Why Cookbooks Remind Us of Family, Love & Happiness

Growing up, I liked to flip through my parents’ cookbooks, especially to look for baking recipes. In 8th grade, I crafted a cookbook for a history project, writing out in calligraphy on parchment paper “receipts” from the Colonial Williamsburg era. I even cooked a meal from these 18th century receipts for my English and History teachers. Judging by the looks on their faces around the dining room table, I may have overdone it with the nutmeg and other spices for the meat.

When we would take the long drive from New Jersey to South Carolina to visit my grandparents, my palate opened up to new tastes, including grits. My grandmother, also a native of New Jersey, had a stack of Southern Living annual cookbooks. I would pull them off the shelf and flip through the recipes, admiring the pretty pictures and imagining being a grown-up cooking a roast or baking a Bundt cake.Stack of Southern Living annual cookbooks.

Grandmother took note of how much I liked the cookbooks and told me I could have them someday. Fortunately, she had many more years after that to enjoy her kitchen and home. After she passed, my father related he could not find the cookbooks, but he brought me her colorful mixing bowls, which I cherish and use just about every day.

As a grown-up, I’ve subscribed to different cooking magazines, but my favorite is Southern Living. Maybe because they are accessible recipes for the home cook and for everyday dining rather than elaborate masterpieces for culinary artists. Or maybe because I like to flip through the magazine and see pretty pictures of homes, travels and recipes. Moreover, I love them because they remind me of visiting my grandparents in South Carolina. I was, and am, so taken by cypress trees, Spanish moss, palm trees and alligators.

This Thanksgiving weekend, my eldest sister recalled a family road trip from New Jersey to Texas and back with multiple stops in between. It was summertime and their sedan lacked air conditioning. It turned out my mother realized in Houston that she was pregnant with me. We all think it’s funny that I moved to Houston as an adult.

When I first arrived for business, I saw palm trees, which made me so happy. And, yes, we too have alligators, but fortunately I don’t see them unless I go to a nearby state park. Still, some neighborhood kids claim to have seen one in our subdivision retention pond and they do hang out in our bayou. I let my dog swim in the pond, but not the bayou, and keep a wary eye on the situation.

We just got back from a road trip we now take at least once a year to North Georgia, where my boyfriend’s family is from on both sides. An important errand was to the grist mill to pick up bags of grits and cornmeal. The real deal stone-ground grains cannot be beat.

While in Georgia, we also returned to a cousin’s home. I stood in the kitchen admiring her cookbook collection, including a stack of Southern Living annuals. When I told her about my grandmother’s collection, she immediately said I could have her Southern Living cookbooks.

Stack of Southern Living magazines.I agreed to take them, but said she can have them back anytime. In the meantime, I have a lot of flipping pages to do! I usually let my magazines stack up for a few months and then go through to tear out the pages of recipes I want to keep in a binder. Now, I have the books to read!

I just pulled out the 2000 one and the first page I opened is about “The Fruitcake Tradition.” I’m not so sure I want to try that, but appreciated the introduction to the recipe notes this is in tribute to a grandmother. Ooh, what about prosciutto bruschetta with cantaloupe chutney?

From the 1984 book, there is a basic crepes recipe. I was just telling my sister about my crepe maker! There is also a section on how to use a food processor to save time when slicing vegetables and fruit. If you lived in the 1980s, you’ll reminder how the Cuisinart took American’s kitchens by storm. I actually have my grandmother’s machine and love it.

I may never have to look up another recipe online with this array of cookbooks serving an encyclopedia of making everyday cooking grand. I’m so excited and will likely share some of my discoveries with you on this blog!

The Sage Leopard



A Buck Named Byron: How to Prepare for the Hunt

Every hunt is different, which is why it is so exciting. One constant is the stillness of the woods or field. This morning, I was propped up against a tree looking over a glen with about a 160-degree view of fall leaves.

A little birdie climbed a nearby tree and I tried to make out his coloring as he climbed bark in shadows. I heard squirrels tromping through leaves as they foraged for acorns. I sat there almost long enough to solve the world’s problems. Checking the time, it happened to be three minutes before the appointed time Byron and I planned to rendezvous at the fork in the trails. Arriving there, I stood awhile listening to a very light wind. I decided to walk into the clearing about 40 yards up the leaf-carpeted road.Tree-lined sandy creek in the shaded woods during autumn.

Once I entered the space, crows circled above cawing like crazy. Were they talking about me or some other being in the woods? I figured Byron would be along soon and I was ready to go. My mind had left the hunt. My rifle was slung on my left shoulder (I shoot lefty) and I held my backpack and seat in my right hand. I was standing in the road, clearing on either side, admiring the flora like a dork. I had assumed the physical stance of a commuter waiting on a train platform.

