My mother, although multi-talented, had an aversion to the kitchen and has often said that I learned to cook at an early age “out of self-defense.” When she made chicken à l'orange by smearing a chicken with powdered Tang, I quickly developed a necessary passion for creating tasty things to eat. Somewhere in the family photograph album is a picture of me at the stove, age ten, happily stirring marinara sauce.

I developed a lifelong fascination with food; good food. There was even a foray of working as a chef’s assistant at a French restaurant during my mid twenties, just for fun. I had always loved watching Julia Child and knew that Mastering the Art of French Cooking was to be revered. It wasn’t until I read her biography (long before the Julie & Julia movie) that I really became fascinated with her work. From that book, I decided to prepare her recipe for mayonnaise.

Upon tasting it, I wept. . . .

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Sunday, November 28, 2010

British Cuisine

About three thousand years ago, a young shepherd in France named Jacques-Francois was tending his sheep when one of the lambs wandered from the flock and into a cave. Not wanting to lose the lost lamb, Jacques-Francois followed the lamb into the cave and promptly got lost.

All he had with him was a leather satchel full of sheep's milk. After some effort, he was finally able to make his way out of the cave but left the satchel full of sheep's milk in the cave. About two months later, he returned to find the satchel filled with a tangy, wonderfully marbled Roquefort cheese.

It was delicious and French cuisine was born.

Meanwhile, a shepherd in England named Clive was tending his sheep among the green, misty hills of Cambridgeshire when one of them wandered into a cave as well. (The only difference was that Clive's leather satchel was filled with cow's milk.) About two months later, Clive returned to find the satchel filled with a delectable, tangy, beautifully marbled Stilton cheese.

He threw the cheese out, boiled the leather satchel for three hours and ate it.

British cuisine was born. 

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Dixie Dressing

Probably no other holiday invokes family food traditions more than Thanksgiving Day. Having been raised in The South, I can certainly attest that we had ours. One of the most unique and appealing recipes came from my paternal grandmother in Texas who would make a cornbread dressing chocked with jalapeños, ground sausage, extra spices and lots of green onions -- definitely the epitome of a Texan food item.

Here's a photo of my grandmother with her brood: (I'm on the right.)

For years, I thought this recipe came from my Aunt Dixie since we would often have Thanksgiving dinner at her house. It was only a few years ago that I learned that it was actually my grandmother's recipe. I've often referred to it as "Dixie Dressing" and since it hails from The South, I see little need to change the name.

I've made this creation for folks near and wide, from New York to Chicago to Toronto (where, incidentally, Thanksgiving is observed on the third Monday in October) and everyone really seems to love it.

Like a lot of cooks, I've never really followed a recipe for this. I doubt that my grandmother ever had one written down either. A couple of friends recently asked for a recipe, so as I was making it last night I immortalized my grandmother's creation.

This recipe will probably yield about twenty servings:


I like this recipe for cornbread as it doesn't contain any flour, yielding a really "corny" tasting cornbread. Make it the day before if you like.

4 cups yellow cornmeal
4 cups buttermilk
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp salt
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil

Mix all ingredients together, pour into a greased cast iron skillet and bake at 425 for 25-30 minutes. 


1 recipe of cornbread, crumbled
8 slices white bread, cut into 1/2 inch cubes, toasted
2 lbs Jimmy Dean ground sausage (use the hot variety if you really want an extra kick.)
4 cups chopped green onions, (including all the green part)
2 cups chopped celery
1 cup chopped parsley
1/2 stick butter

Brown the sausage, add it to the cornbread and bread. Saute the vegetables (except the parsley) in butter and add all the vegetables to the mixture.
Then add:

3 Tbs ground sage
1 Tbs dried thyme
1 tsp ground bay leaves
(or: 4 Tbs poultry seasoning)

5-6 cups low-sodium chicken stock

1 1/2 cups (12 oz jar) diced pickled jalapeños

Mix everything together in the large pan that you'll bake it in. (I like to don latex gloves and really get in there with my hands.) You should end up with a pretty moist mixture.

Note: You might want to add only 1 cup of diced jalapeños at first, taste it and add more if you want more of a punch. Keep in mind that the heat of the jalapeños and the taste of the spices will increase when you bake it. If you're making it for Texans, tump in the whole jar.
For New Yorkers, try half the amount. You don't want to hear any kvetching.
For Canadians, it really doesn't matter; they're too polite to express an opinion either way. 

Cover with foil, bake at 375 for 30 minutes, uncover and bake for another 30 minutes.

This year, I was asked to make it gluten-free. Since the cornbread doesn't contain any flour, all I had to do was use gluten-free bread. I found some bread made with brown rice flour. It worked fine.

