Creole Gumbo-Southern Food Challenge 6

Calvin came into town this past weekend to hang out, spend time in NYC, and celebrate his birthday with us.  Of all the things we miss about our life in California, spending time with Calvin is near the top of the list. So, as usual when we do see him, we took the opportunity and crammed about a month’s worth of hanging out into one long weekend. I think we may have crammed about a month’s worth of eating into one weekend too. I had my first ShackBurger in Madison Square Park and my first John’s Pizza on Bleeker Street. Eataly was a culinary mosh pit; we got espresso and dodged elbows. We drank beer at the Blind Tiger and the Ginger Man. We got cannolis and lobster tails at Georgio’s across the street. For Calvin’s birthday, we took him to a little Japanese “soul food” restaurant we tried for Scott’s birthday called Hakata Tonton.  The three of us shared their signature hot-pot, full of vegetables, pork belly and feet, dumplings and goji berries in an amazingly unctuous broth. And before we put him on the train back out to JFK, we had lunch at  Ippudo, the best bowl of ramen I have ever eaten. I had tonkotsu ramen in Hong Kong for the first time last year; the creamy white pork broth and dark garlic oil with chewy ramen noodles, so lip-smacking and savory and have been craving it since……I ate so much I felt like a pork belly myself.

It made me think about the nitty-gritty of what it is that makes great soup really great. I think it is unarguably the broth. It’s the bones and cartilage and collagen and meat that slowly infuse their essence into water, creating something that tastes incredibly rich without fat. In beauty, one hears about having “good bones”; stock is literally the “good bones” of beautiful flavor.  I’m not asserting that good soup can’t be made with bottled chicken broth or water and aromatics, but every once in a while, it’s worth it to go the extra mile to make a rich, collagen filled stock, full of the most intense essential flavors and make a special meal superlative.

The easiest entry point for stock has to be fish (or seafood) stock. Using the shells, heads, and bones of the seafood going into this gumbo to make a simple stock creates a layer of flavor that deepens and echoes the sweetness of the shrimp and fish in every rich, spicy bite.

Creole Seafood Gumbo

1 pound of head-on shell-on shrimp

1-2 pound fish, fileted, bones and head reserved (I used red snapper)

about 1 cup bay scallops

1/3 to ½ pound of andouille

roux

1 medium white or yellow onion, diced

2 stalks celery diced (celery leaves have lots of flavor, chop them up too!)

½ green bell pepper, diced

2 fat cloves garlic, minced or micro-planed

¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes

½ teaspoon thyme

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

1 bay leaf

salt

1 can diced tomatoes, undrained

2 cups sliced okra (frozen works well off-season)

1 ½ quarts fish stock*

hot rice

hot sauce

Rinse the shrimp and fish. De-head and peel the shrimp. If you’re hard-core like me, filet the fish, slicing the filets into bite-sized pieces. Keep all the bones and shells for the stock. If you get a whole fish from a market and have the fishmongers do the dirty work of fileting, specify that you want to keep the bones and head. Some stores will sell packages of fish trimmings for stock; get a white-fleshed fish for this recipe.

Make a roux

I use less roux for seafood gumbo than for meatier gumbos. For this recipe, I used about ¼ cup each of flour and oil.

After the roux is dark enough, add the Trinity of diced onion, celery, and bell pepper (similar to mirepoix, onion, celery, carrot) to the roux and stir until the vegetables are softened.

Slice and quarter about a link’s worth of smoked andouille (maybe 1/3 pound). The only brand I could find here in town this week was D’ Artagnan; I don’t prefer their seasoning though. Stir it into the roux in the pan, getting it to brown a little on the edges.

When the sausage begins to render a little of it’s fat, add the garlic and spices; I usually gently toast spices for a moment before I add any liquid. When I began learning about Indian cooking and their treatment of spices, I started assimilating the technique of dry toasting or frying spices and herbs often along with the aromatic vegetables and it really seems to bloom and infuse their flavor and fragrance better.

