Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

I hope it’s not too late to send out a hearty Happy Mardi Gras hug to everyone!

Tonight finds me enjoying a new New Orleans tradition my husband has just shared: Eating Zapp’s Spicy Cajun Crawtators potato chips with cream cheese.  (Hey, they don’t call it Low Fat Tuesday!)

Raising a few Abita Turbodogs. Cheers, everyone!

So in honor of the end of carnival season, tell me:
What are you dipping into tonight?

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In LITTLE GALE GUMBO, there’s a scene where Camille shows Ben how to cook gumbo. Like Ben, I learned how to make the famous New Orleans dish from a reliable source: my husband Ian, who is a native New Orleanian and an incredible cook.

I thought it would be fun to have him share a bit of his experience growing up around so much great food.

Tell us about yourself. I was born and raised in New Orleans, and my roots in Louisiana run far back on both sides of my family. My great-grandmother grew up in Houma, Louisiana and spoke only French until she was fifteen when the family moved to New Orleans. One of my favorite stories of hers was how she became Episcopalian which was very unusual for a Cajun. Her family lived so remotely that when my great-great grandfather became gravely ill, the only priest who ventured into the swamp to console him was the Episcopal priest, so when my great-great-grandfather recovered, he switched to the Episcopal Church.

Why do you think food is such a central part of New Orleans culturally? I think it’s a pervasive part of all cultures to have food at special gatherings of family and friends, so New Orleans isn’t unique that way. The difference with New Orleanians is that food is the special occasion and they don’t need the excuse of a holiday or some other big event to eat extravagantly. The vast majority of family gatherings I remember as a kid were because my grandfather got 40 pounds of crawfish or someone gave him a bunch of blue crabs or oysters or whatever was in season at the time.

What are some of your earliest memories of food? My grandparents always made huge vats of gumbo and froze it, so they would always have a bowl of gumbo waiting for me when I came to visit, chock full of blue crab bodies still in the shell.

Crawfish boils were also a big part of growing up. My grandfather would cook the crawfish in these huge tin wash bins and I have very distinct memories of watching him and being amazed at the amount of cayenne pepper and salt he would pour into these boils. Whole jars of cayenne. Then when they were done cooking, he’d dump the steaming crawfish out onto three picnic tables lined up end-to-end and my cousins and I would sit around them and it was always a race to peel the crawfish before they were all gone.

Your grandfather was a shrimper in Lake Pontchartrain for many years. Did you ever get to go with him? Lots of times. What I remember most was getting up at three in morning and getting out on the water and it would be completely dark. While we were trawling, I can remember sitting under the bulkhead and I couldn’t see anything—all I could feel was these big waves hitting the hull and I remember being certain we were going to sink. Then by the time light came, we’d be finished trawling and my job would be to pick the crabs and the fish out of the shrimp. You had to watch out for the small crabs because their pinch was the worst.

Tell us something people may not know about New Orleans food. New Orleanians are not purists when it comes to their food. I remember my grandfather started putting his etouffee over pasta instead of the traditional rice and it became quite popular among his fellow shrimpers.

What’s your favorite New Orleans dish to cook and your favorite to eat? Definitely gumbo. To me, it’s the one dish I most associate with growing up in New Orleans. But I miss those blue crabs.

* * * *

When Ian isn’t teaching his wife how to make traditional New Orleans dishes, he’s teaching Biology and Anatomy.

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Some days you want a flourless torte, some days you want a trifle, some days you want a four-layer Red Velvet.

And some days you just want a good yellow cake.

Writing can be the same way. Sometimes we get so fixated on a “hook”, on coming up with the twist or ending that no one saw coming, that we forget the power in a straightforward, well-developed story.

We can feel as if it’s a competition, to see who can come up with the plot/genre that no one’s thought of before.

Vampires in the dinosaur age?

What about time travel by way of a fast food drive-thru?

It makes me think of the recent trend in the culinary world to kick it up a notch with escalatingly-odd flavor combinations. Sea salt and cumin ice-cream?  Rosemary and espresso potato chips? Sure, why not?! Who cares if it tastes good–it just SOUNDS so cool, right? But the fact is that the flavor is everything,  just as all the twists in the world can’t elevate a story with hollow characters you can’t care about.

