Pizza

Thank you, Birmingham Breadworks, for getting me out of my house. At an acceptable distance, of course.

Because I ate a full half of one of your pizzas, I felt compelled (really compelled and fueled) to walk five miles in my hilly neighborhood today.

I really am grateful. That pizza with its savory bacon and thick, chewy Gouda on your delicious airy crust was amazing.

And it’s available for pick-up only on Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 5 to 7 p.m. Options include pepperoni, three cheese, Margherita, sausage and cheddar, onion and arugula, chicken bacon ranch.

You order online. Designate a pick-up time and you’re golden. And full.

Sticky Onion Tart. You’re gonna want to make this.

Jamie Oliver‘s Sticky Onion Tart is a real treat. My friend Beth Wilder made it recently and shared a picture that made my mouth water. So I found the recipe and decided to make it myself.

It calls for things you probably already have on hand: onions, garlic, thyme, brown sugar, apple cider vinegar. I had to get the puff pastry during my last grocery run because I don’t usually have that in my freezer. Next time, I’ll get two because I will make this again and again.

A few notes: I had enormous onions in my onion/potato drawer, so I used two and cut them into eight thick slices. Also, I only had light brown sugar, but it was fine. I made this in a cast iron pan.

Jamie Oliver’s Sticky Onion Tart

Ingredients

  • 4 medium onions 
  • 50 g unsalted butter 
  • 4 sprigs of fresh thyme 
  • 4 fresh bay leaves 
  • 2 tablespoons soft dark brown sugar 
  • 4 tablespoons cider vinegar 
  • 8 cloves of garlic 
  • 320 g sheet of all-butter puff pastry , (cold)

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 220°C/425°F/gas 7. Peel the onions and halve across the middle. Place the butter in a 26cm non-stick ovenproof frying pan on a medium heat. Strip in the thyme leaves and add the bay, shake the pan around and get it bubbling, then add the sugar, vinegar and 100ml of water. Place the onion halves in the pan, cut side down. Peel and halve the garlic cloves and place in the gaps, then season generously with sea salt and black pepper. Cover, turn the heat down to low and leave to steam for 10 minutes to soften the onions slightly, then remove the lid and cook until – very importantly! – the liquid starts to caramelise, gently shaking the pan occasionally to stop it from sticking.
  2. Place the pastry over the onions, using a wooden spoon to push it right into the edges of the pan. Bake for 35 minutes, or until golden brown and puffed up (it will look quite dark, but don’t worry!). Using oven gloves to protect your hands, pop a large plate over the pan and confidently but very carefully turn out.
  3. Delicious served with goat’s cheese, a simple salad and a cold beer.

Hand-sewn masks

Back in mid-January, we got two weeks’ worth of pasta, beans and canned tomatoes. For Valentine’s Day, I gave my kids the usual heart-shaped box of chocolates along with some disinfecting wipes and their choice of lavender- or lemon-scented spray hand sanitizer. I thought I was prepared.

But then masks.

photo from WBAP.com

It is nearly impossible to get them now, so I decided to make them. I started with the New York Times’ pattern, which took a while. I made one with that. Next, I moved on to an easier pattern with a pocket for a filter from See Kate Sew.

But now, even fabric is hard to come by. I placed an order with JoAnn only to get one email after another saying, “Uh oh! Items from your order have been canceled.”

Then I came across this blog post from Free People about repurposing old clothing into homemade face masks.

That post was inspired by Becky Vieira, a super mom who created the website Masks For Heroes — pretty much overnight — in an effort to streamline support for making and acquiring masks, surgical grade and fabric alike.

As Becky says: “While cloth masks don’t offer full protection when dealing with COVID-19 patients, they serve other purposes: patients with less aggressive symptoms can wear them, freeing up Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for health care workers, or they can be used as a covering for used N95 masks since, in some cases, many health care workers are having to reuse the same mask for up to five days.”

Visit Becky’s site to find an easy pattern as well as a list of nearby medical facilities in need of masks. In Alabama, Grandview Medical Center in Birmingham, Southern Family Health in Columbiana and Cahaba Medical Care in Centerville are listed.

