Bill Smith || Seasoned in the South


I t's about ten blocks to work and I always ride my bike. As I round the corner at Pritchard and Rosemary, I catch the first aroma. Brown sauce at La Residence where I once worked. A block further along the bistro is caramelizing onions. At Mediterranean Deli they are making mujaderra. Then a cluster of Asian places with the smells of sesame oil and curry. If the breeze is right, there will be the fragrance of one of those wonderful stews from the Ethiopian restaurant. Recently, the aroma of pho has arrived at the corner of Church and Franklin streets. As you might guess, there is a sort of restaurant district on the west side of Chapel Hill. In the fall there is something about cool, damp weather that causes smells to linger in the air. I first noticed this years ago
when I lived in New York and would walk by the chestnut and hot dog carts.

Chapel Hill is a university town, and our year really begins in the fall. North Carolina is often still mild at this time of year, so there is more likely to be a slow decline in local produce rather than an abrupt ending caused by a sudden freeze. In mid-October I get my last bag of salad herbs from Cathy Jones. It changes as the summer progresses; the final batch is usually heavy on kales and arugula with a sprinkling of marigold petals and basil tips. The cheese makers keep going until Christmas week. Mrs. Andrews brings me her last persimmons. Between the rain and the deer she says there aren't many left. Her sister Blanche Norwood should have plenty of pecans, though. Bill Dow will soon have fennel again, one of our best cool weather crops, which ten years ago had to be special-ordered from California. We find ourselves entering the season of bulbs, roots, and stews, much of which will call for good stocks.

Jimmy Carter's Favorite Chaser

I can't bring myself to drink buttermilk. I like it fine in recipes, but the thought of drinking a whole glass of it plain is over the top. I keep expecting to grow into it someday, the way I did with kidneys and anchovies, but I don't think that this is going to happen. Some people, however, actually ask for buttermilk, usually at the end of their meal.

Jim my Carter is one of those people. He first came to Crook's Corner in 1997. He had a granddaughter studying at Duke University down the road, and came for dinner once when he and Mrs. Carter were visiting. The Secret Service came a week in advance to approve the premises. We don't like to draw attention to famous people who come to eat with us, but of course by the day of the visit everyone in town knew who would be coming to dinner and all the other tables in the restaurant were booked.

The Carters arrived in the middle of the dinner hour and were seated in a back corner. The place was full but no one bothered them. I stayed in the kitchen with my staff, but hoped that I would get to meet the president before he left. Suddenly he walked through my kitchen door. He'd wanted to meet the people who had made his dinner.

My staff that night were almost all from Mexico. I introduced him and he greeted them in Spanish, and then in English he asked me to tell them that he hoped that their experiences in this country had been positive. We talked about the election monitoring that the Carter Center was about to conduct in Eritrea, and then he returned to his table and asked for a glass of buttermilk. Happily, I always have some on hand-not to drink, but for cornbread and fried chicken batter.

When they got up to leave, the whole restaurant, as if on cue, was suddenly on its feet applauding. It was remarkable.

Several years later, the Carters returned, when a grandson-another student at Duke-held his rehearsal dinner at the restaurant. The president brought me an inscribed copy of his memoir, The Hour before daylight. I couldn't believe that he had remembered me. I had remembered that Mrs. Carter liked liver, so I had made her a little chicken liver terrine. They seemed equally amazed at my memory.

Sweet Potato Soup

I love to use white sweet potatoes in this recipe, but any variety will do. This soup is equally good hot or cold.

Serves 4-6

3 pounds sweet potatoes
2 cups freshly squeezed orange juice
3 tablespoons peeled, grated fresh ginger
1 /2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
1 1 /2-2 cups heavy cream
2 teaspoons salt
dash of Tabasco or other hot pepper sauce
half-and-half or whole milk (optional)
Freshly grated nutmeg, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Wash the sweet potatoes, pierce them in several places with the tip of a sharp knife, and bake them in their skins until very soft, approximately 1 hour. They cook more evenly if you turn them over once. When they are completely done and cool enough to handle, peel them and puree in a food mill. If you have patience but no food mill, mash them with a potato masher and then press them through a sieve with the back of a spoon to remove any lumps. Stir the orange juice into the puree. Add the gin ger and pepper flakes. Add enough of the heavy cream to produce the consistency of soup and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes. Do not boil or the soup may break. Correct the seasoning with salt and a dash of Tabasco. You may want to strain the soup through a sieve if the ginger fibers are too noticeable.

