Friday, June 29, 2012

Up on the roof at Ecco

Open kitchen at Ecco, Midtown Atlanta. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

On a busy Saturday night in midtown Atlanta, you know it's going to a memorable meal when the chef comes to your table and asks if you'd like to see the rooftop garden. When you look up from your cocktail and say, "why, certainly!" he says, "well, let me go get the ladder and I'll be right back for you."

Ladder to the rooftop garden, Ecco. Lucy Mercer/ A Cook and Her Books

Ecco Sous Chef Justin Jordan didn't lead my husband and me along the primrose path, he led us up the ladder, to the roof, around the air-conditioning units and very close to the edge (at least it seemed that way for this slightly phobic ~ hubs would argue that point ~ writer) of the restaurant's roof. On this triple-digits-in-the-shade June afternoon, we savored a view of Midtown's skyscrapers above and the restaurant's valet parking below, with raised garden beds in between.

Chef Justin Jordan at Ecco's rooftop garden. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her books

 Ecco is the kind of restaurant where “source” is a verb, not a noun. As in “we source as much local produce as we can,” according to Chef Justin. With bounteous sunshine and a clever irrigation system, the rooftop garden is part of Ecco's response to the local and farm-to-table commitment. In addition to purchasing organic produce from local farmers, with a little planning, it’s simple enough to just grow vegetables and herbs yourself. After all, what could be more local than the roof of the restaurant?

Chef Justin shelling peas. Lucy Mercer, A Cook and Her Books

The a/c units that I walked around are essential to the garden. Condensation runoff is piped to the beds, so the plants are continually watered, necessary in Atlanta’s drought/deluge weather patterns.
Chef Justin showed us the lush heirloom tomato and chile pepper plants, pea plants, and the summer squash blossoms and fragrant basil, a preview of the meal to come. Before leaving the rooftop, Chef Justin snapped off a peapod and showed me the cowpeas that are nearing maturity. I’ve heard of cowpeas; usually they’re called black-eyed peas or field peas. These, however, look like Holsteins:

Cow peas. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Back downstairs, in the blessedly air-conditioned restaurant, Chef Justin fed us well, beginning with a fried squash blossom drizzled with chile oil. The blossom came adorned with a paper-thin fried basil leaf. (I stuffed pumpkin blossoms last summer and I now what a labor of love these delights can be!)

Fried squash blossom. Ecco. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

We tried the grilled Piri Piri squid served with a fried egg and an olive emulsion. I like the crispy tentacles, where the spice concentrates.

Grilled Piri Piri squid with olive emulsion. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Next up, a dish I could eat all summer long ~ sea trout a la plancha with luscious romesco and a summery salad of green tomatoes, cukes and a snap of mint. A side of local beans, slender haricots verts, blanched and served with shaved torpedo onions, opal basil and dressed with sesame oil is my must-duplicate-at-home selection.

Sea trout a la plancha with romesco. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

The beautiful green bean dish...

Local green beans with shaved onion, basil and sesame oil. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

From our table in the middle of the restaurant, we could view the wood-fired pizza oven and Chef Justin presiding over the plates. The action is diverting and reassuring, background buzz for a busy Saturday night.

Chef Justin Jordan @ Ecco, Saturday night. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Ecco is located at 40 7th Street, Atlanta 30308. 404.347.9555.

~ Thanks to Ecco and Chef Justin for a lovely meal and the tour of the rooftop garden. (The meal was comped, but the opinions expressed here are my very own.)

Text and images copyright 2012, Lucy Mercer.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Weeknight Roast Chicken with Vegetables

Roasted chicken breasts with vegetables. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

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 either the freezer or the oven.

In winter, I prefer bone-in poultry because I love to braise - making a hearty pot of chicken and dumplings 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.

Roast chicken and vegetables. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

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.

Potatoes, carrots, celery & onions coated with olive oil, salt and pepper. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I cut up two carrots, six red potatoes and two onions, mixed them with a double glug of olive oil and a couple sprigs of fresh thyme from the garden, 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 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.

Ready for the oven. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Roasted Chicken Breasts and Vegetables

6 to 8 medium red potatoes, peeled and quartered 

4 carrots, peeled and sliced into 2-inch lengths

2 medium onions, peeled and quartered

2 sprigs fresh thyme

Olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 bone-in chicken breasts

2 tablespoons melted butter

1. Preheat oven to 450. Toss vegetables and thyme with olive oil, salt and pepper and spread
 on baking sheet covered in heavy duty foil. Roast for 15 minutes.
 Remove from oven and stir vegetables.

2. Place chicken breasts on top of vegetables. 
Brush with melted butter and season with salt and pepper.
Return to oven for 30 minutes. Near the end of cooking time, check for doneness by piercing
the chicken breasts with a knife or fork and looking for juices to run clear. You're looking
for 165 on a meat thermometer, too. Remove tray from the oven and serve chicken with

Monday, June 18, 2012

Guacamole with butternut squash and chipotle

Guacamole with butternut squash, chipotle & queso fresco. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
Have you ever eaten a dish in a restaurant and thought to yourself "I have got to make this at home!"?

