A Love Story

"Cooking is like love--it should be entered into with abandon or not at all."--Harriet Von Horne

October 20, 2016

The Best Ever Shrimp and Grits--Seriously!

A Decadent Shrimp Mix on Creamy Grits
Every cook should have at least one signature dish in her repertoire that can be whipped up quickly with whatever is on hand, impress at the dinner table, and instill self-confidence and pride. Though I never thought my own signature dish would turn out to be shrimp and grits, I cooked it often enough over a short period of time and with varying ingredients on hand, that I quickly decided to improvise until I arrived at my latest masterpiece. So good is this rendition, I think it's worth sharing.

For those living outside of the Deep South or never having visited, grits might seem formidable, not only to make well, but as a side dish worthy of any breakfast--or, dinner plate. Truthfully, making good grits requires patience, plenty of milk or cream, and lots and lots of butter. I can make a pretty good batch of grits, but I'll never make them quite as good as my sister-in-law who lives in Georgia and is fearless when it comes to adding the butter. But, I digress.

My latest and thus far, best version of this Southern classic, is fortified with oven roasted cherry tomatoes and spicy Cajun-style Chorizo, along with the classic ingredients of shrimp, garlic, butter, parsley, and white Vermouth. It pairs perfectly with a glass of red wine and warm slices of French bread for wiping up any juices that manage to get past the grits.

October 17, 2016

French Pork and Beans

Saturday Night Dinner Party
Once we got word that Pop was headed our way for a long overdue visit, Mr. B couldn't think of anything else but sausage making. It seemed every time I'd round a corner and walk into a room, I'd find him deeply engaged in one of the many tomes dedicated to meat that lined our library shelves. The day he came home with a professional sausage maker in tow that he borrowed from a friend, I knew for certain that there was going to be a lot of meat headed our way.

True enough, he made the rounds of almost every grocery store in our town, headed straight for the meat counter and without hesitation, introduced himself to whichever butcher happened to be on duty.

Over the course of the week, I'd see him jotting his notes down into a small pocket notebook that he kept tucked away in his briefcase and every few days, he'd update me on how it was all coming together--where he was picking up a pork belly, who was ordering hog casings for him, and when the fresh pork shoulders would be available.

Once the logistics of his sausage making enterprise were worked out, he moved on to his ultimate goal--creating the most decadent, delicious, and impressive cassoulet outside of Languedoc-Roussillon, the famed region in the South of France known for its many gastronomical delights.

In truth, while cassoulet may be nothing more than a fancy French version of pork and beans, a hearty stew of slow cooked white beans, fortified with a medley of duck confit, pork belly, and sausage, this rustic staple is incredibly delicious if done right and just about the most soul-satisfying dish imaginable--especially on, as it turned out, the first rainy night in a very long time.

So there we were, gathered around the dinner table, the windows open, the rain coming down heavy and hard. The cassoulet was rich with pork belly, duck confit, and Mr. B's famous duck sausage delicately flavored with Chinese Five Spice Powder. The French bread was crisp and warm, the butter cold and salty; our favorite jazz tunes played in the background. Mr. B opened the wine and I passed a plate of fresh greens, lentils, beets, and goat cheese. As plates were served and forks made busy, everyone fell silent, absorbed by the richness of the duck broth, the firm, yet tender beans, and the sound of the rain falling in syncopation with the music.

We stayed like that, deep in reverie, for a very long time. And then, the oven timer sounded, reminding us that the pear and apple tart tartin that I'd prepared for dessert was ready and waiting for us.

October 14, 2016

Coffee Rubbed New York Strips

Mr. B Gives Our Steaks a Jolt of Java
It may be fall, but in our world, we're still in the heat of grilling season and there's nothing that can spur Mr. B's imagination like two thick, well-marbled New York Strip steaks.

He's been famous for at least a decade for his secret rib rub recipe, and anyone lucky enough to have garnered an invite to sample his grilled Jamaican Jerk chicken can attest that he's the master of both flavor and flame.

