Monday, March 30, 2009


The weather is warming and salad sales in the restaurant are booming.

I like salads, but I am not an entrée-salad eater. I like a salad as a small course or as a component or accompaniment to a main course.

When I am entertaining friends at home, I rarely serve a salad. Sometimes at lunch, I might throw together something quick and uncomplicated, but mostly I opt for soup in lieu of salad.

My grandmother always served a salad when she hosted a formal meal, though her salads were not of the tossed variety. She never served a bean salad or a pasta salad. She occasionally served a fruit salad. Mostly what she served were little-old-lady-congealed salads.

I loved my grandmother more than I have column inches to describe, but I hate congealed salads.

Congealed salads are evil. They are the greatest trick ever played on children. They looked like Jell-O, they shook like Jell-O, but they tasted like V-8 juice. She would even put a dollop of mayonnaise on top, which, of course, looked like some type of sweet whipped cream, shook like some type of whipped cream, but tasted like Miracle Whip.

My grandmother, may she rest in peace, was the Queen of the congealed salad. She had hundreds of small metal molds in dozens of shapes and designs— sea shells for congealed salads made with clam juice and V-8 juice, tiny wreath molds for a green jiggly concoction with vegetables in it, and small, scalloped dome-shaped molds for congealed fruit salads that didn’t taste like fruit but still had a dollop of mayonnaise on the top.

I love shrimp salad. My grandmother made the world’s best chicken salad. We serve a salad named Sensation Salad at the restaurants that I could eat to accompany most meals. What do those salads have in common? None of them use Jell-O. None of them try to deceive little kids into thinking that they are dessert when they are actually cloudy, bitter, and vegetable-laden tomato juice.

When one eats a shrimp salad, one knows he is eating a shrimp before he even takes the first bite. The same goes for chicken salad and tuna salad. That is what I require from my salads— honesty.

While we’re on the topic of salads that I hate, add that nasty carrot-and-raisin salad to the list, and also that salad that is made with English peas, sour cream, and green onions. Ambrosia? No sir.

I like fruit salad as long as there’s no grapefruit in the general vicinity. There is a comedian— I have forgotten his name— who does a hilarious 10-minute bit on why grapefruit is bad and why it destroys a fruit salad. I am in full agreement.

The best salad I have ever eaten was at the Gotham Bar and Grill in New York. I order it (or its current incarnation) every time I go to the city. It is a simple creation of frisee lettuce, bacon lardons, roasted shiitake mushrooms, goat cheese, tossed in a light dressing made from extra-virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, and shallots. Beautiful.

It’s amazing how something so simple can taste so complex when left in the hands of one of that city’s best chefs— Alfred Portale. Then again, it’s startling how something so fun looking— the congealed salad— can taste so awful, even in the hands of a sweet, well-meaning and gracious Southern lady.

Frisée Salad with Smoked Bacon, Shiitakes, and Aged Goat Cheese

16 large shiitake mushrooms, stems removed
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
Coarse salt
Freshly ground black pepper
6 ounces slab bacon, cut into lardons (1/4-inch strips)
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar
6 cups frisée lettuce, curly endive, or Belgian endive leaves
4 ounces aged goat cheese
2 tablespoons finely minced shallots

Preheat the oven to 425°F.

Arrange the shiitakes on a roasting pan. Drizzle with 2 to 3 tablespoons of the oil, and season with salt and pepper. Roast in the oven for 8 to 10 minutes, until the mushrooms are soft, fragrant, and lightly browned. When they are cool enough to handle, cut them into large pieces. Transfer them to a bowl and set aside.

Warm 1 teaspoon of the oil in a sauté pan set over medium heat. Add the bacon and sauté, stirring occasionally, until crisp, about 8 minutes. Remove it with a slotted spoon and set it on a paper-towel-lined plate to drain. Reserve 2 tablespoons of bacon fat and keep it warm.

In a bowl, mix together the mustard and vinegar, and season with salt and pepper. Whisk in the remaining olive oil and reserved bacon fat. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding a little more vinegar if the dressing seems oily.

Dress the mushrooms with about 1 tablespoon of the dressing and set aside. Put the lettuce in a salad bowl, add the mushrooms and shallots, and dress them lightly with the remaining vinaigrette. Grate half of the aged cheese (or crumble if using fresh) into the bowl, toss to combine, and season with salt and pepper. Scatter the bacon over the salad, grate (or crumble) the remaining cheese over the top, and serve family-style from a bowl or divide among 4 salad plates.

