March 2008 page 1

Posted on March 12, 2008 in Archives

March 12, 2008
Before I lived in Italy, I don’t think that I had ever had a real Neapolitan-style pizza. I had eaten plenty of New York style and Chicago style pies, had stood in line to have the wood-fired pizzas at John’s on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, and had tramped through foot-deep snow in New Haven, Connecticut to go to Pepe’s. But I nearly burst into tears the first time I had pizza in Italy, with charred bubbles of dough on the crust’s edge, a thin but intensely tomatoey layer of sauce, and real buffalo milk mozzarella, made fresh that morning. I wasn’t yet a food writer back then, but I was sure that I could taste the differences in the dough, the sauce, the cheese, and even the basil. As it turns out, I was right.
The Italian government passed its DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) laws in 1955, guaranteeing that foods (and particularly, wines) so labelled were not only from a designated region but also produced by traditional means. Similar to the French AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) laws governing wines, the Italians, and the European Union, have since added many artisanally produced heirloom foods to the classifications. There quickly followed the DOCG label (the G stands for “guaranteed”) with its even more stringent production rules. For example, a vintner might be required to allow limited yields from a vineyard and pass taste tests as well.
When I left Italy in the fall of 1983, there were inklings that Neapolitan pizza makers were trying to get a law passed that would require that anything called “pizza” be made according to the standards of the traditional pies of Naples, where the dish was born. They didn’t get their law, but they got their association. Founded in 1984, the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana is now an international nonprofit organization that strives to protect and promote the history and culture of pizza as it has been traditionally made in Naples and to certify those pizzerias that respect and practice the culinary tradition. Their basic requirements (quoted from the association website) are:
1. A wood-burning oven: The pizza must be cooked by wood. Gas, coal or electric ovens, while they may produce delicious pizza, do not conform to the tradition.
2. Proper ingredients: 00 flour, San Marzano (plum) tomatoes, all natural fior-di-latte (mozzarella made from water buffalo milk), fresh basil, salt and yeast. Only fresh, all-natural, non-processed ingredients are acceptable.
3. Proper technique: Hand-worked or low speed mixed dough, proper work surface (usually a marble slab), oven temp (800° F), pizza preparation, including a slow rising time for the dough.
4. Review by the designated representative of the association assuring that the ingredients, technique and final product conform to the tradition.
Further, there are only four pizzas that may be certified: Marinara (Napoletana), with tomato, olive oil, oregano, and garlic; Margherita, of tomato, olive oil, grated Parmesan, and fior-di-latte; Ripieno
 (“stuffed”, known mostly in the States as calzone), with ricotta or fior-di-latte, olive oil, and salami; and  Formaggio e Pomodoro (cheese and tomato), with tomato, olive oil, and grated Parmesan. Basil may be included with any of them.
I learned to love pizza in Italy and was thrilled when I came back to the States to see the flourishing of wood-fired ovens, slow rise doughs, and artisanal breads, including pizza. I bought a pizza stone, found purveyors of fresh, not dried, yeast, and ordered an arsenal of flours to test. I started assembling a shelf of unadulterated salts.
Yesterday in a neighborhood supermarket, the glorious fragrance of fresh basil captured my attention before I saw the fresh basil plants, so I decided to make pizza last night. I ran by Vace’s for some tipo 00 flour and buffalo milk mozzarella. I keep San Marzano tomatoes on hand, but I also had some of my own home-grown tomatoes that I had canned, and that I knew would be not only better than the canned San Marzanos, but also closer in taste and texture to the tomatoes they use in Naples.
I made two pizzas, one on the pizza stone and another on a perforated pan designed for pizzas. My home oven won’t get up to 800o degrees F, but it does approach 600. My pizza is obviously not AVPN-certified. But for homemade it ain’t bad! Here’s my dough recipe from The New Southern Cook. One of the pizzas I made last night was a classic margherita; on the other I added some sliced salami for Mikel. One cup of thin sauce per pizza and about 1/4 pound of mozzarella each. Some grated parmesan and basil. A glass of red wine, an arugula salad dressed with olive oil, salt, pepper, and lemon juice. A perfect supper!
Even without a wood-fired oven, you can easily obtain a crisp crust by using a pizza stone (readily available in kitchenware shops) or quarry tiles preheated in your oven. Transferring the pizza to the stone may prove difficult, however, without a peel, the big paddle you slide underneath risen pizzas and bread loaves then quickly flick them into the oven. If your kitchenware shop doesn’t have a peel, try the local restaurant supply house. This recipe will make enough dough for two 12″ pizzas. I put one of the dough halves on a perforated pizza pan lightly greased with olive oil, added the toppings, and slid it into the oven. I then slid the second rolled-out half onto a cornmeal-dusted pizza peel, flicked it onto a preheated pizza stone, and quickly added the toppings to it and closed the oven. It’s not a perfect system, but the pies finished baking at almost the same time and they were certainly far superior to carry out!
For the dough:
1/2 ounce fresh compressed cake yeast or 1 teaspoon active dry, preservative-free granulated yeast plus 1/4 teaspoon of sugar or honey
1-1/4 cups warm water (110o -120o)
1 pound of tipo 00 flour or all-purpose, unbleached flour (about 3-1/4 cups), plus flour for dusting
1-1/2 teaspoons pure salt
2 teaspoons fruity olive oil, plus oil for the pan if the pizza is baked on a sheet pan or a perforated pizza pan
     and more oil for drizzling the pizzas, optional
cornmeal for dusting stones and tiles
In a medium mixing bowl, dissolve the yeast (and sweetener, if using dry yeast) in 1/4 cup of the water. Set aside for about ten minutes in a warm place to proof the yeast — until the mixture is bubbly and creamy. Add a cup of the flour and mix until smooth.
Mix the rest of the flour and the salt together in a large warm mixing bowl, making a well in the center. Add the yeast mixture and oil and mix well, gradually adding the remaining water and mixing the dough until it forms a ball and no longer sticks to your hands or the bowl. You can use a mixer with a dough hook. Knead the dough until it is satiny and evenly elastic, about 10 minutes.
Sprinkle the inside of a large bowl with flour, form the dough into a ball, and place in the bowl. With a razor blade, cut an “x” into the top of the dough, sprinkle it with a little more flour, and put the entire bowl in a plastic bag. Set aside in a warm, draft-free place to rise until doubled in volume — one to three hours.
When the dough has doubled, punch it down and knead it for a few minutes on a floured surface. If you are baking on a pizza stone or quarry tiles, place them in the oven now as you preheat it to its highest setting. You want it to reach at least 500o.  If you are using a baking sheet, lightly grease a half sheet pan (12″ x 17″) or two 12″ pizza pans and set aside.
If you are cooking two pizzas, divide the dough in half. You can bake them one at a time if you want the crust to remain crisp and hot, but I use both a stone and a perforated pizza pan, as described above, and that works just fine. Pizzas cooked in baking pans can be rolled out to roughly the shape of the pans and pressed into place. Do not make a very large edge or it will be tough.
Pizzas baked on stones or tiles should be rolled out on a thin floured board or on a counter with room to maneuver a peel under the dough. Use a rolling pin to roll the dough into two 12″ circles, then press and pull it into shape. Do NOT throw it in the air and toss it around. You will end up with a tough, overworked dough. You can lift the dough off the counter and stretch it by holding it by the edges and rotating it around as gravity stretches it, but leave the dough tossing to the pros; you don’t want the dough to develop tough gluten molecules.
Let the dough rest for ten minutes before you add the toppings. I add a half cup of pureed tomatoes, a 1/4 pound of mozzarella, a sprinkling of freshly grated parmesan, and basil leaves. You can drizzle with a little olive oil if you want. Dust preheated stones and tiles with cornmeal, and quickly slide the dough onto them with a peel, then quickly add the toppings. Pizzas in pans are simply placed in the oven. Those on tiles will take about 15 minutes to brown; in pans, about 20 minutes. Serve immediately with a green salad. Allow the oven and stone or tiles to reheat before cooking a second round.
Serves 2 to 4.
March 11, 2008