The Chocolate Buck

A sound directed my attention to the road, and down the hill I saw the swish of a tree branch moving. I heard the familiar sound of a person walking on leaves, as I was expecting Byron. I redirected my attention at the clearing and some thoughts I’ve since forgotten. My peripheral vision detected a figure and I turned to ask Byron, “Did you see anything?” Instead, it was a buck. A huge buck about 25 yards away, if even that far. His eyes were cast on what he was noshing. I was stunned. His coat was a deep lustrous dark chocolate brown. He was so big that for a millisecond, I wondered how a mule deer was in Georgia. But his face was clearly that of a white-tailed deer.

The dark color of the coat was just outstanding. I wondered how I could get a shot in this seemingly infeasible situation: he was straight on, not broadside; he could hear me breathing if I had actually breathed; I was standing straight up right in front of him; I was holding items in one hand and the rifle was not on him. I decided to try kneeling down. My knee bent slightly and he immediately raised his eyes to mine. There was a flicker of surprise and then a long stare. Eye to eye we were locked. I wondered if he would move and then in a flash, he turned tail and let out a woot. His breath was visible with his alert sound and he was gone.Autumn leaves in the woods.

The point of this story is simple. Always be prepared and keep your mind on the hunt. And always be thankful for what you get to see.

Happy Thanksgiving,

The Sage Leopard

Why Do Foods and Scents Make Us Happy?

Growing up, my Dad worked for decades in Midtown Manhattan and his stress would dissolve as he sauteed garlic in olive oil, stirring with a wooden spoon in one hand, a glass of wine in the other. This is what makes my father truly happy: cooking good food for people he loves.

We had a lot of rules growing up: no bare feet outside (ooops), clean up after yourself, do your homework, eat dinner together. The greatest insult would be to arrive late for Dad’s dinner, which he cooked by dutifully following every step from Marcella Hazan, the doyenne of Italian cooking.Peeled garlic cloves ready to go into olive oil for sauteeing.

The aroma of garlic in oil is transformative. I could have a really cruddy day, but feel like a new person after wiping down the counters, tidying up the kitchen and starting dinner with garlic and oil. Yesterday, it was diced ginger and garlic in peanut oil. I improvised a meal by adding carrots, green onions, green peppers, curry powder and other spices as well as ground venison. In another pot, I boiled water and tossed in quick cook noodles and bean sprouts. I strained out the noodles and sprouts and tossed them into the meat and veggies mix. What made this wonderful? The crunch, the meat and the aroma of the spices. There was more than one curry powder, by the way.

If I don’t know what to cook or think, I’ll just open the pantry and start sampling smells from spice bottles. Maybe it’s the memories that are conjured up or completely new inspiration. If you really need a lift, take a whiff from the bottle of vanilla extract. The scent makes me think of my mother, who likes to put vanilla in pancakes, brownies and her smiles. Mom really likes baking cookies and brownies. The smile is indelibly impressed and I feel it open across my face when I pull goodies out of the oven. I just made banana-pineapple muffins and the scent is so comforting.

Homemade tomato sauce tastes the best.My grandmother passed away two years ago this Thanksgiving, and I reflect on her memory often. I can still remember the scents in her home for Sunday dinners. The artichokes and olives on a dish before dinner. The tomato gravy that had cooked on low for hours. The way the fresh ravioli smelled when we opened the box. The almond cookies lent another scent to the festivities. I think of all those things when I make my venison meatballs by borrowing from her general recipe. For her meatballs, use 1 egg per pound of meat, Italian breadcrumbs (“but not too much”) and freshly chopped parsley. For venison, add another egg to better bind the lean meat.

Every time I drop tomatoes in saucepan with garlic and olive oil, the colors and aroma bring me home, back to Grandma’s and back to my parents’ old house. Nowadays, most likely, I’m stirring with a wooden spoon in one hand and a glass of wine in the other.

Buon appetito!

The Sage Leopard

Pork Tenderloin to Match Any Cuisine

Pork tenderloin is a remarkable versatile white meat and it is welcome companion at any dinner party. It is so simple to cook, it’s also a good staple for weeknights. Just give yourself time to fully cook the meat (see below).

When you roast it, the meat takes on the scent of flavor of herbs and spices. It browns beautifully with olive oil and butter, and deglazes delightfully with Madeira or a white wine.

For an Italian take, my father inserts garlic gloves into the meat by first jabbing in cleanly with a sharp knife. It’s easy to insert the garlic right into the slits. He then wraps the tenderloin in sprigs of fresh rosemary.

