These Old Shoes

 Chef shoes

 Little umbrellas for feet

Stronger than plastic wrap

Tougher than burlap.

Made for the kitchen, no good for sitting

Run a mile round and round,

 In the cooler, climb up, then down.

Spray them with Armor All

Protects like a coverall

More lustrous than a Cadillac

Or truffle duck fat fries

For a Scooby snack.

Skechers, clogs, Birkenstocks

 find a shoe that fits your price

 Rubber molds for your feet

 Cushioned insoles to absorb the heat

A pit bull’s grip – they never slip

Like a feather in Hercules’ grip.

We love these shoes, but cannot lie:

A barefoot chef is happiest.

 

 

Beer With Me

It was as natural as eating and, to me, as necessary. I would not have thought of eating a meal without drinking a beer.”

Ernest Hemingway

The world is divided into two categories of people: those who drink alcohol and those who won’t. Whatever your viewpoint on alcohol and its effects, people will continue to drink – even as others tread  the path of sobriety.

I like to drink beer, you prefer apple juice – and that’s fine. It’s freedom of choice that makes us unique individuals.

But to deny yourself the chance to enjoy the guilty pleasures of this great world is to spend a lifetime with a brown paper bag on your head. With luck and perhaps a small dose of fortitude, your gastronomic adventures will lead you to a slice of foie gras seared medium rare with caramelized bananas and brioche,  or the salty clean taste of the ocean from a fresh shucked oyster.

Without question, the greatest invention in the history of mankind is beer. Oh, I grant you that the wheel was also a fine invention, but the wheel does not go nearly as well with pizza.” 

Dave Barry

Personally, I like beer, it’s an unpretentious drink made from four simple ingredients – grain, hops, yeast and water. When combined and allowed to ferment, the result is a slightly effervescent alcoholic beverage which can be bought at any convenience store, supermarket, gas station, pub or restaurant. The bottle is easily opened. Twist the cork with your thumb and forefinger or use a bottle opener. If none is handy, improvise with a spoon, a knife, the butt end of a lighter, or just use your teeth. Whatever your method, its intent is the same: to allow the amber liquid inside- to flow from bottle tip to tongue  tip. Beer is a blue collar drink, its steel toe boots and blue jeans sitting at the local bar.

 

Beer is meant to be enjoyed without great expense or pompous adjudications. Beer is a wonderful chameleon that blends in at a picnic, backyard barbecue or at the dinner table.  It construes itself to taste exactly as it should. Beer is aromatic and bittersweet, refreshingly delicious without need for garnish, mixers, cranberry juice or glass. It needs no further transformation by shaking, stirring, decanting or even blending.

ANYONE CAN OPEN A BEER

It needs no special location, time, or place to be enjoyed. You can enjoy beer in solitary silence or in a crowded room amongst friends. Beer is ethnic, cultural, and diverse. From the dark amber-colored liquid of Guinness from Ireland, to the clean hoppy taste of Sweetwater Ale in Atlanta, Georgia, or the heady brew that is Jamaican Red Stripe.

I particularly enjoy drinking beer on the balcony of my third floor apartment. This is my quiet time, sitting in the semi-dark watching cars drive in and out of my apartment complex. The MICROS is silent, my knives have been put away, my station is clean, and I am finally home.    

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On Working & Photochefs.com

Some people like to paint pictures, or do gardening, or build a boat in the basement. Other people get a tremendous pleasure out of the kitchen, because cooking is just as creative and imaginative an activity as drawing, or wood carving, or music.  –  Julia Child

I try to post at least once a week on PhotoChefs. Usually it takes at least five days of thought, writing, pictures and editing before I’m satisfied with the published content. In my initial research on food blogs, I bought two books on the subject: Blogging for Dummies, and another…. I can’t remember the name.  They recommended posting as often as twice weekly to build content and keep readers interested.  I also spent quite a bit of time studying the design, look  and content of the most popular food blogs: eggbeater.typepad.com, chocolate and zucchini, Chez Pim, Orangette.

