Friday, March 25, 2016

What's YOUR comfort food?

Imagine you’re having a stressful day. You blew a deadline for your boss, and he’s not happy. One of your coworkers accidentally spilled coffee on your white shirt. Your kids are giving you grief about wanting a new car. And speaking of your car, that pesky “check engine” light just came on…..again! Wait, are you starting to get a runny nose?

We’ve all had stressful days like this, right? That’s when we crave our “comfort food.” The Merriam-Webster definition of comfort food is: “Food that is satisfying because it is prepared in a simple or traditional way and reminds you of home, family, or friends.” It is often used to invoke feelings of nostalgia, safety, and, well, comfort.

Did you happen to notice that the Merriam-Webster definition didn’t name any specific foods? No surprise, really, as it’s such a personal thing to all of us. I took an informal survey on Facebook, as well as asked several of my coworkers and family members to get an idea of what comfort food meant to them. I asked people to name just ONE comfort food and collected about 50 answers, and found some interesting results.

Now, I’m not going to turn this into a dry, boring statistical analysis of what brings us comfort. Food isn’t about percentiles or standard deviations. It’s about that first bite of your childhood favorite, such as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and the feeling of simple pleasure. It’s about how food can take you back to a special time in your life when your biggest worry was a scraped knee or how to keep your bratty little brother out of your room. If you’ve ever seen the 2007 film Ratatouille, you might recognize this very sentiment in one of the final scenes. I’ll just leave it at that in case you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t seen this fun movie. Crawl out from under that rock, or walk out of that cave. Give it a try, and you just might like it.

I’ll start by naming my own comfort food. Since I held everyone to just one answer, I will name only one thing too, even though I have a few faves, as did most others. For those who read my “Pi blog,” you’ll see I tend to have a few favorites at any one time. In this case, though, I’ll limit my choice to just one: “breakfast” tacos. I’m an equal opportunity eater when it comes to “breakfast” items. I’ve had pancakes for dinner, and breakfast tacos for dinner are a common occurrence at our house.

I was raised on breakfast tacos. My mom would make these for us when we worked cattle on the weekend. She had a special touch with them, much like her fried chicken. As much as I’ve tried, I’ve never been able to replicate her fried chicken, even when she would stand right beside me, supervising the whole process. I guess you are still stuck on chicken duty, mom.

My basic “blueprint” for breakfast tacos is really quite simple. First and foremost, I use flour tortillas exclusively. Well, let me backtrack just a little. If I’m making chorizo and egg tacos, I’ll use corn tortillas for that specific combo. Otherwise, it’s flour tortillas all the way. Obviously eggs are the backbone of my breakfast taco. I’ll vigorously beat some eggs with a little milk and a dash of red pepper flakes. If I’m making tacos just for myself, I use two eggs, otherwise I’ll add more depending on how many I’m cooking for. The next critical ingredient is some form of potato. Ideally, I’ll have leftover chunks of roasted red potatoes or homemade hashbrowns. Barring that, I’ll bake some “tater tots” or something similar. Oh, relax! It’s OK to cheat and use prepared components from time to time. Besides, these are my tacos! By the way, if you decide to use something like this, I recommend putting them under the broiler for 1 - 2 minutes at the end to achieve maximum crispiness.

So now we have our eggs beat and our potatoes in whatever form ready on the side. For the meat component, I prefer bacon, but will use pan sausage if I don’t have any bacon in the house. Scary concept, huh, no bacon in the house. Let’s not contemplate that too deeply. I cook my bacon until it is very crisp, almost to the point where it will shatter if you thump it. Crumble it up and set it aside, being careful not to sample too much of it before it goes into the pan. That’s always a high potential in the Newman kitchen…..oversampling the bacon. Hey, I believe in quality assurance, sure, but I don’t want to QA myself out of a good taco.

Dump the beaten eggs into a warm to hot skillet and let them cook until almost done. Add the potatoes, bacon and any other ingredient you want at this point, along with a good handful of shredded cheese. I’ll leave the specific type up to you, although sharp cheddar or pepper jack seem to work quite well. Mix everything well and cook until the eggs are done. Add a little (or a lot, up to you) more shredded cheese and you’re done! Heat the flour tortillas and add a nice dollop of filling onto it. If you have some fresh pico de gallo or salsa go for it. Wrap it up and enjoy.
My breakfast tacos

That’s my comfort food. It was a tough choice, though, as my second choice was homemade carne guisada tacos (with brown gravy, NOT red gravy!). So, maybe it’s just tacos that are my comfort food, and not necessarily the specific kind of taco….. Nah, it’s pretty much breakfast tacos for me.

