Marie’s Freedom Station and Crispy BBQ Chicken Thighs

Marie’s Freedom Tire Shop

Marie, in her sixties, ran Freedom’s Tire Shop in Freedom Indiana. It had been years since anyone bought tires but they kept coming for the gasoline. The station sat at the edge of town across the street from the only grocery. Marie’s husband had been dead 15 years when I met her in the late 1980’s. Her only source of income had been her husband and his business. When he died she decided she would run the gas station and each day, with walking stick in hand, she would walk to work. She had never had possession of a drivers license nor did she want too. Continue reading

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Classic Creamy Coleslaw

cabbage

My favorite kind of coleslaw is the classic, creamy variety; it comforts me because I grew up eating it at a mom-and-pop catfish bar whose coleslaw was second to none. Their version was made with finely grated cabbage and bright orange ribbons of carrot. It was a bit tart and a little sharp — the way horseradish can be — because the cabbage was freshly grated. It paired perfectly with deep-fried catfish, whose crispy tails tasted of bacon. This is the slaw by which I judge all others. Continue reading

Island Style Chicken Fricassee

Fricassee en PolloIn the summertime, I want food that is casual, soulful, and unpretentious — food that can double as a family meal and an intimate dinner for entertaining. Any dish that almost needs to be eaten with the hands (but not quite) or that can be scooped-up with röti, flatbread, or tortillas and goes well with ice cold beer is a grand slam. Suffice it to say, Caribbean food does all of these things well. And besides, I love island food.

Julia Child describes a fricassee as a dish somewhere between a sauté and a stew. Because this definition is so broad, it lends itself to a heated discussion over a cook’s creative latitude. Plant this culinary seed in an area with lots of islands and diverse cultural heritage and you end up with a menagerie of spectacular dishes. In the Caribbean alone I can think of several fricassees, like the Cuban classic Ropa Vieja or Jamaican Brown Stewed Chicken, which is more a fricassee then the name suggests.

A good fricassee is a rustic dish. It starts with browning the meat — usually bone-in to add flavor to the dish’s self-created broth — and then following with a heady dose of aromatics typically consisting of onions, peppers, garlic, and herbs. Depending on which island you’re on, a fricassee might either incorporate lots of peppery heat or be mild, but all will have notes of African or Indian flavors.

Fricassee en Pollo

For my tastes, I like to add a tomato product, be it canned or fresh, and some sort of other acid, such as vinegar or wine. In the case of this particular dish, however, I replace the usual vinegar or wine with green olives and capers.

While I have stripped the meat from the bone, it isn’t necessary. Being a rustic dish, it would be perfectly acceptable to leave the cut chicken as is. You could easily add more heat or do as I did and separate a mild portion for the kids before adding some hot peppers to the adult portion. The amount of spicy heat is left up to the discretion of the cook who knows firsthand the preferences of the eaters.

Be it plain or with the addition of saffron and peas (as in my picture), rice is important to a fricassee. Generally speaking fricassees are not one-pot meals, but rather are served with rice, röti, and a vegetable. The rice shouldn’t outshine the main dish: the two should enhance each other in a sort of partnership. In some sense it is like this is like a pasta dish: the fricassee is used as a condiment to the rice in the same way that sauce flavors noodles.

I like dishes that don’t control my schedule. The final big plus to this kind of food is that cooking it in increments can even improve the final product. I rarely go to the kitchen anymore and cook something from start to finish in one session — most days, I just don’t have the time. Often, I find myself with snippets, 10 minutes here or an hour there, which I put to use. I may prep everything in between making the girls’ breakfast and getting them off to camp. After camp drop-off, I might run an errand before heading home to caramelize the meat and sear the veggies. If I have enough time, I’ll add the liquids and let the dish finish until the chicken is tender. Then, it can all go in the fridge until dinner, allowing the meal to be as casual as I like my summers to be.

Fricassee en Pollo (serves 6 to 8)

1 whole 3 pound chicken, cut into 10 pieces

1 tablespoon expeller pressed peanut oil

1/2 cup red bell pepper, small dice

1 cup onion, small dice

3 tablespoons fresh garlic, minced

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 tablespoon dried thyme

1 tablespoon cumin, crushed

2 teaspoons paprika

2 bay leaves

16 ounces crushed tomatoes

2/3 cups green olives, halved

1/2 tablespoon capers, minced

kosher salt and fresh ground pepper

2 tablespoons hot pepper of your liking, minced

  1. Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Place a large heavy bottomed pot over medium high heat. Add the peanut oil and swirl it around in the pan to coat the bottom. When the oil is hot add the chicken skin side down and brown it deeply on all sides. Adjust the heat as necessary to avoid scorching the oil. Once the chicken is caramelized remove it to a plate.
  2. Add the onions, pepper and garlic to the pan. Sweat the vegetables until they just become tender then add the dried spices. Stir the spices into the vegetables and let them toast until they become fragrant. Add the tomato and a cup of water. Season the sauce with a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper reminding yourself that the olives and capers are salty so don’t season with a heavy hand. Taste and make adjustments.
  3. Add the chicken back to the broth and then bring the whole thing to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook until the chicken is just tender. If you plan to strip the meat from the bones remove it and place it on the same plate you used before. While it is cooling let the sauce reduce until it becomes unctuous.
  4. Cook your rice according to the instructions on the bag or box or however it works best for you.
  5. Add the pulled chicken (or chicken pieces) back to the reduced sauce. Add the olives, capers and any hot peppers your might want to add. Taste and add more salt if needed. Warm through and serve with rice.

