Monday, January 29, 2007

The Mississippi legislature is banning fried foods from our school cafeterias.

At least we’re better off than Rhode Island. In that postage stamp of a state they’ve banned talking in the school cafeteria during lunch. Well actually only one school has barred talking, but you know how these things work— once one falls the others are sure to follow.

The legislature has been trying to outlaw soft drinks, too. Fried steak fingers and imitation veal cutlets, I can understand, but I might have to draw the line at Diet Coke.

The legislature is citing our number-one-in-the-nation obesity rate as reason for the fried-food ban. Go figure, we’re always number 49 or 50 in every other statistical category, then we finally reach number one and the politicians want to take the designation away from us. We’re fat. So what, where’s the Lard Lobby when you need them.

My elementary school, Thames Elementary, had a great line-em-up-in-the-back-of-the-room-and-grab-your-tray-for-butter-beans-and-lime-Jell-O, and-a-yeast-roll cafeteria. We ate vegetables, cornbread, strawberry shortcake, and turnip greens on days when they mowed the playground. I don’t remember an inordinate amount of fried food being served, but that was in the 1960s, maybe things have changed.

In the sixth grade I was sent to a small private school in town. There, free of state regulations, we ate hamburgers and pizza and something called a steak sandwich, though I don’t think any form of steak was used in its preparation.

Note: The statement you are about to read is 100% accurate (I have friends who will verify it)— For four consecutive years of high school I ate a small frozen pepperoni pizza, two Coca Colas and an oatmeal cream pie every day, day in day out. Occasionally I would eat a Richeyburger (named after the lunch lady Mrs. Richey) with hot fries. Not French fries that were sliced from real potatoes and fried in grease, but light crunchy fried bits of potato parts, formed into French fry shapes and seasoned with some type of spicy powder, a side item in which— in the words of John Lennon— nothing is real.

The Richeyburger was cooked from a frozen state in one of the earliest examples of a microwave. The school microwave was as large as a desk and most of the mothers were a little suspicious of it. “How can it cook so quickly? It can’t be good for you. Don’t watch the food cook, you’ll go blind.”

My high school years were during the Cold War. No one had a microwave in their home kitchen in those days. The father of a friend believed that microwaves were a communist plot to embed radioactivity into everyday American civilization. My friend brought his lunch everyday.

The pizzas were made by a food vending company; they were frozen, and then shipped to the school to lay in wait in the deep freeze before being placed into the communist cooking apparatus. My friends at the public school were eating fish sticks, chicken fried steak, and fried burritos with a wiener in the middle. We were surviving on a steady diet of Richeyburgers, hot fries, oatmeal cream pies, and Coca Cola.

The man who owned the local Coca Cola bottling plant was on the board of directors at the school and all three of his children were enrolled there. We had Coke machines and snack machines in every hallway and break room. It was great. Public schools didn’t have vending machines in those days. Oatmeal crème pies were there for the taking, along with tubular packets of peanuts for adding to your bottle of Coke. There was no Diet Coke in those days, although some of the teachers drank Tab.

Ten years ago, I would have a field day writing a column against this new piece of legislation. Today, I as a father of two children and in the middle of a three-month diet, it seems like sound reasoning, though I could be suffering from a lack of sustenance.

I don't want my kids eating hot fries, microwave pizza, and burritos with a wiener in the middle. Could we amend the bill to include a once-a-month serving of fried chicken? Actually, that should be a requirement in every Southern school, though I will officially go on record as being in favor of doing away with steak nuggets forever.

At least our children can talk while they eat, hopefully not with their mouths full.

Fried Chicken

3 lb Whole Chicken (fresh)
3 cups Buttermilk
2 tsp Salt
1 Tbl Black pepper
2 cups Flour
Crisco for deep frying

Wash chicken well in cold water and cut chicken. Place chicken in a bowl with ice water to draw out excess blood. Pat chicken dry and sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper and marinate in buttermilk for two hours in the refrigerator.

