Monthly Archives

December 2014

Celebrations, Desserts, Holiday, Local, Restaurants, Sandwiches

End-of-semester cravings!

December 16, 2014

Remember exams? And that delicious feeling of finally being unshackled? It always made me want to dive into something indulgent. For my middle schooler – who is in the process of picking off exams one-by-one this week – it means two things: having lunch at Inga’s Subs and Salads – a longtime LSU campus sandwich shop – and savoring a few (or several) cake balls from Brew Ha Ha, a funky, MidCity Baton Rouge coffee shop.

Here’s the Cuban I had for lunch with her today at Inga’s. Normally, I’m a sucker for an accompanying bag of Zapp’s, but instead I went for Inga’s warm potato salad – homey with mustard and relish and just like I like it. This place succeeds despite being surrounded by sandwich mega-chains. I love the pressed texture and simplicity of the subs here.


Now for dessert: Tender, pop-in-your-mouth cake balls from Brew Ha-Ha, a coffee shop with real character in a very cool part of Baton Rouge. I had a meeting there this morning with the new editor of 225 Magazine, where I contribute regularly as a freelancer, and I took the opportunity to nab some cake balls. The spice cake ones are perfect this time of year.

For my daughter, it was two exams down, three more to go, and a ritual of good eats to ease the pain.


When you celebrate an accomplishment, what’s your food ritual?

Christmas, Desserts, Holiday, Local, Southern, Vegetables

Squash cake gets an update

December 11, 2014

Family recipes get passed down because they’re meaningful and taste good, but sometimes they include ingredients you’re embarrassed to admit. Especially today, the convenience items that once peppered dinner tables and cookbooks can feel like dorky unwelcomed guests. “It’s got that in it?,” you can just hear your snooty food friends say. New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin has a great reference to this phenomenon in his famed 2002 dispatch, “Missing Links,”—one of several that document the writer’s enthusiasm for Louisiana food. In it, he mentions the secret, anti-gourmet ingredient in the crawfish étouffée recipe of his New Iberia friend James Edmunds: a can of cream of mushroom soup. Delicious nevertheless, but mentioned on the down low.

I have always loved my husband’s family’s squash cake, a sheet cake made with roasted butternut squash that his great aunt “Titta-Lee” was famous for bringing to funeral gatherings. But it, too, includes an in-the-closet ingredient: a box of Jello coconut cream instant pudding and pie mix. Shortly after we got married in 2000, by which time I’d had the cake numerous times, she wrote it down for us.



I was eager to find a more natural approach. And also, the cake was really too sweet, and I believed with a little tinkering I could create version that still said ‘dessert’ while letting the butternut squash shine through. There remains a whole cup of sugar in the adjusted recipe, so fear not, Sweet Tooths, this is no “lite” version.

The result is a really versatile cake that is perfect for the season. It goes well with fresh citrus fruit, dark chocolate and strong cup of coffee. If you’re not a fan of coconut, no worries. Simply substitute almond extract for the coconut and instead of topping the cake with coconut shreds, just shave a little dark chocolate.

As for the squash, if you run short on time, here’s a product I like, which I usually grab at Whole Foods Market.




Butternut Squash Cake

Serves 8-10

1 ¾ cup self rising flour

1 cup sugar

3 eggs

½ cup canola oil

½ cup sour cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon coconut or almond extract

1 cup butternut squash, roasted and beaten slightly until fairly smooth

Cream cheese icing (recipe follows)

Coconut or chocolate shavings for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease and flour a 9×13 pan. Mix flour and sugar in a medium bowl. Beat eggs slightly in a large bowl. Add oil and sour cream. Add dry ingredients to wet batter and blend slightly. A wooden spoon should work fine. Add extracts and squash and blend until smooth. Pour batter in pan and bake for 30 minutes. Place on rack to cool and ice immediately with cream cheese frosting and garnish with fresh coconut.

Cream Cheese Frosting

Makes enough for one cake

3 oz. softened cream cheese

2 tablespoons softened butter

1/3 cup confectioner’s sugar

1-2 tablespoons whipping cream

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Blend well cream cheese and butter with a hand mixer or standing mixer. Carefully add sugar. Add whipping cream and vanilla extract and blend for a minute or two until you reach desired consistency.



Christmas, Herbs

It’s all about that bay

December 9, 2014

Bay is a big part of Louisiana cuisine. You could make an argument it’s even more significant than cayenne pepper in terms of creating round, full flavor in so many of our emblematic dishes. Bay is what gives gumbo, jambalaya, red beans, countless soups and so many other one-pot dishes an herbaceous, sweet note. It plays well with everything from meats to vegetables to seafood. Fail to put it in certain dishes and something seems really amiss.

