Monday, February 26, 2007

Little Biscuits, Big Appetites

The fondest food memories of my youth are drawn from my grandmother’s house.

For 70-plus years my paternal grandmother lived in a large white house on an oak-lined, brick-paved street in my hometown of Hattiesburg, Miss. Her home had 13-foot ceilings, Oriental rugs, crystal chandeliers, European antiques, and a window-unit air conditioner in every room. I spent many days propped on a stool in the kitchen next to the window-unit watching her fry chicken, roast lamb, or roll biscuit dough.

Summer lunches were eaten in the breakfast room. The formal dining room was reserved for special occasion evening meals and Sunday lunches. I spent almost every Sunday lunch for the first 18 years of my life in that dining room.

The Sunday lunch menu was on a revolving schedule. One Sunday we’d eat roast beef, the next week she would serve fried chicken. Turkey and dressing made a once-a-month appearance and was not reserved for Thanksgiving alone. My favorite meal in that house— roasted leg of lamb— was served at least once a month.

The vegetables changed weekly. The starch was usually rice and gravy though mashed potatoes made an appearance on fried chicken day. Iced tea was served in sterling silver goblets and the one constant, week in-week out, were her biscuits. The woman could flat-out bake biscuits.

The biscuits were very small— about the size of a silver dollar— and light, and good. I could eat a dozen of them. Nothing sleeps as hard as a meal of a dozen biscuits, leg of lamb, and rice and gravy for a Sunday afternoon nap.

She served mint jelly on lamb day, but my brother and I always opted for grape jelly— not for the lamb, but for all for the biscuits we consumed. We called it “plain jelly” I am not sure why, unless we thought mint jelly was “fancy.”

I have tried to replicate her biscuits for years, to no avail. She never wrote down her recipe and unfortunately, I never asked for it. Two cookbooks ago my sous chef and I spent almost two weeks trying to recreate my grandmother’s biscuits but hit dead end after dead end.

In the almost 20 years since her death, I have not eaten a biscuit as good as my grandmother’s. Until last week.

Last week I was a guest speaker at the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration. Included with the admission to my speech was a luncheon following the speech at Stanton Hall’s Carriage House Restaurant. On the short drive to the restaurant, my host informed me that the restaurant’s specialties were fried chicken and biscuits. I hear this often, and every time I do, I say to myself— good, sure, but not as good as Mam-Maw’s.

While eating and visiting with my hosts, someone passed a plate of little biscuits. Even though they were small, I was polite and took only one. I placed it on my plate where I forgot about it until midway through the meal. When I finally took a bite, I was stunned. “That’s it!” I said.

“What’s it?” said one of my hosts.

My grandmother’s biscuit, this is just like hers. I haven’t tasted anything like this in 20 years.” My hosts asked the server for one more plate. The server brought two. I threw manners out the window and put three biscuits on my plate. Someone passed the butter and then the man next to me handed me a small bowl of grape preserves— plain jelly.

The rest of the meal’s conversation went something like this:

"That was a great speech today, Robert.”

(With mouth full) “Would you please pass the biscuits?”

“Robert, how’s that diet you’ve been writing about coming along?”

“Is there any butter left in that bowl? Where’s that other plate of biscuits?”

“Robert, I just love when you wrote about the diet devil and the diet angel. That was clever.”

“Y’all, I know I’m making a pig of myself, but I think I’ll have a few more biscuits.”

“Robert, would you like dessert?”

“No, but I’ll take a few more of those biscuits. Do you think we could get some more plain jelly?”
Apparently, word of my substantial biscuit consumption made its way to the restaurant’s manager, who handed me a recipe card on my way out the door and invited me for a return visit.

I haven’t prepared the Carriage House Restaurant’s biscuit recipe, yet. But if they’re anywhere close to the ones I ate last week at the in Natchez, a two-decade search is over.

Carriage House Restaurant Biscuit Recipe
Stanton Hall, Natchez, Miss.

