The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen Essential Southern Recipes Posted by: Christiana Roussel | 0 Comments
In last week’s food column, Kelsey Winchester held forth about the power of Easter Ham. Indeed, if you’ve not read her ode to Granddaddy Winchester’s creation, it is worth visiting. More than one Bourbon and Boots reader has admitted to wishing away the last of these Lenten days so that they might be nearer to not only the Lord, but to that feast. To round out that Easter meal, we’d like to suggest a few recipes from Matt & Ted Lee’s new cookbook, The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen.
In their two earlier books — The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook and The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern — the authors explore the broader realm of their Southern roots. Showing obvious favoritism for such low-country ingredients as Carolina Gold rice and cowpeas, each recipe reveals a nod to their native low-country cuisine. But, in this third tome, the brothers have completed what feels like an epicurean love letter to the Holy City that helped raise them. Sandwiched between recipes for Deviled Crab and Skillet Whiting, Salt-Baked Sheepshead and Syllabub, are glimpses into that life of a true Charleston local. What fun to read about the guinea fowl of Lamboll Street (page 196) and meet characters like Captain Junior Magwood (page 138) and Thomas Blackman, Jr. (page 162). What’s more, you’ll even find a “Charleston and Environs Driving Tour” map, featuring geographic origins of several of the book’s recipes. Lest we feel outmatched in our abilities to reproduce the smothered pork chops (page 182), we can set the GPS for Bertha’s Kitchen on Meeting Street and never go hungry.
With a bibliography that spans a full four pages, Matt & Ted Lee have clearly done their homework. And yet it is the reader who will reap the benefits of this thorough undertaking. So, should you endeavor to recreate that Winchester Ham this Sunday, might we suggest a few of the Lee Bros.’ recipes to complete your Forty Days’ abstention of all-things-delicious. Herewith, our suggested favorites:
Makes: 4 pounds, enough for 8 for snacking
Time: 8 hours soaking, 8 hours boiling, 2 hours cooling
Boiled peanuts, perhaps more than any other Southern snack, inspire a kind of intense cultural loyalty, one that crosses all lines of class and race. That may be why we missed them so when we moved away from Charleston to colleges in Massachusetts, and it’s why, when we began to sell Southern foods by mail order after college (our liberal arts degrees be damned), we used the boiled peanut as the keystone in our little mail-order foods catalogue, which we named “The Lee Bros. Boiled Peanuts Catalogue” (boiledpeanuts.com). Boiled peanuts are associated with the outdoors, and can be purchased in the Charleston area by the side of the road from vendors set up in vacant lots and sandy strips on the way to the beach, adjacent to the ballpark, or at fairgrounds. They are prepared in homes as well, but rarely seen in a restaurant setting (with a few exceptions these days: Hubee-D’s, Hominy Grill, The Bar at Husk, and The Wreck).
Like the ungainly name, the damp boiled peanut itself presents a few obstacles to universal enjoyment. Not everyone likes their distinctive grassy flavor or the clammy wetness on the fingers as one picks them apart—and they achieve some exclusivity by being challenging in that respect. Judged on flavor alone, with an open mind, they are divine. And the smell of peanuts boiling is, to us, part of the pleasure of the process. Our grandmother’s landlady, the late Elizabeth Jenkins Young, once remarked to us (in her sonorous variant of the Charleston accent, with a sea island cadence from an upbringing on Edisto Island) that the smell of our peanuts boiling on Gran’s stove reminded her of a “sweet potato gone sour.” Not that she didn’t like them; she proudly displayed her I BRAKE FOR BOILED PEANUTS bumper sticker in the back window of the blue VW Rabbit she won at the 1983 Spoleto Festival auction. But the earthy quality of the peanut, which grows underground and is full of minerals, and the sweetness of it, does in fact suggest the basic character of a sweet potato.
When peanuts are freshly dug, and refrigerated like a fresh vegetable rather than dried, they are called “green” peanuts; and these, when available (usually in the summer months and into the fall), are worth seeking out for their extra tenderness—cut about 4 hours off the boiling time below—and subtlety of flavor. Some green peanuts will be slightly immature, and like a soft-shell crab, may be eaten whole, shell and all.
1½ cups salt, plus more to taste
2 pounds raw peanuts in the shell, or 3 pounds green peanuts
1 In a 10- to 12-quart stockpot, stir ½ cup salt into 2 gallons of water until the salt dissolves, and add the raw peanuts. Use a large dinner plate or two to help submerge the floating peanuts. Allow to soak for 8 hours or overnight. (This step saves a little time boiling, and thus fuel, but if you don’t have the luxury of time, skip this step. Skip it also if you’re using green peanuts.)
