Archive for December, 2010


Almost every human characteristic has a yin and yang.  Your spouse’s “stubbornness” at home is called “tenacity” at work.  All the times I got into trouble in grade school for talking during class translates to my being a master at small talk.  A so-called detriment in one setting is a tremendous asset in another.

And so it is with denial.  People accuse each other of being in denial as though it were leprosy; and it’s true that in some cases, it’s a debilitating, paralyzing condition.  But it’s also a coping mechanism.  It allows us to take in huge, momentous heaps of information in small, digestible pieces.  In this sense, denial is a blessing.  It’s our brain’s way of turning the spigot down to low, so that we can really understand what’s happening, bit by bit.  It’s like that one-handed catch on tippy toes in the endzone: you wouldn’t have believed it if you hadn’t seen it over and over in slow motion.

Denial, when it really counts, eludes me.  It’s not in my DNA.  And I miss it, dearly.

Let me give you an example.

In January 2006, my mom canceled a date with me and Aunt Denise because she was running a fever, which is a big deal for a transplant patient, because they take tons of medications to suppress their immune systems.  The fever turned out to be a symptom of an infection that for a normal person would mean a round of antibiotics and a couple of days on the couch, but for mom, it meant a week-long trip to the hospital.

Long story short, her doctors did a routine CT scan of her kidneys during the hospital stay, just to make sure all was well.  By the time the CT scan images were ready, she was home and over the infection.  No big deal, right?

The next thing I remember is sitting with my parents in the hospital office of my mom’s nephrologist, to discuss the results of the CT scan.  And if you know anything about nephrologists, or parents, you know that the kids of the patient don’t get called in unless something is up.  I was wearing a navy skirt suit, with brown pumps, and hose, because A) my industry was the last to accept pantyhose-free business attire for women, and B) given A, my industry certainly hadn’t embraced taupe or beige as a coordinate with navy, at this point.  My, how things have changed since then.  But, as usual, I digress…

So, I’m sitting there, with Mom, Dad, and this kidney expert.  And he did this move straight out of an episode of ER, dramatically shoving the films of Mom’s innards into a backlit display panel on the wall.  I didn’t need to be a radiologist to see why they asked me to be there: the dark clouds inside mom’s left kidney said it all.  (For the non-informed, fuzzy blobs are not at all what you want in a kidney.  Or any other organ, really.)

The doctor started yakking about these blobs, and how, given her history of polycystic renal disease, they really should investigate.  Via surgery.  He was sooooo smooth.  Such a good doctor.  It was obvious that he’d really paid attention in Bedside Manner 101.

But I was the Girl Who Knew Too Much.  I knew that the cysts from polycystic renal disease were prone to developing into tumors, and these blobs were almost surely cancer.  I knew that they had been monitoring Mom with routine scans since her transplant, and that we wouldn’t be having this conversation if something hadn’t suddenly changed.  And sudden changes are another sign of cancer.

I asked what the worst case scenario was.  He said something vague, like “it’s hard to say,”  but the look in his eyes told me all I needed to know.

My gut turned to mush.  I pretended that my phone vibrated with a phone call, and muttered something about the office, and needing to take it.  I closed the door gingerly, and then bolted for the restroom.  I didn’t think I’d make it through my valiant fight with my stupid pantyhose, but I prevailed.  And about two seconds later, I started seeing stars, and I realized, someone’s going to break in here an hour from now and find me on the floor with my pantyhose literally in a wad. Being a proper Southern woman, this simply would not do.

So, I fought back the little birdies that were tweeting around my head, and wrestled myself into a presentable state, whereupon I stumbled out of the restroom and collapsed at the nearby nurse’s station.  By this point, my parents had finished the consultation and found me down the hall, in an exam room, on a gurney, hooked up to a blood pressure monitor.  A white hospital blanket covered my navy suit, and my stupid clunky brown shoes stuck out like I was the Wicked Witch of the East under Dorothy’s house.  Great.

