It’s been a minute since I last did a mailbag. The time feels right for another!
No need for a fussy prelude here—let’s get right to your questions!
If you could splurge on one thing, what would it be?
I’m going to take this question in a bit of a Brewster’s Millions spirit—that is, that I shouldn’t answer this with anything practical, like “oh, we’d finally build out that extra bathroom in the basement” or whatever.
One thing I’ve always wanted to do—but have never actually seriously considered doing—is attend a major international sporting event like the Olympics or the World Cup. I acknowledge all the problems those events have, but I’m still a big goober for the pageantry, and I think it would be amazing to attend one of them.
(Bonus points if it’s not in a really problematic host country.)
How do you feel about the Bearcats’ move to the Big 12?
I could not be more excited. I know that it’s going to be an adjustment for the Big 12, losing Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC. Frankly, there’s no stable place to be in college sports that isn’t in the SEC or Big Ten. That said, going from the American Conference to the Big 12 is a big jump up for the Bearcats, similar to the one they made to the Big East in 2005 (before that conference was gutted by the 2010-14 round of realignment.)
Even without Oklahoma and Texas, I think the Big 12 is going to be a super fun league. There’s hardly a weak link in the whole conference in football—a year ago, I would’ve said Kansas was the only dead weight, and they’re suddenly perky again too. Meanwhile, both men’s and women’s basketball are going to be terrific. I think it’s going to make for a lot of really solid matchups and I just hope that Cincinnati continues to capitalize on their opportunities.
When are you doing Podcast Project 2.0?
Whew, that’s a great question.
For those who aren’t aware, when I first launched this newsletter way back in 2019, it was (briefly) in support of a podcast project, the sports-focused The Seventh Circle. I think the work that my co-host and I put out was good, but we didn’t continue it for a number of reasons. Perhaps the biggest reason was that a podcast is a big time ask, both for creator and listener!
When we were recording The Seventh Circle, I was taking big chunks out of my weekends to go into the studio to record, and it was really disruptive to my home life in a way that writing isn’t; I spend a lot of time on writing, but it can come in bits and pieces as I work around everything else I have to do.
It’s also a lot to ask people to take the time to listen, and hard to build an audience. For as much as I put out here—and this is a relatively high-output newsletter—you can usually read everything I write in a half-hour a week, tops.
I’ve occasionally had ideas for new podcast projects, but I find it hard to make the math work on juice vs. squeeze.
Besides, I’ve never liked listening to my own voice all that much.
What's your favorite niche sport?
No, seriously, though—this is a great question, and I’ve got a few answers on it.
I remember back during the deep pandemic days, when there were no real professional sports on TV, watching a professional cornhole tournament on ESPN and finding it surprisingly entertaining.
Also, just this weekend, I was at my kids’ soccer game (in a seasonal indoor league) and was thinking about how indoor soccer should’ve caught on more as a professional sport. It’s so much faster-paced and high-scoring than regular soccer. This opinion may be biased by my growing up in Cleveland during the days when the Cleveland Crunch were winning NPSL titles, but still: it should be a thing.
Finally, I think disc golf should replace regular golf as a sport. It’s just more fun.
Favorite thing to grill? Also, salmon. How do you prepare it?
I love grilling chicken thighs, because the difference between grilling them and preparing them pretty much any other way is so big. They’re always good.
For salmon? I make it a lot for weeknight dinners—it’s one of the few non-processed proteins that my kids actually enjoy—and I usually whisk together a simple glaze of olive oil, soy sauce and maple syrup that I brush over it and broil until crispy.
More importantly—salmon: how do you know when it’s ready?
I do not trust my eyes or any rule of thumb on cooking any protein; I use an instant-read thermometer for all of it, and I pull the salmon out when it’s at 130 degrees.
What is the family-friendly chicken thigh marinade of the Gods?
Everyone’s family is different—I have two kids who won’t eat chicken nuggets, for crying out loud—but I love to do a marinade with 1/2 cup of soy sauce, a few cloves of chopped garlic, and a bottle of cane-sugar-based fruit-flavored soda like Jarritos. It always crisps up really nicely and has a strong-but-not-spicy flavor.
Alternately, I’ve found my kids surprisingly receptive to a shawarma chicken, and this recipe works really well:
I have an entire household with texture sensitivities and generally unadventurous palates. How do I feed them something that isn't chicken nuggets?
If given their way, my kids would eat pizza or pasta at every meal. But one thing I’ve had occasional success with is “disassembling” dinner. That is, breaking it down to an assortment of ingredients and asking them to pick at least three things that they’ll put on their plate a la carte. I’ve done this with taco nights, a Mediterranean-ish spread with hummus, bell pepper, olives, cucumber, etc., stir-fries and so on.
Of course, I invite readers to weigh in with their own answers on all of these questions, but perhaps especially this one?
Also, this gives me a chance to post John Mulaney’s song about Plain Noodles With A Little Bit of Butter from The Sack Lunch Bunch:
Is there a kitchen gadget that you don't own that you currently have at the top of your wishlist?
This question would’ve also worked if you’d stopped at “is there a kitchen gadget that you don’t own?”
I love kitchen gadgets. I think every gift I’ve received in the last 10 years has been a kitchen gadget. Our front coat closet is full of kitchen gadgets, as I wrote about a few months ago:
That said, one silly little thing I’ve had in my cart for a long time but haven’t quite found reason to purchase is a dumpling press like this:
It looks silly and overdesigned, but it also looks fun!
