Chef Bill Smith's Blog:
A Year In The Kitchen (And On The Road)
December 5th, 2011
Duck with Cranberries
We’re a very seasonal restaurant. Always have been. That’s the way Bill Neal ran the kitchen at La Residence, where I first began cooking professionally, and it carried over here later when he opened Crook’s Corner. This approach makes sense to anyone of my generation, who remembers when transportation systems were less sophisticated so that a lot of what was around to cook was by necessity local and seasonal. We also had mentors in the newly burgeoning food publishing world. Paula Meyers comes to mind first because of her seminal book “The Seasonal Kitchen”. In the mid seventies everyone owned a copy. A month ago I found Perla Meyers having dinner on our patio. I was utterly charmed. She has a new book coming out and I can’t wait.
All this seasonal thinking seems especially appropriate because fall may be the time that I most enjoy being in the kitchen. Pumpkins arrive, persimmons arrive and it’s time for duck. All of a sudden thyme seems to be the appropriate herb, and when I smell it I think of the fall in France. Autumn markets smell like it there.
My travelling obligations are over until March. Although my staff is completely competent when I am away, I still feel neglectful when I am away so much. Now I’m eager to dig in. Old favorites resume their places on the menu. Duck with cranberries is back as is persimmon pudding. A big box arrives from Anson Mills signalling that the fall risottos are back. There are new thing as well of course. This year I’ve been offering all manner of little gratins as side dishes. Presently we are serving cauliflower and cheese gratins, but anything can show up in these- from sweet potatoes, to parsnips to cod fish. After Christmas I’m considering a potato and side meat version. Chestnuts are back too, both in my kitchen and in central North Carolina. A new blight resistant variety is now grown here and it seems as if I can have all that I have time to use. The soup we make from them is one of my favorites. By next season I hope to have learned how to make some of those luxurious sweets one finds in Europe. High Rock Farm in Gibsonville is now in commercial production and it seems appropriate to me to move chestnuts permanently into our local repetoires.
After Christmas, keep a lookout for sweetbreads and corned hams. And we haven’t gotten around to oyster stew yet either.
November 29th, 2011
OK. The blog is unfrozen. The malware has been expelled from it. The camera that I dropped from a three storey window when I was in New York to join Occupy Wall Street has been replaced.
This picture is the last one taken by the old camera. I’ve finished travelling for the year. I can now get back to writing and cooking. This is how it should be. Last weekend I returned for the third time to the Inn at Palmetto Bluff for the annual Music to Your Mouth Festival.
Last year, because my sisters had decided that desserts were lacking, we had switched from ham to ice creams. This year we continued with dessert and served banana pudding to the throng. Each year, this festival gets a little better organized and goes a little more smoothly. This year was a piece of cake, as it were. (Hmm, maybe next year we’ll serve cake.) We generally arrive on Friday night. There is big lawn party with bonfires, music and lots to eat and drink. It is here that we catch up with old friends, because on Saturday everyone is far too busy to visit.
The event is held in an enormous tent that is pitched on the grounds of the Inn at Palmetto Bluff. Food is around the edges, drink down the middle. There is a stage at one end where demonstrations are given. Julia Rutland of Coastal Living Magazine and Gail Simmons of Top Chef are the hosts. Friends Ashley Christensen, Mike Lata, Sean Brock and Chris Hastings joined us in giving quick demonstrations- everything from fried beef tendons to our own banana pudding.
The festival ends in the afternoon and I had to back at work Sunday night so we left for Charleston to spend the night. It has become a tradition that we stay at The King’s Courtyard downtown and have an always lovely late dinner at Mike Lata’s Fig Restaurant
I promised at Palmetto Bluff that I would post the recipe for Banana Pudding on line as soon as I was unquarantined, so here goes. I pulled this off of a Word document and it arrived strangely elongated. I’ll clean it up when I figure out how.
