Sunday, October 27, 2013

Grocery Shoppers, Stop With all the Damn Boneless Skinless Chicken Breast

My fellow middle class Americans, we need to have a serious talk about the meat you are eating. A hectic schedule has kept me away from any of the area farmer's markets for several weeks now, causing me to rely on area grocery stores for the all meats I've been cooking at home.

This isn't a rant about the very real evils of the government-subsidized agricultural industrial complex or the superior flavor and health benefits of grass-pastured meats. This is a rant about the cuts of meat available, presumably based on customer demand.

A couple weeks ago I needed shanks for making Osso Buco. I couldn't find any in the sea of 90/10 ground beef, beef fillets, ground turkey and boneless skinless chicken breasts at the fancy new Kroger at Poplar and Highland. I asked the butcher; Cow, pig or lamb; it didn't matter. I just needed crosscut shanks from a four-legged mammal to braise with vegetables in chicken stock and wine in a Dutch oven.

I ended up stopping at the Union Avenue Kroger and the Cash Saver on Madison before I finally found them at the oft-maligned Kroger at Poplar and Cleveland. Laugh and call it "Kroghetto" all you want. At least it had shanks, right alongside the oxtails and neckbones.

Today my shopping list included beef short ribs for yet another braise. The Poplar and Cleveland Kroger failed me this time. The Union Avenue Kroger only had boneless short ribs. Let me repeat that again -- boneless short ribs. Seriously, I'm starting to think the average American shopper doesn't even deserve meat anymore. Luckily Cash Saver had what I needed this time around.

The sad part is, this is mainly due to peoples' earnest but misinformed attempts to eat healthy. The American public's relationship with the food it eats has become so warped that grocery stores are full of overweight people pushing around carts full of whole-wheat breads, margarine, skim milk and boneless skinless chicken breasts. They are trying their best, eating this garbage in the mistaken belief that it will improve their health, not realizing it is the source of their problems. Even worse, many of them are also taking statin drugs to lower their cholesterol levels, never realizing the drugs are greatly increasing their future odds of cancer and Alzheimer's disease while doing nothing to reduce their risk of heart disease.

Unlike whole grains and vegetable oils, which are total junk foods, there is nothing wrong with a boneless skinless chicken breast. You should be eating the entire animal. After you roast a whole chicken and eat the most delicious parts like the legs, thighs, and wings while saving the leftover skin and bones for making stock you will be left with plenty of breast meat that is great for making soups and chicken salad.

But a lot of people are trying to subsist on bland cuts like the boneless skinless chicken breast out of needless fear of animal fats. Or worse, some bizarre phobia of meat that looks like meat keeping them from enjoying the healthy culinary wonders of meat on the bone, much less delightful cuts like tongue and heart.

The real food movement should be about eating real food. Yuppies buying ultra-high-priced steaks, chicken breasts and artisan breads at the farmer's markets are missing the point entirely. There is real food at the supermarket. But while the general rule is to stick to the outer walls where the least processed products like fresh produce and meat are found, even the outer edges contain foods that reflect the confusion the food industry has created in the public mind with its misuse of the word "healthy."

This is a product called "fat free cream cheese." It is on the shelves next to the real thing. Obviously there is no way to make actual fat free cream cheese, since cream cheese IS fat. The only way a consumer would buy this chemical-laden imitation is if they were hoodwinked into thinking it was somehow superior to natural dairy fat.

Winter is coming. If your diet has been dominated by boneless skinless chicken breast now is the perfect time to roast a chicken, make stock with the leftovers, and break out the Crock Pot to start exploring all the fatty cuts of meat on the bone you've been missing.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Hustle and Grind - Memphis

In other parts of the country people have careers and people have hobbies. In Memphis people have hustles, and true Memphians generally have more than one. When I'm not riding around town wholesaling automotive parts I sometimes sell comic books on ebay. And of course there is the barbecue blog and my work building custom classic cars, although I haven't quite figured out how to make a profitable hustle out of either of those yet.

While peddling parts a few weeks ago I noticed a grill in front of Goldie's Hand Car Wash on S. Third just north of Shelby Drive. So I swung by to ask if there was any barbecue for sale. Asking someone if they are selling barbecue just because you see a barrel cooker set up in front of a business is probably uniquely Memphis as well. I've had some good barbecue doing that around here, and never had anyone act surprised I was asking. But Goldie told me he didn't have any barbecue that day. Besides cooking and detailing cars he has another side hustle selling and installing carpet, and that hustle had kept him busy all morning so he didn't get any food on the grill.

He told me to stop back by the next time I was in the neighborhood and sure enough, a couple weeks later I noticed him standing in a cloud of smoke tending the cooker.

He had chicken wings, steaks, spare ribs and baby back ribs all cooking in a cloud of smoke.

