The magic number


Chef James never met a fish he didn’t like.

I’ve been writing food columns for newspapers for almost five years now.  I have hung out with bakers in the middle of the night and listened to a cow’s innards with a stethoscope.  I’ve been taught how to filet a fish by a master (Thanks, Chef James).

I’ve interviewed David Cutcliffe, head coach of the winning Duke Football team.  I’ve gotten to know Vimala Rajendran, an Indian earth mother food activist, and Amy Tornquist, an expert in and lover of Southern food

Chef Amy at her Durham restaurant Watts Grocery.

And I am as excited about sharing this week’s info with you as anything I’ve experienced in my tenure as a food columnist.

A couple weeks ago in Kroger, I picked up a one-pound beef brisket for the low, low, price of $5.

The rule of thumb for tenderness is; the less work that a muscle does, the more tender it is.

The brisket comes from the lower chest area.  Every time Elsie takes a step, or a breath, those muscles are put to work.  Consequently, you can’t quickly cook this meat like a piece of filet mignon.  You’ll end up with beef-flavored bubble gum—and nobody wants that.

It also has a good amount of fat and connective tissue running through it, as well as a pretty healthy fat cap.  Pastrami and corned beef both come from this cut, and neither is known for exceptional leanness.

Every other time I’ve made brisket, I’ve braised it; lowly, slowly cooking in liquid—usually some type of sauce or gravy.  I’ve also cooked it with beans and in pots of barley.

But it was never that tender, unctuous cut that I’ve seen on TV and in good barbecue joints.  It didn’t come out really tough, but it wasn’t meltingly tender.  And it was usually a little dry.

This time, I would travel a different route.  I’d season it heavily and sear it like always.  Then cook it by dry-roasting.  Low and slow.

With the oven set at 225, I took a heavy baking dish, and in it I laid a rope I’d fashioned from tin foil.  I poured in about a half inch of water (this prevents smoking when the fat drips down), and set the brisket, fat side up, in the dish on the foil, to keep it above the liquid while cooking.

Then I inserted a probe thermometer, set to the magic temperature.

At 210 degrees, the connective tissue within the meat has melted, leaving a silky mouth feel, and a tender, juicy piece of meat.

When the brisket came out of the oven, it had shrunk to about half its pre-cooked size.  But the fat cap was a thing of beauty.  It was a crispy, ebony cloak, which when tapped with a knife, sounded hollow and delicious—and it was.

I can’t tell you how long this will take to cook other than to say a long time.  Depending on the size, it could take anywhere from five to nine hours.  Do it on your day off, when you’ve got nothing but time on your hands.

This week, I am also eschewing a sauce.  You could make mushroom gravy, sprinkle it with a spicy vinegar, or slather it with barbecue sauce.  But this cut, cooked dry, low and slow, doesn’t need one.

I may not be your cup of tea (shoot, sometimes I annoy myself), but please, for the love of all that is holy, pick up a brisket and cook this roasted ambrosia.  I pinky swear promise; you will not regret it.

Thanks for your time.

Dinner as the reward of virtue

First, let me admit that I am most definitely no goody-two-shoes, uber-organized, Martha Stewart-wannabe.

I once overheard a woman say that she tries to retrieve her laundry from the dryer before the clothes go cold.  I try to retrieve my laundry from the dryer before the clothes go out of style.

There is, however, one exception.

Growing up, my father was in the Coast Guard.  Their motto is Semper Paratus – Always Ready.   My mother’s personal motto is Clean as you go along.  The result of being raised with these two philosophies is that when cooking, I am a cleaning, prepping machine.

There are few things I love more than getting into the kitchen and knocking out every step of a meal up to the final cooking.

Which is exactly what I was doing the other day when I was putting together a pot of goulash.

I grew up eating goulash.  It consists of hamburger, pasta, tomatoes, and loads of garlic.  It’s also known as American chop suey or beefy mac.

