Update

Sorry I haven’t posted for a while! Life temporarily got in the way. I’ve been working on several items, however, and I hope to resume posting some new material within the next 2-3 weeks.

Meanwhile, you might want to check out the tumblr version of this blog. I reblog a lot of current food and restaurant news and views, and historical items that may be of interest.

By the way, we celebrated my Dad’s 98th birthday last Sunday. His actual birthday is July 23, but I think he’ll make it.

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Dad broke his hip one year ago this week, and he’s been living with us since his recovery. The cooking challenge for me has been to come up balanced meals for a guy who hasn’t lost his appetite and always cleans his plate.

For his birthday dinner, in honor of our family’s Swedish heritage, I made Swedish meatballs, with mashed potatoes, peas in a honey butter sauce, and zucchini & carrots. The zucchini came fresh from our youngest son’s front-yard garden. For the last couple of weeks, he’s been keeping us supplied with lots of zucchini and collard greens.

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We have four July birthdays in the family, and we celebrated all of them this last weekend. We let Pizza Hut cook on Friday evening for Ollie’s 7th. Then on Saturday morning, son Nick whipped up a tacos and fajitas feast for Reggie’s 2nd. Then on Saturday evening, for our daughter’s birthday, I smoked some ribs, along with collards, mac & cheese, bbq baked beans, and watermelon slices:

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Chili Today

So, here’s what happened: By the Christian calendar, January 6 is the feast of Epiphany. In western Christianity, Catholic and Protestant alike, the holiday is built around the gospel of Matthew’s story of the visit of the wise men to the baby Jesus. As such, it’s considered the end of the Christmas season. Epiphany Eve is sometimes known as Twelfth Night, a party day often marked by the sort of gender and social order reversals found in the plot of Shakespeare’s play by that name. There are likewise a number of customs connected with the feast itself, such as an Epiphany cake. (The Three Kings cakes eaten in New Orleans from Epiphany to Fat Tuesday are a well-known example.)

This year, January 6 fell on a Friday. So, my wife and I decided that on the following Sunday, we’d have a little open-house Epiphany party for our church family after morning worship. The party would be low-key: Come have a piece of cake and other goodies. But it was also really cold that weekend. Between the actual air temperature and a 20-mph wind, it felt like 4ºF outside. We live next door to the church, but I thought that anyone who was hardy enough to walk over to our house deserved something warm in return.

That meant chili, the perfect food for an open-house on a cold day. If we got more people than we expected, we could stretch it with smaller portions, and if we got fewer people, we’d have usable leftovers to eat or freeze.

So, on the Friday before, we went grocery shopping for our little event. (Chili tastes better a day or two later.) My wife asked me what kind of crackers to buy for the chili. I said something like, “Oh golly-gosh, we shan’t be serving any gosh-darn crackers with my chili.” Something that should have sounded like that, anyway.

I didn’t want people to willy-nilly start jamming soda crackers into my chili. In the first place, I season my chili carefully. Since this batch was for a diverse group, I held back a bit on the heat, but also set out a couple of bottles of hot sauces for those who needed more heat, and also set out Mexican sour cream and shredded cheese for those who needed even less heat. I wasn’t going to be a complete soup Nazi. Adjusting the spiciness to personal tastes was ok with me. However, introducing a bunch of salt from the soda crackers would change the taste before the eater had a chance to appreciate my work.

In the second place, my chili is thick, not soupy. Adding soda crackers would just make it dry and mealy.

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My Epiphany chili, fit for a King or three.

Of course, the first person I served asked for crackers. It was a church thing, so I couldn’t be as blunt as I’d been in the grocery store, but I stuck to my guns. I’d made cornbread, and suggested that as a substitute, but no, no crackers. I pointed out that the chili was already thick and didn’t need crackers, but that if he wanted, he could add some of the Ritz crackers we’d put out on the cheese plate.

