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

Day 5: A book to boost baking

IMG_3097Yes, you can go to La Farm in Cary and simply buy baker Lionel Vatinet’s wonderful breads. But Vatinet’s new cookbook brings you into his mind and heart – although it lacks the delight of his French accent, which remains strong after more than 15 years in the U.S.

This book is both a detailed, user-friendly lesson on making your own breads and an irresistible Valentine. You’ll want to walk into the kitchen and give it a try.

“A Passion for Bread: Lessons from a Master Baker” (Little, Brown and Company, $35) begins with the story of how learning to bake bread changed Vatinet’s life and gave him a driving purpose. In the instructions, numerous photographs show home cooks how the dough and bread should look at each stage.

He clearly explains why things work the way they do, why certain ingredients are important and other techniques. I’ve encountered too many bread books that are sort of mystical, that lack helpful detail and talk about the “spirit” of the bread. One book suggested that I “praise the dough” before shaping it. I find Vatinet’s approach much more likely to achieve success and give me something delicious to eat. That’s “spirit” enough for me.

You may be able to still find some signed copies at La Farm or local bookstores. But signed or not, those who have an interest in good bread – whether or not they’ve ever baked – will enjoy this book. Although I still wish there was a book-on-tape version with Vatinet reading.

Day 4: Three great stocking stuffers

Every kitchen needs those little things that make life easier, and those are the items that I put in gift baskets or carry along for gifts at dinners or parties. Here are my three favorites. Two are old stand-bys and the third is a new one I was introduced to this year and now use several times a week.

All of these are available at kitchen stores, such as Southern Season in Chapel Hill or Whisk in Cary, and at variety stores.

Long-handled locking tongs: The locking function is key. It allows the handle to fold up tight for storage. I use these sturdy tongs to turn food on the grill, toss greens for salads or stir-frys, lift roasted meats and a number of other things. Mine are about 14-inches long. Oxo/Good Grips makes a good pair.

Mini angled measuring cup: I use this small plastic cup with a spout, which is marked off in tablespoons and ounces, for just about everything. It’s a jigger for cocktails or a scoop for sugar, holds soy sauce or other liquids at the ready to add quickly to a dish (try propping up a regular tablespoon and disaster will ensue). I have to frisk people when they leave my house to be sure they don’t pocket it. Also made by Oxo/Good Grips.

Charles Viancin silicone bowl lid: I received this as a gift earlier this year and it has become a kitchen staple. The surface seals to the lip of most bowls. Environmentally conscious friends will love it because it can replace plastic wrap or foil for storing food in the refrigerator. It’s heat tolerant, so it can go in the oven. It’s great for steaming  foods and is easily washable. And it’s just pretty. You can see what it looks like here.  Although the photos show lifting bowls with the lid, I would not attempt that. Find it at kitchen and specialty stores.

Day three: Emergency snacks

The phone rings. Guess what? Friends are dropping by. In the next 30 minutes.

This scenario is as common as that little drummer boy during this season of the year. You need a quick snack in your holiday arsenal, and this is a good one. It’s a savory alternative to Christmas cookies, and I often make it for New Year’s Eve munching. I keep the ingredients – including an overgrown rosemary bush – on hand year round.

The recipe is from “The Herbal Kitchen” by Jerry Traunfeld (William Morrow, 2005). Be sure to thoroughly dry the chickpeas on towels, because any water will spatter like mad.

Popcorn Chickpeas

1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon coarsely chopped rosemary

1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Drain and rinse the chickpeas in a strainer. Turn them out onto paper towels or a clean dish towel and pat them dry. Pour the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and toss in teh chickpeas. Cook them for 5 to 7 minutes, shaking the pan often. They won’t really brown, but they’ll turn several shades darker, shrink a bit, and form a light crust. Pour the chickpeas back into the strainer to drain the excess oil and then return them to the pan. Lower the heat to medium and add the rosemary and garlic. Stir for another minute or two until the garlic begins to brown. Sprinkle with the salt and a few grindings of pepper. Toss again and pour them into a serving bowl. Serve warm.