2 cups All Purpose Flour
1 /4 tsp. Salt
4 tsp Baking Powder
1 tsp Sugar
5 Tbl Solid Vegetable Shortening
3/4 to 1 cup Milk

Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees.

Mix all dry ingredients and sift. Add shortening and cut with a pastry cutter until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add milk and stir slowly until mixture forms a ball (do not over mix).

Place ball on board sprinkled with flour. Roll out to 1/4-inch thickness and cut into 1 1/2-inch circles.

Place on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake 15 minutes.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Remove the Foot and Eat Some Crow

Over the six-plus years I have written this column I have never missed a week. At 750 words each week, that’s roughly 253,500 words total, depending on how badly I am censored by my editors.

Over the course of that period, I have stirred up more controversy, frustrated more editors, upset more newspaper readers, and received more hate mail than any writer in the history of food-humor columns. Of course, it’s an extremely limited field, as I am the only Southern food-humor columnist I know.

Nevertheless, I have endured the wrath of many groups. The PETA organization sends e-mail frequently. They are easy targets, especially in this part of the country that hosts more hunters per capita than any other region. I have never been intentionally cruel to a domesticated animal, but my love for foie gras and veal has filled my inbox with some of the more hilarious hate mail a columnist could ever receive.

Vegetarians send e-mail quite frequently. But what they don’t understand is: I like vegetables, too. I just prefer that they taste more like meat.

Any time I make fun of Barbra Streisand, I receive a few snotty e-mails from New York and California. Granted, its’ a stretch to fit a criticism of Barbra Streisand into a food column, but whenever I can, fun ensues. They get especially upset when you misspell her name.

The Girl Scouts organization was on my case a few years ago. My daughter was a member and she tried to pull an advance-purchase cookie scam on me, I wrote about it, and Scout leaders from all over the country mobilized against me. The troop was disbanded, the den mother scolded, and my daughter left scouting and picked up tennis. I also wound up with a pantry full of unsold Girl Scout cookies. Though I wasn’t so upset about that— I ate them.

The Atkins Diet people must remain on full-alert 24-hours a day with teams of press clippers scanning the internet for journalists who dare contradict or make fun of the late doctor’s tortuous carbohydrate deprivation methods. They fill their e-mails with a lot of medical mumbo-jumbo and technical jargon. On the occasions that I do reply, I go into great detail extolling the joy and beauty of bread, rice, and potatoes.

I have upset owners and supporters of various restaurants and hotels, lovers of food, haters of food, little old ladies, and people who don’t even like food but have a major axe to grind.

People who eat opossum mobilized against me four years ago as did fans of chitterlings.

When I wrote of my then two-year-old son’s behavior in restaurants, I received letters condemning me, him, our doctors, his teachers, his sister and his mother for actions for which he wasn’t even responsible.

The most surprising aspect of these e-mails and telephone calls is they don’t bother me in the least. Not a bit. That has been a total shock to my wife, who knows me better than anyone. She was amazed when the first batch of hate mail arrived into the inbox six years ago. Knowing that I am normally sensitive to others feelings and their opinion of me, she was ready to come to my aid and comfort. For some reason, the initial group of letters and phone calls didn’t affect me. I actually found them amusing, wrote them off as a differing opinion from my own, and used the controversy to stir more creative energy to tackle more subjects.

The criticism and complaints have never affected me. That is, until last week. In a column I wrote about Easy Bake ovens, I made an off-handed remark and generalization (I won’t repeat it here for obvious reasons. Though, those who were offended know who they are). I later sent an e-mail to my editors in which I reworked the sentence, but it was too late for a few newspapers though several others had already deleted the sentence on their own.

I second guessed the sentence when I was writing the column, but it was early in the morning and I left it in anyway. That’s no excuse. I am a father who has been blessed with two wonderful children and I love all children. So, here it is, a first after 254,223 words, to those I offended last week: I am sorry. I truly am.

