Go Big or Go Home

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I was invited to Texas for the weekend by my bestie, Selene, and I have to tell you when Texans say “Go big or go home”, boy howdy, do they mean it! Not only was it all the classes reunion but also the 100th anniversary of her school, a prestigious all-girls school in the heart of  Dallas.  The first event was brunch and I knew it would be special and all that is lovely but when we pulled up to the valet parking at the school I knew I was mistaken.  Based on the stunning, fit women gracefully exiting their shiny, mile long Mercedes on long, lean legs  I could see this was going to be over the top and in a really good way.  We all strolled in together; heads held high with that feminine confidence sexy, expensive heels give you.  Entering the mammoth tent where the brunch was to be held we stopped in astonishment.  The tent was cavernous, HUGE, and outfitted with industrial sized air conditioners to keep these Southern beauties happy.

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There were over 1000 women when we arrived and by the time we sat down there were 1500.  Each graduating class had their own tables, two, three, four depending on the class number.  All around us were screams of joy and excitement as women found classmates they hadn’t seen in years and years.  While Selene was being bombarded with hugs and the now ubiquitous scream of “Owe mah GOSH!!  Ah cain’t believe yore hee-yur!!!!!  Ah hadn’t seen you in a million yee-urs!!” I thought, “Well.  I’d better get going.”  I knew all this would just swirl around Selene in a fast and pretty jumble and all of a sudden, just like your wedding….BOOM!!  It would be over.   Phone in hand I started clicking away; taking photos of the tables, the flowers, Selene with her friends, the gargantuan overhead screens each with slideshows of students past and surreptitious photos of our guest speaker, Law-ruh.

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Yes, gentle reader.  Our guest speaker was the lovely LAURA BUSH!!!

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After I had taken 237 photos and we were invited to be seated I stared at the best part of MY morning.  Our first course was tomato aspic along side a small  butter lettuce salad.  It was exquisite and I am a fool for tomato aspic.  Shining like an oval ruby on my plate, I couldn’t wait to dive in.  Kathy, one of the girls at our table, said to her table neighbor, Carol, “Owe mah gosh!  Tuh-may-tuh a-yes-pic!  Ah luuuuuve tuh-may-tuh a-yes-pic!  Mama used to make it awl the tahm!”  My kind a girl.  And my kind of salad.  In the South aspic is considered a salad.  With temperatures often soaring into the hundreds, the oppressive heat and heavy wool cloak of humidity can really beat a girl down.  Cool, savory aspic is just what the doctor ordered.  I.Love.It.

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This is the recipe Mama used for her luncheons.  Mama never actually made it; our beloved Frankie made and served it.  The recipe is from Charleston Receipts.  Frankie never put the celery in it.  Something about the two textures not being compatible.  But it’s delicious and pretty and since you rarely see aspic served don’t you think it’s time to resurrect it?

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Tomato Aspic

yield:  4 servings

  • 2 envelopes plain gelatine
  • Few Bay leaves
  • 6 whole pepper corns
  • 1 large, sweet onion sliced
  • 4 cups tomato juice
  • 2-3 ribs celery, finely chopped (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons tarragon vinegar
  • salt to taste

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  1. Soak gelatine in 1/2 cup cold water
  2. Put other ingredients in saucepan and bring to a boil, simmer for 15 minutes.  The juice will reduce to a pint.
  3. Add gelatine and vinegar.
  4. Wipe out individual or large mold lightly with salad oil, it makes it much easier to turn out.
  5. Strain mixture and put in tin or glass mold.
  6. Chill overnight.
  7. Serve with maybe a tablespoon of shredded mozzarella and a basil leaf or two scattered on top.  Marinated artichoke hearts marry very well with this.  As does a small butter leaf with a teaspoonful of pesto mayonnaise.

IMG_7134The Hockaday School class of 1974

It’s Still Lent…or More Hummus

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We’ve still got a good two weeks until Easter meaning there’s STILL no meat in our house.  No beef, no pork, NO CHICKEN! Some days are harder than others.  And on those hard days I find myself going back to an all-year favorite…hummus.  I’ve made it for years but when James was little he’d have no part of it.  I mean, it’s brown.  And mushy.  Truly, it looks nasty.  At that time I was still making all the hummus for the festival at St. Demetrios.  Jimmy helped plan the festival, James was one of the dancers and I made the bean dip.  Every year.  It was quite a bit of work but I loved it.  The women’s club, Philoptochos, was usually baking some to-die-for Greek cookie, they always crank out thousands of little cookie jewels, and all the kids who were going to dance festival weekend would be practicing the intricate dance steps; the boys would practice their kicks, each clenching an arm to give the dancer support for those super high kicks.  James grew up with these boys and there was a very tight group of four, James being one of them.  How we love those boys!  James, JW, Mikey and Adam.  They met at church.  Although all four lived at opposite ends of town, they met every Sunday on the altar, studied together in Sunday school, groaned through Greek school as a team and danced the dances of southern Greece, northern Greece, the mountains and islands.

The boys! L-R Adam, James, JW, Mikey

The boys! L-R Adam, James, JW, Mikey

Christmas 2013.  The triumvirate reunited!

Christmas 2013. The triumvirate reunited!

They played together, got in trouble together and when they got older partied together.  Again, they were a team.  When they went to Greece they kept an eye out for each other.  They are like brothers.  They have stories and dirt on each other that make them howl with laughter.  And when I ask “What’s so funny?” they answer in unison “Oh, nothing.”   One year before festival my hummus marathon took place during a dance practice.  At some point JW strolled over and asked, “Hey, Mama C.  What are ya makin’?”  “Hummus”, I answered while reaming my 100th lemon.  He rolled his eyes and hollered, “Oh, my gosh! I love hummus!”  And that was the day James and the kids at St. Demetrios discovered my bean dip.  Years later the boys have grown up and are separated by life’s demands and responsibilities but are still very close.  At different universities, all have states dividing them except JW.  JW, or James William, has chosen monastic life and now goes by his real name Dimitri.  He lives, studies and prays at the monastery on Mount Athos in Greece.  Google the monastery…it’s fantastic!  Anyway, we last saw JW, I MEAN DIMITRI, this past Christmas when he and Mikey stopped by after vespers.  It was wonderful!!  This was when he shared his decision of living a monastic life.  But the boys were back together and were fortunate to enjoy and share one more evening of laughter and reflection.  They are brothers.  We miss Dimitri more than he’ll ever know and look forward to the day when we see him again but until that day we’ll think of him and eat all the hummus!

