Friday, May 1, 2015

Edna Lewis: The Grande Dame of Southern Cooking

The influence of renowned Southern Chef Edna Lewis is still felt at Middleton Place, where she was the resident chef for several years. The recipes she developed for the South Carolina restaurant gave special attention to authentic Low Country cuisine, and continue to be used for both Middleton's lunch and dinner menu to this day. Edna Lewis grew up cooking with the seasons on a wood-fired stove in Freetown, Virginia and is largely credited with preserving the traditional cuisine of Southern American cooking through her cooking classes and cookbooks, including The Gift of Southern Cooking and The Taste of Country Cooking. She was also a political activist and the darling of the New York arts and literature set in the 1940s and 50s. In recipes and reminiscences equally delicious, Edna Lewis celebrated the uniquely American country cooking she grew up with in a small Piedmont farming community that had been settled by freed slaves. With menus for the four seasons, she shares the ways her family prepared and enjoyed food, savoring the delights of each special time of year.

'The Taste of Country Cooking' by Edna Lewis

One of eight children, she left home at age 16 after her father died, and moved to Washington and eventually to New York City where she met John Nicholson, an antiques dealer who decided to open a restaurant on 58th Street, where she became the cook, preparing cheese soufflés and roast chicken. Café Nicholson became an instant success among bohemians and artists, and was frequented by William Faulkner, Marlon Brando, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Richard Avedon, Gloria Vanderbilt and Marlene Dietrich among others. Lewis remained at the restaurant until the late 1950s until she broke her leg and was temporarily forced to stop cooking professionally. With encouragement from Judith Jones, the cookbook editor at Knopf who also edited Julia Child, she turned her focus to writing and was the author of three seminal cookbooks that, to quote The New York Times from February 2006, “revived the nearly forgotten genre of refined Southern cooking while offering a glimpse into African-American farm life in the early 20th century.” Her cookbooks include: The Edna Lewis Cookbook (1972), The Taste of Country Cooking (1976) and In Pursuit of Flavour (1988). Lauded as one of the great women of American cooking, and a specialist in Southern Cooking, she received an honorary Ph.D. in Culinary Arts from Johnson & Wales in 1996, a James Beard Living Legend Award — their first such award — and named 'Grande Dame' from Les Dames d'Escoffier in 1999. Dr. Edna Lewis died in 2006 at the age of 89, leaving a culinary legacy that lives to this day.

Southern Pan-Fried Chicken
Serves 4
Recipe courtesy of Edna Lewis, The Gift of Southern Cooking 

One 3 lb chicken, cut into 8 pieces and brined for 8 to 12 hours
1 quart buttermilk
1 lb lard
1 stick unsalted butter
1/2 cup country ham pieces or 1 thick slice country ham, cut into 1/2-inch strips
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tbsp cornstarch
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup kosher salt
1 quart water

Brine the chicken. That is, soak it in a saltwater solution before cooking, which serves a twofold purpose: it helps the meat retain moisture and seasons it all the way through. To make the brine, stir kosher salt into cold water until dissolved in the proportion of 1/4 cup kosher salt to 1 quart of water. Don’t use table salt; it will be too salty. Mix enough brine to cover the poultry completely in a non-reactive bowl or pot and refrigerate for 8 to 12 hours.

To prep the brined chicken for frying, drain it and discard the brine. Rinse out the bowl it was brined in. Return the chicken to the bowl and pour the buttermilk over the chicken. Cover and refrigerate for 8 to 12 hours. Place the chicken on a wire rack to drain, discarding the buttermilk.

Meanwhile, prepare the fat for frying by putting the lard, butter, and country ham in a heavy skillet or frying pan. Cook over low heat for 30 to 45 minutes, skimming any foam as needed, until the butter ceases to throw off foam and the country ham is browned. Use a slotted spoon to remove the ham from the fat. Just before frying, increase the temperature to medium-high and heat the fat to 335°F.

