Wednesday, June 30, 2010

On the Road: Hot Dogs

hot dog
Hot dog by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Just like Charles Kuralt, this week I’m on the road for the Salon Kitchen Challenge, checking out hot dogs in Chattanooga, Tennessee, home of the Choo-Choo (pardon me, boys, while I hum a few bars), spectacular views of and from Lookout Mountain and a really cool aquarium. And yes, the All-American hot dog.

For me, hot dogs taste of sweat and sunscreen, saltwater and chlorine. They are staples of ball parks, tourist trap beach towns, children’s birthday parties with clowns, and kid menus all across town. I like hot dogs beefy, with a Pollock-like squidge of ketchup, mustard and pickle relish from little plastic packets, like the one above from the stand outside the Tennessee Aquarium.
When I'm traveling, I try to eat where the locals eat, and on this visit to Chattanooga, my brother recommended Nikki's Drive-in, a diner on a hill just north of the mighty Tennessee River.

nikki's sign
Nikki's Drive-In by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Nikki's advertises itself as the "Best Little Seafood House in Town" and the fried shrimp, in all their Gulf-advertised glory, looked fine, but today we went diner-style, with cheeseburgers and chicken strips for the kids and a chili dog for me.

Nikki's Drive-In by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

That's chili-slaw dog, my friends, and Nikki's served it so you can't even tell there's a hot dog underneath the chili. And yes, those are beans in the chili. In fact, the chili is just the way I like it, not the finely ground "hot dog chili" that you find at places like Atlanta's Varsity. ("What'll ya have? What'll ya have?"). There's a place in this world for that fine product, but I prefer a meaty, chunky chili with beans. This dog was topped with a mildly sweet, coarsely shredded coleslaw, the perfect counterpoint to the spicy and meaty goings-on.

chili slaw dog
Nikki's chili slaw dog by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I'm not going to pretend that we ate wheatberries and seitan for the rest of the meal. We indulged, and ordered a large platter of onion rings, and they were the best I've ever eaten. Not greasy, nor overly salty. Just crunchy, oniony, fried heaven. I suppose in diner-speak, this meal may be considered a "tube steak and lube job." Get your mind out of the gutter, tube steak is another phrase for hot dog and a plate of onion rings should be an indulgence taken no more often than you get the oil changed in your car.

onion rings
Nikki's onion rings by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Hot dogs are not typical home food for my family- I have young children and hot dogs are a staple of restaurant kids' menus - we eat enough nitrites and nitrates as it is. But, when I do make chili slaw dogs at home, I'd buy high-quality franks and buns and make this chili.

Chili with Beans
1 pound lean ground beef
1 onion, chopped
1 (6 oz.) can tomato paste
2 (15 oz.) cans chili beans or red kidney beans
1 (14. 5 oz.) can diced tomatoes
1/2 cup water
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon chili powder

1. In a large pan, cook beef until browned thoroughly. Remove from heat. Pour grease from pan.

2. Add onion and a tablespoon or two of water and cook until soft. Add tomato paste and stir about two minutes. Add beans, tomatoes, water and seasonings and stir completely. Let simmer about 30 minutes.
(adapted from the back of the Bush's beans can.)

For the topping, I make my usual slaw but add a spoonful of sugar. Coarsely shred cabbage, then dress with mayonnaise thinned with a bit of pickle juice, salt and pepper.

Images & Text © 2010, Lucy Mercer.

Miss Abbey by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Salon Kitchen Challenge Winner!

above: Lindsey eating a mango bone.

The story of rum wherein Marcus Samuelsson reveals his mango mojito recipe won this week's Salon Kitchen Challenge! Read it on here or below. This is what guest judge, culinary historian Jessica Harris wrote, "Lucy Mercer managed to capture not only the rum's past and its brutal history, but also added a look at the contemporary possibilities of the beverage. Her sugar mill charm and related references also reminded me of the many hours that I spent exploring old mills on St. Croix and multiple other Caribbean islands. Besides, I know Marcus and everything he does is wonderful, so this is going to be a great drink."

For the first time, I'll get a real prize for winning - a copy of Ms. Harris' new book, "Rum Drinks" - she's a terrific writer and I can't to wait to read her book!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Marcus Samuelsson's lesson on rum and mango mojitos

Marcus Samuelsson's mango mojito by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

On my wrist, I wear a golden reminder of the brutal past of slavery in the Caribbean. It’s a charm of a sugar mill, a common sight in St. Croix, now in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where the charm was crafted by Brian Bishop, an artisan creating jewelry in Christiansted. Bishop makes the mills accurate as they exist today - mostly abandoned, metal parts rusted or gone entirely, with trees growing through the doorless entries.

