Sugar and Spice, Sweet Potato Bread

 

I love my girls!  My friend, Dana, called this evening just to chit-chat and, just like always, we laughed and laughed.  Her little sister, Dawn, had been in the hospital all week and was FINALLY allowed to go home.  Thankfully, she’s on the mend.  Part of our conversation was the topic of Dawn’s best friend, Alyson.  For those of you who didn’t grow up here, Alyson is Andrea’s baby sister.  Isn’t that great?  We’re all friends, laughing a mile a minute.  We have massive amounts of dirt on each other, but in the South, we glorify that.  And we DON’T rat on each other.  We feel it makes us special.  And scandal gives us color.  Alyson helped Dawn with those incredibly personal things that only a sister or mother will do.  She spent the night in the hospital so Dawn’s husband could go home.  And after that, helped her bathe and took her to get her hair done.  THAT’S a true, blue friend.  Anyway, Dana and I would segue off onto some silly girlie tangent, like I just did, about all of us. We laughed when Dana mentioned how we used to dance at her house for her parents.  Full out, go in the living room and put on a show.  And her parents never made fun of us.  Heck, sometimes they’d get up, dance with us and jitter bug the night away. We all went to each other’s birthday parties.  First wearing black, patent leather Mary Janes, then into tennis shoes, and on into Go-Go boots.  I have the black and whites to prove it.  We grew up on streets parallel to each other, right side by side.  I was on Sea Island, Ang and Al on Barcelona, Dana and Dawn on Aqua Vista.  As young girls, we rode our bikes to each other’s houses.  Back then, there were still a few vacant lots on the islands so we might end up in the shade under the canopy of some big Florida oak.  Just wiling away another hot afternoon.  We walked to the bus stop in junior high and the early years of high school, together, sometimes talking, sometimes not.  And in the afternoon, same thing, opposite direction.  We each had our own daily MAJOR problem.  I remember it felt as tho weight of the world was on our bony shoulders.  Our conversations were quiet, no big deal, scattered snippets of our safe, little lives.  I don’t remember any problems, except one of mine.  Would my father let me go to “the store” to get an outfit for that weekend’s party?  My father had a women’s clothing store and it was the hottest place in town.  Remember, we’re talking pre-Galleria days.  I’d say if not getting the latest outfit is YOUR biggest problem, you’re doing okay.  We all saw each other day in, day out.  And we spent the night at each other’s houses on Friday and Saturday nights.  Saturdays were always spent at the beach or shopping.  Sometimes we’d get along, and sometimes there would be a small explosion and you wouldn’t see a sister for a couple of days.  She’d make herself scarce.  But then it would all melt away and there we’d be, trudging back to the bus stop for school.  We just accepted walking to the bus stop, never noticing that our route was through one of the most beautiful areas of South Florida.  Our bus stop was at a gas station, Pier 66 on Las Olas.  Walt was the owner, and with his son, Wally, they would take care of our parent’s cars and always allow us to fill our bike tires with their air.  There was also a small, family run market a few doors down.  Everybody had a house charge so, when you thought you could get away with it, you’d charge a little candy after school.  Heath Bars, Bazooka, Mary Jane’s, sour apple bubble gum and fireballs were popular favorites.  If you knew you’d get in trouble for charging or you had to pay for it and you barely had any money, there were also large, rectangular sheets of taffy, about a foot long and half a foot wide, in all different shades and rainbow-colored, for 5¢.  A NICKEL!  Everyone HATED that taffy, but if that’s all you could get…   and you wanted some sugar…  well, I ate A LOT of taffy.  How we were never thrown into hypoglycemic shock, I’ll never know.  As we got older, driving and dating, our happy encounters were at the hallowed halls of Fort Lauderdale High School or standing in the keg line at parties.  There was such a beautiful ease to our relationships.   We all moved away for school, moved back, maybe moved around a bit more.  We’d just fall in and fall out with the tempo of the times.   Luckily, we all recognize how fortunate we are.  I can go a year without talking to Andrea.   But on her birthday,  when her phone rings and she hears someone whistling the ENTIRE “Happy Birthday” into her telephone without ANY hesitation or self-consciousness, she knows it’s ME.  ME.  And no one else.  And if I hear the sweet, chirping of Jiminy Cricket, I know my Ang is right around the corner and just a laugh away.  (She’s the only person I’ve ever known who can replicate that darling chirp!)  It’s a beautiful rhythm.  We’re concerned about each other’s parents and all our children.  I used to see Effie, the nickname I had for Andrea and Alyson’s father, F.J., at the Dixie.  I’d get so excited.  I’d chew that sweet man’s ear off.  He is just the NICEST man.  It’s wonderful when we see each other and then, clairvoyantly, voice each other’s thoughts.  Or we hear a song, and BAM!  We’re propelled back into somebody’s kitchen or bedroom, riding bikes or back to that 2nd grade classroom with the teacher nobody liked.

“Listen,

Do you want to know a secret,

Do you promise not to tell, whoa oh, oh.

Closer,

Let me whisper in your ear,

Say the words you long to hear,

I’m in love with you…”

This bread, Sweet Potato Bread, is what I like to take to a friend who needs a little love and care.  I’ll grant you, it does take some time, but the recipe yields TWO loaves!  One for you and one for me!!  I love the spicy aroma that fills my house while it’s baking.  And it always looks spectacular, all golden and glossy.  It’s Bill Neal’s recipe from his book entitled, “Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie”.  It’s fabulous lightly toasted with a little butter or peanut butter.  It also pairs REALLY well with a cold, spicy crab or shrimp salad.  Something about sweet, spicy and savory.  It’s just gorgeous and delicious with a rich crumb. Oh, and, somehow, the oats just meld into the dough.  I often send it to James at school.  It’s perfect on the fly with a quick smear of any nut butter.  I love it toasted with my morning cafe con leche.  And it is most excellent in the afternoon as a quick pick me up.  Enjoy!!

