Friday, May 11, 2012

Mama Always Said

This Sunday is Mother's Day, a day to honor and appreciate moms everywhere and in all forms. Mothers are special beings and certainly deserve this day. They are our caretaker, chauffeur, administer of Band-aids, cheerleader, and role model, to name just a few of the many, many roles they assume throughout our lives. I feel particularly lucky to have an awesome mom and even more blessed that she's still with me — and that I get to celebrate Mother's Day with her this year . . .  and with her own mother (who'll be turning 93 this year!). Both women gave me such pearls of wisdom and priceless memories over the years. I thought I'd share a few here. 

Of all the possible sins of my youth, saying I was bored was one of the worst in my mom's opinion. Poor judgment (stealing the car when I wasn't old enough to legally drive), fibbing (the dog knocked that over and broke it), dishonorable acts (sleeping in church), offenses (having a permanent summons on our refrigerator for speeding tickets from ages 16-18) , etc. were all generally forgiven. Not so much for comments about boredom. At the mere under-the-breath mention (which, of course moms can always hear, even if they're 3 rooms away), my mom would simply say, "Well, I have plenty of things you could do. You could vacuum, or clean your room, or polish silver, or. . . . " At that point, you quickly backtracked and miraculously found something to happily occupy yourself with. 

In reflection, I know her point was not to busy us with chores. It was to encourage us to make the most of each day. She was fond of saying, "There are no dress rehearsals in life!" I believe she was instilling in my brother and me a zest for life she possesses and continues to demonstrate.  She's a life learner and a life doer. She's always up for anything. To make us green eggs and ham when we were obsessed with the Dr. Seuss book. To let me have my first slumber party with 20 girls when I was only in kindergarten. To drive from Panama to Costa Rica to see the famous golden toad before extinction. To allow me to decorate my entire room in purple (carpet included) during my Purple Period. To bake cookies at 2 o'clock in the morning. To waterski on her 50th wedding anniversary. I love that about her. She inspires me to make each day count. To make the effort. Life is not to be phoned in. 

My earliest memories of my grandmother (whom we call Monk), is her in the kitchen. She is a country cook but I'd take her food over a fancy chef's any day. Her biscuits, country fried steak, cornbread, you name it, make my mouth water just thinking about it. Yes, it's comfort food and it's stuff you don't eat every day (certainly not in California), but it's food made with love. That's what makes it unmatched. Whatever she is serving you want. And you eat until you can't eat anymore. You push away from the table feeling lucky. Yes, lucky you had such a delicious meal. But lucky because you realize how nourishing it is—to your body and your soul. There is no recipe for that. It comes from her heart, not out of a jar. She always seemed to have enough food for whomever showed up. When asked how she knew how much to make, she simply replied, "Oh, I just make a lot."  

Monk taught me that hospitality starts in the kitchen. She is always warm and welcoming. Some people don't want you in the kitchen when they're cooking, but Monk makes it seem like that's where you're supposed to be, even if you're not stirring a pot. But with Monk, it's not just an act of getting food on the table. It's a mechanism to make sure you feel welcomed and cared for—in and out of the kitchen. It's not about following a recipe to a "T." It's about appreciating the experience and keeping your eye on the prize, which really isn't the end dish. It's having time and compassion for others. I know I got my love of cooking from her. While I know I'll never be able to replicate her dishes, I do strive to match her mindset.  

And something they both taught me was that no one ever outgrows the need for a mother's love. So this weekend do something to show your mom (or surrogate mom) that you love her back. Like make this beautiful strata and invite her over for brunch so she doesn't have to cook or clean dishes! It's a fabulous dish for an occasion like this because you do all the work the night before. The day of, you just pop it in the oven to bake as you pour mimosas and share your own favorite memories and pearls of wisdom.

