GOODBYE TO CHILDHOOD

This week’s family Sunday dinner was different. I was excused from any cooking. The reason for the change of routine is that daughter Carol planned a very special dinner of all of her daughter’s favorite foods. Our oldest grandchild will be heading off to college this next week. She will be 2500 miles away on the East Coast so it is not likely she will get to enjoy Mom’s home cooking sooner than the holidays. Our granddaughter is very excited for this new adventure although she’s also a little anxious about the prospects of being so far from a “real beach.” An equal reality is that Mom will no longer get to cook for her daughter.

Here’s the menu: goat cheese, crackers and crudités, barbecued brisket, Hawaiian rolls,  “corny corn,”caprese salad, watermelon,  nectarine fruit salad, and red velvet cake for dessert. The meal was a huge success because everything on the menu is a family favorite. Carol used her own recipe for the brisket: she starts the meat on the stove in a Cameron smoker primed with wood chips, then transfers it to a slow oven for several hours, and then finishes it on the backyard grill.  I’ve written about Susan’s brisket recipe here. That recipe is easy and delicious. The brisket can be cut with a fork, and the juices can be turned into a fragrant, flavorful pan sauce. Carol’s “corny corn” is best made with fresh corn cut from the cob. The summer season is perfect for that. Corn cut from six ears is sautéed in six tablespoons of butter, seasoned with salt and pepper along with the juice and zest of two limes, mixed with a half cup of mayonnaise and about two cups of grated Cheddar cheese, topped with  a cup of toasted panko and more Cheddar and grated Parmesan cheese, and then browned under the broiler.   The salad was a caprese with slices of  mozzarella layered with basil and chunks of tomato from the farmers market. My granddaughter’s favorite ingredient in the salad is the balsamic vinegar. Chilled watermelon and a nectarine fruit salad were also on the buffet.  As if that was not enough food, there was still dessert. We’ve been enjoying red velvet cake, aka Waldorf Astoria cake, since days on the farm years ago when Aunt Mary regaled us with the story, undoubtedly apocryphal, of a friend who talked her waiter in the restaurant at that fabled hotel into mailing the recipe for the cake. When the friend received the envelope, she found the recipe and a bill for $200. We have laughed at that story for years, and we are always reminded of it, Aunt Mary, and the farm whenever we get to enjoy a slice of red velvet cake.

My contribution to the feast was restricted to a big bag of Kettle® sea salt and vinegar potato chips (no other brand will do). I have bought many a small bag over the years as an after-school treat for our granddaughter since she was a little girl. They remain her favorite snack.

The next few days in Carol’s household will be filled with stories, memories, and warm words as they pack up new clothes and special treasures. Soon enough there will also be a few tears. I remember saying goodbye to my mother as I boarded the train in a freak September snow storm, and I remember getting Carol situated in her dorm room as if it were yesterday. Sending a child off to college is one of the saddest, happiest, proudest moments in life. We will all remember Carol’s farewell banquet for years to come.

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NOT EXACTLY RATATOUILLE

One of my favorite stalls at the farmers market is run by two young women who always have friendly greetings and interesting offerings. They have bunches of several varieties of basil along with many other herbs. Earlier in the season they had garlic scapes, fava beans, and a wide variety of Asian vegetables. They have bins and bins of tomatoes. But they also have an amazing selection of eggplants: not just the big purple tear drops that my grandmother grew but also white, variegated, Japanese, Italian, long, and green varieties. On my last visit I found eggplants that I had never seen. They were labeled as “Indian”, but their distinctive characteristic was that they were only about the size of a hen’s egg. They looked so cute that I bought them, although I wasn’t sure what I would do with them. You could stuff them with shrimp, Cajun-style, for individual servings. You could make an eggplant tapenade, but that would subvert the whole idea of miniature vegetables. I guess you could steam them and serve them by themselves. Of course, if you  think of eggplant you think of ratatouille, so I bought some tomatoes, squash, peppers and onions as well.

