June 29, 2009 A Weekend with Dixie and Rentz
I’ve just taken Mikel’s mother, Dixie Woodruff, and her husband, Rentz, to the airport. They arrived on Friday, when we had Ann and Larry Cove over for a fish fry. I made hushpuppies (see below), red rice (See blog entry at March 10, 2008), and Moravian cole slaw (See August 12, 2007). For dessert, we had lemon squares – real shortbread with lemon curd (The recipe appeared here on December 20, 2007.).
The photo above was taken at the Kenilworth Park, where the National Aquatic Gardens featured hundreds of water lilies and lotuses in full bloom. I also saw the elusive indigo bunting, the first one I’ve seen in years. The lotus blossoms are a foot in diameter!
We also visited Hillwood, the museum of Marjorie Merriweather Post’s Washington estate and gardens, where we ordered “Arnold Palmers,” which are half lemonade and half iced tea. Dixie loves lemon flavors, so I was surprised that she had never had “my” famous lemonade, the best you’ll ever have. I say “my” because the recipe is from Ruth Wooten, Sunny Davis’s aunt in Walterboro, South Carolina, who for years owned and ran the Duncan Hines-recommended Pine Crest Restaurant there, where I first tasted it in the 1950s. If you’ve ever had better, please send me the recipe!
6 juicy lemons
1 cup sugar
6 cups water
fresh mint sprigs
Scrub the lemons with a little soapy water to remove any oil or wax coatings. Rinse them well. Cut the lemons in half and put them in a 2-quart heat-resistant pitcher. Add the cup of sugar.
Bring the water to a boil and pour it over the lemons, stirring to dissolve the sugar. As soon as the lemons are cool enough to handle (30 or 40 minutes), squeeze the juice out of them into the pitcher. Discard the lemons. Refrigerate until use.
Pour the lemonade into iced glasses, garnishing with sprigs of mint.
Southern Fried Fish and Hushpuppies
This is one of the easiest and most basic of all fried fish recipes. What makes it southern is the the use of corn flour – a very finely ground cornmeal — and the addition of hushpuppies. In West Tennessee and throughout the Mississippi River delta, catfish are prepared like this. Throughout the region, other freshwater fish such as bream (pronounced “brim”), bass, and crappie are fried with this simple dusting of seasoned corn flour, which produces the crispest crust. Saltwater fish such as whiting are also fried in this manner, but wheat flour is usually used. Along the Gulf of Mexico, the fish is likely to be dipped first into an egg wash before coating, but there’s always some cornmeal or corn flour close at hand for hushpuppies. This is the southern version of a fish fry. It serves 8 people.
Corn flour is the finest grind of cornmeal; in Louisiana it’s called “fish fry.” If you can’t find it, you can make your own by grinding cornmeal more finely in a blender or food processor. I have whole-grain cornmeal and corn flour ground for me in the mountains of Georgia. (See link above.)
For the fish:
Peanut oil for frying
1 1/2 cups corn flour, more or less, preferably stone-ground (see above)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne, or to taste
3 pounds small cleaned fish or fillets, preferably freshwater catfish or sunfish
For the hushpuppies:
1 large egg
2 cups buttermilk
1-3/4 cups stone-ground whole-grain cornmeal (see above)
1/2 cup minced onion
1 teaspoon salt
Pour oil to a depth of at least 1 1/2 inches in a stockpot or Dutch oven and heat over medium-high to 375°. Preheat the oven to 200°. Place a wire racks on 2 baking sheets and set aside.
In a wide bowl, mix the corn flour, salt, pepper, and cayenne. In a medium-size bowl, prepare the hushpuppy batter. Mix the egg and buttermilk well, then stir in the cornmeal until well blended. Add the onion and salt and stir in. Set aside while you fry the fish.
Dip each fish or fillet in the seasoned corn flour, coating it all over but shaking off any excess. Carefully lower each piece into the hot oil. Fill the pot, but do not crowd it. The oil should bubble up around each piece of fish. Monitor the temperature closely so that it stays between 365° and 375°. Fry the fish until it is golden all over, turning the pieces if necessary. It will take 2 or 3 minutes on each side, depending on the size of the pieces. Set aside the remaining cornflour.
Remove the fish from the oil in the same order that they were immersed, using a wire mesh strainer, tongs, or any tool that will allow you to hold it over the pot as excess grease drains back into the pot. When the fish stops dripping, immediately place the pieces on the prepared baking sheet, then place in the oven.
Always wait for the oil to reach the proper temperature again before adding more food to the pot. Continue frying until all of the fish is fried, then proceed with the hushpuppies:
Add the remaining seasoned corn flour to the hushpuppy batter a little at a time, mixing well as you go, until the batter is thick enough to be spooned. You will have added about 1/4 to 1/2 cup of the corn flour.
Make sure that the oil has returned to 375°, then drop the batter by spoonfuls into the hot oil, using 2 teaspoons: one to scoop up the batter and the other to scrape it off and into the oil. Fry the hushpuppies until golden brown all over, about 3 minutes, again carefully monitoring the temperature of the oil. Drain each pup well over the pot as it is removed from the oil, then place on the prepared sheet pan. You’ll probably not have to put the hushpuppies in the oven with the fish to stay warm because your guests will be picking at them. Besides, they stay warm a fairly long time, and there are plenty to go around. Repeat the process until all the batter is fried. Serve the fish and hushpuppies immediately with cole slaw.
