Monday, November 27, 2006

Déjà vu

I was driving to Tupelo for a book signing last week and was struck with the strong sense of déjà vu. It was late November and I was traveling North on US 45. It is a route I traveled often as a child, usually around this time of year.

My earliest Thanksgiving memories are set in Brooksville Mississippi. My grandfather’s family, or at least what was left of them, lived there. Early on Thanksgiving morning my family would drive from Hattiesburg to Brooksville.

What struck me most in those early trips out of town were the leaves of North Mississippi. Somewhere around Electric Mills and Shuqualak the pines gave way to hardwoods. As a kid, growing up in the Piney Woods, my life was filled with pine straw. In Brooksville there were thousands of leaves of all shapes, sizes, and colors. I spent most of my time outside on those Thanksgiving trips crunching in the fallen leaves and playing football with my cousins. Only journeying inside to eat lunch or to catch the score of the Mississippi State-Ole Miss game on the radio.

Thanksgiving 1968, I was seven-years old. Charlie Shira’s Bulldogs were playing Johnny Vaught’s Manning-led Rebels in Starkville, just a few miles up the road from Brooksville. We listened to the static-filled AM-radio transmission as Jack Cristal called the game. Avenging a 17-17 tie in Oxford the previous year, the Rebels beat the Bullies 48-22. Déjà vu, part two.

As my Brooksville relatives died off, we began spending Thanksgiving at my grandmother’s house in Hattiesburg. It is the house in which most of my early food memories are located. My grandmother served a very formal Thanksgiving dinner. She also made the best rolls I have ever eaten. In 22 years of professional cooking I have not been able to duplicate those rolls.

To this day, when I walk through the Purple Parrot Café kitchen and smell the aroma of a roux being made, it takes me back to my grandmother’s kitchen and her turkey gravy. The toasty smell of oil and flour being combined in a cast-iron skillet has strong connections to my youth and those early Thanksgivings.

My grandmother was big on congealed salads. The biggest collective Wet Willie ever given to the nation of kiddom was the dreaded congealed-salad hoax. It was a dreadful scam. It looked like Jell-O, it shook like Jell-O but it had vegetables inside. Great aunts and grandmothers all over the world spent years devising this deception. They disguised their creations with names like “aspic” and “molds”, but we knew them for what they really were: tomato-flavored gelatin with carrots inside, a lettuce leaf on the bottom and a dollop of mayonnaise on top.

In those days, my grandmother’s post-church Sunday lunch rotation always included a turkey and dressing dinner. One Sunday a month we ate turkey. Her Sunday turkey lunch was exactly like her Thanksgiving meal. It is not until this moment that I realize how lucky I was that, as a kid, I had an entire Thanksgiving meal once a month.

I think of crunching leaves, heated rivalries, and turkey and gravy. I think next year I’ll go back to my grandmother’s rotation and eat a Thanksgiving meal once a month. I might even make a congealed salad.

Asparagus Amandine

2 lbs Asparagus, fresh
1 /4 cup Olive oil
1 1 /2 tsp Salt
1 tsp Pepper
1 /4 cup Almonds, sliced and blanched

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Toss the asparagus with olive oil, salt and pepper. Place on baking sheet lined with wax paper. Bake 12 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle the almonds over the asparagus. Return to the oven for an additional five minutes. Remove and serve immediately. Yield: eight servings

Monday, November 20, 2006

Holiday Disasters

During the holidays we reflect on the kindnesses that have been shown to us over the years. We give. We receive. And we remember.

Memories are clearer around this time of year. We remember the Christmas we received our first bicycle and a few others when we received milestone presents. We remember bits and pieces of various Thanksgiving dinners through the years, but what we remember most are the holiday disasters. It’s the bonehead mistakes that we all make that create the most lasting holiday memories.

My grandmother prepared dozens of flawless Thanksgiving dinners, yet the Thanksgiving meal that is Gorilla glued to the forefront of my brain is the first Thanksgiving my newlywed wife cooked a turkey to the point of carbon dust with the giblets, liver, and neck still inside the turkey. The resulting odor remained in the house until after Christmas.

Of course, this is the same woman who, after being told she must “season” her new cast iron skillet, asked, “Do I use salt and pepper?”

The holidays are rife with opportunities for cooking disasters. Anytime someone gives a turkey a cornbread enema, calamity is always waiting around the corner.

My favorite three questions asked of help-desk operators who answer the Butterball Hotline are (these are actual questions):

1. "How do you prepare a turkey for people who don't eat meat?"

2. "The doorbell is ringing, everybody's here, but the turkey is still frozen solid. Can I serve it anyway?"

3. "I lost a bet on a football game and now I have to fix Thanksgiving dinner for 20 people. How does a guy do that?"

I would have loved to been a fly on the wall at each of those Thanksgiving dinners— the stories we could tell.

