February 2008, part 1

Posted on February 10, 2008 in Archives

February 10, 2008
This morning when the sun rose, to the north the sky glowed pink, yellow-rimmed rosy swatches in a patchwork of gray, as though some 50s designer had decorated the firmament.The entire house seemed to have recessed lighting. Bright salmon-colored light poured in between the slats of the wooden blinds in the living room. Before I could walk the thirty feet back to the kitchen, the entire sunroom was smoldering crimson, as though someone had turned the celestial dimmer switch down low, and warmed the color as well. Within moments the sky appeared to bruise as it changed from peach to an almost pure red — a color I’ve never seen in the sky before — and then plum, and mauve, then a polished steel gray.
But I had seen the red and I know what that means in the morning. Within seconds the sky was all but black with a broadside of rain. The weather report last night had predicted a blustery day, with 50 mph gusts, yesterday’s gloriously sunny springlike charms to be reduced to freezing midwinter chills by evening. But I rarely pay those reports much attention. In the few minutes since the rain began and I went back upstairs to write, the sky completely cleared except for one big puffy apricot cloud on the horizon. Behind it, the remnants of the slate-colored squall.
Yesterday was a much-needed restful one with Mikel, just the two of us. We went out to the suburbs to go to the Asian grocers, to see the remarkable film The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, and to eat at what we had heard was an authentic Szechuan restaurant. Mikel had never before found the home cooking that he remembered from his time there, mostly, I think, because for years huajiao, the Szechuan peppercorns that numb the mouth (a sensation called “ma“) and fill the palate with a startling flowery fragrance, were outlawed in the US (because they carried a canker that affected citrus crops).
The restaurant, China Star in Fairfax, Virginia, did not disappoint; the meal was one of the best I’ve ever had in a restaurant of any kind. Both of our appetizers were cold meat dishes. Mikel saw “Spicy Peppercorn Beef with Cilantro” on the menu and said, “That’s a dish I recognize. If it’s what I’m thinking, it will be delicious.” I always want to try rabbit dishes when I see them on menus, so I ordered the Ma La Diced Rabbit. After 20 years of thwarted tastings, Mikel has finally eaten authentic Szechuan fare in the US, with not only the requisite “ma,”  but also the “la” (hot pepper hot, for which the Szechuan peppercorns numb the mouth). At China Star I
could taste a multitude of individual flavors, as well as sensations in the mouth that I have never before felt. Garlic and scallions were separate and unique. There was the distinctive herbal punch of cilantro, but none of the soapy quality. The rabbit tasted more like itself than in any other rabbit dish I’ve had. The beef, a cheap cut that appeared to be full of sinew, was instead succulent and tender. The huajiao, while slightly numbing, actually opens the palate up with its heady floral fragrance. Our faces perspired from the pepper heat, but my lips did not burn. Mikel smiled. “It’s exactly as it should be.”
I had read reviews of China Star before we went, but none were recent. I must get my friend Tom Sietsema, the restaurant critic for the Washington Post, to return. His last review was nearly 4 years ago. He gave it 2 stars out of 4, which is good. Several DC chefs I know have complained to me about getting only 2 stars, but I have eaten with Tom on his very serious outings to restaurants, which he visits several times before writing a review, and his ratings seem exceptionally fair to me. Two stars from Tom is a recommendation. In his own words, they are “restaurants with generally appealing cooking, service and settings; they tend to be worth driving across town for.”  Three stars he reserves for restaurants he considers “excellent,” and the rare four-star restaurant (he annointed only 4 in the Washington-Virginia-Maryland area this year) are “superlative. An unsurpassed dining experience.”
I would say that China Star is unsurpassed, simply because it is authentic in every way. Mikel insists that even the brightly lit room in an undistinguished shopping center, its formica tabletops, and melamine dishes are authentic as well. Anything fancier would not be. The cooking in Szechuan restaurants is home cooking. You should not go looking for jiaozi, the dumplings that I so adore (and, in fact, our waitress told us that they are “nothing special”). They were listed on the Asian-Chinese menu, which is full of the typical foods you see on any American Chinese takeout menu. This is not a northern Chinese restaurant nor is it Cantonese. You would be cheating yourself to order dishes that are known in Peking or Hong Kong. Instead, order from the Szechuan selections, and ask your server for help. I always seem to have a hard time ordering greens in Chinese restaurants, even though I know that they nearly always have them. The word “greens” doesn’t seem to help, nor does “vegetable.” At China Star, I slowly went down the menu, asking about many of the items (and I had downloaded and printed out their menu in advance and made some preliminary choices). I was thrilled to see ”Sautéed Vegetable of the Season” listed, so I inquired. Our waitress told us that we had the choice of bok choy, yau choy, Chinese cabbage, or pea leaves. Pea leaves are among my favorite vegetables, so that was a no-brainer. Mikel’s choice was a given as well, since he has been looking for over two decades for authentic Ma Po Doufu. The dish was a revelation to me, nothing at all like any of the dozens of versions I have sampled with Mikel over the years. The tofu was the silken variety, even lighter than what I’ve had in elegant Japanese restaurants. It swam in an oily broth that Mikel said was just like back in Chungching. I bet the oil was rapeseed (canola), which is traditional in Szechuan, with a bit of sesame oil added. There was a hint of sweetness and tiny bits of ground pork and chopped garlic throughout the dish, but no one flavor overpowered another.I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a restaurant meal as much. Seeing Mikel attain a sort of culinary holy grail he’s been seeking for so long was especially rewarding. From the complimentary spicy boiled soybeans (very much like boiled peanuts, already shelled) to the properly (strong) brewed tea, China Star was great. I can’t wait to go back: I forgot to ask if they have congyou bing (oily scallion cakes)!