Sweet Potato Yeast Bread

  • 2 packages dry yeast
  • 1/4 warm water
  • 1 cup milk, fat-free is fine
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup butter, that’s one stick
  • 1 1/2 cup cooked, mashed, cold sweet potatoes
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, please don’t use that jarred, powdered stuff
  • 5 cups all-purpose flour, I always combine 2-3 cups white whole wheat with 2-3 cups unbleached all-purpose
  • 1 cup uncooked oats, quick is fine but not instant
  • 1 egg beaten with 2 tablespoons water or milk

 

  1. Dissolve the dry yeast in the warm water.
  2. Heat the milk with the sugar and salt, stirring until dissolved.  Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.  If I’m short on time I’ll even put it in the freezer for short period to cool.
  3. Cream the butter and the sweet potatoes well.  Add the dissolved yeast, the milk mixture, and then all the dry ingredients.  Beat very well, then turn out onto a floured surface.
  4. Knead vigorously until satiny, about 10 minutes.
  5. Place the dough in a bowl, cover, and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 hour.
  6. Punch down, and using a dough scraper or knife, divide into two equal portions.
  7. Divide 1 portion into 3 equal parts.  Roll each part out to make a rope.  Place side by side on an ungreased sheet.  Braid and tuck the ends under.  Cover loosely and let rise about an hour or until doubled.
  8. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 400° for about 20 minutes, then brush with the beaten egg and continue baking 15 minutes more for a total of 35 minutes.
  9. The loaves should be a lovely, deep honeyed color.
  10. Bask in your cleverness!

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Sour Cream Pound Cake by Lee Bailey

I don’t bake much, I’m not that crazy about cakes and pies or even cookies.  But when I DO bake it’s usually sweet potato bread, a quick bread like banana or zucchini bread or a pound cake.  I’m a real sucker for a dense, rich pound cake.  I like a sour cream and I also like a lemon pound cake.  Neither are too sweet and marry so well with berries and freshly whipped cream.  When James was home for Christmas I made a few sour cream ones.  Why?  I just told you.  Because James was home!  I had been looking through some of my older cookbooks and the recipe just jumped out at me.  My favorite sour cream pound cake recipe is Lee Bailey’s recipe from his book entitled “Country Desserts”.  When one of his later books came out in the early 90’s, Jimmy suggested, “Would you like to go to Mizner this weekend? Lee Bailey’s signing that book you have.  You can take it with you and have it signed.  We’ll poke around the book store and then go someplace for brunch and Bloody’s.  You want to?”  Well, yeah! Back then Lee Bailey was my idol.  A cute, Southern boy with style who could cook.  That morning I took extra time getting ready.  I tried on outfit after outfit.  I HAD to look darling.  I wanted him to know I was special.  Not only could I cook but I ALSO had an eye for fashion.  One look would speak volumes. I did my hair carefully so it looked full but not too big.  And it had to be shiny.  My makeup was meticulously applied.  It would not do to have a heavy hand THAT day!  When I finished my toilette, I grabbed my purse, and with book in hand, we were off to Boca.  I didn’t say much during the drive to the bookstore.  I have a tendency to get really quiet and lost in my thoughts whenever we get on a highway.  And that day was no exception.  I had so much to think about.  And I was so nervous.  What would I say?  What could I say that would set me apart from all others??  How would he know that we were meant to be best friends?  Oh, Lord.  My heart was beating like a rabbit on crack.  I just KNEW any minute Jimmy was going to turn to me and ask, “What IS that noise?  Can you hear it??  Is it the car?”.  It was my heart pounding like a drum.  And my hands were damp.  We got to the bookstore, I took my place in line and Jimmy took off for the Urban Renewal department or something equally spellbinding.  As I moved forward with my beautiful book, my heart raced and my thoughts were scattered and unfocused.  All of a sudden I was standing in front of him.  It was my turn.  He looked up at me expectantly, I shot him my best, blinding smile and handing him my book, started fawning.  “Oh, Mr. Bailey!  Thank you SO much for your beautiful books!  They make me so happy!  Even when I’m a little blue, I can look at your books and they just make me feel so much better!”   He snatched the book out of my hands and snarled, “Don’t just look at the pictures!! Read the books!!  Name??” “Alicia”, I replied quietly as was possible.  “A-l-i-c-i-a”.  In spite of the fact that my eyes had filled up with tears, I could still make out the look of irritation and the disdain he felt towards me as he scowled and thrust the book back.  And then, HE DISMISSED ME BY LOOKING AWAY!  I felt as though I had been slapped.  No.  I felt as though I was naked and in front of people had been slapped.  I thanked him, after all, I AM a nice girl, and searched for Jimmy as quickly and inconspicuously as possible.  Fighting back the tears, I found him and blurted out, “We have to go home.  NOW.”  God bless that man.  He put his book right down and said “Okay”.  I could tell he was searching my face trying to make out what had happened but he didn’t say a word.  I fought the tears all the way home and never let them spill over until I was locked in the safe haven of my bathroom, my crying spot.  Later, much later, I told him what had happened.  I shelved the book with my other cookbooks and I didn’t take that book out again for at least another year.  It was at least ONE YEAR before I took that book out and saw what he had written.  He wrote, “For Alicia” and underneath signed “Lee Bailey”.  He does have one good pound cake recipe, though.  I don’t get that “hot” feeling anymore when I take out any of his books.  I think I have them all.  And now when I think of him I realize he was just a tired, fussy, old man.

