Archive for August, 2009

A Bushel, A Peck & A Nob

Every once and a while someone will throw out a foodie word and ask if I know what it means. Although I usually recognize the word, I can’t always define it.

 The other night I was on the phone with Fred when he tossed out a couple of his Southernisms. (Fred lives in Louisiana farm country and I grew up in NY—-I think he delights in testing to see what I’ve absorbed after 14 years down South).

First Freddie question, “What’s a Bushel?” Well, when Daddy used to rake leaves, that’s what he’d put them in; a bushel. But then I Googled it. A bushel was the volume of a cylinder measuring 18 ½ “ in diameter by 8” high; a dry measure used on farms equaling 4 pecks.

Funny, peck was Fred’s second question. I knew that was a measure also, but how much? Googled that one too. It’s equal to 8 quarts or, 1 bushel. Ha! Got them both! But, what’s that got to do with food?

Ah then, Fred being Fred, asked the question he probably wanted to ask in the first place, “What’s a nob of butter?” He was cooking some Louisiana something and it said add a nob of butter. In my mind that was a small gob (a Northern term), about a tablespoon. “Nah”, Fred tossed back, “Its 2 tablespoons”. “That’s what I used”.

Anyway, all that got me to thinking about how we share stuff about cooking and food. When I’m asked to give out a recipe, it’s often something I’ve been making over and over for years and I don’t really know exactly how much of this or that I’m adding. It’s usually a matter of checking as I go along until whatever it is I’m brewing looks and tastes like I want it to. But that’s very frustrating for the friend who really wants to know how I made what ever it was I cooked that night (that they really enjoyed) and might want to cook at home. I should be flattered that they’re asking.

Then I remind myself: when I was learning to cook, I’d asked relatives how they made stuff and I’d get, “Oh, I don’t know how much to put in, just add (what ever it was) until it looks shiny or it jiggles like Jell-O”. Or, the better answer (and this was usually from Nana), “As much as fills that white teacup with the broken handle. I always measure with that”.

Big help until I decided to haunt their kitchens and watch. Then I could write it all down. But even with watching, it would take lots of effort, multiple phone calls and several mess ups before I got the recipe to look and taste like the original.

My father was an amazing cook, all of it from memory. I never saw him crack a cookbook or use a recipe card. But there was one dish he could never get right; his Bubba’s noodle pudding. Every once and a while that subject would come up and he would nearly swoon with the memory of that pudding. It’s silkiness, the shape of it, how it would slide from its bowl. I knew he tried to make it dozens of times. I also knew that what he made was never what he remembered.

We talked about that pudding endlessly over the years, batting ideas back and forth. I even remember trips to antique stores looking for the right bowl. He thought, at one point, the bowl was the secret.

Every once and a while I’ll take a sentimental stab at cooking that pudding. I’ve even wandered antique stores looking for the bowl. But then Daddy’s not here anymore so I wouldn’t know if I got it right. I never ate the original and my Great Grandmother never wrote it down.

You know, I find that kind of sad. Why don’t we write out those precious recipes? Why did I have to haunt family kitchen to learn? And why did Daddy spend half his life looking for the noodle holy grail?

I think I know and it’s something else my Daddy also enjoyed, an old Groucho Marx remark, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member”.

 bowl

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Are We What We Eat?

DIET.  Now there’s a word we’ll all consider. And there’s a word most of us will decide (with a modicum of guilt) to ignore. It is a hard thing to do. Diet. It evokes images of depravation, doing without, being hungry most of the time. Some of us will look a little past Diet and see a healthier, slimmer, pain-free self. So we’ll take a stab at Diet, last a few days, push it for a few weeks, perhaps make it for a month, struggling all the way. Then give up.

Defined, Diet is not a scary word. Webster’s tells us the root of the word literally means “manner of living” from the Greek diaitasthai, “to lead one’s life”. So, that’s not so horrible. But that was in the 13th century. We’re now in the 21st century. And, like everything our species touches, we will modernize and our language is not immune. That old Greek word, brought up to date, has evolved its meaning. It’s now “a regimen of eating and drinking sparingly so as to reduce one’s weight”.

Well, the word has evolved. We have not.