Classic Southern Layer Cakes and the Multi-Layered Caramel Cake, the Holy Grail of Them All

Oh, the cakes of my childhood!!!When I was growing up, my mother loved to bake. Eventually, she lost interest. It’s no wonder: she cooked three meals day, six days a week. On Sundays, she didn’t prepare supper after our huge midday dinner; we four kids were allowed to make popcorn and milkshakes, or to eat cereal or other breakfast fare. On the Tuesdays that my father went to Rotary Club, she didn’t have to make lunch; all other weekdays, he came home to eat with her in the middle of the day. We never left the house without having had a full breakfast. There was always a homemade dessert after supper, for those who had cleaned their plates (and who had had a little bit of everything, asparagus, squirrel, and capers included).

When I was in the third grade, my hyperactivity convinced my mother that I had some sugar imbalance (one of my grandmothers was diabetic). So I was taken off all sweets for a year. Every Tuesday I would stop on my bike ride home from school by Dr. Blackmon’s office where I would prick my own finger, smear the blood on a slide, cover it with the thin glass slide cover, put it under the microscope, focus it, and tell the nurse that it was ready to observe. I never knew exactly what they were looking for, but they never diagnosed me with any sugar problem. I also never developed the typical southerner’s proverbial sweet tooth.

My grandmother had already scared me away from candy with her tale of having lost a tooth – the only one she died without – on a piece of hard caramel when she was young. She also never had any cavities, though her spherical jar of nutmeg-scented tea cakes (what most folks call “sugar cookies” when rolled thin and iced during the winter holidays) sat next to her sink and her refrigerator was full of little Cokes in bottles. (Those Cokes used to hold a mere 6-1/2 ounces, less than those small cans of V-8. In these supersized days, even the little Coke bottles hold a full 8 ounces!) Lucky for me, I inherited her teeth. But no sweets for an 8-year-old for a year was a bit harsh.

One particularly trying moment came when I returned home from the doctor’s one afternoon to see a huge tractor-trailer backed up to our garage. Both of my sisters were Girl Scouts at the time and my mother was the cookie chairman for the county. Our garage was the distribution point for hundreds of cases of Girl Scout Cookies, not one of which could I sample!

In spite of the fact that Mother had grown up spoiled rotten – her father and grandfather small town doctors, bankers, general store owners, and pharmacists in west Tennessee, she was notoriously strict with us. Soft drinks never entered the house unless someone had the croup or measles or unless it was her day to have the bridge club over. She played in several clubs and her bridge partners’ names are themselves indicative of another time: Serena, Ethel, Gloria, Verna, Mary Catherine, Anna Lou, Esther, Georgia, Virginia, Amelia, Opal, and Mary Ruth. She was a good, and serious, bridge player, so much so that her best friend, Cassandra, wouldn’t play with her!

She was a member of several clubs over the years, the most enduring the Wednesday morning and the Thursday afternoon. Since the clubs usually had 8 or 9 members (duplicate bridge requires an extra person), they would only have to be hosted once every two months. With Mother playing in at least two clubs, though, that meant that at least once a month we’d get leftover ginger ales or punch or some fancy dessert she had made to wow her fellow card players. She did love to cook, and was adventurous in the kitchen, but I honestly think she tried to intimidate her opponents with her culinary prowess!

Nothing was too complicated or involved for her to try. Her own personal collection of recipes that she recorded in an old notebook prior to 1953 includes nearly 50 cookies. I remember them all. Her “Party Desserts,” which the bridge club would have tasted, include tortes and meringues and pies and puddings, trifles, mousses, various pastry recipes, and pots de crème, savarin, cobblers, tarts, flan from the Four Seasons, Lindy’s cheesecake, and Pavlova. Elsewhere in the collection are candies, macaroons, Grandma’s tea cakes, and Danish pastry.

After bridge club at our house, we might get leftover Charlotte Russe. Or perhaps a bite of her “Apricot Ladder Loaf,” a yeast bread filled with preserves and almonds and lightly glazed. I was particularly fond of sheet cakes drenched in citrus syrups. And anything made with dried fruit.

My grandmother had apple trees at her home in Tennessee, 600 miles away. The summer after my grandfather died, when I was twelve, I went to spend some time with her. In spite of my mother’s incredible gifts in the kitchen, I learned more about food in those few weeks than I would learn in many years to come. It was Grandma’s approach to living more than her recipes, however, that so influenced me, and I am forever grateful for that one time alone with a real homemaker and her garden. There was much solace for her in her daily chores, and I, too, learned to enjoy hanging clothes on the line, watching for cracks in the soil around the potato plants, and drying apples in the sun.

