Monday, May 26, 2008

Ye Olde Foode and Gas-e Costs

I paid $100 to fill my gas tank today. Actually, the pump stopped at $99.38, but I kept squeezing the handle, topping it off, and eking the last $.62 out of the pump just to see if our economy had actually reached a point where it takes a clean, crisp Benjamin Franklin to fill the tank in my vehicle.

One hundred dollars. I sat there and thought about it for a minute. The year the state of Mississippi awarded me a driver’s license was the same year I entered the job market— 1976. I was making $2.20 an hour as a radio station disc jockey. Gas was around $0.60 a gallon. Sitting there in the van next to the pump it hit me: I used to purchase an entire gallon for what I now have to pay for the last little drops used to top off the tank. I felt old.

Food costs have risen more in the last year than in any of the previous 27 years I’ve been in the restaurant business. My raw product costs have risen an average of 40% since last year. We’re doing everything we can not to raise prices, we’ve held firm so far (to the detriment of our bottom line), yet in New York they’re selling $175 hamburgers.

I read a news story on the other day that told of a hamburger joint in the financial district of lower Manhattan that serves a Kobe beef hamburger topped with foie gras, exotic mushrooms, shaved black truffles, golden truffle mayonnaise, and gold flakes. Gold flakes! The burger is served at The Wall Street Burger Shoppe.

Go figure. Wall Street types are paying $175 for hamburgers topped with precious metals and we’re worried about having to raise menu prices a nickel.

The Wall Street Burger Shoppe is one of those places with the extra “pe” on the end of “shop.” I hate that. I would bet that The Wall Street Burger Shoppe used to have a “Ye Olde” at the beginning of their name before they started trying to sell $175 burgers to stockbrokers and fund managers.

A general retail rule-of-thumb: Any place with an extra “e” on the end of any word in their name is going to be more expensive than a similar business without an Old English affectation on their shingle.

New York is also home to a $25,000 sundae (Serendipity 3), a $1,000 pizza (Nino Selmaj’s), a $1,000 bagel (a Westin Hotel), and a $55 bottle of water. Could it be that we people in the flyover states, who are paying exorbitant prices for gas and milk, are subsidizing the eating habits of pin-striped and wing-tipped New Yorkers?

Wait a minute. It’s not just New York. In Philadelphia someone’s selling a $100 cheese steak sandwich using Kobe beef, truffles, foie gras, and heirloom tomatoes. That’s a far cry from the pepper and onions finished with Cheez Whiz of the past (note: neither “cheez” nor “whiz” has an extra “e” at the end of their name).

Reading these news stories infuriated me for a moment. Then I thought of the absurdity of a $25,000 sundae, and I came to the realization that we really don’t have it so bad. In the end, I’d rather live down here and pay $4 for gas than live next door to an idiot who would use gold as a condiment on a $175 cheeseburger.

Black and Blue Burgers

3 pounds Ground Beef
1/3 cup Blackening Seasoning
1 Tbl Kosher Salt

1/2 pound Blue Cheese Crumbles

6 Hamburger Buns
1/4 cup Unsalted Butter, melted

6 Slices Red Onion
8-12 slices Ripe Tomato
2 cups Iceburg Lettuce, shredded

1 recipe Purple Parrot Café Blue Cheese Dressing (recipe below)

Divide the ground beef into 6 equal parts and form 1-1/2-inch thick patties.

Sprinkle patties with the blackening seasoning and salt. Cook over direct high heat for 8-10 minutes for medium- medium well burgers (155-160 degrees). While the burgers are still on the grill, top with blue cheese crumbles dividing equally between burgers. Close the grill lid to melt blue cheese.