2 Drain the soaking water and fill the pot of peanuts with 2 gallons of fresh water and the remaining cup of salt. Note the level of the water on the side of the pot. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and simmer, covered, for 6 to 8 hours (or 2 to 3 hours for green peanuts), keeping the water in the pot within an inch or so of its original level with regular additions of water, until the peanuts are soft as a roasted chestnut or softer.
3 When the peanuts have boiled for 3 hours (or 1 hour for green peanuts), sample them to check their texture and salinity. Remove a peanut, and when it is cool enough to handle, crack open the shell and give the kernel a chew, slurping some brine with it. If the peanut crunches, it should be cooked further. If the brine lacks enough salt, add by ¼-cup amounts; if it is too salty, remove a portion of the water and replace with the same volume of fresh water. Allow an hour for the salinity to equalize before testing again. Sample every hour until the peanuts are pleasantly yielding and as salty and appetizing as a good pickle.
4 When the peanuts are cooked to your satisfaction, turn off the heat and allow them to cool in the pot for an hour (or 30 minutes for green peanuts). When cool enough to handle, drain and eat immediately or store in the shell, in a sealed container, in the refrigerator or freezer. (Boiled peanuts will keep for 7 to 10 days in the refrigerator and for several months in the freezer.)
Skillet Asparagus with Grapefruit
Time: 25 minutes
This recipe romances March in Charleston, a stellar month: the asparagus we get from Johns Island is at its slenderest, tenderest peak; the grapefruits are just falling off trees downtown, on their way out of season. The house and garden tour season is in full swing with azaleas, dogwoods, and lilies in full bloom; the camellias are just over the hill, going out with a bang, dropping explosions of petals on the flagstone.
In the Charleston vegetable pantheon, asparagus typically takes a back seat to the collards, shelled peas, and squashes, but it shouldn’t. In the 1880s, a settlement of French immigrants in Mount Pleasant, just across the Cooper River from Charleston, established a commercial asparagus farm whose harvest became in short order the priciest, most sought-after asparagus available in the urban markets of the North. We’re guessing the reason for its popularity was that it was grown close to the Cooper River; our own favorite local asparagus comes from the vegetable garden of friends of ours, about 300 yards from the creek bank, and we swear that the salty air gives the stalks a quality that makes them tastier than most Central American or California-grown grocery-store spears.
This recipe will make your asparagus shine wherever it hails from. We simply char the asparagus to smoky lusciousness in a large skillet, then strew grapefruit segments over it with a vinaigrette made with the sweet-and-sour juice left over from segmenting the fruit.
1 grapefruit, preferably a ruby variety
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon canola, vegetable, or grapeseed oil, plus more if necessary
1 pound medium asparagus, trimmed of any woody ends
Freshly ground black pepper
1. With a zester or Microplane grater, scrape some grapefruit zest from the skin of the fruit for garnish, and reserve. Segment the grapefruit: trim off the bottom and top of the fruit with a knife so that you have a flat surface upon which to rest it as you peel it. Peel the fruit by placing the tip of a sharp knife just inside the border where the pith meets the pulp, and slicing down with firm, clean strokes following the curvature of the fruit. Repeat until the entire fruit has been peeled. Then, over a bowl or wide board to catch all of the juice, gently cut the segments of pulp with a sharp knife by slicing toward the core as close as possible to the membranes that separate the segments. Once you’ve extracted all the citrus segments, squeeze the membranes to release any remaining juice and then discard the membranes. Gently strain the segments, reserving segments and juice in separate bowls. Add ¼ teaspoon salt, the vinegar, 1 tablespoon of water, and the mustard to the bowl with the grapefruit juice and whisk to combine. Pour in the olive oil, whisking to emulsify.
2. Pour the canola oil into a large skillet over high heat, and when it smokes, add half of the asparagus and ¼ teaspoon salt, and cover. Cook, partly covered, until the asparagus is blackened on one side, 3 to 4 minutes. Turn the asparagus in the pan, cover, and cook until the asparagus is thoroughly blackened, 3 minutes more; transfer to a serving platter. Repeat with the remaining asparagus, adding another teaspoon of oil to the pan (if it’s become too dry) and seasoning with salt.
