleans food.

The Cake Bible Dude. This woman (Rose Levy Beranbaum) wrote her thesis on the science and chemistry of yellow cake; talk about hardcore baking! The recipes are great and the techniques so precise (down to how many seconds you need to beat each addition of egg or flour) that, if you follow them, you can’t make a bad cake. I especially like her “Chocolate Bread” (which is really a perfect chocolate pound cake).

Martha Stewart’s Menus for Entertaining Say what you (or I) want about to woman, herself, this book is one I reach for when I need a little nudge about party menus. I don’t think I’ve ever used a full menu of hers all at once, but the balance she strikes between the various elements is a good jumping-off point and the food photography is stunning. That’s enough for me.

Random Appetites: Pasta-rific

A recent Italian dinner reminded me of the following anecdote:

On one of many blind dates in my younger years I was taken to a chain restuarant infamous for servings various types of pasta from a variety of different cultures. Basically, you chose your style and then among a choice of actual pastas, depending on your order. I ordered the Pasta Florentine [florentine means spinach, no matter where you are] and requested farfalle for the pasta. “I’m sorry, we don’t have farfalle,” the waitress replied. I thought this was odd since it was pictured on the menu, but gamely I asked what pastas they did have. “Spaghetti, fetuccini, penne, bowtie and rotini.” With my best attempt at a raised eyebrow I ordered the “bowtie” and shuddered at what restaurants weren’t teaching their staff.

In case you don’t see the problem with the above exchange, farfalle is the correct term for the pinched rectangles with the ruffly edges that are also known as bow-tie pasta. The fact that the server didn’t know this is, to me, just as ridiculous as the (possible urban legend) McDonald’s employee not knowing that half a dozen nuggets is the same as a 6-pack.

What reminded me of this was dinner Sunday night: we found (thank you, Google) a family-owned Italian place with a fairly broad menu not too far from our hotel and gave it a whirl. On the menu were some unknowns: bucatini (which feels like a thick spaghetti but is really a tube, there’s a tiny hole in the middle) and tortelachi ( large tortelini–makes sense if you think about it). Thankfully, though, our servers had no issues with the menu and the food was excellent. I’ll be doing a proper write-up about it at some point in the future.

Until then, if you’re curious about pasta names and shapes, check out this handy page from the National Pasta Association.

Random Appetites: Travelling Food

Happy Fat Tuesday to all the revelers among us: Laissez les bon temps roulez! (let the good times roll, for the uninitiated)

(And, now, back to our regularly scheduled Random Appetites)

Seems like I spend an inordinate amount of time in my car–I’m sure many of you can relate. And even though my commute is a short one (around 20 minutes to work, less if the students are on break), the road trips have become quite regular occurences and, among other things, road trips mean travelling snacks.

It all started when I was a kid and we’d take trips back home to visit family over the holidays. The boys (my younger brothers) would be tucked into the back seat with toys to keep them occupied for as much of 6 hours was possible and a bag of simple, non-messy snacks to keep the tummies from grumbling. Just after high school I was diagnosed as hypoglycemic so travelling with food became more of a necessity than a perk. And then there’s those trips home where the sun makes you sleepy and the only thing you can do, once blasting the a/c and the radio have stopped working, is chew to stay awake–travelling food to the rescue.

When choosing foods for interstate foraging it’s best to follow a few, simple guidelines:

  • Avoid those that need refrigeration; you never know when the cooler will get wedged closed, spring a leak, or just be too difficult to get into while at top speeds,
  • Packages must be easy to open so as not to cause impediment that you’d have to explain to a state trooper or your insurance company,
  • Must be edible with only the use of hands–no cutlery allowed.

I prefer, also, to keep things on the dry side (easier to brush off crumbs than spills) and as self-contained as possible (to avoid those crumbs in the first place).

In the canvas bag that holds the snacks for the next road trip are the following supplies:

  • 3 types of organic granola bars–the Cascadian Farms bars are just too yummy and the fact that they avoid all those convoluted chemicals can’t be a bad thing
  • dried fruit (apricots, pineapple, cranberries)–can be high in sugar but it’s at least fruit that won’t spoil if left in the car for a few hours
  • packets of trail mix–good for protein
  • baked pita chips
  • Oreos (what, I need chocolate in there somewhere!)

The cookies, admittedly, are more for destination snacking when the post-con sweet-tooth hits. The rest are prime examples of road snacks.

Random Appetites: Mardi Gras

Even though Fat Tuesday, the culmination of weeks of carnival-type fun in New Orleans, Mobile and elsewhere, isn’t until next week, what’s the point in giving you recipes, etc. to try out with only 1 day to do it? Exactly. So here’s your annual dose of the green, gold and purple with time to spare.

For those who may not know, I grew up about an hour away from New Orleans, in a little town named Ponchatoula which has been making it’s name, over the last couple of decades, as an antique center. Anyway, despite my formative years having been so close to the action and family still fairly thick over there, I have a confession to make:

I have never been to Mardi Gras.

