Something Old, Something New- Some Things Never Change.

Perhaps I got my love of travel and things foreign from my Grandmother. Whatever its origin, I definitely have it. One year for Christmas, she even gave me a globe! OK, I was a bit bratty about it because it wasn’t whatever stupid toy I thought I couldn’t live without, but it was one of my favorite “things.” I used to just sit on my bed holding it and looking at the Encyclopedia (yes, we had those in actual hard cover), planning my world tour.

On one of her trips my Grandmother (Grandmother was also her name as far we were concerned) went to Greece. She loved it and talked about it more than most of the other places she visited, except maybe Switzerland. Those conversations introduced me to all sorts of wonderful things, among them and for purposes of this post, baklava. So hold that thought.

It was also from my Grandmother that I heard the word “vegetarian.” I though the term referred to someone who liked vegetables. My mother informs me that my Grandmother’s cook shared that understanding. Family reading this will know immediately of whom I speak. Maybe I will post her caramel cake recipe!! Anyway, the exclusive properties of this new category had to be explained to me, but I was not impressed; nor did I participate in the ensuing kitchen debate over things like the inclusion eggs or seafood. I liked vegetables and still do (even though we no longer cook them with bacon or fat meat… at least not very often!), but my quite fertile imagination just couldn’t imagine limiting myself like that. For the record, many a good Southern meal, even the modern ones without the cooking fat, consist of vegetables only!

Well guess who was coming to dinner? Actually it was lunch, but I couldn’t resist the reference. I also had to call my mother to get the genealogically accurate answer to that question. My great, great, great aunt, her daughter, and her granddaughter, that’s who. They had acquired this dietary affliction through a German relative (as if that explains it). I can still hear my Grandmother as she declared, more than asked, “What in the world do vegetarians eat for lunch?” In late 1960s Mississippi, globalization had not yet to hit the Jitney Jungle, so many of the options which my Grandmother had probably enjoyed abroad were unavailable, even if heard of.

I had to call my mother to find out what Grandmother eventually served since I was not present at the “meal” preferring instead the world of kindergarten. My mother couldn’t remember exactly, but here’s what she did recall:

A “nasty” spinach salad (there was neither bacon nor egg)

Boiled corn (no butter, but at least there was salt)

Potatoes or rice (she didn’t remember which)

Some sort of green vegetable (because your Grandmother would not serve a meal without one)

No bread

I’m sure there was iced tea, so I didn’t ask. I’m also equally certain that the meal was flawlessly prepared and probably tasty as well, my dear mother’s comments notwithstanding. Less youth and experience have taught me that down South, any guests for any meal cause a kind of consternation that can only be described as masochistic.

The same thing applies to Southerners who live in places like, say… the Mid West. You definitely get more credit for “the thought” outside the South. Which brings up to the past Labor Day weekend’s events! And baklava.

While I was in Afghanistan, I became friends with several guys from Turkey. We quickly discovered that our differences, while significant, in no way prevented us from finding lots of common ground, especially where the combination of friends and food was concerned. I still correspond often with them and miss them terribly.

A few months ago I received a cryptic message from one of my friends in Turkey informing me that one of his friends would be coming here to study. He asked permission to give my contact information. No problem; however, no further information was forthcoming, not even in subsequent e mails. He is very security conscious.

When “the friend of my friend” arrived, he contacted me and said that he would like to come visit. Again, no problem. Well, it took several weeks of short and also cryptic e mails to get to the Sunday before Labor Day when I got a message that said they (not he) would be at my house tomorrow around noon. Good Heavens!

The answer to the question that some of you may have formed is, “Yes, they eat halal.” Travel with me back in time to my Grandmother’s kitchen… Now is a good time to get up and do whatever it is you are thinking about doing as you comment about how long this post is.

Aaaand we’re back- but in my kitchen reading labels and using the iPhone to google to make sure whatever we had was ok. Nix on the fried grits with crawfish cream sauce, although the fried grits would have been fine.

Fried grits smothered in crawfish cream sauce. Hungry?

Then I saw all the brie that remained from another party. YES! One of my all time favorite appetizers was about to become a sandwich! Known in my family simply as “brie treats,” they consist of slices of French bread, a paste made from nuts (I like pecans) and olive oil, slices of Granny Smith apple, and brie (sans mold). In that order. On a cookie sheet in a 400∘ oven for about 5 minutes to melt the cheese, and you’re done! Put them together ahead of time then just pop them in the oven as guests start to arrive or right before the meal depending on how you’re serving them. I don’t have any pictures, but these look really nice with lots of different food items.

The green salad we had was nothing spectacular, but of course, it was above average! We had the best tomatoes that one can expect in this part of the world at this time of year. They were average until I drizzled them with olive oil, sprinkled basil all over them, then slapped a thick slice of fresh mozzarella on top. The same conditions applied to the fruit salad except I used sugar, mint, and lemon juice instead of olive oil. And the tea? Lightly and perfectly sweetened. Our delighted and delightful guests thought it was so good it had to be Turkish tea!

I billed this lunch a typical of what Southerners would prepare for friends who dropped by for lunch. Sadly, that tradition has all but disappeared even down South. When this kind of lunch includes international guests as such occasions often do (or did), there must be some sort of culinary nod to the guests’ homeland. As it happened, there was one small container of baklava left in the refrigerator from the aforementioned party. With great trepidation I pulled it out, hoping that there wouldn’t be enough so I would not put myself through the angst of serving baklava to people whose people claim not only expertise in this pastry, but to have actually invented it! No such luck.

