Hell on wheels

Big food has gone and done it again. 

Following in the footsteps of individually-owned mobile food trucks and carts, like the L.A.-based Kogi truck that became a twittering sensation, Taco Bell is now tweeting the location of its taco truck.

WTF? Why on earth would Taco Bell need a mobile taco truck? You can’t swing a dead cat and not hit a Taco Bell– they are everywhere.  The people following these tweets must be seriously impaired if they can’t find a bricks and mortar store somewhere.  They probably believe in death panels, too.

The whole idea of mobile food carts tweeting their location is because they don’t have a bricks and mortar location or a multi-million dollar marketing budget like Taco Bell.  Plus, quite often, as is currently happening in L.A., the trucks get shooed away from certain areas where they park, so they have to move along– losing clientele each time they have to pull up stakes.  It would be the equivalent of cops coming and chasing away all the customers at  a restaurant with a permanent location.

Big Food has jumped the shark again.  Never, ever doubt its ability to co-opt a good idea and make it stink.

Organic Twinkies, anyone?

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For the 4th: Hotdogs, Aussie style

Last month’s Bon Appetit feature, “Around the World in 80 Hot Dogs”, really irked me.  The editorial staff’s major “brainstorm” for a hotdog topping that screamed “Australia” was mushy peas.  MUSHY PEAS? Now, I understand this article was all in fun and wasn’t an anthropological study of hot dog toppings around the globe, but come on! Couldn’t they come up with anything better than mushy peas?

Apparently, these folks haven’t spent much time eating in Australia.  The best I can figure, they’ve been to Sydney ‘s W hotel and gone to a pretty popular food cart near there called Harry’s Cafe de Wheels which does sell a hot dog with mushy peas, chili, cheese and some other kitchen sink ingredients.  The only other Australian dish that I can think of that features mushy peas, or in this case pea soup, is South Australia’s pie floater. Regardless, these two anecdotes of mushy peas hardly merit making peas a quintessentially Australian hot dog topping. 

This being my Aussie husband’s first 4th of July in the States, I decided to come up with my own hot dog toppings based on popular Australian tastes, and personally, I think they’re much better than Bon Appetit’s suggestion.

The evidence:

Hot dog with tomato-ginger-chilli jam & coriander (aka cilantro)

Hot dog with tomato-ginger-chilli jam & coriander (aka cilantro)

Hot dog with beetroot-pineapple relish, pineapple and bacon

Hot dog with beetroot-pineapple relish, pineapple and bacon

The tomato ginger chilli jam topping is my take on Modern Australian cuisine’s incorporation of Asian flavors and ingredients into every day dishes.  This topping is basically a chunky ketchup, but has a spicy kick from dried chiles and the freshness of the coriander (what Aussies call cilantro).  To make the jam, I used rice vinegar and a coconut palm sugar with ginger that I got at the Willunga Farmer’s market from the spice purveyor.  I also added onion and dried, crushed red chiles and I was good to go.   The jam was a killer topping and I loved the cilantro, although if you’re not a fan, you can certainly leave it off.
For the other hot dog topping, I incorporated ingredients used to top an Aussie Burger with the Lot (minus cheese, egg and salad).  I made a beetroot-pineapple relish by grating fresh beets and combining them with a few pineapple chunks, chopped red onion, some pineapple juice, liquid from some pickled beets I made earlier this week, a tablespoon of Kangaroo Island Tea Tree honey and a pinch of mustard powder.  I cooked it until the liquids evaporated and the beet had softened some but still had a pleasing crunch.  I topped the relish with some more pineapple chunks and crumbled bacon.  This was my husband’s favorite of the two toppings.
The other reason this was so much better than BA’s suggestion of using tinned mushy peas (which honestly, I’ve never seen any Australian eating unless they were super drunk eating a pie floater), is that these toppings were so much fun to create and play around with.  I can’t wait until next year when I try making a hot dog-meat pie combo!

