Archive for December, 2007

Cornhusker Club: Oxford, NE

Saturday, December 29th, 2007

Don’t go to the Cornhusker Club expecting chandeliers, maitres d’, or even a printed wine list. Do, however, expect warm mid-western hospitality and a tasty meal, though it may not include anything I ate as the menu changes daily.

The restaurant is somewhat tough to find, down a country road into Oxford, Nebraska (pop. 876). It has a bit of the feel of a church social hall or the basement of the Elks club that has been dressed up for a fancy occasion (tablecloths and cloth napkins accompany the orange upholstered bingo hall chairs),but when combined with the hearty welcome of Cornhusker Club owner Gary Barile, this somehow works to create cozy charm. The day’s menu is written on several white boards posted on easels, one of which will be placed by your table as you arrive so that you can see what the day’s options are: a creative, paper-wasteless way to offer an array of dining options throughout the week.


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This is the NEW Cornhusker Club, as the restaurant’s business card proclaims. Ask Mr. Barile what brought him and his New Orleanian chef Carlos to rural Nebraska and he may quip, “Witness protection,” but he’ll follow up quickly with a tale about Carlos being displaced to Mobile by Hurrican Katrina, where he worked in a restaurant called La Pizzeria. “We used to do some catering down there, and we got to know Carlos that way,” he explains. Then, some friends offered him the chance to buy a house in Oxford Nebraska. “We saw a business opportunity in the restaurant, so we bought it, too, and after that it was a done deal.” They lured Carlos from Mobile with the opportunity to set his own menus and cook his style of food, and they’ve been in operation since Father’s Day of this year.

This is not straight New Orleans cooking; it’s more of a creole-corhusker fusion (think 12-ounce ribeye served over jambalaya and topped with shrimp creole; the jambalaya features shrimp, chicken, and kielbasa). For being housed in such a small, rural setting, though, it’s surprising (to me anyway) to find food that draws from such a wide range of influences. They make their own, tasty rolls in house every day. Many of the dishes are served in baskets formed from deep-fried flatbreads. The authenticity of the New Orleans-inspired dishes is unquestionable.

As I am wont to do, I wore a jacket and tie to the restaurant. As it turns out, I had something in common with the Caesar salad: we were both overdressed. Several of the diners were sporting baseball caps and/or sweatshirts; the romaine lettuce leaves were wet with a thick layer of tangy sauce.

The shrimp napoleon appetizer was outstanding, though: an artfully arrayed stack of puff pastry accompanied by several shrimp cooked just right: neither under nor over done and dressed with a succulently spicy bernaise.

Mr. Barile prompted us to also order the deep fried farfalle pasta, promising us that if we didn’t enjoy it, he’d buy it for us. I’ve never heard of deep-fried pasta before, but I was pleasantly surprised. Cooked pasta was breaded and fried and the result was very hearty; it would make a great vegetarian substitute for chicken nuggets. I was somewhat disapointed by the salmon-white cheese sauce that accompanied the pasta. The cheese flavor was a bit strong for the salmon, and the pedigree of the cheese was uncertain. The sharp flavor suggested some cheddar; though Aurora thinks she detected some velveeta-like consistency, a claim that I believe may hold some water based on the fact that there was no oily film atop the sauce. The sauce having been listed only as “white cheese salmon sauce” on the menu provides no evidence either way. As a whole, though, the pasta with the cheese sauce was an enjoyable appetizer.

The entrees were tasty and well-prepared. My ribeye was cooked to a perfect medium rare; and though I am not a huge fan of kielbasa, I did like the jambalaya that the steak was served atop. Aurora’s seafood-stuffed deep fried catfish was tasty, though it’s uncertain what seafood was in the stuffing. My inkling is that the seafood stuffing was composed of scraps leftover from trimming other fish; perhaps some crab meat; and a healthy portion of bread crumbs. It worked well with the fish and if it is a method of using seafood scraps, it’s a great way to make use of what some less disciplined chefs would allow to go out in the trash.

The grilled blackened salmon was grilled, not blackened, and not as spicy as we would have expected. It was also cooked a bit more done than I prefer my salmon; I think salmon ought to be served cooked to a medium doneness. The gentleman ordering the salmon is among those who prefer their salmon more done than that, though; so I expect that he had no issues with its being well-done.

Other diners in our party enjoyed the shrimp creole served atop the jambalaya (my entree minus the steak). The several variations on the theme of jambalaya and shrimp creole on the menu provided for a range of options depending on one’s appetite and tastes; plus allows the kitchen to get three entrees out of two preparations (jambalaya alone; with creole; or with steak and creole). I wish more restaurants would think in terms of menus for a day or for a week rather than for a season or a year. It allows the kitchen to be more flexible in their ordering, thereby achieving (with any skill) a lower food cost and more seasonally-inspired dishes.

The portions were generous and our party was too full to sample any of the desserts. I hope to return to the Cornhusker Club on my next trip to Nebraska so that I can find out if their pastry creations are as skillfully prepared as the rest of their menu.

