Pros: Lot's of good background info and glosseries
Cons: Recipes badly written or poorly concieved
Written by Brook Elliott
If you travel a lot, as I do, you tend to eat the signature protein of the area. Visiting New York, for instance? That means beef; prime cuts of T-bone, and strip steak, and, the real specialty of the house, short ribs. In the Pacific Northwest you opt for fresh seafood; Dungeness crab, and salmon newly out of the ocean, and oysters salty and sweet as home made sin.
Similarly, in the American South, you eat pork. Pork in all it’s myriad forms. Hams and loins and ribs, for sure. But also the ears, and feet, and jowls of the critter. No part of a hog is ever wasted, in the south. There are reasons---cultural, environmental, and economic---why the South reveres pork, and has done so ever since DeSoto released the first hogs into Florida, in the late 1500s.
“For nearly five centuries,” says James Villas, the noble pig has sustained the South through development and prosperity, grief and glory, and defeat and recovery, a veritable symbol not only of survival but also of the gastronomic excellence that has come to define so many of the distinctive dishes that grace the Southern table.”
Villas should know. An award-winning writer, about half his 16 cookbooks deal with southern cooking and foodways. So it comes as no surprise that he’s finally turned his attention to pork, and how it rules the Southern table.
Let me state up front that I’m an adoptive Southerner, and lover of pork. As such you’d think I would have welcomed this book. Unfortunately, there’s a major problem with it: it was published at the wrong time.
Much of hog cookery involves long, slow cooking. Take, for instance, the recipe for Carolina Pork, Sweet Potato, and Apple Stew. My mouth started watering just reading the name of the dish. But let’s get real. Who’s going to keep a stewpot simmering for more than an hour and a half in the heat of summer? Or worse. Recipes like the Hominy-Stuffed Pork Shoulder with Rum Gravy, which cooks in a 325F oven for three hours. Not gonna happen!
Page after page there are great-sounding recipes that I fully intend trying once October cools things down a mite. But not now; not when the temperature is in the 90s with humidity to match.
This is, of course, the publisher’s fault, not the author’s. So, yeah, I looked forward to this book. But I would have welcomed it more as a fall introduction.
On the author’s end, this is a superlative addition to anyone’s Southern cooking collection. Villas starts with a preface that explores the South’s fascination with pig, and the range of pork products available in Southern markets that you don’t hardly find anywhere else. As he summarizes that aspect: “Up North, I gave up a long time ago trying to find superior, well-season bulk sausage that contains just the right proportions of lean meat and fat, but the last time I was home to stock up, I counted in one grocery store case no less than nine.
To help non-southerners understand this largesse, he includes a Southern Pig Primer, exploring the pig from head to tail. Literally! Because in the South, the only part of the pig not eaten is the oink. In case you’re interested, the tail is described as “slightly meaty, sweet, gelatinous cuts that are stewed, barbecued, or crumbed and grilled, and are also used to flavor boiled greens and field peas.
Accompanying the Primer is a Glossary, that explores the actual pig foodstuffs of the south, and some of the equipment used to produce them. Ever wonder what side meat really is? It’s in there. Along with mountain oysters, Dutch goose, and livermush as well as more common terms.
Then come the recipes. Each of the 250 entries is preceded by Villas’ notes and comments. Sometimes these deal with the historical background of the dish. Sometimes with why the ingredients are handled in a particular way. And sometimes they just demonstrate is wit and witticisms. Each of them is worth reading, even if you don’t make the particular dish.
The recipes are arranged in 12 chapters. It’s here that the book breaks down. Some of the chapter headings have to do with the type of dish, such as appetizers and salads. Others are based on the type of cut, as with the one on chops, cutlets, and steaks. This obviously leaves a lot of room for overlap and confusion. And, while the extensive index helps, it can still be difficult to find a specific recipe. So, if you see one that strikes your fancy, you’d do well to mark it.
Despite my waiting-for-winter comments above, there are quite a few recipes suitable for summer cooking. This certainly include the entire barbecue and ribs chapter. And many of the other dishes can be done outside on the grill. Others are simply suitable for summer cooking.
My first dish was the Florida Mango-and-Prune-Stuffed Pork Loin. This is one of those I’d normally reserve for cooler weather. But, using the gas grill as an oven let me cook it outside.
