Mikel and I don’t drink much white wine, and it’s hard to find pleasant, quaffable everyday wines without tons of alcohol these days – wines you can drink on a muggy afternoon such as those we had last week here. With the remnants of hurricanes hovering over us, it felt more like the lowcountry than the Mid Atlantic here in DC. We also had dinner guests whom we knew to prefer white wine, so I bought a varied assortment to try, and I did well.
The Marchesa Anna Tasca Lanza is a friend of mine. The Tasca d’Almerita family owns the renowned Regaleali winery in Sicily, where Mikel and I have visited her. We were long fans of their wines, but several years ago, her brother, the Count (she married “up”), started planting merlot, chardonnay, and cabernet sauvignon and making wines in the international style. I lost interest. I probably shouldn’t have, because although they continue to make their “innovative” wines, they continue to cultivate mostly indigenous Sicilian grapes, and many of their wines are delicious, including their simple white table wine, “Sicilia,” which is made from the Inzolia, Catarrato, and Greciano grapes, which grow nowhere else. Its big aroma conjures honeydew melon spritzed with lime juice and belies its long finish. I was shocked at how well it stood up to the duck and sausage gumbo I served, with plenty of acid to cut through the rich and fatty dish. And at $13, it’s a real bargain.
I’ve known the wines of Gavi since I lived inGenoa in the early 1980s. We used to drive up into the hills above the old city, to go to the home of my friends the Martinis, whose home, Barulè, was outside thevillage ofRossiglione above the river Berlino. As the crow flies, Gavi is not 15 kilometers (a little more than 9 miles) away. We would go mushroom hunting in the woods around Gavi, a hilltop town of crumbling Gothic buildings hovering over the undulating Lemme river valley. Though today the village is officially part of theProvince ofAlessandria, in thePiedmont, culturally and historically Gavi has always been a part ofGenoa. And though known as the birthplace of Christopher Columbus and the banking industry and home toEurope’s most important port,Genoa has long relied on its entroterra, the inland, hilly terrain that has always provided the city the wheat and chestnuts for its pasta, and the oil and basil for its pesto.
We’d take our haul – if we were lucky – to the only little restaurant in Gavi, where they would cook them for us while we had La Scolca, one of the then 4 wineries there, fill a 25-litre flask with the now famous wine. (There are now a dozen producers there.) The flask was a classic straw-covered fiasco, like the old-fashioned Chianti bottles. We’d then take the big flask home and fill 33 regular wine bottles with our own Gavi, which would be our plain white table wine for the next year. At about $2/bottle! (La Scolca’s Black Label now sells for around $50/bottle!)
Gavi, made from the native Cortese grape, was never considered a great wine, but it enjoyed some popularity in the 60s. When I moved back to the States in 1984, I couldn’t find it anywhere. Now, Cortese is planted not only in thePiedmont, but in Lomardy and theVeneto as well, and Cortese is the preferred white table wine inItaly. Gavi is everywhere now, but little of is truly Gavi from Gavi. Unfortunately, the labeling is complicated. And now there is a DOCG appellation as well as DOC. You want a Gavi di Gavi, one actually made on the slopes of the town, or you should avoid the name itself and simply try to find a good Piedmont Cortese. The wines can be elegant and subtle, with an aroma of melon and citrus, like the Sicilia I described above, or they can be absolutely insipid. Ask your wine merchant to open a bottle for you to taste it. And don’t pay more than $20. We had the La Slina 2007, whose nose was more floral than I remembered, and it showed crunchy apple acidity. Be sure to buy this wine young. It does not last.
We also had the 2007 Piemonte Cortese by Terre d’Aleramo, the maker of Barbera, and I was pleasantly surprised that it held its own after tasting the Slina, though it didn’t show nearly as much fruit (which was fine because what we needed with that gumbo was acid).
All three of these wines were easy to toss back with their low alcohol content (only 11.5% for the Cortese and 12% for the Gavi and Sicilia).
Duck and Sausage Gumbo (from Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking)
Duck and Sausage Gumbo is one of the most widely copied recipes in the South, as it does not depend on the fresh shellfish that so many other gumbo recipes demand. It is an ideal way to feed several hungry mouths with inexpensive duck and sausage and it is absolutely delicious. In slight imitation of a Vietnamese idea, I hold the duck breasts out of the soup until the last minute, then sear them and the sausages just before adding them to the gumbo. You will need to begin this recipe several hours — or the day before — you are planning to serve it.
Once again, I used banana peppers from my friends’ garden instead of the bell pepper called for. I simply removed the hot ribs from within the peppers. There’s a wonderful little video herethat is very informative about peppers and the capsaicin that makes them hot.
