Marshmallow + Chocolate= Nature’s Perfect Food

Chocolate and marshmallow are for me what basil and garlic, what soy and ginger, what sour cream and paprika are for others. Perfectly paired, irresistible, unsurpassed.

So when the Southern Festival of Books asked me to host the session on David Magee’s MoonPie biography, it was really just an excuse for me to buy two cases of MoonPies.

Published by the University Press of Florida (which apparently isn’t associated with a university or it might have actually had access to an editor), the book tells the misplaced-modifier, dangling-participle, incorrect-possesive, comma-spliced story any snack food company would envy: A snack that represented good value in hard economic times evolved into an cultural phenomenon across the South. Soon the company dropped all its other products and for 50 years has produced only the Moon Pie. No advertising, little marketing, no synergistic partnerships. One product that means “Southern” to millions of people in five generations.

How much would you pay for a story like that?

But wait, there’s more!

Author David Magee, a very nice person who genuinely loves Moon Pies even the banana ones, retells MoonPie memories from ordinary people, many of which feature country stores, pick-up trucks and grandparents.

My favorite MP story is of MoonPie and Mardi Gras. Mobile, Alabama, city ordinance requires that “throws” from Mardi Gras floats be soft objects. MoonPies, therefore, have become the #1 “throw” in that city’s parades. Foreign suppliers who already produce beads and tokens also began producing knock-off snacks for less. When parade-goers discovered the treats were yucky fakes, they ditched them on the curbs in heaps and drifts that caused problems for clean-up crews. Mobile passed an ordinance that only genuine MoonPies can be thrown from Mardi Gras floats.

Between the lines, it’s also the story of a family-run business declining repeatedly to branch out. As the world’s biggest marshmallow manufacturer, they might be supplying it to other snack companies. For a marketing strategy, what could be better than a partnership between of Royal Crown and MoonPie sponsoring a NASCAR, or a bass tournament? But none of the above has happened, for reasons not addressed in the book.

Anyway we sold all the MoonPie books in the festival bookstore while handing out MoonPies. It was a fun afternoon, and plenty of people went home with a book that tells their own story as much as the MoonPie’s.

Prominent Nashville Cardiologist MoonPie Indulgence

A real recipe from someone who should know better.

Heat 1 Banana MoonPie in the microwave for 8 seconds in a microwave-safe bowl. Drizzle with amaretto. Eat with a spoon.

Goodbye to all that basil

This summer we were all well and truly sick of the 100-degree days. Can I get an “amen”? But I can’t stop thinking with dread about those chilly drafts rushing along the hardwood floors of my house just a month from now. The family is relishing hot breads and braised foods but will miss summer’s raw salads, fresh pasta sauces and grilled everything. Ready for butternut squash. But sad to see the tomatoes and basil go. The end of summer? It’s a combo platter as far as I’m concerned. For instance, there won’t be any potato salads decorated like fireworks, like this one:

Basil Tomato Tart is this year’s last hurrah to summer. Every bite has the flavor of summer: a sweet/tangy bit of fresh tomato, a waft of basil, a salty savor of bacon, plus the richness of cheese and homemade pastry. It’s deliciousness itself, a wonderful way to wave bye-bye to the last little sweet tomatoes, the last great handfuls of basil.

To be honest, making this tart is a two-hour process. It’s about as time-consuming as a lasagna. Unlike lasagna, shortcuts are not a good idea. In the 21 years I’ve been making this recipe, here’s a list of shortcuts I’ve tried.

Do Not Try

Using a purchased crust and crumbling cooked bacon in the bottom (flavorless)
Not chilling the crust, just pressing the soft dough directly into the tart pan (tough crust)
Not salting and draining the tomatoes (disastrous)
Not brushing the top with oil (ugly)
Enjoy your last fling with summer. I miss it already.

