Here in the Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry, stuffed vegetables have long been a beloved part of our summer tables. Recipes for them date back well into the nineteenth century. (more…)
Recipes and Stories
June 22, 2017
Here in the Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry, stuffed vegetables have long been a beloved part of our summer tables. Recipes for them date back well into the nineteenth century. (more…)
February 14, 2015
February 4, 2013
November 4, 2012
Someone is naïve, all right, but it’s not the cooks of the past. (more…)
October 15, 2012
August 25, 2012
While working on a story for a Labor Day backyard party, I kept coming across articles that were reaching (or should we say, stretching) for something new and different—and with very little real success. What they generally ended up with was the same old things with a different sauce slathered onto it.
May 26, 2012
Here in Savannah and over in Italy, one of the best of these blooms is, pardon the expression, presently in full flower: the butter-yellow blooms of summer squash (more…)
May 25, 2012
April 2, 2012
It is none of those things to me. (more…)
April 1, 2012
February 14, 2012
That has not always been the case: until the middle of the nineteenth century, chocolate was rare and expensive, and the lavish bonbons, cakes, mousses, and pots de crème that tempt lovers nowadays didn’t exist. Chocolate was almost exclusively used as a beverage and, moreover, was a luxury that few could afford. In short, only the most elite lovers could conjure with chocolate, and they had to do so with a cup.
They could have done worse. Drinking chocolate goes back at least to the ancient Mayans, who used it in religious rituals and may well have believed it to have had aphrodisiacal powers. The Europeans, upon discovering it, certainly did. But then, they thought almost everything from the New World was an aphrodisiac.
Never mind. Silky rich drinking chocolate has a power all its own—and isn’t the biggest part of romance in our heads anyway?
By the days of the early Republic, drinking chocolate was still a luxury, but had become affordable enough to be well established in America. It was made in some variation of the method put down by Lettice Bryan in 1839.
Chocolate cakes are carved in little squares on one side, to each of which, if the chocolate is good, allow about three jills* of water. Scrape it very fine with a knife, mix it with just enough boiling water to dissolve it, mashing it with a spoon till smooth, and then put it in a block-tin boiler, mix in the remaining water, which must also be boiling, cover it, set it on a trivet over a bed of coals, and boil it gently till reduce to about two thirds its original, giving it a light stirring two or three times: then replenish it with cream or rich sweet milk, making the boiler as full as it first was with water; watch it closely, stirring it a little till it boils up; then take it instantly from the fire, or it will boil over the top and a good part of it will be lost. Whirl round in it, near the top, a chocolate mill, (or a small bunch of bended wires will answer) till you raise a rich froth on the top, and send it to table hot, accompanied with chocolate cakes**, dry toasts, or hard rusks.
— Lettice Bryan, The Kentucky Housewife, 1839.
* Mrs. Bryan meant “gill,” an archaic name for ¼ pint, or ½ cup in modern liquid measurements.
** These were crisp sugar cookies designed for eating with the beverage. They didn’t contain chocolate.
With all respect to Mrs. Bryan, Miss Eliza Acton, one of the finest cookery writers of nineteenth century England (or, for that matter, anywhere else) provided a more refined recipe in her 1845 masterpiece that set a new standard for cookbooks.
To Make Chocolate.
An ounce of chocolate, if good, will be sufficient for one person. Rasp, and then boil it from five to ten minutes with about four tablespoonfuls* of water; when it is extremely smooth add nearly a pint of new milk, give it another boil, stir it well, or mill it, and serve it directly. For water-chocolate use three-quarters of a pint of water instead of milk, and send rich hot cream to table with it. The taste must decide whether it shall be made thicker or thinner.
Chocolate, 2 oz.; water, quarter-pint, or rather more; milk 1 pint: ½ minute.
— Eliza Acton, Modern Cookery for Private Families, 1845.
* Miss Acton means a common table or kitchen spoon roughly double the size of the standard modern measuring spoon. The closer equivalent to our tablespoon was a dessertspoon. Notice that while she says an ounce of chocolate will be sufficient for one person, the amounts given in the ingredient list and within the recipe are for two servings.
Very little of Miss Acton’s method needs further illumination for modern cooks. By milling she meant to whip it with a chocolate mill, a round whip on a long handle that was spun by rubbing it between the hands. Her recipe was accompanied by a drawing of a chocolate pot that came equipped with such a mill.
To Make Chocolate for Two.
Finely grate two ounces of best quality unsweetened dark chocolate. Bring a scant half-cup of water to a simmer over medium low heat, stir in the chocolate, and keep stirring until it dissolves. Let it simmer slowly while you bring one-and-three-quarters cups of light cream (or a blend of whole milk and cream) almost to a boil in a separate pot. If liked, add a cinnamon stick or half a vanilla bean to the milk before heating it, and let it simmer for five minutes. Slowly whisk the hot milk into the chocolate, sweeten it to taste with sugar, and if you’ve not used cinnamon or whole bean vanilla, flavor it with a little homemade Bourbon Vanilla (see 26 October 2011). A tiny pinch of cayenne is considered good for increasing one’s romantic inclinations. Whisk or mill until there is a thick froth on top and serve immediately.
