Recipes and Stories

26 May 2011 History Flambéed

May 26, 2011

Tags: Historical Cooking, Blueberries, Cherries Jubilee, Flambe

Everyone knows the old adage that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. In food history, the more likely adage is that those who don’t know history are doomed to think they’ve invented something that has been around for centuries.

Let’s face it, except possibly for that extremely silly restaurant fad for “deconstructed” food, there is very little about cooking that is really new, and most of the things that actually are new are built on an idea or a technique that has been around for a very long time—at least, anything that has legs and substance.

Those who know my first cookbook, Classical Southern Cooking, and subsequent work as a developer of historical recipes, presume that stepping into my kitchen is like time travel. They’re always shocked to find jars of marinara in my pantry. But while my work and my heart may be involved in the past, the rest of me lives right here in the present.

A solid grasp of food history is not a culinary straight jacket. In fact, it can be wonderfully liberating: the more one knows about the cooking of the past, the less one has to think in the present. Techniques and ideas flow organically from one’s subconscious without a lot of taxing the imagination to be clever.

For example, a knowledge of that wonderful old flambéed dessert, Cherries Jubilee, made it easy to parlay a half-pint of blueberries in the fruit bin of the refrigerator into a quick dessert on a warm spring night. It was nothing new, just a very old idea and technique logically applied to another round fruit that would roll easily in the pan.

I like to think that Annabella Hill, Mary Randolph, and Lettice Bryan would have enjoyed it, but can promise you this: they lived in the real world of their own time, with a solid understanding of their own culinary past. They wouldn’t have thought there was anything especially clever or inventive about it.

Blueberries with Grand Marnier
Part of the charm of Cherries Jubilee is the pyrotechnical show: it’s done tableside in a chafing dish and the fruit is ladled over the ice cream while it’s still flaming, but it tastes better when the alcohol is fully burned off, so I always let the flame die completely.
Serves 2

2-4 scoops vanilla ice cream
1½ tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup blueberries, rinsed well and picked over for stems
1-2 tablespoons sugar
Ground cinnamon in a shaker
Whole black pepper in a mill
A generous splash (about 2 tablespoons) Grand Marnier

1. Have the all the ingredients ready and put the ice cream into serving bowls. Melt the butter over medium high heat in a 9-10 inch skillet or sauté pan. Add the blueberries and shake the pan to coat them with butter. Sprinkle with sugar to taste, a couple of light dashes of cinnamon, and a light dash of black pepper (about 1 light twist of the mill).

2. Sauté, shaking the pan constantly, until the berries begin to shed juice into the butter and the sugar is dissolved, about a minute. Pour in the Grand Marnier and standing well clear, ignite it. Continue to shake the pan, rolling the berries, until the flames go out. Turn off the heat, pour the berries over the ice cream, and serve at once.

22 May 2011_History in the Hands of Clever Reporters

May 22, 2011

Tags: Thomas Jefferson, Julia Child, Mary Randolph, Historical Southern Cooking, Mushrooms, Monticello, Classic French Cooking

One of the vagaries of having published a cookbook that involves a famous historical figure is that one will eventually have to talk to reporters about that figure.

Now, having worked as a journalist myself, let me quickly say that I have every respect for those whose job it is to pave our glutted information highway. Our society is inordinately curious about celebrity, down to the most tediously boring detail of their lives, and someone, I suppose, has to satisfy that curiosity.

Witness the recently published private correspondence between Julia Child and her friend Avis DeVoto, which has been my bedtime reading over the last few weeks. At best, about a quarter of these letters are interesting to cooks and culinary historians, chronicling as they do Child’s growth as a cook and teacher and the development of her masterpiece, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The rest of it is, even for historians, about as interesting as watching paint peel.

Is what Mrs. Child thought of Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover really important? Not really, no. But because she was famous, someone thinks it ought to be.

Well, regardless of that, the historian who compiled and edited these letters at the very least maintained a healthy respect not only for both these women’s privacy but also for the truth. Unhappily, not all journalists take that much care.