Crucian Gold charm bracelet by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

The sugar mills are from the time when the Virgin Islands were a stop on the slave trade, the Triangle Trade as it was known. The Dutch who settled the islands in the 17th century enslaved Africans who were brought to the islands to plant and process the sugar. The sugar, usually in the form of molasses or sugar cane juice, was then taken to the American colonies, usually Boston, to be distilled into rum. The rum, in turn was loaded onto ships and sent to Africa were it was traded for more slaves. The Triangle trade - molasses, rum, humans, molasses, rum, humans.

When contemplating rum, as with many foods, the modern interpretation is vastly different from the historical truth. Rum today is the essence of the tourist-dependent Caribbean - a fruity, umbrella’d cocktail on a sun-bleached beach beside the deep blue sea. A good book, a comfy chair, a cooling drink, and hours spent trying to find the horizon, the place where cerulean sky and azure sea meet. Rum, with its sharp acetone fragrance, is made for fruit, especially the tropical bounty of the Caribbean - pineapple, mango and coconut distract you from the kick.

I suppose I could open up a copy of Mr. Boston's to come up with a recipe to spotlight rum, but in this case, I decided to consult a master, Top Chef Masters Season Two winner, celebrity chef and all-around nice guy Marcus Samuelsson.

marcus grin
Marcus Samuelsson by Pedro Soto/Foodie Atlanta

That’s right, cutie pie competitor Marcus Samuelsson, he of the engaging grin and fierce competitive streak, not to mention spiffy candy-apple red Chuck Taylors, showcased on the most recent season of the reality show that pits seasoned chefs mano a mano in food challenges. Samuelsson bested a field of 16 big-name chefs, coming out on top with a three course meal that described his culinary journey across three continents.

When I asked Marcus about rum drinks, he said immediately, “Well, do you know about rum and Barbados and the slave trade?” Samuelsson has a duality that’s apparent once you know his intriguing biography - born Kassaham Tsegie in Ethiopia 39 years ago, he lost his mother at age 3 in a tuberculosis outbreak, was then adopted by parents in Sweden, his identity changed with one airplane flight - he became Marcus Samuelsson. He found his art at his Swedish grandmother’s apron strings while learning to cook meatballs with lingonberry sauce and other comfort foods, then went on to apprentice at fine European restaurants and eventually emigrated to this country 20 years ago.

What a curious gift to see in a bottle of rum the duality of your ancestry, biological and adopted - the enslaved and the enslaver. To identify with the Africans who were forcefully taken from their homes and families to work in harsh conditions half a world away, and at the same time the Europeans who traded humans for molasses and rum. I want someday to ask Marcus more about this, but today he just had time for a recipe - dark rum (he insisted it must be dark rum), infused with mango, muddled with mint, strained and poured over ice. I'm not one to argue with the chef, especially the one who beat Susur Lee for the Top Chef Master title. (And the drink is delicious.)
mango mint rum w/charm
Marcus Samuelsson's Mango Mojito by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Marcus’ Mango Mojito
In a large measuring bowl, place three cups of cubed mango from about 3 or 4 fruits. Fill to 4 cup mark with dark rum (I used Cruzan Rum). Chill overnight or for several days - (due to deadlines, I haven’t tested this recipe beyond the two-day mark). When ready to serve, pull out your favorite highball glass, muddle some mint leaves in the bottom, fill with ice, strain infused mango rum over all, and garnish with mint.

In Marcus‘ trademark “why do, when you can overdo” spirit (after all, his fried chicken recipe takes three days, my friends, three days to reproduce to his exacting standards), I created a Caribbean mango sorbet using the flavors of his prescribed drink. I kept it kid-friendly, using rum extract, but there’s no reason that if you’re feeding grown-ups, you couldn’t use rum-infused mango chunks from the above drink, folding them into the sorbet while it is still soft.

mango mint sorbet
Mango and lime sorbet by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Sugar Mill Mango Mint Mojito Sorbet

We call the pit the “mango bone” in our house, it’s a favorite treat of my youngest daughter. When you cut up the fruit, save the mango bones and simmer them in the syrup to intensify the mango flavor. You will need an ice cream mixer for this recipe - I use a Krups with a freezable container.

1 cup sugar

1 cup water

3 to 4 mangoes to yield 2 cups cut fruit, saving the mango bones

2 teaspoons lime juice from ½ lime

3 or 4 mint leaves, chopped

1 teaspoon rum extract

1. In a saucepan over moderate heat, place sugar, water and mango bones. Let come to a boil and cook, stirring occasionally until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat, add lime juice, mint leaves and rum extract and let cool. After at least 15 minutes, strain through a sieve and pour in container of ice cream machine. Follow manufacturer's instructions from here. Store leftovers, those precious leftovers, in the freezer. Trust me, they won't last long.

