Thursday, September 30, 2010

Tyler Florence on Southern Food

Tyler Florence takes a question from the audience at the Macy's Culinary Council event at Lenox Square.
Food Network chef Tyler Florence visited Atlanta in July and I'm recounting a few of the wide-ranging subjects he discussed. As just about every Southern knows, Tyler is a South Carolina native and grew up in Greenville. These are his favorite Southern foods:

For aroma, "hands down, collard greens" for the "mustard aroma and salt pork. In two seconds, I'm back to Grandma's kitchen." For taste, black pepper fried chicken. For mouthfeel, peach pie. "Southern regional cooking is the most important cooking right now. The most important historical heritage cooking is Southern. It translates coast to coast, it permeates the senses. You've got to pass it on to your kids." Amen, Brother Tyler.

More from Tyler:

1. Tyler Florence on his mission.

2. Tyler on why he won't be your Facebook friend.

3. Tyler on his new book coming out in October.

4. Tyler on dining out in America today

Many thanks for Macy's for the terrific pictures from the Culinary Council event.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Tyler Florence on What People Want to Eat

Tyler Florence plates Sole Almondine at Macy's event, July 2010.

Tyler Florence's flagship restaurant, Wayfare Tavern is getting great reviews. I thought I'd fall out when he described the signature peach pie - using Frog Hollow peaches just like Chez Panisse, a shattery crust that uses lard and clarified butter. The pie is finished with rosemary and served with goat's milk ice cream. Oh my.

This is what Tyler has to say about restaurant food right now:  "Fancy frou-frou dining is dead and it's going to be dead for awhile. We've built a restaurant that's old and traditional." I guess my heart will have to find its way back to San Francisco. Sacramento Street, to be exact.

More from Tyler:

1. Tyler Florence on his mission.

2. Tyler on Southern Food favorites.

3. Tyler on why he won't be your Facebook friend.

4. Tyler on his new book coming out in October.

Many thanks for Macy's for the terrific pictures from the Culinary Council event.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Tomato Gravy & Biscuits

Tomato gravy & biscuits by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

 Before the tomatoes fade for another summer, do yourself a favor and make tomato gravy and biscuits for yourself and your family. This isn't the kind of "gravy" or "sauce" that you serve with pasta, just a creamy white gravy with chopped tomatoes, cooked up in a cast iron skillet and served over split buttermilk biscuits. 

My mother was a fine cook, but I did not grow up with this dish. I discovered it through other cooks and writers. Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis write about it in "Gift of Southern Cooking," and if I remember correctly, serve the gravy with fried chicken.
Cooks can spend a lifetime perfecting their biscuit recipes, and I've tried quite a few, but I always go back to the recipe on the back of the bag of White Lily self-rising flour, using whole fat buttermilk, when I can find it, and brushing the tops of the biscuits with melted butter.
This recipe can be made with bacon fat instead of butter. I usually serve bacon alongside and keep the butter in the gravy. 

Farmers' market heirloom tomatoes by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
Tomato Gravy

2 tbsp. butter
1/2 cup onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
3 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 cup milk
1. In a heavy skillet, melt butter and saute onion until softened. Add garlic, salt and pepper and cook for another minute.

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

3. Stir in the chopped tomato and cook for five more minutes. Slowly add the milk and bring to a simmer. Taste for seasoning, adjust. Serve warm with split buttermilk biscuits and a side of bacon.

Text & images copyright 2010, Lucy Mercer.

Tyler Florence's New Book

Tyler Florence signs copies of his cookbooks at Macy's Lenox Square.
Tyloer Florence's sixth cookbook, Family Meal featuring 200 new recipes will come out October 12.

In the language of restaurants, family meal is served to the staff before or after service. The book will include recipes from his home and restaurants. During his recent Atlanta visit to Macy's at Lenox Square, Tyler made Sole Almondine, Roasted Parmesan Green Beans, Lemony Garlic Smashed Potatoes (groan if you must, they were surprisingly tasty.)

 "My promise to you is to help families get food on the table," Tyler said.
More from Tyler:

1. Tyler Florence on his mission.

2. Tyler on Southern Food favorites.

3. Tyler on why he won't be your Facebook friend.

4. Tyler on dining out in America today

Many thanks for Macy's for the terrific pictures from the Culinary Council event.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Tyler Florence on Social Media

Food Network Chef Tyler Florence at Macy's Lenox Square in July 2010.