This is one of those pound cakes that gets better after a day or two.  And it freezes so beautifully!  Just make certain it’s really well wrapped and date it.  I haven’t changed much of the recipe.  One time I inadvertently dropped an extra yolk into the sugar and have made it part of the recipe.  The cake is moister and richer.  Oh, and the recipe doubles well.  I also use non-fat Greek yoghurt in place of sour cream but if you do that make sure it’s real Greek yoghurt.  You want that thickness and tartness.  Paired with fresh berries or any fresh stone fruit slices, well, it’s just heaven on earth.  Right up my friend Dana Lynn’s vanilla alley, ain’t it, Missy??!!

Sour Cream Pound Cake

  • 1 3/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 cup ( 1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 4 large eggs, separated and at room temperature
  • 2/3 cup sour cream or fat-free Greek yoghurt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  1. Preheat oven to 325°.  Butter and flour, (I just use Pam), a 9X5-inch loaf pan or bundt pan of your choice.  Set aside.
  2. Sift together flour and baking soda and set aside.
  3. Cream butter and sugar until fluffy.  Add egg yolks and beat well.
  4. Add one-third of the flour mixture and mix until incorporated.  Add one half of the sour cream and beat again.  Continue with flour and sour cream until it’s all well mixed.  Stir in vanilla.
  5. Beat the egg whites until very stiff and then carefully fold into the batter with an over-and-under motion.
  6. Pour into the prepared pan.
  7. Bake on the center rack of the oven for 1 hour 20 minutes, or until golden on top and cake has pulled away from the sides of the pan.
  8. Cool the cake in the pan on a cooling rack.
  9. Store in an airtight container.  Freezes really well and indefinitely.  It’s nice to always have one on hand!

Fried Fish

The first dish I can remember wanting to prepare came about when I was maybe 8 or 9 years old.  I don’t recall what spurred on this desire to cook, but I do remember taking some of my meager savings out of my piggy bank and asking Mama if she would please take me to the grocery store.  Mama had one cookbook, The Joy of Cooking, and, while perusing it, I had found a recipe which caught my fancy.  We went to our grocery store, Food Fair, it was called.  It sat on the property next to where Stranahan House is today, on Las Olas Boulevard.  It was bright and open and oh, so cool with conditioned air.  I went to the seafood counter, Mama just seemed to melt away, while I pondered my wisest purchase.  I didn’t know seafood was so expensive.  I didn’t even LIKE seafood!  I stood in front of that case waiting for something to jump out and say “Take ME home.  Everyone loves ME.  Cook me and you’ll be Mama and Daddy’s favorite!”.  It didn’t happen.  Plus, I barely had any money.  Why, I don’t know, but I finally decided on oysters.  OYSTERS!  I had never eaten them but they were cheap and it looked as though you got quite a bit for your money.  (Hint: they’re AAAALLL shell.)  The fish monger must have known what a novice I was because he shucked them for me without my asking, I didn’t even know the word “shuck” nor did I know of the process.  I paid, thanked the man, grabbed my bag and ran off giddy with the excitement of knowing I was going to absolutely dazzle, astonish, wow my parents.  I think I may have felt rather unremarkable at that stage of my life.  Back in our kitchen, I pulled out Mama’s electric frying pan.  The same pan she used to make spaghetti.  Here’s her recipe, boil 1 pound of spaghetti noodles and put the drained noodles into the electric skillet.  Add one small can of the leading brand canned spaghetti, mix well, cover and simmer for and hour or so.  Spaghetti.  We LOVED it because it had salt in it and salt = flavor, of which we had none.  Well, that afternoon I unknowingly retaliated on a culinary level at my poor mother.  I must have bought some kind of oil at the store because that’s just NOT the kind of thing we would have had in our house.  The recipe in the Joy of Cooking called for an oyster bath of 1 part egg, 2 parts water.  I dismissed that as unnecessary and one more step keeping me from the glories of culinary fame.  The recipe also called for fine breadcrumbs, and, again, I dismissed that, flour would be just fine.  I filled the electric skillet with oil and turned the setting to high.  Into a bowl of all-purpose flour I dumped the oysters, all together, not drained.  Then I mixed them around with, probably, dirty hands.  I was something of a tom-boy at that age, I LOVED drippy, dangley jewelry but I wouldn’t walk away from a good neighborhood fight, either.  No need to wash hands, it was just another time waster and they looked fine.  I poured the bottle of oil into the skillet, and one by one, dumped the oysters into the barely warmed oil.  The oil eventually heated up and the oysters were fried to a dark, golden color, but I remember being unsure as to how they were supposed to look and ended up cooking them for at least half an hour.  Can you imagine?  On to a plate they went and straight I flew to my mother.  Unbeknownst to me, the week or so prior my paternal grandfather had just grossed my mother totally out by inviting her to sample raw, chopped clams suspended in lemon jello, a new recipe he had made up.  And Grandpa was one strong willed man who never accepted “No” for an answer.  So she wasn’t feeling too much love for bi-valves.  I remember literally holding my breath waiting for her to swoon in ecstasy over these morsels from the sea.  I watched her with the eyes of a chicken hawk anticipating her slightest reaction.  And just like every dream mother, she passed with flying colors.  She looked at me with such love and wonderment and told me she had NEVER had ANYTHING like that before in her entire life!  She told me with such kindness that those oysters were unlike anything in her imagination.  I was thrilled.  Looking back, they HAD to have been nuggets of greasy, hard rubber.  I don’t know how she did it… but she did.  As Pamela and I were talking about the other day, there is no one, NO ONE on this planet who will ever, EVER be of the opinion that you are splendid and special, better than all the other children in the world, than your mother.  She is the one who truly believes in you.  SHE is the one who looks at you and sees only perfection.  And I say, I’m wit’ cha, Mama!!

