Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sparks Effect

I became a vegetarian at the age of 13. I simply did not like meat. I was bored by it. It seemed to involve way too much chewing. Looking back, my exposure to meat was rather limited. I didn't eat much chicken, nor was I compelled to. Pork only came in the form of bacon, sausage and being Baltimore, scrapple.  Meat was usually served in slab form: steak, veal chop, rack of lamb.  Or cube form: frozen chicken tetrazzini, frozen chili con carne, frozen chicken chow mein. My Dad clearly had some weird meat prejudices, we didn't eat hamburgers or tacos or fried chicken.  I didn't have a pork chop until I was 37 and I still have never had meatloaf.  Based on all those slabs of meat and the insipid taste of frozen pot pie sized chicken cubes I decided to give it up.

The decision was not an epiphany, it was a slow observation.  I never understood why people were raving about the meat when I felt obliged to sit there and count my chews.  The final straw came on one of our annual trips to NYC.  My Dad made a reservation at Sparks Steakhouse, presumably, at the time, the ultimate steak experience. I thought to myself  'If I don't like this steak then I know I just don't like meat'.  I choked down my $50 piece of meat and was relieved when a giant bowl of strawberries arrived as my dessert.

Years later, like 25, my Dad and I were at a party chatting with someone. This person asked why I had become a vegetarian at such a young age. I recounted the Sparks steakhouse story. My Dad looked at me "Seriously? Christ, Morg, I wasn't wild about my steak there either. I had no idea you based it on that."  I was immediately reminded of that poor woman in the De Maupassant story about the necklace.

When I jumped off the vegetarian wagon, and Jim likes to say I jumped off 'face-first', I jumped directly, into his foie gras appetizer.  I had always missed pate, my favorite meat.  That was so delicious I started to wonder what else I had been missing.  I realize I am doing the opposite of cool, while everyone else is going vegan, I'm going omnivorous.  Eating meat certainly made my second trip to Spain a hell of a lot more enjoyable.   I still err on the side of vegetarian for the most part, breakfast and lunch are almost always vegetarian.  But I enjoy a steak, a pork chop and a little jamon here and there, not to mention an almost laughable growing affinity for chicken.  

After the foie gras my next meat conquest was rack of lamb.  We were staying with a friend of Jim's outside of San Francisco.  We had spent the day wine tasting in Sonoma and came back to his adorable house with gorgeous garden.  It was just a perfect day. He made a wonderful dinner featuring herbs and tomatoes from his garden a rack of lamb and some great wines we had picked up that day.  I thought it would be rude not to eat the meat.  But I had to watch how everyone ate it because, well, it had been 25 years and cutting in to a piece of meat is not as easy as getting back on a bike and riding it. Oddly, lamb was one of the things that turned me off of meat, the flavor did not sit well on my pre-adolescent palette.  But one bite of that lamb Larry made us and I was hooked.  I went home and promptly started de-vegtarianizing myself with rack after rack of lamb.  Then I moved on to roasting about 40 chickens.  

Anyhow, it's been awfully salad-centric on this blog lately, so it's time for a meat recipe.  This is a recipe I have adapted from and it is easy, foolproof and delicious, I promise.  Serve it at your next dinner party and everyone will think you are the bees-knees.  It always makes Jim happy.

Herb Crusted Rack of Lamb - Serves 2-4

1 rack of lamb, frenched
4 cloves of garlic, minced
6 tablespoons parsley, chopped
4 tablespoons rosemary, chopped
2 tablespoons thyme
olive oil
salt and pepper

Remove the lamb from the fridge 5-10 minutes before you cook it.  Season it well with salt and pepper.  Preheat the oven to 350.  Combine the garlic and herbs with 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil until it just comes together.  Heat a cast iron pan and coat with olive oil.  Sear the meat on all sides about 2 minutes per side.  I set a timer for 10 minutes and rotate every 2.  place the rack on a baking sheet cover all sides in the herb spread.  Bake for 15 minutes.  Remove, cover the lamb loosely with foil and return to the oven for 10 more minutes.  Remove from the oven and let the meat rest for 10 minutes more.  Slice and serve.

