Monday, September 25, 2006

After-School Snacks

One day last year, while my wife was out of town, I picked my daughter up from school.

On our way home we stopped by one of my restaurants to deliver some paperwork. While there, my daughter and I sat down in the dining room, shared a plate of French fries, and talked about school, church, work, and the joys of being a third grader. It was a spur-of-the-moment occasion and a good opportunity for a meaningful visit.

Last week, my daughter asked if I would pick her up from school again. “But what about your mom,” I said. “She’s not out of town and she always picks you up.” My wife usually bakes cookies for the kids after school while they do their homework.

“Dad, I want you to pick me up so we can go eat French fries again like we did last year.”

Wow. The first thing that hit me was that she remembered that afternoon. The second was that it had been over a year since the two of us sat down in my restaurant and shared a plate of fries.

Don’t get me wrong, I spend a lot of time with my children, but that time is usually spent with my wife and son, too, all of us together. It was a treat to have my daughter make the request and was even more special that we spent the time in the dining room of my restaurant.

I picked her up that afternoon and we sat at a small table upstairs with a full view of the dining room. We ordered fires and soft drinks. It was three in the afternoon and the lunch traffic in the restaurant had long since cleared. While she dipped her fries in a ramekin of bleu cheese dressing we overheard a manager interviewing a potential employee at the next table.

I took the opportunity to explain the job-interview process and what a potential employer looks for when hiring someone. I told her about the benefits of a higher education and the importance of graduate degrees, and then we played a game in which we interviewed each other.

Although most of the mock interviews were spent joking and making up funny backgrounds and personal histories, she was able to think on her feet and deliver some extremely creative answers.

As a kid I ate a lot of oatmeal after school. I made bowls of instant oatmeal, baked oatmeal cookies, ate oatmeal cream pies, and drank a lot of Hawaiian Punch. My father died when I was six and my mom was usually in school or teaching school. My after school snacks were usually eaten in front of the television or running out of the door on my way out to play neighborhood football.

I don’t know what it was about oatmeal and after school, but it— along with the occasional Milky Way bar— was my after-school snack of choice. In those days, French fries would have been a special occasion food.

Eating fries after school with my daughter was significant because the conversation was fun and the company was exceptional, but it was made even more special because she initiated it. We laughed, and ate, and enjoyed each other’s companionship. She picked up a few pointers on applying for a job and begrudgingly learned the benefits of a Masters Degree.

It’s good for a father to share a plate of fries with a daughter— for no other reason than to slow down and catch up— and if you can throw in a few laughs and a couple of life’s lessons at the same time, it will serve as a memorable and magical moment.

Sweet Potato Brownies

If you don’t like sweet potatoes, don’t worry, you’ll love these. If you don’t like brownies, have no fear, you’ll love these. If you like sweet potatoes and brownies… get ready for an amazing treat!

1 /2 pound butter
2 cups sugar
1 1 /2 cups flour
1 tsp Salt
4 eggs
2 tsp Vanilla
2 cups potatoes, grated
1 cups pecans, toasted

Preheat oven to 350.

In an electric mixer, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add remaining ingredients in order, stirring after each is added.

Pour into a buttered and floured 9x12 inch baking sheet.

Bake for 30-40 minutes.

Allow brownies to cool completely before cutting.

2 Tbl butter
1 /4 cup orange juice
1 tsp cinnamon
1 cup confectioner’s sugar

Melt butter and add remaining ingredients. Let cool. Glaze brownies after they have been cut.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Fall Peaches?

Is it fall yet?

I don’t know when the first official day of fall arrives, but around here, it doesn’t feel like “fall” until mid December. The first day of autumnal equinox is September 23. But on September 23 rd in South Mississippi it doesn’t feel much different than August 23 rd or July 23 rd for that matter.

Autumn is a term reserved for people who live in a part of the country where leaves turn brilliant shades of red, yellow, and orange. They wear wool sweaters in October; start worrying about when the first frost will arrive, and whether the snow blower needs a pre-season tune up.

We have no leaves. We have green pine needles which turn a dull and ugly brown. We use our lawnmowers into November, have no idea what frost looks like, and— with the exception of those attending an Ole Miss football game— our wool sweaters, skirts, and jackets stay packed in mothballs until they are ready to be pulled out for the two-week period in late January we call winter.

Autumn is a season that sounds cool and brisk. It was 92-degrees, yesterday. It has been said that South Mississippi has four seasons: almost summer, summer, still summer, and Christmas. I have friends who measure the seasons as: dove, deer, duck, and turkey. We badly want to have a fall in South Mississippi, though all we can really do is keep raking pine straw and reading Southern Living to find out when the leaves are at their peak in every other Zone but ours.

Our weather does have its advantages. I was traveling down U.S. 49 last week and noticed a sign at a fruit stand that advertised fresh “Tree-ripened peaches.” I wheeled in and checked out the newly arrived crop. When I asked the lady where they were picked, she said, “South Carolina.” I was expecting the typical off-season answer of California, Mexico, or South America.