On Saturday night we dined at Ben’s Next Door, where everything was delicious, especially their French fries, before going to see Valerie Harper in the pre-Broadway run of Matthew Lombardo’s Looped, a bawdy comedy about the irrepressible Tallulah Bankhead.
June 25, 2009 Mikel and the Obamas, a Cocktail Party, and the Hypocrisy of Yet Another Republican
This just in! Mikel got to introduce President and Mrs.Obama and work with them stuffing backpacks for the children of military servicemen today. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images North America) Annie Leibovitz was there as well, shooting! From The White House:
The President and First Lady joined hundreds of Congressional family members and five national nonprofit organizations to prepare 15,000 backpacks with books, healthy snacks, Frisbees and other items for the children of servicemen and women. The service event is part of United We Serve, President Obama’s call to all Americans to engage in service projects and create meaningful impact in their towns and communities. The United We Serve summer service initiative began June 22nd and runs through the National Day of Service and Remembrance on September 11th. The initiative is being led by the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency dedicated to fostering service in communities across the country. Mikel is the Acting Director of Americorps/National Civilian Community Corps. The service event took place this morning at Fort McNair prior to the annual Congressional picnic.
In the photo, that’s Mikel next to the First Lady, whom he says was down-to-earth. They talked about everything as they packed the boxes. Am I proud or what?! (See story about Pride, below.)
Also I wrote below, I could not care less about what consenting adults do behind closed doors, but when they are public leaders who posit themselves as morally superior and then are found to be involved in the very type of sleazy affairs that they demonize others for, I think they are fair game to be skewered in the same way that they attacked others. I am adding now Mark Sanford, the Governor of South Carolina, to the ever-growing list of hypocritical Republican philanderers. Some Republican “friends” of mine say that there are just as many Democrats having affairs as Republicans, but the difference, of course, is that the Democrats don’t take a moral high ground, don’t quote the Bible in chambers, and don’t attack their opponents on personal grounds.
I never liked Mark Sanford or his brother, who lived next door to me in Charleston. I was appalled when Sanford was elected, because he lied throughout his campaign, about having been reared on a South Carolina “farm,” which in fact was a 3000-acre plantation that his parents bought when he was a junior in high schoool. Worse, he compared his work “slaving” on the “farm” to life in a concentration camp! Here’s the quote:
“Over the course of my life, every summer I was in a concentration camp for children on that farm, whether it was chasing cattle or baling hay.” Sanford was addressing members of the Palmetto AgriBusiness Council, according to the Associated Press.
On a lighter, more positive note, I’m so glad I had the chance to host some members of the Schlesinger clan this week. My dear friend Betty Alice Fowler has been visiting. She and I met in college and have known each other for over 30 years. Her son Hugh Schlesinger (Arthur was his grandfather) is interning in Teddy Kennedy’s office this summer. I had a “cocktail” party for Hugh and some of their friends and family members on Monday. Left to right in the photo below, back row: Blount Stewart, Jr; Annie and Blount Stewart; Bob Berry; Bill Emmet; Francesca and Robert Schlesinger; Hugh; and Elizabeth. Front row: Pantaloon (my standard poodle), Betty Alice with newborn Emmet Schlesinger; and Julia Stern.
Among the dishes I served were fried okra pickles and onion rings. The onions are the new sweet onions being grown in South Carolina, and I must say they are amazing. See the link here: Lowcountry Sweet Onions.
I used a recipe from my Fearless Frying Cookbook for the batter. Every okra pod and onion ring was gobbled up, even by the wary! Photo of me below by Hugh Schlesinger.
Fried Onion Rings and/or Pickles from
The recipe in the book is for dill pickles, but you can use okra pickles, as I did, and onion rings as well. I first had these odd creatures at a fried fish house on the Ogeechee River outside Savannah, Georgia. I love to serve them as appetizers to “gourmets” who usually look down their noses at such things. I’ve yet to meet a soul who didn’t love them. This is fun party food to be served with drinks before dinner. I figure 1 1/2 pickles per person. The batter will coat about 2 dozen pickles.
3 cups all-purpose flour, divided
1/2 teaspoon salt
Cayenne to taste (optional)
2 large eggs, separated
1 cup beer, flat and at room temperature
Whole large dill pickles, about 1 1/2 per person (or okra
pickles, or onion rings)
Peanut oil for frying
1 1/2 hours before serving, combine 2 cups of the flour with the salt and cayenne if desired. Mix the egg yolks with the beer. Make a well in the center of the flour and pour the beer mixture in, stirring with a wire whisk only until combined. Do not beat the batter. Let it stand for 1 hour.
When ready to fry, slice the dill pickles in half lengthwise and pat them dry. Okra pickles you can leave whole. Pour 3 inches of oil into a Dutch oven or stockpot and place over medium-high heat. Place the remaining flour in a small mixing bowl. Beat the egg whites until they hold soft peaks, then fold them gently but thoroughly into the batter. Place a rack over a baking sheet.
When the oil has reached 365°, dust the pickle halves in the flour, making sure they are well coated. Shake off any excess, then drop them several at a time into the batter. Using tongs, pick up the pickles and carefully lower them into the hot oil. Fry until golden brown all over, about 2 or 3 minutes on each side. Remove to the wire racks to drain, then have someone place them on a serving dish or a napkin-lined basket and pass them with cocktail napkins as you fry the next batch.
