The great rosemary heist

Night had fallen, and I was trying to get the last few goodies together for holiday gifts. I always wait until the last thing to prepare my famous pecans roasted with rosemary and garlic, so they’ll be fresh, and it was time to roll.

pecans...but no rosemary

pecans…but no rosemary

Then I remembered: Last year’s tundra-like winter had killed my giant rosemary bush. Its replacement was still the size of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, and would yield barely a little spoonful of rosemary.

I knew that my next-door neighbor’s bush had died, too. I called the Queen of Pie down the street; no rosemary in her yard. I mentally raced through others who might have a plant, then remembered that I pass on walks a nearby yard that has several rosemary bushes planted conveniently near the street.

I didn’t know the people who lived there. But, remember, it was dark. I seized my kitchen shears and phone, in case of arrest, and crept down the street. No one was walking dogs. The bushes weren’t quite under the street light, giving me cover. I snipped three long stems and speed-walked back to my house, holding the stems in front of me to prevent detection.

I turned on the oven, rinsed the plants and started chopping. Oddly, I didn’t get that rush of aroma that I usually do when chopping rosemary. I bent to the cutting board and sniffed. The stuff smelled more like a pine tree. I tasted a bit and it was like eating floor cleaner. Those plants looked like rosemary, but they sure weren’t.

After washing out the taste with about a gallon of water and rummaging through my spice collection, I came up with an alternative that wouldn’t poison my friends.

I also changed my cooking method for the pecans after consulting my friend Kathleen Purvis’ book “Pecans: A Savor the South Cookbook.” I had always roasted them in the oven, but Purvis writes that pan-roasting on top of the stove can make it easier to control the heat so the nuts don’t burn.

Not-Rosemary Cajun Pecans

2-3 cups pecan halves

2 tablespoons unsalted butter (you can try olive oil for a variation)

2 teaspoons Cajun seasoning, or more if you like (I make my own salt-free Cajun seasoning. The recipe is in my book “Fan Fare: A Playbook of Great Recipes for Tailgating or Watching the Game at Home.”)

1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika

Salt to taste (Commercial Cajun seasoning blends usually contain salt, often a lot of it, so you may not need more)

Place the pecans in one layer in a large skillet and put over medium heat. Cook, for about 8 minutes, stirring frequently and watching for scorching. When the pecans are fragrant, remove them from the heat. Don’t let them burn. Pour the still-hot pecans into a bowl, add the butter and stir to coat, then stir in the Cajun seasoning, smoked paprika and salt, if needed. Let cool before storing in airtight containers.

Forget about cookies

Those of you who think the job is done when a writer pushes the send button on the final copy of the final version of a book, and the manuscript travels down the Internet tubes to the publisher, are living in a sugarplum fairyland. No, my friends with sensible jobs – the work is just beginning at that point. Because after the delight of seeing the shiny covers and inhaling the fresh-paper smell of a box of just-printed books with my name on them comes the work of persuading other people to love them as much as I do and to open their wallets in expression of that adoration. It’s called sales. And most writers became writers to avoid that sort of labor (and to stay far away from math).

Because my newest book, “Southern Holidays: A Savor the South Cookbook” is about – duh – holidays, the past few months have been busy. I had the fun of writing in the book about holidays throughout the year, but the Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year’s vortex is, naturally, a big focus.

The variety of book signing called a “sit-and-sign” can be dismal or delightful. The dismal ones are when I sit behind a stack of my creations and a plate of samples for two hours and hardly anyone walks by. At those, I feel like the perfume girls who used to work at department stores pursuing and attempting to spritz fleeing passersby.

(About those samples. John Grisham can show up with just a pen and his wit. But, no, a cookbook author must bring the snacks, too.)

But I enjoy even most sit-and-signs, because I am able to talk to people all day long, if I have to, and have little shame. And because, with luck, they’re highly entertaining, especially during the holiday season.

At a signing I did recently at Southern Season in Chapel Hill, N.C., the very helpful staff prepared the samples for me (usually I have to do it and haul them from home). They chose a recipe from the Hanukkah section of the book, Sweet Potato Latkes. I had to explain to several curious children what latkes were. In one case, they didn’t get it until I finally said, “They’re like french fries,” and the kids dug in.

I thought Santa Claus had already come after one shopper decided that six signed and personalized copies of my book would take care of the rest of his shopping. Then I saw an actual Santa and Mrs Claus, who were walking down the aisle in front of me, posing with kids for their parents’ raised cellphones. In my best imitation-Jewish-mother voice, I called out, “Hey, Santa, you want a latke?” The dark eyes below the hat brightened, and he grabbed a sample, lifted his beard and ate it up. “Those are good,” Santa said. I swear it’s true, even though I wasn’t able to grab my cellphone camera and verify it.

So, kids, now you know what Santa really wants you to leave him on Christmas Eve.

Sweet Potato Latkes

This recipe from “Southern Holidays: A Savor the South Cookbook” by Debbie Moose, published by UNC Press, uses sweet potatoes instead of the usual white potatoes for the traditional Hanukkah dish. They go especially well with applesauce on top. Grate the onion and potatoes in a food processor to make things go even easier.

2 cups coarsely grated peeled sweet potatoes

1 small onion, coarsely grated

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

2 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon chili powder

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Vegetable oil

Applesauce and sour cream

In a large bowl, combine the sweet potatoes, onion, eggs, flour, salt, chili powder and cinnamon.Heat about 1 inch of vegetable oil in a large frying pan over medium heat.

Scoop out about 2 tablespoons of the sweet potato mixture per latke and place in the hot oil. Don’t crowd the pan so the oil will stay hot. Press the patties gently with the back of a spoon to flatten them out. Fry, turning once, until browned on both sides.

Drain on a wire rack placed over a platter for a few minutes, then transfer to a paper towel-lined platter and keep warm in the oven while you fry  the remaining latkes. Serve with applesauce and sour cream.

Makes 4 servings