Add the tomatoes, okra and stock. Bring to a simmer and stir until the roux is smoothly incorporated into the stock and cook it until the okra is tender. It shouldn’t take too long, maybe 20 minutes, but cook it slowly and gently so that the assembled throng has time to mingle their flavors. Taste for salt.

Finally- and I mean finally so as not to overcook- stir the scallops, shrimp and fish into the soup. Heat just to a simmer, very gently stirring the seafood into the broth so that it is just opaque and barely cooked through. Be gentle with the fish so the pieces don’t get too broken up

When the seafood is cooked, scoop some hot rice into a bowl and pour the gumbo over. Shake a bit of hot sauce on top.

*Make this basic seafood stock with the fish bones and head and shrimp shells and heads, a little onion and celery. I used the shells and heads of 1 pound of shrimp and the bones and head of a 2 pound red snapper, a stalk of celery and ¼ onion and two quarts of water. Bring it all to a simmer, covered and let it burble away for about 20 -30 minutes. Strain out the solids and reduce the stock to about 1 ½ quarts.

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Deviled Eggs-Southern Food Challenge 5

Deviled eggs are the edible equivalent of the little black dress: they can go anywhere, adapt to any situation, always appropriate, day – to – evening, dress it up, dress it down. You know.

In its simplest form, I can barely even justify calling the formula a recipe:

Deviled Eggs

For each two hard-boiled eggs (I know, who makes just 2?)

1 tablespoon of good mayo

1 teaspoon mustard

pinch of salt

pinch of cayenne

Whenever I’m boiling eggs, I try to start them in fairly hot, almost simmering water so that my timing is more accurate. I don’t like overcooking them. For deviled eggs, once I have gently lowered them into the simmering water, I set the timer for 11 minutes, then scoop the eggs out and submerge them in cold water to stop the cooking. After they’ve cooled, I peel them, slice them in half (tip: a thin bladed knife like a slicer works well for this job; a heavy chef’s knife blade can tear the whites up), and remove the yolks into a bowl. The yolks get mashed with a fork a little and then I add the mayonnaise and mustard (French’s yellow mustard is the classic in this case) and mix most of the lumps out.

At this point, you can just season the yolk with the salt and pepper, scoop it back into the egg white halves, maybe dust it with a little paprika and be done. You would have a very nice, simple deviled egg such as have graced the tables of thousands of church picnics across the South since time immemorial. Kind of like the equivalent of a black sundress and flats.

For a little dressier but still simple variation, maybe a brunch, I thought “salad nicoise” and chopped up some (2 teaspoons for 2 eggs) rinsed salt-packed capers and used Dijon mustard instead of the French’s. I don’t salt it until after  the capers are added and I’ve taste-tested . Even the rinsed capers may have enough salt. I shave a razor-thin sliver of red onion onto the  top for a contrast in crunch and flavor.

So, day to evening: mix the Dijon mustard into the yolks and mayonnaise and blend them until they are really smooth. When you put the yolks back int the hollow of the egg white, make a little dimple in the top with the back of a teaspoon and fill it with fish roe or caviar, according to your taste, the occasion, and the pocketbook. I used the tiny capelin roe, called Masago. It’s sweet and crunchy, popping delightfully between the teeth in contrast to the smooth creamy egg. It’s the plunging neckline with 5-inch peep toe sling-backs version of the deviled egg.

Deviled eggs are not intrinsically a fussy food. It’s beauty lies in its simplicity, so in that all of it elements should be evident in each bite,  use good ingredients. They are the perfect occasion to bust out the home-made mayo and fresh, sharp mustard (which loses its flavor over time, so it’s good to check that jar in the fridge once in a while to see if it still tastes). And use my suggestions as inspiration; think about how many flavors go well with eggs – smoked salmon, bacon, curry powder. Since it’s pretty risk-free to experiment with two eggs at a time, go for it and try all of them.

