I don’t know if I’ve mentioned before that, if you’re setting out to curate your own cookbook collection, it is incredibly economical to collect Junior League cookbooks.  I’ve never paid more than $20 for a used copy, including some rather old ones, and most I’m able to get in good condition for less than $10 (and that’s with shipping).  And while I avoid copies that have, you know, visible food stains on them, I love to get a Junior League cookbook that someone has written in.  One of my best finds was my copy of Women of Great Taste from the Junior League of Wichita, where the previous owner had written a one-word review of at least half the recipes.  That saved me a lot of time.

This week’s cookbook, the excellently titled Cordonbluegrass, from the Junior League of Louisville (1988) was a bargain, and nearly in mint condition.  It includes a selection of classic and elegant southern fare, as well as an array of hearty dishes and potent potables suitable for Derby Day entertaining.  So treat yourself to a nice fifth of Kentucky bourbon (may I suggest Woodford Reserve?), and dive in.

To greet the day, I whipped up a batch of cheese grits from the Derby Menus section of Cordonbluegrass:

Derby Cheese Grits

Derby Cheese Grits

1 cup quick grits
4 cups boiling water
1 t. salt
1/4 pound butter
6 ounce roll garlic cheese (NOTE FROM MARY: I used Boursin Garlic with Fine Herbs, which comes in a 5.2 ounce package, but close enough for our purposes)
1 egg
3/4 cup milk
dash cayenne pepper
1 cup grated sharp cheese

Cook grits in boiling salted water until thick. Remove from heat. Stir in butter and cheese until melted. Mix egg, milk and pepper, then add to grits. Pour into buttered 2 quart casserole. Top with cheese. Bake 1 hour at 350 degrees.

Preparation time: 15 minutes + baking
Yield: 6 servings (NOTE FROM MARY: If they are lumberjacks.)

A classic from The Cooking Book (the Junior League of Kentucky’s first cookbook, published in the 1970s).

While these are a little different than some other cheese grits I’ve prepared in the past, to paraphrase Vincent Vega, “Cheese tastes good.  Grits taste good.”  It’s a surefire winner.  However, the copious amounts of butter, plus the garlic cheese melted right into the grits yields a particularly creamy cheese grits casserole.  It’s bad for you, but it’s worth it.

In as many cases as possible, I’ve tried to cook the most regionally distinctive recipes in each Junior League cookbook I’ve come across.  This one is not particularly native to Kentucky, but when the cookbook draws its name from a single recipe, I figure I had better at least make that recipe.

Chicken CordonBluegrass

Chicken CordonBluegrass

4 whole chicken breasts, skinned, boned, and split
4 slices Swiss cheese
4 slices country ham
2 T. olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 T. butter
1-1 1/2 cups dry white wine
chopped parsley for garnish

Pound breasts until thin (NOTE FROM MARY: the chicken’s, not your own). Roll 1/2 slice cheese in 1/2 slice ham. Place a roll in each chicken breast; fold over and secure with a toothpick. Bring almost to room temperature before cooking. Saute breasts in olive oil with garlic and butter. When cheese begins to melt from the center, add wine and simmer until done (about 30 minutes). Garnish with parsley before serving.

Preparation time: 15 minutes + cooking
Yield: 8 servings

A classic from The Cooking Book. Double the recipe and freeze half for a busy day.

So, as it turns out, it is really hard to pound a chicken breast thin without just tearing it all to hell.  I made a bad job of it, and didn’t get my chicken breasts as thin as they needed to be.  In some recipes for this dish, you roll the chicken, ham, and cheese up together, bread it, bread it, saute it, then bake it, so this one was a little different.  Reviews on this dish were mixed.  Brady liked it a lot, while I thought it palatable, but not great.  However, I will say that the bites with lots of ham and cheese in them were quite good.

Finally, I felt I needed to end the meal with a boozy dessert.  I was torn between the Bourbon Apple Pie and the Bread Pudding with Bourbon Sauce, but Brady was subject to no such internal conflict:

“Ooo!  THAT one!”

So, I obliged.

Bread Pudding with Bourbon Sauce

Pudding:

Bread Pudding with Bourbon Sauce

12 slices day old bread
1 quart milk
6 eggs
2 cups sugar
2 T. vanilla
1/8 t. cinnamon
1/8 t. nutmeg
1/4 cup raisins, soaked in 2 T. bourbon
2 T. butter, melted

Sauce:

1 stick butter
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1 egg
1/3 cup bourbon

Pudding: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Break up bread; put in large bowl. Add milk and soak 5 minutes. Beat eggs, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg; stir in raisins. Add to bread. Pour melted butter into a 2 1/2 quart baking dish. Add bread mixture. Bake for 1 hour.

Sauce: Melt butter in saucepan. Add sugar and water. Cook on medium heat for 5 minutes. Beat egg in separate bowl. Gradually add butter mixture to egg, stirring constantly. Slowly add bourbon while stirring.

To serve: Fill individual bowls with bread pudding and top with bourbon sauce.

Preparation time: 20 minutes + baking
Yield: 4-6 servings (NOTE FROM MARY: If they are lumberjacks.)

Serve this dessert on a cold winter night for a warm and cozy feeling!

