Category Archives: Recipes

Southern Pies by Nancie McDermott — Review

Note from Chef Gwen: Just in time for pie-baking season (who am I kidding…every season is pie-baking season) Linda Avery returns with a review of the new Southern Pies cookbook, from the same author of Southern Cakes.

Southern Pies: A Gracious Plenty of Pie Recipes from Lemon Chess to Chocolate Pecan

by Nancie McDermott

photos by Leigh Beisch

Facts: Chronicle, 168 pages, $22.95 (or Amazon at $15.61)
Photos: 26 photos
Recipes: 69
Give to: Southern Belles, baker friends, pie lovers

Reviewed by Linda Avery:

After conquering the world of pastas and noodles, curries and mu shu, Nancie McDermott turned to sweets. Nancie authored seven or eight books on the cuisines of Asia, so I was surprised when, in 2007, she came out with Southern Cakes: Sweet and Irresistible Recipes for Everyday Celebrations.

There was no surprised in the quality – or the high YUM factor – of those cakes. I specifically remember Cornelia Walker Bailey’s Pear Bread, a versatile, spice-infused batter that turned out tea breads when made in loaf pans or presented as a cake when made in a Bundt pan.

And I wasn’t surprised to see another Bailey recipe in McDermott’s new book Southern Pies: A Gracious Plenty of Pie Recipes from Lemon Chess to Chocolate Pecan. This time, Bailey’s recipe is Sapelo Island Pear Pie – that lady loved the pears from Sapelo Island, Georgia.

McDermott’s recipes are user friendly; she’s okay with store-bought pastry. Her research is evident and her headnotes span mini-biographies to historical accounts to Southern travelogue – all of which are intriguing.

The book has a concise glossary for those who don’t know what a sonker is (the abbreviated definition is a deep dish cobbler with ties to Surry County, North Carolina) as well as a listing of sources for authentic Southern ingredients (mostly located below the Mason-Dixon line).

I wrote to Nancie when I was having a difficult time narrowing which pie to make – too many temptations, diverse flavors (should I make the Vinegar Pie just because I’d never heard of it?). Perhaps it should be the sweet potato pie, based solely on the time of year? McDermott wrote:

“I came across Dr. Carver’s recipe several years back, during my research for “Southern Cakes.”. I was looking for Southern cakes using peanuts and was delighted to find that Dr. Carver’s writings included recipes using peanuts and sweet potatoes to use in the kitchen. Sweet potato pie is one of my favorites — if I’d had room for it in the book, I would have given sweet potato pies their very own chapter.

I love this particular pie because Dr. Carver calls for slicing par-boiled sweet potatoes lengthwise and layering them into the piecrust, rather than mashing them up into a custard. He also cuts loose with the spices, calling for allspice, cloves, ginger and nutmeg, and includes molasses and cream, all giving this pie an antique aspect that makes me feel like I’m flipping the calendar backwards and carrying on good kitchen customs that got left behind over time.

Even by old-time standards, this pie takes more effort than such everyday pies as egg custard, buttermilk and chess pies, and more than even peach or apple pies, using uncooked fruit piled up in a heap. But there’s a time to take a little time in the kitchen, and as Leigh Beisch’s gorgeously understated photograph conveys, this one is a beauty and a keeper.”

So take the time, enjoy the process and share with friends and family.

— Linda Avery


photo © Leigh Beisch



From Southern Pies: A Gracious Pleanty of Pie Recipes from Lemon Chess to Chocolate Pecan

Dr. George Washington Carver’s Sliced Sweet Potato Pie

Makes one 9-inch pie

When Dr. George Washington Carver wrote his Agricultural Bulletin #38 in 1936, his goal was to provide African American farmers with much more than just guidance for raising sweet potatoes as a cash crop and food source.

Already in his seventies, and more than four decades into his work as a research chemist, botanist, educator, and author, he tirelessly presented practical, focused information on agriculture, nutrition, and business practices, so that his readers could choose crops that might bring them financial benefits as well as nutritional ones.

His bulletins began with notes on agricultural varieties and how to plant them with success, then moved on to dozens of recipes, including several for sweet potato pies. This one is my favorite.

Carver liked spices as much as I do, but if you don’t have all these in your pantry, you can simply season your pie with cinnamon, or a combination of your choosing. You could prepare this in advance by cooking the sweet potatoes and slicing them in one session, and then assembling and baking the pie the next day.

Pastry for a 9-inch double-crust pie (store-bought or recipe below)

4 medium sweet potatoes (about 3 pounds)
1/4 cups sugar
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
2 tablespoons cream, evaporated milk, or half-and-half
1/3 cup molasses, sorghum, pure cane syrup, or honey
1/2 cup hot water, reserved from the sweet potatoes* cooking liquid
3 tablespoons cold butter, chopped into small bits

1. Line a 9-inch deep-dish pie pan with dough, draping it over the edge of the pie pan with a 1 1/2-inch border of pastry extending beyond the rim. Refrigerate until needed.

