Friday, August 17, 2012

Our Place!

     It's great to know who you are and what you were born to do on this earth as early as the age of 7 years old. My given name is Avery Pearl, but for some reason everyone calls me Sookie and it has stuck to me like white on rice. Every since I could remember, I wanted to be a chef and would help my dad and mom everyday in our family restaurant. August and Isabelle Pearl were the first people in our family to own a business. We lived on the south side of Chicago Illinois and it was 1970 when everybody we knew sported big Afros and wore bell bottoms. The Isley Brothers and Earth Wind and Fire songs were blaring out of radios and Nixon was president. Appropriately named "Our Place", was on the corner of 72nd and Halsted.  Our place was a modest, family-style restaurant where we served things like fried chicken and waffles, collard greens, livers and gizzards specials and other things of that sort. This is the place where we spent most of our time, the place where I had my first memories of watching my dad with the produce delivery man which was affectionately called Eddie five-fingers, making sure all he had ordered for the week was there. I was a daddy's girl and loved to watch my dad in the kitchen. I would climb up on a step stool and watch him chop, slice and dice onions and carrots at the speed of light. He was like a machine but would slow down and put his hand over my hand and he would show me how to prep vegetables.
       Every Sunday, me, my dad and mom had to be ready for the after church crowd because the whole congregation would come to eat at our place right after church. My dad was very spiritual and we went to church every Sunday. We went to the  6a.m. service, praised God for all He had done for our family and would hang around and chat with everyone before the 8a.m. service started. We knew everyone in church and everyone knew us because No Greater Love International Church had been our family's church for 3 generations. In fact, my dad Augie met my mom Izzy right on the third pew when he was 15 years old and she was 13. Both tell the story differently but my dad's version of the story is how he would have to sit right next to aunt Earlene for acting up, making fart sounds with his friends Pookie and Shaun when people would sit down. One day aunt Earlene's best friend that she grew up with brought her niece Isabelle Rawlings to church. She was visiting for the summer from Indiana and my dad says he could not stop staring at her and thought to himself, "one day I'm going to marry her" and the rest is history. Pastor Eugene Wigglesworth was our pastor and my dad's best friend. He was an anointed man and was also my dad's spiritual advisor. Dad called him E.W. and before we left church that morning to go to the restaurant to prep for the Sunday after church rush, daddy and pastor went into his chambers to talk. They were in there for a few minutes and then they came out laughing and doing their special handshake while my dad said, "think about what I said" and pastor said "I will man, you just have my usual chicken fried steak dinner ready, I'll see you later after the 10a.m. service, about 12pm". 
        Most of the people that came to our place ordered the same thing and were creatures of habit so my mom could anticipate what everyone would want. Peaches from the neighborhood would come in and sit down and my mom would tell dad in the kitchen, peaches here and dad knew what to get her. My parents called it good customer service and I learned what that meant before I could crawl. My mom Izzy, would teach me the front end of the restaurant business. She did everything from being the waitress to busing tables. The two of them did everything because at that time, we did not have the money to hire anyone else. I was the anyone else and I worked for free. By the time I was eleven, I was my daddy's sous chef.  He said "Since your name is Sookie, you might as well be my sous chef, I have taught you everything you need to know right now". I could not have been more thrilled to work side by side with my dad before and after school. The bus stopped right in front of our place to pick me up and drop me off.

I went to Lawless middle school and was the only kid that went to work right after school, which let out at 3:15. I did my homework then I chopped, sliced and diced onions, celery, carrots and seasoned ten pounds of chicken with my grandma's recipe. Dad was portioning out perch and catfish while mom cleaned tables out front.We had a system that worked for years until......................?

Stay tuned for part two of Our Place!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Wait, Come Back, Where you Going?

