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 The pledges had to wear tacky outdated clothes and unwashed hair.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.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Day Chinese Cuisine Came to Point Cadet

My mother, Toni, was an excellent cook who took an experimental approach to flavors and always pushed the boundaries of her recipe repertoire. Thanks to her, I have a fairly broad palate.

Her view of a kitchen as a test lab started while still in her teens. When Nona went away to visit relatives in Bellingham, Washington, Toni and her sisters all took turns cooking the family back home dinner. For the most part, they stuck to the tried and true -- roasts, soups, beans. But Toni decided to shake things up.

Modern supermarkets were just showing up in Biloxi around that time, as were exotic convenience foods.

Back then, canned food was pretty lousy –mushy, tasteless vegetables packed in water and salt. Bleh. Somehow, somewhere my mother came across a can of Chinese chow mein vegetables. Mind you, at that point in her life, she had never actually eaten chow mein – or any Chinese food. But she saw that can and her imagination soared – at least as far as her limited life experience would let it.

She heated the vegetables, seasoned them with salt and pepper and a dab of butter. And dumped the whole unappetizing mess over sticky instant rice. No meat. No soy, oyster, hoison, fish or hot chili sauce. No granulated ginger or rice vinegar. Not even crispy chow mein noodles. Not that she knew any of those Asian condiments even existed.

There were some very glum faces around the dinner table that night.

Aunt Frances just happened to stop by. She took one look at the plat du jour, crossed herself and ran back home. She told Uncle Frank, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph those kids are gonna starve.”

She hastily threw some spaghetti from her own stovetop into a bowl and delivered it to her cheering brother in law, nieces and nephew.

Five out of the six plates of that pallid chow mein were thrown to the dogs. But proud, hard-headed Toni insisted on polishing off her plate down to the last limp bean sprout. She would later recall that as the worst meal of her life.

This doomed experiment aside, my mother became a fan of Chinese food. Saturday night dinner at the Chinese place on Highway 90 became a highly anticipated family outing at our house (even though my sister Kim only ate their hamburgers). For these occasions, Kim and I wore matching silk lounging pajamas from the Buena Vista hotel’s Oriental gift shop (And what a cool place that was. Loved the little dolls that came with their own wig collection.)

Toni even took out a wok again, thanks to Earl Peyroux, the host of “Gourmet Cooking” on New Orleans’ local PBS station. Mr. Peyroux was a Cordon Bleu trained chef and my favorite TV chef ever. We loved his Chinese fried rice recipe.

Mama and Mr. Earl are both stir frying with the angels now. And if this is on the menu, Heaven is a happy place to be tonight. Fried rice was a good “clean out the refrigerator” meal at our house. For some reason, we always ate it with buttered toasted French bread– hardly authentic, but a tasty local touch.

Three decades after the chow mein debacle, and a decade after our Saturday night sweet and sour chicken runs, genuine Asian cuisine came to Point Cadet along with its newest wave of immigrants from Vietnam. This delectable cuisine from Southeast Asia bore no resemblance to my mother’s attempts nor to what we ate on our Saturday night chopstick fests.

But it did add another layer of richness and depth to Point cuisine and culture. And its one of the healthiest cuisines going. Lately, I’ve gotten into experimenting to Vietnamese recipes like this one for “Pho” Rice Noodle Soup with beef from Epicurious.

Earl Peyroux’s Chinese Fried Rice

2 eggs, beaten
2 t peanut oil
2T, additional peanut oil
6 green onions (sliced)
1 lb sliced mushrooms
1 small green or red pepper (diced)
1 cup celery (chopped)
¾ cup water chestnuts sliced
1 cup bean sprouts
2 cups small boiled shrimp (cut in half). Diced ham, cooked pork or chicken can be substituted.
3 T soy sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
3 cups cooked rice

In a 9-inch skillet cook the eggs in peanut oil to make a large egg crepe. Remove to paper towels. Fold crepe over on itself several times. Cut the rolled egg into thin shreds. Set aside.
Pour additional oil into a hot wok and allow to heat very hot. Add and stir-fry, one at a time the green onions, mushrooms, green pepper, celery, water chestnuts, bean sprouts, shrimp (or other meat) and reserved shredded eggs. Toss ingredients 30 seconds. Add soy sauce, salt and pepper to taste. Add cooked rice and blend well until hot. Transfer to a serving dish. Serves 8.

Photo: My sister Kim (right) and I are ready for Chinese night, 1967.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Out of This World Cheesecake

From 1969-1971, my parents, sister and I lived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Twice a year Aunt Selema and her family stayed the night with us en route from their home in San Antonio to Biloxi.

On July 20-21, 1969, their visit coincided with the first Apollo 11 moon landing and moonwalk. We (and half a billion other people) were all glued to the TV watching Neil Armstrong take his historic first step for mankind.

All except for my dad, who stuffed with all the good food Mama had spent days cooking, snored through the whole thing in his Barcalounger.