Several hours or the day before:
a 4-5 pound duck
salt, pepper, and cayenne
3 quarts water
1 large onion, quartered
1 large or 2 small carrots, broken into pieces
2 ribs celery, broken into pieces
a handful of fresh herbs
Remove the duck breast halves, with skin attached, from the duck by slicing down the sides of the breast bone and slicing the breast halves away from the rib cages. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and cayenne and place on a nonreactive plate, covered, in the refrigerator. Remove the skin from the rest of the duck and set aside. Put the carcass and the remaining ingredients in a stockpot on top of the stove, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and cook over a low boil until the duck is tender, about an hour, skimming fat and scum from the surface as necessary. Strain the stock and pick all the meat from the carcass. Set the stock aside to cool and refrigerate the meat.
While the stock is cooking, render the duck fat as described on December 20, 2007, and then use it to make a dark roux, as also described in that blog entry. Refrigerate the roux or continue with the recipe.
The next day, or about 2 hours before serving:
3/4 cup of the duck fat roux
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup chopped onions
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped bell peppers
1 pound capped and cut up okra
stock from above (about 2 quarts)
salt, pepper, and hot pepper (either chopped fresh or a bottled sauce) to taste
reserved duck breasts and picked duck meat
1 pound spicy hot smoked sausage, cut into 1″ pieces
3 cups cooked long grain white rice
Heat the roux in a large Dutch oven, then add the garlic, onions, celery, and green pepper. Cook over medium heat until the onions begin to clear, stirring constantly, about 10 minutes. Add the okra and cook until all ropiness is gone, about 20 minutes, stirring often. Add the stock gradually, stirring it into the mixture, and simmer uncovered for about an hour or so. Taste the soup for seasoning, and adjust to taste, remembering that the soup will have the seasoned duck breasts and the sausage added later. About a half-hour before serving, put your rice on to steam and add the picked duck meat to the gumbo pot.
Score the skin of the duck breasts down to, but not into, the flesh in several places. Put them skin side down in a medium hot frying pan and cook them several minutes, until the skin is crispy and brown. Turn them over and cook them briefly on the other side. Set aside on a plate. Place the sausage in the skillet where the duck breasts were cooked and cook the pieces in the duck fat until they are nicely browned all over, about ten minutes. Slice the duck breast into thin strips and add them and the sausage to the gumbo. Serve in bowls over fluffy white rice.
Rabbit with Olives
On Sunday afternoon, I prepared a classic Ligurian dish, Coniggio a-a Carlonn-a, which David Downie translates as Rabbit that “even an idiot can prepare,” but which literally means, in a rush and without care. Colman Andrews is closer when he calls it “rabbit in a careless or haphazard style,” pointing out that it can be made with any number of ingredients as long as rabbits and olives are present. I’ve given general instructions below.
With it we served one of my favorite finds of the summer, the 2007 “La Dame Rousse” Côtes-du-Rhône rosé from Domaine de la Mordorée in Tavel. I wasn’t sure why this lovely, full-bodied (14% alcohol) wine isn’t classified as Tavel (whose glory days, in my opinion, have faded), but I see now that the rosé de Tavel appellation must contain 15% Cinsault. The Mordorée (the word describes the golden reddish color of the wine) grapes are naturally raised, hand-picked, and crafted into this elegant wine that was perfect with the pungent olive braise. I love rosés that are predominantly Grenache, and this “red-headed woman” as it’s called, is 50% of that luscious grape, 40% lusty Syrah and 10% Cinsault (according to the bottle. Interestingly, their website says it’s 15% Cinsault after all.)
PS: I wrote to the winery and asked about the cépage (the grape varieties used in the wine) and they (sort of) cleared it up for me (you can read our correspondence in Readers’ Comments). As it turns out, the percentages on the labels are rounded off (presumably, I would imagine, so that they can use the labels year after year).
For specific vintages, go to the vintner’s websites. Or write to them, as I did.
On Friday night I had planned to cook the rabbit, but we had a power outage that lasted for 10 hours, so when Mikel got home from work, we drove over to Palena, former White House Chef Frank Ruta’s wonderful restaurant, and had a sublime meal. You can read some correspondence between Frank and me in Readers’ Comments.
I also cooked a couple of pounds of chicken and duck livers in butter with melted shallots, adding a cup of crème fraîche and a few tablespoons of brandy, seasoning it with quatre épices and salt and allowing it to cook about ten minutes until the flavors were well mingled. I pureed it and then meticulously strained it through my finest mesh strainer into a tub and let it chill. Chopped liver never tasted so good!
For the rabbit, I cut it up and browned the pieces in olive oil, added a chopped onion and a couple of cloves of chopped garlic, and minced sage and thyme. I then added about 1/3 cup of pine nuts and 2 cups of white wine and let it simmer, covered, for about an hour, adding both green and black Ligurian olives the last 10 minutes or so. For guests, I would pit the olives, but I didn’t for Mikel and me.
September 26, 2008 Happy Birthday, Nancy!
