Each spring my mother and her sister Roberta ordered baby chicks from the local farmer’s cooperative. My four brothers, three cousins and I watched these cute, furry yellow creatures grow into sturdy chickens running about our respective farmyards. Then, each fall, my brothers, cousins and I gathered the first day at one farm and the next at the other farm to watch our mothers chop off chicken heads. Then the fun began.
The processing began early in the morning when instead of being turned out to roam the yard, the chickens remained locked in the pen. They clucked away wondering why this day should be any different from any other as one by one each woman bought out a bird, held its wings and feet together, laid its head on a tree stump and chopped it off with an ax. She would then toss the headless chicken onto the grass where it ran around and flopped about for what seemed a considerable time. Thus, I suppose, came the saying, “running around like a chicken with its head cut off.” Once the women completed their slaughter, a few lucky laying hens remained in the pen, their job now to provide eggs for the family.
Once the headless chickens lay quiet, they received a quick ducking into a pail of boiling water to loosen the feathers. This had to be done quickly so as not to cook the skin. The job of removing the feathers generally fell to the older children in attendance. Then the birds went back to the women for removal of all those parts no one wanted to eat. Finally, each washed her bird and tossed it into an ice-water bath to cool before wrapping each for the freezer.
One of my jobs entailed cleaning gizzards; with the challenge to remove the sack inside this digestive organ without breaking it and having the grain inside contaminate the eatable part. Usually, I broke the sack, which meant considerable time spent removing unwanted skin and grit.
The other part of the chicken that I got to clean more often than not, was the neck, which if the bird in its floundering left the grass, would be imbedded with dirt. Chickens purchased in supermarkets these days rarely come with the neck attached, but the fried chicken placed on my mother’s, aunts’ and grandmother’s tables always included the neck and back with skin attached and fried crisp. Neither skin nor frying are poultry correct these days and it’s been a while since I saw a chicken with its neck attached, but I still find tasty use for a chicken’s back.
The following recipe feeds one or two depending of the size of appetite.
Chicken & Dumplings
Ingredients for the soup
1 Chicken back with skin and bone included
1 Large carrot, divided
1 Stalk of celery, divided
1 Small onion, divided
1 Clove garlic, smashed
1 Tablespoon fresh or frozen parsley (1 Teaspoon if using dried)
3 Cups water
1 Tablespoon butter or oil
Directions for soup
1. Wash and dry chicken back and place in 3-quart saucepan. Wash carrot and cut in half. Place one half in pan. Peel the second half and slice thinly, reserve.
2. Cut celery in half. Cut one half in large chunks and place in pan. Thinly slice the remaining half of the celery stalk and reserve.
3. Cut the onion in half and add one half to the pan. Chop the remaining half of the onion and reserve with carrots and celery.
4. Smash the garlic clove and add to pan along with parsley, peppercorns, water and salt to taste.
5. Bring water, chicken back and vegetables to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 1 hour. Remove chicken back and set aside to cool. Strain vegetables from stock and reserve stock. Skim off any excess fat. (At this point, the stock and chicken back can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two days.)
6. When ready make soup for dumplings, melt butter or oil in 3-quart saucepan. Add reserved vegetables and sauté until onion is transparent, 2-3 minutes.
7 Add soup stock to pan and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes or until vegetables are tender.
8. Meanwhile, remove and discard skin, bone and any gristle from the chicken back. Remove any remaining meat and chop into small, bite-sized pieces. When vegetables are finished cooking, add chicken meat to pan and return to a boil.
9. Mix dumplings using recipe below
Ingredients for dumplings
2/3 Cup Jiffy Mix
¼ Cup milk (can use fat-free or low-fat milk)
Directions for dumplings
Chef’s note: Use a pan large enough to cook the dumplings without removing the lid. It is important to leave the cover on while the dumplings are cooking to prevent them from becoming gummy in the center.
Added note: If you do not have a back, a leg or thigh works well.
