(Almost) Fall

I love fall. I love the pumpkins, I love the cranberries, I even love the ridiculous Halloween decorations. But I live in the South, where Nashville straddles summer and fall until about October. The solution? A menu that takes advantage of the last of the summer tomatoes and eases us into the flavors of fall. Lucky for me, one of my favorite cookbooks, A Platter of Figs by David Tanis, sets out inventive menus by the season. Tonight’s spread began with garlic-rubbed Tomato Bread topped with anchovies. The bread was a decent start, but the highlight was the broth in the Fish Soup with Mussels and Chorizo, which I easily could have mainlined:

Fish Soup with Mussels and Chorizo

Garlic, saffron, herbs, chorizo, AND liquor from fresh mussels? Yes ma’am. Goat Cheese with Honey rounded out the menu. It was a perfect dessert (and one my not-so-sweet-toothed husband enjoyed) that made me feel like fall was just around the corner.

Goat Cheese with Honey

Now if it would just cool on down so I can braise a short rib or two…

Today’s Top 5: Summer Drinks

St. Louis went from winter to summer in about 48 hours. With the cold weather went my cravings for pot roast, chili, and thick red wine. They’ve been replaced by thoughts of fresh corn, scallops, and the following list of beverages. Here are my top 5 drinks for the summer. 

  1. Margarita. Let’s be honest—I drink these year-round. But I’ll admit they’re best in the summer. I like mine tart: just silver agave tequila, a hint of triple sec, and fresh lime juice. Shaken, served straight up, salt on the rim. 
  2. Modelo Especial. I’m partial to Mexican beer, and this is my favorite. I’ve heard from beer aficionados that you’re supposed to take the chill off a bit, but I like mine really, really cold. 
  3. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. There’s something about the in-your-face grapefruit in these wines that screams summer to me; I gravitate toward them as soon as the thermostat hits 80. 
  4. Mint Julep. The Julep is a nod to my southern roots (and reminds me of my wedding), but I’ll throw Mojito in this category as well. As long as you have some mint in the drink, summery it is. 
  5. Pina Colada. Admittedly a guilty pleasure. Hot weather begs for a good ole’ beachy umbrella drink. And yes—serve it to me in a coconut, please. 


Baby, It’s Cold Inside

My wonderful siblings-in-law recently gifted me with a Cuisinart Ice Cream Maker. I’ve been dying to try my hand at my dad’s famous 4th of July peppermint ice cream, but I started with a basic for my first go-round. A monkey could make vanilla ice cream with this contraption, yet I still encountered problems. So instead of providing a recipe, I’ll spare you the mistakes I made and share a few well-learned tips for your next ice cream venture. 

  1. Chill the bowl for a full 24 hours: There is nothing more frustrating than trying to make ice cream and being left with really cold soup. 
  2. Chill the mixture that goes into the maker overnight. See note 1 above. 
  3. If you’re doing classic vanilla, splurge for decent vanilla extract (beware of ones that list water as the first ingredient or ones that hide the word “immitation” in small letters). 
  4. Buy a vanilla bean. They’re about $10 a pop, but you don’t have to use the whole thing and it’s worth it so your final product isn’t so … well … vanilla

I hope your first attempts go more smoothly than mine, but even with the hiccups and a few four-letter words, the final product was nothing short of heavenly. Peppermint, here I come!

How to make any dish more delicious? Add a poached egg. I’m serious, poached eggs are not just for breakfast anymore; beautiful, perfectly cooked eggs are stepping out in some swank dishes.

Anne Cori, Sauce Magazine 

I’ve noticed this trend in St. Louis restaurants: add a poached egg and a dish gains instant black-tie status. When done correctly, this method lets the delicate flavor of the egg shine. To me, a perfectly poached egg has a set white and a warm, runny yolk. Because as my husband so astutely said last week, if you want your eggs hard, scramble ‘em.

Today’s Top 5: Last Meals*

I am unabashedly obsessed with Top Chef. Seasoned chefs (one with an Italian accent) cooking in ridiculous situations and then getting ripped to shreds by Tom Colicchio? Yes please! 

A couple of weeks ago, the contestants were charged with cooking a “last supper” for a panel of the best-of-the-best in the culinary world. They created classics like roasted chicken, shrimp scampi, and Eggs Benedict. The episode got me thinking: what would be my last supper? I found it too hard to pick one, so here are 5 of my favorite foods/dishes: 

  1. Bacon. By itself, on something, in something… whatever. Even as a meal. Just bacon. 
  2. Eggs Benedict. I second Wylie Dufresne on this one. My favorite breakfast, hands down. 
  3. Really good lasagna. Hand-made pasta, fresh ingredients, simple flavors… to me, a superb lasagna is the mark of a great Italian chef. 
  4. Guacamole. My own recipe. Preferably with a margarita. 
  5. Gumbo. A holdover from my mother’s New Orleans background, and a favorite of my childhood. 

