Diverse Impressions of a Passionate Cooks’ State of Mind Eating New Orleans Soul Food – Part I
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This has probably been the hardest post for me to write. I’ve sat with these beautiful  pictures for months, thinking on how best to put my experience in New Orleans into words. How do I describe the quiet majesty of the Mississippi River? It’s easy to imagine how commerce and trade and eventually towns and cities  sprouted along its banks. The streams I knew as a child were easy to ford and were only good for swimming with the help of a bamboo pole as a raft. I grew up with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer  by Mark Twain. I’ve traveled this river a thousand times in my imagination, but never had the opportunity to see it for myself. I can only show you some of the things I’ve seen and hope that each picture is worth a thousand words. Sitting on the pier taking these pictures brought images of Forrest Gump and river boats and shrimping.  Finally, I was able to appreciate the love great authors had for this river. Crayfish… by the pound, boiled with a blend of spices and sold in the local corner store. I quickly learned that some of the best food that the city had to offer was to be found in the little neighborhood stores. In New Orleans, corner stores sell everything from crayfish to cigarettes, and that’s just aisle C. These critters were delicious, but only if you were willing to spend the time extracting the meat from the body. In true New Orleans style, take the head and drain the juices […]

Stewed Okra Sunny Side Up and Other Recipes from Below the Mason –Dixon Line
Stewed Okra

Shame on the inattentive cook who cooks okra to death.  But not today: Grandma Davis’ okra stew is delicious. Grandma has a few okra plants along the siding of her house, enough for a steady supply of this vibrant green Southern staple. A relative of hibiscus, okra is a hardy flowering plant in Grandma Davis’ New Orleans garden. Okra grows easily from seeds planted in good earth bathed in sunlight and water daily. When the plant has matured, take time to sit and watch as yellow blossoms unfurl, as delicate as butterfly wings greeting the rising sun. Scrumptious pods follow the flowers with a regularity that ensures Grandma’s cheerful disposition. I repeat, okra is scrumptious. Today, we are having stewed okra, fried chicken, potato salad and steamed brown rice for dinner. Outside the screen door and down two steps  from the porch, Grandma is filling a small Tupperware container with okra pods. Each long and tapered lady’s finger seems perfectly ripe, fat with sunshine and juicy with the flavor of green growing things. Okra Sunny Side Up Try Grandma Davis’  recipe for stewed okra sunny side up with good cheer and hearty appetite.  Select 20 young okra pods that are tender but not soft and without bruise or blemish. The juiciest pods are those less than four inches in length. You’ll also need 2 large globe tomatoes, the riper the better. The acid from tomatoes keeps the okra from becoming slimy when cooked. Gather your other ingredients: A single green sweet pepper ½ a Spanish onion A large […]

Collard Greens and Other Recipes from Below the Mason–Dixon Line
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Fresh collard greens can be found at your local farmers market year-round, but they are tastiest in the cooler, damper months. Usually quite cheap, this slightly bitter member of the cabbage family is classic  Southern comfort food. The dark green leaves have graced the dining tables of the South for many a generation. In my kitchen, “collards” are a side dish on our menu. I cooked them for months as a part of my station prep. At work, cooking collard greens started with sautéed applewood smoked bacon and Spanish onions. Pork – and the flavor of it – is an integral ingredient in this dish; in fact, the pig and its by-products feature prominently in Southern cooking. To this basic mirepoix of sorts, the greens are added and allowed to sweat until they eventually shrink about 1/3 in size.  Apple cider vinegar and chicken stock are added, and the greens are allowed to braise for an hour until tender. Season with salt and pepper; scoop them into a 4-inch hotel pan, label date and time with masking tape. Is it good? My chef says it’s an acquired taste, and I certainly agree with him. That’s  why I’m not posting the recipe from work.  I want you to cook collard greens and eat them and enjoy them as I did. This post is about Grandma Davis’ recipe from New Orleans. I’m sharing her home cooking with you, as she showed me how to prepare it. Buy three bundles of collard greens from the farmers market or supermarket. […]