This dressing is really rich and tasty. Don't be alarmed if it appears a little, well -- greasy.
We like it that way in the Land of Dixie.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Green Smoothies

While recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking might not be the healthiest things to eat on a consistent basis, here's a healthy way to balance it all out.

Green Smoothies. It's the newest thing on the food scene. Just google it and you'll see what I mean.

They say we're supposed to be eating a lot more fresh fruits and veggies these days. We used to have to eat five servings per day, but that's been bumped up to seven-to-nine now. Our modern, mass-produced, hormone-inflated, genetically modified produce basically has the nutritional value of sawdust compared to fifty years ago.

So, green smoothies are a great way to get your green veggies and fruit into you. Trust me. They're great.

Start with some tart, fleshy fruit. I keep frozen mango on hand, but pineapple, oranges, peaches, bananas or a combination of them all will also do.

I don't like apples or pears in smoothies for they seem to produce mealy, pulpy smoothies.

Now add your greens. Here, we've got fresh spinach, collard greens and parsley.

I know that sounds strange, but trust me, the tart fleshy fruit takes away any "greenness" of the raw greens, even the bitter ones. No matter what greens I use, I always add fresh parsley, stems and all. They really make for a tasty smoothie. Believe it or not, cilantro & grapefruit is also one of my favorites.

I also add a knob of ginger and some lemon juice to give it a "ping".

Add some water (or fruit juice) and blend it up.

If you're blender isn't a heavy-duty, powerful monster like mine, be sure to blend it a good long time. The longer you blend it, the smoother it will be.

There you go. You'll be surprised how good it tastes.

Drink two of these a day and you'll be way ahead of the fruit and vegetable requirement. Not to mention that you'll feel a lot better and it'll curb your appetite throughout the day.

And when it comes time for Boeuf Bourguignon, you can enjoy it guilt free.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Butter and Budgie

"Food should be cooked with lots of love and lots of butter."

My grandmother, "Budgie", had those words hanging in black wrought-iron on the wall of her kitchen for as long as I remember.

From age 10 to 18, I was raised by my mom and Budgie. 

A more loving, extroverted, exceedingly happy woman would be hard to find. She was a frantic, joyous, Edith Bunker-Hazel-Ellen Degeneres being all rolled in one spastic whirlwind of exuberant overwhelming LOVE whenever you met her.

Budgie was THE most appealing person you'd have ever met.

Needless to say, such a lover of everyone could hardly spend any time in the kitchen. As a wee lad, I can still see her plopping a pot on the stove and then scurrying out to enjoy any guests; to revel in anyone who might happen by.

The quality or quantity of food seldom mattered as far as Budgie was concerned. If there was company, there was enough to feed them. It was the company that mattered; not the stuff in the kitchen.  Anyway, everyone loved her and any experience to "be with Budgie" was in-and-of-itself what any meal at her house was all about.

I never recall any meal being served in dishes on Budgie's table and passed around.
No. Never.

Whether there were two or two-dozen guests, everyone filled their plates from pots and pans from the stove. Never, EVER was a meal served from anything than the kitchen stove, from the pot or pan from it was prepared. We'd never have a Sunday dinner without several guests, but everyone would have to file into the kitchen, scoop out the pot roast, potatoes and carrots from that speckled navy-blue roasting pan on the stove and then scoop out some mac-n-cheese and then some gravy from the pot laying beside it to spoon over white bread.

Every Sunday before church, I'd hear her searing a big chuck roast. She'd have it in the oven, surrounded by potatoes, carrots and onions, and whisk us all off to Sunday School (She had been the Sunday School teacher at the local Baptist church since 1945 - - none of her children or grandchildren had ever NOT attended Budgie's Sunday School classes!)

Back then, a Baptist preacher gave a good-ol' 45-minute sermon. I remember when we got a new, young preacher who liked to give shorter sermons. This was back in 1972 or so. Budgie invited him and his family over for Sunday dinner. She told him, "Now, Brother Thornton, I have my roast timed for your sermon. If you preach too long, you're gonna get a burnt offering. If you don't preach long enough, there might be a blood sacrifice!"

Then she just laughed and gave him a big hug.

To this day, I prefer to serve a meal buffet style or to plate everything up in the kitchen. To place an entree and sides in serving dishes to be passed around -- well -- that just seems to be so inefficient.

I still recall all the Thanksgiving meals and of every Sunday dinner with everyone traipsing through the kitchen past the aqua Formica counter tops and serving themselves from the stove.

It never mattered to anyone, I guess.

And I never knew what butter was until I was 25 years old. 

