Now Science is on my side! According to this article in today’s New York Times, those aromatic bubbles contribute immensely to Champagne’s many charms. So my habit of drinking three glasses to everyone else’s one is rooted in my experiencing more flavor and aroma!!!
Far Flung and Well Fed: The Food Writing of R. W. Apple, Jr. is released today. It’s a great read, I know, from having read not only the original pieces, but also from having seen the galley proofs of the book. Go to your favorite bookstore (or, if you must, to Amazon), and pick up a copy today!
September 27, 2009 Home from a week at the beach.
I’m home from a week at the beach with friends, celebrating my 60th birthday a month early while the weather was still perfect for swimming. The surf was full of schools of Spanish sardines, and we swam at night in the phosphorescent surf, with shooting stars overhead. We ate local shrimp and triggerfish and sheepshead and field peas and squash and melons. As well as the standards — a baked ham (see December 17, 2007), pimiento cheese (see December 27, 2007), ham biscuits, devilled eggs (see March 23, 2009), and shrimp paste (see March 24, 2008)! Here we are having margaritas on the deck one afternoon.
To the left, the breakfast table is set with shrimp and grits and Tavel.
A head of celery I bought was too fibrous to eat, so I cooked it in chicken stock with several leeks and a potato, pureed it, and ate the soup cold with steamed shrimp (see photo, above). Afterwards, we had BATs (bacon, arugula, and tomato sandwiches), pictured below. And all week long we picked on the 8-layer caramel cake from Laura Walkup inPamplico,South Carolina. I picked mine up en route to the beach, but you can call her and she might ship you one. Phone 843 493 2091. Tell her I sent you.
While in Florida, my millers were flooded out by the torrential rains in north Georgia, but we are back up and grinding now. Ah, Mother Nature! As an avid wildlife observer, I was thrilled to see a continual stream of monarch butterflies headed to their winter roosts in Mexico. When I told a biologist friend of mine about the monarchs, she told me about a story she heard on NPR about vintners using peregrine falcons to control starlings — since it combines two of my loves (wine and falcons) with one of the things I most despise (starlings). Here’s the story.
September 21, 2009 Sunrise this morning. I’m on vacation.
September 17, 2009 Pawpaws and the End of Summer
I’m getting ready to leave to go on a little trip to Florida, so I don’t really have time to post much right now. Some friends brought me some pawpaws they found along the C&O Canal. Though my father, whom the grandchildren called PawPaw, was from the Appalachian hills and loved them, I had never had them before! It’s the only member of the Asimina genus to grow outside the tropics and their range is huge, but I feel disingenuous writing much about them since I have no personal experience with them. If you Google them, you’ll find plenty of articles, most of which cannibalize each other. Though I write both academic and popular pieces about food, I always hope that the one thing that distinguishes my writing is the voice of personal experience added to the term-paper-like quality of so much food writing. Most traditional recipes for pawpaws are for puddings and banana-bread-like concoctions, but my father said that the custardy fruit lent itself best to custardy creations, like ice cream. Their flavor has been described as somewhere between that of a banana and a mango, but I found these to be more like a musty cherimoya, only not nearly as sweet. From my friend who found them: “We took a delicious sun-dappled walk between the canal and the Potomac to find the pawpaws. We bicycled by empty trees for several miles, then discovered a grove. Like mushrooms, you can smell them before you see them. And in the case of pawpaws, they’re downright brazen in aroma, especially when they’ve started decomposing on the ground, which is pretty much right away.” I have read that their shelf-life is “nonexistent,” and, sure enough, by evening they were soft to the touch. But that’s when they taste best. I ate them like a peach, over the sink, the juice dripping down my arms. The riper ones taste of pineapple.
Of course we are leaving town just as our dooryard is at its height of bloom and beauty. The resurrection lilies are up, the clematis is blooming again, the passion vines are covered with blossoms, and the sweet autumn clematis is perfuming the air. Plus, the herbs, which suffer in the heat of the southern exposure, all look great right now (I’ll cut plenty to take with me) and the roses are all getting ready to flower. But the ocean calls, so I probably won’t be posting much until next month.
September 15, 2009 Getting ready to go swim in the ocean
For as long as I can remember, I have swum every summer in the Atlantic Ocean (except for the years I lived in Europe, when I swam in the Mediterranean). That I have not made it to the beach this summer has my joints begging for some salt water. Earlier this year when Mikel asked me what I wanted for my 60th birthday (coming in October), I told him that I wanted him to rent us a beachfront house on a gorgeous beach with good waves and few people, so he’s done just that and we’ll be leaving for a week of swimming on Friday. I can’t wait! Growing up visiting friends on Edisto Island and spending a lot of time on our boat at Hilton Head (when there was no one there), I have forever preferred body surfing to just about any other physical activity. Here’s a photo of my parents in 1965 on Daufuskie Island, still separated from the mainland without a bridge. We used to walk on South Carolina beaches even on holidays without seeing another soul. I remember 4th of July in 1978 my friend Dana Downs came to visit me on Folly Beach, the funky and now very popular beach just outside Charleston and I don’t think we saw another soul the entire weekend. Another Independence Day in the 1990s I was with Dana on Ponte Vedra, near Jacksonville, and we walked for hours, seeing maybe a dozen people as we marvelled at the manta rays hovering above the waves and the multimillion-year-old fossilized sharks’ teeth on the beach. I’ve always been a beachcomber.
My mother was an adventurous cook and our meals down on Hilton Head were always based on the fresh local crab, eel, and flounders that found their way into our traps; the mullets and shrimp that we netted with circular cast nets; and the oysters and clams that we gathered in the “r” months at low tide. I’ve published many of my mother’s recipes before, and here on the blog, so it seems a peculiar shame that she never knew that I changed careers after her death and became a food writer. DAMN.
