Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Chicken Tonight

It was a classic 70s Mom moment: I pored through my cookbooks asking myself, "what can I do with chicken tonight?" Of course, the 70s mom would have have worried about ground beef, but I had a 1-pound package of bone-in chicken breasts about a day past its expiration and due for a date with the freezer.

I prefer bone-in poultry because I love to braise - making a hearty pot of chicken and dumplings or chicken stew that can simmer in the oven for most of the day, the chicken releasing its juices into a savory broth. In the summer, however, I avoid these kind of kitchen-warming projects. But my husband found some chicken breasts on sale at the market and I needed a quick and easy supper idea. I guess most folks would coat the breasts in barbecue sauce and grill them, but given the stormy weather, an indoor recipe would need to be found. I checked through two favorite cookbooks, a cherished ring-bound Pillsbury Cookbook, missing its covers, but still holding its own as a home cooking go-to resource; and my favorite cookbook, Big Orange, the America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, revised edition. My search this time yielded a Roast Chicken with Vegetables in ATK that used bone-in chicken breasts and required just one pan.

I cut up two carrots, six red potatoes and two onions, mixed them with a double glug of olive oil and a teaspoon of dried thyme (ATK test cooks are overly enamored with thyme, IMO; I will probably leave it out next time), spread them in a pan and baked them for 15 minutes in a hot, 450 degree oven. The chicken breasts were placed over the vegetables, brushed with a few tablespoons of melted butter (ATK is also big believer in doubling up on fats), and seasoned with salt and pepper. Both chicken and vegetables returned to the oven for about 30 minutes (this was convection, allow longer for conventional). When I opened the oven door, the aromatic chicken was a sight to behold - skin the color of aged cherrywood and juicy, tender flesh. The potatoes cooked in melted butter, olive oil and melted chicken fat were a guilty pleasure.

As always, the proof is in the leftovers - the kids gobbled up the chicken and veggies, so I have a just one plump breast left over for chopping up and making chicken salad. Rounding out the meal were steamed broccoli, wilted spinach cooked with bacon and bunches of champagne grapes for dessert.

Roasted Chicken Breasts with Root Vegetables
Steamed Broccoli
Wilted Spinach with Bacon
Champagne Grapes

Friday, July 25, 2008

Tomato and Corn Soup Menu

Summer Soup Menu
Roasted Tomato, Red Pepper and Corn Soup
Biscuits and Bacon
Southern Style Green Beans with Country Ham
Honeydew Melon Chunks with Blueberries in Honey-Lime Dressing

The soup is my variation of a recipe from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison. This book has sat on my shelf for at least eight years. I've admired the bright orange binding for several years, but only started reading it a couple days ago, inspired by its new Gourmet Magazine Cookbook Club status. I feel a little like when I realized what Yertle the Turtle is really all about - this is a tremendous book, more of a cooking primer than the preachy vegetarian treatise I expected it to be. In fact, reading through the introductory material so far, I've yet to encounter the "I'm Vegetarian and I'm Saving the Planet, Why Aren't You?" sermon. Instead, there is all sorts of practical, basic cooking information. I've read a lot of Cooking 101 books and this goes beyond those and more - lots of valuable info on ingredients and equipment, even pictures demonstrating proper knife technique.
Tonight's soup is based on the Corn Soup recipe, using the Quick Broth instead of water. I loved the use-it-all-up stock method that incorporated the scraped corn cobs. My version of the Corn Soup turned out just a bit bland, so I upped the flavor with the really ripe produce on my kitchen counter - tomatoes and peppers. I slow-roasted the vegetables with a bit of garlic and olive oil, then pureed the cool mixture. I poured off some of the liquid in the corn soup and added the vegeatable puree, et voila, roasted tomato, red pepper and corn soup a la Deborah Madison. Excellent.
The Honey and Lime dressing is a trick I use to liven up so-so fruit, especially melons. I'm thoroughly convinced that I will win the lottery before I find a sweet honeydew melon. The melon my husband brought home was beautiful as all get-out, but tasted of green nothing. A tablespoon of lime juice and a drizzle of honey solved the problem.

Madison describes the quick vegetable tock as relaxed and improvisational, a riff on whatever soup is being made that night. For example, I added the scraped corn cobs to the stock as I prepared the soup vegetables, then poured the strained stock directly into the soup pot. Here is Madison's recipe, with my variations noted in parentheses.

