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Griffin to Go: Are Too Many Diners Expecting the Moon These Days?

Griffin to Go: Are Too Many Diners Expecting the Moon These Days?

Diners, beware. Open season has been declared on those of you who eat out. And the complaints aren’t just coming from wait staff.

Do you see this person as friend or foe?

Do you see this person as friend or foe?

Chefs, managers, critics and even some actors are getting into the mix.

Oh, sure, there are still a few people who go out to eat, politely order their food, eat and enjoy themselves, tip their server between 15 and 20 percent, maybe thank the chef and then leave. But if you’re one of those people, you need to realize that you’re part a dying breed.

Today’s diners are far less gracious. Don’t think that I’m merely talking about the hipster crowd or Millennials, because the rampant bad behavior seems to belong to no single age group. There are grumblers, old and young, who are never satisfied with what they’re served and make no bones that anything less than perfection is unacceptable.

Take tables, for example. Anywhere they’re seated is not good enough. Too close to the kitchen. Too far from the bar. Too noisy. Too close to another table. Too lacking in feng shui. After playing Goldilocks with the chairs a half-dozen times, they still haven’t found a place that’s “just right,” and they blame the restaurant for it.

Or maybe the table is filled with diners who spend 20 minutes taking pictures of their food and then complain that the meal is not hot enough. Really, folks? How long does it take to take a picture? I have often joked that food photography has become the 21st century’s way of saying grace, because, in a way, it’s a form of being grateful for the food that has been set before you. But if it takes longer to get your picture than it does to say the common table prayer, then you have no right to complain about the temperature of your food — or much of any else.

And let’s not get started on the issue of tipping.

Sure, service needs to evolve to meet the new standards, demands and eccentricities of today’s entitled diners. But where is the line drawn between reasonable and ridiculous? The gripes and sniping have gained in volume, as if some people think they’ll get a free meal if they scream loud enough; their puerile behavior leaves the rest of us wondering what we did wrong because we were enjoying our meal. Some of the restauranteurs who failed to cave in to these diners’ demands have later discovered online reviews from those same upset people who have lashed out in their outrage. These reports pile grievance on top of grievance until it seems as if their dinner had been served in a prison instead of a neighborhood bistro.

Too often, though, these posts come across as outrageous and unintentionally funny, and they have led to the hysterical Real Actors Read Yelp series on YouTube. There are more than 20 of these short videos, and each one is sadder and more laughable than the one that came before it. For a particularly apt example, click here. At the end, you can choose any of the others until you’ve had your fill.

In recent weeks, various stories have appeared about a supposed report that a New York restaurant has done comparing its service from 10 years ago to its service today. Why are so many more complaints are generated nowadays about the service? Videos from both years show that, of course, the diners are the problem and not the restaurant. That is why I say “supposed,” because the restaurant’s identity has not been revealed, so there have been claims that it’s a hoax.

Whether it’s false or true, you may want to read one account of the story (click here) because it offers a lot to chew on, in San Antonio as well as New York. Pay attention to the comments at the end of the piece, too. The vitriol from the readers, who come from all backgrounds and not just the restaurant business, equals the petulance of some diners.

This standoff is likely to get worse before it gets better. But all you prickly, picky diners who expect support from food critics, think again. Your behavior is turning off those who eat out for a living. In a recent online chat, Tom Sietsema of the Washington Post had this to say after being asked what a restaurant was supposed to do after a person slipped and fell in the dining room: “More than any other business I know, people expect restaurants to be and do everything. Can you imagine asking your hair dresser to give you a free trim because it was your birthday? Or expecting half-off on a root canal if your dentist kept you waiting more than 15 minutes?”

So, the next time you go out, leave your attitude at home. You’ll find yourself enjoying the experience more. So will the people around you. If you can’t do that, then kindly limit yourselves to restaurant drive-thru windows. You may not realize it now, but it never pays to bite the hand that feeds you.

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Griffin to Go: Can’t Say No to the Price. Or the Flavor.

Griffin to Go: Can’t Say No to the Price. Or the Flavor.


A double order of the dark meat at Popeyes.

I don’t really care for standing in a long line to order food to go. Even waiting in the car behind a dozen or so cars isn’t my idea of fun.

popeyesBut there’s always an exception to every rule, and mine is Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen.

I have long loved the fried chicken here, largely because the spicy version packs a mouthful of flavor in each bit. The skin is largely crisp, and the meat, when it’s hot, is moist and tender. Even when served cold, any leftovers are still a treat. What other fast-food place can you say the same for?

And where else at a drive-thru window can you get Cajun rice — or dirty rice, as most of us call it — as well as meaty green beans, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, coleslaw and, of course, those buttery biscuits that are simultaneously flaky at the center yet substantial overall.

Tuesday nights brings us Popeyes lovers out of the woodwork. That’s because they charge only 99 cents for two pieces of dark meat, a thigh and a drumstick, two pieces that pack the most flavor. Or you can get those same two pieces with a 22-ounce soda, a biscuit and a side dish for $3.99. (The regular price for two pieces of dark meat is $3.55, though that order usually comes with a biscuit.)

The word has gotten out about this special. The Popeyes near my house has great lines both inside and out on Tuesdays, and the staff in back seem to be getting that chicken ready as fast as they can. And nobody seems to be in a bad mood if they have to wait a few minutes for their meal, either. They’re just as happy to get a great bargain as well as Popeyes’ irresistible fried chicken.

