Banana Pudding for all my friends!

The tastiest banana pudding also happens to be the easiest to make!

The tastiest banana pudding also happens to be the easiest to make!

I’ve been on this banana pudding kick lately, which has greatly benefitted my friends and neighbors and their kids. Even though Regina and my own kids love the stuff, we simply couldn’t eat our way through the three huge batches I’ve made recently. We needed help and so Julie and Tim and Zach and Sarah have gotten containers in the past week; I believe they shared them with their kids but it’s possible they didn’t. This banana pudding has a way of making your forget your vows, disregard your children’s welfare, and consider committing higher crimes. Zach refers to the pudding as his “afternoon delight” which conjures up images better left unimagined.

The recipe for this banana pudding is old-fashioned and simple to make. You don’t start from scratch, you start from mixes, like lots of the great American comfort foods of the past fifty years. Canned milk and pudding mix and boxed cookies. Super-easy and super-yummy!

If you’ve ever been to Magnolia Bakery either in NYC or LA you might notice that their banana pudding tastes remarkably similar to this. Well, it should. It’s their recipe and I happily cribbed it. Because it is superb!

You will need:

  • 1 can (14 oz) sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 box (3.4 oz) Jello brand instant vanilla pudding
  • 1.5 cups cold water
  • 3 cups heavy cream
  • 4 cups sliced ripe bananas
  • 1 12-ounce box of Nilla wafers (use the Nabisco kind)

Now do this:

In a stand-up mixer whip together the condensed milk, pudding mix, and water for about two minutes at medium speed. You could use an electric hand mixer if you don’t have a stand-up Kitchen-Aid mixer, of course. Make sure after you’ve whipped it that you don’t see any yellow specks, which would be undissolved pudding powder; beat it a bit more if you need to. Pour pudding into a big mixing bowl and chill until completely set, maybe three hours.

When the pudding is set whip the heavy cream to stiff peaks. Fold the whipped cream gently but completely into the pudding mix. It should be well-combined and not streaky.

Into a big deep bowl put about a third of the cookies in a layer. Top with a third of the bananas and a third of the creamy pudding mix. Make three layers. Chill for at least four hours so the Nilla wafers can soften nicely.

I like to make it the day before. It improves with a full overnight chill-out. It will last three or four days refrigerated although I have no doubt you and your fam will polish it off before that!

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I like this cute pink pudding goblet. Thanks for the loaner Julie Semple!

Frito Pie, Y’all!

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Would you believe that Frito pie is actually good for you? Well, it ain’t.

Frito Pie has been on my mind of late. The warm weather has me conjuring up thoughts of State Fairs and picnics and baseball games and other specifically American outdoor events that suggest foods eaten out of hand and foods that defy all conventional “healthy-eating” sensibilities. Frito Pie is one food that fits both criteria — it’s portable and well, disposable, and it’s virtually devoid of any redeeming nutritional value. However, it is super-yummy in all its gleefully white-trashy, grease-bomby way. I like it! It reminds me of my youth and my Southern ties, of hot weather and festival foods.

Now there’s a school of Frito Pie theory that suggests a baked casserole sort of construction, like some kind of bastardized Tex-Mex lasagna or ghetto-style enchiladas. Sure, you bake a bunch of Fritos (and no other corn chip is acceptable) with chili or ground beef with cheese and salsa and you know that’s going to be tasty treat. But to me that’s not really Frito Pie even if it kind of resembles a pie; to me Frito Pie is the so-called “walking taco” whereby you cut open a snack-sized bag of Fritos (the one and only) and you dump into it some hot chili (preferably beanless), some grated cheese, some sour cream and then maybe some other garnishes like jalapenos, hot sauce, chopped scallions, guacamole, etc. You scarf that down with a plastic fork (or spork, if you should be so lucky) and wash that down with an ice-cold PBR or Dixie (or Shiner Bock, if you should be so lucky) and that’s good eatin’, y’all!

For an afternoon snack today I made a totally delish Frito Pie. Because I had only a large bag of Fritos, I put it into a plastic deli cup and I ate it with a plastic fork. This presentation approximated the portability of eating out of a greasy plastic bag but was way neater. It went a little something like this….

