Monday, December 17, 2007

Christmas Morning Excitement

Christmas morning excitement is an emotion unmatched by any other.

Adult excitement pales in comparison to the holiday-exhilaration recipe of two-parts anticipation, mixed with one part delight, a dab of enchantment, and a pinch of joy that is experienced every Christmas Eve until our pre-teen years sweep the thrills away.

The excitement reaches its fever pitch just before sleep. Lying in bed— blankets and sheets pulled to the chin— listening to every bump and creak in the attic and on the roof. Occasionally daring to get out of the bed to run across the room and peek through the curtains to see if reindeer might have landed in the front yard.

I miss that thrill. Granted, it is a materialistic feeling at its core, and pales in comparison to the adult excitement of babies being born and offspring accomplishments, but it is a memory that is too strong to be denied. It is a singular emotion that is unlike any other we experience for the rest of our lives.

The anticipation begins at dusk on Christmas Eve. Children realize that the greatest kid-day of the year has almost arrived. It’s the day they have been waiting for since December 26th of the previous year. It’s the one day that is unlike any other— the day when children all over the world wake up and open gifts that have magically appeared from nowhere. It happens on only one morning and it is the crux of kiddom.

As Christmas Eve night progresses, kids realize that they are only hours away from waking up to the frenzy of flying wrapping paper, shiny toys, and colorful presents. Excitement mixes with exhaustion and anticipation— it’s almost time.

What a great concept. Waking up to stuff. New stuff. Stuff you have been dreaming about for months. Everyone is happy. What a great feeling.

Remember that Christmas morning feeling this holiday season. Remember the excitement and the elation. Let’s do what we can to revive that feeling in ourselves and in our neighbors throughout the year. Most of all let’s pass it on.

Some children won’t wake up to flying paper and shiny toys. For them, it’s not about colorful presents and new stuff. It’s about survival and getting by on a daily basis.

This holiday season make sure that the joy you experienced happens for everyone.

The man who learns how to put Christmas morning excitement into pill form will be a rich man, indeed. Meanwhile, many of us have the power to make it happen for the under-resourced children in our communities. This Christmas Eve, let’s pull the sheets to our chin knowing that we did everything we could to create Christmas-morning memories and excitement for everyone.

Cookies for Santa

1 stick Butter
1/ 3 cup Light brown sugar
1 tsp. Vanilla
1/ 8 tsp. Salt
1 1 /4 cups Flour
1 /2 cup Pecans, finely chopped

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Using an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar on slowest speed until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla and salt. Add flour making sure not to over mix. Fold in pecans by hand. Form dough into 1 1 /2 inch diameter balls and place on baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Using the palm of your hand, flatten the dough until it is about 1 /4 inch thick. Bake 15-18 minutes, just until cookies begin to brown. Yield: 16-20 cookies

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A Fruitful Day Off

For 46 years I have been blessed with excess energy.

I seem to have been born with enough vitality and drive for two people. Though lately, I have been feeling my age.

Sunday I experienced my first “true” day off in six weeks. I planned to stay in bed most of the afternoon and treat myself to a full day of football for the first time since September.

My wife had to take my son to a birthday party and my daughter needed to stay home to work on a school project. Around 1:30 p.m. my daughter came into my bedroom wanting to know what we were having for lunch. I asked her what she would like, and she couldn’t decide.

As an offhand remark, I said, “Why don’t you go into the kitchen and make us a sandwich,” and turned my attention back to the football game.

When on tour or giving a speech, the most frequent question I am asked is, “Who does the cooking in your home?”

The answer is always the same, “My wife cooks for the family, and I cook for company.” It’s not written in stone. The roles reverse on occasion. If my wife decides to sleep late, I am happy to make a “Daddy Breakfast” for the children, or if she’s putting on makeup before the movie, I don’t mind throwing together a chicken casserole and salad. She, too, makes great lasagna, spaghetti, and pasta shells for company.

For the most part, we stick to our roles. Mom cooks for the family. Dad cooks for company and away from home. The children just eat.

Before long my 10-year old daughter came walking into the bedroom holding a tray. She was beaming. I know all of her expressions. This was one that I hadn’t seen before. It was an ear-to-ear smile filled with satisfaction and achievement.

On the tray was a triple-decker peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Fritos, and a glass of milk.

I have eaten thousands of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in my life. In my first six years on the planet, they were almost all I ate, exclusively. I have eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwiches prepared by my mother, by both of my grandmothers, by my babysitters, by my wife, by friends, and by my own hands. I have taken them to school in lunchboxes. I have eaten them at church and on picnics, I have eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in my formal dining room and I have eaten them in sparsely decorated bachelor apartments. I can truly say that I have never eaten one that I have enjoyed as much as the one prepared and served by my daughter at 1:47 p.m. on December 9, 2007.

An hour later, she came back in the room with a plate of freshly baked oatmeal cookies and another glass of milk.

“Thank you, precious.”

“You’re welcome, daddy.”

The cynical reader might say, “What’s the big deal? It was a sandwich and a plate of Fritos.” That is correct, but it was so much more.

It was a small act of independence born in original thought. The look on her face signaled a sort of self-sufficient culinary rite of passage. She has now reached an age where she can go into the kitchen and prepare food, and she is happy about it.

In the last 20 years, I have eaten at some of this country’s finest restaurants. I don’t know if any of those meals can match the sheer joy I experienced having a Sunday afternoon lunch in bed, prepared by my daughter.

The smile on my daughter’s face was one that I will never forget. It was a look of delight, independence, and accomplishment all at once, and one that could only be surpassed— at that moment— by the look of pride on the face of her father.

Now when I am asked, “Who does the cooking in your home?” I will have to change my answer. My wife cooks for the family. I cook for company, and my daughter cooks for special occasions.

Miniature Smoked Tenderloin Sandwiches with Three Spreads

2 Tbl Bacon Grease, melted
1 Tbl Steak Seasoning
1/2 tsp Black Pepper, freshly ground
2 pound Beef Tenderloin, trimmed and cleaned
24 dinner rolls, varied styles and flavors, cut in half crosswise

5-6 cups wood chips

Soak the wood chips for 2-3 hours and drain well. Prepare grill or smoker to cook at 275 degrees.

Rub the tenderloin with the melted bacon grease and sprinkle with steak seasoning.
Cook the tenderloin for 45-50 minutes, to an internal temperature of 130 degrees. Add more chips as needed to keep the smoke flowing.

Remove from heat and let tenderloin cool completely.

Horseradish Spread

1/4 cup Sour Cream
1/2 cup Mayonnaise
1/4 tsp Black Pepper, freshly ground
3 Tbl Prepared Horseradish
2 Tbl Red Onion, minced
1/4 tsp Garlic, minced
1 Tbl Chives, chopped
1 Tbl Parsley, chopped
1/2 tsp Salt

Combine all ingredients in a mixing bowl and store covered and refrigerated until ready to serve.

Chutney Mayo

1 Tbl Olive Oil
2 Tbl Yellow Onion, minced
1/4 tsp Salt
2 tsp Garlic, minced
1/2 tsp Curry Powder
2 Tbl Sherry
3/4 cup Mango Chutney
3/4 cup Mayonnaise

In a small sauté pan, heat olive oil over low heat. Place onion, garlic, salt and curry powder in the hot oil and cook one minute. Add the sherry and reduce. Remove from heat and cool completely. Once the cooked mixture is cooled, combine it with the remaining ingredients. Store covered and refrigerated until ready to serve.

Honey-Spiked Creole Mustard

1/2 cup Creole Mustard
1 Tbl Yellow Mustard
2 Tbl Sour Cream
1 Tbl Mayonnaise
1/4 cup Honey
1 tsp Prepared Horseradish
2 tsp Parsely, chopped
1 tsp Fresh Thyme Leaves, chopped
1/8 tsp Cayenne Pepper
1/2 tsp Lemon Juice
1/4 tsp Salt

Using a wire whisk, combine all ingredients. Store covered and refrigerated until ready to serve.

Slice 1/8-inch thin slices of the beef tenderloin and arrange on a serving tray. Serve the cut rolls and three sauces on the side and allow guests to build their own sandwich.
All of the sauces may be made three to four days in advance, and stored in the refrigerator until needed.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow

At a book signing on the Mississippi Gulf Coast last week, I was hit with a blinding jolt of reality.

I have been a victim of out-of-sight out-of-mind Katrina apathy. My hometown of Hattiesburg was hit hard. Yet we bounced back quickly.

At Pass Christian Books— a small, independent bookstore which used to overlook the Gulf of Mexico— business is not the same. As with most beachfront structures in Pass Christian— and all along the Gulf front in the post-Katrina world— only a slab of concrete remains.

