Sunday, June 27, 2010

My family's barbeque sauce, tweaked.

Truth be told, the origins of this sauce lie outside my family.

Folks who lived in Little Rock, Arkansas in the 1950s and 60s will well remember The Shack. There have been various BBQ smokehouses with that name since then, and a plethora of recipes have popped up on the internet and elsewhere (one I remember in the warehouse district in Minneapolis), all claiming to be the original "Shack" recipe. But those of us who cruised up and down Markham in Little Rock in those days developed taste buds that know the difference: it has to be lip-puckeringly tart from vinegar and heavy on the black pepper. This is a savory sauce: salty, tart, spicy.

Back then, my mother's brother drove a bread truck and delivered the buns daily to The Shack. Uncle Bobby somehow got the recipe, and it became my family's sauce of choice from that point forward. But as those things go, a family of cooks and foodlovers played with it, adding this thing there and taking away this other thing, and now--except for a few Must Haves--there are nuanced versions scribbled down in each of our recipe drawers and binders.

I love this evolution of recipes. Like languages and dialects, recipes and their variants move and shift with the friends and guests and loved ones that taste them and want to recreate the experience.

I made this sauce for a BBQ today here in Seattle. It graced pork shoulder, coaxed and coddled and pulled into hickory-smoked glory by my friend, Larry, who had made another equally delicious version of apple-smoked pork.

I hope the friends who try this will inflect it with their own voice.

Serve on smoked, pulled pork shoulder. Be sure to make a creamy, tart coleslaw for the bun, too!

Barbeque Sauce

2 c. Heinz ketchup
1 c. water
1/2 c. apple cider vinegar
1 oz. salt
1 oz. black pepper (medium grind or finer)
1 oz. sugar or sorghum or cane molasses
1 oz. chile powder*

Mix all ingredients and bring to a boil, stirring often. Reduce heat and simmer 5-6 minutes. Bottle and refrigerate, preferably several days before its use. To serve, re-heat. This is ideal on pork, but does a fine job on chicken, too.

*You can use commercial chile powder, but I prefer to make my own:

1 c. crushed, dried chile pods, stems and caps removed (I used chile from Chimayo, NM--a fruity, medium-hot pepper)
2 T. sweet ground chile
1 t. whole cumin seeds
1-2 t. ground chipotle
1 t. garlic powder
1 t. oregano powder

Place crushed chile pods and cumin in a skillet. Toast until just giving off fragrance. Remove from heat and cool. Grind in a coffee grinder in batches. Stir in remaining ingredients. Keep in an airtight jar.

Monday, June 14, 2010

First cooking memory: Chocolate Meringue Pie

711 E. 17th St., Little Rock, Arkansas.

1964. Summer.

I wasn't tall enough to stand over the cooktop and stir the filling. My perspective on Nanny's pie-making was this: if I circled around, at eye level we would have the bottom of the iron skillet resting on the grate, the blue flame underneath, the yellow formica with the boomerangs. Then the bottom of Nanny's arm, her thinned-out skin sagging and undulating with the stir of the spoon. Then the tie of her apron. Behind me the open window--waves of heat washing in on the breeze--and around to the icebox, and continuing to the doorway into the living room, and finally back over the counter to the stirring and the black iron, steam rising now as the sugar and cocoa and flour and milk and a pinch of salt started to cook.

My boy cousins giggling and shrieking as they ran around and around the house, in and out of the bushes. Long, low cars passing the house, indolent, men with one arm on the steering wheel and the other stretched along the back of the passenger seat. KALO, souuuuuuuuul radio, approaching and fading with the cars.

I wanted to make that pie, and knew I could, if only I could reach it.

Nanny brought over the stepstool. It, too, was yellow, its seat a padded vinyl, and its steps ridged rubber treads. Its legs were chrome, and usually I sat on the seat as I watched her, but this time was different. She steadied me on the bottom step and walked me through: into a clean skillet went the dry ingredients (what I didn't spill on the floor). As I teetered on the step, she fetched the milk out of the icebox and a measuring cup. She poured the milk in and told me to yell "stop" when it reached that line right there, and I did. I stirred as she poured the milk in the skillet and she showed me how to keep the mixture moving along the bottom, and what it looked like when it was thick enough to take off the heat.