You will not have to wait long for results.
February 2, 2012
Perhaps it seems logical that the natural progression of knowledge in the kitchen is upward, with each succeeding generation learning from and expanding on the wisdom of the previous one. This would seem particularly true given the technological innovations that revolutionized kitchens in the last century and a half.
Sadly, the progression of knowledge has not always been vertical, and those innovations have done little to improve wisdom; in fact, there are many instances in which they’ve had the opposite impact and left us more ignorant and naïve than ever.
Worse yet, our present generation has had an unfortunate tendency to by-pass the knowledge of the past as a quaint inhibition to creativity. What this usually leads to is not true creativity, but a lot of time wasted either re-inventing something that already existed, or a kind of wanton culinary vandalism in which a perfectly good dish is spoiled by doing things to it that are just plain incompatible.
Modern cooking equipment will not improve such a cook’s knowledge or skill; it only takes away some of the time and effort that might have forced that cook to pay attention and actually think about what he is doing to the food.
While a food processor will make a passable mirepoix in a fraction of the time and effort required of a skilled hand and sharp knife, that mirepoix will never be as even nor react to heat in the same way as one that has been carefully diced by hand.
And while a blender will make an adequate Hollandaise without the cook turning a hand to a whisk or using any real judgment, it can never equal the fluffy, silken texture lent by a whisk in the skilled hand of a cook who is thinking and paying attention.
The least improved equipment of all is the oven of a modern range. A woman once bounced up to me at a book signing and, citing the range with its “reliable ovens,” said she thought cooking had just come into its own in the last fifty years. Sadly, she could not have been further from the truth.
To begin with, few modern range ovens can be called truly reliable. They’re more convenient, yes; we no longer have to constantly stoke the fire or know what kind of wood to feed it for the lively heat required for bread or the gentle one needed for custard.
When it comes to performance, however, a range oven is decidedly inferior to the brick and cast iron ovens of the past. To begin with, its thin steel walls almost guarantee uneven heat distribution because they simply can’t hold and radiate heat as brick and iron will. And while convection baking partly amends that problem, it still can’t match the perfectly even radiant heat from brick or iron.
To compound the problem, oven thermostats, which are only as reliable as their calibration, have made us all lazy: we’ve lost the ability to feel the heat and know when the oven is at the right temperature. When the calibration is off (and more often than not, it is), we’re left scratching our heads and scrambling for an oven thermometer.
The range’s only real improvement is the cooktop, which no longer needs the careful stoking and constant supervision of an open fire or wood stove. But while the range makes the job easier, we still need our ancestor’s knowledge of how to do it well if we want the results to be more than passable.
Obviously, I’m not suggesting that we abandon modern equipment, but we do need to be aware that we’re not smarter than our ancestors, and don’t in fact know more than a cook who could turn out the same meals that we do under conditions that were a lot more taxing. If we really want the progression of knowledge in our kitchens to be vertical, we have to go back and learn the lessons that they took for granted.
Though the prototypes of this sauce are Medieval, Hollandaise as we know it evolved in the early nineteenth century. Properly made, its base is a Sabayon (Zabaglione in Italian), which is really more of a technique than a fixed recipe. Early Hollandaise (also known as Dutch Sauce) was often flavored with a vinegar reduction rather than lemon juice, and in the English and American kitchens, where whisks were not as common, the Sabayon technique wasn’t used.
This recipe owes much to James Peterson, a modern cook who is very wise indeed.
Makes about 1½ cups
6 ounces (¾ cup or 12 tablespoons) unsalted butter
3 large egg yolks
3 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Ground cayenne or whole white peppercorns in a peppermill
1. Melt the butter over medium low heat, then turn off the heat but keep it warm.
2. Off the heat, whisk the eggs and water in a heavy-bottomed saucepan until frothy, then put the pan over medium heat. Whisk until it has tripled in volume and thickened, about 2 minutes. Remove it from the heat and continue whisking for about half a minute.
3. Gently whisk in the warm butter a little at a time, then gradually whisk in the lemon juice, tasting as you go: you may not need all of it; the lemon flavor should be subtle. Season to taste with salt and cayenne or white pepper and serve as soon as possible.
January 25, 2012
Originating in Indonesia, mace comes from the fruit of myristica fragrans or, more commonly, the nutmeg tree. Though the fruit itself is bitter and inedible, its kernel contains two of the most intoxicatingly powerful spices in the world. The fat, oval nut at its center is nutmeg, and mace is the leathery, bright orange-red netting that covers its hard shell.
The flavor and aroma of mace is more pungent and pronounced than that of nutmeg. Bitter and often peppery hot, it’s one of the essential spices for garam masala and can be found in many curry blends. But when judiciously mated with other things, it adds a surprisingly mellow richness that no other spice can match.
