Saturday, January 29, 2011

Frito Pie: How Does It Work?

Hank and Bobby Hill of King of the Hill
So you will never guess what I made for dinner tonight. Yes, I actually had Frito pie for the first time. Wolf had brought home supplies for making it from the store yesterday after I wouldn't stop talking about taco-in-a-bag and... well... this. I couldn't help it. This type of thing is really mysterious to me... and strangely fascinating.

Technically, I guess Frito pie came up yesterday in the same context as the infamous taco-in-a-bag. As you recall, people in that LJ community of mine were talking about foods that are absolute staples in some regions of the United States, but completely unheard of in others. However, unlike taco-in-a-bag, some of the people who had never seen or eaten Frito pie in real life had at least heard of it thanks to the animated show King of the Hill. It was a staple at their meals on the show, so it's impossible for "Frito pie" not to at least ring a bell if you watch it.

Actually, Hank Hill's love of "Frito pie with Wolf brand chili" brought up a lot of questions for me about this dish that I've had for a long time. How exactly does one go about making a pie out of something like Fritos? Is it actually any good? Why does Hank like it so much? Is this a real thing that people actually eat or is the show somehow trying to crack a joke about Hank's family that's just going over my head?

I ate mine before taking a pic, so enjoy this substitute pie.
I'm pretty sure I must have looked it up at the time or Googled for a recipe, because by the time it came up again yesterday, I actually did know what it was. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn't the reality of what Frito pie actually is. Yes, it was a real thing and not just in the King of the Hill universe. However, it was not a pie of any sort that I'm familiar with and it was not really the kind of thing I'd actually consider dinner food either. A guilty pleasure type snack? Yes, absolutely. An actual dinner to feed to growing children or guests? Hell no. It's like the idea of taco-in-a-bag being served as a school lunch. Something about that kind of horrifies me and I just can't wrap my head around it.

So, how do you make Frito pie? Well, I'd write out a recipe for you or something, but I'd honestly feel like a tool even calling it that. You basically just take a bunch of Frito's corn chips and toss them in the bottom of a casserole dish. Then you open up a can or two of chili and dump it over the corn chips. Then you sprinkle the top with cheese and bake until the whole mixture is hot. Then you eat it... preferably with a side salad or some sort of vegetables, I would hope, although I don't think most people do that. That's it though.

Yes, it's Frito-pie-in-a-bag. I can't believe it either.
I didn't actually make my Frito pie that way though. I decided to really ghetto it up, because I was feeling hungry and lazy. I put some Frito's in the bottom of a regular bowl, put one can of chili in over them, and microwaved it. Then when it came out, I stirred it up a little bit and sprinkled some cheese over the top. I guess I didn't really see the point in prolonging the cooking process of something so simple and basically... already cooked? It's made completely out of convenience food, for Pete's sake.

It came out just fine though. Actually, it was better than I expected... sort of like a lazy tamale or enchilada. The corn chips kind of have a way of soaking up part of the sauce of the chili without actually becoming soggy, so that part of it was actually pretty interesting. The chili was this really good low fat beef chili from Dennison's (hey, we have to cut the calories where we can). I imagine this would be a fun way to use up leftover homemade chili and add some bulk to it at the same time as well. I would actually happily eat this again, although obviously not all the time. Like I said, this type of thing is "treat food" to me, not a staple.

And for those of you who are taco-in-a-bag enthusiasts, you'll be happy to know (if you don't already) that people like to make -- wait for it -- Frito pie in a bag, too. Basically you do the same shit you do with taco in a bag, but with a snack size bag of Frito's, some sort of chili, cheese, and I guess whatever else you like to eat with your chili or regular-version Frito pie. Then you grab a plastic fork and hit the road. I recommend just making it yourself at home on "lazy nights" though, as opposed to paying $5-6 for that crap at a fair or stadium though. Sure, it's pretty good for what it is... but I will never see it as being worth paying that much money for.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Food Memories: "Taco in a Bag"

No, this is not my taco in a bag, but I'm sure it was somebody's.
It's times like this that I wish I'd had this food blog up and running while I was still busy living other places besides my native Northern California, because I will tell you something. I've had some of the oddest food experiences while I was living in parts of this country that were so different from what I was used to. Not negative, necessarily, but interesting from a comparison standpoint.

