About Roux

Starch has been used to thicken dishes before kitchens existed, most often mixed with oil, which coats starch granules for a better meld. Cooking this mixture eliminates the raw, pasty flour flavor, and though roux means “red”, roux are cooked for varying lengths of time to different colors for different uses.

The best rule of thumb is one part plain white flour to one part oil, but I always use a little extra oil to make it more manageable. As to what kind of oil, that depends on what you’re cooking. Generally speaking, if you’re making a white roux, use butter (not margarine, dear hearts). Since butter will burn at higher temperatures, use vegetable oil for darker roux as in most meat dishes and seafood, adding a little olive oil (particularly in a gumbo roux) for whang. Use lard or bacon drippings for that authentic down-home flavor you need in gravies.

Yes, I know you can make a roux in the oven, or even in the microwave, but the stove top gives you much more control over the product. It also requires care and attention. A lot of people call roux “Cajun napalm” for good reason; it will stick to your skin and burn, so when you’re cooking roux, avoid any distractions, use long-handled utensils, and for heaven’s sake, keep your children under control or out of the kitchen.

Don’t use a high heat to make a roux: cook with a medium heat, and scrape the bottom of the pan to achieve an even color. If black specks appear, you’ve burned the roux, and you have to throw it away and start over. Never, never, never use a scorched roux; your gumbo, etouffee, or what have you will smell (and taste) like an ashtray.

Just like a slice of bread, a roux will toast; the longer you cook the flour, the darker the “toast”. It smells like popcorn cooking; at least, it does to me. Those of you who grill a lot may be familiar with the Maillard reaction, the reactions of proteins and sugars under heat that give meats and vegetables that roasted flavor. The same process is at work here. Cooking roux to different degrees of browning render different flavors and colors. They also thicken to a greater or lesser degree; the longer you cook a roux, the less it will thicken.

For white sauces—béchamel and dairy sauce variations—cook the roux only long enough for it to stop bubbling, not long enough for it to brown at all. When making a white roux for soups and gravies it’s better to use slightly more butter, but for a thicker, stiffer sauce such as one you might use to hold a casserole together, use more flour. As a general rule, you’ll use lighter roux for dishes involving poultry or fish, darker roux for beef or game as well as most gumbos, with the exception of a file gumbo, which traditionally doesn’t involve a roux at all. With experience, you’ll learn to customize roux to your cooking.

photo by Vicky Wasick

Pickled Eggs

Any time you enter a beer joint in Mississippi, you’re likely to find a big jar of pickled eggs on the counter next to the beef jerky, the pieds de porc à l’écarlate and all the other Bubbas that belly up to the Southern sideboard. But those over-boiled, nitrate-infused super-ball eggs in roadhouse jars are just not good food.

On the other hand, properly pickled eggs are a treat; they’re a great side with cold meats, poultry or game, and good in tuna, chicken, or vegetable salads. One recipe I have from a Junior League-type cookbook published in the 1930’s claims that they’re “ever so good chopped into hash, and provide just the right touch bedded on greens with a dressing of sharp, spicy goodness.” Craig Claiborne included a pickled egg recipe in his New York Times Cookbook (wouldn’t he just?), and Rita Mae Brown, a really fine Southern writer, employs this dish as a culinary bone of contention between two cantankerous sisters in her riotous novel, Six of One.

The white of a pickled egg should be firm, not tough or rubbery, and the yolk should be moist and creamy, not crumbly. They should also have a light, balanced tangy/sweet flavor as a platform for other seasonings: I like a couple of slit hot peppers, a slice or two of garlic and a bay leaf to flavor mine, but dill, caraway or even cloves figure among other attractive possibilities.

For pickling, boil a dozen medium eggs until just done; you can easily fit a dozen large in a quart glass jar. Then stuff the (peeled) eggs into the jar along with whatever accompaniments you like (jalapenos, onion, garlic, bay leaf, etc.). Fill the jar with a mixture of white vinegar and water (4:1) just to the top; jiggle the jar to burp bubbles. Pour vinegar mixture into a saucepan along with a tablespoon of salt, a tablespoon of sugar and a tablespoon of pickling spices. (If you miss the barroom rose, use beet juice.) Heat to almost boiling and pour back over the eggs; if there’s not quite enough liquid to cover them entirely, add a little more water. Seal the jar and store for at least a week before putting them out at your next kegger.