Today I have for you my recipe for fried fish, which most people really like even if they don’t particularly care for fish.  James and Jimmy love it, I always have plenty left over to take to Dad’s house and for breakfast, lunches or snacks the following day.  I absolutely adore fried fish for breakfast especially if it’s on my plate sitting next to soft, scrambled eggs. Typically I serve it with collards and biscuit or collards and cornbread and there is always, ALWAYS a big ol’ bottle of Crystal Lousiana Hot Sauce.  It is most definitely an “everybody’s home for dinner” dinner!

FRIED FISH

  • 2-3 pounds filleted fish, dolphin, snapper, catfish, pompano or any mild white fish
  • 2 cups cornmeal
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, to be divided
  • 2 tablespoons your favorite house seasoning, I use Goya brand Adobo
  • freshly cracked black pepper
  • 1 egg or egg white equivalent plus 2 tablespoons water beaten in
  • canola or vegetable oil
  • Hot sauce, optional
  1. Cut fish into desired serving size pieces.  If using dolphin, also known as mahi,  cut out the bloodline running down the middle.
  2. Set three bowls on your counter, 2 medium one large.  To the first medium bowl add 1 cup all-purpose flour.  The second medium bowl is to hold the egg mixture.  And to the large bowl mix the remaining flour, cornmeal, seasoning and pepper.
  3. Cover a large cookie sheet with tin foil and place cooling racks on the cookie sheet.  Yes, the same cooling racks you would use for a hot dish or to cool baked goods.  That way air will circulate around your fish and keep the cornmeal from getting wet and soggy.
  4. Lightly dredge a piece of fish in the flour, dip into the egg mixture then roll in cornmeal mixture.  Place on cooling rack over foil lined cookie sheet to keep dry.  Continue to the next piece until all fish has been coated in cornmeal flour mixture.
  5. Into your largest skillet add 2 inches of oil and heat oil to 350°.  When temperature has been reached, and ONLY then, add 4 or 5 fish fillets to the pan but don’t overcrowd!!  Make sure there’s space between each fillet so they don’t steam.
  6. When bottom of fish is golden turn each fillet over.  The whole process takes only a few minutes.
  7. Drain on paper bags or paper towels.
  8. Serve with hot sauce on the side.

Old Bay Shrimp with Homemade Cocktail Sauce

It’s Lent.  A time of reflection and sacrifice.  And frustration.  I mean redemption.  In this house that means no meat.  None.  Not even chicken.  And that’s every Mom’s go-to protein.  Chicken doesn’t even make it out of the freezer for 40 days and 40 nights.  Jimmy and I always laugh at how all we want is super hot chicken wings.  Not fried… baked, to a crispy, bone sucking engorgement.  We have fish and lots of shrimp but after a while defeat and resignation set in and you don’t even try to pretend to be satisfied with panko shrimp, tarragon salmon or deep-fried, cornmeal dusted dolphin.  Jimmy and I are meant for each other because he wants the drumstick part of the wings while all I want is that little, skinny, crispy, wing thing.  But that’s not going to happen for a while.  When I was growing up Lent was absolutely miserable.  Dad and Grandpa would go every Friday to Bahia Mar where, at that time, they sold freshly caught fish to the public.  There weren’t any charter boats, just fishing and pleasure.  They’d bring home some fresh pompano or snapper, cleaned and fileted.  Cynthia and I would just die.  Mama would take that fish, put it in a Pyrex dish, dot it with a little “oleo” and put it in the oven for 45 minutes or so.  Then she’d pull it out and look at it, we’d hear her murmuring to herself, “Well, you never know…it IS fish…I’d better bake it a little longer”.  Half an hour later, “Everybody”, she’d sing out, “Dinner’s ready!!” It was just vile.  Pair THAT with a few boiled wax beans or boiled broccoli florets and a glass of milk and that just about sums up a Friday night dinner at the Wattley’s.  No salt, no pepper, no garlic, no NUTHIN’.  It was grim.  Tonight we’re having cold Old Bay shrimp with homemade cocktail sauce and Caesar salad.  Way better than freshly caught pompano baked for an hour and a half…”oooohhhh, I don’t know…it IS fish.”  I know I make Mama sound just awful but, other than her attempts at cooking, she was really terrific.  She ALWAYS looked like a million bucks, lipstick and jewelry on, not a hair out-of-place.  A rockin’ little figure, too, and that’s after FOUR kids.  We had a carpool for school, and other moms would drive us with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths, curlers in their hair and their bathrobes on.  I’m talking about wealthy, socially prominent women, NOT hausfrauen.  And they swore.  They didn’t want to be there, probably had the hangover of death, and they had to drive children four minutes away to grade school.  Mama didn’t smoke.  And Mama never, ever swore.  I remember one argument we had, we were always butting heads, and Mama raised her voice at me and said, “Do you want me to be like those OTHER mothers?  HHHHMMMM?  The ones who use that word, YOU KNOW”.   And she spelled it out, “F-O-U-C-K!”  That’s how foreign it was to her.   She didn’t even know how to spell it, she would just as soon have stood on her head than say a dirty word.  And Mama was the very example of decorum.  Only don’t give her a piece of fish to cook.  So, here’s to a Friday with flavor.  Did I mention how much better Jimmy and feel going without meat?  Unbelievably better.  But no worries.  We’ll be back to cow and pig soon enough.

