The Whole is Greater Than the Sum of the Parts: Roast Chicken

Boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Easy. Convenient. Low fat. They can be bought in large bags, dipped in a saline bath and individually frozen so that we may remove one, two or more. Useful for busy days.

You know there’s a “but” here. And you’re right.

Yesterday morning, for some reason, the remembered smell of a whole roasted chicken began to insinuate itself into my frontal lobes. Couldn’t shake it. Then I began thinking of mashed potatoes.

That was it. I grabbed the car keys and headed for the grocery store.

It was already four in the afternoon, so I bought a larger fryer rather than a roasting chicken, along with some golden potatoes, fresh Brussels sprouts, carrots and an onion.

For the chicken, I pre-heated the oven to 425, then rubbed a little salt and pepper inside, and stuffed it with a lemon cut in half, an entire head of garlic sliced in half (knife in the middle, not top to bottom), a bunch of fresh marjoram (wanted thyme, but the store didn’t have any and the marjoram was beautiful), then sprinkled a little lemon juice, salt and pepper on the outside, plus rubbed in a bit of olive oil. Popped it in the oven. I cooked it at 425 for about 25 minutes, then reduced the temp to 325 and added a dish of veggies to the oven to roast. The veggies were whole carrots, an onion chopped into quarters and the Brussels sprouts. Drizzled that concoction with a little olive oil, salt, pepper and dried thyme.

Soon, our cottage began to almost vibrate with the unmistakable aroma of roasting chicken. Buck and Maggie almost passed out from delight when they came in from the woods. And when Buck saw those mashed potatoes (you know they are authentic when there are still a few lumps) his eyes were like a child’s on Christmas morning.

I meant to take a picture. I really did. But we fell on that dinner like a pack of hungry dogs.

The chicken was crisp and brown on the outside, and densely flavored and moist on the inside. The garlic, lemon and marjoram had worked their magic, but barely left a fingerprint.

It was a reminder of something I knew, but had almost forgotten: a whole chicken, cooked with its parts still connected, just tastes better. A lot better.


Monday Supper: “Red” Soup

Red Soup

Red Soup

Red Soup was a specialty of my late mother-in-law, Lois. She had the most beautiful porcelain complexion, even at 81. I especially miss her low chuckle and flashing big brown eyes.

Her soup is “just” vegetable beef soup, very simple except for the fact that it can prevent the common cold and cure the heartbreak of psoriasis.

I don’t measure anything. You know how it is with making vegetable soup. You start out with Something, and end up with the kitchen sink. All I know is that I seem to be congenitally incapable of making a small pot of soup. Buck would happily eat the entire pot, day by day, as long as it took, until the pot was empty, but after the first supper and then one more, I divide it up into freezer containers and add it to my stock of buried treasure.

Generally, this is how it goes:

Put a chunk of beef (I often use a chuck or blade roast) in a large soup pot, add a mix of water and beef broth (or chicken broth) to cover. Add several whole peppercorns and a little salt. Chop up an onion, a couple ribs of celery and two or three carrots. Add them to the pot. Bring to a boil, then simmer for about two hours until tender. (You can do this part a day in advance if you want to be able to chill it and spoon off any fat on the top.)

Remove the beef from the pot, cut it into pieces, then return it to the pot. Add your choice of veggies. I usually chop another onion, more carrots, several turnip roots, a potato or two and some green beans. Add a large (28 oz.) can of tomatoes and more broth and/or water to bring it to a consistency that looks right to you. Simmer for 30 minutes or until the root vegetables are tender. Bring to a boil again and add a bag of frozen succotash (corn and lima beans) or mixed vegetables. For us, it’s not “red soup” if we don’t add a bag of chopped okra, but I realize that’s a very personal choice. Fresh okra is best, but usually only available in the summer. Simmer for another twenty minutes, and then add a small handful of dried spaghetti, broken in thirds. Simmer for about ten minutes. Correct the seasoning. It’s soup.

Note: I am not intentionally writing screwy recipe instructions. I haven’t written out recipes often, so I hope you will be patient with me on the learning curve. If you really want to make this recipe and anything is unclear, please let me know and I’ll provide a more structured and precise version.

