Pimento Cheese Sandwiches

Is it the heat in August, or the midday cicadas—grinding, grinding, grinding—that reminds me of the time of year?  The horizon, corn pollen and gravel dust, is smudged.  This is the first August I can ever remember going outside after lunch to find it refreshing instead of repressing.  The sun is as bright as on a crisp fall afternoon and the humidity is nowhere to be found—grinding, grinding, grinding.

I like to hear the corn grow and without the humidity there is nothing from which the growing pains can echo.  An ambulance, siren blaring, leaves town.  The sirens grow louder until the emergency vehicle turns north on the state highway.  The sirens begin to fade.

It has been like this all summer and  I am being robbed.  I like the heat.  It is the humidity and heat that makes my vegetables grow.  I have nothing growing in my garden this year.  By rights I should be eating okra.  I should have so much zucchini I have to feed it to the chickens.  I should be looking forward to garden succotash and fried chicken but my lima beans died long ago in the continual down pours of early spring. I should be picking fresh field peas and pole beans but I never even got the baskets down from the cabinet.  I should be cutting sweet corn from the cob and freezing it.

I rock gently in an easy chair on the front porch and eat a pimento cheese sandwich.  From out across the fields I can hear the announcer for the high school football game calling plays.  I think back to all my first days back at school.  I feel the butterflies in my stomach,  another summer grows quite.

 

Pimento Cheese

(Makes 2 cups)

3 cups cheddar cheese, grated (about an 8oz. block)

2 teaspoons yellow onion, grated on a micro plane

3 tablespoons jarred pimentos plus 1 tablespoon pimento juice

2/3 cup mayonnaise

1 tablespoon Nathan’s mustard

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

1 tablespoon Tabasco sriracha

1 tablespoon ketchup

fresh ground black pepper to taste

  1. Place all the ingredients into a mixing bowl.  Stir gently with a spoon until everything is combined.  Let sit for an hour before serving.  Store in the refrigerator tightly covered.

 

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With What Remains of Summer: Two Salad Dressings

Something like you find at a pizza shop, made of Romaine and iceberg  lettuce cut into chunks, mini-wedges meant to soak up a heady dressing and topped with everything but the kitchen sink, this salad is a simple summer salad.

It doubles as a full on dinner salad or as a side.  It is laced with shredded red cabbage and carrots added every bit as much for taste as color.  It is topped with your hearts desire, in this case crisp cucumbers, muddy black olives, protein rich eggs,  raisiny grape tomatoes, and sharp red onions.  I even threw in a little bit of last nights roast chicken but chopped ham, bacon bits, or whatever you have on hand works good too.

Sometimes I like it dressed with Thousand Island, other times Ranch, and occasionally Catalina but whatever I use it is always homemade.  Today I made a Blue Cheese Vinaigrette.  Feel free to use whatever dressing you like but I am begging you with what remains of summer to make them homemade.

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Blue Cheese Vinaigrette (makes 1/2 cup)

1 TBS. shallot, peeled and grated on a micro-planer

1 tsp. garlic, grated on a micro-planer

1/2 tsp dried oregano

3 TBS. red wind vinegar

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup blue cheese, crumbled (don’t like blue cheese, use goat cheese)

1/8 tsp fresh ground black pepper

a pinch of kosher salt

1. Combine all the ingredients in a pint Ball Mason jar.  Screw the lid on tightly and shake like hell.

note: this dressing is best if made in advance.  An hour will suffice but as it ages it gets better and better.

 

Thousand Island Dressing (make 1 cup)

2/3 cup mayonnaise

3 TBS. ketchup

2 TBS. bread and butter pickles, minced

1 TBS. shallot, peeled and minced

2 tsp. pickle juice

pinch of kosher salt

1/8 tsp fresh ground black pepper

1. Place everything into a mixing bowl.  Combine with a whisk.  Store in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed glass jar.