Serves 6 to 8
For the pudding
4 cups half and half
6 Tbls. Cornstarch
1 vanilla bean
1 cup sugar
1 stick of butter
2 ½ pounds bananas
1 box Vanilla Wafers
For the Meringue
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
8 large egg whites at room temperature
Cream of tartar
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
Whisk the cornstarch into a cup of the cold half and half. Then whisk in the eggs until completely blended. Heat the other 3 cups of half and half, with the vanilla bean, until they begin to steam a little. Drizzle the warm milk into the eggs, stirring constantly. Cook the mixture in a double boiler or a heavy bottomed pot over medium heat until it begins to thicken enough to coat a spoon. Sometimes this happens quickly, sometimes it takes forever. Whisk in the sugar and cook for a minute or two longer but take care because the custard will now scorch more easily. Remove the vanilla bean and stir in the butter in pieces. The butter will seem to thin the custard a little, but the affect is temporary. The butter must be completely absorbed.
Pour a cup or so of the custard into a pretty, ovenproof serving bowl. Swirl it around to coat the bowl. Line the bowl with vanilla wafers. Fill the bowl by layering it with custard, cookies, and bananas. Let the pudding settle.
Meanwhile, rinse a mixing bowl with vinegar and dust it with salt. Dump it out over the sink. The amount that remains in the bowl will be the right amount. Put the egg whites in the bowl and begin mixing at a low speed. Add a quarter teaspoon of cream of tartar and increase speed to medium. Feed in the sugar slowly. Increase the speed to almost max. Beat until the meringue is fairly stiff, bump the speed up to maximum for a minute. Then turn it back down to low and add the vanilla. Mix in well.
Spread the meringue all over the top of the pudding in dramatic swirls. Dust heavily with more sugar. Bake at 350 degrees for about fifteen minutes until pretty and brown.
May 12th, 2011
I’ve been to Mexico City enough now that I don’t need to run around site-seeing. I’ll never get enough of Teotihuacan or of the city’s grand museums, but I don’t have to visit them every time I’m there. This trip I spent a morning in those facinating neigborhoods that surround the enormous Zocalo at the city’s heart. At first glance it seems that there are only jewelry stores and gold merchants, but a second glance reveals a lot more. You find wonderful antiquarian book sellers, stores that for five generations have sold only paper, a museum of cartoons, murals by the likes of Diego Rivera and a swanky bar on the top floor of the Spanish Cultural Mission. Then there are the Belle Epoque central post office, the breathtaking Art Deco Palacio de las Bellas Artes and the Cafe Tacuba. I’ve never been to the Zocalo when there wasn’t some sort of demonstration in progress as well
Strangely, I never stopped to eat that morning. The distances between things downtown are great, so you need to hustle to get things done. I waited to get back to San Rafael to feed myself. I was again at the Patio 77, the eco-friendly B&B I discovered a few years back. My afternoon and evening were to be more leisurely.
The guys at the hotel have a list of neighborhood eateries, so I decided to spend the rest of the day grazing. In the Colonia Tlaxplana across the highway from my neighborhood is the Canto de Sirenas, where I had a michelada with raw oysters in it (so, so good) and encountered a urinal filled with ice in the men’s room. (This isn’t the first time that I’ve seen whimsical bathroom treatments in Mexico City restaurants.) There was a place whose name escapes me that served an odd tropical type of sushi and several niced coffee shops that sell all kinds of delicious sweets.
The best food by far, however, was at a taqueria that apparently has no name. I walked by it several times that evening, but there were always so many people waiting for food, that I never tried to go in. By the time the crowd thinned, I was no longer hungry, but I stopped to watch for a second anyway. The place is tiny. Bar stools crowd around a counter that separates the diners from the cooks and from a copper cauldron of boiling oil. There are a few places to sit around the wall as well. It opens right out onto the street. When the customers noticed me standing there they motioned me in. “I’m not very hungry, ” I apologised. “But you must try something,” a woman insisted. “Everything is so good here.” I had the other diners pick for me. They chose a “taco suadoso” made from a beef neck sirloin I think, not to be mistaken for the “taco sudaroso” or sweaty taco, made so by covering it in a cloth while it is still hot. Everything here is cooked in the same pot: the meat, the onions, the chilies, and the tortillas. It’s all done to order. You sort of direct the cooks as they work, telling them exactly what you want. The food really is delicious. When I asked they name of the restaurant, someone said that it didn’t really have one but that the family name was Campo so perhaps it should be called the Taqueria Camposino. This was sort of a joke. Campesino is the word for peasant or farmer. All the diners were friendly and chatty, so I ended up staying a while and eating more. I was complemented on my Spanish skills. I even know the “groseros”- or dirty words, they pointed out.