Serves up to 16
June 21, 2009 The Pride of Father’s Day
This is my first year without my father, and I must say that I’m sad today, however proud I am of him and his many accomplishments. I wrote about him on the blog last July when he died, but I want to honor him again today. He was truly a remarkable character. I never felt quite worthy of his inordinate pride in me (and which I didn’t even know was there until I was nearly 40). My mother never understood or appreciated my peripatetic career, but my father always encouraged me to follow my bliss. When I changed careers abruptly, midstream in my mid-30s, after my mother died, I overheard him tell my mother’s best friend, who was questioning my life’s choices, “John will be fine. I watched him teach himself to play guitar when he was a teenager and watched him teach himself Italian when his mother was dying. He can do anything he puts his mind to.”
That was the aphorism my siblings and I heard from our parents constantly as we were growing up, that we could do anything our hearts desired. I have no doubt that my father actually believed it to be true.
Dad could appear to be aloof, but I think that most of the time he was simply engrossed in his many interests and hobbies — ham radio, electronics, sailing, sports cars, reading, birdwatching, and cooking among them. He was known in our home town as tough, but the truth is that he had a thin veneer of emotions and was prone to tears. He never stopped worrying about any of us.
When my mother was dying, he and I took care of her for months. We never planned meals, or who would do the shopping, or the cleaning, and yet everything got done, and we sat down for three meals each day. And they were all meals cooked from scratch.
When he died last year, his widow gave me some of his cookbooks, some of the ones that had been my mother’s and that he had kept for himself when he gave me the bulk of her huge collection. Among them is Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine (Nika Hazelton’s 1969 translation). There’s a bookmark on the Veal Piccata with Marsala page, but I know from his having served me the dish several times that that’s not the way he made it. (His version invariably included capers.) He was a typical scientist in the kitchen, preparing all his mise en place in advance, filling custard cups with measured ingredients, but he seasoned wildly to his own taste. Though he followed recipes conceptually and proportionately, he often adapted them to the ingredients he could find in the hinterlands of both his Florida and mountain homes.
Dad grew up dirt poor in Appalachia, the descendant of the Albion masons who settled along the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road. My mother, from a family of engineers and bankers and pharmacists and doctors, married beneath herself socially but she met her intellectual match. (And, ironically, when my sisters were invited to join the D.A.R., it was on account of our paternal heritage, not the maternal!). Both of our parents had an insatiable curiosity that they invoked in their kids.
Years after my mother had died, Dad and I would break into the moonshine that I would occasionally find through some mountain folks I know. Then, and only then, could I coax him into showing me how to do the old jigs his ancestors had brought from Ireland in the eighteenth century. Jigs he hadn’t seen or danced himself in over 70 years. Dad had bad knees (which I would come to inherit), but the ‘shine somehow got him going. I’d get a favored jig down pat, only to forget it completely in my hangover the next morning, my father laughing it all off and claiming not to remember our dance sessions. (Photos notwithstanding. This was pre-digital imagery!)
He loved to dance, but my mother didn’t. Here’s a photo of him dancing with my dear friend Adrianne Massey, herself a scientist, at a wedding back in the 80s. He loved to have a good time and to entertain, and he would have scoffed at the notion that pride is a mortal sin. My Italian’s not good enough to know exactly what the difference is between la superbia (the word used to mean pride and cited by the Catholic Church as a sin) and l’orgoglio (also meaning pride), but I know that the former connotes magnificence, as in the strutting display of a peacock, and the latter, more at presumption or audacity, indicating a not-necessarily earned heightened self-esteem. Like my favored Italian city, Genoa, known as La Superba, my father was SUPERB! And he deserved to be known as such.
He would be so proud to know that I received The Right Honourable Baroness Patricia Scotland of Ashtal, the Attorney General of the United Kingdom, for lunch yesterday. What did I serve her? Cheese straws, the first of the local green beans and blueberries, and shrimp and grits. In the photos below: table set, with Champagne (and dog) chilling; the cheese straws cooling; and a blueberry cobbler with flowers from the yard.
June 18, 2009 Roast Peacocks and other birds
That’s a chicken in the photo, a 3-pound air-dried bird from SmartChicken©, resting after I roasted it in a 425o oven for about an hour. The first time I bought one of these organically grown birds from the fairly recently opened Harris Teeter nearby, I did so mostly because it was the right size. As I have written many times before on this blog, finding a bird under three pounds is nearly impossible these days. Most of today’s chickens have been bred to grow large, quickly, with outsized breasts and little regard to flavor. When I was researching the current whole hog and charcuterie crazes a couple of years ago, I was told time and again by chefs that the breed was as important a flavor determinant as anything. The farmers I interviewed disagreed somewhat, maintaining that the feed — especially the final “grow out” stage — affected flavor as much as any other factor. In the meantime, I found that I could coax more flavor from any cut of pork or poultry simply by brining it. (See blog entries for April 4, 2008; December 19, 2008; and January 31, 2009).
