Korean Beef

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When I assumed most of the grilling duties several years ago, I knew embarrassingly little about grilling but was eager to learn.  I have, for the most part, figured things out. There were a few exciting months when the ignitor stopped working and I had to do the ol’ throw-a-match-on-the-grill routine. I, ahem, had my hair blown back a few times but thankfully survived to cook dinner.

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I don’t fire up the grill every week (and sometimes I go several months), but I do grill year-round if I’m feeling so inclined: in the cold, in the rain and of course in the heat when standing over a fire feels absurdly appropriate.  As a parent, there’s a distinct advantage to grilling vs. standing along the sidelines, too. When I grill, I’m not responsible for meeting the many demands of small children. The griller cannot leave her station or  dinner is at risk of being burned. No one wants that. Grilling provides 20-30 minutes of relative alone time, and sometimes people even bring you a beer because they think you’re working so hard.

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Fig Newtons

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As part of our ongoing effort to expand Walker’s palate, we ask him to suggest new foods he wants to see at the table. All ideas are welcome: snacks, main courses, restaurant fare. I also like to hand him a cookbook and encourage him to look through the pictures until he finds something appealing.

A few months ago, he requested homemade crackers. We made crackers. Then he requested homemade oreos. We made oreos. In early May, Walker spotted a mouth-watering picture of empanadas in Gran Cocina Latina (winner of the James Beard award for Cookbook of the Year), so we made empanadas.  For  months he’s been describing a cookie bar he wanted me to either make or buy, but he couldn’t remember the name of it. He described the bar as having fruit in the middle and being “very flavorful.” From the description, it sounded like a Nutrigrain bar but he insisted it wasn’t.

We eventually figured it out: fig newtons.

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Southern Biscuits

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One might assume since I live in Alabama that I have a precious and holy heirloom recipe for Southern biscuits. Alas, I do not. My family isn’t originally from the South. Both of my parents are from Maryland, and my parents, two brothers and I moved from state-to-state every five years growing up. I did not have a Southern grandmother to show me the way of the sacred Southern biscuit. In fact, homemade biscuits were endearingly called “hockey pucks” at family get-togethers.

Sothern Biscuits

Wild Mushroom-Brie Soup

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One of my favorite haunts in Birmingham is Crestwood Coffee Company, our much beloved neighborhood coffee shop. It’s my respite when I’m on a work deadline and need to flee the chaos at home. It’s where I take the kids to enjoy an afternoon snack and play a game of Connect Four or Candy Land. It’s a laid-back evening spot to share a bottle of wine with friends. I rarely walk in without receiving a nod or a smile from someone I know.

The coffee shop is, in many ways, the heartbeat of our eccentric, little neighborhood. It has a regular rotation of friendly, smart, quirky characters: nerds like me who burrow into the corner tables with their laptops, folks who sit outside at the café tables for a morning coffee and a smoke, the lively afternoon crew who gathers to watch jeopardy and shout out the answers (they’re not bad), and those who drift in and out frequently — professors, artists and other locals.

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Owners Danny and Alexis, both Louisiana natives, took over the coffee shop in 2010 and revamped the menu. Alexis is the resident baker extraordinaire. My kids adore her chocolate chip cookies; I’m partial to her pralines. The coffee shop’s display case is overflowing with savory and sweet temptations, from quiche and breakfast sandwiches to scones, cakes and pies.

Crestwood Coffee also offers three soups a day, mostly Danny’s creations. Danny is the kind of cook who instinctively knows his way around the kitchen without much mind for measuring. He’s an outstanding cook, as evidenced by several recent awards. No one can compete with his gumbo. No one.

Danny’s soups are seasonal and creative. A few recent offerings: black bean and sweet potato, roasted cauliflower, Brunswick stew, turtle gumbo (to die for), and oyster and artichoke bisque. My personal favorite, though, is his wild mushroom-brie soup. Danny knows this and will give me a heads-up when he’s making a batch. Last year, a magazine asked me to name the most underrated dish in the city and I said, hands down, THIS SOUP.

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Crispy Pan-Fried Fish

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If Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results then me pan-frying fish = insanity. For years, I’ve been consistently screwing it up, cooking it in such a way that the fillet sticks to the bottom of the skillet and turns into a sad, mangled mess when I try to remove it. I’ve made minor adjustments here and there hoping for a breakthrough: more oil, less oil, high heat, low heat. Every once in a blue moon I get lucky and achieve a beautifully golden, intact fillet but not often. And curiously enough, my go-to cookbooks, those penned by some of the world’s greatest chefs, don’t shed much light on a better way to cook it either. Their instructions for pan-frying fish are always some version of heat oil in pan, add fish, cook evenly on each side.

So I figured it was me. My skills. Or my equipment. I don’t own any nonstick skillets. Is everyone using nonstick skillets? Or what? What am I doing wrong?

A few weeks ago, I was pan-frying some tilapia for lunch — and I did what I always do and got what I always get: a beat-up piece of fish with the crispy, outer crust (the best part!) glued to the bottom of the skillet. I stared at the fillet on my plate, which was now staring back at me in separate, stringy pieces. Frustrated, I rose from my chair, stomped over to my computer and Googled, “How the $#%^#$& do you cook fish so it doesn’t #$&*^#$ stick to the bottom of the#@&$^*& pan?????”