A new take on shortcake

Strawberry shortcake is, in my opinion, the most perfect dessert.  Of course this is dependent upon the quality of the shortcake and the strawberries.

In June, you can pretty much count on strawberries being top notch. I’ve also found what is probably the best shortcake recipe on the internet– one that is as good as– no, actually trumps– the shortcake recipe on the Bisquick box which was long my favorite despite the fact it was on the Bisquick box.  The completely homemade shortcake recipe was on the Food Network website and it was really wrong, but thank goodness for reviews and comments because that helped correct all its flaws.   It makes a lightly sweet, slightly crumbly shortcake that’s soft in the middle and has a pleasantly crunchy crust. 

I’ve been making this particular shortcake for about a year and have recently found myself wanting to experiment with some new flavors.  My basil is starting to go nuts and I’m not quite ready to start making pesto, so I wanted to incorporate some of that.  I made a lemon-basil shortbread a couple of years ago that was absolutely intoxicating. I figured if lemon and basil works in shortbread, why not shortcake?

I mixed the dry ingredients for the shortcake together and cut in the butter and shortening before adding in the finely chopped basil, lemon zest and lemon juice.  After I’d incorporated that, I poured in the half-and-half (did I mention these aren’t lowfat?) and stirred until the dough just came together.  The shortcakes went into the oven and came out 15 minutes later lightly golden, flecked with basil and sparkling on top from a sprinkling of raw sugar.

I couldn’t even wait for them to cool before I pulled a tiny nibble off one of the shortcakes.  They brought the memory of that lemon-basil shortbread back to life.  With ice cream and strawberries it was a  taste of summer with the basil and lemon providing a  je ne sais quois — that turned the familiar into something new and intriguing.

 

Next time, I’ll try the shortcakes with blueberries– I think the blueberries and basil will be an even more divine combination.

 

Lemon Basil Shortcake

2 c. flour
1 tbsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. salt
1/3 c. sugar (or a little less)
2 Tbsp. shortening
2 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh basil
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
2 tsp. grated lemon zest
2/3 c. plus 1 Tbsp. half and half
melted butter
raw sugar

Mix together flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Cut or rub in shortening and butter until dough is the size of small peas. Add basil, lemon juice and zest and stir (don’t be tempted to the add lemon juice to the half and half– it will curdle it). Add the half and half and stir until all the dry ingredients are incorporated and the dough just comes together. Drop by tablespoonfuls onto a cookie sheet. Brush tops with melted butter and sprinkle with raw sugar. Bake in a 400 degree oven 15 minutes until lightly golden.  Makes 8 shortcakes.

Does this cinnamon roll make my butt look fat?

I have found what could quite possibly be the world’s largest cinnamon roll.  I’m not counting the cinnamon rolls that are made as part of a stunt to get into some sort of world record book or in honor of National Cinnamon Roll day (if there is such a thing, which I’m sure there probably is).  I’m just talking about your everyday,  average, run-of-the-mill cinnamon rolls served at diners, cafes and restaurants on a regular basis. 

I encountered this behemoth, butter-laden pastry at the Rocking Chair Cafe in Conway, Missouri which is smack-dab between Springfield and Lebanon along I-44.  I’d read the cinnamon rolls were big here, but I was not fully prepared for what I saw as the waitress approached my table.  When she saw my face she guffawed.  Other patrons whispered and tittered as I whipped out my camera to take a photo (little did they know that I take pictures of lots of food).

It was so big it was spilling off the plate. This cinnamon roll was 7 inches across and 3 1/2 inches high in the center and about 3 inches around the outside (yes, I actually used a ruler).  And DAMN was it ever good.  Sometimes big food can be really disappointing, but not this time.  They way I figure it, it was at least 147 cu. inches of scrumptiousness.  And I know I’m a hypocrite the way I go on about this cinnamon roll because I’m the first to complain about how gargatuan portion sizes doled out at restaurants are making Americans fat, but in my defense I had to struggle to finish half of it.