This is also tasty with no meat or with chicken (although with chicken I prefer it more plain, just with onions, carrots, celery and noodles.)

Christmas Eve 2003: Meatballs!

Christmas Eve was noisy and fun around our house, with seven adults, two teenagers (we wouldn’t dare call them children), and five children between four and ten years old.

I tried something a little different this year, shooting for a target which might please both the kids and the adults. Results were mixed, with two items being off the charts on the smile-o-meter, and one “okay, but don’t do it again.”

Here’s what I fixed:

Bowl of plain chopped Romaine
Little bowls of olive salad, pepperoccini peppers, baby carrots, grape tomatoes, and marinated artichoke hearts
Spinach, Pesto and Cheese Lasagna
Meatballs with Parsley and Parmesan
New York Light Garlic Texas Toast

Christmas cookies made by a friend
Hershey dark chocolate and milk chocolate with almond kisses

Toasted Head Merlot

A few of us enjoyed the yummy spicy olive salad. It’s a standing joke around here with the little kids that when they say “Yuck, I don’t like that” to something I know is fabulous, I automatically say, “Good! More for me!!”

The lasagna had green stuff in it that wasn’t totally emulsified, which put it in the borderline acceptable to “I won’t touch that stuff with a ten foot pole” category. Apparently pesto is okay, but spinach which is identifiable as spinach is not. That’s okay. The leftovers were outrageously good. More for me!

The meatballs were the runaway hit of the evening. The recipe says it will make 44. I doubled it, and at three in the afternoon I was still rolling the little suckers and stopped counting at 110. When my son-in-law came in, he followed his nose straight to the big simmering pot of meatballs, lifted the lid, murmured, “Oh, Lord,” and sighed happily. Doing a little meatball calculus, of the original number of approximately 110, I saved ten and hid them in the refrigerator, about ten were eaten by the children, twelve by Buck, the two other adult women, and myself, leaving 78 divided by the teenagers and three other male adults. Do the math. Staggering.

Some while back I found the “crowd pleaser” in the garlic bread department. It’s a little embarrassing to admit, it’s greasy, it’s plebeian. . . but my group lights up like, well, Christmas trees, when I fix it for them. It’s “New York Lite Garlic Texas Toast” made by the Marzetti company.

A couple of our guests brought the Toasted Head Merlot. I thought it was scrumptious.

It was a chilly evening here in the Florida panhandle, and we lingered by the fire with wine and chocolate kisses.

Leftovers Part II: And All the Trimmings

With the twin benefits of hindsight and reflection, I realize now that Thanksgiving must have been Mother’s favorite holiday. It’s the only one I have any memory of experiencing as a child, except for that one Christmas when Mr. Kamner brought all us kids a popcorn popper — now that was some real excitement.

The smells are what I remember most. Mother made cornbread for her dressing the night before Thanksgiving. The batter sizzled when she poured it into hot grease in the oven-warmed cast iron skillet. The smell when it emerged, golden and crisp, could bring tears to the eyes of working men. Next she would sauté a big skillet full of onions, celery and green pepper and put on a pot of eggs to boil. Sometime around midnight, when most of the household was already asleep, this phase of the preparations would end.

It was the same feeling of excitement I would get the night before we went on a fishing trip. I could never quite sleep, listening for every little sound. Is it time yet? After a seemingly endless night, finally I would hear a distinctive click — the kitchen light switch — yes! Bare feet hitting the floor, I was in the kitchen, poking my young nose into the refrigerator, the oven, the stove top.

It was awesome for me to watch Mother wrestle that big blue-tinged turkey into the battered old roasting pan. She would stuff it with her cornbread dressing, fragrant with sage, saving plenty for a separate pan baked on its own. She would take a huge needle and strong thread to the turkey, stitching it together so that nothing but small steam clouds could escape. Finally, she would drape a cut piece of old sheeting material over the turkey and ladle broth over it, explaining to me that as the turkey roasted, the ends of the material would be in the cooking juices and wick up over the turkey, keeping it moist.