To my knowledge, I had never eaten South Carolina peaches. As far as I was concerned, the summer peach season started with Chilton County, Alabama and later moved to Georgia where it ended. I guess it makes sense that the late season would keep the crop moving farther east into South Carolina.

I bought two baskets and dreamed of sliced peaches for breakfast.

I went to the South Carolina Department of Agriculture’s website to research South Carolina peaches, and learned more than I ever needed to know. They seem to resent Georgia’s peach popularity and don’t hide their discontent with statements such as: “South Carolina ranks # 3 nationally in fresh production. (At one time, one county in South Carolina could produce more commercially grown fresh peaches than the entire state of Georgia.” They have also adopted the motto “Tastier Peach State.” Talk about a chip on your shoulder.

Ultimately what I learned from this entire experience is that no matter where the peaches come from, unless you are buying them in late June, July or early August, they just don’t taste like summer, no matter how hot it is outside.

Miniature Fried Peach Pies

A true Southern dessert staple. These work well with apples, too.

Sweet Pie Dough:
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1 /2 Tbl granulated sugar
1 /8 tsp salt
1 large egg
1 1 /2 cups all-purpose flour
2 Tbl ice water

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 /2 pound frozen peaches, thawed, or 1 cups fresh peaches, small diced
3 Tbl granulated sugar
1 /4 cup peach jam or preserves
Pinch of ground cayenne pepper

1 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp corn starch
1 Tbl peach schnapps

1 Tbl sugar
1 /2 tsp cinnamon

Vegetable oil for deep frying

To prepare the pie dough, beat together the butter, sugar, and salt for three minutes on medium speed in the bowl of an electric mixer. Add egg and beat for 30 seconds. Add flour and water and beat for 15 seconds. Turn off the machine, scrape down the sides of the bowl, and beat again for 10 seconds.

Scoop up dough with your hands and form into a one-inch thick disk. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least one hour.

Melt butter over medium-high heat in a sauté pan. Sauté peaches and sugar until sugar is dissolved, approximately two minutes. Add the preserves, cayenne, and cinnamon; cook, stirring frequently, for 3 minutes.

Dissolve cornstarch in the schnapps and stir into hot peach mixture. Remove from heat and cool.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out dough into a 16 x 11-inch rectangle about 1 /8-inch thick. Cut out 3 1 /2-inch circles and place two teaspoons of filling in the center of each dough circle. Fold the circles in half and pinch the edges together. Refrigerate pies for 30 minutes before frying.

Heat 2 1/2 inches of vegetable oil to 350-degrees in a heavy four-quart saucepan. Fry pies 4 or 6 at a time until golden brown, 1 1/2 -2 minutes per batch. Drain on paper towels.
Keep warm in a 200-degree oven until all pies are fried. Serve immediately.

Yield: 24-26

From Robert's newly released Hyperion cookbook "Deep South Parties"

Monday, September 11, 2006

Benton’s Bacon is Best

I have discovered the world’s best bacon.

Chef John Besh, recently introduced me to Allan Benton’s bacon. Besh was introduced to the product through Chef John Fleer of Blackberry Farm in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, not too far from the smokehouse where Allan Benton does his magic.

Benton has been curing hams, bacon, and prosciutto for 33 years, though the business has been in operation in Madisonville, Tenn. for almost 60 years. Madisonville is located a few miles off of I-75 between Chattanooga and Knoxville and from this day forward will be known to me as the center of the porcine universe.

In 1947, a dairy farmer named Albert Hicks began curing hams and making bacon for his neighbors. In 1973, Benton, a former high school guidance counselor, purchased the business, and luckily for us, has been smoking and curing pork using the tried and true methods passed down from generations of Smoky Mountain farmers ever since.

Benton’s bacon is perfect. I am convinced that when God invented bacon, this is how He wanted it to taste. When I asked Benton why his bacon was so superior to the store-bought variety, he stated, “We do it like your grandparents would have done it. Like my grandfather did it, and like Albert Hicks did it.”

The country’s taste buds are waking up from a decade’s long dry spell. The heirloom vegetable movement is taking hold and the general public is beginning to recognize the impact of individual flavor on a dish. Today’s mass marketed tomatoes have been genetically altered over the years to have thicker skins so they will ship well, redder color so they will have more eye appeal, and grown to be picked early and ripened in a box on the way to the market, sacrificing taste at every alteration.

Bacon is the same. Mass produced commercial pork bellies are injected with brine in the packing house, flash-smoked in a smoke room, and— 24 hours later— are being packaged and shipped. It’s quick, it’s easy, it’s profitable, and the result tastes nothing like bacon did years ago.