Speaking of which—
Have you retried or would you ever retry to make the soup dumplings?
Hey, look at the smooth segue here.
“The soup dumplings” here refer to an article I wrote back in early 2020 that remains one of the most-read things I’ve ever published on this site, where I shared my absolute fiasco of an experience attempting to make xiaolongbao at home.
To quote Matt Damon in Rounders, were I to attempt it again, I’d feel a bit “like Buckner walking back into Shea”, so thoroughly did I biff the attempt.
I feel like the experience—aside from providing me great fodder for writing—was a good lesson in culinary hubris, about the peril of thinking you can do something just because it doesn’t look that hard. A proper dumpling requires a great deal of skill to execute properly, and having a good recipe might be 20% of the battle. The rest is having the technique and the practiced hand to form them properly.
Really, I should probably leave that to the professionals.
Bay leaves: placebo of the culinary world?
If a recipe calls for bay leaves, I put them in. But I have no idea what they do.
How much does weather or the season affect your taste (for either food or cocktail?) If it does, why and in what way?
Oh, hugely so.
On the food end, all I want to do in the winter is cook in my Dutch oven—soups, stews, chilis, all sorts of hearty, bubbling one-pot meals. But as we get into spring and summer, I try to cook as many things as I can on the grill, and want generally lighter, fresher stuff. (There’s no culinary experience that can compare to a freshly-picked tomato sprinkled with salt, IMO.)
For drinks, it’s much the same. Fall and winter are The Bourbon Months, and I like comforting cocktails. In springtime, I flip the switch to clear liquor—gin and tequila, primarily—or just light beer.
In honor of the nice weather here in Northeast Ohio, can we get an arbitrary and biased ranking of “cheap beers to drink when it’s hot as hell and I just want to relax outside while the kids play and ignore responsibilities for an afternoon” beers?
Another magnificent segue, Scott.
Here’s my summertime All-Star Team of backyard beers, in no particular order:
Narragansett Lager (Hi, Neighbor!)
Braxton Garage Beer (a Covington, Kentucky-based brewery)
Miller High Life (the Champagne of Beers, and the basis for a Spaghett)
West Sixth Brewing’s Cerveza (a Lexington, Kentucky beer)
And, of course, they need a proper koozie.
Most generally-useful spice that seems at first it would be niche?
Dry mustard. It’s a great addition to dry rubs—I use it in Magic Dust—but it’s also good in deviled eggs, macaroni and cheese, various sauces, and so on. It’s never the most present thing but it does a lot of lifting in the background.
What's your favorite use of chili crisp? What's your silliest use of chili crisp?
Favorite is to throw a little bit in a pan and just fry an egg right in it.
Silliest? Well, now I feel like I’ve got to make a chili crisp cocktail.
Got this set of locally made bitters but the makers don’t have recipe suggestions for them. What would be good pairings that don’t require obscure liqueurs?
Okay, I’m going free association like I’m in the Fast Money round of Family Feud here:
Chocolate Bitters: The Handsome Idiot or The Sea Serpent
Grapefruit Bitters: My heart is telling me to make something halfway in between a Paloma and Ranch Water here—silver tequila, lime, bitters and Topo Chico
Rose Sage Bitters: I’m thinking a Bee’s Knees variant with gin and honey, and possibly thyme or rosemary steeped in the honey syrup?
Bonfire: In the winter months I would’ve said an Old-Fashioned, but it’s getting warmer out, so I think a Mojito or a Caipirinha?
Creole: not knowing exactly what these are, I’d make a Sazerac and use them in lieu of Peychaud’s
Favorite playlist to cook to?
I’d like to say that it is the “AC’s Bar and Grill” jukebox playlist that I assembled with the help of readers a few years ago:
But the honest truth is that it is 100% the Spotify “Yacht Rock” playlist:
I couldn’t fit every question I got in today, and so I’ll have a Part II soon…
Think I’m off-base with my answers and want to weigh in with your own? Got more questions that didn’t make the cut? Join us in the comments!
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)
Several years ago, my Louisiana Cajun father was visiting, and was outraged to learn I didn’t have any bay leaves and didn’t see their purpose. The next day he went to the grocery store and came back with some bay leaves, and then told me to boil water and throw in two bay leaves. After it cooled a little I tasted it. I think there’s some merit to the notion that most people have stale bay leaves months past their actual use taking up space in their pantries and stews, but I get it now. There really is a purpose to them, if they’re reasonably fresh. It’s sort of like mint without the pomp and circumstance. Like mint’s chill, salt of the earth cousin who works hard but doesn’t want any attention for it.
There's a world of difference in texture avoidance, from your bog-standard "picky eaters" all the way up to "diagnosed sensory processing disorders," and while I won't pretend to be a doctor and do any sort of diagnosing, it may be something to read about and consider.
Beyond that, I was a fairly picky, texture-averse eater as a child, and I found the biggest thing that helped me get out of that and into trying new things was being involved in the planning and cooking process. Being able to "investigate" and get used to the textures with my hands and smells of the various foods allowed the mouthfeel to not be such a surprise, and the flavors took center stage.
I've also heard from parent friends that, if they have a friend(even an adult they like who isn't related to them) who likes to eat everything, having meals with those friends will help kids try stuff. "Oh, Jack/Jill loves [X], maybe I'll like it too" sort of stuff.
(I still do not care for broccoli or cauliflower based on their texture, but can eat them to be polite now, and have added a whole bunch of veggies to my life that I wouldn't eat as a kid)