Three Onion Chowder

I really like chowders and really like French onion soup.  This is the best of both those worlds.  I don’t like pasty chowders so I didn’t thicken it except for the starch released from the potatoes. One tip I learned from Jasper White’s 50 Chowders is to let the chowder rest covered for thirty minutes. It really does make a difference when you allow the flavors to come together.

SERVES 4 TO 6

For the Soup:

For the Soup::

3 ounces pancetta, 1/4 inch dice

2 cups yellow onion, peeled and julienned

2 leeks, rinsed, white parts only, sliced into half moons

4 shallots, peeled and sliced

1/3 cup celery, 1/4 inch dice

1 1/2 tablespoon fresh garlic, minced

1 teaspoon fresh thyme, minced

1 bay leaf

2 cups chicken stock

2 cups half and half

3 russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2 dice

1 tablespoon Italian parsley, minced

1 tablespoon fresh chives, chopped

Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper

1. In a 3 quart Dutch oven or sauce pan add the butter and pancetta and place it over medium heat to render the pancetta. Once some of the fat has been released add the onions, shallot and celery. Saute until they are just becoming golden. You don’t want them to brown too much or the soup will be brown. Add the leeks, garlic and thyme. Cook until the leeks are just becoming soft. Add the bay leaf and chicken stock. Bring it to a boil and add the half and half and the potatoes. Bring the soup back to a boil and then immediately turn off the heat and cover the pot. Allow it to rest for at least thirty minutes.

Parsleyed Oyster Crackers:

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 cup oyster crackers

1 tablespoon Italian parsley, minced

Fine sea salt and fresh ground pepper

1. Heat a small saute pan over medium high heat. Add the butter and once it has stopped bubbling but is not brown, add the oyster crackers and toss the crackers to coat with the butter. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in the parsley and toss the crackers gently in order to coat all the crackers with the parsley. Pour out onto a baking sheet and let cool.

2. To finish the soup reheat it but don’t let it boil. Taste a potato to check and see if it is done and adjust the seasoning if necessary. If the potatoes are not done then cook over low heat for 15 minutes. Stir in the parsley and chives and then ladle into cups or bowls. Top with a few oyster crackers and serve.

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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.

Grilled Sirloin, Cold Weather Greens and Buttermilk Parmesan Dressing

Sirloin Steak with Cold Weather Greens

I consider  steak and salad greens to be my go to, quick Friday or Saturday night meal. If we don’t get home till late it is still something substantial, not overly filling, but very satisfying.

While I like all kinds of salad greens these are quite possibly my favorite. They are peppery and a little bitter but they are toned down by the buttermilk parmesan dressing, steak juices and the steak itself.

Rarely do we serve any other sides with this dinner and have been known to polish off an entire one and a half pound sirloin with a huge platter of greens.

Serves 2

1 1/2 lb. top sirloin steak

1 head of radicchio

2 Belgian endives

1 bunch of watercress or upland cress

For the dressing:

3/4 cup mayonnaise

1/3 cup 2% non-homogenized buttermilk

1/2 to 3/4 cup good quality parmesan, microplaned

1 to 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoon or more of fresh ground black pepper

kosher salt

1. Season the steak with salt. Set it on a baking rack and set it on a sheet tray with sides. Place it in the fridge for at least 2 hours and up to 8.

2. In a large mixing bowl add all the salad dressing ingredients and mix to combine. Taste and add salt, more cheese or pepper as necessary. Set aside to let the flavors meld. The dressing should be made about the time you season the steak and can be made up to a day in advance.

3. Heat you grill to high for direct heat grilling. Rinse the greens and spin them dry in a salad spinner then place them in a large bowl.

4. Season the steak with pepper. Grill the steak to one temperature below your desired doneness and then remove the steak and let it rest on a tray for 15 minutes.

5. Re-warm the steak on the grill. Toss the greens with the dressing, coating the greens well, and place them on a platter. Pour all the accumulated juices from the steak pan onto the salad. Remove the steak from the grill and slice it thinly and place it right on top of the greens. Serve immediately.

