Homemade Ice Cream Base

This rich custard makes a sumptuous base for any homemade ice cream, simply add flavorings to taste. Admittedly it is a little time-consuming and takes a bit of patience, but custards were most likely the basis for the rich, unforgettable ice creams your grandmother made on the porch when you were growing up.

Combine 1 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon cornstarch and a scant teaspoon salt in a saucepan. Gradually stir in a quart of half-and-half, stirring constantly and place over low heat. In a large bowl beat together 2 large eggs and a tablespoon of pure vanilla extract until whites and yolks are thoroughly blended. Add this mixture very slowly into the half and half, stirring constantly and gradually increasing heat until thickened. It should have the consistency of eggnog. Stir in a pint of whipping cream and remove from heat. Refrigerate for 45 minutes to cool, then add fruit, nuts and/or flavorings and sugar to taste, place in your ice cream freezer and process according to directions.

Summer Vegetable Stew

The deli at our local grocery serves such a wonderful vegetable soup that many days I’ll get two large servings—at 12 oz. each, a little less than a quart—and make a lunch of that with saltines and tea. Such was my intent yesterday when I strolled in, found the soup bin empty and was told that the vegetable soup was discontinued for the summer, since “nobody eats soup when the weather is hot.”

Well, you know what? Yes, they do, and not just those prissy vichyssoises splashed across the pages of food magazines in June. We’ve enjoyed fresh vegetable soups for centuries here, and rightly so, since the American South produces the finest vegetables on the face of the planet. (There; I’ve said it, the gauntlet is flung. The ball’s in your court.)

Here’s my recipe, which starts with two quarts diced canned tomatoes and juice. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a talented, industrious gardener who cans, and you will have in your larder their red gold. If not, Contadina is the best. Sauté one large diced white onion with three or four diced ribs of celery and two cloves minced garlic in just enough vegetable oil to coat. To this add two cups water or two cups broth, vegetable broth preferably, but a weak chicken will do—in place of veal, you understand—pour this into your lowly-shimmering, beautiful tomatoes along with a cup or so of frozen diced okra, thawed and drained then find something else industrious or enlightening to do for a half-hour or until the onions and okra have surrendered their integrity to the essence of the mélange.

This is your base for the dozens of beautiful vegetable soups you will make throughout the growing season with fresh vegetables. Starchy-ish fresh peas and beans, even green beans, should be parboiled until tender before adding, and I wouldn’t add fresh corn at all, but that makes me an exception. Always add water because evaporation happens, and water is the preferred replacement. I like to add a little V-8, and I always seem to have a half an onion in the fridge I can use. Fresh squash can be diced and added raw, as it tends to meld as does—it should go without saying—fresh okra. As to herbs, I’m frugal; a pinch of thyme and a smidgen of oregano do just fine. Add salt with care and heat seasoning at the table. And yes, you can serve this warm or chilled.

A State Cake

Whenever you see one of those lists of “The Best Cakes in Each State or “The United States of Sweets” or some such, you’re inevitably going to find a hodge-podge of dishes selected by some junior editor at whatever online ad magnet put it together, and while many of them have at least some rational connection with the state via an essential ingredient (e.g. anything involving peaches is a cinch for Georgia, same with cheese for Wisconsin) that’s by no means a hard and fast rule.

However, it should come as no surprise to any of you that most of the states in our Union actually have official state foods, and unsurprisingly most of them are desserts. Official state foods are usually designated to promote a state agricultural product or to recognize a food or dish that has by custom and tradition become characteristic of a particular state. Examples for the former include Vermont’s State Pie (apple), Maine’s State Dessert (blueberry pie, specifically made with Maine blueberries) and the Louisiana State Jellies (mayhaw jelly and Louisiana sugar cane jelly). Blueberries are also the featured fruit in the Minnesota State Cupcake as apples are in the New York State Muffin. The only official state food of Georgia is grits (State Prepared Food) while the Peach Pie is the State Dessert of Delaware and Texas (go figure).Other well-known state pies are those of Florida (Key Lime, of course) and Massachusetts (Boston Cream; the Massachusetts State Doughnut is also a Boston Cream). Massachusetts and New Mexico also have state State Cookies (chocolate chip and biscotto, respectively).

State foods of character and tradition include the locally famous Lane Cake is the State Dessert of Alabama as well as the equally famous Smith Island Cake is that of Maryland. Utah has a State Snack Food (Jell-O!?), and it’s quite characteristic  that the State Snack of Texas is tortilla chips and salsa while that of New York is yogurt. California has all of four State Nuts (almond, pecan, walnut and pistachio).The Rhode Island State Appetizer is calamari. The South Carolina State Snack Food is boiled peanuts, its State Picnic Cuisine barbecue. Louisiana has a State Cuisine (gumbo). But Oklahomans have won the state food contest hands down with a complete State Meal: Chicken-fried steak, barbequed pork, fried okra, squash, cornbread, grits, corn, sausage with biscuits and gravy, black-eyed peas, strawberries, and pecan pie.

