Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Hunger Pangs

My phone rang around 10 tonight. I would've put money on it that it was my mom. Nine out of ten times if my phone rings after 10 pm it's my mom, which is noteworthy mainly because she's three hours ahead of me. She's never been much for sleep. You'll often hear her say things like "I'm too busy to sleep" or "I'll rest when I'm dead." My father on the other hand is all about sleeping. He goes to bed early, sleeps late and loves to take a nice long "retirement nap" each day. I somehow inherited both of their sleeping genes. I can function at a very high level on remarkably little sleep, but would also love to take a nap each day (which in my book is not a 15 minute cat nap like some people claim to take and feel entirely refreshed after but rather something along the lines of a few hours). Anyway, my mom was up packing. They're driving from Beaufort, SC to Tampa tomorrow to celebrate my brother's 40th birthday. It made me feel a little homesick and also a little left out. Despite the fact that I love living in Santa Barbara, if I had super powers I would squish the US so that Santa Barbara was no more than a 5-hour drive from any of my relatives. 

My mom always makes such an effort to make your birthday special. And that usually means celebrating it together. I know for some people the best birthday present your parents could give you would be to not visit, but not me. And when they can't be there physically, they always call and leave the absolutely worst rendition of "Happy Birthday" you've ever heard on your answering machine. Singing talent definitely does not run in the family but it ranks very high on the entertainment and endearment scale (think American Idol flunky William Hung's "She Bangs").

I had the amazing opportunity to spend my birthday this year in Vietnam while on a two-week vacation with my parents. We chose Vietnam because my father had served there two tours and said it was one of the most beautiful countries he'd ever visited--the place and the people--and always wanted to return. My mom made arrangements for us to stay in Paradise, and it is not a birthday that I'll forgot anytime soon. In fact, I think my family should start a new tradition where we celebrate all our birthdays there each year. I promise you'd never tire of it. How could eating cake and drinking champagne at 5 o'clock everyday while you watch the sunset over the water ever get old? 

I started thinking about how they might celebrate my brother's milestone and it basically just made me hungry. Since most of our gatherings revolve around food, I thought of all the dishes my brother would request to commemorate the occasion: oyster stew, chicken and dumplings, fried oysters, Dad's steak, Monk's biscuits . . . . Since I can't be there in person, I've decided to bake my own birthday dish for my brother and eat it in his honor. I think he would really like this. 

Shrimp and Grits

Recipe by Martha Nesbit for Food Network 

4 cups water
Salt and pepper
1 cup stone-ground grits
3 Tbsp butter
2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1 lb shrimp, peeled and deveined
6 slices bacon, chopped
2 Tbsp chopped parsley
1 cup thinly sliced scallions
1 large clove garlic, minced

Bring water to a boil. Add grits and cook until water is absorbed, about 20-25 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in butter and cheese. Add salt and pepper to taste. Rinse shrimp and pat dry. Fry the bacon in a large skillet until browned; drain well. Add shrimp to the skillet with bacon grease. Cook until shrimp turn pink (about 3 minutes). Add lemon juice, chopped bacon, parsley, scallions and garlic. Saute for a few minutes until heated. Spoon grits into serving bowl and top with shrimp. Serve immediately. Yields 4 servings. 

Monday, March 30, 2009

Much Ado about Reading

I like Lucinda William's music but was surprised to see an article about her in the latest issue of Garden and Gun. I know, only in the South would you find a magazine with "gun" in the title but you should give it a chance. It's honestly a beautiful magazine with well-written, interesting articles and stunning photography. It's one of the few magazines that I read every single article and I always come away fascinated and even a little bit in awe. Anyway, back to my surprise. I wondered why there was an article on her in this magazine. Was Lucinda Southern? 

As it turns out, Lucinda is very Southern. She hails from Louisiana and has an incredible family history that I think people would enjoy knowing about. Firstly, her father Miller Williams is an award-winning poet and was Clinton's inaugural poet in 1997. When you think about it now, it seems rather appropriate that one of our best American songwriters sprung from the seed of a highly respected American poet. Occasionally, they meet on stage and trade songs and poems for those who come to listen and enjoy. Secondly, Miller shared a drink with another Williams, the amazing Hank Williams, one night in Louisiana after a concert where Hank told Miller that he had a "beer-drinking soul" (and afterwards Miller decided to give up drinking scotch). Hank died just a few weeks later. Thirdly, one of Miller's dear friends was the great Southern writer Flannery O'Conner, and Lucinda would go and play at her house as a little girl and chase after her peacocks. Ms. O'Connor would become one of Lucinda's heros when she finally discovered her writings at the age of 16 and aspired to write songs like Ms. O'Connor wrote short stories. Lucinda commented, "Flannery O'Connor's writing and Hank William's music explain everything you need to know about me as an artist." I finished the article and, as I stated previously, was a little bit in awe. 