The Truth About Hunter S. Thompson

A sweating glass set down on a wooden bed stand makes an unmistakable sound. The ice doesn’t clink, it clicks, like fingernails on piano keys. In a small matter of time though the sound of the ice cubes change just as in another moment the wet glass leaves an indelible water mark. Of course, if someone’s setting a glass on your bed stand first thing in the morning, one of two things has happened: You’re either hung over, or you’re going to be.

There are moments in life that are greater than the individual. Recognizing these moments and rolling with them is what separates the ordinary from the extraordinary. If I had known this in my youth, I might have steered clear of that gas station, but sometimes, when there is little or no choice, you have to figure it’s fate.

I had finished up my last 1 to 10 p.m. shift at the American-Statesman, gone home to the roach-infested Holiday Inn-style apartment, and packed. It was 2 a.m. before I got loaded up and hit the road for Atlanta.

It was an ungodly hour somewhere between Austin and New Orleans when I started to get nervous about ever finding an open gas station. I was ready to pull into a station lot and just sleep until they opened. At each exit, I looked over the tops of the swamp mangroves hoping to see the beacon of mercury vapor lights that might indicate an open station. The fuel light on my metallic red Honda Accord had been on for more miles than I had ever pushed it before I finally got off the highway. There was no station at the exit, but I was desperate and figured there might be gas in town. I was surprised when I found an open station halfway between the highway and the town limits.

As my headlights picked up the two good-ol’-boys rushing out of the station door dressed in camo and hunter orange, it became immediately apparent that this had, at best, a 50/50 chance of going well. Sometimes, when it’s too dark and too secluded, you just know.

Now, it’s not like I was ignorant. I grew up in Indiana, and, the way I’ve always seen it, the only difference between a redneck ridge-runner and a Cajun is the accent. They’re cultural relatives, after all. But you can find bad apples anywhere.

I grabbed the pump handle, and a greasy, meaty claw grabbed it from my hand. “Full service,” he said in a rubbery swamp drawl. “Just stand back and everything be fine, satisfaction guaranteed.” When the skinny one (because in stories like these there’s always a skinny one and a fat one) jumped in the front seat to pop the hood and the gas tank–and then started rifling around in the console and the glove compartment, I knew this was going be an expensive tank of gas.

As they kept up a casually aggressive small talk, I sized up my few options. It’s not like I was going to take these two on. They were ready to fight, with Buck knives on their belts and who-knew-what in their boots. But, if I kept my mouth shut and was polite, maybe my odds would go up: In a minute the car would at least be full of gas….

At that moment, lurching out of the bathroom on the side of the building, I saw him. White Jack Purcells, white socks, white Fila tennis shorts, white shirt, tear-drop sunglasses, and that fucking Panama hat. In each hand a trademark: one, a Smith and Wesson .357 magnum with a six-inch barrel and enough power to knock down a full-size buck at a considerable distance; the other, a Dunhill Full Flavor cigarette stuffed into a plastic Joyu 450 cigarette filter.

If I had been an older man, my heart would have exploded out of my chest; instead it just revved like a 426 hemi with a snapped drive shaft–my engine was racing; my body was frozen. I was the deer in the headlights.

Hunter S. Thompson had just burst out of a gas-station bathroom in bum-fuck-Eygpt, had a gun pointed at a hillbilly’s head, and was telling them both to eat shit. He backed them off and grabbed me by the collar and shook. “Move, God damn it!” he roared, and he shoved me into the driver’s seat, backed around the hood, and jumped in on the passenger’s side. I was hunched forward with both hands on the wheel and a look on my face like I had just run over my favorite dog. He opened his mouth to shout at me, and the baseball-bat slammed into the trunk. It shook me out of my shock, and finally I peeled out, but not before we lost the back driver’s-side window to a brick.