Yes, I'd love to be able to look back on some of those experiences and read my thoughts at the time and I am sad that I don't have any entries here from that time period. Even so, I have this awesome tool at my disposal called a memory. The internet can also be of service when it comes to finding visual aids to help you as readers understand what the hell I'm talking about as well, so I thought... hey. Why don't I just go ahead and write about some of my food memories from time to time? Better late than never and this is my blog where I can do whatever I want. I'm sure one day, I'll be so old that I don't remember these things quite as vividly, so I will be happy to have those things to look back on.

Today I was reminded of an invention called a "taco in a bag" (or a walking taco, as some people call it) thanks to someone else's post in a LiveJournal community I belong to. See, I was actually really surprised to see this mentioned anywhere, because while I was aware that the "taco in a bag" existed because of a chance encounter I'd had with one before, I was actually unaware that it was a "thing" that was easily identified by people who live in certain regions of the country. I figured there was no way it could be, because I myself was so completely flustered by the concept that one time I actually laid eyes on it. I just didn't realize I was having an episode of culture shock at the time.

I still remember how it went down. I was at the Montana State Fair during the brief period of my life when I lived in Great Falls. We were walking around in the sun. We got hungry. We immediately started looking around for something tasty to eat and spotted a taco booth selling something called "taco in a bag". Now, naturally I was curious about what this might be, because I'd never heard of such a thing. Of course we ordered one, because... why the hell not?

I seriously don't know what I was expecting the mysterious taco in a bag to actually be, but I suppose I was thinking of something along the lines of maybe... a paper bag with nachos or a taco salad inside? Possibly a normal taco in some kind of handy, bag-like wrapper. No clue. All I know is I was not prepared to see the chick who made it for us actually slit open a snack-sized bag of nacho cheese Doritos, start spooning taco fillings into it, and hand it to us with a plastic fork after we gave her something like five bucks for the privilege of trying this mysterious concoction. Seriously, I would love to see a photograph of how my face looked at that exact moment in time. It was probably pretty funny.

Now... here's the thing about that taco in a bag. It was actually pretty good in a guilty pleasure, trashy eats kind of way. It's definitely the kind of thing I would consider myself a genius for thinking of if I were really hungry late at night and felt too lazy to actually make myself a proper taco or quesadilla. However, this really isn't the kind of thing I can see being served as actual food anywhere, even at a fair where guilty pleasure type foods are what it's all about. I mean... seriously. It was actually a bag of Doritos like I was used to getting with an inexpensive sandwich somewhere and a spoonful or two of taco filling. I'm sure I'm going to come off as one hell of a food snob saying this, but come on. That's ghetto!

More taco in a bag for your viewing pleasure.
I think at the time I really did think it was just a Montana thing. At this point in time, I'd lived there long enough to know that there are a lot of people there -- not everyone, by any means, but a lot --who consider fast food to be actual food that's suitable for eating on a regular basis. There are even more whose idea of gourmet cooking is literally a bag of cheap noodles mixed with ground beef, a couple of sticks of melted butter, and whatever flavor of Campbell's condensed soup suited their fancy at the time. That said, I wasn't exactly surprised to see a taco in a bag being sold at the fair for almost five dollars and revered like it was ambrosia or something.

I couldn't find much information on where exactly the whole thing started, but of this much I'm certain. It wasn't just a one-of-a-kind encounter of the sort never to be repeated. Apparently people in a number of regions are all about the taco in the bag, especially at places like fairs. The person who made the LiveJournal post I mentioned above said this was something kids were even served on a regular basis as a school lunch where she's from. I'm not even going to get into how I feel about this being served to young, growing bodies in lieu of something actually nutritious, because that's a whole other type of post, but you probably get the picture.

If taco in a bag exists in Northern California, I have personally never stumbled across it myself, even at the fair or similar venues. However, revisiting the whole concept of it kind of made me aware of just how different various parts of the country really are when it comes to many things. Here in America, we speak one language, have one president, and all of that good stuff. However, from region to region, Americans might as well be from different countries for the similarities we actually share when it comes to much of how we think, eat and live.

Like I was saying about the type of stuff that was eaten in Montana on a regular basis -- a ton of beef, butter, high-calorie foods, deep-fried items, and pre-cooked things out of cans. It's pretty much the exact antithesis of what I grew up thinking a person ought to eat in Northern California. We eat a lot of veggies here. We're all about the low-cal meals and cutting back on our cholesterol to the greatest extent possible. We may not all eat fresh all the time, but many Californians will probably at least say that that's what they believe in to the greatest extent possible. Of course, you know I was all too happy to order the occasional bacon cheeseburger with fries myself, but I always did so to the tune of disgusted looks and cries of "how can you eat that" from all of my friends, so you can probably imagine that that's not really the socially acceptable norm. We also are collectively really into shit like jogging, vegetarianism, animal rights, recycling and near hippie-level acceptance of diversity, just like you see in the movies.