That's what I thought when I tried Alma Cocina's guacamole with butternut squash. Alma Cocina is an upscale, modern Mexican restaurant on Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta. (I'm such an old-timer, I want to describe its location as across from the old downtown Macy's, but it's more accurate to say that it's in the 191 Peachtree building, next door to the Ritz-Carlton). The menu features a 20-ingredient mole chicken among other treats, and this unique spin on guac. Now, I love a bowl of guacamole. I've kicked it up with bacon on special occasions, but usually go with my boilerplate guac for weeknight Mexicano. It's this recipe to which I added a cupful of roasted butternut squash and a couple of teaspoons of smoky, chopped chipotle chile. A sprinkle of queso fresco crumbles finished the dish.

Guacamole with roasted butternut squash, chipotle and queso fresco

4 avocados

Juice of 1/2 lime 

1 clove garlic, minced

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 cup roasted butternut squash, recipe follows

1 ounce queso fresco, crumbled

Tortilla chips for serving

2 teaspoons finely chopped chipotle in adobo sauce

  1. Remove avocado pulp from shell and place in a medium bowl. Break up the avocado chunks with a fork. Add lime juice, garlic, salt and pepper to taste. Stir in butternut squash and chipotle. Adjust flavors. Pour into decorative bowl, garnish with queso fresco crumbles and serve immediately with tortilla chips.

Roasted butternut squash:

1 small butternut squash

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon salt
  1. Preheat oven to 425. Cover a sheet pan with foil. Using a Y-peeler or paring knife, peel the squash. Cut into two pieces, separating the long narrow neck from the round bottom. Halve each of these sections, scoop the seeds out of the round piece and trim the flesh into 1/4 inch dice.Toss the butternut squash dice with olive oil and salt and place on foil-lined pan. Roast at 425 for 30 minutes or until the pieces are tender and brown at the edges. Remove from oven and let cool, stirring occasionally. Store leftover squash in a covered container in the refrigerator. A small butternut squash will yield 2 cups of diced fruit.

Text and images copyright 2012, Lucy Mercer.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

A radical radish idea

Roasted spring root vegetables with horseradish-thyme butter. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Radishes must be the easiest vegetables on the planet to grow. How else to explain the weekly abundance of the peppery roots in the CSA box? I've learned to love radishes and their crunchy, peppery goodness, especially sliced into salads or as a vehicle for egg salad. 

While casting about for radical radish ideas, I thought about roasting, my favorite vegetable treatment. A little olive oil, salt and pepper, and a high heat oven can do wonders for transforming veggies. I combined radishes with its fellow friends from the spring garden - turnips, carrots and Spring Vidalia onions. A final bath in a horseradish and thyme-flavored butter sealed the deal. This is an outstanding side dish for roasted chicken or pork, or perhaps a sauteed fish fillet.

This humble recipe has acquired a following - it's a Community Pick on Food 52! Be sure to check out James Ransom's gorgeous picture of my recipe!

 Roasted spring root vegetables with horseradish-thyme butter

Serves 4

Roasted spring root vegetables:

 3 spring Vidalia onions, quartered

 12 radishes, halved (for small ones) or quartered (for large ones)

 3 turnips, peeled and diced 1"

 3 carrots, peeled and diced 1"Ask a question about this ingredient

 3 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper

1. Preheat oven to 400. Combine vegetables in a large bowl and coat with olive oil, salt and pepper. Stir with spoon or toss with hands to make sure all pieces are evenly coated.

2. Spread vegetables in a single layer on a foil-lined baking sheet. Place in 400 degree oven for 45 minutes, stirring occsionlly. Vegetables will have caramelly-brown edges when ready. Toss vegetables with Horseradish-Thyme Butter and serve.

Horseradish-Thyme Butter

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon prepared horseradish

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

2 teaspoons sherry vinegar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1. In a small skillet over low heat, melt butter. Add prepared horseradish, thyme, sherry vinegar and salt. Use  whisk to thoroughly combine. Pour butter over warm roasted vegetables and serve.

Text and images copyright 2012, Lucy Mercer.

Monday, June 11, 2012

My Granddaddy's skillet fried corn with bacon

Skillet fried corn with bacon. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
 I've dusted off this post as part of #Letslunch, a monthly Twitter party. The June subject is Dads ~ I took some liberty with the subject, given that it's my Dad's Dad I'm writing about. My own father is famous for cooking bacon and egg sandwiches, fudge using the recipe on the side of the marshmallow creme jar, and fried Vienna sausages. Happy Father's Day!
One of the distinctive characteristics of living in the New South, cookie-cutter suburban Atlanta, is that the Old South, the rural, hardscrabble life that James Agee and others wrote about is never far from view. Reminders can be as vivid as the tar paper shack I drive by on the carpool run - rusted refrigerators and livestock in the yard, enclosed with a barbed wire fence. Or it can be the cast iron skillet that I keep on my cooktop, ready to fry up a pan of corn the way my granddaddy did. Used to be every family had a cast iron skillet, just as dear and useful as a family bible.
Cast iron skillet with corn. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I wish I could say that my seasoned cast iron skillet is an heirloom handed down through the generations. The truth is, as a newlywed 20 years ago, I paid $20 bucks at Wal-Mart for a Lodge chicken fryer skillet - it's a little bit deeper than a standard skillet, seasoned to a midnight black patina. I keep it on the stovetop so it's handy for vegetable sautes, tomato gravy, pineapple upside-down cakes and biscuits. (I save chicken frying for my enamel cast iron Dutch oven - less splatter.) And fried corn. This is not deep-fried corn, just the Southern term for fresh corn cooked in bacon fat, thickened with flour and seasoned with cracked black pepper.