Thompson threw his black gym bag into the back seat with my photo stuff, grinned, and stuck out his hand. In his staccato voice, he said, “Hunter Thompson.” Before we even got to the highway, he had convinced me that I needed to take him to where he needed to go.

Belize. A secluded banana plantation owned by a bunch of Rastafarians somewhere near the Guatemalan/Mexican border. They had developed an iguana problem and were licensing people to come and hunt them. It was remote, secluded, and the Rastas didn’t license just anyone.

I didn’t think I owed him my life, because I was pretty sure the Cajuns at the station just wanted my stuff and didn’t want to hurt me. So my decision was based solely on one fact: It was Hunter S. Thompson. I buckled my seatbelt and settled in as chauffeur. Thompson was an avid amateur photographer, so we easily dropped into a conversation about f-stops and shutter speeds, Cartier-Bresson and Capa.

At the Texas/Mexico border he had me park my car at Nuevo Laredo. Said we would take a bus across and pick up a car that would be waiting for us in Sabinas Hidalgo. There, we would drive along the mountains and find our way to the plantation.

There are few people who are apparent in their persona and Hunter S. Thompson was one. If his look wasn’t loud enough, the cherry-red 1976 Eldorado convertible waiting for us was like the second coming. His theory, he explained, was: create enough noise and people will look the other way.

I would never get to test this theory with Thompson. We began to relax, and as he relaxed the pharmaceuticals came out to amp things up again. It was at this point that I took my first mescaline, and, trust me, the world has always looked a little different.

I honestly can’t recount any other part of this sordid tale. From there on in, it was overloaded with drugs and tequila, with no end in sight until it somehow suddenly stopped. Not until I woke up, for the first time ever, to the sound of clicking ice, was there a coherent moment to reflect.

“It’s the cure, not the culprit,” he said, as I eyed the tall tumbler on the bed stand. I looked down and, to my surprise, there was a bandage on my leg and the sheets were stained with blood.

I ran my hand down to feel a chunk of my calf gone. I looked at Hunter with shock and dismay.

“Iguana bite. Biggest damn iguana ever, and you slayed the vicious beast with one shot just after it got a piece of you.”

“Iguana tacos?” I queried.

“Best ever, just like you said,” he replied.

I took a drink. Hunter S. Thompson never lied.

Makes one

2 tablespoons fresh coconut water

3 ounces fresh pineapple juice

seltzer water

crushed ice

1. Fill a 10 oz. tumbler three quarters full with ice.  Add the coconut water, pineapple juice, and top with seltzer.  Stir and garnish with lime, mango, and a cherry.

Rustic French Honey Cake

This cake is only slightly sweet. It is a cake that answers the age old question, “is it ok to put a slab of butter on my cake?” with a definitive yes. I find it great in the afternoon with an espresso and if it is a Saturday I might even attempt an armagnac, cognac or a sweet walnut liquor. If you just can’t help yourself you could add another 1/8 cup of honey.

The cake is good wrapped in plastic wrap for a couple of days. It was eaten over the course of 3 days here and, for me, only got better.

Makes 9 pieces

1 cup rye flour, fine grind

1 cup unbleached cake flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon cloves

1/2 cup honey

2 large eggs

1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted

1/2cup whole milk

1 cup prunes, chopped

1. Preheat the oven to 350˚ F. Grease an 8 X 8 inch square cake pan. A parchment square in the bottom might be a good idea if you think the cake will stick to your pan. Grease the parchment too.

2. Sift the flours into a mixing bowl. Any large pieces of bran left in the strainer can be discarded. Add the baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and cloves.

3. Add the eggs, honey, milk, and butter. Stir with a wooden spoon to combine. Add the prunes and stir to distribute them.

4. Pour the batter into the pan and bake for 35 minutes or until a cake tester poked into the middle of the cake comes out clean.