Closer to home, there’s the Facebook group bham face masks. They are making masks by the thousands and offer practice tips and troubleshooting for participants.

The mask from the Free People blog is super easy. This DIY hand-sewn mask is made with elastic hair ties and whatever fabric you have around the house … even, perhaps, a shirt or skirt you no longer wear.

DIY Hand-Sewn Mask

You’ll need:

Needle & thread (or sewing machine if you have one)

Two elastic bands 

One 10-by-18-inch piece of new or freshly-washed fabric 

*NOTE: Most departments of health suggest that masks be made from two layers of tightly woven 100% cotton fabric.

Begin by folding your fabric in half along its longer edge, so that it measures 5 x 9 inches. Make sure that, if your fabric has a pattern, the pattern is on the inside. 

Take your needle and thread and sew along the long, open side of the fabric (a simple running stitch will work). You’re essentially creating a small tube, with two openings on each of the shorter sides.

Once sewn, turn the fabric inside out so that the stitches sit on the inside.

Take an elastic band and insert it around the cloth on the short side. Fold about 1” of cloth over the rubber band and sew along the length of that side, making a casing for the band so it fits securely in place. Repeat for the other side and, voila! You’ve made a mask! And best of all, you’ve played a definitive part in helping to safeguard yourself and the community around you. 

Here’s a link to a video showing you how it’s done.

(A shout-out to Free People: The retailer is partnering with Goldsheep, an LA-based factory that normally produces FP Movement leggings. They are producing masks that will be donated throughout the medical community.)

Finally, of course, here’s the simple bandana mask that requires no needle or thread–only a bandana and two hair ties.

Remember that social distancing is still key to staying safe–even with a mask.

A fun way to support our favorite local businesses

I love the folks at Yellowhammer Creative. For one thing, I can always count on them for fabulous shirts to send to my friends across the country and across the world even. (There are more than a few It’s Nice to Have You in Birmingham shirts in Munich.)

This is one of the shirts in Yellowhammer Creative’s Locals Series. Love my friends at Ted’s Restaurant!

But now, they’ve created something even more awesome called the Locals Series. They’re partnering with some favorite local small businesses to make a limited-edition line of t-shirts to support these places we love so much–places like Ted’s Restaurant, Queen’s Park, Make Bhm, Parkside, Eugene’s Hot Chicken, Mom’s Basement, Battle Republic, Left Hand Soap Co., Paramount and Jones Valley Teaching Farm.

Queen’s Park is fabulous all the time. It is especially fabulous during Christmastime.

The line is called the YHC Locals Series, and 50% of the profits from each shirt will be donated to the featured business.

These styles are available via web pre-order ONLY. Act now or miss out.

Here are the details: unisex crewneck t-shirt, tri-blend, slim fit with an eco-friendly water-based ink imprint for the great vintage feel we’ve come to expect from Yellowhammer.

Also, there’s free shipping.

This homegrown hot chicken restaurant is one of my favorite things.

Pre-order closes at midnight on 4/16/2020. You’ll need to allow two weeks for printing and delivery.

Still Serving: Crestline Bagel Co.

We’ve been baking bread here at my house. Well, my husband has been baking bread, and I’ve been really enjoying it. Here’s my blog post with the tried-and-true, no-knead, made-in-a-cast-iron-dutch-oven recipe. The original recipe is from Sullivan Street Bakery.

But one bread we always buy: bagels. We just can’t do them like my friend Jennifer Yarbrough and her teams at Crestline Bagel, so we don’t even try.

Luckily Crestline Bagel is still serving during this current crisis.

The downtown location is temporarily closed, but the Mountain Brook and Cahaba Heights stores are open 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. seven days a week.

Photo by Jennifer Yarbrough.

They are doing delivery through UberEats and Waitr. Or you can order online for curbside and takeout at Crestlinebagel.com.

So my go-to whole wheat everything with honey-walnut cream cheese–the perfect mix of savory and sweet, creamy and crunchy-remains something to enjoy.

And I’m truly grateful for that.