My sister Nancy’s 65th birthday was today and my niece Lindsay (Taylor, my brother Mike’s daughter), sent me some photos from their celebration on Edisto Island. Sorry I missed it! This view is from our friend Bubba and Mary Ann Foy’s porch.
Highfield (my sister Sue’s grandchildren), getting ready to chow down on some crab. All photos by Lindsay Taylor.
PS: I just heard from Sue. Here’s the menu for the weekend:
The Atlantic blue crab is my favorite food. More delicate and versatile than their lofty cousins from Maine, they are also more common than lobster. Charleston is famous for its she-crab soup, but crabmeat itself is so incredibly delicious that I hesitate to team it with dairy products, especially in warmer weather when crab is plentiful. As a child, crabbing was one of my favorite activities, even when I knew full well that I could probably catch more by simply putting out the family trap. In the fifties, when Cap’n Mac Holmes was the partiarch of Edisto Island, we would visit his children and grandchildren at his old house on the beach and sit spellbound by his cigar box of fossilized sharks’ teeth, millions of years old, and his Gullah tales of hurricanes and haints. He was Granddaddy to all, and headed up the old “yacht” club down at the wide and shallow mouth of the South Edisto River, on the southern tip of the island, where we loved to crab. It’s no wonder the Lowcountry saw the disappearance of good homemade chicken stock, given all the chicken parts we used to pull in crabs on the end of our weighted cotton twine!
At other times we might go back up inland to Cowpens, a spot mid-marsh off Legare (le gree’) Road, where we dangled our strings at low tide from the dilapidated bridge, and where, years later, in high school, I pulled innumerable friends’ cars out of the mud with my jeep, which my father had bought me on the condition that I rebuild it, which I did, simply to have it for Edisto Beach that summer. Before the onslaught of development in the Lowcountry in the early seventies, I do not remember ever coming home empty-handed from a crabbing jaunt, and they were not only plentiful then, but larger as well.
It was on Hilton Head Island, though, that I really learned about crabs; as much as I love Charleston and Edisto, something dramatic happens when you cross Port Royal Sound, as if it were a culinary boundary as the Fall Line is a geographic one. Perhaps the lack of a bridge to Hilton Head and Daufuskie Islands kept their traditions isolated and pure; or perhaps it was the cooking of boating families that was so different, given cramped conditions and limited stores. South of Port Royal, people really know their crabs, and they clean them live.
Many cities claim crabs as their own: Baltimore, New Orleans, Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, Jacksonville, and Wilmington. And we all love a good crab boil. But down around Daufuskie you’re likely to be invited to a different kind of crab crack — one that isn’t messy at all, because the crabs are cleaned before they are steamed.
If you are the squeamish sort, you can always ice the crabs down for awhile before you start — but be sure all of them are alive and kicking before you do. Grab the crab from behind. You may find it easy to grab hold of its last set of legs, which are flattened into paddles for swimming. Or you may want to lay something heavy across the crab or grasp it with big crab tongs if you’re afraid (and well you might be: a crab can all but sever a finger). Then, with the crab facing away from you, grab one of its pincers at the joint and twist the entire claw down and off the body. Then do the same with the second claw.
Turn the crab over and pull its apron away from its body. Then, using the apron as its “pop-tab,’ or by inserting a fork into the crab at the edge where the apron is attached, pop the entire carapace off the crab. Discard or save for a stock or devilled crab. Pull off the gills and the spongy “dead man,” but if the crab is a female with unmistakable, bright orange roe, save it. Rip off the mouth and pop the body in half (or use a knife or kitchen shears), then rinse the claws and body halves in cold water. You now have a crab that is all meat and a little bit of shell, ready to be cooked in half the time and space, and to be enjoyed without the sloppiness of boiled whole crabs. You will not need so large a pot, and an inch of seasoned water in the bottom of a pan is really all that is needed to steam crabs. Let it come to a boil, add the claws and the body parts, Cover and steam for about ten minutes. The crabs will cook perfectly in the steam, not absorb water and overcook, and are much safer, cleaner, and will keep better than traditionally boiled whole crabs. But the best part is in the eating, for picking the meat from a steamed, cleaned crab is a simple process. Where each leg is attached to the body, a chamber holds a perfect piece of meat which will come out with little effort and no tools. Clean and cook crabs once this way and I predict that you will never go back to boiling live crabs again, unless you are from Louisiana or Maryland and are jaded by a need for heavily seasoned salts clinging to the shells of your crabs. And for recipes calling for crab meat (expensive even in Charleston) this method is so much easier and saves so much time. (A dozen live crabs will yield a pound of white lump crabmeat, plus the claws.) But the bottom line is: after you have eaten crabs cooked this way, you will probably find it unappetizing to sit down to crab guts at a traditional boil.
I do, however, love an occasional crab boil: there is something profound and human — however sadistic — about the entire scenario it creates: that hysterically funny scene in ANNIE HALL with the lobster loose in the kitchen and the sheer beauty of those shells changing from cerulean to cadmium red. And, truth be told, I’m not about to clean crabs for more than a handful of my closest friends: it is work. But if you’re one of those incredibly patient people who can pick dozens of crabs at a time, and do, I highly recommend this method.
