Saturday, December 12, 2009

Tullis Manor’s Ethnic Trees of Christmas


In the mid-1970s, the City of Biloxi embraced its multi-ethnic heritage and began marketing and celebrating the city’s unique culture and character through events like “The Ethnic Trees of Christmas” in the newly restored Tullis-Toleando Manor.

The celebration included British, Italian, French, Slavic and, in later years, Vietnamese and African-American trees sponsored and decorated by the city’s social and cultural groups, including the Slavonian Ladies’ Auxiliary and the Fleur de Lis Society .

My mother and aunts were members of the Slavonian Ladies’ Auxiliary’s tree committee. They were excited, but stumped. What exactly did a Slavic Christmas tree look like? As second generation Americans, their concept of the holiday was largely shaped by this country’s customs.

Somehow an aluminum tree with blue glass bulbs from Woolworth’s, like the one in my grandparents’ living room, just didn’t seem appropriate for the Tullis Manor’s stately antebellum setting. Clearly some library research was in order.

The committee found references to a “tree for the birds” popular in many snowy Slavic countries. Fruit and popcorn were cheap and easy. Still the tree lacked something. It just didn’t reflect the culture these ladies had grown up with.

In a truly inspired moment, someone hung some donut holes, which resemble the popular holiday pastry pusharates, on the tree. Someone else baked dough ornaments shaped like hrstule (bowties) another popular holiday pastry. They decorated a mantle next to the tree with South Mississippi greenery, St. Nicholas strings and statues of Croatia’s holiday saints, St. Nick and St. Lucy, from the religious shop downtown.

Actually, the shop didn’t have a St. Nicholas figurine in stock. They did have St. Patrick. A few dabs of paint turned his green robes red and his shamrock into a sprig of holly. And voila,St. Nicholas.

St. Lucy resembled a Disney princess with a flowing pink gown and abundant golden tresses. Her big blue eyes -- gouged out by her pagan torturers-- peeked up demurely from a platter she held out as if offering tea cakes.

In the end the Slavic tree wound up being a little Old Country, a little New Country – just like the Slavic residents of Point Cadet.

The ethnic trees remained a Tullis-Toleando Manor staple right up until Hurricane Katrina. The storm’s surge deposited Grand Casino’s barge right on top of the beautiful old home destroying it forever.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

St. Nicholas: My Favorite Saint


December 6 is the feast of St. Nicholas – my favorite saint. In Europe, Christmas is still considered a religious holiday, and the Feast of St. Nicholas is the day for fun and presents (although that is changing somewhat).

The generous Greek bishop comes to the aid of dowerless damsels, children, sailors, fishermen, the wrongly imprisoned and darn near anybody else who needs his help. No wonder everybody wants to throw him a party!

St. Nicholas is recognized and celebrated all over Europe. He is particularly popular in the Dalmatian region of Croatia where he is known as Sveti Nikola. You can’t walk around the block there without running into a church named after him.

Biloxi’s Dalmatian immigrants brought St. Nicholas with them to help look after their fishing boats. He performed the job admirably from his perch outside the Slavic Benevolent Association's lodge on Point Cadet until Hurricane Katrina knocked him over.

Growing up we celebrated St. Nicholas' Day and also St. Lucy’s feast day on December 13th. My mother explained that St. Nick was Santa Claus’s older, skinnier cousin. Actually, they are one and the same, but I still think of St. Nick as the "skinny cousin." Don't we all have one?

In Europe, St.Nicholas leaves children toys, candy and fruit in their shoes, stockings, or a special “St. Nicholas sack.” In our house, St. Nicholas always left our trinkets knotted on a long string.

Maybe Nona used strings as a hygienic alternative to putting food in shoes that her six kids wore (kind of gross when you think about it). She sure couldn’t afford to buy them all a “ceremonial” pair of shoes. Since several other Biloxi families also used strings, I’m inclined to think it might have been a local custom peculiar to the region they came from.

Compared to the bounty Santa Claus left at our house, his skinny cousin’s offerings were comparatively lean – but altogether magical.

Our average Nicholas string included several pieces of imported candy (my favorites were the foil-wrapped cordial-filled chocolates shaped like wine bottles), a sack of chocolate gold-foil wrapped coins (in honor of the gold coins St. Nick left for the dowerless maidens), a folk-y Christmas ornament, a flavored popcorn ball and always, ALWAYS a shiny red apple at the bottom of the string.

Apples have a symbolic association with St. Nicholas. Apple strudel is a common St. Nicholas Day treat. In old Croatia, this was a traditional day for engagements with the young man presenting a basket of apples to his intended as he popped the question. It all goes back to those three dowerless virgins. The gold St. Nick left for them is often symbolized by three gold balls, which in some paintings and statues, are depicted as apples.

As Biloxi’s Croatian families assimilated into American culture, a lot of them forsook celebrating St. Nicholas Day and rolled all their celebration over to Christmas. Sadly a number of my generation and the next never knew the joy of awakening to a Nicholas string on December 6. What a pity.

If you’d like to find out more about St. Nicholas and start a tradition of your own, I suggest you visit this site. It is an incredibly comprehensive source of St. Nicholas info. You can even find out what he really might have looked like.

And how seriously cool is it that there is an entire non-profit organization (in Michigan of all places) dedicated to promoting awareness of my favorite saint?

Photo: I ordered this ornament from the St. Nicholas Center for my Christmas tree and one just like it for my niece's Nicholas string. Their site has all kinds of great ornaments, stamps, cookie cutters, stickers, that make perfect items for Nicholas strings, stocking/shoe/sack stuffers. The site also posts some traditional recipes from the countries that celebrate this feast day.

The two recipes below are from my family's celebration.

Enjoy and have a Happy St. Nicholas Day!

JELLO POPCORN BALLS – A NICHOLAS STRING STAPLE

The popcorn balls that graced our Nicholas strings mostly came from the Karmel Korn shop at Edgewater Mall in Biloxi, but occasionally we got these made-from-scratch popcorn balls. The Jello (lime or cherry) not only makes the balls flavorful, but festive, too, although the cherry ones usually turn out more dark pink than red.


1 cup light corn syrup
¾ cup sugar
1, 3 oz. package of Jello (cherry or lime are preferred)
2 ½ quarts of popcorn, popped


Boil corn syrup, sugar together. Add the Jello. Stir until dissolved. Remove from heat . Cool slightly. Add popcorn. Grease hands. Shape mixture into balls, working quickly. Let dry. Makes about a dozen depending on how large you make them.



APPLE STRUDEL

Nona and Aunt Dolores were famous for their apple strudel. They always made it this time of year. Now that they're both gone, my cousin Steve makes it now.

Pastry Dough:

2 eggs, well beaten
½ stick melted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ cup granulated sugar
3-4 cups of flour (1/2 cup self-rising to 2/3 cup of all-purpose).


For the dough: Mix first 4 ingredients together in a large bowl with electric mixer. Add flour gradually. Dough will get very stiff (add more if needed). After mixing, knead dough on a surface lightly dusted with all purpose flour. When the dough feels smooth, poke your finger in it. If the indentation fills back up quickly, it is time to roll the dough out.

Transfer dough to a lightly floured clean dishcloth. Roll dough out in a circular shape for one big roll. May also separate and roll into two circles (on separate cloths) to make two smaller rolls. Keep the dough thin but not too thin. You don’t want the apples to pierce through the crust and let all your good juices escape.


Apple Filling:


7-8 large red apples, thinly sliced
½ stick of butter, cut into pats
½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup cinnamon

Apple Filling: Spread the apple slices on the dough (which is still on the cloth). Dot with butter. Sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon. You can use more or less sugar/cinnamon depending on your taste and the sweetness of the apples.

Lift cloth and roll like a jelly roll. Place seam side down on an ungreased cookie sheet with an edge. Tuck under both ends of the strudel to keep juices in.

Dot top with more butter. Sprinkle on more sugar and cinnamon. Bake in a 350 degree oven 35-45 minutes or until slightly browned. Baste 2-3 times during baking. Cool. Slice thin to serve. Makes 1 large roll or 2 small ones.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Cranberry Sauce (aka I Buried Paul)

Happy Thanksgiving! I don't really do anything special for Thanksgiving dinner except make my own cranberry sauce. Numerous people have expressed amazement at this proof of my culinary prowess and have requested the recipe.

I'm not sure why everyone is so impressed . Cranberry sauce is hardly the most labor-intensive or complicated recipe in my repertoire. Nor is it the most expensive. It's actually pretty cheap and easy. It can be made ahead of time, and it tastes so much better than the canned versions And there's no weird can markings. Besides the cats like chasing the cranberries I drop on the floor. Way cheaper than cat toys.

Homemade cranberry sauce is also a dish of jewel-like beauty, especially when served in an heirloom cut glass compote. That's assuming you did not step on the antique compote handed down by your great-grandmother and break it when it was buried in the Katrina sludge on your kitchen floor. Not that I know anybody who did that.

As a Thanksgiving bonus, here's a bit of "cranberry sauce trivia" sure to ignite a post-prandial debate at the dinner table.

In the 1960s, Beatle fans became convinced that Paul McCartney had been killed in a car crash and been replaced by an imposter. The other Beatles, allegedly, were part of this elaborate hoax and buried clues about Paul's demise in their song lyrics and album cover art .

For example at the end of the song "Strawberry Fields Forever" John Lennon supposedly said "I buried Paul" in deep, sepulchral tones. John, however, asserted that he actually said "cranberry sauce."

Now I have no idea why John felt the need to drop a random reference to an American holiday condiment into a song about a former orphanage in Liverpool, England. But I believe him. This was at the height of his acid-dropping years. He said and did a lot of strange things then.

The "Paul Is Dead" phenomenon reached the level of mass hysteria and persists today. It has been the subject of numerous articles, books, web sites and doctoral dissertations. My sister wrote her senior English term paper about it. It is all fascinating -- and believable -- especially if you're under the influence and/or into trippy coincidences.

