Take a Leek

Before my ancestors were shipped off to Virginia for lampooning the local gentry and skipping out on enormous bar tabs, they lived in a beautiful old country on the west coast of Britain known as Wales. Wales has long since been assimilated (though not without prolonged contention) into the United Kingdom, but like other countries in the UK, Wales still observes its own saint’s day, the Feast of St. David, which falls on March 1.

It’s a crying shame that the beloved David’s feast has been eclipsed by that humbug Patrick’s on the 17th; after all, compared to David, Patrick was second-rate. David was able to make the earth beneath him shift and rise, an impressive feat, whereas Patrick’s most notable claim to fame is the single-handed extinction of Ireland’s indigenous serpents, something sin-ridden whalers did with the great auk. Not only that, but David was a true Welshman, a native of Cardigan, while Patrick himself was actually from Wales (some say Scotland, but he certainly wasn’t Irish).

The Irish praise the potato (another import), but the Welsh glory in the leek, which has been cultivated in Eurasia for millennia. Welsh soldiers wore leeks into battle to distinguish themselves as early as the days of King Arthur, himself a Welshman. If the Irish ever wore potatoes into battle, it would have been after spuds came to the Old World, sometime during the 17th century, when the Irish suffered their most decimating defeats at the hands of the English. As a parting shot, let me add that daffodils, the national flower of Wales, strike a much livelier note in a vase than a bunch of sissy shamrocks ever will.

Leeks are basically big-ass green onions, which place them in the culinarily important botanical family of Alliaceae; all onions, as well as garlic, chives, shallots and their ilk, belong to this group of herbs. An American member of this tribe is the wild leek of our Southern highlands (Allium tricoccum), commonly referred to as the ramp. The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery cites the plant as the source of an important spring tonic to relieve a host of real or imagined winter illnesses and states that “people either love or hate the strong-scented plant”. One woman is quoted as saying, “you can smell anybody that’s took (sic) a bite of one a half a mile away”.

Leeks were domesticated in Ur. They’re a cool-season crop, which goes a long way to explain why they’re not a familiar item on the Southern sideboard. I can usually grab a bunch (three stalks) of leeks for about that many dollars any time of the year at my local supermarket. Jimmy the produce guy says they ship twenty bunches to a crate, and it’s a rare week that he has to order them more than once. “You can’t do much with them except put them in soups,” he said, and leeks are great in soups; my Scots ancestors used chicken and leeks (with barley) in their jauntily-named cock-a-leekie soup, and leeks can be substituted for onions in almost any potage for a milder flavor. But they’re also a beautiful addition to any stir-fry (working well with peppers), and thin slices of leek in a quiche look nice and taste great.

Leeks also take exceptionally well to braising and are great in a gratin, which is what I recommend. Use half a leek per person. Cut away the roots and the last inch or so of the green away and wash very well. Slice and layer the rounds in a gratin or baking dish. Cover with a cream sauce, a béchamel or a Mornay, which is what I use. You can add cooked, sliced red potatoes to this for something a little more substantial, but keep the seasonings simple, just a bit of salt and pepper, nothing more. A liberal sprinkling of good hard cheese on top is a great idea, but for Pete’s sake get a piece of cheese and grate it; don’t use that substance that’s sold in a green plastic shaker. Place in a hot oven (375) until bubbling; fifteen minutes tops should do it. Serve hot.

A Great Plate of Prose

M.F.K. Fisher (1908-1992) was of Julia Child’s generation and like Child spent a considerable amount of time in France during a period when that country reigned supreme as the culinary center of the western hemisphere. For those of a later generation, she’s perhaps remembered most as the author of the preface for The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook (1954), which caused quite a stir because of Alice’s inclusion of a wonderful (albeit expensive not to mention illegal) recipe for “haschich fudge” that became quite popular among the beatniks and hippies, especially those who eschewed smoking. Long before that spate of notoriety, however, Fisher had long established herself as one of the finest culinary essayists in the English language.

The Art of Eating collects her five books – (Serve It Forth (1937), Consider the Oyster (1941), How to Cook a Wolf (1942), The Gastronomical Me (1943) and An Alphabet for Gourmets (1949) – into a single volume. In her Alphabet, under “G for Gluttony”, she writes, “I cannot believe there exists a single coherent human being who will not confess, at least to himself, that once or twice he has stuffed himself to the bursting point on anything from quail fianciére to flapjacks, for no other reason than the beastlike satisfaction of his belly.” (Admittedly, this is an altogether too familiar sensation.)