Historically we are hunters. Our earliest ancestors killed for meat and that is all that sustained us for millennia.  We are genetically disposed to crave fat. Eliminating the fat leaves us feeling unsatisfied, unfulfilled and makes us crave it even more. It also makes me very cranky. For some, even the threat of pain and ill health will not keep them away from Porterhouse steaks and double chocolate desserts.

But wait. A few do succeed with Diet. They stick with it, don’t lapse and really change their lives. I have two friends like that. One has eliminated all red meat and recently, eliminated poultry. She has kept up with a strict regimen of exercise, healthy eating and has lost an amazing amount of weight. She looks terrific; is excited and happy with her new way of living. She is a Changed woman. My other friend took off 40 pounds in 5 months. He put himself on a regimen of mostly steamed foods, zero fat and limited alcohol. He has always been very active so adding exercise was not a challenge. He too seems to be a Changed man and in a permanent (and yes!) satisfied state of restriction.

I don’t know why some have that will power. It seems to me they are denying our basic DNA and somehow ignoring the call for fat and that need to feel full. Or maybe not. Maybe that’s the secret. Maybe that’s the key. Perhaps they’re not in denial at all. Perhaps they have found a way to Fool Themselves.

But let’s, for one more paragraph (or two), go back to the scary part of Diet. All the work out in the world will be like Sisyphus up the hill if we don’t regulate what goes into our mouths. We all know that. We can not keep weight and cholesterol in check and be healthy and pain free if we continue to consume too much bad fat and too much unrefined sugar. We all know that too. But while we still carry the cave(wo)man chromosomes, we no longer lead that rigorous cave(wo)man life. No mater how much exercise we get, basically, our environment now is a whole lot cushier.

So, let’s sum up: We crave the fat. We need to feel satisfied. We are not, as a rule, inclined to tolerate hungry. We also want to be healthy and we want to live a long time. And just exercise is not enough.

While I do not have the complete answer, I do have a bit of a solution. But first, let me issue a quick qualifier. I am not a dietician. I have no training as a nutritionist. However, Food is my passion and I am, as you may have noticed, obsessed with Good Food. And, I think, if we focus on the Good part of Food, we are already half way there to a better, healthier way to eat. We need to tease (Fool) ourselves into feeling full, into thinking we’re getting and tasting the fat. And that, I expect, is what my very healthy friends have discovered.

And, oh yes, one more tiny thing: time. Let’s not ignore that. It is an issue. It is an obstacle to consider when planning a Good Food program. We are all very busy, often way over tired, constantly running in 5th gear.  I’ve considered that and will not further add to the obligation overload.

Okay, let’s get started. Here’s how I’d begin:

Once a week, carve out some time and cook a lot of  Healthy Good Stuff. Avoid buying Unhealthy Bad Stuff.  If it’s not in the house when the munchies hit and time is short and you have to grab and go, there will only be Good Food to choose from.

Have a plan before you shop. Then, make a list before you go. Stick to that list. Eat before you shop; do not shop hungry. That is a big mistake and will lead to Impulse in-store Snacking and Unhealthy Food Buying.

Cooking and Menu.

  • Roast 2 chickens or 2 turkey breasts at once with lots of vegetables roasting in the same pan.  Carrots, parsnips, corn, onions, broccoli, green beans, asparagus, peppers, squashes and cauliflower all roast beautifully. Season lightly with olive oil, minced garlic, fresh lemon juice, a favorite herb and pepper. Omit salt. Lemon juice will give way to salty after it’s cooked. One hour and you have dinner plus extra for lunch wraps that pack to travel, chicken or turkey salad or another meal of quesadillas. Include some sliced avocado in the wraps, skim milk cheese in the quesadillas; that will give you a taste of the fat we crave, it’s just better fat. (Oh, while you may roast the birds with skin on, please toss it after cooking).
  • Make a large pot of Quinoa cooked in chicken or vegetable broth to add lots of flavor. It can accompany any light protein for dinner, serve as a substantial main course with roasted, grilled or sautéed veg and also turns into salads for lunches and snacks. Add favorite nuts, dried fruits, raw vegetables, left over cooked vegetables, parsley, cilantro, fresh citrus juice; any combinations you like. Quinoa is a complete food—it contains all of the nutrients we need. It is very healthy and very filling.
  • Seafood. We all know that diets rich in fruits of the sea are among the healthiest. Think of the Mediterranean, the Greek Isles and the Sea of Japan. Try using cookbooks and recipes from those cultures and dig in.
  • Soups. They are also very filling and by using low fat vegetable or chicken broth as a base and milk or yoghurt instead of cream, they become even healthier. Puree your soups. That provides a richness that’s very satisfying and serves up the illusion of more fat and feeling full. Soup is also as good in the summer as it is in the winter. Make a lot and it will last in the fridge for several days. Fill a thermos and you’ve got lunch ready to go or, store in small cups for quick snacks to grab.