The greatest fruits of summer come from the tomato vines growing in my garden. The greatest fruits of winter come from the tomato vines that grew in my garden the previous summer. This I remind myself as a sea of red begins to cover the top of the counter in my washroom. I have been eating my fill everyday: sliced tomatoes drizzled with pesto; salad greens spotted with tomato chucks; grilled tomato slices; tomato and mayo sandwiches; tomato, bacon and basil sandwiches; tomato and cucumber salad with vinaigrette. You name a tomato dish and I’ve eaten it with the exception of the “Tomato Tart” recipe that my friend Rose sent me, which I plan to try very soon. Still the pile grows, but that’s okay because the fruits covering that counter soon fill jars in the cupboard and small containers in the freezer; storage for the coming winter months.
Why both? I prefer canned tomatoes for most recipes, but there comes a time when I just grow tired of canning, not to mention running out of jars. That’s when I turn to freezing, but not whole tomatoes as my mother did. I just never cared for the watery result of those whole frozen tomatoes.
I prefer to chop the tomatoes into a pot, after a good washing and removal of any stems, bring them to a boil; skin, seeds and all. Once they begin to boil and shrink into their own juice, I allow them to simmer 10-15 minutes before putting them through a food mill to remove the seeds and skin. What you have left is a nice smooth puree that makes great soups and sauces.
I should note that I take great care when I can tomatoes to make sure I follow the rules to insure safely. I would urge anyone planning to can any type of food to check with their local Extension office for canning safety tips. There is also tons of information on the Internet. Just make sure to choose a reputable site.
Since I cook for one, I also can and freeze for one. I can tomatoes in half-pint jars and freeze in one-cup containers. If a recipe calls for more than a cup, I can always open two jars or two containers, but most of the recipes I cook for my single self take one cup so these sizes work well.
One of my favorite wintertime soups, Tomato Bisque, I first tasted one Christmas when my brother Phil and I ate dinner at a Little America restaurant in Cheyenne, Wyo. I came home determined to recreate the taste and texture of that soup. After trial and error I came up with a soup that I feel comes close.
Tomato Bisque Soup
2 Tablespoons butter, divided
¼ Cup minced onion
½ Tablespoon dry sherry (optional)
1 Cup chicken broth
1 Cup crushed or pureed tomatoes
¾ Cup milk
¼ Cup heavy cream
1 ½ Tablespoons flour
Salt and pepper to taste
Tabasco sauce to taste
Chef’s Note: My friend Rose substituted olive oil for the butter and non-fat condensed milk for the cream for a healthier version. I prefer my version, but for those of you watching fat in your diet, hers is very tasty.
On preparing to fix breakfast earlier this week, I encountered the realization that it was time for a shopping day. One of the things I’ve learned over years of cooking for one is restraint when it comes to purchasing perishable foods, which often means running out of or low on some items before its time to shop again.
This seems especially true in the summer when garden supplies fill my refrigerator and I’m even less inclined to stock up on things like lettuce. Still, one cannot live on zucchini alone, especially when the tomatoes begin to ripen at an exaggerated pace. The good thing is tomatoes can be easily and safely canned (if you take the appropriate precautions), but not before I eat my fill.
This particular morning I found myself without milk for cereal, no yogurt to eat with my fruit, and not one egg to be found in my refrigerator. What I did have were a few slices of bread, a couple of slices bacon, lots of tomatoes and an abundance of Basil.
I could have slapped a bit of peanut butter, which I consider a non-perishable item, on a toasted bread slice, but tomato does not seem a likely companion of peanut butter, at least not in my opinion. That left the bacon and tomato, but there could be no BLT without lettuce, which I seldom purchase when I have so many summer veggies to eat, and the lettuce in the garden had long before gone to seed.
Looking around, I spotted the Basil seated in a glass of water near my sink. Why not? I asked myself. Basil is green and leafy. I fried up the two slices of bacon, drained it on a paper towel, toasted two slices of bread, slathered those with mayo, sliced a nicely ripened, garden fresh tomato and cleaned and dried a hand full of Basil leaves. I layered Basil leaves on one slice of the mayo slathered toast, added the bacon and tomato slices and covered the tomato slices with more Basil leaves. I then added the second slice of toasted, mayo-slathered bread and oh la la, a Basil, Bacon and Tomato Sandwich. Yum!
