Sunday, July 18, 2010

Monk's Biscuits

To share or not to share, that is the question. By that I mean, do you share a recipe? I find it flattering when someone asks for a recipe. Chances are I didn't invent it or patent it anyway, so don't really feel it's mine not to share. I'm aligned with Molly's perspective which she mentions in her amazing cooking memoir, "Sharing a recipe is how you pay back fate — in the karmic sense, if you believe such things — for bringing something so tasty to you in the first place." The problem is that you need an actual recipe to share something so tasty.

Unfortunately, my 90-year old grandmother, whom we call "Monk" and is one of the best home cooks there is, doesn't speak the language of recipes. All her dishes have simply been passed down over the generations. If you ask her how to make something, she tosses around vague directions like, "You just add your wet ingredients to the well and pick up enough flour as needed." In her defense, though, I know she has no idea what the actual metrics really are. It literally is a pinch of salt and a dollop of shortening. I don't recall even seeing her hold a recipe. It's seems about as likely as Superman holding onto a chunk of kryptonite. Her cooking power seems to be within her, like some special gift she's been granted to make people happy — if not a bit heavier — through her amazing cooking.

One of the most beloved things I've ever eaten are Monk's buttermilk biscuits. She's famous for them. It's almost holy when Monk brings out a platter of biscuits fresh from the oven. The skies part, the rays of sunlight beam down on them as angels sing hallelujah. Although I've been known to embellish, in this case my description is not far from the truth. Monk's biscuits are flakey, fluffy, and perfectly kissed by the oven. And each person has their own way to eat them, their own sacred ritual. For me it's just dipped in cane syrup. My mom puts figs on top of hers. My brother sops up his over-easy egg with it. My dad wants his smothered in red-eye gravy. It's nothing out of the ordinary for someone to drive 3 hours just to eat them, and then turn around to go home after breakfast, making sure to take an extra sausage and biscuit to eat on the drive back. As kids, my cousins and I used to tell Monk we were going to sell her biscuits and make millions of dollars. I'm quite sure we could have, but then I think we panicked over the thought of having to share her biscuits with others. We wanted to hoard them. Not very Christian, I know.

Monk came out to Santa Barbara for my birthday this year, and a friend who's also a filmmaker came over to try some of her famous biscuits and convinced her to let him capture her technique on camera.

There are times when you hear a song and it transports you back in time. You can remember where you were, who you were with, what you were wearing. Food can do that too. Sometimes it becomes more than food. It's our childhood, a romantic dinner, a family vacation, a snow day. But Monk's biscuits span my entire life.

When I first started this blog, my friend Susan P. asked me if I had a good recipe for buttermilk biscuits. The truth is I had one — Monk's, but I didn't share it with her. I felt for a moment it would be some type of family betrayal. Then I realized my reaction was really just a manifestation of selfishness. Just like when I was 10 and decided I didn't want to sell Monk's biscuits after all. Now that I'm a few years (er, decades) older, I realize that by sharing her recipe I'm really sharing her gift — of love, of coming together to break bread and connect, to pause for a moment in a busy life and appreciate the simple things, to nourish your body, to define your style and respect other's styles, and to have the pleasure of eating something so tasty.

Well, Susan, this entry is for you. It took quite a bit of understudying to produce an actual recipe, and I regret to inform you that I think it's more art than science. Or at least a lot of practice is required. I've decided the flour can make or break it. Weird, I know, because flour seems so innocuous. I thought it was more functional than flavorful but I really think it drives the outcome. For me, no biscuit tastes even close to Monk's unless it's been made from White Lilly flour. I can't explain it but it's something I would bet a large chunk of money on. That and I think her biscuit pans add some depth of tastiness and authenticity that I just can't replicate.

But I'll keep trying and keep sharing her love. Because nothing is better than seeing someone take their first bite. It makes you feel like you did something good. And you did. It's something people remember for the rest of their lives.

