Pickled Eggs

Any time you enter a beer joint or beer store in the South, you’re likely to find a big jar of pickled eggs on the counter next to the beef jerky, the pieds de porc à l’écarlate and all the other Bubbas that belly up to the Southern sideboard. But pickled eggs, like Prince Hal, are tainted by their dissolute company. This bar sinister is itself a shame, but pickled eggs—which, if you think about it, are a rather delicate dish in the first place—have also been brutalized by mass marketing. Those over-boiled, nitrate-infused super-ball eggs in roadhouse jars are the ovulaltory equivalent of mealy winter tomatoes, and while witnesses will gleefully attest that I have eaten my share of them, I’ll be the first to admit that they’re just not good food.

On the other hand, properly pickled eggs are a treat; they’re a great side with cold meats, poultry or game, and good in tuna, chicken or over vegetable salads. One recipe I have from a Junior League-type cookbook published in the 1930’s claims that they’re “ever so good chopped into hash, and provide just the right touch bedded on greens with a dressing of sharp, spicy goodness.” Craig Claiborne included a pickled egg recipe in his New York Times Cookbook (wouldn’t he just?), and Rita Mae Brown, one of our best Southern writers, employs this dish as a culinary bone of contention between two cantankerous sisters in her riotous novel, Six of One. The white of a pickled egg should be firm, not tough or rubbery, and the yolk should be moist and almost creamy, not crumbly and dry. They should also have a light, balanced tangy/sweet flavor as a platform for other seasonings: I like a couple of slit hot peppers, a slice or two of garlic and a bay leaf to flavor mine, but dill, caraway or even cloves figure among other attractive possibilities.

For pickling, boil a dozen medium eggs until just done; you can easily fit a dozen in a quart jar. Then stuff the (peeled) eggs into a glass jar along with whatever accompaniments you like (jalapenos, onion, garlic, bay leaf, etc.). In order to find out how much liquid you need to cover the eggs, fill the jar with a mixture of white vinegar and water (4:1) just to the top; make sure to get rid of air bubbles by tapping or tipping the jar. Add a tablespoon of salt, a tablespoon of sugar and a tablespoon of pickling spices to the liquid. If you miss the barroom rose, use beet juice for color. Heat to almost boiling then back over the eggs; if there’s not quite enough liquid to cover them entirely, add a little more warm water. Then tilt again and seal the jar. Store for at least a week before eating.

Inside Ribs

Unless you have a pit handy or can afford one of those expensive outdoor cookers that are capable of maintaining a low even temperature for a very long time, the best way to cook pork ribs is in your oven. Oven ribs also ease the cook’s job in the sweltering heat of a Southern summer. A container of water placed on a rack below the meat ensures a moist, even heat. You only have to open the oven once to turn the ribs. Try the following rub mix, then modify it as you might see fit. I tend to be heavy on the garlic and cumin, light on the salt and pepper. I do two full racks when I cook ribs; baby backs are expensive for the amount of meat you get. For two full racks or four of baby backs make a rub of:

1 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup paprika
1/2 cup each of cumin, granulated garlic and ground black pepper
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon cayenne (optional; it’s always best to offer heat at the table)

Cut ribs to fit roasting pan, pat dry, oil and coat with rub. Place ribs in middle level of oven and container of water on the bottom; I use a 2-quart sauce pot.  350 for first hour, reduce heat to 225. Turn the ribs at the half-way point, and cook until meat is tender and pulls away from bones, about 2 1/2 to 3 hours, a little more than half that for baby backs.. The ribs will keep covered at room temperature for several hours, so start them in the morning to free up the oven for later.

A Basic Gazpacho

One soup you’ll never find in a can is gazpacho, a king of cold soups, and an easily-made, refreshing and somewhat novel way to serve fresh summer vegetables. Older recipes of this dish always include bread as one of the basic ingredients, usually melded early on with oil, salt and garlic into something resembling a paste. While my recipe does not include bread at that juncture (I simply don’t like the texture), take it from someone who crumbles cold cornbread over a most any soup, bread is a great addition, and any well-textured bread will do.