Quick Stock
from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison
2 tsp. vegetable oil

1 onion, peeled and coarsely chopped (if the peel is clean, I add the onion straight to the pot without peeling)

1 carrot, coarsely chopped

1 celery rib, coarsely chopped

Trimmings from the soup vegetables, rinsed

2 bay leaves and several thyme sprigs or 1/4 teaspoon dried

4 or more garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

8 parsley branches, including the stems, or a small handful of stems

Additional herbs and spices appropriate for the soup

Heat the oil over high heat and add the onion, carrot and celery. While they're browning, peel the vegetables and add the trimmings to the soup along with the aromatics. Stir occasionally. After about 10 minutes, add 2 teaspoons salt and 2 quarts cold water and bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 25 to 35 minutes. Strain as soon as the stock is finished.

Sweet Corn Soup
from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison

6 ears corn

1 tablespoon butter

1 small onion, thinly sliced

1/2 cup grated waxy potato, such as Yellow Finn (I substituted a smallish red potato, hope that was waxy enough)

7 cups water; or Quick Stock (I thought this was about 3 cups too much liquid)


Half and half or milk, optional

Chopped parsley, basil, or other herbs, for garnish

Shuck the corn, remove the silk, then slice off the kernels. You should have about 4 cups. Use the flavor-filled cobs in the stock (yes, got that!).

In a wide soup pot, melt the butter, then add the onion, potato and 1 cup of the water or stock. Cover the pot and stew over medium heat until the onion is soft, about 10 minutes. Add the corn, 1 teaspoon salt, and the remaining water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, partially covered for 10 minutes. Cool briefly, then puree in a blender in two batches, allowing 3 minutes for each batch. Pass through a food mill or fine straineer then return the soup to the stove and stir in the dairy to thin it, if desired. Taste for salt and serve sprinkled with herbs. When reheating, stir frequently and don't boil or the soup will curdle.

Serves 6 to 8.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Supper for a Stormy Night

Tuesday Night Menu
Braised Pork Chops with Root Vegetables
Brown Rice Pilaf
Field Peas
Peach Kuchen

Peaches by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
A real thunderstorm settled over our town late this afternoon, with high winds that snapped the dry pine trees and hail that damaged cars. We were cozy in our darkened house, eating a comforting meal made special by the fresh summer vegetables and fruit. We began with my favorite pork chops, braised with carrots and potatoes and concluded with a Peach Kuchen.
The Peach Kuchen is from Beans, Greens, and Sweet Georgia Peaches by Damon Lee Fowler, a Savannah writer  whose books are packed with "must-try" recipes. I pulled "Beans, Greens," from the shelf earlier in the spring and have cooked steadily from it. The peach kuchen recipe is a custard tart with a press-in pie crust made with butter and cider vinegar. It is easy, easy and especially yummy with the dead-ripe peaches from my fruit bowl. My daughter ate two servings and plans to eat another slice for breakfast. In fact, this recipe would be perfect for a weekend breakfast, when you have the 15 minutes needed to cook the custard and 40 minutes for the kuchen to bake. The mango variation sounds nice for the winter months when we get South American mangoes.
Note: the 1 cup of sugar leads to a very sweet custard - I plan to cut the sugar by at least 1/4 cup next time. I also added a splash of vanilla to my custard.
Peach or Mango Custard Kuchen
from Beans, Greens and Sweet Georgia Peaches
by Damon Lee Fowler

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon sugar


1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

4 large eggs

1 cup half and half
1 cup sugar (you may want to cut this amount)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 heaping cup peaches or mangoes, peeled, pitted and cut into cubes

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Combine the flour, sugar and a small pinch of salt in a mixing bowl. Work in the butter until the mixture resembles cookie dough (you can do this with a pastry blender or your fingers). Work in the vinegar, then press the dough evenly over the bottom and up the sides of an 8-inch square casserole or 9-inch round pie plate. Bake in the center of the oven until the crust is beginning to color, about 10 minutes. Remove it from the oven and reduce the temperature to 375 degrees.

2. Add water to the bottom of a double boiler. Bring the water to a simmer over medium heat. Break the eggs into a mixing bowl and beat until they are smooth. Whisk in the cream until smooth, and then stir in the sugar and a tiny pinch of salt. Transfer the custard mixture to the top half of the double boiler and place it over the simmering water. Cook, stirring constantly, until the custard is thick enough to coat the back of the spoon. Remove it from the heat.