Today our friend Patrick and his visiting Greek friend Yori are coming over for dinner, so I’m making things that I think Yori may not have had before, regardless of how familiar they may seem to him. We’ll begin with blue cheese straws with Champagne, then have she-crab soup with sherry, and then on to shrimp pilau with a green bean and benne salad and cornbread. For dessert, my version of the Huguenot Torte, served with the incredibly delicious and brandy-like 10-year-old rum we bought in Barbados. Some recipes follow.
I saw the red sky this morning and am prepared to take warning, but right now I’m looking out into an expanse of pale ultramarine that I wouldn’t begin to know how to mix if I were to try to paint it.
I can just barely smell the torte. I bet it’s ready to come out of the oven.
No dish is more quintessentially Lowcountry than she-crab soup, yet to judge from the pasty versions served in most restaurants you would think its major ingredient is flour. In 200 Years of Charleston Cooking, published in 1930, the recipe is attributed to “Mrs. Rhett’s able butler, William Deas, who is one of the greatest cooks in the world.” His recipe for a dozen crabs calls for but a teaspoon of flour as thickener in over two cups of liquid. I suggest that the soup is a variation of a traditional Scottish crab soup — partan bree — thickened with rice. William Deas was the black chef at Everett’s Restaurant where the soup became synonymous with the Lowcountry. His surname would have been given to his family by owners of his ancestors. The Scottish Deas family has a long and celebrated history in the Lowcountry. The original partan bree calls for anchovies as seasoning. My version is otherwise both true to the original and to the Lowcountry. This is a soup for mid-winter, when the she-crabs are full of roe. In Asian and Hispanic markets, you can find crabs partially cleaned, with the top shell removed, along with the “dead man” and gills. I use whole, live crabs. The females have a belly flap shaped like the Capitol (the male’s looks like the Washington Monument); the tips of their claws are red.
There has been a lot of misinformation published about the taking of female crabs. Blue crabs are generally plentiful from Massachusetts to Texas, but droughts, red tides, and overharvesting all affect crab populations. It is not illegal to take female crabs (called “sooks”) in most coastal waters, but it is usually illegal to take any crabs less than five inches across the back of the shell. In South Carolina, there is no season, no license required, nor is there a limit on crabs taken on handlines, in dip nets, or drop nets. Further, every head of household in South Carolina is allowed two crab pots as well. Only female crabs which are “berried,” or showing a sponge-like protrusion of eggs, must be released. Laws change to reflect current conditions. If you want to go crabbing yourself, be sure to check the DNR website in the state where you plan to crab.
Amontilllado sherry is a traditional accompaniment to she-crab soup. I like to sprinkle some hot pepper sherry into the soup and serve a small glass of sherry alongside.
12-13 female or “she” crabs
12 cups water
1-1/2 tablespoons seafood boil such as Old Bay
Boil the crabs in the water seasoned with the seafood boil for 30 minutes. Remove the crabs, reserving a cup of the water in which they were cooked. Pick the crabs, which should yield about one pound of meat and 1/4 pound of roe. The roe is bright orange, and is unmistakable in the crab shells. Rinse the roe of any debris and mash them through a sieve. Cover and place in the refrigerator until ready to use. You may hold out one claw per diner, if desired, for a garnish (see photo). Carefully crack each section of the claw so that the crabmeat can be accessed without tools.
1 quart milk
4 ounces (2/3 cup) raw white rice
1 cup cooking water from above
1 cup cream
cayenne, salt, and pepper to taste
reserved crab meat and roe
sherry
Cook the rice in the milk on a low boil for 30 minutes or until the rice is very soft. Strain the mixture or puree very fine, and return to the pot. Add the crab water and the cream and heat the mixture through. Season to taste with a dash of cayenne and salt and pepper, if desired. Fill cups with the soup, add a dollop of crab meat and a sprinkle of crab roe to each, and finish off with a teaspoon of sherry or hot pepper sherry in each bowl.
Yields 5-6 cups or servings.
Green Beans and Benne Salad
I serve this salad all year long to rave reviews; that is, there are rarely any leftovers. It’s an absolutely delicious combination of flavors that complements all sorts of meals. Benne (pronounced “benny”) is a West African word for sesame seeds that is still used in the lowcountry of South Carolina, where so many people have African roots.
2 pounds green beans, stemmed, but with
       the tender young tip intact
1/4 cup benne (hulled raw sesame seeds)
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes, more or less to taste
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, peeled, green shoots removed, and minced
salt and pepper to taste
Roast the benne in a 350o degree oven on a baking sheet or in a frying pan on top of the stove over medium heat. Stir often until all of the seeds are evenly roasted a golden brown, about 15 minutes.
Plunge the beans into a large pot of rapidly boiling water and cook them until they just become tender, about three to five minutes. Taste them frequently and do not overcook them. When they just lose the raw flavor, immediately pour them into a colander and rinse them thoroughly in cold water to stop the cooking and to retain the bright green color. Set aside to drain.
When all of the water has thoroughly drained from the beans, toss them with the remaining ingredients and serve at room temperature.
Makes 8 servings.
My Huguenot PuddingCharleston’s most famous dessert is its poorly named “Huguenot Torte,” an apple and nut cake which first appeared in print in Charleston Receipts (1950), and which by admission of its author was adapted from an Ozark Pudding recipe from the Mississsippi River Delta. Evelyn Florance, who submitted the recipe for inclusion in the Junior League’s cookbook (which has sold over 500,000 copies), used to make the dessert for the Huguenot Tavern in the 1940s in the heart of old Charleston. It was one of the last public dining places where you could eat Lowcountry food. Back in the 80s, I interviewed Mary Huguenin, who had been one of the book’s editors, and she put me in touch with Mrs. Florance, who was listed in the cookbook as Mrs.Cornelius Huguenin (Evelyn Anderson). She had since remarried and was living in an assisted living home. Alas, both Mrs. Huguenin, who was a fount of information for me, and Mrs. Florance are both now deceased.