Though whole blades don’t hold their pungency as well as whole nutmegs, they still keep their oomph longer than ground mace. Unfortunately, the latter is just about all you’re likely to find unless are lucky enough to have an Indian market in the neighborhood. Whole mace is well worth seeking out, even if you have to mail order it.
Store mace in an airtight jar away from heat and light. When a recipe calls for a blade, use a whole shard about three-quarters of an inch long. When the ground spice is wanted, pulverize it as needed with a pestle (ideally of wood) in a stone or unglazed ceramic mortar.
Historically, whole blades were used much like a bay leaf in cream and milk based sauces, soups, stews, and fricassees. Ground mace could be found in both savory and sweet dishes and was once the characterizing spice for pound cake.
Mace adds a subtle richness to bechamel and old-fashioned cream-based sauces such as bread, onion, and oyster, and is a lovely mate for shellfish, veal, and poultry.
One handsome historical use for mace was in Turtle Bean Soup (see the recipe from 16 January). Another especially masterful one is this old fashioned conserve.
Drop one-and-a-half pounds of small shrimp into two quarts of rapidly boiling water. Cover, and count 1 minute. Uncover, and as soon as the shrimp are curled and pink, drain, rinse under cold running water, and let them cool enough to handle. Meanwhile, pulverize a blade or two of mace in a mortar and pestle. In a small saucepan over medium low heat, simmer two heaped tablespoons of minced shallots in an ounce of butter until softened. Turn off the heat.
Peel and roughly chop the shrimp. Put them in a stone or unglazed ceramic mortar or the bowl of a food processor. Add the mace, shallots, a large pinch of salt, and ground cayenne to taste. Some traditional recipes add a grating of nutmeg, too. Beat with a wooden pestle or process until finely ground then gradually beat in 4 ounces of softened butter. Taste and adjust the seasonings and mix them in.
Pack it into a crock leaving half an inch of headroom and cover it with a quarter of an inch of melted clarified butter. Cool, cover, and refrigerate until needed but let it soften to room temperature before serving. It should keep for up to two weeks until the butter seal is broken. Serve it with crisp toast points or plain crackers.
January 17, 2012
Fortunately, despite such daytime extremes our evenings have been cool enough to stir a seasonal longing for warming, comfortable bowls of soup. And when comfort is required, is there anything that fills the bill quite so well as bean soup?
All bean soups, from the thick, pasta-studded zuppas of Tuscany to the fragrantly spicy mélanges of the Caribbean, speak of the region from whence they came, and Savannah’s own, made with black, or as they were colloquially known, “turtle” beans, was no exception.
Where most bean soups are robust and provincial, and eaten from coarse everyday pottery, this one was a subtly seasoned, velvet-smooth puree served in the best company china. Ranking second only to Turtle Soup for refined elegance (it even had the same garnish of wafer-thin sliced lemon, sieved egg, and minced parsley) it was the culinary answer to the graceful architecture that surrounds our celebrated squares.
Unhappily, modern Savannahians rarely encounter this lovely soup at all, let alone served in that gracious way. The black bean soup to be found in local cafés and on far too many family supper tables is a Cuban or Southwestern inspired concoction spiced up with chilies, cilantro, cumin, and enough garlic to ward off an entire family of vampires.
Now, there’s a lot to be said for a spicy dose of Caribbean or Southwestern sunshine on a cold, drizzly winter day. But when the soul needs both warmth and refinement, Old Savannah had the better medicine.
Savannah Turtle Bean Soup
Sometimes the eggs were merely sliced and laid on the bottom of the tureen or soup plate before the soup was ladled in, imitating the way the turtle’s eggs were used in that soup, but for state occasions, they were forced through a wire mesh sieve and sprinkled over the top of each serving.
Serves 8 as a first course at dinner, or 6 as a main course at lunch or supper
1 pound dried black beans
½ pound lean salt-cured pork, in one piece, or ¼ pound if pre-sliced
6 cups meat broth
1 large or 2 medium white onions, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled and chopped
1 large or 2 small cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled and minced
1 large carrot, peeled and diced small
1 small turnip, scrubbed, peeled and diced small
2 ribs celery, washed, strung and diced small
3 tablespoons tomato paste (or, in season, 2 medium ripe tomatoes scalded, peeled, seeded and chopped)
1 bay leaf
2 large sprigs of parsley
3 whole cloves, beaten to a powder with a mortar and pestle
1 blade mace, beaten to a powder with a mortar and pestle
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
1 tablespoon mushroom catsup or Worcestershire sauce
2 large hard-cooked eggs, peeled
6-8 tablespoons sherry (1 tablespoon per serving)
1 lemon, thinly sliced
2-3 tablespoons minced parsley
Pepper Sherry, optional
1. Rinse the beans under cold running water, sort through and discard any damaged or discolored ones, and put them in a large, heavy bottomed pot. Add enough water to cover them by 2 inches. Beans cook better in soft water: if your water, like Savannah’s, is hard, use bottled or filtered water. Bring the beans slowly to a boil point over medium heat. Turn off the heat and soak until the beans have doubled in volume, about an hour.
