MARCH GLADNESS: PEANUTS’ MONTH IN THE LIMELIGHT

I won’t let March get away from us without recognizing National Peanut Month.

On one level this might seem trivial, but if any legume deserves a month in a spotlight, it is the peanut. Roasted, salted, unsalted or mashed, the peanut is versatile, tasty and healthy (relatively speaking, anyway). Plus in its buttered form, the peanut is half of that all-American treat and frequent school lunch centerpiece: the humble peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

As someone who has given a lot of thought to school lunches, you can never forget about those brown-baggers; the kids who weren’t picking up what the lunch ladies were laying down. Now, I don’t know how many kids brought PB&J back in the early days. But, nowadays the average child will eat 1,500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before graduating high school (according to the National Peanut Board). Not bad for a sandwich that began to pick up steam only after World War II. (Remember: prepackaged sliced bread, an integral part of PB&J land, wasn’t widely available until the 1920s.)

All natural, small-batch peanut butter is readily available at Gateway Market.

A truly great PB&J sandwich needs great ingredients. When I’m taking visitors around Gateway Market and they ask for some of my favorite items, I always stop at the aisle with the peanut butter, jams and jellies. We have some truly outstanding natural peanut butters at Gateway. My favorite is made with two ingredients: Virginia peanuts and sea salt. Called “Cream-Nut” and made by the Koeze Company of Grand Rapids, MI., this peanut butter has a straight-up, powerful peanut taste (the way real peanut butter should).

You know how much I love history. Well, the Koeze Company was founded in 1910, which is only seven years after the peanut-butter making machine was patented by a doctor in St. Louis. Koeze Company’s Cream-Nut comes in smooth and crunchy, but be warned: because the company is made with old-school machinery, the smooth does have a grainy texture to it. So this would not be the peanut butter for you if you like peanut butter silky smooth. While that old-school manufacturing offers a classic taste, it isn’t made to pump out today’s industrial volumes of peanut butter. Back in 2008, Gourmet Magazine reported that Koeze Company produced about 100,000 jars a year, compared to Jif (under the Smuckers umbrella) which rolls out about 125,000 jars every day.

This is all you need for a simple, straight-forward PB&J.

This might be the ultimate peanut butter for a simple, straight-forward PB&J sandwich. You can use your favorite bread, but if you really want to go old-school try using South Union Bakery’s Pullman White bread. We use a recipe from the early 1900s for this bread.

Almost everyone will have his or her own PB&J style, so I won’t go into a lot of detail here. What I will say is that if you’re going to spring for an upscale peanut butter, you might as well marry that peanut butter with a top shelf jam or jelly. Gateway Market has an extensive selection of outstanding jams and jellies, including locally-made, small-batch preserves from Clear Creek Orchard in Collins, IA. One thing I would recommend, unless there’s no tearing you away for soft bread, is lightly toasting the Pullman bread. It will give your PB&J a chewy-crunchy texture.

Lightly toasting the bread adds a chewy-crunchy texture to a PB&J.

When it comes right down to it, it’s hard to beat old-fashioned comfort food and fond memories of school lunches; let’s all toast National Peanut Month this week with a classic PB&J!

WHAT MAKES A GREAT RESTAURANT

I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes for a great restaurant. Everyone has opinions and criteria – to some, the best restaurants focus on highbrow dishes and complicated preparations. To others, the best restaurants are places where you can surround yourself with friends, pull up a stool and dig into some classic comfort food just like mom used to make. And some people will swoon over any place that has a line out the door!

We’re all guilty of hyperbole. We often say things like “this pizza is the best ever,” or “that place is the worst place on earth!” While it can be an exaggeration, “best ever” could mean “that place is at the top of its game right now and I really enjoy it!” For me, “best” means my favorite, and it comes down to a solid and successful execution of a concept. This is not to be confused with the restaurant that offers a most exceptional dining experience, which can often be one-time, “been there done that” places. But I’ll revisit my favorite places again and again.

If a restaurant is trying to be a snooty, all-attitude French place and does it with full-fledged snobbery and the food is exactly as advertised, then that makes it a good place. If they say that filet is cooked sous vide (a method of cooking in an air-tight bag), and it’s moist with sauces that work with the dish, then that makes a great place (but just because you cook sous vide doesn’t give you an automatic gold star in my book!).

But if service is subpar, the filet is under seasoned and dry, the sauce is broken or separated, that is a failure. That’s not to say the place can’t be great – every restaurant stumbles now and again. Bring it to the attention of the chef or manager. If they do all they can to fix the situation, that’s one of the signs of a great restaurant.

But even a more “humble” joint can achieve similar greatness. If a local deli sets out to make the best pastrami sandwich, using old world style, slow-cured, well-marbled, moist pastrami served on great bread, and it is delivered with exceptional service, then that deli is definitely a great restaurant. If you throw in that it’s been open for a hundred years, that’s the cherry on top (I’m a sucker for history)!

