Senate Bean Soup

By official records, navy bean soup has been on the menu of the U.S. Senate dining room every day since the early 20th century, but John Egerton claims that “it was a fixture on the menu in the Senate restaurant as far back as the administration of Grover Cleveland in the 1890s,” and suggests that Senator Fred T. Dubois of Idaho was the moving force behind a resolution requiring that the soup be served every day to members of that august body, though he also mentions Senator Knute Nelson of Minnesota as the author in 1903. Egerton writes that the official recipe printed on the back of the Senate restaurant menu calls for “Michigan navy beans”, though Craig Claiborne (never one to leave well enough alone) wrote that the best bean for the soup is “a pea bean from California” (WHAT a queen).

Edgerton also argues that the soup is a Southern recipe, and points to the inclusion of smoked ham hocks as proof of his claim. “Does that sound like Michigan? California? Minnesota? Idaho? Of course not!” he declares, adding that it sounds more like North Carolina or Alabama or Arkansas, where cooking with pork is a 400-year-old tradition. “Any fair and honest person seeking the creators of U.S. Senate bean soup would ask not who the senators were at the time the soup was given official status, but who the cooks were,” and in the District of Columbia the cooks in the Senate kitchen, as well as almost any other institutional kitchen in Washington, were black men and women from the South. “There ought to be a plaque somewhere in the capitol to honor those skillful citizens, their names now forgotten, who cooked bean soup in the Southern style with such a masterful touch that even the solons of the North and West came to realize that they simply could not do without it,” Egerton claims, with justice.

Fortunately for us sans sans-culottes, you don’t have to lie, buy or steal your way into the U.S. Senate to enjoy navy bean soup. Here’s my recipe; it’s not official by any stretch, but it’s wonderful, all the same. Pick through and wash one pound white (navy) beans, place in a pot with two smoked hocks, cover with water by half, and place in a low oven for about 2 hours. Remove the hocks and cool; throw away the rind, de-bone, chop the meat and add back to the beans along with one finely-chopped large onion sauteed in oil with two minced cloves of garlic. You can throw in a stalk or two of chopped cooked celery if you like. Add water if needed, simmer until creamy, season with pepper and salt to taste.

 

The Last Mississippi Spa

Almost twenty years after Allison’s Wells burned in 1963, O.C. McDavid, former managing editor of the Jackson Daily News and a noted sculpture artist, was approached by Hosford Fontaine to assist in a book with recipes. In turn, McDavid enlisted Marilyn Bonney, who owned Press & Palette in Canton Mart, to print the 68-page book. According to Marilyn, “I printed it using paper plates which were a one-time use. I don’t remember the exact number printed, but it was probably1,000. The plan was not to sell it, but O.C. and Hosford gave it to people they knew, and I did the same.” In a similar spirit, with hopes of perpetuating Hosford’s wonderful work, here’s Allison’s Wells: The Last Mississippi Spa by Hosford Latimer Fontaine.

The Last Mississippi Spa

Olive Relish

You can make a basic olive relish on the fly with chopped green olives (I’d be wary of anyone who doesn’t have one of those little upright jars of green pimento olives biding time somewhere in their refrigerator) and olive oil. Vegetable oil will do in a pinch. Up the game with a variety of olives, onion, artichoke hearts, pickled tomatoes, mild peppers, and okra. Salt lightly. A roasted garlic clove mashed with ground peppercorns is a nice touch.

 

A Savory Dutch Baby

More often served as a sweet breakfast dish, a Dutch baby/German pancake can easily provide a savory platform for any number of toppings any time of the day. This version is seasoned with salt and pepper mixed with a scattering of onion, topped with more onion, peppered ham and served with a grated hard cheese. Whip two large eggs and a half cup each flour and whole milk into a froth. Pour into a heated, well-buttered skillet and cook in a very hot oven until puffed and browned. Serve with grated hard cheese and sour cream.

 

Spanakopita

This wonderful recipe works well for many occasions. Yes, it is labor-intensive, but that’s all the more reason to make for a large gathering, when you can commandeer others to help.

For the filling use about a pound of frozen, thawed spinach, squeezed to remove liquid. You can use fresh if you like, in which case use two pounds washed, trimmed, blanched and drained. Sauté in olive oil with one large finely chopped white onion, a cup of chopped scallions and a half-cup chopped parsley. Season with dill, nutmeg and lemon juice. Add a cup of crumbled feta and a half cup of a hard grated cheese such as Parmesan. Salt to taste. Mix thoroughly with four well-beaten eggs, and set aside.

This is enough filling for about 8 sheets phyllo. Place sheets between slightly damp paper towels before use. Lay phyllo across a large oiled baking pan, brush with oil, fold in half, oil and fold again. Have you ever folded a flag? The procedure here is the same. Fold a corner over about 1/4 cup of filling, flip, brush with oil, and repeat.  Refrigerate pastries before cooking or freeze for another day. Bake in a medium oven (350) until nicely browned.

Poppy Seed Pound Cake

If I speak of chicken and dumplings as a Southern dish, soon enough some foodways pundit—you can’t throw a rock without hitting one, and if you ask me, the bigger the rock the better—will declare it’s served as dim sum by expatriated Alabamans living in Hong Kong. Even on a national scale (not that nationalism exists, of course) it’s no longer safe for me to assume that pound cake is a New England recipe. A friend from Texas—east Texas, mind you—now living in Maine said that their neighbors considered pound cake Southern because it’s so simple and practical. Well, dear hearts, those are the very reasons Americans have baked this cake well before Burr shot Hamilton, so quit sequesterizing recipes that have been on the tables of our country even before it became a country. Read Beard. This recipe is a felony with fruit, a mortal sin with ice cream.

