Tamale Pie

Tamale pie is made by all kinds of people for all kinds of occasions. The bones of controversy in this dish (and I assure you that there will always be an absolute skeleton in any given bowl, plate, or skewer of anything) involve the use of cheese in the bread and beans in the chili. Me, I bake plain cornbread batter over a pan of mild chili with beans and call it tamale pie.


A Proper Fool

Some people make a fool with yogurt or (Lord help us) instant pudding, but to make a proper fool, you must make custard.

For six servings, scald two cups milk. When warm, and add to a blend of two well-beaten eggs with a half cup sugar and a teaspoon vanilla. Pour into a double boiler. As it begins to thicken, add a tablespoon of corn starch blended very well in a tablespoon of milk. Once very thick, refrigerate.

To two cups sliced fruit, add a quarter cup sugar and macerate for at least a half hour. Stir if you can think about doing so. Layer fruit and custard, top with stiff cream. Chill and garnish–a dust of nutmeg is a nice touch–before serving.

Hot Hominy

This old buffet dish is perfect for a group brunch . Most recipes call for white hominy, but yellow or a blend is pretty.

To four cups drained and rinsed hominy, add a small jar of pimentos, a chopped mild banana pepper, and two cups mild cheddar cheese sauce.

Make your own; you can do it.

Some people add sausage, bacon, or ham, but that’s totally superfluous; likewise with jalapenos. Season with salt and white pepper. Bake at 300 for about 20 mins.

Roasting Garlic

 What a wonderful aroma! Slice tops off garlic, soak in olive oil, and place in a hot oven until soft and browned.

The Velvet Wok

After years of shaving and marinating meats for a stir fry with mixed results, I discovered velveting. With this tenderizing technique, you coat thinly-sliced meats with a slurry of cornstarch,  white vinegar, soy, and egg white.

Not much is needed; 3 tablespoons (1/4 cup) of corn starch to one egg white, and enough vinegar/soy to make a thin paste for a pound or so of meat. Some people recommend adding baking soda. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t, and I it doesn’t seem to make much difference. Treat meats for about a half-hour, rinse, and drain well before cooking.

This method also works with shrimp and lobster  but in either case I consider it superfluous.

Moon Cheese

Use cheddar of any type, Edam, Gouda, Colby, “Swiss,” or Monterey Jack. Cut into cubes of less than in inch, and arrange on an ungreased baking sheet.

Here’s where I tell you not to crowd the cheese bits, but it seems no matter how meticulous I am, I usually end up having to break them apart. Place in the upper rack of a low (250) oven until it’s thin, crisp, bubbly, and greasy. Cool completely before removing with a thin spatula to drain.

You shouldn’t have to salt these, but some people like paprika or cayenne. I don’t. Eat immediately; they’re too fragile to keep.

Chicken and Dressing

Regional favorites always have local trends; barbecue springs to mind, but more subtle examples are available.

Take chicken and dressing, for instance, a staple of the Mid South.  Along the coast, you’ll find dressings using a dried French loaf, but as you move north, cornbread enters the picture. I’ve seen recipes in north Louisiana and central Mississippi using a mix of the two. This is a typical north Mississippi recipe.

Make cornbread the night before, stick it in a paper sack, and put it somewhere it won’t get eaten. Next day, crumble bread into a large bowl and add enough strong chicken stock to make thick slurry.

To two quarts of such a mixture, add no more than 4 eggs well-beaten and at least two cups shredded chicken. Sauté a 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 overpowering.

Season with salt, pepper, thyme, and sage; I like plenty of sage in mine. Pour into a greased pan and bake at 350 until the top is browned and the center firm.

This goes with anything, anytime.

Bugs Bunny’s Carrot Cake

This recipe is the only one you’ll ever need. Many might consider the dark rum optional, but it’s essential to the recipe. Even if you’re a teetotaler, the alcohol burns off in the cooking, and good heavens you’re bound to know someone with a bottle.