For example, I recently visited the Crouse Cafe in Indianola. I had an old-school, down-home roast beef sandwich. No frills, no “new world” techniques, but a perfect example of comfort food at its best: tasty roast beef, fresh sliced white bread and home style mashed potatoes that your grandmother would approve of, all topped with a rich beef gravy that was so good I was wondering if they sold it by the gallon! I finished it off with a coconut cream pie as good as any I’ve ever had. Service was brisk, friendly and helpful. Bottom line: as soon as I left the restaurant, I was looking at my schedule to see when I could return and honestly I haven’t stopped thinking of it since!

 

A perfect hot roast beef sandwich from Indianola’s Crouse Cafe.

I’m never one to say one style of food is better than another. How could you say deep dish pizza is inherently better than thin crust? A smashed, crusted burger or a thick, juicy burger? Mention “the best BBQ,” and you can get 10 different opinions from 10 different people. These things are a matter of taste.

At the risk of repeating myself a little (from my recent blog about Zombie Burger), I will briefly touch on the criteria that I believe has to be in place for a restaurant to be in the running for my own personal “best” list.

The restaurant must:

  • Honor the basics while being creative and experimenting. In other words take chances here and there for the sake of taste or flavor.
  • Offer a diverse menu. No, that doesn’t mean hundreds of menu items. But offer some options. (One thing I’m especially proud of about Zombie Burger + Drink Lab is that we offer more non-beef options than beef.)
  • Focus on service. The front of the house has to be solid. The wait staff has to care about customer satisfaction.
  • Commit to quality. Ingredients need to be specifically selected for the unique characteristics they bring to a specific dish. The preparation has to be well-thought out.

The bottom line: Personally, if you tell me we’re going to a little shack that presses its own corn tortillas or spot where the pho broth has been cooking for days, I’ll get pretty excited. If you tell me we’re going somewhere with the best foie gras ice cream… not so much.

But like I always tell my chefs, “I want our customers to be thinking of these lobster tortellini when they’re putting on their shoes in the morning!” Regardless of size or stature, if I’m still remembering the restaurant I visited a day or two ago (or I can’t stop thinking about that one place where I plan to dine tonight) that restaurant is a nominee to my “best” list.

BETTER-THAN-A-DINER CORNED BEEF

It’s that time of year. You feel obligated to celebrate the holiday in one way or another. If downing gallons of green beer or donning green from head to toe isn’t your thing, you might be inclined to indulge in a little corned beef action that will make you feel as though you’ve got the luck of the Irish.

Before we get into today’s recipes, here’s some thoughts about corned beef and cabbage. The dish is associated with St. Patrick’s Day – but only in the United States. Don’t expect to see corned beef and cabbage on a menu in Ireland, unless you’re in Killarney or some other touristy place – the preferred way to serve cabbage in Ireland is with pork or bacon. More than anything, corned beef and cabbage emerged from the descendants of the Irish immigrants who came to the US in the mid-1800s. Corned beef was more affordable than pork in the late 19th-century, which is why it ended up getting served with cabbage.

Sad to say, but when corned beef and cabbage gets slammed out, it  is not that exciting to me. But when prepared with great ingredients and attentions to detail, the dish can be a treat. In keeping with the season, Gateway Market is offering a three-day corned beef and cabbage special (Friday, Mar. 15 through Sunday, Mar. 17) available in the cafe and from the hot case. Our kitchen is using Angus corned beef, which makes this Gateway special something worth checking out. Don’t miss this one!

Corned beef can do a lot more than dress up cabbage. I have some suggestions on the best way to prepare your corned beef not only for St. Patty’s Day, but any time you want to create those diner classics at home.

A well-made Reuben Sandwich can be great any time of year.

Toasted Reuben Sandwich

To make my version of the classic Reuben, we’ve got to start with an uncooked Boyle’s corned beef (a better-than-average corned beef available at Gateway Market).

The best way to prepare corned beef is covered in an oven at 275 degrees.

Ingredients

  • 1 3-to-4 pound corned beef
  • Water for braising
  • Butter for bread slices
  • South Union Bakery Jewish Rye Bread
  • Enough slices of Swiss cheese for your sandwiches (two slices per sandwich)
  • Sauerkraut (about a half cup per sandwich)
  • 1 tablespoon or so (per sandwich) of Thousand Island dressing

This corned beef blasts your drab diner variety out of the water.

Preparation

Preheat your oven to 275 degrees. Place corned beef with enough liquid to cover the meat in a cast iron Dutch oven with a cover.

Cover and bake for about 3 and 1/2 to 4 hours. Most important, you want to reach an internal temperature of 205 to 210. Hold uncut corned beef in the cooking liquid to cool.

(If I am slicing Katz Deli style, I roast to 205 degrees; for hash I roast to 209 degrees.)

I like to make my Reuben sandwiches in a cast iron skillet.

Slice the corned beef with a slicing knife.

Butter one side of each slice of rye bread. Place buttered side down on a cast iron skillet or griddle.

Build sandwich by adding Swiss cheese, slices of warm corned beef, heated sauerkraut and thousand island dressing, more Swiss and top with another slice of the rye bread, butter side up.