These 1965 images from Hilton Head came to me from Sarah Robinson, whose family and ours were very close when we were growing up. In the shot to the right, Daddy is bringing my brother and Little Page back to our motorsailer, the Wanderer, from the beach on Daufuskie. That’s Mama and Mrs. Robinson and me in the background, beachcombing, something I didn’t get to do very often when we were on Hilton Head because our boat was teak from the bottom of the keel to the tip of the mast, with brass fixtures. Imagine keeping a varnished piece of ormolu-mounted varnished furniture outdoors, on salt water! It was three weekends of brightwork, then one Sunday afternoon of sailing, and, as a teenager, I resented being on a boat with my family every weekend of my high school years. In retrospect, of course, I realize how lucky I was not only to have experienced the lowcountry so intimately, before it was overrun with developments and tourists, and to have been in close quarters with such a wonderful cook in her galley. Her cooking was simple and bright and her palate informed my own. To this day, I am proud of the clean flavors that I produce even in dishes that traditionally call for a multitude of ingredients. I’m surprised to see an outboard motor on the dinghy in this photo that Sarah sent, because when Mama sent me out to “get lunch,” it was usually equipped with oars, which could be difficult to man in the 8-foot tides and shifting currents of those brackish inlets.
This past weekend we dined with some serious food folks at our friends Ann and Larry’s house with Tom and Ed and Mitch and Debbie and Elizabeth and Seth. Elizabeth made summer pudding, one of the simplest and loveliest desserts ever invented, though it demands the best ingredients possible. Perfectly ripe berries (and currants if you can find them) are sweetened, simmered for a few minutes, then added to a mold lined with white bread. Covered with more bread and weighted in the refrgerator overnight, the whole thing is then turned out, sliced, and served with cr?me fra?che and fresh berries. I took one bite and asked aloud what alcohol she had used to annoint the fruit, and Elizabeth said none, but that she had splashed them with a few drops of rosewater, a brilliant addition to this simply perfect dessert. Seth, who had picked the fruit himself, admitted that some of the berries were indeed overripe to the point of fermenting, and that he, too, could taste a bit of alcohol. I made another Huguenot Torte (below) just because I was pissed at the stupid article in the Times (see below).
September 13, 2009 So-called Huguenot Torte
Today’s Sunday New York Times Magazine has an article Huguenot Torte, which was published with many errors, some of which have been corrected. I am quoted in the article, but the story is old news, about original historical research I did in the mid-80s. Too bad they didn’t link to my blog. And, for the record: I am neither a South Carolina nor Charleston native and I do not live there now. For the real story on Huguenot Torte and a better recipe, go here.
September 11, 2009 Lest we forget.
September 10, 2009 More Canning Joys
On the first of the month (see below), I canned the last batch of figs for the summer. I always can a lot of them, and for this last batch I decided to puree the figs and make a simple jam, the recipe for which I gave below. It’s a perfectly good recipe, but when I tasted it, I found it dull. I guess I’m just used to my mother’s superior recipes, enlivened with pineapple. I already had some of Mama’s conserve from last year, though, so I made the simpler jam. Mikel asked if he could give some as gifts and it dawned on me that I wasn’t about to either eat the jam OR give away something I didn’t like. So I emptied the contents of the sealed jars into a pot, added crushed pineapple and a couple of peeled, seeded, and chopped lemons, and cranked the pepper mill a couple of dozen times over the pot. Last year I added peppercorns to every other jar or so, and I added nuts as well, so this time, for variation, I used freshly ground pepper in the mix, but no nuts. I re-sterilized the jars and new lids, and while the conserve cooked back up to jelling temperature, I also stemmed the seedless Concord grapes I found in Adams County, Pennsylvania, this past weekend.
I love Concord grapes. If you’ll go back to September 5 of last year, I wrote a lot about the native American slip-skin grapes, with recipes. Since the grapes were seedless, I simply weighed them and added 3/4 the amount of sugar to the grapes in a heavy pot, and placed it over medium heat, allowing the sugary purple mixture to cook at a low boil until it reached the jelling point. The grapes puffed up and split and the jam is gorgeous to look at and delicious to taste. I only wish I had bought more! (Actually, I bought all they had for sale at the market where I found them, but if I see any again, I will buy all I can!)
I had never heard of seedless Concords before, so I did a little research and have found varying reports, none very scientific, about them. Some say that they are “sports” or mutations rather than hybrids, which have variable production and variable taste. Others say that there are now many varieties of seedless hybrid Concords that are as flavorful as the heirlooms. I know from my wine studies that grapes vary widely in flavor according to soil, geography, and climate, especially heat and rainfall. I must admit that the seedless ones I bought didn’t have the intense flavor that I expect from Concords, but I also knew that the flavor would concentrate in jam. Not having to seed them or precook the flavorful skins was great. And my jam — I only have 1-1/2 pints — is simply perfect. I’ll be damned if I’m sharing it, but Mikel can now give away some of my improved fig conserve. It, too, is delicious and we have lots!!
September 9, 2009 Some Thoughts on Wine and Women
Today is the birthday of two of my favorite people on earth: Dana Downs and Lucille Grant. Dana and I met in Georgia in the mid-70s and have been best of friends since. Lucille I met in Charleston in the late 80s when I opened my culinary bookstore and she was cooking for my friend Bessie Hanahan. Here’s to you, Ladies!
Thinking about all the amazing meals that Lucille cooked and all the gallons of alcoholic beverages that Dana and I have imbibed together got me to thinking about wine. And my women friends.
I grew up in a small South Carolina town in the fifties and sixties, hardly what you’d think of as a childhood imbued with gourmet meals and fine wines. But my parents were fun-loving, sensual intellectuals; my mother, an adventurous cook long before Julia Child appeared on television; and my father, a charter member of Les Amis du Vin, a wine-buying club, who traveled extensively and shopped in the country’s best wine shops. Weeks after he had been to Pearson’s in DC, Acker Merrall in New York, or Martin’s in New Orleans, a case or two of his assiduous selections would arrive via truck and I’d be delegated to clamber under our ranch-style, placing the finer bottles in the coolest spot in the dirt-floored crawl space, to be brought out for special occasions.
