Monday, July 30, 2007

Fireworks and Food Foibles

One of the benefits of being a writer is that I am always on the receiving end of humorous and informative stories reported to me by the people I meet.

Last week I heard one of the best yet. A friend of a friend was recounting a recent Fourth of July meal with his family. His grandmother, a spry 93-year old, picked up a small box of bang snaps— the small firecrackers that are wrapped in paper and explode when thrown on the ground— and popped a few of the firecrackers into her mouth thinking that they were candy.

I am not sure if they exploded when she bit down on them or not, but the young man recalling the story told of a puzzled look on her face as smoke drifted out of her mouth while sitting at the dinner table. Luckily, she wasn’t harmed and apparently laughed it off. Others in attendance were witness to a story that will certainly be told, retold, and added to the file of ancestral remembrances that are recounted every time the family gets together, and certainly every Fourth of July.

The story reminded me of my brother’s wedding, 28 years ago this month. At the time, the practice of throwing rice at weddings was beginning to go out of style. Apparently the wedding rice was being eaten by birds creating intestinal problems. This was the first wedding I attended that offered bird seed to throw at the bride and groom as they made their escape.

The wedding reception was held at the bride’s home. Small bowls of bird seed were placed around the front door so guests could grab a handful when the newlyweds made their exit. At one point during the reception, I rounded a corner to find my grandmother, a very prim and proper Southern lady, popping handfuls of bird seed into her mouth. Well into her eighties at the time, and possessing all of her teeth, she smiled politely as she crunched and chomped the bird seed. When I told her that bowls were not filled with nut-like hors d’oeuvres for eating, but a rice substitute to hurl at the newlyweds, she looked confused and relieved all at once.

I could tell that she had been wondering why the people in that town ate such strange food. Minutes later, I found my uncle doing the same thing.

Families are full of these stories. They happen all of the time, most of the time when a group is gathered together and sharing food and/or drink. Through the years, we relive them often.

One Christmas Eve, my inebriated septuagenarian aunt did the jitterbug on my mother’s coffee table. It embarrassed all of the grown-ups in the family, but we kids have been repeating the story ever since.

As a child, my wife tried to reheat pizza in a pop-up toaster, which, as a story, is not quite as popular as the time she put her entire hand in the toaster. Her father reminds us of these childhood blunders often, and we remind him of the tamale surprise he once cooked for a Thanksgiving meal.

Fortunately, these types of family-food legends are being told less and less through the years. Not because people have tired0 of telling them, but as my children grow older, they create stories with each passing day. Stories that we will certainly tell and retell embarrassing them often, especially in front of company as our parents did before us, and their parents did before them.

What have we learned today?
1.) Be careful what you do at family gatherings unless you want your foibles to be relived and retold ad infinitum.
2.) Throwing rice at weddings is for the birds.
3.) Old people will put almost anything into their mouths
4.) Fireworks and grandparents don’t mix.

Apricot Casserole

3 16-ounce cans apricot halves, lightly drained
1 cup light brown sugar
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into pats
1 1/2 sleeves Ritz crackers, crushed into small pieces almost to crumb state

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Grease a 2 1/2-quart casserole dish. Using a bowl, crush the apricot halves between your fingers. Add the brown sugar and Ritz crackers and mix well. Pour mixture into the casserole dish and dot with the butter pats. Serve as a side item to accompany an entrée, just as you would a vegetable like asparagus or broccoli.

Yield: 8–10 servings

Monday, July 23, 2007

Food For Thought

“If I was a doughnut, I‘d eat myself.”

Those words were spoken by my six-year old son as I sat watching him eat doughnuts yesterday. Our family talks about food a lot. My daughter talks about what we should have for supper while we are eating lunch. It’s genetic.

“Daddy, Jesus is like a doughnut hole.”

“How is that, son?”

“Well, a heart is like a doughnut. It can have a hole in it. But Jesus is like a doughnut hole. He can fill the hole in your heart.”

No seminary necessary, just one year of kindergarten. How could I argue with that? It’s doughnut logic. I am not sure if they are teaching food-related Sunday school lessons at our church, but the sugar-fueled religious philosophy is getting through in the First United Church of Krispy Kreme.

Many of the world’s problems are being solved over newsprint, coffee, and a few dozen glazed, every morning in doughnut shops all across the country. It’s the same with my family.

