Monday, March 26, 2007

Viral Victuals

I’ve got a virus.

My particular virus is not influenza, a common cold, or a computer virus. I don’t have chickenpox, mumps, Ebola, or rabies.

There are many viruses with exotic and interesting names such as: cereal yellow dwarf virus, Leaky virus, and Four Corners hantavirus. There are virus named after plants and vegetables such as: squash mosaic virus, tobacco virus, tomato bushy stunt virus, and rice dwarf virus. There are also viruses named after animals such as: squirrel monkey retrovirus, Swiss mouse virus, European elk papillomavirus, wooley monkey sarcoma virus, Turkeypox, camelpox, sealpox, and Gay elephant tycomabanucleoid virus. I don’t have any of those either.

Yesterday I read an Associated Press story with a headline that stated: “Obesity linked to virus, new experiments suggest.” It appears that I have contracted the fat virus and that is the reason that I do all of my shopping in the big and tall section.

I’ve been trying to lose 30 pounds since January. At the moment I’m 15 pounds lighter than I was on New Year’s Day, but a few weeks ago I hit a plateau and the scales aren’t budging. I must have contracted a bad case of this fat virus while I was on Spring Break.

Whew! At least it’s a virus. I though all of those barbeque ribs and late-night refrigerator raids were to blame for my flabby midsection.

When I told a doctor friend of mine that I thought I had come down with the fat virus, he asked if the article mentioned a vaccine. “I don’t think so. But if there were a vaccine, where would I get one?” I asked. He then told me that vaccines are small doses of the actual virus that one is trying to defend against. So I asked him if loading up on gravy-cheese fries, cornbread, and jelly doughnuts would help kick start the vaccination process and assist in my fight against the fat virus. He didn’t have an answer.

Then it hit me— maybe I can battle the fat virus with an antibiotic.

As everyone knows, antibiotics are made from mold. It just so happens that mold comes from bread. I love bread. Around the time I started my diet, a new French bakery opened across the street from my office. At the time, I thought that might make dieting harder as they have many beautiful and tasty pastries. Now that I know about this fat virus and its dangers, I am going to do my best to find an antibiotic. I think I’ll start my search for a fat cure in the C’est La Vie Bakery’s pastry case.

As a matter of fact, as I write this I am eating a custard-raisin filled pastry from C’est La Vie and I feel better already.

The fat-virus study was conducted at the University of Wisconsin which proves that when it’s snowing up North, those people truly have nothing to do. It seems that they could have spent some of their snowed-in time coming up with a name for the fat virus.

My home state, Mississippi, is statistically the fattest state in the nation. Who better to name the virus?

Here are my suggestions for fat virus names: Double Chinfluenza, Dimpled Thigh Disease, Chunky Gut Syndrome, Chronic Lap-Over Flabbyitis, NASCAR Barley Bug, Mississippi Blubber Flu, or Pudgypox.

So it turns out that I am fat-virus positive. It could be worse; I could have come down with that yellow dwarf stuff.

Robert burning calories and searching for a cure for Double Chinitis
Park City, Utah, March '07

Chocolate Pie

1 cup plus 2 Tbl. Sugar
3 /4 cups Heavy cream
3 /4 cups Buttermilk
3 1 /2 Tbl Cornstarch
Pinch Salt
4 Egg yolks, reserve whites for meringue
3 ounces Semisweet chocolate, high quality
1 Tbl Butter
3 /4 tsp Vanilla
1 Pie Crust, baked (recipe below)

In a small saucepan combine the sugar, heavy cream, buttermilk, cornstarch and salt and whisk until smooth. Place over medium-high heat, and bring to a boil, whisking from time to time, allowing the sugar and cornstarch to dissolve and the mixture to thicken (about five minutes). Continue cooking at a low boil for an additional five minutes, whisking constantly.

In a mixing bowl, beat egg yolks lightly. Pour 1 /2 cup of the hot mixture into the egg yolks and whisk thoroughly. Pour the egg yolk mixture into the saucepan and whisk over the heat until thoroughly combined (about 30 seconds).

Pour mixture into a mixing bowl, and whisk in the chocolate, butter and vanilla. Continue whisking until thoroughly combined (mixture will be very thick). Pour the chocolate batter into the prepared pie crust. Prepare the meringue and spread over the pie and bake at 350 until golden, about 8-10 minutes. Allow pie to cool completely before serving (refrigerate at least four hours). Yield: eight slices


4 Egg whites
6 TBSP Sugar
1 /2 tsp Cream of tartar

Beat the egg whites with an electric mixer. When they start to increase in volume, add in the sugar and cream of tartar. Continue to beat until stiff peaks form.