My siblings and I were always allowed a little taste of vino, as my parents often called wine, perhaps because we drank lots of Chianti Classico (which always had to have the black rooster on the label to ensure its authenticity). The choices available to my father back then, especially in South Carolina, weren’t anything like today’s international wine market, but, in some ways, I envy his relative ease at choosing. We always had splendid whites from the Loire, Muscadet with the raw, local oysters; Sancerre for our elevenses; and Vouvray with fried fish.
Dad also bought futures, and, like me, was more partial to the sensual voluptuousness of a big, old Burgundy than to the powerhouse of sensations that older Bordeaux wines rouse. I was born in 1949, one of the greatest years in Burgundy, and Dad bought futures on several cases of Chambolle-Musigny. Through the years, he and my mother continually enjoyed their wines with their meals, and, when Dad retired, they moved their cellar into the keel of their sailboat, where they planned to spend most of their lives. They had held back a couple of bottles of the 1949, my mother dead-set on serving it at my wedding, which was not to be.
Not long after their initial voyage, in 1981, Mama got leukemia. I was living in Europe at the time, shuttling back and forth between Paris and Genoa, Italy. The next year, I came home and helped Dad during the last few months of my mother’s life. We took turns cooking, and we gradually drank up the rest of their cellar. We saved the last bottle of the ’49 until after she had died, and we toasted her many times in our very special meal with that very special bottle. What did we eat? The best meat I could find at the time, Brae Beef, flown in from Stamford, Connecticut. I honestly do not remember the cut of meat or how we prepared it, but I do remember that it perfectly complemented the delicious wine, which was everything you want a special bottle of Burgundy to be. I remember the wine’s velvety texture, and how its fragrance evoked my grandmother’s attic. But, most of all, I remember what my father said of the wine, “It reminds me of your mother.”
I’ve long maintained that the only thing about wine (and it can be said about friendship and the arts as well) that really matters is what you like. I’ve never learned winespeak. When someone tells me that a glass of wine has hints of eucalyptus, I dread tasting it, since I happen to despise that smell. And the power of suggestion is so strong, I’ve found, that no matter what fragrance or odor or flavor someone else says that he or she perceives in a glass of wine, I am likely to then pick up on the suggestion. Foremost for me, when tasting wines, is imagining what foods would complement it. And to that end, I have learned how to choose foods to complement what I think a particular wine is going to be before I open the bottle.
Unlike my father, I’m unlikely to describe a wine as feminine. Too many of my best friends have always been women. And I probably wouldn’t know half of what I know about wine if it weren’t for my friendship with Debbie Marlowe, who has the most remarkable wine palate I’ve ever encountered in my fifty-year love affair with wine and food. Before Mikel and I met, Debbie and I had dinner together every Friday night in Charleston. Invariably, I would be working on one of my cookbooks. Most of the time, I would tell her the recipe that I would be cooking and then she would bring the appropriate wine to accompany it. Occasionally, she would tell me which wines she was sampling that week, and I would try to prepare something that I thought would accompany the wine. I learned a lot from those meals with Deb, her teaching me how to taste the wine with the food — and our both realizing that, no matter how good the wine and food are, the memories are more often about the company.
In a restaurant, the sommelier or owner or the chef or a wine buyer has already chosen wines that he or she thinks should complement the flavors that the chef usually favors. Unfortunately, vintages, chefs, and menus change more frequently than wine lists do. In today’s world of computers, there is no excuse for a restaurant’s wine list not being absolutely up to date. When I recently ordered a 2004 Premier Cru Chablis to accompany my buttery oyster appetizer (for a recipe, see below), I was not amused when the 2006 arrived with the dish. “What would Debbie do?” I thought to myself, knowing that she would have sampled the 2006 vintage, which I hadn’t. I knew that 2004 was a very good year for Chablis and that 2005 was perhaps an even better one throughout Burgundy, but not necessarily in Chablis, which is the northernmost part of the region. Before the waiter opened the wine, I asked if he had tasted the 2006. “Is it as good as the 2004 or the 2007?” I had heard that the 07s had even surpassed the 04s. But I was irritated: my oysters were getting cold and we were going to drink a big red with the braised short ribs we had coming as our main course. It was already open and decanted on the table.
The waiter couldn’t help me and said he would ask the sommelier, but, remembering Debbie’s paraphrase of the famous Veuve Bollinger quote – Champagne when you’re happy, Champagne when you’re sad, and not wanting my oysters to get any colder, I remembered seeing splits of Champagne on the menu and said, “Forget the Chablis. My oysters are getting cold. Just bring us either a split of Champagne or two glasses of Champagne, whichever is the colder.”
I have always been a fool for Champagne, and Mikel likes it, too, but I can be a real glutton in the presence of the legendary bubbly and will drink three glasses before others have finished one. I don’t have a sweet tooth and generally avoid desserts and any but the driest of wines. But I adore Champagne (which has sugar added to it) and have been on a quest to find small producers of elegant wines from the region ever since the big houses started spending more money on advertising in the 90s and paying less attention to their craft. I’ve learned a lot on my own, here in DC without Debbie, and I’ve felt a great sense of accomplishment to have been able to turn her on to a few wines myself. I blushed with pride when I recently heard her tell someone that I know “plenty” about wine.
I grew up drinking Chablis and it’s one of the most difficult wines to learn, I think. (Forget any wine called “Chablis” that is not from France!) In many ways, the region is more like bordering Champagne than it is like Burgundy. The southernmost Aube, which is producing some elegant bubbly now, is only 40 miles from Chablis; Dijon, at the northernmost point of the C?te de Nuits, is more than twice that far away. Chablis, the wines of which are 100% Chardonnay (like the blanc de blancs sparklers from Champagne), is divided into four classifications by quality. The appellations contr?l?es are: the ordinary Petit Chablis (only recently available in the States), Chablis (grapes can be grown anywhere in the region), Chablis Premier Cru (these are the wines I buy because they offer great quality for a reasonable price; they are produced at 40 vineyards, mostly in a river valley known for its soil of limestone, clay, and oysters shells), and Chablis Grand Cru, more powerful wines made from grapes grown in seven vineyards that lie on a southwest-facing slope just north of the eponymous city. Most of the Grand Cru grapes are hand-picked and oaked. The wines have a higher percentage of alcohol and each is known for its particular terroir. The Grand Cru wines are distinctive. If you can find them, buy them. Though rare, they are surprisingly not much more expensive than the Premier Crus, which are widely available.