Number 5 will be making an appearance in my house tonight (and on the blog soon after) to celebrate Mardi Gras and tomorrow’s Top Chef finale in New Orleans. Go Team Carla!

*Dedicated to Celia on her birthday!

Blue Box Beware!

New President, new season of Lost, my first volume of the Journal of Law & Policy in hand… I have a lot to celebrate. And to my Southern girl palate, nothing is more celebratory than comfort food. So to ring in this happy trio, I made my absolute favorite mac and cheese.

I saw Mac & Cheese with Pancetta in Bon Appetit’s Restaurant Issue and initially blew it off. I’ve created my share of “churched-up” mac and cheese, using everything from Gorgonzola to white wine to enhance this done-and-done-again classic; the last thing I needed was another recipe. But a friend convinced me to ditch my self-made versions and give Bon Appetit's a whirl. And holy 12-year cheddar, Batman…am I glad I did.

There are two secrets to this delectable dish: the pancetta and the cheese combination. Bacon isn’t novel in mac and cheese, but this is different. Pancetta, like bacon, is made from pork belly. But unlike its brined and smoked cousin, pancetta is seasoned and then cured, resulting in a flavorful – and to my mind, more delicate – alternative. Using pancetta as the first building block results in a cheese sauce that has a subtle, yet deep, heartiness.

The cheeses are the second genius element. The cheddar (I used an aged white) provides sharpness and depth; the Parmigiano-Reggiano is salty, nutty and a tad fruity; and the mascarpone rounds out the combination with a creamy, slightly sweet finish. I have tried tons of cheeses in pursuit of the perfect combination; I daresay these fit the bill.

Not convinced yet? You can make two main components – the cheese sauce and the panko breadcrumb crust – a day ahead. Serve some grape tomatoes (sautéed with olive oil & balsamic vinegar and tossed with a little basil) to cut the richness, and you’re done. Unless Bill and my neighbors were lying to me, and their empty plates spoke for themselves, it’s a crowd pleaser. So the next time you have something to celebrate, buy some cheese and go nuts.

Back in the Saddle… er, Kitchen

I’ve spent the summer courting a job, and unfortunately, not cooking enough. When I finally got back to St. Louis, my kitchen felt like an old friend I hadn’t seen in years. I didn’t think I would actually miss my Shun knives, but there ya go. Where to start, I thought? Luckily, my birthday came not long after my return, and my husband was smart enough to heed the (not-so-subtle) hint I dropped months ago: Rick Bayless’ Mexican Everyday.

Since I started cooking for myself, I’ve been searching for one of my all-time favorites: a good tortilla soup. Imagine my delight when I opened my new cookbook and saw Classic Tortilla Soup with All the Trimmings. Given my healthy obsession with Mexican food, I thought it was the perfect way to warm up my cutting board after months of neglect.

I have been a fan of Bayless’ for some time, and let me tell ya, he didn’t disappoint. The recipe was easy to follow, and included only one out-of-the-ordinary ingredient: a pasilla (negro) chile (at least I thought it was an exotic ingredient, until I found it at Schnuck’s). The result was worth much more trouble than I exerted: the chile and fire-roasted tomatoes lent incredible depth of flavor, while the chicken made the soup feel hearty. A warning: don’t judge the broth by itself. As I wrapped up the dish, I kept thinking something was missing. Surprise surprise, it was the tortilla chips and cheese. After I ladled the broth over them and sprinkled avocado on top, I wondered where this soup had been all my life.

It’s good to be back. 

I believe that ribs should be cooked very slowly. I believe that nearly all traces of fat should be rendered during the cooking process so I may enjoy maximum flavor. I believe that there should be a smokiness imparted to the sweet flavor of the meat. I believe that if ribs are par-boiled, someone is stealing flavor from me. I believe the ribs should be tender, but not so much that all the meat comes off the bone at the slightest provocation. If the ribs are served in a pool of sauce, I believe that someone’s trying to hide something. I believe that most of the saucing should be at my discretion. I believe that some heat in the sauce is a very good thing. I believe that the best sides for ribs are coleslaw, fries and/or potato salad (though, I’ll concede, this is up to the diner). Finally, I believe that if any of these points are ignored, eating said ribs could cause irreparable damage to my psyche.

Dennis Lowry, Sauce Magazine 

Amen. I like this guy’s dedication to the art that can be a good rib. I agree with everything he said (especially the part about saucing being at my discretion - I order dry ribs and sauce them myself), except that I prefer beans with my ribs. And like any good southern girl, I’m talking about pork. Not beef.