I ended up getting a lot of unprompted compliments on the chili, which was gratifying. But I was thinking about it again the next day when someone in a social media cooking group asked, Do you put crackers in your chili? I didn’t do a count, but it was pretty obvious that most people do add crackers.

So maybe I’m wrong. I’ve always thought of crackers as something that goes with soups, not stews. A thin, soupy chili might well warrant some crackers. But my chili is already more of a stew than a soup. For the same reason, I avoid the large kidney beans most restaurant chilis use. They’re too dry and mealy for me. I usually use two or three different kinds of smaller beans instead. My Epiphany batch used black beans, pinto beans, and red beans.

Still, I wondered if I was missing something, so I did some research. In the process, I didn’t find out anything particularly convincing about soda crackers in chili, but I was reminded of just how controversial every other aspect of chili-making can be.

Pride of place, of course, goes to the Texans, who would take one look at my chili and declare, “Son, that’s not chili.” There’s no disputing that the original stews known as chili con carne were made of chile peppers and meat, and did not include beans, tomatoes, or any other vegetables or grains.

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It’s not my usual chili, but here’s my simple Texas-style chili, sans tomatoes or beans.

Some Texans have gotten pretty possessive about this. Kriston Capps, in a 2015 Slate magazine article, came within an eyelash of invoking the unwritten laws of political-correctness in protecting the integrity of Texas chili: “Chili is a local specialty with a specific history. Please find another name for your spiced vegetable stew.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t France, and our English language is notoriously unregulated. Outside of Texas, that “spiced vegetable stew” with tomatoes and beans has been called “chili” for too long to undo it. That would be like the Peruvians complaining to the French that it’s insulting to call a potato a pomme de terre, because it’s a potato and not an apple in the dirt. The Texas folks are right, but they’re a hundred years too late.

So how did beans (and tomatoes) wind up in chili? Once chili left Texas, it was inevitable that it would be influenced by existing “spiced vegetable stews.” Long before chili came along, there were the Brunswick stews of Virginia and Georgia, Kentucky’s Burgoo, and the various gumbos of the Low Country, Gulf Coast, and Creole and Cajun Louisiana, along with the various Pepper Pot stews from Jamaica to Philadelphia. Historically, these dishes featured considerable local diversity and took advantage of whatever was at hand, often including tomatoes.

brunswick-stew-6-26-15Most modern Brunswick stews no longer include rodents or other critters. I used chicken and pork in this batch. It’s not chili, but you can see the family resemblance 

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Chicken and Andouille Gumbo, with okra. Gumbos are the prototypical stew of the Low Country, Gulf, and Cajun/Creole regions, and more coastal versions would include seafood.

For gumbo lovers, the argument is over okra, not beans. People who like okra maintain that “gumbo” comes from the word for okra in several West African languages. People who hate okra claim that it comes from a Choctaw word for the sassafras leaves ground into the filé powder used as a thickener instead of okra. (For the record, I like both kinds; in part because fresh okra isn’t always available in my part of the country. My next batch used filé instead of okra for precisely that reason.) But at least both sides will admit that the other’s gumbo is still worthy of being called gumbo.

Adding beans was likewise inevitable. Chili was designed to be a cheap source of protein. In the 1850s, dried beef, fat, and seasonings were being pressed into bricks that could be easily transported on cattle drives, and then prepared in the field by putting them in boiling water.

Chili was also served in Texas jails, since the stew was comparatively nutritious, yet tasty, and could be made with cheap cuts of meat that would be tenderized in the stewing process.

At that point, beans are also a cheap source of good protein, and adding beans would stretch the chili even further. That trailhands might also be served beans isn’t exactly a myth that Mel Brooks created for his infamous campfire scene in Blazing Saddles.