5. Remove it from the oven and let it cool. Dust with powdered sugar if desired. Serve.

The Great One

Recently, for what seems like the millionth time, I sat down and watched the original The Hustler. Not because of the story, although it’s a great story; or Paul Newman’s blazing good looks, although his blue eyes are piercing, even in black and white.

No, this time I was watching the Great One: Jackie Gleason. He completely captivated my attention. He’s not in many scenes, but he steals the ones he’s in, hands down. You can almost see Newman studying him right there on-screen, as though his blue eyes are fixed, mesmerized, on the great acting Gleason is doing.

Their first scene together might be one of the best in any movie. Gleason comes up the stairs, enters the pool hall through a set of double doors, and there he is: the presence, the clothes (who else could wear that hat?), the je ne sais quoi. Newman’s eyes might pierce, but watch the banter between the two and notice the moments when Gleason smiles and his eyes are nothing less than sparkling. That sparkle in Gleason’s eyes has fascinated me for months. I’ve gone back and watched old footage of him on talk shows and other clips of him talking with folks. I thought “je ne sais quoi” was about the best way to describe the sparkle, but then I realized it was much more.

Jackie Gleason knew how to live. I never met him, of course; I don’t even know much about him except for what I’ve seen in those clips; and I have no idea what he was like in his personal life. But when I see that sparkle in his eyes, I can tell that he knew how to live.

And it’s not just Gleason. Others from his time seemed to have living down, too. The Rat Pack comes immediately to mind, but so do many others. Maybe their whole generation lived life to the fullest, having come through the Great Depression and World War II. I don’t know–maybe they were all jerks–but their collective persona had a “live each day like it’s your last” attitude, and if they had a few regrets they got past them.

Even if you accept that this was their stage persona and life behind the scenes was very different, they still personified something that has gone missing in today’s culture. What might be responsible for that, in my mind, is how every time you blink someone’s telling you what you can’t do and why not. It’s becoming oppressive to so much as eat a steak, have a smoke, drink one too many, or buy food that wasn’t grown by you or the farmer next-door. And this doesn’t even include all the old-school stuff like riding a bike without a helmet or driving without your seatbelt. Of course, you shouldn’t blow cigar smoke at the next table while you’re enjoying your steak and scotch, but that shouldn’t stop you from living.

But this isn’t really new. People have always been told what not to do, and rarely have they been given complete freedom to live on their own terms. The ’40s and ’50s weren’t exactly prime eras for civil liberties and personal expression. I guess what Gleason’s generation had was the ability to let go. They knew how to compartmentalize. They busted their butts while they were working, and when it came time to enjoy themselves, they shut out all that other stuff and truly, fully enjoyed themselves.

It’s a gift to be able to focus on what’s in front of you, be it work or pleasure, so that the task at hand and the people you’re with are always, at that moment, the most important thing in the world. The dinner table is the perfect forum for this, as long as the people, not the food, are the primary focus. I used to focus so much on the food, hoping each dish would be properly prepared and revered, that I sometimes forgot about the dinner. It’s like going to a top-tier restaurant. You go there for the food, not a bunch of banter and laughter–and that’s why chefs, generally, would rather just go to a bistro or a sushi joint, where the food is just as great but the experience is centered on the people and the reverence is for the atmosphere, not for each perfectly presented dish.

This pasta recipe is just the dish to enhance, rather than distract from, that kind of dining experience. A big platter served to a group of friends, along with a few sides, great bread, and some wine, it’s just the capper for the evening. Sure, I put some time into creating this dish for my guests, but there’s nothing serious or formal about this food. It lets you focus on your friends and it lets them relax and enjoy the meal.

Hopefully, as the night progresses, everyone will be living in the moment, experience life at its fullest–and maybe, should luck be a lady tonight, you’ll catch that sparkle in everyone’s eyes. How sweet it is!

click here for the recipe Chicken, Basil and Tomato Sausage with Cavatelli

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Edna Lewis: The Taste of Country Cooking

Bacon Fried Rabbit

The difference between Edna Lewis’ book The Taste of Country Cooking and countless other cookbooks is she truly celebrates food. Not only is it a celebration but it is the gospel of farm to table eating, a hymn of fresh, great tasting, whole food that should be sung loudly as the new testament of eating seasonally. In short, it just might save your soul and at the very least it is extremely soul satisfying.

