Perfect, Brilliant, & Jubilant

Our last day of Lad and Lassie kindergarten in Mobile Alabama, we had a theme party.  The theme was an airline flight.  This was back when men wore suits, ladies wore hats and dresses, and kids wore their Sunday best to fly. 

Our “flight” had attendants bearing 1970s party refreshments like popcorn balls and cupcakes.  One genius mom had made up a stack of fancy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cut into neat triangles with the crusts removed.  But the best part was the jelly.  These sandwiches were made with apple jelly.  The warm, mellow apple flavor is the perfect, and I mean perfect, foil to creamy, smoky peanut butter.

From that day forward, I was a convert.

I always pick up new and interesting flavor of jams, jellies, and preserves whenever I find them.  The store Home Goods is a terrific resource.  They have tons of unusual types, and at outlet prices.

All that jelly used to just go on toast and biscuits.  Then I found Fogwood Farm’s Balsamic grape hull jam.  It’s spicy, sweet, and delicious on a sandwich. 

Since that day I eat a couple nut butter/jelly sandwiches a week.  But I mix it up constantly, so much so that the only versions I have more than once every month or so are my faves that I keep on repeat.

For a great PB&J sammich, there are a few things I strongly recommend.

Bread: Fresh and soft, but robust.  Most grocery stores have a multi-grain sandwich loaf that is Wonder Bread-soft with a long shelf life. 

Nut butter:  The very best peanut butter is Reese’s.  It’s creamy, delicious, and 400 zillion peanut butter cups can’t be wrong.

Big Spoon has an amazing line-up, I love the pecan peanut.  But, they’re gourmet nut butters, which mean they’re pricey.  For me, they’re special occasion sandwiches.

Simons Says flavored nut butters (sold in gourmet shops and local farmers markets).  As smooth as James Bond on a slip-&-slide.  They grind their butters for hours, then flavor them.  My favorite is the hazelnut orange, which remind me, in the very best possible way, of Pillsbury orange rolls.

Sun butter: Made from sunflower seeds.  It’s salty, sweet, unctuous, and brings an unexpected note to a sandwich.  Most supermarkets sell a jar for up to eleven dollars, but Trader Joes comes to the rescue again for $4.89 apiece.  Store it out of fridge upside down so when you open it, it’s easier to spread after just a quick stir.

Jams, jellies, and preserves: Go nuts here; homemade, old school grape, something cheap, or some type of gourmet concoction.  I’ve no desire to judge another human’s PB&J choices.  I frequently eat root beer jelly (What?!?).  So, good; spicy, sweet, and holds up to all other flavors in the sandwich.

Root Beer Jelly

½ bottle or can of your favorite root beer

1-18 ounce jar of apple jelly

1 teaspoon root beer concentrate

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon salt

Put the root beer in a heavy pot and cook on a boil until it’s thickened to a syrupy consistency.  Add jelly and cook until it’s smooth and thickened slightly (it will get thicker as it cools).  Stir in concentrate, vanilla, and salt.  Take off heat and let sit until it’s cool enough to pour into a jar.  Keep refrigerated.

This jelly makes an awesome ham glaze, with mustard, Worcestershire sauce, and Chinese five-spice powder.

A nut butter and jelly sandwich is childhood comfort food.  But, add some thought and a little imagination and it becomes something else—fancy finger food for glamorous old school (old school, get it?) airplane travel.

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at d@bullcity.mom.

What Can Brown Do For You?

My mother would be convinced that the veggies were burnt and should be discarded.  This would result in my father running over to Food Lion to acquire more microwavable veggies as the family sits around the dinner table and Mom frets about everything getting cold and dried out.

It’s because she has the lowest of thresholds of what burned is.If her baked macaroni and cheese has brown spots on the top, it’s burned.  If rolls go beyond the lightest of caramel-color, they’re burned.  And if veggies get a barely perceptible touch of char, they’re burned and ruined.

Except.

Except, as Chef Ann Burrell delights in proclaiming in a fake, growly, bear-like voice, “Brown food tastes good!”.The Maillard (my-yard) reaction is when amino acids and sugars mix with heat and to a certain extent, pressure, making those delicious, delicious brown markings on food.

If you want to know how important and tasty the Maillard reaction is, think about a hot, melty grilled cheese, on limp blond, not browned, but crispy bread.  Or, flaccid bacon.  Enjoy grill marks?  Maillard reaction.Due to exposure to my mom’s brown food aversion, and my own, near-certifiable level of impatience, I came exceedingly late to the brown food fan club.