We removed all the window screens from her house, scrubbed and hosed them clean, and set them in the sun to dry. We then gathered green summer apples from the trees that bordered the garden, and she showed me how to pare, core, and slice them. We placed the slices on the screens which were stacked on concrete blocks in the sun. Every night we carried them into the garage, away from the dew, then back out into the sun each day until, after about a week, the apple slices were perfectly — and naturally — dried. Grandma mostly used those dried apples to make applesauce, but my mother preferred more elaborate concoctions.

I don’t know if she was really loath to let other people’s food in our house, but she rarely did. Two exceptions I can think of: In the fall, we would often go to the mountains to celebrate the fall birthdays. My birthday is only one day apart from my uncle’s – my mother’s only sibling; my sister Nancy was born in September; my brother Mike, in November; there were others in our extended family who would join us. Cassandra McGee, mother’s best friend, would bring the so-called German Chocolate Cake. The other exception was a multi-layered Caramel Cake sold by a woman at the Farmers Market in a little cinder block building adjacent to my elementary school on Ellis Avenue. In a particularly odd twist of fate, many, many years later, Nancy Harmon Jenkins, who was at the time the editor of the Living Section of The New York Times, came to see me in South Carolina and to write about my research and the cooking of the South Carolina lowcountry. I arranged to take her to a traditional plantation breakfast at the home of Margaret and Marshall Williams near Orangeburg, where I had grown up. Marshall was a Democratic State Senator and for years held the record as the longest serving elected public official in America, even surpassing fellow Carolinian Strom Thurmond. On the way to the Williamses’ country estate, about 70 miles north of Charleston, I happened to tell Nancy about those wonderful cakes.

During the breakfast, which featured a dazzling array of locally made condiments, their daughter Mary Ashley, with whom I had grown up, informed us that we would also be visiting the home of Mary Clare Ulmer, in nearby Four Holes Community. It was she who had made the scrumptious preserves, and she who was widely known as the best cook in the area, as well as the maker of  “a chocolate roll that is the best thing you’ve ever tasted. Maybe she’ll have one in her freezer!” Four Holes Swamp isn’t a mile down the road from the Williamses’. Several years later when my first book was released, I was horrified to see that a copy editor who couldn’t verify the name of the settlement had, at the last minute, changed Mrs. Ulmer’s residence to “Hell Hole Community,” which is a perfectly fine settlement in South Carolina, but nearly 100 miles from Four Holes!

When we approached Mrs. Ulmer’s back door off her kitchen, she and I recognized each other, but neither of us could quite place from when or where. We certainly hadn’t seen each other over 30 years. And then it hit me, and I nearly screamed, “Oh my God!!! You’re the lady who sold the caramel cakes at the farmers market, aren’t you?!”

“That was the only thing your mother would ever buy from me,” she mused. “I heard she had died young. How long has it been?!”

Nancy had a hard time believing that the maker of the legendary cake was standing right there before us. I hadn’t seen Mrs. Ulmer since I was 7 years old. Mother stopped buying her cakes the year I had to cut out sweets. Alas, she had neither caramel cake nor chocolate roll on hand.

Since then, I’ve found a couple of bakers who make and ship caramel cakes. And at Cassandra McGee’s funeral, there were several layer cakes, including those with caramel icing (see photo). My sister Sue, who’s never really cared much about baking, makes one each Christmas from the recipe in Bill Neal’s Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie. And Mikel’s mother, Dixie, makes one with pound cake layers that is absolutely delicious.But now comes my confession: I have NEVER made a caramel cake that I can recall!!! Yesterday I told my friend Gilson (see 2/05/08) that perhaps I was afraid to, and she replied that she couldn’t believe that I would be afraid to cook anything (she has witnessed me accomplishing some demanding feats in the kitchen). But there you have it. And now so many of my mentors are no longer alive.

I’ve been going through cookbooks and am disappointed in the cake recipes I’m finding. Without fail, they all have baking powder in them. Some even call for cake mixes. Years ago, Rose Levy Beranbaum wrote the wildly successful The Cake Bible, in which, many critics noted, she had managed to perfectly mimic the consistency of cake mixes in homemade cakes.

It seems that I’m going to have to go back to pre-World War II cookbooks to find what I’m looking for, or simply use the sponge cake recipe that I published years ago in The New Southern Cook. And then there’s that icing! Stay tuned.

March 10, 2008
I got an email from Eddie Corley, who, with his wife Pat, owns Southern Shrimp just south of Charleston, South Carolina. Eddie drives to Georgia and Florida once/week throughout the year to buy shrimp right off the boats, and sells them from his camper trailer along the roadside in Red Top, bordering the beautiful marshlands surrounding Rantowles Creek. You can’t miss the sight of Eddie’s Stonehenge-like circle of coolers that surrounds his trailer, and you can’t buy fresher shrimp unless you go to the docks yourself.He emailed me to let me know that it’s Royal Red season. The shrimp – variously described as Pleoticus robustus, Hymenopenaeus robustus, Faxonia ocularis, Haliporis robustus, and Peneopis ocularis, occur from Massachusetts to the Gulf of Mexico. Also known as Ruby Reds, they thrive throughout the Caribbean all the way down to French Guiana. A deep-water species, they live over muddy deposits off the continental shelf, 170 to 400 fathoms (1000 to 2400 feet) deep. They have never been widely known.

In the past, most of the bright red crustaceans were frozen aboard the shrimping vessels and sold in France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy. 100 years ago, Sicilians and Greeks in North Florida first began catching the Royal Reds in 200-fathom waters 40 to 60 miles offshore in the Atlantic, at the edge of the underwater ridge known as the Blake Plateau. It was they who began the modern commercial shrimping industry. Because of their great distance from shore and the depth of their habitat, however, they were not economically feasible for most shrimpers. In the 1950s, they were discovered in the Gulf as well, but, again, 50 miles off shore and at depths from 1000 to 2000 feet. Most of the industry, such as it is, has been concentrated in a 200-square-mile area of sea between St. Augustine and Ft. Pierce, Florida; in an area half that size surrounding the Dry Tortugas off the southwest coast of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico; and in a 700-square-mile area south of Mobile, Alabama, also in the Gulf.