What drew me in the first time I opened the book was a breakfast menu that simply read Fall Breakfast and the second item listed in the menu was smothered rabbit. As if this wasn’t enough the first time I made Miss Lewis’s pear preserves I became teary eyed because it reminded me of the taste of a long-forgotten-that-was-now-brought-to-mind memory of my grandmother and the pear preserves she made.

When you realize this was published in 1976 it becomes apparent this is a last bastion to how rural America once ate. It isn’t the French influenced food made in a California restaurant kitchen that now stands as the talisman of sustainable eating, but rather, it is 100% American food made with ingredients had on hand and in season. It was written at a time when women wanted out of the kitchen instead of in and the burger joint was still a treat but unfortunately fast becoming a standard.

The book is not a retrospective of days past and food that is dated by out of style trends but it is a classic that is as current and in touch today, maybe even more so,  as it was when written.

Miss Lewis does nothing short of pen a rural American classic that treats food with respect and knowledge of how to use the ingredients at hand and get the most out of them. There is nothing fussy about her food and there needn’t be because its simplicity and freshness is what makes it delicious.

In short if you care about sustainable local food you should get yourself a copy. It will fast become your how to manual.

This recipe is based loosely on Miss Lewis’s fried chicken recipe.

Bacon Fried Rabbit

Serves 4

2 fryer rabbits, cut into 6 to 8 pieces

1 piece of slab bacon, cut about 1/4 inch thick

2 cups flour, seasoned with 2 teaspoons black pepper, 1 teaspoon each of thyme and paprika, and 1 teaspoon of salt

buttermilk

peanut oil

kosher salt

1. Season the rabbit with salt and set it aside to let the salt dissolve into the meat.

2. In a large cast iron Dutch oven add enough oil to come up the side by no more than a third. Add the bacon.

3. Turn the heat to medium high and place your fry thermometer into the oil. Place the seasoned flour into a plastic bag with the rabbit. Toss the rabbit around to give it a good coating. Remove the pieces from the flour and let them soak a in the buttermilk. Remove each piece and let the excess drip off. Put the pieces back into the flour for their final coat. Don’t do this to far in advance or the coating gets brittle when fried.

4. When the temperature gets to 350F˚ remove the bacon if it is crispy and start frying the rabbit until golden brown and delicious. If you need to do this in batches do. Don’t over crowd the pot or you will have a greasy mess. So to do this heat the oven to 250˚F. As the rabbit pieces come out of the grease place them on a sheet tray fitted with a wire rack and keep them in the oven till all are done.

5. Serve.

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Braised Kale with Sweet Potatoes and Corn

        Without question this goes against the grain of  eating seasonally and if it weren’t so good you  would reconsider it.  In defense of this dish it is also that strange time of year where the garden isn’t quite producing and all kinds of things from all over are showing up in the produce department of the grocery.
Still,  it is a dish that is great served with a whole grain pilaf for a vegetarian menu, and of course, with roast chicken, braised chicken, steak, pork or you name it.

Serve 4
4 to 5 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes, about 3 cups
1 to 2 tablespoons honey
2 to 3 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 bunches kale, ends trimmed and rinsed
1 onion, small dice, about 1/2 cup
4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced thin
1/2 cup cream
1 ear sweet corn or 3/4 cup frozen , thawed
safflower oil
kosher salt and white pepper

