A Toast to Texas and its Buttery Green Goodness

Watching the ever-blue skies of Texas in my rearview mirror, in anticipation of the tree-laced city of Birmingham, I knew I would miss a few things about the gargantuan state I was parting with. The first thing that sprung to my mind: a prolific supply of avocados. I was deprived for most of my life of this vibrant fodder, mostly, because it was green. I was a willful child. No one in my family would touch a chartreuse mash of guacamole. Therefore, I believed that I could never love it as well.

Then, I discovered that cooking with this graciously green fare was something to be cherished, never to be avoided. My attitude changed when I experienced guacamole being made tableside. Artistry like this should always be savored and explored, never rejected.

Using an enormous molcajete mortar and pestle, our waiter threw fresh garlic into the vessel, grinding the poor souls with salt until it resembled paste. Then came the highlight of the dish, perfectly ripe avocados. Scooping the green flesh into the basin, he quickly pounded and stirred the ingredients until completely smooth. While adding lime juice and cilantro, he gave the mixture a quick stir, then finished off the guacamole with salt and, poof , our waiter was off to another table. He left behind the molcajete bowl with a basket of fresh homemade tortilla chips. Leaving the chips to the rest of the clan, I plunged into the guacamole, spoon first, no chip required. The buttery quality of the avocado was unobstructed by any other textures. The rest of the ingredients only elevated the flavors in the dish, but it was clear that the star of the saucer was the avocado. I shamelessly confess that I ate all of the guacamole. So here is a toast to the grand state of Texas, which is literally on toast.

This recipe includes all of the ingredients of guacamole, but it is presented in a fresh new way with just a hint of garlic on the toast. The avocados retain their beautiful, buttery texture while still in small chunks. Spritz on a little lime juice with a dash of heat from red pepper flakes to finish and you will be in heaven!

Recipe: Inspired by Bon Appétit, July 2012

Serves 4 as an appetizer

½  of a French baguette

2 tablespoons of butter

1 clove of garlic

2 ripe avocados, cubed

1 lime, juiced

Pinch of red pepper flakes

Olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Place a griddle pan on medium-high heat. Slice baguette on the bias, about 1 inch thick or so. Spread the butter on both sides of the bread. Place the bread onto the pan, toasting on both sides until brown and crispy. Once browned, take the garlic clove and gently rub onto one side of the hot, toasted bread.

In a separate bowl, combine the avocado chunks and the lime juice. Toss to coat. Sprinkle in red pepper flakes, salt and pepper to taste. Spoon the avocado mixture onto the pieces of bread. Finish off with a drizzle of oil on each piece of toast and enjoy!

The Power of a Tomato Salad

Some of my fondest memories growing up transpired in a small garden, in a small town in Louisiana. Balmy afternoons turned into tranquil evenings as I sat under the shade and comfort of my grandmother’s porch. Adjacent to her porch was a tiny garden. I remember lying in the garden as the earth cooled, and I was surrounded with imperfect yet ripe tomatoes, cucumbers as long as my forearm, and okra that grew like fingers on their vines. The okra gently waves in the breeze as a hand waves on a porch swing, seemingly trying to catch the summer air.  Herbs spread across the garden bed as a covering, whispering sweet melodies from the earth to the tender Southern natives above. The fragrance of fresh herbs and the subtle aroma of spring onions filled the air. And I rest there on my back in the midst of the garden with my eyes closed, breathing in the sweet aromatics of the Southern summer. Every once in a while I plucked a tender orb off of its resting place and grabbed a handful of herbs and took one bite, one perfect bite of a sweet, juicy yet crisp tomato that still clung to the energy of the garden. It was in those moments that I felt at peace. This dish has the integrity and wonder of the small garden in which I became acquainted with food in such a powerful way.

Recipe: Serves 4

8 tomatoes, cut into thick slices

4 strips of cooked bacon, crumbled

½ cup of chive dressing (recipe below)

2 cups of fried okra (recipe below)

Basil and chives, garnish

Salt and pepper to taste

To Assemble:

Stack the slices of 2 whole tomatoes on each plate. Drizzle the chive dressing over and around the tomatoes. Scatter both the bacon and the fried okra on the plate. Garnish with herbs and season with salt and pepper. Repeat with remaining 3 plates.

Chive Dressing:

½ cup of good mayonnaise

1 garlic clove, minced

2 tablespoons of chives, finely chopped

Splash of red wine vinegar

Salt and pepper to taste

In a small bowl, combine all of the ingredients. Thin the dressing out with water until you have the desired consistence. Season with vinegar, salt and pepper to taste.

Fried Okra:

2 cups of okra, washed

2 cups of buttermilk

1 cup of cornmeal

¼ cup of all-purpose flour

1 pinch of cayenne

Vegetable oil (for frying)

Salt and pepper to taste

Place at least 2 inches of vegetable oil in a large skillet and allow the oil to reach 350o.

Pick through the okra, any okra smaller than the size of your pinky, leave whole. Cut any larger than the size of your pinky in half and at an angle. In a bowl, combine the buttermilk and okra. Let sit for at least 5 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the cornmeal mixture. Combine cornmeal, flour, cayenne, salt and pepper in a shallow dish. Stir ingredients together with a fork. Make sure that you put a good amount of seasoning in at this point, don’t be stingy. Drain the okra from the buttermilk and gently roll the okra in the cornmeal mixture. Shake off any excess breading. Carefully place the okra in the hot oil. Let the okra brown on both sides and place on a plate lined with a paper towel to drain. Sprinkle with more salt. Use immediately.