Red Beans and Rice- Southern Food Challenge 4

Beans and rice, as I’ve mentioned before, have always been staples of my cooking rotation. Beans and rice of all kinds are my comfort foods. So when I started thinking about doing red beans and rice for this challenge, I had to think “now how do I write down a recipe for something I don’t even have to  think about cooking?” I remembered an episode of Good Eats in which Alton Brown made red beans and rice with a twist I had never tried: it was seasoned with pickled pork instead of smoky andouille. I started looking around for recipes and began running across a lot of claims that pickled pork was actually a more traditional seasoning meat than smoked pork for red beans. I like pickles and I love pork, so I decided to shake my bean routine up a little and make my red beans and rice pickled instead of smoked.

 

 

Red Beans and Rice

serves about 8

 

1 pound of red beans, rinsed, soaked, and drained

1/2 cup celery, chopped

1/2 cup green bell pepper, chopped

1 cup onion, chopped

8-10 cloves of garlic, crushed and minced

oil to saute’ the vegetables

2 bay leaves

1/2 teaspoon of thyme

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

hot sauce like Tabasco

12 ounces pickled pork*

2 quarts water

Salt and black pepper to taste

 

hot cooked rice (I used Rosematta, a chewy, smoky Indian red rice I got at Kalustyan’s in NYC)

 

 

Get all of your aromatics cut up and ready to go. Assemble the spices you will need and have your beans pre-soaked and drained.

In a large dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-low heat. Add the onion, celery and bell pepper and stir, cooking until they begin to soften, maybe 10 minutes or so. Add the garlic, thyme, and cayenne to the aromatic vegetables and stir until they begin to get fragrant.

Pour the beans into the pot and add the water, hot sauce, pickled pork, and bay leaves. Don’t add the salt until the beans are almost done; salt can keep beans from softening when they cook.

Simmer for at least an hour or until the beans have softened to your liking; salt to taste. I always think that the flavor of beans improves with a little time, so I recommend letting it chill (literally and figuratively) in the fridge overnight.

Serve in bowls with a scoop of hot rice and a bottle of Tabasco sauce.

 

 

Making red beans with pickled pork was more work up front than just buying good andouille, and I love the flavor of andouille so I can’t say I won’t ever go back to my old habits, but the pickled pork added a really interesting complexity and tang. It reminded me a little of Brunswick stew or bigos (a Polish stew made with game and sauerkraut). It is certainly worth a try.

 

 

*Pickled Pork

I did a combo recipe of Alton Brown’s Pickled Pork and a New Orleans Cuisine blog‘s version:

1 quart white vinegar

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

1/4 cup yellow mustard seeds

1/4 cup brown mustard seeds

3 bay leaves

4 dried serrano chiles

1/2 teaspoon whole coriander

1 tablespoon celery seed

10 cloves of garlic, peeled, whole

about a teaspoon hot sauce

2 tablespoons Kosher salt

2 tablespoons turbinado sugar

2 pounds of pork shoulder, cut into 2 inch cubes

a cup of ice

Pour the vinegar and all of the rest of the ingredients except for the pork and ice into a pot and bring to a boil. Boil for 3 minutes and then remove from the heat and cool; after it has cooled to room temperature, add the ice cubes.

Put the pork into a heavy 1 gallon ziplock back and put the whole bag in a bowl (this will keep any leakage contained!). Pour the cooled vinegar mixture and all of the spices over the pork, squeeze out as much air as you can and seal the bag. Put it in the refrigerator for three days. It will be ready to use after three days. I used about 1/3 of the pork in the red beans; the rest I removed from the brine, divided into containers and froze. It’s not pretty, but it sure is tasty!

 

Country Fried Steak- Southern Food Challenge 3

I never said this was going to be pretty. There are no glamour shots in this post. It is impossible to make country fried steak look like anything but a big plate of brown. While country fried steak is doubtless very tasty, a feast for the eyes it is not. I think that may be a significant part of why country fried steak has never been in heavy rotation in my kitchen. (That and the “country”, “fried”, and  “steak” parts.) My gene pool is neck-deep in artists so I’m practically genetically hardwired to “first, eat with your eyes.”

