Book Review: Finding Freedom by Erin French

I’ve been plowing through my to-be-read pile lately, and just finished this memoir by acclaimed chef Erin French. A few years ago, I heard about a restaurant in a tiny Maine town that not only opened for a few short months a year, but also booked up for the entire season within minutes of the of the phone lines opening (and has since going to a postcard lottery method that has tens of thousands of entries). I totally forgot about it until I checked out the new series, “The Lost Kitchen” on the Magnolia Network (via Discovery+).

The show itself is produced by Joanna and Chip Gains, and follows Erin and her crew as they create a nurturing space and stunning culinary experience, as well as the ingredients and purveyors she uses to do so. The show reminds me of the PBS hit “A Chef’s Life,” and is beautifully shot and produced. If you liked that show, “The Lost Kitchen” is definitely for you.

When this book came across my suggested reading, I jumped right in. Erin’s memoir weaves through the places and relationships that forged the foundation for the person and chef she became. Readers get immersed in her life in the kitchen, her love of food, and her ability to envision both the spaces and sensations she wants to create for others. However, those memories are intertwined with her tumultuous relationship with her father, an abusive and toxic marriage, and a battle with addiction and its consequences. Throughout it all, her descriptions draw readers in so much so that we can perfectly envision the landscape of her memories.

Overall, this is an incredibly well-written book that showcases the breadth of Erin’s creativity, and also serves as a satisfying triumph-over-adversity tale. If you love cooking, food, small towns, or creator origin stories, this book is worth a look. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and definitely recommend.

**Usual Disclaimer: My blog is not sponsored nor monetized. I’m not that cool, y’all. Any reviews you see are things I’ve purchased with my own money and reviews are just my personal opinion.**

Community Cookbook Throwback Thursday: “Tamale and Chili Pie”

I’m deep into my summer cooking rut. So, to break out of it, I’m dusting off the Community Cookbook Throwback Thursday inspiration. I wanted something quick and easy, so I turned to my collection of old-school Junior League Louisiana cookbooks.

If you are familiar with community/church/Junior League cookbooks from the 50’s through the 80’s, you know that measurements were questionable, the contributors assumed brand-names would last forever, and that they expected you possess an intuitive knowledge of whatever the hell they were talking about with their minimal instructions. So, with that disclaimer, let’s dive into the experiment of the Tamale and Chili Pie.

This recipe was submitted by Mrs. Alan Thigpen (Catherine Lagrange) in the Pirate’s Pantry Cookbook, which was published by the Junior League of Lake Charles in 1976. This book, along with The Revel and Cotton Country, are staples in our house. Yes, they are dated, but they are also amazing.

Now, here’s how it went. First, ingredients:

Check. Obviously, the brands have changed, but I think I got pretty close. I misread the size of the casserole, so I probably set myself up for failure in terms of the intended tamale-to-chili ratio.  However, I think my alterations and notes may land this one as a win for a fast family meal or for hangry teens. Here’s what I did:

First, I bought the 28oz can of tamales, hoping to stretch the recipe for the five of us. Despite being slightly alarmed by the reality of canned tamales (do you seeee that????), I recovered and realized that, after cutting them up, I really needed two of the 28oz cans to cover the bottom of my 9×13 casserole. My cutting hack was a failure, and I think the original chili to tamale ratio was not optimal al all. So, moral of the story? If you want to make a 9×13 casserole, just get 2 28-oz cans of tamales to line the bottom of it.

I made the “chili” as directed, using canned chili beans, ground beef, and a packet of chili seasoning. My other deviation from the recipe was to sauté the onion with the beef, as these clowns need their onions cooked into submission.

Finally, I spread the chili on the tamales, added a wee bit (your discretion) more Fritos than the recipe called for, and sprinkled cotija cheese on top in addition to the cheddar. Baked as directed.

The verdict? I hacked this recipe a bit for our tastes, but dang if it’s not an easy, cheap, teenage guy friendly dish. It’s a Frito pie on steroids. I think the original had a much heavier chili-to-tamale ratio situation, but by adding more (really inexpensive) canned tamales, you can stretch that fresh ground beef to feed a ton. However, if you like chili, double that part for the 9×13 casserole. I paired this with a southwest chopped salad, but grilled corn would also be awesome with it.

No, this is not gourmet food, nor is it something I would serve to company. But you know what it is? Meaty, cheesy, crunchy, spicy food that was quick, easy, and satisfying for kid/teen tastes. Perfect for a movie night, horrid Tuesday, or a pantry-pull situation. Now, I’m going to go back to dreaming of cooler weather and Halloween season.

Roasted Tomato-Lime Salsa (For Canning) the Attack of The Garden Tomatoes

Ohhhhh y’all. After I came back from vacation, I found myself staring down about 30 pounds of tomatoes that were ready right-freaking-then. Thus ensued days and days of canning.