That day, I fully accepted the high likelihood that my mother had cancer, in the span of about twenty minutes, and that things would never be the same.  Sure, it’s nice to think “anything can happen” and “let’s wait and see”, but I don’t have that in me.  I don’t exactly know how, but I knew.  And instead of taking it in small incremental doses, I swallowed it whole, like a snake eating an ostrich egg.  Which, by the way, the human psyche is not equipped for — hence the passing out.  From this vantage point, denial looks like a luxurious psychological outpost somewhere near Tahiti.  I was currently camping in Full Reality, near the South Pole.

Like many others, when reality is staring me in the face, I turn to food.  Is it the healthiest habit in the world?  Of course not.  Does it work?  Absolutely.

Food is comforting and predictable.  Food doesn’t hand out diagnoses, or prognoses, or any other form of bad news.  Food is food.  That is all.

The best comfort food demands my full attention, so as to completely distract me.  All five senses are employed: it looks good, it sounds good, it smells good, it tastes good, it feels good.  It IS good.  And for the short while that I’m cooking it, and eating it, I’m good, too.  It’s an ephemeral substitute for actual denial, and I’ll take it.


My favorite comfort food of all time requires almost a full hour of my attention at the stove, and it’s worth every single second.  It’s warm, and toothsome, and bursting with umami.  I could quite possibly eat it every day.

I first had barley “risotto” with roasted vegetables at Farrago, a great restaurant in mid-town Houston.  In a rare move, I knew I had to try and replicate it.  Amazingly, Joy of Cooking had a recipe for the risotto, and I figured out the rest on my own.  I top mine with roasted or sauteed vegetables — any mixture will do, but a medley of bell peppers always seems to be involved — and generous sprinkle of canned french fried onions for crunch.  You know, the kind that people use on green bean casserole… it may sound strange, but it totally works.


4 to 6 tablespoons butter
1 1/3 cups finely chopped onion
8 oz shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and caps diced
1 cup pearl barley
2/3 cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon mashed or finely minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt (omit if using Parmesan cheese)
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
6 cups chicken stock
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

Warm (but do not simmer) the chicken stock in a saucepan over low heat. Heat the butter in a large deep skillet until the foam subsides. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until tender but not brown (about 7 minutes). Stir in the mushrooms and cook until softened. Reduce the heat to medium-low; add the barley and stir until glazed with butter. Add the wine, garlic, salt (if not using Parmesan), and pepper and cook, stirring, until the liquid is absorbed.

Stir two cups of the chicken stock into the barley. Simmer slowly, stirring occasionally, until the stock is almost absorbed. Add the remaining stock 1/2 cup at a time, allowing each addition to be absorbed before adding the next and stirring often. The barley needs 45 to 60 minutes’ cooking to become tender. If you run low on stock while the barley is still very underdone, reduce the heat. If you do run out of stock, finish cooking with hot water.

This risotto can be made up to four days ahead. Let cool completely, then cover and refrigerate. Reheat in a skillet over low heat, adding a little water and stirring frequently.

Serves 4 as a main dish and 8 as a side dish.

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A Christmas Wish

I hope your 12 Days of Christmas are filled with family, friends, and all the Food of Love your heart desires!

Lagniappe: A Note From Tom

Remember Tom, from Williams-Sonoma?  He helped me breathe while resisting the urge to buy all those vintage culinary books at his store.

You might have thought I was exaggerating when I referred to him as The Most Helpful Sales Guy in the History of Retail.  Which would be understandable, really, because I have been known to embellish this thiiiis much (thumb and forefinger spaced exactly two microns apart) on occasion.  But not this time — I have proof.

I sent Tom a link to the post last week, and he wrote back with a very gracious note, along with three recipes that look amazing.  They were obviously meant to be shared:

Hi Laura:

Thank you for your kind words and great posting.

I have attached a few recipes that you and your readers might enjoy.  The Stuffed Pear Salad is from Cooking Light, I have made it so many times that I added the chart of how much for how many people.  The other two were my mother’s favorite things to make at Christmas time.

