Herb-Roasted Rutabagas

The rutabaga is a mutant; it has 38 chromosomes while other turnips have 20. Some say it’s a cross between a cabbage and a turnip that originated in Bohemia in the seventeenth century, but where the hell they came up with that goes largely unexplained by any account. Rutabagas are milder and sweeter than other turnips, and you’ll find them in the supermarket coated in wax to keep them from drying out, which they do more readily than other root vegetables. This simple recipe is a wonderful alternative to the usual mashed “swedes” with enough butter to gag Paula you’ll find on a lot of cool-weather tables.

One large rutabaga, peeled and cubed into more or less bite-sized pieces, will serve four people easily. Coat the pieces in oil, sprinkle with salt, pepper and granulated garlic, and bake them at 350 tossing or turning occasionally to brown evenly. When they’re just tender through, dust with dried herbs—sage, rosemary, marjoram, basil, rosemary or a combination—and continue cooking until done through. These are even more delicious the day after.

Pimento Cheese Pizza

While most all of us eat pimento cheese year-round on some type of bread, likely its eaten cold as a spread, a snack or a light lunch item. This recipe brings pimento cheese into football season and beyond not only as a great party recipe, but also as a cold night nosh for a family.

You can use a prepared pizza crust, but I implore you to learn how to make a simple pizza crust; it’s not hard at all, and there are dozens of recipes available using nothing more than flour, yeast, water and olive oil. With a homemade crust, you can adjust the thickness to your tastes and add whatever herbs and cheeses you like to it instead of what some dingbat in a test kitchen thinks you like. Using a homemade crust, roll out your dough—I like mine on the thin side—and crimp the edges. Cover the crust with thin slices of tomato that have been drained between paper towels; slice tomatoes, place between layers of paper towels and press to leach out seeds and jelly. Dust the tomato layer with grated Parmesan cheese and a bit of that ubiquitous Italian seasoning blend.

As to the pimento and cheese, friends and neighbors, I wish I could tell you that you can use store-bought or even your homemade recipe, but if you do, you’re going to end up with a greasy, runny mess because the mayonnaise will separate in the oven. Instead, toss mild grated cheddar with drained diced pimentos—I dice the roasted red peppers you can buy in a jar—diced white onions and shaved ham. Yes, you can use bacon but make sure it’s lean. I wouldn’t range too far afield in toppings—no anchovies!—but it’s your pizza, and you can put any damn thing you want on it. Spread pimento cheese mixture over the tomatoes, dust with Parmesan and bake on the middle rack of a very hot oven (450) for about 15 minutes.

Hosford’s Apple Cookies

While digging a well for Mrs. Mary Allison, a widow from New Orleans who moved to Way, Mississippi in 1899, Parson Hargon discovered a plentiful source of mineral water, and in time a popular resort named Allison’s Wells grew up around the spring. Initially offering only medicinal baths and drinks (and those for men only), the spa eventually added a hotel and restaurant (La Font) with a grand ballroom that in time also hosted the Mississippi Art Colony. Allison’s Wells was destroyed by fire in 1963

In 1981, proprietor Hosford Fontaine—doubtless at the urgings of countless friends—published Allison’s Wells: The Last Mississippi Spa, a treasure-trove of history, profiles of the people who kept the resort functioning as well as other unforgettable characters, musicians and of course artists such as Till Caldwell, Inez Wallace, Ted Faires, Marie Hull and others. Many of these people contributed to the illustrations which are augmented by dozens of charming vintage photos including a poignant image of Hosford standing amid the charred ruins. But best of all—from my standpoint in the kitchen—The Last Mississippi Spa also includes a sprawling section on recipes for almost anything to put on the table: hors d’oeuvres, soups, salads, dressings, breads, meats, seafood, vegetables, breakfast and brunch dishes, desserts, candy and cookies, all “tried and true” from the La Font kitchens.

