Southern Penicillin

IMG_0272

Blog friends who know me from my old blogs written in my real name will recognize this phrase: southern penicillin. Its basic components are a baked sweet potato, some kind of dark leafy greens cooked in a broth (my seasoning of choice is a smoked turkey leg, a strip of Kombu, chopped onion and garlic), and turnip roots, yellow squash, speckled butter beans or whatever other veggies ring your bell and are available. And a pan of cornbread cooked in a Lodge cast iron skillet.

Our local Publix grocery store has just had a $5 million makeover. My favorite part is their new and improved produce department, with all new coolers, lighting, and best of all an expanded greens and organics section. The department manager, Travis, came up to me the other day when he saw I was picking out a pretty bundle of extremely fresh-looking organic collard greens. In his hand was a very dark green, ruffle-leaved ball of organic kale. It was fragrant and beautiful. He knew I would have to buy some. The kale went into the pot with the collards and made the most amazing pot liquor. Tom got a cup of the strained pot liquor to drink along with his veggies. I put both greens and that power broth into a big mug. Tom has always loved this type of supper, but now, while we’re in  “chemo cuisine” mode, he craves it.

Simple food, complex benefits.

“Cancer Cuisine” for Everybody

Rebecca Katz has an addictive recipe for salmon salad with caper salsa. It uses canned wild red salmon, minced onion, lemon juice, dill, pepper and capers. I’ve gotten hooked on the salt-packed (vs. brine) capers. It’s in her book, One Bite at a Time, another “cancer cuisine” cookbook. All I know is, it tastes great.

IMG_0255

First time to try it, I hollowed out a 5-grain Italian roll, smeared on a little mayonnaise, and stuffed it with the salmon salad with cucumber slices sandwiched in between. I was much too impatient for such folderol today, though, and simply spooned some into a white ramekin, grabbed a bag of Naked Pita Chips and ate at my desk.

Lunch at the Marina Oyster Barn

Just outside the picture window of east-side Pensacola’s iconic Marina Oyster Barn, where the “n” on Barn always feels like a mistake but isn’t, a huge brown pelican dives into Bayou Texar with an attention-getting, massive splash. The bird’s appearance is arresting on its own, but when it hits the water like a shot and comes up with a live fish which it proceeds to swallow, you can guarantee I don’t move from the window until that particular show is over.

Buck and I grin at each other like teenagers. We count more than a dozen of the astonishing birds between the bridge and Rooks Marina, the most either of us has ever seen there. They look glossy, well-fed, and strong.

Kim comes around with her blond ponytail and big smile. “Hi guys, it’s been awhile! Do you know what you want?”

That was easy. It’s the second reason we come: fried mullet, cole slaw and cheese grits. We pick up the menu and note a few items have changed since we were there last, then order what we always do.

The first reason we come is to sit at a picture window almost in the bayou, watch the comings and goings at the marina, and the birds, and folks tying up their boats at the dock to come in for lunch, and sometimes run into old (and I do mean old) friends from past lives.

1-IMG_8515We watched this fine heron from a window in our booth. We took the picture through slats in the blinds. He seems philosophical watching the pelicans and their flashy hubbub. But the heron has his ways. And except for his skinny long legs, he doesn’t look like he’s going hungry.

On the way out, we stop to chat with Frank, the kindly host and manager who to me is a quintessential part of the M.O.B. experience. His eyes light up when he sees us. We shake hands. I put my arms around him in a light hug, and feel the years in his thin shoulder blades. We notice later that he seems to know everyone, and has an affectionate moment with them, coming or going. You’ve probably seen long-time restaurateur’s like this, too. They’re a special breed. It’s a tough business, but I think it must get in your blood, and if you’re good at it, like Frank, it’s because you are have a near metaphysical bond with your customers. It’s a pleasure to watch an old pro at work. He’s that rare breed: a sincere politician, one who isn’t running for office and where the smile on his lips matches the smile in his eyes.

The Gulf of Mexico across two bridges is grand, but give me the small bayous and lunch at the Marina Oyster Barn every time.

