america eats, chicken fried steak, cookbook, country gravy, o-rama, southern cooking, summer-o-rama, texas eats

Book-O-Rama: Summer Reading

This month’s ‘O-Rama,’ a second collaboration with Rabelais Books in Biddeford, takes us into the realm of summer reading. Out of a long list of titles offered by Rabelais, I chose one that was pretty far outside of my own cookbook collection: “Texas Eats” by Robb Walsh. The grill has been in use since March, so I thought this would offer up a slew of recipes I could try out. But, upon first glance, I realized that this book was so much more than that.

Author Walsh sets the bar pretty high, and completely eliminates the assumption that this is just a book of cowboy cookin’, in the introduction when he offers his collection of recipes as an extension to the Depression Era, “America Eats” work. The Federal Writers Project hired writers–many soon to be famous or not so–to spread out across America to record the history and stories behind our food traditions. Sadly, WWII ended the project and the books were never finished. They do, however, live on in the book, “The Food of a Younger Land,” which I recommend to anyone who loves a great historical food novel.

But, let’s talk Texas.

Walsh represents the diverse food culture of Texas and this book ventures far beyond BBQ and deep fried fair treats (which you can thank Texas for things like Deep Fried Butter). He breaks the book up first geographically and then by popular cuisine.

He starts in East Texas and the Gulf with delicious seafood recipes and traipses across the state and ends with a nod to the diverse contributions from Thai, Vietnamese and Indian cultures to the Texas food scene. He contributes even more space to the influence of Czech and German immigrants of Central Texas. Every chapter is dotted with anecdotes and first hand stories about the dishes, some by the people who created them.

With over 200 recipes, it was a bit daunting to choose just one to highlight, but in the end I chose one that, to me, was the most ‘Southern’: Chicken Fried Steak (CFS).

According to the author, CFS, is a bit of a throwback dish and one that has fallen out of favor in cities like Houston, Austin and Dallas.  So, he took it upon himself to venture out into the country to try several different recipes, all in hopes of finding the ‘perfect’ one.  He also gets into the debate of the best cut of meat to use (he says eye-of-round is the best for the home cook). I followed his advice and went with an eye-of-round cube steak (already tenderized) from Whole Foods.  But, whatever cut you choose, don’t be afraid to ask the butcher to run it through the tenderizer to get the perfect thickness for frying.

And, because no CFS is complete without a Country Gravy, I used the authors recipe for Black Pepper Gravy to top off the steak and a side of mashed potatoes.

Southern Style Country Fried Steak
(serves 2)  
(scaled down from book)

Peanut Oil, for frying
2 tenderized eye-of-round steaks (about 1#)
2 cups seasoned flour (see below)
1 cup buttermilk
1 egg, lightly beaten
Black Pepper Gravy (see below)

Pour the oil to a depth of 1″ in a deep cast iron skillet and heat to 370.

While the oil is heating, put the flour in a large, shallow bowl. In a separate shallow bowl, whisk together the buttermilk and egg. Dredge each steak into the flour, shaking off excess; dip it into the buttermilk mixture; allowing the excess to drip off; then dredge again in the flour, evenly coating the batter so it is dry on the outside.

Slide 1 or 2 steaks into the hot oil, being careful not to crowd them. The temperature of the oil will fall the moment the meat is added, so you will need to adjust the heat. As the steaks cook, try to keep the oil at around 350. If it gets too hot, the steaks will burn before they are cooked through. If it is not hot enough, the batter will be soggy. Cook the steaks for 3-5 minutes, until the batter is crisp and brown and the meat is cooked through. Using a wire skimmer, transfer steaks to paper towels to drain and keep in a warm oven until all the steaks are cooked.

Serve the steaks with the gravy.

Seasoned Flour

2 1/2 cups All Purpose Flour
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon pepper
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon garlic powder

In a bowl, stir together all of the ingredients, mixing well. You will have more seasoned flour than you need for most recipes. Set aside the balance for making gravy, or store in tightly capped jar in cupboard for another time. Discard any flour in which you have dipped raw meat.

Black Pepper Gravy
(scaled down from book)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 1/2 tablespoons AP flour
1 1/4 cups of milk
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons coarsely ground pepper

In a heavy saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Whisk the flour into the butter and continue to whisk for about 5 minutes, until the mixture is ivory-colored and smooth. Slowly add the milk while stirring constantly, then continue to stir until free of lumps. Add the salt and pepper and simmer, stirring often, for about 10 minutes, until the gravy has thickened and reduced. Serve hot.