You don’t see many Southern apple cookie recipes; a quick scan of Southern Sideboards, Bayou Cuisine, River Road Recipes, Vintage Vicksburg, Gourmet of the Delta, The Jackson Cookbook and The Mississippi Cookbook turned up nary a one. Though the South has a native crab apple, the Old World apple species that produce what Emerson called “the American fruit” simply don’t do well in our climate and fruit from those that do are most often dried or made into pies or sauce. As to the kind of apples to use, that’s up to you. I used Galas because they’re pretty.

The original recipe calls for a cup of margarine, but I’ve substituted butter because it just flat-out tastes better. I suspect Hosford used margarine for the sake of economy, but then a lot of women of her generation used margarine because it was considered upscale, being “store bought” and all. I used white raisins because you’ll find different shades of fruit in a box of white raisins while others are uniformly dark, and I used pecans because they go so well with apples in any recipe.

About 3 apples, enough to make 3 cups of fine unpeeled dice; (use only pieces with skin so that when baked they’ll stay somewhat firm)
2 sticks butter, softened
¾ cup sugar
¾ cup brown sugar, packed
3 eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups flour
1 tablespoon grated orange peel
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
A half teaspoon each ground cloves, nutmeg and salt
2 cups rolled oats
¼ cup white raisins
¼ cup chopped pecans (or nuts of your choice)

Cream butter and sugars well, add eggs and flour mixed and sifted with spices and baking powder, then stir in apples, oats and nuts. Refrigerate dough for about 30 minutes, stirring once. Form dough into ping pong balls, and bake on a lightly oiled cookie sheet with parchment paper at 350 or until lightly browned. Cool on a wire rack.This recipe makes about three dozen wonderful, chewy, sticky cookies.

Vanilla Lemonade

An elegant riff on an eternal favorite, vanilla lemonade adds a gracious touch to any summer soiree, the perfect companion for a plate of ginger snaps or sugar cookies. If you’re already accustomed to making lemonade properly, with a simple syrup rather than raw granulated sugar, then it’s nothing more than a simple variant. And according to correspondent Dan Vimes, the addition of Cat Head vodka doesn’t diminish the subtle flavor and enhances its consumption.

Combine one cup white sugar and one cup water in a small saucepan along with the sliced peel of one lemon (juice the lemon first, then pare the peel). Bring to a quick boil, just enough to dissolve the sugar, then reduce the heat, add a tablespoon of pure vanilla extract and let it simmer for several minutes. If you can get them, two vanilla beans can be used instead, in which case you will have to strain the syrup, but it’s well worth the effort. Add this syrup to six cups of water along with about a cup of fresh strained lemon juice or to taste and keep in a sealed container until ready to pour over ice and serve.

Muscadine Or Scuppernong?

It’s late summer; the exhausting heat lingering and September’s drought is setting in, but on a bright note, our native grapes are beginning to appear in markets. These aubergine and bronzy green globes are a little bit pricey, often going for as much as $5 (but usually more like $3) a quart, but to me they’re worth it. These grapes have a thick skin and rind–they’re actually chewy–but when you bit into them, you get an explosion of sweet, sharp flavor.

North America has two native grape species, Vitis labrusa, often called the fox or possum grape, and Vitis roundifolia, which most people call a muscadine. While the wild fruit of both species is edible, the fruit of cultivated varieties of vastly superior. Naturally, both species are widely used for making wines, which are most often cloyingly sweet and best used as an aperitif or digestif. The name muscadine comes from its similarity to early settlers with the Muscat grape, a Mediterranean type used in making muscatel, both words deriving from the musky scent of the fruit.

Muscadines come in a variety of colors, but there are two basic color types: the black or purple and the bronze. “Scuppernong” is the name of the first muscadine cultivar, a cultivar being a variety of plant that is created or selected for cultivation. This “white” (most types are a light greenish) was so named because of its discovery along the Scuppernong River in North Carolina. Interestingly (and surprisingly) the original mother vine is still on Roanoke Island, where it has been growing and producing for several hundred years. Because scuppernongs are such an early variety of muscadines, scuppernong entered common usage to refer to any bronze/green/”white” muscadine grape even though botanical correctness dictates that “Scuppernong” should only designate the cultivar and not all such color types.

