Prime Rib

I once worked in a restaurant on the coast that regularly sold four roast rib loins in a day. During the tourist season, we would keep eight loins cooking literally around the clock. We’d take the loins to rare, and since the carving station was set up under a heat lamp next to the grill, where the meat would continue to cook in service, so we rotated sections of meat on and off the carving board.

If someone ordered prime rib well done—and, yes, such people do exist in this world—we’d drop a cut into the well of warm au jus we kept at the grill station until meat was grey and the tip and cap had peeled away from the eye. Smart customers who wanted a slice on the done side ordered an end piece.

Our menu called this beef dish prime rib, but we rarely used USDA Prime beef. We most often used a Choice rather than the much more expensive Prime grade, but rib roast is usually called prime on menus because it is, after all, from one of the eight prime cuts in a whole beef (brisket, shank, rib, loin, round, chuck, flank, and plate). Most of the beef you find in supermarkets is Choice or Prime; check the label.

You can bet a rib roast can be expensive, usually from $12 to as much as $27+ per pound; the average is around $15-20. The price can be much cheaper during the major holidays, around $10 to $15 a pound. Bone-in roasts usually have three to seven ribs and are slightly more expensive. A three-rib roast can feed about seven people; figure 16 ounces of uncooked boneless roast per person.

For an evenly-cooked, rib roast, pat the roast dry, brush with oil, coat with sea salt and minced garlic, and place on a on a rack in a heavy pan. Cover lightly with foil and bring to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 500. Remove cloth, place the roast in the oven, wait a half hour, then turn the heat down to 250.  In an hour, begin checking with a thermometer. When you get a reading of 130 in the thickest part of the roast, immediately remove the meat from the oven, and let rest about five minutes a pound before carving and serving. Serve with a ramekin of skimmed pan drippings.

How to Cook a Green Ham

Ham is the quintessential meat of the Southern table, either as main dish, or providing a supporting role in dozens of sides across our sideboard.

But as a great many of those smart-ass hillbillies from Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky–the absolute worst–will tell you (in annoyingly nasal, condescendingly reverential tones), there are hams, and then there are hams.

The best hams are dry cured, usually with a mix of salt and sugar. These hams can be eaten very thinly sliced without cooking, but they need to be soaked in water for 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 brine injection. Smoked hams are usually a variant of both, with smoke and brine both providing preservation and flavor.

Then you have the green ham, which is what your old granny called a leg of pork. 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 of meat you’ve been serving all these years.

A green ham will have a rind over a layer of fat. Score the rind in a tight crisscross pattern with a very sharp knife (honest to God, I use a box cutter), and coat with garlic, sage, a little brown sugar, coarsely-ground pepper, and sea salt. Put sprigs of rosemary and coarsely chopped white onions in the bottom of your roaster with enough water to cover. Set the ham fatty side up on a rack.

Place in a hot oven, 450. After thirty minutes, lower to 350. For a ten-pound ham, give it three hours or until that little bone next to the big one wiggles freely. Let sit for at least an hour before carving.

Scalloped Two Potatoes

If, like me, you find sweet potatoes too sugary for many menus, then this combination of sweet with regular spuds provides a semi-savory option. Use any waxy white potato. Peel and slice potatoes on the thinner side, layer in an oiled casserole, gratin, or skillet with sprinklings of salt, pepper,  and thyme. Add enough whole cream to saturate, but not cover. Brush lavishly with melted butter, and bake at 350 until the top crispens and browns.

The Agony of Ambrosia

One Thanksgiving as we were unpacking her car, my sister Cindy passed me a sack of oranges, a pineapple, and two coconuts. She wanted to make ambrosia.

Ambrosia is traditionally made with tropical fruits from Mexico and Central America that came to local stores in the South during the winter: oranges, pineapples, bananas, and coconuts. Maraschino cherries have always been an option, and later we had Louisiana strawberries. We sweetened with pure cane sugar.

Later, some people came to add whipped cream, Cool Whip, or (God help us) mayonnaise and marshmallows, but our family never has. Say it’s simply fruit salad if you like, but to me, it’s ambrosia.

Because ambrosia is so time-consuming, most people nowadays use processed ingredients like canned mandarin oranges, Dole pineapple chunks, and zip-lock grated coconut. But my sister Cindy was an old-school kitchen Nazi; it we were going to do it, we were going to do it right.

First, the coconuts; I twisted a clean screwdriver into the eyes, a Phillips head, which come to think of it is probably the best tool for the job. (I wouldn’t be surprised if some outfit actually sold a customized screwdriver with a teak handle for fifty bucks as a “coconut pick.”) I drained the milk and drank it with tot of rum.

Cindy had a claw hammer ready for the next step in this brutal affair, which was breaking the nuts into pieces. On the back steps in a cold wind. Then I had to bring it in and use a flat-head screwdriver to pry the meat from the hull. Then the meat had to be skinned and grated.

This took about an hour. I had a bong hit.

Fortunately, the pineapple was soft and ripe. I twisted the top off, trimmed it a bit, set it off in a glass of water, then assaulted the fruit, quartering it, cutting out the core, peeling off the skin and nicking out the eyes. Then I diced it, sprinkled a little sugar on it, and set it in the refrigerator.

Sis said she could not find Valencias, which are sweeter, but she had navel oranges, which despite their shortcomings in the sugar department are infinitely easier to section. Frankly, I’d rather have my teeth filed with a rock than section citrus, but somebody had to do it, and it damn sure was not going to be my (older) sister. I had another bong hit, and in a half hour I had about a quart of orange segments to macerate in the refrigerator.