Stir Fried Noodles

 

There are two things I get hung up on when it comes to making Asian food at home — woks and procuring hard-to-find ingredients.

But I look at it this way: I make Italian pasta at home, so I know I can make any noodle at home.

There are a few technical issues that are really the key to stir-fry success. I need to get my pan hot enough, generally impossible to do with a wok because of the BTUs of American stoves and the thinness of the wok metal, but a non-stick skillet will do what I need it to do perfectly.

The other misstep is when I try to cram too many ingredients into the wrong-sized pan — this is my most common stir-fry failure because I get anxious or cocky. Easily solvable, with a little thing called patience.

How to Make Any Stir-Fried Noodles 

Ratio: 1.5 parts protein, 1 part vegetable, 1 part noodle. For my 12 inch non-stick skillet this means 12 ounces of protein, 8 ounces of vegetables, 8 ounces cooked noodles.

1. Stir-fries cook quickly so act like a scout and be prepared. Cut all vegetables small enough that they’ll cook fast and line up all ingredients next to the stove in the order they’ll go into the pan. (Always dilute soy sauce in ratio of 1 part soy to 1 part water — when it hits the hot pan it will reduce, gaining back its strength.)

2. Choose your noodle. I find all noodles are good noodles as long as they are long. Cook them to al dente and cool them — I like to steep rice noodles instead of boiling them, which only takes about 10 minutes.

3. Cook the protein first, adding half the diluted soy after the protein has caramelized. Remove the protein to a plate, wipe out the pan and reheat it.

4. Sear the vegetables till tender. Be sure to add the vegetables that take the longest to cook to the pan first. Carrots first, ginger and garlic last.

5. Combine everything in the pan and toss just till it’s warmed through, adding the remaining diluted soy sauce last.

6. Add the garnish — here, chives and scallions — which in Asian food isn’t optional. It is an actual ingredient that needs to be added for flavor.

  • Spaghetti noodles $1.05 for 16 oz.s-$o.53
  • 12 ounces ground meat-$3.50
  • vegetables-$4.00
  • oil- $0.25

Total approx. cost for this recipe.$8.03

Ingredients ( Serves 4  when served with sides or 2 if you serve it only)

12 ounces ground beef, chicken or turkey ( I used turkey because I had it on hand)

8 ounces of veggies, I used 1 cup snow peas, small dice, 1 cup carrots, grated, 1 leek, about a cup julienned, 1 tablespoon each garlic and ginger, 1/4 cup green onions and 1 tablespoon of chives.

8 ounces of cooked and cooled noodles

1/4 cup of soy sauce diluted with a 1/4 cup of water

Aside

Polenta with Peas and Pork Sausage

If my extended family’s eating habits are an indication as to what the preferred meat was on my grandparents and great grandparents farm then it is obvious to me I come from a long line of pork eaters. It’s not as if this matters or that I need some sort of familial approval for my love of the beast because I don’t.  I claim it as my heritage after all but I’ll just say it anyway for clarity, I…love…pork.

I love pork for its possibilities, its versatility, and most importantly, it’s flavor. From snout to hocks or bacon to ham there are more uses for the pig then any other animal I know and one of my favorite uses is as a seasoning.  My definition and what I mean by seasoning is not simply tossing a couple of strips of bacon in with the green beans and  calling it a day.  No, the pork isn’t there for a cameo but instead has an important supporting role, one in which it could be nominated for an award.

Don’t get me wrong I enjoy a good pork dinner, something like Edna Lewis’s Boiled Pork (think Pot eu Feu) really floats my boat but as I try to reduce the amount of animal protein I consume I often look to the example of Italian ragus or Asian dishes where animal protein, quite literally, plays second fiddle to the grains or noodles on the platter. The pork is there to enhance and flavor the dish. Sure this is done for economy, just like adding bread or oats to meatloaf, and who doesn’t like save a few bucks or at the very least feed more mouths for the same price. Not only that but if you buy less quantity then you can afford better quality, at least this has always been my way of thinking.

When it comes to pork quality matters. If you buy pork that is enhanced with sodium triphosphate, a common practice at big box stores, it won’t caramelize very well and honestly the pork tastes bland. It is done to help the meat retain moisture but they add it because the producers have made pork to lean. If you buy pork with a little higher fat content you don’t need the moisture retainer. Not only that but when pork is raised in a more sustainable fashion it just taste better. It taste better because of what the animals eat.  It is about the animals diet after all. I am all about how my food taste and if sustainability happens to be a byproduct then, wonderful. I mean when I bite into good pork it immediately transports me to my grandparents farm, sitting outside under a shade tree eating a farm dinner on a beautiful summer’s eve and it reminds me exactly how pork is supposed to taste.