Monk's Buttermilk Biscuits

1 1/4 cup buttermilk (lowfat is fine)
1/4 cup shortening, plus enough to grease pans
Approximately 2 1/2 cups self-rising flour (White Lilly if you can find it)

Add shortening to 1 1/2 cups flour in a large bowl and mix to combine (will be crumbly).
Add buttermilk and mix until combined. Do not overmix. If you need to add more flour, add a 1/4 cup at a time. You want the dough to be just dry enough to turn out of the bowl and onto some waxed paper or a flat surface with some flour sprinkled on it. The dough will pick up the flour it needs. You don't want the dough to be stiff. It should just kind of spread out over the surface; no need to knead it, roll it, or anything like that. But you may have to turn it over or around slightly so you're able to handle it without it sticking all over your hands. The best recommendation I can give you is to watch the above video.
Pinch off enough dough to form a roundish biscuit (maybe 2 - 2 1/2 inches across and 1/2 inch high) and place into a greased pan. I found it's better to pinch off than roll out and cut with a biscuit cutter.
Add a dab of melted shortening to the top of each biscuit (just heat up a few Tbsp in the microwave and brush on top) and bake in a 450 degree oven until brown, approximately 20 minutes. You may have to lower the heat to 425 depending on the pan (non-stick seems to cook more quickly on the bottom) and your oven calibration. Also, you might start checking on them at around the 15 minute mark.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Seersucker Thursdays

It's summertime and it's a Thursday, which can only mean one thing: Seersucker Thursdays are in effect on Capital Hill! During the Summer session, the U.S. Senate shows up on Thursdays in puckered pastel suits to beat the heat, a tradition which started in the late 1990s. I guess they couldn't find a big enough veranda to sit out on and drink sweet tea, which is another Southern summer survival tactic.

Seersucker is woven with a peculiar combination of tight and slack threads of thin cotton originating from 18th century India. The strange word itself is a mangling of Hindi's "shir shakkar," meaning "milk and sugar," a perfect description of the fabric's smooth and rippled textures. To make the fabric, two kinds of looms are involved; one weaving tightly and one loosely. That shifting creates tiny ridges of bunched threads, so that the fabric is almost held away from the skin. Heat dissipates, sweat evaporates, air circulates, and, one would hope, an idea may penetrate.

Like how Thursdays are also the the perfect day to drink watermelon margaritas, my new summer adult beverage obsession.

The first batch I made was so delicious I felt compelled to go door to door around my neighborhood and hand out samples. It's not everyday someone knocks on your door and hands you lovely libation. I even begged my friend Karen to drive to my house in rush-hour traffic to have one. Even my cat loved it!

I'd like to point out that today is a Thursday, so I'd highly recommend swinging by a fruit stand or market and picking up a watermelon to create this most refreshing cocktail. Donning seersucker is entirely up to you, but this drink would really complete the outfit and I'm sure would pump up the cooling effect.

Cheers, to your first of many watermelon margaritas! Because, trust me, you can't have just one of these beauties.

Watermelon Margarita (from Martha Stewart)

In a small saucepan, bring 1/2 cup sugar and 1/2 cup water, along with 3 wide strips of orange zest, to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until sugar dissolves, 3 minutes. Let cool.

In a blender, puree 2 cups cubed watermelon until smooth. Strain through a sieve, pressing solids, into a pitcher or quart-sized mason jar. You should have approximately 1 cup of juice. Add the sugar syrup, 1/4 cup lime juice (from about 3 limes), and 3/4 cups white or silver tequila. I got closer to 1 1/2 - 1 3/4 cup juice from my watermelon, so you may have to add a bit more lime juice and tequila to even it out. And taste-test it several times (what a burden).

Fill salt-rimmed glasses with ice, then pour margarita mixture over top. Garnish with a lime wedge and keep the pitcher nearby. You'll definitely be wanting a refill! Yields: 4 servings, so might as well make a double!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Meat-Free Mondays

Mondays are, generally speaking, my least favorite day of the week. It's also the day of the week when I try to eat meat-free — but that isn't why it's my least favorite day. It's the reality check that comes crashing down on you when the alarm goes off and you realize play time is over.

