Chicken and Dressing

Regional favorites always have local trends in their preparation. Barbecue springs to mind, but more subtle examples are available. Chicken and dressing is a staple in the South all year long, but the farther south you get, you’ll find more people using wheat bread rather than corn bread. In southern Louisiana, you’ll likely find an oyster dressing using a dried French loaf, but in Mississippi north of the Florida Parishes, chicken and cornbread are the rule.

Make two skillets of cornbread the night before, stick in a paper sack and put it on a table somewhere it won’t get knocked off. Then crumble the bread and add enough strong chicken stock to make thick slurry. To two quarts of this mixture, add no more than 4 eggs well-beaten and at least two cups shredded chicken. Sauté a half cup (more if you like) each of finely-diced white onion and celery in a half a stick of butter and add to the mix. Some people like diced pepper in their dressing, but I find it overpowers the stock. Season liberally with salt, pepper, thyme and sage; I like plenty of sage in mine, about a teaspoon per cup of bread crumbs. Pour into a greased casserole and bake at a medium high heat (350) until the top is browned and the center firm.

This goes with any thing, any time.

Prime Rib

One restaurant I worked in specialized in prime rib. We would regularly roast four rib loins in a day, and during the tourist season, we would keep eight loins cooking literally around the clock. We’d cook the loins to rare, and since the carving station was set up under a heat lamp next to the grill, on busy nights the meat would continue to cook. We often had to rotate the rib sections on and off the carving board. If someone ordered prime rib well done—and, yes, such people do exist in this world—we’d drop a cut into the well of au jus we kept at the grill station until meat was grey and the tip and cap had peeled away from the eye. Smart guests who wanted a slice on the done side ordered an end piece.

Our menu called this beef dish prime rib, but we rarely used USDA Prime beef. We most often used a Choice rather than the much more expensive Prime grade, but rib roast is usually called prime on menus because it is, after all, from one of the eight primal cuts in a steer (brisket, shank, rib, loin, round, chuck, flank, and plate). Most of the beef you find in supermarkets is Choice or Prime; check the label. Ribeye steaks are simply uncooked slices of a rib roast. Roasts with bones are usually known as bone-in or standing rib roasts; a ribeye steak with a bone is often called a tomahawk.

You can bet a rib roast can be expensive, usually from $7 to as much as $27+ per pound; the average is around $15-20. The price can be much cheaper during the major holidays, around $8 to $12 per pound. Bone-in roasts usually have three to seven ribs and are slightly cheaper. Each rib slice, on average, can generate enough meat for two larger slices. A three-rib roast can feed about seven people; figure 16 ounces of uncooked boneless roast per person.

At the restaurant, we would first wipe down the whole boneless rib loins (each easily weighing 15-20 lbs.) with a clean, moistened cotton cloth, then coat the entire slab of meat heavily with coarse sea salt, then place them directly on the racks in an oven set at 250. We’d check the loins every half hour or so with a meat thermometer, removing them when they were very rare (@ 120). Those we didn’t use were refrigerated for heating later.

For an evenly-cooked, succulent 7 lb. rib roast, preheat the oven to 475. Pat the roast dry, coat with sea salt and minced garlic, and place on a on a rack in a pan.  If you’re using a bone-in roast, you can simply rest the meat on the bones. Cover with a cloth and bring to room temperature. When you place the roast in the oven, wait a half hour, then turn the heat down to 275.  In an hour, begin checking with a thermometer. When you get a 125 reading in the thickest part of the roast, immediately remove the meat from the oven, and let rest about five minutes a pound before carving and serving. Dredge individual slices in hot au jus to desired doneness for individual guests. Serve with a ramekin of au jus, a good brown mustard, and freshly-grated horseradish.

