May 2010

Posted on May 31, 2010 in Archives

May 26, 2010 My “daughter” has arrived, as well as cherries

Ella Grace Downs, whom I think of as my very own daughter (though she is actually the daughter of my dear friend Dana), has arrived to live with us for a couple of months while she interns at Americorps. We picked them up in Baltimore and had dinner with Kate Pierson of the B-52s at   Langermann’s before seeing the band perform at the Rams Head.

In the photo at left, I’m with Kate and Chef/Owner Neal Langermann.

In the photo at right, left to right:

Ella Grace, Dana, Kate, Yvonne Wade (General Manager of Langermann’s), and Mikel.

And then yesterday my friend Ed Lichorat arrived with 40 pounds of bing cherries. Needless to say, I’ve been busy.

May 18, 2010: Whose legacy is it, anyway?

 

When Mikel and I were in New York on our mini-honeymoon, we visited the David Salle- and Richard Phillips-curated exhibition at Haunch of Venison, “My History is Not Your History,” a selection of artworks from the Big Apple in the 80s. It’s certainly not what I would have chosen, but I only lived inNew York for a total of 2 years in the 80s, and I had abandoned my art career for one as a food writer. I could hardly be considered a qualified judge of what works seem representative of the era.

 

Recently in an email exchange with David Shields, who holds the McClintock Chair of Southern Letters at theUniversity ofSouth Carolina, he wrote that he was glad to hear that I am working on a historical culinary book because, to paraphrase him, there’s an awful lot of crap out there. I replied, “What bothers me more is the plagiarism.”

 

With all of us able to grab things off the internet without doing any real – certainly not original – research, there is a profusion of endless quoting of each other, occasionally with credit, but usually without.  As I read both news stories and op-ed pieces in newspapers online, I am one or two clicks away from sharing the published piece on Facebook. And since the internet has no real rules of procedure and very little policing to speak of, it is little different from graffiti. Add the coward’s mask of anonymity and it has become an incredibly uncivil place to study. It’s no place to do research, but it’s so easy that I, too, find myself Googling culinary terms and recipes while binging historical queries.

 

When I was researching the culinary history of the lowcountry back in the 80s, the field was new and the territory was uncharted. There were no degrees being given, few books on the subject were being published, and there were certainly no search engines available at my disposal. Most of my time was spent poring over the fragile pages of manuscripts in the collections of the South Carolina Historical Society, theCharlestonMuseum, and the Caroliniana Collection of theUniversity ofSouth Carolina. There were some papers from illustrious Carolinians such as Henry Laurens that had been published by theUSC Press, but even when they were filled with poignant culinary finds, such as his planting of eggplant 20 years before Jefferson mentions them (Jefferson had, up until that point, been widely credited with single-handedly bringing them – and many other plants – to America), the editors chose not to include eggplant in the indices because the serious (“academic” in their minds) study of food had not yet garnered the respect of those old-school historians. Mostly male, they had always written history in terms of military and legal battles. Until the civil rights movement commanded the attention of lawmakers in the 60s, the work of Black Americans and the work of women had not been considered worthy of study. The women’s movement quickly followed the demand by African Americans for equal rights, and Black Studies and Women’s Studies quickly emerged as rich and prosperous new fields. Many if not most black people and women had, after all, been laborers and cooks up until then in this country, according to the traditional historians who were interested in politics and the economics of the nation, not home economics.

 

As I trudged through the literature, such as it was, what I found was a dead cuisine. In 1986 when I opened my culinary bookstore in Charleston, there were a handful of restaurants, the best of them French. A couple of places served “soul food” (their own moniker, not mine) and a couple of places served pasty versions of she-crab soup. But it was mostly a culinary wasteland, and almost nothing that was being served in restaurants resembled either the food of my youth or the glorious antebellum cuisine that was coming to life before my eyes. I couldn’t find stone-ground, whole-grain grits anywhere. “Shrimp and grits” were on no menus anywhere that I knew of, except at Bill Neal’s Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill. But even Bill’s history was flawed, I knew. Like everyone up until him, he quoted other food writers, few of whom knew historical methodology, or, if they were historians, it was all too apparent that they weren’t cooks. Bill was the anomaly among them: a born-and-bred southerner (unlike so many of the self-proclaimed southern experts these days) who grew up eating fresh and local foods, but who had gone on to master classic cooking skills and techniques before beginning his crusade to revive classical southern cooking. When he was on tour promoting Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking in 1985, we met inNew York and immediately became fast friends. He wrote in my book: “Come back South soon! We need you!”