I wish you and all your loved ones a Blessed Christmas and all the best in 2011!


Was I right or was I right?  Talk about going above and beyond the call of duty.

Thanks, Tom — and all the best to you and yours as well!


Stuffed Pear Salad
from Cooking Light, 1996
(I couldn’t get Tom’s very cool chart to display correctly in HTML. If you’re interested in scaling this up, email me at whitefluffyicing (at) gmail (dot) com and I’ll zip you his original.)

½ cup nonfat ricotta cheese
2 tablespoons golden raisins
1 tablespoon honey
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 firm ripe red pears
½ teaspoon lemon juice
2 cups torn watercress or other lettuce
Piquant Dressing (recipe below)
1 ½ tablespoons pine nuts, toasted

Combine first 4 ingredients in a small bowl, stirring well. Set aside.

Core pears; cut each in half lengthwise. Brush cut sides of pears with lemon juice.

Place ½ cup watercress on each individual salad plate. Place one pear half on watercress on each salad plate. Spoon ricotta cheese mixture evenly onto pear halves. Drizzle Piquant dressing over pears, and sprinkle with pine nuts. Serve immediately. Yields 4 servings.

Piquant Dressing
¼ cup unsweetened applesauce
1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl, stirring well. Yields ¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon.


Apple Cranberry Pie

Pastry for 9-inch two-crust pie
3/4 cup brown sugar
¼ cup sugar
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
4 cups peeled, sliced tart apples
2 cups Ocean Spray fresh or frozen cranberries (whole or chopped)
2 tablespoons butter or margarine

Preheat oven to 425ºF.

In a large bowl, combine sugars, flour and cinnamon. Add fruit, mix well, turn into pastry lined pan. Dot with butter. Cover and cut slits in top crust. Seal edges.

Bake 40 minutes or until golden brown.


Cranberry Nut Loaf
“This was my mother’s favorite thing to bake for people or serve at Christmas every year.”

2 cups all-purpose sifted flour
1 cup sugar
1 ½ teaspoons double-acting baking powder
½ teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup shortening
¾ cup orange juice
1 Tablespoon grated orange rind
2 eggs, well beaten
½ cup chopped nuts
1 cup fresh cranberries, coarsely chopped

Sift together flour, sugar, baking powder, soda and salt. Cut in shortening until mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. Combine orange juice and grated rind with well beaten egg. Pour all at once into dry ingredients, mixing just enough to dampen. Carefully fold in chopped nuts and cranberries. Spoon into greased loaf pan (9x5x3″). Spread corners and sides slightly higher than center. Bake at 350°F for about 1 hour, until crust is golden brown and toothpick inserted comes out clean. Remove from pan. Cool. Store overnight for easy slicing.

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Lagniappe: Getting Into The Mood

One of Williams-Sonoma's flagship stores.

Something very interesting happened to me today.  I actually got into the Christmas spirit.

You might not find that to be particularly odd, given that it’s mid-December.  But it’s been years since I’ve really felt the excitement and buzz of the holidays, and not only is it nice to be back, I’m taking it as a very encouraging sign.

Let’s see… last year, we’d just lost Mom, and I was pretty much in zombie mode.  The year before that, The Boy was less than two weeks old on Christmas Day, and I was pretty much in zombie mode.  The year before that, I was grieving a miscarriage, and I spent a lot of time trying not to pay attention, because I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but Christmas is all about Baby Jesus and Virgin Baby Mama and Perplexed Baby (Step) Daddy, and angelic announcements regarding babies, and babies stirring in the wombs of their mamas at the news of other babies.  An incredibly beautiful story at the center of my soul had suddenly become salt in my still-gaping wound.

By my math, that means that 2006 was the last time that Father Christmas lifted my holiday spirits.  Wow, it really has been a while.