Prepare the dredge by blending together the flour, cornstarch, salt, and pepper in a shallow bowl or on wax paper. Dredge the drained chicken pieces thoroughly in the flour mixture, then gently shake to remove all excess flour. Slip some of the chicken pieces, skin side down, into the heated fat. Do not crowd the pan and fry in batches if necessary. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes on each side, until the chicken is golden brown and cooked through. Drain thoroughly on a wire rack or on crumpled paper towels. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature with biscuits.

The Best Biscuits
Makes 12
Recipe courtesy of Edna Lewis, The Gift of Southern Cooking 

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp single-acting baking powder or double-acting baking powder (see note)
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup cold lard or vegetable shortening, cut into pieces
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 tbsp unsalted butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 450°F. In a bowl, sift the flour with the baking powder, baking soda and salt. Using your fingers, work in the lard just until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in the buttermilk just until moistened. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead 2 or 3 times. Roll out or pat the dough 1/2 inch thick. Using a 2-inch round cutter, stamp out biscuits as close together as possible. Transfer the biscuits to a baking sheet. Pat the dough scraps together, reroll and cut out the remaining biscuits; do not overwork the dough. Pierce the top of each biscuit 3 times with a fork and brush with the butter. Bake the biscuits for 12 to 14 minutes, or until risen and golden. Serve at once with Fried Chicken.

NOTES: To make your own single-acting baking powder, combine 2 tablespoons of cream of tartar with 1 1/2 tablespoons of cornstarch and 1 tablespoon of baking soda. The mix will keep in a tightly sealed jar for up to 1 month.

Southern-Style Macaroni and Cheese
Serves 8-10
Recipe courtesy of Edna Lewis, The Gift of Southern Cooking 

1 1⁄2 tsp kosher salt, plus more to taste
8 oz hollow pasta, preferably elbow macaroni
Butter, for greasing
7 oz extra-sharp cheddar, cut into 1⁄2" cubes, plus 6 oz grated  
2 tbsp plus 1 tsp. flour
1 1⁄2 tsp dry mustard
1⁄4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1⁄4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1⁄8 tsp cayenne pepper
2⁄3 cup sour cream
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 1⁄2 cups half-and-half
1 1⁄2 cups heavy cream
1⁄3 cup grated onion
1 tsp Worcestershire 

Heat oven to 350°F. Bring a 4-qt. saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook until cooked halfway through, about 3 minutes. Drain pasta and transfer to a greased 9" x 13" baking dish. Stir in the cubed cheddar cheese and set aside. Combine 1 1⁄2 tsp salt, flour, mustard, black pepper, nutmeg, and cayenne in a large mixing bowl. Add the sour cream and the eggs and whisk until smooth. Whisk in the half-and-half, heavy cream, onions, and Worcestershire. Pour egg mixture over the reserved pasta mixture and stir to combine. Sprinkle the grated cheese evenly over the surface. Bake until the pasta mixture is set around the edges but still a bit loose in the centre, about 30 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes before serving.

Fresh Apple Cake with Caramel Glaze
Serves 12
Recipe courtesy of Edna Lewis, The Gift of Southern Cooking 

For the cake:
1 cup light-brown sugar, packed
1 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
3 large eggs
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp ground Ceylon cinnamon
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp salt
5 fresh apples, such as Granny Smith, peeled and diced into 1/2 inch pieces
1 1/4 cups not-too-finely chopped pecans
2 1/4 tsp vanilla extract

For the glaze:
1/2 stick unsalted butter
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup light-brown sugar
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 325°F. To make the cake, put the sugars and vegetable oil in a mixing bowl, and beat until very well blended. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Sift together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt, and gradually add to the sugar and eggs, mixing just until well blended. Stir in the apples, pecans, and vanilla, and pour into a buttered and 9-by-13-inch baking pan.