 

I had met the late, great culinary historian Karen Hess the year before when I interviewed her on the history of Thanksgiving for Ici New York, the French-language magazine of which I was the food editor and American liaison. For years Hess and I worked in tandem, sharing historical gems with each other, protesting each other’s hypotheses, and challenging each other’s sources. One of my great regrets is that I lost the years of my correspondence with Hess, particularly our missives back and forth when we were both writing our lowcountry books. When I moved toWashington and opened the two boxes that are labeled “Correspondence with Hess,” they instead included color slides. The letters somehow got tossed. It’s a shame because there was a lot of original research in those letters (I lost even more in Hurricane Hugo, prior to owning a computer) and I had planned to donate the work to the SC Historical Society, whose employees were incredibly patient and helpful with me as I pored over their plantation records and diaries.

 

I was to make many conclusions of my own, based on my original research and personal experience. I traced she-crab soup to partan bree, for example; and debunked the myth of Charleston’s Huguenot Torte as being a torte at all, much less one of French origin. Now I see those hypotheses of mine written all over the web and in other cookbooks with none of the backing research and with no credit to me. Oh well. At least there is an attempt in restaurants now to serve a reasonable facsimile of traditional lowcountry cooking. Of that I am most proud. My foremost accomplishment, though, was to get real grits first into my shop, and then into newspapers such as the New York Times and magazines such as Gourmet and Food & Wine, and ultimately onto plates in both homes and restaurants. Until I began writing about what we always called breakfast shrimp, the recipe was simply a throwback to the old days from Charleston Receipts, the fundraiser cookbook of the Junior League of Charleston, first published in 1950 (and continuously in print). For over 20 years now I’ve been selling grits to customers in all 50 states, and not a majority of my customers are southerners.

 

I just Googled “shrimp and grits” and got 213,000 hits. The first is a decent recipe from Bobby Flay, not all gussied up withLouisiana tasso or Spanish chorizo or, worse, cheese. Good for him: he’s read my book and had me on his shows. He seems to “get” what lowcountry cooking is all about. The second recipe is from Tyler Florence, who used to come in my store when he was a culinary student at Johnson & Wales, from which he graduated in 1991, when he was 20. His recipe doesn’t even include grits, but cornmeal, and he adds milk, cream, butter, olive oil, andouille or spicy Italian sausage, chicken stock, and large shrimp. Yuck. How can you possibly taste the freshly ground cornmeal if it’s smothered in all that? The compilers of Charleston Receipts knew to call for small shrimp. Like these creek shrimp in this photo.

I worked for years to get folks to use the heads and shells of shrimp to make stocks to season their seafood dishes, and yet we still find chicken stock called for in recipes. If you don’t have heads-on shrimp, you can at least simmer the shells in a little water with some aromatic vegetables and you’ll get a shrimp flavor in your sauce. Large peeled shrimp have little flavor as is; drowned in chicken stock seasoned with spicy sausage, they’ll surely not taste like anything from the ocean.Tyler should know better: he’s a South Carolinian. Very few of the cooks and food writers who live in the lowcountry are. Actually, I don’t blame the young chefs for tinkering with recipes and trying to make a name for themselves. We live in a world of celebrities and I say more power to them for doing whatever they can to get known. Eating out in fine restaurants is, after all, the most extravagant of our entertainments, the most bourgeois of our pastimes. We want stars – both chef-personalities and the Michelin kind.

 

Just don’t call it “lowcountry cooking” if it’s inspired by Mario Batali more than by Charleston Receipts; and for heaven’s sake don’t call it the Low Country: that’s theNetherlands.

 

I, too, am guilty of thievery, of a sort. I will often see a recipe online and print it out, thinking I might try it some day. I have a large stash of these pilfered receipts which I occasionally peruse, looking for fresh ideas. They are often directions for making something that includes ingredients that I love – especially things that I seldom use – but used in ways that are not standard in my kitchen. Yesterday, preparing for a house full of guests, I decided to thumb through that stack, looking for dessert ideas. I came across a recipe that is neither titled nor accredited. Usually my printer prints the web address, the date, and time on the bottom of the page, but I must have simply copied the ingredients and then chosen to print only the copied selection. I just made this coconut-chocolate cake and will tweak the recipe a bit and make it again (I can see that it’s too dry as is), but I don’t want to publish it, even in an improved form, until I can find out who wrote the original. I have cut and pasted sections of the recipe and put those quotes (in quotation marks as well) in search engines to no avail. I’ve trolled through hundreds of recipes for flourless coconut and chocolate cake recipes and not found this one. I could have printed it out any time in the last 4 years, even as recently as last week. I honestly don’t remember.

 

I did find many more good-sounding coconut and chocolate cake recipes. One looked particularly scrumptious to me, coconut macaroon cakes filled with ganache. One well-know food writer claimed the recipe was his a couple of years ago on his blog, saying he had developed the recipe himself, but then I came across the exact same recipe, posted two years earlier on Oprah’s site, where it’s listed as a creation of François Payard, the great French pastry chef.

