Grilled Cheese: An International Primer

Naturally I had every intention of entering the contest in Laurel Street Park, but I was advised by a dear friend that as a food professional I am tacitly eschewed from entering such cordial amateur competitions, even to the point of my neighborly offering of a random preliminary judgement free of charge. So in lieu of more active and visible participation and in the utmost spirit of concord and rapport, I here offer a modest backstage contribution.

As stipulated by the contest rules—and yes, I did solicit (and receive) a copy—a grilled cheese is in some form or the other heated bread and cheese, and while starches are a widespread culinary commodity, cheese is not for the simple reason that the greater part of humanity is lactose intolerant. Most of the cheese-eating peoples are in the ‘northwestern’ quadrant of the globe, which has led some geneticists to theorize that the gene governing lactose tolerance is linked to that of blue eyes. This in turn has led other species of scientists to speculate both characteristics are evidence of sexual congress between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons, but if you ask me that’s sheer projection on their part.

Let’s start at ground zero, the American grilled cheese. The classic American grilled cheese is simply a piece of American cheese layered between two pieces of white bread and then griddled with butter. In 1916, James L. Kraft obtained a patent for processed cheese that was easy to transport without spoiling or perishing. Soon slices of the cheap processed cheese was being grilled between slices of mass-produced white bread (Wonder bread was a frequent choice), and the dish became an essential companion to heated canned soups, particularly Campbell’s tomato. Though like any mass-produced/processed product the American grilled cheese has multitudes of detractors, it remains a favorite staple in households across the country.

Across the Pond there’s Welsh rabbit, which is made not with conies but bread, cheese in a sauce and the always-welcome option of beer. The most basic version involves thick slices of bread slathered in a thick cheese sauce made with Cheddar or some other substantial firm, off-white cheese with a slosh of your choice of beer (a good stout is excellent) and broiled. No one really knows any more how cheese on toast came to be called ‘rabbit’ or ‘rarebit’ (the variations in spelling seem to be arbitrary), but both Escoffier and Brillat-Savarin gave a recipe for ‘Lapin Gallois’ and a ‘Wouelsche Rabette’ first appeared in Antoine Beauvilliers’ L’Art du Cuisinier in 1814. Sometimes you just have to roll with the punches.

Traveling east across the Channel you find in France the croque monsieur, which is Gruyere cheese melted inside a ham sandwich, topped with a Bechamel sauce, more Gruyere and broiled. A version called croque madame is topped with a fried egg. The dish originated in French cafés and bars during la Belle Époque as a quick snack, the name based on the verb croquer (“to bite, to crunch”) and the word monsieur (“mister”). The sandwich’s first recorded appearance on a Paris café menu was in 1910 and the dish is actually mentioned in volume two (À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, 1919) of Proust’s epic À la recherche du temps perdu, a profound work which also happens to be a culinary mother lode.

Then you have raclette, a semi-hard cow’s milk French cheese usually fashioned into a wheel of about 3 lb. that’s heated, either in front of a fire or by a special machine—you can buy a Swissmar KF-77045 Classic 8 Person Raclette (with granite stone top: red) for $120 on Amazon—then scraped onto diners’ plated bread. The term raclette itself derives from the French word racler, meaning “to scrape”. Raclette was mentioned in medieval writings in texts from Swiss-German convents dating from as early as 1291. The cheese was originally consumed by peasants in the mountainous Alpine regions of Valais (Switzerland), Savoie and Haute-Savoie (France). It was then known in the German-speaking part of Switzerland as Bratchäs, or “roasted cheese”. Traditionally, cow herders carried cheese with them when they were moving cows to or from mountain pastures and the cheese would be placed next to a campfire for melting.

In Italy you have what is called mozzarella in carozza, which translates as “cheese (okay, mozzarella) in a carriage”. Sliced mozzarella is placed between sliced, crust-less white bread, dredged in a milk with beaten eggs and either pan- or deep-fried. If you ask me, it’s the mozzarella in carozza—NOT the croque monsieur that’s the undoubted precursor of that classic old diner specialty, the Monte Cristo sandwich, which employs the exact same procedure and ingredients with Swiss cheese and sliced ham or turkey. I substantiate this claim for the simple reason that the Monte Cristo’s origins can be traced to New York City, which has always boasted a great many people of Italian descent and Monte Cristo itself happens to be in Livorno.