Mexican Cornsticks

You’ll find Mexican muffins  offered in supermarket deli buffets all over Jackson,Mississippi, and likely all across the middle South from Austin to Atlanta. I honestly can’t speak for anything north of Memphis or on the Coast. This recipe makes light, crisp sticks, good with a tomato-y soup or stew.

Use the Martha White Buttermilk Mix, and add fresh chopped chilies–hot, mild, or mixed, your preference–whole kernel corn–do NOT use creamed corn–a little chopped, very well-drained tomato, and minced onion. Season with chili powder, cumin, and black pepper. Pour into a hot, well-oiled corn stick pan and bake in a very hot oven until browned. Cool before turning out.

Senate Bean Soup

Navy bean soup has been a fixture on the menu in the U.S. Senate restaurant as far back as the administration of Grover Cleveland, but in 1903, Senator Fred T. Dubois of Idaho brought to passage a resolution–written by Senator Knute Nelson of Minnesota–requiring that the soup be served every day to sustain the distinguished members of that august body through the throes of deliberation.

John Egerton writes that the official recipe printed on the back of the Senate restaurant menu calls for “Michigan navy beans”, though Craig Claiborne (never one to leave well enough alone) wrote that the best bean for the soup is “a pea bean from California.” Edgerton argues that this soup is a Southern recipe, and points to the inclusion of smoked ham hocks as proof of his claim. “Does that sound like Michigan? California? Minnesota? Idaho? Of course not!” he declares, adding that it sounds more like North Carolina, Alabama, or Arkansas, where cooking with pork is a 400-year-old tradition. (Note that the District of Columbia is adjacent to Virginia.)

“Any fair and honest person seeking the creators of U.S. Senate bean soup would ask not who the senators were at the time the soup was given official status, but who the cooks were,” and in the District of Columbia the cooks in the Senate kitchen, as well as almost any other institutional kitchen in Washington, were black men and women from the South. “There ought to be a plaque somewhere in the capitol to honor those skillful citizens, their names now forgotten, who cooked bean soup in the Southern style with such a masterful touch that even the solons of the North and West came to realize that they simply could not do without it,” Egerton claims.

Fortunately for us sans sans-culottes, you don’t have to lie, buy, or storm your way into the Capitol to enjoy navy bean soup. Here’s my recipe; it’s not official by any stretch, but it’s wonderful, all the same. Pick through and wash one pound white (navy) beans, place in a pot with two smoked hocks, cover with water by half, and place in a low oven for about 2 hours. Remove the hocks and cool; throw away the rind, de-bone, chop the meat and add back to the beans along with one finely-chopped large onion sauteed in light oil with two minced cloves of garlic. You can throw in a stalk or two of minced/grated celery if you like. Add water if needed, simmer until creamy, season with pepper and salt to taste. If you don’t serve cornbread with this, you’ll go to hell.

Catfish Étouffée

In the world I inhabit–which, quite arguably, might be yours–the more time-consuming a recipe, the more people it should feed, and this is such a one.  Soak 5 lbs. halved 6 oz. catfish fillets in milk. To a cup of good brown roux add in dice 2 cloves garlic, 2 medium onions, 1 sweet pepper and 4 stalks celery. Mix with a 36-ounce can of diced tomatoes (with juice) and 2 cups water or so; you want it a little on the thin side. Add 2 tablespoons dried basil, 1 tablespoon dried thyme, and a teaspoon of dried oregano. Put on a low burner. Drain and bread catfish in finely-crumbled saltines well-seasoned with ground black pepper, some cayenne, if you like.  Fry until golden; drain and layer fried fillets with sauce. Bake in a medium oven until just bubbling.  Serve over rice.