It wasn't just the food in Montana that was a mystery to me either. The way of life there was like night and day compared to what I was really used to as well. I'm not going to get into all the specifics, since I don't want to go off on too big of a tangent, but people had completely different definitions of concepts like achievement, family, commitment, religion, "correct" political leanings, and so forth as well. Again, not saying that was wrong, per se, but it was very different to the point where it was actually baffling on a personal level.

I'm sure the confusion -- especially about food preferences -- probably went both ways though. Yeah, I may have been shocked at taco in a bag, the fact that "vegetarian" was practically a dirty word, or the widespread use of actual lard being used to make French fries, but I'm sure your typical Montanan probably looks at my sushi, vegetable pizza with whole wheat crust, or clam chowder in a bread bowl and thinks the exact same thing.

It's just interesting to think about what different experiences we can have living different places and what a wonderful barometer things like favorite local foods really make. I'll have to think more about this and revisit the idea at some point -- or several -- in the future.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Cat's First Sushi Rolls: New Foodie Adventures for a Brand New Year

I've been wanting to try my hand at making my own sushi rolls for a really long time now. However, I lacked the proper materials and the know-how to actually do so. At least that was the case until I got some really nice sushi-making supplies and plates for Christmas from my mother! Then my only excuse was not knowing what the hell I was doing. We all know that never stops me though, so I naturally was eager to generate some sushi rolls as soon as possible

That brings me to the first of many firsts this post represents. I actually followed the directions in the sushi-making book I got with my supplies to avoid potentially disgusting results. I've had pre-made sushi rolls a few isolated times in the past, but I honestly had no clue how they are made, so I figured it would be better not to start playing around with the recipe just yet. 

You know that was hard for me, you guys! I never, ever look to directions to figure out how to do something new. I might do some research or something, but honest-to-God directions are usually something I don't bother with unless I'm really stuck. Recipes especially are typically something I consider to be guidelines and nothing more. Good thing Japanese cuisine intimidates me so much!

The first order of business was to make the rice. In case you don't know, you can't just use any old rice to make sushi. You need short-grain Japanese sushi rice (also known as "sticky rice"). You make it pretty much the same way you make normal rice to start with -- one part rice to one part water. I made 2 cups worth of rice, so I added 2 cups of water. I wound up adding more water periodically to keep my rice from burning before it was actually done though.

Once your rice is finished, you add it to a decent-sized bowl that can be made of pretty much anything but metal. Why? Because sushi rice has vinegar in it apparently and vinegar interacts with metal to produce foul flavors that no one wants in their food. No, I did not actually know about the vinegar previously, because sushi has never tasted like vinegar to me in the past. Like I said -- I've eaten it, but had no clue about the ingredients or anything.

That's why the amount of white vinegar the recipe wanted me to add to that rice scared me a little. They wanted me to put a whole 1/2 cup in there for that amount of rice and that seemed like a lot to me, especially since some of the recipes I'd seen online only called for a few tablespoons. I can eat vinegar under special circumstances, but I really don't like it as a rule and let me tell you that 1/2 cup of vinegar blew me away smell-wise when I was adding it. 

I was sure that rice was not going to taste good and I was sure I would live to regret not cutting the amount of vinegar down considerably. I resisted the urge to do so though. I successfully stuck to my conviction to actually follow the recipe instead and added all of it despite every bone in my body telling me not to. Then I mixed it in with my little bamboo paddle just like I was supposed to.

Once your rice has cooled off to room temperature (under a towel to keep it moist), you're ready to start rolling. Now, I'm going to warn you. This part is not easy and I'm not really going to attempt to tell you how to create a sushi roll here. You'd be so much better off finding a YouTube video or a picture tutorial to help you instead. Suffice it to say that you arrange your bamboo rolling mat, nori wrapper, rice and fillings like you see in the picture above. Then you attempt to make rolls that actually stick together properly. Then you watch your self esteem plummet when your rolls look like something a first-grader made.