Tomato Basil Tart
For the tart shell

  • 4 ounces bacon
  • 1 ¼ cups flour
  • 6 tablespoons cold butter, cut into bits
  • 2 tablespoons shortening
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • Ice water

For the filling

  • 4 large tomatoes, sliced 1/3 inch thick
  • Salt
  • 1 cup packed fresh basil leaves
  • 1/3 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
  • 2 large eggs
  • 4 ounces mozzarella, grated
  • ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan

Cook and crumble the bacon. Combine the flour, butter, shortening, salt and bacon in a food processor and process until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Withmotor running, add 3 to 4 tablespoons ice water and process until dough holds together in a ball. Pat into a disk on waxed paper or plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour (or freeze for 20 minutes).
(This is the time to slice and salt the tomatoes on paper towels.)
Roll the crust into a circle and fit into a 9-inch tart pan, preferably with a removable rim/bottom. Prick with a fork and bake for 15 minutes.
Combine the basil, ricotta, eggs in a blender and process until well blended. Add the salt, mozzarella and Parmesan and process thoroughly.
Drain tomato slices and pat dry. Line the bottom of the tart shell with end pieces and any less attractive slices. Pour the filling over them. Arrange the pretty tomato slices over the top. Brush with oil. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 50 minutes until filling is set. Let cool 10 minutes. Remove side. Garnish with basil and serve warm or at room temperature. Makes 6 servings.

Hey Tilapia, You Look Like Fun

In the world of high expectations, mine don’t seem so big. I just want an ideal recipe. And that’s what we have here.

It’s easy, and it’s good and it’s fun. Seems like a simple formula, but everyone’s idea of “easy” is different. A troupe of “easy” lasagna and cheesecake trudges across my desk each year. Just to clarify my position: anything with layers, anything that is wrapped, filled or folded individually, and any recipe with sub-recipes isn’t easy. Simple, maybe. But not easy.

And don’t even get me started on “good.” (I’m looking at you, eye-watering, mouth-puckering Fresh Cranberry Cake recipe from Gourmet magazine.) Or “fun” as in Fun Greek Salad

Dream bigger people!

As a remedy, Crunchy Salt and Vinegar Potato Chip Tilapia arrived in a recipe swap. This entrée does it all – good, easy, fun. Four ingredients. Two steps. Kids will eat it. Now that’s easy and good, I don’t care how high your expectations are.

Crunchy Salt and Vinegar Potato Chip Tilapia

Milk (for coating)

Flour (for coating)

1 (5-ounce) bag salt and vinegar potato chips

4 tilapia or other fillets

Pour the milk in a wide, flat dish. Spread the flour in a similar dish or on waxed paper.

Pour the chips into a ziptop bag and seal. Crush them to crumbs (a rolling pin works well for this.)

Coat the fillet with milk, then flour, then milk, then potato chips. Arrange in a greased baking dish. Drizzle any leftover milk over the fish to help the coating cook onto the fish.

Bake at 400 degrees for 12 to 13 minutes until golden.

Grumpy and Happy are Here, but Where are Dismayed, Smug and Well Fed?

I was thinking of using emoticons in this posting to celebrate the digital smiley face’s 25th anniversary. But they’re so … elementary. Where are the grown-up emoticons for dismay, smugness or ennui?

If I could find a “withering glare” emoticon, for example, it would go here:”Do I look like a short order cook to you?” How many times have you said it to your kids, accompanied by the Withering Glare?

    1. The truth is, at my house, apparently the answer was, “Yes, mom, now that you mention, a short order cook is exactly what you look like. Maybe if you had a hair net…..” I cooked two dinners a night for seven years, one for grown-ups and one for Sweet Cheeks. Here is a photo of the two cheese pizza and the pesto feta sun-dried tomato pizzas I made for dinner one evening. Because Sweet Cheeks couldn’t just scrape off the offending items — that would leave behind a few of the dreaded flavor molecules. (Emoticon: dismay)

I complained at work to the other editors. One of the senior editors said, “They’ll remember the time together around the table — that’s what is important. Don’t worry so much the day-to-day quality of the food.” (emoticon: really?!?!wow!)