Royal Reds not only differ in appearance from other shrimps; they also have a distinctive taste and a more delicate texture. Some cooks describe them as both sweeter and saltier. All warn neither to salt them nor to overcook them. In spite of the difficulty of harvesting them, they remain a sort of Holy Grail of shrimp-lovers. The Florida Department of Agriculture actively promotes them: Royal reds are a robust, deep-red color with a soft, delicate texture and a mild, sweet flavor. They are highly prized for their unique taste. The deep water gives the meat a soft texture so special care in cooking is required. They are great peeled and fried or broiled in the shell. When simmered or steamed, the stock from royal reds is excellent for creating colorful and delicious sauces.

Oceana, the international environmental organization, seems to approve of the niche market that royal reds occupy. “They are sometimes popular because they look good on a plate,” they report on their website, “due to their small size, sweet taste, and bright red color.” They are occasionally used as “sweet shrimp” in sushi bars. Oceana also claims that because they do not freeze as well as shallow-water shrimp, they are often individually frozen and stored in brine, hence explaining the “saltier” taste often described by food writers.

Everything I’ve read about royal reds says that the peak season is in late summer and early fall, but Eddie always gets them in February and March from the docks at Cape Canaveral. He buys them fresh, not frozen, and keeps them on ice. They sell quickly. Those summer shrimp are from the Gulf. Winter and spring are also the seasons for royal reds off the coast of New England. First discovered in northern waters in 1995, “Stonington Reds,” as they are called at Jo and Bill Bomster’s Connecticut fishery, have supplemented their income since scallops, formerly his major catch, began dwindling in the 90s. Searching for another way to make his living from the sea, The New York Times reported in 2000, Bomster “obtained a $118,000 federal grant to look for scarlet shrimp, which were known to live in deep water off the coast of New England. With stocks of cod and other popular species overfished, the National Marine Fisheries Service was giving grants to Northeast fishermen to find and market so-called underutilized species.” What he found instead was the scarlet shrimp’s tastier cousin. Stonington reds took off. I’ve put a call in to the Bomsters and look forward to learning more about these northern harvests.

For the East Coast harvest, contact Jay Moon at Moon’s Seafood in Melbourne, Florida, via his website. Wholesale customers can buy individually frozen shrimp in bulk from Wood’s Fisheriesin Port St. Joe on Florida’s West Coast.I’ve  talked at length to my old friend Eddie, who is still selling fresh-off-the-docks shrimp at 3803 Savannah Highway (Hwy 17) south of Charleston. He’s there Thursday-Saturday every week of the year from 11 am till suppertime or until he sells out. You can reach him by phone at (843) 852 9542 during those hours. He is loath to ship the shrimp but if you’re in the area, do give him a call or drop by to watch him eat the shrimp raw to prove to you just how fresh they are. “They are incredibly delicious when raw,” he told me.

Since I posted this, he also told me, “The trailer and the old truck expired. I ordered a new trailer, I finished all the inside myself, Not a professional job but not too bad for an amateur.” Here he is in his new outfit.All this talk of shrimp made me crave them, so I went to a neighborhood Latin market and bought fresh shrimp and corn from Florida. Since I didn’t have any of my own smoked sausage, I had to use kielbasa to make Frogmore Stew:

Frogmore StewThis Lowcountry seafood boil is usually served on paper plates around newspaper-coverd picnic tables outdoors, with plenty of ice-cold beer. Partially cleaned, but uncooked, crab is sometimes added to the pot at the same time as the corn.. The recipe may be adjusted for more or fewer people by allowing 1/2 pound of shrimp per person, 1/4 pound of sausage per person, 1-1/2 ears of corn per person, and 2 tablespoons of “boil” per gallon of water. The following recipe feeds eight.

This dish is variously known as Frogmore Stew, Beaufort Stew, and Lowcountry Boil. Frogmore was the name of a small town on St Helena Island near Beaufort (in South Carolina, it’s BEW-fort; in N.C., it’s BO-fort). Newly arrived carpetbaggers abandoned the name in the 1980s. It’s not a stew at all, but merely a “boil” of sausage, corn, and shrimp. Some folks add potatoes but I never saw them added in Beaufort or on neighboring Ladys Island, where I first heard of it back in the early 70s. If you can’t find a spicy hot smoked sausage, use another smoked sausage such as kielbasa and add a teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes per two people being fed.

1-1/2 gallons water
3 tablespoons commerically prepared shrimp boil such as Old Bay Seasoning plus 3 tablespoons
salt or 3 tablespoons homemade boil (see below)
2 pounds hot smoked link sausage, cut into 2″ pieces (see above)
12 ears freshly shucked corn on the cob, broken into 3-4″ pieces
4 pounds unpeeled shrimp

In a large stockpot, add the seasonings to the water and bring to a boil. Add the sausage and boil for 5 minutes. Add the corn and count 5 minutes. Add the shrimp and count 3 minutes. Do not let the water return to a boil. Drain immediately and serve.

I usually serve Frogmore stew with cole slaw, cornbread, and red rice (see recipe, below).Leftover Frogmore stew helps make a delicious soup. Peel the shrimp, cut the corn from the cob, slice the sausage thinly, then add to simmering duck stock or tomato juice to warm through. Season with hot peppers.

Seafood Boil for Shrimp, Crab, & Crawfish
Recipes for boiling these shellfish in the Deep South often call for McCormick’s, Old Bay, or Zatarain’s, and adding salt. My version of these “boils” combines herbs, spices, and salt (for both flavor and to preserve the mix). This recipe yields enough seasoning to boil 4 or 5 pounds of shellfish, plus enough extra to fill a half-pint jelly jar to the rim. When using the mix, allow 1/2 tablespoon per quart of water, plus half a lemon. For shrimp, you will need a quart of water per pound of shrimp.
Go to a natural foods store where you can buy the spices in bulk. They’ll be fresher than those little jars sold in supermarkets at exorbitant prices.
1/4 cup mustard seed
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
2 tablespoons crushed red peppers (dried)
6 bay leaves
1 tablespoon celery seed
1 tablespoon coriander seed
1 tablespoon ground ginger (dried)
a few blades of mace
1/4 cup kosher, sea, or pickling salt
Place all of the ingredients except the salt in a blender and blend until evenly ground. Add the salt and blend briefly to incorporate the salt into the seasonings. Store in well-sealed jars in a cool, dark, and dry place.Consommé de Crevettes à la Chinoise

