January 2007

Posted on January 31, 2007 in Archives

January 2007

I always begin the New Year by having friends over on New Year’s Day for the traditional Charleston menu, which spread inland from that port city and became a tradition throughout the South. Here are Joe Yonan, the Food Editor of The Washington Post, and Ari Shapiro, who reports on the Justice Department for NPR, at our house on New Year’s Day.
Since my sobriquet is “Hoppin’ John,” I always feel a duty to serve the traditional meal, which always includes Hoppin’ John for good luck. The first written recipe for Hoppin’ John appeared in The Carolina Housewife in 1847.  Writing anonymously, as was the custom for Charleston ladies prior to the Nineteenth Amendment, Sarah Rutledge was the “Lady of Charleston” who penned this American classic. She was the daughter of Edward Rutledge, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and niece of Arthur Middleton, another signer. The classic Charleston version, with “red peas,” is a very dry version of the dish, but it is served with greens (for financial success throughout the year) with their juices as well as  a side dish of more cowpeas and pot likker. (Most folks today use blackeyed peas, which are one of many types of cowpeas.)
The dish certainly came from West Africa, whence came both cowpeas and the enslaved who were great growers and cookers of rice. Wherever rice is grown in the world, you find dishes of rice and legumes, whose synergy is legend. The white men who owned the vast rice plantations in early Carolina, on which the fortunes of Charleston were built, knew nothing of rice cookery prior to their involvement with rice and the slave trade. It is to the ancestors of today’s African Americans that I raise my glass on New Year’s, with our meal of rice and beans, collards, and roast pork.

Joe has hired me to write several pieces for the Post, including an in-depth look at whole-hog cookery that appeared in mid-January. I have a lifelong love of pork in all its many forms, and have been known to stay up all night cooking whole hogs over barely smoldering hickory embers, have photographed traditional December hog-killings all over Georgia, and have made just about every kind of sausage you can name, including blood pudding. Back in the fall, I had helped edit and translate the American edition of Stéphane Reynaud’s Cochon & Fils (“Pork & Sons”) for Phaidon Press, so I was already in the whole-hog mood when Joe asked me to write about the burgeoning interest in naturally-raised, heritage breeds of hogs and charcuterie. I interviewed several dozen chefs, butchers, home cooks, and farmers such as Bryan Kerney (pictured here) of Truck Patch Farm in New Windsor, Maryland.  And I tasted pounds of pâtés, sausages, rillettes, pork bellies, and hams in my research.

I even got in a conversation with a young man, David Harry, who was working at a car wash. I couldn’t quite pinpoint his accent, so when he revealed to me that he was from Guyana, we began to talk about Caribbean foods, including black pudding (sausage made with blood) and chutneys. I had just made some pear chutney and his grandmother was making some fresh black pudding at that very moment! When I asked him if she used rice as a binder, as we do in the lowcountry, or bread crumbs, which are traditional in most French boudin noir, he couldn’t believe that this white boy in DC even knew about it, much less what the ingredients were! I then asked if she used cream, which is rare in the Caribbean. When he told me that she uses coconut milk, I knew that I had to have some! Several hours later, he came by my house with this sample of his grandmother’s delectable and traditional Guyanese black pudding, along with some of her mango chutney! In exchange, I gave him some of my chunky pear chutney, very different in texture from his grandmother’s, but similar in its ginger seasoning. I love living in this amazingly international town!

The following recipe is from my first book
Blood Pudding

Of all blood, that of the hog is thought the richest, and this is always employed in France in their boudins of this kind, which are excellent.