Pass Christian Books has moved five miles north of the beach to Delisle, Miss. until the city’s infrastructure is restored.

I am a huge fan of the old-line seafood restaurants of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I have fond memories of eating at Baricev’s, The Friendship House, McElroy’s, and the like. I have always encouraged support of the independent restaurants of the Coast.

One restaurant that I must have passed a thousand times, but never once visited was Annie’s at Henderson Point. As with most of the independent restaurants within a few blocks of the Gulf, Annie’s was a casualty of Katrina. They, too, moved to Delisle after the storm.

As Wyatt Waters and I signed books we ordered a cup of gumbo from the newly relocated Annie’s (now Café Annie located next door to the bookstore). The gumbo was rich, the roux was dark, and it had the distinct taste of a well-made crab stock in the foreground.

As I finished my gumbo, I felt an overwhelming pang of guilt for not visiting Annie’s in its original location.

Annie’s restaurant opened on Henderson Point in 1928. The family-run operation withstood three hurricanes, two fires, and everything that Mother Nature could throw at it until Katrina blew through the Coast in 2005.

Annie Lutz— who recently celebrated her 89th birthday—has been working in the restaurant since she was a little girl and still mans the cash register out front. Her niece, Jackie Jex, says that Annie’s been there “Since she was able to reach the counter.”
Annie lived her entire life in an apartment attached to the restaurant. It’s gone, too.

In addition to excellent seafood gumbo, Café Annie serves a full array of old-line Coast favorites such as Trout Amandine, broiled fish, and Italian-inspired seafood dishes which have been the mainstay of independent Gulf Coast restaurants for over a century. As Jex gave me an oral history of the restaurant while pointing to photographs on the walls, I lamented the fact that I would never again know the restaurant in its original state.

The day before the Coast book signing, I was at a book event in New Orleans. During a conversation with a New Orleans customer, Hurricane Katrina came up. As the conversation moved to national attention and national media coverage of the event in the months following the storm, the New Orleans woman apologized to me for all of the coverage that they received and offered an, “I’m sorry” saying Mississippians hadn’t received enough of the attention.

I told her that everything is O.K. We never wanted a lot of attention. We took care of ourselves, we took care of our neighbors, and our governor took care of the rest.

To a person, everyone who bought books at the Pass Christian book signing had lost all of their cookbooks— and their homes along with them— to the storm. No one complained. No one seemed resentful. They had gotten on with their daily lives and to the business of rebuilding the Coast. “It’s only stuff,” one woman commented.

It’s people like Scott Naugle at Pass Christian Books, Annie Lutz at Café Annie, and the customers of those, and many other, businesses who have rolled up their sleeves and are back fighting the good fight— the daily fight, the hard fight— and doing business in what remains of a storm-ravaged community.

At Café Annie, 80 years of Gulf Coast restaurant history have been reduced to a small wall of black and white 8 x 10 photographs. There are hundreds of businesses with similar stories all along the Gulf. Let’s throw apathy to the wind and keep them in sight, and in mind, during the holiday shopping season, and throughout the coming years.

Shrimp and Okra Gumbo

1 /2 cup Canola oil
3 /4 cup Flour
2 Tbl File powder
1 cup Onion, diced
1 /2 cup Celery, diced
1 /2 cup Bell pepper, diced
1 1 /2 cups Fresh okra, sliced
2 Tbl Garlic, minced
1 1 /2 lbs Shrimp, small
2 tsp Salt
1 1 /2 tsp Black pepper
2 tsp Creole Seasoning
1 tsp Thyme, dry
1 cup Tomatoes, diced, canned or fresh
2 quarts Shrimp stock
1 Tbl Hot Sauce
1 /4 tsp Cayenne pepper

2 cups cooked white rice

In a large skillet, combine oil, flour and file powder to form a roux. Cook over medium heat, stirring often until roux is very dark (be careful not to burn). Add
vegetables, garlic, spices and shrimp and continue to cook for five to seven minutes, stirring constantly to prevent burning. Meanwhile, bring shrimp stock and tomatoes to a boil. Slowly add roux mixture to boiling stock and mix well. Lower heat to a slow simmer, and cook 10 more minutes. Add hot sauce and cayenne pepper.

To serve, place 2-3 tablespoons of rice in a bowl then pour the hot gumbo over the rice.

Yield: 1 gallon
Bizarre Foods

Exactly one year ago today I was contacted by a producer of the Travel Channel television program “Bizarre Foods.” He said that they were going to be in the area and asked if I knew of anywhere in, or around, my hometown that served bizarre food.

I told him that my restaurants were out. The most bizarre thing they might find there is if someone orders the wrong wine to go with the Black Grouper with truffle and risotto.

I told them I knew of a place that served chitlins once a week, but the producer said that they already had “chitlins” covered.

I was suspicious at first, and after several phone calls I told the producer that I had spent a large portion of my writing career trying to bust all of the old-line Southern culinary stereotypes. I told him that we just don’t eat like they did on “The Beverly Hillbillies,” and I don’t want to be a part of any program that would perpetuate those stereotypes.

“No one around here eats raccoon or possum,” I said. “I can take you to Louisiana where they eat the swamp rat, nutria. Those people down there will eat anything.”

“No thanks, we’ve already got nutria covered.”

“But there’s no food around here that’s bizarre. I promise. We just don’t eat like that. However I do know a barbeque place in town called Leatha’s that is a true ‘rib joint’ all the way down to the beach towels for curtains on the windows. They don’t cook anything strange there, the ribs are world-class, but the atmosphere should make for great television.”

After several more phone calls from the producer. We decided that Leatha’s was the spot where my segment would be filmed. Bonnie and Carolyn, two of Leatha’s daughters, would open the restaurant on Sunday afternoon (a day that they were normally closed) and serve ribs and pulled pork.

At the time, the show wasn’t on the air yet. I made the producers send both of the pilot episodes to make sure that the show was going to be reverential to my friends at the barbeque joint and also paint Mississippi in the most positive light.

After viewing both episodes, I concluded that host, Andrew Zimmern— in addition to being able to put the most seemingly inedible food items in his mouth and eat them— was a very talented chef and was extremely deferential to the eating habits and culture of peoples all over the world.

“I’ll do it,” I said on a follow-up phone call with the producer. “But on the pilot episodes, Andrew was eating grubs, and worms, and smelly plants. You’re not going to find anything bizarre down here. Again, we just don’t eat like that.”

“Actually,” the producer said, “Bonnie is going to cook coon and possum for us. I thought you said that people don’t eat that stuff down there.”

“We don’t,” I stammered.

“The girls at Leatha’s beg to differ.”

“Listen,” I said. “Those ladies are friends of mine. I am not going to be a part of any program that would make fun of anyone in this area who eats coon or possum. Y’all better not ‘Borat’ us.” The producer assured me that the episode would treat the Southern backwoods culinary oddities with the respect that they had shown in other foreign cultures, and I assured them that I would be on camera, but in no way could I eat coon or possum.

I wasn’t taking a stand on principle, or making a statement that I wouldn’t perpetuate regional culinary stereotypes. I have a weak stomach. I didn’t want to get sick during the filming.

In the end, the producers and the host were polite and respectful. The show was one of their highest rated to date. Bonnie and Carolyn get comments all of the time about being on the Travel Channel. The only question I get is “Why did you look so green and nauseous?”

In light of last week’s Associated Press story about a woman being arrested for eating monkey meat in New York, I think the South’s culinary reputation is still in tact.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Morning Beverage Minority

I do not drink coffee.

I wish that I drank coffee. I would love to be referred to as a coffee drinker. “There goes Robert,” they would say. “He’s a coffee drinker.”

I think it would be cool to sit in a coffee shop and sip some type of mocha concoction and read the New York Times. On occasion I would order an exotic frappe-something-or-other. At Christmas I would order the Holiday Blend, at Valentine’s the White-Chocolate Blend, and on Millard Fillmore’s birthday, I would order the Millard Blend— a Fillmorchino.

Maybe I would order a “tall coffee” even though “tall” is the smallest size. In my mind’s eye, I see myself saying, “I would like a TALL mocha-frappe something.” And I look cool saying it.

“Grande” is a medium-sized coffee. Saying “grande” is not as hip as saying “tall.” It seems that a word such as “grande” should refer to the largest size available. Not so. “Venti” is the largest sized coffee available.

Venti sounds like a foreign car, not a beverage size. If I was a coffee drinker, and I drank a lot of coffee, I would not order a venti or a grande. I would order a tall and go back for refills, often.

On second thought, if I was a coffee drinker, I don’t think I would want my coffee to be mocha’ed or frappe’d or Millard’ed. I wouldn’t want any flavoring in my coffee. No caramel or vanilla or pumpkin— just coffee-flavored coffee.