Banana fruit cake!
Imagine me running after someone with a plate full of sugar free, whole wheat cookies! People tend to run towards the hills and escape out the nearest window when they hear sugar free and wheat floured treats.  I once made some sugar free cookies and took them to a meeting for people to try and this one guy said "what's the point of sugar free cookies"? I replied "they take to guilt out of eating cookies and they are good for you". I accidentally left the bag there and later found out that the children that lived in the home where the meeting was held, ate the rest of the cookies. I am glad that they enjoyed them and that proves that children can like healthy treats. The cake in the picture at the above left corner is a fresh banana flavored cake inside with fresh blackberries and raspberries on top with sugar free cool whip. It came out pretty good but I wish that I had added a little more splenda to make it sweeter. The label on the splenda package says cup for cup same as sugar, but next time I will add a little more to get the amount of sweetness that I desire. I like to bake on Saturdays and learn new and exciting ways to prepare healthy desserts. Mind you that I am not really a baker, I am a self-taught chef that wishes she could really bake. So, I practice and sometimes my efforts are rewarded with an awesome tasting cake or cookie or pie and sometimes my efforts go right in the trash with wasted ingredients. That's the worst part! To have to throw away the remains of what I was attempting to bake that came out awful. However, the times that I get it right make up for the times I don't.  If you don't succeed the first time, try try again. 

I also like to do whole wheat flour desserts and I am not going to lie, I have had challenges baking with just whole wheat flour. I have found that I have to mix white and wheat flour 50/50 for the desserts to come out correctly in respect to rising properly and being flaky and light. I did use 50/50 mix in the above dessert and it did bounce back to the touch. I guess I should mention that I have recently adopted a healthy lifestyle and actually enjoy eating properly so that I can live a long and strong life. I personally think that sugar is the Devil and it kills. It is very addicting and literally will put you in the grave if you make to much apart of the daily eating. I also dislike white flour because it is completely empty calories but, white flour make the best desserts and I still struggle with the balance of it in baking.

Banana cream filled cupcakes!
Now these cupcakes on the right that I made last year with fat free banana cream filling, 50/50 flour blend and sugar free vanilla icing were amazingly good. I think some people after a while develop a taste for sugar free substitutes like equal, agave, sweet leaf stevia and splenda. I have used all of those and I like sweet leaf stevia the best because it is 100% natural and does not have an after taste. I posted this picture on face book and captioned it as sugar free. I received replies back that said can I have one that's not sugar free. I noticed that just like people can develop a taste for sugar free foods and desserts, people can also hold on to the taste for sugar. You can get used to anything like eating healthy
if the food taste good and is flavorful.

Apple cake with vanilla icing and walnut, choc. sprinkles topping!
 This beauty to my left is an apple cake made with red delicious apples, full regular sugar, regular sugar frosting 50/50 flour blend and walnuts. I made this for a Christmas party 2011 and did not want to subject the people at the party to sugar free cake because I knew they probably would not eat it. I snuck the wheat flour in so it would not be a complete waste and add some nutritional value to the cake. Whole wheat flour is very fiber rich that keeps you full longer than just white flour. As I stated above, white flour is just empty calories. They loved this cake and it was a success but because of sugar. I can't expect everyone to adopt my way of thinking and eating unless they want to and are ready to make the change. Preparing tasty treats that are low in calories and having people try them is a way to introduce them to a new way of eating.

Strawberry, blueberry cake surprise!
The last dessert that I want to talk about is this one in the photo on the right. I tell you, this fresh, blueberry, strawberry cake surprise was the bomb!! I did the 50/50 flour mix, and along with the blueberries I added a surprise of fruit cocktail(drained). Every bite had a piece of yummy fruit in it. I added sugar free cool whip again for the topping. If you have not figured it out yet, I really like cool whip for dessert toppings. It is so good and a nice change from frosting. Also I grated some lemon and lime zest for garnish. There were no disappointments with this one at all.

I want to leave you with the idea of trying new things! Not to be so set in your ways that you miss out on something amazing that may change your life. This could be trying different foods of different cultures or anything thing else that you might want to try that you have feared in the past. Nothing beats a failure but a try!

Love AJ
 I'll see you in the kitchen!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Life in the Produce Lane: One day at a Time.

Fruits and vegetables!
With me, there had to be some kind of miraculous revelation to get me to willingly and whole heartily embrace eating healthy and living a healthy life style. My decision was not to vainly get healthy and decrease in size to fit into an outfit or for the up coming high school reunion. My health and weight was spiraling out of control and I knew in my inner self, plus several urges from my higher power that it was time or I might not live very long. I certainly have a will to live so that I can do all that I have not done yet and to see my unborn grand kids. Mind you, my only daughter is not even married or seeing anyone yet, but I can hope.

