Chicken-fried chicken recipe: Texas style

As Reese’s didn’t invent chocolate or peanut butter but put them together in 1928 to make a candy that we now see as separate from chocolate or peanut butter, so I didn’t give birth to Chef John at AllRecipes or to Guy Fieri. But putting them together gave me a chicken fried chicken recipe re-born as “spaghetti-western food”: Chicken-Fried Chicken Parmesan.

You read right.

You get the best of Italy and the best of western/country cooking in this mash-up.

I had started to write out the whole recipe here but soon realized it would be easier to direct you, my Dear Reader, to the two websites I used. For the chicken-fried chicken recipe, I have long used Guy Fieri’s method outlined HERE for chicken-fried steak. The process is similar, I figured, and I know it by heart, so…

For the chicken parmesan, I did two things:

  • Chef John at AllRecipes.com — always a winner supplier of recipes for me, I’ve found — provided the STEPS HERE for the chicken part. HERE, too, is his personal blog. I encourage you to bookmark it.
  • Secondly, I knew I wanted authentic marinara.
    • A fellow foodie on Instagram gave me her Italian grandmother’s recipe, but I forgot it.
    • Instead, I Googled it and found that the NY Times had a recipe for “classic” marinara — Awesome! I want classic! — but of course, like the weather or announcements of an incoming asteroid, all articles are behind their paywall.
    • But there is a hack for paywalls called Archive.is, which I often go to.

The Texas-Italy fusion Chicken-Fried Chicken Recipe

As I mentioned above, the disappointing aspect of this article is that it doesn’t contain a step-by-step recipe for “chicken-fried chicken parmesan.” I will write it down soon. For now, I wanted to get down on paper the overall sense of the entree, which turned out to be a hit.

The chicken was incredibly juicy. Since it fried for only four minutes or so, 15-20 minutes of baking inside the batter retained most of the chicken’s juice.

The marinara recipe, by Lidia Bastianich for the Times, indeed produced sauce that was magnificent. Flavorful but not overpowering. Two of the more interesting aspects of her recipe are to (1) let the garlic sizzle only, not brown, before adding in the tomatoes (which should be whole and peeled; I got relatively high quality ones), and then (2) “place [a] basil sprig, including stem, on the surface (like a flower). Let it wilt, then submerge in sauce.” How delightful a step, because it requires loving attention by the cook. Later, you remove it.

The Texas part in all this is first soaking the chicken in buttermilk.

I looked up the history of buttermilk, and it is quite sad. (It really is not, but this piques your interest and makes this post sound more interesting and informed, so I wrote it that way) But more to the point, my father-in-law used to drink buttermilk, which is all the more surprising considering this tragic development of buttermilk into today’s “soured yogurt-y” concoction. Likewise, my youngest son, Teak (the other foodie in the family) tried a sip and was as repelled as the author of the article linked above. So: you can skip it as a drink in itself.

But Guy soaks his meat (flank steak in the case of that dish) in buttermilk. I soak it for at least 30 minute, if not longer, because I think that the meat absorbs some of the liquid, and its bitterness is cooked out, leaving a juicy and tender piece of meat.

A new “spaghetti-western” food

There’s a fairly large group of “foodies” on Instagram, which of course is a visual medium, leaps and bounds more so than a website. THere’s also a glut of foodies there, a lot of “noise” with photos tagged #___porn. #BurgerPorn. #Dessertporn. Etc. I probably shouldn’t give more examples or my site will get flagged, but you already know about that suffix being added to almost every category.

That said, I needed to break away from the noise and the cliche of food accounts, and since I love Italian and also Texas cuisines — though here in Texas it’s less “cuisine” than it is the waitress’s “What’ll-you-have-darlin’?” — I decided to come up with “Spaghetti-Western Cuisine: Texas takes on Italian classics.”

YOu’ll be hearing more about this in the days and weeks to come.

The dish came out close to perfection, thanks to the great recipes I followed, and I hope you’ll give it a shot. (Once I post the combined recipe, which of course I’ll have to do. In the meantime, also click over to my write-up about another Texas original on salsa.)

Please VISIT OUR SPONSORS HERE and consider purchasing some of their products. I earn a small commission when you do, but this product below, which I did a write-up on recently (CLICK HERE), I used for this recipe and is my go-to chef knife.

How to cure ham: My “maiden voyage”

When I was a kid growing up in New York City, every Easter we’d head down to North Carolina. There, in Williamston, I fell in love with country ham on scratch biscuits with some butter on them, too. Here I’ll tell you how to cure ham — the simple way — and what I learned from this first-time experience a few days ago.

Watching Hattie

It was Hattie, a roundish woman with warm, rich dark skin, who worked for my two great aunts, Aunt Sally and Aunt Jane. Hattie made the biscuits. I knew this, but I don’t think I appreciated her home cooking until years later. I didn’t value cooking, and I didn’t see Hattie as more than someone who made Sally’s and Jane’s lives easier.

However, I did spend quite a bit of time in the kitchen with her. I’d lie on the floor as an aging labrador retriever named Joe-dog ate his meal. I even ate a piece of his dried food once. As many of you know, I’m a foodie. I loved Joe-dog and I loved the cooking in that white house with the wrap-around porch and the back porch with a cooler of full-on-sugary Coca-Colas and, I suppose, I loved Hattie. She had a caring if, I assume, burdened, spirit. This was when I was 4 or 5 years old; the late 1960s. Not an easy time for Hattie to be Hattie in white eastern North Carolina.

Eastern North Carolina was tobacco country, and everyone smoked as if their lives depended on it. Because it did. In eastern North Carolina you were either saved by salvation in Christ, or you were a sinner. I was not the former, and though I was equally unaware of either status at the time, eventually I would earn quite a few memories of being the latter.

