Cooking in the Fall

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The weather finally turns cool and heavier foods seem appetizing again. When the Chapel Hill Museum holds its fall gala, chicken liver terrines are suddenly appropriate. A Brussels sprout and blue cheese salad replaces one of tomatoes and watermelon. Back come the big stock pots, because besides the everpresent brown sauce, our need for chicken broth increases, and we have to prepare for the arrival of duck and cheese pork. The mixed vegetables of summer have given way to sauteed leeks and cabbage as a side vegetable and mashed potatoes must now share the stage with rutabagas.

People may notice that when something comes into season it is liable to appear in several guises on my menu. In late spring that handful of the first fresh herbs is sprinkled all over everything. Later we'll show more restraint. Tomatoes show up everywhere in mid summer. Ditto fresh corn. Green tomatoes are presently being used both fried and in a wonderful relish for fish that I got years ago from an old friend from Lousiana. In the fall duck is perhaps the best example of this excess. From the roasted carcasses, we make both soup and sauce. With its liver, we make pate. The legs are cured in salt and slow baked under lard. They may show up in a main course or shredded into soup right away, or we may hold them back for jambalaya when we begin our Mardi Gras menu in late winter. The breasts will be seared, sliced and served with our vinegar-tinged glaze. We usually add fruit to this sauce- perhaps cranberries, or grapefruit sections or stewed kumquats. The hearts and gizzards will be picked off of the roasting pan and eaten by me. More about that another time.

It's also the season for hams. Last Sunday we brought out our first baked hams glazed with grainy mustard and maple syrup. We generally use these for large parties or buffets. They are good at any temperature and are also very pretty. Closer to the holidays corned hams will be on the menu most Saturdays. These hams are better than anything but unfortunately less attractive. They are an Eastern North Carolina specialty, and every year when they show up, I inevitably get a phone call or two from someone down east who hasn't seen one in years. Look for these to show up on an off until Easter.

posted by Bill Smith at 3:00 PM 0 comments

Banana Pudding Trashcan

Friday, November 16, 2007

Need I say more? No, but I will. I couldn't help but notice how artfully the peels, egg shells and such had landed in my trashcan today as I made banana pudding. This was the first task of the day so there was nothing else in the garbage, thus an unsullied pallette. I'm afraid that this sort of entry will be the result of my bringing a camera to work.

Banana Pudding used to be an occasional item on my dessert menu, but demand has made it permanent. People complement this recipe all the time, but interestingly it's the meringue that prompts the most questions. I found this technique in Julia Child's The Way To Cook (Alfred Knopf 1989). I swirl a little apple cider vinegar and a pinch or two of salt around in the bowl, then pour it out in the sink. Whatever remains in the bowl is the right amount. I don't remember who told me to use equal amounts of sugar and egg whites, but this ratio produces excellent results. I add a little cream of tartar when I begin to beat the egg whites. (I've always wondered about this stuff. Who first saw it in the bottom of a wine barrel and decided that it might stablize meringue? Should we be eating something that can also be used to take the tarnish off of aluminum pots and pans?). The egg whites should be at room temperature or warmer. If I have time I set the mixing bowl in a pan of warm water for a few minutes. I begin with the mixer on low, adding the cream of tartar first, then feeding in the sugar in a slow stream. I gradually increase the mixer to its highest speed and beat until the meringue is very stiff and glossy. I add vanilla extract at the very last since it seems to collapse the meringue a bit.

If I am going to present the pudding at the table, I spread the meringue on top, sprinkle it with sugar and bake it at 350 degrees for a half an hour or so until it is nicely browned. At work, where the pudding is served in individual portions, I bake the meringues separately in pie pans. This method has several advantages. First of all the meringue is better if it has not been refrigerated, whereas the custard must be kept cool. Secondly, rewarming a custard that may not be used up for several days risks spoilage, so it is safer cool it quickly and to keep it cold. Restaurants always seem to have gallons of extra egg whites, so it isn't any trouble to make some up whenever we need it, and because there is such an excess we can put ridiculous amounts on top of each bowl as we serve it. I love to see peoples faces when it is set before them.

posted by Bill Smith at 5:40 PM 2 comments

Recipe Drift and, alas, no Jerusalem Artichokes

Sunday, November 4, 2007

It's interesting how recipes change in the hands of people who use them every day. People who return to favorite recipes at holidays for instance, try to recreate them scrupulously. But there are already recipes from my book that I have altered when I serve them now at Crook's. The recipe I use for ice cream I believe started in Bon Appetit in the early seventies. We used it as a basis for our espresso ice cream at La Residence. It had probably been at least quadrupled for restaurant use, then was lost and finally rewritten from memory. Who knows how close it is to the original now? The basic theory of the recipe survives. It is very eggy and it contains a surprising amount of whole butter that makes it hard to scoop unless a little alchohol is added to retard the freezing

Cheese crackers made me think of this lately. I like to send out a little cracker or something with soup and for years used the cheese biscuit recipe from Craig Claiborne's Southern Cooking. It is the first recipe in the book, and thus always easy to find. Cheese biscuits in the South are actually little round crackers, and are one of the few foods that I remember being really spicy. The merits of a person's cheese biscuits were whispered about behind her back. They appeared most often at holidays and weddings. When I began the research for updating and expanding my book, I found a lot of my grandmother's recipes. I decided to switch to her cheese biscuit at work. Well, I've used it as written for about a year. Actually, with one small alteration. My friend Mary Clara Capel gave me a little pig shapped cookie cutter to use, so I began adding black sesame seeds to the dough to make the pigs look like little spotted ossabaws. Then about a month ago I had the idea to substitute that very hot curry powder from Kerala Curry Company in Pittsboro for the original cayenne pepper. The color is altered and the taste is delightful. Curry is often thought of as a difficult match with other flavors, but so far these have worked well with all of our soups.