 

 

Shirred Eggs

Once upon a time, you could buy an oven dish for eggs called a shirrer, and while you can’t buy a shirrer anymore (Williams-Sonoma might have one for all I know), shirring is what you do when you bake eggs. Now, you can bake eggs by themselves, or you can bake eggs on top of things. One of the most popular shirred egg dishes is ranch eggs, huervos rancheros. Simply line a shallow dish with salsa, crack eggs into it (be artistic), and bake at high heat to however you like to eat your eggs. I like mine done through, but with a soft center. If you crack and bake eggs over spinach sauce, you can call them eggs Florentine. If you crack and bake over grits, they’re angels in the clouds.

Mississippi Roast

We need no further proof that to the staff of The New York Times the state of Mississippi is a backward enclave than an article that resurfaced recently in the newspaper’s food section about the “improbable rise” of a slow cooker recipe credited to a Ripley woman named Robin Chapman that has become a web phenomenon, “a favorite of the mom-blog set”. First published on January 26, 2016, the article, was written by Times food guru Sam Sifton, who calls the dish “Mississippi Roast.” Chapman, who was interviewed by Times writer for the article, simply called it “pot roast” (and still does). The recipe involves beef chuck topped with a packet of dry ranch dressing mix, a packet of dry “au jus” gravy, a stick of butter and a few pepperoncini. Chapman claims it’s a riff off a recipe she received from an aunt, who used packaged Italian dressing, but she wanted something “milder” (the word is in quotes in the Times article), so she used ranch instead of Italian. “Over time,” Sifton writes, “the recipe has slowly taken on a life of its own,” which is of course news not only to “food writers and scholars”, but to those of us who actually cook in order to feed ourselves and our families.

To his credit, Sifton has done a considerable amount of footwork delineating the “rise” of this recipe from Chapman’s kitchen to a cookbook put out by the good people at the Beech Hill Church of Christ in Ripley, through nearby Hickory Flat where it was sampled by visiting food blogger Laurie Ormond or Bentonville, AK, who published the recipe on her blog. The recipe was picked up by Candis Berge on her blog in 2011. Berge claimed it passed what she called “the hubby test” (in quoting her claim, the Times italicizes this, finding it a key factor in the recipe’s “mom-blog set” popularity), and very soon “Mississippi Roast” became popular on such platforms as Twitter, Reddit and Pinterest.

Again, to his credit, Sifton actually goes to the trouble to make “Mississippi Roast”, though predictably he is not faithful to the original recipe. He uses less butter (not saying how much less), reasoning that “there is plenty of fat in chuck roast”, uses five times as many pepperoncini, sears the roast before placing it in the cooker, “browning it aggressively beneath a shower of salt and pepper” (do I hear a faint echo of Craig Claiborne in that sentence?) and coating it with flour to create a “base of flavor” to replace the gravy mix and actually makes ranch dressing instead of using a packet (let’s give the devil his due and assume packets of dried au jus and ranch dressing mix are unavailable in Food World) and “dumped that” over the top of the meat. “Eight hours later,” Sifton writes, “My family dived into their meal with glee. It was exactly the same as the original effort (my italics, indicating incredulity), and took about the same amount of time to make.”

Sifton’s article ends with wine pairings compiled by one Eric Asimov (nephew of Isaac), who states, “This soft, beefy roast calls for a robust, structured red that will both complement the flavor of the meat and accommodate the bite of the peppers,” and recommends among others “a Brunello di Montalcino or its more modest sibling, Rosso di Montalcino” from Italy, “a garnacha-based wine from Montsant or its grander neighbor, Priorat” from Spain, a “southern Rhône, like a Gigondas or a Châteauneuf-du-Pape” or “if you are a fan of Argentine malbec, try one”. On second thought, anyone who can write such frivolous drivel about what wine to serve with a “Mississippi Roast” must know science fiction.

We can safely assume that everyone at the Beech Hill Church of Christ will assiduously ignore Asimov’s alcoholic urgings, and we can be damn sure that most people who want to make a pot roast with pre-packaged mixes will continue to do so however the hell they want using whatever the hell they have on hand, as cooks have been doing since the dawn of recorded history. The compelling theme behind this prolonged sneer against Mississippi, indeed against the “mom-blog set” across the nation, seems to be the sheer incredulity that such an atrocious recipe could actually find any sort of popular appeal in a country that is deluged by a media that promotes upscale food and ignores the needs and lives of people who work hard and have little time or money to indulge in such frivolities as Kobe beef or “a garnacha-based wine from Montsant”. Perhaps New York City itself is an anomalous enclave, but a certain anomaly definitely resides in the editorial offices of The New York Times.

