Summer at Anson Mills
Tradition and Whimsy
Summer has a lighter mood and a quicker wit than other seasons. If one is lucky, summer also has a touch of stabilizing ritual—the same camp, the same beach house, the same neighborhood barbecue every year. And more than a touch of whimsy—the jeweled blur of a humming bird inches from your nose; rain-drenched bridesmaids in pale chiffon tripping into the village church; wild berries in a distant bramble; the tinkle of bracelets and ice cubes falling from the wrist of an elegant woman; my three-pound chihuahua, Cricket, hitting the raw bar with gusto every afternoon on the beach (crunch, crunch). These are my notions, obviously. Your whimsy might be snagging a 10-pound striper or your sister’s best friend. That’s the point—whimsy is unexpected and delightful. It’s personal.
It’s something like this: Tradition is the old blue cotton bathrobe you knot around your waist in the morning. Whimsy is the new bold-patterned bikini you have on underneath.
In this newsletter, we’re going to move the seesaw of tradition and whimsy up and down. Let us see where it lands.
There is a small coterie of Southern regional dishes within the canon of the Carolina Rice Kitchen, Charleston’s heritage cuisine, about which Glenn is particularly protective: Carolina rice bread would be the big one, shrimp and grits (called “shrimp and hominy” in Charleston), grits and greens (“hominy and greens”), spoonbread, rice pie. I know I’m in trouble when one of these dishes comes up for contemplation on our website. I know I am destined never to understand the sacred place this individual dish occupies within the culture of Charleston, or how relevant any little trills and touches are to its preparation. There will be arguments, and many, many recipe trials. Welcome to our website, Charleston pilau.
Charleston pilau, like Carolina rice bread, is unique in the protected-species column because it has failed to make its way to the contemporary table, whereas Savannah pilau (aka red rice) and cow pea pilau (hoppin’ John) are still all over the place. And for this, believe me, there are reasons.
Charleston pilau is a big, dramatic dish that contemporay Charlestonians find overly complicated and beyond their repertoire for family gatherings. And they would be correct because most versions of the dish serve about twenty guests and work reliably only with old-fashioned hearth cookery. In this respect, Charleston pilau is a communal dish. But the rice is not dug unceremoniously from the pot like in chicken bog or hoppin’ John; rather it is inverted onto a platter, a blazing hot domed rice sculpture served right from the fire that features a crisp, toasted brown exterior and an aromatic and succulent moist grain-for-grain interior interspersed with seasonal ingredients, vegetables, herbs, spices, meat, fish, shell fish, or game.
Charleston pilau is so distinctive a concept it comes with its own spoon (a Southern cousin of the English stuffing spoon), which Glenn fetishizes completely and which bears a long handle and a deep bowl. Traditionally, the spoon was passed from person to person around the table with each guest availing him- or herself of the quintessential mix of crisp outer and tender interior rice. Today, Charleston rice spoons have been shoved to the back of sideboard drawers in homes all over town because no creative push exists to repatriate the famous dish or the ideas behind the foodway that made a rice spoon essential to the Charleston table. And despite the fact that a few Charleston restaurants serve speedy versions of pilau, its preparation, at the core was and remains, home food. And so we present our smaller and, dare we say, beautiful summer rendition of a Charleston classic, Crisp-Crusted Crab Pilau. Polish up your rice spoons, people, and support an endangered species!
Here’s some straight-up summer whimsy: corndogs for the after-five crowd! It’s not easy to bring a member of the state-fair-food-on-a-stick club into polite company for cocktails, but we did it anyway, over the protests of our less playful friends. A corndog is just a hotdog dipped into cornbread batter and fried. Where’s the harm? We use uncured dogs for the recipe and cut them into thirds. Two bites a piece! With the roasted and sweet corn flavors in Anson Mills cornmeal, the flavor in these deep-fried doglets is booming. Serve them with a quick onion pickle and mustard dip and a set of slender toothpicks or skewers.
Pâte à Choux is a triumph of French pastry. Such defiance of gravity! Such coy interplay between crisp curves and tender, almost gauzy, interior. Such a beguiling not-quite-omelette-not-quite-crust-on-pain-de mie flavor. Then why, when we catch a glimpse of éclairs in a pastry case do our eyes drift immediately to the deeply baked, explosive croissants next door? Because the former is deemed old-school French and fussy and the latter shatteringly simple, messy, and satisfying. Because while bakeries from Brooklyn to Berkeley make an effort to speak croissant, little more than passing note is taken of pâte à choux.
A Lexan of profiteroles might lie around a bakery or restaurant walk-in for weeks. It’s when we bake pâte à choux at home that we are reminded how elegant an expression of French pastry it is and how seldom the forms wrought from it are as good as they could be. The method and proportions for choux paste are not subject to experimentation or caprice. But when the flour is fine and flavorful, when the eggs are bouncy fresh, and when the chouquettes or profiteroles are baked and served same day, pâte à choux will rival anything on a baker’s rack—served with nothing more than a thin slip of sugar.
We have developed a very fine basic choux paste formula, as well as an opportunity for a chorus line of Profiteroles to get spangled with sugar crystals and go out on the town. They seduce all the more with a radiant Chantilly Meringue filling and diabolically good Hot Fudge Sauce. The profiteroles are equally superb, if not even better, served with the Strawberry Syrup we featured with Easter rice pie in the last issue. Either way, this is a glorious, light summer dessert.
Here’s to summer fun, good humor, and Good Food, y’all!