In the same issue, there was a sidebar about a new biography on Flannery O'Connor that has just been published. Ms. O'Connor is considered one of America's greatest fiction writers and certainly one of the best Southern writers (although she would cringe at that label). But in truth most American literature is regional because good writing begins at home. And for the truly gifted writers, these snapshots of home can be read and appreciated in a universal light. I'm probably drawn to many Southern authors because of my own personal history and experiences with that region, but I seriously doubt that only a Southerner would appreciate these following authors and some of their fine works, which include beautifully woven tapestries of characters, food, religion, music, politics, family, colloquialisms, nature and often bizarre behavior. There are so many amazing Southern writers to choose from. I mean even the short list is ridiculous: William Faulkner, Margaret Mitchell, Alice Walker, Thomas Wolfe, Tennessee Williams. It's stressing me out to even pen a list. It's a kin to trying to choose the Best Actor Oscar in a year of standout performances. How do you decide who even makes the cut with competition like that? And how do you decide who is the best? It's an impossible task so let me be clear that my list is not the best Southern books and authors of all time, but rather a sharing of books that I love and hope you will too should you ever ever decide to peel back one of their covers and lose yourself. 
I believe that literature is very subjective. It's like wine--everyone has their own preferences and none of them are wrong. So by all means, let's add your Southern favorites to the list. [Disclaimer: OK, if I'm being completely honest, I'd prefer to not have any white zin on the list.]

P.S. I just devoured Molly Wizenberg's A Homemade Life. I know that may sound overly dramatic but I think it is a very apt description. Like a good meal, I was sorry when I was finished and wished that I still had some left to savor. I'm actually mourning a bit at the moment realizing that I have no more pages to turn. It was delightful, engrossing, honest, and centered around food. Talk about a winning formula . . . . I dog-eared dozens of pages of her recipes that I look forward to trying and creating my own personal story with. If you also believe that life and food are undeniably linked, then I'm sure you'll love it too. 

Friday, March 20, 2009

Seeds of Change

It's official: Spring has sprung! And the area flora definitely got the memo. Seeing new blossoms makes me feel, I don't know, optimistic. Things are growing, changing, revealing their beauty again after a period of dormancy. It's infectious. I mean the stock market even posted its second week of gains in a row! I often jog by an elementary school, which is lined with apricot trees. While they've been naked silhouettes these past few months, it seemed like overnight they started bursting with blossoms. It looks like the branches are covered in pale pink popcorn.

When I stopped to admire the vision, I also noticed a beautiful vegetable garden in the school yard that was showing off all her goods like a proud peacock. I was hypnotized by the bright red stalks of Swiss chard, which were planted next to the most lovely bed of lettuces. 

My mouth began to water thinking of all the dishes I could make if I had that bounty at my disposal (ignoring the fact that I have a black gardening thumb so would starve if I had to rely on my gardening skills to eat). However the backdrop felt a bit odd. I was at an elementary school, and I don't often associate vegetables and kids — unless you actually consider a French fry a vegetable. But then I learned that some seeds of change had been planted here 14 years ago.

The students at Peabody Charter School, under the direction of teachers and garden mentors, oversee the care and maintenance of almost 2,000 square feet of raised beds containing seasonal fruits and vegetables, herbs and native plants. 

Students collect green waste from the cafeteria kitchen and maintain worm bins and composts piles to feed the school garden. Students harvest fruits and vegetables for the school cafeteria and to share with their families. Certainly the food nourishes the students' bodies, but the participation in preparing, serving and enjoying a meal together establishes habits that these kids will hopefully carry with them long after they leave. They've been exposed to the process of taking food from seed to plate and back. It's a process with the potential for so much positive change. And it's a practice that I hope more schools can integrate on some level. 

