On Kale and Colcannon

According to the genius of ancient Greece, cabbages were engendered from the tears of the Thracian king Lycurgus, who was blinded and torn limb from limb by Dionysus “the raging god” for pulling up grapevines. Modern botanists have for the most part been unwilling to accept this perfectly rational explanation for the genesis of the cabbage tribe, which however widely consumed in the Greco-Roman world, probably came from the cool, moist climates of northern and central Europe, particularly the British Isles. Most botanists theorize that cabbages in their infinite variety are descended from the sea kale (Crambe maritima), and kale was probably the first variety of cabbage to come under cultivation. I’m sure there’s a line of thought that implicates Vikings in their diaspora.

All cabbages kith and kin belong to the genus Brassica: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, bok choy and sum, rutabaga, turnip and of course true kale (B. oleracea acephala), which translates as “non-heading cabbage”; this scientific tag covers collards as well, but collard leaves are straighter and smoother, whereas kale foliage is curled somewhat like parsley (kale in French is chou fries: “curly cabbage”.  To be quite honest (as is my habit) kale is what we once used as a garnish on the salad bar, scattering the parti-colored leaves of the ornamental varieties artfully between the containers of vegetables, pickles and whatnot in a pathetic effort to suggest the experience of grazing in a garden or meadow, which leads me to observe that even today more kale is fed to livestock than to people, hence the moniker “cow cabbage”. But kale has made a spectacular comeback lately, particularly among hipsters and millennials who cheerfully disdain culinary precedence by tossing the leaves on a sheet pan and baking them in the oven to make “chips”, which are just as dreadful as they sound.

This dish, thankfully, is far more edible, since the Irish—and more notably the Scots—have been eating kale in enormous quantities for centuries and consequently know how to cook it. Colcannon (note the first syllable is practically synonymous with that of another cabbage dish, cole slaw) is from cál ceannann, meaning “white-headed cabbage”, and the recipe is as simple as the dish is hearty. Use one large starchy potato (russet) to, say, a packed cup of raw, chopped kale for each serving. Cut potatoes into chunks and boil vigorously until very soft and whip with milk or cream and butter. These don’t have to be perfectly smooth; in fact, they’re better a little lumpy, if you ask me. Boil the kale until quite done—this is one recipe for which you don’t want to use blanched kale—drain and while still hot toss with a little butter. Mix the potatoes and kale together, season with salt and white pepper. Some people cook green onions with the kale, but I prefer them raw as a garnish. You can thin this basic recipe with milk or broth to make a soup or you can spoon it into a casserole and bake it topped with a semi-hard cheese. It is a traditional side dish with ham, though I’m certain it goes just as well with corned or stewed beef.

 

Crechale’s Oysters Bienville

Nowadays most discussions—more often polemics—about culinary authenticity involve terms such as “the salience of ethnic identity” and “aligning broader socio-political representations”. These investigations certainly have their place in this global franchise we call a world, but when it comes to a specific restaurant recipe, we’re on less esoteric footing. We know that at some point in time, at this particular place, a recipe was formulated, prepared and served, a recipe that became an archetype for any that followed, and our best means of replicating such dishes is to find recipes written by people who are thoroughly familiar with the original and have the wherewithal to replicate it with authority. Such is the case with Arnaud’s signature recipe for oysters Bienville in Bayou Cuisine that’s credited to Jackson restaurateur Paul Crechale, which rings with authenticity in the use of a beige roux to thicken, cream and egg yolks to enrich, mushrooms, shrimp and a hard dry cheese.

Prepare the sauce by browning lightly in 3 tablespoons butter 2 minced onions. Stir in 3 tablespoons flour and cook, stirring constantly until the mixture is lightly browned. Be sure not to let it burn. Add gradually 1 ½ cups chicken consommé, ½ cup white wine, 1 cup minced raw mushrooms and 1 ½ cups chopped cooked shrimp. Cook slowly, stirring constantly, for 10 minutes. Open 3 dozen oysters and put them in their deep shells (my italics, jly) on individual baking dishes. Bake the oysters in their own juices in a moderate oven (350) for about 6 minutes. Thicken sauce with 2 egg yolks beaten with 2 tablespoons heavy cream and heat the sauce without boiling. Cover each oyster with some of the sauce and sprinkle lightly with equal parts of dry bread crumbs and grated Parmesan or Romano cheese. Return the oysters to the oven for about 10 minutes, until the topping is browned.