— Peg Chumley

This bread pudding was the belle of the ball, and did indeed give us a warm and cozy feeling.  It is delicious, the bourbon-soaked raisins are plump and tender, and the sauce is potent but smooth.  The only tricky part is adding the butter mixture to the raw egg, as your egg might try to cook.  It’s not a bad idea to let the hot mixture sit for a minute or two before stirring it in; however, if you do wind up with a few cooked egg bits in your sauce, never fear.  It doesn’t taste the slightest bit eggey.  As for the bourbon, it isn’t cooked at all, so perhaps not a good choice for a children’s party.

All in all, a quick and easy, yet tasty menu from the Junior League of Louisville.  I was going to head for West Virginia next week, but some of the truly tasty recipes require extra prep time… like, a few weeks extra prep time.  So I may have to look elsewhere first while I string green beans on twine and set them out to dry, and find a store that stocks compressed yeast and root beer extract.

In the meantime, Brady and I did a test run on home-brewed ginger ale, and it is both easy and delicious.

Before last week, I’d never made a biscotti in my life.  Now, I want to make them constantly in every flavor imaginable, and possibly dipped in dark chocolate or raw sugar.  They’re so much fun to bake, and elegant enough to serve with after-dinner coffee at a party, but easy enough that you wouldn’t feel too guilty if you ate the lot yourself.

This recipe comes from the Junior League of Atlanta‘s True Grits (1995), from which I prepared a meal earlier this year. Though hazelnuts are named in the title, you can substitute almonds if hazelnuts and hazelnut extract are not to be found, or out of your price range.

Spiced Hazelnut (or Almond) and Chocolate Biscotti

Spiced Almond and Chocolate Biscotti

1 3/4 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup baking cocoa
1 t. baking soda
1 T. cinnamon
1 t. freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 t. ground cloves
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 cup coarsely chopped hazelnuts or almonds
1/4 cup dark-roasted coffee beans, coarsely ground
3 eggs
1 t. vanilla extract
1 t. hazelnut or almond extract

Sift the flour, sugar, baking cocoa, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves into a large bowl. Add the chocolate, hazelnuts (or almonds) and ground coffee; mix well.

Beat the eggs with the flavorings in a small bowl. Add to the chocolate mixture; mix and knead until the mixture forms a stiff dough, adding 1 to 2 teaspoons water if necessary. Divide the dough into 2 portions. Dust each portion with flour and form into a 12-inch roll. Place on a baking sheet lined with lightly greased foil. Bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes. Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 300 degrees.

Place the rolls on a cutting board. Cut diagonally with a serrated knife into 1/2-inch slices. Place cut side down on a cookie sheet. Bake at 300 degrees for 40 minutes or until crisp, turning once halfway through the baking time. Cool on a wire rack. Store in an airtight container.

So good the coffee is really optional.  At this very moment, I am eating one all by itself.

My cousin Tracy recently gave me a copy of the Junior League of Gaston County, North Carolina‘s Southern Elegance (1987), so I decided to leaf through it and see if I could find a good Christmas cookie or two.  Linzer Hearts, those pretty little cut-out cookies that usually have a little picture frame top with raspberry jam inside, caught my eye. However, I decided to make them with more seasonally festive star cookie cutters.

I thought it would be easy. I thought it would be fast. I was so wrong.

Linzer Hearts (or Stars or Whatever)

Must prepare ahead

Linzer Stars

3 sticks sweet butter
1 3/4 cups powdered sugar, softened
1 egg
2 cups unbleached flour
1 cup cornstarch
2 cups walnuts, finely chopped
1/2 cup red raspberry preserves

Cream butter and 1 cup of the sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg and mix well. Sift together the flour and cornstarch; add to creamed mixture and blend well. Mix walnuts in thoroughly. Gather dough into a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for 4 to 6 hours or overnight.

On a well-floured surface roll dough out to 1/4-inch thickness. Using a small heart-shaped cookie cutter about 1 1/2 inches long, cut out cookies and place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Chill cookies for 45 minutes.

If you're short on room in the fridge, you can chill the cookies between layers of waxed paper.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Bake cookies for 10 to 15 minutes or until they are very lightly browned around the edges. While they are still warm, spread half of the cookies with raspberry preserves, using 1/4 teaspoon jam for each. Top each with one of the remaining cookies. Sift the remaining 3/4 cups powdered sugar into a bowl and press tops, bottoms, and sides of the cookies into sugar to cool.

— Jennifer Davis

While these are a delightful, yummy, pretty special occasion cookie, they are not the kind of cookies you pull out for a passing acquaintance.  In fact, they are probably not even the kind of cookies that you allow your loved ones to casually munch on around the house.  These are cookies to be cherished, rationed, and hoarded.  That’s what Christmas is about, right?  Hoarding?

It’s not that the cookies are exactly difficult.  The dough mixes up in no time, the baking is a no-brainer, and the assembly is pretty self-explanatory.  Rolling out the dough is another matter entirely.  Because it is comprised almost entirely of butter, you have a very small window of opportunity to get it rolled out, cut, and back on the plate before it turns into a sticky mess that refuses to do anything except stick to the counter.

So, after you cut out a batch of cookies, you’ll have to gather up the scraps, ball them up, wrap them back in waxed paper, and stick them back in the fridge for at least 20 minutes before you can roll them out again.  This gets… time-consuming.

