Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Provencal with a Drawl

It's a travesty that I cook so little southern cuisine. It really is. I've lived in Alabama my entire life, I'm no stranger to country life and country food, and both my mother and late grandmother are/were excellent cooks. If I had to nail it down, it would be akin to living in a place your entire life, and yearning to get far away from it as soon as you could. In the end, however, you find just how much you miss home.

I've had a revival of a sort in the past year. I've really grown to appreciate the simple foods I was raised on. I'm drawn to southern cooking because it's another one of those great culinary disciplines that has come from poverty roots. In that respect, it draws a lot of similarities to the spirit of Provencal French cooking. In the case of cajun and creole influences, the similarities are more obvious, but I think all southern cuisine shares a similar love of simple recipes, quality ingredients, and being able to make the most out of what you've got.

For a southern cooking contest I participated in on Something Awful, I wanted to marry French techniques with southern ingredients. Here's my lineup:
  • Vidalia vichyssoise with cornbread
  • Fried green tomato gallettes with remoulade and blackened alligator
  • Baked grüyere grits with crawfish, red pepper, and bacon
  • Pecan creme brulee
First things first, let's start with the vichyssoise. Vichyssoise is a creamy potato soup, often with leeks or some onion accent. For mine, I added buttermilk and served it cold. I have fond memories of my grandmother and also my mom taking a nice cold glass of buttermilk, adding a little pepper, and dunking a wedge of cornbread into the glass, and eating it with a spoon, breaking up the cornbread as they went along. I wanted to capture that kind of southern treat in a different light, so I dished the soup in a way that most southerners would be familiar with - in a mason jelly jar.

For the vichyssoise, you'll need this:

  • 1 large vidalia onion, chopped
  • 3 russet potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 1 quart vegetable stock
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 2 tsp white pepper
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 3 or 4 blades of chives for garnish
  • 1 wedge cornbread (shown later)

Begin by melting butter in a stock pot. On medium heat, add your onions and salt. Saute for 5 minutes, then sweat for another 15 minutes. Add your potatoes & stock, bring up to a boil, then back to a simmer for 20 minutes.

Take the pot off the heat and put it on a trivet. Get a wand blender if you have one and puree the soup. If not, whip it up in a blender or food processor and return to the pot.

Add buttermilk and cream. Stir.

Dole out into containers to let cool and store in the fridge to chill.

Let's make the cornbread now! It's a staple to southern food and works to sop up flavorful sauces, or you can split it and drop a pad of butter or cane patch syrup on it. We'll be using it for the vichyssoise but there's plenty of leftovers so dish it up as a great complement to hashed leftovers or anything you've got.

Before we do that, let's cook some bacon. The bacon will be used in another dish. We want the rendered bacon fat. Cook down a pound of bacon, setting the cooked strips on a plate with paper towels to drain. You should have about six or seven tablespoons of bacon fat after you're done.

You only need a few strips of bacon in the actual dishes. The others are given to hungry impatient people who crowd the kitchen at the smell of bacon. You can eat a strip or two yourself if you believe in cooking tax, hehe.

Got the bacon fat, so lets make cornbread.
  • 2 cups self-rise cornmeal (yellow is more traditional but I used white to match the vichyssoise.)
  • 1/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup whole milk
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk
  • 6-7 tbsp bacon fat (use butter if you don't have any)
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
Preheat the oven to 450, add your bacon fat to an 8 inch cast iron skillet, and let sit for five minutes in the oven. While that's heating up, combine your flours and salt in a bowl, then your milks. Stir through completely to form a very loose dough. The baking powder in the self-rising cornmeal is going to be working now, so you have to be quick. Pull the skillet out (please use a potholder!) and pour all but one tablespoon of bacon fat into the dough.

Stir that completely and add your beaten egg to the dough, again stirring until fully combined. Carefully pour your dough back into the skillet, and return to the skillet.

Put into the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the top is a rich copper brown. Pull the skillet out, place a plate over the skillet, and invert onto a table.

Let your cornbread cool about ten minutes and cut some thin wedges out of it. Prepare some eight ounce jelly jars and ladle your vichyssoise into that. Stuff a wedge of cornbread in, and stand your chive blades into the thick chilled soup.