Season flour with salt and pepper. Heat Crisco in a large cast iron skillet to 350 degrees on a deep-fat thermometer. There should be just enough grease in the skillet to come up just around the edge (halfway) of each piece of chicken. Drain chicken thoroughly and dust with flour shaking off all excess.

Place chicken, skin side down, in oil and make sure none of the chicken is touching. Cover the skillet and cook for approximately five to seven minutes, turn and cover for another five to seven minutes. Uncover the skillet and continue cooking for 10 to 15 minutes. Only turn the chicken once.

Cook chicken in smaller batches if skillet is too small. Drain on a wire cake rack with a paper bag or paper towels underneath the rack to catch excess grease (draining straight to a paper bag causes the chicken to sit in the drained grease). Yield: 8 pieces

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the Beau Rivage hotel and casino was inundated with water and its future changed forever. Its restaurants were completely wiped out and the entire operation was shut down for one year. In 99.9 percent of the cases, that was a bad thing. For that .1 percent there is Olives.The Beau Rivage’s parent company, MGM Mirage, had a clean slate with which to work and they obviously sunk a sizable portion of the $550 million rebuilding budget into their restaurant operations.

Before the storm, the Beau Rivage offered a mediocre Italian restaurant, an on-again, off-again fine dining restaurant whose atmosphere was dictated mostly by huge saltwater aquariums that lined the walls, a Japanese concept that never seemed to decide what it was, and, a Chinese concept— the only concept Steve Wynn sent down from his Las Vegas mothership, The Belagio— Noodles.

Noodles was my favorite Chinese restaurant in the state, and certainly the best of the original Beau Rivage concepts, but it didn’t make the cut.

Lucky for us, and in a situation that might possibly our first opportunity to say, ”This is better than it was before the storm,” The Beau Rivage has brought celebrity chef, Todd English’s Mediterranean mega restaurant, Olives, to town.

Olives is possibly the most visually appealing and tastefully decorated restaurant in the state of Mississippi. The dining room was designed by architect Jeffrey Beers and is designed to look like an ancient olive mill. It, along with the exposed kitchen, are prime examples that casinos can and will spend money to get the very best. The room is exquisite.

I have never eaten at the original Olives in Boston, but I enjoyed an excellent meal at the Aspen Olives a few years ago. The coast restaurant, at least appearance-wise, is better.On the night of my visit the restaurant had been open one month, the casino was packed, yet the restaurant was only three-quarters full. It should be noted that the waiting line to acquire a table in the all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant stretched about half the length of a football field.

The amuse bouche, a basket of freshly baked breads, two tapenades, and a small assortment of the restaurant’s namesake kicked the meal off with a bang. Both versions of the tapenade were subtly flavorful and probably the best this writer has tasted.

As I am wont to do, I ordered several courses— five from the appetizer menu— and all were first-rate. The fig and proscuitto flatbread and one of the most visually stunning presentations of carpaccio were the best of the bunch. The tuna was a hit-and-miss proposition with each bite as some were flavorful and spicy and others were bland and boring.

The pastrami seasoned ribs were an example of a dish brilliantly conceived yet average when produced. The portion was a little too large. The ribs were melt-in-your-mouth tender though, at least on this night, were the victims of a heavy hand holding the pepper shaker.

The final appetizer— a crab gnocco— was delicate, flavorful, and made perfect use of the classic crab-avocado pairing.

The service at Olives was attentive yet spotty at times with several long drags between courses, though nothing that couldn’t— or shouldn’t— be written off to a restaurant still in it’s honeymoon period.

Halfway through the meal I began to wonder if the three-quarters full dining room was a result of disinterest or of the managers short seating the dining room in a restaurant that was four weeks old hoping not to tax the kitchen. Hopefully, the latter was the case.