Crabs have inspired a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, an enormous industry, and a world of recipes. In 1988, six million pounds of local crabs were commercially harvested in South Carolina. Even the Seafood Marketing Department of the South Carolina Wildlife and Marine Resources Department hesitates to guess how many more are taken recreationally.
The recipes I featured in Lowcountry were chosen to show off the Lowcountry’s particular way with these crustaceans. Harriott Pinckney Horry’s receipt book from Hampton Plantation, about forty miles north of Charleston, includes the following, written about 1770. Today, it would be called “Panned Crabmeat.”
To Stew Crabs
To stew Crabs choose three or four Crabs, pick the meat clean out of the body and claws, take care no spungy part be left among it or any of the shell, put this clean meat into a stew pan, with a little white wine, some pepper and salt, and a little grated Nutmeg, heat all this, well together, and then put in Crums of Bread, the yolks of two Eggs beat up and one Spoonful of Vinegar. Stir all well together, make some toasted Sippets, lay them in a plate and pour in the crabs. Send it up hot.
Crabs Steamed in Beer
Of the varied flavorings and liquids used to steam crabs and other shellfish, beer is perhaps the local favorite. For a dozen crabs, put a 12-ounce beer in the bottom of a 3-quart saucepan with a teaspoon or two of seafood boil such as Old Bay. Bring to a boil, add the claws, then the other body parts, cover tightly, and steam for 10 minutes. If you’re using whole crabs, you’ll need to let them cook for about twice that long.
For the stock:
1 pound extremely fresh heads-on shrimp or 1/2 pound shrimp plus 1/2
pound lobster, crab, or crawfish shells
1 celery rib
a few fresh herbs such as thyme, parsley, basil, oregano, and savory
1 small onion, unpeeled and halved
1 1/2 quarts water
For the consommé:
1 small hot pepper such as a jalapeño, seeded and thinly sliced, to taste
a 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled
1 small carrot, peeled and finely julienned
2 to 3 scallions, cut both in slivers and slices
Salt and/or oriental fish sauce, to taste
To make the stock, remove the heads and shells from the shrimp, dropping them into a nonreactive stockpot. Cover the shrimp well and place in the refrigerator. Add the rest of the ingredients to the pot and cook at a low boil, uncovered, for about 45 minutes, skimming any scum that rises to the surface. The liquid should have reduced by a third. Strain out the solids and discard.
To make the consommé, warm the stock over medium heat, adding the reserved shrimp, the pepper, ginger, carrot, and scallions. Do not allow to boil. Remove from the heat when the shrimp are just shy of being cooked, no more than 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt or fish sauce, then divide among 4 warmed bowls. Garnish with cilantro leaves and serve immediately.
Pots de Crème with Szechuan Pepper
Mikel and I are rarely formal in any facet of our lives, but we have inherited some lovely items from our mothers, including these prissy little Limoges pots-au-crème, demitasse spoons from around the world, and gorgeous hemstitched linens. Little chocolate custards are always welcomed as dessert, and they’re very easy to prepare. My friend Tom Sietsema, the restaurant critic of the Washington Post, was recently in China and brought us some Szechuan peppercorns, which create a numbing sensation, not a hot one.
I made the pots-de-crème as follows, except that I ground a 1/4 teaspoon of the Szechuan peppercorns and added them to the cream and chocolate, then strained it out before mixing the chocolate mixture with the eggs.
These are so simple and delicious! And, by the way, the pots themselves are called pots-au-crème; the dish itself is called pot-de-crème. This recipe will fill 8 of these special little pots. You can use custard cups with makeshift lids of aluminum foil, but they are a bit larger, so you’ll only need 6 of them.
Use the best chocolate you can find, with at least 70% cacao. And feel free to experiment with flavors, the way I did. Orange peel, vanilla, other liqueurs, and other savory flavors work well with chocolate.
1 pint heavy cream
8 ounces dark, bittersweet, or semisweet chocolate, broken into small pieces
6 tablespoons sugar
2 large eggs plus 3 yolks
2 tablespoons coffee flavored liqueur, such as Kahlua
Preheat the oven to 350o and set a pot of water to boil. Melt the chocolate in the cream in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over very low heat, stirring occasionally. Add the sugar and stir in. In a mixing bowl, whisk the eggs and yolks together until just blended, then pour in the chocolate and cream, stirring constantly until well blended. Stir in the coffee flavored liqueur. Now fill the cups, pouring slowly and carefully, and with a demitasse spoon, remove any little bubbles on the surface of the custard. Place the lids on the pots or cover each custard cup tightly with aluminum foil. Set the cups in a baking pan and pour the boiling water about three-fourths of the way up the sides of the pots. Bake for about 20 minutes. Do not let the water come to a boil.
