Chard in the Yard

Like many gardeners in the Deep South, I grow leaf vegetables and greens during our mild winters as much for their beauty as for their taste—the lemon-yellow spikes of bolting mustard and collard provide luminous company for spring dandelions and daffodils. For many years, I’ve dismissed rainbow chard, with its bold greens, sassy yellows and reds, as gaudy, but this year, I decided I was just being a closet case and planted a plot of them. They thrived. Every time I pass them I feel like putting on a pair of heels and tossing glitter. Mix chard with spinach, bib lettuce and bok choy, dress with vinegar and oil.

An Heirloom Red Velvet

Great cakes don’t come out of a box. No, they come from handwork, sacks and shells, from old tried-and-true recipes and those who have made them. Such cakes are not only worthy of serving to family and guests, but they’re also fun to make. Most of the best of them involve complicated procedures that aren’t that time-consuming at all if you’re a dedicated home cook in the first place, and pulling a perfectly-cooked cake out of the oven is a simply unmatchable experience. After beaming at your creation for a few minutes, you get to decorate; the cake is your canvas, and you are the artist of this most temporary of masterpieces.

Legend has it that the original recipe for the red velvet cake is from the kitchens of the Waldorf-Astoria, but there’s no solid opinion on that. The cake became popular here sometime after World War II, when the South began to become much more a part of the nation as a whole. Me, I think that the red velvet cake is a variation of the old devil’s food cake and that the name changed because many good religious women were just not going to bring Satan’s bounty to their tables. It has the same texture, and while no cocoa is used in the icing, the cake’s primary flavoring is cocoa. This is a family recipe, one of the dozen or so I still have from my mother’s hand. I’m almost sure she got it from her grandmother Eula, who came from a line of exceptional cooks. Her sister, my Aunt Leila, became legendary for her cakes, pickles and preserves. They were all very strict Baptists, and I suspect they were among the ones who would simply not feed their folks devil’s food; doubtless they didn’t want to nurture what they knew was a genetic predisposition for devilment. (It didn’t work.)

Two elements of this recipe betray its age. First is that it employs a “boiled icing”, meaning an icing that is produced pretty much in the way you would make a sauce or a gravy, by heating starch in a liquid. In some cookbooks, this is referred to as a “roux icing”, but it’s a very raw roux indeed. The advantage to this type of icing is that you don’t have to warm it to ice your cake (in fact it needs cooling), and it tastes so much better than that lard and confectioner’s sugar gloop you get at the supermarket. Second is the leavening, which involves that chemistry set action of putting baking soda in a bit of vinegar and watching it foam. The acidic buttermilk in the batter provides additional frothing and the end result is, well, velvety. Many of you will probably take issue with the amount of food coloring involved, but try to relax; besides, it’s so much fun dribbling that red food coloring into your white batter and swirling it in. The absolute best part of course is eating it. If you really want it good, wrap layers in wax paper individually overnight before frosting.

Batter: 1 cup vegetable shortening, 1 ¼ cup sugar, 2 eggs, 1 teaspoon vanilla flavoring, 2 ¼ cups plain flour, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 tablespoon cocoa, 1 cup buttermilk, 2 ounces red food coloring, 1 teaspoon baking soda and 1 tablespoon vinegar. Cream shortening and sugar, and add well-beaten eggs and vanilla. Sift flour, salt and cocoa three times. Add dry ingredients alternately with buttermilk. Blend in food coloring. Dissolve soda in vinegar, and fold into batter. Bake in 3 layers at 350 degrees.
Frosting: 1 ½ cups milk, 4 ½ tablespoons flour, 1 ½ cups butter (3 sticks), 1 ½ cups sugar, 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla flavoring. Gradually add milk to flour in double boiler, stirring constantly until it is thicker than pudding. Remove from heat and stir until cooled. Cream butter and sugar for at least ten minutes, then add vanilla and continue creaming until fluffy. Add flour and milk mixture to creamed butter and sugar and beat at least ten minutes or until no grains of sugar can be detected. Frost and sprinkle with crushed walnuts or pecans.