A common thread among the authors of most food blogs: most of them DO NOT WORK IN PROFESSIONAL KITCHENS. Many have the time and money to travel the world, eating and blogging about famous chefs and  restaurants. I appreciate and sometimes envy their ability to dine in places you and I can only dream about. For most readers (including myself), these sites allow us to be voyeurs on a restricted budget. To know that they were there – at El Bulli in Spain, The French Laundry in the United States, Noma in Denmark–  and were thoughtful enough to let us share their experience through words and pictures is a privilege.

Ninety percent of the time, I’m the person cooking for everyone else. I rarely have the time to see a restaurant from the diner’s perspective; and when I do, it’s usually Burger King to go or some other cheap eats. Who wants to see pictures of that?!

I’m a cook first and a food blogger second. I work long hours. Each night is a marathon filled with several sprints. Clock in at 2 p.m., and the race to finish prep by 5:30 begins. Time is ticking, orders need to be fired, food is in the pass, there are hungry mouths to feed. And after all is said and done and the MICROS has chirped its last hurrah, clean, sanitize, re-stock, go home. I’m usually sweaty, salty, and ready to take a shower at the end of my shift.

But I’ve already begun to think about you, my reader. As I write these words at 2 a.m., please forgive me; I’ll finish and post an article tomorrow. I hope that my story, pictures, thoughts will be worth the wait. I promise that in the future I’ll be posting more frequently to keep my readers stimulated and ultimately satisfied. So until my next article, remember that I’m always thinking, pushing, and working at making this – PhotoChefs – the place where you’ll enjoy each visit and feel comfortable as I share.

 

Diverse Impressions of a Passionate Cook’s State of Mind Eating New Orleans Soul Food – Part II

The swamp gives life and it takes life. This primordial cycle is simple, brutal and unforgiving: the laws of nature rigidly enforced in a lonely landscape painted pastel colors of green, blue, and gray.

The heat, humidity and mosquitoes rise from the swamp to assault human inhabitants with unbridled ferocity.  They state the obvious: “You Are Not Wanted, Stay Out”.

This vast expanse of marshland is interspersed with bodies of brackish water, cypress trees, Spanish moss, marsh grasses, vines, palmettos and irises. It is wild, pristine, harsh and beautiful. The marsh is teeming with life – crayfish, frogs, snakes, turtles, catfish, snowy egrets, blue herons, pelicans and alligators. 

The city of New Orleans stands as a solitary fortress in the middle of this alien landscape. Its citizens have erected barriers of concrete, roads and highways along with the trappings of human habitation to keep the swamp at bay. But Mother Nature is an implacable adversary. The swamp is hers, and all who choose to live in it must eventually bend to her will.

“What is born of me, shall return to my bosom, and the earth will shelter and provide shade in this, our final resting place.” As the citizens of New Orleans are nudged closer to deaths’ embrace, The City of the Dead waits patiently to house them. Rows and rows of concrete tombs bleached white by the sun stand as testament to the futility of fighting the cosmos.

In the years 1787 and 1788, New Orleanians suffered and died by the thousands from plague and disease. Smallpox, influenza, and mosquito-borne yellow fever and malaria filled the cemeteries to the seams. Conventional burial practices did not work: if you dug more than a few feet into the ground, you would hit water.

During times of flood, the coffins and bodies would float to the surface, sparking a fresh round of disease and death. The city started the custom of burying their dead above ground in mausoleums. Every year on November 1st and 2nd, All Saints and All Souls Day respectively, residents clean and paint the cemeteries and pay their respects to the deceased.

Camel back shotgun houses

The swamp is more than the harbinger of death and decay; it also nurtures life in the plants and animals that spawn and reproduce instinctively. The pattern weaves as it will, each birth a celebration, as joyous as a newborn’s first breath. The circle of life also unfolds in the shotgun houses of New Orleans.

Shotgun houses are long and narrow instead of wide, with an entrance at the front and an exit at the back. A widely-told tale is that one could open both doors and fire a shotgun through the front and the bullet would fly through the back, without hitting anything. Having a door at the front and back also allows the house to stay cool in the hot and humid summer months. The history of the shotgun house can be traced back to the Caribbean, namely Haiti and by default Africa. It was the Haitians, who are of West African descent, who brought this style of home to Louisiana.  Evidence suggests that the name “shotgun,” is actually a corruption of the word “shogon.” In West Africa, “shogon” means “God’s House.”