3. Spread the fruit over the crust and pour the custard over them. Bake in the center of the oven until the custard is set and the crust lightly browned, about 40 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Fowler suggests using raspberries, mangoes and peaches in this dessert, as well as blackberries, blueberries and sliced strawberries.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Waterfall Birthday Cake

Waterfall birthday cake with hula girls by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
Every 10-year old girl deserves a blow-out birthday party at home, so Laura chose a Luau theme for her big day. Of course, we made the cake at home. Over the course of a day, I made three recipes of Yellow Cake and four batches of Buttercream Frosting. The layers are a single sheet cake with five round layers in graduating sizes stacked on top. The hula girls were hard to find at our party supply stores, lucky for me a friend had a few left over from a party. The blue icing is Wilton blue gel and every kid at the party had to see the tubes of leftover gel - it looked like toothpaste.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Cornbread Salad Days

There are few things more satisfying for a Southern cook than a freshly baked pan of cornbread, steaming and golden on the inside, crispy and bacon-scented on the outside. It's the natural go-with for a pot of chili or soup in the chilly days of winter. In summer, it sets off a meal of garden fresh vegetables. Sadly, my family doesn't share my love of cornbread and I can't bring myself to make less than a full pan, so I needed to reinvent cornbread today. I looked no further than Crescent Dragonwagon's masterwork, Cornbread Gospels, and the chapter entitled "Deja Food."

The recipe for Patsy's Cornbread Salad caught my attention, but since I was low on bacon (oh, the horror), I opted for Elayne's Southwestern variation, but inevitably came up with my own, might I say delicious, version. Here's what I did:

I crumbled up the remaining cornbread into big chunks and added one can of drained red kidney beans and two finely chopped leeks. I get wonderful young leeks from the CSA, otherwise I would use about a half of a chopped storage onion. I dressed this mixture with a half-cup of mayo mixed with 1/4 cup of barbecue sauce, 1/4 cup of sweet pickle relish and just the slightest bit of apple cider vinegar (to get the remaining barbecue sauce out of the bottle). I stirred this together and served it for lunch, to myself, of course, because the girls would rather have pb&j. They just don't know what they're missing. Elayne adds cheese to her salad, which I may do to individual portions, but I left it out of the big salad because I don't like the texture that cheese gets when left in a dressing. All told, the salad was a good excuse to make a pan of cornbread.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Shelling Peas

The farmer, who wore overalls, called them "purple hull peas," to be distinguished from the crowder peas he sold in bushel bags. He didn't have zipper peas, which was my stated mission at the Farmer's Market on Tuesday, but the purple hull peas were fresh, with no mushy or rusty spots, so I bought a pound of them for the very fair price of $4. "I like to shell peas," I told the farmer, but he must have been hard of hearing, no response, so I thanked him, and took my bag of peas of home.
I shelled those peas Wednesday night, sitting on my rocking chair on the front porch, talking on the cordless with my recently widowed friend, who wanted to share the trials of her life and really just needed a listening ear. For an hour, I listened, shelled and watched as the Little One played in the sandbox. The next night, the peas were the star of the evening meal. cooked with country ham.
Thursday Night Menu
Purple Hull Peas Cooked with Country Ham
Skillet Cornbread
Fried Cabbage
Cucumber, Onion and Yellow Tomato Salad
Banana Crumb Cake

The Cucumber, Onion and Tomato Salad is from Gift of Southern Cooking. It is an old South dish, dreamed up by frugal cooks who had put up all the pickles they possibly could and needed to use up the cukes still on the vine. I used the lovely yellow tomatos from our own vines, and a neighbor contributed the Kirby cukes. The cukes were crisp and fresh-tasting, but quite seedy, so I changed the slicing method from the traditional unpeeled disks, to peeled, seeded and diced. I salted a diced Vidalia onion to draw out the bitterness, before putting it in the salad - the recipe specified red onion, which I don't usually keep on hand. The yellow and green salad was brilliant and the very essence of summer.