  • 1 cup of Fritos dumped into a 16-ounce plastic container
  • 3/4 cup of basic meaty beanless chili put on top of that
  • 1/2 cup of grated “Mexican-style” cheese (jack & cheddar) scattered over the hot chili
  • 1/4 cup sour cream dumped into the container slightly off to the side
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh avocado, dumped into the container slightly off to the side
  • 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro put on top
  • 1 tablespoon chopped green onion, on top
  • 1 teaspoon (or more!) hot sauce. I used Cholula, which is awesome.
  • stick a plastic fork in it
  • eat!

So, if you’re hankering for something that isn’t remotely healthy, try some Frito Pie. You can’t live on vegan kale salad alone, ya know!

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But it sho is yummy!

I’ve included a basic chili recipe. This is simple chili not meant to be eaten as a main course but to go on top of hot dogs, burgers, and things like Frito Pie.

Basic Chili:

  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 pound lean ground beef
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1/2 cup chopped red or green bell pepper
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • 1 cup beer
  • 1 can (14.5 ounces) diced tomatoes
  • 1 cup beef broth
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano or marjoram
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne

To make the chili melt the butter with the oil in a 4-quart heavy-bottomed pot set over medium heat. Turn heat up to high and add the ground beef. Season beef with salt and pepper to taste and brown well. Add the onions and garlic and cook for a couple of minutes until softened. Add tomato paste and cook that, stirring around, until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Sprinkle the flour over the beef and onion mixture and stir well. Add beer and cook until the alcohol smell has dissipated. Add all remaining ingredients. Stir well to combine. Bring to a low boil and then reduce heat to low. Simmer for a minimum of 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. I like to cook it gently for at least an hour until everything breaks down nicely and the excess water has evaporated. Keep in mind that this chili is better the next day, so plan ahead if you can.

Easy Tasty Vegan Pizza

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Spicy veggie (and vegan) pizza is a snap to make.

This isn’t much of a recipe post, but more of a suggestion. I whipped up this lovely vegan pizza the other day and it exceeded expectations. Now I’m not a vegan (I’m OMNIVOROUS, baby!) and my tolerance for fake vegan cheese has its limits, but this pizza, notwithstanding the “cheddar-style” rice-based “cheese product” that melted inconsistently over the top, was just dynamite. I’m not going to measure it all out for you this time, but this what I did, more or less.

I had half an Italian eggplant, which was peeled. I diced the eggplant and salted it with a sprinkle of kosher salt. I let that sit for about 20 minutes and then I rinsed the eggplant and dried it well by squeezing it gently with a paper towel. I then sautéed the eggplant in olive oil until nicely browned. Also, I blanched some Tuscan kale in boiling salted water for two minutes. I dropped that into an ice bath to cool it down and then I drained it. I chopped it up nice and fine. I then chopped a little onion and browned that quickly in a pan. I preheated the pizza stone in my oven for 30 minutes at 550ºF (do it on a sheet pan, totally fine).

I took a nice, very flat whole wheat pita and I drizzled a little bit of olive oil over one side. I then spread over it a little homemade tomato sauce (a good jarred one is fine) and then added sparingly a little of each topping: kalamata olives, cooked eggplant, sautéed onions, blanched kale, fresh tomatoes, and pickled jalapenos. I added a few torn pieces of pre-sliced cheddar-style rice (or soy) cheese. I baked it on the pizza stone for about ten minutes. It was, how you say, AMAZEBALLS!

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Yummy and satisfying.

Roasted Paprika-Rubbed “Rock N Roll” Chicken Wings

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Overnight marinating makes these wings super-flavor-flav!

You guys know how much I just LOVE chicken wings, don’t ya? To give you some idea I’ve already published five other posts about wings and I’m sure I’ve alluded to wings in at least six other posts (I’ve linked to the good ones below.) There’s not much more I can add to the pre-existing wing conversation; however, I will reiterate that I absolutely love crisp & chewy skin, I adore the moist tender meat within, and I find irresistible what I like to call the “primal gnaw”, that nearly instinctual desire to chew cooked meat off of bones, using only your hands, in a greasy-fingered manner that recalls primitive man. It’s primal and messy and communal and well, fun.

