Thursday, April 28, 2011

Dessert fit for a princess


Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I’m surrounded by princesses. Decked out in plastic tiaras and shiny, synthetic ball gowns, my little girls are princesses to a T. Or is that tea? We occasionally have dress-up teas in our house – pulling out the china tea cups and plates, serving up a bit of cake or cookies, and tea. Filling up the sugar and creamer, because it doesn’t matter if the tea is already sweet, the primary point of a proper little girls’ tea being to stir sugar into liquid while wearing a fancy dress.


Celebrating the royal wedding this week, I confess to a fascination with the British royal family, beginning with Princess Diana’s wedding in 1981 (isn’t it funny how it’s not called Prince Charles’ wedding?). I was a teenager, and missed the wedding because I was at summer camp in the mountains of Tennessee. To tell the truth, I didn’t see the full movie-length version of the wedding until just a few years ago, on a September weekend TV marathon memorializing Diana’s death. I still have the Life magazine with the pictures of the wedding - the coach, the dress, the tiara, the veil, the flower girls.


Maybe it's just me, but Diana's wedding dress is iconic. I saw it last year when  Diana: A Celebration came to Atlanta. The dress gets its own glass case, with the train fully extended and flower girl's dress alongside. Diana's dress seems so girly compared to the sleek wedding dresses of today. Her dress had those puffed and ruffled sleeves, the embroidered bodice and cascading skirt. My youngest daughter was four at the time, and still talks about seeing the princess' wedding dress. Here she is with her big sister demonstrating how to act like a princess under the gaze of Diana.
Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Back at home, we take tea some days, and every now and then, I'll make Sticky Toffee Pudding, supposedly Kate’s favorite dessert. In the realm of English desserts, I’m more of a fan of bananas-and-cream banoffee, but sticky toffee is divine in its own way. Don’t let the name "pudding" throw you off – it’s just the British-ism for dessert. Sticky toffee pudding is a spicy date cake topped with a luscious caramel toffee sauce. I adapted a recipe from the Gourmet Cookbook to make individual puddings, using muffin cups, so the princesses don't have to share at teatime. It’s ugly when princesses squabble.


Sticky Toffee Pudding by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Sticky Toffee Puddings for Perfect Little Princesses


Yield: 18 muffin-style puddings


Pudding

2 cups (10 ounces) pitted dates

2 2/3 cup water

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

1/3 cup packed dark brown sugar

3 eggs

1 ½ teaspoons vanilla

1 ¾ cups self-rising flour

1 ½ teaspoons baking soda

1. Combine dates and water in a 1-quart saucepan and bring to a boil. Turn off heat. Let cool to room temperature.

2. Place a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 400. Grease 18 muffin tins.

3. Beat butter and brown sugar in bowl with an electric mixer, until pale and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating after each addition, scraping down the bowl after each egg. Stir in vanilla, then flour.

4. Add baking soda to date mixture and process in food processor. The mixture will be very wet. Add to butter mixture and stir until combined. Divide batter into muffin tins, filling ¾ full.

5. Place muffin tins on baking sheet and bake 15 to 20 minutes, using the toothpick test – a toothpick (or a bamboo skewer) inserted in center of cake comes out clean. Cool puddings in tins for a few minutes, then turn out on a wire rack.


Toffee Sauce

½ cup sugar

7 tablespoons unsalted butter

6 oz. heavy cream


1. In a saucepan over medium heat, combine sugar and butter, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Gradually incorporate cream, using a whisk, until mixture is thick and creamy.

2. Serve toffee sauce over individual puddings.

Text & images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Kim Severson on Spoon Fed, food and storytelling

Kim Severson of the New York Times



The first time I saw Kim Severson, she held an audience of food bloggers and photographers in the palm of her hand, critiquing story ideas and acting like the editor we all needed. She even told one brave writer, after dismissing her story idea, “I’m tearing you down to build you up.”

