Friday, August 28, 2009

The Lazy Days of Summer: Simple and Simpler

It's almost the end of summer time, and I honestly can't say that the living's been easy, but the cooking has been.

Take Tuesday night's dinner: lime and garlic chicken breasts, roasted potatoes and cucumber and tomato salad. My picky eaters gobble up potatoes, roasted with olive oil and sea salt, faster than French fries. The homegrown tomatoes and cucumbers were dressed with what Bonny from Hip Cooks calls the "Holy Trinity" - a splash of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkling of sea salt. Simple and easy.

Easier yet? Pick up a roasted chicken from Soumarelo in Pasadena. The chicken, along with a package of pita bread and a pint of rice pilaf, costs a whopping $7.99. Toss your own salad and dinner is served.

Summer time drinks tend to be on the sweet side: lemonade (made from backyard Meyer lemons), Sangria (backyard lemons and oranges) and sweet tea. What's the common denominator in these three beverages? Simple syrup.

I once paid $6.00 for a bottle of simple syrup, which is more embarrassing than the time I paid $20 for a pair of J. Crew flip flops that I could have purchased from my local Rite Aid for 99 cents. In case you didn't know, simple syrup is equal parts sugar and water, brought to a boil and simmered slowly until the sugar dissolves.

I usually make a cup of simple syrup at the same time that I make the beverage, but I recently got smart. I made up a quart of simple syrup and now store it in my refrigerator so that beverage making is simpler than ever. (Japanese coffee shops frequently offer a small bottle of simple syrup at the table for iced tea. Brilliant!)

While I was at it, I decided to start storing water in the same kind of bottle. Mozza Pizzeria uses a similar bottle for their free tap water, as does the Bodega Wine Bar at Paseo Pasadena. For some reason, the water tastes better when I pour it out of the glass flask.

I think I just posted a recipe for water. How simple is that?

Bottled water , straight from the tap into an elegant glass container
(picked up on sale at Cost Plus for 99 cents)

Friday, August 14, 2009

CRUNCH: In Pursuit of the Perfect Potato Chip

A chip off the old block

It's not that I need an excuse to indulge in my favorite junk snack food, potato chips.

But when I heard Dirk Burhans, author of the scholarly CRUNCH! A History of the Great American Potato Chip, interviewed on NPR, I had license to crunch my way through six states. Burhans confirmed what I had always suspected: I wasn't just pigging out when I sought out regional chips. I was engaging in culinary anthropology.

"This is my scholarly pursuit," I said to myself as I grabbed a bag of Tom's in Tennessee. "Just doin' my homework," I muttered under my breath when I snagged a bag of Mister Bees (my home town's regional chip) in West Virginia.

"Say 'Mister Bee,' please." On second thought, don't bother.

But in spite of Burhans' recommendation of chips fried in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (I forget his rationale), I was disappointed. They left a waxy aftertaste in my mouth.

I discovered the perfect potato chip while driving through eastern Ohio, considered the Mecca of the local chip. These didn't come in a bag. The straight-from-the-fryer potato chips, made to order, were as local and delicious as you can get.

Bagless chips from the Flying Dog Cafe in Nelsonville

In Southern California, Nick and Stef's in downtown LA once served a homemade potato chip during their happy hour, but they cut them off a couple years ago. Smitty's in Pasadena still serves a hot-0ff-the-fryer chip, free at the bar or $5 from the menu. The free chips make up for the double-digit Manhattan I like to order at the bar.

Inspired by the chips I crunched in Ohio, I decided to try my hand at chip making. I borrowed Altadena Hiker's mandolin and went to work slicing the spuds. I heated the vegetable oil to 375 degrees, fried the potatoes to a golden brown and sprinkled with sea salt.

Here's what I discovered. The perfect potato chip is imperfect. Some cooked dark brown, others light. Some paper thin, others thicker.

And as it turns out, I have a knack for imperfection.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

On the Road Again: Where Has All the Road Food Gone?

Ahh, the road trip. As a child, it meant long hours squeezed between battling brothers or, if, I was queen for the day, sandwiched between the 'rents. I had no control over the destination, the radio station or the stopping places. I endured it all for the possibility of a soft serve cone that could melt away the pain and boredom.

Fast forward a few decades, and I love road trippin'. I'm now the King of the Road - master of the destination, the radio (or CD player) and the stopping places. And you better believe that road food restaurants top the list for places to stop.

Two weeks ago, I did a fly-drive trip to six states: Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio and West Virginia. I was in heaven behind the wheel of my rental car while listening to the audio book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I stopped for Georgia peaches from roadside farm stands and drove under the influence of those intoxicatingly sweet fruits.

But, other than those peaches, I discovered that finding good road food is less likely than Daddy letting me pick the radio station. I passed scores of Wendy's, McDonald's and Hardy's. Dozens of Dairy Queens and at least half a dozen Sonics. But where was the regional road food? describes road food as "great regional meals along highways, in small towns and in city neighborhoods." Where were the rib joints and the diners with fresh peach pie or biscuits hot out of the oven? What happened to the little hole-in-the-wall joints where I could get a bowl of beans with a side of corn bread?

Two years ago, I discovered just such a place near my home town in West Virginia. Hoggs and Doggs served up West Virginia style hot dogs (with slaw), beans and corn bread, biscuits and gravy and sweet tea. I've returned a half dozen times since then, but this time Hoggs and Doggs had, apparently, gone to Hogg Heaven. They vanished without a hub cap trace.

But the goddess of road food looked kindly upon me as I drove from Columbus to West Virginia. When I reached the halfway mark in Nelsonville (population: 5,000), the Flying Dog came to my rescue. Local beer on tap and a West Virginia style hot dog came to $3.35. An order of hot-from-the-fryer potato chips was less than $2.00. With free WiFi, I was ready to move in.

The Flying Dog was determined to soar above the Sonic and Dairy Queen down the street. I couldn't wait to stop again on my way back to Columbus.
But, alas, in spite of promises of a dollar dog on Tuesdays, Flying Dog had taken a belly flop. Its doors were closed.

What's your favorite, non-chain road food? When you hit the highway, where do you like to stop?