Savor the South–Chicken

Chicken by Cynthia Graubart, UNC Press 2016, $20.00 cloth, 160 pages

Chicken by Cynthia Graubart, UNC Press 2016, $20.00 cloth, 160 pages

I don’t know which is more discouraging, literature or chickens.

–E.B. White

For the farmer/essayist, chickens may be frustrating, but for the cook, chickens are a wonderful culinary canvas for flavor and cooking technique.

As with all the books in the Savor the South series, this one ranges from classics to new southern flavors. There’s Country Captain, a Low Country chicken and rice casserole, and Nashville Hot Chicken, a dish currently at the center of pop food culture. And of course, Crispy Fried Chicken.

But the book also includes recipes that plumb the new South–Latin Fried Chicken with Smoky Ketchup, Asha Gomez’s Kerala Fried Chicken with Mango Drizzle, and Hoisin-Sauced SEC Wings. Salivating yet?

Graubart begins with some childhood memories of grandma’s fried chicken, tugging the wishbone for luck, and a comfort food menu of savory roasted chicken, creamy mashed potatoes, and tender green beans.

She also explores chicken’s place in Southern foodways, including the newly-freed black  women of Gordonsville, Virginia who served fried chicken from the platform to train passengers, to support their families. During the Depression, Jesse Jewell vertically integrated chicken production and made Gainesville, Georgia the “poultry capital of the world.”

But chicken goes way back in culinary history. Aesop was the first to warn against counting your chickens before they hatch. Roman, and later, Renaissance physicians advised on the medicinal properties of chicken, and rulers have been promising chicken-in-every-pot prosperity since King Henry IV of France.

Graubart encourages you to start with a whole chicken, and notes that current wisdom says not to rinse bird; pat it dry to avoid spreading bacteria around. She directs you on how to cut it up and offers tips on dealing with “ghastly large” chicken breasts and general trimming.

And despite the compact size of this book, she covers a lot ground–brining, frying, roasting, stewing, braising, baking. Graubart cooks chicken under a brick, with 40 cloves of garlic, in a bog and in a mull (an 1890s recipes for a long-stewed chicken, served amid a sleeves-worth of crushed saltines). She makes use of the wings, the tenders, and the livers.

But she doesn’t stop there because nothing is more appealing to the harried cook than chicken ready to be deployed in salad, potpie, dumplings, and from competing and complementary grandmothers–Memorable Matzoh Ball Soup and Greek Lemon Chicken Soup–both guaranteed to cure what ails you.

A book worth crossing the road for? I think so.

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The Art of the Cheese Plate, Pairings, Recipes, Style, Attitude

The Art of the Cheese Plate by Tia Keenan, Rizzoli 2016, hardcover $35.00

The Art of the Cheese Plate by Tia Keenan, Rizzoli 2016, hardcover $35.00

A cheese may disappoint. It may be dull, it may be naive, it may be over-sophisticated. Yet it remains cheese, milk’s leap toward immortality.

–Clifton Fadiman

Every cheese book I’ve ever seen drives me crazy–describing cheeses that I can never get my hands on–while I drool with frustration.

But in this book, Tia Keenan engages with the cheese by offering recipes for elegant accompaniments that will spark your palate and ennoble even a supermarket slab of cheddar.

Though Keenan encourages us all to buy good cheese–the work of artisan cheesemakers, from the farm’s milk, who are creating something unique. To help you get started in smart buying, she describes the characteristics of fresh, surface-ripened, pasta filata (that milky mozzarella we all love), hard, and blue cheeses.

And she describes “foundational flavors”–milky, tangy, floral, herbal, earthy, toasty, funky, and umami. So, though I’m unlikely to find a Selles-sur-Cher within a reasonable distance of my kitchen I could certainly find something comparable and then serve with Keenan’s wildly creative recipes like Green Peppercorn Meringue, Pistachio Pesto, Deviled Lemon Curd, or  Quick-Pickled Cherries.

So even if you can’t find her cheeses, settling for reasonable facsimiles or even faint imitations isn’t much of a hardship when you can serve them with Butternut Squash and Golden Raisin Chutney, Pickled Blueberries with Ginger and Star Anise (which are terrific in a salad), Lemon-Chamomile Fudge, or Pan-Roasted Plums with Scotch and Lime.