2. Replenish the water with enough to cover the beans by 1 inch. Put the pot back over medium heat and bring it to a simmer again, skimming away any scum that rises. Reduce the heat to a slow simmer and cook until the beans are tender, about an hour.
3. Drain, reserving the cooking liquid, and return the beans to the pot with 2 cups of cooking liquid, the salt pork, and meat broth. Raise the heat to medium, and bring it back to a boil. Add the onion, garlic, carrot, turnip, celery, and tomato paste, let it return to a boil, skimming off any scum that rises, then put in the bay leaf and parsley, powdered cloves, a pinch or so of salt (going easy; you can correct it later), a liberal grinding of pepper, a small pinch of cayenne, and the catsup or Worcestershire. Reduce the heat to a slow simmer, cover, and cook until the vegetables are very tender, about 2 hours.
4. Puree the soup through a food mill or with a hand blender, regular blender, or food processor. If it’s too thick, thin it with some of the reserved bean cooking liquid. Return it to the pot and bring it back to a simmer over medium heat, stirring often to prevent scorching. Taste and adjust the seasonings, and let it heat 2 to 3 minutes longer.
5. Meanwhile, force the eggs through a coarse wire sieve. To serve, add a tablespoon of sherry to each bowl and ladle in the soup. Float a slice of lemon on top of each and sprinkle with egg and parsley. Serve at once, passing Pepper Sherry separately, if liked.
December 10, 2011
Rich with rare and expensive dried and glacéed fruits and nuts, heady with brandy, sherry, and rare spices, it was, until well into the nineteenth century, the ultimate celebration cake for virtually every occasion, even (and especially) weddings, where its fruit-packed crumb symbolized the hope that the marriage itself would be fruitful.
It was, however, at Christmastide that fruitcakes were prized the most. That was partly because their richness befit the exuberance of the season, and partly because they not only kept well, making them the perfect treat to have on hand for drop-in company, but actually got better with age: by Twelfth Night a properly aged fruitcake was even more moist, aromatic, and delicious than it had been on Christmas Day.
Part of the reason this lovely celebration cake was better appreciated back then was because its components were expensive and involved a lot of tedious back preparation. There were no seedless raisins and currants or ready-shelled nuts; commercially candied fruit was rare and precious when it could be had at all. Refined sugar came molded in cone-shaped loaves, and cinnamon and nutmeg were sold whole. In the larder, the butter was heavily salted as a preservative, and the contents of the flour bin was often questionable.
Raisins and currants had to be painstakingly plucked from their stems and stoned by hand, the nuts had to be shelled and picked, the orange peel cut from its fruit and candied at home, and the sugar and spices had to beaten to a powder and sifted. Butter had to be washed to rid it of excess salt and the flour had to be sifted (often to remove critters), aired, and sometimes even dried in the oven.
Then there was the care that had to be taken to properly hydrate and spike the fruit, blanch the nuts, cream the butter, and regulate the wood-fired oven so that all that work didn’t go literally up in smoke. After all that, the cakes still had to be stored and aged in a way that protected them from pilfering varmints—not only of the two, but of the four- and six-legged kind.
Even if those fruitcakes had not been the heady ambrosia that they were, they would have been treasured at the very least for all the effort and expense that went into them.
Compare such a cake with the sad specimens that all too often occupy today’s holiday table, with their luridly colored, achingly sweet, and yet surprisingly flavorless candied fruits, their hydrogenated fat, and dull, lifeless crumb. The wonder is less that they’ve become the target of comedic derision than that they still exist at all.
A really good fruitcake is still a lot of work, but happily not the work it was in the old days, thanks to the ready availability of commercially stoned and quality glacéed fruit, shelled nuts, fine granulated sugar, reliable flour, and unsalted butter that need only be softened. And its joys far outweigh the effort.
At the risk of sounding like a saccharin movie trailer, this holiday season, take a little time to rediscover the magic of a true holiday classic.
Classic Holiday Fruitcake
Makes 2 tube cakes or 4 9-inch loaf cakes
1 pound raisins
1 pound golden raisins
1 pound currants
1 pound dried dark cherries
1 pound crystallized orange peel
½ cup bourbon, plus more, for aging the cakes
1 pound (4 sticks or 2 cups) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 pound (2 cups) sugar
8 large fresh eggs, at room temperature
1 pound (about 3½ cups) Southern soft-wheat or pastry flour, plus more for dusting
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon freshly-grated nutmeg
½ cup dry sherry
1 tablespoon homemade Bourbon Vanilla
1 pound blanched almonds (the original nut used in the old recipes) or pecans or walnuts
1. Put the raisins, currants, cherries and candied orange peel in a heat-proof, non-reactive metal or glass bowl. Bring a teakettle full of water to a boil and pour it over the fruit. Let it stand 10 minutes and thoroughly drain it. Pour the bourbon over the fruit and toss well. Let cool, then cover and set aside to macerate for at least an hour, overnight is better. The whiskey should be almost completely absorbed.
