Friday, September 20, 2013

Apéritif Friday - Paying Homage to the Mothers

Like most, I grew up eating my mother's food. Which means by default, I ate elements of my grandmother's food. Today's post has elements of both, and also pays homage to my mother-in-law.

My husband grew up in a home with a rotation of about eight meals, give or take, including takeout from a local Chinese restaurant and pizza delivery. However, there is one thing that his mother truly mastered, and I'm happy to report that it's officially been passed down two generations, because my kids gobble it up.

Tomato Bread. 

The ingredients are simple, the assembly is a cinch, and I've learned the hard way that it's nearly impossible to improve upon the basic recipe. We usually eat this as an appetizer, but we've all commented at one point or another that it could easily be a meal on it's own. It's that good, and addictive.

Gather the following:

  • English Muffins. Bay's Sourdough are the best, but here I used the organic Whole Foods version which were equally good.
  • Fresh Tomatoes - in this case, I used Heirlooms which jacked up the end result considerably.
  • Butter - the real stuff. Don't use margarine or omit it. The butter is key.
  • Garlic Powder - if you're my sister-in-law, you'll rub each English Muffin with cut fresh garlic. If you're me, you'll sprinkle on the granulated stuff and call it a day. If you're my mother-in-law, I'm not sure garlic in any form makes it onto the bread.
  • Grated Mozzarella Cheese out of a Bag - do not use the fresh, wet stuff. It is too gooey, doesn't melt properly, doesn't brown properly, yadayadayada. I was out of it, so substituted Gouda with Truffles, which I'll comment on later.
  • Dried Italian Seasoning - don't use fresh herbs - they don't coat every bite properly, and they don't taste right in this case. They burn. If you have it, use a pre-blended shaker or grinder of Italian herbs; if not, use a combo of basil, oregano, thyme and rosemary. Equal parts are fine, and grind them around in your fingertips or the palm of your hand before applying to the dish.
Pop the muffins in the toaster until crisp and slightly browned, but not overdone. There should still be a slight amount of "give" in the center, but the outside should have a crunchy texture. Liberally butter each muffin.
I melted 1/2 stick of butter and brushed it on, then brushed it on again after it soaked down, then brushed it again. The point is, you want a solid amount of butter on each muffin. Sprinkle the garlic powder over the butter. Top each with a slice of tomato about 1/4 inch thick. Layer a few tablespoons of cheese over each tomato.
For an insanely decadent variation, I used gouda cheese laced with truffle. If you stray from the mozzarella out of the bag, this is the way to go. It put these suckers waaaaayyy over the top. Sprinkle with a liberal amount of Italian Seasoning,
then pop them in the oven under the broiler until the cheese is melted, gooey and just starting to brown. DO NOT MULTITASK AND OVERCOOK! I've done this about 75 times and it makes me want to cry and swear and stamp my feet every time.
Then - the hardest part - let them rest. I've also burnt the roof of my mouth scads of times and it definitely puts a buzz-kill on the enjoyment of this yummy treat. It's slightly reminiscent of pizza, tastes fresh like summer, but has a richness of doing something naughty thanks to the butter and gouda. My kids, neither of whom eat tomatoes, gobble this stuff up. We literally eat this weekly during the summer months.

Sheesh - I almost forgot! The apéritif for the evening? A cucumber cocktail, aka pure yumminess. My sister-in-law mentioned this to me when she and Pat were at the cabin this summer, so I was on the lookout for it but couldn't find it up North until I noticed it at a restaurant. And promptly ordered an Effen Cucumber Martini.
The stuff roped me in from a country mile. I'm addicted. While I love the Thatcher's Organic Cucumber Liqueur, this stuff is less sweet and has a hint of vanilla that keeps you considering the taste as you sip it down. I added fresh cucumbers to my new insulated Bears cup (come on - football season is upon us, whether you like it or not) and added some fresh mint as a garnish. A couple of glugs of vodka, topped with sudsy club soda, nestled on the patio couch with some tomato bread to nibble? Mmmmmmmmm. Heaven! Especially with a little throwback Seinfeld on TV and the Nordstrom fall catalog to drool over.

Now - onto the main course of the night. When I'm uninspired with chicken, the fresh fish is too expensive and we had steaks in the past week, there's nothing better than thick-cut pork chops. Growing up we had pork chops at least once per week. And I hated them. They were always dry, hard to cut, and had little taste.

Sorry, Mom. You rocked out many things in your kitchen, but I didn't get over my aversion to pork chops until about ten years ago. Mainly, thanks to Mr. Musky's devotion to grilling perfection. He created a marinade with equal parts of soy sauce and worcestershire, added a dash of tarragon vinegar, then injected the chops with the marinade to lace them with flavor throughout.
I just think he likes to play doctor. 
He enjoys the injecting way too much. Oh - the pressing on top of the injection site? Prevents marinade explosions on shirts that I have to wash the next day. So the pressing is key if you're the laundress.
 He poured the remainder of the marinade on the chops, swirled them around and flipped them over,
then seasoned both sides liberally with a rub. Any old pork rub will do, but on this night he used a maple rub that was out of this world. 

