Monday, December 29, 2008

Robert’s Top Ten 2008

Each year, my final column is a list of the top ten dining experiences I enjoyed over the previous twelve months. The list is never based on price or atmosphere. I believe that good food can be served in a fine-dining environment or in a run-down diner. The only considerations are good food and good friends, which always lead to a good time.

10.) Drago’s, New Orleans— Drago’s invented the charbroiled oyster and they do it better than anyone. The oysters are placed on the grill, doused with pepper and garlic-spiked butter, then topped with a mixture of parmesan and romano cheese, and doused with the butter again. The flames rise up and surround the oysters every time the butter is applied. The shells get charred and the oysters, smoky. Simple. Flavorful. Excellent.

9.) Table Fifty-Two, Chicago. Art Smith opened his signature restaurant in Chicago earlier this year. He serves updated Southern classics in the Windy City. The highlight of the meal came as a chef’s treat, amuse bouche— Art’s Drop Biscuits with Goat Cheese and Parmesan. Of all the meals I have eaten, in all of the cities, and all of the fine dining restaurants over the years, this meal will go down as the first time I have ever requested seconds on an amuse bouche.

8.) The Modern, New York— Danny Meyer is the most talented restaurateur in the country. The Modern is located on the first floor of the Museum of Modern Art and the food’s presentation is as artful as the works hanging in the galleries above. The Chilled Maine Lobster Salad with Soy Sprouts and Button Mushrooms in a Lobster Vinaigrette was a highlight, as was the Chorizo-Crusted Chatham Cod with White Coco Bean Puree and Harissa Oil. Long live Mr. Meyer.

7.) Frontera Grill, Chicago— For those who love Mexican food, Frontera Grill is the American Mecca. Bayless knows more about Mexican food, Mexican ingredients, and Mexican culinary customs than 99% of the chefs in Mexico. He is truly a student of the cuisine. I ate the best guacamole I’ve ever eaten and a ceviche that was out-of-this world.

6.) Balthazar, New York— I usually eat at Balthazar in SoHo for late-night, post-theatre meals. A lot of the city’s chefs hang out there after work. Breakfast at Balthazar is great. The bustle feels more like “New York” than any other place I visit. The Scrambled Eggs in Puff Pastry with Wild Mushrooms and Asparagus are almost worth the three-hour flight, alone.

5.) Blackberry Farm, Walland, TN— Every meal eaten over a four-day visit. Blackberry Farm is the most civilized 4,200 acres on the planet. The Beall family has fostered an environment in which the organization’s sole purpose is to cater to guest’s every whim. Nothing goes unnoticed at Blackberry Farm. My wife and I dropped our kids off at summer camp in Arkansas and headed east to Blackberry Farm— summer camp for adults.

4.) Nobu 57 New York— Nobu Matsuhisa is the ninja master of sushi. The original New York restaurant, Nobu, is a tough ticket, but Nobu 57 is an easily made reservation, and the food is just as good. The Yellowtail Sashimi with Jalapeño is a signature dish and not to be missed. The miso-glazed fish craze started here. The surprise hit of the dinner— though slightly out of place on a Japanese menu— were the crab and ceviche miniature tacos.

3.) Bouchon, Las Vegas— I have eaten at Thomas Keller’s homage to the French bistro several times. This trip I was in town for one reason only— to take my two children to see Cirque du Soleil’s Beatles Love. The dinner was great. The show was great. The company was beyond great.

2.) Restaurant August, New Orleans— I hosted a dinner for 14 of my friends in Chef John Besh’s former office, upstairs at August. The highlight of the meal for me was the fellowship, but the Slow-Roasted Kobe Beef Short Rib with Salsify, Potato Gnocchi, and Black Truffle came in a very close second.

1.) Gwyn’s High Alpine Lodge, Snowmass, CO— My six-year old son and I took a father-son ski trip together. It was the first time the two guys had taken a trip without the two girls. After a few days of lessons he and I spent all day— just the two of us— skiing down the mountain. We stopped for lunch and I had a bowl of vegetable soup. It was the best soup meal I have ever eaten. Actually, the soup itself was average; the company and the setting were wonderful. That day was filled with several of my all-time greatest memories.

Art Smith's Drop Biscuits with Goat Cheese and Parmesan Recipe

2 cups self-rising flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons cold butter
4 tablespoons goat cheese
1 cup buttermilk, plus extra butter, to grease pan and top biscuits
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

1. Preheat oven to 425°F Place one 10-inch cast-iron pan into the oven while it is preheating. Place flour, salt, baking soda and baking powder into a medium-sized bowl. Cut in the butter and goat cheese. Make a well in the middle of the ingredients and pour in the buttermilk. Stir until the mixture is moistened, adding an extra tablespoon of buttermilk if needed.

2. Remove the hot skillet from the oven and place a tablespoon of butter into it. When the butter has melted, drop 1/4 cupfuls of batter into the pan, (use a muffin scoop to drop the batter if you have one). Brush the tops of the biscuits with melted butter. Bake from 14–16 minutes until browned on the top and bottom. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with the grated cheese. Enjoy warm!

Monday, December 22, 2008


I am not a fan of eggnog.

I quit drinking alcohol over two decades ago, but that has nothing to do with my dislike of eggnog. I could drink the non-alcoholic variety if I wanted to; I just never developed a taste for it.

Earlier today, while watching a football game, my 11-year old daughter came to me and said, "Daddy I don't like eggnog."

"I don't either, sweetie," I said. I thought her statement seemed somewhat random, but I assumed her mother had bought a carton of non-alcoholic eggnog at the store earlier in the day and she drank some.

"Your mother loves eggnog," I said.

"It's pretty bad. How does she drink it?"

"I don't know. She's just always liked it," I said. Then I began to worry that one of our friends might have delivered a Christmas bottle full of spiked eggnog as a Christmas happy for my wife, and my daughter drank some of it while her mother was taking a nap. “What kind of eggnog did you drink, sweetie?"

"The carton said Egg Beaters," she said.


"Egg Beaters. It's awful."

I quickly told her that she had not, in fact, drank eggnog, but a carton of an egg substitute product that I sometimes use on my current diet.

"How do you drink that stuff?" she asked.

"Well, sweetie, I don't drink it, I cook it." She looked relieved.

Believe it or not, she's a very intelligent girl. Though I am not sure why she thought Egg Beaters were eggnog. The words “beaters” and “nog” have nothing in common. The Egg Beaters carton doesn’t have a poinsettia on it. I don’t even know what a “nog” is.

As long as she keeps making good grades in school I’ll let this one slide and write it off to holiday enthusiasm.

Eggnog is made with milk, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, some type of alcohol— bourbon, whiskey, brandy, or rum— and eggs. It’s the egg part that gets me. There is something about drinking raw eggs and milk that doesn't appeal to me. I can eat a soft-boiled egg, but I do so with toast or biscuits, not milk. Like Egg Beaters, the combination of eggs, sugar, and milk should always be cooked. Custard = good. Eggnog = Bad.

For those who want whiskey, it seems much easier to just pour some in a glass over ice and dispense with the milk and egg.

In the first Rocky movie, the title character woke up every morning and drank a few raw eggs before he went out on his morning jog through the streets of Philadelphia. Maybe my daughter has seen the movie. Maybe she was inspired by the drive and determination of Rocky Balboa. Maybe it was the Bill Conti score, who knows? Maybe she’s opting for a 21st Century sixth-grade version of Rocky and drinking a healthier alternative—Egg Beaters— before she jogs through the streets of Hattiesburg.

One thing’s for certain, in the future, I’ll bet she starts paying closer attention to product labels.

Lava Lamps

1 3-ounce package instant gelatin mix (red or blue)
1 cup boiling water
1 cup vodka
1 (750 milliliter) bottle champagne, chilled
In a medium bowl, stir together the gelatin mix and boiling water until completely dissolved, about 2 minutes. Stir in vodka. Pour the liquid into small paper cups or portion cups. Chill until set, at least 2 hours.

Pour champagne into champagne flutes. Break up the gelatin in the paper cups with a fork, and drop pieces into the champagne.

Monday, December 15, 2008

We Wish You A Figgy Christmas

A group of Christmas carolers stopped by my house last night.

I like the whole caroling thing, but I often worry about the family of unsuspecting foreigners who might have just moved into the neighborhood from a faraway land with divergent customs. I wonder what they must think when they open their front door and two dozen happy people, dressed in wool sweaters in 72-degree weather, begin belting out random songs with no preliminary forewarning.

Last night’s carolers ended their five-song set with the obligatory Christmas carol encore of “Free Bird.” Actually it was “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” And as I sit here trying to write this column, I find it hard to focus on my topic. I can’t get the words “figgy pudding” out of my head.

I looked up the lyrics this morning:

Oh bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh bring us a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer.

Last night I thought they were singing, “Oh bring us a figgy pudding and bring it right here.” I was a little offended. It’s not every day that a group of strangers show up at your house during Sunday Night Football demanding fruit dessert.