Though I also made vats of marinara and vodka sauce base, the majority of that week’s harvest went toward Bear’s favorite recipe: Roasted Tomato-Lime Salsa. This recipe comes from one of my top four canning resources, Foolproof Preserving from America’s Test Kitchen. I love this book for clarity of instruction, and the “whys” of the steps. And, in general, any ATK recipe has thorough research behind it.

Some quick notes before I share the recipe:

  • If you need a basic knowledge of canning, the ATK book, and the Ball Blue Book are excellent guides. The Ball Blue Book is where I started, and I think it’s a staple resource that belongs in every kitchen. If you are a canning newbie, get your mitts on one. Also, America’s Test Kitchen’s site is a treasure trove if you need tested techniques on pretty much anything.
  • This recipe calls for commercially bottled lime juice. Don’t clutch your foodie pearls, there’s a reason for that. Fresh limes can vary wildly in their pH, while bottled juice remains consistent. The pH is what keeps the food safe, so unless you want to become a human science experiment, follow the recipe.
  • Speaking of which, FOLLOW THE DANG RECIPE. Canning recipes are literally science-based, tested procedures that safely preserve food. This isn’t the time for “a little of this…some of that…”
  • This recipe can be doubled. Just broil the veggies in batches, and simmer it a little longer, like 20-25 minutes.
  • Remember that all broilers and stovetop burners vary astronomically in output. This is the time you need to be a wee bit more observant, rather than trusting a recipe time range. Never leave a broiler unattended, unless you are hell-bent on meeting your local firemen.

Roasted Tomato-Lime Salsa (Canning)

Servings 4 half-pints

Ingredients
  

  • 2-1/2 pounds Roma tomatoes cored and halved
  • 1 onion sliced into 1/2 thick rounds
  • 5 jalapenos stemmed and halved lengthwise
  • 6 cloves garlic peeled
  • 1/3 cup bottled lime juice
  • 2-1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 2 tsp chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 tsp ground cumin

Instructions
 

  • Get your canning set-up arranged with jars sterilized and simmering in your water bath canner, lids hanging out in warm water, and all your gear together.
  • Cover a sheet pan with foil and place tomatoes and onions, cut side down on it. Broil the veggies until the tomatoes are well charred (anywhere from 10-15 minutes). Remove the pan from the oven and offload the veggies into a bowl. Add the jalapenos, cut side down, and garlic to the empty sheet pan and broil until jalapenos are also charred, 8-10 minutes.
  • Transfer the jalapenos, garlic, half of the tomatoes, and half of the onions to food processor and pulse until it's a thick puree. Transfer to Dutch oven. Transfer remaining broiled tomatoes and onions to the food processor and pulse into ½-inch pieces, 2 or 3 pulses; add to Dutch oven.
  • Stir in lime juice, salt, sugar, cilantro, and cumin. Boil over medium-high heat, stirring often, until salsa has thickened slightly, probably 8-15 minutes depending on your stovetop.
  • Ladle the hot salsa into the hot jars, leaving ½ inch headspace. Use a wooden skewer or popsicle stick to remove air bubbles. Wipe rims clean, top jars with warm lids, screw on bands until fingertip tight, and return jars to canner.
  • Bring water in canner back to a boil. Process jars for 15 minutes for up to 1,000 feet, 20 minutes for 1,001 to 3,000 feet, 25 minutes for 3,001 to 6,000 feet, or 30 minutes for 6,001 to 8,000 feet. Remove jars to a cooling rack and let sit undisturbed for at least 8 hours. Check seals and store. If any failed to seal (hey it happens to even the most experienced canner), grab some chips and have a movie party. Don't forget to label them, and you can decide yourself if sharing is caring. According to Bear, that would be hard no.
Tried this recipe?Let us know how it was!

Cookbook Review–“Come on Over” by Jeff Mauro

So, it’s no secret that I am a cookbook hoarder, so I figured I might as well start sharing my reviews so  you can make up your mind whether a potential purchase is worth the cabinet space.

This week, I picked up Come on Over by Food Network personality Jeff Mauro. Now, as part of a mini-disclaimer on this review, you should know I love watching the show “The Kitchen” every Saturday, so that definitely influenced my purchasing decision. I’ve made many of Jeff’s recipes from the program over the years, so I was especially interested in seeing this book. I’m going to break my review down based on the key components that I look for in a great cookbook. To start, just know the premise of the book is geared toward entertaining, or get-togethers as we say here in the south. The chapters fall into the category of occasion, rather than course.

The Real Disclaimer: Before you even read this review or purchase the book, you need to know that several of the recipes in this book are dishes that have already been featured on “The Kitchen” or “The Sandwich King.” Now, some have small tweaks since their Food Network debuts, but if you watch the shows and are expecting all new recipes, yes there are some, but a few are not.