These are 2 of my favorite cold summer soups—they taste good and they’re pretty easy to make.

Fresh Pea Soup

3 tbs. sweet butter, 1 shallot minced, 4 scallions chopped, 1 head butter lettuce, roughly torn apart, 2 cups fresh or frozen peas (don’t defrost if using frozen), 4 cups low fat chicken or vegetable stock, S & P to taste, 6 fresh tarragon leaves, chopped, 2-3 tbs. plain yoghurt or milk. Optional Garnish: minced green onions, snips of more tarragon.

Melt butter and add scallions, shallots, peas and lettuce and sauté for 5 minutes over medium heat. Add warmed chicken or vegetable stock. Add S & P to taste. Bring to a gentle boil and simmer uncovered for 15 minutes. Puree and check seasonings. Adjust if necessary. Cover and chill. Mix in yoghurt or milk. Garnish. Serves 4-6.

Roasted Beet & Tomato Soup

3 TBS unsalted butter, Extra Virgin olive oil, 1 cup chopped sweet onion,1 TBS minced garlic, 3 TBS apple cider vinegar, 2 pounds fresh beets—red and/or golden, 2 cups fresh tomatoes diced (seeds and all),1 cup peeled diced potatoes, ½ cup fresh carrots chopped, 4 cups low fat chicken or vegetable stock. S&P to taste. Yoghurt or low fat sour cream and minced chives for garnish

Place the beets in a foil lined baking pan, sprinkle lightly with S&P and olive oil, cover with more foil and roast at 350° until just fork tender (about 30-40 minutes, depending on the size of the beets). Remove from oven, cool, peel and cut in ½.

  • Melt butter in heavy soup pot over medium heat. Add onions, season with S&P and sauté until just starting to soften; 3-4 minutes.
  • Add garlic, sugar & vinegar, raise heat to medium high and cook until almost all the liquid evaporates.
  • Add the rest of the vegetables, stock & if needed, more S&P to taste. Raise heat to high and bring everything to a gentle boil. Then reduce heat, partially cover the pot and simmer until all the veggies are very tender. About 30-40 minutes.
  • Remove from the heat, uncover and let cool. If you have a Foley food mill and need a kitchen work out, puree the soup—in batches– through the mill; discard any leftover skins or seeds. Or, just use a food processor and whirr until everything is creamy and smooth.
  • Transfer the soup to a glass or porcelain container, cover and chill well.
  • Serve with dollops of yoghurt or low fat sour cream and minced chives.

Serves 4-6.

 ONE NOTE FOR BOTH SOUPS:

**Ingredient portions do not have to be perfectly exact, a little more or less of this or that is okay. 

**Cold deadens flavor; you’ll want to over season just a bit.

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The Bountiful

Produce shopping in the spring and summer always sends me into tailspins of delight. All of my favorite fruits and vegetables just as they should be: in season, fresh, pesticide free. No longer trucked in over thousands of miles or released from chilly warehouses, I can now buy from local growers. Blueberries, peaches, corn and tomatoes start showing up in farmer’s markets selling heirloom varieties, organic herbs and eggs still warm from the hen house.

Tempted by all of that straight from the soil abundance, I literally can not stop from taking a bit of everything I see. I feel an intense pleasure as I pile up rustic wood bowls and reed baskets with my newly purchased abundance. I can smell the thyme and the cucumbers. The onions still have some dirt on them. The peaches are so juicy I can almost see them bursting. Heaven.

The dilemma that follows is what to do with all that treasure while it’s at it’s peak. I’m only one in this house. And cooking or eating it all in the next few days would challenge the most inspired vegan. My compulsive purchasing has forced me to flex a lot of creativity and learn how to can. Berries are put on cookie sheets and flash frozen, later stored in freezer bags for cookies, crumbles and winter oatmeal. My peach pie also becomes plum and apricot with an adjustment in spices. Frozen, they can await baking until ‘later’. My blender goes on over drive making smoothies and there’s a sudden urge to have company and make offerings to neighbors.