That was in January at the FoodBlog South conference at Woodrow Hall in Birmingham, where she was the featured speaker, the big draw in a weekend program that included noted cookbook authors, food stylists and photographers. Severson was the author we waited all day to hear. Some, like me, had read her memoir, “Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life” (Riverhead, 2010) and were looking forward to tales of her food writing career in San Francisco, where she worked at the Chronicle, and New York, at the Times. I think we were all a little surprised, and happily, when she gave a perfectly nice speech about her book, then removed the microphone from the stand and, pacing across the stage and walking into the audience, she questioned us and presided over an impromptu editorial meeting.



“Spoon Fed” is a collection of profiles of eight female cooks, some of them writers, whom Severson has known throughout her life and career. She begins with Marion Cunningham, best known as the writer behind the revised Fanny Farmer Cookbook, (she was also James Beard’s assistant). Other chapters are devoted to Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, former Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl, Italian cookbook author (and authority) Marcella Hazan, Southern cooking legend (and late-in-life Georgian) Edna Lewis, New Orleans restaurateur Leah Chase, Food Network’s Rachael Ray and Severson’s mother, Anne-Marie Zappa Severson. As Severson tells their stories, her own life is revealed - struggles with alcohol, teenage experimentation with drugs, failed relationships, coming out to her family, career insecurities, spiritual questioning, and ultimately acceptance and a successful relationship with her partner, with whom she has a young daughter.

Severson is out of the daily food writing game – since November, she’s worked as the New York Times bureau chief in Atlanta, on the national desk. During this time, she’s written about the lack of internet access in rural Alabama, abandoned civil rights buses, and, memorably for Atlantans, the recent controversy over Chick-fil-A’s contribution to a conservative marriage workshop. Yes, the Jesus chicken story. I spoke with Severson by phone a few weeks ago and we talked about her switch from food writing to hard news and telling the story of her life so far.

A Cook’s Question: Do you miss writing about food? How do you like working the national desk?


Severson: Even though I’m writing straight news, I’m putting food in my stories. I include food because it is part of our lives. And I do see straight food writing in my future.

A Cook’s Question: Before you worked at the New York Times, you were a food writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. This seems like a foodie’s dream job. Was it intimidating to taste and give your opinion?

Severson: I keep wondering why I leave these great jobs! We had these smart young interns from the culinary school cooking great food that we got to taste.

[In the tasting] You would hold back at first; it takes a rare and brave person to step up and speak first. After awhile, you start speaking up and find your voice. It’s a freeing thing. It is just food, after all.

A Cook’s Question: I noticed in your stories from “Spoon Fed” and also in your work for the New York Times, an affinity for old people. For example, the Spoon Fed stories about Edna Lewis and Marion Cunningham, and the NYT piece you wrote about Chef Thomas Keller and his aging father.

Severson: You know, I see my own parents aging. You think they don’t know anything and then you realize that they know everything, and that ok, life is complex. As a writer, I have an obligation to capture stories before they pass on. For the Thomas Keller story, it was writing about someone at the top of his game and seeing another chapter in his life. (The piece tracks the reunion of Keller with the father who abandoned his family when the chef was a child, and their relationship until the end of his father's life.)

A Cook’s Question: "Spoon Fed” traces your relationship with eight cooks, one of them family, the others famous women in food. Along the way, you tell your story. Did you intend to tell your life story, too?


Severson: The book I started out to write was to make a record of these women who influenced me. They have a big role in how we eat today. But I learned lessons along the way - people come into your life when you need to learn something.

A Cook’s Question: Were you uncomfortable about telling so much about your personal life?


Severson: My editor told me that to tell a good story, you have to tell the truth. For about two weeks (after she’d sent in the manuscript), I was in agony. It was much more personal than I intended. I thought “Oh my God, what have I done?” Then my friend Frank Bruni (current NYT reporter, former Times restaurant critic), who had just written his memoir of growing up fat, “Born Round,” told me, “You took the check, you wrote good work, now put on your big girl panties. And so I did.”

A Cook’s Question: How did you like the transition from straightforward journalism to memoir? Can we expect more books from you?

Severson: I realized that I was my own resource and it was freeing. I liked it after awhile. I may write fiction in the future. And right now I’m working on a cookbook with my friend Julia Moskin.

Further reading: Each chapter in "Spoon Fed" includes a recipe - I attempted Gumbo Z'herbes from the essay on New Orleans' Leah Chase.

