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Ricky Don't Lose That Menu, You Don't Want To Call Nobody Else...

Since I’m not spending as much time on social media these days, I worry up and coming chefs like Ricky LaBlue won’t get enough meal ideas and instead will make the same steak meal he specializes in over and over again. To alleviate that, here are my meal plans for the weekend, of which little money was spent.

This morning, for example, I went looking into my freezer for stuff to rescue from an almost certain frozen death. I buy stuff when it’s on special in some quantity, put the excess in the freezer, then hope I remember to use the various chicken, shrimp, fish and other stuff before the Nationals win another World Series.

Today’s search prompted me to go to the grocery store to pick up about $20 worth of stuff to turn what I found into several meals. Here’s how it turned out:

  1. Found a package of frozen Northwest white fish I’d obviously gotten a great deal on at LIDL a while back. I bought some cabbage to make slaw, a cucumber, some fresh tortillas and a tomato. Those ingredients, plus salsa and sour cream I already had, will make for some very nice fish tacos.
  2. Found a Tupperware container of chopped BBQ. When I take a pork shoulder and make it into BBQ, it’s too much for just the two of us. I bought some fresh hamburger rolls, and along with the slaw being made for the fish tacos and some thinly sliced onion, can be made into some nice BBQ sandwiches. Will also bake a tray of baked beans so we can be like cattlemen and eat BBQ and beans.
  3. Found a couple of frozen chicken breasts (I’ll buy the big pack at $1.99 a pound when they’re on sale and split them into two portions, freezing one of them). They’re now defrosted and I bought some apples to peel and chop up. The apples, chicken, sweet pickles, boiled eggs, mayo and the rest of the onion from the BBQ sandwiches will make a nice vat of chicken salad which will become lunch for few days.
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Since Nats Fans Have Time On Hands, Try Making THIS

Since Nationals fans have some time on their hands waiting for the team to play their first game – and they’ve eaten all the hot dogs and snacks they had planned to use last Thursday – here’s a chance to go big while trying to create some ballpark food at home.

The last time I was at a game in person was the 2019 World Series, and while that first home World Series game – as well as the other two – were all losses, a dish my wife brought back from the concession stand was a win. As you see to the right, it was a basket of tater tots covered in pulled pork barbecue. The pic is of my wife’s meal, where she even added Mac ‘n’ Cheese. Being a purist, I just had the BBQ and tots.

I realize pairing meat and potatoes has been around since the beginning of civilization, but it never occurred to me to put these two together and it was outstanding. I’ve made it a few times at home, and I’ve discovered you can change the personality of the dish easily by just changing the sauce. One time I’ve done a sweet barbecue sauce, another time I’ve used buffalo wing sauce or Old Bay hot sauce, and there was a time I just ate it without sauce. Same texture, much different taste.

So since we can’t be at Nats Park to pay the concession stand $20 for this dish, here’s how to spend $10 and recreate the dish for yourself and about a dozen friends. I tried to take a picture of every step of the way, and it’s in the slide show below. What I’m explaining should match up to a slide, so if you’re a visual person who must see me stabbing the pork shoulder with my steely knife, the slideshow is for you.

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Sometimes, A Favorite Place Is More Than Just A Restaurant

Tuesday, I found myself in a restaurant, something I can’t say I’ve done much of in the last 16 months.

The reason was because 65 years prior, I was born. My wife decreed that on such a milestone occasion, it didn’t matter if I wanted to stay home and eat a bologna and swiss cheese sandwich. I even offered to microwave it and add pickle, but she said no. On a 65th birthday, something more special was in order.

So after 24 hours of diplomatic negotiations, I finally agreed on going for lunch to a place called Ford’s Fish Shack. They have several locations here in Loudoun County, but the first one was in Ashburn, and it’s special to me. It’s the smallest of their locations, but that weakness is also its strength. The place has personality.

I don’t like to wait in line for much of anything, so I called ahead to ask if I needed reservations, even mentioning I wanted to come when it was least crowded, as there are two booths on each side of the restaurant that are my favorite ones. Part of it is these booths are big and comfortable, and part of it is I’ve had many special memories there, almost always in those two locations.

The young lady on the other end of the phone said they don’t usually reserve a specific table, but to come over around 2 PM and they would work everything out. That’s the thing about Ford’s I enjoy so much. I know none of them by name, am not friends with the owner, and am just a nameless, faceless person who eats there several times a year.

But when it comes to service, my experience has been they have always had a “if we CAN do it to make you happy, we WILL” attitude. And of course, their food is every bit as good the 15th time you’ve eaten there as it is the first. I once had a meal that wasn’t exceptional, mentioned it in passing on the way out the door, and soon found myself getting a visit for someone who ran the place before I could get to my car.

