I'm P.C., and I have studied food and cooking around the world, mostly by eating, but also through serious study. Coursework at Le Cordon Bleu London and intensive courses in Morocco, Thailand and France have broadened my culinary skill and palate. But my kitchen of choice is at home, cooking like most people, experimenting with unique but practical ideas.

I live, mostly in my kitchen, in my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.

Freshly Minted Lemonade

This weekend marks the unofficial beginning of summer.  That means vacations and swimming and long, lazy days and all sorts of good things.  But, for my part of the world at least, it also means heat and humidity.  So a tall, cool drink is always in order.

There is just something so refreshing about tangy lemonade, and at this time of year, with the mint plants beginning to take over the garden, a little zing from the leaves adds a nice little summery twist.   Serve this from a fancy cut-glass pitcher or an old gallon pickle jar, from fine crystal goblets or mason jars, whatever your mood. And if you add a little splash of something from a bottle, I won’t tell…

Freshly Minted Lemonade

I like a few chopped mint leaves floating in the lemonade, but you can put them all in the syrup if you prefer.

6 – 7 large lemons

½ cup fresh mint leaves

1 cup sugar

8 cup water

Chop the mint finely, and set aside about a tablespoon full. Scrub the lemons clean, and with a vegetable peeler, shave off thin slivers of the peel from one lemon.  In a saucepan, stir together the sugar and one cup of the water.  Stir well, then drop in the lemon peel and chopped mint and stir again.  Bring to a boil, and stir until the sugar is dissolved.  Take the syrup off the heat and set aside to cool and infuse.

Meanwhile, juice the lemons.  I like to zap them in the microwave for about 15 seconds, two at a time, to help release as much juice as possible.  You want about 1 cup of juice.  Pour the juice into a large pitcher.  When the syrup has cooled, strain it through a fine sieve into the pitcher, pressing on the solids to extract as much syrup as you can.  Stir the juice and syrup together.  Add the remaining water – start with 6 cups, taste, and see if you want to dilute it a bit more.  Remember, you will serve this over ice which will dilute it a little as well. Stir in the remaining chopped mint. Keep the pitcher chilled in the fridge.  Serve in tall glasses over lots of ice.

Makes a nice big pitcher, about 9 cups

Honeysuckle Cordial

 

I have an unruly privet hedge.  I know it can look a little shaggy and overgrown.  I know my neighbor doesn’t like it. Landscapers have tried to clean out my hedge, make it neat and groomed.  But at the end of April every year, and again, briefly, in September, that privet is wildly overrun with honeysuckle.  And I adore honeysuckle.  I stand in the driveway in the evening and just inhale the magical perfumed air, in the brief season before the heat is too oppressive, the mosquitos too bothersome or the humidity to intolerable. I invite people over for an outdoor dinner just so we can sit and bask in the fragrance.  It is the smell of the South, the smell of my childhood, the scent of all good things.  I pick off a few yellow blossoms, pull out the stamen and suck on that little honeyed drop of nectar, still, just like when I was a kid and delighted in catching fireflies, checking the yellow reflection of buttercups under my chin, blowing dandelion poofs into the wind. When running around the neighborhood was fun, not cardio.  Now I know all the places in town with overgrown honeysuckle hedges, and route my driving errands so I can ride with the windows down and get a good whiff.

But honeysuckle season is short, just those few weeks, right around my birthday.  I have longed to keep the season going, I’ve bought perfumes and candles to mimic the smell.  They’re nice, but not the same.  This year, I had an idea, as I sat on the patio inhaling the sweet air.  One of my favorite English flavors is elderflower cordial.  It seems old-fashioned, in the loveliest of ways, to me.  Like cotton lawn dresses on wide swaths of grass, parasols and hardback novels, sipping small glasses of homemade cordials. I love the image, and I bring back a bottle of elderflower cordial from England each year and try to create my own private reverie. I don’t know that elderflowers grow anywhere near my home. I am not in fact sure what an elderflower bush (or tree?) looks like.  But I have seen recipes for the cordial in those amazing books that teach you how to bottle strawberries and make your own hedgerow wine.  So sitting in the dusk, breathing in the ethereal scent, I wondered.  Could I adapt an elderflower cordial recipe for honeysuckle?  The answer, as it happens is a resounding yes.  So now I have bottled my spring, to be enjoyed in the hot and humid days to come.  I’ll pour a nice measure over ice, top it with sparkling soda or tonic and dream of my honeysuckle days.