The harvesting of my garden’s first eggplant this season coincided with a visit from my best friend Rose. The two seemed to fit together like sunshine and rainbows. Each vivifying the world around me: Rose with her uplifting, intelligent personality, the eggplant with its vivid purple color and strikingly subtle taste, the latter quality shared by both.
I met Rose in 1987 when she served as librarian in a neighboring community. Ever the feisty optimist, Rose attempted to bring culture to a populist grown artistically anemic. On this occasion, she organized a book signing by local author Kent Haruf following the publication of his first novel, The Tie That Binds. Haruf later garnered national recognition when Hallmark® created a made-for-television movie based on his third novel, Plainsong.
Rose and I clicked immediately. I wanted to know more about her and in the asking discovered that she published a newsletter (For you youngsters out there, think snail blog.). The newsletter’s mast, Rose’s Good Food Gazette – Recipes & Lore For Thoughtful Cooks, said it all. This delightful publication went beyond recipes to include Rose’s special lively style of food-based humor and information.
The Gazette offered an opening to feature Rose in the small weekly newspaper I published at the time. And that interview gave opportunity to discover even more about this small, lovely woman of huge intellect mixed with incredible common sense. The more I discovered the more I admired her and we quickly planted a growing friendship that has stood the test of time, joint sojourns and living miles apart.
I could go on and on about Rose: How she quit her job as librarian at the Denver Post to travel to Alaska, where she worked as a fish cook and completed the three necessary actions necessary to become a true Eskimo; how she endured being robbed three times while driving a taxi cab in Denver once she returned; how this city girl moved to a small rural town and, after leaving her job as librarian, lived on a hog farm and worked as a copy editor at a community newspaper. These are her stories to tell and I hope she does sometime so others can enjoy her wonderful wit and zest for living as much as I do.
As life often happens, Rose eventually moved away but lasting friendships cannot be parted. We stay in touch as much as two writers subject to selective telephone use can, and thanks to the nerds of the world who invented email.
Rose and I both love the preparing of food nearly as much as we savor the bounty of flavors so during our visits we cook, this past visit being no exception, and the eggplant became our course of choice that first night. We shared the experience of cooking and the devouring of the meal along with laughter and conversation and, of course, a glass of wine.
The tomato sauce for my version of eggplant Parmesan can be made the day before and stored in the refrigerator. You can also make extra sauce, freeze small containers and thaw in the refrigerator when ready to use. The sauce recipe below makes enough for two servings of eggplant Parmesan.
1 Tablespoon olive oil
¼ Cup grated onion, juice included
1 Medium garlic clove, grated
1 Teaspoon chopped fresh oregano or 1/3 teaspoon dried
1/2 Teaspoon sugar
2 Cups crushed tomatoes
¼ Cup chopped fresh basil
Note: You could certainly chop the onion and mince the garlic, but I like the way grated onion melts into the sauce. I use a Microplane® grater, but a box grater would work. Also note that I do not add salt to the sauce since canned tomatoes already contain salt and I later salt the eggplant slices.
Eggplant Parmesan (For one)
Olive oil for frying (Enough to generously coat the bottom of a small skillet)
1-2 Small to medium Asian eggplant or ¼-½ large classic eggplant sliced ¼ to ½ inch thick (You need enough eggplant slices for at least two layers in the bottom of a 15-ounce oval baking dish.
Salt and pepper for seasoning
Flour for dipping
¾ Cup prepared tomato sauce
1 ounce fresh Mozzarella, thinly sliced
¼-½ Cup finely shred Parmesan
Note: You can reheat and toss any leftover tomato sauce with cooked pasta. Top with grated Parmesan for a delightful pasta dish. Better yet, add some sautéed eggplant or zucchini cubes to the pasta just before you toss.
A friend told me recently that he planted a dozen zucchini plants. I tried not to gasp but failed. I plant one each summer and grow enough zucchini to feed a small community even picking them when they reach six to eight inches in length. A dozen plants, I assume, would feed the entire planet. Zucchini is the only photosynthetic, eukaryotic, multicellular organism that I know of that procreates better than a weed. This means, even with my one and only lonely plant, a steady summer diet of this somewhat bland veggie.
