Monday, February 28, 2011

Cozy Corner - Memphis

Anyone who has spent a fair amount of time in the Southern United States will come away with a few steadfast facts. Despite our friendly demeanor and a relatively relaxed approach to life, down here people take some things quite seriously. Religion, hunting, and college sports are just a few examples. While those three categories are each important in their own way, there is another topic on which we southerners will wax poetic for hours on end and that is food, in particular BBQ. Even here in central Mississippi, a relative BBQ desert, you can ask any man, woman, or child and they will tell you which BBQ restaurant serves the best que. In many cases, due to our geographic proximity, the same man, woman, or child has a favorite Memphis destination for BBQ. From the dry rub ribs of Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous to the BBQ nachos of Germantown Commissary, there are fans in every camp.

While I may have my own preconceptions, I’m still feeling my way around the world of Memphis bbq. My family never made the weekend trips to Memphis; New Orleans, Houston, or Dallas was always our destination. Having gone to college in D.C., I never made collegiate road trips from Oxford to Memphis or even Starkville to Tuscaloosa. So, a few years ago, I decided to start with a clean slate. So far I’ve paid a visit to Germantown Commissary, the original Corky’s, and both Neely’s and Neely’s Interstate BBQ. With my old friend Sam coming along for the ride, I decided to expand my Memphis bbq experience and pay a visit to the Cozy Corner Restaurant.

If you’re expecting glitz and glamor when you pull up to the Cozy Corner, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Cozy Corner is the epitome of a humble BBQ joint.
The sign outside is faded and rusted from years of southern seasons.
But any misconceptions about outward appearances were dismissed when we caught the sweet perfume of smoke in the air.

Inside, it’s much the same vein.
You can tell there are some years on the wood paneling, but what matters is the pit.
I’ve heard it described as a Chicago style pit, which, I think, means the heat source is farther away from the meat than most normal pits.
Regardless, fed by charcoal and manned by smiling faces, the pit at Cozy Corner is a welcoming site.

After placing an order for a small army’s worth of food, Sam and I found a table amongst the sea of Naugahyde booths and chairs. Soon enough, our lunch began to flood the table.
With the Cornish hen, the bologna sandwich, sausage sandwich, and the ribs, we did our best to hit all the must eats of the Cozy Corner menu.

There’s no better place to start than with the six rib plate.
Doused in Cozy Corner’s hot BBQ sauce, this is the reason we drove to Memphis.
Tinged with the rosy hue of smoke, these ribs were perfectly cooked; each bite took the slightest amount of effort but we were rewarded with smoky meat that was only enhanced by the three pronged attack of the BBQ sauce.

While the sweet, vinegar laden spice of the hot BBQ sauce was in full effect on the ribs, it was a different story with the sausage sandwich.
At its core, this was a simple, pork sausage with a decent snap to the casing, but it was topped with BBQ sauce and cole slaw. When combined with the slaw, the lingering heat of the BBQ sauce was assuaged and the sweeter notes came forward. All together, this mixture of sauce, cole slaw, and casing wrapped meat elevated an average sausage to a whole new level.

Although I had heard great things about the ribs at Cozy Corner, it was their bologna sandwich and Cornish hen that seemed to garner all the recognition. I still have vivid memories of my grandmother frying paper thin slices of bologna in a skillet so I was halfway expecting a pile of luncheon meat on a bun. This preconception left me unprepared for the bologna sandwich that was brought to our table.
You never see a slice of bologna like this in the wild; to many people, bologna doesn’t exist outside of the world of prepackaged, pre-sliced deli meats. This was different, a whole new way to look at the oft maligned emulsified meat.
With the silky tenderness of the bologna, the creaminess of the slaw, and the spiciness of the BBQ sauce, this was a novel idea and more than just a big slice of bologna.

Glistening with a layer of freshly applied BBQ lacquer, the Cornish game hen was a sight to behold.
To be frank, I usually shy away from chicken when it comes to BBQ. All too often it’s the same scenario, dry, chalky white meat, gummy, insipid dark meat, and a skin that has more in common with congealed phlegm than a decent source of fat and flavor.
While the tiny dark meat section of diminutive tiny bird was beautifully juicy and chock full of smoky goodness, the white meat was just what I feared. This Cornish hen, this unique item was both what I was hoping for and what I was dreading.

Of course, I can’t forget the BBQ staple, baked beans.
With tender beans, a sweet but not overpowering sauce, and the occasional crunch of celery, Cozy Corner knows how to make a fine batch of baked beans. While I was quite happy with the peppery sauce, I was let down by the lack of pork pieces in the container.