Honeysuckle Cordial

Use this lovely cordial to make a refreshing drink topped with soda or tonic, use it to sweeten ice tea, or drizzle it over fresh summer fruit.

4 cups honeysuckle buds, lightly packed

1 lemon

2 cups sugar

2 cups boiling water

1 teaspoon citric acid*

Gather the honeysuckle blossoms, and shake them in a colander or lay them out on a tea towel.  Pick through the blossoms removing any green leaves, stems, brown, wilted buds or bugs.  Place the sorted blossoms in a large bowl.  Using a vegetable peeler, peel off strips of the yellow (no white pith) lemon peel in strips and place on top of the blossoms.  Cut the lemon into slices, discard the stem ends, and drop the slices in the bowl.  Toss around to combine.

In a saucepan, bring the sugar and water to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar.  When the sugar is dissolved, pour the boiling syrup over the blossoms and lemons in the bowl.  Stir in the citric acid, cover the bowl with a tea towel, and leave for 24 hours undisturbed. 

The next day, strain the cordial through a sieve lined with cheesecloth into a large bowl or measuring jug with a pouring spout.  Pour the strained cordial into bottles or jars.

Makes about 16 ounces of cordial

*Citric acid is a natural preservative.  It is also called sour salt and can be found in the kosher section at the grocery.

Pickled Asparagus

Photo by Stephanie Jones

The spring brunch season starts with Easter, then moves onto graduation parties, wedding parties and long vacation weekends.  That’s where this recipe comes from.  It was a request for Easter brunch – pickled asparagus to garnish Bloody Marys.  I of course complied.  Because quick pickles like these are so easy, but add a very special touch.  I happened to find the baby vidalias, the white bulbed, long-stemmed first-crop, at the market, but green onions work just as well, or a shallot.

These are obviously great as a garnish for Bloodys – you can even add some of the pickling liquid to your tomato base, but can also be used to garnish a spring martini.  They are also delicious eaten on their own, so feel free to put some out on a relish tray or a cheese plate.  Any leftovers are great cut bite-sized and tossed in a salad.

Pickled Asparagus

Look for the young, slender asparagus tips, sometimes called sprue, rather than the thick woody spears.

2 bunches young asparagus tips

Peel of one lemon

2 baby vidalia onions, baby onions or 4 green onions

2 cups white wine vinegar

2 cups water

3 Tablespoons table salt

1 Tablespoon sugar

Clean a one quart jar with two piece lid.  Trim the asparagus speas to fit the jar, with the tips just reaching the shoulder, leaving space for the liquid.  Thinly slice the bulbs of the Vidalia onions and place several pieces in the bottom of the jar. Peel thin strips from the lemon, with no white pith. Stack the asparagus tips, the remaining onion slices and the lemon peel in the jar.  I find it easiest to do this with the jar on its side, so the spears stack on top of each other and stay upright. 

Bring the vinegar, water, salt and sugar to a full rolling boil and boil for 2 minutes, until the sugar and salt are dissolved.  Carefully pour the liquid over the asparagus in the jar to cover,  leaving a ¼ inch head space at the top.  Immediately put on the top and screw on the band.  Leave to cool 8 hours or so, then refrigerate.   There may be more pickling liquid than you need; discard it.

The asparagus will keep unopened in the fridge for 1 month.  After opening, use within a few days.

Thanks to the fabulous Mrs. Jones, the official Easter brunch photographer and my style icon.

