Put on my blue suede shoes and
I boarded the plane
Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues
In the middle of the pouring rain—
Then I'm walking in Memphis
I was walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale...
~From Walking in Memphis by Mark Cohn
I have a penchant for capturing photos of neon signs, especially at night when the pulsating signs, dancing to their own silent electronic beat, illuminate the night sky with vibrant hues, beckoning customers to enter through the establishment's doors, into loud rooms jammed with people, ordering beer and cocktails in plastic cups, and listening to the sounds of a blues guitar reverberate across the dingy walls. The spell is broken when the sloppy, drunken, staggering college-age tourist next to me yells, at the highest decibels his vocal cords will allow, bellowing to know one in particular, "Sing da blues, Brotha." The cramped crowd largely ignores him, but Drunk Guy thinks he's delivered the funniest line ever, and laughs gregariously at his self-perceived cleverness—as a wave of his beer slops over the rim of his cup onto the concrete floor.
My co-worker Adel and I scan the room for an open table. A place to sit will offer us some protection from the stumbling, swilling, shouting clientele. Plus we can order food to avoid becoming drunken fools ourselves. As our eyes scan the multitude of tables, I spot a couple just beginning to rise from their chairs. As my sister Linda likes to say about me, "Everything works out for you, Michelle." Adel and I quickly zig and zag across the room, like we are contestants on Dancing with the Stars, while I try to avoid clipping seated diners in the back of the head with my purse and camera bag. Success is ours, and we snag the table as my butt swerves into the chair to officially claim the seat. Possession is nine-tenths of the law—back away other table seekers! We won the game fair and square. Adel and I order a beer and vodka tonic respectively, and because we're in the South, a basket of fried pickles, mushrooms and green beans served with ranch dressing for dipping the crispy snacks. As the blues guitar wails in lament, I contain myself and try to refrain from shouting, "Sing da blues, Brotha."
|If there's a line out the door, let alone a crowd, chances are it's a great place to eat.
Such is the case at Blues City Café.
The first time I visited Memphis I had the pleasure of staying at the famous Peabody Hotel. As hotels go, you might call it a Grand Dame. I adored my room with the walls pained robin's egg blue. I have a secret yearning to stay in one of their exquisite Romeo and Juliet suites, featuring a fireplace and a spiral staircase that leads to a loft bedroom. I am presently swooning over the mere thought of such a romantic getaway. Aside from the lovely accommodations and abundant Southern hospitality, what the Peabody is most famous for are the trained ducks that swim in the lobby's fountain by day and sleep in a luxurious aviary located on the roof by night. The aviary, coined the Royal Duck Palace, is worth just about the same amount of money as my house. What's really unusual, is that the ducks ride the elevator twice a day to get where they need to go, under the watchful eye of the Duck Master. I very much enjoyed witnessing the elevator doors opening and out waddle the ducks, crossing the lobby, and jumping into the fountain where they swim and play all day.
One of my favorite memories of Memphis really has nothing to do with Memphis at all, at least not in a sightseeing kind of way. It's just where I happened to be when the story unfolded. In the mid-nineties, I was fortunate to be selected for a special advanced technical sales training course. At the time, I worked for a global company, and the participants for the training were selected from branch offices across the USA, about 30 people per class. The training took place one week at a time in three cities, which turned out to be Memphis, Denver, and Phoenix. The training sessions were intense and each student had to pass a difficult test to be allowed to attend the next training, so there was absolute pressure to perform. There would be much shame associated with not passing the tests. Thankfully each training week was separated by three month intervals so we could mentally recover between sessions. I was with the same students from city to city, so we all bonded quickly and looked forward to seeing each other on a quarterly basis.
