Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Spring is on the Way!

Here in the midwest, we were blessed with a very mild winter.  But, to a southerner, it's still cold and sometimes deary.  OK, some us will always complain about the weather, no matter what!  While it's still winter, the days are getting a little longer and the temperatures are starting to rise ever so slightly. 

Spring will officially arrive on March 20th.  But just in case you want a little spring preview, why not try making pasta primavera. I found out that 'primavera' means spring style.  And when speaking about cooking, it refers to the use of fresh vegetables to garnish a dish.  Pasta primavera is probably the most common dish prepared in this manner. 

You can start your preview of spring at your grocer's freezer.  Frozen foods are picked at their peak and frozen quickly.  Keeping frozen vegetables on hand is an excellent resource when trying to prepare quick and healthy meals.  To keep cost, sodium and fat down, purchase vegetables without added salt or sauces and prepare as you desire.   Frozen vegetables can be used in stirfries, soups, casseroles and added to pasta. 

I found a wide variety of pasta primavera recipes.  For my version, I used one pound of frozen mixed vegetables.  The recipe stated to cook the vegetables in water.  However, I find that preparing them in this manner dilutes the flavor.  I prefer to sauté vegetables in a little olive oil or butter and garlic.  When the vegetables are cooked, add chopped tomatoes and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated.

Pasta Primavera

Makes 4 large servings.

1 pound noodles
2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound frozen vegetables, your choice
3 medium or 2 large roma tomatoes
¼ cup parsley, minced

1.  Cook noodles according to package directions.

2.  In a large sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat.  Add garlic and sauté until fragrant.  Add vegetables and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated. 

3.  Peel and chop tomatoes.  Add tomatoes to vegetables and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated.  Add salt and pepper to vegetables to taste. 

4.  Drain pasta and add to vegetables.  Taste, add additional salt and pepper, if desired.  Garnish with parsley.

For more recipes and tips on using frozen foods, click here.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Help

I read "The Help" and saw the movie.  I liked and "enjoyed" them both.  They are both excellent works of art.  This doesn't mean I didn't feel some emotions that took me back to the South and segregation.  Honestly, I had to tell myself several times, this is a movie, this is fiction.  However, for some of us, the movie was real.  You see, at one time, my mother was 'the help'.  I have heard some people imitating Abileen, "you is smart, you is beautiful'.  I believe Abileen was doing the best she could to teach this child some values. 

What I want to do in this post is pay tribute to "The Help".  These people did "menial" labor with a great deal of grace and courage.  They struggled as sharecroppers, pullman porters, and maids to make a living and a life.  They did the best they could with what they had.  In spite of their circumstances, they believed in a better day.  Yule May stole a ring so that her sons could go to college.  She just wanted a better life for them than she had. 

Despite their jobs, I see a lot of humor.   I see Minny taking great pride in her cooking.  As she says, "Minny, don't burn no chicken".  Abileen takes great pride in her ability to raise white children. 

Regardless of your feelings about the movie, we owe a lot to the Minnies and Abileens of this world.  They paved the way for the rest of us.  It is on their shoulders that we stand.  Had they not done what they did, I might not be doing what I am doing.  So to all those who paved the way, Thanks. 

Here is my version of Minny's famous chocolate pie.  If you decide to watch the Oscars, please have a slice of pie in honor of Minny.

Chocolate Cream Pie


6 ounces chocolate wafer cookies, finely ground
4 Tablespoons butter, melted


3 egg yolks
½ cup plus 2 Tablespoons granulated sugar, divided
¼ cup cornstarch
¼ teaspoon salt
2 cups milk
4 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate, chopped
¾ cup whipping cream
1 teaspoon vanilla flavor

1.  Preheat oven to 350°F.  In a medium bowl, mix  cookie crumbs with butter until crumbs are evenly coated.  Pour mixture into a 9-inch pie pan.  Press evenly over the bottom and up the side of the pan to form a crust.  Bake for 8 to 10 minutes.  Remove from oven.  Allow to cool completely.

2.  In a medium bowl, combine egg yolks, ¼ cup sugar, cornstarch and salt.  Set aside.

3.  In a medium saucepan, combine the milk and ¼ cup sugar.  Heat until the milk forms bubbles around the edge of pan.  Gradually add add milk to egg yolk mixture. 

4.  Pour mixture back into saucepan and cook over moderate heat, stirring constantly, until very thick, about 3 minutes.  Remove from heat and add chocolate and vanilla.  Stir until chocolate is completely melted. 

5.  Strain chocolate mixture through a fine mesh sieve into pie crust.  Smooth the surface with a rubber spatula.  Press a piece of plastic directly onto the surface.  Refrigerate for at least 3 hours.

6.  In a medium bowl, beat the cream, remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and the vanilla until stiff peaks form.  Spread whipped cream over pie.  Garnish with grated chocolate and serve.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Holding On!

I hold on to things, like a comb my grandmother gave me, pictures of relatives that passed from this world long before I was born.  These things give me comfort and connect me to my ancestors.

I also hold on to food.  And I have the body to prove it!  Food connects us all.  It provides nourishment for the body and the soul.  There is just something joyful about sitting down at the table with friends and sharing a meal. 

All of us have food from our culture and our childhood that we tend to hold on to.  For me that food is soul food.  I am a southerner and an African American.  And I hold on to traditional soul food.  I have heard some arguments against soul food.  It's high in fat and sodium.  It is also high in green leafy vegetables, like turnips, collards, mustard, and cabbage.  OK, soul food is not perfect.  However, I would rather see people eat traditional soul food than a fast food diet of hamburgers and french fries.  Before you lose it, I also don't eat a traditional soul food diet everyday.  I also do not believe we should consume a traditional soul food diet everyday.  Maybe we should reserve it for special occasions.

