A Fresh Take on an Old Friend
No matter how wonderful, perfect, or beautiful a person, place (i.e. Charleston), job, relationship, or just about anything starts out, it’s easy to take any of these for granted and fail to really see or recognize why you fell in love with them in the first place. Stress, rushing, bad attitude and plain old not stopping to smell the roses can take its toll on perspective. As wonderful as the last two years have been in my life, they have been very busy. So busy, I was starting to feel grumpy and rushed about too many things, including the city I fell in love with at first sight and have called home for nearly twenty years. Recognizing this, I made a personal vow to take some time to recharge my spirit, mind, soul, take better care of my health, and more time with family, friends and my pets.
Nearly two months into my self-prescribed recharge initiative, I’ve lost seven pounds, am sleeping better than ever, feeling extra creative and productive, and enjoying life and Charleston with renewed vigor. The other day, while walking down East Bay Street near Broad, the morning sun lovingly cast upon the mostly 19th-century roof lines, it seemed as if I had never seen them, really seen them, in their purest and most tangible form as I did at that moment. Later that same week, a friend I haven’t seen in thirty years came to town for a visit. Turns out, Deb and I are in the same place; re-assessing our lives and priorities. She’s looking for potential new places to live (at least part time), so thought she’d give Charleston a whirl. Naturally, I found myself wanting to show Charleston off, and in a most unexpected and delicious turn of events, ended up with a renewed appreciation for my hometown.
Friday morning began with a brisk walk on the beach with my dog Rocky and a spin by Bowen’s Island restaurant to show Deb the tumbledown seafood shack that embodies Charleston and especially Folly Beach with mollusk and hush puppy aplomb. She spied something I never had before, Charleston Outdoor Adventures and kayak tours. I’d never been on a kayak and had never even known about this location for taking them So, we signed up! I felt as excited as a kid on Christmas Eve. Next stop, was a walking tour downtown, and lunch at one of my personal favorites, Little Jack’s Tavern. I felt compelled to introduce Deb to the justifiably famous Little Jack’s Tavern Burger and the cool vibes of this neat little cosmopolitan spot with cheerful Charleston charm. All juicy and packed with flavor and glazed with its signature, secret sauce, it somehow seemed to taste better than ever as we laughed our way through thirty years of memories, some shared and some lived individually and shared over the meal and throughout the weekend.
A warm summer Friday night for two baseball fans seemed like a fitting way to wrap the afternoon at Joe Riley Baseball Park for some all American fun and (as Deb was hoping) a possible Bill Murray sighting. Well, the latter didn’t happen, but a magnificent pink and purple and blue cotton candy sunset did over the marshes at the rear of the park and we watched the likes of players with names like Gage Cunning (fodder for my novel’s lead character’s name) smash the ball around the park and mascots bumping into each other and acting silly. Beer and brisket sandwiches provided sustenance for our bellies, while the charming little park, feel-good sports fans, a rocking fireworks display, and witty banter fed our souls.
Saturday arrived in a flash and I was up before dawn preparing the our kayak tour with Charleston Outdoor Adventures. A quick tutorial with our handsome guide Josh and we were in the saltwater estuary waters behind Folly Beach. A rocky glide across open water went fairly well until our group of five kayak pros and kayak virgin me tried to negotiate our way through a narrow, serpentine slip of water. I felt like I was leaving an aorta and entering a capillary as my poor boat lined itself up horizontally in the flow, nose and tail firmly plugged into the marsh grasses. I was motionless, breathless, and slightly scared. None the less, I was not too proud to flail my oar in the air and meekly cry “help” to the group three turns farther down the path. Josh arrived like the kayak savior he was, pulling out a large hook and line to attach to the tip of my kayak. “Oh my God, you’re not my own personal kayak tugboat are you, Josh?” Yes, was the response, but don’t worry it wasn’t the first time.
Seriously humbled and blushed with shame and exertion, eventually I was able to figure out how to negotiate the rudder pedals and re-joined the group in the open waters, just in time to catch a grounded old shrimping boat and a pod of dolphins. Josh explained that female dolphins (what we were witnessing) typically live sixty years, while males live only fifty. The pristine world where we were watching them play was custom made for their lifestyle and playground, largely created and protected by the barrier islands that surround Charleston. It was a morning I’ll not soon forget and my arm and shoulder muscles, three days later, still possess significant recall.