It does help that there are numerous ways to fix a zucchini and its nutritional value is exceptional. At just 18-20 calories per raw cup, zucchini contains zero fat, minimal sodium and carbohydrates and it is chucked full of vitamin C. Of course, like any good-for-us food, we can defeat all of that in the preparing.
The other thing about summer and food is that mostly I try to stay clear of the kitchen. When I do cook, it is usually over a grill in the backyard. Most Sundays I grill up several boneless, skinless chicken breasts and find ways over the next week to use the meat in salads or sandwiches. I also grill a few zucchini slices that have been brushed with a small amount of olive oil and seasoned with whatever strikes me that day. Sometimes simply salt and pepper, but other times I add some of the seasoning I use on my chicken breasts: a mixture of minced garlic and whatever herb happens to be in my garden, rosemary, thyme, basil. Do not over cook the zucchini slices. A couple of minutes per side is sufficient to leave them slightly crunchy. These grilled zucchini slices I eat immediately, sometimes making a meal with nothing else.
The cold, grilled chicken can be pared with halved grapes or cubed apples or both, along with sliced celery, chopped onion and/or nuts and yes, cubed zucchini, to make a wonderful, tasty and nutritious summer salad. The dressing can be a simple mixture of yogurt and mayo with a bit of ground ginger. If you want a sweeter dressing, add a small amount of honey. I usually go half and half on the yogurt and mayo, say a tablespoon of each for a small amount of salad. You can also use sour cream if you do not have yogurt. And yes, feel free to use low- or no-fat products.
I also toss chopped zucchini into my salad greens or julienne one to dip in ranch dressing for a snack. They make a great addition to your breakfast omelet as well.
If you grow tomatoes, which I do, you can sauté zucchini slices along with a tablespoon or so of chopped onions and a chopped tomato until all are tender. Add a bit of chopped, fresh basil just before serving and enjoy. Of course for this one you need to be in the kitchen for a brief period. Sometimes you do what you need to.
You might notice that I said nothing about zucchini bread. That’s because I save any bread baking for winter and the only zucchini I use in bread are those that get away from me. I am at a loss as to how this happens. I check my zucchini plant every day and think I get them all. Then, out of nowhere comes a humongous zucchini sticking out of the bottom of the plant. These I peel, grate and freeze in measured amounts for bread next winter.
Near the end of summer, when you become just too tired of zucchini to enjoy its healthy effects any longer, there is a way to add a bit of decadent to the dish. By that I mean add some sugar and spice. These pickled zucchini slices keep well in the refrigerator and go great with anything barbecued.
Pickled zucchini slices
3-4 Small to medium zucchini squash, halved and sliced
1-2 Tablespoon kosher salt
½ Cup cider vinegar
¾ Cup granulated sugar
1/8 Teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/8 Teaspoon dry mustard
1/8 Teaspoon Turmeric
1/8 Teaspoon ground black pepper
¼ Teaspoon celery seed
1. Cut each zucchini in half lengthwise then cut into ¼ to ½ inch slices. You should end up with 3-4 cups.
2. Place zucchini slices in a glass dish and sprinkle with kosher salt. Use ½ Tablespoon per cup. Toss to coat with salt, cover and place in refrigerator overnight.
3. The next morning, rinse the zucchini slices with cold water and drain well before returning to the glass dish.
4. Add remaining ingredients, vinegar, sugar and spices, to small saucepan and bring to a boil. Stir until sugar dissolves.
5. Pour hot broth over zucchini slices. Cover and refrigerate at least eight hours before serving. These will keep well in the refrigerator.
It appears, if one reads history, that home gardening gains popularity during war and/or economic hard times. Think “Victory Gardens” during both World Wars and the self-sufficiency movement during the Vietnam conflict.
Consider President Gerald Ford’s “Whip Inflation Now (WIN) campaign of the late 1970s and the current push to grow food during our current recession. Granted, today’s enticement for home gardening involves more than saving money. There is rampant obesity from eating high-fat, high-calorie fast foods, the controversial “greenhouse” effect from over production and materialism and, for some, a longing for a calmer existence; all of the which makes those of us residing in rural areas, where gardening is simply a fact of life, appreciate our traditions.