Over the years I have had different fascinations with different types of cured pork. I mean the list of possibilities is big, you have bacon, ham, Tasso, Serrano, prosciutto, pancetta, guanciale all on top of any number of sausages. All used as seasonings and all just a few of the options that can confront you. The wonderful thing is there are many books that will teach you how to cure many of these products at home (Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie comes to mind) and many of the processes are surprisingly simple. In fact no special equipment is required other then a good sharp knife(which I don’t consider special equipment).

Polenta with Peas and Sausage (serves 6)

one recipe of Carlo Middione’s Polenta Facile

10 ounces pork tenderloin, sirloin or loin

4 to 5 ounces pancetta

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

a scrape or two of whole nutmeg

a handful of  parsley leaves

3 cloves garlic

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary

1 bay leaf

kosher salt

fresh ground pepper

1 garlic clove, minced

1/2 cup carrots, small dice

1/2 cup onion, small dice

1/2 cup white wine

2 cups pork stock or chicken stock

1 1/2 cups fresh peas or frozen

chopped chives and parsley

1. Lay your pork out onto a large cutting board. Cut the pork and pancetta into thin strips then into cubes. Spread the pork out so it is flat instead of in one big pile. It’s ok if it isn’t in one single layer you just don’t want a big pile. Place the palm of you hand, as shown in the picture, across the blade of the knife making sure to keep your fingers up and you hand flat. This will keep you from cutting your hand if the knife slips. So fingers up! What you are doing is creating a hinge of sorts because you want to keep the tip of the knife on the board and in doing so it lets you apply more cutting force. Run the knife through the pork several times and until you have minced it to a coarse mince.

2. Add the garlic cloves, parsley, a teaspoon of salt, a few grinds of pepper and the nutmeg. Mince the seasonings into the pork until you have a fine mince. Add the red wine vinegar and knead it into the sausage. Ball up the sausage, put it in a bowl and let it get funky in the fridge for an hour or two.

3. Start the polenta. I let my polenta cook for almost three hours. I was using an heirloom corn I grew last year called Henry Moore. It took a long time to cook but it was creamy beyond my wildest expectations. So take your time with the polenta, cook any bitterness out of it and let it do its thing.

4. When the polenta is close to being finished start the sauce by placing a large 12 inch saute pan over medium high heat. When it is hot add a glug or two of oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Brown the sausage. Once the sausage is brown remove it to a plate. Be careful not to burn the fond on the bottom of the pan. Add the onions and carrots and cook them gently until they just begin to wilt.

5. Add the tomato paste, dried thyme, rosemary, garlic and bay leaf. Stir until fragrant then add the white wine. Let the wine burn off the alcohol and then add the stock. Season and taste. Bring it to a boil and reduce it by half. Taste again and adjust the seasoning.

6. Add the sausage and peas. Heat until the peas are warmed through. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Add a tablespoon of chopped chives and parsley. Stir.

7. Spread the polenta on a platter, top with the peas and sausage, and serve.

Seasoning with Pork: Polenta with Peas and Pork Sausage

Image

A Girl and Her Pig

When I used to go to the bookstore looking for cookbooks to add to my collection I could spend hours flipping the pages of different books.  It was much like when I was younger and I would buy albums, then CDs, flipping through the alphabetized record bins searching for disk in hopes of finding something new and even more importantly, something exciting. As such I am the owner of an extensive cookbook library, or at least it feels like it to me. Not as many books as in some peoples collections but enough none the less. Back when I was really buying I would head to the bookstores and it was nothing to buy two to five new books at a time.

When I got home with my finds I would take them to my night stand and set them down. I would go about the rest of my days business but every night before bed I would thumb through the books looking for the must make recipes. Sometimes straight away I wanted to get out of bed and head into the kitchen. It was hard to contain my excitement and wait until the next day to make a new dish.

In time though I began to experience the law of diminishing returns. It began to feel as if the content of the cookbooks I was purchasing was all the same. A trend would hit and everyone would follow suite. Authors would add their little twist to the fad of the moment and publish. The fads would last about two years only to be followed by the next hot trend. Duck comes to mind, slow food, then bacon and now simple scratch cooking, vegetarian and vegan. The later, repentance for our foodie excesses I suppose.

All in all, this phenomena is what I have termed the “gold rush syndrome”. It is where food professionals scurry from one region, type or style of food to the next looking for a nugget in the terroir. One person strikes gold and everyone mines it until it runs dry.  This syndrome came to reflect the foodie mentality for me and I just can’t do it anymore. It is tiring, the chase isn’t fun anymore,  and once my palette became more experienced it became harder to please.  Even so, there are still books being created that stand out and when I do find gold it is not hard to champion or to shout encouragement and praise. Especially when, from cover to cover, a book is full of useful wisdom.

There is no doubt April Bloomfield’s A Girl and Her Pig is one one of these great books, one of the best in this years cookbook class and upon giving it a closer look I discovered it is much more.  A Girl And Her Pig resonates with libertarian resolve.  It is apparent Bloomfield is someone who has taken responsibility for herself and her food and harbors no apologies.  The cover is as punk as punk ever was.  It is Abbey Hoffman.  It is Che Guevara.  It is Frieda Kahlo.