2. Place the whole, unpeeled sweet potatoes in a large pot with water to cover by 2 inches. Bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to maintain a gentle boil, and cook until the sweet potatoes are tender enough to be sliced, but not so tender that they fall apart. Depending on their size and shape, this should take between 15 and 30 minutes. Remove any smaller sweet potatoes as they reach the right texture and let larger ones cook until they reach the correct texture.

3. While the sweet potatoes are cooking, prepare the seasonings. In a small bowl, combine the sugar, flour, allspice, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves. Stir with a fork to mix them together well.

4. In a medium bowl or a heatproof measuring cup, combine the cream and molasses. When the sweet potatoes are cooked, measure out 1/2 cup of their cooking water. Add this to the molasses and cream and stir to mix these liquids well.

5. Drain the sweet potatoes and set them out on a platter to cool enough to be handled. Peel and trim the sweet potatoes. Slice them lengthwise into slabs about 1/4 inch thick (see Note). You will need about 4 cups; enough slices to generously fill the piecrust.

6. Heat the oven to 350°F. Roll out the top crust to about 11 inches in diameter.

Have the spice mixture, molasses mixture, and butter all ready. Place two layers of sweet potato slices in the bottom of the piecrust. Sprinkle about one third of the spice mixture over this first layer. Add another two layers of sweet potato slices, another third of the spice mixture, and finish up with a final two layers of sweet potato slices, filling the piecrust almost to the very top. Add a few slices of sweet potatoes to the center, to build it up a little higher. Sprinkle all the remaining spices over this third layer.

7. Pour the molasses mixture evenly over the filling (you may have extra, just use what you need), and place the bits of cold butter around the top of the pie. Cover the pie with the top crust. Fold the edges of the bottom crust up and over the top crust and press to seal them together well. Using the tines of a fork, work your way around the piecrust, pressing to make a handsome parallel design on the crust as you seal it. Use a sharp knife to cut eight slits in the top of the pie, so that steam can escape and the filling can bubble up through the crust.

8. Place the pie on a baking sheet on the center rack of the oven. Bake until the crust is nicely brown, the filling is bubbling, and the sweet potatoes are tender all the way through, 45 to 55 minutes.

9. Place the pie on a cooling rack or a folded kitchen towel and let cool to room temperature.

Note: You’ll slice the sweet potatoes lengthwise into “planks,” not crosswise into rounds.

Sandra Gutierrez’s Butter Piecrust

Makes two 9-inch single piecrusts or one 9-inch double pie crust

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup very cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
4 to 6 tablespoons ice water
1 teaspoon white vinegar

1. In the work bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade, combine the flour and salt; pulse for 10 seconds. Add the butter cubes and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse sand with some small lumps, 30 to 40 seconds.

2. Add 3 tablespoons of the ice water and the vinegar and pulse 5 to 7 times, until the dough just barely holds together in the work bowl. Add another tablespoon or two of ice water if needed just to bring the ingredients together. Turn it out onto plastic wrap and pat the dough into two separate disks; refrigerate them for a least 1 hour. Set one or two disks out at room temperature for 10 minutes before rolling.

3. Roll out one of the dough disks on a lightly floured surface, to a circle about 1/8 inch thick and 10 inches wide. Carefully transfer it into a 9-inch pie plate. Press the dough gently into the pan and trim away any excess dough, leaving about 1/2 inch beyond the edge of the pie pan. Fold the edges up and over, and then crimp the edges decoratively. Or press the back of a fork into the pastry rim, working around the pie to make a flat edge marked with the tines of the fork. If not filling the crust soon, refrigerate it until needed.

4. To make the crust in advance, wrap it well in plastic and refrigerate it for up to 3 days, or freeze it for up to 2 months.

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Mac & Cheese – Ultimate Comfort Food

Comfort food. It means different things to different people.

I have a friend who thinks of fried chicken as comfort food. To be completely honest, she thinks of fried chicken, period. In her world, fried chicken is its own food group on the pyramid.

For me, macaroni and cheese is the ultimate comfort food. Like most people, I grew up on the blue box of Kraft mac and cheese.

I’m all grown up now, and I want a better mac and cheese.

I found one at ZOOM in Park City, Utah.

It isn’t so gourmet that it loses the homey comfort of pasta bathed in cheese, but it’s gussied up enough to make the Kraft mac and cheese seem like child’s play.

I love the fat, ribbed shells, the gooey, herb-flecked cheese sauce, and the crunch from toasted bread crumbs.

I even found the recipe in a cookbook I bought. The book is called Park City Cooks: An Eclectic Collection of Park City Recipes.

All the proceeds from the cookbook go to The Peace House, a non-profit organization that provides education, shelter and support services to women who are victims of domestic violence.

The recipes are from members of the Park City community, and in the back of the book, there are a few recipes from the local restaurants, including this recipe from ZOOM.

ZOOM is owned by The Sundance Resort (Robert Redford’s remarkable property about 35 miles from Park City).

