Peppery Roast Potatoes

Cut red potatoes into bite-sized chunks and boil with Zatarain’s liquid seasoning (use a lot) until just tender. Rinse, drain very well, and toss with vegetable oil, salt, and a goodly amount of black pepper. A teaspoon or two of granulated garlic makes a statement. Strow the potatoes on a shallow baker, and throw in a hot oven (400+), stirring occasionally until well browned. Serve with grilled meats and fried seafood. These reheat well, but do not freeze.

 

Meatball Kabobs

These kabobs are made from ground turkey, but you can use beef or chicken. Season meat and form into balls as you would for any other dish, skewer with onion, a thick-walled pepper or chili, and refrigerate for an hour at the very least before grilling or broiling. Serve with a side of spicy beans.

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Squash Pizza Crust

This recipe from Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook has a wonderful texture and flavor. Though the original recipe called for just zucchini, any squash will do. The crust can be made in advance and refrigerated or frozen. You can either line a pizza pan or casserole with the crust or bake smaller crusts on a cookie sheet.  Add this one to your cookbook. It’s good.

Use 2 cups grated squash to one egg (the original calls for a 1:1 squash/egg ratio, but that’s a little much). Squeeze the liquid out of the squash; add the eggs and mix well with a good slug of olive oil and ½ cup each grated mozzarella and Parmesan and a little grated onion along with enough plain flour to make sticky dough. I like to use a little more Parmesan for a somewhat drier mix and add chopped peppers. Season with, salt, pepper, a little basil and thyme; I do not recommend using rosemary as in the original recipe. Roll out and shape with a twisted edge. Bake in a medium hot oven (375-400) for about 40 minutes, or until nicely browned. Brushing with olive oil before cooling is a nice touch.

As to the toppings, you can use those you usually like on your pizza, but I forego meats out of respect for the original recipe as well as for Molly herself. Go lightly on the tomato sauce, since too much will make the crust soggy. Bake in a hot oven.

Traditional Banana Pudding

Banana pudding casts a golden glow upon our lives.  Never have I met anyone who doesn’t like ‘nanner puddin’, but I know in the cockles of my heart that should I ever, my dislike for them will be immediate, profound, and on the spot. I’ll probably stomp on their toe or something.

But banana pudding, like so many treasures on our sideboard, has been corrupted by convenience. What’s most often served as banana pudding is made with cheap cookies, packaged Jell-O, green bananas, and topped with Cool Whip. Quality banana pudding is made with Nabisco/Nilla Vanilla Wafers (kinda/sorta the same thing), ripe, fragrant bananas, vanilla custard, topped with meringue and browned.

First, the custard. Separate 4 eggs; blend the yolks well with 2 cups whole milk (or, better, half-and-half), and a teaspoon vanilla extract. Put this mix in a double boiler. Combine ½ cup sugar with 1/3 cup all-purpose flour, and slowly stir into the warm liquid. Cooking until thick, then cool.

You’ll need about 5 bananas. I implore you to select bananas well beforehand, because if you can only find bananas that have a tinge of green on them, you can set them on a shelf in the kitchen until they soften and ripen. And, yes, a banana will develop sugars in the pulp after being picked. Wait until the bananas are still firm, but lightly flecked with brown. Trust me, this is an essential step. An 11 oz. box of wafers has about 40 cookies. Use all of them.

Begin with a layer of custard in the bottom of an 8×8 baking dish, then a layer of wafers, then a layer of sliced bananas, repeat these layers. Whip egg whites with ¼ cup sugar until stiff. Top pudding with meringue and place in a very hot oven (400) until lightly browned. Cool thoroughly before serving, but this is best made the morning of and not refrigerated.

Cooking Under Pressure

Sooner or later you’re bound to hear someone say they can’t boil water, or even worse (and this is the voice of experience speaking) hear it said about you. Boiling water without a geyser was a mammoth leap for mankind, so much so that nowadays saying somebody can’t bring water to a boil casts a bad light not only on their cooking, but also on their other basic skills, not to mention their family. Even chemists should be able to boil water, and it should be made an exit requirement on the MCAT and LSAT as well. Not even clergy should be exempt, and if you can’t boil water, I don’t want you fiddling with my fuse box, either.