You can use muscadines and scuppernongs as you might any berry: in pies and cobblers, muffins, jams and jellies, but because their fresh taste is so incredibly wonderful, I recommend that you simply keep a bowl  on the kitchen table for a quick little nosh during the season.

Ice Cream Bread

Versions of this recipe have been bouncing around a lot recently, most of them praising its fool-proof simplicity, but as with such recipes—and one with two ingredients is about as basic as they come—the devil is in the details. Most versions call for 1 ½ cups of self-rising (“hot rise”) flour and a pint of melted ice cream—which make make a soft, sticky dough rather than a batter—baked in a standard 8×5 loaf pan at 350 for 45 minutes, but I’ve found that the recipe makes a much better presentation when baked in a 5×3 (16 oz.) loaf or a similarly-sized spring-form baker at 350 for only 35 minutes. I’ve also found that you must use a very rich ice cream such as a French vanilla or (as in this case) a butter pecan and that LuVel works just as well if not better than Ben & Jerry’s, but you must let the ice cream melt slowly on the kitchen counter or in the refrigerator overnight; don’t put it in the microwave or it will be “flat”. These cute little loaves serve six adults easily, slice into eighths for kids, and while a dollop of whipped cream might seem more appropriate, I don’t think a scoop of vanilla ice cream is redundant at all.

Cucumber-Lime-Basil Sorbet

Puree two peeled chopped cucumbers, one cup simple syrup, 1/4 cup of fresh lime juice, a pinch of salt and 5 basil leaves in ta blender, then press through a fine screen. Pour the mixture into a container, and float a cleaned egg in the mixture . If a quarter sized portion of the shell is showing you are good, if not add more syrup. Chill mixture then run in ice cream maker.

Photo and recipe via David Odom

Bourdain’s Last Salute Honors Mississippian

One of Anthony Bourdain’s last works is an introduction to Howard Mitcham’s Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, originally published in 1975, to be rereleased on June 26. In his tribute, Bourdain calls Mitcham’s cookbook “one of the most influential of my life.”

Dan Simon, founder and publisher of Seven Stories Press said he and his team approached Bourdain because they knew that he was “an admirer of Mitcham.” Bourdain’s culinary career started in the early 1970s in Provincetown, where Mitcham was already a legend. “He was just so terrific,” Simon said. “I think he loved the gusto with which Howard lived his life and cooked and brought it all together.”

A writer, a scholar and an artist as well as the foremost chef of note from Mississippi, Howard Mitcham was a brilliant, stone-deaf, hard-drinking bohemian, raconteur and bon vivant who knew and corresponded with the great and near-great. A name chef during what Bourdain himself called “the early happy days before the glamorization of chefs”, a historian and an artist as well, we should remember Mitcham with gusto. His Provincetown Seafood Cookbook stands loud, proud and without a smidgeon of pretension alongside any cookbook written in the past century, a robust ragout of food, people, art and lore.

Mitcham nurtured, cultivated and matured his sprawling genius in the rich enclaves of Provincetown and New Orleans. For decades he was a spectacular bird of passage, summering on Cape Cod, wintering in the French Quarter and coming home to Montgomery County, Mississippi at times. His books trumpet a passion for seafood; his writings on oysters and clams, shrimp and fish seem to pant with restraint. Mitcham wants you to partake of everything he knows and loves with the same gusto he does in hearty sentences that growl with gruff humor and wry authority. “People think I’m sort of coo-coo to publish my trade secrets and recipes,” he wrote, “but to me good food is like love, it should be given as wide a distribution as possible.”

James Howard Mitcham, Jr. was born in Winona, Mississippi on June 11, 1917. His father, a house painter, died when he was a year old. His mother moved to Vicksburg to find work, leaving the infant Howard with her parents on their watermelon farm on Sawmill Road. At sixteen Mitcham became deaf from nerve damage resulting from spinal meningitis. For the rest of his life, Mitcham spoke with a thick, booming Southern accent, but used sign language and notes to abet his frequent incoherency. He grew up loving jazz, a love silence didn’t kill. “The last song he ever heard was Billie Holiday’s ‘Am I Blue?’”, his daughter Sabina said. “Whenever he’d sing it, it would just break my heart. At his birthdays he would place his hand on the bell of a sax to get the beat.”

