King Daddy is not a good teacher when it comes to things he knows a lot about, such as computer technology and leather working and carpentry. He tends to jump ahead a few steps and then gets a tad frustrated when the student – usually me – ends up confused and slightly defensive.
I realized the other night that I may not be the best teacher either when it comes to the few things I know a lot about, like cooking. King Daddy is always kind to want to help in the kitchen. He likes chopping and he does it with great gusto. Sometimes I leave a few steps out. Like a few weeks ago I was making a stir fry and I gave him examples of how to slice the zucchini and crookneck squash (okay, it’s a Southern stir fry). I assumed he would follow the same general shape when he did the onions as everything in a stir fry should be chopped into equal sizes. I didn’t turn around for 30 seconds before he’d chopped that onion into infinitesimally tiny pieces.
So a couple nights ago, I had some mushrooms and a package of tortellini and I told him to saute the mushrooms in a little butter. To King Daddy, a little butter is…oh…a stick. Once again, I had just turned around for 30 seconds. I considered offering my thoughts. But all I said was, “You’d better crank up the heat.” King Daddy did alright. He added some white wine and I advised him to throw in some garlic and lemon juice. And then, so I could write a recipe, I made it again today. With half the butter. But King Daddy’s version sure was good.
Tortellini with mushrooms and white wine butter sauce
4 tablespoons butter
12 ounces of Portobello mushrooms, ends trimmed and sliced
¼ cup dry white wine
1 clove of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
Juice of ½ lemon
Salt and pepper
1 9-ounce package of fresh three-cheese tortellini (such as Buitoni)
⅓ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Melt the butter over medium high heat in a large skillet. Add the mushrooms and sauté them until they begin to release their juices. Add the white wine and garlic. Continue cooking until the mushrooms have given up all their liquid. Add the lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste.
Bring two quarts of water to a boil in a medium sauce pan. Add the tortellini and cook for 4 minutes, stirring frequently. Drain and add the mushroom mixture to the tortellini. Serve and top with the freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
Don’t follow the package directions, which say to boil for 7-9 minutes. Four minutes is enough. The tortellini will be mushy if you boil them longer.
King Daddy and I were having a discussion about 1950s food the other day. Who didn’t love the “salad” with a pear half, cottage cheese plopped in the middle and shredded Cheddar cheese dusting the top? Or Chicken A La King, which has actually been around since the turn of the last century but reached its zenith, on toast points, in the ’50s. Or the Wedge. My beloved Wedge.
Behold the iceberg lettuce, kicked to the curb in the last two decades as being bland and not very nutritional. There was no mesclun salad mix when Ike was president. Sissy food, I’m sure he might have thought. You practically have to chase the stuff around the plate just to get a forkful. Flimsy. And if you dress it too soon, it just wilts under the slightest pressure. Who needs that.
Iceberg is sturdy and crunchy and a wedge of it is the perfect platform for a lovely blue cheese dressing, crispy bacon and croutons. You know you want the Wedge right now, along with a Pat Boone record and a couple of I Love Lucy episodes on DVD. There’s a reason it’s showing up on chef’s menus all over the country today. It was good then and it’s good now.
The Wedge deserves only the best blue cheese dressing, and I have a quibble with the bottled kind. It’s too sweet. And it’s so easy to make you’re own without having to deal with all the processed crud in bottled salad dressing.
So go forth and create the Wedge. Back to the Future.
I have consumed far too much funeral food as of late. Sadly, there have been multiple occasions over the last few weeks to provide funeral food and my will power has not been the best. Not only did I make a lot of it, I ate a lot of it and funeral food is seldom slenderizing. Just yesterday, I ate half a pan of blond brownies I was taking to a friend. A few days before that it was a tub of Blue Moon cheese spread (yes, you want the recipe – here it is). Oh, and add to that the bacon cheeseburger on a pretzel bun King Daddy and I just had to try at Wendy’s and the leftover fried chicken from my beloved Publix that we fed the inmates with last week (yes, actual inmates who work for us for free at the Community Resource Center).
So I am going to have to do some penance. I am going to have to pretend it’s Lent right now and give up something – like fattening food. I have already stocked the refrigerator with hummus and carrot sticks. I have homemade granola. And I am making chicken couscous salad because it’s good for me and I actually like it. Even King Daddy will eat it and he is not a salad kind of guy.
Sometimes, simple is really more than okay. My friend, Chef Christo Gonzales, asked me one day how I come up with all these recipes. Well, my friend, I told him, what I write about is what I’m actually cooking. I don’t have a test kitchen. I have a real kitchen. And I don’t like cooking the same five things over and over again.
Trust me, I don’t pass along the failures. You will never read about my fish Jello or my rotting corned beef in a slow cooker. Why would you want to do that? But I’ve been at this for quite awhile now and, humbly, I don’t have many failures. You can ask King Daddy about that and he will be brutally honest because he’s a lawyer and lawyers have to undergo some blood ritual that ensures they will always tell the truth. No jokes about sharks here, please.
