From her childhood in Fort Worth, restaurateur Barbara Clifford recalls an Easter table surrounded by an army of relatives and laden with ham, fried chicken, potatoes (mashed, fried, boiled), a plethora of desserts and "every kind of bean" available. "We couldn't eat at the table," she says. "It was too full."
Apparently, everything is bigger in Texas. But these days, New York serves as home for Clifford and the Yellow Rose Cafe, a year-old eatery featuring the stuff most of us grew up on -- or wish we had: home cooking.
You won't find any entrees of sweetbreads or swordfish at Clifford's homey, bare-bones restaurant, but you will be faced with such temptations as crisp fried chicken, homemade drop biscuits with cream gravy, buttery mashed potatoes (with lumps!) and, if you have room, a slice of sweet potato pie.
"I cook country because that's what I know," explains Clifford, a ringer for actress Meryl Streep, dressed comfortably in a Western blouse and boots. "When I first came here . . . it was difficult to find a good down-home meal." As for what she did find, "I knew I could do it better," she boasts.
If her clientle is any indication, she's right. Chances are good you'll find yourself seated next to a transplanted Southerner, or a patron who takes both lunch and dinner at the Yellow Rose Cafe. Or an expectant mother: "We seem to get a lot of pregnant women in here," says Clifford. "Two women even called me up to tell me they delivered after eating here."
Clifford's friendly, folksy style belies her serious approach to the menu, for she's as much a stickler for fresh ingredients and authenticity as any conscientious chef in the city. While the majority of her produce comes from nearby Hunt's Point Food Distribution Center, she also imports a significant amount of tomatoes, jalapeno peppers, cucumbers and squash from her father's home garden in Fort Worth. And if the catfish looks good one week, it might appear as a special on her menu, pan-fried, of course.
Clifford's regional taste in home fare is evident as soon as customers discover that the nachos they're nibbling are all Texas-made, Texas-shaped miniatures. Where other eateries might display a jar of kosher dills on the counter, the Yellow Rose sets out its jalapeno peppers, and the biscuits are served not with honey or fruit spread, but with a choice of cream gravy or jalapeno jelly, which Clifford also ships in from Austin.
Perhaps the biggest give-away of her origins are the cacti adorning the tabletops ("I would have gone broke with yellow roses," explains Clifford) and the mellow, country sounds of Ricky Skaggs and Hank Williams that play throughout the meal in the dining room, a mere 30 seats.
But if you peek into the kitchen expecting to find a Southern grandma peeling potatoes or browning ribs, you're in for a surprise. Though the Yellow Rose does employ a chef from Texas, Bobby DeMarco, a recent luncheon was prepared by a Taiwanese on Clifford's kitchen staff.
"It just goes to show you how simple it all is," says the owner, stressing the point that no matter what background one comes from, home-style cooking is easily learned.
Just as there's technique involved in turning out a perfect souffle', however, "there's an art to cream gravy," says Clifford, who uses bacon grease. And that art has been perfected at the Yellow Rose Cafe.
Isn't this merely a fad, destined to follow the whims of patrons in search of the latest gastronomic novelty?
Clifford objects to the notion. "This is not a fad, this has been around forever . . . I've always cooked like this."
Indeed it was the sheer amount of food she was preparing for her husband and herself that in part prompted Clifford to open her own restaurant. "I come from a large family and after I was married, I didn't know how to cook for two -- only six," she laughs. "And what I cooked, we ate." All of it. "My husband said I had to stop."
She may have stopped cooking at home, but she soon found herself in her own restaurant, cooking for hundreds. She paused long enough to find the right kitchen staff, but still spends the bulk of her day at the Yellow Rose Cafe, testing the consistency of the mashed potatoes, overseeing plates traveling to the dining room and greeting the customers.
And when it comes to holidays, Clifford knows how to prepare a spread. Here's a sampling of what the Texan will be serving this season for Easter. BAKED HAM WITH CRANBERRY CORNBREAD DRESSING (6 servings)
Clifford's recipe calls for using fresh ham, but a partially cooked ham may also be used. FOR THE DRESSING: 8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter plus extra for pan 4 tablespoons finely chopped onion 4 tablespoons finely chopped celery 2 cups dry bread crumbs 2 cups corn bread crumbs 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper Salt to taste 1 to 2 cups ground cranberries 4 to 5-pound ham (preferably shank end), skin and bone removed FOR THE GLAZE: 1/2 cup honey 1/4 cup brown sugar (optional) 1/8 cup coarse mustard 1/2 cup orange marmalade
Prepare the cornbread dressing: In a skillet, melt butter, stir in onion and celery and saute' over low heat until onion is soft, 2 minutes; add to crumbs and season with pepper and salt. Add cranberries to dressing and loosely stuff cavity of ham. Excess stuffing may be baked in a lightly greased, loosely covered pan 30 to 40 minutes at 350 degrees. (Place in oven to cook along with ham the last 30 minutes.)
Place ham in a shallow roasting pan and score the top of the ham. Combine honey, sugar, mustard and marmalade and pour mixture over ham. Season to taste. Place in a 350-degree oven and bake 20 to 25 minutes per pound, basting frequently. Corn bread dressing adapted from "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook" (Knopf) SWEET POTATOES STUFFED IN ORANGES WITH CHOPPED PECANS (6 servings) 4 sweet potatoes (substitute yams) 3 oranges 1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar 4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) butter, melted, plus extra for pan and drizzling 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg 1/2 teaspoon ginger 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/2 cup chopped pecans
Boil sweet potatoes or yams in water to cover until tender, about 30 minutes. Let cool. Peel and mash.
Halve the oranges, squeeze juice and reserve both shells and liquid. Scrape out orange shells so that no pulp remains.
In a large bowl, combine mashed sweet potatoes or yams with brown sugar, butter and spices. If mixture appears too thick, add a bit of the reserved orange juice to thin. A moist, smooth consistency is best. Spoon mixture into orange shells and place side by side in a greased baking dish. Sprinkle chopped pecans on top and drizzle with melted butter. Place in a low oven and heat through. YELLOW ROSE CAFE'S POTATO SALAD (6 to 8 generous servings)
"I grew up believing you've got to have potatoes every day," says Clifford, whose restaurant menu bears this out. 6 large potatoes, peeled and quartered 5 hard-cooked eggs, chopped 1 large dill pickle, chopped 3 1/2 tablespoons tarragon vinegar 1/2 to 3/4 cup mayonnaise or to taste Salt and pepper to taste
Place potatoes in a large pot of boiling salted water to cover. Cook until tender, remove from heat and drain. Mash potatoes with masher, being careful not to whip them and thereby remove lumps. (The mixture should be fairly coarse.) Add remaining ingredients, stir lightly to blend and serve at room temperature.