Reviving Salmagundi

Salmagundi—like pettifoggery, kittywampus or hullabaloo—is one of those words you want to just pick off the page, cuddle and tease with a string, and the dish is just as playful. Claiborne—and All Who Sailed in Him—declared, “There is something about the word ‘salmagundi’ that has an unmistakable appeal for savants with a leaning toward gourmandism.” Craig had a habit of being pontifical. Honestly. I can’t count number of times I’ve wanted to kick that old queen under the table.

Salmagundi isn’t so much a dish as it is a presentation along the lines of an antipasto or a smorgasbord. Salmagundi is also quite English, having blipped onto the OED radar sometime around 1400. Mind you, I’m not some maverick etymologist who strays into the kitchen to make corn sticks; no matter the origin of the word, salmagundi is simply a way to serve a selection of cold vegetables, pickles, meats and citrus mounded on a tray and served with tongs and forks as you would any large salad.

By precedent, you want your meat (classic poached chicken or upscale to smoked salmon, mayhap) in the middle atop greens with rings of pickles, cooked eggs, raw or blanched vegetables, citrus, nuts, sausages, cold fish—anchovies are a classic addition—what have you. Pretty much anything goes with the exception of cheese, which isn’t included in any reliable (meaning historic) recipe. The emphasis should be on piquancy set off by elements that are crisp and bland. Serve with an herby oil and vinegar dressing.

Smart Beets

No matter the font and source of given cookbook, if a recipe for beets is given at all, the one you’ll find is for Harvard beets. Oh, you’ll find one for pickled beats every now and then, but that’s a cold dish. Harvard beets are served warm, usually sliced from a can in a thick sweet-and-sour sauce made with sugar and vinegar or lemon juice thickened with cornstarch. Some recipes substitute wine/cider for vinegar/lemon juice. Harvard beets are just called that, by the way; the recipe has no connection with the institution. Nonetheless, some smart-ass Elie came up with a recipe for Yale beets. It has orange juice. God only knows why.

Harvard Beets

In a medium saucepan, combine the juice of one can of beets to about a tablespoon of cornstarch. Mix the cornstarch with a little of the liquid before adding to the pan. Stir until bubbly and thickened, add sugar and vinegar to taste. Add the beets, stir and heat. Add a pat of butter before serving.

Divine Dressing

Why don’t today’s chefs create dishes in honor of performing artists like those who gave us Melba toast and turkey Tetrazzini? Where’s the Bowie sundae, the Madonna cupcake or the Star Wars souffle? The need, as I see it, isn’t so much for the dishes, which are admittedly key components, but for the stories they may tell, like this one.

In 1923, George Arliss took the stage as the Rajah of Rukh in The Green Goddess. Arliss was at the height of his career. He went on to repeat his performance in the film version of the play and received an Academy Award nomination for the role, ironically losing to himself that same year (1930) when he played British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli in the eponymous film.

While in San Francisco, Arliss stayed at The Palace Hotel, and for a banquet in Arliss’s honor, the executive chef of the hotel, Philippe Roemer, himself a celebrity, created an original salad dressing with an assortment of finely chopped green herbs to suggest the name of the play. The dressing is a signature recipe in the hotel’s Garden Court Restaurant, most often served with the Dungeness Crab Salad.

The classic Green Goddess recipe usually includes anchovies, mayonnaise, vinegar, green onion, garlic, parsley, tarragon and chives in some form or quantity. Some cooks add sour cream or yogurt, and a popular contemporary version includes avocado (wouldn’t it just?). Served with steamed vegetables or seafood. Combine and mix in processor or blender:

1 cup parsley leaves
1 cup packed spinach leaves, stemmed
½ cup tarragon vinegar
1 cup mayonnaise
1 garlic clove, roughly chopped
3 anchovy fillets
¼ cup vegetable oil

 

Recipes for Success

In his introduction Oscar Rogers writes, “The title of this book could well have been My Mother Cooked My Way Through Life with These Creole Recipes. Her skill in cooking fine foods, prepared with loving care, assured her of a living and me of my survival. She places part of herself into each dish she prepares—in fact a part of herself is in everything she does. This is her priceless legacy to me.”

