A Proper Fool

The British have an absolute genius when it comes to naming foods; there’s bangers and mash, which are nothing more than sausages and mashed potatoes; Welsh rabbit, a dish made with bread and cheese; spotted dick, a pudding made with suet and fruit; and toad in the hole, eggs or sausages in bread. You can also include laver bread (seaweed), black pudding (blood sausage), haggis (stuffed sheep’s stomach), and many others, but my favorite is a fool.

In Britain, a fool is nothing more than fruit in whipped cream or more traditionally sweet custard, sort of an unfrozen parfait (which, by the way, in Britain is what they call a pâté). For instance, in England, what we’d call peaches and cream would be called a peach fool. The oldest versions of a fruit foole, which use gooseberries, may date back to the 15th century, though it is first mentioned as a dessert (together with the trifle) in 1598, and the earliest recipe dates to the mid-17th century. Why it’s called a fool is anyone’s guess, though some claim it derives from the French verb fouler meaning “to crush” or “to press” (as in pressing grapes for wine), a claim dismissed by those pontificating nitpickers of the Oxford English Dictionary as “baseless and inconsistent with the early use of the word”.

Most recipes you find today are nothing more than whipped cream and fruit. Unsurprisingly, you’re not going to find gooseberries used very often at all, since even if you find them they’re going to cost you an arm and a leg, but we have many types of fruit available here throughout our long warm season: Louisiana strawberries, foraged blackberries, Chilton County peaches, figs from your grandmother’s tree, hill country blueberries, even that good late-season cantaloupe from the Ozarks as well as the early Florida Valencias. But simply using whipped cream is improper, and substituting yogurt or even worse vanilla pudding is just trashy; to make a proper fool, you must make custard.

For six servings, scald two cups milk and add to  a blend of two well-beaten eggs with a half cup sugar. Put in a double boiler and heat. As it begins to thicken, add a tablespoon of corn starch blended very well in a tablespoon of milk. Once very thick, refrigerate. As to the fruit, it should be chopped or sliced and macerated with a sugar (a quarter cup sugar to two cups of fruit) to leach out the excess water. Layer fruit, custard and sweetened very stiff whipped cream in a pretty glass, and refrigerate until serving.

Making Hash

Chicken hash is a dish for social luncheons, and corned beef hash is a standard of diner breakfasts, but America’s staple hash is roast beef, served with or without gravy any time of the day. Beard said that in the most perfect hash he’d ever had—somewhere the hell in Minnesota—the meat was “perfectly cubed”, which strikes me as bizarre because my roasts are so tender that the meat shreds easily; I wouldn’t consider slicing  at all, I’d just rough it up a bit and set it aside while I browned my potatoes. Sometimes I’ll use the leftover roasted potatoes, but if I’m serving hash as a breakfast dish I’ll cut a fresh red potato into a small dice and cook in oil. Once the potatoes are browned and done through, I’ll throw in an onion and cook until clear; some people will throw a mild pepper in too, but I don’t belong to that school. Then add the meat with your seasonings, which should be basic; salt and pepper, paprika and a little dry mustard. Anyone who tries to gussy up hash needs therapy.

 

Short Ribs

For 3 pounds center-cut short beef ribs, line the bottom of a roasting pan with coarsely-chopped white onion. Coat ribs in a seasoning mixture of pepper, salt, granulated garlic and cumin in equal amounts. Add another layer of sliced onions, cover and place in a medium oven (300) for three hours. Uncover and bake for 30 minutes. Serve with bread, good mustard, slaw and beans.

 

Chicken and Dumplings

Cut a chicken into quarters and simmer in a gallon of water with carrots, onions, and celery. When tender, remove chicken and bone. Return the bones to the pot and reduce by about a third, then strain and return liquid to simmer. You want a gallon of good, rich broth. Make a stiff biscuit dough with sweet milk; roll it out to about an eighth of an inch, cut into strips and drop into boiling broth. As the liquid thickens, add the chicken, cover and let boil for another minute, then reduce heat and cover. After five minutes, cut the heat, stir and cover. Let the pot sit for about another five minutes or so to cook the dumplings. Salt to taste. I like chicken and dumplings with a good dose of black pepper.