Oh, and speaking of trippy coincidences, Paul McCartney will be in concert tonight on ABC.

If that really is Paul.


Cranberry Sauce


1 1-lb bag of cranberries, rinsed and picked through

3/4 cup-1 cup of water

cup sugar

zest of 2 oranges

flesh of 2 oranges, cut up

4 whole cloves

3 cinnamon sticks


Mix sugar with water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil. Zest oranges, peel away the skin and pith and cut the flesh into chunks. Discard pith and skin. Add the cranberries, zest, orange flesh, cloves and cinnamon sticks to the sugar. Bring to a boil. Cook 10 minutes at medium heat, stirring occasionally. Let cool and refrigerate overnight.


What could be easier? Now if you want to be hard on yourself, you can reduce the heat to a simmer and cook this for 2 hours or so until it's a little mushier but it's really not necessary. I actually prefer the quick cook method with keeps the cranberries whole and makes it more like a cross between a sauce and a relish.

Celebrating My Name Day

Tomorrow is my name day. If you’re from Europe or Latin America at this point, you’re ready to buss me on both cheeks and heartily wish me a “Happy Name Day.” If you’re from here, you’re probably just thinking “Heh?”

In the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox religions, “name days” are the feast days of the saints for whom you were named. Since almost every one in Catholic Europe is named for a saint (or more likely for a relative who was named for a saint), everyone has a “name day” which is celebrated with as much verve and gusto as birthdays are here. Birthdays in Europe are considered private affairs celebrated only by family and those with a “need to know.” Name days on the other hand are more public events since everyone knows your name.

If you are a Catherine/Cathy /Kate/Karen or some variation thereof, you can just about pick your name day given the numerous St. Catherines and their associated feast days on the liturgical calendar. I traditionally observe the feast of St. Catherine of Alexandria . Or did until she ran afoul of the Pope in 1969 or thereabouts. It seems the Church could not verify that she and a whole slew of other saints ever existed. So they were expunged from the calendar during a era of papal reform. And I had to start observing my name day in April on the feast of St. Catherine of Siena. It just never felt right to me. Recently, I noticed that St. Catherine of A. is still the most popular St. Catherine in Google (if not the Vatican) so I’ve reclaimed her feast day as my own. What are they gonna do? Excommunicate me?

St. Catherine of Alexandria was one of the glamorous virgin martyr saints -- reputedly as hot as she was pious and virtuous. Her beauty attracted the eye of the lecherous Roman emperor Maximinus who went along with her efforts to convert him to Christianity until he realized she wasn’t going to give him any. He ordered her tortured and executed in retaliation. If you were a woman, that was the usual path to sainthood – that or become a hermit nun who had visions. Today they would call those women bi-polar.

Catherine’s instrument of torture, a spiked wheel, mysteriously broke whenever her tormentors tried to bind her to it. Emperor Max was not impressed by this divine intervention and had her beheaded. So Catherine got to be a saint with fireworks named after her rather than tart who set off fireworks in the bedroom. She later became one of the “Fourteen Holy Helpers” the go-to saints who helped in times of adversity and difficulties. Sort of like a Catholic League of Justice. St. Catherine's specialty was intervening against sudden death. The “holy 14” were also victims of papal reform.

So how does one celebrate one’s name day? With flowers. I always got a nosegay of camellias, the South’s ubiquitous fall/winter flower. My mother also made my favorite custard-filled crème puffs – something I now know are called Princes Krafne in Croatia. And I got to eat tacos on the good china (an honor also extended on my birthday). That’s it. No presents or parties or anything like that. Just a simple little day of observance to make me feel just a touch more special than usual.

And it always did.

Cream Puffs or Princes Krafne

Pastry

1 cup milk

1/2 t salt

2/3 cup unsalted butter

1 cup plus 1 T flour (all purpose)

4 eggs

Put butter and milk in small saucepan; stir over high heat until melted. Add flour all at once and beat vigorously for two minutes. Add eggs one at a time and blend until smooth. Beat fast until smooth and fluffy.Drop by teaspoonfuls, 2 inches apart, onto ungreased cookie sheet.Place in preheated oven and bake at 350 F for 20-30 minutes. Do not open oven door while puffs are baking.Let cool. Cut off tops. Fill with custard filling. Replace tops. Sprinkle with confectioners' sugar.

Custard

4 egg yolks

4 T sugar

4 T flour

1 t vanilla
1 pint milk
4 egg whites.

Mix egg yolks, sugar, flour and a few tablespoons of cold milk. Boil remaining milk. Add egg mixture to milk and continue to cook until thick, stirring frequently. Beat egg whites until stiff. Fold into the custard. Refrigerate until thick.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Turkey and Sausage Gumbo: Something to be Thankful For

I look forward to Thanksgiving as much as next person. The Soljan family's Turkey Day repast was probably not much different than anyone else's except that my mother usually brought over two dressings -- cornbread and also a seasoned bread dressing that my grandpa liked -- and we NEVER had cranberry sauce out of a can (abomination).

But, for me, the real reason to go through the whole rigmarole is just to have a meaty turkey carcass so I can make turkey and sausage gumbo after Thanksgiving. Now this is something to be thankful for.

If you can find it, use a good andouille sausage. If not, any good smoked sausage will do. I couldn't find andouille my first year in the 'burg. I thought I was going to have to move back to the Coast and live in a tent. I guess in a nod to all the post-Katrina New Orleans and Mississippi Coast transplants, the area grocers got smart and started carrying andouille.


While as a rule, I am not a fan of seafood gumbo (love seafood -- just would rather not eat it all stewed together with a roux), I do find that putting about 10-12 large shrimp in this recipe adds a little extra flavor to the broth. This is also good made with a chicken or duck carcass.

As with most soups and stews, this just gets better and better as the week wears on. It is the ultimate holiday comfort food.

Turkey and Sausage Gumbo

1 turkey carcass with meat
1 lb of andouille or smoked sausage cut in 1/4" slices
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup all purpose flour
5 T butter or margarine
1 large onion chopped
1 large green bell pepper chopped
3 stalks of celery with tops, chopped
5 cloves garlic minced
1/2 t of dried thyme
1/4 cup of flat-leaf parsley minced
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
1 bay leaf
5 chicken or beef bouillon cubes (or a mixture of both)
1 14-oz can stewed tomatoes
10-12 large fresh shrimp
2 cups of fresh or frozen okra, sliced *
4 green onions sliced
additional parsley chopped
file powder (optional)
hot sauce (optional)

Brown sausage in oil until browned in a large Dutch oven. Remove. Sprinkle flour over the drippings and add 2 T of butter/margarine. Cook, stirring constantly over medium-low until browned to make a roux. This will take about 10-15 minutes. Don't be tempted to turn up the heat to speed the process. The roux will burn and then you'll have to throw it out and start all over. Just when you think your arm is about to fall off, the roux should be that nice rich brown color that signals good roux. Let it cool a little.

Return the Dutch oven to low heat and melt the remaining 3 T of butter. Add the onion and saute for 10 minutes. Add the green pepper, garlic, celery, parsley, bay leaf, thyme and Worcestershire sauce. Cook stirring frequently for 10 minutes. Slowly add 4 cups of hot water, whisking constantly to blend the flour mixture in with the liquid. If you add the water too quickly or use cold water, your broth will have lumps in it. You don't want that. Add the turkey carcass and sausage to the pot and cover. Bring to a boil, then reduce to simmer for 45 minutes. Add the bouillon cubes, tomatoes, shrimp and okra. Cover and simmer for 1 hour. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve over cooked rice. Add green onions and extra parsley and a dash of hot sauce. If desired stir some file powder into your serving just before eating. File is powdered sassafras. Don't add this to the pot or it will get stringy.

* Frozen okra can get a little slimy. I usually dry mine out in the microwave a little before adding to the gumbo.

Friday, November 13, 2009

If It's An "R" Month It Must Be Oyster Season!


Photo: A family Thanksgiving gathering in the late 1950s. Chances were oysters were involved.
OK, we all grew up knowing that you just don't eat oysters in months lacking that all important "R." A lot of experts will tell you that this is an old wives' tale, stemming from the days before refrigeration.

Maybe. But you won't catch this Biloxi girl eating "ersters" in May, June, July, or August. Actually, until recently, you wouldn't have caught me eating them much any time of year. Seafood-loving-scion of a seafaring Slav though I am, the bi-valve types, alas, were never my favorites. Considering, where I come from this is close to heresy. But I'm starting to come around.

Oysters, like shrimp, were big business on the Point. Cracker jack shuckers, like Aunt Frances' husband, Uncle Frank, were in high demand at the factories. He won lots of shucking contests.

Oysters figure prominently in Biloxi's holiday recipe files. There are Point Cadet residents who would just refuse to observe Thanksgiving altogether if they couldn't serve their turkey with oyster dressing. Or a big platter of oysters on the half-shell.

I don't go that far, but I do like to make oyster artichoke soup around the holidays, usually for Christmas Eve dinner.

Another favored way to serve oysters is to panne them in a little of their own water flavored with oil and salt and pepper as my nona did. Just make sure you choose small or medium oysters. The large ones just don't turn out as well. It's not a fancy recipe, but it's hard to beat its simplicity or the pure way it brings out the flavor of the oysters.


Panned Oysters

12-15 small to medium oysters

6-8 T water from the oysters

2 T water

1 T oil

salt and pepper to taste

Wash and drain the oysters. Using 6--8 tablespoons of the water drained from the oysters, add another 2 tablespoons of tap water and bring to a boil. Add oysters and simmer until edges begin to curl. Add oil, salt and pepper. Serve with a loaf of French bread to soak up the sauce.