Mitcham attended Greenville High School with lifelong friend Shelby Foote as well as Walker Percy. A May 30, 1934 clipping from “The Pica”, the GHS school newspaper, includes a column by Mitcham (“Rigmarole”) and three poems by Foote. A news article in the same issue notes: “Walker Percy, freshman at the University of North Carolina and member of last year’s graduating class, will journey to Germany for a three months’ tour of that country,” adding that “the tour will be made on foot and on bycicles (sic)”.

Mitcham in Manhattan

After graduating high school, Mitcham moved to Vicksburg to live with his mother and began attending Louisiana State University as an art student, and at some point, in the late 1940s, Mitcham moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, where he ran an art gallery. During this time, he became the model for “the stone-deaf man” in Marguerite Young’s epic work, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling. Sabina said that during Mitcham’s days in New York, Walker Percy would come to stay with him, often sleeping on the floor in Mitcham’s tiny apartment in the Village.

What quirk of fate or fortune that first took Mitcham from his home in the Deep South to the distant shores of Cape Cod is a matter rich for speculation, but he claims to have made his first visit there as early as 1948. Thereafter for most of his life, Mitcham divided his years between New Orleans and Provincetown.

An editor of ‘The Provincetown Advocate’ described Mitcham as “Artist, block print maker, chef par excellence, pro-beatnik, draughtsman and one of the most talented nuts ever to come into Provincetown.” Mitcham maintained an art gallery on the Cape, painted signs and repaired clocks, once publishing an article on antique clocks in Gentleman’s Quarterly). In the 1960s, Mitcham wrote a column in the Advocate called the “The Cape Tip Gourmet” and another called “The Cape Curmudgeon”. He wrote that the first place he headed when he first arrived in Provincetown, and most likely from then on, was Town Wharf. “It made my heart jump to see the enormous hauls of herring that the trap boats were bringing in,” Mitcham said. “But my gourmet’s heart was broken when I found out that this wonderful fish was being knocked down for two bucks and fifty cents a barrel and shipped off to the cat food factory.”

His abounding love for Provincetown bore prodigious fruit in 1975 with the publication of The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook, an unsurpassed ode to a food, a place and a people. Bourdain, who worked in Provincetown during the mid-1970s when he was attending (of all places) Vassar, knew Mitcham and in his Kitchen Confidential writes that “Howard was the sole ‘name chef’ in town.”

“To us, Howard was a juju man, an oracle who spoke in tongues,” Bourdain wrote. “He could be seen most nights after work, holding up the fishermen’s bars or lurching about town, shouting incomprehensibly (he liked to sing as well). Though drunk most of the time and difficult to understand, Howard was a revered elder statesman of Cape cod cookery, a respected chef of a very busy restaurant and the author of two very highly regarded cookbooks: The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook and Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz—two volumes I still refer to, and which were hugely influential for me and my budding culinary peers of the time. He had wild, unruly white hair, a gin-blossomed face, a boozer’s gut and he wore the short-sleeved-snap-button shirt of a dishwasher. Totally without pretension, both he and his books were fascinating depositories of recipes, recollections, history, folklore and illustrations, drawing on his abiding love for the humble, working-class ethnic food of the area. His signature dish was haddock amandine, and people would drive for hours from Boston to sample it.”

“We might not have understood Howard, but we understood his books, and while it was hard to reconcile his public behavior with the wry, musical and lovingly informative tone of his writings, we knew enough to respect the man for what he knew and for what he could do. We saw someone who loved food, not just the life of the cook. Howard showed us how to cook for ourselves, for the pure pleasure of eating, not just for the tourist hordes. Howard showed us that there was hope for us as cooks. That food could be a calling. That the stuff itself was something we could actually be proud of, a reason to live.”

