PERFECT OKRA & POTATOES

It’s that time again. The annual mid-to-late-May, scattered brain blog post.

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After nearly three decades spent lived inside of school years, I feel the rhythm in my bones, in my marrow. Most people catalogue their lives by calendar years, January to December; I think about August to May. This 2014-2015 school year has seen 3 weddings attended, 2 showers thrown, a dozen writing deadlines, a record-breaking 11 sick days, 1 appearance on the NPR website, and 1 potty-trained toddler. Moving from middle to high school, teaching three new classes, creating two of those classes from scratch, relishing the tremendous opportunity to teach many of my students for the second or third time—it has all yielded more personal and professional reward than I could have imagined. I am grateful, proud to have survived, and very, very ready for June.

My juniors are ending the year with Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a short story collection that draws heavily on his experience fighting in Vietnam. Structurally, it is a brilliant piece of work, each story like a spoke of a wheel that circles around the themes of memory, ambiguity, truth, and fiction. Each piece is a masterclass in how to write about things that matter, without knowing exactly how they matter or why. About how to tell the truth without being sure that there is any objective truth to tell.

Line after line, even though I hadn’t anticipated that it would do this, this text is forming the perfect bridge between the end of one season and the start of another, allowing my students and I to reflect on what’s been and what’s to come: the seminal experiences that shape us, the ways we decide who we are, who we will be, what we will do with what life presents us.
“That’s what stories are for. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”

Summer is coming; there are stories to tell. There is a new book to write. There are plane tickets: to the west coast for a graduation, to the east coast for (another!) wedding. There is a road trip planned, practically a summer requirement. There is a little boy who loves to swim and consume epic amounts of watermelon. There is okra coming up in the backyard.

 

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(^tiny photo-shoot-interrupting okra thief)

PERFECT OKRA & POTATOES

Source: Tom Hirschfield via Food52

Jill and I fell in love with this dish last year, but each time I made it (and there have been many), we ate it all before we remembered to take any photographs. This dish is truly more than the sum of its parts—doesn’t sound like much when you read through the recipe, but the method transforms the ingredients, yielding perfect texture on both the okra (no slime here!) and the potatoes. The hit of garlic at the end is just right, and while the original recipe calls for a finish of fresh basil, we found that we like it better without.

Pair this dish with another sublime-and-crazy-easy seasonal dish—this blistered corn-off-the-cob—make a caprese salad with beautiful, fresh tomatoes, and call it dinner. Man I love the summer.

PS: If for some reason you end up with leftover okra-and-potatoes, it makes a wonderful bed for a fried egg breakfast.

ingredients:

russet potatoes*
okra*
1-2 cloves garlic, depending on your preference
salt & pepper, to taste
canola or another neutral oil, like peanut

*You want equal amounts of small-dice russet potatoes & sliced—thin but not sliver-thin—okra. Scale however you like, but it’s easiest if you have a pan big enough to cook everything in an even layer. I usually use 2 small russets & probably 20 okra pods.

Heat a large skillet, preferably cast-iron, over medium-high heat and add enough oil to generously coat the bottom. Add the okra, spreading them out evenly, and season with salt & pepper. Leave the okra alone until the undersides are brown, then add the potatoes, tossing everything around and breaking up any chunks of potato. Add a bit more oil to the pan, if needed. Season again with salt & pepper.

Keep an eye on the potatoes, turning down the heat so that they don’t burn, and turning them occasionally. Remember, they won’t brown if you mess with them too much, so keep an eye on the pan but mostly leave it alone to do its thing. (In my experience, the dish takes about 20-25 minutes on the stove from start to finish.)

Once the potatoes have browned and are tender (fork test!), add the garlic and mix it in well. Turn the heat down to medium-low and cook for just one or two more minutes, until the garlic is fragrant. Taste and add more salt/pepper if needed. Serve hot!

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HUSH PUPPIES

Jill’s parents came into town to meet their grandson this week.  The results were pretty precious:

If you’ve been following this blog for a little while, you already know that when Jill’s parents are in town, things get fried.  It’s just sort of a natural truth, like gravity or the first law of thermodynamics—when Mamaw and Papaw (as they will be called by Shiv) are in town, we fry stuff.  Like fish.  And onion rings.  And hush puppies.