Grilled over direct heat, the ribs weren't technically barbecue. They were flavorfully seasoned, tender and juicy, so they were skillfully grilled and I happily devoured half a slab while Goldie and a friend sat at a table next to mine chatting with me while playing dominoes. 

I know I've been pretty harsh towards the Rendezvous for serving chargrilled ribs. At the Rendezvous there is usually a long wait for relatively pricey ribs that are frequently touted as the best Memphis has to offer. So I feel perfectly fine with criticizing the ribs I had there while saying I enjoyed the $7 grilled half-slab I ate in a lawn chair next to a card table at Goldie's car detail place while sitting in the shade next to his front bay door.

The next day I was in Raleigh when I noticed a man in an American flag apron posted up across the street from the Raleigh Springs Mall listening to soul music and enjoying a tallboy of beer while hawking hot tamales from under a tent in the middle of a rainstorm. So naturally I immediately turned around to buy some. They ended up being appropriately spicy, packed with Angus beef and delicious.

Being a Memphian means having a hustle. The term hustle in Memphis doesn't automatically imply anything shady or underhanded the way it does in other areas. Here your hustle is what you do when you are out on your grind. And if you want to make it, you grind hard while you hustle. Hustle and grind are both nouns. Hustle and grind are both verbs. And hustle and grind are as much of a part of our way of life as ribs and Delta-style hot tamales.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Overrated But Improved - The Cupboard

Before Monday it had been years, possibly a decade, since I had eaten at the Cupboard on Union. The restaurant draws big crowds of loyal customers, but I hadn't been able to understand why. When I mentioned that in a recent post about the Commercial Appeal's Memphis Most poll, where the Cupboard was voted Best Vegetarian, I had a couple of readers comment that I needed to give it another chance and that the quality of the food there had improved dramatically over the past couple years.

After all, if I'm bashing a place I haven't been in that long I'm like the wilfully ignorant local know-nothings who say things like, "Downtown Memphis is a cesspool. I haven't been there in 15 years and I'm never going back," thus ignoring the steady revitalization Downtown has experienced.

So on Monday I stopped back in and tried the onion-topped hamburger steak with turnip greens, baked sweet potato and fried green tomatoes. I specifically ordered the fried green tomatoes because I remembered them being particularly awful in the past.

While waiting on my food my server brought me a big basket full of little bite-sized cornbread muffins. The one I sampled was good, but i wasn't looking to fill up on empty cornmeal calories so I stopped with that one.

When my order came out I could tell the fried green tomatoes had undergone a serious improvement as soon as I saw them. The ones I remembered in the past had a thick, flavorless shell of breading on them. These had a nice light, crispy coating of flavorful cornmeal batter. The juicy hamburger steak also packed plenty of exceptional flavor.

I was happy to see the baked sweet potato on the menu since so many country cooking and soul food restaurants serve candied sweet potatoes that are swimming in sugary syrup. Unfortunately there was no butter at the table, just packets of "Fresh Buttery Taste Spread" full of artery-frying vegetable oils. I asked the server if I could get any actual butter but she said the restaurant didn't have any. I don't know which is more tragic, a country cooking kitchen with no butter in it or the fact that so many customers would probably willingly choose rancid-tasting margarines over real butter out of the deluded belief that it is healthier. That isn't a specific complaint about the Cupboard. Vegetable oil is a plague in kitchens throughout the U.S. Butter rant aside, the sweet potato was great, as expected. We cook a lot of baked sweet potatoes at home since it is easy and foolproof.

The turnip greens were fairly lacking in flavor. Even with a healthy dose of Bruce's Green Hot Sauce they still didn't have any punch to them. I know that the Cupboard doesn't use animal fat in its vegetables, but that doesn't mean the greens can't be well-seasoned. Peggy's, which is around the corner from the upboard on Cleveland, and At the Bistro on Brooks both serve completely vegetarian vegetables that are still expertly seasoned.

The Cupboard has definitely improved, and I wouldn't mind visiting again in the future if someone else insisted. But I would still try to talk whoever was insisting into going around the corner to Peggy's. In the Memphis Flyer's recent Best of Memphis Poll the Cupboard came in second place behind Soulfish in the Best Southern/Soul Food category. Every year I have to write in the Four Way in South Memphis for that category, since it never even gets mentioned. Two days before my recent visit to the Cupboard I took an out-of-town friend to the Stax Museum, so we naturally stopped for dinner at the Four Way after our visit. So if my opinion of the Cupboard seems overly dismissive keep in mind I'd had truly exceptional soul food two days prior as a point of comparison.

I think a lot of praise for the Cupboard's is similar to the praise you hear for the Rendezvous. It is coming from people who haven't tried much of the competition.

Cupboard on Urbanspoon

Friday, October 4, 2013

A Green Oasis at Brooks and Airways - Trees by Touliatos

Blight is normally a slow process, as an empty property slowly succumbs to the forces of time and nature. Maintaining any man-made structure or environment is a battle against entropy, and there is always a certain sad beauty to decay as the earth reclaims a part of itself.

