Sometimes I just have to write about something that has nothing to do with food.
As many of you already know, I am an eighth grade English teacher by day, a job that I love, love, love, love, love. Right now it’s especially easy to be in love with it because we are in the middle of reading Fahrenheit 451. Originally published in 1953, the book serves for many students as an introduction to “real” literature, their first piece of the canon, a real, adult novel. And it’s so perfect for fourteen-year-olds.
The themes of censorship, corrupt authority, man’s search for happiness, and the impact of a dysfunctional, technology-dependent society ring true for them, leading to fantastic discussions and debates. I’m especially blessed to work with a thoughtful, passionate co-teacher named Ben, with whom I have collaborated, aligning my English curriculum with his history lesson plans. To teach this book at the same time he is discussing the Cold War, Stalin, Eastern Europe, and the nuclear arms race with our students is, for lack of better language, the coolest thing ever.
To throw even more synchronicity into the mix, this week is National Banned Books Week. As our kids have learned, schools and libraries around the country are still removing books from shelves, usually on the objections of a small, fear-mongering minority. They were rather indignant to learn that this kind of thing happens in the world they live in, and surprised to discover that many of the Ten Most-Challenged Books of 2009 are ones they themselves have read.
If you haven’t read Fahrenheit 451, a book about banning books that is often, ironically, banned itself, my students and I would love to recommend it to you. We are having a blast discussing the similarities between Bradbury’s dystopian world and our own, analyzing what seems unchanging about human behavior, and feeling pretty badass for reading a book some people don’t want us to.
This is a take on the marinated-and-fried mushrooms of my childhood, which were always thickly breaded and served with ranch. Not that I would turn my nose up at them now; they’re the kind of nostalgic bar/patio food I have a hard time resisting when in front of me. At the same time, when I tasted this slightly sophisticated version a few weeks ago at The Grove Grill in Memphis , I immediately knew I wanted to try and recreate them. They went like hotcakes last weekend, so I know I’ll be making them again, probably by request (Sonya says it’s one of her new favorites). I think they’d make an elegant starter for a small dinner party.
for the mushrooms:
4-5 portobellos, wiped clean with a damp paper towel
2 cups Panko (Japanese) breadcrumbs
Remove the stems from the mushrooms and discard. Using a grapefruit spoon, scrape out the gills from each mushroom cap. Slice the mushrooms into thick slivers, like fat French fries. The pieces should be very dry.
In a wide bowl, whisk together the eggs with a little water. In a separate bowl, pour in the breadcrumbs. You can add seasoning if you like, but I left mine plain and let the dipping sauce impart flavor.
Heat several inches of canola or other vegetable oil in a deep, sturdy pot. You want medium-high heat until the oil is shimmery; once you start frying, you can adjust if the mushrooms are browning too quickly or too slowly.
Line an oven-safe plate with paper towels and place inside a low oven. Since you will be frying in batches, this way you can ensure all the mushroom pieces are crisp and ready at once. Or, ahem, your spouse & friends can just devour them as you go.
Use the “wet hand, dry hand” method to batter the mushrooms. Working in batches, use your left hand for the egg wash, coating each mushroom piece thoroughly. Then plop a few pieces at a time into the breadcrumbs, using your right hand to press down on all sides and thickly coat each piece.
I recommend you bread all the mushrooms ahead of time, so you can wash your hands and focus on frying. Drop in a single sacrificial mushroom to assess the oil temperature, adjust as necessary, and then fry in batches, turning once, until the mushroom pieces are an even, medium-brown. Drain the mushrooms on paper towels, then tuck into the oven to keep warm.
Serve the mushrooms with dipping sauce. If you plan to serve plain, sprinkle with a bit of sea salt. Either way, they will go quickly!
for the dipping sauce:
½ cup soy sauce
¼ cup honey
2 T fresh ginger, minced
1 T rice wine or plum wine vinegar
1 tsp. sesame oil
Combine all ingredients in a small bowl. Leftovers will keep indefinitely in the fridge, and also work for wanton dipping, glazing meatballs, adding to soups, etc.
I’m about as biased as they come, but I think today’s guest blogger is pretty swell. It’s my pleasure today to turn Blue Jean Gourmet over to Jill! –Nishta
I’ve eaten okra my whole life mainly because it has been a staple in my parents’ vegetable garden since, well, forever. There it would stand – at least a full row of it, head high or more – in all its fibrous, stinging, yellow-blossomed glory. The hotter the summer sun, the taller the okra and the more it needed picking. It seemed to me, as a kid assigned the task of helping my mother gather garden vegetables everyday, that you could actually see the okra pods growing in their place on the stalk, they grew so fast.
