Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Mighty Burger

May 31, 2007

Everywhere I look I see recipes for hamburgers -- magazines, television, even The New York Times. I don't get it. Who needs instructions for making a hamburger?

Apparently lots of people. There are variations, of course: Lamburgers, turkeyburgers, burgers made with soy meat substitutes, etc. Some have exotic spices -- a little curry powder in ground chicken, rosemary in the lamb, things like that -- but basically you've got ground meat in some kind of roll. It doesn't take a whole lot of imagination to come up with a new incarnation. It's up to the cook.

The best hamburgers I have ever had were served at the swimming pool at Grand Hotel in Point Clear, Alabama in the 1950's. They used top grade beef and some special pickle relish that I've never been able to replicate. The atmosphere for eating a hamburger was perfect -- the faint smell of chlorine wafting in the breeze on a hot summer day...and of course you would be admonished by the beautiful lifeguards not to go in the pool for an hour after eating.

Hamburger memories extend into childhood, when we lived at 52 Semmes Avenue in Mobile and walked a couple of blocks away on weekend nights with Daddy to The Cotton Patch to have a hamburger "with everything," which included a slice of onion, a few pickles some lettuce and tomato, mayonnaise and catchup. The meat with hardly even noticed. It was incidental. Luckily so, because it was the thin, packaged patty that came to restaurants. Later I stopped eating onion on my hamburger, but I can still taste that loaded burger with a chocolate milkshake. Nothing like it.

But anyone can make an excellent hamburger, and I don't know why these chef-instructors bother with demonstrations. Rachael Ray has practically hung her whole career on them. Bobby Flay dresses them up and puts them on a grill. I don't think there's a single Food Network host or hostess who has not featured his take on the burger, as if there were some mystique or unknown recipe. You take some ground meat, season it, cook it (on the grill or not) and put it between bread with whatever you like. That's it. You've got it. Happy summer!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Party Countdown Hustle

May 22

The party is Saturday night and I've been straightening (I almost said "cleaning," but that's going too far) the house for a week already. I've also made five loaves of bread and two cakes that are in the freezer, bought champagne, wine, and assorted chips.

The main course will be my crabmeat salad, for which I'm ready to make the mayonnaise. Before that, we'll have Italian garlic toasts, for which I've baked the bread. Spreads for the bruschetta will be tomato-basil, Tuscan bean puree (simmering on the stove now) and tapenade which I made over the weekend with some super olives I had trouble parting with. I'll thaw the bread Friday and spend the day Saturday making the toasts.

Friends have offered to bring shrimp salad and a tasty green salad, and maybe the delicious Hawaiian raw tuna dish that stole the show at my luau three years ago -- are you reading this, Rex? I'll have guacamole and another dip along with nuts and cheese along with drinks to launch to party. I'm thinking of setting up a drink table outside as this is kind of a welcome-to-my-new-landscaping event. It may just be too hot, but if the day is as nice as it's been the last week, we'll be outside a lot.

The big question is, "Would homemade ice cream be just too much?" I don't mean too much for the guests, I mean too much for the hostess. It will mean making the mixture ahead and hauling out the machine twice (two batches) during the party. But the peaches are delicious already and ice cream would be a nice touch with the Italian Almond Cake.

I haven't decided yet. Right now I've got to get to my mayonnaise.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Paula Deen: Your Roommate's Mother

May 20

At some point a couple of years ago I, along with a few million other cooks who watch the FoodTV Network, became endeared to a classic Southern character named Paula Deen. She is one of those larger-than-life ladies who might be living next door if you live in the South; a lovely face, a wonderful laugh, and a way with food that makes your mouth water. She is what they call a natural; she talks to that camera as if she were addressing a personal friend, and at the end of her show you just feel kinda good.

Not that I would make all the things she cooks. I'm on a diet, for one thing, and all that butter, cream cheese and heavy cream can't be good for any of us, including Paula and her devoted husband. I worry about them a little.

