I have less than eight weeks remaining until the newest member of our family arrives. In the interest of full disclosure — since this is a food blog after all — I’ve had more food aversions than cravings this pregnancy. I’ve basically experienced seven months of general disinterest in food. A few weeks ago I even encouraged Jason to eat the bacon out of my salad. I willingly gave away bacon! I don’t get it either.
Here I am in our backyard at approximately 28 weeks — picture taken by my son, Walker. Bang trim, approximately 6 weeks overdue.
I have experienced a few cravings, although they certainly haven’t fallen into the kale or quinoa category: chocolate croissants from my favorite local bakery, donuts from wherever/whenever — just bring the pregnant lady some donuts, raw oysters (I have not partaken but am planning oysters and champagne as my first dinner on the town after baby arrives), bread and olive oil, and… the star of this post: lasagna Bolognese.
I was tempted to call this cheesecake “Ultimate Pumpkin Cheesecake” or something similarly over the top, but thought better of it. I’m skeptical of recipes with boastful titles. (Except when they’re my own, of course.)
My brothers and I like to tease our dad because whenever we compliment something he’s made – a cherry pie, for example – he’ll say, “You know how I found the recipe? I did a search for WORLD’S BEST CHERRY PIE.” A few weeks ago someone landed on my site after googling “best fish recipes in the world” and I seriously wondered if it was him. Growing up, Dad loved to contribute recipes to the church cookbook, but I think his enjoyment in developing the recipes was secondary to his love of naming them: “Pastor’s Precious Lasagna”… “Sumptuous Stir Fry”… and this gem:
I could argue this cheesecake deserves some kind over-the-top title. It is decadent. A spiced gingerbread crust serves as the base for a cream-cheese-pumpkin filling accented by cinnamon, cloves and ginger. Over the years, I’ve been disappointed in pumpkin cheesecakes that tasted more like pumpkin pie than cheesecake. This recipe has just the right pumpkin-to-cream-cheese ratio. The cheesecake is topped with tangy, vanilla sour cream and a salted caramel drizzle. It’s one of our holiday standards.
If you haven’t read Julia Child’s “My Life in Paris” perhaps you’re familiar with the scene in Julie & Julia in which she enjoys her first meal in France. Julia and her husband, Paul, are having lunch in Rouen, France, where he explains that “in France, good cooking [is] regarded as a combination of national sport and high art.” They order, among other delights, oysters on the half shell and — at the recommendation of the waiter — sole meunière, which renders Julia nearly speechless. In her autobiography, she writes:
“It arrived whole: a large, flat Dover sole that was perfectly browned in a sputtering butter sauce with a sprinkling of chopped parsley on top … I closed my eyes and inhaled the rising perfume. Then I lifted a forkful of fish to my mouth, took a bite, and chewed slowly. The flesh of the sole was delicate, with a light but distinct taste of the ocean that blended marvelously with the browned butter. I chewed slowly and swallowed. It was a morsel of perfection.”
She later declares it the most exciting meal of her life, a culinary revelation. Here’s a 40-second clip from Julie & Julia of the famous moment:
Over the summer I was leafing through a new cookbook and stumbled upon a recipe for fish, one that mentioned in the introduction that it was THE FISH — poisson meunière — that Julia enjoyed during that fateful lunch in her new country. Of course I felt compelled to make it immediately — that very evening — and I commented afterward that it rivaled any seafood I’d had in a restaurant, high-end or otherwise. I repeated that the second time I made it. And the third.
When I attended Samford University, the parking situation was a nightmare. There simply weren’t enough spaces to accommodate commuting students, who were forced to drive around endlessly searching for a spot. I lived on campus until graduation in part because I didn’t want to fool with it. My younger brother, Kent, began attending Samford the year after I graduated. He commuted his junior year and quickly grew frustrated with the parking hassle. Our father, meanwhile, occasionally taught classes as an adjunct professor and never had difficulty finding parking. Kent was mindful of that fact when he noticed a Samford faculty pass hanging from Dad’s rear-view mirror and decided, since Dad wasn’t teaching that semester, to steal the pass for his own use. From that point forward Kent had free reign to park his ‘93 Honda Civic in any of the coveted, steps-from-the-door, faculty parking spots. He thought he’d beaten the system until he realized there were parking rules — even for faculty — and he started racking up tickets.
