‘Puh-men-uh’ Cheese, Please

It’s late at night and you’re snuggled up in bed with a good book, hoping to fall asleep after a few more pages, when the character goes into a restaurant and orders something delicious, or worse, goes to her kitchen and bakes. So then you’re laying there in bed, all comfy and cozy but thinking, mmm, cookies sound good. You try to keep reading, but before you know it you’re out of bed, ransacking the kitchen and WHO ATE ALL THE OREOS, DAMN IT?

Snack danger lurks in all types of fiction, but the cruelest genre by far is the culinary cozy, a sub-sub-genre of mystery fiction in which the amateur sleuth may be a caterer, a coffee shop owner, or owner of a bakery. Authors of culinary cozies don’t just tempt you with descriptions of delicious foods; they often include recipes. Not only do you have to get out of bed—they expect you to cook!

Pimento cheese is easy to throw together in the food processor. Did I forget the celery sticks? How did that happen?

The most recent book that set me off chasing a craving was Fatal Reservations by Lucy Burdette. The main character, food critic Hayley Snow, orders pimento cheese as an appetizer in a Key West restaurant. Being from the South (located somehow thousands of miles north of Key West), I do know a little something about pimento cheese. As a  child I consumed gobs of the gelatinous orange store-bought concoction known as puh-men-uh-cheese, on Wonder Bread or similar. It seemed a fine thing at the time, but then I grew up, married a New Yorker who wouldn’t understand, and forgot all about puh-men-uh-cheese.

That is, until friend’s party a couple of years ago, where she served up a big bowl of what she referred to as pimento cheese. This was not the pimento cheese of my childhood. This was freshly shredded cheddar and jack cheeses, the tart bite of chopped pickles, held together with good mayonnaise, not that sweet salad dressing stuff. Served with celery sticks and/or crackers, it’s an easy appetizer to throw together in your food processor to serve at a party (or when your latest read demands a salty, cheesy snack). You can find that recipe, from NPR, here.

Lucy Burdette, aka bestselling mystery author Roberta Isleib, shared “Lucy Burdette’s Pimento Cheese Two Ways” on mysteryloverskitchen.com. She graciously answers a lot of questions here.

Advertisements

Q&A with Author Lucy Burdette/Roberta Isleib

LucyBurdette

Lucy Burdette, aka Roberta Isleib, is the author of the bestselling Key West Food Critic mystery series. The latest in the series, Killer Takeout, is due out in April. Catch her weekly blogs with other food-loving mystery writers at MysteryLoversKitchen.com and another group of crime fiction writers at JungleRedWriters.com.

What/who inspired you to write your first mystery?

I call this my mid-life crisis! I was playing lots of bad golf and trying to figure out how to “use” the wasted hours. Somehow that worked out to be writing a mystery about a neurotic golfer. It helped that I’d always read and loved mysteries, and that I love watching characters grow and change (like the psychologist I am.)

What did you find to be the most challenging part of getting your first book published?

I truly had no idea what I was doing when I began to write. I did have some strengths: I’d always read mysteries and I was a clinical psychologist—very handy when it comes to creating characters. But I don’t think I realized how difficult the getting-published path would be. Luckily, I enjoy research—and so I read books about writing and publishing, and took whatever classes I could find, and joined a writers’ group, and gradually began to make some connections in my field. Doggedness counts, so does a willingness to take constructive feedback. You didn’t ask for advice, but I’ll offer some, just in case. These are all things I learned through trial and error:

  • Read a lot, making sure you include books in the genre in which you’re writing. Fans of each genre have expectations and are disappointed if you don’t meet them. For amateur sleuth mysteries like the ones I write, some of the necessary conventions include playing fair with clues, avoiding the trap of the female in jeopardy, not withholding necessary information from the reader, and not allowing a gimmick (in this case, food) to take the place of a good story.
  • Writing and publishing are both difficult, not for the faint-hearted. You’ll need friends who don’t roll their eyes when you talk about your characters as if they were your kids. And friends who can buck you up when you get a rough critique or bad news. And friends who might cook for you or lend you a quiet room when you’re on a crushing deadline. And friends to be happy for your success and come to your book signing.
  • And finally, never rush to send your work out. With agents and editors and contests only a mouse click away, it’s easy to hit send before the work is the best it can be. Rewriting is a writer’s best friend–whether you are a newbie or an old hand. Put the precious words in a drawer, cyber or real, and let them simmer. Get feedback from trusted sources, rewrite again.