They’re just good people.

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It's Time For Memorial Day BBQ. You Can Do This...

Every time about this year, I run into younger friends who say how much they love barbecue. Each time I hear it, I usually counter with “if you love it so much, why don’t you make it at home so you can have it more often.”

This is usually quickly followed by a look from my younger friends that suggest I’ve just asked him to go dig up some uranium in the back yard.

So let’s go over this. One. More. Time.

Making pulled pork barbecue is about as easy as it gets. It’s only about a quarter step up from boiling water. And when it’s on sale, you can make as much as you could probably eat in a month for 10 bucks.

The cut of meat you need to make barbecue from is called either a pork shoulder of a Boston Butt. It normally sells for between $1.79 to $1.99 pound and around holidays like Memorial Day, it’s usually on sale. Harris-Teeter, for example, is selling a Smithfield pork shoulder/Boston Butt for 99 cents a pound this week (what you should see at Harris Teeter should look exactly like the picture above), which means WE are having barbecue this weekend. For you folks who skipped math, that means a good sized 8-pound shoulder is going to cost under $8. Or about what you’ll pay for one barbecue sandwich at a Nationals game.

After you’ve purchased one, you need to allow two days before you plan to serve it. I bought one today, will follow this process, and we will have it for lunch on Sunday. Here’s what you do:

A shoulder tastes best when slow cooked with a dry rub applied, so you need to make one. There are a lot of ingredients you can use, but they usually fall into three categories: something sweet, something salty and something savory. The something sweet is easy: brown sugar. The something salty is pretty easy too: salt. The savory includes things like garlic powder, onion powder, chili powder, paprika, maybe even cumin. Add equal parts of the sugar, salt and the savory ingredients you like and mix together.

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Avoid The Lines: Build A Concession Stand In Your Home

Thursday is opening day for the Washington Nationals, as well as just about every other team in Major League Baseball.

Because of this, I have some investment advice for you.

Let’s face it, going to a major league game and truly enjoying the experience involves a couple of factors. One is obviously good baseball.

But another is the food, as I cannot go to a baseball game without getting a hot dog at the stadium. A hot dog, a cold beverage and a bag of salted in the shell peanuts constitute the holy trinity in the cathedral of baseball, and it is a mandatory purchase, where you can expect to pay at least $20 for those materials at a concession stand at Nats Park.

The hot dog, to truly be a baseball hot dog, has to be cooked a certain way to create its unique taste. At home, you’re probably going to fry it in a pan, boil it if you’re not all that serious about hot dog taste, or microwave it if you’ve given up on life in general. But a true baseball hot dog is cooked on steel rollers, constantly cooking it to maximize the melting of all that fat and other ingredients in there that will probably shorten your life.

You probably see these machines on the counter behind the staff taking your order without ever giving thought to “hey, I should get one of those.”

The other part of the ballpark experience is a steamed bun. Properly stationed in a contraption allowing a low level of steam to soften the bun into a heavenly pillow sliced in the middle to allow this juicy all-beef concoction to rest comfortably, and you have the food of kings.

I invested in these two devices years ago, and it may have been a better investment than Microsoft, Apple or Amazon when it comes to living life to its fullest. When the Nats or Hokies play, I put a few Nathan’s natural casing Coney Island style hot dogs on the rollers, some buns in the steamer, a little chili and sauerkraut in two small crock pots I set on low, then chop up some onions and leave out some condiments. It’s an all-day concession stand in my kitchen without having to pay $8 a hot dog.

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How It Started...How It's Going

If you weren't raised Italian, you may not be familiar with the tradition of making "Sunday Gravy."

It's a calculated plot to keep everyone inside the house, and should you have grown up and moved out on your own, is also a clever ploy to draw you back to the family on Sunday like a magnet.

The key ingredients (at least this Sunday) are three pounds of ground chuck, a pound of sweet Italian sausage, a few pieces of chicken (chicken thighs with the bone in have the best flavor after removing the skin and deboning them) and the usual collection of ingredients in any sauce: San Marzano tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato paste, onions, fresh garlic, and anything green in the spice cabinet, including sweet basil, oregano, parsley, etc. 

I am fortunate to have an assistant chef, who by the mere change in her facial expression can communicate to you that you're going in the right direction. I cook the meats separately, then start a sauce by frying the garlic in olive oil, adding the onions, then squeezing the life out the San Marzano tomatoes by hand before adding the remainder of the ingredients. Large amounts of water are added, and the ingredients all simmer together for about 4 hours. By then, the flavors will have melded, the meat is tender, and the only thing left to decide is what type of pasta you want to pour it over.