Paul Crechale’s Bienville

Nowadays most discussions—more often polemics—about culinary authenticity involve terms such as “the salience of ethnic identity” and “aligning broader socio-political representations”. These investigations certainly have their place in this global franchise we call a world, but when it comes to a specific restaurant recipe, we’re on less esoteric footing. We know that at some point in time, at this particular place, a recipe was formulated, prepared and served, a recipe that became an archetype for any that followed, and our best means of replicating such dishes is to find recipes written by people who are thoroughly familiar with the original and have the wherewithal to replicate it with authority.

Such is the case with Arnaud’s signature recipe for oysters Bienville in Bayou Cuisine that’s credited to Jackson restaurateur Paul Crechale. This recipe rings with authenticity and authority. Note the use of a beige roux to thicken, cream and egg yolks to enrich, mushrooms, shrimp and a hard dry cheese for substance.

Prepare the sauce by browning lightly in 3 tablespoons butter 2 minced onions. Stir in 3 tablespoons flour and cook, stirring constantly until the mixture is lightly browned. Be sure not to let it burn. Add gradually 1 ½ cups chicken consommé, ½ cup white wine, 1 cup minced raw mushrooms and 1 ½ cups chopped cooked shrimp. Cook slowly, stirring constantly, for 10 minutes. Open 3 dozen oysters and put them in their deep shells (my italics, jly) on individual baking dishes. Bake the oysters in their own juices in a moderate oven (350) for about 6 minutes. Thicken sauce with 2 egg yolks beaten with 2 tablespoons heavy cream and heat the sauce without boiling. Cover each oyster with some of the sauce and sprinkle lightly with equal parts of dry bread crumbs and grated Parmesan or Romano cheese. Return the oysters to the oven for about 10 minutes, until the topping is browned.

Barbarians in the Kitchen

Before the cosmopolitan citizens of Hamburg, Germany began cooking it and putting it between sliced bread, steak tartar–as such it was served–consisted of lean, raw beefsteak minced, mixed with egg and seasonings. The dish came to western Europe from eastern Slavic regions, which has a long history of Mongol encroachment. The Mongols’ Turkic allies, known the Tatars, were known from Tartary, which was essentially Mongolia, though the name was a conflation of Tatar with the Greek stories of Tartarus (i.e. Hell). Tartars had a tradition of finely mincing very tough meats like horse and camel to make them edible, then binding the meat with milk or eggs. Stories of this dish being made by placing the meat under a saddle to ride upon it until tender probably came from the use of thin slices of meat to protect saddle sores from further abrasion.

Similarly, tartar sauce, or as the French refer to it, sauce tartare, consists of mayonnaise, mustard, chives, chopped gherkins, and tarragon in various combinations. In French, it is loosely translated as ‘rough,’ as the Tartars were considered rough, violent, and savage. But in his Creole Cook Book, irrepressible Lafcadio Hearn, a devoted journalist with a light heart, gives us a recipe for tartar sauce that harkens back to the days when the Golden Horde still prowled around the Great Gates of Kiev.

HOW TO MAKE TARTAR SAUCE

There are two good ways in which a Tartar sauce may be made. You can try whichever you please; but if you are in a hurry the second will suit your purpose better than the first.

1st: Catch a young Tartar: for the old ones are very tough and devoid of juice. To catch a Tartar is generally a very unpleasant and at all times a difficult undertaking. A young Tartar will probably cost you at least $10,000—and perhaps your life—before you get through with him: but if you must have Tartar sauce you must be ready to take all risks. Having procured your Tartar you must kill him privately, taking care that the act shall escape the observation of the police authorities, who would probably in such a case be strongly prejudiced in favor of the Tartar. Having killed, skinned and cleaned the Tartar, cut off the tenderest part of the hams and thighs; boil three hours, and then hash up with Mexican pepper, aloes and spices. Add a quart of mulled wine and slowly boil to the consistency of honey. You will probably find the Tartar sauce very palatable; and if hermetically sealed in bottles with the addition of a little Santa Cruz rum, will serve for a long time. The rest of the Tartar will not keep, and must be disposed of judiciously.