IMG_6974Hummus is very forgiving in that if you add too much garlic or lemon juice more beans can easily be added to correct a heavy hand.  As I mentioned, I’ve been making this for years and we don’t just eat it with carrot sticks and celery.  No way!  We slap that stuff on cold, sliced cucumber rounds, pita bread, tortilla chips and sandwiches.  And we serve it on its own as a side.  I’ve always used organic, canned beans but knowing I could get a better final product, I spent an entire afternoon taking the skin off a 14 ounce bag of dried garbanzos that  had been soaked and boiled.  An’ it was hard!!  But let me tell you.  The end result was a silky smooth spread that I could not stop eating!!  I’ll probably keep using canned beans for the sheer convenience but for a party or get together I’ll definitely go the skinned, dried bean route.  I’m telling ya’, it was like velvet!  You can use any kind of bean you want as well as mix them.  I like to sometimes use a combination of garbanzo bean and cannellini.  And if you don’t want to skin your beans don’t worry.  It’ll still be delicious, just not as smooth.  So don’t spend your money on that stuff at the store.  This is a thousand times better.  Enjoy!

Hummus

  • 2 – 1 pound 13 ounce cans garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
  • 2 large lemons, juice and set juice aside
  • 4 large garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 3-4 tablespoons ground cumin
  • 1/3 cup olive oil, or more to taste
  • 2 ounces hot water, tap is fine
  • sea salt to taste
  1. To your food processor add all ingredients EXCEPT hot water.
  2. Start processing and with the machine running slowly add hot water.
  3. Process until smooth adding a tablespoon at a time of additional hot water or olive oil until hummus reaches the desired texture.
  4. Taste for seasoning.
  5. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

 

 

Strawberry Tart

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This tart is to die for.  I don’t have a story for you and I don’t care.  This tart is one of the most exquisite things on the planet.  Takes a little time but well worth it as it’s SCARY good.  So good that I cut a piece for myself, one for Jimmy and the rest I’m taking to my Greek school class.  How’s that for starting the week off right?  This sweet is sorority girl pretty and perfect for a luncheon, baptism or gorgeous spring day.  I’ll tell you right from the get-go it’s not my recipe but Ina Garten’s.  It’s from her Barefoot in Paris book.  And the recipe’s spot on.  I’m not crazy about apricot jelly on fruit tarts so I used passion fruit jelly.  It really brings out the flavors of the strawberries.  And I didn’t have Crisco just lard in the back of the refrigerator for emergencies.  Too lazy to accommodate the contents of the refrigerator I used 8 tablespoons of butter instead of 6 and skipped the Crisco all together.  But other than that I don’t think I made any other changes except I made it in stages.  I made the cream on Friday, the pastry on Saturday and assembled it today, Monday.  I have to say I think the cream is better than what you get from a bakery.  Maybe it’s the Cognac…I don’t know but it’ll make you swoon.  And the pastry…all buttery and crumbly…oh, sweet baby Jesus!!  Every bite was perfection.  Y’all have just GOT to try this!  So here goes.  The cream recipe follows.

Strawberry Tart

Makes 1- 4″X13″ tart or 4 41/2″ tarts

  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 6 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter, diced
  • 2 tablespoons cold Crisco
  • 1/4 iced water
  • 2 cups pastry cream, recipe follows
  • 2-3 pints strawberries, hulled and halved
  • 1/3 cup apricot jelly
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  1. 1. Combine the flour, sugar and salt in a small bowl and chill in the freezer for at least 30 minutes.
  2. Put the flour mixture in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade.  Add the butter and Crisco and pulse about 10 times or until the butter is the size of peas.
  3. Add the ice-cold water and process until the dough comes together.  I needed to add one more tablespoon.
  4. Dump on a well-floured board and form into a disc.
  5. Wrap in plastic and chill at least 30 minutes.
  6. Preheat oven to 375°.
  7. Roll out the dough to fit your tart pan.  The pan should have removable sides.  Do not stretch the dough when placing in the pan or the dough will shrink while baking.
  8. Cut off the excess by running the rolling-pin over the top of the pan.
  9. Line the tart shell with a piece of buttered tin foil, butter side to dough, and fill with dried beans or rice.
  10. Bake 10 minutes.  Remove tin foil and prick the bottom of the tart all over with a fork.  Continue to bake another 15-20 minutes or until just barely browned.  Set aside to cool.
  11. Before serving, fill the tart with the pastry cream.  Arrange the berries on top of the cream.
  12. Melt the jelly with one teaspoon of water and brush carefully all over the top of the tarts.
  13. If using pistachios, sprinkle over the top.

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Pastry Cream

yield: 2 cups

  • 5 extra-large egg yolks, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 1/2 cups scalded milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon Cognac
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon heavy cream
  1. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the egg yolks and sugar on medium-high speed for 4 minutes or until very thick.
  2. Reduce to low-speed and add cornstarch.
  3. With the mixer on low, SLOWLY pour in the hot milk into the egg mixture.
  4. Pour the mixture into a medium saucepan and cook over low heat – I went to medium-low – stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until the mixture thickens, 5-7 minutes.
  5. Don’t be alarmed when the mixture begins to boil and appears to curdle; switch to a whisk and beat vigorously.  Cook, whisking constantly, for another 2 minutes.  The custard will come together and become very thick, like pudding.
  6. Stir in the vanilla, Cognac, butter and heavy cream.
  7. Pour the custard through a sieve into a bowl.  Another thing I didn’t do.  Up to you.
  8. Place plastic wrap directly on to cream and refrigerate until cold.

