Life used to be so sweet and we didn’t even know it then. Before the recession (which one?). Before the newspaper industry took a nosedive. Back when there was such a thing as an expense account. Which is how I got acquainted with a sassy little dish at Merchant’s restaurant in Nashville called Five Pepper Chicken.
Merchant’s was actually in the middle rung of the expense account ladder. At the tippy top was The Wild Boar, sadly no longer with us. Dinner at The Wild Boar took a minimum of four hours and cost, oh, approximately $500 for a party of four – excluding wine (which was never excluded). Of course, I never paid that. Our kindly Uncle Gan Nett took care of the bill. He had deep pockets back in the day. He once rented out the entire property of Blackberry Farm, a very pricy resort in East Tennessee, for a management retreat. At which, of course, nothing was accomplished but at which we could fish for our own trout in their stocked pond and have them served to us for breakfast. Oh, yes. Those were the days.
Most of the luxury dinners involved job candidates. In the hinterlands, Uncle Gan Nett squeezed every nickel from the poor wretches who toiled in the shabby small-town newsrooms. But should they get a call from the Mother Ship for a job interview, they saw the promised land – complete with an expensive bottle of French wine and jumbo crab claws.
Even with all the filet mignon, lobster tails and truffle-studded mashed potatoes, my favorite expense account meal was the Five Pepper Chicken at Merchant’s. The chicken was studded with a combination of sweet and fiery peppers and bathed in a luxurious lemon cream sauce. It never occurred to me to ask for the recipe because A. I assumed my expense account joy ride would last forever and B. I thought they would never take it off the menu.
I was wrong on both counts. So I have recreated it here. But it’s not exact. I am missing a pepper and I can’t figure out which one. So here is my four pepper version of Five Pepper Chicken. It’s still utterly delicious and even I can afford to make it.
Trim the chicken breasts of any fat and season them with the BBQ rub (use your favorite). Heat the vegetable oil on medium high in a large heavy skillet and sauté the chicken breasts on both sides until browned and cooked through (160 degrees internal temperature using a digital probe thermometer). Reserve.
Slice the four peppers into thin strips, removing the seeds and veins. Add a little more oil to the pan and add the peppers. Saute over medium heat until they are tender and beginning to brown. Reserve.
Add the chicken stock to the skillet and boil, reducing it by half. Add the cream and continue to boil until the sauce is reduced by half. Add the lemon juice and Parmesan cheese and mix thoroughly. Add the chicken and peppers back to the pan to warm them through and serve.
Fear of food. Fear of expensive food ruined in a pan. My daughter-in-law, Tammy, was feeling the fear in January when we had our Mayhew/Harbin/Mayhew family reunion at the cabin. Tammy is now a world traveler, thanks to her job and she’d had scallops at some fancy restaurant in the middle of somewhere I can’t remember. She wanted to make them. But Tammy can’t cook. Bless her heart.
So we go to the Food City looking for scallops. I am very skeptical. Sevierville is not known for it’s seafood, unless you count fried catfish. But the Food City had them and they were the good kind – dry scallops.
A quick lesson on scallops. When you see them in the seafood case, they’re often labeled “wet” and “dry.” You want dry. The wet scallops have been treated with a solution to keep them fresh. That solution will prevent the scallops from browning in the pan and if your scallops don’t brown, then you’ve just blown $18 a pound and you’ll cry.
So we took them home and Tammy became fearful. I told her, “Girl, there is nothing more simple than cooking a scallop. It’s easier than making Bagel Bites in the oven.” Tammy is known for her Bagel Bites. “All you do is get the pan screaming hot, add a mix of butter and vegetable oil (to keep the butter from burning), salt and pepper them, and throw them in. A minute or two a side. That’s it.”
Okay. These are not Tammy’s scallops. I did not have the proper photographic equipment to shoot them in the 17-year-old pan at the cabin. But hers looked very much like this.
The only thing I add is a squeeze of lemon juice at the end. Really, if you have a beautiful ingredient like a scallop why muck it up with anything else? It would be like putting Thousand Island Dressing on a lobster tail.
So no recipe. Just the procedure: Dry scallops, butter and oil, salt and pepper, lemon juice. Hot, hot pan.
Smoke alarm. Did I mention you might set off the smoke alarm? Yes, you might.
I have to write this quickly because Jim Cantore from the Weather Channel is in town and the Peoples of the South are terrified! Jim Cantore only travels to the most dangerous and deadly weather events. It’s all over my Facebook page. Dammit, Jim Cantore chose Nashville over Minneapolis, where they’re getting 17 feet of snow. But it’s obviously going to be catastrophic because Jim Cantore has already announced that once the weather gets bad – buckets of rain and straight-line winds – he will broadcast inside the Country Music Hall of Fame. Jim Cantore never goes inside.
OMG, he just Tweeted: AT THIS TIME we are sub severe in middle TN. What does that mean – sub severe? Does that mean highly dangerous but not quite severe? I’d better get my Solo cup filled up with Chardonnay. This is going to be a long night.
By the way, if you want to see the greatest weather live shot ever, click here. It’s Jim Cantore applying his knee to a sensitive spot on a stupid kid running into his live shot in Charleston. It’s hilarious.
So this recipe is perfect because it only takes 20 minutes, which is about how much time you have until the power goes out. I have turned off all the computers but this one and am writing like the wind so I can shut this down. I have flashlights at all the vital stations in the house – bathrooms, bedroom and refrigerator so I can discern the box wine in the dark. I will turn on the Weather Channel and watch Jim Cantore valiantly risk his life in the lobby of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Ya’ll take care.
I mentioned a Christmas factoid in the last post that most people gain less than a pound between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. I personally think that is a big fat lie.
Let’s review my holiday food consumption thus far.
Lipton’s Onion Soup Dip with Kettle Potato Chips on three separate occasions
Five-pepper chicken in a lemon cream sauce
Christmas cookies (four occasions)
Italian fruitcake (eaten in slivers on 10 occasions so that hardly counts)
Homemade sausage bagels
Chocolate truffles (only the inside licked out so, once again, that hardly counts)
A gross of pistachios in the shell (energy required to pull the shells off negates any caloric value of the nuts)
Spiked eggnog (however, when consumed directly from the bottle while standing at the refrigerator that does not count, either)
The most glorious violation of the season was, by far, the filet mignon with hollandaise sauce on Christmas Eve. Oh, hollandaise. How evil you are. How seductive. Is it wrong to eat you directly out of the blender with a spoon? Oh, it is? Forgive me, then, for I have sinned.
It was good. The only redeeming quality of this hollandaise sauce I’m about to present you with is that it’s made in a small batch. Really just enough for three people. Leftover hollandaise can quickly become, well, unfortunate shall we say.
The next time I will see my beloved hollandaise sauce is in March when asparagus come into season. And that’s as it should be. Come Thursday, the order of the day will be sticks and twigs. That will be my new daily diet. Sticks and twigs. But it’s been a good run this holiday season. A very good run.
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