I certainly grew up in a very meat-oriented food culture. I never even knew a vegetarian until I went away to college. I guess if you were a Southerner and a vegetarian, you ate a lot of grits and just the "three" of a "meat and three" (which is a restaurant staple offering the choice of a meat and three kinds of vegetables). In fact, I still chuckle thinking of a wedding I went to in Tallahassee where the bride was a vegetarian. I was behind some good ol' Southern boys in the buffet line and overheard one of them say, "What's this here pole-enta with mushrooms? Where's the meat?!"

Paul McCartney and friends launched Meat Free Monday in the UK in 2006 after a United Nation's report was issued stating that the livestock industry as a whole was responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the whole of the transport section put together. His mission was simply to encourage people eat less meat. Eating more vegetables is not only great for your health but is also good for the planet.

I think many people look for little ways to "do their part" for the environment. Some recycle, some drive hybrids, some use compact fluorescent light bulbs. Personally, taking one day in my week to not eat meat is rewarding and a fun challenge. I started with just a meat-free dinner, as that seemed like all I could commit to, but now I really try my best to eat "3-squares" meat free. There are exceptions, like last Monday when I was hungover after the July 4th festivities and ate a big, greasy cheeseburger. But you'll find there really are a lot of alternatives that are "quiet" vegetarian dishes which are so tasty. You don't have to eat tofu. Who doesn't love Italian food, for instance? Lots of vegetarian options there, which are especially delectable during the summer months when the access to fresh, amazing produce is plentiful. Thai, Indian, Chinese food . . . yum! And all with lots of meat-free options. I'm not a purist, so will also eat sustainable seafood.

And while it may take a little mindfulness initially, making just one day a week a meat-free day really is a little thing that can make a big difference. I hope this easy and so, so delicious recipe for an eggplant pasta I made last Monday will inspire you to at least give it a go.

I know what you're thinking. In of itself, the words "eggplant pasta" my not sound very inspiring. I've often been served eggplant that was overcooked and therefore had a weird, mealy texture that wasn't appealing. Maybe you too had the same experience. However with this dish, the Japanese eggplants hold together well and don't get all seedy and mushy. Plus, the marjoram, lemon zest and chiles come together to create this stunning brightness that contrasts with the creamy decadence of the burrata. You certainly won't feel like you're missing anything — except maybe a larger stomach!

Orecchiette with Marinated Eggplant, Burrata and Chiles
from Food and Wine and Best New Chef 2010 Missy Robbins of NYC's A Voce

4 Asian eggplants (1 1/2 lbs total), halved lengthwise
1/4 cup plus 1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing
Kosher salt
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
2 large garlic cloves, very thinly shaved
3 marjoram sprigs, plus 1 Tbsp marjoram leaves
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
3/4 lbs orecchiette
1/3 cup freshly grated pecorino
1 Tbsp chopped parsley
1/2 lb burrata cheese, halved, creamy filling scooped out (you can substitute fresh mozarella or even fresh ricotta if fresh burrata is not available)
Coarsely grated zest of 1 lemon
2 oil-packed red chilies, seeded and cut into thin strips (you can substitute pickled cherry peppers)

Light a grill or preheat a grill pan. Brush the cut side of the halved eggplants with olive oil and season with salt. Grill the eggplants cut side down over moderate heat until lightly charred, about 4 minutes. Turn and continue grilling until just browned and cooked through, about 2 minutes longer. Let cool. Dice the eggplants and transfer to a bowl. Pour the vinegar over the eggplant and toss well.
In a small saucepan, combine the 1/4 cup plus 1 Tbsp of olive oil with the garlic, marjoram sprigs, crushed red pepper and 2 Tsp kosher salt. Bring the oil to a simmer , then pour it over the eggplant and toss. Let stand for 1 hour. Discard the marjoram sprigs. [Note: The eggplant can be made a day ahead and kept covered in the refrigerator. ]
In a pot of boiling water, cook the orechhiette until al dente. Drain the pasta, reserving 3/4 cups of the cooking water.
Add the eggplant to the pot and cook over moderate heat, stirring lightly, until hot, about 30 seconds. Add the pasta and 1/2 the reserved cooking liquid and cook, tossing for about 30 seconds. Remove from the pot and stir in the pecorino and parsley. If too sticky and dry, then add a bit more of the reserved cooking liquid.
Spoon the pasta into bowls. Dot the pasta with the creamy burrata filling. Garnish with the lemon zest, chile strips and marjoram leaves and serve. Make sure each dish gets a good share of the "garnishing" because that is what really creates a "wow" dish. Yields: 4 Servings.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Ode to a Peach

