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In the 1960s, Beatle fans became convinced that Paul McCartney had been killed in a car crash and been replaced by an imposter.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