I may not have the same carnivorous streak that my husband has, but every once in a while

I get a craving for red meat that I just can't shake. I've always preferred a thick, lean filet, pan broiled and extra rare, or what is more commonly called a blue steak--seared on the outside and blood rare throughout. But, Mr. B likes his meat a little more cooked, right between medium rare and medium. And, unlike me, he likes a steak with fat and bone. Don't get me wrong, though, when Mr. B is fanning the flames and the steak fat hits the grate, I'm definitely in.

His recipe for coffee rubbed New York Strips is a winner, especially with a generous glass of red wine.

September 26, 2016

A Cure for Hot Fall Days: Root Beer Floats

Instant Heat Relief: Root Beer Float

Nothing can take the edge off of a particularly hot summer day quite like an ice-cold root beer. Peppery and bold with nuances of vanilla, black cherry, wintergreen and licorice, this quintessential beverage of summer is as synonymous with the season as going barefoot, roasting marshmallows over an open flame and stargazing well into the wee hours of morning. A quick survey of anyone between the ages of 8 and 80 would confirm that root beer is a well-loved American classic.

My grandfather sparked my love of root beer. He was mischievous and secretly pilfered those barrel-shaped root beer candies from my grandmother's crystal candy dish. Then, he would delight in pulling them from his pockets with the same sleight-of-hand finesse as a skilled magician.

The candies were shockingly spicy and after only a few moments would send my palate into distress, their peppery boldness so intense that the only way I could cool down the fire on my tongue was to hold the oblong candy between my teeth and rapidly blow the heat out through pursed lips. 

They may have caused me tremendous discomfort, but of all the childhood treats, I loved those root beer candies the most and could easily pass an entire afternoon before wearing a single one down to microscopic thinness.

For many people like me, the mere mention of root beer can conjure visions of childhood delights, but long before it became a famous beverage, it was a staple of medicinal folk remedies. Root beer–or, as it was more commonly known, root tea–was a magical potion reputed to cure everything from a common toothache to a more sinister case of influenza. Root tea was common among Native American tribes and the Colonists, too, but had it not been for Charles Hires, a pharmacist who sampled it on his honeymoon, root beer might never have made its way into mainstream American culture.

Hires first sampled root beer as a tea and was immediately enamored by its unusual taste– sassafras root–so much so that he begged and pleaded for the recipe. Once back in his laboratory, he tinkered with it, adding spices, vanilla, molasses and honey until he hit upon his well-known–and loved–formula.

It was the heyday of the pharmacy and competition was stiff. Every corner pharmacy had its own signature elixir concocted especially to draw customers in and Hires quickly followed suit. He decided to name his beverage root tea, but was soon convinced by Russell Conwell, a Baptist preacher and confidant, to change the name. Conwell argued that Hires would never make any money advertising it as a tea, but that if he called it root beer, he would appeal to the hard-drinking men who worked in the mines.

The idea was pure marketing genius and soon the popularity of Hires' root beer gained momentum. Then, at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Pennsylvania, Hires passed out samples to the nearly 10 million visitors who came by land, sea and on foot. Shortly after, he sold packets of root beer concentrate that could be mixed with water. This allowed people to enjoy his beverage in their own homes. By 1890, he'd figured out a way to bottle and distribute his root beer to the masses and only a year later, in 1891, Charles Hires claimed to have sold over one million bottles of root beer. Things were going smoothly and Hires was well on his way to making a significant fortune, but his savvy marketing campaign had attracted some unwanted attention, too. The Women's Christian Temperance Movement was in full swing and on a crusade to end drunkenness. By 1895 they set their sights on Charles Hires and vowed to shut his root beer empire down.

Charles Hires' root beer recipe contained yeast and went through a fermentation process, but it only contained trace amounts of alcohol. Hires, himself a Quaker and a teetotaler, was unable to convince the Women's Christian Temperance Movement that his root beer didn't contain any alcohol, so they called for a nationwide ban on his product–a war that they would wage against Charles Hires for three long years until an independent laboratory would finally prove that his root beer was, indeed, alcohol-free.

Root beer was a popular and much loved beverage from the late 1800s to the early 1960s, when, amid health claims, the FDA banned safrole, the oil extracted from the sassafras root, labeling it a carcinogenic, unsuitable for human consumption.