I’ve had this special at several Popeyes in town, but I don’t know how many stores are participating. You may want to check on the one nearest you before you, too, join the line.

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Savor the Jet Set Era, Courtesy of PanAm’s Classic Cookbook

Savor the Jet Set Era, Courtesy of PanAm’s Classic Cookbook

The jet set era is the setting for "Catch Me If You Can" at the Woodlawn Theatre.

The jet set era is the setting for “Catch Me If You Can” at the Woodlawn Theatre.

It’s time to remember the era of the jet set, when martinis were made with gin and clam dip filled the center of the swankiest party tables.

We’re reminded of those swinging days of yesteryear thanks to the latest season of “Mad Men” on AMC and the arrival of “Catch Me If You Can” at the Woodlawn Theatre. You may remember that title from the Tom Hanks-Leonardo di Caprio film, but the story has been turned into a full-throttle musical filled with plenty of globe trotting and chorus lines of long-legged stewardesses (that’s right, they were not flight attendants back then) and nurses ready to fulfill any handsome doctor’s orders.

PanAm CookbookPart of the fun of jet-setting was being able to try foods from around the world alongside the deviled eggs, the chicken liver pâté and egg rolls. One place where recipes could be found was Myra Waldo’s “The Complete Round-the-World Cookbook,” a PanAm-inspired series of recipes from more than 80 countries.

Waldo’s goal was global education through food. “The world of travel, the observation of the life and ways of others, the spirit of inquiry, the willingness to eat what others eat, and fundamentally and primarily the maintaining of an open mind on all subjects is the surest way for us to learn something about the rest of the world,” she writes.

Leafing through a copy shows that the author knew a thing or two about creating bold flavors from countries and regions as far-flung as Egypt, the Balkans, Burma, New Zealand and the Greater Antilles. Her recipes seem fairly easy to put together, whether you want to make German Paprika Fish, Turkish Fruit Salad, Canadian Pork Pie or Trinidad Rum Punch.

Waldo’s book is out of print now, but you can find copies for reasonable (and unreasonable) prices at

Noodles with Walnuts

Noodles with Walnuts

In the meantime, you can taste a few of these international treats in these recipes:

You can see “Catch Me If You Can” at the Woodlawn Theatre, 1920 Fredericksburg Road, through May 11. Call (210) 267-8388 for tickets.


Brian Hodges (center) stars in "Catch Me If You Can" at the Woodlawn Theatre.

Brian Hodges (center) stars in “Catch Me If You Can” at the Woodlawn Theatre. (Production photos: Siggi Ragnar)

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Nothing Beats Handmade, Even at NIOSA

Nothing Beats Handmade, Even at NIOSA

Whipping the beans with an immersion blender.

Whipping the beans with an immersion blender.

When Steve Guerrero started running NIOSA’s bean taco booth about six years ago, the product just wasn’t up to his standards.

Steve Guerrero is the chairman of the bean taco booth.

Steve Guerrero is the chairman of the bean taco booth.

The corn tortillas were store-bought and the beans were out of a can. So, he set out to convince the organizers of A Night in Old San Antonio that his team could do much better.

A bean taco, NIOSA-style.

A bean taco, NIOSA-style.

So, they started soaking their own beans and whipping them into a fine mash, and they rolled out their own balls of masa, which were then flattened into tortillas and cooked on comals over burning charcoal.

The result was a hit with more than the committee. Guerrero’s Tacos de Frijoles booth has developed a local following that grows a little bigger each year.

I had the chance to work with Guerrero, his wife, Cynthia and a host of family and friends on Tuesday, NIOSA’s opening night. Most every year for the past 15 years, I have had the pleasure and privilege of working in a series of different NIOSA booths, where I’ve helped make items such as Shypoke Eggs, Horseshoe Sausage, Fried Mushrooms and Bongo K-bobs. This year, it was time to try my hand at bean tacos, and it was a case of love at first bite.

Gene Arevalos gets some coals burning.

Gene Arevalos gets some coals burning.

For the ones who do the prep work before the gates open, the beans need to start cooking at around 2:30 p.m. In the large pots, which hold about 8 pounds of beans, go plenty of bacon grease, fresh onion and a heap of spices, all of which need time to cook together. When the beans are ready, one of the volunteers will take out that immersion blender and go to work, punching it up and down in the mixture until the texture is the consistency of peanut butter, says Victor Gutierrez, who has been volunteering with Guerrero somewhere on the NIOSA grounds for about 26 years.

Together with Gene Arevalos, they have worked tamales, wine, ice cream, enchiladas, quesadillas, you name it. They’re like family. They may only see each other once a year, for NIOSA, but it’s always a reunion that they look forward to, even if they work all four nights of the event, Gutierrez says.

Whenever a task needs to be done, you’ll likely find someone putting on a pair of gloves in order to go to work. It could be preparing the masa, which requires someone to add some of that beloved bacon grease as well as water to the corn mixture and then work it all together so that it is pliable enough. The corn dough is then rolled into balls before being pressed out to the right thickness. Each tortilla is then slapped on the hot griddle and left to cook until golden and perfectly hot to the fingertips.

Teresa Gonzales Ramon displays her Fiesta hat.

Teresa Gonzales Ramon displays her Fiesta hat.