Brush the inside surfaces of the hamburger buns with the melted butter. Place on grill and cook over medium-direct heat for 2-3 minutes. Place burgers on the grilled buns and top with onion, tomato and lettuce. Serve the blue cheese dressing on the side

Yield: 6 burgers

Purple Parrot Café Blue Cheese Dressing

1 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese
1/3 cup sour cream
3/4 cup half and half
1/2 tsp paprika
1 Tbl garlic powder
1 tsp Worcestershire Sauce
1/2 tsp white pepper

Use a wire whip to combine the mayonnaise, blue cheese, sour cream and half and half in a stainless steel bowl. Mix these ingredients together thoroughly and then add the remaining ingredients and blend together. Refrigerate until needed. Best if made a day in advance.

2 1/2 cups

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

My friends at Turn Row Books in Greenwood, MS spent the entire weekend cooking from New South Grilling. The following is swiped from their blog at

A Weekend of New South Grilling
Nothing heralds the arrival of summer like a good barbecue. In anticipation of Thursday's event with popular Mississippi chef Robert St. John, we boned up on our grilling during a weekend-long session with his new book, New South Grilling. The book is aimed at seasoned barbecuers hoping to add some spice to their backyard feasts, and though we are by no means experts, we've grilled our share. Still, the book posed a fair challenge. We drained an entire propane tank, came close to a kitchen fire only once, and had some great meals. Here's how it went:

Friday night: Grilled Fish Tacos with Three SaucesWe fell in love with fish tacos after visiting the West Coast. You don't find them much in the South, so we make them at home all the time. The key components are a firm white fish, red cabbage and a cream sauce, which really distinguishes the dish and makes it singular. St. John's recipe calls for mahimahi, which arrives at our local, land-locked supermarket only rarely. No luck this time, so we settled for a nice Gulf fish, tilapia, and wouldn't you know it — China farm-raised. We live 4-5 hours from the Gulf but can only get China-grown fish. (Except for Mississippi-raised catfish, which, incidentally, works in fish tacos only if fried.) The unique features of this recipe were the pineapple pico de gallo and the avocado mayonnaise, a real winner. This one is recommended for the mayo and especially for those who've never prepared fish tacos at home. An easy, essential staple.

Saturday lunch: Chicken TacosAnxious to revisit the avocado mayonnaise, we split the leftover fish and grilled some chicken with St. John's poultry seasoning, then wrapped them in corn tortillas for a variation on the fish tacos. For drinks, we wanted to make the Crescent City Grill Southern Sunset but couldn't get our hands on fresh raspberries, and though frozen may substitute, we opted instead for the Julia's Julep, a take on the classic Southern cocktail from St. John's pal and Delta girl Julia Reed.

Saturday night: Key Lime Grilled Shrimp with Pecan-spiked Rice This one took some serious prep. We selected it because St. John calls it the best shrimp recipe in the book and because we love key limes. We were also interested in trying his no-stick grilling marinade on the shrimp. The real surprise of the dish was the pecan rice, which was cooked perfectly, if we do say so, and the flavors were tremendous. This is a dish you could serve in place of stuffing at Thanksgiving and you'd get no complaints. On top of the rice went the shrimp, which we overcooked a tad (they're tricky on the grill) and a Key Lime Beurre Blanc that was ladled over the whole dish. Each element was so distinct and flavorful that we enjoyed them more separately than together. All in all, though, we were impressed that we'd pulled this one off, and very pleased that we had a rice dish to add to our permanent repertoire.

Sunday "dinner": Whole Roasted Citrus Chicken with Grilled Sweet Potatoes and Stuffed TomatoesWhen Alton Brown was here last month, he was asked if he referred to the noon meal as lunch or dinner. It's a tricky distinction, especially in the South, and Mr. Brown said that it depends: if you were grabbing a quick bite with office buddies, it was lunch. But if you were having a huge family-style meal after church, it constituted a dinner. That's what we had Sunday. Family came over, we all pitched in and worked out this "second-best" chicken dish from the book (the first is Mr. St. John's Yardbird with Barley and Hops Enema, a beer-can chicken recipe which someone said sounded "unappetizing" ... until you've tried it, we're certain), along with some terrific side items. The whole chicken went into a citrus and sugar brine overnight, then was stuffed with oranges, lemons, limes, onions, garlic and fresh thyme. It sat on the grill obediently for an hour as we rustled up the sliced sweet potatoes, slathered in butter and brown sugar, and tomatoes stuffed with pesto made from homegrown basil, onions, shallots, and Italian breadcrumbs.