Hattie was the one who cooked, along with Aunt Sally. So you could say I “watched” Hattie, and you wouldn’t be incorrect to say I absorbed her love of simple cooking. You also wouldn’t be incorrect to say that I watched a woman make a living in a tough time to be living then, and what I remember years later is her cooking and her grace toward this inquisitive white boy who, at the time, seemed to be as fond of ham biscuits as of dog food.

Just today, I was amused to read an Instagram post by a fellow foodie who somewhat acerbically joked about having to read family histories of great aunts — she actually did write that part about great aunts — before getting to the recipe.

The good news here is: there’s no recipe.

Just a story in which my great aunts play a role. A supporting role at that. The ham is center stage. As are the scratch biscuits I made a day after curing the meat — also a first-time experience.

1

The right salt

The “right salt” assumes you are even using salt to dry cure your ham. There are other methods that I won’t go into here that complicate a procedure that already has complicated variations. I wanted country ham that was both dry and salty and would sit nicely on a scratch biscuit with a generous amount of fresh unsalted butter. That being my aim, I decided it would be difficult — nay, impossible — to have that salty ham without salt. Call me crazy.

I used Morton Tender Quick.

2

A right-sized tub or tray

This step is really combined with Step 3 below, because you want to match the size of the meat with the tubs or trays with sides that you have at home. I got a cut of ham that was almost too big for any container I had. The tub I used was probably 8×8 inches (~20.5 cm square) with 3-inch sides.

I suppose you could cut the ham into two pieces and place them in a smaller container, but I wanted a single piece both for aesthetics and for practicality.

I didn’t use a lid, by the way; not sure if that is recommended. The site I checked didn’t specify whether to cover it or not while curing.

Later in the steps, you’ll see that the cured meat should hang in a cool place or refrigerator so that air can circulate, so I took that to mean that the salt itself didn’t need to be covered.

3

The right ham

As basic as this might sound — and I’m talking to the real beginner here, like I was — make sure your ham is both not sliced already and also that it’s cooked. There are certain methods of cooking ham once it’s cured, but I wanted much quicker results. So I consulted another website outlining various ways of curing and also how to avoid important failures, like having the meat spoil while you’re curing it.

If you are more of an intermediate at this rather than a beginner, check out this website HERE.

I went to our local grocery store, H-E-B, the smaller one on S. Sidney Baker, and finally found a ham that met the two criteria above: not sliced and already cooked. This piece of ham would make a nice experiment. It was also relatively thin, perhaps 2.5 inches (6.35cm), so the curing process would be quicker.

I’d ordered the salt off Amazon, because though H-E-B had various similar salts, it didn’t have what I thought was the correct salt for this kind of curing.

With the salt, the ham and the proper-sized tub, I was ready to start.

4

The process

You might not believe the process is this simple:

  • Cover the bottom of your tub with salt, perhaps a finger-width deep.
  • Take the ham out of the package
  • Place the ham in the salt
  • Cover the ham with salt completely, probably a finger-width over the top
  • Put ham in fridge
  • Wait 24 hours before removing

That’s it!

At least, that’s what I did.

You can watch the video of the big reveal above or HERE — grace please; I am awful at taking videos and selfies — to see the result and how nice and dry the meat came out.

5

How to store your meat

Once again, there are different methods of storing your meat — avoiding spoilage is paramount — but all I did simply was to bore a hole through the thinnest area of the ham and run a twist-tie through the hole. Then I hung it from the grill in a mini-fridge in my office at home.

Enjoy!

The process itself of curing this ham was easy and gave me the outcome I’d hoped for. I made scratch biscuits from a recipe I found on MomOnTimeout.com HERE. Even the biscuits were relatively easy to make, and I’m no baker. Further, all my measuring spoons were in the dishwasher at the time. Aside from the flour, for which I had a measuring cup, I had to eyeball the sugar, salt, cream of tartar and baking powder. The biscuits still came out excellent, so you know the recipe is good if it accommodates beginner mistakes like this.

If you still have questions, please feel free to email me at howard (at) biscuitaisle.com.

And please join my mailing list to join a community of enthusiastic home cooks!

Cheers.

The Victorinox knife: my 3-minute review

Recently I reviewed the Dexter knife, and today I’ll review my new Victorinox knife. Specifically, I bought the Victorinox 45520 Fibrox Pro Knife, 8-Inch Chef’s FFP, 8 Inch, Black, off Amazon, if you’d like to see additional details for the model discussed here.

I was enamored with the Dexter as my go-to in the kitchen. It was my everyday chef knife that met every onion with the same dispassionate desire to chop and mince. It wasn’t personal; just business.

Not long before that, I had ordered a Misen, something I mentioned in the Dexter review, but so far it has been like that shiny sports car you leave in the garage to show friends when they come over for drinks. It takes a lot of personal days off from work because it’s doing its hair and make-up, and I’m not so sure it’s the most practical tool: it’s heavy and doesn’t have the grip and durability that the Dexter and my new Victorinox knife do. And the blue handle makes it look like a golden Ford F-150.

The Victorinox knife is only in the “Top 10”?

This is where we get into the key features of the Victorinox: weight, durability and sharpness.

Let me outline the key features of the Victorinox versus the other chef’s knives that Amazon says are higher rated, which means only that more people bought the other five. And what that means is that they were bought probably by amateurs like me, because pros would probably buy from their kitchen supply store, whether retail location or online.

Before going much further, I should probably give a shout-out to fellow Instagrammer @jenschefsupply, who told me about the knife.

The chart below shows Amazon’s top-selling chef’s knives. This is based on sales and is not necessarily an indication of quality as rated by chefs themselves. But if you assume that sales and reviews on purchases roughly indicate quality, then sales documented by Amazon is an acceptable metric. And as I mentioned if you remember that we who are reading this are most likely not professional chefs but passionate foodies and home-based cooks, then you’ll agree that what we want is a knife that does the job well but doesn’t break the bank.