If I were not in a coffee shop, I would order black coffee. There is something manly about ordering a “black coffee.” No sugar, no cream, no foamy stuff, just a cup of three-hours-old, sitting-on-the-hot-plate, hot-as-a-McDonald’s-lawsuit, sitting-next-to-the-microwave-at-the-convenience-store, pours-like-maple-syrup black coffee.

I want to be that guy— the black-coffee-drinking guy— the one who holds a small (or tall) non-eco friendly, un-biodegradable Styrofoam cup of bitter, burn-your-tongue-while-it-warms-your-buns black coffee.

I am not that guy. I drink Coke Zero. Coke Zero is not as manly as a cup of black coffee, though the can is black. I like that. I used to drink a lot of Diet Coke. The Diet Coke can is silver. Silver is not as manly as black.

I drink from a black can. I drink it cold. No cream, no sugar, just Coke Zero, black, straight out of the can. I am not hip or cool.

In our society, non-coffee drinkers are discriminated against. I am a member of the morning-beverage minority. It’s true. It’s brutal, and it’s not fair. The next time you attend a breakfast meeting, check out the beverage offerings— black coffee, decaffeinated coffee (both stored in very cool space-age designed air pots), and a pitcher of ice water. No soft drinks. Ever.

Try asking for a soft drink at the average morning business meeting and then watch the all-out scramble to find a beverage. After 20 frantic minutes, they’ll return to the table with a leftover Tab that has been sitting in the back of the break room fridge from the days when cigarettes were still being advertised on television.

Most coffee shops don’t even sell soft drinks. They offer crazy mango-papaya concoctions, and over-priced water, but no soft drinks. The baristas look down their noses at any poor slob who would not drink coffee.

Coffee servers even get cool names: Baristas. Who serves the members of the morning-beverage minority? Soda jerks.

I want to be a coffee drinker when I grow up. I want to sit in the coffee shop and drink a steaming tall cup of un-mocha’ed, non-frappe’d, black coffee. Until then, I’ll be a card-carrying member of the morning-beverage minority.

Purple Parrot Pumpkin Cheesecake

2 pounds cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup Brown sugar
Pinch salt
5 eggs
4 egg yolks
3 /4 cup Pumpkin Puree
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp Pumpkin Spice

Preheat the oven to 275 degrees

Place softened cream cheese in large mixing bowl and beat using paddle attachment on medium speed until VERY smooth. Scrape sides and beat again to ensure there are no lumps.

Add brown sugar and mix well. Add in eggs and yolks a few at a time, allowing them to incorporate well before adding more.

Place the mixer on slow speed and add pumpkin puree, vanilla extract, and pumpkin spice. As soon as the pumpkin is incorporated, stop mixing

Pour the batter into a cheesecake crust (recipe listed below) and bake for 1-1 1 /2 hours. The cheesecake should jiggle slightly when tapped. Remove and let cool on a wire rack. Refrigerate overnight before serving.

To cut cheesecake, run a thin knife under hot water before cutting each slice.

Cheesecake Crust

1 1 /2 cups graham cracker crumbs
3 /4 cup melted butter
1 /2 cup sugar

Combine crumbs and sugar and mix by hand Add butter in stages, mixing well before each addition.

Evenly distribute the crust in a nine-inch spring form pan, pressing it firmly on the bottom of the pan, and building crust up two inches on the sides of the pan.

Pour in the cheesecake batter and bake for 1-1 1 /2 hours. The cheesecakes should jiggle slightly when tapped.

Remove and cool refrigerate overnight before serving.

To cut, run a thin knife under hot water before cutting each slice.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Food Fight!

In the cafeteria scene of the 1978 movie Animal House, John Belushi pops up from behind a table and yells, “Food fight!” Chaos ensues. That was my first exposure to the phenomenon of thrown food.
There is a cafe near an outlet mall in Alabama where the employees of the restaurant throw yeast rolls at the customers. They don’t do this in a fit of anger, or in an inspired moment of college hi-jinks, but they throw hot bread at paying customers on purpose.

A town in Spain hosts a food fight every year in which hundreds of citizens throw tomatoes at each other. They throw tomatoes at an annual festival in Columbia, South America, too. Italy is home to a festival where people throw oranges at one another.

My father-in-law— a man with the maturity level of your average eighth grader— once threw a roll at me in a backwoods catfish house. He missed and hit a large pulpwooder at a neighboring table. We both escaped to tell the tale, but barely.

My wife cooked a clean-the-cooler dinner last night. A clean-the-cooler dinner is a meal where one gets all of the old, passed-over, and mish-mashed food items out of the refrigerator and freezer, and cooks them in one meal. It should be done approximately four times each year. Unfortunately, it only happens once a decade in my house.

My wife is a packrat when it comes to food and spices. Shelf lives and expiration dates mean nothing to her. I constantly throw away all manner of out-dated food in our cabinets.

Last night, there were two tins of leftover dinner rolls in the freezer. I am not exactly sure how old the rolls were, but they had probably been hiding behind the chopped spinach since Bill Clinton’s first term.
She served two tins of the Clinton-era rolls for dinner. “These rolls taste funny,” my son said.

“What’s up with the rolls, Mom?” said my daughter.

I made a joke and my daughter acted like she was going to throw her roll at me. I, in turn, actually threw one at her. My son howled. My daughter threw a roll at him. He threw one back at her. My son ran into the kitchen and grabbed the entire cookie sheet of rolls.

A full-scale food fight ensued. It was The Three Stooges on steroids. The breakfast room looked like an out-of-control episode of Jerry Springer.

It was a blast. The look on my kid’s faces was sheer joy. It was one that said— I can’t believe they are letting me do this. It soon changed to— I can’t believe daddy’s actually doing this with us.
My wife sat unaffected and watched as the six-year old, the 10-year old, and the 46-year old acting like a six-year old pelted each other with rolls. There was bread everywhere. There were crumbs everywhere. There was laughter everywhere.

Typically, I advocate the use of proper manners in this column. I was taught good manners at an early age. My mother and grandmother kept Emily Post’s Etiquette book next to the family bible. When I was growing up, nothing was done without consulting Mrs. Post. Though every once in a while it is liberating and exhilarating to throw decorum to the wind, especially while throwing rolls at your dining companion.

I am not endorsing the act of throwing food. As a restaurant owner, I am grateful that food never flies in any of our dining rooms. If you decide to throw caution to the wind and heave a roll at your dining companion, it should be done in the confines of your family home (or in one of my competitor’s restaurants).

I am, however, letting you know that some of the deepest belly laughs I’ve enjoyed recently came from a stale-roll war between my children and me. Maybe it’s healthy to act like a child every once in a while, no matter what Emily Post says.

Sunday Dinner Rolls

Butter, melted
1 package Active, dry yeast
2 Tbl Water, warm (105-115 degrees)
5 cups Flour, self-rising
1 /4 cup Sugar
1 /2 tsp Baking soda
1 cup Shortening
2 cups Buttermilk

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Grease baking pan with melted butter. Dissolve yeast in warm water. Set aside. In mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar and baking soda. With pastry cutter or fork, cut in shortening until mixture resembles course meal. Combine buttermilk and yeast water.

Gradually add liquids to flour mixture, stirring with fork until flour is moistened. Turn dough onto lightly floured surface and roll out 1 /2 inch thick. Cut with 2-inch biscuit cutter, dipping cutter into flour between cuts. Press cutter straight down without twisting for straight-sided, evenly shaped rolls. Place close together in prepared pan. Cover with damp cloth and let rise one hour (dough will not double in size).

Bake for 15-20 minutes or until brown. Brush tops with melted butter while hot. Yield: 30-40 rolls

Monday, October 29, 2007

Under the Wire and Off of the Press

Today is the fifth anniversary of the release of a cookbook that almost wasn’t.

Watercolor artist, Wyatt Waters, and I combined forces five years ago and published a coffee-table cookbook entitled A Southern Palate.

The cookbook’s printer was located in Portland, Oregon, but the book was to be printed and bound in Asia and then shipped back to the United States. Once in port, the books would be loaded onto an 18-wheeler and trucked across the country to Mississippi.

The book-signing tour had been scheduled, the dates were set and confirmed, and hundreds of bookstores, museums, gift shops, and restaurants were waiting for books to arrive. Then I received a phone call.

Everything had been running smoothly and on schedule until the West Coast dock strike of 2002. A victim of bad timing, the books were sitting on a pier somewhere in San Diego, prisoners in the never ending battle of labor vs. management.

The timing of the book’s release had been down-to-the-wire from the outset. Now with the strike, every day— actually every minute— counted. The stress level increased as news of the strike changed with each update from the printer in Portland.

Book sellers were counting on having the book for the upcoming Christmas season and the deadline was approaching rapidly. I had depleted my paltry savings and investment accounts to pay for the book. The pressure mounted.

