Roaring Tapioca

My sister Cindy was a beautiful woman, and when she was young competed in pageants. Cindy was graceful as well as one of the most informed, well-read people I’ve ever known, but though she was a world-class baton twirler and could make a passable melody on a clarinet, singing and dancing simply weren’t her strong points.

Nonetheless for a county-level Miss Mississippi preliminary, my mother (a formidable woman who loved her children) decided that Cindy should forego her baton-twirling—which Momma considered totally déclassé—and instead dance to the title tune from the Broadway musical Thoroughly Modern Millie. Cindy practiced her heart out, but she placed first runner-up to a girl who belted out “Stand By Your Man” with such fury that the windows of the Calhoun City school gym rattled. (She also went to MSU; Cindy was enrolled at Ole Miss, and since three of the five judges were State fans, Mother declared that was the deciding factor in their judgement.)

As a result Cindy gave up competitions, and I inadvertently memorized the soundtrack to Thoroughly Modern Millie, including a tune called “The Tapioca”. For the past thirty years (or so) this song (“Join me in the Tapioca?”) was the closest I ever got to actually eating tapioca, since this pudding just isn’t something you typically find on the Southern sideboard. Consequently and moreover tapioca has always in my mind been associated flappers, Fitzgerald and the 1920s. But recently I’ve had a bee in my bonnet over tapioca, a dish I hadn’t thought about in any depth for over thirty years, one I had yet to even taste, and nothing else would do except for me to cook and eat it. Call it mental floss.

Now tapioca isn’t something you typically find in Southern supermarkets; oh, you might find containers of the pudding already made, but almost never the starch itself, usually sold as “pearls”. Tapioca pearls come in two sizes, large and small; the large pearls are about the size of a jeweler’s pearl, whereas the small pearls are the size of those candy sprinkles you’d buy to put on cakes and ice cream. Both are simply a processed form of cassava starch. Pearl tapioca is a common ingredient in South, East and Southeast Asian desserts such as falooda, kolak, sago soup, and in sweet drinks such as bubble tea, fruit slush and taho, so it probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to you all that the only place I could find it was at Mr. Chen’s up on I-55, my favorite shopping destination in the city. I can get anything from Mr. Chen.

Nobody and I do mean nobody cooks tapioca exactly the same way. Everybody soaks the pearls, but for different lengths of time; everybody uses milk for cooking, but everybody uses a different kind of milk; everybody uses eggs, but some use yolks only, some use whipped whites, some use whole eggs, and I read at least two recipes that used all three and called it Colchester pudding. The only thing everyone agreed on was that the pudding needed to be cooked at an even, high heat, but not boiled.

Me, I soaked a cup of large pearls in two cups of water overnight. In the morning they looked very much like cottage cheese. I put the drained tapioca in a slow cooker on high with four cups whole milk and one cup whole cream (you could of course use five cups half-and-half, but I just didn’t have any on hand). After two hours of occasional stirring, the tapioca had thickened considerably, so I beat a whole egg with three egg yolks, tempered it into the mixture by adding the hot tapioca to the eggs bit by bit until it could be added without curdling, cooked it for another half hour then sweetened with a half cup of sugar and flavored with two teaspoons vanilla. This procedure makes enough tapioca pudding—actually more a custard—for at least a dozen people. I served it with raspberry sauce, and at first taste felt as if I stood on the edge of a far-away bay staring at the light on a distant dock.

 

Beth Ann’s Banana Bread

“Oh, she’d make banana bread like anyone else, in a loaf pan, nutmeg, pecan and all that, but what she did special was serve it with sour cream and honey. Now, this was good cold, too, but if she got that loaf just right out of the oven, you’d have it the best. Melt in your mouth.”

Hot Mustard

Many people serve a baked ham for Easter and with it mustard in degrees of heat and sweet. These confections are made in advance, best at least the night before, though always good to have on hand. This recipe is also good with any smoked meat, particularly turkey. Beat well three whole eggs, combine with a cup of Coleman’s dry mustard, a cup of herb vinegar—balsamic or tarragon—and a half cup of light brown sugar. Cook over low heat until thickened, chill and store. This preparation keeps quite well in a tightly sealed container.