What/who inspired you to write about a food critic?

The short answer is that my editor at NAL was looking for a proposal about a series starring a food critic. When I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey and Detroit in the fifties and sixties, haute cuisine consisted of adding a can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup to the dish in question. Oh, we had ethnic dining options too: Heat up a can of slimy lo mein noodles and flaccid vegetables and sprinkle with crunchy faux-noodle topping.

Killer Takeout-1With that background, you might wonder about my qualifications to write about a food critic character. Basically, I love to eat. And I love to eat good food–not fussy, just delicious. My husband teases that “Isleib” (my family name) means “is stomach” in German. His other fictionalized translation for my name is “large lunch followed by a restful nap.”

We love flawed main characters. Your food critic, Hayley Snow, is romantically challenged. She’s got some self-sabotoging habits and has some family issues. Do you find inspiration in your background as a psychologist for creating your characters?

From the very beginning, I wanted to use my training in clinical psychology by including reasonable psychologists in my novels. The challenge was to dream up characters who could use the principles of psychology to help solve mysteries without imploding with self-importance, stumbling over personal issues, or crossing ethical boundaries. I wanted to do it right. But I also wanted to encourage my characters to get into therapy!

Hayley Snow, the star of the food critic mysteries, struggles against psychoanalyzing her life, just as Cassie, my neurotic golfer, did. But both her psychologist friend Eric and her tarot-card-reading friend Lorenzo help her puzzle out people’s motivations, including her own. Thinking about the life arcs of my characters is the most fun part of the book for me.

How do you choose the quotes at the beginning of your chapters?

Thanks for asking—I really enjoy including these! In the beginning, I searched the Internet for quotes about food and begged friends to tell me their favorites. Now the more I read foodie memoirs and novels, the easier it is to find them. I keep a running list of great quotes as I come across them—as a result they’ve gotten more unusual and less familiar. Sometimes I fit them into the chapters as I go along, but always I choose a quote for each chapter before I sent the draft to my editor.

How do you choose the recipes that you include in the books?

Both Hayley and her mother are amazing cooks. So many of the recipes come from imagining what they’d whip up at home. Others are based on delicious food we’ve had in Key West restaurants. I blog every Thursday with a new recipe at Mystery Lovers Kitchen, so I always have options!

When you’re eating out in Key West, who gets to pick where and what you eat — you or Hayley? (That’s an interesting situation: you, Roberta, as Lucy, eating for Hayley. You’re eating for three!)

That makes my head spin! We have to try new places because Hayley can’t always write about the same restaurants. But of course, once we find something consistently, we go back over and over. (My mouth is watering as I think about the yellow snapper in Thai curry sauce at Seven Fish restaurant.)

In the An Appetite for Murder, Hayley writes a column about Key Lime pie. Where is the best Key Lime pie?

Hayley Snow would say the best pie comes out of the home kitchen. But it won’t hurt a visitor to do some research herself!

Root Beer Pulled Pork the Hard Way

Resized_20190220_192701

Slow Cooker Root Beer Pulled Pork and sweet potato fries cooked in the air fryer because I like to use as many gadgets as possible. I didn’t have whole-grain buns this time, but I partially redeemed myself with broccoli slaw.

If you cook at home and are inclined to things like pulled pork, you’ve probably heard of root beer pulled pork. Easiest thing in the world: Throw a bottle of root beer in the slow cooker, plop a pork roast in, cook. So I don’t mean to be misleading with that headline. Slow cooker pulled pork is not difficult.