Mrs. Andrews told me yesterday that she doesn't think there are enough Jerusalem artichokes to be worth digging. She said that a lot of the plants seem to have died in the drought. This is remarkable, given how aggressively invasive they are. Most people won't plant them at all for fear of them taking over. I've always thought that they could survive anything. Hopefully there are dormant corms in the ground for next year. She once told me that no matter how thoroughly you dig, you can never get them all, so they always come back the next year. I'll keep my fingers crossed. I have a tiny patch in my front yard that doesn't look at all promising either. I deliberately planted them in a place that was especially dry and barren, thinking that they could thrive anywhere. I guess I'll investigate and perhaps move them to a more clement spot in case this dryness is here for a while.

posted by Bill Smith at 6:18 AM 0 comments


Saturday, November 3, 2007

As I mentioned before, persimmons have come through this year's drought unscathed. Some appear at my kitchen door almost every day. We are at the end of the season, I believe, but I have managed to stockpile quite a lot. Ripe, raw persimmons are moist and sticky, but in spite of this they have a very long shelf life when refridgerated. Ditto when they have been pureed if you keep the air off of them by pressing plastic wrap directly on the surface. The puree freezes very well. The only drawback is that it darkens, so your pudding or bread won't be as pretty. The flavor is unaffected. Every fall I consider freezing some so that I can put the pudding back on the menu during the holidays, but in recent years we've had no extra. I expect to be serving persimmon pudding for at least another week to ten days.

I prefer our wild native persimmon over the Asian cultivars that some people have planted. Those varieties seem to me to have too much moisture, which is released when they are cooked, wreaking havoc on your recipe. Despite this moisture, they seem less...unctuous, for lack of a better word, than their wild cousins. Some people consider the wild variety to be a nuisance, especially when they fall to the ground. They attract bees, deer and possums. Chickens can get really nasty pecking through them. Years ago, I had a lot of trouble with possums in my walls and attic. I had to hire someone to trap them and take them out to the woods. The guy used persimmon butter as bait and caught every one of them.

posted by Bill Smith at 8:54 AM 1 comments

Fall and Oxford, Mississippi

Thursday, November 1, 2007

My blog, like my cook book begins in the fall. The peculiar weather recently has made for a late one, but at last we have had some cool weather and I have finally found time to get started. I hope, initially at least, with this project to invite the reader into my kitchen at Crook's Corner so that they can see the day to day routine that precedes their evening's dinner. This isn't my idea entirely. Years ago I discovered that people seemed remarkably interested, when in interviews or presentations, I would talk about these mundane details. There is a satisfying logic in the way that a fulltime busy kitchen unfolds day after day and season by season. So this will be my initial focus.

In my book I say that, that here in Chapel Hill, it seems as though our year begins in the fall because the University gears up again for a new term then. In normal times, cool weather makes heavier foods seem more appetizing. This year in particular, agriculture has been a little screwy because of the heat and drought, so things haven't always shown up when expected, if at all. Honeysuckle was late and came in two bloomings; Tomatoes were good, but the season was shorter and the fruit had tough skin; figs were all but absent and the word is still out on Jerusalem artichokes. One thing that hasn't minded the drought at all is our wild persimmon. I have gotten them from Mary Andrews, my main supplier for years, and also from Walter Atwater who seems to produce every vegetable imaginable on his farm no matter what the weather. Mrs. Andrews and Mr. Atwater were the subjects of a wonderful article on local farming by Andrea Weigl in the News and Observer on September 19th of this year. Check it out in their archive if you have time. A new source this year is Jason Somers and Kate Fix, who have relocated themselves and Magic Umbrella Films here. I often say that of all the recipes I inherited when I took over this job, the persimmon pudding is my favorite hands down. I'm very pleased to have it on the menu again this year.

Fall for me generally includes a trip to Oxford, Mississippi for the annual Symposium of the Southern Foodways Alliance. I'll talk more about the organization at a later post, but as the trip is fresh in my mind, I'll share a few highlights now. Oxford has no airport, so you have to fly either into Jackson or Memphis. I prefer Memphis because sometimes I have time to visit the city, which I like a lot and should you have a long layover in the airport, there is an outpost of Interstate Barbecue there that illustrates what airport food could be. On the way down I rode with friend Dean McCord, formerly of eGullet and presently blogging about food at . We followed Highway 61 and visited several of the restaurants located on what is known as the Tamale Trail. There is a species of non-Hispanic tamale found all around the deep South. Go figure. On the way back, I rode with friend Nancie McDermott ( lately of Southern Cakes fame. I've used her cookbook all summer to the delight of our customers. It was the tenth anniversary of the Symposium and there was a full program, from Alice Waters on edible schoolyards to Roy Blount Jr. on The Rapture. The discussions are always elevated, the lectures always interesting, no matter how arcane. There is always lots and lots and lots of good food and drink. Memorable this year were a cocktail made from Jack Daniels and horchata, the rice drink from Mexico; an oyster stew that had been thickened into a gravy for grits; and a sweet potato and ginger creme caramel from our own April McGregerof The Farmer's Daughter. Next year's Symposium will be on Southern Drink and the mid year field trip will be to Louisville. This seems like a rash choice to me seeing how these people like to carry on anyway, but I can't wait. I'll talk more about the SFA from time to time. Check out my links for theirs.

posted by Bill Smith at 4:42 AM 1 comments

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