Southern Cooking Inspired by Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe

It's time at Cook the Books Club to report on our current read.  Which, right at this moment would be  Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe, by Heather Webber.  We are reading and posting cooking inspiration gleaned from the book. This round being hosted by fellow Hawaiian blogger, Deb of Kahakai Kitchen.  

I enjoyed this book, the sometimes wacky characters who visit the cafe, the strange occurrences with neighborhood blackbirds, and the development of the protagonists and antagonists as they finally are able to forgive long held bitterness and preconceptions about one another.  A little romance adds a nice dollop to the overall picture.

From the Publishers: 

"THE USA TODAY BESTSELLER Heather Webber's Midnight at the Blackbird Café is a captivating blend of magical realism, heartwarming romance, and small-town Southern charm.
Nestled in the mountain shadows of Alabama lies the little town of Wicklow. It is here that Anna Kate has returned to bury her beloved Granny Zee, owner of the Blackbird Café.

It was supposed to be a quick trip to close the café and settle her grandmother’s estate, but despite her best intentions to avoid forming ties or even getting to know her father’s side of the family, Anna Kate finds herself inexplicably drawn to the quirky Southern town her mother ran away from so many years ago, and the mysterious blackbird pie everybody can’t stop talking about.

As the truth about her past slowly becomes clear, Anna Kate will need to decide if this lone blackbird will finally be able to take her broken wings and fly."

Posting a pie would seem to be the way to go.  Maybe for some.  I'm not really a pie baker, though I have been known to prepare one on occasion. The food of our American South covers a much bigger palate, however, and I was inspired to do a combination of Red Rice and Beans with a side of Collard Greens and Ham Hocks.  Perhaps items which would have appeared on a menu at The Blackbird Cafe.  Plus having the added benefit of using collard greens, tomatoes and gandule beans from our back garden.  Also, I was lucky enough to find ham hocks at my local Natural Foods store, so from humanely raised pigs.  Always good.

Red Rice with Gandule beans 

     adapted from Cooking Hawaiian Style

Ingredients - Serves 4

  • 1/2 c. achiote oil (I used a heaping teaspoon of achiote paste, dissolved in hot water)
  • 2 tablespoons bacon fat
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1/2 large onion, chopped
  • 1/4 c. green onion, chopped
  • 1/2 medium green bell pepper, seeded, diced
  • 4 or 5 (depending on size) fresh tomatoes, cored and chopped
  • 1 TB fresh tropical oregano, minced
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. chili powder
  • 1 1/2 cups broth
  • cup rice, rinsed and drained
  • 1/2 cup  gandule beans(pigeon peas) boiled and shelled 
  • 1/2 cup sliced olives, drained


  • In a large saucepan over medium heat; brown onion in bacon fat. 
  • Add garlic, bell pepper and oregano. 
  • Stir in seasonings, tomatoes and broth; bring to a boil. 
  • Add rice, beans and olives. 
  • Reduce heat; cover. 
  • Simmer 30-40 minutes; until rice is cooked through. 
  • Check periodically if additional stock is needed. 
  • Sprinkle cilantro or parsley on top before serving if desired

Collard Greens with Ham Hock


For the collard greens (to which I added some red cabbage, also from the garden), I simmered everything a few hours in stock -  a ham hock and a bit of onion and garlic. Awesome!  There was enough ham on the bone to make a decent addition to the meal.  Totally delicious, we both thought so!

Thus, my inspired meal for our current round of Cook the Books Club, which I will also share at Weekend Cooking, hosted by Marge, the Intrepid Reader, and with Heather for the September edition of the Foodies Read Challenge. Come one and all for some good food and book suggestions.  There is still time as well to read the book and post your own inspired cooking before September 30th.


Capellini al Pomodoro Fresco for The Venice Sketchbook

I've been reading some great books this summer, a few no finishes, and others merely okay.  This novel merits one of my lately infrequent posts with recipe, as recently there doesn't seem to be enough time or energy in my life for more blogging. You do what you can.  A great book here, and can you really go wrong with Rhys Bowen?  Don't believe I have.  Her novels are usually winners and The Venice Sketchbook is no exception.