The elusiveness of this life style had evaded me many times before and I had to figure out why or what made every other past attempt fail, at keeping the weight off. You see, it is easy for some to lose weight but the challenge is keeping it off. So, I did some soul searching within myself because I know this time has to be different. I am not getting any younger, just the opposite in fact. I figured out that I had the wrong kind of relationship with food and I was living to eat and not eating to live. I actually loved all the wrong kinds of food and to much of it. It was my friend, I could control it and it did not talk back. I had to learn and realize that food does not have feelings and is incapable of loving me back. I soon came to the realization that my desire to get and stay healthy is stronger than my desire to constantly eat. This time I am maintaining a healthy weight in order to live to see the full second half of my life. Granted, we do not know what tomorrow will bring, but I'm not done yet. Furthermore, I might actually make a meaningful difference in some one's life, in some may that matters, including my family.

If any of this resonates with you, I compel you to do the research and see what works for you. I have embraced cooking light with the freshest of fruits and vegetables. I already love to cook and am kind of good at it so it was not so much of a leap for me to jump right in by looking for recipes in healthy magazines and on many different websites. Also, I spent time in several of my favorite grocery stores in there produce section. I have found very different kinds of vegetables that I have never eaten or cooked like leeks, butternut squash and kale, just to name a few.

This wonderful mixture in the photo is a great recipe that I got out of the January 2012 issue of Cooking Light called Mushroom brown rice risotto. Some of the ingredients are porcini and cremini mushrooms, short grain brown rice and parmigiana-Reggiano cheese. It was completely new to me, but the rustic taste was delicious. The dish had no meat and it was so filling because of the fiber and texture in this dish.

This is the finished dish. Anybody wanting the recipe to this scrumptious dish, send me a message. The fun part was hunting done all of these special gourmet items to complete dishes like this and some of the ingredients can be a bit pricey.
Although, the grocery stores are becoming quite conscience of the need and desire for people to get healthy and they are acting accordingly by stocking the shelves with lots of whole grain and wheat products, right next to there not so healthy cousin at an affordable price.

My biggest nemesis was unhealthy carbs which are basically empty calories but they taste good. I had to re-wire my thinking to embrace the grains, the wheats, lean protein and carbs that are a resistant starch. That only means that the carbs
in the brown rice for example, takes longer to digest, hence keeping you full longer because of the fiber richness. It's a bit more to it than that but lets not get to technical.

I also really enjoy roasted butternut squash eaten as a snack or one of the ingredients in recipes. For instance, I made a dish called farrotto with butternut squash and Gruyere cheese.
farroto is an ancient grain and the texture is suppose to remain aldente. This dish is very earthy and great in winter months.

Here is the finished farroto dish that also called for leeks.

Let me not mislead you in any way, there are times when I crave familiar foods from my past that I used to eat, that are unhealthy. So I try to turn that unhealthy dish into a healthy dish by altering the ingredients. Sometimes it works and sometimes I still want the familiar. However, can an alcoholic have one drink or can I have one piece of my favorite candy or a few greasy french fries. I have found that for the most part that it is better for me to abstain because I might go over board. Until I can eat one small portion of my old favorites and stop right there, then I am not ready to go there.

I am happy to report that I have lost 48lbs and still counting. Everyday is a new day and I just take it one day at a time as I enjoy my life in the produce lane.

Turn that frown upside down and go after your new life and I'll See you in the Kitchen!

Love AJ 

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

My Odyssey in search of " The Oriental Five Spice Powder"

On December 13, 2011, just last month, I went on an Odyssey in search of a blend of spices that were new to me in every way. Similar to the poem Homer wrote about a Greek hero called Odysseus in which, he had to endure a long journey home after the fall of troy. However, my journey took place in modern day Oklahoma City as I scoured the city looking for something called oriental five spices. It has existed long before me, and still is used in Asian-style cooking today.

It is a delicate blend of fennel, cloves, cinnamon, star anise and szechuan peppercorns and I needed this as I was going on a journey east, a place that I have never gone before. I was gathering ingredients to prepare a new dish called Char Sui pork belly and it called for the oriental five spice powder. As you can see by this first image on the left that I did indeed find this aromatic sweet smelling blend of spices that originated in the east, but what you do not know is the adventurous time I had finding this spice blend and much more.