Dr. Oscar Rogers was one of the most distinguished educators in Mississippi. He received his A.B. from Tougaloo in 1948, the B.S. in theology in 1954 and an M.A. in theology in 1954, both from Harvard. He returned to Natchez to accept the position as dean of students and registrar at Natchez Junior College in 1954, and was appointed president of Arkansas Baptist College in 1956, serving until 1959. In 1958, he received a doctoral fellowship to enroll at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, and there he completed his doctor of education degree in social science in administration in 1960. Rogers’ wife, Lee, insisted that her children (three sons) live near and learn to know her father, Jefferson O. Lewis, a longtime employee of Tougaloo College, so the family moved to Jackson where she became a teacher in the Jackson Public Schools, and Oscar accepted the position as dean of students at Jackson State College from 1960-68. During 1968-69, the family moved to Seattle, where Lee taught and Oscar engaged in research. They returned to Jackson in later 1969, where Dr. Rogers became dean of students at JSU, a position he held for fifteen years. In 1984, he became the seventh president of Clafin University, a position he held to his retirement in 1994. Dr. Rogers died in July, 2011.

This book was published in December, 1971, when Rogers’ mother, Mrs. Walter Tillman, affectionately known as Pinky, was still alive. She attended the reception and signing, which was held by the University and College Press of Mississippi in the H.T. Sampson Library on the JSU campus. Some may be surprised that Oscar calls the recipes “Creole”, since they originate not in New Orleans, but upriver in Natchez, but in its strictest definition, Creole is defined as “a person descended from the early French and Spanish settlers in the U.S. Gulf States”. Natchez was founded by French colonists in 1716. In the culinary sphere, however, Creole implies the cooking of the well-to-do, more urban inhabitants of the region; one authority, Howard Mitcham, defines it as “city” cooking as opposed to “country (Cajun)”. And many of the 200+ recipes are sophisticated indeed: cauliflower Hollandaise, Doberge cake (a distinctly New Orleans dish, by the way), shrimp remoulade and floating island pudding, but there is also an abundance of good home-style recipes such as Southern-style pork chops, a meat loaf, baked beans and spoon bread. It’s also well worth noting that a recipe for Harvard beets makes an appearance on page 49.

Courtbouillion of Red Fish

1 large red fish, snapper or sheepshead, 5-6 lbs.
1/2 cup salad (vegetable) oil
1 c. flour
2 large onions, chopped
2 1/2 cups canned tomatoes
2 bay leaves
4 green bell peppers, chopped
4 shallots or green onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2-3 slices lemon
1 cup claret or port wine
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1 1/2 cups water (scant)
a few sprigs parsley

Slice fish across back into 2 or 3 in cuts. In a large skillet heat the salad oil, add the flour and stir until very brown. Add onions, stirring until cooked a bit. add chopped tomatoes and remaining ingredients except wine and fish, cook for 1/2 hour or more. Add sliced fish (you may lay fish in roasting pan or large pot if skillet isn’t large enough and pour sauce over fish). Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes until fish is cooked. Add wine and let come to a boil again. Serve with rice or creamed potatoes. (Serves 6 to 8).

Ruby’s Roadhouse Omelette

Working in west Florida during the 1980s, I came to know people from all over the world. Then there was Ruby Ruth Reese, a down-home girl who grew up in what she called “the woargrass (wiregrass)” region of south Alabama.

Ruby Ruth (“Call me ‘Roo’”) had a heart of gold, but she was just as mean as she could be to all those displaced Yankees we worked with in Florida. She liked me because, as she once put it, “You’re country folk like me.” She even claimed to have relatives in Tupelo, but I think she just said that because she knew I was homesick all the time. Hell, the only reason she knew about Tupelo was because of Elvis.

Roo told me she worked in a truck stop in Geneva County, Alabama during the Sixties, and if they knew you well enough, and you ordered something “to go”, you’d pay five dollars more, and they’d slip you a bottle of whiskey under the counter before you left. They also made what they called ham and egg pie that most of their customers would order to eat by themselves. Roo often made these for us to share on our lunch, which we took around two in the afternoon when we’d had a busy day. I’ve fancied it up a little bit with the cheddar cheese (she used American), and she’d fuss at me for that.