A tale of star crossed lovers, mystery with romance, of course delectable Italian food, art and history.  Juliet Browning visits Venice as a young lady on tour with her elderly aunt along as guide and chaperone. Despite whose oversight, she meets up with a charming young Venetian on that first trip. Then on later trips, she serendipitously encounters him again. In La Serenissima, a love that's meant to be.  There are severe obstacles however, or we wouldn't have a story.  Alternating with her pre war and wartime experiences we have her great niece Caroline's  POV, many years later, when she receives a strange legacy from her Aunt Lettie.   A lovely story within a story. 

 From the Publishers:

"Love and secrets collide in Venice during WWII in this enthralling novel of brief encounters and lasting romance by the New York Times bestselling author of The Tuscan Child and Above the Bay of Angels.

Caroline Grant is struggling to accept the end of her marriage when she receives an unexpected bequest. Her beloved great-aunt Lettie leaves her a sketchbook, three keys, and a final whisper…Venice. Caroline’s quest: is to scatter Juliet “Lettie” Browning’s ashes in the city she loved and to unlock the mysteries stored away for more than sixty years.

It’s 1938 when art teacher Juliet Browning arrives in romantic Venice. For her students, it’s a wealth of history, art, and beauty. For Juliet, it’s poignant memories and a chance to reconnect with Leonardo Da Rossi, the man she loves whose future is already determined by his noble family. However star-crossed, nothing can come between them. Until the threat of war closes in on Venice and they’re forced to fight, survive, and protect a secret that will bind them forever.

Key by key, Lettie’s life of impossible love, loss, and courage unfolds. It’s one that Caroline can now make right again as her own journey of self-discovery begins."


My choice of recipe was not so mysterious, more fate.  We are overflowing with tomatoes in the garden, so various and wonderful ways to use them have been occurring in the kitchen..  I discovered a fabulous fresh tomato sauce over Capellini (Angel Hair pasta) that sounded perfect to accompany this review. So simple, and quick, a whiz to throw together, without heating up the kitchen  Just boiling water for the pasta.  

Capellini with Fresh Tomato Sauce
     taken from Gourmet Today, edited by Ruth Reichl

1 garlic clove
3 lbs. ripe tomatoes
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice 
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
1/2 teas. freshly ground black pepper
1 lb. dried capellini (angel hair) pasta
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
Accompaniments: finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, extra virgin olive oil

Mash garlic with a pinch of salt.
Core and coarsely chop two thirds of the tomatoes.  Halve remaining tomatoes crosswise.  Rub cut sides against the large holes of a box grater over a large bowl.  Reserve pulp and discard skin.  Toss pulp with the chopped tomatoes, garlic paste, lemon juice, sugar if using, salt and pepper.  Let stand for at least 10 minutes, or until ready to use (up to 2 hours).

Cook pasta in an 8 quart pot of boiling, salted water (3 tablespoons salt) until al dente.  Drain and immediately add to the tomato mixture, tossing to combine.  Sprinkle with basil.  Serve with grated cheese and, if desired, olive oil for drizzling.

What a delightful supper this was, with a bit of fresh bread, or as I did with bruschetta I cut and lightly toasted from some rosemary garlic focaccia. 

I'll be linking this post with Weekend Cooking, hosted by the Intrepid Marge, and with Heather of the Foodies Read Challenge for August.  Be sue to visit for some wonderful recipes and book suggestions.


Latkes from 97 Orchard St.

We have been reading, or in my case browsing and sampling, 97 Orchard, by Jane Ziegelman our current, soon to be past, Cook the Books Club selection.  Jumping here and there in the book.  No excuse other than I found it hard to focus, with such a wealth of  factoids and history to absorb.  The book is sub-titled An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement, and is being hosted this round by Simona of Bricole.