So there.

A grilled cheese in Sweden (sounds like a Vonnegut title, doesn’t it?) is called a varm macka, which simply means “warm muck”. Some of you might recoil at such nomenclature, but let me be the first to assure you that when it comes to culinary terminology, “muck” is small potatoes indeed. For the most part, Swedish sandwiches—called smörgås—are open-faced, and even most simple cheese sandwiches are made open-faced and eaten cold. But a varm macka is cheese, not Grevé or Herrgårdsost as you might suspect but rather Gouda (Dutch) or Swiss, sliced, placed on buttered bread and heated in the oven. It is still served open-face, and meats such as ham are rarely if ever used.

Back to the New World and across the Rio Grande is the quesadilla, a tortilla, usually a flour tortilla but sometimes corn, filled with cheese and grilled. A full quesadilla involves two tortillas filled with cheese, stacked and heated, halves are a single tortilla filled with cheese and folded into a half-moon shape. Mexican quesadillas are traditionally cooked on a comal, which is also used to prepare tortillas. They are usually cooked without oil, but quesadillas can be fried to make quesadillas fritas, While Oaxaca (or string) cheese is the most common filling, other ingredients are also used in addition to the cheese, including cooked vegetables, such as potatoes with chorizo, squash blossoms, mushrooms, epazote, huitlacoche, and different types of cooked meat, such as chicharron, tinga made of chicken or beef, or cooked pork. Avocado or guacamole, green or red salsas, chopped onion, tomato, chiles, and cilantro are the most common toppings.

Farther south in Venezuela is the arepa de queso, a stuffed corn cake made from masa flour and then cooked on a cast iron skillet. The arepa is filled with local farmer’s cheese (mozzarella is a viable substitute) and then griddled again. Thee word arepa comes from “erepa” which means corn bread in the language of the indigenous people of Venezuela and Colombia. Early arepas were made with cassava (or yucca) flour as well as corn.

Finally, in Brazil you have a fascinating dish called the bauru. The traditional recipe calls for cheese (usually mozzarella) melted in a bain-marie, slices of roast beef, tomato and pickled cucumber in a French bun with the crumb (the soft inner part) removed. The bauru’s origins are actually well documented. In 1934, a student at the Faculdade de Direito do Largo de São Francisco, in São Paulo, Casemiro Pinto Neto[2] (known as Bauru for coming from the city of the same name in São Paulo state), entered Ponto Chic, a traditional eatery and student hangout, and asked the cook to prepare a sandwich from his specifications. “Bauru’s Sandwich” was an immediate hit, and eventually became the best-selling dish at the place. Many other eateries offer sandwiches named bauru with different combinations of ingredients—using sliced ham instead of roast beef or sliced bread instead of French bread. The city of Bauru eventually named the traditional bauru as the city’s official sandwich, codifying the recipe in a municipal law and instituting an official certification program.

In closing, I do hope the weather proves fair enough to hold the competition and wish the best of luck to all the contestants.

 

The Practical Primavera

Once touted as “America’s grandest contribution to the pasta repertoire”, pasta primavera was invented in New York at Le Cirque in 1977, and according to the ineffable Craig Claiborne soon became “by far the most talked-about dish in Manhattan”. The dish remained popular throughout the Eighties and today is almost cliché, but for all its snooty pedigree is still a good standard for the home kitchen.

A simple dish, primavera is pasta with spring vegetables from the kitchen and garden along with what’s fresh in the market, all cooked with a cream reduction. A reduction simply means that you simmer the cream until thickened to a consistency that will coat the pasta and vegetables as in an alfredo, and quite frankly a primavera is little more than an alfredo with vegetables. Most often a dry hard cheese such as Parmesan or Romano is grated into the cream for added flavor and a heavier consistency. You’ll have to blanch most non-leafy vegetables beforehand, and while some people will advise you to assess vegetable ingredients before making a decision about the type of pasta you should use. I can’t begin to express how over the top this is, and thankfully spaghetti noodles are the norm.