Also, it just occurred to me that they are usually dipped in powdered sugar, something I completely forgot to do.  Rats!  Then again, as I started baking Christmas cookies at 2 in the afternoon, and wrapped up production around midnight, I think it’s miraculous that I didn’t accidentally fill them with ketchup.  (NOTE:  These cookies did not take 10 hours to make… I did make two other kinds that day.  However, it sort of FELT like they took 10 hours to make.)

In light of my new True Blood addiction and tonight’s season finale, I decided to cook a meal this week from four different Louisiana Junior League cookbooks:  Shreveport (home of the unfortunately-named vampire bar, Fangtasia), New Orleans, Lake Charles, and Lafayette (both a fine city and a sassy, if shell-shocked, drag queen).

Unfortunately, I can only post three of them as, much to my annoyance, I seem to have misplaced the Junior League of Lake Charles’s Marshes to Mansions at present.  I’ll come back and add it in later, but in the meantime, I give you Oysters en Brochette.

oysters2

Brady and I started the day with a trip to the fish market because Ralph’s or Whole Foods was simply not going to cut it.  This is because of roux, a slowly cooked mixture of flour and olive oil or butter that is the heart and soul of Cajun and Creole cooking.  It takes at least 45 minutes (and often longer) of constant tending to make a nice, brown, flavorful roux.  Take your eyes off it for a second, and it will burn.  No self-respecting person is going to spend an hour on roux, and then toss some frozen whitefish into the pot with it, so spring for the best, freshest fish you can lay hands on.

The main dish, courtbouillon, comes from the Junior League of Shreveport’s A Cook’s Tour of Shreveport (1964).   A courtbouillon is a rich, complex, roux-based fish soup made with herbs, vegetables, and wine.  I was most grateful to have Brady, a genuine, born and raised, Gulf Coast fella, in the kitchen helping me out by tending to the roux while I chopped and grated about a million vegetables.

Fish Courtbouillon

Fish Courtbouillon

Fish Courtbouillon

6 pounds red fish, cut in pieces of about 4 ounces each
2 cups flour
1/2 cup pure olive oil
1/4 pound butter
4 pounds onions
1 bunch celery
1 head garlic
2 sweet peppers
1 bunch parsley
1 bunch onion tops
1 6-ounce can imported tomato paste
1 can tomato sauce
1 T. Worcestershire sauce
1 lemon (four large slices)
2 (or 3) cups claret wine
Salt and red pepper to taste
Hot water
5 bay leaves

Make flour and olive oil roux. When well browned, add butter. When this is well browned, add onions, celery, sweet peppers and garlic which have been ground together. Add tomato paste and tomato sauce. Stir constantly throughout these steps to prevent burning.

courtbouillon1

Add about 3 quarts hot water. You may now add the following all at the same time: chopped parsley, cut-up onion tops, lemon, bay leaves, claret wine, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper, and about a spoonful of thyme if you have it. Let this cook slowly about 30 minutes. Add fish and it will be ready to serve in about 20 minutes. Cut large slices fresh French bread and serve with a bottle of imported white wine (chilled).

— Mrs. E.C. St. Martin

For a vegetable side dish, I turned to the Junior League of New Orleans’s Jambalaya (1980).

Tomatoes Provencale

Tomatoes Provencale

Tomatoes Provencale

6 large tomatoes
1 T. salt
3/4 t. black pepper
3/4 cup seasoned bread crumbs
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 T. fresh minced parsley
1/2 cup finely grated Romano or Swiss cheese
1/4 t. oregano
4 T. butter, melted

Remove tops of tomatoes and scoop out about 2 tablespoons of pulp. Season tomatoes with salt and pepper; set aside.

In a medium-size mixing bowl, combine bread crumbs, garlic, parsley, cheese, and oregano. Stir until all ingredients are thoroughly mixed. Place a generous amount of the bread crumb mixture into each tomato. Place tomatoes in a 2-quart baking dish and pour melted butter on top of each. Bake at 325 degrees for 1 hour, basting twice.

I opted for the Romano cheese, which is a bit less melty than Swiss, so the filling was drier than I would have liked.  However, when we reheated the leftover tomatoes the next night, they were much more moist, though still crispy on top.  If you’re making these, it might not hurt to add a couple of tablespoons of water or melted butter to the bread crumb mixture before spooning it into the tomatoes.

Finally, for dessert, I made that southern classic, Pecan Pie, from the Junior League of Lafayette’s Talk About Good II (1979).  Though this recipe calls for pecan pieces mixed right in with the filling, I decided to do it a la Sookie’s Gran on True Blood, with pecan halves arranged in concentric circles.  While this certainly makes the pie more difficult to cut, it is also very pretty.

Mama’s Pecan Pie

Mama's Pecan Pie (unbaked)

Mama's Pecan Pie (unbaked)

3 eggs
2/3 cup sugar
dash salt
1 cup dark Karo syrup
1/3 cup melted margarine
1 cup pecans
1 unbaked pie shell

Beat eggs well by hand. Add remaining ingredients. Bake in pie shell at 350 degrees for 50 minutes or until a knife remains clean when inserted 1/4 way into the pie.

— Hilda K. Walker

In all its glory

In all its glory

It’s a simple recipe. In the time it took Brady to run to the butcher a few blocks away and back, I’d made the pie crust, the filling, arranged the pecans on top, and popped it in the oven. Still, when we took the first bite, I said (and in more of a stunned than a bragging way), “I think this is one of the best pies I’ve ever made.” Brady, who has over the past decade eaten more of my pies than I can count, agreed.

