Alexander Smalls, the Harlem-based restaurateur known for his African diaspora-inspired menus, is a celebrity chef at the forefront of culture-blended cuisine.
There’s Afro/Asian/American Oxtail Dumplings With Green Apple Curry Sauce. Piri Piri Prawns With Yam Flapjacks. And Cinnamon-Scented Fried Guinea Hen.
“My ancestors left amazing food trails to follow,” said Smalls, a self-described “Southern boy” and globe-trotting former opera singer. “Our menu is a journey through Africa, India, South America, Europe, China, South Carolina, Native American villages and back, with lots of side tracks in France and England and beyond.”
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An uncommon cuisine
High-end diners who enter his restaurant know they will encounter something unique. In New York, diners have their choice of fancy places that serve them foam, gel and tweezer foods.
“Then you find a place like The Cecil,” reported Esquire magazine, “and you wake up.”
Smalls is a native of the coastal South Carolina region known as Low Country, and he honed his culinary skills with classical training in Italy and France. How would someone with that varying background approach holiday fare? On New Year’s Eve, he will start the night off with champagne and oysters and then launch into another food realm based in Low Country. Traditional is his preference.
“Back home, my father made smothered shrimp in crab gravy over grits. That dish will always be synonymous with celebration to me,” said Smalls, often referred to as the father of Southern revival cooking as author of “Grace the Table: Stories & Recipes from My Southern Revival.”
“Growing up, I lived for Sunday dinners and started thinking about it on Wednesday: Southern fried chicken, fried okra, creamed corn, gravy, pole beans cooked with ham hocks and Geechee rice,” said the restaurateur who, along with New York businessman Richard Parsons, owns both The Cecil and Minton’s on the same block in Harlem. He also was owner of the legendary, now-closed restaurants Café Beulah and Sweet Ophelia’s.
Food that makes you want to sing — from a singer
“I toured the world as an opera singer and learned world-class cuisine firsthand while on the road,” said Smalls, a chef to stars, including Wynton Marsalis, Spike Lee, Quincy Jones and Toni Morrison. “European food is very influenced by Africa — like American food — and only recently are we seeing recognition for our contribution to world cuisine.”
Smalls’ entire menu is a variation on the African diaspora theme. Those who love okra, yams, plantains, beans, rice and greens will be greeted with multiple choices.
His Piri Piri Prawns dish originated as a chicken stew. But he revised the flavor profile by using sautéed prawns instead. Piri-piri, a Bantu word for pepper, is a spicy dish with roots in both Africa and Portugal. It was created in Angola when Portuguese settlers arrived with chili peppers. This dish is also popular in South Africa, Smalls said.
His yassa turkey is a spin on a Senegalese dish, and his turkey stuffed with jollof rice is another example of a West African blend on an American theme.
His Southern roots remain strong
But his rolls are true Southern belles.
“I will only use White Lily flour for my rolls,” Smalls said of the powdery light flour milled from soft winter wheat produced by White Lily since 1883.
To help him achieve the global breadth of the African diaspora cuisine, Smalls enlisted the young, classically trained Chef de Cuisine Joseph “JJ” Johnson, whose first culinary instructors were his grandmother from Barbados and his Puerto Rican mother.
The expanse of their experiences appears in their holiday dishes, with recipes to some of them included below.
Said Smalls: “I’m happy to help celebrate our style of American cuisine as we ring in the New Year.”
Oxtail Dumplings With Green Apple Curry Sauce
Prep time: 1 1/2 hours
Cook time: 2 1/2 hours
Total time: 4 hours
Yield: 4 to 5 servings
For the braised oxtails:
10 (3-inch cut) oxtails
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons grape-seed oil
2 onions, rough chopped
3 carrots, rough chopped
1 bunch celery, rough chopped
4 quarts veal stock
2 quarts chicken stock
2 bay leaves
2 whole oranges, quartered
1 jalapeño with seeds
3 cinnamon sticks
6 sprigs of thyme
1/2 bunch parsley
For the oxtail dumplings:
2 tablespoons grape-seed oil
3 heads of cabbage, shredded
1 quart shallots, minced
5 to 6 Bird’s Eye chilies, finely chopped
1 cup ginger, minced
8 quarts oxtail meat, braised and shredded
4 scallions, chopped
4 tablespoons turmeric
2 tablespoons curry powder
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 egg, lightly beaten
For the green apple curry sauce:
2 pounds of butter
3 tablespoons curry powder
3 tablespoons turmeric
10 heads of garlic
3 Granny Smith apples
1 stalk lemongrass
2 large pieces of ginger, unpeeled
6 cans coconut milk
Sachet of 1 teaspoon coriander, 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns, 1 piece star anise and 1 bay leaf
3 limes, juiced
Salt, to taste
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Season oxtails with salt and pepper.