 Lots of amazing information, things I never knew about our immigrant forebears, their lives and times.  For an example, were you aware that at one time, circa 1842, about 10,000 pigs were roaming the streets of New York?  Finding what forage they could, garbage, etc. Just imagine....?  Or that folks were raising geese in their basements?  The noise! Not to mention the smell.  But those folks were industrious, inventive and struggling to survive, frequently in the face of cruel discrimination.. This book is about so much more than the food, covering as it does the lives of the immigrants as a whole. An excellent book for history teachers to assign.  Take note teachers!  We have too much revisionist history circulating at present.  Not my usual reading path, but I really enjoyed this look at our ancestors' traditions, lives and the times they lived through.  
From the Publishers: 
“Social history is, most elementally, food history. Jane Ziegelman had the great idea to zero in on one Lower East Side tenement building, and through it she has crafted a unique and aromatic narrative of New York’s immigrant culture: with bread in the oven, steam rising from pots, and the family gathering round.” — Russell Shorto, author of The Island at the Center of the World

97 Orchard is a richly detailed investigation of the lives and culinary habits—shopping, cooking, and eating—of five families of various ethnicities living at the turn of the twentieth century in one tenement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. With 40 recipes included, 97 Orchard is perfect for … anyone interested in the history of how immigrant food became American food; and “foodies” of every stripe."

My own ancestors came over from England, through my father, from Germany through my mother and on my husband's side from Ireland, and Germany, a Jewish grandfather escaping in the years prior to the Hitler regime, when the atmosphere was very anti-Semitic. 

Bob remembers his mother making latkes, so in honor of that heritage, I am doing a Hawaiian version.  The daikon root a nod to our local Korean immigrants.  The original recipe uses celery root with the potatoes, however having excess of daikon from our garden, I thought it would add a nice touch of tang to the classic latkes. Crisp and flavorful, these are equally good as a first course served with applesauce or sour cream and as a side for roast fowl or fish. Note: I cut the recipe down to 1/3 of what is given here, and it made a perfect amount for the two of us, plus the two latkes I had with an egg this morning.  Lovely!  Though you may be bigger eaters.

                                              Daikon Root and Potato Latkes
        Adapted from Gourmet Today, edited by Ruth Reichl (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009)

Active time: 1¼ hours Start to finish: 1¼ hours.

1 large (1½-pound) daikon (or celery) root (celeriac), peeled with a knife
1½ pounds russet (baking) potatoes (about 3 large)
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 pound onions, quartered
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1¼ teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground celery seed
About 1½ cups vegetable oil, (I used duck fat which is excellent) The immigrants would have used goose fat.

Put racks in upper and lower thirds of oven and preheat oven to 250°F.

Set a wire rack on each of two baking sheets.

Using the wide holes of a box grater, coarsely grate celery or daikon root into a bowl (see Cook’s Note).

Peel potatoes and coarsely grate into a large bowl. Add lemon juice and toss. Coarsely grate onions into same bowl. Transfer to a kitchen towel (not terry cloth), gather up corners to form a sack, and twist tightly to wring out as much liquid as possible. Return potatoes and onions to cleaned bowl and stir in celery root, flour, eggs, salt, pepper and celery seed until well combined.

Heat 1⁄3-inch oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking. Fill a 1⁄4-cup measure with latke mixture (not tightly packed), carefully spoon it into skillet, and flatten to 3 inches in diameter with a slotted spatula. Form 3 more latkes and fry until undersides are deep golden, 1½ to 3 minutes. Turn over using two spatulas and fry until deep golden on second side, 1½ to 3 minutes more. (If latkes brown too quickly, lower heat to moderate.) Transfer to paper towels to drain briefly, then arrange (in one layer) on rack on one baking sheet and keep warm in oven. Make more latkes in same manner, using second baking sheet for last batches.


Cook’s notes: The celery or daikon root, potatoes, and onions can be shredded in a food processor with the shredding disk. In that case, use 5 eggs instead of 4, because the machine will grate them more coarsely and the mixture will require more binding.  They can be fried up to 1 hour ahead.

Serves 8 (makes about 32 latkes) As you can see, after cutting the recipe down, I had 7 latkes.

These little treats were delicious, crispy  on the outside and chewy soft on the insides, with a yummy, savory flavor.  Just hints of the radishy daikon.   I served them with a dollop of sour cream and as my side to a dish of Ratatouille, which they complemented perfectly.                                      

I'll be submitting this post as my contribution to our current Cook the Books Club selection (watch for the Roundup, coming soon), to Heather who hosts Foodies Read Challenge, and at Weekend Cooking, hosted by The Intrepid Reader, Marge. I certainly hope you'll visit those links for some good books and food ideas.