When Dick and Patricia Schulze harvested the first crop of Carolina Gold grown in sixty years, I was there to help them plan the menu for the celebratory dinner. Nearly every dish showcased the fragile, buttery grains of the rare strain of rice, so we opted for a light and pungent broth to start the Christmas meal. Fresh ginger is roughly cut and added to shrimp stock and heated, about 1/2 hour before serving (it is removed before serving). Bok choy is cut into small pieces, with long strips of the greens attached. Scallions and celery are sliced thinly in the Chinese manner, and all the vegetables are added to the broth and thoroughly heated through, about 10 minutes. At this point the soup is tasted for seasoning and corrected with soy sauce, red pepper vinegar and sherry. Raw shrimp are added about five minutes before serving (or cooked for 1 to 3 minutes ahead of time and dropped into the soup as it is ladled into bowls). Each bowl is garnished with scallion slivers, cut lengthwise, and, if desired, cilantro.

Red Rice
It has been said that to know Charleston is to know rice, and this simple tomato pilau — pronounced PERloe, PiLOE, and PERloo — is one of the classic dishes of the old city of rice planters. Self-respecting Charleston cooks make this with beautiful, local vine-ripened tomatoes, available throughout the summer and fall. In winter months, you may be better off using canned. An adulterated version including tomato paste appeared in the Junior League’s Charleston Receipts of 1950. This older, simpler version is truer to the original “receipt,” as recipes are still called in Charleston, with olive oil replacing the traditional bacon.
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups long-grain white rice
2 cups vine-ripened tomatoes, peeled and chopped, or 1 can crushed tomatoes (14 1/2-ounces)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 quart chicken stock, preferably homemade
2 to 3 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley
Place the oil in a stockpot over medium-high heat, add the rice and sauté, stirring constantly. It will begin to turn white after a few minutes; do not let it scorch or brown. Add the tomatoes and continue to sauté until most of the liquid has evaporated. Add the salt and the stock and simmer slowly, covered, for 30 minutes or until the rice is tender. Remove from the heat and allow to sit for a few minutes. Just before serving, fluff the rice with a large fork as you fold in the chopped parsley. Serve immediately.
Serves 8More About Shrimp

In October, breezes clean the air of summer humidity and billowy clouds punctuate the hydrangea sky. In the coastal South, a second tomato, bean, and corn crop adds to the fall bounty that most folks associate with pumpkins and greens. The oysters start to get really good as the water cools, but the real autumnal joy for sandlappers, as residents of the lowcountry are called, is fresh shrimp, right out of the water.

When the shrimp season opens in the late spring, the first catch are of surprisingly large brown shrimp. They’re last year’s adults who have bred during the winter; their spawn will grow as the water warms. The quantity and size of the young shrimp increase as the season continues, with white and pink shrimp spawning in the spring and early summer. Every year it never ceases to amaze amateur shrimpers like me as each day there are more and more shrimp, bigger and bigger, until suddenly around Thanksgiving around Charleston, there’s a cold snap – and they’re gone.

I spent a lot of my youth on my parents’ sailboat and it was not unusual for my mother to send me out in the dinghy to bring back lunch. I really learned to cook in my mother’s galley. In the summer, I might just empty the crab trap (which also yielded flounder and eel); in the dead of winter, at low tide, I could pick oysters and clams from the banks of the salt marsh. But in the fall, I’d cast a circular shrimp net from the dinghy, pulling in just enough shrimp for a meal. Rowing back to the boat, I’d scoop up a bucket of the brackish creek water in which Mother would quickly boil the shrimp. Actually, she didn’t boil them at all, but dropped them into the pot of creek water after it came to a boil, then dumped them out almost immediately into a colander, under which she had a folded towel which she would then wring out (How is it that mothers can pick up a steaming towel with bare hands?), unfold, and cover heartily with coarse salt. She would then add the barely warmed shrimp to the towel, roll it up, and allow the shrimp to steam while we munched on a snack of raw carrots and celery, a bit of cheese and our “elevenses” – the requisite glass of wine before the midday meal.

The shrimp would emerge from the towel miraculously perfect, with the salt recrystallized on the insides of their shells, which were popped slightly off the flesh. This remains one of my favorite ways to prepare shrimp, but they should be absolutely fresh. October’s the time to find them.

If you can find shrimp with the heads on, buy them. Since the heads contain most of the fat, they also contain most of the flavor. Shrimp heads spoil a lot more quickly than the bodies, so if you find them with their heads on, they’re probably fresher than others. If you don’t live near the coast, look in Asian and Latin markets for heads-on shrimp.

And don’t overcook them! That’s probably the biggest mistake people make when cooking shrimp. They only take a couple of minutes to cook. When “boiling” them, I never let the water return to a boil. Even the largest shrimp need just a couple of minutes to thoroughly cook.

If all you can find are frozen or previously frozen shrimp, don’t despair: most shrimp boats now have flash freezers aboard, where they are instantly frozen as soon as they are caught. Better flash frozen than traveling on ice for a week.

And one last tip from Mother: use the heads and/or shells to make a little stock to flavor your dish. You’ll be surprised how much flavor those shells hold.