Pimm’s Cup

The build up to the royal wedding continues, and I feel that it is time to share my instructions for the perfect, the quintessential British cocktail, Pimm’s Cup.  Pimm’s is a liqueur, with a long held secret recipe, the subject of much speculation.  You’ll find it at any good liquor store in the liqueur section.  There is nothing better than a tall, icy glass of Pimm’s on a spring or summer day, at a garden party or picnic, the fresh mint garnish tickling your nose as you sip.  I could tell stories about my many English exploits with Pimm’s, but frankly the details are a little fuzzy!

Do not leave out the cucumber, it may seem like an odd drink garnish, but it truly shines in this cocktail. In fact, for a twist, try Pimm’s with cucumber-mint ice cubes.  I’ll be honest, I fill a pitcher with the fruit and mint, pour over a couple of bottles of Pimm’s and keep it in the fridge, topping off with more Pimm’s as needed (minus cucumber, which can all apart) throughout the season.

Pimm’s Cup

In a large lovely pitcher, preferably glass, place cubes cut from one red and one green apple.  Add chunks of lemon, lime and orange.  Then drop in slices of cucumber.  Add handfuls of fresh mint.  Pour over a bottle of Pimm’s and stir, then allow this brew to steep, preferably overnight.  To serve, fill a tall glass with ice, pour in the Pimm’s to fill about ¼ full, making sure to get bits of fruit in each glass.  Top with lemon-lime soda, like Sprite or 7-Up.  Garnish with mint leaves and more fruit.

For a Pimm’s Royal, top with champagne instead of lemon-lime soda.

A Pimm’s Rangoon uses gingerale instead of the soda.

If you can find it, sparkling elderflower pressé makes an excellent topper as well.

Autumn Sangria

It’s always nice to have a special something to welcome your guests.  And on a day like Thanksgiving, with lots of family and lots of work and lots of noise and lots of food, it helps if that little something special involves wine.

The idea of making sangria with dried fruit and sparkling soda came from friend whose family is from Nicaragua.  She brought a summer version to a party once and kindly shared her tips with me. I have adapted the idea over and over again for all sorts of occasions.  My favorite is this perfect Turkey Day tipple.

This is great pre-dinner sip before Thanksgiving, or any autumn meal.  I usually have few nibbles and a nice pitcher of sangria to serve while the last preparations for the big feast are being dealt with and everyone is gathered around catching up and telling stories and joking around.  The spiced syrup makes gives this sangria a warm, fall note and ginger ale adds a festive sparkle.

Autumn Sangria

The amount of ginger ale you use is up to you, depending on how strong you want the drinks.  I generally buy six pack cans or bottles and use as needed, so any leftover will store without going flat.

1 cup sugar

1 cup water

½ vanilla bean

2 whole star anise

½ teaspoon whole cloves

2 cinnamon sticks

2 (7-ounce) packages mixed dried fruit

2 (750 ml) bottles red wine

Ginger ale

In a medium saucepan, bring the sugar and the water to a boil.  Stir until the sugar is dissolved.  Remove from the heat, drop in the vanilla bean, star anise, cloves and cinnamon sticks.  Cover and leave to infuse and cool.  When cool, pour the syrup and the spices into a jar, cover tightly and refrigerate until ready to use.  The spiced syrup will keep for a week.

The night before you want to serve your sangria, put the dried fruit into a large pitcher and pour over the wine.  Cover the pitcher with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Up to four hours before serving the sangria, strain the spices from the syrup and stir the spiced syrup into the fruit and wine. 

Serve over lots of ice in tall glasses, topped with ginger ale.  I’d say about 2/3 sangria mixture to 1/3 ginger ale.  You can add ginger ale to the pitcher, but if it is not large enough, mix the drinks in glasses as you serve.  Drop a few pieces of the dried fruit in each glass to garnish.

Easily serves 12, but will stretch to serve more

Watermelon Sweet Tea

Ah, summer in the South. It is hot as a skillet here, with temperatures topping the 102 degree mark. So there really is no option but to make as much iced tea as possible. For the only real solution to a southern summer (okay, besides air conditioning) is endless glasses of tea.

