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Monday, May 31, 2010

The Green Faerie

We had an exhilarating journey through the caribbean.  Our favorite island that we have visited often is the dual nation island of St. Maarten.  French on one side, Dutch on the other.  These are not provinces, possesions, or territories.  When you enter the French side, you are in France. Period. Do not assume otherwise. The same holds true for the Dutch side.
We started our island jaunt by taxiing to the French side.  The rolling hills with cliff hanging vistas provided a nice segue into the town of Marigot, a town with split identities.  The bustling French creole influenced part of town circles the chic harbor-wrapping playground enclave of the rich.  Interesting contrast.

Fortunately it was market day, so we started our morning on the outskirts of town at the market. We stopped by the lolo/food kiosk section for something to eat. Think rustic outdoor food court.  Individual stands and tables with their owners hawking their offerings.   It was very early in the morning and all the workers had their faces buried in large ceramic bowls with spoons in hand sipping and slurping something that was very aromatic and steamy. I was intrigued.

  We chose Rosemary's Place, a small wooden shed with a few tables covered in bright checkered tablecoths.  We sat down and ordered cocktails. With no tomato juice on deck, I settled for a margarita.  Michael had a screwdriver.  I asked Rosemary what everyone was eating and apparently enjoying. "Curried Goat", she matter-of-factly replied. Pause.  Alrighty then, I'll have  curried goat with my strong margarita.  At 9:00 a.m.. In France. The curry was brothy and not creamy as I had expected. More like curry water.  Strong curry water with bits of shredded goat and scant vegetables. I slurped the broth, tasting the goat meat more as a flavoring element than as a breakfast meat.

We moved on to the textile section of the market.  The colors were mezmerizing.  Bright and bold.  A sea of dresses, scraves,carvings, jewelry, and batik billowed in the wind everywhere.

We got sidetracked when a video producer  shooting a music video asked Michael to join the beautiful local music star in the video.  As she slid in and out of the scarves, hats, and dresses, she enticed Michael to buy stuff.  As if he needed enticing.  The music was heavy with steel drums and calypso rhythms.  Michael felt the beat. Fun! 
The fish market, with boats pulled up unloading fresh fish into  blue and white tiled fish holding tanks, was next to the spice market. The aroma was intoxicating. I was in heaven.  Spice stall after stall  bursting with burlap bags filled with nutmeg, cinnamon, saffron, cumin, annatto seeds, peppercorns, and allspice berries.  The bags overflowed and spilled onto the wooden plankfloors next to  fresh mangos, papayas, coconuts, bananas, vanilla beans, and plantains.  We filled our bags and made our way down to the harbor.
We stopped at Belle Epoche, our favorite bistro on the edge of the water, and had cocktails.  It was still early and their kitchen had not yet opened for croque monsieurs, onion soup gratinee', or escargot. Pity.

Instead of eating, we shopped at Cartier, La Occitane, and Hermes. Rough, let me just say. We really toughed that out.
Thoroughly and literally spent, we hailed a taxi for the 5 million dollar ride back to the Dutch side and the town of Phillipsburg. We played our usual trick and had the cab drop us off at The Holland House. After gallantly wafting through the lobby as if we owned the place waving to the staff, we made our way out to their beach with beach chairs, umbrellas, and bar service.
After perusing the beach menu, we ordered De Kwekkeboom Kroketten,  Dutch croquettes. They were very crunchy on the outside and creamy smooth on the inside, flavored and laced with dijon, gruyere, and chanterlles. 4 croquettes arrived on the plate with 4 slices of bread and and a small salad.  We weren't exactly sure how all the components on the plate related to each other, sowe sliced the croquettes and spread them on the provided toast points along with the lightly oil and vinaiger dressed  lettuce leaves. It was fantastic. Rich, creamy, light, and tart.  It was the perfect beach snack.
We each ordered Rum Punch from the beach attendant. They arrived looking different from any rum punch we had tried. We commented to each other that they seemed dark and cloudy. Cloudy on a sunny day. Odd.  We each drank two.

The Green Faerie.