Shortly after we brought water to a boil on our own, we learned how to steam foods in sealed, slightly vented containers. Given that pottery was still in its infancy then, pressure cooking was probably a messy if not painful innovation; but steaming food was the Paleolithic equivalent of the microwave oven, introducing a quicker method of tenderizing dried grains and tough meats, the staffs of life before Stouffer’s. And because starches and tough cuts are not only inexpensive and nutritious but when properly prepared wonderful, anyone who takes an interest in cooking should learn how to use a pressure cooker. This takes time. God knows I’ve burned everything except water at least twice, but when it comes to pressure cooking I’m not taking all the blame. A pressure cooker can be as cantankerous as a maiden aunt and almost as noisy; the cooker’s regulator jiggles and bangs about before releasing a steady hiss that lets you know it’s at full steam. Unlike most other kitchen activities, cooking with pressure involves hearing more than seeing or smelling.

The first step is to get a cooker. I’m not prone to endorsements (meaning I don’t get paid for any), but Presto pretty much put the lid on canning kitchenware in North America, and after over a century their products are still an industry standard. Buy a new 4-quart cooker, which will set you back about $30 retail. Once you tap into your inner earth mother and get into putting up your home-grown beets, you might buy a bigger, second-hand apparatus with dials and other gadgets, but until that happy occasion live with your new gallon of steam and get to know how it works. I recommend practicing with cooking dried beans because they’re cheap and a quart of simply seasoned beans (especially the larger varieties such as kidneys, limas, and garbanzos) goes a long way in dozens and dozens of dishes all across the menu. Kidneys are a fine example of this versatility; these big red beans stand out in soups and salads as well as sides.

Before cooking beans of any kind, scatter them on a flat surface and remove any rocks or clumps of earth you’re likely to find, as you’re likely to find a few. Pressure-cooked beans need two cups water to one cup beans. Beans need a bit of oil prevent frothing, which could clog up the cooker’s vent and put a serious hitch in your get-along. The chemical processes that make dried beans and grains froth under pressure elude me, but I suspect this preventative measure is the culinary equivalent of an oil slick. What you do with your cooked beans is up to you. Be happy.

Jesseburgers

To each pound 90/10 ground beef, add a quarter cup finely diced onion, two minced cloves garlic, a tablespoon of salt, two of coarsely-ground black pepper and three of Worcestershire sauce. Form into patties, brush with light vegetable oil and refrigerate for at least an hour.  Grill until just done; they should be pink in the middle. Top with smoked cheddar before serving.

Tammy Tell Me True

In 1949, Twentieth Century-Fox released Pinky, a film that would have a lasting impact on the American film industry. The movie was based on Quality, a novel by Jackson native Cid Ricketts Sumner.

Ricketts grew up on North State at a time when Woodrow Wilson wasn’t even a president, much less a street. She taught at both Jackson High School and her alma mater Millsaps College (where she graduated summa cum laude at the age of 16) before attending medical school at Cornell University. There she took classes under James B. Sumner, who shared the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1946. They were married in 1915 and divorced in 1930. They had four children. Sumner’s first novel was published in 1938. Her second, Quality, was published in 1946; her third, Tammy Out of Time, was published in 1948.

According to film scholar Melanie Addington, “Pinky premiered in the same year (1949) as Intruder in the Dust. Both films and novels explore legal and societal racism. Mississippi novelists at that time were helping to create some of the earliest arguments against racism and Hollywood was enamored with the idea. While Pinky may have its controversy that could limit its effectiveness, like casting a white actress (Jeanne Crain) as the lead instead of a black star like Lena Horne, the film reaches into the center of American sentiment and finds a way to move us,” Addington says. Variety reported that Pinky was one the top-grossing films of 1949 and observed that though the story “may leave questions unanswered and in spots be naive, the mature treatment of a significant theme in a manner that promises broad public acceptance and box office success truly moves the American film medium a desirable notch forward in stature and importance.”

Addington says that though an aristocratic white woman helps Pinky move towards pride in being a black female, “This leads to a more interesting conclusion for the film, given the patronizing attitude that she would listen to a white woman and not her own grandmother. Ethel Barrymore’s character (Miss Em) notes, ‘Nobody deserves respect as long as she pretends to be something she isn’t,’ and the line resonates with Pinky. Hearing the truth about ourselves from strangers often helps us stop perpetuating our own myths.” When she dies, the enlightened despot Miss Em leaves her estate to Pinky, and rumors swirl that Pinky may have killed her. Accused, she stands trial. “Much like Lucas Beauchamp in Intruder in the Dust,despite her innocence, society still finds a way to shun Pinky for ‘causing trouble’,” Addington says. “This is evident in the hushed courtroom as she slowly makes her way to freedom. Pinky, in love with a white man from the North, must choose to leave but instead realizes that she must remain in the South to claim her identity.”