Budgie was always there, chirping, laughing, hugging and making everyone feel like they were the most loved person on this earth. She really had that innate ability to instantly make you feel as though you were the most appreciated and loved being in the whole wide world. Her love toward you was always genuine; the moment you'd walk in her door, she'd let out a little shriek of delight, run up and hug you, "Oh, Baeebeee!"

She had lots of "sayings". One of her favorites was, "If you ain't lovin', you ain't livin'!"
And then she'd laugh and say, "Now, that's from the 1st Book of Budgie!"

To this day, just about everyone in my home town will probably give you a first-hand account about how much Budgie loved them.

Budgie passed away, quietly, at the age of 91 in 2002.

I was SO extremely fortunate to have her as a primary caregiver since the age of ten. Budgie was always my best friend; she was my soul mate. She and I loved writing letters to each other ever since I was a child. We continued this practice well into my adulthood and into her old age. I've saved all her letters and she, apparently, save quite a few of mine.

I have 865 of her letters dating to 1981.
They're an incredible treasure of wit, love, and wisdom.

Oh, and I was 25 years old when I first tasted butter. I do not once remember Budgie ever using butter. Not once. "Oleo" was much less expensive. Margarine could serve more people and that what was important.

I never obtained any "grandmothery" recipes from Budgie. The woman spent as little time in the kitchen as possible. The minute she'd put something on the stove, she'd scurry out to the front door to greet a guest or to grab the phone for a 2-hour chat with one of her best friends (Louise, Bess, Clint, or Claire) There was the occasional root-beer float and then she'd whisk my brother and me away to wade in a creek or pick wild blackberries.

Recipes handed down from my Budgie?
Never.None at all.
Same goes for her two daughters, my mom and aunt.

She had that wrought-iron plaque in her kitchen saying  
"Food should be cooked with lots of love and lots of butter."

Budgie never, ever used butter that I can recall.

She made up for it with lots and lots of pure, unfettered love.

More than you can imagine,.
An over-abundance.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Yes, I have actually tried "balut" -- that infamous, popular food item in the Philippines in which a halfway developed duck egg is cooked and eaten.

I've always been very interested in trying all kinds of strange food items. So, one day I was presented with a balut egg and actually took the opportunity to try it.

Here is the cooked, peeled balut egg.

Strangely enough, it smells a lot like freshly boiled crab.

Here, you can see the yolk and the white:

After separating the yolk part from the white, one comes across some of the "meaty" part of the egg.

And then, there's the partially-formed baby duck thing.
And yes, I tried a bite of it. Actually, it's not as horrible as you'd think. It tastes like a very rich egg mixed with chicken liver.

I don't particularly care for chicken livers at all, so I only ate one little nibble of it. However, I can see how this would be a very nutritious food item.

I wonder if Julia Child ever tried it? Balut a l'Orange?

I don't think so. . .

Monday, November 1, 2010

Scampi Fra Diavolo

Not feeling up to a full-fledged Julia entree and also wanting something really tasty without involving a heavy cream sauce, Scampi Fra Diavolo truly fit the bill.

Italian isn't one of my languages, but I think it means something like The Devil's Brother's Shrimp. It's a light, full-flavored pasta recipe and, quite frankly, would probably be a big hit at  - -  ahem - - The Olive Garden. The "devil" part obviously comes from the hit of red pepper in the recipe.

I searched through a number of recipes for this dish and combined what I thought would work best. Some recipes called for just a whisper of red pepper (well, that's no fun) while Emeril LaGasse's called for an overblown, theatrical Bam! of the stuff.

One recipe didn't have much in the way of tomato sauce, others had little fresh herbage.
Julia never published this recipe but that didn't stop me from employing what I've learned from her. I used her technique of reducing the white wine, then reducing the diced tomatoes to concentrate the flavors, and adding the shrimp at the very last minute. French techniques to make an Italian dish -- why not?

Here's my recipe:
  • 1 pound large raw shrimp, peeled, deveined
  • 1 teaspoon salt, plus additional as needed
  • 2 teaspoons dried crushed red pepper flakes
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil, plus 1 to 2 tablespoons
  • 1 medium onion, sliced
  • 1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes
  • 1 cup white wine (I like Sauvignon Blanc for cooking)
  • 3 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
Saute the chopped onion in olive oil until soft, add the garlic and red pepper and sauté for 30 seconds. Add the white wine and simmer on high heat until reduced to a thick consistency. Add the diced tomatoes, salt and reduce until thickened. Reduce heat, add the shrimp and simmer until the shrimp are barely done. Stir in the basil and parsley just before serving. Serve over thin spaghetti and drizzle each serving with olive oil.