We woke up about an hour later flat out on our backs on our beach chairs in the blazing sun. Dazed.  The sand was whiter than white. It was "whiter than the White Horse from the Book of Revelations", I said to Michael as he scraped sand from his burning eyes. White hot. Everything glowed. I stumbled  halfway down to the water, plopped down on a pile of dried seaweed to rest, and then dragged myself by the elbows to the sparkling aqua teal blue water to cool off. Michael joined me.  We stayed in the water forever, glowing.
The secret ingredient in our drinks turned out to be Absinthe, also know as "La Fee Verte" or the Green Faerie. After a ban of 92 years in the United States, absinthe was legalized agin in 2007.  Apparently, it never went of favor on the islands. It is a very strong distilled spirit made from the artemisia absinthium herb.  The qualities have been proven not to be dangerous or hallicinogenic, but the lore behind it is infamous. In the 19th century it was the toast of Europe, enjoyed by artists and painters to free their minds.Toulousse Lautrec, Van Gogh, and Oscar Wilde were huge consumers of absinthe. It can best be decsribed as a lucid drunkenness. 

We thought, was the entire day a dream?  Did any of it happen? Of course, it did. We had photographs, purchases, and spices in tow.  The day was real.  And fantastic.

Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder.

We can't wait to go shop and to eat.

The Secret of the Faerie
The first stage is like ordinary drinking, the second is when you begin to see monsters and crule things, but if you can persevere you will eneter in upon the third stage where you see things that you want to see, wonderful curious things.
                      Oscar Wilde

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Penguins On Deck

Yesterday, we spent a fabulous day in St Thomas, USVI. Sunny. Hot. Rum Punch.
Last nights dinner and evening on the ship was classified as Formal Night. They don't really call it that any more.  It now is referred to as Casual Elegant night. Oh, yeah. Gotcha. We forgot.  Decide, please.
We are old school.  We have tuxedos for formal night.  We have our things and the attitudes to go with them. We hang on to old virtues and traditions.
Last night as we prepared for dinner, we had to channel the ghosts of Queen Victoria, her hand maidens, court, and dressers to simply get dressed. We had our tuxedos, shirts, and garments cleaned , starched, and pressed to a tee. You could cut diamonds on the sleeves of our tux shirts.  Pink cuff-links, Pink sterling buttons, cumber-buns, hand tied bow ties, and vests shortly followed. That's a lot of fuss....for men.
We looked good.  Damn good.
I have a sweet affinity for my tuxedo.  I feel good in it.  It is the most comfortable piece of clothing I own. Feel good.  Look good.
The ship has three floors in the huge dining room.  We always arrange to have our table on the first floor dining area near the captain's table. Better action. Better service. Each floor has its own entrance on that floor for easy access.  Ha!  We always enter the dining room on the second floor just so we can  slowly cascade down the spiral staircase like Scarlett at Tara, with our tuxedos replacing her green heavy velvet curtains. It is always our  moment on the stairs every night as the stairway and we wind steep and deep into our dining room. Gaze.
Michael: Slow Roasted Aged American Prime Rib with Lobster. Me: Pan-Seared Supreme of Mallard Duck Breast.  Formal Night.  Casual Elegant.
His Prime Rib was beautifully cooked.  Dark-rubbed, seasoned and roasted on the outer flesh opened to a rosy pink well marbled center. It was juicy and shiny with grilled zucchini and pave potatoes to the side.  Tiny sterling silver demi-tasse cups of au jus and horseradish added depth, punch, and elegance.  The lobster, a warm weather Caribbean Spiny Lobster was delicious.  Unlike its Maine cousin, a cold water lobster that allows juicy fat buttery flesh to develop, Carribbean lobster is leaner and fitter.  Tasty.
My pan-seared duck was perfectly cooked to medium rare and topped with  blackberry demi-glace, a deep and rich  sauce with melted tart  sweet blackberries clinging to the crisp fatty flesh. Whipped Yukon Gold potatoes studded with candied onion brittle provided a creamy sweet crunch while Parmesan slender green beans finished the plate.
After dinner, when most on  ship usually take a clothes change break  for ramba lessons or bingo, we always move to the upper most deck of whatever ship we are on.  Last night, we climbed to deck 11.  Tall.  High.  Windy. Dark.
Black sky on black water, save for the pearl moon casting its white shadow on the black water.  Lit by maritime required  aft to stern strands of white light bulbs, we walked the deck alone, quiet, and together.
There is freedom in the warm Caribbean wind. Our pants whipped and slapped in the fierce wind, exposing our bony knees and ankles.  Our coats filled with air like billowed sails held together by tiny silk-covered buttons and our hair was wind swept flat back.  King of the world!
If only one gust of wind would have or could have lifted us up and out over the rails of the ship into the black sky,  the pearl moon, the black water, and into a sea of dreams.


