How to Bake a Potato

Method is the most important part of any recipe, even how to boil an egg, for which there is no good way. My method for baking potatoes results in crisp, toothsome skin and a molten, crumbly center.

Any given potato must be washed and scrubbed, then dried thoroughly before coating with salted oil and placing in the oven, which must be very hot. A large (10-12 oz.) white potato will take an hour in a 400F oven. Potatoes can be pierced and microwaved to start, but should be finished in the oven; likewise, waxy potatoes should be parboiled. Wrapping them in foil before baking ensures a steamed potato, which is wonderful and nostalgic, but lesser fare than baked.

 

On Buying Tomatoes

Once tomatoes shed their reputation for poison, they became the most versatile vegetable in American kitchens. While tomatoes are available year-round any fool knows that they’re best in season and locally grown. Any produce vendor in the American South is going to keep at least one big bin usually right up front and center full of field tomatoes grown by small truck farmers and delivered every morning. When you’re buying from one of these people–and it’s the only place you should buy tomatoes in the summer–it’s hard to go wrong, but there are a few things you should bear in mind.

Use your common sense. Choose uniformly firm fruit, without any squishy spots, bruises or dark spots. The most commonly-grown field tomatoes in central Mississippi and likely throughout the mid-South are Big Boy, Better Boy, Celebrity and (Arkansas) Traveler, all of which are more or less red-ish the Traveler tending to pink. Most of the old-school produce vendors will occasionally have “cherry” tomatoes of some kind or the other in season, but you’ll have to find markets that support specialty growers, such as the Mississippi Farmers’ Market, to get the varieties such as Cherokee, Krim or any of the various yellows. You can of course always get good green tomatoes for pickling or frying.

Remember that the tomato is a climacteric fruit, which means they ripen (i.e. become softer and sweeter) after harvest. The biochemical process involved is that climacteric fruits give off large amounts of ethylene gas whereas non-climacteric fruits give little or no ethylene gas. Non-climacteric fruits, once harvested, never ripen further; you can find an extensive list here.  Tomatoes sold in the winter and for the most part any sold in big chain supermarkets are picked green and “gassed”, sprayed with ethylene during shipping, which forces coloration, but not sugar production. When you buy from the produce stand, however, pick a few to use immediately and a few on not-quite-ripe side to ripen naturally on your kitchen shelf. Turn the tomatoes stem-end down to ripen, since the blossom end will mature first and the firm stem end will better support the fruit.

You shouldn’t have to refrigerate unsliced summer tomatoes at all. If you don’t stack them, they’ll keep for several days, and you should eat them at such a pace that they don’t need refrigeration. Remember with every bite you take that autumn will be here all too soon, and winter right behind.

 

 

A Mississippi Pavlova

This past week the web was hopping with a vid of kangaroos frolicking in the snow—not something you see every day—a reminder that while here in Mississippi we’re sick of the heat, down under in New South Wales it’s the dead of winter. This December, when we’re beginning to have our first heavy frosts, people in Australia and New Zealand will be getting ready to celebrate Christmas in balmy sub-tropical breezes. We’ll be making fruitcakes, but they’ll be making pavlovas.

A pavlova is meringue base or shell filled with whipped cream and fruit, a dessert, light as a ballerina, and this patronym is the only thing about the dish that’s agreed upon. Australians claim that it was invented in a hotel in Perth, and any respectable Kiwi will bristle at the thought. Then there are those who will tell you that a pavlova meringue should have a soft center while others insist it should be dried and crisp throughout. Suit yourself.

Meringues have a reputation for being tricky and if you’re clumsy they are. The egg whites mustn’t contain a bit of fat, so make sure no yolk remains, and don’t whip them in a plastic bowl. Bring the whites to room temperature before whipping (use a mixer, trust me on this), and while back in the day humid weather could make a meringue heavy, in air-conditioned homes it’s not a factor. Vinegar or lemon juice helps stabilize the froth, and don’t add sugar until the soft peak stage. See? What’d I tell you? Not tricky at all.

While the Chinese gooseberry—renamed the kiwi fruit by New Zealanders in a brazen attempt at origin status—and passion fruit are “original”, strawberries and blueberries are traditional, but any fruit can be used. Pavlovas can also be made with chocolate and caramels, candies and nuts. We’re getting in the best peaches of the year now, which make a beautiful pavlova.

