Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Notes from the Book Signing Road...'Bama Beauties

Alabama is a large and beautiful state. One literally rolls into it traveling west from Atlanta on I-20 into that state's largest city, Birmingham. A former mill town, it's embraced with rounded mounds of mountains and leafy, green trees. Downtown sparkles with Frank Stitt's culinary wizardry at three restaurants, the mainstay being Highlands Cafe and Grill. There we supped on unforgettable fresh figs wrapped with thick slabs of smoked prosciutto nestled on savory beds of lightly mounted cream peppered with lemon zest and fresh mint. Also on the menu, succulent roasted peanut soup and a vegetable plate of garden fresh creamed corn, fried okra and eggplant gratin - all of which were heavenly testament both to Stitt's skill and the sweet bounty of Alabama's farmlands.

Fortified from the feast and time well-spent with good friends, the following day we set off for Tuscumbia, birthplace of Helen Keller and the virtual birthplace of Southern rock in neighboring Muscle Shoals.

A small town, I didn't anticipate such a large and animated market, but that's exactly what I found at the Spring Park Farmer's Market. Situated at the edges of a large, leafy park, its personality is reinforced by a carousel and the choo choo sounds of a little red train that runs through it.

Huge watermelons, bountiful tomatoes, ear-upon-ear of corn and bushel- upon-bushel of peaches weighed down tables. Quickly and eagerly, the large afternoon crowd of hungry locals lightened the tables' respective loads, as they filled their canvas bags with the goods. The town's mayor and his wife were there and it seemed everyone knew everyone. This market, unified by the able hands and ample spirit of farmers market manager Sherry Campbell, personifies the community spirit that makes shopping at farmers markets so much fun. It didn't hurt that nearly everyone wanted a book and that they loved the okra and tomato soup demo/tasting of the recipe featured in it. Many kindnesses were extended by all, including Debbie Malone, manager of fabulous Cold Water Books in beautiful downtown Tuscumbia, making it feel like a sweet home, indeed.

A hundred miles of picturesque farmland away, awaited Huntsville, home of NASA and the place of my notably less (than Helen, anyway)celebrated birth. The small and nascent Bridge Street Town Center Farmers Market hugs the edges of a gorgeous, upscale shopping center and community about 10 miles west of downtown Huntsville. Though it features just a handful of vendors, it rocks with the pulse of live, beautifully played music by a local vocalist and weekly cooking demonstrations. On this day, it was ratatouille and the mood was light. The farmer vendors next to my signing booth had also been at the Tuscumbia market and offered me all kinds of goodness, including a long, tall glass of cold lemonade and beautiful Tuscumbia tomatoes. As in Tuscumbia, the crowd was proud, friendly and so happy to be at their market. Many came by to visit and buy books.

The long trip home to Charleston was infused with feel-good memories of sweet home Alabama. The very next day, I had that anticipated tomato sandwich prepared with those sweet Tuscumbia babies. There couldn't be a more succulent way to close this delicious chapter from the Alabama book.

Spring Park Farmer's Market
Spring Park
Tuscumbia, AL
Thursday, 4 p.m.-7 p.m.

Bridge Street Town Center Farmers Market
Bridge Street Town Center
Huntsville, AL
Saturday, 9 a.m. - 1 p.m.

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Culinary Cost-Cutting 101

Coupon Crazy

When I was a little girl, I marveled while watching my Great Aunt Frances sitting at her linoleum-topped kitchen table, cutting coupons from the daily newspaper in the tiny Kansas town she lived in until she was nearly 100 years old.

It seemed like such a waste of energy in order to save a few pennies on, what I thought, were probably things she wouldn't normally buy anyway. But, I was naive. She, a thrifty survivor of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, had her coupon system down pat and it's probably one of the reasons she made it through a long life of hard times, many of them spent alone.

The latest bout of monetary unpleasantness, however, has created a market for New Age couponing systems. The internet now has a number of hot coupon sites (I like which provide free, brand-name coupons and more if you select to register as a member. They're just a click, a printer, and five minutes away. In addition, many grocery stores' websites offer lists of daily specials. And, here's the kicker. Many provide selections from the kind of items you usually purchase, anyway. That was it for me. The last straw supporting my long-standing anti-coupon mindset finally broke its resistant back.

Harris Teeter's online specials shopping list became this list-hater's new best friend. I dipped into it with reckless abandon. With a little practice and increasing knowledge, I'm slowly forming my own semi-profitable coupon system. By combining the free manufacturer's coupons from sites like with a daily special shopping list constructed from Harris Teeter's web site ( , my handy VIC card, and an extra dose of concentration at the grocery store, I have scored some serious savings.

The best yet happened last week. Granted, it was a big sales day at the downtown Teeter. The store was offering buy one get one, two or even three, all over the place on big ticket items like beef, coffee and wine. Since I'm expecting company in a couple weeks, I decided to stock up on these and other staples. The net result was a whopping $67 total savings. In essence, I bought three weeks-worth of groceries for less than I usually spend in one week!