Text and Images © 2010, Lucy Mercer, with the exception of the picture of Marcus Samuelsson, which is provided by Pedro Soto of Foodie Atlanta.

Check out Brian Bishop’s spectacular jewelry at Crucian Gold.

If you visit St. Croix today, be sure to spend a morning at the restored working sugar plantation, the Whim Great House, complete with a working windmill/sugar mill.

marcus & Lucy
Marcus Samuelsson and Lucy Mercer by Susan Loper.
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Sunday, June 13, 2010

A Cherry Jubilee

A bowl of cherries by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

We’re told to eat fresh and eat local and some days, that’s really easy. Squash, greens and watermelon are plentiful at local markets. But imagine the things you couldn’t live without, the good fruits and vegetables that don't grow in your climate. For my husband, if we ate local every day, every week of the year, the thing he would miss most would be cherries.

My sweet husband is from Macon, Georgia, known for its cherry trees, some 300,000 trees, that turn the streets to pink every spring. But as spectacular as the trees are to view, they are just the ornamental variety, the Yoshino. We have a few of the trees in our yard, and they are glorious to view, but sadly, not fruit-bearing.

I grew up in peach country, and the only cherries I remember from my red clay South Carolina girlhood are Luden’s Wild Cherry Cough Drops and the cherry on the top of the ice cream sundae from the Little Moo Dairy Barn. These days, eating cherries every May and June when they come into the markets here from Michigan and the Pacific Northwest, is a ritual. I remember in particular an abundant spring a few years ago when the cherries were 99 cents a pound and we loaded up at the store and ate cherries by the handful, like giddy sub-prime mortgage lenders before the bust.
We still eat cherries out of hand, but have a few recipes that showcase their sweetness and substantial texture. For convenience sake, I usually buy frozen, (which can be as expensive as fresh). Here are a couple of recipes, one using fresh and the other frozen.

The cherry focaccia is an adaptation from "Focaccia" by Carol Field. I substituted fresh sweet cherries for the wine grapes in the Schiacciata Bursting with Grapes recipe. Warm from the oven, it makes an indulgent breakfast or rustic dessert.
The cherry soup is appropriate for a first course or dessert, or in my house, breakfast. Chilled fruit soups are great kid-pleasers. Make a big deal out of a rimmed soup plate and real soup spoon and let the kids play little lord and lady with this absolutely yummy soup.

cherry soup
Chilled cherry soup by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Chilled Cherry SoupAdapted from The Gourmet Cookbook
3 cups plus 2 tablespoons cold water
½ cup sugar
½ teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 lb. dark sweet pitted cherries (I used frozen)
2 tablespoons cornstarch
3 tablespoons sour cream
1 ½ tablespoons heavy cream

1. Combine 3 cups water, sugar, zest and cinnamon in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Stir to dissolve sugar and boil for two minutes. Add cherries, return to a boil and boil for two more minutes.

2. In a small bowl, whisk together 2 tablespoons water and 2 tablespoons cornstarch, then whisk into boiling cherry mixture. Simmer, whisking all the while, until slightly thickened, about two minutes. Remove from heat, cool completely, then refrigerate for at least two hours. (I like a smooth texture with this soup, so I pureed the fruit and strained out the pulp before serving.)

3. Just before serving, thin sour cream with cream. Pour soup into bowls and drizzle with cream.

cherry focaccia
Cherry Bread by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
Cherry FocacciaAdapted from Focaccia by Carol Field

2 teaspoons instant yeast (or active dry)
¼ cup sugar
1 cup warm water
1 cup plus two teaspoons unbleached all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons apple juice (or water)
3 tablespoons warm water
2 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into eight pieces

2 cups fresh cherries, pitted and halved
Demerara sugar

1. To make the sponge: Whisk the yeast and sugar into the warm water in a large bowl and let stand until frothy, about 10 minutes. Gradually stir in flour, cover tightly with plastic wrap and let stand until doubled, about 30 to 45 minutes.

2. To make the dough: Either by hand or with an electric mixer, add the apple juice, water and salt to the sponge. Gradually add flour. Beat in the butter one piece at a time until fully incorporated. Knead by hand for about five minutes or with a mixer for three. The dough should be smooth, stretchy and elastic.

3. First rise: Place the dough in an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise for 30 minutes.

4. Second rise: Divide the dough into four equal pieces and roll each into a ball. Place on a lined baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap and let rise for one hour. About a half hour before baking time, place a baking stone in your oven and preheat the oven to 425°.