A packed house in Macy's Housewares.

As owner of three restaurants and two culinary stores, Tyler Florence needs to know what's happening now. Here is Tyler's blogroll of sites he checks each day:

"I use Yelp as a guideline for staff discussions. We use all those websites to help the restaurant get better." What does he think of the democratization of reviewing? "I'm ok with that. I don't have a choice, but I want someone to be honest with me. I want someone to walk into my restaurants with the intention of having a fantastic experience."

Asked why he doesn't have a big presence on Facebook, Tyler replied "That cruise ship has sailed." Citing the 5,000 friends Facebook limit, Tyler prefers Twitter. He has a following of 200,000, equal, he says to a weekday audience for "Tyler's Ultimate."

If you walk through the supermarket and think "What Would Tyler Florence Do?" you'll be thrilled to know that there's an Iphone app for that - check out for details.

More from Tyler:

1. Tyler Florence on his mission.

Many thanks for Macy's for the terrific pictures from the Culinary Council event.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Salmon and a sign of the times

Canned wild caught Alaskan salmon by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Pinky sweet salmon isn’t the fish of my childhood, that would be the bream that my brother Will would catch at Blanton’s pond near our home in upstate South Carolina. Dad would spread out the Sunday paper on the driveway and clean the fish, saving some for supper, freezing the rest in repurposed cardboard milk cartons. In the kitchen, Mom dipped the fillets in egg wash and cornmeal and fried them up - bream has a distinctly earthy taste and I will always consider it my first fish.

The standby fish in my childhood is salmon from a can. Mom could feed her family of five with one can of salmon and a few pantry ingredients, frying up salmon croquettes. I make salmon croquettes, too, although I’ve adopted my husband’s name for the dish - salmon patties. I don’t know why, maybe it’s a Georgia thing, but that's the way the dish appears on meat-and-three menus around here.

We used to eat salmon fillets and steaks regularly, in the mid-90's heyday of Thursday night’s NBC Must-See TV line-up. I made my killer teriyaki sauce with extra garlic and ginger and heated up the small nonstick skillet I use for scrambling eggs. I coated the pan with just a bit of oil, slid the fillet in, let it sizzle on both sides and poured the teriyaki over all, being careful not to let it cook too much, or the sauce, which is half sugar, would burn to an acrid mess. This was B(efore) K(ids), so my husband and I would eat the salmon with rice and stir-fried broccoli while watching “Seinfeld” and whatever came next. (Followed by "Friends" and whatever came next. Followed by "ER.")

Here’s the thing: I went to the supermarket today to buy salmon for my salmon in a small pan with teriyaki. At the seafood counter, the price was $8.99 a pound. On sale. Let’s be frank, here, Francis, (I’ve wanted to write that for so long): it’s the end of the month, one of my daughters had a cavity filled, we have check-ups and birthdays this month, and despite this week's headline that the recession ended 14 months ago, I just didn’t feel up to paying $8.99 a pound (on sale) for fresh salmon, so I headed to my neighborhood dollar store.

  dollar general

Dollar stores are hot - did you know that? At least, according to this New York Times article about how stores such as Dollar General stock goods in smaller packages that are less expensive to appeal to customers living paycheck to paycheck. At Dollar General, I paid $2.25 for a 14.75 ounce can of Alaskan wild-caught salmon. The same can at the grocery store cost $2.59.

Here are my salmon patties. I've tried a few recipes over the years, mostly from the back of the can, but I always go back to the late 80's Pillsbury Cookbook version, with just a few adaptations. Pillsbury was my bridal shower cookbook, and my beaten-up, stained copy is missing both covers, but, thank goodness, the recipes still work.

salmon patties
Salmon Patties by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
Salmon Patties
These can be seasoned with fresh herbs, if you happen to have them on hand or in the garden. Dill is upscale, fresh parsley is fine, and dried parsley from the spice drawer is authentic to my childhood memories.

Yield: 6 patties

1 (15 oz.) can salmon, undrained
4 cups fresh bread crumbs from 8 slices white sandwich bread, divided
2 eggs
2 tsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. dried parsley
1/2 small onion, finely chopped
1/4 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. pepper
canola oil for frying

1. In a bowl, place salmon. Pick through fish, pulling out skin and icky dark stuff. Mash the bones between your fingers (the bones are supposed to be good for you - all that calcium).