Atlantans, note: Severson will be the guest author at Restaurant Eugene’s seventh author dinner on Tuesday, May 3. The evening will begin at 6:30 p.m. with a cocktail and hors d’oeuvres reception. Chef Linton Hopkins will prepare a four-course menu, with pairings, inspired by the cooks in “Spoon Fed.” Severson will attend to read from her book and sign and answer questions. $100 per person, includes a copy of Spoon Fed. Reservations are required, call 404-355-0321.

Text copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.
Images are from KimSeverson.com.





Saturday, April 23, 2011

Gumbo Z'herbes and faith

Gumbo Z'herbes and Rice by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I'm cooking from "Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life," New York Times food writer Kim Severson's memoir. In deciding on a recipe to accompany the interview, I lighted on the Gumbo Z’herbes, the recipe included with the chapter on Leah Chase, owner of Dooky Chase restaurant in New Orleans. The profile of Leah Chase is one of the most touching in "Spoon Fed," a woman of faith facing a tremendous crisis - the destruction of her historic New Orleans restaurant, Dooky Chase, in the floods following Hurricane Katrina.

Leah Chase serves Gumbo Z’herbes, or Green Gumbo, on Holy Thursday, to fill bellies before Good Friday fasting. It's a kitchen sink kind of dish, a boatload of greens and meats cooked separately then combined in a gumbo unlike any you've ever tasted. If you have a CSA (community supported agriculture) subscription, this is a dream recipe for using up the bunches of greens that show up weekly in the cool days of early spring. This is stevedore food, rib-sticking and hearty. Invite your friends and neighbors and ask them to come hungry.

I first read about green gumbo in an article Francis Lam wrote for Salon.com and took elements from that recipe, Severson's instructions and Leah Chase's own barebones recipe in "The Dooky Chase Cookbook" to come up with this version. It's one of those recipes that comes out slightly different each time you make it - the combination of greens will change, you may or may not add okra (I don't have Louisiana cred, but I can't imagine making gumbo without okra.), you might add pork instead of beef, or chicken instead of pork. What matters is that you have faith, as in "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." (Hebrews 11:1) Cooking is all about stepping out on faith with the assurance that pilot light will turn on, the water will boil and the greens will release their magic into the broth. Give this recipe a try, and if you do, let me know how it turns out.

Greens and alliums for Gumbo Z'herbes by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Gumbo Z’herbes (Green Gumbo)
 (adapted from Spoon Fed and Salon.com and the Dooky Chase Cookbook)

2 small ham hocks

At least 7 varieties of the following greens:

1 bunch greens such as mustard, collard or turnip, or all three

1 bag fresh spinach or 2 boxes frozen, chopped spinach

1 small head cabbage

1 bunch carrot tops

1 bunch beet tops

1 bunch arugula

1 bunch parsley

1 bunch green onions

1 bunch watercress

1 head romaine or other lettuce

1 head curly endive

1 bunch kale

1 bunch radish tops

( I used romaine, arugula, curly endive, curly kale, green onions, parsley, 2 (10 oz.) boxes of frozen spinach and a head of cabbage)

3 medium yellow onions, roughly chopped

1/2 head garlic, peeled, cloves smashed

And now for the meat:

2 pounds fresh hot sausage (chaurice is authentic NOLA, look for hot Italian without fennel otherwise)

1 pound andouille sausage

1 pound smoked pork sausage

½ pound ham

1 pound beef stew meat

(I used 12 oz. andouille because that’s the way it’s packaged in my store; 1 lb. kielbasa; 1 lb. boneless beef chuck, fat removed, cut into 1-inch pieces; and 2 pounds hot breakfast bulk pork sausage. Next time, I’m skipping the stew beef and using pork roast or chops or maybe chicken.).

1 (12 oz.) package frozen cut okra, or a pound of fresh okra, trimmed and cut into ½ inch pieces

1 cup flour

Vegetable oil as needed

3 teaspoons dried thyme

2 teaspoons cayenne pepper

3 bay leaves

1 vegetable bouillon cube, optional

Salt to taste

Cooked white rice to serve

½ teaspoon file powder (optional)

Have at the ready two large stockpots or Dutch ovens, the bigger the better, and a good-size skillet.