Most recipes say that the custards are done when a silver knife inserted in the middle comes out clean, but they will be too tough if you allow them to cook that much. I remove them from the oven and leave them in the water bath until they are cooled, then chill them. I take them out of the refrigerator an hour or so before serving them in the pots with freshly brewed hot coffee.
Makes 6-10 desserts, depending on the size of the pots.
Kieffer pears are too hard to eat out of hand, but they are delicious when cooked. Most often, they are put into relishes such as this one, to be served alongside vegetables and meats. It’s delicious with grilled sausage.
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
1 tablespoon whole cloves
3 sticks cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground turmeric
1 peck Kieffer pears (1/4 bushel or 8 quarts), peeled, seeded and chopped (or other hard, underripe pears)
5 medium to large onions
6 medium bell peppers, 3 red and 3 green, or an equivalent amount of other mild peppers
2 fresh red cayenne peppers or one whole dried one, or a couple of jalapeños
1 quart vinegar
1 tablespoon pure salt
Grind the mustard, cloves, and cinnamon finely together, add to the turmeric, and set aside. Thoroughly grind the pears, onions, and peppers in a meat grinder or a food processor. Add to a large, nonreactive, heavy pot. Add the spices and remaining ingredients and boil for about an hour. Ladle the relish into sterilized jars and seal. Process in a boiling water for bath for 20 minutes.
Makes about 9 pints.
Dolmades are a traditional Lenten food from Greece — vine leaves stuffed with rice, and simmered in a little oil, lemon juice, and water. I like to make them as an appetizer before a meal of mutton or lamb, using a rice steamer to cook them. In place of the water, I use leftover gumbo or fish, shrimp, or chicken stock to flavor the rice. (Vegetable stock may be used during Lent.) A half a cup of raw rice moistened with the stock will fill two dozen rolls of leaves. I tuck a freshly peeled small shrimp inside each roll as well, add all the rolled, stuffed leaves to the steamer, cover with extra stock or gumbo, and steam until the rice is tender, about twenty minutes. The dolmades may be cooked in a pot on top of the stove or in the oven, very slowly, for about 45 minutes.
If you buy brined leaves, let them sit in warm tap water for about 10 minutes to make them pliable. The following formula will fill 24 leaves. If you use fresh leaves, parboil them for 4 or 5 minutes, until they turn dark.
To make 24 dolmades, combine 1/2 cup long-grain white rice, 1/2 cup of stock, 1/3 cup olive oil, 1/2 cup finely chopped onion, a tablespoon of finely chopped fresh parsley, and the juice of a lemon in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring constantly. Lower the heat immediately and simmer, uncovered, for about 10 minutes, until most of the liquid is absorbed.
Place the leaves smooth side down on a work surface. If you are adding small, peeled shrimp to the dolmades, place a teaspoon of the rice mixture and a shrimp in the center of a leaf; without the shrimp, double the amount of rice. Fold in the sides of the leaf, then roll it up, burrito style, but not too tight, because the rice will expand. Repeat for each leaf, arranging them in layers in a heavy saucepan or baking dish that has a lid. Add another 1/2 cup of stock, cover the pot, and cook very slowly until most of the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender, adding water if necessary. It will take about 20 minutes on top of the stove; about 45 in a 325o oven. Sprinkle heavily with lemon juice and lemon zest and serve at room temperature.
Native American Grapes (some of the following was first published in Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking):
The summer after my grandfather died, when I was twelve, I went to spend some time with my grandmother, who lived 600 miles from the Lowcountry in South Carolina where we were living at the time. I learned more about food in those few weeks than I would learn in many years to come. It was Grandma’s approach to living more than her recipes, however, that so influenced me, and I am forever grateful for that one time alone with a real homemaker and her garden. There was much solace for her in her daily chores, and I, too, learned to enjoy hanging clothes on the line, watching for cracks in the soil around the potato plants, and drying apples in the sun.
We removed all the window screens from her house, scrubbed and hosed them clean, and set them in the sun to dry. We then gathered green summer apples from the trees that bordered the garden, and she showed me how to pare, core, and slice them. We placed the slices on the screens which were stacked on concrete blocks in the sun. Every night we carried them into the garage, away from the dew, then back out into the sun each day until, after about a week, the apple slices were perfectly — and naturally — dried. But the real treat of the summer came when the grapes were ripe.
More species of Vitis, the grapevine, grow wild in the United States than in all the rest of the world combined. And second to apples, grapes are our most widely cultivated fruit. At Grandma’s, there were both wild muscadines trailing up over the trees beyond her property, and cultivated American concords, whose flavor is what most Americans think of as “grape,” and wine connoisseurs, as “foxy.” The muscadines, which grow only in the Deep South, are the sweetest of the American native varieties. They grow in bunches, not clusters, on vines which often climb into the highest reaches of hardwood forests. On our recent trip South for Mikel’s father’s funeral, we stopped in Kenley, North Carolina, for barbecue. I walked the dog out behind the barbecue restaurant, and picked wild, sweet purple muscadines from vines that rambled over the wood’s edge.
