Southern-Style Holidays: Butter It. Fry It. Pickle It.

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in: Holidays w/recipe

Pickled shrimp goes way back in the South, and it's still a treat among modern-day holiday fare. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

“Swimpee! Swimpee!” shouted the shrimp vendors of years past in Charleston, S.C., as they wended their way through the streets, the fresh shrimp in their baskets glistening in the early morning light.

Southern hospitality being what it was, hostesses served that shrimp to their guests in velvety bisques and bubbling stews and pickles. Happily, not much has changed. Now as then, any gathering in the South, especially around the winter holidays, demands a lot of food. Pickled shrimp is just one option for you as you plan your upcoming holiday get-togethers.

One of the easiest ways to prepare an excess of shrimp came from the long English tradition of pickling. And so it’s no surprise to find a recipe for pickled shrimp in an early manuscript cookbook from the well-connected Pinckney family of Charleston, published in 1984 as “A Colonial Plantation Cookbook: The Receipt Book of Harriott Pinckney Horry, 1770.”

Some other so-called Southern traditions are relative newcomers to the Southern table, but beloved nonetheless.

Bring on the butter and cheese

For instance, roast some pecans and douse them in a bit of butter, salt, and black pepper. They’ll be gone before you get back to the kitchen for a refill.

Another possibility includes that old standby, pimento cheese. It’s actually not so Southern after all, but originally the offspring of industrial food – cream cheese and canned pimentos, dating to around the 1870s in New York state. But the South adopted the concoction straight away, eventually gravitating from the industrialized version to recipes using white and yellow cheddar.

Make a Pecan-Crusted Cheese Ball and put a definite Southern signature on it all. Or go for tiny, open-faced grilled cheese sandwiches. Create them by spreading dollops of pimento cheese on toasted bread rounds, topping the cheese with a thin slice of tomato, placing the rounds on a cookie sheet, firing up the broiler, and cooking the rounds until the cheese bubbles. You’ll never have enough, so popular are these with guests of all ages.

Why the devil is it called deviled ham?

Or what about deviled ham, a preparation harking back to medieval recipes for various types of potted meats, always preserved in some type of fat? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, around 1786 the word “devil” became associated with spicy foods. The William Underwood Company in Boston, Mass., began canning deviled ham in 1868. And many home cooks made a version with a meat grinder, called it ham salad. After all, as Abraham Lincoln once supposedly said, “Eternity is two people and a ham!” Deviled ham is a good way to use up leftover ham, spread on crackers and garnished with a bit of sliced pickle.

And then there are fried dill pickles, absolutely delicious, crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. A real treat. Popular history claims that in Atkins, Ark., in 1963, Bernell “Fatman” Austin originated the fried dill pickle craze at his Duchess Drive-In. You have a choice here: You can rustle up some dill pickle spears this way or stick to the “old-fashioned” way with dill pickle chips.

The beauty of these appetizers, except for the fried dill pickles, is that you can make them all ahead. And as for the fried dill pickles, hey, just tap one of your talented-in-the-kitchen guests on the shoulder and ask him or her to don an apron and get to work. You just kick back and enjoy that shot of bourbon. And tell some tall tales about the origins of the appetizers on your table.

Bring true Southern hospitality to your holiday meals by pickling shrimp for your guests. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Bring true Southern hospitality to your holiday meals by pickling shrimp for your guests. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Pickled Shrimp

Yield: Makes about 1 quart

Ingredients

1 cup distilled white vinegar

1 cup water

1/4 teaspoon ground mace

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon dry mustard

3 tablespoons coriander seeds

2 teaspoons yellow mustard seeds

2 pounds shrimp, cooked, peeled

1/2 cup thinly sliced mild (sweet) onion

Zest of one lemon, cut into strips (be sure to not include the white pith under the zest)

2 bay leaves

1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt or more to taste

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Directions

1. Put the vinegar, water, mace, ginger, dry mustard, coriander seeds, and mustard seeds in medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and let simmer 10 minutes. Cool.

2. Wash and sterilize two 1-quart canning jars.

3. Put shrimp, onion, lemon zest, bay leaves, kosher salt, red pepper flakes, and olive oil in a large glass or ceramic bowl. Pour the brine mixture over it all and stir. Taste for salt. You want the salt to cut the strong tang of the vinegar.

4. Fill each canning jar with half of the pickle mixture, making sure to put one bay leaf in each jar. Place jars tightly sealed in the refrigerator and let sit for 36 hours. Do not be alarmed that the oil will rise to the top; this helps to preserve the shrimp, and is actually an old, time-honored method of food preservation. The brine will be slightly cloudy and that’s OK too.

5. To serve, fish shrimp out of the brine, place on crackers with a bit the onion, or serve in the brine in a small glass bowl, with toothpicks for serving. Pickled shrimp keeps in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. If it lasts that long.

