Mama’s Mother’s Day Meal

I have always had a strong connection with my mom. Maybe it’s because she gave birth to me at such a young age. Maybe it’s because she was always ready to play with me after school. Maybe it’s because she constantly supported and encouraged me. Maybe it’s because she made sacrifices for me left, right, and sideways. Sacrifices that allowed me to have all of the things I needed and most of the things I wanted. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s because she cooked delicious meals for me every day of this entire world, when she couldn’t possibly have had the time or energy. Yes, now I think we are on to something…

My mom is certainly right at home in the kitchen. Growing up, I can remember getting off of the school bus and walking up the driveway as delicious smells wafted out of the kitchen on the backs of gentle breezes. Pot roast, fried chicken, fried pork chops, hamburgers, steak and gravy, mashed potatoes, fried okra, and many other southern delicacies could be found on our supper table on any given weeknight. How she found the time to whip up such meals on a regular basis, while sometimes working two different jobs boggles my adult mind. She must have been a superhero.

We didn’t get to place requests. You ate what was there or you were up the creek without a paddle. Luckily for us, everything that flew out of her kitchen was simply delicious. I marveled when my classmates would tell me how they would be having dreaded leftovers for dinner in the evening. I never even knew what a leftover was. It was a completely foreign idea to me. When mom cooked, there were no leftovers. Ever. Every last scrap of food on the table was devoured, every single time.

Now let’s skip ahead to the year 2013. Last Sunday, as you know, was Mother’s Day. If you weren’t aware of this, you may be finding yourself in some hot water right about now. Of course, being the good son that I am, I was fully aware of the weekend’s significance and I prepared accordingly. I made the trek to central North Carolina, where I was born and raised, to spend the Mother’s Day weekend with my mom and dad. I showed up at the front door, roses and balloon in hand, as my mom gave me a big, welcoming hug. I had been in the house no longer than two milliseconds before the talk went to food.

“Now tonight, we’ll be havin’ steaks on the grill at your aunt’s house. I think they’ll be bakin’ potatoes and roastin’ corn, too” she said with her gentle and comforting southern drawl. Before I could even get in a word edgewise, the talk turned to her Mother’s Day dinner – which she fully intended to prepare. She had illusions of culinary grandeur which included making homemade fried chicken, mashed potatoes, slow-cooked beans, and angel food cake with fresh strawberries. Of course this all sounded great to me, but I couldn’t get past the nagging feeling I had of letting my mom toil away in the kitchen on the day that was supposed to be all about her.

Mother’s Day arrived and we still had plans to make this very traditional, heavy, filling fried chicken dinner. Then something magical happened. We were watching a cooking show on television that morning featuring a baked fish and vegetable dish. The gears in my head started to turn. Apparently the gears in my mom’s head were turning as well. We gave each other a look and decided that we would go out on a limb and venture into uncharted culinary waters. Not knowing exactly how this would turn out, we took the leap of faith and decided to make our own spin on what we had just viewed on television. I made the decision right then and there that my mom was not to lift a finger on this meal. I would prepare, cook, and clean from start to finish. What could be better than a homemade meal on Mother’s Day cooked by your oldest son? A meal that tastes good, that’s what. Hopefully I could deliver on that promise.

The meal that featured an assortment of fish and vegetables was cooked in the oven in parchment paper packets. Here’s what we ended up getting for this experimental Mother’s Day feast. Keep in mind, you can substitute any of the vegetables or fish choices to suit your own taste buds. Use this as a loose guideline as you peruse the aisles of the grocery store.

Red snapper fish fillets
Snow peas
Heirloom cherry tomatoes
Canned or frozen artichoke hearts
White wine or seafood stock
Assorted fresh herbs
Parchment paper

Again, this is the route we chose for this particular meal – feel free to change it up a bit to leave your own fingerprint on this dish.To get started, tear off a piece of parchment paper about 18″ in length. Lay this out flat on your kitchen counter. Place one of your red snapper fillets right in the center of your parchment paper. Lightly season the fillet with some salt and pepper, minced garlic, and a bit of Old Bay seasoning, if you so desire.

Now, sprinkle some shredded carrots around your fish. Place some thinly-sliced leeks and fennel bulb on top of the shredded carrots. If you aren’t too familiar with fennel, it has a wonderful and delicate licorice flavor. When it cooks in the oven, the flavor mellows a bit and the intrinsic sweetness really begins to shine. Slice your heirloom cherry tomatoes in half and add some of these to the mix. These will add a nice pop of color and make things bright and cheery for your Mother’s Day meal. Next, sprinkle in a few tender snow peas. Ahead of time, I’d already prepared a box of plain couscous according to the directions on the box. Place a few spoonfuls of the cooked couscous around the fish to give this meal some extra substance. Add a few of the canned artichoke hearts around the edges and you’re almost ready to cook! Place a few lemon slices directly on top of your fish fillet and some of the fennel fronds, to give an extra anise flavor. To add some moisture to your creation, pour about 1/4 of a cup of your white wine or seafood stock all around the vegetables and fish. I opted to use seafood stock here rather than the wine. As much as I love to drink the stuff, cooking with wine just isn’t how I roll. I prefer to have mine in a glass, thank you very much. Add a tablespoon of butter on top of the fish, which will melt down and provide a silky, rich finish. Sprinkle an assortment of chopped fresh herbs over the top. We went with some thyme, parsley, and basil, since they were in abundance in my mom’s herb garden that afternoon.

