Monday, December 31, 2007

December 31: Hoppin' John

"One pound of bacon, one pint of red peas, one pint of rice" — this is how Sarah Rutledge begin what may well be the first written receipt for this quintessential Lowcountry dish. The daughter of Edward Rutledge, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and niece of Arthur Middleton, another signer, Miss Rutledge was the "Lady of Charleston" who anonymously authored The Carolina Housewife in 1847.

Southern ladies are great observers of tradition and superstition. Miss Rutledge probably knew that this humble dish of black eyed peas, or dried field peas, are served with rice and greens and cornbread and pot likker, and are thought to bring good luck in the new year.

Most likely, the dish arrived in the south with the slaves. There were tens of thousands in Charleston and on the neighboring rice plantations of the 17th and 18th centuries. Those West Africans were long familiar with rice cultivation and cookery, and the pigeon pea, favored throughout Africa, found a favorable environment in the Caribbean, where many of the slaves first landed. The Carolina Housewife may have been written by a "Lady of Charleston," but dishes such as hoppin' john were staples in the "big house" that had been brought there by black cooks. You need not be a historian to understand that the slaves taught the master to love this simple dish.

I hope that this recipe brings you all the good luck in the New Year that Sarah Rutledge and her predecessors expected. Happy New Year.

Makes six servings.

1 cup small dried beans such as cowpeas or black-eyes
5 to 6 cups water
1 dried hot pepper (optional)
1 smoked ham hock
1 medium onion, chopped (about 3/4 cup)
1 cup long-grain white rice

Wash and pick over the peas. Place them in a saucepan, add the water, and discard any peas that float. Gently boil the peas with the pepper, ham hock, and onion, uncovered, until tender but not mushy — about 1 1/2 hours — or until 2 cups of liquid remain.

Add the rice to the pot, cover, and simmer over low heat for about 20 minutes, never lifting the lid.

Remove from the heat and allow to steam, still covered, for another 10 minutes. Remove the cover, fluff with a fork, and serve immediately with greens and cornbread.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Better Living Through Science

One of my true guilty pleasures is homemade pasta carbonara for breakfast. I am not a big breakfast person--I will have an occasional bowl of cereal, but mostly, breakfast sort of leaves me cold. But pasta carbonara, while not really a breakfast food, is...oh, baby.

If you've never had it, traditionally, pasta carbonara is spaghetti with pancetta and beaten eggs. I don't generally keep pancetta around the house, though, and I like bacon better anyway. I also some kind of pasta other than spaghetti. My favorite is homestyle egg noodles--the longer, sort of fettucine-like ones. They have big 5-pound bags of them at Costco. They are a little firmer and more substantial than spaghetti, and I like the slightly eggy taste of them. I also add lots of parmesan cheese to the egg mixture as well--I like the earthy, salty taste of good aged parmesan against the smoky bacon.

The drawbacks to pasta carbonara, besides the obvious health drawbacks, are that it's a pretty substantial amount of work and it requires timing and precision. What I do, is cook the bacon first. When the bacon is maybe 3/4 of the way to well-done, I start the pasta water. While the pasta water comes to a boil, I beat together four eggs, a lot of black pepper (I don't really measure it, but it's a lot) and about 3/4 of a cup of real parmesan cheese--don't use that stuff that comes out of a green can; if that's all you have, forget the carbonara, get yourself a bowl of Frooty Pebbles, and move on.

A couple years ago for Christmas, my mother-in-law bought me a Magic Bullet. You've seen the infomercial, right? Let me just say that many of the things it claims to do well, it doesn't do well at all. Salsa, for example. But when it comes to beating the crap out of eggs, for an omelet or for anything else, it can't be beat. The eggs come out of the thing light and aerated and perfectly homogeneous. I use the Bullet for the eggs and cheese for carbonara. I let the bacon drain on paper towels while the pasta cooks.

Here is where science comes in and determines whether you're having pasta carbonara for breakfast or an expensive, greasy plate of noodles and scrambled eggs: you need a really hot bowl. I use a metal mixing bowl, and when I drain the pasta, I actually put the strainer inside the bowl so that the hot water drains into the bowl, and then I dump out the water. The bowl ends up with lots of boiling pasta water in it, and as a result, it is really, really hot. Then I dump the drained, hot pasta into the bowl.

It's important to work fast. Things will start to cool off almost immediately. Pour the egg-and-cheese mixture over the noodles, and, using tongs, start tossing it all together. Mix it really well, making sure the pasta is well-coated. Throw the bacon on top and mix that in too. The heat from the pasta will lightly cook the eggs into a thick, unctuous sauce. I am one of those heathens that is horrified by the thought of even soft-boiled eggs; I like my scrambled eggs cooked to the consistency of well-seasoned concrete. This is my one exception.

One of two things will happen at this point: you will end up with pasta covered in grainy, stringy scrambled eggs, and the fat will separate out and form a pool of oil in the bottom of the bowl. That happens to me maybe one out of ten times. The carbonara, at this point, is an unretrievable failure, and I am a very sad and hungry girl. Either the bowl's not hot enough, I'm not mixing fast enough, or some other mysterious thing just doesn't come together for me.

The other thing that might happen is that you might end up with a bowl full of perfectly cooked hot pasta napped in a velvety, rich sauce and crisp, peppery bacon. It is luxurious, rich, and absolutely delicious, as well as being deceptively simple. I finish the whole thing with a sprinkle of coarse-ground black pepper over the whole thing--the heat from the dish releases the oils in the pepper and gives you little shocks of heat in each bite.