The old recipe is neither a torte nor is it French. Leavened with with 5 (five!) teaspoons of baking powder, it is a twentieth century conceit with no French antecedent. Pecans or walnuts are specified. I prefer a combination of two, or even three nuts, because pecans weren’t generally planted in the Carolina lowcounty until the twentieth century, when the rice plantations finally folded, and black walnuts, the South’s other native nut, are too unctuous, overpowering, and expensive by themselves — however delicious.
In the version that follows, the baking powder, the salt, and the vanilla have been eliminated from the original recipe. All of the favorable and most familiar characteristics of this “modern classic” have been retained — that is, the lightness of a sponge playing off the richness of apples and nuts, the crunchy exterior, and the presentation with whipped cream. When I was researching the culinary history of the lowcountry in the late 80s (an ongoing project!), I would sometimes turn to professional cooks to help me develop recipes. My dear friend Joann Yaeger, quite simply the best cook I’ve ever known, was the chef/owner with her then husband Mickey of Café Piccolo and The Primerose (pronounced “primrose”) House. (Here’s a photo of Joann with Mary Edna.) We worked on this torte until we had it right. It never ceases to please my guests. With no butter and the brilliant combination of nuts and apples, it’s a year-round favorite that delights even those like me who don’t have a particularly sweet tooth. Most folks are baffled by the “gamey” flavor of black walnuts, so do include some in your nut mix.
Ozark pudding, the real antecedent of this dish, is one of those regional specialties that has gone the way of the lowcountry’s cooter pie and rice bread. It rarely appears in Arkansas cookbooks, though it seems to have originated in northwest Arkansas and southwest Missouri, according to John Egerton. The oldest recipe we have found is Mrs. S. R. Dull’s “apple pudding” in her 1928 Southern Cooking.
Ozark pudding was purportedly a favorite dish of President Truman. It was served to Winston Churchill when he visited the Trumans in Fulton, Missouri, and made his famous “Iron Curtain” speech.
Clementine Paddleford, hailing Mrs. Florance’s Huguenot Torte in The New York Herald Tribune in the 1950s, might have recognized it as a dish fit for a president, but she did not know any more than we do about the reclusive inhabitants of the Ozarks. Recipes for the two dishes are identical. The recipe that follows is called Huguenot Pudding after its two ancestors.1/2 cup all-purpose flour plus flour for dusting the pan
1 cup pecans or a mix of pecans, walnuts, and black walnuts (see below), plus 8 perfect pecan halves
1 large, firm apple, peeled, cored, and cut up
3 eggs at room temperature
7/8 cup sugar, plus 1 tablespoon more for the pecans
1/2 cup heavy cream
bourbon or aged rum

Lightly grease a 9-inch round cake pan, line it with wax paper or parchment, grease the paper, and lightly dust with flour.

