Samta Clause

I was at our local warehouse club today, with our usual list: diapers, coffee, and the 3# bag of sliced almonds that they rarely stock (unfortunately today was not a sliced almond day). While on the nut aisle, I strolled past the dried fruit section. And to what did my wondering eyes appear but a bag of dried montmorency cherries. I can’t even get these things at my local whole foods store right now (they only stock sweet dried cherries). The ingredient list showed nothing amiss, so a purchase was made. They’re not as good as the ones from Trader Joe’s, but are just as good as the ones I purchased last week at Whole Foods in Kentucky. The price was so right ($5.80 for 14oz), I could almost fulfill this wish. Causing me to liken Sam Walton to my own personal, jolly, bearded, elf-enslaving bearer-of-gifts.

Pick of the Month, November ’07

For several weeks now, I’ve had in mind to write this month’s Pick post about an herb. Herbs are important in all seasons, and a future post will act as a nicely-worn soapbox for me to elaborate on the subject. I even had a specific herb in mind (I’ll keep you guessing as to which one — gotta keep things spicy around here). But I was just never inspired enough to sit down and write. Last night, as I prepped what turned out to be a delightful pot of chicken and dumplings, I was led to change this month’s subject, to one that is often overlooked, misunderstood, or just plain slandered. Today I will wax on about the wonders of celery.

You heard me. Let’s take a moment, and form in our minds a cartoon image of some nameless sitcom character on a militant diet. While attending a feast of sorts, our TV star is presented with — none other than — a plate containing nothing but a few leafy stalks of celery. This is what we might think of, when presented with today’s subject. That, or the fact that celery is usually the last vegetable left on the party tray, after all the Ranch dressing has been scraped out of the center bowl. How did celery end up this way? How did her reputation drift so low, to the underbelly of the produce department?

Well, I’m guessing that the problem for most people would be flavor and/or texture. And celery is strong in both. I’m the first to admit that, aside from the occasional “Ants on a Log”* snack, I’m rarely anxious to munch on a raw celery stalk (with or without the customary dipping accompaniments). But celery is altogether unique in flavor, and plays an indispensable supporting role in the base of many, many dishes. From soups, stocks, and sauces, to the spicy Bloody Mary. It is usually in season through the winter and early spring months, which is why it is so often found in your soup and stuffing recipes.

Celery is one of a trio of base vegetables in two significant (in their influence on much of what we eat in America) cuisines: Creole and French (not surprising, considering the French influence in the birth of Creole cooking). In creole cooking, the holy trinity consists of celery, onion, and bell pepper. In French cooking, a mirepoix consists of celery, onion, and carrots. In each of these bases, the vegetables are diced and sautéed in fat (usually butter). There are not many fragrances that can rival the scent of a mirepoix cooking in butter. And it couldn’t be that good without the celery.

I’m a big believer in homemade stock for soups — and once again, celery is a must. Throwing in a stalk or two, with leaves (much flavor lives there), to a pot of simmering chicken parts (along with an onion, quartered) — it makes all the difference. Without, you’re just making chicken water. With the addition of two other things, you now have stock. Add noodles, and you have homemade chicken soup. The perfect meal for cold and flu season. And, while celery isn’t a powerhouse of vitamin C, it has anti-toxic properties that do, in fact, seem to lend a hand to the healing powers of that bowl of soup.

For years, I would buy a bunch of celery, use a stalk or two, and watch in disgust as my purchase wasted into a limp, useless, colorless pile of compost in my refrigerator, within just a few days. But I recently read in Cook’s Illustrated about the best method for storing celery: after purchase, remove it from its plastic wrapper, and wrap it tightly (unwashed) in aluminum foil. This worked like a charm — I now can keep a bunch for up to a few weeks, using almost all of it by the time oxidation renders it unusable.

The moral of the story? Yes. You should always buy the celery when making that recipe. The one stalk, chopped, really does matter. If you’re unsure about what to do with the rest, buy an onion and 4 pounds of chicken parts and make a hefty 8 quarts of stock (vegetable stock might be even easier, but read up on it first, it can get strong very quickly). Or, stick a stalk in a glass, and surround it with Vodka, tomato juice, and a shake of tabasco, raising your glass to the beauty of celery.