The frosts of northerly Chablis have always threatened the winemaking of the area. According to the wine expert Stephen Tanzer, Chablis and other “marginal areas in which vines historically struggled to ripen their fruit appear for the moment to be benefiting” from global warming. Grapes are ripening earlier and the wines are not as crisp as they once were. I may have to learn all I knew about Chablis all over again. But Debbie has always said that one’s wine education is constantly evolving. In 2000, Kevin Zraly in the Millenium Edition of his Windows of the World Complete Wine Course wrote that Chablis needs to be drunk within two years of the vintage; Premier Cru, between 2 and 4 years; and Grand Cru, between 3 and 5 years. I wonder if those figures still hold. I drank an older Premier Cru the other night with some mussels, and while it was still presenting a mouthful of minerals, and there was a hint of oak, its fruit was waning. To paraphrase my friend Betsey Apple describing another wine, “she was still in the room, but she was on her way out the door.” They don’t age like the other white Burgundies. Or, as Eric Asimov wrote in The New York Times back in May, “Everyone loves Chablis, but it’s nobody’s favorite white Burgundy.” I should have read his column more closely, and then I would have seen that, for Chablis lovers like Asimov and me, the 2007 is possibly the best yet, though, he admitted, “it’s really too young to drink now.” Of course, I’ve never really thought of Chablis as Burgundy. It’s its own thing, like Beaujolais.
Before you spend your money on a wine you don’t know, you might wonder what you should do. For me, it’s easy: I call Debbie. Earlier this year, or perhaps it was late last year, she told me to run out and buy whatever 2005 white Beaunes I could afford and put them down. I did. And, amazingly, I haven’t drunk them yet. (I well remember our buying cases of the 1990 red Burgundies, then drinking them well before their time because they were simply so quaffable and affable and fruity and perfect, down there in the subtropical heat of Charleston. Stupid me!)
When I moved to Washington, I already had a dear friend who lived here, and I quickly met a few more guys who have been great, and nearly constant, buddies for me here. But I miss Dana and Debbie and Lucille and my sisters and nieces and Mary Edna and Bessie and Julia and Gilson. I have always had more women friends than men. A few months ago when Mary Edna was visiting, I realized – aloud – just how much I missed these women with whom I have drunk gallons and gallons of wine. And then, like Bowie’s “crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me,” Ann Brody Cove and Betsey Apple became my friends here in DC. And they both drink wine!
With everyone but Lucille having visited me here, I know that distance doesn’t really matter. And both Ann and Betsey have full lives. But we all seem to fit each other in.
I love wine. But I wouldn’t be who I am without my girlfriends. Thank you all so much for being in my life! I know Lucille’s not reading this. I’m going to call her right now and wish her a happy birthday! You, too, Dana! And, Debbie, since I don’t have your amazing ability to remember every wine you’ve tasted, I have been keeping notes for years. Here’s a page from a recent wine journal, with notes about the Ch?teau Larrivet-Haut-Brion 2001, which isn’t quite ready to drink.
As a postscript to my blog about Women and Wine, above, I’m adding a recipe:
Saut?ed Oysters over Grits Cakes
I published this recipe from Chef Rob Enniss in The New Southern Cook, for which Debbie wrote the wine recommendations. Rob is southern to the bone, and when the book was published first published in 1995, his oceanfront eatery on Litchfield Beach on the southern end of South Carolina‘s Grand Strand was one of the state’s best restaurants. I’ve heard that Rob’s in the mountains now.
A recipe for grits cakes follows the recipe in the next blog entry.
Just before saut?ing the oysters, preheat the oven to its lowest setting. Place a rack over a sheet pan and place it in the oven, along with 4 appetizer plates or 2 dinner plates. Prepare the grits cakes as below, removing them to the wire rack in the oven to drain and keep warm while you prepare the oysters.
reserved grits cakes
20 freshly shucked oysters with their liquor
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup clarified butter (or a blend of clarified butter and peanut oil)
1/4 cup cooked country ham, julienned
3 shallots, julienned
1 garlic clove, finely minced
2 tablespoons dry sherry
1 tablespoon fresh chopped sage or 1 teaspoon dried
2 tablespoons butter at room temperature
Remove the grits cakes from the oven and divide them among the warmed plates.
Drain the oysters and reserve the liquor. Place them on a paper towel and pat dry. Season with salt and pepper, then roll in the flour. Saut? the oysters in the butter until browned on both sides. Place the cooked oysters on and around the grits cakes.
Reduce the heat and add the ham, shallots, and garlic to the pan where the oysters were cooked. Saut? gently until barely browned. Deglaze the pan with the sherry.
Add the oyster liquor and sage and reduce slightly. Turn off the heat and add the whole butter. Melt by gently swirling the pan. Correct the seasoning with salt and pepper, then pour over the oysters and grits cakes. Serve immediately.
Serves 4 as appetizers or 2 as dinner.
Debbie Recommends: Chablis Premier Cru.
Labor Day Weekend with Friends
We spent most of the weekend in Adams County, Pennsylvania, relaxing, eating very simple meals of fresh, local fare, and helping our hostess catalog her wine inventory. The sunsets were spectacular, but the shadows of the full moon were even more dramatic on her hilltop away from city lights.