You can make it for any cuisine just by picking which spices to use in your dry rub. Standbys include mustard powder with flour, paprika, and good ole salt and pepper. I also like to throw in a bay leaf.

pork tenderloin black pepper
Pork tenderloin with green onions and lots of black pepper.

The last time I roasted a pork tenderloin, I looked in the crisper first and found green onions. Before browning the meat, I seasoned it with Maple Black Pepper, a maple sugar spice blend I pick up on family visits in Vermont. For color and a bright spot of flavor, I added the green onions toward the end when I was testing how cooked it was.

Cooking the Pork Tenderloin

Start with a Dutch oven or cast-iron skillet. I have a big enameled Dutch oven that is my go-to pot for roasts. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place pot on stove top on medium heat and melt olive oil and/or butter to coat bottom. To test when it’s ready to embrace the tenderloin, flick some water drops off your fingertips. If it sizzles,  place seasoned meat into pot. Brown on all sides. The browner, the better it will taste. During the growing process, I tend to add fresh ground black pepper.

The bottom of the pan will be getting brown too. Don’t worry — this is where deglazing comes in. Once the meat is fully browned on all side, splash some wine into the pot. Voila, it will steam up as it loosens the browning into a wonderful liquid sauce surrounding the bottom of the tenderloin. Now, place your pot in the pre-heated oven. Depending on the size of the cut of meat, it could take between 30 and 60 minutes to cook. If you have a meat thermometer, test it to see when the internal temperature reaches 145 degrees, I usually cut my tenderloin in half at the widest point and see if it is white all the way through. If you see pink, please keep cooking. Yes, pork can dry out when overcooked, but you never, ever want to eat undercooked pork. I err on the side of caution to make sure it is completely white and cooked. The thermometer puts my mind at ease.

To serve, slice first on a cutting board. A couple of inch-thick slices is good for a serving. Pork tenderloin goes great with cabbage or salad greens. The leftovers can be sliced thin for sandwiches too. Enjoy!

The Sage Leopard

roast pork tenderloin
Finishing up the roasting of the pork.


Introducing Buster Tobias, the Catahoula Puppy

Social media can truly save the day for stray dogs. This is the story of how we adopted our second Catahoula Leopard Dog puppy from the county shelter. Our love for Buster began with a shelter video posted by volunteers to a Facebook page for the pound. A woman in the region then shared the video to a closed group on Facebook for Catahoula owners. That’s when my Saturday morning and life changed. I saw this trembling creature and knew we had to go spring him.

Earlier this year, we lost our old Chester B. to ravages of cancer and his younger brother Higgins was despondent. We’d been conferring on the right time to get another dog and my boyfriend wanted to hold off. That is until he saw the compelling video of the shaky puppy at the pound. That prompted him to push back a meeting with a man about a dove lease. We later showed up for the hunting lease meeting at a Buccee’s with our new puppy wrapped in a towel from the shelter.

The puppy was an estimated 4 weeks old and weighed 5 pounds, but we were guessing a lot of that initial weight was from worms! His little body was terribly distended from worms. This displaced his center of gravity so when he tried to walk forward, he ended up knocking his forehead on the ground. By Sunday morning, our concerns grew for his health.

To put it delicately, there was an environmental disaster in his crate. Live worms came out of poor puppy. This was after his first dewormer dose. Without getting into further revolting details, we made sure his go time was in the front yard and not in the backyard where Higgins plays. Buster was discomforted and even looked a little scared. I could not wait for our Monday morning appointment with our regular vet. Dr. O. set the puppy on the right track with another kind of dewormer, an antibiotic for a skin condition, other medication and well wishes for the addition to the family.

The vet also estimated Buster was actually six weeks old and would likely reach 50-60 pounds when full grown. Just looking at his paws, we wonder if this is a low estimate for his adult size. Sometimes when he stretches after a nap, he appears taller.

He has been growing like a weed, gotten healthy and begun his life of adventures, starting with the backyard.

He has learned leash walking, sit, stay and lay down. He previously obeyed fetch, or “bring it,” but now relies on his own discretion with that command. We will seek to reinforce “bring it,” especially as we want to take him bird hunting. Before we do that, a lot more training steps and phases are in order.

He is now a little over four months old and weighs closer to 30 pounds. He is thriving. He’s also eating my shoes and clothes. The good news: he has stopped gnawing on my hands. He’s learning to bay and starting to boss around Higgins, our four-year-old Catahoula/Foxhound mix.

This is the second time social media saved the day for dogs at our home. A lost mother-daughter yellow lab pair showed up and their family saw my post on a lost & found page. We have had several dogs turn up here and the previous owners said there is something about this house that draws them in — maybe because they just like it here. Buster and Higgins, our pound puppies, love it here.

Moral of the story: Adopt a shelter dog. There is so much love at the pound!

The Sage Leopard