Archive for March, 2009

On descend sur terrain!

I’ve been having a wonderful time so far in Rwanda – it’s so great to be with my friends Dan and Campbell, with dear colleagues and seeing more of the country this time!  The past few days have been just awesome, as myself and three colleagues were ‘sur terrain’ or, in the field, collecting information on how well the concept of birth spacing is understood as a child survival intervention.  I’ve gotten to meet a lot of people and see a lot of health centers and hold some babies; what a perfect trip!


My colleagues were excellent guides to what they called ‘rustic’ food in Butare, where we stayed for 2 nights.  I must confess I was not sure what I was getting into when they announced we’d be eating ‘rustic’, but I figured even if it wasn’t good it would be an interesting experience to see how traditional Rwandan food is prepared.  I hardly expected the fresh, flavorful and tender foods we received!!!


The first night we ate chicken.  But what a chicken!  This chicken was literally alive when we got there, killed out back, de-fluffed, cut up and then grilled over charcoal to a deep and delicious flavor.  True, it was not the meatiest chicken I’ve ever had, but the flavor in the skin was to die for.  I’m not a huge fan of eating chicken off the bone but I was knawing those legs and devouring the meat like nobody’s business.  A nice cold Mutzig beer and some fries (also homemade) made for a perfectly fulfilling dinner after a hot day in the field.


The next night was even better.  Two of my colleagues had been very disgruntled that fish was not available the first night, so they made sure we went to a place serving fish the second night.  We ordered 3 fish for the three of them (who put down an absolutely unbelievable amount of food, making up for not eating during the day) and myself to share.  These were HUGE, fresh, whole fish, once again grilled to a perfect flavor.  They arrived at our table on three big platters, head, fins and all.  We ate them with our hands, digging into the unbelievably tender flaky fish meat with fingers and depositing them right into our happy mouths.  Once one side was picked clean, we flipped them over and picked all the meat off the other side.  I have really never eaten such tender fish before.  We once again had some nice, salty homemade fries to go with them, and more cold Mutzigs.  It was an awesome feast, even if I didn’t go so far as my colleagues and enjoy eating every last piece of the fish’s head!


There are many more adventures ahead, so I will try and write when I can.  Hope you all are enjoying the turning of seasons – I know I am looking forward to seeing what spring has brought when I get back home!  Murabeho, et a bientot!





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A Parting Gift

 Today I leave for a three week trip to Rwanda, for work.  I’m so excited, as it’s been almost a year since I was last in Africa and that’s way too long for me.  Also, I’ll be able to spend a night with dear friends in Belgium on my way, and then stay with more sweet friends while in Kigali.  Not to mention that the work itself should be really interesting this time.  So I’m pretty thrilled to be taking off today.

I am never, however, happy to leave my husband and doggy, and it’s even worse than usual this time because I’ll be gone for the ENTIRE NCAA TOURNAMENT!!!  I may be lucky and able to catch a few snippets of a game in the airport today, but otherwise I’m missing the whole thing from start to finish.  How awful.  Especially because I just love watching basketball inside with snack food and my hubby. 

It’s very sad for me, but don’t worry because I’m not going to leave you hanging for the tournament without a special treat – consider it as a parting gift for what is likely to be a pretty blank hiatus from blogging!  I’ve got another Barefoot recipe for you, one that you and your friends will LOVE!  Guys especially go crazy over this dip – Pan Fried Onion dip.  Basically it’s all the yummyness of carmelized french onion soup, in a dip.

This dip is not difficult but it does take some time and advance planning.  I like to let mine sit overnight in the fridge so it really allows the flavors to meld.  Some of the carmelization from the onions will come out a little more, and when you stir that puppy up, all the flavor goes even deeper into the dip.  I do recommend lettting it sit out for 15 minutes or so before serving so it can come to room temperature and soften up.