These babies are Jill’s domain, the recipe plucked from a gem of an book just one year my elder and crammed with the good-old-fashioned Southern staples that Jill’s parents love.  I swear they eat like elephants but are about to turn 90 and 80 respectively and have more energy than folks half their age—maybe it’s the several pots of coffee they tear through daily?

Next month, they’ll celebrate fifty-five years of marriage and you can see those years in the way they relate to each other, a lightning-fast, ribbing rapport that had me in tears the other night.  Then there are the stories they’ll tell, about growing up in the South during the Depression, about making sorghum the old-fashioned way and packing the family up into a Model T Ford with the dog chained to a platform of plywood on the side.  What they’ve seen and done and lived through—theirs is a body of knowledge that will disappear when they do.

So even though I certainly don’t need the hush puppies, I sat down to eat them with my in-laws anyway, and listened to their stories.


HUSH PUPPIES
from The Art of Southern Cooking by Mildred Evans Warren, 1981 edition

These hush puppies are in a category unto themselves—a far cry from the dense, gummy golf-ball-bombs that most restaurants serve.  Light, airy, and crisp, they come together quickly and are VERY addictive.

Jill emphatically notes that the essential characteristic of this hush puppies recipe is the fact that they turn themselves over in the hot oil when one side is done.  It’s like magic!  Tasty, tasty magic.

ingredients:

1 cup corn meal
½ cup flour
1 ½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 egg
1 medium onion, chopped fine
Deep fat for frying (we use canola oil)

Mix and sift dry ingredients.  Add beaten egg, buttermilk, and onion.  Mix well.  Drop by spoonfuls into deep, hot fat.  Fry to golden brown.  Drain on paper towels.  Makes 10 to 12, depending on spoon size.

Serve with a squeeze of lemon and/or tartar sauce.

CHEESE GRITS

This time last year, there was chemo.  There were long lists of scary side effects, orange bottles with big white pills, daily heparin flushes for the PICC line, and not insignificant amounts of fear, worry, nausea, and exhaustion.

There were also: text messages, phone calls, gift cards, prayers, sweet cards in the mail nearly every day, emails, King Ranch casserole, matzo ball soup, more love, care, and support than we knew it was possible for two people to receive, and these cheese grits.

If you’re not from the great American South, you may never have had cheese grits before, and that’s a crying shame.  (Note for newbies: it’s always “grits,” never “grit,” no matter the quantity.)  Even if you are quite familiar with cheese grits, this recipe is worth a try, because it quite simply yields the best damn cheese grits I have ever had.

My Georgia-born colleague Katie generously gifted me and Jill with a Tupperware full of these grits last February, and we, along with a few visitors, promptly devoured them in a few days.  I know the term “comfort food” is overused, but let me tell you—comforting is still being able to eat delicious home cooked food but not having to cook it.  Comfort is adding cheese grits to the very short list of things your spouse actually feels like eating after her first round of chemo.

So much can change in a year. Our friend Courtney, who surprised us last year with a sonogram picture on the morning we shared these cheese grits with her, now has a beautiful four-and-a-half month old baby boy.  Friends have gotten married and engaged; friends have moved into and out of our lives.  (And just think, this time last year there was no Pinterest!—how did we live?)  Most importantly, Jill is blessedly well and thriving, and we are so deliriously HAPPY and grateful to have each day together, minus the cancer.

THE WORLD’S BEST CHEESE GRITS
Recipe from Southern Sideboards, which is the Junior League of Jackson, Mississippi’s cookbook, via Katie Ray.

If you are looking to indulge this weekend while watching a certain football game, look no further.  These could not be easier to make and they will serve a generous portion for 6-8.

ingredients:

7 c water
2 c quick (not instant) grits
4 eggs
½ c milk
2 sticks butter, melted
12 oz sharp cheddar cheese, grated or cut into cubes
~1 tsp garlic powder
Dash of Tabasco

Salt boiling water, add grits. Cook until they’re done, around 7-8 min. Stir in butter, eggs, milk, and cheese. Stir in garlic and Tabasco. Pour into greased 9 x 13 Pyrex, and cook at 350 for roughly an hour. Cover with foil if they start browning too much on the top.