1. Place a large pot of heavily salted water over high  heat and bring it to a boil.  Place the kale into the boiling water and blanch it until it is tender but the color is still vibrant.  Remove the kale to an ice bath and cool it immediately.  Drain it, squeeze out most of the liquid and then chop it.
2. Preheat the oven to 400 ℉.  Place a 12 or 14 inch non-stick skillet over medium high heat.  Once the pan is hot add 1 tablespoon of butter and the sweet potatoes.  Season them with a big pinch of salt.  Toss them in the pan to coat them with butter.  Cook the sweet potatoes until they start to brown, if they look dry add up to another tablespoon of butter,  then slide them into the oven.  Set a timer for 20 minutes.
3. While the sweet potatoes are cooking place another saute pan over medium heat and add a tablespoon of safflower oil.  Add the onions , season them with salt and white pepper, and cook them until they begin to take on color.  Then add the garlic.  Stir the contents of the pan and then add the chopped kale.  Stir again and season with another pinch of salt.
4. Add the cream and the corn and stir everything together.  Reduce the heat to a simmer and cover the pan with a lid.
5. Using a thick dry kitchen towel remove the sweet potatoes from the oven and add a tablespoon of honey and toss or stir the potatoes to coat them.  Place the pan back into the oven.  Bake the potatoes for another 5 minutes or until tender.
6. Check the kale for seasoning and adjust.  Try a sweet potato and add more honey, salt or pepper if needed.
When everything is hot and tender, bowl it up, and serve.

Heart and Soul

The tiny bright green stars of okra and the fresh lima beans, so tender the veins show through their thin skins, are nestled into a bed of bi-color sweet corn just shaved off the cob. Together they simmer in a liquid that is mostly melted butter, seasoned quietly with salt and black pepper.

Succotash is a poor man’s dish, made popular during the Great Depression. Somehow I never feel poor when eating it — but then, I feel that way about all soul food.

While succotash is comfort food, not all comfort food is soul food. I can find comfort in foie gras, but foie gras is not soul food. Succotash is.

At the back of the stove, the chicken thighs simmer away. Their crispy brown skin breaks the bubbling surface of pan gravy made with peppers, onions, and celery. There is a reason they call this mix of vegetables the trinity. It goes beyond the Southern flavor they bring to the dish — something distinct, even ethereal.

I am feeling sad. Sylvia Woods, of Sylvia’s Soul Food fame, has passed away. Over the years, her collard greens recipe became my recipe, her Northern-style cornbread a family favorite at Thanksgiving. It was with her recipe in hand one sultry Friday afternoon some years ago that I lost my red velvet cake virginity.

I pick up the paring knife used to peel the potatoes. It is dirty with powdery white potato starch. Fishing for one of the larger chunks of potato, I stick it into the boiling water, find one, and poke it with the knife, which slips to the center of the potato like it is room temperature butter.

Carrying the potato pot to the sink, I pour it into the strainer. Hot starchy steam rushes up and around my face before disappearing upward toward the ceiling. I let the potatoes sit in the strainer to steam out excess moisture and turn to the stove to stir the succotash.

The oven timer goes off.

I grab a kitchen towel to use as a hot pad and remove the black skillet cornbread from the oven. I can smell the thin, crispy bacon fat-and-cornmeal crust that forms when the batter hits the hot skillet, hiding now under the tender yellow interior. I set the skillet on top of the stove and cover it with the dish towel.

I like this point in the meal preparation.  The point where everything is coming together and there is a final rush to get everything done at the same time so all the food comes to the table hot.

I rice the potatoes.

It isn’t a coincidence the corn, okra, and lima beans are all at their peak out in the garden today.  At least that is what I am telling myself.

I always add the butter first to the riced potatoes so the fat gets absorbed by the starch.  Then I add the heavy cream, salt and pepper.
I like that soul food is about coming together not just as a family but as a community, even more so then it is about eating.  Not that the food isn’t important– it is about the value of sharing, too — but even the food shouldn’t trump the socialization that happens around it.

I taste the potatoes.  They are just the right texture and need no further seasoning, cream or butter.  I scoop them into a serving bowl, and do the same with the succotash, and put the smothered chicken on a platter with its gravy ladled over the top.

It is always lively at our table.  This evening, it might even be more so.