So really all you do is just pan-fry the heck out of a huge pile of onions for about 40 minutes.  They cook about 10 minutes at a high heat, which really starts breaking them down and begins the carmelization process.  You then lower the heat and let them simmer away, stirring occasionally, for about half an hour or until the whole pan is a nice deep brown.  Drain and cool and then mix into the cream cheese, sour cream and mayo.  Serve with plain, salty potato chips (I always use Wavy Lays, for some reason).  This recipe will be devoured quickly if you have a crowd, so for them you might want to double it.  It takes no extra effort in the cooking process (and doesn’t leave you with a leftover half-block of cream cheese) and will be, I promise, greatly appreciated. 🙂

Happy basketball viewing!!!  I’ll post if/when I can with anything food-wise from Kigali.  A la prochaine!


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Corn Maque Choux

Let it be known that we at A Table do take requests. 🙂  This is for Jessi, who is currently my bravest friend.  She has recently relocated with her husband and twin 2-years-old-any-day-now girls to Jakarta, Indonesia, on oh, about a month’s notice.  Jessi is one of my dear friends from Tulane, so she knows and loves good Cajun/Creole food, and she put in a request for some recipes in this vein that they can make in Jakarta. 

I love this Corn Maque Choux (pronounced mock shoe) because it actually involves mostly vegetables and a minimal amount of butter, two things which are a rarity in Cajun cuisine.  I think it makes a perfect dinner with a nice grilled or fried fish.  Really, it’s just sauteed corn, peppers, onion and tomatoes.  This is usually made with either crawfish or shrimp thrown in as well.  Crawfish are perfect in it, but harder to find and more expensive than shrimp, which is what I usually use.  I actually finish this dish with a little cream, just a TAD, because it really brings everything together and come on, it’s not any worse than what you put in your cup of coffee in the morning!

This is based on the recipe by Emeril Lagasse in Louisiana Real and Rustic, but I’ve adapted it a bit.  My version is below.  Amounts can easily be varied based on personal preference and what you have on hand, so feel free to adjust to more or less of any item.  It would be great with some chopped scallions or parsley on top, too.  Happy cooking, Jessi et al!


 Corn Maque Choux

2 tablespoons of butter

3 cups of corn, frozen or fresh and removed from hull

1 cup chopped onions

1 cup chopped red or green bell pepper

2 teaspoons Cajun seasoning (Depending on how salty and spicy your seasoning is, you can add more salt and cayenne pepper or hot sauce)

1 cup chopped tomatoes

1 lb peeled and deveined shrimp or crawfish

1/4 to 1/3 cup cream


1.    Melt the butter in a large skillet and add the corn, onions and bell peppers.  Add the Cajun seasoning.  Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes on medium heat

2.    Add tomatoes shrimp/crawfish and cook about 5 minutes longer.

3.    Add the cream and let cook for 2 minutes, until cream his heated and well-mixed with juices and seasoning.


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Cheese Grits

We’ve had quite a few cold, rainy days here in North Carolina the past few weeks.  There were a few spectacular warm and sunny days thrown in the mix, just to keep us from going completely insane, but in general it’s been flat-out dreary.  I would like to blame it on the weather and not acknowledge that it’s a regular old carb craving, but whatever the reason, I just cannot get enough CHEESE GRITS these days!

I think I love everything about cheese grits.  I really like the texture, actually, which is what weirds some people out.  I like the nice hot goopiness in a bowl.  It’s a perfect breakfast food because it’s warm and a little sweet but still cheesy and in this version below, a little peppery!  I love a little cayenne pepper in cheesy dishes (so key in a good mac-and-cheese).  This is such a nice comfort food, especially in bad weather.

I got this recipe from a little book called, I know this sounds crazy, Grits.  It’s a whole book of recipes using grits by Bill Neal, the chef who made Shrimp and Grits a southern staple at his wonderful restaurant, Crooks Corner, right here in our own Chapel Hill!  There are tons of yummy recipes I want to make from that cookbook, especially since grits are such a good side or base to a meal and are cheap!!!  The grits themselves are as cheap as arborio rice (for risotto) or cornmeal (for polenta) but unlike those, grits do not require chicken stock and cook in plain old tap water, so they are the cheapest of all cheap starches.  There is a recipe in there for a roasted chicken over grits that I will definitely be trying in the future, and will pass on if it’s as great as I think it will be!