I received reports updating the progress of the strike negotiation several times each day. No one had any idea as to when the dispute would be resolved. For three weeks the news changed hourly. One minute it looked as if the strike would end and the books would be loaded onto a truck that day. The next report had the books arriving sometime in January.

Time was running out. Most days it appeared that we had already run out of time. It was one of the most stressful, yet exciting, periods of my life.

In the end, the strike was resolved two days before the first scheduled book signing. A truck driver drove day and night to reach my hometown of Hattiesburg. The truckload of 10,000 books arrived at my restaurant office at 10 a.m. on October 30, 2002. The first book signing was scheduled for 5 p.m. that afternoon.

The frenzy began immediately. Wyatt and I traveled the region from top to bottom in a beat-up SUV with bald tires. Everyone wanted books. We delivered them ourselves. After three hectic weeks, the book had sold out.

We rushed to have the second printing completed before Christmas and were told the books wouldn’t arrive until January. Working from the hip, we designed a gift package that included a certificate for the book and a limited edition print by Wyatt. The second printing sold out in two weeks. The craziness had grown from people trying to purchase a book, to people purchasing the promise of a book.

Flash forward to 2007. San Diego is again in the news, this time for rampant wildfires. Wyatt and I have published a new coffee-table book, Southern Seasons. Five years in the making, this book is 100 pages longer with twice the artwork and all-new recipes. Though, instead of having the books printed overseas, we opted to stay on this continent and used a company out of Kentucky whose printing plant is located in Canada.

The book was scheduled to be released on October 30th. As I sit down to write this column I realize this is the same date the first book arrived.

Trying to avoid another mad frenzy like the one we endured in 2002, I put a lot of thought and planning into how the new books would arrive and where they would be stored, and then shipped out again. I set up a room to sign 9,000 of the pre-sold books. All was in order. Then I received a phone call.

“We have had some slow downs in production on the binding line. With this being a very large project, any slow downs get amplified.” After six books one would think I had the process mastered.

It’s déjà vu all over again— so much for all of the pre-planning. Throw foresight out the window, the craziness is about to begin. Buckle your seatbelt, lock your tray tables, make sure your seat is a full and upright position, hold on tight, and keep your fingers crossed. It’s cookbook time.

Pork Tenderloin with Muscadine Glaze

2 Tbl Olive Oil
1 Tbl Unsalted Butter
3 Pork Tenderloins (about 1 1/2 pounds)
2 tsp Kosher Salt
1 tsp Black Pepper, freshly ground

2 Tbl Shallot, minced
1/2 tsp Garlic, minced
1/4 tsp Salt
1/4 cup Brown Sugar
1/2 cup Riesling Wine, or Muscadine wine if you can find it
1/4 cup Balsamic Vinegar
1 cup Chicken Broth
1 Bay Leaf
3/4 cup Muscadine Jelly
1/4 tsp Black Pepper, freshly ground
1/4 cup Red Bell Pepper, minced
2 Tbl Parsley, chopped

Season the pork with the salt and pepper.

In an ovenproof skillet, heat the olive oil over high heat. Once the oil is hot, add in the butter and the pork tenderloins. Sear each tenderloin on all sides and place the skillet and tenderloins in the oven.

Cook 8-10 minutes. Remove the skillet from the oven and place the tenderloins on a plate and hold them in a warm place. Drain the excess oil from the skillet.

Place the skillet over low heat. Cook the shallots, garlic and salt for 2-3 minutes. Add the brown sugar, cook until the sugar is melted. Turn the heat to medium and add the wine and balsamic vinegar. Cook until the mixture has reduced by half. Add in the chicken broth and bay leaf, simmer until the mixture has reduced by 70 percent. Stir in the jelly, black pepper and red pepper and simmer for 5-6 minutes. Stir often to prevent sticking and burning. Remove from the heat and stir in the fresh parsley

Slicing on a diagonal, cut each tenderloin into 6-8 pieces. Arrange the slices on a serving platter and pour the glaze over the pork, serve immediately.

Yield: 6-8 servings

© Robert St.John from the book Southern Seasons

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Food Quirks

Everyone has food quirks. We all prefer certain foods over others. There are plenty of foods that I eat that some folks would never touch, and vice versa.

My daughter has a very versatile palate. She’ll try anything once. My son— though not a soldier in the adolescent chicken-tender army— would live on yogurt and bananas, alone. Both children eat more grown-up cereals than their father. My wife prefers a steady diet of coffee and cheese.

In an essay I wrote five years ago entitled “My South,” there is a line that reads: “In My South people put peanuts in bottles of Coca Cola and hot sauce on almost everything.”

When I speak to a group or association, I usually end the speech by reading the My South piece. The peanuts/Coca Cola line always generates chuckles and sighs. People seem to always remember dropping nuts into a soft drink, or they remember someone who did.

I never have put peanuts in Coke, but I had school friends with whom I sat in the lunchroom who did it every day.

Peanuts and Coke seem like a strange pairing. If I had to name the strangest food quirk that I possess, it would be my affinity for using applesauce as a dip for potato chips. The combination of the salty and sweet holds great appeal to me.

I know people who dump Milk Duds into their popcorn at the theatre. Some food quirks are easy to understand: mustard on French fries, cornbread into buttermilk, and French dressing on pizza. Others are strange but seem palatable: Potato chips on sandwiches. And some are just downright strange: Pickles and peanut butter.

My children dip their fries into blue cheese dressing. I am not a fan of blue cheese dressing, but I can understand the pairing.

Some people’s food quirks go to the extreme, and to the point where they eat hardly anything. I have one friend, I will call him The Web Guru, who eats almost nothing, and when I say almost nothing, I’m not talking about quantity, I’m talking about variety.

The first 10 years I knew him, he ate mostly fried chicken tenders. As he grew older, he stepped away from fried food and limited his diet even more.

On a business trip to San Francisco earlier in the year, I took the Web Guy to The French Laundry in Yountville, California. The French Laundry is widely considered the best restaurant in the country. The things Thomas Keller does with food are fanciful to the point of mind-boggling. Lawrence Nadeau the maitre‘d was expediting a 12-course meal filled with foie gras terrines, caviar, and the like. The Web Guru passed on every course.

This was good and bad. Bad, in that I was responsible for bringing him there and putting him in a situation where he had to decline Keller’s world-class food. Good, in that I got to eat the courses he was unable to eat (which amounted to every course except the bread course).

In the end, I paid $240.00 plus tax and tip so that my friend could eat a basket of bread. However, it is notable that once the bread basket arrived, The Web Guru covered the basket with both arms and pulled it in tight to his chest, hoarding the basket of freshly baked treats for himself.

The Web Guru and I were eating lunch last week. He ordered a sandwich with turkey and bread and a bag of potato chips. The sandwich was dry— no mayonnaise, mustard, lettuce, pickle. Nothing. As we sat visiting I watched him place the potato chips— one by one— onto his turkey sandwich. There is hope, yet.

I am compiling a list of food quirks and strange combinations. If you, or anyone you know, eats strange food combinations send me an e-mail detailing the quirk. I will publish the strangest combinations and quirks in a November column.

Baked Cheese Treats

1 large loaf French bread

1 /2 pound sharp cheddar cheese
1 /2 pound white cheddar

3 /4 cup mayonnaise
1 /4 cup sour cream
3 Tbl whipping cream
1 tsp Creole seasoning
2 Tbl minced green onions
1 tsp lemon juice
1 Tbl minced red onion
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 /2 tsp black pepper

1 /4 cup shredded parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Remove crust from French bread. Cut bread into 1 1 /2-inch thick circles, then cut the circles in half creating half moon shaped slices of bread.

In a mixing bowl, combine remaining ingredients (except parmesan cheese) and mix well. Top the pieces of bread evenly with cheese mixture and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

Refrigerate for 30 minutes, or until ready to serve, or freeze until ready to use.

Sprinkle the bread with the shredded parmesan and bake five minutes.

Can be held warm for 20-30 minutes.

Yield: 30-36 treats
A Fall Break Diary

WATERCOLOR, Fla.— It’s fall break at my children’s school. I don’t remember having a Fall Break when I was in school. We were set free the day before Thanksgiving and a week or so at Christmas and that was it. No fall break, no spring break, no teacher’s meeting break, I don’t even think that we got a break between classes.

We did, however, have the entire months of June, July, and August off as a summer vacation. Today, my children have to return to school in the middle of August, so I guess a few days off throughout the year make sense.

We’re in the Florida Panhandle chilling out before the next book tour begins.

The Donut Hole restaurant is like an old friend. While living down here as a bachelor, I visited the Donut Hole at all hours of the morning. It was the perfect late night stop for a single man with a 32-inch waist.