I googled for photos of what other people consider the “biggest cinnamon roll” and found a few examples here and here that pale in comparison to the monster at the Rocking Chair.   Are there any other cinnamon rolls out there that can beat this one? I’d love to see it if there is.

Roadtrip Redux: The beekeeper cometh

Last month, I wrote about my roadtrip to California which included a stop at a great Mexican restaurant in Winslow, AZ where I briefly met a beekeeper who sells his honey to the restaurant.

Well, it turns out the beekeeper, Roy Crain, has family in the same are of Missouri where I currently live.  Roy’s wife, Karen, found my blog while googling camelthorn honey and told me they were coming to Missouri and were bringing me some honey.  I was THRILLED– not only about the honey, but that she’d also  stumbled upon my blog.

I chatted with Roy on the phone a few times and we agreed to meet at a little diner in Conway, MO.   Roy, Karen and their daughter Jessie and I shared a lot of conversation, coffee and the biggest cinnamon rolls you’ve ever seen (more on that in another post). 

It turns out that Roy is a railroad man, and beekeeping is his hobby.  In fact, honeybees are in his blood, you could say.  His grandfather also kept bees and Roy took it up about 15 years ago.  He was one of the first people in Arizona– if not the first– to have his bees produce camelthorn honey by setting up hives in an area surrounded by the thorny, flowering shrubs which are considered a noxious weeds in Arizona and elsewhere.  But the bees apparently love the small, pink flowers and use it to wonderful effect to make a delicate, bright-flavored honey with a hint of spice that’s  incredibly different from the typical clover honey which has a heavier, more cloying sweetness.

Roy now runs anywhere from 50 to 100 hives around Arizona and makes several different kinds of honey including a Winslow Wildflower which is almost as dark as molasses and has a deeper, more complex taste than the camelthorn–Roy calls it burnt–  that tickles the back of my throat.

As sweet and good as Roy’s honey is, it’s even sweeter that this blog and a shared interest in food could allow us to cross paths again.  It’s further proof of my belief that people who appreciate and produce good, honest food are usually good people.

If you ever find yourself in Winslow, Arizona– sure go by and see the famous corner– but also make it a point to look up Roy and try some of his honey.

Painted Desert Honey Co.

928-289-4863

Road Trip, Post 5: Backroads Basque Cuisine

Elko, NV

Interstate 80 isn’t exactly a backroad, but if you’ve ever been on it, you know you’re pretty much in the middle of nowhere.  It seems to be a vast nothingness– sort of like outerspace– but occasionally you’ll bump into a star, or in my case the Star Hotel.

By this point in the trip, I was pretty much ready to get home, but my day brightened considerably when the Nevada tourist information book said that our evening’s destination, Elko, was a center of Basque culture and had several Basque restaurants.  We chose the Star, which was highly recommended by the clerk at our motel (which had a Basque restaurant right next door, but didn’t get her resounding endorsement).

I had no idea what to expect when I got to the Star– I’ve never had any Basque cuisine nor have I read much about it (except one chapter in Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour), but once I saw the crowded dining room, I figured this place must be doing something right.

  

The Star Hotel was originally a boarding house for sheepherders (and still is, apparently; the waitress told us they ring the dinner bell for the boarders at 6:15 every night) and the tables are still communal and the meals are served family style. 

A word to the wise: come hungry.  Another word to the wise: if there are just two of you, split an entree because the amount of food they give you could feed an army.  If you do this, the restaurant charges the entree price for one person and then a charge for just the side dishes for the other person.

The minute we sat down, our waitress presented us with a loaf of bread and a giant bowl of cabbage soup with orzo in a broth that had a faint hint of saffron. 

We gobbled up our soup while we checked out the menu.  We decided to share a one pound ribeye and a bottle of wine.  The menu featured several bottles from Spain and we picked out the Sangre de Toro– blood of the bull– a natural choice to go with our steak.