Preheat the oven to 375o and put a pan of water in the bottom of the oven. The water will help create the crusty top that is a defining characteristic of the pudding.

Finely grind the cup of nuts in a food processor, working in quick bursts so as not to render them oily. Remove the nuts from the work bowl and add the apple pieces. Chop by pulsing quickly until the apple is uniformly, finely chopped.

Warm the bowl of an electric mixer. This is an important step because the warmer the bowl, the more easily the eggs will increase in volume. I place the stainless steel mixer bowl in the sink, place the eggs in their shell in the bowl, and fill the bowl with hot tap water. When I’m ready to beat the eggs, I dry off the eggs and the bowl, and I also keep a small torch (otherwise used for caramelizing sugar, such as on crème brulée) handy to heat the bowl as it spins around.

Separate the yolk from one of the eggs and set the white aside. Add the yolk to the other two eggs and beat them on high speed until doubled in volume. It may take as long as 10 minutes. Slowly add the 7/8 cup sugar and continue beating until tripled in volume. The eggs should be very thick and lightly colored.

Sift the flour over the egg mixture, sprinkle the ground nuts all around, then the apples. Fold the mixture together gently but rapidly, making sure that you get all the ingredients off the bottom of the bowl mixed thoroughly into the mixture. Pour the batter into the pan and bake in the middle of the oven for about 30 minutes, until the top is golden brown and the sides have begun to pull away from the pan. Don’t push on the meringuelike top or it may cave in. Place on a rack in a draft-free place and allow the cake to cool completely.

Lightly toast the perfect pecan halves in a skillet or oven, then, while they are hot, dip them in water then roll them in a tablespoon of sugar until lightly coated. Let them dry on a rack or paper towel. OR you may beat the reserved egg white until foamy throughout, add the cooled pecan halves to the whites and toss until well coated, drain them in a sieve, then roll the nuts one at a time in the reserved sugar. Let them dry on a rack or paper towel.

When the cake is perfectly cool, invert it gently, remove the paper liner and discard, then turn the cake back over again onto a serving plate so that the crusty surface is on top again.

Whip the cream loosely stiff, adding a bit of bourbon or aged rum, if desired. Place 8 dollops of the cream around the cake. Garnish each dollop with a sugared nut and serve immediately with a shot glass of bourbon or aged rum neat.

Makes 8 servings.

Nut Mix

Mix two pounds of shelled pecans, walnuts, and black walnuts in whatever combination, but with no more than 1/3 pound of the black. My favorite combination is 1 pound pecans, 2/3 pound walnuts, and 1/3 pound black walnuts. Grind the nuts in small batches in a nut grinder or in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade, working in quick bursts, until they are evenly ground. Do not blend them too long or they will become oily. If you cannot find black walnuts in your grocer’s or your local health food store, try Hammons.

February 9, 2008 Meatloaf
Meatloaf is one of the best American comfort foods, and when I make it, I go ahead and make a big one. A reallybig one. The original version of this recipe is the one that used to be on the back of oatmeal boxes when I was growing up, but now I use a combination of ground pork, lamb, and veal instead of beef. I also add a healthy dose of herbs to the loaf so that it is brighter in flavor. Ever since I lived in Genoa, Italy in the early 80s, my cooking has relied heavily on the use of herbs, as in Liguria.In truth, I rarely follow a recipe when preparing a meatloaf, though I have tried dozens through the years when I’ve attempted to codify one for publication. I’ve used breadcrumbs, ground the meats myself, added sausage and mushrooms, and baked them en croute. But what I come back to invariably is this old formula with oats. Last night I wrote down all my ingredients as I cooked, then decided after it was baked that I wish I had wilted the onions and added celery. Going back to notes I had made the last time I made it, I found the recipe exactly as I envisioned it. Mikel said, “Last time it was perfect.”

Here’s the recipe. It includes three pounds of meat. I think it’s enough for 12 servings, but other cookbook authors say that this amount should feed only 8 to 10. They assume you will want some leftovers for sandwiches. Meatloaf sandwiches are right up there with BLTs for me, so it’s not a bad idea to make this big one even if you are only two, like Mikel and me. I cut off a third of the loaf, wrap it in wax paper and aluminum foil, then put it in a freezer bag and freeze it.

Sometimes I use pork sausage (already seasoned ground pork) instead of just ground pork, in which case the loaf is simply spicier. Even in winter, my herb garden still has mint, oregano, marjoram, rosemary, sage, thyme, and parsley. I use about a ½ cup of fresh parsley leaves, just a few rosemary leaves, one or two sage leaves, and the rest a combination of the others (see photo).

