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Alone at the Bar

If you’re by yourself in a city where you’ve never been, where no one knows you, and you’re tired, hungry, and in need of a glass of wine, where do you go? Do you get in your car and drive to the nearest chain? Do you wander downstairs to your hotel’s restaurant – often convenient to its karaoke bar? Do you, heaven forbid, eat fast food? By no means.

Here’s what you do: you find out the name of the finest restaurant in town, and you go in. Unannounced. No reservation. You don’t need no reservation! You’re sitting at the bar.

The experience is more often than not delightful. You get served a drink immediately – no trivial matter if you are in need. There is a good chance that you’ll be seated next to interesting and garrulous people, and you can dine.

Think about it. You can’t be a bartender in one of these places without being one of those wonderful people who have a highly refined sense of the needs of others – in this case you. They are fast, attentive, careful to keep your glass full and right there when you need them to be.

When I was traveling often, I had wonderful bar meals at wonderful restaurants like Spiaggia in Chicago, Gary Danko in San Francisco and Spago in Los Angeles. Two weeks ago in Atlanta, I did it again. This time at the Woodfire Grill. This restaurant gets local food in season and prepares it like southerners. Southerners who happen to be incredible cooks. They have an outrageously good wine list, weighted towards French and other old world wines, and they know what goes well with what. I tried their tasting menu with wines paired for each dish and found the interesting and garrulous people I had hoped to meet. In this case, we became friendly enough to share a taste of each of our separate dishes.

So the next time, you see a solitary soul staring at his drink at the bar. Don’t feel sorry for him. He’s having the time of his life!

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Shrimp Head Stock

Though not all the world’s fine cuisines began as peasant food, many owe some of their most unique creations to the ingenuity of some poor man or woman trying desperately not to starve. Some very hungry man ate the first raw oyster. Another, lacking an oven or a knife, coated a dead chicken in mud and built a fire on top of it. In Louisiana, they boiled shrimp heads and skins so that they’d have something left after the good part was gone.

These Cajuns, bless their poor peasant hearts, created one of the finest stocks in the world. I had the honor of making one the other day, courtesy of Huntsville’s newest, and possibly its only, seafood market that sells shrimp with the heads still on. An aside in case you didn’t know – shrimp heads fall off after three days or so. You can sell shrimp with no heads a lot longer. Think about that when you’re shopping for shrimp.

Back to the stock. Drop the shrimp heads and skins in a pot of hot olive oil and toss with paprika and black pepper. Cook until everything is pink. Add a bottle of white wine and cook till it’s reduced. Add vegetables, spices, water and boil slowly for an hour or so. The result is this rich, red powerful stock. So strong it’s what you’d use to revive a dying man.

And here’s how to put the stock to good use. Make a butter roux – butter and flour stirred until caramel colored – toss in the Cajun trinity – onions, celery, bell peppers – stir in crushed tomatoes and corn and then a generous portion of the shrimp head stock. Let it bubble for a long time and then, just before you serve, dump in the shrimp whose heads you recently removed.

Serve it only to people you really like, or to people who have paid you to make it. Both will be very, very happy.

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One of my first blogs was about margarine, a subject about which I have some passion. I wondered how it came to be, why a human being with a choice would eat it, and overall my bewilderment that it exists at all. I really just don’t understand why one would eat something avowedly fake and think it was a good thing.

My love of real butter deepened, though, last week when I made a coq au vin for my regular dieting customers (yes, there is indeed a diet that does allow if not celebrate chicken in wine). This French recipe, courtesy of Julia Child, requires that the chicken, mushrooms and onions, all essentials, be cooked in hot butter. Because I am a simple cook and not Julia Child, I worried that my commercial stove top – which could probably render ore into iron – would burn the butter. So I clarified it – a simple process to remove the milk solids that will burn at low temperatures.

For someone who regularly cooks with either olive oil, canola or grape seed oil, this ghee – as it is known in India – is fascinating stuff. The chicken slides around in the pan and gets the right shade of brown without sticking or burning. Hot spots didn’t seem to affect the browning. Mushrooms retain all their nice moisture while cooking to a light tan all over. I was most pleased, and plan to use it again and again. You should too.

And here’s a nice way to make a morning omelet special. Cook it in whatever oil you like, but serve it atop a pat of butter. It will melt, flow and form a delicious base for you to break your evening fast.

Bon appétit.