Take two or three cloves of garlic, mince very, very finely and mash in the bottom of a glass or enamel bowl with a teaspoon of salt and about a half a cup of olive oil. If you want to try adding bread, now is the time, but I can’t make a recommendation as to what kind. Add in fine dice one yellow onion, three very ripe summer tomatoes, two peeled cucumbers, two ribs celery (with leaves), and a sweet pepper if you like, though the pepper can overpower the other vegetables; a sweet banana pepper works best. I don’t recommend hot peppers; this is a cooling dish, and should be refreshing, not pungent. Likewise, starchy vegetables such as fresh corn or peas seem out-of-place to me as well. Add another teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of cumin, a teaspoon of fresh basil, a heaping tablespoon of freshly-chopped parsley, a teaspoon of coarsely ground black pepper and a bit more olive oil, perhaps a tablespoon. You might want to add some liquid, in which case I recommend a vegetable juice such as V8; tomato juice is too thick. Refrigerate overnight. An hour before serving, add more juice if needed, a fresh chopped parsley, adjust the salt and pepper, and top with a slosh of olive oil. Serve in chilled bowls with crusty bread.

Watermelon Salad with Bacon and Feta

While you can buy watermelons year-round, it’s just not a good idea to purchase a melon in the winter. Chances are, these melons are the tail-end of a second-field crop from Central America and will look and taste like pink cucumber. I’ve gotten decent melons at the tail end of May, and I’ve even had a few November melons from the Missouri boot heel that were really good, but as a general rule, melon season in the American South corresponds quite neatly with our hurricane season, which runs from June through September, with August the peak month. It’s also not a good idea to buy seedless watermelons because watermelon seeds release an enzyme that promotes the ripening process. You’ll find people who’ll tell you a seedless watermelon can taste just as good as one with seeds, but in my personal experience this simply does not hold true.

Buy a watermelon that is proportionate; do not get one that is narrow at one end, because the smaller end will be unripe; the stem and flower scab should both be in the very center of their respective ends of the fruit. Another good sign of a ripe watermelon is a yellow bottom, sure evidence that it has ripened on the ground. When it comes to thumping a watermelon, don’t thump it: knock on it; take your knuckles and rap on it like you would a door. Listen for a hollow sound, not a tight sound. It should be firm and heavy for its size.

Watermelon Salad with Bacon and Feta

Fry or broil lean bacon until crisp. Season with freshly-ground black pepper, break into pieces and sprinkle over chilled, cubed watermelon along with pieces of feta (you can also use a blue cheese for this). Sliced chilled cucumbers are a nice option. A little fresh lime adds zest to the flavors.

 

Dramatic Peas

As librarians in Tupelo, a colleague and I were in charge of taking books to those who couldn’t come to us. Every Wednesday we’d load up our trusty little station wagon and drive around the city dropping off new checkouts and picking up returns. Our main destinations were nursing homes, and they were all, without exception, far from the dismal environments some people might imagine. As a matter of fact, those under care were often robust enough to elbow a neighbor out of the way to get the best Cartlands, Christies or L’Amours, not to mention the latest John Grisham. During one of these feeding frenzies, a blue stocking with pink hair sniffed and said to me, “They shouldn’t have been taught how to read in the first place.”

My partner Beverly, a seasoned veteran, rarely instructed me on nuances, so the assignment was full of pleasant surprises and lessons. We often picked up returns at the nurses’ stations, which are always a nexus of activity. I remember once early on reaching a station just as a produce man was dropping off three bushels of unshelled peas. Being a reformed kitchen grunt myself, I expected some surly person to appear, haul them in the back and begin the tedium of shelling them, so I was astounded when at least a dozen ladies came out of the TV room, ripped a pea sack open in seconds, filled up their colanders and retreated—talking up a storm—back into the TV room. I was trying to take it all in while Bev started packing up the returned books. Finally I tapped her on the shoulder and asked, “Bev, are they in there shelling peas?”

She looked over at the TV room door and said, “Oh, yes. They love watching soap operas and shelling peas.” Sure enough, a squadron of ladies had settled into their seats with peas and bowls in their laps and paper sacks on the floor at their sides. They didn’t even look at the peas as they shelled them; their eyes were glued to the drama unfolding before them. The nurse on duty told me that the shelled peas were collected before dinner (I had a vision of some old lady trying to stash HER colander of peas in a bottom drawer), bagged and kept in the refrigerator until cooked or offered to visitors, but “sometimes there’s so much in there, we just end up taking some home to keep them from being wasted.”