Appearance/Layout: This book gets a “thumbs up” in this category. First, the images are well-shot, and nearly every recipe has a picture, which is a big plus for me. I’m not a fan of books that are all flat-print with a limited photo page insert of a few recipes in the middle. Additionally, the pictures are beautifully styled, but not in the so-over-the-top manner that plagues a lot of popular food bloggers nowadays. The images are appealing but not unrealistic. As for layout, it’s clear, concise, and makes sense. The chapters are divided into themes/occasions, and the page layouts are comfortable to read and navigate. You won’t have to flip back and forth a bunch.

Readability/Story/Context: I enjoyed reading this book, as Jeff is a seasoned storyteller with a wonderful sense of humor. So, rather than skipping over the recipe intros and anecdotes, I took the time to read them with pleasure. I enjoyed the family stories and history. The sprinkles of nostalgia help showcase a slice-of-life of an Italian-American family, but also how Jeff merges past, present, and various travel inspirations in his recipe development and food life.

Recipes and Cookability: This book embodies great variety and broad appeal, even for picky eaters. I don’t feel as if any of the dishes were too complicated. If I had to rate it for cookability, I can safely say that an advanced beginner would have no problem with any of the recipes. From past experience, the Greek Lemon Chicken and Orzo Bake and General Tso’s Chicken Sandwiches are already staples in our house. I’m going to try his dry-brined turkey for “Friendsgiving” next weekend, which, if it works, would be a welcome change from my gallons-of-brine-ordeal that is my traditional Thanksgiving turkey. I also placed the Citrusy Honey-Tequila Shrimp on deck this week as well. I think that the words “tasty” and “accessible” dominate my opinion of the majority of these recipes, though the dessert/baking chapter was not my favorite.

The Verdict: If you don’t watch The Kitchen, this is a definite buy. If you already watch the show, it’s worth flipping through at your local bookstore to evaluate if you are going to be bothered with a few of recipes being repeats (even with the small tweaks). As a fan, it still was a good addition to my library, so final verdict is a “thumbs up” all around. Worth the time and dinero.

**Remember, my blog is not sponsored or monetized in any way. No link in my posts is an affiliate link, and these ideas are all my own. None of these companies know who I am, and all of this is crap I buy with my own dang money. I’m just not that cool, y’all**

Things I Loved in 2020

**Remember, my blog is not sponsored or monetized in any way. No link in my posts is an affiliate link, and these ideas are all my own. None of these companies know who I am, and all of this is crap I buy with my own dang money. I’m just not that cool, y’all**

The husband has recovered (mostly) from the ‘Rona, and through careful quarantining, the kids and I did not contract the virus. He has pretty sick there for a while, and is dealing with a lingering cough and fatigue, but we got lucky. Thanks for the well wishes.

So, as I have been shopping for the holidays and planning for the new year, I thought I pass along some of the things that I really enjoyed this year (other than the endless warmth of the 2020 dumpster fire).

I really love Knife Aid. It’s like the Netflix of knife sharpening. You pick how many you want sharpened and they send you the materials to pack up your knives and mail them in. Then, they send them back to you perfectly sharpened. It’s only about a week in turnaround time and very convenient. I have used them twice, including last month.

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I love OXO containers. My pantry is out of control, and these are helping me tame the chaos. I still want more.

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A bluetooth meat thermometer was game changer. Yes, I use it when smoking meat, but I also use it for so much more. For example. I used this on Thanksgiving for the turkey, which meant I could watch the temp in real time, and also not lose heat from constantly opening and closing the oven to check on the bird. I also use it for cooking roasts, prime rib, chicken and more. You can go about your day without worrying that you are going to overcook an expensive piece of meat or undercook the poultry.

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I am totally OBSESSED with this one. So, it’s basically a murder-mystery subscription box you get each month, but think of it like a limited tv series with episodes. One “season” lasts a few months, or you can purchase past “seasons”/mysteries in their entirety. You get all kinds of clues and documents to investigate, but they also have cool online components to enrich the experience. We are currently working our way though the Blair Witch season and the Cadence Theater season. If you are stuck in quarantine, pouring over clues in order to catch a killer is a great way to pass the time.

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I am in love with Hue-It Hand Dyed Fibers. This local-to-me Louisiana artist specializes in small-batch dying, and has an incredible portfolio of colorways. Most of her stuff sells out fast but she takes preorders if you missed out on a colorway. I recently snatched up a couple of skeins that are just waiting for the right pattern to come along.

The New Pie by Chris Taylor and Paul Arguin

My neighbors gifted me this book after we had a mini-Thanksgiving this summer (they are in our “pod/quarantine bubble”). This book is LEGIT cool. These recipes are not for those looking for basic pies. These guys compete around the country and their ideas are complete bananas. Favorites so far are the Strawberry Margarita Pie and the Caramel Popcorn Pie.