Now that I’m getting soft in my old age, I’ll have to admit that I kind of miss the Girl Scout cookies, too. I wonder if I could talk my daughter’s tennis coach into holding a bake sale.

Lamb Kabobs with Raspberry Mint Dipping Sauce

Skewer Soak

24 skewers-
1 cup water
1 /4 cup lemon juice
1 /4 cup red wine

soak for 3-4 hours before using

2 pounds leg of lamb, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 /4 cub lamb rub, recipe below
1 Tbl kosher salt
1 /4 cup olive oil

Skewer the lamb onto the soaked skewers, leaving a space at one end so that they can be easily picked up.

Season the meat on all sides with lamb rub and refrigerate for three to four hours.

Preheat oven to 375

Over high heat, heat enough olive oil to cover the bottom of a large cast iron skillet. Sprinkle the kabobs with the kosher salt, and sear six kabobs at a time. Once all kabobs are evenly seared, place on a baking sheet and finish cooking in oven. Although, at this point, kabobs can be held in refrigerator for several hours before baking.

Bake five to seven minutes to medium (a little longer if the kabobs have been refrigerated).

Serve with raspberry mint dipping sauce.

Yield 24 skewers

Raspberry-Mint Sauce

In addition to the lamb application, it is a perfect accompaniment with pork and turkey.

1 Tbl olive oil
1 /2 cup shallots, minced
1 Tbl garlic, minced
1 tsp creole seasoning
1 /4 tsp black pepper, freshly ground

1 /2 cup sherry
2 cups raspberries, fresh or frozen
2 cups chicken broth
1 bay leaf

1 cup mint jelly
1 /2 tsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp creole mustard
1 Tbl fresh mint, chopped

In a small sauce pot, heat olive oil over medium-high heat and cook shallots 3-4 minutes. Stir in garlic and seasonings, and cook 3-4 more minutes, stirring often. Do not let garlic brown. Deglaze with sherry and reduce by half.

Stir in raspberries, chicken broth and bay leaf and simmer 15-20 minutes, until reduced by half. Stir in mint jelly and cook three minutes more, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat and stir in the vinegar and fresh mint.

Serve at room temperature.

Lamb Rub

Works on venison, too.

2 Tbl lemon pepper
1 Tbl dry oregano
1 Tbl dry basil
1 Tbl black pepper, fresh ground
1 Tbl brown sugar
1 Tbl garlic salt
1 /2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp dry ground rosemary
1 Tbl paprika
1 Tbl onion powder

Combine all ingredients and store in an airtight container

Monday, February 12, 2007

Easy Bake Oven 2007

When I was six-years old, I asked Santa Claus for an Easy-Bake Oven.

He gave me one.

My brother his friends gave me a hard time about it, but they always ate the miniature cakes and pizzas that came out of the plastic, cyan-colored cooking toy. They might have ribbed me, but they were doing so with their mouths full.

Last week I ran across a Reuters story on the internet with the headline “Hasbro recalls nearly 1 million Easy-Bake Ovens.” After reading the short news brief I learned that children had been getting their hands and fingers stuck in the oven’s opening.

Wait a minute. Hasbro has to recall one-million toys because 21st Century children aren’t smart enough to keep their fingers out of the oven. Today’s kids need corks on their forks. What do they do at home when a parent tries to cook real food in the real oven? Are they sticking their fingers in there, too? I’ve got news for you. If you can’t pass the toy oven test, you certainly can’t pass the real-live at-home kitchen test. Go back to your Playstation.

At first I figured that the toy company might not be including the long, plastic pan passer that allows one to push the pan through the oven without sticking your hands inside. So I went to and looked up a photograph of the Easy-Bake Oven. There was the pan passer along with two small tin pans, two plastic measuring spoons, and three packets of yellow-cake mix.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that I never read the directions of any toy I received between the ages of six and 16. But I certainly knew what the pan passer was used for.

