The Southern Sympathy Cookbook

I'm P.C., and I have studied food and cooking around the world, mostly by eating, but also through serious study. Coursework at Le Cordon Bleu London and intensive courses in Morocco, Thailand and France have broadened my culinary skill and palate. But my kitchen of choice is at home, cooking like most people, experimenting with unique but practical ideas.

I live, mostly in my kitchen, in my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.

Maque Choux (Cajun Stewed Corn and Tomatoes)

Maque Choux distills the essence of summer into every bite.  Admittedly, its first attraction may be the fun name. Pronounced mock shoe, it is a corruption of a French word or an Indian saying, or just straight up Acadian, depending on whom you ask.  It is a traditional Cajun dish which occasionally makes it onto the menus of New Orleans-style restaurants, but more often than not, as some dressed up, modernized version – with herbs, no bacon, named heirloom tomatoes.  All of which is fine, but when you stop de-constructing and re-constructing and cook up a big, simple skillet-full, the very taste of ripe, sweet summer corn and fresh, juicy tomatoes is so clear, I don’t see why we need to mess about.

Like classic Wash Day Beans, this is not a quick, lightly cooked preparation.  The slow, mellow braising of corn kernels with onion brings out a sweet richness that will make you think someone snuck in a dash of sugar while you weren’t looking.  Salty smokiness from good bacon and a touch of sweet-tart freshness from full, ripe tomatoes round out one of my favorite expressions of summer’s bounty.  Serve maque choux beside a hearty piece of grilled meat, but I’ll be honest, I usually eat it by the bowlful all on its own, maybe with a biscuit to sop up the juices.

Maque Choux (Cajun Stewed Corn and Tomatoes)

6 strips of bacon

1 medium yellow onion, chopped

1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped

6 ears of fresh corn, husked and silked

2 large or 3 medium tomatoes, chopped, juices reserved

Salt and pepper to taste

Cut the bacon into small pieces and cook in a large, deep skillet with a tight fitting lid until crisp. Remove half of the bacon to paper towels to drain, leaving the rest in the skillet.

While the bacon is cooking, cut the kernels from the corn and scrape out as much milk as possible.  Lower the heat on the bacon grease, add the onions and green peppers and stir to coat.  Cook for a few minutes, scraping any browned bits from the bottom of the pan.  When the onions are beginning to soften add the corn and stir to blend.  Scrape in the chopped tomatoes and their juices, stir well and bring to a bubble.  Lower the heat to a simmer, cover the skillet, and stew for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.  If needed, add a dash of water here and there to keep things from sticking.  Maque Choux can stand up to longer cooking if you get distracted and can be gently reheated a few hours later.

Serve warm, with the remaining bacon pieces sprinkled on top.

Serves 8

Bananas Foster Pound Cake

Bananas Foster is a classic New Orleans dessert with a storied history, and is one of the many dishes from the Crescent City’s famed restaurants that have made its way around the world.  And Bananas Foster is an impressive dish to order at a restaurant, when done the old-school way.  An expert server rolls out a cart, heats the sugar for the caramel sauce, sautés the bananas and flames the alcohol.  All tableside, to oohs and aahs, and nowadays, snapping cameras and flashing phones.

But who does that at home?  That experience is best left to the experts, in my opinion.  It is one of those dishes you go to restaurants for.  But rich, rummy caramel and bananas are a great combination.  Though I will admit here that I prefer cakes or cookies made with bananas to actual bananas.  We all have our quirks.  And so I love this cake.  I mean love this cake.  It has a very pronounced fresh banana flavor, and the addition of the mashed fruit makes it incredibly moist.  The rum is just a background note, enhancing the flavor.  The caramel glaze is a boozed-up version of my classic cheat for caramel icing, but the pairing with banana and rum takes it to a whole new level.

This cake makes an amazing dessert for any meal, but for some reason really shouts brunch to me.  Maybe because that’s when I’ve enjoyed the real Bananas Foster at those New Orleans restaurants.  Trust me, whatever the occasion; you want to make this cake.