        So now I cook more food but less often with my strategy called Big Piece of Meat. Cook a big piece of meat and it’s dinner for two or three nights. Roast the first night, sandwiches the second night, enchiladas or pot pie the third night. (Emoticon:

most people figure this out by 30  

    1. self-satisfaction)

The beauty is that there are so many varieties of Big Pieces of Meat. Pork, chicken, turkey, ham, beef, even salmon. Even chili. And, if you select something that goes into a slow cooker, you can have Big Pieces of Meat in the summer without heating up the kitchen. (Emoticon: check out my ingenuity!)

Here’s one of mine — show me yours. (emoticon: envy) I’ll be sharing a few others over the next couple of weeks. Because who doesn’t need a little self-satisfaction in the kitchen?

Garlic Fennel Pork Roast

    1. 1 (6-pound) boneless pork butt roast


    1. 2 teaspoons salt


    1. 2 tablespoons pepper (less if you’re feeding children)


    1. 10 garlic cloves, minced (about 2 tablespoons)


    1. 1 cup chopped parsley


    1. ½ cup fennel seeds


    1. ¼ cup olive oil


    1. 6 potatoes, cut into chunks


    1. 2 stalks celery, optional, cut into chunks


    1. 6 carrots, peeled and chunked


    2 onions, peeled and chunked

Cut the roast in half lengthwise, but not all the way through, so you can open it like a book. Combine salt, pepper, garlic, parsley, fennel seeds, and olive oil and spread it all over the meat, particularly in the “book” part, pressing it into the meat. Fold up the meat and tie or skewer it shut. Roast, covered, for 3 hours at 325 degrees. Toward the last 30 minutes of cooking, arrange the vegetables around the roast and cook until the meat falls apart.

Tomorrow’s forecast: continued tomatoes

Grocery shopping is on my list of fun things somewhere above “wart removal” but below “oiling door hinges.” I’d rather bake a loaf of bread than go to the store to buy one.

So I loved the idea of picking up a box of organic vegetables from a farmer in a church parking lot. No lines, no aisles, no parking struggles, no junk food luring my child, no endcaps trying to sell me vitamin-enriched vanilla chai pretzel mix.

My friend Susan was leaving town for a few days and asked me to pick up her box of organic vegetables. It was so easy, and the farmers (Todd and Sarah) so terrific that I signed up for the next year with Sylvanus Farm ( For about $400, members get vegetables and herbs delivered 28 weeks a year plus the opportunity to buy eggs, flowers, chickens and meat as the farmers have them.

It’s been a wonderful culinary and sustainable step. We’ve had to adjust our cooking and eating expectations, though. A big box of vegetables each week means a commitment to seasonal eating. For better (sweet Italian peppers! Juicy heirloom tomatoes!) and not-so-better (eggplant every week). At this point in the year, the family just wants something familiar, like broccoli or salad.

It also means canning and freezing that reckless abundance. I love making homemade pizza sauce because I can add more garlic, and there’s no added sugar. I usually make a couple of half pints. Half-pints work best because the sauce has no preservative and only keeps a couple of weeks. It’s so delicious that you’ll probably use it all within a week anyway. Keen intellects will note that I used an old caviar jar from Russia. NASA should identify the adhesive holding the label on and use it for attaching the heat-shield — that jar has been through the dishwasher about a dozen times.

When I feel really lazy, I just skin and puree the tomatoes, pour them into a skillet and cook until slightly thickened, then pour into sterile jars, top with sterile lids and boil the sealed jars for 10 minutes. Not exactly USDA approved, but it hasn’t failed yet.

