suppers: quick shots

Here at what we fondly call The Longleaf Bar and Grill, it’s eating for two most of the time. After many (many) years of playing in the kitchen, I’m much more interested in playing at my desk or elsewhere with a notebook and pens rather than a whisk. Still, food is the fuel, so Buck and I have a collaborative style that gets the job done in an enjoyable way. Here’s an example from the last three suppers.

Great Northern Bean soup with smoked turkey and a spoonful of basil pesto. I make a cauldron of this stuff. It’s ultimate comfort food and freezes like a dream.

The ubiquitous sheet pan chicken, thighs with potatoes, carrots, onion and capers variant. Includes a chapter on how I learned to love those little green cabbage-looking veggies.
Salmon with brown sugar and bourbon is like soup with pesto. What’s not to love?

chicken in a pot

Between working on a manuscript, following the Kavanaugh hearings, and fretting about whether Hurricane Michael was going to hit Pensacola (have you seen the video from poor, devastated Mexico Beach and Panama City?), I realized yesterday that I’ve gotten myself into a state of sleep deprivation. Never good. So last night I brought out the big guns: a beautiful whole chicken, carrots, onion, celery, broth and a generous splash of dry vermouth. Settled down with Buck for our usual evening cocktail — a Manhattan for him and scotch and water for me while the ingredients simmered into heavenly medicine. It worked its magic and I got the first really great night’s sleep I’ve had in days, if not weeks. Woke up feeling like a tigress and ready for a dash to the gate with Lula Belle. We dashed because a cool front had rolled in, at last, and the temp at seven was 54 degrees, a tiny bit cool for gym shorts and tank top.

Flexitarian Whiskypalian

When Buck and I modified our approach to what we eat several months ago, I ran into a word that seems to describe it well: flexitarian.

The word was coined sometime in the early nineties, and was named “most useful word of 2003” by the American Dialect Society. And in 2012, “flexitarian” was listed for the first time in the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

But we only discovered it after searching for a way to describe our mostly plant meals. It’s sounds like one of those weasly bureaucratic made up words. Something to describe a wanna-be vegetarian with no spine.

Makes me think of Protestants who disdain Episcopalians by calling them “Whiskypalians” and say they’re former Baptists who like to drink. Well, yeah, I resemble that remark.

And so, I guess I can live with being a Flexitarian Whiskypalian.

So what’s happening with us on this new regime? Any cravings for the old “meat and three” way we grew up? Dreams of butter and cheese? Do we drool over ads for Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse?

In a word: No.

I can’t explain it, and I’m surprised. First and foremost, we’re enjoying meals more than we have in years. They’ve become un-boring. Buck continues to have zero IBS symptoms, which means more energy and a more relaxed and comfortable man. I’m sleeping sound as a young child, a welcome change. Whether this is related to our diet change, I can’t say. I can say the allergy-related puffiness under my eyes (which I hate) has improved significantly, and weight creep has reversed. Yeah, I know. I’ve got New Convert Syndrome. Ask me again in six months.

Meanwhile, a few photos . . .

House-Smoked Turkey Breast

Here’s an example of the “flex” in flexitarian. The meat on the plate is house-smoked turkey breast. We don’t grill outdoors anymore. I lost my taste for using charcoal, and have always been scared to death of using propane tanks on a gas grill. Silly, but true. But my little secret for the best smoked foods I’ve ever tasted is an inexpensive indoor stovetop smoker made by Cameron. For this turkey breast, I used pecan wood chips. The wood chips come in pecan, cherry, oak, alder, hickory, mesquite, and maple, among others. The veggies here are a mix of roasted Brussels sprouts, yellow squash, slow-roasted tomatoes, and garlic-and-herb-marinated olives, a perfect foil for the Texmati brown rice.

Red Beans and Rice February 2014

Our new favorite is red beans and (brown) rice. We split an Aidell’s Organic Cajun-Style Andouille (made from chicken) link, which adds huge spicy flavor. The roasted miniature zucchini and wedge of cornbread completed this luscious meal.

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More flex, here, with sea scallops and capers with whole wheat couscous and roasted asparagus. No butter in the fridge anymore, but I’m experimenting with a soy-based substitute made by Earth Balance.

Roasted Brussell's Sprouts

First time I’ve ever eaten Brussel’s sprouts and liked them. These were tossed with a bit of olive oil and roasted with shallots.

