Thursday, August 7, 2014

Getting the most out of bream, a little fighter who can be quite tasty!


(Joe's bream)

I know this site is dedicated to the preparation of international food, but the U.S. South is also part of the world so it’s justifiable to look occasionally in our backyard to find something exotic in the familiar for our dinner tables!

My wife Suzanne, an international auditor for her firm, is traveling this week in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, where she found “the best BBQ ribs” she’s ever eaten (that’s saying a lot for a part-time Memphian!) at a restaurant called Castell BBQ. I kept the home fires burning here in Oxford, Mississippi, by going out in the backyard one evening and fishing in our pond. The pond is full of bream and bass, and my luck was with the bream. I made the commitment that this time I was going to catch ‘em, clean ‘em, cook ‘em, and consume ‘em that evening!

Like many or even most Southerners, I grew up catching and eating bream. My father Roger Burton Atkins and my brother John and I would go to all the local ponds my cousins owned out on their tobacco farms in central North Carolina (we lived in town). It’s the most humble of fish, but it makes for great sport. It will fight you ever step of the way toward your water bucket! It’s also a bony fish and requires some extra care in preparation for dinner.

(To the right is our pond)

After catching and cleaning my fish, and then cleaning myself up for a night of cooking and eating, I got my oven ready at 400 degrees F., and prepared to bake my fish in aluminum foil. With the fish went a healthy dash of extra virgin olive oil—Olive Taggiasche—a little butter, garlic, and sliced onions.

An old newspaper (Jackson, Miss., Clarion Ledger) clipping dating back to the 1990s has been so helpful to me in finding just the right rub to use with the meat or fish that I cook. With fish, the clipping suggests—and this is what I mostly did—the rub should include single teaspoons of basil, garlic powder, tarragon, and paprika, a couple teaspoons of black pepper and lemon zest (I simply squeezed a fresh lemon onto the fish), half-teaspoons of cayenne pepper and salt.

Into the oven they went, where they stayed for roughly 15 minutes. Out they came and joined the asparagus, yellow rice, and rolls that I’d prepared. A little bourbon & branch water on the side, and I was good to go!

It was delicious!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Palestinian makes a go of a Middle Eastern restaurant that serves falafel but no alcohol in a Southern college town


(To the left is local restaurant owner Maher Alqasas. This little feature by Joe Atkins appeared in the Sept. 4-10, 2013, edition of the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Miss.)

OXFORD, Miss. – The great journalist, raconteur, and connoisseur of good food A.J. Liebling loved to venture off the beaten tracks of New York and Paris to find little restaurants and bistros overlooked by the culinary critics and trend-setters but where a man with a taste for good dining could enjoy himself.

Liebling knew such places—“lost Atlantises” he called them--often have a precarious existence. “The small restaurant is evanescent,” he writes in his 1959 classic Between Meals. “Sometimes it has the life span of a man, sometimes of a fruit fly.”

A more recent writer, the former chef and current TV food and travel personality Anthony Bourdain, had this to say about the perils of the restaurant business in his own book Kitchen Confidential: “To want to open a restaurant can be a strange and terrible affliction. What causes such a destructive urge in so many otherwise sensible people? Why would anyone want to pump their hard-earned cash down a hole that statistically, at least, will almost surely prove dry?”

Maher Alqasas, 50, a native of the Mount of Olives in Palestine and longtime resident and veteran restaurant owner here in Oxford, acknowledges the risks. “This is a tough business. Imagine working 12 hours a day and having a smile on your face for 12 hours, and to like what you do. The kitchen is a fireball, booming, loud, and I have to be a part of that. What makes it worth it at the end of the day in seeing the smile on their faces.”

He’s talking about the smile on the faces of customers at his Middle Eastern-Mediterranean restaurant Petra Cafe, open since February, a long, narrow stretch of a place in the corner of the town’s famous Square that once housed Wiley’s shoe shop and later Parrish’s bar. “Food is the moment of celebration,” says Alqasas, who grew up in Qatar, “because when you are hungry you are willing to eat anything, but if you know you are eating something good, it is a joy. You are nourishing your body.”

The food at Petra--falafel, kibbeh, hummus, labneh, dolmas, chicken shawerma, shish kabob, gyros with tiziki sauce—isn’t exactly what you’d find on the tables of most Southern homes. But it’s just as homemade and just as likely from old family recipes, says Petra chef and Alqasas’ wife, Angela, also a native of Palestine. “My customers come to my kitchen and tell me it’s the best falafel they’ve ever had, customers from Chicago, Michigan,” she says with pride. “I love it. I remember when I was a kid, my mom asked me to do the falafel. We used to help my mom. I learned from my mother and my mother-in-law.”