Though, after looking up the lyrics, I am more troubled. I found out what they were really looking for was “a cup of good cheer,” which led me to believe that this group of carolers were most likely Episcopalian. I didn’t have enough booze in my liquor cabinet for 24 thirsty Episcopalians so— in the end— it’s good that I misheard the lyric. Had my mom been there she would have given them a dollar and told them to make sure and spend it on food.

Nevertheless, a melodious demand for fruit pudding and booze while someone’s watching football is overtly rude.

The problem is that I don’t know anything about figgy pudding. I eat for a living. I’m good at it. Eating is going to put my kids through college, but I don’t believe that I have ever eaten anything that was figgy.

The name itself is silly. “Figgy” is not really a word, is it? “Fig-like” seems better, maybe even “fig-style,” but figgy sounds like a cruel nickname given to an introverted fat kid by the fourth-grade bully.

No one has ever given me a figgy pudding, and I’m not sure I would eat it if they did. My friend Gene Saucier makes the best fig preserves I have ever tasted. He brought me some last week. He didn’t sing a song, or ask for a cup of hootch, he just said, “Here’s some fig preserves,” and I said, “Thank you.”

Correction, it is a word. I just looked it up: figgy [fig-ee]— adjective, containing figs: a figgy cake (origin 1540-1550).

Actually, I think “Figgy” comes from the Latin word “Figgusius,” meaning, “I want some damn pudding, and I want it now, bring it at this instant— with some whiskey— or I will continue to sing on your front porch.”

The most awkward moment in the Christmas carol/home-owner routine is always at the end. Last night— once they finished singing— they just looked at me. I looked back at them and thanked them, they said “Merry Christmas,” I returned the sentiment, they looked back at me, and I said “Merry Christmas” again. They kept looking and I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t sure if they wanted to come in, or if they wanted me to join them at their next stop. I just said, “thank you,” once again and closed the door.

Sitting here, it occurs to me that they might have been serious. Maybe their demand for figgy pudding was genuine and resolute. Maybe they did, in fact, want a 16th Century fig-like dessert.

Note: To those carolers who stopped by my house during the Cowboys-Giants game, please come back. I don’t have any figgy pudding, but I will certainly share a few of my son’s Fig Newtons with all of you (as long as there’s no football game on).

Foie Gras with Toasted Brioche, Fig Relish and reduced Port Wine Glaze

1 lb. Foie Gras cut into 2 ounce slices
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp fresh ground black pepper
8 Slice Fresh Brioche, crusts removed and cut in half on a diagonal
1 recipe Fig Relish
1 Recipe Port Wine Glaze

Preheat oven to 450

Arrange the brioche on a baking sheet.

Season the foie gras with the salt and black pepper. Heat a large, non-stick skillet over high heat and arrange the foie gras in the skillet so they do not touch. Cook 45 seconds. Carefully turn each piece over and cook for 1-2 minutes. Turn off the heat.
Place the brioche in the oven to toast.

To serve, place one piece of the brioche toast on each serving plate, top with one piece of the cooked foie gras. Top each piece of foie gras with 2 tsp of the fig relish. Drizzle the plate with the port wine glaze and serve immediately. Yield: 8 servings.

Fig Relish

1 Tbl butter
2 Tbl minced shallots
1 1/2 cups Figs from fig preserves, small dice
2 Tbl brown sugar
2 Tbl sherry vinegar
2 Tbl minced celery
2 Tbl small diced red peppers
1/2 tsp fresh thyme leave, chopped
salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter over low heat in a small sauce pot. Cook the shallots for 3 minutes. Add in the diced figs and brown sugar. Cook 5-6 minutes, stirring often to prevent sticking and burning. Add in the sherry vinegar, celery and red bell peppers and lower the heat. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring often. Add thyme, salt and black pepper and remove from heat. Best if made a day or two in advance. When ready to use, warm it slowly in a small sauté pan over a low heat. Yield: 1 1/2 cups

Port Wine Glaze

1 cup chicken stock
1 Tbl brown sugar
1 cup port wine
2 tsp balsamic vinegar

Place all ingredients in a small sauce pot. Simmer and reduce until mixture forms a thick syrup. Yield: One quarter cup
Give Me Some Skin Big Ganny

During the first 20 years of my life I never encountered a boneless, skinless chicken breast.

When I was a child, all chicken came under cellophane with bone and skin attached. The drumstick, the breast, the thigh, and even the wing, all had skin and bones. That’s the way God intended chicken to be sold and fried. Read it, it’s in the Bible somewhere. I think in one of those obscure Old Testament chapters like Amos or Obadiah.

True story: The first time I ever saw a boneless skinless chicken offering, I was at a restaurant on a date. The girl I was with asked, "How do they walk around without any bones, and don't they get cold without any skin?" For the record, she wasn't blonde, but she was very, very pretty.

I was having dinner with a group last week when a friend posed the question: "Where do you suppose they are hiding all of that chicken skin?"

It was a good question. There's so much boneless, skinless chicken being sold, they've got to be storing all of that skin somewhere. The skin is the best-tasting part. It truly is— crunchy, crispy, salt-and-pepper laden, tasty chicken skin. It’s the greatest component of fried chicken.

In the poultry section at my local grocery store, I conducted an extremely scientific survey which proved that 47.62% of chicken available for sale is sold without bones and skin. Which means almost half of the world’s chicken skin is just hanging around the butcher department in limbo, lonely, and without a mission.

Restaurants whose primary offering is fried boneless, skinless chicken breast strips are popping up all over the place. They’re the “in” thing with teenagers and twentysomethings. I don’t want to eat a chicken’s fingers and I certainly don’t want to eat his nuggets. I demand skin on my chicken and I want dark meat, too. Where has all of the dark meat gone? I want dark meat. I want it to have skin and bones, and I want it now.

Save me the but-all-of-the-fat-is-in-the-skin argument. Most people who are eating fast food don't give a rooster's beak about fat. How does one explain 15 years of chicken strip-only restaurants and 60 years of Baskin Robbins? The Baskin Robbins Heath Bar Shake has 2,300 calories and 108 grams of fat! Trust me, fat is not an issue in that segment of the restaurant biz.

I want to open a restaurant that serves only fried chicken skin. Of course there will have to be some type of sauce to dip the fried chicken skin into— comeback sauce (the ultimate condiment)— and two side orders. No fries or cole slaw like the traditional chicken strip places. How about tater tots and applesauce? Granted, applesauce isn’t very popular and doesn't fit in with the concept, but I like applesauce, and, after all, it's my fried chicken-skin restaurant, isn’t it.

I once knew a lady whose grandchildren called her "Big Ganny," no "r" just Ganny. She made excellent fried chicken, yet the only part of the chicken her grandchildren would eat was the skin. Smart kids. "Give me some skin Big Ganny," they would say. I think I'll call my fried chicken-skin concept Big Ganny's Chicken Skin Palace.

And after I open Big Ganny’s Chicken Skin Palace, I’m going after Hooters. I will open a chain of restaurants which serve only spicy Buffalo chicken thighs with the skin on. I’ll call the place Buffalo Thighs. Or maybe I’ll purchase land across the street from Hooters and hire a lot of diminutively chested waitresses and call it Peepers. Equal time for all, I say.

Either way, I’ll be serving my bird with the skin on. It’s the best-tasting part. The rest just tastes like chicken.

Chicken Jambalaya

2 pounds andouille sausage, or any mild smoked pork sausage, sliced about 1/4 inch thick
3 pounds chicken thigh meat, cut into 1 1/2 inch pieces
1 TBL Creole seasoning
2 cups yellow onion, medium dice
1 1/2 cups celery, medium dice
1 1/2 cup green bell pepper, medium dice

2 TBL fresh garlic, minced
1 tsp dry thyme
3 bay leaves
1 pound long grain rice
1 – 14 ounce can diced tomatoes
1 TBL Worcestershire sauce
1 TBL hot sauce
1 quart + 1 cup chicken broth, heated
1 Tbl kosher salt

Heat a large heavy duty cast iron skillet or Dutch oven (2-gallon capacity) on high heat.
Place the sausage in the hot skillet and brown it evenly. Stir often to prevent burning. When the sausage is browned, carefully remove the excess fat. Season the chicken with the Creole seasoning and add it to the skillet, cooking it in the remaining sausage fat (you might need to add a little Canola oil). Brown the chicken evenly and cook it for 20 minutes. Add in the onion, celery and bell pepper and lower the heat to medium. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring often. Add in the garlic, thyme and bay leaves and cook for 5 more minutes. Stir in the rice and cook until the rice grains are hot. Add in the canned tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce and chicken broth. Stir the mixture well to prevent the rice from clumping together. Lower the heat until the Jambalaya is just barely simmering and cover. Cook for 30 minutes.

Yield: 12-14 servings
Newk’s Evil Chocolate Cake

I am on a diet.

A diet is a serious problem for someone in the restaurant business. It also poses a predicament with my second day job— being a food writer— which requires, at a minimum, eating a lot of food and then writing about it.

