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.


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

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
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