June 22, 2016

Dear friends,

The first night of our vacation to the shore we had carryout from Cracker Barrel in our camper at a highway rest stop in West Virginia during a rainstorm of biblical proportions. What is wrong with this picture? Yes, Cracker Barrel. Not the roadside rest or camper or even West Virginia. I can handle all that, but starting our retirement travels with a meal from Cracker Barrel?

Well, the meal was delicious. I’m not kidding. I dashed into the restaurant (choices of dining spots at the highway interchange were limited) and ordered two of the first item I saw on a wall menu: Campfire Chicken. It’s a goof-proof summer special of seasoned bone-in chicken pieces cooked in foil with carrots, onions, cherry tomatoes and new potatoes. When we opened the packets a few minutes later at the rest stop, the aroma filled our 24-foot camper.

Tony, the dog and I huddled around the table eating while the rain sliced sideways against the windows. We were happy and cozy.

The food got better after we settled in at the shore, but still, the Campfire Chicken was not bad. I kept thinking about it, and ways I could make it gourmet-worthy. After we returned home, I laid in supplies and experimented. The result is a kind of Northern African-inspired dish that can be cooked on the grill or in the oven.

I used bone-in chicken, as Cracker Barrel does, and cooked it in a foil pouch with cherry tomatoes, olives, dates, lemon wedges, onions, carrots and chunks of sweet potatoes. A spice mixture of cinnamon, coriander, ginger and turmeric pulled it all together.

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FOIL-WRAPPED CHICKEN TAGINE
1/2 tsp. powdered ginger
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. coriander
1/4 tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. fresh-ground pepper
4 bone-in chicken leg-thighs, breasts or a combination
2 slender carrots, cut in halves and the fat ends sliced lengthwise
1/2 of a large sweet onion such as Vidalia, peeled and cut in quarters
8 grape tomatoes
1/2 cup pitted Kalamata olives
1 lemon, cut vertically in 8 wedges
4 large pitted dates
1 large sweet potato, pierced and microwaved until almost tender
4 tsp. olive oil

In a custard cup, mix together ginger, cinnamon, coriander, turmeric, salt and pepper. Set aside.

Trim any excess skin or fat from the chicken. Wash and pat dry. Place an 18-inch length of foil on a counter and place another piece of foil, the same size, crosswise on top to form a cross. Place one-fourth of the carrots in the center and arrange one chicken piece on top. Arrange one-fourth of the onion, tomatoes, lemon wedges, olives and a date around the chicken. Cut the potato in 4 chunks and add one to packet. Sprinkle one teaspoon of the spice mixture over the chicken and vegetables. Drizzle with one teaspoon olive oil.

Bring foil up around ingredients, scrunching and pinching to seal. Use remaining ingredients to make three more packets.

Oven method: Place foil packets on two baking sheets and bake at 400 degrees for 50 to 60 minutes, switching positions in oven after 30 minutes.

Grill method: Place over medium-hot coals (about 20
briquettes or medium on a gas grill). Cover with vents half open. Grill for about 40 minutes, depending on heat, or until juices of chicken run clear.

Makes 4 servings. Note: The lemon wedges may be eaten rind and all. They are soft and delicious when cooked.

HELP U COOK

A word, please, about oven tending. When you open an oven door mid-bake or mid-roast, do you leave it open while basting, checking the temperature with an instant-read, or prodding a piece of meat for doneness? Stop it.

Do you leisurely switch the positions of baking sheets mid-bake, letting too much heat escape? Stop it.

I have noticed that many of my friends have no sense of urgency when opening and closing an oven door. If you open the door of a preheated oven and walk four steps to a counter and back to fetch your casserole or unbaked pie, you might as well start preheating all over again. The heat escapes quickly, throwing off not only the timing but the quality of the food.
Try to keep open-door time to a minimum. Have everything you need – food, utensils, hot pads – at your fingertips. Open the door, immediately do what you have to, and shut the door as quickly as possible. If the task requires more than a few seconds of time, remove the food from oven, close the door, and prod or baste at leisure. Then get it back in the oven pronto.

TIDBITS

Where are all the pawpaw trees? I want one so badly I can almost taste it. More accurately, I want a pawpaw badly in order to taste it. I’ve been obsessed since I read a description of the fruit. It reportedly has a creamy texture and tropical flavor that’s a cross between a banana, mango and pineapple. Does that sound great or what?

Pawpaws grow wild in groves in Southern Ohio. They can be grown in Northern Ohio, too. When I was a kid, I remember the pawpaw tree beside the back porch of my grandparents’ neighbor.

Pawpaws are the largest tree fruit native to North America, yet I have never tasted one. How is that possible? I have written about food from my home base in Ohio for 34 years. I have tasted fresh lychees and dragon fruit, rare Japanese haskap berries and Spanish blood oranges, but not a single home-grown pawpaw.

I tried to remedy that this spring by finding a tree and growing the fruit myself, but the biggest pawpaw tree I could find locally was 18 inches. Hey, I’m 66. I can’t wait that long.

Scheduled knee surgery will keep me from attending the 19th annual Ohio Pawpaw Festival Sept. 16-18 at Lake Snowden near Athens, about two hours Southeast of Columbus. I am heartbroken. The festival website is http://www.ohiopawpawfest.com. If you go, would you please, please bring me back a pawpaw?

THE MAILBAG

From Cindy P.:
I am laughing to myself about Tony’s creation (the hotdog face). He’s a big kid inside, isn’t he?

While I don’t make food with faces for myself, I indulge the kid in me by using a lime-green Grinch waffle iron that my daughters bought me for Christmas one year. I think of my daughters every time I use the thing and have it displayed in open, industrial shelving in my kitchen. I don’t care what anyone thinks of it. I love it.

Speaking of waffles, the best I’ve ever eaten are at Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland, Calif. The chef/owner puts cornmeal in the waffles and serves them with an apple cider vinegar syrup. OMG. My version — I also add cornmeal, even in the form of grits or polenta, to the batter. No, I don’t use a recipe but I did look at her cookbook to figure out what she did and then I based my version on that. This weekend, I was craving the syrup as well, so I heated some butter, maple syrup, and a tiny bit of balsamic vinegar, and poured that over the waffle. Slightly different and VERY good.

Dear Cindy: I’ll tell Tony you liked his fried hot dog face. He needs no encouragement, though.

Your waffles (with the Grinch iron! Yes!) sound really great. For some reason, I crave things made with cornmeal lately. Putting balsamic in the butter-syrup topping is brilliant.

From Pennie:
I have a food question about mushrooms. You are supposed to wipe them off with a wet paper towel, but I have issues with that. First, they don’t seem as clean as rinsing them. (Aren’t they grown in manure?) And second, it takes a heck of a lot of paper towels to clean a bunch. Am I doing it wrong?

Dear Pennie: Mushrooms are not grown in manure. That’s just a – ahem – dirty rumor that the Mushroom Council spends a lot of money each year to refute. As for the wiping/washing issue, I, too, used to brush and wipe the things, but no more. It’s tedious and doesn’t really clean them well, as you point out.

Mushrooms are porous and will soak up water, which would make them difficult to cook. But that will happen only if you let the mushrooms loll around in the water. If you clean them under running water and dry them right away (here’s where the wiping comes in), they will not ooze an ocean in your sauté pan. And if they do ooze too much, simply turn up the heat and boil it off.

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