Pizza Sauce
2 pounds tomatoes
2 garlic cloves
3 tablespoons olive oil
Sea salt to taste
Pile the tomatoes into a heatproof bowl and pour enough boiling water over them to cover. Let them stand about 5 minutes, then drain and run cold water over then. Cut out the core and slip off the skins. Puree the tomatoes with the garlic in a blender. Heat the olive oil in a skillet and sauté the puree until thickened, seasoning lightly with salt.
Boil half-pint jars and lids until sterile. Spoon in the sauce and seal. Boil the jars 10 minutes. Makes 2 half pints.

White on ice

Tupperware Avalanche is playing indoors these days, and our thermal-legged Barbie is our newest funster.

See, here, she’s outside, baking in the 101-degree heat, nekkid as a jaybird. But take her inside where it’s cool or shove her in the fridge and her thermal leggings, or crotchless tights, appear. Cuz you need them in an ice bath, that’s why.

We rarely turn on the stove in the summer anyway, but with the troops planning mutiny over the long parade of sandwiches meals, and the heat wave enduring so long, we’re definitely venturing into experiments. For instance, our Spring Roll Salad.

We take the conventional ingredients of spring rolls, but we make a salad from them. Hoisin grilled pork chop, bean threads, mango, Vietnamese salad stuff, lime sauce. Tastes like a spring roll, but not as messy.

Bean threads look like rice noodles but they’re made of mung bean flour so they’re higher in protein. Just pour boiling water over them and let them sit about 10 minutes.

InterAsian Market on Nolensville Road in Nashville now has bags of “mixed mint” that includes three herbs for spring rolls or Vietnamese salads. One is mint, and the other two are a delicious mystery. One is a long, saw-tooth leaf and the other is a jointed stem of smaller, smooth edge leaves that smell and taste like clean river water.

Using ketchup or Thai fire ketchup on the pork chop gives you those ever so slightly charred edges that have a tasty caramelized flavor. It was sensational in combination with the flavorful leaves, tangy garlicky fish sauce and slick cool bean threads.
When it was over I breathed a sigh of relief — one more dinner without the stove.

Have you ever noticed that Barbie’s legs don’t spread? We’ll work on that and report back. Meanwhile, tell Tup what you cook when it’s too hot to cook.

Lime Sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
¼ cup hot water
¼ cup fish sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons lime sauce
1 garlic clove, minced
1 fresh hot chile (or dried)
Dissolve the sugar in the water. Add the remaining ingredients. Chill for 15 minutes at least. Makes 1 cup.

Char-Grilled Pork Chop
hoisin or garlic bean sauce
1 pork chop per person
Combine ketchup and hoisin. Coat the chops and grill until just barely cooked through, but be sure the sugar on the chop caramelizes. Cut into strips or bite-size pieces.

Spring Roll Salad
Bean threads, one bundle per person
Mint, about ¼ cup leaves per person
Cilantro, about ¼ cup per person
Basil, about ¼ cup leaves per person
Shredded carrots, one medium per person
Mango, sliced
Chopped peanuts
Pour boiling water over the bean threads and let stand 10 minutes. Drain, then rinse with cold water until cool.
Divide the noodles among plates. Top with herb leaves, carrot, mango and pork chop, Just before serving, pour a generous amount of lime sauce over the salad.

Flyin my pickle freak flag

Keep your fillet with béarnaise — to me, a grilled chicken sandwich with wasabi mayo and bread-and-butter onions is an unmatched culinary experience. It’s weird, I know.

I’m entering my pickles in the fair this year. I like the chances for my bread-and-butter watermelon stix and bread-and-butter relish for sandwiches and hot dogs. I love that crazy acid-yellow color of the pickles when they first go into the jar. They look like a science experiment gone off the rails.

After a lot of experimentation, the thing I most love to pickle is watermelon rind. It stays firm for a year or more. And never has the squishy texture that a cucumber can sometimes have. And you can cut it into any shape you like. Heh heh.

I’ve tried a lot of bread and butter recipes, and the best combination of flavors comes the recipe included in the Ball Blue Book. It uses a lot of mustard seed, peppercorns, celery seed, ginger and turmeric. (But the vinegar proportions are way off — you need five cups of vinegar, not three. I should really write and tell them, so they can correct the recipe, but I don’t have time, so trust me on this.)