There are several food items I miss. Most of them have to do with bread in one way or another. I love cake. I miss cake. I especially love chocolate cake, and I especially miss chocolate cake.

My favorite chocolate cake is served at Newk’s Express Cafe. It’s better than my grandmother’s, which for me, is a solemn statement. I’ve never said that about anything.

Newk’s chocolate cake is evil. I suggest you never eat it. Don’t do it. You’ll be hooked. It’s addictive.

I don’t know what they call it at Newk’s, probably just “chocolate cake.” I call it “evil.” I really do. When I order it I say, “Give me some of that evil chocolate cake.” And they do. And I eat it. I have had that exchange over and over for the last several years, which is why I am currently eating chicken breasts and broccoli and dreaming of cake.

My son loves it, too. When we have dinner at another restaurant in town, we often stop at Newk’s for dessert and take their evil chocolate cake home. That is, unless we ate dinner at Newk’s, this makes it much easier to just eat the cake there.

Don’t eat Newk’s chocolate cake. Just say no. Be strong. If you fail to heed this warning, don’t email or call me from the Newk’s Chocolate Cake Rehab Center, because I’ll just say, “I told you so.” And when you wind up on a non-cake eating diet because you ate way, way, way, way too much chocolate cake don’t say that I didn’t warn you.

The Newcomb family hires a woman in New Albany, MS to make all of their cakes. She currently makes over 1,200 cakes every month, though that number might have changed by a few hundred since I have gone on this diet.

I have never met this woman, but I often picture her as an angelic, Godiva-like figure in flowing chocolate-brown robes who floats around her production kitchen, a halo glowing around her head, sprinkling magic-tasting cocoa-flavored fairy dust all over her chocolate cakes. If I were a single man, I would marry her tomorrow, sight unseen.

Newk’s also serves strawberry, pineapple, caramel, banana nut, and carrot cake on a rotating basis. They’re all good. But when you eat a slice of the others, you just feel like you’re eating a slice of cake— nice, moist, make-you-happy cake. When you’re eating Newk’s chocolate cake you feel like your sinning. In an instant, you become a sinful, sinning, sinner with a leftover dab of sin-filled chocolate on your nose and an empty glass of milk in your hand. Amen.

Trust me, don’t ever order a slice of Newk’s chocolate cake. Look at it, analyze it, admire it, maybe take a sniff or two. Whatever you do, don’t order it. If you surrender to temptation, or accidentally order it and it ends up on your table by chance, be a nice guy and give it to a friend. They’ll love you forever. Just don’t take that first bite. Don’t do it.

I love cake. I miss cake. I love moist cake and rich chocolaty icing. I love the chocolaty, chocolate-filled, chocoliffic, chocolateness (my words).

I am eating asparagus and gulping down low-carb protein shakes but I’m dreaming of chocolate cake and an ice cold glass of whole milk.

As of today, I’m 20 pounds down and have 20 more to go. I plan to act sensibly when choosing foods and quantities once I give up this diet and start eating regularly.

The first food item I plan to eat—you guessed it— Newk’s chocolate cake. That moist, chocolaty, three-layer slice of evil on a plate that helped put me in this position in the first place. I can’t wait

Robert’s Chocolate Cake

Cake: 1 3/4 cake flour 3/4 cup cocoa (preferable Dutch processed) 2 teaspoons baking soda 1 teaspoon baking powder 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt 2 eggs 2 cups sugar 3/4 cup melted butter 1 cup buttermilk 1 cup brewed coffee, at room temperature 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
To make the Cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly butter 2 (9-inch) cake pans and line with parchment. Butter the parchment and flour pans, shaking out the excess.
Sift together flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Reserve.

In a mixer with a whip attachment, beat eggs and sugar until thick and lemon-colored. Beat in the melted butter. Alternately add dry ingredients with buttermilk, scraping the bowl once or twice. Add the coffee and vanilla to form a thin batter. Divide between prepared cake pans.

Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of a cake comes out clean, about 40 to 45 minutes. Cool in pan for 15 minutes. Invert onto cooling racks, peel off paper and cool completely.

When cool, split each cake in half with a serrated slicing knife. Freeze the layers for 1 hour before assembling the finished cake. Make the filling and icing while the layers are freezing.

Place the first layer on a cake serving dish and spread a thin layer of the filling evenly over the cake. Repeat this process until you have the layers assembled, spread the icing over the top layer and around the sides.

1 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate pieces
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
3/4 cup powdered sugar

Place the chocolate in a double boiler and heat until completely melted. While the chocolate melts, use an electric mixer with a wire whip attachment to beat together the cream cheese and powdered sugar. Beat until it is light and fluffy. Allow the melted chocolate to cool slightly, then drizzle it into the cream cheese mixture and continue beating until the filling is cool. This spreads best if used immediately.

6 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
4 cups powdered sugar
1 cup sour cream
1 Tbl vanilla extract

Melt the chocolate over a double boiler. Use an electric mixer with a wire whip attachment to cream together the butter and powdered sugar. Add the melted chocolate and vanilla extract and beat until light and fluffy. As with the filling, this spreads best if used immediately.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Three Mississippi Girls (and one man)

The holiday shopping free-for-all has begun. The retail craziness used to start the day after Thanksgiving, these days shopkeepers begin gearing up the week before Halloween.

No one knows what effect the economy will have on this Christmas season, but one thing is for sure: Whatever happens in 2009, we’ll still be eating.

Consider this column an addendum to your holiday season shopping list. Cookbooks are the perfect gift for men and women alike. My publisher says that most people who purchase cookbooks don’t cook out of cookbooks. Most people read cookbooks as one would a novel— cover to cover— and dream about what they would like to cook (or rather what they’d like to eat). With that in mind, here is a list of must-have cookbooks for this holiday season.

At Home Café by Helen Puckett DeFrance with Carol Puckett (Rodale $32.50)— Veteran cooking teacher, DeFrance focuses on what matters most to me: Food, friends, and family. This book is an essential must-have volume for the modern home cook. For those on the go and for those with time on their hands At Home Café will be your go-to guide.

The book lists menus which cover all aspects of our lives, from tea parties to potluck game nights and everything in between. DeFrance’s book is worth the cover price for the Old Fashioned Lasagna recipe, alone. At Home Cafe is loaded with helpful hints and good ideas to make cooking for friends and family easy and more enjoyable.

We have grown too accustomed to pulling up to the drive-through window, grabbing a paper sack, taking it home and eating it on the TV tray in front of the TV. That's not supper. DeFrance knows supper and her new book is the bible.

Screen Doors and Sweet Tea by Martha Foose (Potter $32.50)— I buy, and recieve, hundreds of cookbooks each year. This might be the best cookbook I purchased this year. My publisher says that if someone cooks six recipes out of a cookbook, it is a major success. The first time I thumbed through Foose's book, there were several dozen recipes I wanted to prepare.

Foose got her start at the La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles, and moved on to several bakeries in Mississippi. However, where Foose shines in this, her first publishing effort, is on the savory courses that take place well before dessert— Inside Out Sweet Potatoes, Lady Pea Salad, and Chicken Thighs and Dumplings to list just a few.

From the banana pudding she cooked for Oprah (in individual Mason jars) to Catfish in a Paper Sack, the book is filled with recipes new, true, and Southern

Crazy Sista Cooking by Lucy Anne Buffett (Wimmer 29.95)— Born in Mississippi, Jimmy Buffett's sister, and owner of Lu Lu's in Gulf Shores, AL, released this cookbook in 2007, but I only discovered it a few weeks ago. Lucy Anne Buffett gives recipes from her restaurant and several menus from her family and friends. The foreword is written by her famous brother, Jimmy, the recipes are easy and uncomplicated, and the stories are out of the ordinary and entertaining.

New South Grilling by Me (Hyperion $29.95)— I almost didn't include my book because it would seem like a blatant attempt at self-promotion, maybe it is. Nevertheless, my seventh book in six years is a solid compilation and it might just transform the way you cook on the grill (it also might help pay my kids' college tuition).

After all, grilling in Mississippi is not just a summer thing. The average Christmas Day temperature in my hometown of Hattiesburg is 61-degrees— Bring on the brisket!

We are living in tight financial times and I would encourage everyone to support the local independent booksellers in their hometown. One of the greatest joys I have experienced in this second career which seems to have blossomed out of nowhere over the last several years is getting to know and befriend local independent booksellers in towns and cities all across the south. They are on the front lines every day, fighting the good fight and leading in the battle of the bookshelves.

Happy holidays and happy shopping!

Jill’s Holiday Cranberry Sauce

12 oz. bag Fresh Cranberries
1 cup Port Wine
1 /2 cup White sugar
1 /2 cup Brown Sugar
1 /2 cup Orange Juice
2 tsp Cornstarch
2 Tbl Cold Water

Combine cranberries, port, sugars and orange juice in a sauté pan and simmer over medium heat for 20-30 minutes or until the cranberries become soft. Separately, mix the cornstarch with the cold water then add it to the cranberry mixture. Turn up heat to a heavy simmer and continue to cook, stirring well, for another 5-10 minutes. Serve warm.
Free My Fine-Feathered Friends!
Tuducken… the campaign begins

Thanksgiving is almost here and anyone within 100 miles of the Louisiana border will soon be hearing long-winded and glowing tributes to one of the world’s strangest culinary oddities— the turducken.