Carpe Diem.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Could Have Been A Sailor

We have been planning our cruise adventure for several months.  Part of the plan was to attend WhitSunday services at Christ Church Cathedral in Nassau, the Episcopal Diocese of the Bahamas. Yesterday our ship docked at 8:00a.m., which gave us ample time to attend the 9:00 service at the church. We debarked the ship with 4000 fellow travelers and revelers who were bedecked in thongs, bikinis, sandals, cover-ups, and tattoos. As the throngs of people gathered on the pier, Michael and I strode down the gang plank wearing black suits, white shirts, red ties, and dark sunglasses. We stood out from the crowd. As if we were immigration officers or custom agents, the thong wearing beach going sea of humanity parted before us like the Red Sea split for Moses.  Even ship crew members bolted to attention.  It might have been the brisk pace with which we walked or my black man-bag draped over my shoulder with purpose that caused the reaction.  Nevertheless, it was stunning.  The mass of people opened before us with innocent faces and nervous stares and then closed behind us with murmurs and quiet indignation. That scenario played out over and over  until we reached town.
It. Was. Fabulous.
Church was fantastic.  High church. Without any nods to gentrified American Episcopalian services, their held over colonial influenced service was long.  Very long. Very hot.  We were starving and thirsty , so after church we made our way down winding Market Street and found a local restaurant perched on top of a diamond and jewelry discount store.  We sat in the enclosed  outdoor patio overlooking the corner of Bay and Market Streets. A century old rod iron fence separated us from the street below and the muddled bedlam of cruise ship hawkers and partakers.
I had a wonderfully tart Conch and Mahi Ceviche Salad. Tiny diced bits of conch, green peppers, onions, tomatoes, and jalapenos dotted shredded lime cooked mahi. It was as beautiful to gaze upon as it was to eat. It had a bright tartness from the lime marinade.  The sweet acidity from the tomatoes mellowed out the sharpness of the lime while the peppers added the needed texture and crunch. The conch had the perfect bounce back bite.  Chewy, yet chewable.  The cooked shredded mahi wrapped through and around the conch and vegetables Soft .  After I had eaten all of it, I tipped the bowl to my mouth and drank the black pepper tinted ceviche pot likker.  Nectar.
We made our way back to the ship with the  afore mentioned fuss and waited with the masses to climb the plank to re board.  While on the gang plank we overheard a conversation over our shoulders. "When we gonna meet up?". A low graveled voice responded, "After Bingo, Trivia, and the Hairy Chesty Thingy Contest.".

We didn't even turn around.

Reality check.       

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Book & A Burrito

So we have been traveling down the interstate snacking on pineapple gummies, wasabi cashews, chocolate no bake cookies, chocolate covered dried sour cherries, and chess bars. They  have been wonderful.

This morning, I was craving an audio book and a breakfast burrito.  We stopped at one of those one-stop-all truck driver re-fueling stations for gas.  While inside, I thought I would peruse the audio book offerings.

Next to the shiny University of Georgia Bulldog cowboy belt buckles was a small selection of books on tape.  I was picking through some Daneille Steele standouts when a forboding voice came over the intercom system. "Truckers, shower stall number 2 is vacant and available." Ok, so there I was, rifling through audio books in my Ralph Lauren coordinated Buster Brown travel togs with a newly coiffed Dorothy Hamill haircut, and all I could picture at that point was a line of naked truck drivers wearing flip flops with soap-on-a-string draped over thier shoulders waiting to shower. I suppose they were showering for a trip to the XXXX We Bare All Love Stuff Supercenter Shop next door. We were clearly out of our element. Odd.