For many of them, being clever, it seems, is more important than being factual.

Recently, because of my work as recipe developer for Dining at Monticello, a collection of essays and recipes that chronicle the food culture at Thomas Jefferson’s beloved home, I spoke on the subject at a nearby public library.

The following day, the local paper published an on-line video about the event that was introduced by a young woman who reported that Jefferson was not only a founding father and author of the Declaration of Independence, he was “also a very good cook.”

Clearly she did not hear my lecture, and subscribed to the time-honored Southern theory that facts should never be allowed to interfere with a good line.

Now, Jefferson was a lot of things, but he was no cook. Those were, in fact, just about the first words out of my mouth that evening. Yes, he’s an almost iconic figure in American culinary history, right up there with Mrs. Child, but unlike that lady, it is not because he mastered the art of French cooking—or, for that matter, any other kind.

He didn’t even know how to cook in theory, and never so much as lifted a pan, turned a spit, or cracked an egg. Jefferson was a gentleman farmer, and men like that simply didn’t do such things back then. Oh, to be sure, there were male cooks, even in the kitchen at Monticello, but he wasn’t one of them.

What set Jefferson apart for us was not his active participation but his catholic curiosity. While he was not the only man in his position to care about the quality of his table, he was the only one who cared enough to find out how a thing was done, and to copy out that how for those whose job it was to actually do it.

Unfortunately, he knew so little of actual culinary practice that he would often get the method hopelessly wrong. Luckily, his cousin (and daughter’s sister-in-law), Mary Randolph had a knowledge of cookery that went well beyond theoretical. She made sense out of Jefferson’s culinary scribbles in her lovely cookbook, The Virginia House-wife, published just two years before Jefferson died.

Were it not for Mrs. Randolph, my job translating the recipes that survive in Jefferson’s hand would have been a challenge. One can only imagine the hilarity with which that lady would have met our intrepid reporter’s pronouncement.

Well, what else could I do but follow Mrs. Randolph’s lead, laugh it off, and head back to the kitchen, where I happened to have some fresh, locally grown shiitake mushrooms and a pint of premium 40 % milkfat cream from a local organic dairy.

While it was not the season for the common field mushrooms that Mrs. Randolph used, nor are shiitake found in Virginia, even among the horticultural curiosities at Monticello, I still looked to her exquisitely simple recipe for inspiration.

Stewed Mushrooms.

Gather grown mushrooms, but such as are young enough to have red gills; cut off the part of the stem which grew in the earth, wash them carefully and take the skin from the top; put them into a stew-pan with some salt, but no water, stew them till tender, and thicken them with a spoonful of butter mixed with one of brown flour; red wine may be added, but the flavour of the mushroom is too delicious to require aid from any thing.

— Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife, 1824.

It was the perfect foil for misunderstood history, but it wasn’t, unfortunately, the perfect recipe for wood mushrooms like shiitake. In keeping with the spirit of her cooking, Jefferson’s fondness for French style, and perhaps because I’ve been reading about Julia Child, I instead got out a sauté pan and made

Sautéed Shiitake Mushrooms with Cream
Serves 4

¾ pound Shiitake mushrooms
¼ cup minced shallot
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
¼ cup heavy cream
4 thick slices buttered and toasted baguette

1. Clean the shiitake, cut off their tough stems and thickly slice them.
2. Put the shallot, butter, and olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat and sauté, tossing often, until golden, about 5 minutes.
3. Raise the heat to medium high and add the shiitake, quickly tossing them so that they evenly absorb the butter. Like most mushrooms, they will immediately suck up the butter, but after they’re thoroughly heated, will release it once more into the pan. Sauté, tossing almost constantly, until they are wilted and coloring, about 4 minutes.
4. Splash in the cream and let it lightly thickened, about a minute more. Season liberally with salt and pepper, turn off the heat, and immediately pour them over the buttered toast.