Earlier I mentioned an informal poll I posted on my Facebook page as well as a verbal poll of several coworkers. I promised not to make this a boring statistical analysis, but I do want to make some observations I found quite interesting.

I got almost 50 responses from Facebook, coworkers and via Twitter. Of these, only five people selected a non-savory dish. Two said chocolate (good choice!), one preferred oatmeal, one selected pancakes and my wife said, hands down, chocolate pudding. I don’t know why I find this so interesting, but I do. I figured more people would’ve chosen a “sweet” dish but that wasn’t the case at all.

The top four answers, in no particular order, were pizza, mac & cheese, wings, and steak. I’m giving honorable mention to meatloaf and chicken and dumplings, as they popped up almost as frequently. One quick note about the meatloaf entry: One reply was actually “My mom’s meatloaf.” I guess I’m not the only one who prefers one of mom’s dishes, and that absolutely confirms the definition of comfort food. Not surprisingly, two of my friends from Louisiana picked classic dishes from their state: gumbo and boiled crawfish. A friend from Alaska named “dry fish” as her comfort food. I can definitely see regional tastes being an influence here. An award winning author was kind enough to reply to my query with “low country BBQ shrimp and grits with grilled peaches.”

Naturally, I had a good idea what some of my family would say. Mom of course said fried chicken, although I had her pegged for Fritos and bean dip (her second choice). Both of my sisters prefer a good grilled cheese sandwich. One of my brothers from another mother was definitive about egg sandwiches being his comfort food. He actually turned me onto this gem of a food at a restaurant in Galveston called Farley Girls. Check out their menu item called “Good Morning Galveston.” It’s quite yummy and a preferred lunch choice for me when we eat there. My other bro surprised me with his choice of an Egg McMuffin. I make my own version of this from time to time, and prefer it over the original article. I’m not knocking his choice, just providing a little extra commentary. But really though, an Egg McMuffin? Seriously? Just kidding, brother, if it works for you, great.

My coworkers fell pretty much in the mainstream with gumbo (my boss) pizza and steak topping the list. Two of our UTMB police officers had the same idea of chicken fried steak, with white gravy, of course. My lab manager selected kielbasa as her preferred comfort food.

I really didn’t know how a chef would answer this question. Via Twitter, I asked some Food Network chefs, and they replied with such dishes as roast chicken with mashed potatoes, spaghetti carbonara and goulash. A local chef and culinary instructor (and friend) preferred chicken and dumplings. I wondered if being a chef would influence their decision with something like “arctic char with truffle oil sautéed vegetables” or Beef Wellington or some other fine dining type dishes. Nope, not at all.

All this talk about comfort food and now I’m wondering what I’ll do for dinner tonight. I guess I’ll order a pizza with a side of wings. While waiting for it to get delivered, I’ll jump into a big bowl of mac & cheese.

Until next time…….

carpe cerevisi

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Happy St. MY Day

Happy St. what day? Well, that’s what my mom said I used to call St. Patrick’s Day……”Saint MY Day” when I was a wee lad. I’m sure some of y’all are nodding your heads and saying something to the effect of “Wow, you were arrogant even as a child.” Nah, not arrogant, at least not then. Just call it a child’s view of the world.

My love of St. Paddy’s Day is of the music! Forget the green beer (amateurs!) and the “Kiss me, I’m Irish” t-shirts. I don’t need any of those gimmicks. I’m Irish on both sides, with ancestral names like O’Madden and Kilpatrick in my family tree. I live it year round. Yeah, I’ll be happy to sip on a Guinness or a Harp’s Lager to celebrate, but I’m NOT going to contaminate good beer with green food coloring. Nope, not gonna happen. I’ll forego the corned beef and cabbage for dinner as well. I’m still a Texan after all, and some beef sliders with roasted red potatoes will do just fine, thankyouverymuch.