Serve hot/warm, and cool before refrigerating or freezing any leftovers.

BETTER THAN EVER: BISCUITS & POPOVERS

Some things are worth revisiting.

When I started this blog almost two years ago (dang!), my friend and photographer Sonya Cuellar had only been taking pictures for a few months.  Of course, it was clear even then that she had instinctive talent and a natural eye, and if you spend any time on this blog, you know that statement has proven itself to be true in subsequent time.

Ya’ll don’t hear about Sonya very much; I’m the one who does most of the talking around here.  But there’s no way that Blue Jean Gourmet would run or even exist without her.  She manages to make what I make look good, and even more than that, she manages to capture the spirit of this kitchen, the equal parts playfulness and reverence I have for food.

Sonya’s also hilariously funny, deeply compassionate, trustworthy, and deadly competent.  She’s one of my favorite people in the world and working with her on this project for the last almost-two-years has not only been fun, it has pushed me to be a better cook and more creative writer.  Because Sonya’s so good at what she does, constantly working to improve her technique and find new ways to make pictures of food, I have to work to keep up.  And for that, I’m more grateful than I can say.

Today, a combination and revision of two old posts: biscuits & popovers.  Compare the old posts to the new, and I think you can appreciate just how far we’ve come, together.

BISCUITS

a)    Don’t knock lard until you’ve tried it (unless you’re a vegetarian or non-pork eater).  It truly makes for the most incredible biscuits.
b)    If you don’t have buttermilk on hand, you can squeeze a little lemon juice into 2% milk & let it sit for about 10 minutes.  It’ll do in a pinch.
c)    When it comes to biscuit-making, practice really does make perfect!

ingredients:

2 cups flour

1 ½ tsp. baking powder

½ tsp. salt

pinch sugar

4 T shortening or lard

4 T unsalted butter

2/3 cup buttermilk

1-2 T extra butter, melted

oven: 425°
pan: heavy baking sheet, greased

Whisk together the dry ingredients in a medium-sized bowl: flour, baking powder, salt, & sugar.  Using your fingers, a pastry cutter, or a couple of forks, cut the butter and lard/shortening into the flour mix.  Continue until the mixture resembles pebbly sand.

Pour in the buttermilk and stir until the dough just comes together.  Gather and turn out onto a floured surface, then press the dough out gently into a large rectanglish shape.  Fold the dough in half twice, then press the dough out again—this will help create flaky, delicious layers.

Don’t mess with the dough anymore!  Use a biscuit cutter or the top of a water glass, dipped in flour, to cut biscuits.  Press remaining scraps together to cut more until all or nearly all the dough has been used.  Brush the tops of the biscuits with melted butter and bake for 15-18 minutes, or until golden brown and risen.

Serve warm (of course) with your favorite biscuit accoutrement: butter, gravy, sausage, jelly, honey, etc.

POPOVERS
from Paulette’s Restaurant, as printed in The Commercial Appeal many years ago
If you’ve wanted to try your hand at popovers in the past but have felt intimidated, “DON’T BE SKEERED!” as Mani, my favorite spin class instructor of all time would say.  I don’t know why there’s so much hocus-pocus around popovers; they are truly not difficult to make!

Popovers don’t keep very well (their one flaw), so be prepared to eat the whole batch in one go.  A hardship, I know.

This recipe will yield 8-10 popovers.

ingredients:

1 cup all-purpose flour

¾ tsp. salt

1 Tbsp vegetable oil

3 large eggs, at room temperature

1 cup milk

oven: 415° F
pan: muffin tin or popover pan

Cut thin pats of butter and place into the bottom of each muffin cup.  You can also grease well with vegetable oil or Pam, but why would you when you can use butter instead?  Place the muffin tin in the hot oven.

While the pan heats up, sift together the flour & salt in a large bowl. In a separate bowl or measuring cup, whisk the milk and oil together.  Slowly mix the milk-oil mixture into the dry ingredients with a spoon until creamy smooth.