Pinky stays and turns the estate into a nursing school for black women. “The film falters in the final scene, which shows Pinky standing alone and misty-eyed,” Addington says. “The adaptation avoided the ending that made Quality such an interesting original story. In the book, the home is burned to the ground by the Klan, a much stronger and more dramatic ending. The studio scrapped that outcome to provide a ‘tragic heroine’ ending that left audiences feeling good about racial issues in the South. Ricketts, not Hollywood, actually got it right with a much darker truth to an ending that sadly was too real for too many.”

Pinky was the first big studio picture to troop into race issues. The movie garnered Academy Award nominations for the three female leads, Jeanne Crain, Ethel Barrymore and Ethel Waters, who played “Pinky’s Granny”. “It also led to an appeal before the United States Supreme Court in Gelling v. Texas, a victory for the local movie theater owner who screened the film over a local decree censoring it from public viewing. The June 3, 1952 edition of The New York Times reported, “The Supreme Court today struck down a motion picture censor ordinance by which the city of Marshall, Texas, disapproved the showing of the film Pinky.”

Sumner’s third novel, Tammy Out of Time (1948), an unabashedly romantic tale of a Mississippi girl, was a significant departure from the tense realism of Quality, but doubtless due to the success of Pinky, the studios took a look, and between its pages found an iconic figure for mid-century America, and its heroine. Tammy Tyree, provided a generation of young ladies with a smart, charming role model. One critic described the film adaptation, Tammy and the Bachelor (1957) as a “whimsical romance for middle America, which started Hollywood’s last series of proletarian family appeal before the family was entirely forsaken for four-letter words.”

Sumner’s three “Tammy” novels provided fodder for four films as well as a television series over a ten year period. Tammy was played by both Debbie Reynolds and Sandra Dee, and the supporting casts of the films included Leslie Nielsen, Walter Brennan, Fay Wray, Adam West, Macdonald Carey and (in his first feature role) Peter Fonda. Denver Pyle, who played Uncle Jesse in “The Dukes of Hazard”, portrayed Grandpa Tarleton in the television series (1965-66).

Writer Jill Conner Browne says, “As I was writing the first book (The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love), we decided that a modicum of anonymity regarding some of the tales might be in order, so we decided to select stage names for ourselves. As it turned out, since we are all Of A Certain Age and grew up watching and loving all of Tammy’s exploits (she was way better than Cinderella and seemed much more attainable to our young minds) we ALL wanted to be “Tammy.”  Believing that it was unfair for one to be allowed to use the name that ALL wanted, we simply decided that we would ALL be ‘Tammy.’”

The movie also spawned an eponymous Top 40 hit in 1957. Music historian Brian Hargett says, “The song, which Reynolds herself describes as a “sweet, simple ballad”, went to #1 for three weeks beginning August 26, 1957. The #2 song that week was ‘Teddy Bear’, by a young man from Tupelo named Elvis Presley. At the onset of the youth revolution, it was possible for a 25-year old like Reynolds to have a hit record sung rather simply without studio gimmickry,” Hargett says. “Until the Beatles came along, record companies happily recorded talent like Debbie Reynolds. After 1964, ‘older’ acts like Reynolds were quickly dropped off record company artists rosters. The studio first recorded ‘Tammy’ with just piano backing, but Henry Mancini sweetened it with strings, and Hollywood liked it enough to put it in the movie,” Hargett says. “The Ames Brothers sang it as the thematic introduction to the film, and they had a fair hit with it, too.” The song was also nominated for an Oscar.

Though the movies based on the works of Cid Ricketts Sumner are noteworthy, Sumner’s literary achievements seem more than modest by Mississippi standards; she garnered no literary laurels, and she is largely forgotten, even in her hometown. Still, she was a remarkable woman. She married a Nobel laureate, wrote 13 books, toured Europe on horseback, and when she was 64 she was the only woman in a group of eight who made a 31-day rafting trip down the Colorado River.

Sumners was bludgeoned to death at the age of 80 in her home in Duxbury, Massachusetts. Her 16-year old grandson, John R. Cutler, was charged with her murder.

 

Sweet Potatoes with Buttermilk Lime Crema

Mix sour cream and buttermilk 2:1 with the juice of a lime and a teaspoon salt. Refrigerate. Coat sweet potatoes with vegetable oil and generous amounts of salt, and bake until cooked through. Cool thoroughly before slicing and topping with the crema and a dusting of black pepper. These are excellent with grilled meats and vegetables.