Later that day, we headed back into town for a ride with Ross of Palmetto Carriage through the French Quarter and lower peninsula. Probably my 20th carriage tour, I learned some things I didn’t know, such as how a boat had smashed into two houses on East Bay during the hurricane of 1911, completely destroying them, and reminded myself again how beautiful the old mansions look in the ebbing light of day, cool afternoon breezes refreshing our spirits anew. There was more on our robust to-do list that got done, such as a “sip and stroll” to The Pavilion Bar, Anson, and The Blind Tiger, and breakfast at The Hominy Grill Sunday morning, enjoying what surely must be the best shrimp and grits and she crab soup in town, if not the entire world.
Three nights, two and a half days, several great meals, a massive lightning storm, Thursday night book club with delicious food and great gals, even more great adventures, and I don’t know how many laughs later, I’d re-found two friends. A Charleston I had partly forgotten and a friendship of thirty years refreshed. And, Deb made a new friend in my little puppy, Rocky Rocken Roll, who practically would not let her go home.
Lesson learned – remember to savor life and take no moments, no place, or no one for granted. And, when you come to or visit Charleston, savor all she has to offer.
If it’s possible to still be a Daddy’s girl at 52, then I’m as guilty as the six year-old that wears him like a badge of honor on my heart, then as I do now. He enforced strict discipline and never tolerated lies he was somehow able to sniff out like a dog on the hunt. He taught unconditional love at every turn, returning from arduous week-long business trips, always ready to give his energy to his pack of four children and our mother on weekends. These often involved long rides on our horses, tag football, and summer evenings spent watching fireflies on our country front porch. When we were really lucky, these nights ended with him recanting imagined tales of Cookie to all of us, under a “tent” in the living room. And, when the summer heat really turned on, Saturday afternoons meant cherished and rare trips to Dairy Queen for ice cream. I favored the soft serve vanilla twist cones dipped in confetti peanut/candy, but sometimes one of us, Dad included, went whole hog and indulged in a hot chocolate sauce banana split. So, even now, I can’t think of ice cream sundaes without thinking of my Dad.
Time may have softened the lines of these memories, erasing the tears from an overly tired child or admonishments from a frustrated Dad, but at their core, they remain true to the man he was and is. The best Dad I could ever hope to have and my eternal night in shining armor, still shining at 84 years of age. The recipe that follows is an adult version of a very, very indulgent sundae that far surpasses DQ’s confetti candy and moves into the realm of butter, mashed bananas, brown sugar, walnuts and rum, though the latter can be wholly omitted without really missing a beat. From my cookbook Mashed – Beyond the Potato (Gibbs Smith), it might be just the right treat for your Dad this Father’s Day.
Mashed Bananas Foster Sundaes
(Yields 8 sundaes)
The classic brown sugar, butter and rum sauce wrapped around flash-cooked and flambeed ripe bananas was created by Chef Paul Blange at Brennan’s restaurant in New Orleans in 1951. The dark brown sauce is just the right foil for the sweetness of bananas. Lightly mashed and served warm over commercial vanilla ice cream with a crumble of chopped walnuts, it is sublime and comes together in minutes. To flambe, carefully tip the saute pan to meet your stovetop gas flame, or quickly hit with a lighter flame. The flambe is important to cook off the burn of the alcohol and increase flavor, although the rum can be omitted altogether. This is best served straight from the pan, but will store refrigerated and covered for a day or two. Reheat before serving over a few scoops of ice cream.
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 8 tablespoons
1/3 cup lightly packed dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon real vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
4 ripe bananas, peeled, halved vertically, and halved again horizontally
1/3 cup dark rum (optional)
1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
1 1/2 quarts best quality vanilla ice cream
In a large saute pan, melt the butter over medium heat and add the brown sugar, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon, canilla, and salt. Cook together over medium-low heat, stirring, about 2 minutes. Carefully add the bananas and gently stir to coat, cooking for 3 minutes. Add the rum, stir to combine, and flambe, standing back to avoid the flame. Gently mash into large chunks using a manual masher or wooden spoon. Remove from heat and cool slightly for 1 – 2 minutes. Serve warm in individual bowls over 2 or 3 scoops of ice cream. Garnish with a tablespoon or so of chopped walnuts. Serve immediately.
Happy Father’s Day!
