October 30, 2013

Birthday Cakes and Bass Guitars

Mini Layer Cakes
Not too long ago, someone asked me if I had any kids and while the answer is "no," there was that slight moment when I hesitated and thought of Mr. B. I often joke with him and say that he's my teenage son--and for good reason.

At one time, he was a formidable drummer. He'd been begging me for a drum set for years and years and I managed to put him off. After all, the man has an acoustic guitar, an electric guitar, bongo drums, a flute, and a harmonica--all of which he plays pretty well--but a drum set? It seemed to me that to give in meant giving away the last of my peace and quiet.

But every smart married woman knows she's only living on borrowed time. One Saturday not too long ago, Mr. B had just left for his walk when I was pulling out of the driveway and noticed that the neighbor--who just happens to be a drummer--was having a yard sale, and lo and behold, right in the middle of his yard was a shiny used drum set. I hesitated at the top of the driveway, the engine idling, and as I looked across the yard, I knew that drum set would be in my garage by the time I got home. So I did what any self-respecting 40-something year old woman would do when she realized she was getting in bed with a drummer that night--I hit the gas and let the gravel fly.

Sure enough, when I returned home, Mr. B had his drums set up and the sticks were flying and I'm not going to lie, he was a bit rusty at first. But surprisingly, by the 3rd day, he sounded so good that a few of the neighbors stopped by to stare on in awe. The next week he picked up a set of brushes and by the following week, he'd perfected his New Orleans funk; if I closed my eyes, I was transported to a smoky lounge on the edge of the Quarter.

Last week, Mr. B rolled into another birthday and as usual, he wanted his favorite cake--homemade yellow cake with chocolate butter cream icing. But I had no clue what he wanted for his birthday so I tracked him down; he was drumming away. "What do you want for your birthday," I shouted. Slowly, he brought the tempo down and gently tapped away; he was thinking, but I could see by the twinkle in his eyes that he'd already made up his mind. He eyed me defiantly, as if he really were a teenager and he was getting ready to test me. "You know," he said, "what I really, really, really want is...a bass guitar." And he slammed the cymbals for good measure.

I stared back at him, my face expressionless; if I was going to be married to a musician, I'd have to practice my nonchalance; my coolness. I let the silence hang just long enough, then I gave him a smile and said, "Sure," before I turned to go. I was going to make him a birthday cake, but first, I was going to dig out my leather motorcycle jacket.

October 28, 2013

Blue Ribbon Winner

Chicken Cordon Bleu
For years I thought my mother was swayed by popular culture cooking, but once I started my research, I decided she was just passing on tradition. She liked to take out her frustrations with life on a piece of meat, and it's no wonder that with two kids who argued daily, she was most comfortable with a meat mallet in her hand.

While I'm sure there were days when she was tempted to take that meat mallet to both my brother and I, she managed to keep the raised metal points on its head squarely focused on thinly sliced pieces of pork and pound them until they were wafer thin and almost transparent. Then, she would dredge them in crumbs and fry them until they were crisp. They were so good, they kept both my brother and I quiet--at least until dinner was over.

You'd probably be surprised by how many countries have a version of schnitzel, which is exactly what thinly pounded, breaded and fried meat is called. Even Romania. So when my mother was frying up her version, she was only standing on tradition.

But then, a funny thing happened. At some point, instead of just tossing them into the pan and frying them flat, she started filling them with all sorts of things, and rolling them up into tight little logs. And she wasn't just using pork anymore; she was giving chicken the same treatment.We weren't sure what to think, especially when she announced the new dish as Chicken Cordon Bleu and informed us that in French, it meant "Blue Ribbon Chicken."

We didn't know a bit of French, but we knew this dish was pretty darn good; it was probably the first thing that my brother and I had ever agreed on.

While schnitzel dates back to at least the Middle Ages where it was popularized by both Milan and Austria, Chicken Cordon Bleu is much newer on the culinary scene. A version of the dish first appeared in the 1940s and sporadically popped up in a few cookbooks and menus, the version--and the name--that we know of today didn't become popular until the late 1960s when a recipe for the dish appeared in the New York Times.

