Archive for the ‘Food traditions’ Category

Sauced   Leave a comment

I grew up eating cranberry sauce only once or twice a year.  In fact, I thought it was available in stores only during the holidays so when I discovered that it could be purchased and eaten year-round, I became a bit of a cranberry sauce fanatic, eating it nearly every day for a couple of years.  Ocean Spray, of course.

But then I encountered the cheery little berries in their pre-gelled state and tried out the extremely simple recipe on the side of the bag.  There was no going back.  Over the years, I’ve adapted the recipe a bit, but the sauce is still ridiculously easy to make and truly festive.  It’s the perfect astringent accompaniment to the carb-fest that is the traditional Thanksgiving meal.  It also provides a bit of a color on the plate, a small jewel among all that beige food.

This cranberry sauce is highly addictive, if I may say so myself.  It’s my favorite part of the holiday meal, the only part of it that I cannot imagine changing or leaving off of the menu.

I’m not sure how much of the alcohol cooks out of the sauce, so I try to limit Mimi’s consumption, for obvious reasons.  She’s none too happy about it and who can blame her?  Still, a little bit is better than none.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Cranberry Sauce

1 scant cup sugar

3/4 cup orange juice

1 cinnamon stick

a pinch of salt

1 12 oz. bag of fresh cranberries

1 tsp. orange peel

2 tbs. Grand Marnier

Bring the orange juice, sugar, cinnamon stick, and salt to a boil in a large, heavy sauce pan.  Add the cranberries and simmer on medium heat for five minutes, stirring occasionally.  The cranberries will pop and thicken the sauce.  Test for thickness.  If you prefer a thicker sauce, let it simmer for an additional five minutes or so.  Remove from heat.  Add the orange peel and Grand Marnier.  Stir and allow to cool.  Transfer to a covered class container and continue to cool.  Refrigerate for up to three days.

Bean Counting   1 comment

After posting on a new tradition recently, it seemed appropriate to follow up with a post about an old tradition, one that, truth be told, I no longer observe: Monday Red Beans & Rice.

Where do old traditions go when they die?

Turns out this tradition is alive and well–at least according to the Camellia Beans Company--it just hasn’t fared so well at my house.


But it used to.

Only, not on Mondays.

Well, on some Mondays, but not every Monday.

Let me explain: I grew up in southern Louisiana, where the tradition of Monday Red Beans & Rice was started and continues to thrive. Like so many culinary traditions, it began as a matter of convenience. The idea was to cook something that could simmer all day long while the ladies took care of the laundry, which was traditionally done on Mondays. Red beans fit the bill. However, around my childhood home, laundry day could be any day of the week, depending upon who needed clean skivvies, so there was no need to set aside a specific day for laundry and beans. But we did eat the traditional red beans and rice once a week, if in a somewhat more random fashion.

It’s hard to argue with beans. They’re cheap, healthy, easy to make, and delicious. I’m sure that red beans and rice must have been one of the first meals I learned to make, but I can’t recollect the first time I made them. They’re just one of those foods that I’ve always eaten and always cooked, a food to count on.

And I’ve counted on them throughout my adulthood too, cooking them for nearly all of my friends at one time or another. When I moved in with Jim and became the primary cook in the household, I merrily prepared red beans and rice every week.

Until he balked.

Apparently, I make a lot of meals that contain beans in one form or another, and Jim started to feel inundated by them. He likes beans, but not every day. When faced with a barrage of them, Jim became, quite literally, a bean counter. After one notably “beany” week, he finally rebelled, insisting that he could stomach beans only once per week.

Once per week?

I ignored his complaints for a while, but they grew increasingly urgent. For me, the crux of the problem was that Jim counted all manner of legume towards the final weekly bean-count. He maintained — wrongly — that lentils, split peas, garbanzo beans, black beans, lima beans, navy beans, and red beans were all the same food: beans.

But this simply isn’t true.

I concede the point that black beans, lima beans, navy beans, and red beans are all, well, they’re all beans. However, lentils are not beans; they’re actually more closely related to peas, and split peas are not beans at all; they’re … peas! Garbanzo beans? Ha! Peas again! At least as far as I’m concerned.