"From Blossoms" by Li-Young Lee

From blossoms comes
this brown bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.
From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaces we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.
O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.
There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

That pretty much sums it up for me. Is there a more divine fruit than the peach? It's a personal mission to eat them as often as possible while they're in season. I make a beeline for the peach stand at the Farmers Market each Saturday. I don't even feel badly when I bump into an old man or step on the foot of a small child in my quest (but I do shout my apologies over my shoulder as I run by). It's serious business.

I found a beautifully simple and tasty recipe for a dessert I served last weekend. Let me remind you I'll only take on baked goods if there is no icing, no ingredients listed in ounces, and preferably no electric mixer involved. This fit all the criteria, plus made a delicious canvas for my beloved peaches.

It comes from the amazing Lee Brothers' most recent cookbook Simple Fresh Southern that my mom gave me. This book is filled with all the good parts of Southern cooking. Fancy enough to serve to company, but with down-home flavor and the simplicity you crave for everyday meals. For me, I always feel like I'm eating a bit of home in each bite. It's comfort food — elevated.

And I'm not the only peach fan around here. . . .

Buttermilk Pudding Cakes with Bourbon Peaches

3/4 cup sifted all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
2 large eggs
3/4 cup buttermilk (you can use low-fat)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/3 cup sugar
4 Tbsp (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
2 lbs ripe peaches (about 8 medium)
2 cups bourbon
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 tsp kosher salt
Vanilla ice cream or whipped cream

Heat oven to 425 degrees with a rack positioned in the top third of the oven.
Sift the flour with the baking powder in a large bowl. In a second large bowl, beat the eggs with a whisk until creamy and yellow, and then whisk in the buttermilk, vanilla extract, sugar and butter. The mixture will look curdy and broken; that is fine. Add the flour mixture to the egg mixture and whisk until the batter is combined and smooth.
Divide the batter among 9 standard-size nonstick muffin-pan cups, filling them 2/3-full. Bake for 9 minutes. Check the cakes by inserting a knife tip between the rim of the cake and the muffin cup and pulling gently to expose the side of the cake. If the side of the cake appears evenly browned, the cakes will hold together when inverted and are ready. If not, continue baking for another minute and then check again. When the cakes are done, invert them onto a cooling rack until ready to eat.
Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, bring enough water to cover the peaches to a boil. Cut an X into each peach at the pointed end (opposite the stem end). Drop the peaches into the boiling water and cook until the skin loosens, 1 - 2 minutes (depending on the ripeness of the peaches). [Note: This technique can be used to peel tomatoes too.] Remove the peaches from the water and set aside until cool enough to handle. Gently peel off the skins, cut into wedges, and pack the peaches in a quart jar or arrange them in a medium bowl.
In a large saucepan, bring the bourbon to a gentle simmer over medium-low heat, and add the sugar and salt. Continue to simmer until the mixture is syrupy, about 6 minutes. [Note: this took more like 15 for me.]
Pour the syrup over the fruit, seal the jar or cover the bowl, and let cool. Then chill in the refrigerator for at least a few hours before serving on top of the buttermilk cakes with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream. [Note: The peaches will keep in the refrigerator for about 3 days.] Yields: 9 servings.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Thanks for Showing Up

This post comes from "sunny California," where I'm currently bundled up in an enormous sweater with my heater turned on. What the hell? The glorious days of Summer seem to have evaporated — almost as quickly as it arrived. We had one glorious day of sunshine on July 1st . . . and then June Gloom came back with a vengeance. In fact, it's worse than June Gloom. It's downright cold. Today's high was 61 degrees for goodness sakes! And mind you, the poor folks in the Northeast are in the midst of a heatwave. I don't know where you stand on global warming, but clearly something's out of whack.