2nd: Take the yolk of a hardboiled egg, a teaspoonful of mustard, a tablespoonful of olive oil, a little vinegar, a little parsley and pickled cucumber, and hash up very fine.

Here’s a modern-day recipe that is simple and delicious. Finely mince dill pickles (I use kosher spears) to make about a third a cup and add about a tablespoon finely minced capers. Chives, dill and/or tarragon are customary options. Mix with a cup of mayonnaise and the juice of half a lemon. This keeps in the refrigerator for several days.

Ginger-Pecan Shortbread Cookies

People will tell you that shortbread is just what they call a cookie in the UK, but in my book shortbread is more like pound cake, a simple, versatile sweet you can put together and on the table in a very short time.  This recipe makes a rich and aromatic, soft and crumbly cookie or small cake that goes perfectly with a hot drink—coffee, tea, cocoa, even sweet mulled wine—and it’s so simple a child can make it.

Cream 1 stick butter with a cup of confectioner’s sugar, and a teaspoon each almond and vanilla extract. Blend in 2 cups plain flour sifted with a teaspoon of baking powder, a  half cup chopped pecans and a tablespoon ground ginger. (I have tried this recipe with freshly-grated ginger, and it simply does not work at all well at all with so much butter.) This mixture makes a soft, elastic dough that you have to work with flour-dusted hands to form into a ball. Pat or roll the dough ball out into an 8” round, score into six wedges and crimp the edges with a fork. Bake on an ungreased cookie sheet at 375 until the edges are just brown. Cut and serve. This recipe makes great cookies, too, and is doubled or tripled easily.

The Sardonic Sardine

Some years ago, an obscure editor at a well-known magazine prevailed upon his famous food writer to come up with a piece on sardines. Now, an editor is nothing more than an ego who can spell, so to say that coercion was involved over this story is an understatement of near biblical proportions; the poor writer’s feet were probably held to some hellish, check-denying fire until he came up with a printable essay on a subject he obviously considered far beneath his dignity. The end product, a minor etude of culinary literature memorable primarily by its invective, was infused with caustic bemusement and only a very, very small degree of begrudging admiration for the fish itself. The subject took second place to the condescension that infected every sentence. I wish I had the essay at hand to give an example of scathing hauteur; trust me, us pissed off writers recognize one other.

What the writer was trying to do (with limited success) was to raise the sardine to such a degree of sophistication that it fit seamlessly in between the inexplicably anorexic homoerotic fashions, the absolutely incomprehensible art, and exhausting columns of blithering prose. He began with an “imagine this” sort of scenario in which a thin, impeccably dressed Parisienne strolls into a bistro on the Champs E’lysee, orders a beer with sardines au plat, then squats and gobbles without getting so much as a spot on her designer duds. Well, it could happen, I suppose; sardines au plat are little more than broiled herrings, but the idea of a chic young Frenchwoman sitting down to beer and sardines in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower is discordant, which of course is the point he was trying to make.

Now, sardines aren’t a specific kind of fish as much as they are a type of fish; many species of small herrings are caught, canned and marketed as sardines. Ounce for ounce, sardines rank among the most nutritious foodstuffs in the world: they’re chock-full of calcium, potassium, vitamin D and all the “good fats”; one can, about three and a half ounces drained, has less than 200 calories. They’re also (like most canned fish) ridiculously cheap, less than $2 a serving. Yet most people turn their noses up at sardines. Why? Well, they smell bad, for one thing, but that’s not the main reason; lots of people eat stuff that smells bad, especially when nutrition isn’t particularly a key consideration. No, the reason people don’t eat sardines is because in this neck of the woods they’re considered trashy, so trashy that you’ll not find a single sardine recipe in any of Jill Connor Browne’s otherwise excellent culinary compilations.