However, it’s not without its issues. For one thing, root beer. Option one is to buy a six-pack of pricey craft-brewed root beer, then figure out what to do with the other five since we don’t normally drink soda, and never with sugar. Hey, we may eat pork and throw chemicals on it, but we have some rules to live by.

The other option is to buy a 2,000-pack of diet root beer, and then we end up drinking diet root beer until it’s gone, which is even worse than drinking five fancy root beers.

I found my solution when I went to a party where a friend was drinking hard root beer. You see where I’m going with this. Huge epiphany. Root beer, pork, alcohol — there’s no going wrong here, and leftover hard root beer is not a problem because alcohol.

Actually there is one way to go wrong here. The first time I tried this, I used a pork loin roast. This is a lean cut and, of course, healthier. It made pulled pork with a nice root beer flavor, but it was not as tender as it could have been. Use a pork butt or pork shoulder roast instead.

Serve with whole wheat hamburger buns and sweet potato fries to try to maintain some nutritional dignity.

Slow Cooker Root Beer Pulled Pork

1 2-pound pork butt or pork shoulder roast
1 bottle hard root beer
Sea salt and and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Barbecue sauce
Hamburger buns
Shredded cabbage if desired

Place roast in slow cooker. Pour root beer over roast. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours or high for 4 hours.

Drain liquid from pan. Pull meat apart with two forks until all shredded. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and stir.

Serve on hamburger buns, topped with barbecue sauce and, if desired, shredded cabbage.

Chicken Parmesan with Crunch and a Little Kick

This post originally appeared on Jan. 14, 2013 in Not Another Food Blog.

First of all, ignore the heart-shaped ravioli, unless it’s Valentine’s Day again and it’s time for heart-shaped ravioli. If that’s the case, I made the ravioli below with this recipe using a small heart-shaped cookie cutter.

Chicken parmesan with heart-shaped ravioli, because it was Valentine's Day. Normally, I'd probably serve the chicken with store-bought whole wheat penne.

Today I want to talk about chicken parmesan. (That’s the little cheese-covered thing below the ravioli. Trust me, there’s crunchy breaded chicken under there.)

Over the years I’ve seen a lot of chicken parm that is breaded, fried, and then covered with sauce and cheese and baked. I always wondered why you would want to bother with breading and frying something if you’re just going to make it all soggy by covering it with liquid and baking it. I like to make it my mom’s way, which had a nice contrast in textures between the crispy breading, melted cheese, and marinara sauce. I’ve healthied my version up a little, using oven-fried chicken with a whole-wheat panko coating. Mom didn’t have panko back in the day.

I also like to put in a little surprise secret ingredient: I stick a little sliver of pepper jack cheese under the mozzarella. Not so much that you’re going, “Hey, a burrito!” Just enough to add a little kick.

I start with oven-fried chicken adapted from the Oven Fried Chicken with Almonds recipe in the South Beach Diet Cookbook. I use whole wheat panko crumbs instead of breadcrumbs and change the herbs according to whim. Also, the original recipe calls for pounding chicken breasts, but I’ve found that it’s quicker and easier to buy thin-sliced chicken breasts. You don’t have to go through the mess of pounding (though my son really liked that part) and the chicken seems to turn out more tender.

Chicken Parmesan

1 cup whole wheat panko crumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup raw almonds
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
Pinch of ground black pepper
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 1/4 pound thin-sliced chicken breasts*

Pepper jack cheese, sliced
Mozzarella cheese slices
Marinara sauce
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. In a food processor, process almonds until finely chopped. Add panko crumbs, grated Parmesan, garlic, salt, oregano, and pepper. Process until combined. Empty mixture into a medium bowl. Pour olive oil into a shallow bowl.
  3. Dip chicken breasts in olive oil, then dredge in the panko mixture and arrange on a baking sheet.
  4. Bake for 25 minutes, or until thermometer inserted into the center of a piece registers 170 degrees.
  5. Top each piece of chicken with a small slice of pepper jack cheese and top with sliced mozzarella. Allow cheese to melt, then top with marinara and serve.
* There will be enough breading for about two pounds of chicken, if you want to open another package. I just use what comes in a standard package, which is usually a little under a pound and a quarter.