My first assignment was to help with rolling out the masa balls. We finished off a batch of masa, which resulted in several hundred balls, which were refrigerated until needed. Then Guerrero, Gutierrez and others led me through the paces of pressing them using a metal press. To keep the masa from sticking to the press, each ball of dough was placed between two sheets of plastic that had been slicked down with a little, you guessed it, bacon grease. Gutierrez mentioned how his mother used to use waxed paper for that, which would make sense because the tortilla wouldn’t stick to that.

Once the hot tortillas were fully cooked, they were then wrapped in a towel inside a basket in order to stay warm until one of the women in the front line needed to fill an order. At that point, a steaming hot corn tortilla was placed on a plate, then smeared with plenty of beans before being crowned with shredded lettuce, tomato and cheese. Salsa and salt are available if you want to dress your taco up.

There were few questions asked, though a couple wanted their tacos without beans but extra cheese. Cynthia Guerrero, Steve’s wife, and her team in front were happy to oblige.

Cynthia Guerrero samples a bean taco.

Cynthia Guerrero samples a bean taco.

Of course, a taco or two had to be sampled, for purposes of quality control, you understand. And the answer is a resounding yes. I’m glad I hadn’t tasted these six years ago when everything was processed and prepared in advance. The creamy smooth beans with their cumin, garlic powder, onion and bacon grease was made even better by the addition of the hot tortilla as well as the cheese that just melted into everything else. Tomatoes, lettuce and salsa just made it all the more wonderful.

Tacos de Frijoles is on the way to anticucho booth. Make sure you stop for a taco to give you strength and patience while you’re standing in the long line there. You’ll really be glad you did.

Frijoles NIOSA-Style

Steve Guerrero shared the outline for his family’s recipe for beans, which are made each night of NIOSA at the Tacos de Frijoles booth. You can make them using canned beans, but they’re better if you soak your own pintos overnight and then start.

Assembling the bean tacos.

Assembling the bean tacos.

1 pound pinto beans, soaked overnight or canned
1 onion, finely chopped
½ cup bacon grease
Salt, to taste
Garlic powder, to taste
Cumin, to taste
Black pepper, to taste

In a large stock pan, add the beans and onion with the bacon grease and the seasonings. Bring to a boil, then let simmer covered for at least 2 ½ hours or until the beans are soft. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Using an immersion blender, blend everything in the pot until it resembles creamy peanut butter in sight and texture.

Spread the beans on a hot corn tortilla. Top with cheese, tomato and lettuce, if desired. Serve with salsa.

Makes 10-12 servings.

Adapted from Steve Guerrero

Corn tortillas on the comal.

Corn tortillas on the comal.

Go, Spurs, Go!

Go, Spurs, Go!

Victor Gutierrez spots a friend in the NIOSA crowd.

Victor Gutierrez spots a friend in the NIOSA crowd.


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Griffin to Go: Vacation with Friends Becomes Culinary Tour of Atlanta

Griffin to Go: Vacation with Friends Becomes Culinary Tour of Atlanta

The cafe at Cakes & Ale in Decatur.

The cafe at Cakes & Ale in Decatur.

It’s been five years since I was last in Atlanta, and in that time, the city’s culinary scene has grown much more flavorful. One sign is the growing number of local chefs and restaurants to make the semifinalists list for this year’s James Beard Foundation Awards, the Oscars of the culinary world.

A chef at Gunshow offers a fried lobster tail.

A chef at Gunshow offers one of his dishes.

But beyond that is the growth and increasing diversity of the city. Drive down Buford Highway and you can shop Asian supermarkets that astound with their variety and freshness. Head over to Howell Mill Road, where Bacchanalia continues to reign as the city’s finest dining establishment, and you’ll find the market Star Provisions, which is filled with plenty of gourmet items, including a pungent array of imported cheeses and charcuterie. Since I left a week ago, I’ve learned that the DeKalb Farmers Market is expanding into a facility that will eventually cover 700,000 square feet of space, and all of it devoted to the freshest foods.

My friends Bill and Laurie live in the suburb of Decatur, where everything they might want is in walking distance of their home. That includes groceries, restaurants of all ethnic stripes, bars, bakeries, breweries, butchers, a twice-weekly farmers market, you name it. So, this being a vacation for Bill as well as myself, we could head out to Leon’s for a hand-crafted cocktail and some swellegant, as Cole Porter would say, snacks of radishes atop buttered pumpernickel, before heading on to Victory a few blocks away for another hand-crafted cocktail. Even closer to their place was the Kimball House, which had some of the finest oysters on the half shell that I’ve had in years and, yes, the best hand-crafted cocktails we sipped. And we never had to get into the car to visit all of these places. Plus, walking in the cold has to be considered some form of exercise, right?

Oysters and cocktails at the Kimball House. Yes, please.

Oysters and cocktails at the Kimball House. Yes, please.

Also close by is Cakes & Ale, which is quickly gaining a national reputation for chef Billy Allin’s simple yet elegant cuisine: an irresistible North Carolina trout, filleted tableside and served with radish and greens; a firm slab of cobia with buttery fingerling potatoes and practically melted onion; sable fish collar with farro; roasted beets tossed with the supplest citrus; and a salad that married apple, pear and greens in a boiled cider vinaigrette.

There’s nothing on that list you won’t find in a many another restaurant, but Allin manages to take these local foods and make you taste them as if for the very first time. This is nowhere more true than in the combination of sweet beets matched with slivers of tart blood oranges, flavors so vibrant that they didn’t even need the yogurt dressing.