Sauté cooked pasta and blanched vegetables along with a bit of minced garlic and scallions in enough butter to coat, seasoning lightly with salt and pepper, then add heavy cream along with a light sprinkling of your choice of cheese. Simmer until cream begins to thicken, adding enough to coat both vegetables and pasta. It helps if you’re practiced in tossing the mixture, but a spoon or (better yet) tongs work in a pinch. I used fresh spinach, tender young summer squash, carrots, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and angel hair pasta.

Roadkill Salad

At Clancy’s in Yazoo City, one of the best barbecue joints in central Mississippi, they serve what they call a ‘Roadkill Chef’, with the usual greens and vegetables along with your choice of four meats: turkey, ham, pulled pork or smoked chicken.  Now, you can order a roadkill salad in damn near any restaurant in the western hemisphere under the name ‘chef’, but viaphagia (much as geophagia) has become something of a Southern in-joke, and the good folks at Clancy’s offer it in the same jocular spirit restaurants in Oregon might offer a Sasquatch salad with fruits, nuts, roots or sprouts.

 

Watergate Cake

While those of an age should remember Watergate as a by-word for illicit, illegal political intrigue and machinations, those younger will simply find this amalgamation of pistachio, coconut and pudding a pretty cake for St. Paddy’s Day. Such are the lessons of history.

1 box white cake mix
1 cup oil
1 pkg. instant pistachio pudding
1 cup lemon-lime soda
3 eggs
1/2 cup chopped pistachios
1/2 cup sweetened, shredded coconut

2 (3 oz.) envelopes Dream Whip
1 1/2 cups milk
1 pkg. instant pistachio pudding
1/2 cup chopped pistachios
1/2 cup sweetened, shredded coconut

Pour cake mixture into two greased and dusted 9-inch round baking pans, bake and cool completely. Whip Dream Whip and milk into peaks, gradually add pudding mix and keep beating into a fluff. Assemble cake, frosting between layers then frost completely, sprinkle with pistachios and coconut. Refrigerate before serving.

 

Vieiras Veracruz

Mexico has almost six thousand miles of coastline—about half of the estimated total for the U.S.—but mollusks don’t seem to play a proportionate role in the country’s cuisine. Kennedy includes only one recipe for scallops in her classic Cuisines of Mexico, a cebiche, and not a single one for oysters. This is not to say that oysters and scallops aren’t eaten in the country, simply an observation that no single indigenous recipe for them has become familiar to the world at large. However, recipes for salt-water fish abound, one of the most distinctive being red snapper Veracruz (huachinango a la Veracruzana), a rich, colorful dish with dozens of variants, but all using tomatoes and chilies in various proportions.

This scallop recipe is a riff on that staple, though lighter and more intense. First, if you’re using frozen scallops, you must thaw them and squeeze out the excess water that inevitably makes its way into the meat. Even after doing this, you’ll find the scallop muscles will exude a lot of moisture when exposed to heat, so a preliminary sauté is necessary. Once the scallops are firm, coat them with pepper a bit of salt and the lightest dusting of plain flour. Brown in the least bit of oil possible, then add by spoonfuls this salsa, along with jolts of fresh lime juice and perhaps a bit of garlic. The scallops should be pungent, piquant, highly aromatic and served with cucumber or melon.

Egg Foo Young

In my book—albeit unpublished—Sunday evenings are appropriate for substantive egg dishes, omelets and their ilk, which are on the whole light, versatile and easily prepared and this old Asian fusion dish—Chinese-Indonesian /British/American, what have you—fits the bill. The name derives from the 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 (and why not?).

For each serving, beat two large eggs loosely; I (for one) think it’s important that the whites are still visible as a component in the final product and use more oil than you would for an omelet. Pour the eggs onto the 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; here I’ve added shrimp, scallions and bean sprouts, but ham is frequently used, as is pork, chicken, cabbage and mushrooms; in fact, the only omelet-esque ingredient you’ll not find in a foo young is cheese.

After the additions have cooked into the surface of the eggs, flip the ‘cake’ and cook to light browning. As to the gravy, use your favorite gravy recipe—brown or otherwise—and if you’d like an Asiatic twist, add sugar and vinegar in equal parts for a sweet/sour effect.