I once spent a Thanksgiving in the apartment of my recently divorced father-in-law in which he decided to prepare what is now legendarily referred to as Rick’s Mexican Thanksgiving Dinner. Not caring that the citizens of Mexico have no use for Thanksgiving— and being a newcomer to the culinary arts— he dumped a can of every product that Old El Paso sells into a casserole dish and baked it for a couple of hours, dubbing it “Chili-Enchilada Surprise.” It was not enchilada-like but it was very surprising. Later we learned that it was a dish he had invented while being cooped up in a small, cramped sailboat for months— not the usual prerequisite for adding a Thanksgiving entrée to the repertoire.

My brother-in-law once prepared an oyster dressing that looked more like lime Jell-O than a savory side dish. While getting ready for a Christmas party, my brother’s wife touched the tip of her tongue to an iron to see if it was hot enough to press her dress. It was.

I get some of my best material during the holidays. Last week my daughter did something that we all thought was funny. She even thought it was funny, yet before we could finish laughing she said, “Daddy, you’re not going to write about that are you?” I told her that I wouldn’t, but I’m hoping that the statute of limitations will run out by next Thanksgiving.

Actually I might have a personal holiday disaster in the making. At a recent book signing a woman told me about a cranberry recipe she serves at Thanksgiving: A bag of cranberries cooked down with one box of Red Hot candies. I’m going to give it a shot. I figure it’s a win-win. If it works I’ve got a new recipe to add to the file. If not, I’ll have a story to tell for years to come.

Jill’s Holiday Cranberry Sauce

This time-proven Thanksgiving staple will be used as a standby cranberry dish to be served alongside the aforementioned Red Hot Cranberry experiment

12 oz. bag Fresh Cranberries
1 cup Port Wine
1 /2 cup White sugar
1 /2 cup Brown Sugar
1 /2 cup Orange Juice
2 tsp Cornstarch
2 Tbl Cold Water

Combine cranberries, port, sugars and orange juice in a sauté pan and simmer over medium heat for 20-30 minutes or until the cranberries become soft. Separately, mix the cornstarch with the cold water then add it to the cranberry mixture. Turn up heat to a heavy simmer and continue to cook, stirring well, for another 5-10 minutes. Serve warm.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Shhh! Don’t tell Charlie

Last week Congressman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., was quoted in The New York Times as saying, “Mississippi gets more than their fair share back in federal money, but who the hell wants to live in Mississippi?”

The answer to the congressman’s question as to who wants to live in Mississippi is: me and 2,844,657 of my friends and neighbors, not to mention a few hundred thousand expatriated Mississippians stuck in New York, California, and all points in between.

After reading the Times article, my first reaction was to fire off a letter to the congressman’s office and various editors of national newspapers extolling the benefits of living in Mississippi: the friendly people, the stunning natural resources, the music, the art, the literature, the low cost of living, the beautiful women, the moderate climate (sans August), and the food— especially the food.

New York has its fair share of great cooking, but with all due respect to Mr. Rangel, I am talking about food with soul. Not soul food, although we certainly have plenty of that— and surely the best of that genre is served here in my home state— but food with soul. Food that was prepared with love as my grandmother did, as my wife does for our children. Food with soul infers a love, respect, and dedication to the preparation and dining process. It’s food of love, with love, and for love.

It’s the food, Charlie. On a 2005 nationally televised special for Hurricane Katrina relief, Morgan Freeman, the Academy Award winning actor, said of his home state, “I’d live here for the food alone.” Freeman knows what we know; Rangel knows not.

We know the joy of eating broiled speckled trout, salty oysters, and fresh shrimp from the warm Gulf waters, soft-shell crab and jumbo-lump crabmeat from Ocean Springs and Bay St. Louis. We know of the bliss that overcomes one in the middle of biting into a slab of sweet, smoky ribs from Leatha’s in Hattiesburg, or a filet of crispy-fried catfish dotted with hot sauce at any one of the hundreds of quaint fish houses hidden away on lightly traveled country roads.

The rolls served at the Elite on Capitol Street in Jackson, and the comeback dressing at the Mayflower, are both worthy of anyone’s citizenship, as is the gumbo at Hal and Mal’s. We know tamales from Doe’s in Greenville, cheesecakes from Jubilations in Columbus, and fried chicken at the hundreds of small diners and cafes located on town squares and roadside joints not discounting the chicken served on your grandmother’s dinner table— the true food of love.

We’ve know fine dining from the City Grocery in Oxford, to Nick’s in Jackson, and The Purple Parrot Café in Hattiesburg. From organic beef and free-range poultry in Meridian to a world-class creamery South of Tylertown, we’ve got the resources to eat like royalty. From the Sweet Potato Capital of Vardaman to Tomato Capital of Crystal Springs, down here the vegetables are fresher, the conversation is friendlier, and the politicians are more polite.

Life moves slower in Mississippi, but we’ll not apologize for taking time to visit, to listen, and to help one another. After reading Congressman Rangel’s statement I was reminded of another Morgan Freeman statement. When asked by a reporter why he lives in Mississippi when he could live anywhere in the world, Freeman replied, “I live in Mississippi because I can live anywhere in the world.”