"Kitchen Sink" Strata 

1 (10 oz) package frozen spinach, thawed
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
8 oz mushrooms, sliced
1 small jar (6 oz) oil-packed chopped sun dried tomatoes 
3 Tbsp unsalted butter
2 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
8 cups cubed (1 inch) French bread (1 lb loaf)
6 oz coarsely grated Gruyere cheese (2 cups)
6 oz coarsely grated Fontina cheese (2 cups)
2 cups milk
1 cup whipping cream
12 eggs
2 Tbsp Dijon mustard

1. Squeeze handfuls of spinach to remove as much liquid as possible, then finely chop. 
2. Cook onion in butter in a large skilled over moderate heat, stirring for a few minutes. Then add chopped red bell pepper and mushrooms, along with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Stir in sun dried tomatoes and spinach and remove from heat.
3. Spread one third of bread cubes in a buttered 3-quart gratin dish or baking dish. Top evenly with one third of spinach mixture. Sprinkle on third of each chese. Repeat layering twice (ending with cheeses). 
4. Whisk together milk, eggs, mustard and remaining 1 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp pepper in a large bowl and pour evenly over strata. Chill strata, covered with plastic wrap, at least 8 hours in order for the bread to absorb the custard.
5. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Let strata stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. Bake strata uncovered in middle of oven until puffed, golden brown and cooked through, 45-60 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes before serving. 
Serves 8-10.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Go Fish

As a child, I didn't have much passion for food, save for a big bowl of Fruity Pebbles cereal. Dinner especially was not my favorite meal. I was picky. My poor mom. I applaud her for the "one dinner for all" approach to feeding a family and I certainly didn't go hungry. But the one meal I did get rather excited for was Taco Night. This was not too common of a dinner, but I would be so stoked when I'd see her pull out the lazy susan and start laying out tiny bowls of lettuce, chopped tomatoes, onions, cheese and so on. Next came the Old El Paso crispy taco shells and the unseasoned ground beef. Apparently, the Mexican seasoning was too much for our palates, which makes me laugh now because I often say if you can't taste your food why bother eating it — as a tear rolls down my face and my nose starts running from the hot peppers. I loved the fanfare of making a taco, even though I think mine just had cheese on it. 

Moving to California was a reeducation in tacos. On this coast, it's all about fish tacos. It's just what people do here after surfing or hanging out at the beach. You go and get fish tacos. They're arguably best in Baja Mexico, which is really just a hop and a skip away, but often too far to go to pick up fish tacos for supper. 

I was totally craving fish tacos a few weeks ago. And I was way too hungry to make it to Baja, so had to take matters into my own hands. Often they're made with mahi mahi, but the grocery store had a beautiful piece of Pacific halibut which I thought would do the trick. With fish like this, all you need is a little drizzle of olive oil and some lime zest. 

You can heat up a well-oiled grill or pan and just cook the fish for a few minutes on each side. You just need the fish to turn opaque. It will continue cooking for several minutes after you take it off the heat. And honestly overcooked fish is the pits. You want it to be juicy and fork tender. 

I could just pile on sour cream, avo and cheese and be a happy camper but do try to boost the nutritional value by adding some veggies. With tacos, you can't go wrong with a sauteed combo of onions, red bell pepper, garlic, black beans and some fresh corn off the cob. I add in a little cumin and salt and pepper and it's basically done. 

But for fish tacos to work, you need to add some cabbage. Why? That just seems to be "the law." It does add a fabulous crunch and some needed acidity via some lime juice. I often take the pre-shredded slaw mix and just add some fresh cilantro, lime juice, hot sauce and honey. It takes about 2 minutes to throw together this slaw that really does the crowning trick. 

Another thing I've learned out here: No boxed crispy taco shells. You use soft corn tortillas as your vessel. These are my current fave. 

They taste as if there is a little Mexican woman around the corner who is popping these out of a wood-burning oven. 

To assemble, I usually slather a little sour cream on the tortilla, then add the corn and bean mixture, followed by the fish, and then top with a handful of slaw and a few slices of avocado. Even as a finicky eater, I did love the fish-wich from McDonalds as a kid though. Plus I loved playing the card game Go Fish. I was the family champ. So maybe those were early signs I'd become a massive fish taco fan one day.  

Tomorrow is Cinco de Mayo. Whether you celebrate it or just enjoy Mexican food, I would encourage you to make these delicious fish tacos. You can even use the Old El Paso store-bought shells for a dose of nostalgia. It won't detract from their tastiness. Yes, they're that good. You know what would be a perfect pair? Either these or these. Salud!