 What I Like To Do With Some of My Produce

Fresh Vegetable Casserole

Cut the vegetables into long, even sized pieces, do not peel anything (avoid tomatoes, onions and mushrooms, they exude too much liquid—best to use are assorted peppers, squashes, eggplant and beans). Slice a potato or two and sear the slices in olive oil until golden but not cooked through. Line the bottom of an (olive) oiled casserole with overlapping slices of potato. Season to taste with minced garlic and S&P. Strew a few sprigs of fresh thyme over the potatoes. Put the vegetables, on their edges, over the potatoes, tucking in pieces until the casserole is full & fairly crowded. (The veg will shrink during baking) Sprinkle the vegetables with more minced garlic and S&P. Tuck more sprigs of thyme into the vegetables. Drizzle lightly with extra virgin olive oil. Bake at 375° for about 30-40 minutes or until the potatoes are cooked through and vegetables are just tender.

 Garnish with more fresh thyme just before serving with lots of rustic bread and assorted olives.

 Fred’s Red Pepper Jelly

I went to a party shortly after I moved here and the hostess had set out a plate of cream cheese topped with green pepper jelly. Around the edges of the plate she arranged some crackers. My snobby self wrinkled my nose at such peasant fare. Catching the look on my face, a kinder lady urged me to try. It was good! That concoction became a snacking favorite until I tasted this red pepper jelly and the green went out the window.

3 large red peppers, seeded and cut into chunks,1 cubanel pepper, seeded and cut into chunks, 2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and cut in ¼‘s, 6 ½ cups sugar, 1 ½ cups apple cider vinegar, 6 oz. Certo

Optional: red food coloring (I don’t use it, but Fred does)

Process the peppers in a food processor until they’re fairly well minced. Put them into a deep pot along with the sugar and vinegar and mix well. Bring to a full boil, reduce heat slightly and boil for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the Certo. Return to a low heat for 1 minute. Remove from heat. Add a drop or 2 of food coloring if desired.

Spoon into sterilized jars, clean the rims carefully and tighten (but not overly tight) the lids. Process for 20 minutes in a barely boiling  hot water bath. Let the jars cool upside down after the lids ‘pop’ to keep the pepper bits evenly distributed. Makes about 10-12 jelly sized jars.

Vegetable Pancakes

Coarsely grate 1 medium (skin on) zucchini, 1 medium carrot, 1 (peeled) medium potato and 1 medium onion. If you have a grating disc, you can do this in a food processor. Otherwise, a box grater works fine. Add 1/2 cup Bisquick, 2 lightly beaten eggs, 2 TBS fresh minced dill, S&P to taste. Mix well, cover loosely and let rest about 15 minutes.

Heat a large heavy pan over medium heat and add 1/8” vegetable oil. Drop batter by spoonfuls into hot oil to form about 3” round pancakes. Fry over medium heat until golden on both sides. Drain well on paper towels. Makes about 12-14. Serve warm. Wonderful with grilled chicken.

Cucumber Salad

Partially peel one large cucumber down its length and slice thinly. Thinly slice 2 scallions including green and add to cucumbers. Whisk together 1/8 cup apple cider vinegar, 1/8 cup of sugar and 1/4 cup mayonnaise until very smooth. Add cracked pepper to taste and pour over the cucumber and scallions. Mix well, cover and chill for at least 30 minutes. Just before serving, add a handful of cherry or grape tomatoes that have been cut in 1/2 . Serve in a chilled glass bowl. Serves 4.

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Things I’ve Learned From Working In Restaurants About Cooking, Food and Dining Out

My first job in a restaurant was in the kitchen as a pantry assistant cutting and prepping vegetables and making simple salads. I gradually moved up to Line Chef for breakfast and when this lovely Inn started offering brunch, I made all the desserts and did the sweet table set up.

It wasn’t long before some kind soul showed me short cuts for speed-peeling 50 pound bags of carrots, prepping greens and slicing onions. On the breakfast line I learned how to juggle poaching 12 eggs at once while simultaneously tossing home fries, making pancakes and keeping the béarnaise from breaking.