Preheat oven to 325. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and draw a circle in the middle. parchment paper. For one meringue base, whip four egg whites until the peaks are soft. Gradually add one cup confectioner’s sugar, a spoonful at a time, until the whites are glossy, then gently blend in a teaspoon each vanilla extract and lemon juice and two teaspoons cornstarch. Spoon meringue onto the parchment paper circle. Working from the center, spread mixture toward the outside edge, leaving a slight depression in the center. Bake for half hour, more if the center feels squishy. Top (or layer) with whipped cream and fruit. Chopped pistachios are a nice touch.

 

 

Magic Pie

My grandmother Monette was a woman of many parts: a wit and a wag, a poet and historian, she raised two children who became remarkable people in their own right. She belonged to a generation of women who entered the workplace in time of war, and unlike her mother or daughter she never became a good cook. She along with millions of other women relied more on any given product’s “recommended recipes” than hand-me-downs or innovation. As a result, my Southern Baby-Boomer cuisine—for which, I might add, I barely qualify—is peppered with dishes fabricated in test kitchens.

Green bean casserole is the most popular of these concoctions, but there are dozens of others, including lemon icebox pie. Many early recipes include the word “magic”, as if cooling ingredients for preparation were more metaphysical than heating. Ingredients usually include canned milk of some sort, sweetened or not, as well as meringue or whipped cream, either in the filling or lightly-baked as topping. This recipe is from The Country Gourmet, distributed by the Mississippi Animal Rescue League in 1983, which includes a short forward by Eudora Welty ending with the marvelously ambiguous: “Guarding and protecting, trying to save, all life on earth is a need we all alike share.”

Beat six ounces of whipped topping with a thawed can of lemonade concentrate and a can of condensed milk. Pour into a graham cracker pie crust and chill one hour before serving.

 

Red Rose Sausage Delivery

When we saw Polk’s driver Michael Newton making a delivery of Red Rose Sausage to Froogel’s Supermarket on Fortification in Jackson, Mississippi, we had to get a photo. Since making the first post on red rose sausage over three years ago, people across the country have been contacting Mississippi Sideboard about this product, which they all say–in one way or another–that they remember with fondness from growing up in Mississippi, and our posts on red rose sausage receive the most consistently heavy traffic year after year. Thank you, Michael!

Michael Newton with a batch of Red Rose Sausage

Pepper Season

Peppers in Mississippi don’t carry the same cachet they do in parts of Louisiana and Carolina where their cultivation and consumption has become a fetish.

That’s not to say that we don’t have our share of connoisseurs here, for indeed we do, even eccentrics who will trot you out to a raised bed in their back yard in order that you might make appropriately appreciative noises over their ghosts. You’ll even find reapers and habaneros at a farmers’ market which I find more evident of their ease of culture than their demand for the table.

The staples prevail. Topmost are the thick-walled bells, best smaller than a fist, dark and tight. Country-style lunches should always include the crunch and zest of fresh sliced onion and sweet banana pepper to cut fat-stewed vegetables. Jalapenos here tend to be woody with more heat than taste, but deseeded and minced they’ll serve in a pico or pureed in a thin salsa. Poblanos should have a larger role in our kitchens, as should all the mild thin-walled capsicums. The thick-walled cherries are regrettably still a novelty.

The Mississippi pepper season begins in earnest when the thin cayennes come to market, as they did today in the form of two mesh baskets filled with spindly green pods marked to sell for a dollar each. At such a price my jaw dropped. The vendor, apologizing (!) said she’d have red ones soon, which she’s sure to mark up, but the greens are just as good if not more so, even dried. We’re finding less and less of the long cayennes now, so if you find a vendor, woo them, fawn and flatter, because cayennes will get you through the winter in the form of sauce or vinegar. Tabascos will too, and they grow well here, in my experience better than cayennes. The meatier tabascos make a better mash for red sauce, but both are equally good simply destemmed, pierced, packed into a jar with salt and filled with hot vinegar.

For two years now I’ve been growing pequinos first sent as a cropped plant from a friend in Austin. In the landscape of my mind where all sorts possibilities entertain themselves, the fiery little pequin is what I remember called a bird’s-eye pepper, not the Asian variety.  Pequinos grow at a glacial rate from seed so must be pruned and overwintered.