I guess it’s mostly my fault that a lot of my family’s thoughts and plans are centered around food, though it is food that often brings families together.

A few years ago I wrote a column about the five tenets I have tried to incorporate into my daily life— faith, family, friends, food, and fun, in that order. My wife and I have structured our parenting philosophy around those principles.

When I speak to large groups or associations, I always cover the Five Fs, one-by-one, in great detail. When I reach the food part, people tend to chuckle. But food is serious stuff. I am not talking about treating food seriously as so many of the stuffy food scholars and historians do, but the simple process of sharing a meal with family and friends. That, my friends, is a dwindling ritual that is seriously needed.

As a society we have gotten too used to pulling up to a drive-through window, picking up a paper sack of food, taking it home, and eating it on a TV tray in front of the TV. That’s not supper.

When I was growing up, moms came to back doors and yelled, “Supper,” and everyone ran to the dinner table. Today a mom yells “Supper” from the back door and everyone hops into the mini van.

We have lost something through the years. For my family, the simple process of sitting down— television off— and sharing a meal is one of the most important parts of our day. In addition to being able to share our outlook and experiences with our children, we get to listen.

Listening within families is underrated. There is so much to hear, from serious cases of schoolyard drama and hiccups in the social interaction process to statements such as, “Daddy, do you want to feel my booty muscles?”

“No, son, I do not.”

Three years ago I began writing down a lot of the things my children were saying with the intent of publishing a book. The most recent entry: “What time is eight-seven-central?”

Of the seven books I have written so far, this would be the only one that wrote itself. Many of the quotes are about food, some are just food related.

My wife was walking through the grocery store the other day and turned down an aisle just in time to see our son approach a perfect stranger, “Hey, do you want to smell my nose air?” he asked, as he tilted his head back and quietly blew air out of his nostrils. Seconds earlier, he had sprayed Febreze air freshener directly into his nose. Funny enough, his dry, exhaled “nose air” did smell like lavender and vanilla.

Now if I could just come up with some food-related advice that would make him wear underwear.

Shrimp Harrison

2 lbs. 21-25 Shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 tsp Kosher Salt
1 tsp Old Bay Seasoning
1/2 tsp Black Pepper, freshly ground
3 TBSP Olive Oil
2 cups Mushrooms, sliced
1 1/2 tsp Garlic, minced
1/2 cup White Wine
1 Tbl White Vinegar
1/4 cup Chicken Broth
1 cup Caramelized Onions
3/4 cup Unsalted Butter, cut into small cubes
2 Tbl Parsley. Freshly chopped

1 Recipe Really Rich Grits

Season the shrimp with the salt, Old Bay Seasoning and black pepper.

Place the olive oil in a large, heavy duty sauté pan over high heat. Heat the oil until it just begins to smoke. Carefully place the shrimp in the smoking hot pan. Allow the shrimp to cook without moving them for 2-3 minutes. Add the mushrooms and garlic and cook for 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove the shrimp and hold them in a warm place.

To the shrimp skillet, add the white wine and vinegar and reduce until there is almost no liquid remaining. Add in the chicken broth and cook until only one tablespoon remains. Add the butter cubes and stir constantly until butter has dissolved, being careful not to cook too long (if you cook it too long at this stage, the butter will separate).

Add the caramelized onions and warm shrimp back into the pan and stir so that the sauce coats the shrimp. Remove from heat and stir in parsley.

Place 3/4 cup of cooked grits into each serving dish, top the grits with the shrimp and serve immediately.

Yield: 8-10 servings

Caramelized Onions*

2 Tbl Unsalted Butter
3 cups Yellow Onion, thinly slice
1 tsp Kosher Salt

Melt butter over medium-low heat in a large sauté pan. Add onions and salt to the melted butter. Cook onions for 15-20 minutes, stirring them often to prevent burning. The onions should continue cooking until a rich brown color is obtained.

Really Rich Grits

1 quart heavy whipping cream
1 cup grits
2 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup unsalted butter cut into cubes
1 cup parmesan cheese, grated

Preheat oven to 275 degrees

Stir together the cream, grits, salt pepper and bay leaf.
Place the mixture in an oven proof baking dish and cover. Bake for2 1/3-3 hours, stirring every 30 minutes.