Bananas Foster Pound Cake

For the Cake:

1 ½ cups (3 sticks) butter, softened

3 cups sugar

5 eggs

3 ripe bananas, mashed

4 Tablespoons dark rum, divided

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

For the Glaze:

¼ cup butter

½ cup light brown sugar, tightly packed

¼ teaspoon salt

1/3 cup heavy cream

2 Tablespoons dark rum

1 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted

For the Cake:

Preheat the oven to 350°.  Grease a 10 – inch tube or Bundt pan.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter for a few minutes, then add the sugar and continue beating until light and fluffy, about 5 – 7 minutes.  Add the eggs one at a time beating well after each addition. Stir 3 Tablespoons of the rum and vanilla extract into the mashed bananas, then beat the mix into the butter until combined.  Mix the flour, baking powder and salt together, then gradually beat into the batter until completely incorporated.

Spoon the batter into the pan.  Bake for 45- 50 minutes, until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean.  If the cake starts to get too brown, cover it loosely with foil.

Leave the cake to cool in the pan for a few minutes, then carefully invert it onto a cooling rack set over a piece of foil or waxed paper (to catch drips from the glaze). Poke holes on top of the cake with a skewer, then dribble the remaining 1 Tablespoon rum over it, distributing it evenly.  The rum will soak right in.  Leave the cake to cool completely.

For the Glaze:

The cake must be completely cool, or the glaze will slide right off.

Cut the butter into cubes and place in a saucepan with the brown sugar, cream, rum and salt. After everything melts together, bring to a full, rolling boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. When it reaches that boil, count to 60 Mississippi, then pull it off the heat. Leave the pan to cool for about 5 minutes, then vigorously beat in the powdered sugar until smooth.

Immediately pour the glaze over the cake, but do so slowly and evenly to cover as much surface as possible. Leave the glaze to set, then slice and enjoy. Covered tightly, this cake will last a few days.

Serves 10

King Cake Bars

I have never set myself the task of making a real King Cake, as I figure there are enough people who do that already. My brother used to send me delicious King Cakes from a bakery in New Orleans when I was in college. Those cakes were moist and tender with a cream cheese filling, with a brightly colored, but simple, frosting. The cake was packaged with beads and doubloons and made for a fun party all around. I was always very popular during Mardi Gras season. That is really my idea of what a King Cake should be, though I know there are many different versions. Those were the first, and still the best, King Cakes I have ever had. But now, I often find the bakeries in my local grocery stores offer wildly decorated King Cakes leading up to Mardi Gras. I have bought them, but they are generally dry and tasteless and a real disappointment (and often stale). I once ordered a fancy, artfully decorated King Cake from a New Orleans bakery at great expense, but even it was dry.

These bars meet all my King Cake flavor requirements, but are simpler to make and to serve. They make a great dessert for a Mardi Gras party, and would pack up beautifully to carry to a parade-viewing. I sprinkle colored sanding sugar in the traditional purple, green and gold color scheme over the top for a sparkly Mardi Gras feel, but you could easily tint the glaze, use sprinkles or the fancier luster dust.

And a word about the baby. Traditionally, King Cake has a small plastic baby figure baked inside. The person whose piece of cake contains the baby is then responsible for hosting the next King Cake party. Many bakeries now include the baby in the box, but don’t bake it into the cake. I assume this is for liability reasons, as a small plastic baby is a choking hazard. If you do happen to have a plastic baby, feel free to bake it into the King Cake Bars, though it is likely to show through the filling and be less of a surprise.

King Cake Bars

For the Crust:

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup (2 sticks) cold butter

6 Tablespoons sugar

2 Tablespoons milk

For the Filling:

2 (8-ounce) blocks cream cheese, softened

1 cup sugar

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

½ teaspoon cinnamon

For the Glaze:

1 cup confectioners’ sugar

2 Tablespoon milk

Colored sanding sugar or sprinkles (purple, green and gold)

For the Crust:

Preheat the oven to 350°. Spray a 9 x 13 inch glass baking dish with cooking spray.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, mix the flour and sugar. Drop in the butter cubes and beat on low speed until the mixture is crumbly and looks a bit like wet sand. Add the milk and beat until it starts to stick together. Sprinkle the mixture into the prepared baking dish and press it in to form an even layer, making sure there are no holes or gaps.

For the Filling:

Wipe out the mixer bowl and rinse and dry the paddle. Beat the filling ingredients together until completely smooth. Spread the filling evenly over the prepared crust. Bake the bars for 20 – 25 minutes until the crust is golden brown and the filling is set.