In the mean time, set aside some time to make yourself some of these comforting cheese grits.  It doesn’t take long to fix them, but they truly are better when they cook slowly, longer.  They are creamier and thicker the longer you cook them.  Once they’ve cooked at a higher heat for 10 min or so with regular stirring, I put the lid on and put them on low heat so that they are just making slow gurgly bubbles, and let that cook away, stirring only every now and then.  I think mine usually end up cooking about half an hour, although the recipe below suggests 40 minutes.  I get impatient by then, but it probably would be even better!

Eat these plain out of a bowl; serve them for an easy breakfast with fruit (as we did this past weekend, see picture below); have on the side with biscuits, bacon or sausage and fruit for a no-holds-barred southern breakfast; or use as your base to Shrimp and Grits.  Bon Appetit, y’all! 🙂

Cheese Grits


1 cup stone-ground grits

4 cups water

½ teaspoon salt, or to taste

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

¼ teaspoon black pepper

Pinch or more of cayenne pepper

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese


1.    Bring 4 cups of water to a boil in a medium-sized saucepan.  Add the salt and slowly whisk in grits.  Cook at a low simmer, stirring frequently, until grits are done – they should be quite thick and creamy – about 30 to 40 minutes.

2.    Remove the grits from the heat and whisk in the remaining ingredients.  Serve hot!  Can be kept warm over a double-boiler on the stove up to 30 minutes.


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The Perfect Couple

 This is one of my very favorite soup dinners.  Both recipes are from the Barefoot Contessa: At Home cookbook.  And both recipes make a lot, so it’s perfect for a party!  We’ve fed a crowd before (think Superbowl party, etc) with this soup, a chili and the cornbread. 

The Mexican Chicken Soup has a TON of flavor but is still light and not too rich.  The way she suggests cooking the chicken is really excellent.  I now buy the split chicken breasts with skin for anything requiring roasted chicken because this is such a good way to cook chicken breast without drying it out!  The breasts are oiled, salted and peppered and roasted in the oven, then after they cook you just remove the skin and shred them up!  The chicken can even be not-quite-done because it will continue cooking in the soup.  I add it in at the very end, and cook the soup just until the chicken is heated up and fully cooked, then serve.  I also added a little lime juice the last time I made this and thought it added another wonderful layer of flavor!  I tend to use a little less stock than she recommends, and hence less of the tortillas, which are added as a thickener.  If there is enough liquid, the tortilla strips just ‘melt’ right into the soup.  If, and I’ve learned this the hard way, you add less stock than she suggests, the strips won’t melt and will just be soggy gummy weirdness.  I’ve learned to add the tortilla strips in batches and stir til they disappear, then add a few more til it seems thickened enough. 

The Jalepeno Cheddar Cornbread is really a bit more like cake than actual cornbread, but no one ever seems to mind. 🙂  This has loads of butter and flavor, and is really great reheated in the toaster oven later.  It also freezes beautifully, so even though it makes a full 9×13 pan, you won’t have any problem with leftovers.

Both recipes are only as hot as you want them to be, just vary the amount of jalepeno according to your personal taste.  And always remember with jalepenos, the REAL heat is in the whiteish veins inside, and not the seeds!  Scraping those veins out has caused me to burn my fingers enough times that I’ve developed a technique that’s a lot easier – depending on the size of your jalepeno, use a measuring spoon (I usually use the 1/2 teaspoon) to scrape out the white veins and seeds all together.  This saves your fingertips from getting burnt which leads to real disasters like transferring jalepeno oils from your fingers to your contacts to your eyes…not pretty!!!

 Definitely give these a try – if you like them, I think you’ll find them a really useful addition to your repetoire of easy, freezable, hearty, multi-season meals.  I’ve actually started to use this combo as my go-to Meal for New Parents – something a little different, really yummy, and some reasonable amount of good veggies and other fresh nutrients in the soup.  Whatever use you put it to, bon appetit!!!




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 It’s taken me a while to get to the review of a great foodie book I finished several weeks ago.  I think the main reason for this is that the book is HUGE, and the thought of going back through it to say something comprehensive about that vast amount of information is a bit daunting!  