Fisher’s Art is a picnic, not just for food lovers, but for all who enjoy good, convivial writing. While some of her essays seem a bit labored from our perspective, immersed as we are in Twitter, Fisher established a literary bridge between the wordy, aphoristic Brillat-Savarin and the leaner, more objective prose of the New World. She’s not as dictatory as Brillat-Savarin, but I find her every bit as intimidating. Her writing is measured, lucid, and suffused with a wry wit that often carries the weight of the occasionally ponderous paragraph. If you love food and love reading, find The Art of Eating and stuff yourself to the bursting point. Then cleanse your palate with Proust. Cities of the Plain is fun.

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Sardine Scenes

Some years ago an obscure editor at a very well-respected and well-known fashion magazine prevailed upon his famous food writer to come up with a piece on sardines. Now, an editor is nothing more than an ego who can spell, so to say that coercion was involved over this story is an understatement of near biblical proportions; the poor writer’s foot soles were probably held to some hellish, check-denying fire until he came up with a printable essay on a subject he obviously considered far beneath his dignity. The end product, a minor etude of culinary literature memorable primarily by its invective, was infused with caustic bemusement and only a very, very small degree of begrudging admiration for the fish itself. The subject took second place to the condescension that infected every sentence. I wish I had the essay at hand in order for me to illustrate this scathing hauteur by example, but trust me, us pissed off writers recognize each other.

What the writer was trying to do (with limited success, I might add) was to raise the sardine to such a degree of sophistication that it fit seamlessly in between the inexplicably anorexic-ly oriented fashions, the absolutely incomprehensible art and the unabashedly homoerotic ads. He began with an “imagine this” sort of scenario in which a thin, impeccably dressed Parisienne strolls into a bistro on the Champs E’lysee, orders a beer with sardines au plat, and then squats and gobbles without getting so much as a spot on her designer duds. Well, it could happen, I suppose; sardines au plat are little more than broiled herrings, but the idea of a chic young Frenchwoman sitting down to beer and sardines in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower just boggles the mind, which of course is the point he was trying to make.

Now, sardines aren’t a specific kind of fish as much as they are a type of fish; many species of small herrings are caught, canned and marketed as sardines. Ounce for ounce, sardines rank among the most nutritious foodstuffs in the world: they’re chock-full of calcium, potassium, vitamin D and all the “good fats”; 1 can, about three and a half ounces drained, has less than 200 calories. They’re also (like most canned fish) ridiculously cheap, less than $2 a serving. Yet most people turn their noses up at sardines. Why? Well, they smell bad, for one thing, but that’s not the main reason; lots of people eat stuff that smells bad, especially when nutrition isn’t particularly a key consideration. No, the reason people don’t eat sardines is because in this neck of the woods they’re considered trashy, so trashy that you’ll not find a single sardine recipe in any of Jill Connor Browne’s otherwise excellent culinary compilations .

I once shared a similar attitude, but one gentle September night while wandering around the neighborhoods of Oxford south of University Avenue, I dropped in on a celebrated artist and his wife who happened to be entertaining a world-renowned scholar and his spouse. The boys were enjoying a light repast of sardines served with good bread, cold vegetables, a variety of pickles, and rich, frothy beer. The girls did not eat the sardines but partook liberally of the beer, bread and pickles, augmented by good shaved ham. That was the very first time I had ever seen sardines in such an environment before, and although I had been enjoying them (furtively and surreptitiously) for years, this experience revolutionized my attitude. If sardines are good enough for an artist of immeasurable talent and for a scholar of the first water, both of them indisputable gentleman to the core, then they’re good enough for anybody.  Sardines, as Lena Grove would say in someone else’s book, ” . . . had come a fur piece.”

If you want to try sardines for the first time, then get a can of Port Clydes (in oil) and drain them; use a colander if you feel the need, but do not rinse them with water. Instead, sprinkle them with a little freshly-squeezed lemon juice and just a bit of kosher salt, set them in a sealed container in the refrigerator until thoroughly chilled and eat them with sour gherkins, raw celery and onions, and have your favorite beer with them. Dill toast is wonderful alongside, but rye Melba will suffice and saltines of any sort will do any time at all.

Sardines with ground mustard and shallots on black bread

My Baby Skillet

One of the most cherished and versatile elements of my batterie de cuisine is a well-seasoned 6” cast iron skillet. My sister Cindy, who I got it from, said it was her “baby skillet”. Cindy called anything of a diminutive nature a “baby”; to her, a hand spade was a “baby shovel”, and I swear I once heard her call Massachusetts a “baby state”. “Cindy, it’s the Bay State.” I observed. “That’s not what I said,” she replied. I let the subject drop; I’d learned a long time ago that you can’t win an argument with a big sister.