Recipes for pecan pie are like recipes for lasagna or chili – everybody has their own special way of turning out basically the same dish. However, if you have not yet adopted your pecan pie recipe of choice, may I suggest Mama’s?

It was a pretty rich, unhealthy meal this week – I don’t even want to think about how much butter went into it.  As I learned from an old episode of King of the Hill, “The Louisiana diet will kill a man as surely as the sword.”

Fair enough.  But it’s a very tasty sword.

marshes to mansionsWhile I’m cooking or doing chores, I like to have a little nonsense on in the background.  I watched half a season of Mad Men while making mole, I’ve been known to catch up on a week’s worth of The Daily Show while cleaning the kitchen, and you don’t even want to know how many episodes of Top Chef I have devoured during the cooking of these Junior League meals (all the while fantasizing about competing in a “home chef” season of the show, and even in my fantasies, getting sent home, like, third or something, after Tom Colicchio tells me he’s disappointed in my presentation).

But it wasn’t until last week, during an epic and overdue round of spring cleaning, that I truly succumbed to the trashy.  Not philandering ad executives-trashy, or Seth and Summer and Ryan and Marissa-trashy, or even Temptation Island-trashy.  I’m talking rural Louisiana, goth vampires, serial murders, exorcisms, and a local history organization called the Descendents of the Glorious Dead.

After six episodes of True Blood, the apartment was sparkling, and I was addicted to the V.

As the finale of the second season airs this Sunday, I thought this might be a good time to turn my culinary attentions towards the fair state of Louisiana.

jambalaya cookbookNow, the only reason I’ve put off a state with so many Junior Leagues for so long is simply because I couldn’t choose between them.  Of course, there’s River Road Recipes from Baton Rouge, which is probably more famous than any other Junior League cookbook with the possible exception of Charleston Receipts (the oldest Junior League cookbook still in print).  And rightfully so.  But then, there are the Junior Leagues of New Orleans, Lafayette, Lake Charles, and Shreveport, all too good to leave out.

And so I decided not to.

This week, I’ll be cooking a meal with recipes from the following cookbooks:

Talk About Good IIThe Junior League of Lafayette
Marshes to Mansions: The Junior League of Lake Charles
A Cook’s Tour of Shreveport: The Junior League of Shreveport
Jambalaya: The Junior League of New Orleans

Will I be making a pecan pie with the pecans arranged in pretty concentric circles on top like Sookie’s Gram used to make?  You betcha.  And I plan to get up at 6 in the morning, (on my day off, no less), so I can get to the fish market and buy some oysters.

As for River Road Recipes, it will get its own menu sometime in the future.  After all, that’s the book that taught me how to bake biscuits.  And that’s a very special day in a Yankee girl’s life.

Now, I have to get back to my stories.  That vampire soap opera is not going to watch itself.

View recipes and photos from these Louisiana Junior Leagues (Fish Courtbouillon, Tomatoes Provencale, Mama’s Pecan Pie)

When last I posted, I spoke of grand plans to do some Junior League cooking while on vacation with my family.  Technically speaking, this was possible.  We had a condo on Virginia Beach, a kitchen full of utensils and pots, access to a grill and fresh local seafood, and a copy of Tidewater on the Half Shell.  However, the sun was shining, the waves were tasty, my niece and nephews were cute and fun, and the last thing I found myself wanting to do on vacation was cook.  So, I didn’t.

Apologies to the Junior League of Norfolk-Virginia Beach, but cooking can happen anywhere, anytime – even regional cooking.  Watching a 3-year-old discover that the ocean exists only happens once, and it is pretty fun to watch.

After a few days at the beach with my family, Brady and I ventured on to our nation’s capital, where I made my pilgrimage to the Julia Child kitchen at the National Museum of American History:

Julia Child's scary kitchen implements

Julia Child's scary kitchen implements

And while there, we went through the ongoing exhibit Within These Walls, which tells the story of five families who lived in an Ipswitch, Massachusetts house over 200 years, through their furniture, household appliances, and other personal artifacts.

The part of the exhibit on the Scotts, who lived in the house during World War II, focuses on their kitchen, and their ration books.

The objects in the bottom right corner are compressed balls of tin foil.

The objects in the bottom right corner are compressed balls of tin foil.

And the exhibit gave me an idea.

So, this week, I’ll be cooking from the Junior League of Tuscaloosa, Alabama’s cookbook, Winning Seasons (1979), because it has a large and extensive pickling and preserving chapter to draw from.  Most Junior League cookbooks include a token 4-6 canning recipes, but Winning Seasons has page after page of delicious-sounding pickles, relishes, and jams, most of them cherished family recipes.

Now, you may ask, “Mary, have you ever canned before?”

And the answer to that is, “No.”

However, when I was little, my parents did, and I was forced to help.  My grandparents own a working farm that’s been in the family for over a century, so when I was growing up, my canning job was usually to go out and weed and/or pick the vegetables and/or fruits that would eventually be canned.  I was kept far away from the parts of the operation that involved boiling and pouring things that were boiling.

So, one still might ask, “Mary, do you know HOW to can?”

No, but I’ve seen it done.

As far as I can tell, it involves:

This +

This +

This +

This +

Would you trust this woman with your nation's Victory Preserves?