What do you have with baklava? You guessed it. Turkish coffee!

My Turkish coffee pot (cezve/ibrik) and one of the cups my friend sent to me via our now mutual friend.

Along with the baklava we had some slices of pears from our tree over which we drizzled some of the extra baklava syrup (There’s always extra. Always save it.). This thrilled and astounded our new friends especially since we had devoted a portion of the never- flagging dinner conversation to baklava. For those of you who are just now wandering into this blog, the recipe and pictures can be found in my post about parties and secrets. Just as I am apparently incapable of serving a simple meal (without at least trying to make it hard), I am also incapable of writing about one topic at a time. It’s just not that simple!

Penultimate note: I just wasn’t able to get any pictures of the actual meal. Apologies!

Final note: If you still want more evidence of my talent/tendency for guilding the lily, wait until you see what evolves around a white chocolate and ginger cheesecake that gets coated with a shell of white chocolate. Because I can.

 

Of Parties and Secrets

A little while ago, I had a party at my house. It was originally supposed to be a farewell party for myself- so I could see all the folks I would really miss before I headed back to Afghanistan again. Well, most of you know what happened with that, but I’ve never let a little thing like impending unemployment stand in the way of a good party. So, on with the show!

Parties always provide an excuse for me to clean house. Clean stalls in August heat? No problem. I have been known to lose my vacuum. Parties also give me a chance to break one of the cardinal rules of entertaining: never try a new recipe for guests. I cleaned my house (sort of), and concentrated on what matters- the menu! Here’s what we ate: prize-winning country ribs (they actually did win the People’s Choice Award at a rib cook-off in Athens, GA, corn and black bean salsa, roasted potato salad with rosemary and balsamic dressing, sliced tomatoes with mozzarella and basil leaves, mixed berry salad. And that’s just what we made! Friends also brought some yummy concoctions and potables!

If you’re lookin’, you ain’t cookin!

”But, what about dessert?” you ask. That’s where we get to the secrets and entertainment rules part. I made one old standby, my baklava. The rule breaker was a white chocolate cheesecake, doubly so, because I made a huge departure from the recipe. I’ve been making baklava and cheesecakes of all kinds since I was in high school, so I’m fairly conversant in phyllo pastry and cream cheese.

Whenever there’s a do, folks ask if I will bring baklava or a cheesecake, or both (really good friends can ask that). Folks also always ask for the recipes, but until now, I have never shared. Here’s why. I can’t stand it when people claim that they invented or thought of something that has been around since before they discovered thinking. Maybe it’s a Southern thing, but it’s extremely bad form to take someone’s recipe ( not to mention other things) and pass it off as your own. It’s culinary plagiarism, and if one gets caught, there is a heavy penalty.

Chances are that some of you will recognize parts of my recipes. If you recognize all of it, I will be very surprised, but pleased… great minds and all. My baklava recipe is a combination of recipes from one of those cookbooks that is so well loved that it is in need of replacement.

Culinary credit- a secondary source.

I also do a lot of measuring “to taste” and will advise you to do the same. So without further ado, I give you…

Yours should look something like this.

My Baclava (it really is easy. I promise!!)

5 cups of nuts, very finely chopped- I like a mixture of pecans, almonds and walnuts

1 cup sugar

2 t cinnamon

1 box phyllo pastry

1 stick butter, melted

½ cup olive oil

For the syrup you will need:

 Syrup

1 ½ c water

2 ½ c sugar

6 cloves (or to taste)

2 sticks or 1 t cinnamon (or to taste)

1/8 t salt

zest of one lemon and one orange (you can use dried here, also to taste)

1 c honey

Preheat oven to 325.

Instead of messing about brushing every delicate sheet with butter (been there, done that), lift 5-6 sheets of pastry and place on bottom of pan. (The ideal pan is the same dimensions as your pastry, but then again, I love the edge pieces with all the extra pastry, so you decide here.) Spread about 1 cup of the nut mixture on the pastry. Add more sheets of pastry. Add more nuts. You get the picture.

Work quickly. You’ll get faster as you develop your own methods. Keeping a damp cloth over the pastry will help keep it from drying out.

With a very sharp, serrated knife, slice the baklava- diamonds, squares, whatever. Combine the melted butter and olive oil. Pour over the baklava. Make sure you coat every piece.

Place on middle rack in oven and bake until golden brown.

Make the syrup while the baklava is baking.

Place all ingredients except honey in a saucepan. Dissolve the sugar by stirring. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and add honey. Set aside and check the baklava. The recipes I have used all say it takes an hour to an hour and a half to cook this stuff. Not so in my oven. More like 30-40 minutes.

When the baklava is a nice golden brown, take it out of the oven. Pour about a cup (+/-) over the pastry. Let it soak. Keep pouring syrup in intervals until it reaches top of baklava. You will probably have some syrup left over (you should). Keep this because the baklava will soak up everything you have just poured on, and you may want/need to add more!

Let the baklava cool. Refrigeration tends to make it soggy. Cover and let it continue to soak. When presenting, you can leave in pan (not traditional, but practical at larger parties) or, if practical, remove and separate each piece. Place on a dish. There will be syrup running everywhere. That’s a good thing!!

Make some good coffee and enjoy!! Btw- the leftover syrup is good on all sorts of things!

Oh! I nearly forgot! Some people think the edge pieces are too untidy to share with guests. That’s up to you, but I happen to think they are the tastiest. Just sayin’.

So… I have now bared a small corner of my inner cookbook. I am still too insecure to share the rib recipe though.

 

Turkish Coffee- another thing that shrouded in a myth of difficulty