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.