Back to what I first mentioned, though, the music. For being a predominantly auditory medium, music is also very visual for me, especially Irish folk music. I often wonder, when listening to this music, if it’s just my fertile imagination or something buried in my DNA that evokes such mental imagery. Sinead O’Connor’s version of The Foggy Dew always conjures images of fog-shrouded hills, and smoke rising over crumbling buildings. I can see the fishing boats, and even smell the peat fires in a small cottage when listening to Killybegs. It’s amazing just how visceral some of this music is!

Here we go!
image from Google search

Naturally, when writing or talking about Irish music, the two most common groups that should immediately come to mind are The Chieftains and The Wolfe Tones. I have many CDs from both of these groups, as well as from other Irish groups and have had the pleasure of attending a couple of live Chieftains concerts in Houston. Of course, there are many other groups, but these two are probably the most well known.

The Chieftains
image from Google search

Another very visual song is an instrumental called The Fox Chase. It was written for the Uilleann pipes, which is the Irish variant of the Scottish Highland pipes. My favorite version is by Leo Rowsome, but neither YouTube nor an extensive Google search yielded a suitable video of it. You can find a sample of it here, though. I do have this on CD, but am hesitant to post it on YouTube for copyright reasons. The Chieftains have a version of this song which you can find on YouTube here. This is a fun song to listen to, as with Rowsome’s version, all of it is done on the uilleann pipes. You can hear the bugle of the hunt master and the dogs barking if you listen carefully.

image from Google search

Of course it’s easy to visualize these scenes with an instrumental, as there are no words to influence your mind. Having just written that, though, some of the traditional songs with lyrics can also create a powerful mental image. Consider the song Kilkelly, about a father writing to his immigrant son. The words alone are powerful, but I can listen to this song and see a withered old man, sitting at a table, dictating his letter to a friend. Compare this to Spancil Hill, which is from the viewpoint of the immigrant, missing his homeland. You definitely don’t have to be Irish to appreciate the longing for family demonstrated in either of these songs.

Kilkelly, Ireland
image from Google search

Whew, this is starting to get a bit heavy. Let’s lighten it up a bit, and look at some of the famous “Irish drinking songs” that are fun to sing along with. Before every cruise, my wife swears she’s going to participate in karaoke, which is fine by me. I can’t carry a tune to save my life, so I’m doing everyone a favor by not singing. The other reason, though, is the lack of a good Irish drinking song on the karaoke list. Seriously, if there were even a few of those, I’d be tempted to belt out a few. If a, well, let’s just say less than talented person could sing My Heart Will Go On (while on a cruise Alaska!), and still receive a polite, yet warm response, surely I could get away with a rousing pub tune like Whiskey in the Jar, Finnigan’s Wake, or The Wild Rover. I guess I can always host an Irish drinking songs karaoke party at my house. Who’s in?

Several years ago, I attended the King’s Feast at Texas Renaissance Festival with my sister and brother in law. Audience participation was pretty much mandatory, and one of the songs we had to sing was Here’s a Health to the Company. Hey, I know that song! The Chieftains have a great version of it. When it was time to sing it, my brother in law opened the program to the lyrics and held it up to share with me. “No thanks, Mikey, I already know it.” He looked at me and started to argue. It took a few minutes for me to convince him I actually knew the lyrics and wasn’t just faking it. Adding insult to injury, my sister just rolled her eyes at him and told him he should’ve known better.

Earlier I mentioned how I must have some sort of coding in my DNA from my ancestors that provide such clear imagery. Besides the famous “drinking songs” of the Irish, their music also has many “rebel songs.” I can listen to these rebel songs and have it speak to some deep part of my soul. The Wolfe Tones are known to perform many of these, and the upbeat tempos make for a good accompaniment to a proper pint of Guinness. The melodies are typically pleasing to the ear, and on the surface they are fun to drink and sing to. Once you actually listen to the lyrics, though, you’ll see just how potentially inflammatory (to some) they can be. You can listen to a playlist on YouTube here. Go ahead and give it a try. Hey, if it’s on St. Paddy’s Day, all the better, right? If you don’t have the time or inclination to listen to almost three hours of Irish music, I invite you to at least sample Rock On Rockall or Broad Black Brimmer. You’ll get a good idea of what I’m referring to. One caveat, though: You may want to listen to Rock On Rockall at home. There are a few words, not too bad, that really aren’t suitable for a work environment.