Before you seal it up, here’s what your meal should look like. I love all of the bright colors smiling back at me. It’s a meal that you won’t have to feel too guilty about eating, because all of the ingredients are good for you!

To seal it up, tear off a piece of parchment paper just as long as your original piece and lay it over the top. Begin crimping the edges and stapling to ensure that things are as airtight as they can possibly be. Once you’ve sealed it all the way around, you’re good to go. Your fish packet will be ready to pop in the oven!

Your fish and vegetables will cook and steam in their own juices, along with the stock and butter. Place your packets in a 425 degree oven for about 30 minutes. Once you remove them from the oven, let them rest for about 5 minutes so they can continue to cook. Now all that’s left to do is open your packets and pig out! Be careful when you slice into the parchment paper, because steam will be waiting to make its great escape and it could burn your fingers. Once you slice into your packet, you will be greeted by a truly beautiful sight.

What a feast! It’s healthy. It’s easy. It’s self-contained. Place each packet on a large plate to serve. You can eat right out of the parchment paper.

The room was initially quiet, as we looked at this unfamiliar meal that was now in front of us. Everyone began to very cautiously poke and prod around the combination of fish and vegetables. Being the brave one in the group, I took the first bite. The flavors were out of this world! The decision to add some butter was a good one – but then again, when is it not? The lemon really infused its flavor into the fish as it was baking. Speaking of the fish, it was tender, it was flaky, and it was delicious!

Old habits die hard in our house. There were no leftovers, just like the old days. Also, not one, but two momentous occasions occurred on this particular Mother’s Day. We stepped outside of our comfort zone, by trying something completely out of the ordinary for our family. Stepping outside of our comfort zone was completely overshadowed by what happened next. Something that even Nostradamus, in all of his infinite wisdom, couldn’t have predicted. I actually did the dishes. That’s right. The Taste Bud got in the kitchen and cleaned things up. But before you go showering me with praise, you should know that the cleanup process consisted solely of wadding up pieces of parchment paper. Still, I do like getting showered with praise, so don’t hold back. Praise away!

Make sure you leave enough praise for your mom. Even if she’s not still with you, make time to remember the good times. I’m lucky to have spent three wonderful decades with my mom and I’m looking forward to the years, the laughs, and the great meals that are waiting for us in the future. That’s a forecast that The Taste Bud can guarantee.

Honor thy mother with food,

The Taste Bud

Something’s Fishy Around Here

Something’s fishy around here, in more ways than one. Where in the world have I been? What happened to my (somewhat) regular blogging? Did I throw in the towel and give up on food and photography all together? Well, unless pigs have started flying, that’s certainly not the case.

Simply put, life got in the way. When you run that statement through the Brantley-to-English translator, you actually end up with this:

Eating. Sleeping. Sleeping some more. More food. Spending time on the couch. Hibernating for the winter. Doing anything but writing. Definitely not writing. Still taking pictures and eating, but certainly not writing.

All of that changes today, on this Tuesday, as sunshine finally streams through my blinds and reminds me that a new season will be upon us on Wednesday. Spring officially begins and with it being a season of new beginnings, I decided to breathe some new life into this extremely malnourished blog. I’m out of hibernation, like a bear emerging from his den after several months of deep, heavy slumber. When that bear surfaces, there’s one meal that is probably on his mind. Look out, because things are getting fishy again…

It happens to all of us. That dreaded moment when you just can’t think of something good to make for dinner. You’re starving and in the mood for a certain something, but you just can’t come up with anything except for the same tired meals you’ve been eating all winter. After a winter of nothing but comforting, heavy, stick-to-your-ribs kind of meals, I wanted to break out of my rut. So, I did the unthinkable. I went to the grocery store without a game plan and decided to do something that not only would challenge my culinary skills, but would feed my frugality at the same time.

