Monday, October 31, 2005

Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go On A Diet….

It’s cookbook testing time, again.

Last week I started a new diet. This week I started the recipe-testing phase for a new cookbook. Testing recipes and watching calories go together like the New Orleans Saints and the Super Bowl, never the twain shall meet.

Last spring I signed a three-book deal with Hyperion books in New York. In addition to the Hyperion contract, Wyatt Waters, the noted watercolorist, and I are publishing another book, “Southern Seasons,” which will be released next fall. Over the next 18 months I will have conceptualized, developed, written, and recipe-tested three new cookbooks, and re-released another cookbook in the backlog. Sure, that’s a lot of writing, but mostly that’s a lot of eating.

Recipe testing for cookbooks is a blast. In the heat of the development phase, four to six recipes are created and tested every day. The finished recipes are tasted, critiqued, and rated. The next day, changes are made to the written recipes, and the process starts all over again until the final products are the perfect result of what was envisioned at the recipe’s conception. Sometimes one specific recipe can be prepared and tested every day for two weeks until the final recipe has been perfected. Occasionally, we nail it on the first try.

The three deciding factors of a winning recipe are: First and foremost, does it taste good. Secondly, can it be easily replicated at home with everyday ingredients found at the local grocery store. And finally, does it fit the theme of the book. The savvy reader will notice that the terms low-fat, low-carb, and low-calorie are not listed anywhere in the preceding sentence.

Recipe testing is fun, but it wreaks havoc on a diet.

Actually, I am writing this column in between bites of Lamb Kabobs with Mediterranean Spice Rub and Raspberry-Mint Dipping Sauce; Cheddar-Rice Crackers; Corn, Crab, and Avocado Dip; Mushroom-Stuffed Pastry Purses; Smoked Beef Tenderloin with Chive and Tarragon Sauce, and Horseradish Mustard; and Chicken and Andouille Empanadas. Note: It is 6:24 a.m. and these items make for an unusual breakfast.

I have 30 pounds to lose and three book deadlines to meet in the next 10 months— January 15th, April 15th, and September 1st. Seeing as none of the books are diet manuals and that most of my recipes are NOT developed with health-conscious calorie counters in mind, I am going to have to develop a system. I don’t yet know what that system is going to be, but, unfortunately, a gym and a treadmill will probably be major components in the final plan.

And in case you were wondering, the Lamb Kabobs were nailed on the first try although the sauce is a little too sweet. The Cheddar-Rice Crackers need more cheddar. The Corn, Crab, and Avocado dip needs something; I’m just not quite sure what that something is. Maybe sour cream. The Smoked Beef Tenderloin is perfect, but I have doubts that it can be easily replicated at home. The Mushroom-Stuffed Pastry Purses had been in the freezer for two days to see if they could be made in advance, frozen, and then baked. They can be. And the Chicken and Andouille Empanadas might need a name change.

Gotta go, the treadmill is calling.

Cheddar-Rice Crackers (Second Revision)

1 cup Butter, softened
2 cups All Purpose Flour
2 cups Rice Krispies
1 /2 lb Sharp Cheddar Cheese
1 /2 tsp Dehydrated Onion (Onion Flakes)
1 /2 tsp Hot Sauce
1 /4 tsp Creole Seasoning
1 /4 tsp Salt
1 /8 tsp Black Pepper, freshly ground

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Combine all ingredients on slow speed using the paddle attachment of an electric mixer until a small ball forms. Do not over mix. Form into small 1 /2 ounce balls and place on an un-greased cookie sheet. Using a fork, press down dough in a crisscross pattern. Bake for 20 minutes.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

A Different Kind of Date

Last week I invited my eight-year old daughter on a date.

It was the first in what I hope will become a quarterly event. No mom, no wife, no brother, no son, just my daughter and me.

Earlier in the day I made a reservation at the Purple Parrot Café. I told them to give me the best table in the house. They did— not because I own the restaurant— but because they knew how important this night was to me.