Crawfish Fritters with Red Remoulade Galatoire

These boulettes are light and crisp,  a nice nosh any time of the year. Note the corn starch in the batter, which gives the fritters more crunch. Some people add a teaspoon of vodka for crispness, but dear hearts, this is a waste of vodka. The remoulade comes via Howard Mitcham, who claims he received it from Justin Galatoire, the nephew of Jean Galatoire, in the 1950s. We have no reason whatsoever to doubt he did just that.

For the batter:
1 cup self-rising flour
1/4 cup corn starch
1 tablespoon melted butter or oil
1 egg beaten with 1/2 cup water
Salt and pepper
Minced scallions and red bell pepper (optional)

Mix dry ingredients, including scallions and pepper, add the egg/water mixture, and six ounces cooked crawfish tails. Stir with a fork until well blended but not smooth; you want it a little lumpy. Drop by spoonfuls into hot oil. When browned, move onto a cookie sheet with paper towels, and place in a warm–well below 451–oven for at least 15 minutes before serving.

Red Remoulade:
1/2 cup Creole mustard
2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil
2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons white vinegar
2 tablespoons finely minced scallion or parsley
Hot sauce to taste (optional)
Horseradish (optional)
Black pepper and salt to taste

Mix well and refrigerate before serving.

Easy Potato Pancakes

Take two cups mashed potatoes, add two beaten eggs, a half cup freshly grated onion, and enough flour to make a loose dough/stiff batter. Season with salt and pepper and drop by spoonfuls into a hot oiled skillet. Cook until browned and edges crisp.

Scallops Veracruz

Mexico has almost six thousand miles of coastline—about half of the estimated total for the U.S.—but mollusks don’t seem to play a proportionate role in Mexican cuisine.

Kennedy includes a scallop cebiche in Cuisines of Mexico, but not any sort of one for oysters. This is not to say that oysters and scallops aren’t eaten in the country, simply that you’ll not find many recipes for them. But recipes for salt-water fish abound, and red snapper Veracruz (huachinango a la Veracruzana), a rich, colorful dish with tomatoes and chilies, is one of the most distinguished. This scallop recipe is a riff on that, lighter and more intense.

Thaw frozen scallops, squeeze and drain. Even fresh scallops are too watery for this dish, so sauté lightly until firm. Then drain, toss with pepper, a bit of salt and a light dusting of plain flour. Brown in the least bit of oil possible, then add by spoonfuls this salsa, and reduce. The dish should be pungent, piquant, and aromatic.

Apple Pecan Cookies

You don’t see many Southern recipes for apple cookies. Apples simply don’t do well in the South, and those that do are usually made into sauces, pies, or cakes. A quick scan of Southern Sideboards, Bayou Cuisine, River Road Recipes, Vintage Vicksburg, Gourmet of the Delta, The Jackson Cookbook, and The Mississippi Cookbook turned up nary a one, but I did find an apple cookie recipe in Hosford Fontaine’s Allison’s Wells: The Last Mississippi Spa, and you can’t get any more Southern than that.  I use Galas or Grannies.

3 cups of unpeeled diced apples
2 sticks butter, softened
¾ cup sugar
¾ cup brown sugar
3 eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups flour
1 tablespoon grated orange peel
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
A half teaspoon each ground cloves, nutmeg, and salt
2 cups rolled oats
¼ cup white raisins
¼ cup chopped pecans

Cream butter and sugars well, add eggs and flour mixed and sifted with spices and baking powder, then stir in apples, oats and nuts. Refrigerate dough for about 30 minutes, stirring once. Form dough into ping pong balls, and bake on a lightly oiled cookie sheet with parchment paper at 350 or until lightly browned. Cool on a wire rack. This recipe makes about two dozen wonderful, chewy, sticky cookies.

Dixie’s Blue Cheese Dressing

Dixie Grimes was chef de cuisine at The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery in Water Valley, Mississippi.

This sinfully delicious and beautifully iconic blue cheese dressing will make your mouth water and your taste buds sing: silky and salty with a hint of sweetness, a perfect showcase for your favorite Maytag or Stilton. It is a beautiful thing; that is, until you have had to make it for a fine dining restaurant on the fly.