Once the grits are soft and creamy, stir in the butter cubes and parmesan cheese. Serve immediately.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Icees, Bikes, and Brain Freezes

Over the past few weeks my family has been catching up on movies, sometimes seeing two films in one day.

I love movies. As a matter of fact, the two things I love most about owning my own business are— getting to wear whatever I want to work (no neckties, ever), and being able to see a matinee in the middle of the day.

During the summer we bring our children to matinees, and lately, I have devised an effective method that turns the average movie visit into a well-oiled and precise system of which puts us in our seats just as the previews start.

After parking, I go to the ticket counter to purchase tickets. My wife flanks me and— with the kids in tow— heads immediately for the concession stand line. Once I arrive with the tickets, I replace her in line and she and the children find our seats (first row above the walkway in front of the rail). Fast, efficient, effective.

Our concession order is the same every time— a large Diet Coke for me, water for my wife, a small popcorn for the family to share, Milk Duds for me, an orange drink for the girl and a cola-flavored Icee for the boy.

Yesterday, as I was making my way to our seats carrying all of the concession-stand booty, I took a sip of my son’s Icee. I hadn’t had an Icee in years. It was good. I took another sip and another. I was instantly transformed to the hot summers of my youth, riding my Schwinn bicycle around the Hillendale neighborhood of my hometown, Hattiesburg, Miss. I took another sip, this time a bigger and longer one. By the time I reached our seats the Icee was half gone and I had a brain freeze.

My son took one look at his Icee (or what was left of it) and sent me back to the concession stand.

I purchased most of the Icees of my youth at a convenience store called The Minit Mart. It was the junk-food capital of our neighborhood and the central meeting place for both bicycling kids and teenagers with drivers licenses. The Minit Mart was made famous in a Jimmy Buffet song that told a story of the composer and his friends— during their college days at the University of Southern Mississippi— utilizing a five-finger discount with peanut butter and sardines. In the song, the name was changed to “Mini Mart” I assume to protect the not-so innocent.

Icees were a great portable drink. In those days most soft drinks came in glass bottles, not the safest vessels to be drinking while riding a bicycle. An Icee— cold and sweet— was served in a paper cup with a long stroon.

A stroon is a half straw/half spoon that could be used for slurping and spooning in alternate steps. I always felt the stroon was included to prevent brain freeze. If one slowly spoons their Icee into their mouth the chances of a full-scale brain freeze decreases dramatically, though most kids still sucked Icees through a straw, quickly delivering the cool sugary liquid to the stomach, and consequently a burning freeze to the brain.

The brain freeze, sometimes known as an ice cream headache, is a medical phenomenon that, according to my research (read: 10 minutes on Google) has no medical explanation. I never knew anyone who could get through a hot Mississippi summer without contracting at least one severe, but quickly dissipating, case of brain freeze. A fan of Icees would deal with the brain freeze almost every time he or she drank one.

Sno-cones were summer treats, but they always seemed more like ice cream than a beverage. Cokes in the little bottles were good, but only when stationary, and in those days not many days or nights were spent in a stationary position.

As adults we stop doing things that we did daily as kids— rolling in the grass for no reason, running so long and so hard that it took several minutes to regain your breath, and not on a treadmill or stair climber but in the schoolyard and through the woods. We rode bikes and played board games, and tackle football in friend’s front yards, and we drank Icees.

Today a gynecology clinic stands where the Minit Mart did, we don’t roll in the grass for fear of staining our clothes, and bicycles mostly stay parked. We have turned into calorie counters and self-appointed food police. We have traded in our Icees for fruit smoothies and we might just be the lesser for it.

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 (9-inch) Pie Crust, baked

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.

Monday, July 09, 2007


This weekend I took my children to see the new Disney/Pixar film, Ratatouille. It’s about France’s greatest chef—a rat.

The food in the animated feature looks good enough to eat. A majority of the movie takes place in a French restaurant kitchen and most of the main characters, sans the rat and his family, are chefs.

In a few weeks, Catherine Zeta Jones will be starring in a new movie in which she plays a chef. From the previews, it appears that she’s in love with another chef.

Restaurants, chefs, and food have never been more popular than they are today.

When I was a kid Walt Disney movies were about parentless baby deer, dogs, and Volkswagens that had minds of their own. The closest Disney came to a culinary theme was an Italian restaurant scene in Lady and the Tramp in which two dogs eat a plate of spaghetti.

