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Recipes and Stories

26 May 2011 History Flambéed

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.
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