2. When you are ready to proceed, position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 325° F. Lightly grease 2 tube cake pans or 4 9-inch loaf pans and dust one lightly with flour, shake gently until it is evenly coated, then shake out the excess into the next pan and repeat until all the pans are coated.
3. Cream the butter and sugar well until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Sift together the flour and spices, then, alternating, gradually beat the flour and eggs into the butter and sugar. Beat well after each addition. Beat in the sherry and liquid flavorings.
4. Lightly sprinkle the fruit with flour and toss until it is coated. Fold the fruit and nuts into the cake batter until uniformly distributed. Spoon the batter into the loaf pans, then firmly tap each on the counter several times to force any air bubbles to the surface and help insure an even texture.
5. Bake in the center of the oven, making sure the pans don’t touch one another, for about 1½ hours without opening the oven, then begin checking the cakes and continue baking until they are beginning to separate from the sides of the pan and a straw stuck into the center comes out clean. The tube cake will be done in about 2 hours; loaf cakes may take a little less time. Turn off the oven and let the cake cool in the oven. Let the cake cool completely before removing it from the pan.
6. Soak cheesecloth or clean, un-dyed muslin in bourbon, wring out thoroughly, and wrap them around the cakes, then drizzle a little more bourbon over them. Put them in airtight tins or wrap tightly with plastic wrap and let them age for at least 2 weeks before using them.
August 21, 2011
Southern cooks of the past would no doubt turn their noses up at the neat bags of butterbeans that came home with me from the farmers’ market this morning. They’d argue, and rightly, that beans that had been lying bare-naked on ice could not be nearly as good as ones that were kept snugly in their pods until just before they’re cooked.
But those old girls had help in the kitchen—or at the very least, a child they could indenture for the job—and I don’t. The small sacrifice in flavor is well worth the wear and tear it saves on my fingers, not to mention patience.
Besides, the morning was hot and making me a little homesick, and those plump little butterbeans brought back soothing memories not only of home, but of my dear old friend Clara Eschmann, the endearing lady who was for many years food editor of the Macon Telegraph.
A fantastic cook and natural-born storyteller, Clara loved butterbeans almost more than she loved bourbon (which is saying a lot). She steadfastly maintained that no self-respecting Southerner would ever call them lima beans, and relished spinning the tale that their Southern name derived from the fact that they had to be cooked with butter—and plenty of it.
She was in good company. Witness Mrs. Hill’s directive on the subject, put down a good half-century before Clara was born:
360. Lima, or Butter Beans.—When fully formed, and before the hull turns yellow, shell them; wash them well, and put them to boil in hot water, sufficiently salted to season them. When tender, pour off nearly all the water; make the remainder of the broth rich with butter, and serve upon a hot dish. Never pepper them unless with white pepper; the small black particles of the common pepper upon so much white vegetable gives them an untidy appearance.
— Annabella P. Hill, Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book, 1867.
Mrs. Hill’s reputation as a cook could rest on that recipe alone. Say what you will about what salt-cured pork and pepper bring to other kinds of beans, these delicacies need absolutely nothing but salt, butter, and two hands that don’t mind one another—a stingy one with the salt and a generous one with the butter. Anything else just gets in the way.
To serve 4 people, you’ll need about a pound (shelled weight) of small fresh butterbeans—which works out to about 3 generous cups. You’ll also need a little kosher or sea salt and about 2 ounces (4 tablespoons) of best quality butter. Put the shelled beans in a colander, rinse them well under cold running water, and let them drain.
Bring a quart of water to a boil over medium heat, season it lightly with salt, and add the beans. Bring it back to a boil, skimming off the foam that forms, and reduce the heat. Simmer gently until the beans are tender, which could take anywhere from 15 to 25 minutes, depending on their size and maturity. Drain off most of the liquid and stir in the butter a few lumps at a time, until the liquid is lightly thickened and creamy. Taste and adjust the seasonings, adding more butter if they’re not creamy enough. Heat a serving bowl by rinsing it with hot water, turn the beans into it, and serve immediately.
You might think that such a recipe could barely be called cooking, but sometimes the mark of a real cook is knowing when to leave well enough alone.
June 6, 2011
Another great classic of Lowcountry tea and cocktail tables is this simple pâté of pulverized shrimp and butter –
Run a quart of boiled and picked shrimp through the grinder. Then place in saucepan with salt, pepper, mace, and two heaping tablespoons of butter. Heat thoroughly, and put into molds. Pressing down hard with a spoon, and pouring melted butter over the top. Put in refrigerator, and when cold, slice and serve. An excellent hors d’oeuvre, or an addition to tomato salad.”