On the border of the woods beyond my grandmother’s garden, vines of wild purple muscadines and tawny scuppernongs — each a variety of native vitis rotundifolia — could be found trailing up into the trees, entwined with reddish catawbas, a variety of vitis labrusca, which proabaly escaped from 19th century cultivation there. We would spread old sheets beneath the vines to catch falling grapes as we pulled vines down through the limbs. We didn’t worry that the birds left us but a few grapes, because her concords were trained along the fence and on an arbor.
Making grape preserves that summer with my grandmother remains one of my favorite memories, and I look forward each year to the however brief season, which varies from state to state, when I can buy these native American “slip-skin” grapes in farmers’ markets and roadside stands. Basic to my grandmother’s ideology was “waste not, want not.” She would be proud that I know wonderful uses for those vines we would pull down, and for the grape leaves as well.
Early English accounts of the Carolina coast speak of the vines so fragrant that they were smelled days before the boats reached land. Nowadays, agricultural spraying that coincides with the vines’ blooming often prevents the fruit from setting. Fortunately, in the Lowcountry, both scuppernongs and muscadines have taken well to cultivation, and are widely available during the season in late August and early September. A delightful sweet muscadine wine is made from the grape. It is naturally fermented, but has an alcohol content of about 13%, more like the fortified wines and spirits generally served as apéritifs (though today 13, 14, and 15% are not uncommon in table wines! See the entry on wines, below, at September 3).
Greeks were among the earliest of the settlers in the Lowcountry, and many culinary traditions thought of as purely Southern — such as watermelon rind preserves – have long histories in the Mediterranean, whence they came. Charleston‘s Greek Orthodox Ladies Philoptochos Society first published its excellent POPULAR GREEK RECIPES in 1957, including instructions for canning grapevine leaves. Leaves are best gathered in the spring and early summer, when they are large and bright green. The fruits mature in late summer. Then, in the fall, just as the leaves begin to drop, vines can be pulled down — while they are still somewhat green and flexible — for use in wreaths or cut into foot-long twigs for grilling. If there’s a hunter in your family, have him bring home some vines when he’s out in the woods in the fall. The bright yellow and red leaves are unmistakable.
The English had embraced all sorts of pickling and preserving ideas from the Orient when Charleston was settled. Spiced grapes is a typical condiment. In India, the seeds of grapes are often ground into chutneys, but the seeds of our native slip-skin varieties are far too bitter for the American palate. If you do not live in the Lowcountry, try any slip-skin variety available in your area. Concords are delicious in these recipes, but as they are sweeter than scuppernongs, you may wish to add a bit of lemon peel and juice to the recipes, and to reduce the sugar.
Preserved Grapevine Leaves
Gather 50 to 75 leaves in early summer when they are still tender. Wash them well and stack them in piles of ten leaves per pile. Roll each little pile of leaves into a cigar shape. Add 1/2 cup of salt to 2 quarts of water and bring to a boil. Add the rolls of leaves to the brine, turn off the heat, and, using tongs, place the rolls into a sterlilized wide-mouth pint jar, packing it tightly. Pour the brine in to fill the jar 1/4 inch from the rim. Seal. When ready for use, remove a roll of leaves, unroll it, and place in a bowl of warm water for easy handling. Rinse each leaf well before using. If you find that your leaves are too tough, simmer them for ten minutes in water. After opening, store the jar in the refigerator. Use for Dolmades (see below).
The recipe for spiced grapes which appears in CHARLESTON RECEIPTS is found throughout the South in cookbooks which antedate the Lowcountry classic. The tradition of serving spiced fruits with meats, in fact, goes back to Medieval England, with its spiced barberries. Without the cranberries of northern bogs, it is far more likely that early Charleston settlers served local grapes with their fall harvest feasts of venison and wild fowl. I make spiced grapes in much smaller batches than called for in the older recipes, reducing the sugar and spice and adding some onion and lemon juice and rind.
2 pounds slip-skin grapes
1 teaspoon Quatre-épices (see January 2007)
3/4 cup vinegar
1/2 pound sugar
1 onion, chopped (about 3/4 cup)
the grated rind and juice of a lemon
Remove any stems of the grapes, then pulp them by squeezing them with the stem end pointed down into a saucepan. The pulp of the fruit will pop out. Set the skins aside. Add the spices and the vinegar to the pot and cook over medium heat until the seeds loosen, about five or ten minutes. Pass the mixture through a colander to remove the seeds, then return the vinegar and pulp mixture to the pot. Add the skins and the chopped onion and bring to a boil, then add the sugar and continue to cook until thick. Put the spiced grapes in a sterilized jar and seal.