"We'll have lots to eat this winter, won't we, Mother?" Um... sure, kid +

= PROFIT!!!

= PROFIT!!!

Right?

Seeing as I spent $80 today on jars, pots, funnels, lifting devices, and pickling cucumbers, I suspect there will be a lot of canning going on this summer.  And, not to take the suspense out of it or anything, but if this goes even remotely well, people are probably going to be getting a lot of pickles and jam for Christmas this year.

Don’t complain.  When the zombie apocalypse comes, you’ll be grateful.

And, if next week, I haul all of that stuff to the curb, and vow never to can again, you’ll have a good laugh at my expense.

truegritsWhy, it’s Atlanta, of course.

Published in 1995, True Grits:  Tall Tales and Recipes from the New South is no spiral-bound, home-spun project.  It is fancy pants, and proud to admit it:  “Make no mistake about it,” the authors lead off.  “Though True Grits includes recipes as traditionally ‘Southern’ as Fried Chicken and Buttermilk Biscuits, this is New South fare all the way.”

And what exactly is the New South?

Well, after the Civil War, Southerners realized that an agrarian society, the prosperity of which depended upon slave labor, simply couldn’t compete with the rest of the nation.  And so, industrialization came to the South.  And with it came rampant consumerism, suburban sprawl, corporate rape of the environment, McMansions, and The Real Housewives of Atlanta.  The New South represents the emulation of the rest of the United States, but only the very worst parts.

As Brady so elegantly puts it, “The New South is a fraternity pledge with an inferiority complex saying ‘Thank you, sir, can I have another?’ to the biggest jerk in the room.”

This is not to say that New South cooking isn’t delicious, because it can be.  As I flipped through the pages of True Grits, I pored over the recipes thinking, “WWRBD?”

What would Richard Blais do?

For the uninitiated, Blais was a contestant on the 4th season of Top Chef, an Atlanta wunderkind who wowed the judges with his banana scallops, tapioca, and sweet tea reductions.

I once read in Tom Colicchio’s cookbook, Think Like a Chef, that a meal rarely comes together around a protein. It’s more likely to take shape from the starting point of a vegetable, a cheese, a sauce. And I found this recipe in True Grits for a Ginger-Peach Salsa, and lo, I knew what I had to do.

Pecan Crust Pork Chops with Peach Salsa

Georgia Peach Salsa

Georgia Peach Salsa

Georgia Peach Salsa

Georgia Peach Salsa is delicious served with chicken, ham, pork or seafood. Process 1 teaspoon minced fresh or pickled gingerroot with 1 peeled and chopped Georgia peach in a food processor until smooth. Combine the peach mixture with 4 peeled and chopped Georgia peaches, 1/4 cup minced green onions, 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar, 1 teaspoon dry mustard, 1 1/2 tablespoons lime juice, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon white pepper. Chill, covered, for 4 hours or longer.

Pecan Crust Pork Chops

Pecan Crust Pork Chop

Pecan Crust Pork Chop with Spicy Corn Stir-Fry

1/2 cup light soy sauce
1/4 cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
4 medium green onions, chopped
2 teaspoons prepared horseradish
1/4 teaspoon grated gingerroot
4 (8-ounce) pork chops
1/4 cup flour
1/2 cup finely chopped pecans
1/4 cup white or yellow cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/4 cup olive oil

Combine the soy sauce, lemon juice, brown sugar, green onions, horseradish and ginger in a shallow dish. Add the pork chops, turning to coat well. Marinate, covered, in the refrigerator for 1 hour or longer. Drain.

Combine the flour, pecans, cornmeal, salt and white pepper in a shallow dish. Add the pork chops and coat well.

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet until hot but not smoking. Brown the pork chops in the olive oil for 5 to 7 minutes on each side or until cooked through.

For a side vegetable, I decided to ride the fresh corn and chiles kick I’ve been on lately.

Spicy Corn Stir-Fry

1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 tablespoon minced jalapeno
2 tablespoons butter or margarine
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 cups cooked fresh corn or 1 (16-ounce) package frozen corn

Stir-fry the bell pepper and jalapeno in the butter in a heavy skillet over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the cumin. Stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add the corn. Stir-fry for 2 minutes or until heated through.

With a tall glass of sweet tea, to boot.

With a tall glass of sweet tea, to boot.

This meal was amazingly good.  The marinated pork chops stay juicy, and the breading is so delicious that I may have been caught standing over the stove and picking at the bits of it that stuck to the skillet after dinner.  The peach salsa was an excellent accompaniment, and has great flavor on its own, too, like a little fruit salad with kick.  As for the corn, it’s nothing particularly fancy, but the fresh corn makes all the difference in the world.

For dessert that night, we had vanilla ice cream with the ganache leftover from my ill-fated Boston Cream Pie.  But I was not done with Atlanta yet.  No, I had to mess with success and try to make yet another cake from scratch.  And not just any cake – a Coca-Cola Cake.

Coca-Cola Cake

Coca-Cola Cake, swimming in "frosting"

Coca-Cola Cake, swimming in "frosting"

For the cake:

1 cup sugar
1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup unsalted butter
2 tablespoons baking cocoa
1/2 cup Coca-Cola
1/4 cup buttermilk
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the frosting:

1/4 cup unsalted butter
1 1/2 tablespoons baking cocoa
3/4 cup Coca-Cola
2 to 2 1/4 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup broken pecans

To prepare the cake:

Mix the sugar, flour, and baking powder in a bowl. Bring the butter, baking cocoa, and Coca-Cola to a boil in a medium saucepan, stirring to blend well. Pour over the dry ingredients gradually, mixing well.