I did make one change. Villas’ recipe calls for creating a hollow down the length of the loin, using a wooden spoon. I’ve never liked that technique; it’s difficult to accomplish (especially making a hollow as large as he calls for), and the results, to me, have always been less than spectacular, especially when compared to a traditionally stuffed loin. So that’s what I did instead, flattening the loin and used the filling as a stuffing; rerolling and tying it. This actually worked better, because the filling is so loose there is no way it would stay in a 1½ inch hole bored through the center without leaking out. The result is a moist, tender loin, perfumed with the flavors of prunes, mango, and orange.
Villas points out, in his notes preceding the recipe, that the original version called for star fruit rather than mango. I’m thinking of trying it that way, as well. Being tougher than mango, it’s more likely to stay in place, while providing a different flavor profile.
I next turned to his Ham Croquettes with Parsley Sauce. That’s where I ran into problems.
Anybody who has ever made croquettes of any kind knows that you start with a thick béchamel. If you don’t know that ahead of time, however, this recipe won’t work for you, because the directions are, well, let’s say, ambiguous. Villas has you start by making a roux with butter, scallions, and flour. You then add the milk “till well blended; add the ham, stir well, and remove from the heat.” At this point you still have a liquid. While off the heat you add egg yolks to the mix, return to the heat, and mustard, sage, salt and pepper, and, again, “whisk till well blended.” “Well blended,” to me, does not mean “thick” And, had I followed the instructions, there is no way I could have formed the croquettes.
Another problem was his listing “coarsely chopped cooked ham” as one of the ingredients. Here, again, a common croquette technique is to run the cooked protein through a meat grinder, using the medium or coarse blade. That’s not what he has in mind. Villas’ technique calls for something more in the way of a fine dice. Fortunately, I had looked at the photo of this dish, and it was apparent what he wanted. But had there not been a picture the results would have been rather different.
Still and all, these croquettes, when made with country ham as I did, are spectacular, sort of a Southern version of the classic tapas made with Serrano ham.
Frankly, given two instances in which the recipes would not have worked as directed, I’m a bit leery about Villas’ ability to write clear instructions. While any experienced cook would spot the problems, and correct for them, there’s no excuse for this sort of sloppy writing. Not on the part of a man with 16 other books under is belt.
Right now I’m working on a third recipe, his Pork Cracklin’, Black Eyed Pea, and Shrimp Salad. I’m confident it will work, because it’s based on ready-made mayo. But I can’t help but wonder what would happen if Villas’ had given us directions for making our own?
Ham Croquettes with Parsley Sauce
For the sauce:
2 tbls butter
2 tbls all purpose flour
1 cup whole milk
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 tbls minced fresh parsley leaves
for the croquettes:
4 tbls (1/2 stick) butter
3 scallions (white parts only), finely chopped
3 tbls all purpose flour, plus extra for dredging
1 ½ cups milk
4 cups coarsely chopped cooked ham
3 large egg yolks
1 tbls Dijon mustard
¼ tsp dried sage, crumbled
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 large egg, beaten with 2 tbls water
2 cups fine dry bread crumbs
Peanut oil for frying
- To make the sauce, melt the butter in a small saucepan over moderately low heat, add the flour, and stir till a smooth paste forms. Gradually add the milk, stirring till thickened and smooth, 3-4 minutes. Add the salt and pepper and parsley, stir till well blended, and keep the sauce warm over very low heat.
- To make the croquettes, melt the butter in a saucepan over moderate heat, add the scallions and flour, and whisk till soft and well blended, about 2 minutes. Whisking rapidly, add the milk till well blended; add the ham, stir well, and remove from the heat. Whisking rapidly, add the egg yolks, return to the heat, add the mustard, sage and salt and pepper, and whisk till well blended. Scrape the mixture into a dish, cover, and refrigerate overnight.
- With your hands, divide the mixture into 6 balls and roll lightly in the extra flour. Pat the balls into smooth oval patties, dip briefly into the egg wash, dredge in the bread crumbs, and place on a plate till ready to fry.
- In a large, heavy skillet, heat about 1 inch of oil over moderately high heat for about 1 minute, fry the patties till golden brown, about 3 minutes on each side, and drain briefly on paper towels. Serve the croquettes with the parsley sauce on the side.