Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Bahamian Sweet Potato Pie – a great stand-in for Pumpkin Pie for the holidays

One year when we lived in the islands I couldn’t find canned pumpkin for pumpkin pie at the grocery store, so I substituted freshly cooked and mashed sweet potatoes for the pumpkin and it quickly became our favorite “pumpkin” pie. It can fool most tasters and when people compliment you on your pumpkin pie, just smile and say thanks. I’ve read this year that canned pumpkin is in short supply, so it is an excellent time to give this Bahamian Sweet Potato Pie a try. Feel free to use cooked or canned pumpkin in you like. In case you’re wondering, the Bahamians do not, of course, celebrate our American Thanksgiving, but they were always pleased to be invited to our home to share our Thanksgiving feast.

I adapted this recipe from a wonderful island cookbook, Gourmet Bahamian Cooking by Marie Mendelson and Marguerite Sawyer from Green Turtle Cay in Abaco, The Bahamas. Their recipe was Molasses Pumpkin Pie. They called for one-half cup of light molasses, but I used half molasses and half maple syrup. My liquor of choice is Myers Dark Rum, but a good Bourbon works well also.

I’m sure you’ve seen the fall piecrust cutters on the cover of the Thanksgiving edition of the Williams-Sonoma catalog or in their stores. There are four patterns: bay leaf, maple, acorn and oak leaves. I’m not a great baker and especially not the best pie decorator, but thanks to these cutters my pie looked very pretty. I was even able to hide the inevitable crack that always seems to occur somewhere. At Williams-Sonoma's website there’s even a video showing you how to use them. You can make them in advance, freeze them on a sheet pan covered with parchment paper, and remove from the freezer in time for them to thaw before you need them. I’m also told they are attractive on a wheel of brie, for instance, all during the year, so they aren’t just for the holiday season. You could also use them to decorate a Beef Wellington. They would also make a nice gift because it's not often you can find such a fun "foodie" present for under twenty dollars.

We’ve been traveling the last couple of weeks and just returned home after putting 2000 miles on the car along with helping my husband’s father celebrate his 97th birthday. My pie baking has been more last minute this year than I had wished and this was posted much later than I had originally planned. I hope that each of you have a wonderful holiday season and a happy Thanksgiving.

Bahamian Rummy Sweet Potato Pie
Adapted from Gourmet Bahamian Cooking by Mendelson & Sawyer

1 9” unbaked pie shell for pie itself
Separate 9” unbaked pie shell for fall pie crust decorations, optional but nice
3 eggs, slightly beaten
1 ½ cups freshly cooked and mashed sweet potato
1/3 cup sugar
1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup molasses
¼ cup maple syrup
1 can (12 ounce) evaporated skimmed milk
¼ cup dark rum or bourbon
1 beaten egg with 2 tsp. water for egg wash for the pastry leaves if using

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. (If you plan to make the decorative leaves, roll out the second crust and cut the leaves according to the package decorations and place them on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper and set aside in the refrigerator.)

Fit the unbaked pie shell in a pie pan. In a large bowl, beat the eggs slightly. Add sweet potatoes, sugar, and seasonings; blend well. Slowly add the molasses, maple syrup and evaporated skimmed milk, stirring until well mixed. Add liquor. Pour into the pie shell.

Baked in a preheated 425 degree F oven for 15 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees F. (If using the decorative leaves around the edges, remove the pie from the oven and decorate the edges. Brush the leaves with an egg wash (1 beaten egg mixed with 2 teaspoons water) Bake the pie for 40 minutes longer or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack. Yield: 6 to 8 servings.

If you want to decorate the top of the pie with the leaves, brush remaining leaves with egg wash and bake on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper in a 375 degree F oven for 10 to 15 minutes, taking care not to burn them. When pastry is cooled, decorate the top of the pie with the leaves.

As a post script I wanted to share with you that there must be something in our house that doesn't like Thanksgiving. Last year the septic system backed up and we had to call one of our guests and ask if we could bring everything to her house to cook and also would she mind we dined there also. An embarrassing moment, but thankfully our friend said yes and even invited us to spend the night. This year the dishwasher is on the fritz. C'est la vie. I hope each of you have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Caffé Rel – the best bistro in Franklin, North Carolina

You’ve heard the old adage “you can’t judge a book by its cover”. Well you can’t judge a restaurant by the building it’s in either. Caffé Rel is a perfect example. Located in downtown Franklin in the Hot Spot, a busy gas station on East Main Street, you’ll find Caffé Rel, one of the finest bistros in the mountains of western North Carolina. Don’t let the gas station location fool you because Chef and owner Richard E. Long (hence the name Rel) apprenticed at the highly selective Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia and went on to enjoy a prestigious career running elite restaurants in Pennsylvania. He serves a variety of upscale dishes with complex sauces that you would normally expect to find only in a fancy, pretentious restaurant. Chef Long says at heart he’s a saucier and can make a sauce out of anything. Just have one taste of the Louisiana crawfish tails in a leek cream sauce fired with a fine French cognac and you’ll realize he knows his sauces.

Not only does Chef Long turn out upscale food, he is also an expert at running what’s called in the restaurant business “the front of the house.” He personally handpicks and trains his peppy waitstaff who are dressed in typical French bistro outfits – a white shirt with tie and black trousers. More often than not when you arrive, you’ll be personally greeted by Chef Long himself wearing his dark beret and clogs. He modeled his restaurant’s ambience and décor after one of his favorite cafes in Paris. As you enter a black chalk board announces the daily specials and beyond, under glass, you can see the array of European style desserts, including beautiful tortes and cakes.