1. Before preparing the greens and meats, fill up a large stockpot with water and add ham hocks. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer while you work on the greens.

Curly Kale by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books


2. Thoroughly wash all the fresh greens, removing yellow leaves, those with spots, and the tough stems. (to remove the stems of sturdy greens such as collards: fold inwardly lengthwise and pull off the stem, it should zip off like the string of a green bean).

3. In a second stockpot, place half the greens, half the onions, and half the garlic. Cover with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce to a simmer and cook for up to 30 minutes, until greens are very tender. Transfer greens to a bowl, using a slotted spoon, to cool. Repeat with remaining greens, onions and garlic. When through with the greens, be sure to reserve the cooking liquid (the pot likker if you speak fluent Southern).


Meat for Gumbo Z'herbes by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
 4. Shape the breakfast sausage into mini-meatballs. Heat a skillet over medium heat and sizzle up the fresh sausage mini-meatballs. Cook through, until no pink remains. Using your ever-reliable slotted spoon, remove the sausage from the skillet and drain on paper towels. Resist the urge to clean this pan - you will make your roux in this in Step 11. Reserve the fat from the pan.

5. While the sausage is cooking, prepare the other meats: andouille and smoked sausage should be sliced into ½ inch rounds; the beef and ham cut into ½ inch pieces. Set aside.

6. Back to the greens: using a food processor, or an old-fashioned meat grinder, process the greens, garlic and onions into a puree. Work in batches, adding cooking liquid to loosen the mixture. Set aside.

7. Remove the ham hocks from the ham broth. If there’s meat on the bones, pick it off and set aside. Discard the bones and fat.

Just about now is the cook's Maundy Thursday, the Garden of Gethsemane experience. You look around the kitchen and see dirty pots and pans and you've been cooking for a couple of hours and no finished food to feed your family and guests. How can anything good come out of this? This is where you run with endurance the race set out for you.Take heart, say a prayer,keep your eyes on the prize, hang in there, know that cooking is trust and the God that brought you thus far will carry you through to the end.

And you may want to have the number for Papa John's handy, just in case. (I can't imagine God having a problem with a Plan B.)


8. At this point you will need either one very large pot or two good-size stockpots, so arrange the greens, pot likker and the ham broth so that you will have either the one giant pot or the two medium-sized pots that will hold the finished gumbo.
9. In the two clean pots or one large pot, over medium heat, divide the pureed greens, the sausages, beef and chopped ham. Fill the pots with equal parts ham stock and pot likker, holding back a cup or two of each liquid. Put in the fresh or frozen okra and bring the gumbo to a simmer.

10. Remember the pan with the sausage drippings? Put it over medium heat and using a wooden spoon, scrape up the browned bits of goodness from the pan. Add the flour until combined. Use some vegetable oil to loosen it up and keep cooking until you have a paste, the base of a roux.

11. Keep stirring until the roux is nice and dark. If you’ve cooked Louisiana style before you know to summon up the courage to get that roux good and dark, building flavor and texture in the final dish.

12. When the roux is dark enough, the color of quality dark chocolate, put it in the stockpot or pots with the greens and meats. Add the seasonings – salt, pepper, cayenne, thyme and bay leaves. Taste. Add the vegetable bouillon if you think the dish needs just a little extra oomph.

13. Let simmer for at least an hour, until the meats are tender and the dish is a murky, swampy green. Adjust the liquid level if it’s too thick, using the reserved ham stock or water. While the gumbo’s bubbling away, cook up some white rice, if you're serving right away. (It's a good idea to make the gumbo ahead and reheat - this is one of those dishes that tastes better the next day.)

14. Remember to remove the bay leaves and serve the gumbo over white rice. A baguette is required with this. Be sure to put some hot sauce on the table, too.