Trees by Touliatos was a sprawling 20-acre plant nursery on Brooks Road next to Airways with an impressive assortment of water plants and fountains that made it seem like a perfect oasis in the desert of crumbling concrete that generally defines the area around the Memphis International Airport. The business has only been closed for two years, but as I was driving past yesterday I noticed how quickly nature was reclaiming the property.

I parked and began poking around the property, photographing the stunning speed of plant life overtaking a property that was inherently designed to nurture plant life. This post isn't being critical of the Touliatos family in any way, shape or form. The business owners spent decades operating a vibrant enterprise in an unlikely location that stayed successful long after blight had already come to define most of the surrounding area. And the son of the company's retired founders is still doing landscape design work in the Memphis area.

There isn't any barbecue in this post, but beyond the food a bigger focus of this blog is to expose readers to parts of the city they may be unfamiliar with. After some time walking around the old Trees by Touliatos grounds I decided the images I captured were worth sharing. Whenever you hear people reference "the end of the world" they actually mean an end of humanity. Nature is always quietly waiting to quickly reclaim any areas we leave behind.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

A Reborn Pit in Atoka - Paradise Grill

I was driving through Atoka on my way to Brighton, TN, last week when I noticed the former Post Office Barbecue building had reopened as a place calling itself the Paradise Grill. The name made me assume the restaurant specialized in grilled seafood and steaks, but I stopped to to ask for a menu to see if barbecue was available as well. If the building still had the pit used to produce the incredible pulled pork that was served up by Post Office it made sense to wonder if the new restaurant was putting it to use.  

After a quick look at the menu I immediately asked for a table. Paradise Pit Barbecue would be a better name for the restaurant, which is run by members of the Paradise Porkers barbecue team. There seems to be a recent trend of barbecue teams opening restaurants. I've been extremely impressed by the barbecue at the recently-opened Ty's Bar-B-Que in the Wolfchase area. And I was already somewhat familiar with the Paradise Porkers, having hazy memories of ending up drinking and singing along with Jimmy Buffett tunes in the team's tent late one night during this year's Memphis in May barbecue contest.

The walls are decorated with some of the trophies the team has picked up on the competition barbecue circuit. The fake parrot is a pretty good indicator of the type of decor exhibited throughout the restaurant. Some people will love it, some people will hate it. I've never worried too much about design aesthetics in barbecue joints as long as the food is good.

I asked about the ribs on the menu but my server told me they are served wet so I opted for the pulled pork plate instead. The meat had a great mix of textures from the inner and outer sections of the shoulder with plenty of delicious bark and a nice, deep smoke ring. The baked beans were loaded with smoked pork to a nearly 50/50 ratio of meat to beans while the slaw was a solid example the vinegar-based style I prefer.

The pulled pork was served unsauced and good enough to be eaten that way. There were bold and sweet varieties of barbecue sauce located at the table, sitting on a paper towel roll beneath a fake window framing a large photograph of an ocean setting. The fake window views are arranged next to tables throughout the restaurant. Once again, you won't find any subtlety in the restaurant's theme. I'm not a fan of sweet barbecue sauces so I tried the bold and it ended up being good enough for me to apply a relatively generous, by my standards, amount to my meat.

The pulled pork at the old Post Office Barbecue packed in some impressive smoke penetration so I was happy to see the building, and its barbecue pit, back in use*. The term "competition barbecue" gets thrown around so much in restaurant advertising that it is as meaningless as seeing "real pit" or "hickory" in a restaurant's name. But the pulled pork at Paradise Grill was genuinely good enough to compete with some of the best I've tried.

In other barbecue related news from the same day I tried Paradise Grill: As I was traveling up Highway 51 I noticed some major work being done on the Barb-A-Rosa's B-B-Q building. Barb-A-Rosa's closed a few months ago. I pulled into the parking lot to ask one of the workers if the building was being demolished or renovated since it was impossible to tell at the time. He said they were doing renovation work and planned to have the place reopened in a few weeks. While I've been pretty underwhelmed by the barbecue at Barb-A-Rosa's in the past the staff has always been very friendly so I'll gladly give the refurbished restaurant another chance when it reopens.

*UPDATE: I assumed that the Paradise Grill was using the same barbecue pit that Post Office used when it was at the same location. It turns out I was wrong. During a return visit I spent some time talking to owner Mike Godwin. The owner of Post Office kept his smoker when he closed the restaurant. Godwin cooks his barbecue behind the restaurant in the same Cadillac Cooker rig that he used for competition with the Paradise Porkers. All his cooking is done with lump charcoal and cherry wood and he doesn't split the cherry logs until right before they go into the cooker's firebox in order to get as much flavor from them as possible.

The Paradise Grill on Urbanspoon