Next, the waitress delivered a bowl of salad which was a crispy iceberg lettuce lightly coated with a creamy, garlicy dressing that was so good I could have picked up the bowl and licked all the dressing out of it. 

Then came the ribeye (which looked to be much bigger than one pound) topped with slivered garlic and a jaw-dropping array of side dishes: french fries, green beans, pinto beans, and spaghetti.  

 

According to our waitress, the pintos and the spaghetti were dishes commonly served at the hotel– my guess is that they provided good stick to your ribs food for the cowboys who were probably pretty hungry after a hard day of herding cattle.  The french fries were excellent– crisp and hot.  The spaghetti and green beans were okay, but the pintos were nice– perhaps a bit skimpy on seasoning, but they were properly cooked instead of being mushy blobs.  You can always add salt, but you can’t do much about overcooked legumes.  The ribeye, by the way, was great.  Cooked exactly the way we ordered it (medium), and the garlic scattered on top was a welcome condiment.  When we finally pushed back from the table, I felt liked I’d gained 10 pounds, but I was totally content and thrilled that I’d discovered a new American regional cuisine that I didn’t even know existed.

If you’ve been to Spain and have tried traditional Basque cooking and come here expecting more of the same, you’re probably going to be disappointed.  This isn’t totally traditional Basque cooking.  It’s Basque-American and reflects how Basque immigrants adapted their culinary tradtions to a new continent with different ingredients, which in my opinion is more “authentic” that trying to precisely mimic dishes being cooked 6000 miles away with an entirely different larder of ingredients.  For instance, many traditional Basque dishes use seafood because the region is bordered by the sea, but in the mountains of Nevada, seafood doesn’t make sense. Lamb and beef does.

Of course, I’m sure they get some seafood in for Paella night, which is Tuesday night at the Star Hotel.  I was sorry that it was only Friday and that we couldn’t stick around to try it, but if I ever find myself back in Elko, I’ll make sure I’m there on a Tuesday.

Road Trip, post 4: Cal-Mex is no Az-Mex, but it’s a good 2nd

Santa Rosa, CA

I’m going to admit my bias against California burritos right up front.  My Mexican food habits and predilections were formed largely in Arizona, so I just can’t wrap my head around a tortilla wrapped around rice.  In Arizona, burritos are filled with lots of things, but not rice (unless you’re eating at Chipotle or another fresh-mex chain), so in California I pretty much steer clear of burritos, which sometimes makes choosing a taqueria difficult since so many of the online reviews focus on burritos.

You can’t swing a dead cat around these parts and not hit a taqueria, but Taqueria Santa Rosa on Mendocino Avenue seems to be one of the most popular.  I’ve been here twice and the first time had the carnitas plate, based upon online reviews.  Like the reviews said, the carnitas were certainly crispy, but they were also too dry.  On my second visit, I got tacos with carne asada and pollo asado and these were spot on– especially the carne asada.   The chicken came with a salsa verde and the beef with a red sauce.  Rice and beans are very good, as are the chips and salsa (not complimentary).  The chips are served with both an incredibly fresh-tasting red salsa, and a green salsa that is unlike any other I’ve ever had.  It seems to be a blend of traditional salsa verde and guacamole and kept me dipping for more.

The hubs had a burrito that’s about the size of a newborn, and after he eats it he looks as if he’s in his third trimester carrying a burrito baby.  I never get to try this because 1) as I mentioned earlier I’m not keen on the CA burritos and don’t press the issue and 2) If I reached for a bite I might draw back a stump.  Anyhow, the boy likes it and it usually seems to satisfy his man-wich appetite.

When we make it back to Santa Rosa there are other taquerias I must try, but I don’t expect I’ll ever find anything to meet the impossibly high standards set by the Arizona-style green chile chicken burros.