July 30, 2008 More celebrations and trips
Mikel and I continued to celebrate our anniversary with our friends Chuck and Bruce, who took us out to one of our favorite Washington restaurants, the lovely little upscale Greek Mourayo
in Dupont Circle. We had grilled octopus (they do it better than anyone!) with fava bean purée, and with their delicious grilled flat bread, an assortment of Mediterranean appetizers such as tyrokafteri, tzatziki, taramosalata, skordalia, houmus and patzaria. Their pan-fried butternut squash keftedes with raisin and sesame seed paste were delicious, as were our widely varied main courses of pork, scallops, squid ink pasta, and duck moussaka. The service is wonderful and they will help you choose an appropriate, and tasty, Greek wine to accompany your meal.
Shrimp and Grits is probably the dish that I get more requests for. I’ve published at least a dozen different recipes. On Saturday morning, I made this version for Mikel and me. Imagine my surprise the first time I was served Gamberetti con Polenta on the Riviera in the early 80s! This recipe is my nod to those Mediterranean cooks from whom I learned so much.
Polenta, grits, and cornmeal
are, at their finest, nothing more than ground corn. The best are mountain-grown, whole-grain, stone-ground heirloom varieties, whether you are in northern Italy or the American South. The industrially produced grits and polenta you buy in grocery stores have been degerminated – that is, robbed of the germ, where the precious flavor-carrying oil is stored. They last forever on unrefrigerated shelves, but they taste like the paper they’re packaged in. Ground between steel rollers that actually heat up and cook the corn, they are also ground too fine. The best have nothing added to, or taken away from them. I went to thirty mills before I found millers who used the right corn, grown in mountain hollers and allowed to dry in the fields, then ground between blue granite stones, with nothing added to or taken away from the corn. (See HoppinJohns.com
In Italy, the traditional corn for polenta is hard flint corn, often yellow. It is ground much more finely than American cornmeal. In Appalachia, where my millers live, they’ve been growing the same variety of dent corn, mostly white, since before Columbus’s discovery of America, so I like to think of this as the original mountain corn. You can use my whole-grain American grits (the coarser grind) or cornmeal ground from dent corn in polenta recipes and they’ll be much more flavorful.
It is said that the cooking of Genoa, where I lived in Italy, is green — of herbs and forests, not of the sea. The story goes that because it was a major seaport, sailors returning home wanted fresh vegetables from the entroterra, the inland reaches of land up above the city, where chestnuts, porcini, and wild herbs thrive. For centuries, the peasants of this rugged land used ground chestnuts, often smoked, as the flour in both their pasta and their polenta. There are several famous Ligurian dishes that are still based on chestnut flour.
After the discovery of America, however, corn came to the valleys above the Ligurian coast, where the terrain is remarkably similar to the Appalachian hollers where my father grew up. By the time I went away to college, though, nearly every mill in Eastern Tennesseee had closed, and most folks I knew were eating Quaker or Jim Dandy grits. Nasty stuff. No fat. No flavor. No wonder Yankees hated it. But I knew better, as do the grandmothers from the entroterra, and, like in the States, there is a movement to preserve the old folkways and dishes that have all but disappeared. Farmers are growing tasty heirloom varieties of corn, and mills are grinding the whole grains. You’ve got to look for these products online, in gourmet shops, and at farmers’ markets, and you’ve got to keep them in the freezer or the oils will go rancid, but the taste is infinitely superior. I’m proud to have been a part of this movement and to have restored Shrimp and Grits to menus in Charleston, where, before my arrival there in the late 80s, not one single restaurant was offering it!!!
When I lived in Charleston, I helped reëstablish this “national” dish of South Carolina. This is my version of a classic that is both Charleston and Liguria.
Gamberetti con Polenta (Shrimp and Grits)
You can use grits, corn meal, or polenta in this recipe, but if you use the finer grinds, you’ll have to carefully and slowly add the meal to the pot of boiling water or it may clump. I prefer my more coarsely ground grits of dent corn because it is softer, less gritty, and more flavorful than Italian polenta, which is closer to cornmeal in grind.
Italian cookbooks often tell you that you must stir polenta relentlessly, and that’s true if you are using degerminated flint corn polenta. Whole-grain, heirloom dent corn is full of fat and won’t stick to the pot, and cooks up perfectly in about a half-hour, though you can cook it for an hour or more. The longer you cook it, the more it falls apart and the creamier it becomes. Allow 1/2 cup grits for 4 people if the grits are a simple side dish; double the amount for a plate of grits topped with sauce as the main course. As the liquid cooks out of the grits, add water or stock (or whatever you have on hand to keep the pot from drying out. Some chefs like to add milk or cream, but when making shrimp and grits, I use only water in the grits so that the corn flavor is an earthen counterpoint to the intense shellfish sauce finished off with a little butter. Butter is not traditional in much of Ligurian cooking, but in the hinterlands closer to the Lombard plains, and on the Riviera di Ponente, close to France, sauces, even pesto, are often finished with a bit of butter swirled in. I also put a little in with the grits as they are cooking.
As a nod to the polenta cooks of Liguira, I season the grits with a bay leaf as they cook. You can also cook them in a slow cooker set on low for about eight to ten hours.