Photo courtesy of The New York Times

French Silk Pie

This old bake-off recipe from the “Ice Box Pie” category is a Southern favorite. It’s basically a chocolate mousse in a crust.

Use a commercial refrigerated pie crust for this recipe because the crust must be blind baked, and blind-baking a homemade crust is tricky. Blind baking simply means pre-baked, and you pre-bake crusts for refrigerator pies—those that aren’t baked—so the crust won’t get soggy. Some people will also blind bake crusts for pies with a dense filling (e.g. pumpkin or sweet potato). Use a glass pie pan.

Drape the crust over a rolling pin and ease the crust into the pan without stretching it. Wet your fingers and press any cracks together. Press the crust firmly against the sides and bottom. It helps to pop it into the freezer for five minutes or so to keep it from slumping down the sides. Generously prick the crust on the bottom and sides to prevent bubbling, and line the inner edges with heavy-duty aluminum foil. Put your pan on a preheated sheet pan and bake the crust for 10 minutes at 400 with the foil, remove the foil and return to the oven for maybe five minutes to brown.

Whip a cup of heavy cream to stiff peaks, cover and chill. Melt 8 oz. chopped bittersweet chocolate (I use a glass bowl in the microwave). Stir until smooth and set aside. Add 3 eggs, ¾ cup sugar, and a couple of tablespoons of water to glass bowl. Beat with an electric mixer 5 minutes, until pale yellow and thick. Place this bowl over a smaller pot of simmering water and cook, whisking continually, until the mixture is hot through and through. Remove from heat and continue beating until cooled and fluffy. (This might take up to 10 minutes because you want some serious fluff.) Add the melted chocolate, 2 teaspoons vanilla, a stick of very soft butter, and beat until very smooth. Now carefully blend in the whipped cream, just until you have a more or less even color; don’t over-mix.

Pour mixture into the pie crust and spread evenly. Top with another half cup of whipped cream sweetened with a quarter cup powdered sugar and a teaspoon vanilla (or almond) extract.  Beat ½ cup cream till soft peaks form, add the powdered sugar and vanilla and beat till stiff and smooth. Spread over the chocolate filling. Cover lightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least three hours.

 

 

A Letter from Jackson

Darling Julia,

The project here at long last is over, and I should be coming home for good, back to the mountains, to the house you love, to the deep old woods I love, and to holding you, forever.

When I get home, I know you will ask me of this place, what it is like, what its people are like, how it looks, how they live, what makes the city what it is, but once home I do not want to think of it, not because I hate it, but because I want to clear my mind of it, so I’m writing you this letter to explain Jackson to you before you ask me about it one night when we’re settled on the front porch with a bottle of wine watching the stars wheel over Balsam Gap.

It’s been three months since I got here–I will never forget the heat hitting like a fist when I stepped out of the car onto the parking lot behind the hotel! This leads me to ask: how long does one have to be in a place to know it? My answer would be that it is not so much a matter of time as it is of engagement, not just of being but of living, of going out into the city and seeing it, smelling it, hearing it, tasting it, developing a feel for it. Surveying the streets has taken me all over the city, north, south, east and west, at all times of the day and often into the nights. Yet most of the work has been downtown, the strangest part of the city, yet its most characteristic.

Jackson doesn’t feel old, it doesn’t look old; there are no beautiful buildings save a few Modernist towers, none of the stately homes one would expect to find in a Southern city built before the Civil War, just blocks upon blocks of decaying buildings. The face of its main street, Capitol, is punctuated by vacant shops and offices with empty or shattered windows like broken teeth. Even the recent and prolonged transformation of Capitol Street itself into a two-lane thoroughfare with roundabouts and narrow verges cannot disguise the squalor. The city lacks grandeur, even faded grandeur, in any degree.

