Summer, and I was a little kid. Up the alley and across Washington Avenue, the wooden firehouse wasn't much bigger than a two-car garage, but the volunteer firemen did a fundraiser that was memorable year after year.
At the town playground a block away, they would build a cement block firepit, and over a wood-stoked fire, barbecue half-chickens that were so delectable that my parents would buy two entire chickens for the four of us, counting on the leftovers to feed us for a couple days. There weren't many leftovers, to be honest, those chickens were so good.
In years that passed, my parents bought a little barbecue grill, and began scorching their own version of summer chicken. But it never tasted the same as the chicken fire-grilled by the guys who flipped and sprayed and bagged for the firehouse fund-raiser.
While I was not a prodigy of flavors as a child, I did know that what my parents grilled, while delicious and satisfying, was not the same. No matter, I was a kid, and it was their house, and messing with food flavors needed to wait until I was grown, on my own, and could afford to mess with food with my husband.
Seeking that firehouse flavor, we examined my childhood memories of how the chicken was cooked. No doubt at all that it was an open pit grill. But the certainties ended there. How did the flavor change? Surely it must have been the wood, as fire is fire is fire, and chickens is chickens is chickens. We used charcoal, like my parents did, with no luck. We added hickory, to see if that was the difference, as the firemen's fund raiser did cook over wood chunks. No luck.
More than forty years later, I came across an interesting recipe for roasting chicken breasts on the rib, an unattributed marinade for cooking that said, in essence, use a tablespoon each of fresh parsley, minced garlic, olive oil, and vinegar, a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of pepper. Slop the chicken around in it for a couple of hours prior to baking at 400 degrees for 30 minutes or until it registers 180 degrees on a meat thermometer.
While extremely delicious, the chicken wasn't firehouse chicken. Yet there was something...
Something that made me keep going back and back for sneaking tidbits long after dinner was done. Something that made me feel like I was remembering a taste from long ago. Having watched the men grilling the chickens when I was a kid, I knew they hadn't had parsley, nor did they pepper the meat. And the chickens didn't taste like garlic. Let's see, that leaves salt, oil, and -- vinegar! Was that what the men sprayed onto the chicken? I'd always thought it was water to keep the flames from burning the chicken. But what if it wasn't?
The very next batch of chicken wings I cooked for a game day, I marinated in olive oil, salt, and vinegar. BINGO! Firehouse Chicken!
Will I ever do chicken any other way again?
However, let's return to the garlic. There was another taste sensation from my childhood: Tony's Salad. Tony's Cottage Inn was a restaurant the next county up from us, in Lewistown, Pennsylvania. It was just about the finest dining around our rural area, serving steaks and spaghetti with large handmade meatballs. And if you wanted a salad with dinner, the only salad they served was Tony's.
Tony's Salad was delicious, flavorful and with a hint of a bite -- not in every bite, mind you, but just here and there. I loved that salad, and never could get enough of it. I just couldn't afford to eat there on a teenager's allowance.
My mother had taught me how to make a salad dressing with corn oil and apple cider vinegar, equal amounts, with a couple teaspoons of black pepper and salt, all shaken together in a jar. The dressing makes a zesty salad, perfect for hot weather, and interestingly enough, a delicious drizzle over hot potatoes with butter. With that as a starting point, I tried everything I knew to get my salads tasting like Tony's from the time I was about sixteen all the way to the present day. I tried garlic powder, garlic juice, garlic salt, minced garlic. I tried white vinegar, cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, wine vinegar. Corn oil? Soybean oil? Grapeseed oil? Olive oil?
I gave up, and just went to Tony's every time I visited Pennsylvania.
Then one day, a couple months ago, I was cooking with Alex in our kitchen. Something she was making required a lot of garlic, so she had smashed up a whole head of the garlic she grows in our front yard. Oops, too much for the recipe! "Any ideas what to do with the rest of this?" she asked. "Cover it in oil," I told her as if I knew what I was talking about. "It will keep for a few days that way."
The olive oil-covered garlic sat on the counter for some days, and I was just about to toss it, but when I opened the jar and sniffed, the aroma was heavenly. I knew I could use it to flavor a stir-fry, or make a batch of chimichurri with it, but what if I just tossed a salad with it?
So I did. And after all these years, I'd discovered just how Tony's Restaurant was able to make vat upon vat of salad dressing in any season: smashed garlic in olive oil. Simple enough for even the dumbest kitchen helper to make, too simple for me to believe it could be The One.
Every couple days now, I mash about 8 cloves of garlic (the flat side of a meat tenderizer works great) and cover them with a cup of olive oil. Three days later (or so) it's ready for a salad, and topped with a few shakes of salt. Tony's Salad, that's what it is.
Yes, I do eat a Tony's Salad every day. I've got a lot of years to make up for.