The first SmartChicken© bird I had was incredibly delicious, so I wondered what the breed and feed were. I wrote to them and, at first, they were reluctant to tell me the breed, which is the industry standard, the Ross/Cobb. Frankly, I was surprised, since these are probably the most common supermarkets chickens, descended from the classic Tuscan Leghorns. In subsequent correspondence with Scott Pavel, SmartChicken’s Vice-President of Planning and Business Development, I learned that their air-drying technique is unique in the industry:
“…the breed of the bird does have something to do with how the bird tastes but what really drives our flavor is the feed and how we process the birds…. We feed our birds a corn and soybean diet with no animal by products or antibiotics which makes us unique with a few others but what separates us from others is the processing of the birds. We were the first processor in the United States to air-chill birds instead of using water immersion which is the standard in the states, by not introducing a foreign substance such as chlorinated water helps keeps the natural chicken flavor. A water immersed product will gain up to 10% in water weight with the warm bird acting as a sponge when in is introduced to the cold water chill. With the air-chill process you don’t have the water gain maintaining the natural chicken flavor, we state no added water on our package which is monitored by the USDA daily. Second we are the only chicken processor that uses a Controlled Atmosphere Stunning process instead of electric shock which helps keep the muscle of the bird less rigid as they are processed. The birds gently fall asleep instead of having a violent reaction to the electric stun. The final step we take is to age our birds 24 hours which provides a more tender product, the majority of the other producers go from kill, to chill, to package in about 4 hours which helps lock in the water weight gained but produces a tougher less taster bird. All of this is harder to do and less efficient which is why you won’t see a larger processor go to these lengths but as a unique niche provider we are able to hold to our belief that people will appreciate a truly better tasting product.”
The SmartChicken© birds come trussed, with no giblets, their wing tips removed, ready for roasting. I paid about $10 for the three pound bird, above, but I was not paying for fat, wing tips, neck, or giblets, so the cost of edible chicken was actually a bargain. I lined a baking pan with aluminum foil, for several reasons: easy cleanup, simple collection of pan drippings, and to reflect the heat up underneath the bird, which I placed on a v-shaped roasting rack. No butter. No herbs. No stock in the pan, all of which would create moisture that would steam the flesh. I wanted it roasted, after all. I lightly greased the rack with olive oil, then placed the bird, which I lavishly sprinkled with coarse salt, upside down on the rack. I let the bird roast for about 12 mintues, then turned it to one of its sides. 10 minutes on that side, then flip it to the other for another 10 minutes. Then right-side up for about 15 minutes or more, until the skin is golden brown and crispy and the flesh bounces back. I don’t worry about internal temperature. Yes, the juices will be running clear, but the bird is going to continue coooking as I allow it to rest on a cutting board, as in the photo, above.
To serve, I made a big plate of salad greens from a friend’s garden (see below), placed some cut up pieces on the greens, and poured the pan drippings over all as a dressing. It was delicious.
You can air-dry birds yourself by heavily salting them and placing them in the refrigerator for up to two days, or you can brine the birds, wipe them dry, and let them sit in the refrigerator for up to 12 hours. I would still recommend finding a small bird, preferably one that has been fed naturally, and, even better, a tasty breed from your local farmers market if you can find one. Roast chicken is one of the best meals on earth. Make it special.
As for the roast peacock of my title, I’m referring to the ever-posturing and -proselytizing Republicans and self-proclaimed “moral” public figures such as Senator Ensign who have been so quick to criticize others and to demonize gay people while they themselves abuse their marriage vows. Remember Gingrich’s moral outrage at Clinton’s affair as he himself was philandering? Personally, I don’t care what consenting adults do behind closed doors. It’s no one’s business. But when public figures attack others for the very acts that they themselves are guilty of, and work to deny gay couples equal rights, I can only hope that the bad karma of these hypocrites will come back to haunt them. McCain, Giuliani, Craig, Hyde, Barr, O’Reilly, Morris, Haggard, Gingrich, Dole and Vitter come to mind. Peacocks all! May they be roasted as least as well as Clinton was!
I am NOT amused by the insulting crumbs that Obama tossed gay people this week, while signing off on the Defense of Marriage Act and telling the Supreme Court not to consider the lawsuits over Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell while he considers whether or not he will see that the measure is rescinded. Politicians!
June 17, 2009 Busy, Exciting Week!
Our standard poodle (shown above in a quick little watercolor sketch I did), who has two crushed disks in his spine, arthritis in his hips, and epilepsy, has been having a hard time walking lately, but he seems to be responding dramatically well to acupuncture. He’s an angel of a dog who has never really done anything wrong — doesn’t get on the furniture, doesn’t chew things that aren’t his — plus he worked as a therapy dog (going into hospitals and schools and nursing homes with me) until he hurt his back. I can’t express how it saddens me to see him suffer and how glad it makes me when treatments seem to work!
Last night our recently widowed friend Joe Greene dropped by and stayed for supper. I didn’t take photos, but I served an eclectic meal of fried quail; steamed Chinese eggplant with an Asian dipping sauce made of soy, ginger, garlic, and a dash of hot sesame oil; and pole beans. Afterwards we had some Stilton that Mikel brought home from the Cowgirl Creamery near his office building. He left this morning for a week of meetings in California, but will return next week just in time to introduce President and Mrs.Obama at a service event that his agency has planned for the White House! In the meantime, I am receiving the Right Honorable Baroness Patricia Scotland of Asthal, who is not only the Attorney General of the UK, but also is the Minister of State for Children on the Queen’s Counsel! What amazing honors for both Mikel and me!!!