Once the bird was roasting, Mother could begin to concentrate on assembling “all the trimmings.” Unlike me, she was an artist with pies and cakes, and a variety made the day before would line one of the counter tops. There was always pecan, of course, and a sweet potato pie (more favored in our home than pumpkin), and usually something decorative, like a Lane cake with its gorgeous swirls of frosting. The many and varied accompaniments fade in my memory, but in that warm bright kitchen, I learned to love watching dawn arrive, and I remember my Mother being happy there, in that space, in those narrow but treasured slivers of life.

And now, each year, I make preparations the night before and arise before dawn to complete them. It wouldn’t matter whether any guests arrived to partake of the feast. Eating it is not the point for me. What I’m after is to recapture those few sunny moments between a Mother and her daughter. Perhaps that’s why Thanksgiving is my annual refurbishment of soul, my sacrament of restoration.

My own menus change with the years, but there is always one constant: I bake cornbread in a cast iron skillet and inundate the house with the smells of sautéed onion, celery and green pepper.

Leftovers Part I: Coffee and Pumpkin Pie

FRIDAY MORNING’S SKY has begun to lighten. A strong wind is bending the tall pines, escorting colder temperatures. The panhandle of Florida can go from t-shirt, shorts and sandal weather (yesterday) to where’s my sweater bring in the plants temps (tonight). A freezing reading here often feels ten degrees colder because of the high humidity. I see my own ghostly reflection in the darkened window. It smiles back. We toast each other with a mug of fresh ground French Roast coffee, strong enough to balance the nutmeggy sweetness of my pumpkin pie breakfast.

Another Thanksgiving has passed, the miraculous annual refurbishing of my soul has occurred, and I am ready to move forward. But first, a retrospective. If you are a lover of straight lines and tidy endings, be forewarned. This will meander, ramble and may not arrive at a definable point. It’s an after-Thanksgiving walk.

As a child growing up in a Southern Baptist home, my mother and others ridiculed “the Catholics” for their symbols and rituals — among other reasons, all of which made them interesting and exotic to me. Seventeen years ago I was confirmed as an Episcopalian — “Whiskypalian” in common parlance among “the Baptists” since they have no specific prohibition against strong drink and drink real wine at communion; in the protestant spectrum closer to Catholics than Baptists. The first time I attended Christ Church in Pensacola, Florida it felt like my first religious experience, despite a lifetime of being herded to church. It’s a place where I can tell the Rector of my doubts, and he might tell me of his. The symbols, rituals and sheer beauty are what I prize most, and kneeling to attempt prayer breaks up my veneer just enough to get through to me and kick up the volume of that still, small voice.

Tuesday night I looked through old cookbooks and food magazines from Novembers-past, sticky notes fluttering from the tops of pages, my comments scribbled on them. Wednesday morning early, armed with the shopping list, I kissed Buck, scratched Maggie’s ears, and left the woods for the neighborhood Albertson’s grocery store. “We’ve missed you!” “Glad you’re back!” These greetings from the folks who work at the grocery store take me by surprise.

On the way home, I stop by Floral Tree Gardens nursery. A huge tractor-trailer has just arrived with fresh spruce trees from North Carolina. The staff gathers around like excited children. We share smiles and I leave with a flat of bright yellow pansies and a huge Christmas cactus loaded with tiny buds.

Buck and Maggie have gone to buy corn to feed the deer. Man and dog ride off in the pick-up truck, Maggie sniffing the air from the passenger side window.

All afternoon and into the night, we continue working on our little cottage in the woods, Buck rescuing the garage from sheet rock dust, and me baking pies, cornbread for the dressing, shelling shrimp, and polishing old silver. The silver belonged to Buck’s late mother, my much-loved Lois. She and her sister, Ann, lived together in their last years, two elegant, tough old ladies who had both survived breast cancer, widowhood — Lois, twice — strokes, heart block, kidney disease and heartbreak. My first Thanksgiving with Buck, me newly divorced, him with the ink not quite dry, was at Lois’s home on Bayou Grande. She and Ann polished the old silver to a mirror finish, made fresh ambrosia with Indian River oranges and pink grapefruit, seafood gumbo, and roast turkey with many and varied accompaniments. Dessert was tiny scoops of vanilla ice cream served in stemmed crystal coupes with a splash of Amaretto liqueur.