As I read the State Fair catalog, I fretted about which category was the best fit for my pickles. Fortunately, there’s an “other” category. It’s the story of my life.


Lie down with a pimento cheese sandwich, precious, until the weather passes

On a very hot hike this weekend, I was in a near-delirium, thinking that there’s no satisfactory scientific explanation for those tiny hot-weather bugs that buzz around your ears. They get closer and louder. Closer and louder. CLOSER. LOUDER.

And what about those little summer bugs that dive straight into your eyes, where you rub them to a paste? What could be the evolutionary advantage of that?

    • What does all this have to do with food? Nothing. Just to demonstrate that, if I were a character in a poem, I’d be etherized on a table.

In this weather, I give up cooking, and make a big batch of this pimento cheese. I got this recipe at an authentic small-town Southern wedding shower during a hot, hot summer 23 years ago. I was a bridesmaid, and we wore sapphire blue satin dresses and falls of artificial lilies-of-the-valley in our hair, and I’ve never eaten better in my life.

Southern Wedding pimento cheese

This makes a huge batch, so it’s good for a picnic, and it freezes very well for months.

You can now buy Velveeta already shredded, which is a real time-saver. If you shred your own, you really should cut it into chunks and freeze it first, or it turns to goo in the food processor.

2 pounds Velveeta

2 pounds Cheddar cheese

2 (8-ounce) jars pimentoes, chopped if whole

1 big clove garlic, minced


2 tablespoons cider vinegar

2 teaspoons cracked black pepper

Before you freeze it, cut the Velveeta into manageable blocks (small enough to fit into a food processor feed tube, or to shred by hand). Freeze it. (Unfrozen Velveeta turns to goo when you try to shred it.)

Shred the cheeses and put them into a big bowl. Add the pimentoes, garlic and black pepper. Mix mayonnaise and vinegar and blend them with the cheese mixture. Let flavors blend in refrigerator a few hours. Makes nearly 5 pounds of spread. Freeze for up to several months.

Reduced-fat and fat-free cheeses work fine here. Reduce fat further by thinning the mayonnaise with a couple of tablespoons of fat-free plain yogurt.

One working mom’s epic struggle to the dinner table each night.

From speed scratch to once-a-month cooking to slow food, there are so many dinner options these days. We’ve done them all, it seems.

Some of the paths in our journey to dinner were based on my job at the time –newspaper food writer, cookbook editorcollege professor. Other paths were dictated by where we were living – England, United States, with my in-laws.

The main detour in our journey was my daughter, an extraordinarily picky eater who, until the age of 4 ate just a handful of food items: macaroni and cheese, chicken fingers, applesauce, sweet potatoes, fish sticks, raisins, cereal, pizza, ramen noodles, apples.

When it came time for her to eat vegetables like mommy and daddy, you can imagine her outrage. We began several months early with warnings. “When you are 4, you’ll be eating a few vegetables.”

At the time, we lived in England. There was a fennel bush at a cottage near our house. I showed Sweet Cheeks how to sneak a frond or two, and she loved the stuff. Hooray — a tiny victory in the battle to feed her carbon-based life forms!

Fennel was was plentiful, deliciously tender, and inexpensive. Thin pork scallops with fennel was one of my early triumphs – Sweet Cheeks ate this, and soon developed a taste for fresh fennel.

Pork Scallops with Fennel
2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
6 pork scallops or thin chops
6 green onions, sliced
1 cup chopped fennel tops
Lemon juice
Salt to taste
Heat the butter in a skillet over medium heat and brown the scallops, turning to cook both sides. Add the green onions, cover the pan, and cook for 7 to 8 minutes, until pork is cooked through. Add the fennel and toss to coat. Cook just until fennel wilts, then squeeze lemon over the meat. Makes 3 servings.