March 3, 2008
It’s a good thing I haven’t lost my sense of humor. Yesterday we had a pipe burst and our downstairs is flooded. I never much liked the carpet down there anyway! And thank goodness we didn’t have guests at the time! It was a gorgeous day and I had hosed down a wine press that Ed Lichorat had given me. We took some of the neighborhood kids for a drive down to The Wharf and to the parks in Capitol Hill, where we could let the dog run off leash. When we got back home, the burst pipe had filled the downstairs with water.
The Wharf is located on the canal just off the Tidal Basin, right around the corner from the Jefferson Memorial down on the southwest waterfront. It is one of the most colorful places in town, where fishmongers hawk their fare from floating markets, colorfully lit with carnival-like signs. It was packed with people yesterday lining up for steamed crabs, raw oysters, and fried whiting. But what caught my eye were the roe shad.
Herring, Shad, and Sturgeon
The anadromous species of fish — those which live in the open sea, but swim up into our rivers to spawn — were formerly of greater economic and nutritional importance in the Lowcountry. Prior to refrigeration, stongly salted and smoked red herring was immensely popular. Henry Laurens, a Charleston planter and merchant who was instrumental in molding the country’s Revolutionary politics, was proud of his own: “I send you … 100 Red Herrings as good as any in [Pee Dee] and wish that they may be acceptable. …After putting me to some trouble and expense…I had prepared these….”
Smoked herring, locally called “kipper snacks,” are commonly found in the butcher’s case of a Lowcountry grocer, alongside the cured pork. It is often sold as bait, but it is also eaten as a snack; soaked overnight, sautéed with onions, and added to pilau; or ground and used in croquettes. As such, it is “soul food,” a dish of area Blacks. The briny, cured fish is also cooked like Scottish “Tatties an’ Herrin’,” with onions added to the stew of potatoes, herring, and water. These are recipes which come from the Lowcountry’s great folk tradition, passed down from mother to daughter, father to son. I have never seen any of them in written form, except for Willie Berry’s recipe for “Dutch Herring,” from her Berry’s on the Hill restaurant cookbook from the German community of Orangeburg, South Carolina.
Sturgeon were once so numerous in Lowcountry rivers that there are several eighteenth and nineteenth century references to the mouths of our rivers so full that one could cross to the opposite bank by walking on the backs of the ten- and twelve-foot fish. The roe of the female and the gonads of the male sturgeon, herring, and shad are delicious eating. I can remember my parents sending to Georgetown, on Winyah Bay, an hour north of Charleston, for fresh malossol caviar made from the Atlantic sturgeon to serve at a cocktail party. As it is now illegal to take sturgeons along the most of the East Coast, Georgetown caviar is a delicacy of the past. But Walter’s Caviar in Darien, Georgia, processes caviar “the Russian way,” using minimal salt, and they are allowed to take sturgeons in the coastal waters there.
[Alternate drought and flooding ths year in Georgia saw coastal fishing shut down all winter until last week. I’ve ordered some of Walter’s delicious caviar for Mikel’s birthday next week.]
Winyah Bay is fed by the Sampit, the Black, the Pee Dee, the Little Pee Dee, and the Waccamaw Rivers. Only Cat Island separates the bay from the great North and South Santee. Harriott Pinckney Horry, whose book of recipes begun in 1770 survives, lived on her Hampton Plantation, now a state park, about 40 miles north of Charleston and 20 miles south of Georgetwon. Her travel journals provide glimpses into the homes and inns where she stayed, always with notes on the food. She sampled salmon, trout, and bass in New York, but “tasted none to equal our Santee fish.”
Shad begin appearing as soon as the water warms, as early as January in South Carolina some years. The season lasts about two months as the fish move gradually northward. The roe shad, weighing from three to five pounds, are caught in the rivers in gill nets. They are both larger and tastier than the bucks, though milt is delectable as well. Recipes abound for the roe of the female, but the flesh of shad is often maligned because of the many bones.
In the Lowcountry, shad roe is most often teamed with bacon. For fifty years, Zelma and Lanier Hickman served fresh shad in their unpretentious Edisto Motel restaurant on the banks of the Edisto River in Jacksonboro, South Carolina. (I dedicated The Fearless Frying Cookbook to them.) Zelma and her sister Doris Cook would wrap the roe in bacon secured with toothpicks, then place the roe in the “deep freeze” for ten or fifteen minutes to “firm up.” The wrapped roe was then deep fried a golden brown in clean, hot oil. Last night, because I was dealing with a flooded house, I simply wrapped the roe in bacon and put it in a hot oven for about 10 minutes, then served it with lemon wedges.
All roe is easier to handle if if is made firm either by chilling or by simmering it for a few minutes in either milk or water. To cook the roe, bacon is rendered in a skillet, then removed and drained. The firm roe is added to the hot bacon grease, flat side down, and cooked slowly until golden brown, then turned once to briefly brown the other side. The roe is then served with the reserved bacon, lemon wedges, and parsley.
The roe of other fish may be treated like shad roe. It is delicious scrambled into eggs or mixed with equal parts of fresh pork sausage and baked like a meat loaf. When shad roe is in season, put several of the larger sets of the roe in the freezer for use in these composed dishes; but cook the fine, delicate sets while they are fresh and in season.
Whole Shad Baked in Salt (from Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking)
I learned at an early age to leave large — over three pounds — fish unscaled to grill them. The scales form a seal and prevent the outer flesh from burning while the interior steams in its own juices. This similar technique of baking whole, unscaled fish in salt I learned in Italy, and find that it easily facilitates boning the shad — after cooking. You will need a large roasting pan as long — and twice as deep — as your fish.
[for photos of the process, see February 9, 2009]
a fresh, unscaled, 4-pound shad
5-10 pounds rock salt
Preheat the oven to 400o. Carefully slit the belly of the shad, remove the entrails and discard, and remove the roe sacs and set aside, keeping the outer membranes intact. Slice the cavity lining along the line of the backbone and remove the dark veins. Remove the gills. Gently rinse the fish inside and out with cold water, taking care not to knock off the scales.
Put a layer of rock salt in the bottom of the roasting pan, carefully lay the fish on top of the salt, then slide the roe back inside the cavity. You may pin or truss the belly of the fish closed if it seems that the roe may fall out. Cover the entire fish well with more rock salt and place the pan in the preheated oven for about an hour, or until a themometer poked into the flesh of the fish reads 125o. Remove from the oven immediately.
The salt may have formed a hard crust. If so, simply crack it open and pour off all the salt. Carefully remove the baked fish to a platter or work surface, using spatulas. Open the cavity and carefully remove the perfectly steamed roe and set aside to stay warm while you fillet the fish.
With a thin, sharp blade, slice into the skin of the fish along its dorsal edge from the nape to the tail, cutting along both sides of its dorsal fin then along the edge of the flesh just in back of the head. Slide the tip of the knife under the dorsal edge of the skin just behind the head and lift the skin up. Grab it with your fingers and pull the entire skin off the side of the fish that is up. You may have to pull it off in several pieces.
There is a center strip of dark flesh running down the lateral line of the shad. If you place the tips of your fingers on this dark meat, you can feel the ends of the extra bones, which seem to float in the muscles. Turn the fish around so that its tail is facing you, then, with a spatula, lift up the dark meat from the fish, beginning near the tail and moving the spatula from the dorsal toward the ventral. It will separate from the white meat; it should also pull out a row or two of bones with it. The remaining bones are easily removed as you carve sections of the delicate white flesh from the fish, always slowly pulling the sections of meat away from the fish at an oblique angle to the backbone — with the dorsal sections removed dorsally and the ventral sections ventrally. The bones attached to the backbone will remain on the backbone. The “floating” bones separate muscle sections and are located about a half-inch below and above the backbone. After you finish carving the flesh from one side of the fish, turn it over and repeat the process on the other side. As you carve, remove the servings to warmed plates. Serve with creamy grits, the roe, fresh spinach cooked with bacon, and sliced lemons. A lemon butter (see below) is optional.
You will find that some people will prefer the fish to the roe. A four-pound roe shad easily feeds six.
Lemon Butter
4 tablespoons (1/4 pound or 1 stick) butter
2 tablespoons fresh minced parsley
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon rind
Melt the butter over low heat in a saucepan, then stir in the remaining ingredients. Yields about 1/2 cup.Shad Roe Gilson

