Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sufferin' Succotash

Summer vegetable soup with the flavors of succotash. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

 Or maybe I should say “Thufferin’ thuccotash!” in honor of Thylvethter, one of my favorite Thaturday morning cartoon characters? (Thorry.)

In these days of 24/7 cartoon networks and kids’ programming, the ritual of Saturday morning cartoons is lost. My kids can’t believe that I grew up with less than a dozen t.v. channels and that cartoons only came on Saturday mornings, ending with “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” at noon, then it was time for lunch and being rushed out of the house by my mom. “Go ride your bikes!” “Go see your friends!” we were admonished. (and we obeyed.)

This summer, we took the girls to Saturday morning cartoons at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, a Looney Tunes festival, and my girls were introduced to Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Sylvester, Tweety Bird, Yosemite Sam, the Martian and all the gang. Sitting on the balcony, watching the Merrie Melodies reels, I wish I had worn my p.j.’s and brought my favorite blankie. 

And now in September, summer is persisting and so has the harvest. Before the markets are overtaken with cool-weather greens and winter squashes, I’m putting everything together in a soup. This summer vegetable soup is based on a recipe given to me by my friend Julie. Her mother makes it every summer with homegrown tomatoes, corn, okra and butter beans. I started off the same, but switched out the okra for green beans. The combination of tomatoes, corn and lima beans made me think of succotash. Cheers, Sylvester!

Summer vegetable soup with pimento cheese sandwiches. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Succotash Soup (Summer Vegetable Soup)

Peeling and seeding tomatoes is a pain in the patootie, but it really improves the final soup. After all, you’ll probably only make this soup once a year, when the last of the summer tomatoes are filling up your kitchen counter. It may seem odd to add the cobs to the soup pot, but my feeling is the cobs will give up the last of their corniness to the soup. Just skip the step if you think it’s weird.

2 tablespoons butter
1 onion, peeled and chopped into ¼ inch dice
8 ripe tomatoes
2 ears of corn
½ pound green beans, washed, trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths
½ pound butter beans, shelled (I used frozen)
Salt and pepper to taste

1.       In a soup pot over medium heat, melt butter and add onion. Add a pinch of salt and stir until onions are softened.
2.       Meanwhile, put a pot of water on to boil and have ready a bowl of ice water in order to peel and seed the tomatoes. Have a third bowl ready with a mesh strainer placed over it. Cut an X into the bottom of each tomato and place in the boiling water, being careful not to crowd the pot. After a minute or two, place the tomatoes in the ice water. Repeat until all tomatoes have been blanched. Using a sharp paring knife, peel the tomatoes, then slice in half ,and over the bowl with the mesh strainer, squeeze out the seeds. Use your knife and fingers to finesse the remaining seeds out of the tomato flesh. Chop the remaining tomato flesh into ½ inch dice and place in soup pot with onion. Add the strained tomato juice to the soup pot and discard the seeds.
3.       For the corn, when shucking the corn, be sure to remove all visible silks. Place the cob horizontally on the cutting board and working on each side, shave the kernels off the cob. Rotate cob to get all the kernels off the cob. Stand the cob upright and use the back of the knife to scrape the remaining corn juice off the cob. Place corn in soup pot. Use your hands to snap the cobs into 2 pieces and add to soup pot.
4.       Add green beans and butter beans to soup pot, followed by enough water to cover, usually about 1 cup or more. Cook for 30 minutes. Remove the corn cobs from the soup. Taste the soup for seasoning and adjust. Butter may be added to each serving for additional richness. Store leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Text and images copyright 2012, Lucy Mercer.

 For more ways to use up the last of the summer tomatoes, see:

Incredible roasted vegetables (Briami)
Tomato Gravy & Biscuits

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Sandwiches, seriously

The Emeril's Kicked-Up Sandwiches Getting Started Kit. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I am so thrilled to be selected as a blogger participating in Chef Emeril Lagasse’s #SeriousSandwich blogalong for his new cookbook, Emeril’sKicked-Up Sandwiches (Morrow, $24.99) . This soon-to-be-released cookbook is piled high with 100 recipes across the sandwich spectrum - from everyday egg salad kicked-up Emeril style to a luscious veggie muffuletta with eggplant instead of salami. Along the way, there will be burgers, lettuce wraps, panini and even dessert sandwiches (gingerbread ice cream sandwiches, anyone? is that a Heck Yea! I hear? Keep calm, they're on their way.)

Look for my first post October 1st and stay tuned for a giveaway and lots of great food! Meanwhile, I'm thinking of all the catch-phrases M. Lagasse is responsible for launching into pop culture ~ "Bam!" and "Kick it up a notch!" come to mind. What's your favorite Emeril-ism? and please let me know your favorite sandwiches, too!