You’ll want to make your cocktail sauce first so it can chill properly.  It’s unbelievably easy and tastes a thousand times better than bottled stuff.  I love ice-cold shrimp so I prepare both sauce and shrimp in the afternoon to give both enough time in the refrigerator.  I buy the largest shrimp I can afford and try to get the e-z peel ones as they’ve been deveined as well.  One less step for me.  I lean towards pick-up food to serve with it, since your hands get a little damp from the shrimp.  So asparagus chilled with a lemon vinaigrette or haricot vert with the same vinaigrette pair with the shrimp nicely.  Some garlic, whole grain crostini and, baby, looks like you’ve got dinner.

 

 

 

Old Bay Shrimp with Homemade Cocktail Sauce

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Cocktail Sauce

  • 1 12 ounce bottle chili sauce, I like Heinz
  • 1 5 ounce bottle prepared horseradish, NOT sauce. I like extra hot.
  • 1/2 lemon, juiced

Mix one half of the chili sauce, 2 or 3 teaspoons of horseradish and the lemon juice.  Taste and adjust to your liking.  Chill until ready to serve.
Old Bay Shrimp

  • 2 pounds of the largest shrimp you can afford, try to get e-z peel.  If e-z peel’s not available you’re going to have to devein but leave the shell on all those shrimp.  It’s a bit of work and you want to leave the shells on as they help keep the shrimp tender.  If you do have to devein, using a small, sharp knife, cut just through the shell, from the outside, starting from the tail to the top.  Carefully pull out the dirt line and move to the next shrimp.  I’d REALLY try to get e-z peel if I were you.
  • 2 tablespoons Old Bay Seasoning
  • 1-2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 cup white or apple cider vinegar
  • 1 cup water

In a medium, non-reactive pot, combine Old Bay, salt, vinegar and water.  Bring to a boil and add shrimp making sure to cover shrimp well with liquid.  Cover, turn off heat and steam ’til tender.   It only takes a few minutes.  Make sure not to boil or overcook.  Oh my gosh, they’re so good!   And cold the next day?  Sublime.

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Puerto Rican Roast Pork

My parents always stressed that the best godparents are family members.  Friends come and go, but family is a constant.  They’re forever there for you.  So why did they pick friends to be my godparents?  Never knew them.  Never saw them.  So I adopted Cynthia’s godparents as my own.  Our aunt and uncle in Puerto Rico, whom we affectionately named, Madrinita, little godmother, and Panino, apparently we couldn’t pronounce godfather, Padrino.  The nerve-center of our family was our grandparents house, where Panino lived until he married and where Madrinita still lives today.  Panino bought a house down the street from them and is, also, still there.  My grandparent’s house is old, with cool, thick walls, incredibly high ceilings, typically Spanish styled.  Panino’s room was across from my grandfather’s, and we weren’t allowed in his room unless he was there and he issued the “okay”.  Those were the rules.   Panino was the uncle who would come home late from the University, he was in graduate school, and in a loud voice ask my mother, who would be on the second floor, front balcony, with my grandparents, aunts and any visiting uncle, “Oye! Y donde estan las nenas?”, “Hey! Where are the girls?”.  All the rocking chairs would freeze mid-rock as my mother would try to explain that as four and six-year olds, we had long been in bed and was he aware of how late it was?  He would hear none of it!  Under hissed threats  that he better not wake us, he’d happily sail into our bedroom, throw on the light and loudly wake us up.  “Nenas! Nenas! Depiertate!  Quien quiere helado de coco?  Vamonos!  Vamonos! A Los Chinitos!”.  “Girls! Girls!  Wake up!  Who wants coconut sherbet?  Let’s go!  Let’s go!  To The Chinitos!”  You can only imagine my mother’s futile protestations falling on Panino’s deaf bachelor ears.  And, so, at eleven o’clock at night, off we’d go in our nightgowns and tennis shoes to get ice cream.  He was that special uncle who took us everywhere.  My aunts would all laugh and say, “Don’t ever go off with Panino!  He’ll hold you hostage in his car all day and you’ll never get home!”  That was just fine by us.  Countless times he took Cynthia and me up into the mountains that were only a beautiful, foggy haze from the balcony at home.  We would spend the whole day just exploring, exotic territory to us.  The trip home was never a let-down because during the treacherous ride down the mountain’s snake-like roads with hairpin turns, Panino would open the moon roof of his Peugeot, and driving as fast as he possibly could, would let his nieces at four and six little years old, STAND UP IN THE CAR, TORSOS HANGING OUT THE MOON ROOF, ARMS UP IN THE AIR, screaming in sheer delight with reckless abandon!  Oh, yeah.  That was Panino.  A cool uncle.  He’s quite the holistic, yoga-loving being and evolved into a vegetarian, eschewing meat with outrage, sometimes to the point of alienating his siblings.  Years later he “kidnapped” Pamela and me, along with our babies, James and Catherine.  We stopped and picked up a gallon of milk for the little ones and, loaded with diapers, bottles and no car seats, off we went to the mountains.  What a beautiful time!   We meandered through picturesque, colonial towns, the babies dozing or having their bottles.  When it was time to refill the bottles one of us would hold the gallon of milk, the other the baby bottle, all the while trying to hold on to our babies.  If you can visualize that, then you can imagine the amount of milk that splashed and spilled all over the back floor of his car.  We didn’t say anything partly because we didn’t want to get in trouble and partly because we knew Panino didn’t want to hear about it.  Our final stop before the trip back home was to stop at one of the many road-side stands for some Roast Pork, whole pig on a spit.  It was delicious.  Tender and intense with the flavors of garlic and oregano, we gorged ourselves.  Panino would have none, none!,  but smiled, indulgently remembering the addicting song of the pork-siren.  For dessert we ate big, mega-crisp shards of the roasted pig skin, cuerito.  It’s one of the few times in life when it would be a bona fide sin to even entertain the thought of how incredibly unhealthful this stuff is.  We made our way back home, tired and sticky, the fullness of the day exhausting us.  Kissing Panino goodbye, we thanked him for the day and struggled into the house with Jamesy and Catherine in our arms, trying to keep hold of all our baby accoutrement.  The following day we ran into Panino’s wife, Lucy, and after the requisite kisses and pleasantries, we excitedly asked her about the boxed roasted pig and fried pig skin Panino had taken home to her.  “What pig?”, she asked, “What are you talking about?”  “The pig, the roasted pig Panino brought you.  With the big piece of cuero on top?  Did you like it?  Wasn’t it so good?”  Panino, the meat-free, tofu touting, vegetarian had eaten all of it on the two-block drive from our grandparent’s house to his house!  Then Lucy asked, “By the way, do you girls know what’s on the floor of his car?  In the backseat?  It just smells awful!  Did the babies get sick?”  “Gosh, we don’t know..” and “No, no.  We left it just the way we found it.  We have no idea”, we chorused.  Right.  Pamela and I ran upstairs and just fell on the floor laughing, imagining the sour, rank smell of the milk left overnight in a 118° closed-up car.  We screamed thinking of the milk becoming rancid, clumpy curd.!  And fetid, sour globs of cheese!  We just howled.  “Gosh, we don’t know…!”  We still laugh.  And we love Panino all the more for it!