On the first day of training, the attendees all met for the first time in the conference room—our home away from home for the next week. The draped tables in the long rectangular room were put together in a large U-shape, so we could all see each other without having to turn or crane our necks. As one of the first orders of business on the agenda, we each had to write our names on over-sized place cards, and place them in front of us so everyone could read our names. Next, each student had to briefly provide a quick self-introduction to the group. One of the first people to introduce himself was Dan Owens. We share the same last name. I could tell just from reading his face that Dan would be a fun person to hang out with. Dan seemed to have an easy smile and a quick wit by the way he presented himself. It was finally my turn to speak. I said the "normal" bland overview type information about myself, but at the closing of my statement—I truly don't know what possessed me—I finished by saying, "And for those of you who don't know us, Dan and I are married." I wish I had his reaction on video. In response, his eyes opened wide like a cartoon figure and he looked at me with shock written all over his face, but he recovered quickly. To my immense pleasure, he smiled and replied, "That's right... we're newlyweds." Then no one in the class knew what to think. They made big googly eyes at us. We just smiled and the instructor carried on from there.
At the coffee break I sidled up to him while he was pouring coffee into a mug and said, "Hi, Honey, do you want cream in your coffee?" His retort, "Sweetie, I think by now you'd know how I like it." We laughed and became instant friends. We studied for the arduous tests together and after passing, celebrated by visiting Graceland together, where we had the time of our lives touring the exhibits, mansion and grounds.
Speaking of Graceland, during my visit I learned that Elvis's tagline was "Taking Care of Business in a Flash." He made this statement a logo by combining the capital letters TCB with a lightening bolt. Unbeknownst to me, Elvis named his band Taking Care of Business. The logo is seeming everywhere in Elvis's sphere of influence, and it's trademarked, by golly. Elvis's daughter, Lisa Marie is happily making residual income from sales of items such as hats, baseball caps, and key chains printed with the logo. Some of my favorite sightings of the symbol: it's engraved on the hilt of a pistol and emblazoned on the tail of his jet. (The same jet with a 24-karat gold plated toilet seat and matching washbasin and faucet.) Elvis also had the logo fashioned into gold jewelry, including a ring and a necklace, that he wore with his bedazzled jumpsuits. I especially love the matching capes. You just can't make this stuff up.
At the time, I was feeling broke, and I stupidly passed on purchasing a big rubber stamp of the logo. I've always been sorry I didn't buy it. I can't tell you how many times—tongue firmly planted in cheek—I've wanted to stamp a document in red ink with the Taking Care of Business in a Flash logo. Hey, we all get our jollies in different ways, and there are situations where the use of that stamp would be particularly humorous. At least Dan Owens and I would think so, based upon our non-stop giggles throughout the Graceland tour, which didn't go over well with the faithful fans making a pilgrimage to pay their respects to The King. Unfortunately, in that instance, I was something akin to the Drunk Guy at Rum Boogie Cafe yelling, "Sing da blues, Brotha." We all get frowned upon at some point in our lives. Some of us more than others. For some folks, visiting Graceland is serious business, which wasn't so much in the case of me—even though I am an Elvis fan.
As a lesson learned, whenever I travel now and want to buy a souvenir, I go ahead and give myself permission to splurge. Not too long ago, while visiting San Francisco with my sister, Linda—we purchased tickets to a Renaissance painting exhibition at the de Young Museum. At the gift shoppe, the museum featured Renaissance inspired jewelry and I fell in love with a pair of gold-filled filigree earrings that are decorated with semi-precious stones. After some hesitant contemplation over the downside of spending money, and then recalling that damn TCB stamp, I pulled out the debit card and bought the gorgeous earrings. Every time I wear the earrings, which is quite often, I fondly remember that special day in San Francisco spent with my sister—I don't regret the purchase one bit.
As you likely know, Memphis is famous for its barbecue. There are barbecue joints all over the city. One of the most famous spots is Rendezvous, located near Beale Street. I think part of the appeal of the place is that the restaurant's entrance is in an alleyway giving the place an air of mystery. The basement location could just as well be a speakeasy as a restaurant. All the space would need is a change in decor. The local folks I spoke to recommended and argued over the merits of less famous barbecue establishments, such as The Commissary and Corky's. The Commisary's website declares, "Barbecue and ribs is so good y'ull slap yo' mama." Whereas, Corky's counters that the people who try their BBQ say, "It's simply the best." It appears that The Commissary is up for having a bit more fun (sorry Mom).
|Singing the blues on the stage at Silky O'Sullivan's.