 

 

Growing up, I don’t actually remember ever eating country fried steak. After I got married, I started making it occasionally, because despite the fact that he introduced me to kimchi and tom yum soup and sushi and cioppino, I married a guy who occasionally craves things his mother or grandmother cooked. His culinary guilty pleasures tend to contain trans-fats. His mom could give Paula Deen a run for her money in butter usage; she makes a mean tuna noodle casserole; she sometimes country-fries things; She’s not afraid of Crisco. So for love, I learned to fry. Sometimes.

When I started looking for actual recipes for country fried steak, I discovered that there  are a couple of significant variations: I have always dredged, pan-fried and then covered and cooked the meat in a sort of self-made brown gravy. A lot of recipes almost deep fry the meat, then make a cream or milk gravy separately and  pour it over the top when it is served, very much like a weiner schnitzel. It’s interesting then that that version has its roots in Texas with its significant influx of German immigrants in the early 19th century.

There is also some variation in the name: is it “country-fried” or “chicken-fried”? None less than John T. Edge of  Southern Foodways Alliance weighed in in the NY Times Diner’s Journal saying that “Country fried steak is, usually, battered and fried beef, smothered in gravy and simmered until solid crust and liquid gravy fuse. It’s a pan-Southern dish.”

Anyway, getting back to the issue of aesthetics: I used red onions. It was the best I could do.

 

Country Fried Steak

a general outline


Tenderized beef round steaks, about 1 per person

1 cup all-purpose flour, seasoned (to taste) with

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon paprika

pinch of cayenne

1 large onion, thinly sliced

Oil for frying

Milk , about a cup to dredge the meat and 1/2 cup for the gravy

water or broth to surround but not cover the meat

dash Worchestershire sauce

 

 

In a heavy skillet, slowly saute’ the sliced onions in about 1 tablespoon of the oil until they are a sweet softly wilted tangle. Remove from the  pan and hold for later.

Meanwhile, dip each piece of meat into the milk, then dredge it in the seasoned flour. Cover the meat completely, but dust off any extra that isn’t well adhered. As each piece is covered, set it aside on a plate for 10 minutes or so before frying them. The flour will begin to absorb the milk and juice from the meat and will get a bit of a crust.

Once the onions are cooked and the meat is all dredged, add a couple more tablespoons of oil to the pan and heat it until it shimmers slightly. Lay the meat in the pan and fry until both sides are golden brown. Scatter the onions back over the pan, pour in the 1/2 cup of milk, enough water or broth to surround but not cover the meat, and that splash of Worchestershire sauce. Bring the liquid to a simmer, cover the pan with a heavy lid and keep the heat on low for about 15 minutes until the meat is very tender and the gravy has thickened.

 


Collard Greens- Southern Food Challenge 2

 

Driving through the Southern country side in the winter:  black trees, bare and sharp against a pearly sky like Japanese ink paintings, maybe the lucky surprise flash of a scarlet cardinal; tawny fields with folds and furrows like the creased hide of a sleeping lion. It’s beautiful and restful in its monotony of winter-softened color, nothing to jar the eye but the occasional murder of black crows, or the pounce of a rusty hawk on some unwary rodent-until late Winter when the forsythia and quince suddenly explode like firecrackers and take your breath away for a second.

Even the winter gardens sitting lonely beside older homes have a subtlety, an unkempt bed-head look to them; mostly left to their own devices while their gardeners stay in the warm indoors, they are patches of root vegetables and earthy greens that burnish and sweeten with a little frost. Collards, with their dusty chalkboard-green leaves like well-worn old leather are the beauties of the bunch. They are Brassica like cabbages and broccoli; the leaves are braised, traditionally with smoked meat seasoning, until they are meltingly tender. Scott likes them with apple cider vinegar mixed into the pot liquor in his bowl; I like them with sriracha sauce (yes, green top, rooster- that one).