I have long thought of ratatouille as a dish that is delicious but labor-intensive. That’s because the first time I ever prepared it years ago I followed Julia Child’s recipe exactly. Each vegetable was cooked separately and slowly to maintain its shape and color before combining with all of the other ingredients and then simmered gently to meld the flavors. In short, Julia’s version is not a dish that you start when you get home from work. The mystique has even been amplified by the wonderful Disney Pixar film, Ratatouille.  In the movie, the signature dish prepared by the rat was an elaborate layering of slices of eggplant, squash, tomato and pepper. Beautiful to behold. And if you go to the web these days there are several versions of the recipe that use a similar artful arrangement of vegetables. Again, not something you would whip together before the evening news.

I think of a farm family sitting at their dinner table in Provence. I suspect they enjoy a good ratatouille but I doubt that it is in delicate layers. For that matter, a good shakshuka in Israel or bibimbap (add some beef and rice) in Korea may employ the same or similar ingredients without a lot of fanfare in their preparation. In other words, ratatouille should be easy to make and still be wonderfully delicious. This recipe just tosses the vegetables together, uses mushrooms, and adds a poached egg – definitely not authentic ratatouille, but a good way to use miniature Indian eggplants.

RECIPE

Not Exactly Ratatouille

Ingredients

  • 6 small Indian eggplants
  • 2 small zucchini
  • Kosher salt
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 6 small white onions
  • 6 medium mushrooms
  • 4 small ripe tomatoes (about 4-5 inches in diameter), halved
  • 1 large green bell pepper, seeded and slice into ¼ inch thick rings
  • 1 small can (8 ounces) tomato sauce
  • ½ cup dry white wine (optional)
  • ¼ teaspoon ground thyme to taste
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 4 eggs, poached

Method

  1. Trim the tops of the eggplants and slice them in half lengthwise. Do not peel. Slice zucchini in ¾ inch rounds. Sprinkle the cut vegetables generously with Kosher salt and place in a large sieve over a bowl for 30 minutes to draw out water, Blot dry with paper towels. Over a high flame, grill the vegetables for a few minutes until lightly browned with grill marks (if desired). Remove from the grill and set aside until ready for assembly.
  2. Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven or lidded oven-proof vessel over medium heat. Add the grilled eggplant and zucchini along with the onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, green pepper, tomato sauce, wine and seasonings.
  3. Cover the Dutch oven and transfer to the middle of an oven preheated to 300°F. Bake for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the vegetables are fragrant and tender. If there is too much liquid, remove the cover during the last 15 minutes of cooking to reduce.  Adjust the seasoning and serve, topped with 2 poached eggs for each serving.

 

 

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FRIED OKRA, FRIED GREEN TOMATOES, FRIED EVERYTHING

Our local farmers market is moving into full season. Corn is making a tentative appearance, and there are tomatoes in abundance – all sizes, shapes, and colors – in every vegetable stall. This last week we went to the larger market in Torrance and were surprised to find green tomatoes. I am used to seeing them later on as the season begins to taper off. Fried green tomatoes is to my mind one of the great Southern delicacies. We bought some. Then we saw okra! And the timing was perfect. Carol is away on vacation. She avoids okra as much as she avoids onions. I believe that her aversion arises from childhood. She grew up in Louisiana and spent many days in East Texas. She bought her lunches in the school cafeterias, and she declares (although I think it is an exaggeration) that stewed okra and tomatoes, along with collards that had been cooked beyond recognition, were served every single day. She insists that there is no preparation of okra that will pass her lips. My reply has always been that she just has never had okra prepared correctly. Then we all laugh at the standing family joke.

When we lived on the Texas-Mexico Border, I made the mistake of declaring that I didn’t like menudo. A co-worker informed me that I had never had HER menudo, and the next week she brought a big pot of the soup for lunch. Being a slow learner, I made the same comment at various gatherings, and the outcome was always the same: somebody would bring a batch of their lovingly made tripe soup.  And I would eat the soup along with the ever-expanding chunks of tripe. I still don’t like menudo. Never say you don’t like a particular dish. It will be seen as a challenge.