For the shrimp and stock:1 pound fresh heads-on shrimp
freshly squeezed juice of one lemon
sea salt and cayenne
1 celery rib, broken into pieces
1 small carrot, broken into pieces
a handful of fresh herbs such as thyme, parsley, oregano, and basil
I small onion, unpeeled, and quartered
6 cups water
Remove the head and shells from the shrimp, dropping them into an enameled or stainless steel stockpot. If you are planning to serve the dish within a couple of hours, sprinkle the shrimp bodies with the lemon juice and salt and cayenne to taste, cover, and refrigerate. If waiting till later, put the shrimp on ice and wait to season them until about an hour before you plan to eat.
Add the celery, carrot, herbs, and the onion quarters to the pot and cover with the water. Cook, uncovered, at a low boil until the onion is transparent, the carrots are soft, and the stock is pleasantly infused with the shrimp flavor – about 45 minutes. The liquid should be reduced by a third. Strain out the solids. Cool, then freeze what you don’t plan to use immediately.
For the polenta:
4 to 6 cups water
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons salted butter, or 2 tablespoons unsalted plus 1 teaspoon salt
1 cup stone–ground, whole-grain corn gritsWhile the stock is cooking, bring 4 cups of the water to boil in a heavy stockpot that has a Drop in the bay leaf, the butter, and the salt. Stir in the grits, return to a boil, and reduce the heat, allowing the grits to cook on a low boil for 10 minutes or so, until the grits are very thick and have absorbed most of the water, stirring the pot occasionally to prevent the grits from sticking. Add about 1/2 cup more of water to the pot, cover, and turn down the heat, allowing the grits to simmer another 10 minutes or so. As the liquid cooks off or is absorbed, add more water, cooking the grits until the desired consistency is reached, a total cooking time of about an hour. The grits should be piping hot when served, slightly soupy but full-bodied enough that they do not run on the plate.
Remove and discard the bay leaf before serving. The grits will remain hot for long after you have turned off the heat, so go ahead and divide the portions into the serving dishes while you are finishing the sauce.
For the gamberetti:
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 shallots or ½ small onion, peeled and chopped, about ½ cup
1 cup dry white wine or Vermouth
1 large ripe tomato, peeled, seeded, and chopped
1-1/2 cups hot shrimp stock
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium high heat and sauté the shallots until they are soft and translucent, about five minutes. Add the wine, raise the heat, and cook until the liquid has disappeared and the oil begins to sputter. Add the tomato, stirring, and continue to cook over fairly high heat until almost all the liquid has evaporated. Add the shrimp stock and reduce until just shy of serving consistency, then whisk in the butter and the reserved shrimp. Keep stirring, tossing the shrimp around in the buttery sauce until they are just barely done and the sauce is shiny and silken, about 2 to 3 minutes. Serve immediately over the grits.
Makes 4 entrées or 8 appetizers.
And now, Dear Reader, I’m off to Big Sky, Montana, for a week with my wine guru, Debbie
. I’m sure I’ll have plenty to write about upon my return!
July 27, 2008
We had about a dozen folks over yesterday afternoon for champagne before we went out to dinner and I served these popular biscuits with herbed butter. They’re very easy to make, are delicious at room temperature, and are crowd pleasers every time.
Goat Cheese Biscuits
These cocktails biscuits are very delicately flavored cream biscuits, with just a hint of chèvre.They are perfect with a glass of sherry. Serve them with herbed butter (recipe follows).
Be sure to sift the flour before measuring.
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour, preferably southern
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 ounces (5 tablespoons) mild goat cheese
5/8 cup cream
Preheat the oven to 425o. Sift the dry ingredients together into a mixing bowl, then cut in the goat cheese with a pastry blender or two knives. Add the cream to the mixture, blending with a spatula. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and roll out 1/2″ thick. Punch biscuits out with a floured 1-1/2″ biscuit cutter and place, not touching, on a baking sheet. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature with herbed butter (see below).
Makes 24 biscuits.
This butter is a variation of the classic maitre d’hôtel butter traditionally used on grilled fish and meats. Rosemary and thyme accentuate the flavor of the goat cheese in the above biscuits. The butter may be frozen for use later. It is especially good with grilled lamb and with other meat and poultry dishes with strong garlic and wine seasonings.
1/2 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh parsley leaves
1/2 teaspoon fresh rosemary leaves
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
3/4 cup (1-1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Put the salt, pepper, and herbs in a blender and blend for a about 20 seconds. Add the butter and the lemon juice and blend again until well-mixed. Fill a ramekin with the mixture and serve at room temperature.
Makes 3/4 cup, enough to fill an average ramekin.
After our little “cocktail party,” which is realy a misnomer since Champagne is all that anyone drank, we went to the tiny Japanese kaiseki house, Makoto. When I called to make reservations, I was told that jackets and dress shirts were required. I said, “But it’s 95 degrees outside!” and was told, “Yes, but restaurant very cold inside.” I had heard horror stories of folks being kicked out for not having collared shirts, but there were several people in the restaurant in very casual clothes and shirts not tucked in. The seats are insanely uncomfortable wooden stools and, on several occasions, I had to pour my own sake and water. The food was lovely, but neither it nor the service was stellar. I’ll continue my search for a Japanese restaurant that is more than a sushi bar and/or steakhouse, and for one that appears to be resting on its laurels.