This monument show the height of some of the houses in the Lower Ninth Ward and how high the water rose

Hurricane Katrina and the Mississippi destroyed many examples of these homes in the lower Ninth Ward – and almost a decade later, the rebuilding process is slow.The effects of Katrina are still painfully evident in the hearts, minds and stories of the people who suffered through it.

People had to cut a hole in their roof to climb to safety from the water. The spray paint on the wall were made by rescuers as they searched the houses for survivors or corpses. The top of the X is the date they searched the house. The left of the X tells what division searched the house. The 0 tells us no bodies were found in the house.

 

There are neighborhoods where houses still wait: desolate, abandoned, shuttered and forlorn. But the people of New Orleans are accustomed to hardship and heartache.

Movie star Brad Pitt actually spearheaded a project to rebuild houses in the devastated Lower Ninth Ward. These homes are aptly named Brad Pitt Houses.

 

In this city, life moves forward resolutely: hurricanes, floods and mosquitoes are faced with the strength of spirit of a people who have been dealing with the ravages of nature for hundreds of years.

This is Grandma Davis’ shotgun home. This house is called a double shotgun, because there are actually two homes side by side. Most people buy both the left and right side and convert it into one home. If you look closely on the right, you can see another door.

 

This home is Grandma Davis’. She has spent her life in the Ninth Ward, marrying, raising four children, and burying a husband. She held the same job for 51 years and was laid off seven years ago, but retirement didn’t sit well with her. Instead, she found another job and continued working – just as she has done most of her life. She’s 78 and these are her twilight years.

Grandma Davis is New Orleans soul food. Her small garden overflows with okra, butter beans and collard greens. Her pantry is stocked with a lifetime spent in the kitchen. Cast iron skillets and baking utensils share space with birthdays, family cookouts, and the laughter of children playing in the house. Over the years this collection of bric-a-brac has meandered onto shelves and into drawers and cupboards – an old wire whisk, a hunting knife, a butcher’s block,  plastic Tupperware, antique teacups,  a cook’s treasure chest.  I consider myself a fairly good cook, with an extensive repertoire of recipes and technique, but in Grandma Davis’ kitchen I bow before a master.

Collard Greens

As she cut up the vegetables for dinner, her touch was gentle and minimal. Collard greens sautéed with ham hocks, Spanish onions, a pinch of soda, salt, pepper, then left to stew without fuss or fanfare until done – mouthwatering.

Candied Yams ( Sweet Potato)

Sweet potatoes peeled, cut, then boiled until fork tender, a pat of butter, a sprinkling of nutmeg, a few drops of vanilla and a dash of salt- candied yamalicious.

A whole chicken, cut into eight, then breaded in seasoned cornmeal and flour, bubbling in a skillet of hot fat until golden brown and crispy – exquisite.

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Grits, andouille sausage, red beans and rice, stewed okra, fried catfish, creamy potato salad, sweet potato pie, New Orleans 7-up cake.  Classical dishes from the South; a lesson in the subtle nuances of taste and texture.  Fried, steamed, baked…

New Orleans 7-up cake

I ate it all: buttermilk biscuits and eggs for breakfast, oyster po-boy sandwiches for lunch, and gumbo for dinner.  While grandma was busy in the kitchen cooking, friends, cousins, her son, his wife stopped by to say hello and chitchat on the porch.  Somehow there was always enough food to share an extra plate.

Imagine the smell of sweet potato pie

No one left without a bite to eat, a slice of cake, a generous portion of sweet potato pie. This is New Orleans, where generations of family live within a fifteen-mile radius of each other. This is New Orleans, where the bonds of family run deep and true like the roots of a magnolia tree. Where aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers help each other, rebuild, renovate and provide the support system that helps families stay together.

These are the lessons learnt in the bayous of Louisiana: life passes in the blink of an eye, like fireflies winking in and out of the night sky. Perhaps this is why everyone celebrates – Mardi Gras, the jazz festival, All Saints Day – it’s a parade, it’s joie de vivre,  because no one knows what tomorrow may bring. There is strength in unity and community. New Orleans – and the people who make this city special – is stronger for it.