In Provincetown Mitcham bonded strongly with the Portuguese community and his love for them shines from his works. In his first book, Fishing on the Gulf Coast (1959; Hermit Crab Press), Mitcham claims he contacted the Portuguese Embassy to obtain a recipe, and the Provincetown book has many, many more. “Transplanting the Azores Islanders to Provincetown was a great step forward because they brought with them their beautifully rambunctious cookery, and this husky, euphoric cuisine has quietly worked its way into Cape Cod and New England cookery in general,” he wrote. “I have been observing Portuguese cooks for twenty-five years, and I find that they have the following relative units of measurement: (1) a little, (2) some, (3) a bit more, (4) a lot, (5) plenty, (6) enough.”

The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook includes sections on the history of Provincetown and the Cape Cod itself—the people, the fishing industry and the rich culture that pervades the area—as well as a plenitude of splendid recipes for clams, mussels, the storied Welfleet oysters (en Bienville et Rockefeller of course), snails and the multitude of fishes that crowd the Cape’s waters: cod, striped bass, mackerel, salmon, halibut, bluefish and striped bass. Mitcham also includes his haddock amandine (meuniere). If for no other reason, we should be inordinately proud of Howard Mitcham for easing in a recipe for Creole gumbo in a cookbook focused on Cape Cod. Admittedly, unless you have the sort of budget that allows you to get quahogs on the fly, most of the recipes present an almost insurmountable challenge for any cook south of Hoboken, but Mitcham is a bold, eloquent raconteur with a passion for his subject, and anyone with an ear for good writing, a hunger for good food and a sheer love of life will relish The Provincetown Seafood Cookbook.

Odom’s Redfish on The Half-Shell

It’s hard to imagine redfish that currently swim in bountiful numbers among our coastal waters going the way of the dodo and the woolly mammoth but it almost did, and it wasn’t seafaring Neanderthals with primitive Shimanos that nearly caused the extinction of this fish. Nope. It was that colorful Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme.

Prudhomme created a recipe that was so obnoxious and novel with over the top flavors and clouds of noxious smoke that it had to be cooked outside. But for all that, blackened redfish became so popular that the species was actually threatened with extinction, and the federal government was forced to step in and invoke catch limits before we could make a salad to accompany the very last of its kind!

But be at ease. This prized game fish is back and has been back. In fact, the local anglers in Destin Florida call the huge “bull reds” a nuisance fish. I myself saw tens of thousands of them attacking bait fish in one football field sized school last summer near Ship Island, off the coast of Mississippi .

Kim with a bull redfish

Folks who don’t saltwater fish only assume that an angler like me would surely target a redfish to throw on ice but to their dismay I tell them I don’t fish them intentionally for the table. There are a couple good reasons for this. When you clean a redfish the filet yield seems oddly low for such a large fish to be culled and secondly it’s about as easy to clean a redfish as it is to filet an armadillo.

But as all starving anglers do we develop a plan: Instead of filleting the meat clean off the fish why don’t we just cut off one side of the red’s body, lay it scales down over a charcoal grill, drench the meat side with garlic butter and slam the lid till it’s done? This technique accomplishes a couple of things and one by default. First, it ensures all the fresh fish meat is fully eaten. Secondly, you don’t wind up in the ER getting stitches fooling around trying to filet an armadillo and by default this recipe is far more delicious than blackened redfish simply because it’s about the fresh fish and not spices. The dicta of “Gulf to ice to knife to fire to plate” for this recipe in particular has anxious dinner guests staring in amazement at the cooking process.

Redfish on the half shell, as this technique is called, is  the best way in my opinion to pay homage to this beautiful bronze resident in our coastal waters. Next time you have a chance to eat fresh redfish, try this particular preparation. Heat your gas grill or charcoal grill to a medium high heat. In a saucepan heat a stick of butter, juice of a lemon, some chopped garlic and Tony Chachere’s to taste for a drenching baste. Grease the grill a bit; lay on the redfish halves scales down and apply your drench liberally. Close the lid, but reapply the drench a couple of times in the cooking process. Remove when the meat is firm to the touch, add more fresh lemon and serve immediately.

David and Kim Odom are anglers par excellance along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.