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