Brother & Sister
Rose – Daughter- in Law

No Cooks for Christmas

Imagine if all the cooks in every restaurant kitchen disappeared on Christmas Eve. What if Santa finally granted our truest wish?

No alarms would ring. No flashing yellow lights.

A puff of air.  A whispering wind.

Walk a mile in our shoes on Christmas night and taste regret.

A rough night for cooks and servers: two hundred confirmed reservations, all here to celebrate and share the holiday with family and friends. The dining room is filled with a mélange of well-dressed socialites with deep pockets and a thirst for fine champagne.

The adrenaline level is high as the house band competes with the clatter of sauce pans and the rattle of plates rapidly filling the pass. The kitchen is humid and our jackets soak up the sweat.

Try to keep up with the constant chirping of the ticket printer.

It’s approaching midnight, and tempers flare as tired knees and elbows ready for the final push.

Our chef, expediting all night, struggles to remain calm.

Frantic servers try to squeeze by at the pass.

Ok, guys… fire the ten top, I want three amuse bouches for table 52, make that six all day.”

“I need a mushroom risotto to sell this deuce on 60, gimme that risotto now!”

What goes through the mind of a cook when the chef is screaming?

Mangoes, apples, pears…. Are they pleasant thoughts?

 

The sauté cook seeks frantically for the pan with extra risotto from a previous ticket.

He shoves another pan to the back, cranks the heat up, zaps with chicken stock and parm.

A little more salt and truffle butter, and the plate hits the pass.

Christmas for line cooks…  Every one is  tired.

But this year, a wish was granted and a prayer was answered.

This Christmas Eve, the fire in the grill will remain unlit.

Whisks will fall and stay where they lay. Nothing will be prepped, the door will be shut.

A puff of air.  A whispering wind.

There will be no cooks for Christmas, if only for this year.

A happy day, a joyous day,  a family day…

We would all be home instead.

 

Diverse Impressions of a Passionate Cook’s State of Mind Eating New Orleans Soul Food – Part I

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 between your lips: the flavor is sweet, salty and spicy at the same time. It helps if you have a bottle or two of beer to wash everything down. I have a preference for Stella Artois with my crayfish, but I leave the choice of beer to you.

One of my favorite places to eat was a restaurant chain called Tastee.  It’s actually a cross between a doughnut shop, White Castle burger and a diner. This one was located in a strip mall and had an unassuming store front.

But eating is an adventure, where the true value of a restaurant is measured by the quality of its food. This one was worthy of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives hosted by Guy Fierri on the Food Network.

I had six tiny burgers. Each thin patty fit perfectly on a dinner roll and were cooked with onions on the flat-top and garnished with a generous squirt of yellow mustard. The server/cook/cashier wrapped each one in its own deli-paper before handing me my order.

New Orleans is a city that should be explored in spoonfuls, each spoonful distinct from the first: the smell of the Mississippi River, of mud and silt flowing to the ocean, the festive echo of music and parties. Music and the Mississippi – plus a distinctive social grace – have sunk into the brickwork and decorative ironwork of Bourbon Street.

The heritage of this city is as rich and inviting as a warm bowl of gumbo on a cold night. Like gumbo, it should be ladled from a slow cooker into warm bowls, with friends who appreciate a hearty meal and stimulating conversation.  This complex mélange of flavors, history, and culture has simmered on the Mississippi delta for hundreds of years, giving the city a unique imprint found nowhere else in the continental United States.

Whether at a  local restaurant in the French Quarter or the home of friends on Canal Street, the smell of deep brown, nutty, cooked roux, melding with peppers and andouille and okra and history, was meant to be savored and shared. Gumbo, a stew made from the vegetables of African slaves and the techniques of their French masters, exemplifies the character of the city. In fact, it’s impossible to separate New Orleans from its past. Walking along the streets in the Downtown area or Garden district is like embarking on a time warp to the early 1800s.

Initially settled by the French in 1718, followed by rich Spanish plantation owners in 1765, and their African slaves, the city grew as wave after wave of Haitian, American, Irish and Filipino immigrants moved to New Orleans.  The architectural influences of the French and Spanish are well preserved in the historic buildings and houses all over the city.