I was making off with their darling Buck, the only child, and they intended to take my measure. Those old gals scared me to death.

Years later, when I sat beside a gravely ill Lois, holding her hand and stroking the thin, porcelain skin, bruised by the awful sticks necessary to check arterial blood gasses, she gripped my own hand strongly and focused those intense brown eyes on mine. “You and Buck aren’t going to fall out of love, are you?” My left hand went to touch the side of her face gently. “No, Lois, oh no. You don’t ever have to worry about that.”

Lois and her sister, Marguerite at our home in Cottage Hill, 1994.
Lois and her sister, Marguerite at our home in Cottage Hill, 1994.

Red Snapper, West Indies Salad, and Gulf Coast Puttanesca – Oh My!

Red Snapper on Ice at Joe Patti's Seafood, Pensacola, Florida
Red Snapper on Ice at Joe Patti’s Seafood, Pensacola, Florida

Pulling into the waterside parking lot of Joe Patti’s Seafood in downtown Pensacola, I sit for a few minutes to watch the sea gulls wheel around in the late afternoon sunshine, their spirals following the wake of a shrimp boat slowly making its way to another night’s work. Huge brown pelicans hop around on the wooden dock beside a line of moored fishing boats.

Not everything in Joe Patti’s was caught locally, but most of it was, or in the nearby bayous of Louisiana. Sniffing the briny bay air, wind blowing hair into my eyes, I enter the cathedral of crustacea, the font of fish, and take a number.

Some folks come to Joe Patti’s for the people-watching. Business folk in tailored suits with cell phones surgically attached to their ears stand shoulder to shoulder with entire families including grannies and babies, peering closely at the rows of whole flounder, mullet, scamp, redfish, snapper, grouper and more. Vats of different-sized shrimp, head on or headless, bay or gulf make the choice challenging. Or the Royal Reds, with their sweet, lobstery taste — more suited to dipping in hot lemon butter than a spicy red cocktail sauce. I see a big guy in a tropical shirt and Bermuda shorts hoisting a net bag full of live oysters. He is accompanied by a large, sun-burned red headed woman wearing bikini bottoms and a t-shirt emblazoned with “Where Were You When The Ship Hit The Span?” Her shirt is a reference to that memorable event a few years ago when a barge knocked a hole in the Pensacola Bay Bridge.

An elegantly dressed woman who appears to be in her 90s discusses the thickness of swordfish fillets with Joe Patti’s senior swordfish and tuna cutter, a Vietnamese gentleman of indeterminate age, with wise eyes and undeniable charm. Tourists carry out loaded Styrofoam containers. This is a place where food choices are made carefully, fish eyes checked for clarity and lively discussions held on everything from price to cooking methods.

I want everything, but satisfy myself on this trip with two beautiful red snapper fillets, two pounds of jumbo gulf shrimp (headless), a pint of West Indies crab salad and a half-pint container of plain, fresh-cooked lobster meat.

In another section of the building, the Patti family operates a wildly successful specialty bakery, deli, gelateria, gourmet provision and wine shop called Amangiani. Following my nose, I grab up one of the warm sourdough loaves just as it was slid into a long bag, straight from the oven. Some black Kalamata olives, a chunk of Port du Salut cheese, a bottle of Rabbit Ridge Chardonnay and I’m out the door, homeward bound with my day’s catch.

Here’s what I did with the two red snapper fillets, two pounds of jumbo Gulf shrimp, pint of West Indies crab salad, and 1/2 pint of fresh cooked lobster meat:

The first dinner:
West Indies Salad and Dirty Martinis
Red Snapper with Browned Butter and Capers
Roasted Yellow Fingerling Potatoes with Garlic and Rosemary
Sliced tomatoes with olive oil
Sourdough Baguette
(West Indies Salad is traditionally made with lump crab, vinegar, and onions. Joe Patti’s version was milder, with parsley and Old Bay seasoning added. I prefer the original, and doctored theirs with some chopped shallot and Japanese vinegar. The crab meat was well-picked and had a beautiful texture.)