My heart raced with anticipation as I watched the basket cave with the weight of my cache and the numbers creeping slowly higher on the cash register. Then, as the cashier started calculating in the selected coupons, the numbers amazingly started going down. It was like getting on the scale after a week of gorging Haagen-Dazs only to find you'd lost five pounds. I was beaming. She was beaming and said, "You did good today!"

Admittedly, a follow-up trip to replenish the fresh vegetable drawer just one week later only yielded $10 in savings, but next time I'll do better. I'm on a coupon-crazed mission. Intelligent use of coupons and smart shopping add up to saving a lot more than pennies. And, I'm not in Kansas anymore.

One Plucky Chicken, Four Marvelous Meals

With grocery costs rocketing to the stratosphere, it’s imperative to save wherever you can at the supermarket without eliminating taste. In addition to reaching for reduced daily specials, what you buy and how you put it to use in your kitchen can happily translate to huge savings with bodacious bite.

In this era of grocery gouging, chicken can become your new best friend for just pennies per four ounce serving when paired with practical pantry staples like pasta and veggies. Low in fat, high in protein and exceptionally versatile, chicken marries equally well with the exotic (think truffles or saffron) to the humble (think roasted potatoes and rosemary).

For these reasons, it’s a regular menu guest at my house, where I pride myself on transforming a single, four pound chicken (preferably organic and purchased at a reduced rate) into four fabulous feasts for a group of four. That’s sixteen meals, folks! A four pound chicken runs anywhere from $6-$10 (depending on where and how you shop), throw in a little change for ingredients to flesh it out into a meal (4X), and you’re looking at less than $20. A night out for a family of four at any fast food favorite will set you back the same amount or more faster than you can say “heart attack”.

Gotcha? Let me tell you how it’s done!

Meal #1: This is the launching pad for the meal plan event(s) – a whole roasted chicken. Since it’s going to be transformed several times, keep the seasoning simple – ground pepper, a nice crust of coarse salt and a rub down with olive oil. Roast at 425 until done (about 20 minutes per pound) and top it with a few love pats of butter to sink deeply into the bird. Allow the roasted chicken to rest and re-absorb its juices. Cut the both legs and thighs away from the chicken (reserving warm). Cut the breasts away from the rib cage, cool and store in your refrigerator for later use. Serve both legs and both thighs with steamed vegetables and roasted potatoes for a satisfying, nutritional meal. Go ahead and prepare a pan gravy with a little roux, white wine, chicken stock, Dijon mustard and fresh tarragon to dress things up, but hold on to the carcass!

Meal #2: Start this after the roast chicken dinner to prepare for tomorrow’s old-fashioned and DELICIOUS chicken noodle soup. With a sturdy chef’s knife, cut up the reserved carcass remnants – the rib cage and spine – into four or five coarse chunks and put them in a two quart soup pot with a quartered onion, carrot, celery stalk and a clove or two of garlic to make an impromptu stock. Add a few peppercorns, a bay leaf and fresh thyme for added flavor. Bring it up to a boil, reduce to a slow simmer over low heat and forget about it for three to four hours. Allow to cool and refrigerate, covered, overnight.
About thirty minutes before you’re slotted to serve dinner, skim off any accumulated fat off the top of the stock, strain it, discarding all solids except any bits of chicken flesh. Finely chop an onion, carrot and celery stalk and sauté them in the same pot with a tablespoon of olive oil until softened. Season, return the strained stock to the pan and bring up to a boil. Add reserved chicken and about ¼ pound of dried pasta (flat noodles, spaghetti, linguini – your choice) and cook until tender. Serve with a drizzle of fresh herbs (parsley, tarragon, or thyme will do) and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. A small, fresh salad and warm baguette make this a meal.

Meal #3: Chicken Salad Deluxe! This is where you can really have fun with chicken’s flavor/texture marriage versatility. Cut one of the reserved breasts into chunky, ½” cubes and toss in a bowl with coarsely chopped dried cranberries (or another dried fruit like figs or currants), coarsely chopped roasted almonds, fresh herbs, a dollop of Dijon, a dash of mayo and vinegar, salt and pepper and you’ve got a meal in minutes over a bed of greens. Other flavors that work in tandem with chicken include curry, paprika, cinnamon and almost any fresh herb imaginable. Make this your own!

Meal #4: Chicken Sandwiches Supreme! Again, versatility and imagination set the stage for show-stopping chicken sandwiches prepared with freshly roasted chicken breast. Go for the best quality bread you can find, from baguette to whole grain, and fill it with thinly cut slices of the remaining breast and toppings. One sliced breast will handily complete four sandwiches. Zip up mayo with fresh basil and Dijon mustard for a fresh, personalized sauce, top with a slice of red onion and crisp romaine. Go whole hog and add a few pieces of browned bacon and a slice of avocado if the mood moves.

Chicken never tasted so good for so little.