Much more to our liking was the food we had today at Bistro D’Oc
in downtown Washington, right across the street from Ford’s Theater. Bistro D’Oc is an unpretentious, family-run French restaurant serving authentic Languedoc cuisine with a hint of Southeast Asia in some of the dishes. The ever-charming Benoît Grenier, son of the chef, explained to me that he is a lifelong resident of the capital region, but that his mother is Thai and his father is Languedocien. My free range chicken was crispy on the outside, but tender and succulent inside. Mikel’s risotto with seafood had Southeast Asian accents and was surprisingly light. We drank provencal rosé while we waited out a thunderstorm, tasting delicious griottes,
which is a a French word for Morello cherries that also is a typical dish of this southern French region, a sort of parfait with meringue and whipped cream, and an assortment of profiteroles, macaroons, and truffles accompanying a perfect cup of espresso.
I’ve sampled several dishes at Bistro D’Oc and never been disappointed. In cooler months, be sure to try Chef Grenier’s lamb brains or his other dishes of offal, as well as his classic cassoulet.
July 26, 2008 Our 15th Anniversary Meals
Mikel and I are celebrating our 15th anniversary together this weekend, and a few friends are dropping by for a glass of champagne (or two!) before we go out for dinner, a rare occasion for us. We’ll be heading to Makoto, a Japanese kaiseki house in the Palisades neighborhood. On Monday, we had dinner with Tom Sietsema, the restaurant critic for The Washington Post, and he asked us why we had chosen Makoto. We’ve never been, for one thing, and it’s consistently rated #1 for food in the Zagat guide. Tom himself gives it three stars, describing an “edible pageant” of “tradition and excellence.” Plus, he notes, “The details at this 16-year-old gem are exquisite.” I can’t wait!
Last night, just to be sure that we had at least one festive meal, I grilled lamb chops and opened a bottle of the 1999 Château Prieuré-Lichine, a Grand Cru Margaux that is often overlooked in the famous region. We rated it 3.7 out of 5, almost as high as we rate wines at home. It was everything I love about Bordeaux, with none of the in-your-face fruit, alcohol, and oak that you get in Meritage wines produced elsewhere. We tasted blackberry jam and tar, two of the classic notes that Margaux at its finest is known to sound. And I could detect fine tannins through its silky texture, like a cup of coffee mellowed by cream. I was especially impressed with how well it held up for a full two hours, and Mikel noted its rhythm and balance. I paid about $34 for the bottle several years ago and wish I had bought more. It’s a surprisingly harmonious, luxurious wine for a fourth growth. Mikel remarked on its smooth finish. Indeed, it was full of fruit and well-balanced from first sip to last.
With the lamb, which was perfect with the Margaux, I served sweet potato flan and zucchini “pasta” tossed with a simple stovetop tomato sauce. I prepared the zucchini as detailed below on July 14, using a vegetable peeler to cut the ribbons from a squash that was allowed to get too big. I put the zucchini ribbons in a colander, salt them, and allow them to drain for about an hour, then, while the lamb rests for a few minutes after I take it off the grill, I warm the squash in the tomato sauce. The recipe for the flan, served at room temperature, follows. And, yes, it was a perfect meal!
For ten years, I participated in Philadelphia’s Book and the Cook festival, which pairs cookbook authors with restaurants for meals featuring the food from the authors’ books. Chef Michael McNally and his former wife Terry Berch of the popular London Grill opened their kitchen and hearts to me again and again, and we have become like family. Michael and I have shared many ideas and techniques. He has put my whole-grain grits on his menu, and his flan made with butternut squash and a hint of garlic inspired the following version with sweet potatoes.
Because I didn’t want to heat up the kitchen on a hot summer’s night, last night I cooked the sweet potatoes in the microwave for a few minutes, peeled and sliced and with a little water in a Pyrex dish, covered with plastic wrap. If you bake them (never over 375o), however, they’ll have a richer taste.
This is a very easy, and very tasty, dish that you can make ahead. You might want to add some cayenne or nutmeg or white pepper to the dish. Or you might place a bay leaf or some fresh sage leaves in the cream to infuse for a few days beforehand if you think about it.
3 cups sweet potatoes (about 1 pound), peeled, sliced, cooked until soft, and well drained
3/4 cup heavy cream
3 eggs plus 3 yolks
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 to 1-1/2 tablespoons grated horseradish, preferably fresh (about a 2-inch piece of peeled root, grated)
Preheat the oven to 300o and butter an 8-inch springform pan. Put a kettle of water on to boil.
Place all of the ingredients in a blender and mix thoroughly, then pour into the prepared pan placed in a larger baking dish. Pour boiling water up to a height of about 1 inch aroung the pan, then put in the oven to bake for 30 to 45 minutes or until set in the middle.
Allow to cool to warm –or room temperature — before serving. Cut slices, pie-like, from the flan and serve with roasted or grilled chicken or rabbit, or with veal or pork. Wrapped well in plastic, the flan will keep for a week in the refrigerator.
Michael’s original recipe, twice as big, calls for 6 cups of butternut squash boiled with 8 peeled garlic
cloves. Use a 10-inch pan, 1 cup of cream, 5 eggs plus 6 yolks, and a pinch of nutmeg or cinnamon as
seasoning. Because the squash contains so much water, you’ll also have to put it in a dry pan after it is
boiled soft and cook until all the liquid is gone.
July 22, 2008 Gravlax
Of all my father’s tales of culinary adventures, I think the foods of Scandinavia are the ones that most excited him in his travels. When he returned from business meetings in Copenhagen and Stockholm in the early 60s, he spoke of foods that few southerners had heard of. Of smörgåsbords brimming with dense breads, pickles, meatballs, and cured meats and fish. Having neither Scandinavian nor Eastern European heritage on either side of our family, much of the foods sounded downright bizarre to me, though I had always loved pickles, caviar, and fish in any form I had been served it, including rollmops and “milkees” (salted raw male herring with their milt).