The Alqasas—their three children work at Petra, too--like the idea of a homey atmosphere, even though home for them would be exotic to most Oxonians. The walls feature paintings of street scenes and merchants from Old Egypt. The music is Turkish, the carpet at the front door is Persian. “I’m trying to keep the Oxford look, too, the old and new,” Maher Alqasas says. “This is an old building (a century old, he estimates) but with fresh legs … new ceiling, new floor, new electrical, new everything.”

Still, running a successful restaurant on Oxford’s Square can require more than good food and good atmosphere. Most of the two dozen or more restaurants and bars on or near the Square also serve alcohol. They’re why the town’s thriving night life rivals that of much larger cities. Petra allows brown-bagging but serves no alcohol.

Does it hurt business? “It does,” Alqasas admits, “but eventually it is going to be known. Customers can bring their own. It is worth the wait. It is all about the food.”

Alqasas is Muslim. His religious faith is one reason he wants to avoid serving alcohol. Another is the bar he once had in an earlier version of Petra a few blocks away. “It made my life miserable as far as inventory, keeping kids working, no stealing. … I don’t want to be a part of it.”

At least some of his customers don’t mind. “It didn’t stop us,” said Ole Miss student Shelby Herring, a 21-year-old hospitality management major from Houston, Texas, during a recent meal there with her friend and fellow Ole Miss student Molly Thrush. “I like Mediterranean food. I’m a vegetarian, so I like the falafel (fried ground vegetables), the salads, the hummus. Back home, I’d go once a week to a Middle Eastern or Mediterranean restaurant.”

Restaurants typically take a couple years to turn a decent profit. Petra just suffered through the summer doldrums that tend to hurt the bottom lines of most college town businesses. Many tables remained empty during the summer evenings.

“I am a patient person,” Alqasas says. However, he admits, he was more than ready for the fall invasion of Ole Miss students.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Jamaican Oxtail Stew and a little Reggai in the background

A recent business trip to Jamaica inspired Suzanne to try cooking Jamaican Oxtail Stew Saturday night. This was a huge success, thanks to a couple recipes she found on the Internet, some great spices and sauces she brought back from Kingston, and wonderful advice from a friend she met in Jamaica, Symone Dillion, who helped her identify key ingredients needed in the preparation.

While in Jamaica, she ate oxtail at the Strawberry Hill Hotel & Spa in the Blue Mountains near Kingston. “It was pretty awesome,” she said.

A coffee plantation back in the 18th century, Strawberry Hill was later the home of Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, whose company introduced Reggai legend Bob Marley to the world. It still is a gathering place for musicians and artists from around the world.

Unlike Suzanne’s meal at Strawberry Hill, our oxtail dish did not include fried plantains, but we did have rice and beans as well as vegetables to accompany our meat.

Ingredients in the meat included Jamaican Scotch Bonnet Pepper Sauce, Pickapepper Sauce, and the Island Spice oxtail seasoning, Sazonado de Cola de Buey. Add a dash or two of soy sauce, onion powder and other seasoning, plus onions, bell peppers, carrots, thyme, fresh rosemary, and, of course, garlic.

Here’s Suzanne’s account:
“I pressured the meat the first time with just seasoned, marinated meat and beef stock, adding the Scotch Bonnet and Pickapepper, for thirty minutes. Then I added water and a few spoonfuls of vegetables simmered with beef stock, and butterbeans, pressuring again. Then I folded the remaining vegetables with the meat to make the stew.”

I was pretty much a bystander during these proceedings, but I will say the result was “pretty awesome” and then some! The oxtail was absolutely delicious, and the rice and beans a nice complement. Missing was French bread, however. We were so busy making sure everything else was there that we forgot the bread!

(Your bystander to the right with a glass of wine, notebook and Wayne Curtis' book And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails)
To whet our appetite we enjoyed rum cocktails. Mine included a mix of three rums: Bacardi, Ron Añejo Aniversario from Venezuela, and Wrap & Nephew White Overproof rum from Kingston. This latter is dangerous, so one has to be careful! The alcohol content is 63.7 percent, so I just added a dash of it. With the rum I added club soda, Angostura bitters, slices of lime and lemon, and just a (very) little orange juice and cranapple juice. It was a fine drink. Suzanne drank her usual mix of Bacardi, vodka, orange juice and cranapple juice with slices of lime and lemon.

(By the way, let me recommend a great book on rum: And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails by Wayne Curtis. It’s a wonderful book about the role of rum in New World history, full of tales about rum in the colonies and in places like Port Royal, Jamaica, “the de facto capital of the British pirate world” where pirates like Captain Henry Morgan would “whore and drink and spend their money.”)