So after I feed King Daddy something slightly complicated or rich, it’s nice to return to something simple. This recipe has no fat and negligible calories, which is what we needed after consuming the entire pan of blackberry cobbler the other night. Moderation in all things. Or at least a balancing act.
I seriously would have paid $1 million for these a week ago. That’s how starved I was for a real homegrown tomato.
This has just been a horrifying summer so far. I am having tomato disasters everywhere I turn. So, it started when I couldn’t find my beloved black cherry tomato plants at the Home Depot. I looked at Lowe’s, too. Nothing. So I decided to order some black cherry tomato seeds from the Internet. I will just start my own plants from seed! No. Actually, I did. OMG, does it take a long time to grow a tomato from seed. So, after about a month, I had six plants the size of sewing needles in my handy dandy seed starter sitting by the window near the kitchen. And I left the plastic top off one day, just for a few seconds. The cat ate them.
Plan B. Forget the black cherry tomatoes. I will just plant some regular tomatoes. I buy beautiful strong tomato plants. I plant them. Within days, some horrifying fungal material has sprouted around the plants. They die. Plan C. I will plant more tomatoes. Surely this could not happen twice. It does. Oh, well. Never mind. I will not grow tomatoes this year because now it is late June and surely there will be some at the farmer’s market. There are not. How can there be no tomatoes in late June?
Finally. I found them on Saturday at the Franklin Farmer’s Market. I practically elbowed an elderly woman using a cane aside to get to them. I had no shame. None at all. And I wasn’t alone. Long lines formed at the few stands that had tomatoes. The anxiety was palpable. What if I get to the head of the line just as the last tomato vanishes? I bought more than I needed. So far, I have had three tomato sandwiches, an entire basket of cherry tomatoes and just some plain and delicious slices with a sprinkling of sea salt and pepper.
Next up: Pasta with cherry tomatoes. And then roasted tomatoes for spaghetti sauce. And a caprese salad. And…
Showcase this summer’s tomato beauty in a simple pasta dish.
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Juice of one medium lemon
1 ½ cups sugar plum or cherry tomatoes
4 ounces sliced mushrooms
Salt and pepper to taste
¼ cup additional extra virgin olive oil
½ cup crushed garlic-flavored croutons
8 ounces thin spaghetti
Heat olive oil over medium heat. Add lemon juice, tomatoes and mushrooms. Salt and pepper to taste. Saute the tomatoes until their skins begin to split and the mushrooms until well browned. Take off heat and add additional olive oil.
To prepare pasta, heat a large enough sauté pan to hold the spaghetti plus water to generously cover. Salt water liberally and heat over medium high heat. When water is hot, add pasta, stirring frequently to separate strands of spaghetti. Continue cooking until pasta is cooked to al dente. The water need not boil for the pasta to be cooked through.
Combine pasta with tomato mixture and sprinkle crushed croutons over the top.
I was about to say “my work here is done,” but that would imply that I don’t have any more advice or wisdom to pass on to my 21-year-old son. However, the photo above is not my Chicken Piccata. It’s his. At some point, I will be wearing a bib with a drool cup in my bony hands so it’s a good thing to know I’ll be well-fed as I reach for my box wine in the San Francisco mansion Noah assures me he’ll buy for our extended family in the not-too-distant future when he becomes rich and famous . It’s these small things that comfort me as I head into my twilight years.
“Mom,” Noah said when he came home for his birthday. “I want to cook you dinner.” Well, alrighty then. Not so very long ago that would have meant a skillet of Little Smokies or a quesadilla with the approximate ratio of 1 cup of oil to every tortilla. But that’s all changed now. And it’s changed, in part, because I caved in to a notion I did not originally embrace: I agreed to let Noah get his own apartment.
The apartment included a kitchen. And the kitchen became Noah’s own culinary laboratory. I just love modern technology. Now, he creates something in his kitchen and texts me a photo. Heck, he texted me a photo of an elegant caviar service he enjoyed for birthday dinner with his grandmother. I was pretty jealous about that. This is the same grandmother, Bunny, who introduced him to Little Smokies. I’d say the leap has been mighty.
Occasionally, he calls for cooking advice, but I got him a Fannie Farmer cookbook when he got the apartment. If it’s not in Fannie Farmer, you don’t need to know about it.
So, here’s the thing. The Chicken Piccata was perfect. No qualifiers. He also made mashed potatoes and corn, and while I would not choose white-on-white as a combination of sides, they were both delicious. He adds beef stock to his corn, kind of like making a risotto. Who thinks of that? Why would you do that? From now on, I will do that.
Here’s my recipe for Chicken Piccata. It’s at least as good as Noah’s. I think…
Lemon, wine, chicken stock, capers = Chicken Piccata. If you don’t like capers, I’m sorry for you.