I hadn't thought of this dish in years, but the other day, I found myself staring blankly at a package of boneless, skinless chicken thighs and the idea struck me. Of course, it happened to be the very day I was out of both eggs and bread crumbs and I was far too comfortable to contemplate shoes and a quick run to the store, so I improvised and it was delicious!

October 23, 2013

Spring Down Under

Pan Roasted Lamb Chops
Mr. B's no doctor, but I think he may be right in his diagnosis--I do have an advanced palate. At first read that may seem as if I'm trying to pass myself off as some highfalutin foodie, but that's not the case. My advanced palate just means that I like things that are, well, let's just say, more flavorful.

Somewhere along the way, I developed a taste for strong flavors. I like wine that has a gamy, mineral, almost metallic blood flavor, a profile that not everyone would enjoy. The same goes for cheese--if it's almost a shade too far aged, I find the complexity of flavors--and smells--addictive. So, it shouldn't be any wonder that I love lamb--but only if that grassy, fresh, gamy flavor hasn't been tamed.

Unfortunately, American lamb--bought in the local grocery store--has virtually no flavor. It seems that it has become the norm for lamb producers to produce meat that is mild, and in my opinion, completely devoid of the characteristics that make lamb so tasty. I'm not sure why anyone would want to eat lamb that didn't taste like lamb, but apparently there's a market for it.

Which brings me to the next point--lamb is seasonal and meant to be eaten in the spring. The grassy, herbal flavor in lamb comes from the lamb's diet. Lambs are ruminants, but unlike cows that primarily graze on lower quality grasses, lambs not only graze, but forage, and browse. This means that they eat a variety of lovely spring grasses, herbs, and plants that lend flavor to their flesh.

In the spring, I can always find good local lamb that meets my criteria for the right mix of aromatic flavors, but other than that, lamb isn't a regular feature on our menu. However, every once in awhile I come across beautiful Australian or New Zealand lamb that's worth a try. So, the other night when I chanced upon a package of fat lamb chops, I couldn't wait to pass them off to Mr. B to work his magic. The result: pan seared lamb chops, with crisped potatoes--fried in lamb fat--with aromatic rosemary and garlic. And the flavor--perfectly gamy, fresh, and grassy, because after all, while we're moving into late fall, it's spring down under.

October 22, 2013

My Latin Lover

Arroz con Pollo
Ah, the intrigue lurking in the spice cabinet. Most people would be surprised to learn that so many of the ordinary--and exotic--foods that are stored in their cabinets and pantry have an illustrious history, and where better to start our tale of intrigue and murder than amid the turmeric and paprika?

You may recall from your history lessons that economic trade began long ago along the Silk and Spice Roads that twisted across desserts and through mountainous terrain, from Northeast Africa, the Middle East, the Far East, and into Europe. Long before coins, spices were the currency that the world operated on, and in the same vein as the modern day Mexican cartel, the spice traders were a ruthless, cut-throat lot.

Saffron is the most expensive and valuable spice in the world. Since its earliest origin, it has never fallen from its pedestal. Legend has it that Cleopatra would have her maids scatter saffron threads into her baths so that lovemaking would be more pleasurable. Aside from the obvious importance that saffron played in Cleopatra's bedroom scenarios, it's an important ingredient in many culinary masterpieces, including Bouillabaise and Arroz con Pollo.

Today, 90% of the world's saffron is produced in Iran,with the remaining 10% coming from Kashmir. Off course, the least available is always the most coveted and so, the Kashmiri saffron is the most expensive. Unfortunately for saffron shoppers, not only is saffron pricey, but you may not get what you pay for thanks to the flourishing business of saffron thieves who cut it with everything from shreds of beets and pomegranate, to red silk fibers. In some areas, adulterating saffron is a crime and in ancient times, this behavior was punished with a swift execution.