Add eggs one at a time; this will take some patience!  What you want to achieve are ribbons of egg in the batter.  After all the eggs have been incorporated, stir mixture for 2 additional minutes.

Carefully remove the warm muffin tin from the oven, filling each cup half- or just over half-full.  Bake for 25-30 minutes or until golden brown.  Remove the popovers while still hot or they will stick to the pan!

Perfect served with strawberry preserves & butter, or go the savory route and make a popover sandwich with sliced roast beef & horseradish sauce.

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CUPCAKES WITH NO NAME

Our memories are unreliable.

I’m a nonfiction writer by training and trade, and so I’ve spent some time thinking about the way the filing cabinet of my mind is built; in a rather unorganized fashion, I’m afraid.  We humans are storytellers by nature, narrators in perpetual search of an angle.  Not just those of us who call ourselves writers, either.  Story helps us make sense of our lives, form much-needed meaning, work out issues, and communicate things we couldn’t otherwise.  But since we’re telling stories about ourselves, we’re clearly biased.  Which means our memories are, too.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can make things complicated.  Memory leaves us, it changes shape, it butts up against the contradictory memory of another.  (Ask any couple to recount an argument, who said what, who did what, and you’ll see what I mean.)  Trick is, some memories are so good that we really don’t care if we made them up or not.  A glance from across the room, a kind word, a really good night, how happy we were then.

My Southern girlhood dessert memory includes a favorite which I finally managed to recreate: coconut, pineapple, pecans.  It’s like an Ambrosia cake without the oranges, a Hummingbird cake without the bananas.  Did it actually exist when I was small?  Have I had this cake before or did I simply conjure the idea of it in my mind?

The unreliable narrator that is my mind has no idea, but urges you to make these regardless.

CUPCAKES WITH NO NAME

first things first:

2 cups chopped pineapple, preferably fresh

¼ cup sugar (omit if using canned)

a generous spash of dark rum

Combine in a nonreactive bowl & let hang out while you make the batter.

then:

1 cup sugar (dial back to ¾ cup if using sweetened coconut)

½ cup unsalted butter, softened

2 eggs

1 T vanilla

1 ½ cups flour

1 tsp. baking powder

¼ tsp. salt

½ cup milk

1 cup toasted pecans, chopped (plus more for garnish)

1 cup shredded, unsweetened coconut (plus more for garnish)

oven: 375˚

pan: muffin tins well-greased or filled with paper liners

Beat the butter and sugar at medium-high speed until pale and smooth.  Add the eggs one at a time, beating thoroughly between each addition, then the vanilla.

In a separate bowl, combine the dry ingredients, then add in three batches, alternating with the milk:

dry ingredients

milk

dry ingredients

milk

dry ingredients

Stir in the pineapple and all its rummy juices, pecans, and coconut.  Yes, the batter will look a little thin but FRET NOT!  All this means is that moist cake is in your future.

Fill the muffin tins about three-quarters of the way full, then bake for 20-25 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean and the tops of the cupcakes are golden brown.

After 10-15 minutes, remove the cupcakes from muffin pans to cool completely on racks.  Frost with butter cream and garnish with extra chopped pecans & coconut.

for the butter cream:

1 ½ cups sugar

½ cup water

6 egg whites

4 sticks (1 lb) unsalted butter at room temperature, cut into cubes

1 ½ T rum (optional)

Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan over high heat until it dissolves.  Boil the mixture until it reaches soft ball stage on a candy thermometer.

While the sugar’s boiling, beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks.  With the mixer running at medium-high, gradually pour in the hot sugar syrup, taking care not to pour the syrup into the egg whites and not onto the metal (where it will instantly form sugar strings).

Reduce the mixer speed and beat the meringue until it cools to room temperature.  Beat in the butter a few tablespoons at a time.  Drizzle the rum in very slowly to incorporate.  Use immediately or refrigerate in an airtight container.

