Wednesday, June 30, 2010

On the Road: Hot Dogs

hot dog
Hot dog by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Just like Charles Kuralt, this week I’m on the road for the Salon Kitchen Challenge, checking out hot dogs in Chattanooga, Tennessee, home of the Choo-Choo (pardon me, boys, while I hum a few bars), spectacular views of and from Lookout Mountain and a really cool aquarium. And yes, the All-American hot dog.

For me, hot dogs taste of sweat and sunscreen, saltwater and chlorine. They are staples of ball parks, tourist trap beach towns, children’s birthday parties with clowns, and kid menus all across town. I like hot dogs beefy, with a Pollock-like squidge of ketchup, mustard and pickle relish from little plastic packets, like the one above from the stand outside the Tennessee Aquarium.
When I'm traveling, I try to eat where the locals eat, and on this visit to Chattanooga, my brother recommended Nikki's Drive-in, a diner on a hill just north of the mighty Tennessee River.

nikki's sign
Nikki's Drive-In by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Nikki's advertises itself as the "Best Little Seafood House in Town" and the fried shrimp, in all their Gulf-advertised glory, looked fine, but today we went diner-style, with cheeseburgers and chicken strips for the kids and a chili dog for me.

Nikki's Drive-In by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

That's chili-slaw dog, my friends, and Nikki's served it so you can't even tell there's a hot dog underneath the chili. And yes, those are beans in the chili. In fact, the chili is just the way I like it, not the finely ground "hot dog chili" that you find at places like Atlanta's Varsity. ("What'll ya have? What'll ya have?"). There's a place in this world for that fine product, but I prefer a meaty, chunky chili with beans. This dog was topped with a mildly sweet, coarsely shredded coleslaw, the perfect counterpoint to the spicy and meaty goings-on.

chili slaw dog
Nikki's chili slaw dog by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I'm not going to pretend that we ate wheatberries and seitan for the rest of the meal. We indulged, and ordered a large platter of onion rings, and they were the best I've ever eaten. Not greasy, nor overly salty. Just crunchy, oniony, fried heaven. I suppose in diner-speak, this meal may be considered a "tube steak and lube job." Get your mind out of the gutter, tube steak is another phrase for hot dog and a plate of onion rings should be an indulgence taken no more often than you get the oil changed in your car.

onion rings
Nikki's onion rings by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Hot dogs are not typical home food for my family- I have young children and hot dogs are a staple of restaurant kids' menus - we eat enough nitrites and nitrates as it is. But, when I do make chili slaw dogs at home, I'd buy high-quality franks and buns and make this chili.

Chili with Beans
1 pound lean ground beef
1 onion, chopped
1 (6 oz.) can tomato paste
2 (15 oz.) cans chili beans or red kidney beans
1 (14. 5 oz.) can diced tomatoes
1/2 cup water
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon chili powder

1. In a large pan, cook beef until browned thoroughly. Remove from heat. Pour grease from pan.

2. Add onion and a tablespoon or two of water and cook until soft. Add tomato paste and stir about two minutes. Add beans, tomatoes, water and seasonings and stir completely. Let simmer about 30 minutes.
(adapted from the back of the Bush's beans can.)

For the topping, I make my usual slaw but add a spoonful of sugar. Coarsely shred cabbage, then dress with mayonnaise thinned with a bit of pickle juice, salt and pepper.

Images & Text © 2010, Lucy Mercer.

Miss Abbey by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Lucy, you kill me. You have really perfected this form of writing. I read every week.