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And Google gave me an answer.

Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes With Brown Butter

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Mashed potatoes don’t appear on our dinner table often. Sadly, just once a year, usually on Thanksgiving or Christmas. I would make them more regularly but my children aren’t fans. This, I don’t quite understand. Mashed potatoes are a universally kid-friendly food, yes?

A few weeks ago, I made mashed potatoes as part of a meal for a friend. Given that I’m mashed-potatoes-deprived, I prepared extra so I could enjoy a bowl all to myself. You would have thought I was eating a bowl of ice cream after a week-long fast. They were transcendent. 

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Provençal Spinach Gratin

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I’ve had this spinach gratin post in the works for more than a month now, but no time to close the deal and hit publish. Life has been a whirlwind of work (I’m a grantwriter by day but more often by night), activity-juggling and child-wrangling. The good news: My days have recently become less hectic and more structured thanks to a not-so-insignificant lifestyle change. My two-year-old daughter – fan of sharp objects, matches, previously-chewed gum, cat food and toilet water – started a half-day program last week.  

She is having the time of her life.

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Cue the hallelujah chorus.

Her bangs, by the way, are the result of a self-trim, her third in the past two months.

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All that is to say, I’m back… and ready to talk spinach.

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Cajetas de Coco (Coconut Truffles)

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In the weeks leading up to our dinner reservation at Atlanta’s underground supper club, PushStart Kitchen, I kept close and curious watch on Chef Zach Meloy’s ever-changing menu.

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PushStart Kitchen’s Instagram feed is a visual treat of both wonder (see s’mores below) and torture (see s’mores below).

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Meloy’s riff on s’mores, if you’re wondering, is a small slab of Mexican chocolate cremeux flanked by toasted coconut ice cream, pistachio praline and ancho chili marshmallows with bananas and a garnish of cajeta (Mexican caramel).

Meloy’s photos give a glimpse into the daily tasks required to pull off a 16-person supper club. His images are fascinating: lotus root wheels, towers of stacked watermelon discs, candied pumpkin cubes, containers branded with blue labels that tease with descriptions like tomato caramel, arugula pesto, pickled onion aioli, cilantro gel, chipotle apple butter. And the photos of his final plated courses are appetite-rousing: roasted garlic French toast, tomatoes nine ways, smoked maple bread pudding, kale ravioli with preserved lemon ricotta and chicharron (fried pork skins).

Here’s a look… Let’s start with some black pepper meringues…

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Garnishes galore…

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Sous vide pork loin, sour cherry and smoked salt…

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Meloy’s plating sketches…

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On PushStart Kitchen’s website, “candy + cordial” is listed as the final course. This description never changes. The other courses, meanwhile, vary  significantly week to week. This mystery candy, I would learn, is a cajeta de coco (coconut truffle), the triumphant finish to an evening at PushStart Kitchen. Ask anyone who’s experienced it — the memory lingers.

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Uova al Pomodoro (Eggs Poached in Tomato Sauce)

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Working from home, I’m always on the hunt for a fast midday meal that doesn’t involve reconstituted leftovers or a slapped-together turkey sandwich. Our microwave burned up four years ago and we never replaced it, so my definition of “fast ” may be different than others. I don’t like spending more than five minutes of active prep time for lunch because my daughter takes a late morning nap and that is precious work time. I am perfectly OK, though, with the meal taking 30 minutes or longer to cook. I just can’t afford to be elbows deep in flour or standing over a pot for hours on end. Evenings are another story and when I welcome that kind of time comittment.

Socca (chickpea pancake) is one of my favorite weekday meals because it meets my lunchtime criteria: 1-2 minutes of prep work plus 15 minutes in the oven. Done. Easy.

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In a recent interview, acclaimed food writer and photographer Emiko Davies, whose food blog is endlessly inspiring, was asked to reveal one of her favorite quick meals. She answered “uova al pomodoro,” describing it as a “rustic, one-pot meal of eggs poached in a quick tomato sauce.” I read somewhere that Italians don’t usually eat eggs for breakfast and uova al pomodoro is often served as a second lunch course.

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Prosciutto Ring

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Last year, I prepared a magnificent feast of poached lobster and pommes maxim for our wedding anniversary. This year, I baked a prosciutto ring for old times’ sake (more on that in a minute), which I planned to serve for dinner, but due to our woefully barren fridge and pantry, I ended up eating two-thirds of the bread by mid-afternoon. Happy anniversary!

This prosciutto ring is one of the first breads I learned to make in my twenties.In our early married years, homemade bread along with a nice cheap bottle of wine was a welcome dinner. Hell, it’s still a welcome dinner. Or lunch. Or anytime, anywhere. Bring it.

I’ve since tried my hand at making other breads — brioche, croissants, French baguette, focaccia — but the prosciutto ring remains a favorite. It’s a hearty, rustic bread and beneath its shiny, bacon-glazed crust is a chewy crumb with coarsely cracked pepper and hand-torn pieces of prosciutto scattered throughout.

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