Holiday Oyster Artichoke Soup

1 quart oysters and liqueur

2 T butter

2 T flour

2 cups white onions, chopped

1 1/2 cups green onions, chopped

2 cups of quartered artichokes (drained)

1/2 cup parsley, chopped

1 cup water

4 T butter

salt and pepper to taste

Drain oysters, reserving oyster liquid. Melt butter in a 3-quart stockpot. Blend in flour, stirring until well-blended, 1 minute. Add onions and quartered artichoke hearts. Saute until soft. Incorporate green onions and parsley. Add water and reserved oyster liquid. Chop half of the oysters finely. Add to soup. Simmer 30 minutes. Add remaining oysters, butter salt and pepper. Simmer 15 minutes. Serves 8.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Learning to Love Lentils

Even as a kid I was not a picky eater. You can count on one hand the foods I just WILL NOT eat -- brussels sprouts, stewed okra with tomatoes, split peas and lentils (I get the last two confused).

My mother thought she had hit the jackpot. Until my sister came along. Kim subsisted solely off hot dogs and chocolate milk during her first decade of life.

When my father was elected president of the Mississippi Restaurant Association, my parents went to Jackson for the investiture banquet. My sister and I stayed with our grandparents.

As our Chevy Impala pulled away from the curb, Mama yelled back at Nona "Don't cook anything special. Kim only eats hot dogs and Cathy eats almost anything... ." She really should have filled in those ellipses.

That night Nona, Grandpa, Kim and I sat down to big steaming bowls of lentil soup.

I spent 15 minutes dripping olive drab legume-y sludge from my spoon to the bowl, raising the spoon to my lips only often enough for manners. At least there would be chocolate ice cream for dessert. And my favorite new television show, Batman, on TV. Of course, it wouldn't be in color like on our brand new Zenith at home, but I would still get to indulge in my schoolgirl crush on Robin.

As the first strains of the "Dada dada dada dada, Dada dada dada dada BAT-man" theme song wafted from the living room, I slipped from my chair and away from the dreadful -- and still half-full -- bowl of soup. My grandfather stopped me dead in my tracks, pointing sternly to the soup, "Not until you finish your dinner, Catarina."

What?! Look, Kim's not eating it.

Except she was.

Willingly, even eagerly, the little fraud spooned the last drops of that nasty, and it bears repeating, sludge-y, olive drab soup into her picky little mouth, held out her bowl and asked for more. Had the world gone mad?

That night, my sister -- my mother's culinary despair -- got to eat chocolate ice cream and watch Batman (at least until the Joker came on and scared her), while I, the source of all my mother's playground boasting, sat at the kitchen table -- dessert-less and Batman-less- - and choked down the last of those by now cold, congealed disgusting lentils. Oh, the unfairness of it all!

I vowed I would never, NEVER eat lentils (or split peas or whatever) again. And I didn't for a really long time.

Flash-foward 40 years to a cool October evening in Paris. I am at L'Abassade d'Auvergne restaurant looking forward to eating my weight in roasted duck and the house speciality, aligot.

The adorable dimpled server places the first course in front of me -- a HUGE earthenware bowl filled with lentil salad.

I eye it warily. "EET ees good, Madame," Dimples assures me. OK. But only because you're so damn cute.

I taste it. It's not sludge-y. The lentils are al dente, but cooked through. And they are bathed in a deliciously aggressive vinaigrette redolent of onion, Dijon mustard and ... are those crispy bits of bacon? "Lardons," Dimples murmurs silkily, ladling, God help me, another scoop onto my plate.

And I eat. And eat. And eat. With all the repressed longing of 40 + years.

When it is all over, I am full. Very full. Because this time, I did get my dessert, not chocolate ice cream, but the most amazing chocolate mousse ever. In 2008, I don't need Batman (or Robin) to make my evening complete. I have Paris.

When I return home to Hattiesburg, I flip through my piled up mail including my Bon Appetit magazine. There, in black and white, is the recipe for L'Abassade d'Auvergne's famous lentil salad.

From Heaven I could feel Nona and Grandpa beaming down on me. And laughing a little.

Maybe I'll give that lentil (or split pea) soup another chance.

LENTIL SOUP

1 lb. lentils

1 small onion, chopped

2 stalks celery, chopped fine

2-3 cloves of garlic, chopped fine

1/2 lb picnic ham, chopped in small pieces

salt and pepper to taste

Cover with water and simmer in a covered, medium pot for 1 hour or until tender.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

When Even the Dead Ate Well

After the scary fun and games of All Hallow's Eve, came the solemnity of All Saints Day on Nov. 1. Except, in these parts, the day wasn't all that solemn.

The traditional visit to the cemetery to venerate the dead, was a family event. And like most family events it was, well, kind of fun actually.

On All Saints (or the Saturday before depending on when it fell), my grandmother, mother, aunts and a motley crew of grandchildren, descended on the Biloxi Cemetery, armed with rakes, brooms, pruning shears, paint brushes and trash bags, to tend to the family plots. The plot where my grandpa and my mother's little brother, Mato Junior, (and later nona and Aunt Marie) were buried was located in the shade of a giant Southern oak tree.

We pulled up oak saplings, raked acorn shells, whitewashed the plot's cement border and placed flowers ( usually my Aunt Marie's favorite purple mums) in the stone vase between the large double head-stones. Aunt Marie also buried a few pieces of Grandpa's favorite candy-- Hershey kisses -- at the base of his stone.

The restless kids ran up and down the paths visiting our "favorite" graves and tombs -- those with wrought iron gates, portraits embedded in the stones and fancy statuary. The saddest ones were the children's graves with their chubby little angel and sleeping lamb statues.

With the other kids visiting the cemetery, we played tag and hide and seek among the tombs and oak trees, until our moms called us back to picnic graveside on root-beer floats, onion rings, and chili dogs that my Aunt Marie bought from the A&W root beer stand just around the corner.

After we finished sprucing up our family plot, we placed a small bouquet of camellias on the mysterious grave next to it. The gentleman died in 1932. No one knew who he was; he did not have a local surname. His was the only grave in a large plot. We weren't sure if he had a family who left after he died or if he never had a family. My mother was always bothered by his lonely, untended grave.

We drove across Irish Hill Drive and visited the graves of my grandmother's parents, grandmother and little brother and sister. We strolled slowly around the cemetery, visiting with others on cemetery duty, and stopping to admire the newly spruced up graves and share reminisces of old friends, neighbors, relatives, teachers, who had passed on.

After we left in late afternoon, our duty done for another year, I always imagined the souls of the departed congregating in the deepening shadows to commiserate about the weather, admire each other's freshly cleaned graves and flowers and remark on the size of the children and passage of time -- just as they had in life.

It was all very comforting and cozy

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Desporte: The Point’s First (and Last) Name in French Bread

The best part of a pot roast was sopping up the gravy with French bread from The Avenue or Desporte’s Bakeries. Both were owned by the Desporte family and baked their bread in these fabulous old brick ovens. Desporte’s burned and The Avenue (located on Howard Avenue) became Desporte’s Avenue bakery. Hurricane Katrina damaged the bakery – and more importantly its ovens – beyond repair. I am still trying to come to terms with that tragedy.

When Aunt Selema visited Biloxi, she always stopped at The Avenue on her way out of town to load up on bread for her freezer back in San Antonio. You couldn’t get this stuff in Texas.

In addition to baguette sized loaves, individual po-boy loaves and rolls, known as pistolettes, the old Avenue bakery also sold sweet rolls and donuts. Someone usually picked up a couple of sacks of these on weekends, for company or after a death in the family. As great as the bread was, Desporte’s sweet stuff, to me, was just a little weird.

The texture was tough, and full of air holes, more like bread than pastry. The dough was an improbable day-glo yellow and caked with cement-like icing. By noon, any leftover pastries turned into rocks edible only after a dip in hot coffee.

Oddly enough, I’m having a craving for one of those sweet rolls right now. Go figure.

There were a million uses for French bread in a Point household. Sliced and served with butter or to sop up gravy at a regular family meal. Po-boys. Ground up to make bread crumbs for topping casseroles, extending meatloaf or coating fish or chicken filets.

Stale, the stuff made great French toast for breakfast and the world’s best bread pudding for dessert.

Last weekend, I had some fabulous bread pudding at the Upperline in New Orleans. The texture was dense and, well, pudding-y. As good as it was, it really didn't taste like the bread pudding I remember my mama making with day-old French bread. Hers was fluffy rather than dense. Sadly, I lost her recipe in the hurricane. She never made it the same way twice. Some times she served it with rum (or whiskey) sauce. Sometimes she put raisins in it. Or apples. Or peaches and blueberries in the summer. I came across this recipe and it reminded me of her.

If you're a bread pudding fan, the Ole Biloxi Recipe fan site on Facebook has some good bread pudding recipes using French bread (and any kind will do) as well as ton of other good food native Biloxians grew up with.

Apple/Raisin Bread Pudding

1 large loaf of day-old French bread cut into cubes (about 12 cups)
3 large eggs
2 cups whole milk
3 T vanilla
1 cup of sugar
3/4 t of cinnamon
3/4 t, nutmeg
2 cups apples peeled and chopped
1 cup raisins
3/4 cup of butter, cut into bits
3 T cinnamon
2 t nutmeg

Preheat oven to 325. Butter a 9 x 13 baking dish. Put bread cubes into a large colander, pour about 4 cups of hot tap water evenly over the bread. Leave for five minutes. Squeeze out excess water and set aside. In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, milk, vanilla, sugar and spices. Gently fold in bread, apples and raisins. Pour into the baking dish. Drop butter bits evenly over the top. Mix together cinnamon and nutmeg and sprinkle even over the pudding. Bake 1 hour and 20 minutes. Serve hot or cold. Some people serve this with ice cream or whipped cream or even top with a hot rum or whiskey sauce. I like it just as is.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Nona's Chicken Soup with Sauerkraut

It's soup weather! And am I the only one who thought it would never get here? I love all kinds of soup. But my favorites are the chicken soup and the beef vegetable and pasta soup my nona always made this time of year.