5. Lightly oil two 10-inch metal pie pans or springform pans. Take one round of dough and flatten it so that it fills the bottom of the pan. Cover with a ½ cup of halved cherries and sprinkle with a tablespoon of demerara sugar. Flatten and stretch a second dough ball and cover the cherry layer. Pinch the edges to seal. Cover with a layer of cherries and a final sprinkle of sugar. Make a second bread with remaining dough and cherries.

6. Place the baking pans on the baking stone in the oven and bake for 15 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 375° and bake until the top is golden brown, another 18 to 25 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack, but not too much, this is divine when warm. Leftovers should be wrapped tightly and stored in refrigerator.

cherry focaccia halves
Cherry Bread by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Text & Images © 2010, Lucy Mercer.
Cherry soup recipe adapted from The Gourmet Cookbook, © 2004.
Cherry focaccia recipe adapted from Focaccia by Carol Field © 1994.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Laughing Girl Goes on a Picnic

The laughing girl, dressed in a fresh white linen dress, joins her friends for a picnic in the mountains. She puts on her favorite straw hat over her long brown braid. The terrain is rugged, especially for a lady outfitted as a lady. The men are willing to help a young lady across the stream.

girl in hat 2

girl in hat 2

Part of being the only girl in a small family is inheriting the family history. These are pictures from my grandfather's photo album, snapshots from the 19-teens when he left Ohio and toured the West. The family thinks the pictures were made in Colorado.

I wish I knew who the girl was - she has such a fresh face. White linen dress, big black bow, face framed by a floppy straw hat. I imagine she has a long brown braid under the hat. The pictures are from a picnic in the mountains and these are the most interesting - which gentleman will carry the pretty girl across the river?
Imagining this grand day, I realize the romance factor has dwindled from my picnics. These days, Clark's sandals and a clean t-shirt and shorts are the order of the day. I like my straw hat, but rely on sunscreen to shield my face because I don't like hat hair.

My Picnic Menu
Pimento Cheese on Crackers
Ham Wraps with Spinach, Cream Cheese and Chives and Red Pepper Slices
Fresh Georgia Watermelon Slices
And brownies, always brownies. These are luscious, fudgy brownies, made rich with cream cheese. I intended to make a cream cheese ribbon through the chocolately cake, but ended up stirring the cream cheese into the batter for an extra-rich brownie. You need to walk an extra mile to burn off these calories, but it's well worth it. After all, you're in your Clark's and not high-button boots.

pimento cheese
Pimento cheese. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books.

Pimento Cheese
This is a boilerplate pimento cheese. There are lots of uptown recipes, and I've bookmarked Bellwether Vance's pimento cheese to try (she also has the ultimate minner cheese story).

8 ounces sharp Cheddar cheese
1 cup mayonnaise, approximately, (I've never bothered to measure)
Pinch of salt
2 tablespoons chopped pimentos
1. Shred Cheddar cheese on the coarse side of a hand grater or in a food processor.
2. In a bowl, stir together cheese and enough mayonnaise to bind. Add salt and pimentos. Serve with crackers or on squishy white bread.

Brownies with cream cheese. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Fudgy Icebox Brownies
These brownies came about from a failed attempt to make a cream cheese marble swirl in my regular brownie. I made both batters, swirled them to perfect marbling and placed the pan in the oven. Then I saw the bowl of three eggs, waiting to be used in the brownie batter. Ooops! Out of the oven, batter dumped in a bowl, eggs whisked in to the now-combined cream cheese and brownie batter. The resulting brownies are super-rich due to the cream cheese, and as good as they are warm, they are divine cold, so place them the bottom of the cooler, and finish off the picnic on a high note.

2 sticks unsalted butter, melted

2 cups granulated sugar

4 ounces cream cheese, softened

4 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

3/4 cup natural cocoa powder (I use Hershey's)

2/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter a 9-inch-square metal baking pan.

2. Melt the butter in a saucepan. Off the heat, stir in sugar, then the cream cheese, followed by the eggs and vanilla. Slowly stir in the flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt, until the batter is smooth and free of lumps.

3. Spread the batter into the prepared pan. Bake until a toothpick or a skewer inserted 3/4 inch into the center of the brownies comes out with just a few moist clumps clinging to it, about 40 minutes. Let the brownies cool completely in the pan on a rack.

4. Cut into squares. Store the brownies in the refrigerator in a covered container.

Watermelon slices. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Watermelon. What can I say? It's Georgia in June and the watermelons are sweet and available at every fruit and vegetable stand by the side of the road. Chill the melon in the fridge, then carve into chunks and what my family calls "pie slices"- with a handy rind handle for kids to hold.

Text & images © 2010, Lucy Mercer.