Punt the pumpkin, we love apple

For all the years that my neighbor and I have made Thanksgiving apple pies, pie is still mysterious to me. She and I have met to bake on the day before Thanksgiving for a while now. And we don’t do pumpkin. Live with it. There’s a lot of touch and feel involved in making the pie crust; gray areas and adaptations. Humid weather means less ice water added to the flour, salt, shortening and butter. Dry weather calls for more. The result should not be too wet nor too dry; definitely a judgment call. This is how my neighbor, Cathy, says it should look – those are her hands, so you can trust the photo.

We wrap the dough in wax paper and let it sit for at least 20 minutes on the counter, during which time we face the apples. A lot of apples – at least 2 1/2 pounds per pie. Opinions vary on the thinness of the slices. Another neighbor, who couldn’t join us today, insists on uniform, paper-slices of apple. She has often found my slicing wanting and demoted me from peeling to bagging up the remains for the compost. Today, I have to say, we did not adhere to her rules. Cathy, my husband and I sliced as best we could.

Besides sugar and vanilla, we add cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg to the apples. We also add our secret ingredient: two tablespoons of my home-spiced rum (gold rum with cinnamon, allspice and vanilla bean left in it for, oh, two years now). Rolling out the crust is a tricky process made easier by Cathy’s pastry cloth with 8- and 9-inch pie shapes printed on it a (I need one of those) and the “sock” for her rolling pin. When the crust is in the pan, the apples are mounded way higher than you think they’d need to be. We make ample pies.

The top crust goes on, followed by a two-finger crimping process that I still have yet to master. Cathy’s look like magazine photos; mine like like a kindergartner worked on them. The secret is wrapping the top crust around the edge of the bottom crust first, then doing the twist-crimp thing. I can only hope people will be too busy snarfing it up to look at mine.

The aroma that fills the kitchen as the pies cook – vanilla and sweetness, toasty apple – beat the squash off pumpkin, I say. And no matter what their little imperfections might be, I think homemade pies are like brides: they are all beautiful. Especially with the dusting of cinnamon sugar and the cute little cutout of an apple that Cathy adorns them with.

A great find

When you consider the many tragedies caused by Hurricane Katrina, lost recipes may seem insignificant. But, as Judy Walker and Marcelle Bienvenu write in their new cookbook: “Food is family. Food is culture. Food is life.” Especially in a city like New Orleans.

Their cookbook, “Cooking Up a Storm: Recipes Lost and Found from The Times-Picayune of New Orleans,” is filled with celebration and love amid the devastation of the hurricane. The fascinating story behind the book begins with people of the city seeking those foods they loved and lost. Floods took cookbook collections. Families were scattered to places that knew nothing of etouffee or crawfish. A few weeks after the storm, food editor Walker began getting letters. People craved the spaghetti recipe from a fondly remembered restaurant. A mirliton casserole recipe like Grandmother’s. A favorite oyster recipe from a long-gone plantation.

About two months after Katrina, Walker started a project in the TImes-Picayune: “Rebuilding New Orleans, Recipe by Recipe.” She asked readers not only to ask for missing recipes but also to share ones they had through a column called “Exchange Alley.” People asked for everything from replacements for old family recipes to dishes from well-known restaurants. And stories came with the requests. One reader wrote that she broke both legs during the storm and could not reach the hospital for two days. Her concern in the letter: Persuading Walker to produce a cookbook of these beloved recipes for residents who lost all of theirs.

The result is 250 classic New Orleans recipes. More than that, this book is a tribute to the healing power of food, its place in our lives, and to the determined residents of the shattered city.

A John Hancock from Debbie

When my husband and I watch Antiques Roadshow, there’s usually an autographed something-or-other that turns out to be worth millions of dollars. My signature, however, will be worth nothing in later years not only because am I not THAT famous (except among deviled-egg lovers) but also because I will sign virtually anything, anytime, anywhere. Those poor Antiques Roadshow folks won’t be able to give ‘em away.

For me, the fun of signings is the chance to talk to people, to find out what they’re cooking and why. But I know that many people enjoy having signed copies of books, yet aren’t able to be near me and my lucky pen. (Yes, I have a lucky pen; try to swipe it and you’ll draw back a nub.)

So, if you purchase one of my cookbooks (at your favorite independent bookstore, hopefully) and would like a signature, email me with the following: Your name and address, the name I should sign the book to, and any special message. I will sign an adhesive bookplate, which you can affix in your very own book, and mail it to you.

However, don’t expect to make a killing on Antiques Roadshow later on.

Veg out

I ate my way through three states in October, including the annual pork-fest that is the Southern Foodways Alliance annual symposium in Oxford, MS. My husband and I determined that everything we consumed (except, perhaps the desserts and beer, and I’m not so sure about the beer) contained the lovely pig. The final brunch at City Grocery included what was said to be Tabasco-cured bacon, although my pieces didn’t have any heat. But it was bacon, lovely bacon.

Well, now I’m trying to compensate for chewing a path of destruction across state lines (Rendezous ribs in Memphis, mmm….). Time for my classic vegetable soup. It’s nothing fancy. A cup or so of chopped celery and carrots, two cups of chopped onions. Cook those for five minutes or so in olive oil in a soup pot until they’re soft, not brown. Add a cup or so of peeled, chopped potatoes and a can of diced tomatoes (the petite diced are great). Then, at least four cups of chicken stock and/or water, or enough to cover all the ingredients well. Bring the pot to a boil, reduce the heat to simmer, cover the pot and cook for 30 minutes or so.

When time’s up, add a cup or so of chopped cabbage and warm just until the cabbage is done, a few minutes only. You have a simple soup that also freezes great, so make extra.

Provide some chunks of good bread, and this meal hits that ever-elusive spot that we aim for. And makes me think I’m making up for the fried oysters and sausages of the past month.