One of my favorite shad roe recipes evolved as a sort of accident when some guests at a dinner party at my friend Gilson’s (see February 5, 2008) house called to say they would be late.
The recipe, at right, was scribbled on a pad that night many years ago. The roe sets were dusted with salt, pepper, and flour and seared in olive oil. Green tomatoes were added, the pot was covered, and the roe and tomatoes were allowed to braise for ten minutes. I uncovered them, reduced the heat, and allowed them to cook very slowly for another 15 to 20 minutes.
In the meantime, we made bruschetta in the oven. I removed the roe sacs to the warm oven and turned the heat off the tomatoes. We served it after an hour on warm plates, with a lemon slice and a sprig of thyme.Shad Roe in Cream

Shad roe gently poached in cream and served over grits makes a delicious supper. Round out the dish with asparagus, whose season coincides with the shad.
1 set of shad roe per person
1 cup heavy cream per person
salt and pepper
Creamy Grits (see above)
Pour the cream into a heavy sauté pan large enough to hold the sets so that they do not overlap. Gently place the sets of roe flat-side down in the pan, and bring the cream to a boil, gently shaking the pan so that the roe does not stick. Immediately reduce the heat and simmer the sets, shaking the pan occasionally, until they are cooked through and the cream has reduced to a thick sauce (about 10 to 15 minutes for two sets). If you are not sure if the roe is thoroughly poached, you may slice into it. If the roe is not cooked and the sauce is already thick, simply add a little more cream to the sauce and continue the cooking. Turn the roe once during the cooking time.
Place servings of hot Creamy Grits on warm plates, then gently remove the sets from the sauté pan to the plates. Correct the seasoning of the sauce with salt and pepper, and pour the sauce over the roe and the grits.
March 1, 2008
Easy Does It! I’m being lazy this chilly first weekend of March and cooking really simple meals. Yesterday I braised a bone-in chuck roast, combining the cooking technique used for a classic Flemish carbonnade (thin seared steaks braised in onions and beer) with that of an old-fashioned Yankee pot roast (gently braised — not stewed — chuck). I looked in several cookbooks, including my friend Molly Stevens‘s incomparable All About Braising (2005), before I went into the kitchen. I followed no one’s recipe, but took to heart many of Molly’s suggestions, including tying the roast so that it didn’t fall apart, searing it under the broiler (I line a shallow pan with aluminum foil for easy cleanup), and cooking the meat until it just begins to fall apart. I can’t recommend Molly’s book enough. Classically trained in France, Molly knows what she’s talking about. It’s no wonder her book won both the International Association of Culinary Professionals’ and the James Beard Award. In September at the 10th Annual Bon Appétit Awards, she was named Cooking Teacher of the Year.
After I seared the roast, I placed it on a plate and wiped off the foil. Then, in a large heavy enameled pot, I sautéed about 6 cups of chopped onions in a stick of butter, moved them from the pot to the lined pan with a slotted spoon, added a Belgian beer to the pot and let it come to a boil. I slipped some fresh thyme and a bay leaf under the strings and placed the roast down in the pot, covered it with the buttery onions, and placed it in a 300o oven for about 2-1/2 hours, until it was fork tender.
In the meantime I simmered peeled and quartered Yukon Gold potatoes until they were almost done. I removed the roast to a cutting board to sit and added the potatoes to the onions. I removed the string from the meat after the juices had flowed out, then back into the meat, sliced it, and served it with the buttery onions and potatoes with crusty bread.
I’ve never had much of a sweet tooth, but I do enjoy a piece of pie or cake for breakfast. I tend to prefer the intense flavors of dried fruit, the richness of coconut, and the fruity delights of jam instead of elaborate desserts such as “Death by Chocolate.” Ironically, I’m actually a good baker, having had a good teacher, and when company is coming, I tend to make several desserts. The real problem with desserts — besides the empty calories — is that Mikel and I just can’t finish them. I tend to make them when I have fruit, such as bananas, that are overripe or when I’ve bought something such as a coconut and it sits on the kitchen counter staring at me with its three eyes for a week or more. Mikel called me from his office on Friday and said that he had had a large lunch, thereby warning me not to make a big to-do over supper. So the blackening bananas and coconut demanded my attention.
Quick breads such as muffins and banana bread leavened with baking powder and/or soda instead of beating egg whites and yolks separately to make a real sponge cake have never been my favorite desserts. They’re fine for breakfast, but they dry out so quickly that their fresh taste quickly pales. I generally avoid them. I do love the classic “cup o’, cup o’, cup o'” cobbler, so named for its simple recipe that includes a cup of sugar, a cup of flour, and a cup of milk. But that’s really a dish for summer when the peaches and berries are at the height of their seasons.
If only I could make the banana bread — another insanely simple recipe — keep longer, I thought. And then I remembered that I had a jar of homemade preserves that the great cook and culinary instructor Madeleine Kamman had sent me from Florida. (That’s the two of us together in Charleston in the photo.) She wrote, “The enclosed is a formula that dates back from the war, when my mother made jam with ‘just about anything’ that happened to be super ripe. The mixture is dark cherries nice and ripe, bananas nice and ripe, and strawberries nice and ripe, plus black walnut sugar!! It kept me growing up; it was so rare to find.”
So I made a banana bread, using black walnuts ground fairly fine (and more than the recipe calls for), and baked it in two 8″ cake rounds. I slathered Madeleine’s special jam between the layers and iced it with the old fashioned “Noxzema” icing that I prefer to the standard confectioner’s sugar icing (that always tastes like cornstarch to me). I also omitted the nutmeg and the orange zest that I usually add, so that the intense banana flavor would predominate. Here’s the recipe.
Orange Banana Nut Bread (from The New Southern Cook)
