Monday, February 16, 2009

Cocktail Sauce

Yesterday, I was watching my 11-year old daughter eat Chargrilled Oysters at Drago’s in New Orleans while my seven year-old son ate fried shrimp.

Oysters and shrimp are the foods from my youth which still lease a substantial plot of real estate in my heart.

While we were sitting at the counter in Drago’s, my son said, “Daddy will you please mix up some cocktail sauce for me?” As I was placing all of the ingredients in his small ramekin, my mind traveled back to a long-gone restaurant on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Baricev’s restaurant in Biloxi was my family’s special occasion restaurant when we were on the coast. I ate my first raw oyster there while sitting at a table with my grandfather. He made a simple cocktail sauce for me with the ingredients on the oyster tray and the condiments on the table. It was my first exposure to horseradish. I loved it.

The next time we were there, I made my own cocktail sauce: Ketchup, lots of horseradish, freshly squeezed lemon juice, a dash of Worcestershire, and some pepper. Simple, pure, flavorful. It’s the recipe I still use today when making cocktail sauce. It’s the recipe we’ve used in the Crescent City Grill for 21 years.

Actually, at 10-year’s old— and after a lifetime of recipes— Cocktail Sauce is probably the first recipe I ever created. I had an Easy Bake Oven when I was six, but all of the recipes prepared in it were done from pre-portioned mixes. I would imagine that Cocktail Sauce is the first, working-without-a-net recipe I ever created.

Cocktail Sauce is a mainstay in Southern seafood restaurants. Mine was certainly not an original recipe, but how many are? Most recipes today are just variations on the same theme.

The exact make-up of Cocktail Sauce is debatable down South. Most people would scoff at my recipe because it doesn’t contain hot sauce. I have nothing against hot sauce, I actually bottle and sell it. I just like to get my cocktail sauce “heat” from horseradish, and a lot of it.

New Orleans horseradish is stronger than most. I am not sure what type or variety they use down there, but half the normal amount of New Orleans horseradish will be enough to open up the sinuses of even the toughest palate.

Fried shrimp was a special occasion meal for me when I was a kid. It was usually someone’s birthday or we were out of town if I was eating fried shrimp. In the meatloaf-laden, stuffed pepper and TV Dinner days of the late 1960s and early 1970s, my family hardly ever “went out” to eat.

The world has changed. People dine out all of the time. It’s a good thing for restaurateurs like me, but it might be a bad thing for families. The special occasion aspect of dining out is taken away when one eats out five nights a week.

I am chief among the sinners. My family travels and dines with me all of the time. Sitting at Drago’s I began to wonder which early childhood food memories they will consider one day. A dad’s first cocktail sauce? Maybe so.

Robert’s Cocktail Sauce

1 1 /2 cups Ketchup
3 Tbl Fresh lemon juice
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 /4 cup Prepared Horseradish (more if you’re brave, less if it’s New Orleans horseradish)
1 /2 tsp Black pepper, freshly ground

Combine all ingredients and mix well. Refrigerate two hours before serving. Yield: two cups Yield: 8-10 servings
Four Diamonds

I am currently in my 10th year of writing this weekly column.

For the last decade I have written approximately 750 words every week, 52 weeks a year, without ever missing a column.

Over the course of those 520 columns, 352 recipes, and roughly 390,000 words, I have written about strange foodstuffs, quirky food news, my kids and their relationship to food, my childhood and how the foods of my youth molded my career, my friends, my home state, my South, and have I have kept an extensive dining diary of the hundreds of restaurants I have visited across the country.

What I haven’t done is write a lot about my restaurants. Actually, I have gone to great lengths NOT to write about my restaurants, even when there are notable and noteworthy events in my own backyard. Occasionally I will write about a humorous event that happened in the early days or make an obscure reference to a dish we serve in comparison to a dish in a restaurant that I am visiting, but I have done my best to focus more on other restaurants whether they are in my town or not. Frankly, I have always worried that someone might think that I was using these column inches as a bully pulpit to promote my businesses.