Bacon Biscuits and Honeysuckle Season

Our latest Cook the Books Club selection was Honeysuckle Season, by Mary Ellen Taylor, this round hosted by Debra of Eliot's Eats.  The novel was a truly absorbing and enjoyable read, romantic with a mystery, at times heartbreaking, yet uplifting. I didn't find a lot of food inspiration, though was maybe reading too fast?  Hey,  but we Cook the Bookers are ready for that eventuality.  We can get inspired by atmosphere, location and any little off the cuff mention of items from the plant or animal worlds.  Sometimes a stretch, but we're generally able to come up with something.  

Our library never came through with my request for the book, and after more than a month on the list, I ordered at the last minute from Kindle.  Which is why I'm sailing in under the deadline bar here.

From the Publishers: 

"Adrift in the wake of her father’s death, a failed marriage, and multiple miscarriages, Libby McKenzie feels truly alone. Though her new life as a wedding photographer provides a semblance of purpose, it’s also a distraction from her profound pain.

When asked to photograph a wedding at the historic Woodmont estate, Libby meets the owner, Elaine Grant. Hoping to open Woodmont to the public, Elaine has employed young widower Colton Reese to help restore the grounds and asks Libby to photograph the estate.  From bestselling author Mary Ellen Taylor comes a story about profound loss, hard truths, and an overgrown greenhouse full of old secrets. Libby is immediately drawn to the old greenhouse shrouded in honeysuckle vines.

As Libby forms relationships and explores the overgrown—yet hauntingly beautiful—Woodmont estate, she finds the emotional courage to finally sort through her father’s office. There she discovers a letter that changes everything she knows about her parents, herself, and the estate. Beneath the vines of the old greenhouse lie generations of secrets, and it’s up to Libby to tend to the fruits born of long-buried seeds."


Paella for The Princess Spy

 The Princess Spy, by Larry Loftis, is an excellent biography, which reads like a fiction thriller, full of famous people, adventure and romance. The true story of World War II spy, Aline Griffith, a young American girl, a fashion model, who became a spy and then the Countess of Romanones.  I found the book by happy accident, while looking for another title, which I've now forgotten.  Biography is not my usual reading, so I was very enjoyably surprised by the book, and will be checking out his previous titles.

From The Publisher's Weekly:

"Historian Loftis (Code Name: Lise) delivers an entertaining biography of American fashion model--turned--spy Aline Griffith (1923--2017). Born in the small town of Pearl River, N.Y., Griffith moved to Manhattan after graduating from a Catholic women's college and found work as a model for fashion designer Hattie Carnegie. Griffith's life took a turn after a chance meeting with an Office of Strategic Services operative at a dinner party in 1943. Griffith joined the OSS and, following her training, was sent to Spain in 1944 to search for Nazi supporters among the region's social elites. Amid her information-gathering activities, she met and married a Spanish nobleman and became a countess. She quit spying in 1947 to focus on raising a family, but resumed clandestine activities for the CIA in 1956, though those missions remain classified. Loftis's fast-moving narrative includes plenty of colorful details about Griffith's social life, including lavish cocktail parties and her friendship with bullfighter Juanito Belmonte , and he sketches the battles between German, American, and British spies for influence over the Spanish government with precision. Espionage buffs will be enthralled."


The Shooting at Chateau Rock - It Wasn't the Duck


I've just finished the latest (for me anyway) of Martin Walker's Bruno, Chief of Police, series - The Shooting at Chateau Rock.  What a delightful read, an exciting storyline, evocative and full of inspiring food and drink!  A good summary here from the Publishers:

"In Walker's outstanding 13th outing for St. Denis, France, chief of police Benoît "Bruno" Courrèges (after 2019's The Body in the Castle Well), 70ish retired rock star Rod Macrae, his much younger wife, and their college-age children, Jamie and Kirsty, are spending a last summer together at their country house, Château Rock, before the parents amicably divorce. Jamie is joined by his girlfriend, Galina, a Russian oligarch's daughter. When a sheep farmer dies and his children learn that they've been disinherited, Bruno investigates. He soon suspects there's a connection between the farmer's suspicious death and Galina's father, whose shadowy shell businesses may be a cover for illicit activity throughout the Mediterranean and the E.U. Meanwhile, the obliging Bruno helps plan and prepare meals, teaches children to swim, and considers breeding his pedigree hunting dog. Francophiles will relish the evocative descriptions of the Périgord region and its cuisine."