Mother was an avid cookbook collector and cook, even before Julia Child appeared on the scene in 1961, and she read Gourmet religiously and never hesitated to try the most exotic dishes she could. Where she found the salmon and dill (she hated gardening) for gravlax in rural South Carolina in the mid-sixties is beyond me, but among her cookbooks that I inherited are Nika Hazelton’s Danish cookbook (1964), The Art of Scandinavian Cooking (1965), and The Art of Cheese Cookery (1949). Gravlax has been a favorite of mine ever since.
I was lucky to meet Hazelton on a couple of occasions in Nach Waxman’s Kitchen Arts & Letters
in New York. I told her that I had been making her gravlax recipe for 20 years and she harumphed, “Which one?!” She was in her 80s then. I had no idea which of her many books I had lifted the recipe from because I had copied it into a notebook while visiting my folks.
This isn’t much of a recipe, but the proportions work well. I usually buy two matching filets, weighing about a pound each. I don’t eat farm-raised salmon because it’s too fatty and, according to the Blue Ocean Institute
“There are high environmental costs in farming salmon such as water pollution, disease, the high content of wild fish in feed, and overuse of antibiotics. All Atlantic Salmon sold in the U.S. is farmed.”
Buy Alaskan sockeye. It’s running now.
2 matching salmon filets (one from each side), weighing about 1 pound each
1/4 cup sea or Kosher salt
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons freshly ground white pepper
a large bunch of fresh dill
Wipe the filets dry with paper towels. Mix the salt, sugar and pepper together and sprinkle some of the mixture onto a porcelain, glass, or enameled plate big enough to hold the fish. Make a layer of dill and place one of the filets, skin side down, on it. Rub generously with the salt mix, than place some dill on top of the filet. Place the second filet on top of the other, skin side up, aligning the matching shapes.Cover with the remaining salt mix and a little more dill, reserving some dill to make a sauce, if desired.
Cover the fish with plastic wrap, then aluminum foil. I put another plate on top of the fish and place a weight such as a large can of tomatoes on it before refrigerating it. After 5 or 6 hours, pour off any liquid that has accumulated, turn the fish over, and allow to cure for 48 hours, pouring off liquid and flipping the fish over every 8 hours or so. When cured, wipe off excess seasoning and dill, and slice at an angle, serving it plain, with a sauce, or with crackers. Well wrapped in the refrigerator, it should last for 2 weeks.
I sauté the skin in butter, roll it up, and use as a garnish along with cucumbers, dill, and lemon slices. Gravlax is also lovely with poached eggs.
July 21, 2008 More memories about my father
Memory is such a funny thing. It’s been a week since my father died and the memories that have come flooding in from long forgotten corners of my life have been extraordinary. I’ve heard from folks I barely knew and hardly remembered until they were put into the context of my father’s rich and varied life.
Some of you have mentioned the fact that I dedicated my first book to him. How could I not have? We had lost my mother ten years earlier to leukemia, just when their long-planned adventurous sailing in earnest had begun. She had been the cook in their relationship for 40 years, a great one who seldom repeated herself in the kitchen. She cooked three meals a day, five days a week. On Sundays when we were growing up, the big meal — “dinner” — was in the middle of the day, per tradition. It was a huge affair with all the trappings of the holidays. Sometimes there would be two meats (say, a ham as well as fried chicken). On Sunday nights, we had to fend for ourselves, making scrambled eggs and milkshakes and popcorn and sandwiches. Or perhaps just a bowl of cereal while we watched Disney. My father went home for lunch every day, except on Tuesdays, when he went to Rotary meetings.
When my mother became ill, Dad took to the kitchen as though born to it. He had learned from Mother, as I had, to shop first, buy the prettiest, freshest foods you could find, then go home and relax with a glass of wine while perusing her vast culinary library. Her cookbooks, which I inherited (Dad keeping a few precious gems for himself), are none stained or in tatters. Say my father had caught some dolphin or shot some quail or Mother had found beautiful veal in a local market. She would go sit with her favorite authors, reading what the experts had to say first, planning her meal to best show off what she had to work with. If she indeed decided to follow a recipe, she would read it through first, understanding the methods and techniques involved, then scribble some notes about proportions and timing on a card that she would then stick to the hood of the stove to follow while she conjured her magic in the kitchen.
I was living in Genoa, Italy, when the doctors told my family that my mother would not last but a few more days. My sisters called me to tell me to come home if I wanted to see her. When I got home, she hadn’t eaten in days and I asked to be left alone with her, poached her an egg, and made her a piece of plain toast, with the crusts cut off. I knew that if she could eat anything, that would be the dish. Miraculously, she not only ate, but rallied and lived for another five months. My father and I were able to keep her at home the entire time, so that she could spend her final days watching the river go by, as she wanted.
He and I never once discussed the meals, or who would shop, or who would cook, or who would clean. We were, in our own way, like the dolphins in the creek, perfectly synchronized. He had always been the grill cook at home, and he had always chosen the wines for dinner, but he had never cooked before. He was awesome!
Though his style was much heavier than mine or Mother’s, his sauces richer, his spices hotter, he knew how to temper his taste and his presentation to make the little bites that she wanted both attractive and palatable to her.