Michael filled the car with gas.  We had our book safely tucked away. I walked over to the burrito stand and gazed at the tightly rolled breakfast burritos turning slowly and quietly on the heating elements of the self serve glassed-in  burrito case. They looked crisp and hot with bits of scrambled eggs falling out both ends of the burrito casings revealing their inside goodness. Fake cheese dripped out and down onto the turning metel rods almost glazing the burritos with a melted cheese coating.  I wanted one. Or three. Then, "Truckers, all showers are currently occupied, please draw a number and wait to be called." 

The image.

That announcement shook me out of my burrito daze.  The craving was gone.

I had a book.  No need for a burrito.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


I believe even the smallest things in life should be adventurous. Whether spiritual, physical, or emotional, passion should take hold and explode with adventure in everything.  Grabbing life.  Siezing moments. Taking life in.

Sometimes we seek out crazy fun adventure to be harnessed and bull-ridden.  Michael and I embark on one tomorrow.  Who knows what lies ahead? There are concrete destinations and schedules to meet.  It will be the many funny odd moments, blind corner turns, and unexpected hidden jewels that will ultimately provide the adventure.

We are ready. 

We have our things.                                  

We have our gifted treats from our fabulous women.

We have a dear friend who is a very talented writer. She is a recorder of life.  Her gift of capturing the simplest of moments, outrageous happenings, and forgotten conversations is uncanny. She does it with great humor, snarky sarcasm, and bittersweet charm. She is brilliant.

She once gave me simple great advice: Take notes. 

Advice heeded.

There will be great food to be had and we will find it.

Stay tuned.......


Saturday, May 15, 2010

Everything Old Is New Again

Columbia Steakhouse has been in operation at its downtown historic location since 1948. Not a lot has changed over the years.  Although the famed Nighthawk Special is always on the menu, a few times a year it is specially priced and heavily advertised. It is usually during those times that we venture down to savor it.  Lately, we have been dining there more frequently. Columbia's is always good, the staff is super friendly, and the atmosphere is so old school steakhouse.

When I first moved to Lexington from NYC in the mid-eighties, Columbia's was where everyone went after Johnny Angel's Disco Bar closed in preparation for the after hours scene.  Either you went into the back parking lot to continue the party, or you went to Columbia Steakhouse for munchies and rejuvenation.  The smoky restaurant would be filled with happily intoxicated dance revelers and tired drag queens eating Diego salads, fried banana peppers, and loaded baked potatoes.  At the appropriate hour, everyone would stumble back to the bar for the after hours party.  Those were the days.  That was my introduction to Columbia Steakhouse.

We have been going back there ever since those halcyon disco days to drink great Old Fashioneds and enjoy the steaks, appetizers, salads, and other offerings.

They have added a few new items over years.  Fresh grilled salmon is popular today, but I'm pretty sure it didn't grace the steakhouse menu during the rowdy olden days.  Steakhouses were steakhouses.  Salmon would have been sacrilege. Today's modern menu features a Grilled Salmon Entree Salad along with Grilled Salmon Fillet, either blackened, pan-seared, or broileed wth homemade dill sauce.  They also offer Fried Walleye Pike, Fried or Broiled Tilapia, Chicken Monterey, and the best Southern Fried Catfish Fillets.

It's the stalwart standards that keep people coming back.  Their Famous Signature Lamb Fries, breaded and fried, are a rarity in town.  Talk about old school.  Their Fried Banana Peppers are what banana peppers should be, crisp fried and hot with cocktail sauce as a dipper.  Very simple and straightforward.

The Nighthawk Special is definitely the signature item at Columbia's.  Named for the famous deejay Tom Kindall, the king of midnight radio in the 1960s, the garlic butter laden steak is a craving on a plate.  I always get mine with grilled onions, Diego Salad, and a baked potato dripping with butter and sour cream.  Occasionally, I'll add on the fabulously fantastic corn pudding.  The portions are huge and I usually lose the clean plate battle. I actually enjoy losing that battle because carryout boxes exist for a reason.  Leftovers!