The soups themselves were quite wonderful, especially the chicken soup made with rich stock from a stewing hen, fried bits of chicken liver (yum) and thickened with ground up saltine crackers.

But the real reason to look forward to soup day was to tear into the side plate that ALWAYS accompanied it: meat from the soup -- boiled chicken or chuck roast, served with a dab of mustard, chopped sweet gherkins, pickled onions and the piece de resistance, sauerkraut.

OK, I can already hear the Eeeeeeewwwws. But trust me (and have I ever steered you wrong) this sauerkraut bears no resemblance to that nasty, stinky, sour stuff served over cheap hot dogs. Well, maybe a little in that it does come out of a can. But this sauerkraut gets a lengthy bath that takes all the brine out of it, and then simmers for HOURS on the stove top with pork and tomato sauce and soup broth into something that is just pure nirvana.

To quote my friend Lou, I done flung a hankerin' on myself.

Chicken Soup

1 stewing hen (if you can't find a stewing hen, use a regular 3-4 lb frying chicken, but you'll need to add a couple of chicken bouillon cubes to give the broth the right depth of flavor)
2-3 stalks of celery (with leaves) cut in halves
1 large carrot cut in half
1 medium onion, quartered
2 1/2 quarts water.

Bring chicken and vegetables in water to a boil in a stock pot. Cover and simmer for about 2 hours. Begin the sauerkraut (recipe follows)

After chicken is cooked, strain broth. Reserve meat. Throw out the vegetables -- they've served their purpose.

Chop up the liver that came in the chicken cavity and saute in a dab of butter and vegetable oil until the bits are brown and crispy. Add back to the soup. Now if you're a chicken liver fan, like I am, you may want to add another chicken liver -- if you happen to have one on hand -- but resist the urge to add more. Chicken liver has a very strong and definite taste that can overpower the broth if you're not careful. You just want a few bits afloat in the soup to add some dimension.

In a blender, crumb a sleeve to a sleeve and a half of saltine crackers and slowly add to the soup to thicken to desired consistency.

Serve soup hot with a plate of reserved sliced chicken, mustard, sweet gherkins, cocktail onions or pickled onions and a HEAP of sauerkraut.

SAUERKRAUT

3 large cans of sauerkraut
1 large onion, chopped
1 T Crisco shortening melted or vegetable oil
1 T salt
Pepper (to taste)
2 T chopped Italian parsley
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup tomato sauce
3 pork chops with bone cut into pieces


Wash sauerkraut in very hot water. Squeeze out every last bit of water. Do the wash and squeeze routine three times (this is important to get out all the brine). After the last wash, when all the water has been squeezed out, let rest in colander.

In a heavy skillet, melt the Crisco or heat the oil. Add onion, garlic, parsley, salt and pepper and cook until onions are translucent. Brown pork pieces (and bones), add tomato sauce and cook until the sauce browns. Add the sauerkraut. Mix in with the pork, onion and tomato sauce. Add 1/2 cup of water and and cook over medium heat for 30 minutes. Reduce heat and simmer, adding an occasional ladle of broth from the simmering soup pot as needed. If making sauerkraut without soup (heresy though it is) dissolve a chicken or beef bouillon cube in 1 cup hot water and add as needed instead of stock. Stir occasionally adding broth to keep sauerkraut from sticking. Cook 2 1/2 - 3 hours at a minimum. Taste, add salt if needed. The flavor in this improves with age.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Old Biloxi Ocean Springs Bridge and Rosetti’s Vancleave Special

Photo: Aunt Dolores as a teenager in my grandparents' front yard (circa 1950). The road leading to the old bridge is visible in the background.

Geographically, the city of Biloxi is a peninsula with Point Cadet at its very eastern tip.

Today, we don’t think too much about getting from Biloxi and to our neighboring communities “across the bay” – unless a hurricane or a tug boat takes out one of our many bridges.

However, in my nona's youth there was no easy way to get from Point Cadet to Ocean Springs. You either took a boat or went six miles out of your way to cross the Back Bay Bridge which connected Biloxi to D’Iberville. Then the bridge connecting Biloxi with Ocean Springs was dedicated in June 1930.

On the Biloxi side, the bridge let out just west of my grandparents’ front yard on East Howard Avenue. On nice evenings, the family would sit out on their front screened porch and count the cars coming across the bridge and read their licence plates to see where people were traveling from. Sometimes you forget how simple life used to be.

A few years after the bridge opened, my grandmother’s cousin Vincent “Vitsie” Rosetti (not to be confused with her brother Vincent “Vitsie” Rosetti”) opened a small café on Howard where weary travelers could rest and get a bite to eat. Rosetti’s café was a hit with travelers and locals alike, famous for its seafood, plate lunches and their wonderful po-boys, especially a crabmeat and cheese number known as the Vancleave Special.

The sandwich reportedly was invented by C.L. “Kip” Dees of Vancleave in 1947. Vitsie liked Kip’s idea of adding cheese to the regular crabmeat po-boy so well, he added it to the menu. At $1.75 it was reportedly the most expensive item on the menu.

As teenagers, my mom and her friends rode bikes across the bridge to hang out in Ocean Springs, drink Orange Crushes and flirt with boys they hadn’t known since the cradle.

The bridge was not all fun and adventure. In 1959, a sleepy driver crossed the bridge’s lane divider and crashed head on into the car driven by my Uncle Raymond’s new bride. Thankfully, she survived the crash, though it took a while to recover from her injuries.

In the early 1960s, a new bridge was built just to the east that routed traffic directly onto Highway 90 rather than Howard Avenue. The old bridge became a fishing pier. During my childhood, my cousins and I treated it as our personal playground. We fished and crabbed off its sides. We participated in the Junior Fishing rodeos held there. Sometimes, when nona and grandpa’s house just seemed too full of relatives, we went on long walks and dared each other to spit over the side on windy days. Go ahead and try it. You’ll only do it once.

Hurricane Katrina dealt the final blow to the old bridge rendering it unusable.

On days when I’m feeling particularly nostalgic, I daydream about the time when people all the way from Vancleave crossed that bridge just to have a crabmeat and cheese po-boy from Rosetti’s. And I head to the kitchen. I prefer Monterey Jack or provolone to the customary American cheese. Since I live in Hattiesburg these days, I guess you could call this the Hattiesburg Special.


Crabmeat and Cheese Po-Boy


Crabmeat patties (use the stuffed crab recipe from my Aug. 30, 2009 post (Crabbing: A Saltwater Sport for the Uncoordinated but add a well-beaten egg to the crabmeat and bread mixture to help it hold together better.)

French bread

2-3 pieces of cheese (American is traditional, but use whatever kind you like. I like Monterey Jack).

Shredded iceberg lettuce

Sliced tomato

Mayo and mustard, sliced pickles if you like

Make crabmeat stuffing and shape into patties. For po-boys you want these patties more oblong and a little thinner than you would make for crab cake. Dust patties in flour and saute on both sides in a mixture of butter and olive oil until browned and crispy on both sides. Drain on paper towel.

Cut a third (or a half depending how hungry you are) off a whole loaf of French bread. Cut the hunk in half. Grill the halves, sliced side down in melted butter just until toasted. Spread with mustard/mayo as you like, put crab patties on one side top with 2 slices of cheese and shredded lettuce and tomato. Top with other slice of bread and put the the sandwich back on the grill and top with a heavy skillet or grill press until the sandwich is toasted on top and pressed flat and cheese is melted.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

October and Pumpkin Chocolate-Chip Muffins

October is here! This is my favorite month and has been since I was just a tiny girl. It might have something to do with the fact that it contains both my birthday and my favorite holiday, Halloween. The two days are linked in my mind because almost all my birthday parties had a Halloween theme.

I could get happy just walking into the downtown Woolworths (or as we insist on calling it in Biloxi, "Woolsworth") and smelling those gory latex rubber masks mingled with the scent of fresh mini chocolate bars.

A few of those celebrations took place on my grandparents' front porch at Point Cadet. I can still see the black and orange crepe paper streamers fluttering against the screens and those artfully designed gift bags my mother made to hand out as party favors. She also baked free-form jack o' lantern cakes. The year birthday pinatas became the rage she made a pumpkin pinata out of papier marche and and a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket. It was a big hit.

My birthday parties were usually just family affairs, but with 18 cousins (and that's just first cousins, not even counting the second, third and fourth cousins I grew up with), it was quite a crowd for that little porch.

I don't really have birthday parties anymore. Nowadays, I just celebrate the entire month of October.

I put potted mums on my porch along with pumpkins in all their guises -- fat, skinny, tall, squat, orange, white, green and warty. I decorate the house. And I make pumpkin chocolate chip muffins. I know. It sounds gross, but don't knock 'em until you try 'em.

I came across this recipe in a muffin cookbook almost 20 years ago and it's become my "must bake" October treat. As improbable as the flavor combination sounds, even people who hate pumpkin usually love these. I've tinkered with the recipe over the years to make the muffins even richer and spicier. These keep well; in fact you should make them a day or so before you plan to eat them for optimum flavor. They are addictive.

Pumpkin Chocolate-Chip Muffins

1/2 cup of sliced unblanched almonds

1 2/3 cups of all purpose flour

1 cup granulated sugar

1 T pumpkin pie spice (I use 2 T)

1 t baking soda

1/4 t baking powder

1/4 t salt

2 large eggs

1 cup plain canned pumpkin ( You can usually find this in the canned fruit aisle. 1 cup is about 1/2 of a 1 lb. can. Note: You want plain canned pumpkin, not canned pumpkin pie mix which won't work in this recipe)

1/2 cup melted butter (1 stick)

1 6-oz bag chocolate chips (I prefer the semi-sweet)

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Toast almonds on a baking sheet for 5 minutes or until lightly browned. Slide them off the hot sheet so they don't burn.