Bake in the preheated oven until a skewer or toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 1 1/4 hours. Begin checking after 50 minutes. Remove from the oven, and allow to cool in the pan while you prepare the caramel glaze.

To make the glaze, melt the butter in a saucepan, and add both the sugars and the salt. Stir until blended, and cook over medium-low heat for 2 minutes. Stir in the heavy cream, and boil for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Use a skewer or toothpick to poke holes all over the top of the cake, and pour the warm glaze over the surface. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Shrimp Grits
Serves 6
Recipe courtesy of Edna Lewis, The Gift of Southern Cooking 

For the shrimp paste:
1 cup unsalted butter
1 pound small fresh gulf shrimp, peeled and deveined 
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup sherry
2 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

For the shrimp grits:
2 cups water
2 cups milk, or more
1 cup stone-ground or regular grits
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Kosher salt
Chopped chives, for garnish

For the shrimp paste, heat 6 tablespoons of the butter in a large skillet until it is hot and foaming. Add the shrimp, salt, and pepper, and cook over high heat, stirring often, for 4-7 minutes, until the shrimp are pink and just cooked through. Remove the skillet from the stove and use a slotted spoon or tongs to transfer the cooked shrimp to the bowl of a food processor with the blade attachment. Return the skillet to the stove, and add the sherry, lemon juice, and cayenne pepper. 

Cook over high heat until the liquid in the skillet is reduced to approximately 3 tablespoons and is quite syrupy. Immediately add this to the shrimp in the food processor, and process until the shrimp are thoroughly pureed. With the motor running, add the remaining butter in pieces and process until thoroughly blended. Turn the food processor off and carefully taste the paste for seasoning, adding more salt, black pepper, sherry, lemon juice, or cayenne pepper as needed. 

Transfer the shrimp paste to a ceramic crock and allow to cool completely. If not using right away, cover the shrimp paste and refrigerate for up to 1 week. Refrigerated shrimp paste should be allowed to return to room temperature before serving. If it is still too dry to spread, you may work in some softened butter and salt to taste until it is spreadable.

For the shrimp grits, heat water and milk in a heavy-bottomed saucepan until just simmering. While the milk and water are heating, put the grits in a large mixing bowl and cover with cool water — however, if you're using regular grits, skip this step. Stir the grits assertively so that the chaff floats to the top. Carefully skim the surface of the grits to remove the chaff. Drain the grits through a fine strainer, and stir them into the simmering water and milk. 

Cook, stirring often, until the grits are tender to the bite and have thickened to the consistency of thick oatmeal. Regular grits are done in about 20 minutes, but stone-ground grits require an hour or a little more to cook, and you will have to add additional milk and water as needed. 

As the grits thicken, stir them more often to keep them from sticking and scorching. Stir in the cream and butter and season generously with salt to taste. Remove from heat and let rest, covered, until time to serve. If the grits become too thick as they cool, reheat them, stirring in a little extra water or milk to thin. Top hot grits with a generous dollop of Shrimp Paste — for every cup of grits, stir in about 1/4 cup or more Shrimp Paste, and sprinkle some chopped fresh chives on top, if you like them. Serve as an appetizer, a supper dish with buttered toast, or a savoury side dish.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Middleton Place & Gardens: A National Landmark

To visit Charleston is to step into a world that harkens back to the antebellum South. They call this land the Lowcountry, where one finds life moving at a slower pace, the people laid back and speaking with a hospitable and endearing Southern drawl. One of the main highlights of stepping into this rich historical tapestry is by visiting some of the area’s beautiful antebellum plantations, which were a staple of the economy, culture and lifestyle of the pre-Civil War South. Along the Ashley River Road National Scenic Byway, an 11-mile section of road with sunlight sifting in golden strands through Spanish moss hanging from massive live oaks, provides the perfect setting for three spectacular plantations: Middleton Place, Magnolia Plantation, and Drayton Hall, with Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens on the other side of the river.