After coming in from soccer practice, and finishing her homework, she was ready. I got in my car, pulled around to the front door, rang the doorbell, and opened the car door exactly how a gentleman is supposed to.

We ordered the five-course tasting menu at the Purple Parrot Café.

The meal started with an amuse bouche tart of spinach, blue cheese, and bacon. She loved it. This is going to be great, I thought to myself. She’ll breeze through these menu items with no problem. I refuse to be a parent that raises one of these children who eats nothing but chicken strips and soda. She has always had a rather sophisticated palate, so the prospects looked good for a new and positive learning experience.

Butternut squash soup was the first official course. She swallowed a couple of spoonfuls and, when asked, said it was good. I could tell that she didn’t care for it, but she didn’t want to let me know. When the waiter came to check on us, I had him remove the soup and told him that we were pacing ourselves. I want her to have a refined palate, but I don’t want to force any foods on her that aren’t “her thing.” To this day, there are still foods that I don’t eat and no one forces them on me.

The second course was a warm duck confit salad with a wild mushroom vinaigrette. It was great. Again, she wasn’t thrilled with it. She took a few bites, and politely laid her fork on the plate. At this point and time I thought about forcing her to eat more, but held back. Instead, we talked about the proper way to transfer butter to the bread-and-butter plate and how to butter a piece of bread.

The third course was a petit filet mignon with fingerling potatoes, wilted spinach, lobster, and brie. Bingo! She cleaned her plate. I patted myself on the back for not commenting on her lack of enthusiasm for the first two courses. If I had, this course might have had a different end result.

The fourth course was a cumin-dusted rack of lamb with cous cous and an ancho-chile demi glace. “Lamb, as in Mary Had A Little?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, and took the opportunity to tell her the story of how I never ate lamb as a child until my mother told me that it was roast beef. The story didn’t work. Six weeks earlier, my daughter had decided to become a vegetarian. Though she was only herbivorous for a few days, this jump from “I’m not going to eat anything with a face” to slicing into the medium-rare flesh of an animal whose “Fleece is white as snow,” was going to be a huge step.

“But they’re so cute,” she said.

“Just try one bite. If you don’t like it you won’t have to eat another.”

On the night of October 20 th, 2005 another lamb lover was born.

Our fifth course was a pecan-praline bread pudding. She loved it.

After the meal was over, I asked which had been her favorite course. She said that she liked the amuse bouche best, followed by the tenderloin, the lamb, and the bread pudding. Squash soup and duck confit will have to wait for another meal. The final tally was four out of six. Not bad for foods that I didn’t eat until I was in my twenties.

I want my daughter to set her goals high. I want her to know exactly how a man is supposed to treat her. Investing this sort of time in our relationship now is going to help with all of the relationships that follow in her life. Especially when it comes to one of the most important steps she’ll ever make: choosing a man.

When my children are grown and gone and I am left to sit and remember, there is no doubt in my mind that one of my fondest memories will be of that first date with my daughter. It just might be one of hers, too.

Fathers, do yourself a favor; make a date with your daughter, tonight.

Monday, October 17, 2005

A Formal Afternoon at the Triple-L Ranch

Last week I was the featured speaker at a ladies luncheon club.

A nice-sized group of 50 ladies were in attendance. The meeting was held in the formal living room of a stately 100-year old home in Brookhaven. Before the speech, the ladies were served tea, cheese straws, and finger sandwiches.

It was a Triple L lunch if I ever saw one: Ladies Lap Luncheon. All in attendance were dressed to the nines. However, the women in my life would be quick to tell me that it wasn’t a luncheon at all. The event was held at 3 p.m.; therefore it was a formal afternoon tea.

As I was signing books afterward the hostess asked if I would like a plate for the road. Being one who has never turned down food, I said, “Yes, thank you.” She went on to say that today’s menu consisted of “Cheese straws, grapes, petit fours, and chicken salad sandwiches.” At that moment another lady chimed in and said, “And the chicken salad has apples and pecans in it!”