Poverty is one of two characteristics that shape Jackson; the other, closely intertwined, is racial tension, a volatile combination that composes more in discord than harmony the social, economic and political nature of the city. Time stands still here; though a great show of progress is made in the local media, there is no progress. The city weekly, which proclaims to be a smart alternative to the moribund daily, constantly aggravates the cauldron, and the political landscape is dominated by self-serving personalities motivated by a desire to stay in office. These people funnel federal funding to redevelopment projects designed not to improve the city, but to affect their political ends. No cohesive vision exists because Jackson is not a city, only a fractured collection of people in a place that has lost all sense of itself, a shattered glass best melted and recast.

I can see you smiling as you read this, thinking, “You fool, it’s Mississippi; what did you expect?” Well, darling, I did expect more. I told you that before I came here. I expected to find people working together, a marketplace of ideas, a common goal. Tell me that’s why you love me, because I am a dreamer, even though every night here I dreamed only of you in that old house on the mountainside under a starry sky.

All my love,

Timothy

 

Prudhomme’s Original Blackened Seasoning

When Paul Prudhomme came barreling out of the bayous in the early 80’s, his cuisine had an enormous impact on the restaurant industry. The Cajun rage prompted restaurants as far away as Seattle to place jambalayas, gumbos, and etouffees on their menus. But the one dish that inspired a genuine craze was his blackened redfish.

Prudhomme first served blackened redfish at K-Paul’s in March, 1980, serving 30 or 40 people. It was an immediate hit; within days the restaurant was full, and within weeks, there were long lines. The dish became so popular that redfish (aka red drum, Sciaenops ocellatus) populations in the Gulf were severely impacted. The fish were sucked up in nets by the truckload in the bays, passes, and inlets from the Florida Keys to Brownsville, Texas, nearly wiping out the overall redfish stock. Fortunately, intensive conservation efforts were put in place—one of them being the founding of the Gulf Coast Conservation Association—and the redfish rebounded.

Blackening is an ideal cooking method for fish, but you can also blacken meats and shellfish, even squash and eggplant. Foods to be blackened are dredged in melted butter, coated in the following seasoning mix, then seared in a super-heated skillet. Do not try blackening inside unless you have a commercial vent hood, and if outside you must use a gas flame. Prudhomme’s herbal measurements are excruciatingly precise, so. I usually quadruple the recipe to make it easy.

1 tablespoon sweet paprika
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon ground red pepper (preferably cayenne)
¾ teaspoon white pepper
¾ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon dried thyme leaves
½ teaspoon dried oregano leaves

Election Day Cake

Americans have always celebrated our elections, and it seems logical that our traditional election day cakes are based on the old British yeast-raised holiday fruitcakes. Since the recipe evolved in the dour kitchens of New England, the lavish libations of brandy the Brits employed were foregone, but don’t let that stop you from dribbling a soupçon of good bourbon over this cake before frosting.

In a large bowl, mix two packets of yeast into a cup and a half of warm water. Stir in a tablespoon of sugar and a cup and a half of plain flour, mix until smooth, cover and let work until bubbly, about half an hour. In another bowl cream one and a half sticks soft butter with a cup of sugar. Use a whip to fluff the mix well, then sift in about two and a half cups flour with a teaspoon of cinnamon and a half teaspoon each of ground clove, ginger, and nutmeg. A few drops of almond extract is a nice touch. Add two beaten eggs to the bubbly yeast mixture, then gradually combine with the seasoned flour blend. Mix until smooth, and stir in a half cup of raisins, a half cup chopped dates, and a half cup chopped pecans. Pour into a tube pan that’s been well coated with cake oil (a paste of one part shortening, one part vegetable oil, and one part plain flour). Cover and let rise in a warm place for about two hours, bake at 375 for one hour, and cool before drizzling with a confectioner’s sugar glaze.