In honor of Black History Month, I thought I would do a post on soul food.  Soul food is a part of American history and food culture.  It is one contribution African Americans made to this country.  It is a food cobbled together by slaves who could neither read nor write.  These people left an indelible mark on this country.  So ocassionally, we need to think about those who came before us.  They did not get the opportunities that we have.  Yet, they made lasting contributions to the world.  And, we truly owe them a debt of gratitude. 

As my contribution to Black History Month, I am posting on something you may want to forget - Head cheese or Souse.  In my family, we make this dish around New Years.  I will warn you, it is quite messy to make and takes a little time.  So, don't enter into this endeaver lightly.

There is no real recipe for head cheese or souse.  It is simple a list of ingredients.  You make it by tasting as you go.  With a little practice, you will know when you have the product you want

Head Cheese


Pig feet
Fresh ham hocks
White or apple cider vinegar
Red pepper flakes
hot sauce (optional)


1.  Place feet and hocks in a large saucepan and cover with water.  You can also add a bay leaf or sage if you desire.  (If you can not find fresh ham hocks, just use all feet.)

2.  Feet are completely cooked when the meat is falling off the bones.  Remove from broth.  Leave until cool enough to handle.  Hint:  When you make head cheese, you are essentially making jello.  You will need to work quickly.  If you allow the feet to cool too much, they will be more difficult to work with.  If this happens, simple heat up slightly.

3.  Pull meat from bones.  Place into a food processor and grind.  Dump ground meat into a bowl and continue until all meat is ground.  In the old days a meat grinder would have been used.

4.  Add vinegar and red pepper flakes.  Continue to mix. (Feel for small bones and remove.)  Taste as you go.  The mixture should have a slightly acidic taste.  Add red pepper until you have the level of hotness that you desire.  You may want to add more red pepper flakes or hot sauce.  As this mixture cools, you will not be able to perceive the spiciness as much.

5.  Pour into desired container.  Cover and refrigerate.  When cool, cut as desired.  Serve with saltine crackers and extra hot sauce.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Cuddle Up Food

Valentine's Day is coming soon.  I know everybody wants to write about chocolate on Valentine's Day, but a girl has got to EAT!  Now don't get me wrong, I don't know when I have had a day without chocolate.  But before chocolate, you need some real food. 

Here's a little something to make before the chocolate.  How about making a braised dish.  There are several nice things about braising.  Firstly, braises generally use cheaper cuts of meat.  (aka, you don't need to break the bank for Valentine's Day)  Secondly, braises are left alone, freeing you to do other things. (aka, cuddle or work on that chocolate desert.)  And finally, braises are usually better the next day, freeing you to do other things. (aka, cuddle or work on that chocolate desert.)

O, come on, it's Valentine's Day.  I have to work chocolate in this posting the best way I can.

Ok, back to braising! 

The best cuts of meat for braising are generally tougher and less costly.  These cuts are usually more flavorful and contain more collagen, which breaks down with heat and liquid. 

Cuts for Braising:
  • Beef - Chuck roast, blade roast, short ribs, brisket, and oxtail
  • Veal - Shanks, shoulder and breast
  • Pork - Boston butt, shoulder, ribs, and belly
  • Lamb - Shoulder, legs, shanks, and breast
  • Poultry - Thighs and legs
Don't let the term, braise or braising, scare you.  Our mothers did it all the time.  Braising is slightly different from stewing.  Braising uses less liquid than stewing.  The food is not totally submerged in liquid, meaning the food cooks two ways, in liquid and by steaming.  To get started braising, you need a large pot, something like a  Dutch oven.  One with a heavy bottom and a tight fitting lid work best. 

Start by browning the meat in a small amount of fat, enough to cover the bottom of the pan.  Browning adds another layer of flavor and braising is all about flavor.  (For better browning, dry the meat first.)

Next, add aromatic ingredients, such as carrots, onion, celery, garlic and herbs, like thyme, bay leaves.  Because dried herbs release their flavors slowly, they are excellent in braises.  Ingredients like olives, capers, and chiles are good addition to braises.

Deglaze the pan with a liquid, such as broth or alcohol.  This will loosen the brown bits at the bottom of the pan.  Those browned bits contain lots of flavor.  Add meat and any other desired ingredient.  Cover with a tight fitting, simmer in an oven (275°F to 325°F) or stovetop.

Since I decided to braise this weekend, I decided to try something other than beef.

Southwestern Pork and Sweet Potatoes

Serves 8.


2 Tablespoons ancho chile powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 garlic cloves
1 small onion, peeled and quartered
1 pickled jalapeño pepper, stemmed
Vegetable oil
2½ pounds boneless pork shoulder
1 bottle (12 ounce) dark Mexican beer
1 (4 inch) cinnamon stick
3 cups peeled and cubed sweet potatoes, about 1 pound
Chopped fresh cilantro, optional

1.  Place chile powder, salt, cumin, garlic, onion and jalapeño in a food processor.  Process for 1 minute or until a thick paste forms.

2.  Heat a Dutch oven over medium-high heat.  Add enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan.  Add pork to pan and brown on all sides.  Remove pork from pan and set aside.  Add chile mixture to pan;  cook for about 2 minutes or until fragrant.  Deglaze pan with beer or broth.  Scrape bottom of pan to remove the bronwed pits.  Add pork and cinnamon stick; cover and bring to a simmer.  Continue to simmer for about 2 hours or until pork is tender.

3.  If desired, strain the liquid.  Allow fat to rise to the top; skim off the fat.

4.  Remove fat from pork.  With two forks, shred the pork. 

Note:  If you prefer not to use the beer, chicken stock will work.

This dish can be served as a stew.  However, once I had completed my dish, I decided this would make excellent tacos.  So, tacos, it was!