Everything was a hit, especially the chicken, again cooked to perfection, and bearing a unique, sweet flavor. The potatoes were a hit with the kids, as was the promise of Grilled Bananas Foster. If you've never prepared this flaming dish, don't try this one ... at least not with company waiting. We ran through a sack of brown sugar and wasted much good rum, nearly starting a stovetop fire in the process. Luckily, bananas, ice cream and caramel sauce satisfied the kids, and another round of juleps on the sideporch made a nice respite as the kitchen aired out.

Sunday night: Chicken Pesto QuesadillasDinner would have carried us over into evening just fine, but we weren't yet deflated, even after the bananas foster incident. So we used the remaining pesto and uncooked chicken for these delightful, simple quesadillas. With some leftover sweet potatoes and pecan rice (a recipe all the in-laws took home) on the side, it made a perfect late dinner. The pesto will freeze, so here's another keeper.

How nice to come home on Monday evening and have a fridge full of leftovers. There are enough variations left — grilled fish with the Key Lime Beurre Blanc, tomatoes stuffed with shrimp and parmesan, and citrus chicken sandwiches with avocado mayonnaise — to last well into the week, and we hadn't even ventured deep into the cookbook. We're still looking forward to the Grilled Crawfish Pizza, the Black and Blue Burgers with Jalapeno Chips, Grouper with Black Bean/Corn/Tomato Salsa, Grilled Potato Salad, and Marinated Cedar-Plank Salmon ... and maybe that yardbird too, just as soon as we get the propane refilled.

Until then, we'll eat with Robert St. John in front of the store this Thursday evening, May 22, at 5:30 p.m. when he stops in to grill and sign copies of the new cookbook.
Table Fifty-Two

CHICAGO— It's mid May and the tulips are still blooming on Michigan Avenue. I'm up here for a book signing and making full use of my spare time eating my way through the Windy City.

Art Smith opened his signature restaurant here a few months ago. Table Fifty-Two is a quaint little eating place tucked away on a charming tree-lined street and a breath of fresh, southern air in the capital of the Midwest.

Smith spent several years as Oprah's full-time, personal chef and still cooks for Ms. Winfrey's social functions, parties, and charitable causes. He formed his own charity several years ago, Common Threads, which helps to educate children on proper nutrition using food and art. He's a James Beard award-winning cookbook author, a humanitarian, a leader in preserving southern culture and foodways, and a world-class chef.

Table Fifty-Two has all of the Southern charm of an elegant, old-south dining room— chandeliers, heavy curtains, sideboards, plate collections hanging on the wall— with the sophistication of a white-linen restaurant, all in a building that used to house a garage. It feels like home, right down to the Gail Pittman dinnerware.

Pre-dinner amuse bouches in typical fine-dining restaurants consist of small, bite-sized portions of caviar-laced seafood topped with micro greens, or a demitasse of a light bisque or culinary foam. At Table Fifty-Two— a restaurant certainly as elegant as any of the micro-green mainstays— the amuse bouche is a deviled egg followed by Smith's famous drop biscuits with goat cheese and parmesan. The latter being one of the more unique and flavorful bread items I have ever tasted.

I finished my drop biscuit in record time and tried to steal my wife's. There was no way she was surrendering hers without a fight. The server sympathized and brought another order. 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.

Actually, I could have made a meal out of the drop biscuits, alone. Fortunately there was more to come. The next course consisted of a wood-fired pizza of fresh mozzarella, ham, and a roasted tomato sauce. Smith is big on pizza. We were at an event together a few years ago where he served pizzas with smoked duck and turnip greens. It was one of the more interesting pizzas I have ever tasted. This pizza was as good or better.