June 15, 2009 More lettuce, oyster sausages, and scallops
We spent another lovely weekend on the Eastern Shore, where we harvested the lettuces before they bolted. We pulled up the lettuce heads pictured above and planted squash and melons in their stead. Note the healthy artichokes in the foreground!
Here’s Chuck rinsing the lettuces before we spread the leaves out on towels in the shade to dry in the breeze. I then packed them in paper-towel-lined plastic bags loosely closed, and we will wash the leaves once again before serving them.
To top a bed of this final spring letuce harvest, I made oyster sausages, one of my favorite dishes of all time. I give two versions below. The recipes are essentially the same except in the second version you use store-bought sausage.
Oyster Sausages from
These sausages were once common on Lowcountry tables, when oysters were more plentiful than meat, but few people make them today. They are either made into patties or stuffed into casings, and are made with either veal or pork (though Sarah Rutledge, writing in Charleston in the 1840s, made hers with both beef and mutton). I have made them with lamb, using some fresh pork fat, and I have increased the ratio of oysters. The marvelous thing about sausage making is that, as soon as the mixture is ground all together, you can fry off a little and taste it to correct not only the seasoning, but the ratio of ingredients as well.
If you plan to stuff the sausage, you will need about four feet of hog casings. Because this sausage is more delicate than the casing, be sure to poach stuffed oyster sausages rather than frying them. Save the drained oyster liquor in which to poach them, with a little milk added if necessary. Serve with the sweet pepper relish posted on the blog on March 24, 2008.
If you plan to make patties, fry them in clarified butter until golden brown and serve on a bed of lettuce with lemon wedges.
1 pint fresh, raw, shucked oysters
1 pound fatty pork, cut into 2″ chunks
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup dried breadcrumbs
salt and black pepper
mixed dried herbs such as herbes de Provence or Italian seasoning
optional: hog casings, about 4 feet (available through most butchers)
Drain the oysters, reserving the liquor in which to poach the sausages if they are to be stuffed into casings. With your meat grinder set on the coarser setting, run the oysters and the pork alternately through the grinder. Add the yolks and the breadcrumbs, then season to taste with salt, pepper, cayenne, and mixed herbs. Mix the ingredients well together, then take a little spoonful and fry it in a pan until golden brown. Taste it and correct the seasoning. Then run the mixture back through the meat grinder set on the finer grind (and with the sausage stuffer attached and the casings tied at one end and placed over the end of the funnel, ready to be filled, if you want stuffed sausages).
Tie stuffed sausages off into 4″ links. Cover the sausages and place immediately in the refrigerator. Use within 24 hours, cooking them as described above.
Yields 2 lbs.
Or, the easier version from Hoppin’ John’s Charleston, Beaufort & Savannah: Dining at Home in the Lowcountry:
These delicious appetizers are traditionally served with lemon wedges and toast points on a bed of lettuce. Better still is to make Italian-style bruschetta, brushing baguette slices with olive oil and drying them in a low oven until they are crisp. You needn’t have a meat grinder to make these sausages. Simply buy some bulk (country) sausage and season it to your own liking.
1/4 pound sausage meat
1/2 cup fresh shucked oysters, drained and chopped
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons dry bread crumbs
Salt, freshly ground black pepper, and cayenne
Fresh or dried herbs of your choice, to taste
3 to 4 tablespoons vegetable oil or clarified butter for frying
Lettuce leaves, lemon wedges, and toast points for garnish
Mix the sausage with the oysters in a bowl, then add the egg yolk and bread crumbs. Season to taste, then pinch off a little piece of the sausage and fry in a dry pan. Taste and correct the seasoning to suit your own palate.
Place a thin film of oil or clarified butter in a skillet and place over medium-high heat. Fry the sausages until golden brown all over, about 2 minutes on each side. Serve immediately on a bed of lettuce with lemon wedges.
Makes 6 appetizers.
Weekends at our friends’ magical place are always fun. Chuck and Bruce often let me take over the kitchen and cook whatever I want. Here’s Bruce just as we are about to start the buffet line for dinner on Saturday night. That’s a boned leg of lamb on the cutting board. I made a sauce with garlic, anchovies, fresh herbs, wine, and the pan drippings. And here I am, to the left, putting finishing touches on the lunch plates of oyster sausages.
As the summer progresses, we’ll make relishes and pickles and preserves from their wonderful garden and fruit trees. Here’s Mikel, below, hoeing the vegetable garden as Chuck prunes the browned leaves of the bulbs that have already bloomed in the background.
En route home, we stopped at a fish market we like in Kent Narrows and bought beautiful “dry” sea scallops, so fresh they’re sticky to the touch. I bought some fresh Florida corn and tomatoes from a roadside stand and prepared a very simple dinner of seared scallops atop a bed of fried corn. I sautéed some shallots in bacon grease and added the corn, cooking it very quickly in a hot skillet so that the sugars caramelize, stirring constantly. Just before serving, I seared the jumbo sea scallops in bacon grease in another pan (about 3 mintues per side) and added a peeled, chopped, and seasoned (s&p) tomato to the corn. The scallops I seasoned with salt, pepper, and cayenne. Fresh cilantro is the garnish.