The defense worked for a while, but I eventually stopped using it. I can’t feel happy knowing that I’m cooking food that people really don’t want to eat, especially Jim, who is always so enthusiastic about my cooking. I ceded the semantic high ground, and scaled back to once a week our consumption of anything bean-like. And, somehow, red beans were squeezed off of the schedule by the worldly chick pea and the trendy lentil.

This is rather unfortunate because, of all the foods I cook, red beans and rice is the one dish that is most hardwired into my sense of origins. Never do I feel most connected to my–dare I say this?–roots than when I make red beans and rice. The smell of them cooking conjures up a chain of memories from my past. I feel linked to all of the women in my life who have cooked the meal — my mother, aunts, grandmothers, great-grandmothers — some of whom cooked and ate red beans and rice as the tradition mandates, on laundry-Monday. No other dish asserts this connection to me as profoundly as do red beans and rice, not even other Creole dishes like jambalaya or gumbo.

Generally, I eschew my Southern identity and live, paradoxically, in a kind of internal exile here in the South. Cooking red beans & rice, however, gives me a temporary feeling of belonging to a place and a culture that is, in its own inimitable way, Southern. This makes red beans and rice a rather unique artifact of my heritage: a vestigial aspect of my “Southernness” that I can celebrate.

Here’s a recipe for an old favorite, a traditional dish that deserves a spot in anyone’s weekly lineup.


Red Beans

1 green bell pepper, finely diced

2 stalks of celery, finely diced

1 medium white onion, finely diced

3-4 cloves of garlic, finely minced

1/2 lb. smoked sauced, preferably Conecah brand; cut links lengthwise into quarters, then into 1/4-1/2 inch pieces

1 pound of dried red beans, preferably Camellia brand

8-10 cups of water

Hot sauce, preferably Crystal brand, to taste

1 large handful of Italian parsley, coarsely chopped

Salt & Pepper

Although a lot of the bean recipes stipulate a lengthy presoak for the beans, I never do this. The recipe on the back of the package of Camellia red beans, surely a reliable source of bean information, does not include this step either. However, you should rinse the beans and carefully pick out the duds.

Sauté the “holy trinity” (what folks in Louisiana call the combination of bell pepper, celery, and onion), the garlic, and about 1/4 of the sausage in olive oil over medium-high heat until vegetables are soft. Add the red beans and cover with around 8 cups of water. Stir and bring to a boil. Lower heat to low and simmer for about 2 hours (but sometimes as long as 4, depending upon the age of the beans), stirring occasionally. It may be necessary to add water to keep the beans covered. When the beans begin to soften, add the remaining sausage and stir more frequently. You want the beans to be thick and creamy, and stirring will help you to achieve this quality. Just before serving, add the parsley, hot sauce, and salt and pepper to taste. Serve over white rice. I wish I liked brown rice with this– yes, it’s healthier– but I always serve red beans with white rice because it’s traditional. To wit–

Steamed White Rice

Steamed white rice is easy to make, but it’s also easy to make badly. Practice makes perfect. The ratio of rice to water is 1 to 2; this recipe is easily doubled.

1 cup long grain white rice

A scant 2 cups of filtered water, err on the side of less as opposed to more

1 tsp. salt

1 tbs. butter

Put all of the ingredients in a large covered saucepan. Bring to a boil; reduce temperature to low. Steam, without opening the pot’s lid, for 20 minutes. Turn off heat. Leave the pot on the warm burner for an additional 10 minutes. Remove lid; gently fluff rice with a fork before serving.


Posted October 3, 2009 by Admin in Beans, Food traditions, Main Dishes

Friday Night Pizza   4 comments

For the past two months, my daughter Mimi and I have made pizza for dinner every Friday night. It’s a new tradition, one that we provisionally refer to as “Friday Night Pizza.”

Pizza is an ideal food to make with small children. Save the dough, sauce, and baking, pizza-making is almost pure assembly. There’s not a lot of knife-work either; I cut up the ingredients in advance and pile them onto a plate for Mimi. This approach is not only safe, it also allows for plenty of snacking, which is all part of the fun.