Later, when I became a food writer, we began a new and lively correspondence based around our own meals and experiences in the kitchen. He read, and re-read, and re-read my manuscripts, checking recipes and grammar, my syntax and style. His corrections were vital to the overall success of the book, and to say that I took his suggestions to heart is an understatement.
My family gathered in Rockville, South Carolina, on Wadmalaw Island this weekend to celebrate Dad’s life. I couldn’t be with them, but I was there in spirit. I woke up on Friday morning thinking of some times that my father was sincerely happy and sent the stories — well-worn yarns to my siblings, but probably not known to my nieces and nephews. Photo of Dad at home in the NC mountains.
My father loved rituals as long as he were either in charge or the one being honored, so I think he wouldn’t mind these little tributes here, but he hated both formality and solemnity. He was instrumental in my lifelong rejection of the coat and tie. He hated them and mostly refused to wear them to work. His uniform was khaki pants and a baby blue oxford cloth shirt. But he would just as soon be barefoot and in shorts, as long as he wasn’t cold.
Some of his favorite pasttimes include the following:
He loved fishing, particularly with my maternal grandfather, and especially on Wannamaker Pond in Orangeburg County, South Carolina, where I grew up. I can hear him calling out, ”Come on, Redbank!” as we cast for bass along a favored exposed bank of red clay where we knew the big ones hung out. “Give it up for Grandpa!”Remember that a sports “fan” is short for “fanatic.” He epitomized the fanatical sports enthusiast when it came to watching my sister Sue play basketball. I swear the man was possessed. He even drove the van of young women all across the state to their out-of-town games. To my knowledge, he never missed a one, and she played for years. Talk about “like dolphins”! They played together from 6th grade through high school, were the state champs, and, I don’t recall their ever having been beaten
He glowed when he was the host to a dinner that he had prepared well, when all the courses tasted good and came out of the oven at the right time and he knew that others appreciated his effort. I think it was a special feeling of accomplishment for him since that was a role that he didn’t take over until he was in his 60s. He often told me, “Never say ‘never’, Bubba’; it’s never too late to LEARN.”
Once on his sailboat in the Grenadines we were able to sail on one tack through a 60-mile stretch of open ocean. It was such a rush that he actually let me take the tiller for awhile, something he reluctantly gave up to others. He beamed the entire day.
About a month after Mother died, he pulled out the last bottle of 1949 Chambolle Musigny that he had cellared since he bought two cases of it, as futures, before it was released. Mother was saving a bottle for “John’s wedding.” Daddy knew better. I ordered natural, grass-fed beef from Brae Beef in Connecticut, which I think was probably the only company in America that was selling it then, and we opened the then 33-year-old wine.
Daddy told me how the 1949s were harvested on the day I was born and that, as luck would have it, he had bought two cases of what turned out to be one of the greatest vintages of all time. I joked with Daddy that some Christians believe that you get your soul when you’re 33, which was how old Christ was when he died. And we agreed that the wine not only had soul, but that it was an old one. It was a bittersweet meal, but we chewed on that wine and closed our eyes and described each mouthful. We would speak, in clichés, what we tasted: black cherries, plums, leather. But the wine triggered memories as well, its smokiness somehow making me think of my grandmother’s attic. Daddy just cried and said, “It reminds me of your mother.”
I don’t remember a finer meal in my entire life. Of course it was the company. We were both very sad over the loss of Mother, but we were IN THE MOMENT as Buddhists like to say.
My father had a funny thing he said to us when we were kids. ANY time we ever asked him what he was doing — say he was working on his radio, or his sportscar, or his boat — he would always reply, “Settin’ out layovers.”"What for?” we’d ask.
His reply? “To catch meddlers.”
He couldn’t be bothered when he was working, because he truly believed what I wrote earlier on my blog — that if a job is worth doing, it is worth doing right. Not just well, but RIGHT. It’s funny how that saying became a term of endearment. We all knew JUST HOW to approach him when he was working and just how to ask “Whatcha doin?” so that we’d get the response, which sounds like a put-down, but was just his way of saying,”Hey, I love you, but I’m busy.” He believed in staying busy. We were never allowed to say we were bored.
I am thankful for his insatiable curiosity, and that I inherited his hyperactive gene. I just wish he had also taught me his amazing ability to nap.
July 15, 2008 Thomas S. Taylor
My father died peacefully at his home in Florida last night. He was 88. A million thanks to all of you who have been so supportive during these past few months as his illness progressed. Dad was a scientist, and a smart one, and he asked that his body go for medical research. At an early age, he showed an almost uncanny aptitude for the physical sciences, building radios and engines. He graduated with a degree in chemistry from the University of Tennesee, where he met my mother, who studied zoology. They were from opposite ends of the state and could not have come from more different backgrounds. His own father had died when he was very young, and he grew up poor in Knoxville, the son of a seamstress. Mother came from a family of successful engineers and entreprenuers in west Tennessee. Her grandfather was the town doctor, banker, and owner of the general store; her father was a self-taught pharmacist. Intellectually, my parents’ interests diverged as well, but they were both brilliant, well-read, and always curious about the world around them. I grew up in a house full of newspapers, magazines, books, music, binoculars, telescopes, microscopes, fishing poles, Scrabble, field guides, wine, and Daddy’s ham radio equipment. My parents believed that “travel broadens one” and took us to Panama, the Caribbean, New York, New Orleans, Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle, as well as to the national parks. They believed in dining in the finest restaurants, and in seeing the natural wonders. They were married for 40 years before we lost my mother to leukemia.