The manufacturer’s recommended age for the Easy-Bake oven is 8-12 years old. Folks, my son is five. He can’t tie his shoes, he thinks he can mentally control the weather, and he has yet to master the legible writing of his name. But I guarantee you, if he had an Easy-Bake Oven, he would know not to stick his fingers inside it. Of course, he might try to drop-kick it across the room, but he would at least be smart enough to unplug it first.

The photograph of the Easy-Bake Oven on the website disturbed me. It doesn’t look anything like my 1967 edition. It was pink and looked like a space-age microwave oven. If I was a six-year old boy, and Santa brought me a pink, outer-space-looking microwave oven, I might find the nearest elf and stick his nubby little fingers inside the toy.

A few years ago someone sent me a cookbook that included grown-up recipes to be prepared using an Easy-Bake Oven. The recipes were developed by a dozen or so superstar chefs. I flipped through it, but wrote it off as a novelty publication. Easy Bake Ovens are for kids and they’re not made to cook dishes with exotic mushrooms and free-range chicken breasts. They’re made to cook cakes, and brownies, and bad-tasting pizzas. No matter how modern and space-age they make the design, that’s the way it was meant to be and that’s the way it should stay.

Nothing else in this world smells like cheap cake batter cooking under the heat of a 100-watt light bulb. Nothing. A small whiff and one is instantly transformed to childhood.

Today, my Easy-Bake Oven sits on a shelf in my office next to a lava lamp and an old trophy. It is there to remind me that you’ve got to start somewhere. No matter how simple things are in the beginning, all of your goals can be accomplished if you don’t worry about what others think, and you keep your eye on the ball. But first someone’s got to teach you to keep your fingers out of the oven.

Italian Cream Cake

1 cup Butter, softened
2 cups Sugar
5 large Eggs, separated
2 1 /2 cups All-purpose flour
1 tsp Baking soda
1 cup Buttermilk
2 /3 cup pecans, finely chopped
1 tsp Vanilla extract
1 can Flaked coconut (3 1 /2 oz.)
1 /2 tsp Cream of Tartar
3 Tbl Grand Marnier
1 recipe Cream Cheese Frosting

Grease and flour three nine-inch round cake pans. Line pans with wax paper;grease paper, and set aside.

Beat butter at medium speed of an electric mixer until creamy; gradually add sugar, beating well. Add egg yolks, one at a time, beating after each addition. Combine flour and baking soda. Add buttermilk and flour alternately, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Stir in pecans, vanilla, and coconut.

Beat egg whites at high speed in a large bowl until foamy. Add cream of tartar; beat untilstiff peaks form. Gently fold beaten egg whites into batter. Pour batter into prepared pans.

Bake at 350 degrees for 25 or 30 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Let cool in pans 10 minutes, remove from pans; peel off wax paper; and let cool completely on wire racks. Brush each cake layer with 1 tablespoon Grand Marnier. Let stand 10 minutes. Spread cream cheese frosting between layers and on sides and top of cake.

Cream Cheese Frosting

1 (8 oz.) pkg Cream cheese, softened
1 (3 oz.) pkg Cream cheese, softened
3 /4 cup Butter, softened
1 1 /2 Powdered sugar, sifted
1 1 /2 cups Pecans, chopped
1 Tbl Vanilla extract

Beat first three ingredients at medium speed of electric mixer until smooth.Gradually add powdered sugar, beating until light and fluffy; stir in pecansand vanilla.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Angels, and Devils, and Diets, Oh My!

I picked the wrong month to go on a diet.

Like a million other slugs out there, I started dieting the day after New Year’s. Since then, business travels have taken me on several waistline-expanding trips.

For the first several days I walked around with a diet angel and a diet devil on each shoulder. The diet devil kicked back and told me that onion rings would be O.K. Then the diet angel would whip out a picture of me at the swimming pool last summer.

Around two weeks in, the diet devil spread a map on my desk, pinpointed all of the locations that would tempt my palate, and handed over the airline tickets.
During this period the diet-angel was not on my shoulder encouraging me to "do right and eat well" because— as all angels know— it's not polite to speak with your mouth full of cheesecake.