With our meal Saturday night we had a bottle of 14 Hands Cabernet Sauvignon, 2010, which I liked better than Suzanne.

Of course, we listened to Reggai music throughout the evening, interrupting our labors occasionally for a little dancing on the kitchen floor. Good food, good music, tales of Jamaica--a fine evening.

A German meal that brought back memories of Munich and the Hirschgarten

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This is a very belated posting for a meal that Suzanne and I prepared nearly a year ago (February 2012!) but which we never got around to memorializing in our blog! I am half-German thanks to my Augsburg-born, Munich-reared mother, Maria Stoller Atkins, who is 91 years old and living here in Oxford, Miss. I studied and worked in Munich for four years when I was a young man, and I very much remember the wonderful meals I had there. Sauerbraten was always a special treat, so my half-Italian wife and I decided, “Let’s go for it!”

Our main reference was a little book published ages ago by Time-Life Books called Recipes: The Cooking of Germany. We had wanted to try this dish earlier, but things hadn't worked out. This time we made it work!

In preparing sauerbraten, we used the following:
-       3 to 4 pounds of round roast of beef
-       vinegar
-       onions
-       bay leaves
-       a teaspoon of whole spice
-       sour cream
-       2 to 3 strips of bacon

Our recipe book called for a half-cup of red wine vinegar, one medium-sized onion, and two small bay leaves.

With our sauerbraten we prepared old-fashioned German knödel (dumplings) and
red cabbage, which is de rigueur for so many German meals and always delicious. We also had rye bread.

With our meal we drank German beer. I tried all kinds when I lived in Munich, the beer capital of the world. My favorites were Augustiner and Hackerbrau, but they were all good. (If you ever go to Poland, by the way, try Zywiec, a wonderful beer. I digress!)

For our dessert we ate Apfelstrudel. Suzanne’s ingredients included the following: flour, two tablespoons of shortening, five cups of sliced apples, brown sugar, a half-cup of seedless raisins, chopped nuts (pecans), cinnamon, and butter.

The result was a German meal that was a bit heavy but tasted fine. It made me think about the good old days at the Weinhaus Neuner restaurant or at Hirschgarten, my favorite of all the Munich beer gardens.

Prosit! Guten Appetit! 

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Cabbage rolls from an "Old German Recipe"


After several delays in recent weeks, Suzanne and I completed our second installment to our weekend culinary forays this Saturday evening with a German dish from Folk Foods of Fitchburg, a 1964 collection of international recipes from the chefs of that Massachusetts town. Since Suzanne paid homage to her Italian roots in our first dinner, it was my turn to step up to the plate with something from my German motherland. My 90-year-old mother is an Augsburg native who grew up in Munich.

My initial plans were to prepare sauerbraten, a staple in the Münchner restaurants I frequented when I studied and worked there in the mid-1970s. I went to the grocery store and bought all the menu items, returned to the kitchen and began my preparation. I was putting the 3 ½-pound round roast into its vinegar-based sauce when Suzanne noticed this little item on the recipe: “Let soak at least overnight.” Oops, didn’t see that!

So we put the roast in the fridge and turned the page to another, less-complicated “Old German Recipe” simply called “meat and cabbage”. In other words: Cabbage rolls. We had all the necessary ingredients, so I popped a CD of decades-old Heinz Rühmann and Hans Albers tunes on the CD player, rolled up my sleeves, and got to work.

Mrs. Marguerite Koski’s recipe involves a pound of hamburger along with rice, tomato soup, cabbage leaves, butter, sugar, lemon, parsley, celery, salt and pepper.

We called my German-born sister Evi Womble in Pensacola, Fla., during the preparation to get her input, and she suggested some good side dishes. Knödel (dumplings) would have been great, she said. However, that was a bit more involved that we wanted at that point so we settled on rice and green beans.

Of course, we had our usual cocktails to inspire us during the cooking—and to be honest, I was more sous-chef than head-chef, leaning heavily as I did on Suzanne’s guidance. Our choice of wine was Rodney Strong Chardonney, 2010, and it went nicely with the meal. A Riesling might have been even better, but, alas, there wasn’t one in our wine cabinet.

Heinz and Hans gave way to Zarah Leander and Marlene Dietrich as we sat and toasted another “mission accomplished”. Germans call the clinking of wine glasses at the beginning of a meal “die schönste Musik”, and indeed it was a very pleasant way to mark the completion of a couple hours of work in the kitchen. Work we enjoyed, of course!