Dad has been married to his current wife for over 20 years. Even 20 is considered remarkable in this day and age. That he had two long-lived marriages speaks well of his life, I think. He loved the water and lived aboard his boat with Lila, his second wife, for many years. He loved the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where I spend a lot of time with my dear friends Chuck and Bruce, who have been extraordinarily comforting in these past few difficult months. Dad would have loved this sunrise view from their home (above), shot this past weekend.
His life was fully lived. Shortly after graduation from UT, he and my mother found themselves here in Washington, DC, where he worked on the Manhattan Project, eventually taking charge of intellectual security. My sister Nancy was born here. After the war, they moved to Lafayette, Indiana, where he continued his graduate studies at Purdue in chemistry that had been interrupted by the war. My sister Sue was born there, but they soon moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he went to work for the Ethyl Corporation, in Research and Development. I was born in Louisiana, and then Ethyl bought a small chemical company in Orangeburg, South Carolina, where we moved and my brother Mike was born.
For years, his work at the Orangeburg plant was very exciting, developing rocket fuel additives and pharmaceuticals. At one point, they produced all of the world’s ibuprofen. Moving to Orangeburg in the early 50s after living in DC and college towns was a shock for my mother, but she quickly became involved in the arts, the church, and the country club. At one point, she was playing bridge 7 times a week, as well as going to Circle and Garden Club. My father’s sports car passion segued into a love of boats, which led them to Hilton Head, where ours was one of 3 sailboats for over 20 years. They had fallen in love with the lowcountry.
Daddy helped get Fritz Hollings elected Governor and was instrumental in selling South Carolina to bolster its economy and education. It was exciting to watch the state rise up out of its poverty. He served on the State Development Board with Fritz for many years, and served as the President of the Orangeburg Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club. When I was in college, I got a job one summer for the Development Board, going up in airplanes and taking photographs of industrial sites, then designing the industrial site brochures.
My parents had become very interested in food and wine when they lived in Louisiana. They became charter members of Les Amis du Vin, an early wine-buying cooperative. We nearly always had wine with dinners, which became very adventurous as my mother started amassing cookbooks and expanding her repertoire beyond the southern food she had grown up with. To have a wine cellar in Orangeburg in the fifties was unheard of. I caught the culinary bug from them.
When in New York, or Europe, or South America, my father would always eat in the finest restaurants, and he would bring home tales of his meals and the wines he had had with them. When we, as a family, would travel, we might stay in very modest hotels, but would always dine well. I can remember to this day the meals I ate in the early 60s in Lüchow’s and La Fonda del Sol in New York. Every bite.
When we moved to Orangeburg, our two family cars were an MG TD and an Austin Healey. 1954. The last year they were hand-made. From sports cars to ham radios to sailing yachts, Daddy did most of the work on them himself. He built the first stereo in Orangeburg. When the plant was trading in their old fleet of workhorse jeeps, I begged for one, and he agreed to buy it, if I would replace the brakes, the steering column, the rings, and the paint job. Two friends and I labored for months, and we did everything professionally. The paint job was a dozen coats, each layer burnished with rubbing compound until there were no imperfections. 30 years later, I saw that Jeep, its paint job still intact. Dad always said, “If a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.”
He lived many of his fantasies, sailing to nearly all of the Caribbean islands, and often on his own boat. He bought great wine, and put it down until it was ready to drink, some bottles for over 30 years. I never heard him say that he regretted not doing something. When he was 75, he bought a computer, taught himself to type, and transcribed my mother’s manuscript cookbook. Lila tested the cookie recipes and they gave each of us a copy of the book, with a tin full of cookies, for Christmas that year. Near the end, he told Lila that he wished I would write more.
So, here’s to you, Daddy!
Memorial donations can be made to The Lakes/ Roberts Hospice Care Center; 6400 St. Johns Ave; Palatka , Florida 32117. They were angels. Or you can make a donation to the charity of your choice.
The Prettiest Spring and Summer I Can Recall
This has truly been the most magnificent spring and summer I can recall since childhood. Cool nights, late afternoon thunderstorms, temperatures rarely in the 90s, and nights dipping into the 60s more often than not. Bulbs bloomed profusely and the blossoms lasted a lot longer than they normally do.
Yesterday I happened to find beautiful, fresh okra, so I pulled some lamb shanks from the freezer and made a tagine with okra and preserved lemons.
Placing a thin film of olive oil in the tagine bottom, I browned 4 lamb shanks over medium high heat and removed them and set them aside, seasoning them on both sides with salt, pepper, cayenne, and cumin. To the pan, I added a large onion, chopped
(2 cups) and sautéed it until it was limp and transclucent. I then added 4 cups of peeled and chopped tomatoes with their juice and returned the shanks to the pan. I covered the pot and set it to simmer and let it cook slowly for 1-1/2 hours, then added 1/3 cup of seeded and chopped preserved lemon and a pound of trimmed okra pods, and let it cook for another 20 minutes while I made toasted pearl couscous (which used to be called Israeli couscous). Delicious and spicy and actually very nice on a summer’s night.
July 14, 2008 Dealing with a plethora of squash
Mikel and I are at least partly to blame: we grew dozens of varieties of heirloom squash and melons from seeds and took the seedlings out to our friends’ garden and planted them. Problem is, if you blink, you’ve got bushels. And they go from blossom to Fred Flintstone’s club in size in a matter of days.