Pie Crust

2 cups Flour
1 cup Shortening
1 /4 tsp Salt
1 Egg
1 /3 cup Milk

Blend the first three ingredients together with a pastry cutter or a fork. Beat egg and milk together. Slowly add egg/milk mixture to flour mixture, one tablespoon at a time until pie dough becomes moist and forms a ball. Divide into half and shape into a ball. Wrap and refrigerate one hour before rolling. Roll out on a floured surface. Yield: Two crusts

To roll out dough: Remove dough disk from refrigerator. If stiff and very cold, let stand until dough is cool but malleable.

Using a floured rolling pin, roll dough disk on a lightly floured surface from the center out in each direction, forming a 12 inch circle. To transfer dough, carefully roll it around the rolling pin, lift and unroll dough, centering it in an ungreased nine-inch pie plate.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Blessed Fish and My Grandmother’s Lamb

We are smack dab in the middle of the Lenten Season and Easter is only a few weeks away.

This time of year always brings memories of my grandmother’s dining room. Easters used to be elaborate occasions in my family— new church clothes, hidden candy tucked away in pastel-colored plastic eggs, the annual family photograph, china, crystal, silver, and leg of lamb.

My grandmother worked in food as an artist might work in acrylics or egg tempera. The Easter leg of lamb was her masterpiece.

Unlike lamb chops, leg of lamb should never be cooked to medium rare or medium. It is a tougher cut and benefits from the longer cooking time as the tissue tends to break down and make the meat tenderer. My grandmother always made a simple gravy with the drippings from the roasting pan to accompany the lamb and served mint jelly on the side. It was a meal fit for a king, or possibly a Pope.

A few weeks ago the president of the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain of restaurants wrote a letter to the Pontiff asking him to bless their new fish sandwich.

KFC’s Fish Snacker Sandwich consists of a fried Alaskan Pollack filet with tartar sauce on a sesame seed bun. The Associated Press reprinted a portion of the press release that described the sandwich as, “ideal for American Catholics who want to observe Lenten season traditions while still leading their busy, modern lifestyles.”

I am a Methodist. Granted, I don’t know much about Catholicism, but if the Pope blesses a fast-food fish sandwich, I think I could probably get a deferred blessing for my grandmother’s leg of lamb. It was certainly as close to heaven on a plate as any food I have ever tasted. Her mashed potatoes were better than KFC’s and no one at her dinner table had to use a spork. As for the eleven secret herbs and spices, my grandmother used only salt and pepper to season her lamb— no secrets, there.

KFC can have Fridays for their fish sandwich. Give me Sundays for my grandmother’s leg of lamb.

So if the Catholics get a fish sandwich and we Methodists get leg of lamb, where does that leave the Baptists? What food would my Baptist friends submit to the leader of the Southern Baptist Convention for an official blessing? The Presbyterians? The Lutherans?

In my most recent cookbook, Deep South Parties, I offered several recipes for punch, each broken out by denomination. The Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian punches were harmless, though tasty, offerings. The Catholic punch was made stronger with the addition of wine, and the Episcopalian punch— a recipe that came from one of my uncle’s church members (he’s an Episcopal rector)— requires a designated driver.

As of this writing, I couldn’t find a news story that reported a response from the Pope. If the Vatican does indeed officially bless the fish sandwich, I would look for the culinary floodgates to open and requests for Big Mac and Whopper blessings to come pouring in immediately.

In the meantime, I’m going to be roasting a leg of lamb on Easter Sunday— blessed or not.

Ned and me in my grandmother's backyard, Easter '65

Leg of Lamb with Raspberry Mint Chutney

Preheat oven to 375

1 Leg of Lamb, bone in, about 6-7 pounds
12 cloves fresh garlic
1/4 cup olive oil
1 Tbl fresh chopped rosemary
1 Tbl fresh chopped thyme
3 Tbl kosher salt
1 Tbl fresh ground black pepper

Using a paring knife, cut 12 small pockets, spread out in the lamb leg.
Insert one clove of garlic into each pocket.
Rub the leg with the olive oil, the rub the herbs, salt and pepper over the leg.
Place the lamb in a large roasting pan, and place it in the preheated oven.
Roast for 30 minutes, then reduce the heat to 325 and continue to bake for 1 hour and 30 minutes to achieve a medium- medium well temperature. If using a thermometer, it should register 155 degrees.
Remove from the oven and allow the lamb to rest for 10 minutes. The temperature of the lamb will rise a few degrees while resting. Slice thinly around the bone and serve.

Raspberry Mint Chutney

1 Tbl olive oil
1 /2 cup shallots, minced
1 Tbl garlic, minced
1 Tbl fresh ginger, minced fine
2 tsp curry powder
1 /4 tsp black pepper, freshly ground

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

1 cup mint jelly
1 tsp cornstarch
2 tsp water
1 /2 tsp balsamic vinegar
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, ginger and seasonings, and cook 3-4 more minutes, stirring often. Do not let garlic brown. Deglaze with sherry and reduce by half.