But back to the unofficial list. On any given one of these lists of “state cakes”, for Mississippi you’re always going to find Mississippi mud cake, which is not our official state cake. In fact, unless you count largemouth bass, Mississippi doesn’t have a state food. Mississippi mud cake is more of a fudge or a brownie than a cake, and that’s likely how it began, but around fifty years ago in the 70s when all sorts of craziness was going on (yes, I was there), marshmallows—inexplicably and unnecessarily—were introduced. Me, I think marshmallows are an unnecessary adulteration, and Australians seem to agree, since the Aussie mud cake—no, they do not call it Murrumbidgee mud cake—is marshmallow-free.

One icon deserves another, so here’s Tammy Wynette’s recipe for Mississippi mud cake, which she says was taught to her by her mother, Mildred Lee.

2 sticks melted butter
4 eggs, slightly beaten
1 ½ cups plain flour
1 ½ cups pecans, chopped
½ cup cocoa
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon salt
Mix together sugar, cocoa, and butter and eggs. Add flour, pecans, vanilla and salt to above. Bake 35 minutes at 350 degrees in a greased 9×13 oblong pan.
Topping:
Cover with miniature marshmallows and return to oven to melt.
Cream:
½ cup milk
1/3 cup cocoa
1 stick melted butter
1 box powdered sugar
Sift cocoa and powdered sugar, add milk and butter. Mix until smooth, then put on top of cake.

Carol’s Carrot Cake

This recipe from a dear friend is the only one for a carrot cake I’ve ever used and the only one you’ll ever need. Though there is a tendency in most recipes to label alcoholic ingredients—in this case the dark rum—optional, but I consider the flavor essential to the recipe; even if you’re a teetotaler, the alcohol burns off in the cooking and good heavens you’re bound to know someone with a bottle about their house. I like a mix of gold and dark raisins and prefer salted pecans to walnuts.

Mix thoroughly ¾ cup vegetable oil and ¾ cup warm buttermilk with ¾ cup white and ¾ cup light brown sugar (you don’t have to pack it). Set aside. Sift together 2 ½ cups plain flour, 2 teaspoons baking soda, 2 teaspoons each ground cinnamon and ground ginger, a teaspoon salt and a couple dashes of nutmeg. Add half the dry ingredients to the oil/buttermilk mixture, and the rest alternately with 4 well-beaten eggs at room temperature. Add two cups grated carrots, about ¾ cup raisins, ¾ cup chopped nuts and a cup of drained crushed pineapple. Finish off with a tablespoon of vanilla extract and a generous slug of dark rum. Pour batter into an oiled Bundt or two 9 in. oiled and floured layer pans and bake at 375 until fragrant and springy. For the frosting, mix a pound of cream cheese and ½ stick butter at room temperature with powdered sugar to texture and finely grated dried apricot for that hint of orange.

How to Cook a Green Ham

Ham is the quintessential meat of the Southern table, featured in or supporting dozens and dozens of dishes across our sideboard. But there are hams and then there are hams.

The finest hams are dry cured. These hams can be eaten very thinly sliced, but they need to be soaked in pure water at least a day if baked for the table. These are often labeled country hams. So-called city hams, the kind you most often find in the supermarket, are wet-cured by injection of brine. Smoked hams are a variant of both, with smoke preserving and providing flavor.

Then you have the green ham, which is what your grandmother called a leg of pork that hasn’t been cured. You’ll find it sold as a fresh ham; you may have to look for it, you may even have to order one, but a green ham is no more trouble than any other kind, and it’s a worthy option to the nitrate-infused clubs you’ve been serving all these years.

A green ham should be covered in a rind and a layer of fat. Score the rind in a tight crisscross pattern with a very sharp knife and coat with garlic and sage, a little brown sugar, coarsely-ground pepper and sea salt; put sprigs of rosemary and coarsely chopped white onions with water to cover in the pan. Set the ham fatty side up on a rack in a heavy pan with enough water to just cover the bottom. Place in a high oven, right at 450. After thirty minutes, decrease the temperature to 350. For a ten-pound ham, give it three hours or until that little bone next to the big one wiggles freely. Turn the oven off and let the ham sit for at least another hour before carving.

The Mississippi Premiere of “A Streetcar Named Desire”

The opening of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on December 3, 1947 proved to be a watershed in the history of American theatre. The cruelty, agony, gritty dialogue and smoldering eroticism shocked the audience, but they responded with  prolonged, enthusiastic applause to Williams’ “poignant and luminous” story that, coming on the heels of his pathos-ridden The Glass Menagerie established him as the foremost figure in American drama and transformed Jessica Tandy as well as the then relatively unknown Kim Hunter and Marlon Brando into stars of the first magnitude.