MY LIFE IN OKRA

I’m about as biased as they come, but I think today’s guest blogger is pretty swell.  It’s my pleasure today to turn Blue Jean Gourmet over to Jill! –Nishta


I’ve eaten okra my whole life mainly because it has been a staple in my parents’ vegetable garden since, well, forever.  There it would stand – at least a full row of it, head high or more – in all its fibrous, stinging, yellow-blossomed glory.  The hotter the summer sun, the taller the okra and the more it needed picking.  It seemed to me, as a kid assigned the task of helping my mother gather garden vegetables everyday, that you could actually see the okra pods growing in their place on the stalk, they grew so fast.

I made my way down the row protected by a long-sleeve shirt and garden gloves, armed with a paring knife.  I bent the stalks down, cut the pods at their stems and dropped them into a 5-gallon bucket.  On any given day, the bucket would be at least half-full by row’s end, and I would do it all again the next day.   Do the math; we had a lot of okra.

I swore once I became an adult I wouldn’t sweat out my substance plowing, tilling, weeding and hoeing gardens or picking vegetables in the bald open sun.  But, here I am, ensconced in middle-age, growing year-round vegetables in our Zone 9 backyard.  And this time of year, after the beans and tomatoes and squash and cucumbers have all burnt up, the okra are just hitting their stride.  I have only a few plants, and they are a dwarf variety that don’t grow over 5 feet tall.  But, there they are every day – the feathery yellow blossoms, the long pods ready for harvesting, and the little buds behind them waiting to grow into their place the next day or so.

I enjoy okra prepared several ways, but my favorites are fried and pickled.   Both of them mitigate – or negate ourtight – the slime factor that sours many people toward this unique vegetable. Fried okra is a southern staple and many people swear by their family’s version of it.  I am no different; I claim without reservation that my mother’s fried okra recipe and technique (used also by her sisters and sisters-in-law, and which is now mine) is the best fried okra possible in our earth’s time/space continuum.  The pickled okra is a recipe I got somewhere along the way years ago and have adapted to my own peppery tastes.

Between the two of them – hot fried okra served on paper towelled dinner platters and spicy pickled okra pods served ice cold as happy hour fare – you’ve got late summer covered.

BILLIE JEAN’S FRIED OKRA


ingredients & tools:

a “mess” of okra pods  (anywhere from 15 pods 3-4″ long each to a full 5-gallon bucket full)

salt & pepper (although any of the salt-free seasoning blends can work)

flour (a cup or more depending on how much okra you have)

buttermilk (a half cup or more – plain sour yogurt cut with water would work too)

frying oil (vegetable, canola or peanut – enough so that the okra floats slightly in the skillet)

a paper grocery sack (a plastic bag will do)

a large slotted spoon

After rinsing, cut the okra crossways into pieces no larger than the end of your thumb.   Discard the heads.  NOTE: if your knife doesn’t easily slice the okra, the okra is “old” or “hard” and not fit to eat.  Toss it in the compost or trash.

In a bowl, combine the sliced okra, salt & pepper to taste, and enough buttermilk to thinly coat all the okra.  Stir well.  No buttermilk should pool at the bottom of the bowl.  When done right at this stage, it will look like a slimy, sticky mess.

Add at least a cup of flour to a paper bag.  Drop in the okra (no more than a double handful if you’re frying a large batch – you’ll have to fry in stages, if so).  Fold the sack top closed and shake well, holding the bag from the top as well as supporting it on the bottom.  Make sure all the okra is covered evenly in flour.  Set the okra bag aside.

In a skillet or frying pan, heat the oil to medium-high to almost high heat.  Test for frying readiness with a single piece of okra.  When the oil is ready, use your fingers to slightly drop clumps and pieces of the okra into the oil.  Just ease them in, moving them with the slotted spoon only minimally to make room.   Here is the key:  Don’t mess with it at all!  Let it sit frying in the oil – don’t move it around or stir it.  Just let it sit.

When the okra starts to brown underneath, gently – GENTLY – use a slotted spoon (and maybe a second spoon) to turn it over in the oil.  Do this as quickly as possible, but in a way that disturbs the okra the least.  When the okra is fully browned (only another minute or so usually), turn off the heat and begin taking it out onto a platter double lined with paper towels.   Don’t pat it – just let it sit for a minute or two to cool and to lose oil.

Eat with your fingers like popcorn.  Add more salt if needed.  Try not to go face down in it.  Share with others instead.