Sriracha milkshake, anyone? It's at Pallookaville.

Sriracha milkshake, anyone? It’s at Pallookaville.

The cakes part of the name can be had after dinner or at the adjoining cafe, which we visited on another occasion to fill up on pastries, cookies and breads from pastry chef David Garcia. The back of the cafe is one of those uncovered brick walls that always add a sense of authenticity to the ambiance; what the owners didn’t know when they cleared off the plaster, though, was that the wall had been painted with an turn-of-the-20th-century advertisement for another bakery, which they chose to keep, enhancing the experience.

Portuguese pork belly and clams at Gunshow.

Portuguese pork belly and clams at Gunshow.

Kevin Gillespie’s Gunshow was decidedly different, in a very good way. The two-time “Top Chef” contestant has created a space with an almost carnival-like atmosphere that draws from both Chinese dim sum and the Brazilian churrascuria styles of dining. Enter the nondescript dining area with its open kitchen, exposed ceilings and cement floors, and you’ll find a series of carts being wheeled in between long aisles of community-style tables. You may not realize right off, however, that the people pushing the carts are the restaurant’s chefs, six in all, who have prepared the dishes — and it’s up to them to sell you on each of their creations.

This is fun. It brings you into direct contact with your chef, so you can ask any and all the questions you want about the food or the ingredients they used — if you can hear them or be heard above the din that surrounds you, that is. Gunshow is loud, but it’s a lively noise filled with clanking forks and knifes, and it whets your appetite as much as the sight of a fried lobster tail or a bowl of warm banana pudding topped with a a swirl of meringue. The menu changes frequently, depending on what’s freshest and what your chefs want to create. On the night we visited, the menu reflected a global smorgasbord of influences. There were Portuguese pork belly and clams, Floribbean snapper, barbecue quail with “Southern fix’ns,” braised beef short rib with Moroccan flavors, Scandinavian shrimp salad and veal schnitzel with lingonberry. There was even an attempt to create a handmade In-N-Out burger, which appeared as an off-the-menu surprise.

The General Muir is one of this year's James Beard Award semifinalists.

The General Muir is one of this year’s James Beard Award semifinalists.

You try what you want and how many servings you want. But don’t wait for seconds. We didn’t see any dish repeated over the course of the evening. Wash it down with a glass from the well-chosen wine list — a fruity, dry French rosé worked well with all of the savory dishes, from fish to beef. Or you could get a cocktail from the drinks cart that is wheeled to your table in the same way the dishes arrive.

No one from San Antonio would mistake the fish taco from Taqueria del Sol for what we have here, and there are no substitutes for a handmade tortilla. So, how did this perfectly average place get on the radar of the James Beard Foundation? Chalk it up as one of the mysteries of the culinary universe. I didn’t give the place a second thought once we left it for Chai Pani across the street. This Indian fusion palace, with its punderful wordplay on Chez Panisse, is a funky delight, decorated in vintage Bollywood posters. We started with okra fries, a seasonal treat that everyone should be serving, and a pair of shrub-based cocktails with their tang cutting through some of the richness of the rest of our order: tomato and cheese uttapam, a type of Indian pizza, and Sloppy Jai, spicy lamb sliders.

Fusion works if you can pull it off. And if you don’t, it can be painful. The folks at Sobban, “a Korean Southern diner,” manage to blend the two cultures successfully, in dishes as fun as a fried kimchi bologna sandwich and some sriracha deviled eggs that were reminiscent of those Jason Dady serves at Umai Mi. So, could we be seeing Korean-Mex as the next progression? Who knows?

Lox at the General Muir.

Lox at the General Muir.

Sriracha was used in a milkshake at Pallookavilla Fine Foods, a place known for its double-fried corndogs and shaketails. The fiery sauce was layered thickly between the ice cream and milk, and they balanced each other out to create a fine novelty. Besides, who wouldn’t like going to a place that has a framed, autographed photo of Tura Satana, star of the classic film, “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” hanging in the wall?

Thankfully, the folks at Fox Bros. did not attempt any sort of fusion with their Texas barbecue. Moist, tender brisket and meaty ribs were filled with plenty of smoke, so it should come as no surprise that brothers Jonathan and Justin Fox are originally from San Antonio and have lived in other parts of Texas before moving to Georgia. I felt like I was back on the barbecue trail, and I was happy to be fed in a manner that made me feel right at home.

Fried kimchi and bologna at Sobban.

Fried kimchi and bologna at Sobban.

For breakfast, head to the General Muir, another Beard semifinalist, which offered some amazing salt-cured lox atop a toasted bagel with a schmear of dill horseradish cream cheese. If that’s too early in the day to get fishy, then maybe latkes with applesauce or warm chocolate babka will fill the bill.

Atlanta isn’t the ideal city. Its unemployment rate remains above the national average, and the liveliness of the central city is shadowed by the near-abandonment of some outer suburbs. But there are signs of growth that show its vibrancy and determination, and the pending reintroduction of streetcars should help, especially with tourists and with the ever-increasing number of people relying on public transportation. Within that framework are chefs who are dedicated to using what grows around them. It may not be in the classic Southern style of sweet and fried, but it honors the area’s provender as well as the amazing diversity and cultures of the people who live there. Plus, the restaurants seem to have a clientele ready to be taken along for all sorts of new culinary adventures. That allows the chefs the freedom to get bolder and more creative, prompting more to be tasted. I can hardly wait to taste what they’re doing next.