I had originally planned to eat at Cozy Corner a few years ago when Jennifer, Aaron, and I were making a whirlwind tour of a few Memphis BBQ hotspots. Unfortunately that tour occurred on a Sunday and Cozy Corner is only open Tuesday through Saturday. Well, two years and several hundred miles later, I can happily say that Cozy Corner is worth the effort. While I may have been disappointed in the Cornish hen, the charcoal cooked ribs and the still tingling on my lips sauce more than make up for the laggards. I may still have a long way to go on my rounds through the Memphis BBQ hotspots, but Cozy Corner is near the top of my list.

Cozy Corner Address & Information
745 North Parkway, Memphis, TN 38105 // 901.527.9158 // Cozy Corner Website // Cozy Corner Menu
Cozy Corner on Urbanspoon

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Looking Back at the King Cakes of 2011

Last year, I posted the results of a king cake roundup in New Orleans and Jackson. Since there are always new and interesting and old and delicious king cakes to find, I decided to do the same this year. It all started a few weeks ago when Jackson and much of the southeast was still in the grips of an icy cold front, I decided that I needed to make a trip to New Orleans for a few king cakes. Sure Mardi Gras falls on March 8th this year and I may have been more than a month premature, but when the craving for brioche and colored sugar hits, it’s hard to say no. In retrospect, I could not have picked a worse day to traverse the roads of south Mississippi and northern Louisiana. The first sign came in the form of flurries. Even before I had backed out of the driveway, snow began to fall in Madison, Mississippi. Normally this would cause your average Mississippian to abandon all plans for the day, run to the grocery store and buy as much bread, water, and milk as possible, but having delayed king cake run once before, I was determined that, outside of a blizzard, no amount of snow would stop me.

As I began the 180 mile journey down I-55, I couldn’t stop looking at the thermometer in my rear view mirror. It was solidly in the teens when I left Madison and by the time I made it to McComb, it had barely crept to the mid 20’s. Taking a few precautions, I began to slow down and steer straight ahead for each bridge that I crossed. Of course my real problem was a frozen windshield. With the constant onslaught of freezing rain, my forward vision was being reduced by the minute. Each pass of the windshield wipers brought more sounds of rubber on ice. When I finally pulled off for gas at Kentwood, I was able to break the ¼ inch thick layer of ice on my windshield.

Eventually I made it to New Orleans where I enjoyed a stirring lunch at Boucherie, an early dinner at Tracey’s, and a number of stops for king cakes along the way. Unfortunately the worst part of the trip was on the ride home. I’ll spare you the details but it includes icy bridges, closed interstates, US highways, and the eventual two hour late arrival to Madison.

Back at home and with the car unloaded it was finally time to look at the bounty of my treacherous journey:
The first stop on my trip had been at Maurice’s Bakery in Metairie. There I had picked up both a cream cheese king cake and a traditional galette du roi or French style king cake.
There’s nothing wrong with a cream cheese king cake.
Maurice’s king cake was a nice mix of icing and colored sugars.
As much as I enjoyed the regular king cake from Maurice’s, it was the galette du roi that really stole the show.
Stuffed with frangipane, topped with a fleur-de-lis, and accompanied by a glass figurine of a cow, this was an almond tinged piece of puff pastry heaven. Interesting side note about the figurine, according to the cashier at Maurice’s, the cow’s breath kept the baby Jesus warm during the nativity.

My next stop was at Gambino’s in Metairie
It’s a classic Gambino’s king cake,
This wasn’t my favorite but it was still quite good.

Manny Randazzo’s was the third stop on the trip.
I know there are some people who will vehemently defend the honor of Manny Randazzo’s
but I think icing with some sprinkles is pretty boring.

After lunch, I made my first stop for king cakes inside the city. That stop came at Laurel Street Bakery.
Last year I got one of their black and gold Saints king cakes, but they were sold out of them this year.
When it comes to a regular king cake, this was far and away my favorite.
This just has the right combination of tender cake, glaze, and sugar.

Looking for something different, I had heard about a new take on the king cake. Called endimiyum cupcakes, they were the product of Bee Sweet Cupcakes. After Laurel Street, I made a beeline for Magazine to find them.
Individual king cakes, this is just what my life needed.
This really is just an excellent king cake miniaturized.
With this cupcake, everyone gets a baby.