This recipe is by far one of the most temperamental that I have ever used. Everything has to be just right, including proper alignment of the stars and planets, and even then it might not work. However, I highly recommend giving it a whirl. The depth and flavor of this dressing is not like anything I have had before or since I worked at the Downtown Grill. We eventually retired it, and I came up with an easier alternative for the prep cooks to make; it would do, but it’s nowhere near as good as this one.

I started my professional culinary career at the Downtown Bar and Grill. I was a prep cook which meant I was the low man on the totem pole, the grunt; it was my job to do whatever the chefs needed me to do and get yelled at constantly for either not doing it properly or quick enough or both. That being said, I could hold my own and for the most part the guys gave me as much respect as a chef will give a prep cook (which ain’t much). I was allowed and expected to make everything and anything the guys needed for service, except of course the blue cheese dressing. Why would they not let me make it? And why did I never see it being made and why was only one person allowed to handle this recipe?

I would soon find out when I saw my name on the prep sheet aside the blue cheese dressing on a football Friday of an Ole Miss home game, in other words no room for error. Had I finally moved up to the upper echelon and was so bad ass that I was going to be allowed to make the sacred and secret blue cheese recipe that only Alison Wilkes was allowed to make? Alison was the Queen of the Downtown Grill and the most difficult recipes were given to her and her alone. It was at that moment I realized that for the first time during my shift Alison was off that night; she had worked earlier in the day and during the chaos the blue cheese was overlooked. The chef forgot to put it on the prep sheet! It was not the call to greatness I thought I had earned, it was out of pure necessity that I was allowed to make this recipe for the first time, much to the trepidation of the chefs as well as me.

There was really no room for failure now, all eyes were on me. I had no idea of the tediousness of executing this recipe, how everything has to be perfect: the measurements, the order of the ingredients as you add them, the temperature of the kitchen and the weather (not even kidding). I had no idea that this recipe had a 99% failure rate for anyone who tried to make it besides Alison. As I was reading through the recipe I remembered two things that Alison had told me prior to my employment at the Downtown Grill when we were just lifetime buddies. I remembered Alison talking about this recipe and that it gave her great pleasure basking in the joy of being only 1 of 20 people in a professional kitchen who could make this dressing that the Grill was so famous for; I also remembered her telling two key pieces of information as to why her always turns out, two things that were NOT written in the recipe. One, that there are three separate ingredients which are incorporated in one at a time, and they have to be added in alphabetical order: EOV; eggs, oil and vinegar. Two, everything has to be basically the same temperature, the bowls for the mixtures, the ingredients, air temp, all the same. Again, these instructions were not included in the recipe, so who knew? Well, Alison, of course.

So armed with this key information, I started the process, praying the whole time; please God let the dressing turn out. As I added the final mixture of vinegar the angels started to sing. ‘Holy crap!’ it’s working, I thought. I could see it coming together. To my surprise, I had done it, but instead of jumping up and down and screaming, which is what I wanted to do, I quietly tucked into my corner, not saying a peep, just getting the sacred dressing ready for service and storage. Then I casually walked up to the chef, container in hand. “Here you go chef. Do you need any on the line?”

Y’all, his jaw literally dropped. “What the hell!” he said. “You actually got it to turn out! We were planning on cussing at you for your futile attempt to make something that couldn’t be made.”

“Guess I just got lucky chef!” I said, remembering something else I learned from Alison: “Never tell the bastards anything.”

Downtown Grill Blue Cheese Dressing

2 eggs, whole
2 cups vegetable oil
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon dried mustard
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon white wine
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
a generous slash of Tabasco
6-8 ounces blue cheese

Using a blender, whip eggs for a minute, then slowly pour in the vegetable oil, a teaspoon at a time, until it starts to come together. Add a vinaigrette made with all the other ingredients. Mix for a minute. Pour dressing in a bowl, stir in crumbled blue cheese, and refrigerate.