The city bears the signs of the people who have lived here: French, American Indian, Haitian, African. Walking through the streets of the French Quarter, one can easily imagine the lifestyles of its inhabitants of former days. This is a city wrapped in the past where time has stood still and preserved the history and culture of another era. Tourists can still enjoy a tour of the city in a mule-drawn buggy: you learn about history as you ride in a piece of it. What is now a tourist attraction was once the primary means of moving cargo from the barges that came to dock at the pier, to the warehouses located nearby.

There to serve the hungry dock workers and revellers as they recuperated from a night spent carousing and drinking was Cafe Du Monde.

They serve one thing and one thing only: beignets. Hot, fluffy and dusted with a generous coating of icing sugar, these deep fried treats are the French equivalent of the doughnut. The  recipe for beignets was brought to Louisiana by the Acadians. Cafe Du Monde, which is in essence a coffee shop, has been serving beignets  in the  French Market since 1862. It is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and only closes on Christmas day. Your beignets come three to a plate with your choice of coffee, soda or orange juice.

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As the day draws to a close, and the ebb and flow of people on Canal Street swirl around me, I’m ready for my next adventure. Tomorrow it’s the City of the Dead and the Lower Ninth Ward. I’m tired; tonight, I’m going to sleep and dream of gumbo and “life like a box of chocolates” and Tom Sawyer and the mighty Mississippi river. My dreams will be pleasant, and I hope yours will be, too.

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

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 spoonful  of good salted butter

3 sprigs of thyme

A pinch of cayenne pepper, just a little for flavor

A pinch of salt and pepper to taste

A pinch of granulated sugar


Slice okra into rounds, about ¼ inch thick. Dice the tomatoes, sweet pepper and onions.

Use a suitably sized Dutch pot or one that has a thick bottom to melt the butter on medium heat. Add your mirepoix of onions and sweet pepper, and let simmer in butter until onions are translucent, about 3 minutes. On low heat, add tomatoes , let cook another 2 minutes, then add okras.

Add thyme and your dry seasonings; don’t forget a pinch of sugar. Cover pot with a lid and let simmer for ten minutes; taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Remember to stir occasionally while simmering.

Collard Greens and Other Recipes from Below the Mason–Dixon Line

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. To prepare fresh collard greens, wash them thoroughly and remove the thick fibrous center stem of each leaf. Lay six to seven leaves flat on your cutting board and roll into a tight bundle, like a cigar. With a sharp knife cut into ¼ inch ribbons. Repeat until all the greens have been shredded like confetti.

It’s just as easy to pick up a pack of shredded greens from the produce or frozen food  section of your neighborhood supermarket.  I can assure you that the integrity of the dish will remain untarnished by this shortcut, and the finished product will be just as scrumptious. If the second option suits you, purchase at least a pound, which should be enough for 8-10 portions.

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Don’t leave the supermarket empty-handed. In the meat section, buy a half pound of salt pork. Grandma Davis uses salt pork for her collard greens, and you should too.  Don’t be afraid to use salt pork in cooking.    It’s easy as long as you follow these simple steps.

  1. Wash salt pork thoroughly to remove the excess salt.
  2. In  a quart of cold water, bring salt pork to a boil then drain water
  3. Bring to a boil a second time and  drain again
  4. It’s ready to be used for your collard greens.

Sounds like a lot, maybe, but this is what Southern cooking is all about: simple ingredients cooked with care and time to tempt the taste buds. This dish smacks of history. Pigs, low-maintenance and easy to raise, were an important food source in the South.  They were introduced to the region by early Spanish explorers, and became a staple of the traditional Southern diet.

Scraps of meat, oftentimes the unwanted portions from the butchered animal –  trotters, tail, ears, snout and entrails – were given to the slaves.  Usually there were many mouths to feed with this small ration of meat. Allowed to cultivate small gardens for food, the slaves learned to use their small ration of meat as a flavoring ingredient in their meals. This was the only way they could give a dish “meat flavor” without using much meat. This explains the prevalence of pork in southern vegetables and stews. Ponder this while perusing the shelves in the supermarket. Purchase a quart of chicken broth; look for Kitchen Basics or Swanson’s Chicken Stock. Add a Spanish onion to your cart and join the checkout line.

