The last two years of on again off again COVID-driven shutdowns, lockdowns, and quarantines decimated my once-well-stocked pantry and has had me leafing through family recipe collections dating back to my great-grandma Sarah Amanda (Coldiron) Howard, the mid-1800’s, and the hollers of southeastern Kentucky.
Oh, to be sure, I found the standard fare that has degenerated into cliches mocked by urban elites and liberal academics from the nicer neighborhoods in Democrat-run vote farms: corn bread, ‘pones, and hush puppies; fried chicken, chicken pies, and chicken stews; Hopping John, pigs’ feet and dumplings, and hog’s head scrapple. But there were also recipes for ham timbales, veal chops, and frog legs, not to mention glazed onions, smoked tongue, and stuffed pigeon, all with a distinctive classic French flair. A reader recently wrote that some of the recipes I’ve shared would be at home in toque blanche restaurants pursuing la haute cuisine française in the traditions of Carême, Montagné, and Escoffier. And she had a point. One of my Dad’s go-to starters, fillings, condiments, sauces, and side-dishes was his grandma’s “Ducks Oil” — mushrooms, onions, and minced parsley cooked down in butter low and slow. It took me years and a useful exposure to Larousse Gastronomique to reach the epiphany that Dad’s duck’s oil was likely Duxelles, albeit without the heavy dose of garlic that would have been a French chef’s stock in trade. And come to think of it — after looking long and hard through great grandma’s recipes – garlic was a definite no-show, although wild garlic is certainly endemic to southeastern Kentucky, and cultivated garlic was certainly known.
Be that as it may, blanched or sautéed lettuce, parboiled celery, and stinging nettles — rarely seen in American cookbooks today, but once go-to dishes in French cookery, ranked right up there with Duck’s Oil among Dad’s favorites.
Grandma Coldiron would cut the lettuce into quarter-inch strips (Dad came to prefer iceberg lettuce) and add them either fresh or barely blanched in lightly salted water and thoroughly drained, to runny omelets before folding the eggs over, and tilting and shaking the pan to form a crescent just before plating. She also served up parboiled lettuce strips with butter as a side dish.
Her celery dish was simplicity itself, and elegant beyond measure. Gramma specified inner stalks, scraped well to remove the tough fibrous strings. She’d cut them across into half-inch lengths, cook until just tender in lightly salted water, and serve with butter and or a savory white sauce made with the celery water.
Some of her recipes, like brined cow udder, ox palate, and stinging nettles, pose significant procurement challenges for the 21st-century chef. Stinging nettles prefer light shade and moist soil. Gloves and a paper bag or cloth tote are absolutely necessary when foraging. Gramma harvested the leaves in mid-spring from plants no more than 12 to 16 inches tall. She’d wash them thoroughly under cold water, lay them out on a towel or napkin to dry for an hour or so — and if the little hairs still tingled at the touch, she’d very gently parboil them (just a dip should do) into submission. The well-drained leaves can make for a savory stinging nettle quiche, or a very convincing Eggs Florentine, and can be served up in any dish calling for spinach. I’ve added them to pizza on top of the sauce before layering on the salami, mushrooms, and cheese to rave reviews.
What with Afghanistan, the COVID-19 Delta variant, new mask mandates, and booster shots dominating the headlines — not to mention new worries of empty grocery store shelves and supply shortages making the rounds, rescuing a few recipes from the Hollers could become de rigueur.