Consider, however, how painstaking the task of harvesting saffron, for it is the thin filaments, or stigmas, of the crocus--a flower that only blooms in spring. Each stigma must be plucked by hand and then dried. On average, it takes between 65,000 and 80,000 threads to comprise 1 pound of saffron.

Aside from the historical and fantastical allure, saffron remains popular because of its unique aroma, taste, and of course, its ability to impart a vibrant yellow hue to foods. To me, the taste is a mixture of hay and honey, and when tossed into hot olive oil with chopped onions, is perhaps one of the most intoxicating aromas--but don't eat too much. In large quantities, saffron is toxic--it causes the imbiber to become overtaken by convulsive laughter followed by quick death.

And, while you contemplate that fate, let's move on to an incredibly delicious--and quick--recipe for Arroz con Pollo, the ever popular Latin dish of saffron scented rice and braised chicken.

October 19, 2013

Smothered Burritos

For My Brother
Aside from my mother, my brother is the only other person I've ever known who likes to eat cold leftovers for breakfast. I'm not sure who passed on this gene to us, except possibly my mother and who knows where she got it from. The truth is, no one in our entire family line has ever eaten cold leftovers.

Ranking fairly high on the list were Thanksgiving leftovers, and pizza was always a top contender, but when it came to our real favorite--all three of us loved cold Mexican food, particularly leftover burritos, and especially if they were smothered.

This is a Colorado thing--which is where I spent my early years. Unlike California where burritos are just plain big, in Colorado, burritos are always served 'wet' and usually smothered with cheese, tomatoes, green onions, and black olives. When we were growing up, whenever my mom would go out to dinner, she always brought us home her leftovers. Long before there were those cute containers with compartments, leftovers were wrapped in foil, or little tin pie plates with lids on them.

Of course, my mother's favorite restaurant was a place on the outskirts of Denver called Mickey's Inn where they made a killer burrito. Later, though, when we were much older, she discovered another place called the Blue Bonnet Inn.

I'm sure my brother has long discovered his own recipe for smothered burritos and has spent many years getting his fill of cold leftovers for breakfast, but since I whipped this dish up the other night and couldn't stop thinking of him while I was polishing off the leftovers the next morning, I thought I'd post the recipe.

By the way, they're pretty darn good served hot, too, with warmed tortilla chips and a big dollop of sour cream.

October 10, 2013

Maque Choux

One of Mr. B's Favorites

When my husband was a young boy growing up in South Louisiana, his family owned a fish camp on the outskirts of New Orleans. Every summer, the family would pack up the car, hitch up the boats and with enough snacks to keep everyone happy during the drive, head out on the old back roads that ran parallel to the bayous and just off of Lake Pontchartrain.

 Once the cars were parked, the men would unload boxes of food stuffs and carry them into the kitchen where the women would unpack them and place the goods into the cabinets, all the while catching up on their gossip. 

As for the children, the first thing they would do was set the old crab traps with chicken and turkey necks and toss them into the water. After that, the youngest boys would check on them until there were enough crabs to boil.

My husband has many fond memories of summers well-spent, where he’d run barefoot and wild until his skin was a deeply tanned and the bottoms of his feet thickly calloused. The days were spent fishing and crabbing and in the night, the older boys would take the boats out and trawl for shrimp or gig bullfrogs. He remembers drifting off to sleep, crowded in among a pile of children and blankets while the grownups had cocktails and played bourếe (a French card game). He’d fall asleep to the sounds of their laughter rising into the thick night air and the distant croaking of the bullfrogs in the marsh.

The menus were simple and centered on whatever happened to wind up in someone’s net. A common meal was fish fried in cracker meal, but there were often plump frog legs and boiled crabs. There was a steady stream of side dishes, but the one that everyone loved most was the spicy, milky corn stew commonly called, Maque Choux.