2. Add remaining ingredients, until you have a fairly wet mixture that will hold its shape. Pour remaining bread crumbs into a pie dish. Shape mixture into 6 medium patties, about 1 inch thick and 3 inches across. Place patties in bread crumbs and gently coat with crumbs on both sides.

3. Pour oil into medium skillet and heat until it comes up to frying temperature. I drop a few bread crumbs into the hot oil to see if they will sizzle.

4. Fry the patties in the oil until golden brown, about 3 or 4 minutes on the first side, and a minute less on the second side. Drain on a paper  towel-lined plate.

Pantry staples by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

While I was at the Dollar General, I planned the menu - homemade macaroni and cheese, a black-eyed pea salad with canned peas and dessert using canned peaches, evaporated milk and butterscotch morsels. I spent $9.63, which is just about the same as I would have spent on one pound of fresh salmon at the grocery store.

cream mac and cheese
Homemade Macaroni and Cheese by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Creamy Macaroni and Cheese
 This is not one of those complicated four-cheese dishes with a crumb crust. This is an everyday stovetop recipe adapted from The Pillsbury Cookbook. It's very simple to make, and a little lighter than regular mac and cheese, because there's no butter. Be sure to use whole milk, though, for a creamy texture.

 8 oz. uncooked elbow macaroni
1/4 cup flour
2 cups milk
 8 oz. (2 cups) shredded American cheese
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Cook macaroni to desired doneness according to package directions. Drain and rinse with hot water.
2. In a jar with a tight-fitting lid, combine flour and 1 cup of the milk. Shake until well-blended (a child is useful for this part). Pour mixture into a medium nontick pan; add remaining milk and whisk until mixture boils and thickens.
3. Add cheese and continue cooking until cheese is melted, stirring constantly. Add cooked macaroni and pepper. Serve.

black eyed peas vinaigrette
Black-Eyed Peas Vinaigrette by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Black-Eyed Peas Vinaigrette
1 (15.5 oz.) can black-eyed peas, drained
1/4 cup diced onion
1/4 cup diced red pepper
1 clove garlic, minced
1-inch piece ginger, minced
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1. In a medium bowl, combine peas, onion, red pepper, garlic and ginger.
2. In a separate bowl, whisk together vinegar, mustard and sugar. Slowly whisk in olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and pour over salad.

peach tart
Butterscotch Peach Tart by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I finished the menu with a peach tart, a recipe my Mom wrote out countless years ago. I've always wanted to try it.
Butterscotch Peach Tart
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup grated Cheddar cheese
1/2 cup shortening.
1. Preheat oven to 350°. Combine flour, salt and cheese in a medium bowl. Cut in shortening and sprinkle in 5 or 6 tablespoons of cold water over all. Mix into a dough and spread in a springform pan. Bake for 10 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool.
Filling, part 1
1 cup butterscotch morsels
4 tablespoons evaporated milk
1. In a microwave safe bowl, place chips and zap for 1 minute. Remove from oven and add evaporated milk. Stir until smooth, returning to microwave oven for 20 second intervals. Spread over crust.
Filling, part 2
1 (29 oz.) can sliced peaches, drained, 1/4 cup of juice reserved
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon corn starch
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1.  In a small bowl, combine all ingredients. Neatly arrange peach slices over crust and pour remaining juice overall.
2. Bake at 425° for 30 minutes. Let cool and serve.
Pantry staples by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
The Dollar General store photo is from the Dollar General website.
All other text and images © Lucy Mercer, 2010.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Tyler Florence, All Week Long

Food Network Chef Tyler Florence & me, July 2010.

It's hard to believe that this was two months ago, but in July, I had the opportunity to meet and talk to Food Network Chef Tyler Florence when he made an appearance at Macy's Lenox Square. I wrote a couple stories at the time and posted a picture on A Cook and Her Book's Facebook page, but put the interview notes away for another day. Well, my friends, after two months, I think today's the day, or maybe I should say this week's the week.

Each day this week, I will feature a picture and a snippet of Tyler Florence's wisdom and ways in the kitchen. I was a fan of his casual, fresh American style before the Macy's event, and I'm even more impressed now - Florence is a businessman, family man and as entertaining to watch in person as on television.

First up: Tyler on his secret to success: "Most industry guys have spent their lives in the kitchens and they speak that language."