In my small Colorado town, gardening is common in many yards each summer despite our short growing season, which runs from near the end of May until late October. Moving to the High Plains with its sandy soil from the hard, clay flatlands of Kansas meant learning to garden all over again, but after nearly 27 years, I now manage to grow enough summer treats to fill my belly and store some for winter. My garden, however, is small compared to those of many of my neighbors.
The thing about gardening is that it seems a hard habit to break. Many rural residents start tossing seeds and plants into the ground while raising children. The problem is, children leave home but the gardening bug stays. Thus you have older couples like my neighbors who continue to plant huge gardens that produce much more than they can eat, especially in the greens department, which means letting them go to waste or sharing the bounty.
Luckily for me, my neighbors love sharing as much as they like growing and eating. That means a steady supply of lettuce and spinach, which makes me very happy since my small garden consists of things like zucchini, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and eggplant.
During a recent picking visit, my neighbor pointed out a leafy plant, saying this was the first time she grew Swiss Chard and did not know what to do with it. I had heard of Swiss chard, but it is not one of the vegetables our small grocery store carries. I’m nothing if not adventurous, though, when it comes to trying new foods. I offered to take some of it (big of me don’t you think) and look on the Internet for a way to fix it.
Here is where I must recommend allrecipes.com, which I think is the best Website ever for any cook, but especially the single cook. Not only is the site chucked full of recipes, but it contains a tool to recalculate recipes for smaller or larger numbers of servings.
During my search for Swiss chard I found several recipes, one of which I decided to try with a few adjustments. For instance, I substituted ham for bacon, replaced one tablespoon of butter with a tablespoon of olive oil, added sliced scallions and lowered the amount of lemon juice from three tablespoons to one. Three made the dish a bit too lemony for me, but feel free to add more lemon juice if you like. The recipe indicated two servings as a side dish, but I left the amounts the same and made it a one-skillet meal for one. Here is my version of “Pan Fried Swiss Chard” based on the one found on allrecipes.com.
Fried Swiss chard
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 4-ounce slice of cooked ham, cubed.
2-3 Scallions, sliced with some green included
1 Garlic clove, minced
1 Tablespoon butter
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
4-5 Cups Swiss chard cut into 1-inch pieces
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Heat oil in skillet over medium-high heat; add scallions and sauté until soft, 2 minutes.
2. Add ham and sauté 2-3 minutes; add garlic and sauté 1 minute longer.
3. Add butter and lemon juice. As soon as butter melts, stir in Swiss chard. Toss until leaves begin to wilt then cover and allow to steam 3-4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and serve.
Visits from family tend to invoke memories. A recent visit to this blog by my niece Joanna triggered many such memories, not the least of which involved a pea.
First a bit about Joanna with hopes that she forgives my dredging up her past. Joanna came into this world kicking. She never learned to walk, preferring instead to run as fast as she could on legs that measured, at least in my memory, approximately four inches floor to seat. She broke from her run only long enough to open each and every cupboard door she encountered. Then she would proceed to empty each cabinet of all contents making sure she missed nothing. I soon learned to store only plastic and metal objects in those cupboards within her reach.
Joanna and her sister, Julie, three years older, spent a good amount of time at our house so my husband Lawrence and I grew to love them dearly and know them well. Julie played quietly with her plastic horses, never raising a ruckus and rarely making a noise. I made constant checks to make sure she had not wandered off, but I always found her just where I left her, quietly enjoying her own little world.
Not so, Joanna. You heard her coming. You moved out-of-the-way. She rarely stopped to rest, earning her the name, “Jo Jo on the go go.” She also stood firm when it came time for a fight.
I recall one time when we visited a family friend. The friend, Virgil “Blackie” Ball, lived in a rather rough neighborhood. Blackie and I sat inside his home visiting as Julie and Joanna played outside. Suddenly we heard a commotion. We raced outside to find Julie sitting on the porch while her three-year-old sister stood at the curb, hands on hips, shouting to three much larger boys across the street. “Come over here and say that,” she shouted before picking up a rock and throwing it with all her might at the enemy.