Pimento cheese is not so Southern in its origins after all, but it has been heartily accepted there. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Pimento cheese is not so Southern in its origins after all, but it has been heartily accepted there. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Pimento Cheese

Yield: Makes about 3 1/2 cups

Ingredients

6 ounces sharp yellow cheddar, grated

12 ounces sharp white cheddar, grated and divided

1/4 teaspoon salt or to taste

A few grindings of black pepper or to taste

1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

1/8 teaspoon cayenne or to taste

1 1/4 cups Duke’s mayonnaise or other commercial or homemade mayonnaise

6 ounces chopped, drained piquillo peppers or other roasted red peppers, from a jar*

Directions

1. Put all of the ingredients except for half of the white cheddar and the piquillo peppers in a food processor.** Purée until slightly lumpy. Scrape cheese mixture into a medium-size bowl and add the remaining grated white cheddar and the peppers. Stir gently. I have found that adding some of the grated cheese at the end gives the pimento cheese a more interesting texture.

2. Scrape cheese into an airtight container and refrigerate for up to a week.

3. Serve on crackers, as a filling for tea sandwiches or stuffed celery, as a dip for vegetables, and even in grilled cheese sandwiches.

*You can roast and peel your own red peppers if you prefer. Piquillo peppers are sold in most grocery stores these days.

** If you don’t have a food processor, a blender works fairly well. You just have to divide the ingredients, pulse them in the blender separately, and then mix together in the bowl. If you don’t have either a food processor or a blender, simply mix all the ingredients together except the peppers, with a metal spoon, which will break up the cheese somewhat. Then add the peppers and fold in. You can also make a Pimento Cheese Ball; just roll the ball in roasted pecans. See recipe for pecans below; crush the pecans into smallish pieces for this.

Roasted Pecans

This buttery treat will be gone before you can return to the kitchen for refills. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

This buttery treat will be gone before you can return to the kitchen for refills. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Yield: Makes about 2 1/2 cups

Ingredients

10 ounces pecan halves

2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, at room temperature

Sea salt, to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 250 F.

2. Put pecans in a 9-by-12-inch baking pan. Bake 1 hour, turning occasionally, making sure they do not burn.

3. At the end of the hour, stir butter into pecans and roast another 10 minutes.

4. Remove from oven and season with salt and pepper to taste. You can experiment by adding other ground spices like cayenne, ancho pepper, and smoked paprika or smoked chipotle.

Deviled Ham

Yield: Makes about 3 cups

Ingredients

1 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup country ham, minced

1 1/2 cups smoked ham, minced

1/4 cup butter, melted

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon dry mustard

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 1/2 teaspoons hot sauce (Texas Pete, etc.)

1 1/2 scallions, finely minced

3 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, finely minced

Sweet pickle relish (optional)

Crackers or toasted bread rounds

Sliced dill pickle spears (to make small triangles)

Directions

1. Lightly oil a 1-quart crock or similar container.

2. Bring cream to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook until slightly thick. Add all of the ham, and bring back to a boil. Let cool for a few minutes off the heat.

3. Place all ingredients, except the scallions and the parsley, in a blender or food processor and process until almost smooth, with a few large pieces of ham still visible.

4. Scrape mixture into a large bowl, stir in the scallions and the parsley. And if you wish, add sweet pickle relish to taste.

5. Spoon mixture into the crock, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until chilled.

6. Serve spread on crackers or bread, topped with a small slice of a dill pickle spear. Or spread on sandwich bread, top with a lettuce leaf and another piece of bread, cut into four triangles. Then you’ll have tea sandwiches ready to go on platters for your guests.

Fried Dill Pickles

Yield: Makes 12 spears

Ingredients

Vegetable oil for frying

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper or to taste

2 eggs, beaten

12 dill pickle spears or 2 cups dill pickle slices/”chips”

Ranch dressing — homemade or commercial

Directions

1. Heat oil over medium-high heat until almost smoking in a heavy, wide-bottomed saucepan or a deep, heavy skillet.

2. Mix the flour with the seasonings in shallow baking dish, like a pie pan. Place beaten eggs in another, similar pan. Set aside.

3. Dip pickles in beaten egg, shake off excess egg, and then roll pickles in the seasoned flour.

4. Carefully slide the pickles into the hot oil. Fry until crisp and golden brown. Drain briefly on paper towels.

5. Serve immediately with ranch dressing on the side.

Main photo: Pickled shrimp goes way back in the South, and it’s still a treat for modern-day holiday fare. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen


Zester Daily contributor Cynthia D. Bertelsen is a food historian, photographer and compulsive writer now settled in Blacksburg, Va. She discovered the pleasures of food and cooking at an early age, by learning to cook recipes passed on by her Southern grandmothers. She also lived and worked long-term in Mexico, Paraguay, Honduras, Haiti, Morocco and Burkina Faso. Bertelsen wrote "Mushroom: A Global History," published by Reaktion Books in 2013. Her articles and book reviews have appeared in several food-studies encyclopedias, journals and newspapers, including Gastronomica and "The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink" (2nd edition). "So Spoke the Earth," an anthology of women's writings about Haiti, features her story immortalizing a Haitian vegetable-market vendor. In 2011, she won a Julia Child Independent Scholar grant from the International Association of Culinary Professionals to study the impact of France’s colonial heritage on the future of French cuisine. Her blog is "Gherkins & Tomatoes." 

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