Fabulous Fish Tacos

1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 jalapeño chile, seeded and finely chopped
1 small red onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
1 small ear of corn, cut off the cob
1 can of black beans, rinsed
1 tsp cumin
Salt and pepper
3 Tbsp honey
2 Tbsp hot pepper sauce
Juice of 2 limes, plus 2 tsp zest
2 cups cabbage slaw mix
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
4 6-oz white fish filets (halibut, mahi mahi, etc)
8 corn tortillas
 cup sour cream
Avocado, sliced for garnish
Lime, sliced for garnish
1/2 cup salsa verde 

1. In a medium skillet, heat 1 Tbsp oil over medium heat. Add the jalapeño, onion, corn bell pepper, cumin and garlic to cook for about 5 minutes. Add the black bean and continue cooking for a few minutes until the vegetables are tender. Add salt and pepper to taste. 
2. In a large bowl, combine 2 Tbsp oil, honey, hot sauce, and lime juice (except for 1 tsp); season with salt and pepper. Add the slaw mixture and the cilantro and toss to coat. Mix in a tsp of lime juice with the sour cream and set aside.
3. Heat grill, grill pan or pan to medium. Coat the fish with the remaining 1 Tbsp oil and the lime peel. Lightly sprinkle some Mexican seasoning on top if desired. Cook for 2-4 minutes per side, depending on the thickness of the fish. I suggest removing it from the heat once it turns opaque. Wait a few minutes and flake the fish to create bite-sized pieces. 
4. Warm the tortillas on the grill, in the oven or directly over the stove top burner. Wrap in foil or in a towel to keep warm. 
5. To assemble, spread the sour cream on the tortilla. Add a spoonful of the bean and corn mixture and some pieces of fish. Top with a small handful of the slaw and a slice or two of avocado, a few spoonfuls of the salsa, as well as a squeeze of lime juice if desired.
Serves 4. 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Talk Derby to Me

If the Kentucky Derby was just about "the most exciting two minutes in sports," the whole event would be over before you could drink a mint julep! But since, thankfully, the biggest day in horse racing, which is taking place THIS Saturday, is equal parts sporting event and social event, you need a few essentials to participate properly. 

Men, don some seersucker, and ladies, grab a hat. Next get together with a group of friends and drink a bunch of these. 

Well, at least drink one! I hear it's bad luck for the horses if you don't. OK, I just made that up, but you'd be the equivalent of the Grinch if you didn't. This is a great recipe because you can make a whole pitcher the day before, and won't have to play bartender during the spectacle. Instead you can spend more time picking the winning horse. With all the variables in the race (weather, jockey, post position, distance, etc.), it could be any horse's game. But what is certain is when you pick a horse, you have to root for him all the way! You need to be glued to watching the race, your eyes becoming a spot camera of the horse you picked to win. All the hopes and dreams of the owners, trainers, handlers and jockeys are on winning this life-altering race. The preparations for the past two years are gone in two minutes. And you either celebrate or watch in disbelief. And you'll want that mint julep (or several) either way.

I had the good fortune of attending "America's Race" last year. I must say, it lives up to the massive reputation as being one of the most exciting sporting events, as well as one of the most unique things I've ever done. It's a bucket list item for sure. It's a fabulous mix of nostalgia and pageantry. It was great seeing all the ladies' hats, the spires of Churchill Downs, hearing "My Old Kentucky" song playing, and of course enjoying a few mint juleps. 

But the real fun comes in placing wagers on races and of course watching the Race to the Roses. It is a pure adrenaline rush. For a thrilling two minutes, everyone, regardless of race, income, or age, is in the race together. 

It's the uncertainty, the drama, the action that adds to the mystique and attraction that makes the Derby the race to watch. This picture above is of long-shot Animal Kingdom pulling ahead in the final seconds to win. Everyone went ballistic, especially those who placed a bet on a horse with 21-1 odds. 

Post time for the 138th annual event is 6:24 pm ET. Don't be late! 

Pitcher o' Mint Juleps

One handle of Maker's Mark (1.75 liters)
1 cup of sugar
1/2 cup water
25 mint leaves
10 lbs crushed ice
20 additional mint springs for garnish

1. In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine mint leaves, sugar and water. Stir occassionally. The mint leaves will darken and wilt, which is normal. 
2. Once the sugar has completely dissolved, remove pan from the heat, cover pan with a lid and allow the mint to steep for 20 minutes. 
3. Strain out the wilted leaves and pour syrup into a large pitcher. 
4. Pour the handle of bourbon into the same pitcher and stir to mix. Place pitcher in the refrigerator and allow flavors to meld together overnight. 
5. When ready to serve, fill a cup to the rim with crushed ice. Stir pitcher and pour into the glass. Garnish with a spring of mint.