When time came, the oranges were drained and pressed into the bottom of a glass  bowl along with a few sliced strawberries and pineapple. This layer was topped with a generous sprinkling of hand-grated coconut and sugar. More drained fruit was added, along with a few sliced bananas, topped with coconut. Some of the juices from the maceration processes were combined and  drizzled over all, but most was reserved for a rum punch.

Cindy’s ambrosia was a dish for (and from) the ages. How I wish she were still here to bully me into making it.

Russian Tea

Bring to a boil 3 quarts of water, remove from heat, and immediately add 4 big tea bags. Steep for no more than 5 minutes. Stir in a cup of fresh orange juice, 2 cups pineapple juice, and the juice of two lemons. Add 3 sticks of cinnamon and 2 teaspoons whole cloves. Keep on a low heat for at least an hour. Sweeten to taste. This freezes easily.

Stuffed Bell Peppers

In our neck of the South, stuffed peppers mean mild, fleshy bells filled with a mixture of rice and meat or seafood, usually ground beef or shrimp. A vegetarian version with beans and rice is also wonderful. A lot of people will parboil the peppers beforehand, but don’t. Select peppers that are globular rather than oblong, slice off the top, remove whites and seeds, and fill with your stuffing mixture. I recommend a 50/50 blend in a light tomato sauce seasoned with black pepper, sage, and basil. Crowd into a casserole, baste with more sauce and place in a medium (300) oven until peppers are cooked through. Baste again with sauce, top with dry white cheese, and toast.

Mustard Glaze

This is good on ham, pork, and game. To a stick of melted butter, add two tablespoons of dry mustard and a 12 oz. jar of pineapple preserves. Whisk over medium heat until thoroughly mixed. Brush over meats while roasting and cooling for the table.

A Mother and Child Reunion

When Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion” topped the charts in 1971, many people (me among them) assumed that he got the title from a chicken and egg sandwich—which in diner lingo is known as a Mother and Child reunion.

But in fact the title came from a meal he had at the Say Eng Look Restaurant in New York City. In a 1972 Rolling Stone interview, Simon said, “I was eating in a Chinese restaurant downtown. There was a dish called ‘Mother and Child Reunion.’ It’s chicken and eggs.”

Known as “mother/child/daughter,” variations of this combination  are common menu items at Asian restaurants. Another version—oyakodon: mother/daughter bowl—has been described as Japanese “soul food.” As with any basic dish, the reunion is made in as many ways as there are cooks to make it. Here’s my version, which varies with available ingredients.

Cube a boneless breast of chicken, dust with fresh pepper, and fry in vegetable oil with a a clove of garlic until browned. Poach  in chicken broth until tender; doesn’t take long. Drain chicken, reserving the broth, and stir-fry/saute with sliced onions, and whatever else you’re adding. I’ll throw in things like thinly sliced mushrooms, celery, carrots, and cabbage or kale of some kind cut in some form or fashion.

Add enough broth to cover the chicken by half, bring to a simmer, and dribble in two or three beaten eggs in sort of a figure 8. Stir gently, cover, and steam until the eggs have firmed and blossomed. Thicken slightly with a thin slurry of water and corn starch. Ladle into a bowl of rice, and top with chopped green onions..

Autumn Cider

This recipe fills your home with those aromas many Southerners associate with the coming of cool weather: apples, cloves, cinnamon, and oranges. I recommend tangerines, satsumas, or Valencia oranges, and a mix of tart and sweet apples.

To a gallon of water, quarter about a half dozen apples and three or four oranges, depending on size. Don’t peel the apples, but by all means peel the oranges, saving a strip of peel for zest. Add four sticks of cinnamon, a teaspoon of whole cloves, and a thumb of peeled ginger.

When the apples are soft through, let it cool. Then mash and strain, first through a colander, then a wire strainer. For better clarity, use cheesecloth. Add the juice of a lemon, and brown sugar to taste. A healthy slosh or two of dark rum ensures a warm reception.

Photo by Natalie Maynor

How to Feed a Picky Kid

Every family has a picky eater, and in ours it was my baby brother, Tom. His hamburgers were mayonnaise only, his salads “honeymoon” (lettuce alone), and steaks not medium well, but well. Very well.

These specifications presented a challenge to our mother, whose patience was as limited as Tom’s stubbornness was infinite. Breakfasts were an ordeal; the merest fleck of white in a serving of scrambled eggs would send him into a sour sulk, complete with crossed arms, a lowered head, and a puckered brow.

He was an absolute tyrant. Bacon had to be evenly cooked, but not crisp, and his biscuits had to come from the center of the pan. Now I wish I’d asked him why.

Eventually, mother found a dish that Tom adored so much that it was all he ate for breakfast until he went to Ole Miss. Even after he’d finished graduate school, she’d make it for his breakfast when he came to visit. You’d better believe he ate it.

We called it French toast, but this simple recipe of bread dipped in beaten eggs and milk and fried is very old and known by many names, most notably pain perdu, “lost bread”. French toast is most often served as a sweet dish much like pancakes or waffles with powdered sugar, syrup and fruit, but Tom preferred it simply seasoned with salt and pepper. We usually made it with Wonder bread, but it’s good with pretty much any sliced bread.

Beat three eggs in a cup of milk, season with a little salt and pepper; add vanilla or almond extract if you plan to serve it sweet. Sop dried bread slices in egg/milk mixture and pan-fry in butter until nicely browned.