A turducken is deboned turkey, which has a deboned duck stuffed inside it, and just in case that wasn’t enough poultry for one sitting, the duck has a deboned chicken stuffed inside of it. More simply, if you take the time to stuff a duck with a chicken, and then stuff both of those inside a turkey and bake it, you have a turducken. Often there is a cornbread dressing layered between the triple threat of stuffed birds.

Louisianans love a turducken. They sell them in grocery stores, they offer them in back-bayou butcher shops, they take them to the homes of grieving families, and they certainly serve them at Thanksgiving.

There are two schools of thought as to the origin of the turducken. Some say that Chef Paul Prudhomme is the inventor of the turducken. I am a great admirer of Prudhomme. He is one of my culinary heroes. If he did, in fact, invent the turducken, I am willing to give him a pass based solely on the quality of his jambalaya, which is the best to be found anywhere, no question.

Others believe that Herbert’s Specialty Meats in Maurice, LA was the original fowl offender. I like to believe this version, not because I have malice towards Herbert, but I want to believe that Chef Paul would never make such a huge culinary misstep and invent a dish that is so vile.

I am not a fan of the turducken. Even the name is unappetizing. I prefer to call it, Death by Poultry. Ultimately, it’s not a sound culinary concept. The outer-layer of the turkey dries out when one tries to cook the inner-layer chicken all the way through, and the mushiness of the dressing doesn’t bode well for the texture profile of the dish.

Most of Louisiana’s heritage dishes— gumbo, etouffee, jambalaya, and Shrimp Creole— are well over 100 years old. The best I can figure, whether it was Paul or Herbert, the turducken has only been in existence for 25 years. It’s not too late to turn back, people. The campaign starts today— No Turduckens in ’09.

The turducken’s inspiration probably came from a French dish, Rôti Sans Pareil, or "Roast without equal." This particular affront to ornithology was cooked and served at a French royal feast in the early 1800s and consists of 17 layers of birds stuffed inside other birds. It starts with a bustard (a large and ugly European bird), stuffed with a turkey, stuffed with a goose, stuffed with a pheasant, followed by (in order): chicken, duck, guinea fowl, teal, woodcock, partridge, plover, lapwing, quail, thrush, lark, Ortolan Bunting, Garden Warbler, and finally an olive. “No thanks, Pierre. I’ve had all of the lapwing and Garden Warbler I can stand, could you please pass the olive?”

The Roast Without Equal sounds like something my friends and I would have tried to create in the small kitchen of my college apartment at two in the morning. It’s a dish that— after a lot of alcohol and such— sounds like a good idea, but ends up being way too much work and ill-conceived in the closing stages. When inspiration strikes that late in the day, it’s usually better to just go to sleep.

Happy silver anniversary turducken, and good riddance.

Whole Roasted Citrus Chicken

1 quart water
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup kosher salt
1 Tbl black pepper, freshly ground
2 oranges
2 lemons
2 limes

1 whole chicken, 3 1/2-4 pounds

1 orange, cut into quarters
1 lemon, cut into quarters
1 lime, cut into quarters
1/2 cup yellow onion, small dice
1 tsp fresh garlic minced
1 Tbl fresh thyme, chopped
2-3 Tbl olive oil
2 tsp poultry seasoning (page xxx)
1 Tbl fresh ground black pepper

Place the water, sugar, salt and black pepper in a saucepot and bring to a simmer to dissolve sugar and salt. Remove from heat. Using a vegetable peeler, remove only the outer skin from the first 2 oranges, lemons and limes, be careful not to get any of the pith (white part of the peel). Add the peelings to the brine. Squeeze all of the juice from the peeled citrus and add the juice to the brine. Place the brine in the refrigerator and allow to cool completely.

Remove giblets and neck from the chicken and submerge the chicken in the brine. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Remove chicken from the brine and, using a paper towel, dry all surfaces of the chicken, including the cavity area.

Combine the orange, lemon and lime with the diced onions, minced garlic and fresh thyme. Stuff the citrus-onion mixture into the cavity of the chicken.

Brush the skin of the chicken with olive oil and sprinkle the skin with poultry seasoning and black pepper. Tie the legs together, and bend the wings back to secure them.

Prepare the grill. Cook with the breast side up over indirect medium heat until the juices run clear, or until an internal temperature of 170 degrees at the thickest part of the thigh is reached, approximately 1 1/4- 1 1/2 hours.

Place the chicken on a cutting board and allow it to rest for 10-12 minutes before carving.
Serve hot.

Yield: 4 servings

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


I have often written that if I ever visited Scotland, I would eat haggis.

I have never been to Scotland, but I can now say that I have eaten haggis.

Yesterday, my family and I attended the 23rd Scottish Highland Games and Celtic Music Festival on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. A friend was competing in the Highland Games portion of the event, so we traveled to Gulfport looking forward to watching the competition.

The festival was filled with activities and food. There were pale men in plaid skirts throwing rocks. There were pale men in plaid skirts playing bagpipes. There were pale men in plaid skirts herding sheep, and there were pale men in plaid skirts selling plaid skirts to other pale men.

There was also a story-telling stage with an open mic. I thought about getting up on the stage and telling the story of my most recent challenge as the parent of a second-grade boy.

Story: Two days ago my seven-year old son was playing on the swing set during recess and fell out of the swing. The problem: His pants stayed in the swing. Typically that wouldn't be too big of a crisis, unless the son in question doesn't like to wear underwear. He apparently spent a few seconds buck-naked on the playground, but the event wasn't a big enough deal to him when recounting the day's activities to his mother. "I made an A on my quiz, I had chicken for lunch, I played wallball at recess, and that's about it."

If I fell to the ground, naked, in front of my peers, it would take me years to get over. I have nightmares about it, today and it’s never even happened. He barely even remembered it when the teacher relayed the story. Maybe we need to send him to school in a kilt.

I had never attended a Scottish-themed event. Scottish festivals might be a great place to watch time-honored sporting events, to learn about one’s family crest, or hear Celtic music, but it's the last place one should visit when hoping to eat good food.

If you want food, go to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival or the Austin City Limits Music Festival. Never, I repeat never, go to an event which draws its culinary inspiration from any corner of the British Isles.

There were fried Mars bars, a culinary creation born in Scotland, Angus burgers (not so bad), and the ever-present funnel cake (an American creation, but more than likely a Scottish-American creation). My children ate Scotch Eggs for the first time.

A Scotch Egg is a hard-boiled egg covered with a layer of sausage, then battered and fried. They liked it. Go figure.

I visited Hamish's Kitchen, a booth that served haggis. I eat for a living so thought I'd give it a shot. Haggis is sheep's lungs, heart, and liver mixed with oatmeal, onion, and beef fat. It looks like a blackish gray porridge-from-hell and smells like dirty gym socks. Actually, that description would be doing dirty gym socks a disservice. Haggis smells like… well, just think of the worst thing you have ever smelled and then triple it. That, my friends, is haggis.

I have eaten many peculiar food items in my 28-year restaurant and writing career, and up until now, chitlins have been the main offender. Folks, chitlins taste like a sweet, moist slice of chocolate cake when compared to haggis.

I took one bite (actually one-half of one bite) and thought I was going to lose it on the spot. The couple working the booth— the evil people who sold me the haggis in the first place— were laughing. How cruel, I thought, for them to make this evil gruel, ask honest people to pay money for it, and then laugh while I gnarled my face in pain and distaste while eating their concoction.

I love the Scots. I know I’ll love visiting Scotland one day. Paul McCartney has land there. Braveheart is one of my favorite movies. Celtic Festivals are a blast, but haggis should forever stay on the other side of the pond.

Robert’s Deviled Eggs

1 dozen Eggs, hard boiled, peeled and cut in half, lengthwise
2 tsp. White balsamic vinegar
1 /3 cup Mayonnaise
1 /4 cup Sour cream
1 TBL pickle relish
1 1 /2 tsp Salt
1 Tbl Creole Mustard
2 tsp yellow mustard
1 /8 tsp white pepper
1 /8 tsp Garlic, granulated
Paprika and fresh parsley to garnish (optional)

Remove the yolks from the hard cooked eggs and place in a mixing bowl. Add all ingredients and beat with an electric mixer until smooth. Use a pastry bag to fill the egg whites. Sprinkle with paprika fresh parsley.
Yield: 24

Monday, November 03, 2008


My family eats at the neighborhood hibachi restaurant, often.

Actually, what we Americans have come to know as "hibachi" is actually teppanyaki-style cooking. A hibachi is a small, portable grill like the ones I used on my apartment balcony during a very lengthy and tenuous college career.

