Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Recipe Box - Pan-Seared Tilapia and Summer Spaghetti

I posted a photo on Facebook the other day of a meal I had cooked, and I got a lot of comments on it. So for those who are interested, here's my recipe...

Pan-Seared Tilapia in a Ginger-Shallot Butter with Summer Spaghetti
Serves 4

Summer Spaghetti


2 cups diced tomatoes (Romas are great for this, or just used canned)
½ cup roasted peppers (roast your own or buy them in a jar) - optional
2 cloves of chopped garlic (or, if you’re me? 4 cloves)
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
A handful of fresh basil leaves (just the leaves, please)
10 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Half of a 14.5 oz. box of angel hair pasta (I use Barilla Whole Grain)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Throw the tomatoes, peppers, and garlic into a NASA-hot skillet with a tablespoon of olive oil. Toss them for 2-3 minutes, just enough to get them hot.

In a large bowl, mix the tomatoes, peppers, garlic, vinegar, basil, and olive oil. Let it sit for 10-15 minutes for the flavors to get their groove on.

Cook the pasta in salted boiling water according to instruction on the pa—no, you know what? If you’re older than twelve and can’t cook pasta, you don’t need a recipe. You need a helmet. Just cook it, ok? Drain the pasta and toss with the love soup going on in the bowl. Adjust the seasoning if it needs it.

Pan-Seared Tilapia in a Ginger-Shallot Butter


4 filets fresh tilapia
2 thumb-sized pieces of ginger root, peeled and finely chopped
2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
½ cup of butter (oh, relax. It’s feeding four people. I use Smart Balance anyway)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Get that skillet NASA hot again. Add the ginger, shallots, and butter. Toss it around until the shallots get a little brown on them and the butter is all melted, then transfer it all to a bowl.

While your skillet’s rebuilding heat, season your tilapia filets. Once it’s smoking add a little olive oil, then add them to the skillet. They should be all sizzly and smoky. If they’re not, you didn’t let your skillet get hot enough. Let them cook until the edges start to pull away from the skillet, just a couple of minutes. If they move when you gently shake the skillet, they’re ready to turn. They should have a nice crust.

Once you flip them, let them cook for about a minute, then add the ginger-shallot butter back into the skillet, cook for another minute, then turn the heat off. Carryover cooking will do the rest.

Plate up your summer spaghetti, and then slide a beautiful golden brown tilapia filet over it. Make sure and get some of that ginger-shallot butter on there. Enjoy!


Monday, May 24, 2010

Memoir excerpt - Dad

Dad was, on many occasions, also a teacher of the lessons you never learned in a classroom. I hated the school I attended in tenth grade. The school I had attended since second grade had closed at the end of my ninth-grade year. As a result, I—along with about 50 other kids of various ages—would be bussed from Frayser to a school in an affluent area of Whitehaven, Mississippi.

The bus ride was just under an hour, but seemed like it took forever, and the rich, preppy kids at the new school hated us because we were from Frayser. I came to view the place as hell with lockers. Consequently, I made it my mission to spend as little time at school as possible.

To keep from having to go, I feigned illness of every imaginable type, including (but not limited to) food poisoning, strep throat, amnesia, and—my personal favorite—not being able to feel or move my legs. If I were not successful in staying home, I would do my best to make it through a half-day, and then call Mom to come get me. My reasoning was simple; if she had to continue to come all the way to Whitehaven to get me, perhaps she would get tired of it and just let me stay home.

Iron clad, right? Wrong.

One day when I called, I told her my eyes were bothering me. I “couldn't see well” because everything was “so blurry.” It was a brilliant performance, and I hung up with the knowledge that within an hour, I would walk out a free man. Despite my protest, I was sent back to Algebra to wait for Mom to arrive. What good would it do? I couldn't see anything. As far as they knew.

Twenty minutes later, the secretary came to let me know my ride was here. Twenty minutes? The drive from Frayser was more like fifty minutes.

As I stepped out the front doors of the school, I saw my father's white Ford Escort station wagon in the circular drive. Mom must have called him while he was at his second job, selling insurance. A cold wave of fear washed over me.

My father was not as sympathetic as my mother. In fact, he wasn't sympathetic at all. We kids could be covered with pustulous boils and bleeding from the eyes and he would make us go to school and church.

Walking slowly toward the car, I quickly began to piece together my strategy. I would begin with an apology for interrupting his route. Then I would casually suggest that he just drop me at the house so I wouldn’t inconvenience him further. I climbed into the passenger seat and made my apology and suggestion, but he didn’t respond.

We rode in silence from the school to the stoplight at the end of the road. I had been waiting for the explosion. Finally, it hit. But it wasn’t the verbal lashing I’d expected.

“Your mama and me are trying real hard to give you the best education we can,” he said softly, his voice trembling.