Combine the buttermilk, egg, and vanilla in a bowl; mix well. Add to the batter; mix well. Spoon into a greased and floured 8×8-inch cake pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean.

To prepare the frosting and assembly:

Bring the butter, baking cocoa, and Coca-Cola to a boil in a medium saucepan, stirring to blend well; remove from heat. Stir in the confectioners’ sugar and vanilla. Pour the hot frosting over the warm cake; top with pecans. Let stand until cool.

After adding the confectioners’ sugar to my butter-cocoa-Coca-Cola mixture, I thought it looked suspiciously thin, more a syrup than a frosting.  However, I consulted a few other similar recipes on the internet and they all called for a similar ratio of ingredients, so I figured I’d just go along with it.  Also, none of the recipes said to dump the cake out of the pan before doing this, so I didn’t.

This may have been a mistake.  I can only assume (and hope) that Coca-Cola cake is not supposed to look like this.

But as I poured the syrup over my cake and watched it drip down and collect in the sides of the pan, the thought that went through my head was, “Well, at least this cake won’t be dry.”

And it was not.  Soggy, yes.  Sickeningly sweet, yes.  But not dry.  And that is really all I wanted anyway.

Next week, I’m going on vacation with my family and will have the rare pleasure not only of seeing my family, but also of cooking a Junior League meal in the city where it was published.  Pictures and recipes to follow upon my return.

Since the authors of The Gasparilla Cookbook saw fit to single out the Spanish bean soup with chorizo served up in Ybor City during the Gasparilla Pirate Festival, I thought it was probably worth making.

Spanish Bean Soup

Spanish Bean Soup with Chorizo

Spanish Bean Soup with Chorizo

1/2 pound garbanzo beans
1 tablespoon salt
1 beef bone
1 ham bone
2 quarts water
4 ounces white bacon
Pinch of paprika
1 onion
2 ounces lard
1 pound potatoes
1 pinch saffron
Salt to taste
1 Chorizo (Spanish sausage)

Soak garbanzos overnight with a tablespoon of salt in sufficient water to cover beans. When ready to cook, drain the salted water from the beans, and place them with the beef bone and ham bone in the 2 quarts of water. Cook for 45 minutes over slow fire. Fry the white bacon, with paprika and onion in the lard. Add to the beans. Also at this time add the quartered potatoes, saffron and salt to taste. When potatoes are done remove from fire and add Chorizos cut in thin slices. Serves 4.

–Columbia Restaurant, Tampa, Florida

Now, you might have observed that this soup calls for five different kinds of meat and meat products.  This necessitated a trip to my local butcher, Marconda’s Meat Market, where the butchers are always unflappable, even when a woman comes up to the counter and says, “I need a beef bone, a ham hock, some bacon, a little piece of lard, and some chorizo.”  Not even when, after asking, “What are you making?”  I replied, “Some soup.”

I’m really kicking myself for not getting a picture of the beef bone they gave me.  It was over a foot long, no lie.

When I first got the beans and the bones simmering in the stock pot, it was not a pretty sight.  When making a stock like this, you have to constantly skim the fat off the top, or it will give the broth an off flavor.  So, for the first hour, your soup doesn’t look or smell much like soup.  It looks and smells like a pot of water with a bone in it, and scum floating on top.  This is troubling, but around the second hour things start looking up.  Once you add the onion-bacon-paprika mixture and the saffron, the soup takes on a nice golden hue, and it begins to resemble something you’d actually want to eat.

As for the eating, it’s rich, hearty, and satisfying, and that’s just the bites that DON’T have a piece of chorizo in them.  With the sausage, the flavor of the soup develops a lot of very pleasing layers, satiny and spicy.

Now, The Gasparilla Cookbook warns that you have to be careful of Spanish soups, lest you find yourself unable to get past the first course.  We nearly ran into this problem, but bravely loosened our belts and soldiered on.

Harina Con Camarones

Harina Con Camarones

Harina Con Camarones

1 cup yellow corn meal
6 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 chili pepper, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 pound raw shrimp, peeled and deveined

Bring corn meal and water to boil.  Add salt.  Cook slowly.  Put olive oil in skillet; add onion, pepper and garlic, and saute slowly until onion is tender.  Add tomato paste and shrimp, then simmer for a short time.  Add this to the corn meal mixture and simmer over low heat until it thickens – about 1 hour.  Serves 4.  Serve in soup bowls.

— Mrs. James E. Wall

As it went into the bowls, this dish had three strikes against it:  1) It didn’t thicken up as well as I’d have liked, and looked too soupy, 2) We were already full of bean soup, and 3) I really don’t like shrimp very much.

And yet, it somehow managed to reach first on a wild pitch.  I found myself finishing off a bowl of harina con camarones and wishing I had room for seconds.  It was excellent comfort food, and entirely fitting for a Gasparilla feast.