Great!!! You’ve brought all the goodies home, now it’s time to braise your way to some yummy delicious greens. First, wash, boil and drain the salt pork. That’s out of the way. Dice the Spanish onion. Put the salt pork and diced onions in a thick Dutch pot and add 4 cups chicken stock. Let simmer on low heat for 30 minutes; the pork should disintegrate in the broth at which point add the collard greens. Here’s a secret – add ¼ tsp of baking soda, which helps soften the greens and preserves the color. Add ½ tsp. brown sugar as well as 1tsp ground black pepper. Taste and let simmer for another 30 minutes. Minimal attention or stirring is required, just put it in the pot and let it go! Adjust seasoning if necessary.

S is for Sweet Potato – and Other Recipes from Below the Mason –Dixon Line

“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 peas flavored with coconut milk and thyme… buttery mashed potatoes… cheesy macaroni and cheese… deep-fried sweet plantains… creamy coleslaw.

And then there was her cinnamon- and brown sugar-flavored sweet potato casserole, seasoned with nostalgia of breezy Sunday afternoons. That time I spent with my mom around the stove is still ingrained in my psyche. And in New Orleans, at Grandma Davis’s table with a generous serving of candied yams, I am twelve years old again.

When this humble tuber is baked in a pie shell, it assaults the mouth with a velvety smoothness reminiscent of toasted almonds.  Try these recipes at home, to wake the jaded palate, inebriated by microwave meals and fast-food cookery.

Candied Yams

Peel one large sweet potato (about 1 lb.), and cut into a ½-inch dice. Measure 2 quarts water, add 2 tsp. salt, and pour into a suitably sized pot. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 10 minutes.

Rule of thumb for cooks: Vegetables above ground should be cooked in salted water at a rolling boil: i.e., asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini. Start root vegetables in cold salted water, bring to a boil, and let simmer till done: i.e., potatoes, turnips, beets, parsnips.

The sweet potatoes should be halfway done and offer some resistance when pierced with a fork. Save 1/2  cup of the cooking water; drain and discard the rest, leaving the sweet potato in the pot.  Add 1/2 cup of your saved liquid, 1/4 cup of good salted butter, 1/2 cup of granulated sugar, a drop of vanilla and a pinch of cinnamon and return to the stove. Let simmer on low heat for another 12 minutes, stirring carefully every few minutes. Butter melts, liquid reduces, sugar dissolves to create a light caramel glaze, enhanced with cinnamon and vanilla – and it is done! Enjoy your candied yams!!

Sweet Potato Pie

Dinner has been served; the meal is at an end. In that moment of sated relaxation, when friends and family reminisce on the pleasures of a sumptuous meal; sweeten the ending with a slice of sweet potato pie. Have a store-bought 9 inch pie shell ready; it works well for this recipe. Bring to a boil then let simmer for 25 minutes, 1 lb. of sweet potato cut into a ½-inch dice. Drain and place the hot and steaming sweet potatoes into a large mixing bowl.

Add 6 Tbsp. granulated sugar,  8 oz. evaporated milk, 3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour, 4 oz. of good salted butter, ½ tsp. cinnamon, ¼ tsp. nutmeg, 1 Tbsp. vanilla, 1 tsp. salt. Blend everything together with a cake mixer until smooth and creamy. Mixture should be slightly thick. Pour into pie shell and bake in a 350 degree oven until golden brown, (about 30 minutes). The aroma of fresh baked sweet potato pie fills the room like no other. Resist the urge and wait for it to cool. Cut a slice, and indulge your sweet tooth with the taste of Grandma Davis’s New Orleans sweet potato pie.

 

Ghost in the Kitchen – Part 2

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 world leave you behind.”

He leans closer to her. “My love, let the GPS steer the car. I‘m in the mood.”

The words echo across the tiny interior of the car, in counterpoint to the rapid staccato of raindrops falling on the roof. Christian doesn’t wait for an answer. He wiggles out of his t-shirt and climbs between the seats and into the back. He pokes her in the side with a toe. Laughing, she presses the green neon button in the center of the steering wheel and a male voice chimes in and asks for a destination.