Maque Choux, like Louisiana— New Orleans, in particular—is an amalgamation of numerous cultures and cuisines that have melded together in harmonious fusion. Maque Choux can be traced back to the Native American Indian tribes of the area, notably the Choctaw and the Chitimacha, but variations of Maque Choux can be found throughout the region, usually as fried corn. Depending on the cultural influence, or the tastes of the chef, Maque Choux can contain bits of Andouille sausage, pickled pork, bacon or ham, or even shrimp or crabmeat. And while every chef adds their own special touches, there are two points on which the recipes never vary: one must always use fresh corn, and the corn needs to fry until the sugars caramelize.

When the last of the corn and tomatoes are ready to harvest, I fry up big pans of Maque Choux and then over a dinner of fried fish, I’ll beg my husband to tell me stories of the days when he was a young boy running wild and free at Paw Paw’s fishing camp at Happy Jack.  

October 09, 2013

Poor Man's Fettucini

Many years ago--way too many to even begin to count--when I was a starving writer living in New Orleans, I had a friend, who had a cousin. She decided to introduce me to him, because she knew we'd hit it off.

Somehow, this seems like the classical introduction to a Southern love story, but she wasn't introducing him to me for romantic reasons (he was gay), but because like me, he was a writer with a flair for the dramatic, had a knack for telling a good story, and he was someone who knew his way around the kitchen. Truth be told, we passed many a fine afternoon entertaining each other--especially in the kitchen.

S just happened to be a lawyer who chucked his career, perhaps a little too hastily, to move to New Orleans and become a writer. Unfortunately, he was a pure romantic at heart and he never gave much thought to his financial matters. This meant that when I'd visit him, I'd have to sneak past the landlord, but it also meant that he had to be extra creative in the kitchen and figure out how to stretch a few staples into a hearty meal.

One afternoon as he told me the story about the day he was struck by lightning (true story) and woke up in the hospital, he also taught me how to make this economical, quick, and rather delicious noodle dish. Whenever I make it, I always remember that afternoon.

October 08, 2013

Fit for Royality--Egg Salad

Egg Salad Sandwiches with Sprouts
Egg salad has always been a popular luncheon salad, particularly among women. Both my grandmother and my mother favored egg salad. When I was in college, my girlfriends and I would lunch at a local coffee shop where the egg salad sandwiches ranged from the basic, to the sublime, decked out with all sorts of unimaginable ingredients. Aside from its dainty reputation, egg salad is high in protein and it sticks to your ribs, making it the perfect salad for a man.

It's no wonder then, that egg salad was the creation of a man, namely, French chef, Marie Antoine Carême who is responsible for mayonnaise, as we know it today. Orphaned by his parents during the French Revolution, Carême was left to fend for himself. He soon found refuge working in a restaurant where he quickly learned the craft. He went on to make quite a name for himself, particularly because he was well known for his towering confections built from marzipan and spun sugar. Eventually, he even cooked for the French Royals.

Whether he ever served his egg salad as a snack for the king or queen, we'll never know--that information is forever lost to history. We can assume, however, that when Carême was whipping up his concoction, it was never intended to go between two slices of bread. True enough, the sandwich was just coming into fashion, but in France it was all about Le Grande Cuisine--everything was bigger, better, and more elaborate. In fact, it was Carême who was responsible for designing the chef's toque--the high chef's hat--and categorizing the Mother Sauces.

While egg salad may have a colorful history, it's also pretty darn good. The proof is in its staying power. With almost 3 centuries of satisfying eaters worldwide, it's no wonder egg salad is still a popular choice among the lunch bunch. I've tweaked the recipe, just a bit, to give the salad an ethereal quality fit for royalty.

October 06, 2013

Spare Me

Oven Ribs
For years now, Mr. B and I have been having an ongoing discussion about good rib making. Mr. B can get quite hot tempered when it comes to the right recipe for BBQ ribs, so I've largely left the topic alone--really, who wants to get into an argument over ribs?

However, I did mention to him that when I was growing up, my mom made the best BBQ ribs. That statement certainly got his attention and when I got to the point where I started describing the sticky, sweet BBQ sauce, I thought I had him, but then he asked me the one question guaranteed to stop any further discussion: "How did she cook her ribs?"