EASY PICKLED OKRA


ingredients & tools:

a quart jar with ring and lid

enough okra pods to fill the quart jar tightly packed

2-3 garlic cloves

2 sprigs of fresh dill (or a tablespoon of dried ground dillweed)

2-3 hot peppers (fresh or dried)

1 cup vinegar

1/2 cup water

1/8 cup salt

Rinse the okra and peel the garlic cloves.  Scrub the jar, ring and lid and rinse in very hot water from the tap. When the jar cools enough to touch, pack the jar with whole okra pods stood upright.  Pack in the dill, garlic cloves and peppers as well.  If using dried ground dillweeed, just spoon it over the top once everything is packed in.  Make sure nothing in the jar protrudes up beyond the lower edge of the lip of the jar.

In a boiler pot, add the water, vinegar and salt to make the brine.  Bring to a boil.

Pour the boiling brine into the packed jars.  Make sure nothing in the jar is left uncovered.  Seal the jars tightly.  Wait a week to open.  Best served cold after refrigeration.

Cauliflower, squash, cucumbers, banana peppers, long beans and carrots can also be pickled this way.

Dr. Jill Carroll is a public intellectual who speaks internationally on topics of world religion, religious tolerance, & religion and public life.  She grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana.  In addition to writing her own blog for the Houston Chronicle, she is Nishta’s spouse and the food stylist for Blue Jean Gourmet.

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DEVILED EGGS

We joke about it a lot, just how different Jill and I are on paper.

There’s the age difference (19 scandalous years), the skin color difference (she’s white, I’m brown), the religious difference (she was raised Pentecostal, I was raised Hindu), and too many personality differences to count.  But rarely do these differences occur to us as stumbling blocks; in fact, they rarely occur to us at all.

We forget our age difference—“Oh wait, you wouldn’t remember that, you were three in 1985,”—and I have, more than once, asked Jill to borrow her concealer, only to realize that “pale beige” isn’t really going to work for me.

Truth be told, the biggest difference between us, or at least the one that occurs like the biggest, is the class difference.  Jill was raised in a solid, blue-collar family in Shreveport, Louisiana; I was raised in a decidedly white-collar suburb of Memphis, Tennessee.  We may both be Southern women, but the ways of life to which we grew up accustomed are very different.

Jill grew up gardening, hunting, pickling, and canning—that’s how her family got their food.  And though her parents, through their frugality and hard work, could easily now afford not to do any of that anymore, they still do.  Because it was never just a strategy, it was (and remains) a way of life.

Of course, this way of life has recently become trendy.  More and more people are starting to see the value of growing their own food, or at least knowing where it’s grown.  Food writers like Michael Pollan and Hank Shaw are helping to remove some of the ignorant stigma against those who have the courage to kill their own dinners.  And pickling and canning have seen a real resurgence in the last few years, one which I suspect will only grow.

Last month, in May, I was asked to participate in an incredible grassroots event here in Houston, Outstanding In My Backyard (OIMBY).  The event featured local chefs and home cooks using local ingredients to create a literal backyard feast.  We raised over $5000 for the Houston Food Bank and hope to double that number when cookbooks featuring recipes from the event go on sale later this summer.

It seemed only appropriate for an event like OIMBY that I cook a dish that has always been Jill’s signature—deviled eggs—using the okra that her parents grew, and that she pickled & canned.  For Jill’s family, this “new” emphasis on local, fresh, and organic isn’t new at all, it’s the way they’ve lived for generations.

DEVILED EGGS
serves 6-8 as an appetizer

ingredients:

2 dozen farm-fresh eggs, hard-boiled
1 cup mayonnaise
½ cup whole-grain Dijon mustard
1 dozen pickled okra spears, roughly chopped*
2 T pickling juice from the okra
smoked paprika (optional)

Slice the eggs lengthwise & gently turn the yolks out into a large bowl.  Mash the yolks with the mayonnaise, mustard, okra, & okra juice.  Stir mixture until it’s fluffy but not wet, adding more okra juice if necessary.

Spoon a rounded tablespoon of filling into each hollowed-out egg white half, mounding it up as high as you like.  Continue until all of the eggs have been filled; garnish each egg with a generous sprinkling of paprika.