Teppanyaki-style cooking is done on a flattop griddle in front of guests who are seated around the cooking surface. Usually salad and soup (or broth) are served first. Vegetables and rice are cooked on the flattop. The customary protein choices are chicken, steak, and shrimp. They are cooked quickly with minimal accoutrements and maximum flair. Many restaurants offer scallops, lobster, and several different cuts of steak.

You know the drill— lots of fire, fancy knife work, the onion volcano, the flying egg in the chef hat, and the novelty soy sauce squeeze bottle which the chef uses to squirt a brown string at unsuspecting guests (I fall for that one every time).

Teppanyaki-style eating is somewhat healthy as long as you don't have a problem with rice. There is a small amount of fat used when cooking the protein and a substantial amount of soy sauce used when preparing the rice, but for the most part, when compared with other styles of restaurant cooking, it's healthy and flavorful.

For the remainder of this column I will refer to teppanyaki-style cooking as "hibachi" because that has become the American moniker.

For me, the "show" in a hibachi restaurant comes in a distant second to the food. Once you've seen the routine for the third or fourth time it becomes stale. I like dining at our neighborhood hibachi restaurant because we can walk in, sit down immediately, and begin eating. My kids love it, it's fast, it's healthy, and it's good. If I want less soy sauce or rice, I tell them.

Several years ago we visited a hibachi restaurant with a PG-13 rated hibachi chef. He had a very thick accent and the children couldn't understand him, but he discussed some pretty inappropriate stuff— I think. I could catch every sixth or seventh word and it was like a bad Saturday Night Live skit filled with sexual innuendos and heavily accented dirty jokes.

He had no filter or concept of “child appropriate.” He laughed long and loudly at his jokes which made everyone else laugh, which made him think everyone was laughing at the jokes and not his laughing, and the vicious cycle continued around and around.

An inappropriate hibachi chef is much better than what I— this very second— witnessed. While writing the previous paragraph, my seven-year old son walked through the room singing television’s “Viva Viagra” jingle to the tune of Elvis' "Viva Las Vegas." Thankfully he has no clue, and I’m not about to enlighten him. Unfortunately there is no way to watch a football game with your children nowadays without hearing the words, "erectile dysfunction" several times before the end of the first quarter.

The PG-13 rated hibachi restaurant eventually closed and the chef moved to Las Vegas where he is probably doing stand-up comedy or E.D. commercials.

There is a communal aspect to hibachi eating. Sharing a meal with family, friends, and strangers is a great treat and a fun alternative.

I could care less for the fancy knife work and all of the bells and whistles. As long as the chef takes it easy on the oil, and you moderate your rice intake, it's a quite healthy meal. It's quick. It's fun. It's family oriented and one can order exactly what he or she wants prepared exactly as he or she likes— sans the sexual innuendos and dirty jokes.

Dirty Rice Cakes with Crawfish Mardi Gras Mix

The rice cakes can be made two days in advance (the topping one day in advance). After the dirty rice cakes have been browned, they can be held in the refrigerator for up to two days.

3 cups dirty rice, cooled
1 /4 cup green onion, chopped
2 Tbl parsley, chopped
2 eggs, beaten
1 /4 cup coarse bread crumbs
1 cup Italian bread crumbs
1 /4 cup unsalted butter

Preheat oven to 350.

In a food processor, pulse 1 1 /2 cups of the dirty rice (Do not make a paste, the rice should just begin to resemble coarse bread crumbs).

Place pureed rice in a mixing bowl with the remaining rice, green onions, parsley, eggs and plain bread crumbs crumbs. Mix well.

Form into 1 1 /2-inch round patties approximately 3 /4-inch thick. Gently bread the cakes using the Italian bread crumbs.

In a large sauté pan, melt butter over medium heat and brown cakes on both sides. Place browned cakes on a baking sheet.

Bake the cakes for 8-10 minutes.

Top warm rice cakes with crawfish mixture and heat for 5 more minutes.

Place on serving dish and top with a small dollop of red-pepper aioli.

Yield: 20 cakes

Crawfish Mardi Gras Mix

1 Tbl olive oil
1 /2 cup red onion, minced
1 /4 cup red pepper, diced
1 /4 cup green pepper, diced
1 tsp garlic, minced
1 tsp salt
1 tsp creole seasoning
1 /4 pound cleaned crawfish tails, drained (not squeezed) chopped fine
2 Tbl sour cream
1 Tbl parmesan cheese

Heat olive oil in a medium-sized skillet over medium-high heat> Add onion, peppers, garlic, salt, and creole seasoning and cook 4-5 minutes. Let cool. Combine cooled vegetables, crawfish, sour cream and parmesan cheese.

Dirty Rice

1 Tbl bacon fat
2 oz ground beef
2 oz ground pork
1 bay leaves
1 Tbl poultry seasoning
1 tsp dry mustard
1 /2 cup diced onion
1 /4 cup diced celery
1 /4 cup diced bell pepper
2 tsp minced garlic
2 Tbl butter
1 cup rice
2 cups pork stock, hot

Brown the ground pork in the bacon fat.

Add veggies and seasoning and cook 10 minutes.

Stir in rice and hot stock, lower heat , cover and simmer 18 minutes.

Yield: 3 cups

Monday, October 27, 2008

LAS VEGAS— What is a family man who doesn't drink, doesn't gamble, and has trouble staying up to watch David Letterman doing in Las Vegas with his wife and kids? Two words: The Beatles.

I have pulled my second grader and sixth grader out of school to travel to Las Vegas to see Cirque du Soleil's production "The Beatles Love." I am a huge Beatles fan and have seen "Love" twice. My kids are huge Beatles fans, too. They have never seen "Love," though they have heard me go on and on and on and on about it for the last two years.

My kids also love food (the apple doesn't fall far from the chef coat). Over the last decade, Las Vegas has become one of the country’s top ten restaurant cities. Some of the country's top chefs have opened branches of their most popular restaurants, here. The restaurants are, for the most part, manned by seasoned professionals who have been in that particular chef’s system for many years. The best thing about the upscale restaurant business in Vegas is that, unlike other big cities, all of the restaurants are within a few miles of each other— hundreds of them.

One of my favorite Las Vegas restaurants is Thomas Keller's Bouchon in The Venetian hotel. Keller is the country's preeminent chef. He mans the stoves at The French Laundry in Yountville, CA and Per Se in New York, and serves food that is humbling to even the most accomplished chefs.

My daughter ordered Steak Frites, a classic dish found in French bistros and brasseries. It's basically steak with a side order of French fries. In a good establishment, the fries can often match the steak in terms of satisfaction and satiety. Left in the hands of Thomas Keller, the basic French fry can become remarkable.

I love comfort foods. I love potatoes in all forms. There is a beautiful and ideal simplicity in a side order of perfectly prepared mashed potatoes or French fries. The best mashed potatoes I have ever eaten outside of my grandmother's dining room were served at Watershed restaurant in Decatur, GA on chicken night. I was there for the legendary fried chicken, it was good. What I remember though, were the mashed potatoes.

One of the most memorable orders of fries I have eaten were enjoyed in Aspen several years ago in at the Ajax Tavern. The fries were fresh-cut, cooked perfectly in a small amount of duck fat, and topped with a sprinkling of kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, a drizzle of fragrant truffle oil, and finished with shaved Parmigianino Reggiano. Beautiful. And a perfect example of taking a simple offering, adding four straightforward, yet ideal, accompaniments, and creating a masterpiece. The beauty is not only in the simplicity, but the combination of flavors. When duck fat is thrown into the mix the satiety level rises tenfold.

Bouchon's fries were— as one would expect from Keller— excellent. My daughter had enough to share with her brother— who was busy putting away an order of gnocchi— and a few left over for her father.

Bouchon fries aside, possibly the best order of fries I have eaten in the last several years were at restaurant Char in Jackson, MS. I know that proclaiming a "best fry" seems a little silly and trivial, but that's my job. It's what I do. Besides, I love fries.

Char's French fries were every bit as good as Bouchon's, probably better. A few weeks ago, my family and I were in Jackson for an event and visited Char before we hit the road home to Hattiesburg. My daughter ordered a steak with a side order of Char's "House-Cut Fries." They were great. At the time I was on a diet and hadn't eaten anything fried in four weeks. One might think that my lengthy absence from the beloved fry might have clouded my judgment, not so. Char's fries are that good.
So what have we learned today? One will leave Vegas with more money in his bank account if he or she stays out of the casino and spends time in the restaurants. The Beatles are a perfectly good excuse to miss a few days of school, and fries aren’t just fast food, anymore, though if we’re paying homage to the Beatles, we should probably call them chips.

Robert’s Mashed Potatoes

3 lbs Idaho potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters
2 Tbl. Salt
1 gallon Water

1 /2 cup Butter, cold, cut into small pats (1 stick)
6 ounces Cream cheese, softened
1 cup Half and half
2 oz Sour Cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a large saucepot add potatoes to salted water. Cook at a low simmer (do not boil) to avoid potatoes breaking apart. When the potatoes are tender, carefully drain. Return potatoes to the dry pot and place over low heat for one to two minutes to remove all excess moisture.