So, it was quite a dreary day outside on the 13Th of December, as well as chilly and rainy and let me tell you, I don't typically go out driving on days like that unless I have too; so this let's you know that I really wanted to find this spice blend. I had every thing else that I needed for the recipe except this. I gathered all my things including my trusty camera and headed out in pursuit of my spices. The first place I went to is Whole Foods. A place that the great state of Oklahoma is proud to have in our city. A place where I have wanted to go since it arrived here and the place where my favorite t.v. show Top Chef contestants shop at wherever they are taping. It felt like I was at home when I walked into this market because I have seen the inside a thousand times on the show and all of them are constructed the same inside. I get to looking around in awe and amazement just having the time of my life. It was like I was a kid at Disney World. So, I ask the clerk where could I find the five spice powder and she takes me practically by the hand to the spice aisle and we look but they do not have it. However, if you have ever been to Whole Foods, you may know that they have a section in the spice aisle where they can blend almost any spice you want as a special blend, custom to your specifications. A guy that worked in the cooked foods area of Whole Foods goes out of his way to help me. He was on his break and said "I don't mind helping you, I'm in no rush to get back to the kitchen". They had every spice in the five except the star anise, but this nice young man told me about a place that I had never heard of called the Super Cao Nguyen market, which I would soon find out is the mother of ALL things Asian from A to Z. He took a piece of paper and drew a map to the place and told me how to get there. So I left, but first I took a detour to a place that I had been once before, to get some Italian Lady Fingers for when I made Tiramisu.

This detour would be to a little quaint establishment called the Mediterranean Imports and Deli. It's a wonderful place with international type foods specific to the middle east.

Meanwhile, I noticed my surroundings and how eclectic this place was as I took a seat to regroup plus, it was cold outside. There were people of different nationalities there and it felt like I stepped into Morocco or some cool place like that where they eat things like couscous. This gentleman in the photo below works at the deli and was chowing down on his lunch.

Okay, I'm warm now and decide to start looking for my five spice blend and the female clerk in the picture was very helpful in helping me look for it. I believe she said she was new and did not know where everything was so she looked high and low. There may have been a slight language barrier as I repeatedly said what I was looking for and out of know where, this customer shopping herself over heard me, turned to me and said, "you should go to the..... can you guess, Super Cao Nguyen market on 25Th street". I'm thinking wow, that's the second person that told me about the market. Well, I don't have to be told a third time, so I left again on my journey to the find the five spice powder.

Only this time I felt a certain excitement that made me feel like I could leap tall buildings, I had a feeling that this was going to be the place where I find my five spice powder. So I make a mad dash to my car in a single bound, on a mission to the east. So now, I used the directions that the cook from Whole Foods gave me and don't you know, a person with direction issues had no problem finding the next adventure on my journey.

As I drive up to this place in the Asian district in Oklahoma City, I think I hear angels singing and birds chirping because I know in my inner self that they have my five spice blend. I can feel it even before I walk into the Super Cao Nguyen Market.

Now as I said, I had never heard of this place, never knew it existed before that day. When I entered this market, It felt like I walked off the plane into Asia, China or Japan one. I brought my trusty camera in with me like any tourist would, and just as I was about to take my first photo inside, as I metaphorically drooled while looking at the Cao Nguyen's authentic Chinese vases and such; a security guard raced over to say "No picture taking allowed inside". I apologized profusely to the guard, he said that "it was okay". They had all kinds of cool things that you just wanted to touch and look at and all for a ridiculously low price. So I am really loving that and this whole experience. I ask what looked like the owner, "where can I find your five spice powder" and he said, "aisle 13". I go towards aisle 13 and on the way there, aisle 9,10, 11 and 12 have all these different new to me Chinese cooking wines, all kinds of Asian spices, marinades, sauces, everything that you might find in a Asian kitchen or a Chinese restaurant including art work. Things that I bet you could find over seas. I am just amazed and taken a back as I make my way over to aisle 13. I take my time savoring every moment as I look at everything before I get to my spices. I creep up on what looks like it could be my spices and sure enough, It was. I finally found my oriental five spice powder and I felt so elated and full of joy, a sense of fulfillment came over me. I felt like I could do anything because now, I get to go home and execute the Char Sui Pork Belly recipe.

A long days journey came to a climactic end as I purchased my five spice powder with joy and achievement in my heart. Here is the finished dish below and it did not disappoint. It was well worth the journey as it was full of flavors that I had never cooked with before. When you bite into this pork belly you can taste all the Asian seasonings that I used. Thanks for coming with me on my Odyssey to find my oriental five spice powder. I'll See you in the kitchen!

Please feel free to leave a comment.

Passionately Yours AJ