Yields approximately 1 pint.
Many cookery books tell us that grapes do not have enough pectin to jell, but this is simply not true of the native slip-skin varieties. If you follow a few simple guidelines, jelly-making is both easy and a sure success. First, don’t try to make big batches of jelly, and second, be sure to include the skins (where the pectin is) or at least one fourth of the volume in green, unripe fruit. There is really no mystique to jelly-making at all, just a bit of patience. The jelly test is described in innumerable cookbooks — and none of them can replace experience. Quite simply, the jellying point is reached when the jelly spills off a spoon in a sheet rather than drops. You also may test your kitchen thermometer to see at exactly what temperature water boils, then take the jelly to exactly 8 degrees over that temperature. If you remove your fruit from the fire before it has jelled, don’t despair: you can always reduce it for a sauce or serve it over pancakes and waffles. If you cook it too long, so that it is rubbery, you can add some Bourbon or Scotch to it or melt it either alone or with a little wine and seasonings and use it as a glaze or in a quick, stove-top chutney.
The first day:
4 cups slip-skin grapes, at least 1/4 of which are unripe
1/4 cup water
Stem and crush the grapes, add to the water in a large pot, bring to a boil, and simmer for 15 minutes. Strain all of the juice out of the mixture and allow to sit overnight.
The next day:
Strain the juice again to remove the tartrate crystals which should have settled out during the night, clinging to the bottom and sides of the container. Measure the juice and add 1/2 the volume of juice in sugar. In a heavy kettle, boil rapidly until the jelly sheets from a cold metal spoon or until the mixture is 220o. Pour the jelly into hot sterilized jars and seal.
Jam includes the tart skins of grapes and is far more flavorful than clear jellies. Remove the skins from the grapes, and, if desired, run them through a grinder or chop them in a blender or processor (I leave mine whole).
Cook the skins of the grapes very gently for 15-20 minutes, adding the slightest amount of water necessary to keep them from sticking to the pot. Cook the pulp until the seeds loosen, then run the pulp through a colander to remove the seeds. Add the pulp to the skins, and measure. Add 3/4 the quantity in sugar, and cook the entire mixture rapidly, about 10 minutes. Continue cooking until the jellying point is reached, stirring often to prevent sticking. Pour into hot sterilized jars and seal.
This is my favorite pie, though many people have never heard of it. It is a Lowcountry classic. Some people use wheat flour or instant tapioca to thicken fruit pies, but rice flour is tasteless and disappears, utterly transparently, into the fruit juices. If you can’t find it, use cornstarch. It was Kelly Bugden, a brilliant pastry chef as well as an accomplished photographer (he took the photos for Hoppin’ John’s Charleston, Beaufort & Savannah) , who taught me his wonderful technique of making pie crust. Alas, I am never satisfied with my results unless I use lard. You may use butter or another solid shortening — or a combination — if you will, but be sure to have everything as cold as possible and to maintain the ratio of 4:1 (in weight) for flour to shortening.
If you use Concords in this recipe, add a little lemon zest and juice for flavor.
For the crust:
1 pound flour (about 4 cups)
pinch of salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 pound chilled lard (or any combination of lard, shortening, and/or butter)
1/2 cup water, plus ice cubes
Sift the flour with the salt and the sugar into a large mixing bowl. Add a few ice cubes to the measured water and set aside. Cut the lard into the flour with a pastry blender, a large fork, or two knives, until the mixture is uniform and, as the old cookbooks say, it resembles small peas. Do not touch the dough with your hands. Place a wet towel under the bowl so that it will not slide around on the counter. Working deftly, scoop up large spoonsful of the mixture from the bottom of the bowl with a metal slotted spoon while sprinkling water into the mixture a little at a time. Work quickly as you “lift in” the water, stopping before all the water is in. You should stop the second you feel the dough will hold together without more water. Now grab the entire mass of dough up in your hands and push it all together into a ball. If the pie filling is ready, wrap the dough in some wax paper or plastic wrap and put it in the freezer for ten minutes; otherwise put the wrapped dough in the refrigerator to chill while you prepare the fruit.
For the filling:
4 cups slip-skin grapes such as Muscadine, Scuppernong,or Concord – about 1-3/4 pounds
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 tablespoon rice flour (from natural foods store, not the Southeast Asian kind) or cornstarch
optional: grated citrus rind and lemon juice
Pulp the grapes by squeezing them over a pot. Reserve the skins. Cook the pulp for about five minutes, just enough to loosen the seeds. Press the pulp through a colander to remove the seeds. Combine the pulp with the skins, the sugar, and the rice flour. If the grapes are very sweet, such as ripe concords, you may add a little citrus peel and juice for flavor. The skins of scuppernongs, however, are very tart on their own.