Now, I don’t really have a point of reference for CFS outside of a menu of an IHOP or Denny’s, but based on this recipe, I’ll be damned sure to make this again. The coating was better than most fried chicken ones I’ve had and the gravy was thick and peppery and would make a great base for some sausage and biscuits. While the food of Texas may not be on your radar, a book like Robb Walsh’s may just put it there.

kettle cove, lobster, lobster roll, lobster shack, seal encounters, summer-o-rama, things not to do when you see an injured seal, two lights

Summer-O-Rama: Lobster Rolls and PSA’s

I am both spoiled and ignorant when it comes to lobster rolls. The two–yes just two, a number that makes me feel as insecure as Charlie, of Wonka fame, did when his teacher asked how many Wonka bars he opened during Math class–rolls that I had skewed my expectations. One was from Taste of the Nation, and chef Mitchell Kaldrovich from The Sea Glass Inn and Rebecca Charles at an ‘East Meets West’ event at Arrows. They were fancy and complex (one was technically an eclair), something that the humble lobster roll isn’t.

It’s a simple formula, hardly varying from:

Cold lobster meat + Toasted New England style roll + Mayo + Lettuce = Lobster Roll

It is also something that never quite drew me in. Because, let’s be honest, it’s a seafood salad and those have always been my least favorite of the salads. At least in theory. I have myself convinced that I don’t enjoy them until I have one. Then, I do. Thoroughly. My visit, in this last of the latest summer based topics for the ‘O-Rama’ series, to the much acclaimed Lobster Shack at Two Lights was no different.

If you do go, and eventually you will, take note if you dine outside. While they truly have the most stunning dining view in the immediate Portland area, they also have bastard seagulls. If you dine outside, I advise you to guard your food like a fat kid guarding the last piece of cake.

The seagulls are ruthless, as we once witnessed one snatching a lobster roll right off a kids tray as he exited the building. If you’re lucky, as we were a few weeks back, try to score a seat inside and enjoy nature when you’re done enjoying your meal.

And order the lobster roll. Their version is classic and unpretentious–classing it up a bit with a pickle slice. It took me a few bites to push past my inner monologue before I began to realize how much I was enjoying it.

The lobster was cooked perfectly, with nary a touch of rubber in the texture. The mayo went nice–my dollop was not overwhelming. The slightly toasted roll and shredded iceberg lettuce added a nice crunch through all of the fat and richness. It isn’t high end and it doesn’t try to be. It was just honest and very satisfying.

If I could give one bit of criticism to the whole experience, it would be how painfully sweet their coleslaw was. I realize that I wasn’t paying $14.95 for the coleslaw but it came with the ‘boat’ and tasted like someone had substituted straight apple cider for the vinegar. Beyond that, I can say nothing of the Lobster Shack that hasn’t been said before in a zillion other reviews. It’s a great place for townies and tourists alike.

But, there’s a post script to this. Something neither the Missus or I expected when we finished our meal and took a walk down to the cove, just off the parking lot. As we passed the concrete barrier, we heard someone yell, “Look, a seal!”

Sweet, right?

Some nice nature shots to show some of Maine’s beautiful marine life that isn’t served on a plate.


But, everything felt off and you could tell immediately that something was wrong as the seal listlessly floated closer and closer to the shore. Then it kind of started to roll over on its side and started going belly up.

Not really what you want to see standing on a beach full of children, you know?

Then, thankfully, it started to move though you could tell it was distressed. So, action was taken to move the seal out of the water and onto the beach to prevent it from being repeatedly slammed on the rock it was slightly resting on. It was then that we realized that the seal had a broken flipper and what would go on for the next 2 hours was a series of well intentioned actions, mixed with potentially disastrous results.

The things that I learned:

  1. No matter how cute it is: DON’T TOUCH THE F’ING SEAL! It’s not a cat or a chipmunk and it carries plenty of potent bacteria in its mouth. Also, you can apparently get something called “Seal Finger” which is funny to say, but very painful.
  2. Don’t take him out of the water, especially if its a pup because the mother could be looking for him. You don’t want to be the reason they’re separated and you don’t want a pissed off, bacteria filled seal mother coming after you for messing with her child.
  3. You won’t get reception if you’re a Sprint customer in the cove or anywhere near the Lobster Shack. This means that you cannot call the Marine Rescue (207-288-5644 ) to find out what to do.
  4. Don’t bother calling the Cape Elizabeth police, they will just tell you they’ll ‘Pass it on.’ I’m sure they had many, many more pressing crime issues to handle… in Cape Elizabeth.
  5. Ignore the woman on the beach who suggests you wrap the pup in a towel because it’s shivering. Also ignore her when she tells you not to continuously pour water on the seal. It’s shivering because of stress and the woman doesn’t have a clue as to what she’s talking about.
  6. When in doubt, and everyone is unreachable, the closest person for information is the ranger at Two Lights. The ranger that was on shift was the only person anyone on the beach could contact to find out what to do. If not for her being there, our well intentioned altruistic attempts at helping the seal could have done further damage. The pup could have been distressed further by the bothersome humans and, naturally reacting to the stressers, could have taken a nice, nasty bite out of someone.