Egg Salad: Art, Angst and Espionage

Egg salad and its culinary counterparts tuna and chicken simply reek of ladies’ luncheons and soda fountain sandwiches. Pimento and cheese once had similar associations, but now thanks to the same Southern machismo ethic that has established eating a Duke’s dripping white bread Vidalia onion sandwich over the kitchen sink virtually a rite of passage has now transcended such effete associations and often finds itself served in micro-breweries with an unassuming amber larger. Still and all, the South is nothing if not traditional, and egg salad perseveres as a staple at distaff functions and an essential at christenings, weddings and those inevitable funerals.

Egg salad in and of itself is a simple recipe, nothing more than chopped, cooked—usually boiled—eggs blended with a sauce or emulsion to make a spread, but as with most simple recipes, variations abound and additions are discussed, debated and occasionally disputed. For instance, olives seem to be a traditional addition throughout the nation, but most recipes from the South tend to include black olives whereas above the Mason-Dixon Line green olives with pim(i)ento stuffing is the general rule. Woody Allen trivialized egg salad in his 1966 feature film debut as the object of Phil Moskowitz’s search for the stolen recipe of the Grand Exalted High Majah of Raspur, giving heft to my argument that when it comes to egg salad people can work themselves into a froth over seemingly the most insignificant details, which puts food right up there with art and law.

Yes, use boiled eggs; though I’m certain some misguided if not to say unbalanced individuals actually do make egg salad with scrambled eggs, or horror of horrors compounded mangled omelets or even worse  God help us please not quiche, boiled eggs are traditional for a good reason; don’t even think about it, just use boiled eggs and don’t over-cook them. I mash mine with a wide-tined fork and add good mayonnaise to texture. Adjust the amount to your own tastes; me, I like it a little on the dry/chunky side as opposed to the creamy/smooth. Of course I use black olives, usually canned pitted jumbo, but Kalamata give it a nice salty kick and the olive oil is a nice touch. Finely-chopped celery and green onion give egg salad a better texture, a dash of pepper vinegar or lemon juice gives it a little bite, and I like mine peppery, served on rye toast with a light Pilsner.

Creamed Eggs Chartres

Very soon you’re bound to have a few boiled eggs left over, and here’s a great recipe for a light buffet any time of the day.

Brennan’s of New Orleans: Creamed Eggs Chartres

1 cup finely chopped/shredded white onions
1/3 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
2 cups of milk
1 egg yolk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 hard boiled eggs, peeled and sliced (reserving 4 center slices for garnishment)
2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon of paprika

In a large skillet sauté onion in butter until clear/transparent; stir in flour and cook slowly 3-5 minutes more. Blend in milk and egg yolk until smooth. Add salt and pepper. Cook, stirring constantly, 8-10 minutes longer or until sauce thickens. Remove from heat, add sliced eggs and mix lightly. Spoon into 2 8-oz casseroles and sprinkle with paprika and Parmesan cheese mixed together. Bake at 350 degrees until thoroughly headed. Garnish with eggs slices; serves two. This is a wonderful breakfast or brunch recipe, and can be served in a casserole with toasted French bread slices.

Joe Ann’s Little Cornbread Wafers

You’ll find milled corn cooked all over the world now, in its simplest and still most popular—do any of you really like polenta? I mean, grits make sense, but come on—form as a bread among many of the hundreds that are a staple of several dozens of global cuisines, basic breads which aren’t anything but corn of some ilk, water and maybe grease, tricky recipes since they have to be handled properly, and there’s always a necessary procedure else you’re just making a mess. This recipe of Joe Ann’s is as they all are simple and time-consuming, but as Joe Ann says, “A labor of love, but worth it.”

Your oven should be hot, about 450, and the pan you bake these on should be oiled on the generous side and in the oven well beforehand. The batter should be thick, manageable with a spoon; think pancakes. Salt, a scant teaspoon to a cup of meal, two tablespoons oil; melted butter is best, but vegetable oil will do, mix cup for cup with hot water. There’s not a lot of batter involved, like a tablespoon for each 3 in. cake, but they take a while, so get on social media and vent for twenty minutes before taking a peek, and if the cakes are ever-so-lightly browned on the outsides—these are some of the prettiest little breads you’ll ever make—what I do is turn them over, return them to the oven and cut it off, then I can go back and rail at the world again. These should be served hot, directly from the oven, but reheat beautifully.