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Once again, different parts of the country have their preferred bean dishes. Remember the old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups commercial? “You got chocolate on my peanut butter!” I can almost imagine the same thing happening in Louisiana when a bowl of Texas chili met a bowl of Red Beans and Rice:

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Red beans and rice from our Christmas dinner last month

Pinto beans and cornbread, an Appalachian favorite, may be the preferred “soul food” bean dish in the north, and certainly resembles northern chili:

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I made these pinto beans and cornbread for my Dad’s 96th birthday party

I’ve been told that it’s a “southern thing” to add meat to my bbq baked beans, and some have mistaken it for chili. I use chili powder and cumin, but it’s got too much brown sugar and molasses to be mistaken for any sort of chili. Still, the family relationship is undeniable:

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The point is that, like it or not, it was inevitable that when Texas chili hit the road, tomatoes and beans (and other stuff) would splash into it.

Chili, of any sort, is also versatile. In some restaurants, it’s made as a creative way to use up leftover hamburgers or other meat. It can be prepared as a sauce and turned into chili dogs or half-smokes:

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The chili sauce I make for hot dogs or half-smokes is, in some ways, closer to Texas chili than it is to “my” chili, since it has no beans and only a small amount of tomato sauce. It’s also unapologetically on the greasy side

It’s also a handy way to feed a crowd. A few years ago when my church had a summer evening Vacation Bible School with an “Old West” theme, I made three pots of “chuck wagon stew” that wound up feeding 80:

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A couple of times a year, just for fun, I even add corn to make my “Hawkeye Chili,” with the black beans and sweet corn representing the colors of the University of Iowa:

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So whether we call it chili or…something else…it’s a tasty, cheap, easy, fun, and versatile. Just don’t stuff mine with soda crackers, por favor!

 

December Feasts

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“Homecoming,” December 10, 2016

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Christmas Day, December 25, 2016

Two feasts this month: One was a “homecoming” dinner for our California family. The second was our Christmas Day dinner. Thanksgiving is my Big Deal dinner, but whenever you’re feeding 15-16 people, you necessarily end up whipping up a lot of food. I also didn’t want to do a lot of repetition.

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I’m not a cookies and treats guy, so I kept it simple: Peanut butter on crackers, dipped in dark chocolate. Nutter Butters that are supposed to look like reindeer. Pretzel rings with kisses. Plus, for the Dec. 10 meal, a brownie with coconut-pecan frosting that served as a dessert and a birthday cake for our daughter-in-law, Kelsey.

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I didn’t worry about putting out as many appetizers for these meals as I did for Thanksgiving. For the Homecoming dinner, I put together a meat and cheese platter and a fresh fruit platter. For Christmas Day, I put fresh fruit in pineapple bowls. For both meals, my son-in-law, Dan, whipped up a little dip of cream cheese, dried beef, and Polish dill pickles. I think it’s an Eastern Iowa thing; it seems like it’s served a lot at funerals and weddings. Our 17-month old grandson, Reggie, found his own crackers, and made his own feast before Grandpa could snap a proper pic of the bowl.

By the way, the weather for these two meals could not have been more different, given the inherent limitations of winter here in the Midwest. For our first meal, it snowed, and then we went into the deep-freeze. Up until that point, we’d had a mild Fall, but of course, as soon as our California family got here, the weather went Arctic on us. Christmas Day was another story. By dinner time, the temperature had hit 52. It rained constantly, and at one point, we even had a little thunderstorm, which was a first around here.

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In the soup and salad department, for the Homecoming meal I had two soups: my Mexican Corn Chowder and my Three Bean Chili. I’ve been making both soups for many years. The corn chowder has evolved so much that I’ve forgotten why the original version was called “Mexican,” other than because of the familiar heat it gets from green chiles. And yes, I like my chili thick, not soupy.

For Christmas Day, my son Nick made cranberry fluff again, and I came up with a lettuce salad. I cut up some iceberg and green leaf lettuces chiffonade style, and then topped it with walnuts, and queso fresco, which was supposed to look like snow on the grass, and then topped off each salad with a raspberry and some homemade Cobb-style dressing.

