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Monday, August 20, 2007

Impromptu Chicken Tour

On Friday we were, as Mr. Chalmers would say, staring down the barrel of a long, hot weekend without Internet access, and we needed to get out of town. So we boarded the dogs last-minute and took off before dawn on Saturday, heading in the general directions of north and west, and not sure how far we'd get (the bug has been somewhat terrible in the car lately, because it's hard for her to fall asleep in her very upright front-facing car seat, she can't get comfortable, she wants to be driving or something, and all of this makes her angry). She did get a few good naps in, though:

On a whim, we splurged on tickets for the Chattanooga aquarium thinking it'd be dull but maybe fun for the bug, but it was much better than we'd anticipated. I guess the elder Chalmerses hadn't been to an aquarium in a while, because the sharks and penguins and jellyfish and whatnot were really impressive. And of course the bug got a kick out of it.

Our first food stop was in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the Slick Pig. I'd never had their famous smoked chicken wings before, and Mr. Chalmers wanted us to try them. Here they are:

They were remarkably similar to his re-creation of them, but they seemed to have been smoked a bit longer and there was something slightly spicy in the marinade—maybe just a little black pepper? Anyway, they were great, and the bug was happy with that slice of garlic toast and a few bites of intensely flavorful chicken—we'd been feeding her car-trip snacks to keep her calm (-ish) on the road: steamed zucchini chunks, rice cakes, graham crackers, oyster crackers, grapes.

We made our way to Nashville, walked around downtown in the incredible heat awhile, then drove around trying to decide what to do. Of course there was only one thing we could do, and that was make a stop at Prince's Hot Chicken Shack—none of us had been there before, but we'd read plenty about Nashville's hot chicken. This was some weird stuff:

For the life of me I can't figure out how it's done. It's fried chicken—very expertly fried chicken, crisp outside and moist inside, freshly made and probably not in a deep-fryer—but it's got these spices . . . sort of attached to it. Some of the spice mixture is in the dredge or batter, but most of it seems to be added after the chicken is fried, which results not in a sauce exactly but in a spicy, hot paste all over the crust. Served on top of white bread and topped with pickle slices. The woman behind the counter insisted we get "medium" spiciness on our first visit, and move up to hot or extra-hot the next time we came. The medium was not too spicy, but it was good anyway. I would've liked more salt in the spice mixture, though, which I think would have brought out the actual flavor of the chiles rather than just the heat. It was a bizarre experience all around: grim strip mall, no air-conditioning (it was about 108 degrees out that late-afternoon, and the sun was streaming in the front window), a guy sitting next to the garbage can for no apparent reason other than to make sure you got all your bones and paper plates in the can, and there were two hipsters (for lack of a newer word) heading in as we were leaving.

We stayed in Clarkesville, Tennessee, had a couple of beers on the patio of a strange Korean-Chinese restaurant across a vacant lot from the motel, and I have a question for any parents who might be reading this: How on earth do you get kids to fall asleep in a motel room? The bug eventually did, while watching my new favorite show, Ice Road Truckers, but her four hours of sleep came at great cost and we were up at 3 a.m. Central Time, before anyone in Clarkesville makes coffee to sell to travelers like us.

We took the mountainous small-windy-road route on the way home yesterday, stopping for lunch at the Hole in the Wall diner, in Blairsville.

The bug's dress is buttoned up like that so that the car seat strap wouldn't irritate her neck. Her dad had the special catfish, which was fried, of course, but in a dark-brown caramelized batter rather than the usual (in Georgia) cornmeal crust. The waitress specifically recommended the Reuben, and since I'm a fan of the sandwich I had to order it. Fantastic. The perfect Reuben, you might even say: good corned beef (I'd prefer to save pastrami for a plain old pastrami sandwich on rye with mustard), super-tangy sauerkraut, Swiss, old-fashioned Russian dressing, and buttered toasted rye. It wasn't overstuffed, either, so it was all too easy to eat.

We stopped for a death march—excuse me, short hike—at De Soto Falls, and the bug liked running along the trails so much that I've been fantasizing about taking her on a real hike sometime soon. When fall comes.