 

 

Since most of the work of cooking collard greens is in the preparation, I always make a big potful and freeze the leftovers for a busy day. I fill the kitchen sink with enough water to float all of the leaves so that any dirt or grit can sink to the bottom and then swish and wash the leaves really well, checking for ugly leaves and little creatures that may have tucked themselves into the bunches (this is probably more critical if you are growing them yourself- we found plenty of little caterpillars on the greens we brought in from our garden last year). I usually slice out the fibrous stems, cut the leaves in half long ways and stack them up like bundle of  dollar bills to cut them across into wide ribbons.

Meanwhile, in a big stock pot, I bring about a quart of water to a simmer. I don’t always use the same meat, but something with a little fat and some deep smoky flavor – diced bacon, smoked ham hock, a ham bone, or smoked turkey legs. While I’m cleaning and cutting up the leaves, I let the meat simmer in the water, covered with a lid, to start infusing the broth. Because I love their smoky heat, I usually throw in a dried chipotle or two. I add the greens and a little salt, clap the lid on again and let them collapse in the heat, with an occasional stir, checking they don’t steam out of liquid, slowly braising them to tenderness.

 

 

I usually like my vegetables on the crisp side- not the stereotypical “boiled to death” green beans and carrots and peas and spinach that give vegetables a bad name. But collards are an exception: like a tough, lean veal shank reaches its apotheosis as osso bucco after a long gentle braise, so the relatively fibrous collard leaves become rich and tender and flavorful. I don’t mean boiled though, a low simmer really, and I use a minimal amount of water so the flavor of the greens isn’t diluted too much. If I’m using anything but bacon, I’ll get tongs and pluck the bone out of the pot toward the end and shred the meat off to add back into the greens.

We’re still sort of in that “mud season” between winter and spring up north;  the Union Square Greenmarket stalls carry parsnips and turnips and cold storage apples (and I got sleet burn on my face last time I was there). I’m beginning to crave something sharp and fresh and green but for now I’m taking advantage of the last of the gifts of the winter and making a pot of collard greens. It’s especially good with beans and cornbread.

Collard Greens

what I put in the pot

2 bunches of collard greens (or more, if they are stingy bunches)

about a quart of water

3 slices of bacon, diced, or

2 small smoked ham hocks, or

1 meaty ham bone, or

1 nice big smoked turkey leg

salt, to taste (start with 1 1/2 teaspoons of flaky Kosher or sea salt)

1 or 2 dried chipotles

 

Braise over gentle heat for at least 45 minutes for a big pot, until the leaves are tender, but are not so cooked as to disintegrate when stirred.

 

Pimento Cheese – Southern Food Challenge 1

One of the first things I made after our cross-country move was pimento cheese. (The very first thing I made was grits with sweet corn and pan-fried catfish, just sort of as a declaration that you can put the girl in Jersey but you can’t put Jersey in the girl!). It was while we were living in that furnished apartment with a “fully equipped kitchen”  and I had to grate the entire block of cheese with a fork. It was totally worth it, but I highly recommend a cheese grater; it makes the whole process much easier. And you’ll get fewer blisters.

Pimento cheese is simple, easy to make, and endlessly varied. I like the combination of really sharp cheddar and creamy, mellow Monterrey Jack.

Pimento Cheese

makes about 3 cups

12 ounces sharp cheddar cheese

6 ounces Monterrey Jack cheese

1/2 cup roasted red peppers, chopped small

about 2/3 cup mayonnaise (we like Duke’s)

Use the fine side of a grater to grate all of the cheese. If you are using jarred roasted peppers, drain them well before chopping them up. Put everything into a mixing bowl that gives you plenty of room to energetically stir. Start with a bit less mayo and stir everything together so that the peppers are evenly mixed through the cheese and everything is creamy and cohesive. If it seems too stiff, or when you taste it, you prefer a milder, creamier flavor, add a little more mayo and stir it in.