I love the way she looks. She has a beautiful, happy face, and the body of a woman who likes to eat what she cooks.

Another little problem I have with her cooking style is the many shortcuts she takes. My mouth waters at her many variations of what she calls "Gooey Butter Cake," a cake mix recipe with added butter and sweet ingredients. I haven't made it because if I want to bake a cake, I want to make it from scratch -- it's no more difficult, and much more rewarding, to my mind. To each his own, and I'm sure I'm in the minority here.

But she can cook okra and tomatoes with the best of them, and I don't begrudge her the frozen okra even though there might be fresh out there. At least she's showing us how to do it. She keeps extra bacon grease in the freezer; I hadn't done that for years until she reminded me of it. (My mother used to make bacon for breakfast every morning and wouldn't have dreamed of throwing out the grease. She had vats of it all around the kitchen.)

I loved the coverage of Paula's wedding, and her coverage of her son Jamie's. I like it when her boys help out in the kitchen and when she shares New Orleans recipes she got from her husband's brother ("Father Hank").

But I cannot accept her new show "Paula's Party." Here, I think the network is misusing Paula. They assumed her talent for people would carry over, I guess, as they assume Emeril's has (I hate his show, but love his food). But her easygoing, intimate style becomes self-conscious before an audience. In her "Cooking Class" segments she avoided this because she was basically teaching a class. The party format requires a performance, and, natural extrovert that she is, she complies by laughing way too much, trying to make jokes, and entertaining guests as if to explain everything they say or hang on every word, big-eyed and open-mouthed. Her real talent is her ability to be at ease, and on this show she looks anything but.

On a kitchen design show, she remodeled a kitchen for a married couple. When asked how they felt about Paula Deen, the husband said, "You can't help but enjoy her -- she's like your college roommate's mother!"

She has become an American institution now. Recently she made an appearance locally to promote her new memoir. It was so overbooked that crowds were calling the newspaper for days. They felt a kinship with Paula, and probably expected to chat with her. Her new show won't hurt her popularity, even with me, and I'll continue to check out her half-hour segments, even though I must have seen them all by now, and the re-runs on the Food Network are endless.

I'm happy to hear her talk, her stories, and her comfy cajoling me to cook odd things. I've gotten some wonderful recipes from her, like Ro-Tel Grits and Watermelon Salad. Sometimes I'm tempted to buy a box of cake mix.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Party Planning

May 19

The party will be next Saturday; lists, schedules, and phone calls and shopping trips are being made round the clock. I could write a book about party planning, but I think that's been done.

People tend to ask, "What can I bring?" or "Can I bring anything?" At this time of year I like to serve cold champagne with foods at room temperature -- maybe with one hot dish -- and this year I'm answering the question with "I'm having salads and hors d'oeuvre...if you want to bring one or the other, feel free. But don't feel obligated because there's going to be plenty of food."

I'll provide a few chips and dips, including a killer guacamole with baked corn chips, a big bowl of crab salad and probably a green salad too, maybe with orange sections in it and a blue-cheese walnut dressing. I was going to do Julia Child's Deluxe Chicken salad because there is one guest who won't eat seafood, but it's labor intensive; although beautiful and delicious, it's probably just one thing too many. One of the guests has already volunteered a shrimp salad, and another has said she'd bring a salad.

I've baked five loaves of bread already. I make a rustic Italian bread for my own consumption, using equal parts whole wheat and white flour. I always have an extra loaf at parties, and it disappears in no time. The recipe makes three small round loaves, so I baked them a week ago and put them in the freezer. I decided to use the recipe for a white bread this time and see if I could shape it into baguettes, which gave me the idea of serving bruschetta, which I've always wanted to try.