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We’d had turkey and ham for Thanksgiving, so I wanted something a little different in the meat department. For the Homecoming dinner, I went with a roasted capon and a pork loin with a black bean sauce on rice. For Christmas, I went with a ribeye roast and a small (9-lb) turkey. Actually, both birds were prepared the same as the turkey at Thanksgiving: a dry brine, followed by a duck fat and butter baste. Both birds turned out very moist and tasty. I intended to let the roast hit about 142, but I accidentally let it get to 150 before I pulled it out. But it was still pretty tender, and had a lot of good flavor.

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For our Dec. 10 meal, I went with spaghetti with a homemade sauce. I thought the kids and our vegetarians would appreciate it. For Christmas, I made my Red Beans and Rice (not vegetarian!). I was happy with both the flavor (which I usually get right) and the consistency (which I usually mess up). I also dipped into my stock of Carolina Gold rice. I also roasted baby potatoes with rosemary, and made corn pudding.

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I kept the vegetables simple for Dec. 10, and went with a Three Sisters succotash of corn, green beans, and butternut squash. For Christmas, I made Creamed Baby Spinach and Kale, and then roasted carrots with thyme, and roasted a little fennel as well. The roasted vegetables were something of a hit.

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For my Christmas desserts, I made pecan and sweet potato pies. Both followed heirloom recipes. The pecan pie followed Callie’s Georgia Pecan Pie. I had run into this recipe on food historian Frederick Douglass Opie’s old blog, who had found it in a Baltimore Sun article from 1949. The sweet potato pie followed a recipe from Donna Battle Pierce. (Unfortunately, I can’t find the proper links back to either recipe.)

Both recipes are exceptional. The pecan pie calls for dark syrup. I cook by the thermometer instead of a toothpick, which takes out the guesswork about whether the pies have set, and also makes it harder to overbake them.

Bottom line: I made a couple of decent meals. With Thanksgiving, that’s three big meals in the span of a month, serving 45 people in total, with a good mix of traditional dishes and new (for us) dishes.

Thanksgiving 2016

This is a food history blog, not a cooking blog, but Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and a lot of traditional cooking happens. This year, I made dinner for sixteen. We celebrated on Friday instead of Thursday, so I had an extra day to prepare.

It helped that the weather here in the upper Midwest was pretty mild. It’s not unusual to get a serious snowstorm and some nasty cold temps over Thanksgiving, but not this year. It was just cool enough, with temps in the mid-30s, that I could keep dishes outside on the deck, instead of jamming them into the kitchen refrigerator or marching up and down the steps to the refrigerator in the basement.

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The centerpiece of any Thanksgiving feast is the turkey. I’m not sure why that is. Most folks don’t seem that crazy about turkey. Like most industrial meat in this country, turkeys aren’t as flavorful as they were once upon a time. But their symbolic value persists. Recently, I found this medieval French illustration of some royal feast. Note that the center and right platters have some sort of fowl, perhaps geese or capons. (I’m not sure what the creatures on the left platter are, though they look disturbingly similar to the rodent on the floor.) In any event, it seems that a feast just doesn’t look like a true feast unless there’s a big roasted bird on the table.

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This year, I roasted a small turkey (about 13 lbs) using duck fat on the outside and a citrus and herb butter tucked under the skin, following pretty closely a recipe from Angela Davis’ new Kitchenista Diaries cookbook. The recipe also calls for a dry brine overnight, which worked great. Everyone remarked on how moist the turkey was, and it was a lot easier than the wet brine we’ve been doing the last few years.

The only surprise was that the turkey got done a lot faster than I’d anticipated. I had figured that a turkey this size would clock in around three hours. But this one was done in barely two hours. When I pulled it out to baste it, I checked the temp, and after about two hours and ten minutes, the breast was already at 180. That set off a bit of a scramble to get the rest of the meal up to speed.

We’re not a fancy appetizer people, but for Thanksgiving, I like to have some food set out so that people can nibble, and not bug me about how long it’s taking to get the dinner ready. This year, I had four appetizer plates:

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In the upper left corner, we have lefse. It’s a Norwegian specialty (I’m 1/4 Norwegian ancestry). It’s widely available in supermarkets in this part of the country, but some families still make their own. Lefse looks like a flour tortilla, but it’s made from potatoes, and lightly fried on a special grill. These were served with butter and sugar, but others add cinnamon, or perhaps jam or preserves.