Lobster Shack on Urbanspoon

**you can find more lobster roll reviews here, here, here, here and here.

panna cotta, strawberries, strawberry balsamic jam, summer harvest, summer-o-rama, this is why we're fat

Summer-O-Rama: Strawberries

Apples and Bananas were always the fruits du jour in my house growing up. Oranges came juiced, in plastic jugs or concentrated in cardboard tubes. Fruit salad was a cocktail and, like cranberries, came in cans with ring tab pulls. Strawberries were served with whipped cream between two layers of sponge cake, a favorite birthday choice for my mother and sister. Later, I enjoyed them chocolate dipped or on ice and blended into a daiquiri. Yet, I didn’t want them on my cheesecake or in my ice cream. I’d pass on the jams, jellies and preserves as I was raised a strict Welch’s Grape Jelly girl. But, like so many other foods, living in Maine has changed my opinion of the strawberry.

In the land known for blueberries, for me, it is the strawberry that has come to represent summer in Maine. I think this is due to the fact that their appearance at the Farmers Markets signals the true beginning of the local produce season. The single hue of greens is finally broken by the brilliant pop of red berries at nearly every stall.

It’s also a food whose local season I abide by. While I tip my hat to the California and Florida producers who provide berries to our supermarkets throughout the year, I have not had one that compares. Sure, a quart of locally grown berries will set you back an extra dollar or so, but the quality and flavor remains more than worth it. Where I use to shrug off the strawberry, I now find myself a bit of a snob.

So, when it came time to celebrate the strawberry for the latest round of ‘O-Rama,’ I wanted to do it justice. I wanted to show the berry a bit of love.

The idea for the jam came first and was originally intended to be paired with a torchon of foie gras.

Strawberry Balsamic Jam

8 cups washed and hulled strawberries (about 1 1/2 lbs), halved if large

5 cups sugar
½ tsp unsalted butter
5 tbsp balsamic vinegar

  1. Pour strawberries into a large, deep, heavy pot and bring to a boil over medium heat. Once the strawberries are boiling, add the sugar and stir until it is dissolved. The sugar tends to burn on the bottom, so keep it moving until it is thoroughly dissolved. Bring to a boil and then add the butter. (The addition of butter keeps the foam volume down.) Turn the heat down to medium-low and boil the jam gently for 40 minutes, until thickened to a loose, soft jam. Stir in the balsamic vinegar.

  2. Bring 6 half-pint jars and their bands to a boil in a large pot of water fitted with a rack. Boil for 10 minutes. Remove the jars with tongs. Simmer new lids in a small pan of hot water, to soften the rubberized flange. When the jars are dry, but still hot, use a slotted spoon to fill the jars with strawberries, leaving 1/2 to 3/4 inch of headspace. Wipe the rims, set on the lids and screw on the bands fingertip tight. You can water bath the syrup the same way you do the jam.

  3. Place the jars on the rack in the pot and cover by at least 3 inches of water. Cover the pot and bring to a boil over high heat, then lower the heat to medium and gently boil the jars for 10 minutes. (If you use pint jars, process for 15 minutes.) Remove the cover and then, after about 5 minutes, remove the jars. Allow them to rest on a dish towel for 6 hours. Check the seals and store in a cool, dark place for up to a year.

However, various issues came up and I switched over to something just as rich but where the ingredients were already on hand: Panna Cotta.

Spring Panna Cotta

Nonstick spray, for greasing ramekins

1 cup whole milk

1 cup heavy whipping cream

1/2 cup superfine sugar

1 vanilla bean, seeds scraped

4 strips lemon peel* I used orange

1 1/2 teaspoons powdered gelatin

1/2 lemon, juiced*again, I used orange

1 1/2 cups creme fraiche, room temperature


1 Grease 4 (1-cup) size ramekins with nonstick spray to evenly coat the insides.

2. Begin by adding milk, cream and sugar to a pot and set over medium heat. Add vanilla bean and seeds and 4 strips of lemon peel (try not to get any of the white pith). Bring to a simmer. Once the mixture begins to bubble, turn off the heat.

3. While the mixture is heating, combine the gelatin and lemon juice, whisking as you go to avoid lumps. Temper the gelatin with about 1/2 cup of the heated milk/cream mixture and whisk back into the remaining mixture. Strain cream mixture using a fine mesh strainer into a bowl and discard the vanilla pod and lemon peel. Add the creme fraiche and gently whisk to combine the mixture. Distribute evenly among the ramekins and place in the refrigerator for 4 to 6 hours or until they are set.

It was the classic pairing of strawberries and cream: rich, tart and sweet. It was indulgent until the very last bit was gone.