Emeril's Egg salad on white bread.  Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Text and images copyright 2012, Lucy Mercer.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Kitty's biscuits

Kitty Warren at work in her kitchen. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I love this picture of my grandmother, Kitty Warren, probably taken in the early 50s. Note the perfectly done nails and the triple strand pearls. This was taken in her kitchen, where she wrote her stories for Women's Wear Daily, typing them out on her manual typewriter that she stored on a shelf in the pantry. I guarantee you she's wearing hose and heels and has a coordinating handbag in the chair by the door. I loved my grandmother because she was an original; hard-working and hilarious in a slightly ditzy Southern belle kind of way. She was a lady, when that word meant so much more than it does now. She was also the only other writer in my family.

As the only daughter in a family of boys, Kitty grew up in the kitchen, but I don’t think it really took. She loved food more than she loved cooking, but raising three boys in Birmingham, Alabama, meant learning how to put good, solid, rib-sticking meals on the table three times a day. She may have made meat loaf for supper, but in her heart, she was a chicken salad kind of girl. Preferably served on a lettuce-lined plate by a waitress in a black uniform and starched white apron at Rich’s Magnolia Room.

Beaten biscuits with strawberry jam. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books.

Still, family gatherings found us gathered around the cherry wood oval-shaped table in her dining room, with the pier-glass above the antique buffet reflecting the sterling tea service polished to a blinding burnish. The summertime standard meal was sliced ham, biscuits, fresh green beans cooked with a ham bone until they had given up all resemblance to a vegetable product and soaked up the briny porky broth. There would be sliced tomatoes, salted and peppered, with a bowl of Duke’s mayonnaise alongside, and potato salad with and without celery. That’s right, a tiny bowl of potato salad made without celery, just for my picky grandfather. Children who reached for the wrong potato salad bowl were gently reminded that that potato salad didn’t belong to them. (And if they didn’t like celery, they could just pick it out.) 

Although this bounty came from Kitty’s kitchen, she didn’t do dessert. She loved sweets, but wasn’t much of a baker, so my mom, and eventually I, would bring cakes. Layer cakes went over well, and I became adept at making carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, and pound cakes served with fresh strawberries and whipped cream.

I say Kitty wasn’t a baker, but it’s not really true. She could make biscuits, and they were always in a linen napkin-lined basket on the table. Not the fluffy, puffy lard-laden layered biscuit that is the modern idea of the Southern biscuits. Because of my grandfather’s disdain for “baking powder biscuits,” Kitty learned to make a half-dollar size (probably cut out with a jelly glass) biscuit without leavening. They were thin, and tender, and…I never got the recipe, although I asked her for it. She brushed me off, just saying they were “a little bit of this and a little bit of that.” I think she wanted to talk about her latest pair of Ferragamo shoes or perhaps what the ladies in the bridge foursome ate that week. 

Beaten biscuit dough. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

As I’ve read more about Southern foodways, I’ve wondered if Kitty’s biscuits were beaten biscuits, the hardtack of the South. A couple scoops of flour, a handful of fat such as shortening or butter, mixed with water until it makes a smooth and pliable dough. Not handled quickly and gently as baking genius Shirley Corriher advises in her legendary Touch of Grace biscuits, but beaten into bloody (figurative), blistering (literal) submission with a sturdy rolling pin or mallet. There’s even a contraption called a beaten biscuit machine, resembling a laundry mangle or Count Rugen’s medieval torture device, in which dough is repeatedly run through rollers up to 100 times, until it blisters at the edges and is ready to cut and bake.

I tried my hand at beaten biscuits using recipes found online and in my 1960's edition of “The Joy of Cooking” and I’ve got say if you’ve got a little pent-up anger, if the day to day of shuttling kids to and fro, or maybe juggling the needs of your family and house and job gets to be overwhelming, whacking at a lump of dough with your favorite rolling pin is a very satisfying endeavor. Unlike icky sticky doughs, the beaten biscuit dough handles like fabric, supple yet sturdy, and you can’t overwork it.  In fact, as Irma Rombauer points out in her headnote to “Ship’s Biscuits,” the dough is meant to be man-handled, so by all means give the kids their own dough to get their sticky little hands in to. 

Beaten biscuits. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

These beaten biscuits were round and puffy, resembling mini pockets, perfect for a slice of ham or a spoonful of my homemade strawberry jam. In my memories of Grandmother’s table, the biscuits were not the same. Kitty’s were small and thin, clearly made without the offending baking powder, but tender. My beaten biscuits were closer to a soda cracker, and they would be quite nice served like a cracker in soup. Clearly, more experimentation is necessary and so I ask here if any readers know of biscuits like Kitty made ~ no leavening, thin and tender ~ and please advise.

Sometimes in pursuing the past, you find what you’re looking for, and many times you do not. Like Norman in “A River Runs Through It,” I am haunted, not by waters, but by biscuits. They are the timeless raindrops of my life in the kitchen.