Because the book is about the plate, including how to serve and with what drinks, you can enjoy the whole, instead of fretting about not having the perfect cheese. And if you read Keenan’s evocative descriptions, and pay attention to her layering of flavors, you’ll achieve your own delicious cheese plates.

I found myself attaching a post-it note to page after page, making notes like “try this with peaches and rum” and “think about butter poaching.” I went out of my way to buy bran cereal so I could make earthy Bran Cereal Crackers and cheese or no, a spoonful from a jar of Zucchini Butter became my favorite summer pasta sauce. That’s the kind of book this is–inspirational, drool-inducing and do-able.

Keenan sets up mini-menus of compatible cheeses, drinks, and accompaniments, and if you pay attention, you’ll learn something about cheese, about flavor blending, and about designing a palate of flavors.

And if you cook randomly, following your greed, as I did, you’ll also be happy.

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CHoWline–Cake, A Slice of History

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but Alysa Levene proves a cake is never just a cake. In each slice she finds issues of economics, technology, cultural symbolism, and gender roles–really gives you something to chew on!

If you’re in the DMV, consider joining us for a meeting or event. Tomorrow we’ll have William Woys Weaver speaking on folklore and “fake lore” of Pennsylvania Dutch cooking. If you’re not local, keep up with us by subscribing to CHoWline.

Cake, A Slice of History by Alysa Levine, Pegasus Books 2016, $26.95 hardcover, 336 pages

Cake, A Slice of History by Alysa Levene, Pegasus Books 2016, $26.95 hardcover, 336 pages

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Learn to Cook 25 Southern Classics 3 Ways

Learn to Cook 25 Southern Classics 3 Ways by Jennifer Brule, UNC Press 2016, hardback $30.00, 228 pages

Learn to Cook 25 Southern Classics 3 Ways by Jennifer Brule, UNC Press 2016, hardback $30.00, 228 pages

I do love Southern cooking; southern France, southern Italy, southern Spain. I love Southern cooking.

–Clarence Clemons

Jennifer Brule was born to write this book. When she was 12, she had such a jones for Velveeta cheese that she lied to her mother, bought a brick, microwaved it and ate it with a spoon.

Since then, her tastes have matured and her horizons have widened. She is grounded in Southern cooking, but life as an expat in Switzerland and England with travels throughout Europe, broadened her culinary horizons.

What the recipes in this book show though is how basic flavors and techniques pop up around the world. You call it shrimp and grits, I call it scampi con polenta–it’s all good.

Naturally, Brule starts with fried chicken, flavored classically with buttermilk and hot sauce, but then made healthier in an oven-fried version, and international with a spicy Mozambican piri-piri sauce.

From there, the recipes runs though meat and fish, including some dreamy vegetable recipes like Fried Okra, Summer Squash Casserole, and Tomato Pie. Homey Southern breads–biscuits, cornbread, and spoon bread–are made international as British Buttermilk Scones, Sopa Paraguaya, and Jambon Persille Spoon Bread. They are updated in a vegan version, enriched with kale, and made lighter.

I spent some time with this book. The recipes just seem to roll out of the kitchen–tomato pie, pimento cheese (I tried the light version–flavored with fish sauce–which was creditable), spoon bread (sharing the plate with fresh sliced tomatoes–a perfect summer supper), and the Classic Coconut Cake (for a convergence of birthdays) which was glamorous and delicious.

The recipes are flexible, reliable, and appealing. If a Classic Sweet Potato Casserole, complete with a brown sugar and pecan streusel is too much, opt for Sweet Potato Oven Fries made savory with Parmesan and cayenne. Or swap out the cream and cheddar from Cheese Grits and go for big flavors with chicken broth, garlic and pecorino. Either way, Brule’s stated goal is to get you in the kitchen and cooking–as she proves, it’s not hard and the results are delicious.

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Cleaning Out the Basement–The Boston Cooking School Cookbook

I got this 1937 copy because someone else, my neighbor, was cleaning out their basement

I got this 1937 copy because someone else was cleaning out their basement

I feel about Fannie Farmer the way I do about McKim, Mead, and White. (Stay with me.) Just at the cusp of modernism, as Louis Sullivan was exploring form and function to develop a uniquely American style of architecture, MMW swept into the Columbian Exposition and brought us back to the European Beaux Arts.