While the jam was a bit syrupy, it would have been wonderful with the foie. Too thin to spread with peanut butter, I could easily see it being used instead of syrup with french toast or even to sauce a rare cooked seared duck breast. The yield, just over three pints, and canning method provides us with a stash of Maine strawberries to enjoy long after the last one has disappeared from the markets. Which, sadly, will be right around the corner.

beals ice cream, gelato/ice cream, ice cream sundaes, summer-o-rama

Summer-O-Rama: Ice Cream/Gelato

By the calendar, it’s not summer quite yet. Even by the weather, which has at some points been depressing and manic, it’s still spring. But, that hasn’t really stopped us from getting ourselves into a summer state of mind. With burger reviews done, Mr. A has a whole summer worth of assignments lined up for us and, from group consensus, Ice Cream and Gelato was our first task to be tackled.

It never really bodes well when you have to review something that has been recently voted a ‘Best Of..” as Beals Ice Cream was in the 2010 and 2011 Phoenix ‘Best Of..‘ readers poll.

There’s hype and expectations to live up to. Things that I’ve found hardly ever get fulfilled when theory becomes actual. I kind of punked out by picking it. My first option, enviably scooped up by the Werewolf, was Gorgeous Gelato–which the Missus and I recently visited for the first time and fell head over heels in love with. So, I went with the first one that came to mind and kicked myself later because I could have used this as motivation to visit a new (to us) stand.

That’s not to say, however, that I dislike Beals. It’s shop in the Old Port is a justifiable madhouse on a hot summer day, townies and tourists alike cramming in the small shop hoping for refuge and relief (which you will get ONLY if you have cash, so plan accordingly). But, it’s the drive up stand, on Veranda St., that I enjoy the most. It reminds me of the soft serve stands I frequented back in New York. So, when the forecasters were predicting 85+ degree weather we decided that it was a perfect time forgo cooking, head across Baxter Boulevard and have some ice cream for dinner.

And Beals definitely wins the award for options, either in flavor, topping or method of delivery(cone, cup, shake, sundae, etc…). It’s actually a bit overwhelming. I’ve impulse ordered the few times we’ve been there. Having had panicked when I’ve gotten up to that window, blurting out a flavor choice in which the ingredients were a bit sketchy to me, I obsessed a little over it. This time I made sure that my selection was picked several hours before I even left work.

While friends rave about the Indian Pudding, Grasshopper or Maple Walnut varieties, I thought the true measure of their quality would be how well they do a simple vanilla. I mean, any ice cream maker can throw a ton of candy into their base to hide any flaws, right? So, I would judge based on how well their basic vanilla was, while the Missus did opt for one of their many mix-in flavors, grabbing a single scoop sugar cone of their Toffee Heath Bar Crunch.

After we got our order and headed back to sit in the car, I asked her what she thought about it.
“It’s good,” she said in a way that was really was saying, “It’s ice cream, how bad can it be?” She seemed a bit ambivalent about the flavor and wasn’t swoony over it. And, when I finally got to dig into mine–a hot fudge sundae with vanilla ice cream– I kind of had the same inner shrug.

Yes, it was a good sized, fudge laden sundae but nothing about it was really interesting. Every single component of it tasted like the store bought sundae fixings my mother always had on hand in our house (Stewart’s/Friendly’s/Breyers Ice Cream, Hershey hot fudge sauce and Reddi-Whip ). I could have also picked all of these items up at Hannaford for around the same price as that single sundae ($5).

While I thought I would have this insane childhood food memory when I dove into the paper bowl, as it’s been quite some time since I’ve had a proper hot fudge sundae, I was left painfully disappointed. It evoked nothing. I was suffering from ice cream ambivalence.

Maybe it’s because, these days, I like my vanilla to have a little more bean to it, the fudge sauce a little more depth. Overall, I just want the sundae to have a little more flavor or what’s the point of leaving the house?

As I got halfway through, I just mixed the whole thing together into ice cream soup. This was the only thing that harkened back to my childhood days (where I probably had an ice cream sundae every night for 10 years straight growing up. Not only is my mother a hamburger addict, but she also–to this day–keeps at least 5 half-gallons of ice cream in her freezer at any given time). But, it wasn’t done for sentimental reasons, it was done as an easier way to just get through the dish.

While I thought my plan to order simple was fool proof, it turned out not to be. ‘Maybe I needed to give myself over to one of their dozens of mixed-up flavors for a better assessment of their ice cream?’ I wondered, knowing that it wasn’t true. It was another case of feeling that maybe I just didn’t see what others loved so much about a place. But, let’s be honest, their simple vanilla was…too simple. The next time a pang for Vietnamese hits and I find myself strolling over to their shop next to Veranda Noodle bar I think I’ll stick with my old stand by: Mint Chocolate Chip.

Beals Old Fashioned Ice Cream on Urbanspoon