“Home,” she says, and the computer searches for the coordinates. After a few seconds, the metallic voice chimes in, “Your destination is 1-0-4, P-e-a-c-h, T-r-e-e   D-r-i-v-e, A-t-l-a-n-t-a, G-e-o-r-g-i-a.  The right indicator light flicks on, and the steering wheel turns silently to the right. The computer adjusts speed and guides the car behind a white Ford Explorer.

She disengages the safety harness and squeezes into the backseat on top of him.

“Ouch! Be gentle, Celia!”  They wiggle into a more comfortable position and his legs wrap hers as the landscape slips by, painted in jagged slashes of light and gloom. Moaning, Christian uses his hands to firmly clasp her buttocks and presses himself hard against her body. She responds to his advance by biting him on the ear. Their passion ends quickly, muted by the glaring headlights of cars passing.

He allows his thoughts to drift backwards to the first time they met. It’s one of his clearer memories: Celia kneeling over him, her hand shaking his shoulder, her voice asking him his name. The feel of old leaves wet with dew pricking him in his back. The smell of garbage, ripe, and overflowing from the bin close to his head.

The sound of traffic somewhere nearby.  The sting of mosquito bites on his face.  The crunch of shoes on the grass around him.

Flashing lights, red and white pinpricks as he drifts in and out of consciousness.

Her eyes, hazel, looking into his.

The antiseptic whiteness of the emergency room.

Losing consciousness.

Waking to see her speaking to a nurse by his bed.

Sleep, so restless.

Dreams of a book with a silver binding, its words and symbols spinning like a spider’s web at the edge of his sub-consciousness. The book! Taunting him. He cannot remember.

Panic, then the sound of her voice talking to him, asking him his name, asking questions.

Sleep.

Her visit to the hospital the next day to talk to him, and then the next.

He strokes her hair as they lay nestled together in the dim interior of the car. A big rig glides by, tires sluicing water onto the windshield. The white line on the road brightens as city lights hover over the highway. She sighs as he gropes around for her clothes and gives them to her. The left indicator light blinks on and the car overtakes the Ford Explorer.

“Shhhh, be quiet, my phone is ringing… Artichoke, look for it.”

“It’s on the floor underneath your seat, can’t you see the lights flashing?”

Celia leans forward and sticks her hand under the seat searching with her fingers.  Finally, she feels the slim outline of her still vibrating phone. Resting it on her lap, Celia touches the screen and a holographic image of Tony appears.

“Hey Celia, I need a cocktail waitress for a function tomorrow night… interested?”

“Oh yea, what about that bar mitzvah last week, Tony? I still haven’t got my money yet.”

Tony turns to face Christian.

“Hey, Christian; can you come in early tomorrow? Damn purchasing software has a glitch again. It forgot to place my order for macaroni and cheese flavor crystals for dinner service.”

“Gonna have to do it old school and cook some from the box, if we can find some. Should make you happy, eh?”

Celia uses her finger to poke Tony’s image in the stomach “Tony, what time is the function tomorrow?”

Distracted he looks away, as if listening to someone else, “Tell them I’ll be out in a minute,” he shouts to someone inside the kitchen.

“Damn roast chicken flavor strips, can’t any of the cooks get it right?” mumbling to himself.

“Sorry Celia” he laughs apologetically, “Chow time is at 7 p.m., but you gotta be there by 6:30 for set up.”

“Christian, come in at 1 p.m., and get with José; see if you can find some pots. God knows why I kept those things.” Tony says, chuckling. “There should be some in the storeroom somewhere.”

“Yes, Chef!”

“Ok, kids; gotta go – got things to do and people to see.”

“Hey, Tony!”

“What now, Celia?” sounding slightly annoyed.

“You’re a sleazebag; I want my money when I come in for work tomorrow.”

Laughing at the compliment, “Sure, sure, sure,” he terminates the call and disappears from view.

With a grimace Celia slips into the driver’s seat. She sits still for a moment, thinking about Christian. She never meant to take him home after he was released from the hospital. But he looked so lost and alone, her heart took a chance. Her mother always said she was like Florence Nightingale; there was Sam the turtledove with the broken wing and a whole litany of wounded pets through her teenage years. It helped that she volunteered at the animal center. Celia had a gentle, familiar touch with animals, and somehow they sensed it.