It doesn't seem to matter where we are visiting, my colleagues, to my dismay, always want to eat sushi. It's not that I don't like sushi, because I do. However, eating raw fish on a business trip always seems like tempting fate to me, therefore sushi is usually the last thing I want to eat while on the road. When it comes to food poisoning, I'm always the first person to fall and the last one to recover. It's a curse. So, one evening, against my better judgement, instead of driving across town to The Commissary or taking a taxi to Corky's or marching the distance to Rendezvous, our team leisurely walked a couple of blocks to eat seafood at Bluefin.
Whaddya know—I liked it. I more than liked it—I loved it! Our waiter at Bluefin was fantastic and he expertly helped guide our choices. Everything we ate was perfectly prepared and absolutely delicious. I ordered cooked salmon—a big beautiful steak—served over fresh spring vegetables tossed with a lemon sauce. The guys raved about the sushi. I vowed to make the salmon entrée at home. The lemon-flavored vegetables also work well with herb-coated boneless chicken breasts. "This chicken so good y'ull slap yo' mama." And, even though it doesn't seem quite right, you can indeed put a little South in your mouth with this dish. Oh dear, I suppose at this point I should stop riffing on questionable restaurant slogans and proceed with this week's recipe. Time for me to channel my inner Southern belle by acting like a lady, and for extra good measure, sharing a favored recipe. Y'all come back now, ya hear?
|Herb coated and grilled chicken over a spring vegetable medley cooked in lemon sauce.
This dish was inspired by a meal that I enjoyed at Bluefin in Memphis, Tennessee with my friends and former colleagues, Shawn and Adel. I recently looked on Bluefin's website and noticed that the menu has changed, probably with the seasons. The salmon entrée I ordered that special night many years ago is embedded in my memory banks, so much so, that I have attempted to replicate the taste sensation at home.
This may come as a surprise, but I mostly use frozen vegetables for this recipe. Honestly, this recipe is so easy that you can make it in a snap on a weeknight. Or, you can prepare lemon sauce, without the vegetables and refrigerate for a day or two. Simply reheat the sauce in a deep skillet, thin with additional broth if needed, then add the defrosted vegetables. Quickly grill or pan sear the chicken or fish, and to paraphrase Elvis, "You've taken care of business in a flash."
One final note, I've made the vegetables with leftover sauce from preparing Chicken Piccata. The vegetables turn out equally delicious.
|This is how the vegetables look with shelled fava beans in the mix.
Fresh salmon, cut into steaks, or another "meaty" type of fish steak
boneless chicken breasts, fat removed
Herb Mixture for 4 Chicken Breakts or 8 fish filets:
5 to 6 stems fresh rosemary, leaves removed from the stem, minced (about 1/2 cup)
3 to 4 stems fresh marjoram or oregano, leaves removed from the stem, minced (about 1 to 2 Tbsps)
1 handful fresh thyme, leaves removed from the stem, minced (about 2 to 3 Tbsps)
1-1/2 tsps sea salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
about 2 to 3 Tbsps olive oil
12-oz bag frozen artichoke hearts
14-oz bag frozen Italian fava beans (I spent about 10 minutes and shelled the beans)
1/2 bag frozen corn
1/2 bag frozen peas
1 big bundle fresh asparagus
1/4 cup minced shallots, about 1 large or 2 small, mixed in a bowl with a little olive oil
2 tsps minced garlic, about 2 cloves, mixed in a bowl with a little olive oil
2 Tbsps butter
2 Tbsps all-purpose or gluten-free rice flour
1/2 tsp Old Bay Seasoning
zest of one lemon
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (about 1 juicy specimen)
1/3 cup dry white wine
1-1/2 cups chicken broth, plus additional to thin the sauce, if needed
about 1 Tbsp brined capers, rinsed
1 to 2 Tbsps butter, to finish the sauce
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
minced Italian parsley
a medium non-stick skillet (mine measures 9.5-inches across and 2-inches deep)
|Defrosting frozen fava beans and artichoke hearts.
|Prepping shallots and garlic for the sauce.