The learning process for translating pastry recipes to servings for 50 and using a convection oven came from the School of Trial and Lots of Errors. There was no one there who did desserts before me; no one to frost the way. I did receive a lot of moral support from an unusually nice kitchen staff and a Chef-Owner who extended a lot of patience.

I loved that job, learned a lot and stayed a year. In retrospect, I was lucky to land in such a kindly kitchen for my very first job with food. Most kitchen staff and especially, most Chefs, would destroy an all thumbs newbie….especially when the dining room’s over flowing and the kitchen’s in the weeds (behind on its orders).

While the Inn was my first and last job behind the line and in a kitchen (BOH—Back of the House), it was not my only job in a restaurant. There have been four others since, all (FOH—Front of the House) as an Assistant then as a Manager for Sales, Marketing, Banquets and Special Events. And if I thought the kitchen was rough, it had nothing on the stresses and strains of Dealing With the Public, Mercurial General Managers, Arrogant Chefs and Server Staff who are either Superb Professionals or everyone’s Worst Nightmare (and, trust me, those never last too long).

I’ve spent almost 25 years doing that work and wouldn’t have changed it for anything. I have met some of the nicest, most hardworking, dedicated, patient, creative and intelligent people. Many have become lifelong friends. I have also eaten very well. So, you ask, did I really learn? Oh Yes I did! And here’s some of what I can post in public:

A Fine Dining Restaurant That Charges High Prices Is Not Out To Gouge Their Guests.

The costs of liability insurance, paying for the building, utilities, theft, breakage, damage to furnishings, office supplies, cleaning supplies, inspections, maintenance, lots of complimentary food and drink, equipment, licenses, delivery fees, taxes, health insurance, workman’s comp, first aid supplies, donations (to list just a few) all get tacked on to the very high cost the restaurant pays for the very best foods and the finest beverage. The $4 chicken you find in a market faces a few additional charges when it comes from a restaurant’s kitchen.

If You Tell Us Your Group Is Going To Be 30, Please Do Not Be Upset If You Show Up With 60 And We Do Not Have Enough Space or Food.

Yes, we are a restaurant, but not a food warehouse. If we expect a certain number of guests we will of course, prepare a little extra, but no so much that food goes to waste. But, just like you shop for a certain number of expected guests, we do the same. Our food storage, refrigerator space and cooking capacity all have limits, just like your home kitchen.  We will be happy to provide something other than the expected menu, but the food supply is not unlimited. You must also imagine what happens with tables and Server Staff when there are 30 unexpected guests: a like number of others will loose their seats and not enjoy good service.

Put A Damp Something Under Your Cutting Board To Keep It From Sliding Around.

A couple of pieces of damp paper towel or a damp rag the size of a wash cloth will work very nicely. It’s also a safe guard against slips that cause cuts. When you are finished cooking, do lift the board, wash and put it away. Discard the paper towels, wash the rag. Left in place, they’re breeding grounds for all kinds of yuk.

Slicing An Onion And Dealing With Tears

Cut the onion in half from stem end (where there’s that piece of onion skin that sticks out) to root end (the end that does look like little roots). Then peel off the skin. You now have 2 halves, each with a flat bottom. The flat side will keep the onion from rolling around and you can then slice easily. You also have something to grip by leaving those ends intact. (If you are in to making home made stocks, stash those left over ends in the fridge. They are excellent additions to any soon-to-be soup).

Be sure your knife is well sharpened and don’t push it down into the onion; slice by drawing the knife from the far side of the onion towards you and gently press down as you go. The Chefs you see on TV slicing faster than the speed of light have been at it for many hours every day for endless years and years. The home cook should not expect to work fast; please do work safely.

There is nothing I’ve yet learned that will keep the tears from flowing when you are slicing a lot of onions. It’s inevitable. If it gets too bad, an icy towel gently pressed over your eyes will help ease the sting. Also, consider breaking up your onion prep into smaller batches, spaced apart by other prep. Avoid wearing mascara.

Margarine Is Never, Ever A Substitute For Butter.

The composition of margarine and its flavor have nothing to do with the fat structure and the taste butter will contribute to the success of sweet and savory foods. If a recipe calls for butter, please, use butter! Butter tastes good. Butter is good. Butter is natural.