3. In a large Dutch oven, sear oxtails in grape-seed oil over medium heat until browned on both sides. Set aside.
4. Add onions, carrots and celery in the same pan and sauté vegetables for 10 minutes. Once vegetables are tender, add veal stock and chicken stock.
5. Bring to a hard simmer and add bay leaves, lemons, oranges, jalapeño, cinnamon sticks, thyme and parsley.
6. After simmering for 20 minutes, add in oxtails, making sure they are completely covered with liquid. If not, add water. Cover with aluminum foil and place into the oven and cook for 2 1/2 hours, or until tender. When fully cooked, remove braised oxtails from cooking liquid and allow to cool. When cooled, pull meat from oxtails. Skim fat off of cooking liquid, strain and set aside.
7. For the dumplings, in a large saucepan over medium heat, sauté cabbage, shallots and Bird’s eye chilies in the grape-seed oil. Add ginger, the shredded oxtail meat, scallions, turmeric and curry powder and cook for 5 minutes.
8. In a food processor, lightly pulse all ingredients until mix comes together. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
9. Place wonton wrapper on a flat surface and brush the corners with egg. Place a teaspoon of filling in the center of the wonton wrapper and fold edges together.
10. When ready to cook, gently place filled wonton wrapper in boiling water and cook for 3 minutes.
11. For the green apple curry sauce, sauté in the butter the curry powder, turmeric, shallots, garlic, apples, lemongrass and ginger. Cook until toasted and golden brown.
12. Add the coconut milk and the sachet. Reduce and finish with the lime juice.
13. Salt, to taste.
14. To serve, spoon warm green apple curry sauce in the bottom of a serving bowl. Place 4 dumplings on top of sauce and serve hot.
Piri Piri Prawns With Yam Flapjacks
Prep time: 1 hour
Cook time: 1 1/2 hours
Total time: 2 1/2 hours
Yield: 8 servings
For the sautéed prawns:
1 teaspoon chili flakes
1 bunch parsley, chopped
1 cup blended oil (for example, 1/2 canola oil, 1/2 olive oil — not extra virgin olive oil)
3 pounds of shrimp, cleaned and deveined
For the yam flapjacks:
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup packed dark palm sugar
1 tablespoon oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
For the Piri Piri Sauce:
6 Bird’s Eye Chilies
1 small piece of ginger
2 cloves of garlic
4 tablespoons canola oil
15 plum tomatoes
1 orange, zested
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
1. To prepare the sautéed prawns, zest one lemon in bowl.
2. Whisk together with chili flakes, chopped parsley and blended oil.
3. Add in 3 pounds of shrimp and marinate in the refrigerator for one hour.
4. Once marinated, season prawns with kosher salt.
5. Place in hot pan and cook on each side for two minutes.
6. To prepare the flapjacks, preheat oven to 350 F.
7. Roast yams in the oven for one hour. Remove and mash.
8. In a large bowl, mix all ingredients together.
9. Heat a non-stick pan on stove and spoon in mix to form medium-sized flapjacks.
10. Cook the flapjacks until they are golden brown on both sides.
11. For the Piri Piri Sauce, roughly chop onions, chilies, ginger and garlic.
12. Sweat the mixture over low heat in the canola oil.
13. Add roughly chopped tomatoes and cook for about 15 to 20 minutes or until the tomatoes are cooked down. Add orange zest and blend together, adding oil slowly to emulsify. After emulsified, season with salt and pepper to taste.
14. To serve, place a medium-size flapjack on the plate. Add four prawns and a tablespoon of the Piri Piri Sauce. Top it off with Apple Ginger Salad (recipe below).
Apple Ginger Salad
1/2 cup black currants
1/4 cup bourbon plus 2 tablespoons water
1/2 piece of fresh ginger, julienned
2 green apples, julienned
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon sesame oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/4 bunch cilantro
1. In a small bowl, soak black currants in bourbon and water until plump.
2. In a medium bowl, toss all remaining ingredients together, except for cilantro, and season with salt and pepper to taste.
3. Adjust sesame oil to your liking.
4. Place on top of prawns and garnish with cilantro leaves.
Main photo: Alexander Smalls, the owner and executive chef at Harlem’s The Cecil. Credit: Daniel Krieger