Last night we ventured down to Columbia's to have cocktails and dinner.  Flo, the 23 year veteran and long time General Manager, greeted us at the door with her usual big smile and welcoming eyes. I've known Flo for years and she always makes Michael and me feel at home in her second home. The restaurant is simple and dark with alot of booths. Cozy.  Relics from by-gone days dot the walls as reminders of the past with nods to the present. Very comfortable. We found our way to our booth and settled in for the evening. Michael ordered his traditional Old Fashioned with extra bitters and I ordered my very expected glass of white wine.  We were tempted to start off with the lamb fries, but knew we would kick ourselves had we passed up the banana peppers, so we chowed on the peppers until the Diego Salads arrived.  I love that salad.  Sliced lettuce tossed in their special seasoned  vinaigrette with radishes and cucumbers.  The dressing almost wilts the salad in a very pleasant southern way. With a side of the best blue cheese in town, it was wonderful.  We toyed with ordering the Nighthawk, but after recently devouring it during one of the promotions, we went with prime rib and fried catfish.

The prime rib was cooked perfectly medium rare with a robust and deep au jus to the side. The catfish was sweet, crisp, and butter-soft. It was so good, I could not be bothered with using a fork.  I ate it with my fingers, pulling it apart and dipping it into tart sweet tarter sauce.  Uh huh. No apologies.  We both had corn pudding and Flo's Signature Sweet Potato Casserole.  The casserole was outrageous with a brown sugar nut crust topping covering whipped sweet potatoes mixed with coconut and raisins. Crazy good.

Stuffed to the gills, and with boxed up leftovers, we opted out of dessert but enjoyed a couple of Keoke Coffees.
What a great old school and well meaning steakhouse.  No pretense. No glitz. Just good food with good people taking care of the customers.  That's why they've been around for 62 years.
On the way out, we passed a patio table of new generation Columbia Steakhouse patrons.

The beat goes on.

Dancin' at church, Long Island jazzie parties
Waiter, bring us some more Baccardi
We'll order now what they ordered then
'Cause everything old is new again.
                                           -Peter Allen

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Luster Grill

You could marinate, baste, and grill a piece of cardboard with teriyaki sauce and I would devour it.  I love the yin-yang qualities of sweet and salty teryiaki.  In Japanese cuisine, teriyaki refers to a method of cooking as well as to the sauce.  Teri refers to luster in Japanese while yaki means to grill.  The sugars in the sauce create the luster on the food as it caramelizes over the grill.  Since teriyaki sauce is made from fermented soy beans, it also provides an umami taste sensation to the grilled food.  The fifith sense, umami,  is the unkown flavor enhancer that makes things taste fabulous without us ever knowing why.  We recognize bitter, sweet, sour, and salty, but umami just is.  It floats through the food and enhances the flavor  that we experience while eating. The amino acids or glutamates that exist in certain foods or exist from the fermentation of certain foods touch our tongues in much different ways than the four regular taste senses.  Umami rounds everything out.  Before the culinary world and home cooks embraced umami and understood that certain foods naturally carry the mystery flavor enhancer, they relied on MSG or Monosodium Glutamate.  Think Ac'cent.

Teriyaki is made from fermented soy beans (soy sauce), mirin, and sugar.  The perfect sauce.

What could be simpler and tastier than organic chicken marinated in a delicious well  made teriyaki sauce and grilled over high heat to turn the sugar in to salt candy?

Last night I did just that.  I marinated skewered chicken, roma tomatoes , and green peppers for several hours until they were stained a beautiful dark brown.

After heating a cast iron grill pan until screaming hot and smoking, I smacked the skewers onto the grill in a blazing sizzle.  I let them almost char to achieve mouthwatering grill marks, turning them several  times to cook through.