Stir in 2 cups of the 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. Dissolve the cornstarch with the 2 teaspoons of water and stir it into the simmering sauce. Allow the sauce to thicken then remove from the heat and strain. Stir in the vinegar, fresh mint and remaining cup of raspberries.

Serve at room temperature.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Spring Break Diary

Day One: Saturday

4:30a.m.— I wake up early for a 9:30a.m. flight out of Jackson. Last night I told my wife we needed to leave the house no later than 6:30 a.m. I organize luggage, locate airline tickets, and condo confirmation numbers. The rest of my family sleeps peacefully.

6:23 a.m.— My wife is putting on make-up. Her hair is still wet. Did I mention that the Jackson airport checks no one in within 30 minutes of his or her departure time? My nine-year old daughter is still asleep. For some reason, my five-year old son slept under his desk last night. The 6:30a.m. departure is not going to happen. I guess there is something that can be said for consistency.

6:52 a.m.— The St.John Scramble officially commences (as it does every time we try to get to an airport on time). No matter what time the flight, or what time I tell my wife we need to leave, we are 45 minutes late. Being a master of the St.John Scramble, I had the foresight to tell my wife that we needed to leave at 6:30 a.m. when we actually didn’t need to leave until 7:00 a.m. Wisdom comes with age.

7:24 a.m.— My wife refuses to get in the car unless we drive through Starbucks. I agree because I am the man of the house and I always call the shots.

7:29 a.m.— My wife forgot her ring at the house. We turn around. The kids are eating Starbucks pound cake for breakfast— mega doses of sugar. My son will be bouncing off of the car windows for the next 90 miles to the airport.

7:33 a.m.— We’re on the road. Our flight leaves at 9:30 a.m. I consider calling my travel agent to check on later flights. My son is loudly singing jingles from cheesy commercials. My daughter is staring out of the car window. My wife is still unconcerned. I wonder how my son knows every word to the Forrest General Hospital television commercial.

8:47 a.m.— Tires squeal as we pull up to the curbside check-in at the airport. Sky Caps scatter as I wildly throw suitcases and duffle bags out of the car in a practice with which I have become all too familiar, and all too good.

8:58 a.m.— We check in 90 seconds under the wire and the four of us run through the airport like O.J. in a car-rental commercial. My daughter asks, “Who’s O.J.?”

9:02 a.m.— My son loses his shoes in the security line. I learn that our fight’s departure has been moved up 15 minutes. We make it. Unbelievable. I still haven’t eaten breakfast.

10:17 a.m.— On a small commuter jet, my son stands up, points, and yells out, “Momma, that man has a huge head!”

11:56 a.m.— After a mostly uneventful flight— one with no foodservice— we have a $92.78 meal at a so-called Tex-Mex cafĂ© in the Dallas airport. The “house specialty” tortilla soup was nothing more than canned chicken noodle soup with the addition of limes, jalepenos, and Tostitos. My son spills his soft drink on his sister.

1:05 p.m.— Just before boarding the flight to Salt Lake City, I notice that we have seats 17B, 17C, 17D, and 17E. I say a heart-felt, silent prayer for the passenger who holds the ticket to seat 17A.

2:07p.m. — At 35,000 feet, somewhere over West Texas, my wife notifies me that she left all of the ski school vouchers, lift tickets, and all other vital vacation stuff “in the box on the dresser, in the den.” The den is still in Mississippi the last time I checked. The man in 17A is nice and skinny— a ray of hope

2:48 p.m.— Mr. 17A appears to have gastro-intestinal issues. My daughter says, “Daddy, that man is making bad air.”

5:15p.m. — We check into the condo. The brochure advertised a “hot tub” in the unit. It looks more like a “hot bucket.” My fourth grader might be able to fit inside.

6:49 p.m.— Sitting in my favorite sushi restaurant in the world— The Flying Sumo in Park City, Utah— eating Luxury Shrimp, Money Rolls, Utah Rolls, Samurai Rolls, Tuna Nachos, and Funky Rolls. The atmosphere is cool, the music is good, the food is great, and no one is making bad air. I’m watching my children eat food that I wouldn’t eat until I was in my thirties. Sleep will come soon. Tomorrow we’ll ski. All is forgotten. Life is good.

Yellowfin Tuna Tartar with Avocado Relish

The ingredients must be fresh. Do not substitute. You won’t be sorry. A true crowd pleaser with a lot of “Wow” appeal.