So, what happened today that elevated me to that elusive plane of jolly good cheer?  Well, the Christmas carols I’ve been playing non-stop have finally kicked in, for starters.  And my manager took our small group to Mark’s for our official holiday celebration (which, by the way, allowed me the pleasure of confirming that it’s the best ding-dang restaurant in Houston, a city full of fantastic restaurants).  After we toasted to a successful 2010 and expressed high hopes for 2011, we traded stories about Christmas traditions, and telling about my childhood traditions really got the juices flowing.  It also didn’t hurt that I ended the meal with a trio of mini egg nog desserts: flan, cheesecake, and torte, with a chaser of actual egg nog.

But, all that aside, what really gave me a Christmas buzz was receiving an email from Lauren, who works for Williams-Sonoma.  Because that, my friends, means that I can pass along a really great gift idea for the sophisticated food-lover on your list that you still desperately need ideas for, with less than ten days until Christmas.  (Or perhaps, like yours truly, you haven’t even started shopping…)

A few months ago, I spent my lunch hour at the Williams-Sonoma in Highland Village, and when I went to check out, I noticed something very interesting at the counter.  It was a beautiful antique cookbook on display… not at all what you’d expect among all the gleaming new everythings there.  Tom, a.k.a. The Most Helpful Sales Guy in the History of Retail, saw the delighted can-this-possibly-be-true look on my face, and explained.  Of the hundreds of stores they operate, 29 were selected to carry a handful of one of a kind books, which are sourced from a store in San Francisco called Omnivore Books on Food.

Those of you who know me personally know that I’m a crazy bibliophile with the beginnings of a decent antique book collection.  Two universes were colliding, and my wallet was in the crossfire.

I gently paged through a couple of the books, each of which had a handwritten card tucked inside with a charming summary of its contents.  One was a gentlemen’s guide to entertaining from the 40s, which was witty and delightful and laughably anachronistic.  Another was an authentic tome on Cajun cookery, which looked like it was from the 60s.  When I asked, Tom confirmed that the folks at Omnivore carefully select which books should go to which store, based on regional interests.  And he also confirmed that once these particular books were gone, they were gone, and Omnivore would ship other unique works to replace them.  I had to slowly step… away… from the… books… and go back to the office.

People!  This is like hiring a personal shopper with amazing taste in rare books about food.  I wanted to run home and tell you all about it, but I felt like I needed the complete list of 29 stores, lest I superbly tick you off. (Remember when I told you about Barbara Fairchild’s book tour?  I posted the dates a day too late and Reader Jess missed the NYC date.  Doh!)

Then life got in the way, and Halloween came out of absolutely nowhere, and it was all downhill to today.

That’s where Lauren comes in.  I had to make five or six phone calls to Williams-Sonoma today to find her, but once I did, it took her about two seconds to get the list of stores in my grubby paws (err, inbox).  And getting to share this with you is like Christmas coming early.  Fa la la la la!  Thank you, Lauren!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have halls to deck, bells to jingle, and a box of ornaments to locate…

Store Name City State Phone


This Is It, Ya’ll

The last Bon Appétit cover of 2010 has arrived, and I can hardly believe it.  Where did the year go?

Remember what I said a few weeks ago about cake vs. pie?  A perfect case in point: this glitzy cake couldn’t be any further from a humble sweet potato pie if it tried.

At first glance, my reaction to the cover photo was: Lord have mercy on my soul. A three-dimensional chocolate bow will do that, or so I hear.

Then I looked at the recipe.  My first reaction there was: Whoa.  Two entire magazine pages for one single recipe.

And my second thought was: Lord have mercy on my soul.

Then I actually read the recipe, and it’s not nearly as crazy as it looks.  I felt even better when I read this issue’s letter from the editor, because there I learned that this is a recycled cover from 1984, and that it has been their most requested recipe for the 26 years since, “generating more mail over a longer period than any other recipe.”

This is good news, for two reasons: a) It must be a darn tasty cake, and b) It can’t be that hard.  (Famous last words, anyone?)