Finally, my sister has become concerned of late that Brady and I aren’t including enough fruits and vegetables in our Junior League meals, and has started begging me to “throw a couple of carrots on the plate or something.”  So, Amy, this is for you:

Next time, I promise I'll make a veggie, too

Next time, I promise I'll make a veggie, too

I have absolutely no idea right now what I’m going to cook next week, so if you have any ideas for a region, a kind of dish, or a theme for the menu, I’m taking requests.

gasparilla cookbookSince 1904, the people of Tampa, Florida have celebrated the exploits of Spanish Navy admiral-turned-bloodthirsty pirate Jose Gaspar.  From 1783 to 1821, Gaspar terrorized the coast of Spanish Florida aboard the Floridablanco, capturing over 400 ships.  He put his prisoners to death, unless they happened to be beautiful women, in which case, he’d simply drop them off at Captiva Island to become part of his harem, or to await ransom payment.

In 1821, the aging Gaspar decided he was ready to retire.  However, as he and his crew were dividing their spoils, they spotted a merchant ship that looked like easy pickings, and couldn’t resist.  They advanced and were prepared to strike, when suddenly, the ship ran out its guns, hoisted the flag, and revealed itself as the US Navy pirate hunting ship, the USS Enterprise.

Yes, the USS Enterprise.

A vicious battle ensued, and when it was clear that the Floridablanco was lost, Gaspar decided he would not die at the enemy’s hands.  Instead, he wrapped the anchor chain around himself and threw himself overboard.

If this story sounds a little fishy to you, that’s probably because it was almost certainly invented by Tampa’s city leaders to drum up some travel and tourism dollars.  It worked, and to this day, the Gasparilla Pirate Fest pumps millions of dollars into the local economy.

As for Gaspar, it’s fairly likely that he never even existed, but it’s still a pretty good story.

What exactly happens during Pirate Fest?  Now, that is a story that rivals the legend of Jose Gaspar.

A pirate ship invades the City of Tampa, circa 1922.  From the University of South Florida Digital Collections.

A pirate ship invades the City of Tampa, circa 1922. From the University of South Florida Digital Collections.

While planning a simple little citywide festival, the society editor of the Tampa Tribune, Louise Frances Dodge, got the idea to incorporate Gaspar into the proceedings.  In response, a group of raucous locals formed a secret organization, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, and on the day of the festival, rode into Tampa on horseback and “took the city.”

It became an annual tradition.  Eventually, the Krewe commissioned a full-scale replica pirate ship, the Jose Gasparilla, so now, each year, they invade the city from the sea.  Then, they march into town, and the Mayor of Tampa gives the pirates a key to the city.  Then there’s a parade, during which many different Krewes throw beads, dubloons, and various treats into the crowd, while (according to the Wikipedia article) “shooting blank pistols from floats.”

In 1961, the Junior League of Tampa decided to style the now-legendary Gasparilla Cookbook around the annual tradition, and around the city’s traditions of Spanish, Cuban, Greek, and Italian cooking.

Ruth Beck Bakalar, editorial director of Gourmet magazine called The Gasparilla Cookbook “the most ambitious of community cookbooks.”  Ladies Home Journal said it was “delightful,” and McCall’s, “one of the nicest regional cookbooks I’ve seen.”

Arrrr.  From the University of South Florida Digital Collections

Arrrr. From the University of South Florida Digital Collections

It’s an amazing regional cookbook, written by people who truly understand the foodways of their city, and write about it well.  They lovingly describe the yard-long loaves of Cuban bread which, in the early 1900s, were home-delivered – “the deliveryman, swinging the loaf of bread like a bat would impale it on a nail hammered to the side of a customer’s house,” and the bowls of Spanish bean soup served up during the Gasparilla Festival in Ybor City, the city’s Latin Quarter (which also turns up in quite a few Hold Steady songs) – “white-aproned chefs ladle out steaming cups of bright yellow Garbanzo soup rich with beans, potatoes, and Chorizo sausage.  It’s almost unbelievable to see the curbings lines with tourists of every age and description sitting happily savoring their soup and Cuban bread.”

Though The Gasparilla Cookbook doesn’t have a recipe for Cuban bread, it does include one for the famous bean and Chorizo soup, so there was no way I could resist putting it on my menu.  And since Tampa is also known for a wide variety of seafood dishes, I decided to take on a little bit of shellfish.

At the fishmonger, I used my handy Regional Seafood Watch guide from the Monterey Bay Aquarium to select some ocean-friendly, sustainable seafood for my meal – wild-caught pink shrimp from Oregon.

I would highly recommend downloading the guide for your region – it makes seafood shopping a snap, and helps to ensure that you’re choosing seafood that isn’t overfished, or fished in ways that harm ocean ecosystems.

Next up:  I go to the butcher, and buy, like, everything.

The plan for this week’s meal from the very high-toned Nashville Seasons was a selection of the sorts of dishes that might be served at a ladies’ spring tea on the terrace of some fine old Nashville plantation-style home in the early 1960s.  And an occasion like that, my friends, calls for an aspic.

These days, you’re most likely to encounter aspic either in The Gallery of Regrettable Food, or in a former Soviet state (a couple of my friends spent time there, and independently informed me that aspic dishes were both abundant and uniformly awful).  However, for most of the 20th century, aspic dishes commonly turned up in American cookbooks and women’s magazines, until, for reasons unknown to this day, the nation collectively came to its senses.

Of the many aspic recipes featured in Nashville Seasons, this one offended my sensibilities least, and in fact, seemed like it had the potential to be both savory and refreshing.