Now, for the second course, we are making fried green tomato gallettes with remoulade dressing and blackened alligator. Gallettes are traditionally made with fried rings of potatoes in France, and the center packed with herbed goat cheese. In my southern translation, I used firm and tart fried green tomatoes to stand with equally tart remoulade and spicy chunks of alligator. I'm sure you've all seen the Fried Green Tomatoes movie with Kathy Bates and Jessica Tandy. It's not really a great movie, but it's based on a real restaurant that's within a few miles of my parent's house. In my opinion, this is just about the best way to enjoy a good tomato.

Let's start small. We need to make remoulade. That means we need mayonnaise. Fortunately it's not tricky at all.
  • 2 egg yolks, slightly warm
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1/4 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Begin by whisking the eggs with salt and lemon juice. Add the oil, a few drops at first, and then a stream, whisking as you go. It'll thicken up as you do this. I wanted a loose custard consistency so that's where I stopped at:

Chill in the fridge and it'll set up a little more. You've got about a cup of mayo with this recipe, so lets turn out remoulade.

Here's what we use:

  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/4 cup capers, washed and chopped
  • 1 shallot, finely minced
  • 1 tbsp coarse grain dijon mustard
  • 1 tbsp chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 tbsp chopped tarragon
  • 2 tsp paprika
  • 1 tsp chopped anchovy filets
  • 1 tsp sherry vinegar
  • t tsp cayenne pepper

Nothing fancy here. Add all the ingredients to your mayo and mix. Hooray remoulade!

Now let's make some blackening spice for the alligator. Like most of this, you can buy pre-made if you want, but it's really easy to just make your own and you'll save money this way.

Combine these spices:
  • 4 tsp hot paprika
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp dried thyme
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tsp white pepper

Put into a spice jar. Shake.

Should be enough for a few dishes, but you apply this stuff pretty liberally.

Lets cook some alligator.

This is pretty regional so don't fret if you can't find it. Chicken or shrimp work about as well depending on your preference. I get alligator in one pound frozen chunk-meat packages. It pulls apart into a few irregular shaped bits. Smear blackening powder all over those, flipping over to mop up as much spice as you can.

If you're sly, you can get a few bacon drippings from your cast iron skillet reserved to cook your gator. If not, a pad of butter in there will also work. Get the heat up to medium-high. You want to get a good color on that spice rub.

Take it up after about 2 minutes on each side.

Now onto the gallettes.

Pretty simple stuff. You need this:
  • 1 large firm green tomato, sliced about 3/4" thick into discs
  • some buttermilk for dipping
  • some cornmeal for batter
  • oil, for frying
Heat your oil to medium-high. Take your slices of tomato and cut a circular shape out of each with a paring knife.

Each ring gets a dip into buttermilk, then a few pats into corn meal to get a good solid batter shell on it. Slip the rings into oil, cooking about 3-4 minutes each side, then flipping. Cool on a wire rack.

Arrange some arugula on a warm plate, then lay the gallette on top of that. Spoon remoulade into the hole until it is completely filled, and place four pieces of blackened alligator on the edges.

Now for the third course, we're making baked grüyere grits with crawfish tails, red peppers, and bacon. As Joe Pesci found out in My Cousin Vinny, we take our grits seriously in the south. It's like a bastard child of couscous, polenta, and risotto. Usually it's just for breakfast, but we're gonna doll it up a little. And none of you jokers had better bring that instant grits crap around here. That ain't food! We've already got part of this done if you've made the bacon to get the fat for your cornbread, so that's good. Let's get the crawfish part settled.

Here's what you want:
  • 1 pound crawfish tails, with the fat
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • 1 shallot, diced
  • 1/2 cup pinot grigio or similar white wine
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 tbsp heavy cream
  • 1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
Put your butter in a saute pan on medium heat. Add shallots, peppers, and salt. Saute for 5-10 minutes.

Turn heat up to high and add your wine. Let that boil off for about a minute or two, bring the heat back down to medium, and add your crawfish tails and cayenne pepper. Cook for five minutes.

Take off the heat and add the cream and thyme.

Now we have crawfish and peppers! Time to get serious here. We need cheesy grits.

Real, proper grits. Paired with Grüyere cheese. Rather than making creamy smooth grits, we're going to bake them in ramekins for something a little different.

Here's what we'll need for the grits:

  • 1/2 cup yellow stone-ground grits
  • 2 cups water
  • 1/2 cup grüyere cheese, grated
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 2 tbsp butter + extra to butter ramekins
  • 1 tsp salt

Salt your water and get it to a boil. When you reach a boil, back down to low heat. Add your grits in a slow stream, stirring constantly.

