make lemonade popsicles.
Don’t hold me to this, but I think my desert island ingredient would be lemons. It would be more convenient if a lemon trees actually grew upon said island — then garlic would be my default ingredient. At any rate, I use lemons nearly every day.
I can’t image cooking without them. Often, when I think a dish needs salt, what it really needs is a good squeeze of lemon. This is especially true of stir fries, pesto, and many soups. Lemon also provides the much needed brightness in hummus, tapenade, and muhamarra and so many other tasty dips. How many cookies, pies, cakes, and tarts are improved by a squeeze of lemon, a bit of lemon zest, or a combination thereof? And, these days, I’ve been squeezing even more lemons than usual — lemonade popsicles are all the rage around here.
Any of these foods would be welcome on an island, deserted or not. Plus, they all stave off scurvy, which, as we all know, can be a bit of a problem for seafaring types.
Here’s a quick recipe for lemonade, whish is so ridiculously refreshing on a hot summer day. It comes from The Hot & Hot Fish Club Cookbook by Chris and Idie Hastings. For those of you who aren’t familiar with The Hot & Hot Fish Club, the venerable Birmingham, Alabama, restaurant, let me just say…”wow.” Its executive chef was nominated this year for a James Beard Award for best chef in the Southeast. He deserved the honor.
Last weekend, Jim, Mimi, and I enjoyed a meal there that was nothing short of spectacular (unfortunately, I forgot my camera, so no photos). The tomato salad I ordered was simple and perfect: dead ripe tomatoes — deep, dark, red and juicy as can be — layered between a kind of deconstructed succotash. The salad was surrounded by bits of fried okra, and topped with a piece of bacon. It’s a dish that could stand up next to any dish from any fine restaurant in the world. In fact, it could handily stare down any dish from any fine restaurant in the world. Assuming, of course, that plates of food can stare.
Akward metaphors aside, the food was fabulous. Jim got the wonderful quail as a very rich appetizer and then shrimp & grits, which just about knocked his socks off. The wild caught Gulf shrimp was sweet and succulent; the grits were creamy and flavorful. In addition to their justifiably famous tomato salad, I ordered the vegetable plate, which featured 5 different vegetable dishes, including a truly luscious corn salad as well as fried orka that Mimi ate like popcorn.
I was a little reluctant to share.
Like any restaurant worth its salt, H & H is interested in locally sourced ingredients and really pioneered farm to plate dining in Birmingham. I bought their cookbook back in January and have spent several pleasant hours pouring over its gorgeous pages, but the only recipe that I’ve used thus far is one for lemonade. There’s a reason for this. The recipes are organized by season, and I was so attracted to their Summer dishes that I’ve been waiting until the requisite produce was in season to try them out.
My day has come! Look for several recipes from the H&H cookbook this Summer. In the meantime, I offer the promised lemonade recipe, which is delicious both as a beverage and in frozen form. Enjoy!
The Hot & Hot Fish Club Lemonade (with very minor adjustments)
1 cup of freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 cup cold water
1/4 tsp. vanilla
pinch of salt
Combine the lemon juice, sugar, water, vanilla and salt. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Refrigerate immediately. Serve over crushed ice or freeze in popsicle molds until frozen solid.
I’ve spent the morning catching up on some of the blogs that I enjoy and thinking about the direction of my own work. I haven’t been blogging consistently lately, which I attribute to a couple of factors. First, I’m not teaching this Summer, which, oddly enough, makes it harder for me to find time to write. Lacking a clear structure, I don’t make the time to sit down and get work done. And, of course, I’ve been busy spending time with Mimi, which is the whole point of my taking time off from work. Another factor, however, is caused by the tenor of the times in which we live.
The American economy continues to sputter. Contradictory economic indicators are released every week, and economists have no idea what to make of them. Perhaps the engine of the economy is revving back up? Oh, but maybe it’s really just grinding to a halt. So many people are out of work, with only the faintest hopes of future employment. Meanwhile, thousands of gallons of oil are spewing out into the Gulf, wreaking impossible havoc that we can only wait for and watch. No matter where you live, it all takes a psychic toll.
People are suffering; ways of life are coming to an end; delicate ecosystems are being destroyed. Tar balls — both real and metaphorical — just keep rolling in with the tides. There seems to be no stopping them.
These are difficult days, and sometimes it seems frivilous to write about food and cooking in the light of that fact. Besides, often I can’t muster up the jocular tone needed for this kind of writing.
Like today, for instance. I meant to write a piece about lemonade, the quintessential Summer drink, but then I was struck by how sad this Summer is turning out to be.
So, you know, no lemonade. Not today.
Today, I have no recipes to offer, no descriptions of food, no helpful hints, no insights, no wisdom, no photos even. Nothing but sour thoughts.
Which, of course, are not terribly productive. So, here’s a little something to hum as the tar balls wash ashore.