More later. Time to go to work. Buck had one final (seriously, I promise) rewrite of the first two chapters of his manuscript and one more polish to add sheen to the total book, so we are set up on the conference table, reading aloud, with me challenging, then making changing to the computer file, and laughing (a lot). Buck’s manuscript has gotten commercial-grade good. And we’re having a blast. We sent a few query letters out late last year, then took a good hard look and realized it wasn’t quite ready for prime time. Different story now. This baby is ready to fling out into the world.

Open Mind, Insert Vegetable

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Baby Bella and Shitake Mushroom Bourguignon on Grilled Sun-Dried Tomato and Garlic Polenta

So okay, it’s been about a week since I posted a picture of my new cast iron tortilla maker and wrote about menu tweaks here at the Longleaf Bar and Grill.

“How’s it going?” you ask.

“Oh, it’s okay,” I lie.

Look at the photo.

Yeah. That good. . . and very nice with a  pequeño glass of Noval Black port.

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Sun-Dried Tomato and Garlic Polenta Chip

We grilled the polenta in thick slices on a Lodge cast iron griddle. After dinner, I discovered small, crisp disks left behind in the pan. They came up easily. I decided to taste one. Huge yum wow. I did leave one for Buck to try.

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Leaf lettuce with roasted cauliflower, walnuts, chick peas and dried cranberries

Seriously, I went into this week all out with the idea of creating a new, mostly vegan, vegetarian, or at the very least flexitarian kitchen. Buck and I thought it would be good for our health. Little did we know it would be a culinary adventure, full of exciting blasts of taste and super satisfying.

The night I tried Lynn’s Meatloaf, I cop to having a backup plan in case it turned out to be disgusting and inedible. After all, when you smush together a block of firm tofu, cooked lentils, oatmeal, celery, onion, catsup, Dijon mustard, soy sauce, and a sprinkle of sage, rosemary and thyme, who the heck can visualize the end result after 50 minutes in a 350 degree oven packed into a loaf pan? All I can say is, it’s better (a lot better) than meatloaf, and makes great sandwiches the next day.

One of our new favorites is black beans, brown rice, and a smorgasbord of toppings: sautéed peppers and onions, corn, and salsa.

We suspect there are tangible health benefits: lower cholesterol, lower blood sugar, squeaky clean arteries. But a big bonus we didn’t contemplate is that Buck is no longer experiencing the bloating and pain of IBS he has suffered for the past five decades. Will it last? We don’t know. We thought high protein low carb was just the ticket. Not anymore.

We ate a green lentil soup made with chicken broth (from the freezer), and a Nicoise salad with fabulous Tonnino Ventresca (tuna belly in olive oil — comes in a jar), so clearly we’re in the flexitarian camp, but the center of gravity has shifted away from meat-based entrees.

Bottom line so far: why did it take us so long?

“If it had a mother or a face”

Brain Food on a Gray January Day

If you follow my Goodreads lists, you might have noticed I’ve just finished a flurry of books with a similar theme: “If it had a mother or a face, don’t eat it.” And if you browse through the Longleaf Bar and Grill category archives, you’ll see many examples of slow-cooked Italian pot roast with red wine and garlic, roast chickens, grilled pork tenderloin, baked stuffed red snapper, and on and on.

I’m not declaring (at least not yet) a transition to full-throated veganism, however our ages, my family cardiac history, and plain old good sense (not to mention an undeniable, increasing unease about where our foods really come from, how they’re raised, and what’s added to them), have led Buck and me to move strongly toward a substantially plant-based diet. I’m sure we’ll continue to eat a little fish, at least I think I’m sure, and probably the occasional home-smoked (on a small indoor smoker) turkey breast. It’s a work in progress, and I’m not sure where we’ll eventually come down.

It feels like a natural evolution, though, probably since we haven’t eaten any kind of fast food or fried food for more than 25 years, rarely eat in restaurants, and already eat a diet high in fruits, veggies and whole grains. We’re both trim, and exercise — mainly walking, stretching, and weights — is a regular part of our daily routine. Neither of us takes any medication. So what’s the (excuse the expression) beef? My dad died of a heart attack at 51, several of my siblings (you guys know who you are) have had surgeries and stents, and my cholesterol numbers are not awful, but not good. I want to continue to avoid taking drugs to lower the LDL, and Buck wants to generally tweak his cardiovascular health to stay agile and mobile, so we’re making some changes. We’ll go to Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville in July for a wellness physical, as we have for the past 17 years. The labs will tell us if this shift in our diet shows up there. I’ll let you know how it goes.