The game is simple. Walk around the store and see what items are on sale. Challenge yourself to create a dish out of those items. If you’re going to play this game, you’re obviously feeling a little spontaneous so go ahead and take some risks. As soon as I walked through the doors, there was essentially a light shining down from the heavens on a huge display of magnificent mangoes. Angelic choirs began to sing as I drew closer to this display. What? You don’t have this kind of religious experience when you go to the grocery store? At any rate, their song spoke to me and said that at only a dollar, I would be a fool to pass up on this item, so the mango became purchase number one. Big bunches of asparagus were also on sale, so that quickly became purchase number two. I knew that I could roast them up very nicely with only some salt and pepper, creating a simple and easy side dish to accompany my mango masterpiece. Going down the aisle, enormous red bell peppers were at a deep discount, beckoning me from afar. I placed one of these colorful, red beauties into a bag and placed it beside my mango. Lemons were looking good and on sale, so they joined the gang as well. The puzzle pieces were beginning to fit together and all of a sudden, I had my food epiphany. “Eureka!” I exclaimed, much to the dismay and bewilderment of nearby shoppers. Reminding myself that I was indeed in a public space and that outbursts of culinary clarity were generally not appreciated, I decided to slink off toward the seafood counter, where I could regain a bit of my self-respect and dignity.

Everything was coming together perfectly as I raced toward the seafood counter, picking up a can of corn and black beans along the way. A mango, corn, and black bean salsa was in the works. My only hope was that a delicious and fresh fish would be available to me at a reasonable price. In another magical moment, sea bass was available that day, at quite the deep discount. I had the fish monger cut two nice-sized portions for me, wrapped neatly in crackly parchment paper. Now things are really starting to get fishy. And fishy is good. As I was in the check-out line, I was planning everything in my head. The mango, corn, and black bean salsa would sit on top of the sea bass, which would be pan-seared until it was perfectly cooked. The roasted asparagus would serve as the side dish to the very colorful and flavorful fish dish. Now time to get home and get cooking!

Back at home now, proud of my accomplishments at the store, I get to work making the salsa. To make it, here’s what you’ll need:

1 ripe mango
8 ounces of yellow corn
8 ounces of black beans
1/2 red bell pepper
1 tablespoon of chopped flat-leaf parsley
1-2 cloves of grated garlic
1 teaspoon of sugar
1 tablespoon of lemon juice (freshly squeezed)
1 teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon of black pepper
1 tablespoon of vegetable oil

Dice the mango and red bell pepper into small cubes. Since this will sit on top of a piece of fish, you don’t want the pieces to be too big. The mango will have a big pit in the middle, so you’ll have to work around that, but it’s worth the maneuvering. The mango flesh will be sweet and tender and a perfect contrast to the other flavors. Mix the diced mango, red bell pepper, corn, black beans, and chopped parsley together. You’ll want to make sure you give the black beans a rinse, to get rid of the dark liquid that would give your salsa an unappetizing color. Grate a clove or two of garlic into this mixture. Make sure you grate the garlic as opposed to chopping it, since the garlic will remain raw. Nobody wants to chomp down on a hunk of raw garlic – that’s just not nice. Squeeze the juice of half a lemon into the mixture and add your salt, pepper, oil, and sugar. Taste it for seasoning. You may want to add more salt or pepper. You could also add a little diced jalapeno pepper if you wanted to add a kick to this party. Otherwise, the salsa is done. Put it in the fridge and let those flavors marry together. The more time they have to mingle, the better the flavor will be! At this point, your salsa will look like this:


Colorful, huh? It’s quite the photogenic salsa. Almost too pretty to eat. Almost. Now we need a nice piece of fish to serve as the base for this colorful creation. I prepare the sea bass very simply. A sprinkle of salt and pepper on each side. In a pan, heat up a tablespoon of olive oil and a tiny amount of butter over medium to medium-high heat. Make sure it’s really hot before you place the fish in the pan, otherwise you won’t get that nice sear. You’ll get a nice steam, which won’t have the same effect, or flavor. A few minutes on each side and you’re good to go! The fish will start to flake apart nicely when it’s perfectly cooked. It should have a nice golden-brown color on both sides. Now let’s assemble this plate!

Place a piece of your fish on a plate. Put as much salsa on top as you’d like to eat. I put a spoonful on top of the fish and then sprinkled a spoonful around the fish. Place a big pile of roasted asparagus (there’s a blog from a few months ago on how to do this) next to your fish and salsa. I had some leftover parsley, so I made a puree out of it, with nothing more than parsley, a grated clove of garlic, salt, pepper, and a tablespoon of olive oil. It made for a nice splash of color on my plate and the fish tasted great dipped in it. The entire dish all came together to look like this:


All of the flavors came together so beautifully. The salsa provided the perfect balance of sweet, sour, and salty. The fish was so fresh and absorbed the flavors of the salsa so well. The roasted asparagus (which could be substituted with your favorite vegetable) was great as a side dish, and the parsley puree was an unexpected and fun surprise. The best surprise of all would be how affordable the meal is – coming in at a whopping $6-7 per person. Try and get this in a restaurant for that price. You can’t. I don’t even think you can go to McDonald’s these days for that kind of money.

I challenge you to do something like this the next time you’re in the grocery store. Take a few risks. Use ingredients that you haven’t used in a long time. Look out for those deals. Sometimes when you have no idea what to make, the grocery store will practically scream what you should cook. All you have to do is listen. And there’s nothing fishy about that.

Until I “sea” you again,

The Taste Bud