I made my way down the row protected by a long-sleeve shirt and garden gloves, armed with a paring knife. I bent the stalks down, cut the pods at their stems and dropped them into a 5-gallon bucket. On any given day, the bucket would be at least half-full by row’s end, and I would do it all again the next day. Do the math; we had a lot of okra.
I swore once I became an adult I wouldn’t sweat out my substance plowing, tilling, weeding and hoeing gardens or picking vegetables in the bald open sun. But, here I am, ensconced in middle-age, growing year-round vegetables in our Zone 9 backyard. And this time of year, after the beans and tomatoes and squash and cucumbers have all burnt up, the okra are just hitting their stride. I have only a few plants, and they are a dwarf variety that don’t grow over 5 feet tall. But, there they are every day – the feathery yellow blossoms, the long pods ready for harvesting, and the little buds behind them waiting to grow into their place the next day or so.
I enjoy okra prepared several ways, but my favorites are fried and pickled. Both of them mitigate – or negate ourtight – the slime factor that sours many people toward this unique vegetable. Fried okra is a southern staple and many people swear by their family’s version of it. I am no different; I claim without reservation that my mother’s fried okra recipe and technique (used also by her sisters and sisters-in-law, and which is now mine) is the best fried okra possible in our earth’s time/space continuum. The pickled okra is a recipe I got somewhere along the way years ago and have adapted to my own peppery tastes.
Between the two of them – hot fried okra served on paper towelled dinner platters and spicy pickled okra pods served ice cold as happy hour fare – you’ve got late summer covered.
BILLIE JEAN’S FRIED OKRA
ingredients & tools:
a “mess” of okra pods (anywhere from 15 pods 3-4″ long each to a full 5-gallon bucket full)
salt & pepper (although any of the salt-free seasoning blends can work)
flour (a cup or more depending on how much okra you have)
buttermilk (a half cup or more – plain sour yogurt cut with water would work too)
frying oil (vegetable, canola or peanut – enough so that the okra floats slightly in the skillet)
a paper grocery sack (a plastic bag will do)
a large slotted spoon
After rinsing, cut the okra crossways into pieces no larger than the end of your thumb. Discard the heads. NOTE: if your knife doesn’t easily slice the okra, the okra is “old” or “hard” and not fit to eat. Toss it in the compost or trash.
In a bowl, combine the sliced okra, salt & pepper to taste, and enough buttermilk to thinly coat all the okra. Stir well. No buttermilk should pool at the bottom of the bowl. When done right at this stage, it will look like a slimy, sticky mess.
Add at least a cup of flour to a paper bag. Drop in the okra (no more than a double handful if you’re frying a large batch – you’ll have to fry in stages, if so). Fold the sack top closed and shake well, holding the bag from the top as well as supporting it on the bottom. Make sure all the okra is covered evenly in flour. Set the okra bag aside.
In a skillet or frying pan, heat the oil to medium-high to almost high heat. Test for frying readiness with a single piece of okra. When the oil is ready, use your fingers to slightly drop clumps and pieces of the okra into the oil. Just ease them in, moving them with the slotted spoon only minimally to make room. Here is the key: Don’t mess with it at all! Let it sit frying in the oil – don’t move it around or stir it. Just let it sit.
When the okra starts to brown underneath, gently – GENTLY – use a slotted spoon (and maybe a second spoon) to turn it over in the oil. Do this as quickly as possible, but in a way that disturbs the okra the least. When the okra is fully browned (only another minute or so usually), turn off the heat and begin taking it out onto a platter double lined with paper towels. Don’t pat it – just let it sit for a minute or two to cool and to lose oil.
Eat with your fingers like popcorn. Add more salt if needed. Try not to go face down in it. Share with others instead.
EASY PICKLED OKRA
ingredients & tools:
a quart jar with ring and lid
enough okra pods to fill the quart jar tightly packed
2-3 garlic cloves
2 sprigs of fresh dill (or a tablespoon of dried ground dillweed)
2-3 hot peppers (fresh or dried)
1 cup vinegar
1/2 cup water
1/8 cup salt
Rinse the okra and peel the garlic cloves. Scrub the jar, ring and lid and rinse in very hot water from the tap. When the jar cools enough to touch, pack the jar with whole okra pods stood upright. Pack in the dill, garlic cloves and peppers as well. If using dried ground dillweeed, just spoon it over the top once everything is packed in. Make sure nothing in the jar protrudes up beyond the lower edge of the lip of the jar.
In a boiler pot, add the water, vinegar and salt to make the brine. Bring to a boil.
Pour the boiling brine into the packed jars. Make sure nothing in the jar is left uncovered. Seal the jars tightly. Wait a week to open. Best served cold after refrigeration.
Cauliflower, squash, cucumbers, banana peppers, long beans and carrots can also be pickled this way.
