Sunday, December 31, 2006

    You Say Cala, I Say Collard Greens

    My month of blogging on AOL's health channel has begun!! Check out my next post on January 2 at, and then each weekday after that through the 31st.

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    My recent favorite thing to do on New Year's Eve is to cook a special dinner at home. Then, a few minutes before the New Year, we go outside to breathe in the cold New York City air, which is drunk on both libations and anticipation, and listen to revelers as the clock strikes midnight.

    Jon has been traveling in Nicaragua for the last week and will be back in town in just a few hours. Since I've yet to cook for him in our apartment, I decided today was the day! I'm making the Southern traditional New Year's Day meal of collard greens and Hoppin' John. Southerners say that collards represent wealth in the new year. Hoppin' John, which Jon has never eaten, are also supposed to bring good luck. Some say that the peas stands for coins while the greens stand for paper dollars.

    Yesterday I bought something I hadn't purchased before: ham hocks to cook with both dishes. You can make each without the ham, but it adds a greater depth of flavor and smokiness. I'd planned for months to also pick up some of Wine Cellars Sorbet's champagne sorbet, which I've sampled a few times at Whole Foods. It has 5% alcohol, and the company does sorbet tastings with various cheese pairings. The WF cheesemonger suggested a Robusto, which I believe is a nutty, gouda-like cheese. I'll serve this first, as an amuse-bouche.

    For dessert, I was thinking of making a CheerDevil cake (Cheerwine and devil's food mix). I grew up drinking Cheerwine, the regional cherry-flavored soda. It's not too sweet, and special enough to be non-reminiscent of Cherry Coke. Instead, I decided to make calas, which I'd never heard of before reading this article in the New York Times (it's now Times Select only, so I'll post the recipe at the end). I know Jon will be especially excited about this dish because his post-grad school job involves working in areas hit by Katrina, and he's become as interested in Cajun and Creole culture as he's been in my Southern heritage.

    From the article:
    "Vance Vaucresson is from a Creole family that has been making chaurice for more than 100 years. Katrina took out the family sausage operation on St. Bernard Avenue, but a competitor from a nearby suburb of Metairie has allowed Mr. Vaucresson to make chaurice there while he rebuilds.

    Mr. Vaucresson can talk about Creoles and sausage for days, but he was more excited last week when he watched rice fritters called calas boil in a pan of hot oil.

    The cala (pronounced cah-LAH) has roots in Ghana. In 18th century New Orleans, Creole women of color who had the day off from their domestic jobs sold them out of baskets, shouting, ''Calas, belles, calas tout chauds!'' (Beautiful calas, very hot!)

    Save for a few Creole grandmothers, who made them for special events like First Communion and Mardi Gras, calas had almost faded away.

    Since Katrina, they have reappeared in some restaurants, as a dessert or in the form of savory fritters made with wild rice and smoked catfish or with duck confit."

    Here's to good luck and happy eatin' in 2007!

    Adapted from Poppy Tooker
    Time: 20 minutes

    Vegetable oil, for deep-frying
    2 cups cooked medium- or long-grain white rice
    6 tablespoons flour
    1/4 cup sugar
    2 teaspoons baking powder
    1/4 teaspoon salt
    Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
    2 large eggs
    1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
    Confectioners' sugar.

    1. In a fryer or a deep pot, add oil to a depth of at least three inches, and bring to 360 degrees. In a large bowl, combine rice, flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and nutmeg.
    2. In a small bowl, mix together eggs and vanilla. Add to rice mixture and stir with a fork until well blended. Keep mixture cool (below 70 degrees) so that it will not separate when dropped into hot oil.
    3. When oil is correct temperature, drop in heaping tablespoons of batter. Calas will brown on one side and turn themselves over. When browned on both sides, after about 5 minutes, remove them with a wire skimmer and drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with confectioners' sugar, and serve hot.

    Yield: About 12 calas (4 to 6 servings).