Mama woke him up when it was all over and told him that the astronauts had discovered little green men and that the moon actually was made of green cream cheese just like the Mardi Gras song, "If Ever I Cease to Love" says.

He believed her for about the three seconds it took for him to wake up.

Maybe he just had cream cheese on the brain because he had just eaten half of her famous cheesecake - which actually is out of this world.

It's a classic not-overly-sweet New York style cheesecake. My daddy liked it so well, he often had her make it for events he catered at the restaurant. I often requested it as my birthday cake. I lost the actual recipe during the hurricane, but I think this one is pretty close.

The zwieback crumb crust doesn't overpower the taste of the cheesecake as graham cracker crusts so often do. If you can't find zwieback in the cookie section at the grocery store, try the baby food aisle.

Mama's Out-Of-This-World Cheesecake

1 1/2 cups zwieback crumbs
2-3 T granulated (or brown) sugar
1/2 t cinnamon
6 T (3/4 stick) butter or margarine, melted

1 1/2 lbs. cream cheese, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 cups sour cream
1-3 T lemon juice
2 t vanilla extract
1/4 t salt
4 large eggs

Sour Cream Topping:
1 1/2 cups sour cream
1/4 cup powdered sugar or 3 T granulated sugar

Position rack in the center of over. Preheat to 350. Grease a 9" springform pan.

For crust, combine zwieback crumbs, sugar and cinnamon. Stir in melted butter or margarine. Press into prepared pan. Chill.

For batter, beat cream cheese until smooth, scraping down sides often. Add sugar. Beat until light. Blend in sour cream, lemon juice, vanilla, salt. Beat in eggs one at a time. DO NOT OVERBEAT TO AVOID CRACKS IN BATTER. Pour into pan. Bake until firm around edges and slightly brown (about 1 1/4 hours). Turn off oven. Cool cake in oven for about 30 minutes. Remove from oven and cool completely before adding topping.

For topping: Combine sour cream, sugar and vanilla. Spread over cooled cheesecake. Refrigerate overnight.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Born on the Fourth of July (Not)

Happy 4th of July! I realize it's actually the 5th, but we have a tradition of celebrating this particular holiday late in our family.

It started the year my sister was born. She was supposed to be born on July 4. My grandparents were very excited by the prospect of a "firecracker" grandbaby. They were immigrants so for them, this was the ultimate sign that they had arrived in America. My mother, trying to accommodate, followed all their Old Country advice to bring on labor.

They told her to walk. So she walked. And walked. And walked. At the time, we lived right behind the then brand new Edgewater Mall in Biloxi. The indoor mall was the first of its kind in Mississippi. More importantly, it was air-conditioned. She did a lot of her walking there. She brought home a lot of cool things for the nursery. But no baby.

"Eat spicy food" was the next piece of advice from the Point. So on the 3rd, we all went to Angelo's Italian restaurant in Gulfport. My mom ate two helpings of their famous spaghetti and left with the staff's good wishes ringing in her ears and a first-class case of heart burn. But no labor pains.

Ironically, her cousin's wife, also due on the 4th ate Uncle Vitisie's spaghetti daube that same night and welcomed her firecracker baby the very next day. The family joke was my mom ate the wrong spaghetti.

It took my sister several days to make her entrance into the world. But that never stopped us from celebrating her birthday like it was the 4th. We grilled hamburgers and hot dogs. We waved marked-down sparklers (my mother loved a bargain, something my sister has inherited) and ate off red, white and blue paper plates (again marked down). And usually the day before we'd have a ceremonial dinner of homemade spaghetti daube.

Photo: My sister Kim on her birthday, early 1970s. Almost a firecracker baby.

Spaghetti Daube

In spaghetti daube, the meat sauce is made from an inexpensive roast, usually chuck, slow cooked in spicy tomato sauce until it falls apart. It's also good made with chicken or shrimp. The sugar in the recipe helps cut the acidity of the canned tomatoes. The traditional seasonings are nutmeg and cinnamon, but you can sub out oregano and basil.

2-3 large onions, chopped

2-3 stalks of celery chopped

4-5 cloves of garlic, chopped

1 green pepper, chopped

2 large cans of whole tomatoes

2 cans of tomato sauce

1 T of sugar

1/2 t nutmeg

1/2 t cinnamon

Dash of ground cloves or allspice

1 t of Worcestershire sauce

Salt and pepper to taste

Boneless chuck or rump roast (3-4 lbs)

1/4 cup olive or vegetable oil

Water as needed

Saute onions, celery, green pepper and garlic in oil until tender. Add tomatoes and cook down. Add tomato sauce, sugar, seasonings and water as needed. Cook about an hour.Cut meat into large chunks and add. Cover and cook about 2 hours over low flame, stirring and adding water as needed to keep from sticking. Serve over spaghetti, big macaroni or rigatoni.