My usual M.O. when making wings is to par-cook them; first I’ll bake them at a low temperature until about 80% cooked and then I’ll fry them until crisp. This two-pronged approach yields perfectly crisp wings every time. However, cooking them this way means you can’t really infuse the chicken itself with a lot of other flavorings (dried spices and marinades will dissipate the instant the wing hits the hot oil) and you need a finishing sauce of some kind to add some zest — classic Buffalo sauce, bbq sauce, honey-soy sauces, etc. I love the sauces, don’t get me wrong, but the longer the wings are saturated with sauce the father away they get from the skin-crunch ideal.

And of course you can achieve very flavorful wings with other methods — low-oil skillet-frying, grilling — but they don’t come close to deep-frying for crispy skin. I wanted a wing that was shot-through with flavor but came close to the great crispity-crunchity of fried wings. After a little tinkering I found a method that was worth sharing: high-heat roasting wings that have been coated with a moist dry rub, finished under the broil. The results were awesome — crisp and flavorful with no moist sauce to undercut the crunch. I ended up drizzling the still-hot wings with a wee bit of honey and they were AWESOME!

You’ll need:

  • 12 largish chicken wings (tips removed) cut into 24 individual pieces
  • 2 teaspoons smoked paprika
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon celery salt
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground sage
  • 1 tablespoon mirin (Japanese cooking wine) or anything similar
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus a little extra when you cook them
  • honey for a last-minute drizzle

Now do this:

Put the cut wings into a large mixing bowl. Mix all the dried spices together and dump it over the wings. Using your hands coat the wings thoroughly with spices. Add the mirin, the soy sauce, and the oil. Coat wings thoroughly with wet ingredients and stick them into a ziploc bag. Wait impatiently for 24 hours. Preheat oven to 525º.

Place wings on a rack set over a sheet pan. Roast wings for 10 or 12 minutes or until the edges of the wings look crisp but not charred. Remove the pan from the oven and allow them to rest for about 15 minutes. Set the oven to broil and place a rack about six inches from the heating element.

Drizzle a little vegetable oil on the “up-side” of the wings. Broil 1 or 2 minutes or until nicely crunchy and a bit charred. Flip the wings and repeat the oil and the broil. Congrats! Your wings are finished.

Drizzle with a little honey if you wish.

Why are they called Rock N Roll Wings? Why not? They rock.

Check out my earlier wing-related posts:

Crispy Wok-Fried Wings: https://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2013/01/13/crispy-wok-fried-chicken-wings/

Honey-Ginger Chicken Wings, Again: https://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2011/10/27/honey-ginger-chicken-wings-again/

Late-Night-Guilty-Pleasure Wings: https://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2011/08/25/late-night-guilty-pleasure-chicken-wings/

Chicken Wings & The Primal Gnaw: https://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2011/07/23/chicken-wings-the-primal-gnaw/

It’s Game Time:     https://spencerhgray.wordpress.com/2011/02/03/its-game-time/

Tapas Partay!

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A little blurry, but oh, what a spread!

Last week Regina and I had a couple of great friends over for an early dinner. Well, all dinners are early when you have an infant, but luckily our friends are obliging and understanding. Of course when I put out a spread like this of course they are obliging! Mitch supplied the wine and Stef made a excellent blueberry pie to finish the meal with.

Starting from the bottom left and travelling a meandering path up the table in a vaguely clockwise direction the dishes are as follows: garlic aioli with a touch of saffron, garlicky sautéed mushrooms, paprika-dusted fried chicken wings, roasted purple cauliflower with shallots and a hit of sherry vinegar, marcona almonds, pickled peppadew peppers (say that five times fast!), lightly sweetened olive oil crackers (in the wax paper), assorted olives, patatas bravas (crispy fried potatoes), grilled lamb riblets, grilled ribeye with roasted garlic, lobster with saffron sofrito, grilled bread for pan con tomate, membrillo (Spanish quince paste), assorted cheese platter including cabrales, idiazabal, some kind of hard Basque cheese that I’ve forgotten the name of, and some nice Spanish chorizo (not to be confused with the Mexican stuff), clams with garlic and white wine and diced chorizo, and finally at the bottom right a plate of hand-shaved slices of one of the world’s great cured meats — Jamon Iberico “pata negra” — a dry-cured ham made from these cute little black pigs that feast on acorns.