My wife had a fried green tomato appetizer for an entrée; I skipped the main course offerings and opted for a selection of the family-style vegetable side orders— braised collard greens, roasted sweet potatoes with honey, baked macaroni and cheese, and market julienned vegetables in a light vinaigrette.

We finished the meal with a fruit cobbler and Art's famous Hummingbird Cake. Art Smith is full of Southern hospitality and charm. His restaurant is a perfect representation of his personality and character and worthy of a visit the next time you're in Chicago.

Chicago is one of our country's great restaurant cities. Where else could one sit a few blocks off of Michigan Avenue and eat turnip greens and drop biscuits while having a conversation with the neighboring table about the futility of the Chicago Bears offense.

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
extra butter, to grease pan and top biscuits
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

1. Preheat your 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 milk. Stir until the mix is moistened, adding an extra tablespoon of milk 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, May 12, 2008

Recipe Requests
I receive requests for recipes all of the time.

For the first 10 years I was in business at the Purple Parrot Café and Crescent City Grill, I wouldn’t give out recipes. Early on, Bon Appetit magazine and Food & Wine magazine asked repeatedly for our Corn and Crab Bisque recipe. I wouldn’t give it up. I stood my ground. It was a stupid thing to do.

These days I’ll share every recipe we prepare in our kitchens. I am not worried about other restaurants stealing or using them, that’s been happening for years. Occasionally a chef will leave one of our restaurants, sneak a few recipes out of one of our prep manuals, and go to work for one of our competitors, where our creation magically appears on the menu. It happens.

Today, our business is an open book. I have published most of our popular recipes in cookbooks or on my website. I finally realized that you can have the best recipes in the world, but operating a successful restaurant is much, much more than having an all-star treasure trove of recipes. It’s all about execution.

If it were only about the recipe, every restaurant in the country would be successful. All a restaurant operator would have to do is load their menu with cookbook recipes from the country’s most successful chefs, and customers would be beating a path to their door.

Sure, recipes are important, but one has to have to have the creativity to keep coming up with more appealing, tasteful, and profitable recipes. Also, one has to manage the staff that prepares and serves the recipes. The restaurant business might be the only business where there are more ways to lose money than there are to make money.

It’s all about management. The textbooks might say location, location, location, but in reality, it’s management, management, management. One can have great recipes, but if he can’t manage the 1,000 little things that are needed to operate a successful restaurant, he’ll be hosting a pennies-on-the-dollar used restaurant equipment auction.

Recipe requests are flattering and should be taken as such. If someone appreciates the effort and creativity a chef puts into a new creation, it should be shared. I figure if someone wants to take the time to shop, prep, and cook one of my recipes to share with their friends and family, the least I can do is give them the road map to do so.

That brings me to today’s’ topic. The most requested recipe I have received lately is not for one of my recipes, but for a tuna dip served at Harbor Docks restaurant in Destin, FL.

I wrote about Harbor Docks Smoked Tuna Dip last summer. I received tons of requests for the recipe then, and over the last two months have received even more. I guess with summer quickly approaching, people are searching for beach food.

The problem is that the initial recipe I was given was incorrect. It had enough pepper and seafood seasoning to choke an elephant. Harbor Docks was happy to give up the recipe, but it was way off base from what they’re preparing in the kitchen. Something got lost in translation between the Harbor Docks kitchen staff, Charles Morgan, Harbor Docks’ owner, and me.

Note: As I type, I have just received another request for Harbor Docks Smoked Tuna Dip in my email inbox.

I decided to call Morgan and take another stab at getting the correct recipe. He was happy to oblige and had Art Matthews, his kitchen manager, call me back.

The smoked tuna dip at Harbor docks is, by far, the best in the area. Actually, it’s the best I have ever tasted. A few years ago, I worked up a recipe for smoked crab dip for a cookbook. It’s good, but my wife still prefers Harbor Docks smoked tuna dip.