8 large eggs
1/2 cup cream
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup diced white onion
1/2 cup diced cooked potatoes
1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese
1/2 cup diced ham
salt and black pepper

Beat eggs and cream very well with salt and black pepper. Heat an 8-in. skillet, add butter. Once butter is sizzling, sauté onions and ham, then add half the egg mixture, shaking the pan as you do. Mix cheese and potatoes with remaining eggs. Once eggs begin to set, add the rest of the egg mixture, then pop into a very hot (450) oven until firm.

Sweet Potato Biscuits with Ginger Molasses

Many people consider sweet potato biscuits occasional foods, meaning they’re made only for guests or take-tos such as church suppers, homecomings or trans coming out parties. But these simple quick breads are so very easy and so very good that they’re fit on any table and their sweetness can be adjusted accordingly.

My recipe is a riff on that of April McGregor, a fellow Calhoun Countian and author of the Sweet Potatoes cookbook in the University of North Carolina’s excellent Savor the South series. April writes that while many recipes will advise you to knead biscuit dough, she’ll tell you this is a mistake, as indeed it is. Kneading works up gluten in the dough, making your biscuits heavy. The ingredients must also be kept chilled and (this is crucial) the oven preheated and very hot (450) for maximum leavening.

For the dough, use 3 cups soft flour (Martha White or Dixie Lily) sifted with two teaspoons baking powder. Cut in a cup of cold cooked sweet potatoes (you can use canned drained of the syrup) and one stick butter cut into pats. Remember to keep everything cold until you combine them in a bowl and mix them with our hands until they’re the consistency of rice. To this add enough cold buttermilk to make a sticky dough. You can add chopped pecans if you like. Pat this out in a floured surface, cut with a sharp edge and place into a lightly oiled skillet. If you put them in a cake tin, you risk burning the bottoms. Place in an upper rack of the oven, and bake for about 15 minutes.

As to the molasses, mix a cup of molasses with a half cup water in a small saucepan and add about a tablespoon of grated fresh ginger. Simmer until thickened and strain.

Jake’s Turkey Chili

As I’ve said before, Jake considers me the sort of cook who greasy spoons routinely fire after a stint of less than six weeks only to drift into another burger-flipping station where the situation is repeated, and so on and so on. In other words, the legendary Wandering Fry Cook.  He conveniently forgets that I’m the one who taught his Yankee fanny to cook biscuits and cornbread as well as how to make a roux, a lesson he also conveniently forgets any time it needs to be done.

Admittedly, Jake is quite a good cook. There’s no need for him to deride my abilities. He has many wonderful dishes at his command, among my favorites being this wonderful chili. Made with ground turkey, it’s not greasy at all, it’s easy to make, and tastes wonderful. It also works really well if you’re making a plate of nachos on the fly.

Chop 4 poblanos and 1 bell pepper, 2 medium white onions, and mince 5 (yes, 5) cloves of garlic. Sauté in corn or vegetable oil, add to 2 28 oz. cans diced tomatoes with juice, a 4 oz. can of chopped green chilies with 1 pkg. commercial “hot” chili seasoning mixed with a 6 oz. can of tomato paste and a 16 oz. can of mild chili beans. Sometimes he adds a small can of whole kernel corn. Cook 2 1/2 lbs. ground turkey in corn or vegetable oil, add to vegetables and sauce, and simmer for at least a half hour. 

 

Tomato Gravy

In and around New Orleans, you’re going to find what is called red gravy, which is usually an Italian-style tomato sauce, but in most of the rural inland South, tomato gravy, like sausage gravy, is a variation on what we know as sawmill gravy.

When possible, of course you’re going to use fresh, ripe home-grown tomatoes. Second-best are home-canned tomatoes, but you’ll find people using store-bought canned tomatoes, whole, diced, pureed or sauced. Bacon drippings are the traditional fat, and the liquid, in addition to the tomato juice, can be water, stock or milk, or combinations thereof. For instance, Bill Neale’s recipe calls for chicken stock or water, while Robert St. John’s recipe calls for both chicken broth and milk. In both recipes, fresh tomatoes are peeled, seeded and chopped or diced. Traditionally served over buttermilk biscuits, rice or grits, Neale among others also recommends it for fried chicken, and tomato gravy is wonderful for smothered chicken or chops, too.