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, yes, 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. Many of  you will recognize this combination as a platform for any number of 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.

The Right Red and White

Some people will tell you that I’m an old ass who’s quick to fuss about any damned thing, but allow me to point out that when it comes to red beans people insist on using the wrong beans. Yes, that’s right. Instead of honest-to-goodness red beans, most people—even most vendors—use kidney beans, which are yes red, but they aren’t the right red. You’ll see small kidney beans marketed as red beans all the time; even the Camilla brand red beans are kidneys, as are those used by the Blue Runner people, but most markets in the mid-South will have honest-to-goodness red beans sold simply as red beans, and if you look under the ingredients, you’ll find “small red beans”, not kidneys as you’ll find on the Camilla package or on the Blue Runner can. Sure there’s only a whisker’s difference between the two, but it’s crucial and critical, a matter of veracity and refinement if not to say taste.

Any dried beans should be picked through and washed (you really don’t want to know why), then soaked for at least six hours. The procedure for cooking follows the very simple dictum of: “Boil the hell out of them.” Believe me, if you serve up crunchy beans, you’re never going to hear the end of it, and you can always get rid of excess liquid after the beans are cooked through. For a pound of dry beans add a half large white onion and whatever old bone you have around. Do not add salt until later, since cooking beans with salt makes the skins tough. Once the beans are quite cooked, adjust the amount of liquid, depending on how soupy or solid you like them; I like mine syrupy. I also like a good herbal stamp; for a pound of cooked beans I add a tablespoon each of dried basil and thyme. Trust me, use granulated garlic instead of fresh (it’ll get bitter), and for God’s sake don’t add Tabasco or cayenne; with red beans, don’t worry about adding heat—people will do that at the table before they even taste it—but with heft, meaning the beans should star in full drag throwing beads and kisses.

Lucretia’s Beans

“I grew up poor! We were so poor! Rupert, tell them how poor I was!”

“They were very poor!” Rupert said from the back porch, where he was working on the lawn mower. “They were so poor they had to piss in a bucket a block away!”

“But we were proud!” Lucretia said. “My mother, she was the old Creole blood. She sold the calas on Dauphine, her apron white as a young nun, stiff as an old priest, and she’d go, “Belles calas! Mo gaignin calas, guaranti vous ve bons! Belles calas, belles calas!” And all the girls who worked up in their rooms, they’d come down to get Mama Diart’s cakes for their gentlemen who were sleeping it off in the beds like they’d get the strong coffee from Monsoir’s. The bottle they had already.”

“They were so poor, they had to eat cereal with a fork to share the milk!” Rupert banged on the mower and yelled at it.

“And yes,” Lucretia said, “We would have the rouge ser riz, all the time! If we were lucky, Mama would get the ham joint that Hector Monsoir had saved for her because you see he was secretly in love with Mama from a long time ago when she was so beautiful and slender like a dancer with her laughing eyes.”

“They were so poor, she had to share her brassiere with her sisters!” Rupert tried to crank the lawnmower, but failed and he cussed.

“But not like those beans they make now!” Lucretia shouted. “Pah! Those beans they make now they taste like those little wads of dough the Italians boil to put in that red gravy they make. Beans that have no bones, no flesh, no . . . spirit. They use those big long-nosed beans, those . . . what do they call them, yes, them kidney beans, the light-colored ones like a bean the white people in the country use to put on their meal bread.” She made a face like spitting. “And they should be pissed on! No, she used the little red beans she bought from old Helene on Magazine.”

“They were so poor, if her brothers didn’t wake up with bones, they didn’t have anything to play with!” Rupert pulled the cord and the mower cranked, coughing and spitting. He led it into the yard and began mowing.

“She would bring the beans home when she sold her cakes, put them in the big pot on the back of the stove with water enough over the joint if she had it, and start the laundry for her ladies on Bourbon. All afternoon they’d soak, and she’d start the fire. She had the herbs, too, from the market on Decatur, and pepper. When we all got home at night she made the rice, and we would eat while all around us we could hear the music play and imagine people dancing in those pretty rooms where the ladies would spray their perfumes on the pink lampshades.”