The white loaves were as close to a disaster as bread can be, because it is always delicious. But these were difficult to work into loaves, and they both look like giant lumpy beanbags rather than baguettes. Oh well, for bruschetta I'll be slicing them anyway, and toasting them, then rubbing them with garlic and drizzling with olive oil. I'm already at work with the three toppings. I have a large jar of excellent Ni├žoise olives which I'm pitting one by one (natch) in advance, and will buzz into a Tapanade paste with anchovies, olive oil and basil. I've laid in some cans of cannellini beans to cook with sage and mash for another choice. On the day of, I'll chop some tomatoes with basil and drain for the third shmear for the tasty toasts.

All of this and the salads, some extra wine, and of course Ginger Lemonade (see my posts from April 2 and April 4) will assure that nobody goes hungry. I hope you're coming!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Victories and Salad

May 17

Those of you who read this blog regularly are probably waiting breathlessly for the salad recipe I promised a few weeks ago. I'll give it in a minute.

I'm a bit euphoric today because I seem to have lost some eight pounds since beginning my new diet/exercise program a couple of months ago. I decided to reward myself -- not with Craisins -- but with some fresh tomatoes that looked pretty good. While I was at it, I went ahead and made the salad I promised to impart to you before.

This is called Stobo Castle Salad, and it comes from my diet cookbook but modified to include a little oil here and there. I looked up Stobo Castle on the Internet and discovered it's a famous spa (in a castle, naturally) in Scotland.

To make this salad, you do have to plan ahead. You'll need some cooked broccoli, some canned tunafish (the tasteless kind packed in water), feta cheese, and you'll have to make a couple of dressings. You'll need a tomato, a bit of red onion, and some lettuce as well. After all this preparation, you'll be happy to learn it's a lovely salad and you'll be glad to eat it.

I steam broccoli by bringing about an inch of water to boil in a small pot with a lid on it. Then I chop almost all the stem off the broccoli and stand it up in the steaming water and replace the lid. I like it very well cooked, so I steam for about 7 minutes.

Then I dump the can of tunafish in a colander and start making the dressings. Dressing #1 for the broccoli is a light vinaigrette, which I've described here before. I make it by whisking some dijon mustard with salt and vinegar to taste and then drizzling olive oil until it looks about right. Tasting is the best way to check. Toss it lightly on the greens you've chosen and add a tablespoon or so of chopped onion and a few wedges of tomato.

Make a second dressing for the tuna by combining equal parts of mayonnaise with yogurt, squeezing on a wedge of lemon juice and salting to taste.

As soon as the broccoli is cooked, remove it to a bowl and chop it into bite-size chunks and marinate for a minute in the vinaigrette.

Now you're about done (except for the cleanup). Serving just one, I use half a can of tuna. Pour the yogurt dressing on the tuna, and arrange tuna and broc on the salad. Sprinkle with crumbled feta cheese and salt and pepper to taste.

You'll lose lots of weight and not suffer one bit. Makes you want to take a trip to Stobo Castle, doesn't it?

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Collard Greens: The End of the Ham

May 12

You may remember a post a month or so ago about the Dogpatch Ham, the big ole ham that just keeps on giving. Well, I cooked one for Easter and finished off the last of it for lunch today, the day before Mother's Day. (That is, not including a bag of ham slices I've got in the freezer.)

I did a lot of things with the ham, slicing off bits for days and weeks, until there was nothing left but a ham bone with a few chunks of meat clinging tenaciously to it. This I submerged in a pot of water with about a teaspoon of salt, more or less, and a splash of vinegar. The vinegar is good for extracting calcium from a bone -- a nice tip whenever you're boiling anything that has a bone in it. The whole thing simmers slowly for two to three hours, so by then there is no taste of vinegar.

I live in the South where collards are readily available. These odd vegetables are in the cabbage family, but they grow on stalks and have hard stems and a tendency to be buggy, so if you're buying them fresh you have to wash them very well. However, today I found out that they can be purchased pre-cut and bagged just like salads and spinach, so I exercised that option.