So, after several weeks to ponder the topic, I’m ready to tell you about The United States of Arugula: The Sun-Dried, Cold-Pressed, Dark-Roasted, Extra Virgin Story of the American Food Revolution, by David Kamp.  The paperback version is 364 pages, in what I would call ‘small’ print.  The title makes this book sound like a salacious romp through cultural food trends of the past twenty years; in reality, this is a serious history of the development of a restaurant industry, the gourmet home cook phenomenon, and celebrity chef worship in the US from the 1940s through current day.  The material is detailed and dense, but for those who are truly interested in the topic, and for those of us who sincerely enjoy a good history read anyway, it’s a valuable learning experience.


Kamp structures his book around the characters who have dominated this food history, beginning with the Big Three: James Beard (teacher/cookbook writer), Craig Claiborne (food and restaurant critic) and the indubitable Julie Child.  All three were somewhat social rejects, who found, in mid-life, a calling in food.  Julia Child, for example, didn’t cook at all til she moved to Paris with her husband in her 40s.  When all three began their work in the 1950s, there was no such thing as a foodie culture in the US.  The book opens with this quote from the New York Herald Tribune in 1939: “If someone suggests a ‘pizza pie’ after the theater, don’t think it is going to be a wedge of apple.  It is going to be the surprise of your life.”  The title of this article, by the way, is ITALIAN PASTRY APPROPRIATE WITH BEER AND WINE.  Things like this are the reason the Big Three were so significant; they introduced America to a whole different world of food, far beyond the condensed-cream-of-mushroom-soup style of cooking so prevalent in the 50s.


Kamp spends a lot of time discussing the emigration of French food and its chefs to the US.  The French style of cooking, strictly structured and based on a system of stocks and sauces, arrived with young French chefs who taught apprentices the same system.  For many, many years, French food and French restaurants became the new standard for ‘good’ food.  And this was not just for the wealthy; Julia Child made the style of cooking popular among the masses, with her charming way of talking it up.  I particularly loved this fantastic quote of hers in the book: “ You know, the other day, when I was mmmucking about in the supermarket, looking for something to eat – I was sort of in a bad mood and nothing I looked at appealed to me a’tall.  I looked at all the chickens and the ducks and the fish and the steaks and the lamb, and I just didn’t want to cook any bit of it!  I found myself staring at a fresh beef tongue, and I said to it, ‘You ugly old thing, I’d like to fix you up!’  And I thought to myself, ‘Why not?  It will be a change, anyway!’  So I trotted home with my tongue under my arm – and I braised it!”  Clearly, the woman was absolutely hysterical.  And her enthusiasm proved very infectious – her classic tome, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, is one of the best selling cookbooks in history.


Coming out of the sixties, there was a dramatic shift of emphasis in American food culture from the rich, fancy French food to an earthy, local, seasonally-based, natural food movement.  This, you may not be surprised to hear, started in California.  The group of foodies leading this culinary revolution were strongly rooted in the counter-culture of the time.  Warren Belasco is quoted in the book, saying, “White versus brown was a central contrast.  White meant Wonder Bread, White Tower, Cool Whip, Minute Rice, instand mashed potatoes, peeled apples, White Tornadoes, white coats, white collar, whitewash, White House, white racism.  Brown meant whole-wheat bread, unhulled rice, turbinado sugar, wildflower honey, unsulfured molasses, soy sauce, peasant yams, ‘black is beautiful’.”  And thus began a natural food movement which developed into the New California style of cooking.


There are a few key characters who represent this time period in our culinary history as well.  Kamp goes through mini-biographies of Alice Waters (founder of Berkeley restaurant/icon Chez Panisse), and Wolfgang Puck (who made the brick oven gourmet pizza popular) among others.  These folks dared to step out of the French mold (although they often kept one foot in, using French technique with new products) and envision exciting uses for different ingredients; people were crazy about it.