As I licked the plate clean, I thought to myself “I’d love to have that recipe.” And lo and behold, it appeared. I love when that happens.

Now you can have it, too.

ZOOM White Cheddar Mac & Cheese

from Park City Cooks

12 Servings

1-1/2 cups fresh breadcrumbs from crustless French bread
3/4 cup freshly grated Asiago cheese
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
8 tablespoons butter, divided
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
6 cups whole milk
1-1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
4 cups grated white cheddar cheese (about 1 pound)
1-1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 pound macaroni

Mix the breadcrumbs, Asiago and paprika in a medium bowl.

Melt 6 tablespoons of butter in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and stir for three minutes. Gradually whisk in the milk, then the mustard and pepper.

Cook until thickened, stirring often, about 1o minutes. Stir in the cheddar and parsley.

(The topping and the sauce can be made 1 day ahead, stored separately. Cool the sauce slightly, then cover and refrigerate. Refrigerate the topping, too. Re-warm the sauce, stirring frequently and thinning with more milk if necessary before proceeding.)

Heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Butter a 15″ X 10″ X 2″ glass baking dish.

Cook the macaroni in a pot of boiling salted water until just tender, but firm to the bite, stirring occasionally. Drain the macaroni well.

Return the macaroni to the drained pot; stir in the sauce. Season to taste with salt.

Spread the mixture in the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with the bread crumb topping. Dot with the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter.

Bake until the cheese is bubbling and the crumbs are brown, about 40-45 minutes. Cool slightly before serving.

Park City, Utah

Where to buy the Park City Cooks cookbook:
La Niche
(435) 649-2372

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Steak with Friends: At Home with Rick Tramonto – Review

Note from Chef Gwen: Linda Avery ponders “chef ink” before diving into the newest cookbook from celebrated Chicago Chef Rick Tramanto. Read on, and then head to the kitchen to make the “to-live-for” melon & tomato gazpacho with grilled shrimp.

Linda Avery Reviews Steak with FriendsSteak with Friends:
At Home with Rick Tramonto

By Rick Tramonto with Mary Goodbody

photos by Ben Fink

Facts: Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC, 290 pages, $35.00 (or Amazon at $23.10)

Photos: 240 photos plus illustrations

Recipes: 150

Give to: Meat lovers, Rick Tramanto fans, budding chefs, that friend who throws dinner parties

Reviewed by Linda Avery:

What is it with chefs and artwork? Not what they hang on the walls of their restaurants but body art.

Have you noticed? Some of the most colorful, creative art now graces the limbs of star chefs.

Is it a necessary outlet for all of those overflowing creative juices? (The subject didn’t escape Melissa Lavrinc Smith, who actually wrote a book that targets the constantly growing group of “Inked Rogue Chefs).

Rick Tramonto’s latest cookbook Steak with Friends: At Home with Rick Tramonto has a lovely cover photo of his family in their home with an array of food spread before them. But, your eyes immediately go to the words Chef and Faith written in a medieval script on the chef’s forearms.

(Yes, I’ll review the book in a minute but bear with me; it’s fascinating and gives insight to this James Beard Award winning chef).

Tramonto has 24 tattoos, those on the left side of his body are about his faith, and those decorating his right side are about cooking.

He likens the restaurant kitchen to the military i.e. strict and regimented: this is a release. Beside that he likes the art.

Last summer, I attended the 10-year anniversary celebration of his restaurant Tru (from which he recently departed). His wife Eileen was at our table and we had had a brief chat about tattoos, so when he stopped by the table she had him rolled up his pant legs to show off the new knife images which took a couple years to finish. Wow – ‘nuf said.

Okay, now the book! And it is a fine one with far more than steak recipes and while instructive, it’s not a how-to-grill book. Tramonto chose steak as the centerpiece because it’s a hallmark of Chicago and it represents an indulgence.

He wants you to know how to cook it perfectly to your taste because “if you overcook it, there’s no going back.” The grilled steak section includes numerous cuts with tomahawk (aka Cowboy cut – a bone-on ribeye), flatiron, skirt and hanger among the lot, and then he moves to classics like Steak Diane, Beef Wellington, and Filet Oscar.

There are 150 recipes and the variety beyond beef is superb (fewer than 30 recipes are actually “steak”) including Peekytoe crab salad, cioppino, garlic sausage, lemongrass duck, even the ubiquitous mac & cheese.

Desserts like Killer Chocolate Pudding and Key Lime Brûlées are mouthwatering. The headnotes are charming, informative, and insightful and you’ll find the sidebars and tips useful. Don’t overlook the Sources section to learn where the pros buy when local isn’t available.

Not to be outdone by fellow Chicagoan Rick Bayless’ inclusion of music, Tramonto recommends Aerosmith, U2, The Rolling Stone, The Beatles and Santana for high energy when grilling up steaks.

Since farmer’s markets are brimming with tomatoes and melons, I decided to try this fabulous gazpacho. Although Tramonto calls it a perfect little appetizer, I think of it as a light dinner or great summer lunch.