Filleting a trout at Cakes & Ale.

Filleting a trout at Cakes & Ale.

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Griffin to Go: Trying One from the Recipe Files, Celery Victor

Griffin to Go: Trying One from the Recipe Files, Celery Victor

I picked up a couple of baskets of fruits and vegetables from Bountiful Baskets on Saturday. It was the first time I’d needed to use the food co-op since Bonnie and I embarked on our Texas barbecue tour, and I was surprised to find myself with two healthy stalks of celery in addition to the one I had in the refrigerator at home. So, what was I going to do with all of that celery?

Celery Victor

Celery Victor

My mind drifted to a hearty cream of celery soup, perfect for these cold days, but I couldn’t find a recipe for that treat in the first 15 cookbooks I opened, so I decided to focus on what celery recipes were there. One that immediately caught my eye was for Celery Victor, a salad of poached celery in a vinaigrette with anchovies and pimento strips crossed over each piece of rib. It was in a 1964 volume, “The Spice Cookbook” from Avanelle Day and Lillie Stuckey, which a friend of mine had recently given me while she was remodeling her kitchen and reducing her collection.

I had no idea who Victor was or why this was his dish.

Then I picked up another cookbook that I’d received from other friends when they cleaned out their collection. “The ‘Best-of-All’ Cook Book,” edited by Florence Brobeck, was released in 1960 and it, too, had a recipe for Celery Victor. Even more importantly, it was printed with the following introduction: “Here’s a world-famous salad originated by Chef Victor Hirtzler of the super St. Francis Hotel, of San Francisco. This is the recipe as given to me, and as they now serve it at the hotel.”

Who wrote that is a mystery since Brobeck took her recipes from a host of other cookbooks. She did cite “The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook” and “Helen Brown’s West Coast Cook Book,” among others, as her sources, but it’s not listed in Toklas’ book while Brown’s version does not include anchovies. Whoever wrote this recipe says you can serve it with tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs or crab. Funny, but I noticed that I had bookmarked the recipe as one I wanted to make at some point.

While the celery was poaching, I turned to Wikipedia and learned that the dish originated in 1910 and the entry also gave credit to Hirtzler, who was also the creator of Crab Louie. The recipe there, however,  included no anchovies but added romaine lettuce, which is hardly a substitute in my book.

So, for my first attempt at Celery Victor, I stuck with the recipe in “The Spice Cookbook,” which is still available on Amazon. (New copies are selling for a princely sum, but used copies are far more reasonably priced.) It seemed a little tart when paired with the tomatoes and egg by themselves. But the flavors melded into something wonderful with the anchovies and pimiento added. One taste and I could see why this had been considered a classic. It’s certainly worth a new look. I might cut back a little on the vinegar, but I will be making this one again, perhaps in a day or two with one of the remaining stalks of celery.

Celery Victor

12 ribs of crisp-tender celery
2 sprigs of parsley
1/4 cup sliced fresh carrots
1/4 cup sliced fresh onions
1 teaspoon salt
1-inch depth of boiling chicken stock in saucepan

1/2 cup white wine vinegar
1/2 cup olive or salad oil
1/4 teaspoon chervil leaves
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 (2-ounce) can long anchovy fillets
Pimiento strips

Select tender inside ribs from 2 stalks of celery. Cut hen 4 inches long, measuring from bottom of rib. Place in a saucepan with parsley, carrots, onion, 1 teaspoon salt, and hot chicken stock. Cover and cook slowly 10 minutes or until just tender. Remove celery to a shallow dish to cool.

Combine vinegar, oil, chervil, salt and pepper. Pour over the cooled celery. Refrigerate 3 to 4 hours or until serving time. Rinse anchovy fillets with water, cut each in half and arrange in 2 crosses over each rib. Garnish with pimiento strips.

Variation from “The ‘Best-of-All’ Cook Book”: Serve garnished with tomato and egg slices, or with cooked chilled crab legs.

Makes 6 servings.

“The Spice Cookbook” by Avanelle Day and Lillie Stuckey


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Griffin to Go: A Feast of Christmas Movies

Griffin to Go: A Feast of Christmas Movies

I’m a sucker for Christmas movies, especially the classic ones from the 1930s through the 1950s. Give me Nick Charles swilling martinits and shooting balloons off the Christmas tree in “The Thin Man” or Glenn Miller’s orchestra catching a sleigh ride through “Sun Valley Serenade” and I’m in back in the spirit.

Christmas in ConnecticutBut there are two films, amid evergreens such as “The Bishop’s Wife” and “Holiday Inn,” that are favorites to this food lover — and both are because of the way food is incorporated into the action.

The first is the 1945 charmer, “Christmas in Connecticut,” in which a recently returned war hero (Dennis Morgan) is rewarded for his efforts by getting to spend Christmas with a highly popular food writer (Barbara Stanwyck). The only problem is, she can’t cook.

Obviously, her publisher (Sydney Greenstreet) doesn’t know that. Instead, he recites litanies of dishes she’s written about as if he were chanting prayers. And the ecstatic look on his face as he goes over her Christmas menu, “Roast goose brunoise with walnut stuffing, celery soufflé and real old-fashioned plum pudding,” is genuinely funny. But it’s topped by the horror he exhibits when he learned his own Christmas dinner prospects, prescribed by his doctor: “Mashed prune whip, creamed turnip fluff.  He expects me to eat these barbaric atrocities! Well, I won’t.”