On the drive home I began thinking of how chicken salad is dressed up or dressed down depending on the occasion. It was the 100 th anniversary meeting of the organization, which obviously explains the apples and pecans. Chicken salad is just “salad” until a hostess puts some fruit or nuts into the mix.

I love chicken salad. My grandmother’s chicken salad is still the gold standard by which all other chicken salads will be judged. On special occasions, or when an out-of-town guest was coming to her house, she added grapes to her recipe. On very special occasions she added chopped walnuts, too.

A few months after I opened my first restaurant I asked my grandmother for her chicken salad recipe. She said that she had never followed a recipe, but if I would like to come over she would prepare it and I could write down the steps and measurements.

She didn’t have to twist my arm. As a child I had spent many hours in her kitchen, sitting on a stool by the window-unit air conditioner watching her cook or helping to shell peas. That day I observed and notated as she went through the effortless steps that had been repeated hundreds of times in her 90-plus years of preparing chicken salad.

Typically she only used Hellmann’s mayonnaise when cooking. But for her chicken salad recipe she used Miracle Whip. I never thought to ask her why.

I returned to the restaurant and multiplied her recipe by a factor of ten and served the finished chicken salad in a cantaloupe half. That chicken-salad offering stayed on the menu for many years and we bring it back as a featured item on occasion. I also published the recipe in my second cookbook (sans grapes)

Some of my greatest memories are of lunches served in my grandmother’s breakfast room, just the two of us. No grapes, no walnuts, no cantaloupe, just chicken salad, white bread, sweet tea, and conversation.

That day turned out to be the last time I ever sat with my grandmother and watched her cook. Unfortunately, I became too busy with the restaurant business and she became too infirmed to work in the kitchen.

My grandmother was one of the most kind and gracious ladies I have ever known, and ten times the cook I’ll ever be. A competent hostess with an overly-generous spirit, she was one the finest examples of how to live a caring, productive and fruitful life that I will ever have. I would trade all of the upscale New York restaurant meals and all of the cookbook sales in the world to eat one more chicken salad sandwich with my grandmother, or to sit on that stool in her kitchen and watch her cook.

Today I eat chicken salad, often. But I never eat it without thinking of my grandmother and her kitchen.

And to the Climber’s Club of Brookhaven, happy 100 th anniversary, thanks for stirring up some great memories, thanks for the chicken salad, and don’t tell my wife, my mother, or Emily Post that I wore sandals to give a speech at a formal tea.

Mam-Maw’s Chicken Salad

1 3-5 lb Chicken
2 Carrots, peeled and quartered
1 Onion, peeled and quartered
3 stalks Celery
2 /3 cup Sweet pickle relish, drained
1 1 /4 cups Miracle Whip
1 /2 tsp. White pepper
1 tsp. Salt
3 Eggs, boiled and chopped
1 /2 tsp. Garlic powder
1 /2 tsp. Onion powder
1 cup Celery, chopped fine

Fill a stockpot one-half full with cold water and add carrots, onion and celery. Bring to a boil and add chicken. Return to a slow boil and cook until chicken is cooked through. Remove chicken, let cool and chop or shred. Combine with remaining ingredients. Yield: 1 1 /2 quarts

On special occasions add: chopped grapes, walnuts, pecans, or apples. Capers can also be added in small amounts. However, if capers are used, do not add fruit or nuts.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Bathroomitis and the Joys of Lavender Soap

My four-year old son used to be an extremely rowdy restaurant customer.

Early on, he screamed like a banshee while eating in restaurants. Later, during his terrible twos, he graduated to holding conversations with customers seated at surrounding tables while they were hopelessly trying to finish their meal. Today, in terms of enjoying a peaceful meal away from home, we are miles ahead of where we were in his early years. He no longer yells and screams at the table and rarely, if ever, disturbs neighboring patrons.

Nowadays he has a strange new affliction. I call it Bathroomitis. He has traded in his large voice for a small bladder.

For some strange reason, restaurants make him want to go to the bathroom. I can’t explain this phenomenon but it’s real. Five minutes after we are seated in a restaurant, something clicks in his brain, then travels southward, and out of his mouth comes, “Daddy, I have to go to the bathroom.”