-The Cook and Housewife’s ManualBy the time Meg Dods published her classic of Scottish cooking in 1826, black puddings — or blood sausages — were well established in the culinary traditions of Berkeley County where Scots-Irish and French Huguenots had settled along the banks of the Cooper River. On Barbados, whence came many of the early English settlers and African slaves, blood pudding and souse are still traditional Christmas dishes. Rice has replaced the oatmeal, traditional in Scotland, and the bread crumbs used in some parts of France (other French thickeners include apples, chesnuts, and spinach) in my version of this suprisingly delicate sausage. Light and creamy like its French cousins, this sausage is not heavy like the Cajun and German versions.
It is illegal in most states to sell pig’s blood, so the culinary tradition of making blood sausages has all but disappeared. Only in pockets of the Lowcountry where farmers still butcher their hogs will you find someone who knows this old bit of charcuterie. The only local current cookbook in which I have found a recipe is Billie Burn’s collection, STIRRIN’ THE POTS ON DAUFUSKIE (1985), from Daufuskie Island, which is still separated from the mainland by the lack of a bridge. When I lived in Charleston, I would go to my butcher’s on slaughter day, with a bucket to catch the fresh blood. He would give it to me to me to bait sharks, but what I would really do is make blood pudding. A tablespoon of salt or vinegar stirred into a quart of fresh blood will prevent its coagulation.

In Washington, I have found frozen blood in Asian, African, and Caribbean markets.

1 cup cooked white rice
2 cups cream
2 quarts fresh pig’s blood, plus 2 tablespoons salt
1 teaspoon Quatre-épices *
     2 tablespoons salt (or 4 if vinegar was used in the blood)
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
2 pounds fresh pork fat
2 pounds onions, chopped
prepared hog casings, knotted at one end, rinsed well
and placed in a bowl of water

Place the rice in the cream and set aside to soak while you continue with the recipe. Stir the seasonings into the blood. Dice the fat and fry out 1/2 pound of it in a heavy Dutch oven. Add the onions and cook slowly until the onions are translucent. Remove from the fire. Add the rest of the fat and the rice/cream mixture to the pot. Stir the mixture well and, when it has cooled, add the seasoned blood, stirring well.

Now, put on an apron and cover your work surface with something like a large cookie sheet, as you cannot help but make a mess with the liquid sausage stuffing. Slip the unknotted end of the prepared casings over the end of a plastic funnel, holding the casing tightly with one hand so that it does not slip off. Ladle the mixture through the funnel into the casings, then tie it off in 4″ lengths.
Simmer the sausages in water, uncovered,  for 15-20 minutes, or until a pricked sausage oozes brown, not blood. As the sausages are very fragile, this simmering is accomplished best with a wire basket for deep-frying. When cool, wrap well in plastic wrap. They will keep refrigerated for several days or in the freezer for several months.

I serve these sausages on a cold winter night with spinach and mashed potatoes — half white and half sweet — mixed with a little milk and butter; or, as an appetizer, on a bed of caramelized onions. To cook blood puddings, simply prick them lightly in a couple of places and fry or grill them.


“Four-spices” are, in fact, usually five, and are commonly used to season forcemeats for sausages and terrines. This is one combination of spices that I try to keep on hand in small quantities. The recipe is really just a suggestion: the quantities and proportions given below are typical, but not written in stone. Vary the amounts to suit your own palate.
2 tablespoons white peppercorns
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon whole cloves
1/4 teaspoon each ground cinnamon and ginger
Put all of the above in a spice mill or blender and process until it is all evenly ground. Store in a cool, dark place. Make quantities no larger than this, for spices quickly lose their punch after being ground.
Better than bottled water

