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.


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?