“But you just went five minutes ago, before we left the house.”

“I know, but I have to go again.” And he does.

Early on, I assumed his multiple restroom visits were a crafty ploy he had devised to keep us away from the table allowing him to wander through restaurants. But every time I took him to the restroom, he did, in fact, need to go.

One trip to the lavatory per restaurant visit wouldn’t be bad. But, as with everything in our family, nothing is done in moderation. He often makes four trips in one restaurant stay.

I began to think that it might be a medical problem, but this strange phenomenon only occurs in restaurants. At home he’s a camel. He can go hours without ever stepping foot in a bathroom. In a restaurant he develops a bladder the size of an English pea.

Consequently, I have become an expert on restaurant bathrooms. I know what every restaurant lavatory looks like from Jackson to New Orleans. I know which eatery offers the best soap, who mops their floor regularly, and who never restocks the paper towels.

“How was your meal today, sir?”

“The meal was fine. However, that mint-green hue you chose when painting your bathroom walls makes one look a little peaked when washing their hands for the fourth time. Also, you soap is a little fruity. Try something with lavender or herbs.”

“Will you be having dessert today, Mr. St.John?”

“Yes, I’ll take mine in stall number three. And could you please restock the paper towels.”

These days, at the end of a meal, I have visited the bathroom sink so often that, by the time dessert arrives, my overly washed hands have morphed into that I’ve-been-swimming-for-hours prune look.

I’ve tried everything. I talked to a pediatrician friend who assured me that nothing was out of order. I had him checked for diabetes, I even changed my son’s restaurant beverage of choice— Sprite— to water, thinking that the lemon-lime combination acted as a diuretic in his system. To no avail, I still heard those four familiar words multiple times during a restaurant visit: “Daddy I gotta go!”

I have become quite the connoisseur when it comes to paper towels. I know a three-ply from a pseudo-two-ply, and can spot a single-ply towel from a mile away. I have developed a deep hatred for those old-fashioned pull-the-towel-down-from-inside-the-machine-while the-used-cloth-loops-back-into-the-machine gas-station-style towel dispensers. As luck would have it, my son loves those contraptions. I turned around once and found that he had crawled up into the towel loop and was hanging by his feet, upside down in the bathroom. “Look daddy, no hands!”

Having a son with a chronic case of Bathroomitis makes one appreciate the little things in life such as adequate restroom ventilation, distance from the dining room to the washroom, and low-to-the-ground child-friendly urinals.

Ultimately, I have come to believe that his Bathroomitis is nothing more than a Pavlovian response directly related to the excitement of visiting a restaurant and the sheer anticipation of enjoying a restaurant meal. In the end, he’s just like his old man, he loves food and he gets excited when he’s about to eat a mess of it.

Monday, October 03, 2005

The Loss of A Legend

Last week Austin Leslie, the creator of Creole-Soul food and a true New Orleans culinary journeyman, died in Atlanta. He was 71.

Leslie, who most recently manned the stoves at Pampy’s Creole Kitchen, was best known for his groundbreaking Creole Soul-food restaurant Chez Helene and his world-class fried chicken.

I met Leslie while he was working the deep fryer at Jacques-Imo’s on Oak Street in the Carrolton district of New Orleans. At that point in his life he had seen all of the highs and lows of the restaurant business over the course of a 50-year career in which he began as a fried-chicken delivery boy, rising to the pinnacle of multi-restaurant proprietor— including one property that inspired a CBS television series.

While in high school, Leslie delivered chicken via bicycle from the kitchens of Portia’s restaurant on Rampart Street. Years later, Leslie would credit Portia owner Bill Turner as the man who taught him how to fry chicken After a brief military stint, he began his lifelong culinary tour of duty with a job as an assistant chef in the kitchen of the D. H. Holmes department store on Canal Street.

In 1964 he joined his aunt Helen at her restaurant Chez Helene in the Seventh Ward. It was there that he perfected his version of the Portia’s fried chicken recipe.

