An old school friend posted a brief rant on Facebook last week. He’s been in the midst of a divorce for a while, but also in the midst of an on-again-off-again transitional relationship with another former classmate, one who is also given to public displays of self-pity that I mercifully don’t see anymore – not since she unfriended me.
I was never really sure what prompted her to friend me, since we were never friends in the first place, but I am pretty sure of the reason she unfriended me: every time their relationship hit a bump, I reached out to him. It’s one of those things you do for people who are actual friends: The ones who walked to elementary school with you, played Risk with you in middle school, are in your high school graduation photos. The ones you see when you’re in their neck of the woods, and vice versa.
The Old School Friend and I chat for a bit and, as usual, he politely leaves out the details, and though he’s frustrated, he also seems to be mentally moving forward: Enough already. Enough with the bumps, the drama, the on-again-off-again.
I mention I’ve been on Jdate, but stop short of actually suggesting he sign up. Though it hardly seems possible that any person could have worse luck than mine on that site, the fact that he lives in a small midwestern college town means the possibility is very real. It doesn’t matter, though. He shudders at the idea of online dating: It didn’t even exist the last time I was single, he despairs. I don’t want to have to learn it.
I feel helpless, and begin searching for something I can do. Would you like some cookies or jam?
Actually, he says, some cookies would be really nice.
I would have preferred he requested jam, since I made a little bit too much Meyer Lemon Marmalade when it was Meyer lemon season. Still, any reason to make cookies is a good reason, and I have a folder full of recipes I’ve saved for just such an occasion. I choose the most promising one, the one I’ve been looking forward to trying since I found it in the Ovenly cookbook: Cinnamon-Chile Brownies.
Sounds amazing, right?
There is something horribly wrong with a brownie that a child won’t eat, and strangely enough, it wasn’t the flavor of cinnamon or ancho chile that she objected to. How could she? They were barely noticeable. What was noticeable, though, was the texture of the brownies, which was all wrong: Dry in a way that suggested the brownies were stale, even though they emerged from the oven not five minutes before we sampled them.
They did not improve overnight, and although there was more flavor of cinnamon and chile the next day, it was still no more than a vague aftertaste – not enough to overcome the awfulness of the texture. The brownies sat around for a couple of days, and every so often I tasted a tiny piece, hoping that this time, they would taste better. Perhaps it was something I ate right before the brownies that was throwing off the flavors, or maybe they just needed to sit a bit longer for the flavors to meld or become pronounced or something.
And then I had my own epiphany: Enough already. Enough imaginative recipes from groundbreaking and/or experimental and/or creative bakeries. I had an hour to make cookies for a friend and ended up wasting both my time and some perfectly good chocolate.
The universe seemed to agree with me. A day or so later, I stopped at the local thrift shop to hunt for a men’s shirt for a costume event, but since I had to pass the cookbook section on the way to the men’s department, I glanced at the books, and what should catch my eye but a hardcover copy of Beard On Bread, on sale for a dollar. I wonder who on earth would get rid of that; perhaps its the same people who like their brownies to be powder-textured. Whoever they are, they didn’t think much of James Beard at all: I found two more of his cookbooks (The New James Beard and James Beard’s New Fish Cookery), each for a dollar.
None of them seemed to have ever been used.
A day after that, the library emailed that a book on which I’d placed a hold some time ago was finally available: A reissue of the 1960 classic How America Eats, now retitled The Great American Cookbook, by Clementine Paddleford.
Who? you ask.
In the 1930’s, Clementine Paddleford set out to chronicle regional American cooking, traveling the country to find the best local cooks and talk them into sharing their recipes – at times, even piloting her own plane. The massive book includes recipes from all fifty states, set in the context of the people who shared them and the communities and cultures in which they lived. It’s a wonderful, engaging tome, and reading it feels a bit like having dinner with your favorite neighbor.
Most days, at the end of the day, I don’t really want a voyage of culinary discovery, I just want dinner. A good dinner, tasty and satisfying. Some days, it is bread and cheese and maybe some berries. Other days, a nice, simple casserole will work.
The first recipe I tried from Paddleford’s book was Popham Shrimp Casserole, a dish that originated in Charleston, a beautiful old city that, many years ago, I spent a week in, feasting on shrimp. I have fond memories of Charleston and its food: You cannot go wrong with Charleston shrimp.
And I didn’t.
The casserole’s ingredient list offers a hint as to why it is likely to be beloved by all: It’s loaded with butter, then topped with bacon and, yes, the rice does a lovely job of absorbing it all. The shrimp emerge from the oven in a mellow, buttery bath of sauce with just the right amount of kick from the red pepper.
I divided the original recipe in half, since it serves eight. It’s just enough for 3-4 people, especially if it was served with a salad and some good bread alongside. You could serve butter with the bread, if you like, though you’ll likely find your dinner is buttery enough.
There are a couple of things I will do differently, the next time I make this: I will get some standard-cut bacon, rather than the thick-cut I normally use in my cooking, which didn’t crisp up (and probably added more fat than needed, though I’m not complaining). Also, I used diced tomatoes, rather than crushed, as called for in the original recipe, but I think the final casserole would be saucier with crushed. I came up a bit short on tomatoes, too, since can sizes have gotten smaller since the recipe was originally published (the amount would be sixteen ounces if you’re feeling precise).
Still, I’d be completely happy to make this recipe again and again, exactly as I did the first time – it’s very forgiving, easy to make, and completely delicious. We’ll just forget about the calorie count, or maybe skip dessert.
I’m still hunting for the perfect cookie to make, worthy of sending to an old friend, so dessert will have to wait.
- ½ cup unsalted butter (1 stick)
- ¼ lb onions (about one medium), finely chopped
- 1 15 ounce can crushed or finely diced tomatoes
- 1 lb shrimp, peeled
- ½ tsp Worcestershire sauce
- ¼ tsp paprika
- pinch red pepper flakes
- pinch mace
- 2 cups cooked white rice
- 3-4 strips bacon
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Grease a 9-inch square baking dish and set aside.
- Melt the butter in a large heavy skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onions, tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce, paprika, red pepper flakes, mace, and salt, and simmer for a bit; then add the shrimp. Simmer until the shrimp is cooked through and sauce is reduced somewhat, about 15 minutes. Stir in the rice.
- Pour the mixture into the prepared baking dish and arrange bacon strips on top. Bake about 25 minutes, until the rice mixture is bubbly and the bacon is crispy. Serve immediately, if not sooner.
and a recipe