Pen and Fork Review Steak with Friends

photo © Ben Fink

From Steak with Friends: At Home with Rick Tramanto

Melon and Tomato Gazpacho with Grilled Shrimp

Serves 4

I must have made a hundred different gazpachos during my career and never tire of the fresh, uncooked vegetable soup. When I decided to make a version I knew everyone in the household would like, I turned to perfectly ripe melons and tomatoes for the basis of the soup and then garnished it with grilled shrimp. What a perfect little appetizer before a grilled chicken or steak dinner!

1 pound medium shrimp, deveined with shells on (20 to 25 shrimp)
Extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 ripe heirloom or other tomatoes, seeded and cut into large cubes
2 ripe red beefsteak tomatoes or 4 yellow tomatoes, cut into large cubes
2 ripe yellow beefsteak tomatoes, cut Into large cubes
2 cucumbers, peeled, seeded, and cut into large cubes
1 small red onion, diced
1 rib celery, chopped
1/2 ripe cantaloupe, seeds removed, flesh scooped from rind and diced
1/2 ripe honeydew melon, seeds removed, flesh scooped from rind and diced
1 teaspoon minced jalapeno pepper
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives, divided
Pinch of smoked paprika
1 red tomato, finely diced, for garnish
1 yellow tomato, finely diced, for garnish

1. Prepare a clean, well-oiled charcoal or gas grill so that the coals or heating element are at medium-high heat. Alternatively, you can use a stovetop grill. Soak 4 bamboo skewers in cool tap water for about 20 minutes. This will prevent them from charring.

2. In a mixing bowl, toss the shrimp with enough oil to coat lightly. Season with salt and pepper. Thread the shrimp equally on the skewers. Grill, turning once, for 2 to 3 minutes total, until the shrimp turn pink and are cooked through. Remove 4 shrimp from the skewers and set all the shrimp aside to cool.

3. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade, mix the 3 types of cubed tomatoes with the cucumbers, onion, celery, cantaloupe and honeydew melons, and jalapeno and pulse until nearly smooth but with some chunks remaining.

4. Transfer the soup to a bowl and add the lemon juice and vinegar. Stir in 1 tablespoon of the chives and the paprika and stir well. Season to taste with salt and pepper and a little sugar, if needed. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or until well chilled.

5. Ladle the soup into chilled bowls. Chop the 4 reserved shrimp and sprinkle over the top of each bowl. Garnish each bowl with the diced red and yellow tomatoes, remaining 1 tablespoon chives, and a drizzle of olive oil. Serve, with a full skewer of shrimp next to or balanced on top of each bowl.

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Za’atar Spiced Fried Okra

Okra is a polarizing vegetable. Blame it on the slime.

Okra (which likely originated in Africa) contains mucilage, a sticky substance that turns to slime when okra is stewed or boiled.

Gumbo wouldn’t be gumbo without the thickening properties (and flavor) of okra and filé powder (the ground root of sassafras).

And while I love gumbo as much as the next person, I really can’t sink my teeth into a plate of stewed okra.

But fried okra? Now that’s a different story. Somehow, frying okra removes the slimy goo, or at least puts it in the background — where it belongs.

What remains is the green taste of the okra, delivered with a delicious crunch.

Why am I writing about how to fry okra?

Because it’s so easy: slice, toss, fry.

And because I can’t get past the slimy texture otherwise, and this okra from Seacat Gardens looked too fresh to pass up.

Seeing how I never leave well enough alone, I rummaged through the pantry looking for something to jazz up the okra.

I came across a za’atar spice blend I bought from Flavorbank, a spice company based in Tucson, Arizona. It’s used in both North African and Middle Eastern cuisine.

Za’atar is a mixture of dried thyme, oregano, sumac, and sesame seeds, and has a green, earthy flavor, along with a citrus note from the sumac — perfect to enhance the green taste of okra.

A pinch or two of cayenne is there just to liven things up.

Because of the sticky nature of okra when sliced, it doesn’t need a batter, although if you’re so inclined, you could dunk the sliced okra in mixture of egg beaten with a splash of milk before tossing in the spiced cornmeal.

The batter would even further disguise the grassy taste of the okra, but I like that herbal taste.

Fry the okra in peanut oil for even more flavor. The oil must be hot before you add the okra, or the okra will just absorb the oil and taste greasy.

Once the oil is hot, it only takes about 5 minutes before the okra turns golden brown. Like more crunch? Let it go for a minute or two longer before removing to drain on paper towels.

And there you have it: how to fry okra.

Slice… toss…  fry…

Okra doesn’t have to be polarizing — it just has to be fried.