This little skillet is just the thing you need to use for baking short breads in small amounts. Suppose you’re having just a few people over for breakfast, and you want to make biscuits. This little honey is perfect baking for good half-dozen (or four catheads). It’s also ideal for a pan of cornbread that will feed at least four and a meat loaf that will feed three. When it comes to baked pasta, I would dearly love to have more of these for a manicotti party, one pan of four for every two people. They’re inexpensive compared to a cast-iron Dutch oven, but if you’re lucky like me you get one from someone you love.

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A Rainbow Cake

Jake saw an image of a rainbow cake somewhere and just had to make one. It wasn’t even called a rainbow cake in any sort of caption; it was just a random image on a blog somewhere, but he found it beautiful, and I did, too. But when he said he wanted to make one, well, I kind of tingled in my toes. You’d never know it, but Jake is color-blind. I’m not sure how extensive it is, and he’s not either, but when he pointed to that gorgeous slice of multi-colored cake on the monitor and said he wanted to make it, I offered to help.

It was the least I could do.

Since this was such an experimental venture, we used a commercial white cake mix and a canned icing; after all, our objective was appearance rather than substance. The most indispensable element of the project was two (count ‘em, two!) boxes of McCormick’s assorted food coloring and egg dye. Each box has formulas for achieving eight colors (red, yellow, green and blue as well as pretty purple, orange sunset, teal, mint green and dusty rose).

Jake used two boxes of cake mix, split the batter into six equal amounts and then colored each bowl of batter. Because there was less batter per baking pan, oven time was reduced by at least five minutes. Jake wanted to arrange the layers to his own satisfaction, but I told him that while that might be interesting, it might be better on this effort for us to stick to Roy G. Biv (less the “i” I think). After a brief discussion, the pans were numbered and labeled. Once cooled, we assembled the cake. It sat overnight in a white icing, and when the first slice was taken the next day everyone went, “Ooo . . . “.

We both just grinned.

 

 

Mystic Mayonnaise

It’s difficult for us now to imagine mayonnaise as exotic, but  Welty remembers its advent in Jackson as an event.

Welty’s use of foods in her fiction brings two notable examples to my mind; the “green-tomato pickle” in Why I Live at the P.O. and the shrimp boil at Baba’s in No Place for You, My Love, not to mention the groaning boards in her Delta Wedding. But she also wrote the introductions for three Jackson cookbooks that I know of, Winifred Green Cheney’s Southern Hospitality (1976); The Country Gourmet (1982), put out by the Mississippi Animal Rescue League; and The Jackson Cookbook (1971), which was compiled by the Symphony League of Jackson. Mark Kurlansky, in his The Food of a Younger Land (2009), includes an essay of hers entitled “Mississippi Food” that Kurlansky claims was “a mimeographed pamphlet that she wrote for the Mississippi Advertising Commission and which they distributed.” Kurlansky doesn’t provide a date for the essay, but it was doubtless written in the 1930s.

More on that essay in a later post, but back to her introduction to The Jackson Cookbook, “The Flavor of Jackson”, which is a savory dish of Southern culinary exposition. The editor of a local publication once expressed surprise that Jackson had a culinary history “worth writing about”, but like every other editor in Jackson, she was unfamiliar with Welty’s work. Eudora’s essay is a finely-seasoned piece with a wonderful flavor all its own. Most of the city’s culinary history concerns home cooking, of course, since restaurants here were rather much a novelty until the mid-twentieth century, but Jackson’s storied hospitality has always featured a superb board. I’m including a part of the introduction here, specifically that section dealing with mayonnaise because it explains to a “t” just how exotic this now-prosaic kitchen item was then.

“As a child, I heard it said that two well-travelled bachelors of the town, Mr. Erskin Helm and Mr. Charles Pierce, who lived on Amite Street, had ‘brought mayonnaise to Jackson’. Well they might have though not in the literal way I pictured the event. Mayonnaise had a mystique. Little girls were initiated into it by being allowed to stand at the kitchen table and help make it, for making mayonnaise takes three hands. While the main two hands keep up the uninterrupted beat in the bowl, the smaller hand is allowed to slowly add the olive oil, drop-by-counted-drop. The solemn fact was that sometimes mayonnaise didn’t make. Only the sudden dash of the red pepper into the brimming, smooth-as-cream bowlful told you it was finished and a triumph. Of course you couldn’t buy mayonnaise and if you could, you wouldn’t. For the generation bringing my generation up, everything made in the kitchen started from scratch.”

Welty goes on to describe a typical Jackson kitchen in the twenties and thirties, and mentions a great many women who made significant contributions to the local cuisine. If you can find a copy of The Jackson Cookbook, buy it, read about Jackson’s culinary history from a master of her craft and cook the superlative recipes. No wrong could come from it at all.