I once got into a debate on social media about adding sugar or salt to the mixture, and the answer on salt is a hard no. The meats themselves bring a saltiness to the sauce, and you can always add more at the table if it is not to your liking. Over-season it, however, and you're like a deer licking a salt block. You're stuck with it, too, as I know way to reduce too much salt other than throw it out and start all over again.

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When Cheap, Quick and Filling Is What You Crave...

I will admit that the first time I heard about this dish, I openly mocked it.

I saw it in a commercial from Kentucky Fried Chicken, and they called it a “Famous Bowl.” Where I grew up, I told my wife, that was called “leftovers” and there was nothing famous about them. You just dumped everything left over from dinner the previous night, topped it with cheese and said “here.”

But then one Saturday afternoon when my wife and daughter were out shopping, they brought one home, and offered it to me with the qualifier “if you don’t like this we’ll go get you something else.”

Since I was at the time hungry, I ate it. It’s hard to admit, but it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t steak and lobster, but it was good old fashioned comfort food with a touch of salty, sweet, crunchy and creamy.

So the other night, I found myself looking at a few items on sale at the grocery store and realized you could duplicate the dish at home with arguably better ingredients, yet cook everything in under 10 minutes.

It started with a buy one, get one special on Simply Potatoes, which are pre-made mashed potatoes. I got the garlic mashed potatoes flavor, then enhanced them. You’re suppose to cook them in the microwave for 3 minutes, remove the top, then cook 3 more minutes. I do just that, but at halftime, I add sour cream, a little garlic powder and butter. That makes them smoother, creamier, more garlicky and much better tasting than the KFC ones which bear a strikingly similar taste to a glue stick you’d accidentally stuck in your mouth back in second grade.

Right next to the potatoes at the store were a refrigerated chicken nugget product Perdue makes that were also BOGO. I've had them before, and properly cooked in an air fryer, are as good or better than what you can get at fast food restaurants. I realized I could now buy the chicken and potato parts for around $4 and their cooking times are similar. The potatoes cook in about 8 minutes (3 minutes on high, 2 minutes to rest, 3 more minutes on high). The chicken nuggets also take 8 minutes in the air fryer at 390 degrees. They're breaded and crisp just like the KFC chicken strips, only I cut them in half to give it more of a bite size consistency to blend in with the other ingredients.

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A Chicken Wing Recipe So Easy, Even YOU Can Do It :)

Yesterday I found myself in a waiting room, trying to kill time until it was my turn. In doing so, I looked at my Twitter account, which apparently has an analytics area that will tell you how many people looked at each of your tweets.

Much to my surprise, the top ten, which the exception of one, all involved the same subject: food. You may think you are dispensing wisdom when you type out that carefully worded and well thought-out tweet, but if you want numbers, slap a picture of a plate of BBQ wings next to it and your stats will double.

I’ve noticed the same on the occasional stories I’ve written about food on this site. There have been times I’ve worked hard at an analytical piece that I end up being quite proud of, only to see at the end of the week a story and picture about food (or Maggie The WonderBeagle) have drawn more eyes to them.

So I’m going to start a weekly feature on how to make some of these dishes I post pictures of. I’ve been cooking most of my life, and I’ve found once you can identify the ingredients and just how long you cook something for, the rest is easy. The two things that always foul up a dish in my experience are you overcook/undercook it and you don’t season it properly.

So I’m going to try over the next few months to show everyone how to cook 8 or 10 basic dishes most people enjoy. If you’re an accomplished chef and see better ways to do it, let me know and I’ll add it to the next story. If you’re not someone who cooks, try these.

I’m going to start with the wings I had a picture of up on Twitter earlier this week. They are about as simple as it gets, and the steps you take are roughly the same as you would use to make BBQ and any number of other comfort foods. The first thing you do is buy fresh chicken wings, never frozen ones.

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In Search Of The Perfect Flavor Of Popcorn

We all have our areas of expertise, and one of mine involves food.

I have talents related to eating it, cooking it, and talking about it. I was even once at a dinner with company executives, and the president turned to me and said “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen someone as talented with a knife and fork as you.”

I think that was a compliment.

But when it comes to the lowly popcorn kernel, I have to say I have not been a fan. Unless it’s drowning in butter or coated with some other flavor, the popcorn itself does little to nothing for me. It’s not as worthless as, say, a rice cake, but it’s in the same neighborhood.

My opinions are now changing thanks to Virginia Tech basketball coach Mike Young.

Young has made popcorn regal. Brain food. The poor man’s caviar of the New River Valley. The key ingredient that has allowed Young to be such a successful coach with the Hokies. Heck, as you can see from the picture above, he’s even got Doug Doughty eating it.

I’ve always been a peanut man, myself. Salted, in a shell, accompanied by a cold beverage and maybe a baseball game in front of me, on a warm night, and I’m good. Popcorn, I’ve always believed, breaks teeth. Peanuts build character.

