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It is our 2012 New Year’s resolution to resurrect the blog!

Let me catch you up: I moved to Denver and got married (no biggie).  Jenny moved across the country and got a new job (as did her hubby).  So, between those life changing events and a family emergency or two, we were busy little bees this year! But enough excuses – let’s talk about the thing that is so near and dear to everyone’s heart – food.

We last left you with a post about the 1st Annual Drogue Holiday party.  I am proud to report that our 2nd annual Drogue Holiday party was also a success.  And since we left you last year at Christmas time, it’s fitting that we pick up where we left off – at New Year’s.

Every New Year’s day, Mimi opened her home to anyone who was interested in some simple “good luck” black eyed peas.  According to my Mary Mac’s Tea Room cookbook (thanks, Dad!,) this Southern tradition dates back to the Civil War.   Apparently Union troops would strip the land of all stored food and destroy whatever they couldn’t carry with them.  The  Northern soldiers didn’t consider “field peas” a suitable source of food.  So these “field peas” became known for good luck!

Seasoned with salt pork and hog jowls or pork hocks, Mimi served her peas over white rice, and topped them with stewed tomatoes.  The goal is to eat at least 12 peas (one for luck during each month in the year).  Happily, this goal isn’t hard to attain.  Mimi also served her famous cornbread as a sopping accessory (with jalapeno or strawberry jam) as well as fresh scallions to gnaw on/freshen your breath.

So this year, we will carry on the tradition.

 

Black-Eyed Peas
Adapted From Mary Mac’s Tea Room

1 small smoked ham hock
5 ounces of fatback (salt pork)
1 small yellow onion, diced
4 cups dried black-eyed peas
1/2 teaspoon of white pepper

Bring a stockpot two-thirds full with water to a boil over medium-high heat.  Add the ham hock, fatback, and onion and return to a rolling boil.  Add the black-eyed peas and let cook, uncovered for approximately 1 hour, or until the black-eyed peas are tender.  Add salt and pepper if desired.  Serve with slotted spoon over white rice, and top with stewed tomatoes.  See below for recipe.

Mom and I have debated about whether Mimi used canned tomatoes or whether she blanched tomatoes and stewed them fresh.  I can specifically remember Mimi teaching me to blanch tomatoes. I can’t imagine why she would have been doing that except for a recipe that called for stewed tomatoes.  We came to the conclusion that Mimi used canned tomatoes (sometimes her own and sometimes store-bought) just because it would be tough to find good tomatoes in December.  So, the choice is yours.

In case you need a quick 101 on blanching: bring some water to a boil, add the tomatoes for a minute or 2, remove and immediately submerge in cold water.  This makes the tomatoes really easy to peel, core, and seed.

Dried black eyed peas

Salt pork and pork hock

 

Stewed Tomatoes
2-3 cans of diced tomatoes, or 8-10 whole tomatoes, blanched and diced
1 onion – diced
Dash of white vinegar
A few pinches of sugar
1/2 stick of butter
tomato paste (optional)

Cook the diced onions in butter for quite some time.  You want the onions to begin to brown so that they take on that really sweet buttery flavor.  Add the tomatoes and stew for a while.  You may want to add a spoonful of tomato paste depending on the thickness.  Add vinegar and sugar to taste.  The tomatoes should take on a tangy taste.  Stew for 30-40 minutes.  This can be done ahead of time.

Happy 2012!

Happy 2012!!!

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This year is our first with a garden.  As you’ll remember when I first wrote about the little (little!) raised bed we planted this year, I was thrilled to finally be in one place long enough to see a summer garden through the season.  So much for all my dancing and jigging about being in one place – yes, we made it through a year at the same address but now we’re pulling up roots, literally and figuratively, and moving to Los Angeles!

Anyhow, in the midst of all the packing and planning and preparing, I of course am still making time to cook.  It’s one thing that helps keep me sane and grounded.  This week, Dan brought home some okra that was a gift from a work friend (thanks, Dawn!) and requested I prepare it in the only way he likes that vegetable: fried.  I have had mixed results with deep-frying in the past, but once I saw these gorgeous purple and green fingers of summer goodness, I knew that’s what I’d do with them.

I could tell you all about okra, the myriad ways it can be prepared, its international, transcontinental interpretations, it botanical origins (did you know that it comes from the same plant family as cotton, cocoa, and hibiscus?) – but I don’t need to.  My dear friend Jennifer tells it all, with three different recipes to boot, in this post over at the Peachtree Road Farmer’s Market blog.