We ordered three pasta dishes the best of which was a ravioli that I would certainly order again. The other two weren’t executed to English’s standards but were miles ahead of anything served in the Italian restaurant that previously occupied the space.

The exposed kitchen is a chef’s dream and is one of the best examples of how to incorporate an open kitchen into a dining room that I have ever seen.

The restaurant was filled with a strange mix of casino slot junkies and local members of the upwardly mobile. The man seated next to me asked for steak sauce to accompany his $47 steak and when none was given, settled for a ramekin of ketchup.

By 9 p.m. the music had been turned up a notch with a steady techno beat that screamed “big city” and I almost forgot I was home.

Olives, should immediately be listed among the state’s top restaurants, and is a welcome addition to the Coast’s new restaurant offerings. I anticipate eating there often.

Lasagna with Spinach

1 Tbl Olive oil
2 Tbl Garlic, minced
1 10-oz package Spinach, frozen, then thawed and excess moisture squeezed out
1 10-oz package Spinach, fresh, cleaned and roughly chopped
1 /2 tsp Salt

2 Eggs
15 oz Ricotta cheese
1 cup Romano cheese, shredded
1 1 /2 tsp Black pepper
1 1 /2 tsp Salt

12 Lasagna sheets, cooked until al dente in boiling salted water
2 cups Mozzarella, shredded
1 recipe Tomato sauce (recipe below)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. Sauté garlic for 30 seconds, add fresh spinach and cook until wilted. Season with salt. Add drained spinach and set aside. In a mixing bowl, combine the ricotta cheese, Romano cheese, eggs, salt and pepper. Stir well.

Ladle two cups of tomato sauce into a three-quart baking dish. Place a layer of three pasta sheets on the sauce and top with half of the ricotta mixture. Spread half of the sautéed spinach on the ricotta mixture. Lay down another layer of pasta sheets and top with two cups of sauce. Spread out evenly. Sprinkle the sauce with half of the mozzarella cheese. Repeat these two steps again. Cover the baking dish tightly first with plastic wrap and then foil. (The plastic will not melt. It will prevent the cheese from sticking to the bottom of the foil). Bake covered for 1 hour. Remove foil and plastic and bake for an additional 10 minutes. Allow lasagna to set 20 minutes before serving. Spoon the remaining sauce on top of lasagna just before serving. Yield: 8-12 servings

Tomato Sauce 2

1 /4 cup Olive oil
2 cups Onion, small dice
2 cups Carrots, shredded
1 /3 cup Garlic, minced
2 tsp Basil, dry
1 tsp Oregano, dry
2 Bay leaves
2 tsp Salt
2 tsp Black pepper, fresh ground
6 oz can Tomato paste
2-28 oz cans Tomatoes, diced
28 oz can Tomatoes, crushed
1 1 /2 cups Water
1 tsp Balsamic vinegar

In a large heavy duty saucepot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onions, carrots and garlic. Cook vegetables 10 minutes stirring often. Add herbs and tomato paste and cook for five to six minutes (This helps to caramelize the tomato paste resulting in a sweeter tomato sauce). Add remaining tomato products and the water. Turn heat to low (very low). Allow sauce to cook for 3 1 /2 hours, stirring often. Add vinegar. Yield: approximately three quarts.

Sauce is best after two or three days in the refrigerator. Sauce freezes well.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Viva Las Diet

LAS VEGAS— So much for the diet. I was on a two-week roll with eight pounds lost, good eating habits formed, and metabolism ginning like a gnat’s— then came the Christmas present.

Christmas morning my wife gave me a trip to see the new Cirque de Soleil show based on the Beatles’ music here in the town that never sleeps.

An early Friday morning flight prompted me to book a Thursday night room near the French Quarter and a reservation at one of my favorite restaurants— and now Zagat’s favorite New Orleans restaurant— August. Your honor, it was sometime around 8:15 on the night in question that my diet was blown all to hell.