Use up more of that rosemary with this cocktail from “The Herbal Kitchen.”

Rosemary Gin Tonic

Makes 1 drink

1 lime wedge

1 3-inch sprig rosemary

2 ounces gin

Tonic water

Lightly crush the lime wedge and rosemary in a 10- to 12-ounce glass with a few strokes of a muddler or the end of a wooden spoon. Pour in the gin. Fill the glass with ice and top off with tonic water. Stir to position the lime and rosemary in the middle of the glass.

Day two: It’s the office Christmas potluck!

Working on my own as I do, my holiday office party consists of feeding the cats and hitting my stash of Moravian cookies.

But when I worked in newspaper offices, I could predict one thing about the Christmas office potluck: The guys would fight over bringing the ice, soft drinks and chips. That left it to the women to provide the real food. Things are different today – I hope – now that more men are into cooking. But back then, there would be near-fights at the sign-up sheet.

Office potlucks attract plenty of little weenies in Crock-Pots and meatballs in sauce, decorated Christmas cookies and mayonnaise-y pasta salads. Vegetable dishes, beyond tossed salads or raw-carrots-and-Ranch-dressing trays, tend to be rare sightings. This easy, do-ahead recipe has been a winner for me in almost every setting, from parties at my house to potlucks, picnics and tailgates. At least one of my friends is making it for her office party this week.

The recipe is from my cookbook “Fan Fare: A Playbook of Great Recipes for Tailgating or Watching the Game at Home,” published by Harvard Common Press. I use herb-flavored vinegar that I make myself, and the flavor adds a nice touch to the salad. You can purchase vinegar flavored with your favorite herbs or use a plain wine vinegar.

Crowd-Pleasing Marinated Green Beans

1/2 of a large red onion, thinly sliced

1/3 cup olive oil

1/4 cup Italian herb-flavored white-wine vinegar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 garlic cloves, crushed

2 pounds fresh green beans, ends trimmed but beans left long

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Place the sliced onions in a colander over the sink.

In a small bowl, stir together the olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper until combined. Stir in the garlic. Set aside.

When the water comes to a boil, add the green beans. Cover and cook for 5 minutes or so, jus tuntil the beans are bright green; do not overcook. Pour the beans and hot water over the onions in teh colander. Rinse under cold running water to cool down. Drain well.

Place the beans and onions in a large bowl or large zipper-top plastic bag. Pour the dressing in and mix with the vegetables. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight, stirring or shaking occasionally. Serve cold or at room temperature.

From “Fan Fare: A Playbook of Great Recipes for Tailgating or Watching the Game at Home” by Debbie Moose, published by Harvard Common Press.

Day one: Last-minute shopping

IMG_3092Don’t worry – I’ll help you get it all under control. For the next few days, I’m going to give you great gift ideas for food fans that you can grab locally.

I’m going to start with a book that’s educational and delicious, and will upend your thoughts about a well-known type of food. If you think you know all about soul food, read “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine” by Adrian Miller (University of North Carolina Press, $30). You’ll realize just how little you knew before reading this well-researched and entertainingly written book.

Miller, a lawyer-turned-food-historian that I met through the Southern Foodways Alliance, deftly digs into the roots of African American food and offers thoughtful commentary on soul food’s place at the table. No stereotyping here. And I had no idea that red Kool-Aid possessed such significance.

Miller also addresses the changing nature and definition of the cuisine, as cooks adapt it to new tastes and nutritional issues, while expressing the hope that “soul food can keep its flavor without losing its soul”

This is not a cookbook, but it does contain 22 tested recipes that bring important parts of the story into the kitchen. Give this book to anyone who wants to know more about the culture and roots of an important cuisine.

 

 

 

When a goodie emergency occurs, roast

It’s two days before Christmas, and a neighbor just unexpectedly showed up with a plate of cookies. You want to maintain cul-de-sac cordiality by responding, but you gobbled up the last of your homemade gingerbread men last night during a gift-wrapping frenzy.