Dr. Jill Carroll is a public intellectual who speaks internationally on topics of world religion, religious tolerance, & religion and public life. She grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana. In addition to writing her own blog for the Houston Chronicle, she is Nishta’s spouse and the food stylist for Blue Jean Gourmet.
My mother, she’s a very wise woman. When I was still rather young, she impressed on me the importance of my someday finding a partner who loved onions (and garlic) as much as I did. “Otherwise, they won’t want to kiss you.”*
You see, I love onions. I love them raw, I love them sautéed, I love them caramelized, baked, roasted, fried, pickled…well, you get the picture. In all of their pungent, tear-inducing, breath-polluting glory, onions hold a prominent place in my culinary heart.
Growing up in an Indian household, as I did, onions (or piaj) were a regular feature on the table, raw and sliced thinly as an accompaniment to rice, daal (lentils), dahi (yogurt), and kheera (cucumber). I learned to love the wet bite of onion as a foil for spicy, complex dishes, a way to slice through grease and access the tastebuds.
Quickly, I started eating my piaj with a lot of other, non-Indian things: pizza, hamburgers, turkey sandwiches, grilled cheese. I know. Some of you are out there gagging (like blog photographer Sonya, who is no fan of the raw onion), but hopefully even the biggest onion-skeptic can appreciate these:
Behold the onion ring, a thing of beauty! It comes in many variations (shoe-string, tempura-battered, jumbo-sized, etc.) but like most fried stuff, even a bad onion ring is a tempting one.
I’ve been an onion ring connoisseur for a long time, often preferring them (gasp!) to French fries when eating out, but had never tried to make them on my own until a few months ago. Needless to say, in a household where I am lucky to have met & settled down with a fellow-onion-lover*, they were a hit.
Jill proclaimed them the best onion rings she’d ever eaten. And girlfriend’s from Louisiana, so she knows her fried foods. These are, I admit, a little bit labor-intensive. But hot damn!, they are worth it.
These rings, as you can see, do not sport a heavy jacket of batter. Rather, they’re lightly coated and extremely crisp. I use a three-layer breading: flour first, then buttermilk, then cornmeal/breadcrumbs. The secret is using one hand for the buttermilk step and the other hand for the last step. If you don’t, things will become gummy realllll fast. Be sure to have everything set up before you begin!
1-2 red onions (more if you’re feeling extra-ambitious)
buttermilk or regular milk
Panko breadcrumbs (look for them in Asian/Japanese aisle)
Tony’s or another all-purpose seasoning
Salt & pepper
A fair amount of Canola or peanut oil
Pour oil into a deep, heavy-bottomed pot until it reaches 2-3 inches up the sides. Heat on medium high while prepping the onions.
Peel the onions and cut off the ends, discarding. Slice carefully into thin (¼-inch) rounds. Separate out into individual rings, then place in a large Ziploc bag.
Dump between ½ – 1 cup of flour in the bag, depending on your quantity of rings. Season lightly with salt & pepper.
You’ll need two wide and shallow bowls. In one, pour in the (butter)milk. In another, mix equal amounts of cornmeal and breadcrumbs. Add 1 tsp. of Tony’s seasoning and stir to distribute evenly.
Now, for a trick: drizzle a small amount of buttermilk into the cornmeal/breadcrumb mixture, then rake through it all with a fork. This will create small clumps which, when fried, will equal extra-crunchy goodness.
Part One: seal the Ziploc bag with the onions and flour inside, then shake the heck out of it, coating all of the rings.
Part Two: Transfer between 4-5 rings (depending upon the size of your bowls) to the buttermilk mixture. Muddle them around with your LEFT HAND to get them wet.
Part Three: Transfer the same rings into the cornmeal/breadcrumb mixture. Press down with your RIGHT hand to coat one side, tossing some of the mixture up and around to all sides. Don’t worry if the rings aren’t totally coated.
Part Four: Fry away! Your oil should be hot and shimmery at this point, not smoking. (Remove from the burner to cool if it is.) Test your oil with a single ring—the oil should immediately bubble around it.
Add a small handful of rings when the oil is ready, keeping an eye on the heat. If the onions brown too quickly, turn the heat down. After a few batches, though, you may very well need to turn the heat up to compensate for loss of heat.
Fry the onion rings in batches, approximately 2 minutes on each side. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate and serve hot. They’re excellent plain, but also go nicely with ketchup, Sriacha, aioli, ranch, etc.
Stephanie had an African-American father and a Puerto-Rican mother, and taught me how to make tostones, twice-fried, salty plantains. By luck of the subletting draw, I was her roommate for six weeks one summer in D.C., and I still remember her frying up a storm in our tiny Columbia Heights kitchen. I stood with Jill, who was visiting for July fourth, over a paper-towel lined plate, waiting eagerly for the next finished batch and crowding our good-natured cook.