You can go a more traditional route and use blue cheese, ideally Roquefort, instead of goat. Try sherry vinegar in place of the red-wine vinegar. Serves 4

FLAVOR BUILDING— A teaspoon of freshly chopped tarragon stirred into the dressing will complement all of the flavors here. Or, whisk in a tablespoon of honey into the dressing along with the mustard to subtly sweeten it.

From Simple Pleasures: Home Cooking From the Gotham Bar and Grill’s Acclaimed Chef by Alfred Portale (William Morrow 2004)
Dinner Party Conversation

WATERCOLOR, FL— The older I become the more I appreciate substantive dinner party conversation.

I am on the second leg of a Spring Break sandwich that started in the rapidly melting Spring snow of Colorado and has ended on the sugar white sands of the Florida Panhandle.

I am here with my family on a dual mission: First, to take the obligatory family break from school and schedule, and second, to support my friend and artist, Bill, whose work is now hanging in the Ogden Museum’s new satellite gallery in Watercolor, Fla (a great space, by the way, and a must visit for anyone in the area).

After Bill’s Ogden opening, our friend Julia invited a small group to her house. My kids weren’t able to attend, so I represented the home team at the dinner.

The conversation during and after the meal was rapid-fire with several people talking at once. All manner of great ideas and opinions were thrown out, discussed, disproved, and argued. We laughed too loud and stayed too long. I soaked it all in and enjoyed one of the more memorable dinners I have attended in a long while.

The food was as enjoyable as the conversation. Julia, an excellent cook and veteran hostess, served several great items, but the most notable and memorable, was a shrimp and pea salad. Digging back into her Mississippi Delta roots, she didn’t opt for chick peas or a more exotic legume, but instead used newly shelled, fresh-from-the-market, Pinkeye Purple-Hull peas. It was fantastic.

She tossed large, boiled shrimp and the peas with some sherry vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, basil, and arugula. Though she said that she would have used collard greens had she had any in her refrigerator.

The next night we hosted a group at our rental house. Many of the faces were the same, but the conversation was once again thought provoking and stimulating. Not too long ago I wouldn’t have been able to imagine that sitting around a table, doing nothing more than discussing ideas with friends, would be so enjoyable. I used to need an event or occasion— an external stimulus— to “have a good time.” Maybe I’m finally growing up. Maybe it’s that I’ve lost my ability to endure blather and gossip.

My children were in attendance this evening and helped my friend David make a pasta dish he had been promising to prepare for the last four years.

David, a retired architect, but full-time gourmet and bon vivant, used angel hair pasta and tossed it in a simple sauce made from extra virgin olive oil, freshly chopped garlic, crushed red pepper and anchovies. Simple, beautiful, delicious. The garlic is infused into the olive oil and the anchovies dissolve once they hit the sauté pan. My children, who might shun the diminutive fish on a pizza, cleaned their plates.

The pasta-plate cleaning could have been due to their roles as Sous chefs, but more than likely was due to the fact that the pasta tasted so good. The four-year wait for David’s angle hair pasta was worth it and served at the right moment.

Someone once said that a good dinner party needed a slight element of danger. I’m not sure how much “danger” was involved in either of these back-to-back dinners, but the older I become, the more I treasure my friendships and meaningful the exchange of ideas that occurs when we get together.

Angel Hair Pasta Trigiani

1/3 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
3 Tbl Fresh Garlic, finely minced
1 1/2 tsp Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
3 oz. Flat Anchovy filets, drained but not rinsed
1 lb Angel Hair Pasta

Start with a cold 12-inch sautee pan. Add oil, garlic, and crushed red pepper and cook over low heat 4-5 minutes, to allow the garlic and pepper to infuse the oil. Do not brown or burn the garlic (if you do, start over). Add the anchovy filets and gently stir until completely dissolved (appx 2-3 min). Sauce is finished at this point and can be prepared one hour ahead of time, to be completed just before the meal is served.

Cook pasta in briskly boiling, salted water to al dente. Drain and add to simmering sauce allowing a little of the starchy pasta water (appx ¼ cup) to be added to the sauce. Gently toss until pasta is completely coated and serve in heated bowls. Drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil.

Variations: Shrimp or oysters can be added to the sauce, or a small amount of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano can be added at the end (but take it easy on the cheese as the finished product can become too salty).
Quiche Muffins

ASPEN— The question of the day is: How far will a man travel for a Quiche Muffin from Paradise Bakery?

