Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Man cannot live by Bread Alone, or Can He?

My paternal grandmother Dorothy, or “Dottie” as she was known by her family, was a culinary inspiration who enjoyed cooking as much as I do. I remember spending summers and holidays with her in anticipation of my next lesson under the tutelage of “Dear Dear”. I would forego playing video games with my cousins just to gather some precious jewels of culinary wisdom. After all, we lived nearly 800 miles apart and time spent together was few and far between. Among the many recipes she shared with me included biscuits, cookies, cakes and pies. She would give me helpful hints and secrets learned over the years from her mother, sisters and through her own experience. Since she passed seven years ago, I’ve inherited several of her recipes scratched on old pieces of paper, newspaper clippings from the 60’s and even a baking cookbook published in 1959. The most significant recipe, though, was not one that we normally created together, but one passed on to my mother who then added her special touch. The yeast roll. Dear Dear’s original recipe was received from a neighbor, church member or relative, written on a most valuable piece of paper that now exhibits its age of 40+ years. The rolls are an extended family favorite as I’ve witnessed first hand, relatives devour 6 or 7 before the meal even begins. On several occasions, family members were seen hiding rolls from each other or even smuggling a bag of rolls under their shirts. Scary, I know.

The roll is made from a batter yeast dough more common during the post-world war II era, and contains more moisture and less gluten due to mixing instead of kneading. Mom added a bit more sugar to the recipe resulting in a sweeter, more tender roll. I would spend hours watching her make rolls for church repasts, Christmas & Thanksgiving. Anytime a family at our church experienced a death, Mom would show up at their front door with a paper bag containing a ham (remember the repast episode on Good Times?) or a batch of freshly baked rolls. Over the years, I memorized the technique and added my own small twist to yield the ideal texture and flavor of the buttery yeast roll. You see, it’s not just about the ingredients that make the rolls unforgettable, but the love the baker has for cooking and for the ones who will partake of this bread. With my generation pursuing our careers and raising families, preparing homemade yeast rolls is typically a thing of the past. Many families opt for heat and serve rolls but I encourage you to try out the recipe below. It is an abbreviated version of our family’s traditional yeast roll and more suited to today’s lifestyles.

Should you be graced with the opportunity to share a holiday meal with a warm, fluffy, buttery yeast roll, take time to enjoy the moment with loved ones by sharing a great meal and making new memories.

Quick Yeast Rolls
Adapted from “Quick Yeast Rolls”
2 T. unsalted butter, at room temp.
¼ c. sugar
½ c. hot water
½ c. warm milk
1 (.25 ounce) package active dry yeast
1 egg, beaten
½ t. salt
2 ¼ - 3 c. all purpose flour
¼ c. melted butter
1) In a muffin pan, grease 8 muffin cups.
2) In a large bowl, mix the butter, sugar, milk and hot water. Cool to lukewarm then add the yeast until dissolved. Add the beaten egg, salt and flour. Cover and allow the dough to rise in a warm place until doubled in size.
3) Gently release the gas in the dough and divide into the prepared muffin cups. Brush with melted butter, cover loosely with a kitchen towel and set aside to rise until doubled in size.
4) Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
5) Bake the rolls for 10 minutes or until slightly browned on top.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Wash Pot

If you’re like most people, Mondays usually mean dragging yourself into work to begin another long week. For me, between the months of September and December, Mondays mean football and perhaps a plate full of savory red beans and rice. Well, actually, I could eat this dish any time of the week, but historically, red beans and rice was a dish prepared by the home cooks in New Orleans and across Louisiana on what was traditionally known as the wash day. A pot of beans simmered for hours while the homemaker tended to the household laundry. Once completed, a satisfying dinner would be ready for the family.