A few years later, on Joanna’s first day of kindergarten her father, George, received a call from the school principal requesting that he come to school to talk. It seems Joanna started and finished a fight with several second grade boys who ended up in tears.
Another example of Joanna’s grit came when my Mustang mare, Sugar, spooked and took off across our back lot with Joanna hanging on for dear life. George, who had been holding her a moment before, raced to catch the horse without success. However, when the horse reached the back fence, it stopped suddenly tossing Joanna, a mere toddler, to the ground. George grabbed up the screaming Joanna and headed back to where I stood so we could check her injuries. As the two came near and I made out what she was screaming, I could only laugh. “Me want to ride the horse,” she sobbed.
What a kid, I thought as I dried her eyes and told her we would ride the horse again later.
Which brings me to the pea. After I left Kansas and moved to Wyoming, Joanna often came to visit. On one such visit, I fixed peas for dinner. The rule at me house was always that the child at least taste what was prepared. If the child did not like it; he or she would not need to eat more. Joanna quickly informed me that she did not like peas. “Try just one,” I said, and placed the one pea on her plate.
Joanna cleaned her plate, eating around the pea. She was determined ; so was I. “You are not leaving the table until you eat that pea,” I said.
I wish I could remember how this standoff ended but I cannot. I do remember Joanna seated at the table long after the rest of us left. I think, however, that the pea ended up in the trash. So, Joanna, the following recipe is for you.
Creamed peas and potatoes
1 Small Yukon Gold potato peeled (or scrubbed) and cut into 1” cubes.
Water to cover
½ Teaspoon Kosher salt
½ Cup frozen peas
3 Tablespoons dry milk granules
1 Tablespoon unsalted butter (can use olive oil if watching saturated fats)
1 Tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour
1. Place potato cubes in small saucepan, cover with water (filtered if available) and bring to boil over medium high heat. When water begins to boil, add salt, lower heat and continue cooking 7-8 minutes.
2. Add frozen peas to water with potatoes, return to boil and continue cooking 3 minutes longer.
3. Drain potatoes and peas, reserving 2/3 cup of the liquid. Remove potatoes and peas from saucepan and keep warm.
4. In saucepan, over medium heat, melt the butter then stir in flour to make a rue. Cook, stirring constantly for 1-2 minutes. Do not let the flour brown.
5. Stir powdered milk into reserved liquid and add to the rue, whisking to combine. Continue whisking and cooking until the sauce begins to boil and thicken. Remove from heat and stir in the reserved potatoes and peas. Adjust seasoning if needed before serving.
Note: This can easily be increased to serve two small appetites by using a medium to large potato and increasing the amount of peas to ¾ cup. Or, for two larger appetites, just double the recipe.
Note 2: For the single cook, powdered milk is a great substitute for fresh milk without the worry of it turning sour if you don’t use it right away. I always keep it on hand and when used for cooking find no fault with the taste. If you do not have powdered milk, you can substitute fresh milk but you miss out on some of the flavor not to mention the nutrients you get from using the cooking water.
Beyond its reputation for Mardi Gras, slavery, Civil War history, voodoo and music, New Orleans abounds with foods, especially seafood and southern fare. The dinning guide supplied in my hotel room during a recent visit entitled “New Orleans Where” listed 78 eating establishments in the French Quarter alone not to mention those listed in the Central Business/Warehouse District, 36; the Garden District/Lower Garden District, 13; Mirigny/Bywater, 9; Mataire/Kenner, 3; Mid-City, 10; and Uptown, 29.
It seems one could spend weeks, even months eating around New Orleans, but my stay called for a meager eight meals, which included three breakfasts. After spending considerable time reading about the various offerings, I decided the best plan was to play things by hunger and take my chances. I was also seeking my grandmother’s gumbo.
That first morning I stopped at the front desk to inquire about the closest breakfast place. The desk clerk directed me to an IHOP a block away on Canal Street, which is billed in the tourist information as “one of the widest avenues in the world.”
The IHOP with its well-worn interior offered the same menu as any other IHOP around the country so I settled for a simple breakfast of a pancake, egg and bacon. Taking the long way home I spotted a small hole-in-the-wall bar that bragged on a wooden tent sign, “southern style breakfast served all day.” The next day I walked the extra block only to find nearly the same IHOP menu with the exception of grits, which I’ve never been fond of, so I ordered a pancake that tasted astonishingly like northern style.