(NOTE: I substituted the Utopia (#9 on the list) for the #5 Home Hero, since the latter is a set of seven knives and therefore can’t be compared with the others listed.)

BabishDDFPaudin ProMichelangeloUtopiaVictorinox
Weight13.1 oz19.2 oz6.8 oz11.1 oz10 oz7.5 oz
PriceN/A
(out of stock)
$12.99$20.79$36.24$8.94$45.95
Amazon rating
(1-5 stars; 5 is best)
N/A
(out of stock,
so who cares?)
4.7
1,418
reviews
4.7
3,529
reviews
4.4
202
review
4.6
3,012
reviews
4.8
10,123
reviews

It’s clear that the Victorinox knife is more expensive by far, but it has a much higher overall rating, based on buyers’ reviews. And I say “much” higher, because it has three times the numbers of reviewers and still has the highest rating.

The Victorinox is also lighter than any but the Paudin. (But do you really want the Paudin? Look at its fru-fru handle, and can you hear yourself saying to someone in your kitchen, “Hey, would you please hand me that Paudin?” No. No, you can’t.)

Reviewers who gave the Victorinox a 1-star rating complained that it didn’t stay sharp after a year or so. But the top review said this:

The blade came sharp, I keep it sharp with a honing rod and I bought a wet stone [sic] but have not had to sharpen it yet due to the honing rod doing what it should.

“Derek” on Amazon reviews

Critical buyers of the Victorinox knife also complained about the “cheapness” of the plastic handle, but it was only later that they saw the wisdom of its lightness, grip and durability.

As for price, you pretty much always get what you pay for. (Except for the Misen. I paid the same as I paid for my Victorinox, but it’s mostly sitting in the garage.) One buyer of the Utopia knife found that it falsely advertised having a single tang, when in fact it broke at the handle, either because it was soldered or was weak. Another reviewer said she found the blade rusting a few weeks after purchase.

Any of us who owned a Swiss Army knife as a kid knows inherently that its maker, Victorinox, is a quality manufacturer.

And then, of course, there’s this:

Yes, yes, yes.

I know that “The Sound of Music” is based in Austria during World War II, and that Victorinox is a Swiss company, but the real significance here is that because Swiss Victorinox sat on its neutral ass during the war meant that it could continue producing knives that not only help the chef but also the 12-year-old Boy Scout who wants to remove a splinter from his index finger.

Can we please be practical here and not ideologues?

Concluding thoughts on the Victorinox knife

I thought that I’d found “my knife” when I got the Dexter. And don’t get me wrong; it’s great. But I’ve found the Victorinox to be just as light, its point feels sharper and more effective, and knowing who the company is gives me a lot of assurance. They’ve been around for 130 years for a good reason, and it’s not just that they didn’t want to catch a bullet in 1941.

Below, once again, is Amazon’s selection of similar knives. I’m keen only on those knives that are sharp, light and durable. The others can go hang.

Recipes with Italian sweet sausage: “Skip A Rope Risotto”

I wasn’t looking so much for recipes with Italian sweet sausage as I was for risotto recipes with sausage. I got both. This dish with risotto and a combination of Italian sweet sausage and Jimmy Dean hot sausage make a delicious meal that is both sophisticated enough for adults but also crowd-pleasing for kids.

Jump to Recipe

“Skip A Rope”?

How did we come up with “Skip A Rope Risotto” as the name of this recipe?

Biscuit Aisle features “Texas takes on Italian classics.” A classic Italian dish is risotto. Well, the logical choice for meats, if we’re using sausage, is sweet Italian sausage, of course. But what if we are stubborn and have to get all Texas on this bad boy? There’s no more Texan a sausage than Jimmy Dean. (In fact, around here, there’s no other self-respecting sausage than Jimmy Dean.)

Jimmy Dean was a country singer (later a TV host, actor and entrepreneur) born in Olton, Texas in 1928. His song “Skip A Rope” was somewhat sad and stoic too, but Harlan Howard was attributed with the saying, “Country music is three chords and the truth.” “Skip A Rope” seemed to add the right cadence to risotto, so for that pedestrian reason, we named it so.

A version of the song I like better than the original or earlier covers is by George Jones:

The Recipe

Again, substituting Jimmy Dean for sweet Italian sausage gave it a distinctive Texas flair — for a Texan, that is (which is not me, but I know quite a few of them here in the Texas Hill Country) — that Texans can smell at a hundred paces. By all means, you can use sweet Italian sausage instead of Jimmy Dean. But: why?

Until I come up with something better, this is my favorite recipe with sweet Italian sausage (of course, subbing in Dean).

recipes with italian sweet sausage

“Skip A Rope” Risotto

Howard Freeman
The classic Italian risotto with sausage, Texas-style
Prep Time 10 mins
Cook Time 25 mins
Total Time 35 mins
Course Main Course
Cuisine Italian
Servings 4

Equipment

  • large skillet
  • stock pot

Ingredients
  

  • 2 lbs Jimmy Dean sausage (hot) Live dangerously: Don't get mild or medium.
  • 5 cu chicken stock
  • 1 onion diced
  • 1-1/2 cu Arborio Rice
  • To taste Salt
  • To taste Pepper
  • 1/4 cu Olive oil We've recently discovered Terra Delyssa
  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • 1/2 cu Italian parsley
  • 1/4 cu Cilantro (optional for regional Texas flair)
  • 1/2 cu Dry white wine We used a Pinot Grigio
  • 1 cu peas Kids bristle at peas, but this is good for them, so…
  • 1 cu Parmesan cheese, roughly grated

Instructions
 

  • Pour stock into pot, salt and pepper to taste; heat until hot; lower heat; keep warm.
  • Take a large round skillet or sauce pan (we use a 15" Lodge cast iron skillet, because it seems that, in Texas, we should) and pour all the oil into it. Heat on medium.
  • When the oil starts to shimmer, add the sausage (do not break into pieces) and cook a few minutes on each side, till browned. Then break up the sausage.
  • Add the onions and let them become slightly translucent, maybe a minute or two.
  • Add the rice and toss to combine. Cook briefly until rice appears brown and then pour in wine. Cook until wine is absorbed.
  • Add 1 cu of the stock and stir until absorbed. Keep adding 1 cu at a time and let it absorb until rice is al dente. Do not overcook.
  • Add peas and stir to warm. Remove from heat and stir in the Parmesan, parsley and butter.