Thankfully, scientists and chemists rallied, coming up with a method using the characteristic sassafras root, without putting consumers in danger. Soon, root beer was back and Americans were enjoying it with a vengeance.

August 22, 2016

Friends with Figs

Fig and Goat Cheese Pizza with Balsamic Drizzle
I've always wanted a fig tree, even after everyone I knew warned me against it.

"Fig trees are messy," seemed the most common rendition, although, there were just as many who warned about the birds. So, not wanting the hassle of an incessant fruit clean up, or, being able to imagine myself living the real life version of an Alfred Hitchcock movie, I gave up on the idea altogether.

But, I never gave up on figs. During the height of fig season, I'd head to the farmers market and queue up along with all of the other fig lovers, in front of the one vendor who was selling figs. And, I didn't care, nor did those who stood along with me, that I would shell out $5 or 6 dollars for a small basket.

Once home, I'd dole out the figs sparingly. One for Mr. B, one for me. Unless he wasn't looking, of course, then I'd quickly pluck an extra one from the basket and shove it into my mouth, hiding it in the hollow of my cheek if he came near. I know it sounds extreme and even selfish, but fig season didn't come as often as I would have liked, so it was every man--or, woman--for themselves.

Life without a fig tree left my culinary dreams unfulfilled. Of course I read cookbooks and looked on longingly at all of the fig creations that were just beyond my reach. I could only lust for the fig tarts, shiny under a sugary lacquer, salivate over plump figs, split down the middle and stuffed with goat cheese and a drizzle of honey, and go weak over that one picture of figs where the figs had been covered in butter and sugar, put under the broiler until they resembled miniature creme brulee and set atop scoops of vanilla ice cream.

We could spend all the time in the world looking at those pictures, but without the bounty of fruit that a fig tree would bear, we were limited. So, we ate the figs fresh from the basket, along side a piece of cheese, or maybe, sliced thin and topped with yogurt.

And, the years passed, with one uneventful fig season to another, until just recently when I discovered that a new coworker was having the opposite problem. She, was, you see, the owner of a fig tree, actually more, and she couldn't give her figs away fast enough. They were everywhere, she lamented, and the birds, there were far too many birds to count, descending on the trees, a tornado of noise and motion.

"Would you like some figs?" she asked.

"Would I!" I replied.

 The next day, she came walking in with a plastic shoe box filled to the brim and even after sharing with others, I walked to my car with the container still three quarters of the way full. Humming under my breath, new life in my step, my mind churning with the many recipes and dishes that I could tackle--and I could hear the sound of opportunity as I started the car and threw it into reverse.

I wanted to get home and show Mr. B, but I wasn't in any hurry. I rolled the windows down and turned the radio up, deciding at the last minute to take the long way home. After all, I thought, as I popped another fig into my mouth, it was a beautiful summer evening. Why not enjoy the ride?

August 10, 2016

Making Kimchi: Women's Work

Add Some Spice to Your Life With Kimchi
The year I turned 15, my mother went through an ethnic cooking phase fueled by half a dozen magazine subscriptions and a stack of cookbooks she picked up at a garage sale. 

She developed a habit of reading recipes aloud, but it was clearly for my own elucidation, not my approval, for never once did she ask whether or not I might be interested in trying a particular dish. Instead, in the evenings, I would approach the dinner table with a strong mix of fear and anticipation; I could never be certain what was on the menu.

My mother’s culinary daring kept me on my toes and while I had no way of knowing it then, her adventurous cooking advanced my palate. This is how I developed my deep appreciation for garlicky hummus, towering mountains of tabbouleh, and dense floury dumplings stuffed with succulent pork and greens—commonplace dishes in today’s world, but three decades earlier in the Midwest, they were exotic culinary delights that fueled my imagination.

I was happy to indulge my mother’s hobby until the afternoon she recited the recipe for kimchi. At first, I paid little attention as she read the ingredients—finely shredded cabbage, ginger, garlic, red pepper, water, and salt—all common enough in our kitchen—then, she detailed the long fermentation process, the traditional earthenware pot used for making kimchi—all perfectly acceptable, but, when she shared that the only way to get the true flavor of kimchi was to bury the pot in the backyard, I protested.