True Grits

I have before me an article out of one of those upscale magazines devoted to the South as an intellectual and cultural milieu. This magazine is printed on the finest paper, has photographs taken by talented people, and if you put it on your coffee table, you’re liable to impress someone with your je ne sais quoi.  Inside, an article on Southern food (ever-so-quaintly called “fixin’s”) targets “a grand grits revival.” The author cites grits pilaf, grits croquettes, stone-ground grits with morels, Southern fried grits, grits crackers, Logan Turnpike grits (God only knows what that is), and sweetbreads with grits as evidence of this renaissance.

People, this is chic commercial jive operating under the auspices of promoting a naturally progressive cuisine. Southern cooking is progressive; as new ingredients become available they’re assimilated into traditional recipes, often with good results, and as far as cultural assimilation is concerned, Southern cooking is a brilliant hodgepodge of distinct cultural influences, Native American, West European, and African, the tripod which forms the basis of the cuisine itself, and as new peoples with different traditions move into the region over time the such basic elements as grits as we know them will reflect these changes in wonderful ways we can’t begin to fathom. But a shotgun wedding with French cuisine (or any other cuisine, for that matter) is much too artificial to be taken seriously. This effort seems more intended to get people to pay exorbitant amounts for a serving of grits than it is to create a compatible blend of ingredients. For better or worse, grits are versatile; they’re essentially starch, as are potatoes, rice or pasta. But can you honestly claim as the author does that adding “innovative twists and fresh accents” such as morels and/or sweetbreads to grits that you have a dish that “reflect(s) the changing nature of the South”?

I think not. For one thing, these recipes are the products of commercial establishments, of upscale restaurants designed to attract diners who have the time and money to eat at high-end tables. Recipes such as these tend to be the brainchildren of down-home boys and girls raised on their mothers’ or grandmothers’ good Southern cooking who travel to France where they stay in Paris or Provençe, sopping up the local hubris, naturalizing their schoolroom French and drinking themselves into a pixilated delusion of fraternity with the local Jaques Bonhommes on the local vin ordinaire. While there, they of course become so enamored of le haute cuisine de la France that they decide to launch a personal crusade bent on transforming the cuisine bourgeoise of the American South into “exciting food.” This is to say, of course, food that people will pay a lot of money for because they are “infused with French accents . . . and render (sic) with some finesse.” For another thing, these commercial recipes are subject to the whims of restaurants, which are notorious for posturing. They have to be. If such recipes reflect the changing nature of the South, then the reflection is of a superficial and ephemeral nature. If foods can indeed be considered a barometer for a region’s or a nation’s changing identity—and they very well can, if examined properly—then foods should reflect such profound and lasting changes as those brought about by shifting demographics and to a somewhat lesser extent technological advances.

To be trendy and fashionable our dishes must be finessed. Is Southern food in, you say? Well, yes, but then it does need sprucing up a bit, doesn’t it? Let’s take that plain fried chicken and serve it on squash waffles with peach salsa. Black-eyed peas? Let’s puree them, pat them out into cakes and fry them in olive oil and serve them with an herb-laden tomato puree. Grits? Yes, with morels, sweetbreads and jalapenos, deep-fried and served with cranberry chutney . . . This cooking is catchy to be sure, but I hardly think it’s significant. Our best foods are narratives embedded in time and place, told by people for whom cooking is a conversation, not the monologues of flim-flam chef manqués.

Pulled Pork

You’ll find pulled pork with barbecue sauce as a sandwich filling is just about every roadside eatery across the South. Most people will argue that it’s the sauce that makes these sandwiches, and I belong to that school, but the flavor and (above all) texture of the meat are vital components in providing a platform.

The secret is the right cut braised slowly in a low heat, and the right cut is a shoulder roast, also known as a Boston butt or “picnic shoulder. This is an inexpensive cut of well-marbled meat that comes from the top portion of the front leg of the hog (despite the name “butt”). While a butt has a more fat, making it more tender, a bone-in shoulder is your best option for pulled pork, since it has more connective tissue for a better texture and the bone gives more flavor.

Make a spice blend of 3 tablespoons paprika, 2 tablespoons granulated garlic, 2 tablespoons black pepper, and about 2 tablespoons of salt. You can add a couple of tablespoons of brown sugar to this. Mix with about 1/2 cup vegetable oil and rub over a 4-5 lb. shoulder roast pork, bone in. Peel and chop 2 small white onions, and place in the bottom of an oven roaster or slow cooker. If using a slow cooker, set it on low, if the oven, set at 250. The roast will take more time in the slow cooker, about 6-7 hours, somewhat less in the oven. When the meat is fork-tender, remove and discard fat and bone, and reserve the pot liquid with most of the fat drained off. Shred the pork into a lidded container and add enough of the reserved liquid for even moisture. This freezes beautifully.