On the other hand, be very careful in saying how much you like a particular dish. Years ago, we visited Thailand where I was treated royally. The first night was a banquet where they served roasted suckling pig. As the guest of honor, I was treated to the crispy skin along with the tail and snout. I said how much I enjoyed it (I really did; it was delicious) so that for every evening meal for two weeks in various parts of the country, I was treated to roasted suckling pig complete with snout and tail. I have not eaten roasted suckling pig since.

Back to okra. I agree with Carol: tomatoes and okra is not a favorite. The dish seems to bring out the worst quality of okra, the slime. Deep-fried okra with a crispy corn meal coating is another story. In my view, it is delicious. Fried green tomatoes have a distinctive citrusy tang, but they are a variant of the same preparation method, along with hush puppies, fried catfish, battered cutlets, chicken fried steak, or even fried chicken. But that’s one of the things that makes Southern home cooking so good – frying. Think deep-fried Twinkies.

These recipes are not authentic. Usually you can just shake cut okra with some seasoned cornmeal and fry it. The slime binds the cornmeal to make a crispy fried coating. Same with the green tomatoes. Instead, I have used a flour-egg-buttermilk-cornmeal coating; I like the extra body (and calories) that the coating brings. I am certain that Carol would still not like the okra. I served the vegetables with battered pork cutlets. It was a very brown plate, and my mother would not have approved of the absence of green vegetable – collards, maybe?

RECIPES

Fried Okra, Fried Green Tomatoes, and Breaded Pork Cutlet

Ingredients

  • 1 pound (about) fresh okra pods
  • 3-4 medium green tomatoes
  • 4 thin-sliced  pork cutlets
  • flour
  • salt and pepper
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 2 dashes Tabasco sauce (optional)
  • bread crumbs
  • oil for frying

Method

  1. Wash the okra and cut it crosswise into ¾ inch rounds
  2. Cut the green tomatoes into ½ inch slices
  3. Dust the pork cutlets in flour and pound with the edge of a saucer to flatten. Turn over while pounding and season with salt and pepper.
  4. Dust the okra slices and green tomato slices with flour.
  5. Combine the beaten eggs and buttermilk. Dip the floured okra, tomatoes, and cutlets in the egg mixture. Then  dip in a plate filled with the bread crumbs until completely covered.
  6. Let the vegetables and pork  rest on cooling racks for 15 minutes.
  7. Fill a deep-sided heavy pot with 2 inches of frying oil. Heat to 350°F. Fry okra, tomatoes, and pork separately, turning frequently, until well browned. Remove from the oil with a spider and drain on paper towels. Keep warm in a 170°F oven until everything has been fried. Serve immediately.

 

 

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BLACK FOREST CAKE

Our local cherry season is over. At its height, I had promised my grandson a Black Forest cake. But  one thing led to another and the promise just never got kept. Not to worry! Cherry season in the Northwest is still going strong, so I bought the cherries from the grocery store. Now, authentic recipes for Black Forest cake call for canned or preserved cherries, but to my mind fresh is always better.  If you use fresh, just be sure to pit them. Authentic recipes also describe the chocolate cake as a “chocolate génoise”, but that is beyond my baking skills and requires more time than I had allotted to the project. Instead, I used my mother’s favorite recipe for chocolate cake.

There could not be an easier cake to bake nor a tastier one. You dump all of the ingredients in a bowl and mix them up with an electric beater, You can sift the dry ingredients to prevent tiny lumps of unbaked flour, but that added step still falls within my bounds for easy. I’m not certain where my mother got the recipe. Perhaps it was from a cookbook of the Great Depression, a newspaper clipping, or even a conference for school cafeteria workers. My mother was a “lunch lady” complete with hair net. Every week she turned out schoolhouse spaghetti, mac and cheese made from giant blocks of USDA surplus commodity cheese, and other hot lunches that the kids loved. On Fridays she always baked a batch of her wonderful pan rolls that the kids fought over and the teachers begged for. My mother also specialized in desserts  – especially chocolate cake. I suspect she used this recipe.