Next on my list was La Boulangerie, a bakery that I had driven past hundreds of times but never stopped in to take a look. What better time to remedy this situation than during a king cake hunt?
As you’d expect La Boulangerie sells both a French king cake and a regular king cake. I decided to opt for the French king cake this time.
The eggwash accentuated swirl was stunning.
With layer after layer of puff pastry and sweetness from the frangipane, this French king cake is right on par with Maurice’s. I don’t think I could ever decide between the two of them.

Since I was on Magazine Street, stopping at Sucré was a foregone conclusion.
I was blown away by the presentation and flavor of their king cake last year and this year was no exception.

That should have been enough king cakes to feed an army, but I had one last stop to make at Cochon Butcher. Actually, I had to call ahead the night before to reserve my share of mini king cakes.
Served in a choice of cinnamon, chocolate, strawberries and cream cheese, or praline, these were more a novelty than anything.
The strawberries and cream cheese was by far my favorite with the chocolate a second, the rest never really delivered on their promised flavors.
The tiny rubber pigs were a fantastic touch.

With those little piglets, that wraps up this year’s installment of the King Cake roundup. Much like last year, I left out many big names and a number old favorites, but that’s one the nice problems with New Orleans king cakes. There are so many places to try that I could never visit them all in one day. Of course, I’m leaving out all the places in the rest of New Orleans, Louisiana, and even Mississippi, but I have to save something for next year.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Cooking the Book - Where Flavor Was Born - Kerala Spicy Beef Curry

Mississippi is an interesting place to reside. I won’t delve into the near endless list of problems and issues that haunt my state but it is a long list. What I will talk about are some of our excellent bookstores, in particular Turn Row Book Company of Greenwood. You might have heard of Greenwood, especially if you’ve recently redone your kitchen with a Viking range. In this small Delta town, Turn Row offers an excellent variety of Mississippi and regional authors, but what really interested me was their cookbook of the month club.

It was more than two years ago, but I was in Greenwood for a cooking class at the Viking school, and I had arrived a little early. Popping my head into Turn Row, I found a goldmine of signed Alton Brown cookbooks. They may have been generically signed, but I had been looking for AB’s cookbooks and who turns down a signed copy? While checking out with my massive stack of books, I read a small sign about their cookbook of the month club. I signed up on the spot.

Unfortunately, with each passing month I never saw any sign of a package from Turn Row, but my credit card wasn’t being charged so it was pretty much out of sight out of mind. Well, early this year, I was googling cookbook of the month clubs when I remembered Turn Row. I gave them a call only to find that the cookbook club had never really gotten off the ground, instead they were now doing a personalized book club. Turn Row knows that the market for signed first editions in Mississippi is pretty much covered by Lemuria in Jackson and Square Books in Oxford; in an effort to offer a unique product, Turn Row asks for a list of your recently read and favorite books. From that list, they create a book of the month club that is tailored to your interests.

A few days after signing up for the club, my first book arrived. It was a cookbook, Where Flavor Was Born by Andreas Viestad . Where Flavor Was Born has an interesting premise, Viestad, a Norwegian chef who resides in both Oslo and Cape Town, attempts to take the reader on a whirlwind tour of the countries that border the Indian ocean. He contends that without the spices of the Indian Ocean countries, the world as we know it would not exist. He makes a compelling argument by listing the efforts of Columbus and Marco Polo and, a little more pertinent to this review, the spices that play an intrinsic role in so many dishes of national identity. From saffron in French bouillabaisse to the cinnamon in your cappuccino, Viestad wants you to know just how important these spices are to your perception of world and local cuisine.

With less than 300 pages in the book, it’s a foregone conclusion that Where Flavor Was Born will barely skim the surface of the cuisine of the 11 countries Viestad has chosen. 11 countries? Yep, Viestad focuses on sampling the cuisine of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, India, Oman, Egypt, Reunion Island, Mauritius, Tanzania, Mozambique, and South Africa. Sure, he left out a number of countries like Somalia, Kenya, Sudan, Saudia Arabia and Yemen, but I’m not complaining. There are still plenty of recipes to get your hands dirty.

Flipping through the Table of Contents, I couldn't help but be amused at how Viestad has organized this book. Instead of being separated by numbered chapters, the book is divided by spices and descriptions. It starts with Cumin and from there goes to Simply Spicy to Pepper to Ginger etc. Organizing the book this way is frankly brilliant. It almost forces the reader to look through dishes from each country instead of skipping straight to their favorites.