What I will say is that I didn’t actually use any of Jennifer’s recipes – at least, not from that blog post.  I went with a recipe from world-class Atlanta chef Virginia WillisBon Appetit Y’all. (Mostly because I had extra buttermilk in the fridge – Jen’s version of fried okra doesn’t use it, while Virginia Willis’ does.) This is fitting enough because Jennifer introduced me to Virginia (well, not in real life – but you know what I mean!) when she gave me an autographed copy of her cookbook for Christmas a few years ago.  Now well-worn and much-loved, I thrill as much in the beautiful photography and spot-on recipes as I do in Willis’ recollections of cooking with her Mama and Meme.  I can’t step into the kitchen without thinking of my Mimi, so it’s nice that Willis brings hers along, too.

I’ll be bringing along my copy of Bon Appetit Y’all, and many other gifts and memories, as we wind up this summer, load up the wagons, and head west for the next adventure.  I wonder if they serve fried okra in L.A.?

Fried Okra
Adapted from Bon Appetit, Y’all by Virginia Willis

1 pound fresh okra, ends trimmed
1 cup buttermilk (I used a low-fat buttermilk…not that this matters much when you’re deep-frying!)
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup cornmeal (I had only half the cornmeal I needed and subbed semolina flour for the rest – it worked beautifully)
3 cups canola oil
Salt & pepper to taste

Mix flour and cornmeal together (I threw in some salt here, in addition to salting the okra after it came out of the oil). Slice okra into 1/2-inch rounds.  Toss with buttermilk.  Put a plate lined with paper towel next to the stovetop.  Heat oil in a heavy, deep (preferably cast-iron) wide-bottomed skillet to 350 degrees, or until flour tossed into the oil begins to bubble.  Working in batches, drain the excess buttermilk from the okra and toss okra in flour/cornmeal mixture to coat.  Fry okra in oil until golden brown, 3-5 minutes (for me, this took more like 5-8 minutes).  Don’t overcrowd the skillet or you’ll lower the temperature of the oil and won’t leave room for the individual pieces to bathe in the oil.  Using a mesh basket or slotted strainer, remove okra from oil and place on towel-lined plate.  Sprinkle with salt.  Keep frying in batches and enjoy!

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Among summer’s incredible bounty are fresh-shelled peas of all varieties: from fava beans to English peas to whiteacres and more.  Last week at the Morningside Farmer’s Market I picked up a couple of pints of pink-eyes, knowing they’d been shelled a few hours before and I’d be cooking them a few hours later.

Raw pink-eyed peas

There are many wonderful things that you can do with fresh peas.  I highly recommend this black-eyed pea, corn, and tomato salad from Virginia Willis’ Bon Appetit, Y’all.  After seeing her make this last summer (and tasting it!) at a market demo, we enjoyed this salad at home several more times last year.  I certainly don’t intend to let this summer slip by without making sure it’s as good as I remember.

Cooked pink-eyed peas and grits

But my favorite thing, and the easiest, to do with fresh summer peas is just to boil them up and serve them in their own broth, perhaps over rice or grits.  Here I served them over stone-ground grits cooked with fresh cream and parmesan.  A friend said she topped the same thing with crumbled up local bacon, and I just bet that it was out of control.

Simple Fresh-Shelled Peas

Fresh-shelled peas – pink-eyes, whiteacres, field peas, and on and on
Enough liquid to cover (you could use just water, or use vegetable or chicken broth or bouillon)
1 white onion, cut into eighths, length-wise
Salt and pepper to taste
Optional: Ham hock

A note on seasoning: My mom and grandmother would never have cooked peas without a ham hock in the broth to flavor them.  Salty, fatty, savory, and smoky, pork is used to flavor much Southern cooking – here’s a new book with recipes and history that calls pork “the King of the Southern table.”  (If anyone feels like buying me a present, feel free to make it this book!) However, as a vegetarian for many years, I adapted this dish to my needs.  I found that a few cubes of veggie bouillon, the cut up onion, salt, and maybe some additional olive oil or butter for fat content mimicked very well the taste I remembered from childhood.  If you do use bouillon, broth, or ham hock, you will need far less salt in the cooking liquid than if using just water, so do adjust accordingly.

To cook: Place peas in a pot with onion and enough liquid to cover.  Boil for 20-30 minutes, or until tender but still firm and not mushy.  As the peas cook, you will notice a gray foam forming on the surface of the water – simply skim this off with a shallow spoon and discard.  Taste before serving for salt and pepper.  As mentioned, these are wonderful just in their own juices, perhaps with a piece of cornbread to soak up the liquid, or on top of white rice or creamy stone-ground grits.  Serve and enjoy!