Grease muffin pans or use paper or foil liners (I recommend foil liners. The paper ones tend to get all greasy.)

Thoroughly mix the flour, sugar, pie spice, baking soda, baking powder and salt in a large bowl.

Break eggs into another bowl. Add pumpkin and butter and whisk until well-blended. Stir in chocolate chips and almonds. Pour over dry ingredients and fold in with a rubber spatula until the dry ingredients are just blended.

Scoop batter evenly into muffin cups. Bake 20-25 minutes until puffed and springy to the touch. Turn onto a rack to cool. Wrap in plastic. You can reheat before serving, but they're fine at room temperature.

Recipe makes 12 regular or 48 miniature muffins. You may as well go ahead and make two batches. I mean, what else are you going to do with the leftover half- can of pumpkin?

Friday, September 25, 2009

In Praise of Julia and Offal

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time with Julia – Child that is. First I saw the movie, “Julie & Julia.” Then I read the book of the same name which was about Julie’s attempt to cook/blog her way through Julia’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in one year. And now I’ve just finished Julia’s memoir, “My Life in France.”

Julia, like any good French chef, went whole hog when cooking said hog – ears, cheeks, tail, snout and innards. In France, there are four star restaurants where the entire menu is comprised of these parts, neither flesh nor muscle, known as offal. I have to say, I am intrigued. As we say in the South, parts is parts.

To be honest, Julia did not create my interest in offal, she just reinvigorated it. I was that rare kid who loved liver and onions. My favorite part of the round steak was the creamy marrow inside the little round bone. Why don’t butchers include that bone in round steak anymore?

My nona and mom put their share of organ meat on the family dinner table, especially kidneys .
I still crave braised or sautéed kidneys, even though they are loaded with cholesterol which I definitely don’t need. However, it’s getting hard to find them in your mainstream grocery market. You either have to shop at the very high end butcher shops or in the small groceries down in the ‘hood. Maybe that will change now that Julia is back in the public’s consciousness.

As with most recipes, the key to cooking organ meat is to buy the freshest you can find, keep the preparation simple and DON’T OVERCOOK. I prefer lamb or veal kidneys. They are more tender and have a milder taste and smell than pork or beef kidneys. If you buy pork or beef kidneys, slow braising is definitely the way to go.

Be forewarned that in America kidneys are a dish best enjoyed in the privacy of your own home. I once took some leftovers to work and reheated them in the microwave. Not only did that toughen the meat, I had to deal with co-workers walking around saying “What’s that smell?” all afternoon. There is a definite ammonia aroma to even the freshest kidneys.

But don’t let that stop you from enjoying them. Julia never did.

KIDNEYS
Kidneys can go simple or fancy. These are kidneys in their simplest, and I think, best form, sauteed or braised just as my mother and grandmother made them.

To reduce strong smell and aroma, boil kidneys for few minutes and drain or soak in salted water and lemon juice for an hour or so in the refrigerator, rinse and pat dry.

To SAUTE: Place prepared kidneys in a lightly oiled skillet and cook over high heat 5-7 minutes, turning often. Salt and pepper to taste after cooking (sometimes salting during cooking can toughen the meat).

To BRAISE: In a lightly greased casserole dish, sauté one chopped onion in butter til tender. Lightly dust and kidneys with flour and brown them over high heat 3-5 minutes. Add ¼-1/2 pint of chicken broth (or a mixture of chicken broth and wine). Reduce heat and cook 30-40 minutes until tender, turning once. Season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with chopped parsley. Serve kidneys and gravy over boiled rice.

Bon Appetit!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Chocolate Chess Pie at the B-I-N-G-O!

Photo: Aunt Marie, the Bingo Queen.
When the hardworking residents of Point Cadet found a few hours of downtime, you might find them at a bingo game. Bingo night drew the crowds in at the Slavonian Lodge, Fleur de Lis Society, VFW hall and Senior Citizens’ Center, especially before East Biloxi transformed itself into Casino Row.

Aunt Marie was the Bingo Queen. She was a natural thrill-seeker, risk-taker and social animal. Bingo satisfied all those cravings.

Like any true Bingo aficionado, Aunt Marie carried her own set of card markers in her purse rather than using the dried beans we amateurs used. She played a whole table full of cards and paid my sister and I a quarter each to help her “watch” them. She never just grabbed a random stack, but chose each one carefully. She claimed she had a system, but I could never figure out what it was or if it actually worked for her.

“I’m feeling lucky tonight,” she’d crow rubbing her itchy palms together. When she had a “wait” she’d shriek with delight, even if the prize she was waiting on was a crochet toilet paper roll cover.

As much as she loved winning, Aunt Marie loved gossiping even more. And Bingo halls were hotbeds of it. Here you found out who was in the hospital, who had died, who was stepping out with whom.

The elderly came with their walking sticks, and aluminum walkers in tow. At the Slavonian Lodge these lifelong friends sat together and haltingly spoke in the language of their youth (“so we don’t forget”) liberally interspersed with English, because after years of assimilation, they had forgotten some of it.

In between games, healths and symptoms were compared and diagnosed. Grandchildren were admired, family resemblances noted. The younger family members were sent to peruse the offerings at the bake sale table and bring back refreshments to be shared.

After the last number was called, everyone chipped in to clean up the hall and went back home, prizes tucked under their arms, and sated with sweets and the latest neighborhood news. And all for the price of a buck or two. Where else could you get so much satisfaction for so little?

CHOCOLATE CHESS PIE: A BINGO BAKE SALE STAPLE

The Slavonian Lodge’s weekly bingo bake sales offered simple sweets - fudge, brownies, chocolate chip cookies, chess squares, and slices of bundt or Sock It to Me cake. My personal favorite was a wedge of chocolate chess pie. Now this homely pie will never win a beauty contest. On a dessert buffet, it is often passed over for showier sweets. But don’t be fooled by the unremarkable exterior. Inside this pie is rich, fudgy yet custardy. And best of all it is easy to make.

1 1/2 cups white sugar
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 eggs
1 (5 ounce) can evaporated milk
1/4 cup melted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F . Mix sugar and cocoa together. Beat the eggs then add to the cocoa mixture. Beat in the milk, butter and vanilla. Pour mixture into 9 inch unbaked pie shell and bake at 350 degrees F (175 degrees C) for 45 minutes or until set. Let cool before slicing.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Bogeyman

You know the old guy who hates kids and never returns the balls that land in his yard? Dennis the Menace had Mr. Wilson. My cousins and I had Old Joe.

A mere cinder block wall separated his yard from my grandparents’, yet it might as well have been the Berlin Wall. He rarely exchanged a word with any of us over the decades. Well, no kind word. Sometimes when the phone rang, Old Joe croaked, “Keep it down over there” before hanging up.

The kindness Old Joe withheld from humanity, he lavished on his property. His yard was a paradise of bounty—fruit trees, vegetable vines and the most gorgeous flower beds. We stood on each other’s shoulders to get a glimpse. He blasted our faces with water from his garden hose.

His animosity was rooted in a narrow driveway adjacent to my grandparents’ property. It led to his back yard. He did not own a car. No one ever visited him. But he defended that measly patch of grass with the ferocity of Davy Crockett defending the Alamo.

When Nona’s roses bloomed on the “driveway” side of the fence, Old Joe beheaded them and tossed the errant pink blossoms onto her side. If so much as an inch of a parked car’s bumper threatened encroachment, Old Joe called a cab to pick him up at his front door and deliver him to his back door just so the cab driver could ask that the offending vehicle be moved. I felt sorry for those long-suffering drivers. One guy had to wait while Old Joe summoned a locksmith to cut off the driveway gate’s lock. It had rusted shut.

Old Joe was a bachelor (imagine that). After my grandparents passed away, my aunt moved into their house. We joked that she and Old Joe might make a love connection. As we shrieked with laughter, the phone rang and a familiar voice snarled, “You got nose trouble over there?” In reply, my aunt hoisted a pair of lacy red underpants onto the clothesline, clearly visible across the fence line. And so the battle waged on.

I last saw Old Joe 30 years ago. I can still see his stooped, and by now frail, figure dragging a cast net in one hand, a croaker sack in the other down the pier at the Broadwater Marina. My mother and aunt, letting bygones be bygones, bade him a pleasant good morning as they cast their crab nets. Old Joe paused, nodded curtly and grunted. He might have said good morning. Or maybe go to hell. Whatever. He got into the ubiquitous yellow cab and was gone.

I hadn’t thought about Old Joe in years He had no friends, no family, no sweetheart. I wonder if it was hard for him sitting down to his solitary meals all those years and hearing our merriment right over the wall he built to keep the world out. Maybe those cantankerous exchanges were his way of joining in the fun.

So, Joe, you old cuss, wherever you wound up in the afterlife, for it’s worth, someone thought about you today. And even smiled at the memory. But , I’m still scared of you. You’d probably like that.

BILOXI BACON

On the rare occasion when you saw Old Joe, he was usually going out to cast for mullet. Mullet aka “Biloxi Bacon” are the fish you often see jumping out of the water around the Mississippi Sound. They travel in schools and are caught with a cast net rather than a fishing line. Personally, I have never particularly cared for this fish so I don’t cook it. Its flesh is just a little too oily for my taste. However, those oils make it an excellent candidate for frying and for smoking, like bacon, hence its nickname.


However, if someone were to deliver a mess of mullet to my door, I’d probably cook it using this recipe from Emeril Lagasse. It sure sounds good.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Breaking the Sweet Tea Curse


My nona, Mary (center) with my aunts Selema (left) and Marie (right). Lovely ladies, wonderful cooks, but their sweet tea ....eh.


If you're a Southerner, there's nothing more refreshing on a hot summer's day, than a tall glass of iced sweet tea sipped slowly through a straw while swaying on a porch swing. Unless my nona brewed the tea. In that case you you took a hasty gulp, bypassing the taste buds, and discreetly poured the rest into the hydrangea bushes.