2 cups fresh tomatoes, peeled and chopped (can also use a 14.5 ounce can of tomatoes or an 8 oz. can of tomato sauce/tomato puree)
2 tablespoons bacon drippings
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups water
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

Cut up tomatoes in bowl, add the salt, pepper, sugar and garlic powder and mix well. Heat bacon drippings in a skillet, add flour and make a roux, pour in tomatoes and water or milk and cook until thickened.

 

Pepper Cheddar Biscuits

Cut a stick and a half (6 oz.) of butter into four cups self-rising flour. Add one cup grated cheddar cheese, one cup raw chopped mild red pepper and enough milk to make a stiff dough. Roll out, cut into rounds and bake in an oiled skillet in a hot oven until lightly browned. Serve hot or cold filled with shaved ham and herb cream cheese.

About Cornbread

Cornbread is the South’s oldest icon. My Choctaw ancestors were making bread from maize long before the rest of my DNA was run out of the British Isles. The Choctaws made what is called shuck bread, or “bunaha”, by mixing water and cornmeal into a stiff paste, forming the paste into balls, wrapping them in cooked corn shucks and boiling them for about an hour. They stored well and were reheated by boiling before serving. The early settlers made a simple type of cornbread by mixing meal, water, salt and lard into a batter and cooking it on a flat metal surface like a pancake. These are called hoecakes or dogbread. Much later came what we know as cornbread. Or at least what I know it as.

When it comes to cornbread, I labored long under the impression that I was a confirmed orthodox. Yellow corn meal? A quarter cup of sugar? Nuh-uh, no way. That’s not cornbread, that’s corncake. A recipe using yellow meal, sugar and even (horror of horrors) butter just has Yankee written all over it. A Michigan-born hostess once served me such bread, and I’m sorry to say I was so rude as to point out what a culinary abomination it was. She set me in my place by being quite gracious about my gaffe, which made her a lady, and after dinner her husband offered to punch me in the nose, which made him a gentleman. (We still exchange Christmas cards.) I once ran up on a California recipe for cornbread using vanilla flavoring that confirmed a whole slew of suspicions I’d long harbored about the frivolity if not to say instability of the West Coast mentality. I’ve also come across recipes with dill, cheddar cheese, yogurt, skim milk, blue corn meal, creamed corn, and even (I swear to God) tofu. What passes under the name of Mexican cornbread is subject to all manner of atrocities, the most bizarre of which I’ve found includes beef jerky and cactus flowers.

As a confirmed orthodox, I thought I was sitting on the front pew with my recipe, which has only white meal, just a little flour, eggs, buttermilk, salt and baking powders. But I found out that there are those who would cry, “Backslider!” at the thought of using bleached meal or even eggs. I just had never considered making cornbread without eggs, then I found that among the recipes you see printed on most meal packages you see this is called “egg bread,” and my faith began to falter. These no-egg purists, I began to believe, were true cornbread devotees who enjoyed a more chaste form of elemental Southern sustenance. I felt horribly decadent, which was not such a new sensation for me, but a cornbread recipe certainly was a novel indicator of my moral turpitude (more official records exist). I got over it. After all, I had learned how to make cornbread at my mother’s knee, and she was a queen among cooks: “Honi soit qui mal y pense”, you heathen peasants.

To make cornbread, put about an eighth of an inch of oil, corn or vegetable, in the bottom of a proper skillet, and stick it in the oven at about 450. Then take one and a half cups of white self-rising corn meal and about half a cup self-rising flour, mix in a bowl with a scant teaspoon baking soda and a dash or so of salt. Add about 1/3 cup of corn or vegetable oil and mix with dry ingredients until about the consistency of rice. Add one large beaten egg, mix well, and then add enough buttermilk to make a thick batter. Add just a couple of tablespoons of water to this to thin slightly; this enables the meal to swell and makes for lighter bread. Take your skillet out of the oven, tilt to coat the sides with oil, and test the oil with a drop of batter. It should sizzle a bit; if not, heat some more. When oil is sufficiently hot, pour in the batter and put back in oven. Bake until golden brown. Remove by inverting skillet. If your skillet is properly seasoned and your oil was hot enough, the cornbread should just pop out of the skillet with a fine brown crust. Eat with butter immediately and enjoy being alive.