Lost and Found

Friends, we don’t know half of what this coronavirus is taking from us. 

Not even half.

Our time with family. Our time with friends. Our time to just freely walk in this world and not think about the distances between us. 

I have often taken for granted the absolute delight of a sentence spooling out—one word sewn neatly into another and another and another, but now I am simply grateful, most days, that the words I fit together make any kind of sense.

Some days I am frozen. There are no words. 

So I look to someone else’s words for inspiration, for distraction. 

Yesterday, we lost John Prine, whose words in song are poetry. Sometimes, we don’t fully realize that, or stop to consider it, until we see them written down.

Here’s Angel from Montgomery:

I am an old woman named after my mother
My old man is another child that’s grown old
If dreams were lightning, thunder were desire
This old house would have burnt down a long time ago

Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery
Make me a poster of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go

When I was a young girl well, I had me a cowboy
He weren’t much to look at, just a free rambling man
But that was a long time and no matter how I try
The years just flow by like a broken down dam

Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery
Make me a poster of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go

There’s flies in the kitchen I can hear ’em there buzzing
And I ain’t done nothing since I woke up today
How the hell can a person go to work in the morning
And come home in the evening and have nothing to say

Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery
Make me a poster of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go

Fox 6 Books: April

These are the books I featured on WBRC Fox 6 this month. Each of these books will take you somewhere else. And right now, while we’re unable to travel (even outside our homes for the most part), they offer windows to the wider world.

A note for right now:  I want you to have access to great reads from your home. While our access to books is somewhat limited, I’ll be sharing books that are not hard or expensive to find. Some are available via the Jefferson County Library Cooperative’s Overdrive (Libby) platform for download on your electronic devices. If you don’t have a library card, you can get an e-card here (https://www.jclc.org). You can also get my recommendations on Kindle or paperback via Amazon. Only one of these books is brand new, but you can get it delivered, too. 

Everything Lost is Found Again:  Four Seasons in Lesotho by Will McGrath is part memoir, part essay collection and offers an up-close-and-personal journey to Lesotho (this small, land-locked kingdom is surrounded by South Africa and is a place few of us have been, I’m guessing).

The author taught high school there, while his wife worked with families devastated by the AIDS epidemic. The subjects here can be serious and sad (there are lots of AIDS orphans in Lesotho; Old Testament retributions are not uncommon), but a lot of this book is laugh-out-loud funny. Truly funny. And that’s truly necessary right now. But best of all, this book takes us to a place of joy and resolve in the face of hardship and incredible love of life—a place where a stranger might reach out and hold your hand as you walk down the street. 

Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins is perfect for right now if you find your attention span shorter than usual. Actually, I would recommend any of Collins’s accessible, beautiful poetry. Also, this is National Poetry Month, so poetry is timely.

I absolutely adore Collins’s literate and totally accessible take on the everyday—things like the scrawled comments of a book’s previous readers or forgetfulness or having insomnia (After counting all the sheep in the world/ I enumerate the wildebeests, snails/ camels, skylarks, etc./ then I add up all the zoos and aquariums/ country by country.) Collins served two terms as our country’s Poet Laureate. He has been called “the most popular poet in America” by the New York Times, and his conversational style and smart, witty and approachable, works are why. 

Abraham:  A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths by Bruce Feiler, the author of Walking the Bible, highlights the common heart of the world’s three monotheistic religions:  Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

All three share Abraham, and so Feiler takes readers on a journey to understand this common patriarch. He travels through war zones, explores caves, talks to religious leaders and visits shrines to uncover some little-known details of the life of a man who connects the faiths of half the world. Read it and understand your neighbors better. Read it and understand that many conflicts are not really necessary.

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel is finally here! Fans have waited eight long years for this final book in Mantel’s historical fiction trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII. This saga started with Wolf Hall and continued with Bring Up the Bodies (both of these won the Man Booker Prize). Both of those books also are available for download, but you might want to own them. 

In this last book, (which picks up after the beheading of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife), Mantel traces the final years of Cromwell, who always has had to rely upon his wits with no great family to back him, no private army at his disposal. But this blacksmith’s son—a common man—rose to the very highest levels of wealth and power in a very fickle court and changed the course of a country before he was done.