The food fun goes on from there to include flipping flapjacks and a small confrontation over Irish stew vs. Hungarian goulash, but I don’t want to give too much away for anyone who hasn’t seen it.  Pour yourself a cup of eggnog and enjoy every savory morsel.

(By the way, the movie was remade by Arnold Schwarzenegger with Dyan Cannon and Kris Kristofferson, but the results felt more like leftovers.)

The other Christmas movie with a smorgasbord of great lines, not to mention some wonderful food shots, is “The Ref,” a 1994 comedy starring Kevin Spacy and Judy Davis as an unhappily married couple and Dennis Leary as the jewel thief who takes them hostage on Christmas Eve.

Leary’s character is hungry, but, for some reason unexplained in the script, everything he tastes, from a Christmas fruitcake to a Scandinavian feast, tastes horrible to him.

He’s not the only one. A drunken Santa is chided by a small child for drinking Champagne instead of milk, which makes Santa mean. “Look, Santa can’t drink any more milk tonight,” he snarls at the startled kid. “Santa has a lactose intolerance. It gives him horrible gas pains. You want to see Santa farting down everyone’s chimney?”

Yes, the dialogue is raw, raunchy and downright hilarious, but not even Santa Claus getting knocked unconscious can keep the Christmas spirit from triumphing in the end.

And that’s what a great Christmas movie is about. That and maybe some of what they dine on in “The Ref”: “Roast suckling pig, fresh baked kringlors with a honey pecan dipping sauce, 7-day-old lutefisk and lamb gookins …”


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Marcella Hazan Gave Us the Best of Italian Food

Marcella Hazan Gave Us the Best of Italian Food

Marcella Hazan’s gift to American cooks cannot be overstated.

amarcordShe was at the forefront of Italian chefs and cooking instructors who helped us understand that the food of her native country was all about using the finest ingredients in simple yet imaginative ways.  One of her hallmark recipes, a tomato sauce flavored with butter and onion, also showed many homemakers that they could cook up something special in a short time and without a lot of stress. There were no expensive ingredients and you didn’t need a cooking degree. Plus, families were sure to appreciate the fresh flavor the sauce imparted.

That’s what made her celebrated “The Classic Italian Cookbook” a treasure to so many. She reminded us that cooking doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective. In an age when people have less and less time to cook at home, it’s a message that needs to be stressed more often. You’re likely to read it a lot this week, if you keep up with news that has nothing to do with the government. That’s because Hazan died Sunday at her Longboat Key, Fla., home at age 89.

Her passing has drawn numerous tributes on Twitter from celebrity chefs and home cooks alike. Giada De Laurentiis, for example, said, “Thank you for making the world more delicious. Riposare in pace.” Food blogger Angela Roberts offered her own succinct take: “Cooking from Marcella Hazan’s book is never a disappointment.”

I never got to meet Hazan when I lived in the same area of Florida, but I once assisted her son, Guiliano Hazan, in a cooking class there. He had his own take on Italian cuisine, but he kept it simple, just as she did. In fact, his “The Classic Pasta Cookbook” reflects that approach in a way that both reflected his creativity in the kitchen while his keeping to the tradition that his mother kept alive in her own classes.

classic italianTeaching the culinary traditions of Italy was important to her, even though cooking itself meant little to her in her early years. Yet she came to realize it was a way of explaining her homeland and of clearing up the misconception that everyone in Italy ate massive bowls filled with spaghetti and meatballs for dinner each night. In her memoir, “Amarcord: Marcella Remembers” (Gotham Books), Hazan described how she had to educate class after class in this:

“Why do Italians eat so much? they wanted to know. They don’t, I told them. But what about all those courses? they asked. I explained: We really don’t have that many courses; the appetizer course would be part of a special holiday meal, as would the dessert. At home, seasonal fruit usually takes the place of a baked dessert. We do have two courses, a first and a second, instead of a main course. However, we have two courses not in order to eat more but in order to eat less and more frugally. The pasta course, when it is served Italian style rather than Italian-American style, is quite small and has a minimal amount of sauce. The meat or fish in the course that follows is an expensive ingredient, but if you have a pasta or risotto or soup first, a small portion of it is sufficient. With meat, we always have a tasty vegetable, with fish, a simple salad of greens or tomatoes dressed with vinegar and olive oil. The quantities are small, but it is a more satisfying and a better-balanced way to eat.”

So, do yourself a favor and cook up this tomato sauce in tribute to Marcella Hazan. You’ll be surprised at how easy is — and hopefully it will make you seek out her cookbooks, either those that are sitting on your cookbook rack already or the ones you need to add to your collection.

Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce

2 pounds ripe tomatoes, or 3 cups canned whole peeled tomatoes with their juice
1 medium sweet yellow onion, peeled and cut in half lengthwise
5 tablespoons butter
1 1/4 teaspoons salt

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you’re using fresh tomatoes, peel them. Coarsely chop the fresh or the canned tomatoes.

Put a 4- to 5-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the tomatoes, onion halves, butter and a pinch of salt. Bring to a simmer then lower the heat. Crush the tomatoes lightly with the back of a spoon as they cook. Stir every 10 or 15 minutes. Simmer for 45 minutes or until droplets of fat appear on the surface of the tomatoes. Remove the onion. (You could discard it or use it for another purpose.)

