Monday, May 25, 2009

Is That A Piece of Cornbread In Your Pocket…


My grandmother made the world’s best biscuits.

She passed away 20 years ago and I have been trying to replicate them ever since. Her biscuits were small, light, and slightly salty with a hint buttermilk. She never followed a recipe, yet they were consistent every time she made them. I could eat a dozen over the course of a Sunday afternoon meal.

A few years ago I gave a speech in Natchez. Afterwards my hosts invited me to lunch at the Carriage House Restaurant. At the Carriage House, they served my grandmother’s biscuits, or at least a recipe that tasted exactly like my grandmother’s biscuits. They were great. I ate a dozen of them.

Yesterday, I was invited to be a part of an after-church luncheon to celebrate a friend’s book release. The meal was of the standard Deep-South-after-church-Sunday-meal variety— roast beef, gravy, corn, beans, fried okra, and iced tea— right up my alley, and all good.

There was a basket of cornbread— sticks and muffins— at the end of the sideboard. I opted for a stick. I took one bite and was instantly transformed to my grandmother’s table. My grandmother served biscuits with formal Sunday lunches, but cornbread with casual Saturday afternoon meals. This cornbread tasted just like my grandmothers.

The cornbread at my friend Chalie’s (note to editors: the name is “Chalie”—no “r”) house was crisp on the bottom from baking in hot cast-iron and dusted with a light sprinkling of corn meal. It wasn’t sweet, crumbly, cakelike, or dense. It was everything I require from a stick of cornbread. Beautiful.

I threw manners out the window and placed a second and third piece of cornbread on my plate. I ate a few pieces of okra and pushed some roast beef around and then grabbed my fourth piece of cornbread.

The table conversation was rapid-fire and graciously raucous. I spoke a little, but held back because my mother always told me not to speak with my mouth full, and at this meal my mouth always seemed to be crammed with cornbread.

Every once in a while I would add to the conversation with something like, “Did someone steal my cornbread?” Or “I could have sworn that there were two pieces of cornbread on my plate just a few seconds ago.”

There was no subtle way of gorging myself with cornbread because the basket was located across the room and I had to get up and walk over to it every time I wanted another piece. Had the basket been on the table, I could have placed it in front of me and then pointed to an imaginary something out the window. “Is that a woolly mammoth in the front yard?  And while everyone’s heads were turned I could have grabbed a few pieces of cornbread and hidden them in my lap.

I was debating on slipping a few cornbread sticks in my pocket and taking them into the bathroom to eat in private when I noticed that all of the sticks were gone— only muffins remained. But I wasn’t finished. I wanted more. I was desperate, but no so desperate as to walk around the house with cornbread muffins poking out of my front pockets— sticks, maybe… muffins— no way.

The lunch was being served during a thunderstorm. By the time the electricity went out, I was on my seventh piece of cornbread. In the dark, I snuck over to the sideboard to nab number eight. I don’t think anyone saw me. They might have heard some contented moaning and smacking coming from my end of the table, but there was no visual evidence of my gluttony.

“No dessert, thank you. Is there any more cornbread?"

Just for one brief moment I was back at my grandmother’s table, for that I will be forever grateful.


Summer Succotash


3 Tbl                         Bacon grease (or canola oil)

2 cups                         Squash, medium dice

1 /4 cup             Onion, small chopped

1                         Red bell pepper, medium dice

1 cup                         Fresh butter beans, cooked

1cup                         Silverqueen Corn kernels, freshly scraped

1 /2 cup             Chicken broth

2 tsp                         Creole Seasoning

1 tsp                         Thyme

1 /2 tsp                        Rosemary

1 Tbl                        Butter

Salt and pepper to taste

Heat bacon grease over medium high heat. Add squash, onion and bell pepper. Cook until softened. Add beans and corn. Continue cooking for two minutes. Add chicken broth. 

Monday, May 18, 2009

James Beard Foundation Awards


A couple of weeks ago The James Beard Foundation Awards ceremony was held in 

New York to honor the nation’s best chefs, restaurants, cookbook authors, and food journalists.

The James Beard Foundation Awards are the Academy Awards of the food business and my home state of Mississippi was

 represented well.