For these and other recipes CLICK HERE and contact us below:

Point O’ Woods, Fire Island: Flotsam & Jetsam (sink or swim)

“You’ll swim and swim and swim,” he told us at the beginning. “And then you’ll swim some more.” That was Art Hawkins describing the legendary “Flotsam & Jetsam” 1-mile ocean swimming race at Point O’ Woods, Fire Island.

In case you’re not familiar with Point O’ Woods, a private community — a legal corporation, actually — then you are also not familiar with the “Flotsam & Jetsam” race. Usually not found as separate words, like “Did you see that flotsam coming from the wreck of the S.S. Minnow?” or “We don’t need that chum; it’s soon to be jetsam,” flotsam and jetsam are basically the crap you see floating in the ocean, which could be the floating remnants of a sunk vessel or jettisoned rubbish, like styrofoam cups, which both float after a shipwreck and also form really effective jetsam. (In fact, white styrofoam cups are such effective flotsam AND jetsam that there should be an international campaign to replace all current flotsam and jetsam with white styrofoam cups. Preferably the white styrofoam cups that contained nasty coffee and had a brown plastic stir straw that was unintentionally and inevitably hit, knocking over said white styrofoam cup and spilling coffee onto table and splashing over “Jake,” the 250-pound boatswain who is likely to make you into flotsam and jetsam. (Again, please note: words used together, not separately.)

History of the Flotsam + Jetsam race at Point O’ Woods, Fire Island

I switched here to the use of the “+” between the two words, because the early logo contained a plus sign, signifying safety (like the red cross).

In fact, that was what the race was originally designed for: promoting ocean safety. I won’t go into too many details about its history, because an essay in a book on Point O’ Woods’ 100th anniversary describes it better. It describes it better, because its author was me after researching it extensively. I’m not that “me” anymore.

Over the years, men and women have competed to have their names engraved on the silver trophy. Top man, top woman and now, I assume “Top ___” (however one identifies). I am considering going back this summer and tell them I now identify as “The Flotsam + Jetsam Winner.”

Everyone else can go play tennis.

After the win

I won the race the first or second time I entered.

Of course, it wasn’t really a fair fight, since I was in my 20s and doing triathlons regularly. I was competing against, mostly Wall Street bond salesmen whose generous torsos made them ideal flotsam. (Shoot! There I go… I used one of the words by itself.)

The year I won, my main competitor was my mate, Dave. He had done more triathlons, was in better shape, and pretty much could beat me in any physical sport. The one thing I had on him was underhandedness.

When you swim, you can employ same- or alternate-side breathing. Same-side swimmers usually breathe on the fourth stroke. Alternate-side swimmers do so on the third stroke. This does a couple things: gives us more oxygen per four strokes and also helps us “steer” better in long distances where one doesn’t have the benefit of pool markings to look down at. Breaths every third stroke balance out our trajectory, but in either case you have to occasionally breathe and look directly ahead to confirm your bearings.

It also helps in one other manner. And this manner is also where underhandedness comes in.

Dave breathed on his right side only. I was an alternate-side breather.

So I allowed myself to trail just behind him, letting him set the pace and perhaps wear himself out. About 100 yards from the finish (as far as I could tell in an ocean setting and half-looking at Mr. Hawkins at the shore’s edge with an air horn to blow for the winner), I pulled up to Dave’s left side. His blind side. I was between Dave and the shore.

He may have looked over at me a bit later, but at that point, I’d pulled far enough ahead on his blind side that I crossed the finish line comfortably and heard the air horn.

For participating and completing the race, everyone got a cloth patch to sew onto one’s bathing suit: An “F+J” patch that, I must say, was quite an honor. It wasn’t one of today’s “everyone who plays tee ball gets a trophy.” It was “everyone who started and who I see coming out of the ocean after a mile–Congratulations for making it, here’s your patch.”

Deviled eggs and martinis

Up until perhaps the late 1970s, Point O’ Woods had a post-race tradition of all swimmers going back to the Main Beach and leisurely heading out to the sand bar — a little offshore and somewhat shallow at the time — and enjoying deviled eggs and martinis.

You read right.

Someone would bring a thermos or five of martinis, and someone else would bring some deviled eggs into the ocean to enjoy while standing on a sand bar.

This practice was ended some time before I became F+J club president in 1990. It didn’t end because I was sober (that happened only in 1994). Nor did it end because most Americans over the age of Cary Grant and cigarettes-after-sex not only didn’t eat deviled eggs but didn’t even know what deviled eggs were. It ended, my guess, due to a combination of other things.

It ended because the ocean bottom changed. The sandbar was largely eliminated, so that deviled egg eaters would have to place a half-egg with paprika into mouth, chew, breathe through nose and risk choking and drowning. People of the Cary Grant and cigarettes-after-sex generation certainly didn’t mind dying, of course. But they’d have rather died by a Kraut bullet at the Battle of the Bulge than a cooked egg white filled with mustard and mayonnaise. Cause of death? “Choked on soggy hors d’oeuvre.”