It's like old home week, reading a new novel in Walker's series.  The familiar characters once again come to life, joined by some very interesting newcomers.  His books are always especially inspiring in the gardening, food and wine departments.  Sometimes it's just hard to know where to start. I take notes on the meals and wines. For today, we'll begin with gardening.  Bruno always spends some time caring for his fruit trees and vegetable patch.  I can use encouragement in that area. You can see below that weeds need to be pulled. 


My Mad Foray into Vegan Cooking


Thanks to a very fortuitous introduction, I recently met the author of this excellent Cookbook, For the Love of Vegan Cooking, Deb Gleason.  She and her lovely partner came over for a garden tour and we had some wide-ranging discussions on cooking and gardening, with a focus on Hawaii, where they have just bought a home. It was only while talking to them that I discovered they were vegans.  Ah well, so much for my Lilikoi shortbread bars.  

Additionally, it came out that Deb was an author, not to mention "a former Homicide Detective, turned certified holistic nutritionist."  From dealing with death to better living, you might say.

Not to say that I have any plans for changing over to vegan cooking.  However, having that repertoire available is very helpful, for everyone these days. I'm sure we're not the only ones who have recently met  vegans.  Rather than be stymied over what to fix them for a meal or simple appetizer, I now have some delicious choices handy.  Actually, it was the second time this has happened in the past year.  Both times I broke out some of my Limoncello.  And, chips are vegan.  

From the Publishers: "With more than 100 delicious plant-based recipes, For the Love of Vegan Cooking will show you that veganism is not a rejection of culinary abundance, but instead a celebration of flavors, textures and tastes that are sure to delight. For the Love of Vegan Cooking puts the power of real, healthy food in your hands with comforting and deeply nutritious meals, desserts, drinks, and snacks that will make your mouth water in the best way. This book also includes two bonus sections to tickle your creative juices. Learn how easy it is to make creamy and delicious cultured cashew cheese, and to brew your own fizzy, probiotic packed kombucha.":


Ups and Downs of Where I Come From


Our Cook the Books Club selection for February/March is Where I Come From, Life Lessons from a Latino Chef, by Aaron Sanchez.  This round hosted by myself, and it has to be said, I was inspired right from the start.  On the first page of his Introduction, Sanchez states: "There is nothing about the food of Mexico that is dull or muted  - Cinnamon. Chocolate. Chile  Earth.."  

I had plans for some left-over roast chicken, Chicken Enchiladas, which I usually top with a decent brand of canned green chili enchilada sauce.  Horrors!  But slightly doctored up, when I'm not in a hurry.  In this instance I thought, yes, I have the chocolate, which we actually grow and process, I have the cinnamon, ditto, and the chilies are in the sauce. Viola!  We'll go with that thought.  I first pounded some roasted, ground cacao in my big, trusty mortar, with a bit of cinnamon, added some cumin and sautéed the spices for a few minutes in earth.  No, ha ha, bacon fat.  Stirred in minced onion and then garlic, after that I added it all to the sauce, which was now taking on the color of muted chocolate.  But, nothing dull or muted about the taste!! Transformed by those iconic spices of Mexico.


Cooking With Dandelion & Quince

I was checking out a new wine store in town yesterday, and spotted this cookbook on a shelf.  Dandelion & Quince by Michelle McKenzie. Just couldn't resist! The photography was beautiful, the recipes unique and experimental, with wonderful combinations of little used fruits, vegetables and herbs.  Definitely my sort of book.  And one I will be giving as gifts.

There are so many things I want to try.  Which goal, however does require assembling some ingredients not usually on my list. Burdock... yes, I've seen it in the market here, also known as gobo.  It's popular in Japanese cooking. Though I had no idea as to its flavor profile, possibilities and excellent nutrition. Cardoons?  No, we don't see them in Hawaii.  But, learning from her techniques, we can substitute with things that do grow here.  Experimentation is the note of the day. Opening ourselves up to new ingredients and ways of combining them.

From the Publishers notes:

"Dandelion and Quince features plant profiles—from dandelion to quince—for over 35 uncommon vegetables, fruits, and herbs available in today's markets—with over 150 recipes that explore their flavors.