4/30/11 Swamp thing & sides

10 May


Southern cooking.  It’s almost mythic.  There are so many ways to go at it.  I thought every dish was fantastic, and found it interesting that most people cooked them straight up.  Not modern, not fancy, not deconstructed, not fused.

For inspiration, I bought this book on Soul Food, and it confirmed my suspicion.  Southern meals just aren’t complete without a mess of those yummy side dishes.  For my assigned 3nd course, I conferred with FrancineO (2nd course) and DavidP (4th course) and arranged to make three side dishes to accompany their dishes, plus corn bread and biscuits for the table.  About a week before, I found out that my cousin Alfonso from Sicily would be visiting NYC on business, and really the only time we could get together was saturday night.  I invited him at first as a secret guest of honor, but when JimK dropped out, I foisted appetizer cooking duties on him.  For Alfonso’s appetizer course, I thought it would be neat to try cooking a protein we don’t get too much of up here in the north, and certainly not in Sicily.  Alligator.

Since Sarah was cooking turtle soup, and the Gramercy Meat market seemed to have closed for a few days, I told her I’d source both our meats online from exoticmeatmarket.com.  Check out their website for some truly weird stuff.  I put my order in, and got an email saying that they didn’t have the ‘gator sirloin, would I take tenderloin for the same price?  Sure.  They email me a UPS 2-day air tracking number, which within hours is de-activated.  Hmmm.  This is tuesday.

Wednesday I call… “we’re waiting for the sirloin — would you be willing to buy a 5-lb pack instead of two 1-lb packages?” Sure… just get me the meat… this is making me nervous.

“No problem”.  New tracking number, again de-activated within a couple hours.  Hmmm.  Thursday I call again.

“It’s shipping out today, you’ll have it by friday, no problem.”

“Excuse me? 2-day air will get it here saturday, not friday.”

“No problem, we’ll pay for saturday delivery.”  Friday comes…

No tracking number.  I call.  “It just came in.  We’ll ship it overnight. — without dry ice, it’ll be almost thawed when you get it.  perfect”  I wake up every few hours overnight and track it’s progress all the way to New York City — “Out for delivery”… this is gonna be close.  I come back from ICU rounds, and wait… I check the computer again… “1st attempt delivery exception, customer not available, next delivery attempt monday”!!!  AAAccckkk!!!

I’m ballistic.  I run down to the street — no truck.  I call UPS and endure the gauntlet of  customer service automated responses and please hold for the next available agent until I get a human on the line.  Ironically, it’s a woman with a lovely southern accent.  “Sir, are you still located on West Broadway?”  “WEST broadway????”  Noooooo.  Just Broadway.  She promises to try to contact the driver, or worst case scenario I can pick it up at the facility.  I hop on my bike and start cruising the ‘hood looking for big brown.  I find a truck parked down by the Apple store and stake it out ’till the driver returns.  “Do you have a package for West Broadway?”  “yes… I was wondering, that address doesn’t exist”  She checks my ID and hands me the box.  I look at the address.  It says “Broadway”.  No W., no West???  Somehow in their system it morphed to west, and so when it was scanned, it said west, but address on the box was fine.  Whatever.   Definitely cuttin’ it close.

Exotic meats

For the sides I chose chow chow, which is like a spicy cross between pickallili and cole slaw,

Chowchow fixin's

Hoppin’ John which is slow cooked rice and beans (black-eyed peas),

simmerin' hoppin' john

and Collard greens.

Greens that stand up to a long simmer

For all three of the sides, I read as many recipes as I could find until I got the gist of them, and then I kind of winged it.  Both the Hoppin’ John and the Collard greens called for a slow simmer in the same pot and liquid that a ham hock has cooked.  Our neighborhood Associated Market has smoked ham hocks which is what I used.

Impossible to overcook

Hoppin' John

For the alligator, I wanted a really simple prep.  I’d had alligator before, but it was cajun spiced, and batter fried, and in a sandwich smothered with mayo.  For this dish, I wanted to be able to taste the meat.  I cubed a couple of the tenderloins,

Loins of 'gator

and marinated them in buttermilk under a vacuum.

I love this machine

Then we drained them, lightly dredged in flour, salt, pepper, and pan fried in butter.

Il Maestro

After Alfonso cooked the gator, he deglazed the pan with a little white wine, and thickened it for a sauce.  It was served on a bed of alfalfa sprouts (symbolizing the swamp), and a lemon wedge.


Keeping with the southern theme, I chose three white wines from Sicily, and let Alfonso pick the one he wanted to serve with the dish.  Without coaching, he picked the one I would have chosen based on the description:

“Made just southwest of Marsala, this golden white wine exudes deeply smoky aromas. On the palate there is a tangy, almost briny minerality that pairs extremely well with seared scallops.” “Timpune” Grillo, Caruso and Minini – 2008

The cornbread was the denser, flatter southern-style, made with white corn, and poured into a smoking hot cast iron griddle with bacon grease.

Hot, hot hot!

The biscuits were buttermilk and shortening, and made kind of in a rush.  I was going to cut them round, but ended up spoon-dropping them ’cause it was faster.  I couldn’t taste the difference.

By the way, Alfonso had a great time.  He’s definitely a foodie and the whole clan over there embodies slow-cooking from before it even had a name.  He and his siblings (engineers & architects) built a wood-burning pizza oven at their country home based on an traditional design dating back to the etruscans.

Pizza night

They press their own olive oil, and jar their own homemade tomato sauce.  He and his wife took Francine and I for what amounted to a personal food tour of Sicily when we were there.  I’ve rarely eaten better.

San Vito Lo Capo, '06

I’m glad he is now part of the collective.  We’re international!  I think it was a meal like none he’s ever had before, and probably won’t have again at least for a long, long time.  Thanks everyone.

PS: there’s no statute of limitations regarding posting a few words about your dish — post it yourself, or send me an email, I can add photos or not.

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