 

Garden Salad (serves 4 as a side salad or 2 as an entree)

1/2 large head iceberg lettuce, cored and cut into 1-inch (2.5cm) chunks (about 2 cups)

1 romaine heart, outer leaves removed, core discarded, and cut into 1-inch (2.5cm) chunks

1/3 cucumber, peeled and thinly sliced (8 rounds)

1 medium carrot, peeled and grated on the large wholes of a grater (about 1/4 cup)

1/2 cup shredded red cabbage

10 California black olives

8 grape tomatoes, halved

8 thinly sliced rings of red onion, minus any paper skin

2 hard boiled eggs, shelled and quartered

1. Place the greens in a large salad bow.

2. Attractively arrange the vegetables over the top of the greens.  Dollop with 1/3 to 1/2 cup of dressing.  At the table mix the dressing into the greens and vegetables using a pair of salad tongs.  Serve.

 

 

 

A Simple Smoothie

DSC_0444“Last night I had a glass of wine. Not so much to celebrate the new year but more to bury the last, there have been better years.”  This is what I had to say on New Year’s Day.  I am still mulling over my words.

As is my usual, I didn’t make a resolution.  I am more likely to sit in a chair and assess last year rather then try to change the new one.  Assess I did, and of all the good things that happened, and good things did happen, I made a conscious decision in October of 2013 to become physically fit. Continue reading

Celery Root and Potato Gratin

Celery Root and Potato Gratin

For some it might have been potato or green bean, but for me my gratin affinity began at an early age with macaroni and cheese. You know, the good old-fashioned kind with real cheddar and whole milk thickened with roux or egg yolks. The one that is baked until the correct ratio of crispy, crunchy top to creamy interior is achieved. It taught me early on in life just how fantastic a great food friendship is.

Then, as I came of age, somehow the gratin became any one-dish. It is tuna with the thin crispy onion rings baked on top or Chicken Divan with broccoli, cheddar, and crumbled Ritz crackers providing the crunch. There is the obligatory cottage pie, as done in the Midwest, topped with both cheddar and mozzarella, then browned. For a while, it was a multitude of eggy breakfast casseroles, all, of course, involving more cheddar.

It became neat, rectangular, and predictable. It served twelve. It was a 9×13 casserole world and I was living it.

I was fortunate. I got out. I went to college, I travelled, I ate.

With knowledge and experience came diversity. And we all know diversity makes the world a much better place. So I developed friendships with lasagna, cassoulet, moussaka, and the timballo, to name a few.

Through it all, and even though we didn’t see each other as much, the gratin remained my favorite.

What I realized is the gratin is the kick-ass cousin who went to college too. And when you reconnect at the family reunion you realize you hang with them because they are exciting, interesting, and you can rest assured that there is more depth to them than a spiky haircut and a couple of tattoos. You get each other in that way only family can.

I like the gratin’s quirks. I like its fondness for juxtaposition. I know that, without pretense, Tournedos Rossini can snuggle in next to a celery root gratin as easily as can Irish bangers and, regardless of which side of the tracks it finds itself, the gratin brings comfort to the table, weight to the unbearable lightness of being.

The thing is, the gratin comes by these traits naturally. But I also know that the things that make it stand out — the creamy interior and crunchy top — don’t just happen, that the building of flavors takes effort, and that without a true friend’s presence the gratin’s popularity might wane.

But then that is what true friends do, you know, bring out the best in each other, and relish in each others’ success.

Note: I have been making this recipe for years. It is based on a recipe in the Dean and DeLuca cookbook by David Rosengarten. I have always found it to be a lovely holiday side dish. It goes well with prime rib roasts and roast chicken. It is versatile and can be made ahead to be put into the oven when needed and also is easily doubled.

Serves 6 to 8

2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch chunks

2 pounds celery root, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch chunks

Kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper

3/4 cups heavy cream

1 tablespoon garlic, minced

1/4 cup unsalted butter

1/8 teaspoon saffron, crushed

1 1/2 cup gruyere or comte cheese, grated

1. If you plan to cook the gratin right away heat the oven to 400 degrees. Otherwise move on to step two.

2. Place the potatoes and celery root into separate large pots. Cover by two inches with cold water and add a teaspoon of salt to each pot. Bring the pots to a boil over medium heat. Cook the vegetables until tender.

3. Once the vegetables are tender, pour them out into a colander set in the sink. Drain the vegetables and let them sit for a minute or two steam-drying.