But I’m now recording secretary.

It’s easy to get a nice brown crust on meat, no matter how long it needs to cook, the recipe you’re using, or the method of preparation.All you need is a metal pan (a cast iron is best here) that’s screaming hot and a little oil.  Dry both sides of the meat, put the thinnest coats of oil on it, then season both sides.  Place the pieces in the pan without crowding them, which will steam them, rather than sear.  They should be no closer than ½ inch.  And the more contact meat makes to hot surface, the more of it will be brown.

Then cook the meat on each side until there’s a beautiful, deeply caramel-colored crust.  Flip, and cook the other side.  Finish cooking according to directions. Brown veggies though, are my newest obsession.

It all started with some frozen, multi-colored Trader Joe’s cauliflower.

The directions said to put a bit of vegetable oil in the pan to cook them.  But, we really love cauliflower with brown butter, so I put a few tablespoons in the pan and let it brown.  Then I put in the still frozen cauliflower, turned it down to about 4, and covered it.When the cauliflower was heated through, I uncovered the pan and turned it up to about 6.  There was a little water in the skillet from the veg which I wanted to cook off.  This is where I had the happy accident.

I was preoccupied with getting the rest of dinner put together, so I neglected the cauliflower, and it cooked longer than normal (for me).When I got back to it, it had developed beautiful browning.  In the past, I never cooked vegetables until they picked up color.  But, instead of deciding it was burned and discarding it, I just flipped it to expose another part to the pan.

The result was a side dish that Petey is still talking about.You can do this with both frozen and fresh.  But it must be a harder veg, like broccoli, cauliflower, or carrots.  A more tender veggie like peas, will turn gray.  So cook them gently, then roll them in brown butter.  They’ll pick up the maillard flavor without going all elementary school cafeteria food on you.

Chef Ann Burrell and chocolate can’t both be wrong.  Brown is good.And, not burnt.

Thanks for your time.

I give up

I’m not much of a joiner. After high school, I was a member of Columbia House, and that ended with dissatisfaction and letters demanding payment for “Easy Listening Hits of 1984”—which I swear I never ordered.

I’m especially dubious of the cult-like phenomena that can sprout up around a company or a product; think Saturn cars, Apple computers, or even Nutella.  If you like it, then drive it, use it, or eat it.  Does one really need a support group with newsletters and t-shirts?

So, the fanatical devotion that Trader Joe’s garners left me cold, and extremely skeptical.When I went to the Chapel Hill location on opening day, I was disappointed.  I was expecting Whole Foods with 2 dollar wine; lots of produce, gourmet items, and an esoteric collection of meat in a comprehensive department.  It wasn’t like that.  I visited infrequently, but still didn’t contract the Trader Joe’s virus.

I’m ever on the lookout for dried fruits and nuts to add to my always present, always changing bag of trail mix.  Recently I was at Trader Joe’s and picked up a bag of dried baby pineapple.

I hated it.  I’m sure there were fans of it somewhere, but I was not one, not even a little bit.

So one Sunday afternoon I headed to Chapel Hill, and Trader Joe’s, to return it.

Once inside I went over to customer service with the pineapple, and within seconds walked away with a credit for the full price.  There was no paperwork, questions, or judge-y looks; nothing.  The manager-person just wrote a number on a slip of paper and handed it over.And that’s how they handle all returns—no muss, no fuss, no exceptions.  It’s only one of a few pretty great store policies.

They will give you a sample of basically anything.  Just ask a crew member, they’ll open it up, and give you a taste.  They don’t sell any products containing high fructose corn syrup or genetically modified foods.  They are almost always offering samples.  Last time I was there it was delicious cauliflower ravioli and hot spiced apple cider that tasted exactly of apple pie.

But there are two factors at Joe’s that finally made me a fan.  And the intersection of those two?  There lies culinary nirvana.90 percent of their products are private label.  And in addition to breakfast cereal, canned soup, noodles, and jelly, they have items that are hard or impossible to find even in expensive purveyors of gourmet foodstuffs.

The frozen food they carry is the kind of things you dream about when you’re crazy hungry and know you won’t be able to eat for hours.  They’ve got the ethnic thing down, with Italian, Chinese, Mexican, Indian, and more.  Tons of different fish and pasta dinners.  They have mac & cheese with buckets of variations, even breaded deep-fried bites.