My mom honed her kitchen expertise long before Mr. B was even around, and in those days, most people only grilled occasionally, and then, usually over charcoal. My mom cooked her ribs in the oven and by the time she had me, she'd perfected her recipe. She would pile the ribs on a bed of onions, give them an ample dose of salt and pepper, and then braise them long and slow in the oven. Ribs were Sunday fare, so I would wake up to a house filled with the smells of roasting pork and onions. Several hours before it was time to eat, she'd cover them with a sweet BBQ sauce and put them right back into the oven.

If I have one memory of my youth that will never fade, it's the way the house smelled on Sundays. There was always the tantalizing smell of cooking meat--fat drippings and caramelized onions--to fill the air with anticipation.

Perhaps, it was because of my descriptive powers, but after nearly 3 decades of knowing each other and nearly 2 of being married, Mr. B approached me one Sunday, not long ago, and said the most startling statement: "I think we should try making ribs your mom's way."

And? Well, he licked his fingers clean, looked down at the pile of bones on his plate, and nodded his head. "I like them," he said, and he meant it; he could see the virtues. But, Mr. B is his own man, so while he's happy to add another rib dish to the rotation, he hasn't completely given up on his old ways--but, that's why I love him.

October 03, 2013

Marinade Me

It's all in the marinade
Sometimes if Mr. B is really lucky, I'll make tacos a few times a week. Actually, he usually gives me a fight if I try to go ethnic too often, but I figure this is just a man trait, since I know other wives with the same problem.

I've learned that if I can somehow work the grill into the mix, it tends to throw him for a loop and leaves him expecting dinner to go in a whole different direction.

This is one of those simple, fast meals that makes me wonder how anyone ever winds up at a drive-up window. The secret is in the versatile marinade; this time, I've spiced it up with the addition of some very, very hot sauce. I marinated my chicken overnight and turned it into a quick taco spread, but you can easily leave out the hot sauce and make it work in a number of other different ways. The real secret is in the marinade--write this one down, because it will soon become your favorite.

October 02, 2013

Rollin' With The 80s

Dinner: Old School Style
This week, my kitchen is caught up in a time warp. It seems that every dish that I've been whipping up is a replay from the 80s.

Aside from being a really great decade, it was during the 80s that I worked my way through school by waiting tables at a slew of restaurants. It was New Orleans and just like now, everything in the city was all about hospitality; I didn't know anyone who wasn't involved in the industry.

In fact, for those folks trying to scratch their brains on the story of how Mr. B and I ever met in the first place, here's the deal: his parents owned a restaurant that I worked at, but since he was away at school, I met his family before I ever met him. So, yeah, we share a history together and when I served this old school chicken picatta up for dinner the other night, it set off a lot memories.

Picatta originated in Italy where it is traditionally made with veal. I never understood that because I think veal has far too delicate a flavor to stand up to the sauce; I like to use chicken. Anyhow, it's a simple dish to make: cutlets are tenderized, dredged, fried up in olive oil and butter and then sauced, in the pan with white vermouth, capers, lemon, garlic and finished with butter.

So, tune in to an 80s station, turn up the sound, and head to the kitchen. This dish will take you back in time.

October 01, 2013

Quiche Me

Brie, Mushroom, and Spinach Quiche
While it may have been the craze of the 80s, quiche is making a quiet comeback. I've been in several little cafes and eateries over the last few months and I've seen pie cases filled with these custardy delights.

Making quiche was a fairly regular event in my life, and then somehow, somewhere along the line it fell by the wayside. I guess like everything else in life it's cyclical, so no surprise that I decided to revive the tradition.

Mr. B is always happy with quiche. A slice makes for a filling breakfast or a quick lunch, it's transportable--perfect for a fall picnic or a hearty snack after a day spent picking apples.

The best thing about quiche is its utter simplicity. It's also a blank canvas; you can add anything to make it your own. My recipe originally came from The Silver Palate Cookbook, a wonderful little cookbook that I've been carting around for nearly 30 years. I've made this so many times, I have it committed to memory.