Before my wife and I were married, and I could actually stay out later than sunset, we frequented the Donut Hole after a night on the town. My 34-36-inch waist was no worse for the wear.

As a dad, I take my kids to the Donut Hole whenever were in the area. I waddle up to the counter with my 38-inch waist and order a few custard filled donuts and wash them down with a pint of liquid rationalization (skim milk). It’s as good as it has always been. My physique, that’s another story.

There is a red tide in the area. According to one local I spoke to, a red tide is “A sudden concentration of algae in the water. Somehow it becomes airborne and makes everyone cough.” That sounded scientific enough for me. No one was in the water and everyone was coughing, so there must be some truth in his explanation.

Note to the reader: Never eat at a surfside restaurant during a red tide. We had lunch on the upper deck at Bud & Alley’s in Seaside and the wind was blowing from the South. The entire restaurant was coughing simultaneously. It was like one collective cough, and one of the most surreal things I have witnessed.

I am not exaggerating for effect when I say that everyone was coughing. Everyone in the restaurant except for the staff, who must have grown immune to red tides and airborne algae.

Red tide or not, the Smoked Tuna Dip and Spicy Crab Dip are as good in the off-season as they are during summer.

While standing in line at the Publix grocery store, I read a headline on one of the checkout counter magazines. The headline read “Angelina Jolie Gains 10 pounds.” My first thought was: Is this news? My second thought was: Who buys these magazines? My third thought was: Ten pounds? That’s nothing.

I have gained five pounds in one sitting. I could gain 10 pounds over the course of a weekend, or an extended fall break. Two visits to the Donut Hole and I’m halfway there.

Ten pounds. That’s easy, I thought. So I set out to prove my hypothesis. Unfortunately, I did.

Monday, October 08, 2007

I Am the Egg Man, Goo Goo Ga Joob

I am in an egg phase.

As I look back over my 46-year eating career, it’s easy to chart my personal dining tendencies. I’ll get on a barbeque kick for a few weeks, or go for months eating a certain dish from the same restaurant over and over.

I am a compulsive person and prone to obsessive behavior when it comes to food and eating. As with music and authors, when I find something I like, I typically go back to the well until I get burned out and move on to the next ingredient, component, or preparation method.

Eggs are the ingredient of the moment. I have been frequenting a small bagel shop in the historic downtown section of my hometown for whole wheat bagels and scrambled eggs, sometimes opting for a huevos rancheros omelet. I have also been eating egg sandwiches off of the late night menu at my bar. Mostly I’ve been eating cup eggs.

“Cup eggs” is my childhood name for soft-boiled eggs. As a child, the most frequently prepared egg dish in our house was a cup filled with soft-boiled eggs. My mother would boil a few eggs for three minutes, crack them into a coffee cup, scrape the whites from the shell, tear biscuits into bite-sized pieces, and mix it all together.

Soft boiled eggs are a straightforward morning comfort food. I like breakfast casseroles and stratas, but they can be labor intensive and time consuming. Preparing a soft-boiled egg only takes a matter of minutes.

It’s like eating eggs over easy on toast without having to mix the two together. Those who don’t eat runny yolks, will never enjoy cup eggs.

One doesn’t find soft-boiled eggs on restaurant menus anymore. The food police are scared of runny yolks. Some restaurants have stopped preparing eggs that are not fully cooked. The government makes food-service businesses add warning labels to their menus advising customers of the dangers of raw eggs.

I’ve got a lot of things to worry about. Consuming soft-boiled eggs doesn’t even come close to making the list. I always make sure to eat in reputable restaurants that utilize proper food handling and refrigeration and, so far, I have survived.

My mother used “whop biscuits” when preparing cup eggs. Whop biscuits are biscuits that are sold in cardboard tins in the refrigerator section of grocery stores. The tin must be “whopped” on the kitchen counter to be opened. For some strange reason— and I know that I’m going to get a lot of e-mails on this— grocery store whop biscuits taste better than homemade biscuits when making cup eggs. In every other situation I prefer homemade biscuits to the over-the-counter variety, but when making soft-boiled eggs, whop biscuits work best.

Other than cakes in my Easy Bake Oven, cup eggs were the first dish I learned to prepare. I was probably 10-years old when I made my first batch and I made them often during my school years.

Cup eggs are easy to make. All one needs is eggs, boiling water and biscuits. It is a simple dish to teach children to cook and can be a perfect introduction to the kitchen as long as you warn of the dangers of boiling water.

The foods of our youth, no matter how simple or unsophisticated, carry with them countless memories and associations. Every time I make cup eggs, a small part of me is transported to my mother’s kitchen.

Among the harvest gold appliances and avocado-green cookware, stands a 10-year old boy with a passion for food and a culinary curiosity that will never wane. Ahead of him are innumerable gourmet meals prepared using a myriad of exotic ingredients. He leans against the counter holding a coffee cup filled with egg-soaked biscuits. He is unaware of the treats the world has in store for him. He eats slowly, savoring every bite, ignorant to the fact that one of life’s sweetest gastronomic treats— and one that will satisfy him for many years to come— is being held in his hands at that very moment.

Robert’s Cup Eggs

Bring a small pot of water to a boil. Using a safety pin, poke a small hole in the top of three eggs. Add the eggs to the boiling water and set a kitchen timer for three minutes.

When three minutes is up, transfer the pot to the sink. Pour out the hot water leaving the eggs in the pot. Fill the pot halfway with cold tap water. Let eggs sit for 15-30 seconds (this allows the eggs to cool slightly, though the water and eggs will still be warm due to heat from the pan). One at a time, crack open the eggs in the normal fashion. Drop the yolk into a small bowl. Using a small spoon, carefully scrape the whites from the sides of the shell and let them drop into the bowl with the yolks. Be careful that no small pieces of egg shell fall into the bowl. Repeat with each egg.

To the egg bowl, add 2-3 biscuits that have been torn into bite-sized pieces until almost all of the yolk has been absorbed into the biscuits (the dish should be slightly moist. Too many biscuits will result in a dry batch of cup eggs). Add salt and pepper.

Lately, I have tweaked the way I prepare and eat Cup Eggs. I will cook two slices of bacon until crispy, chop the bacon into small pieces, and add the bacon to the egg mixture before adding the biscuits. There is no need to add salt if bacon is being used.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Sleepy Shank

“Drugged lamb shanks missing from clinic.” I can’t imagine how anyone could read a newspaper headline such as that and not take the time to dive into the rest of the story.

I certainly bit.

The story came from the Sydney Morning Herald. I’m not in the habit of reading Australian newspapers, but when I am surfing the Internet, and come across a food-related story, I usually read at least a paragraph or two to make sure I’m staying in touch with the culinary world. This story begged to be read.

It appears that Australian health workers were using lamb shanks to practice syringe techniques at a clinic in Broome, Australia.

Two points: I am glad that health workers are practicing with needles. Over the years I have encountered several medical technicians who could use a little practice when it comes to their shot-giving skills and etiquette. A few select cuts of meat— not a human’s behind— seems like the perfect testing ground. Though, why lamb? I love lamb. What did lamb shanks ever do to deserve such a lowly fate?

Why not pick a less tasty food to abuse? Why not squab, or beef tongue, or even head cheese? I can state unequivocally that I am all in favor of nurses practicing with syringes on pieces of head cheese.

The health workers were injecting the lamb shanks with some type of anesthetic. Up until now the Thanksgiving turkey— with its sleep-inducing loads of tryptophan— was the only food that made one drowsy. Now Australian lamb shanks laced with knock-out drops have joined the fold.

It would seem to me that they could have practiced with water in the syringe and all of this mess would have been avoided. Better still, they could have whipped up a spicy marinade, practiced injecting that into the lamb, and then slow-braised the shanks for a nice Cajun-style lamb meal.

After the lamb shanks were injected, the newspaper article stated that, “they were stitched up and stored in an outside refrigerator.” I have no idea why they didn’t just throw them away, but I am glad they didn’t. Had they disposed of the drug-injected meat immediately, I would have no column this week.

In my mind’s eye I can see the disappointment followed by excitement experienced by the thief. He was probably searching the clinic’s outdoor refrigerator for illicit narcotics and found supper instead. The Australian slang for someone who is stupid is “lamb-brained.” It did not originate with the clinic thieves who stole the drugged lamb shanks, but it certainly applies.

I would guess that the typical food thief probably finds stores of week-old hamburger meat, thin-cut pork chops, or freezers full of deer sausage that have been sitting alone and freezer burned for years. If he lucks up he might come across a pound of bacon or a slice of ham. The Australian food thief probably encounters a few shrimp on the Barbie, kangaroo fillets, or kidney pie.