As it should be with all vacations, we're glad to be home and glad we left.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Moussaka, at Last

I made a really good moussaka once when I lived in Astoria, the Greek neighborhood in Queens, and I haven't made it again because I couldn't remember what recipe I used (if any) and none of the ones in my books seemed right. I got a gorgeous eggplant from the tomato-and-corn farm the other day, so I tried to re-create the 1996 version from memory. This was close, but I'm not sure what it needs to make it just like the other one, so I'll post the recipe here for future reference. Still, it's pretty good. The bug sure liked it as a third course for her lunch today following an entire ear of corn that she ate off the cob all by herself and a bowl of brown rice cereal, plums, and blackberries that she ate with a spoon—she refuses to let us feed her anymore, and to be fair she doesn't really need our help getting food in her mouth: today she crawled into the back of a cupboard and found a half box of crackers and proceeded to eat them (and she gave the dogs a few).

There are three parts to moussaka: sliced vegetables (here eggplant and potato, but you can also use zucchini or yellow squash, or any combination), a tomato sauce (here with lamb, but you could certainly use beef or venison or leave the meat out altogether), and a béchamel. I had leftover cooked lamb that I'd food-processed and frozen, but you could use fresh ground lamb or beef: cook it in the skillet before you cook the onions, and drain off the excess fat; add the onions and garlic, and proceed with the sauce.


4 tablespoons olive oil
1 large eggplant
Salt and black pepper
1 1/2 onions, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
About 2 cups finely shredded cooked lamb
2 (14.5-ounce) cans tomatoes, pureed in a food processor
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
Handful of fresh mint, parsley, and oregano, chopped
2 large baking potatoes
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons flour
2 cups milk
1 egg
Freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup grated firm cheese, such as Gruyère (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Use 2 tablespoons of the oil to generously oil two baking sheets. Peel the eggplant and thinly slice it into rounds. Arrange the slices on the baking sheets, then flip them over so that both sides of the slices have a bit of oil on them. Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper. Roast for about 10 minutes, until light golden brown and soft. Set aside.

Make the meat sauce: Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large skillet over medium heat and add the onions and garlic. Sauté for a few minutes, until soft but not browned. Add the lamb, tomatoes, cinnamon, cloves, and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for 30 minutes. Taste and add more salt and pepper if necessary—it should be well seasoned. Stir in the herbs and remove from the heat.

Peel and thinly slice the potatoes into rounds. With the remaining oil, oil a 9-by-13-inch baking dish (I used an 8 1/2-by-11-inch dish and had stuff leftover to half-fill a 9-inch square pan). Arrange a layer of potatoes in the bottom of the dish and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cover with a thick layer of meat sauce, then a layer of roasted eggplant, followed by a thin layer of meat sauce, then potatoes, and so on, ending with a layer of eggplant. Set the casserole aside.

Make the béchamel: In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Stir in the flour and cook for about 3 minutes, until smooth and very light golden. Remove from the heat and immediately pour in the milk, whisking constantly. Return to the heat and cook, whisking constantly, until the sauce is thick and smooth. Remove from the heat and whisk in the egg. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg, and stir in the cheese, if using (I used some leftover grated mozzarella—or mootzadell, as they say on the show we're watching now while we wait impatiently for season 4 of The Wire to be released on DVD—but a Swiss-type cheese would be better).

Pour the béchamel over the top of the casserole, to completely cover it. Bake for I forget how long—maybe an hour or so, until lightly browned on top and the potatoes are soft. Let the moussaka sit for a while before scooping out squares of it. I made this in the morning, let it cool, stuck it in the fridge, then reheated it in the evening, and it didn't suffer too much. Cover with foil, put in the oven, set the oven temperature to 350 degrees, and heat for about 45 minutes, uncovering for the last 15.
This afternoon we set up a new pool in the yard (the first one was punctured, probably by the neighbors' cat, which I saw draped over one side of it). The bug had a grand time. The city pools are closed or on much-reduced hours now that it's August, but it sure feels like summer to me.

Here she was meticulously putting sunscreen (and rubbing it in) on each magnolia leaf.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007


While the bug napped, I made a dress to go with the Wisp shawl thing (basically finished except for the hem and some finishing. I tried to copy a cotton slip from Banana Republic, but somehow it ended up more fitted, so I changed the shape of it a little. I think I'll make regular straps, maybe double-stranded, rather than tying them at the back, which is a look I like on other people but not me. I probably should've put a zipper in the side seam, but it works okay without one.