* The somewhat infamous childhood snack: take a stalk of celery, smear it with peanut butter, and add raisins to the top. It really is good, and some days, totally hits the healthy-snack spot.

The Marquez Family Recipe Vault, opened.

I’ve been told by my parents that, while I am not the immediate descendant of a foodie, I had other relatives who were wonderful cooks. My dad’s side of the family came to New Orleans from Spain (hence, the maiden name that caused me to receive more than my share of Spanish-speaking telemarketers and junk mail), and ended up in south Mississippi. My memories from visits to my paternal grandparents are focused on food — from the boiled shrimp that was my grandfather’s specialty, to picking blueberries and shelling pecans until my fingers hurt, to watching in utter amazement as my grandmother sliced an apple in the palm of her hand (how did she not cut herself?). I can still taste the ambrosia and ham at the holidays, the raisin bread with apple butter at my Aunt Inez’s house, and Gonnie’s (my grandmother) “kid coffee”: a demitasse cup with about an ounce of coffee and four times as much milk, with who knows how much sugar. I blame my early exposure to this kinderversion of café au lait for the fact that I cannot drink black coffee.

Unfortunately, there is no worn, leather box that holds little splattered, faded, handwritten recipes that were passed on to me to carry on this creole-meets-southern eating tradition. My grandparents both died before I embarked on my culinary adventures, so I was never able to call them and ask, “so, what was in that ambrosia, anyway?” And, outside of the afore-mentioned, I have few other good food memories from childhood. Every once in a while, my mom would cook a pot roast, or a pot of summer squash and onions. And twice a year — at Thanksgiving and Christmas — she made Pumpkin Bread. We would order our entire holiday dinner, pre-cooked, from our local grocery store. But, dammit, we made homemade Pumpkin Bread. And we loved it. Ate it sliced, topped with Cool Whip (I confess to continuing this tradition when in Mississippi for the holidays). We knew it was that time of year when Mom was digging in that scary corner cabinet — the one with outdated prescription drugs — looking for the splattered, faded index card that listed the Pumpkin Bread recipe. The single recipe that I have inherited. And now, friends, I share it with you. I still make it, multiple times, around the holidays; it’s good bread for sharing, and freezes very well. I am often asked for the recipe, and I proudly pass it on, with the addendum that it’s “my Mom’s” — and chuckle to myself at the identity that this suggests. Don’t worry. My Mom would chuckle, too.

Pumpkin Bread (courtesy Rachel Barham Marquez)

  • 3 1/2 cups flour
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 tsp allspice
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp cloves
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 1 cup oil
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 can pumpkin
  • 2/3 cup water

Preheat oven to 350º, and grease (crisco) and flour 2 loaf pans.

Sift together the dry ingredients (flour through cloves) in a medium bowl. In a large bowl (or in the bowl of a standing mixer) combine the sugar and oil. Add the eggs to the sugar/oil mixture, one at a time, mixing well between additions. Add the pumpkin and stir until smooth. Add appx. 1/3 of the flour mixture and a little of the water, stirring until smooth. Keep adding the flour and water, stirring after the additions, until all ingredients have been added.

Pour into loaf pans. Bake approximately 1 1/2 hours, or until the top is nicely cracked and a toothpick inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean. Cool in pans on a cooling rack for at least a half hour, and let cool completely before wrapping to freeze.

Blast from the past

Many thanks to Melissa, for asking me to grab a box of Rice Krispies while I was at Target yesterday. Upon being questioned about the reason for her request (because, yes, I had to know) she replied casually that she was making Rice Krispy Treats with her kids. At the precise moment she completed that sentence, I knew I’d be buying a box for myself, along with a bag of marshmallows.

Aren’t they yummy, with all their corn syrup solids and high fructose corn syrup? I remember in college, before I was aware of all of today’s current edible modes of death, I would eat entire batches of these things (not, mind you in one sitting, but still). Because they were FAT FREE. And a diet entirely void of fat was going to help me lose that freshman twenty.