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When Rachael and I started The Mimi Project, we compiled a list of recipes – with the help of other family members – that we wanted to re-create.  Mimi died at Christmas last year, and Rachael and I inherited her treasured recipe box.  Every time I talked to Mimi in the months before her death, she told us that she was busy getting the recipes cards organized for us, a fact our Aunt Mary Anne confirmed.  Mimi spent hours at the dining room table, combing through those cards, ostensibly trying to get them in some kind of order.  I think the exercise might have been more about reminiscing, thinking about all the good things she had cooked and all the things she would still like to cook.  Lord knows, she cooked until the end!  After reading Rachael’s post about failed ice-box cookies, Mimi baked us a batch – they were fresh and waiting for us on Christmas morning just days after her death.

Thinking of Mimi lovingly mixing and forming and baking cookies for us even as she was dying, it’s clear to me why I feel such a connection between food, love, and family.  I was touched, then, to discover a recipe attributed to my brother Michele as I sorted through Mimi’s cards.  Rachael, Michele, and I share the same mom (and thus the same Mimi!) – but Michele’s dad is not ours.  Michele’s dad Maurizio is Italian, from Florence, but I’ve had the pleasure of knowing him my whole life as he now lives in Tallahassee, Florida.  He is a sweet man, an accomplished scholar/designer (he’s been working on the Large Hadron Collider!) and a wonderful cook.  I remember distinctly finding a jar of Barilla pasta sauce in my mom’s fridge many years ago – it was a new brand to our area back then, and I wanted to try it.  It was delicious – just like home-made – and I excitedly bought another jar on my next trip to the grocery store.  Imagine my disappointment when I opened that jar to discover the flavorless, processed stuff that I should have expected – and I realized immediately that the jar I’d found in my mom’s fridge had been a gift from Maurizio, homemade marinara sauce re-packaged in a recycled jar.

Michele’s sauce-making abilities rival those of his dad, so when I found this marinara sauce attributed to Michele among Mimi’s recipes, I knew immediately I had to make it.  I found the perfect use for the sauce when I came across another of Mimi’s recipes, for “zucchini lasagna.”  It wasn’t until I was in the middle of cooking the zucchini lasagna that I realized that there are no lasagna noodles – the whole point is to replace the pasta with vegetables.  It’s simple, surprisingly good, and a great use for all those squash and zucchini at the farmer’s markets right now.  And of course, for me, it’s a casserole that represents the layers of love and family that I connect to through cooking.

Michele's Tomato Sauce

Michele’s Tomato (Marinara) Sauce

1 large can whole peeled tomatoes (I like organic San Marzanos, like these)
2/3 tbsp olive oil
Half an onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tbsp sugar
Cayenne
Salt and pepper

In a medium sauce pan over medium heat, saute the onions and garlic in olive oil until soft and translucent.  Do not let the onions or garlic get browned or crisp.  Add the tomatoes, sugar, a dash of cayenne, and salt and pepper to taste.  Crush the tomatoes with a wooden spoon and cook over low-medium heat until the tomatoes are broken down and flavors are melded, at least 30 minutes.  Taste for salt, adjust as needed, and serve.

Mimi’s Zucchini Lasagna
Serves 6-8

1/2 pound ground beef
1/2 c. chopped onion
1 15 oz. can of tomato sauce (or equivalent homemade – which is preferred!)
4 medium zucchini (about 1 1/4 pounds), sliced into rounds – I used a combination of zucchini and summer squash
2 tbsp. flour, divided
1 (12 oz.) container of cottage cheese
1 egg, beaten
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.

In a large saute pan, cook onion in olive oil over medium heat until translucent.  Add ground beef, browning and stirring to crumble.  Add tomato sauce, taste for salt and pepper and adjust seasoning as needed.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Set cooked ground beef and tomato sauce aside.

In a large saute pan over medium heat, saute zucchini – I used a non-stick skillet and basically no olive oil.  The squash and zucchini cooked nicely and even browned a little bit.

Spray a 12″ x 8″ x 2″ baking dish with non-stick cooking spray or olive oil in a mister.  Combine cottage cheese and egg.  Start with a layer of zucchini on the bottom of the pan.  Then sprinkle with 1 tbsp of the flour.  Spread a layer of the cottage cheese mixture, then spoon half of the meat sauce over the cottage cheese.  Repeat layers.  Bake casserole at 375 degrees for 35 minutes (until hot and bubbling).  Sprinkle with mozzarella cheese and bake another 5 minutes, until cheese begins to brown.  Let the casserole rest for 5 minutes before serving.  I garnished it with a chiffonade of basil – but it’s wonderful on its own, too!