 

 

Oysters Roffignac

Many of you might know the Roffignac cocktail, a fruity drink that the effete among us pretend to enjoy when they’re seriously jonesing for a beer, but for those of us with a realistic bent we have oysters Roffignac, a roguish and astoundingly good dish. This recipe comes by way of Howard Mitcham, who says the Roffignac, once on the corner of Royal and St. Peter Streets, was the most popular restaurant in antebellum New Orleans, founded by the family of the French nobleman who became the city’s tenth mayor in 1820. Howard claims that oysters Roffignac was the first “baked” oyster dish in New Orleans, and if we can’t believe Howard Mitcham in that regard, then we can’t believe anybody. (Trust me.) You’ll not find many oyster recipes that use red wine, and even fewer using paprika as a principal flavoring, but you’re going to be immeasurably surprised at how wonderful this combination can be. Add this dish to your repertoire as a hearty alternative to a sissy Bienville or Rockefeller.

For four servings:
2 dozen fresh oysters in their shells
1/2 lb. peeled boiled shrimp (about a pound raw in the shell)
A half dozen scallions, finely chopped
About a dozen small button mushrooms, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 stick butter
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon paprika
A dash of cayenne
About a half cup of dry red wine

Clean oysters of mud and hangers-on, shuck and reserve liquid. Heat butter, add scallions, garlic, shrimp, mushrooms and cook until mushrooms are done through. Dissolve cornstarch in about ¼ cup water, add to pan, quickly add wine and oyster liquor as mixture thickens. Top oysters and broil until cooked through. Serve with lemon and parsley.

Heart of Cream

This dish has like so many others—gingerbread, for example, or roast turkey—become needlessly consigned to a specific winter holiday, but the dessert could easily fit on any table. Most recipes have no more than four ingredients—crème fraiche, cream cheese, egg whites and sugar—though the misguided might add vanilla or lemon. Recipes will ofen stipulate crème fraiche or sour cream, and for years I’ve been making a coeur a la crème using sour cream for convenience. This year, I’ve upped my game and made crème fraiche, which is not difficult, a little goes a long way, and it keeps in the refrigerator for a very long time.

You can make a simple crème fraiche using cultured buttermilk and whole cream from the supermarket, but if you’re going to bother to make it at all, do the best you can. I did not want to buy a packet of the crème fraiche culture, which seemed to me like a slacker’s option, so I trotted down to the Mississippi Farmer’s Market and bought fresh whole milk and buttermilk from T&R Dairy. Their lightly pasteurized products contain lactic bacteria needed for a good crème fraiche. I made a culture using a cup of whole milk, a quarter cup of buttermilk and a spoonful of store-bought sour cream, which does have a tiny bit of its characteristic bacteria. I kept the starter out overnight, and by morning it had thickened to a dense slurry. I added a half cup or so of that to a quart of whole cream from the supermarket, and it worked like a charm. I ended up with a thick, tart crème fraiche, which I’ll tend to as I would a sourdough. In time, with added culture from T&D, I’m hoping it will mellow and enrichen.

Now, if you happen to frequent the kinds of stores that sell such things as stainless steel strawberry stem removers,  chromium banana slicers and cast-iron hot dog toasters, then you’re likely to run into these cute little ceramic heart molds with holes that are made specifically for a coeur le crème. Since I am just not a Williams-Sonoma-type person, I went to the Dollar Store on Fortification and found a plastic, heart-shaped container with Ninja Turtles embossed on the front (“Be My Bodacious Valentine!”) that was just the right size and grabbing a packet of cheesecloth from McDade’s—yes, can buy cheesecloth at McDade’s (!)—I was ready to make my heart of cream. I burned holes in the plastic with a hot nail, lined the mold—for that’s what it had become—with damp cheesecloth, mixed one cup of my crème fraiche with six ounces of cream cheese, blended in two (organic) stiffly-beaten egg whites and a tablespoon of confectioner’s sugar. I placed the coeur on a plate in the coldest part of the refrigerator for several hours, inverted it onto a server, removed the cloth and garnished with raspberries, though any kind of berry would have been good this time of the year, even bananas.