Beaten Biscuits
Not the Proustian biscuits of my childhood, but worth trying, nevertheless. Adapted from online recipes and “The Joy of Cooking.”

2 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup butter, shortening or a combination of both
½ cup ice water

1.       Heat oven to 350. 
2.       In a bowl, stir together flour and salt. With your fingers, work in the butter or shortening until the flour reaches a dry, sandy texture.
3.       Add water gradually, stirring with a fork to form a shaggy dough. As the dough comes together, it will be smooth and workable. Remove the dough from the bowl and transfer to a floured work surface.
4.       With your hands, knead the dough into a smooth ball. Using a heavy rolling pin, roll the dough into a rectangle, flour lightly, then fold into thirds. With that same heavy rolling pin, whack the living daylights out of the dough, fold and repeat as many times as you feel necessary. The dough is considered sufficiently beaten when tiny blisters appear along the edges.
5.       Cut out biscuits and bake for 25 to 30 minutes in a 350 degree oven. Cool, then store in an airtight container at room temperature. It should come as no surprise that these sturdy biscuits will last a good long time.

Hand-painted plate from my grandmother. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books.

Text and images copyright 2012, Lucy Mercer.

This is my September contribution to #letslunch, a monthly Twitter party on a given food subject. This month, we're celebrating Patricia's new book "The Asian Grandmother's Cookbook" by writing about grandmothers. You can participate in #letslunch by following the hashtag on Twitter and jumping in with your own stories!

Charissa‘s Apple, Pecan & Raisin Gluten-Free Depression Cake at Zest Bakery
Emma‘s Irish, Polish & Korean Grandmothers’ Recipes at Dreaming of Pots & Pans
Jill‘s Stuffed Cabbage at Eating My Words
Karen‘s Semifreddo at GeoFooding
Linda‘s Taiwanese Oyster Omelet at Spicebox Travels
Lisa‘s Polish Potato Cake at Monday Morning Cooking Club
Patricia‘s “Many Grandmas” Asian Pickles at The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook
Renee‘s Chinese Grandmother’s Tofu at My Kitchen And I

Monday, September 3, 2012

Muscadine & Scuppernong Sorbet

Muscadines & scuppernongs. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
As sure as shootin' that a hurricane will blow through and send Weather Channel reporters scrambling to the Gulf Coast, the wild grapes of autumn will appear in farmers markets and supermarket produce stands in late August and early September. Scuppernongs, (the green ones) and muscadines (the purple ones) are cultivated wild grapes, meant for eating out of hand and in recipes.
 If you’ve never tasted wild grapes, be prepared for a thick skin and a bright, sweet burst of juicy grape flesh. In the store, look for clean, unblemished grapes in the quart package. (And I'm sure I'm not the only shopper who does this - checking the package bottom to ensure berries and grapes are fresh - that's where the spoilage first appears.) Although the grapes can be quite large, sometimes the size of small plums, look for smaller grapes - the flavor will be more concentrated.
Muscadines & scuppernongs. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I've always considered wild grapes to be an out-of-hand food until last fall, when Ritz-Carlton Atlanta Chef Brian Jones served muscadines in a palate-cleansing sorbet at the Atlanta Grill. Chef Jones is a Southerner with an affection for our native foodways, including wild grapes.
Grapes in food processor. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Inspired by Chef Brian, I replicated the muscadine sorbet, adding scuppernongs into the mix. With an ice cream maker, sorbets are very simple to make – just crushed fruit and simple syrup, strained and frozen. I have a Krups LaGlaciere that’s about 10 years old – the most difficult part is remembering to put the canister in the freezer overnight before making the sorbet. 
Wild grape sorbet. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Wild Grape Sorbet from Muscadines & Scuppernongs

I made this at home using vanilla sugar (simply a split vanilla bean placed in a jar of granulated sugar) for extra oomph, but plain granulated sugar works just the same. The recipe can also be frozen in popsicle molds, perfect for children, because my kids loved this!

1 cup water
½ cup sugar
1 slice lemon
1 quart muscadines, washed and dried

Ice cream maker

1. In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine water and sugar and lemon; stir until sugar is dissolved.  Let cool to room temperature.
2. Place clean grapes in a food processor, pulse to a coarse grind. Set a fine mesh strainer over a bowl and transfer pulp to strainer. With the back of a spatula, press juice from the pulp. Be patient and gentle; this step takes time to get all the juice out of the pulp. Discard solids.
3. Combine juice and simple syrup. Place in refrigerator to chill, then freeze according to ice cream maker's instructions.
 Inspired by Chef Brian Jones' muscadine sorbet at the Atlanta Grill, Ritz-Carlton downtown.

Text and images copyright 2012, Lucy Mercer.