Charles Siskin: A Gathering Of Friends

Sunday, January 11, 2015 - by Charles Siskin

We came up to Chattanooga recently. It was a short one day visit with friends. I’d forgotten how long that drive from Birmingham to Chattanooga could be in a late night rain especially when I thought Gadsden was “just down the road”. Apparently NOT! 

Before we headed back to Atlanta with our youngest grandchildren who’d been visiting on Signal Mountain with their other grandparents, we met up with my boyhood friend and his long-time bride for brunch at Chato’s Brasserie. I’m always blown away by all the new, to me, and quite tasty restaurants that have opened since we left the city 14 years ago. In fact that goes for the city itself. 

Unfortunately as I go kicking and screaming into my senior years, I find that I need that milder climate, salt air and warm sunlight on the chilliest days down on the Gulf. That said, I can guarantee that the Reuben Sandwich at the River Street Deli is still awesome - enough for two in fact. 

We were back home after a visit with our other daughter and granddaughter and a big-time family gathering with all the children, son-in-law and grandchildren at a Mellow Mushroom in Atlanta. Guess the only folks who have those civilized sit down dinners are at Tom Selleck’s house on television’s Blue Bloods or those other insufferable blue bloods on Downton Abbey. 

While I’m no fan of chain restaurants, it’s all about what the grandchildren will or won’t eat and luckily those pizzas can be done “your way”, which means more veggies and less high sodium pepperoni and sausage. 

We got back to the beach in time for the holidays and a chance to spend time with more of our Chattanooga friends, some of whom are lucky enough to have a second home here in Santa Rosa Beach. So on the night before New Year’s Eve, we gathered those temporary expats at our house for a toast to the New Year, a nibble of food, plus a catch up on happenings this past year. 

Being a convivial crowd who enjoys whatever food we set out for them before they headed off to a pre-New Year’s Eve Dinner, we keep it light and simple. Actually it’s a good gauge for large or small gatherings when you just want to have friends over and not fret over what to serve but focus on good conversation instead. I save the more serious fare for intimate sit down dinner of six or less. Actually that’s the most we can seat at our “downsized beach house dining room table”. 

Furthermore since both my wife and I are still active in the business world, we try to make it a rule to not go overboard on the hors d’oeuvre part of the evening. Keeping it simple makes cleaning up afterward less of a chore and in this case let us return to the Bowl Game in progress that evening. As a footnote with 39 games to choose from there was never a chance to miss one of them. 

Our choice of drink is simple as well, red or white wine? I’ve noticed recently that more men are drinking the white, Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay, rather than the red, Pinot Noir or Cabernet. If I were having a younger, 40ish, crowd I would have definitely had some of our great new locally brewed beers as well. Incidentally we are now about to begin distilling our on locally sourced whiskey as well. 

We are firm believers in the totally Southern superstition of collard and black eyed peas bringing you good luck in the New Year. I’m not so much sold on the Easter Bunny and I have my doubts about the Tooth Fairy but I’m not ready to share any of that with the grandchildren. 

This year I did my Hoppin John with a nod south of the border with the addition of jalapenos, onions and cilantro to my black-eyed peas, collards and brown rice. I put the mixture in a great looking soufflé and topped it with some of that shredded Mexican cheese they sell at the grocer. Out of the oven hot I topped with salsa and sour cream and a dice of fresh cilantro. It was the perfect little couple of bites to scoop up with some nacho triangles. 

In retrospect, if there was one item lacking it really was beer or those awesome beer margaritas that I have served in the past. Problem with those strong suckers is that after a couple you really need to either go home to bed or sign up for AA. 

Another resolution I repeat every year is to do more early week end brunches. Since we are both early risers, comes with the territory I suspect, we have no problem inviting friends in before noon. Furthermore since my bride discovered the sweet taste of Asti Spumante champagne we can offer Mimosas or Bellinis substituting peach nectar for oj. 

Also there are so many varieties of Eggs Benedict that it is mind boggling. I just read about using other smoked fish in place of salmon on your Bennies at one of the hip new restaurants over in Brooklyn which posed the question, why not? Also change out the muffins for a healthy seven-grain slice of bread as well. Does that make it another dish entirely? As long as it tastes good, name it what you will. 

One last thought. I took my left over Hoppin John and turned it into a filling for omelets a couple of days after our party. I put more cheese on top of the mixture before folding over the eggs and then once I had slipped the omelet out of the pan onto a plate then garnished with salsa, sour cream and a dice of cilantro and put a ramekin of sliced jalapenos on the side. Delish! 

Hoping good health, lots of wishes that come true, good wine and excellent food for 2015. 

Señor Hoppin John

Moving south of the border for this take on our traditional Hoppin John 


16 oz fresh or canned black eye peas 

16 oz frozen chopped or fresh collards 

8 oz brown rice 

2 cups diced sweet onion 

2 teaspoons each chili powder and cumin 

2 teaspoons chopped garlic 

1 cup olive oil or more if needed 

Salt and pepper to taste 

3 cups shredded Manchego or a sharp cheddar (That 4 Mexican shredded cheese package in the Dairy section works as well) 

1 cup sour cream 

1 cup salsa 

1 cup chopped jalapenos 

Chopped fresh cilantro to garnish 

If you are lucky enough to find fresh shelled black eye peas cook until just barely tender 

If using canned drain and rinse 

With fresh collards you will need to cut away the ribs and prepare a chiffonade of the collards before blanching 

if using frozen or fresh be sure and press all the water out of the collards after cooking 

Cook brown rice according to package directions 

Heat the olive oil add onions, garlic and spices and cook over slow heat until the onions are translucent and well mixed with the other ingredients 

Combine onion mixture with beans 

Layer rice, beans and collards in a casserole dish and place in a 325 oven until heated through. Add the cheese and continue to cook until cheese has melted. 

Optional: Before serving top with sour cream and salsa and garnish with cilantro or put each in a small ramekin 

Put the jalapenos in a ramekin unless your guests are serious about their heat. If so you can add the diced jalapenos to the rice prior to baking. 

Prospero Año Nuevo

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