This brew combines two favorite Southern summer refreshers – sweet tea and ice cold watermelon, with a hint of the mint that is slowly taking over your garden in this heat. Use as much mint as you can manage – big handfuls from your garden, or a couple of those packs you buy in the grocery.

Watermelon Sweet Tea
For the mint simple syrup:

1 cup water

1 cup sugar

3-4 nice leafy stems of mint

For the Tea:

1 family sized tea bag (I like Luzianne)

7 cups boiling water

A few more leafy mint stems

3 pound piece of fresh watermelon

For the mint simple syrup:

Place the water and sugar in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves then bring to a boil. Boil 3 minutes, then remove from the heat. Drop in the mint leaves and push them down into the syrup. Leave to cool. When cool, pour into an airtight jar and refrigerate. You won’t use all the syrup for this tea.

For the tea:

Place the tea bag and mint stems in a large pitcher. Pour over the boiling water and leave to steep for 8 – 10 minutes, until the tea is a dark amber color. Remove and discard the tea bag and the mint. Leave to cool.

Meanwhile, cut the watermelon flesh into cubes and puree in a blender until smooth. You may need to add a little water to get things moving. Pour the puree into a strainer set over a bowl and gently push the pulp the release the juice. Don’t scrape and push too hard, or your tea will come out to pulpy. You should have about 3 cups of juice. Refrigerate the juice until the tea is cooled.

In a pitcher or jug big enough to handle all the tea, mix the tea and the watermelon juice and stir well. Stir in the mint simple syrup to taste – how much you need depends on how sweet that watermelon is, but you are unlikely to use it all. Remember though that you want it a little sweeter in the pitcher, because the ice will dilute it a bit. Save any extra in the airtight jar in the fridge to sweeten other drinks.. Serve over lots of ice with a sprig of mint.

(You didn’t hear it from me, but a little snort of bourbon in the glass ain’t a bad thing…)

Makes 11 cups

Cucumber Mint Gin and Tonic

I happen to think that an icy gin and tonic is the most refreshing simple summer cocktail. Two ingredients, lots of ice, and a squeeze of lime and happy hour begins. Perhaps it reminds me of punting parties in the park when I was a student at Oxford, or makes me feel sophisticated because my elegant grandmother ordered them when we traveled.  It is my go to drink at parties or before restaurant dinners.

Cucumbers make a great underused garnish for cocktails, it’s fresh fragrance a real pleasure when you bring the glass to your lips.  I recently added a little drained cucumber juice leftover from another recipe to an evening gin and loved the bright combo.  That led to this – fresh, cold frozen cucumber ice cubes floating in a sparkling gin and tonic. Clearly, you could use these cubes in any drink – even a cold glass of water would benefit.  Obviously, the size of your ice cube tray will determine how many cubes you get from this, but it should be enough for several cocktails. If you are having a party, make a double or triple batch of cubes.  I recommend only three or four cubes per drink, as they do melt and add some texture to the cocktail.  Supplement with regular ice cubes if you prefer a really cold drink.  Starting with cold tonic can help as well.  And of course, how much gin you use is up to you!

Cucumber Mint Gin and Tonic

For the Ice Cubes:

1 seedless (English) cucumber

10 mint leaves

1 teaspoon granulated sugar

pinch of salt

For each drink:

1 ounce gin (I prefer Hendrick’s)

Tonic water to top

Mint sprigs for garnish

Cut the cucumber into small chunks and drop into a blender.  Top with the mint leaves, sugar and salt and add a little water to get things going.  Puree the cucumber and mint until smooth.  You may need to press down on the cucumbers to get them into the blades.  Add a little more water if needed.  Place a fine mesh strainer over a bowl and pour in the cucumber puree.  Leave the puree to sit and drain into the bowl for about half an hour.  You can shake the strainer, but don’t press down on the solids.  The mixture will become cloudy and pulpy – and you don’t want your drink to become too thick as the ice melts.  Pour the liquid into a 2-cup measuring cup (you should have about 1 cup of liquid).  Add enough water to make two cups.  Pour the cucumber juice into ice cube trays and freeze until solid.  Don’t throw away the pulp from the cucumbers, it’s great stirred into Greek yogurt to make a dip for fresh vegetables.