While they were grilling, I took leftover carryout rice from the freezer and sauteed it in olive oil with chives and green peas.  I whipped two eggs with  toasted sesame oil, pushed the fried rice to one side of the pan, and scrambled the eggs on the other.  Once the eggs were set,  I mixed the rice with the eggs, plated it, and topped it off with the skewered teriyaki chicken and vegetables.  I didn't have any scallions, so I simply threw fresh cut chives over all of it and served garlic chili sauce to the side for fiery heat.

The chicken was tender and moist with a sticky sweet  umami char that paired nicely with the soft acidity of the broken down tomatoes.  The green peppers, still crisp and sugary brown, burst with pepper juice when eaten.  Palate cleansing.  The rice bed provided balance as a sauce soaker while  the chili sauce cut through any cloying sweetness with its vinegary heat. Pungent bitter chive straws snapped with freshness to finished it off and complete the sensory taste wheel.

Luscious.  Luster.  Grill.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Foodie Falooties

Gourmet dinner clubs have become really popular in recent years.  They are  great opportunities for people to cook, gather, and share wonderful food together.  If you are serious about food, these gatherings become obsessively anticipated and alluring.
Ours started almost as a happy accident.  The founding host invited a group of people into her home for a New Year's Day potluck brunch. A lazy hangover-cure potluck. But, she has a gift of assembling the perfect people blend that could rival any professional mixologist. We all arrived on a cold snowy winter morning bedecked with fabulous food. It was a magical day filled with great food, music,and conversation.  The brunch was such a special food-friend-fun-filled day that now our foodie falooty brunch bunch meets once a month to eat, drink and consume marvelous culinary concoctions.  We have standards.  High standards.  Every brunch exceeds the previous one.  It is heaven.  In between bites of food, heady snarky conversations flow as freely as the champagne heavy mimosas.  We trade recipes and secrets; and inspire each other. I have learned that I now love black eyed peas, if cooked properly and lovingly.  I now know the importance of  rich scratch-made succulent butter cream frosting and that great tomato sauce with moist meatballs is best prepared simply and honestly.  We discovered together that outrageous doughnut bread pudding tastes good with a splash of sweet Thai chili sauce and that crisp prosciutto chips can awaken a soft buttery butternut squash soup. We also learned and enjoyed the devine danger of an incoming Hurricane Jupiter.
There was something  sweet and delicious about tiny asparagus tips perched on top of shrimp and grits along side caribbean inspired banana mango bread pudding with rum hard sauce; and chess pie that could bring giants to their knees. Ambrosia.
It was during our last post Derby/Housewarming brunch that our fabulous  friend Sandy and I revisited her epic battle and conquest of turnip soup.  She was so happy with it and I was intriqued by it.  I love turnips and just the idea of turnip soup made me happy. Sandy sent me the recipe months ago and last night I wanted a warm and comforting meal that could heal battlewounds from a hectic weekend, so I rifled through my Facebook messages, found the recipe, printed it, and cooked it. 
It was delicious and simple.
Aside from the fact that I included celery and garlic, I followed her recipe to a tee.  I heated unsalted butter in a saute pan until it  foamed, added thick sliced lean bacon, and fried the bacon until golden brown.  I then tossed in 1 pound of diced turnips,  a small diced onion, thinly sliced celery, minced garlic, and sauteed the vegteables until they were were soft and golden brown.  After adding another tablespoon of  olive oil into the pan to coat the bottom, I sprinkled a cup of Arborio rice into the oil to toast and deglazed the sticky fond with white wine and chicken stock.  Partially covered, the turnip soup simmered for about 30 to 40 minutes before being ladled it into large soup bowls with tons of grated reggiano cheese over the top.  A final drizzle of olive oil, sea salt, cracked Tellicherry black pepper, and a shower of herbs finished it off.  Sandy's recipe called for fresh parsley.  I used  parsley and fresh dill.  To the side, we had lemon, white wine, and chicken stock braised endive.