Well, pardon me while I step up into the pulpit, and allow me— just this once— to crow about one of my restaurants.

Our flagship restaurant, The Purple Parrot Café, located in my hometown of Hattiesburg, was just awarded a Four-Diamond rating from the AAA Travel Guide. It is a very big day around here.

Out of the nation’s 945,000 restaurants, only 768 received four diamonds. There are only two independent restaurants in Mississippi that have reached that level: KC’s in Cleveland, and The Purple Parrot Café. New Orleans— one of America’s top-three restaurant cities— only has six four-diamond restaurants. Memphis has one.

We held an announcement/plaque unveiling party for our staff and management last night. I told them how proud I was of them and of the job they had done, but most importantly, I gave credit where credit was due— with them. They earned it. No question. I told them that out of all of the people gathered in the room, I had done the least to help us reach four diamonds, though the unfortunate reality of the situation is that I receive the most credit. I am the one who is the most visible.

I assured my staff last night that whenever I am giving a speech or signing books, or doing whatever it is that I do outside of the restaurant, I always give credit where credit is due— with them. A restaurant can’t win a four-diamond rating because a guy sells a lot of books. It takes hard work, dedication, and commitment. Traveling and giving speeches has nothing to do with it.

So I will use this space to, once again, give credit where credit is due— with the managers, chefs, sommeliers, cooks, servers, busboys, bartenders, hosts, and all of the support staff. Well done, ladies and gentlemen.

Our current staff and management team is the best in our 21-year history. But there were many servers, cooks, chefs, and managers through the years that helped us get to this point. Thank you, too. This is beginning to read like an award ceremony acceptance speech, I know, but allow me one last acknowledgement.

Most of all, I want to thank the customers who have supported us through the years. We have been fortunate to have a small group of dedicated regulars who have stood by us for over two decades. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

The AAA Travel award winners can be found on their website, as well as the criteria used for achieving the Four-Diamond rating.

Purple Parrot Café Lobster Risotto

3 Lobsters, 1 1/2 pounds, cooked and cleaned
(reserve lobster meat for risotto and use shells and bodies for stock)
3 Tbl Clarified Butter
1/2 lb. Aborio rice
1/2 cup Shallots, chopped fine
1 qt Lobster stock, hot
1 Bay leaf
1 bunch Asparagus, cut into 2-inch pieces
3/4 cup Whipping cream
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
2 teaspoons Salt
1 tsp Black pepper, freshly ground
1/4 cup Fresh parsley, chopped
1 Tbl Fresh thyme, chopped

In a large skillet, heat butter over low medium heat. Add shallots and cook until they become soft. Add rice and stir continually until rice gets hot. Do not brown. Reduce heat to low and add one cup of stock. Turn heat down so that the stock is just barely simmering. Continue to stir constantly. As the stock is absorbed, add more stock in small amounts. Continue this process until the grains have become slightly tender.
Just before adding last ladle of stock, add asparagus pieces and lobster meat. Add remaining stock. Add cream, Parmesan, salt, pepper, and herbs and cook until thickened, about 4–5 minutes. Serve immediately

Monday, February 02, 2009

The First Presbyterian Church in my hometown asked me to serve as a judge in their first annual chili cook-off this weekend. After some persistence, I agreed.

I have tried to wean myself off of judging cooking contests. Several years ago I was asked to judge an out-of-state cooking contest where the contestants were asked to create home-cooking style dishes in several categories. The judging table was on a stage in an auditorium filled mostly with ladies who had submitted dishes.

The ladies stood at the edge of the stage and glared intently as I tasted each entry. They seemed to be searching for subtle nuances and expressions which would give them some type of clue as to what I thought of their particular dish. The pressure was intense.

Some of the dishes were OK, but most of them were pretty bad. Unfortunately, I am not very good at acting, so when I tasted tuna casserole number six— a lovely and inventive creation that was more akin to a fish-flavored chipped beef on toast with something gelatinous on top— I had to force a smile.