3. Prep the herbs for the chicken by removing the rosemary leaves and discarding the stems. Similarly, remove the marjoram leaves and thyme leaves and discard the stems. Using a chef's knife, mince together all the herbs until uniform in size. Add the minced herbs to a small bowl, and salt and pepper and enough olive oil to make a paste like consistency that is easily spreadable.
4. Liberally coat all the chicken breasts with the herb paste using your fingers to evenly distribute on all sides.
You can refrigerate the breasts for several hours until ready to cook. Before grilling, let the chicken sit on the counter for 20 to 30 minutes so the breasts will warm up a bit and cook evenly.
|Rosemary, marjoram and thyme picked from plants in my container garden in the back yard.
|Chop them all together using a chef's knife.
|Mix the fresh herbs with sea salt, black pepper and olive oil.
|Rub the herbs into the chicken and let sit for up to a couple of hours in the refrigerator
or for twenty minutes at room temperature while the grill is preheating.
|Look how nicely the herbs stayed on the chicken while being cooked on the grill.
6. Add the artichokes to the lemon sauce and let simmer, especially if the artichokes are still partially frozen.
7. Preheat the grill.
8. Cook the asparagus: In a separate pan, I use a special asparagus pot that keeps the vegetables standing vertically, add the asparagus and about an inch of water. Cover and bring to a boil, reduce heat and cook for 5 to 10 minutes until the asparagus are fork tender. Remove from heat, let cook slightly, remove the asparagus from the pan and cut the spears in half or thirds, depending upon the length. Set aside until ready to add to the lemon sauce.
9. Grill the chicken: Clean your grill gates with a bristle brush to remove any sludge that might be sticking to the hot grill. Chicken is notoriously difficult to cook on the grill. Boneless chicken breasts, in particular, are easy to overcook resulting in dry meat that is practically inedible. We overcome this problem by cooking chicken over indirect heat. Here's how:
We have a five burner gas grill, but a charcoal grill works just as well. For a charcoal grill, after the coals are hot, simply turn the coals out in a pile to one side of the grill, instead of distributing the coals in an even layer. Over high heat, sear the chicken for 3 minutes on each side. After the chicken is seared on each side, the chicken is moved to one side and the burners directly under the chicken, are turned off. The burners that are located adjacent to the chicken, those burners remain on high. This technique is called indirect grilling and the method helps to keep the meat moist.
After searing the chicken on both sides, grill breasts for another 6 minutes per side (on the non-heated side of the grill), with the lid closed. Cook until the chicken reaches an internal temperature of 160°F. Remove the chicken to a tray or a plate and immediately cover with aluminum foil. Let the chicken rest for 10 minutes before slicing and serving.
10. Final preparation: While the chicken is resting finish the vegetables. Add the corn, peas, fava beans, asparagus and capers to the artichokes in the pan. Add one or two more tablespoons of butter (this is optional, but it does make for a very silky and smooth sauce). Increase temperature to medium or medium-high and heat until sauce bubbles and the vegetables are warm. Taste and add more salt and black pepper, if needed. In shallow individual serving bowls, ladle some of the vegetables and then place sliced chicken on top, accordion-style. Sprinkle with freshly minced parsley and shaved Parmesan.
|This is how the dish looks with unshelled fava beans. Not my favorite. I prefer the fava beans peeled, but that's just me being finicky. Juliette would likely disapprove of me discarding the peels, but Linda would not. Linda and I patiently peel every single garbanzo bean to create a super smooth and silky hummus that is absolutely to live for.