Rating: 3 Oranges (Though as compared to other dining experiences I’ve had in other low-population rural areas, this definitely ranks somewhere between 3 1/2 to 3 3/4 oranges as compared with other restaurants in similar locales–a cut above your average country road dining experience).

Solution to the Barbecue Dilemma

Wednesday, December 26th, 2007

I’m visiting my wife’s family for the holidays and we went out today for a look-see at the town where they live, including a stop at a local Kansas City-style barbecue joint for lunch. I’ve written before about my qualm with KC barbecue:

when I go to a restaurant, I like when they prepare my food for me, and that includes tossing the shredded meat with the sauce to evenly coat it. They’ve got the advantage of having large bowls in which they can toss the meat, whereas when they give it to you to dress yourself, you’re stuck having to pour it over the top–whereby half the meat gets loads of sauce and the other half is still nude.

Faced with the same dilemma today, I sprung into action, removing the barbecue from the bun onto the plate and setting the bun aside. Then, using my knife and spoon I tossed my pulled pork with the sauce of my choosing until it was evenly coated and reddish in hue, then returned it to the bun and covered it with an even layer of cole slaw. While I’d still prefer that barbecue places ask you which sauce you’d like and then coat your order with it, at least now I’m equipped with an adequate solution to the dilemma of the undressed meat.

Santa Sick; Warm Milk and Dirty Hands Implicated

Tuesday, December 25th, 2007

Public health authorities this morning have announced that Santa Claus, beloved semi-anonymous benefactor of millions of children, has fallen ill. Epidemiologists are focusing on milk left at room temperature and cookies left by children who failed to wash their hands as the likely culprits.

Mrs. Claus, reached via satellite phone at the North Pole, said, “I’ve been warning [Santa] for years not to eat all of the cookies and drink all of the milk left for him by all of the children all over the world, but he enjoys those treats so much, he just won’t listen to me.”

Santa, a rotund man of indeterminate age, may have been more susceptible to the pathogens as a result of being elderly and sleep-deprived. While December has always been a tough month for the jolly old elf, sources report that the past decade has been particularly tough. One elf, who spoke with reporters under the condition that he not be named said, “Kids today want much more than they used to. Whereas we used to be able to satisfy most demands via woodworking and occasional metallurgy, the modern child wants electronics. So we elves have been working around the clock for most of the year to fill orders for MP-3 players, cell phones, and the ilk. Santa’s been putting in his share of hours, too. I don’t know if he’s slept twelve hours over the past three weeks. I know I haven’t.”

Anita Andomyorussa, MD, the doctor overseeing Santa’s care, is quick to assure parents and children that leaving treats for Santa is still a goood thing to do, and that Santa highly prefers homemade cookies over store-bought. “Santa loves the care and attention that go into making Christmas cookies,” she said, “and from a gustatory standpoint he prefers cookies made with butter over those made with margarine. However,” she continued, “I highly advise that children wash their hands before putting out any treats for Santa. Also, as children’s bedtimes usually fall well before Santa arrives at people’s houses, it’s best if any milk left for Mr. Claus is cooled in a bowl of ice so that it stays within the safe holding range of under 45 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Santa, who is recuperating in an undisclosed location due to fears that revealing his whereabouts will unleash a flood of paparazzi and pilgrims upon the understaffed hospital that is overseeing Mr. Claus’s medical treatment, is said to have a good prognosis and is expected to fully recover.

2 Presentations of One Dish

Thursday, December 20th, 2007

This was a tasty dinner that Aurora and I had last week: butternut squash with chorizo and apples.  It was one of those throw-it-together dinners that worked so well I should’ve been taking notes as I went along except that would have distracted me from my cooking. Maybe I should get a mini recorder and keep a verbal reckoning of what I do, but that’s just me thinking with my fingers.

I started out with a tube of chorizo sausage and some butternut squash and a cast iron pan heating slowly over a low flame.  I diced the squash as the pan heated up.

Once that was done, I browned the sausage in a cast iron pan, breaking it up as it cooked with a wooden spoon.  Because the squash didn’t need my complete and total attention, I used the scraps of it that remained to get some rice started cooking: 2 cups of rice with 4 cups of water and some salt into a pan, bring the water to a boil.
When the sausage had just about fully cooked, I added in my diced squash with a sprinkle of ginger and some cinnamon.  I stirred it all together with the squash and then set about dicing my onion.  When I had the onion cut, I tossed it in the pan and stirred it around with everything else.  The rice water’s boiling so I turn the heat down and put a lid on it.  Bag says 20 minutes but I always set my clock for less time—it’s better to turn the heat off before the rice absorbs all the moisture and let it coast to the end—it’s an easy way to avoid the rice crust at the bottom of the pan.
I ran down to the basement to poke around my apples.  It’s been cool enough down there that they’re all keeping pretty well, so I just grabbed a couple at random without noting what they were.  If you’ve got a cellar where you can keep them, though, I encourage you to buy a supply from an orchard close to you in late October/ early November and house them into the cooler winter months so you have some of fall’s flavor to coax you through the winter months.  I decided not to peel the apples; they wouldn’t be cooking long.  I cut and cored them and added them into the cast iron.