 

Tour de Kalampaka

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My son James’ college graduation is coming up and we’re so pleased to be able to host a small cocktail party for family and his close friends in Chapel Hill.  I’ve been making the preparations with a lovely young lady at the restaurant we’ve chosen and one of the hors d’oeuvre we’re serving is a spicy Greek feta cheese spread called Xtipiti.  We first had this dip while staying in the small mountain town of Kalampaka, Greece.  Kalampaka is right outside of Meteora and Meteora is where the monasteries sit perched atop the mountains.  They are described as “hovering in air”.  It’s spectacular.

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Late one afternoon we came out of our hotel to go for drinks and found at the end of the driveway a massive bike race.  You’ve got your Tour de France and then there’s the Tour de Kalampaka!  The streets had been closed off and the spectators flanked both sides of the streets.  It was so exciting!  The spectators yelled and screamed encouragement to their riders who were just flying by, hunched over the handle bar of their feather-weight racing bikes.  What really astonished us was that most of the riders had a “support” group  slowly driving small cars in front of them giving them encouragement by hanging out of the windows  and cheering their rider on.  But, jeez!  What about the gas fumes?  And, of course, in true Greek fashion all these old man cheerleaders were just puffing away nonstop on cigarettes  while watching their riders fighting to breathe!  As it grew later in the day we could see the exhaustion in the cyclists.  That area of the country is notorious for having one hill or mountain after another.  You could see the absolute fatigue in their dirt-lined faces.  When we saw the last of the struggling athletes huffing and puffing up the hill, thigh muscles bulging, we left for drinks then dinner.  The taverna we decided upon was truly tucked away and that’s saying something in that corner of the world!  After ordering drinks and appetizers the waitress asked if we would also like Xtipiti.  Wait, wait!  What?  She explained it’s a peppery feta spread which we could have with bread, crackers or vegetables.  One more dish we fell in love with!

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Another fast and easy culinary miracle Xtipiti has some variations.  It can be made with lemon juice or cider vinegar.  Some add a roasted red pepper and in addition sometimes sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil.  It’s all good.  I try to always scatter the bowl with a handful of finely chopped scallions not only for the taste but for the pretty green color.  I’m so sorry! In my haste to get this post out in time for any weekend party people to enjoy I completely forgot the chopped scallions.  But do it.  Add them.  I know you’ll so enjoy it.  And, listen…  let me know how you like the dip!

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Xtipiti, Spicy Feta Dip

yield: a little more than two cups

  • 16 ounces Greek feta cheese, crumbled
  • 2-3 long, hot green peppers or the hot peppers of your choice, roasted, peeled and seeded.  Set seeds aside.
  • 4-5 tablespoons of good olive oil
  • the juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 1-2 tablespoons fresh oregano, chopped or 2 teaspoons dried
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • a few grinds of black pepper
  • 1 small clove of garlic, optional
  1. Pulse all ingredients in a food processor until smooth scraping down the sides as needed.  Taste for salt and pepper.  If you’d like more heat add some of the reserved seeds.  Pulse until  just combined or until as smooth as you like.  Adjust seasonings.
  2. Cover and chill for 2 or 3 hours for flavors to marry.
  3. Serve with bread, crackers or vegetables.
  4. Stores well in the refrigerator for 2-3 days.

 

Playing House…Puerto Rican Style

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I was talking with my friend, Harriette Keen Jacobs, about a garden shed she had seen that looked like a faerie house.  Harriette is a phenomenal writer; she has a blog also called South of the Gnat Line.  Check it out.  She’s positively gorgeous, well, yeah, she IS a Southern girl and has a farm in Georgia with many little lambs and fuzzy chicks and all manner of cute and quirky critters running around.  Anyway, long after we stopped  dreaming of the miniature faerie-house garden shed I thought of someone who actually had a tiny magic house.  My cousin in Puerto Rico, Myrnita, had a Lilliputian play house that was every little girl’s dream.  She’s the oldest of five but only her younger brother had been born during the years we played house.  Her brother, Robertito, was all boy and nothing to do with us girls.  He hid behind palms and tropical vines wearing cowboy boots, guns and holsters and played cowboys and indians.  Myrnita’s a year or two younger than me and was the perfect summer playmate.  Sometimes we would go to their country club and spend the day swimming and driving the lifeguards crazy by running around the pool in order to execute the perfect cannonball.  Other times her handsome father, my uncle Tio Roberto, would pick me up in his big, old boat of a car and we would go to their house for a playdate.  After the customary exchange of kisses and hugs of everyone in the house Myrnita and I would ask her mama, my Titi Myrna, if we could have some supplies for the little house.  We had some cooking to do.  My aunt was stunningly beautiful, gentle and loving.  She never laughed at us or scolded us if we made a mess or spilled any of our ingredients as we tramped through the house.  We discussed our pretend menu with her and she gathered the necessary ingredients.  Well, most of them.  It was pretend cooking outside so we weren’t allowed things like eggs.  Or butter.  But we could take as much uncooked rice as we wanted and dried beans.  Bread was fine to play with and we always had snacks like Sorrullitos, little salty cornmeal fingers hot out of the fat that Titi Myrna had just made for us to take outside.  Sorrullitos made our pretend play more real.  When you bit into them you could hear the snap of the crackling outer crust.  Oh, and fruit.  We could take bananas, oranges, guavas, any fresh fruit still in its skin and then we’d take it all back in when we were finished “cooking”.  So, out we’d go to the playhouse arms laden with our real and play food.  The playhouse was made of wood and had a front porch.  That still slays me.  A front porch.  I want a porch!  At any rate, it was painted white with Carolina blue trim and a tile roof.  God, I loved that little house.  It had a real door that opened and closed and windows that were protected from the torrential rains and the searing rays of the sun by blue shutters which locked with a toggle from the inside.  We’d throw those shutters open and the pretend party would begin!  The playhouse was just one room but it had cabinets, counters and a pretend stove.  The cabinets were all stocked with a plethora of plastic bowls, spoons and spatulas.  There were two small chairs with cane seats and a small table up against a wall for our imaginary banquet.  And she had a play refrigerator.  The sun beat down upon that little house but the cool Caribbean breezes kept us happy and relaxed.  The hours just sped by as we stirred our simmering meals and played grownup.  It had always been planned that I would spend the night.   My clothes had already been put away in Myrnita’s bedroom by loving hands.  Tio Roberto would undoubtedly take us all out for ice cream after dinner.  Or a handmade guava pastry.  At around 6:00 in the evening the scorching sun would let up a little.  The breezes would truly start cooling us down.  I knew the routine back at my grandparent’s house.  I would have been given my bath and dinner by now.   Mama would be letting Cynthia and me play quietly, color or write letters home to Daddy.  It never failed.  That big, burning sun would start to turn all shades of pink, purple and blue and as it started its descent a wrenching homesickness would set in.  Waves of sadness would roll over my little eight year old self.  I knew I wasn’t going to stay.  Hell, no.  I wanted to go home and it was just a matter of telling my sweet, sweet uncle I needed to go home and no amount of tears from Myrnita will make me stay, okay?  I always felt awful breaking the news that their plans for the evening were not going to happen.  My aunt and uncle were very glamorous and social; they were always at black tie affairs, their pictures were always in the papers.  So I felt rotten and slightly guilty that I had ruined their family night.  But this girl was going home!  My understanding uncle would always get me back just as the sun had set, right before the tiny frogs of the island, the Coqui, began their song declaring night had truly fallen.  Back in my cotton nightgown, back to the adult’s hushed voices echoing off the high ceilings and back in Mama’s arms.  Another perfect childhood day in paradise.  Buenas noches!