His job, whether writing cookbooks or demonstrating recipes is to translate restaurant ideas to the home kitchen. "My cookbooks start at home. I ask "is it simple?"

More posts on Tyler:

1. Tyler Florence on his mission.

2. Tyler on Southern Food favorites.

3. Tyler on why he won't be your Facebook friend.

4. Tyler on his new book coming out in October.

5. Tyler on dining out in America today

Many thanks for Macy's for the terrific pictures from the Culinary Council event.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Birthday Cake

Chocolate Pound Cake decorated by the Birthday Girl. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Birthday girl by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
We sing this blessing a lot in our house, and it's especially appropriate here when I've made a chocolate cake for Little Bit's Birthday.

"God is good, God is great.
God created chocolate cake.

He's a righteous dude and He gives great food.
Rub a dub dub three men in a tub.

We thank you, Lord for this great grub.
Amen amen amen amen.

Here's the recipe, Chocolate Pound Cake. I made another one this week that went to the North Georgia State Fair to be judged in the pound cake recipe. Wish me luck!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Beets don't fail me now

Ruby red beets are the jewels of the earth, with a sweetish mineral taste reminiscent of soil and for any kid whose ever busted his lip, blood. I love beets, but I can’t help thinking of the word geophagy when I eat them. Geophagy is the consumption of soil in order to satisfy a nutritional need, such as sulfur or phosphorus; it's quite literally eating dirt. Geophagy is a form of pica, the craving of non-food items. In my mind, eating beets is a socially acceptable form of geophagy - it’s as if the beets soak up all that mineral goodness from the dirt and concentrate it in the roots, giving beets an unmistakably earthy taste.

Besides the earthiness, beets are satisfyingly nutritious and I'm probably in the minority saying that the red juice is one of my favorite aspects of the vegetable. I like the purplish red splotches on my hands after handling beets, the deeper stains in my cuticles.  (I also like the smell of garlic on my hands and can’t imagine why anyone would want to wash it away - that sharp pungent smell wakes up my senses, like lavender or rosemary and reminds me that I've been cooking.)

I’m pretty sure I didn’t knowingly eat a beet until my adult years, and now the vegetable make regular appearances on my dinner table. Sometimes roasted, when the fresh ones are available in the fall, excellent paired with a creamy horseradish sauce; but usually in the pickled form, because my youngest daughter adores pickled beets, and will boldly pick them off her fellow diners' salad plates.

Pickled beets are delicious in many salads, especially a Greek salad - a bed of lettuce, a handful of pepper rings, some olives and feta and slices of pickled beets accompanied by an oregano-accented vinaigrette. I make an amazing Greek salad for company that features pickled beets. The inpsiration is a Tarpon Springs Greek salad with patatosalata, a potato salad that begins with potatoes soaked in red wine vinegar. I garnish this salad with shrimp and homemade pickled beets - pushing the potato salad and shrimp to the corners and piling the vinegary sanguine beets in the center.

Tarpon Springs is on the Florida Gulf Coast, famous for Greek bakeries and sponge diving and this style of Greek salad. On vacation in Florida, if I find a Greek diner, I’ll order this salad, and it’s almost always good, but there’s never enough pickled beets, and horrors, sometimes the beets are not even pickled. My favorite version is from Athenian Gardens in St. Petersburg, Florida. The potato salad is just right. It’s a subtle thing - at first you think it’s bland, but then you can’t get enough of it. This salad has everything - salty feta and olives,  sweet shrimp, vinegary pickled beets, crunchy sharp peppers.

  greek salad

Pickled Beets

This recipe is adapted from "American Home Cooking" by Cheryl Alters Jamison & Bill Jamison (Broadway, 1999). I used canned beets because my market was out of fresh and I figured a beet trek would expand my carbon footprint unnecessarily. The canned beets were delicious, and I’m sure the fresh beets would be, too.
2 (15 oz.) cans whole beets, drained and sliced ¼ inch thick  or 1 pound fresh beets, trimmed, sliced ¼ inch thick and steamed for 20 minutes or until tender

2 tablespoons brown sugar

2 teaspoons prepared horseradish

½ cup red wine vinegar

Salt and pepper to taste

1. In a glass or plastic bowl, combine beets, sugar, horseradish and vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. Store in refrigerator.

greek salad shrimp

Greek Potato Salad (Patatosalata)

6 medium red potatoes

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

4  green onions, finely chopped

1/2 cup mayonnaise

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Cook unpeeled potatoes in unsalted water until tender, about 20 minutes; let cool just enough so that you can handle them. Using a towel to protect your hand, peel potatoes and cut into 1-inch pieces. Place in bowl and sprinkle with vinegar and salt, add chopped green onions and toss. Stir in green onions and mayonnaise. Season to taste and mix well. Store in refrigerator until ready to serve.