Recipe and Cookbook Giveaway
Here it is already. Time to tuck away the white shorts and Keds, pull out the grill, and celebrate the symbolic final hoopla of summer – Labor Day. When I was a girl living on our bucolic Massachusetts farm, it was a weekend to look forward to. Jammed with horse riding, touch football, and lots of burgers and dogs cooked (usually over-cooked) but always cooked with love by my darling Dad. For me, too, it was infused with the anticipation of returning to school. I loved going back to that elementary school, the smell of the paper and books, the sound of a pencil writing cursive on a piece of lined paper on a hard desk, even the slightly sweet, soggy spaghetti and meat sauce in the cafeteria. I remember laying out my first day of school outfit on my bed, right down to the knee socks and polished Mary Jane’s. Those were heady days!
This Labor Day weekend has a slightly heightened sense of joy, like back in those school days. My latest cookbook, Mashed – Beyond the Potato (Gibbs Smith) will be released Tuesday. Available in bookstores near you and online, practically by the time you read this. The recipe that follows is one of my favorites, because it is packed with one of my favorite summer foods – summer squash and zucchini. Still beautiful in South Carolina this time of year, they’re reaching the end of their season elsewhere and soon will here, too. Though this dish requires just a bit more work than placing the squash on a grill, it’s a lovely do-ahead that will impress and pair with anything from a steak to barbecue.
Cheddar Two-Summer-Squash Mash
Yields 6 servings
Summer squash, slightly sweet and squeaks-in-your-teeth fresh at peak summer season, is one of my favorite summer treats. Often, I’ll saute either yellow summer squash or zucchini in a little olive oil wiht some red onion, finish it with a sprinkle of fresh basil and grated Parmesan, and call it a summer’s night. However, the two squashes marry beautifully together in this beautiful mash casserole, which resonates with the lemony freshness of thyme and squash flavor. The texture is airy and light, almost mousse-like, topped with a buttery panko bread crumb crunch. While you can substitute unseasoned traditional bread crumbs, panko celivers a crunch edge and it’s really worth having in your pantry at all times. The casserole is delicious hot, warm, or even room temperature.
2 medium zucchini, ends trimmed and cut into 1-inch (2.5-cm) dice, about 3 cups (370 g)
3 medium yellow summer squash, ends trimmed and cut into 1-inch (2.5-cm) dice, about 4 cups (495 g)
3 1/2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt, divided
1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh thyme leaves
1 cup (240 ml) whole milk sour cream
2 cups (240 g) grated mild cheddar cheese
1 small shallot, finely chopped, about 2 tablespoons
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 egg, beaten
Pinch of ground nutmeg
3 tablespoon unsalted butter, divided
1 cup panko bread crumbs or unseasoned traditional bread crumbs
Pinch of ground black pepper and kosher or sea salt
Preheat oven to 350° F (175° C).
Place the zucchini and summer squash in a medium saucepan. Pour in enough water to barely cover and add 2 teaspoons salt. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook, uncovered, until the squash is very tender, about 20 minutes. Drain very well in a colander, gently pressing out any excess water, and return to the pan.
Mash with a manual masher until the squash is chunky smooth. With a wooden spoon, blend in the thyme, sour cream, cheese, shallot, pepper, remaining salt, egg, and nutmeg. Pour into a medium (2-quart / 2-l) casserole that has been greased with 1 tablespoon of the butter, spreading with spoon to even the top.
Melt the remaining butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the panko and seasoning and toss to coat. Brown the crumbs to a golden brown, being careful to toss and avoid burning. Spread the bread crumbs evenly over the top.
Bake for 45 minutes, uncovered, or until bubbly and golden brown. Rest 10 minutes before serving and garnish with some fresh thyme sprigs. This makes a lovely meal with a green salad and fresh bread and butter. The casserole can be assembled ahead, refrigerated, and baked just before serving.
I told you what I love about Labor Day. Now’s your turn to tell me what you love about this holiday and transition from summer into fall. Favorite memories, foods, thoughts – they’re all welcome. Please leave your comment here and I’ll pick a winner on Tuesday, book release day.
I look forward to hearing from you and please have a safe, happy and delicious holiday!
Reflections and a Recipe: Feisty Chicken Drumstick Piperade
Some years ago, I was blessed enough not only to own a small home in a tiny village in southwestern France, I was doubly blessed to have the opportunity to visit for several months of those seven lucky years. Tucked away in the foothills of The Pyrenees and steeped in the tragic history of Le Pays Cathare, it was a tiny, pie-shaped home at the base of a crumbling old chateau in a pocket of a village called Chalabre. My French friends called it le maison du poupee, or a doll’s house. Sometimes I felt like a little doll working in it, especially working in my sliver of a kitchen with a view of rolling green hills, grazing cattle, and a tiny 16th-century church, tolling its soothing, soulful bells every hour into every day I spent there.