I have two friends who don’t let their children watch any mainstream television. Their children are 10, eight, and three-years old. They watch The Food Network. And when I say they watch The Food Network, I mean they watch the Food Network exclusively. It’s the only thing that’s program on in their home.

Today’s kids know the chefs, they know their restaurants, and they know their personal histories. Consequently, they know a lot about food, much more than I did in my late teens and early 20s.

The Food Network is miles ahead of the television of my youth with three channels and eventually PBS in the late 1960s. PBS is the only place I remember seeing cooking on television. Julia Child and Justin Wilson were the early pioneers.

American food has come a long way in a short time, due in part to Julia Child and James Beard on television and Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkley. Up until the late 1970s, the only “serious” food was French food, and “serious” chefs were French chefs. All of the serious American restaurants were French themed.

Today, some of the world’s greatest chefs are Americans who cook fresh, regional, and seasonal cuisine. As it has been for years in Italy and France, culinary regionalism is the order of the day. Today’s American cuisine is fresh, local, broad, and complex, from California cuisine, Southwestern, Tex-Mex, Southern, Cajun, and Creole, to the Northeastern region, Midwest, Florida, Carolina barbeque, Texas barbeque, and the list goes on.

In our restaurants and in our homes, we have become more aware of what we put in our bodies. Due to busy schedules and two-income families, eating out is more popular than ever— good news for restaurateurs, not-so-good news for the family dinner table.
Several times each month I speak to junior high or high school students about careers in the restaurant business or culinary arts. They see chefs on television and they want to open restaurants.

Food is “in.” When I opened my first restaurant in 1987, goat cheese and fresh herbs were special-order items from my food supplier. I fielded questions from customers such as, “What are shiitake mushrooms?” These days I can purchase micro greens grown in California and have them flown in the next day.

In the fine dining kitchens of the 21st century Americans, eat mostly fresh and local food instead of complicated and overwrought French classical dishes. We have countless web sites and blogs that discuss food to the nth degree. We have come from a rudimentarily animated bowl of spaghetti in Lady and the Tramp to truffles and foie gras that appear as authentic as the real thing on Ratatouille.

For those of us who love food, things are looking up, and the future is looking tastier everyday.

Robert’s Ratatouille

1/2 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil
3/4 cup yellow onion, medium dice
2 tablespoons garlic, minced
1 1/2 cups yellow squash, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 1/2 cups zucchini, cut into 1/2-inc cubes
1 1/2 cups eggplant, salted, rinsed, and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup red peppers, medium dice
2 teaspoons Crescent City Grill Creole Seasoning
1 1/2 cups Tomato Concasse
1/4 cup white wine
3/4 cup fresh basil, chopped fine (do not substitute dried)

In a sauté pan over medium high heat, sweat onion in olive oil. Add garlic. Add squash, zucchini, eggplant, salt, and pepper and cook until vegetables become al dente. Add tomato concasse and cook for two-three minutes. Add Creole Seasoning and deglaze with wine. Cook for two minutes. Add basil just before serving.
Yield: 6–8 servings
© Robert St.John 2002 from the cookbook A Southern Palate by Robert St.John illustrated by Wyatt Waters, Different Drummer Press

Monday, July 02, 2007

Café Rendez-Vous

SEASIDE, Fla.— The hippest restaurant in the Florida Panhandle just might be Café Rendez-Vous in Seaside, the small community which serves as ground zero of the New Urbanist movement.

I happened upon Café Rendez-Vous through the girlfriend of a friend who told me to take my wife there to check out the Tahitian pearl and leather necklaces for sale. I didn’t put much stock into a restaurant recommendation that was more jewelry-store referral than food tip, but I found myself there while tagging along with a browsing spouse.

Café Rendez-Vous is very small, but stylish enough to fall into the “charming” category. It hosts a dozen leather bar stools, a few sofas, and al fresco dining for approximately 40.

The menu is as refreshingly limited as the space. In a region filled with white-tablecloth stalwarts, fried seafood houses, fast food, and fine-dining wannabes, Café Rendez-Vous is a welcomed change from the Pensacola-to-Panama-City norm.