I Am So Over Gardening

Here’s a photo from about a year ago showing my backyard vegetable garden:

garden.501

Here’s a photo of that garden now:

scarygarden3

The only things growing there now are one insane Italian parsley plant and a rogue tomato vine that is only thriving because I was was completely unaware of it until I went outside to dump something into the compost pile a couple of weeks ago. (There’s another trend I’m getting over; more on that later.)

I’ve lost count of how many times I have tried and failed to grow tomatoes. My mother, who effortlessly grew lush, eight-foot-tall tomato plants in boxes on her deck, tried to help me out by sending me the boxes she used, which were supposed to make the gardening process practically automatic. They were self-watering, and all I had to do was refill them occasionally and watch out for pests. Right. Fail, fail, fail.

I tried buying big, healthy plants. I tried starting my own seedlings. I tried inside, outside, upside down. There was apparently no way on earth a tomato would come to fruition in my care. Then, outside, in the middle of winter, there suddenly appears a healthy, fully grown tomato plant, as if to say, “Ha ha, Laurie, look at us! We are better off without you!” The plant is not staked, is surrounded by weeds, has not been watered or fertilized, and yet there it is, strong, healthy and rebelliously producing fruit. This is just the final proof that plants don’t like me.

My delusional adventures in gardening began about two years ago. I believe this can be partially attributed to identity crisis following my earlier-than-planned departure from the newspaper industry. This coincided with the major economic downturn that had many people looking toward getting back to basics, and so I jumped onto a national bandwagon of growing organic food at home, and planned to also hop on the home-canning trend, too. We would be stocked up with healthy, flavorful organic vegetables year-round!

Despite a lifelong history of having plants generally ignore my friend requests, I planted squash, cucumbers, corn, tomatoes and peppers, with marigolds in between that were supposed to repel insects. The squash, as you can see in the top photo above, sprouted up beautifully. Then, just as quickly, it developed an incurable disease and rotted. The cucumbers spread wildly but never grew much past cocktail gherkin size. Two rows of corn provided a nice snack for the squirrels, and you know how it went with the tomatoes. The only success I had was with peppers, but this brings me to a major problem I learned about gardening, which is, if you do grow anything, you end up with too much of that thing, so you end up eating salsa with everything for weeks and still have to go to the store to get onions and all the other things you don’t grow.

I know a lot of successful gardeners, and they’re probably shaking their heads right now, wondering what’s wrong with me. Maybe some will side with the plants and unfriend me. However, I don’t think I’m the only one that feels this way. Last spring I interviewed a local landscaper for a story on upcoming home and garden trends, and he told me that he was getting fewer requests to put in vegetable garden beds. In fact, the major upcoming trend seemed to lean toward paving over the backyard altogether and maybe putting in some artifical turf. (This is in Florida. If you’ve ever cared for a yard here in the summer, you will understand this.)

The other thing I may abandon is composting. I never did that right, anyway. You’re supposed to invest in, or build, a nice compost bin and use official composting techniques such as layering with leaves or newspapers and flipping it all around occasionally. I never did any of that. I just piled some bricks in a corner and dumped my kitchen scraps out there. Sometimes I put leaves on it. It worked fine for a while, though it pretty much disappeared under weeds before I actually got to apply it to the garden. Now I suspect that it’s behind our recent fruit fly invasion. It has also occurred to me that I am taking away valuable organic material from the landfill. Wouldn’t it help the landfill to put good things in it, too?

I’m still dumping things in the yard as I ponder this, and in my defense I will say that I do recycle everything. Oh, and I haven’t killed the herbs, so I plan to keep them going. The tomatoes and I will remain civil but will probably never really be friends.

Are you a great gardener? Or are you ready to give up?