Chef John Besh’s able kitchen crew— a crew that helped him win a 2006 James Beard Award for Best Chef Southeast, and a spot on Gourmet magazine’s Top 50 restaurants in America— prepared a nine-course indulgence that was worthy of every accolade that restaurant has earned over its seven-year run.

The highlights at our four-top were mostly Besh’s signature items. The heirloom beet salad with crabmeat, mustard greens, black-eyed pea croutons, Allen Benton’s cherry wood smoked bacon, and a quail egg is an item I eat every time I dine in August. My wife’s favorite is the subtle, yet brilliant, gnocchi with lump crab and truffle. The agnolotti with chestnut sage butter and country ham and the sugar and spice duckling with grits, roasted foie gras, and quince brought to an end another perfect evening in one of the South’s greatest culinary treasures.

Note: Two weeks ago Chef Besh purchased the famed North Shore French institution, La Provence, from his former mentor Chris Kerageorgiou. I look forward to having a Besh-run restaurant 40 minutes closer to my hometown as we once did when he manned the stoves at Artesia in Abita Springs.

Back to the diet. I defy anyone to eat healthily in an airport. Sure they’ve got bananas, apples and a few muffins at the coffee kiosks, but those cinnamon roll chains guilefully lure avid calorie counters with the strong scent of cinnamon and vanilla that wafts through the air of every terminal. Between the Crescent City and Sin City it took every inch of will I could muster to fight back the desire to jump behind the Cinnabon counter and dive face first in the cinnamon rolls while rubbing pecan sticky buns all over my body. I ate carrot sticks, instead. Good for the eyes, yes, but the junk food joints certainly have the aroma advantage.

Our first meal in Vegas was at Chef Thomas Keller’s French bistro, Bouchon, another one of Gourmet’s Top 50, where I OD’d on bread, butter, and steak frittes. Later that night— sometime around 5 a.m.— after a Prince concert in his new nightclub 3121, I ordered chicken and waffles at an all-night breakfast joint.

I have always wondered about the chicken and waffle combination. Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles in Los Angeles institutionalized the chicken and waffle craze that started in Harlem in the 1930s. I have often driven past restaurants promoting chicken and waffles on their shingles, yet I have never eaten a serving ,and have never understood the appeal of those two seemingly opposite foods. Being somewhat of an adventurous diner— and having been awake for more than 25 hours at that point— I took a leap. It was at that point that I realized that my diet had not only ventured way off of the beaten path, but was headed down a the long and bumpy gravel road that leads to a guest spot on the next edition of The Biggest Loser.

Lucky for my waistline, the chicken and waffle offering was pretty bad due to a strange tasting syrup that was thicker than an Elvis impersonator’s waistline, so I ordered scrambles eggs and wheat toast and veered back onto diet’s main highway.

The next day brought fruit and toast from room service, a wonderful Moo Shu pork at a noodle house, and that day’s only dieting faux pas— a late-night pepperoni pizza after the Beatles Cirque de Soleil show.

I’m not a drinker, and I’m not a gambler, but I am a world-class eater. Las Vegas has slowly turned into one of the country’s top dining destinations. So much for “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”

Waffle Batter

1 cup All Purpose Flour
2 tsp Baking Powder
1 tsp Baking Soda
1 /2 tsp Salt
1 Tbl Sugar
1 Egg
1 cup Buttermilk
1 /4 cup Milk
1 /4 cup Melted Butter

Mix dry ingredients thoroughly. Gently add liquid ingredients including 1 /4 cup of butter, and stir until just incorporated. Do not overwork the batter.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Diet Diary Week II

Welcome to week two of dieting hell.

I hesitated to write about this subject two weeks in a row for fear that new readers to this column might think that the only topics ever discussed within these paragraphs are my eating habits (or lack thereof). The hesitation only lasted a few seconds though, as the hunger pangs emanating from my stomach broke my train of thought and I began typing fortuitously.