 

I am reminded of Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who is running for the Senate. A draft dodger who is now claiming to have served inVietnam. What’s wrong with people? Can’t they just tell the truth?

 

I am quick to correct people who call me a South Carolina native (I moved there when I was three, from Louisiana, where I was born) or a chef (I’ll admit to being a damn good cook, but there’s no way I could stock a restaurant or cook for people I don’t love or keep my cool when a waiter asked me to hold the “sauce” from a braised dish – something I’ve heard folks demand in restaurants). I did grow up in the lowcountry, though, unlike several of the self-proclaimed “experts” on the cuisine. I just wish they’d tell the truth about how they got to where they are. And where they got their recipes.

 

Flourless Chocolate and

Coconut Cake of Unknown Origin

 

In the interest of fairness, I’m posting the recipe I found online. If you are the author or if you know where this came from, please let me know and I’ll give due credit. I haven’t tasted it yet, but I’ll let you know what I think it needs.

May 12, 2010 Rucola Selvatica

It’s been cool the past few days, so I made a big Irish (lamb) stew and we’ve been eating it with crusty bread and simple salads. The weather has been great for my roses. I’ve been cutting huge bunches of the sweetly spicy Abraham Darby roses (see photo, left) every day for weeks. They don’t last long, but they are so beautiful and they fill the house with their heavenly fragrance.

 

 I’ve also been picking arugula from my dooryard — rucola selvatica, that is, the wild variety with its pointy leaves, which is so much more flavorful than the hybrids. Years ago I brought back seeds from Puglia, where it grows abundantly everywhere, and I’ve had plants ever since. They don’t die in winter, even when they’ve been under several feet of snow, as they were this year. Sometimes I’ll add arugula to soups or to beans, and occasionally I’ll wilt a little with tomatoes to serve with pasta. But I love the pungency of the raw leaves, so most often I simply have it in salads. Tonight I peeled and cut up a tart apple, then sprinkled it with lemon juice so that it wouldn’t turn brown. I assiduously cleaned the arugula. It’s best to fill a sink with water and shake the leaves around in it over and over, because sand and dirt clings to arugula more so than it does to other leafy greens. Spun completely dry, I put the leaves in the fridge until ready to serve. In the meantime I caramelized some walnut pieces by simply putting some sugar and the walnut halves in a small skillet and cooking them over medium heat, continually turning them with a heat-proof silicone spatula, until the sugar was caramelized and coating the nuts. I then sprinkled them with a good pinch of salt, stirred one last time, and turned the nuts out onto a silicone mat (you could use wax paper or buttered marble or a greased pan). When the nuts were cooled, I broke them up into pieces, purposely breaking the nuts themselves in half, so that portions of the raw nuts were exposed, for contrast of taste and texture. Just before serving, I drizzled the greens with walnut oil, tossed with salt and pepper, then squeezed on a bit of lemon juice and tossed again. Had our dinner not been as rich as it was, I would have added shavings of parmigiano reggiano as well.

PS. In adding this to the Index, I see that I made almost exactly the same salad and posted the recipe almost exactly 2 years ago on May 16. This happens all the time on the blog, proving that I eat what’s in season!

May 8, 2010 Sardines and Haddock

 

I don’t know if I can properly express my love of sardines. Having spent a lot of my youth aboard my parents’ sailboat, there was an embarrassment of riches of the sea in the lowcountry back then when oysters were 10” long and crabs were always fatty and succulent. Nevertheless, cold snaps, squalls, or violent thunderstorms might hinder our fishing, so Mother kept canned salmon in the ship’s store in order to whip up a batch of croquettes. She also kept sardines for my father and me. Mother and I always purchased canned sardines in sild oil, but since the discovery of the cure-all Omega3 oil in fish, you pray to find them packed in it. Now they’re mostly packed in inferior oils, or in mustard, tomato, or pepper sauces including those oils. Soy oil is probably harmful, but it’s found its way into nearly as many products as corn syrup. It’s even found its way into my favorite accompaniment to sardines, saltines. (You can click here to read more about it.) I’ll buy just about any canned sardine packed in water or in EXTRA VIRGIN olive oil. But that’s it. The other oils are not only of questionable edibility, but also off-tasting.

 

There has been an awful lot written about sardines in the past few years, but I have taken issue with nearly every article or blog I’ve read. (I am particularly bothered when authors – everyone’s an “author” now – claim that one brand is “the best,” as though they had indeed tasted every canned sardine there is.) I, too, have written about sardines (see March 2008 and April 2009, for example), but mostly I’ve written about fresh.