May 11th, 2011
Excluding weddings or funerals, I am most likely to be found in church on Palm Sunday somewhere in Latin America. Celaya, in the state of Guanajuato, is an ideal place to spend that holiday. It has a neighborhood of big pretty churches near the zocalo. They open right out onto the street. Several of them are actually next door to each other and the schedule of masses is such that you can join one procession right after another and receive the blessing of “el domingo de ramos” several times on the same morning.
There is also a small market in the square that sells the woven palm leaves that are taken to church to be blessed. They range from small crosses to large, elaborate standards. After mass, you can buy lunch as well. This time I had a gordita with nopales and pinto beans. This market is a little fancier than normal with pretty plates, bowls and serving vessels. There are oil cloth table cloths and flowers on the tables.
On the Friday befor Holy Week they have a lovely celebration in honor of Our Lady of Sorrows. Altars are set on the street outside the doors of peoples homes. There is usually a portrait of the Virgin, draped in purple and white, and displays of flowers and spring grasses. Refreshments, most often fruit ices, popcicles or ice creams are set out for passers-by. Families gather later for a big evening meal. At the home of Luis’ aunt we had little gorditas cooked on a comal that can be attached atop her gas range.
May 9th, 2011
Semana Santa or Holy Week is my favorite time to be in Latin America. A wild hair and some good luck resulted in this quick unplanned trip at this perfect time. I have lots of writing I feel like I need to do and a lot of that has to do with Mexico. Any excuse will do. I am visiting my friends of course, but this time I’ve given myself a little time to wander around Mexico City or el D.F. as it is called, at the end of the trip. I’m not going to any place famous this time. I’m just going to hang out in the neighborhood or “colonia” where I’ve been staying of late. It’s named after San Rafael the Archangel who is often depicted holding a fish hooked on a line. It’s a mixed residential/ commercial area located between the Zocalo and Chapultapec Park, a little north of Reforma. You can really walk a lot of places in the center of the city from here if you have time. No worries if you can’t. Mexico City has a great metro.
But first, back to Celaya. One small advantage to visiting now is that since it is Lent, many of the meat stores where my friends work have reduced hours or are actually closed on Friday. These people work every day and can go months without even a single day off. They seemed startled to find themselves suddenly at leisure and are easily seduced into misbehaving. Or we have extra time to get caught up. Actually, misbehaving is how we get caught up.
I spent a lot of time in these meat stores this trip, in spite of their shortened hours. Almost a whole day in the Flor de Celaya watching the production of pork rinds. The place is a mad house, so one extra person trying to take pictures in the middle of everything didn’t make any difference. There is a built in copper cauldron in one corner of the shop. It is filled with boiling black oil that looks very much like what Luis uses to cook carnitas. Bales of preblanched, folded pork skins are thrown into the oil, one by one, where they begin to separate and fluff up into weightless clouds of chicherrones. This is the most remarkable thing to watch. The precooked bales come from the town of Toluca near Mexico City. They look for all the world like cardboard waiting to be recycled. They are fairly heavy and have to be put in the hot oil with care. One person pries them apart with a huge wooden paddle as thy begin to cook. As each piece is done, it is fished out of the oil and handed off to a presser who flattens it into a stackable shape and size. They will continue to crackle softly on the self for about half an hour.
The store is filled with towers of both uncooked and finished pork rinds. There is a line of customers almost all day. The front of the shop is open to the bustle of the huge Mercado de Abastos, or wholesale market. The staff is in constant clowning mode, but the place clearly prospers. Work hard, play hard.
May 8th, 2011
I swore that I wasn’t going to run around so much this year, but I’m presently getting ready to board a plane for Mexico City. The SFA Potliker Film Festival in Greenville, South Carolina is already at my back. I’m on an unexpected long weekend trip to get some writing done. I had thought about a getaway, then a magazine assignment came up, so here I am. I’m hoping that this trip will focus me a little on the immigrant stuff I’m working on, but whenever I get to Celaya, I behave so badly that I hardly remember having been there. So, wish me luck.