Notes:  I find one rack of lamb serves 4 people with 2 side dishes.  We have been accused of being light eaters though.  If using a meat thermometer the internal temperature wants to be 130 degrees.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

South Carolina Staple

After my Granny's funeral I spent a week in Charleston trying to help my Aunt sort through the complete mess of paperwork that happens when someone passes away.  After numerous trips to the bank, the pharmacy and road trips up and down the roads that used to be the South Carolina highway system to distribute things to relatives living and dead it was time to go home. Right before I got on the plane to return to Houston we went to an all you can eat buffet. My family was not going to let me leave hungry, or even less than bloated.  And Grandpop just loved a buffet.  

There were numerous surreal moments that week, but this one was perhaps the most mimicking of a sitcom.  As we sat there, senior lady after senior lady filed by our table to offer her condolences or to say ‘hi’ to Grandpop.  I didn’t know any of them, nor had any of them attended the funeral.  I don't even think my Aunt  knew most of them and my Aunt knows everyone.  Grandpop left the table for another go-round at the buffet and my Aunt leaned in and said in a hushed tone ‘Now, Morgan, I don’t want you to be upset.  But the reasons these old ladies keep circling is because not only is there a lack of senior men their age  but...’ pause, look from side to side, more hushed, ‘Grandpop can still drive.’ Pause.  ’Which makes him a real catch.‘  While I was slightly stunned I tried not to act so. And it made sense. I was aware of the senior male to female ratio/deficit, and after this last round of eye surgery, yes, he could drive again.  ‘Do they read the obituaries?‘  My grandparents had read the obits everyday for years making their comments on the departed, and, depending on the level of recognition, Granny had a stock pile of cards in her dresser squirreled away for such an event. Charleston used to be a much, much smaller town.  ‘How do they know?‘  ‘Probably they read them.  They don’t mean any harm.‘    Seriously?  Yes, seriously.  And with that comment, a look over my shoulder witnessed another older lady tossing off a wave from across the room.  

Grandpop apparently knew the game.  He didn’t waste much time, he got out his best casserole recipe and hit the church picnic/get-together/bingo circuit in search of a companion.  By the next time I visited he had all sorts of people retuning his casserole dishes with his name affixed with a piece of tape to the bottom.  Grandpop’s signature dish was mac-n-cheese.  He had received so many compliments on it he was starting to brag about it.  ‘Might be the best in Charleston County.’  I kept after him about the secret.  ‘What makes it so good?’ He would not not give it up he’d act as if his hearing had failed and he had not heard my question.  He would do this by lifting his head, look straight at the ceiling, while resting one hand firmly on something, like a countertop or stair railing, clamp his teeth together and let out a hum like sound.  His vision might have been sporadic but his hearing was fine.

Well, one day, before some family gathering or another I innocently found his secret macaroni recipe.  It was in the trash.  It was labeled ‘Piggly Wiggly frozen macaroni and cheese’, two wrappers worth.  Apparently he doctored it with some additional cheddar and milk.  Well, who blames him?  He wasn’t wrong, it was good and he was smart to shroud the secret.  

Turns out there are plenty of Coker family cooking secrets.  At my cousin Amy’s 30th birthday my cousin Sonny brought the baked beans.  His comment about them when asked for the secret to perfect baked beans?  “Why? I mean, why would you make your own when Bush’s has perfected them?’  He had a point, one I follow to this day.  Although following Grandpop’s lead, I doctor those beans with a little garlic and maple syrup, thus making them my secret Bush’s baked beans.

Well I have my own Coker family cooking secret.  I don’t make shrimp and grits the South Carolina way, nope, somehow I have come to Spanish-ize our shrimp and grits.  I know, I know, it’s not traditional and for all my pontificating about Maryland crab cakes I sound like a big, fat phony.  But it’s the truth and it is a regular visitor to our dinner table.  One Jim really enjoys. Hopefully it would not have caused Grandpop too much dismay, but I suspect it may have.  He did prefer his grits with, as he said ‘grease’. He loved shrimp too.  But it’s OK to cheat. Sometimes.

Spanish Shrimp & Grits - Serves 4


1 cup coarse corn meal
2 cups milk (or cream)
2 + 1 cups water
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup parmesan (optional)

Smoked Paprika Shrimp

1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
3 teaspoons dried oregano
1.5 teaspoons smoked paprika
1 pinch cayenne
1 teaspoon dried roasted garlic (I realize this is an esoteric spice, you can substitute 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder or for a stronger flavor 2 crushed cloves of garlic) 
1/2 cup diced fire roasted tomatoes
1 tablespoon white wine 
1 ounce jamon serrano chopped in to 1" bits 
2 green onions, sliced - green and white parts
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 tablespoon olive oil

Preheat the oven to 350.

