Recipes and Stories

31 October 2011: Pasta al Forno and Macaroni Pie

October 31, 2011

Tags: Pasta, Macaroni, Classic Italian Cooking, Classic Southern Cooking, Marcella Hazan

Macaroni Pie, or Southern-style Pasta al Forno, photographed by John Carrington
Recently, Italian cooking authority Marcella Hazan published a thought-provoking essay called “. . . and then you do something more.” Her attention had been caught by a “creative” blogging cook’s overwrought rendition of a Bolognese classic, pork loin braised in milk. To the perfectly balanced quintet of the original dish (pork, milk, butter, salt, and pepper), the blogger had added enough garlic to fumigate lower Manhattan, at least three herbs, lemon zest, and, for reasons that completely elude this cook, olive oil.

Aptly calling the result “an acute case of culinary vandalism,” Sa. Hazan took the opportunity to remind us that cooking is a craft, and within that craft, a little creativity—like spice—goes a very long way and should never be allowed to take over and run amok.

“We should be spending our time as cooks,” she concluded, “in understanding, practicing, perfecting, and respecting a craft that is essential to our survival. We ought not to be distracted by trends, lured by fashion, obsessed by the pursuit of originality. These are not directly linked to the pleasure that well-crafted food brings.”

This came sharply home a day or two later, when I was putting together my contribution for a potluck party, a dish of baked pasta that was in my childhood simply called macaroni pie. Beneath its euphemistic name, when properly executed this Southern classic follows in the best tradition of Italian baked pasta: all it requires is good macaroni, the best cheese that can be had, and a little care with the craft.

The macaroni was good-quality Italian pasta, the cheese, a Vermont cheddar that, while it would have fallen far short of my grandfather’s standards, was still nothing to sneeze at. And there was a bit of Parmigiano-Reggiano on hand to make up for its minor shortcomings. Yet, suddenly, making it the usual way seemed unimpressively simple. Maybe if I added little cubes of browned bacon, with perhaps a couple of onions caramelized in the bacon fat, and some sage . . . or rosemary . . .

I got as far as opening the refrigerator door, but before my hand laid hold of the bacon, almost as if she had actually been there, watching and reading my thoughts, Marcella’s voice came sharply to my mind's ear: stop fooling around and just make it properly. Yes, ma’am.

The dish came back home scraped so clean that it barely needed washing.

Macaroni Pie

In parts of the South, a simple egg and milk custard replaces the cream that’s used here (about 2-3 eggs, depending on size, for the same volume of milk). In other places, the binder is bechamel, just as it is in Italy. My grandfather’s version, following an old North Georgia tradition that had English roots, was plain milk, with saltine crackers distributed among the macaroni as a thickener.

But however they’re bound together, the critical ingredients here are pasta and cheese: at the risk of being tediously redundant, so long as those two things are first rate, they don’t need help, and if they aren’t good, or if you’re a bit careless with the execution, the dish doesn’t have a prayer no matter what you add—and that’s all there is to it.

Serves 6

Salt
1 pound elbow macaroni
3 cups heavy cream
12 ounces (¾ pound) well-aged extra-sharp cheddar, coarsely grated
½ cup (about 2 ounces) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Whole black pepper in a mill

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375° F. Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil, toss in a small handful of salt, stir, and then slowly add the macaroni, stirring. Let it come back to a boil, adjust the temperature to a steady but not rapid boil, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Meanwhile, butter a 2-to-3-quart casserole. Just before draining the pasta, take up and reserve about a quarter of a cup of the starchy cooking liquid.

2. Drain the pasta and turn it into the casserole. Add a few spoonfuls of the reserved cooking liquid (just enough to make it seem glossy and moist—you may not need it all), the cream, and toss until the pasta is coated. Add most of the cheddar, holding back about half a cup, half the Parmigiano, and a light sprinkle of salt and pepper. Quickly toss until the cheese is evenly distributed. Smooth the top and sprinkle the remaining cheeses over it. Generously grind pepper over it and bake in the center of the oven until bubbly in the middle and golden brown. Let rest 5-10 minutes before serving.

28 October 2011: Mexican Bourbon Vanilla Extract, Day 3

October 28, 2011

Tags: Mexican Vanilla, Vanilla, Homemade Vanilla Extract

Bourbon Mexican Vanilla Extract, Day 3: the bourbon is now drinking in some of the vanilla's rich color and is several shades darker
The third day: the bottle has been kept in a cool, dark place, and has been shaken once daily. Already the color is deeper, richer, especially toward the bottom of the bottle. I won't open until it's ready to use, but the fragrance of the vanilla will already be conquering the sharp bite of the alcohol.