So in the end, I will not fire off a letter to Mr. Rangel explaining why we enjoy living in Mississippi for fear that the correspondence might sway his ill-informed opinion, subsequently changing his mind and enticing him to move down here— an act that would consequently put at risk our long-standing and hard-earned reputation for hospitality.

Crabmeat Imperial

If you love crabmeat, you’ll love this dish. If you don’t love crabmeat this dish will win you over. Perfect when paired with champagne. Serve with toasted French bread croutons or a buttery cracker.

1 Tbl butter
1 /4 cup small dice yellow onions
1 /4 cup minced shallots
1 /2 cup small dice red peppers
1 /4 cup small dice green peppers
1 /4 cup small dice celery
1 /4 teaspoon salt
1 /8 teaspoon cayenne
1 Tbl minced garlic
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 /2 cup chopped green onions

1 1 /2 cup homemade or prepared mayonnaise
3 tablespoons Creole Mustard
1 tbsp sherry vinegar

1 /4 teaspoon hot sauce
2 pound lump crab meat

1 /4 cup dried Japanese bread crumbs
3 Tbl sour cream
2 tsp lemon juice
2 teaspoons creole seasoning

2 tablespoons chopped chives, garnish

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

In a large sauté pan, heat the olive oil. When the pan is hot, add onions, shallots, peppers, celery, salt and cayenne. Sauté for 5 minutes or until the vegetables are soft and translucent. Add garlic, parsley and green onions, sauté for one or two minutes. Remove from the heat and cool 30 minutes.

In a mixing bowl, combine one cup of the mayonnaise, mustard, vinegar and hot sauce. Mix until thoroughly incorporated. Gently fold in the crabmeat. Spoon the mixture into an 8”x 8”baking dish.

In a separate bowl, combine the breadcrumbs, the remaining 1 /2 cup of mayonnaise, sour cream, lemon juice and the Creole seasoning together. Spread the bread crumb mixture on top of the crab mixture.

Bake 20 minutes, or until bubbly and brown. Garnish with chopped chives.

Yield: 8-12

From the Hyperion cookbook Deep South Parties by Robert St.John

Monday, November 06, 2006

Holidays for the Mouse

I am currently two books into a three-book publishing deal with Hyperion Books. Hyperion is based in New York and is a division of ABC, and ultimately the Walt Disney Company. I, too, now work for the mouse.

The first book in my Hyperion deal was Deep South Staples, the second book in the contract, which was just released a few weeks ago, is Deep South Parties. Both books are filled with everyday recipes for family dinners and entertaining, but they are also filled with recipes that can be used for the holidays.

Two days after I signed the book deal, the editors asked my thoughts on the next book in the series. My first response was Deep South Holidays. I love this time of year. The weather is cool, the air is crisp, attitudes are festive, food tastes better, family is closer, and the excitement that I experienced as a kid always returns at Christmas.

The editors didn’t want to do a holiday book for several reasons that I won’t go into here. They are the big dogs, they have the experience, and if there is one thing I have learned over my 25-year business career, it is to put your trust into the hands of those who have more knowledge and experience and let that expertise go to work for you. I’ll not argue with the mouse. However, my next choice Deep South Parties was, in a way, a tribute to the holidays of my youth. Shhhh, don’t tell Hyperion (or the mouse), but it’s a perfect book for cooking during the holidays.

When I sat down to compile the recipes that were to be used in Deep South Parties I looked back to the neighborhood parties of my youth and remembered all of the foods that were served. I also sat down with my across-the-street neighbor, Barbara Jane Foote, and plowed through her extremely organized recipe files using many of those as a starting point and inspiration to create new twists on old favorites. Most were served during the holidays. In the end, one-third of the recipes in the book were a nod to the party foods of my youth, another third came from 18 years of catering parties and events, and another third were new and developed specifically for the book.

Down South we accelerate our entertaining during the holidays. Deep South Parties has recipes that can be prepared in spring and summer, but I predict the book will be used most often in the nine-week stretch between Halloween and New Year’s Day.

My entire Thanksgiving meal can be found in Deep South Staples: roasted turkey, cornbread dressing, gravy, green bean casserole, a wonderful cranberry dish, and the most amazing sweet potato casserole you will ever taste. My Thanksgiving desserts can be found in Deep South Parties: pumpkin cheesecake and sweet potato brownies.

Two weeks ago I taught a cooking class in which I demonstrated recipes from Deep South Parties. The dessert that I chose to demonstrate was the sweet potato brownie recipe. Last week at a book signing, a woman who had attended the demo approached me and said that she had prepared the sweet potato brownie recipe three times over a six day period. I don’t know if she ate that many brownies in less than a week, or gave them away to friends, but I couldn’t ask for a more dedicated and enthusiastic endorsement. Then I thought of the mouse, and my friends at Hyperion, and the excitement that fills the air when the foods of the holidays are prepared and enjoyed, and I wished for my New York friends many batches of sweet potato brownies over the course of the next nine weeks.

Sweet Potato Brownies were one of the original recipes I developed specifically for the book. They are perfect for a holiday snack and portable enough to take to someone else’s home if you’re not hosting a Thanksgiving meal.

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 raw sweet 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.