Cover and stir occasionally. Ignore the package when it recommends cooking time. Grits cook slow. If you aren't cooking them slow you're doing it wrong. You should cook them for 45 minutes at minimum on low heat, stirring every 10 minutes give or take. The grits release loads of starch like risotto, and you want to encourage them to become creamy.

Remove the grits from the heat, and fold in your butter and cheese. To this, add your beaten egg. Butter up 3-4 ramekins and pour the grits in.

Preheat your oven to 350 and put your ramekins in a casserole dish or similar pan. Fill the dish with enough hot water to come halfway up the side of the ramekin, and cover the entire dish with foil. Carefully put the dish in the oven and bake for 350 degrees.

Remove from the oven and carefully open foil. Take a butter knife and gently slip between the grits and ramekin sides to release the grits from the ramekin.

Cover each ramekin with a large serving dish, and flip upside down to invert and un-mold the grits onto the plate. Raise your oven rack to the top and set the broiler on. Brown the top of your grits.

Remove from heat and let warm for a good ten minutes (this plate is hot as hell!). dole out the crawfish all around the grits. Crush a strip or two of bacon and crumble on top.

I wanted a creme brulee for dessert because it's about the most decadent thing I can put in my mouth. To give it a southern inspiration, I added a good half cup of processed pecans to the custard, because my wife doesn't like large pieces of nuts. Call it pecan "pie" brulee or what have you. Some of my favorite childhood memories of my grandparents' house involve the first cool days of fall, when pecans would start raining down in the pastures. My cousins and I would run around with grocery sacks, baskets, and anything, and gather pecans until it got dark. We'd eat enough to get nearly sick, and what was left over, my aunt would make into wonderful pecan pie. Next to my grandma's ugly-ass chocolate cake, it was the best dessert in the known world. I'm taking my grown-up love of creme brulee, and being a kid with it again.

  • 5 egg yolks
  • 3/4 quart heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup sugar + more for the top
  • 1/2 cup pecans, finely processed
  • 1 vanilla bean
Begin by splitting and scraping your vanilla bean. You can do this with a good pointed knife by jamming it in the middle and pulling on it until it unzips, then turning it around to fully split it. Once split, scrape out the tarry inside of the bean.

Combine the bean and scrapings with heavy cream in your sauce pot. Bring this just to the threshold of a boi and remove from the heat. Cover and let cool completely. Remove the bean and discard. Whisk in the eggs and sugar, and add your processed pecan to the cream.

Preheat the oven to 325. Get 4-6 ramekins and fill them with the cream. Put into a casserole dish and add hot water until it reaches halfway up the ramekin sides.

Cover with foil. Bake for about 50 minutes or so, or until just barely set. Some of the pecan will rise to the top and give your custard a browned look. This is fine:

Cover and refrigerate a few hours, or up to a couple of days. About 30 minutes prior to eating, remove from the fridge. Dust enough sugar on the top to coat evenly.

My camera doesn't pick up sweet awesome blue fire from blowtorches. Take my word its awesome. Turn as you apply heat. Avoid buring sugar. Keep your flame moving and your sugar moving. Work outside in.

When you're done, you should have a nice sheen of caramel-colored sugar armor on top of your custard.

Whew! All that hard work! I must be insane. Where's the payoff? Here's the results:

Vidalia vichyssoise with cornbread

Fried green tomato gallettes with remoulade and blackened alligator

Baked grüyere grits with crawfish, red pepper, and bacon

Pecan creme brulee

Hope you enjoyed the recipes and my terrible pictures, and I hope you get a chance to make and enjoy some of this for yourself. Y'all come back now.


deedles said...

The MOST impressive and delicious looking yet!!!! Can't wait to taste some for myself (hint..hint). And you're writing is wonderful and entertaining as well. I give this 2 thumbs up!!! Love you lots!


deedles said...

Oops...mispelled "your"...you know I hate incorrect grammar!


Chuck said...

I'm glad you approve! It's definitely one of those things that I spent a lot of time premeditating and often asking myself "what would mom do?" Our little chat about odds and ends really made a difference. I'm sure I'll have the opportunity to make a similar spread for you too, given enough of a head start, heh. It took just about a whole day to put this together!