For the pie:
reserved pastry dough and filling
milk or half-and-half
Preheat the oven to 450o. Remove the pastry dough from the freezer or refrigerator and place on a large, lightly floured surface. Try not to touch it with your hands. Roll it out evenly to a thickness of 1/8″. Place a 9″ pie plate on top of the dough and, with a blunt knife, cut across the dough so that an area large enough to fill the pie plate is marked off as one large piece. Set the pie plate off to the side. Place the rolling pin on one edge of this large piece of dough, and gently roll it up off the surface and onto the pin. Lay the dough down in the pie plate, allowing it to roll off the pin, and always avoiding handling the dough. Press it lightly into place, allowing any excess dough to hang over the sides. Fill with the fruit.
Cut the remaining dough into long strips and gently make a lattice top on the pie. Run a sharp knife blade at an angle around the rim of the pie plate, trimming excess dough off. Brush the top of the pie crust lightly with milk or half-and-half, then crimp the edge of the pie crust down with a large fork. Sprinkle the pie lightly all over with a little sugar and place in the middle of the preheated oven and bake for ten minutes, lower the heat to 350oand bake for another 20 or 30 minutes, or until the crust is nicely browned all over. Be sure to bake the pie well so that the crust will not be soggy. If you have clear glass pie plates, you can leave the pie in until the bottom has begun to brown. Don’t worry about the timing. All ovens and batches of flour bake differently. Bake the pie until it is a rich golden brown and it will be delicious. Allow the pie to cool to lukewarm before serving. Do NOT serve this pie with cream, or you will mask the distinctive grape flavor.
Dana Downs has been one of my best friends for over 30 years and when we live in the same town, I always cook dinner for her on her birthday, which is September 9. She always asks for this intensely flavored sorbet instead of a cake for dessert. I first learned the technique from Frank Lee, a South Carolina chef. You simply grind the grapes — stemmed, but with the hulls and seeds — in a food processor, strain it, add sugar syrup till it floats an egg, and freeze. The instructions are detailed here on my blog entry for May 7, 2008.
Now I’ve got my work cut out for me on this perfect rainy day.
For the soup:
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion sliced thin
4 to 6 whole peeled garlic cloves
2 bay leaves
2 jalapeños, seeded, deribbed, and sliced
2 anaheim chilies, seeded, deribbed, and sliced
2 pounds green tomatoes, cored and cut up
3 cups chicken or shrimp stock or water
3 to 4 tablespoons capers, chopped (See Note.)
1 to 2 tablespoons lemon juice
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Tabasco or other hot pepper sauce
For the garnish:
thin julienne of cooked country ham or chicken
cooked crabmeat, boiled shrimp, or pickled shrimp
sour cream or crème fraîche
crab and corn pudding (see below)
chopped ripe tomatoes or diced green tomatoes
chopped scallions and diced sweet red peppers
In a large sauce pan cook the onion in the olive oil over moderate heat until soft but not colored, about 5 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic, the bay leaves, and the chilies and cook for another 5 minutes.
Add the tomatoes and the stock of your choice and raise the heat. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for about 15 minutes or until the tomatoes are thoroughly softened.
Remove the bay leaves from the mixture and puree the soup in a blender, working in batches. Season to taste with capers, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and Tabasco or hot pepper sauce. Serve hot or cold with the garnishes of your choice. Ben says, “We typically serve it cold with crabmeat or pickled shrimp and crème fraîche or hot with country ham, boiled shrimp, and sour cream…but any variation works.”
I like to unmold the Crab and Corn Pudding into a pasta bowl and ring it with this soup, served cold.
Serves 4 to 6.
Debbie Recommends: This needs a very crisp, but not overly acidic wine, such as St. Supéry Sauvignon Blanc.
NOTE: Capers come in a variety of sizes, usually pickled in a vinegar brine. They are also available packed in salt. Whichever type you use, be sure to rinse them well first, or add them first and taste the soup before adding lemon juice or salt.
Corn and Crab Pudding
Fresh corn and crabmeat belong together, and they are paired in soufflés, soups, chowders, bisques, casseroles, stir-frys, and salads from Texas to Maryland. This is the most elegant recipe I’ve tried: no eggs, no cheese, no butter, no flour, and no heavy seasonings. Serve these as an appetizer and you’ll have your dinner guests crying for more!
1 cup fresh crabmeat
1/2 fresh lemon
1 cup fresh corn, grated from the cob
1 tablespoon cornmeal
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon finely grated onion
salt, freshly ground black pepper, and cayenne
Preheat the oven to 350o. Grease four 4-ounce ramekins or custard cups. Freshen the crabmeat with juice from the lemon half and pick it over, making sure there are no bits of shell. Add the remaining ingredients and season to taste.
Bake for 35 to 45 minutes or until the puddings firm up. Serve in the ramekins.
Debbie Recommends: If you serve the puddings warm, you’ll need a direct, but plump, Monterey or Sonoma Chardonnay. If you serve them cold with the green tomato soup, choose a Sonoma County Sauvignon Blanc.