The Banana Crumb Cake is an old reliable from Susan Purdy's Family Baker, my all-time favorite baking book. I haven't made this cake in a while, but the black bananas were ready for baking.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

A Bowl of Comfort

I tried Shrimp Paste with Creamy Grits from Scott Peacock & Edna Lewis' Gift of Southern Cooking. Three words - "calories" and "worth it." It is essentially shrimp sauteed with onions and garlic in butter and then pulverized in a food processor. It can be stirred into hot, creamy grits or spread on toast. I will certainly make it again, but for the regular, dinnertime rotation, I will make Breakfast Shrimp and Creamy Grits.

I usually keep plain quick grits on hand, no fancy stone-ground stuff, unless I'm lucky enough to chance upon some at a specialty store. I learned the hard way that, in order to protect your investment in stone-ground grits, you absolutely must store them in the freezer. My deepest, darkest kitchen nightmare involves creep-crawly weevils and stone-ground grits that I innocently left unused in the pantry for too long a time.

For the creamy grits, I follow the directions on the package, subbing half and half or milk or even cream for some or all of the liquid, and simmer until thick. This usually means two cups of liquid to 1/2 cup of grits. For the shrimp, I melt a couple tablespoons of butter and sautee a half an onion, chopped, until translucent. I add a pound of peeeled and deveined shrimp and stir in the pan just until it turns pink. The buttery, briny goodness is perfection when served over the grits. This is an excellent 15-minute supper, or a nice treat for a hearty weekend breakfast.

Monday, July 7, 2008

A Taste of Summer's Bounty

Just an idea of the abundance of produce and how we're using it in our meals everyday.

Tonight's Menu
Roasted Pork Tenderloin
Fresh Silver Queen Corn on the Cob with Butter
Baked Sweet Potatoes
Lady Peas with "Seasoning"
Watermelon and Fresh Cherries for Dessert

Sunday, July 6, 2008

4th of July at Home

Supper for Mom & Dad
(the ubiquitous but always tasty) Grilled Flatiron Steak
Pole Beans Cooked with Country Ham
Mashed Potatoes (for the kids)
Scott's Special Coleslaw
Grilled Garlic Bread
Fresh Watermelon Chunks
Blueberry-Lime Pound Cake from Fine Cooking

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Put Some South In Your Mouth

Back in my bookstore days, I bought every cookbook with the word "Southern" in it. Here are a few of my enduring favorites:

1. Southern Traditions: A Seasonal Cookbook by Margaret Agnew. The author is a former food editor for Southern Living, and it shows. This is a very pretty cookbook with lots of pictures and seasonal entertaining menus. I prefer it to the Southern Living cookbooks.

2. Charleston Receipts and Repeats by the Jr. League of Charleston. If only for the cooter soup recipe that begins "Kill cooter by chopping off head." Now, that's my kind of Jr. League! And for those of you with dirty minds, a cooter is turtle.

3. Fannie Flagg's Original Whistlestop Cafe Cookbook and Irondale Cafe Original Whistlestop Cafe Cookbook. Classic meat-and-three recipes without opening too many cans and boxes.

4. Loveless Cafe book by the Sterns is quite nice, although it's really just classic meat and three stuff. A caveat: the book doesn't contain the recipe for Loveless biscuits. And we all know that the biscuits are the reason to go to the Loveless. (A personal note: a biscuit and blackberry preserve binge at the Loveless while 6 months pregnant led to my failing a blood sugar tolerance test and being classified as gestational diabetic for the remainder of my pregnancy. It was (almost) worth it.)

5. The Blue Willow Inn is absolutely charming, but I'm not so in love with the owner's new book. Again, it's meat-and-three, but heavy on the convenience foods.

A few more Southern titles that I think are worth seeking out:

Gift of Southern Cooking by Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis. In 20 years, this will be considered the classic work explaining Southern food. Also, Craig Claiborne's Southern Food and James Villas' My Mother's Southern Table.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

A Low-Country High

The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes of My Life
by Pat Conroy with Suzanne Williamson Pollak
Hardcover, 282 pages, (pub. Dec. 2004)

"When I refer to myself as Southern, I am talking about the part of myself that is most deeply human and deeply feeling. It is the part of me that connects most intimately and cordially with the family of humankind. There are qualities of grace and friendship and courtesy that will always seem essentially Southern to me, no matter where I encounter them on the road." (Page 135)