2 tablespoons butter, olive oil, or a combination
½ cup chopped onion
½ cup chopped celery
½ cup chopped red or green bell pepper (or any roasted red pepper)
1 cup loosely packed mixed fresh herbs leaves with

     no stems (see above)
1 tablespoon mixed dried herbs such as Italian seasoning or herbes de Provence
      (there’s a recipe at the bottom of this page if you want to mix your own)
2 peeled cloves of garlic with the tough base and any green shoots removed (see photo)
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 pound ground lamb
1 pound ground veal or beef
1 pound ground pork
2 eggs
2 cups tomato or vegetable juice (such as V-8) or tomato sauce
1-1/2 cups rolled oats
freshly ground pepper to taste (I use lots, about 2 dozen healthy grinds)
ketchup (optional)Preheat the oven to 350º.

Place the butter and/or oil in a skillet over medium heat and cook the onion, celery, and pepper until the onion begins to clear, a bout 5 to 10 minutes. If using already roasted red pepper, don’t add it to the skillet.

Place the fresh herbs on a cutting board and sprinkle the dried herbs over them. Place the garlic on the herbs and sprinkle with the salt. Holding the pointed end of a chef’s knife down on the cutting board, chop the mixture by lifting the knife up and down as you rotate it back and forth like a windshield wiper. The salt will facilitate the chopping and will keep the garlic from sticking to the knife, but you’ll have to stop occasionally to redistribute the mixture so that it’s chopped evenly. Chop until you have a fine consistency. The mix should be about ¼ cup. (See photos.)

Mix all of the ingredients together in a bowl with your hands, seasoning with the pepper. Pick up big handfuls of the meat mixture and press it together on a baking pan with elevated rack (the kind that comes with the oven). (The rack lets fat drip away. I line the pan with aluminum foil for easy cleanup.) You want to make the mixture hold together, but you don’t want to press it so firmly that it cooks up tough; try to have as light a touch as possible. I make a loaf about 12” long and 3” tall (see photo).

Paint the top with ketchup, if desired, and bake for about 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 hours, or until the loaf just seems to have firmed up and is no longer pink inside. Let rest for 10 minutes before slicing.

Serve with mashed potatoes and a salad or with pole beans and new potatoes.

Serves 8-12.

 
 
 
 
 
February 8, 2008
As much as I hate to drive, I love to go out to the suburbs to shop in the amazing Asian stores, where I can find beautiful seafood and poultry, pork belly, organ meats, and exotic fruits and vegetables such as the baby king oyster mushrooms, poblano peppers, lemon grass, and Shanghai bok choy pictured here. Mikel, my partner of nearly 15 years, lived in Szechuan many years ago, and when I can find the proper ingredients, I pull out my Szechuan cookbooks and attempt to recreate the flavors he remembers. (An old favorite is Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook, which was published in 1976 — I have my mother’s copy — and edited by Fran McCullough, who edited my first two books.) Szechuan peppercorns (huajiao) are the irreplaceable and defining spice of the region, known for their numbing effect, known as ma in Mandarin (the fifth taste sensation along with salty, sweet, bitter, and sour). Ellen Schrecker wrote in Mrs. Chiang’s, “When you taste some Szechwan pepper, you will experience two unfamiliar sensations. One is a mild numbness on your tongue and the other is an amazing fragrance, totally unlike anything you have ever known.” The numbness prepares your mouth for the blazing other peppers to come. Szechuan peppercorns, which are the dried fruits of the prickly ash shrub,  have been periodically banned in the US, but the ban has been haphazardly enforced. In many Chinatowns, you’ve always been able to find them. They resemble black peppercorns, except for their color: small, hard, dark reddish brown and shrivelled, you may find them in Asian markets even if the clerks tell you that they don’t have them. Often they are in unmarked cellophane bags, and, if marked, they may be called flower buds. They’re inexpensive, so if you think you have found some, by all means buy them and try them. You will be in for a very special treat.