Place three to four cucumber cubes into a double old fashioned glass and add the gin, pour over the tonic and add a mint sprig.  Enjoy!

Fresh Citrus Margaritas

 

Ah, the classic margarita.  Cool and refreshing and perfect for a late spring fiesta.  If you’re used to the neon green bottled mix, or the frozen slushee style margarita, you are really missing out on something.  This version, made with fresh lemon and lime juices, adds the welcome twist of orange juice.  Sure, a freshly made margarita takes a little juice-squeezing elbow grease, though an electric juicer would certainly speed things up.  If you microwave the lemons and limes for about 15 seconds before juicing, you’ll get more juice and it will be a little easier to extract.  Use good tequila – I prefer blue agave or reposado and a good Triple Sec or Cointreau.  I am not a rimmed glass fan, but feel free to use salt or sugar to add a little flair.  And serve these over lots of ice!

Citrus Margaritas

1 ½ cups water

1 ½ cups sugar

¾ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

¾ cup freshly squeezed lime juice

½ cup freshly squeezed orange juice

1 ¼ cup tequila

4 Tablespoons Triple Sec or Cointreau

Stir the water and the sugar together in a medium saucepan and bring to a low boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved.  Set aside to cool.

In a pitcher, stir together the juices, then add the cooled simple syrup.  Stir to combine. (This base can be refrigerated for several days).

When ready to serve, add the tequila and the Triple Sec to the margarita base in the pitcher and stir to combine. Serve over ice.

Makes 6 margaritas

Decadent Hot Chocolate

IMG_3207

I have always liked the idea of making homemade hot chocolate.  I have tried many recipes; I have made hot chocolate with expensive, imported chocolates, cocoa powder and all sorts of permutations.  Butafter all the experimentation, I finally put together this recipe – using plain ol’ Hershey bars.  And it is some kind of good.

This is not hot chocolate for the faint of heart.  It is rich – really rich.  The kind of treat you make only for the holidays, or maybe when you’ve had a very bad day.  But I highly recommend you do make it.  Maybe on a cold morning when you can sip while still in your pajamas.  You don’t even have to share.

 

Decadent Hot Chocolate

If you want more than the two servings this makes, do it in separate batches, as most blenders won’t hold that much liquid without the top popping off. 

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

1/2 cup milk

2 (1.5 ounce) milk chocolate candy bars (such as Hershey’s)

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 Tablespoon light brown sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

dash of cayenne pepper

dash of salt

In a saucepan, preferably with a pouring spout, heat the cream and milk over medium heat until just beginning to bubble.  Break the chocolate bar into small pieces and place in the carafe of a blender with the sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, cayenne and salt.

When the cream mixture is heated through, pour it over the chocolate mixture in the blender.  Securely place the top on the blender, and holding it in place with a towel, blend the hot chocolate mixture until smooth and frothy.  Always exercise caution when blending hot liquids.  Pour the hot chocolate back into the pan and gently warm through.  Serve in mugs

Serves two

Sweet Tea Myths and Legends

Tea Punch

Every now and again Southern food, Southern habits – Southerness – gets a little boost.  The very idea of the South becomes a trend, some new chef opens a restaurant with new take on Southern food (I myself argue that the very essence of Southern food is its old take, but that’s another story…), or some book or movie is released and everyone is rushing to get on the Southern bandwagon (or blues wagon).  And in this fervor, there is inevitably, much waxing poetic about the beauty of Sweet Tea.  Images are drawn of men in seersucker suits and women in organdy dresses sitting on wide verandas languorously fanning themselves and drinking cut-crystal glasses of Sweet Tea with generous sprigs of mint. I am convinced that silver patterns like Grand Baroque and Francis I are so popular in the South, not because they are so ornate, but because there are iced tea spoons available. I love that image. But here’s the truth.  Since the arrival of electric fans and central air-conditioning, no one does much porch settin’ anymore.  Its 100 degrees in the shade with 99% humidity in Memphis for 5 months out of the year, and the mosquitoes are killer.  And my last organdy dress was as worn as a flower girl in a wedding at age 6.  But there is something to be said about the tea.