But Young is causing me to change. I’ve written that I’d run through a brick wall for him because I’m so impressed with the job he’s done for the Hokies, so I guess I’m going to have to eat a bag of popcorn every time the team plays too.

At least there is variety I can consider. Plain old popcorn is the brussel sprouts of the snack world, and I don’t see that ever changing for me. But I did look up some other varieties, and some are appealing. Kettle Corn will do, with its sweet and salty flavor. Caramel Corn is another. There is a cheese popcorn, but I’m not sure about that. It looks like they took one of those dried packets of powder you see in the mac and cheese boxes at the grocery store they sell 3 for a dollar and just dusted it over regular popcorn.

Anything that sells 3 for a dollar in the grocery store can’t be but so good.

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These Are What Make A Super Bowl Super....

Because the Super Bowl is tomorrow, I found myself in the grocery store Friday picking up a few supplies. I mentioned this to a friend, who said because of the pandemic it’s only going to be him and his wife watching, so he was really dialing down the number of snacks.

My first response was “what are you, crazy?”

I’m a football purist, so I have literally watched every play of every Super Bowl ever played, starting when I was 11. But the football alone isn’t what makes the Super Bowl special. It’s the pregame and halftime shows, it’s the party atmosphere, it’s the gathering of friends either in person or virtually, and yes, it’s the food.

As I’ve told many a friend over the years, it doesn't matter if you’re coming or not, but I’m putting on a spread. The food is part to enjoy the game and part to celebrate the end of the football season, so if they last another 3 days in the fridge, so be it.

You also don’t have to be much of a cook to put on a spread either, and there are sales everywhere this weekend at grocery stores. It doesn't need to be gourmet quality; in fact, the cheaper the better. You're looking for decent bar-food quality, a good variety, and foods that are great to grab during a timeout that don't require using a lot of utensils. Here, for example, are some of the foods I’ll be having:

  • RIBS: Giant has St. Louis Style ribs for only $1.77 a pound. For $7, there will be plenty of ribs for the two of us for the next two days. Never cooked them? First thing to remember is whatever directions are on the package, ignore them. I once bought a pack of these same St. Louis ribs and the instructions said 90 minutes of cooking. They were only off by about 7 hours. Pork tastes best when cooked low and slow, so this afternoon, make up a dry rub of stuff like brown sugar, chili powder, salt, pepper, cumin, paprika, garlic powder and onion powder. Coat both sides and let it sleep in the fridge until morning. Put them in at 215 and let them cook 7 hours. At that point, pull them out and coat with BBQ sauce. They should be falling off the bone. If not, throw them back in another hour. But that’s it. You need no cooking skill. Giant also has pork shoulders for 99 cents a pound if you want barbecue instead. Here's how you would cook that.
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One Man's Peasant Food Is Another Man's Comfort Food

If you live up in my neck of the woods, there’s snow on the ground. Yesterday there was too, and tomorrow and the day after there will probably be snow outside as well.

Since we’re all stuck inside with no place to go (that’s certainly not a new experience), one of the topics that usually pops up in these situations is comfort food. Specifically how people love to make it and eat it when it’s cold, icy and snowy outside.

I find the term comfort food to be one of the most misused and abused terms in the food world. By my count, everything ever cooked except steak, lobster and caviar is considered a comfort food. If you at some time in your life liked it and didn’t have to mortgage the house for the ingredients, it’s a comfort food.

About 90 percent of what’s described as comfort food in my experience is laughable, but then again, my experience is colored by a mother who cooked as well as Taco Bell makes…well, anything. My Dad was the cook (he passed that on to me) so comfort food was pretty much whatever he made.

As a result, when people wax on about chicken soup being comfort food, I think of something awful that came out of a red and white can. Meatloaf? Growing up, I’d rather take a bite out of the guy singing “Paradise By The Dashboard Lights.” Beef Stew? Ours was Dinty Moore’s cheapest variety of mushy ingredients, covered in a brown, motor-oil-like gravy.

You get the picture.

The old man had a philosophy of comfort food that I’m not sure isn’t a good way to look at it. He thought – probably because he was really good at cooking it – that Italian food was the ultimate comfort food. He also made a distinction between the kind of food his father grew up with in the Potenza region of Italy in a town called Melfi, and what people in this country have long viewed as Italian food.

The stuff he was raised on – and loved – he referred to as “peasant food.” Where his Dad grew up, there wasn’t much money, meaning there was virtually no meat in dishes, you grew your own tomatoes and spices like basil and oregano, and you got your best flavor from using the freshest of ingredients you could find. He said once Italians came to America, meat and other ingredients were much more available, and it changed how a lot of dishes were made.

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