It’s Persimmon Time!

These early beauties came from the Baton Rouge Red Stick Farmers Market.

These early beauties came from the Baton Rouge Red Stick Farmers Market.

A delicious right of fall in Louisiana is the “turning of the persimmons,” which miraculously happens every year beginning in October, when this fruit (that’s technically a berry) changes from a leaf green color to pumpkin orange.

Persimmons are native to China, where they’ve been cultivated over 2,000 years.

Louisiana does have native varieties, but gardeners tend to have better luck with orientals like Hana Fugu and Fugu, which are 7-10 times larger and have less seeds. Japanese varieties made their way to the U.S. in the 1800s, and grow well in the South and California.

Although persimmons are great baked in quick breads and cookies, I prefer them raw, and snatch up as many as I can during the season.

Seafood and Okra Gumbo

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Makes 2½ gallons. Recipe is by James Jacobs, Magpie Cafe, Perkins Road, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Seafood gumbo is typical of New Orleans, where the Islenos, fishermen from the Canary Islands settled in the 18th century and kept the city constantly supplied with shrimp and oysters. Also, okra was a favorite food of slaves. Records even show that slaves sold “gumbo ya-ya,” stewed okra and rice in the streets of New Orleans, a dish that helped spawn today’s gumbo.

 

2¼ cups vegetable oil, divided

2 large yellow onions, chopped

½ bunch celery, chopped

2 large bell peppers, chopped

2 tbls. minced garlic

1 lb. sliced okra, divided

2 cups all-purpose flour (or Southern brand roux from a jar)

6 gumbo crabs

¼ cup prepared espresso coffee

1 can (14.5 oz.) diced tomatoes

1 tbl. Creole seasoning

2 tbls. worcestershire sauce

1 lb. peeled shrimp

1 lb. crawfish tails

1 lb. crabmeat

1 tbl. filé powder

Cooked rice for serving

 

1. Over medium heat in a large stock pot, add ¼ cup vegetable oil and saute onion, celery, bell pepper, garlic and ½ pound okra until vegetables are soft.

2. Make roux in a heavy-bottomed skillet by cooking remaining 2 cups oil and flour over medium heat and stirring constantly until a dark rich color. Remove from heat source and set aside to cool.

3. Fill stock pot containing sauteed vegetables 2/3 full with water (filtered water is preferable). Bring to a brisk boil. Add gumbo crabs, coffee, tomatoes, Creole seasoning, and worcestershire sauce. Reduce to a rolling boil and cook 20 minutes.

4. Using paper towels, absorb oil that has accumulated on surface of roux that was set aside. Add roux to gumbo and stir until well blended. Simmer 20 minutes.

5. Add shrimp, crawfish, crabmeat and remaining ½ pound okra. Salt and pepper to taste. Cook 20 minutes, then stir in filé. Serve over rice.

Fresh Fig Ice Cream

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Fresh Fig Ice Cream Makes 1 quart. Recipe is by Cynthia Nobles.

 

2 lbs. fresh, ripe figs (about 20), stemmed and coarsely chopped

1/2 cup water

1/4 cup honey

1 tbl. fresh lemon juice

1 can (14 oz.) sweetened condensed milk

1 cup whole milk

1 tbl. cornstarch

1/4 tsp. salt

2 eggs

1 cup cold heavy cream

1 tbl. vanilla extract

 

1. In a medium saucepan, bring figs, water, honey, and lemon juice to a boil. Cook over medium-high heat, covered, 10 minutes. Remove cover and cook until mixture is very thick and liquid is mostly evaporated, about 5-10 more minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and cool.

2. In a medium saucepan, combine condensed milk, whole milk, cornstarch, and salt, and stir until cornstarch dissolves. Whisk over medium heat until boiling. Reduce to a simmer and cook 1 minute, whisking constantly. Remove from heat.

3. Beat eggs in a medium bowl. Slowly whisk in 1/2 cup hot milk mixture. Return milk mixture to low heat and slowly whisk in egg mixture. Cook over very low heat 2 minutes, whisking constantly. Remove from heat.

4. Stir heavy cream into custard mixture and strain into a medium bowl. Stir in vanilla and figs. Refrigerate until completely cool. Pour fig custard into ice cream canister and freeze according to manufacturer’s directions.

Chocolate Pie

 

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Makes 2 (9-inch) pies. Recipe is by Margie Marie Lowry Toney, Port Sulphur, Louisiana.

 

2 (9-inch) frozen pie shells

1 1/2 cups plus 4 tsp. sugar

1/3 cup Hershey’s Cocoa

1/2 tsp. salt

3 1/2 tbls. cornstarch

1 can (12 oz.) evaporated milk

1 1/2 cups water

4 eggs, separated

1 tbl. unsalted butter

1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

 

1. Bake pie shells according to package directions and set aside to cool while making filling. Heat oven to 350 F.

2. For filling, in a 3-quart heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine 1 1/2 cups sugar, cocoa, salt, and cornstarch. Stir in milk and water. Bring to a boil over medium heat and simmer 1 minute, stirring constantly.