I’d like to say that Friday Night Pizza has been successful from the start, but I can’t; we’ve eaten a lot of bad pizza. It’s my fault, not Mimi’s. I wanted a rustic kind of pizza with a thin, flavorful crust and simple toppings. Easier said than done. The toppings have been fine–especially one early favorite of hot capicola and smoked mozzarella–but the crusts have been consistently bad. I’ve tried to blame the unbelievably humid weather, but the truth is that I’m just not comfortable with dough-making. The finished pizza crusts have definately reflected my dough discomfort. They have have been overworked, tasteless, salty, or just insipid. Last night, however, we had a breakthrough. And here’s the proof.

pizza Nearly perfect pizza. The solution was to use the dough cycle of the bread machine. The toppings were simple–almost incidental to the finished product–just pepperoni and fresh mozzarella, with a final sprinkling of basil from the garden. Ah, but the crust. The crust was the thing: crunchy on the bottom, slightly chewy around the edges, mildly sweet from the honey in the dough.

I made the dough itself last week in the bread machine and froze it. On Friday afternoon, the dough defrosted on the counter and rose again. When we were ready to cook, Mimi punched it down–her favorite part of the process–then I dropped it onto the prepared pizza peel. We took turns rolling it out. Once we liked the size of the crust, I let it rest on the peel for about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, the pizza stone warmed up in a very hot oven (450 degrees for about 45 minutes). I grated some parmesan cheese onto the base of the crust and we used an off-set spatula to spread out some sauce (purchased sauce–once I perfect the crust, I’ll start to make my own). Next, Mimi carefully layered on the pepperoni and cheese.

Finally, and somewhat precariously, I slid the whole thing onto the scorching hot pizza stone for 20 minutes. After I took out the pizza, I left it alone for five minutes and then cut it into slices.

pizza2The finished product was simple, straightfoward, a little mishshapen, and very much worth such a small amount of effort.

The trouble that I’ve had with the dough seems appropriate, considering what’s really going on here. Friday Night Pizza is hardly an original idea for a tradition,but I reasoned that cooking it ourselves would make it just complicated enough to feel special. Frankly, however, I feel a little sheepish about using the bread machine to make the dough. Does using a machine nullify my right to proclaim my pizza crust “homemade?” Does it compromise the tradition in some way? Should I just admit defeat and call Domino’s?

These questions haunt me as I roll out the dough, which seems like a very serious culinary activity regardless of the origins of the item being rolled. They inevitably lead to me to other, more philosophical questions. Questions like: how do I teach my daughter to honor tradition when I don’t have a lot of spare time? How do I preserve traditional culinary practices like bread making? How do I champion slow food when life is so fast paced? Is it cheating to use modern conveniences and shortcuts?

These are important concerns because it isn’t just me and Mimi and the dough who assemble in the kitchen every Friday afternoon. It’s me and Mimi and the dough as we are presently, but I’m also aware that our future selves are loitering around there in the kitchen. To consciously institute a tradition, as I am doing, means that I’m taking the long view. As my daughter and I work out together the foundation of the pizza–that sticky, finicky, weather-affected dough–we also work out the details of the tradition. And is that tradition compromised by the long shadow of the bread machine?

In the end, I think using it is justified. It saves a lot of time; I’m not nearly as traumatized by poor results than I might be if I’d slaved over the dough myself; my daugher has a better time as a result. I didn’t make the cheese or the pepperoni either, and few people would fault me for that.

I did grow the basil. I am, after all, a traditionalist at heart.

Basic Bread Machine Pizza Dough

The dough recipe is adapted from one I found at

1 cup warm, flat beer–I used a honey porter

1 package of yeast

2 cups bread flour

1/2 cup whole wheat flour

2 tablespoons butter, room temperature

2 tablespoons honey

1 teaspoon course sea salt

Put all of the ingredients into the machine in the order recommended by the manufacturer (usually liquid first). The recipe makes two crusts, each about 8-9 inches in diameter. The dough freezes well, but as the description above indicates, it’s best to defrost the dough and let it have a second rise before working. Those rest periods seem to have improved the texture of the finished crust.

Posted September 26, 2009 by Admin in Food traditions, Modern Conveniences, Pizza