When You Do Not Get What You Ordered Or If It Takes Too Long, Or Something Is Just Not Right, It Is Not Always The Fault Of The Server

Every restaurant, from the most expensively elegant to the neighborhood shop, has it best and its worst moments. But when things go wrong, it’s awful and the guest often suffers.  The usual reaction is to take it out on the server. Verbal abuse or a miserable tip is the frequent outcome and then, on top of that, the restaurant is blackballed. But, before you do anything, please try to quietly find a Manager and politely register your concern. I have never seen a guest complaint that went to a Manager go unresolved. It usually takes the form of some complimentary food or drink, frequently a full complimentary meal and often a gift certificate good for another visit. The Restaurant wants your business, wants you Very Satisfied and wants you to come back. We know you have made us a choice among many other choices and we want you to choose us again. We want you to tell your friends how wonderful everything was and that they should dine here too.

Béarnaise And Hollandaise Can Not Be Reheated

After you make these sauces, and if you need to keep them warm for a while before you serve, put them in a preheated deep, narrow, heat proof container. Put that container into a pan of hot but not boiling or simmering water. Do not cover with plastic wrap. Do not cover with anything. Plastic wrap & lids capture heat steam which, in turn, become water droplets which will drip into the sauce which will ruin everything. Just stir occasionally and keep an eye on the hot water. If you don’t use all the sauce, toss it. It does not reheat. The butter will separate from everything else and it turns into an oily mess.

Restaurants Are Constantly Inspected for Safety and Cleanliness And You Deserve To Know

When you walk into your favorite eating establishment look around the lobby. You should find a legal sized document with a large hand written number in a box at the top right hand corner. That form is from The Department of Health and is required to be posted where it can easily be seen by everyone; public and staff alike. Often it is in the bar; frequently in the lobby.

A perfect score is 100. If the score is under 90, there are serious deficiencies. Read the form; it will list what’s wrong.  If you can not easily find that form or no one from the restaurant can point it out, or it’s not posted at all, turn around and walk out.

The Department of Health shows up to inspect restaurants without notice on an irregular basis. You can see them once a month or once a week or 2 days in a row. There are dozens of standards that have to be met that assure your health and your safety; they also assure the health and safety of everyone who works there. A good restaurant, expensive or not, works very hard on a daily basis to earn and maintain a high, hopefully perfect, score. A good restaurant, expensive or not, is very proud of their high, or their perfect, score and will post it in a very obvious place. Look for that form. Use it as a standard when you go out to eat.

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Comes the Visitors

The broker I am, the bigger my dreams, one always in full discord with the other. I am very poor right now so my fantasy life has spiraled out of control. And with that, I am facing three months of on and off overnight visiting from out of town family and friends. Ordinarily it would be a flurry of excitement as I pretty up my guest room, polish my home.  I’d happily be typing menus & shopping lists for candle lit feasts, cocktails on the porch, casual lunches and snacks to keep on hand. For me, part of the pleasure of company, is in the preparation and anticipation of that knock at the door and the kisses hello.

But I am like half of America these days, struggling to keep bills paid and head above water.  All luxuries must be carefully saved for, no spending impulses allowed. Discord again as I refuse to let a poor purse spoil my enjoyment of the company to come. It’s time to be creative.

My visitors will also include 2 little people; a boy dynamo aged 5 who lives on corn and gold fish and a 6 year old granddaughter who’s inherited her Daddy’s wise mouth and selective palate. So, along with budget friendly, we will need child friendly.

 All of this is has set off an explosion of more ideas, bigger challenges, extended possibilities. I’ve come up with and discarded dozens of menus and plans deciding that you can not over schedule or over arrange with a pint sized visitor. They never cooperate. What if it turns out to be a yellow sock pizza day when you’ve planned for pink socks with chicken nuggets?

 Way against character, I have settled on, sort of, winging it. And that has made me very nervous. So, to keep some of the angst in check, I will email the parents and ask for a List, I will contact younger friends and find out what They Serve. I will shake my compulsive self and Stay Loose. In the meantime, I can further settle nerves and focus on the grown-up part.