If you can find good scallops, follow these instructions for searing them from The Fearless Frying Cookbook:
I love scallops, but when I was growing up, they were so often overcooked in restaurants that I seldom ordered them. These days, scallops, tuna, duck and beef are all commonly served just barely seared, so it’s not difficult to find good scallop dishes in restaurants. But I like to wait until I find really big, beautiful sea scallops, so fresh that they’re sticky, and sear them in a hot pan. The outsides form a crusty brown surface but the interiors are succulent, just barely cooked. I then add them either still warm or cooled to salads, drizzled with a favorite vinaigrette, or prepare a sauce for pasta and add them to the dish at the last minute so that they cook no more. Be sure to use very fresh sticky scallops in this dish. If they aren’t sticky, the outsides will not brown.
24 scallops are plenty to make salads for 6; one of my favorite ones includes fennel, orange, and red onion. As part of an entree or pasta dish, give each diner 6. This is a basic recipe for searing the scallops. You can use them however you wish.
Olive oil, about 1 teaspoon
24 very fresh jumbo sea scallops, about 1 1/2 pounds
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Brush the bottom of a large heavy skillet with a film of olive oil and place it over high heat. Season the scallops with salt and pepper. When the oil just begins to smoke, add the scallops to the pan and sear, about 30 seconds on each side. Remove the scallops from the pan and place in another pan, cover, and keep warm while you prepare the rest of your dish or place immediately in the refrigerator to chill.
Serves 4 to 6, depending on the dish
June 12, 2009 Wash that lettuce!
There’s a story this morning in the New York Times about food-borne illnesses, and it brings to mind a recent meal we had at home. I had some delicious blue cheese and thought how wonderful it would be to have something I never make: iceberg lettuce with a blue cheese dressing. Mind you, I have never in my life made a blue cheese dressing, or ordered one in a restaurant. I’m an extra-vrigin olive oil and lemon juice kind of guy. But I have eaten iceberg wedges and blue cheese dressings at friends’ houses. One friend served it to me, assuming I wouldn’t eat iceberg, but, in fact, I’ve always liked iceberg, however rarely I buy it, and I was in the mood for it the other night. So I bought the big ball of water that vaguely resembles other lettuces and started to cut it into wedges to place on our plates and realized that there’s no way to wash the wedges without breaking them apart, so I went ahead and broke it up, washed and dried it well, then poured the dressing over it. I simply crumbled some of the blue cheese into a bowl, added some olive oil and a third that amount of vinegar, whisked it well together, seasoned with salt and pepper, added a dollop of lowfat yogurt for a creamy consistency, whisked it together again, poured it over the cleaned greens, then added a few more crumbles of blue cheese. It was delicious.
Most disturbing to me among the common sources of food-borne illnesses cited in the article are nuts, which I eat by the handfuls. Do I need to wash them? I guess I better do some research!
And as for the chickens in the headline, well, I eat so few of them, and make sure they’re properly cooked on the rare occasion when I do prepare them. I rinse everything with vinegar — cutting board, knives, sink — after I cut up a chicken, before I wash those surfaces. That seemed to work for Mama.
June 9, 2009 National March for Equality planned for October 11, 2009
The time has come for equal rights for all Americans. Won’t you join us to march on Washington in October?Here’s a link to the organizing committee, headed by Cleve Jones, whom you may have seen in the film MILK, starring Sean Penn as gay activist and martyr Harvey Milk.
June 8, 2009 A weekend at home
We certainly didn’t intend to spend the weekend at home, but I hurt my back and we ended up barely leaving the house, except to go to the new Bethesda Central Farm Market that our friend Ann Brody Cove organized with Mitch Berliner, whose delicious bratwurst we tasted as soon as we entered the rooftop market, and which we immediately brought home for dinner. We also bought some wild-foraged morels from West Virginia. I haven’t cooked morels in years, and these were beauties, but, having gathered wild mushrooms in both South Carolina and in Liguria, I knew to be painstakingly careful about ridding them of critters.
Elizabeth Schneider advises us to choose “comparitively dry, tender specimens with a sweet earth aroma.” I never buy cultivated morels because they never have either that aroma nor the delicious flavor of wild ones. Elizabeth warns to be assiduous in their cleaning: “Even a few stray critters can turn them into crumbs by morning. Chef Jean Joho spreads morels in a well-spaced single layer on white towels to best observe the emergence of wildlife.” But that’s not enough. I make a weak brine solution, cover the morels with the salt water, and place them in the refrigerator for an hour or so. I’ll not post their photo here, but I will tell you that the morels I bought, which looked perfectly fine to the naked eye, gave up a couple of dozen tiny maggots in the brine. I then quartered the mushrooms lengthwise and squeezed them to make sure no more critters were hiding down in the crevices, and placed them on paper towels to dry. We found one more of the little wormlike creatures crawling out of one morel. I then squeezed the spongelike fungi again, forcing out the last of the water.
When the watery residue began to turn brownish, I stopped squeezing, figuring that the brine was out and natural juices were all that was left. Our friend Richard Little had been to the Dupont Circle Farmers Market and brought us some garlic scapes, which are the sinuous new green shoots from garlic bulbs, and which are milder than mature garlic. While Mikel browned the brats on the grill (they’re fully cooked), I cooked some pasta and made a simple sauce by putting some cream, the morels, some chopped scapes, and a dollop of mustard in a pan and cooking it till thick while the pasta cooked.
