Luby’s Jalapeño Cornbread

Cast-iron skillets make everything better.

You should know something about my sister: you have to be careful what you say you don’t like around her, because chances are, she will find a way to give you whatever it is you don’t like the next time she has the opportunity.  She has a mischievous sense of humor that delights in seeing confusion and sometimes terror on your face upon opening a gift.   For example, she once gave me a pair of sweatpants for Christmas with the Greek letters of a sorority across the butt, knowing that I am completely not the type to ever be in sorority OR wear sweatpants with anything whatsoever written on the butt.  She thought it was hilarious though, and in truth, it was.

So a few years back when we were driving together through the eye of the crappy chain restaurant storm that is downtown Grapevine, I should have just kept my mouth shut.  But I saw a Luby’s and I decided to mention to my sister how gross I thought Luby’s was.  So of course, for Christmas that year, she gifted me this little gem:

Luby's Recipes and Memories

This cookbook contains a recipe for Jell-O that literally walks you through the steps on the box of Jell-O.

The best part of the gift was the inscription my sister placed inside the cover (I’m sure just her clever way to make sure I didn’t immediately sell it to Half Price), “Please remember the cafeteria genre of food: never to be left out, always to cause reaction.”  Well put.  Bodily reactions, she probably means.

This cookbook is amazing in so many was, and now I realize it’s perfectly suited to this cookbook challenge.   My favorite parts of the book are the saccharine quotes sprinkled throughout the book: “I fell in love with my girlfriend over a Lu Ann platter one evening. She said, ‘I love the macaroni & cheese here.’ Then I said, ‘I love YOU!'” — Steven Landry, Austin, TX.  Way to go, Steve.  Stay classy.

A few other good things about this cookbook:

1. The photos somehow make the food look really good. If you’re into food porn, on pages 95 & 96 you’ll get a full blown spread of some really sexy mac & cheese. I was even considering making that recipe until I read on that the only cheese it contains is 3 cups American. Call me a snob, call me a Bolshevik, call me what you will, but I refuse to put American in my mac & cheese.

H-O-T-T!

2. The servings are all for 6-8 people. So if you’re planning to have a bunch of old folks over for lunch, this is the cookbook for you!

I should mention that most of my friends grew up in Texas, and for them Luby’s is the epitome of comfort food and childhood memories.  Jacob and I were planning on having about 6-8 people over to eat brisket last weekend, so I thought, what the heck, I’ll pick a recipe from the Luby’s cookbook, it will be a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.  Herein lies the challenge… what recipe to choose?  They all just looked so….. unappetizing to me.  So I’ll admit that I took a cop out and chose to make this jalapeño cornbread.  I’m sorry, you guys.  I took on this cookbook challenge knowing that it would force me out of my food comfort zone, but I’m struggling a little bit with it.  We’ll get there if you stick with me, I promise.

The cornbread was fantastic, of course, as are probably most of the things in this cookbook if I could just get over my snobbery.  I personally don’t care for Luby’s, but I guess it’s one of those things that make Texas Texas, so I wouldn’t ever want it to go away.  I’m glad that there’s a place for cute old people to go every day and talk about what’s on the menu.  And spoiler alert:  What’s on the menu is condensed soups, American cheese, and butter.  Lots of butter.

[Thanks, Kristin!  I’ll be sure to cook you up something real nice from this cookbook in a few months when I’m out in California.]

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Jennie June’s Brown Fricassee Chicken

For this week’s recipe, and perhaps due to some lingering guilt over not having a Passover Seder this year, I chose Joan Nathan’s book Jewish Cooking in America.

Jewish Cooking in America

I like this book a lot – it’s filled with equal parts recipes and stories/photographs of the American Jewish experience. Almost every recipe has a blurb of where it’s from or some historical context to set it in. For this recipe, Nathan writes that it “came from a section on Jewish recipes in Jennie June’s American Cookery Book of 1866. Jennie June Croley was one of the first American newspaper women and founder of the Sorosis Club.” Nathan has written at least a half-dozen of cookbooks that cover this same general food genre, so I can’t speak to the difference between this book and the others, but Jewish Cooking in America does have a much larger number of non-Ashkenazic recipes than I expected – it’s nice to read about Sephardic, Druze and North African Jewish food traditions, and some of the most interesting recipes are the ones with a Southern influence to them (maybe I’ll try “Baton Rouge Matzoh Balls” next time!)