The diet-busting journey began in New Orleans at Restaurant August. It continued to Las Vegas where I sampled several of that town's finest. The diet devil made it easy to get reservations at all of the restaurants I wanted to visit. The diet angel was nowhere to be found— probably playing blackjack in the casino.

The next week, business took me to Columbus, Miss to tour the Jubilations Cheesecake factory (details in a future column). I don't know if you've ever toured a cheesecake factory, but the diet devil and I suggest you do so, sometime soon.

The next week I found myself in San Francisco— again on business— yet this time only in town for 48 hours. At the request of one of my associates I called the French Laundry in Yountville to see if I could secure a table with only 36 hours notice. "You're dreaming," I told my him. "I have people calling me for help two months out. There's no way we'll get in."

Obviously the diet devil has access to the French Laundry’s reservation book. Two nights later I was seated among a six-top in the French Laundry that included three business associates, the diet devil, the diet angel, and me. The six of us participated in a 14-course bacchanalia that one rarely ever experiences. Actually, our web guy from New Orleans— the pickiest eater on the planet— mostly ate bread. Therefore the diet devil and I, not wanting to waste any of Thomas Keller's brilliant offerings, picked up his slack and ate at least 12 courses off of his plate(we didn't share any with the diet angel).

Safe at home, but not for long, a Frenchman has opened a bakery directly across the street from my office. How much can one man take? There are several bakeries in my hometown but most are miles from my office. Out of sight and out of mind equal out of stomach.

The new bakery, C’est La Vie, is exactly 97 steps from the front door of my office, and on top of that, everything there is good. As a matter of fact, everything is fantastic.

The bakery is owned by a French-Polish man named Janusz. That is what his business card states, just "Janusz," like Elvis, Bono, or Sting, one word: Janusz. And folks, Janusz is a rock star when it comes to baking pastries and cakes.

He and his wife are from France and Poland respectively, but he is a bread-baking, cake-making journeyman who has pulled many stints as a pastry chef in multi-starred kitchens all over the world. As a matter of fact, I found out that he trained the pastry chef that is currently working at the French Laundry.

The new bakery has a true European sensibility. The pastries are light and not-too sweet. The cakes are world-class, and the man makes the lightest and best-tasting quiche I have ever eaten. My entire family eats there, often. The diet devil is usually somewhere near the pastry case pushing the chocolate croissants.

During my first visit to C’est la Vie, the diet angel was sitting on my right shoulder and constantly ranting about bread and carbs. By the second visit I made him wait outside while the diet devil and I enjoyed a custard and raisin-filled croissant.

Now I’m back to square one. Willpower was along for the ride during the first few weeks, safe and warm in a secure spot in my back pocket. Then the diet devil found him, shivved him like a jail-yard stooge, and sent him packing.

They say that life is all about timing. It appears that dieting is about timing, too. So now the question: Lose 20 pounds or eat freshly baked pastries and quiche from an extremely talented French baker’s kitchen? Well, I wasn’t ready to buy a bunch of new smaller-waisted pants, anyway.

As for the dieting angel, in the words of Don McLean, “He caught the last train for the coast.”

I have to go now. My friend the diet devil is saving a table across the street for our mid-morning pastry.

Blackstrap Molasses Muffins
3/4 cup hot water
1/2 cup molasses
1/4 cup milk
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped pecans, dry roasted

In a medium-size bowl combine the hot water and molasses, stirring until well blended. Stir in the milk until blended.

In a large bowl sift together the flours, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

With a rubber spatula, fold the liquid mixture and pecans into the dry ingredients just until flour is thoroughly incorporated; do not over mix. Spoon into 12 greased muffin cups. Bake at 300 degrees until done, 45 minutes to about 1 hour. Remove from pan immediately and serve while hot.

Makes 1 dozen muffins