Beautifully earthy.  Deep deep earthy trunip flavor. Each bite of melting turnips swimming in an unctious broth with spoon to mouth cheese strands was  unbelievably comforting and fantastic. The celery provided crunch and texture while the parsley and dill combination brightened the finish. I actually squealed with soup dripping down my chin.. It was that good. 
Thank you Sandy.  Thank you foodie falooties. I adore being inspired by you.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


You can't miss something that you don't remember having. I still refer to my phantom mother as mommy. That's what we called her when she was alive and how we remembered her long after she died.  I was 4 years old. They told me God needed angels.

Mothers are our storytellers.  They're the keepers of the secrets and the memories.  Mothers are the ones who remember how cute we were and the funny things we did.  They reinforce our lives with their memories of us.  Their memories become our memories.  Even if some truths are stretched, tweaked, or embellished, they become real over time.

That's what I miss.  Have missed. Will continue miss. My story. Even all of my surrogate mothers and replacement mommies throughout the years have taken their memories with them.

I've been told that my mother wanted to have a lot of children because she loved babies. Never happened. Until me. They tell me I was her entire world and that she loved me endlessly. I look like her. I can see her in me. I've been told that she fought a brave fight and didn't want to leave. God needed angels. I needed her. God won. I'm thankful that she loved me. I'm thankful for those who knew her.  Their storytelling became her storytelling.  I have memories of memories.

I no longer dream that I'll bump into her at a 7-Eleven or a random grocery store. Those were dreams of childhood desperation.  I know she is buried with my father at Arlington National Cemetery.  When I quietly stand over their combined grave and touch the grass, I feel her.

Occasionally, I'll rifle through her beaten up jewelry box filled with her picked over left-to-me  pretty stuff.  Her rhinestones, faux pearls, bowling pins, broken charm bracelet add-ons, and clip-on earrings are tangible tokens I can touch.

When Michael and I got married last year, we arranged to have her white alabaster rose earrings along with snippets of his mother's wedding veil interwoven into our beautifully crafted white rosebud boutineers. We wore their stories.

I'm thankful for my mothers. For all mothers.
They hold the secrets.

The storytellers.  The gate keepers.
Hold them close.

Happy Mother's Day.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

James Beard For the Common Folk

The day the James Beard Foundation announced the finalists for the cookbook awards, Michael went to Morris Book Shop , owned by Wyn Morris, and bought me all the nominated cookbooks. Nice.  I love looking through them, reading them, and cooking from them. Recently, I made some pickled  grapes, radishes, and watermelon  from The Lee Bros.: Simple Fresh Southern cookbook and took them to a post Derby Housewarming potluck brunch.  Our monthly brunches are  serious foodie brunches and these pickles were a surprise. Not ordinary or expected.  Odd and delicious.
Lidia Bastianich's Lidia Cooks From The Heart Of Italy, the companion cookbook to her PBS culinary travelogue, was another James Beard nominated cookbook that Michael picked up that day.  It is a lovely cookbook that chronicles her travels throughout all the regions of Italy and showcases simple regional cooking.  You can taste the food you are reading about.
A couple of nights ago, I wanted something simple to cook for dinner and came across a recipe from the Calabria Region  that drew me in. Zuppa di Cipolla.  Onion Soup.  Specifically, soup made with Tropea La Rosa di Tropea or red onions from the town of Tropea.  They are super sweet onions that are tubular shaped and look like large shallots.  The recipe could not have been simpler.  Satueed onions, garlic, tomato broth, toasted bread, cheese, and water.  Easy. 
Simple recipes with simple ingredients require beautiful ingredients. Check.  Easy. So, off I went for simple excellent ingredients.
In her cookbook, Lidia Bastianch substitutes Tropea onions with sweet yellow onions.  I chose sweet tender mild shallots sliced very thin. Being tiny, I needed alot of shallots.
After slicing them thinly, I sauteed them in olive oil until soft adding minced garlic midway through their cooking.  Once they were sweet and soft I deglazed the pan with chicken stock and added hand crushed whole La Regino imported san marzano tomatoes.  I brought the soup to a boil and let it simmer away for 45 minutes, smelling heavenly.
Unlike its distant cousin French Onion Soup, which has melted and caramelized cheese covered croutons  on top of the soup, this Calabrian version has the crouton under the soup.  Hmmmm.  Think about it.
While the soup simmered, I happily prepared the crouton cushion.  I split a mini ciabatta, slathered it with butter, and completely covered the bread with thick slices of fresh mozzarella cheese.
When the soup was ready and it was time eat, I placed the oozing cheese laden bread in the bottom of large pasta bowls,  drenched the cheese toast with the long-cooked melted onions, and ladled the tomato broth over and around the entire bowl along with fresh grated pecorino. With apologies to Lidia and the people of Calabria, I finished the soup with untraditional crisp fried shallot rings for added crunch and flavor.