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My little garden is really starting to produce: my first cherry tomatoes have ripened, the first large green tomatoes are ready to ripen, we’ve enjoyed many wonderful leaf lettuce salads, and now the cucumbers are going crazy.

Mimi and Granddaddy always had a big garden when I was growing up.  In the summertime, they grew sweet and hot peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, onions, potatoes, cucumbers, summer squash, zucchini, scallions, and green beans, at a minimum.   I remember helping them sometimes, mostly with the harvesting: crouching along the rows of green beans, making sure to get all the little pods.  Or helping Granddaddy in the winter, washing his harvests of collard, mustard, and turnips greens in successive water baths in big white buckets in the carport (don’t you know, there were no “garages” back then – just carports!).   Somehow, though, I escaped most of the labor involved in their garden and simply got to enjoy the fruits: those greens, cleaned, cooked, and doused with Granddaddy’s home-grown and -made pepper vinegar; soft, cooked green beans with onions and ham hocks in the summer and crisp canned green bean salad with tangy dressing and sharp onions in the winter; steaming hot cornbread sticks – like the ones Rachael made here – slathered in Mimi’s home-made and -grown pepper jelly; Mimi’s ratatouille, surely inspired by Julia Child’s introduction of French cooking to America’s home cooks, composed of stewed eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes.

More than anything, though, summer at Mimi and Granddaddy’s house meant dinners full of crisp, beautiful, home-grown cucumbers – very often, cucumbers simply peeled, sliced, and bathed in white vinegar, topped with ice cubes and chilled in the refrigerator.  Crunchy, light, tangy, and cool, biting into these helped combat the sweltering blanket of heat that covers North Florida in the summertime.

Iced cucumber salad

My one cucumber plant is producing about one or two cucumbers a day right now – that’s upwards of a dozen a week, and I don’t pick them until they’re pretty big (the ones pictured above are actually from the farmer’s market, before mine were ready to harvest – much smaller than what I’ve been picking at home).  We have a lot of cucumbers to eat!  Mimi canned many of hers, of course, making a couple of kinds of cucumber pickles, in addition to her green tomato pickles, canned green beans, jellies, relishes, and frozen home-grown fruits and veggies.  But I wondered what other fresh preparations of cucumbers she made, so I turned to the pile of hand-written recipe cards I brought home after her funeral last Christmas.  Of course, Mimi didn’t disappoint.

“Buttermilk Salad” was the answer I came away with.  I don’t remember ever eating this growing up, but that could be because I turned my nose up at it.  I thought I hated buttermilk, one of those decisions you make as a child and don’t question until you’re old enough to have forgotten why you thought you hated that thing in the first place.  I don’t think I could drink a tall glass of buttermilk with dinner, like my mom is apt to do, but sliced fresh cucumbers drenched in the creamy, tangy stuff?  I’m there.

Mimi’s Sliced Cucumber Salad with Vinegar

Cucumbers, peeled and thinly sliced
White Vinegar, enough to cover sliced cukes
Sliced sweet white onion (preferably Vidalia)
Salt & pepper
Ice cubes

Peel and slice as many cucumbers as you’d like and place in a bowl.  Add sliced white onion, season with salt and pepper to taste, and mix.  Cover with white vinegar – if you want the salad to be a little milder and less vinegary, replace some portion of the vinegar with water.  Top with ice cubes and place in refrigerator to chill before eating.  This is best made an hour or less before you plan to eat, so that the cucumbers are at their freshest.

Mimi’s Buttermilk Salad
Serves 6

3 medium cucumbers
1 small clove garlic
1/2 tsp. thyme (I used fresh lemon thyme)
Salt
1 quart buttermilk
Optional: thin slices of sweet white onion

Peel and slice cucumbers as finely as possible.  Put the garlic through press and add with thyme to the cucumber.  Add onion if you’re going to use it – only use a small amount and slice very thinly.  Mix thoroughly with the cold, fresh buttermilk and season to taste with salt.  Serve immediately or chill for an hour and serve.

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I’ve been on a diet.

I hate diets and I kind of really hate talking about them because I don’t like body-snarking, even when I do it to myself – and especially in front of others.  I never want my words about myself to inadvertently hurt someone else.


Like many people, I have complicated relationship to my own body and I’m always trying to be more at peace with it.  Happy, healthy, not hung-up.  I’ve always loved food, loved to cook and eat and try new things, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that food was not just nourishment or fun but, well, it’s my thing.  Some of my friends are beautiful knitters, others are photographers, marathon runners, amateur musicians, or weekend motorcyclists.  One of my cousins is sky-diver with his own plane!  As I’ve settled into my adult self, I’ve realized I’m not the adventurous wanderer I once thought I would be – I’m a nester.  I like to take care of my home and I love to spend time in my home cooking, eating, and sharing delicious homemade food with friends and loved ones.