Preheat oven to 350 (a crucial step). Grease, line and set aside a 10-inch loaf pan or Bundt. Combine 2 cups sugar with a cup of softened butter and beat until creamy. Stir in two tablespoons of poppy seeds, a cup of buttermilk, 4 beaten eggs, and at least a tablespoon of vanilla extract. Gradually mix in 3 cups of plain flour sifted with a teaspoon each of baking powder and soda. Blend until smooth. Bake for an hour, then turn the oven off and leave the cake in until the oven has cooled. Rest on a rack an hour before slicing.

 

Deviled Ham

Modern recipes for meat spreads use cream cheese or mayonnaise as a binder, and the results are bland and milky. Lard is the original meld for this recipe, but Brits have been using clarified butter since the Raj, and it’s perfect.

Clarify a stick of butter; cool and mix with a pound of minced ham and a heaping tablespoon of dry mustard and black pepper. A dash or two or three of nutmeg is essential. Do not salt. Blend very well and refrigerate, the longer the better. Serve at room temperature with toast.

 

Alice’s Salmon Mousse

In my book (which got another rejection this week: “Your approach to Southern cooking is disturbingly pugnacious.”) Alice Brock is a bazillion times cooler than Alice Waters. Brock’s humor and ill regard for bullshit establishes her biography, My Life as a Restaurant, as the hands-on-hips precursor to Bourdain’s somewhat more cantankerous Kitchen Confidential. Not only that, but Waters never had a decent song written about her, much less an anthem.

Alice Brock and her staff up in Massachusetts had a thing with mousses/mooses. The drawing with this recipe has antlers, and they include a story of a moose falling into a vat of cocoa for the chocolate version. This fixation seems to be prevalent in New England where mooses live, but in this culinary reference, the homonym proves emphatic. This salmon mousse is great hot weather nosh and can be served either from your great-grandmother’s fish mold or if you’re just totally white trash as a dip.

Put a quarter cup diced onion and lemon juice in a blender with an envelope of gelatin and a half cup hot water. Blend at high speed for one minute, then add a half cup of mayonnaise and 16 ounces of canned salmon. (Red is best, leftover homecooked is wonderful, and pink will do.) Blend/pulse this mixture until smooth. Add a tablespoon paprika and a cup of heavy cream. Blend for about a half minute, and cool for at least 6 hours before serving.

Shrimp Creole: Back to Basics

Without a doubt, the most maltreated recipe to come out of New Orleans cookery is shrimp Creole. The reason for this is that most people simply don’t have an understanding of how the roux functions as a basis for such a complex dish. Much more often than not the roux is simply disregarded as a component altogether, and what you’ll find served as shrimp Creole is little more than a handful of mealy shrimp drenched in a cayenne-infused Italian-style tomato sauce loaded with bell peppers and ladled over a pile of gummy Minute rice. Yes, tomatoes are an essential component to a shrimp Creole, but not a tomato sauce as such. The tomatoes give flavor to a much more complex stew that includes (of course) onions, bell pepper, celery, garlic and liquids. And sure, à la Creole to most people means piquant, but this does not mean hot; spicy, perhaps, but not hot.

Shrimp Creole is not a difficult dish to make; as with any recipe, you simply have to follow the proper procedure and proceed apace. First make a roux with a quarter cup each of flour and oil—not butter, not olive oil, just a light vegetable oil will do fine—cooking it to a rusty brown; some people will tell you to use a very dark roux for a Creole, but I prefer one a bit lighter (sue me). To this, while still hot, add two cups finely chopped white onion, one cup finely chopped celery and a half cup finely diced bell pepper. Do not over-do the bell pepper! I firmly concur with Justin Wilson who said time and time again that bell pepper is “a taste killah”, and we both agree that you can never use too much onion. y of  you will recognize this combination as a platform for many Creole/Cajun dishes.

For a basic shrimp Creole to feed six people, sauté two pounds peeled shrimp–I recommend a 26-30 count–in a light oil with plenty of garlic, about four cloves crushed and minced, and a little pepper (do not salt). Add the shrimp (with the liquid) to the roux/vegetable mix, then immediately add two 14 ounce cans of diced tomatoes with juice. (In a perfect world, you’d use four cups of home-canned tomatoes, but I do not live in a perfect world, and chances are you don’t, either.) Add a little water to this if needed to give it the consistency of a thick soup, season with a two tablespoons dried basil, two teaspoons thyme and a teaspoon each of oregano and ground cumin. Understand please that these are relative ratios that you can adjust with neither guilt nor effort. As to pepper, some cayenne, yes, and yes to some black pepper, too, but when it comes to pepper, the best rule of thumb is to add just enough to make a statement and provide a good Louisiana hot sauce on the table. Let this stew for at least an hour (I put it in the oven uncovered and stir it two or three times), then adjust your seasonings, particularly the salt and pepper. Serve over cooked long-grain rice; let me recommend Zatarain’s, and no, I’m not getting paid for that.

Marinaded Mushrooms

You don’t have to pay $5 a cup for good pickled mushrooms, and in time you can come up with specific recipes to use for any given occasion. In the meantime, here’s a good general-purpose recipe from an old friend of mine who ran a catering business in Oxford. He looked like a red-headed Rick Astley and used a cigarette holder.

Sauté in olive oil 1 pound of mushrooms, sliced or cut in quarters, with 1 large red pepper, cut into strips, one a large red onion, sliced, and 3 cloves garlic, minced. Cool, add balsamic vinegar, thyme, and fresh ground pepper. Salt to taste. Refrigerate before serving.