Finally, I used whipped cream for the filling and canned whipped topping for the decorations on the top.  Some recipes call for a more elaborate sauce based on crème anglaise. And canned whipped topping would be unheard of. In short, this was not an honest-to-goodness Black Forest cake and it was definitely not suitable for a cover shot for Bon Appetit, but it was close enough  and good enough for both me and my grandson. He deemed it “delicious” and asked for a second slice.

RECIPES

Great Grandma’s Chocolate Cake

Ingredients

  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 cups sugar
  • ½ cup cocoa
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1¾ teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • ¾ cup neutral vegetable oil
  • 1 cup hot water
  • 2 eggs

Method

  1. Sift the dry ingredients, flour, sugar, cocoa, salt and baking soda, into a large mixing bowl.
  2. Add the buttermilk, oil. hot water, and eggs. With an electric beater, either a stand mixer or hand-held, beat the mixture until well combined and smooth. Do not overbeat.
  3. Distribute the batter equally among three 8-inch cake pans that have been greased and floured. Bake for 20 minutes in the middle of an oven preheated to 375°F. Test for doneness with a toothpick, and when done , remove to a cooling rack. After 10 minutes, remove the cakes from the pans and cool completely on the cooling rack.

Black Forest Cake

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup sugar
  • ¼ cup water
  • ¼ cup Kirsch
  • chocolate cake baked in three layers (see above)
  • 2 pounds (about) fresh Bing cherries, pitted
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 pounds (about) fresh Bing cherries, pitted
  • canned whipped topping

Method

  1. In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and water. Bring to the boil until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat and stir in the Kirsch. Cool.
  2. With a pastry brush, brush the Kirsch syrup generously on the tops of the three cake layers.
  3. Whip the cream and sugar  until the mixture forms stiff peaks.
  4. Arrange one of the cake layers on a serving plate. Spread generously with half of the whipped cream. Arrange pitted cherries on the whipped cream. Top with one of the remaining cake layers and repeat the whipped cream and cherries.
  5. Top with the remaining layer. Decorate with whipped cream rosettes using the canned whipped topping. Decorate with cherries. Chill until ready to serve.

Cook’s Note: The cake recipe can also be used for two 9-inch layers,  cupcakes or sheet cake. Use a 9 x 13 x 2 inch pan for the sheet cake and increase the baking time to 30 minutes.

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LEMON RICOTTA PANCAKES AND FRUIT SAUCE

Our local farmers market is moving into high season. The market is just a couple of paths in a high school parking lot lined with a couple of dozen or so stalls. It is modest compared with the vibrant green market in New York City’s Union Square or the wondrous carnival at the Ferry Building in San Francisco; it pales next to the huge market in nearby Torrance. But visiting the various stalls and merchants has become a Sunday ritual for our family.  By this time of season, green peas are gone, and asparagus is just hanging on as the weather gets warmer. Sweet cherries have given their last gasp. Plump ears of corn are on limited display. Tomatoes have made a tentative appearance; it’s still too early for the big, juicy specimens of late summer. Right now, the stars of the market are berries of all sorts and stone fruit of every variety.

This last week, the family met at the market in search of ingredients for our Sunday meal – all, that is, except the recent high school graduate who has taken to sleeping late and enjoying the days of summer before she heads off to college. The plan was for her mother to find some fruit for a fruit sauce so that on our return the graduate would arise and prepare pancakes for all of the exhausted shoppers. That plan served a secondary purpose: a crash course in basic cooking skills before the fledging leaves the nest. Everything worked as planned, and we enjoyed a delicious late breakfast. In fact, I liked them so much that I made my own batch a few days later and topped the pancakes with maple syrup that Peter and René had brought to us a gift from their recent trip to Montreal.