They won’t see this treat coming. I make these pecans constantly, and they’re a delightfully savory alternative to sugar-drenched holiday goodies. The recipe is from my cookbook “Fan Fare: A Playbook of Great Recipes for Tailgating or Watching the Game at Home,” because it’s great year round.

Rosemary Garlic Pecans

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary leaves

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

2 cups pecan halves

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Melt the butter in a small bowl in the microwave. Stir in the rosemary, garlic powder, salt and black pepper. Place the pecans in a large bowl, then pour the butter mixture over the pecans and toss to coat the nuts thoroughly. Spread the pecans in a single layer on a rimmed nonstick baking sheet. Bake for about 20 minutes, stirring 2 or 3 times, until crisp and fragrant but not dark. Cool completely on the baking sheet, then store in an airtight container. Can be made up to 1 week ahead.

Send a big box made in N.C.

North Carolina has so many good local food companies that it’s silly to order holiday gift boxes from California or some such place. I like to give both ex-pats and never-lived-heres a taste of my beloved state.

I used to have to pack my own boxes of local items. And that’s still a good option if I want to collect jams, jellies, candies and honey from a farmers market and add some of my homemade bourbon balls and rosemary pecans.

But there are others who can do the work for me (well, except for the bourbon balls and pecans).

A Southern Season in Chapel Hill, N.C. has long offered a variety of North Carolina-themed food gift collections including items from sweets to country ham. Look at the store’s offerings here.

You can also send your friends Bone-Suckin’ everything – barbecue sauce, mustard, rubs, teriyaki – from Raleigh’s Ford’s Gourmet Foods. The company’s sauces have been collecting accolades for 20 years. Find out more here.

Now, the state’s first food business incubator offers collections of items made by the artisan food producers who work with it. Blue Ridge Food Ventures near Asheville, N.C. is offering four options for boxes that contain six to eight local products: Hot Box, Not Hot Box, Sweet ‘n’ Spicy Box and Fine Flavors Box.  Items in the boxes are made by small companies that work at the incubator or who got started there. Find out more and order here.

Whoosh! There go the holidays

I think that blazing flash of light I just saw was the holiday season whizzing by. December usually runs in fast-forward (now there’s a term today’s tape-free teens probably don’t know), but it seems worse for me this year. A big part of it was having to finish proofs and other materials for my cookbook on buttermilk, which won’t be published until fall of 2012, but nevertheless the publisher needs the stuff now.

I’m finally up for air, and plan to make the most of the remaining time. “Christmas in Connecticut” is snug in my DVR, right next to the Alastair Sim version of “A Christmas Carol.” “Christmas in Connecticut” is my new holiday fave – I love the idea that Barbara Stanwyck’s 1945 version of Martha Stewart doesn’t actually cook any recipes she writes about.

I don’t look quite as va-va-voom as Barbara, but I do bake. When fresh cranberries and oranges abound, this quick bread is my favorite. It’s easy, good for breakfast or snacks, freezes well, and I can easily “non-dairy it” for The Hub.

Cranberry-Orange Nut Bread

2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup fresh cranberries

1 cup chopped pecans

2 tablespoons melted margarine or butter

Grated rind of 1 orange

Orange juice

1 egg

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, combine the flour, salt, sugar, baking powder and baking soda. Stir in the cranberries and pecans.

Put the margarine or butter in a 1-cup glass measure and melt the margarine or butter in the microwave. Add the grated orange rind, then pour in enough orange juice to fill the cup. Add the liquid and the egg to the flour mixture and stir to blend. Don’t overbeat. Pour into a non-stick 8-inch by 5-inch loaf pan. Bake 1 hour or until it tests done with a toothpick.

Let the bread cool in the pan on a wire rack for about 15 minutes, then remove it. Let it cool completely if you want to wrap and freeze it.