The prettiest of them all is Middleton Place. This former plantation is home to America's oldest landscaped gardens, begun in 1741 by Henry Middleton, second president of the First Continental Congress. From camellias to roses, blooms of all seasons form floral allées along terraced lawns and gardens around a pair of ornamental lakes that are shaped like butterfly wings, in addition to panoramic marshland views featuring the magnificent 900-year-old Middleton Oak. As for the house, a large part of the three-building residential complex was destroyed during the Civil War, but the "South flanker" that contained the gentlemen's guest quarters was restored, and now serves as a house museum, displaying impressive English silver, furniture, original paintings, and historic documents, including an early silk copy of the Declaration of Independence. 

In the stableyards, historic interpreters use authentic tools to demonstrate spinning, weaving, blacksmithing, and other skills from the plantation era. Heritage-breed farm animals, such as water buffalo and cashmere goats, are housed here, along with peacocks. A gorgeous walk during the height of Spring, a spectacular array of flowers bloom everywhere on the plantation, making Middleton, according to the Garden Club of America, one of the "most interesting and important gardens in the U.S." If all this leaves you feeling peckish, head over to the cozy Middleton Place Restaurant for excellent Lowcountry specialties, based on original recipes by renowned Southern Chef Edna Lewis who was the resident chef for several years.  

“Where flowers bloom, so does hope.”
– Lady Bird Johnson -

Middleton Plantation Reflection Pond with swans

Garden path overlooking the pond

Flowers in one of the 'Secret Gardens'

A quiet garden bench overlooking the reflecting pond

Garden path leading to the Camellia Allées

A camellia in full bloom

'The Four Seasons' sculpture nestled in the secret gardens

The 900 year old Middleton Oak off the formal gardens and overlooking the Ashley River

Moss covered oaks line the banks off the Ashley

A picturesque wood garden gate

Horse and carriage ambling through the 'greensward'

Middleton Plantation House viewed from the gardens

The Plantation Chapel

The Mill Pond behind the Chapel

One of the resident peacocks in full show, in the Middleton stable yard 

Giving us a full showing, the peacock gave us a view from the backside too!

Protective of their area, the goose was attempting to stare me into retreat

A very sleepy Guinea Hog, which was a common breed on southern plantations until they were replaced by modern breeds — nowadays, they're a rare heritage breed

The candle and soap-making area of the plantation, where both free and enslaved workers spent much of their days

Chickens were also raised at Middleton

Coopers fashioned barrels for storage and shipment of rice which was the main crop of the Plantation, as shown by resident Cooper Doug Nesbit

Arthur-the-cat, who likes to lounge around the cooper, chewing on rice sheathes

The Blacksmith Shop

Harold, a cashmere goat

Horses were used to plough the fields

"Eliza's House", a circa 1870 two-family dwelling for the enslaved at Middleton Place, both before and after the Civil War

Carriage tours take guests around the plantation

A herd of Gulf Coast sheep keep the grass well trimmed

Middleton Place viewed from the side

View of the restored Middleton Place from the right side

Another gorgeous peacock strutting through the gardens

The restaurant at Middleton Place, which was once a guest house, serves low county lunch every day, and candlelit dinners in the evening based on original recipes by acclaimed chef Edna Lewis

The tranquil outdoor garden terrace of the restaurant

Middleton Place Pecan Pie
Serves 6-8
Recipe courtesy of Chef Edna Lewis, Middleton Place

1 cup lard
2 tbsp butter
2 cups flour
1 tsp salt
4 tbsp cold water

1 cup corn syrup
1 cup granulated sugar
2 tbsp butter, melted
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 large eggs
1 1/2 cups chopped pecans
Whipped cream, chopped nuts and mint, for garnish

In a large bowl, place the lard and butter. Add the flour and salt and rub together with fingers to form small balls. Add the cold water, 1 tablespoon at a time, mixing the flour mixture in between each tablespoon. Only add enough water until dough comes together in one large ball.