How about you? I’d love to know how you feel about what you eat, whether you think it matters, and any other thoughts you have on the subject, whether its physiology, philosophy or politics!

Tortilla press

Meanwhile, I’m having fun with it. I ordered a cast iron tortilla press and some stone-ground masa harina and made my very first corn tortillas today. They’re not perfectly round or pretty, and I had to throw several away at the beginning because I had trouble getting the hang of peeling them from the plastic wrap, but dang, I was proud. And they’re good!

Lunch today was a soul-warming bowl of pinto beans augmented by a few vinegary jalapeno slices and a couple of freshly made corn tortillas.

My First Homemade Corn Tortillas

Tough Old Bird

She reminds me of an old four star general, marching reflexively to distant cannon fire and preparing for battle with a ferocity no mere civilian can grasp. Thanksgiving is coming, and there is an eighteen-pound Butterball to be bought, defrosted for three days and reconstituted as a living symbol of perseverance.

I’m only 62, a youngster compared to our venerable guest. She has buried more relatives than I even know, including her husband and several sisters. She has been to the brink, too, peered over the edge and decided she would rather gamble in Biloxi on Saturday, place a different sort of wager in church on Sunday, and hop a cruise ship every chance she gets.

“Take it easy,” is not in her lexicon of acceptable phrases. The first word out of her mouth is “No,” quickly followed by “This is what we’re going to do.” She made a major concession to be our guest Thursday along with seven other family members, but only because I was implacable on this point, and she is busier even than usual, shuttling between visiting another sister in and out of the hospital, applying hot and cold compresses to her own eye following a procedure last week, and planning her next trip.

Come Thursday afternoon, Madam General will load her Lincoln Town Car with the glorious bird, pans of cornbread dressing, pole beans fresh from the farmer’s market, and homemade chocolate layer cake and fudge pie. She’ll drive her 85-year-old self to the woods. She’s one tough old bird and I salute her.

Busting Out of the Culinary Doldrums

Oh man, did we ever make a Homeric mess in the kitchen two nights ago. It was glorious.

Do you ever go through a period when everything tastes like sawdust and you have no interest in food? Especially no interest in shopping for or preparing it. You want somebody to put a plate in front of you at your desk so you can keep on working and not have to bother with any of it.

Buck and I have been in danger of ossifying into culinary dullards.

We busted out Thursday night. It warn’t pretty, but it sure was a party. We decided to use the old electric griddle and try our hand at Teppanyaki-style shrimp, steak, veggies and rice. And sake. Quite a bit of sake, actually.

What can I say? We needed a break. Sure was fun, too.

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Don’t you love how the Nike Swoosh glows bright gold on Buck’s shirt from my camera’s flash? Makes him look like a starship officer, all ready to beam up.

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Our first course was these tender hibachi-style shrimp dipped in a mixture of Japanese soy sauce, grated ginger, rice wine, sesame seeds and scallions. We probably should have stopped right there.

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This is for two people. Looks like there should have been leftovers, right? Nope. My favorite part was the zucchini, onions and Shitake mushrooms.

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Pretty little chopsticks, all pristine before they went to work.

Patriarch

BUCK REGALED ME WITH ALL SORTS OF ENTERTAINING STORIES when we were courting thirty years ago.  “Courting” is one of those sweetly anachronistic words that is fun to type, rich in images from an earlier century. Heh.  I laugh, but as a matter of record our courtship and marriage did happen in the latter third of the previous century.

One of his stories involved a beautiful blonde-headed toddler of a cousin named Marianne. Her parents lived in Washington, D.C. and little eight year old Buck, five years her senior, had come to visit. They fell in love, in the way of young children, and romped all over his Aunt Marguerite’s and Uncle Muegge’s house until young Buck outdid himself trying to impress Marianne and went sailing off a second story landing and bounced off the wood floor below, alarming the adults and bruising more than his ego.