*Substitute cucumber pickles.  Note: I prefer the texture of hand-chopped pickles to that of pre-made pickle relish.

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CHICKEN & DUMPLINGS

Regarding the pain of others, I am ever at a loss.

I haven’t gotten any better at figuring out what to do with these masses of grim humanity that get hurled our way, without warning, without reason, without pattern.  How are we to negotiate a world in which I can sit here, typing away on an expensive computer in a comfortable home stocked with food and supplies, while a few hundred miles south and east of me survival is far from certain and bodies are piling up in the street?

At the gym this week I found myself standing on the elliptical machine, my usual routine interrupted by this footage of the rawest, gnarliest grief and despair in a place that really isn’t that far away from me at all and I thought to myself AND WE ARE WORRIED ABOUT BURNING SOME CALORIES?

Paradox is the sea we all swim in.  I think perhaps the trick is to be aware of our contradictory selves, to fleece out any illusions about this wild and willful world.  To delight in what there is to delight in, to mourn what there is to mourn.  To give our best shot to holding it all in somehow.  To look at the screen, because we must.

My old neighborhood in Tucson was very close to the University and its Medical Center; a whole crew of dogs lived on our particular block, lording over dusty yards behind battered fences.  Whenever an ambulance would go by, the dogs would howl.  Pure, unadulterated noise.  It always seemed to me an appropriate herald: here, you see, pay attention, someone’s life is changing forever.

Two of my favorite people in the whole wide world are right now in the hardest possible places: waiting for news about mother and sister, respectively.  The former in a hospital ICU, the latter in Haiti. I love these human beings so much, more than I can rightly say and yet I cannot make their pain go away, I cannot fix this, I cannot do anything that will make a damn difference.

This is me, howling.


CHICKEN & DUMPLINGS

Sometimes all you can do is dish up a big pot of comfort, stand over the stove with a whisk in hand, scrape dumplings with all your heart and trust that it all adds up to something.

I’m from Memphis, so it’s practically a genetic obligation to be able to make this stuff.  Started adding leeks a few years back when I saw the idea in Cook’s Country magazine—I like the flavor they add, but it’s especially nice to have a dimension of color in the stew which is traditionally all-white.  While I don’t like to clutter my chicken & dumpling up with other veggies, you could easily add diced carrots to the leeks & onions and/or toss in frozen peas at the end.

Also, I’ve at times made a modified version of this recipe which is a little bit less high-maintenance and ostensibly healthier, given that it doesn’t involve rendered chicken fat.  If you have chicken stock & leftover roasted chicken, you can skip steps involving browning the thighs & just add your chicken meat to the stew when you pour in the milk.  Since you won’t have schmaltz for the dumplings, substitute butter.

for the broth:

4 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs

3 leeks, white & light green parts only, cut into thick rings & then in half

1 large yellow onion, diced

3 T flour

3 T dry sherry or cooking sherry

4 ½ – 5 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade

¼ cup whole or 2 % milk

2 T fresh or 2 tsp. dried tarragon

1 T fresh or 1 tsp. dried thyme

1 bay leaf

vegetable oil

butter

salt & pepper

for the dumplings:

1 ½ cups flour

1 T baking powder

1 tsp. salt

½ cup buttermilk

2-3 T chicken fat or butter

equipment: If you have a Dutch oven or enameled soup pot, this is the occasion to use it.  If not, use something tall with a heavy bottom.

Get your chicken nice and dry with the aid of some paper towels—this step is essential or it won’t cook up properly.  Season the chicken generously with salt and pepper, then heat up a few tablespoons of vegetable oil in the bottom of your pot over medium-high heat.

Brace yourself for some splattering–cook the chicken until the skin is brown & crisp on both sides, about 4-6 minutes on each side.  Move the chicken to a plate to cool a bit.  Pour off and reserve the delicious! chicken! fat! that has gathered at the bottom of the pot.  (You’ll use some of it for the dumplings, but I urge you to save whatever’s leftover for adding flavor to soups, roasts, even pie dough).