Panino, at 17, playing Zorro. All the boys had their own horses. As all nice girls, Mama and my aunts, her sisters, were relegated to the house to read, write poetry or do needlework. Oh, wait! I forgot they had china dolls to play with, too.  Doesn’t THAT make everything better?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Puerto Rican Roast Pork, Pernil

  • Servings: 12-14
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

This is one fabulous, easy and incredibly delicious dish.  If you change it up in terms of times and ingredients, well, it just won’t be the same.  You can change amounts of ingredients but there are so few that anything left out is truly noticeable.  That said, here are the basics.  You want to get a pork shoulder picnic cut.  Notice in the picture above the thick layer of fat?  You want that.  Not only will it keep the meat moist and add tons of flavor, but the end result is the crispy outer skin, the “cuero”, which is great to hand out to those friends and relatives you need to get in good graces.  I usually use a 7-10 pound shoulder, lots of freshly minced garlic, dried oregano, salt and pepper, all which are your key ingredients.  You’re going to marinate the meat the before serving, 24 hours prior is plenty of time.  Put the following ingredients in a mortar and pestle, a “pilon”, and mash to a paste.  If you don’t have one, finely mince the garlic.  I guess you could use that already minced garlic in a jar, but I go the old fashion way and do it by hand in the “pilon”.  Here’s the marinade:

  • 2 heads of garlic, cloves peeled and mashed or finely minced
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 2-4 teaspoons of salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

Mix well.  Holding the skinny end of the bone and using a sharp knife, start one, continuous cut between the fat layer and the meat until you have one huge flap of fat all the way back to the beginning of the skinny bone end.  Flip the fat over the skinny bone so the meat is exposed.  With the knife make incisions all over the meat, that way the marinade will work its way into the meat and further flavor it.  Sprinkle salt all over the inside of the fat, but just the fat, not the meat.  Using your hands, spread and rub the marinade all over the meat, sides, bottom  and especially where the fat was cut.  Fold the fat layer back over the meat, sprinkle with salt, cover and refrigerate for 24 hours.

The meat needs to cook for 5 or 6 hours and to come to room temperature before roasting or it will steam.  Bleh.  It  won’t crisp up and will cook to a gray shade.  So, take the meat out of the refrigerator for at least one hour before putting in the oven.  Preheat the oven to 400° and back to the meat.  It needs to roast in a deep pan because there will be a lot of grease.  Put the meat fat side up in the pan, you will never turn the meat.  Once more, fat side up for some outrageous cueritos, and at no point will you cover it.  Place the meat into the 400° oven for one hour and then drop the temperature to 300° for the rest of the cooking time.  When the meat shreds easily with a fork it is done.  If the cuero is not crispy enough for you, take the meat out of the oven, raise the temperature back to 400°, and put back into the oven when the temperature has been reached for 15-20 minutes or until it’s crispy. Remove from oven and let the meat rest uncovered for at least 30 minutes before carving.  Take the cuero off and scrape off any uncooked fat that might be left.  While the meat rests, break the cuero into pieces and enjoy with your guests.  It’s really good with cocktails or beer.  Scrape any fat off the meat, carve and serve.  If you take this dish to a party don’t cover or box up the cuero or it’ll turn into mushy, nasty fat.  Buen provecho.  And Boricua love.

