Monday, October 16, 2006

The Long Forgotten Nest

Recent book business took me and my family to the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

While riding down Beach Boulevard and lamenting the loss of so many beautiful and historic homes and classic Coast restaurants I developed a craving for seafood.

In the past, when eating seafood on the coast, I stick with one of the old-line seafood restaurants of the broiled-flounder variety. I have fond memories of spending summers on the Gulf Coast in the days where fried shrimp served by a waitress was a treat. I ate my first raw oyster at Baricev’s. My first fried oyster, too.

They’re all gone. All of them. What the casinos didn’t purchase, Katrina washed away.

My best option was McElroy’s in Ocean Springs. I had eaten often at the McElroys when it was located at the Biloxi Small Craft Harbor— and even though they’re in a new building— they might be the last of the old-line seafood restaurants still standing.

On our way in, I was having a discussion with my five-year old son about fish sticks. I don’t remember how we got on the subject, but he had never seen or eaten a fish stick. I hadn’t seen or eaten a fish stick since the Nixon administration, but they were a staple in my home as a kid.

Fish sticks were fresh on my mind, and with a slight melancholy over the loss of the historic Coast restaurants of my youth, I ordered fried red snapper. When the waitress asked which side order I would like, I asked, “What are my options?”

The standard reply of, “Baked potato and French fries” was delivered, and then she threw in another option, “…or English peas.”

English peas? At an old-line Coast seafood restaurant? I never remember eating English peas at a seafood restaurant as a kid. I ate them at home all of the time. Did the recent spinach crisis have something to do with this particular option being offered as a side item?

I love English peas. I never eat them, anymore, mainly because my wife hates them and refuses to buy them. Therefore, my kids haven’t grown up eating them. English peas, you say? Why yes, and throw in a baked potato, too.

When the food arrived, I added butter, sour cream, salt, and pepper to my baked potato and mashed it inside the skin. The potatoes were sitting next to my small bowl of English peas. I took a bite of potato, then a bite of peas, another bite of potato, and another bite of peas. Before long, I scooted my pea bowl as close as I could get to the baked potato on the plate and took a bite of potato and a bite of peas at the same time. Ah, the taste of my youth.

Eventually, I broke down and added my English peas to my mashed-up baked potato. My children looked at me like I had grown a third eye.

The one thing that was well-known in my family when I was young was that Robert liked his English peas in a nest of mashed potatoes. That combination represented one of the few vegetables that I would eat. I remember my grandmother telling me that my dad liked them that way. I didn’t know my father, and I suspect that is the reason that I always ate English peas in a nest of mashed potatoes. Sunday night at the St. John’s circa 1968: Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, Ed Sullivan, Bonanza, fish sticks, and English peas in a nest of mashed potatoes.

At formal luncheons or dinners, others would eat rice and asparagus, but you could guarantee, I would be eating English peas and mashed potatoes. Simple, pure, youthful.

Currently, in my restaurants we are serving crispy eggplant ratatouille, black-eyed pea and banana-pepper relish, roasted-garlic flan, and tri-colored orzo pasta with mirliton and cilantro. This summer I ate dozens of expensive, complicated, and exotic vegetable pairings at restaurants from New York to San Francisco. All of the aforementioned vegetables might pale in comparison to my first English pea-mashed potato nest in the last 25 years.

Sitting in McElroy’s Seafood Restaurant, I felt like I was back in elementary school— Fried fish, mashed potatoes, and English peas, except with a view of the Back Bay in Ocean Springs. My wife just doesn’t know what she’s missing.

Mashed Potatoes

3 lbs Idaho potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters
2 Tbl. Salt
1 gallon Water

1 /2 cup Butter, cold
8 ounces Cream cheese, softened
1 cup Half and half, hot
1 1 /2 tsp. Salt
1 tsp Black pepper

In a large saucepot add potatoes and salted water. Cook at a low simmer to avoid potatoes breaking apart. When the potatoes are tender, carefully drain. Return potatoes to dry pot and place over heat for one to two minutes to remove all moisture.

Place potatoes a mixing bowl. Using a hand-held potato masher, mash the potatoes. Add cold butter as you begin to mash. Next, add cream cheese and mix until melted. Stir in the half and half, salt and pepper. Potatoes may be covered tightly and held in warm place for one hour before serving. Yield: 10 servings

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