Spread some flour on a piece of waxed paper and place the dough on it. Sprinkle some more flour on top of the dough and proceed to roll out the dough until desired thickness, about 1/8 inch thick. Fold the dough over once to make a half moon and again to make it a quarter moon. Remove the dough from the waxed paper and place into a 9-inch pie pan. Unfold the dough so that it covers the entire pan. Press dough gently into pan. Using a fork, crimp the edges of the dough along the edge of the pie pan and cut away excess dough with a pairing knife. Set the pie shell aside.

Preheat the oven to 325°F. In a bowl, combine the corn syrup, sugar, butter, vanilla, and eggs. Mix with a whisk until well incorporated. Place the pecans in the pie shell and pour mixture over nuts. Be careful not to overflow the shell. Bake the pie for 45 minutes. The pie should be firm and golden brown. Let pie cool before cutting. Pie may be garnished with whipped cream, nuts and mint.

Middleton Place Corn Pudding
Serves 4
Recipe courtesy of Chef Edna Lewis, Middleton Place

2 cups yellow corn
2 whole eggs
3/4 qt heavy cream
1/4 tsp nutmeg
pinch of salt and pepper

Place yellow corn in a greased casserole pan. Mix all other ingredients together. Pour mixture over corn and bake for 45 minutes at 350°F or until golden brown.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Southern Plantations: A Journey Back in Time

Plantations were an important aspect of the history of the American South, particularly the antebellum — pre-American Civil War — South. Vestiges of classic colonial architecture hint at this bygone era. Plantations were a staple of the economy, culture and lifestyle of the pre-Civil War South. Grand avenues of stately oak trees create picturesque, moss-draped canopies. Scenery unfolds with the seasons, from scarlet-colored camellias at Christmas to cornflower blue sky in summer months, the landscape at these bucolic enclaves is a rich tapestry of natural beauty. Considered one of the finest examples of Georgian-Palladian architecture in North America, Drayton Hall is certainly one of the Lowcountry’s greatest architectural treasures. Built between 1738 and 1742 for John Drayton, it's the oldest unrestored plantation house in the U.S., and has survived centuries of war, earthquakes, hurricanes, and modern-day urban sprawl.

Untouched by fad or fashion, the house museum stands as an example of meticulous preservation and has neither running water nor electricity. As one of the most successful planters of the period, John Drayton surrounded himself with the most fashionable goods acquired from travels around the world. The surviving furniture, ceramics and glassware exist as they originally stood and exhibit the lengths that Drayton went to furnish his house with imported objects that befitted his status and lifestyle and, just as important, were in keeping with the latest protocol of British society.

Throughout his lifetime, Drayton owned over 100 different plantations totalling about 76,000 acres across South Carolina and Georgia where scores of enslaved Africans, Native Americans and their descendants grew rice and indigo for exportation to Europe and reared cattle and pigs for shipment to the Caribbean sugar islands. The legacy of this slave society survives today in the form of Drayton’s home, its landscape, and surviving collections, and is now owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is a U.S. National Historic Landmark, and is part of the Ashley River Historic District on the National Register.

Drayton Hall, considered the finest example of Georgian Palladian architecture in North America

A pedimented chimney piece in the main downstairs living room of the house, carved in the tectonic manner popularized by William Kent

Fireplace pediment with hand carved details

The upstairs ballroom with beautiful detailing ceiling and shuttered windows

The original old kitchen in the lower level of Drayton Hall

An infrastructure of supports have been installed to help stabilize the historic plantation,
thanks to private donations totalling $5-million!

The picturesque pond on the plantation is home to alligators, one of which is popping his head up

A spectacular oak with hanging moss is one of the quintessential images of 'the south'

When photographed in about 1890, Drayton Hall's two flanker buildings were still existing

Enslaved Communities on General Thomas Drayton Family Plantations, a sprawling empire which ran from South Carolina, Georgia, Florida to Texas