Of course with this many cultures, countries and recipes, choosing where to start is an uphill battle. Flipping through the Curries section of the book, I came across the recipe for Kerala Spicy Beef Curry or Mattirachi Peralen. I haven’t delved into the world of Indian or even Anglicized Indian cuisine as much as I would like but I do know that beef is a relatively rare offering in an Indian cookbook. Viestad explains that this dish hails from Kerala, a fairly secular state in that south of India and the sole state that allows the slaughter of cattle for human consumption. Hoping to begin my relationship with this cookbook on the right foot, I dove headfirst into the recipe.

Kerala Spicy Beef Curry
· 2-3 pounds beef brisket, cut into 1-inch chunks
· 2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
· 3-4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh ginger
· 2 teaspoons powered turmeric or mild yellow curry powder
· 1 tablespoon coriander seeds, lightly crushed
· 1 cup beer, preferably lager, or water
· 1 tablespoon mustard seeds or strong English mustard
· 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar or white vinegar, or more to taste
· 3 cloves (optional)
· 1 teaspoon cumin seeds (optional)
· 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, or more to taste
· 3 medium onions, chopped
· 4-6 cloves of garlic, chopped
· 2-8 green chilies, seeded and chopped
· 6-8 curry leaves (optional)
· 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
· Honey or sugar to taste (optional)
· Chopped cilantro or parsley for garnish.

Culling together the ingredients for this recipe was pretty easy even if I did have to do a little extra digging through the pantry.
Three pounds of beef brisket cut into 1 inch chunks

The first part of the recipe calls for the ginger, turmeric and coriander.
After some peeling, chopping, and crushing, I had the first of the spices ready.

Almost immediately, I began to notice some problems with this recipe.
The first step calls for two tablespoons of oil to be heated in a large pot over high heat, the meat to be added and then, after it’s added to the pot, to be seasoned with the salt and half of the ginger, turmeric, and coriander mixture.

I have no idea how big a pot Viestad was using but this was my biggest Dutch oven.
Here’s what you get when you follow this recipe to the letter. Three pounds of beef cut into 1-inch cubes, no matter how you try, will not sear in this situation. Nope, all I got was a lot of stewing. I would later find out that this wasn’t the first mistake in the recipe.

10 minutes of “searing” later, it was time for the next step in this four part recipe.
The beer, mustard seeds, and two tablespoons of vinegar are added to the pot and everything is brought to a boil and then simmered for 1 ½ hours.

In case you were wondering which beer I used, I reached for the first lager in my beer fridge.
Samuel Adams Winter Lager, it may not the ideal lager for Indian cuisine, but it worked.

An hour and half later, things were looking interesting.
I’m not sure why the recipe calls for this to be cooked without a lid.

Meanwhile, I started with the third step in the recipe which meant dry-roasting spices.
The idea was to roast the cloves, cumin, black pepper, and the remaining coriander; unfortunately, I had already mixed the coriander with the ginger and turmeric.

All mistakes aside, it was a few minutes over medium heat before the spices began to become really aromatic.
Once the smell of cumin, cloves, and pepper filled the air, I added enough oil to coat the skillet.
along with the onions
green chilies, I used eight jalapenos simply because that’s what I had in the fridge
As well as the rest of the ginger, turmeric and coriander mixture
Whoops, can’t forget those extra curry leaves

This pan-full of ingredients was sautéed for a good 3-5 minutes.
By then the onions had softened and everything, including my spoon had been dyed a wonderful shade of yellow by the turmeric.

At this point, it was time to sprinkle on the tablespoon of flour.
I know the idea is for the flour to tighten up the dish, but I had my doubts.
Things got a little clumpy at this point.

Now it was time for step four, adding everything together.
The onion mixture was introduced to the beef and everything was cooked on low heat for another 15 minutes.

When things were all said and done, this was looking like a pretty solid dish.”
The beef isn’t swimming in a coconut milk gravy, but it looked quite juicy.

Feeling a little lazy, I skipped the Yellow Rice and went straight for steamed white rice for this dish.
There was a nice flavor to this dish, but there was a glaring problem.
Viestad advises the reader to season the dish with salt, honey, or more vinegar, but no topping in the world could cover the root problem of this dish, dry beef. In the recipe introduction, Viestad writes this brisket that “with prolonged cooking, as required here, (the meat) becomes wonderfully moist, tender, and flavorful.” Well, the dish may have been flavorful, but 1 ½ hours and a bottle of beer is not enough time and/or liquid to render a piece of brisket tender and juicy. What should have been a dish of that celebrated the flavors of chilies, coriander, ginger, and vinegar was stuck in the muddy blandness of dry, chewy beef. I’m not ready to put Viestad and Where Flavor Was Born away for good but this Kerala Spicy Beef Curry was not the auspicious beginning I was hoping for.