Thankfully lunches and dinners offered more adventure. On Tuesday when lunchtime hunger struck I found myself seated in the Riverfront Café, where a wonderful breeze wafted through open ceiling-to-floor windows. I ordered a spicy bowl of seafood gumbo and a mild locally brewed ale. The combination tantalized my tongue and lifted my spirits.
I spent the rest of the day wandering the streets of the French Quarter watching tourists, listening to the sounds of Zydeco and jazz as it streamed from shops filled with t-shirts, Mardi Gras masked, voodoo dolls and other souvenirs no doubt “made in China.” I purchased post cards for my friend Rose, voodoo dolls for other friends and a deck of cards for another. Along the way I found a bookstore filled with the mildew smell of damp paper and purchased two histories of the city, one serious with photos and facts, a second with fun stories about New Orleans culture and charm.
I ate dinner that night, a salad with balsamic vinaigrette over mixed baby greens and strawberries followed by grilled steak and shrimp, at a café with patio dinning. I sat mildly content enjoying the warm evening air until my entrée arrived and I my eyes locked with the beady black eyes of the shrimp, served heads attached. It took me a moment to contain my objection to this presentation before pushing aside my squeamish sensibilities. I pulled apart each shrimp, removed the tail meat, tried hard to ignore the staring eyes and found my succulent reward.
The next day I rode the Canal Street and St. Charles streetcars to each route’s end and back again. Each offered different insights into New Orleans; Canal Street impoverish and downtrodden in places and culminating with New Orleans’ famous cement “cities of the dead” (the cemetery district), St. Charles glutenous but elegant with block after block of huge mansions and thriving gardens. These mansions were built, I read, when men became rich off the labor of slaves.
For lunch, “The Gumbo Pot” offered more gumbo. I opted this time for the chicken and sausage, with another local ale. Again seated on the patio, a gust of wind whipped over an umbrella before settling into a pleasant breeze, so unlike the continuous winds that whip across Colorado’s high plains.
After more leisurely walking around the French Quarter, I went back to my hotel for a short nap before venturing out to experience New Orleans’ nightlife. Before long, I found myself seated at a table inside the “Bourbon House”, famous for its seafood. Kevin, an energetic young waiter, advised me that the Redfish on the half shell served with a portion of lump crab was the best on the menu. “Bring it on,” I instructed him.
I started the meal with pecan pesto drizzled over slices of heirloom tomatoes, which Kevin bragged the restaurant grew in its own garden. The Redfish did not disappoint, but I was stunned when I bit into my wonderful heirloom tomato and found it chilled from being refrigerated. I wanted to complain but then I remembered I was in the south. My southern grandmother refrigerated her tomatoes and taught my mother to do the same.
While my southern grandmother knew little about preserving the flavor of a warm sun-ripened tomato, she made the best gumbo I have ever experienced. I suppose I had hoped to find a gumbo of similar taste in New Orleans, but alas, it was not to be. While I enjoyed both attempts, neither passed the test. I have also tried over the years to match hers and failed. Perhaps gumbo really is a grandmother state-of-mind.
Chicken Gumbo almost like my grandmother’s
For the chicken:
Oil for frying
1 3-4 pound chicken cut into pieces
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Flour for coating
Heat the oil in cast iron skillet over medium high heat. Season chicken pieces with salt and pepper and then coat with flour. Fry chicken pieces until crisp, 5-6 minutes per side. Lay chicken on paper towel to drain off excess oil and reserve.
For the soup:
8 Tablespoons butter, divided
1 Pound fresh okra, thinly sliced (or use 2 ten-ounce packages frozen okra, defrosted)
1 Cup finely chopped onion
½ Cup finely chopped green bell pepper
1 Teaspoon minced garlic
2 Tablespoons flour
4 Cups chicken broth or stock
6 Medium ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped (or use two 14-ounce cans crushed tomatoes)
6-8 springs fresh flat-leafed parsley tied into bundle along with one large bay leaf.