Yes, we do drink a lot of tea in the South.  And we just say tea.  If you asked for tea, no one would bring you a good English cuppa, piping hot in a mug.  Iced is assumed.  Ice tea, that’s what we say.  It makes sense.  It’s very refreshing and very cheap.  The image that comes to my mind when you mention Sweet Tea is not that Tennessee Williams, Hollywood image of  iced tea as social status, but those red or amber colored, textured plastic glasses from diners, catfish cabins, barbeque joints and hamburger dives.  That’s were real southern Sweet Tea lives.  And for the most part, when the charming waitress who calls you honey or sugar takes your order, you ask for tea and she says “sweet or unsweet.”  It’s not a given.  Some people actually prefer to sweeten their own tea. I do.  True Sweet Tea makes my teeth itch.  It can be cloying and sugary and syrupy.  Anyway, many restaurants now use some kind of syrup product or “tea concentrate” to make their Sweet Tea now, basically high-fructose corn syrup with “tea” flavorings, diluted with water.

At home, I drank ice tea all the time.  My mom made a concoction of tea, lemonade mix and sweetener, with mint when it was growing in the garden, always in a brown ceramic pitcher.  Some years ago, she stopped.  She claimed that her many pitchers a week chore had run its course and she was done.  I understand, but it makes me a little sad.  Even now, every time we gather for family dinner, someone still asks if there’s tea.  My grandmother occasionally made tea for Sunday lunch with pineapple juice from the little 6-ounce cans.  That is good tea.  But I have absolutely no memories of going to a friend’s house on any given day and being offered a glass of tea – just brewed tea, in a pitcher on the counter, with sugar and lemon slices.  As point of fact, the most interesting iced tea I was ever served was in remote northern Thailand, where a tray was brought to the table with a pitcher of plain tea, a glass full of ice cubes made of tea, a bowl of mint leaves and a little pitcher of sugar syrup.  I keep thinking I’ll do that a party sometime.

Now, this is not to say that tea only plays a downmarket role in Southern tradition.  Tea is in fact often served at ladies luncheons or family brunches, on a silver tray laden with a crystal pitcher of tea, a bowl of lemon slices, a silver sugar bowl, and fine glasses filled with ice, condensation quickly forming on the sides.  But for the most part, tea served at social events, from wedding receptions to dinner parties, fish frys to weekend barbecues, is more of a tea punch.  Something more than just plain brewed tea.  Served in a pitcher or a punch bowl, made up in old gallon pickle jars.  People bring tea punch to funerals.  Those pickle jars are guarded like finest crystal, labeled and marked; they are family heirlooms. Every Southern hostess has her way of making tea punch, it’s not a fixed idea, though many recipes are passed down and around.

Front Porch Tea Punch

This is my simplified version of a popular Memphis tea punch.  It was traditionally made with two 6-ounce cans of frozen lemonade and limeade, but as far as I can tell, they don’t make those anymore.  So I use a frozen citrus blend, like pineapple orange or Five Alive.

4 family-size tea bags (I prefer Luzianne brand)

¾ cups sugar, plus more to taste

1 (12-ounce) can frozen citrus blend juice concentrate, thawed

1 Tablespoon vanilla extract

½ Tablespoon almond extract

Water (obviously)

Place the tea bags and sugar in a gallon pickle jar or container.  Pour over 7 cups of boiling water and stir gently to agitate the sugar.  Leave to steep for 10 – 15 minutes, until you have a very dark amber brew.  Discard the tea bags.  Add the juice concentrate and stir well.  Leave to cool slightly, about 20 minutes, then fill the container to the top with cold water.  Stir in the extracts and taste for sweetness, adding sugar if desired.

This tea will keep covered on the counter or in the fridge for a few days.  Stir well before serving over ice.