Carol’s Carrot Cake

This recipe from a dear friend is the only one for a carrot cake I’ve ever used and the only one you’ll ever need. Though there is a tendency in most recipes to label alcoholic ingredients—in this case the dark rum—optional, but I consider the flavor 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 about their house. I like a mix of gold and dark raisins and prefer salted pecans to walnuts.

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, a teaspoon salt 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. Pour batter into an oiled Bundt or two 9 in. oiled and floured 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 and finely grated dried apricot for that hint of orange.

How to Cook a Green Ham

Ham is the quintessential meat of the Southern table, featured in or supporting dozens and dozens of dishes across our sideboard. But there are hams and then there are hams.

The finest hams are dry cured. These hams can be eaten very thinly sliced, but they need to be soaked in pure water at least a day if baked for the table. These are often labeled country hams. So-called city hams, the kind you most often find in the supermarket, are wet-cured by injection of brine. Smoked hams are a variant of both, with smoke preserving and providing flavor.

Then you have the green ham, which is what your grandmother called a leg of pork that hasn’t been cured. You’ll find it sold as a fresh ham; you may have to look for it, you may even have to order one, but a green ham is no more trouble than any other kind, and it’s a worthy option to the nitrate-infused clubs you’ve been serving all these years.

A green ham should be covered in a rind and a layer of fat. Score the rind in a tight crisscross pattern with a very sharp knife and coat with garlic and sage, a little brown sugar, coarsely-ground pepper and sea salt; put sprigs of rosemary and coarsely chopped white onions with water to cover in the pan. Set the ham fatty side up on a rack in a heavy pan with enough water to just cover the bottom. Place in a high oven, right at 450. After thirty minutes, decrease the temperature to 350. For a ten-pound ham, give it three hours or until that little bone next to the big one wiggles freely. Turn the oven off and let the ham sit for at least another hour before carving.

 

 

Oyster Soup with Artichoke and Spinach

This light savory soup is good cool or warm, and such dishes are at their best on a spring or autumn table for a warm day or a cool night. The base is a blend of store-bought beef and chicken bone broth: The flavor is minimal, as is the color; it’s used simply for its texture.

Add three cups chopped fresh or two cups well-drained frozen spinach and two jars quartered marinated artichoke hearts with liquid, thyme, basil, chives and just a knife point of minced garlic and cook “with a smile”, meaning just at a simmer for about fifteen minutes, double that if the spinach is raw. Use a quart of oysters, the liquor too if clear, but if cloudy, rinse the oysters and dust with salt and pepper. You’ll often read that oysters should be heated “until the edges curl” before serving, but I suspect this is an echo of those gentler days when a hot soup was finished off in a tureen and brought to table, since oysters cook quickly and are soon firm through and through. Top with finely cut fresh scallions for a nice bite.

Strawberry Chard Salad with Honey Poppyseed Dressing

Though like many gardeners in the Deep South I grow leaf vegetables and greens (the latter distinguished as pot vegetables) during our mild winters as much for their beauty as for their taste—the lemon-yellow spikes of bolting mustard and collard provide luminous company for spring dandelions and daffodils in this part of the world—Swiss chard, despite its bold greens and reds, rarely finds a space on the street corner, so I was delighted when my buddy D.J. Baker brought me two beautiful bunches of chard this past weekend.

“Let me know what you do with them,” he said.

Late March and early April is strawberry season here, and my salad greens are in their prime, so I took D.J.’s chard, mixed them with spinach, curly lettuce and bok choy, topped them with sliced Louisiana strawberries. The dressing is a vinegar and oil emulsion, a half cup each, with something like a quarter cup of honey, a teaspoon of dry mustard, a tablespoon of poppy seeds and salt to taste. Now, you’re going to have to use either a whip and a lot of elbow or a mixer (I can’t recommend a blender for such a small amount) because the seeds will clump. I added a dollop of red wine for color.

Hot and Sour Fried Cabbage with Bacon

Fry bacon until crisp, remove, drain and slice into small pieces. Chop or shred cabbage finely. Heat pan drippings, add cabbage and bacon with more oil (vegetable) as needed. Stir vigorously until cabbage is coated and just tender. Add hot pepper vinegar or hot sauce, ground black pepper and salt to taste. Finely sliced sweet onions–cooked or raw–are always a welcome option.

 

The Velvet Wok

Like many of you, I own a wok—actually I have two—and I enjoy Asian cuisine, particular the many cuisines of China, but for as long as I have been cooking Chinese dishes, I’ve never been able to replicate at home the tenderness of meats I’ve found in good Chinese restaurants. Of course I’ve tried tricks like shaving the beef and marinating the chicken for hours, but the meat always seemed chewy.

Now I know why. It’s a simple technique, and while in these hurly-burly times it may be considered a little time-consuming (a half-hour or so), it’s worth it, particularly if you’ve gone to the trouble of slicing and dicing the meats and vegetables and assembling the other ingredients. The technique is called “velveting”, which I’m given to understand is a (very) rough translation of the Mandarin word/phrase for the process, which involves coating the meat (seafoods as well) with a slurry of cornstarch, egg white and soy or rice vinegar. Not much is needed, 3 tablespoons (1/4 cup) of corn starch to one egg white, and enough vinegar or soy to make a thin paste. Coat your meat with this mixture (add a little salt if you use rice vinegar; you can use white vinegar, but I wouldn’t recommend apple: it’s just counter-cultural). Set this mixture aside for that half-hour, then toss it into a heated oiled wok (or whatever) and stir until the meat has separated and cooked through. Remove and set aside, cook your other ingredients (garlic FIRST!) and add your velvet meat last, mixing it in well before serving.