Their sweets are the devil.  They have enough yummy looking candies, cakes, and cookies, to throw me into an irretrievable diabetic coma.  Dark chocolate salted caramels, tons of different candy bars, desserts like Japanese mocha ice cream, French macarons, and cookie butter cheesecake, lemme say that again; Cookie.Butter.Cheesecake.But the huge Trader Joe’s lure is the prices.

Eggs, 99 cents a dozen.  Sour cream, a buck a tub.  Fresh oyster mushrooms for $1.99.  Ravioli is two portions for 3 or 4 dollars.  Even non-food items are cheap.  I paid 3 bucks for a ginormous jug of lavender-scented hand soap.  The Kid calls the store ‘the love child of Earth Fare and Aldi’s’.

But when gourmet and budget meet is the temptation that finally preceded my fall.  I got a jar of Middle Eastern style preserved lemons for $2.99.  And a tube of umami, which is a mixture of tomato paste, mushrooms, anchovy, to up the umami factor in anything you cook, is the unbelievable price of $1.99.  I’ve used another brand (now impossible to find in the US) that sold for $12.99.

So, put a fork in me, ‘cause I’m done.  I am a true Joe’s believer.  They’ve got me.

But I promise, you will never find me attending a Trader Joe’s fan club meeting.I’d rather give Columbia House another go.

Thanks for your time.

I beg you: do what I say, not what I did

This week it’s a warts column.

I’ve always loved to write, but until I got a newspaper-writing gig, my scribblings consisted solely of to-do lists, notes for The Kid’s lunch, and emails.

At the time I was asked to contribute, I hadn’t written for a paper since junior high.  So, I really didn’t know the game.  Would I be given a topic each week?  Was there anything I couldn’t say?  Did they want reviews?  Recipes?  My head was spinning with questions, doubts and anxieties.

Carte Blanche is a French term, meaning “blank check”.

And that is pretty much what I got.  I was given three guidelines.  It had to be G or (this is a family newspaper after all).  No problem Boss.

It had to be connected to food.  I’m on it.

It had to be honest.  While I often use exaggeration and hyperbole, and give my friends and family pseudonyms (You didn’t really think the name on the birth certificate was “The Kid”, did you?), all the columns had to be true; warts and all. Good or bad, what I write should be, and always has been, authentic.

And bad is what I whipped up the other day.  But not just bad, it was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad dinner.  It was at least six different shades of wrong.  And bad.  So, so bad.  Did I mention it was bad?

I recently visited Trader Joe’s in Capel Hill.  They have a produce section, with variety and value.  They carry meat and dairy, also with varied selection and fair prices.  But that isn’t really what keeps the parking lot full and the lines long.

The company has the best store brand merchandise I’ve ever seen.  They carry crazy yet delicious stuff like Thai lime and chili cashews, vanilla wafers flecked with real vanilla beans, and Baconesque white cheddar popcorn.  Baconesque; what a lovely, evocative word.But the freezer’s where they shine.  There are meals for every appetite.  They have enough pastas to eat a different kind every day for a month without repeating.

I picked up a cod dinner for Petey, a decadent brie and asparagus pasta for me and arugula-filled ravioli for The Kid.

Next to the arugula ravioli was a type I’ve never seen before.  It was stuffed with chicken pot pie.  I didn’t even hesitate; into my basket it went. Trader Joe’s recommended dressing it simply, with just a little olive oil.  But I decided I had bigger and better ideas for this ravioli.

I would toss it with a rosemary-scented brown butter.  But I wanted something green on the plate.  So when the butter melted, but before it browned, I added three big handfuls of baby spinach.  The toasted, golden butter would impart wonderful flavor to the spinach and vice versa.

Yeah…no.

The butter never browned, but turned the bilious green of antifreeze.  And the spinach adsorbed so much butter it was inedible.  Think oil-soaked rag from a bucket in the shed.

Although I hate waste, the occasional food failure is good for me.  Sometimes I get a big head and food fiascos remind me I’m more Ellie May and less Martha Stewart.  These recurring debacles work like a charm to demolish any creeping complacency.  A flop, while unwelcome, does have its merits.

And, boy howdy was it ever one huge disaster.  But my sweet Petey ate around the tragic spinach and bravely finished his ravioli.  Not me—I dined on peanut butter and jelly.

Thanks for your time.