The Southern Curry

Like most Baby Boomers, I grew up thinking of curry powder as a singular seasoning, not as the blend of herbs and spices it actually is. Even after I discovered that curries are spice blends, I was still unaware of the incredible number of varieties until my cousin Paige, who married into an Indian family, sent me Madhur Jeffrey’s An Invitation to Indian Cooking and Ruta Kahate’s 5 Spices, 50 Dishes. Granted, I knew enough history to know that India is not so much a country as it is a sub-continent with an astounding number of peoples spread over one and a quarter million square miles, but still the intricacies of the cuisines left me reeling. Then there is curry powder itself, about which Jaffrey in her introduction on how to produce “that genuine flavor” says, “Let me start negatively by saying that what you don’t need is curry powder.” Curry, she says, is “a British oversimplification for what is universally regarded as a richly varied cuisine,” as degrading as “chop suey” for Chinese cooking. As no stranger to defeat, I knew that I was in way over my head.

I’ll keep working on the cuisine of Delhi, which is Jeffrey’s specialty, but while I’m still learning, I can always fall back on the one curry dish in the Southern repertoire, Country Captain, which is a chicken curry (there’s really no other way to describe it) from South Carolina. While Jeffery’s recipes will include precise measurements for seasoning mixtures (dare I call them curries?) with as many as eight or more herbs and spices, most recipes you’ll find for Country Captain simply call for “curry powder”, which is available in any supermarket. I used the McCormick blend with coriander, fenugreek, turmeric, cumin, black pepper, bay leaves, celery seed, nutmeg, cloves, onion, red pepper and ginger, which I’m content to consider a reasonably complicated if not authentic amalgamation. The recipe I used is a riff off Winifred Green Cheney’s in her Southern Hospitality Cookbook, which she, being a woman of A Certain Station and Age, assures us is a direct replica of that served by Mrs. W.L. Bullard of Warm Springs, Georgia, who “often served her famous dish to the late Franklin D. Roosevelt”, but you can find a good recipe for Country Captain in any Junior League-style cookbook.

Aunt Beck’s Chicken Pie

In Eudora Welty’s Losing Battles, this is the dish Beck Beecham brought to Granny Vaughn’s 90th birthday gathering. She brought it especially for her nephew, Jack, who escaped from Parchman to be home for the celebration. Welty claimed, “I always heard it was a Methodist dish.”

1 young chicken (about 4 lbs.)
6 small white onions
2 ounces bacon, cut in small cubes
2 1/2 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon parsley, finely chopped
1/2 cup celery, finely chopped
3 hard-cooked eggs, sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
Pastry to cover a 9-inch pie

Boil the chicken in highly seasoned water and allow to cool in its broth. Separate the meat from skin and bones, leaving the chicken in large pieces. Boil the onions in salted water until tender, but not mushy, and drain. Fry the bacon until tender, without browning; remove from frying pan and set aside. In the remaining fat, cook the flour over very low heat for 3 minutes, then gradually stir in 21/2 cups of the broth in which the chicken was cooked. Add parsley, celery, salt and pepper, simmer for 6 minutes. Put half the quantity of bacon, half the chicken pieces, half the quantity of onions and half the quantity of eggs in the baking dish. Lay on the remaining pieces of chicken, add the rest of the other ingredients and pour the sauce over all. Cover with rich pie pastry, pressing down the edges with a fork. Brush with milk and make several slashes for the steam to escape. Bake in a hot oven (450° F) for 15 minutes, reduce heat to moderate (350° F) and bake 30 minutes longer. Serve at once with succotash.
Serves 6.

Buttery Cheese Wafers

Simply make a dough with one cup plain flour, one cup grated sharp cheddar and one stick of softened butter, add a little salt, a little white pepper, roll out, shape with a cookie cutter, and bake at 350 until nice and crisp, about 10-15 mins. Dust with a good, smoky paprika and enough cayenne thrown in to piss off the preacher.

Stuffed Focaccia

Cut bread horizontally, brush with olive oil infused with an Italian-type herbal blend and layer with mozzarella, black olives, and finely-minced shallots. Assemble, brush crust with more of the oil and herbs, and bake in a moderate oven for until top is crisp and cheese is melted through. Cut into sticks and serve immediately.