Niko’s Moussaka

“Jesse, my friend, I love you like a brother, you know that, even though we are not even the same species because you belong to a people who seethed in ignorance until my people, MY people, the Greeks, the Hellenes, brought to you, like a torch in the hands of a strong, beautiful god, the gifts of knowledge and culture.

“When my people built the Parthenon, yours were stuffing sheep shit in rock walls to keep out the wind; when Homer first sang of the anger of Achilles, your ancestors were banging on skin drums and shrieking like chimpanzees; when Praxiteles discovered Apollo in living stone, yours were whittling dice from acorns.”

“Hector,” I said, “Your divine radiance blinds me.”

“Do not mock me, you insolent ass. You asked me to teach you how to make moussaka as my great-uncle Nikolaos, so I must make you properly respectful of the gift. Uncle Niko they say he made Greek cooking a Frenchified farce, but he threw away trash Turks and Slaves put on our plates and brought refinement to this beautiful old dish. Here, I’ll show you.”

Trim stalks and bottoms of 2 large eggplants, peel and slice to ½ inch. Soak in salty water for about 20 minutes, and dry on paper towels. Peel 4 potatoes and slice to ¼ inch. Fry potatoes and eggplant in olive oil until just soft. Set both aside on paper towels to drain. Add oil if needed and sauté two diced white onions until translucent. Add about a pound and half of lean ground beef to the onions in the frying pan, mix well to break up the meat, add two cloves minced garlic, and an 8-oz. can of tomato sauce. Mix very well, then lower heat and simmer uncovered, stirring, until liquid is reduced. Set aside.

Melt ½ stick butter, add ¼ cup plain flour, mix well and cook over medium low heat until it stops bubbling. Gradually add four cups whole milk, stirring continually, until quite thick. Cool and incorporate two beaten egg yolks. Set aside.

Grease the sides and bottoms of a large casserole. Cover the bottom with a layer of potato slices, add a layer of eggplant slices, and half of the meat mixture. Cover the meat layer with remaining potato slices, then eggplant slices, and spread remaining meat mixture out evenly to cover the eggplant layer. Top with evenly with white sauce and bake at 350F for 40 minutes or so.

Dilled Shrimp

Shrimp usually come to my table well-peppered, but in the soupy heat of a Mississippi summer, a cooler alternative is refreshing. In Scandinavia, where fish and shellfish of all types are staves of life, shrimp is often seasoned with dill, usually in combination with horseradish. In Sweden, shrimp is boiled in a bouillon of water, vinegar, beer and sugar before saucing, but boiling in lightly salted water with lemons and bay leaves works just as well if—as I do—you really don’t feel like wasting a beer. Devein if you’re the squeamish sort, then toss with a sauce of one part mayonnaise to one part sour cream (or cream fraiche, if you happen to have some on hand…) with plenty of dill, a hint of horseradish and salt to taste. A few minced capers are nice, and you can throw in a little white pepper for a bit of bite. Serve over leaf greens with onion, toasted rye, boiled eggs (preferably pickled) and thinly–sliced garden-fresh cucumber (not those bloated watery things you find in the grocery store). Lemon wedges are a required garnish, but limes are prettier.

How to Stuff a Tomato

Ladies of leisure often assemble on hot summer afternoons, ostensibly for cards or tiles, but in fact for drinks, talking about everyone who isn’t there and at least one that is. The food served at such bitchy klatches are fussy: congealed salads, crustless sandwiches, and stuffed tomatos.

A lavishly-garnished, luscious, red-ripe tomato is a wonderful nosh on a muggy summer afternoon. Slice off the top quarter of the tomato, score the flesh, scoop it out and save it for a tossed salad. Drain and dust the lining of the tomato with salt and pepper. The most frequent stuffings are a chicken, shrimp, or tuna salad. Serve with a bon mot.

Refrigerator Pickles

Canning season is well underway, and chances are you know someone puts up beans, tomatoes, and corn. The process not only requires some degree of precision and specialized accessories, but is fraught with a procedural mojo that seems to inspire an annoying smidge of smugness in its devotees. These domestic deities take excessive pride in their product—some of them with justification, of course—and in recent years, it seems, home canned goods display an astonishing degree of artisanship you’ll find displayed at summer fairs where the best home canning the area has to offer is enshrined and awarded. Competition is psychotic.

Fortunately for us mere mortals, we have a quick, delicious alternative to the sort of home canning that requires a humongous pot, oversize tongs, and vexatious thermometers. All you need for refrigerator pickles are jars, ingredients, and, well, a refrigerator. Cucumbers, onions, and young squash can be used, but they must be quite fresh, young and firm. Supermarket vegetables are unsuitable. Pack 6 cups sliced cucumbers and 1 cup sliced onion in two clan quart jars. Heat 1 cup vinegar, 1 cups sugar, and 1 tablespoon salt until sugar is dissolved. Pour over cucumber mixture, cool, cover tightly and refrigerate for a day or so hours before serving. These will keep for several weeks, but are usually eaten well before.

