Sunday, November 30, 2008

In Praise of Edna Lewis

Edna Lewis's books are among my favorite cookbooks. I have three:
In Pursuit of Flavor
The Taste of Country Cooking

The Gift of Southern Cooking, which she wrote with Scott Peacock.

All of these books are fascinating and filled with good but relatively simple recipes. Among her achievements, Mrs. Lewis brought to the American table the great African American culinary tradition.

In a 1989 interview with The New York Times, Lewis said: "As a child in Virginia, I thought all food tasted delicious. After growing up, I didn't think food tasted the same, so it has been my lifelong effort to try and recapture those good flavors of the past."

She was ahead of her time in emphasizing the importance of the freshness of food and food in its season. With a foreword by Alice Waters, The Taste of Country Cooking is organized by season, with recipes and menus for each one.

Lewis's books not only are filled with wonderful recipes but her essays on foods, the food traditions that we hopes to revive and enable to survive, and the best way to make simple food delectable, her reasons for using non-double acting baking powder, and fascinating reminiscenes.
Ms. Lewis was a professional chef, who made the came to New York at a young age and first worked as a seamstress. Then, she became the chef for the new Nicholson cafe and helped make this watering hole for the cultural literati famous. She began writing up her recipes when she was forced by a broken leg to suspend her career as a chef. After A Taste of Country Cooking was published she became the chef of the famous Gaye and Bollner restaurant in Brooklyn, until her retirement in the mid-1990s.

Over a period of time she became friends with Scott Peacock, another Southern chef, but with an Alabaman culinary tradition, whereas Edna Lewis came from farther north--Freetown, Virginia. They eventually began cooking and Peacock took care of Ms. Lewis in the years before her death in 2006. Their co-authored The Gift of Southern Cooking is a real treasure. Just now looking at this book, I was surprised to see how few of the recipes I have actually made. I guess this is because I have read it from cover to cover so many times, I feel very familar with every recipe. Very simple and very good recipes that I have made are Shrimp Paste, Puree of Pumpkin Soup, Thyme-Smothered Chicken, Baked Pork Chops with Cranberries, Salmon Croquettes, Baked Eggplant with Peanuts (quite something), perfect Macaroni and Cheese, Asparagus and Scallion Pie, Chicken Hash, White Loaf Bread, and various corn recipes.

Fried Chicken and Sweet Potato Pie is a documentary on Lewis that you can see right online.

Although I come from Pennsylvania, a state I have nearly religious adoration for, I love Southern cooking the best. I first learned about it in the November 1988 Food and Wine special issue on "Southern Food Rises Again." You bet. I immediately made the Greens in Potlikker, which was delicious and intrigued my family. Here is an essay by Ms. Lewis on southern cooking.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!

For to Be a Farmer's Boy by Winslow Homer

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Wyeth's Pilgrims

See Life at Willow Manor for a reminder about N.C. Wyeth's Pilgrims. See Encore Editions for more paintings by this fascinating painter-illustrator and father of Andrew, grandfather of Jamie.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

An Autumn Arrangement

A dear friend made this lovely autumn bouqet for the Happy Birthday party on Sunday. She has a genius for artfully creating floral arrangements--here are just pieces of lamb's ear, juniper, and nandina with berries. I received many compliments for it and had to point people to the actual creator. This friend also does such beautiful gift wrapping you feel like a vandal opening your present, is a superb cook, and always presents her culinary creations beautifully, even when you just drop by for a casual tea. Always a pleasure.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Happy Autumn Birthday Party

The cake and tea station.

I had an autumn party this afternoon for a friend's birthday with about fifteen family friends. My friend likes spicy food and cheese, so we had a cheese, soup, and cake party--buffet-style.

I was inspired to give the party by the recipe for Vermont Cheddar Ale Soup, a recipe I found through Chez Loulou. Thank you! Everyone loved it.
I also served Pumpkin Soup with the recipe from The Gift of Southern Cooking by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock, which is just about my all-time favorite cookbook. Everything I have cooked from it has been perfect. The third soup was Red Lentil Soup from Weightwatchers and here is the recipe:

Red Lentil Soup

2 tsp olive oil
1 1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/4 tsp ground red pepper
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1 small sweet red pepper, chopped
1 medium carrots, chopped
29 oz of chicken broth
8 oz dry red lentils, washed
1/8 tsp salt, or to taste
Cream to smooth it out

1. In a medium nonstick pot heat oil; add cumin, coriander, red pepper, and cinammon, stir until fragrant, 30 seconds. Add bell pepper and carrots. Cook until just tender, 8 minutes.
2. Add broth, lentils, and salt. Bring to a boil. Simmer until lentils are tender about 20 minutes. Puree in batches in the blender.
3. Smooth out with cream.

The biggest hit of the afternoon though was Phyllo-Wrapped Brie with Apricot and Rosemary Chutney from Epicurious. My talented sister-in-law served this last Christmas, and it was out of this world, and I knew my friend would love it. Everyone did and it was scarfed down in minutes flat.

Dishes were stacked on the dining room table, and the soups in crock pots and salad were served from the kitchen counter directly opposite.

We had also assorted cheeses, bread, crackers, salad, a little bit of smoked salmon and proscuitto, and wine. For dessert we had Aunt Polly's Apple Cake compliments of Gracious Hospitality. Thank you! and lastly Spice Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting from Fanny Farmer. Mmmm good. I am a very big fan of Marion Cunningham.

I love the fall, and I had a great time preparing this autumn fare over the course of the last three weeks. Everything could be prepared in advance. I think everyone was happy to sit around and eat good, kind of unexpected food on this blustery November day and just relax after the elections--which had everyone, no matter whom they voted for, a bit tense.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Apple Season

Apples and Flowersby Pierre-August Renoir


by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Apple cobbler, apple-cake,
Apple sauce and apple pie—
No one can resist their taste,
Or pass an apple dumpling by!

Cinnamon and powdered clove,
Grated nutmeg, sugar, crumbs,
Make apple Betty fit for kings,
And sweet as sugar-plums!

Apples by the bushel box—
Everyone can help himself,
Children never beg for sweets,
With apples handy on the shelf.

When Eve put her white hand forth
And picked an apple from a tree,
She helped all housewives’ menus out,
And planned six months’ dessert for me!