It resonates with the soul of a chef but it is a book in which a wonderful chef does what really wonderful chefs do, they please.  Which is rare in theses days of pop star chefs.  If Bloomfield has an ego she checked it at the door.    She never leaves you with the impression she is better then you but instead you feel she is one of you. Bloomfield uses a mix of classic recipes that, with time,  have become her own and then she laces the pages in-between with food she loves.  Simple dishes like bubble and squeak and chicken in adobo are obviously a few of her favorite foods but they go well with the restaurant dishes too.  What Bloomfield has done is spend time in the kitchen perfecting classic recipes, using her professional knowledge to create food to her liking and with her touch.  It is this dedication that makes the food in this book so special.

Not surprisingly as you get to know her food you get to know Bloomfield. The pages are laced with personal tales of cooking and career and with each turn of the page her passion, which is quietly infectious, builds only to remain with you long after you closed the cover. As such Bloomfield becomes a wonderful voice to have floating around in your head while you are in the kitchen much like a favorite song that always resonates deep within your soul.

The Chess Game

The Chess Game

There is never a good time for bad news, but there it is, right in front of me, plain as a shadow on a sunny day.

She breaks the news the minute she is in the car. I’m trying to get her in her car seat and the buckle hasn’t even clicked when she blurts it out:

“Dad, I think I want to leave home.”

I move back, still leaning over her. I try to get her freckled little face, her blue eyes, in focus. I don’t have my glasses on. The back of the front seat keeps me from moving back far enough, so I have to squint to see just how serious this statement, this bomb, is.

No hint of a smile; if she isn’t serious, she should win an Oscar.

“Ohhh-kay,” I say.

I walk around the car and wave to Mrs. Davis, Vivian’s kindergarten teacher. I drop my chin, looking down at the pavement and smile. She cast the hook and I’m going to run with it. It’s a good opportunity to connect. Lynnie is at preschool for a couple more hours, I’ve made Vivian’s favorite, chicken noodle, for lunch, and this plan to leave home will make for good conversation over soup and crackers.

It started out as an ordinary day. We all woke up at the usual time; no crying, no wrong-side-of-the-bed. They ate their pancakes, had their juice, and were dressed and ready to go to the bus stop without any of my deep-voiced “matching socks, girls” or you need your gym shoes today”–not even the requisite “if we miss the bus…” threat. I don’t need any of those stern words, meant to teach them that a sense of urgency is sometimes necessary, because for once they got ready before they started playing. Actually, I guess it started as an extraordinary day.

Now, on the way home from school, Vivian and I ride in silence. I’m trying to figure out where this “leaving home” thing is coming from, and she, I am sure, is using the silence as a negotiating tool, to bring her opponent to the table first. It is a short drive home, and I decide not to bring it up again. It’s up to Vivian.

As I open the screen door to the house, I get a good whiff of the chicken stock on the stove. I mention that I made chicken-noodle soup for lunch and ask if she would like a bowl.

“Oh, not now, Daddy–I need to pack,” she says.

“It’s hot and yummy, and you’re going to need your strength,” I reply. Besides, you have plenty of time.”

She consents to lunch.  Continue reading

Peas and Rice with Crispy Shallots

Rice and Peas with Crispy Shallots

I never feel like people like to cook rice unless of course they are from a country or region where it is a staple.  I will say it took me a while to get the hang of it.  Even after culinary school, because I didn’t cook rice often, it was a struggle.  It seemed like it would either be a gooey mess, or dry and not cooked all the way through.  Some recipes seemed to work one time and the next they failed.

It wasn’t until I started to look for a rhyme and reason that it started to get better for me.  I stopped buying different brands, types and kinds of rice for regular use and narrowed my selection down to two.  I use medium grain brown rice from Lundberg farms in California and a kapika short grain white rice from Japan.  For other dishes such as risottos or paella I use carnaroli.

For those not familiar with kapika it is a process where by the rice is polished using the grains themselves to remove the outer husk which also allows for greater water absorption.  What I like about the kapika process is you do not need to rinse the rice before it is cooked and it has a stickiness to it that allows you to be able to eat it with chopsticks if you choose.  Still there is more to kapika then just chopstick usability, there is the chew.  It has, for me, the perfect chew it is tender with a spring.

I cook brown rice using a method that is wildly different from how I cook any other rice.  I always parboil it in large quantities of lightly salted water, drain it and cool it much like you might pasta.  They I use it in applications like fried rice, casseroles and pilafs.

I usually by larger quantities of white rice then brown.  I love brown rice but brown rice can go rancid if left sitting around or because of lower turnover in the store, the rice is already old and needs to be used up before it goes south.  It has an acrid smell to it when it is old.  White rice like white flour has a longer shelf life.

Obviously brown rice is better for you because it is a whole grain but I am certain white rice is more soothing to my stomach.

For this recipe I could simply enjoy sitting at the table and eating it all on its own.  I need no other dish alongside it but if it is going to be a side dish roast chicken is a real good choice as is rabbit.

