Who would’ve thought that putting words and images on a page with any great regularity would be so difficult for me? Aside from the fact that writing is difficult, I’m not very good at it, and my brain stops working after 10:00PM, all this traveling back and forth between B-ham and B’klyn is an exhausting time suck. But this weekend I stayed in Birmingham. In fact, this weekend I explored Birmingham and discovered the city I’d hoped to find.
It started with a terrific run along my usual path, but this time it was relaxed, meandering and without time restrictions. I had nowhere to be but present–it was luxurious! Breakfast was an almond croissant and more than decent cup of coffee at Chez Lulu, a local bakery/restaurant. I’m still partial to the almond croissants at Runner and Stone in Brooklyn, but these were pretty darn tasty.
That was followed by a trip to Pepper Place. “Have you been to the farmers’ market at Pepper Place?” I’d been asked since arriving in January. Being back in NYC most weekends, not to mention being a little jaded, what with Union Square Farmers’ market as my benchmark, the answer had always been “No.” My maiden voyage to Pepper Place was a most pleasant surprise! Though the variety wasn’t astonishing, the quality of the produce more than made up for the limited options. Chilton county peaches, fragrant and juicy truly were the best I’ve ever had. As were the blackberries which were the size of my big toes. And the tomatoes, not yet ready in New York were silky-sweet and meaty. All that lovely produce sold by lovely people with warm smiles and ready answers. One farmer, with sweet plump blueberries the size of cherries, mentioned that he came back to the farm after 40 years as a contractor in Denver. We discussed the merits of bat-guano-tea as opposed to chemical fertilizers.
Then later that afternoon I attended a fund-raiser for the local community farm, Jones Valley Teaching Farm catered by about a half-dozen local bars and restaurants. A few favorites of mine were in attendance: Little Donkey–bourbon and mini emapanadas; Carrigan’s–moonshine and bahn mi sandwiches; Hot & Hot– tequila and gazpacho…all good! And all for a good cause.
As if it the weekend couldn’t get any better, the following day, a friend introduced me to the Latin community by way of a pretty authentic Mexican bodega/restaurant/bakery, Gordos. The tacos and huaraches with carne asada, pollo guisado, and chicharones rivaled anything I could get in Sunset Park or Redhook in Brooklyn, AND at a fraction of the price (which are already pretty cheap)
In any event, more than the food, I think I was craving a connection to something familiar–something i hadn’t had in a long time–something that made me feel at home.
SWEET AND SPICY FARMERS’ MARKET TOMATO JAM
Makes Three (1/2-pint) jars
4 pounds ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped (8 cups)
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon roasted garlic (optional)
2 canned chipotles in adobo, minced
1 teaspoon pure ancho chile powder
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
In a large non-reactive saucepan, combine the tomatoes, sugar, garlic, chipotles, ancho chile powder, vinegar, and salt and bring to a boil. Simmer over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until thick, glossy and jammy, about 50 minutes, stirring frequently to avoid scorching. Pour the jam into clean jars and let cool. Seal and refrigerate.
Where food is concerned , one crazy-long-flight-delay plus three-weary-travelers-with-empty-stomachs ordinarily equals low expectations: “Mom, just fill my belly, please!” But add me to that equation and it all gets exponentially more complicated—it’s no longer simple arithmetic.
Maternal imperative (M) multiplied by, parenthetically, longing (l) plus guilt (g), PLUS the need to Gratify (G), multiplied by, parenthetically, the need to impress (i), divided by effort (e), equals irrationally high expectations (on my part) It looks something like this, algebraically:
[M(l+g) ]+ [G(i/e)] = HUH???
My family, having finally landed in Birmingham with their luggage in hand, was grateful that the trip to my apartment was the most painless leg of their journey. I had the answer to my question, “Want to take the scenic route or the highw…?” before it passed my lips. We were “home” in 20 minutes.