Williams’ masterpiece, considered by many to be the finest American drama of the 20th century, became an international sensation with a string of dazzling national debuts in Mexico City and in Brussels in December, 1948, and the following year in Amsterdam and Rome—with sets designed by Franco Zeffirelli—in January; in Athens and in Gothenburg, Sweden—directed by Ingman Bergman—in March; and in Paris in Jean Cocteau’s adaptation, and in London—directed by Laurence Olivier—in October. (Olivier, apologetically, wrote to Tennessee: “I honestly think the play is a little long.”).

When Streetcar closed on Broadway in 1949 after a run of 855 performances, two distinguished road companies continued to bring the play to cities across the nation. The first road company starred Anthony Quinn as Stanley and Uta Hagen as Blanche (the film version with Vivian Leigh was released in 1951); the second road company, which staged the Mississippi premiere, featured Ralph Meeker and Judith Evelyn. Meeker assumed the role after a highly successful run as Henry Fonda’s understudy in Mister Roberts and went on to star in Inge’s Picnic (1954). His most memorable film role is of Mike Hammer in Robert Aldrich’s film production of Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955). You might remember Evelyn as Miss Lonelyhearts, the alcoholic spied on by James Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954).

The Mississippi premiere of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire was held on December 12, 1949 at the Jackson City Auditorium. The performance was reviewed by the inestimable Charlotte Capers, the principal architect and most distinguished director of the Mississippi Department of Archives & History as well as a literary light in her own right. Capers’ review catches the power of the performances (though thinks Meeker’s Stanley as “too simian”), and after giving an Aristotelian justification to questions of, “Who would write such a thing?” (to achieve “a catharsis of the soul”) states that:

“To the audience that complained about the theme of the play, we would suggest that before buying tickets, they check the subject. Certainly it was not an evening of entertainment, and anyone who went expecting to be entertained was disappointed. There were a few moments of intense pity, shattered by misplaced laughs. We couldn’t place the blame here, perhaps the cast, perhaps the audience.”

With this Capers testifies that theatre-goers in Jackson were just as shocked as those in the seats at the Ethel Barrymore (almost precisely) two years before, and while perhaps not as enthusiastic, experienced the same catharsis of soul, the same revelations theatre provides in its highest forms.

Oyster Soup with Artichoke and Spinach

This light savory soup is good cool or warm, and such dishes are at their best on a spring or autumn table for a warm day or a cool night. The base is a blend of store-bought beef and chicken bone broth: The flavor is minimal, as is the color; it’s used simply for its texture.

Add three cups chopped fresh or two cups well-drained frozen spinach and two jars quartered marinated artichoke hearts with liquid, thyme, basil, chives and just a knife point of minced garlic and cook “with a smile”, meaning just at a simmer for about fifteen minutes, double that if the spinach is raw. Use a quart of oysters, the liquor too if clear, but if cloudy, rinse the oysters and dust with salt and pepper. You’ll often read that oysters should be heated “until the edges curl” before serving, but I suspect this is an echo of those gentler days when a hot soup was finished off in a tureen and brought to table, since oysters cook quickly and are soon firm through and through. Top with finely cut fresh scallions for a nice bite.

Edwards House Chicken

Several weeks ago, I received a query via the Sideboard from former Jacksonian Sombra Laubach:

“Would like the King Edward Hotel recipe for chicken thighs baked with thyme and onions, please. My Jackson Symphony Cookbook disappeared. This was a recipe in the cookbook that the King Edward Motel was famous for back in the 70s. It is a favorite of mine over the years. Thrilled the King Edward Hotel has been refurbished!! Thank you for the recipe in advance. Hope all is wonderful in Jackson, my hometown!!”

I soon received a similar request from Diane Flowers and went looking for the recipe. I have The Jackson Cookbook, a superb collection with an introduction by Eudora published in 1975, but kept missing the recipe until a neighbor who is a native Jacksonian pointed it out to me (Thanks, Margaret!) In my defense, the recipe is credited to the “Edwards House”—as opposed to the King Edward Hotel—and I’m not really sure why. Perhaps the hotel restaurant was called the “Edwards House” though given the suspiciously archaic phrasing the recipe may date back to the early quarter of the century, which makes it really special indeed, an indication of the level of culinary hospitality in the city at that time.

The recipe is a classic fricassee, chicken fried and braised, simple yet rich, with a sublime aroma, all characteristic of haute cuisine of the sort you’d expect to have found in an establishment such as the King Edward in its heyday. Sombra said she doesn’t bread her chicken at all, that the onions were sliced thick enough not to singe and that basting is crucial. Me, I used boneless thighs skewered and lightly floured (no drenching beforehand) with salt and pepper, the beautiful early yellow onions we have coming to market now and a mixture of green and dried thyme. Use a medium heat—the butter will burn if too hot—and give the chicken a good browning. I wilted the onions in the oil/butter before topping the chicken, drizzle with more of the mix and placed it in a medium (350) oven for about half an hour.

Edwards House Chicken with Red Comeback Bruschetta