I'd gotten out of the habit of writing cooking columns when a couple of simultaneous happenings sucked me back in. I'll tell you about the first one here, and the other at the end of the column.
On Feb. 13, the Chattanooga newspaper published a cooking section awful enough that I ended up on the floor twitching. It made me remember that that food page was one of the reasons I launched The Dade Planet three years ago. Just as reading a really horrible novel encourages you to write your own (because that one got published and you could not possibly do worse), the idea of "combining two Southern favorites" by marinating raw chicken in sweet iced tea, not to mention making "a pancake sturdy enough for dinner," drove me to create the Chef Guevara column, and eventually a newspaper to put it in.
The howler this time was a Valentine's Day special across the section front featuring raw oysters. The idea was, oysters being expensive and a reputed aphrodisiac, they were the perfect entree for a romantic dinner à deux. Well! Even though the sands of time have obscured my memory of the last time anybody tried to seduce me, I'm still pretty sure that noisily slurping up what looks like snot on the half-shell is no sure way into my heart or pants.
I'm sure there is a time and place to eat raw oysters if you like that kind of thing, but I am equally sure that doing so is not going to add any scalps to your amatory belt. I am reminded of dining at an outdoor festival years ago with a married couple. The wife was a vegetarian and the husband had ordered spare ribs. I remember her gazing at his barbecue-sauce-smeared face and greasy mouth, and then I remember the next time I saw her she'd divorced him.
But back to the oysters: They were paired with some big bloody hunk of rare beef that was bound to kill any residual chance of anyone getting lucky if the oysters hadn't already done the trick. I know it's not something your food editors want to hear but food as an aphrodisiac is actually a pretty bad idea. If you were to ask my advice about food and romance I would say romance first, food later. Being full makes men sleepy and women unwilling to let anyone touch their stomachs. Why not treat food as the second course, a dessert? a reward? You would be surprised what some men are willing to do for a buttermilk biscuit!
I know I'm getting further and further away from any actual food here but I can't help telling you about the rest of the Feb. 13 cooking section. The front-page oysters were from some national content syndicate, probably the same one that came up with the sweet-tea marinade; but there was also on the back page a local column where readers exchange recipes.
It's usually chicken with cans of Campbell soup poured over it, stuff I'd never cook but nothing awful enough to clip and save for my friend Paula. (She and I have a periodic Hideous Recipe Exchange.) But on Feb. 13, the column prefaced a recipe for a reader's favorite low-calorie salad: "The only problem is finding the lemon flavored sugar-free Jell-O," and right then I knew I'd hit pay dirt. You can always count on the ones with Jell-O.
Here's the recipe:
Make 2 packages of sugar-free Jell-O using V-8 juice instead of water. Stir in well-drained chopped stuffed green olives and, if you choose, chopped and drained canned artichoke hearts. Chill in refrigerator, and serve on a bed of your favorite salad greens, topped with a generous dollop of mayonnaise."
Make diet lemon Jell- O with V-8 juice? Really? Reckon what color that would be? Then you not only murder but also mutilate the corpse of something as expensive and delicious as artichokes by stirring them into the goo? And put mayonnaise on top? (Confession: My reaction to accidentally touching mayonnaise would remind you of the shower scene in Silkwood.) What I want to know is why the hell you don't go ahead and toss in some raw oysters!
That recipe exchange column has been around for decades, and it's where I picked up the Hideous Recipe I'm sure I put in my first-ever Planet cooking column in February of 2016, though I wasn't able to find it today. Since it's March 2019 now, I guess it's time to repeat it anyway: The recipe called for you to suspend chunks of canned corn beef in Jell-O, and the last line was: "If you make this in March, use green Jell-O and call it St. Patrick's Day Surprise."
All right! Time to stop cursing the darkness and light a candle already!
As is abundantly documented in other sections of this newspaper, the winter, especially January, is a big diet time at my house. Here are some tricks I picked up this time around.
Usually when I sit down to research recipes online, I get up an hour later addled with too much information and so frenzied with frustrated hunger I open the refrigerator and my mouth and that's all she wrote. But this time I found something helpful. Wish I'd documented where I got it to give credit, but again, TMI!
This trick is about those big honking bone-in chicken breasts you get at the supermarket these days. When I was younger, a "family pack" of them meant five. Now it's the same size package but only three breasts. They've gotten bigger! No wonder Americans have, too.
When I first started cooking I had to figure out portions: I thought a package of chicken was the natural unit to cook and eat. Twenty pounds later I figured out no, the right unit was a piece of chicken. But the ate-Chicago size chicken breasts you find these days are really too big a portion for a poor fat girl struggling to lose weight. This article I found online shows you how to take action against that. You just do some more butchering yourself! It allows you not just to control portions but to vent natural dieting emotions of grievance and aggression.
I had some bone-in breasts they'd had on sale at Ingle's for something like 69 cents a pound, which is unheard of. But they were as big as tractor-trailer trucks! I took a picture of one next to a salt box for scale (above) but I'm afraid I had to crop it out or you'd also see the messy kitchen table behind it. Take my word for it; they ate Chicago.
Meanwhile I also had this bad-ass cleaver that came in a block of knives I got as a wedding gift in the Middle Pleistocene. We don't do much butchery around here but I like to get it out sometimes and wave it about to make myself feel, like, empowered. If you don't have one, you can use any big, sharp knife.