I found some good tomatoes from Florida and made BLTs and French Fries (see April 15, 2008) on Saturday. In the photo (left), that’s blender mayonnaise (see June 5, 2008) with a few basil leaves thrown in, with which we slathered the country-style white bread (lightly toasted on one side) and into which we dunked our fries.
I try to cook so as not to have leftovers, shopping for each meal. But earlier in the week I had made crab cakes (see recipe, below), and a pound of crab meat is way too much for two people to eat at one sitting, so I froze a couple of cakes and then simply tossed them in the oil I had cooked the fries in for supper that night to reheat them, and served them over a bed of lettuces and wild arugula from our stoop garden. As I wrote in The Fearless Frying Cookbook, “What many people do not know about fried chicken — and other fried foods — is that the finished dish can be wrapped well, frozen, and refried later. For refrying, use a vegetable oil with a high smoke point, such as peanut. Preheat the oil to between 390° to 400°, then carefully lower the pieces in the oil, frying them until just warmed through, about 1 or 2 minutes. Don’t let the oil go below 365° or above 400°.”
We had supper outside on the deck by candlelight.
Crab cakes are another of those widely varied regional specialties. In these pan-fried ones, there is neither bread nor mayonnaise; a little mustard and a beaten egg white holds them together. Crab cakes take to a world of accompaniments, from traditional tartar and hollandaise to spicy salsas and cole slaws. Serve them on a pool of tomato or red pepper puree, with a chunky fruit relish, or with any number of side dishes such as raita, hot sauce, potato salad, or cole slaw. Here, I’ve served them on a simple salad, with the remaining basil mayonnaise from lunch.
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 pound fresh lump crabmeat
2 large eggs, separated
1 tablespoon coarse grain mustard
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, divided
2 tablespoons finely chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped ripe red bell pepper or 1/4 cup green
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
Salt, freshly ground black pepper, and cayenne to taste
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh herbs of your choice
2 cups fine dry bread crumbs
Sprinkle the lemon juice over the crabmeat in a bowl to freshen it. In a separate small bowl, mix the mustard with the egg yolks.
Melt half the butter (4 tablespoons) in a skillet over medium-low heat and add the onion and bell pepper, cooking until the onion begins to become transparent, about 10 minutes. Add the vinegar, raise the heat, and reduce until the vinegar has evaporated. Pour the mixture over the crabmeat.
Add the egg yolk mixture and toss all together, being careful not to break up the big clumps of crabmeat. Season to taste with salt, pepper, cayenne, and a tablespoon of fresh chopped herbs.
Place the bread crumbs in another large mixing bowl. Heat the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium heat. Beat the egg whites stiff and fold into the crab mixture.
Reach down into the crab and fill your palm with a scoop of the mixture. Gently press it into a cake about 3 inches wide and about 1 inch thick. Place 1 cake at a time down in the bread crumbs. Scoop up crumbs from around the cake and pour over the top of the cake. Do not mash the cake or press the crumbs into it: you only want a dusting of crumbs on the cake, not in it.
When the butter is foamy, gently pick up the first cake and put it in the pan. Continue making the cakes and placing them in the pan. You should have six cakes which should fit into the skillet. Cook until browned on the first side, about 3 minutes, then carefully turn each cake and cook on the other side. Work carefully and they will not split.
Makes 6 cakes to feed 3 as main course or 6 as appetizers.
June 4, 2009 The Mayor of Quebec Place
I don’t know who gave me the sobriquet of “The Mayor of Quebec Place,” but it has stuck and I am continually amazed by the good will surrounding me in my neighborhood. Yesterday Sonny Covington, a neighbor I barely know, and with whom I’ve had very brief and rare conversations, brought me a 7-pound rockfish (striped bass) that he caught near Solomon’s Island, Maryland, in the dead center of the Chesapeake Bay. Fishing regulations allow you to keep two fish. He kept one for himself and gave me the other. I gutted it, removed the gills, and then baked it in salt, as per the recipe for shad on March 3, 2008. Tom Sietsema, the restaurant critic for the Washington Post, and Ed Lichorat joined us for an impromptu dinner.
Today my neighbor Joe Greene, who wife died last month (see May 13), is having surgery. I took him to the hospital yesterday and will go by to visit him this afternoon. I know that everyone on the block is anxious and will be expecting my report when I turn home. There are many prayers being said for him on Quebec Place.
I was recently in Athens, Georgia, where I went to both undergraduate and graduate school, to attend the high school graduation of my surrogate daughter, Ella Grace Downs. While there, I visited the Georgia Guidestones, which I have written about here in an essay about intolerance.
June 1, 2009 After a weekend in Adams County, Pennsylvania
After weeks of rain, the clouds moved on, the winds blew, the air cleared, and we spent a lovely weekend at our friend Betsey’s house in Adams County, Pennsylvania, just over the Maryland border. Best known, perhaps, because of Gettysburg, the area is full of not only history, but also glorious views of rolling hills of barley, wheat and rye; apple orchards; and even a few vineyards, On Sunday morning the peonies, several weeks behind the ones here in Washington, opened, to our utter joy.