If you decide to serve this cold, you will need to thin it further with either milk or half-and-half. In either case, serve with a grating of fresh nutmeg on top.

Cashew Cake with Madame Constance's Maple Frosting

If you are ever invited to my house for dinner, some form of this cake will likely be your dessert. I rarely have time to entertain at home, so I like to make something familiar and quick. This recipe calls for cashews, but I have used pecans, almonds, pistachios, and hazelnuts. I have iced it with lemon curd, whipped cream, and in this instance a sort of buttercream made from maple syrup, a recipe I learned years ago in Quebec from a wonderful cook.

Madame Constance was the housemother of a remote youth hostel on the northeastern shore of the St. Lawrence River at Sault-au-Mouton. She had another maple sugar trick that I have never quite been able to duplicate. She served hot blueberry cobbler. On top she first put vanilla ice cream. Then she poured ice cold heavy cream. Then she immediately poured boiling hot maple sugar over the whole thing, creating a sort of web of taffy all over the cobbler. I've never forgotten it.

Serves 8-10

2 tablespoons ( 1 /4 stick) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1 1 /2 pounds raw cashews
3 cups sugar
zest of 1 large orange
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups egg whites (about 16 eggs, with yolks reserved for frosting)
1 /4 teaspoon cream of tartar
3 /4 cup sifted all-purpose flour
Madame Constance's Maple Frosting (page 56)

Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter two 9-inch springform pans, line them with parchment, and butter and flour the parchment.

Grind the cashews coarsely with half of the sugar and the orange zest in a food processor. Cashews are very oily, so beware that they are not ground so far as to begin to form a paste. Toss with a bit of flour to help keep the nut meal separate.

Rinse a mixing bowl with the vinegar. Swirl in the salt. Shake the bowl over the sink, but don't wipe it out. In it, beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar and then the rest of the sugar. Beat until soft peaks form. Fold the egg whites into the nuts by thirds, and with the last third gently include the sifted flour. Divide the batter between the two cake pans.

Bake for about 1 hour. The cake should be pretty and brown and a tooth-pick or broom straw should come out clean when inserted at the center. Allow to cool on racks for at least 1 hour before removing the springforms.

Each cake will be a layer. The cakes must be absolutely cool before they can be iced or the icing will spoil.

Madame Constance's Maple Frosting

This will be a cinch if you have ever made buttercream icing. You will need an electric mixer.

2 cups of frosting, enough for a two-layer cake
8 large egg yolks
3 /4 cup sugar
1 /2 cup Grade B pure maple syrup
1 pound unsalted butter, cut into small bits and softened

Beat the egg yolks with the whisk attachment of an electric mixer for 10 minutes or so on high until they have become pale yellow. Combine the sugar and the maple syrup in a saucepan and bring them to a boil that can't be stirred down, about 3 minutes.

Reduce the mixer speed to medium and slowly drizzle the maple syrup in a thin stream into the egg yolks. Aim so that you don't hit the whisk and sling the hot sugar out into the room. Add all the syrup. Turn off the mixer and scrape down the bowl with a spatula. Return the mixer to high speed. The egg yolks will be fairly hot, so beat the mixture until it has cooled back down to room temperature. Don't cheat. The eggs must be cool enough so that the butter does not melt when added to them. When the side of the mixing bowl feels cool, add the butter, bit by bit until it is all absorbed.

This recipe will make enough frosting to put between the layers and to ice the outside of the two cashew layers. Needless to say, this is very sweet, so sometimes I put barely sweetened whipped cream between the layers and on top of the cake and only use the frosting on the sides. The extra frosting will refrigerate fairly well for a week if tightly wrapped in plastic. It must be softened very slowly at room temperature and applied with a warm knife or spatula.

From SEASONED IN THE SOUTH by Bill Smith. © 2005 by Bill Smith. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.