6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1. Whisk all ingredients together. Store in refrigerator.

Greek Salad with Pickled Beets, Shrimp and Patatosalata
Serves 4
At the height of summer, fresh diced tomato and cucumber would be excellent in this. Don't bother with out of season tomatoes.
 1 head Romaine lettuce, torn into bite-size pieces

1 small red pepper, cut into thin rings

½  cup Kalamata olives

1 pound shrimp, boiled for 2 minutes in water with lemon.

2 ounces feta cheese, cut into ¼ inch thick slabs

Pickled beets

Patatosalata (Greek potato salad)

1. On a large platter, spread out lettuce. In sections, place ingredients - pepper rings, olives, shrimp, patatosalata, feta and pickled beets. Serve salad with dressing alongside.

Text and images © 2010, Lucy Mercer.

Monday, September 13, 2010

When autumn leaves start to fall: A late summer menu

Okra by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

The telltale signs of summer ending in Georgia: the trees are dropping leaves on the driveway, the afternoon highs are in the low 90s, and the harvest is in at the markets. Tomatoes; some late peaches, still eye-poppingly sweet; zucchini; bell peppers; corn; cantaloupes, astoundingly stinky ripe and full of flavor; and even a few watermelons, still crisp though low on the sugar scale. And okra - between the technicolor glory of August and the sturdy greens and squashes of October, is okra. People either love or hate the prickly pods with pearly seed-filled interiors - most citing the slime factor, but I love them all ways, always.

Okra was brought to the United States on the slave ships from Africa, and can be used as a stew-thickener in familiar dishes such as gumbo. Many a Southern cook I know swears by a meatless, streamlined version of this known as "okra and tomatoes" and it's usually just those few ingredients, united in holy matrimony by Father bacon and served over rice. Okra is delicious when chopped into short lengths, dipped in a cornmeal batter and fried - some folks will call that Cajun popcorn, although I'm not sure it's particularly authentic to Louisiana. Okra can be pickled, in fact, an okra pickle is a splendid garnish for a Bloody Mary.

I recently picked up a new okra recipe, thanks to two-time James Beard award winning author Nathalie Dupree. Nathalie is near and dear to Atlantan's hearts - she was a cooking instructor here and on PBS stations for years. I have many of her books and use them for inspiration frequently. And now I can say with a barely concealed squeal of delight - she’s my Facebook friend! Nathalie lives in Charleston, S.C. now, where she writes for the Charleston Post and Courier. Being her Facebook friend is like reading her books and asking questions and getting an answer back within minutes. In a recent post, she detailed a Southern vegetable feast with her favorite method for cooking okra - thinly sliced, tossed with olive and oil and salt and roasted in a hot oven.

Roasted okra chips by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I experimented with the idea and created beautiful, crispy okra chips that were devoured by my family. My husband and I dusted the chips with chipotle powder. I think with some tweaking, I could go all Famous Amos and market Lucy Mae's Smokin' Hot Okra Chips.

Dear reader, I can't leave you with just one recipe for okra, and not even a real recipe at that, so I featured the okra chips in my End of Summer Menu:

 Roast Chicken with Honey, Grapes, Rosemary and Thyme
Mashed Potatoes
Crisp-Roasted Okra
Plum Crumble with Cinnamon Yogurt Cream

Grapes by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Late summer grapes are coming into markets and they are sweet and juicy. We mostly eat them as a snack, but they are fun to cook with, adding a tasty element to a marinated chicken.