How to Make Eggless Homemade Ravioli

Recently I’ve had a couple of people ask me how to make homemade ravioli. Okay, it wasn’t all that recently. It was before the holidays, when I typically make a lot of ravioli. However, during the holidays I generally don’t have time to do anything more than make the ravioli and post a show-offy picture on Facebook, then collapse from exhaustion. Now that I’ve recovered, I thought I’d share my totally non-expert thoughts on making ravioli.

Though I’ve been known to make occasional random batches of ravioli here and there year-round, we have a tradition of having it on Christmas Eve at our house as part of our Feast of the Two Fishes. (This is based on the Italian tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes, but as we are a small family and only two of us are part Italian, we’re down to two fishes. Actually, they are usually crustaceans and bivalves, if you want to be exact, but hey, at least we have a tradition.)

I’m not sure when this got started, but clearly it was sometime after I learned to make ravioli, and then found a really good butternut squash ravioli recipe, courtesy of Emeril Lagasse. I usually pair it with broiled shrimp and scallops with just a touch of Cajun seasoning on them.

As I said, I’m no expert in pasta making. From what I’ve been able to determine so far, my ancestors hailed from every western European country except Italy, so I’m not sure where I got my affinity for Italian food. If you want to learn about ravioli from an expert, check out this video from Laura Schenone, author of The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: A Search for Food and Family (Norton, 2008). I also highly recommend the book.

To paraphrase the book jacket, Schenone has clearly mastered “… the mysteries of pasta, rolled on a pin into a perfect circle of gossamer dough.” That’s not how I do it, and to be honest, I’ve never had anyone fall out of his chair raving about how gossamery my pasta is. However, they do gobble it up and ask for more, and my way is a bit faster and easier, so I’ll share it. Note: My son is allergic to eggs, so I use Mario Batali‘s recipe for Eggless Pasta.

Things You’ll Need

  • Food processor, pasta machine, ravioli mold, rolling pin, small cookie scoop
  • 1 recipe ravioli (see above link)
  • Filling (see above link and recipe below)

Before we get started, I’d just like to say a thing or two about ravioli molds. I have a ravioli mold that makes a dozen medium-sized ravioli at a time. It’s easier than cutting them out individually and pressing them together, but the drawback is that it sometimes allows for air pockets. These are considered uncool among the ravioli crowd, I believe because they can cause the ravioli to break open. A friend tried a ravioli stamp and wasn’t crazy about it. My dream tool would be a ravioli pin like the one Schenone uses in her video. But then we’re getting into rolling-out-circles-of-gossamer territory, so it may be a while.

Instructions

First, make your filling. If you make the full recipe for Batali’s pasta, you will have enough for a batch of butternut squash pasta and a batch of another. I make cheese (recipe below). You can also halve the recipe for lesser occasions.

Next, make the pasta. The traditional method calls for piling your flour in the center of a cutting board, making a well in the center and adding your water (or eggs, if using) a little at a time, stirring with your hands, and then kneading. My method calls for piling the flour in a large food processor and adding water a little at a time with the processor running on a low speed. As soon as it comes together, take it out and divide into two balls. Cover one and set aside. Knead the dough by running it through the pasta machine on the widest setting 8-10 times. Cover and set aside. Repeat with remaining pasta. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let it rest for 10 minutes at room temperature.ravioli2 (2)

To fill the pasta, roll it through the pasta machine at increasing settings until it is thin but not so much that it won’t hold filling. I usually stop at level 4 or 5. Lightly flour the pasta mold and lay the dough across it. Use the plastic thingy that comes with the mold to make indentions for your filling. Using a small (teaspoon-sized) cookie dough scoop, fill each section. Cover the ravioli with another section of dough. Seal the ravioli by rolling with a rolling pin, starting in the center of the mold and working outward. Flip the mold over and gently remove the ravioli. Place the ravioli in a large dish sprinkled with cornmeal (I also use wax paper between layers). Repeat with remaining dough and filling. Chill in refrigerator until ready to cook.