This recipe was a fairly simple braised chicken dish that benefits from the tried-and-true plan of combing caramelized onions with…anything savory. It was interesting to get the flavors of allspice and mace in this dish, since I’ve only really used allspice in baking contexts before. I halved the recipe, so I used only chicken thighs – it’s easier to find 2 lbs of chicken thighs than a 2 lb chicken! We ate it with some white rice, but it would have benefited from some simple green vegetables or a salad to go with it next time. It takes about an hour from start to finish, but most of that time isn’t spent in front of the stove.

Brown Fricassee Chicken

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Bonus: Watercress, Pistachio and Orange Blossom Salad

I know I already recently covered a recipe from Plenty, but consider this a bonus! I highly recommend this salad to all my friends with unruly herb gardens, as this recipe calls for a ton of fresh herbs.

I was so excited to find orange blossom water at Fiesta, the best grocery store for those hard to find ingredients. I also noticed they had gigantic jars of preserved lemons, which I really could have used in my Arabesque recipe from a few weeks ago!  Were we not planning to move in a few weeks, I would have bought a jar, but hauling them across the country seems silly when I’m sure there are plenty of places to find them in the Bay Area.

Know of any good uses for orange blossom water? Let me know!

The orange blossom water in the dressing is what really makes this salad. That, on top of the fragrant blend of herbs will really perk you up. For me, the smell takes me back to when I worked at an Indian hair removal salon in Soho.  After threading you, they’d apply orange blossom water to your face. I think it has some astringent properties, but I always enjoyed that the lovely smell would help you forget that you just had all the hair on your face ripped out by the follicle.  These days I think I’d rather just enjoy this salad from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty.

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Mediterranean Sea Bass

Weber's Big Book of Grilling

Last week, to balance out Karin’s delicious (but vegetarian) eggplant & salad feast and take advantage of the nice Austin spring, I decided to dust the pollen and leaves off the propane grill in our backyard (thanks Alyx & Chi Chi for the long-term grill loan) and cook up some fish. I’ve had this cookbook, Weber’s Big Book of Grilling, since I picked up a charcoal grill to make a Thanksgiving Turkey with my folks four or five years ago. It’s a brand-specific cookbook, which is usually a clear sign that a cookbook will be mediocre and the recipes will include things like “Roast for 30 minutes on a Weber® AR553 grill” or ” 1 1/2 Tablespoons Heinz© pickle relish”. But this book is free of that sort of pandering and a great introduction to grilling in general – it has a wide variety of recipes beyond the usual burgers, steaks, chicken kabobs, etc., tons of good information on different types of grills, indirect vs. direct cooking, etc. – hell, the book even has a foreword by Al Roker.

The recipe I chose was a Mediterranean Sea Bass recipe. Well, for us it was a Mediterranean Red Snapper recipe, since that was the closest I could get from the store. It was an exceptionally fast and easy recipe, and it was interesting to cook with a spice (lavender) I hadn’t used before. I made this Brussels sprouts dish to go along with it, which was really tasty despite my overcooking it (good Brussels sprouts recipes that are also bacon-free are few and far between and deserve a mention). All in all, a tasty weeknight meal that is easy to cook in under an hour after work, weather and propane grill/grill pan-permitting.

Mediterranean Red Snapper

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Eggplants O’Plenty

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Let me introduce you to my newest cookbook, Plenty.  My love for this cookbook knows no bounds, from the beautiful pictures on almost every page, to the pleasantly squishy cover.  The night it arrived for me in the mail I actually read it in bed before going to sleep.  I’ve never read a cookbook in bed before and it felt a little weird at first, but that’s how much I love this cookbook.

I first encountered Yotam Ottolenghi when Heidi Swanson featured his recipe for Eggplant and Mango with Soba Noodles on her blog.  Two things you should know about me: 1) I am absolutely crazy for eggplant. 2) I am absolutely crazy about putting fruit in savory dishes.  So eggplant and mango in a dish together?  Sold!  I tried it, I loved it, and I knew I had to learn more about this Ottolenghi character.  (By the way, his Eggplant & Mango recipe is on pg. 112 of Plenty.)

What else can I say about this cookbook?  He has an entire chapter devoted to eggplant.  His blurbs about each recipe are short and entertaining.  I should probably mention that while he is not a vegetarian, all of the recipes in this cookbook are vegetarian, but all can certainly be tweaked to differing tastes.  In his introduction he talks a bit about why he writes a vegetarian column despite the fact that he eats meat, and people’s different motivations for choosing more pragmatic diets.

For this recipe, Ottolenghi asks Italians to forgive him for swapping cilantro for the traditional basil in this dish.  I had a lot of the eggplant and salsa leftover after making this recipe, and so the next day I layered them with some mozzarella on good bread spread with pesto, and the cilantro and basil complemented each other very well.