Return the pot to medium heat & melt a big ole knob (2-3 T) of butter in the bottom.  Add the leeks and onions to cook until soft, about 8 minutes.  Sprinkle flour on top of the vegetables, then whisk in the sherry, thickening the broth base.  Scrape the bottom of the pot to get all of the juicy bits, then stir in the chicken stock, milk, & herbs.

Remove the skin from the chicken thighs, then return them to the pot, cover it all, and let them simmer in the goodness to cook fully, 30-45 minutes.

When the chicken has cooked fully, turn off the heat and remove the thighs & the bay leaves from the pot.  Using forks, carefully shred the chicken meat off of the bone & return it to the pot.  Check and adjust the salt & pepper in the stew, then bring it back up to a simmer for dumpling-dropping purposes.

For the dumpling dough, combine all ingredients in a small bowl and stir until it looks like unappetizing paste.  Fret not!  They are going to taste de-li-ci-ous.  Using two big spoons, gather up a tablespoon’s worth of dough into one spoon then scrape it into the stew with the other. You’ll get the hang of it.

Fill the top of the pot with dumplings, leaving a bit of room because they will grow.  Reduce the heat on the stove to low and let the dumplings cook, turning them once, after about 10 minutes.  Cook the other side of the dumplings for another 10 minutes and then serve.

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POTATO SALAD

le potato salad side angle

Big week coming up, right? The birth of our nation, stars, stripes, fireworks, cold beer, fired-up grills, pools full of kids, etc. We Americans celebrate in style.

My parents came to this country in the late 1960s from India. Like most immigrants, they have always been fiercely patriotic. “Only in America” was a reverential phrase, oft-repeated in the course of my growing up. Someone has done something marvelous, risen above circumstances, innovated, liberated, volunteered, changed careers in middle age, made something out of nothing.

Only in America.

Of course, it isn’t exactly true that America is the ONLY place one can do such things, but when you’ve entered this place with fresh eyes, as my parents did, the freedoms, opportunities, and equalities we celebrate every year on the Fourth of July occur like realities and not just abstractions.

I am fiercely proud to call myself first-generation; the first of my family to be born here. I’m fiercely grateful to my parents for the courage and sacrifice it took to come to this country (the first plane trip of my mother’s life took her to JFK International Airport: she was twenty-one years old and dressed in a sari).

To honor them, and this place, I’m going to try to remind myself that my freedom is real, as real & palpable as the slices of cool watermelon I plan to consume this weekend, and that many millions in the world thirst after the freedom I am able to take for granted every day.

As a matter of tradition, I’ll make this potato salad, which my Mom loves (her birthday is Thursday, as a matter of fact. Happy birthday, Mom! You are a badass & I love you!) We’ll drink imported beer, listen to Hindi music, & celebrate some dead-and-gone Patriots with crazy ideas and a lot of gumption, who built this thing we call democracy.

Only in America.  And thank goodness for that.

SUMMER CLASSICS SERIES: POTATO SALAD
serves 4-6

There are infinite variations on this, of course, whereby you could include a couple of chopped, hard-boiled eggs or crumble in some cooked bacon, but I like to keep my potato salad nice & simple. ‘Cause I’m old school like that.*

2-3 lb. red potatoes, scrubbed

½ of a red onion, diced

2-3 stalks celery, diced

4-5 tiny or 1-2 big dill pickles, diced

¾ cup mayonnaise (not the fake stuff! puh-lease not the fake stuff!)

½ cup Dijon mustard (not the yellow stuff! puh-lease not the yellow stuff!)

a big handful of fresh dill, chopped

salt & pepper, to taste

shiny new potatoes 3

Place the potatoes in a large pot & cover with cold water. Bring the water to a boil & cook potatoes until fork-tender, between 15-20 minutes depending on potato size. Drain & cool potatoes before chopping them into fork-friendly cubes.

This really couldn’t be easier. Place all of the ingredients (except s&p) in a bowl—mix carefully until everything’s evenly distributed. I like to use a spatula for this part so as not to upset the taters too much.

Taste-teste and add salt, pepper, maybe more dill if necessary. Be sure to refrigerate if you’re not serving right away.

*Remember those little old men at the end of The Incredibles? “No school like the old school!”

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