Local figs, eggs, grapes — both Concords and Catawbas, and green beans complemented our lamb chops and grits cakes. I took bags of my grits, cornmeal, and corn flour along, so after breakfast on Saturday, I added an egg and a little cornmeal to the leftover grits and formed them into patties which I then dusted with the finely ground corn flour, refrigerating the cakes to pan-fry the next morning and serve with home-grown tomatoes and poached eggs. The bright orange yolks of the just-laid eggs colored the grits cakes a brilliant yellow.
Here’s a fancier recipe (from The New Southern Cook):
Basic Grits Cakes
cooked grits (made from 1 cup grits and 4 cups salted water)
2 tablespoons heavy cream
2 teaspoons water
1/4 cup flour, cornmeal, corn flour, or fine
dry bread crumbs
peanut oil for frying
As soon as the grits are done, put one of the eggs into a medium mixing bowl with the cream and stir well to combine. Add some grits quickly to the egg and cream, beating well with a wire whisk so that the egg doesn’t curdle. Dump the mixture into the grits pot and whisk all together well.
Turn the grits out into a greased 9″ cake pan and allow to cool to room temperature. Refrigerate until firm.
When ready to cook, heat some oil in a heavy pan over medium high heat. Preheat the oven to its lowest setting. Place a rack over a sheet pan and place it in the oven, along with 4 appetizer plates or 2 dinner plates.
Remove the grits from the refrigerator and turn them out onto a cutting surface. Beat the remaining egg with the water in a pasta bowl to make a wash. Cut the grits into 8 pie-like slices and gently lift each slice up and dip in the egg wash, then in the meal, flour, or crumbs. Saut? or deep fry until golden brown, then remove to the rack in the oven to drain and stay warm while you prepare the sauce.
Makes 8 grits cakes.
On Sunday, we had to come to come back to Washington for a wedding, so I pan-fried the grits cakes in extra-virgin olive oil while I poached eggs, then drizzled the olive oil drippings on thick tomato slices, and topped each grits cake and tomato slice with a poached egg. We had been discussing the wonderful culinary writing of Simon Hopkinson, who is a dear friend of our hostess, as well as the surprisingly straightforward recipes of the famous French chef Paul Bocuse. We were also lamenting the unnecessarily laborious instructions of some of the more famous cookbook authors and chefs when I came across this homage to Richard Olney (from Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories, which I wrote about on February 21, 2008): “Both the French Menu Cookbook and Simple French Food are classics and compulsory reading for all. Methodic descriptions are told in such a gentle way that the result and taste of the final dish becomes perfectly obvious to the reader. He nudges you along so that you get it right.”
I happen to agree with Hopkinson about Olney’s writing, but I know some folks who can’t stand Olney’s work. It’s true that he was not the easiest person to be around. His vast knowledge of food and wine was intimidating, and the stench of the ubiquitous Gauloises could be nauseating to those of us who don’t smoke. But I prefer his work to Julia Child’s, and his egg poaching technique is flawless. In Simple French Food he wrote, “There is a puzzling cluster of rules surrounding the poaching of an egg,” most of which he totally ignored, declaring, “The freshness is of primordial importance…. Water kept at a simmer toughens the underside of the egg and encourages its sticking to the bottom of the pan; vinegar flavors the egg [though Olney and I usually add a teaspoon or two to the poaching water]; … breaking an egg first into a saucer only encourages the spreading of an unfresh white, dirties a dish, and is a waste of time, encouraging greater separation in the time that the eggs will be cooked;” and, “tired old eggs should really be relegated to pastry-making…or to the garbage pail.
“Use the largest low-sided receptacle that you have…. The larger the quantity of water, the less heat loss is involved..; don’t try to poach more than 4 eggs at a time…. Bring the water to a rolling boil, turn the fire off, and break in the eggs, one after another,…opening the shell only at the water’s surface, permitting the contents to slip softly in. Cover and count 3 minutes — but don’t depend on your timer; check and remove with a large, flat slotted skimming spoon as soon as the white is obviously sufficiently coagulated to be easily handled. Large or very fresh eggs may have to be left for as long as four minutes.
To be served cold, transfer to a shallow pan of cold water and later to a damp towel for paring and draining. To be served hot, remove directly to a damp towel for paring or, if not to be used immediately, transfer to a pan of warm water until ready for use.”
I have poached eggs in many ways, and this works best for me. However, in my heavily edited version of Olney’s instructions above, I have left out many of his explanatory asides. I highly recommend all of his books, though I don’t necessarily follow all his instructions. (For example, I’m not one to trim my eggs, as you can see from the photo, above.)
Adams County is both apple and corn country, and at every turn of the winding country roads, it seems there were orchards and cornfields ready to be picked. On Saturday we took a leisurely drive through the countryside and into Gettysburg, swarming with tourists, and marvelled at the tidy yards and charming vernacular architecture of the German settlers in the area.
No building is more dramatic than the Historic Round Barn, with its farm market, where we bought Amish noodles and seedless Concord grapes, just-picked green beans, country ham, and fresh dairy products. If you find yourself in the area, don’t miss the barn, and, while you’re there, be sure to climb the stairs to see the stunning loft, where they host occasional musical events. It would be a great setting for a wedding.
There was definitely a hint of fall in the air, and the markets were filled with decorative corn and a staggering variety of apples. We ate Dairy Queen soft serves and roadside hot dogs, and slept like logs with the windows open to the cool air of the foothills. I spent a good deal of time in the cellar, cataloguing wines.
I couldn’t resist opening some of the legendary 1990
Burgundy!!! What better way to help ease summer (and all those light ros?s we’ve been drinking) out the door, and to welcome fall?
The arrival Sunday morning of a rafter of wild turkeys, complete with a tom, a hen, and a half dozen poults, was the icing on the cake of a perfect weekend in the country.
September 3, 2009 Season’s End and Truly Local Fare
When the jalape?os and cayennes start turning red before the tomatoes, I know it’s time to harvest them all. I’m not talking about canning quarts of tomatoes: I live in the city, and have a couple of plants in pots on my stoop and on my deck. In the photo you can see my haul: A pound of patio tomatoes and a half pound of peppers.
