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this is the world of prayer
march 1, 2005
There's fun doing something absolutely pointless. The other day, in that spirit, I decided to create a list of my favorite fast food dishes.
I imagined Mary and me driving around town, some kind of warming drawer in our trunk so we could store each favored dish as we traveled from drive-up window to drive-up window.
Here's the list I came up with, in no particular order, if I were to buy my favorite fast food from all the different chain restaurants, then bring them home and gorge on them.
Drafting Notes: (1) The fish fillet had goddam better have enough tartar sauce on it. I don't want my special day to be ruined. Also, there's this thing with McDonald's where apparently they never expect anyone to actually order a fish fillet sandwich, so if you do, you have to park in their lot until someone deep-fries it and finds the time to carry it outside to your car, which means you get to watch everyone who was behind you drive off with their own meals, while you're watching the ice in your soft drink melt. Needs improvement. (2) While I am at Taco Bell, it's possible I might order additional items, such as an Enchirito and/or a Gorditas Supreme. I'm just saying. (3) The Bucket of Chicken will come with legs substituted for wings. (I love, love, love Southern-fried drumsticks. One of God's great hidden bonuses for us, like mold on bread that turns out to be penicillin, only better. Explains why God gave chickens legs, instead of just having them flutter and bounce around the farm like basketballs with wings). (4) Sam's is not a national chain, I think they only have two restaurants, but their pizza and sausage sub are so good, I just had to include them.
Each of the dishes I've selected are those that, in my opinion, the respective restaurants have perfected. For example, I've eaten tacos all over America, but to be honest, most of them are average. The Jack in the Box Monster Taco, however, is different. As soon as you take that first maxilla- and mandible-closing crunch into your mouth, you realize you're not in Colorado anymore.
Something I've noticed, searching the Web, is that there are a number of sites that attempt to duplicate specific fast food dishes.
I've read quite a few of these recipes, Mary and I have even made some, but none of them really compare to the actual hot dish you get handed through a drive-up window.
So I decided to see if I myself could replicate one of the meals.
I chose Popeye's red beans and rice, since we both love it so much, and wouldn't have to concern ourselves with something as complex as buns.
(Mary's dad Joe flies down from Milwaukee to stay with us each year over the holidays. During one such visit, we decided to serve Popeye's red beans and rice as a side dish on New Year's Day, since red beans and rice, eaten on the first day of the year, brings good luck. Later, at the end of that visit, sitting at our breakfast nook table, flipping through his notes, he told us there was one dish in particular for which he wanted the recipe. We leaned forward, wondering what the dish would be. Lobster Thermidor? Veal Piccata? Spaghetti Carbonara? "It was that bean dish. I forget what you called it.")
I bought three cans of red beans when we went to a supermarket this past week, to use for my experiments.
Before I even started cooking, I spent some time leaning back in my chair, thinking of what it was about Popeye's red beans and rice that make them great.
I realized it was their fat-imbued texture, and smoky taste.
To try to duplicate that texture and taste, I bought a package of ham hocks, a pound of bacon, and, for the first time in my life, a small bottle of liquid smoke.
That Saturday morning, standing at the stove with a cup of coffee, I decided what my first attempt at duplicating the recipe would involve, feeling the excitement Alexander Bell must have felt talking into the first telephone, or Einstein, scrawling across his blackboard, getting chalk dust on his white cuffs, must have felt coming up the concept of cosmic constancy.
I decided I wanted my recipe to be as simple as possible. Most fast food clone recipes require lots of herbs and spices, the length of each list, to my mind, admitting failure.
I also wanted my recipe to be as easy to prepare as possible, hence my decision to start with canned, cooked beans, rather than a bag of hard beans that have to be soaked overnight.
Here was my first attempt:
Empty the can of red beans into a saucepan. Add 1 cup water. Slice the meat off the ham hock, add to the saucepan along with the skinned ham hock. Bring to a boil, simmer one hour, covered. Remove the lid, add the cayenne, liquid smoke, salt, garlic. Simmer uncovered 30 minutes. Mash half the red beans with the back of a fork. Serve.