RECIPES

Lemon Ricotta Pancakes

Ingredients

  • 1½ cups flour
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 1½ teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 2 eggs, separated
  • 1 cup ricotta cheese
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • juice of 1 lemon, strained + zest from the lemon

Method

  1. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
  2. Separate the eggs and set aside the whites.
  3. In a larger bowl, beat together the egg yolks, ricotta, buttermilk, butter, lemon juice, and zest.
  4. Stir the dry ingredients into the liquids, making sure they are well combined but taking care not to over-beat
  5. Whip the reserved egg whites to form stiff peaks. Then by thirds, gently fold them into the batter mixture.
  6. Let the batter rest for about 15 minutes while you heat a griddle over medium heat.
  7. Pour ½ cup of batter onto the griddle for individual pancakes. Do not crowd, and work in batches. Turn the pancakes when bubbles have formed on the surface and the edges are golden brown. When both sides are browned to your liking, serve immediately or transfer to a warm oven until all the pancakes have been prepared.

Fruit Sauce

Ingredients

  • ½ cup water
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1½ teaspoons lemon juice
  • 1½ teaspoons cornstarch
  • 2 cups fresh blueberries (strawberries would also work)
  • Or, you can make it 2 cups of your favorite fruit

Method

  1. In a small sauce pan combine the water, sugar, lemon juice and cornstarch, stirring to make sure the sugar is dissolved and the corn starch is completely dispersed. Place the pan over medium-low heat and, stirring frequently, bring the mixture to a gentle boil. Reduce the heat to simmer. Add the fruit and cook until the mixture has thickened and the fruit has begun to release its juices, about 5 to 10 minutes.
  2. Remove from the heat and serve over the ricotta pancakes.

 

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SAINT PAUL BOTTOMS

The draft of this post has been sitting on my computer for months. I have been uncertain about whether I should publish it or not. Recent events have helped me to decide to add my voice to those of millions of others:

I have never before tortured my readers with my poetry, and I promise I shall never do it again. I am also mindful that with this post, I may lose some of my readers. I hope not. This particular piece has been gathering dust in the growing stack of my unpublished poems and essays, but the thought behind it has been percolating in my brain for a long time.  I hope you read it in the spirit in which it was written. It would be wonderful if our nation could begin to come together again in congenial dialogue without recriminations, as we have so many times before in times of crisis.

SAINT PAUL BOTTOMS

Named for Saint Paul
though he never visited, never wrote
so it just became the Bottoms
below Fairfield Hill,
unpainted shotgun houses,
slanted porches falling off brick piers.

City Fathers thought the name
undignified, not in keeping
with their New South image,
Ledbetter Heights sounded good.

Named after Lead Belly,
the black blues man
who played in dark bordellos when
the Bottoms glowed in red lights.

The new name didn’t change
the neighborhood nor raise it up so that folks
could look into the mansions on the Hill.

Still overgrown with may haws,
vines and poison ivy.
Still filled with kids
in ragged pants, holes in the knees.
Still heavy with the smells:
pokeweed, fatback, pot liquor, cornbread.

The city hasn’t changed much either
since those heady days,
last capital of the
dying Confederacy.

When I lived there,
our neighbors woke,
cross burning in their front yard.

The week I moved away,
a man and his son,
about ten years old,
dressed in white robes,
sheets really,
sat on a pickup tailgate
waving huge Confederate flags
in front of the high school.

These days no burning
crosses, no white hoods,
but unchanged feelings
remain in many hearts
that beat in the pews on Sunday.
Still fighting the Civil War.

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SHAMELESS COMMERCE

Our family has heard some exciting news from the Bay Area. Sarah and Evan have been working on a cookbook for well over a year. The process has included selecting recipes, testing them exhaustively, food styling sessions and long photo shoots along with extended conferences with editors. The book is due to be released on September 4. Amazon has it available for pre-order at $29.68. Of course, we have not seen the finished product or even the galleys. But we have heard all about the challenges, delays, deadlines, and disagreements that all go into the crafting of a book. Both Sarah and Evan have learned that book writing is a lot different from cooking. For them it is not as much fun.

The book features some of the foods that come out of the kitchens at Rich Table and RT Rotisserie, but it also includes comfort foods and accompanying family stories from childhood. Proud dad that I am, I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy,

Here’s a look at the cover:

 

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