The Food Almanac: June 24, 2011
Today is National Pralines Day. Pralines are the official candy of New Orleans. They are as simple as a candy can be. Sugar makes up about 90 percent of the recipe, followed by butter, condensed milk, and vanilla. Cook that down to the soft-ball stage, add the pecans, and you’re finished. The basic flavor is that of caramelized sugar, with its slight bitterness and butterscotchiness. The vanilla is an important but subtle note, and a good mouthfeel comes from the milk. In recent years we’ve been offered other flavors of pralines. Loretta’s, one of the better makers of pralines, has pecan, coconut, chocolate, and rum flavors. Other makers have other flavors, some bordering on bizarre.
You can watch the manufacturing process for pralines through windows here and there in the French Quarter in New Orleans, or go inside and take in the aroma. After boiling the liquid concoction for a half-hour, they pour the sticky, molten mixture onto a marble slab around pecans. That’s everything a praline should be. The best time to have a praline is when having an energy lull in the middle of the afternoon, and after a light meal, in lieu of dessert. The combination of sugar and nut protein does something nice to your head, and the creamy vanilla sweetness can’t help but put you in a good mood.
One final matter: the right pronunciation of the word is "prah-LEEN."
Eating With The Seasons
This is Midsummer Day, noted more in Europe than here. It's the midpoint between the day of first planting and the day of last harvest. Obviously, those change, but this day was settled upon as a good average. It's more about hours of daylight than temperature, obviously. Nothing could be much hotter than the weather we've had lately in New Orleans.
Music to Eat Grits By
This is the birthday, in 1904, of bandleader and comedian Phil Harris. Extremely popular during the Golden Age of Radio, Harris led the orchestra on The Jack Benny Show, and had his own half-hour situation comedy show. His signature song was "That's What I Like About The South," which made numerous culinary references to the likes of grits and turnip greens.
Annals of Expensive Coffee
Yesterday in 1817, the first coffee plants were put down in Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii. Kona coffee is now some of the best on earth, commanding higher than average prices in your local coffeeshop or supermarket. The local coffee is served everywhere in Hawaii, and they make it good and strong, too. If we could produce coffee in New Orleans, I wonder what it would be like.
Coffee Hill, Maryland is 45 miles south-southeast of Washington, D.C. It's on Wicomico River, one of the many tidal inlets off Chesapeake Bay. This is a strong oystering area; the oysters are the same variety we have in New Orleans, but smaller. It's a weekend- and vacation-home area, with a major country club nearby. They share the land with no small number of rather large farms, one of which is centered on Coffee Hill. There is a hill, rising to 168 feet. Along one side of it is Coffee Hill Run, a creek that drains into the Wicomico. The nearest restaurants are six miles away in Mechanicsville. I like the sound of Crabby Rick's Crabhouse, where you may well be served blue crabs brought up from Lake Pontchartrain. The people around there buy a lot of our crabs, because they grow in their waters, too — but not in large enough numbers to meet the demand.
puttanesca, Italian, adj. Literally, "in the style of the prostitute." A dish cooked alla puttanesca is strongly flavored with salty, briny ingredients, notably olives, capers, anchovies, tomatoes, crushed red pepper, and garlic. This concoction is usually applied to pasta, but in the current American vogue a slab of spicy, grilled tuna is frequently present. The whole idea is a borderline gross, offensive joke, about which the less you think, the better. But Italians know what's being referred to here, and are chuckling as they order and eat the dish avidly. As who wouldn't? It's delicious.
Food Through History
Gustavus Swift, who created the first efficient method of shipping and marketing meat in America, was born today in 1839. He created the railroad refrigerator car, a major breakthrough in getting beef from the vast western herds to the markets in the East. Swift's railroad cars held meat that had already been slaughtered and butchered, instead of whole, living cows that had moved by cattle cars in the past.
Famous Names in Food
Jack Dempsey, the former heavyweight boxing champ in the 1910s and 1920s, was born today in 1895. He had a restaurant in New York City after he stopped fighting. Jack Dempsey's is a seafood restaurant in the old Bywater section of New Orleans, and quite popular with those who favor very large portions. The restaurant was named not for the fighter but for a long-time police reporter of the old States-Item, who was quite a local character.
Betty Stove, a professional tennis player in the 1970s, is 60 today. . . Birkett Davenport Fry, who was a brigadier general in the Confederate Army, was born today in 1822.
Words to Eat By
"Cabbage: a familiar kitchen-garden vegetable about as large and wise as a man's head." — Ambrose Bierce, born today in 1842. His Devil's Dictionary included many funny food entries. Here are some of those:
"Chop: a piece of leather skillfully attached to a bone and administered to the patients at restaurants."
"Crayfish: a small crustacean very much resembling the lobster, but less indigestible."
"Eat, v.i.: To perform successively (and successfully) the functions of mastication, humectation, and deglutition. ‘I was in the drawing-room, enjoying my dinner,’ said Brillat-Savarin, beginning an anecdote. ‘What!’ interrupted Rochebriant; "eating dinner in a drawing-room?’ ‘I must beg you to observe, monsieur,’ explained the great gastronome, ‘that I did not say I was eating my dinner, but enjoying it. I had dined an hour before.’"