S is for Sweet Potato – and Other Recipes from Below the Mason –Dixon Line
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“S is for Sad… And for the mysterious appetite that often surges in us when our hearts seem about to break and our lives seem too bleakly empty. Like every other physical phenomenon, there is always good reason for this hunger if we are blunt enough to recognize it.” M.F.K Fisher, An Alphabet for Gourmets S is for sweet potato. And the alphabet is made richer for its inclusion. There is no sorrow in the letter S when it’s a tuber with parched, rust-tinged skin, uneven in shape and unassuming in appearance. But underneath that blotchy exterior lies flesh saturated with a nut-like sweetness and bright orange vibrancy. It was man’s inquisitiveness (and most certainly the pangs of hunger) that led to the discovery of what nature tried so hard to hide. The tubers of the sweet potato vine, buried secretively among roots and earthworms, were no match for man’s primal driving force… Hunger.  As a  cook, I am indebted to the eager gourmet who, armed with sticks for digging, pried this edible treasure from the clutches of the earth. This member of the morning glory family originated in South America and was spread through the New World by Christopher Columbus.  Sweet potato tastes even sweeter when heat and flame turn the tuber into candied yam deliciousness. I love to prepare this side dish as part of a big Sunday dinner spread; it brings back childhood memories. Sunday meant helping my mom make crispy roast chicken with homemade barbecue sauce… rice and […]

Ghost in the Kitchen – Part 2
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Click here to read Part 1 “I bought another book today.” “Where, on eBay?” “Yes.” Christian shifts in his seat to face her. “Could you please… slow down.” She sucks air between her teeth, “Relax.” Silence. “I’m not speeding. And why waste money on books? No one reads like that anymore.” “I do.” His hands betray his annoyance at her tone and he deliberately turns his head toward the oncoming lights. “Do you?” “It’s old-fashioned.” His jaw tightens. The tail lights of a tractor-trailer wink in and out of the darkness. “Ten years ago, kitchens used real recipes to make food. Back then I used to cook – with real vegetables that still had dirt on them. I used a real knife and a cutting board and made salads with real lettuce and dressing.” His voice grows quiet as he utters the last syllable. Unbidden, an image of him wearing a chef’s jacket surfaces. His next sentence comes out in a rush, “Now it’s just a matter of mixing one flavor strip with the next.” She grips the steering wheel more tightly and the car speeds up. Christian sighs and says, “Celia, let the GPS take us home.” “No.” “Why are you so stubborn? Let the computer do what it was programmed to do. He reaches out and strokes her cheek.  “I promise… promise to stop living in the past.” Celia allows the tension to leave her shoulders. “It’s just that sometimes, I feel as if you’re trying to make the […]

Ghost In The Kitchen
Ghost in the Kitchen

“Lord, I need a break.” Christian muttered. Nora the grill cook snorted in disgust as her boning knife peeled the tough silverskin off a beef tenderloin. It was the last loin on her cutting board, and Christian glanced at her hotel pan, already filled with six long cylinders of butchered prime. As she hustled to get ready for the evening service, she pushed past him to grab the scale from the shelf and position it in front of her cutting board. “Christian!!! Are you talking to yourself again? Muttering all that mumbo-jumbo crap…. If you’re gonna go crazy, do it on your own time, pantry boy!” Even as she spoke, her knife never stopped cutting; her stack of tenderloins became thick portions of filet mignon. Christian sighed, but said nothing. Secretly, Nora scared him.  She was just 5’3”, but her fights with the other cooks were legendary. A mean drunk with a penchant for fighting when her lewd advances were not reciprocated, Nora had been dragged out of more bars than Christian could count. But she always showed up for her shift on time, cooked like a beast, was never in the weeds, and moved masses of meat on a volcano-hot grill any given night. No one wanted to piss Nora off – especially not when she had a razor-sharp boning knife in her hand. In this kitchen, Christian’s pantry station was less than a knife’s throw away from her grill. He picked up a case of romaine and walked […]