I can’t finish today’s blog without mentioning a more contemporary group: The Pogues. A good friend of mine, John Myers (you’re always gonna be John to me, not “Jack”), turned me on to The Pogues many years ago when I was still doing EMS up in Colorado. I can best describe them as “Irish Punk,” although that isn’t entirely accurate. Just listen to Dirty Old Town, Fairytale of New York or A Pair of Brown Eyes and see what mental images you can come up with. Maybe you can come up with a better description than “Irish Punk,” too. Thank you, John, I'm glad you told me about The Pogues. You were absolutely right!

So, wherever you are, and whatever you are doing on this Paddy’s Day, 2016, I wish you much joy and pleasure. You can bet that I’ll be listening to my Irish music and enjoying everything about it. And if you happen to enjoy some adult beverages along with the music, please do so responsibly.

Until next time…….

carpe cerevisi

Friday, March 11, 2016

A slice of Pi

In just a few days it will be National Pi Day: 3/14/16. Pi: such a marvelous mathematical constant. Who all remembers their junior high (or was it elementary school) mathematics? “Pi is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter.” This ratio is expressed as 22/7, or in decimal format 3.14159……. Wow, rounded off it’s 3.1416. Mind =  blown.

And who, by the way, remembers that goofy little phrase: Pi are squared? Pi are round, cornbread are square!” It seemed to be so funny in junior high.

Of course, whenever I hear the term Pi, the first thought that comes to my mind is a circle, but nothing dealing with ratios. It is, of course, Pi’s famous homonym: “pie.” Yes, I know there’s an actual “National Pie Day,” which occurred on January 23rd this year. I guess I could’ve written on this topic then instead of the topic I ultimately selected, but at the time I didn’t have my list to choose from.

So, here are my thoughts on that circle of goodness: pie!

I love pie! Apple pie, lemon pie, blueberry pie, the list goes on and on. Can’t you just smell the aroma of a freshly baked apple pie, or see an exquisitely flaky crust? Imagine that first taste of a blueberry pie, topped with French vanilla ice cream.

The last pie I made was, ironically, on National Pie Day. I made a turtle pie from a recipe I’ve modified over the years. I’ve just about perfected it, and will be happy to share it with any of y’all on one condition: I want one of your pie recipes. Deal?

This version has an Oreo cookie crust, with a layer of caramel on the bottom, topped with a chocolate and pecan layer. The crust is the one component that I’ve modified more than any other. The original recipe called for a standard, “blind baked” pastry shell, and while good I knew it could be better. I tried a shortbread cookie crust, and this definitely improved the flavor. The downside to this crust was it was a bit hard to cut without it breaking.

My next idea was either a graham cracker crust or an Oreo cookie crust. Since I was going for an authentic turtle flavor, I opted for the Oreo cookie crust. Yep, that’s it! Now I just need to increase the thickness of the caramel layer and it should be perfect.

Turtle pie

What is my favorite pie, though? Wow, tough choice! If I had to pick one, just one pie, I would narrow it down to two: A blueberry cream pie or a lemon pie. Now, most people think of lemon meringue pie by default. I’m one of those few that prefer no meringue on my lemon pie. All too often the meringue is too thick and detracts from the lemon flavor.

So, which is it, the blueberry or the lemon?

What do y’all think? Only one can be at the top of the list. That doesn’t mean I won’t eat any other pies, let’s not be foolish here. I just have to pick one for the top. It’s not like I’m picking out wallpaper, or voting for President, right? It’s not like picking a favorite will change the course of history. No butterfly effect here, right? Let’s see, if I pick the blueberry cream pie, it probably won’t cause rain in the Sahara Desert, and if I pick the lemon pie, a dozen lemurs most likely won’t be crushed by a meteorite… theory.

OK, enough stalling! I have to pick a favorite, if for no other reason than I’ve been teasing y’all this whole blog. Looking at all the variables, and considering such nuances as complex flavor profiles, and calculating the net fat grams…, forget that. “Pie” and “fat grams” do not belong in the same sentence, or even on the same planet.

The envelope please. And the title of Patrick’s favorite pie goes to……


So, for this coming Pi Day, I want to see a lemon pie at my house. Who wants to bring me one? I'll even share with the volunteers.

Until next time…….

carpe cerevisi