Following the pimento train of thought a little further, you can add finely chopped green olives (the pimento stuffed type) to half of the pimento cheese-very nice on a cracker.

Southern Comfort: My Ultimate Southern Food Challenge-

It’s the first week of Spring and it has snowed twice here in New Jersey. That’s just mean. Especially since I had been driving through North Carolina just a few short days before, sunroof open, wearing  flip-flops and  a tank top. When one has felt that first sweet kiss of Spring-time warmth on bare skin after a long dark winter, coming back to sleety boot-and-glove climate feels a bit like a slap. Daylight Savings Time did not come a moment too soon for me.

I am loving the extra sunlight! While I’ve been busy exploring bite-sized chunks of NYC,  and have been doing really well on some of my New Year’s resolutions (wearing more eyeliner;  my “Walk ’til You Get Warm” exercise regime), I’ve honestly been a little listless, aimless this Winter. So I’m taking the burst of energy that the lengthening days bring me to try to  undertake an epic personal cooking challenge:  I’m going to cook my way through Garden & Gun magazine’s Ultimate Southern Food Bracket.

There are 32 Southern foods in the brackets, which are, in the tradition of March Madness, being narrowed down to the Championship face-off for Ultimate Southern Food. I’ve been voting the bracket on Facebook and have found some of the match-ups strange: how to choose between okra and banana pudding, or pimento cheese and country ham biscuits, (and this one in particular) deviled eggs and fried chicken? How can any of those be losers? I love them all! Having spent the last decade on the West coast and now living in New Jersey, I’m feeling a nostalgic pull to wade back into the flavors and scents of the Southern table. I might even add a couple of my own Southern favorites to the list.

So I’m going to try to cook them all, see if I stand by my votes, see which Southern foods are my desert island choices. Given some of the strange makeshift arrangements in my kitchen, my ignorance of where to source things like grits and country ham and crawfish in my area, and my firm belief that no one wants me smoking pulled pork or having a fish fry on my fire escape, I hope it will be fun and not an act of madness. I’m thinking it will be fun. And maybe a little crazy. So here we go-

 

White Christmas!

 

I wrote this in a message last week after I got to Alabama: “Another Life Skill I’ve developed for Coping with a Polar Climate is fleeing. I have been outside on a patio in Alabama this afternoon in a long-sleeved t-shirt (What!) tapping busily away on my computer. I even took my shoes off for a little while, not because it was that warm, but  really just because I could.”  Clearly I spoke too soon! We drove about an hour north to my parent’s in Georgia for Christmas and it’s snowing! It’s the first white Christmas I remember for a long time.

 

 

We had Christmas with my family this year, with four children at my parent’s house and my absent sisters in North Carolina and Vietnam via Skype. With all of us living all over the world, it’s hard to get everyone together in one place at the same time, but technology definitely helps keep us connected. We opened Vietnam presents on Christmas Eve here, Christmas morning in Saigon, and had a look at the stuffing Grace was making. She sent me a purple silk scarf from a factory she visited where silk went from silk worm to scarf right on site.

When we finally rolled out of bed late Christmas morning, my youngest brother Peter made all of us a Christmas brunch of sesame seed bagels with cream cheese, capers, red onions and smoked salmon. It was gorgeous and delicious. Peter is probably my most culinarily experienced sibling; we’ve been cooking together since he was about 12 and it’s not unusual to get a call from him that begins “Hi Christine, I’m in the grocery store and I was wondering…”. He remembers my making his birthday cake when he was 4 or 5 and being “very generous with the beaters.”