The shame! I know! How can I have gone this long without attending this cultural event? Hell if I know. But one of these days I’ll remedy the lack and experience the fun for myself. Of course, more and more I have less and less tolerance for crowds and craziness so I think it’ll be only when I can afford (and book way in advance) a Quarter room so that I can explore and escape as needed without having to navigate anything but foot traffic.

But I digress!

There’s a lot of history behind Mardi Gras and this New Orleans website has a heaping helping of it, so if you’re curious, check it out! But I know what you really want to know, you want the skinny on all the fattening, pre-Lent consumables. And here we go!

First things, first, the King Cake. (Pardon me while I drool…) Now, in reality, the King Cake is a coffee cake decorated for the occasion in green (for faith), gold (for power) and purple (for justice) and with a wee plastic baby, silver or gold coin or bean of some such inside. Why? Well, it’s heavy on the Christian symbolism: the prize inside is supposed to be the Baby Jesus. Whoever finds the baby, coin or bean is, traditionally, the King or Queen of the week and is supposed to host the next party or, at the very least, supply the next King Cake.

Any oval coffee cake will do and many, these days, deviate from the cinnamon brioche tradition and use danish pastry filled with cream, fruit filling or chocolate. Yum! I tend to stick with the eggy brioche because it’s just so good the way it is, and the crunchy sugar on top is the best!

According to Rima and Richard Collin’s The New Orleans Cookbook, the King Cake should be made with a coffee cake dough of choice that uses about 4 packages of active dry yeast. So, the first time I made it I went to my go-to brioche recipe from Nick Malgieri’s How to Bake, which uses 2 packages of yeast. So I doubled the recipe. Despite the fact that Malgieri’s recipe makes 2.5 lbs of dough. I made 5 lbs of brioche. I ended up with 2 ginormous king cakes that overflowed my sheet pans, not to mention my counter space. Use only a single batch of the recipe below and you’ll probably still have enough for 2 normal size cakes.

Brioche Dough
(by Nick Malgieri with my paraphrased directions)

Sponge
1 c milk
5 tsp (2 env) active dry yeast
1.5 c all-purpose flour

Dough
12 Tbsp unsalted butter, softened
6 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
3 lg eggs plus 1 egg yolk
2.25 c all-purpose flour

For the sponge: Heat the milk until warm (seriously, you don’t want it over 110 or you could kill the yeast, so just slightly warmer than body temperature) and (off the heat) whisk in yeast and then the flour, cover with plastic wrap to protect against drafts and let sit for 30 minutes.

For the dough: Cream the butter until it’s very soft and fluffy, beat in the sugar and then one egg. Alternate flour and the remaining eggs, one after the other, until everything is incorporated. Mix in the risen sponge then knead for 5 minutes (or let the dough hook of your mixer go at it for 2 minutes). Cover with a piece of plastic wrap, let the dough rise for about an hour, punching down the dough periodically.

Punch down the dough once more, then place it in an oiled bowl, turning the dough over so the surface is lightly coated. Cover and refrigerate the dough for 4 hours or overnight. It’s going to rise so use a big enough bowl to accommodate it and don’t be surprised if it goes all ‘blob’ on you and pushes the top of that super-large rubbermaid container completely off–just means your yeast was really healthy!

After four hours or overnight, take the dough out, punch it down and knead it a bit to get the extra air out, and divide the dough into 2 pieces for one big cake or 4 pieces for 2 normal sized ones.

Now, if you want to fill your dough with anything, that’s up to you. Filled or not you want to roll out each piece of dough into a log shape and twist two of them together and then arrange the twist into an oval, gently pressing the two ends together. Sprinkle the ring with colored sugars and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until the bread is golden and done (thump the bottom of the loaf and if it sounds hollow, it’s ready).

Alternately, you can simply sprinkle the dough with cinnamon sugar, bake, and then drizzle the cake with a powdered sugar icing and then top with the colored sugars. (But the crunchy baked sugar really is one of the best parts!)

After the cake has cooled, insert the bean, baby or coin in through the bottom of the cake (make sure no one is looking) and serve to a group of friends. Sure, you can bake a bean or coin inside, but I usually don’t. It’s just as easy to wait until it’s cool (and make sure you clean that coin well before adding it to any food!).

Now, if you’re serving this cake in the morning, coffee will work well enough to wash it down (but at least go for a good, chicory blend or an all-out cafe au lait) but if you’re off for the day or out for the evening, wash your King Cake down with the quintessential New Orleans drink: the Hurricane. You can find a mix in many liquor stores or specialty shops, but Chef Rick has a from-scratch Hurricane recipe that will most likely treat you better than any powder ever could:

Hurricane Punch

1 ounce white rum
1 ounce Jamaican rum
1 ounce Bacardi 151 proof rum
3 ounces orange juice, with pulp
3 ounces unsweetened pineapple juice
1/2 ounce Grenadine
Crushed Ice

Combine all ingredients, mix well (shake or stir). Pour over crushed ice in Hurricane glass. Garnish with orange or pineapple ring and drink through a small straw for maximum wind speed.

Also, his olive salad recipe is the best I’ve found short of taking a trip to Central Grocery for a jar, which isn’t exactly convenient when you’re 4 states away and craving a Muffaletta