Toss the sauce with about 1 pound of just-boiled pasta and serve it with Parmesan cheese and black pepper, if desired.

Makes  4-6 servings.

From Marcella Hazan



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Griffin to Go: Think and Drink Pink

Griffin to Go: Think and Drink Pink

Rosé comes in many shades of pink.

Rosé comes in many shades of pink.

This past Saturday brought Culinaria’s annual Rambling Rosé to Becker Vineyards in Stonewall, and for at least one day, it was all about pink.

And that’s just fine with me.

Steven Krueger unveils a bottle of rosé.

Steven Krueger unveils a bottle of rosé.

For the past nine years or so, Bonnie Walker and I have been part of the panel along with vineyard owner Richard Becker, sommelier Steven Krueger from the Westin La Cantera and selected friends of dry rosé, including wine merchant Woody De Luna, to talk about the appeal of this special style of wine while we sampled a half-dozen fine examples with two large groups of interested tasters.

Nine years ago, it seemed as if we were all speaking in some sort of vacuum. The audience was made up largely of people who only drank either red or white wine, and nothing but, and they weren’t about to change.

In the last three or four years, however, people have become more open. A good number of people in the audience now freely admit that dry rosé is part of their regular wine-drinking diet. It might be once a month or only when the temperature is over 100 degrees, which it was on Saturday. But the message that this wine is perfect for Texas is getting out.

Rosé is now the style of wine I drink most. I love the fact that you can ice it down and refresh yourself with its youthful essence. Plus, it’s a perfect food wine, whether you want a wine to go with beef fajitas with a spritz of lime or shrimp off the grill. Krueger made a good argument for having rosé with your Thanksgiving meal because it goes with so much of the meal.

You find more rosés of all price ranges, styles and even colors in the market these days, and they’re coming from all corners of the wine-growing world. Plus, they’re made with grapes as varied as Pinot Noir, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The audience enjoys sampling the wines.

The audience enjoys sampling the wines.

On Saturday, we tasted several dry Old World styles from France and from Texas with bright acid, good minerality, vibrancy and an elegance that was quite pleasing. We also tasted several New World styles with lively fruit flavors and the occasional touch of residual sugar.

The lineup featured several from France, including the 2012 Le Poussin Rosé from the Languedoc-Roussillon and the 2012 Balandran Les Mugues Rosé from Costières-de-Nîmes. The 2012 Alexander Vineyards Rosé was from Bordeaux, and it was made by Claude Alexander, who is opening a tasting room next week along the 290 wine trail that stretches from Johnson City to Fredericksburg; his other wines include a Champagne and a German Riesling, with more, including Texas wines, to come in the future.

Also in the Old World style was the host’s contribution, the 2012 Becker Vineyards Provençal from Tallent Vineyard in the Texas High Plains.

New World-style rosés included the 2012 Belle Glos Pinot Noir Blanc from the Brugioni Vineyard on California’s Sonoma Coast and the 2012 I’M Deep Rosé from Napa Valley.

All are available for about $12-$15 a bottle, and all found fans among both audiences and the panelists. In the case of the wines we sampled, the Old World-style rosés were marked by a more copperish pink, or saumon color, as the French call it, while the two New World-style had more red in them.

A "Deep" Rose

A “Deep” Rosé

It was great to hear the comments from the audience about what pleased them or whether they enjoyed a certain wine by itself or with the duck confit that chef John Brand had served. One gentleman, whom I recognized from having attended in years past, made the astute observation that the quality of all the wines has increased greatly overall. In fact, he enjoyed all six of the wines poured. High praise, indeed, and it’s also a clue as to why rosés have become more popular. After all, who doesn’t like a good bottle of wine at a reasonable price?

Another sign that some sort of cultural tide has been forded? In two panel discussions, the dreaded words “white Zinfandel” were not mentioned a single time, even in a derogatory manner. Rosé has reclaimed its position in the wine world.

If you haven’t tried any lately, what are you waiting for?

Culinaria’s next event, Restaurant Week, begins this Saturday and runs through Aug. 24. Click here for details.

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Griffin to Go: Seeking Transcendence

Griffin to Go: Seeking Transcendence

I recently visited my folks in my old hometown of Louisville, Ky., and was pleasantly surprised to learn how the city’s culinary offerings have begun to take off. For too long, the River City seemed to rely on old-fashioned Southern traditions — and little else — to feed its citizens. You still find the city’s favorite local creation, the Hot Brown, turkey and bacon slathered with a mornay sauce, not to mention the meat stew burgoo on many menus, but you can also find a more diverse array of ethnic options and a growing number of places with exciting, inventive menus.

MilkWood's seared scallops with pork belly.

MilkWood’s seared scallops with pork belly.

At the forefront of this growth is Edward Lee, James Beard Award nominee and author of the hot new cookbook, “Smoke and Pickles” Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen” (Artisan, $29.95). Sure, it capitalizes on the trend of honoring Southern cuisine, and Lee offers a host of decidedly different dishes with a dash of humor, such as his Bourbon-and-Coke Meatloaf Sandwich. But he takes it a step further by merging old favorites with a Korean touch that comes from his upbringing. (His recipe for Grilled Kalbi is below.)

I had met Lee briefly when he was in San Antonio to film “Top Chef Texas” a couple of years ago. He was serving up pickles with a bowl of chili, which isn’t traditional, to say the least, but it worked surprisingly well. His main restaurant, 610 Magnolia, was where I had dinner on prom night, though that was decades before Lee bought the place and took it to even greater culinary heights.