“Yes sir, I know,” I said.

“And we’re getting real tired of coming to get you two and three times a week because you’re ‘sick.’” His eyes were wet now, and tears began to stream down his face.

“I’m sorry. I know you and Mom are working really hard.” I hesitated. “But everybody at this school hates me—not just me, all of the kids from Frayser. They call us ‘Frayser trash.’”

“They can’t hate you, son,” he said, ignoring the tears that streaked his face. “They don’t even know you. If they knew you, they wouldn’t hate you.”

I sat quietly, reflecting on what he’d said, which sounded strangely like a compliment. Except that Dad didn’t do compliments.

I had planned on being home and enjoying the freedom of my room; instead, I would spend the remainder of the day with Dad on his route, going to the homes of his clients and waiting in the car while he attended to their insurance needs, whatever that meant.

We went to house after house. Dad would go in and spend twenty minutes or so at each. The last stop of the day was at a dilapidated old structure that can only be referred to as a shack. It was too small and beat up to be a house and lacked the rustic charm of a cabin. Chickens scratched and pecked around the front yard, which was mostly dirt, and wisps of smoke curled up from the small stovepipe chimney, only to be scattered by the cool October breeze.

“You can come in with me here,” Dad said.

Fine. I was tired of sitting in the car at every stop. Plus, I still felt a twinge of guilt after he had shed tears and then offered me what I still had not fully decided was a compliment.

Dad grabbed his briefcase out of the back and we approached the old shack. He knocked on the front door, which looked to be no more than a few boards nailed together at the top and bottom with battens.

“Datchoo, Mistuh John?” a voice called from inside.

“Yes sir, Mr. Melvin, it’s me,” Dad called back, opening the door.

“Come on in dis house, Mistuh John!”

Following Dad inside, I could barely make out the figure of an old black man in a dress shirt and slacks sitting in front of a pot-bellied stove, feeding the small flames with kindling.

He turned his head over his shoulder toward us.

“Who dis is you got witchoo today, Mistuh John?”

“This is my youngest boy, Alan, Mr. Melvin,” Dad said, motioning for me to shake his hand.

“How you do, suh?” the old man said with a smile, extending a large black hand.

“Fine, thank you,” I said.

“Y’all come on in dis house and sit down,” he said, motioning for us to take a seat on the couch.

As we sat down, he shuffled into the kitchen area and began to pull cups out of a cabinet.

“How ‘bout some coffee, Mistuh John?” he asked.

“Yes sir, I’ll take a cup. Just black is fine.”

“Does you drink coffee, young man?” the old man asked.

“Um, no sir, thank you,” I stammered.

As he milled around in the kitchen clanking dishes and cups, he whistled a tune I didn’t recognize. It was the kind of whistle you heard in old black and white movies; light and melodic with a heavy vibrato.

There wasn’t much to the room. Except for the light coming from the one window above the couch where we sat, it was dark and it smelled like the old quilts in my grandmother’s cedar chest. There was a small bed in one corner, a chair in another, the couch, another chair that faced the kitchen, and the kitchen itself, which consisted only of a sink, a table, and a small stove and refrigerator. A small table against one wall held several sepia-toned pictures of family in old ornate frames, and an open door next to the refrigerator revealed a small bathroom.

“Can I help you with those, Mr. Melvin?” Dad asked.

“No suh, just don’t let me spill none of dis on you,” he chuckled. “It sho’nuff is hot.”

As I watched him make his way back toward us, I noticed that he was looking straight ahead as if staring at something off in the distance. Without looking down, he lowered one of the cups to Dad’s waiting hand. As he made his way around to his chair and sat down, the light from the window illuminated his face, revealing his eyes, which were covered with a milky film, and I realized that he was blind.

Immediately I knew what my father was doing. It was his way of shaming me and educating me all at the same time. His way of saying you think you’ve got eye problems? I’ll show you eye problems. And not only was Mr. Melvin blind, he was also independent. And he didn’t complain even once about not being able to see a thing.

Dad and the old man chatted for a while, and then Dad got out the forms for him to sign and read them to him. Then he guided the old man’s hand to the signature line, where he scrawled a barely legible mark. Once done, Dad began to collect papers and folders and stuffed them back in his case.

“Now, Mr. Melvin, if you have any questions, you know my number at the office and at the house. You call me now, hear?”

“Yessuh, Mistuh John. I sho do, I know how to get holt of you. I’ll sho call you, too, if I needs somethin’.”

He walked us to the door and opened it for us. Show off. As we walked out, he extended his hand to shake Dad’s, then mine.

“You take care of dis man now, you hear?” he said to me, patting Dad on the back. “Dis here’s a good man, yessuh, a real good man.”

I caught Dad’s eye and answered, “Yes, sir. Yes, he is.”