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Oh, Gentle Reader, these crispy little treats are positively addictive.  And dangerous.  Paired with a good sipping rum…all resolve just melts away!  They are easy, inexpensive and quick to prepare.  They’re great when entertaining because they can be fried in advance and then kept warm and crunchy in the oven.  I like them also because they’re homemade but almost effortless.  You didn’t open an air-filled bag or a frost covered box to delight your friends.  No.  YOU, clever thing, made these by hand.  Furthermore, they marry well with mixed drinks, beer or wine.  Def a win-win in my kingdom!  A cheese called Queso de Bolla is used on the island but I really enjoy the sharpness of the Parm and I pretty much always have it on hand.  You can use a cheese other than Parmesan if you like but the nutmeg and parmesan combination strike a nutty flavored balance the like of which I know you’ll flip over.  In Puerto Rico often Sorullitos are served with a sauce that is a typically a mayo-ketchup mix.  That SO grosses me out so I serve mine with a 50/50 mix of mayonnaise and Sriracha Chile Sauce.  That’s it.  Two ingredients for the dipping sauce.  We like food spicy in our house so hold back a little on the Sriracha if that ratio is too hot for your taste or if you are serving children.

Sorullitos – Cornmeal Parmesan Fingers

yield: 25-30 thumb size batons

  • 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1 3/4 cups freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano or other good parmesan cheese
  • 1 3/4 cups fine cornmeal
  • canola or vegetable oil for frying
  1. In a medium saucepan bring 2 cups of water to a boil.
  2. Add nutmeg, salt and butter and then, while stirring, pour in cornmeal.
  3. Continue stirring until a soft ball forms that separates from the sides of the pot.
  4. Remove from heat and stir in the cheese.
  5. Cover with a clean dish towel and set aside for 10 minutes or so until cool to the touch.
  6. Form the Sorullito by taking a spoonful of cornmeal and with your hands form a baton or finger.
  7. Heat two inches of oil in a frying pan until you see tiny bubbles on the bottom of the pan or the top of the oil “shimmers”.
  8. Add the batons to the oil with your hands or tongs being careful not to drop into them oil.
  9. Fry until golden brown and drain on paper towels.
  10. Fritters may be kept warm in a 300° oven.
  11. Serve with Sriracha Mayo sauce.  Just combine the sauce ingredients to taste, mix and serve.

Gumbo, Y’all!

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Lent is coming up, Gentle Reader, and as I say to myself EVERY year, “I’ll be ready.  I’m ready.”  I eat a little meat and think, “Okay.  I’m good”.  But a week or two later I start wanting chicken…in a Puerto Rican stew or Greek style with lots of lemon, olive oil and oregano.  Or a little charred, grilled flank steak, rare and sliced thin on top of a HUGE salad.  But that’s the name of the game.  Sacrifice.  Fasting.  Sigh.  Anyway, to circumvent that longing I’ve been meating up.  I figured there’s plenty of time for shrimp gumbo so when I planned this batch I focused on the OTHER white meat.  Smoked pork and Andouille sausage backed up with chicken.  Sounds good, no?  I thought I’d start with a dark, chestnut colored roux and masses of vegetables.  The trinity, of course, finely chopped sweet onion, bell pepper and celery.  Don’t be tempted to cut corners and buy that frozen stuff.  It has NO flavor.  Truly.  Then heaps of freshly chopped garlic and flat leafed parsley.  I’d use chicken stock as my broth and season with a heavy hand of cayenne pepper and Tony Chachere’s.  If you don’t know the glories of Tony Chachere’s then you’re in for a pleasant surprise.  It’s loaded with salt but it’s used in place of salt.  So throw it on your chicken, fries, omelets, fish, really anything.  But check it out.  It’s got a great little kick.  Tony Chachere’s can be found on the spice aisle in your grocery store.  If your store doesn’t carry it you order it on Amazon.  I started by making a roux.  The darker the roux the less it thickens but that’s all right because I wasn’t going to make my gumbo soupy.  I wanted my roux a rich, nut-brown color.