Eating like this — with a wide assortment of small plates with complementing and contrasting flavors and textures and colors — is so enjoyable and delicious and fun and communal that I wish we could feast like this every night! I’d be 300 pounds, but I’d be happy as a clam cooked with white wine and chorizo.

Pan con Tomate

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Pan con tomate is a national treasure of Spain.

This ubiquitous Spanish starter is the simplest thing in the world to make, but don’t be fooled by the basic nature of the dish. Probably the most famous dish from Catalonia, the beloved pan con tomate is a thing of genius, the sheer simplicity belying a profound complexity of flavor from five ingredients in symbiotic harmony. You start with good, flavorful, rustic bread. You toast it until it’s hot and crusty. Add garlic, tomato, olive oil, and salt. The end result is perfection.

To make pan con tomate at home you need very good bread with some flavor, a hearty crust, and a crumb dense enough to withstand a little manhandling. I like to make it with a sourdough batard, which is a French loaf that’s fatter and more irregular than its cousin the baguette. I cut it on the bias (at an angle) into slices about three-quarters of an inch thick.

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Fresh tomatoes and good bread.

You can use any kind of grill you like to toast the bread. This time I used a grill pan for the convenience; I didn’t feel like firing up the propane Weber for a few slices of bread, ya know. I’m sure you could broil the bread if you wanted or hold the bread in a pair of tongs and wave it over a roaring oak fire, which would probably be the most authentic method. However you do it, get the bread nice and hot and a little charred on both sides.

Okay, the garlic. Take a peeled clove of fresh garlic and trim off about the end, removing about 25% of the clove off. You’ll scrape the cut end over the hot bread’s surface. For tomatoes I like the medium-sized vine-ripe kind. Cut them into quarters. You need one tomato quarter per slice of bread. You’ll also need extra-virgin olive oil, ideally from Spain; something fruity with some good character. Finally good sea salt. I had on hand some fleur de sel de Camargue but use anything except iodized table salt.

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Rub the fresh tomatoes on to the cut surface of your crusty bread.

So, to assemble your tasty pan con tomate first grill the bread until crusty. Gently scrape the garlic clove all over one side of the bread. Now rub the tomato into the bread on that same side. A little pulp will rub off, maybe a couple of seeds, definitely some good tomato essence. Now drizzle a generous amount of olive oil over the slice, maybe a teaspoon per slice, and sprinkle some salt over the slice. You can crack some black pepper over it if you’d like, although it’s optional.

Serve with a little manchego cheese or salami or jamon Serrano. Oh, and don’t forget a glass of cheap but tasty red wine!

 

Not-So-Big Macs!

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Homemade “Not-So-Big” Macs are a helluva lot better for you than the real deal! And way cuter!

Many people are surprised that I’ll admit to eating fast food every once in a while. Considering my choice of career and the unlimited budget that I have for purchasing the finest food that money can buy and people can eat, sometimes my friends are frankly astonished that I have the occasional craving for Taco Bell or similar trash foods. I suppose every once in a while I need a casual antidote to all the fancy stuff like caviar, foie gras, matsutake mushrooms, pork belly, and lobster tails. At least that’s my excuse, but really I just kinda like the stuff despite the realization that it’ll probably shave some time off my life and contribute to our degrading environment. But in truth I rarely indulge; I eat Taco Bell once a year and McDonald’s with a similar frequency.

But sometimes I really crave a tasty burger, and usually I don’t mean some kind of fancy-schmancy hand-ground meat patty artfully layered with chef-designed, umami-laden, manufactured-in-house condiments. No parmesan crisp or ketchup leather or shiitake bullshit or aged Vermont cheddar or sun-dried tomato or a goddamn brioche bun. I want a thin patty of good beef on a soft, yielding (read cheap) bun with honest-to-goodness Kraft American cheese. Sometimes all I want is a crappy fast-food burger, something gooey, chewy, beefy, sloppy.