I finished my run so that I could eat a lovely pasta dish that had been inspired by the kid's garden without guilt. It's healthy, fast and definitely tastes great. It's also a very versatile recipe. It is easily halved and you can substitute another type of pasta if you didn't have spaghetti on hand (I used penne on this day). You can roll up the Swiss chard mixture with some shaved fontina cheese in prosciutto and roast it in the oven for a tasty tapa or it makes an excellent frittata base. Anyway you eat it, it's delicious, and I promise you'll go back to it again and again as a staple recipe each time you hear some beautiful Swiss chard calling your name. 

Whole-Wheat Spaghetti with Swiss Chard and Pecorino Cheese by Giada De Laurentiis

1 Tbsp olive oil
2 onions, thinly sliced
2 bunches Swiss chard, trimmed and chopped (about 14 cups)
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 (14.5 oz) can diced tomatoes with juices
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper
8 oz whole-wheat spaghetti
1/4 cup pitted kalamata olives, coarsely chopped
2 Tbsp freshly grated Pecorino cheese
2 Tbsp toasted pine nuts

Heat the oil in a heavy large frying pan over medium heat. Add the onions and saute until tender, about 8 minutes. Add the chard and saute until it wilts, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and saute until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in the tomatoes with their juices, wine, and red pepper flakes. Bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer until the tomatoes begin to break down and the chard is very tender, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Season the chard mixture, to taste, with salt and pepper. 
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add the spaghetti and cook until tender but still firm to the bite, stirring frequently, about 8-10 minutes. Drain the spaghetti and add to the chard mixture and toss to combine. Transfer to serving bowls and sprinkle with olives, cheese, and pine nuts. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

An Attitude of Gratitude

Do you want to know one of my favorite jokes?

Why don't Southern women make good prostitutes?
Too many thank you notes to write.

It kills me every time. Because it's true. A Southerner is taught early on about the art of writing thank you notes. Even if you aren't old enough to pen it yourself, your mom is writing it on your behalf and asking you to scrawl your fledgling autograph on it or scribble a "masterpiece" of thanks. It's not just a rote task though. It is a nice habit of taking a moment to reflect upon someone's graciousness or thoughtfulness. Someone who made you a meal or sent a gift or even shared with you some fruit from their garden has gone to some effort in spite of their very busy life to show you they care, that they're thinking of you. It makes you feel special, even loved at times. And I think one of the nicest things you can do in return is to let them know that you noticed and appreciated it.

Although some people may not have been taught this practice, it's never too late to learn and I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by the feedback you receive and how easy it really is. I think practicing gratitude is something we'd all benefit from today. I mean really. We have so much. Even in the wake of this economic downturn. It wouldn't hurt to spend a few minutes each day being grateful for food, friends, work, clothes, electricity, etc. I don't mean to be preachy, but I do think making a conscious effort to acknowledge it is good for the individual and collective soul.

The Art of Writing Thank You Notes
1. Get something to write on. As you might imagine, I'm a bit of a stationery fanatic. I'm really digging these notecards from Room Service Home at the moment, but anything is fine. Yes, you can go out and buy a single thank you card from your local Hallmark store, but you can get a box of cards from your local drugstore for less than $10. Or if you want to get creative, go to an arts and crafts store and buy plain notecards or card stock that you can decorate with a rubber stamp.
2. Don't worry about poor penmanship. Typing on computers may have ruined our handwriting but, trust me, your chicken scratch will be endearing to the recipient.
3. Just say thank you. You should acknowledge the gift or the thoughtfulness and say something specific or personal about it. Like, "Thank you, Grandma, for the birthday check. I treated myself to a cook book that I've been wanting. When I cook from it, I'll think of you." It does not have to be a dissertation or fine literature.
4. Put it in the mail as soon as possible. We are all busy, but you should make your thanks a priority.

Is an email thank you note acceptable? Well, it's certainly better than nothing but it really doesn't have the same effect as receiving a note in the mail. I will often send a quick email of thanks right away just to let them know that I received the gift or enjoyed seeing them last night but I'll always follow-up with a formal note that I mail.

I wanted to practice my own advice and spend a few minutes being grateful for my friends who made my weekend so fun. Del, a corporate executive who works her tail off at the office and then cares for her eight month old, had "the girls" over for a homemade supper on Friday. I always feel so loved when someone bakes me a meal. It's primal — someone providing food for you. And we can all use a night off from cooking or cleaning dishes. And it takes extra effort to cook and entertain with a crying baby.