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Into a big, heavy pot I added vegetable oil and flour.  Yes, it’s a lot but, hey, it’s gumbo… you’re gonna cut back?  Then it’s not gumbo.  It’s like caesar salad without anchovies.  It’s not a caesar salad.  At a medium-high heat I continually stirred for about 15-20 minutes watching my roux like a hawk.  It gets to a dark stage that can easily scorch if you’re not careful and then you have to throw it out and start all over.  There’s no saving it once it’s scorched.  I find if you use a wide, wooden spoon preferably flat, it’s easy to keep turning over the mixture.  Once I got my roux the shade of brown I wanted I added all my vegetables except the parsley.  I add that later so I don’t lose any flavor.  I stirred the vegetables well until they were well coated with the roux and then I let them cook a bit…so the onions were almost clear.  The Tony Chachere’s was thrown in along with a box of chicken stock.  I use chicken stock for everything.  I can’t find commercial beef broth that doesn’t have that horrible processed, dirty-foot taste so instead of beef broth I typically use chicken.  I add just the chicken and let that simmer for a good half hour-45 minutes.  The simmering process breaks the chicken down a bit so it’s tender.  I don’t add the pork products at this point because it would boil out all the flavor.  After 45 minutes I  then add my chopped parsley, Andouille sausage, smoked pork.  The heat is dropped to low as the sausage and pork just needs to heat thru and flavor the soup a bit.  That’s it! Serve it over fluffy, white rice and cool the heat with a beer or some brown.  And if you’re Catholic or Orthodox Christian you’d better hurry up… Fat Tuesday’s day after tomorrow.  “Hey, mister!  Throw me sumpin’!”

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Sausage and Chicken Gumbo

yield: one big, ass pot

  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 LARGE sweet onion, finely chopped
  • 2 green bell peppers, seeded and finely chopped
  • 1 bunch celery, finely chopped, leaves included
  • 1 large head of garlic, minced
  • 3 tablespoons Tony Chachere’s Seasoning Mix or the Creole seasoning of your choice
  • 1 32-ounce box chicken broth
  • 1 large bunch of parsley
  • 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, or three large halves, chopped into bite sized pieces
  • 1 12-ounce package Aidell’s Andouille Sausage or the Andouille of your choice, sliced into bite sized pieces
  • 3/4-1 pound smoked boneless pork chops, chopped
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • any additional heat to taste

How to Get Your Greek On

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One fast year has gone by since our last Greek festival and it’s looking like the 2014 St. Demetrios’ Greek festival is going to be bigger and better than ever!  I took a quick stroll this morning through the church grounds and was I impressed. It looks tight and well put together.  Many folk have worked long and hard on this event and I’m happy to report it paid off.  Let’s take a behind the scenes peek-see at what REALLY goes on!

The glorious dome!

The glorious dome!

It all begins in the church.  Under our magnificent dome tours are given to educate those interested on many different topics represented in the architecture of the church.  For many years I’ve caught snippets and bits of these tours while running from the kitchen to the food line or back but this I have deemed is the year I get to enjoy the entire presentation.  And you get to ask questions!

7 years of Greek school and I'm still stuck on the English side!

7 years of Greek school and I’m still stuck on the English side!

Signing in at the volunteer station was a breeze.  People are coming and going so there’s always someone you run into that you haven’t seen in a while.  Father John’s wife, Presbytera Abbey, seen left, is always ready to give of her time AND with a sincere smile on her face.  Anna, fluent in Greek, is a Greek school classmate of mine.  Her son, Dimitri, and my son James, which is Dimitri in Greek, danced together for many years.  Best of friends, they were on the altar together, traveled through Greece together and got in trouble together.  Anna and I will toast with a Metaxa to both of them later!

Sign in, please!  And thanks for all your help!

Sign in, please! And thanks for all your help!

As you can well imagine the kitchen is a hive of activity.  Chicken is roasting, salads are prepped and onions are chopped for a myriad of dishes.  Mammoth lamb shanks are bathed in a thick tomato sauce perfumed with cinnamon, onion and parsley.  That same sauce will be drizzled over hot krytharaki, orzo, and with a little feta on top???  It’s just sublime.

I eat these beans called 'yigantes" all year long.  Creamy and oh so savory I could eat this whole pot!

I eat these beans called ‘yigantes” all year long. Creamy and oh so savory I could eat this whole pot!

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We are blessed this year that the person who stepped up for kitchen duty is our Nicole.  She is staggeringly talented but always calm and collected in the midst of a huge amount of kitchen activity.  And she’s cute!  You can thank her for just about everything you eat with the exception of the pastries.

Chef Nicole.  Don't EVEN think about messing with her!

Chef Nicole. Don’t EVEN think about messing with her!

Wait wait!  Did I say pastries?  Why, yes.  Yes I did.  Our women’s group, Philoptochos, has worked tirelessly on the pastries and desserts for the festival.  All your dearest and best-loved sweets are here.  And these beautiful women have baked them.  In between mixing dough and tossing confectioner’s sugar they visit and catch up with each other.  It’s fantastic!  I was able to join them once when I wasn’t working and I had the time of my life.

Beer and pastries for all! (I wish.)

Beer and pastries for all! (I wish.)

These ladies are the best of friends.  They laugh together and cry together.  And they move mountains.  They will end up spending most of the weekend helping at the festival.

Loved by all!

Loved by all!

Now that we’ve bought our desserts let’s go outside for drinks and dinner!

Meze, Father?

Meze, Father?

Shall we start with an appetizer of flaming cheese and sausage, saganaki kai loukaniko?  I’ve found if you share it you have plenty of room for lamb shanks or an over the top stuffed gyro!  Or if you wish for something lighter go for some Greek meatballs, keftedes and a Greek salad studded with shards of feta.  Mmmmm…!

The czar of saganaki and loukaniko, Louie has been lighting Metaxa brandy to the delight of scores since the inception of the festival.  He makes a killer sandwich.  Watch your eyebrows.

The czar of saganaki and loukaniko, Louis has been lighting Metaxa brandy to the delight of scores since the inception of the festival. He makes a killer plate. Watch your eyebrows.

Everyone in the church is invited to help out for festival.  Every year we hear who’s coming back, from college kids to young married couples who know how important this festival is.  James is knee-deep in schoolwork, concentrating on his senior capstone project and won’t be able to come down this year.  But Louie’s grandson, Elias, is carrying on the tradition of working at the St. Demetrios festival.

Don't let Elias' good looks fool you!  He is a gifted and powerful speaker having won countless oratorical competitions nationwide representing Saint Demetrios.

Don’t let Elias’ good looks fool you! He is a gifted and powerful speaker having won countless oratorical competitions nationwide representing Saint Demetrios.  We’re so proud of him!

Did you think I forgot drinks?  And coffee?  Heck, no!  Stroll on over to the bar for some smooth, full Greek red wine or a cold Greek beer.