It ended also because younger people joining didn’t like martinis — this dislike, however, went through a renaissance in the 2000s, but by that time, young people no longer took swim lessons, so martinis were forever de-coupled from the Flotsam + Jetsam race — nor did they like deviled eggs, nor cigarettes-after-sex, which for some reason were considered harmful carcinogens. (Battle of the Bulge bullet is more harmful.) They had no idea who Cary Grant was.

Death by device

It ended because analog life was replaced by digital life.

Swimming is inherently analog: You can’t have a device with you while swimming, the exceptions being a cocktail glass, toothpick for olive, and two fingers to grab the egg, and that’s only after the formal swimming part. Swimming is inherently analog: You do it with friends; you swim on their blind side for the win and then the shoreline hug, when you hear: “You sly dog, you!” A tired but intimate smile.

You do it and focus on nothing but breathing and good technique.

You don’t even think about winning.

You don’t even think about martinis and deviled eggs.

You think, if you think at all, about swimming and swimming and swimming. And swimming some more.

Boerne Restaurants: Richter Tavern

Last night we went to Richter Tavern which, among Boerne restaurants, is one of the better in my opinion.

I gave them 4 stars out of 5, but they could easily get top marks with a couple tweaks. One of those could be accomplished in a single shift.

Front of house

Once you find out how to access Richter from the somewhat confused parking areas that are jigsawed together in this part of Boerne and down an arcade of stores, you’ll be glad you took the time. This upstairs restaurant and bar is spacious and airy. Soft lights give the space a glow.

We had to sit at the bar for dinner, which would have been fine if we hadn’t called 30 minutes earlier and the woman answering the phone took great effort just to tell me, “We are all reserved, but there might be some walk-in tables when you get here.” I had called to ask only, “Do you have dine-in?” I didn’t want the expectation for a table; it would have sufficed to hear, “We’re booked but you order from the bar; it’s lovely there” or some such. Then, when arrive, we might have learned a table would open up and be pleasantly surprised.

Front of house could have been tighter. Service is general was slow but polite and professional.

Food – Excellent

The meal was fantastic. And that’s mainly why anyone goes out to dinner, right? They say, “Dining is theater.” That’s a load of b.s. Dining is dining. You want great food at a good price. That makes it a good value.

I had the shrimp and grits—awesome. The grits got a little runny with the sauce and would slip through my fork, so I had to ask for a spoon. But I quickly realized that the change of utensils allowed me to enjoy every bite–it’s the kind of change Dad would have made. Polite diners don’t eat shrimp and grits with a spoon. But appreciative diners do. I didn’t want to eat the entire entree, though (I brought leftovers home), because I wanted to leave room for the cheesecake. (They never ask at the end of the meal, “Did you leave room for another $20 cocktail?”) The cheesecake, competent but not stellar, had a great graham cracker crust and was topped with mouth-watering macerated strawberry-rhubarb. The serving was appropriate for two.

My wife got a burger, which was great. Fries: great. I agree with another Google reviewer that the “ketchup,” while laudably from scratch, was more like cocktail sauce. Not good for burgers or fries. Go back to regular ketchup, Richter.

Reward the designated drivers

Finally, and speaking for other non-drinkers, Richter would do well to stock a couple sixes of NA beer. Even H‑E‑B has six feet worth of refrigerator space for different brands of NA beer, including some new IPAs, a category I never had the pleasure of trying before I got sober. Richter could get a six-pack of a couple brands and satisfy more customers. People return to restaurants, we all know, because the overall experience was excellent.

I’ll certainly go back to Richter, but the three things they could do to get that 5th star from me is better ketchup (the least important), NA beer and, most importantly, tighten the front of house.

A car for today, a car for the future

Not long ago — in fact it was on Tuesday — I was traveling in Seattle and took the shuttle from the Seattle-Tacoma Airport to the rental car facility. I was to pick up my Enterprise car and do 24 hours of work in the area and then head to Los Angeles, where I am now.

It’s important for the story that I tell you that because I rent with Enterprise essentially every time I travel, I have Platinum status. (Last night at LAX, when I asked the agent if I could use one of my four free upgrades that I receive annually, he replied, “Sir, we don’t have ‘Platinum’ at Enterprise.” I replied, “The hell you don’t!” I actually did not say that to him. I said, “Yes, you do, because I have Platinum status.” Do you see the deft use of logic and persuasion I employed there? He agreed and we proceeded. But I digress.)

So, I have Platinum status, whether or not the agent at LAX believes it. But I was in Seattle, and the agent believed it, God bless her.

And because of my status, I asked if I could be upgraded from the sub-compact I had been put in. (I picked the sub-company unintentionally. I usually book a full size, which is only a dollar two or more than other cars, but it is what I want to be in during an accident rather than a smaller car that’s more like a desk chair with a steering wheel. Booking online, I picked the “We choose” option, meaning Enterprise gets to pick a car for me that’s “at or better than” the level I’m paying for. I chose “sub-compact,” because I wanted to save money and, surely, I’d get “better.”)

Here’s the kicker.

The agent — despite my status, which should have been apparent from 50 feet away — was not able to upgrade me from sub-compact, because they were short on cars. And when I mean short, I mean that the car they put me in — the only other car being a 1977 Pinto that was missing a hubcap — was a Chevy “Spark.”

And as the name “Spark” might imply, it’s not even a “flame.” In fact, two times out of three, it doesn’t even become a flame. In fact, it’s the thing that ignites the flame. A spark actually appears the moment before the flame, and disappears. Meanwhile everyone is warming themselves by the flame, soon to be a fire, while the spark is quickly forgotten.

So I’m in a Chevy “Spark,” and then it dawns on me.