 

Yesterday I went to the venerable, Spanish-owned-

and-operated A&H Market inBethesda, and bought fresh, line-caught haddock and these beautiful sardines which were flown in fromPortugal. No sunken eyes, no bloated bellies. They were on the large size, so I filleted them, dragged them through a tempura batter, and fried them in olive oil. A squeeze of lemon juice was all the garnish needed.

 

We’re off to see Fellini’s Casanova on the big screen. I haven’t seen it since its release in 1976. It’s one of my favorite films. I’ll post recipes later.

For the haddock, I stuck to Iberian methods and place the fillets down in a clay pot with parboiled potatoes, roasted and peeled peppers, and fresh tomatoes, all drizzled with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Baked, covered,  in a hot oven for about 20 minutes. Served with wilted chard from a friend’s garden.

And delicious bread from Saint Michel Bakery.

May 4, 2010 More seafood and a letter from the Gulf

I received the following email from my friend Ann on the Gulf coast:

I am so grateful that we have been eating sea food all weekend. I cooked a big batch of shrimp , trying  to copy a dish I ate  that a young Spanish gal cooked — olive oil, salt, pepper, red pepper (lots, turned the oil pink), parsley and lemon and garlic. I sautéed them. Lots of olive oil,  and we dipped New Orleans French bread slices in it. So  good. Not quite like hers but close. I think she used a lot more garlic . We will not be getting shrimp for quite some time if ever again . They are not allowed to go out . This disaster is a tragedy . The Gulf coast is just  getting on its feet from Ivan and Katrina . People are canceling beach rentals  in time to get their deposits back including us…. We eat sea food all the time .. I don’t know what this will do to my menus, especially with the weather turning.

This is such a major ecological disaster that I hope we will learn from it. We simply must stop depending on fossil fuels for energy. Until we change our system of government (of the rich and powerful, by the rich and powerful, and for the rich and powerful), however, nothing will change. Lobbyists elect, empower, and influence every politician.

I don’t eat farmed salmon, but when the fresh sockeyes from the Pacific Northwest appear in the markets, heralding the beginning of the season, I can’t resist. I worry about the fossil fuels used to get the fish to my market, but the more I read about the fishing industry, the less I seem to understand. I should probably stick to local soft-shells and rockfish.

I also don’t, as a rule, care for sweet notes with my main courses, but salmon — like pork and duck — has a sweetness itself that is highlighted when served with a bit of sugared foods alongside. The sweetness in salmon, duck, and pork comes from the fat, and a bit of acid in a sweet side dish works miracles, “cutting through the fat,” some say. Think of the condiments such as chutney that are served with the composed rice dishes of India or a couscous from Morocco. In the American South, as in China and India, there are many classic sweet and sour dishes, often in the form of condiments. For salmon (which is neither southern nor Asian), however, I like the Italian classic cipollini agrodolce (sweet and sour baby onions).

I don’t really use a recipe to make them. If you troll the internet, you’ll find many, many versions. I didn’t have Italian cipollini, but I did find some nice “boilers,” weighing about an ounce apiece. To boiling water, I added a pound of onions for about 3 minutes (the water was just returning to a boil), drained them, and rinsed them in cold water. I then carefully cut off most of the root end, leaving a bit so that the onions didn’t fall apart (though you can see from the photo that one or two of them did). To peel the onions, you then simply squeeze them and they pop out of their skins.

For the agrodolce, some cooks use red wine, some use vinegar, and some use a combination. I use what I have on hand and what inspires me at the moment. Last night I put a cup of white wine, 1/3 cup of sugar, and 1 tablespoon of hoisin sauce in a saucepan and mixed it well. I added a bay leaf and the peeled onions and allowed the mixture to cook at a low boil until a thin knife blade could pierce the onions and the sauce was reduced to a thick syrup. I then stirred in a tablespoon or two of white wine vinegar and allowed the mixture to sit at room temperature until dinner.

An easy way to cook a salmon filet is in foil in a hot oven. This filet took about 12 minutes. I added a brunoise of carrots, some corn cut from the cob (barely cooked), and some lemon dill butter. Wrapped tight and baked at 450o. Lovely.

May 3, 2010 Fresh and mostly local

The meal pictured above ranks right up there among my favorites of all time: grilled soft-shell crabs, scallions, and green tomatoes (all local), with some corn from Florida (I bring a pot of water to a boil, add the corn, cover the pot, and turn off the heat. The scallions, green tomatoes, and crabs are simply annointed with olive oil, salt, and pepper (and a dusting of cayenne on the crabs) and grilled until the vegetables are soft and the crabs are firm. I made an arugula mayonnaise with lime and hot pepper accents for the crab and served it all with crusty bread and a bottle of white Côtes du Rhône. Does it get any better than this? Spring has sprung!

Tonight? Local asparagus, eggs, and just-dug new potatoes.