 

The Flavor of Jackson

Welty’s use of foods in her fiction brings two notable examples to my mind; the “green-tomato pickle” in Why I Live at the P.O. and the shrimp boil at Baba’s in No Place for You, My Love, not to mention the groaning boards in her Delta Wedding

But Welty  wrote the introductions for three Jackson cookbooks that I know of, Winifred Green Cheney’s Southern Hospitality (1976); The Country Gourmet (1982), put out by the Mississippi Animal Rescue League; and The Jackson Cookbook (1971), which was compiled by the Symphony League of Jackson. Mark Kurlansky, in The Food of a Younger Land (2009), includes an essay of hers entitled “Mississippi Food” that Kurlansky claims was “a mimeographed pamphlet that she wrote for the Mississippi Advertising Commission and which they distributed.” Kurlansky doesn’t provide a date for the essay, but it was doubtless written in the mid-1930s.

More on that essay in a later post, but back to her introduction to The Jackson Cookbook, “The Flavor of Jackson”, which is a savory dish of Southern culinary exposition. The editor of a local front porch society publication once expressed surprise that Jackson had a culinary history “worth writing about”, but like every other editor of any given publication in Jackson, she was–and likely still is–as sadly unfamiliar with Welty’s work as she is any Mississippi writer’s with the possible exception of John Grisham. Eudora’s essay is a finely-seasoned piece with a wonderful flavor all its own. Most of the city’s culinary history concerns home cooking, of course, since restaurants here were rather much a novelty until the mid-twentieth century, but Jackson’s storied hospitality has always featured a superb board. 

Let me encourage Jacksonians to take note of the people she mentions and to write of what they know about them, perhaps even sharing personal memories. I also would like to know if any of you have heirloom copies of the recipes she mentions in the text, most particularly ‘Mrs. Lyell’s Lemon Dessert’, which has a particular cachet by virtue of its stellar pedigree. 

The Flavor of Jackson

Most Jacksonians would agree, I think, that Jackson has always characteristically dined at home and entertained at home, and does so still by first preference. It’s been out natural form of hospitality as of course its been the most logical and economical way to live.

There was indeed and for many years, the elegant dining room of the Edwards House ready for the important or large occasion. But we were too small a place and too far inland from the Gulf or New Orleans to have been heir to restaurants of another kind: one Mexican at his hot tamale stand, on the corner of North West and Hamilton during the cold months, couldn’t make us cosmopolitan. Rather than anything else, I think—and I like to think—the word for the Jackson flavor is “home”.

It was mostly the young who went forth with any regularity for outside refreshment. After the movies, the ice cream parlor. After “The Thief of Bagdad” at the Majestic, the other dime went for the strawberry ice cream soda at McIntyre’s. And wasn’t it Mr. Key’s Drug Store that seemed a functionable part of the Century Theatre? It had purple paper grapes on a cardboard trellis overhead—almost like a part of the stage scenery to come. Just before curtain time, my father took me in there and presented me with the box of Jordan’s Almonds—“bird eggs”—that was part of the theatre rite. Some tired road company would go through its Victor Herbert for us, but it was magic, all the same, and holding a “bird egg” in the mouth (impossible to swallow, in the excitement) was part of the magic.

When the whole family sallied forth for refreshment, it was very likely after supper on hot nights just before bedtime. They’d get in the car and drive to Seal Lily’s and have ice cream cones all around; it was best to hold them outside the car and eat them through the windows, and finish fast before the last bit melted.

But parties were given at home, and they started—I believe it was true for old and young—plenty early in the afternoon. You began eating around 3:30 and kept it up until you had entirely spoiled your supper. Party food drew its praises for how pretty it was (example, Bridemaids’ Salad, all white down to the white grapes) or for how much trouble the hostess went to make it (Pressed Chicken), but it’s a safe bet that all the refreshments were the successes they were because they were rich—thunderously rich.

Sometimes we branched out from home as far as Shadow Lawn. When parties were given there it wasn’t in order to save the trouble at home but to offer the guests a change—an al fresco in the quiet country air of the Terry Road. Some of our high school graduation “teas” took place at Shadow Lawn. The receiving line stood there on Miss Anita Perkins’s lawn, in the very early shadows, and the punch bowl waited on her porch, and there were her own delicious things to eat—frozen fruit salad was her specialty—and all was elegant. It was the era of the Madeira tea napkin. I believe I could say that more tea napkins were handed round at that high-minded time than I ever saw in my life, before or since. (And at least half of them must have been embroidered by Miss Irene Anderson. She too was very much a part of the flavor of Jackson.)