I'm very grateful, though, the sun did show up for a few hours over the weekend, which was just enough time to fit in a BBQ dinner. I invited some friends over and had grand visions of us taking refuge from a scorching Summer day while floating on rafts in the pool and sipping watermelon margaritas before moving on to ribs and then basking in the glow of the setting sun with full tummies and slight sunburns. I'm "an organizer" by nature and get a bit stressed when things don't go according to my plan. Living in California has mellowed me out some, but still I was getting anxious when it was 4:30 PM and the sun had yet to make an appearance. I reluctantly put away the umbrellas, but in an act of weather defiance I whipped up a batch of watermelon margaritas. No lie, seconds later the clouds parted and made room for the sun. Smart sun. Those margaritas were not to be missed!

Independence Day always makes me proud to be an American — and want to eat very American food. For me that's slow-cooked ribs, potato salad and cole slaw. And since it's (allegedly) Summer, peaches have to be in the mix.

I added some pimento cheese dip to start with (a Southern staple at any party!) and threw in some Bourbon in the dessert, because a good Southerner is always looking for an excuse to enjoy Bourbon.

For a Type A personality, it's surprising that I gravitate to trying new recipes when entertaining, but I often do. My recent grilling initiation gave me the confidence to try ribs. I figured it was pretty impossible to screw up slow-roasted pork. Slather on some sauce and it had to be a winner. It definitely was. The meat literally fell off the bones. I had to leave the racks in tact because I couldn't even transfer them to the platter without the meat sliding off.

I was a little skeptical about the sauce because I'm not from Texas or Kansas so tomato-based sauces can be off-putting, but this had real depth and tanginess. Not too sweet at all.

By the time dessert rolled around, we were too cold to sit outdoors and enjoy the buttermilk pudding cakes with bourbon peaches.

But I realized if you could at least share beautiful summertime ingredients with good friends — even if bundled in jackets indoors, it's pretty close to perfect.

Slow, Low Oven Ribs

Note: This is a fabulous cookbook! I bought it as a thank you present for a friend, but ended up keeping it for myself. I've never made a recipe that hasn't turned out fabulously delicious — and with little effort. And it's chock full of endearing stories to make anybody wish they'd been born a Southerner — or find a way to get there as quickly as possible.

2 (14.5 oz) cans diced tomatoes, with juice
1/4 cup minced sweet onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1/2 cup cane syrup or maple syrup
2 Tbsp soy sauce
2 Tbsp tomato relish, such as Mrs. Renfro's (optional)
4 bay leaves
4 lbs country-style pork ribs (or spareribs but not babyback as they have less meat for the money)
Salt and freshly-ground pepper

In a small saucepan, combine the tomatoes, onion, garlic and red pepper flakes. Simmer over medium-low heat until reduced in half. The recipe says this takes about 15 minutes, but it took me more like 30. Stir in syrup, soy sauce and tomato relish (if desired).
Preheat oven to 300 degrees and line a 9x13 -inch baking dish with foil. Place the bay leaves in the bottom of the dish.
Season the ribs with salt and pepper or a little grilling spices and arrange in the baking dish. Pour half of the sauce over the ribs, turning a few times to coat. Cover tightly with foil and refrigerate the remaining sauce.
Bake for 3 hours. Remove the foil and pour the remaining sauce over the ribs. Return to the oven and bake uncovered for an additional hour, or until the sauce is a thick glaze and the meat is tender.
Remove the ribs to a serving platter and let stand 15 minutes. Ladle off any accumulated fat by tilting the pan carefully and spooning it off. Remove the bay leaves and pour the remaining pan sauce into a small saucepan. Bring to a steady boil and cook until reduced by half, about 15 minutes. Pour over the ribs or serve along side in a separate bowl. Yield: 4 generous servings. Note: The ribs can also be made the night before and then warmed over indirect heat on the grill the next day.