My nona was a lovely person, a wonderful grandmother and a fantastic cook. But she couldn't brew sweet tea for toffee.

It was the family sweet tea curse.

She did try. After all, she was a Girl Raised in the South (GRITS) -- at least from the age of five on -- and making and drinking sweet tea is what we do, damn it. Even if it kills us (and the hydrangeas.)

Instead of clear amber liquid, Nona's tea pitcher spewed forth murky dark sludge that looked like it had spent considerable time lubricating a car engine.

Her tea bag of choice was Thrifty Maid, Winn-Dixie's house brand. In my opinion, any food product bearing the image of that bonnie plaid-wearing lass had to be gag-inducing. Ever try Thrifty Maid ketchup? Nasty, nasty stuff!

Nona's economy in buying the lowest-priced store brand was offset somewhat by her tendency to brew all the tea bags at once. I attribute this excess to her roots. While the Croats may have beat back the Turks centuries ago, the Ottoman Empire struck back by leaving their mark on Croatia's beverages. You can stand a spoon up in their coffee and tea.

To cut the bitterness of her strong brew, Nona dumped in lots of granulated sugar. It semi-dissolved then slowly settled in the murky depths like detritus from a ship wreck.

Then to offset the sweetness, she added several swigs of "real" lemon juice from a green bottle. I believe that same bottle had resided in her refrigerator since the Eisenhower administration. It tasted like ammonia.

Then she added more sugar to cover up the ammonia tang.

And so on and so forth in a vicious cycle until the tea was so thick you could chew it.

Nona served her tea in a kitschy '50s aluminum pitcher and tumbler set. The aluminum imparted a slightly metallic taste. And made your teeth itch.

Any leftover tea (and there was always some left over) was put back into the refrigerator for the next day.

My aunts couldn't make decent tea to save their lives either. My mother would have been "sweet tea impaired" as well had she not been blessed with a mother-in -law who was a genuine Tennessee-born-and-bred GRITS . She taught my mother how to brew perfect sweet tea. And make lighter than air biscuits. And fry crispy-on-the-outside-juicy-on-the inside chicken.

And so the sweet tea curse was broken, and our family's GRITS credentials established.

Southern Sweet Tea (the right way)
  • Use a good brand of tea bag. Off brands make for off-tasting tea.

  • Boil fresh water for each new pitcher. Leftover boiled kettle water may be sterile but it isn't tasty -- and yes this is important. Some people swear by using a special kettle for brewing only tea.

  • Use no more than 3-4 family size tea bags per 6 cups of boiling water.

  • Steep no longer than 10-15 minutes. just until the tea is a nice rich amber tone. Remove the tea bags. Over-steeping will make the tea bitter.

  • Now here's the key part. You can just dump a cup of sugar in the tea, but it's so worth it to use the time while the tea is steeping to dissolve a cup of sugar in a cup of boiling water to make a simple syrup. The syrup mixes into the tea more evenly than undissolved sugar and keeps the liquid clear and grit-free. Once you master the art of simple syrup, you'll also be able to prepare fresh figs for freezing in the summer. And also make a decent mint julep come Derby Day

  • Fill the pitcher with more water to make a gallon. Let it cool a little. Pour freshly brewed, cooled tea over ice cubes or crushed ice. Hot tea will immediately melt your ice, watering down the tea and overfilling your glass.

  • Serve with a squeeze of fresh lemon (or lime for a totally different, yet equally refreshing, taste experience).

  • Add a sprig of lightly crushed spearmint (optional).

In the unlikely event you have some tea left in the bottom of the pitcher, POUR IT OUT. Under no circumstances should you try to save it for later or, God forbid, the next day.

Unlike a GRITS, iced sweet tea does not improve with age.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Crabbing - A Saltwater Sport for the Uncoordinated

If you grew up in Biloxi, your summer entertainment revolved around the water and probably involved some kind of net. Seining, cast net throwing, flounder gigging and crabbing were all popular activities.

My mom was scared I’d drown while seining. And that I’d accidentally gig my foot instead of a flounder. I wasn’t coordinated enough for cast net throwing.

Crabbing, on the other hand, requires infinite time, patience and luck. But absolutely no skill or talent. There’s an activity I could get on board with.

Our favorite family crabbing spots were the old Biloxi-Ocean Springs fishing bridge, the marina area over by where the Marine Education Center used to be and the Broadwater Marina across from the Broadwater Hotel. We once caught 200 crabs in one morning at the Broadwater. We’re still talking about it.

I have spent whole mornings without catching a single crab. But then I’ve had mornings where I caught dozens of them – and spent the entire afternoon picking the meat out of the shells and claws. Crab is definitely a meal you earn, but so worth the sore finger tips.

Most of my hard-earned crabmeat eventually wound up as stuffed or deviled crabs which is crabmeat with breading, onion, garlic, bell pepper and spices stuffed back into the scrubbed crab shell and baked in the oven until puffed and golden.

You can serve your deviled crab in the little ceramic dishes shaped like crab shells, but if you’ve actually gone to the trouble of catching the crab yourself, you’ll find it tastes much better baked in the natural shell.

You don’t see stuffed crab on menus too much anymore except at traditional seafood restaurants. The upscale places all seem to have gone to crab cakes.

While I love crab cakes, for the record, let me say I ate many a stuffed crab in my childhood in Biloxi But I never ate a crab cake.

The following recipe is based on some from the Slavonian Ladies' Auxiliary cookbook. There are also some excellent crab recipes -- and lots of good recipes in general -- on the Old Biloxi Recipe fan page on Facebook.

Stuffed Crabs

1 lb of crabmeat (picked over for shell and cartilage)
1 large onion, chopped
3-4 stalks celery chopped (including tops)
1/2-1 whole bell pepper
3 cloves garlic chopped
1 bunch of green onions
1/4 cup minced parsley
10 slices of white bread ,toasted
Tabasco (to taste)
Worcestershire sauce (to taste)
Salt and pepper (to taste)
Creole seasoning (to taste)

Saute onion, celery, parsley, garlic, pepper, green onions until tender. Reserve 1 piece of toast to make bread crumbs. Soak the rest of the bread in water and drain well in a colander. Remove from heat and add crabmeat, bread, seasonings (to taste). Mix well. Stuff into clean, sterilized baked crab shells or greased individual gratin dishes. Sprinkle with bread crumbs and bake 20-30 minutes in a 350 degree oven or until golden brown. This mixture is also good for stuffing shrimp or to make crabmeat po-boys

Monday, August 24, 2009

My Love Affair With Basil


Photo: My great-grandmother -- and fellow basil lover -- Sima on the back steps of her house on Point Cadet.


I am a big believer in using fresh herbs. Admittedly, my gardening skills could use some help, but I always manage to keep an herb garden going in the summer. Actually, I have two -- one outside and one on the windowsill. My favorite herb is basil. It just says "summer" to me.

I guess I get this from my great-grandmother, Sima. I never knew her, but she reportedly loved basil so much she wore a sprig pinned to her collar so she could whiff its spicy scent as she went about her household chores.

Like Sima, sweet basil is my "go to" favorite for flavoring spaghetti sauce, pesto, bruschetta or just tossing into a plain green salad. Over the years, I have embraced all types of basil from ruffled to purple opal to lemon and lime. The lime has a particularly nice little tang and makes great bruschetta.

This time of year, the basil tends to go crazy before going to seed. I am always on the lookout for new and innovative recipes.. One new recipe I like is a grilled basil, chocolate and brie panini I saw on Giada de Laurentis' show on Food Network.

If you don't like brie, you can use a milder provolone or mozzarella. And if basil seems too weird, use mint which has a similar bite but is a more mainstream companion for chocolate. As for the chocolate, this is where I like to go a little wild. Thanks to my family and friends, who are all well acquainted with my chocolate obsession, I always have a nice array of artisanal dark chocolate on hand. Last time I made this, I used little chili-spiked wedges of dark chocolate from Trader Joe's which lent an appealing piquancy.

However, my favorite use for end of summer basil just may be this basil-tomato tart (also a great use for end of summer tomatoes). Admittedly this isn't something I ever tasted on Point Cadet, but it's become a summer tradition in my household.

It's good cold, warm or at room temperature. It's a great main course with a green salad and a glass of wine. Or cut it into small appetizer wedges. It's wonderful on a brunch buffet.

About the only improvement I could possibly think of would be to add a little scoop of homemade basil sorbet on the side. I had this as an appetizer last fall at Le Petit Prince de Paris restaurant in Paris. The tomato tart was not nearly as tasty as this one is, but the sorbet was amazing. I can only imagine how good it would be paired with this tart. And it's another use for end of summer basil.

I think Sima would approve.


Basil-Tomato Tart


1/2 of a pkg. of folded, refrigerated unbaked pie crust (1 crust)

1 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese (or use Swiss, Gruyere, provolone. It's all good)

4 medium tomatoes (or 5 roma)

1 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves

4 cloves garlic

1/2 cup of mayonnaise

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1/2 tsp. ground pepper

Unfold pie crust, press into ungreased pie plate and bake according to package instructions. Remove from oven. Sprinkle with 1/2 cup mozzarella cheese. Let cool on wire rack.

Cut tomatoes into wedges, drain on paper towels. This step is important or your crust will get all soggy. Arrange over melted cheese in pie crust.

In a food processor combine basil and garlic (or smush it all with a mortar and pestle) and process until coarsely chopped. Sprinkle over tomatoes.

In a medium bowl, combine remaining mozzarella cheese, Parmesan cheese, mayo and pepper. Spoon cheese mixture over basil mixture, spread over top (it will be lumpy but try to spread as evenly as you can to cover.)