My absolute favorite condiment for this dish is the gelatinous stock (not the chicken fat) that forms on the bottom of the roast chicken pan.  If you have it available stir some of it in to the rice after it has cooked but before serving.

Serves 4 to 6

2 cups kapika rice

2 3/4 cup vegetable broth

1 cup peas, fresh or frozen

1/2 cup shallots, sliced into very thin rounds and separated

peanut or safflower oil

2 teaspoons fresh chives, minced

2 teaspoons parsley, minced

1. Place the rice into a 3 1/2 quart enameled Dutch oven with a heavy lid.  Add the vegetable stock and a pinch of salt.  Bring the broth to a boil over high heat.  Immediately turn down the heat to simmer and put the lid onto the pot (I weight the lid with a two pound weight but that is up to you).  Set a timer for 20 minutes.

2. While the timer is running place a 2 quart sauce pan over medium high heat.  Add a 1/2 inch worth of oil to the pan.  Once the oil is to temperature, you can test this by dropping in a shallot ring it should drop to the bottom then come back to the top all in slow motion, add the shallots.  It won’t take long for them to brown so don’t leave the stove.  Once they are brown remove them from the pan with a metal slotted spoon to a paper towel lined plate and season them with salt and pepper.  Set aside.

3. When the rice timer goes of quickly lift the lid and add the peas.  Don’t stir them just leave them on top to steam.  Cover the pot and set the time for 10 minutes.

4. At the end of ten minutes remove the lid to the pot and with a fork fluff the rice which will also stir in the peas.  Bowl up the rice, sprinkle on the herbs and finish it with the shallot garnish.  Serve.

Wild Rice and Barley Pilaf

Wild Rice and Barley PilafThis is so good for you you won’t even know it taste really delicious. Seriously good eats and a great side dish for roast birds of any kind and I’ll even throw salmon onto that list.

Yes, I know it uses two sauce pans but, please, neither grain leaves behind a sticky mess. You could almost just wipe the pan with a towel after emptying it of the grains. Don’t get any ideas I said almost.

Makes 6 to 8 servings

3/4 cup wild rice

3/4 cup pearl barley

1/2 cup yellow onion, small dice

1/4 cup flat leaf parsley, minced

3 to 4 tablespoons unsalted butter

kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper

1. Put the grains into two different sauce pans. Add water to cover by 2 inches and add a two finger pinch of salt to both pots.

2. Bring the water to a boil then reduce the heat to a gentle but continuous bubble. Cook both grains until they are tender. The barley should take about 30 minutes and the rice maybe 40. The rice will just begin to open up its pod.

3. Drain both grains. The dish can be done up to a day in advance at this point.

4. Put the larger of the two sauce pans over medium heat and add the butter. Once it has melted add the chopped onion and sweat it until it is tender. Add both grains and season everything with salt and pepper. I like lots of pepper but season to your liking. Heat everything until hot, taste, and if it needs more add more butter or even a dash of water. Stir in the parsley, plate it and serve immediately.

Oven Roasted Plum Tomatoes in Olive Oil

I make these tomatoes often, mostly at the end of garden season,  and have done so ever since I opened the cover of the French Laundry cookbook and found Chef Thomas Keller’s recipe.  You can use a recipe other than Keller’s recipe but at least do as Keller does and make sure you season the tomatoes with salt and pepper before roasting them and make sure you cook them over a long period of time in a low heat oven.

I say this for a simple reason.  If they aren’t seasoned before you cook them they just aren’t very good and why go to the trouble if they aren’t going to be good, you won’t eat them and they will just sit in the fridge taking up space.  Season them agressively and you will be happy.

One thing to make note of.  I don’t peel the tomatoes until I use them.  The skin, I think, holds them together while in the jar but is really easy to peel off before you use them.

If you try them on a thin crust homemade pizza some Friday night don’t blame me when pizza is never again the same.

20110915-DSCF2320Recipe adapted from The French Laundry Cookbook

Makes 1 quart

30 to 36 Roma or San Marzano tomatoes, perfectly ripe, stemmed and halved

kosher or sea salt

fresh ground black pepper

a handful of fresh savory or thyme sprigs

extra virgin olive oil

1. Heat the oven to 275˚F. 

2. Spread to tomato halves out onto a half sheet tray lined with foil.  Season the tomatoes evenly with salt and fresh ground pepper.  Spread the savory or thyme out over the tomatoes.  Place the sheet tray into the oven.

3. Bake the tomatoes for 3 hours or until they have shrunk but still tender.  It may take longer then three hours depending on how juicy the tomatoes are to begin with.

4.  Remove the tomatoes from the oven and let them cool.

5. Once they have cooled pack them into a 1 quart jar, or a smaller jar if need be, and then use a spatula to get all the oil, accumulated juices and herbs off the tray and into the jar.  Top the jar off with olive oil to cover.

6. Store in the fridge but remember pull them out about an hour before you need them so the oil warms and you can easily remove the tomatoes without breaking them.