After purchasing the restaurant from his aunt in the mid 1970s Leslie’s fame and popularity grew. In short order, a string of fried chicken franchises opened and satellite Chez Helene restaurants opened in Chicago and the French Quarter. He was on top of the world and being touted as the next Prudhomme— the African-American Prudhomme. His Creole Soul food was the hit of one of the nation’s most prominent food cities and was on track to becoming a nationwide phenomenon.

In the mid 1980s CBS aired the television show Frank’s Place inspired by— and based loosely on— Leslie and his restaurant. The show tackled dramatic inner-city social issues in a sitcom format, and though critically acclaimed, failed to reach an audience, and was cancelled after one season.

By the early 1990s urban decay, lack of management, and poor business decisions led to the closing of Leslie’s restaurants including the flagship on North Robertson Street. He spent the next few years picking up odd kitchen jobs in locales as far away as Copenhagen, Denmark.

In 1996 Leslie wound up back in New Orleans manning the fry station at Jacques-Imo’s. It was there, one evening before a concert, that I met the man who first fused Creole and soul into what would become a much copied culinary style in a city known for its culinary style. He was humble and gracious and jovial. The restaurant business had beaten him down but the scars weren’t visible.

The Leslie signature on a perfectly cooked chicken thigh was a sprinkling of chopped parsley and garlic. Those simple ingredients, along with an evaporated milk marinade, are what took the man from neighborhood delivery boy, to the heights of Hollywood, to the fry station at a neighborhood joint.

Recently, Leslie was hired on as the new executive chef at Pampy’s Creole Kitchen in the Seventh Ward. It would be his last stop.

Austin Leslie spent two days in the attic of his home after Hurricane Katrina. The septuagenarian was finally rescued from the sweltering 98-degree heat and stifling humidity and relocated to the chaos and horror of the New Orleans Convention Center. He remained there, lost in a sea of distress, until he was relocated to Atlanta. On September 28 th he was admitted into an Atlanta hospital with a high fever. He died the next day.

New Orleans was Leslie’s lifeline. Over a fifty year period he had survived all of the blows that the brutal restaurant business could deliver and was still enduring. The man who helped put New Orleans cuisine on the map died homeless, in a city that had no clue of his culinary pedigree. In the end, the storm that continues to take lives even a month after its landfall, struck one of its most monumental blows in a city far removed from the one that care forgot.

There will be no shrines erected for Austin Leslie. No publisher will ever issue a tribute to his legacy. Two hard-to-find and out-of-print cookbooks are all that remain as a testament to his career— that and the memories of the hundreds of thousands who enjoyed his fried chicken, Creole-stuffed peppers, and etouffee.

Austin Leslie’s Fried Chicken Recipe

1 Chicken fryer cut into 8 pieces
1 /2 cup Peanut oil
Salt and black pepper to taste
1 Egg
1 cup Evaporated milk
1 cup Water
½ cup Flour
4 Tbl Fresh minced garlic
4 Tbl Fresh minced parsley

Heat oil in a cast iron skillet to 350°F. NOTE: Oil should come about halfway up sides of skillet. Adjust amount in accordance with skillet size. Combine garlic and parsley in small mixing bowl and set aside.

Wash chicken pieces in cool water, pat dry with paper towels and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Set aside.

In a medium mixing bowl, whisk egg, evaporated milk and water. Season with salt and pepper. Place flour in a separate bowl. One piece at a time, starting with heaviest pieces, dip chicken into egg wash, squeeze, dip into flour and place gently in skillet. Do not overcrowd skillet. Maintain temperature of 350°F. Use tongs and long fork to turn chicken often for 7–8 minutes. Remove chicken from oil with tongs, pierce with fork and squeeze. Place chicken back in oil approximately 7–8 minutes. Chicken is done when no longer hissing and juices run clear. Remove from oil and place on paper towels to drain. Immediately top with a sprinkle of garlic and parsley mixture. Continue until all the chicken is cooked.