The crazy pricing of air fares means that for time being I will come to Celaya by way of Mexico City. I consider this lucky since I love that city. I’m giving myself most of a day there on the way back. In Celaya, I plan to spend a morning in the the Flor de Celaya Chicharroneria in the big wholesale market. This is the pork rind factory where Pancho works. I’ve written about this place before. It’s a mad house most of the time. Always busy, always lots of employees running around. Somehow, there is often also a card game going in at the back, plus a drunk or two perched on stools in the middle of everything. The place and the guys who work there are fascinating. The place of the chicharron in Mexican cooking is equally so. The Flor de Celaya sells truckloads of them every day. When they are fried up crispy, they weigh next to nothing, so a kilo of them will fill a garbage bag. I prefer them like this, but there are many preparations where they are stewed in salsas or simmered in scrambled eggs. Of course, this second method results in soggy pork rinds. These things often taste ok, but I’m not crazy about them. There are a few other pork skin products available. One is a pickled version called “cueritos”. I’ve only just warmed to these. Luis’ mother, a very good cook, made us a salad one night with cueritos, jicama and mango. Then there is something called “prensado”. I can’t honestly tell how this is prepared. It is a sort of pink wheel of layers and layers of pork skin that appear to have been pressed. It looks raw but it slices like well done meat. More about this when I’ve had time to investigate.
More from Mexico soon…..
April 14th, 2011
I am often my own worst enemy. I complain constantly about my workload, yet when there is finally a little slow period AND I’m not running all over the country- I decide to add two things to the menu that sell out every night and are thus impossible to keep up with. Tamales (I know, I know) and fried chicken. I might add that it’s Mardi Gras so the whole menu almost will shift Louisianaward as well. This means that a lot of new things will appear all at once.
Mardi gras has never really caught on here. People always want to have the party on the Saturday night beforehand. Poor form I think, but then they have also changed Midnight Madness to 8:30 p.m. here. It may make more sense in the future to just bring Louisiana food throughout the spring rather than all in one week. I have a year to think about this. Meanwhile back to tamales.
Many years ago, when I was at a wedding in Hot Springs, Arkansas, I kept encountering tamales in the barbecue joints. They were usually a side dish and they were almost black with pepper. Nobody mentioned ever Mexico when they were brought to the table. This sat in the back of my mind. Then, there was a place called Gulf Coast in New York. It was downtown on the West Side. They served really good, tiny, messy tamales at their bar. Enough has been said here about my own personal history with the banana leaf tamales of Oaxaca. The culmination of all this is that Southern-style tamales are presently on my menu. Some nights I have both the Arkansas style and another that comes from the Mississippi Delta. Some nights, I’m too busy so you get only one. I depair of ever getting around to having a plate with all three styles, which was once my intention.
I’d forgotten how stringy raw turtle meat can be. A pot of soup takes all afternoon to make. Interstingly, when the meat is cooked , it quickly becomes quite tender.This recipe is the exact opposite of the way I normally approach soups. Here, soups are generally the result of leftovers rather than of plans. This recipe is an exception. It was given to me by my friend Ray Farris. He is from New Orleans and I make it every year around Mardi Gras time. I think it’s the best thing I make all year.
As for the fried chicken, for about two years I’ve been trying to put this on the menu. I’m only frying chicken thighs, which are my favorite part. I decided this while standing in the half gutted house of Willie Mae Seaton. This is what Miss Seaton cooked for us on one of our SFA work trips to New Orleans after Katrina. There were no chairs or plates. We ate with paper towels. It was fantastic. I think there may have also been brown and serve rolls from the grocery store.
I’ve been making milk gravy with the pan drippings then adding Anson Mills Sea Island red peas. A little of this is drizzled over the chicken and the mashed potatoes that come with it. besides this, the menu includes gumbo z’herb- the green gumbo that I first had at Dooky Chase in New Orleans. This recipe is a hybrid between that of Mrs. Chase and of my friend Marcelle Bienvenu from St Charles, Louisiana. Marcelle puts turnips as well as turnip greens in hers. This is a perfect touch. People actually order this now as they do the turtle soup. It’s taken years of coaxing. I have an extra package of turtle in the freezer this year, so the soup will reappear out of season at some point.
