A mother-daughter conversation on food and cooking (mostly)

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Crowder Peas and A Poorly Composed Meal

We bought crowder peas at the farmer's market. I'd never even heard of them, as interested as I am in Southern vegetables, but Lawson told me his grandma used to grow them. They looked strange and beautiful:

They took me over an hour and a half to shell. And as there will be no more new Harry Potter books to read while I'm shelling crowder peas, I may never shell another crowder pea again. As you would expect, the drier purple pods had harder bean-like peas that fell right out, but the greener pods were spongy and delicate and so, so hard to pull apart to get at the pea inside. It was super-tedious.

Just last weekend I bought this book. I had high hopes: I've been reading reviews of it, and a quick glance showed me recipes for fig preserves and other such Southern foods. But the recipes aren't really Southern in cooking method -- they're more like things I would make out of Southern ingredients if I was feeling really fussy. I really want a solid Carolinian cookbook with Southern cooking methods. Sometimes I'm not a big fan of those methods, but I know there are traditional subtleties beyond just adding a ham hock to everything, as so many cooks do, and I want to know what they are.

Anyway, I used the Lee Brothers' crowder pea recipe, which involves a short boiling and a very basic vinagrette. This disappointed Lawson, who thought I should have tried the real Southern way after spending all that time shelling peas. The real way, you'll be unsurprised to learn, involves a ham hock.

The crowder peas in vinaigrette formed the base of this ill-composed meal :

Everything tasted fine, but nothing fitted; there were too many foods on the plate, cooked too much the same way. The pork chops were marinated in rosemary, sage, vermouth, wine vinegar, and olive oil and then grilled -- my favorite method and one of the first recipes I invented (though in this case the grill died and I finished them in a pan). But then the okra was broiled, as were the figs. The jalapenos were broiled, too, and it did nothing but make them unbearably spicy. Too many foods, too much heat, too many grill marks, too many hot juices running out of things. There were no contrasts. Sometimes meals that fall together out of Lawson's and my brains work out just fine, and sometimes they do not.

My mom is on a trip, in case you're wondering why she's not posting. She, my dad, my brother, and my brother's girlfriend will be here in South Carolina in a few days. There may be a lull in posting, but maybe we'll all throw together a post or two. Because my parents are traveling in a car, without their camper, they will be desperate for homemade food by the time they reach us.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Steamed Okra

You already know, Mom, how much I love okra. I eat it several times a week throughout the summer and fall; when Lawson's plants really start producing, we sometimes eat it every day. It has frankly glorious effects on one's digestion. I love the plants, which have delicate yellow hibiscus-like flowers and grow to 10 feet tall by the end of the season, so tall I have to bend them down to pick the okra at the top.

It wasn't always like this. Your encounter with a stringy, boogery bowl of boiled okra in your early 20s was passed on like a family ghost story: I moved to the South absolutely convinced that okra was a slimy horror, barely a vegetable -- just another Southern embarrassment. But I tried it, and then tried it again, and though it took some getting used to, it is now among my favorite foods.

I've only once bought okra from the store, and I was a little disappointed, but I think I am spoiled by the garden. Choose small pods, no more than 4 inches long and preferably half that length. Size is not good with okra; if you don't pick pods in time, they'll grow to 16 inches long and become hard as tree trunks, totally inedible. The pods must be absolutely fresh, with no woodiness or drying – tough pods can be used in gumbos or other stews, where they’ll have more time to soften.

Minimal handling keeps the pods from becoming gooey. Don’t cut the stems off. I don’t even wash whole okra before cooking them, as water also contributes to sliminess. I just brush them off a little.

Most people consider fried okra the most approachable preparation, and it's true that it's a good introduction to the flavor. Last night we broiled okra after tossing it with salt and olive oil. We intended to grill it, but the grill ran out of gas, and broiling worked perfectly. But the absolute best way to eat okra is steamed. I'm not usually a steamed vegetable fan -- steamed broccoli makes me particularly sad -- but steamed okra is different. Steaming brings out okra flavors that no other cooking method uncovers. It's complex and nutty and sweet and oystery and asparaguslike and perfectly tender.

Steamed Okra

Boil water in a pot with a fitted steamer. If some pods are significantly bigger than others, put the bigger pods in a few minutes earlier. Steam the pods for anywhere from 3 to 8 minutes, checking every few minutes. Remove the pot from the heat when the pods are bright dewy green and easily pierced with a fork. Remove immediately to a dry bowl – don’t let the water from the bottom of the pot touch the pods – and sprinkle liberally with salt. Eat with fingers.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Thai Stir-Fried Okra, Eggplant, and Tomatoes

Lawson is much better with the wok than I am, so he usually does the stir-frying around here. He's fun to watch. As you can see here, he moves at superhero speed.