As a child, I heard it said that two well-travelled bachelors of the town, Mr. Erskin Helm and Mr. Charles Pierce, who lived on Amite Street, had ‘brought mayonnaise to Jackson’. Well they might have though not in the literal way I pictured the event. Mayonnaise had a mystique. Little girls were initiated into it by being allowed to stand at the kitchen table and help make it, for making mayonnaise takes three hands. While the main two hands keep up the uninterrupted beat in the bowl, the smaller hand is allowed to slowly add the olive oil, drop-by-counted-drop. The solemn fact was that sometimes mayonnaise didn’t make. Only the sudden dash of the red pepper into the brimming, smooth-as-cream bowlful told you it was finished and a triumph.

Of course you couldn’t buy mayonnaise and if you could, you wouldn’t. For the generation bringing my generation up, everything made in the kitchen started from scratch. There was a barrel of flour standing in the kitchen! Perhaps a sugar barrel too. The household may have provided (ours did) its own good butter (which implies a churn, and, of course, a cow), and its own eggs, and most likely it grew its own tomatoes, beans, strawberries, even asparagus. There’d be the seasonal rounds of the blackberry lady, appearing with her buckets at your door, and the watermelon man with his load, who’d plug you one to your taste, and the regulars sending their cries through the summer streets—“Butterbeans, snapbeans and okra!”—followed by the ice cream man, of course. Meat? Why your mother called up the butcher, talked to him, asked what was especially nice today, and let him send it. There was communication with butchers. And my father sometimes saw them, for he’d stop by on his way from the office and come bringing home by hand the little squared-off, roofed over, white cardboard bucket with the wire handles, fragrant and leaking a little—and produced oysters for supper, just ladled out of the oyster barrel that the butcher got in from New Orleans.

And of course they grated from whole nutmegs, they ground coffee from the beans, went to work on whole coconuts with the hatchet. Some people knew how to inveigle for the real vanilla bean. (Vanilla must have had a central importance in those days—think of all the cakes. Wasn’t there a local lady who made her living, and her entertainment, just selling vanilla extract over the telephone?)

Our mothers were sans mixes, sans foil, sans freezer, sans blender, sans monosodium glutamate, but their ingredients were as fresh as the day; and they knew how to make bread.

Jackson believed in and knew how to achieve the home flavor. And if ever there was a solid symbol of that spirit, one that radiates its pride and joy, it is the hand-cranked ice cream freezer. I see it established in a shady spot on a back porch, in the stage of having been turned till it won’t go around another time; its cylinder is full of its frozen custard that’s bright with peaches, or figs, or strawberries, its dasher lifted out and the plug in tight, the whole packed with ice and salt and covered with a sack to wait for dinner—and right now, who bids to lick the dasher?

I daresay any fine recipe used in Jackson could be attributed to a local lady, or her mother—Mrs. Cabell’s Pecans, Mrs. Wright’s Cocoons, Mrs. Lyell’s Lemon Dessert. Recipes, in the first place, had to be imparted—there was something oracular in the transaction—and however often they were made after that by others, they kept their right names. I Make Mrs. Mosal’s White Fruitcake every Christmas, having got it from my mother, who got it from Mrs. Mosal, and I often think to make a friend’s fine recipe is to celebrate her once more, and in that cheeriest, most aromatic of places to celebrate in the home kitchen.

Jackson had its full plenty of recipes, but I hardly remember a cookbook. My mother had the only one I ever saw as a child, “The White House Cookbook”. I don’t recall which president’s wife was in headquarters at the time of our edition, but the book opened to a full-length drawing of a deer, complete with antlers, marked off with dotted lines to show how to cut it up for venison, which suggests poor Mrs. Teddy Roosevelt. The most useful thing about “The White House Cookbook” was its roomy size, for in between its pages could be stored the recipes jotted down on scraps of paper and old envelopes, that my mother really used. They accumulated themselves over the years from friends and relations and from her own invention and a time or two from the Mystery Chef who came in over the radio. She had a cookbook within a cookbook. She had some of the making, in fact, of the very sort of cookbook that this one (i.e. The Jackson Cookbook) is certain to be. Today there’s a cookbook available for every conceivable purpose and occasion, but in this one we come a full circle: we’re back again to the local using these cherished recipes we can make and delight in the fruits of Jackson itself.