Homemade Tomato Hot Sauce
I cut off the stem ends of the fruits and added them to the work bowl of a food processor, with a cup of cut-up onion. I pur?ed the mixture and measured it to find I had exactly three cups. I added 1-1/2 cups of vinegar and 2 teaspoons of salt to the mix in a stainless steel pot and boiled it, covered, for 20 minutes. I then strained it through my finest mesh sieve and poured the mix into sterilized jars. I assume there’s enough acidity for this to store well, but I’ll keep it in the fridge anyway.
I’ll keep you posted on how it does. I’m sure there will be pulp settling to the bottom, which I could have fixed, the way most commercial producers of hot sauce do, with guar gum or perhaps with corn starch. But I won’t mind shaking the bottle before I use it. It tastes great!
Makes 3 cups.
I’ve always done most of my serious cooking in the summer, when local foods are in season. The peaches with fragrant roses (below) that I prepared last night (and also exactly a year ago) are indicative of how I eat. Rare is the day that I head to the grocer with a list of ingredients, anticipating preparing a dish or two without knowing if the ingredients will be available. For as long as I can remember, I have shopped first, then planned my meals. If the spinach looks good and my body yearns for it when I see it, I buy it. And it’s the same for fish, fruits, meats, and poultry. I also preserve many foods, as this blog has documented innumerable times with recipes and photos of the preparation of jams and jellies and marmalades and relishes, pickles, liqueurs, chutneys, and vinegars.
A few years ago I spoke at the Carolina Lowcountry and Caribbean Cuisine Conference in Charleston, sponsored by the interdiscplinary and intercollegiate CLAW (Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic Connections) program. At the conference, I spoke about the traditional foods of the lowcountry and how they had come to be, citing historical, archaeological, agricultural, geographical, meterological, cultural, and demographic sources, as well as my own personal experience. It was a version of a speech I’ve given many times before, but, inspired by the following calendar, I also added my own personal synopsis of my culinary year. My “lowcountry culinary calendar” was a big hit at the conference, and I’ve been asked many times to publish it. Several computer crashes later, I’ve not yet found the data as I presented it at that conference, but I am determined to recreate it, even though I haven’t lived down there in five years, and my urban existence here in Washington is very different.
The chart above was assembled by the lowcountry’s great 19th-century botanist and mycologist, Henry William Ravenel, who lived north of Charleston on his Northampton plantation. It appeared as the frontispiece to the 1852 edition of The Southern Farmer and Market Gardener by Francis S. Holmes, first published in 1842. The note at the bottom of the “calendar” explains: “Above the names of the months, and on the exterior of the circle, are the names of Vegetables to be planted during these months. Beneath the names of months, and in the interior of the circle, are the Vegetables which should be fit for use during these months.
I’ll try to reassemble my own calendar and post it online.
Ravenel studied cryptogams, an obsolete classification of plants which included the algae, lichens, mosses, and ferns. He also published the first written treatise on American mushrooms. Born on Pooshee Plantation, first built by his Huguenot forebears in 1716, he later moved to Northampton, where he assembled his mycological collection. Both of the plantations were submerged when a huge hydroelectric dam was built, flodding the area.
I always think of Ravenel and his mushrooms at this time of year, when the rains begin in the lowcountry and the chanterelles pop up under the old oak alleys of the plantations. I’m reminded that some Canadians have learned how to cultivate chanterelles and I found them at Costco last fall. I’ll have to go check them out!
Here’s an update of what I wrote in Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking:
When Henry William Ravenel published his findings on the fungi and lichens of South Carolina in the 1850s, it was the first written treatise on American mushrooms. But early cookery manuscripts and published works found in the papers of Lowcountry families had long referred to mushroom cookery — stewed, pickled, put up in catsups, and dried. The earthen flavors of fungi, esteemed in both France and England whence came so many Carolina settlers, married well with the poultry and rice dishes of the area, and complemented the game of the plantations. Sarah Rutledge included a “German receipt” for a mushroom soup in her 1847 CAROLINA HOUSEWIFE, as well as a white fricassee of the fungi. In the Lowcountry, mushrooms mean chanterelles.
When the rains of August and September come to the Lowcountry, coupled with the longer, cooler nights, chanterelles pop up under stately oaks, dotting lawns with splashes of their bright apricot color. Hampton Park is the former site of the South Carolina Interstate and West Indian Exposition that took place in 1901-1902 to attract tourism and business to the state by showing off its peculiar resources. Built north of the city on the site of a private horse track, the Exposition — really a “World’s Fair” – was meant to inject some spark into an economy still crippled from the Civil War and Reconstruction. The Carolina Rice Cookbook was a favored souvenir. The park, which was filled with chanterelles prior to 1989′s Hurricane Hugo, is now surrounded by an inner city suburb, with houses built in the first half of the century.
If you take mushrooms from the wild, please be responsible when you do so. In Charleston, I knew of several places such as Hampton Park that provided several fanatics such as me with plenty of the distinctive fungi for years, but I also knew areas where sources were depleted by the greedy. A pocket or paring knife or a pair of very sharp scissors should be used to snip the mushrooms off at ground level, so that genetic information is left behind for next year’s crop. Leave the smaller mushrooms and extremely dirty ones behind. And take only what you yourself will use. In South Carolina it is illegal to sell natural items from the wild without a license, and with good reason. If local chanterelles were to be sold in restaurants, local supplies would quickly be depleted by the millions of tourists that come to Charleston each year.
Given the sandy soil, it is hard to find local chanterelles that are not without grit; but no mushroom benefits from coming in contact with water. When I lived in Charleston, I used to visit the Hill family at Middleburg Plantation out on the Cooper River, and look for the fungi on the vast lawns that spread out under the towering old live oak trees. Mushrooms that crop up through thick grass will not be sandy. The Hills’ “next-door neighbor,” Mary Huguenin, lived at her Halidon Hill Plantation for sixty years. Her lawn, too, was covered with chanterelles; she, her daughter Vereen and I have picked a half-bushel in less than half an hour, while talking about the making of the famous Junior League cookbook, CHARLESTON RECEIPTS, for which Mrs. Huguenin was largely responsible.