I have high hopes that this is the dessert I’ve waited all year for: challenging but doable, and impressive in both the looks and taste departments.  For the record, the turkey freaked me out waaaaay more than this.

p.s. Interesting to note that this recipe is not (yet?) available on the Bon Appétit website… any guesses as to why?  Because it’s also in the new BA Desserts cookbook?  Or perhaps the recipe developer didn’t give permission?

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What do homemade gingersnaps have to do with the Houston Grand Opera?

It’s no secret that I’m a lover of Houston — I came out and told you so last summer.  And actually, I had this grand plan of writing a series of posts about my fair city, beginning with a discussion about how underrated Houston’s food scene is.  Well, procrastination is the thief of time, as they say, because Bryan Caswell beat me to it.

I certainly don’t mean to insinuate that Caswell and I are in the same league — being one of the best chefs in Houston, he has about ten thousand percent more street cred than me, and about a zillion times more reach (his editorial made the front page of, after all).  But I’m also not about to try and write what he already said so elegantly, either.  If you haven’t read what he wrote, you should: check it out here.

So let’s agree that Houston has a fantastic dining landscape that next to no one knows about.  Done.

On to the next Thing I Love About Houston: its world-class arts scene.  That’s right: world class, baby!

Consider the following facts:

  • Houston is second only to New York City for the number of theater seats in a concentrated U.S. downtown area.
  • Houston is one of only five cities in the U.S. with permanent professional resident companies in all of the major performing arts disciplines of opera, ballet, symphony, and theater.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts Houston is Texas’ oldest and most prominent museum, and is the fourth largest art museum in the United States.
  • One of the most important private art collections in the world, the Menil Collection, is in Houston.
  • The only intact Byzantine frescoes in the Western hemisphere are housed in Houston’s Byzantine Fresco Chapel.
  • In 2008, Yahoo! Travel listed Houston’s Rothko Chapel as one of the top 10 U.S. places to see before you die. Rothko Chapel is also on National Geographic’s list of the world’s “most sacred places.”
  • The Houston Museum of Natural Science is the third most visited museum in the U.S., behind the Smithsonian Institution and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Crazy, right?  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  I had to stop myself.  (For more, start here.)

Sometime around 2003, I decided to giddy-up and take advantage of all this stuff going on in my backyard.  I started visiting exhibit halls and attending museum events, and I was ever so lucky to cross paths with Stephanie right about then.  In addition to her sparkling personality, she also has a degree in art history, and to this day, I still somehow manage to persuade her to attend museum events with me.  Which would probably be no big deal, except that she has to answer all my neophyte questions. Questions like, Err, what’s with all the naked nymphs? Answer: These artists wanted to study the female body, and they couldn’t very well paint a naked lady, because then she would cease to be a lady, right?  Ohhhh, gotcha.  (wink, wink)

With my visual arts tutorial sufficiently underway, I turned my attention to the performing arts.  I decided to buy season tickets to the Alley Theatre one year, the Houston Ballet the next year, then the Houston Symphony.  The only trouble was, I didn’t have a “Stephanie” for any of those.  Ah, but that certainly didn’t keep me from dragging Matt along.  And when I’d wrung every drop of art appreciation out of him and hung him out to dry, I finished my tour by subbing in a rotation of buddies.  It was actually fun, all that artsy platonic same-sex serial dating.  But I digress…

Read the rest of this entry »

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The Hangover

There are many ways to cure a Thanksgiving food hangover.

Going to Vegas ain’t one of ‘em.

Matt and I slipped away on Friday for our very first trip without The Boy, and it wasn’t until we were on the plane that I allowed it to sink in.  I thought that surely a sudden pediatric fever, family emergency, or a phone call from a client would derail us.  (I wonder if the stress of these past few years will permanently leave me in “hope for the best, plan for the worst” mode.  Is that called growing up?  Is this what maturity is?  Lord, I hope not.)

Once we checked in, it took a few minutes for us to stop reaching for laptops that weren’t there.  After that, we blinked at each other for a while.  Then we let our hair down and hit the strip, and Stella got at least a little of her groove back.  I didn’t do too bad, either.

It was wonderful.