"Paris is a city of words and a secret city of words not written. Signs on buildings give away the names of unknown authors who once lived between those walls. You cannot take a step in Paris without walking on the footprints of a thousand artists and writer who have come before you. It excites every cell in your body; it unnerves you that you are adding your voice to the great simmering bouillon of all the writers who have come before you as the great city and time turn their blind careless eyes toward you." (Page 163)

There are two essential things to know about best-selling author Pat Conroy: first, he’s a storyteller, a raconteur; second, he’s passionate about food and cooking. In this compulsively readable memoir-with-recipes, Conroy, author of The Prince of Tides, opens the window to his life as a writer, a Southerner, an expatriate, a husband, a son, a father, and most of all, gourmand and cook.
It’s a shame this is called the Pat Conroy Cookbook, because while it most certainly includes ravishing recipes, it’s that rare cookbook that serves as autobiography and writer’s guide. Conroy lived in Paris and Italy and recounts his food and adventures abroad, but home will always be his beloved Beaufort, South Carolina. Conroy fans will delight in the Low Country mythology behind his novels and the stories of his family. Not to be missed: the shadow of Hemingway at a Paris bistro, his daughter’s wedding in Beaufort with an appearance by a neighborly alligator, and the small-town boy makes good story behind the publication of his debut novel The Water is Wide. You may be tempted to keep this book in the kitchen - the recipes are top-notch, but while you’re waiting on the ribollita or the pot likker soup, you’ll find yourself curling up on the sofa, reading and re-reading Conroy’s stories, his South Carolina drawl and belly laugh ringing in your ears.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Best of the 70s

My sweet brother sent me a compilation cd for my birthday. I swear, just like sliced ripe Sunny Slope peaches and soft serve vanilla ice cream from the Little Moo Dairy Barn, this sent me back to my red clay South Carolina youth in the 70s.

1. Jim Croce "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown"

2. Bo Donaldson & the Heywoods "Billy, Don't Be a Hero"

3. Wings "Silly Love Songs"

4. Randy Newman "Short People"

5. Dave Loggins "Please Come to Boston"

6. The Wonder Who "Don't Think Twice"

7. Charlie Rich "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World"

8. John Denver "Thank God I'm a Country Boy"

9. Monkees "Daydream Believer"

10. The Archies "Sugar, Sugar"

11. The Tokens "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"

12. Elvis Presley "Can't Help Falling in Love"

13. Glen Campbell "Rhinestone Cowboy"

14. Ricky Nelson "Garden Party"

15. Simon & Garfunkel "Bridge Over Troubled Water"

16. Cat Stevens "Morning Has Broken"

17. Elvis Presley "Kentucky Rain"

18. Bobby Darin "If I Were a Carpenter"

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Tuesday Night Supper

Here's my Tuesday night menu, using two items from the CSA bag - red, ripe tomatoes and fresh zucchini.
Tomato Gravy with Buttermilk Biscuits
Crispy Bacon
Grilled Zucchini
Pineapple Ice Cream Sandwiches
I tried a new buttermilk biscuit recipe, this time from Treasury of Southern Baking by Prudence Hilburn, one of those books I look through a lot and rarely cook from. Her biscuit technique is interesting - using self-rising flour, buttermilk and lard (I subbed Crisco), she mixes all three ingredients together by hand simultaneously. I need to work on my technique, but the biscuits were indeed tender and tasty.
I topped the biscuits with tomato gravy, which is a perfect pantry meal in the wintertime, using canned tomatoes, but heaven in the summer with fresh tomatoes.
Tomato Gravy

from Gift of Southern Cooking by Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis

2 tbsp. bacon fat
1 cup diced onion
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 tsp. dried thyme
1 tbsp. all-purpose flour
1 pound tomato, fresh or canned, peeled, seeded, and chopped into 1/2 inch pieces to yield 3/4 cup
1 cup milk

1. Heat the bacon fat in a heavy nonreactive skillet and add the diced onion. Saute over medium-high heat for 5 minutes, stirring often.

2. Add the garlic, 1/2 tsp. of the salt, the pepper and thyme, and cook for another 5 minutes.

3. Sprinkle the flour over and cook, stirring well, for another 2 minutes.

4. Stir in the chopped tomato and the remaining 1/2 tsp. of the salt and cook 5 minutes longer. Slowly stir in the milk and cream and bring to a simmer. Gently simmer for 5 minutes. Taste carefully for seasoning, adding more salt and pepper as needed. Serve hot.