Toast sandwiches on both sides and serve.

One of the tastiest corned beef treats – an egg on corned beef hash.

Corned Beef Hash

I’m really excited about how this recipe turned out – it’s better than any corned beef hash you can find these days in a diner. But remember: the best ingredients make the best dishes.

Ingredients

  • 1-1/2 cups finely diced or shredded cooked corned beef
  • 1-1/2 cups diced russet potatoes
  • 1 tablespoon dry minced onion
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon minced dry garlic
  • 1 teaspoon dry English mustard
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons celery salt
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • Salt to taste
  • 4 tablespoons of butter

It’s important to not overcook your potatoes and corned beef.

Preparation

Boil potatoes for about 3 minutes. They should still have a bit of crunch to them. Drain the potatoes, place in a bowl and season with the next seven ingredients and salt if needed.

Heat butter in a cast iron skillet or a non-stick skillet. Add hash mixture.

Cook hash until lightly brown careful not to burn. Serve with sunny-side up fried eggs and hollandaise sauce.

Homemade Hollandaise Sauce

Ingredients

  • 1 1/4 cups (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cubed
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, plus more
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preparation

Melt butter in a small saucepan over medium heat until foaming. (Exactly 140 degrees.)

Remove pan from heat. Put egg yolks and fresh lemon juice in a tall narrow bowl or bowl of a food processor or blender. Using an immersion blender or food processor, slowly add the melted butter in a thin stream and blend until creamy sauce forms. Season to taste with salt and pepper and with more lemon juice if needed. Hold warm until serving.

BEST EVER CHICKEN FRIED STEAK

When I was growing up I was not exposed to the same foods as my friends. In my Italian-American home, I didn’t have things like tater tot casserole or egg foo young. I remember harassing my dad when I was a kid to buy Banquet TV dinners and pot pies when we would go to the store. (Good thing he always told us NO!)

In my mind, chicken fried steak was a ground, preformed mystery meat slathered with some kind of white gravy and served in schools and penitentiaries. As I got older, however, I became obsessed with the history of food, especially the regional foods of the United States.

Chicken fried steak, a true Southern classic, can be a very special treat.

To the best of my knowledge, chicken fried steaks looks to have been inspired by Wiener Schnitzel, a classic German-Austrian entree, and Cotolleta Milanese, which is Italian. Americanized versions of these dishes were first known as “pan-fried steak.” Then, sometime around 1930, the beef dish became known as chicken fried steak because it is prepared somewhat like fried chicken.

Typically made with tenderized cheaper cuts of beef such as round steak or eye of the round, chicken fried steak is another dish that can be really special when prepared properly. I find that using tender pieces of flavorful cuts such as flat iron or strip steak can produce a chicken fried steak worthy of any foodie’s table.

The gravy for chicken fried steak does require a watchful eye and plenty of stirring.

Here is my recipe for my ultimate chicken fried steak.

Buttermilk Mixture

  • 2 tablespoons hot sauce
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups buttermilk
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder

Flour Mixture

  • 2 and 1/2 cups of flour
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 2 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon granulated garlic
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • Pinch cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon paprika

Steak

  • 1 large flatiron steak cut into four pieces, each weighing about 1 and 1/4 pounds.

Mix ingredients to create your buttermilk and flour mixtures.

Beat the steak with tenderizing mallet, and season with salt and pepper.

Add seasoned, tenderized steak pieces to your flour mixture and completely cover with the seasoned flour.

Soak the flour-coated steaks in buttermilk marinade. Remove steak from the buttermilk and shake off excess buttermilk so it does not drip freely.

Add steaks back into seasoned flour and pat flour onto steaks. Remove from bowl and let breading rest on steak for about 15 minutes.

Heat a cast iron skillet and about 1/8 inch of lard, vegetable oil or Crisco. Heat over medium high heat.

When fat is heated, carefully lay steaks in the skillet and brown.

When they’re sufficiently brown on one side, turn them over and repeat.

Drain the steaks on paper towels while you make the gravy.

Here’s a batch of chicken fried streak almost ready to serve.

Gravy

  • 4 to 6 tablespoons of the lard drippings. (Get some of the brown bits if you can.)
  • 4 tablespoons flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
  • 1 teaspoon salt (to taste)
  • Pinch of onion powder
  • Pinch of garlic powder
  • Pinch of poultry seasoning
  • Pinch of leaf thyme
  • 1 quart whole milk (I sometimes use some heavy cream or half-and-half when I want a rich sauce. Since I don’t eat like that everyday, it is OK every once in a while as a treat.)

Add 4 tablespoons flour to the pan drippings, scraping the bottom with a wooden spoon.

Reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring frequently, until the flour is medium brown and the mixture is bubbly.

Add salt, pepper and spices. Slowly add the whole milk, stirring constantly with whisk.

Turn heat to low and whisk out any lumps.

Serve with fried eggs and hash browns with fried onions and melted American cheese for breakfast, or with mashed potatoes and green bean almondine for dinner.