I have a very mature bay plant in my herb garden – it’s now more like a tree – and I frequently lop off the top growth. With our subtropical weather in South Louisiana, it grows fast enough for me to have to trim it twice a year. Here it is now – in December – with its little buddy lemon grass to the right.


After I trimmed it in September, I hung the fresh branches, laden with large, green leaves, in my outdoor washroom where it didn’t take long for them to dry. It’s pretty cool and dry out there. Commercial bay is dried flat, but I let mine dry the way it wants to. Sometimes that means curly and unruly.


Within a few days, I bring one branch into the kitchen, slide it into a tall vase and place the vase in the kitchen window. Several times a week, I reach up and snap off a few dried leaves and toss them in everything from butter beans to pot roast to spaghetti sauce. This week, it was homemade vegetable soup, heavy on the veggies, as you can see. Look how big those leaves get!

photo 2

And jars of dried bay make great gifts!

photo 3

Chicken, Southern, Weeknight

Weeknight Comfort: Chicken Pot Pie

December 4, 2014

Over the next few weeks, you need a little evening comfort to get you through the insanity that defines the holiday season. Here’s a straightforward and foolproof formula for one of my favorite belly warmers – homemade chicken pot pie.

One problem with chicken pot pie recipes is that many are way too complicated. I promise, mine is not. Another problem is that the white roux intended to bind the chicken and veggies is often either too runny or too gummy. Here, the sauce is balanced. Feel free to substitute your favorite ingredients, but the keep the proportions the same. I like to roast my own chicken beforehand and make an herby pie crust with fresh rosemary, but for the sake of sanity, you can certainly use rotisserie bird and store bought pastry.


Serves 6-8

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, chopped

1 cup chopped celery

1 cup chopped fresh carrots

4 tablespoons butter

4 tablespoons all-purpose flour

¾ cup chicken stock

¾ cup milk

1 teaspoon salt

Fresh ground black pepper to taste

1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary

1 cup frozen peas (no need to thaw)

2 cups cooked chicken, cubed or roughly chopped

1 pie crust

Preheat oven to 350 F. In a large skillet, heat oil to medium high and sauté onion, celery and carrots for about 5 minutes or until fairly soft. Turn off heat and set aside. In a separate large skillet, heat butter until melted, then add flour. Whisk, or stir well with a roux spoon. Add chicken stock and milk, and whisk or stir until mixture thickens (within a couple of minutes). Add salt, pepper, rosemary, peas, chicken, and sautéed vegetables and cook over low heat for 5-7 minutes. Spray a pie plate (deep dish, preferably) with cooking spray and fill it with mixture. Top with crust. Crimp edges, cut slits in the center and brush surface with an egg white. Bake 50 minutes or until crust is golden and inside is hot and bubbly. Cool slightly before slicing.


Apples, Local, Travels

On the road: Georgia makes good apples

December 2, 2014

I’ve been in Louisiana since the early nineties (whoa, is it possible that much time has passed!?), but I’m a Georgia native. My husband and three kids and I return frequently to the Peach State to visit my family, always taking advantage of the local culinary gems (mustard-based pit BBQ anyone?). This year for Thanksgiving, we headed to the Blue Ridge area and, while there, hit one of our favorite stops, Mercier Orchards.

The family-run business features thousands of acres of fruit orchards (mostly apple), along with a large store that sells fresh produce, pastries and all kinds of fun stuff in jars. I can really go nuts at this place, hauling back several half-peck bags of  apples and extras like Mercier’s signature five pepper hot sauce, apple butter, peach pepper jelly, apple cider and sorghum syrup.

Here in Louisiana, we are blessed with a diversity of fresh fruit — peaches, blueberries, blackberries, muscadines, strawberries, watermelon, citrus fruits and figs –but it’s too hot for traditional apples. Eating an orchard gem like the ones at Mercier’s makes you appreciate how much better an apple is when it’s sold near its source. My favorite north GA apple is the Gold Rush, a crisp, sweet-tart multipurpose variety that’s great for snacking, cooking and baking. So far, I’ve used it in apple-brie breakfast quesadillas and chopped fine in salmon salad. I’ve also started delivering apples, along with the gorgeous citrus fruit emerging on our backyard trees, to my editors, clients and special friends.

It’s funny. It’s possible to mail order from Mercier’s, but I like the ritual of bringing home a bounty, feeling bummed when it runs out and looking forward to my next face-to-face visit.

Food torture is so satisfying!