It should be noted at this point that I was born with a very weak stomach. My friends who know me well will attest to this. I get nauseated at the mention of some things and often have to leave the room at the mention of others. This came in handy when it was time to change diapers at home, but it is a burden while judging a cooking contest.

A new acquaintance is usually surprised when I talk of my weak stomach. They say, “No way. You’re that food guy who eats everything.”

At that point I correct them and say, “Wrong. I am that food guy who eats a lot.” There is a difference between quantity and quality. I am not a food snob, far from it. But there is a huge difference in eating 36 courses at The French Laundry and 27 versions of Tamale Surprise at a sate fair.

I once filmed a segment with Andrew Zimmern on his Travel Channel show Bizarre Foods. In the segment, he ate baked coon and opossum. I passed. Actually, if one watches the episode closely, you can see me coming pretty close to hurling. Good TV, I know.

Back to the angry ladies. The home-cooking contest was one of the early food judging events I had attended. I didn’t know to tell the event organizers to make sure I was seated in a back room while I tasted the entries. I had never entered a cooking competition, so I didn’t know to tell them to make sure it’s a blind tasting. They watched as I tasted each dish. Most dishes were pretty bad.

I tried to mask my imminent nausea on a few occasions, but I was probably not very successful in pulling that off. I will say this— the tuna casserole did not win the day.

Once the event was over, a lady whose dish hadn’t won came up to me and said, “What was wrong with my dish?” I stuttered and stammered and tried to think of a way to let her down easy.

Eventually I said something like, “It was a hard choice, they were all very interesting entries, but maybe you could tweak your recipe a little bit.”

To which she replied, “Well I got it out of one of your cookbooks.” Touché.

So how does a guy who doesn’t eat a lot of chili end up as a judge in a local chili contest? I have no idea. Maybe everyone else said “No.”

As it turns out, it ended up as most cooking competitions I have judged, one entry stood out among the others as a great entry. In the end, it was for an excellent cause, and a good time was had by all.

My Favorite Chili

1 Tbl Olive oil
1 Tbl Bacon Fat
2 pounds Beef sirloin, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 1/2 tsp Kosher Salt
1 1/2 tsp Fresh ground black pepper
3 cups Yellow onion, medium dice
1 cup Carrot, finely shredded
1/4 cup Garlic, freshly minced
1 Tbl Ground Cumin
2 tsp Ground Coriander
1 tsp Oregano
1 1/2 Tbl Chili powder
1 6-oz can Tomato paste
2 28-oz cans Diced tomatoes
1 quart V-8 juice
1 quart Hot chicken broth
2 Bay leaves
2 14-oz cans Kidney beans, drained and rinsed
2 Tbl Corn flour
1/2 cup Water
1 Tbl Lime juice, freshly squeezed
1/4 cup Fresh cilantro, chopped

Heat the oil and bacon fat in an 8- quart, heavy duty sauce pot over high heat. Sprinkle the meat with salt and black pepper. Place half of the meat in the very hot oil. DO NOT MOVE THE MEAT FOR 3-4 MINUTES, you want to achieve a nice golden brown sear. Turn the meat over and brown the other side the best you can. Remove the meat with a slotted spoon and place it on a paper towel to drain. Repeat this process with the remaining meat.

Turn the heat to medium and add the onion, carrot and garlic to the pot. Cook for 3-4 minutes. Using a wooden spoon, stir in the cumin, coriander, chili powder and tomato paste. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent burning. This step is very important, caramelizing the sugars in the tomato paste and vegetables will make a huge difference in the outcome of the chili.

Return the meat to the pot. Add the canned tomatoes, V-8 juice, chicken broth, and bay leaves. Simmer VERY slowly for 2-3 hours. Stir often to prevent sticking. Add the beans and simmer for 15 more minutes.

Turn up the heat up so that the chili reaches a slow boil. Combine the corn flour with the water to make a paste. Stir the corn flour mixture into the chili. Allow the chili to cook for 2-3 more minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the lime juice and cilantro.

Yield: 1 gallon

© Robert St.John, from his cookbook, Southern Seasons