As much as I loved it, I would occasionally stray south of the border to neighboring Spain to buy red clay pottery, which brought me through and around Basque country. The language and dialect are unique and were foreign to my French-trained ears. Even though I couldn’t understand the language, I recognized and understood the faces of the villagers in the villages I passed through. Rows of stooped, elderly men lining short benches at the edges of cafes, sun-leathered faces and age-withered lips barely clinging to their omnipresent Gauloises cigarettes, and little old ladies clinging to well-used thatched baskets, hobbling through winding, ancient streets in floral, wrapped aprons on the way to the daily marche, all spoke to the time-worn traditions of the place.
Among other things, Basque country is home to the French Basque “piperade” (pronounced pip-errr-ahd), which derives its name from the French Gascon word for pepper, or “piper.” Traditionally, it is comprised primarily of peppers, onions and tomatoes, to mimic the red, green and white colors of the Basque flag. Because peppers have been haunting me for the past two months, both at supermarkets and farmer stands, I’ve been cooking quite a bit with them. Their diversity is growing, both in color and heat, and I enjoyed combining a bit of sweet and heat in this recipe, which is just hot enough to make you pucker, and sweet enough (with a dash of honey) to make you smile. I skipped tomatoes in this version, since I didn’t have any at home. Feel free to add one or two, coarsely chopped, after adding the chicken stock. It’s finished with a spray of fresh basil and parsley, and is as lovely served hot, as it is room temp or even cool for a picnic. Serve as is, or over rice, polenta, grits or creamy mashed potatoes.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
6 large chicken drumsticks (about 1 1/2 pounds)
kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
1 3/4 cups mixed color sweet, baby bell peppers (about 8 total), halved, seeded, and thinly sliced
1 large banana pepper, halved, seeded, and thinly sliced
1 large jalapeno pepper, halved, seeded, and thinly sliced
kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 large cloves garlic, peeled, smashed and very finely chopped
Juice of 1 lime, about 2 tablespoons
2/3 cup fresh squeezed orange juice
Pinch crushed red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon local or wild honey
1 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken stock
kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon each, finely chopped fresh basil and parsley
Preheat oven to 350F. Pat dry the chicken drumsticks (or substitute same size pieces of other cuts of the chicken). Heat the 2 tablespoons butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil in a 5 1/2 quart Dutch Oven (or another sturdy, oven-proof pot) over medium high. Season the chicken generously on one side with the salt and pepper and 1/2 of the oregano. When sizzling, add the chicken, seasoned side down in a single layer, in the butter and oil. Brown until golden, about four minutes. Turn the chicken, and season the uncooked side with salt and pepper and remaining oregano. Cook another 2 to 3 minutes until golden. Remove the chicken from the pan and set aside. Drain off the cooking fat. Add a fresh tablespoon of olive oil, heat over medium low. Add the onion, season lightly with salt and pepper, stir and cook until just softened, about two minutes. Add the sweet peppers, banana pepper and jalapeno, season lightly with salt and pepper, stir, and continue cooking over medium low until softened, about three minutes. Add the garlic, lime juice, orange juice and crushed red pepper flakes. Increase the heat to medium high and reduce liquids by half. Add the honey, chicken stock and return the browned chicken to the pan, in a single layer. Bring up to a boil, cover, and place the pot in the preheated oven on the middle rack. Bake for 20 minutes. Turn the chicken once. Remove the lid and return to the oven, baking another 10 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through and beginning to pull from the bone. Remove the pot from the oven and remove the chicken from the pot, reserving warm. Return the pot to the stove, and reduce the liquid by half, simmering over medium high for 6 to 8 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. At the last minute, add the fresh basil and parsley. Return the chicken to the pot and heat through. Serve immediately or cool, refrigerate overnight, and serve the next day hot, room temperature or chilled.
Culinary Tours of Charleston hosts a wonderful Farmers Market Tour that concludes with a fabulous five course feast prepared by a local chef.
Here’s the dessert from a tour I took earlier this week – blueberry ice cream over Texas Toast French Toast with Special K crunch coating. Amazing!