Of course somewhere in there, I went from a person who bought heavy cream a couple of times a year to someone who has a carton of heavy cream in her fridge at all times – and I’m not a coffee drinker!  Learning more about food brought all kinds of complicated thoughts and ideas about what was “good” food.  Like many people, I have struggled to re-define my relationship to food – rather than low-fat being good for me, I now want to eat cleaner, more natural and unprocessed whole foods.  Beyond pursuing the most exotic imported foreign goods I can find, I am interested in mining the depths of local food items.  But somewhere in there things got complex and heavy.  And my pants got tighter and tighter.  Finally, I decided to bite the bullet and not just sort of generally think about “eating healthier” – but to commit to the dreaded thing, a diet.

In the end of course I chose one that worked for me.  It’s based on simple whole foods and emphasizes eating “super-foods” like nuts and olive oil at every meal.  The program starts with a “jump-start” where you eat whole vegetables and fruits and lean proteins with no salt – this is the most gimmicky part of the whole thing.  Going salt-free and keeping foods very simple and clean is meant to reduce bloating and boost your confidence by immediately helping reduce your waistline.  It worked!  However, it was very boring.

What was fascinating was that as I began to eat normally after those days of no salt and very simple, clean (dull) food, I starting tasting things anew.  I needed less salt to really taste what I was eating.  I could enjoy the richness of a small amount of chocolate without having to have the whole piece of cake.  I remembered the difference between feeling “full” and “ridiculously overstuffed” (and didn’t feel cheated).  This was a revelation!

The very boring part is over and I’m back to thinking about food, cooking with luxurious, fabulous, amazing salt (it’s so important, y’all!), and eating the kinds of foods that satisfy not just my physical needs but my senses as well.  I’m just doing it a little leaner and lighter these days.

Back to cooking means – back to blogging!  A dear couple of friends hosted us for shabbat this week and I brought this to share with our Mediterranean meal.  It’s adapted from the fabulous Deborah Madison, of course.  She calls it yogurt and cucumber salad – to me, it’s just tzaziki.

One tool that I use for this dish is a yogurt strainer.  This is the kind of device I would not have bought for myself – I have cheesecloth and a bowl, and I’d always figured I could strain my own yogurt.  But somehow this little tool makes the whole process a snap (thanks Aunt Julie and Uncle Nick for the awesome Christmas gift!).  It fits nicely in your refrigerator for overnight straining, which produces a gorgeously thick almost cheese-like substance.  For this tzaziki, I strained the yogurt only for a few hours which thickened it up but still left it quite liquid and lovely.  I’ve also eaten yogurt cheese on toast with za’atar and salt or on a biscuit with Mimi’s homemade strawberry preserves.  The tzaziki below is amazing with lamb burgers and pretty fab with felafel, too.

Cucumber and Yogurt Salad
Adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison

2 cups plain whole or low-fat yogurt, strained for several hours or overnight
1 small cucumber, peeled, seeded, and chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 scallions, white and part of green parts chopped
Fresh mint and dill chopped, to taste (about 2 tbsp each)
2-3 tbsp lemon juice or white wine vinegar
Salt and pepper, to taste
Good-quality olive oil

Mix together ingredients.  Taste for salt and pepper and adjust as needed.  Let stand for at least 15 minutes or several hours.  Drizzle with olive oil and serve.  Makes 3 cups.

Tip: To keep your tzaziki creamy and not watery, toss your chopped cucumbers with a little salt and let them sit in a strainer in the sink while you prep the rest of the ingredients.  This draws out some of their water and leaves you with a luxuriously thick dip.

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Here’s another Southern baked good that is easy, cheap, and delicious!  I learned this recipe from a high school classmate’s mom who was all about packet gravy and instant mashed potatoes.  While I generally shun those things, I actually like these biscuits.  I also remember Granddaddy just salivating over them when I made them for family gatherings.

Raw biscuits

Butter Biscuits
2 sticks of unsalted melted butter
2 cups of self-rising flour
1 cup of sour cream

Add the melted butter and sour cream to the flour and mix together.  The mix can be lumpy.  This recipe will make enough dough to fill one large muffin tin if you fill each tile about ¾ full (see photo above).  Bake for 30ish minutes at 350 degrees and voila!  Pack these in a basket lined with a cloth napkin and take them to a tea, a picnic or a dinner.  They are so easy and devilishly delicious.  Plus – there’s no need to put butter on them, since they are already buttery enough!  My favorite condiment is Mimi’s strawberry preserves – recipe to come later.

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