 

The Battle of the Po-Boy

It’s a jolt to find a recipe for what amounts to an oyster po-boy in Jane Grigons’s English Food, but even if we concede that anywhere there are oysters and mankind the oysters are bound to end up on someone’s table between two pieces of bread, Griegson’s foray into New Orleans cuisine is still no less than a British assault.

Grigson’s recipe–“Oyster Loaf”–begins: “This is one of the best of eighteenth-century dishes,” she begins, adding, “It was taken to America, and became popular in New Orleans in the eighteenth century, where it acquired the endearing name médiatrice.” In this simple statement Grigson covers a lot of ground with a host of erroneous assumptions, not the least of which is the po-boy’s English origins. To begin with, though the British made a heroic effort to capture New Orleans in the winter of 1814-15, the city was never under British rule. Granted, in the late 1800s oyster sandwiches on French loaves were known in New Orleans as well as San Francisco as “oyster loaves”, a term still used in San Francisco, but Grigson’s recipe calls for the oysters to be placed on a bun after being sautéed in butter and poached in sour cream as well as “double” cream, a uniquely British ingredient. It’s more stew in a bread bowl than a sandwich.

The earliest known account of what eventually came to be called a po-boy was published in The Daily Picayune on Dec. 7, 1851: “A big loaf of bread is ‘dug out’ – reserving a crust end as a stop – any quantity of delicious fried or broiled oysters is piled in; the top is neatly put on; and a gentleman can carry home his loaf and his ‘dozen’ – all hot – or have them brought home, for a lunch or a relish to dinner.” The legend of what Grigson calls the médiatrice is fraught with confusion, involving even James Beard in the likely fanciful legend of a sandwich involving various ingredients brought home by a carousing husband to his irate wife—no doubt waiting up with a rolling pin—as a “peacemaker”. Such is the case with the name po-boy (and its various spellings) as well, with diverging claims of authenticity.

Though Grigson’s sumptuous English Food certainly deserves every bit of praise it has received since its publication in 1974, her claim that the English oyster loaf is the predecessor of NOLA’s po-boy is as useless as Pakenham’s final, fatal assault on Old Hickory.

Potatoes Anna

A lighter, simpler version of what most of us know as scalloped potatoes, this recipe is also known as a potato cake for obvious reasons. Most versions involve peeled the potatoes, but I don’t find this necessary, justifying my lassitude by claiming it makes for a prettier presentation. The only trick to preparation is turning the cake to brown both sides. I’m certain that there are people in the world who have the manual dexterity to flip the cake with a flick of the wrist, but a pound of potatoes is a hell of a lot heavier than an omelette, so I’ve yet to master this technique. Instead, I place a lightly oiled plate over the pan, flip it and and slid the potatoes (with exceeding grace and beauty) back into the pan to brown evenly.

Slice small red potatoes very thinly (having a mandolin comes in handy here, and you can find a simple one for a dozen dollars or so) and–working quickly before the potatoes discolor–arrange in layers, sprinkling with salt and pepper, in a small sauté pan with plenty of oil or melted butter. Place in a hot oven—400 or so—until bubbling and lightly browned. Flip (however best you can) to brown evenly. Serve hot with a hard grated cheese and sour cream. Pugnacious, pretentious people would add rosemary, but I find this inclusion annoying.

 

Pork and Beans

You all should have grown sick and tired of those greasy, syrupy, gloppy canned pork and beans years and years ago, but NOOO! Every time you cook out, you go to the supermarket and buy your favorite brand (probably the one with the talking dog, right?), pour it in a casserole, add a chopped onion so you can say you did SOMETHING, and serve it up to people you say you love with that God-awful potato salad you picked up in the deli. Pitiful. Just pitiful. And you call yourself upwardly mobile. Honestly, it’s baked beans, probably one of the most basic foodstuffs in the world, and cooked pork, which is just as easy. Here’s a great recipe that’ll only take a couple of hours, 90% of that totally hands-free, and has at most five ingredients (not counting the seasonings).

First, cook a pork blade roast, maybe two pounds. Pat it dry, coat with oil, salt, black pepper, and granulated garlic. You can rub it with fresh garlic, but the granulated gives it a nice sort of crust. Put the roast in a lightly oiled covered skillet, place it in a low oven (250) for about three hours. Turn it once. Reverse searing improves the flavor. Next, dice two mild peppers (I use poblanos and mild bananas in season), or enough for about 2 cups of diced pepper, and a half a white onion for about a cup, sauté in vegetable/corn oil with a clove of garlic until soft. Reduce heat, and add two #300 cans of Great Northern (white) beans with liquid. Season with salt, black pepper, and about a tablespoon of chili powder. Cook over low heat for about 15 minutes. Set aside.