Oysters on the half shell at Marina Oyster Barn, Pensacola (from an earlier visit)
Oysters on the half shell at Marina Oyster Barn, Pensacola (from an earlier visit)
1-IMG_8518
View of the bridge across Bayou Texar (pronounced tay-har) from our window at the Marina Oyster Barn in Pensacola, September 21, 2013.

Yellowfin Tuna with Grilled Onions and Spinach

Sometimes a day just comes together and comes out even in a delightful way: a morning of writing on a new fiction short story that had my pen flying across the yellow legal pad with an excitement for writing I haven’t felt for a while, a veggie lunch with Buck, a self-indulgent hair appointment, a fly-by in the grocery store for tuna, spinach, potatoes and a mild onion, dinner, and fragrant clean sheets on our bed.

Night all. Sweet dreams.

Comfort Food, Smoking, Booze and Grief

My favorite food-related magazine is Saveur. I stop subscribing to it every few years,  almost ritually, just as I did a few months ago, and then I run across some article I tore out of an old one before tossing it and the article is so extremely damn fine I wonder why on earth I ever failed to renew my subscription and wind up going to their web site and resubscribing — like I am just about to do — again.

The particular ripped out story that reminded me why Saveur is so worth the 20 bucks a year was written by Sandra Tsing Loh, Los Angeles author of Mother on Fire (Three Rivers Press, 2008), Pushcart Prize winner, pop-culture diva, pianist, on-again-off-again media darling and extremely damn fine writer.

It’s called “At Sea in the Valley,” and you can read it here, in Saveur.com’s archive to issue No. 127. It’s about a joint in Los Angeles called the Oyster House.

Blueberry Bliss

This old lost post from Mary Beth's kitchen pulls me back to the Little Island House. Kim and Charlene rented out the top floor,too, then, and it was filled with plants and wonderful books.

Renting a cottage on Maine's Mount Desert Island is one room in my own personal heaven. Stay in Kim and Charlene Strauss's The Little Island House or Jeanne Fernald's The Captain's Quarters in Bass Harbor for a special experience. Enjoy your morning coffee with warm sourdough and Blueberry Bliss jam, surrounded by dahlias, morning glories, rose hedges, and sweet peas clambering over old, stacked lobster traps, while you watch the extraordinary tides ebb and flow. The Little Island House actually becomes an island during high tide. Pure magic.

  Scan0001-1

The Little Island House

Bass Harbor, Maine

 

There will be plenty of time for lobsters and sweet corn after a day of hiking in the Acadia National Park. But on the first night, do yourself a favor. Find a big cast iron skillet — don't worry — I think it's a rule: they have to have one in a Maine coast cottage rental (along with a lobster pot) — and roast a chicken while you watch the sun set over Bass Harbor.

Rest the bird on thickly sliced Vidalia onions — available at Sawyer's Market in nearby Southwest Harbor — and stuff it with a large bunch of fresh thyme, an entire head of garlic sliced crosswise in half, a little salt and pepper and a whole lemon, cut in half. Season the outside and rub in some olive oil, then bake at 425 for about 1 1/2 hours. This recipe is based on Ina Garten's recipe for Perfect Roast Chicken from her marvelous book, The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook.

Meanwhile, find another oven-going pan, toss some whole new potatoes with the freshest carrots you can find and a little olive oil; roast them for the last 40 minutes.

While the chicken is roasting, head outside with good whiskey, some warm whole grain bread, one of many excellent local Cheddars, and hopefully a romantic companion. Find a good spot on the rocks to sit and watch the tide come in, the gulls, the cormorants with their wings outstretched in the wind, the lights and steam rising from lobster pots at Thurston's Lobster Pound across the way, and just gleam for sheer joy in the moment.

Memory Fish

It was 7:30 straight up when the phone rang. I was peeling a large red papaya, thin skin curling back over itself as I drew the short paring knife’s blade slowly down, imagining a bow drawn over a violin. Music was in the air, and the ringing phone a discordant intrusion.

“Miss Beth, you got some coffee?” Harold’s voice boomed out from the speaker of the phone, which I had punched with a papaya juice-stained finger.