Bret and Tamara hosted a tapas party on Saturday. We all devoured tasty Spanish treats and sipped some excellent wines. Aftering stuffing ourselves, we sat outside by the fire pit and listened to Sam and George play guitar, then came inside to dance to old vinyls when we ran out of firewood, and then progressed to drinking whiskey until the wee hours of the morning.

I was decidedly ungrateful for my headache this morning, but it was outshined by memories of an epic night with friends.

So excuse me now as I go write my thank you notes.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Welcome to My World

I was on a morning jog the other day and I passed at least a dozen people in cars or in their yards. It's instinct: I always wave and say hi. That's just what you do in the South. You greet everyone with a kind word or a smile. But nine out of ten times, the people just gave me an odd stare back and a few sweet souls may even add an awkward half hand raise.

A Southerner possesses a genuine spirit of hospitality and an acceptance that we're all in this together. It's the philosophy by which you're raised. I can still hear my grandad offering the garbage man a cold Coke each week as he thanked them for their service. It's bringing new neighbors a casserole to welcome them to the neighborhood. It's returning the grocery buggy for the elderly lady parked next to you. And it's amazing what kind of good will that breeds.

Well, I've made a promise to myself to preserve that Southern hospitality no matter where I live. As I was completing my jog, I passed by a house that had recently been remodeled. I'd never met the owners before and thought it was high time to serve up some of that hospitality and formally welcome them to the neighborhood.

I had just seen an enticing recipe for a sweet potato pound cake (seriously how perfect is that?!) care of Molly Wizenberg of Orangette that was adapted from Southern Cakes by Nancie McDermott. The picture alone made my mouth water. I was invigorated and went immediately to the grocery store to pick up some sweet potatoes.

The cake came together very quickly and easily. I don't know why making a cake can intimidate me at times. I think I get overwhelmed by the prospect of making icing. I personally am not an icing girl. I just don't care for it. In fact, my mom (bless her heart) always had to leave some cupcakes un-iced for me. While some may think those looked rather sad, I was overjoyed by the opportunity to eat 100% cake! Yellow mix was my favorite. I'm the person that Coldstone's Creamery made the cake batter ice cream for. My mom on the other hand is all about the icing. We make a great team when it comes to eating cake--she eats the icing off both our slices and I get all the cake. I personally think I get the better end of that stick. But this lovely cake only requires a glaze, which I can embrace.

It looked so good when it was freshly glazed. I wanted so badly to just slice into that cake and eat a big wedge of that sweet potato goodness. In fact, it seemed like cruel and unusual punishment to make such a thing of deliciousness--only to have to give it away. It made me almost rethink my hospitable purpose. I did try to figure out a way to "sample" it without leaving any noticeable trace yet came up empty handed. But as soon as I dropped off the cake to my new neighbors, all that epicurean frustration disappeared and was replaced by a feeling of contentment and pride in my heritage.

And I started making a new cake for myself. . . .

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Holy Beet Greens, Batman

Oh the Farmers Market. It's my version of a candy store. I'm lucky enough to have access to one almost every day of the week. No, I'm grateful for it. Santa Barbara makes it easy to be a locavore with such breadth in fresh produce year round. I mean, how awesome is it to get fresh strawberries in early March? I saw a woman buying a whole flat. I'm sure she was going to cook something sinfully good. But we also have all the lovely winter produce one might expect. I think some of the winter veggies don't get their due credit for their fabulousness. I mean root veggies aren't the sexiest of the vegetable family but they really are some of the most delicious, nutritious and flexible foods out there.

I've become especially fond of beets (and find myself drawn to the golden ones) of late. But I always feel guilty when I toss out the beet greens. Growing up eating collard greens, you'd think I would instinctually know what to do with beet greens, but I have always felt a bit lost. They just don't seem like something you'd throw some pork fat in and simmer for an hour. I know sometimes the beets you may buy in the grocery store have greens that look about as appetizing as an ashtray, but when you get fresh beets, the greens are glorious. I wanted to take advantage of them and was thrilled to recall a recipe I'd seen in Food and Wine by Tarry Lodge chef Andy Nusser that used beet greens in a pasta dish. I love using swiss chard in pasta dishes so this seemed like a safe one to try. And I was able to buy fresh pasta at the Farmers Market to boot (even though it was fettuccine and not fusilli).