4. Rinse out one of the pots and add the cream, garlic, butter, and saffron. Bring the cream to a boil over medium heat. Add a hefty pinch of salt and a few grinds of white pepper. Add 1/2 cup of the cheese. Stir it into the warm liquid till melted.

5. Place the celery root and potatoes into a mixing bowl (or the other blanching pot if it is big enough) and smash the mix with a potato masher. Add a pinch of salt then add the cream and saffron mix. Stir to combine. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more salt or pepper if necessary.

6. Use a little softened butter to grease an 8-inch oval gratin (12 inches long). Spread the rustic chunky mash out into the pan. Smooth the top with a spatula, then crosshatch the top with the tines of a fork. Spread the remaining cheese out over the top.

7. Bake until the cheese is browned, about 30 minutes. Let the gratin cool for 5 minutes, then serve.

The Omlette

The sun is just peeking over the horizon. The ninth-hole green looks beautiful in this light. Seems odd that a golf course can look so beautiful, but it does.

It’s five in the morning when I pull up to the back doors of the clubhouse. The double doors aren’t very welcoming, and a smoking station acting as the de facto doorman doesn’t make it any more so. The entire area is hidden from view by a privacy fence and some pine trees. Even if it isn’t intentional, this space reminds you: You are the help.

I open the car door to be greeted by the stench of dead food. A few days’ worth of food scraps–the shit the club members left on their plates mixed with the kitchen trimmings that are no good to anyone but the rats–is rotting in the dumpster until a truck comes to pick it up. The golf-course irrigation system kicks on. I search my keychain for the back-door key I rarely use. I rack my brain trying not to confuse the pin number of my debit card with the alarm code.

Inside, the kitchen is cold. My hours spent here usually center around dinner service, when the kitchen has had all day to become miserably hot. The cold is unfamiliar. I walk to the heat lamps and turn them on, then turn on the flat top.

The thick steel of the flat top takes forever to heat. The hash browns need all the cooking time I can give them to become golden brown and delicious before service. From the walk-in refrigerator, I get out a tray of shell eggs and start cracking them into a bain marie. These will be omelet eggs and scrambles. Lots of kitchens buy their eggs already cracked, but we don’t. I’m not sure why, since the nasty, fart-smelling liquid eggs we use for scrambled eggs on the buffets are cooked right in the plastic bags they come in. I whisk the eggs then strain them through a china cap to get rid of any albumen lumps. I put a six-ounce ladle into the mix. One ladle equals one omelet and no thinking.

Sunday breakfast duty sucks. None of the staff likes it, and hate probably isn’t a strong enough word, either. This is a lunch and dinner club, not a waffle and egg diner. Breakfast is only served once a week, so there’s no rhythm in the kitchen and no one is familiar with the menu. I come in early to do the prep. I don’t have to, and I wouldn’t be here at this hour if it didn’t make it easier for me. I have been making the French toast egg wash, waffle batter, traying up bacon, and countless other crap on the menu for months. I have been expediting food, filling in for whoever’s missing from the line, and we always get the job done, but barely.

My employees are kids who don’t give a shit. They don’t imagine their life will be that of a line cook, dish dog, or salad bitch. The ballcaps they wear are always slightly tilted, and as they grow to care less about their work, their hat becomes a give-a-fuck meter. The more the bill moves from the front to back, the less they give a fuck. The backwards rotation only gets faster as more customers cram into the dining room. If you’re lucky, their hat won’t be completely backwards until the very end of their shift.

I start in on the sausage gravy. We save all our bacon grease. A full scoop goes into the pot and, like a good magic trick, it looks like it sinks through the bottom of the pan and disappears as it transforms before my very eyes from a white solid to a glistening liquid. I add an equal amount of flour, which sizzles a little at the outer edges of the pile until I stir. Thick ribbons begin to follow the spoon as it goes round and round. I cook the roux until it smells like someone cooked popcorn in the microwave. I finish the whole thing off with two gallons of milk, a half sheet tray of cooked sausage, and a whole lot of black pepper. I keep whisking. It comes back to a boil and thickens.

The alarm on my watch goes off–my half-hour warning before service. As if I don’t believe my watch, I look up at the clock on the wall. Shit, it’s pushing seven and no one’s here yet. Usually someone’s made it in by now, if only because they’re out of coffee at home and came in to get a cup.