To cook, simply drop in boiling water until ravioli floats to the top. Many people recommend salting the water for various reasons. I’m going to leave that up to you.

Cheese Ravioli Filling

Makes enough filling for 1/2 of Mario Batali’s Eggless Pasta recipe.

8 ounces ricotta

4 ounces shredded mozzarella

1/4 cup grated parmesan

1/2 tablespoon chopped parsley

Pinch nutmeg

Mix ingredients in food processor or by hand.

Laurie’s Holiday Bourbon Balls

I think I have bourbon ball elbow. It’s a condition that mimics the symptoms of tennis elbow but is caused by standing over a double boiler for hours dipping balls of filling into melted chocolate. I may be getting too old for this holiday game.

You'll get approximately ten dozen bourbon balls from this recipe, plenty to allow you to pick out only the pretty ones to give as gifts.

You’ll get approximately ten dozen bourbon balls from this recipe, plenty to allow you to pick out only the pretty ones to give as gifts.

In the past, I took my role as a Christmas tradition-holder seriously, churning out dozens of baked treats from my great-grandmother’s recipes and introducing a few new recipes into the mix. In recent years, with the back-to-basics mentality brought on by the economy, it became trendy among my friends to make homemade gifts, so for me, baking was a perfect fit, and the bourbon ball list grew.

Now my friends and I are starting to figure out that you can make yourself crazy and take all the joy out of your own holidays by trying to make everything yourself. And you don’t save money – I just spent $35 on pecans, for example. Sure, homemade gifts are charming and meaningful, but if the end of it I’m exhausted and definitely not charming, it may be worth rethinking. This week I had my annual “Ack!” moment when I look at the Advent calendar and realize my son has not, in fact, been cheating and opening the doors ahead. So I’ll be standing in line at the UPS store once again and saying, “Yours will be late” a lot.

I’ve already threatened to send everybody a Yankee candle and be done with it next year, but I’m sure by then my holiday spirit will be recharged and I’ll start the madness all over again.

If you’re a crazy person holiday baker and are up for a new challenge festive treat recipe, here’s the recipe that gave me the bourbon ball elbow. These are pretty boozy, which makes dealing the filling a bit of a challenge because it has to stay very cold. You can make your life easier by reducing the bourbon or leaving it out altogether, but where’s the fun in that?

Laurie’s Bourbon Balls

Makes about 10-12 dozen, depending on size.

2 sticks unsalted butter, softened

32 ounces plus 2 cups confectioner’s sugar

1 can sweetened condensed milk

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons bourbon

3 cups chopped walnuts

1 cup flaked coconut

24 ounces chocolate chips*

1 bar paraffin

Cream butter in a large bowl. Add confectioner’s sugar, sweetened condensed milk, and bourbon, mix well. Stir in nuts and coconut. Cover and chill at least two hours or overnight.

Roll filling into teaspoon-sized balls and place on a parchment-covered cookie sheet. Insert toothpick into each. Place cookie sheet back into refrigerator to chill before dipping. Repeat with as many cookie sheets as you have room for in the refrigerator.

Melt paraffin and chocolate chips in a double boiler. Dip each ball into chocolate and place on wax paper or parchment to set. Repeat with rest of balls.**

After the balls are cooled and set, remove the toothpicks with a twisting motion. Drizzle chocolate over each to cover the toothpick hole.

Drizzle a little chocolate over the top to cover the toothpick holes.

Drizzle a little chocolate over the top to cover the toothpick holes.

* Depending on how small you make your balls of filling, you may need more chocolate. I often end up throwing in an extra cup of chocolate chips and about a tablespoon-sized chunk of paraffin.

** If the filling becomes soft while you’re dipping, return it to the refrigerator or freezer to chill completely before resuming. Otherwise, they will fall into the chocolate and melt. Disaster. Put the lid on the double boiler and turn the heat off, and go wrap presents for half an hour to an hour, then turn the heat back on the chocolate and resume dipping.

Do you have a favorite holiday recipe or homemade gift idea? Or have you abandoned this insanity altogether?