John Currence, chef/owner of City Grocery in Oxford, Miss took home the Beard award for Best Chef: South. Martha Foose, the Mississippi Delta chef and cookbook author, won a James Beard Book Award in the category “American Cooking” for her cook

book, “Screen Doors and Sweet Tea: Recipes and Tales from a Southern Cook.” John T. Edge, also of Oxford, a director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, won recognition as Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America.

That’s a big night for a small state. It’s an even bigger night for a small town. Currence and Edge have both been living in Oxford for a couple of decades. Foose spent her early days in the restaurant business working in Oxford— first for Currence, then at The Bottletree Bakery

For years, I have considered Currence the best chef in Mississippi. I still do. His creativity, New Orleans roots, and sound culinary fundamentals have kept him at the top of the food chain in this state. If I were in charge of an awards ceremony, I’d give him another medal just for bringing breakfast back to the forefront of the Mississippi culinary scene by opening Big Bad Breakfast in Oxford.

Currence, who was in jeopardy of becoming the Susan Lucci of the Beard Awards, finally got his due— though in my opinion, long overdue due— and was recognized as the best chef in the South, which I am sure is the first of many to come.

I purchase and receive hundreds of cookbooks every year. Martha Foose wrote my favorite cookbook of 2008. Last November, I recommended Foose’s cookbook in this column with these words, “My publisher says that if someone cooks six recipes out of a cookbook, it is a major success. The first time I thumbed through Foose's book, there were several dozen recipes I wanted to prepare.”

“Foose got her start at the La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles, and moved on to several bakeries in Mississippi. However, where Foose shines in this, her first publishing effort, is on the savory courses that take place well before dessert— Inside Out Sweet Potatoes, Lady Pea Salad, and Chicken Thighs and Dumplings to list just a few.”

From the banana pudding she cooked for Oprah (in individual Mason jars) to Catfish in a Paper Sack, “Screen Doors and Sweet Tea” is filled with recipes new, true, and Southern.

John T. Edge, one of the founders of The Southern Foodways Alliance, has done more than most to draw attention to Southern cuisine and culture. I am serious about food, but I don’t take food too seriously. John T. takes food seriously. Actually, I don’t know anyone who is as serious about food as John T. Edge. With an academician’s focus, he has written a series of book that focused on classic American foods— “Donuts An American Passion,” “Hamburgers and Fries An American Story,” and other books focusing on fried chicken and apple pie. Anyone who is as serious about food as John T. certainly deserves to be listed among the nation’s Who’s Who.

I don’t have the exact statistics, but I would venture to guess that this year Mississippi received more James Beard Awards per capita than any other state. It’s time more people knew what we’ve known for a long time: This is a great state for good food. Currence, Foose, and Edge, have helped spread the word through their hard work, devotion, and enthusiasm. For this, and everything else they have done, they should be recognized, congratulated, and honored often.

Amaretto-Brulee Breakfast Bread

1 /3 cup             Butter, melted

3 /4 cup             Brown sugar

2 Tbl                  Honey

2 Tbl                Pecans, chopped (optional)

2 Tbl                Almonds, slivered and blanched (optional)

8                      Slices of sourdough bread, cut into 1-inch thick rounds

4                       Eggs

2 /3 cup           Milk

1 /4 cup            Heavy cream

1 /8 tsp              Cinnamon

1 /8 tsp               Nutmeg

1 Tbl                  Vanilla

1 Tbl                   Amaretto

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a cast iron skillet, combine butter, brown sugar and honey over medium-high heat. Cook mixture, stirring constantly until bubbly and sugar has dissolved. Add nuts. Pour Brulee into the bottom of a round, two-quart Pyrex baking dish. Allow Brulee to cool slightly then top with the sourdough bread croutons. There should be enough bread to cover the bottom of the dish. If your sourdough loaf is small, add more bread slices so that the entire dish is covered in one layer of bread.

In a large mixing bowl whisk eggs, milk, heavy cream, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and Amaretto. Pour mixture evenly over the bread. Using the tips of your fingers, press bread down gently to force custard into croutons without breaking. Cover dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Allow custard to come to room temperature one hour before baking. Bake uncovered until bread is puffed and edges of croutons are golden brown, (approximately 40 minutes). Place a plate on top of the baking dish. Using dish towels or pot holders, invert dish onto a plate. Top with powdered sugar. Yield: four to six servings