If I had bought a fresh bunch it would have been way too big for one person anyway, even though the greens do cook down. And I would have had had the job of chopping off the stems and removing the center vein, rolling the greens into packets of two or three and shredding them as the chefs on the Food Network do with basil, and I would have "chiffonade" of collards, which might be more elegant but is a lot more trouble.

So what I did was empty half a bag of greens into about a cup of ham broth and cook them for about an hour and a half. Even I, who know full well it takes this long, had my doubts and tried them after about an hour, but they were tough and inedible. After the proper cooking time, they were tender and tasty -- and, best of all, there was about a quarter up of the most delicious pot liquor I ever had.

A word about pot liquor, for those of you who have not been introduced to it. Both my grandfathers lived with us for a time at the end of their lives, and they relished the juice from greens more than any part of the meal. I respected both men -- who could not have been more different -- and have a family heritage of old-fashioned eating as a result.

I recommend you make your stocks as tasty as possible, and you'll always have the secret joy of drinking the leftover pot liquor in the kitchen after the meal is done. As Julia Child used to say, "A little something extra for the cook!"

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Cutting Back on Knives, Etc.

May 9

An article in today's New York Times suggests that too many pots, pans, knifes and gadgets do not a better cook make.

The writer is Mark Bittman, a Times columnist, food writer, and author of one of my favorite cookbooks, How To Cook Everything, so he must be right. I myself have been poking through the pantry paring down everything, putting it into yard sales, as part of my general cleaning-out-life process for months.

Among the excess baggage in my pantry were a stock pot the size of Lake Michigan, a fancy whisk with about 90 tines, duplicate mixing spoons of every size, a colander with a handle on it, better to scoop the pasta from the water. Before my last yard sale I had to ask myself if I actually need two basic colanders, and decided I did. Never mind that one of them had been given to me by my daughter for a long-forgotten birthday or Mother's Day -- sentiment has to be put aside in this process -- but I frequently have to use two colanders at pretty much the same time.

How many knives does one need? Got to have a serrated one (I often bake my own bread), a paring knife for vegetables, a good medium-sized "chef's" knife. I also have a boning knife and another one which is long and narrow and I never quite know what to do with. I use the boning knife for chicken, and often for vegetable, but not as much as I used to. I have a block to keep them in, so the set doesn't take up much space. Also, as instructed by the many chef's on Food TV, I hone each knife after every use, and have it professionally sharpened once a year.

More to the point, what big, heavy appliances are absolutely indispensable? I use my stand mixer for bread, cakes and cookies. I have a big food processor that almost never gets used. I use the blender often -- for gazpacho, smoothies, hollandaise sauce and bread crumbs. I use the little food processor that lives in a drawer for pesto, and to chop vegetables or make mayonnaise when I choose to do it (not that often). I love the little hand blender for soups.

Every once in awhile, it's time to go through the drawers and ruthlessly rid yourself of those catalog items or those you saw on television that looked so appealing but didn't fit into daily life. I have apple corers, ginger graters, melon ballers, and all sorts of measures and probably about 50 mixing bowls of all sizes. Don't tell me which ones to pitch! I'll have to decide for myself. Just not today.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Whatever Happened to Tunafish?

May 6

Time was when a can of tuna yielded a delicious mass of soft, oily, fishy flesh -- great with a little lemon juice, mayonnaise, onions and pickle relish to put between pieces of white bread. Something in the processing (hours of cooking, I'm told) gave it a distinctive "tuna" taste that was edible right out of the can, or placed in a classic Salade Nicoise -- a composed salad with sections of cooked potatoes, green beans and tuna on lettuce.

Somewhere along the low-fat way, the product changed to a dry -- "packed in water" -- chewy-textured, undistinguishable block of something else. The only way to get anything like the old tuna is to pay through the nose for imported products, packed in olive oil.

Never mind. The new stuff can be converted by draining and marinating it in olive oil, but it won't be quite the same. If you don't remember the original, you may actually enjoy it.