3. Place egg yolks in a medium bowl and slowly whisk in 1 cup hot chocolate mixture. Add egg mixture to chocolate in saucepan and, whisking constantly, cook over low heat until thick, about 5 minutes. Stir in butter until melted. Remove from heat and cover surface of filling with wax paper.

4. Make meringue by beating egg whites at high speed of a mixer until soft peaks form. Gradually add 4 teaspoons sugar and vanilla, and beat until stiff peaks form.

5. Divide filling between pie shells and smooth the tops. Cover each pie with half of meringue and seal it to pastry. Bake until brown, about 8-9 minutes. Chill pies completely before serving.

Mocha Cheesecake

 

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Unlike most cheesecakes, this one does not fall in the middle. The secret is the addition of cornstarch to the filling.

 

Makes 1 (10-inch) cheesecake. Recipe is by Ellen Sistrunk, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.:

 

1 (8 1/2-oz.) pkg. chocolate graham crackers, crushed

1/4 cup plus 1 tbl. butter, melted

1/4 cup ground pecans, toasted

2 tbls. sugar

1 tsp. instant coffee granules

 

Wrap the outside of a 10-inch springform pan with aluminum foil, covering the bottom and extending all the way up the sides. Combine all ingredients and press in bottom and 1 inch up sides of foil-covered pan. Set aside.

 

Filling:

4 (8-oz.) pkgs. cream cheese, at room temperature

1 2/3 cups sugar, divided

1/4 cup cornstarch

1 tbl. vanilla extract

2 extra-large eggs

3/4 cup heavy whipping cream

4 oz. semisweet chocolate

1 oz. unsweetened chocolate

1 tsp. instant coffee granules

2 tsp. hot water

Topping:

1 1/2 cups sour cream

3 tbls. sugar

2 tsp. instant coffee granules

Chocolate leaves or fresh strawberries for garnish (optional)

 

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Put one package of cream cheese, 1/3 cup sugar, and cornstarch in a large bowl. Beat with an electric mixer on low speed until creamy, about 3 minutes, scraping down the bowl several times. Blend in remaining cream cheese, one package at a time, scraping down the bowl after each one.

2. Increase the mixer speed to medium and beat in the remaining 1 1/3 cups sugar and vanilla. Blend in eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the cream just until completely blended.

3. In a double-boiler, melt semisweet and unsweetened chocolate. Cool slightly and add to cheesecake mixture.

4. Dissolve instant coffee in hot water and add to cheesecake mixture. Gently spoon batter over the crust.

5. Place cake in a large shallow pan containing hot water that comes about 1 inch up the sides of the springform pan. Bake until edges are firm and center is just slightly firm, with no sheen on top, about 1 1/4 hours. (Do no over-bake).

6. Prepare topping by combining sour cream, sugar, and coffee granules in a small bowl. Spread over cheesecake. Bake at 500 F for 5 minutes. Let cool to room temperature on a wire rack. Chill 8 hours. Decorate with chocolate leaves and strawberries.

Thai Sweet Potato and Shrimp Soup

 

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Sweet potatoes are rich in the antioxidant beta-carotene that the body converts into Vitamin A, a retinoid, which the National Institutes of Health thinks may discourage the development of some cancerous tumors.

 

Makes 1½ quarts. Recipe is by Cynthia Nobles.

 

1/2  cup chopped onion 1 clove garlic, minced

1 tbl. olive oil

1/2 tsp. Thai curry paste

1 tbl. grated fresh ginger

1 tbl. honey

½ cup tomato sauce

4 cups chicken broth

1½ cups cooked, mashed sweet potato

½ lb. shrimp, peeled and deveined

3 tbls. fresh lime juice

2 tbls. fresh chopped cilantro

 

1. Saute onion and garlic in oil in a large heavy saucepan until onion is translucent. Add curry paste, ginger, honey, tomato sauce, broth and sweet potatoes. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, 10 minutes.

2. Puree mixture in a blender or food processor. Return to saucepan.

3. Add shrimp and cook until they curl and turn pink.

4. Remove from heat and stir in lime juice and cilantro. Serve soup hot.

Black Beans

 

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The American Institute for Cancer Research believes that the phytochemicals saponins, protease inhibitors and phytic acid found in beans may protect our cells from damage that can lead to cancer.

 

Makes 4 servings. Recipe is by Cynthia Nobles.