The inexpensive, yet filling dish is similar to other Cajun/Creole cuisines heavily influenced by the African, European, Indian and South American cultures. Local ingredients such as rice, beans, produce and seafood were coupled with seasonings and cooking techniques to create one of the most recognizable cuisines in the United States. A typical red beans and rice recipe begins with the Louisiana trinity, onions, bell peppers and celery. The hambone left over from the dinner the night before is used to infuse a hearty, smoky richness to the dish. Add garlic, herbs, spices and 3 hours on low results in a signature meal fit for a king (or queen). I often find myself craving the spicy, smoky delectable during the week, but am strapped for time with the busy weekend barely enough time to craft the masterpiece. As a result, I came up with a shortened version of red beans and rice excluding the hambone, substituting canned beans for dried and adding a couple of ingredients for depth of flavor.

If you’re feeling ambitious and have a taste for that authentic Louisiana soul of red beans and rice, try the traditional recipe below. If you're short on time give my recipe a try and add your own touch. Add a bowl of steaming rice, salad and crusty French bread and you have stick to your ribs meal for the upcoming cold winter evenings.

Louisiana Red Beans and Rice
“Louisiana Creole & Cajun” by Margaret Maring
6 c. water
1 lb. dried red kidney beans
4 t. butter
1 c. finely chopped green onions, including tops
½ c. finely chopped onions
1 rib celery, chopped
1 t. finely chopped garlic
1 ham bone with ham attached or 2 lbs. smoked ham hocks
1 lb. hot smoked sausage, optional
1 t. salt
1 bay leaf
½ t. freshly ground pepper
Dash cayenne pepper (optional)
3 c. cooked white rice
Chopped green onions for garnish

1) In a large saucepan over high heat, bring 6 cups water to a boil. Add beans and boil briskly for 2 minutes. Turn off heat and let beans soak for 1 hour.
2)In a heavy casserole over medium heat, melt butter and cook green onions, white onions, celery and garlic until soft but not brown. Stir in the beans and liquid, the ham bone or ham hocks, sausage and the seasonings. Bring to boil over high heat, then reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, for 3 hours or until beans are very soft. If the beans seem dry, add more hot water a few tablespoons at a time. Stir frequently.
3)Remove ham bones, but meat from the bone and return meat to beans. Remove the bay leaf.
Serve red beans with cooked white rice. To garnish, sprinkle chopped green onions over the top.
Yields 4-6 servings.

Danielle’s Quick Red Beans and Rice
2-15.5 oz cans small red beans, rinsed and drained
1 T. olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
½ c. green onions, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
1/3 c. bell pepper, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1/3 c. cilantro, chopped (optional)
1 T. tomato paste
2 ½-3 c. hot water
2 chicken bouillon cubes
1/4 t. thyme
1/4 t. oregano
1/8 t. cayenne pepper (optional)
Salt to taste
3 c. cooked jasmine rice
Chopped green onions or chives for garnish

In a large saucepan, heat oil on medium heat just until the surface shimmers. Add onions, celery & bell pepper and sauté for 3-5 minutes. Add garlic, tomato paste, cilantro and cook for an additional 2 minutes. Add beans, salt, pepper, oregano, thyme, water and bouillon cubes. Let the mixture come to a boil, then turn down heat, and simmer for 20 minutes.

Serve with rice and garnish with green onions.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Honey, Suga Puddin', Iced Tea

The Mother Board. Not the coined term for the central printed circuit board in personal computers, but the group of distinguished, gracefully mature women that sit at or near the front of the church, dolled in all white on communion Sundays. They always had a smile on their faces and pocketbooks filled with peppermints. Those are some of my most vivid memories growing up at First Baptist of Quindaro in Kansas City, Kansas. By today’s mega church standards, my home church is quite small; however, growing up it was a key part of my upbringing. The congregation is tight-knit and I am embraced every time I re-visit those who witnessed my child rearing.