Butter, eggs, sugar, vanilla, flour, baking powder, salt and milk.

Characters who want something above all else and are thwarted in their goals.

The recipes aren’t so far apart.

Sure, I like roulades and I like tiramisu. I might even like sea salt and cumin ice cream. But yesterday I craved a basic yellow cake. 

And getting back to the basics never tasted so good.

Care to share any over-the-top flavor combinations (or fiction couplings?) you’ve sampled (or turned down) lately?

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‘Tis the season for some of my very favorite favorites: egg nog and spiced pecans. Now for those of you who’ve never had homemade egg nog, it’s well worth the effort (and the calories). Ditto for the spiced pecans.

Both are family recipes and reside in the well-worn, flour-dusted, sauce-stained pages of my precious homemade cookbook, so allow me to brush off the flour and wipe off the tomato chunks and share them.

Egg Nog:

1. Separate 6 eggs (save the egg whites for later) and beat the yolks
2. Gradually beat in 1 cup of sugar
3. Gradually beat in: 3 cups of milk, 1 cup of heavy cream, 1 cup of brandy and 3/4 ts salt

4. Beat egg whites until stiff; serve egg nog and top with a scoop of the egg whites, sprinkle with nutmeg, if desired.

Spiced Pecans:

1. Melt 8 tbs butter in a bowl
2. Add to melted butter: 8 tsps soy sauce, 10 shakes of Tabasco
3. Add 1 lb of pecans to mixture, stir to coat, then spread on a cookie sheet

4. Roast at 325 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes
5. Let cool thoroughly and sprinkle with 1 tsp of salt

What recipes come out of your cookbook this time of year and this time of year only?

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Who says you need a Thanksgiving turkey to have leftovers?

We roasted a wee chicken (thank you, dear bird) and enjoyed both of the fixings that I’d been looking forward to. Cranberry-pear salsa…

…and mirliton dressing…

which is easy enough to make for any meal:

1. Shell 1/2 lb. uncooked, large domestic shrimp (the Gulf fishermen and the environment will thank you!), save shells and make a stock with them.

2. Boil 2 mirliton in water until tender (you can poke a knife through them), then remove center and cut into cubes.

3. When stock is done, drain and remove from heat, then put uncooked shrimp in stock to semi-cook as the stock cools.

4. Sautee a chopped onion, one bell pepper, three cloves of garlic (minced), a bag of frozen artichoke hearts, salt and pepper, and a cup of chopped celery–when everything is finished cooking, add shrimp and a splash of the stock (so shrimp won’t burn) to allow shrimp to finish cooking (you may want to halve the shrimp since they are the large ones–or just buy medium-sized shrimp).

5. Blend the sautee mix into a casserole dish with remainder of stock (about a cup) then add 1 to 1 1/2 cups of bread crumbs until all the liquid is absorbed. Once it’s at the consistency you want, drizzle olive oil over the top (2 tables.).

6. Bake uncovered at 350 for at least a 1/2 hour until it’s hot all the way through.


But this post isn’t only about food leftovers…

 Lately, I’ve been collecting leftover words, too. In fact, I am becoming an official word-hoarder. When I am editing my WIP, I cut my words (I know they need to go, I do) but I can’t seem to bring myself to erase them FOREVER, so I store them in an ever-growing ADD file, and I’m beginning to wonder if I don’t have a serious problem.

How is it that I can be the queen of the throw-out, avoiding closet clutter and feeling great relief when possessions are whittled down from four boxes into one? No “Hoarders” here. Or so I thought.

So why not let go of the words, Erika? What are you so afraid of? Sure there are some very special lines, ones for the books (yes, pun intended), lines to tell the grandkids about! But if they don’t work (much like the shoes that don’t fit anymore) then WHY KEEP THEM?

Leftovers: Use ’em or lose ’em.

Yay or nay, friends?

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With Thanksgiving fast approaching, I thought it was time to talk turkey for a few minutes. Well–not literally turkey. (In our house, we tend to have seafood during Thanksgiving). Rather, the subject of what tried and true dishes we HAVE to have every Thanksgiving.  The ones that we treasure, the ones that tie us in some way to our past and we can’t imagine being without next Thursday, no matter what.