I had a couple of fail rolls for sure, but surprisingly all of the rolls stuck together regardless of how much fail they may have had. They were certainly all edible if not the most beautiful sushi rolls I'd ever seen. Our fillings were cucumber, carrot, imitation crab meat and spicy tuna. Each roll had some combination of those things except for the one we made that had spinach in it. Don't do spinach, you guys. It sucks as a sushi filling and makes it that much harder to shape your roll. It doesn't add anything flavor-wise either, so I'm never doing it again. The amount of rice I made plus five nori sheets (each cut in half) was exactly enough to create ten complete rolls. Each roll yielded six pieces of sushi. 

Once all the sushi was rolled and cut, we put it all in a Tupperware container to chill in the fridge and eat later on. (This was our New Year's Eve dinner, actually.) Once we did it eat though? Oh, my God!! It was just... amazing. Seriously, this sushi tasted perfect and was literally the most delicious thing I can remember putting in my mouth in a long time. It didn't taste vinegary or sour at all and I honestly can't see myself making sushi rice any other way in the future. It was that good, balanced and amazing.

Actually, I am still reeling at how good this meal was. It was such a simple food -- just vinegared rice, nori, vegetables and seafood. Nothing else. No fancy seasonings (except for the wasabi and soy sauce we ate with it as condiments). Even so, it had an amazing amount of flavor and was very, very satisfying and filling. I see myself making and eating a lot more of it in the future for sure. And to think I got a result this incredible from following -- *shudder* -- directions! Don't tell anybody, OK?

What We Ate for New Year's: "Hoppin' John" for Luck

If you read my Monterey recipes column at The Examiner, then you may already have seen me talk a little bit about Hoppin' John. However, I actually wound up making a very different recipe from the one I posted there when I went to make my own New Year's dinner. The Examiner recipe was meant to be a quick and easy last-minute dish people could make in a short amount of time while this one is actually a vegan recipe meant to slow-cook for several hours.

It is still incredibly easy to make though and I like to think it's true to the original spirit of the dish. For those of you who don't know, Hoppin' John is a Southern dish that consists of black-eyed peas, rice and tomatoes. It often also typically contains greens and pork of some sort. Quite a few recipes call for a ham bone or ham hock, but I've seen some that revolve around sausage or ground pork instead.

Over the years, this dish has become something many people eat on New Year's because black-eyed peas, greens and pork are all considered to be symbols of luck and prosperity. Pigs traditionally represent progress while greens and beans are chosen because of the way they resemble money -- paper dollars and coins respectively. 

The following is the recipe I actually used and it was excellent. If I were to change anything about it, I'd swap the minced onion and cayenne for freshly chopped white onion and jalapeno, but I was out of those, so I made do.

  • 1 package dried black-eyed peas
  • 1 cup dried rice (a combination of brown and wild varieties)
  • 1 cup green salsa
  • 2 tablespoons salt-free garlic herb seasoning
  • 2 tablespoons dried minced onion
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
  • Vegetable broth
You can either pre-soak your black-eyed peas overnight or quick boil them in water for 20-30 minutes to get them semi-hydrated before you assemble the rest of your dish. I quick-boiled mine, just FYI. Then I added a generous amount of vegetable stock to get them cooked most of the way before I added the rice and other ingredients. I don't really recall how long I let mine simmer, but it was something in the ballpark of an hour.

Next, add your rice along with another cup of vegetable stock. Also add your seasonings, but not the salsa. Then just simmer the mixture on low until your rice and beans are tender. Watch it to make sure it's not getting dry and burning though. If it is, add more vegetable broth in small amounts at a time to keep everything moving along. When you get to the point where it's finished, add your salsa and fold it in gently. Let stand for 10-15 minutes and serve.

As you can see in the picture above, I tried a little as soon as it was done and ate it over a bed of raw spinach to make it like a little bowl full of good fortune and money symbols. I was making pork chops to go with it and they weren't done yet. However, I was hungry anyway and couldn't wait to sample some.

After the pork chops came out, I ate some more along with some reheated squash medley leftover from another meal. The chop is one of the thick-cut pork chops they carry at Costco like the ones I featured in my grilled pork chop post from over the summer. This one isn't grilled though. It was seasoned with garlic pepper and baked in the oven at 350 until done through. That's it!

If there is anything that I really like, it's simple, comforting food that is still incredibly tasty and delicious. This meal totally fit the bill, too. I heartily enjoyed snacking on the leftovers today... probably a little too much. Fun fact: leftover Hoppin' John eaten the next day is called "Skippin' Jenny" instead. You've really got to love the witty names!