Za’atar Spiced Fried Okra

(printable recipe)

Serves 6

1-1/2 pounds okra
1 cup yellow cornmeal
2 tablespoons za’atar spice blend*
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Peanut (or vegetable) oil for frying

1. Wash and pat dry okra pods. Slice crosswise into 1/4-inch rounds. Set aside.

2. Toss cornmeal with the za’atar, salt, cayenne and black pepper in a medium bowl.

3. Toss the okra in the cornmeal mixture until every slice is coated.

4. Heat enough oil to come up about 1/4-inch in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil is shimmering (but not smoking), it’s ready.

5. Shake off excess cornmeal from okra before frying.

6. Fry okra in batches, careful to not overcrowd the pan. Fry until golden brown, about 5 to 7 minutes. Don’t stir the first few minutes, but once the okra starts to brown, stir to promote even browning.

7. Remove from oil with a slotted spoon and place on paper towels to drain.

*za’atar is a blend of dried thyme, dried oregano, sumac and sesame seeds. If you do not have za’atar, you could substitute an equal amount of another herb blend, such as Italian herbs or herbs de Provence.


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Fiesta at Rick’s – Cookbook Review

Note from Chef Gwen: Linda Avery takes us for a spin through the newest cookbook from Rick Bayless. Read on, and then head to the kitchen to make the scrumptious chocolate pecan pie bars.

Fiesta At Rick’s:

Fabulous Food for Great Times with Friends

by Rick Bayless with Deann Groen Bayless

Facts: W.W. Norton, 350 pages, $35.00 (or Amazon at $21.95)

Photos: Over 140 pics of food, people, settings, fun

Recipes: 150

Give to: Rick Bayless fans, Mexican food lovers, a host in need of a party planner

Reviewed by Linda Avery:

Top Chef Master Rick Bayless has added another cookbook to his arsenal, Fiesta At Rick’s: Fabulous Food for Great Times with Friends – just released July 5th. This is a how-to guide for the best Mexican party you’d ever want to throw.

Don’t know where to start?  Bayless suggests themes like a pozole party or a mole fiesta. He lays out “game plans” which begin about a week ahead of your party, and timelines (to make sure your plantains are perfectly ripened).

There is no disputing the fact that Rick Bayless brought Mexican food to a new level across the country over the past few decades. He has a talent for ramping up flavors with exquisite balance. I must say that this book is akin to having a Vulcan mind meld with him. He tells all.

Even the most accomplished host could pick up a pointer from the serving strategies. Decide your number of guests and choose from eight mouthwatering guacamoles like Tomato and Bacon, Mango or Toasted Pumpkin Seed (one of his suggested parties happens to be a Luxury Guacamole Bar Cocktail Party for 12).

If you don’t want to hire mariachis who might steal your show, you can rely on the playlists included for consideration – think Tito Puente, Bebel Gilberto, Lila Downs, and Buena Vista Social Club among others. And, he peppers the book with how-to guides for everything from “How to Have a Tequila Tasting” to “How to Build a Temporary Brick Fire Pit (Hornillo).”

And then there’s the food. In the words of the author “while there are dishes in this new book that don’t require a lot of time to make, a good number of them do involve forethought or dedication.”

If that’s intimidating, recruit a friend or two and cook together (probably best to have wine while cooking and save the tequila for prime time).

I don’t allow myself Mexican food very often because that “everything in moderation” rule flies out the window. This was an opportunity to let ‘er rip. Until now, flan was my go-to Mexican dessert recipe so I knew exactly what I wanted to test from this book: the chocolate pecan pie bars.

The golden rule of testing is to follow the recipe exactly, i.e., no substitutions, no halfsies. The result: this is a 5-star additively rich, delicious dessert and it is HUGE. Don’t hesitate to cut this recipe in half – I hope it freezes well.

Photo © by Paul Elledge

From Fiesta At Rick’s: Fabulous Food for Great Times with Friends by Rick Bayless

Frontera Grill’s Chocolate Pecan Pie Bars

Makes thirty-two 2-inch bars

This recipe is a bar version of the Chocolate Pecan Pie that’s been the sig­nature dessert at Frontera Grill for well over two decades. We’ve replaced that flaky crust with a sweet-salty-buttery pretzel crust that I think is perfect for these luscious bars. Come to think of it, with these bars being so gooey-rich you may want to cut the squares crosswise into triangles, so people can enjoy just a biteful at a time.

9 ounces (about 2 cups) pecan halves
One 9-ounce bag pretzel rods
1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter, plus extra for buttering the pan
1/2 cup granulated sugar
8 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped into pieces not larger than 1/4 inch
3/4 cup (about 4 1/2 ounces) finely chopped Mexican chocolate (such as the widely available Ibarra brand)
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
6 large eggs
1 1/2 cups firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 1/2 cups corn syrup, preferably dark (or use a mixture of corn syrup and molasses, sorghum, Steen’s cane syrup or most any of the other rich-flavored syrups)
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract, preferably Mexican vanilla
Powdered sugar, for garnish

1. Toast the pecans and prepare the crumb crust. In a 325° oven, toast the pecans on a rimmed baking sheet until noticeably darker and toasty smelling, about 10 minutes. Let the pecans cool to lukewarm (but keep the oven heated), then coarsely chop them by hand — 1/4to 1/2-inch pieces make luxurious-looking bars. Scrape into a large bowl.