26 October 2011: Mexican Vanilla

October 26, 2011

Tags: Mexican Vanilla, Bourbon, Southern Cooking, Classical Southern Cooking, Baking

Bourbon Mexican Vanilla Extract, day one: the liquid is still pale and clear.
One of the most enduringly popular spices in the baker’s pantry is vanilla, the bean or seedpod of a variety subtropical orchid native to the Western hemisphere. So many of our sweets and baked goods contain it that it’s hard to imagine what the broad repertory of European and North American baking and desserts would be without it.

It may, in fact, have become a little too popular, thanks to the proliferation of cheap imitation flavorings, which have made vanilla so commonplace that the very word has become a synonym for bland, predictable and boring.

There is nothing bland or boring about real vanilla, and nothing that can equal its heady, fragrant magic. And while its imitations may be had for next to nothing, the real thing is still exotic and expensive.

However, a single bean can be made to go a very long way by infusing it into an extract. There are quality commercial extracts available, but making your own is very simple and gives a lot of satisfaction, not to mention flavor, that money can’t buy. All it takes is a couple of first quality vanilla beans, some decent bourbon, and a little patience.

Some people use vodka or brandy, but I prefer the mellowness that bourbon lends. The most fragrant proportion is one bean for every quarter cup of alcohol, about half the alcohol usually called for in these infusions. You simply split the bean lengthwise, halve it, put it into a clean glass jar and cover it with the prescribed amount of booze. Seal and give it a vigorous shake, then put it in a cool dark cupboard that you’ll be going into every day. For the first week or two, give it a shake every day.

Homemade extract lasts a lot longer because you leave the beans in the brew, replacing the extract as it is used with the same quantity of alcohol. It’ll last you for a couple of years at the least. Once the flavor starts to weaken, use it up and start a new batch.

Though I have full bottle of bourbon infused with excellent Madagascar vanilla beans, there’s another new batch infusing in my pantry, thanks to friend Colleen Crislip, who came home from her last trip to Mexico with one of the loveliest gifts imaginable: a slim glass tube containing three supple, fragrant Mexican vanilla beans. One of the most aromatic vanillas in the world, they haven’t always been available to us north of the Rio Grande. They make the most fragrant extract imaginable, rich with hints of coconut and chocolate.

The photograph was taken yesterday, just after the bourbon was poured over the beans. As it matures during the next couple of weeks, I’ll share its progress.

19 October 2011: Tasting Authentic History

October 17, 2011

Tags: Classical Southern Cooking, Classic Southern Cooking, Chicken Kentuckian, Bourbon, Mushrooms, Authenticity in Historical Cookery, Chicken

Chicken Kentuckian on the sideboard of a late eighteenth century dining room. The silver belonged to Fr. Ralston. Photography by John Carrington
At the Association of Food Journalists’ conference in Charleston earlier this month, four of us participated in a panel about Gullah cooking, the cuisine of Lowcountry residents of mostly West African descent. The core of the panel was a pair of women who were Gullah, author and cultural anthropologist Vertamae Grosvenor and Chef Charlotte Jenkins; Jeff Allen and I rode shotgun as outsider journalist and historian on either side.

The main task was to define Gullah cooking and address whether or not its present incarnation was authentic.

During the question and answer period, a man lamented that Gullah culture had been entirely obliterated by twentieth century development of the barrier islands of Carolina and Georgia.

This even though two Gullah women were sitting right in front of him.

His remark, however, did bring the real issue into focus: it forced the acknowledgment that the discussion had been less about definitions and context than authenticity within the framework of history. Had the Gullah community ceased to exist because its people had changed and adapted to cultural encroachment, and was their cooking, both in the Lowcountry and in the diaspora, still “authentic” in the face of these cultural adaptations?

If you think on that for half a minute, you’ll answer yes, of course it is—as authentic as it was three hundred years ago when the West African slaves who founded this culture first adapted their rice based cuisines to incorporate new ingredients such as cornmeal, beans, and salt pork. To argue otherwise would be like arguing that Italian food has not been authentic since the sixteenth century, when chocolate, coffee, corn, beans, tomatoes, and zucchini were introduced from the New World.

The only constant in life is change. When confronted with that constant, civilizations have three choices: move, adapt, or die. A cuisine that adapts to the forces of change is simply following a natural continuum that began the day the first men and women learned that holding food over a fire did good things to it.

The history of cooking is not a series of contained plateaus ascending like stairs but a free-flowing river that picks things up along the way, has things thrown into it, and in turn tosses things onto its banks and leaves them behind.

The logical illustration of this would be something from a Gullah kitchen; but as Jeff obligingly pointed out to our audience (and as you will readily notice from my picture), Gullah cookery is not part of my heritage.