Place potatoes a mixing bowl. Using a hand-held potato masher, mash the potatoes. Add cold butter— one piece at a time— as you begin to mash. Mix cream cheese and half and half in a microwave safe container and heat in the microwave until hot. Remove from microwave, blend together, and slowly add to hot potatoes. Gently fold in sour cream. Add salt and pepper. Mix well. Potatoes may be covered tightly and held in warm place for one hour before serving. Yield: 10 servings

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Working for the Mouse

ORLANDO— I am in Walt Disney World as a visiting chef of the EPCOT International Food and Wine Festival.

Through the years I have been a frequent guest of The Mouse. I have enjoyed the parks with-and-without kids and had a great time doing the stuff one does down here since 1973. Until now I have never had such an inside view of the ins and outs of this amazingly complicated yet efficient collection of theme parks, hotels, and restaurants.

Throughout my 28-year restaurant career I have participated in numerous culinary events and festivals behind the scenes, in front of cameras, and as a guest chef or lecturer. Walt Disney World blows them all away with their efficiency, professionalism, service, and offerings. It should come as no surprise that a company dedicated to hospitality and good times 365-days a year is able to pull it off so well— from the festival’s attendees down to the guest chefs.

Just to tour the foodservice facilities and work alongside Disney chefs was a treat. This is a company that employs over 350 top-notch chefs and thousands of line cooks to work at over 300 foodservice facilities offering over 6,000 food items. It is baffling when seen as in a behind-the-scenes manner.

To pull off the daily prep and production of this place is mind boggling. On past visits I have often thought of what must go into preparing and serving this much food, scheduling the personnel, and purchasing and receiving that much food. To see it done is humbling.

In years past when one thought of foodservice at Walt Disney World, they were thinking burgers, fries, and Cokes. Those days are long gone. Granted this company knows burgers, fries and Cokes— as they serve over nine million hamburgers, nine million pounds of fries, and 46 million Coca Cola drinks— but now the park has several world-class restaurants which employ dozens of world-class chefs.

The EPCOT International Food and Wine Festival has been around for 13 years and, year-in year-out, is one of the most well-attended events in the park. I met dozens of chefs from all over the country, but more importantly, I met so many chefs who work inside the Disney system. To a person, they were all consummate professionals. Their kitchens are meticulously maintained, and their quality standards are second to none.

Of course anyone can serve hot dogs out of a cafeteria line (though there aren’t too many who can successfully serve as many millions as Disney), but to coordinate world-class restaurants such as Victoria and Albert’s, California Grill, Citricos, Jiko, and The Flying Fish Café while feeding over 200,000 guests every day is a awe-inspiring feat.

It’s been a great week. My four events were filled with people from all over the country (and Canada) who were interested in Mississippi and the food we serve in our restaurants, the food we eat in our homes, and the way we live. I met a lot of chefs from all over the country and had a great time in my off hours with my wife and kids. But I leave with a sense of awe at the magnitude of what is accomplished on an hourly basis behind the scenes at one of the country’s largest foodservice providers.

The chefs, hosts, coordinators, and employees of the EPCOT International Food and Wine Festival are the embodiment of competence, organization, hospitality, and professionalism. Well done, and thank you.


1/2 head iceberg lettuce1/2 bunch watercress 1 small bunch chicory 1/2 head romaine lettuce2 medium tomatoes, blanched and peeled1 1/2 cups cooked turkey breast, diced1 avocado3 eggs, hard-cooked1/2 cup blue cheese, crumbled6 strips crisp bacon, crumbled2 tbsp. chopped chives

Chop all greens very fine (reserve some watercress for presentation) and arrange in salad bowl. Cut tomatoes in half, remove seeds and dice une. Also dice the turkey, avocado and eggs. Arrange the above ingredients, as well as the blue cheese and bacon crumbles, in straight lines across the greens. Arrange the chives diagonally across the above lines. Present the salad at the table, then toss with the dressing (below) and place on chilled plates with a watercress garnish. Serves six.

BROWN DERBY OLD-FASHIONED FRENCH DRESSING1/2 cup water1/2 tsp. sugar1 1/4 tbsp. salt1 1/2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce1 clove garlic, chopped1/2 cup red-wine vinegarJuice of 1/2 lemon1/2 tbsp. ground black pepper1/2 tsp. English mustard1/2 cup olive oil1 1/2 cups salad oil
Blend together all ingredients, except oils, then add olive and salad oils and mix well. Blend well again before mixing with salad.

© 2008 Walt Disney World
Reprinted with permission

In Sunday’s New York Times Magazine there was an extensive article on catfish. In the article I learned that the Catfish Institute, located in Jackson, Miss., has chosen a new name for the catfish— Delecata.

As new made-up names for fish go, I guess “Delacata” is as good as any, though I would like to see the list of names that were eliminated. The story claimed that the Catfish Institute had “market-tested” the new name. Market test or not, I will still call it catfish.

The most troubling part of the story was a sentence about local catfish farmers which read, “About a third of the region’s [catfish] growers have quit, and those remaining increasingly see their ponds as liabilities. If attrition continues apace, very little catfish will be farmed in the United States before long.”

This is a major loss for farmers throughout the South. I have toured several catfish farms and processing plants and have been amazed by the scientific approach and world-class efficiency with which these Mississippi farmers and processors operate their businesses. And I continue to be impressed with the high-quality fish that they produce.

The problem stems from imported freshwater fish which a few unscrupulous suppliers and restaurant owners dishonestly market as catfish. There is a Vietnamese variety called Basa which is harvested in the Mekong Delta that is still marketed and sold in some establishments as “catfish.” In addition to having a terrible name, Basa is an inferior-tasting fish and can’t— even on it’s best day— compare to Mississippi farm-raised catfish.

That same day I read a story in The Sun about a “mutant catfish” that was killing people in India. The Goonch fish has been feeding on corpses that have been thrown in the river for so long that it has now developed a taste for human flesh. Folks, this is not the plot for an upcoming Halloween movie, it’s real.

A man once caught a 161-lb Goonch. That’s a big mutant catfish. The Sun also reported, “the first live victim of a Goonch was thought to have been a 17-year-old Nepalese boy in April 1988.” and “an 18-year-old Nepali [boy] disappeared in the river, dragged down by something described as an ‘elongated pig’.”

A “flesh-eating river monster” that looks like a pig? Muddy-tasting Vietnamese Basa putting Mississippi farmers out of work? I prefer to eat my catfish, not the other way around. Make mine Mississippi-raised catfish, everytime.

There is a sport practiced in rivers and lakes throughout the South called, “grappling,” in which a person reaches into logs and stumps and pulls out giant catfish (or Delacata) by sticking their hands in the fish’s mouth. I have seen pictures of this and the catfish they bring out of the water are huge.

To my knowledge, grappling is exclusively an American sport. One thing is for certain: If anyone is grappling for fish in India, they aren’t around later that night to hang out at the campfire and tell the fish tale.

Had I sat on the Catfish Institute’s what’s-our-new-name-gonna-be committee, I might have gone along with the name change, but I certainly would have suggested a new tagline: “Delacata: It might not be a great name, but at least it doesn’t eat you.”

If you are like me and enjoy one of Mississippi’s best crops— catfish— ask the owner of your favorite fish house if he or she is using American (preferably Mississippi-raised) catfish. And if they aren’t, take your business elsewhere, and if they say, “Actually, we’re serving ‘Delacata’,” let ‘em slide, and take solace in the fact that they’re not serving Basa or Goonch.

Mississippi-Fried Catfish

2 cups Cornmeal
3 Tbl Lawry’s Seasoning Salt
3 Tbl Lemon Pepper Seasoning
16-20 Catfish, cut into two ounce strips
Peanut Oil for frying

Heat oil in cast iron skillet to 350 degrees. Combine cornmeal, Lawry’s and lemon pepper. Dredge catfish strips in cornmeal mixture and shake off excess. Drop one at a time into hot oil. Fry until golden (about six minutes), remove, drain and serve.


When frying, it is crucial to maintain the oil temperature. Overloading the oil will cause a severe drop in temperature causing whatever you are frying, and the product will absorb more oil, resulting in a greasy, soggy final product. Keep a thermometer in the oil at all times so that you can monitor the temperature. Also, only bread as much as you can fry at one time. Pre-breading can cause clumps, which will fall off during the frying process. A good method for frying in batches is to preheat your oven to “warm” (200 degrees). Place paper towels or a cooling rack on a baking sheet and place in the oven. Place the already fried objects in the oven, leaving the oven door cracked slightly to prevent steaming.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Doggie Bags

After 28 years in the restaurant business, one of the most consistent customer behaviors I have observed is with doggie bags. A majority of restaurant patrons are embarrassed to ask their server for a doggie bag.

I have never been able to figure out the tentativeness on the customer’s part, but it’s real. Many would rather throw away the remainder of a perfectly good pasta dish they ordered than to walk out of the restaurant holding a to-go box.