I’m sure that there have been reams written about what to do with squash, particularly the oversized ones, but I can’t help but add my two cents’ worth. Here is a dozen just-picked blossoms from the striata d’Italia, a striped zucchini variety known for producing lots of large, male blossoms, the ones you want to pick for stuffing and/or frying.
For this particular batch, I basically followed a recipe from Aglaia Kremezi’s excellent The Food of the Greek Islands
(Houghton Mifflin, 2000): a 2-ounce piece of feta cheese is divided into 12 parts and each little piece of cheese was placed inside the blossoms with a mint leaf. Placed on a plate, covered, and refrigerated, they were then dipped in a tempura batter (see June 23
) and fried.
More taxing, though, is what to do with the oversized zucchini that seem to grow overnight. The best thing I’ve found to do is to make pasta-like ribbons of the squash by using a vegetable peeler. Many of the squash, especially some of the heirloom varieties known for their tender flesh, are tender and juicy even when enormous. I simply shave off a layer of the skin, then shave down the length of the squash, making the ribbons. I stop when I get down to where there are seeds. From three enormous zucchini, I got 4 pounds of the ribbons. Since they are mostly water, I sprinkle them with salt and put them in a colander to drain for several hours. You can use the ribbons, drained or not, in just about any squash recipe, though they are more delicate than the squash cut into chunks or disks. Count on 1/2 pound of squash per person. The 4 pounds of ribbons in the photo here drained half of their weight. I put a 1/2 cup of olive oil in a large sauté pan,
over medium high heat, and added the squash and 6 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced, with green shoots removed. I tossed them around in the pan, using two large wooden spoons, until they were all coated with oil. I seasoned them with 1/4 teaspoon of hot pepper flakes and a teaspoon of black pepper, coarsely crushed in a mortar.
I then lowered the heat and allowed the squash to continue to cook over medium low for about 15 minutes. I let it come to room temperature before I served it, sprinkling it with a tablespoon of freshly picked and chopped oregano (you could use 1 teaspoon of dried instead).
With the two squash dishes, we had sliced tomatoes and Vidalia onions, brightened with a squeeze of lemon, seasoned with salt and pepper, and drizzled with delicate Ligurian olive oil, made from 100% taggiasca olives. A few leaves of fresh basil sprinkled in rounded out this delightful vegetarian lunch, perfect for the bright sunny day.
And here’s the perfect breakfast, all just-picked!
July 11, 2008 Dilly Beans and Dill Pickles
I love the flavor of dill and this year I grew one dill plant in my dooryard in Charleston. Yesterday I noticed that it had nearly 2 dozen flower heads on it that were fattening up, ready to make seed, so I went to the market and got 3 pounds of green beans and three pounds of small pickling cukes. These are some of my favorite pickles, not only because they are so delicious but also because they are so easy to make.
I follow the proportions of the recipe from Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking
but sometimes add a few other things. The recipe works fine with beans or cukes. For the beans, I like to use haricots verts
, the thin French green beans, because they require almost no trimming to fit in the jars and because they don’t need to be blanched first. For the cucumbers (which I slice in half lengthwise), I add a bay leaf, some mustard seeds, and some dill seeds to the jars. This year I placed an entire whole cayenne pepper pod (from my last year’s crop) in each jar instead of the hot pepper flakes. The only thing hard about these pickles is resisting opening the jars before they’re ready. They take about two weeks to cure. Be sure to serve them cold, cold, cold!
3 pounds young, tender green beans, trimmed of the stem end
6 cloves garlic
6 bunches, or heads, of fresh dill
1-1/2 teaspoons crushed red pepper
3-3/4 cups white vinegar
3-3/4 cups water
3/8 cup sea, kosher, or pickling salt
Sterilize six pint jars and keep them hot. Taste the beans to see if they feel furry in the mouth. If so, blanch them for a moment or two. Pack them into the hot sterlized jars, with a clove of garlic and a bunch of dill to each jar. Combine the remaining ingredients, bring to a boil, and pour hot over the beans, leaving a 1/4″ of space in the top of the jars. Run a plastic spatula handle around the inside of the jars to remove air bubbles. Add caps and seal. You may process these in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes or simply store in the refrigerator. They will be cured in about two weeks.
Yields 6 pints.
July 9, 2008 Mostarda
Mostarda is an odd Italian word for a condiment that can be jam-like, chutney-like, or relish-like. It does not mean “mustard,” though many do contain the fiery oil from mustard seeds. They are rarely made by home cooks in Italy today, no more so than chutneys are made at home in America. In the best known version, from Cremona, tiny whole fruits or fruit pieces are candied in a sugar syrup until they are clear. They are traditionally served with bollito, a classic meal of boiled meats. Of the traditional southern condiments that I make, the one that most closely physically resembles mostarda di Cremona is watermelon rind preserves; taste-wise, it would be chutneys. Like my chutneys, mostarda recipes might contain any of a number of peeled and pitted fruits such as apricots, figs, cherries, melons, peaches, apples, plums, and quince. Old recipes call for making a must of unripe grapes, which few people make today. Sometimes small fruits are left whole.
Some of the popular versions of mostarda are simply jams or marmalades made from figs, tangerines, pears, or plums, though they, too, may be seasoned with mustard or other spices, vinegars, or herbs. Mostarda di fichi, for example, is made with ripe green figs and balsamic vinegar from Modena, though I frankly prefer my mother’s fig conserve made with pineapple, black peppercorns, and walnuts (the recipe is included in ”The Pantry” in the August 2007
blog). Both are excellent with cheese and cured meats.