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House Salad, Unplugged

When we were in high school, summer was incredible!  Just about everyday was spent at the same beach, with the same friends, doing the same things…a whole bunch of nothing!!  For some reason, I was responsible for my little brother and sister so, like it or not, they went to the beach with me.  All day, everyday.  We’d get to the beach at maybe  ten or eleven in the morning and I wouldn’t see them again for another good five or six hours! Nice, huh?  We’d unload the car and somewhere between the pool and the bar we’d go our separate ways.  I’d find my girlfriends, they were all ready oiled up, so I would break out my Ban de Soleil grease and lie back for a couple of HOURS of sun and a Diet Coke!!  Can you imagine lying in the sun for a couple of HOURS?  It’s not all the alcohol I’ve had that makes me look so bad… it’s all that sun!  After a few hours of heat and gossip my friend Andrea, we called her Ang, just like Barney called Andy in “The Andy Griffith Show”, would ask, “anybody want to go play Mermaid?” “Yeah.  Sure.  I’ll go.”, I would answer.  Y’all need to know we were the ONLY ones who EVER played “Mermaid”.  It was a long walk down the beach to the jetties which was the only place we played “Mermaid”.  For those of you who don’t know, the jetties is a man-made barrier of enormous, stacked boulders forming the north side of the mouth of Port Everglades, cruise ship capital of the world.  Well, ever so carefully we would climb up and down those rocks, slowly making our way to the end of the point.  It seemed so far, the waves would just crash against those rocks.  We didn’t dare look around or even think about what we were doing because one slip and we would have fallen far, far down those rocks and split our heads open like a Crenshaw melon!!  It was well worth it, tho!  When we were finally standing on top of the very last boulder, we’d fluff our hair and wait for a cruise ship.  Let the game begin!  We’d hear the bellowing horn of a ship announcing it’s departure, and see the mammoth vessel inching its way to sea, decks packed with pasty, white Midwesterners in their Hawaiian shirts frantically waving.  Ang and I would WHIP OFF OUR BATHING SUIT TOPS AND WAVE TOPLESS… LIKE MERMAIDS!!  Long, slow waves to all those old people!  We’d sway back and forth as if listening to “Hey, Jude”!  Jaws dropped.  Women scowled. We’d laugh and smile.  We were happy.  We were stars.  Some years back when Andrea’s mom was going though chemo, I wanted to take her mind off things so I told her about how we played Mermaid.  She looked so resigned.  She dropped her head and looked away.  But when she looked back up, was she laughing!!  Her eyes sparkled! Did she ever howl over that one!!  I like that memory.  A little later we’d head back for lunch and order the same thing, day in, day out, no matter who was there, this lunch was a constant.  Our favorite summer lunch was an iced coffee with milk, and a small dinner salad with blue cheese dressing, “just a little, please!” We would linger over that lunch FOR EVER.  And that’s all we had all day.  That’s it.  Well, maybe another Diet Coke to take back to the pool.  That salad was always soooo good!  Cold and crunchy with lots of cracked black pepper and little bits of blue cheese.  Sometime in the late afternoon, the sun would begin to set and I’d realize I still had my little brother and sister to track down.  After gathering them up, we’d make that long, hot trek across the asphalt back to my car.  My car.  I loved my little car, but in the summer it was a hot box, an inferno, a portable heater, AND too small for air conditioning.  Top down, still hot as blue blazes, we’d drive over to the graveyard on SR 84.  It was always open and anyone could go in.  The road inside was really curvy and wound around and around.  In the summertime it seemed like the gargantuan cemetery sprinklers were always on.  So, top down, we’d fly through whooping and hollering, the kids screaming when that cold water hit!  It was glorious!   Wet and happy, we’d head home.  It was a GOOD summer!

This is my House Salad which can be served as a side salad or main course.  It pairs beautifully with everything!  Anything grilled or jerked, seafood, chicken, pork, even more vegetables.  Tonight we’re having my House Salad with grilled medallions of eggplant on garlic whole grain crostini.  Because Gorgonzola is kind of strong, I’m careful not to add too much otherwise it will dwarf the buttery mildness of the avocado and peach-like flavor of the mango.  Hey!  Peach would be good in this!  Just make certain the avocado and whatever kind of fruit you’re using are ripe.  The ingredients really compliment each other.  You’ll love it!!  It’ll make you feel like a Mermaid!

House Salad

Yield:  4 side salads or 2-3 as main course

  • 1 large head leaf lettuce, washed, dried and cut into bite size pieces
  • 1 ripe mango, peeled and chopped into 1/4″ pieces, be careful – they’re slippery!
  • 1 ripe Haas avocado, chopped into 1/4″ pieces
  • 2-3 scallions, finely chopped
  • 1/2 red bell pepper, washed, seeded and finely chopped
  • 1/3-1/2 cup Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
  • 2-3 tbls. good olive oil
  • 1-2 tbls. white vinegar
  • freshly ground black pepper to taste
  1. In a large bowl, combine all ingredients, toss gently.
  2. To avoid a wilted salad, serve immediately.