Imagine the glee when the thief came across lamb shanks. “Fire up the barbie, sport. Down Under osso buco tonight!” And the post meal conversation “Krikie mate, that tucker we knocked off and stuffed in our cakeholes was not fair dinkum. It knocked me out! Wake up you nong. Wake up!”

Note: The preceding paragraph exhausted all of the Australian language, culture, and slang that I possess, most of which came from the Outback Steakhouse menu or reruns of Crocodile Dundee (the first one, not the sequel). The reader will be glad to know that there will be no further cheesy Australian references for the remainder of this column.

The reader might also be glad to know that this is, in fact, is the end of the column.

G’day mate.

Grilled Leg of Lamb with Raspberry Mint Sauce

1/2 cup Roasted Garlic Puree
1/4 cup Olive Oil
1 Tbl Fresh Rosemary, chopped
1/4 cup Fresh Mint, chopped
2 Tbl Sherry Vinegar

1 Boneless Leg of Lamb, 3- 31/2 pounds, butterflied

1 Tbl Black Pepper, freshly ground
2 Tbl Kosher Salt

Place the garlic, oil, rosemary, mint and vinegar in a mixing bowl. Blend together using a wire whisk.

Trim any excess fat and sinew from the lamb. Lay the lamb on a flat surface, and spread half of the garlic mixture over one the surface. Roll the lamb tightly into a cylinder. Tie the lamb with butcher’s twine so that it maintains the cylinder shape. Rub the outside of the lamb with the remaining garlic mixture, and sprinkle the surface with the salt and pepper. Allow the lamb to sit at room temperature 30-40 minutes before grilling.

Prepare the grill. Sear the lamb for 15-20 minutes over medium direct heat, turning every 3-4 minutes. Once the lamb has browned on all sides, continue cooking over medium indirect heat until the lamb has reached desired doneness, approximately one hour and fifteen minutes for medium rare. Remove the lamb from the grill and let rest 15 minutes before carving. Cut away the twine. Using a carving knife, cut lamb against the grain into 1/4-inch thick slices.

Serve with Raspberry Mint Sauce.

Raspberry Mint Sauce

3 Tbl Olive oil
2 Tbl Shallot, minced
1 cup Raspberries
1/ 2 cup Sugar
1 cup Red wine
1 1/ 2 cups Veal demi glace
3 Tbl Cold Unsalted Butter, cut into small cubes
1/2 tsp Kosher Salt
1 Tbl fresh Mint, chopped

In a saucepan over medium heat, combine raspberries, sugar, and red wine and simmer until most of the liquid is gone. Purée mixture and pass through a fine mesh strainer.

Return the strained mixture to a small sauce pot and add the demi glace. Bring the mixture to a simmer. Add the butter cubes while whisking briskly. Stir until all of the butter is incorporated. Remove the sauce from the heat and add salt and mint. Store in a warm place until needed.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Viking Classic

Growing up in Hattiesburg, Miss. in the late 1960s and early 1970s I always looked forward to the Magnolia Classic.

The Magnolia Classic was a Professional Golf Association sanctioned event that was held in Hattiesburg every April opposite The Masters tournament in Augusta. Tom Watson and Nick Faldo played here but never won. Payne Stewart and Craig Stadler each won the tournament. Dwight Nevil won it twice.

Wednesday’s Magnolia Classic Pro-Am was an official school holiday in Hattiesburg. My friends and I worked as caddies to earn extra money. In its early days, the tournament attracted many celebrities. I watched Clint Eastwood try to hit a ball standing ankle deep in water on number 10. Robert Stack and Phil Harris played here. My friend Stan drove Jimmy Dean around with the task of keeping track of all of his jewelry.

Eastwood was only able to play a few holes. Female fans kept stealing his ball and eventually he called it quits.

I followed Glen Campbell around for a few holes and can remember being taken aback when he ducked into a Porta-Potty. At 10 years old I was amazed that celebrities actually used the restroom.

I remember in 1986— the last year I attended the Magnolia Classic— as the afternoon wound down and the day’s last groups were approaching the 18th green, someone busted out of the 19th Hole lounge yelling, “Jack Nicklaus just won the Masters! Jack Nicklaus just won the Masters!”

Eventually, the Magnolia Classic stopped booking high profile Pro-Am celebrities and the tournament moved to Jackson. It was sponsored by a bank and an insurance company. For me, it never held the appeal that those early days provided. These days I’m a cook, not a golfer.

In my absence the tournament has grown into a full-fledged, big-purse PGA event and is truly a feather in Mississippi’s cap. And to top it off, this year the Viking Range Corporation has stepped up to the plate as the title sponsor. And who said that food and golf were like chalk and cheese?

Mississippi Delta wunderkind Fred Carl, founder and CEO of the Viking Range Corporation has done it again. Viking is one of Mississippi’s premier industries and the one that I always brag about when dealing with people in New York and California. The marriage of these two great examples of what Mississippi has to offer makes perfect sense.

The tournament will feature plenty of golfing star power. John Daly, Steve Elkington, Jim Gallagher, Jr., and Davis Love III will be there. But leave it to Viking to bring out the culinary stars.

Viking has pitched a culinary tent on the Annandale grounds where chefs from all over the country will be performing demos for those who want to take a break from the action on the course (or for those who came to the event with a golf fanatic, but would rather eat).

Paula Deen’s sons, the Deen Brothers, will be performing a cooking demo, as will Mississippi’s own, Cat Cora, Food Network Iron Chef, and the Executive Chef at Bon Appetit’ magazine. A full list of the week’s chef demos can be found at .

Watercolor artist, Wyatt Waters and I will be hosting a dual demonstration at 1 p.m. on Sunday, the final day of the tournament. I’ll be preparing recipes from our soon-to-be-released cookbook, Southern Seasons, while Wyatt simultaneously paints a watercolor still life. I am not sure if we’ll have to whisper instructions to those in attendance, but I can’t wait to find out.

Caramel Brownies


1 cup sugar
1/4 cup water

1 1/4 cup heavy whipping cream, heated

In a small, heavy duty saucepan, combine the sugar and water. Bring the mixture to a slow boil, stirring very often. Continue to cook until the mixture reaches a deep caramel color, about 10 minutes. As soon as this deep color is achieved, use a wire whisk and quickly stir in the warm cream. Return the caramel to a medium heat, and cook for 2-3 more minutes.

Remove keep warm while preparing the brownie batter.

Brownie Mix

6 ounces Unsweetened Chocolate
1 cup Unsalted Butter, cut into small cubes
1 cup All-Purpose Flour
1/4 cup Cocoa
1 tsp Double Acting Baking Powder
1/8 tsp Salt
4 large Eggs
2 1/2 cups Sugar
2 tsp Vanilla
1 1/2 cup Pecans, chopped (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Butter a 9x12 inch baking dish

In a small heavy saucepot, melt chocolate and butter over low heat. Stir constantly until the mixture is smooth. Remove from the heat and allow the mixture to cool completely.

Sift together flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt into a large bowl.

Using the whip attachment of an electric mixer beat the eggs on medium speed. While still beating, add the sugar, a little at a time, and continue to beat for 2-3 minutes until the mixture becomes thick and pale. Add in the chocolate mixture and vanilla and mix well. Add the flour mixture and blend well using a rubber spatula or wooden spoon. Stir in the chopped pecans.

Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan and smooth the top. Drizzle the caramel in rows lengthwise on top of the batter. Drag a pairing knife back and forth through the caramel lines. Bake the brownies for 25-30 minutes, or until the brownie pulls away slightly from the sides of the pan. Let brownies cool completely before cutting.

16 brownies

Donald Duck Orange Juice

As I sat at the breakfast table this morning I stared at my glass of orange juice and contemplated the beverage’s evolution.

As a child, orange juice was kept in a small can in the freezer. One opened the can, dumped the syrupy, icy, orange clump into a pitcher, filled the empty can with tap water, added it to the pitcher, stirred, and orange juice was born.

I was born in an era just before major changes in food packaging were implemented. I am sandwiched between milk delivered in glass bottles on the back door steps and milk purchased in half-gallon paper cartons in a store. In those days all orange juice came in a can, just like chicken came on a bone.

For centuries— before freezers and concentrate cans— one had to squeeze his or her own orange juice, if there were fresh oranges available. That is still an option today, though I don’t imagine many people do it.

Upscale grocery stores have machines that mechanically squeeze fresh oranges while you wait. The quality, as always, depends on the quality of the oranges used. Occasionally the orange juice squeezed from one of those grocery store robot juicers tastes a little like orange rind. Bitter.

Today orange juice mostly comes in half-gallon cartons. There are many options available. As a kid I had two options in the morning— orange juice concentrate or no orange juice at all— today I can have orange juice with no pulp, orange juice with a small amount of pulp, orange juice with a lot of pulp, orange juice with calcium added, orange juice with less sugar, with fiber, low acid, heart healthy… you get the point.

