Nan’s Refrigerator Rolls

Nan Edwards was one of those people who’ll make you beg for a recipe just because they like being begged for it.

It’s been a very long time since I first asked her how she made these wonderful rolls, but when I did, she kept putting me off, saying she did not know where the recipe was when I knew damn well she had it on an index card in that little Colonel Rebel recipe box she kept on top of her refrigerator.

But I was patient and persistent up to the point when I got fed up, called her up one night, and luckily found her in the right mood. As she read it to me over the phone, I could just see her wagging her finger at me every other sentence. It took her twenty minutes, swear to God.

“Dissolve one package yeast in 1/2 cup warm water. When yeast begins to work, add 1/2 cup sugar, another 1 1/2 cup water, 3 tablespoons vegetable oil and 2 teaspoons salt. Blend until sugar is dissolved, add 3 large eggs and beat well. To this mixture, add 2 cups plain flour and blend until smooth. Gradually add enough flour (up to 4 or more cups) and mix well to make soft dough. Cover dough and refrigerate for at least eight hours. When ready to bake, form dough into balls, place in a jelly roll pan or pie plate and let rise until doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes. Preheat oven to 400 degrees, bake for 15-20 minutes until brown. The dough will keep for up to four days covered in the refrigerator.”

Taking Stock

Stocks are to cooking what Hank Williams is to country music: a source of basic, soulful satisfaction.

Back when people actually cooked as opposed to simply heating products as they do now, stock played an important role in the kitchen. Stockpots provided a sumptuous basis for an endless variety of dishes; sauces and gravies, soups, stews, and as a cooking medium for beans and grains. A good stock is a pillar upon which great meals are made. Sad to say, nowadays most people use canned broth or bouillon cubes instead, which is like listening to Reba because you have no Patsy.

If you really care about the quality of your cooking, you’ll want to make your own stock instead of having to resort to miserably bland and over-salted alternatives. Chicken stock is perhaps the easiest and cheapest to make and is good for general use. I use leg quarters, which make a very rich stock, and can be found in five-pound bags at a very low price in most supermarkets. If it’s during the holidays with company coming, you can of course use a whole stewing hen, since you can use the meat for any number of holiday dishes.

Put the chicken in your designated stockpot; whatever you use should be non-reactive, preferably stainless steel. Add enough water to cover by half, a couple of stalks of celery, at least six carrots, two onions with skin, all coarsely chopped, two bay leaves, a clove or so of garlic (smashed) and about a handful of roughly chopped parsley, stems and all. Cover, vent, and simmer this mixture until the liquid is reduced by at least a third, skimming the scruff off the top as it cooks.

In the meantime, have a beer or two, listen to some Jimmie Rodgers, and write Reba a fan letter. I’m sure she’d appreciate it.

After about an hour, remove chicken, cool, and debone. Return bones to pot, and save the meat for dressing or salad. Simmer the stock until it’s a rich color, strain, and cool before refrigerating. Once the stock chills, you’ll end up with a bottom layer of sediment and a layer of jellied stock covered by a layer of yellowish fat. Scrape off the fat with a spoon and save it to make matzos. Then carefully spoon out the gel, being careful to avoid as much as the sediment (which should be discarded) as you can, especially if you plan to clarify the stock for consommé or clear soups.

Stock keeps well in the refrigerator for a week or so, but its best just to go ahead and freeze it. Use whatever size container you find appropriate for storing your stock; I’ve heard that some people freeze stock in ice trays and store the cubes in plastic bags, but I suspect people who do this are annoyingly obsessive, since this is a troublesome endeavor, and besides, what if in a moment of absent-mindedness you happen to pop a cube of frozen stock out of the tray and into your scotch and soda? (You might hear the voice of experience speaking here.) Me, I store stock in whatever containers I’ve saved from supermarket products like yogurt and sour cream, pliable ones about pint size with a lid that seals well.

Use stock in soups and sauces, or to flavor beans or rice. You’ll notice a big difference.

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.

To the Ramparts of Infinity: A Review

With “Sartoris” (1929), William Faulkner began “sublimating the actual into apocryphal,” targeting his great grandfather, William Clark Falkner, as inspiration for the Yoknapatawpha cosmos and prototype for Colonel John Sartoris.

While it’s the incandescence of William Faulkner that provides the impetus for critics and historians to piece together the life W.C. Falkner, Colonel Falkner was a prominent, if not towering figure in his own right, certainly in terms of the history of north Mississippi, and an archetype of the men who fashioned a nation out of the Southern frontier.