I realize that I have a very marketable idea that occurs only to those who have Premium status with Enterprise. Someone with any other status with any other car rental company does not have these kinds of ideas. They just don’t. End of conversation.

“A new kind of car for a new kind of world”

I’d like to be the first to introduce you to the all-new 2022 Toyota Taco.

As its name might suggest, the Taco is small enough it can fit into one hand — metaphorically speaking — but also can be pimped out with our higher level trim packages to give you that ride you might find only in a vehicle that costs more than $129.95, not including local sales tax, out-of-state sales tax if you live outside Rhode Island, or shipping.

Please note this new Taco owner above.

He is smiling, which means he’s happy in 15 different cultures. In some ancient cultures, however, this facial expression denotes extreme displeasure, but none of us really has to worry about that, right? Ancient cultures are ancient for a reason.

The Toyota Taco is all-new this year, with multiple upgrades available if you want more than the basic “S” trim level.

  • First, the LX trim includes a windshield. The gentleman above is sitting in the LK, because he was smart, frankly. This is why he is smiling. We recommend this as a minimum trim, because at the S trim level, only children under the age of 5 are allowed to sit in the seat.
  • The next package is the XLE trim, which as the letters might suggest, is pretty damn swanky. It’s so swanky that we are going to surprise you with how many acceptably good things come with this trim. Trust us. Swank city.
  • The final trim, the luxury trim package, is the ZX-7. The ZX-7 comes with these newly designed enhancements:
    • An engine. (The lesser trim packages do not include an engine, and I should have mentioned that at the outset.)
    • A removable and disposable coffee cup with lid. Additional cups and lids may be ordered separately.
    • A seatbelt. We recommend the ZX-7 level for this enhancement alone, because the U.S. Department of Transportation will not allow you to start the engine — if you have one, that is, which you will if you get the ZX-7 trim package; again, trust me on this — and then your Taco will sit in the garage next to the grandkids’ Big Wheel, which last year Congress approved for use beyond the end of the driveway. That will not be you, in the Taco, if you do not get the ZX-7. Again, the ZX-7 trim package is the one you want if you want to actually drive the Taco.

I hope we’ve been clear about which trim package to get. (HINT: the ZX-7.)

The Taco comes as a kit weighing only 60 pounds. Because of this, we have partnered with various other hard goods manufacturers that also require some assembly.

In the month of March, our strategic partner is Ikea, and you may order a Taco in red or beige along with Ikea’s bestselling “Fartyg.” We have not yet received final confirmation on what kind of furniture a Fartyg is or whether it goes in the living room or the laundry area, but it is made to the most demanding Swedish standards, which exceed even our own. (We actually got the better end of the deal here and feel fairly confident that Ikea will not renew our partnership in April. We’re not real happy about that, to be honest, but I kind of get it.)

Finally, putting the Ikea Fartyg together requires no more than an Allen wrench and a Philips head screwdriver. The even better news is that the Taco requires only an Allen wrench, which just so happens to be the same size required for the Fartyg. Why do we make it so simple, you ask?

Because we’re extra like that.

The best homemade biscuits from scratch: “The Roaring ’20s Biscuit”

There was an Instagram post (below) that I couldn’t improve on. But I thought, “How can I make the best homemade biscuits from scratch to accompany the entree?”

I came across a recipe for biscuits that was good, but it seemed to lack kick. So I added something that all Texans think about first thing in the morning: sausage. And not just any sausage: Jimmy Dean sausage. Hot Jimmy Dean Sausage.

Really “the best homemade biscuits from scratch”?

There are probably better recipes out there, but let me tell you why this recipe satisfied my need for a scratch biscuit:

  • It was a drop biscuit and didn’t need cutting.
    • This was actually quite important, since I wanted them to look more “natural” and not so “thought out.”
  • The ingredients were straightforward and simple to mix.
  • I substituted almond milk for buttermilk — mainly because I didn’t want to buy a whole thing of buttermilk, which I never stock, and let it go to waste — and the result seemed as delicious anyway. (I wouldn’t know of course how they’d taste with buttermilk, but that really wasn’t a concern.)
  • They only needed to cook 10-12 minutes.
  • The butter sauce you brush on top made them awesome.
  • There’s nothing like warm biscuits coming out of the oven…oh my gosh.

Why try to fix what’s not broken?

It’s not that the original recipe is “broken.” It’s that it needed something more. I’ve learned that in Texas, it’s “go big or go home.” So it needed to be more fun, more scrumptious, more biscuit-y than other ordinary biscuits. It had to live up to the hype of naming a blog, “Biscuit Aisle.”

Who was Jimmy Dean anyway?

More important than “who” is “why.” Why am I so keen on adding Jimmy Dean sausage to this recipe.

Jimmy Dean was born in 1928 in Plainview, Texas, during the decade known as “The Roaring ’20s.” It was during Prohibition, a time when almost nothing seemed prohibited. Money was made hand over fist — “cheddar” (money) was made by the wheel. Until it wasn’t.

Dean was “multi-talented,” as the corporate website describes him. (They’re not wrong.) Singer, TV show host, actor, entrepreneur.

My wife won’t let me buy anything but Jimmy Dean. When we lived in New York City and Massachusetts, it was hard to find, and I could tell there was a wistful sadness about being away from Texas, away from H-E-B, and therefore away from Jimmy Dean.

(OK, you got me. She wasn’t that severe, of course, about sausage purchases. I mean, we lived outside Texas for 22 years, and none of us would have gone without sausage for two decades. But as soon as our American Airlines flight touched down in San Antonio, it was Jimmy Dean all the way.)

And you have to go hot Jimmy Dean, not mild. Again, go big, go picante, or go home.

Necessary kitchen tools

For the biscuits, you don’t need much. Just a cookie sheet and standard ingredients. You will need parchment paper, though, and for a long time I didn’t have that in my pantry. So make sure it’s on your next shopping list.