Bill Neale suspected that the Lord invented porches and television to make pea-shelling easier. My mother Barbara, as a young bride, was out on her porch one afternoon sweeping when she saw her husband’s Aunt Bess walking down the road with a sack and crying her eyes out, going to her sister Ethel’s, who was Barbara’s mother-in-law. Not being one to impose (at that point), mother assumed the worst and started cooking. After about an hour, with two casseroles and a cake in the oven, she called up Daddy and said, “Jess, your Aunt Bess just went over to Ethel’s just bawling her eyes out. I think Uncle Ed’s finally died.”

So Daddy ran up to Ethel’s house, assessed the situation, came out sweating and said: “Barbara, Ed didn’t die, Bess is just all wrung out over some soap character dying—her and Momma both.” Then Daddy handed her a bag of shelled peas. “Here,” he said. “I told them to come over for dinner tonight. You need to start watching ‘Days of Our Lives.’”

 

Peach Pavlova

June means fresh peaches in Mississippi, where we get the best in the world. The early varieties are usually cling, meaning the pit adheres to the flesh of the fruit, while later varieties are freestone, with a pit that’s easily removed. Chilton County, Alabama peaches enjoy a vaulted reputation in Mississippi, but north central Mississippi growers, particularly in Pontotoc and Lafayette counties, have in recent years provided the markets with wonderfully succulent fruit.

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, but 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.

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 and/or almonds are a nice touch.

Eggs in a Basket

A basic bread-and-egg dish that’s quick,  easy, and wonderful, eggs in a basket is known by many names (eggs in a nest, eggs in a hole, egg toast, etc.) . Use a sturdy bread, and cut a hole in a slice with a sharp metal cutter; reserve the cut-out for toast. Lightly toast the bread on both sides in a hot buttered pan, put a pat of butter in the center, and crack an egg into the hole. When the white is done on the bottom, cover the pan to cook  it through. If you’re feeding several people, you can make these on a cookie sheet in a hot oven. Keep the seasonings simple: salt and pepper, maybe a dash of ground cayenne.

 

Easy Chicken Enchiladas

Poach boneless breasts of chicken in lightly salted water until tender. Shred, add green chilies (with juice; about four ounces to two cups meat), juice of one lime juice and enough sour cream to bind. You can add a little grated jack cheese to this if you like. Season with equal parts cumin, chili powder and granulated garlic, salt to taste. Keep warm, roll in 6-in. flour heated tortillas brushed with corn oil. Top with a white queso made with corn oil roux and jack cheese (pepper jack is good) seasoned with the same spice mixture. Pintos and red rice are good with these as is fresh chunky guacamole.

Banana Pudding Cookies

Banana pudding is an iconic Southern summer dessert, and these cookies are a fun alternative for a family outing. For the best flavor, you must use ripe bananas that are soft, aromatic, and with a light freckling. The vanilla wafers should just be broken up into small pieces, not reduced to crumbs. Some people top these with whipped cream and a banana slice, but that’s just over the top, and it makes them soggy.

1/2 cup softened butter
1 cup cane sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 ripe banana mashed
1 package banana cream instant pudding mix
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup white chocolate chips
1 cup smashed vanilla wafers

Preheat oven to 350, and line baking pans with lightly oiled parchment paper. Combine flour and baking soda, then set aside. Cream butter and sugar thoroughly, add the banana, pudding mix, and eggs. Mix until smooth and slowly stir in the dry ingredients, then blend in the chips and wafers. Use about a tablespoon of dough for each cookie. Bake until lightly browned, about ten minutes. Cool before transferring to a rack.

Basic Beer Bread

This recipe is breathtakingly fundamental, and the results are spectacular. The bread is light, even-textured, slightly sour, fragrant, and a bit crumbly with a nice crust. Lightly mix three cups of self-rising flour, two tablespoons of sugar and a 12-ounce can of beer (I recommend a light Pilsner, but you can experiment with any beer you like). The dough should be a little lumpy and sticky. Pour into a well-greased loaf pan lined with parchment paper and bake at 350 in a pre-heated oven for 90 minutes. Brush with melted butter while warm.