Actually there were three orange juice options back in the day: orange juice, no orange juice, or Donald Duck orange juice. Option three— Donald Duck orange juice— was an option that was actually worse than not drinking orange juice at all. It was bad.

Donald Duck orange juice tasted like grapefruit juice. I hate grapefruit juice. For some reason, back in the 1940s, the Walt Disney Company gave a license to an orange juice manufacturer to use the likeness of one of their top cartoon characters, Donald Duck, for use in a new beverage. The company then proceeded to put bitter tasting grapefruit juice in a can and market it as orange juice. For a company that has licensed everything imaginable, it is their oldest surviving license still in existence

The cans of Donald Duck orange juice always looked rusted on the outside and the product inside always had a faint taste of the metallic can.

Question: If Donald Duck orange juice tastes like grapefruit juice. How awful does Donald Duck grapefruit juice taste?

My mom bought Donald Duck orange juice every once in a while. I am not sure why. The Sunflower grocery store always had plenty of frozen concentrate on hand.

As I sat staring at my orange juice this morning— orange juice, by the way, that had been poured from a paper carton (medium pulp) — I reflected back on my first experience with Donald Duck orange juice. I was around eight years old. I was eating sweet rolls prepared by my across the street neighbor. I had asked for milk (the perfect sweet roll accompaniment). My mother poured orange juice, and not just any orange juice, Donald Duck orange juice.

It was the first case of taste-bud shock I had ever encountered. Taste-bud shock is when one thinks he is drinking a particular beverage, and there is an entirely different beverage in the glass. For example, your taste buds are ready to taste milk, your brain is sending signals all over your body— here comes some cold, delicious milk. Except it’s not milk, it is orange juice. Immediately your taste buds panic and your brain goes into sensory overload.

In my inaugural bout with taste-bud shock, my taste buds were bombarded with Donald Duck orange juice when they were expecting milk. That is a third degree taste-bud shock, skipping two steps altogether and going from milk expectancy to something that tastes like canned grapefruit juice.

We switched to Tang after that. I hate Tang, too, but next to Donald Duck orange juice, Tang is nectar of the gods.

Before long, we switched back to frozen canned orange juice concentrate and that is where we stayed until I moved away from home.

In my twenties I drifted away from orange juice, and by the time I returned to the fold, orange juice was being sold in cartons.

Sometimes we get caught up in romanticizing the “good old days.” Folks, there are no “good old days” when it comes to orange juice. It’s better than ever.

Today I drink orange juice that comes from a carton. And I don’t even have to open the carton and make a paper pour spout out of the corners of the top of the carton. The good folks at the orange juice manufacturing plant have seen fit to put a small plastic screw top on the top side of my orange juice carton. I shake and pour. No can, no grapefruits, no rust, and no taste-bud shock— just sweet, slightly pulpy, Florida orange juice.

Barbara Jane Foote’s Super Summer Tea

6 Tea Bags (regular size, or 3 family sized)
2 qts Boiling Water
1 1 /2 cups Sugar
6 oz. Can Frozen Orange Juice Concentrate
6 oz. Can Frozen Lemonade Concentrate
6 oz. Pineapple juice
Handful Fresh Mint
1 /4 tsp Cinnamon
1 /8 tsp Ground Cloves

Pour boiling water over tea, mint, cinnamon and cloves. Steep for 20 minutes. Strain into a one-gallon pitcher. Add sugar, stir until dissolved. Add juices and stir well. Fill pitcher with ice. Can be served hot or cold.

The restaurant business is full of chef/owners with atypical success stories.

The restaurant business is full of culinary twists on tried-and-true recipes.

The restaurant business is notorious for its 90-hour work weeks for owners who are willing to open on a shoestring and do what it takes— whatever it takes— to build a business.

The restaurant business is often responsible for preserving storied and historic buildings.

However, the restaurant business is not full of concepts or personalities which bring all of those components together in one time and in one place.

The California Sandwich Shop on Front Street in my hometown of Hattiesburg, Miss is probably the most historic and storied restaurant property within a 60-mile radius. For decades it operated in a small space across from the railroad station downtown. In 1996 it closed.

Several years, and a few failed restaurant attempts later, an atypical bagel baker came to town.
From a Greek immigrant to a Midwestern male model

A native of Iowa, Chris Hackbarth worked as a model on runways in New York and Milan before traveling to Hattiesburg to visit his homesick sister. The 24-year old immediately fell in love with the revitalized downtown area and logged on to the internet to find a potential investment property. The first business that popped up was a struggling bagel shop located in the building that formally housed the California Sandwich Shop.

Hackbarth purchased the business, moved his belongings from San Francisco into a loft apartment in downtown Hattiesburg, changed the name of the business to Southbound Bagel and Coffee Shop, and began doing the countless tasks that are involved in owning a business.

He had never worked in a restaurant or owned a business, but those were not his biggest challenges. Hackbarth had never made a bagel.

After several harrowing days and 500 pounds of dough later, the Southbound bagel was born.

I have never been a fan of bagels, though I love Southbound bagels. While having breakfast at Southbound the other morning, a friend walked by my table and said, “You know the bagels are good because the Yankees eat here.”

Hackbarth’s bagels are not the typical New York bagel. They’re slightly sweeter and a little lighter. In my opinion they are world-class and Hackbarth makes all 12 varieties from scratch every morning.

The breakfast menu offers several omelets, bagel sandwiches, lox, and rich coffee. The lunch menu offers several sandwiches using bread made from scratch in the tiny 400-square foot Southbound kitchen.

Actually, the limited space in the kitchen might be the reason that the bagels taste so good. Typically, bagel dough is boiled before being baked. A large boiler wouldn’t fit into Southbound’s tiny prep kitchen, so Hackbarth “made do” with a steamer.
The steamer might be the difference; Hackbarth thinks it’s the calcium content in the downtown water. Steam or calcium, either way, the Southbound bagel is not dense, and not bread like— it’s just good.

I am new to Southbound Bagel and Coffee Shop. A friend told me of a little café downtown that made great cinnamon rolls from scratch every Saturday morning. I thought it might be a great place to take my children. After eating a few bagels and a killer omelet, I was ashamed that it took me three years to discover the place. The kids and I decided to make our Southbound visit a Saturday morning tradition.

For the neophyte restaurateur who hit a homerun his first time at bat, the days have started to get a little shorter. “I get up at 5:30 in the morning instead of 3:30, like I did the first year,” Hackbarth says. Though that might change as the restaurant has started opening on Friday and Saturday nights from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. to service the late-night bar business in the downtown area.

The restaurant business is filled with hard-working success stories. The Greek immigrants who traveled to the South in the early part of the 20th Century set a lofty precedent with super-human determination and work ethic. They opened places like The California Sandwich Shop and thousands of others.

The baton has been passed to another generation. One, I am happy to say, that employs the 100-hour a week work ethic of our culinary forefathers.

As a fellow restaurateur, an avid customer, and the father of two cinnamon roll-loving kids (not to mention the husband of a woman who loves world-class bagels) I am rooting for the long-term success of Southbound Bagel and Coffee Shop.


1 stick unsalted butter 1 cup brown sugar 3 large eggs 2 cups all-purpose flour 2 tsp ground ginger 1 1 /2 teaspoons baking soda 1 tsp cinnamon 1 /2 teaspoon salt 1 /2 teaspoon ground cloves 1 /4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg 1 cup molasses 1 cup hard ciderApple Icing for Topping

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Grease a 13 by 9-inch cake pan and line with parchment paper that has been greased.

In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Beat in eggs one at a time. In a second bowl, sift together the flour, ginger, baking soda, cinnamon, salt, cloves, and nutmeg. In a third bowl, combine the molasses and hard cider and stir to dissolve. Add the dry ingredients and cider mixture alternately to the egg mixture, beating after the addition of each.
Pour into the prepared pan and bake until puffed and set, approximately 35 minutes.

Remove from the oven and let cool in the pan on a wire rack.

Cut into squares and top with Apple Icing.

Yield: 24 squares

Apple Icing

2 Tbl butter
1 cup apple, peeled, cut into small dice
1 /4 tsp cinnamon
1 /2 cup hard cider
1 1 /2 cup confectioner’s sugar

Melt the butter over medium heat and cook apples for five minutes, stir in cinnamon and cider and cook five more minutes until most of the liquid is cooked out. Remove from heat and stir in sugar. Cool completely before topping gingerbread.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Banana Fanna Fo Felvis

Elvis is alive… on candy wrappers.

I walked into a convenience store yesterday and ran into the King of Rock and Roll.