The Yoknapatawpha stories also led Jack Elliott to W.C. Falkner. Elliott first heard about “Old Colonel” Falkner at the initial Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference at the University of Mississippi in 1974, and a field trip to Ripley brought young Elliott to the foot of the nineteen-foot Falkner monument that dominates the cemetery, the actual counterpart to the “apocryphal” monument in the Jefferson cemetery where the marble statue of John Sartoris [gazes] “to the blue, changeless hills beyond, and beyond that, the ramparts of infinity itself.”

In time, Elliott began formulating a work on the life of W.C. Falkner, and found that not only were the stories that circulated about Falkner during his lifetime “fantastic and exaggerated,” these stories themselves were “perpetuated and augmented by short, poorly researched historical pieces.” Elliott sets out to amend these shortcomings, which indeed he does superbly, with a seasoned scholar’s attention to detail and an ear for the written word.

Elliott’s account of Falkner’s early years and the progress of the Falkners and their Word relatives from the eastern seaboard is supported by comprehensive documentation. When the U.S. Congress declared war against Mexico in May 1846, Falkner was elected first lieutenant, which, Elliott confirms, “was certainly due to his popularity among his peers rather than his ability to command.” Elliott provides a thorough account of Falkner’s actions in Mexico, as well as the succeeding Civil War in which he was an officer (“brigadier general, then captain, then colonel and … captain again”) of the Magnolia Rifles, a company from Ripley.

Elliott doesn’t neglect Falkner’s education, stating that he “read law” under his uncles Thomas Jefferson (“Jeff”) Word and J.W. Thompson, and was admitted to the nascent Mississippi bar in 1850. Little else is known of his formal education, though Elliott says that Falkner himself alludes to studying Cicero and Julius Caesar.

Though Elliott’s biography doesn’t stint on a full account of Falkner’s extensive feuds with the Hindmans or with Thurmond, Elliot is determined to discredit earlier portrayals of W.C. Falkner that paint him as a pathological megalomaniac, stating that “The evidence for such a scenario is weak and the conclusion little more than a strained surmise that was bolstered by repetition.” Elliott points out that Falkner was “well-liked by most and even idolized by many,” and that earlier historians (particularly Duclos) “failed to see the feud [with R.J. Thurmond, his assassin] in terms of a conflict over differing visions for the railroad …”

Throughout the work, Elliot provides supporting evidence of Falkner’s character, including this from Thurmond’s great-nephew: “[Falkner] loved power and the trappings of power; he delighted in playing the Grand Seignor (sic), yet was a public-spirited citizen and at heart a kindly if hot-blooded man.”

Another falsehood Elliott seeks to dispel is that Falkner was not the prime architect of the Ripley Railroad, that Falkner managed to inveigle the public into believing that he was the driving force behind the project when in fact he was only one among many who contributed to the scheme. But, though the original charter for the Ripley Railroad Company was issued to W. C. Falkner, R. J. Thurmond, and thirty-five other incorporators in December 1871, the mountain of evidence Elliott presents is far more than enough to convince even a skeptical reader—who are at this late date likely to be few—that it was indeed Falkner “who brought the social, political, and financial elements together and made it happen.”

Elliott examines Falkner’s life in letters with marvelous detail. He gives, for example, an entertaining synopsis of Falkner’s famous melodrama, “The White Rose of Memphis” (1881), complete with contemporary reviews. Digging deeper, he examines Falkner’s less successful second novel, “The Little Brick Church” (1882), and his play, “The Lost Diamond” (1874). Earlier writings—including a sensationalist pamphlet, a narrative poem, and a short novel—also come under review.

Elliott offers insights into Falkner’s writing habits, and documents his familiarity not only with the Bible, but with Shakespeare, Scott, Byron, Homer, and Cervantes. In May 1883, Falkner toured Europe and published an account of his travels, “Rapid Ramblings in Europe” the following year.

What Elliott sets out to do is to “to inquire into the image of a man long dead, an image partly frozen into that of a marble statue.” Elliott’s biography of “Old Colonel” Falkner embraces far more than that life, that image. “As in much of local history, the memory of a place draws us to delve into the matrix of interconnected symbols, whether stories or documents or associated places.”

To that end, Elliott’s work on Falkner embraces not just the man, but the milieu, the town of Ripley and the society and culture—such as it was—of north Mississippi in his day. He includes a fascinating “Field Guide to Colonel Falkner’s Ripley,” a block-by-block examination of the town using the grid established by the surveyor “who in 1836 laid out the streets, blocks, and lots, and this geometry still frames the lives of residents and visitors today.” Filled with historic photos of homes, businesses, and downtown traffic (i.e., cotton wagons and railroad cars), this section of the book will undoubtedly find the greatest appeal among casual readers.

Elliott’s writing is lucid, orderly, and compelling. Perhaps Elliott didn’t consciously set out to write the “complete, sensitive, and discerning biography” of W.C. Falkner Thomas McHaney expressed a need for almost sixty years ago, but, in the end, he has.

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.