Or rather, my dad started racking up tickets. Quite a few tickets.
In Kent’s defense (and he doesn’t have much of one), he did attempt to re-purpose the tickets. When he’d park in an off-limits space, he would retrieve his most recent ticket from the glove box and position it on the windshield to divert campus security. It didn’t always work. I remember Dad opening his check from Samford and raging about the parking tickets listed on his pay stub.
Tickets he never saw on his car!
Fines taken out of his paycheck!
My brother kept quiet, secretly pleased with their little arrangement. Ten years later, Kent now finds himself back at Samford as an adjunct faculty member. He called me last week, and with a chuckle, shared that he’s finally the rightful owner of a faculty parking pass.
Parking pass buddies: my dad, Dr. Larry Michael, and the soon-to-be Dr. Kent Michael. Not pictured, my youngest brother, the soon-to-be Dr. Graham Michael. Let the record show that only one of those three eggheads can beat me in Scrabble.
My food preferences have been unpredictable as of late.
Pretzel sticks and mustard for breakfast.
Boiled potatoes and ranch dressing for lunch.
Jalapeño bagels and jam for dinner.
I have a post in the works in which I share with you some of my food-swoon-worthy experiments over the summer (buttery soft pretzels and cherry hand pies were a hit) as well as some of my, uh, not-so-food-swoon-worthy creations (buffalo chicken soup minus the chicken, anyone?). Don’t worry, they’ll be no recipes for vegetarian buffalo chicken soup. The good news for all is that, at nearly four months pregnant, I’ve regained my appetite and most of my aversions have subsided.
More on that soon.
In the meantime, let’s discuss my latest curiosity: shrubs, which are fruit- and vinegar-based syrups. Shrubs are versatile; they can be used in cocktails, jams and salad dressings or — in this pregnant lady’s case — in a refreshing afternoon sipper. Originally created for medicinal purposes, shrubs have been around since the 15th century. Several centuries later, they were a popular way of preserving fruit until the introduction of modern conveniences such as refrigeration rendered them virtually unnecessary. Today, we have modern mixologists to largely thank for their resurgence.
My shrub education began a few weeks ago when I ordered a drink called a “strawberry shrub.” Our server described it as club soda with a splash of fruit-vinegar syrup. I was intrigued. The drink arrived in a wine glass and could have passed for sparkling rosé. Just before tasting, I caught a slight whiff of the vinegar. It subtly came through at the end of each sip, but I also tasted fruit. The fizzy, fruity strawberry shrub was oddly refreshing, and the memory of the drink lingered as it was like nothing I’d tasted before. A week later, local bartender Steva Casey, who runs The Veranda’s New-Orleans inspired bar, was profiled for Birmingham’s Restaurant Week and discussed her affinity for shrubs, praising them for the sweet-and-sour notes they lend cocktails and noting they are a way to “add a fruit essence [to a drink] without adding a fruit juice.”
All of the sudden shrubs were everywhere, and I had to make one at once.
I once overhead a food blogger from Louisiana interrupt another food blogger who was casually throwing around the word “Creole” to politely school her on the difference between Cajun and Creole cuisine. I wish I’d taken notes. I got schooled, too. (Yes, I was eavesdropping.) You can read more about Cajun vs. Creole here, which offers this summary, “The cultural difference between the two methods of cooking lies in the fact that Creoles had access to local markets and servants to cook their food, while Cajuns lived mostly off the land, were subject to the elements of the seasons, and generally cooked meals in one large pot.”
Take ingredients in a roux, for example. A Creole roux, influenced by French preparation, is made with flour and butter, while a Cajun roux is made with flour and lard or oil.
Today’s recipe for shrimp creole has neither a Creole nor a Cajun roux. It contains no flour, its thickness derived from ripe tomatoes that break down while simmering in shrimp stock alongside other vegetables. The homemade shrimp stock makes all the difference and requires minimal prep work, so don’t skip it. Simply toss the shrimp shells in a pot, add cold water and a few vegetables (no need to get picky – a couple carrots lingering in the crisper drawer, a few cloves of garlic, etc.), fresh herbs or dry herbs (again, whatever’s handy) and 30 minutes later you’ll have a homemade stock that will take your Cajun — or ahem, Creole — cooking to another level.