J.R. Craves Tex-Mex

J.R. stands on the metal folding chair, stretches up on his toes, and exhales pot smoke into the air vents just to be an asshole. He jumps and lands on the floor with a resounding thud. The shaking floor is felt two apartments down by a Hispanic woman making cookies. He’s annoyed that the apartment next door was rented to some dude. He liked the hotty girl who lived there before; liked to watch her shower through the hole he made in the wall. Now it was some dick-weed kid who he already knew he didn’t like.

That’s not all he’s pissed about today, though. He can’t believe the super gave him an eviction notice. Not after the words they had at his apartment door when the super came knocking and tried to collect the rent. J.R. told him if he evicted him he would kill his wife right in front of his fucking eyes. He isn’t going to do it–kill the super’s wife; he just knows threats will get him what he wants if they make him seem scary and crazy enough.

He paces. He thinks. He gets more pissed off the more he thinks. He stomps a foot on the hard tile. He’s fidgety. He grabs the speed off the counter and shakes the last two pills from the bottle into his mouth, then quickly snaps his head from side to side, trying to crack his neck. He paces more rapidly now, in anticipation. His pulse picks up.

He grabs the ball-bat that some former tenant left in the corner and jerks open the door. He looks around the courtyard. No one’s out. He is barefoot, shirtless and lean like a feral cat. His jeans are too long, worn and stringy at the heels where he walks on them. He shuffles down the second-floor walkway, the denim scuffling against the concrete.

At the corner a sudden flurry of action catches his eye. His neighbor the dick-weed, propped in a chair outside the ground-floor laundry room, is falling backwards but catches himself, arms and legs flailing around. J.R. stops and thinks about going down and beating the living shit out of him, then thinks again, smiling at the thought that he’ll get to it at some point. He watches as the dick-weed takes an amateur swig of his beer and returns to his bout of bad foreplay with a burrito. The goop inside shoots out, all over the ugliest pair of new boots J.R. has ever seen; in fact, the burrito stains might be an improvement on the turquoise and red shit-kickers, which were reminiscent of a Nudie suit in the most God-awful way. The kid takes another chomp and more goop falls onto the foil sheet. J.R. thinks he should have left it wrapped around the burrito. You only peel back the foil and the deli paper as you go. It’s what keeps the whole thing together. But he can hear the kid moaning with each bite, like he’s getting laid.

J.R. sees the to-go bag and understands the moans. He knows the place that burrito came from, knows they’re that good–even makes the same sounds when he eats one. A stack of napkins, dozens of them, is starting to drift around in the wind. J.R.’s stomach growls. He smiles again at the ground-floor folly and his mood lightens, but he still has business to attend to.

By the time he finds himself at the super’s door, though, his plans have changed. He was wound up enough to bust a couple of ribs with a swing or two of the bat, but he’s lost the will. Instead, in what feels like a more half-assed attempt to make his point, he chucks the bat through the front window of the super’s apartment. The door flies open.

What happens next reminds J.R. of the time when he was a kid and he climbed a tree with a pocket full of rocks and started throwing them at a big, papery hornets’ nest hanging like an out-of-place Christmas ornament. Nothing happened until a rock finally punched a hole in it and the whole nest emptied, the hornets stinging relentlessly, and J.R. couldn’t get out of that tree fast enough and finally just fell.

And just like that time, J.R. ends up on his back. The second blast from the super’s shotgun knocks him over the railing and he lands on the hood of a car. He feels the hood ornament puncture his thigh. His head lays back off the side of the car, and he looks at the world upside-down. He stares at the kid with the burrito. His stomach grumbles, his eyes shut, and he imagines the smell of the mesquite smoke mingling with the lesser cuts of beef. They become a rich, tender kiss that makes him feel like he’s crossed the railroad tracks to the intoxicating land of the forbidden.

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

Dashi

Don’t let its simplicity fool you. A well made dashi packs a wallop and is the foundation of Japanese cuisine. If you want the real deal you have to make this stuff from scratch. Possibly the easiest stock of all to make but again you will have to make a trip to the Asian grocery. Never fear though the stock only takes a couple of minutes to throw together.

Makes +- 8 cups

8 cups cold water

one 8 x 4 inch sheet kombu, kelp

one 2 1/2 inch finger of ginger, peeled and cut lengthwise into 4 slices

2 cups katsuobushi, dried bonito flakes

 

1. Gently wipe the kombu with a damp cloth to remove white salty stuff. Don’t worry if you don’t get it all.

2. Place the kombu in a pot along with the ginger and water. Place the pot over medium heat. Once the water starts to steam and develop lots of bubbles that are attached to the side of the pan turn off the heat. You do not want the pot to boil.

3. Set a timer for 12 minutes. At the end of twelve minutes remove the kombu. Turn the heat back on and bring the broth to just short of boiling again. Turn off the heat and add the bonito flakes.

4.Set the timer again for 12 minutes. At the end of twelve minutes strain the stock and use it immediately or store in the fridge. It is best if you use the stock within three days of making it.

Glazed Carrots with Lettuce

I am not sure when my fascination with carrots began but it wasn’t as a kid. I really don’t think I thought much about carrots until I started growing them in my garden. I think the fact that a good carrot in the middle of winter taste so good and feels so completely nourishing while you are eating them it makes them hard to pass up.