Marianne lives on Pawley’s Island, South Carolina now. Like Buck, she has grown children and grandchildren. She lost her beloved Jon last March after 44 years of marriage. Let’s just say I cannot imagine and do not want to ever become a member of that club.

In a brave, intentional effort to emerge from a chrysalis of grief, Marianne came to see us last week, a side trip on her way to spend a week with old friends of hers and Jon’s in a resort on Anna Maria Island on Florida’s west coast. We took a field trip to Joe Patti’s Seafood Market one day to fetch cocktail crab claws and fillets of fresh red snapper, went to lunch at a wonderful new restaurant, IRON, another, but mostly we sat at a small round dining table in the Longleaf Bar and Grill right here at home and talked until the dinner, wine and ice cream were long gone and the short, fat candles sputtered. We brought out fragile old photo albums. We laughed, cried, and marveled together at the unexpected twists and turns on the road between childhood and old age. My fingers linger when I type “old age.” It feels presumptuous; inaccurate. Do I include myself? I don’t think 61 is “old.” Buck at 75 is not “old.” Where is the line? Is one old at 85? I know people whom I consider old (as in old fogies,not old souls) at 43.

And yet, a time may come, with longevity, when one is the eldest member of a particular blood-tied clan. I rather suspect it may be a peculiar, lonely feeling.  Saturday morning, as Marianne was about to leave, Buck said, “Well, I sure don’t feel like it, but I guess I’m the patriarch.”

Marianne said, “You sure are!”

Seat of the Pants Blogging

Seasoning for Hoppin' JohnStand back. It’s New Year’s Day and I’ve got a great big knife. That can only mean one thing: it’s time to fix huge vats of Hoppin’ John and smoky collard greens. I’m slicing and dicing like a woman possessed, my chopping board wiggled out in a space midst the debris of last night’s pizza party frenzy.

Prepping the collard greensSoon as I bash out these words and hit “publish,” I’ll go back to the kitchen to take a pair of scissors to those thick collard leaves and wrestle them into a kettle of already simmering “pot liquor” base  of onions, garlic, smoked turkey leg, chicken broth and an innocuous-looking Habañero pepper.

Black-eyed peas on the simmerThe Hoppin’ John is gorgeous with fat black-eyed peas, fresh thyme sprigs, bay leaves, onion, celery, garlic, the mate to the smoked turkey drumstick that went into the collard stock, and a pretty yellow habañero that I couldn’t resist adding.

This is “Seat of the Pants Blogging.” It’s the kind I used to do when I was a beginning blogger and didn’t know any better, the kind that’s fun to do and maybe fun to read. It isn’t crafted. It’s slung out there, scattered like unmeasured ground pepper.

God help me, I love it.

Hope all ya’ll are having a crazy wonderful day, too.

p.s. In case anyone goes looking, I’ve taken almost all the 9-plus years of blog archives, wrapped them in tissue paper, and put them away in my toolbox to mine for  words, ideas, themes and characters in fiction and memoir projects this year.

The Hungry Writer’s Tuesday Kitchen

Sometimes you’ve just got to put down that roller ball pen and fix some real food! We had a hellacious thunderboomer yesterday with sideways rain and sky to ground lightning. Today was a gift, mild and overcast; perfect for chilling on the patio.

I started, finished and submitted a 2,000 word essay to a literary journal today, and am totally whipped out, but satisfied. Damn, it felt good to hit that “Submit” button. It’s been a long time since I sent something out.  The bar is high, and odds of acceptance low, but I am happy.

Buck and I are about to polish off the rest of some vanilla frozen yogurt we have stashed in the freezer and top it off with some fresh strawberries and blueberries. He may go back to his cave to work for awhile afterwards. Me? I’m going to bed with a murder mystery by Atlanta author Karin Slaughter. I’ve never read her work before, but got intrigued by an NPR interview with her yesterday morning. I heard it when I was driving over to feed some friends’ three cats while they’re out of town. One of those cats, Winston, is a slinky black character with grass green eyes. He has this playful habit of sinking a claw in my backside when I stoop down to put food in his dish. I’m pretty sure he was either a stand-up comedian or a hit man in a former life.

I’m zipping through books right now that either have a huge storm in the plot or have a particular slant on Gulf coast life or the South that I want to explore. So, technically, going to bed early to read a murder mystery is Research. Are you buying that line?