Get the Bona Fide smothered chicken recipe here.

Fugly Lentils and Drunken Pig

This is a love story. One with big hands, fat spoons and where ladles are measured in busty bra sizes. It harkens back to the days when hand hewn tables were made of whole trees and crusty loaves of bread were the size of clouds. One where wine was quaffed, not sipped and swirled, and bellicose laughter could be heard around the dinner table not TV. There were no food temples of hallowed and silent reverence just hunger and many mouths to be fed. While not pretty the lowly lentil has done this job for centuries and so has the pig.

When they finally met it was love at first sight. The kind of love where you see no faults. It is big love where your very nature is to do everything in your power to make the other shine because they are the only light you see. There are no dainty little pieces that sit comfortably on soup spoons never to threaten silk shirts with a trip to the dry cleaners. These are knife, fork, spoon and some crusty bread to sop up any tears of joy left on the plate kind of eats. The Armagnac you ask, well, sometimes the lentils just like to feel a little slutty.

SERVES 4 TO 6

For the drunken pig:

3 or 4 meaty fresh pork hocks, unsmoked and about 4 inches long. The closer to the ham end the better. Really, make sure they are meaty it is where the pork for the dish is coming from

10 ounces unsmoked slab bacon, in one piece

1 leek, trimmed cut in half lengthwise

1 onion quartered

1 carrot, peeled and cut into chunks

2 celery stalks, rinsed and cut into chunks

1 head of garlic, halved

2 thyme sprigs

2 bay leaves

2 teaspoons whole black pepper corns

pinch of ground cloves

3 parsley sprigs

2 cups dry white wine

1 cinnamon stick 3 inches long

For the fugly lentils:

Meat from the hocks and the bacon

strained stock from above

2 onions, trimmed peeled and cut into quarters

8 carrots, decent sized, peeled and cut into 1 1/2 inch lengths

14 cloves of garlic, peeled, trust me later you will think this isn’t near enough

2 bay leaves

1 tablespoon rosemary, minced

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1/2 cup tomato sauce

1 teaspoon thyme, minced

1 1/4 cup Lentils du Puy

kosher salt and fresh ground pepper

1 tablespoon armagnac

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon garlic, very finely minced

1 tablespoon flat leaf parsley minced

1.To make the stock turn the oven to 325 degrees. Place all the stock ingredients into a large enameled cast iron pot with a lid. Make sure it is going to fit comfortably. Add water to cover. Bring to a boil on the stove top and skim any foam that rises.

2. Cover the pot with a lid and place it in the oven. Take a 2 hour and 45 minute break to do what ever you want. I generally play with the kids at this point or run errands or whatever.

3. Make sure the hocks are pull apart tender. If not cook them a little longer. When they are done pull the hocks and bacon and set them on a tray. Strain and drain the stock into a clean bowl, degrease and reserve the broth. Clean out the pot and put it back on the stove over medium high heat.

4. Add a few glugs of olive oil and then toss in the carrots and the onions. Sear them until they begin to take on color.

5. Add the garlic, rosemary, thyme, tomato sauce, 3 cups of stock and the tomato paste.

6. Season the broth with black pepper and add the lentils. Bring the pot to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer and cover. Simmer them for 40 minutes checking to make sure they aren’t boiling or that the lentils haven’t drank all the broth and adding broth if necessary. Lentil like all beans vary in cooking times depending on age, moisture content etc so times may vary. You want these to be tender but not mush so you will need to give them a taste.

7. Meanwhile make the seasoning sauce. Combine the minced garlic, parsley and red wine vinegar and season it with salt and pepper. Stir in the olive oil.

8. At the end of 40 minutes check to make sure the lentils are tender. If not simmer them another fifteen minutes or so. Stir in the armagnac and add the reserved pork that you picked from the bones and add it to the lentils. Cut the bacon into equal portions and add it too. Season the pot with salt and black pepper and taste. Cover and warm the pork through. Serve with the sauce on the side.