 

1 (15-oz.) can black beans, with juice

1 (8-oz.) can tomato sauce

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 stalk celery, chopped

3 cloves garlic, chopped

2 tbls. chopped fresh cilantro

2 tbls. minced fresh basil

2 tsp. minced fresh oregano or marjoram

1½ tsp. ground cumin

½ tsp. salt

¼ tsp. black pepper

Large pinch cayenne pepper

 

Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer, covered, over low heat until onions are soft and translucent, about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove cover and simmer until thick, stirring often, about 5 minutes more.

Beet and Ginger Relish

 

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Beets get their bright red color from the powerful antioxidant betalain.

 

Makes 1 1/2 cups. Recipe is by Cynthia Nobles.

 

1 cup peeled and grated raw beetroot

1/2 cup peeled and grated raw carrot

1 tbl. peeled and grated raw, fresh ginger

2 tbls. white balsamic vinegar

 

Combine all ingredients and chill.

“Voices of Dawn,” the Street Vendors of New Orleans

New Orleans Calas Lady (Century Magazine, 1886)

New Orleans Calas Lady (Century Magazine, 1886)

In New Orleans, street peddlers were common well into the 1900s. And apparently they were all loud.

Newspaperman and cookbook author Lafcadio Hearn left writings about the “vocal advertisements” sung by the “Italians, Negroes, Frenchmen, and Spaniards,” who wandered the city’s streets with the first glow of the sun. And never mind that a home’s residents might still be in bed — vendors didn’t think twice about poking their heads into open windows and crying out their wares.

The chicken guy would scream “Chick-EN, Madamma, Chick-EN!” There were also sellers of “Lem-ONS–fine Lem–ONS!,” “Ap-PULLS!,” “Straw-BARE-eries!,” “Black-Brees!,” “Fresh figs!,” and “Ochre-A.”

Just imagine the bellow from the Creole cream cheese peddler, who walked with a strap around his neck, which tied to a rack that held cups of his fresh, silky handiwork. Then there were oyster peddlers, who blew on conch shells all hours of the day. That commotion was so loud,  it once actually prompted a resident to write a letter of complaint to the local newspaper editor.

Of them all, the purveyor remembered most nostalgically is the calas lady, or the Belle Cala woman, who was a welcome sight at breakfast time. With her head wrapped in a turban and her apron starched stiff, she carried on her head a basket of hot calas (fried rice fritters). She often became a trusted family friend, and every morning would call in a firm, yet soft musical tone “Belle cala tout chaud, Madam, belle cala tout chaud.” (Pretty rice fritters, all hot madam, pretty rice fritters, all hot.)

The end of the street vendor came with the beginning of the grocery store and the automobile. And although the convenience of the modern supermarket can’t be beat, it sure is fun to imagine the fern-laced French Quarter alive with walking food merchants. And it would be especially neat listening to their lyrical chants, no matter how loud or boisterous.

Southern Foodways Alliance Does it Up Right in Napa

Pitmasters Nick Pihakis, Daniel Patterson, Rodney scott, Samuel Jones, Drew Robinson, Nicolas Pihakis, Jamey Whetstone (owner, Whetstone Winery), Christopher Kostow, and Stephen Barber.

Pitmasters Nick Pihakis, Daniel Patterson, Rodney Scott, Samuel Jones, Drew Robinson, Nicolas Pihakis, Jamey Whetstone (owner, Whetstone Winery), Christopher Kostow, and Stephen Barber.

When I signed up to attend the Southern Foodways Alliance Potlikker dinner in Napa Valley, I didn’t know what to expect. Northern California has certainly become one of America’s premier dining regions – but barbecue?

The event was held August 18 on the lush grounds surrounding the 19th-century French-style chateau of Whetstone Winery. Before dinner, thirsty guests imbibed on outstanding wines provided by Whetstone. But, to my surprise, the handcrafted beer chilled in washtubs was “imported” from Tennessee.

And when it was time to eat, all doubts about unfamiliar barbecue were dispelled, as pitmasters from South Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama dished up some of the best pulled pork and ribs I’d ever eaten.

These guys had actually pulled their gigantic pits all the way to California, just for the event. And as it turns out, most of them also compete in the New Orleans annual “Hogs for a Cause” charity cookoff.  Proceeds from this event go to families with children who have cancer.  Hogs for a Cause is near and dear to my family, since my stepson Trey competes every year and especially since his two-year-old daughter Margaux is recovering from the disease.

Hard at work at the barbecue pits.

Hard at work at the barbecue pits.

It was also fun in Napa connecting with Potlikker’s organizers from the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA). SFA documents, studies, and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. The group sets a common table where black and white, rich and poor — all who gather — may consider our history and our future in a spirit of reconciliation.

A member-supported non-profit, based at the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, SFA stages symposia, produces documentary films, collects oral histories, sponsors scholarship, mentors students, and publishes great writing. Donations from generous individuals, foundations, and companies fund their good work.

I’ve been a member of SFA for many years and consider their work and research important to the understanding of Southern food. And I now also know they know how to throw a good party.