However, I want it with killer beef, ideally grass-fed, so that I won’t be burdened with as much (however fleeting) guilt when I bite down into that burger and the hot beef grease courses over my tastebuds. And I want organic tomatoes and lettuce, quality onions, and a good pickle.

Anyway, a few days ago I was in one of my “trashy burger moods”. It hit me as I strolled the aisles at Trader Joe’s; inspiration struck as I spotted a bag of slider buns dotted with sesame seeds, something I’d never seen before. Barely two inches in diameter the little rolls screamed BIG MAC and that ubiquitous commercial ditty ran through my mind like the sexy come-on of a low-rent hooker trolling the unfashionable, less-hospitable end of Sunset Blvd: “two-all-beef-patties-special-sauce-lettuce-cheese-pickles-onions-on-a-sesame-seed-bun”. A shiver ran down my spine and I knew exactly what I was going to eat for dinner that night.

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Inspiration came in a plastic bag.

Of course a few issues hampered the immediate execution of my “Not-So-Big Mac” or “Mini-Mac”. The Big Mac is constructed of a “triple-bun” with an additional round slab of bread starching up the middle of the burger. I had to create the extra bun slice by carefully trimming the the crust from the tops (or bottoms) of some of the slider buns. This was wasteful, to be sure, but authenticity demands a strenuous attention to detail and, quite possibly, some waste along the way.

Next is the so-called “special sauce” which is simply Russian dressing (1,000 Island being virtually identical). I used my own super-basic recipe of a half-cup of mayo, a quarter-cup of ketchup, two tablespoons of sweet pickle relish, and kosher salt and cracked peppercorn (to taste) all mixed up together. Also on the burger are sour pickle slices (look for dill hamburger chips), shredded iceberg lettuce, one slice of yellow American cheese, and some small pieces of sliced white onions. The sliced onions I soaked in cold water for about five minutes to get rid of the some of the acidity. I drained them well before putting them on the burger.

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My Mini-Macs were magnificent!

The burger patties themselves I made very thin, less than a half-inch in thickness, and about three-and-a-half inches in diameter. Whenever you make burgers remember that they shrink significantly; how much shrinkage occurs is determined by fat content — more fat means more shrinkage, generally. So for a burger that fits a two-inch bun you need a burger that’s a little larger than three inches. I seasoned the burger patties with just a little salt and pepper right before cooking in a skillet (or on a flat-top griddle).

I heated my skillet over high heat until it was just smoking and swirled in a little vegetable oil. Very quickly I lightly browned the cut sides of all three parts of the bun — the top, the bottom, and the middle piece (which needs to browned on both sides). I kept the toasted buns warm on a small sheet pan in a low oven (about 200ºF) while I cooked the burgers.

I added more vegetable oil to the pan — just enough to coat the bottom evenly. I added the  burger patties; remember two patties per Mini-Mac! I cooked the burgers on one side about two minutes until very browned and a little crisp. I flipped the burgers and added a small slice of American cheese on top of half the burgers*; remember only one slice of cheese for each Mini-Mac! After one more minute of cooking I removed the burgers from the pan and took the warm buns out of the oven.

I assembled the Mini-Macs in the following order, assembling from top to bottom:

  • the bottom of the bun
  • a half-teaspoon of special sauce
  • one pickle chip
  • a few pieces of sliced onion
  • a tiny clutch of lettuce
  • a burger patty with cheese*
  • the “middle bun”
  • a few pieces of sliced onion
  • another tiny clutch of lettuce
  • a “cheeseless” burger patty
  • another half-teaspoon of special sauce
  • another pickle slice
  • the top of the bun

After assembly my fam and I ate them immediately. Both wife and son were appropriately grateful and deemed the Mini-Macs excellent!

* Big Mac scientists for some reason place a slice of unmelted cheese on the burger “underneath” the bottom burger patty, probably to keep the hot cheese from wilting the lettuce too much. However, I prefer melting the cheese on the burger while it cooks (better cheese-gooiness). I’m on the fence about whether the cheese should face up or down when you assemble, although I’m leaning toward cheese-up. You decide.