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After all that you’ll need a coffee.  Greek coffee.  It’s thick and strong.  If you’re lucky maybe one of the pastry ladies will read your grounds for you.

The pot used to make Greek coffee is called a "briki".

The pot used to make Greek coffee is called a “briki”.

This is a great little cookie perfect for dunking in your coffee.  They're called "koulourakia" and I love them because they're not too sweet...Just loaded with butter!

This is a great little cookie perfect for dunking in your coffee. They’re called “koulourakia” and I love them because they’re not too sweet…just loaded with butter!

My last stop is always the church bookstore on the way out.  Larry has beautiful little icons, incense burners and incense which has been blessed.  There are prayer bracelets, theology books and cookbooks.  It’s a real treasure trove and I always walk to my car with bags loaded with goodies.

Shopping!

Shopping!

You know? Maybe I’ll just get another beer and sit over here and check out my new cookbook!

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Getting Real

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A few weeks ago Jimmy and I were driving east in North Carolina to meet James at a State Park where he had been working on a class project with his team and professor. It was morning and we were going to see our boy! Both of us had enjoyed our breakfast; egg white omelets with flash sautéed local organic vegetables and goat cheese. We also had grits, a wonderful, toothsome multi-grain bread and loads of piping, hot coffee. It was a three-hour drive ahead of us and as we hadn’t seen James yet, were eager to hit the road. On the highway the scenery was lovely…there were patches of snow here and there left over from last week’s mini-blow. And the sun was out! After about an hour and a half Jimmy pulled off the highway and into a torn up, pot-hole filled parking lot along side a diner equally simple and ordinary.  Almost down-trodden looking. “What are you doing?”, I asked and he answered, “I want to get some coffee, want some?”. Now, I rarely drink coffee after breakfast especially when traveling since I’ve probably already had too much. But it sounded good and it was cold out. We parked, got out of the car and raced inside barely looking at our surroundings. It was cold! The wind was just whipping about us and all I could think of was my hair that had just been so pretty with soft curls and was probably now ruined. Thanks Aeolus. I flung the door to the diner open and the place was packed. Just a beehive of activity! One of the waitresses behind the counter was pouring coffee from her right and had her grand-baby sitting on her left hip talking shyly to one of her customers. Orders were flying left and right, people were greeting each other, hot platters of food were being placed in front of hungry patrons and the finished remnants of breakfast were being whisked away. No one stopped what they were doing when we walked in but EVERYONE looked up and at us. Including the three-year old perched on his grandma’s hip.  Plates were still picked up and delivered to the waiting diners, the decibel level of noise changed not one iota, but they ALL looked as if to say, “She ain’t from roun’ here. No, ma’am, she ain’t. We’ll talk about her later. Did you see her hair???”. But in a friendly way. I stood at the end of the counter next to the cashier while Jimmy went to wash his hands. And then I had that epiphany; the one when you realise you’re in a special place so don’t waste it by pretending you’re on a diet or still full from the breakfast, okay? Biscuit. Homemade, perfect-like-Mary-Poppins-in-every-way, biscuit. I asked the young lady at the cashier box, “Do I want bacon or sausage biscuit?”. “Oh, ma’am, ah don’ knoow!”, she answered so sweetly just about wringing her hands with concern for me and my pleasure. I looked at Mr. Farmer-Man standing next to me waiting to pay, he had gold encircling his two upper front teeth, “Excuse me, but do I want sausage or bacon biscuit?”. “Sorchich!!”, he immediately replied. The young waitress then informed me that this gentleman and his wife drive over every weekend from Raleigh for the sausage biscuit. “Sausage it is!”, I triumphantly announced. “Link or patty”, was the next query. But that was easy. I didn’t need anyone’s help with that one! “PATTY!”, I just about screamed I was getting so excited. I ordered our coffees, one black and one with cream and sugar. The poor waitress was beside herself with the distress of possibly disappointing me. “Ma’am, ahm SO sorry but the cream an’ sugah is raht ovuh they-uh. Is zat awl raht?”. I was completely in the warm, friendly spell of this young woman who held my happiness in so high regard and Mr. Farmer-Man who waited until my order came out to make sure I had made the right decision. Obviously these people didn’t know me but for right now they cared about me with a genuineness that I hadn’t felt from strangers in a long time.  Jimmy came out, we paid, ($7.00 for two coffees and two sausage biscuits, can you imagine?!) and I thanked them both profusely for all their attentions.  Jimmy left a REALLY good tip.  We grabbed the bag and coffees and ran back out into the cold and to the car.  Remember, we had just finished breakfast barely an hour and a half before.  As I opened the bag Jimmy asked, “Are you going to eat that NOW?”.  I just looked at him. “Well, YEAH!”, I answered, “I want mine hot and this is ALL homemade. These aren’t nasty store biscuit.” “Well, tell me how it is.” “Okay.” The sausage biscuit were huge, wrapped in wax paper, with little wisps of steam rising out every now and again. They had been split in half and I could see a crisp, deep brown char on one side of the meat and as I bit into the biscuit tender pieces of the delicacy crumbled back into the wax paper. I was in Southern heaven. The sausage was spicy, really spicy, I could make out quite a few flecks of red pepper flakes in between the black pepper.  I knew my husband would be happy.  As we continued driving we chatted about the prices we had seen up on the menu board.  Jimmy spied $6.05 listed for the rib-eye combo. Now, there’s nothing wrong with goat cheese, Kobe beef or mesclun salad. And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with mushroom stuffed ravioli with a pesto cream sauce or spicy tuna hand-rolls or edamame hummus. Port wine reductions and beef tataki are fine.  But I say there’s also nothing wrong with HOMEMADE, plain American fare. In that diner, “Ray’s Drive In” to be specific, I saw gorgeous, steaming bowls of house made vegetable soup coming out of the kitchen. There were little ones eating homemade pimento cheese for breakfast on thick slabs of toast. Hand made biscuit were stacked on just about every table along side bowls of stone ground grits not overly processed but coarsely ground with flecks of black and brown here and there all wrapped in a thick, silken blanket of cream and butter. Really, when you consider it, plain local fare can be pretty sophisticated in that so few ingredients are called for that the ingredients have to be of the finest quality so the dish can truly shine. Think about that sausage patty I happily wolfed down. There are few ingredients needed and they are easy to assemble. But in order to make them truly stellar they need to be made by hand with fresh herbs and spices. Sausage bought at the grocery store in a plastic roll is going to taste exactly like what it is. But make it by hand and you and your family are going to be happy maybe not all day but at least thru breakfast!! Here I’ve made up several pounds that I’ll divide between my sister Pamela, my brother Tommy and me. I’ll freeze them individually and have a quick breakfast at my finger tips at any given time. Give it a try. I think you’ll be really glad you did!