2. Use a food processor to chop the pretzels into fairly fine crumbs. (You should have 2 cups of crumbs.) In a small saucepan over medium heat or in a microwave at 50% power, melt 2 sticks of the butter. Scrape into the processor, along with the 1/2 cup granulated sugar. Pulse until everything is combined.

3. Butter the bottoms and sides of two 8 x 8-inch baking pans. Cut a piece of parchment to fit the bottom of each pan, then press firmly in place. Butter the parchment paper. Divide the crumb mixture between the two pans and pat into an even layer covering the bottom completely.

4. Make the filling. To the pecans, add the two chocolates and the flour. Stir to combine, then divide evenly between the two pans. In the small saucepan or microwave at 50% power, melt the remaining 2 sticks of the butter. In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the eggs, brown sugar, corn syrup or corn syrup mixture and vanilla, and beat at medium-low speed (if your mixer has a choice, use the flat beater). Slowly add the melted butter, mixing until the batter looks smooth. Divide the batter between the two pans, pouring it slowly and evenly over the surface to ensure even distribution of the chocolate and pecans through the batter.

5. Bake, cool and serve the bars. Slide the pans into the oven and bake for 45 to 55 minutes, until the center is almost firm. Let cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate until firm for easy cutting. Use a small knife to loosen the sides, then turn out. Cut into 2-inch squares. Keep your Chocolate Pecan Pie Bars stored in the refrigerator until just before serving. Transfer to a serving platter, dust with powdered sugar, carry to your guests and await the moans of pleasure.

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Charentais – The French Melon

I grew up thinking a cantaloupe was a cantaloupe.

In West Texas, July brought a windfall of Pecos cantaloupes, surely the sweetest melons I’ve ever tasted.

Until now.

Shopping at the Scottsdale farmers market, I stopped at Seacat Gardens, and Carl Seacat asked me if I’d ever tasted a true cantaloupe.

Seacat, who farms an acre on the west side of Phoenix, says the netted melons we grew up with, and see in all the grocery stores this time of year, are really muskmelons — not true cantaloupes.

Front and center of his display, a bunch of orbs — some barely bigger than a softball — looked rather dwarfish, certainly nothing like the melons I thought of as cantaloupes.

Some were grayish green and others were marked with swaths of yellow streaks. The skins were smooth, unlike the webbed muskmelon-formerly-known-as-the-cantaloupe.

“These are Charentais,” he said, “a true cantaloupe — also called a French melon.”

And then he told me about the aroma, the taste, and before you know it, I’m handing over my wallet.

Seacat says Charentais (pronounced sha-rhan-tay, or in my best West Texas accent: Sharon-taze) emit heady floral fragrances and show pronounced yellowing when ripe. He told me to leave green ones on the counter a few days.

Back home, I sliced open the ripest one and immediately caught a whiff of honeysuckle — or was it jasmine or some blurred zephyr of the two?

The French wrap prosciutto around slices of Charentais. Seems rather Italian, doesn’t it?

My first inclination was to stand over the cutting board, which I did, biting into juicy slice after slice, sweet nectar dripping down my chin.

In my brain, the taste registered as cantaloupe, yet there was something marginally different about this melon.

The taste of honey filled my mouth. I swallowed and what lingered was sweet and floral.

At $3.75 a pound, perhaps it’s best to enjoy this melon alone, unadorned.

But I couldn’t help think of all the things I wanted to make with it.

Charentais salsa, with bits of red onion, jalapeno, mint and a spritz of lime.

Or a chilled Charentais soup, like the cantaloupe soup I submitted to Food 52.

Seacat told me that local pastry chef Tracy Dempsey was busy whipping up a Charantais sorbet as we spoke.

In the end, I decided to make a frothy Charentais frappé.

Still, I’m not sure anything beats eating Charentais straight from the cutting board.

Charentais Frappé

(printable recipe)

Look for Charentais melons at farmers markets. In the Phoenix area, Seacat Garden’s will have Charentais at the Scottsdale Stadium Farmers Market through the end of the summer. You can substitute 2-1/4 cups of cubed cantaloupe or honeydew for the Charentais. And by “cantaloupe” I mean muskmelon — which I swear I thought was a cantaloupe until I met the Charentais.

Serves 2

1 (1-1/4 pound) Charentais melon
1 cup lowfat vanilla yogurt
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom*

Peel and seed melon. Chop into large chunks. Place in the freezer for 10-15 minutes (don’t freeze completely).

Place the yogurt in a blender. Place the chilled melon chunks on top of the yogurt. Add lemon juice and cardamom.

Blend until frothy. Chill until ready to serve.

*Cardamom adds an exotic note, but you can use cinnamon, or a dash of nutmeg instead.


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BBQ Burgers for Dad

Growing up, the culinary duties in our house fell mostly to my mother, but certain dishes were Dad’s domain, including anything on the grill.