The Allan Benton process for curing and smoking bacon takes time— a minimum of five weeks. First Benton mixes together a dry-rub blend of salt and brown sugar, rubs the pork bellies and stacks them in a 38-degree cooler for two weeks. Next he transfers the bellies to another cooler where they hang in a 45-degree environment for a week and a half. They are then moved to an aging room for two more weeks before they are taken to Benton’s smokehouse where they spend 48 hours in an intense billowing fog of thick hickory smoke.

“You wouldn’t believe how much smoke you can generate out of an old wood burning stove,” Benton says. I believe it because I have eaten the end result.

In the past few years Benton’s bacon has found a home in some of the finest restaurant kitchens from New York to Napa. “For years I thought I would starve,” Benton says, as he gives credit to Chef Fleer for introducing his product to top chefs around the country.

The operation is still small by most standards. Benton cures approximately 12,000 hams per year, smokes around 3,500 pounds of bacon each week, and produces a prosciutto that will rival any produced in Parma, Italy. The prosciutto is cured for 14-16 months and on occasion 18-22 months. “I like to cut the prosciutto into 1 /8 th inch strips and eat in on a sandwich,” Benton says.

He makes sausage, but doesn’t ship it retail like the bacon, ham, and prosciutto. I ordered bacon and ham last week and am going to have to place another order soon; it’s so good that I keep giving it away to my friends. Benton ships anywhere in the U.S. and the bacon keeps for up to four months in the refrigerator. Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams: 423-442-5003 .

Monday, September 04, 2006

One Year Later

I spent the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina with my friend and noted New Orleans chef, John Besh.

We ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner while filming a television program. Besh cooked breakfast at his home in Slidell, took us to lunch at Café Reconcile, and finished the program with a nine-course feast at his flagship establishment, Restaurant August.

One year earlier, Besh was riding out the storm in his restaurant on Tchoupitoulas Street in New Orleans. The next day he headed into Mississippi, chainsaw in hand, to look for supplies. Back in New Orleans two days after the storm he commandeered a boat, fired up a makeshift cooking station using a propane-fueled crawfish boiler and delivered red beans and rice by boat as he and a co-worker paddled around New Orleans rescuing people from their homes. A rescue mission with food— that’s pure Besh.

The 38-year old Besh is one of the unsung heroes of Katrina. A former member of the U.S. Marines and a Gulf War veteran, he worked under battlefield conditions to be the first white tablecloth restaurant to reopen in New Orleans, all the while feeding over 1,200 displaced people breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week.

What endears me to Besh is that, with his talent, knowledge, and skill set, he has every right in the world to be haughty and arrogant, yet he is the last who would ever be so. As the days drift away from August 29 th, 2005, I continue to discover stories of his heroism and bravery, but always from others. Besh would never focus on any of his accomplishments in the course of an everyday conversation, and would actually go to great pains to steer the dialogue in another direction.

Besh welcomed us into his home that day and, as the cameras rolled, cooked breakfast from the hip— nothing planned, nothing pre-cooked, a pure unadulterated case of winging it. It would be one of the more memorable breakfasts I have eaten.

He chopped onions, bell pepper, and celery and sautéed them in a skillet with a little bacon fat. Next he added garlic and a few seasonings. He then pulled out two of the sweetest tasting heirloom tomatoes I have ever eaten, chopped them, and added them to the pot. It wasn’t until then that we realized that breakfast was heading in an etouffee-like direction. He cooked a simple pot of grits and then pulled a plate of crawfish from the refrigerator. The main course was crawfish etouffee and grits topped with a fried egg. He prepared homemade biscuits and served preserves made from the fruit trees in his backyard. A highlight of the meal was a small plate that held house-made sausage from August and a few pieces of Allan Benton’s bacon shipped in from Madisonville, Tennessee.

Not to the reader: If you take nothing else away from this column, go to the website: and order some of Allan Benton’s smoked country bacon. It is by far the best bacon I have ever eaten, hands down, bar none, end of story.

For lunch we traveled to Café Reconcile, a non-profit restaurant formed to teach at-risk youth a trade and life skills. There we ate fried catfish and a beautifully prepared shrimp and okra dish.

The dinner at August was— as all dinners at August are— amazing. Besh sent out nine courses of culinary brilliance. No one in the entire South is performing on a higher level than John Besh, post Katrina. He purchased the restaurant from his former partner a few weeks before the storm hit and, with his name now on the note at the bank, saw New Orleans’ long-standing convention business dry up overnight. Most chefs would have thrown in the side towel. Not Besh, he stepped it up a level and won the James Beard Foundation’s award for Best Chef Southeast (for those unfamiliar with Beard Awards, if Besh would have been in the movie trade, his mantle would now be sporting an Oscar).

John Besh and the restaurants of New Orleans came through after Katrina. They rescued us, they fed us, they sheltered us, and they performed one of the most important functions in the post-Katrina environment— giving us a sense of normalcy, and a look into the days when New Orleans was truly the city that care forgot.