Beautiful poblanos with no blemishes deserve to be stuffed. Last night I made chilles rellenos, following the recipes I developed for The Fearless Frying Cookbook:
Chiles Rellenos
Chiles rellenos is one of the most popular dishes in Mexican restaurants, both in Mexico and the States. They can be stuffed with meat, beans, or a good melting cheese such as Monterey Jack or cheddar. In this updated version, I’ve added some goat cheese flavored with a little garlic and thyme to the stuffing. I serve them as an appetizer, with the Grilled Tomato Hot Sauce (below) thinned with a little chicken stock. You can use any of the large fresh green chile peppers such as poblanos, Anaheims, or New Mexicos, but poblanos are traditional and work best. Red peppers are simply ripe greens ones; like canned chilies, they are more fragile and harder to work with than the fresh green ones.
1 recipe Grilled Tomato Hot Sauce (below)
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
8 whole green poblano peppers, with no blemishes, with           stems still attached
3/4 pound grated Monterey Jack cheese, about 3 cups
1/4 pound fresh goat cheese, about 1/2 cup
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 minced garlic clove
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
Peanut or olive oil for frying
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour, divided
4 large eggs, separated
Place the tomato sauce and stock in a small saucepan over low heat to warm through while you prepare the chilies. Season the broth with salt and pepper.
Roast the peppers by applying direct heat to them, preferably an open flame. You may also place them uner the broiler of your oven. Roast them until the skin blisters and turns black, turning them with tongs as the skin chars. Burn only the skin — not the flesh — of the peppers. Place the peppers in a plastic bag so that the skins steam away from the flesh, about 10 minutes. Hold the peppers gingerly and let a trickle of cold water run over them as you rub the skin off. You may want to wear rubber gloves because poblanos can irritate the skin. Do not tear the flesh of the peppers. Place them down on a counter and cut a slit down the length of each pepper. Poke your index finger into each pepper and gently remove the seeds. Use the tip of a small knife if necessary, but do not cut the flesh aroung the stem. Rinse under trickling water, then pat each pepper dry both inside and out.
Mix the grated Jack and goat cheeses together in a bowl. Place the olive oil in a small sauté pan over medium heat and add the garlic, cooking it for about 5 minutes but not letting it brown. Add the garlic and oil to the cheese mixture, then mix well, adding the thyme as well.
Pour about 1 inch of oil in a skillet and place over medium heat. Preheat an oven to 200o. Place a wire rack on a baking sheet and place it in the oven.
Place 1/4 cup flour on a plate. Stuff each pepper with the cheese mixture, then carefully squeeze the pepper back into its original shape, closing the slit so that no cheese shows. Dredge the peppers in the flour, dusting off any excess, then set aside.
Beat the egg whites with 1/4 teaspoon salt until they hold soft peaks. Beat the yolks, then fold them into the whites with the tablespoon of flour, working gently but thoroughly. When the oil has reached 375o, hold the peppers by the stems and dredge each again in the flour, dust off the excess, then dip each into the batter. Lay each in the skillet, not crowding the pot, and fry until golden on each side, about 3 or 4 minutes total. Carefully remove each peper to the prepared baking sheet in the oven to drain and stay warm while you fry the remaining chilies.
To serve, divide the broth among 4 pasta bowls and place 2 of the peppers gently into each bowl. Serve immediately.
Serves 4 as the main course or 8 as appetizers.Grilled Tomato Hot Sauce
This unusual hot sauce is mellowed by the grilling. Use it with French fries, bean cakes, or with cheese-stuffed fritters. Thinned with stock, I serve it with chiles rellenos (above).