The sushi menu is only 15 items long. The usual suspects are present, and all are well executed. The standard menu offers three crepes— walnut and goat cheese, ham and asparagus, and berries and Nutella— a bruscheta, Caesar salad, chicken satay, cheese plate, and shrimp ceviche. That’s 23 total menu items. Simple. Beautiful. Tasteful.

In contrast to the food menu, the wine list is extensive and offers several premium wines by the glass. Ultimately, Café Rendez-Vous is more bar than café, but categorization probably doesn’t matter much to its owners, Wendy and Jean-Noel Mignot. The pair seems to have created a spontaneous business with inspiration taken from where they would rather hang out as opposed to what their target market might want or need. That is refreshing and it is one of the primary aspects that make the place work.

The couple met on the Caribbean island of St. Barthelemy. She was a jewelry designer, he had a restaurant background with parents in the jewelry business. They married, purchased a sailboat, and then went sailing for several years. Two children later, and after a shipwreck totaled the boat in Beaufort, NC, they opened Café Rendez-Vous in Seaside.

As it was during their sailing days, the jewelry business is still handled at trunk shows in New York and Los Angeles. However, tucked away in a small display case at the end of the bar is a beautifully designed collection of Tahitian and freshwater pearl necklaces and earrings threaded with a unique leather, the origin of which is kept secret.

Café Rendez-Vous is one of those rare places that are the exception to most every longstanding restaurant rule. The Mignot’s do it their way and it works. The barefoot island attitude permeates through every aspect of the business. The overall approach is laid back. Whenever a restaurant/bar can accomplish that mind-set naturally, the guests have no other option than to relax and unwind.

Nothing in Café Rendez-Vous is contrived. The space is organic and the employees, like the owners, are running on island time. The front-of-the-house staff of four (bartender, sushi chef, server, and jewelry salesperson/server) wears whatever clothing they felt comfortable in when they left the house that morning, the overall attitude is friendly and welcoming, the lighting is subtle, and the house music is supplied by the bartender-on-duty’s iPod. I love that.

In talking to the staff, one can tell that they love the owners and therefore, their jobs. It is impossible for a restaurateur to create loyalty, devotion, and desire among employees— those qualities must be earned. Café Rendez-Vous has accomplished this feat several times over.

In addition to sushi and crepes, Café Rendez-Vous might be the only restaurant in the area that serves ceviche. One would think that in a coastal area, especially one filled with seafood restaurants, one could find ceviche on several menus— not so.

The sushi station at Café Rendez-Vous is in the back of the café and is manned by a lone sushi chef. One could probably find better sushi in the area, though I don’t know where, but you’d have to look pretty hard to find sushi served in a more modish atmosphere.

I would suspect that there are days when the small, three-tiered, upright jewelry case is responsible for more sales than the restaurant/bar. Wendy Mignot’s customers range from the Hollywood elite to locals who wander in with no idea that such inimitable leather-meets-pearl jewelry would be available in a sidewalk café. The approach is low-key, and just another aspect that makes Café Rendez-Vous unique, and original.

Every once in a while I daydream about giving it all up and moving my family to the islands. If I ever did, the place of my dreams would look a lot like Café Rendez-Vous.

Lemon Crepes

Crepe Filling

1 1/2 lb. Cream cheese, softened at room temperature
3/4 cup Sugar
2 Tbl. Finely grated lemon zest
2 Tbl. Fresh lemon juice
2 tsp. Vanilla extract
12 Crepes

Combine all ingredients (except crepes) and blend until smooth. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Fill the crepes by placing the cream cheese mixture in a pastry bag and piping a 1” x 1” tube down the center of each crepe. Roll the crepes and place them on a lightly buttered baking sheet, non-stick is preferable. Cover the crepes with a sheet of wax paper and cover the entire wax-covered baking sheet with a sheet of aluminum foil. Bake for 6-7 minutes just until center is warm. While crepes are baking, make the sauce.

Lemon Sauce

1/2 lb. Butter, unsalted
1/2 cup Sugar
2 Tbl Freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup Brandy

In a medium skillet, melt butter over medium high heat. Add sugar and cook until it begins to dissolve. Add lemon juice and whisk together ingredients. Add the Brandy and carefully ignite. When flame subsides, lower heat slightly and cook for 4-5 minutes, until thick and creamy. Place warm crepes on serving dishes and spoon the heated sauce over them. Garnish with fresh raspberries and mint. Yield: 6-8 servings