If your chanterelles are dirty, try brushing the gill-like crevices with a pastry or mushrooom brush to remove any dirt; or place the mushrooms on a screen outdoors and spray them with the finest mist from your garden hose. As a last resort, wash them quickly under running water, being sure to let them drain from a rack, and lightly patting them dry before using them.
The delicate, fruity flavor of chanterelles deserves to be featured by itself. Saut? some onions in butter until they just begin to clear, then add the chanterelles, with the tiniest bit of salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. Cook them fairly slowly, but thoroughly, until almost all of their liquid has left them. Serve them up on toast or add them to scrambled eggs or an omelet at breakfast. Serve them, again, on toast or in a pastry shell as an appetizer. Or top a main dish of poultry or veal with the delicate beauties. You may add some cream or a little sherry to the mushrooms if you wish — or port when coupled with game, but the simpler preparation is traditional in the Lowcountry.
Other edible species of mushrooms such as field mushrooms (an Agaric not unlike the cultivated variety at every American grocery store), puffballs, and morels grow in the Lowcountry and have graced the tables of the knowing for over two hundred years, but their growth is too sporadic and unpredictable for them to be considered real Lowcountry fare. When the field mushrooms would crop up in our yard, my mother would send me out to pick the handsome giants for our table. They were invariably simply prepared — saut?ed in butter and added to an omelet or sliced raw and added to a spinach and bacon salad, then topped with a soft-boiled egg.
If the mushrooms you gather are simply too gritty to be saut?ed and served simply as above, you may grind them thoroughly in a food processor and put them in a heavy pot over a low flame to extract the liquid. Add sticks of butter to the mushrooms as you would for a shellfish butter, cooking the fungi very slowly so that the flavor is infused into the butter. When all of the liquid has cooked out of the mushrooms, drain the mixture through a fine sieve, pushing to release the flavorful last bits of juice. Refrigerate the mixture overnight, then remove the congealed mushroom butter from the surface of the mixture the next day. A little spoonful of mushroom butter added to a sauce for meats or pasta can be stunning. Wrap well what you don’t plan to use within the week, and freeze for use later.
One of the most amazing flavors I know comes from combining this chanterelle butter with Bourbon. Put a little of this chanterelle butter in a hot pan, melt it, then add some nice steaks, seasoned with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Sear the steaks on both sides and continue cooking until they are done to your liking. Remove the steaks and set them on a warm platter then add some Bourbon to the pan to deglaze, scraping up any little bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Stir it all together well, then ignite the Bourbon to burn off the alcohol. Pour over the steaks and serve immediately. I jokingly call this fake pecan butter, using what most people would consider a luxury to imitate another ingredient taken for granted in the Lowcountry.
I should note that unless you are absolutely sure of the identity of a wild mushroom, of course you should not eat it.
September 2, 2009 The Romance of the rare, but familiar
Mikel’s been in Vicksburg, Mississippi, for the opening of the new NCCC campus there. Before he even left to head down there, he asked for a steak upon his return. We rarely eat steaks, but I bought some beautiful, thick prime rib eyes and planned the meal around them. I cooked potatoes in salarque, the dregs that remain in the bottom of a duck confit pot (see January 29), then whisked in a spoonful of sour cream as I mashed them. We had a simple spinach salad alongside the steaks, then, for dessert, the Peaches Aswim in Rose Petals that I prepared exactly a year ago on September 2, 2008. If you grow fragrant roses, and don’t spray them, I cannot steer you towards a lovelier dish for this time of year, when peaches are in season. It’s amazing how the sugar syrup tastes exactly the way the roses smell. I used our beloved Papa Meilland red roses for the syrup and the spicy-sweet pink Abraham Darby petals for the garnish. The little almond-like chunks scattered in the dish are the chopped inner kernels from the pits. Though we have only had this dish once before, it became one of our favorites of all time. It’s absolutely unforgettable. And it’s quite simple to make. The recipe appeared on the blog a year ago, but it’s also easy to prepare for two, so I’m repeating it here for those romantic couples out there with fragrant roses and peaches available.
Peaches with Fragrant Roses for Two
2 fragrant, unsprayed red roses
a fragrant leaf of your choice, such as lemon verbena or scented geranium (optional), or a 1-inch piece of
candied ginger (optional)
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 fresh peaches
1 fragrant, unsprayed pink rose
Remove the petals from the roses and tie them in cheesecloth with the fragrant leaf or ginger (if using). Bring the sugar and water to a boil in the smallest pot you have that will hold the peaches. Add the petal package and allow to simmer for 5 minutes. Add the lemon juice, remove from the heat, cover the pot, and allow to steep for 10 minutes.
In the meantime, peel the peaches by placing them down in boiling water for a moment. Halve them, saving the pits. Remove the almond-like kernels from within the pits. This is probably best done outdoors, wrapping the pit in a rag and tapping it with a hammer until it cracks.
Squeeze all of the juice you possibly can out of the petal package into the pot, then discard. Add the peaches and the kernels and cook slowly, covered, until the peaches are soft and easily pierced with a knife, but not falling apart. Remove the kernels and set aside. Place the peach halves in bowls and drizzle with the syrup. Peel the kernels, chop them, and add them to the dish. Set aside at room temperature until ready to serve.
September 1, 2009 An early fall
If the past two days are any indication, we’ve got an early fall on our hands. It has already dipped into the fifties here in the Mid-Atlantic, and at midday, it’s still in the mid-sixties! On the way home from the Eastern Shore of Maryland this weekend, we noticed some leaves already turning. I hope it warms up enough for our pool party coming up on the 12th. Be sure to take a look at the New York Times Sunday Magazine that weekend as well, as Amanda Hesser has written her Recipe Redux column about Charleston’s misbegotten Huguenot Torte, quoting my culinary research from the 80s in which I debunked the city’s claim to the dessert. (I wrote about this on the blog on February 10, 2008.)
