Tuesday, March 23, 2010

St. Patrick’s Day Feasting – a little bit Southern

I am part of a group of friends who meet for dinner every Wednesday. Sometimes we go out, but a lot of the time we pull together some sort of potluck. It’s like having family dinner when your family’s all somewhere else. It’s one way of keeping Southern. Cooking together. Eating together. Laughing together. So when I noticed that the Feast day of St. Patrick would fall on Wednesday this year, it was an excellent excuse for a dinner.

I made my first St. Patrick’s dinner of corned beef and cabbage three years ago, in a March when feasting with friends seemed an especially good idea. Of course, we had to have corned beef and cabbage. But there was a problem. I’d had it before and found it less than feast-worthy, and particularly being Southern, that was a problem.

Typically, corned beef is boiled in water with some seasonings, and the cabbage is added to cook alongside towards the end. Not being all that impressed with boiled cabbage, I decided to give the cabbage the all-out Southern-cooked vegetable treatment. If you don’t know what that is, it involves plenty of butter, onions, salt, and pepper. And there’s no such thing as a “crisp” Southern vegetable.

For the corned beef, I finally came across a recipe that sounded promising. It involved browning the beef and then simmering it in seasoned Guinness. Yep, Irish stout. The first year, I stuck with the recipe and it was good. The second year, I switched out the sweeter spices in the recipe for more traditional pickling spices, and it was better. This year circumstances forced a more dramatic change which turned out to be for the best.

I made two 3.5 lb corned beefs (I plan at least ½ lb of beef per person, as it cooks down as much as 50%), but this method would easily work for one.

I try to pick out a good brand of beef (I haven’t yet chucked out the money to try a top brand), and this year I got flat cut. I did try the cheaper point cut one year, but there’s a lot more fat and it cooks down enough that I’m not sure the savings was worth it. But as all good Southerners know, the flavor is in the fat. Even if you trim the fat off later, it flavors the meat in the cooking. In my best of all world, I could get a whole brisket, which would include both point and flat together.

In my perfect world, I’d have access to a big enough fridge to corn my own brisket. But that’ll have to wait. This year, I got Cook’s, which seems a reliably good brand. Brisket comes from the underbelly, behind the front legs. It’s working muscle, and so requires long, slow, moist cooking to be tender. (My mother raves about corned beef she had in Australia which was a “silverside” cut. Apparently, this is also known as a round streak or bottom round. It’s definitely leaner, and thus would lack some flavor. I’m curious about the differences. I wonder if they cook it differently, too.) Because I’ve made my way into the 8 to 5 world once more, that required creativity to get dinner on the table by 7:00 p.m. I combined two cooking methods.

First, I browned the beef when I got up Wednesday morning (requiring the removal of the battery from the smoke detector) and then placed it fat side up on top of two quartered onions in a Texas-sized crock pot. I added a bottle of Guinness and the seasoning pack that came with the beef (which can be replaced with about 1½ tsp of pickling spice) and cooked it on low 8 hours (I think it might’ve been better with only 6, but I couldn’t get home earlier). When I got home, I took the beef and onions out and threw away the juices (they are very briny). Then I put the beef on a big sheet of aluminum foil in a baking dish fat side down and stuffed the onions along side. I studded the beef with 12 to 15 cloves, spread Coleman’s mustard on top, and sprinkled it with a couple of tablespoons of brown sugar. I meant to put some mustard seed on to, but forgot in the rush to get it done. Then I sealed the whole thing up in the foil and put it in the oven on 350° for another hour.

It actually got a little overdone, because it was falling apart (it should slice neatly across the grain), but it tasted great. And one taste of the fat after all that cooking and I was wondering why we even have dessert. (Hey, I’m Southern.)

With the cabbage, red potatoes boiled with pepper, a wonderful dish of snow peas and leeks brought by a friend, Irish soda bread (which I have yet to get into making myself), cookies and brownies, it was a feast indeed.

Now I’m wondering if I could deep-fry the leftovers.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Little Bit of South Coming Up North

“Chick-fil-A in Chicago? For real?”

What a beautiful headline in the paper last week! Especially since the answer is a pretty secure “Yes!”

For the past five years, when people ask me if I like Chicago (yes) and if there is anything I miss about the South, my answer has most often been that I miss mountains, real barbeque, abundant platters of inexpensive fresh (and fried) seafood, and Chick-fil-a.

You’ll note that three out of the four are food related.

So yes, I’m happy. It was nearly two years ago that I was teased by a friend in Wheaton who knew a real estate agent shopping Chick-fil-a around to find a location there, only to have that prospect delayed, presumably by the economic nosedive. So now to have real locations (in Aurora and Orland Park in 2010 with Wheaton soon to follow) announced in an as official forum as the Chicago Tribune is a bubble of happiness I only hope won’t be punctured again.

But back to the questions of Chicagoans…

The mention of Chick-fil-a tends to elicit moans of deprivation from fellow-devotees of the chicken sandwich that is practically-perfect-in-every-way. From others, it brings the question, “What’s the big deal with Chick-fil-a? It’s just chicken sandwiches, right?”

That’s like saying Wrigley Field is “just” a baseball stadium.

Yes, Chick-fil-a is more than a chicken sandwich. It’s actually more than one sandwich, including a grilled option. (I have a friend who absolutely loves their chicken salad sandwich.) And that’s not to mention Chick-n-strips and nuggets. It’s also yummy waffle fries, some of the best milkshakes out there, and the best fresh lemonade ever.

But it really is all about the chicken sandwich.

A simple bun, two dill pickle slices, and the best fried chicken breast ever. That’s it. You can add mayo, but it doesn’t need it. It’s perfect the way it is, and it’s actually healthy! (The original chicken sandwich comes in at 430 calories and 17 grams of fat.) Chick-fil-a knows what they’re doing. The keep it simple and do it best. They’re friendly and generous, and they have a great sense of humor. They’re keeping Southern, if ever a fast food chain has!

As far as fast food is concerned, Chick-fil-a is in a league of its own. The cows know it. So will Chicago soon.