I was so proud and eager to have my family in my apartment. I prepared the nest—two rooms were treated to bold, beautiful accent walls (coincidentally named pumpkin spice and spud) and the spare bedroom (my office) got a fresh coat of bright white (a huge improvement from the soul-crushing, institutional beige painted throughout). I left Valentine’s candy hearts on their beds (3 days late, but hey, V-day has no end date for my kids) and made sure there was plenty of wine, beer, Fresca and snacks. I made granola for breakfast and spicy Mexican meatballs for dinner. And don’t forget that Mixed Berry Galette for dessert, as well. (This is where those irrationally high expectations are planted)
“Should we go out for our first dinner or stay in?” My family was divided but I made an executive decision to stay put. We had the whole week ahead of us to experience the glory of traditional southern cooking. Besides, I’d waited a long time to see my lovelies, didn’t want to share them with anyone else, and I’d prepared a very special menu. (This is where those irrationally high expectations take root)
So far so good. That is until I tripped over the first misplaced shoe, swept up crumbs from the couch, put a coaster under a water glass, picked up a soaking wet towel from the floor and had to shout over the TV—all in the first day. The advice, lovingly delivered, “Pick your battles” unfortunately, went unheeded more often than not. (This is where those irrationally high expectations choke out the indigenous plants)
I anticipated making some adjustment to having people in my space but these were my children and my husband, after all and I missed them terribly. All I wanted was to have a nice time with my family and I was blowing it in a very, very big way.
As if it couldn’t have gotten any worse, my son came down with a violent, nasty stomach virus and spent all night doubled over the toilet. Two days later, both my daughter and my husband followed suit. Oddly, that’s exactly the time I relaxed and let go of the control-freak, nit-picking. The 2 sleeves worth of saltine cracker crumbs all over my couch meant that my daughter was finally able to hold something down. And the cold wet towels on the floor were a necessary evil to soothe a throbbing headache. I believe what I really craved in the end was to be a mother, wife and care-giver once again, for more than a stray weekend here and there. I needed to be needed and I realized exactly what was missing from the equation: generosity.
Albondinga Tacos (Spicy Pork Meatball) Tacos
1 tablespoon canola oil
2 chorizo (fresh) @ 4 ounces
1 medium red onion, chopped
2 jalapenos, seeded and chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 scallions thinly sliced
4 teaspoons ground cumin
1 ½ teaspoons chopped chipotle in adobo (optional)
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
½ cup finely crushed tortilla chips
½ cup finely crumbled queso fresco
1 large egg
1 ½ pounds ground pork
Hard shell tacos, warm soft tortillas, salsa, sour cream, shredded lettuce, chopped onions, cilantro and crumbled queso for serving
- Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet. Add the chorizo, breaking it up with a spoon along with the onion, jalapenos, garlic and scallions and cook over moderate heat until lightly browned and tender, about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add cumin and chipotle and cook 1 minute longer. Stir in the tortilla chips, season with salt and transfer to a bowl to cool. Stir in the queso fresco, egg and ground pork and knead gently until evenly combined.
- Preheat the oven to 425° and line a baking sheet with foil or parchment. Using lightly moistened hands, roll the mixture into 1 ½-inch balls and arrange them on the baking sheet. Bake in the upper third of the oven until firm and cooked through, 10 to 12 minutes. Turn on the broiler and broil until browned and crusty, 1 to 2 minutes, shifting the pan to avoid black spots.
- Transfer the albondigas to a platter and serve with all the fixings. Make ahead: the meatballs can be refrigerated for up to 4 days. Reheat before serving.
All week long I’ve been anxiously awaiting my family’s arrival this Thursday night, perfect timing for Valentine’s Day. Not to mention I miss them terribly and haven’t seen them for 2 weeks. I’d planned a super nice menu and had a whole host of activities scheduled (and booked). Snow storms in New York AND Birmingham (2 @ 10-inches and 1 @ 2-inches, respectively), plus the threat of freezing rain down here has had me on pins and needles for days. The big storm this Thursday up north threw air travel into a tizzy and my guys have been rescheduled three times now due to cancellations and over-booking. Thanks, Delta! So glad I’m a frequent flyer with you! It’s Sunday and I’ve just heard they won’t make it in now until later this evening. So much for planning. My poor guys will be sitting in the airport for hours after getting there at the crack of dawn to be on time! That’s all the more reason to have a special treat for them when they get here.