15. Bless the meal and tell your company the house rules: the guests can indeed help with the dishes.


Green Gumbo with rice by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Text & images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

More cheese, please


Cheese board by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books




I had the opportunity last week to meet Liz Thorpe of Murray's Cheese for lunch at Holeman & Finch. Liz is the author of "The Cheese Chronicles: A Journey Through the Making and Selling of Cheese in America, From Field to Farm to Table," (Ecco, 2009), an exploration of the vast world of artisanal cheese. Murray's Cheese Shops are in six Atlanta area Kroger stores - Edgewood, City Walk, State Bridge, Ansley Mall, Marietta and Sugar Hill.



The lunch was simple and perfect - bread, cheese and salad. The cheese selection included Westfield Capri, Sweetgrass Chevre, La Serena, Nettle Meadow Kunik and Burrata. The latter is a soft, buttery cheese, much like a liquid mozzarella. Murray’s flies it in from Puglia every couple of weeks, according to Liz.

And the good cheese news doesn't end there, at least for Atlantans. Restaurant Eugene, next door to Holeman & Finch, celebrates cheese every third Thursday of the month. Five wines paired with five cheeses, $40 per guest, reservations required. http://www.restauranteugene.com/.

The ladies who lunch (plus a charming gentleman). Author Liz Thorpe is fourth from the left. Vikki Locke is to her right. I'm second from the right, Wendy Shannon of With a Southern Twist is on my left and Mary Reynolds of the Reynolds Group is on my right. Gina Christman of Atlanta Homes and Lifestyles is second on the left.

Salad with mushrooms, radishes and ramps. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books


Burrata, Italian for buttery. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books


H & F bread. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books


Cheese board, midway through the lunch. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Time for tea, and lemon


Lemon Tea Loaves by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I have a long-standing love for lemon, as witnessed by my recipes for Lemon Pound Cake and food-of-the-gods Lemon Pudding. When I was a little girl in pigtails, scooter skirts and Keds, I loved Sunshine lemon cookies, the kind with the powdered sugar that would leave white chalky sugar dust at the corners of my mouth. I would pull out my childhood tea set, a collection of mismatched "Made in Nippon" teacups and saucers, fill with tea and serve the cookies alongside.

Now, I'm all grown-up, completely over the pigtails and scooter skirts, (but still loving my Keds). To get my lemon fix, I sometimes bake this Lemon Tea Loaf, a rich, citrus-scented cake with a tart lemony glaze. If it's been awhile since you've used your wedding china, pull out a few cups and saucers, make a pot of Earl Grey and slice up this lovely cake. Invite a neighbor over to share the tea, then send them home with the second loaf. Or, be very strong and wrap both loaves up to give as gifts - a hostess gift on Easter or Mother's Day, or perhaps the upcoming end-of-school. Your lemon-loaving friends will be grateful.


Lemon Tea Loaf

Yield: 2 loaves

2 sticks unsalted butter, softened


2 cups sugar

4 eggs

Zest of 2 lemons

3 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup milk

For glaze: ½ cup sugar dissolved in juice of 2 lemons

1. Preheat oven to 350. Prepare two loaf pans using baking spray or greasing with butter.

2. In a mixing bowl, cream together butter and sugar. Add eggs one at a time, mixing until fully incorporated. Add lemon rind. Sift together dry ingredients, then add alternately to the batter with milk. Pour batter into prepared baking pans.

3. Place pans in 350 oven and bake for 45 minutes. Bake until toothpick inserted in middle comes out clean. Remove from oven and let cool on wire racks.

4. While cake is cooling, dissolve sugar in the juice of two lemons. Slowly pour glaze over cakes and let cool.


Lemons by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.

A version of this story also appears on Examiner.com.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Rice Pudding, for Cheryl

Rice pudding with cinnamon by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
More than a few months ago, in the last days of summer, I had a hankering for rice pudding, and because I get kind of lonely in my kitchen, I posted on Facebook "The heart wants what the heart wants, and that's why I'm making rice pudding." My friend Cheryl, who loves rice pudding like I do and has yet to find the perfect recipe, has been after me ever since that post to actually write up the recipe.

Wait no more, Cheryl, here it is, not a fancy rice pudding, just an easy stovetop version, adapted from  the America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook. It's just the ticket, slightly warm on a cool night, or slightly cool on a warm afternoon. And in the realm of alternative breakfasts, it's a filling start, fortified with dried fruit.