I am in the early stages of a three-month diet and all I can think about is food. Not all foods, just unhealthy foods. I was walking through the grocery store yesterday looking for healthy alternatives that I could incorporate into my diet plan when a strange phenomenon occurred. I call it a diet mirage. It struck me as I was reading the nutritional information on a Pop Tarts box.

Innocently enough, I had started in the oatmeal section and, before I knew it, I had inched my way past the breakfast bars and wound up in W.K. Kellogg’s pre-packaged, toaster-ready answer to French breakfast pastry— the Pop Tart (according to the label there is nothing nutritious, healthy, or dietetic in a Pop Tart, but I already knew that— that’s the point).

The diet mirage kicked in as soon as I walked through the automatic doors. Like a parched man in a barren dessert, at every turn of every aisle I envisioned a cool, palm-laden, water-filled oasis— though these oases took the form of junk food. Fact: Foods that are bad for you have much better packaging. They jump off of the shelves and beg to be purchased. Healthy foods, on the other hand, are wrapped in dull, boring, and unappetizing containers.

Case in point: the gosh-almighty Pop Tart. I haven’t eaten— or wanted to eat— a Pop Tart since I was in elementary school. Yesterday I was debating whether I should rip the box open and eat a few on the way to the cash register, or rub them all over my body. I did neither. I kept walking down the aisle looking for whole grains, fiber, and sugar substitutes.

The diet I have chosen this time around is one of my own making: a low-sugar, low-fat, nothing-fried, high-fiber hybrid diet I will heretofore now call the St.John Plan. I lost six pounds last week so something must be working.

The St.John Plan is a method I have developed over 10 years of failing at Sugar Busters, South Beach, The Zone Diet, calorie counting, no-fat diets, and Atkins.

I once tried Dr. Atkins’ torturous method of carbohydrate deprivation, and three weeks into the diet wrote this paragraph in my journal: “Everyday I get an afternoon craving for a Milky Way bar. ‘Just eat some pork rinds or beef jerky’ they say. I tried that. Pork rinds are smelly and greasy, and it takes approximately 37 hours to chew one single piece of beef jerky. Note to future Atkins dieters: 50 pounds of dried beef or fried pig skins can’t come close to one tiny bite of a chocolaty, silky, heavenly, wonderfully delicious Milky Way bar— Pure joy in a brown wrapper.”

An obvious side-effect of the St.John Plan is the grocery-store mirage phenomenon. Sweet rolls never looked as good as they did yesterday in my local market. At one time during the visit I actually wondered what a chocolate-covered donut filled with Fritos would taste like. Note to reader: Don’t sign any wills, loans, or other important legal documents while you are on a diet.

Another side effect of my dieting is that everyone who reads your column knows you’re on a diet. Three times in the course of my grocery store visit I was asked how the diet is “coming along.” One lady asked that question while I was holding the Pop Tart box. “How’s the diet coming along, Robert?”

“Take a guess,” I said, as I picked up a box of Strawberry Milkshake Pop Tarts.

As of this writing I have been dieting exactly 198 hours. That’s 11,882 minutes without a french fry, 7,132,920 seconds without an onion ring. No chips, dips, candy bars, cake, pie, or fried fish— many of the things that make life worthwhile. Keep me in your prayers and— come April— pass the Pop Tarts.

Vegetable Beef Soup

3 Tbl Olive oil
1 1 /2 lbs Beef shoulder, small dice
1 1 /2 tsp Salt
1 tsp Pepper
1 cup Onion, small dice
1 cup Carrot, small dice
1 cup Celery, small dice
1 Tbl Garlic, minced
1 /2 tsp Dried Thyme
2 tsp Steak Seasoning
1 Bay leaf
15 oz can Tomato, diced
1 1 /2 quart Beef broth
1 cup Corn, fresh, scrapd from the cob
1 cup Potato, peeled and diced
1 cup V-8 Juice
1 Tbl Kitchen Bouquet
1 Tbl Worcestershire sauce

Heat 1 tablespoon of oil over high heat in a large skillet. Season the meat with half of the salt and pepper. Brown the meat in olive oil. Do not overload the skillet. Over loading the skillet will cause the beef to steam instead of brown. Brown meat in batches, add more oil when necessary then place cooked meat in a large stockpot.