Bake in a 375 degree oven 35-40 minutes until top is golden and bubbly.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Hurricanes and Nona's Punchbowl


Photo: My grandparents' back yard after Hurricane Camille, 1969.
Today is the 40th anniversary of Hurricane Camille. The one we used to refer to as "the big one." Before we knew what big really was.

I started this blog so that the younger members of my family could learn about where they came from and be proud of it. A nice side benefit is that every time I sign on, I get to spend a little more time with people and places that I miss beyond words.

I don't want to be accused of remembering the past through rose-colored glasses. There were lots of hard times, and hurricanes were part of them. Hurricanes helped make the people of the Point those scrappy, tenacious, hard to impress survivors that they were -- and still are.

We were living in Baton Rouge when Camille, headed for Louisiana, veered suddenly to the east right for Biloxi.

I remember my mother pleading with her parents over the phone not to ride the storm out in their house. At the last minute, they packed up their medicines, grabbed Uncle Michael's wedding pictures from the top of their TV and evacuated.

Their house, though gutted, was still standing. They were lucky. Their first house that originally stood there was lost during the Hurricane of '47.

Days after Camille, my mother, daddy, sister and I drove over to Biloxi. The trip, usually only a couple of hours by car, took nearly all day. Bridges were out and roads closed.

At eight going on nine years old, I harbored rather romantic notions about hurricanes, culled mostly from movies. My friends and I used to play a "let's pretend" game where we were storm refugees. What did we know then?

My eyes grew wide as, inching down the open sections of Highway 90, I saw televisions and washing machines sitting unclaimed on the white sand beach, the now-gentle surf lightly lapping against them. The Buena Vista restaurant my dad once managed had been reduced to a pile of glass shards. Boat hulls protruded from people's houses. People's belongings fluttered from trees, antennas, boat masts and piled up along with sand in the gutters. It was like the aftermath of a Mardi Gras parade gone bad.

"You'll never see anything like this again," Mama told my sister and me as we surveyed this suddenly unrecognizable world. She was usually right about everything. I wish she'd been right about that.

My uncles and Grandpa, sweating in the intense August heat, carted ruined belongings from the shell of my grandparents' house. My grandmother just watched and cried. The only time we saw her smile is when Uncle Michael reached down into the smelly muck (and if you've been through a hurricane you know that smell) and pulled forth her cut-glass punch bowl filled with muddy water but still intact. A further search of the sludge yielded some matching cups and candy dishes.

That discovery seemed to be a real turning point for Nona. She dried her tears and busied herself with cleaning up her treasures and planning for the future.

There was never a question in my grandparents' minds as to whether they would rebuild. This was their home, their neighborhood. As Nona pointed out with typical Point Cadet fatalism, "How long have we got left anyway?"

The punchbowl made appearances at weddings, graduation parties, baby showers and other family galas. And always there was the story of how it had survived Camille. It became a symbolic, even mythic, part of our family lore.

Years later, when my mother moved in with me, she didn't bring much. But she did bring the punch bowl. In the few lucid moments of her final days, she asked about it incessantly. Had I checked on it? Was it in a safe place? That punch bowl became her obsession.

Thirty six years after Camille, another even worse storm headed for Louisiana, wobbled east and hit the Mississippi Coast. In Katrina's aftermath, still numb with shock, I picked through what remained of my house, looking for something, anything, salvageable. In a total deja vu moment, my cousin Joey dug into the muck and pulled out Nona's punch bowl, encrusted in sludge but still in perfect shape. We jumped up and down like little kids and did the dance of joy

At that point I knew everything was going to be all right for me.

That punch bowl's got some kind of mojo.

Point Party Punch

I've had this punch, and its many variations, at too many Point weddings, showers, christenings, bunco games, and Sarah Conventry/Tupperware parties to count. It doesn't matter what kind of sherbet you use. To give this a Creamsicle flavor, use a mixture of orange sherbet and vanilla ice cream.

1 lg. can pineapple juice

1 sm. can frozen lemonade

1 sm. can frozen orange juice

1 liter Sprite

1/2 carton of pineapple sherbet (may substitute lime or orange sherbet)

Mix all ingredients in punch bowl. Spoon in sherbet just before serving. Serves 25

Saturday, August 15, 2009

I Want Candy: Divinity Fudge

In every old time Point recipe box, written on a well-worn scrap of paper or index card, you can bet your bottom dollar there will be a recipe for divinity fudge.

You cannot call yourself a candy maker without knowing how to master this.

I do not call myself a candy maker.

The precision, the patience, the MATH and SCIENCE expertise, you need to make these wonderful candies come out properly just doesn’t fit in with my “dash of this, dash of that, hey-whaddya-say-we-try this” approach to cooking.

Divinity fudge, in my opinion, like peanut butter fudge, is not really “fudge” at all -- – there is no chocolate in it. It is boiled corn syrup and egg whites with pecans and a little vanilla. It is in fact divine when it comes out – and a hot mess – literally - when it does not.

To achieve a high rate of success, you should make it on a bright clear dry day with low humidity.

Therein lies the problem.

On average, there are only three bright, clear, humidity-free days per year in South Mississippi --and I am exaggerating only slightly. I don’t know about you, but when those three days come along, I have better things to do than stand over a double-boiler, candy thermometer in hand.
Come to think of it, perhaps it is this very challenge that makes this candy so beloved in our climes.

I bet home cooks in Arizona, where they could probably make divinity every day if they felt like it, don’t.

Ergo, the thrill, the wonder of that rare perfect batch of divinity can only be savored completely because of the odds beaten to achieve it. It’s candy as Russian roulette.

If you are a gambler -- and we got more than a few of those on the Point -- go for it. You might want to consult a Farmer’s Almanac first. Or better yet just do as the ladies on the Point always did, and call on a Higher Power. Sometimes to make perfect divinity, you just need Divine intervention.

DIVINITY FUDGE

2 cups sugar
1/2 cup white Karo syrup
1 cup pecans
1 tsp vanilla
1 egg white
1/2 cup water
Salt

Beat egg white with a dash of salt until stiff peaks form. Set aside. Cook sugar, Karo syrup and water over medium heat until the mixture forms a soft ball when dropped in a cup of cold water. Slowly add half of syrup mixture to the egg whites and beat again. at high speed until stiff. Return rest of syrup mixture to the stove and continue cooking until the mixture spins a thread in cold water. Add to syrup/egg white mixture. Add vanilla and nuts and beat until mixture holds shape when dropped by spoonful onto wax paper.

NOTE: Perfect divinity fudge is white and frothy, like a meringue or the white stucco on a Hollywood Spanish bungalow (there was such a house on the Point we used to call the Divinity Fudge House). You often see divinity tinted bright red or green for Christmas or any number of godawful colors like fuchsia and chartreuse at weddings. Please resist the urge to match a color scheme.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Red Beans And Perfect, Life-Changing Rice (Really!)

I finally came to the end of the ham shank I got on special at Save Rite last week. All that was left to do was toss the bone into a pot with a sack of Camellia red beans and some chopped onion, celery, garlic, bay leaves, water and lots of salt and pepper for a couple of hours.

I know red beans and rice are a Monday staple in these parts, but like soup and spaghetti sauce, this dish needs an overnight rest to "get good." I am so looking forward to tomorrow.

The Southern way of making red beans is with a meaty ham bone (and any left over bits of ham) and cornbead on the side. The New Orleans Cajun way is with spicy sausage (preferably andouille) and buttered French bread. I'm flexible.

Today I cooked the beans with ham and toward the end threw in some sliced rendered smoked sausage. You don't want to put the sausage in too early or you run the risk of all the flavor cooking out into the beans and leaving you with tasteless sausage bits.

There is no great trick to making good red beans. You just need to remember to:

  • Soak the beans in water overnight to soften them or spend an extra 2 hours cooking them.

  • Mash up a cup of the beans and broth when they are cooked and add back to the pot to make the beans good and creamy.

  • Add enough salt. Seriously, no matter what other flavorings you put in there, the salt is really key to making the beans taste good.

  • Wait 24 hours before eating them. No matter how perfect they look the day you cook them, they will taste so much better the next day.
While cooking red beans isn't hard, perfect rice on the other hand has been ... elusive. Until today.

We've all been there, --the sticky, gummy rice you get when you follow the instructions on the package. Who developed those anyway? And why are they still on all those packages when they so clearly do not work?

I've also tried cooking rice in the microwave (which usually results in a starch bath in the microwave) and the tedious three-rinses-before-boiling-on-the-stovetop method. Today I tried baking the rice in a conventional oven.

I first came across Francis Lam's method for baked rice in his blog for cooking koshary (something else you definitely want to try) in Gourmet magazine. I was intrigued, but didn't have an immediate need so I forgot about it.

Then, I came across Francis' recipe in another cooking blog, The Wednesday Chef. When Luisa described this style of cooking rice as "life-changing," well, clearly I had to try it for myself.

Life changing indeed! I wanted to fall to my knees and weep with gratitude. This is perfect, fluffy rice you could eat all on its own with a pat of butter and and some grated Parmesan. Rice as it should be. And so I am passing it on. Because life is too short to eat gummy rice.

Francis, if you're reading this (and I know you visit Mike and Mary's Kitchen occasionally), you are a kitchen god. And my hero.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Tivoli Hotel


Photo: My mom, Toni, with a feline friend on the front lawn of the Tivoli Hotel, early 1950s.
The Tivoli Hotel, located on East Beach, was not exactly on the Point, but it was a local landmark with a lot of significance for East Biloxi residents.

Built in 1927, it was one of the Coast’s grand resort hotels, along with the Buena Vista, the Broadwater Beach and the White House, that survived (although admittedly not very well preserved) into the 21st century. Back in its day, the hotel was the last name in luxury. According to the newspaper accounts the Tivoli opened 'in a whirl of dancing, a kaleidoscopic blaze of color and a musical festival of barbaric jazz.'