A dish that is a part of it, that has been on my mind ever since the season turned, is Chicken Kentuckian, a handsome sauté of young chickens basted with bourbon and finished with mushrooms and cream.

It came to me from my former minister, the late Rev. William H. Ralston. Its lineage in his Kentucky family goes back at least to his grandmother, who made it with the family’s young yard chickens, rough homemade whiskey, and mushrooms that had been gathered in nearby horse pastures.

Fr. Ralston used a chicken from the market, refined distillery-brewed whiskey, and white button mushrooms. Though I routinely use the same whiskey that he did, my original rendition added dried porcini mushrooms to lend the earthy depth of the wild mushrooms his grandmother used. In more than twenty years of making it, subtleties that I’m not even conscious of have crept into the pan, making it uniquely my own.

Which version is the most “authentic?” All of them are. No, Fr. Ralston’s probably was not quite like his mother’s and certainly not his grandmother’s, and mine is no longer quite like his, just as your interpretation will eventually become uniquely your own.

Will what you taste be what Fr. Ralston’s grandmother did a hundred years ago, or what he did a mere two decades ago, or even what I do today? No. But will you still be experiencing an authentic taste of history? You bet.

Chicken Kentuckian
Serves 6

2 young frying chickens, no more than 2½-3-pounds each, disjointed as for frying
Salt
½ cup all-purpose flour
8-10 large, wild mushrooms, sliced thick, or ½ pound crimini or portabella mushrooms
½ ounce dried boletus edulis mushrooms (porcini or cèpes), optional
¼ cup unsalted butter
1½ tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons chopped scallion
½ cup well-aged bourbon
1 cup heavy cream (minimum 36 percent milkfat)

1. Wash the chickens, pat dry, and spread them on a platter. Lightly dust with salt and flour. Wipe the fresh mushrooms with a dry cloth and slice them thickly. If using dried mushrooms, put them in a heatproof bowl, pour 1 cup of boiling water over them, and soak until cooled.

2. In a large, heavy skillet that will hold all the chicken without crowding, heat the butter and olive oil over low heat. Add the chicken and chopped scallions and sauté, turning frequently, until it is golden and tender, about half an hour. While it cooks, baste every few minutes with spoonfuls of the bourbon, being careful to add it in small amounts so there is never any liquid accumulated in the pan: it should sauté, not steam. When the chicken is cooked through and golden and all the bourbon has been used, remove it to a warm platter.

3. Turn up the heat to medium high. If using the dried mushrooms, lift them out of their soaking liquid, dipping to loosen any sand that is clinging to them, and put them in the pan. Filter the soaking water through a paper towel or coffee filter and add it to the pan. Bring to a boil, stirring frequently, and boil until all the liquid is evaporated. Add the fresh mushrooms and sauté, tossing constantly, until beginning to color, about 3 minutes.

4. Add the cream and scrape loose any residue that may be stuck to the skillet. Simmer until just heated through and starting to thicken, about 1-2 minutes, depending on the richness of the cream. Taste the sauce and correct the seasonings, pour it over the chicken, and serve at once.

2 October 2011 Oysters In Leek and Bourbon Cream

October 4, 2011

Tags: Oysters, Lowcountry Cooking, Classical Southern Cooking, La Toque

Oysters in Leek and Bourbon Cream. Photography by John Carrington
Recipes are a roadmap, not a destination.
My cooking students have heard this truism hundreds of times, but for rule-bound cooks, it really can’t be repeated often enough. For culinary historians, it is more than an invitation to color outside the lines: it’s a reminder that slavishly following the map is no guarantee of historical authenticity.
Sticking strictly to the bare bones of an eighteenth century recipe is no assurance that you are anywhere near eighteenth century cooking: just as singers in Mozart’s day were expected to ornament a song, cooks were expected to ornament a recipe.
In short, there’s nothing to be gained by making a recipe into a straitjacket.
Cooking is never static: ingredients change, the cook’s mood changes, and each of us brings an individual judgment to the pot that is a complicated mixture of experience, taste, prejudice, and the moment. There’s also the wildcard of outside influence.
While it’s usually a good idea not to ignore the map altogether, it’s also a mistake to deny individual instinct its proper place. If nothing else, it makes the trip more fun and often gives unexpected pleasure to the final destination.
Now that it’s oyster season again, one classic roadmap that’s on my mind and palate is creamed oysters. Whether they’re ladled straight from the pan over homey thick slabs of buttered toast or from a silver chafing dish into elegantly trimmed pastry cups, they’re a staple of Southern entertaining. Here in the Lowcountry, creamed oysters are the very essence of autumn’s table.
There are many traditional embellishments to this simple yet magical marriage of shellfish and cream: mushrooms, a scattering of green onions, or a splash of sherry, Worcestershire, or pepper sauce—all depending on where the oysters and the cook have come from, what’s in the pantry, and, often, who will be at the table.
Then there’s that wild card of outside influence. This wild care for my own creamed oysters is the influence of two very different cooks who by chance happened to work in the same place: a classic continental restaurant in downtown Savannah called La Toque. One of its signature specialties was escargots bathed in a luxurious sauce of leeks, brandy, and cream.
Conceived by the Swiss chef-owner in the classic French style, it underwent a startling and delicious transformation when a French-trained Vietnamese cook took over the kitchen and added ginger and garlic (and plenty of both) to the pan.
The restaurant is long gone, but I still dream about those escargots, and now, leeks, ginger, and whiskey have become an inseparable part of my creamed oysters. Now, these things are all familiar territory to Savannah cooks, and creamed oysters are kissing cousins to those escargots, but would a nineteenth century cook, lacking the influence of that Swiss and Vietnamese cook, have added them to the oyster chafing dish? It seems doubtful. But then again, since ginger, garlic and whiskey were all old hat to Savannah cooking, who is to say that they didn’t?
One thing is certain: no nineteenth century Savannahian would’ve thought them strange—and once you’ve tried it, you won’t, either.