I adore French Onion soup.  This zuppa di cipolla was onion soup with attitude.  Though tomato based, it wasn't tomato heavy.  It was a tomato broth.  A light well seasoned broth packed with sweet acidic san marzano tomato goodness. It wasn't crackly and crunchy on top. It was soft and languid. The fresh mozzarella infused toast absorbed the broth from the bottom of the bowl which allowed the stringy taffy cheese to pull up from the soup slowly like a well tanned beautiful naked Brazillian woman stepping out of the lapping sea on the shores of Rio. Check. 
It was fabulous. Different and unusual.  Unexpected. Deep.
Neither of these cookbooks won the James Beard Award, but they are both winners for the common folk.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Something Old. Something New.

A simple twist with ingredients can turn something old into something new and interesting.  I love to make piccata and marsala recipes using both veal and chicken.  I make them very traditionally and usually serve them over some kind of pasta.  Whether it is served on angel hair, tagliatelle, pappardelle, linguini, or homemade fresh cut up torn pasta, I always use pasta as the base.
Last night, I wanted a change.  A curve ball.  Something new.

I decided to make paillards of chicken over sauteed spaghetti squash.

Spaghetti squash is an ugly thing with an awkward shape and big seeds, but is really simple to cook.  I halved it and braised it skin side down covered in a one inch water bath at 350  for an hour.  While the squash created its own little happiness, I prepared the chicken.
Using one boneless skinless chicken breast for two people, I split it in half, placed it between parchment paper, and pounded it into very thin paillards or escalopes.  I then set up a dredging station for a quick pan-fry. Three separate dishes were filled with seasoned flour, fresh minced garlic beaten with two eggs, and bread crumbs. I used an unsual combination of things for the bread crumb mix.  I tossed fresh bread slices and smashed  leftover oyster crackers  into a food processor with reggiano cheese, fresh parsley, salt, and black peppercorns.

I pulled the steaming spaghetti squash out of the oven and let it rest for a few minutes to cool down.  Once cooled, I scooped out the seeds and shredded the flesh into glistening individual strands of pasta and tossed it with olive oil.  After thinly slicing red bell peppers, I sauteed the squash with the red pepper ribbons and tossed it all with fresh parsley.

I got my saute pan screaming hot and drizzled a few tablespoons of olive oil to heat through. While the oil heated to a smoke point, I dredged the chicken paillards in the flour, egg wash, and bread crumb mix. When the oil was obviously ready, I gently placed the chicken pieces into the pan and sauteed them until golden brown.  Afrer removing and tenting  the crisp chicken to rest, I deglazed the pan with chicken stock, white wine, and lemon juice, picking up every tiny morsel of flavor fond.

After the sauce reduced by half, I plated a swirl of spaghetti squash, topped it with the thinly sliced browned  chicken, and drizzled the pan sauce over all of it.  A brief shower of parsley, fleur de sel, and one last squeeze of fresh lemon finished it off.

It was familar and so different at the same time.  The squash strands were a culinary tromp l' oeil with their translucent shiny glow. The angel hair squash looked like pasta, but wasn't. Each strand was toothsome and soft with an extraordinary mouthfeel.  Light.  Like eating air. Well seasoned  flavorful air.  The still crisp red pepper provided a wet crunch that burst through herbed chicken breading and into the meat itself.  The wine stock reduction was the perfect salty bath while the lemon and parsley gave a crisp bright finish.  The fleur de sel, in all its glory, was the final defining pop.  Salty Pop Rocks!  Be still, my mouth.