 

 

I got  a red spoon with  a little face in it for Christmas. I made giblet gravy and carved the turkey, burned my knuckle. I’ve been watching Cat play with a snowflake ornament on the Christmas tree and watching snowflakes fall outside. We are making a piñata for our Dad’s extended family reunion tomorrow, tearing up strips of newspaper and smearing them over a big balloon. Israel is trying to make it impenetrable since most of the cousins are extremely fit 20 somethings and is coming up with all kinds of concoctions to make the flour paste stronger. The rumor is that it’s going to look like Lord Voldemort. We’ll see what Peter comes up with.

 

We’re going to spend the day with my dad’s parents, lots of aunts, uncles, and cousins tomorrow. It’s a yearly event I always hope to be able to attend and look forward to. Then we’ll head into the slow pre- New Year week. Should be chill (and chilly).

 

I hope you all had a lovely Christmas.

 

 

 

Celebrating sisters

I just got back to New Jersey last night from a fabulous weekend trip to Atlanta and points south for some pre-wedding celebrations with my sisters. Grace is getting married next week! I flew down Wednesday and Grace picked me up at the airport. The four of  us piled into Joy’s car, turned the air-conditioner on High and drove south through Alabama to a cottage on the Gulf coast.

It’s high summer in the South and produce stands are burgeoning along the highways. I find it nearly impossible to ignore a hand-lettered sign on the roadside offering watermelons or corn (picked today!) or peaches, but add “hot-boiled peanuts” to the signs and it’s like the car drives itself off onto the dirt verge and stops in front of the stand of its own volition. We got a watermelon, a bag of tomatoes, a bag of boiled peanuts, and a half sack of peaches. The gentleman who sold them to us said that the only problem was we’d wish we’d bought a whole sack. He had photos on the stand of the project his produce was funding – corrugated metal homes in Guatemala. When he asked is we were going to the beach, we said yes, to celebrate our sister’s upcoming wedding, and he said to Grace, “Well, I’ll give you some of my wife’s peach cake for a wedding present.” Moist yellow cake with nuggets of tangy Alabama peaches; pretty sweet wedding gift if you ask me! The cake and peanuts were fallen upon like a swarm of locusts.

The next couple of days went by too fast, sitting on the dock at night watching the lightning out over the Gulf and shooting stars overhead and talking, catching up on our lives, floating around in the blissfully warm buoyant Gulf water, getting a little sunburned, eating watermelon on the dock and spitting the seeds into the water, laughing, watching the fish and porpoises and shrimp boats and barges on the Intercoastal Waterway.  When the beach got a little too hot, we went shopping and found a sophisticated blue dress for Michal, who looked incredibly beautiful and also impossibly grown-up in it. We cooked together in the evenings, grilling corn and steaks which we ate with blue cheese butter and juicy wedges of  tomato, and made ceviche, fresh and cold with chunks of mango and avocado on crisp tostadas after that hot day at the beach.

Friday evening, we headed back through a couple of rainstorms which left the air feeling as if it had already been breathed. This humidity is taking some getting used to. I felt like I was submerged in water, even when I wasn’t. After the rain, the air had that soft, fragrant quality that I think of as so evocative of the South I grew up in. I think back, thinking about  the girls when they were my “little” sisters, and am so happy to have had this time to spend with the truly lovely women they have all become. I’m looking forward to this weekend, the wedding, spending more time with my family, grabbing a few more of these great, fun moments as they whip by.

Bay Ceviche

6 white fish filets, minced

or

1 pound bay scallops, quartered

1 tomato, diced

1 avocado, diced

1/2 large red onion, minced small

1 jalapeno pepper, minced small

1 mango, diced

about 1/2 bunch of cilantro leaves, roughly chopped

juice of 3-4 limes

Goya Bitter Orange seasoning to taste

or a splash of orange juice and salt to taste

Mix everything together in a glass bowl once everything is cut up and prepped. Toss to saturate with the lime juice. I lightly dusted the top of the bowl with the seasoning, mixed it in, and then tasted and added a little more just before serving. After everything is mixed, allow it to sit for at least 1/2 hour until the seafood looks white and opaque- which means it is “cooked”. Serve on crisp tostadas with a splash of Tapatio sauce.