I loved cooking, too, but I was at that age where social standing mattered; those precipitous teenage years when a simple ride to school could be a setback. I didn’t want to think about the repercussions—or embarrassment—of having my friends stumble upon a pot with a fermenting brew of vegetables poking from beneath the earth in my mother’s garden.

Years later after my palate matured, I discovered kimchi and now, ironically, there’s always a jar in my refrigerator. Had I taken my mother up on her offer to make kimchi, though we’re not Korean, we would have engaged in a tradition that Korean women have shared for centuries.

Making kimchi was women’s work, a time when women, young and old, would gather to socialize and pay homage to their ancestors and Korean heritage. Known as Kimjang, this event occurred after harvest and had a practical purpose. Large amounts of kimchi could be prepared and set aside for the long winter months and it was a way for mothers to pass on to their daughters the traditions—and secrets—of making kimchi.

The best kimchi was made by old hands—or knowing hands—possessed by women who had been making kimchi for so long that they had wisdom in their hands. These women knew precisely how to mash and massage the vegetables to soften them to the right consistency and could add other ingredients by sense—a pinch of this or that, until the right balance was achieved. These women had gained their knowledge over a lifetime of trial and error and while the ingredients would vary by region, kimchi always had to be the perfect balance of five flavors: sweet, sour, bitter, spicy, and salty.

A women’s work wasn’t done once the kimchi had been made; it needed tending. The traditional vessel used, a permeable earthen pot, allowed air circulation and was small enough to be moved to accommodate changes in weather. During summertime, women would store their pots on their rooftops and in the winter, bury them in the earth to keep them warm. Some women never left them out of their sight and would even sleep with them. In many families, the pots were passed on from mother to daughter, the kimchi reportedly going back decades, possibly even centuries.

According to anthropologists, kimchi dates back to 2030 BC and in 600 AD, archeologists excavated a remote site, uncovering the remains of clay pots used for kimchi, along with cave paintings depicting the process. Food historians report that it wasn’t until 1350—when chilies and red pepper were introduced—that kimchi evolved to what we recognize today.

Kimchi is so important to the Korean identity that there is a Kimchi Foundation, a Kimchi Research Institute, and even a Kimchi Field Museum where they’ve documented 187 historic and current varieties, including those so elaborate they include abalone, oysters, lichen—even whole fish wrapped in cabbage leaves.

While my introduction to kimchi was rocky, I owe my love of ethnic food and adventurous cooking to my mother. The last time we spoke, I told her about the kimchi I was making, but before I could finish, she said, “Hold on a minute. I just came across a recipe; I want to read it to you.”

July 27, 2016

Sockeye Salmon with Roasted Tomatoes and Tarragon Butter

Summertime Salmon
On any given summer evening, Mr. B stands at the ready to fire up the grill and cook me anything my heart desires. And while I know he secretly pines for thick juicy steaks and chops, come summertime, I can't seem to think of anything other than perfectly grilled Sockeye Salmon.

Perhaps I'm drawn by the vivid color, a deeply hued red with the slightest aura of brilliant coral, or the tender, almost melt-in-your-mouth meatiness, or, maybe, the way it pairs perfectly with all of my summertime favorites--fresh corn, tomatoes, and tarragon, all plucked from the garden while nearby, the grill heats up.

Sockeye Salmon are much smaller than King, or Chinook Salmon, averaging only around 6 pounds and while the latter seem to always be in season, Sockeye season is brief, running from June to July, perfectly timed to take advantage of a few of my favorite seasonal eats. If I lived closer to where they were harvested, I'd more than likely live the entire duration of the Sockeye season stuffing myself into a euphoric intoxication, but since I don't, I'm happy to eat it as often as possible.

While it's incredible simply grilled and finished with a squeeze of lemon and sea salt, I love the way it pairs with the sweetness of roasted and caramelized cherry tomatoes, slightly browned butter, and the unmistakable notes of anise in the fresh tarragon. This dish is best enjoyed al fresco with a glass of Chardonnay.