In the lower left corner, we have meatballs in a homemade Cheerwine bbq sauce. The Cheerwine soda gives the sauce a distinctive cherry taste. No special recipe here. I looked up a handful of recipes online and followed my instincts. The plates on the right are pretty self-explanatory. The red pepper dip on the veggie plate was store-bought. The cheeses on the cracker plate are a Tillamook extra sharp cheddar, and a Havarti.

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In addition to the turkey, I made a small ham with an orange marmalade glaze. Since the turkey got done so much faster than we expected, we rushed the ham, and didn’t get it plated in a pretty way, but it tasted fine. The orange marmalade was homemade. Our oldest son, who lives in southern California, made it from oranges in his backyard. For his family back in Iowa, that counts as pretty cool.

The meal began with a Tomato and Squash soup. Nothing fancy: We served it in disposable bowls. The recipe was very much improvised, but it turned out to be a good blend of flavors, and offered another option for our vegetarians.

Along with the turkey, I served homemade cranberry sauce and turkey gravy. Some folks like the jellied kind of cranberry sauce, plopped straight out of the can. I like to make my own. This was a simple recipe: I blended a cup of orange juice and a cup of sugar, heated it up, and then popped the cranberries in the mix. If you’ve never made your own sauce before, I mean “popped” literally. As cranberries heat up, their skins burst, and then it’s just a matter of cooking it down to the desired consistency.

The gravy was made from turkey stock and pan drippings. I’d made the stock the day before from turkey necks. (The meat, in turn, went into the collard greens described below.) My stock-making abilities are pure trial-and-error, but it allowed me to flavor up my future gravy with some Slap Ya Mama seasoning. The next day, the pan drippings added more flavor, not just from the brined turkey itself, but from the bed of diced vegetables below it, including a Trinity of onion, celery, and pepper, plus carrots and some chicken stock. I left the gravy on the thin side this year. I made a little butter and flour roux, but I didn’t want the butter flavor to overshadow the turkey flavors.

Another dish closely associated with the turkey is the dressing. I don’t think I’ve ever made the same dressing twice, but this one might well show up again on our holiday table. It’s a sausage and brioche dressing, tapping another Kitchenista recipe, with a couple of minor modifications. Instead of golden raisins, I added some dried mixed berries, and a handful of walnuts.

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It seemed to catch some people’s attention. Some liked the sage sausage. Some appreciated that the dressing stayed so moist. That wasn’t intentional. If the turkey hadn’t gotten done so fast, I probably would have let this dish cook and set up another 30 minutes or so.

There’s some controversy over what the dish should be called. Some people think the difference between “stuffing” and “dressing” is a North-South thing, and there is an element of truth to that. In my part of the country, at least, it has more to do with where it’s cooked. If it’s cooked separately from the bird, it’s “dressing.” If it’s cooked in the bird, it’s “stuffing,” i.e., you stuffed it inside the turkey cavity.

Stuffing has the advantage of soaking up extra juices from the bird. But it also adds cooking time to the turkey itself. Sometimes, I’ve done it both ways. I’ve put some in the turkey, and cooked the remainder separately. Southern cooks also seem to have a preference for cornbread dressing, while northern cooks generally prefer white bread. One of the things that attracted me to use the brioche was simple necessity: I’ve had the better part of a brioche loaf sitting in the cupboard for a while, and decided it had reached the point of use-it-or-lose-it.

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As much as the turkey is the centerpiece of a Thanksgiving feast, it’s the sides that signal the difference between a festival meal and a simple meat-potatoes-vegetable Sunday dinner.

The white potatoes were a no-brainer. My Dad loves his potatoes. I served these coronary-style, with an amount of butter and cream cheese that I can’t reveal without blushing in embarrassment.