The answer: 1,362 miles. Well, actually, I was out her on Spring Break with my family, but we’re staying in Snowmass, 12 miles away.

I had a craving for a Quiche Muffin from the Paradise Bakery at 6:15 a.m. and so I hopped on a city bus and took a 25 minute ride into Aspen. Some might call that compulsive. I like to think of it this way— I am passionate about food.

The Quiche Muffin holds a special place in my heart. The first time I ate one was on my honeymoon in 1993. After a Methodist church wedding, I flew my new bride out to Las Vegas to get married by an Elvis Impersonator at the Graceland Wedding Chapel on the Strip (his name was Norm). We spent one night in a tacky hotel in Vegas, and then flew to Aspen for the honeymoon.

On our first morning in Aspen, we stumbled across the Paradise Bakery. We each ate a Quiche Muffin, and both love affairs have been going strong ever since.

The Quiche Muffin is an anomaly. It is shaped like a standard muffin, but it has more of the custard-like qualities of quiche. It’s not too bread-like, though. Beautiful, compact, flavorful, original, everything a breakfast in a resort should be.

As I write, I am sitting in the same honeymoon hotel lobby at 7 a.m. —albeit illegally, while stealing their free wireless internet access to write this column— eating a Ham and Cheese Quiche muffin, and a Spinach Quiche Muffin. They are fantastic.

I once tinkered around with a recipe to combine traditional quiche ingredients and incorporate flour so the finished product would be substantial enough to be hand-held while eating, but gave up after several failed attempts. Based on this covert, yet tasty, breakfast, I think I will now figure out the recipe to the ever eluding Quiche Muffin and include it in my next cookbook.

The Paradise Bakery was formed in Long Beach, California, there are 72 units today. But the Aspen unit was the second store, and it doesn’t feel like a chain, at all. The food certainly doesn’t, as the Quiche Muffins are usually the first breakfast items to go. Get there early.

I am told that other Paradise Bakery units take the Quiche Muffins, stuff more vegetables on top and then wrap them in phyllo pastry— sounds good. They can’t do that in Aspen because of the altitude.

So here I am, in a hotel lobby in Aspen, CO at 7 a.m., writing a food column for Southern newspapers, looking over my shoulder hoping I don’t get busted by the front desk clerk for stealing their wireless internet, and eating Quiche Muffins. This food-column writing is dangerous business.

My wife and kids are back in Snowmass, sound asleep after a full day of skiing. We’ve got one full day in the snow after today, then it’s off to the beach for a Spring Break sandwich topped with snow and sand. I’ll have two more opportunities to eat Quiche Muffins at the Paradise Bakery, and I think I’ll make good use of both of them.

Mushroom, Leek and Ham Quiche
1 recipe Savory Pie Crust, recipe follows
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cups thinly sliced leeks, white parts only
6 ounces diced ham
8 ounces thinly sliced button mushrooms
2 teaspoons fresh thyme
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoons salt, plus 1/4 teaspoon
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground white pepper
1/2 cup heavy cream
6 large eggs
1 1/2 ounces grated smoked cheddar, plus 1 1/2 ounces
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Roll out the pie crust on a lightly floured surface to fit a deep 9 or 10-inch pie pan. Place the pastry in the pie pan and crimp edges decoratively. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes, then line with aluminum foil. Fill with pie weights and bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until lightly golden around the edges. Remove foil and pie weights, and return to the oven for 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and place crust on a wire rack to cool.
Set a 12-inch saute pan over medium heat, and add the butter and olive oil and once the butter is melted, add the leeks to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions and leeks are wilted, and lightly caramelized, about 8 minutes. Add the ham, mushrooms, thyme, and garlic to the pan and season with 1 teaspoon of the salt and the pepper. Cook the leeks, ham and mushrooms, stirring occasionally, until most of the moisture has cooked out of the mushrooms and they are caramelized, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the onions, ham and mushrooms to cool for 10 minutes before placing in the pie crust.
In a medium bowl, combine the heavy cream, eggs, and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and whisk until just combined. Stir 1 1/2 ounces of the grated cheese, then pour the cream mixture over the onion mixture, and sprinkle the remaining cheese over top. Place the pie tin on a sheet pan and place in the oven. Bake until golden brown, and the custard has set, 35 to 40 minutes. Be sure to rotate the sheet pan after 15 to 20 minutes to ensure even browning.
Yield:1 (9 or 10-inch) pie
For the Savory Pie Crust:
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons creole seasoning
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 ounces (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
3 to 4 tablespoons ice water, as needed
In the bowl of a food processor combine flour, Creole seasoning, salt, and butter and process until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. While the motor is running, add water in increments until dough just comes together to form a ball. Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface and shape into a flat disk. Refrigerate overnight or at least 1 hour.
Remove from refrigerator and roll out on a lightly floured surface to desired shape and thickness.
Yield: 8 servings
St. Patrick’s Day

St. Patrick’s Day is a paradox. It’s an annual feast day set in the middle of a season in which people are supposed to be fasting.