Doggie bags are rarely used for dogs. They are people bags, and I never hesitate to ask for one, even in the finest restaurants I have visited. It’s the ultimate compliment to the chef.

At the Crescent City Grill we serve large portions. We welcome customer’s requests for doggy bags. My mother can eat a Grilled and Chilled Chicken Salad for lunch and take the remainder home for dinner, and she does. It makes no sense to send it back to the kitchen where the bus boy is going to scrape it into the trash can.

Some foods are better than others the next day, and some foods can’t hold up even a few hours later. Hearty soups, stews, and gumbos (especially chili) benefit from a day in the refrigerator allowing the flavors to meld and intensify.

Fried seafood is only appetizing for a few minutes after it’s been cooked. Grilled chicken can be kept in the refrigerator for days and, whereas fried chicken from a fast-food chain is good— in the picnic sense— when eaten cold the following day, boneless chicken tender-type entrees don’t hold up as well.

The pinnacle of leftover food is steak. I always take steak home and my dog never gets any— well, maybe the bone.

When I grill steaks at home I always throw a couple of extras on the grill for steak and biscuits the next morning.

Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day and one of my favorite breakfasts is leftover steak served in a biscuit, not the fast-food, deep-fried-steak-and-gravy version of steak and biscuits, but real steak— no gravy— and a little butter on a biscuit.

The reason my children get excited about a steak dinner has nothing to do with the supper they are about to eat, but what will be served for breakfast the next morning.

The St.John version of steak and biscuits is always made with leftover steak. I slice it into thin strips and place it in aluminum foil, sprinkle a little steak seasoning over the meat, top it with a small pat of butter, close the foil, and place it in the oven while the biscuits are baking. A microwave should never be used when reheating leftover steak as it causes the meat to dry out considerably.

I am a staunch proponent of homemade biscuits and believe that they should be used almost all of the time, but for some strange reason— maybe it’s because that’s the way I grew up eating this dish— refrigerated-whop-on-the-counter-straight-out-of-the-tin biscuits work best for this dish. I don’t know why, but that’s the way it is. Save your emails, I’ve been eating steak and biscuits prepared this way for 47 years.

Once the biscuits have baked and the steak is warm, slice open the biscuits and spread a tiny bit of butter on the inside of each biscuit half, top with steak, close, eat, repeat.

These are especially good when served alongside scrambled eggs and a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice.

Once you’ve make steak and biscuits using last night’s restaurant steaks, you’ll never again be anxious about walking through a restaurant with a doggie bag.

Steak Seasoning

1 /2 cup Lawry’s Seasoned Salt
1 /3 cup Black pepper
1 /4 cup Lemon Pepper
2 Tbl Garlic Salt
2 Tbl Granulated Garlic
1 Tbl Onion Powder

Combine all and mix well. Store in an airtight container.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Mac Attack

The holy grail of kid cuisine is macaroni and cheese.

When I wrote my second cookbook, Deep South Staples or How to Survive In A Southern Kitchen Without A Can of Cream of Mushroom Soup, I needed to include a macaroni and cheese recipe to complete the theme for updated home cooking. I had never eaten mac and cheese so I turned over the recipe development of that dish to my chief recipe tester and Purple Parrot Café chef, Linda Nance.

Linda created a great mac and cheese recipe for the book. I named it Linda’s Macaroni and Cheese. When testing the recipe, I ate mac and cheese for the first time. It was good, and I imagine much better than the boxed varieties on local grocery store shelves. Unfortunately, there was a problem.

Deep South Staples, before it was purchased by Hyperion, was a self-published book. All of the work on the book, the recipe testing, the photographic research, the layout and design, the recipe data entry, and proofreading was done in house. That’s where today’s story begins.

There was a slight miscue between the person who helped me do the recipe data entry and the four people (one of which was me) who proofread the manuscript, slight in scope, but monumental in the life of the finished book. In Linda’s Macaroni and Cheese recipe there was a typographical error.

The recipe calls for one 12-ounce can of evaporated milk. The data entry person accidentally entered “1 12-ounce can Condensed Milk.” Yes, that milk. The canned milk normally known as sweetened condensed milk.

Folks, I don’t need to tell you the difference between evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk, but trust me when I tell you that if you ever prepare macaroni and cheese using sweetened condensed milk instead of evaporated milk, you will end up with one of the worst tasting dishes you have ever eaten.

Trust me, too, when I tell you that if someone spends a lot of time measuring, preparing, and cooking mac and cheese with sweetened milk they will not be happy. Actually they will be mad enough to call the cookbook’s author on the telephone and write him nasty emails calling him all sorts of names and wishing harm on the author, his forbearers, and all of his heirs.

This would not have been a problem had I published the recipe in the newspaper and was able to print a correction in a subsequent column. Unfortunately, there were 10,000 copies of the book printed, and within a matter of weeks, all of them were in people’s homes, or more specifically, in their kitchens. Nothing feels as “permanent” as having one’s words in a published book.

A correction was made in subsequent editions, and the problem soon went away, or so I thought.

Last spring, my wife and I hosted a dinner for one of our church groups. The adults were bringing their young children to our home, and while the grown ups were meeting over dinner in one room, the children would be having dinner and playing in another room.

Don’t get ahead of me, here.

I asked the chefs in my restaurant to prepare a few recipes for both groups. Unfortunately, the mac and cheese from Deep South Staples was one of them. Even more unfortunate, the copy of the book being used in the restaurant was an uncorrected first edition.

To compound matters, the adults had spent a lot of time giving their kids the hard-sell and getting them excited about “eating at a real chef’s house,” expectations were high, the outcome was terrifying.

In the course of my 28-year restaurant career, I have never had food thrown at me, especially one of my recipes, but if it ever were to happen that would have been the night. Halfway through dinner I walked through the breakfast room to check on the kids, they were in full culinary revolt. They looked at me with hate, disdain, and disappointment all at once.

Do you remember the food fight scene in the movie Animal House? We were that close. Only after bribing them with extra ice cream did they settle down.

Lessons learned: Never trust a typist, always load up on ice cream when children are coming over, and never— I repeat never— mess with a kid’s favorite food.

Linda’s Macaroni and Cheese

1 tsp Bacon grease (or canola oil)
1 cup Onion, minced
2 cups Half and half
1-12 oz can Evaporated milk
1 /3 cup Butter
1 /2 cup Flour
2 tsp Salt
1 tsp White pepper
12 oz Velveeta cut into large chunks
8 oz Sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
1 1 /2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 pound Elbow macaroni

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Heat the bacon grease in a two-quart saucepot over low heat. Cook onion five to six minutes then add half and half and evaporated milk into saucepot. Bring to a simmer. In a separate skillet, melt butter and stir in flour to make a roux. Cook until the roux becomes light blond and add to milk mixture. Cook for six to seven minutes on low, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and fold in Velveeta, cheddar cheese, pepper and salt. Stir until cheeses are melted.

While you are preparing the sauce bring six quarts of water to a boil. Add one tablespoon salt and cook macaroni to just tender. Drain and fold macaroni into cheese mixture. Place in a two-quart baking dish and bake for 25 minutes. Yield: 5-8 portions

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Stable Staples

Every home has a stable staple.

A stable staple is an item that is almost, if not always, in an individual’s home kitchen. It varies from home to home and is usually located in an heirloom cookie jar, or a favored Pyrex dish, tucked away on a special shelf in the pantry, or highlighted front and center in the refrigerator.

It is the singular food item that is ever-present in that home. It’s usually kept in the same place and it is the one item that is served when someone visits the home and the item that will be there when you visit some else’s home.

Your best friends always know where the stable staple is kept and they feel free to help themselves when they visit.

Sometimes the stable staple is a snack, every now and then a cake or pie, it can be store-bought or homemade. In a few families the item changes with the holidays, in others the stable staple is ever-changing regardless of the season or occasion.

As a kid I committed to memory all of my friends stable staples. When playing outside in the Mississippi summer heat it was important to know which friends house to visit to eat a certain snack.

One friend always had chips and picante sauce; another had off-brand generic cookies that he would personally dole out— one to each friend— while his mouth was crammed full with a dozen of the cookies. In between those two lived a friend whose parents owned several grocery stores. They didn’t have a lone stable staple, but a treasure trove of snacks, drinks, and frozen treats that we raided on a daily basis. Their pantry was kid-snack heaven.

My mom always had oatmeal cookies and Hawaiian Punch in her house. They were her stable staples.

Today, my wife’s stable staple is a pan of warm, freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. My kids love them and their friends annihilate them as soon as they are removed from the oven.

My paternal grandmother almost always had a pound cake under a glass dome. Occasionally she would have an Angel Food Cake, but most times it was a pound cake. Kids don’t get too excited about pound cake. I like it. It’s good. It’s better than tea cakes or scones. But it’s not an iced cake, pie, or cobbler. It’s more of a little-old-lady tea-party stable staple than a snack or treat.