This time I did all the prep, and after adding the pasta, covered it, and took it off the heat.  An hour later I discovered that the residual heat had almost cooked the pasta.  But they were still opaque, and tasted a little doughy.  So later, when we were ready to eat, I cooked it briefly, stirring frequently, until the cavatappi was translucent and tasted cooked.

If you want to cook it right away, instead of taking it off the heat cook it on medium covered for 10 minutes, and uncovered for 10 more, or until the noodles are cooked and the sauce is thickened and clinging to the pasta.

Now-R-Later Goulash


1 lb. 80/20 hamburger

12 ounces mushrooms

1 onion

2 heads garlic

½ teaspoon bacon fat or vegetable oil

2-14 ounce can tomatoes

1 ½ cups beef stock

2 tablespoons tomato paste

½ cup sherry

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

2 bay leaves

1 ½ teaspoons dry thyme + ½ teaspoon

1 teaspoon dry oregano

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary finely chopped + 2 sprigs

2 teaspoons kosher salt + pinch

1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper + pinch

1 pound cavatappi pasta

Roast garlic:

Preheat oven to 350.  Cut heads of garlic in half horizontally.  Lay in piece of foil about 9 inches square. Place ½ teaspoon thyme, rosemary sprigs, pinch of salt, pepper, and oil.  Wrap, and bake for 45 minutes.  Remove from oven and let cool.  Extract garlic cloves from skins and set aside.

Put hamburger into large heavy pot with a cover.  When it’s just about cooked through, add onions, mushrooms, salt, pepper, and remaining herbs.  Cook until the veg have released and cooked out all their liquid.

Add garlic and stir.  Cook for 2-3 minutes.  Add tomato paste and mix in.  Cook until the paste has darkened, and started to stick to the bottom of the pot.  Add sherry, stir to pull up all the stuff on the bottom of the pot.  Cook until the sherry’s cook in.

Pour in tomatoes and juice.  Add beef stock.  Stir in pasta. 

Cover, take off the heat and let sit covered for 60 minutes.

10 minutes before service, put it on a medium burner, gently stirring frequently, so that all the pasta cooks to opaque.

Serve with a dollop of sour cream of Mexican crema.  Serves 8.

So, practicing the virtues taught to me by my parents, I was rewarded with a dinner that virtually cooked itself.

It’s like we dined on instant karma.

Thanks for your time.

Hey jalousie

Jalousie is a French word, meaning louvers.  It’s also the technical name of this week’s dish.

But I have given it an American twist, used my writer’s prerogative, and renamed it.

This new recipe is now called “Saloon Doors”.

I learn the oddest and most arcane things writing these essays each week.  I should rent myself out for trivia games.  For today’s topic I did a little research on those swinging louvered doors festooning saloon entrances in Western movies.

And discovered they’re pretty much a Hollywood invention.

Think about it, having half doors swinging in the wind would have been a horrible idea for someplace like Montana in January.  And using those doors would have left no manner of securing the saloon when closed—which it did for at least a few hours every day (Miss Kitty needs her sleep, y’all).

But they make for very dramatic entrances of black-hatted villains and white-hatted heroes into the saloon and thus Tinsel Town has implanted them irrevocably into our collective psyche.

Anyway, back to my own, edible, clichéd, saloon doors.  The recipe calls for puff pastry, manipulated, stuffed and baked.  So once you know the procedure, you can fill it to your taste and occasion.  As a jumping-off place I’ll give you four ideas for filling; breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert.  Where you go from there is up to you.

This recipe is made with frozen puff pastry, found in most supermarkets, and made by layering dough with butter, rolling, and refolding, countless times.  This gives it up to a thousand layers.  The water in the butter evaporates while baking.  This produces steam which gives the puff.

I offer a few pieces of advice.  Try to purchase all-butter pastry; it tastes and cooks better.  Let it thaw overnight in the fridge, or if not possible, on the counter until it can be unfolded and worked.  If you seal the edges, you will not get left.  So don’t get egg wash on them; it’ll glue them shut.  When cutting; cut, don’t press.  When sealing the two pieces, be gentle.  Egg wash, then cut the slats, so the steam can escape.