Tomato Aspic I

Tomato Aspic with Lettuce and Droid Garnish

Tomato Aspic with Lettuce and Droid Garnish

2 packages lemon Jello
4 cups tomato juice
1/3 of a large size cucumber
1/3 of a medium onion
1/3 of a green pepper (optional)
2 cups shredded lettuce
Dash of ground red pepper to taste

Heat two cups of the tomato juice. Add to Jello and dissolve thoroughly, then add two cups of cold tomato juice. Grind cucumber, onion, green pepper, and lettuce in a meat grinder and add to tomato juice mixture. Add red pepper and pour in a large mold (or this amount will make 10 small molds). Put in refrigerator to congeal and serve with a spot of mayonnaise on a crisp lettuce leaf.

-Mrs. Robert W. Bolster

(A brief note about unmolding an aspic:  Loosen the edges of the mold with a warm knife, then plunge the mold into a bowl of warm water for 10 seconds.  It should pop right out.)

After I’d unmolded the aspic, I called Brady in to come see.  He regarded it for a moment, eyebrow raised and lips curled, before saying, “Well, it looks like the devil’s own sphincter.”  Perhaps it was this remark which impeded my enjoyment of the tomato aspic, and not the fact that it was a slippery, quivering, blood-red, and possibly sentient monstrosity, but I don’t think so.  I really cannot find words to describe the experience of eating aspic other than “unsettling.”

Into the trash it went – I called it an interesting lesson in culinary history, Brady called it grounds for divorce.

It did help matters somewhat that we had these little cocktail biscuits to serve as aspic chasers.

Sesame Seed Biscuits

Sesame Seed Biscuits

Sesame Seed Biscuit

2 cups flour
1/2 cup shortening
1/2 tsp. salt
Dash of red pepper
1 cup sharp cheese, grated
1/2 cup roasted sesame seed

Mix flour, shortening, salt, and pepper. Add cheese and roasted sesame seed. Roll on floured board very thin and cut in small round wafers. Place in biscuit pan and cook slowly in 300 degree oven for 15-20 minutes. Before removing from pan and while hot, sprinkle with salt. Makes several dozen. These may be kept in covered tin, and run into slow oven to crisp before serving. Good with cocktails.

-Mrs. John M. Ezzell

You might notice a serious omission in this recipe, namely, something to bind the dough together.  I added a few tablespoons of ice water, just enough to hold the crumbs together.  Make sure you roll them very thin, and err on the side of overbaking – they’re crispier that way.  We took the leftovers to a beer-tasting party at a friend’s house, and what do you know, they are VERY good with cocktails.  There was not a biscuit left at the end of the night.

Running a close second in sheer number to aspic dishes in Nashville Seasons are variations on the avocado salad.  This uncredited recipe featured four different suggested fillings, including one involving aspic.  I opted for chicken.

An Avocado Well-Filled

An Avocado Well-Filled

An Avocado Well-Filled

Peel and half 3 avocados, place on a bed of lettuce and fill with the following:

1 1/2 cups chopped cooked chicken
6 strips bacon, cooked and crumbled
1 hard cooked egg, grated
1 cup watercress chopped
1 tomato, peeled and chopped
2 tbsp. grated roquefort cheese
French dressing

Bind all ingredients with French dressing and pile into avocado halves.

Were this served on an episode of Top Chef, it would probably be presented to the judges as a “deconstructed Cobb salad.”  And while it would probably not win the challenge, Tom Collichio would probably admit it was tasty, if somewhat lacking in presentation.

Finally, because Brady had been rather sporting about the aspic, I let him pick the dessert, a recipe that reminded me why people don’t bake cakes from scratch anymore.

Maud S Devils Food Cake

Maud S Devils Food Cake

Maud S Devils Food Cake

2 cups sugar
1 cup milk
4 squares chocolate
4 eggs
1 1/2 sticks butter
2 cups flour
3/4 tsp. soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tbsp. vanilla

Put 1 cup sugar, 1 cup milk, chocolate and 2 of the eggs in top of double boiler and cook until thick and smooth like mush. Let cool. Cream butter, add 1 cup sugar, then 2 egg yolks, one at a time. Combine flour, soda and baking powder. Add mush and flour mixture alternately to butter and sugar mixture. Add vanilla. Beat remaining 2 egg whites until stiff but not dry, and fold in. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pour batter in two 8″ square pans, covered on the bottom with greased waxed paper. Cook for 25 minutes or until straw comes out smooth. Set pans on wire rack for 5 minutes and then turn out.

This cake is named for one of Vanderbilt’s race horses – Maud S – because the cake is so good it disappears like a race horse! It can be frozen for a month. Ice with white icing.

-Mrs. A. MacDowell Smith

This cake is a little on the dense and dry side, and I’d probably use slightly less flour next time.  Still, when you make a devil’s food layer cake for somebody, they tend to get pretty excited about it.

A head of lettuce lost its life garnishing this meal

A Meal from Nashville Seasons

And there ends the story of our Nashville garden party meal, and of my first (and last) aspic.  I need a little time to catch up this week, so I won’t be doing a new cookbook this week.  However, Brady has agreed to do a little Junior League mixology in my stead, so polish your punch bowls, and cook up some simple syrup.  One can never have too many recipes for pink cocktails.