For the polenta, combine the milk, water and salt and bring to a boil. Whisk in the cornmeal and let simmer for 30-40 minutes, whisking often. Keep the extra cup or so of water warm on a burner and add as needed to loosed the polenta while cooking.

Heat a cast iron skillet on the stove over a medium heat, add the jamon and cook until crispy, about 4 minutes. Remove from pan and set aside.

Toss the shrimp in a bowl with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and the oregano, paprika, cayenne, garlic and salt. Place the shrimp in the seasoned cast iron skillet and cook in the oven for 4 minutes. Remove. Turn the oven up to 450. Turn the shrimp over in the pan, add in the tomatoes and the wine. Return the pan to the oven for 5 more minutes.

About 5 minutes prior to serving, whisk the butter into the polenta. If cheese is desired, whisk that in as well.

Spoon the polenta in to bowls, spoon the shrimp mixture on top and sprinkle with the jamon, parsley and green onions.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Getting the Shaft

College cafeterias can be a challenge, almost a sporting event, hunting for something to eat in a sea of gross.  It might even take several trips through the steam table line just to find something not worthy of being spit out.   At the first college I attended I literally made the freshman mistake of eating the green beans, the thought of them still make me gag.  Think boiled crayons.  Retch.  While I recall the food at Bennington wasn’t bad, er, let me rephrase that, it was a hell of a lot less worse the cafeteria that produced the aforementioned green beans.  The reality is college was a culinary brain eraser; I can’t really remember anything I ate there over the course of two years save for a couple.  

The first was Friday.  Friday was great.  It is is probably why I remember the college food at Bennington as ‘OK’.  Friday made up for the sins of the previous week.  Lunch on Fridays was always burger, french fry, macaroni and cheese, chocolate chip cookie day.  I thought it odd to put all the good foods on one menu, why not spread them out over the week?  And why sneak the good foods in on Friday when everyone was headed to New York or Boston anyhow?  Either way I would front load or back load, but load nonetheless to make up for existing on salad and soup the other 6 days.  Now I also remember Fridays because oddly, Bennington had one of the better veggie burgers I have ever encountered, only Houston’s makes a better one.   They were so good I usually had two.

The other meal I remember was the cafeteria’s Greek menu, which popped up at least twice a month.  It featured the usual stereotypes: moussaka, spanakopita, pastitsio, etc.  Now I never ate any of this, I learned my lesson after one serving of the spanakopita.  And I suspect these oozy casseroles would have been erased from my memory as well except somehow in college I managed to amass a coterie of Greeks. My best friend and my boyfriend were Greek, their parents directly from, yes, Greece.  This display did not inspire either of them to national pride.  Andrew would laugh and offer some mocking commentary and Myrto would seethe with anger.  While Andrew was willing to accept that the school could and most certainly would butcher these dishes, Myrto could not. 

Now, if college had decided to attempt my national dish of steamed crabs, corn and cucumber salad, I’d be horrified too.  In fact I become equally righteously indignant when restaurants outside of the state of Maryland (falsely) advertise ‘Maryland crab cakes’. But it happens.  And it happened that the college cafeteria was hell bent to personally offend Myrto with their Greek repertoire.  

In addition to the slanderous dinner menu, lentil soup was constantly in one of the two double boilers.  After a trip around the steam table where the ‘regular’ lunch or dinner proved inedible, Myrto would begrudgingly head to the lentil soup pot.  Being Greek, the lentil soup was:  Not. O. K. She’d deliver it to our table.  Put it down in front of her.  Sigh.  Stir it.  Begin to cuss at it.  Under her breath.  In Greek.  And truly crafty cussing; creative stuff.  Stuff that should make any Greek trucker feel inferior.  Still irritated, she’d get up from the table and return with 7-10 lemon wedges from the iced tea station and proceed to squeeze them into her soup, cursing in Greek; perhaps grabbing anything else she could to doctor it.   Then she would call on God, Grandma and the island of Paros (where her family is from) to deliver her from this bowl of soup.  With disgust in her eye she’d begin to eat it, cursing the whole way through.  This show happened several times a week.  This was quite simply lunch or dinner.  To give you a better idea of the irony, go grab a J.Crew catalog, reach in there and rip out a page, any page:  that’s what Myrto looks like.  She’ll help any old lady across the street with a genuine smile but, Dear God, do not give her an inferior bowl of soup that mocks her heritage.