Saloon doors

(Makes 2 complete pastries)

2 sheets puff pastry, thawed

1 egg, lightly beaten

Preheat oven to 425.

Cut each sheet in half.  Lay out two pieces on parchment-lined cookie sheet.  Spread filling on each, leaving a ¾ inch border.  Brush beaten egg on naked border.  Fill. Top each piece with the other sheet.  Lightly press border to seal.  Brush egg on top layer.  Leaving ¾ inch border, cut 1-inch horizontal slats down the length of each piece.

Bake at 425 until the pastry begins to brown and puff.  Lower oven to 375 and bake until dough is dry, crisp and deep golden-brown.

Slice and serve.  Makes 4-6 servings.

Breakfast Filling:

breakfast door

Scramble 10 eggs.  Season.  Cook 6 slices bacon until crisp. Spread eggs onto bottom sheets of pastry, leaving ¾ inch border.  Sprinkle on crumbled bacon and chopped fresh parsley.  Top with pinched off pieces of goat or Boursin cheese.  Cover with second piece, brush with egg wash, and cut slats, leaving border.

Bake according to directions above.


lunch door

Sauté leeks and mushrooms until browned and dry.  Spread on pastry.  Sprinkle on julienned prosciutto.  Using a potato peeler, scrape ribbons of Parmesan cheese over top.  Lay on top pastry, prepare, and bake.


dinner door

Spread thin layer of pesto on bottom of sheets.  Cover with shredded rotisserie chicken.  Dot with sun-dried tomatoes and mozzarella cheese bits.  Finish and bake.


dessert door

Spread half of a jar of black cherry preserves on each sheet.  Cut one 8-ounce block of cream cheese into small squares.  Top preserves with cream cheese, and dot with toasted, chopped pecans.   Cover, finish, and bake.  Sprinkle cooled tart with powdered sugar, and serve with whipped cream, or ice cream.

These are easy, but look impressive.  If you often have unexpected guests, it’s not a bad idea to keep a box of puff pastry in your freezer.  You could fill them with anything that you have on hand.  And when you carry out one of these puppies they’ll be so fancy looking, you’ll make Martha Stewart look like a slacker.

Thanks for your time.

Don’t let the cheese stand alone

Petey likes it simple; very basic, with no fanciness.  He’d be quietly satisfied if it was the same way every single time.

Sometimes simple is ok, but I really like to mix things up; today one way, tomorrow, another.  With me, variety is the spice of life.

I’m just talking grilled cheese here, folks.

An episode of “Chopped” on Food Network got me to thinking about grilled cheese.  A contestant decided to make a chicken pot pie grilled cheese sandwich.

Then she commenced to making a giant, gloppy mess of the whole thing.

She made chicken pot pie filling.  Then she cut some slices of brioche bread.  She filled it with pot pie stuff, slapped on a slice of cheese, and threw it, unbuttered, onto a ridged grill pan.

It didn’t brown, got stuck to the grill, and leaked all over.  She ended up shoveling it into a bowl and serving it to the judges like that,

Shockingly, she was chopped.

If she had really wanted to make a chicken pot pie grilled cheese, there were actually two ways that probably would’ve worked.  She should have made a very thick filling.  Then assembled it by using one slice of cheese on each slice of bread, spreading a layer of filling between them, and browning and crisping it in a non-stick pan.

Or alternatively, made two thin-ish grilled cheese sandwiches, cutting each in the shape of a gratin dish, and using them as the top and bottom crust of a traditional pot pie.

She would not have gotten chopped.

Even though a grilled cheese seems like the epitome of simple, it’s also simple to make a bad one.  You can burn it, over or under melt the cheese, or make it into an oil slick.  But with a few tips, a delicious, well-made sandwich is mere minutes away.