What you do with it first is whack off the rib portion of the breast. That's the bony, sticky-out part without much meat on it. What I did with mine was stick it in the freezer in the bag with the cooked chicken bones I use to make broth. But you could throw yours away if you don't housewife to that degree.
Then you take your cleaver again and--whack!--hew your big breast into two sensible portions before you cook 'em.
What the cook who showed me this online was whacking the breasts for was a simple recipe that roasted them with a dry rub. That's what I did with mine and I can recommend it:
Leaving the skin on, but tucking some of the rub in under it, you season the breasts with salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, smoked paprika and lemon zest. (What I do instead of the lemon zest is put whole, splayed lemon rinds I save after squeezing them on top of the breasts as they roast, and I like to use fresh clove garlic instead of powder, that I also stick under the skin.) Put them in the oven at 400 for about 40 minutes. These are simple and good and also handy as cold leftovers for lunch salads.
Here's another "diet food" that surprised me: Cauliflower rice. I'd tried "cauliflower mashed potatoes" in their South Beach Diet heyday and found them--well, "disgusting" is too strong a word but nothing to look forward to. In general, anything that is pretending to be something it's not is kind of vile. I've never gotten over those mashed green peas masquerading as guacamole that adorned the cover of some women's magazine years ago. Gag! When green peas are quite tasty undisguised and there's really nothing wrong with avocados, either, used judiciously.
But surprise, surprise, cauliflower rice is good! It's tasty just by being cubed-up cauliflower, but something about the rice-like shape makes it seem filling, like rice. I can't figure out why but I love it.
You can buy cauliflower rice fresh or frozen. (You can actually make it yourself with a food processor but I haven't sussed out the economics of that one.) Sometimes when it gets close to its expiration date you can buy the fresh stuff for $1.50 a bag in the produce section of Ingle's.
Riced cauliflower is fine simply steamed in the bag but it's so much more delicious sauteed with garlic and onions that I think it's worth the extra calories from the tablespoon or so of olive it takes. I make the whole bag at once and reheat the leftovers for suppers throughout the week. You can serve it as a vegetable dish, and share it with others; but I'm a tightfisted fat girl and would rather keep it for myself while others eat "real" rice.
Here's what you do: Heat a tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat in your frying pan while you chop fine three garlic cloves and about 1/4 cup onion. While you cook the onions and garlic, take a handful of those julienned carrots you buy in the produce section, chop them up a little smaller and add them to the mix. Pour in the riced cauliflower and continue cooking until the "rice" is heated through. Sprinkle with salt as it cooks, and in the last few minutes add a cup or so of frozen green peas. Serve hot.
I'll finish with this recipe for homemade fajitas. I'm insane about fajitas, but one of my rules of life is not to enter a Mexican restaurant while on a diet. The Weight Watchers types will tell you you can eat any type of food as long as you exercise moderation. But by bitter experience I can tell you Mexican restaurants and fried fish places are the exceptions. The only way you can win at those places is not to go in.
Meanwhile, this year I bought this fabulous Farberware three-in-one indoor grill/griddle/electric skillet for like $39 and I have been using the crap out of it! You can fry eggs on the griddle at breakfast in almost no butter, side by side with turkey sausage or bacon--what's not to like? And in the summer I made my famous garden squash fritters on it, also with much less olive oil.
Then if you flip the griddle over it's a grill on the other side. It's a little messier than the griddle, but you can grill inside in the winter and this winter I've grilled everything! Including fajitas, which without the fried tortilla chips, beer and sour cream are a perfectly healthful dish.
I've made fajitas at home with both boneless chicken thighs and beef sirloin (which has the advantage that you can buy it already cut up for stir-fry). Anyway, start by preparing: Cut up chicken or beef, if necessary, into bite-sized strips. Strew with chopped garlic and sprinkle with olive oil and soy sauce. Set aside while you cut an onions and some peppers--sweet or hot or both, depending on your proclivities; we like it hot around here--into bigger strips (they cook up).
Preheat your grill and spray with olive oil. (I use a "Misto" brand reusable olive oil sprayer, another cooking implement I love and swear by. Mine is old and beat up from much use, so I got this picture from Amazon. But it may interest you that you can buy one right here in Dade at the Ingle's.) Put the onions and peppers on the grill first, and turn them with the spatula judiciously, allowing them to char a little in places. Then add the cut-up chicken or beef and grill until done. Serve with salsa and warm tortillas.
Well, there you go! These are all more methods than recipes, but that's how we roll around here, and I wanted to provide a few real and good things to eat to counteract all that bitching about Jell-O salads and snot on the half-shell.
Now we have reached the end of this long, long journey through culinary lore and I will, as promised, reveal my second reason for embarking upon it: Some weeks ago, a reader contacted me about writing a cooking column for The Planet, and I have not heard from her since. Thus, just as I was inspired to write a cooking column by one so awful I couldn't do worse, I wanted to provide my would-be contributor the same shining example!
So whaddaya say, prospective food columnist? You up for it? Are you woman enough to take my column? Sure you are! At least you wouldn't head yours with the unappetizing image of a grinning revolutionary spewing cigar ash over the eats. How could you lose?
Consider the gauntlet flung!