Plantains had never been presented to me this way before, with a crust of toothy resistance on the outside and smooth goodness on the inside. Though I lost touch with Stephanie soon after my sublet was up, I still make tostones the way I learned from her—frying once, then smashing each slice inside a Ziploc bag with the back of a water glass before returning it to the hot oil a second time. A generous sprinkling of salt, and there is arguably no better accompaniment for a cold beer on a hot day.
Is anything more universally satisfying than fried food? Is there a single human culture that has yet to discover the joys of dropping, well, just about anything into a pot of scalding-hot oil? The French, of course, have given us their pommes frites, our beloved fries. Japan is the home of everything tempura-battered, and samosas are now ubiquitous at Indian restaurants. Italians perfected the art of frying baby artichokes and succulent rings of calamari, and Southern fried chicken is a near-universal craving. As my mother in one of her cruder moments put it, you could probably fry shit and it would taste good.
I must make a confession. I’ve become one of *those* people. Those people who structure their entire fall around a televised game schedule, who politely decline invitations that conflict with home games, who scream and yell for a bunch of guys running around on a well-tended field of turf. I’ve crossed over to the dark side now. I’m officially a football fan.
My father did his best to cultivate my appreciation for the sport when I was younger, so I at least had a basic sense for how to watch the game. But football never “clicked” with me until last year. Jill and Sonya, who have long been avid fans of the game, played fantasy football for the first time. And when I say played, I mean became obsessed with. While their team, the Junky Cowboys (not a comment on the state of Dallas’ team, rather an inside joke resulting from confusion over the band name, Cowboy Junkies) didn’t win the league championship (still a sore subject), fantasy football became the vehicle through which I learned to love football.
It’s a famous joke that football is the most widely-practiced religion down here in Texas—I think that’s probably true. We have our rituals, our superstitions, our weekly gatherings, a shared sense of purpose, and our foods. On Sunday around noon, while Jill and Sonya are obsessing over stats and lineups, I’m usually messing around in the kitchen, whipping up something to snack on over the course of the afternoon. All of that screaming at the TV works up an appetite, you know.
So the Feelin’ Kinda Sunday Series will feature various football snacks, from the savory to the sweet, that have been met with success in my NFL-happy household. Every Friday from now until the Super Bowl, I’ll share recipes that will translate easily to the weekend. Even if your house is not a football house, I think you’ll be able to find a place for these goodies. As always, we’ll feature a random-but-seasonally-appropriate smattering of posts on Tuesdays–coming up next week, Part II of Anders Wine Tasting Basics & some really, really good cookies.
In the meantime, I’m curious, Blue Jean Gourmet readers, are you into football? And what’s your favorite thing to eat fried?
TOSTONES (twice-fried, salty plantains)
These are Sonya’s absolute favorites; I try to make them regularly so as to keep bribing her into taking gorgeous pictures for me! While a bit time-consuming to make, tostones are totally worth it. If you are not using to frying things at home, don’t be intimidated–these don’t require all that much oil, and are pretty forgiving. While they’re lovely plain, we also L-O-V-E them dipped in guacamole.
Plantains are part of the banana family, but contain much more starch, like a potato. If the idea of a fried banana wigs you out, don’t worry, I feel you. These taste far milder and fry up beautifully–a perfect crunch on the outside, with a creamy give on the inside. Look for plantains that are ripe (yellow with a few brown spots) but still firm.
canola or a similarly-flavorless vegetable oil
To peel the plantains, slice off both ends with a sharp knife. Then run your knife down the length of each plantain (don’t cut too deep!), front and back. Remove the peel. Cut each plantain into thick slices, about ½ inch thick. Genly press the slices between paper towels to remove excess moisture.
Cover the bottom of a heavy skillet with a shallow (¼ inch) pool of oil. Heat on medium-high until the oil is shimmering–test it with a plantain–if the oil immediately bubbles around the slice, it’s ready. You may need to adjust the temperature of the oil as you go, if your plantains are taking too long or, conversely, getting too brown.
Fry the plantains in batches until they are light brown, about 2 minutes on each side. Remove to a paper-towel lined plate while finishing. Turn the heat down on the oil while you smash the plantains. To smash, simply place each plantain (you can do a few at a time) inside a Ziploc bag and smush with the bottom of a heavy glass.
Once all of the plantains have been smashed, re-heat your oil for a second frying. Because the second round of plantains will be thinner, I recommend you heat your oil a bit less–say, if your stove was at a “7” the first time around, turn it down to a “5.”
Fry the plantains, once again in batches, until golden brown. Serve hot, sprinkled with coarse salt.