Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Biscuit For The Ages

Once upon a time, there was a restaurant named the Dog House. The Dog House was a chain, small or large I do not know. You can probably figure out for yourself what the specialty was at the Dog House. And if you can’t, well it doesn’t matter anyway as this blog is not about the Dog House. It is about Stuart’s.

Stuart’s (complete name: Stuart’s Family Grill) is what became of the Dog House store in Roxboro, NC. Whether Stuart’s bought out the Dog House or simply moved into the space originally occupied by the Dog House is unknown by this author. It is also completely irrelevant for the rest of this writing. The fact is, Stewart’s Family Grill exists and the world is a much better place for it.

I am fairly sure Stewart’s has a varied menu filled with breakfast goodies, sandwiches and miscellaneous fried treats. I should know as I have been to Stuart’s literally hundreds of times. But I do not. The reason I do not know is because I simply don’t care. As far as I'm concerned, Stuart’s menu begins and ends with a chicken biscuit with cheese. Hot fried chicken breast meat sitting atop a buttery, crumbly biscuit with gooey melted cheese--or quite possibly cheese food--makes this the best $3.35 you will spend all week.

Now, there are several establishments in the immediate area that can lay claim to a very mean chicken & cheese biscuit.

There’s the enormous excuse for a biscuit they serve up at Time Out in Chapel Hill. The biscuit is simply a place to safely put your fingers while chomping away at steaming hot chicken with a thick slice of partially melted cheddar cheese.

Season fries and sweet tea from Bojangles can make even a bowl of cold, boiled cabbage mildly appeasing. Add in their white meat biscuit topped with a slice of barely melted American cheese (and lose the boiled cabbage) and while you won’t cure your hangover, you’ll be much happier as you deal with it.

And Hardee’s chicken fillet biscuit with cheese NEVER disappoints. Yeah. I said it.

But this blog is about Stuart’s. And what places it in the #1 spot in the World’s* Best Chicken Biscuit List, is the melted cheese. Cheese, or cheese food, is liquefied allowing it to seep into every crevice of the golden brown floury crust. With biscuits that bind together just long enough to crumble past your lips; every bite cannot help but be a tremendous one. Though it may be extremely hard to screw up a fried chicken and cheese biscuit, it’s even more difficult to produce a winner in wax paper time after time after time.

EAT MORE STUART’S!

* The world was restricted to a 60-mile radius centered around Roxboro, NC.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Soup! (There It Is)


There is little on this earth that makes me happier than swine. Be it pan-fried or slow-cooked, cured with salt or with smoke, grass-fed or fattened off the flesh of humans that “needed to be dealt with,” pork makes me happy.

What a life the pig leads. Whether on film or on the farm, we have all seen a baby piglet before. And like most babies, they are cute. Clean and un-offending they capture our hearts like any fledgling farm animal. But as the pig grows it transforms from cute and cuddly to down and outright nasty. Neither eating decaying slop nor wallowing in it's own feces is below the wretched pig. And since no being should be left to wallow in it's own filth, the pig is humanely (or not, depending on it’s behavior during the preceding months) put out of its misery and sent along to that great sty in the sky.

Now I don’t mean for you to cry for the pig. Nor do I want you to stop enjoying its flesh out of guilt. For you see the pig’s spirit lives on. The essence of the pig will be fine. So DO NOT let that weigh upon your consciousness. In fact, be happy for the carcass of said pig. You see good things are about to happen to the departed beast. For like an ugly girl at Glamour Shots, the pig undergoes yet another transformation that no one could have anticipated. From a muddy, stinky, and generally speaking waste of an animal, we get gorgeous and delectable meat fit for our consumption. From the lean tenderloin to the glorious cholesterol spiking pork belly (I would argue that the adage, ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ may not necessarily apply to the pig) the pig has an internal goodness parallel to none. The pig has died for us and we must not let its death be in vain. It should be thanked and celebrated by being cooked to perfection. Bacon should be fried up crisp and brittle while the delicious shoulder should be brined and converted to mouthwatering barbecue. Anything less would be a disservice to our late cloven hoofed friend.

So you can imagine how I felt knowing that this pretty 5lb pork shoulder, my second favorite cut of pig meat (assuming bacon and pork belly are one in the same), would not be cooked for a few hours over wood chips at 200 degrees, but rather it would be used in the most boring food type ever: soup.