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.

Fish Market Family Meals

Right now, when life is so very different, it’s nice to know some favorite things remain available.

The Fish Market Southside is still serving with curbside takeout and delivery (through DoorDash, Uber Eats and Bham Takeout) Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. The restaurant’s full menu is available as well as some family meals.

Family Menu #1 ($38) includes Greek salad, house-made focaccia, Greek chicken (or chicken tenders), Mediterranean-style green beans and Greek potatoes.

Family Menu#2 ($50) includes Green salad, house-made focaccia, green beans and Athenian-style grouper or salmon (or half and half because both are awesome) served over orzo.

photo from The Fish Market

Both these meals feed four, but Fish Market owner George Sarris is known for his generous portions. He is, after all, Greek; they like to feed people. These family meals are available with an hour’s notice all day.

All dishes–from the family menus or the regular menu–are in safely sealed takeaway containers. There’s half-price wine and beer available to go, too.

photo from The Fish Market

The Fish Market’s fresh seafood market is open (9 a.m. – 6 p.m. Monday to Thursday and 9 a.m. – 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday). There are grocery items there, too:  the Fish Market’s own extra virgin olive oil, coffee beans, pastas, Mediterranean sea salt, organic grits, assorted imported olives and cheeses and house-made condiments like Athenian sauce and Greek Island sauce. Grab some baklava, some bananas.

Additionally, some of the Fish Market’s most popular items are now “grab and go” – things like West Indies Salad, their famous gumbo, smoked salmon spread, shrimp or chicken Creole, red beans and rice with Andouille, feta spread, roasted eggplant and hummus dip.

This is comfort food when we all need some comfort.

photo from The Fish Market

National Poetry Month

I can always count on my poet friend Irene Latham to remind me of National Poetry Month.

Musings of an Old Man by Nancy Milford

Her postcard featuring a work from Baldwin County artist and writer Nancy Milford (“Musings of an Old Man”) was a sweet reminder to live my poem.

In happier times, whenever I sent a package to my kids in college, I always included a poem. Always. The poem tucked in with food or other little treats reflected what was going on my my life or their lives at the moment. Sometimes these poems were just about the season we were in at the time. (I also always had the postman stamp these packages “spoiled” just for fun.)

Irene is the author of wonderful books of poetry and fiction and narrative poetry and poetry picture books for children and adults including Leaving Gee’s Bend; Don’t Feed the Boy; The Color of Lost Rooms; The Cat Man of Aleppo (out Apirl 14); Meet Miss Fancy; Can I Touch Your Hair?: Poems of Race, Mistakes and Friendship; Dictionary for a Better World; and more.

Read them, enjoy them and here are some other poetry resources for you:

Irene’s own tips for writers including an editing checklist and books to make you a better writer and Author ABCs. There are resources for young writers here, too.

The Academy of American Poets was founded in 1934 to support poets and bring their work to as many people as possible. The organization celebrates poetry all year long, but this month is especially special. You can search a curated collection of more than 10,000 poems by occasion, theme, form, keywords or poet’s name. I also love their poem-a-day. There are materials for teachers there, too, which should help parents these days.

National Attention, Local Efforts

Our state’s James Beard Foundation semifinalists should be enjoying a boost to business, but this is not business as usual. 

When the James Beard Foundation announces its highly anticipated best-of semifinalists, our state usually has plenty of nominees. 

This year started out no differently with restaurants from across our state named semifinalists in a number of categories:  in Birmingham, Automatic Seafood and Oysters (Best New Restaurant); The Atomic Lounge (Outstanding Bar Program); and Chez Fonfon (Outstanding Hospitality). Three Alabama chefs are semifinalists for Best Chef South:   Bill Briand of Fisher’s Upstairs at Orange Beach Marina in Orange Beach; Timothy Hontzas of Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood; and Duane Nutter of Southern National in Mobile

But now, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit close to home, and these restaurants are closed to the diners who would come from across the country (and even across the world) to experience their dining rooms, savor their food and drinks and enjoy their hospitality.