MilkWoodGiven all that, I was interested in seeing what he was up to on his own turf. The weekend I was there, the local paper, the Courier-Journal, ran a review of his second restaurant, MilkWood, which opened in the cellar area the Actors Theatre of Louisville. It was a homecoming of sorts, because I had spent a lot of time in that venerated theater when I was high school, as both a patron and a volunteer.

I make an early reservation, so early that I found myself nearly alone in the cool, relatively dim interior. I slid onto a comfortable banquette and slipped into Lee’s menu of “comfort bar food with an Asian pantry,” as he calls it on the theater’s website.

MilkWood's chicken and waffles.

MilkWood’s chicken and waffles.

The fun started with an umami cocktail that featured a lively blend of chartreuse and lemon with a seaweed sheet crumbled on top. The end result filled my mouth with a welcome mix of sweet-tart-salty that was great by itself but also went well with my dinner.

The parade of dishes started with a pair of Southern favorites upended in style.

Lee got chicken and waffles right by finding the right balance between sweet and spicy, which is what gave the traditional dish its appeal. It’s also where most other chefs get it wrong: They’re afraid of the heat, so they omit it, leaving an unappealing, sticky mess on the place. Lee’s version is actually more like a salad with nuggets of fried chicken sprinkled with sesame seeds before they were tossed with waffle bites and a garnish of tomatoes, cilantro and radish over a buttermilk ranch-type sauce.

At almost the same time, a plate of rock shrimp sausage and buttery Texas toast arrived. I could image this as a shrimp sandwich, only one that the chef somehow rearranged on the plate with the sausage on the outside of the plate, the bread at the center, and an Asian slaw scattered about.

I had planned on making a meal of small plates. Another contender from the menu paired smashed potatoes with something called octopus bacon, which a waiter explained to me was octopus with all the water pressed out of it and then cured like bacon. Sounded great, except I can’t have the potatoes.

MilkWood's house-made rock shrimp sausage with Texas toast

MilkWood’s house-made rock shrimp sausage with Texas toast

I was questioning my move when I heard the waiter address a group of six people who had been seated across the aisle from me. He politely explained the vegetarian options on the menu and finished by saying that the smashed potatoes could be ordered without the octopus.

I left my food bubble and noticed that several of the people sitting at the table were wearing robes. It led me to think they were recently arrived from the Dalai Lama’s appearance, which I had heard was taking place at a nearby convention center.

I didn’t give it a second thought because my plate of caramelized scallops with pork belly arrived. The fat, juicy scallops had been seared until the tops and bottoms were lightly crispy, while the salty pork belly added a fatty unctuousness of a different texture to the plate.

I looked up while enjoying it to see the man in the center of the table opposite me watching me for a moment while I ate. He was smiling at me and continued to do so for a moment until  he rejoined the conversation going on around him. I didn’t give it a second thought until I saw the front page of the next morning’s paper: That had been the Dalai Lama sitting across from me. And I hadn’t a clue.

Go figure. I was more absorbed in Lee’s culinary transcendence. It’s not the first time that’s happened. I doubt it will be the last.

Grilled Kalbi

Fans of Korean food know how good the traditional grilled short ribs, known as kalbi, can be. Edward Lee’s shares his family recipe in “Smoke and Pickles”:

“It took me forever to get this recipe from my mom. She doesn’t write down measurements, so whenever I asked for a recipe, she’d say something like, ‘Add a little bit of this and just enough of that.’ But even without a recipe, her kalbi always tastes the same, and it’s always a treat to have her make it versus eating it at a restaurant. I guess that’s just a mother’s touch. Finally, to get her recipe, I had to sit and watch her make it, taking notes as she mixed her ingredients together. Nowadays, I make this when my friends want traditional-style kalbi. And I’ve stopped using measuring cups, too. The marinade keeps well, so you can make it in advance to save time.”

smoke and pickles1 1/2 cups soy sauce
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup mirin (sweet rice wine)
1/2 cup Asian sesame oil
1 small onion, chopped
6 garlic cloves, chopped
A small knob of ginger, grated (use a microplane)
3 scallions, finely chopped
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

5 pounds bone-in English cut short ribs, cut about 1/2-inch thick (you can have your butcher do this)
Cooked white or brown rice
Napa cabbage kimchi

To make the marinade, combine the soy sauce, sugar, brown sugar, mirin, sesame oil, onion, garlic, ginger, scallions, sesame seeds and red pepper flakes in a blender and pulse to a chunky purée; you want a little texture. (The marinade can be covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days.)

Layer the short ribs in a casserole, pouring some of the marinade over each layer and making sure every rib is nicely covered. Cover and let marinate in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or for as long as overnight.

Remove the ribs from the refrigerator and let come to room temperature.

Prepare a very hot fire in a charcoal or gas grill; a quick char is what you want here.

Grill the ribs for about two minutes on each side until charred on the outside but still a touch rare in the middle. Serve with the rice and the kimchi.

Note: The grilling part of this recipe is key. You really have to watch the ribs because, depending on the thickness of the meat, it can overcook in seconds. You can broil these, if you do not have a grill, but be mindful, because the broiler can also quickly overcook them.

Makes 6 to 8 servings as a main course.

From “Smoke and Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen” by Edward Lee

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