Christian is singing slightly off key to a Sublime song floating through the speakers. She’s glad he’s distracted. His book is waiting for him, on top of the growing pile in the corner of her apartment. She felt strange holding it. She was glad to put it with the rest.

She thought about how she had first met Christian six months ago while jogging in the park. One minute she was alone on the pathway and the next moment he was there, right under her feet. She almost tripped over him.  He had no idea who he was or where he was. The only reason she knew his name was because it was on the nametag of the old chefs’ jacket he had on. She was so surprised she had run ahead a few hundred paces before curiosity got the better of her and she decided to go back.

The strange book had appeared at her doorstep in a similar manner. It seemed she had a way of collecting strays.  And yes, she had almost stepped on the damn book, too. It lay with the others. “Artichoke’s relics of the past,” she liked to call them, unopened, still in the thick brown envelope with his name stenciled across the front.

“Celia” he breaks her reverie.

“Yesss.”

“I love you, baby” he puts a hand on her leg.

“I know.”

Both car doors slide upwards and they run towards the protective alcove of their apartment building. Christian lets her go in front as they bolt up the stairs to their second-floor apartment.

“Hurry, Celia; I’m getting wet,” he jumps up and down as a pool of water forms around his sandals.  Celia peers into the sensor and a beam of light scans her iris. She blinks and it winks back as if acknowledging an old friend. Celia steps back, the light blinks green and the door slides open. Celia pushes Christian inside, then pushes past him as a crack of lightning stabs the darkness. She’s home: it’s tiny, but comfortable. It’s all she could afford on her salary. Cocktail waitresses were poorly paid even in the days of gas stoves and deep fat fryers. That hasn’t changed  – and veterinary school still isn’t cheap.

Her apartment is sparsely furnished, anchored by a cube that unfolds into a sectional sofa when pressed. A 40” Sony holograph TV on the wall, a collapsible dinette set that hangs on the wall as decoration. They hardly use it, preferring to eat their meals on the sofa watching television. Celia moves around in the small space and heads to the bathroom. It’s late, and she needs to get out of her damp clothes.

“Christian, I’ll be in the shower a while,” the sound of running water distorts her voice.

“Take your time, baby; I’ll be right here,” he answers and walks towards the stack of books in the corner. Sitting on the floor beside it, Artichoke gingerly takes hold of the package and holds it in his lap. For a minute he just sits there, alone in the semi-darkness. Pointing to the ceiling, he says the words, “reading light,” and a beam illuminates his hands as he slowly tears away the wrapping paper.

He slides a hand inside and drops the brown packaging paper on the floor. “Ghost in the Kitchen,” he mouths the words and a knot forms in his belly. His fingers feel so cold; he wants to get up, but can’t. He tries to look away, but the pale indistinct image on the cover holds him transfixed. He recognizes the face of the person on the cover.

His name is Christian Artichoke, and suddenly it all comes back to him in a rush of memories. The cover flips open as his vocal cords constrict and the face on the cover looks up at him and smiles. Suddenly, he remembers what he had left behind and he tries to force the book shut again. He tries to fight as his soul is pulled from his body with the slick sucking sounds of boots walking in mud.

He thinks about Celia and what his life could have been with her. What could have been – should have been. The face pulls him closer and it pulses and squirms as the grin widens and his face is swallowed. First his short brown hair, then his nose, then the scream from his lips.

Yearning to stay conscious, finally Christian gives into his past as he is pulled deeper into the book with a snap until there’s nothing left but silence.

“Christian, Christian! Are you ok? I thought I heard someone screaming.” Celia runs into the living room barefoot with a towel hastily wrapped around her body. “Christian, where are you?” She looks around the room growing more concerned. She walks over to the beam of light and notices the book sitting on the floor. Tears well in her eyes, and she knows she’s about to start crying. Christian! Something draws her eyes back to the book lying on the floor and for the first time she looks down at the cover.

A face stares back at her as if confined behind glass. She starts to scream, a sound so wrenching and terrible that it breaks her heart. Celia couldn’t hear the sound of her own screams; in fact, she couldn’t see anything beyond the book cover and the face staring back at her.