3. When all the asparagus is on the platter, scatter the grapefruit segments evenly over the asparagus. If the dressing has broken, whisk to re-emulsify, pour it over the asparagus, and grind some black pepper over the top. Garnish the platter with the reserved zest, and serve.
Time: 2 hours
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened, plus more for the pans
2 ½ cups sifted all-purpose flour, plus more for the pans
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
¼ teaspoon baking soda
2 cups sugar
3 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
¾ cup whole milk
1 ½ cups whole milk
4 cups sugar
10 tablespoons (1 ¼ sticks) butter
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1. Make the cake: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease and flour two round 9 by 2-inch cake pans. Pour about a tablespoon of flour into each of the pans and roll it around, tapping as you go, until the sides and bottom are covered completely with a thin layer of flour. Tip the pans, and tap out excess flour.
2. In a large mixing bowl, mix thoroughly with a whisk the flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda.
3. In a separate large bowl, beat the butter with an electric mixer until creamy, about 30 seconds. Add the sugar in 1/2-cup measures, beating about 15 seconds after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl if necessary, until the mixture has lightened in color and become fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs and egg yolks, one at a time, and the vanilla, beating for 15 seconds after each addition.
4. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture in thirds, alternating with additions of the milk. To avoid overmixing the batter, mix gently with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula after each addition, until the ingredient is just incorporated. Beat until all the ingredients have been incorporated, and then just a few strokes beyond. Divide the batter between the cake pans and spread the tops evenly.
5. Bake until a cake tester or toothpick emerges clean, about 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and let the cakes cool in their pans on a rack for 10 minutes, then slide a thin paring knife around the edge of the pans, and invert the cakes. Turn each cake again so its rounded top is facing up, and cool the cakes completely on the rack.
6. Make the icing: Pour the milk and 3 cups of the sugar into a large, deep, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat, mixing with a whisk. Add the butter and the salt, whisking occasionally until the butter melts. When mixture just simmers, cut the heat, but keep over the warm burner.
7. Pour the remaining 1 cup sugar into a saucepan. Cook the sugar over medium-high heat until it becomes a syrup, stirring every so often with a wooden spoon as it begins to brown, until the sugar syrup is evenly amber colored, 5 to 8 minutes. Pour the syrup into the warm milk mixture, being very careful, as the caramel will bubble and sputter when it hits the hot milk. Turn the heat beneath the pot to high and, whisking gently until all the syrup has completely dissolved into the roiling milk mixture, continue to cook to the soft-ball stage, about 238°F; this may take 8 to 12 minutes.
8. Cut the heat beneath the caramel and gently whisk in the vanilla and the baking soda. Dip a spoon into the caramel, and let it cool to taste it. Season the caramel to taste with salt, and pour it into the bowl of a standing mixer (or use an electric hand-mixer and a large bowl). Beat on low speed as it cools, 15 to 20 minutes depending on the temperature of your kitchen, until the icing is creamy and thick (between 100°F and 105°F). Remove the bowl from the mixer stand and let cool 5 to 10 minutes more, until the icing is between 95°F and 98°F—it should fall off your spatula in a ribbon that remains discernible on the surface of the icing for 10 seconds.
9. Set the first cake layer on a rack set over a sheet plan lined with waxed paper. Have an electric hand-mixer and the hot water nearby to blend a teaspoon or two into the icing if it becomes too thick to spread. Pour enough of the icing over the cake to cover the top in a layer about ¼ inch thick (if it drips over the edge in places, that’s fine; this is an early test of whether it’s going to set in place or not). Top the first cake with the second cake layer and pour the rest of the icing in stages over the top of the cake, letting it run down the sides and using an icing spatula to guide the icing around the cake as it drips, until the entire cake is covered, for a traditional, classic look. (If you prefer the dramatic look of cake layers peeking out from behind a curtain of icing drips, by all means choose that route!) If you need to reuse any icing that overflows into the pan, simply move the cake on its rack temporarily, scrape up the icing from the waxed paper with a spatula and return it to the bowl, replace the rack over the pan, and continue to ice the cake.
10. Once the icing has set, using two spatulas carefully transfer the cake from the rack to a cake stand and let stand at room temperature beneath a cake dome until ready to serve. Only refrigerate if you plan to store the cake for more than 2 days.
*Excerpted from The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen by Matt Lee and Ted Lee. Copyright 2013, published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
Southern food and lifestyle writer Christiana Roussel lives in Birmingham, Alabama. When not enjoying the occasional biscuit festival or bourbon tasting, there are four chickens, three dogs, two children and one husband who keep her very busy.
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