 3 large firm-ripe tomatoes, about 1-1/2 pounds
2 medium sweet onions such as Vidalias, about 1 pound
3 large garlic cloves
6 large red or green chilies
Salt to taste
tomato juice or V-8, optional
Prepare a charcoal fire in a grill, preheat a gas grill to hot, or set an oven to broil. If using the oven, remove all but one rack and place it on the bottom shelf.
Do not peel the vegetables. When the grill is hot, place the vegetables directly over the heat, about 4 inches from the flames. If using an oven, place the vegetables on a baking sheet and place in the oven. Grill or broil the vegetables until the skins char and pop, turning them so that they are evenly cooked. Burn only the skins, not the flesh, of the vegetables. Remove the vegetables to a cutting surface as they are ready. Allow to cool.
As the vegetables cool, peel them. You needn’t seed the tomatoes or chilies, but you should be aware of how hot your peppers are. Chop the onions and add them to the remaining vegetables in a blender or food processor. Puree the sauce to the desired consistency. Correct the seasoning with salt. If the sauce is too incendiary, thin it with some tomato juice or V-8.
Serve immediately or store tightly capped in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.
Makes about 2 cups.
February 5, 2008
Today is our friend Gilson Capilouto’s birthday. Gilson grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, in the vibrant Sephardic community there. She is one of the best cooks I know. Ten years ago she let Mikel and me invite 50 friends and family members into her Charleston home to celebrate our fifth anniversary. She prepared an amazing meal of salmon croquettes, asparagus with feta, blackeyed pea salad, and slow-roasted tomatoes, followed by her flawless, melt-in-your-mouth meringues with fresh strawberries.
Has it really been 10 years?! Here are some photos and recipes.
Blackeyed Pea Salad
Montgomery, the state capital, is worlds apart from “Little Pittsburgh,” as industrialized Birmingham is called. Montgomery lies in the coastal plain of Alabama — an agricultural center so fecund it is called the “Black Belt.” Hundreds of varieties of beans are grown in the South’s rich farmlands, and the Black Belt produces a dizzying variety.
Serve this sald with salmon croquettes, with grilled lamb chops, or alone as lunch. There’s a recipe for the croquettes at the bottom of this page about Ireland.
1 pound blackeyed peas, fresh or frozen (2 cups)
1 whole garlic bulb
1 medium onion, unpeeled and quartered
1-1/2 – 2 cups tomatoes, peeled, seeded and
       chopped
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice or vinegar of your choice
1/2 cup fresh chopped parsley
salt and freshly milled pepper to taste
Bring 2 cups of water to a boil and add the peas, head of garlic, and the onion quarters. Return to a boil, skim, reduce the heat, and simmer, covered, for about 25 minutes or until the peas are cooked al dente. Do not overcook the peas; they should be just tender. Drain the peas and discard the garlic and onion. Place the peas in cold water to stop the cooking and drain again.
Toss the peas with the tomatoes, then add the oil and lemon juice or vinegar. Toss lightly to distribute the dressing.
Just before serving, toss in the parsley and season to taste.  Makes 6 servings.
Gilson’s Tomatoes
I’ve always envied Jews who cling to their cooking traditions, their holidays all connected to family and the table. My father married a Jew right about the time that Gilson and I became close friends. Dad and I have thrown ourselves into the culture — well, at least into the culinary aspects of it. Gilson told me that her ancestors were dispersed during the Spanish Inquisition, and that this diaspora saw them in Brussels, Istanbul, and on the Greek island of Rhodes. Her cooking draws heavily from the Mediterranean basin. On several occasions I’ve heard Gilson declare an old southern dish Sephardic, especially those with okra and tomatoes, favorites in the Carolina Lowcountry where we both lived for many years.
Sun-drying tomatoes rarely caught on in the humid American South, but these slowly baked ones, found throughout the south of France, are becoming widely appreciated as the foods of the Mediterranean become better known. Gilson puts hers in a sterilized jar and tops them with olive oil to preserve the roasted tomato flavor. They’ll keep for about 2 weeks. They are delicious warm or at room temperature as a side dish, spread on crusty bread, or pureed and heated as a sauce on pasta. They taste somewhere between the finest sun-dried and best vine-ripened tomatoes you have ever eaten. When the jar is empty, put the tomatoey oil on pasta.
large ripe tomatoes
extra-virgin olive oil (about 1 teaspoon per tomato)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
minced garlic (about a clove for every tomato)
small fresh basil leaves (2 to 4 per tomato)
balsamic vinegar
Preheat the oven to 300o. Cut the tomatoes in half horizontally and place them cut side up on a baking sheet. Drizzle the oil over the tomatoes, then season to taste with salt and pepper.
Bake for about 1-1/2 hours, then sprinkle with the garlic. Continue baking until the tomatoes collapse and begin to caramelize. It will take a total cooking time of anywhere from 2 to 4 hours.
In the meantime, sterilize a jar that will hold what you don’t plan to use immediately. When the tomatoes are done, transfer them with a metal spatula one by one into the jar, placing a layer of basil leaves on each tomato half. When all of the tomatoes are in the jar, put it in the refrigerator until they have released their water — about 45 minutes. Run a clean, small rubber spatula (or the tool made specifically for the task) between the tomatoes and the inside of the jar to release any air bubbles. Tap the jar once or twice on the counter to jar loose any recalcitrant ones. Pour a layer of olive oil over the top of the tomatoes, then splash a bit of balsamic vinegar in the jar.
Cap the jars and store in the refrigerator.
Gilson’s Meringues
I never had much luck making meringues in the hot and humid lowcountry until I met Gilson. I’ve seen her make these during thunderstorms and they always come out perfectly: lightly crisp on the outside, then a burst of moist nuts, all of it melting in your mouth seconds after you take a bite. You’ll need 1/2 cup of roasted, then chopped nuts, but you only want the oven to be 250o, so you may want to roast the nuts earlier, or in a frying pan or toaster oven. At any rate, these are best on the day they’re made, especially if you live in a humid climate.
I’ve always heard that meringues are a Jewish recipe, but I’ve never done the research to confirm the idea. I’ve read in Gilda Angel’s Sephardic Holiday Cooking that almond meringues are a traditional Moroccan dish for Yom Kippur before the fast, and I’ve seen spumini, or Italian meringue shells, in several books that credit them to Italian Jews. But a couple of years ago in the Roman ghetto, I found meringues for sale on a very humid day of rain and hail (see photo), and that was proof enough for me!4 egg whites at room temperature
1/8 tsp salt
1-1/2 cups sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup chopped, roasted pecans, cooled
wax paper or parchment or silicone baking sheet liners