Add one tablespoon of oil to skillet and sauté the onions, carrots, celery and garlic for five minutes over medium heat. Add thyme, steak seasoning and bay leaf. Deglaze the pan by adding the canned tomatoes (with the juice) using a wooden spoon to remove any stuck-on proteins. Cook five minutes on high, and add to the meat in the stockpot. Place beef broth in the stockpot and cook over low heat. The soup should just barely simmer. After 1 hour, add V-8, corn and potatoes. Continue cooking another 45 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in remaining salt, pepper, Worcestershire and Kitchen Bouquet. Yield: one gallon

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


New York has banned trans fats, Chicago has banned foie gras, and my hometown of Hattiesburg has just banned cigarettes.

That is how I intended to start this week’s column. Typically, I would use the next several paragraphs to make fun of the overzealous food police, vegetarians, and New Yorkers in general— some of which fit all three categories— easy targets, all. Next I would use a few paragraphs to humorously point out what would happen if the trans-fat food police came down to Mississippi and tried to shut down our catfish shacks and barbeque joints.

I would then use the closing paragraphs to take a few final jabs at vegetarians, diet junkies, and members of PETA before finally delivering a humorous knockout blow to those who are trying to regulate every aspect of our lives.

Unfortunately, I am writing this column on New Year’s Day and I have resolved to lose 25 pounds in the next four months. A trans-fat ban is actually looking pretty good right about now.

Full speed ahead, Captain, straight into dieting hell.

I have been on an eating spree since June of 2006. I once read an article that stated one’s taste buds change every seven years. At 45 years old, I must be on the cusp of another one of those changes as I have developed an abnormal and obsessive love of onion rings. Like a pregnant woman craving asparagus cupcakes, it has come from nowhere. Three years ago I endured the same phenomenon— that time with turnip greens— though turnip greens are much healthier than onion rings.

Recently, I have felt like a teenager on a growing spurt, though the only way I have been growing over the last six months is— out.

The catalyst for this most recent food-inspired resolution is pure vanity. My publisher is sending a photographer down from New York for a two-week food and lifestyle photo shoot in May and I don’t want to end up looking like the Mississippi version of Paul Prudhomme circa 1982 in my next book. Up until now my published works have featured beautiful watercolor paintings, self-deprecating cartoons, or vintage photography. Now the subject matter has taken a definite turn for the worse: Me.

A published book is as close to permanent as almost anything in life. Once it goes to the printer, it’s as final as final gets. Scary, yes. Motivating, double yes.So I have resolved to dust off the old diet books, remove the stacks of cookbooks that are piled up on the treadmill, stop using the exercise equipment as an alternate clothes-hanging closet, and throw out all of the chips and sugary kids cereal in my pantry.

I am not quite sure which route I will take to drop this excess poundage. In the past I have counted calories, eliminated fat, used Sugar Busters, and spent a few months with Dr. Atkins’ and his sadistic slow torture method of carbohydrate deprivation. No matter what I end up doing, I know cardio persecution will be a major part of it. I hate cardio.

So I, along with the millions of other slugs who waited until New Year’s Day to make the decision to drop excess poundage, will now be eating healthier. Even still, I am comforted by the fact that I made the choice on my own. New Yorkers have to rely on their local government.

For the immediate future, the catfish houses, barbeque joints, and meat-and-three cafes of South Mississippi will be serving one less customer— no onion rings, less bread, and bland chicken breasts are on the horizon. Sayonara, trans fat. I’ll miss you (at least until June).