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Recipes and Stories

24 January 2012: Mace

Whole mace. Bright orange-red when fresh, it dries to a softer rustier orange.

One of the most characteristic spices of eighteenth and nineteenth century English and American cookery is mace; ironically, it’s also one the most neglected in our kitchens today. Many Americans have never even heard of it, or think it’s something to spray in the face of a mugger or misbehaving date.

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.

Potted Shrimps.

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. Read More 

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16 January 2012: Turtle Bean Soup

Savannah Turtle Bean Soup served in the old tradition. Photography by John Carrington, from The Savannah Cookbook

Across the lane from my office window (in Savannah, we do not have “alleys”), there are orange and gold turning leaves right next to a magnificent tulip magnolia in full bloom. In mid-January. Such rare mornings as have commanded a topcoat and scarf have more often than not dissolved into afternoons that are downright balmy, barely demanding a sweater. This is almost unheard of, even in our little seaside corner of Georgia.

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
Ground cayenne
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. Read More 

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1 January 2012: Hoppin’ John

Hoppin' John with red peas, from The Savannah Cookbook. Photographed by John Carrington

For most Southerners, beginning a new year without dried field peas on the table would be unimaginable. Though stewed black-eyed peas are the most commonplace, the type and mode of cooking them varies from place to place across the region.

Of them all, perhaps the loveliest and most distinctive is Hoppin’ John, the classic pea and rice dish of the Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry. It may also be one of the least understood dishes in all of Southern cooking. Hoppin’ John isn’t cooked peas and rice mixed together: it’s a pilau, which means the peas and rice are cooked together using a specific technique. To understand that technique, we need only look to Sarah Rutledge’s venerable chronicle of early Carolina cookery, The Carolina Housewife, 1847:

“Hopping John.

One pound of bacon, one pint of red peas, one pint of rice. First put on the peas, and when half boiled, add the bacon. When the peas are well boiled, throw in the rice, which must first be washed and gravelled. When the rice has been boiling half an hour, take the pot off the fire and put it on coals to steam, as in boiling rice alone. Put a quart of water on the peas at first, and if it boils away too much, add a little more hot water. Season with salt and pepper, and, if liked a sprig of green mint. In serving up, put the rice and peas first in the dish, and the bacon on the top.”

— Sarah Rutledge, The Carolina Housewife, 1847

Perhaps the oldest printed recipe for this iconic dish, it plainly describes the classic West African pilau technique, leaving no doubt that Hoppin’ John originated in the rice based cuisines of West Africa. The addition of salt pork, an ingredient foreign to the largely Muslim kitchens of that part of Africa, tells us how thoroughly it had been adapted into Lowcountry cookery by the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Like most of the regional recipes in this lovely book, it’s little more than an outline; that lone sprig of mint is the only suggestion of the heady seasonings that would have been commonplace in its original form. It doesn’t mean that the Hoppin’ Johns of those days were not highly seasoned, but the fact that Miss Rutledge gives the mint as an option does suggest that the variety of seasonings may have been on the wane.

A few notes on Miss Rutledge’s ingredients are in order for modern cooks. Red peas are tiny field peas that look like miniature kidney beans; they’re often hard to find outside coastal Carolina and Georgia, which may be why black-eyed peas often replace them in modern Hoppin’ John recipes—even within the Lowcountry. Bacon back then was not the breakfast meat we take for granted now but salt-pickled pork. It was not smoked and could be made with almost any cut from the pig. Though most modern recipes call for breakfast bacon, salt pork is closer to the original intent, as would be pancetta, the un-smoked bacon of Italy. To wash rice (essential for distinct, separate grains), put the raw grains in a bowl of water and gently rub them together until the water is milky. Drain through a wire mesh sieve and repeat until the water is almost clear.

Here’s how Lowcountry cooks make this classic pilau today. Since large pieces of salt pork are not as easy to come by as they were in the past, it’s more usual to use diced bacon or salt pork. When cut small, the meat releases more flavor into the broth, so we typically use about half of Miss Rutledge’s amount.

Oh, and as for the name “Hoppin’ John,” its origin remains obscure and is the subject of lively debate among historians and folklore-bound Southerners, but it is most likely a corruption of a Gullah name with West African or West Indian patois origins. But don’t worry about that; just make it and enjoy it.

Hoppin’ John
Serves 6 to 8

2 cups dried red peas (see notes)
½ pound lean salt-cured pork, pancetta, or bacon, cut into ¼-inch dice
1 large onion, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled and finely chopped
2-3 large cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled and minced
1 small pod hot red pepper, stemmed, seeded, and minced, or ground cayenne to taste
Whole black pepper in a peppermill
1 bay leaf
1 sprig mint, plus 1-2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
2 cups long-grain rice, washed and drained

1. Wash and drain the peas. Put them in a large pot with about 6 cups water and bring them to a boil over a medium heat. Do not add salt. Carefully skim off the scum, reduce the heat to a slow simmer, cover, and simmer half an hour.

2. Meanwhile, put the salt pork or bacon in a sauté pan or skillet over medium heat. Fry until it is browned and its fat is rendered. Add the onion and sauté until golden, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add the garlic and hot pepper and sauté until fragrant. Turn off the heat and add the contents of the skillet to the peas. Put in the bay leaf and mint sprig and season liberally with pepper, cover loosely, and simmer until the peas are tender.

3. Taste the broth and correct for salt, keeping in mind that it must be highly seasoned since a lot of it will be absorbed by the rice. Drain off but reserve the broth and measure 4 cups back into the pot. Bring it to a boil over medium heat, stir in the rice, and let it come back to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer 14 minutes, until the liquid is absorbed and distinct steam holes appear. Cover tightly, turn off the heat, and let it steam 12 minutes, or until the grains of rice are tender but still loose and distinct.

4. Fluff the rice with a fork: it should be fluffy and fairly dry, but if it seems too dry, moisten it with a little reserved broth. Turn it into a serving dish, sprinkle with chopped mint, and serve. Read More 

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