Meanwhile the hippies were busy wielding their influence on the food businesses as well.  Businesses like Celestial Seasonings, Ben and Jerry’s and Niman Ranch Beef.  Natural, full-fat, organic, grass-fed and similar titles became badges of certification to the socially-aware consumer.  Recognition of and support for the growers and producers also became important.  For example, in the coffee business, the concept of fair trade became a profitable one to promote.  Kamp says “when specialty roasters started working on what would come to be known as fair-trade issues – ensuring that their coffee beans came from growers who treated their workers humanely and compensated them appropriately; paying their suppliers a guaranteed minimum price for their beans as a hedge against market fluctuations; and educating their growers about ecologically sustainable farming methods – these roasters acquired a certain cachet among young customers.  Specialty coffee wasn’t just delicious; it was righteous and cool.”  Starbucks, clearly, is the prime example.


In the 90s, the food influence swung back to the East Coast, where New York City was cleaning up its streets and developing a large network of world-class restaurants.  Many of the current celebrity chefs on Food Network became famous first in NYC kitchens – Bobby Flay, Mario Batali.  Restaurant dining was becoming more of an ‘experience’, carefully crafted by a team of experts – the décor and design were as important as the wine list which was as important as the food.  The city also nurtured a growing specialty foods store movement.  The well-known Dean and Delucca was started by three men who loved to eat quality products and had a vision of bringing them to knowing consumers.  “‘What Dean and DeLuca did was give the food market a clean artistry that made it very now, very tied into the moment when SoHo was being noticed,’ says Florence Fabricant, the New York Times food-beat scoopmeister, who wrote about the store nearly from its inception.  “Jack Ceglic was responsible for a lot of that, the industrial look.  And Giorgio and Joel were really fanatic about ferreting out product.  It all tied together.  And the other important thing they tapped into was the need for prepared foods.’“


Prepared foods, using ‘hot’ new ingredients like sun-dried tomatoes and introducing new kinds of food like curries, were very popular among New Yorkers, and soon, all Americans.  The Silver Palate, another popular specialty foods store in New York City that spawned a well-known cookbook by the same name, started as a catering service to bachelors who didn’t know or have time to cook, but became equally popular among women with the same reasons for buying pre-made quality food.


This is getting long now, so you’re getting a good idea of the depth and breadth of this book.  The end of the book moves you quickly through the deification of chefs through the advent of the Food Network and the subsequent celebrity chef branding; the protest against mass-produced and nutrient-stripped meat and vegetable industries; new restaurant trends (back to the French style!); specialty food equipment stores; farmers markets, CSAs and the local foods movement, and more.  You would never, ever have guessed there was so much to say about food in America!  This book is very detailed but for those who really are interested (dare I say, the hard-core foodie?) it’s a riveting tale.  I learned quite a lot about where our food comes from, figuratively and historically speaking.  We didn’t just wake up and find ourselves surrounded by so many astoundingly diverse and delicious (and frighteningly bad in some ways) food options; it’s been a long story in the making.  It’s good to know it and appreciate it; it’s a good American story!



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Easy Bean Soup

I have made this soup so many times, I no longer remember where the recipe came from.  It is one of my two most-requested soup recipes (the other one is yet to come…Spinach and Wild Rice Soup with Sausage) and it’s also the easiest soup I make!

It’s probably not the most gourmet recipe…but it sure is tasty, and it sure is quick!  For the ham, I ask for two 1/2-inch-thick slices from the deli, and then cut those into bite-sized cubes.  I usually use one can each of white, black and red beans, but you can use any combination you like.  Be sure to cook the veggies long enough to soften, and then let the beans and ham cook in it all only long enough to meld together.  This is really excellent served with some nice garlic bread and red wine, if you have it!

Savory Bean Soup


2 small onions, diced

3 celery stalks, diced

1 lb of ham, cubed

2 Tbs olive oil

2 tsp chili powder

1/2 tsp cumin

1/2 tsp garlic powder

1 tsp dried oregano

3 cans (approx 15 oz) of beans, various colors, rinsed and drained

1 15-oz can chicken stock


In a large pot, cook onion, celery, and spices in olive oil until veggies are tender, about 10 min.  Add the beans, ham and the chicken stock.  Cook, covered, on medium-high for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add more water if needed to reach desired consistency.


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