For this dish I use a 9” cast iron skillet, which, quite frankly, I use for a whole lot of other things as well. Lightly oil the skillet. Debone your pork. Ladle beans into the skillet, add pork, and place in a low oven for 30 minutes. Serve with a good salsa.

Egg Foo Young

In my book—albeit unpublished—Sundays are occasions for substantial egg dishes, quiches, omelets, Benedicts and their ilk, which are on the whole light, versatile and easily prepared. This old Asian fusion dish—Chinese-Indonesian /British/American, what have you—fits the bill. The name derives from Cantonese for “hibiscus egg”, and in Asia is usually served with a sweet-and-sour sauce, in the western hemisphere more often with a simple brown gravy.

For each serving, beat two large eggs, pour into a pool of hot oil and–working quickly with a fork–pull the eggs apart as they cook until the mixture is almost firm. Then add your ingredients. I like shrimp, scallions, and bean sprouts, but ham or chicken, cabbage, and mushrooms are often used. After the additions have cooked into the surface of the eggs, flip and cook to a light browning. Serve with brown gravy made on the thin side.

 

 

Last Train Through Vardaman

This is a recording of Raymond Bailey performing “The Last Train through Vardaman” that Barbara Yancy made sometime in 1975-76. I lost the first part of Raymond’s narrative because the tape was so old and broke at both ends during recording, but I did hear it on the first playback. Raymond begins with saying, “This is ‘The Last Train through Vardaman.’ I remember we were loading the train that day, and my brother said, ‘Pile it high, boys, because this is the last train through Vardaman!’ So, we loaded her up (and away she went!)” I have him doing a couple of other songs, including ‘Nellie Gray’ and a version of ‘Casey Jones’ that I’ve never heard. The locomotive is the OH&CC Number 9 at Okolona. Listen to Raymond here.

Daisy Duke Can’t Cook

Making quick breads is such a basic culinary skill that at one time those persistent legions of people who spend their time minding other people’s business sniffed their disapproval of a newly-wed husband’s wife by saying, “He married a woman who can’t even make biscuits.”

This specific example of cattiness carries with it a tacit understanding that mister didn’t marry his missus because she was a domestic diva, but for prurient reasons which were grounds for disapproval among matrons who could cook up a storm yet were inept or unwilling in arts which keep a man from taking up what was then referred to as “light housekeeping” with another woman. Those were more genteel times. Nowadays, of course, those same people would just say he hooked up with a slut and be done with it, but there’s something to be said for polite prevarication: What it lacks in forthrightness is more than made up for in vicious subtlety. Believe it or not, being able to cook was once a commodity on the marriage market, so much so that disgruntled husbands who settled for less than a buxom bimbo comforted themselves and others like them (honest, hardworking men, every one of them) by claiming that the cooking lasted longer than the loving. And while that might be true, there’s still something to be said for marrying a total tramp-in-training; after all, that’s what mothers-in-law are for.

Like many short bread recipes, the one for biscuits is more technique than ingredients. Getting the biscuits to rise well is key, and if you don’t follow a reasonable procedure, you’re going to end up throwing away a pan of hockey pucks. Biscuits shouldn’t be worked a lot; excess kneading makes the dough so dense that it won’t rise. Biscuits should also be cut out quickly while the dough is cool, and with a clean, sharp edge that will not pinch. Crowding the biscuits a bit also helps them to rise, but if you get them too close together the centers won’t bake through. Also make sure the oven is hot (450/475) before you put them on a rack in the upper third of the oven. So, for all you floozies out there who need a bonus the morning after, here’s how to make biscuits. And if you don’t carry a skillet with you, well, you’re on your own.

Buttermilk Biscuits

Take two cups of self-rising flour and sift in dry a scant teaspoon of baking soda. Work thoroughly into this about 1/3 a cup of cold vegetable shortening. Mix with the fingers until it has an almost granular texture. Working quickly, stir in enough cold buttermilk (about a cup) to make a sticky dough. Throw dough on a generously-floured surface, sprinkle with a scant more flour and roll out very thick, almost half an inch, and cut into biscuits. Again, work quickly so that the dough stays cool(ish). Place biscuits just touching in a lightly greased skillet and pop them on the top rack of a hot oven for about a quarter an hour. You want them golden-brown and fragrant; brush lightly with butter while still hot and serve immediately.