During my childhood in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, St. Patrick’s Day was nothing more than a small mention in my elementary school classroom and the opportunity to pinch someone if they weren’t wearing green. No parades, no green beverages, no cabbage and corned beef— it was just another early spring day.

In 1982 I was living in Jackson and witnessed Jackson’s first St. Patrick’s Day parade. Restaurateur/concert promoter/arts promoter Malcolm White gathered a few friends, loaded them into the beds of pickup trucks, and made an impromptu trek around downtown Jackson.

I don’t know how many people were at that inaugural event, but it didn’t seem like many. It looked like a rag-tag group of fun-seekers who had— at the spur of the moment— loaded into pick-up trucks and driven around Jackson. I didn’t give it a second thought.

If I had to guess, I’d say that there might have been a couple of hundred people at the first parade, at best. One person who was definitely there was Jill Conner Browne. On a lark, she dressed as a Sweet Potato Queen. Today, almost three-million copies of seven books— two of which were number one New York Times bestsellers— multiple television appearances and book signings, 5,768 SPQ Wannabe chapter groups in 22 countries, and over $300,000.00 raised for the Blair E. Batson Children’s Hospital later, Jill Conner Browne is the undisputed Queen of Mississippi.

To put things in perspective, 70,000 visitors will visit Elvis Presley’s birthplace in Tupelo during the 12 months of 2009. On March 21st— in one single day— over 100,000 people will attend Mal’s St. Paddy’s Day Parade in downtown Jackson. The Sweet Potato Queen has surpassed the King of Rock and Roll. Browne is a one-woman tourism commission.

Sweet Potato Queen wannabes will travel from all over the world to attend this year’s parade. Chapter representatives will be in attendance from Germany, France, and Italy. In the Who’s-Traveled-Farthest category— a group of 11 Sweet Potato Queen Wannabes are flying in from Indonesia with the sole purpose of attending the parade (and, of course, having a blast).

In one of the parade’s most notable happenings this year, a couple from Sarasota, FL will get married on the Sweet Potato Queen’s float, during the parade, in front of the judges’ stand. I am told they are shooting for the largest group of bridesmaids in the Guinness Book of World Records. They will most certainly grab the record for the most diverse and outlandishly dressed group of attendants in the history of matrimony

Malcolm gave the parade its start, Jill Conner Browne gave it its heart, and people from all over the world have a positive opinion of Mississippi thanks to them. Most importantly, over $300,000.00 has been raised to help the Blair E. Batson Children’s Hospital which is home to the state’s only children’s cancer clinic, it’s only cystic fibrosis program, and it’s only epilepsy center.

St. Patrick’s Day, a paradox? Maybe. A whole lot of fun? Absolutely. And a great Mississippi tradition, thanks to Malcolm White and Jill Conner Browne.

My Jill’s Sweet Potatoes

4 cups Sweet potatoes, cooked, peeled and mashed
3 cups Sugar
4 Eggs, beaten
1 cup Heavy cream
3 sticks Butter, divided, softened
1 tsp Cinnamon
1 tsp Nutmeg
1 cup Rice Krispies
1 cup Pecans, chopped fine
1 cup Walnuts, chopped fine
1 cup Brown sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Grease a 13 x 9 casserole dish. Combine hot sweet potatoes, sugar, eggs, cream, 1 1/2 sticks of the butter, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a bowl; mix thoroughly. Add sweet potato mixture to greased casserole dish.

Combine Rice Krispies, pecans, walnuts and remaining 1 1/2 sticks of softened butter and brown sugar into a bowl. Mix until crumbly. Sprinkle over sweet potato mixture.

Bake 40-45 minutes or until center is hot. Yield:10-12 servings

The Lenten Season has begun.

In most Christian denominations, Lent is the 40-day period of fasting and prayer before Easter.