– Harriet Ross Colquitt, The Savannah Cook Book (1933)
It’s a very old conserve that long predates Mrs. Colquitt, known in old English and early American books as –
“POTTED SHRIMPS, OR PRAWNS.
Let the fish be quite freshly boiled, shell them quickly, and just before they are put into the mortar, chop them a little with a very sharp knife; pound them perfectly with a quantity of fresh butter, mace, and cayenne.
Shrimps (unshelled), 2 quarts; butter, 2 to 4 oz.; mace, 1 small saltspoonful; cayenne, 1/3 as much.
– Eliza Acton, Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845).
From the Lowcountry in the same era, we have Miss Rutledge’s rather sketchy version –
“To Pot Shrimps.
Pick the shrimps (after they are boiled) from the shells; beat them well in a mortar, and put as much melted butter to them as will make them of the proper consistence to be pressed compactly together; add pepper, salt, mace, and nutmeg to the taste; put the mixture into small pans, and pour melted butter over them about a quarter of an inch thick. If wanted for immediate use, grated bread may be added.”
– Sarah Rutledge, The Carolina Housewife (1847).
Mrs. Colquitt’s tablespoon was a kitchen spoon that was larger than the standard measuring implement of our day. She’s calling for about the same amount of butter as Miss Acton. Her logic in reheating the paste is that it helped prolong its shelf life once potted, though refrigeration had made it an unnecessary caution by her day, and interestingly, the older recipes don’t mention it.
Regardless of its provenance, shrimp paste remains a staple throughout the Lowcountry, though today there’s not a single cook left in the region who would make it with a meat grinder, let alone mortar and pestle. Both methods have given way to the food processor. The old ways perhaps did yield a more interesting paste, but the machine makes such short work of it that the sacrifices in authenticity and texture seem well worth it.
All this came to mind because those little brown shrimp have arrived, and shrimp paste seemed just the thing for a recent late Sunday silver-and-linen reception. Here’s how I made it, from Classical Southern Cooking.
Serves 6 as a first course, or 20 for cocktails or tea
1½ pounds cooked shrimp, peeled
¼ pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
2 tablespoons grated shallots or yellow onion
Salt and whole white pepper in a peppermill
1 blade mace, crushed to a powder, or whole nutmeg in a grater, optional
Ground cayenne pepper
Crisp toast points or Melba toasts
1. Fit the bowl of the processor with a steel blade and put in the shrimp. Cover and pulse until coarsely ground.
2. Add the butter, shallots, a large pinch of salt, and a dash each of cayenne, white pepper, and mace or nutmeg if liked. Process until the mixture forms a paste. Don’t over-process it to a mousse consistency: there should still be some texture. Taste and adjust the salt, pepper, cayenne, and mace. Pulse a few times to mix the seasonings.
3. Lightly butter a 3-cup metal mold, or two smaller molds, or a small loaf pan. Press the paste firmly into it, making sure there are no pockets of trapped air. Cover with a plate or plastic wrap and chill for several hours until firm. Alternatively, pack the paste into crocks, cover with melted clarified butter, and chill until needed.
4. To un-mold, stand the mold in a basin of hot water for 1 minute. Loosen the edges with a knife, and invert the mold over a serving plate—the paste should come out with a couple of firm taps on the top of the mold. Smooth any gaps with a spatula and let it stand until it’s soft enough to spread. If the paste was stored in crocks, serve it directly from the crock without un-molding it. Serve with toast or use as a spread of tea sandwiches.
May 26, 2011
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.
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.
April 27, 2011
When it’s the latter that’s called for, I once again look no further than that under-appreciated culinary master from the nineteenth century, Mrs. Lettice Bryan, whose lovely individual shepherd’s pies can be found under –
Take small scolloped pans, butter them well, and put over each a smooth paste of mashed potatoes, which have been highly seasoned with salt, pepper, butter, and sweet cream. Peel, slice and season some fine, ripe tomatoes; put a layer of them on the bottom of each pan, then put on a layer of cold boiled mutton, shred as fine as possible, and one of grated ham, sprinkle on some grated lemon, pepper, and nutmeg. Add a few spoonfuls of rich gravy, and as much wine; put a paste of potatoes over the tops, and bake them a delicate brown, in a brisk oven. When done, turn them out smoothly in a dish, spread over them a heated napkin, and send them to table immediately, with a boat of melted butter and wine.
– Lettice Bryan, The Kentucky Housewife, 1847.
How timeless Mrs. Bryan’s recipe remains to this day, reading like something from the latest issue of a trendy food magazine. There’s not much a modern cook could think up that this lady hadn’t already tried.
Though still popular in Kentucky, mutton is hard to come by for most of us, and “boiling” (their word for poaching the joint whole) fell out of favor as the iron range replaced the open hearth. But luckily this is equally as lovely with leftover roast lamb.
The recipe needs very little clarification for a modern cook. By grated lemon, she means the zest, and the “boat of melted butter and wine” is basically a buerre blanc.