My paternal grandmother excelled when it came to entertaining and serving a large formal lunch or dinner, but when it came to goodies in the pantry, we were left with pound cake topped with strawberries and Cool Whip.

My maternal grandmother always had a Tupperware container of Fudge Cake squares. She was known for two recipes: Pancakes and Fudge Cake. I have written at great length about her pancakes and have actually formed a food products company in which her pancake recipe is sold in mix form all across the country. Her stable staple, though, was Fudge Cake.

My grandmother’s Fudge Cake was neither fudge nor cake, though it was more closely related to cake than fudge. The recipe was one that probably came from her childhood home of Nashville and followed her to Danville, Ky., Macon and Atlanta, Ga., the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and finally, my hometown of Hattiesburg, Miss.

Fudge Cake squares are more like brownies than cake, but fudgier than a normal brownie. I loved the recipe as a kid and I love eating fudge cake squares, today. Homemade fudge cake might be the coup de grace of stable staples.

Nowadays my stable staple is oatmeal. Not oatmeal cookies— oatmeal— the breakfast gruel that is eaten with a spoon. It’s the item that is always in my pantry, not fudge cake, or pound cake, or even Angel Food Cake— oatmeal. Sometimes middle age and responsibility stinks.

Muz’s Fudge Cake

4 Squares Bakers Chocolate
2 sticks Butter
4 Eggs
2 cups Sugar
1 cup Flour
1 tsp Pure Vanilla Extract
1 cup Nuts, chopped
Pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 350-degrees.

Melt chocolate and butter together in a double boiler. Once incorporated let cool slightly. Cooled chocolate should still be in liquid form.

Mix together the four eggs and gradually and the two cups of sugar until completely incorporated. SLOWLY pour the slightly warm chocolate mixture into the egg/sugar mixture.

Slowly incorporate the flour into the chocolate/egg mixture. Add vanilla, nuts, salt, and mix.

Line a pan with waxed paper or parchment. Pour in the chocolate mix. Bake at 350 approximately 30 minutes or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean.

Remove from oven. Let cool five minutes. Carefully flip the fudge cake and finish cooling. Once cooled completely, remove wax paper and cut into squares.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Tailgating During Fall in Mississippi

It’s mid September in Mississippi. Is it fall yet?

Yesterday I was watching the Weather Channel and the announcer talked about “fall” weather in the Northeast. Fall in September? You’ve got to be kidding. Not down here.

We know the word “fall,” but we never experience the actual season until mid to late October, and then only in short spurts of crisp weather. Our brief hints of Fall are akin to evening weather in Southern California on a year-round basis.

In the Northeast and Midwest football fans are tailgating on Saturday afternoons with highs in the mid to upper 60s. In Mississippi we’re tailgating in the 90s. The temperature dictates the food.

Tailgating in the South is much different than tailgating in the Northeast. In the Northeast and Midwest the weather forecasts often include the word “crisp.” Down here we trade “crisp” for “muggy.” We do, however, get small hints of “crisp” beginning in October.

The first hint of cool in the Southern autumn is always deceptive. I fall (pun intended) for it every time. On that first cool morning I’ll walk outside, the air is cool— not crisp— cool. The pine straw is starting to turn brown, the Indian Summer images from the national magazines are floating around in the back of my head, and I say to myself, “Ahhhh, fall has arrived to Mississippi.” Inevitably, the next day will be 82 degrees and humid.

The covers of next month’s national food magazines will have images of fall-themed cornucopias highlighted with gold, brown, and orange leaves, freaky looking squash, cranberries, and 10 varieties pumpkin. All while we’re still picking summer vegetables in our gardens.

Down here the heat affects our menu choices. We’re still eating hot weather food. During Southern tailgates, we look for “cool” and easy foods to match the temperatures that we endure this time of the year.

My favorite tailgating recipe is for Silverqueen Corn and Shrimp Dip. I created the recipe for my book, Southern Seasons. It’s the perfect tailgating food. It’s served cold and tastes great in the Mississippi fall, it can be taken to the ball game in a small ice chest, it’s just spicy enough to make one reach for an additional beverage, and— most importantly— it tastes great.

Fall in the South means tailgating and football. We’d like it if it was a little cooler, but we’d rather take the heat than be forced to eat bland, Northern pumpkin and mutant squash.

Silver Queen Corn and Shrimp Dip

2 quarts water
1 Tbl crab boil
2 Tbl kosher salt
3/4 pound small shrimp, peeled

1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup red onion, minced
1/2 cup green onion, minced
1 Tbl fresh jalepeno, minced
1 Tbl hot sauce
1 Tbl fresh lime juice
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp ground cumin
1/3 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1 1/2 Roasted Silverqueen corn, cut from the cob* (3 ears), or canned corn, drained
1 tsp salt

Bring the water, crab boil and salt to a boil over high heat. Add the shrimp to the boiling water and reduce the heat slightly/ Simmer the shrimp for 6-8 minutes. Remove from the heat and drain the shrimp. Place the cooked shrimp in the refrigerator and cool completely. Roughly chop the cooled shrimp. Combine shrimp and the remaining ingredients in a large mixing bowl and mix well. Refrigerate for 1-2 hours before serving. Serve with your favorite chips for dipping.

6-8 servings

*To roast the corn: Preheat oven to 375. Wrap each ear individually in aluminum foil and place them on a baking sheet. Cook for 15 minutes, turn each piece of corn over and bake for 15 more minutes. Remove from the oven and cool for 30 minutes. Remove the foil, husks and silk and using a sharp knife, cut the kernels from the corn, being careful not to cut down too deeply into the cob. Allow corn to cool completely before preparing the dip.
Tailgating During Fall in Mississippi

It’s mid September in Mississippi. Is it fall yet?

Yesterday I was watching the Weather Channel and the announcer talked about “fall” weather in the Northeast. Fall in September? You’ve got to be kidding. Not down here.

We know the word “fall,” but we never experience the actual season until mid to late October, and then only in short spurts of crisp weather. Our brief hints of Fall are akin to evening weather in Southern California on a year-round basis.

In the Northeast and Midwest football fans are tailgating on Saturday afternoons with highs in the mid to upper 60s. In Mississippi we’re tailgating in the 90s. The temperature dictates the food.

Tailgating in the South is much different than tailgating in the Northeast. In the Northeast and Midwest the weather forecasts often include the word “crisp.” Down here we trade “crisp” for “muggy.” We do, however, get small hints of “crisp” beginning in October.

The first hint of cool in the Southern autumn is always deceptive. I fall (pun intended) for it every time. On that first cool morning I’ll walk outside, the air is cool— not crisp— cool. The pine straw is starting to turn brown, the Indian Summer images from the national magazines are floating around in the back of my head, and I say to myself, “Ahhhh, fall has arrived to Mississippi.” Inevitably, the next day will be 82 degrees and humid.

The covers of next month’s national food magazines will have images of fall-themed cornucopias highlighted with gold, brown, and orange leaves, freaky looking squash, cranberries, and 10 varieties pumpkin. All while we’re still picking summer vegetables in our gardens.

Down here the heat affects our menu choices. We’re still eating hot weather food. During Southern tailgates, we look for “cool” and easy foods to match the temperatures that we endure this time of the year.

My favorite tailgating recipe is for Silverqueen Corn and Shrimp Dip. I created the recipe for my book, Southern Seasons. It’s the perfect tailgating food. It’s served cold and tastes great in the Mississippi fall, it can be taken to the ball game in a small ice chest, it’s just spicy enough to make one reach for an additional beverage, and— most importantly— it tastes great.

Fall in the South means tailgating and football. We’d like it if it was a little cooler, but we’d rather take the heat than be forced to eat bland, Northern pumpkin and mutant squash.

Silver Queen Corn and Shrimp Dip

2 quarts water
1 Tbl crab boil
2 Tbl kosher salt
3/4 pound small shrimp, peeled

1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup red onion, minced
1/2 cup green onion, minced
1 Tbl fresh jalepeno, minced
1 Tbl hot sauce
1 Tbl fresh lime juice
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp ground cumin
1/3 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1 1/2 Roasted Silverqueen corn, cut from the cob* (3 ears), or canned corn, drained
1 tsp salt

Bring the water, crab boil and salt to a boil over high heat. Add the shrimp to the boiling water and reduce the heat slightly/ Simmer the shrimp for 6-8 minutes. Remove from the heat and drain the shrimp. Place the cooked shrimp in the refrigerator and cool completely. Roughly chop the cooled shrimp. Combine shrimp and the remaining ingredients in a large mixing bowl and mix well. Refrigerate for 1-2 hours before serving. Serve with your favorite chips for dipping.

6-8 servings

*To roast the corn: Preheat oven to 375. Wrap each ear individually in aluminum foil and place them on a baking sheet. Cook for 15 minutes, turn each piece of corn over and bake for 15 more minutes. Remove from the oven and cool for 30 minutes. Remove the foil, husks and silk and using a sharp knife, cut the kernels from the corn, being careful not to cut down too deeply into the cob. Allow corn to cool completely before preparing the dip.