I’d like to express the pious hope that we’re to find these recipes given in full. My mother’s don’t do me as much good as they might because she never included directions. Her reasoning, often expressed, was that any cook worth her salt would know, given a list of ingredients, what to do with them, and if she did come to a momentary loss while stirring up a dish—taste it! Cooking was a matter of born sense, ordinary good judgment, enough experience, materials worth the bothering about, and tasting. I had to sit on a stool while she made spoonbread and take down what I saw like a reporter, to get her recipe.

I can’t resist adding this, for I think it applies. John Woodburn was a New York editor who’d com through Jackson on a scouting trip for young unknown writers and spent a night at our house. He carried my first collection of stories back with him and worked very hard trying to persuade his editor to take them. Several years later, when he succeeded, he sent me a telegram to say, “I knew as soon as I tasted your mother’s waffles it would turn out all right.”

 

 

 

Image via Janine’s World

Potted Deviled Ham

Potted meats are winter standards anywhere that has a winter; cooked meats, chopped or ground, mixed with fat in some form, are seasoned and stored; their preparation deserves the same care you’d give a homemade sausage.

Most modern recipes for such meat spreads involve cream cheese or mayonnaise as a binder, and the results are predictably bland. Though lard was doubtless the original ingredient—this is, after all, ham we’re dealing with, so don’t feign to flinch—the Brits have been using clarified butter and a pungent blend of spices in their potted meat recipes since the ascendency of the East India Company, and it’s a brilliant combination.

Clarify two sticks of butter by heating until bubbling, continue heating until the froth browns and sinks, then strain through cheesecloth or a coffee filter. This will result in roughly a cup and a half of a clear amber oil. Set this aside, then chop leftover ham finely (I recommend using a food processor on pulse), and for each two cups minced ham mix with a heaping tablespoon dry mustard, a teaspoon ground black pepper and nutmeg. Modify these amounts as you like; other options include ground cayenne, cinnamon and clove. Add salt with caution, as you ham will have a considerable amount to begin with. Blend the ham mixture with the butter and store in the refrigerator in a sealed container, the longer the better. Serve warm with toasted rounds.

 

Red Rose Sausage Sandwich Filling

Red Rose imitation smoked sausage was originally produced by the Jackson Packing Company, which from 1945 to 1990 sold processed meats from their plant on South Gallatin Street. Red Rose was marketed under the company’s flagship Magnolia brand, which was purchased by Polk’s Meat Products in Magee. The sausages are sold in 24-ounce packages, usually three links. Red Rose at home is sliced into sections, split, fried or grilled and served with beans or potatoes. Two Jackson eateries, the Beatty Street Grocery and the Big Apple Inn on Farish, serve Red Rose sandwiches.

This recipe comes via friend and neighbor Thomas Price, a man of many parts and infinite goodwill. It’s a riff on the restaurants’ sausage sandwiches, the innovation here combining the cole slaw with the sausage stuffing, which works beautifully. Peel the casings from the sausages, break the filling into a heavy skillet—chopped onion would be a nice option—and cook until heated through and continue cooking until most of the grease is cooked out.  Drain thoroughly and add about 4 ounces of cole slaw; that works out to half a large container from KFC, which luckily I had on hand, since it came recommended. Serve warm with a sprinkling of black pepper, buns—Bunny burger or slider—and a Louisiana hot sauce. I recommend Crystal.

A Savory Dutch Baby

Dutch babies seem very much in vogue now. Variously described as a pancake, popover or puff omelet, and most often served as a sweet breakfast dish, it can easily provide a savory platform for any number of toppings any time of the day. In this version, the batter 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. For the batter, whip two large eggs and a half cup flour and milk each into a froth, pour into a heated, well-buttered iron skillet and cook in a very hot oven until puffed and browned.