How to Make a Tomato Sandwich

Here in the Mid-South, we make three sandwiches with raw vegetables. One is the cucumber sandwich, served on pretty little trays aside ewers of lemonade, iced tea or gin and tonic on tables topped with linen and silver, eaten by ladies smelling of lavender sachets and gentlemen of a certain persuasion in pastel seersuckers. Diametrically opposite of this delicate denizen of elegant afternoon gatherings is the sweet onion sandwich, gnawed upon with indecorous gusto as well as deservedly considerable discretion over a kitchen sink and washed down with Miller or PBR by the likes of hunters, ATV enthusiasts and women’s sports columnists.

Then we have the tomato sandwich. Egalitarian and comfortable in company, this summer staple of Dixie is found on every front porch and patio, at picnics and tailgatings, on the table for breakfast, lunch or even a late dinner. For me a tomato sandwich is the ultimate nosh on a sultry summer afternoon when you’re watching the “Real Housewives” reunion. The essential components are bread, sliced tomatoes and mayonnaise. The bread should be sliced loaf, a soft wheat or white; for the sake of authenticity, Wonder bread is often mentioned. The tomatoes should be the best your particular part of the world has to offer, firm and richly ripe, though not uniformly so, since you want a blush of green around the stem end to ensure the fruit has a tinge of acidity that is the signature of a homegrown tomato.

The mayonnaise should be slathered on the tomatoes as well as the bread, thus ensuring an even moisture to the arrangement. Season with plenty of salt and a bit more black pepper then you would ordinarily consider enough. Adding bacon elevates a tomato sandwich from a mere culinary concoction to sheer poetry, but lettuce in any form or fashion is superfluous and annoying.

Green Egg Salad

Here’s a Dr. Seuss twist on an old standby for finger sandwiches on formal occasions or just a nice afternoon nosh. You can add chopped stuffed green olives to this, which makes a colorful mix, and you can use any kind of pepper you like, but if you use a jalapeno, I recommend seeding it to remove most of the heat. You can mash the avocado or cut it into small cubes, and it should be quite ripe or the mixture will be lumpy. Save some of the onion for garnish.

6 large soft-boiled eggs, chopped or diced
1 ripe avocado
¼ cup diced pepper
¼ cup diced red onion
3 or 4 tablespoons mayonnaise
A tablespoon or so of spicy mustard
Juice of one lime or lemon
salt and black pepper to taste

 

Incan Potato Salad

Dr. Amalia Andres-Pizarro, associate professor of Indigenous Peoples Studies at the University of Lima, has discovered what she claims is the world’s oldest recipe for potato salad in a manuscript recently uncovered from the Incan ruins at Lactapata.

“It is an important discovery in terms of Incan culture because it sheds light on the daily lives of the Incan people,” Andres-Pizarro said. “We know that the Incas cultivated potatoes hundreds of different varieties of potatoes, cooked them in stews, baked them in coals, and prepared them for storage. The Incas also invented chuno, the first freeze dried potatoes, a precursor to present-day instant mashed potatoes.”

The manuscript, written in Spanish, was probably set down by a priest who accompanied the conquistadores and was held captive by the puppet emperor Manco. The text describes various dishes prepared by the Incas as well as details of their dress, games they played, housing and exotic sexual mores. Andres-Pizarro said what are most certainly the bones of a European were found in the tomb with the manuscript.

What’s most impressive about the recipe is that the Incans actually had invented an early form of mayonnaise. “The text describes an emulsion made from the eggs of the great curassow (Crax rubra) and maize (corn) oil, which is practically identical to what we know as mayonnaise. The writer describes its preparation as a highly-guarded secret with religious overtones,” Andres-Pizarro said. “The recipe also incorporated chilis of various kinds in different amounts and boiled curassow eggs as well.”

Andres-Pizarro said that she is adapting other Incan recipes from the manuscript for the modern-day kitchen as the basis of a forthcoming Incan cookbook called The Kitchens of Manchu Picchu.

1 pound red potatoes
3 hard-cooked eggs
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 poblano chili finely chopped
¼ cup kernel corn
2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
½ cup mayonnaise
cayenne pepper and salt to taste

Peel potatoes, boil and cube, chop boiled eggs, add other ingredients, mix very well and chill overnight before serving.