Fusilli Alla Crazy Bastard (Yes, that is actually the name of the dish)
1/2 cup walnuts
1 pint cherry tomatoes
2 Tbsp plus 1 tsp olive oil
Salt and fresh ground pepper
1 lb fusilli pasta
2 garlic cloves, sliced
1/2 lb beet greens, rinsed and coarsely chopped
Pinch of crushed red pepper
1/2 lb soft goat cheese, thickly sliced
1/4 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese

1. Preheat the oven to 350°. On a rimmed baking sheet, toast the walnuts for 7 minutes, until lightly browned; let cool slightly. Coarsely chop and transfer to a bowl.
2. Raise the oven temperature to 450°. On the rimmed baking sheet, toss the cherry tomatoes with 1 teaspoon of the olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Roast the tomatoes for about 10 minutes, until browned in spots.
3. In a large pot of boiling, salted water, cook the fusilli. Meanwhile, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet. Add the garlic and cook over moderate heat, stirring constantly, until golden, 2 minutes. Add the roasted tomatoes, beet greens and crushed red pepper and cook, crushing the tomatoes slightly, until the greens are just wilted, 3 minutes.
4. Drain the fusilli, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking water. Add the pasta, the reserved cooking water and the sliced goat cheese to the skillet and cook over moderate heat, tossing to coat the pasta. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer the pasta to a bowl, garnish with the chopped toasted walnuts, top with the Parmigiano-Reggiano and serve immediately.

Perhaps it was beginners luck, but the pasta dish turned out delicious! I do think when you start with the best, freshest ingredients it's hard to go wrong. The toasted walnuts were an amazing garnish, really adding depth to the dish. If I made this again (and I'm sure I will), I think you could add more roasted tomatoes, some shallots or sweet onions, and even more beet greens. Although I love cheese, I would start by halving the amount of goat cheese and then add more to taste. I thought the amount suggested in the recipe overshadowed some of the other ingredients. But Russ and I cleaned our plates! I feel great about not being wasteful with my beet greens and happy to have a new tasty dish to add to the rotation.

I paired this lovely pasta with a roasted beet and blood orange salad that is one of my standbys and favorites. We are in the midst of blood orange season. Yeah! [It's closest rival is peach season, but that is some months away from now so for now I'm all about the blood orange.] This salad is so simple (as long as you give yourself enough time to roast the beets for an hour or so). I serve the beets and oranges on a bed of greens (usually something mild like butter leaf lettuce) with a Dijon-white wine vinaigrette with tarragon and add some toasted pistachios and some luscious goat cheese. It is particularly divine if you use le Chevrot. My go-to place is always C'est Cheese. They have a friendly, knowledgeable staff and of course an outstanding selection of cheeses. Plus, they always give you samples to taste!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Everyone Is Doing It

I like Facebook. I’m a relatively late adopter but an enthusiastic one. It’s been fun to see how viral social marketing can be. One of my favorite social studies of late is the omnipresent “25 Random Things About Me” being posted. And while I’ve enjoyed reading these fun facts about my friends, I haven’t yet penned my own list of secrets I’m ready to reveal. But it did lead me to join the band wagon and pen this list that feels very intimate to me.

25 Things I Love about the South—
1. Watching heat lightening over the water in the summertime
2. Saying “yes ma’am” and “no, sir” regardless of your age
3. My grandmother’s biscuits
4. Fried chicken and fried green tomatoes (not necessarily together but I wouldn't complain about it)
5. Football as a religion (I love the pride people have in their Team)
6. Bourbon and coke at a football game
7. Getting dressed up to go to the football game
8. Thank you notes
9. Spanish moss hanging from the trees
10. Apalachicola oysters
11. Grits (sublime with salt, pepper and butter and delightful topped with shrimp but never with sugar)
12. Thin fried catfish from Middendorf’s
13. Magnolias, camellias and hydrangeas
14. Cornbread from a cast iron skillet
15. People asking if you want a Coke and then asking what kind
16. Pulled pork BBQ
17. Small batch bourbon
18. A casserole from a neighbor when something goes wrong
19. The white, soft sand beaches of the Gulf
20. Chick-fil-a
21. Never meeting a stranger
22. Having the “bless her heart” card to play
23. Recycled family names
24. Robert E. Lee and his teachings on how to be a southern gentleman
25. The drawl, y’all!