Break out your well-seasoned cast iron frying pan (or a heavy non-stick skillet), and set it on the burner at about medium-low.  Smear a very thin layer of mayo on one slice of bread.  The egg in the mayo will give the bread an almost French toast-like surface.  Place the bread mayo side down onto the heated skillet.  Layer on the cheese and any other fillings, starting and finishing with the cheese so it will act as a glue.

Put another thin layer of mayo on the other slice of bread and place on top, mayo side up.  Put a lid on the pan and cook for about 4-5 minutes.  Uncover pan, check and flip if the bottom slice of bread is browned and the cheese has started to melt.  Flip and cook until the other side is browned and crispy.

Remove and let sit for a couple minutes then slice and serve.

If you’re Petey, you pick Velveeta on Wonder Bread.


Here are a few ideas if you’d like to shake things up:

The Kid likes fried green tomatoes, bacon and pimento cheese on a hearty homemade white made with a touch of cornmeal.  Or crazy sharp cheddar on chewy, mouth-puckering sourdough.

I like caramelized onion and goat cheese on French baguette. And also sautéed mushrooms, short ribs and Laughing Cow on Hawaiian bread.

So here’s my advice: go to the fancy cheese store, and buy some new interesting types.  Then go to a good bakery and get a couple loaves of funky breads.  Visit the produce department, and pick up some guest stars.

Then go into your kitchen and have a grilled cheese party.  No RSVP required.

Thanks for your time.

Tender at the home

The Kid has been living here at the house for the past few months, until a suitable abode could be procured which didn’t necessitate a roommate (it’s an only child thing).A cute little place, not far from us has been found, and our little occupant is in the process of moving in.  And while The Kid will come home for family dinners from time to time, this week is really the last week in which we will sit down for regular suppers.

So, when I was figuring out what nights The Kid would be home from work at supper time, and what I would make, my child had a meal request.

My buttermilk chicken tenders.It’s a family favorite: strips of very juicy white meat, with the tang of buttermilk, and a seriously crispy coating.  But juicy and crispy from one piece of chicken can be extremely problematic.  So, what to do?  And how to do it?

My answer was science.

I was looking for a coating that was insanely crispy, thin and delicate.  I desired golden, salty fairy wings.

Fat-free buttermilk would give me flavor.  It’s viscous enough to cling so that I wouldn’t need any eggs.  Plus, and most importantly, it’s chock full of acid.  Which I needed for the other part of my dredge.

chic tenders

Number two was self-rising flour.  This is flour fortified with salt and baking powder.  Double-acting baking powder has, like the name implies, two opportunities to rise.  One is at room temperature, when it comes into contact with acid.  The second is in the presence of heat.  It can impart a salty, bitter flavor, but the buttermilk tang, salt, and pepper will entirely negate that.

For 1 ½ pounds of tenders, I use about 2 cups of fat-free buttermilk, seasoned, and poured into a shallow dish large enough to easily fit the chicken.  I use three or four cups of self-rising, also seasoned.  It may seem like a lot of flour, but I promise you don’t want to run out halfway through cooking, and be stuck scrambling with nothing left but those weird lumps made when buttermilk drips into the flour.  The breading system is three-stage; flour, then buttermilk, and then back once more into the flour before finally frying.

I also highly recommend using gloves.  And a second person, to actually fry each piece while you’re coating, makes the whole ordeal almost simple.

The procedure is also pretty specific.  Unlike the way I usually like to cook, the tenders cannot be done in advance.  To get that ultra-crispiness you have to bread the chicken immediately before frying.  Otherwise that first, acid-based rise will disipate and you won’t get the full ethereal crust.

And the frying portion of the program is kinda picky, too.I cook the chicky in my 10-inch cast iron pan.  I pour in vegetable oil about 1/3 of the way up the side and heat it to 350 degrees.  When placed in the pan (don’t crowd them—no more than four at a time), the oil should not be deep enough to cover them.  When the bottom is golden flip and cook the other side.  If you oil temperature stays near 350, by the time the tenders are golden all over, the chicken is cooked through, but still crazy juicy.  Perfect.I serve them with ranch dressing and honey mustard for dipping.  Our side is always a green salad, to make ourselves feel just a bit better for all the gorging that takes place.