He roasted the eggplant first to soften it -- without precooking, it seems to stay tough and soak up too much oil. He then stir-fried onions, okra, the roasted eggplant, and tomato in some chile-garlic-basil paste he made last year. A little fish sauce, chicken broth, and fresh Thai basil finished it. We served it over plain white rice.

The chile-garlic-basil paste is based on this amazing product we found at the local Asian market a few years ago: Por Kwan brand sweet chile basil paste. It consists of basil leaves, garlic, fresh chiles, salt, and oil. The Por Kwan is almost as good as Lawson's garden-sourced reproduction.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Raspberry Tart

This has been a bountiful berry season. This week it's raspberries. To make this tart I used the crust from the Fresh Blueberry Tart below. For the filling I mixed 8 ounces mascarpone with 1/4 cup raspberry jam, then topped it with 1 pint fresh raspberries.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Cantaloupe for Breakfast

It's hard to write about cooking during July because the foods I love most right now require no preparation.

I'm not from the school that puts sugar on grapefruit, cream on blueberries, cheese on apples, etc. It isn't out of purity or health nuttery; it's more like fresh fruit gives me a clean-mouthed feeling that's spoiled by dairy or sucrose.

Lawson grew this cantaloupe, because I am the luckiest eater ever.

Thursday, July 19, 2007


I made pissaladiere for the first time this week. It was pretty good -- not transcendent, but pretty good. I read a bunch of recipes but ended up using no particular version.

For the crust I used my standard no-rolling-pin recipe from the Joy of Cooking. Like you, I don't really get flaky pie crust; I feel the crumbly pat-in-the-pan versions are just as good any other crust I've had. Anyway: 1.5 cups flour, 5 T butter, and about 3/4 t salt -- more than the recipe calls for.

I put two beaten eggs and some grated Parmesan in the bottom of the crust to seal it and hold everything together. On top of that I put a whole bunch of caramelized Vidalia onions -- two medium onions reduced to a dark gold color. Next came four anchovies, broken up; a teaspoon or so each of fresh basil, rosemary, and oregano; and two medium tomatoes, one chopped and drained and one sliced. On top of that was a bit more Parmesan and some oil-cured olives. I baked the whole thing for about half an hour.

I'd like to know Aunt Katherine's pissaladiere recipe. If she doesn't see this post, maybe you can ask her when you see her next week to put it in the comments or send to us.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Baked Cod Greek Style

I was scornful of Mark Bittman’s list of essential equipment which you posted on May 11th—however, he pointed me towards one tool for which I’m grateful. He suggested that the heat-resistant rubber spatula can replace the classic wooden spoon, and I’ve been using one, and it’s very satisfactory. I had a couple with removable wooden handles (for putting in the dishwasher), but just this week I bought a dishwasher-safe one.

Baked Cod Greek Style.

Cooking spray
1 pound fresh cod fillets

Place cod fillets in a baking dish coated with cooking spray. Season with salt and pepper.

2 teaspoons olive oil
1 green pepper, cut in strips
1 onion, cut in strips lengthwise
3 cloves garlic, chopped

Heat olive oil in a skillet and sauté green pepper, onion, and garlic until limp.

1 16-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 bay leaf
12 pitted black olives
1 teaspoon fish sauce
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Add tomatoes, oregano, bay leaf, olives, fish sauce, and pepper flakes to skillet. Cook and stir for five minutes. Pour sauce over cod fillets in baking dish.

1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese

Sprinkle feta cheese over all. Bake at 400º for 20 to 30 minutes, or until fish is cooked through.

Chicken, Watermelon, and Thai Basil Salad with Spicy Peanut Dressing

Oh, wow...that salad I made up in my head earlier this week? It was good.

I made a dressing in the food processor using:

1/2 cup peanut butter
1 T sugar
juice of 1 lime
2 teaspoons fresh ginger
2 T sesame oil
fish sauce to taste -- around 1/8 cup
some tiny fresh red chiles
warm water to thin to desired consistency
garlic would have been good but we were out

I marinated some chicken breasts in lime juice, salt, and vermouth, and I grilled them and sliced them. Then I cut up watermelon into bite-sized wedges and thinly sliced some red onions. I used mixed greens from the grocery store, and Lawson picked some Thai basil. The chicken was fine and a little bland, nothing fancy, but the watermelon, basil, and spicy peanut dressing really worked.

The red onions are from the farm of my friend Ken's brother. Ken and Melanie brought them to us yesterday, and they are so beautiful -- very small, and almost luminescent.

Saturday, July 14, 2007


I didn't care about watermelon until I moved to the South. I think I'd just never been hot enough to appreciate it.

Now I love it. Plain is good, but I'm trying to think of new ways to use it. A few nights ago we had it with chile powder and lime juice, the way Mexicans serve jicama, and it was delicious. I made eggplant parmigiana for the first time, all rich and cheesy, and the spicy cool watermelon was the perfect foil.