For the sausage, however, you have to have a cast iron skillet, and it has to be a Lodge. I wrote a review of Lodge skillets HERE. Making sausage in anything but an iron skillet just feels culturally heretical. And as for Lodge itself, it’s an American company that’s been around since 1896. Anytime you see a company with a founding date of 1900 or less, it has immediate credibility. At least, in my opinion it does. And did I mention it’s American?

You can get a Lodge on Amazon, along with things like a handle grip or scrub brush. I have 15-inch and 10.25-inch skillets along with a handle grip. You don’t really need the scrub brush. Just use steel wool. The myth is that steel wool will hurt the skillet. Not true. Even Lodge itself says so.

So for the best homemade biscuits from scratch, make sure to go with a simply recipe but make it kicky: add some Jimmy Dean sausage — only Jimmy Dean and only hot — and get your mouth ready.

What to cook with spam: Make it “country”

I suppose you could eat spam from the can, but why? Why eat it so literally and suffer from the color, the bland look, the imposed rectangular shape, not to mention the scorn from neighbors who rifle through your pantry during dinner parties? If you’ve asked yourself, “What to cook with spam?” let me offer an idea of how to cook it and what to put on top.

It’s a unique take on a “classic” that most of us would like to be kept on store shelves.

“What to cook with spam?”

A more helpful question to ask might be, “How do I cook spam?” or even “Why should I even eat spam?” There are so many meat choices that are better. (Is spam a meat or a “meat product”? A Kraft “cheese” slice is actually a “pasteurized cheese product.” Do you want to eat meat, or a meat product?

And if you must eat a meat product — if someone were to hold a spatula to your head and say, “Eat that spam or I’m going to turn you sunny-side up!” — you’d wonder how to transform spam into something that might keep the neighbors coming back.

Enter “Chicken-Fried Spam”!

Chicken-fried steak is a staple in Texas restaurants. Typically slathered in white gravy with sides like like mashed potatoes and green beans (and cornbread or hush puppies), chicken-fried steak has a cousin: “chicken-fried chicken,” which is essentially “fried chicken” without the bones. So we could say “boneless fried chicken,” but that sounds inferior. “Chicken-fried chicken” sounds much more justified on a menu, especially when even Cracker Barrel charges like $9.99 for it. (Plus three sides and a choice of breads, of course.)

So, I figured that if being “chicken-fried” made ordinary fried chicken into even better fried chicken, why not try it with spam?

What you’ll need

You’ll need these ingredients for chicken-fried anything.

  • buttermilk (I use almond milk)
  • flour
  • salt and pepper
  • paprika or cayenne pepper
  • eggs
  • Saltines
  • Panko bread crumbs

Steps

Do the following:

  1. Slice the spam to about 1/4 inch slices.
  2. Place the spam in a dish and cover the slices with buttermilk. I use almond milk, because I am trying to stay away from too much dairy, but buttermilk is good because its density holds the breading better.
  3. Chill for about 15-20 minutes (longer is better; 30 minutes is ideal)
  4. Meanwhile, set up the following:
    • Make three dipping stations, in this order
      • flour with salt, pepper and paprika/cayenne
      • eggs
      • crushed saltines to which you add Panko breadcrumbs
  5. Take the chilled and drenched spam slices and in this order dip and cover them well on both sides: flour mixture, eggs, and breadcrumb mixture.
  6. Place breaded spam on a plate and let sit for about 15 minutes.
  7. Take a cast iron skillet, pour 3/8ths of an inch of oil into it (or enough to cover the breaded slices) and bring to medium-high heat.
  8. When the oil starts to shimmer, carefully place the slices into the oil. Be careful not to splash the oil, and make room for each piece so they are not touching (or they will stick together).
  9. Cook for about 2-3 minutes, only until the underside of each piece is a light brown, and then flip, again taking care not to splash.
  10. Once browned on both sides, take out slices and place on a rack or on a plate with paper towels to absorb any excess oil.

The good part

Here’s where we get to the fun part about what to cook with spam.

I was trying this out more out of curiosity than a desire to cook something so delicious that I’d do handstands. So I decided to make a caprese salad — Italian meets Texan — and put it on top of the slice of chicken-fried spam to make a sandwich out of it.

I used pumpernickel bread — as a dark bread, it gave me a feeling of “healthy” that was lacking by using spam — and first placed a piece of romaine on the bottom slice. This was to keep any remaining oil from soggying the bread. Then I placed a piece of chicken-fried spam on that.

And then, in a fit of what some would call brilliance and others would call “madness,” I placed tomato, a slice of mozzarella and fresh basil. A caprese salad. And then on top of that, I added a bespoke dressing of mayo mixed with sriracha.

A worthy experiment

On the side I made a small salad with baby spinach, sun-dried tomatoes and topped with a home-made raspberry balsamic vinaigrette.

I thought this might be a one-off. But my son, also a budding foodie, liked it. So perhaps I’ll try it again sometime. I still have three slices in the fridge.

For now, chicken-fried spam won’t become a staple in Texas restaurants or homes — I do make a mean chicken-fried steak, after all — but it’s always nice to know, in a pinch, what to cook with spam and how to do it.

The “best cookbooks” of all time: it’s a family thing

On the counter that my dad built was one of the best cookbooks of all time. It was my mother’s New York Times cookbook. In those days, the Times was still “the Grey Lady,” and you accepted her recipe for beef wellington as much her news about the Middle East.

And so I wanted to do a quick survey here on Biscuit Aisle of the cookbooks that have meant sometime to me personally. Whether these are indeed “the best cookbooks of all time” or not is subjective, like anything. But a few of them have stood the test of time, some others will do likewise, and still others may be like the rock music group The Knack.