Roast Chicken with Honey, Grapes, Rosemary and Thyme
 Marinate the chicken for up to a day before roasting. This is a small quantity of marinade for the chicken - the key is to use a large plastic bag and squeeze the air out, allowing the bird to make contact with the marinade. 
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup honey
1 cup white wine
2 tablespoons kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
3 sprigs fresh rosemary
3 sprigs fresh thyme
5 pound roaster chicken
2 cups red seedless grapes, divided
Additional thyme and rosemary sprigs for garnish

1. Assemble the marinade: combine all ingredients except for chicken and grapes in large zippered bag. Make sure the salt dissolves. Add chicken to bag, carefully squeezing out all of the air, so that the marinade thoroughly covers the bird. Place in a plastic container, then the fridge overnight or for up to a day.

2. When you're ready to roast, turn the oven to 450°. I use a cast iron skillet, but a roasting pan will do just fine. Place 1 cup grapes in bottom of skillet or pan, then the marinated bird, one breast side up. Roast at 450° for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, turn bird to other breast side and roast for 15 minutes. Turn bird breast side down for 15 additional minutes. Finally, roast the bird breast side up for 30 minutes or until a meat thermometer placed into the thickest part of the breast reads 165°.

3. When chicken is ready, place on platter and let rest for a few minutes. Pour liquid in bottom of pan into a degreasing cup. Stir remaining 1 cup grapes into the degreased liquid and spoon onto platter around the bird. Garnish with sprigs of rosemary and thyme.

Roast chicken with grapes and thyme by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

And for dessert, a plum crumble, made with juicy tart-sweet plums, the last of summer's stone fruit from California.

Plums by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Plum Crumble by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Plum Crumble with Cinnamon Yogurt

This is an adaptation of a Martha Stewart recipe from back in the day, 1995's "Martha Stewart Cookbook." It would work with many kinds of stone fruit, but plums are inexpensive this time of year and lovely with the creamy custard and spicy crust. This is one of those "divided" recipes that require you to pay attention to the directions. Follow closely! 

1 1/4 cups sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
2 eggs
1/2 cup whole milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
8 dark plums, pitted and cut into wedges
Vanilla yogurt

1. Preheat oven to 350°. In a medium bowl, combine the sugar and salt and cut in butter until it resembles coarse meal. Stir in flour. Set aside half the mixture - this will become the streusel topping.

2. With one-half of the mixture, add cinnamon, nutmeg, baking powder and remaining egg. Mix until blended and press into the bottom of a baking dish - I use a round stoneware dish approximately 9 inches in diameter. Bake for 10 minutes.

3. In a small bowl, whisk together 1/4 cup sugar, the milk and vanilla.

4. Remove the baked pastry from the oven and cover with the sliced plums. Pour the milk mixture over and sprinkle with streusel. Bake at 350° for 30 minutes or until brown on top and bubbly around the edges. Serve warm with vanilla yogurt spiced with cinnamon.

Plum Crumble with Cinnamon Yogurt by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

  Text and images © 2010, Lucy Mercer.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A labor of love: Homemade egg pasta

Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
  Homemade pasta is one of those "many hands make for light work" kitchen projects. Sure, it can be made alone, and it's a pleasant task, and with the sunlight streaming through the window and NPR on the radio, a pasta project can make for a soothing and satisfying afternoon. In my house, though, I pull out the Atlas pasta machine and the girls come running, and crafting linguine becomes "mini hands make for light work."

Part of my motivation for writing about food is to leave a record for my children, so they will have recipes and recorded memories of our family life. I want my daughters to be competent in the kitchen, to know good food and feel comfortable preparing it - that's why I make homemade pasta and let my girls join in.

I wish I could say that I learned to make pasta from a nonna, one of the Italian grandmothers that Carol Field writes about in "In Nonna's Kitchen." My Alabama grandmother was a society lady who wore Italian leather pumps and could make a mean tomato aspic from Campbell's soup. For my own kitchen education, I turn to books, like those of Carol Field and Marcella Hazan. When I first started making pasta, I used the detailed instructions in Marcella’s “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.” I recommend it as the premier primer on homemade egg pasta.

Here is how I make pasta and a tasty clam sauce to accompany. To quell the anti-authentic hue and cry in the comment section, I will state first off that this is how a Scotch-Irish-German girl from Georgia makes pasta. I use a food processor to mix and knead it and I use salt and olive oil in the pasta dough. Marcella doesn’t do this - but my pasta turns out fine, so that’s all I can say. I’ve watched many times while TV chefs make a crater out of flour, crack eggs into it and mix all together with a fork. My experience with this method is a gunky countertop. The processor is super-fast and the clean-up is easy.