I added the cup of water because I needed enough volume in order to submerse the sliced ham hock pieces, and half-submerge the ham hock itself (I turned the ham hock over halfway though the hour-long simmer).
After an hour of simmering, the red beans had a pleasing oily surface.
I tasted it.
Not bad, but nowhere near as good as Popeye's.
That's when I decided to add the cayenne, liquid smoke, salt.
I stirred the beans around, was patient, sipped again.
Much better. But still not there.
I added the minced garlic clove, pressed through a garlic press.
The garlic gave the beans an off-taste.
Mary and I tried a bowl each.
Compared to Popeye's, my beans had a rather flat flavor, without any great complexity, and didn't have Popeye's enjoyable "mouth feel".
I decide I needed to "complex" the flavor.
One way to do that is to add a lot of ingredients, but I instinctively felt that would be a mistake. Certain cuisines (Indian) and certain chefs (Paul Prudomme) can carefully balance dozens of spices and herbs to create a new flavor, but I didn't see myself being able to achieve that effect without weeks of trial and error.
Complexity can also be introduced by adding the same ingredients at different points in the cooking process, so that their degree of carmelization (release of natural sugars) is varied, and this method seemed more promising.
I decided that for my next attempt I'd use both a ham hock and bacon, for oiliness and smokiness, and minced onion and green bell pepper as a substitute for garlic for flavor, but add all these ingredients at different stages, to give a depth to the dish.
Except when I did next attempt to make the dish, I forgot to defrost a ham hock, so I left it out.
I started by frying a slice of bacon, removing it from the pot, then adding a heaping tablespoon of onion, heaping tablespoon of green bell pepper. With each vegetable, I finely minced them.
After they had sizzled in the bacon fat for a minute, I dumped in the can of red beans, juice and all.
Part of the problem with my first attempt was that I added a cup of water, to accommodate the ham hock, and by not including the ham hock this time around, I was able to eliminate the dilution of the water.
I also added a quarter teaspoon of salt, an eighth of a teaspoon of cayenne pepper, which in both experiments, surprisingly, proved to add almost too much heat, and a half teaspoon of liquid smoke.
Once the mixture reached a boil, I added the cooked bacon slice, crumbled, as well as a finely-minced raw slice of bacon.
I let it simmer for an hour, covered.
After an hour I lifted the lid.
There wasn't the pleasing sheen of fat I had gotten in my first attempt. The red beans tasted better than they had the first time, but they still weren't perfect. Also, I noticed that biting into the beans, I experienced a blandness. I suspected I needed to mash the beans at the beginning of the cooking process, rather than after they had been simmering for an hour. I had to get that oiliness into the meat of the beans as soon as possible.
So I made a third attempt.
This time I decided I would use both a ham hock and bacon, so I was conscientious about defrosting a ham hock the night before.
I really wanted to get away from using liquid smoke if I could, so I thought if I increased the amount of bacon, and used a ham hock, liquid smoke might not be necessary. I have nothing at all against using any ingredient that contributes to a dish. (One of the surest signs of a novice cook is someone who disdains using certain ingredients because they feel they're not 'gourmet' enough. These pseudo-cooks think, for example, garlic powder should never be used, only fresh garlic. They don't realize garlic powder is an ingredient in and of itself, independent of fresh garlic. It's like plastic. Plastic is an absolutely wonderful substance. Thank God we discovered it. It allows us to create structures that are as strong as metal, but far lighter. If someone uses plastic to imitate wood grain, that's tacky. But if someone uses plastic for a prosthesis or camcorder, that's incredible. It's the same thing with garlic powder. It should never be used when fresh minced garlic is called for, but it's great as its own ingredient. There's absolutely nothing wrong with using Velveeta cheese (because of its smooth melting properties), or Campbell's soup mixes (because of their complex flavors). Anyone who objects is still at the bottom of the learning curve when it comes to cooking.) But, having said all that, and although I do think liquid smoke is a legitimate ingredient, I wanted to see if I could get a richer, more complex taste from the bacon and ham hocks alone.