Because American housewives in those days were rarely equipped with a wire whisk, butter was melted or “drawn” by adding it to a little water in a small pan. The cook held the pan over a simmering water bath and gently shook it (the best method) or stirred its contents until the butter was barely melted and still quite thick. Usually a little flour was added as insurance against “oiling” (their word for having it break).
At any rate, the casseroles are rich enough on their own: they certainly don’t need a butter sauce, but if you’re so inclined, bring a tablespoon of water and two of Madeira or dry sherry to a simmer over medium low heat, gradually whisk in 6 tablespoons of unsalted butter a teaspoon at a time, adding more before the previous bit is completely dissolved. It should be the consistency of thick heavy cream by the time all the butter is incorporated and melted. Season it with salt, to taste, and serve it immediately in a sauceboat that has been warmed by rinsing it with scalding hot water.
Here, with a little more detail, is Mrs. Bryan’s recipe for modern cooks. I’ve never added wine to the seasonings because the pan gravy from my lamb roast usually has a bit of Madeira in it. And because unmolding them is a bit tricky, I “send them to the table” in the individual gratin dishes in which they’ve baked.
Individual Mutton or Lamb Casseroles
1½ pounds leftover boiled or roast mutton or lamb
3 large, or 6 Roma-type ripe tomatoes
1 recipe Mashed Potatoes (recipe follows)
Whole black pepper in a peppermill
Whole nutmeg in a grater
The grated zest of 2 lemons
1½ cups leftover gravy (recipe follows)
1/3 pound cooked or raw country ham or prosciutto, roughly chopped
1. Preheat the oven to 350° F., and put on a teakettle of water to boil. If using roast lamb, chop it by hand with a knife or in the food processor, pulsing the machine to keep from completely pulverizing it.
2. Blanch, peel, and core the tomatoes. Cut them crosswise into 8 to 10 even slices. Seed and drain them in a colander set over the sink. Lightly butter 4 large ramekins or individual gratin dishes and line them with half the mashed potatoes.
3. Pat the tomatoes dry and put a layer of them over the mashed potatoes, about 2 slices per dish. Divide the meat evenly between each and season with a few grindings of pepper, a grating of nutmeg to taste, and the lemon zest. If the ham isn’t very salty, add a little salt. Top with the gravy and then the remaining mashed potatoes, smoothing them with the flat of a knife or spatula.
4. Bake until nicely browned and heated through, about half an hour.
For the mashed potatoes, as Mrs. Bryan would have made them:
In the spring, when the potatoes are old and strong, they are much nicer mashed than when served whole, though mashed potatoes are fine at any season. Boil them till they are very tender; if old, in a good quantity of water, but if young, in barely enough to cook them tender. Peel them, mash them fine, press them through a sieve, to get out all the lumps, season the pulp with salt, pepper and butter, moistening it with sweet cream or milk; stir it with a spoon till the seasonings are well intermingled with the mass, and serve it warm, making it smooth in the dish. They are nice with any kind of meat, particularly poultry.
– Lettice Bryan, The Kentucky Housewife, 1847.
In case you need a bit more detail, my translation of the standard method for a modern kitchen, From Classical Southern Cooking, is:
2½ pounds mature potatoes of a uniform size
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
About ½ cup cream or milk
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
1. Scrub the potatoes under cold, running water, and put them in a large pot. Add enough water to cover by 1 inch. Remove the potatoes, cover, and bring almost to a boil over medium high heat. Add the potatoes, bring to a full, rolling boil, reduce the heat to medium (a steady bubble but not a hard boil) and simmer until tender, from 20 to 30 minutes. Drain and let sit in a warm place for about 5 minutes, then quickly peel them.
2. Force the hot potatoes through a ricer back into the pot in which they were cooked. Over low heat, gradually beat in the butter, then the cream, and a healthy pinch of salt.
3. Stir until they are smooth and the liquid is incorporated. If they appear to be too dry, add a spoonful or so more cream or milk, but don’t overdo it. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Mound them in a warmed serving bowl, dust the top with a little black pepper, if liked, and serve at once.
April 12, 2011
Those words, from her landmark 1839 cookbook, The Kentucky Housewife, were penned in the days before our global garden, when winter’s table was dominated by cabbages and dried beans. One of the first edible sprouts to nose its way through the thawing earth after the long, cold winter, asparagus was the very essence of spring, available for only a few precious weeks of the season.
It would never have occurred to Mrs. Bryan to explain that, or to caution that asparagus is only “nice” when it has just been cut from a garden that is merely minutes away from the pot. There was no need to warn against spears that had been shipped across several continents or preach that only locally grown, seasonal asparagus was worth having.
She offered no advice, as most authors do today, for keeping it fresh until it’s used, but simply directed to “Gather them when fully grown but very tender, taking care to have them as near the same size as possible, that they may all get done at the same time” and went right into preparing them for the pot. She also provided just three perfect recipes, knowing that, in this case, discretion was the better part of valor.