Growing up, I attended church, religiously. If the doors were unlocked at Main Street United Methodist Church in my hometown of Hattiesburg, I was usually there— Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, Wednesday evenings, Thursday night youth group, and skating in the Fellowship Hall on Saturdays.

My favorite time to attend church was Wednesday nights during the summer for covered-dish suppers. My church was filled with great cooks. Ladies would line the Fellowship Hall with casseroles, fired chicken, and homemade cakes, and pies. In addition to my grandmother’s house, my love of Southern food was formed in church.

At my church we loved to eat. That might be why I don’t remember anyone fasting during Lent. Actually, I was in my 40s before I learned that fasting during Lent wasn’t an practice exclusive to Catholics.

As a kid I always heard the term “Lent” but it was never followed by the word “fast,” other than, “It’s the 12 th day of Lent. How ‘fast’ can we get to the Fellowship Hall to eat some green bean casserole.”

Maybe I wasn’t paying attention, though I don’t remember anyone in my family ever fasting, either. None of my relatives fasted and none of my neighbors fasted. As far as I was concerned, fasts and fish-on-Fridays were for the Catholics.

I never knew any Baptists who fasted. I knew a few Episcopalians who gave up drinking for Lent, but I don’t know any who made it all the way until Easter.

It might have been a communication problem. Maybe the word just didn’t circulate in my church. I have Baptist friends who tell me about how fast news travels in their church. They call it “gossip.” In the Methodist church, we don’t gossip, we just put your name on the prayer list. “Betty, did you hear what Erma’s husband did? We better add his name to the prayer list.”

I am so ignorant when it comes to fasting that the first conversation I ever had with anyone about the subject was last year. My friend, Kevin (a Methodist, by the way), fasted for 28 days drinking water only, he went another seven days with no solid food, and then spent 14 days eating just vegetables. Being a Methodist, odds are high that a green-bean casserole that was the first vegetable dish he consumed after 35 days without food.

“Verily I say unto you, Pyrex is the dish that pulls us through”— Book of Robert, Chapter 2, verse 34.

Maybe it’s not ignorance. Maybe it’s selective listening. My wife says I have a chronic case of that particular malady. Maybe people were talking about fasting all of the time while I was growing up. Maybe I was too busy eating to pay attention to what they were saying. It could have been that they were taking with their mouths full and I couldn’t understand all of the important details that pertained to fasting. All I remember is that we always ate before church, at church, and after church.

Nevertheless, I am not fasting this year. Actually, the only thing that I am giving up during this the Lenten season is fasting. Though that’s actually nothing different that I do during the rest of the year, so it probably doesn’t count.

I don’t mean to be disrespectful to people who fast. I have nothing against it. I am probably as devout as the next guy. It’s just that eating is in my church DNA. I am Methodist, therefore I eat (casseroles). For the rest of you— hurry Easter!

Robert’s Mainly Methodist Green Bean Casserole

1 qt Chicken Broth
4 cans Green Beans, drained (14.5 oz cans)

1/4 cup Bacon, very small dice
1/2 cup Yellow Onion, small dice
1/4 cup Red Bell Pepper, small dice
1/4 cup Green Bell Pepper, small dice
2 tsp Garlic, minced
2 tsp Caraway seeds
1 tsp Creole Seasoning
1 tsp Black Pepper

4oz can Sliced Water Chestnuts, drained
1cup Sour Cream
1/2 cup Sharp Cheddar, shredded

1 cup Panko bread crumbs
1/3 cup Parmesan Cheese, grated
1/4 cup Parsley, freshly chopped
2 TBL Melted Butter

Preheat oven to 350.

In a large saucepot, bring chicken broth to a boil. Place green beans in the broth and gently simmer 10 minutes. Drain the green beans.

Heat a medium sized sauté pan over medium-high heat. Place the bacon in the pan and cook it until it become brown and crispy. Stir often to prevent burning. Add the onion and peppers and sauté for three minutes. Add garlic, caraway seeds, Creole seasoning, black pepper and cook for an additional three minutes.

Combine green beans, sautéed bacon-vegetable mixture, water chesnuts, sour cream, and cheddar in a large stainless steel bowl. Place in a 2 quart baking dish. Cover the dish with foil and bake for 20 minutes.

Combine the bread crumbs, parmesan cheese, parsley and melted butter. Remove the foil and top with the bread crumb mixture. Bake for 10-15 more minutes, until the topping is light brown in color. Let casserole sit for 10 minutes before serving.

8 servings