February 22nd, 2011
I’ve deliberately left late winter uncluttered. No special projects, no appearances or demonstrations. But instead of making good use of the slowdown, I’ve found that I needed time to, as my friend Susan often says “just sit”. Taxes? I have until April. Winter kill in the yard? Weather’s too iffy. Clean my office? Don’t go near there. It hasn’t been used in years.
I was finally able to attend one of Ashley Christensen’s potluck dinners in her Raleigh home. A few times a year she hosts an event called Stir the Pot. These dinners are fund raisers for the Southern Foodways Alliance. She invites chefs from around the South to be guests in her restaurant, Poole’s Diner, where she and they cook a big Sunday night supper. The next evening there is the potluck. Guests are mostly in the food business- cooks, caterers, food writers, wine people, brewers, you name it. This is a plum invitation. This time the guest chefs were both from Nashville- Tandy Wilson of City House and Tyler Brown of the Capitol Grille at the Hermitage Hotel. There was hardly enough room for all of the food. Needless to say, every single thing was splendid. But as is so often the case at this sort of gathering, it is the cordiality of my colleagues that makes the evening. People who outsiders might see as rivals are in fact good friends. It’s hard to describe exactly but it goes beyond talking shop.
With the exception of the annoyance of St. Valentine’s Day (known as Noah’s Ark Day in the restaurant business), there has actually been time to think about the menu in a calm and timely way. I’ve been able to play around with all those wonderful grains and legumes from Anson Mills. (Check out their winter newsletter). We’ve really perfected our buckwheat pie crust. This led us back to Jean Anderson’s brown sugar pie and finally to Nancie McDermott’s Southern Pie book. I’ve been trying for months to start featuring its recipes. The first- Pineapple Coconut.
We started a new batch of Bourbon brown sauce and a was reminded of how surprisingly seasonal it can be. We have had sweetbreads on the menu. Cleaning them produces lots of scraps that can be added to the stock pot producing an extra layer of satisfying meatiness, for lack of a better word. I only serve sweetbreads in cold weather. In summer we have tons of fresh ripe tomato trimmings to add to the pot. This makes for a completely different, but equally good result. One need only be mindful that the extra acidity can bushwhack you later on if you add too much. I remember that a chef in Quebec once told me that in winter only he would add one turnip to his veal stock because it made it taste more like winter. When I can remember to, I do that too.
Speaking of esteemed colleagues here is a video by Claudia Rupcich of reesenews.org the online campus news service where I am in the company of some of them.
January 25th, 2011
A busy winter travel schedule and a crowded holiday calendar made it necessary to put a few things on hold until a less busy time. I can come back to them now. First, several friends came out with cook books this fall and winter. They are all different and all very cool.
I first met Elizabeth Heiskell at a dinner party at Edward Lee’s 610 Magnolia in Louisville. We hit it off right away, so I was delighted when I was asked, last February, to teach classes with her at Viking Range school in Greenwood, Mississippi. She is the director of that school. Since then she and her girlhood friend, Susanne Reed have published a wonderful book called Somebody Stole the Cornbread from My Dressing. I gave my sister Debi a copy and as she was reading it I could hear her laughing all over the house. This is the food you serve when you are entertaining guests. Susanne wrote the narrative and Elizabeth produced the recipes. They include some family treasures. Part of the humor comes from the fact that Susanne now lives in Pennsylvania, so she has fun with compare and contrast.
A second book has been published by Memphis Arts. It is called Wild Abundance and is a collaboration between nine Southern chefs (my friends Lee Richardson and John Currence among them) and the people who head up the kitchens in nine hunting clubs around the mid-South. This is a beautiful book and will make an interesting read even if you never try a single recipe. I’ve known John Currence forever and Lee showed up unannounced to be my assistant at the aforementioned classes at the Viking School last February. I’ll be visiting his kitchen in Little Rock this summer. Here’s Lee making tamales.