The rice timer goes off, so I crack the lid and check the consistency—close enough to let it coast; I put the lid back on as soon as possible.  I stir the squashage applion mixture with teh wooden spoon–the apples seem cooked but not yet mushy, so I serve it.

Aurora decides to try her own presentation.

Both plates are attractive and we had a fun meal.

It’s Never too Early to Plan your Summer Meals

Monday, December 17th, 2007

If you’re an avid gardener, you already know that the time to start your seeds indoors is fast approaching (only 3 months away). If you’re not (or, if like me, you really like having your own garden even though you can’t seem to quite make the leap from sticking plants in the ground and hoping for the best to tending them and achieving the best possible results from your efforts), you still might be interested in trying to start your own plants from seed this year. My friend Samantha sent me a link to a great website that has seeds for a variety of heirloom varieties of many types of plants:

I just got a catalog from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds out of Mansfield, Missouri, which you might be interested in. It is really neat with both ‘old time’, and oddly colored varieties of tomatoes(purple, yellow, white, orange, striped… imagine a tomato-based “white sauce”!), melons, carrots, etc. They also sell a number of Thai/Asian collected fruits and veggies that I’ve never really seen. Check out the site: http://rareseeds.com/seeds/ You might find something you like! Enjoy!

So, best of luck as you wile away the cold winter months with thoughts of the plants you can grow next summer.

Thai Style Steamed Fish

Wednesday, December 12th, 2007

Inspired by a dish I watched chef Norraset Nareedokmai of Silk Elephant and Bangkok Balcony cook (research for an article I wrote for Table Magazine), I decided to try to steam a whole fish in a savory sauce. While I didn’t achieve quite the same quality of results that Nareedokmai achieved with ease, I had fun in my attempt and it came out well, even if I did hit a few bumps along the way. I’ve documented my effort so you can repeat the experiment. Though once you’ve done so, I’d definitely recommend visiting one of Nareedokmai’s restaurant and trying some of his authentic Thai cuisine.

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Chocolate Chip Cookie Hints/ Reader Poll

Friday, December 7th, 2007

I just made a batch of cookies last night, and so was reminded of the many variations on the theme that are possible.  And, as it’s getting to be cookie baking time of year again, I thought I’d share a couple of my favorites.

  • The type of sugar you use is negotiable.  The recipe on the back of the chocolate chips calls for 1/2 granulated and 1/2 brown, but as long as you keep your total sugar to the guidelines (1 1/2 cups per batch of cookies or thereabouts), you can use dark brown, light brown, turbinado, maple sugar, or whatever else you enjoy.
  • Add finely grated orange zest into the mix.  If you happen to have a microplane zester, it’s very easy to get the zest from the orange.  Otherwise, try putting some plastic wrap over the thing on the side of your cheese grater, so that it comes between the grater and the orange.  It’ll catch the zest and make it a lot easier for you to gather it.  The zest of one orange is about right for one batch of cookies.
  • Don’t feel obligated to use vanilla extract for the ‘vanilla extract’ slot on the recipe.  Switch it up by adding the equivalent amount of your favorite liqueur.
  • Add some spices.  Cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg all work well with most desserts, including chocolate chip cookies.  If you’re feeling spicy, add a little bit of chili powder–but not too much.  You want it to serve as an accent in the background, not the defining taste of the cookie.
  • Switch it up a bit with the nuts.  I used cashews in the batch that I made last night, and they are tasty!
  • Quick oats are another great inclusion for cookies.  Use about a cup of quick oats for one batch of cookies.
  • I’ve heard that some people add coconut to their cookies.  That’s not really my thing, but if you like coconut, give it a shot and you’ll probably enjoy it.
  • Aurora says that she’s heard of people putting sunflower seeds or dried cranberries in their cookies.  These aren’t variations I’m familiar with, but they sound like they might be interesting.

How do you usually make your cookies?  Let me know what you do differently than the recipe says and I’ll put together a bar graph that charts the popularity of any particular twist on the old favorite.

Plantain Chips Found!

Saturday, December 1st, 2007

Talk about instant gratification. I went shopping in the Strip District this morning and at Reyna Foods (corner of 21st and Smallman) I found Goya brand Plantain chips in three different sizes. I haven’t cracked my bag open yet, so I can’t vouch for their quality vs. the Lays Colombian type, but with only three ingredients in the snack, I anticipate that they will be quite similar. So, if you’re living in the ‘burgh, it’s quite easy to try this snack. If you’re living elsewhere, you should consider moving here because it’s a great city; but short of that, Goya is widely available, so I’d expect that you could find plantain chips in virtually any Latin American market.