Between Memorial Day and Labor day, the grill was filled with burgers, hot dogs and an occasional steak — a splurge on an journalist’s budget with a passel of kids.

He had it pretty easy whenever he did cook.

Mom prepped all the ingredients, prepared all the side dishes, set the table and cleaned up afterward, too. (What was she thinking?)

I still can see him standing at the grill, long handled spatula in hand, flipping burgers while we kids vied for his attention.

To keep us occupied, he created timed races for us. We’d take off from the patio and run as fast as we could to the back fence and back.

He counted the seconds and then declared one of us victorious, usually one of my long-legged older brothers, or my quick-as-a-rabbit younger brother. I was more like a turtle, and my sister, her nose in a book, couldn’t be bothered with silly races — or sweat.

I loved those long, lazy, summer Sundays in West Texas. The sounds and smells flash back to me anytime I’m standing over the grill, flipping burgers.

So this Father’s Day, even though I can’t be in Texas with Dad, I’ll fire up our grill and throw on a couple burgers to toast the man who made our summers so sweet and memorable.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I love you.

Steve’s BBQ Burgers

(printable recipe)

Steve is my baby brother, who’s not a baby anymore. Now at family gatherings, he’s the guy behind the grill, and Dad is all too happy to turn the tongs over to him, especially when these burgers are on the menu.

Nice and smoky, thanks to the liquid smoke and barbecue sauce, they taste even better if you prepare them for the grill earlier in the day. Take them out of the fridge to take the chill off while you heat up the grill.

Serves 6

2 pounds ground beef (not extra lean)

2/3 cup bbq sauce (divided)

1/4 cup liquid smoke

3 tablespoons lemon pepper seasoning (divided)

Heat the grill to medium (350 degrees).

Crumble the beef into a large bowl and pour about 1/3 cup of bbq sauce and the liquid smoke over the beef.

Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of lemon pepper seasoning. Mix by hand until thoroughly combined.

Form into 6 equal patties either by hand or in a form. Make an indention with your thumb on both sides of each patty (helps keep it from puffing up during cooking.)

Brush both sides of each patty with the remaining bbq sauce and then sprinkle both sides with the remaining lemon pepper seasoning.

Grill until medium (140-145 degrees F.), about 15 minutes, flipping only once, about half way through.


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Grilled Eggplant with Herbed Goat Cheese

Paired with a glass of sparkling rosé, this elegant appetizer is one of my favorite recipes in my cookbook Par Fork! The Golf Resort Cookbook.

Maybe because it looks like it’s a lot more trouble than it really is.

And the flavors? Wow. Smoky eggplant, creamy goat cheese, fresh herbs and sweet, tangy aged balsamic.

I prefer to salt-soak eggplant to remove its bitterness, especially ones from the grocery store. Older eggplants have larger seeds, which impart a bitter flavor.

It really is a matter of personal preference, though, so you can skip that step if you’ve got a fresh, young eggplant at your disposal.

Of course it tastes fantastic just off the grill, but to save time, you can grill the eggplant a couple hours a head of time. Just leave the grilled eggplant at room temperature until you’re ready to assemble the plates.

If you’re not plating it fresh off the grill, serve it either room temperature, or reheat in a 300 degree oven for 10 minutes before slathering it with the herb goat cheese.

Depending upon the size of your eggplant, you may have more than 6 slices (what you need for this recipe).

Grill them all and you can chopped up any leftovers to use in another salad, or put them on a tomato sandwich.

Grilled Eggplant with Herb Goat Cheese & Mixed Greens

(printable recipe)

Serves 6

Marinated Eggplant:
1 small (~ 1 pound) eggplant
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons minced garlic
Freshly ground black pepper

Herbed Goat Cheese:
1/4 cup (2 ounces) quality goat cheese
1/4 cup (2 ounces) cream cheese
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh chives
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme leaves

Mixed Greens:
1-1/2 cups mixed baby greens
2 tablespoons aged balsamic vinegar* divided
Salt and freshly ground black pepper


1. Cut both ends off eggplant and discard.  Cut remaining eggplant into 1-inch slices.  Sprinkle both sides with kosher salt and place on a baking sheet in a single layer.  Set aside for 30 minutes. Wipe off the beaded moister with paper towels, but do not rinse. Meanwhile, make the herbed goat cheese by mixing all the ingredients (goat cheese through thyme) together until smooth.  Set aside at room temperature or keep in the refrigerator if making it far in advance.

2. Mix 2 tablespoons of olive oil with 2 teaspoons of minced garlic and brush on both sides of eggplant slices.  Sprinkle with pepper.  Let marinate while grill is heating up.

3. Heat the grill to medium-high (375° to 400°F).  Grill eggplant until soft but not mushy, about 4-5 minutes per side.  Alternatively, broil for 3 to 5 minutes on each side in a preheated broiler, about 3 inches from the heat source.

