Friday, October 22, 2010

Trial and Failure

One of the skills I truly own and accept is an ability to usually get a recipe idea right at the first pass. It saves time and it saves money. In short, it's very handy. The concept is there lurking in my tart-addled head, I work on it, and with a little tweaking here and there, it's a definite go.

Yesterday, with just five tart recipes to create before my self-imposed Nov. 1 deadline for Southern Tart Reform, I hit a recipe development road block of the highest order. Not one, but two, of my recipes were not on track. The first, Eggplant Tartlets with Goat Cheese Tapenade, I was able to rescue with a little bit of work, but the other, for the first time I can recall in over a decade, ended up in my trash can.

It seemed innocuous enough. The idea was to pair roasted cauliflower florets and sauteed bacon together in a light bechamel with a little cheddar and scallions thrown in for good measure and encase it all in a little fried pie pocket. I really thought it would work and kept thinking of it as a little quiche in a pocket, minus the eggs.

Well, it didn't work, in a big, bad way. At first, the problem was I made the bechamel with buttermilk. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but forgetting its acidity, I added super pungent, grated aged cheddar cheese to the mix. The result was heinous. So, I kept adding stuff to it. First curry, then more pepper, then sherry, then honey, then a ton of black pepper. It was still heinous, except more heinous than ever. It clung to my tongue like unthinkable nastiness. The whole scenario reminded me of my mother's home haircuts when I was a kid - with bangs. She'd start off OK, but then angle off in the wrong direction (especially with my bangs) and keep cutting more and more and more, until I looked like some kind of moulting mutant with an evil step-sister and a bad pair of scissors.

Back to the recipe, finally, in a desperate desire for salvation, I added the prepped cauliflower and bacon, hoping it would muffle the bad taste. It didn't. Hmmm. What to do? I decided to give it a night to think it over, thinking maybe I could sift the solids out of the goopey sauce and start over in the morning. Well, I tossed it all this morning and started all over. I stuck with the basics this time - milk, bacon fat, flour, salt and pepper and big chunks of Edam added into the cold bechamel before stuffing the pies. The result was heavenly (see above).

I guess it helps every cook to stay humble and to remember that mistakes happen. Most importantly, the toughest lesson of all: Less is almost always more. Unless, maybe, it's your hair.

Happy cooking!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

On the Town with Herb and Hen

Herb and Hen are my parents. Herb is my father's real name (short for Herbert Nicholas) and Hen is my mother's nickname. She acquired it at some point along the long journey of raising her four children and it is an allusion to the whole "mother hen" thing. Her real name is Margaret. It strikes me with no small irony that they both have "food" names, especially since they, like me, love great food and have little patience for or interest in bad food.

That's probably a big part of the reason they come to visit me twice a year here in the great food town that is Charleston on their seasonal treks to and from their dual homes in Kansas City and Naples, FL. They've been doing that for the decade I've lived here. It's hard for me to believe that Herb is now 77, Hen is now 75, and I'm now 45. Maybe it's the passage of time, maybe it's the irrepressible knock of mortality on our collective consciousness' door, or maybe it's just the growing pool of wisdom that comes with time, but each time they come, we seem to have more fun, learn more, and eat more. And, perhaps most importantly, try and be more patient and kind, as hard as that can oddly be with those you love most.

They just left here yesterday after a four-day whirlwind of "Doin' The Charleston" which, for us, meant long walks, big breakfasts (at home) and an indulgent round of restaurant dining. The hardest part was, like always, selecting where to go. Hen has her favorites (Magnolia and Hominy Grill) and is loathe to depart from the tried and true, despite my desperate urgings to try something new. Herb is a bit more adventurous, but embraces Charleston Grill as his long-standing "night out" restaurant. So, all of these (save Hominy Grill due to schedule logistic issues) made our list, and we threw Al di La into the mix, for good, Italian measure.

After a long morning walk, Magnolia was the first gustatory target on day one. Hen loves the linens and lovely look of the place; we all love it for its consistently delicious Southern flared food. The fried chicken, mashed potatoes, pepper biscuits, pan gravy and super fabulous collards was my selection. Herb and Hen were decidedly more restrained in their respective ahi ahi and flounder dishes. All was amazing and we were left pondering the amazing legacy Executive Chef Donald Barickman has left upon this town. His touch is everywhere and still graces the goodness at Magnolia.

Al di La's panini (especially the mozzarella, arugula and prosciutto variety), steaming creamy tomato soup, and shepherd's salad, all served with $7 off on all bottles of wine on a quiet Tuesday were the tasty precursors to the final coup de grace that lurked later that evening at Charleston Grill.

Is there a more beautiful dining room in all of Charleston? If so, I can only think of a few that come close. The deep, mahogany colored walls, multiple enclaves for Jonathon Green's artwork, and creamy upholstery all scream subtle sophistication in a decidedly Southern dialect. Mickey Bakst and his service staff make you feel like you're sailing first class on The Titanic. Not a single need goes unnoticed. And then, there is Michelle Weaver. Maybe one of the most behind-the-scenes, and publicly under-regaled chefs in town, Michelle does indeed weave magic. Her new tasting menu and recent additions to the standing menu - most notably the foie gras with a mascarpone cream nestled on sauteed apples and served with fryer-hot beignets - is worth a trip alone. The heirloom tomato salad (pictured above) burst with farm-fresh flavor and texture in Hen's mouth, while Hen and Herb both savored Charleston Grill's show-stopping crab cakes. All breads were warm and fresh from the oven, but the flavor that is not to be missed is the almost cake-like cornbread muffins, that sparkle with little golden gems of fresh corn.

Watch out, world! Charleston just keeps on getting better and consistently sets the most joyful stage imaginable for my familial visits. Thank you, thank you for all of you out there who make it happen! We all were walking with a heavier step and lighter hearts by the time Herb and Hen pulled out of the train station early yesterday morning. And, we'll savor all the memories forever. That's the greatest gift of all.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Fun with Pastry and Helene

Today I had the pleasure of visiting and shooting in Helene DuJardin's light-filled studio. We shot pictures of prepping, rolling and forming pie crust for the upcoming, drum roll please, Fall 2011 release of Southern Tart Reform. Those are my flour-dusted hands! Helene, the photographer and stylist for the book, is amazing. I loved chatting with her about the absolute uselessness of crazy kitchen gadgets and the purity of home-made pastry.

Tart, tarting away. Thank you, Helene.

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.