Guests from all over the country came to stay in its elegantly appointed 64 guest apartments. During the roaring 20s when the Mississippi Coast was considered America’s Riviera and Biloxi was “Sin City,” guests could gamble right in the lobby.

By the time I became a regular visitor in the early 1970s, the hotel, then known as the Trade Winds, had started its long decline into seediness. Still the decaying property possessed a glamour that --even to my teen-aged eyes -- the more modern budget hotels springing up along the Coast could never rival.
My sister and I had grown up as “hotel brats” due to my father’s association with hotel restaurant management. When he retired, he started a part-time catering business out of the Tivoli. We made ourselves right at home.
During the summer, we often accompanied him to the hotel. We ate breakfast – usually grits and hot chocolate -- in the Tivoli Room, a cheerful, cozy and warm dining spot with yellow and white gingham café curtains and window boxes filled with artificial daffodils. A decade later, it was the first home for Sumi’s Japanese restaurant.

We swam in the Tivoli’s pool. I loved changing in the ladies’ lounge with its ultra-feminine décor of white wicker furniture with pink flowered cushions. I coveted the chaise or swooning couch.
Many an East Biloxi wedding reception was held in the hotel’s Wedgewood ballroom. With its soaring ceilings, elegant moldings and fancy chandeliers, the room was everything a bride could want for her wedding, right down to the grillwork balcony perfect for tossing a bouquet. My sister and I earned pocket money by trimming crusts off those dainty egg, chicken and tuna salad sandwiches for the wedding reception.

On the other side of the spacious lobby, the Gaslight Room, a fin de siècle-inspired affair decorated in opulent red velvet, and drawings of Gibson girls, served as the venue for a local dinner theater. In my early teens, I landed a role in the chorus of the company’s production of Carousel. Unfortunately, our production had to be scrapped when the adjacent hotel bar expanded and took over our stage.

Eventually, the Tivoli became decrepit, a home for prostitutes, drug dealers and other people on the downslide. There was at least one suicide there.

It remained on historic preservation lists. There were occasional plans to restore it as a resort, a half-way house, condos. Nothing ever came of those plans.

On August 29, 2005, several people took refuge in the still-sturdy building as Hurricane Katrina approached. Eight of them lost their lives in the storm surge that enveloped East Biloxi.

In 2006, the remnants of the Tivoli, were torn down. It was a sad day, but there were so many sad days in the months following the storm.

This recipe is inspired by chicken salad sandwiches made for Tivoli brides. We used a typical Southern chicken salad -- finely minced chicken and veggies with lots of mayonnaise -- on white bread. Personally, I prefer more robust chicken salad sandwiches. The recipe below is adapted from one in Faith Ford's cookbook "Cooking with Faith" (a great source for Southern recipes. I love almost everything I've made from it). To save time, buy a rotisserie chicken.

Faith Ford's Chicken Salad Sandwich

2 cups chopped, cooked chicken (rotisserie chicken works great)
2 celery stalks, chopped
1 chopped carrot
1/2 small red onion chopped
1/4 cup chopped toasted pecans
1 T chopped fresh parsley
1 T chopped fresh cilantro (if you don't like cilantro, substitute basil, oregano, thyme or dill, whatever herb you like)
1/2 cup mayonnaise (light or regular)
1/4 sweet pickle relish
2 T freshly squeezed lime juice (lemon if you prefer)
1 T Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Salt
8 slices sourdough bread
OPTIONAL: 2 roasted bell peppers (better if you roast your own, but you can use jarred)
2 cups of shredded red leaf or green leaf lettuce)

In a medium bowl, mix together chicken, celery, onion, carrot, pecans, parsley and cilantro (or other herb). In a separate small bowl, stir together the mayonnaise, pickle relish, lime (or lemon) juice, mustard and pepper. Pour the dressing over the chicken mixture and toss thoroughly. Season with salt and pepper to taste. May be made 1 day ahead. Store, covered, in the refrigerator.

Toast the bread. Place 1/2 to 2/3 cup of chicken salad on each sandwich. Put half a roasted red pepper on top of the chicken salad, followed by lettuce. Put other slice of bread on top. Slice in half.

Makes 8 sandwiches


Monday, July 27, 2009

Plate Dinners at the St. Michael’s Bazaar


Point Cadet was a tight-knit, largely Catholic community. If you lived on the Point, you probably were a member of St. Michael’s Parish. You may even have gone to St. Michael’s grade school.

St. Michael’s was started as a mission to serve the people of the Point in 1917 (or 1907 depending on which source you go by).

When most people think of St. Michael’s, they think of the modern seashell-domed fisherman’s church, prominent in this blog’s header. That church, though it became the Point’s most distinctive landmark, was only built in 1964. The original St. Michael’s church was housed in a wooden structure down on First Street. It burned in 1969.

My grandparents and two aunts married there. Almost everyone in my family, myself included, was christened at St. Michael's. My mother, her siblings and a couple of my cousins went to St. Michael’s school and made their First Communions and confirmations in the parish.

Though I largely lived in other parishes, we went to Mass fairly regularly at St. Michael's since we spent all our holidays and a lot of weekends at my grandparents’ house. As a kid, I was scared of the long Cubist-style stained glass windows depicting the apostles.

And we always patronized the St. Michael’s bazaars, the fund raisers held to help support the church and school.

St. Michael’s bazaars were great multi-generational social occasions – you saw second, third, fourth and even fifth cousins as well as all your friends and your parents’ and grandparents’ friends. If the bazaar fell during high school sorority rush week, the pledges from Biloxi High and Sacred Heart could get their 300 signatures on a pillow case or whatever task the seniors assigned to them. The pledges had to wear tacky outdated clothes and unwashed hair. Oh, what teenage girls will do to be accepted by their peers.
You could take a chance on the cake walk. Purchase cuttings of heirloom plants. Stuff your face with candied apples and cotton candy. Listen to music. Play bingo. Or just people watch.
And you could always get a good plate dinner, usually seafood or chicken sausage gumbo with a scoop of potato salad floating in it. Or my personal favorite, baked chicken with dirty rice dressing.

This flavorful, well-spiced dish, featuring the “holy trinity” of Cajun cooking – celery, bell pepper and onion -- is a great accompaniment to often-bland baked chicken. The “dirt” is actually meat, chopped chicken livers and gizzards and/or ground sausage or ground beef. Wish I had a big plate of it right now. This recipe makes a lot, but then you’re going to want a lot.

Dirty Rice Dressing

¼ cup cooking oil
½ chicken liver, parboiled and chopped fine
1 lb of chicken gizzards, parboiled and chopped fine
3 lb of ground beef or pork sausage
3 large onions, chopped fine
1 cup chopped celery
1 bunch green onions, chopped
1 bunch parsley, chopped
2 medium bell peppers, chopped
3 cloves chopped garlic
4-6 cups cooked rice
Salt and pepper to taste.

Saute onions, celery, bell pepper and garlic in oil. Add gizzards and liver. Cook about 30 minutes. Add beef (or sausage), green onions, parsley and salt and pepper. Cook 30 minutes more. Mix in cooked rice. Stir thoroughly. May use Kitchen Bouquet to achieve desired color.
Photo: All of the Soljan children, including Uncle Raymond shown here in the late 1940s, made their First Communions and confirmations at St. Michael's.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Shopping at the Neighborhood Grocery

Back before the days of supermarkets, everyone shopped at the neighborhood market. In their heyday, a mom and pop grocery stood on just about every corner of Point Cadet. There were no fewer than 18 in existence during the 1950s alone.

Parents sent their kids to the store with hand-written grocery lists. The accommodating store owners helped fill them while the customer waited. The shrimpers charged groceries for their upcoming trips on their “boat bills.”

Corner groceries were also meeting places. You could always find a few neighborhood regulars inside or on the benches outside just shooting the breeze. In my day, kids liked to congregate there after school to turn in refundable soda bottles so they could buy candy and ice cream.

The Point Cadet grocery that stands out in my mind is Pitalo’s on Cedar Street. The proprietor, Mr. Rushie, was an expert at deciphering illegible handwriting and translating the fractured English so many of his customers spoke. He was also a pretty good mind-reader.

For example, one time my mom was sent to Pitalo’s with an order for “seven steaks.” Or so she thought. Mr. Rushie was fairly certain Grandpa wasn’t planning on blowing the family’s weekly ration points on a grill night. He quickly surmised that what Grandpa actually wanted was a couple of center chuck steaks, a shoulder cut sometimes called seven steak because of its bone which is shaped like the number “7.” The preferred cooking method for this fairly tough cut is to braise as in the smothered steak recipe below.

Tins of sardines, coveted as "boat snacks" were neighborhood grocery best-sellers. Grandpa enjoyed breaking French bread into little chunks, gently rubbing the bread over the fish then dunking into the oil the sardines were packed in. He also ate the sardines (whole or mashed into a spread) on saltine crackers with a gob of yellow mustard.

Last year, when I made my pilgrimage to Croatia, I noticed lots of people in the market buying oil-packed anchovies and loaves of crusty bread then heading over to a bench and eating them on the spot.

Boy did that take me back.

Smothered Seven Steaks

2 seven –bone steaks (or chuck shoulder underblade steaks)
1 large onion, cut in slices
1 bell pepper, sliced
2-3 cloves of garlic chopped
½ cup of olive or vegetable oil
1 t garlic powder
1 t onion powder
1 t black pepper
1 ½ cups of beef stock or beef bouillon
Salt to taste (at least 2 t)

Wipe down steaks. Season with salt, pepper, granulated garlic, onion powder. Heat oil in a cast-iron skillet. Brown the steaks on both sides, then remove. Add onions , garlic and bell pepper and cook until onions begin to caramelize. Return the steaks to the skillet and cover with the beef stock. Stir. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Cover and cook for about 1 ½ hours until the meat is fork tender. If the onion gravy is too thin, remove the lid and let it boil down. Cut the meat in chunks and serve over rice. Serves 6 people.