I have had several exquisite bowls of soup in my day. And about once a year I actually enjoy a bowl of soup no matter how simple it may be. But generally speaking, soups are a waste of time to cook and/or eat. All soup recipes could easily look like the following:

Soup

Stuff you like, chopped
Water (and/or milk)

Mix together over heat. Season. Serve.


I mean no offense to those of you who like soups or like to make soups. You too have your place and it would be a sadder world without you all, for sure. But I am not a fan of soups. And now I was about to try a recipe that called for using a pork shoulder in soup? It felt a little blasphemous, truth be told. With knife in hand I felt an indecency, as if I was about to cheat on a longtime girlfriend. I found myself praying that god was on a coffee break with the pig’s soul and that neither would see what I was a bout to do. I finally psyched myself up and when I was sure no one was looking, I cut up my pig shoulder and dumped the 2” pieces of flesh into a pot of water and set it to simmer.

It took a moment, but I finally caught my breath and got my wits about me (it was doubly hard as the recipe called for the pot to remain uncovered while cooking and thus took away my option to not watch as the flesh danced around in the bubbling water) so I could continue with the recipe. About two hours later my soup was finished and I ladled it out into bowls (this was easier to do as I would be able to convince both god and the dead pig that this was really just lamb should either decide to show…and because I was really hungry). From the jump I was worried. This shoulder meat looked nothing like I knew shoulder meat to look. There were no stringy pieces to pull away from melted cartilage. No steaming hot slabs ready to be doused with copious amounts of Eastern Carolina style sauce. Only gray chunks of flesh floating in a sea of parsley, beans and broth. God and the pig would surely figure me out. Though it did smell heavenly, I felt nauseous. I knew some serious soul searching would indeed be in order after supper. Should I ever allow myself to buy a pork shoulder again? Or would I just ruin it too? Was this a one-time thing? Or was it a gateway technique to improperly cooking all kinds of meats? My head was spinning.

Less than enthused, I knew I must eat what I had made. After all, it was the least I could do for the ol’ porker. With my tearing eyes closed I took a bite of the soup. The broth was quite flavorful and not greasy as I was worried might happen from all the melting fat. The beans, tender despite not having been soaked. A green freshness only enhanced the flavor instead of overpowering it, as I was concerned would be the case after adding six cups of parsley. And finally the pork…more delicate and tender than any I have ever tasted! Surely this was a fluke? I tried another piece. Same result. Before I knew it I had neglected the rest of the soup and had eaten all of the pork from my bowl. It was at that moment I realized that pork in soup was not a waste of swine but rather it was the best thing to ever happen to soup! How else better to liven up a boring bowl of liquid and vegetables than by adding hunks of pig? I felt so na├»ve. But it was nothing a second bowl of “soup” wouldn’t cure.


CANNELLINI SOUP WITH PORK AND ROSEMARY
(adapted from recipe in Gourmet 12/08)
Serves 12-14

2 lbs dried white beans rinsed
5lb boneless pork shoulder trimmed and cut into 1.5” pieces
4 qt water
4 Bay leaves
2.5 tsp dried oregano
2 medium onions chopped
3 tbls garlic minced
1.5 tbls rosemary finely chopped
1.5 lbs cherry tomatoes halved
2 tbls olive oil
6 cups flat leaf parsley (from 3 bunches) very coarsely chopped
salt & pepper

Combine beans in a 4-5qt pot by 2 inches of water and bring to a boil. Boil for 2 minutes. Remove from heat and cover while preparing pork.

Bring pork and 4qt water to a boil in a 8-10 qt pot. Skim off any foam and add bay leaves and oregano. Simmer uncovered for 1-1/4 hours.

Drain beans and add to pork mixture along with onions, garlic, rosemary and one tsp each of salt and pepper. Simmer uncovered until beans are tender 45-60 minutes.

While beans cook, preheat oven to 475 degrees with rack in upper third of oven. Toss tomatoes in olive oil and spread out in a single layer on a sheet pan. Mix sugar, 1 tsp salt and 1 tsp pepper together and sprinkle over tomatoes. Roast until tomatoes begin to shrivel and caramelize on the bottom, about 35-45 minutes.

When beans are tender, remove 4 cups of beans with a slotted spoon and coarsely mash. Return mashed beans to pot along with tomatoes, 1 tsp salt and parsley. Simmer 3 minutes and serve.