Sometimes food is art and sometimes it's science. I am not a science person; I find science to be disturbingly unreliable at times and at other times, unforgiving and rigid. Pasta carbonara is a case in which the result of science is art, and when it comes together it can't be beat.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Christmas Eve Open House

My mother has a Christmas Eve-afternoon tradition of inviting over thirty or forty of her friends. They show up when they feel like it and stay as long as they feel like staying, and it's really my favorite kind of party with some of my favorite people--really, my mother has just incredible friends. Mom always has homemade eggnog with bourbon and champagne, and my stepfather has an extraordinarily well-stocked liquor stash. They also sort of casually collect wine, and they have wonderful taste. People generally bring plates of cookies and Christmas candy and fruitcake, which Mom sets out, but the big attraction is the food.

My mother makes a few things really well, and her Christmas Eve Afternoon spread is her best of the best. Everything varies from year to year, but every year she makes these glazed meatballs that really are just plain frozen meatballs that are simmered in this mixture of chili sauce and apricot preserves and some other stuff, which, my God, I know how weird it sounds, but wow. My stepfather is a frat boy in a 71-year-old's body, and so she makes wings, only he can't take the spicy anymore, so she makes these tequila-lime wings, as well as honey-barbecue flavored. I'm not a fan of wings, but these are invariably the hit of the party.

I like dip, and so I am generally left in charge of dip at the party. Crudite with roquefort or dill dip, hot clam dip with bacon and scallions, and this artichoke-parmesan spread with roasted garlic on crostini--fabulous. That last thing is so rich it almost hurts to eat, so I pair it with tomato bruschetta with basil and a balsalmic reduction that complements it and cuts the richness a little. Chips and salsa, hummus and toasted pita. Last year I made queso fundido with chipotle and Mexican sausage. Spicy, and delicious. This year I'm thinking about a spinach dip with water chestnuts and bacon with pumpernickel bread.

Mom's cheese board varies from year to year. There's a brie or a camembert, something a little soft and runny, and some kind of goat cheese--last year I brought her a small-batch fresh cheese from West Virginia that I bought straight from the farmer. The farmer, incidentally, was so handsome that it hurt. Last year or the year before, she had a 4-year bandaged cheddar that isn't like anything else I've ever had in my life. The last few years, we've replaced the aged parmesan with a dry jack, which is really sharp and strong and powerful, and last year she got ahold of a Spanish manchego that was just incredible. Mom's a fan of stilton, but I like bleu d'auvergne or something a little less overpowering. She puts it all out with fruit and nuts and really yummy aged port.

There's always some yummy little nibbles--spicy honey-glazed pecans, marinated olives, shrimp or crab claws. Most people have a bigger meal planned later in the day when they come over, but this spread is enough to keep people pretty satisfied.

Mom's party is a great time, and the people make it. She's got really fascinating friends--scientists, writers, teachers, a retired judge, artists, musicians, all of these creative and smart and funny people, a few members of our extended family, the neighbors. The people are the party, and the food is peripheral. But the food is so good, I look forward to Christmas Eve all year long. I love it.

I am not going to start in with the recipes until January 1st. But if you're interested, shoot me an email or leave me a comment, and I can send a recipe for any of the stuff I've mentioned. Or leave me your ideas for your holiday celebrations and get-togethers.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A Year In The Kitchen

I love food.

There is a scene in the Nora Ephron novel Heartburn where she talks about food being the way that she says I love you. That's true for me, although unlike her character, it's hopefully not the only way.

But it is one of the ways. It's one of the ways that I say there may be a lot I'm not great at; I have a short attention span and I have very little patience with stupid people and ignorant people and liars and actually have very little patience in general, I will almost always leave a pair of red underwear in the bottom of the wash with a load of white towels with the predictably pink results, I forget to buy stamps and I have a bad habit of saying things I don't mean when I'm angry, but sit down at my table and you will never walk away feeling short-changed. If nowhere else, I give it 100% in the kitchen.

This is my 2008 project: a blog about food, at least one recipe a day, and other stuff too: cookbook reviews, unsolicited opinions about Rachel Ray (for the record, I am opposed), and general chatter about food, eating, entertaining, and why Tom Colicchio insists on having that stupid-looking soul patch. I might talk about All Clad versus Calphalon (a subject I don't know much about, admittedly) or the fact that the glassware that I own came from Target in 2002 and still has a deeper emotional impact on me than most family photos (it's identical to my late Aunt Judy's). I might talk about a selection of cheeses for a red wine tasting, or about the sandwich that Adam Sandler's character makes during one scene in the movie "Spanglish." I'll probably post links to other people's great creative efforts when it comes to the kitchen, and creative efforts in general turn me on, so I may not limit it to the kitchen.

If there's something you want to hear about or talk about or feel passionately about related to food, please, I'm totally wanting to hear about it, write about it, argue with you about it. Leave me a comment or send me an email. If you have a link to a website that sells great artisinal South American cured sausage or small-batch organic goat cheese or something equally interesting, send it along. If you want me to tell my readers to vote for Mitt Romney or something, though, you're gonna have to seek elsewhere. I'm not your girl.

See you New Year's Day, or sooner, if something comes up.