Sautéed Figs

Lots of summer afternoons were spent in the small town of Lacassine, Louisiana. My great grandmother had a small, humble home that housed many meals and memories. The house and its landscape became part of the family. One of the fondest members was an old, reliable fig tree that gave of itself late every June. As a child, sitting under the steadfast tree in a rain shower was one of the most fulfilling encounters. The earth quickly cooled as the humidity hung around me like a damp cloth with the inability to be wrung dry. I didn’t mind the humidity on these days because the air was perfumed with honey from the tree. Ripe figs had fallen with the afternoon shower and there I sat, in the midst of a haven of dusty, purple teardrop-shaped fruits.

Gently, I pressed on the flesh of a fig and as it slightly gave way to my touch, it yielded as well. This was a perfect fig. Holding th fig close to my face, I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply. The aroma of sweet syrup and damp earth filled my nostrils. Splitting the fig lengthwise with my hands, revealing the blushing interior of the fruit, I slowly and purposefully took a bite out of the fig. The supple center was greeted with the slight resistance of the thin, purple skin. Finding refuge from the rain under this familiar tree gave me a comfort in knowing whatever uncertainties I may face in the future, one thing I can be assured of is the humble, ever-giving tree in late June with its many offerings, which come in the form of purple, teardrop-shaped figs.

This recipe is different from your ubiquitous sweet fig recipe. It’s savory. The bacon brings out the earthiness of the figs and cooking them this way allows the fruit to gain a meaty quality, and the dressing tastes like the mildest balsamic dressing you will ever put in your mouth!

Recipe: Serves as 1 entrée or 4 appetizers

2 tablespoons of bacon fat

4 figs, cut lengthwise

1 tablespoon of syrup (I use Blackburn Syrup)

1 teaspoon of red wine vinegar

Pinch of red pepper flakes

Fresh basil leaves

Salt and pepper to taste

In a sauté pan, heat bacon fat on medium heat. Add figs, cut side down onto pan. Cook for about 3 minutes on each side of the fig. Set figs aside. Combine syrup and vinegar in a small bowl and whisk in pepper flakes, salt and pepper to taste. Place the figs on a plate and drizzle dressing onto the fruit. Garnish with basil leaves.





Pimento Cheese

Pimento cheese has sometimes been referred to as the pâté of the south. I don’t know about you, but it’s so much better than påté! It’s rich and creamy and the perfect accompaniment to any picnic basket. I must be honest though, I never touched this glorious food as a youngster. The adults ate this foreign fodder. I stuck with my macaroni and cheese, thank you very much. I knew where the good stuff was, and no one could tempt me from my familiar food. The word pimento sounded like nothing I wanted to put into my mouth. So for years, I was without the buttery, luscious taste of pimento cheese. It was only until recently that I was converted and fell in love with this superb Southern staple. Now, I have found room for both my mac and cheese and pimento as well. They are the best of friends in my tummy.

*This recipe doesn’t use jarred pimentos but fresh red bell peppers roasted over an open flame!

Recipe: Adapted from Frank Stitt’s Southern Table: Recipes from Highlands Bar & Grill

Makes About 2 Cups

1 ½ red bell peppers

1 pound of sharp cheddar

¼ pound of cream cheese, room temperature and cubed

½ cup of good mayonnaise

1 teaspoon of sugar

¼ teaspoon of cayenne pepper

½ teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper

Put the red bell peppers on an open flame on a gas stovetop. Char the skin until all sides are black. Place the charred peppers into a bowl and cover for a few minutes. This will create steam and allow the skins to come off easily. Once the peppers have cooled, hold the stem and scrape off the blackened skin. Make sure all of the skin has been peeled off and the seeds are discarded. Finely dice the peppers.

Finely shred the cheese. Add all ingredients to a large bowl and mix thoroughly until well combined. Keep in fridge until ready to serve. You can serve this spread on crackers, have it as a sandwich or serve it as a crostini with bacon or green onions. Enjoy!

Bacon Deviled Eggs

Deviled eggs were always the last dish prepared on Easter Sunday. There was a reason for that indeed. In southern Louisiana, there is a tradition carried on every year called pâqueing (pronounced: pocking). Dyed Easter eggs are the victims in this little ritual. The sacrifice is great and the outcome even greater, multi-colored deviled eggs! Back to pâqueing though… every person grabs a dyed egg and with both little ends, you begin the tap the egg. The one that doesn’t crack, wins! Everyone goes on from person to person until all of the eggs have been used. Then we are left with cracked hard-boiled eggs…oh, you know where I am going with this…We quickly finished preparing the eggs just like we would with any other deviled eggs (or should I say angel eggs because grandma would not allow the devil to be part of Easter). Finally, we were left with a crystal egg plate filled with rainbow-colored eggs! Hallelujah!

* Note: this recipe contains normal hard-boiled eggs, not dyed ones!

Recipe: Makes 24: Adapted from Bon Appetit February 2012

12 eggs

2 tablespoons of melted butter

1/3 cup of mayonnaise

2 teaspoons of mustard

1 teaspoon of white vinegar

3 slices of bacon, cooked and crumbled

1 scallion, sliced for garnish

Salt, pepper and cayenne to taste

Place eggs in a large pot. Add enough water to cover over the eggs about 1 inch. Bring the eggs to a boil, cover and remove from heat. Let the eggs sit for 10 minutes. Then transfer the eggs to an ice water bath and let cool completely. Peel and halve lengthwise while removing the yolks. Finely mash the yolks, butter, mayonnaise, vinegar, and mustard in a bowl. Season with salt, pepper and cayenne pepper. Transfer the mixture to a sealable bag and push all of the mixture to one of the corners. Snip off the end of the bag and pipe the filling into the remaining egg whites. Garnish with bacon pieces and scallions.