In mid-January, we rented a villa in Quintana Roo, just north of the Tulum ruins, with four other couples. We had no set schedule, so it was a real vacation, and the digs were grand (this hammock overlooking the beach and reef — the world’s second largest — was just off our room).  Our first night, we stopped at a seafood market and bought 10 pounds of fresh shrimp which we simply boiled alongside fresh corn. We peeled the shrimp we didn’t eat that night and made classic Charleston-style “pickled” shrimp — closer to Italy’s gamberetti sott’olio (“shrimp in oil”) than truly pickled — and made a stock with the shells and aromatic vegetables. Trips to the markets invariably meant that we bought local foods and prepared them the same way we would have had we been natives. It’s natural to make guacamole and salsa with the beautiful local avocadoes and tomatoes. We also fried our own chips from the scrumptious fresh, local tortillas. One day in town I found ten small yellowtails and stuffed them with cilantro and scallions, wrapped them in banana leaves, and grilled them. Alongside the snapper, we had fresh — not dried — black beans which we shelled and cooked with a little piece of chorizo. As a great lover of beans (see Cowpeas), I was thrilled to have them fresh, a first for me.
Another day I bought eight roasted chickens from this storefront grill. They came with Spanish rice, Charleston’s proverbial red rice by another name, and salsa, but I asked the cook to give me double rice portions instead. The next day, I found ten spiny lobsters, so I sliced the tails open and spread them apart, seasoned them lightly with salt and pepper, rubbed them with olive oil, and placed them on a bed of the leftover red rice which I drenched in the shrimp stock. I covered the pan well with foil and baked the dish in a hot oven for about 15 minutes. Delicious!
One of the things I love most about the tropics is the omnipresence of coconuts, one of my favorite foods. On 14th Street just north of Columbia Heights here in Washington, near my home, you can buy fresh green coconuts from street vendors as if they were grown right here in our neighborhood. Here I am in Mexico after a scorching morning of visiting the Tulum ruins, drinking the indescribably refreshing juice of a green coconut. It’s not only better tasting and better for you than bottled water, but it’s also less expensive!
When I lived in the Caribbean, I was often awakened by street noises shortly afer sunrise. I would hurry down the hill, half-asleep, to buy meat “patés” (spicy turnovers) from a local woman who made two or three dozen of these as well as coconut-filled ones each morning and which she briskly sold as soon as they came out of the oven. Paté in hand, I would stroll over to the harbor, where down-island boats along the waterfront displayed mounds of fresh green coconuts for sale, the water and meat of which rounded out my island breakfast.

Wielding a machete, the boatman, who had climbed the palms to harvest their fruits the day before, would chop through the outer, green husk, slicing off the end of the coconut with the flourish of a Japanese steakhouse chef, making a hole from which I could drink its soothing juice, cheaper than bottled water. The boatman then cut away all the outer husk, spinning the coconut in one hand and whacking away at it with the machete until the luscious, soft interior pulp was revealed, glistening in the already bright morning sun. The smooth, gelatinous texture of the green coconut always reminded me of custards I ate as a child in the Lowcountry, and, indeed, green coconuts lend themselves well to custards, often baked in the shells, not only in the Caribbean, whence came the early settlers of Carolina, but also in Indochina and Indonesia, where the coconut palm originated.

Cocos nucifera now flourishes throughout the tropical world, and is a major source of food for a third of the world’s population. Though green coconuts were formerly not available outside the tropics, the mature brown seeds of these drupes are available year-round in most parts of the country. (You can now find green coconuts in Asian, Hispanic, African, and Caribbean markets, as well as from street vendors in cities with Latin American neighborhoods like mine. Sandlappers, or residents of the lowcountry,

 with a long history of involvement with the spice and slave trades (and, hence, with stong African and Asian influences in our cuisine), have taken more readily to coconuts than have Europeans, who tend to use them as almond substitutes. I have eaten the gelatinous pulp of unripe, green almonds in Italy, but never have I seen a coconut in a market there, and I lived in the great port city of Genoa.In Indonesia there are five different types of coconut milk; and coconut comes, even to us, flaked, creamed, canned, shredded, blocked, frozen, shaved, and as milk or oil. But it is the rich interior of the mature nut that is of the most interest, because of its intense flavor. Over two hundred years ago on her rice plantation north of Charleston, Eliza Lucas Pinckney, who had been raised in the West Indies, wrote down her receipt for “coconut puffs,” delicious macaroons to be made from these tropical nuts. But even today coconuts stay out of the European tradition. With its great harbor and Caribbean connection Charleston was to lead the way for coconut cookery in the Western world. 


When peaches are in season in the summer, I like to make a chutney full of chunks of fresh coconut (see August 2007).
P.S. October 2007: When looking for ripe coconuts, you want a relatively heavy coconut, full of liquid, with clean, dark “eyes.” Do NOT buy the now seemingly ubiquitous “Groovy Coconuts” that are popular in supermarkets these days. I’ve recently purchased THREE heavy ones with clean, dark eyes, full of liquid, only to get them home and open them along their predrilled grooves to find soured flesh. I recommend that you go to an ethnic grocer whose clientele have roots in tropical countries such as those of the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and the Indies.