1 /4 cup minced green onion
1 tsp fresh minced ginger
2 Tbl chopped cilantro
2 Tbl toasted sesame seeds
1 Tbl sesame oil
1 tsp fish sauce
1 /2 tsp hot sauce
2 Tbl soy sauce
1 tsp honey
1 tsp sherry
1 tsp rice vinegar
2 Tbl cottonseed oil
1 /2 pound fresh Yellowfin tuna, small dice

Combine all ingredients except for Yellowfin tuna and blend well. Diced tuna should be added to sesame seed mixture just before serving.

Avocado Relish

1 Tbl fresh lime juice
1 tsp cottonseed oil (or canola oil)
1 tsp sesame seed oil
1 /4 tsp garlic, minced
1 TBSP red onion, finely diced
1 tsp fresh chopped parley
2 tsp red bell pepper, small diced
1 medium sized ripe avocado
1 /4 tsp Salt
1 /8 tsp Cayenne pepper

Combine first seven ingredients and blend well. Quickly fold the avocado. If making in advance, place the seed in the relish and press plastic wrap directly on to the relish, sealing it off from any air exposure. Refrigerate.

5 sheets fresh egg roll wrappers to make wonton crackers

Using a cookie cutter, cut 2 1 /2-inch circles into the center of egg roll wrappers. Fry according to the package directions.
To serve, place 1 1 /2 tsp of the tartar mixture and 1 tsp avocado relish on the wonton crackers.

Yield: 25-30

Monday, March 05, 2007

Pancakes and Passings

I buried my grandmother today. She was the only one I had left.

I was fortunate to have spent all of my childhood and a good part of my early adult years with both grandmothers, each playing a crucial role in my upbringing. My paternal grandmother passed away 17 years ago, my grandfather 25 years ago, my maternal grandmother, last week. She was 97-years old.

In their respective families, grandparents are usually known for a few specific deeds or character traits among their grandchildren. My grandfather was an avid outdoorsman, sportsman, and history buff. My paternal grandmother was a gracious Southern lady with impeccable manners and a knack for entertaining. The lady we buried today was full of spunk, devoted to her family, an excellent bridge and solitaire player, and the creator of the best pancakes on the planet.

Some cooks are more comfortable cooking specific items such as seafood; others excel at on a certain piece of equipment— a barbeque grill or cast iron skillet. Some cooks pride themselves on elaborate dinners; some are more comfortable with small, intimate lunches. For my grandmother, breakfast was her domain; the early morning kitchen was her kingdom, we were her subjects, a spatula was her scepter, and pancakes were the currency.

When dining at my grandmother’s home, no breakfast was complete without her pancakes. The supporting cast of breakfast items might change with each meal— sausage one morning, bacon the next, grits, or no grits— but there were always pancakes.

I am not sure what made her pancake recipe so much better than others, but it is better, much better. It might have been the amount of baking soda, or it could have been the baking powder, possibly a combination of the two with the addition of buttermilk. Most pancakes are dull, flavorless and too bread-like. Not hers. I am fortunate to have grown up in a home where out-of-the-box pancakes of the just-add-water variety were never served.

Whenever the family traveled she packed her pancake mix into Zip-Loc baggies and prepared them on site wherever we might be. Her pancakes were the constant in an ever-changing family structure.

I would bet three paychecks that my grandmother cooked more pancakes than any other homemaker of her era. A few years ago, as I was thinking back on so many shared breakfasts, it occurred to me that no one had ever cooked pancakes for my grandmother. All of my life, every time pancakes were served when she was around, it was she that did the cooking. At the time, she was living in an assisted living home. I invited her to my house for pancakes. This time I did the cooking. We sat with my wife and daughter and enjoyed one of the more memorable breakfasts I will ever have.

Today, my wife makes the pancakes in our family. She uses my grandmother’s recipe.

There are many options for those who want to leave a legacy to their family. It seems that food, or a particular food item, is a legacy of the utmost significance. Like money, it can be passed down to future generations, but unlike cash, the opportunities for creating lasting memories, are limitless. Sharing a meal with one’s family makes life richer. My grandmother made life richer for us all.

Muz’s Pancakes – The World’s Best

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 /2 cup Melted Butter, divided

Mix dry ingredients thoroughly. Mix together the liquid ingredients— including 1 /4 cup of butter— and gently add to the dry ingredients, stirring until just incorporated. Do not overwork the batter.

Note: The batter is thick, it can be thinned with a small amount of water, milk, or a little more buttermilk if you prefer.

Cook pancakes on a lightly greased griddle. Pancakes should be turned only once. They are ready to be turned when bubbles form in the middle and the edges appear cooked. Once pancakes are turned, use a pastry brush to spread the additional 1 /4 cup of melted butter on top of the pancakes while the other side is cooking. This will keep you from having to spread cold butter on them, which will tear them. The pancakes will already be buttered once they reach the table. Top with real maple syrup.