For the Glaze:

While the bars are cooking, whisk together the confectioners’ sugar and milk until completely smooth. As soon as you remove the bars from the oven, spread the glaze in an even layer across the top. Immediately decorate with sanding sugar. Leave the bars to cool completely, then slice.

Makes about 15 bars

Mardi Crawfish Spread

As Mardi Gras time comes around, I start to get a good craving for some Louisiana cooking.  And what is more Louisiana than crawdads?  This creamy crawfish spread is perfect for a Mardi Gras party, or any time you need a little Creole kick.  I like to serve this as an appetizer or on the buffet with some thick rounds of baguette, but it ain’t bad over pasta!

Mardi Crawfish Spread

Look for frozen crawfish tails in the frozen seafood section.

2 Tablespoons olive oil

½ cup finely chopped celery (about 3 stalks)

½ cup finely chopped green bell pepper (about 1 small pepper)

½ cup finely chopped white onion (about ½ a medium onion)

1 pound peeled, cooked crawfish tail meat (thawed if frozen, rinsed and drained)

2 teaspoons Creole seasoning

1 Tablespoon tomato paste

3 teaspoon Creole mustard

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese

In a medium sauté pan, heat the oil and cook the celery, pepper and onion until soft and translucent.  Add the crawfish meat (if it is in large pieces, chop into bite-sized bits first) and 1/3 cup water.  Bring to a boil and cook until the water has completely evaporated.  Sprinkle on the Creole seasoning and cook one more minute, stirring.  Add the tomato paste and mustard and stir to coat.  Cut the cream cheese into cubes and add to the crawfish bit by bit, stirring until all the cream cheese is melted.

You can transfer the dip to a serving dish and serve immediately, or cool it and refrigerate, covered, overnight.  Stir in a couple of Tablespoons of milk to loosen the dip and gently reheat in the oven, stirring occasionally.  Serve with French bread rounds or sturdy crackers.

Serves 8 – 10, but can be easily doubled

Pralines for Idiots

Candy making is not something I typically try my hand at. All that talk about thermometers and stages and testing methods.  Those recipes always look like the kind of thing I don’t have the patience for.  Plus, once you’ve been badly burned by hot sugar, it makes you candy-shy. But this is an exception.  I call it Pralines for Idiots, because it really does away with all that soft-ball/hard-crack thermometer testing nonsense.  If I can make these, anyone can.

Years ago, a friend brought some lovely homemade pralines as a hostess gift.  I was hugely impressed and absolutely made over her and her skill and patience.  She finally admitted to me that it was on old recipe from her mom that you made in the microwave.  The microwave!  I couldn’t believe it, so she finally wrote it down for me on a little scrap if note paper.  After all that fuss, I filed the recipe away and forgot about it.  But thinking about Mardi Gras coming up, I wistfully thought it would be nice if I knew how to make pralines.  Then I remembered that recipe and dug through all my files to find it. 

I have had to experiment with this recipe quite a bit to get consistent results.  The original recipe called for a much longer cooking time.  I assume this dates from early microwave days when the wattage was relatively low.  My microwave is 1300 watts, but I have tested this in a 1000 watt as well with the same results.  Watch the mixture bubble away, and you will see that it gets to a nice, rolling boil.  Be very careful when removing the bowl from the oven, as hot sugar burns like the dickens.  Use oven mitts and don’t get your fingers near it.  When you stir the sugar before scooping the pralines, it should begin to be opaque and slightly creamy-looking. Keep going until you get there. I use a big serving spoon to scoop up the mix, then scrape it onto the waxed paper with a smaller spoon. I like it when the pralines aren’t perfectly round and look a little rugged – I want everyone to know that I made these my own self!  This makes about eighteen 3 inch round pralines, but feel free to make smaller snack size versions.  You might want to have an extra waxed paper-lined tray ready if you do.

Pralines for Idiots

2 cups white sugar

1 (5-ounce) can evaporated milk

¼ cup butter, cut in pieces

1 Tablespoon vanilla extract

1 ¾ cup chopped pecans

Pinch of salt

Cover 2 baking sheets with waxed paper and set aside.

Place all the ingredients in a large microwave safe glass bowl.  Glass is best so you can see the mixture bubbling.  Stir well.  Microwave on high for 5 minutes. The mixture will be bubbling vigorously.  Carefully remove the bowl from the microwave wearing oven mitts and stir with a wooden spoon or heatproof spatula.

