Catfish Étouffée

In the world I inhabit–which, quite arguably, might be yours–the more time-consuming a recipe, the more people it should feed, and this is such a one.  Soak 5 lbs. halved 6 oz. catfish fillets in milk. To a cup of good brown roux add in dice 2 cloves garlic, 2 medium onions, 1 sweet pepper and 4 stalks celery. Mix with a 36-ounce can of diced tomatoes (with juice) and 2 cups water or so; you want it a little on the thin side. Add 2 tablespoons dried basil, 1 tablespoon dried thyme, and a teaspoon of dried oregano. Put on a low burner. Drain and bread catfish in finely-crumbled saltines well-seasoned with ground black pepper, some cayenne, if you like.  Fry until golden; drain and layer fried fillets with sauce. Bake in a medium oven until just bubbling.  Serve over rice.

Kettle-Fried Matzo Balls

The name beneath this recipe from Jackson’s New Stage Theatre’s Standing Room Only: Recipes for Entertaining (1983) is Ellen Douglas, but everyone should know that Ellen Douglas is the pen name for writer Josephine Ayers Haxton. Born in Natchez, she married composer Kenneth Haxton in 1945 and shortly afterwards moved to Haxton’s hometown of Greenville. There she befriended Shelby Foote, Hodding Carter, and other local literati.

According to the author, she entered into a wager with her husband and a mutual friend on who could finish a novel in the least amount of time. She won the bet by writing A Family’s Affairs (1962), which is largely autobiographical in nature, requiring her to get her family’s permission to publish the narrative and resulting in her adoption of the pen name Ellen Douglas. The book not only sold well, but it also won the Houghton Mifflin Esquire Fellowship Award for best new novel and was named as one the year’s ten best books by The New York Times. Her second work, Black Cloud, White Cloud (1963), a collection of short stories, also won the Houghton Mifflin Esquire Fellowship Award, and her 1973 novel Apostles of Light was a finalist for the National Book Award. Other works include The Rock Cried Out (1973) and A Lifetime Burning (1982). Josephine Haxton died in Jackson in 2012.

Though Ayers was not Jewish, her mother-in-law Ellise Blum Haxton was the daughter of Jewish merchant Aaron Blum of Nelms and Blum department store in Greenville, and this recipe may have come from her kitchen. From my (demonstrably non-Jewish) perspective, fried matzos seem like just another variety of hushpuppy, though serving them with catfish—which is decidedly non-kosher—might be a bit rude. These make a great side for any number of meat dishes—baked chicken or fish, beef roast, what have you—but they’re also a great buffet nosh served with a sauce made with one part each grated horseradish, sour cream and mayonnaise seasoned with salt and cayenne to taste.

Soak two matzo crackers in water; drain and squeeze dry. Heat 2 tablespoons chicken fat, and sauté ¼ medium onion until golden brown. Add soaked matzos and cook and stir until the mixture “clears” the skillet. Cool. Add a teaspoon chopped parsley, a teaspoon salt, a quarter teaspoon of ground ginger, an eighth teaspoon both ground pepper and nutmeg, two lightly beaten eggs and enough matzo meal (about a quarter cup) to make a soft dough. Let stand for several hours to swell. Shape into small balls. Fry in deep fat (assumedly not lard, jly) until golden brown. The balls can be formed and frozen before frying. (This recipe makes about 20 balls.)

Tomato Canapés

Fry to a crisp, drain and crumble 1 pound bacon. Mix with a cup and a half (or so) of mayonnaise, and 2 bunches minced green onions. Season with a teaspoon (or more) Tony Cachere’s and black pepper to taste. Spread on 2 inch rounds of bread, top with drained and lightly-salted Roma tomato slices. This recipe makes about 35 canapés.

Banana Pepper Relish

Seed and dice a pound of sweet banana peppers (throw a hot one in if you like), a white onion, a cup of shredded cabbage, a grated carrot and two finely-minced cloves of garlic. Dust with salt and sugar (about 2:1), toss to mix well, pack into jars, and cover with hot white vinegar. Seal and store for a week before serving. This is great with grilled meats, particularly sausages and spicy beans.

Our Antipodes

Hoeing up a bed for onion sets wears me out, but if I were capable of digging a hole through the earth to the other side of the globe and found a patch of soil, it would be on Ile Amsterdam, situated in one of the most desolate stretches of ocean in the world.

The island was named by one of those intrepid Dutch explorers of the 17th century, van Diemen, who in 1633 named it after his ship, the Nieuw Amsterdam, which was (incredibile dictu) named after a Dutch settlement on the east coast of North America at the mouth of the Hudson River.

Now under French administration, Ile Amsterdam is 21 square miles of rugged terrain in a Mediterranean climate: warm, dry and sunny. La Roche Godon, the only settlement on the island, is home to about 30 non-permanent inhabitants involved in biological, meteorological and geomagnetic studies. Doubtless out of sheer coincidence, both Jackson and Ile Amsterdam have a volcanic presence, but while the mountain on the island is potentially active, I have every assurance that despite a considerable amount of shifting, the cone beneath Jackson is very much extinct.

The island was once home to one of the few species of flightless ducks in the world, the Amsterdam wigeon, which was of course quickly exterminated once discovered, but still has the Amsterdam albatross as well as Amsterdam fur seals, which bask in thousands on the rocky coastline.

Our Imperiled Pea

Most of us know Mississippi silver hulls as a crowders, and y’all are probably as surprised as I was to find that they’re an endangered variety of field peas (Vigna unguiculata). Silver hulls thrive in the lower Mid-South; the 6″ pods carry blocky black or brown-eyed peas that “crowd” one another in the pod. Easy to shell, fresh seeds have a thin skin, giving them a cleaner flavor. Sad to say, field peas of any kind just aren’t grown much any more.