“Nope, not yet,” I said. “I meant to, but I’ve been writing.”

“Running? You say you been running?” Harold sounded stunned.

“No,” I said. “Writing. Like a book. Writing.”

“Well,” he continued, “I got a little care package for you, if you and that old man are going to be around.”

“Come on,” I said. “I need some coffee, too. It’ll be ready when you get here.”

IMG_2584

Harold came in with several plastic grocery store bags and a tightly capped plastic bowl.  He grew the onions, squash and cucumbers in his garden. His wife, Louise, grew the tomatoes and bell peppers in flower pots in their yard. As we drank our coffee and talked, a pungent raw onion smell began to permeate the kitchen.

Harold had not made a move to open the plastic bowl. I’m sure he knew he could outlast my curiosity. He was right.

I pulled the bowl toward me, and asked, “What’s in here?”

“I don’t know if you two eat these,” Harold said coyly. “My boy and me caught them in Miflin Lake over in Baldwin County. Them’s Alabama fish.”

By this time, I had pulled the top off the bowl. Ten pretty little bluegills (bream) sprinkled with ice chips nestled inside. I pulled out three of them to make a picture.

IMG_2582

When my brother, Wally, and sister, Flo, see this photo, I know it will take them back to central Florida, cane pole fishing, and neighborhood cats circling the backyard table where Daddy cleaned his catch. I smell the not unpleasant fresh fish smell, remember the click sound of scales, and hear water running from a garden hose.

Tonight, we’ll dredge the bluegill in cornmeal and fry them in peanut oil. Buck hired himself out as a ten-year old fishing guide on the Escambia River long years ago. He and I will chew our memories slowly tonight, savoring every bite.

IMG_2581-1

Late at night, I read tomorrow’s headlines from The New York Times by the light of my Blackberry. When I’m driving in the car during the day, I listen to National Public Radio for the news. But when I want to plug into the visceral interpretations of rural everyman, there’s no source like Harold. If the NYT is the brain, he is the guts, and his opinions hold equal weight with me.

Thanksgiving 2007 Retrospective

I usually go barefoot in the house, but finally broke down this morning and went in search of a pair of old sox to keep my feet warm. Maggie’s curled up nearby. She’s had her breakfast, been for a walk, and is already snoring again. Tough life.

I woke up hungry as a bear, couldn’t wait for a normal breakfast, so ate two fig newtons along with my coffee. Not as good as pecan pie, which is my favorite breakfast, but pretty good. I have my annual piece of pecan pie on Thanksgiving morning while cooking the feast. Unfortunately, Alex and some of the other g-kids have developed a taste for it, too, so there was nary a crumb left. Went the same way as the crustless pumpkin pie. Favorite new item this year was a basmati rice pilaf with apricots, saffron, currants and slivered almonds.

Funniest (and sweetest) moment for me when I was taking a chain saw (electric knife) to the bird and Alex brought in his acoustic guitar, pulled up a bar stool, and played troubadour. He solemnly strummed and sang while I dismembered our dinner. Little Julia came in: “Why did you put that stuff in the turkey?” she asked, referring to the onion, orange and lemon chunks, sage leaves and a rosemary branch I was pulling from the turkey.

“To make it taste good,” I said. She continued to peer, her doubt obvious.

Finally, she said, “You know, it’s funny. When turkey meat — the white part — is cut in nice pieces and put on a plate, it looks real pretty. And when a turkey is alive, with all his feathers, he’s real pretty. But like this . . . it’s just gross!!”

Yes, little grasshopper. Cooking is not for the faint of heart.

Serenity of Soup

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who love soup and those whose noses wrinkle up in disdain at the mention of it. Or maybe not disdain. It might be post-traumatic childhood soup disorder, brought on by too many mugs of chicken noodle or cream of tomato out of a can from busy, well-intentioned parents.

Some of us are positively evangelical about the heart and soul-warming, body healing more than the sum of its parts benefits of a good, homemade soup.

Want to guess which camp I’m in?