    Sunday, December 24, 2006

    Americain Awakening

    I'd been saving a generous gift certificate to Bobby Flay's Bar Americain to use when Dana next visited from Pittsburgh, and last weekend she, Jon and I had an extravagant brunch there. Just a few weeks ago, Jon and I enjoyed a delicious Thanksgiving dinner at Bar Americain with his family, and we were more than happy to go back again so soon. To my wide-eyed dismay, Dana had never heard of Bobby Flay, but she was equally satisfied with our dining experience.

    Bar Americain is located in the space of the former Judson Grill, where Jon and I'd also eaten with his family. The ceilings are high, the restaurant is spacious, the banquettes cozy, and the restaurant's din is no worse than most and far better than many. There's a long raw bar on display at the back, and a calming, jovial air about the place, which is billed as the Iron Chef's ode to American cooking.

    To console ourselves about it being Sunday already, we ordered a round of drinks: Jon randomly recently switched from ordering red wine to white (I waffle depending on the weather and who might be talking to my purple-stained mouth while I drink); I had the Pimm's Cup, with Pimm's, fresh lemonade and a slice of cucumber, which was a little too bitter at that hour of the day for me; Dana's Kentucky 95 with Maker’s Mark, champagne, fresh lemon juice, and fresh orange juice was more what I like waking up with.

    For starters we ordered a half dozen oysters on the half shell, the lobster avocado cocktail, half a chilled lobster, and the housemade potato chips with blue cheese sauce (like I said, extravagant!).

    I'm a mess when it comes to eating crab or lobster in the shell. In Charleston, Dana and I had a tradition of going to a restaurant called A.W. Shucks and ordering the all-you-can-eat crab legs, which she then had to crack, pick, and feed me. Sometimes I can look at a leg and figure out the best way to go in for the kill, but usually I end up with broken shell in my hands and a pittance of meat in my mouth. If I manage to score a large chunk of crab, I exclaim, "I've got the mother-load!"

    My grilled shrimp salad, Nicoise style, was exactly what I wanted: poached eggs, olives, and baked tomatoes with medium-sized blackened shrimp, over a bed of frisee. I don't mind frisee, but if I had my druthers I'd never be served it again. Everyone has a hard time eating it, it gets stuck in everyone's throats and teeth, everyone complains about it, and yet...

    Dana's Open-Face Omelette with Fire Roasted Peppers, Wild Mushrooms, Goat Cheese and Parsley was served in a small cast iron skillet and looked tasty. If I was in an eggy mood (not so often), I would've tried the Blue Corn Fried Eggs with Red & Green Chile and Black Beans.

    Jon went all out with Miss Stephanie's (she being the actress Stephanie March and Bobby's wife) Biscuits & Cream Gravy, Artisanal Ham, Sausage & Scrambled Eggs. I noticed that a much heftier man than Jon sitting at a nearby table couldn't finish his plate, but Jon did it justice. At Thanksgiving we ordered an Artisanal Ham Tasting appetizer, which was mouthwateringly succulent and salty, as was the ham on Jon's plate. I love it when my New Jersey boy orders Southern.

    Neither of them wanted dessert, but there was a strategy in my ordering the salad: I wanted the Bananas Foster Crepes with Walnuts and Creme Fraiche, which is on the brunch entree, not dessert, menu. The caramel and creme fraiche sugar overload worked me into a tizzy, until the bill came and reality set back in. Hallelujah for the gift card! Thank you sweet crepes, thank you.

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    There have been people (Jon!), clothes, apartments, and many other things that I didn't like right away but ended up loving soon after. The new musical Spring Awakening is one of those things. It's being billed as the next Rent, the first rock show on Broadway to get it right, and "a vital leap forward for the new American musical" (The Sun). If you go, try to get the cheap seats on the stage so you can be in the midst of it all.