And just as America was becoming a more fragrant melting pot, with immigrant communities from Southern and Eastern Europe, Fannie Farmer kept cooks on the scientific straight and narrow with measurements and white sauces.

Now I love an MMW civic palazzo, but I also wonder where American architecture might have gone if it had resisted a return to classicism. Likewise, sometimes there’s nothing like a Waldorf Salad, but I can’t live happily without anchovies and olives.

Another thing I love is my neighborhood, where people leave their unwanted books on the sidewalk, where I happily scavenged this one.

The Boston Cooking School was founded in 1879 but it’s Fannie Farmer who graduated from it in 1889 who has become a culinary brand. Its classes were meant for women who wanted to earn their way; eventually the school taught classes in sick-room cookery at Harvard Medical School and to immigrants in Boston’s North End. And although previous principals published cooking books, it was Fannie Farmer’s that became an American classic.

In her preface to the first edition, some of that serious sick-room flavor comes through. “I certainly feel that the time is not far distant when a knowledge of the principles of diet will be an essential part of one’s education. Then mankind will eat to live…”. What would she make of a cronut?

By 1937, things have loosened up a little. The authors have introduced variations on basic recipes; a Two Egg Cake becomes a Spanish Cake with the addition of cinnamon–ole! And, “to conform with modern fashions” the canapé chapter has been expanded to meet the demands of cocktail parties. Wine shows up in “many fine old recipes.” And maybe they learned a thing or two from those ladies in the North End; this edition includes recipes for Spaghetti with Napoli Sauce, Gnocchi a la Romana, and Ravioli.

But the flavor of Yankee farmhouse remains. Tapioca in all possible variations, Molasses Cookies and various chowders, cider applesauce and cranberry pudding, and a standard approach to vegetables: trim, boil, season with butter, salt, and pepper.

The Boston Cooking School, where the making of pastries was serious business

The Boston Cooking School, where the making of pastries was serious business

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Savor the South–Bacon

Bacon by Fred Thompson, UNC Press 2016, cloth $19.00, 132 pages

Bacon by Fred Thompson, UNC Press 2016, cloth $19.00, 132 pages

A pig resembles a saint in that he is more honored after death than during his lifetime.

Irma S. Rombauer

With great restraint, UNC Press has resisted adding Bacon to its Savor the South series until the fourth year. I would have started with bacon.

But this one is certainly worth the wait. Fred Thompson has Southern cooking in his bones and can conjure and adapt delicious recipes that are easy to cook and satisfying to eat.

Like all Savor the South cookbooks, this one begins with some anchoring exposition. Thompson starts with history–pigs were brought to the South by Spanish explorers in the 1530s and thrived in swampy bottomland that wasn’t good for crops or cattle.

Farmers like his grandfather kept a few hogs as an easy source of protein and pork became a quintessential Southern food. But even though now, and like Thompson’s father, most Southerners don’t farm, pork remains a touchstone food.

And here, bacon appears in appetizers, at breakfast, in soups, salads and sandwiches, in mains and sides, and, not surprisingly, in desserts. Is there some carnivore you’re trying to capture? Make them Salted Caramel Bacon Brownies and they’ll be yours forever. If you eat Bacon Sour Cream Coffee Cake with Maple Glaze for breakfast, you have all day to work it off.

And don’t overlook the bacon fat–this is a food that keeps on giving. Thompson calls it a “great wonder of the culinary world,” not to be wasted and a vital flavor enhancer. To store it, he suggests clarifying the fat to remove any bits of meat that might go rancid. He uses it to make pie crust, but also, god help us, mayonnaise.

Ignore the trend-eaters and get back to bacon basics–chowder, BLT, biscuits, and greens.

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Food in the Gilded Age

The Culinary Historians of Washington, D.C. are pleased to begin their 20th anniversary season this September 11, 2016. If you’re in town, please do join us.

We always think of Gilded Age dining as ridiculously long menus full of game, oysters, and stand-up, gelatin-based desserts. But that was only for the 1%. Everyone else was scraping together supper from what they could find–whether it was beans in the Southwest or sweet potatoes in African-American communities. Immigrants carried their favorite foods with them–the Chinese relying on rice and Italians on pasta–to create the melting pot we dine from today.

Read all about it in Robert Dirks’ study of turn-of-the-century “dietaries.”



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