The cabbage rolls were quite good. Hats off to Mrs. Koski. In retrospect, the addition of caraway seed to the meat mixture might have enhanced the taste even more, but at the end I rubbed my belly with satisfaction, looked across the table at my lovely wife, and said with a contented smile, “Your turn next!”

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Home cooking, International style!

So now that you've had the first taste of our adventures in cooking, maybe we should pause and tell you a little bit about us and this blog.

We met at a Christmas party at St. John’s Catholic Church in Oxford, Mississippi on December 8, 2000, surrounded by delicious food, wonderful wine, good cheer, and the great friends who had introduced us. That first meeting set the stage for a wonderful journey together beginning on our honeymoon in Puerto Vallarta and later traveling across the U.S. and as far away as Singapore and Taipei. We travel constantly back and forth from Oxford, where Joe teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi, to Memphis, Tennessee, where Suzanne works as an international internal auditor for FedEx.

Home cooking is where Suzanne shines, but Joe claims mastery over a few dishes of his own. Music is usually in the background, whether it's jazz, blues, classical or international.

Suzanne's full-blooded Sicilian father and Southern-bred mother ran a small grocery store in Helena, Arkansas, that featured a wide range of Dad’s fresh-cut meats, including Southern exotica like raccoon, chitterlings, pig ears and oxtails! Italian dishes were a staple at the Centenio home. While Suzanne's family in Helena ate homemade spaghetti and meatballs on Sundays, Joe's family in North Carolina ate fried chicken. Joe’s soldier father ran a hospital kitchen in Munich during World War II, managed restaurants after the war, and reigned supreme in all things barbecue. Joe's German-born mother often made mornings special with her “German” pancakes.

We look forward to mixing it up in our kitchens in Oxford and Memphis, home cooking international style! Sounds like fun, huh? Stay tuned!

First dish up? Suzanne's Beef Braciole!


Welcome to our first adventure with Cooking International With Love!, our new blog featuring meals and recipes and tales of food, drink, and travel from Suzanne Centenio Atkins and Joe Atkins, happily married going on 10 years now and enjoying a New Year’s commitment to devote most Saturday nights to the cuisine of a foreign country in our own kitchen–either at our home in Oxford or in our apartment in Memphis.

There’ll be a bit of trial and error involved here, particularly when it comes to Joe’s cooking (his experience includes cooking for two young children as a single parent for eight years, and years of watching his great chef of a father in Sanford, N.C.), less so with Suzanne (a lifetime cook who learned at her mother’s apron in Helena, that great blues town on the Mississippi River in the Arkansas Delta).

Our first meal for this blog was prepared Saturday, Jan. 7, 2012, in Oxford, and it was Sicilian, of course: Suzanne’s Beef Braciole, or what she grew up calling “bruzhalini” (spelling? anyone’s guess), a delicious Italian stuffed rolled steak. To which she added pasta and fresh asparagus, garlic bread, plus a bottle of 2010 Alamos Malbec in honor of our late friend and Malbec lover Jane Orlovich in Chicago.

For the salad, Suzanne borrowed a recipe--"Insalata di Cetrioli e Capperi" (cucumber and caper salad)--from Wanda and Giovanna Tornabene and Michelle Evans' book Sicilian Home Cooking. The highlight of this salad are the finely shredded romaine lettuce, the capers, and, above all, the cucumbers, peeled and sliced thinly and whisked into a mayonnaise, oil and white wine vinegar sauce.

Suzanne also offered a fine dessert of ice cream topped with Godiva chocolate liqueur.

Our musical accompaniment ranged from Verdi to Frank Sinatra to the collection of Italian folks songs in the CD "Incantando" by Cantica Popularia, a group Joe heard on the streets of Munich, Germany, in the late 1990s. Mixed with the music, of course, were plenty of tales and food memories.

So let's get to the main dish, the braciole, a wonderful top round steak stuffed with a buttered, peppered, salted mix of chopped garlic, sauteed onions, bell peppers, celery, and boiled eggs, heavily sprinkled with Parmesan cheese. The recipe came from Suzanne's mother, Vivian Centenio.

"As a child I remember my mother making this on special occasions, on Sundays," Suzanne recalled. "It was a lot of work. As a child, I didn't like it because it had eggs in the center of it. My dad loved it!"

The preparation did have to come in several stages as the meat was stuffed with layers of onions, celery, boiled eggs, bell peppers, and lots of chopped garlic. It's an Italian meal, after all, so preparing the sauce properly was crucial.

Suzanne asked her mother about the origins of the recipe. "She said she got it from my Uncle Joe (Centenio). She never saw him make it, only describe it. He used his hands to describe it. Uncle Joe was definitely the cook."

Our next adventure will take us to Germany and its hearty, delicious cuisine. Auf Wiedersehen!