Return the bowl to the microwave and cook a further 5 minutes.  Remove with oven mitts and stir vigorously for 1 minute.  The mixture should begin to look creamy and slightly thickened, but still loose.  If the mixture has not started to become opaque, microwave in one minute intervals, stirring after each, until it is.

Using two spoons (one for scooping the mixture, the second for scraping it onto the pan), scoop mounds of praline mixture onto the prepared baking sheets.  Leave lots of room between them for the pralines to spread.  The hot sugar mixture is very hot and will burn, so don’t try to get your fingers involved. Work pretty quickly, but carefully.  Leave the pralines to firm up, then peel them from the waxed paper and store them in an airtight container between fresh sheets of waxed paper.

Makes about 18 large pralines

 

Perfect after a supper of Shrimp Creole!

Shrimp Creole

I am surrounded by good Louisiana cooks.  My brother went to college in New Orleans, my close friend went to law school there, and many of their friends from the area have migrated up to Memphis. And they love to cook up a good bayou feast.  So in all honesty, I don’t cook much Cajun or Creole food – I leave it to the experts.

My brother makes a mean gumbo, so I pretty much let him be in charge of that process.  For my birthday last year, I was surprised with a homemade dinner party of grilled boudin, crawfish ettouffe and Doberge cake.  I frequently get a call that one or other of the Louisiana natives has been back home and brought back a cooler of crawfish or gulf shrimp or other local seafood, so they are whipping up a party.  When my brother visits Louisiana, he comes back with Natchitoches meat pies and crawfish pies.  All of this is to say, I get plenty of good Nawlins’ food – from other folks.

But I felt I ought to have a least one good Creole recipe in my back pocket.  And the quickie Monday red beans and rice I make for my self only just doesn’t count.  So asked one of my friends, who is a native of Monroe, Louisiana, for a good recipe.  And just like a man, he gave me a set of instructions, as if I wanted to build a set of bookshelves, more than a recipe.  But God love him, he had the right idea, and a solid foundation.  With a little work, I transformed his manual into a recipe that has become a favorite of mine when I need a little Louisiana fix. This Shrimp Creole has all the classic flavors of the bayou without having to master the art of making a good roux.

Shrimp Creole

Wild American shrimp is by far the best choice for this Louisiana dish and is available fresh or frozen.  For extra-authenticity, look for Tony Chachere’s Creole seasoning.

1 ½ cups long grain white rice

3 ½ cups water

2 Tablespoons butter

3 celery ribs

1 green bell pepper, ribs and seed removed

1 medium white onion

2 garlic cloves, minced

4 green onions

1 Tablespoon Creole (or Cajun) seasoning

1 (16 ounce) can crushed tomatoes

1 (10.5 ounce) can mild diced tomatoes with green peppers

2 cups low-sodium chicken broth

1 pound uncooked, peeled and deveined shrimp fresh or frozen and thawed

Stir the rice into the water in a large saucepan with a tight-fitting lid.  Bring to a boil and boil until almost all the water is absorbed and little air bubbles form in the rice, about 10 – 12 minutes, stirring a few times to prevent sticking.  Remove from the heat and tightly cover the pan.

While the rice is cooking, finely dice the celery, green bell pepper, onion and green onion. Mince the garlic.  In a large Dutch oven (4 to 5 quarts), melt the butter over medium high heat.  Drop in the “trinity” – the celery, pepper and onions.  Cook, stirring frequently, until all the vegetables are soft and the onion and celery are translucent, about 12 minutes.  Stir in the garlic and green onions and cook a further 3 minutes.  Sprinkle in the Creole seasoning and stir.  Cook a further minute until fragrant.  Pour in the crushed tomatoes, diced tomatoes and chicken broth, stirring to combine.  Bring to a full rolling boil.  Cook until the sauce has thickened slightly, about 10 minutes. Drop in the shrimp, cover the pan and cook for 5 minutes.  Remove from the heat and leave covered for at least 10 minutes to fully cook the shrimp.

Fluff the rice with a fork and serve it in bowls with the Shrimp Creole ladled over the top.

The Shrimp Creole can be made up to one day ahead and keep tightly covered in the fridge.  Gently reheat over low heat before serving over rice.

Serves 6