This works VERY well with the cheap cuts of beef I use. Mind you, I still cool beef and chicken to near freezing and slice as thinly as I can before the velveting, but it does make a dramatic difference, especially with beef, pork and shrimp.

Gâteau des Rois Provençal

Sure, go ahead and buy one of those puffed-up cardboard glue-filled dyed-and-painted THINGS sold as king cakes. Hell, you’re just going to get drunk and (try to) get laid, and who eats the damn thing anyway, right? But if you were properly inspired by the carnaval spirit of Shrovetide, then you would find fuller satisfaction in serving a work of your own hands, a creation invested with your love and care, the mirror in a minor way of the sacrifice around which the season is arraigned.

Finding a recipe for a Provençal Twelfth Night couronne briochée (crown brioche) was surprisingly problematic, and here is where I thank my friends the Bucklers for their cogent translation. The recipe may seem daunting at first, but it’s nothing more than a simple light bread, sweet-“ish” and rich with a dense texture, and as with all basic breads the emphasis is on procedure rather than ingredients.

Let me encourage you to make a test version some time before you plan to serve the cake to ensure a more perfect presentation. Also, instead of a plastic baby or some such nonsense, make the crowning ‘prize’ a piece of dried fruit—I use an apricot—and for goodness sakes just use a simple glaze such as a marmalade or a syrup—fig preserves are wonderful—with candied fruit for a topping instead of glitter and spray paint. Let the good times roll!

2 cups of well-sifted flour
1 packet active dry yeast
1/4 cup sugar
Zest from 1/2 orange
1 egg
2/3 stick softened butter
1/4 cup warm orange flower water (optional) or water

Put the water and orange flower water into a bowl, add the yeast, stir until dissolved and set it to the side to bloom. In another bowl, whisk the egg with a fork. Pour the flour into a mixer bowl, making a well in the middle. Add the sugar, orange zest, the water/yeast mixture as well as the beaten egg into the well. Mix on low, adding the butter in pats and continue to mix for 5 minutes alternating between low and high speed. Scrape the dough—it should be very sticky—into a large oiled bowl, cover with a clean cloth and leave it to rise for 2 hours (no more than 3 or a crust will form). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, dust lightly with flour and turn the dough out on this surface. Then sprinkling with more flour as needed to make the dough manageable, re-form the ball on the baking sheet and push your thumbs in the middle of the ball, all the way down to the baking sheet to form a crown. Turn the dough to widen hole, then cover with a cloth and let rise for another hour and a half or thereabouts. (At this point, you can also refrigerate the covered dough overnight and bringing it to room temperature before baking in the morning.) The finished dough only takes 15-20 minutes to bake in a hot (400) oven until golden brown. Glaze, decorate and enjoy!

 

Crab Tchoupitoulas

This recipe is a variation of a dish served at Pere Antoine Restaurant on the corner of Royal Street and St. Ann in the Vieux Carré, where mushroom caps are stuffed with the creamed spinach-mushroom-crab mixture then breaded and deep-fried. Here the dish is served en casserole, with a more substantial emphasis on the crab, making it much less time-consuming and more suitable for a buffet. In formal culinary parlance, this would likely be called a crab Florentine bon femme but Pere Antoine calls it Tchoupitoulas after a tribe of Native Americans who settled in the area during their Pre-Columbian wanderings along the Mississippi River.

Sauté a half pound of fresh mushrooms, thinly sliced, a 10-oz. package frozen chopped spinach, drained (squeeze it!), a half pound lump crab meat (picked through), a few ounces of finely julienned fresh sweet red pepper, a few tablespoons of grated onion and a finely minced clove of garlic in butter. Season with salt and pepper, and set aside. Make a rich white sauce with a blond roux of two tablespoons butter, three of plain flour, a cup of whole cream and a cup of whole milk. Add spinach and crab mixture to sauce along with a half cup of freshly grated Parmesan, Romano or another hard-sharp cheese. You can add a ground pepper of your choice (I recommend white) for a little zip, and as with all seafood, lemon or lime is always a welcome accent. Place in a very hot oven until browned and bubbling. Serve with well-buttered toast. This dish can be made up to three days before and frozen until the occasion.

Rock Cornish Road Kill

Spatchcocked is a variant of spitcocked, a term used for grilled split eel. It’s similar to the term butterfly, though spatchcock refers only to fowl, whereas butterflying typically applies to boneless cuts (meat, poultry, fish and so on). Spatchcocked birds cook up well with crisp skin and juicy meat, but there’s always some smart ass who’s going to tell you it looks like that chicken didn’t make it across the road.

Preheat oven to 450°F. Rinse hen, pat dry, remove wing tips and backbone with shears or a knife then turn the hen breast side up, open it up like a book and then whack it a time or two with the heel of your hand (you can use your fist if you like) to crack the breastbone and flatten it out. Tuck the wings under the thighs. Oil the hen, season with salt and pepper. Place rosemary, garlic and whatever other herbs you might like in the bottom of the skillet (you can use any rimmed backing container) and cook until browned.

Olive Relish for Beginners

Olive relish in its most basic incarnation is chopped olives with oil, so most people can make it on the fly; I’d be wary of anyone who doesn’t have one of those little upright jars of green pimento olives biding time somewhere in their refrigerator, and while any vegetable oil will do in a pinch, a robust olive is optimal. The more kinds of olives the better, chopped onion and parsley are classic inclusions as are—in judicious measure, never exceeding the olive majority—artichoke hearts, pickled peppers (particularly cherries), okra or tomato (but not cucumbers, in my less-than modest opinion). You shouldn’t need to add any salt at all, and a clove of finely-minced garlic mashed with ground peppercorns will give it a good kick.