Monday, October 29, 2007

Under the Wire and Off of the Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pork Tenderloin with Muscadine Glaze

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

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

Season the pork with the salt and pepper.

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

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

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

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

Yield: 6-8 servings

© Robert St.John from the book Southern Seasons

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Food Quirks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baked Cheese Treats

1 large loaf French bread

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

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

1 /4 cup shredded parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

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

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

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

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

Can be held warm for 20-30 minutes.

Yield: 30-36 treats
A Fall Break Diary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 08, 2007

I Am the Egg Man, Goo Goo Ga Joob

I am in an egg phase.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert’s Cup Eggs

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Sleepy Shank

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

I certainly bit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

G’day mate.

Grilled Leg of Lamb with Raspberry Mint Sauce

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

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

1 Tbl Black Pepper, freshly ground
2 Tbl Kosher Salt

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

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

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

Serve with Raspberry Mint Sauce.

Raspberry Mint Sauce

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

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

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