Having been reared in the South and travelled extensively in the Caribbean, I assumed that everyone knew how to make this quick tea bread of ripe bananas. It’s always called “bread,” but in fact it’s a sweet. Some versions have no nuts, some have dried fruits such as raisins or dates, and some have fewer eggs or some added milk or fruit juice.
I seem to always have bananas on hand, and they often ripen before I use them. I just toss the bananas in their peels in the freezer and make banana bread with at least one of the defrosted, overripe bananas. Nutmeg is the traditional seasoning throughout the Caribbean; I’ve added some orange peel as well.
4 ounces (1 stick) butter                        
3/4 cup sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
freshly grated nutmeg to taste
3 large, ripe bananas, thoroughly mashed
1-1/2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chopped nuts
Preheat the oven to 350o and grease an 8- or 9-inch loaf pan. Dust the pan with flour.
Cream the butter and sugar, then add the eggs and mix until light. Add the orange zest, nutmeg, and bananas and mix thoroughly.
Sift the flour, soda, and salt together and add to the wet ingredients. Mix well, then add the nuts and mix well again. Fold into the greased pan and bake for one hour. Allow to cool before serving.
Serve cold or warm or toasted, with or without butter.
Makes one standard loaf pan, about 12 slices.
For the icing:
5 tablespoons finely milled pastry flour such as Swans Down
1 cup milk
1 cup (2 sticks) butter at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Mix the flour and milk in the top of a double boiler and cook over simmering water until it it just thick, whisking vigorously to be sure that there are not lumps, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool completely. Cream the butter, sugar, and vanilla until very light and fluffy, about 10 minutes. Add to the flour mixture and beat until just mixed.
Coconuts feed a major portion of the world’s population, but many so-called Westerners — Americans and Europeans alike — barely know the amazing food, except when in excessively sweet concoctions or as part of the broth in Southeast Asian soups. I grate my own coconuts, nearly always, because I prefer both the flavor and texture of the freshly grated meat. If you’re not up for grating your own coconut, you may have a hard time finding unsweetened grated coconut. Look in the frozen foods sections of natural foods stores or Southeast Asian, Latin American, Caribbean, Indian, or African grocery stores.
You can buy rotary coconut graters in Asian markets. (Try Kalustyan’s.) I have two: the plastic one on the right has a suction cup base; the one on the left has finer teeth. They are inexpensive and make quick work of the process.
When buying fresh coconuts (fall and winter are the best seasons), look for dark-skinned ones with shiny, clean “eyes” (three dots on one end). They should be heavy and full of coconut water (not to be confused with coconut milk, below). Puncture two of the three eyes and drain the water into a container. You should at least taste the water, if not drink it, to be sure that the coconut is fresh. The water should taste sweet and clean, not musty or sour. To get at the meat, you then must crack the shell. Some people prefer to place the nut in a medium oven, but I simply tap it around its equator with a hammer until it cracks into two pieces. (If you have a patio or sidewalk nearby, you can also throw it against the ground, monkey-style, but be careful of flying fragments of shell.) The meat is then pried away from the shell, unless you have a rotary grater, which grates the meat while it is still in the shell. The thin brown skin can be pared with a vegetable peeler, but it is not necessary to remove it if the meat is to be used only for making coconut milk or cream.
Coconut Milk
There are several methods for making coconut milk, but I opt for the method calling for cow’s milk, because I most often use it in custards, and homemade coconut milk made with water tends to be a bit too thin for that purpose. The following reults in a thick, reliable coconut milk that will behave much like whole milk from a cow.
one coconut
milk, about 1-1/2 cups
Drain the coconut water, strain it through muslin or several thicknesses of cheesecloth, and reserve.
Grate all interior white flesh of the coconut with a hand grater, an Indian rotary grater, or according to the manufacturer’s instructions with your food processor.
Add milk to the coconut water to make a pint of liquid. Bring this liquid to a boil and pour over the grated coconut. Set aside to cool.
Strain the liquid from the coconut by twisting it tightly in a piece of muslin, squeezing all the liquid from the meat. The meat you can save for use in recipes calling for shredded coconut.
Store the milk in the refrigerator and use within a week. The cream that rises to the surface can be scooped off and used to make coconut butter.Coconut Custard

Most often, what I make with coconuts is custard. I don’t really follow a recipe. I simply grate the coconut (and coconuts vary widely in how much grated meat they yield. I’ve seen small coconuts yield 3 or 4 cups; big ones, only 2 or 3). I cover it with milk, scald it, add a little of the scalded milk and coconut to eggs beaten with sugar, then mix it all together, pour it into a porcelain dish or custard cups, and bake in a bain marie. You can add flavorings such as vanilla and almond extract if you like.
I like to bake the custards in a pyrex dish. When done, I remove them to cool, wipe out the dish, and return them to the dish, covered with plastic wrap, for easy storing in the refrigerator.
Here’s a reliable formula.
1 quart milk                                             
the grated meat of 1 large or 2 small, fresh
       coconuts,about 6 cups loosely packed
5 eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon almond extract, optional
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract, optional
1 teaspoon grated orange rind
pinch of salt
Preheat the overn to 350o. Pour the milk over the coconut in a saucepan and bring just to the point of boiling.
Beat the eggs well, add the sugar, and continue beating until they are light colored. Add some of the warm milk gradually to the egg mixture and beat in, then add the eggs to the milk and coconut.
Add the flavorings, if desired, and a pinch of salt, blend and pour into a porcelain dish or into a dozen four-ounce cups.
Place the baking dish or custard cups down inside another dish and fill at least halfway with hot water. Bake until a silver knife poked into the custard comes out clean, about 30 to 35 minutes.
Yield: 12 four-ounce cups.