Of the three, the loveliest and most sensitive—indeed one of the loveliest recipes in print, then or now, was—
Your asparagus must be young and tender; scrape and wash it neatly, and let it lie for a time in cold water; cut small some of the green tops, and put them also in cold water. Make a broth in the usual manner, of a few pounds of fresh veal or poultry, and a small piece of ham. Cut the stalks of the asparagus into pieces not more than an inch long, and boil them in the broth till tender, seasoning it with salt, pepper, and butter. Mash to a pulp enough of the asparagus to thicken the soup, and let the other remain in pieces. Stir in a little rich sweet cream; just let it come to a boil, and serve it up with toasted bread cut in dice, dispersing over it some sprigs of the green tops.
—Lettice Bryan, The Kentucky Housewife, 1839
Yes, today we can have “fresh” asparagus any time we want, but to have it just minutes from the garden, prepared by the hands of such a cook, is unfortunately rare even in its season.
In translating the recipe for Classical Southern Cooking, I did absolutely nothing but standardize the format, fill in directions that she took for granted, and set proportions for six servings. Everything else is as Mrs. Bryan intended it, right down to the nouvelle-cuisine-sounding raw tip garnish. All it requires is the freshest asparagus you can find.
1 quart of Chicken Broth or Meat Broth made with veal bones (preferably homemade)
2 ounces country ham in one piece
1½ pounds young asparagus
1 tablespoon butter
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
1 cup heavy cream at room temperature
1 cup Buttered Croutons (Recipe follows)
1. Bring the broth and ham to a boil in a large pot over medium heat. Meanwhile, peel the asparagus and drop it briefly into a basin of cold water. Let it soak for half an hour.
2. When the broth begins to boil, take up the asparagus, cut off the pointed tips, and cut the stems crosswise into one-inch long pieces. Roughly chop a dozen or so of the tips and set them aside in a bowl of cold water to cover.
3. Drop the remaining asparagus and the butter into the boiling broth. Let it return to a boil, then cover and lower the heat. Cook at a good simmer until the asparagus is tender, about 5—and no more than 10—minutes. Season it to taste with the salt and pepper.
4. With a slotted spoon, take out about a cup and a half of the greenest stems and tips and put them to the side in a covered bowl. Puree the remainder with the broth by forcing them through a sieve as Mrs. Bryan originally directed, or through a food mill. If you are not that energetic, a stick blender or food processor does this job nearly as well.
5. Return the soup to the pot and heat it through over medium heat. Stir in the reserved cooked asparagus and cream. Simmer until just heated through, stirring well, and turn off the heat.
6. Ladle the soup into individual heated soup plate and garnish with croutons and a sprinkling of the chopped raw tips.
Cut ½-inch thick slices of good, day-old bread (preferably homemade) into small, bite-sized cubes. For every cup of cubed bread, allow 2 tablespoons of butter. Melt the butter over a medium heat in a heavy skillet that will comfortably hold all the bread. Add the bread cubes and quickly toss them to until they are coated. Sauté, tossing frequently, until they are golden brown and crisp.
Another way requiring less attention: preheat the oven to 300° F. Put the butter in a shallow baking pan that will hold all the bread cubes in one layer, and melt it in the oven. Add the bread and toss until it is well coated. Return the pan to the oven and bake, stirring from time to time, until they are lightly browned and crisp, about half an hour.
March 22, 2011
Probably not; almost certainly not.
Most blogs (horrid word, that) are just silly, self-absorbed, attention-getting streams of consciousness that begin and end with the author’s ego. They have about as much substance as a cozy Hallmark moment.
Do I really want to add more of that to the world just to get attention?
But then it occurred to me: fool, you just started your own web site. Your name is has been dot-commed. The whole purpose is to get attention, and if you didn’t want to do that, you’d never have gone to this much trouble. What’s all this demure posturing about?
The ugly truth about writers is, we can’t stop ourselves. Just like painting, composing, sculpting—writing is a compulsion we can’t help. We’d do it even if no one read it, even if we were dogged by critics who said our words were no good.
There are countless novels tucked away in boxes under the author’s bed, novels that no one else has—or ever will—see.
But just because there’s a compulsion to put words on the page, it does not follow that those words have to be vacuous. If this turns into little more than a lot of navel-gazing streams of time-wasting, meaningless fluff, it’s no one’s fault but my own.
The contributions here may not be regular; but I do promise not waste my and your time just to keep myself in front of you.
Having said all that, from here on, this is what you’ll find here: nothing new.
I have spent most of my life looking backwards into history, and what really interests me in the kitchen is less of where we are going than where we have been.
Most food professionals nowadays spend too little time thinking about that past, and it shows. Cooking is no different from anything else: without a firm understanding of where we’ve come from, the cooking, no matter how clever, will have no roots, and without those, like spring lettuce pinched from its bed, it soon withers and is forgotten.
This page looks back to the kitchens of our past. They weren’t perfect, but they still define our kitchens present and future, whether we like it or not.