The threat of ice and snow this week brought the Birmingham school system to a grinding halt, so for 3 days my test kitchen and photo sets were operating at a diminished capacity and consequently there was a good deal of un-used, just-this-side-of-rotting produce. I found myself with a ton of strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries. My husband and kids love fruit pies, especially with ice cream or whipped cream and I had all the raw materials to make something yummy. In fact, for a book-cover photo shoot that I actually got to style (yay!) I’d made an extra batch of pie pastry that I didn’t need (3 pies a charm!) and found it in the fridge.
I’m including the pastry recipe here to make it more convenient for you to find. And in case of a dessert emergency (don’t we all have them occasionally? I know I do), the recipe below makes enough pastry for 2 galettes–1 for now and 1 for the freezer. It’s all so super easy and something you can throw together pretty quickly–especially since it’s kind of amazing warm. I’d show you a cut piece, but my family still isn’t here yet… In fact, if you make yours now, you’ll probably be eating it before us.
MIXED BERRY GALETTE
Makes One 10-inch Galette
4 cups sliced strawberries
1 cup blueberries
1 cup blackberries
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, plus more for sprinkling
1/4 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
Pinch of salt
1 disc Flaky All-Butter Crust (1/2 recipe) (chilled but pliable)
1. Preheat the oven to 375° and arrange a rack in the center of the oven. In a large bowl, gently toss the berries with the lemon juice, 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, 1/4 cup flour and the salt and let sit for 10 minutes, until the juices just begin to run.
2. On a floured board, roll the pastry to a neat (-ish) 13-inch round and ease it into a 9-inch pie dish or oven proof skillet (I used a non-stick skillet, so be sure to use a plastic knife and pie server to cut). Scrape the fruit and any accumulated juices into the pastry and spread into an even layer. Fold the sides up over the filling and brush with water. Sprinkle with sugar. If so desired, and you don’t mind using some of the 2nd pastry disc, roll out a small bit and stamp out a shape to place on top. (Just be sure with the next galette you use a smaller baking dish and 1 cup less filling). Brush it with water, sprinkle with sugar and place it over the fruit. Bake the galette until golden and bubbling for about 50 minutes. Let cool slightly, then cut into wedges and serve with vanilla ice cream, creme fraiche or sweetened whipped cream.
FLAKY ALL-BUTTER CRUST
Makes 2 (9 to 10-inch) Single OR 1 Double crust
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes, chilled
1/2 cup ice water
In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the flour and salt. Add the cubed butter and pulse in 1 second bursts 5 times. The butter should be the size of small peas. Lift the lid, pour in the water and pulse 5 or 6 times, just until the dough is moistened, but doesn’t form a ball. Turn the crumbs onto a work surface, and gather into a ball. Divide the dough into 2 parts. Flatten each into a disc, wrap and chill for 30 minutes.
As I settle in and make my house a home here in Birmingham (part-time, anyway) I’m reminded, daily, of the differences between my two poles–B’klyn and B-ham. First, there’s the driving…everywhere, then the pace…slow (except in cars) and then the diversity (or lack thereof, so it seems) My beloved Brooklyn (accessible almost entirely by public transportation–and quickly) is home to dozens of cultures, each neighborhood boasting foods, languages and customs from their beloved homes. I long for japchae from Koreatown, babka from Greenpoint, goat roti from Crown Heights and arepas from Red Hook’s soccer fields. Certainly, there must be some outposts here but I haven’t ventured out far enough yet. Gotta git in ma car!
But what I have found are friendly people (polite people!) with ready appetites and some decent markets stocked with cool regional ingredients. Obvious are the umpteen brands of bacon, grits/cornmeal products and biscuit mixes. What surprised me, however, was the variety of ready-to-use bagged greens: turnip, mustard, kale, beet, chard, and my favorite, collards.
I’d ordinarily use escarole in this kind of soup, but a lovely bag of collards, (stemmed and chopped!) was too good to pass up. Like any true immigrant, I make my favorite foods with what’s available. (My grandma used Carolina rice in her arancini) It’s traditional to cook the green right out of greens down here and it’s definitely delicious that way–especially with some smoky pork product. But, and remember I’m an immigrant here, I much prefer my greens green (yet tender) This stracciatella is relatively quick (thanks, B’klyn) and highly nutritious. It fed my soul as much as it did my body. Now all I have to do is figure out how to cook for one!