Many African-Americans can relate as growing up in the black church holds fond memories, from the long winded sermons (smile) to the Easter speeches, and who can forget Vacation Bible School. For many, food was an essential part of the black church and was present prior at any given afternoon service, prayer breakfast or circle tea. First Baptist was no exception. As a child, I recall several meals where the women of the church would congregate in our old basement kitchen and the air filling with the sounds of conversation and smells of fried chicken, collard and turnip greens, macaroni and cheese, dressing and gravy and freshly baked rolls. And who could forget that “church” punch! At that age I could not appreciate the loving tender care that went into home cooked meals. Like many children, all I wanted was McDonald’s and my mother being who she was, made sure to it that our visits to Mickey D’s did not exceed 3 times per year.

As an adult, I reminisce on the women who helped to mold my character and love for cooking, Mrs. Hopkins, Mrs. Donnell, Mrs. Carter, Mrs. Poindexter, Mrs. Campbell just to name a few. In between times of playing with my friends during meal preparation, I was fortunate enough to get a glimpse in the kitchen; taking mental notes on how to add the right amount of love and magic into meals I may create in the future. No doubt these recipes were the result of years of experience, tried and true dishes that likely graced their own dinner tables.

I grew up during the 80s, a time when residuals of the “old school” were still around. You know what I mean, if you were caught talking in church, you got the “look”, or a firm scolding. No, this was not from your own mother or father, but from any adult that was within earshot. At the time, I despised the discipline, but as an adult I have come to appreciate the different forms of love and nurturing whether it was in the form of a firm rebuke or a plate of good old fashioned home cooking.

And the church said, AMEN!

Collard Greens with Cornbread Dumplings
taken from the cookbook “Donnell Family and Friends Club”
2 smoked turkey wings, cracked at the joins and skins split
2 leeks, trimmed and roughly chopped
1 ½ tsp. dried red pepper flakes
1 Tbsp. granulated garlic
1 Tbsp. seasoned salt
1 ½ tsp. black pepper
4 c. water
2 Tbsp. red pepper flakes
6 bunches fresh collard greens, stemmed and roughly chopped

1 ½ c. white or yellow cornmeal
¼ c. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. sugar
1 c. boiling water
Combine turkey wings, leeks, red pepper flakes, garlic, seasoned salt, pepper and water in a large stockpot and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the turkey meat is tender and begins to fall off the bones, about 45 minutes. Add the collard greens, stirring frequently at first to incorporate into the liquid. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot and simmer until the greens are very tender and most of the liquid has evaporated, about 2-3 hours.

When the greens are just about done, begin making the dumplings. Stir together cornmeal, flour, salt and sugar in a medium bowl. Slowly pour in the boiling water, stirring constantly to form a stiff dough. To finish the dish, drop teaspoons of the dough into the simmering collard greens, cover the pan, and simmer until the dumplings are puffed and fully cooked, about 20-30 minutes. Serve the greens, residual cooking liquid, turkey and dumplings in a large serving bowl. Serves 6.

“Church Punch”
1 48 oz. can pineapple juice
1 quart tropical punch
2 liters ginger ale
Combine, pour over ice and serve.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Got Cookies?

I like cookies. No, I REALLY like cookies. To the point where I think they should be a separate food group. To promote moderation of my insatiable appetite, I’ve somehow convinced myself that I should “earn” the right to consume cookies, only if I’ve created them from scratch. If I don’t make them, I don’t eat them (usually). It works until I get the overwhelming urge to make a batch, whether they be chocolate chip, sugar, or oatmeal. Then I not only eat about 6 in one sitting, I also taste chunks of batter. I’m guilty, I admit it.

Cookies are a signature of childhood and can be created in a variety of shapes and flavors. While I enjoy making the traditional cookies, I wanted to venture into custom decorated cookies. I needed to practice piping, more particularly, detailed piping, but I was a little hesitant. After all, the only C I received in all of secondary school was from Sister Mary Katherine in art. Seriously? Anyways, I eventually got up the nerve after I reading a book by Peggy Porschen, titled “Pretty Party Cakes”. The pages contained photos of the most beautifully decorated cakes, cupcakes and cookies. I would start small, practicing piping on cupcakes and cookies, then eventually move up to mini and full-size cakes.

