Oven Anchos

Wipe clean, slit lengthways and place on a cookie sheet with lightly oiled parchment paper in the oven at its lowest setting. Bear in mind you do not want the peppers fragile; you’re looking for a leathery texture such that will reconstitute with in stewed beef or pork. These peppers took four hours with two turns. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon.

 

The Downside of White Fruitcake

 When I showed Willis this photo of a white fruitcake he sneered in disdain.

“See how they’re pushing that post-menopausal philosophy so innocently,” he said, dangling a beer in his left hand and a cigarette in the right, “even going so far as to bleach such a dark, nutty intensely sensual confection.”

“Willis, It’s a just fruitcake, for Pete’s sake.”

“Oh, yes,” he said with a wink. “It’s also symbolically homophobic, exclusive of anything of a sexual nature. Short of an old white woman, it’s the very physical expression of spinsterhood.”

“You can’t deconstruct a fruitcake, Willis.”

The Orchid in the Kitchen

In November 2015, Hershey’s announced that it would swap out the artificial ingredient “vanillin” for the real deal in its kisses and chocolate bars. Vanilla extract climbed to $150, $200, then $275 a gallon. This March cyclone Enawo devastated Madagascar, the world’s leading producer of vanilla, and given the three-  four-year life cycle of vanilla, extract spiked on March 7 to $700 a gallon.

How is it that vanilla, the most alluring essence in the world, lush and sensual, now is consigned as a byword for the bland and banal? Lagriffe wrote that vanilla “is not, strictly speaking, either a spice or a seasoning; it would seem more exact to call it a perfume,” which might go a long way in explaining its proverbial usage on country siren’s ears or ankles.

Vanilla—like chocolate—comes from Central America and is the only member of the orchid family—which some maintain is the largest plant family in the world—that is widely used as a foodstuff. The main species harvested for vanilla is Vanilla planifolia, a vine that can grow up to thirty feet long. The flowers are naturally pollinated by native bees or by hummingbirds, none of which—unlike the plant itself—have flourished outside of Mesoamerica, but in 1841 a simple and efficient artificial hand-pollination method using a beveled sliver of bamboo was developed by a 12-year-old slave named Edmond Albius on Réunion that is still used.

The fruit—a seed capsule—if left on the plant ripens and opens at the end (it’s here that I mention the root of ‘vanilla’ is ‘vagina’); as it dries, the fruits take on a diamond-dusted appearance, which the French—who have all these chic names for everything—call givre (hoarfrost). It then releases the distinctive vanilla smell. The fruit contains tiny black seeds, and in dishes prepared with whole natural vanilla, particularly ice cream, these seeds are recognizable as black specks, but both the pod and the seeds are used in cooking.

Mexican vanilla is still the most intense and robust, but closer to home, when buying vanilla extract in the store examine the label and don’t purchase any with ‘vanillin’ on the label. For many cooks—me included—vanilla is an important addition to almost any cake or cookie, and while you might be tempted to serve hot chocolate or cider with a cinnamon stick, try serving cups with a piece of vanilla bean.

Plate from Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (1731–1743).

Noting the Garden

No matter which gutter of the global warming argument you trickle down, barring an asteroid impact—I think we have a 7-year window for those—we’re not likely to see anything drastic in the next century, so don’t let the likelihood that your great-grandchildren can’t grow roses keep you from telling them that you did. Keep a garden notebook, if only by writing on a funeral home/insurance company/alumni organization wall calendar when you plant a bulb, move a shrub or sow your greens, the date of a late frost and of course the first ripe tomato. Do not neglect to include such enriching details as when Heather drove her three-wheeler all over Sally Jane’s daylily bed as well as accounts or video of the mayhem and its consequences. Start today.

Gertrude Jekyll, the goddess of garden writing.

Kettle-Fried Matzo Balls

The name beneath this recipe from New Stage Theatre’s Standing Room Only: Recipes for Entertaining (1983) is Ellen Douglas, but everyone should know that Ellen Douglas is the pen name for writer Josephine Ayers Haxton. Born in Natchez, she married composer Kenneth Haxton in 1945 and shortly afterwards moved to Haxton’s hometown of Greenville. There she befriended Shelby Foote and Hodding Carter and began writing in earnest.