This recipe comes from my friend, Danny, who hails from Louisiana. I’ve mentioned Danny on this website before. He’s the owner of our local coffee shop and a great cook. When he told me he’d written down his recipe for shrimp creole, a rarity because he’s not one to record measurements, I was curious to see his take on this much-beloved, one-pot dish.
In nearly every cookbook I own, the sauces, condiments and other “extras” are stashed away in the back like an afterthought. I’m guilty of burying them on this website, too. Recipes for spicy remoulade and peanut sauce come to mind – both incredibly delicious but reliant on the food with which they’re paired to bring them to life (or vice versa). The role of a dipping sauce or condiment is, after all, to improve and accent food. Although I was tempted to showcase this red chimichurri alongside plump, golden empanadas, which is how I first experienced it, I decided instead to focus solely on the chimichurri today.
My friend and neighbor, Scott, works for a publishing company and is kind enough to let me borrow cookbooks from time to time. One of his recent loans was Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America. It’s a treasure and I’m not alone in that sentiment; it was recently named Cookbook of the Year by the James Beard Foundation. Written by Maricel E. Presilla, who holds a Ph.D. in medieval Spanish history and owns two restaurants, Gran Cocina Latina is a culinary masterpiece boasting over 500 recipes that cover an impressive scope – geographically, historically and culturally. It’s a fascinating read, and I want to cook everything in it.
This post may be unexpected for those following me on Instagram or Facebook, where last week I paraded pictures of a chocolate cake to end all chocolate cakes: a 10-layer chocolate truffle cake. If you were hoping for cake today, I apologize. There were ups and downs in the arduous process of making that cake, but in the end, there was chocolate cake and it was good. Arguably the best chocolate cake I’ve ever made.
In addition to requiring a ridiculous amount of work, the cake required a lot (see image above) of chocolate. I told a friend if I ever mentioned making that cake again to please save me from myself. Once my kitchen was back in its rightful order, however, and I wasn’t scraping cake crumbs out of kitchen crevices or scrubbing ganache off of appliances, I started thinking fondly of that monster cake with its endless layers of white chocolate and dark chocolate ganache sandwiched between fudgy cake and covered in chocolate buttercream. It’s certainly worthy of a post as it was fawned over by all who tried it. But here’s the hold-up: the recipe needs tweaking. Not only is it not home-cook-friendly, but some of the measurements are woefully off. (Runny white chocolate ganache was nearly the end of me, and I don’t want it to be the end of you). A post for another day.
Today – get excited – we have celery salad! I realize vegetables are hardly a consolation prize when one was is expecting cake. But if you’re a celery fan, this salad could light up your life or at least your lunch. It did mine.
I first read about the advantages of peeling chickpeas for hummus in Melissa Clark’s “Cook This Now.” I made mental note because Clark raved that the technique transformed ordinary hummus into something special, a superior hummus boasting a smooth, whipped texture. However, I wasn’t motivated to add this extra step until earlier this year when Deb of Smitten Kitchen published her post for “Ethereally Smooth Hummus” in which she did what only Deb can do: inspire readers to stand over the sink peeling the skins off of dozens, hundreds, thousands of chickpeas.
When I assumed most of the grilling duties several years ago, I knew embarrassingly little about grilling but was eager to learn. I have, for the most part, figured things out. There were a few exciting months when the ignitor stopped working and I had to do the ol’ throw-a-match-on-the-grill routine. I, ahem, had my hair blown back a few times but thankfully survived to cook dinner.
I don’t fire up the grill every week (and sometimes I go several months), but I do grill year-round if I’m feeling so inclined: in the cold, in the rain and of course in the heat when standing over a fire feels absurdly appropriate. As a parent, there’s a distinct advantage to grilling vs. standing along the sidelines, too. When I grill, I’m not responsible for meeting the many demands of small children. The griller cannot leave her station or dinner is at risk of being burned. No one wants that. Grilling provides 20-30 minutes of relative alone time, and sometimes people even bring you a beer because they think you’re working so hard.