So I submit this.  I’m fairly certain I do it well because many (seriously, a lot) people request this dish from me, and it’s ridiculously cheap, easy, filling and tasty.  I’ll let Myrto look it over and give me her thoughts, hopefully not in Greek and under her breath.

Lentil Soup - Serves 4 - Adapted from Memories of a Lost Egypt

1.5 cups lentils
4 cups vegetable stock 
1 medium - large yellow onion, peeled and cut in half across the equator
12 cloves
1 bay leaf
3 teaspoons cumin
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/2 stick of cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon sea or kosher salt
3 cups spinach loosely chopped
1 cup water

1 lemon
Greek yogurt
Parsley, chopped

Take the cloves and stab them in the flesh of the onion.  Place the onion with cloves, lentils, vegetable stock, bay leaf, cumin, cinnamon and salt in a large pot.  Bring to a boil, let simmer for 10 minutes, then remove the cinnamon stick.  Continue to simmer for 25 more minutes.  The lentils want to be firm but not hard.  Add more water if needed.  Sprinkle with parsley.  Serve with lemon wedges and a dollop of Greek yogurt.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Your Childhood is Calling

Jim and I really have very traditional roles around the house.  I’m not joking when I say I call him when he’s had a long day to ask which cocktail I can make him before he gets home.  And when he gets home I greet him with his drink and, yes, I am usually wearing an apron.  I clean the house.  He does the yard work. I pack lunches.  He takes out the trash.  We both cook.

Continuing our tradition of taking it straight back to the 1950s our road trips involve stopping at rest stops.  This started as a 'we'reself-employedandthisrecessioniskillingushowtomakeanickelscream' tactic. But it has become something Jim truly enjoys, for the break and the quaintness.  We pull over, get the cooler out of the trunk and while the kids are blowing off some steam we set up lunch at the picnic tables.  To make it even more Mayberry I wrap the sandwiches in wax paper, Jim loves that gesture.  I don’t know why, but I’ll keep doing it.  Our picnics usually consist of egg salad sandwiches, crab chips and cookies for everyone but me.  It’s always an egg salad sandwich.  I poll everyone the night before, I offer alternatives, none are accepted. 

Before I started to write this blog I had no idea I felt so strongly about egg salad.  But it turns out I have strong convictions on the matter.  Much like our kids, it was my favorite sandwich to find in my lunchbox.  And much like our kids, I didn’t care if it smelled like a toot, it tasted like perfection.  I remember one time some mean little girl at school teased me about it in the truly evicerating way that only little kids can.  She shamed me by telling me how awful it smelled and how gross it was; how could I eat that?  Obviously I would be booger eating level gross and a playground leper if I ate it, duh.  Now, I’m extremely sensitive, and I was certainly even more so as a kid.  I looked at my sandwich, I really wanted to eat it.  But this 8 year old future hen-pecker  continuing her rant stood between me and lunchbox (Happy Days lunchbox to be exact) bliss.  Luckily someone stood up for me, I wish I could remember who, telling little miss maladjusted third grader to shove it, therefore making it socially acceptable for me to go back to enjoying my lunch.  

This particular egg salad sandwich was made by my main care giver, Ms. Mooney.  Ms. Mooney was in her 70s, a former nurse and fairly strict.  She lived across the street from me in a senior citizen apartment building.  She made my lunches (and my dinners) and she made the world’s best egg salad.  Now, I’ve screwed around in the past putting different things in my egg salad like Old Bay, dill or celery but the reality is I am a purist and I like my egg salad like Ms. Mooney used to make it for me.  It should simply be: eggs, mayo, mustard, salt and pepper mashed up with a fork to a nice chunky consistency.  I also feel adamant that egg salad should be served on white bread with crispy lettuce and ripe tomato, no onion, no pickle.  And I feel very strongly about this.  Another little trick I use when assembling any type ‘salad’ sandwich is to spread the salad, in this case the egg salad, on both pieces of bread, place the lettuce and tomato in the center, this way the egg salad acts like glue firmly holding the vegetables in place.  