I like a mix of gold and dark raisins, and prefer salted pecans to walnuts. Like so many great cakes, this one is best made the day before.

Mix thoroughly ¾ cup vegetable oil and ¾ cup warm buttermilk with ¾ cup white and ¾ cup light brown sugar (you don’t have to pack it). Set aside. Sift together 2 ½ cups plain flour, 2 teaspoons baking soda, 2 teaspoons each ground cinnamon and ground ginger, and a couple dashes of nutmeg.

Add half the dry ingredients to the oil/buttermilk mixture, and the rest alternately with 4 well-beaten eggs at room temperature. Add two cups grated carrots, about ¾ cup raisins, ¾ cup chopped nuts and a cup of drained crushed pineapple. Finish off with a tablespoon of vanilla extract and a generous slug of dark rum (okay, three ounces).

Pour batter into a Bundt or two 9 in. layer pans and bake at 375 until fragrant and springy. For the frosting, mix a pound of cream cheese and ½ stick butter at room temperature with powdered sugar to texture, a teaspoon almond extract and grated orange zests. Sprinkle with nuts.

Blackberry Winter

The day Jimmy went into rehab, Debby put in a garden. I kept telling her that March was too early, better to wait till Jimmy got out next month, but she wouldn’t listen. She wanted everything to look promising.

Jimmy’s commitment had been court ordered after he’d busted up the pool hall on Radley Road and sent Dennis Sprayberry to the ER with six broken ribs. Jimmy wasn’t always like this, meaning the type who’d take a cue and beat the ever-living hell out of the guy who was the best man at his wedding.

No, Jimmy was good once, and things just went bad, but before that he and Debby got married in the same church he was now exorcising his devil. Dennis couldn’t bring himself to press charges, so Jimmy wasn’t in that much trouble, but he needed to mind himself.

Debby just couldn’t understand how it had all gone wrong, since for a long time all Jimmy did was drink a little too much beer every now and then but bit by bit he kept drinking more, got off all by himself a lot of times and nobody could talk to him and when we did he just said nothing he had going was doing right.

And it wasn’t. He was hanging by a thread with his job, and when he almost cut his thumb off in an air-conditioner changing out the condenser and tested for alcohol for the third time he was fired. That’s the night he ended up down Radley Road and tried to kill Dennis. The sheriff told the prosecutor to throw the book at him, but things worked out so that Jimmy had to spend a month in rehab and two years under observation.

So when Jimmy went in, Debby planted a garden in the cold earth under a cool, cloudy sun. She went to the garden store in Tupelo and bought tomatoes and peppers, squash and cucumber seedlings, which she set out in a bed off the porch. She wanted her and Jimmy to be able to sit there in the afternoons and watch the sun go down over the garden. She said she was going to make Easter eggs so she and Jimmy could go looking for them the day after he got out.

I knew it was a bad idea, but I’d said all I could.

Good Friday came, and Debby got a call. Jimmy had broken out, so they had to put him in jail for violation of a court order. That night a cold wind came in and threw down a hard frost. Come morning the garden was nothing but frozen rows with withered plants. All I could do was be there.

“You knew this was going to happen, didn’t you?” she said.

I just shook my head; I didn’t. I was blinded by hope, too. I loved my brother Jimmy more than she did.

Poppy Seed Pound Cake

A friend from Texas—east Texas, mind you—now living in Maine said their neighbors considered pound cake Southern because the ingredients are cheap.

Well, dear hearts, those are the very reasons Americans have baked this cake well before Burr shot Hamilton. 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. Cream 2 cups sugar with a cup of softened butter. Stir in two tablespoons of poppy seeds, a cup of buttermilk, 4 beaten eggs, and at least a tablespoon of vanilla extract.

Sift 3 cups of plain flour with a teaspoon each of baking powder and soda. Gradually blend with liquid mix 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.