Immediately inside the front entrance of the store sat a huge display of a newly introduced candy: Collector’s Edition Reese’s Peanut Butter and Banana Crème cups—the Elvis edition.

The Elvis edition peanut butter cup has a photo of the King on the wrapper and a ribbon of banana-flavored filling inside the candy bar. The peanut butter-banana cup seemed to be something that Elvis might have liked. Impulsively, I grabbed one.

Elvis’ favorite food was a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich. Not the average meal fit for a king, but certainly fitting enough to be eaten in a jungle room outfitted with crush velvet furniture, shag carpeting, and the Memphis Mafia.

The photo on the candy wrapper was of the 1950s Elvis, not the late 1970s Elvis after he had eaten one-too-many peanut butter and banana sandwiches
I needed a drink to accompany the candy. I tried to think of what Elvis’ favorite beverage might have been but I had no clue. I narrowed my guesses down to a RC Cola or an Orange Crush. Ultimately, I thought that the orange flavoring might take away from the taste-testing of the banana and, since neither was in a small glass bottle, I opted for an RC.

Also, if I’m not mistaken, RC stands for Royal Crown, so it made perfect sense to purchase a royal beverage to accompany a candy featuring the King of Rock and Roll.

The chocolate-peanut-banana cup tasted mostly like a regular peanut butter cup except that there was a slight hint of banana flavor— similar to a banana popsicle.

A banana Popsicle doesn’t taste like a banana. It tastes like what the people at the Popsicle plant think a banana tastes like. The corporate chefs at Hershey, the parent company of Reese’s, must have been talking to the banana people at people at the Popsicle plant.

The Collector’s Edition Reese’s Peanut Butter and Banana Crème cup seemed like a candy that might have been initially conceived late at night on the Willie Nelson tour bus. It tasted like someone dipped a regular peanut butter cup into a glass filled with melted banana Popsicle juice. Realizing this, I came to the conclusion that Elvis would have loved the Collector’s Edition Reese’s cup.

Last year I filmed a television show at a place called Graceland Two in Holly Springs, Miss. Graceland Two is operated by a man who has dedicated his entire life to all things Elvis. For the purposes of the television program I had to do a cooking demo in the house. I prepared a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich.

The sandwich was surprisingly good. I cooked it as one would a grilled cheese sandwich. I was told that Elvis’ cook spread a lot of butter on the outside of his sandwiches. I opted for spray margarine which is what I use when I’m preparing grilled cheese sandwiches for my children.

I cooked the fried peanut butter and banana sandwich on a George Foreman Grill which wasn’t around when Elvis was alive. However, had the grill been around in the 1970s, I’ll bet Graceland would have had one in every room. George Foreman looks like he might have scarfed down a few fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches over the years.

The banana in the sandwich I prepared at Graceland Two tasted like banana, not like a Popsicle. The peanut butter I used was Reese’s. It is, in my opinion, the best-tasting peanut butter on the market.

I have heard that Elvis liked to add honey or bacon to his fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. There is no word yet as to whether Hershey will be adding a Limited Edition bacon and banana-flavored peanut butter cup. Stay tuned.

S’more Squares

2 cups graham cracker crumbs
3 /4 cup melted butter
1 cup sugar

1 pound semisweet chocolate
1 /2 cup sugar1 1 /2 cups heavy whipping cream 1 1 /2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 jar Marshmallow Fluff (7 ounces)
3 cups marshmallows

For the crust:
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Spray the inside of a 9 x 13 inch baking sheet with non-stick cooking spray. In a bowl, combine graham cracker crumbs, sugar, and melted butter. Press mixture firmly into sprayed pie tin, covering bottom and sides.

Bake for 6 to 8 minutes. Set aside to cool.

For filling:
Combine chocolate, sugar and heavy whipping cream and melt in a double boiler. Stir until melted. Pour 2 /3 of the chocolate mixture onto the crust distributing it evenly. Set in refrigerator and allow this layer to harden while preparing the second layer.

For the second layer, add the Fluff to the remaining chocolate mixture and mix with an electric mixer until smooth. Pour this mixture on top of the firm chocolate layer and spread it out evenly.

Using a wet, sharp knife, cut the marshmallows into thin discs (three discs per marshmallow). Arrange the discs on top of the chocolate marshmallow layer. Place in the freezer for 24 hours.

After the squares have been frozen, brown the marshmallows underneath a hot broiler. Allow to cool once more.

Dip a sharp knife into hot water and carefully cut into squares.
Refrigerate at least 1 hour.
Yield: 24 squares

Monday, August 27, 2007

Diet Dilemma

I was walking from the restaurant to my office the other day and, out of the corner of my eye, caught a glimpse of C’est La Vie, the French bakery across the street.

The morning sun fell gently on the face of the bakery and a golden glow shone all about the building. Through the glimmering radiance I could have sworn I heard a heavenly choir of angels singing “Gloria” (not Van Morrison’s G-L-O-R-I-A Gloria, but the glory hallelujah-type ditty usually sung by a choir). The bakery was calling to me. My thoughts turned to pastry.

The custard-raisin croissant is a thing of simple beauty— butter, flour, milk, egg, and yeast. A touch of custard in the dough and the addition of raisins and cinnamon make it one of my favorite breakfast treats.

I continued to walk towards my office, ignoring the siren song of the heavenly choir. Approximately halfway across the parking lot, the diet angel and the diet devil instantly appeared— one on each shoulder— as they have many times before.

The diet devil spoke first, “Go over and get one of those custard-raisin croissants. You deserve it. Those scales in your bathroom are broken. There’s no way you weigh that much. Eat. Enjoy. Live.”

The diet angel chimed in saying, “Robert, you know those scales aren’t broken. If anything they are seven pounds off giving you a false sense of security. Croissants are loaded with butter and…”

“Don’t listen to him,” the diet devil interrupted. “He’d have you eating sunflower seeds and rice cakes all day. You’re a chef. Chefs aren’t supposed to be skinny. Eat one. Heck, eat two.”

“Skinny? Ha! You haven’t seen skinny since the Regan administration,” the diet angel replied. “Just go into your office and eat a protein bar.”

“A protein bar? You’ve got a world-class bakery across the street and you’re going to eat a protein bar?” said the diet devil. “I’ll bet they just pulled the custard-raisin croissants out of the oven. They’re probably warm enough to melt in your mouth.”

“Just think of how many extra miles you’ll have to walk to burn off those calories,” said the diet angel. “You’re gonna have to start shopping at the Big and Tall store again, and everyone knows you’re not tall.”

The diet angel won that battle, but the diet devil will live to fight another day (a potential rematch might be reconvened on my shoulders as early as this afternoon)

Lightheaded from a lack of substantive food, I sat at my desk and wondered how fate had dealt me such a terrible blow.

Why couldn’t a Frenchman have opened a bakery 97 steps (yes, I’ve counted them) away from my office when I was in my 20s? Back then, I could eat anything in site and not gain an ounce. When I opened my first restaurant, the people at the pizza delivery joint down the street from my house knew my name. I had a standing order when I got off work at midnight: a large pepperoni pizza and a two-liter Coke— all that and a 32-inch waist, too.

In those days I had the metabolism of a hummingbird.

In my early 30s, I could eat a seven-course meal at a fine-dining restaurant, and three hours later, eat a late-night breakfast at an all-night diner— all that and a 34-inch waist, too.

In those days I had the metabolism of a mountain goat.

By the time I reached 40 years old, my waist had expanded to an all-time high of 42 inches and my metabolism was like that of a pot-bellied pig.

Today, at 45, I purchase jeans with a 38-inch waist and am currently on my way back to 36’s (as long as the diet angel can keep me away from French pastries). My metabolism is like that of an average 45-year old mammal and I am learning to live with it

National Geographic Adventure magazine just published a list of America’s top 10 cities Along with Nashville, Austin, and Chicago, my hometown of Hattiesburg made the top ten list. These lists have been around for years, but this is the first time that Hattiesburg has shown up on list that didn’t feature retirement communities.

I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that the same year a French bakery opens in town; we land on a top-ten list. The quality of life is going up. My waist size is going down, and through it all, the heavenly choir of angels is still singing.

Miniature Banana-Nut Muffins

2 cups flour
3 /4 cups sugar
1 Tbl baking powder
1 /4 tsp salt
1 /2 tsp nutmeg
1 /2 cup toasted walnuts, chopped fine
1 egg
1 /2 cup whipping cream
1 medium sized mashed banana (about 1 cup)
1 /3 cup melted butter

Preheat oven to 350.

In one mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, nutmeg, walnuts and salt.

In another bowl, blend the remaining ingredients together well. Fold wet ingredients into the dry. Do not over mix.

Fill non-stick miniature muffin tins 3 /4 full of the mix.

Bake for 14-16 minutes.

Yield: 24 miniature muffins