Now for me, there are two: The first is my mother’s date nut bread, which I have never, NEVER, been able to duplicate (and I suspect there’s some sort of mystical aid during the last part of its cooking wherein a fairy slips through the oven door and glosses down the top, because my top always remained as matte as Madonna’s lipstick during her Blonde Ambition days.)

The other dish is a Cranberry-Pear relish that I got out of a Fine Cooking years ago. I start to think about making it in mid-September, run out of saliva anticipating it in October, and finally get to assemble the ingredients in Novemebr (yes, I’ve got most of them already).

For my husband Ian, it’s mirliton dressing. One of his most distinct memories of growing up in New Orleans was that his great-grandfather had mirlitons growing along his chain-link fence, so the family would have the dressing every Thanksgiving.

Now in all my years in New Orleans, I knew of mirliton, knew there was even a Mirliton Fesitval, but I had never had any prepared. Well, that is all about to change. This year, Ian is finally making us mirliton dressing. He picked up a pair of mirlitons from the store today. Now I haven’t the vaguest idea of how or what is involved in this dish, all I know is this:

First of all, just look at these things. How can you not love a food that looks like an old man’s mouth after he’s taken out his teeth and then sucked the pulp out of ten lemons?

Are you as excited as I am? More? Hmm, I thought so.

Now tell me–what dish HAS to be on your table at Thanksgiving–and how did it first get there?

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When I was a second-year student at Hampshire College, I joined the food co-op, Mixed Nuts, which is a collectively-owned grocery store where students could (and still can) get wonderful natural, organic foods at affordable prices. Once a week, I would join other Hampsters in the co-op’s little store and help organize shipments of granola, dried fruits, whole wheat flour, seasonal veggies, chocolate chips, and, my personal favorite, bulk spices. To this day, every time I add cumin to a dish and enjoy that smoky scent, I am transported to that time and place. It always makes me smile.

As writers we all know the power of description to draw our readers to our setting and our moods, and there is quite possibly no other sense as evocative as smell.  Some smells are universal; the smell of the ocean, salty, rich, sometimes sour with the tide. But others are more personal: ie, my cumin association.

Using the sense of smell in writing can be tricky. What evokes for one reader, may not for another. So what to do? All day long, we inhale and we smell. Some of us have stronger noses than others, and some of us find some smells comforting while others find the suggestion stomach-turning (See: Skunk musk).

Here’s a perfect example: as a child, I used to ride the bus from Portland, Maine with my grandmother to her home in New York City. This was in the 70’s, the old days when you could smoke in the back rows, and as a child I always waited for that first whiff of a freshly lit cigarette to waft down to the front where my grandmother and I always sat. To me, the smell meant travel, new places and the excitement of the road. Now, no matter the ill-advised health implications of this memory, to this day, if I am walking along and catch a faraway whiff of a just-lit cigarette, my mind returns immediately to that Greyhound bus and joyful thoughts of impending adventure. Not exactly a textbook scent to evoke warm, cozy feelings, is it? But to me, it’s as real as it gets.

So where am I going with all this smell talk? Well, I think as writers, scents are one of the hardest AND easiest ways to pull our readers into a scene, for the reason I just presented. Smells are so personal–and so powerful. How do we best harness that power in our writing?

What do you think?

And what smell association do you have in your bag of tricks that means the world to you?

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It’s growing chilly here. Nights are falling to the thirties.

Bread Pudding with Chocolate and Orange Zest

Leaves are falling too–albeit often on 80 degree days, but like I said, the nights are cold–so cold we put off our camping trip for one more day when the temps will be a wee bit higher in the overnight…

So when the weather shifts and the chill grows, I yearn for bread pudding. Okay, so I yearn for it when it’s a 110 heat index, but I really crave it when it’s cold.

Maybe it’s the brandy. Maybe it’s the warm custard infused with vanilla and orange zest. Maybe it’s the brandy. Maybe it’s the melted chunks of dark chocolate on the crusty edges of the bread. Maybe it’s the raisins plumped in a 24-hour marinade of…brandy.