I originally intended to make the cookies for a baby shower, but ran out of time. In a Foodie's world, it's never too late to practice. My daughter, who enjoys crafts and has a knack for creativity begged me to assist in making my first batch of decorated cookies. I agreed reluctantly only because I’m a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to food, even though this was my first attempt. I allowed her to help to keep her occupied.

We mixed our tried and true recipe of cut-out cookie dough, baked and cooled. Then we mixed a large batch of royal icing using different colors and consistencies for outlining and filling. Granted, we created a big mess over the hour and a half session, but the time spent with my child was well worth it, and the cookies tasted pretty good as well!

Wilton's Roll-Out Cookies
1 c. unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 c. sugar
1 egg
1 1/2 t. vanilla
1/2 t. almond
2 3/4 c. all-purpose flour
2 t. baking powder
1 t. salt
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In mixer bowl, cream butter with sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in egg and extracts. Mix flour, baking powder and salt; add to butter mixture 1 cup at a time, mixing after each addition. Divide dough into 2 balls. On a floured surface, roll each ball into a circle approximately 12 inches in diameter and 1/8 inch thich. Dip cookie cutter in flour before each use. Bake cookies on ungreased cookie sheet 6-7 minutes or until cookies are lightly browned.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Mise En Place

My alarm goes off at 6:15am on a Monday morning, ugh, and once again, I have to drag myself out of bed to face another day at, THE OFFICE. I recall reading the interview between a notable talk show personality and hip-hop artist where they both commented on becoming successful by being themselves. If only I knew who Myself is. To echo the words heard in a now successful brewery founder commenting on his 9-5 job, “is this what I want to be doing in the next 5 years?”, heck “is this what I want to be doing tomorrow?”

I have no one to blame but myself, as the Bible says, out of the heart flow the issues of life. So here is my issue, how does a single mother continue to support the household while doing something she loves? The question should probably be how does a single working mother keep her sanity while working at a job she hates?

What do I love? God, family and FOOD. Not that I am obsessed with the consumption of food, but I do admit to day dreaming about food from the ground to the table. Literally, how is the food grown, is organic better? How can I find a quality co-op to deliver quality produce in the middle of a Chicago winter? Should I even be eating produce from Chile with the trend encouraging local? Why is European butter better for baking? I mean food is on my mind ALL DAY. In high school, I had dreams of being an executive chef; clothed in the chef’s garb with my tall hat, dolling out exotic and tasty preparations to pretentious guests. Then my dreams came to a screeching halt when I held a few jobs in food service realizing the fast pace, hot, stress-filled type A environment of a restaurant kitchen of did not fit my introverted, autonomous type B personality, duh! Off to college I went, getting degrees in business and now working in corporate America; only to realize what I inherently knew, that making a living does not equate to making a life.

So what’s a Foodie to do?

With an apartment kitchen apparently built for a non-discriminating bachelor, counter space all of 1 square foot and a limited budget, I did the only thing I knew how; I continued to cook. After all, when you have a passion for something, you can leave it, but it will not leave you. How else can one visit far away lands and experience culture other than through the very substance that sustains life? How can you reminisce over your childhood or times of long ago without the nostalgic tour of food? Nothing else brings to mind the times with family or that special someone than a certain dessert or gourmet meal.

I noticed that I was more focused on answering the questions of “How” and “Why” which would lead me to an exceptional “What”. I peruse through countless recipes on the Internet and am instantly gravitated to the cookbook section of the library all in search of the perfect sauce, bread or cookie. What delectable edibles will peak my curiosity this week? At any point in time I can go back to my culinary roots through a traditional southern cookbook, or perhaps blaze the way experimenting on Asian fusion. What a way to embark on an exhilarating journey of all things edible.

Instead of dreading the morning alarm, I will now beat it waking up with thoughts of making a perfectly tender beef bourguignon, or figuring out the best ratio of fat to flour for that flaky, buttery biscuit. The sky is the limit when it comes to food and that is exactly where I plan to go.