Remember them? In the ’80s? Of course you don’t. They were special to me. At the time.

That’s the way with cookbooks.

The Silver Spoon

Phaidon — pronounced like FIE-donn — was founded in the early 1920s in Vienna but had to move to England when the Nazis invaded. The company describes itself as “the premier global publisher of the creative arts,” and I don’t argue with that. It’s books are beautiful, and I took many gawking strolls through its SoHo retail location (now closed; not COVID related).

The two photos above are of some of my favorite Phaidon books. The books on the shelf are about cities and urbanization, which — even in this early second decade of the 21st century when COVID is affecting cities disproportionately — describe a phenomenon that will continue: that of people moving where other people are. Where culture is. Where opportunity is. (And where often the best restaurants are. Except perhaps Mac and Ernie’s Roadside Eatery in Tarpley, Texas, a town that doesn’t even have a stop sign.)

And then there’s The Silver Spoon. Featuring northern Italian food, it was first published in Italian in 1950 and in English only 55 years later, in 2005. It’s this first English-language edition that I have and that I recommend if you’re going to get a copy. It holds 2,000 recipes and is exquisitely designed.

Let me pause here to say this: I checked Amazon for it, and the link in that last paragraph and HERE brings you to — for some crazy reason — a copy of the book selling for $12.42. My copy was $39.95!! If you don’t have The Silver Spoon, at that price you seriously have to get it. Even if it is something you page through to admire the design and photography.

On page 11 you read that “…as soon as the food was ready, it was photographed on pure white crockery or in the pan in which it was cooked.” This was done to keep the food looking authentic, the way it might be served to us, not on Instagram with #FoodPorn chained to the photo. The food was illuminated only using natural daylight.

Each dish so presented feels like taking a mouthful of sunshine.

Get this book!

Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen

I think it’s important to note that not only has Moosewood been around for forty years, but also that author Mollie Katzen has serious cooking and eating chops (as it were) and is credited with mainstreaming plant-based meals.

Now married to a Texan and living in Texas, driving through small-town Texas in a truck that’s worked on by meat-eating Texan mechanics, my including a trailer here about a movie promoting plant-based eating might not go far.

But I must admit: I was kind of sold when I first watched this.

From November 2019 until late February 2020, I was on a plant-based diet. I lost the most weight I’ve ever lost (from ~190lbs to 164lbs), and I felt and looked the best I’d been in years. I had decided to try it first for health reasons. After a while, knowing that I was not eating animals; knowing that I was eating more in alignment with how the human body was made; understanding the common sense of eating plants themselves instead of their intermediaries (cows, pigs, chickens); all made me feel healthy. I had more energy and I felt better about my body and my co-existence with other living things.

Yeah. I know. Sounds groovy. But it was true.

I digress.

A girlfriend in the ’80s was a vegetarian. She lived with two cats and her religious tendencies leaned wiccan, or at least pagan. It was she who introduced me to Moosewood. And it was Moosewood that introduced me to veggie burgers.

Veggie burgers are nothing to write home about, in my opinion. Certainly not a veggie burger made from store-bought mix, even mix from a health-food store. Eating that is like eating a whiskey-soaked handful of beer nuts sautéed in lard. (Or the vegan equivalent of lard.)

Wanting both healthy and authentic, I tried making my own veggie burger mix using this recipe HERE. It calls for blending things like chick peas, black beans and peanuts. DRIED legumes. A blender doesn’t take kindly to those. And the neighbors must have thought I was trying to make old bones disappear.

The “best cookbooks of all time”

There’s always a little bluster about what’s “best,” but here’s my quick take on a few go-to’s from a personal angle.

  • Not shown in the “group photo” above is my copy of Mod Mex. It may be in the garage in a box which, as we all know, is like finding a snowball in Siberia. But now living in the Lone Star State, being only two hours away from “weird” Austin, it might be worth my tracking the tundra in search of it.
  • Then there’s Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking. (Note: there’s no definite article “The” before the title. Let’s be purists here, please.) At 1,200 pages, it falls short of Tolstoy’s War and Peace by only 25 pages. It’s a tome. It’s one for the ages. First published in 1931, it was cited as one of the most influential books of that decade. Lithub places it right alongside such seminal works as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. This book, like the next one, was handed down to me by my mother. Its continued publication and revisions are handled today by the generations of her grandson Ethan Becker and Becker’s son, John, Irma’s great-grandson. A James Beard Award-winning chef said, “Back in 1988 my mother gave me my very first cookbook: her beloved copy of the Joy of CookingJoy became a foundational part of how I learned to cook.”
  • The New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne was another handed down to me by my mother. And, as with Joy, when I say “handed down,” I mean that after she died I got the book. My younger brother was always more of a foodie than I, so were he not such a good cook already, he probably would have received it. My one “foodie” experience — the head lifting from the frothy seas of eating Entenmann’s coffeecakes for breakfast almost every day — was being shocked that my best friend didn’t like my mom’s apricot mousse. I though him a charlatan. Just as I thought one of my three sons who didn’t like a recent tiramisù I made should perhaps be held back from adult life until he did.

The other books shown in the original group photo are good in their own rights. The New Best Recipe Cookbook, which my wife gave me for my birthday one year, is pricey in my opinion, but what it offers is a knowledge base of how to cook and what equipment is needed. It’s like having a mentor who I can follow more at my pace, and more cheaply still, than I can a Masterclass cooking series on my laptop.

The best of the “best cookbooks of all time”

For my money, the go-to’s will always be Joy of Cooking, The New York Times Cookbook and The New Best Recipe.

Those three reflect the best of my family connections, and it will be those three that I will pass down most likely to the one son of the three who is rapidly becoming the foodie that my brother was at an early age.

He likes my fish tacos.

And he likes my tiramisù.