 Cheap Eats That Are Nice for Late Summer and Early Fall that Morph into Leftovers for Lunch:

  • A grilled whole chicken split down the back so it lays flat. Make a compound butter with a favorite herb ( I’ll use tarragon, my daughter in law likes it), roasted garlic, fresh lemon juice, S&P. Spread it under the skin of the chicken. Rub the skin with extra virgin olive oil and more S&P. Grill skin side down over indirect heat. Soak more of the herb for 30 minutes and toss them over the coals while the chicken cooks. Grill corn along with the chicken  that have been shucked and lightly rubbed with more olive oil. A fresh salad of local tomatoes and spring onions with Daddy’s Raspberry Vinaigrette. One definite for the child list: marshmallows over the left over coals.
  • Home made pasta with a rich Bolognese. Our local Farmer’s Market has lots of basil on sale at $.99 a bunch. I’ll blanch and chop a few handfuls to add to half of the pasta dough. We’ll have ribbons of green and white pasta under that sauce. Making pasta is also a possible activity with child. Ice cream sundaes with lots of hot fudge. (Son and daughter-in-law must have chocolate!)
  • Roast turkey breast with mole (more chocolate), “fixins” and fluffy rice. Lime flan.
  • Fish tacos with rainbow cole slaw. Robert makes amazing fish tacos and Cynthia invited us for dinner. Guests may enjoy an evening out…or, if not, maybe Robert will bring his show over here.
  • One breakfast/brunch:

Mary’s Pancake. Preheat over to 425°. Put 2 Tbs butter in a heavy 9” pan and put in the oven long enough to melt the butter. Batter: beat 4 eggs, 4 tbs flour, 1 ½ tsps sugar, ½ cup milk, pinch salt. Pour into pan after butter has melted. Bake 7 minutes. Reduce heat to 375° and bake 8 minutes more. Remove from oven. Slide an off-set spatula under the puffed up pancake to be sure it’s loosened from the pan. Slide onto a warm plate. Top with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, cinnamon & sugar, a handful of chopped nuts, some raisins and a few dots of butter. Fold in half along the length. Dust with powdered sugar. Cut into 4-6 thick slices and serve.

 Please stay in touch. There will be more.

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Wistful with Soup

Auntie Florence died this past June at the age of 98. She was the last of my older relatives and my Mother’s sister.  With a jolt I realized there was no generation ahead of me anymore. I was overwhelmed with a sudden urge to retouch all the lovely things she had given me and make sure all were safe and accounted for.

Here follows, a bit of her lovely.

My Aunt was a tiny lady whose every word was uttered as if it’s syllables were words of their own. When I think about that—and it makes me smile—I realize that this precision with language translated into everything she did.  But one of my my favorite things about my Aunt was her talent with  food. And, not just with it’s cooking, but also with the way her table was set and  her meals were presented. 

There was a lush richness, a grand sense of style, a visual feast when you entered her dining room. My breath would catch every time, even as a little girl.  Dishes, silver, candles, old cut glass, linens, polished mahogany furniture, porcelain bric-a-brac  filled a huge sunny space, adorned a generous table. Ornate silver grape shears—you never just pulled a single grape, you used the shears and neatly cut a stem—were tucked into cascades of fruit and nuts piled onto the compotes and bowls she’d arrange as centerpieces . Everything was carefully, meticuously presented. Everything was polished and shined and glowing. I hold a permanent mental picture of  those gorgeous tables and wonderful food that are constant refernce points when I am cooking and serving.

The day My Aunt died I had wandered into an antique store aimlessly just looking. I stumbled on an old Quimper plate and felt a rush of pleasure  remembering my Aunt’s beautiful Quimper dishes with paintings of French peasant boys and girls centered in the design. Mushroom and barley soup was always served in Quimper bowls and when we were children our questions would ring around the table while Auntie Florence served, “Do we have a boy or a girl?” we’d ask. She’d always smile, then tell us, “Finish your soup and you’ll see”.  We’d gobble to be the first to finish and find out.  My friend tells me that finding that plate was my Aunt communing with me  to say goodbye. I don’t know about that,  but I did cook Mushroom and Barley Soup later that day. I ate it from my best dishes with an old silver spoon and a linen napkin on my lap.