Homemade egg pasta for linguine

This is a double recipe of pasta, yielding about 1 ½ pounds. It’s too much for the accompanying clam sauce, unless you’re a serious carbo-phile. Toss noodles lightly in flour and arrange in nests on baking sheet. Let dry for an hour or so, place in plastic container and freeze. When it’s time to cook, frozen pasta can go directly into the boiling pot of pasta water.
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 large eggs, organic if possible

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1. In the bowl of a food processor, place flour and salt and pulse a few times to combine. Add eggs and olive oil and pulse until dough forms into a solid ball. Let knead by running processor for two minutes. The dough should be firm and smooth like a baby's bum.

2. Turn dough ball into an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rest for a half hour. You can also place dough in an oiled plastic bag, squish out the air, seal it and refrigerate for up to a day.

pasta dough
Pasta dough by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

3. When you’re ready to roll, make sure to have plenty of counter space and kitchen helpers. Divide dough into 12 equal-ish pieces and flatten each into a round. Dust your work area with flour and set a willing worker to roll the dough. Have a drying rack ready, or half-sheet pans dusted with flour, ready to receive noodles. Also handy to have around - a damp tea cloth or paper towel to spread over the pasta lumps as each waits its turn at the press.

4. With the pasta roller adjusted to the widest setting, feed the first flattened piece of dough through the pasta roller. Fold the remainder letter style, that is, top third and bottom third over middle. Feed this piece through. Repeat once more, for a total of three passes through the widest setting of the machine. Repeat with remaining 11 dough pieces.

5. Thinning: reduce the setting one notch and feed each piece through, setting each thinned piece on a floured countertop or across the drying rack. When each piece has been thinned, reduce the setting size to the next smallest number and run each piece through again. Repeat: reducing the setting and running a piece through until you reach the thinnest setting. After the final pass, the pasta sheets will be as long as a child’s winter scarf and as thin as a sheet of paper.

lindsey pasta 1
Baby girl making pasta. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

6. Attach the cutter to the pasta machine. Feed each sheet through the cutter, watching your child’s face as she sees the noodles take shape. If you do not have a pasta drying rack, you may set nests of the noodles on a lightly floured baking sheet.

Baby girl rolling out pasta. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

7. Let noodles dry while the water in the pasta pot comes to a boil. If you’ve never worked with fresh pasta, you will be amazed at how quickly it cooks - just a minute or two to toothsome noodles. Uncooked noodles may be stored in an airtight container in the freezer. They will cook easily in boiling water, no need to defrost.

Homemade linguine with clam sauce. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
Clam Sauce
In my house this dish is simply called “clams.” If I use dried pasta, it’s a pantry meal that can be put together in about 30 minutes, while the water is boiling for the pasta. With homemade fresh pasta, it’s worthy of company.

½ medium onion, minced

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

3 (6 ½ oz.) cans chopped clams, drain and reserve liquid

½ cup dry white wine, or vermouth

A handful of fresh herbs such as oregano, basil and thyme, minced (in winter, start with ½ teaspoon Italian seasoning or a mixture of appropriate dried herbs in your cabinet, to taste)

Freshly ground black pepper

1 pound linguine, dried or fresh, cooked

1. In a skillet over medium heat, saute onion in olive oil until softened. Add garlic and stir for about 30 seconds.

2. Add wine and let cook until reduced by half. Add reserved clam liquid and allow to cook down.

3. Add clams, herbs and freshly ground pepper to taste. It’s tempting to add salt, but be very careful - it’s easy to over-salt this dish.

4. Serve over pasta.
Text and images © 2010, Lucy Mercer.

"In Nonna's Kitchen" by Carol Field, published 1997 by Harper Collins.
 "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" by Marcella Hazan, published 1992 by Knopf.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

And now for the winner...

Recently, we held the first ever giveaway on A Cook and Her Books, sponsored by the good folks at csn which includes Thanks to all of you who took the time to check out the website - I get the "gimmes" every time I browse!

All the entrants' names were written on paper and my able assistant pulled out the winner - Robin! A friend from Open Salon who wants to use the $40 gift certificate towards the pumpkin crocette. Robin, enjoy the gift certificate and please send me a picture of the scrumptious pumpkin soup you will make for Thanksgiving!

This was a lot of fun, friends! Thank you for participating and I look forward to bringing you more giveaways in the future!