I am surprised that this old saw is being revisited yet again, since I published my claims in Charleston’s monthly Omnibus well over 20 years ago, and John Egerton then wrote about my research in his nationally syndicated column, which was then again published in his collection called Side Orders in 1990, and again in The New Great American Writers Cookbook in 2003. In her column, Hesser revisits recipes previously published in the Times, this time Craig Claiborne’s version of the Huguenot Torte, which was first published in Charleston Receipts in 1950. Claiborne may have brought many southern dishes to the rest of the nation’s attention, but he was a notoriously poor historian. My favorite quote of his, referring to sesame seeds, which came to America with the slave trade from West Africa, was that they arrived here “perhaps in the pockets of the hapless passengers.” I’ve always been amazed by shoddy history, but even more so by poor editing. Who let Claiborne imply that the enslaved might have said, “Quick! Before we leave for the promised land! Let’s gather some seeds to take with us! We’ll hide them in our pockets!” Never mind that they were naked and in chains.
But I learned from the lessons of Karen Hess that you cannot disparage America’s culinary heroes, even if you use their own words to do so. Their fans don’t want to hear that Claiborne or Child or Beard might have had faults in their work. The adulation paid our celebrities is all but religious in its fervor. When I was recently shocked to hear Berry Gordy calling Michael Jackson “the greatest entertainer of all time,” I said so in front of some friends, who, to my amazement, agreed with Gordy! “Did you ever see James Brown or Ella Fitzgerald or Louis Armstrong or Edward Villella perform?” I asked.
“No, but … ”
At the shore, I picked yet again more figs. This time I made jam. I’ll post the recipe later. Ari Shapiro and I went to eat the delicious gelato at Pitango on Sunday, and he gave me some grapes, pictured above (I’m reasonably sure they are Catawbas), and some pears, from his back yard. I made grape sorbet (recipe appeared on May 7, 2008) and chutney with the pears (recipe on December 17, 2007).
I have no idea which variety the pears might be, as there are hundreds, but I will also saut? them tonight with a little onion and cabbage to serve alongside meatloaf.
Today I’ll be making hot sauce with the last of the tomatoes and peppers growing on my stoop and deck.
5 pounds just-picked southern figs
6 cups sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice
Pour boiling water over the figs and let them rest for 10 minutes. Rinse well, stem the figs, and crush them. (I used a food mill.) You should have 2 quarts of fresh figs. If not, adjust the amount of sugar accordingly.
Put the figs and sugar and in large, heavy pot and slowly bring to a boil, stirring occasionally so that the sugar dissolves and nothing sticks to the bottom. Allow the figs to cook at a low boil, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is very thick and has reached the jelling point. (The jam will drop from the spoon in a sheet instead of droplets. You can also take the mixture to exactly 8 degrees above the boiling point, but be sure to measure that temperature with your thermometer and go from there.)
If you see rafts of seeds or foam gathering on the surface, you can remove them if you like, but they will not affect the taste of the jam, though the quality will be finer. It will take about an hour for the jam to cook. Pour into hot, sterilized jars, leaving a 1/2″ of head room. Put new caps on the jars, add rings, and process for 15 minutes in a boiling water bath.
Makes about 5 pints.
P.S. September 7, 2009 This is a perfectly good, and traditional, jam, but, upon tasting it this morning, with a lazy Labor Day breakfast, I was wanting more “oomph,” so I’m going to take the jam out of the jars and re-sterilize them, add some canned pineapple and peeled and thinly sliced lemon to the jam, and cook it awhile until it again reaches the jelling point. That’s how Mama made it, and I always loved hers.
Vegetables from the Garden
There were so many vegetables to harvest from our friends’ garden this weekend that it seemed a shame not to make a totally vegetarian feast. We began with the watermelon and blue cheese salad I described at the end of August, and moved on to the corn pasta lasagne with fresh mozzarella and salsa (recipe on the same page with the melon). I wasn’t about not to use the gorgeous eggplant, peppers, tomatoes and beans (see photo), so I made two side dishes — one, an eggplant salad, and the other, a Sicilian-style tomato braise into which cooked beans are tossed at the last minute. Because we had two kinds of beans — a string bean and a pole bean which was tougher, I stringed the pole beans and cooked them first, then added the more tender green beans, cooking them both until they were al dente. In the meantime, I cooked some onion in olive oil, added some peeled and chopped tomatoes, and let them saut? until almost all of the liquid was gone. I then added a good splash of red wine, some chopped garlic and fresh herbs from the garden, a handful of golden raisins, and some hot pepper flakes and salt and pepper. I covered the pot and let it braise until I was ready to add the blanched beans and a heaping spoonful of pine nuts. It was delicious. See photo below of Sicilian Beans.
Perhaps even more delicious was the
I peeled the eggplant and cut it up into bitesize pieces which I then salted heavily and placed in a sieve to drain for an hour. I then wiped the the eggplant as dry as I could and laid it out on a baking sheet and placed it in the oven about 8 inches from the broiler. As the eggplant just began to brown, I drizzled it with a very small amount of extra virgin olive oil, tossing it around and spreading it out on the baking sheet. I moved the tray to 4 inches from the broiler and continued to cook it, tossing it occasionally so that it browned evenly, until it was fully cooked but not so soft that the chunks lost their shape. I set them aside to cool completely. I then added a teaspoon of sugar to balsamic vinegar, warming it until the sugar dissolved, then sprinkled the vinegar over the eggplant in a bowl, tossing it to distribute it evenly. Just before serving, I added a bit more oil and some cut up basil leaves. Mint is traditional, but since I served mint with the melon, I wanted the eggplant to have another flavor. The eggplant was the surprise hit of the evening.