I like the dressing I make using yogurt-cheese, that is, yogurt that has been drained for at least 24 hours, with equal parts of mayonnaise, with a little lemon juice and salt added, as a sauce for the new tuna. If you want to make a tonnato sauce for chicken or veal, you'll have to use the Italian oil-packed tuna or add extra olive oil to the mixture.

Dry tuna just doesn't make the grade. It may be acceptable to those who have grown up deprived of the old canned variety, but even they should appreciate the enhanced version. I just wish we could convince American canners how much money they'd make if they'd revert to their old ways.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Do Something with Carrots

May 4

Next time you pick up a bunch of (preferably organic) carrots, here's something to perk up lunch: Grate them in your food processor, add a couple of tablespoons of grapefruit juice -- I forgot to tell you to pick up a grapefruit when you're buying the carrots -- a little fresh dill (I forgot to tell you, buy some fresh dill when you're shopping), mix it all together and let marinate for 15 minutes before scarfing it down.

This is known in my diet book at "Carrot Toss." I found it quite refreshing and crunchy. But to my mind, it needed something. So I added a little dressing made of equal parts yogurt and mayonnaise, a twist of lemon, a dash of salt, and adding to the salad -- here's the trick -- a handful of dried cranberries! (See my previous post to learn of my new craze for "craisins.") The color is a delightful contrast to the carrots and the texture and taste is a perfect complement.

Of course this is a variation of that old carrot-and-raisin salad from the cafeteria line. I always had a weakness for that. But this update is tasty, easy, and, if you can stop eating it, or if you just stick to the original version, diet-friendly.

That is, unless you're on Sugarbusters, which forbids even looking at a carrot.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Cravings and Craisins

May 2

I had to tell somebody, and you're it. I had my evaluation by the trainer at the gym, and since my last eval I've lost three lbs. in weight -- four being fat pounds, and then I gained one pound of muscle. Our long term goal is 20 fat lbs. gone, so we are well on our way. Or at least I am. Gaining muscle, they tell me, only helps to metabolize the fat.

At the "Wellness Center" as it's called, I have been given a program of exercise that includes five mornings a week -- only 25 minutes per time -- alternating strength training with aerobics. At the same time two weeks ago I started on a very low calorie, low fat diet that certainly kicked in. On my scale at home I lost five lbs. the first week and then gained back three the next. That's why I decided it was time to get an objective evaluation and see if it was fat I was losing or muscle.

All this means I'm more obsessed with food than ever. I shop very carefully, as instructed by the Snowbird Diet book, but when it looked like the weight was melting off, I couldn't resist browsing in the grocery store. I came to the dried fruit aisle looking for prunes and saw that something called "Craisins" were on sale for two bags for $4. I know it's the marketing word for dried cranberries, and thought, well, how good could they be, knowing cranberries to be strong-tasting and sour. I look for treats that I don't like too much so I won't eat too much. And, being the prudent shopper than I am I opted for just one bag.

In a snack mood later, I opened my "Craisins" and was surprised. They've dumped enough sugar onto these babies that they taste like candy! The bag says, "You'll be surprised how sweet they are!" and indeed I was. Checking out the nutrition, they are as sweet as candy and almost as fattening.

But of course, I was hooked. In a few days the bag was empty and I kept wondering if the sale was still on. Cranberries are good for you, after all. There is something delicate in their light weight and chewiness. I was developing a craving.

I went to another store and thought I'd just happen by the dried fruit and see if they had the same sale on Craisins. They didn't even carry them! Oh, well, good for now. There are none in the house; that means I won't be eating them. Another day I was in another store. They don't carry Craisins either. I'm lucky these things haven't caught on yet.

So I drive around with dried cranberries on my mind. I can say I'll use them in muffins or cookies for little children -- too bad I don't have any little children -- or that surely there is some nutrition left in the berries after all that processing. Surely some store will have them on sale, two for $4, and that I won't gain all that weight back just because of a few little cranberries.