Flavor city, man.
He let the chops sit and snuggle and express good tidings of joy while he prepared the grill. Indirect heat with hardwood charcoal.
He seared the chops first over the coals for a few minutes on each side, then moved them to the center of the grate to finish off indirectly.
Thanks to a grilling guy he follows, he now uses a thermometer every. single. time he cooks meat. After searing each side, he continued to cook them on the indirect heat until they reached an internal temperature of 145 degrees. Then he pulled them off to rest (the temperature continues to rise to about 150), while mama finished up a special treat in the kitchen.
When I was a kid, we had a giant garden with a bunch of other families out in a field somewhere off Ridgewood Road east of Milan. I had a love/hate thing with that garden. When we went there to work in the evenings, it was SOOOOOO boring unless other kids were there. When we planted it in the Spring, I wanted to stab my eyes out with boredom. I just didn't get it. Why couldn't we buy our groceries at Eagle's like other normal families? retrospect, the love side of the affair won out. Because of that garden, I appreciate the bite and flavor of freshly shelled peas. I know how curiously fun it is to hunt for morel mushrooms in the woods in the spring, and the thrill of finding the mother load before a big brother who knows-it-all, then fighting for the last fried 'shroom as they come out of the cast iron skillet. And thanks to that blasted garden, I yearn for something that's graced our family table for years.

Fried Okra. 

I remember my mom being amazed when she made this dish, because there was never enough. My brother and I would FIGHT over it. We "ate it like candy," according to my mother. And apparently, my brother still pines for the stuff as well. Last New Year's Eve, he emailed me this photo:
To which I replied, "Is that lovely okra on ravioli? Love the redneck-Italian fusion!"

While writing this recap, I had to call my mom and ask her how she makes hers. Because I know mine was nothing like it. My family liked how I made it; in fact, Kahley said she preferred mine over Grandma's (sorry, Mom). But Mom's is my favorite - with very light breading, leaving some pieces slightly charred. Mine definitely had a thicker coating and more crunch to the outside. Maybe I'll make it her way next week.
Here's how I did mine:

1.5 cups flour
.5 cup corn meal
To your liking: Onion Powder, Garlic Powder, Cayenne Pepper, Salt, Black Pepper

Mix ingredients together.

2 Egg whites, whisked with 2 Tablespoons of water

Cut the okra tips off, then slice the okra into small, bite-sized pieces. Oh - and this is key - make sure your okra is fresh, it's locally grown, and it is small in size. As in, about the size of your pinkie or thumb, assuming your hands aren't freakishly large. It is tempting to buy larger okra, or if you're growing it, to let it get bigger before harvesting it, but I know from experience that large okra is tough and tastes horrible. The smaller pieces are tender and tasty. If the pieces are bigger than your fingers, then make green beans instead.
Another tip I learned is to ensure you slice it quickly and cleanly. Refrain from sawing the okra, or it's gooey stickeyness will erupt. Concentrate on one swift chop with the knife as you slice it down into smaller pieces. 

Once it's all chopped, toss it into the egg white batter,
then with a slotted spoon, drain off the excess egg and toss it into the flour-cornmeal mixture. Coat each piece, then take a deep breath.
Just trust me on this.
Heat up some leftover bacon grease. This pays homage to Grandma Owen, my Mom's mother. She always had a coffee can of animal fat near the stove. It was a catch-all for the drippins, and while visually and mentally disgusting, she made the best tasting potatoes. Ever. Nobody can replicate them, because nobody keeps a vat of congealed fat in a tin can within arms reach. Nor should they. But occasionally, we must embrace the cooking techniques of our ancestors and reuse that grease.

What I had in my small saucer wasn't nearly enough, so I added some Vegetable Oil to the cast iron pan. From a fresh, unsoiled bottle. 

Some recipes call for deep frying the coated okra, but I find that just sauteeing it in a heavy pan works fine, makes less of a mess, is easier to clean up, and probably doesn't absorb as much oil. This okra had a super crunchy exterior thanks to the egg white / flour mixture, but was tender and bright green inside. Mom omits the egg white step, resulting in more char on the okra and far less coating. Regardless of the coating, it's important to season the okra with salt and pepper as soon as you take it out of the pan. I like to drain it on paper towels before serving it.

My plate screamed for something fresh and acidic next to the pork and okra, so I sliced up another heirloom and it was the perfect accompaniment. 
The pork? Succulent. Juicy. Bursting with flavor in every bite. Worthy of a weekly rotation, or bi-weekly, in our case. The okra delivered on crunchy texture, the pods exploding in our mouths, curiously pulling us in for second helpings. And the tomatoes provided a necessary hint of cool summer freshness that I'll be yearning for in another month when they are no longer available. 

I hope you are all enjoying the early days of fall and are able to grill out with family and friends. I'd have to rank outdoor cooking as one of my favorite ways to spend a Friday night.


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