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This cookbook was written by the founder of the Mosquito Supper Club restaurant in New Orleans. It’s beautifully shot and showcases Louisiana food traditions that are slowing being lost. If you have any interest an authentic Louisiana cuisine, this needs to be in your library.

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So, my go-to recipe software, Living Cookbook quietly went out of business and has basically ghosted it’s customers. So, I spent part of the year test-driving Cook’n, MasterCook, and Paprika, which came out the clear winner. I think it was the easiest to learn/use out of the three, and with a more intuitive interface. I was able to import my Living Cookbook files, though I will say that some things did get lost in translation. I had to go back and check each recipe to correct some things that got garbled in the transfer, but the same thing happened with the other two as well. Otherwise, I’m happy using it, and very grateful for the cloud sharing ability.

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This herb stripper was featured on Food Network’s The Kitchen, and host Sunny Anderson loved it so much she immediately said she was taking it home with her. I LOVE this. It strips those pesky thyme and rosemary leaves off of their stems in two seconds flat.

Other Favorites

Knitting Podcasts

Knitmore Girls, Down Cellar Studio, Yarniacs, Two Ewes

Food Podcasts

The Sporkful (hands down one of the best), The Splendid Table, Gravy, Milk Street, Good Food.

Food Websites/Blogs

Damn Delicious, Half-Baked Harvest, Foodie with Family

Shows I’ve Binge-watched

Lucifer, Virgin River, The Chef Show, Castle Rock, The Umbrella Academy, Westworld, Anne with an E, Sabrina the Teenage Witch (Netflix), His Dark Materials, The Outsider, Perry Mason.

So those are a few things that I really loved this year, and made this insanity a little bit better. We’ve been through a lot of changes, but we also had a lot of fun.

Here’s to 2021 not being a trainwreck.

Friday Eating and Reading (As I Army-Crawl Across the School Year Finish Line)

It’s Friday, and I am still in the trenches of what we call the May Gauntlet around here. This month consists of three of my family of five’s birthdays, Mother’s Day, another trip to Science Olympiad Nationals for the Hubs and Bear after winning State, Confirmations, graduations, finals for G-Man, driving test for G-man, and yet another week-long business trip for the Hubs. I am, in a word, overdone.

Meanwhile, I’ve been sneaking in crafting, reading, and knitting time in at every possible moment, lest I allow my “End-of-the-year-and-I’m-over-it attitude” to spew out all over innocent bystanders. While I know I will probably want to let my kids run away and join a circus within two weeks of summer vacation, the prospect of a break from carpool lines, packing lunches, the daily uniform search/6 a.m. emergency washing panic, and unplanned trips to the school because I forgot it was our snack day (again), is the only thing separating me from insanity.

Anyway, here’s a few things I have been really into this week:

I just finished The Wishing Thread by Lisa Van Allen. Magic realism and knitting? Sign me up. I am a big fan of Sarah Addison Allen, so this seemed right up my alley. Overall, it’s a cute book, and one that I enjoyed. The narrative of the family ties, local lore, the subtle magic, and hope all made this a nice, pleasant read. If you just want a light, feel-good read similar to Addison Allen’s works, this is a good option.

I love Rick Bragg, who, among his numerous writing accolades, also has his essays featured in Southern Living every month. I’m only about a quarter of the way through this, but I am so totally in love with it. His writing brings to life the essence of the times and influences that defined my grandparents and parents (both good and bad). I started this on Mother’s Day morning, and it felt like a bittersweet balm on my soul. It reminds me of cooking with my mom, and all the stories she would tell of our grandparents and cousins, and the recipes that were simply learned by doing. I still suck at this whole grief thing, especially since I got the grief sandwich going on, but this book reminds me that the stories and traditions mean they will always be with me.

This orzo salad from Food Network definitely wins our dang tasty seal of approval. While I skip the red onion because picky eaters gonna pick, the recipe is perfect for a cool summer side dish (very important when we will reach nearly 100 degrees next week). A couple of notes on this one–I just mix the whole shebang together rather than this pointless staging. You would have to mix it before serving anyway, and artistic efforts are lost on The Heathens. Also, I have a possibly controversial view on pasta salad recipes. I always make 1.5 times of the dressing that any pasta salad recipe calls for, if not 2 times because they always end up drier than I want if I follow the recipe. Thus far, my over-doing-it on pasta salad sauce (for creamy-type sauces) hasn’t steered me wrong. You could also add rotisserie chicken to this for a complete meal, but if so, I would definitely double the sauce just to be safe. No one ever said “My Pasta Salad is too creamy.”  If they did, you should seriously side-eye them.

Time to fortify myself for the last week of school. That means whiskey, in case you didn’t know.