Lastly, there is One Big Table, Molly O’Neill’s eight hundred page hommage to our national culinary diversity. This book is something else. It’s hard to imagine that she could have left anything out although she said that she had to discard a great deal in the final edit. I’m honored to be included, if only for pointing her to Donna Florio who’s strawberry buttermilk sherbet is featured. I got to attend Molly’s launch party on Ellis Island in November. It was a huge affair in the restored Great Hall with tons of food and lots of old friends.
We’re hoping to host Molly here in Chapel Hill this spring.
People are always asking me about places to eat in New Bern. The fact is, that I have so much family there that I rarely have time to go out. This Christmas however, I had more than a week, so one afternoon I walked the three blocks from my parents’ home to Jamaica in the South, a mostly take out place in Five Points that has opened since I was home in August. Everything I tried was fresh and delicious. The seasoning on the jerk chicken was perfect and didn’t taste reheated or like it had been sitting around in a steam table. The oxtail stew was also excellent. Everything I got came with rice and pigeon peas but there seemed to be a few other choices of sides. Callaloo, the collards of the West Indies, for instance. And they have bacalao too. I asked how the get all this stuff and the proprietress told me that there is supplier in Raleigh. And how in the world did they end up here? Her niece married a native.
Lastly, this year my birthday fell on 01/11/11. I’m known for my birthday jaunts and this particular date seemed particularly auspicious. However, I’ve had to be away so much in the last year that further absense right now seemed to be unfair to my staff. So I decided to take up an invitation to visit my brother in Venice Beach in California. A little three day junket that only required me to miss one regular shift. It was a great trip. At 1:11 p.m. on that day we had a toast on the terrace of the Getty Museum, then later that night I sat down to a giant plate (board?) of uni. Excellent!
One last note. Last year, I was told that I had to “migrate” this blog from Blogger to WordPress. I was never sure why, but I did it. I’ve had a little trouble with the new format and I haven’t really had time to sit down and learn how to best use all the new stuff. A friend has been helping clean things up. We’re almost done. Some of the dates from the middle of last year to the end of it are off, but the the chronology is correct. Of all my cyber duties, this is my favorite and it is my hope to be able to attend to it with more regularity from now on.
January 4th, 2011
Keep in mind that I’d already been in a restaurant for fourteen hours. I didn’t really need anything else to eat. “Just come over to our apartment for some beer and “doce uvas”- twelve grapes.” It’s the custom in the Spanish speaking world to eat twelve green grapes at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. You’re supposed to pay attention to each one. If the fourth one is too sour, for instance, it may make for a rough April. I had gone to Sebastian and Maria’s to quickly observe this custom, then go quickly home to bed. Dream on. The grapes were preceded by four large chicken toastadas, a bowl of spaghetti with strips of luncheon meat, seared skirt steak with grilled nopales, very dry cider and ponche. I should have expected this. When I took Loli (my nieta) her Christmas present at three o’clock one afternoon last week, I had to sit down and eat a big plate of beef shanks in red chili sauce. You may as well face facts when you visit a Mexican household. There’s no escaping food. This used to be true in the South when I was growing up. Grandmothers and aunts were sure you must be sick if you wouldn’t eat immediately upon arrival. Now when you say “No thanks, I don’t really want anything”, people believe you. Sebastian peeled the grapes for Bryant, his little boy.
A little about ponche. The word loosely translates as punch and it is in fact a fruit based drink served at parties and holidays. Mexican ponches are made with guayabas (which I love), sugar cane, apples, cinnamon sticks and a fruit called a tecajote. It is cooked, then chilled. Generally it is served unspiked, but the men will add a little tequila when the gather out in the back yard. I never could figure what the tecajote was. I’m glad that it wasn’t what I first thought they had said which was “tecalote”. This is the Nahuatl word for owl. In Mexico plants and animals are often called by indigenous names rather than European ones.
One more transplanted holiday custom. Tomorrow is Twelfth Night or the Feast of the Epiphany. When I was growing up it was a Holy Day of Obligation. In a lot of the Latin world it is called the Feast of the Three Kings. It commemorates the arrival of the Wise Men in Bethlehem and is the day that Christmas gifts are given. And of course it has food.
Here is a lovely “rosca” that I bought this afternoon at the tienda.