Thanks for your time.

Saving Grace

Last year, when Petey was in the hospital more than he was home, it was a pretty awful time with very few bright points.

Our home. For way too long.

One thing that saved us and kept us from giving up was the people we met.  There was Rocky, an adorable respiratory therapist who always made us smile.  Alex and Jason, two of Petey’s surgical intensive care nurses, felt almost like members of the family.  Chris took it upon herself to make sure The Kid and I was ok and had everything we needed.

To talk about every person that touched us in some way would take way more room than I have here.  But Maggie, a health unit coordinator in the SICU, gave us a gift that we continue to enjoy to this day.

One day when I was completely exhausted with my meal choices, and dying for a new option, Mags told me about Grace’s Café in Trent Hall (331 Trent Dr, Durham). They serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with both classic American, and Asian fare.  The food is really good; they make their own noodles from scratch and have duck on the menu, for goodness’ sake.

Trent Hall, 04.04.09

Grace’s is kind of hard to find, but oh my Gawd, so worth looking for. This is the facade of Trent Hall, Grace’s is downstairs.

But for The Kid and me, the very best item on the menu is eggplant in garlic sauce.  It is the best tasting Chinese eggplant I’ve ever eaten.  The sauce is as silky as a French nightgown.  Normally a pretty spicy dish, they prepare it for me with no chilies.  They also have brown rice, which makes me feel slightly virtuous while I’m pigging out on their amazing food.  I love it, and could conceivably eat enough to put me into a coma.

You have not lived…

Once Petey was released for the final time, we continued to go by Grace’s for take-out occasionally.  But because we don’t live terribly close, and it’s not always on the budget, we don’t eat their food as often as we’d like.  So when we’re lucky enough to eat Grace’s, I like to get two meals out of each visit.

I could order a bunch of other stuff, but I like to economize by preparing my own sides for each night.  One night I fix inexpensive steamed dumplings from Fresh Market or Kroger.  And for the other dinner, I cook a batch of snow peas.

When I prepare the dumplings at home, I make them into pot stickers.  And even though it’s a super simple procedure, they’re nicely crispy and taste like they just came from a restaurant.

Pot Stickers w/Pork & Vegetables

During the procedure.

Store-bought pot Stickers

1 container prepared steamed chicken or pork dumplings

2 tablespoons water

2 teaspoons vegetable oil

Put water and oil in a non-stick skillet and turn heat to medium-low.  Place dumplings into skillet.  Cover.  When hot (about 5-10 minutes), uncover and turn heat to medium.  Allow dumplings to brown and crisp up on one side (another 5-10 minutes).  Remove and serve.


And after–YUM.

Dipping Sauce:

1/3 cup soy sauce

1 tablespoon cider or rice wine vinegar

8-10 drops toasted sesame oil

Pinch of chili flakes or dollop of chili paste (optional)

Whisk ingredients together.

For the second meal, I prepare yummy quick-cooked snow peas.


Sizzling snow peas

1 pound snow peas, washed, cleaned and kept whole

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

Salt and pepper to taste

2 teaspoons sesame seeds


1/3 cup chicken or veggie stock

3/4 teaspoon cornstarch

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1/8 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

Pinch of Chinese five-spice powder

Pinch of sugar

2 cloves garlic, minced

Add oil to heavy skillet and heat on medium-high. While it’s heating, whisk together slurry ingredients and have ready. When the oil is almost smoking hot, add snow peas and sesame seeds, toss until coated with oil, then lightly season with salt and pepper.  Cook until all the peas pods have turned bright green and are hot.

Quickly pour in slurry.  It should immediately boil.  Stir to coat veg.  Let cook until the sauce has thickened up.  Remove from heat and serve.

Serves 4.

Just like the band Foreigner sings, with fresh sides each night, “It feels like the first time”.  And I’m sure they were talking about Chinese food.