2-Crab Salad and Ochsner piano 003
Photo of my own West Indies crab salad made with jumbo lump blue crab and capers

Lunch the next day:
West Indies Salad and Lobster In Herbed Mayonaise
on a bed of Chopped Romaine with Grape Tomatoes
English Cucumber
(Especially enjoyable sitting on the screened porch, where a wind in the pine treetops makes a lovely sighing sound.)

Gulf Coast Shrimp Puttanesca

Dinner the second night:
Guf Coast Shrimp Puttanesca (from Pensacola Chef Jim Shirley’s Good Grits)
Sauteed Zucchini
Sourdough Baguette
Rabbit Ridge Chardonnay
(This shrimp dish was luscious. I was concerned that the recipe instructions might be wrong. How could all that water turn into a great sauce? But it did. I have read about making a good stock from shrimp shells, but had never before done it. Now I’m a believer. The recipe called for spaghetti squash, but I used regular linguini instead, and also omitted the Romano cheese. There was plenty left over for a second meal, which I am looking forward to tomorrow night.

The Secret Ingredient

Fruit Compote with a Secret Ingredient
Fruit Compote with a Secret Ingredient

About twelve years ago, the last of my father’s brothers died, and the impetus for the annual early November family reunion was buried with them. It was always held near Jay, Florida, a wide spot in the road close to the Alabama border, at my Uncle Gordon’s house.

Those of you who think Florida is either South Beach or Mickey Mouse would be quite surprised to wend your way from Pensacola’s back door through Cottage Hill, down the Quintette Road, to Berrydale and onto the long country roads of Santa Rosa County, surrounded on both sides by stunningly beautiful cotton fields ready to harvest.

The Jones side of the family is a loving bunch, country to the core. I’m the only one of the cousins who graduated from college, but they seem to like me anyway.

Family reunions, at least the old style, are primarily about food. I took my first husband to a reunion of my Mississippi relatives once. His people were from Champagne-Urbana, Illinois, and all of my aunts clutching him to their ample bosoms, smelling of lavender and talcum powder, was just about enough to make that boy swoon. They were very sweet and welcoming to this formal, bookish young man. They waved him over to the picnic tables laden with bowls and platters of food.

“Go right ahead, now, honey,” they cooed, “and help your plate.”

I’ll never forget the look on his face. He motioned for me to come over; we stepped out of the line of fire for a moment. “What am I supposed to help it do?” he whispered, brow sincerely furrowed. The poor guy was buttoned up way too tight, and seemed to have no fun at all, anywhere.

I always took a fruit compote casserole to the Jones family reunions. It went well with the inevitable ham and turkey, was easy to fix, and — most importantly — it had a Secret Ingredient. The ancient, bird-like aunts, teetotalers all, loved this casserole. There was never any left to take home. In fact, the empty dish looked suspiciously like it might have been licked when no one was looking.

I think about this dish in early November, and remember the old gals fondly. A couple of neighbors are coming up the hill for supper tonight and I just finished assembling the compote to go along with the rest of dinner. The photo will tip you off to the Secret Ingredient. It elevates this otherwise plebeian recipe.


Fruit Compote

Serves: 12
1 dozen dried almond macaroons, crumbles (vanilla wafers and almond extract may be used)
1 can pineapple slices, drained
1 can plums, well drained
1 can apricot halves, drained
1 can pear halves, drained
1 can bing cherries, drained
1 can peach halves, drained
1/4 cup reserved liquid (not plum)
1/2 cup slivered almonds, toasted
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup melted butter
1/2 cup Kirsch cherry liqueur

Cover bottom of 9 x 13 buttered dish with crumbs. Alternate layers of fruit, sugar, crumbs, almonds, and Kirsch. Dribble melted butter over top. pour reserved liquid over all. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

Source: Recipe by Mrs. Charlotte Swartwood, Reston, Virginia — from the VIP Holiday Cook Book, Vol.IV,
1981, American Cancer Society benefit project


Emptying the Pantry

I’ve begun packing up the house here in Rice Cove in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina to go back to Pensacola (piney woods flatlands) for the winter.