If you want to try sardines for the first time, get a can of Port Clydes (in oil) and drain them; use a colander if you feel the need, but do not rinse them with water. Instead, sprinkle them with a little freshly-squeezed lemon juice and just a bit of kosher salt, set them in a sealed container in the refrigerator until thoroughly chilled and eat them with sour gherkins, raw celery and onions, and have your favorite beer with them. Dill toast is wonderful alongside, but rye Melba will suffice and saltines of any sort will do any time at all.

Bahr on the M&SV

Among the most distinguished and elegant writers in the Mississippi canon, Howard Bahr writes compelling novels of the American Civil War. Bahr is the winner of the 2007 Michael Shaara Prize for Excellence in Civil War Fiction for his book The Judas Field. His novel The Black Flower: A Novel of the Civil War received the W.Y. Boyd Literary Award for Excellence in Military Fiction in 1998, and in 2011 Bahr was the winner of the Mississippi Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Literary Arts. Between 1968 and 1973, Bahr worked in various positions for the Illinois Central Railroad, theAlabama, Tennessee, and Northern Railway, Missouri Pacific Railroad, the Southern Railway, and the CB&Q Railroad. A friend and neighbor, he kindly consented to interpret this old schedule for the Mississippi & Skuna Valley Railroad.

The Mississippi & Skuna Valley Railroad was constructed between May 1925, and September 1926. The M&SV came off the Illinois Central main line at Bryant, just south of Coffeeville. The road was twenty-one miles long running slightly northeast; at its terminus, the town of Bruce, Mississippi, was built around the E. L. Bruce Co. lumber mill. Original motive power was one Prairie Class (2-6-2) steam engine. Sometime before 1952, the road obtained at least three seventy-ton GE diesel switch engines. The M&SV also operated a motor rail car (named “Bruce”) for express and passenger service. The car was a coach body set on a Reo truck chassis.

The M&SV timetable is from the August, 1952, edition of The Official Guide of the Railways. Among the common symbols on railroad time tables are found the following:

§ indicates a train that runs only on Sunday
† indicates a train that runs daily except Sunday
∫ when placed beside a station name, indicates a “Flag Stop” (i.e., passenger trains only stop at those stations upon a displayed signal)
■ meaning can vary; on the M&SV timetable, indicates motor rail car service.

Times in the A.M. are printed in light-faced type; times in the P.M. are printed in bold type. The time given for each station is the scheduled time that the train leaves the station. Southbound and westbound trains are given odd numbers. Read down. Northbound and eastbound trains are given even numbers. Read up. On this table, mileage between stations is not given. Mileage from Bruce Junction is indicated in column Mls.

On the M&SV timetable, the motor coaches have regularly scheduled runs. The absence of numbered freight trains indicates that freight trains run “Extra”; i.e., they can be listed at any time. This timetable is for the convenience of passengers and does not show sidings where trains may pass. Most likely, the motor coaches had rights over freight trains. In any event, the M&SV is so short, and traffic so light, that train control was probably informal. By 1952, the Illinois Central ran no passenger trains from Jackson, Tennessee, to Grenada, Mississippi. Thus, one wonders why passengers would want to go from Bruce to Bruce Junction.

Big Boy’s Strawberry Pie

I anticipate a barrage of ridicule for posting this recipe, even though those same people are among the most likely to make it because it’s easy, and they know it’s delicious. Shoney’s began almost 70 years ago as a Charleston, West Virginia drive-in, and over the next thirty years became one of the South’s most iconic restaurant franchises. Both the hot fudge cake and strawberry pie remain popular. While Shoney’s menu claims the pie is baked, only the pie shell is baked; the filling itself is cooked and cooled, the strawberries simply washed and hulled. The berries are whole in restaurant servings, but I think sliced is a more attractive (and palatable) option.

Combine 2 tablespoons of cornstarch with a cup of sugar and a half a package of strawberry gelatin. Mix in a cup of water and heat, stir until thick, and cool. Bake a 9-inch pie crust until lightly browned. Cool, blend strawberries into the gelatin, and spoon into pie shell. Refrigerate until the gelatin is firm. Garnish with whipped topping and chopped nuts.