On Friday night I was going to grill a boned leg of lamb, mild onions (See May 2009), and eggplant, but the rains sent me indoors, so I simply put the oven broiler on high and placed the meat (spread with a mixture of chopped herbs, garlic, salt, and pepper) and the vegetables (sliced, with olive oil, salt, and pepper) on a baking sheet and broiled them about 5 minutes on each side, allowing the meat to rest for a good fifteen minutes before I sliced it. On Saturday for lunch we had sandwiches on baguettes with mayonnaise made with Ligurian olive oil, a just-laid egg, a hint of mustard, the lamb drippings, and lemon juice. Later we would add hot sauce to that mayonnaise and serve it with pan-fried soft shell crabs (“whales” because of their enormous size) on a bed of micro greens from our front stoop.
Pan-Fried Soft Shell Crabs from
Soft shells appear in the market from late winter through the spring. It’s a season I love, with the continual succession of blooms, from the daffodils and tulips to the peonies of early summer, coinciding with the running of the shad and the appearance of pencil-thin asparagus spears.
The Atlantic sturgeon also runs from February to May, and I’m always sure to order some caviar from Bertha and Howell Boone in Darien, Georgia, (See Walter’s Caviar.)
The Atlantic blue crab is one of the most delicious creatures alive. It sheds its hard shell a score of times in its 3-year life span, and it’s just after this shedding that you can eat the whole crab, shell and all. Most preparations for soft shells are relatively simple — pan-fried in butter, tempura-fried in oil, or simply placed on a hot grill. They can be brushed with mustard and fried like the oysters as well; they’re delicious in a po’ boy with tartar sauce.
I dare say that no one in this country knows soft shells like chef Jimmy Sneed, whose Virginia restaurants were legend. (His latest venture, Sugar Toad, is outside Chicago.) The man is an absolute fanatic about them — even keeps his own tanks so that he can monitor the shedding process and pull the “busters,” the ones that are just getting ready to shed, at their tenderest moment.
This recipe of Jimmy’s is the classic buttery preparation from New Orleans to Baltimore. It is simple and perfectly delicious. Serve these crabs as dinner. Yes, you can fry them in clean oil as well.
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
12 live soft shell crabs
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
Chopped fresh parsley for garnish
Clarify the butter by melting it over low heat in a small pot, preferably one with a pouring spout, until it separates into 3 layers. Skim the foam from the surface and discard. Slowly pour off the pure yellow butterfat (the clarified butter) into a large skillet or sauté pan, leaving the milky residue and about 1 tablespoon of the clarified butter in the pot. Stir the lemon juice into the pot and set aside.
To prepare the crabs for cooking, turn them over on their backs and remove the apron, where the reproductive organs are. (Jimmy says, “A male’s apron looks like the Washington Monument; a female’s, the capitol building.”) The aprons can be cut with scissors along the edge of the shell, where they are attached, hinge-like, to the bodies. Turn the crabs over and use scissors to cut off the eyes and most of the mouth at an angle with one cut. Pull out the clear sac behind the eyes and discard. Lift up the flaps and cut off the gills or “dead man’s fingers.” Pat the crabs dry.
Preheat the oven to 200°. Place 6 dinner plates in the oven to warm. Put the flour in a large bowl and dredge the crabs in it one at a time, dusting off any excess. Heat the clarified butter in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat, then lay the crabs face down in the hot fat. Don’t crowd the pan. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until golden brown. Jimmy warns, “Be very careful! They pop!” Turn the crabs and cook for a minute more on the second side, till browned. Place the crabs on warmed plates and brush the tops with the lemon butter, then sprinkle with parsley. Return to the oven while you fry the rest of the crabs. Serve hot, 2 crabs per plate.
Serve with a big, buttery white Burgundy. We were lucky enough to have the 1995 J. M. Boillot Premier Cru Puligny Montrachet “Les Pucelles.” It’s truly remarkable how well big Burgundies can age and become all that chardonnay should be (and rarely is). (Oh, ”pucelles” means “young women” or “virgins,” not “little fleas”!)
To both begin and end the meal, Betsey delved into her British repertoire. For starters, she served us soused shrimp –a Delia Smith recipe which we had alongside freshly dug radishes, quail eggs, and my celery salt (see April 1, 2008, for the Roger Vergé recipe).
For dessert, we had the gloriously simple and perfectly seasonal Eton Mess, a dish of fresh strawberries, pieces of meringue, and whipped cream. Le Pain Quotidien bakeries in the Washington area make loaf-sized merinques that aren’t too sweet and are the perfectly light and crunchy ingredient for this old-fashioned sweet. This international chain of bakeries doesn’t do everything perfectly, but they’ve got the meringues down pat!
For breakfast on Sunday, Betsey perfectly, lightly scrambled just-laid eggs, to which we added a dollop of caviar and tossed it all back with a glass of the last of the 2004 Chappellet Dry Chenin Blanc. This Chappellet wine was widely touted as being the only chenin blanc that matched the legendary wines of the Loire Valley, but in 2005 the family dug up the vines. I guess it just wasn’t selling well enough.
It’s really too bad, because, like the grand, aged Puligny Montrachet I mentioned above, this wine was everything you would expect from Chenin Blanc, with bright fruit aromas and enough citrusy acid to cut through the heaviest meal of fried chicken or the sweet onion tart I published at the end of May.
What a great weekend, and I even came home with grilled quail, sweet onions, and lamb sausages that we cooked but simply couldn’t eat!