    The show, based on an 1891 play by Frank Wedekind, centers on a group of 19th-century German teenagers who are first realizing the longings and violence of the human body. When I left the show, I said aloud that not one of the songs, co-written by Duncan Sheik (of "I Am Barely Breathing" fame), had stuck with me. Of course, a few days later "Mama Who Bore Me" popped into my head and began to haunt me, along with "Totally F****d." So much so that I bought the cast recording on iTunes yesterday. I especially like John Gallagher Jr.'s voice, which is clear and expressive, ironic and knowing ("The Bitch of Living," "And Then There Were None").

    As a whole, before I picked it apart and found its deeper beauty while listening to the soundtrack, the show didn't gel for me -- if you want me to believe I'm watching 19th-century German teens, give me a little more to go on so that my mind doesn't automatically switch the plot to 20th-century American teens. If you want to tell me a story, have the songs do a little more storytelling instead of reiterating the scene that just took place. (Yeah yeah, I know the songs are supposed to be internal monologues and "blah blah blah blah, blah blah blah," so if that's how you aim to entertain me, how about cut the show by 20 or 30 minutes.) Nonetheless, if you want me to have a kickass, almost indie-rock time, keep on with the rock n' roll on Broadway hootchie-koo magic. There will be no schadenfreude from this here blogger if the show doesn't win multiple Tonys. Hmmm, did I use schadenfreude right?

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    For the month of January, I'll be blogging almost daily for AOL's health channel. Follow my progress at as I resolve once and for all to shrink my thighs and strengthen my core.

    Bring it on, 2007!

    Saturday, December 02, 2006

    Vacation Degustation Part Trois

    And finally, part three...and a promise to myself to make my posts simpler from now on!

    Sunday, September 17

    A few years ago, my Dad's doctors told him he had about a year left to live. In theory, they weren't wrong: people diagnosed with in-transit metastatic melanoma usually don't. It's a miracle, his doctors say, that he is alive. Thus, the opportunity to celebrate his 60th birthday with him, and not in remembrance of him, was a miracle too.

    My Aunt, Dad's sister and a fabulous cook and entertainer, graciously hosted the party with her husband at their house. Almost everyone I invited was able to attend, from family, family friends, elementary school friends, and former co-workers my dad hadn't seen in over a decade.

    That morning I nervously got ready, smiling as I slipped on the Yankees t-shirt I'd bought for the party. Though Dad grew up in Charleston, he's been a Yankees fan since he was a kid, so my Aunt I decided to theme the surprise party around his team. The invites had the Yankees logo on them, and there were Cracker Jacks, popcorn, Dad's favorite snack, almonds, and even almond French toast, plus his favorite NYC cheesecake from Carnegie Deli at the party.

    Dad's actual birthday wasn't for a few more weeks, so turning 60 wasn't at the top of his mind yet. Since he thought I'd come into town just for my high school reunion and believed we were going to my Aunt's house for a 16th birthday brunch for my cousin, he wasn't suspicious of the cars spilling out of the driveway.

    Though he's never had a heart problem, I was secretly worried that if my Aunt and I actually pulled the surprise off we might give Dad a heart attack. Later she confided that she'd been worried too. Thankfully there was no need to worry, but from the moment we walked in the door and he registered what was really happening, to a few days later when he finished opening his cards and gifts, Dad was in a state of elated shock and disbelief. Thankfully, it was a wonderful, happy kind of shock, unlike the many ups and downs he's endured since he was diagnosed.

    Along with the toasts and an "Alan Coleman fashion show" featuring my Dad's limited wardrobe (baseball hats, sneakers, jeans and old t-shirts), one of the best parts of the party was a photo my Aunt blew up and framed that featured my dad as a young, begloved boxer. It turned out that his until that day unidentified teenage opponent was also at the party!

    I don't know how we'll top that afternoon when it comes time to celebrate Dad's 70th birthday, but given the chance, I'm sure we will.

    Melanoma is one of the cancers that doctors know the least about, and the treatments for it are mostly experimental. For more information, you can visit Memorial Sloan-Kettering's Web site.