Greek Stuffed Peppers

Jimmy was 24 years old the first time he went to Greece.  It was the 1973.  He went with his childhood friend, Peter.  Remember?  Jimmy’s mama and Mrs. Scarlatos, Peter’s mama, used to pick greens together on the side of the road in Boston?  You remember.  Anyway, Peter and Jimmy had gone to Greece together and were on the island of Paros.  There they were, with a bunch of their friends from Boston AND girls.  They were having a blast.  They hiked to ruins, then at night, would descend upon tavernas, welcomed and embraced warmly by the locals who treated them as the long, lost greek children they truly were.  They hung out on the beaches, talking, laughing, enjoying that ultimate luxury, the casual passing of time during a long, hot summer.  And GIRLS.  Jimmy tried not to think of the side trip he had to make.  While all the other kids were playing and having the times of their lives, HE had to go to Moria, his family’s ancestral village, on the island of Lesvos.  Moria.  What he knew would be a rinky-dink town, some outpost of nowhere, Mr.  Alighieri’s Fifth Hell.  Kill me now.  He was not happy.  Resigned and defeated, Jimmy left the good time on Paros, boarded the over-night ferry and arrived at the port of Mytilini the following morning.  He made the hour long trip to Moria on a tired, dilapidated, old bus and arrived mid-morning, hot and sweaty, sporting long hair, an unruly beard and an all-around generic american hippie look.  Not pretty.  Keep in mind, he’s from Boston.  Looks don’t count.  He walked through the village, trying to recognize houses and landmarks from the many years of stories told by his mother.  Outside an ordinary house, he saw an older woman bent over sweeping her courtyard, clouds of hot dust swirling about her, she oblivious to the heat, wearing the requisite long black dress and head modestly covered with a scarf.  He approached her, politely asking, “Signome…,” “Pardon…”, but before he could continue she whirled about with a fiercely protective scowl on her face and replied, “OHI!”  “NO!”  “Go away, tourist!  Go away!” and waved her broom at him, making it perfectly clear, one more step and you’ll be feeling this broom, Yankee fool.  She was not to be trifled with.  Throwing his arms up to protect his head and face he screamed, “Ohi! Ohi, Thea Vasiliki!  Paragalo!  Eimai Dimitri, o anipsios apo tyn Ameriki!” “No, no, Aunt Vasiliki!  Please!  I’m Dimitri, your nephew from America!”  WELL.  That poor woman threw her broom in the air, ran to Jimmy and flung herself on his hippie self, crying and laughing, all the while frantically making the sign of the cross, over and over.  She welcomed him into the house where he sat down.  She knelt down before him and began untying his hiking boots.  “Thea, what are you doing?  Get up.  You don’t need to do that.”  And she replied with a little more than a bit of defiance in her voice, “I took your brother Peter’s shoes off.  I took your brother George’s shoes off.  I WILL take your shoes off.”  It was a wonderful two days.  Jimmy assured her over and over that her sister, so, so far away from her family and homeland, was fine.  His cousin, Dimitri, had a motorcycle and showed Jimmy the island, up to the mountains and back down to the beaches.  Cousin Dimitri showed Hippie Dimitri the ancient, Roman aqueduct which sat on the outskirts of the family property, and the horio, the village, with all its hiding places and secret spots.  Cousin Dimitri threw out the challenge, “I hear all Americans drink ouzo with water.”  Jimmy replied, “I don’t.”  Cousin Dimitri said, “I hear all Americans drink ouzo with ice.”  “I don’t”, again Jimmy answered.  Challenge met, they became the best of friends, the best of brothers.  Together they tried  the different kinds of ouzo, all the while, Thea Vasiliki cooked and baked her heart out.  I can’t say this enough, but it’s ALL about family.

This was one of the dishes prepared by Thea Vasiliki, typically Greek, unpretentious and incredibly savory.  Yemistes, stuffed vegetables.  It is an extremely easy and forgiving dish.  You can stuff tomatoes, bell peppers, zucchini, squash, onions…anything that will hold stuffing.  And you can stuff as many or as few as you’d like.  The filling is also extremely versatile.  Brown or white rice can be used.  Ground lamb or ground beef, or no meat.  It’s all good.  I add shredded zucchini  sometimes or use zucchini wedges in between the vegetables to keep them from toppling on their sides.  Typically, potato wedges are used to keep the stuffed vegetables upright, but as I’m desperately trying to hang on to the last vestiges of my girlish figure I have to stick a lower carb leveling utensil.  The herbs used in the stuffing, again, may be substituted to fit your tastes or mood.  Fresh dill, mint and flat-leafed parsley are usually my choice but fresh thyme, rosemary or marjoram are also wonderful.  If you find fresh marjoram and have never tried it, pick it up.  Try it.  It tastes like perfume in an herb.  I’m crazy about it.  Today I used a small package of ground lamb.  Lamb is great, because it’s so flavorful you don’t need much to get that “meat heft” and flavor in your dish.  Oh, and a great way to stretch this is to buy large vegetables and cut them in half lengthwise to stuff.  The Greeks are crazy about these stainless steel round baking dishes, shown in the photograph above.  They come in varying diameters but the height is typically 2 1/2 inches high.  They’re used not only for yemiste, stuffed vegetables, but also spinach pie, baklava, and most dishes requiring phyllo dough.  Jimmy always gets irritated with me when we go to the Greek market because I always want to buy another one.  I have two now.  One medium in size and the other monstrous.  Great for parties.  But I feel you can never have too many.  I’ll let you know when he springs for another.

 

 

Greek Stuffed Vegetables

  • Servings: 4 large peppers and 8 tomatoes
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

  • 1 pound ground lamb, browned and drained
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 large bunch mint, leaves chopped
  • 1 large bunch dill, chopped
  • 1 large bunch flat-leaf parsley, leaves chopped
  • 4 cups short grain, brown rice, or rice of your choice, cooked
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 4 large peppers or as many as you’d like
  • 8 tomatoes or as many as you’d like
  • 3 or 4 zucchini cut into wedges or 1 or 2 potatoes if you’d rather, none it your vegetables fit snugly into their baking dish

Cousin Dimitri with Hippie Dimitri, still drinking ouzo!

  1. Preheat oven to 375°.
  2. Add onion to same pan as cooked, drained ground lamb, stirring, cook onion until clear.
  3. Add garlic and herbs, stirring all the while.
  4. When herbs have wilted, add rice and salt and pepper. Mix well and set aside.
  5. Cut tops off of peppers, set aside, and cut ribs and seeds and discard.
  6. Cut the tops off the tomatoes and set aside.  With a thin spoon, I use a soup spoon, scoop out insides of tomatoes being careful not to poke a hole through the flesh.  Set the innards aside and if it looks as though you won’t have sufficient filling, chop up the tomato cores and add to stuffing to stretch it out.  Just see how it goes.
  7. Spray non-stick spray to baking dish and spoon filling into vegetables, placing upright in baking dish.  Now’s the time for the zucchini or potato wedges.  Tuck them where needed to keep your fruits of labor from toppling over and spilling their filling.
  8. For tomatoes and peppers, add the tops previously cut off.
  9. Carefully, add water to bottom of baking dish, maybe 1/2 to 1 inch.
  10. Cover tightly with tin foil and bake for a good hour, hour and a half.  Drop temperature to 350° if your oven is too hot.  Vegetables are done when tender.

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