Oysters in Leek and Bourbon Cream
Serves 4 as a first course, 2-3 as a main dish

1 pint shucked oysters
2 medium leeks, trimmed split lengthwise, and washed well
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large, or 2 medium cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and minced
2 quarter-sized slices fresh ginger root, peeled and minced
2 tablespoons bourbon
1 cup heavy cream
Salt and whole white pepper in a peppermill
8 small (2-inch diameter) Hoecakes (recipe follows)
1 tablespoon chopped parsley

1. Set a sieve over a stainless or glass bowl and pour the oysters into it. Drain for at least 10 minutes. Reserve the liquor (you can freeze what you don’t use and use it in recipes calling for fish stock). Thinly slice the white and most of the tender greens of the leeks.

2. Melt the butter in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium high heat. Add the leeks and sauté, tossing frequently, until wilted, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and continue sautéing until fragrant, about half a minute more. Add the bourbon and let it evaporate, then pour a cup of oyster liquor. Bring it to a boil and let it reduce slightly. Add the cream and bring it to a boil. Cook 2 to 3 minutes or until it is a little thicker than you want the finished sauce (the oysters will throw off moisture as they cook, diluting it). Turn off the heat. You may prepare it up to this point several hours in advance. Cover and refrigerate the oysters and sauce in separate containers.

3. Half an hour before serving, preheat the oven to 170° F. (or the “warm” setting). Put the hoecakes on a cookie sheet in a single layer and put them into the warm oven. Turn on the heat under the sauce to medium and bring it to a simmer. Add the oysters, a small pinch of salt (go easy, you can correct the salt later), and a liberal grinding of white pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook until the oysters plump and their gills curl, between 1 and 2 minutes. Turn off the heat, and taste and adjust the seasonings.

4. Put 2 hoecakes per serving onto warmed individual serving plates. Spoon the oysters and sauce over them, and sprinkle with parsley. Serve at once.

Lemon Pepper Hoecakes
The original hoecakes were very simple griddle breads, consisting of little more than cornmeal, water, and salt. Whether or not it was actually baked on the blade of a hoe is lost in time. Today, it is griddle baked, and in the Savannah restaurants that have made it popular, its batter is generally enriched with milk, eggs, and melted fat.

Makes about 12, serving 4 to 6

1 cup stone-ground white cornmeal
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
The zest of 1 lemon
1 large egg, lightly beaten
About 1¼ cups whole milk buttermilk or plain, whole milk yogurt thinned with milk to buttermilk consistency
Melted bacon drippings, butter, or vegetable oil, for greasing the griddle

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven, place a large, baking sheet on it, and preheat to 170° F. (the warm setting). Whisk together the meal, soda, salt, pepper, and lemon zest in a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, beat together the egg and buttermilk. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, pour in the liquids. Quickly stir them together. It should be moderately thick but still pour easily from a spoon: if it doesn’t, add a little more milk or water.

2. Warm a griddle or wide, shallow skillet over medium-high heat until it is hot enough for a drop of water to “dance” on the surface. Brush the griddle lightly with fat (if it smokes, the griddle is too hot—adjust the heat). Pour the batter in about a tablespoon-sized portion from the end of a large spoon (for larger cakes about 3 inches in diameter use a generous two tablespoons). The edges will sizzle and form lacy air bubbles.

3. Cook until golden brown on the bottom, turn, and cook until uniformly golden, about 2-3 minutes per side. Transfer the cooked hoecakes to the baking sheet in the oven as they are finished and repeat with the remaining batter until it is all cooked. Serve hot.