Thanksgiving was wonderful, too, actually.  Aunt Denise, our acclaimed holiday hostess, called a few weeks ago and asked, Would it be okay with ya’ll if we had crab stuffed flounder instead of turkey this year? I mean, is the Pope Catholic?  Is the sky blue?  Bring it ON, sister.  I mean, aunt.  Whoever you are.

We decided that if there was some form of pumpkin on the dessert table, we could still call it Thanksgiving.  In that same vein, I also felt compelled to check the cranberry box on the holiday form, somehow, some way.  My new Twitter buddy, Joel, suggested a cocktail, which would have solved all the world’s problems — except for the delicious fact that Aunt Denise was book-ending the flounder experience with sangria AND her famous egg nog (Hic.)

This dilemma persisted until Wednesday morning, when Dad and I were finalizing the set list for our day-o-cookery together.  The November issue of Bon Appétit was nearby, and after a few page flips, I had it: Cranberry Salsa with Cilantro and Chiles.  Dad tried to talk me out of it, which means he cocked an eyebrow, but I was not to be dissuaded.  I’d discover something fun or I’d go down in flames.  (Luckily, it was the former.)

So, cranberries and pumpkin safely revered, we settled on making a chicken and sausage gumbo to accompany the flounder.  Based on a recent comment from Cheerleader Lisa about how terrific a lightly spiced, gently cooked apple is, and how crusts and heavy sweeteners and ice cream can actually get in the way, I suggested that we make a simple crust-free apple crisp, lightly enhanced with a little ribbon cane syrup Dad brought back from the Heritage Syrup Festival in Henderson, Texas.  It would be a lighter option on the dessert menu.

Clockwise from top: pumpkin-ginger cheesecake with maple pecan glaze, triple chocolate mousse cake, and apple crisp. Pumpkin bread pudding was at the next stop...

Because Matt and I would be heading over to his family’s gathering afterward, and because my mama taught me to never show up anywhere empty-handed, and because Matt’s favorite food in the whole wide world is pumpkin bread, and because I’m generally a glutton for punishment, I added Bobby Flay’s Pumpkin Bread Pudding with Spicy Caramel Apple Sauce and Vanilla Bean Creme Anglaise to the list.  Start the IV now, doc, because this story’s headed for a food coma ending…

But you know what?  Probably due to all the parental supervision, I didn’t overcook anything, I didn’t drop anything, and I didn’t leave any entire dishes behind(Psst. Dad, I’ll cook with you anytime.)

This means that during the meal, instead of stewing over whatever I’d forgotten/dropped/smashed/over(under)cooked, I was able to sit back and enjoy it more.  And here’s what I came up with: I have one heck of a terrific family.

I’m not going to go into every dish that was on the table, because we’d be here all day.  Suffice it to say that everything was terrific, and that if I spent the rest of my life on a treadmill, I wouldn’t burn it all off.  My Aunt Pam and Uncle David were there, and my cousin Jason joined us too, whom I haven’t seen in a million years.  And get this: Jason is a closet pastry chef.  He must be, because when I tasted his triple chocolate mousse cake, I couldn’t decide whether to weep or slap the table.  Dude, where’ve you BEEN?

Looking around the table, I realized how multi-talented everyone is.  First, everyone can cook.  Really cook.  Unk is essentially an artist, Dad and Matt seem to know how everything works (table discussion included the mechanics of milling sugar, which started when I asked why I can buy ribbon cane syrup but not just plain old sugarcane syrup…), Jason will forget more than I’ll ever know about website design (he sent me an email with a handful of tips a few months ago that I’m still digesting), and David, Pam, and Aunt Denise are wicked gardeners.

That’s not even close to being an exhaustive list of their talents.

So I sat there, looking down at my flight of desserts, coffee at the ready, listening to the conversation.

And for the first time in a while, I was grateful.  Bone deep, tear-flicking grateful.

Pumpkin Bread Pudding with Spicy Caramel Apple Sauce and Vanilla Bean Creme Anglaise

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