Rice Pudding

2 cups water


1 cup long grain rice

¼ teaspoon salt

4 cups whole milk

2/3 cup sugar

1 ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Bring the water to a boil in a saucepan, preferably non-stick (you’ll thank me later). Stir in rice and salt. Cover and simmer until rice is plumped, about 15 minutes.

2. Measure milk into a pourable cup and microwave for one minute. Stir milk followed by sugar into the rice. Let cook for about another 45 minutes, until mixture is very thick.

3. Remove pan from stovetop and stir in vanilla.

4. A sprinkle of cinnamon is nice, so is nutmeg. If you’ve ever read or listened to Carmen Deedy's stories about growing up in Havana, Cuba, and Decatur, Georgia, you’ll want to add a squeeze of half of a lime to the mixture. Raisins, craisins and other dried fruit are nice.

Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Big Tahini Hunt


Butterbean hummus and crudites by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
 Remember the Berenstain Bears' book "The Big Honey Hunt?" Somewhere in my stack of childhood books lies the vintage tale of Papa Bear and Brother Bear in search of honey. I needed the bears this week when I went in search of tahini, the used-to-be uncommon, now flat-out difficult-to-find ingredient essential to making the perfect hummus.

Tahini is simply ground sesame seeds, similar in texture to natural peanut butter, with a quicksand-like bottom and slick of oil on top. Tahini is what gives hummus its characteristic sesame taste and smooth as butter texture. I fuss and moan about my suburban grocery stores, and wonder why they put peanut butter and jelly next to the bread instead of the aisle with pickles, but I've always managed to find tahini when on the organics aisle when I needed it. Until now. A check of local supermarkets turned up nary a jar of the sesame paste.

And so I arranged for a side trip to Trader Joe's on my latest excursion into Atlanta, feeling certain that TJ's, with its pink sea salt and sunflower seed butter, would have a jar of tahini to spare. Except I couldn't find it. I wandered up and down the aisles twice before asking the earnest young man shelving vinegars, and he said, to my astonishment, that nobody has tahini. Nobody can get it. Something about a sesame seed shortage and don't even bother going to Whole Foods and Kroger and Publix, because they can't get it either.

Wow! I should tell them about Publix at Ansley Mall, my next stop, because right there, in the organics section, two kinds of tahini, Krinos and Joyva. I bought the can of Joyva and joyfully came home with my prize, ready to make butterbean hummus, a signature recipe of Watershed Restaurant. The thing about butterbean hummus is that it's made with lima beans, not the smaller pearl-y ovals that I consider butterbeans. I departed from the directive and used baby limas and I cut the recipe in half, because goodness knows, the original recipe will serve two parties of stevedores, with leftovers. The recipe is delicious, by the way. It is incomparably smooth, the silkiest hummus ever.

Butterbean, (or for authenticity's sake), Baby Lima Bean Hummus

adapted from Chef Scott Peacock's recipe on Food Network

1/2 pound dried baby lima beans

3 cloves garlic, peeled

1/3 cup tahini

1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, beginning with the smaller amount then tasting before adding more

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3/4 to 1 cup extra virgin olive oil

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1. Spread the beans on a rimmed baking sheet and pick through. Rinse them and place in a pot and add cold water to cover by two inches. Bring to a boil and simmer until they are tender. Remove from the heat and let cool. Drain, but be sure to reserve the cooking liquid.

2. In a food processor, place beans and puree until smooth. Add garlic and tahini and puree again. Gradually add oil and process until mixture is close to the desired texture. Add lemon juice and process, then reserved cooking liquid, a little at a time, until desired consistency. Season to taste.

3. Serve with crudites such as carrot sticks, celery sticks, sliced radishes and cucumbers.

Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Southern Favorite: Buttermilk Chess Pie


Buttermilk Chess Pie by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Pie is the new cupcake. Did you know that? That's why I've spent the last month turning out my favorite pies for my family -  from Pie Lab's Apple Cheddar Pie to my favorite Sweet Potato Custard Pie - it's so nice to be able to announce that there is pie for dessert. Here's a buttermilk chess pie that I love, and each time I make it, I think of that Southern tradition of drinking buttermilk, a drink I'm convinced you have to be raised on to appreciate.