Jomo’s Banana Bread Story
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For many years, all I ever wanted was to become a pastry chef. I spent years working in the pastry kitchens of several leading hotels in Jamaica. For those few glorious years, all my dreams were as rich as dark chocolate laced with Meyers rum and whipped cream. I was filled with the enthusiasm of youth, and proud of my prowess with a palette knife and piping bag. To this day, I still can decorate a cake in five minutes flat. My most treasured possession was a small hardcover notebook that I kept in the breast pocket of my uniform. It was the fashion in my kitchen for every pastry cook to own a notebook. Whenever the pastry chef taught us something new, we would dutifully copy the recipe and in this way make it our own. This was long before the internet. Smart phones were unheard of. We learnt by making things over and over again until committed to memory. I still remember the recipe for pound cake as clearly as the day it was given to me. This notebook – this magical tome if you will; in a sense we were all sorcerer’s apprentices studying and learning from the master – contained all our secrets. Our recipes were jealously guarded and shared only amongst ourselves. My book was four years in the making, every recipe tried and true. It was a source of great pride and I often swore: “If I ever lost my book I would stop doing pastry.” […]

Oxtail on My Mind
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My culinary repertoire is limited. Numerous attempts at disputing this fact, have led me irrevocably to the same conclusion- I cannot cook! Like any male faced with this sort of predicament, it is easy to find someone else to blame. Similar to being born with a non- life threatening deficiency, my theory insists, that my failure to feed myself is a matter of genetics. My mother was a horrible cook, and hated the kitchen passionately. Somehow in the transition from womb to birth, she was able to pass some remnant of this kitchen hating gene on to me. For her, the kitchen was a mythical hydra that strove with great ferocity to protect its lair, by scorching béchamel sauce, overcooking pasta, and roasting her Thanksgiving turkey to a crisp cinder.

The Dance
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The Dance It’s called the line, and each night we dance: Bend, twist, lift, swing – A ghostly symphony that waits and plays by ear.    An orchestra: Pots, pans, oil sputters, the Garland burner roars, Refrigerators hum, a freezer’s occasional chime.   Pivot right, turn left, the MICROS begins to sing, The rhythm crests, pulses. Entrees hot and salads cold.   We dance our dance, a performance never seen Receives the standing ovation it deserves.   We know our parts, and wait expectantly. The MICROS sings, the rush begins: Focus, push – the line moves as one.   Cooks, shoulder-to-shoulder: Adrenaline rush, purpose, Entrees hot and salads cold.   We dance our dance, a performance never seen Receives the standing ovation it deserves.   Foxtrot lively, brisk, quick, Nicoise, Waldorf, Cobb, Caesar, Salsa picante, moves meringue – sweat, pivot, timing.   Seared halibut, glazed spring vegetables, Well-done rib eye, tempura onion rings, peppercorn, Sweet symphony, graceful, finesse.   Tiramisu, sorbet, cobbler, Macaroon, red velvet, Entrees hot and salads cold.     We dance our dance, a performance never seen Receives the standing ovation it deserves   We special few cook with hand, heart, and mind, Converting more than recipes from books, A mirepoix of memories and tradition.     The bounty of the earth: So, night after night we gather – Hot kitchen, cold kitchen.     Begin the dance. The chorus sings: Entrees hot and salads cold!   We dance our dance, a performance never seen Receives the standing ovation […]

CurryLOVE
Different types of curry from India, Asia and the Caribbean

The word curry has different meanings. In the English language, curry can refer to “an attempt to gain favor or approval from someone through flattery”  – hence the saying, “to curry favor”. The word curry is more popularly used to describe a blend of spices that traces its origins to the Asian continent. Curry is ubiquitous throughout the cuisines of South Asia, especially India, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Vietnam. Unseasoned cooks subscribe to the popular misconception that curry is a single spice. In fact, there is no true spice called curry; it is a blend of spices which vary from one region of the world to the next. Curry recipes in India can change from household to household and run the gamut from mild to searingly hot and spicy. Curry can be yellow or red or green, depending on the herbs and spices used in the blend. Common ingredients in curry powder include: coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds,  cumin, fennel seed, mustard seed,  poppy seed, chili pepper and turmeric.  The powdered turmeric root gives curry that distinctive yellow hue which most westerners are accustomed to seeing. The word curry resides on a deeper and more personal level in my West Indian psyche. To speak of curry is to think of roti with split peas and dahl… A birthday party… the fair… the local cook shop. The smell of curry-spiced meat sizzling in a Dutch pot takes me home to my island heritage. Curry is a 13 year old boy living on a cattle farm in Jamaica, workers in […]