I know. Suddenly you’re Cookie Monster from Christmas Eve on Sesame Street and you’re ready to pluck off those little black keys on your keyboard, because they so resemble those fat, soaked raisins…aren’t you?

The recipe is relatively simple–cube a loaf of crusty white bread, soak it in a custard of half n half, heavy cream, vanilla and eggs overnight, also soak (overnight) a cup and a half of raisins in a cup and change of brandy and lots of orange

Can't I just eat it like this? Do I HAVE to cook it?

zest–mix them together with a few TBS of the brandy reserve (and keep on reserving that reserve to pour over the finished pudding…) and bake with chopped chocolate pieces over the top for 30-35 mins at 325.

Anyone else have a winter-warmer favorite?

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Seafood paella, any way you want it.

When my husband and I decided to make paella this weekend, we went in search of the definitive recipe.

Well. It turns out there isn’t a definitive recipe for paella–so far as we could tell. Some use artichoke hearts, others use green beans; some say steam the mussels before the end, others say wait; some use white wine, others don’t.

This isn’t surprising. Much like gumbo, there are as many different recipes as there are people making it. That’s part of what makes the dish so much fun. There isn’t a right way or a wrong way. Except for one: it tastes good or it doesn’t. The only true test of what is right and wrong is the end result.

Which got me thinking about how we all plot our stories. We’ve all heard the cry of the storytelling cynic who insists there are only a handful of plots in the world and that every story is essentially a version of one of those few templates.  For some reason, this theory instills despair in lots of writers, but I don’t think it should.

Look at fashion. Clothing can be divided into essentially four main pieces: pants, dresses, shirts and skirts. Yet as far as I can tell, we never feel limited in those selections, simply because within those few basic components are an endless array of choices to make them unique. Fabric choices (cotton, wool, silk…), styles (bootleg, short-sleeve, turtleneck, pencil…), colors (red, emerald, black…) You get the picture.

So what if you happen to glance through the weekend book reviews or PM deals and you read about “the book you are already writing!” Well, here’s the thing: At this very minute, lots and lots of people are writing stories, and chances are someone is writing one very close to the one you’re writing.

I say, so what.

Just as there are many ways to make a good paella or a good gumbo, there are many ways to write the same story as Joan is writing, or Peter, or Frank. What matters isn’t that you invent the entrée, but that you make it so tasty your diner wants a second bowl. It will be your ingredients and your cooking that will make it your own dish.

In other words, don’t worry if someone else writes your story before you get to it.  As our mothers used to say: Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing.

Write your story and write it well.

And second helpings will follow.

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As you may have read in my post on my journey to publication, my husband and I left New Orleans three days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall. This coming weekend will be an emotional commemoration, especially for those of us who no longer live in New Orleans but still feel a deep affection and longing for the city that, every day, continues to rise above the challenges it has faced.

As my forthcoming novel LITTLE GALE GUMBO is in part a tribute to my love of New Orleans and its unmatched culture and history, I thought I would offer another tribute with today’s post by giving our family recipe for red beans and rice, a quintessential New Orleans dish that is traditionally made on Monday (wash-day) but can certainly be made and savored any day (or days!) of the week.

1. Soak one bag of dried beans overnight in enough water that it rises about an inch above the beans. (Don’t use canned beans–they don’t come close–you need the starch of the dried beans to thicken the sauce.)

2. Add beans and water to pot (cast iron is preferable if you have it, or something equally sturdy–we were at a friend’s house here and didn’t have our trusty pot) as well as one onion, chopped, and several cloves of crushed garlic.

3. Heat over medium/high heat until boiling; add several bay leaves, 2 tablespoons of fresh thyme (dried is fine too), salt and pepper to taste.

4. When mixture begins to boil, lower heat to simmer and cover. Leave simmering for at least two hours, stirring occasionally. Add coins of smoked sausage (such as andouille or smoked turkey sausage–it must be smoked otherwise it will fall apart on you when sliced/cooked) to the beans to warm the sausage but don’t overcook. The beans will thicken considerably.

5. Turn off heat. Serve over rice with as much hot sauce as you care for. You can serve immediately or the next day–personally, we prefer to cook it the night before and let it sit in the fridge overnight–the flavors get better with time.

Not too hard to make, very hard not to eat. Enjoy!

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