My last quarter at the University of Georgia in Athens, I rented a room in an elderly woman's house. Mrs. Willson was a widow and her only daughter lived in Columbus. This was, sigh, more than a couple years ago, and only a few memories rise to the surface - her red brick ranch house with the laundry room off the carport, the old-fashioned medicine cabinet with a slot for dull razor blades, and the refrigerator that she allowed her boarders to share, giving us each our own corner of a shelf. She hid her beer in the back of the fridge, small baby bottles behind the mayonnaise and pickle jars. Mrs. Willson also liked buttermilk and cookies as an evening snack. I always accepted the Grandma's oatmeal cookies, but declined the buttermilk.

To this day, I keep buttermilk in the fridge, but never for drinking straight. It's the base for ranch dressing, with the fresh herbs from the CSA box; it makes a moist banana bread; superlative biscuits (if you use White Lily flour); and this thoroughly excellent Chess Pie.

This is one of the first pies I made. As a new bride, I subscribed to Southern Living magazine for the recipes and the decorating ideas. My husband picked up an issue and remarked that he always liked chess pie. He says nice things about this pie, so I've kept it in my tried and true file. I've cut the sugar by one-fourth, but it's still very sweet. Take your coffee black with a slice of this pie.


Buttermilk Chess Pie by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Buttermilk Chess Pie

1 1/2 cups sugar

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

5 large eggs, lightly beaten

2/3 cup buttermilk

1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 unbaked 9-inch pie crust

1. Preheat oven to 350.

2. Combine sugar and flour in a large bowl. Add eggs and buttermilk, stirring until blended. Stir in melted butter and vanila and pour into unbaked pie crust.

3. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes or until set. Cool on a wire rack at least an hour before serving. Store leftovers, well-wrapped in refrigerator.

Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Baked Potato Soup with Cheese and Bacon

Baked Potato Soup by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books




There are a few recipes that every cook should have in her hip pocket, so to speak, recipes like lemon pepper roast chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, perfect brownies. The kinds of belly-filling foods that are greeted with relief from the kids and spousal unit (no weird vegetables tonight!). Baked potato soup is just such a recipe - creamy and cheesy, loaded with potato chunks and bacon pieces.

Here in Georgia, we've had days that feel like summer, but the nights are still cool - tonight we may get a touch of frost. There are doubtless a few rough and raw days ahead where a warming bowl of potato soup will be welcome.

I've made this recipe for years - it came from a trusty Junior League cookbook. The original was quite dairy-rich. I took away some of the milk, replacing it with a pantry staple, low-sodium chicken broth in the 32-ounce aseptic package. That stuff is cooking gold - I use it in gravy and soups and to season vegetables. I also save fat grams by lightening the soup with plain non-fat yogurt instead of sour cream, The resulting soup is still not diet food, but you can have a slightly larger portion than usual.

Just a little forethought is required when making this soup - the day before, place the potatoes in the oven while you're cooking something else - a roast or a casserole.

Baked Potato Soup with Cheddar and Bacon



4 Russet potatoes, baked, peeled and cubed

2/3 cup unsalted butter

2/3 cup all-purpose flour

1 (32-oz) package low salt chicken broth

2 cups milk

2 cups Cheddar cheese, shredded

4 strips bacon, cooked, drained and crumbled

4 ounces sour cream or non-fat yogurt

Salt and pepper to taste


1. In a Dutch oven or soup pot, melt butter. Stir in flour and cook over medium heat for a couple of minutes. Add chicken broth slowly, whisking until smooth. Add milk and continue stirring. Add half of cheese, pour remaining amount in a bowl for garnish. Add cubed baked potatoes.

2. Just before serving, stir in sour cream or yogurt. Add pepper to taste. Garnish each serving with bacon and remaining cheese. Finely chopped green onions or chives would make lovely garnishes. I use skim milk and light sour cream and reduced fat cheese in this and it still as rich as you'd ever want it.

Text and images copyright 2011.