Here’s Auntie Florence’s wonderful Mushroom and Barley Soup:

  • 4 cups of cold water
  • 1 beef bouillon cube (I use Knorr’s)
  • 1 cup of barley (use real barley & rinse it well, checking for stones & grit)
  • 1 large tomato, chopped with skin and seeds
  • 1 medium onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 stalk celery with leaves, cut in 1/4’s
  • 3-4 carrots, peeled and cut in 2″ pieces
  • 2 pints of mushrooms (1 crimini & 1 button) sliced
  • 2 TBS ketchup
  • S&P and garlic powder to taste (easy with the salt until the bouillon cube is dissolved)

Add everything to a heavy duty soup pot. Bring it to a gentle boil, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, partially covered, for at least one hour or until the barley is tender. Add more cold water if needed. This soup should be fairly thick.

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The Blooper and The Gumbo

The first time I visited Fred’s house, he had a plaque at the front door that you couldn’t miss. It read, “Who’s your Momma and can you make a roux?”  I realized right there that in The South a Perfect Roux was The Gold Standard for a Good Cook.  I was intimidated and for 13 years I never fed my friends anything cooked with a roux.  But, after years of  friendly teasing about my birthplace, I  finally decided to  jump in and show those Southerners that this Northern gal could cook.

My next was Research and it had to start with Fred, the owner of the plaque, an awesome Southern cook himself and the son of the Momma who bought that plaque. Me to Fred, “How do you and your mother make roux? Any suggestions or tips, inside secrets?”  Fred to me, “We buy it in a jar”.  What?!! 

I was deflated. Struck. Shocked. So disappointed. But, research would continue, must continue. I was determined and focused and had set a goal that had to be met. OCD to the max, I had to find the right recipe, the secret to the Roux. Finally, afer weeks, and content that the Roux secret was mine, I set a date for The Dinner, issued invitations and 3 days before my party, the cooking would began. I was going to make Gumbo and The Roux was the key to a really Great Gumbo.

You have to start with equal amounts of fat and flour, a good heavt pot and a wooden spoon. Watching and stirring for about an hour, you develop a Roux that is a deep golden brown, almost mahogany in color. I skewed up my resolve and dove in. After exactly 55 minutes I had a Roux that looked exactly like a Southern cook’s dream. I was ecstatic, relieved, dancing with glee. Into the fridge, on it’s own shelf, I stored my miracle of  fat and flour. I’d finish prepping  Gumbo ingredients the next day and, for the day of the party, I’d put it all together, add the shrimp and make the rice.

Day 2, I peel the shrimp, make fish stock from the shells, dice the veg trinity of celery, peppers & onions. I bone chicken, cut it into bit size pieces, sear it and make more stock from the bones .  On the counter, ready for the next day’s finish, a list of the remaining steps and in the fridge, prepped ingredients for my soon to be Perfect Gumbo. I also decide to make homemade lemonade to go with the rich spicy Gumbo. I juice lemons, add simple syrup and pop it in the fridge. For the party, I’ll serve it in the lemonade jug I found in a junk store. So excited! It will be a memorable meal; everything is coming along exactly as I wanted; I’ll do my Southern pals proud.

Day 3, Party Day and I’m up early to finsih The Gumbo. Slowly, carefully, I re-warm the roux, add the veg, saute ’til soft.  Add whole canned tomatoes, cayenne, garlic, hot sauce , shrimp stock, chicken stock. Bring to a gentle boil. Add seared chicken pieces, a pound of sliced of okra and bring all back to a simmer. (Shrimp will wait until just before dinner).

I taste it.  What! No! What!???  It’s strangely sweet. But the rest of the flavors seem just right. I’m stumped. Is it the okra, the tomatoes? I can’t figure it out. But it’s not a sweet that’s too sweet so I decide to let it go; maybe after simmering a while the flavors will all even out. They did, sort of. I decide to plunge ahead. After all, I’m a Northerner. My friends are Southerners. They’ll smile politely, excuse the imperfection and genuinely thank me for a wonderful meal. “Bless her heart”, they’ll offer, “She tried”.

30 minutes before the party I pull out the lemonade,  put it the jug, add sliced lemons and sprigs of fresh mint. Thirsty, I pour a glass for me. I drink.

What followed next was one of those heart stopping, stomach sinking moments we’ve all known at least once in our lives. My knees gave way and I sank to the floor. The light bulb popped on. Giggling started; enough to bring tears to my eyes. I knew a good joke—on me–when I heard it. I was drinking  nice, icy cold, minty, lemony shrimp stock . And in my Gumbo, my lovely pot of deliciousness, the sweetened, home made  lemonade.

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