I hate having to call people at home to get their ass in to work. It’s never surprising to have people just not show up, to hear that a line cook is in jail, or to have a dishwasher scoot out the front door when the cops come knocking at the back. It’s the middle American restaurant business, after all. We’re not talking fine dining, just a run-of-the-mill feedlot.

A server comes in. I feel a perfect storm brewing and decide it’s a really good idea to prep the shit out of every station. The thing is, it’s the middle of summer, so there’s a damn good chance the breakfast service will be extremely quiet, and all this prep will go to waste. People go boating, have cookouts, or do yard work, plus it’s the beginning of the month so the members don’t have to use their minimum for food at the restaurant yet.

The only good thing about a Sunday morning is you ease into the rush. Not too many people are clamoring at the door to get in. They take their time, go to church, read the Sunday newspaper, then mosey on in for breakfast. So as the morning grinds on, it gets busier.

Finally a salad kid shows. He barely knows enough to make salads, but at least he can keep an eye on the bacon in the oven. A body is a body. Now a dishwasher comes in. This kid has worked at restaurants before. He’ll do.

I had a good prep and the people are streaming into the dining room at a nice pace. I’ve found my rhythm. Two omelets, French toast, and an order of pancakes is nothing. It all comes together with sides, all without thinking. I know the routine and I’m feeling good, even smiling, like I’m invincible behind the line. Every bit of this order comes up at the right time and all the plates are under the heat lamps waiting for a perfect omelet, great looking pancakes, and crispy-edged French toast, all at the same time I’m firing two other orders. Two tops, four tops, and more two tops. Keep it coming at this pace and I’ll be fine.

In my mind, though, I feel it coming, like two busloads of senior citizens showing up at a busy McDonalds during lunch hour. At the first lull, I restock everything that’s even remotely low at the stations, but this is like having five sandbags for a hundred-year flood.

Suddenly, it gets busy. I’m in the weeds but I’m turning waffles and flipping over-easies with a sense of urgency and working my way out of it.

And now the tsunami rolls in. I’m beyond busy. My ass is getting handed to me on the very plates I just sent out with that server.

For some reason, everyone wants omelets, then a few scrambles, then even more omelets. Which is great. I can stand at the stove and turn out omelets all day. I have the dish kid making toast, English muffins, and working hash browns like a champ, but we’re still getting buried.

When I’m short hands on deck, a ten top easily becomes the iceberg that sinks the Titanic. And as soon as I think it, a dumb-ass server says it out loud: “A walk-in ten top just came in.”

If I had the time to jump over the line and strangle the bastard, I would, but the row of tickets hanging in front of me is the chain that holds the dog back.

I keep flipping eggs. The ten-top order comes in. Ten omelets. I grin.

Mother’s Grits and Debris

I snuggled in behind the wheel of what became known as the Starship Enterprise, it was no longer a minivan fit for a family vacation.  Instead it morphed into a party pod for a convoy of misfits headed to Mardi Gras.  I was old enough to know better but I never let that stop me.

Fortunately,  we only lost one car and one person both of which later turned up in Florida.  I guess they just needed a change of venue, besides the important thing is we all managed to stay out of jail.

I could smell the chicory coffee wafting out the front door and blowing down Tchoupitoulas.  It drew me in like a voodoo king casting a love spell and deposited me at Mother’s front door.  The sign about the world’s best baked ham didn’t even register as I walked past it and sat down near a window hoping the low morning sun would cast some clarity onto the crumpled two day old newspaper I was trying to read.  I thought the sunlight might help me focus but it didn’t and in the end I had to leave that to the coffee.

The bite of the chicory brought me around long enough to order another cup and a bowl of Grits and Debris, which was really all I could afford.  What the coffee couldn’t do, breakfast did.  I didn’t realize how bad I needed food.  It was one of those occasions when you realize booze and nicotine isn’t a sustainable diet.  My breakfast was nourishing from the first bite to the last.

I only ate at Mother’s this one time but I revisit often on mornings when what is needed is a little something more.

Debris: the parts, bits and crumbs of roast beef that fall onto the carving board while you are slicing the meat.…..Find the recipe here