Now that it’s more or less officially summertime, it seems appropriate to write something about picnics. I’ve always been a fan of eating outdoors. My mother tells me that when I was a child, I used to point out likely picnic spots as we sped down the roads of Florida, Virginia, and South Carolina — the states where I spent most of my early childhood. I had a rudimentary set of criteria for judgement; the best spots were shady and close to restrooms, with extra points awarded for proximity to water. However, I was not at all fond of picnicking in cemetaries, a common practice in the South. It didn’t seem right, somehow, to be eating on top of the dead. Besides, for some reason, cemetaries attract fire ants, the scourge of all picnics.
As an adult, I moved to Vail, Colorado, a place filled with perfect picnic spots. During the Summer months, I ate many enjoyable meals on the shores of Gore Creek or high above the Vail Valley at Big Pine Lake, sometimes with friends but just as often alone. I was a committed picnicker.
These days, I eat plenty of meals outside, mostly seated at the new dining table on my patio. As pleasant as this is, I can’t exactly call it “picnicking.” It’s more like dining al fresco. A little too refined to count. Still, I treasure the memories of picnics past.
One of these took place in Tunica Hills, Louisiana, right next door to Angola State Prison. Louisiana is a famously flat state, so the Tunica Hills are remarkably, umm, hilly. A bike trail runs through the hills with some commanding views of the Angola rodeo grounds through a tangle of concertina wire. And, in spite of its proximity to “The Farm,” the Tunica Hills are really quite peaceful, with several surprisingly large waterfalls interspersed throughout the steep hills and the deep dark woods.
I picnicked in Tunica about 10 years ago with my long, lost friend Sherry Castle. We drove there in the morning, biked all day, and came home late at night, thoroughly exhausted. It was a beautiful Spring day; the trails were a little slick from an overnight rain shower. The hills did not disappoint.
At lunchtime, we stopped near a waterfall for one of the best picnic meals I’ve ever had. Sherry brought homemade blueberry scones, which she used as the base for smoked turkey sandwiches. My more meager contributions included a jumbo-sized bag of blue corn chips and a thermos full of sweet tea, “the house wine of the South, according to Pat Conroy. The chips were good, but those sandwiches were little bits of heaven. The combination of flavors was unexpected and surprisingly satisfying: the slightly sweet scones, the smokey turkey, and the hint of spice from the Dijon mustard.
There we sat, Sherry and I, dangling our legs over the side of a rock face, tired, sweaty, and streaked with mud, eating scones — of all things — within shouting distance of one of the most notoriously bad prisons in the country. Another perfect combination of unexpected elements, also surprisingly satisfying.
The two of us consumed three sandwiches each, nearly the entire bag of chips, and all of the slightly warm and very sweet tea. Then we staggered onto our bikes and tried to remain erect for the mercifully downhill ride back to the car.
I’ve been thinking about Sherry and those sandwiches lately. With blueberry season upon us, it seems like a good time to post a recipe for something containing these magical berries. Perhaps it’s also time to dust off the picnic basket and take it out for a spin.
Blueberry Scones (adapted from marthastewart.com)
Scones are not difficult to make, but you must handle the dough VERY carefully to avoid building up the glutens in the flour. In fact, the less you handle it the better. I find it easiest to mix the dry ingredients in the food processor, but you can also use a fork to blend the butter into the flour and sugar.
2 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon lemon zest, finely grated
3/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 1/2 cups fresh blueberries, picked over and rinse
1/3 cup heavy cream, plus more for brushing tops
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
Turbinado sugar, for sprinkling on the tops
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees, with rack in center. Line baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
2. In the bowl of a food processor, process flour, 3 tablespoons sugar, baking powder, zest and salt using small pulses. Add butter and pulse just until the largest pieces are the size of peas.
3. Transfer dry ingredients to a large mixing bowl. Add blueberries and gently stir until just combined. In a separate measuring cup, whisk together cream and eggs. Make a well in the center of dry ingredients, and pour in cream mixture. Stir very gently with a fork, just until the dough comes together. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead a few times to mix well.
4. Pat dough into a 6-inch square about 1 1/4 inches thick. Using a floured knife, cut into four 3-inch squares. Cut squares in half on the diagonal to form eight triangles. Transfer to prepared baking sheet. Brush tops with cream, and sprinkle with turbinado sugar. Bake until golden brown, 20 to 22 minutes. Transfer scones to wire racks to cool. Makes 8 scones.
A scone makes a delicious unadorned accompaniment to a well made cup of coffee. However, you can always gild the lily by topping them with butter, jam, lemon curd, or clotted cream. If you want to make sandwiches, split the scones in half and spread both sides with good quality Dijon mustard. Layer on thinly sliced or, better, shaved smoked turkey. Find a likely picnic spot using your own criteria for perfection. Enjoy.