There are no more 30-day-out reservations, no more lines out the door. 

The James Beard boost to business—which happens even with semifinalists—makes little difference now.

Some of these restaurants are still serving customers, offering curbside pick-up and deliveries. They are cooking for their employees who have been laid off and for other restaurant workers and for first responders while they wait to get back to business as usual.

I wrote about this for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the entire piece here. It’s long, but these folks are still working hard even with their dining rooms closed. Read on to see how you can help them.

Automatic Seafood and Oysters

The husband-and-wife team of Adam Evans and Suzanne Humphries Evans work side by side at Automatic Seafood and Oysters—he with his award-winning kitchen skills and dedication to the fresh flavors of local and regional ingredients and she with her eye for design and her genuine warm hospitality. 

Their winning approach has resulted in weeks-long anticipation for tables, great local (and national) buzz and a James Beard semifinalist nomination for Best New Restaurant. 

Most of that is on hold now, but Automatic is still serving customers curbside with a takeaway menu Wednesday through Sunday. They also offer cocktail kits as well as wine and beer to go. They recently added delivery service.

On April 1—the restaurant’s first anniversary—the menu featured smoked Gulf fish dip; grilled oysters with parmesan and smoked chili butter; fish and chips made with Gulf-fresh speckled trout; roasted chicken with crispy potatoes; seared Gulf tuna with smoked bacon, sweet potato and cabbage; and roasted Gulf snapper with asparagus, baby carrots and spring onions. 

It wasn’t quite the anniversary they envisioned, but Evans says, “We’re glad to still be standing.”

Tips for these to-go orders go to hourly employees who have been temporarily laid off, and customers can help those staff members with a GoFundMe page Suzanne set up. Also, Evans is working with his farm suppliers to help them sell their produce.

from the local farmers are as important as the seafood, in my opinion. And I don’t want those guys to have to close a farm.”

So customers who come to pick up curbside meals might see Andrew Kesterson from Belle Meadow Farm or the folks from Ireland Farms or Justin Hill from Eastaboga Bee Company in the Automatic parking lot with their CSA-style boxes. 

“We’re just trying to be positive and trying to do something good during this time, because there’s still a lot of hope. That’s something that we still have. So we’ll kind of take it as it comes and try to figure it out and know that we’re all doing it together.”

Chez Fonfon

Chef Frank Stitt and his wife, Pardis, have temporarily closed all their restaurants—Bottega and Bottega Café as well as Chez Fonfon and the flagship Highlands Bar & Grill, which has earned lots of James Beard attention over the years: Outstanding Restaurant (2018), Dolester Miles won Outstanding Pastry Chef (2018) and Stitt won Best Chef Southeast in 2001.  

Lately, Stitt has been cooking with the chefs de cuisine from his restaurants in his Highlands kitchen for his restaurant family. They make bagged meals—braised lamb with spring vegetable rice pilaf, duck and white bean soup, hamburger steak with green beans and mashed potatoes—using ingredients from local suppliers like baker Corey Hinkel. Stitt is sharing his own farm eggs—bringing in 45 flats of them recently to distribute to his staff.

This was the first JBF nomination for Chez Fonfon, which got the nod for its hospitality. This is fitting. In happier times, this French bistro is full of exuberant customers sitting around the bar; filling the tables; waiting for tables, drinks in hand. But even in the bustle of this high-energy dining room, the gracious servers can make you feel like your table is the only one that matters.

photo from Chez Fonfon

Hospitality looks different now. “We’ve been communicating more by phone, by text, by email, reaching out to friends and family and colleagues,” Stitt says. “Also, there are a number of our regulars who have reached out that they want to contribute some money for our staff, for the servers who take such great care of them. And so there seems to be that thread of love and care. We can express our hope and express our hospitality in those exchanges.”

Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina 

Executive chef Bill Briand of Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina in Orange beach oversees two different restaurants under one roof: the breezy and relaxed open-air Dockside with stainless steel bars and pecky cypress walls, and the more sophisticated Upstairs with its relaxing seaside colors, onyx bar (impressively lit from below), antique cypress tables and reclaimed heart pine floors from the Godchaux Sugar Mill mule barn, built in 1892 in Raceland, LA. He’s also in charge of the nearby Playa at Sportsman Marina with its local seafood, steaks and tacos with homemade tortillas.

Briand’s creative riffs on Southern coastal cuisine—crafted with locally made products and just-caught Alabama Gulf seafood and spiced with the flavors of his Louisiana heritage—have earned him his fifth straight semifinalist nomination for Best Chef South. 

Upstairs is closed now, and Briand and his team are doing zero-contact curbside—and boat—pick-up from Dockside and Playa. Burgers and po’ boys and Cuban sandwiches. Shrimp and quarts of tuna dip. Tacos, soups, salads. At night, they do family packs of tacos, barbecue, fried chicken and peel-and-eat shrimp that will feed 4 to 6 people. There are cocktail kits and beer and wine to go.

photo from Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina

We feed anybody who asks, he says. “Any employee who needs food. We send food to all the other restaurants that are open, on a daily basis, giving them their own family meals. Any police who come driving through our parking lot, we feed them. Whatever we can do.”

“We were fully staffed and ready to go for the spring push, spring break and it just all stopped.  And that’s hard.  We just want to get back open. We have a clean, freshly painted restaurant. We want to see our locals and see our people come back and sit out here and have a good time, eat some oysters and, you know, really get back at it. That’s what I’m looking forward to—normalcy again. We’ll get there.”

Johnny’s Restaurant

Timothy Hontzas, the classically trained chef-owner of Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood, has been a JBH semifinalist for Best Chef South for four straight years. He has attracted national attention or his fresh takes on Southern classics like fried chicken thighs drizzled with chipotle- and coriander-spiked Eastaboga honey, bechamel mac & cheese, a Parmesan grit cake. But this happens to be a Greek-and-three, and so Hontzas honors his heritage with authentic Greek favorites like spanakopita, souvlaki, rolo kima (Greek meatloaf with lamb) and tzatziki made with homemade yiaourti (Greek yogurt).

Weekday lunchtime usually sees lines out the door of his restaurant in Homewood’s downtown. Sundays after church are even busier. These days, Hontzas is still cooking, but he’s serving his customers with curbside pick-up from a menu posted on Instagram. 

He’s making comfort food when we all need some comfort. Things like pot roast with toasted black peppercorn gravy served with field peas and snaps and mac & cheese; meatloaf with chipotle BBQ sauce; a Greek Pack with keftedes, house-cultured tzatziki, fasolakia (Greek green beans with tomatoes) and individual tiropita (cheese pie). 

He does meal packs that feed six, but, as he says, “It’s a lot of food. I’m Greek. I’m not going to let you go hungry. There’s a little extra in there, too.” He recently added more choices to this menu so people can customize their meat-and-three like they’re used to doing. These foods are delivered cold. You can heat them up as you want, or freeze some for another day. 

His curbside service allows Hontzas to keep buying from his longtime produce partner Dwight Hamm, who has farms in Cullman and Hanceville. He’s still buying meats from Evans Meats, a local family-owned business. He’s still employing his sous chef, and the staff out front alternate days so everyone gets some hours. Staff meals are the Greek foods he grew up eating—comfort food for them, too.

“It’s hard, but the easiest thing to do is quit,” he says. “Obviously, we have to be smart about it … but, I mean, we can’t just quit. … We’ve just got to push through. It’s kind of like Jason Isbell says, we’ve got to ‘keep dropping the hammer and grinding the gears.’

“We just push through and support one another because we’re all family,” he says. “I hope, I just hope it all brings us closer together and shows us how fragile we are and how important we all are to one another.”

 Life will eventually go back to normal, or some semblance of normal that we can—and will—happily embrace. These beloved restaurants will still have their James Beard status months from now. Some might be finalists by then. Some might be winners. 

Meanwhile, we can help them by ordering takeout or contributing to their staff GoFundMe campaigns and ordering gift cards to use now and on a brighter day.