This recipe uses classic technique, yet, is really simple. I find this recipe to be old school Flemish/Belgian and borderline Dutch. The first time I made it years ago I had my doubts about the lettuce addition but they quickly dissolved into bliss. As always the best and freshest produce you can lay you hands on is always going to make the best food.

SERVES 4

16 carrots with tops, you can tell how fresh the carrots are by the tops, not more than 3/4 inch diameter, peeled and timmed with 1 inch of top left on

1 teaspoon sugar

scant 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 1/2 teaspoon white wine vinegar

1 bay leaf

1 sprig of fresh thyme

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

a few grinds of white pepper

water

1/2 dozen bibb lettuce leaves, larger ones torn in half

  1. Place everything, except the lettuce, into a 12 inch heavy bottom saute pan. Add about 1 cup of cold water to the pan or just enough to reach an 1/8 inch from the tops of the carrots.
  2. Place the pan over high heat and bring to a boil. The idea here is to have the water all but evaporate at the same time the carrots finish cooking leaving you with a rich and delicious glaze to coat and be poured over the dish. If the water seems to be evaporating before the carrots are close to being done you can add a little more. At the same time if the carrots seem to be getting to done remove them from the pan. Reduce the glaze and then at the end add the carrots back to warm them and to cook the lettuce.
  3. The whole idea here is to have a tender carrot that is not mushy or one that when you cut it is so hard it shoots across the table. It is timing and you can always use a toothpick to test the fattest part of the carrot. It should yield with a some pressure pressure. As the water gets close to being gone add the lettuce. Let the lettuce wilt and get soft. You want it to be vibrant green but tender like cooked spinach. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Plate, drizzle the glaze over the veggies and serve.

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.

The Chess Game

There is never a good time for bad news, but there it is, right in front of me, plain as a shadow on a sunny day.

She breaks the news the minute she is in the car.  I’m trying to get her in her car seat and the buckle hasn’t even clicked when she blurts it out:

“Dad, I think I want to leave home.”

I move back, still leaning over her.  I try to get her freckled little face, her blue eyes, in focus.  I don’t have my glasses on.  The back of the front seat keeps me from moving back far enough, so I have to squint to see just how serious this statement, this bomb, is.

No hint of a smile;  if she isn’t serious, she should win an Oscar.

“Ohhh-kay,” I say.

I walk around the car and wave to Mrs. Davis, Vivian’s kindergarten teacher.  I drop my chin, looking down at the pavement and smile.  She cast the hook and I’m going to run with it.  It’s a good opportunity to connect.  Lynnie is at preschool for a couple more hours, I’ve made Vivian’s favorite, chicken noodle, for lunch, and this plan to leave home will make for good conversation over soup and crackers.

It started out as an ordinary day.  We all woke up at the usual time; no crying, no wrong-side-of-the-bed.  They ate their pancakes, had their juice, and were dressed and ready to go to the bus stop without any of my deep-voiced “matching socks, girls” or you need your gym shoes today”–not even the requisite “if we miss the bus…” threat. I don’t need any of those stern words, meant to teach them that a sense of urgency is sometimes necessary, because for once they got ready before they started playing.  Actually, I guess it started as an extraordinary day.

Now, on the way home from school, Vivian and I ride in silence.  I’m trying to figure out where this “leaving home” thing is coming from, and she, I am sure, is using the silence as a negotiating tool, to bring her opponent to the table first.  It is a short drive home, and I decide not to bring it up again.  It’s up to Vivian.

As I open the screen door to the house, I get a good whiff of the chicken stock on the stove.  I mention that I made chicken-noodle soup for lunch and ask if she would like a bowl.

“Oh, not now, Daddy–I need to pack,”  she says.

“It’s hot and yummy, and you’re going to need your strength,” I reply.  Besides, you have plenty of time.”

She consents to lunch.

I grab a ladle from the utensil drawer and a couple of bowls from the cabinet.  The soup is simmering.  I ladle up bowls of the golden broth loaded with carrots, noodles and chicken, walk to the table, and set them down.  I go to the pantry and smile to myself again as I grab a sleeve of crackers.

Vivian grabs two spoons from the drawer and we both sit down.  I hand her a napkin.

Again, silence, except for the sound of us blowing on our spoons full of hot soup.  Mine is cool enough and I sip the soup.  Vivian does the same.

“Good soup, Dad,” she says.

“Thanks,” I say, and then, with a note of concern: “Are you mad at me or Mommy?”

“Oh, no, Dad”.

“I just wanted to make sure that isn’t why you want to leave,” I say, feigning concern.

“Oh no, I’m not mad, it’s just time,” she says happily.  “I think I want to see the world and, now that I’m bigger, I think it’s time.”

I takes all the muscle control I can muster not to break a smile.  The look on her face is stone-cold sober.  I know she has made up her mind.

“So can you tell me about your plan?” I ask.

And she does.  In fact, Vivian talks all afternoon:  in the preschool pick-up line for Lynnie, through Lynnie’s nap, over dinner, and on into the evening.  She discusses every detail and wants my response.  She is fleshing out her plan, using me as a sounding board.  She is wearing me down like a constant drip of a water torture session.  I know her, and I know what she’s doing.  She’s building confidence to carry out her plan, watching me to see if I think her plan is workable–and if I’ll give it my consent.