Now, I’m not talking about that stuff in a can, that oversalted gloppy stuff where, if there are identifiable veggies, they are machine cut and processed into tasteless, corrupted icons. Having trashed canned soup, I had better confess up front to a love of canned cream of tomato made with milk and dusted with cinnamon — for me, it’s one of the ultimate comfort foods. I’m an imperfect perfectionist, an impure purist.

A cold front was blowing in yesterday, and for all of you who think of warm South Beach when you think of Florida, here in the panhandle we were expecting 23 cold degrees last night. Just the right time for a big pot of soup.

While it was cooking, I talked on the phone to my younger brother, my favorite niece, and several friends. Then I made meatballs (full of garlic, parmesan and parsley) for Friday night’s Christmas Eve bash. They’re in the freezer now, ready to plop into some red sauce to go along with the pesto lasagna. Sharon’s bringing the salad and Adele a shrimp appetizer.

It was a fun afternoon, chopping, simmering, rolling little meatballs, and talking with friends. The soup is vegetable beef (we call it Red Soup) and here’s the preparation:

Serenity of Soup-2 This particular pot of soup is Vegetable Beef, but for non-carnivores, I think it would be excellent without it, just substituting vegetable broth and maybe sweating the onions, carrots, and celery in a tiny bit of olive oil to deepen the flavors before adding the broth. The meat here is a chuck roast. I put in the pot with water, a chopped carrot, onion and celery, a couple of bay leaves and grind in a generous amount of black pepper. I add a tiny amount of salt, maybe a teaspoon full.

Serenity of Soup-4 I had a small epiphany and squeezed a clove of garlic along with a good-sized piece of ginger root through the garlic press and added the juicy bits to the soup pot. When they hit the steaming broth, the heady ginger garlic scent set my smile for the afternoon.

The beef broth simmered for about an hour and a half or so. Then I took out the beef, cut it into smaller chunks, and returned it to the cauldron, along with several more sliced carrots, a chopped onion, sliced celery and diced turnip root (it was a really big, crisp one). To fill out the flavors, I added a large can of diced tomatoes, plus several cups of chicken and beef broth. When the liquid came back to a boil, I added a bag of frozen corn, a bag of frozen baby lima beans, and a bag of frozen cut okra (don’t make a face — it’s a southern thang). Finally, after the whole lovely mess simmers to tenderness, break up some pasta strands into thirds — I use spaghetti — and add them to the pot. Continue to simmer for another ten minutes, and it’s soup.1-IMG_0854 Oops, I forgot to mention to include some fresh green beans. You can see them floating on top there.

And best of all, it freezes like a dream. It gives me a sense of serenity to open the freezer and see those little containers, standing ready to assist me in a moment of need, when I’m cold, tired and hungry.

1-IMG_0857

Soft Clothes and Comfort Food

Thursday was a busy day, filled with work and errands. The next-to-last stop was at Parker Custom Built Homes, where Celeste, who makes the trains run on time, needed a signature for the Notice of Commencement for our home.

We spent a few pleasant minutes, then I raced on to the grocery store to throw some supper ingredients in a hand-held basket, anxious to get home and into my soft clothes. “Soft clothes” are the best clothes in the world. Sweats, or a cotton nightgown, or whatever is most comfortable in your drawer or closet. You know what I mean. Usually it’s old. Very soft, and no tight elastic, underwire brassieres or anything else that might bind or poke.

The best suppers seem to emerge from that blind instinct for comfort. This invented, hurry-up job was no different.

1-chicken thighs in wok

I pulled out my old wok, pressed a large clove of garlic and chopped an onion into a bit of warm olive oil in the wok. Just as they were beginning to smell fabulous, I added some chicken thighs sprinkled with pepper and herbes de Provence. After browning, a few splashes of white wine and some chicken broth made a nice simmer bath. Just before serving, I removed the chicken, then added a little bit of cream to smooth out the sauce and seriously yummify it.

To go with the chicken, I fixed a box of Mediterranean curry couscous (Near East brand, I think), and sauteed some sweet red pepper and zucchini.

2-chicken and couscous

Buck and I took our plates to the couch and ate in our soft clothes by the light of the fireplace, a sweet prescription for a good night’s sleep.