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 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?


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.


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

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.