½ Teaspoon dried thyme
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Pour excess grease from skillet used to fry chicken and wipe clean with paper towel. In same skillet, melt 4 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Once the foam subsides, add the okra. Stir okra constantly and cook until “roping” stops (Roping is the white treads the vegetable makes as you stir it.). Remove skillet from the heat and reserve.
In a 3-4 quart Dutch oven, melt the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. When foam subsides, add the onion and pepper. Sauté 4-5 minutes until vegetables are soft but not browned. Add the garlic and sauté one minute longer. Add flour and cook 2 minutes, stirring constantly.
Slowly whisk in chicken stock then add okra, tomatoes, herbs and seasoning. Push chicken pieces into soup until all are covered. Bring to boil, lower heat and simmer 30-40 minutes. Remove chicken pieces to a plate for serving separate from soup. Remove and discard parsley and bay leaf. Serve soup in individual bowls over rice.
Note for single cooks: Once the soup is done, you can freeze individual portions then thaw and re-heat when ready to use. Freeze, thaw and heat the rice separate.
To make seafood gumbo, make soup as directed without chicken. Just before serving, add seafood of choice (shrimp and /or oysters). If using both, add oysters first and simmer 2-3 minutes before adding shrimp. Oysters are done when they plump up and the edges begin to curl. Just before serving, add 2 teaspoons each of lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce and cayenne pepper to taste.
Americans beware. A previously unknown threat, which the Transportation Security Administration is determined to stop, now invades the skies of this great country. The danger involves the common, everyday blender found in many kitchens across the nation. Well, not the entire blender, just the threatening terrorist blade found inside the blender.
This blender-blade crisis surfaced when my granddaughter Shannon boarded an airline flight in Dallas, Texas, headed for Denver, Colorado where I retrieved her from Denver International Airport a week before Christmas.
Shannon arrived with a perturbed look on her lovely face. “I have a funny story to tell you, Grandma,” she said, as we proceeded to the baggage department.
It seems Shannon purchased a blender for her younger sister as a Christmas gift and opted to carry it on the plane rather than add to the weight of her already heavy, large suitcase, which the airline charged her $20 to cart.
At the time she checked the suitcase, she asked the agent whether she could carry on the blender, which was in its original, unsealed box. The agent told her, “no problem,”
However, when she reached security, a TSA employee told her he needed to inspect the blender, which he promptly did by opening the previously unopened box. He then removed the blender blade and informed her that she could not carry it on the plane.
“What am I going to do with it?” She asked, incredulous at this new development.
The TSA agent wrapped the deadly device, put it in a box nearly large enough to hold the entire blender and told her to take it back to baggage, where the baggage agent promptly charged her $30 for a second piece of checked luggage.
Reaching the baggage carousal after she landed, we retrieved Shannon’s large suitcase and patiently waited for the box containing the blender blade. Luggage appeared and thinned as other passengers retrieved suitcases, but no box. We waited. We waited.
Hell, I thought, they lost the darn box. Sure enough, the last of the luggage from the flight made its way to the carousal but the box failed to show.
Long story short, the airline paid for a new blender and we left the blender blade floating somewhere in baggage claim continuing its threat to the safety of all Americans.
I am not sure how Shannon’s sister Sierra plans to use her new blender, but my less dangerous blender works well for making fruit smoothies. Here is one how-to.
When my local market puts overripe bananas on sale I purchase several large bunches along with several bags of frozen berries. Bananas sweeten as they ripen, so the riper the better as long as they are not rotten. It does not matter what kind of berries: mixed, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries or blueberries; pick what you like.
I peel the bananas, slice them onto a parchment-paper lined cookie sheet and place the slices in the freezer to harden. This takes about an hour. Once the slices harden, I place 1/2 cup of banana slices along with 1/2 cup of berries in a sandwich bag. Remove as much air as possible and place the small bags of fruit inside a larger freezer bag (gallon size works well) and keep in the freezer until ready to use.
When I want a smoothie, I remove one bag of fruit and place it in the blender along with a cup of non-fat milk and blend. You can use whole milk or low-fat milk or even soymilk if you like. All work well. You get a wonderful sweet treat with no threat to your health.