After we were seated at a cozy high top and ordered a glass of wine, our attention turned to the menu. My husband asked me, “What are you going to have today?”

“Oh, I haven’t decided,” I said. “Last time I had the Brandied Chicken Livers as an appetizer and they were great. I love their Charleston Shrimp and Grits, but the Bourbon Breast of Chicken Old Tennessee looks interesting with a mushroom bourbon sauce. Or the Lavender Shrimp sautéed with shallots, leeks and deglazed with white wine and served with a country cream sauce sounds good too. But it’s raining today; maybe I’ll have the French Pot Roast. Have you decided?”

“You know I love lamb, so I’m thinking of the Lamb Lollies with the shallot Madera sauce for an appetizer, but their homemade bisque sounds good too,” Meakin said.

About this time the waitress came to take our order. “I can’t decide,” I told her.

“I just tell people to close their eyes and point,” she said. “You can’t go wrong.”

For an appetizer my husband chose the homemade Blue Crab Bisque, a house favorite with shallots, garlic, leeks, thyme, butter and cream, and finished with freshly shredded Parmesan. It was served with slices of a warm baguette and a stewed tomato and olive oil bruschetta for dipping that we shared.

For his entry he ordered one of the daily specials, or as the French would say, the plat de jour, - Pan Seared Scallops with baby bok choy served on a bed of coconut rice with a curry sauce.

I finally settled on French Pot Roast covered with a rich brown wine sauce with piped parsley potatoes served with lightly stir-fried, crisp seasonal vegetables on the side.

Notice the detail with the garnish of match stick carrots and the beautiful orchid that comes with every entrée.

If you want something lighter, they offer a long list of salads, including an Asian Chicken Salad, a house specialty with a homemade sesame dressing. At lunch they also serve a variety of classic sandwiches, all accompanied with homemade potato chips (their version of flat fries).

As we sat and enjoyed our lunch with light jazz playing in the background, we reminisced about our favorite bistros in Provence and lingered over an espresso. When it was time to go we inquired about the location of the restrooms. I was feeling very French and in my head I was saying, “Ou sont les toilettes?” when I heard the reply. “Oh, they’re in the Hot Spot next door.” D’accord, no problem.

As we walked through the curtain covered glass door from the restaurant into the gas station, we felt as if we had entered a whole other world. We looked head-on at the ice machine and the stark black walls in the convenience store complete with bright red stripe trim and neon lights. Dolly Parton was warbling “Jolene, Jolene, I’m begging of you, please don’t take my man” on the loud speakers. Couples seated in plastic booths overlooking the gas pumps were eating hotdogs purchased from the vending machine while other people were standing in line at the check out counter to pay for chips and soft drinks. Just when we thought we were in France, voila, in a split second we were back in small town American in a typical loud and busy convenience store.

It’s time to go home, but we’ll be back. Luckily for us, we only live an hour away. We always schedule our semi-annual visits to the Periodontist in Franklin around lunch at Caffé Rel. Located at 457 East Main Street, Franklin, North Carolina, 28734. (828) 369-9446, they’re open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and take no credit cards or reservations. But don’t worry, the 16 tables turn quickly and if you do have to wait for a minute or two, it’s well worth it. Where else can you eat a fine meal and fill your car with the best priced gas in town all in one stop?

A bientot Chef Long and Caffé Rel; see you again soon.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

My first cooking success – Chicken Rosemary

When I met my husband Meakin I couldn’t cook. Oh, that’s not quite true. I could hard boil an egg (put egg in cold water, bring to a boil, cover, remove from heat, drain twelve minutes later, rinse in cold water and peel) and I could make a good crusty cheese toast in toaster oven (lightly toast bread, cover with good sharp Cheddar, broil until bubbly), but I couldn’t make the gourmet meals he was accustomed to. Meakin told me, “You can obviously read because you’ve worked on your masters, so buy a cookbook, pick a recipe and give it a try. If it doesn’t work, I’ll take you out to eat.” It sounded like a good deal to me, so I found a recipe for Chicken Rosemary. Not counting the salt and pepper, it contained five ingredients and I recognized each one.

We’ve been married forty years this November and I’ve only had to take him up on the offer to eat out a couple of times because of a recipe disaster. An awful version of Millionaire Chicken comes to mind, but now that I look back at the recipe, I don’t know what I could have done with it to make it taste that awful, but it did.

Here’s an updated version of my first culinary success – Chicken Rosemary. Instead of using a whole, cut up chicken, I’ve used boneless, skinless chicken breasts. We grow rosemary in our herb garden, so there’s no need to buy the dried kind. I’ve also added sautéed mushrooms to jazz it up a bit. As a side dish, toss some asparagus and grape tomatoes with little bit of extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper and roast in a 400 degree oven about 8 minutes, or until the tomatoes just start to burst.

Chicken Rosemary

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed of all visible fat
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 ounces thickly sliced white button mushrooms
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary or 1 teaspoon dried
1/3 cup dry Marsala wine

Season chicken breasts with salt and pepper and set aside. In a non-stick skillet add two tablespoons of olive oil and sauté the mushrooms over medium high heat until they are brown and have given up their liquid. Season to taste with salt and pepper and set aside.

To the same skillet add the remaining two tablespoons of olive oil and sauté the chicken over medium-high heat until nicely browned on both sides. Sprinkle the chicken with the chopped rosemary and slowly add the Marsala. Cover and simmer over low heat for about 20 minutes, or until the chicken is tender and reaches 160 degrees on a meat thermometer. If necessary, add more Marsala to prevent burning. Serve very hot. Also good served over rice.

Yield: 2 servings