Some mostarde are made with vegetables instead of fruits, like our sweet relishes and bread and butter pickles. As in America, they seem to be most prevalent in the South. In Sicily, my friend Anna Tasca Lanza
makes a very sweet one with zucchini. I’ve seen green tomato mostarda, horseradish mostarda, and this surprisingly delicious celery mostarda. Not surprising, I guess, to folks who grew up drinking Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda, but I think that I can say that sweet celery concoctions are fairly rare. Serve it with fresh, soft cheeses before or after dinner, or even on ice cream!
Mostarda di Sedano (Celery Relish)
If you would like this relish to be spicy, add a half teaspoon of mustard seeds.
2 hearts of celery, 1-1/2 to 2 pounds total
¾ cup sugar
pinch of salt
3 ounces freshly squeezed lemon juice, from about 3 lemons
Wash the celery and separate the stalks. Using a sharp knife at an oblique angle, cut down through the base of each stalk from the inside
just to the outer edge. Carefully break the piece away, pulling any tough strings on the outer peel down away from the stalk. Turn the stalk around and cut off the tip in a similar manner, pulling any stringy outer peel away. If you prefer, you can peel off tough strings with a vegetable peeler, but
I prefer my method. Repeat with the remaining stalks, then cut the stalks into several strips lengthwise and then cut the slivers into tiny dice of uniform size.
Put the minced celery and the remaining ingredients in a heavy stockpot, stir well, and simmer, covered, for about 15 minutes. Uncover the pot and continue to simmer until nearly all of the liquid has evaporated and has become very thick.
Pour into a sterilized pint jar with lid and process in a boiling water bath if you want to keep the preserves for any length of time, or simply store in the refrigerator indefinitely.
I like to serve this atop a mound of a creamy blue cheese. If you add the mustard seeds, combine it with an unripened soft chèvre. I’ve never been an admirer of factory-produced cream cheese, but I see it all the time at parties, topped with chutney or pepper jelly. This really isn’t that much different from that, is it?
July 1, 2008
Summer is when I do more cooking than ever not only because the produce is so beautiful and inspiring but also because I like to pickle and can many items. In truth, I keep most recipes very simple so that the garden-fresh flavors speak for themselves. In this just-dug beet and radish salad that I made with the root vegetables from some friends’ garden, for example, I simply roasted the beets, peeled them, and tossed them with the radish slices just before serving, dressing them with delicate Ligurian olive oil, salt, pepper, a splash of freshly squeezed lemon juice, and snippets of dill from the herb garden.
Typically, throughout the year I rarely plan menus in advance and instead shop first and buy the prettiest foods I can find. Lately I’ve been seeing duck legs for sale at my local supermarket, so even though it’s wintry fare, I made some confit that I will enjoy this fall. Because I cook it in a slow-cooker, it also doesn’t heat up the kitchen. I weigh the legs, coat them well with spices, following both Madeleine Kamman’s and Paula Wolfert’s suggestions, and add enough Kosher salt so that the legs are well-coated in a Pyrex dish. I add lots of peeled garlic cloves — about a half-dozen per leg, cover the pan, and refrigerate for several days.
I then rinse the legs and garlic well, pat them dry, and put them in my slow cooker with enough duck fat (which I keep on hand; see the Pulled Duck
recipe on December 20, 2007) to cover. It takes about 4 cups to cover 4 to 6 legs. When I am in France, French Canada, or England, I look for canned goose fat to keep on hand as well.
For some reason this indispensable pantry item is very difficult to find in the States. There is quite simply nothing like potatoes roasted in goose fat! As Roy Finamore
, author of One Potato Two Potato
has written, “When you use it to cook potatoes, its flavor is more succulent than you can imagine. Duck fat is the only possible substitute.”
I cook the confit on the low setting of the slow cooker for several hours or until the garlic begins to brown and a thin sharp knife blade slips easily into the duck. If you plan to keep the confit for any length of time, put a spoonful of salt in the bottom of a large sterilized jar (vertical jars will require less fat than short, squat tubs) to prevent the meat juices from souring. I pack the legs down into the jar and strain the hot fat into the jar to cover the legs. There is usually some fat left over, along with the deliciously salty garlic, which I toss with some freshly dug small potatoes and roast in a medium oven until they are just done.
Give the jar a rap to dislodge any air bubbles. Make sure that there is at least an inch of fat covering the top of the meat. Allow the jar to cool to room temperature, then cover it and store in the refrigerator for up to six months or more.
When you are ready to serve the confit, immerse the jar in a pot of water and slowly bring the water to a boil. Remove the jar from the pot and lift the duck legs from the fat, allowing any excess fat to drip back down in the jar, and scraping any excess fat from the legs. If you leave any duck in the jar, make sure it is covered with a layer of fat.
Confit must be reheated to serve, and most presentations call for a crispy skin, most easily accomplished by reheating very slowly in a nonstick pan, skin-side-down. It should be golden brown and perfectly crisp. Serve with salads, compotes, or sautéed apples, or added to classic dishes such as cassoulet (in which case you don’t crisp the skin) from Southwest France. Now is the time, as Madeleine Kamman says, to serve a “generous wine such as Cahors or a Mas de Daumas Gassac.”