Mixed Greens & Assembly:

1. Toss mixed greens with 2 teaspoons of aged balsamic vinegar and season with salt and pepper.

2. Place a slice of grilled eggplant in the middle of 6 salad plates. Spread a tablespoon of goat cheese mixture on top of each eggplant. (I spoon leftover cheese on the plate, using 2 espresso spoons to shape into a quenelle, a 3-sided football. Here’s a Fine Cooking video link demonstrating the technique with ice cream…after the ad, of course.)

3. Place 1/4 cup of dressed greens on top of each eggplant.  Drizzle remaining balsamic over the top and around the plates.

*If you don’t have a quality, aged balsamic, take 1 cup of whatever balsamic vinegar you do have, and reduce it in a small saucepan over medium-high heat until only 1/2 cup remains.  This will thicken and sweeten it by removing some of the water content. Cool before using.

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Chilled Blue Crab Tower with Lemon Creme Fraiche

Towers of food, if done tastefully, are still in style.

Even though this dish is stunning, the best part is the fresh taste, especially if you splurge on the crabmeat and buy only the best. OK, so it takes a little prep time, but the presentation is worth it, and you can make these up to 8 hours in advance, if you leave them in the mold. Otherwise the avocado will start to turn brown.

Blue crab is easy to find along the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico near Florida, but other lump crabmeat will work in this dish, too, like Dungeness, if you happen to live on the West Coast.

Just promise me you won’t use that canned stuff on the grocery shelf near the canned tuna.  Any specialty grocery store or butcher shop will have access to top quality crab, and I’ve even discovered a quality brand of canned pasteurized crab called Phillips.  It’s sold through some of the large price warehouse clubs, like Costco.

Chilled Blue Crab Tower with Lemon Crème Fraîche

(recipe from my cookbook, Par Fork! The Golf Resort Cookbook)

Serves 4

1/2 pound cooked lump crabmeat

1/4 cup olive oil

Zest of 1 lemon

1/4 cup fresh chopped mint

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 cup (6 ounces) yellow tomatoes, seeded and chopped

1 (7-ounce) avocado, peeled and chopped

1 teaspoon lemon juice

3/4 cup finely chopped sweet onion

1/2 cup spicy sprouts (like radish)

4 molds*


4 slices sourdough bread, 1/2-inch thick

1 tablespoon butter

Freshly ground black pepper

Lemon Crème Fraîche (recipe follows, make at least 1 day in advance)

Zest of another lemon (zest at the last minute)

4 mint springs

  1. Mix crabmeat with olive oil, lemon zest, and chopped mint. Season with salt and pepper.
  2. Season the chopped tomato with salt and pepper to taste.  Sprinkle the chopped avocado with the lemon juice and gently toss.
  3. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or plastic wrap. Spray the molds with nonstick spray and place on the lined sheet.  Layer the ingredients in this order, packing each layer tight with the back of a spoon before adding the next:
  • 2 tablespoons tomato
  • 2 tablespoons crabmeat
  • 2 tablespoons avocado
  • 1 tablespoon sweet onion
  • 2 tablespoons crabmeat
  • 2 tablespoons sprouts
  1. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. May be made up to 8 hours in advance.
  2. Cut the sourdough slices into decorative shapes with a cookie cutter (I used a small star).  Brush cut bread with melted butter and sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper. Toast until golden brown.  May be prepared 1 day in advance.  Store at room temperature in an airtight container.
  3. To serve, place a crab mold in the center of a plate. Carefully remove the mold, running a thin knife blade along the inside of the mold to loosen, if necessary. Place a dollop of Lemon Crème Fraîche next to the tower, or place in a squeeze bottle and zigzag on the plate. Garnish with toasted sourdough, freshly ground black pepper, a pinch of lemon zest, and a sprig of mint.

*I used empty tomato sauce cans (8-ounce size), both ends removed, washed, and dried for this recipe.

Lemon Crème Fraîche

There’s nothing quite like a homemade crème fraîche, though you could fake it with sour cream thinned with a splash of cream.

Makes 1-1/2 cups

1 cup heavy cream

3 tablespoons buttermilk

3 lemons

  1. Stir cream and buttermilk together in a clean bowl or sanitized jar. Cover bowl or close jar and allow mixture to sit at room temperature until thickened. This could take anywhere from 12 to 24 hours, depending upon how warm you kitchen is.
  2. After mixture is thickened, zest 3 lemons and finely chop the zest (save the lemons for another use).  Stir zest into crème fraîche and refrigerate, covered, until chilled.  Store covered in the refrigerator, up to 1 week.


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Redux: Asparagus on the Grill

The asparagus in our Arizona grocery stores is still coming from Mexico, but in a month or so, we’ll have asparagus from California and our own local farms, too.

My favorite preparation is grilled asparagus, so I thought I’d revisit this post I did last April on how to grill asparagus. Because it’s really simple to do, and because while it’s only the beginning of March, it’s never too early to start thinking about Spring.

What’s your favorite asparagus recipe?


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