Cleaning out the fridge and the pantry can make for some singularly non-gourmet meals. Today at noon, Buck and I ate leftover lasagna. It was good, but kind of heavy. So tonight, we ate oatmeal (just enough left in the box) with raisins (just enough left in the box). Goody. Two more boxes from the pantry I can throw away! We’re not leaving for 10 days, but I already zipped up most of the herbs and spices into a bag, so I had to go digging for the cinnamon.

The freezer still has a few portions of vegetable soup in it, so that’s coming up on my hit list.

See, I have already moved on in my mind to meals I am thinking of from Pensacola, Florida. It’s on the uncrowded northwest coast of Florida, so our access to fabulous seafood is almost unbeatable. I am already thinking about Gulf Coast Bouillabaisse, baked oysters, baked whole red snapper stuffed with crab meat in a garlic and white wine sauce, fried oysters, spicy boiled shrimp, oysters on the half shell, and gallons of seafood gumbo, for starters. Gotta go. I need to pack!

Chinese Spice Powder: Fragrant Wonder

I would keep Chinese 5 Spice Powder around even if I never used it for cooking. One of the five spices is star anise. Look here for its amazing etymology. The other four spices are cinnamon, cloves, ginger and anise. Regular anise and star anise are different animals.

Open the cap and inhale. Wow! A licorice wave, followed immediately by the sweet pungency of cinnamon and warmth of cloves and ginger.

Tonight, used it in a marinade for pork tenderloin. Very, very good.

Maggie (the chocolate Lab) is trying to lick the keys of my laptop as I am typing. Guess she likes the recipe!

Here’s what we ate:

Chinese Barbequed Pork Tenderloin
Baked Sweet Potatoes (NOT broiled, good as they were, I think I was lucky)
Baby Bok Choi and Baby Turnip Roots (Braised in chicken broth, with smashed fresh ginger root)
Condiments: Hot Chinese Mustard and Mango Chutney

And, oh yes, a chocolate covered ice cream bar!

The Expedient Italian-ish Supper

Mid-October view from our deck in Rice Cove, the Beaverdam Community, Canton, North Carolina
Mid-October view from our deck in Rice Cove, the Beaverdam Community, Canton, North Carolina

Gray and cold in the Smoky Mountains today. It’s that transitional few weeks between fabulous color and Brown. Yesterday I walked out on the windy deck, where a swirl of yellow leaves was spiraling straight up to heaven. Today, it’s beginning to look a little bare.

Early afternoon, the Craving hit me: lasagna and bus-head. When the Craving hits you, the nearest grocery and a recipe on the back of the pasta box looks pretty good. Forget my cook’s James Michener approach for tonight. If you’ve ever read any of his books, you know they all begin at the cellular level. I often feel guilty somehow if I don’t cook that way, i.e. homemade salad dressing, authentic lasagna with homegrown basil, and sauce made from the ground up, fresh baguettes and fruity olive oil infused with fresh chopped garlic and herbs. Chianti Classico or some such. Nope. Not tonight. Call this “The Expedient Italian-ish” menu.

Okay. Here’s what we did.

Chopped Romaine with a splash of Paul Newman’s Balsamic Vinaigrette

Back of the box Lasagna, fiddled with only a little.

New York Garlic Texas Toast

Santa Carolina Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon (Colchagua Valley, Chile)

Oh, my God. It was so good. I’ve started being able to sleep again most of the night, and pasta and bust-head is just the medicine for a solid six.

Uh, and oh yes, a chocolate-covered vanilla ice cream bar. (Around here we call that “portion control” — not that it matters after a dinner like this. If you can’t afford the calories, don’t read the label; just put on the dimmer switch, light a candle and enjoy.)