Harbor Docks Smoked Tuna Dip rocks because the tuna is fresh and only hours old when it is brined and smoked, they make the dip fresh-from-scratch every morning, and— like all good recipes— it is simple and uncomplicated with minimal ingredients.

Harbor Docks Smoked Tuna Dip

1 quart Water
1/4 cup Salt
2 1/2 lbs. Fresh Yellowfin tuna
1 1/2 cups Mayonnaise (use more or less depending on your preferred consistency)
1 Tablespoon Black Pepper
1 Tablespoon Garlic Powder
Hot sauce to taste

Combine salt and water. Soak tuna steaks in a salt water brine for one hour before smoking. Transfer to smoker and smoke until cooked through (do not overcook). Chop smoked tuna steaks to your desired consistency (rough chopped or finely chopped— Harbor Docks chops fine)

In a stainless steel mixing bowl, combine chopped smoked tuna, mayonnaise, pepper, and garlic powder and mix well. Harbor Docks doesn’t use hot sauce in their recipe, but offers it tableside to be added for individual tastes.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Cookbook Interview

My newest cookbook, New South Grilling (Hyperion, $29.95), had its national release last week. Since I am the newspaper’s food writer, the duty falls to me cover the book's release. Therefore I will interview myself.

Columnist Robert: Good morning, Robert. Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to visit with me.

Author Robert: It’s my pleasure, Robert. Actually, I was getting a little bored sitting here watching you do all of the typing.

Columnist Robert: Don’t you think it’s tacky, tasteless, narcissistic, and egotistical to promote your own personal projects in your column.

Author Robert: Yes. But it’s your column. You’re the one asking the questions.

Columnist Robert: Tell me about your new cookbook.

Author Robert: I’d love to. The book is entitled New South Grilling (Hyperion, $29.95). It’s my seventh book in six years. I believe it’s my best pure cookbook, so far. It has over 130 recipes and 82 color photographs.

Columnist Robert: Is this your first book with food photography?

Author Robert: Yes. My publisher sent a professional from New York. His name is Joey DeLeo, and we spent two weeks shooting all of the photographs for the book. He did a great job.

Columnist Robert: The photographs are great.

Author Robert: I know. The recipes are even better.

Columnist Robert: I don’t want to feed your already overinflated ego, but didn’t you act as the food stylist for the food photographs?

Author Robert: Yes, and thanks for slyly slipping that one in. My publisher asked me to be the food stylist. It was tedious at first. After the third day, I started to get the hang of it, and eventually had a blast. I look forward to doing it again.

Columnist Robert: What makes this book different than other grilling books?

Author Robert: That’s a leading question.

Columnist Robert: I know. I was throwing you a bone.

Author Robert: Thanks. The reason New South Grilling (Hyperion $29.95) differs from other grilling books is that it’s NOT filled with six chapters of instructions. I already assume that everyone knows how to light a grill, keep food away from the heat, and make cross-hatch marks. The book is short on teaching, but long on flavor and photography. Also, I teach you the secret of not having your food stick to the grill.

Columnist Robert: What’s the secret?

Author Robert: Buy the book.

Columnist Robert: All of your other books have been released in November. Why May?

Author Robert: Grilling is a summertime activity, and Father’s Day is just around the corner.

Columnist Robert: Is there anything you would like to add?

Author Robert: Yes. I would want everyone to know that the meager and measly profits the publisher will eventually send me from the sales of this book will go to clothe, feed, and educate the two most wonderful children you have ever met. And trust me, they eat a lot.

Columnist Robert: Don’t you think it’s in bad taste to use your children as a sales tool.

Author Robert: Absolutely.

Columnist Robert: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Author Robert: Did I mention that Father’s Day is just around the corner?

Columnist Robert: Yes.

Author Robert: Then, no. Wait… did I mention that the book is available at a store near you, and that I’ll probably be in your area, soon, for a book signing or cooking demo. The schedule is on my website .

Columnist Robert: You can’t say that, here.

Author Robert: Never mind, then.

Columnist Robert: Thank you.

Author Robert: No, thank you.

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
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 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