Egg salad feels as retro your grandparents living room.  Why is that?  I don't know, but when I eat it I can taste the 1940s.  So that’s right, I’m giving you a sandwich recipe.  But haven’t you missed it?  

Egg Salad - Serves 2

5 extra large eggs
5 tablespoons of mayonnaise
5 teaspoons of Dijon mustard
1/8 teaspoon of sea salt
freshly ground pepper

Place the eggs in a pot and fill with water until they are covered by an inch.  Heat the eggs to a boil.  Boil for 1 minute.  Then turn off the heat and leave the eggs in the hot water, covered for 13 minutes.  Remove and plunge the eggs in to an ice bath for 5 minutes.  Peel the eggs.  Place them in a bowl with the remaining ingredients and using a dinner fork, mash and mix to a chunky consistency.  Serve on white bread with lettuce and tomato.  

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Dress Diet

Not my 20 year high school reunion, nor the impending thud of turning 40 could make me quit eating all of my favorite foods and get up before dawn and run 5 miles up and down hills.  But the threat of a wedding dress, a wedding dress can make me do those things. That’s right, no more butter, no more mayo and any thoughts of bacon or sausage are banned.  In fact for the most part I’ve gone back to being a vegetarian and Jim is forced to come along for the ride.  The 'hungry ride' he's quick to point out.  As it’s referred to in our house ‘the wedding diet’.  ‘I don’t think that’s on the wedding diet.’  is the refrain for telling yourself ‘no’ to all things verbotten, like that very special sandwich ham my friend Lily was selling at the farmer’s market.  Or Jim’s pleas to eat grocery store fried chicken while shopping.  Or ordering what you want off of any menu.  This dress in particular will not allow me to rely on Spanx or even 3 pairs of Spanx alone.  So up the hill, down the hill, around the block, egg whites for breakfast, tomato sandwich for lunch and another page ripped from Yottam Ottolenghi’s vegetable tome for dinner.  

Now the biggest problem with all of this, is I also to break up with ice cream for this dress too. Ice cream is my very best food friend.  I love it, and, yes PeeWee, I would marry it if I could. It was my first job and it would be my last meal. 

Jim knows me as well as I do.  Sometimes he’ll slip a bucket of half sour pickles or a slab of Polish butter into our shopping cart.  He also saves me the majority of squid tentacles when we order calamari.  He knows that bucket of pickles, the pricey butter with the weird wrapper and tentacles are going to make me as happy as flowers.  And I always save him the biggest piece of whatever we are eating.  Similarly, I carry a banana to work everyday.  It’s not for me.  Jim loves bananas but he can’t always remember to take one with him. 

Jim also has a love of ice cream that rivals mine.  Which is why we are skipping the wedding cake when we tie the knot.  Let them eat ice cream.  So before we quit it all in hopes of achieving Ken & Barbie figures I revved up the ice cream maker one more time.

Roasted Banana Chocolate Chip Ice Cream - Serves 8

2 cups of milk
2 cups of cream
1/2 cup of sugar
3 very ripe bananas
8 egg yolks
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/3 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips (I use Ghiradelli)
1/2 lemon 

Heat the oven to 400. Place the sliced bananas face down on a Silpat lined baking sheet. Roast for about 10 minutes until they are slightly browned and the natural sugar has released and become crispy at the edges. Remove and set aside to cool. Squeeze lemon juice and mush up the bananas and mix lemon in well. Refrigerate if needed for use the next day.  Combine the milk and the cream and 1/2 of the sugar and bring to a boil. Meanwhile whisk together the egg yolks and the remaining sugar until thick.  Temper the eggs with 1/3 the hot milk mixture, whisking until combined. Return the mixture to the milk mixture and continue to heat while stirring until it can coat the back of a wooden spoon, add in vanilla.Remove from the heat and strain the mixture in to a bowl over an ice bath. Let cool and store in the fridge for several hours or overnight.  Add custard and bananas to ice cream maker and precess per the ice cream machine's directions. A few minutes prior to finishing add in the chocolate chips and process until evenly distributed.