She is going full tilt now, a hundred yard dash of manic talk over dirty dishes, and all I can do is throw up hurdles in front of her.  I ask all the pertinent questions:  where are you going to sleep, what are you going to eat, what will you do for money”  And she has answers–well-thought-out answers: in a tent, in restaurants, and her birthday money will suffice.  Only when she asks me, “Do people in our country all speak the same language?’ do I realize how deeply she is thinking about her trip.

Yes, but in other countries they speak different languages,” I say.

“Well,” she pauses, “maybe I won’t go to Paris.  Maybe I’ll just walk around our country.”

“How long do you plan to be gone,” I query, “Because if you aren’t coming back, I need to let the school know.”

“Five years,” she says with no understanding of time.

Until this point, she had me worried.  I thought she might actually leave;  just walk out the door and down the drive, leaving me to wonder what I can say.  After all, I’ve been encouraging her, talking to her like leaving is a reality, and I’m beginning to wonder how I’ll retract my words.

“Oh.  That’s a long time,” I say with a hint of sadness.  “I don’t know if I’ll recognize you when you come back.  What if we move?  Will you be able to find us?”  The notion of phone calls, letters, or emails isn’t part of her reality yet–neither is the notion of we might not be here when she comes home.

It’s time to press my bluff.  “Well–then why don’t you get your backpack and I’ll at least drive you you up to the mail box.  Get you on your way.”
“Oh, that’s okay, Dad,” she replies.  “I think I’ll at least go to school tomorrow and tell all my friends goodbye.  I’ll leave after school.”

“Well then, get up to bed,” I answer.  “You have a long day tomorrow.  I’ll come up in a minute and tuck you in.”

I’ve listened to Vivian all day and that takes time.  I want to get things straightened up.  I turn on some music and turn to finish the dishes.  When they’re done I start wiping counter tops.

“Dad!” I hear from the top of the steps.  “You gonna come tuck me in?”

I forgot.  By the time I climb the stairs, she’s back in bed.

I sit down on the edge of the bed and tell her, “You can’t leave.  You can’t ever leave.  I need you here.  I need you to help me, Lynnie needs you, and so does Mommy.  You can’t go!”

“Wellll….,” she says, drawing out the pronunciation.  Then she giggles and finishes, “I was beginning to think it wasn’t my best idea, ’cause who’s gong to make me pancakes?”

 

get your soup recipe here ; Chicken and Rice Soup with Saffron

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Banana Cream Pie

Banana Cream Pie

With the impending second storm barreling down on the Midwest it was feeling like more than a three hour tour. In keeping the castaways at ease we dove into a family baking project, used the last three bananas and watched old episodes of Gilligan’s Island.  After tasting this pie I know why the castaways never left the island.

SERVES 6 – 8

For the pie::

1 1/4 cup graham cracker crumbs

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened

4 large egg yolks

1/2 cup sugar

3 tablespoons corn starch

1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

2 1/2 cups whole milk, do not substitute

1/4 teaspoon cardamom

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 bananas

For the brittle and whipped cream::

1/4 cup honey

1/4 teaspoon cardamom

1/2 cup macadamia nuts, toasted and chopped, a good time to toast them is when you bake the crust

2 3/4 cups heavy cream

1/4 cup powdered sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Combine the graham cracker crumbs, sugar and 1/4 cup of butter in a mixing bowl and combine with a fork until you have a mealy looking mixture.
  2. Pour the mixture into a 9 inch pie pan. Press out the crumbs until you have and even crust up the sides and bottom of the pie pan. Bake the crust until it is beginning to brown and is set. About 5 to 10 minutes. Remove it from the oven and let it cool.
  3. While the crust is cooling combine the corn starch, sugar, egg yolks, cardamom, vanilla and salt in a mixing bowl. Whisk until well combined.
  4. Place the milk into a sauce pan and bring it to a boil over medium high heat. While whisking the egg mixture add a cup of hot milk and whisk. Add the egg mixture to the milk pan and put it back over the heat.
  5. Let the pudding come to a boil and then whisk until thick. Remove it from the heat and whisk in the butter. Pour the pudding into a bowl and set the bowl into an ice bath to cool the pudding.
  6. Place the honey and the remaining cardamom into a small sauce pan and bring it to a boil over medium heat. Let it boil until it becomes very foamy.(have a cup of very cold water handy and drop a small droplet into the water. It should separate into thin brittle threads) Add the macadamia nuts and stir. Remove the brittle from the heat and pour it onto a greased parchment lined sheet tray. PLace the brittle into the fridge.
  7. Slice the bananas and layer them onto the pie crust. If the pudding has cooled pour it over the bananas. Refrigerate the pie for two hours or more.
  8. Once the pie has set make the whipped cream topping. Either with a stand mixer or a hand mixer whip the cream until it begins to thicken. Add the powdered sugar and the vanilla and whip to stiff peaks.
  9. Chop the brittle.
  10. Pipe the whipped cream onto the pie and then top with the chopped brittle. Serve.