Preheat oven to 250o. Beat the egg whites and salt with an electric mixer on high, gradually adding the sugar until it’s all well incorporated and the whites are stiff. Beat in the vanilla. Fold in the nuts quickly and drop by teaspoonsful onto waxpaper- or parchment- or silicone-lined baking sheets.
Bake for 45 minutes, remove and place on racks to dry.
Seal in airtight containers.

Paradise Lost
I went out to the suburbs to shop in the Asian markets and was momentarily thrilled when I saw a bag of mangosteens for sale in a Korean supermarket where I often buy fresh fish and exotic fruits and vegetables. I picked up the bag and felt the dark purplish-brown tropical fruits and thought that they seemed harder than I remember them. Garcinia mangostana was first described by Western writers in 1770, when Captain Cook found it at Batavia (now Jakarta), in Indonesia. It has always been described as Cook did: “Nothing can be more delicious: it is a happy mixture of the tart and the sweet, which is no less wholesome than pleasant.”
While tropical, they are notoriously difficult to grow outside the Malay Archipelago. I have never seen them anywhere in the West Indies. I have eaten them once, in Paris of all places, and the taste sensation was one that I will never forget. While in Sri Lanka this time last year, I saw several trees, but was told that the fruit doesn’t ripen until summer, the rainy season.
I picked up the bag and counted 8 fruits. The label said that the mangosteens were farm-raised in Thailand and that they had been subjected to a quarantine before being offered for sale in the States. There was no price tag, so, curious, I took them to the checkout counter just to see. The price? $19.99 per pound! The cost per mangosteen? $5.00. I stood there saying to myself, “This is the best tasting fruit on earth, buy them! You’ve bought bottles of wine for more!” And then I stared at those hard fruits (they’re soft when you pick them and harden more each day; you must remove the sections of white pulp from both the outer shell and the bitter seeds) and realized that they are not in season and that I would be very disappointed. A taste of paradise? Probably not. But I’ll keep my eyes peeled come summer. In the meantime, I discovered mangosteen.com! Check it out.
February 4, 2008
We spent another lovely weekend on the Eastern Shore of Maryland at the home of our friends Bruce Rashbaum and Chuck Dalby. We drove in pouring rain, but Chuck had a roaring fire and a pot of beef stew waiting for us on Friday night. On Saturday, I cooked a boned leg of lamb with herbs, one of my favorite dishes, and served it with mashed turnips and potatoes and broccoli rabe.
The weather cleared and warmed, but the lamb, brightened by the herbs and cooked medium rare, was perfect in the autumn-like weather. I used skim milk in the mashed potatoes and turnips, and topped them with the cippolini that had cooked in the pan juices alongside the lamb.
Here’s the recipe:
Herb-roasted Leg of Lamb
You can buy boned legs of lamb, but the dish will be even better if you have the bone to roast alongside the lamb. If your meat merchant is willing, have him butterfly the lamb leg for you and saw the bone in several pieces.
A boned leg of lamb is one of the easiest things to cook: just put it in an 400o oven for 20 minutes per pound, and be sure to let it rest for 10 minutes before you carve it. You can also use a meat thermometer and cook it until it reaches 145o.
You’ll want a big handful of herbs and a full head of garlic, plus dried herbs as well. There were mint and oregano still standing, along with rosemary, in Chuck and Bruce’s garden. Last year Chuck and I had dried herbs from our gardens, crushed them, added a few crushed bay leaves, and stored the herbal mix in jars in the refrigerator. You can also use any Mediterranean mix such as herbes de Provence or Italian seasoning, but you’re better off going to a natural foods store, buying natural dried herbs in bulk, and making your own (a recipe follows). I chopped the garden herbs along with some parsley from the grocery store, about two teaspoons of the dried herbs, peeled garlic cloves, and a teaspoon or two of salt. I then rubbed the mixture all over the insides and outside of the butterflied lamb and seasoned it generously as well with freshly ground pepper before tying it tight in an oblong shape, like a child’s football. I placed the lamb in a glass roasting pan, surrounded it with cippolini (small, flat Italian onions), and drizzled it all liberally with extra virgin olive oil before putting it in the preheated oven.
Though many of my herbs winter well outdoors, as the days get shorter, the plants become somewhat scraggly and I cut them and hang them upside down to dry. Each year my herb garden is different, but the following is a reliable savory herb mixture which I have made with dried, organically grown herbs from our local health food store as well as from home-grown. Avoid those tiny little bottles of herbs at exorbitant prices at the big grocery stores: no telling how long ago they were grown and under what conditions. I make one big batch of this each fall that lasts me through the winter and spring. I keep a covered pottery jar of it next to the stove, give some to friends, and store any extra in the freezer. The salt helps preserve the fresh flavor; it is optional.
Sometimes I add a few pinches of lavender blossoms, because I like the bitter flavor, but many people do not. It, too, is optional.
1 cup parsley
1 cup savory
1 cup marjoram
1 cup basil
1 cup thyme
1/2 cup fennel seeds
1/8 cup crushed black peppercorns
1/2 cup rosemary
1/4 cup bay leaves
1/4 cup tarragon
4 tablespoons salt, optional
1 tablepoon lavender blossoms, optional
Blend all of the above ingredients well together, crushing the larger pieces so that the mix is of a fairly uniform size. Store in airtight containers in a cool, dark, and dry place, freezing what you don’t plan to use in a month. Use as you would herbes de Provence or Italian seasoning.