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The beauty of this recipe is that the flavors in the meat intensify with time.  I’ll mix up a big batch, shape into patties, wrap individually in plastic and then freeze.  I plan to do this before James comes home in a few weeks with a few college buddies for spring break.  It’s perfect.  I can pull out a couple of patties if it’s just Jimmy and me or a lot if I have a house full of people.  The recipe is also quite flexible in that you can add or change the spices and flavors to your liking.  Sometimes I add lemon zest instead of orange.  At times I add neither.  A peeled and finely minced, tart Granny Smith apple is delightful.  Instead of adding the salt directly to the pork mixture you can make a paste with a clove of fresh garlic and the grains of the salt.  Dried thyme is a rich and earthy addition as is ground coriander.  So go crazy and get real!  You’ll love it!

Breakfast Sausage

yield: 14 or 15 large, thin patties

  • 2-2 1/2 pounds ground pork
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon white pepper
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons ground sage
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes (we like our patties spicy)
  • 2 tablespoons ground dried bay leaves (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons fresh orange or lemon zest (optional)
  • 1/2 cup ice-cold water
  1. In a medium-sized bowl mix all ingredients EXCEPT pork and water.
  2. Add pork then water to the spice mixture.
  3. Using your hands mix the meat with the spices so the flavors are evenly distributed.
  4. If not freezing let sausage rest in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours.
  5. If freezing shape into thin patties, individually wrap in plastic wrap and freeze.  Thaw prior to cooking.
  6. Cook in a frying pan over medium to medium-high heat for 3-4 minutes on each side.

A Southern Girl’s Weekend

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It had been a really long day. Our flight out of Lauderdale had been delayed for some reason and by the time we picked up the rental at Raleigh Durham airport we were starting to feel it. Jimmy and I are NOT the young, fun people we used to be!! Anyway, we flew up to see James, we scored some great tickets for the UNC-Clemson game on Sunday AND we were staying at my favourite…the Carolina Inn. After we checked in and Jimmy checked his 500 million, trillion, gazillion e-mails we left to get a drink at the hotel bar. As we left the room another young lady was walking thru the hallway. Jimmy gently chided me as I turned and walked in the wrong direction. “Alicia. It’s this way.” “Well, I’m sorry but I was just admiring this pretty lady’s beautiful sweater.” And it WAS gorgeous. It was a lavender cashmere poncho draped over one shoulder and slightly sagging over the other in that casual “je ne sais quoi” sort of way. She wore it over a crisp, white long-sleeved blouse and black skinny jeans tucked into black riding boots. She looked great.  She went her way and we went ours.  We made it to the bar and ordered our highly anticipated cocktails. As we chatted about our day and the past week I noticed a couple of good-looking women come in the bar and sit at a table for maybe eight.  Jimmy and I continued chatting at length, going back and forth, “Is it Goose NECK Park or Goose CREEK Park where we pick up James?”.  Still chatting I noticed another lady come in and join them.  All these good-looking women were meeting here in the bar and it looked like a stellar girl’s weekend was in the making! More sharply dressed women entered the bar and quite a bit more screaming and squealing took place. I was mesmerized.  If by nothing else their jewelry, their scarves and, oh, their boots! Boy, could they accessorize! They called out to each other using the nicknames they had called each other when THEY were at Carolina. I couldn’t stop listening. They chatted about a drink they all loved. It’s called the “Moscow Mule”. Go figure. I was sipping on my second VERY generous double of Wild Turkey, rocks, and tried desperately to remember #1. the name of the drink #2. the ingredients in the drink and #3. all the nicknames of these girly girls. It was wonderful hearing these marvelous, accomplished women laughing and joking, and yes, talking about yesterday but also talking about what they were all doing today. And the nicknames!! I just caught snippets of names and conversation. “Ohmygosh, Tish, you can’t EVEN be serious!”. “Serious about what???”, I thought. “FOX!!! Look at you!!! You’re still gorgeous!”. And she was. With one ear on Jimmy and one ear on the girls I tried to keep the conversations straight. Jimmy finally leaned over and in sotto voce asked, “Are you listening to their conversation?”.  Why, yes.  Yes, I am.  There is just something about best friends getting together that is intoxicating and joyous, liberating and exciting.  I noticed that right then the mysterious well dressed woman with the lavender cashmere had joined them amid more peals of laughter, the tossing of hair and the flash of terrific jewelry.  I felt so happy for them.  They knew the significance of their time together.  They truly appreciated it.  I mustered up a little nerve, easy enough after TWO bourbon doubles, and interrupted them.  I asked if I could take a few quick photos of their table and they graciously agreed and jumped into place.  We laughed more when I asked for all their pet names, like when we got to “Patt” whose real name is so beautiful…Elizabeth!!  They patiently explained that “Tish” was short for Morticia the nickname that was given when the sorority had a Halloween party and they all dressed up as members of the Munster family except Morticia who was really from the Addams Family.  I LOVE minutiae on that level.  I positively put it up high on a pedestal.  They are all Tri Delts except Fox who’s a Pi Phi.  Their houses were across from each other but Fox ran with these girls so she’s an honorary Tri Delt.  I’ve been lucky enough to have been on some outrageously fun girl’s weekend and they are treasured.  They can be with your blood sisters, with your mom, your best friends or sorority sisters.  That’s when all the nicknames come out.  That’s when stories are told of escapades your children will never, EVER hear about.  You’ll talk trash about that boy that broke your heart…or caused you to make the walk of shame.  Alcohol is often the culprit.  But you’ll also catch up on what’s going on NOW in your lives and applaud the successes achieved and the milestones met.  And everyone feels like a goddess after a few cocktails!  Happy weekend, ladies!  Thanks for letting me come along if only for a quick minute!