I have created in my head a salad consisting of grilled chicken, romaine, watermelon, green onions, and spicy peanut dressing. Tomorrow I'll try to make it happen, and if it's successful, I'll post the recipe.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Ode to Mexican Macaroni

The only thing Mexican about this macaroni casserole is that I happened to get it from my favorite Mexican cookbook (Mexican Family Cooking by Aida Gabilondo). It seems very Middle American to me. It’s cheap and delicious.

8 ounces elbow macaroni, cooked according to package directions (I use whole wheat)
2 tablespoons melted butter
2 cloves garlic, mashed
½ teaspoon crushed oregano

Mix macaroni with butter, garlic, and oregano.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 16-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper to taste

Saute onion in the oil until tender. Add tomatoes and bay leaf, season to taste, and simmer 5 minutes.

2 cups grated mild cheddar cheese
½ cup evaporated milk

Mix the macaroni, tomato sauce, and 1 cup of the cheese and put in a greased casserole. Top with the remaining 1 cup of cheese. Then pour the milk over all. Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, or until browned and bubbly.
This is a very strange way of assembling a casserole--adding the garlic and oregano raw to the macaroni. But you’ll find it tastes sharper and more interesting that way. You’ll be tempted to go ahead and eat the buttery, garlicky macaroni before you finish the rest of the recipe.

This dish is infinitely variable. I use different cheeses, and I also like to sprinkle the top with chile powder before baking.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Baked Alaska

We had a party for fourteen people on Sunday. It was for Dad’s birthday as well as a kind of yardwarming. We had margaritas, sangria, and Mexican beer; typical appetizers like guacamole and homemade salsa and lots of chips; a main course of shredded pork served with tortillas and fajita-style garnishes, Anasazi beans, and some green corn tamales which we bought in South Tucson; and two Baked Alaska Pies. Here’s how to make Baked Alaska:

1 graham cracker crust (I use a few pretzels in place of some of the graham crackers), baked until lightly browned

1 quart ice cream, softened slightly. Coconut, caramel ripple, or mocha nut are the kinds of flavors that we like best

A 3-egg-white meringue

Scoop the ice cream into the crust and smooth the top. Return to freezer until hard, at least two hours.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Make the meringue and spread on the ice cream, sealing to the edge of the crust. Bake until the meringue is lightly browned. You have to watch it like a hawk. If it’s not browning very fast, turn on the broiler briefly. The idea is to brown it without melting the ice cream too much.

Return to freezer until hard, about two hours.

Saturday, July 7, 2007


Back in 2002 and 2003, all through my gradual unvegetarianing, the Forces of Meat had one weapon more potent than any other. That weapon was bacon, and specifically bacon in combination with fresh tomatoes. Once Lawson had made me my first bacon-tomato sandwich, it was all over.

Here's how he makes one:

- 2 slices storebought multigrain bread
- thin layer on each slice of medium-fat mayonnaise (I find the super-lowfat mayo wretched, and neither of us wants to eat the full-fat stuff 3 times a week all summer)
- one small or 1/2 large real summer tomato. Really, there's no use at all making a bacon-tomato sandwich with pale grocery store tomatoes. You need actual tomatoes grown outside in the sun. Gardens are good. The farmer's market is good. Cut the tomato up in thick slices.
- 3 slices thick-cut bacon, cooked. It's better (crispier and more even) in a pan, but sometimes we use the microwave.

That's all. I love lettuce, but lettuce is totally unnecessary here.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Fresh Blueberry Tart

Here's the best blueberry recipe! I made the crust in my little convection oven outside. To date I have made many meals in it, including baked sweet potatoes, oven fries, sausages, polenta slices, bread, and Piedmont Peppers.

1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons powdered sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
10 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
Preheat oven to 350°. Blend flour, sugar, and salt in processor 5 seconds. Add butter; pulse until clumps form. Gather dough into ball. Press dough over bottom and up sides of 9½ -inch tart pan with removable bottom; pierce all over with fork. Bake until golden, about 25 minutes. Cool.

¾ cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
Pinch of salt
2 tablespoons cold water
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 teaspoon grated lemon peel
6 cups fresh blueberries
Whisk sugar, cornstarch, and salt in medium saucepan to blend. Gradually add 2 tablespoons cold water and lemon juice, whisking until smooth. Add butter and lemon peel. Add 2 cups berries and mash coarsely. Cook over medium heat until mixture thickens and boils, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat. Fold in remaining 4 cups berries. Transfer to prepared crust and refrigerate until cold.

Return to Vegetables

On the kitchen counter waiting for me when I returned from my DC trip was this tableau:
As you can see, we have a variety of eggplant types, some tomatoes, some okra, some yellow squash, and one dark and enormous zucchini hidden under it all. Last night Lawson roasted eggplant, onions, and zucchini, then made pesto and cooked some rigatoni and tossed it all together. It was delicious.