Now, my family loves roasted ears of corn on the cob and I've been known to turn out a corn salad or two, but if I'm going to write about what's true in my heart, I have to tell you that the best corn I ever ate and later learned to cook was the skillet fried corn turned out by my paternal grandfather in Alabama. I guess I can say that Granddaddy was an ornery old cuss - a grumpy old man who handed out Kennedy half dollars to his grandkids before settling in his recliner with a Bud in his hand, ready for an afternoon of Auburn football.

Well, that’s one memory, I do have another, better remembrance - Granddaddy cooking fried corn in his cast iron skillet. Each summer the extended family would gather for a meal in the dining room of the house in Birmingham, grateful to escape the Alabama heat and ready for a feast. The oval, cherrywood dining table would be covered in a white linen cloth and loaded with the platters and bowls of Grandmother's bone china. The menu was the same for each gathering - sliced ham, sliced tomatoes with mayonnaise, potato salad, devilled eggs (Hellmann's mayonnaise being something of a religion in my family), green beans cooked with ham, and Granddaddy's skillet fried corn. The corn, creamy white and rich with bacon fat, was pretty much my favorite thing on the plate. I remember once my mom asking Granddaddy how he made his fried corn and he smiled, actually smiled, and said you gotta use white corn, what folks called field corn, and a cast iron skillet.
 When I eat my granddaddy's skillet fried corn, I can’t help but think of the Gudger family in James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” - the sharecropper family in rural southern Alabama in 1936. Their house smelled of “corn and lard” and when I fix my own version of this dish, I remember the families whose lives depended on corn, for their livestock and themselves. My grandfather wasn’t a sharecropper, but he came from humble beginnings, and I guess he knew a thing or two about putting together a belly-filling meal on the fly.

Skillet Fried Corn with Bacon
I make this in summer, and I try to use a variety of corn - yellow and white. Gardeners will tell you that Silver Queen is the best, so if you see it, be sure to bring it home.

4 slices bacon

6 ears corn, shucked

½ medium onion, chopped

2 tablespoons flour

Water, about a cup, maybe more

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. In a cast iron skillet, fry bacon until crispy. There are two ways to accomplish this: 1. Messy: on stovetop, fry for about 20 minutes. 2. Not so messy: in 350° oven for about 25 minutes. When bacon is crispy, set bacon strips on paper towels to drain and pour bacon grease into metal container.

2. While bacon is cooking, prepare corn. Remove the corn from the cob thusly - hold cob upright and with a sharp knife held parallel to the cutting board, cut the kernels off one “side.” Place cob horizontally with the flat, cut side on the cutting board and slice off kernels, rotating cob. Do not discard cobs - you will use them in a minute. 
3. Place skillet over medium heat and add two tablespoons bacon grease to pan. Add onion and saute until softened. Add flour and cook for a couple of minutes. Toss corn kernels in pan and saute. Take each cob and hold upright in the center of skillet. With the back of your knife, scrape the corn “cream” into the pan. Now you can discard the cobs. Stir.

4. Add water slowly to pan while you stir, until you get the desired consistency. I prefer thicker but some may like it thinner, like a chunky gravy.

5. Crumble bacon and stir into pot or top individual servings.

Text and images © 2010, Lucy Mercer.
"Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" is by James Agee with photographs by Walker Evans and published by Houghton Mifflin. It's a challenging read (at least for me), but if you love the South and the English language and compelling photography, it will reward.

Check out these additional posts from the #letslunch crew:

Here’s a great way to see the round up on Pinterest by Emma, thanks for doing that!
Aleana‘s Homemade Scottish Oatcakes at Eat My Blog
Charissa‘s Grilled Rib-Eye Steaks & Uncle Andy’s Chimichurri Sauce at Zest Bakery
Eleanor‘s Salmon Bok Choy Soup at Wok Star
Emma‘s Ham and Rice at Dreaming of Pots & Pans
Jill‘s Root Beer-Glazed Onion Dip at Eating My Words
Grace‘s Taste of Diversity at HapaMama
Linda‘s Sesame-Ginger Chicken Wings at Spice Box Travels
Lisa‘s Hot Sugary Lip-Smacking Jam Donuts at Monday Morning Cooking Club
Patricia‘s Egg Candy at The Asian Grandmother’s Cookbook
Rashda‘s Beth Howard’s Apple Pie at Hot Curries & Cold Beer
Sonja‘s Spicy Smoked Paprika Lamb Shank Goulash at Foodnutzz
 Text and images copyright 2012, Lucy Mercer.