I made mac and cheese for the sake of the family vegetarians, and also for the four grandsons. This was a six-cheese mac, with three cheddars, colby, Monterey Jack, and a layer of Munster on top. The recipe is my own, but it’s similar to Robbie Montgomery’s Sweetie Pie’s recipe that’s been floating around online for years.

The mashed sweet potatoes were pretty standard: butter, sugar, some select seasonings, and a few pecans on top. Instead of boiling the sweet potatoes, I roasted them, which seemed to bring out more flavor and a deeper orange color. The “festive” part was to serve them in hollowed-out orange halves, letting the orange juice in the pulp add a little more flavor. It worked. If I do it again, I’ll probably use smaller oranges.

The fourth dish there is a corn pudding. It’s a quick, six-ingredient dish but it has a real down-home, comfort food flavor.

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Next come the green vegetable sides. I wanted to make collard greens because just a week or so ago, our youngest son had brought in a batch from his garden. The meat you see is from the turkey necks I’d used to make stock the day before. The greens broth, however, was made with ham hocks. I’d made my “pot likker” the night before, let it cool and blend flavors, and then added the greens in the morning.

It’s hard to know what to do with peas. I wanted to leave them as another meat-free option for the vegetarians, so no bacon. I ended up melting in some citrus and herb butter, the same stuff I’d used in the turkey.

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And finally, the sweets. The dish on the left is a cranberry fluff. My youngest son made it, and it was terrific. It was one of my Mom’s signature dishes. A year or two before she passed, I tried to wheedle a recipe out of her, but all she could give me were the ingredients: cranberries, crushed pineapple, walnuts, marshmallows, and whipped cream. I’ve come up with dishes close to it, but not quite. This year, my son nailed it on the first try. It tasted like Mom’s, and suddenly, it was like Mom was there with us.

The pie was a blend of roasted butternut squash and a roasted sugar pumpkin. Turns out that Libby’s canned “pumpkin” isn’t really pumpkin, but a proprietary variety of squash. So I wanted to try my own hand at it. Rather than follow the seasoning in the classic recipe on the Libby’s can (which is foolproof), I used one more Kitchenista recipe: her pumpkin spice mix.  I made a couple of very good pies. At this point, I can’t swear that my puree is all that much better than the canned stuff that it’s worth the extra work, but I don’t think that will stop me from tinkering and trying it again.

What’s the moral of the story? If I can put together a decent home-cooked meal for Thanksgiving, you can too. I didn’t screw up any dishes this year, and was proud to serve each one. We’ll see how my luck holds out in December. We have two more comparably big family meals coming up.

 

Happy National Fried Chicken Day!

July 6 is National Fried Chicken Day, so I thought I’d share some of my fried chicken efforts. My “technique,” such as it is, is still evolving, but I like pan-frying in peanut oil. The top photo shows the results of my first attempt to cut up a whole chicken for frying. Gotta start somewhere, right?

11214389_10207002824414761_7877550059188038163_nI can’t resist trying to perfect my own Nashville-style hot chicken. If you haven’t tried it before, I’ve at least learned this much: The white bread AND the dill pickles are both essential components. Trust me now, and thank me later.

11083635_10206546825135064_8266763292517041781_nI like to pan-fry chicken tenderloins for chicken & waffles.

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The nice thing about chicken & waffles is that they work equally well for both dinner or breakfast (or lunch, for that matter). Here’s one of my breakfast versions, all boxed up for eating out on the deck.

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Fried chicken with mumbo sauce. There’s a considerable debate between Chicago and Washington, D.C. over who should get credit for Mumbo Sauce. In this case, the answer is easy: Neither. This stuff was homemade, lol.

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Of course, for most of us, fried chicken is something we buy. My favorite is Popeye’s. Here’s some spicy tenders I savored on a recent visit. This particular Popeye’s was in Council Bluffs, Iowa, across the river from Omaha, and I want to give them a shout-out, because the counter staff there were the most fun bunch of people I’ve run into in a take-out place in a long, long time.