3 skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cut in half lengthwise
1 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
½ cup dry white wine
2 cloves garlic, minced
⅓ cup fresh lemon juice (juice from two medium lemons)
½ cup chicken stock
⅓ cup capers
2 tablespoons butter
Pound chicken breasts until they are thin between two sheets of plastic wrap. Put flour, salt and pepper into a large plastic bag. Shake to combine. Add chicken a few pieces at a time to coat. Shake off excess flour.
Heat oil in a skillet over medium high heat. Add chicken and sauté until browned on both sides. Remove to a plate and keep warm in a 170-degree oven.
Pour out any excess oil from the skillet and add the wine and garlic. Cook until the liquid has reduced by half. Add the lemon juice, chicken stock and capers. Continue cooking until that mixture has reduced by half. Add the butter and swirl to combine. Add the chicken back to the pan and coat with the sauce
Asparagus. It’s in season right now. But I’m beginning to wonder how many people really understand what’s in season when. Here’s my rant for the day:
I’m at the grocery store awhile ago and a man is staring at a pathetic package of cleaned corn, bitterly complaining that the store has no corn in a husk. That’s because corn doesn’t come into season until summer. Your sorry corn, sir, may be coming from Argentina. But it’s not in season here. And the carbon footprint it took to get the corn into your impatient little hands is gigantic.
Granted, sometimes it’s hard to know what’s in season since the modern produce section of a grocery store has no seasons. Tomatoes in December? Of course! Brussels sprouts in August? Absolutely! But they’re all coming from somewhere else far, far away. I have strayed occasionally and bought Brussels sprouts in August but I am ashamed while I’m doing it.
My late father-in-law, bless his soul, never ate watermelon before the Fourth of July. I think his mother told him it was poison, but the real reason is that it’s not in season in the South until then. Down here, we wait for tomato season like a dog staring at a meaty bone just out of reach. I think the only people who buy tomatoes in a Southern supermarket are Yankees because the rest of us know better.
So, back to asparagus. You can roast them in the oven, but grilling them is so much faster. All you do is this: Trim the ends of the asparagus and put them on a rimmed cookie sheet. Sprinkle them liberally with extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. Fire up the grill to medium hot and lay the asparagus on the grill perpendicular to the grate. Turn them occasionally and grill until they’re beginning to char.
If you want a nice citrus touch, sprinkle them with lemon juice. Yes, I know lemons are not in season here. They’re never in season here. So I’m a hypocrite.
The price of fish has gotten ridiculous. Have you noticed this lately? Oh, my goodness. It costs more to buy some fish than it does to buy a steak.
In my affordability ring, the only choices right now are salmon, catfish and tilapia unless I decide not to send rent money to my son. I think that would probably be an unfortunate choice. Yes, dear, I know they’re throwing your futon into the alley, but I just had to buy some halibut.
Fortunately, I love tilapia. It gets a bad rap from professional chefs. Too bland. Not fishy enough. I actually think that’s a mighty fine attribute in a fish. And the great thing about cooking these thin filets is that when they look cooked they pretty much are. In other words, when they’re nice and lightly browned they’re done.
Capers. I see you. You’re making that face. You know the one. The “ewwww” face. Stop it. Have you even tried capers? They’re like tiny little pickles. I absolutely cannot make potato salad without them. Even the 8-year-olds in my son’s extremely brief Cub Scout career liked the capers in potato salad. It will cost you a couple of bucks to try them. Money well spent.
Tilapia in Lemon Caper Butter
3 tilapia filets
Salt and pepper
4 tablespoons butter
Juice of 1/2 lemon
¼ cup capers
Cut the tilapia filets down the middle, separating the thick side from the thin side. Dust filets with flour and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a skillet over medium heat. Saute the filets until they are lightly browned on both sides. When filets are done, add the remaining butter, lemon juice and capers and blend. Pour sauce over filets.
It has been a bad week for me. Deliciously bad, but I must now atone. This week brought me fried chicken from Popeye’s (I have a chef friend who told me once that when he goes on picnics he just picks up Popeye’s, lets it come to room temperature and thinks he couldn’t do it any better himself), hamburger and Tots from Sonic (we were helping a friend move – no time for dieting), Krispy Kreme pumpkin spice doughnuts (limited time only!) and Blue Moon sandwiches (got to feed the girls at P.E.O. – our meetings are very strenuous).
So I wiped off the Char-Broil infrared grill, threw some marinated vegetables on there and made a veggie salad. It’s hard to make fattening food on a grill. Macaroni and cheese just slides right through the grates.
If you would be so kind as to hop on over to the Char-Broil site and grab the recipe I would surely appreciate it. You won’t gain an ounce.
We love our mayonnaise-based dips in the South, but sometimes you just have to lighten things up a bit. Pureeing white or navy beans in a blender makes a dip base that’s similar to hummus. Add just a touch of cream cheese (not “light” but there’s so little in the dip it hardly counts) and some roasted red peppers and you have a great summertime dip for veggies.
Roasted red pepper dip
1 15-ounce can navy beans
½ cup roasted red peppers
3 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 clove of garlic, minced
Juice from ½ lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients in a food processor or blender and mix until creamy. Chill for 30 minutes.