Heart beating in my chest, "like a lacerated flock of birds" (I love the outrageousness of that simile, from Bartok's operetta, Bluebeard's Castle, so much more so than the typical, too-studied simile, such as from an author whose name I can't recall, "My skin felt as transparent as a Nazi lampshade"), I started off by dropping a tablespoon of butter in the saucepan, so I'd have the complexity of oils from butter, ham, and bacon, and watched the square of butter melt (how many hours of our lives have we spent watching a lump of butter melt in a pan?) Once the pale yellow had spread across in the pan, bubbling at its edges, I dropped in three raw bacon slices, lengths cut in thirds. I let them curl and sizzle until they were done, then spooned them out to a black bowl, sliced the sides off my ham hock, added that, then dumped in two heaping tablespoons each of finely minced green bell pepper and onion, one heaping tablespoon of minced shallots (as a substitute for the too-assertive garlic), and a heaping half teaspoon of fresh chipolte chile (which I happened to have at hand, from another dish. You could substitute the same amount of fresh jalapeno). I swirled everything around until the vegetables started to brown, then plunked in the ham hock, added the can of red beans, liquid included. Using the tip of my wooden spoon, I scraped the bottom of the saucepan to get up all the stuck-on bits (known by the French word, "fond"). I tore up the three bacon slices into small bits, dumped them in. Sprinkled in a quarter teaspoon of salt.
Because I wanted to get the oiliness and flavors into the beans themselves, I used the back of my wooden spoon to burst most of the beans against the hot stainless steel sides of the saucepan. (I used the back of the spoon instead of a fork, because a fork would mash the beans up too much, into a paste).
I put the cover on the saucepan, brought the mixture to a boil, then lowered the heat to our stove's lowest setting, and let everything simmer for an hour, lifting the lid occasionally to stir the contents, so nothing stuck.
After an hour, I lifted the lid, dipped a spoon into the gently bubbling mix, tasted it.
The mix was a little watery, so I cooked it a few more minutes, lid off, then spooned some rice into two bowls, placed the hot red bean mixture atop.
Mary took a spoonful, jaw moving, beautiful green eyes switching left, right.
Gave a thumbs up.
I ran out of cans. If I had more cans of red beans, I might try putting the eighth of a teaspoon of cayenne pepper back in, removing the fresh chipolte chile (this third version had no heat whatsoever), or, alternatively, adding half a canned chipolte chile (canned in adobe sauce. Adobe sauce is never included in the Popeye's clone recipes, but that sweet smokiness might just make the difference. Hmmm). I'd also be curious to know how this recipe would turn out with a half teaspoon of garlic powder added at the same time the salt is added.
But in any event, I had created something truly tasty, and I had gotten a thumbs-up.
That's pretty good.
Is it exactly like Popeye's red beans and rice?
Is it as good as Popeye's?
Popeye's red beans and rice is God. My three attempts were prayers to God.
This is the world of prayer.
Some of you have asked if I have any new stories out you can read.
Indeed, I do.
I have stories in the latest print edition of Lunatic Chameleon, the latest Lullaby Hearse (and a story in the next edition of Lullaby Hearse), a story in the next edition of Frothing at the Mouth, a story in the forthcoming hardcover anthology Darkness Rising (paperback edition coming out afterwards), an essay in the current issue of Songs of Innocence (and Experience), a story in a forthcoming issue of Midnight Street, and probably some other periodicals that have momentarily escaped my mind (for which I apologize. It's late, I'm hungry, we have to bring our cat Sheba to the vet's tomorrow for a teeth cleaning, something that always worries me, the general anesthesia, no food after eight, no water after midnight, our beloved orange baby lying on stainless steel, fur soft, black pupils rolled upwards).