According to the author, she entered into a wager with her husband and a mutual friend on who could finish a novel in the least amount of time and won the bet. The resulting work, A Family’s Affairs (1962), is largely autobiographical in nature, requiring her to get her family’s permission to publish the narrative and resulting in her adoption of the pen name Ellen Douglas. The book not only sold well, but it also won the Houghton Mifflin Esquire Fellowship Award for best new novel and was named as one the year’s ten best books by The New York Times. Her second work, Black Cloud, White Cloud (1963), a collection of short stories, also won the Houghton Mifflin Esquire Fellowship Award, and her 1973 novel Apostles of Light was a finalist for the National Book Award. Other works include The Rock Cried Out (1973) and A Lifetime Burning (1982). Josephine Haxton died in Jackson in 2012.

Though Ayers was not Jewish, her mother-in-law Ellise Blum Haxton was the daughter of Jewish merchant Aaron Blum of Nelms and Blum department store in Greenville, and this recipe may have come from her kitchen. From my (demonstrably obvious non-Jewish) perspective, fried matzos seem like just another variety of hushpuppy, though serving them with catfish—which is decidedly non-kosher—might be a bit rude. These make a great side for any number of meat dishes—baked chicken or fish, beef roast, what have you—but they’re also a great buffet nosh served with a sauce made with one part each grated horseradish, sour cream and mayonnaise seasoned with salt and cayenne to taste.

Soak two matzo crackers in water; drain and squeeze dry. Heat 2 tablespoons chicken fat, and sauté ¼ medium onion until golden brown. Add soaked matzos and cook and stir until the mixture “clears” the skillet. Cool. Add a teaspoon chopped parsley, a teaspoon salt, a quarter teaspoon of ground ginger, an eighth teaspoon both ground pepper and nutmeg, two lightly beaten eggs and enough matzo meal (about a quarter cup) to make a soft dough. Let stand for several hours to swell. Shape into small balls. Fry in deep fat (assumedly not lard, jly) until golden brown. The balls can be formed and frozen before frying. (This recipe makes about 20 balls.)

Jello Spaghetti-Os

Some people take themselves far too seriously. If you look around the internet for postings of this dish—I assure you there are many—you’ll find reactions bespeaking of ponderous gravitas: “disgusting” they exclaim; “incomprehensible” they bemoan.

Others possessing a lighter heart and more expansive philosophy—among whom naturally I number myself—recognize this recipe for what it is, a work of sheer, unadulterated genius. Many err in crediting this dish to Ernest Mickler, specifically citing his enduring epic White Trash Cooking as the source. Not so; Ernie (as well as his correspondents) was a more discerning sort. No, this concoction is the fabrication of some double-wide Warhol who set his hat to come up with an iconic work of art for those of us who think Martha Stewart should still be wearing that ankle bracelet.

Dissolve two envelopes unflavored gelatin in a quarter cup of water. When gelatin has bloomed, add a half can condensed tomato soup, heat and add two cans Spaghetti-Os. Stir until well-blended, cool, pour into a ring mold and chill until firm. Vienna sausages (admittedly Freudian) are sine qua non for the presentation, and those of a particularly refined bent top them with a curl of Cheese Whiz.

Deviled Oysters

This recipe can be adjusted as dip or spread by varying the amounts of mayonnaise and/or sour cream used. Of course the oysters are smoked, added deviling is from a combination of pepper and horseradish. The essential consideration is the ratio of oysters to cream cheese, which should be almost if not precisely 1:1. Green onions, finely chopped black olives or mild peppers are options.

Soften an eight-ounce package of cream cheese and blend in six to eight ounces of minced smoked oysters. I always add about a tablespoon or so of the liquid from the can to kick up the smokiness. Mix in at least a tablespoon each of mayo and sour cream—more of either if you want a creamier texture—and the juice of half a lemon. Add horseradish (at least a tablespoon), cayenne and salt to taste.