Foreigner has dissolved and re-formed several times over the years ...

Oh yeah, these guys were all about the Chinese food.

Weren’t they?

Thanks for your time.

Open letter to me at age 25

Hey Debbie,

So! How’s 1989 going?  I know that you think there’s nothing left to learn, but I’m writing to you from 2015 to stop you from making the same mistakes that this Debbie made.

First the bad news: There are no flying cars, and they still haven’t invented comfortable high heels.

They don’t call ’em killer heels for nothing…

But the good news is they’re done making “Police Academy” movies.

Never again will a child go to the movies and be at risk of seeing this.

Now take a deep breath, because I have a shocker.  In a few years you’ll have a baby.  And stranger still, it won’t be an accident, it’ll be on purpose.

katey duke grdns

Is this kid awesome or what?

The baby will turn out to be awesome.  Known as The Kid, this child will give you constant boatloads of joy, and only infrequent, fleeting moments of aggravation.

Becoming a mother will deepen your interest in cooking.  You’ll become pretty good at it.  In fact, your fascination with food and love of writing will result in your own culinary column in The Herald-Sun.  Don’t laugh — it’s true, I promise.

Now for the advice.

Pre-packaged and fast foods may seem convenient and a good idea right now, but don’t do it.  The Kid will possess a well-rounded palate, be curious about new flavors, and open to experimentation.  Take advantage of this.  Serve real food.

Just say no.

Petey will develop mild high blood pressure.  You will be tempted to cut salt from his diet.  It’s unnecessary.  Your husband’s sodium intake will be drastically slashed by doing one simple thing: ruthlessly limit processed food.

Seasoning food while cooking, and using the salt shaker with restraint is only about 10 percent of one’s sodium intake.  All the rest comes from pre-fab foods, like soda, canned soup, and even jarred spaghetti sauce.


This stuff will happily see you dead.

So cut it out!

You’ve now been overweight for half your life.  And having a baby only makes the problem worse.  At one point you will weigh almost 250 pounds.

But as I write this, we’ve been at a healthy weight for 3 years now.  Believe it or not, we go down to 122 pounds, and wear a size 4.  Feel free to do your happy dance here.

It doesn’t come from a trendy diet or exercising like a maniac.  And there was no surgery involved.

You’ll finally crack the code and figure out what will work for you for the rest of your life.  Crazy diets may get you there, but are of no help once the goal is reached.  You need something you can live with.  Eliminating potato salad, pasta, cake, and other faves only creates a gut-busting time bomb.

You can eat this and still fit into your jeans.

Mindfulness, moderation, and consistency are the keys.  Eat healthfully whenever you can.  If the more nutritious alternative is just as tasty, then eat that.  Don’t ban treats; just be cognizant of everything that goes into your mouth.  Never take the whole bag of chips into the living room and stuff your face, zombie-like.

Balm for the soul.

The forest behind your house is beautiful and has miles of trails; get your hands on some rubber boots, grab the dog, put on some music, and go.  Don’t wait a quarter of a century before exploring.  No matter what’s going on, it’s impossible to be stressed out back there.  Before you know it, you’ll be going three miles at a stretch, and loving every step.  Besides, regular exercise works off the occasional Milky Way.

Stop wasting food.  You’re only cooking for two, so a 4-pound meatloaf doesn’t make sense.  Keep your fridge cleaned out and well-organized.  It will be easier to see what you have and eat it before it goes wonky.

Use your freezer for something other than Eskimo Pies and batteries.  Instead of tossing that one serving left from supper, freeze it, and have Petey take it to work for lunch.  If you don’t use an entire bag of frozen veg, put what’s left in a zip-top bag and add subsequent extras to it.  Soon you’ll have enough for a meal.  But please, always label and date the bags.  You may think you’ll remember what it is, but frozen, all food looks alike.

Pick the brains of all the good cooks you know, and one day people will ask you for advice.

Oh yeah, and Debbie?  About that mullet.

Ditch it.

But everybody was doing it.

Thanks for your time.