STRACCIATELLA WITH COLLARDS AND CHICKEN
Active: 20 min; Total: 40 min
Makes 4 to 6 Servings
1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 small sweet onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 jalapeño, seeded and minced
1 rotisserie chicken, skinned, meat pulled into shreds, carcass reserved
1 quart low sodium chicken broth
2 cups water
4 cups stemmed chopped collard greens (or turnip, mustard, kale)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 cup freshly grated parmigiano reggiano, plus more for serving
1. In a large pot, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the onion, garlic and jalapeño and cook over moderate heat until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the reserved chicken bones and cook 2 to 3 minutes longer. Add the broth and water, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Pick out and discard the bones. Stir in the collard greens and season with salt and pepper. Cover and cook over moderately low heat, stirring once or twice, until tender, 10 to 12 minutes.
2. Meanwhile in a small bowl, beat the eggs with the flour and parmesan to form a thick batter and season with salt. Drizzle the mixture into the pot, cover and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until nearly set. Gently stir once or twice to break the dough into lumps. Fold in the chicken, cover and cook just until heated through, about 2 minutes. Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with olive oil and grated parmesan. Serve with crusty bread and enjoy!
I’m sitting in my office listening to the gentle cooing of the pigeons nesting in the eaves outside my window—my blood pressure rising because I know that those disgusting birds are making an ungodly mess of my front yard below that I’ll have to scrub away tomorrow. Try as I might to calm down, I just work myself up into a bigger lather. I tap the window to scare them away, worried that I may actually break the glass, I’m that agitated. Then I see an index card for Mango Chutney (of all things) in my mother’s handwriting on my desk and immediately understand the source of my agitation.
Today is my mother’s birthday—she would have been 82. I last saw her a few days after her 80th birthday in September of 2011. The cause of death was congestive cardiomyopathy that originated from a virus that weakened her heart many years ago. The 2nd anniversary of her death is coming up and it’s almost as hard today as it was two years ago. Lots of stuff happening and she’s not here to field the mountain of questions I have…or give advice…or help her granddaughter with AP American History (her wheelhouse)…or tell me not to worry about this nonsense or that…and that everything will be fine. Whether it would’ve been fine or not entirely misses the point of that painfully beautiful exchange. No doubt it would’ve been fine, simply by virtue of my mother saying so. But… She’s not here and I am and it sucks. And I miss her, everyday but today especially.
Her name is Fran and she was a goddam firecracker. At 80 years old, her social life was way more robust than mine. She taught college classes on the United States Constitution and Immigration, and traveled all over the world with her best friend, Gracie (I joked that she was the Gracie my mom always wanted). They were planning a trip to Beijing before she died. She entertained regularly, had season tickets to the Metropolitan Opera, The Symphony and the theater. She gardened with the vigor of someone much younger. She took Zumba Dance and other fitness classes with women half her age and was twice as good as them. Best of all, she cooked like a fiend—especially for holidays and visits from her kids and grand kids.
It’s possibly a coincidence, but I believe that index card for Mango Chutney popped up for a reason. To connect with my mom and remind me that even though she’s gone, she can still join me at the table on her birthday.
¾ cup sugar
½ cup water
½ cup cider vinegar
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
6 cardamom pods
1 cinnamon stick
3 ripe mangos, peeled and cut into ½-inch pieces
1 cup golden raisins or currants
2 ounces crystallized ginger, finely chopped
In a large saucepan, combine the sugar, water, vinegar, ginger, cloves, cardamom and cinnamon and bring to a boil, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Add the mangos and raisins and simmer over moderately low heat, stirring frequently, until the fruit is translucent and the liquid is thickened and glossy, about 45 minutes. Stir in the crystallized ginger and simmer for 2 minutes longer. Let cool, then transfer to a large jar and refrigerate. Serve with sliced meats, chunks of cheese and bread.