Blue Plate Specials
by Marcelle Bienvenu
Diners, corner cafes, and Mom and Pop neighborhood bars and restaurants that serve down-home meals, otherwise known as “blue plate specials” may not be as numerous as they used to be, but they are still around. Thank goodness! These institutions usually go the extra mile for their specials, giving large servings and using local ingredients. When I hear the term “blue plate specials” I conjure up such meals as meatloaf, mashed potatoes and peas, or smothered chicken with lots of gravy atop a mound of white rice, or better yet, stewed okra and tomatoes accompanied by browned round steak and onions!
When I was growing up in St. Martinville, there was a café called Hebert’s and you could tell the day of the week by the menu for the day. The specials were noted on a large chalkboard at the entrance to the establishment. On Monday, it was usually red or white beans served with rice and a link of fresh pork sausage. Tuesday’s lunch was chicken-fried steak accompanied by either macaroni and cheese or mashed potatoes (and never made from dehydrated flakes in a box). Fried chicken, potato salad, and peas and carrots was Wednesday’s offering. On Thursday it was meatballs and spaghetti or chicken stew. Friday’s special was always my favorite—fried catfish served with shrimp stew over rice, and cole slaw. Hot French bread and lots of butter was always handy, and Mrs. Hebert made some of the best pies—lemon, pecan, chocolate cream, coconut, and blackberry—I had ever tasted.
Alas, Hebert’s is gone and now I find myself finding about such places by word of mouth, but sometimes I make my own blue plate specials once or twice a month. My husband LOVES these meals but sometimes I have to rein him in because of the richness of these dishes. Remember, moderation in everything!
ROUND STEAK AND ONIONS
Makes 4 to 6 servings
- 1 1/2 pounds top round steak, about 1/4 inch thick
- ½ cup all-purpose flour
- Salt and cayenne to taste
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 1/2 cups beef broth water, or more as needed
- 4 medium-size yellow onions, thinly sliced
- 1 large green bell pepper, chopped * optional
- 4 to 5 cups cooked long-grain white rice
Cut the steak into 3-inch squares. Combine the flour, salt and cayenne in a small bowl and blend. Lightly flour each piece of the roux steak. Heat the oil in a large, heavy pot over medium-high heat. Add the meat and brown, cooking on each side for 4 to 5 minutes. Add 1 cup of the beef broth and scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen any browned particles.
Reduce the heat to medium and cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the onions and bell peppers. Season with salt and cayenne. Cook, stirring often, for about 15 minutes, or until the vegetables are wilted and golden. Add the remaining 1/2 cup water if the mixture has become dry. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, for 30 to 40 minutes or until the meat is tender and the onions are very soft. Serve over the rice.
BEST EVER MEATLOAF
Makes about 6 servings
- 2 pounds ground beef
- 1 1/2 pounds ground pork
- 1 pound ground veal
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 2 small carrots, grated
- 2 ribs celery, finely chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
- 2/3 cup breadcrumbs
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 2 large eggs
- 3 tablespoons ketchup
Combine the meat, onion, carrots, celery, garlic, mustard, parsley, breadcrumbs, salt and pepper in a large mixing bowl. With your hands, mix until well blended. (Remove one-fourth of the mixture and seal in a plastic storage bag. I’ll tell you how to get another meal with this.)
Add the eggs to the larger mixture and blend well. Press the mixture firmly into a loaf and refrigerate for one hour.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the meat loaf in a roasting pan and spread the ketchup all over the top. Bake for 1 1/2 hours. Serve with peas and cheesy mashed potatoes.
SPAGHETTI WITH BOLOGNESE SAUCE
Makes 4 servings
The reserved mixture from above can be stored in a airtight container in the refrigerator for 2 days or frozen for 2 weeks.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- The reserved meatloaf mixture
- 1 cup dry red wine
- 3/4 cup whole milk
- 2 cups canned chopped tomatoes
- 1-1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
- 1 pound spaghetti
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the meatloaf mixture and cook, stirring to break up the meat, until well browned and most of the liquid is absorbed, 5 to 7 minutes.
Add the red wine and let reduce until almost dry, 4 to 6 minutes. Add the milk, tomatoes, salt, and pepper and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer on low for 13 to 15 minutes. Add the parsley and adjust seasonings with salt and pepper.
Meanwhile bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add the spaghetti and cook according to package directions. Drain and toss with the sauce. When serving, sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese.
CHICKEN AUX GROS OIGNONS
Makes 6 to 8 servings
It’s best to use a roasting chicken for this as young fryers will cook too quickly and become stringy.
- 1 roasting chicken, about 5 pounds, cut into serving pieces
- Salt and cayenne
- All-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 3 large onions, thinly sliced
- 1 cup chopped bell peppers
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup whole kernel corn (optional)
- 1 cup young peas (optional)
- 1/2 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced (optional)
- 3 tablespoons chopped parsley
Season the chicken generously with salt and cayenne. Lightly dust the chicken with flour. Heat the oil in a large heavy pot over medium heat. Add the chicken. Cook, stirring often, until browned evenly. about 10 minutes Scrape the bottom of the pot to loosen any browned particles. Add the onions and bell peppers. Stir for about 15 minutes, scraping the bottom of the pan to loosen any browned particles. The onions should be soft and golden.
Add the water and stir to mix well. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, partially covered for one hour, or until the chicken is tender. Stir occasionally. If you wish to add the corn, peas and/or mushrooms, add them now and cook for about 15 minutes, or until all is heated through. Adjust seasonings. Add the parsley and serve immediately over rice.
Save room for dessert.
LEMON MERINGUE PIE
Makes 6 to 8 servings
- 1 cup plus 6 tablespoons sugar
- ¼ cup cornstarch
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 ½ cups boiling water
- 2 teaspoons grated lemon rind
- 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
- 3 large eggs, separated
- 2 tablespoons butter
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
In a medium-size, heavy saucepan, combine 1 cup of the sugar, the cornstarch, and salt and mix till well blended. Gradually add the boiling water, stirring constantly and cook over medium heat till the mixture thickens, stirring. Add the lemon rind and juice and stir.
In a small bowl, beat the egg yolks till foamy, add a small amount of the hot lemon mixture to them, stirring constantly, and then pour the egg mixture into the lemon mixture in the saucepan, stirring. Add the butter and continue cooking, stirring, till the mixture is very thick. Pour into the baked pie shell.
In a medium-size mixing bowl, beat the egg whites with an electric mixer till thickened. Gradually add the 6 tablespoons sugar and beat till stiff peaks form. With a rubber spatula, cover the pie with the meringue, being careful to seal the edges. With a spoon, make a few peaks in the meringue. Bake just till the top has browned slightly, about 10 minutes. Cool before serving.