10 May 2011: Fava alla Randolph

May 11, 2011

Tags: Classic Italian Cooking, Historical Southern Cooking, Fava Beans, Mary Randolph

One of the amusing things about our modern “foodie” culture is all the posturing about how much more worldly and smart today’s cooks are than those of the past.

Anyone who has ever attempted classical French cooking (or any other kind, for that matter) on an open hearth knows better. An open fire requires a level of wisdom and skill that today’s motor-driven cooks, dependent as they are on thermostatically controlled ranges, electric food processors, and high-speed hand blenders, simply don’t have.

What’s more, all the dishes and foodstuffs that so many of these so-called “foodies” think they’ve only recently discovered have been around for a long time, and I don’t mean the obvious, in their countries of origin: I mean right here in River City.

Just take a casual dip into the cookbook that is widely believed to be the first penned by a Southerner, The Virginia House-wife. Within the pages of this lovely book, published almost two hundred years ago by Thomas Jefferson’s cousin, Mary Randolph, you’ll find such wonders as raspberry and herb vinegars, gazpacho, polenta, Spanish Olla and Ropa Veija, seviche (she spelled it “caveach”), classic French cooking, authentic homemade egg pasta, and fava beans.

That last masqueraded under an archaic name, “Mazagan” beans, but they’re fava all right—

“Mazagan Beans.

This is the smallest and most delicate species of the Windsor bean. Gather them in the morning, when they are full-grown, but quite young, and do not shell them till you are going to dress them. Put them into boiling water, have a small bit of middling, (flitch,) of bacon, well boiled, take the skin off, cover it with bread crumbs, and toast it; lay this in the middle of the dish, drain all the water from the beans, put a little butter on them, and pour them round the bacon.”

— Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife, 1824

Windsor bean is (or was) the common English name for fava. Lest you think she didn’t really know about these staples of Mediterranean gardens, she continues—

“When the large Windsor beans are used, it is best to put them into boiling water until the skins will slip off, and then make them into a puree as directed for turnips—they are very coarse when plainly dressed.”

There you are, a fava puree just like the one that was recently published in one of our trendy food magazines.

Mrs. Randolph’s recipe with “middling, (flitch,) of bacon,” (salt-cured side meat), has a lot in common with the Roman way with these beans, known outside the city as “alla romana” but within it as “alla guanciale,” salt-cured pork jowl.

All this comes to mind because there were lovely fresh fava in the produce bins at my neighborhood natural food store. They were so young and beautiful that the first handful were shelled, dipped in sea salt, and eaten raw, as Romans do when these wonders first come into season. For the rest, we were alas fresh out of salt-cured pork jowl, the country ham stash in the freezer was way past usefulness for anything but shoe sole repair, and there wasn’t a scrap of middling to be had without going out again.

Ah, but a perusal of the spice cabinet turned up a precious little tin of Virginia Willis’s pecan-wood smoked sea salt. The results were—

Fava (not quite) alla Romana
Or Middling-less Mazagan Beans
Serves 4

3 pounds of fresh unshelled Windsor (fava) beans
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small shallot, trimmed, peeled, and minced
1 medium clove garlic, lightly crushed and peeled, but left whole
Pecan or hickory smoked sea salt, or kosher salt
Whole black pepper in a mill

1. Shell the beans and rinse under cold running water. Put the butter and shallot in a wide, lidded sauté pan or skillet over medium heat. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until the shallot is translucent and beginning to color, about 4 to 5 minutes.

2. Add the garlic and continue sautéing until it is beginning to color on the edges. Add the beans and season well with smoked salt (or plain salt) and pepper, both to taste. Add enough water to barely cover the beans, bring it to a boil, then cover and reduce the heat to low. Simmer gently until tender, between 6 and 15 minutes depending on the age and size of the beans.

3. If the liquid remaining in the pan is still thin, uncover, raise the heat, and quickly evaporate it to a thick sauce. Turn off the heat, shake the pan to evenly coat the beans with the sauce, and serve immediately.