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This is the recipe for a “Moscow Mule” as told to me by mostly EBird.  She said they have it a lot in Montana so maybe it’s a western cocktail?  She also specified it needs to be served freezing cold so out there it’s served in a copper cup.  I keep thinking about that.  Who’s got a copper cup???  It won’t stop me, tho.  I’ll put it in silver!

Roll call! L-R Morticia, EBird, Tricks, Fox, Patt and Brooke, Trick's daughter.  Not photographed - Disco who showed up later!

Roll call! L-R Morticia, EBird, Tricks, Fox, Patt and Brooke, Trick’s daughter. Not photographed – Disco who showed up later!

Moscow Mule

  • 1/2 part ginger beer
  • 1/2 part vodka
  • lots of fresh lime cut in pieces or wedges
  1. Squeeze juice from lime pieces and drop lime in with juice.
  2. Mix with equal parts of cold ginger beer and vodka, hopefully, vodka from your freezer.
  3. Go easy!!  The ladies said this drink goes down really easy and is a real creeper!!

Monkey Business

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We’re on a flight to Chapel Hill to go see Jamesy and I cannot wait! The JetBlue television monitor at my seat has been left on the NYT channel and featured a piece on monkeys. I’m crazy about monkeys. Always have been. My love affair started when I was maybe three and a half…maybe four at the most. I liked going out and “poking around” with Dad on weekends. He always went to exotic places with activities that this little girl loved. We’d go over to Daddy’s friend, Jim Bloom’s house and Dad would just leave me outside. They’d be talking fish or orchids or koi ponds and I would be left in the middle of a bamboo forest on the back of a mammoth, lumbering Galapagos turtle. Talk about slow ride! Sometimes Cynthia would go and we would have races, both on the backs of these giant animals screaming “Go! Go! Go!” with our Florence Eiseman dresses on, tennis shoes and plain white socks. To say we had a blast is an understatement. When we returned home Mama never asked where we had gone or what we had done. Sometimes one of us would tell her sometimes not. Often Dad would take me to Pet Circus as he was good friends with the owner.  Pet Circus was, as Dad puts it, “up on the highway” or Federal Highway to everyone else.  Again he would drop me in a corner somewhere and just leave me there going off with the owner to discuss the breeding habits of the Gouldian finch Dad was raising in enormous outdoor aviaries or to discuss some disease a tank of fish had contracted. But he always left me safe and in the same place. With my best friend, Judy. Judy the Chimp. In chimp years Judy was probably a preteen. She liked me and I liked her. Judy was in a huge cage-like run with lots of bars to swing on and plenty of room to run. At the beginning of our play date our greeting was always the same. I was shy and held back and she was also tentative and hung back. We would smile and slowly warm up to each other. We were both the same creatures we were two weeks prior. Eventually we would hug. I liked stroking her head because her hair was so soft. And I liked looking at her eyes. They were gentle and huge and round. She must have felt the same about me because she would play with my hair and pat my chubby, brown cheeks. When she felt comfortable enough with me she began to play. Judy ran a little to pick up speed then she’d grab a low bar and start swinging. I felt right at home.  I ran fast but not as fast as Judy and I did my share of swinging on the bars but never was I to be as accomplished as Judy.  We generally had a blast!  We’d laugh and I would talk to Judy as tho she was a little girlfriend.  I guess she’d give some sort of reply.  I don’t quite remember!  But I do know we had a great friendship.  When Daddy was finished after a few hours he’d come back, someone would unlock the “run” and we’d go home.  I don’t remember my father EVER saying “Stop by the Ladies room on the way out and wash your hands.  They must be filthy!”.   Oh, hell no!  He’d ask what we did, how high Judy could swing, how high I swung, did I try to teach her hop-scotch, did we play clapping games, that was what he was interested in.  Many a Saturday morning was spent with Judy the Chimp.  The last time I went was a typical weekend morning.  Dad dropped me off, LOCKED ME IN and went off with the owner to talk fish or birds or whatever.  After a while Dad said he heard screaming and shrieking and crying.  In my direction.  And Dad came running.  He later told me that when he got to me I was howling; big, fat tears were streaming down my fat little cheeks.  Judy was screaming and angry.  It was our first and last fight.  What were we fighting about you ask?  We were fighting over a urine sodden ugly blue towel.  We were essentially having a tug-of-war with it, each pulling in opposite directions.  Why I wanted it I’ll never know but Dad whisked me out of there lickety-split.  And I never saw Judy again.  It made me so sad.  Over and over Dad explained to me that when chimps get big they usually get mean.  Very mean.  Chimpanzees are incredibly strong, they can bite viciously and can easily mutilate a human.  I understood he was trying to protect me but I was trying to make him understand that Judy and I had a really special relationship and that she would never hurt me.  Be that as it may, I was not to see her again and that was that.  However, I never stopped loving monkeys…they’re still all over my house.  Prints, fabric, art.  So I dedicate this banana bread to my first girlfriend, Judy.  Judy the Chimp.

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This is the first recipe I ever used for banana bread and it’s still one of my favorites.  It’s from the 1964 Junior League cookbook entitled “Nashville Seasons”.  I’ve made it a million times.  It’s simple, direct and pretty much a no-fail quick bread.  Really ripe bananas yield the best loaf.  It’s lovely toasted or eaten cold and freezes well.

Banana Bread

yield: 1 large loaf or 2 small

  • 1 stick butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 very ripe large bananas
  • 2 room temperature eggs
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tbls. water
  • 1/2 to 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  1. Preheat oven to 350°.
  2. Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
  3. Mash bananas well and add to butter mixture.  Beat well.
  4. Add eggs, flour and soda mixed with the tablespoon of water.
  5. Mix well then add pecans and vanilla.
  6. Bake in well-greased pan, 1 hour for a large loaf.  45 minutes for two smaller loaves.
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