"It's like Moses parting the Red Sea, see there? See how the river parts and lets the Israelites cross?"

She showed me how to separate eggs, and didn't say a word when it took 7 or 8 to get the 3 clean whites and yolks into the two bowls. I beat the yolks with a fork, and spooned a bit of the hot chocolate mixture into them at her prompting (Nanny didn't use the word "temper"--I doubt if she'd ever heard it), and put them back into the skillet, my young arm already tiring from the endless stirring.  She didn't grab the spoon away when the first bubble boiled up, and stayed calm as she told me to turn the fire off.

Then the butter and vanilla, and stir, stir, stir, until that knob of butter finished its spiral trail and was all gone.

Looking back now, I'm sure Nanny must have hoisted the skillet on and off the heat and managed the flame surreptitiously, but I only recall feeling very sovereign.  I do remember her holding the skillet over the baked pie shell as I clumsily scooped (most of) the filling in, but even then she adopted the stance of handmaiden.  We beat the meringue together and spread and sculpted it on top of the chocolate filling. I wonder if she had to bite her lip to allow such a disheveled set of cowlicks and spikes to abide on the top of that pie. She didn't act like it.

A quick goldening in the oven and there it was.

My first one.

There was no fawning and cooing, no badge or ribbon.  Baking a pie in Arkansas in 1964 was just what girls learned. It was like making a bed with hospital corners or knowing how to dry your own back with a towel.

But the celebration was there nonetheless. The washing and sewing were postponed. Eggs were wasted. An extra chocolate pie was made on that day, when normally she would have made one chocolate and one lemon.

She tied the apron around me, just as solemnly as she would have set a crown on my head.

I had made my first pie.

Nanny deemed it good. I hope you like it, too.

Southern-Style Chocolate Meringue Pie

4 T. flour
Pinch salt
1 c. sugar
1/3 c. cocoa
2 c. milk (start with a small can of evaporated milk, top off with whole milk to make 2 c.)*
3 eggs, separated
1 T. vanilla
3 T. salted butter (Nanny used salted; I use unsalted, but add a bigger pinch of salt to the dry ingredients)
5 T. sugar
Pinch of cream of tartar, optional

1 pre-baked pie shell (use your favorite recipe)

In an iron skillet, blend together the dry ingredients, mashing with fork to eliminate clumps of cocoa. Turn heat to medium and add milk, stirring constantly until thick enough that the spoon leaves a trail at the bottom of the skillet. Remove from flame. In a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks. Add 2-3 tablespoons or so, one at a time, of the hot chocolate mixture, beating well. Return skillet to flame and add the egg yolks, stirring quickly and thoroughly to incorporate and avoid scrambling or curdling. Cook, still stirring, until quite thick. Remove from heat and add vanilla and butter. Stir until the butter is melted and blended in. Set aside to cool slightly (about 10 minutes) before pouring into pre-baked pie shell. Spread evenly and top with meringue, spreading that to cover the filling completely (you should have a seal between meringue and crust—it will shrink away slightly when it’s baked, and you don’t want the filling exposed). Bake in a 400 degree oven for 4-5 minutes, watching closely, until the meringue peaks are golden.

Meringue: beat the egg whites until very foamy. While still beating, gradually add 5 T. sugar (and cream of tartar, if using) continue to beat until the meringue holds soft peaks, but is not dry.

*When I make this pie these days, I often just use 2 c. of half-n-half, or if I’m REALLY feeling brazen, cream. Nanny would have used plain old Hershey’s cocoa, but the better cocoas really elevate the flavor. Same with vanilla. Also, this filling makes a great warm chocolate pudding, topped with whipped cream, if you don’t have time to make a pie crust.