The figs have started to ripen here in South Louisiana, and a couple of days ago, we started harvesting the sweet fat fruit from our backyard tree – braving mosquitoes and trying to beat the birds. Some days we eat every last fig over the sink within minutes of giving them a rinse. Other days I manage to set some aside and share them with my friends, especially my next-door neighbor, Martha. She paid me back for fresh figs once with a really yummy fig cake. It’s a great use of figs – super moist with a light, but sturdy texture and pleasant, subtle fig flavor. The recipe, Martha tells me, is modified from the Junior League of Monroe’s popular 1972 cookbook, The Cotton Country Collection. Tone down the sugar, and it makes a super breakfast cake. Here it is, below.
Crawfish boudin paella chased with a gin-filé cocktail and followed by a Creole cream cheese snoball? What’s your most creative use of the ingredients featured in Hungry for Louisiana, An Omnivore’s Journey? Compete in this fun 4th of July contest and you could win a free, signed copy of the book and a complimentary package of hand-harvested bay leaves, so essential in Louisiana cooking.
Fulfilling my pledge to teach my children to cook this summer, I grabbed the youngest (the only one I could find at the time), and said, “let’s cook chili!” He was game. Doing something without his older brother and sister to boss him around sounded appealing, so off we went into the kitchen to make our family’s signature four-ingredient chili. It’s fast, simple and homey, and we eat it year-round, even in stifling 90-plus degree weather.
In time for Mother’s Day, here’s a recipe for that timeless and versatile Southern side, macaroni and cheese. It was passed down to me from my paternal grandmother who made mac-and-cheese frequently and often serve it with fried fish, ham or pork roast. When I taste it today, it’s a tether to memory: I can’t help but think of large family gatherings and plates overloaded with food. My favorite item among the crowd of casseroles and platters on the kitchen counter was always the mac-and-cheese.
It’s a perfect storm for fun this weekend as Baton Rougeans, starved for spring and warm weather, will come out in droves for the 30th annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade. That means lots of green beer, backyard crawfish, spent beads, irreverent t-shirts and behavior that gets worse the closer it gets to the end of the route near the Perkins Road Overpass. Some of us claim Irish ethnicity; most of us don’t. No matter, this particular day is one for hitting the pause button on regular life, shutting down streets and relishing the spectacle that is South Louisiana.
And speaking of spectacle, gaudy green foods are required eating. It’s something I’ve mastered by living on or near the parade route for the last 15 years. One of my favorite things to break out is a bottle of Crème de Menthe.
This is one of those years in South Louisiana when Cupid haters get some relief since February 14 falls squarely on the final Saturday of Carnival season. No need to sweat the red roses when you can crisscross the state for bawdy floats and bead collecting. But, if a side of you loves a good schmaltzy Valentine’s dinner at home staring doe-eyed across the table at your sweetheart, I have the perfect dessert for you. It’s gorgeous, simple, comes in red and white and, yes, uses local Louisiana strawberries. Plump, juicy berries are now available from regional growers, but if you source them from the farmers market, don’t drag your feet. This past Saturday, vendors at the Red Stick Farmers Market sold out of strawberries before closing time.
The Valentine’s Day dessert I’m recommending is a pretty throwback – Pavlova. It’s a meringue-based dessert named for Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova and created in either New Zealand or Australia (still debated between the two). The meringue, we’re led to believe, is a nod to a fluffy white tutu. But more important than this dish’s whimsical elegance is that it tastes great and is easy to pull off.
There are numerous recipes for Pavlova, but this one is reliable. And, it doesn’t insist you draw a circle on a piece of parchment paper to use as a guide as you pour the meringue onto a baking sheet. You are perfectly capable of making the shape of a circle on your own, and, anyway, perfection is overrated.
Not only did the strawberries in my Pavlova come from a Louisiana farmer, but the eggs did as well. You only need the whites. Hang onto the yolks for aioli or to enrich quiche or scrambled eggs.
1 teaspoon cornstarch
4 egg whites
1 cup, plus 2 tablespoons, sugar
1 teaspoon white vinegar (or lemon juice)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ½ cups whipping cream
1 teaspoon almond extract
Fresh fruit for garnish
Heat oven to 275 F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper, spray it lightly with cooking spray and dust with cornstarch. Beat egg whites in a clean, dry bowl at high speed with an electric mixer until foamy. Add 1 cup sugar gradually, about ¼ cup at a time, until the whites form stiff peaks and begin to look glossy. This takes about 3 minutes. Add vinegar and vanilla extract. Spread mixture onto parchment paper in the shape of a 9-inch diameter circle. As you form spread the meringue, press down slightly in the center, allowing the outer rim to be slightly higher (like you would pizza dough).
Bake for 45 minutes. Carefully remove from baking sheet and cool completely on a rack. Some cracking is normal. When it’s cool, you should be able to slide the meringue off the paper and onto a serving plate.
Beat whipping cream at medium speed until soft peaks begin to form. Add 2 tablespoons sugar and almond extract. Spread over the top of the meringue, leaving the rim. Garnish with fresh fruit. Cut into slices to serve.