Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Lee Brothers! Ponies! Pimento Cheese!

I don't quite know how it all began.

Did it stem from a secret desire to be a professional riverboat gambler/southern hostess?

Was it my disappointment in not having been born or raised in the South and the subsequent realization that I would remain an outsider no matter how fucking delicious my boiled peanuts are?

Was it my severe crush on both of the Lee brothers and my envy of their career trajectory? My fondness for the Kentucky Derby, or, more specifically, Derby Day Parties?

Probably all of the above.

Derby day had come around again. For some, the Kentucky Derby is a two minute horse race that occupies NBC's airwaves for an entire Saturday afternoon. For others, it's a day where Southerners, both actual and wannabe, convene at Churchill Downs, filling the stands and fields, gussied up and turned out in their spring finery. After the millinerial train wreck that was England's Royal Wedding, this felt like America's emulation, except with horses. And much nicer hats.

For me, the Derby is something else. Kentucky Derby Day is one of three days that I am permitted to gamble. Let me explain:

Several years ago, my husband was witness to my side of an involved telephone consultation with my father, who was explaining the intricacies of betting a partial wheel. Karl casually remarked on how my eyeballs had turned into spinning cartoon slot-machine wheels, declared me a "degenerate gambler in training" and made me promise I would only visit the OTB three times a year, and ONLY during the races of The Triple Crown.

"Bet? Bet bet? Bet bet be-bet be-bet-bet!!!"

I think my mother has tried for years to extract a similar promise from my father, with much less success. I love to gamble. I love risk. I love the possibility of winning. I am, however, self-actualized enough to know that I am no expert handicapper, although if I spent enough time with my dad, I bet I could pick it up. My fatal flaw? I'm an eternal optimist, which any degenerate will tell you is the worst type of gambler. So I gamely (no pun intended) accepted Karl's thrice a year restriction.

As any child development specialist can tell you, this has made Derby Day even MORE exciting for me, since it's now sanctioned gambling. Oo!

But then... Last December, Governor Paterson closed OTB parlors after the State Senate determined the bankrupt operation to be unsalvageable. Not for nothing, but how fucking corrupt does a legal gambling operation have to be to LOSE MONEY?

So, no OTB for me. And as I had been busy with catering and work and the like, I hadn't had time to visit the track to place a bet. I tried to figure it out online, but the US online betting sites had been closed down and I couldn't figure out how to convince anyone I lived in the Bahamas with my Astoria address, so I had to call my dad.

But then... I remembered that my dad was recovering from knee replacement surgery since late March and has been seriously restricted in his secret "movies in the afternoon/track in the early evening" schedule. He hadn't looked at a racing form in over a MONTH. Holy Jesus!

My mom figured out that I was asking him to sneak off to place a bet for me, I heard her yell, "Your father doesn't gamble anymore! It's awfully hard to sneak off to the track when you can't walk unsupervised!"

She had a point, but I "had a feeling." I had picked Dialed In (favorite), Pants on Fire (highly rated, fast, and, most importantly, ridden by a female jockey), and Twice The Appeal (ridden by Calvin Borel who has won other Kentucky Derbies) in a boxed trifecta. My dad said, "Well, they're all crap three-year-olds... no stand outs... but okay. I'll stop at the track in between dropping off your mother at a Japanese Mother-Daughter Luncheon and the Mexican Wedding that we're invited to at three, today." Awesome!

About halfway through the afternoon my dad called, said he had placed the bet and that I should text him the winning horses (numbers, not names) because he would be at a wedding and unable to take a phone call.

Also, he's psyched, because he has placed a bet for himself that he thinks is good and has a better shot than mine. OK. It turns out that he had four of the five horses in a boxed superfecta, but NOT the 1 horse. Tragic. Neither of us won anything, but he came very, very close while I was completely wrong...

Oh, wait... the FOOD. Right. You don't want to hear about my secret love affair with gambling, you want to hear about the FOOOOOD.

The Lee Brothers are cooks I have long admired; Their voice is so clear in their cookbooks, and their meal ideas and recipes are just stellar. Their New York Times article about oyster roasts inspired an entire chapter in Forking Fantastic! and was the basis for this dinner.

Imagine my genuine surprise and pleasure when it turned out that we were all scheduled commentators on Seasons Two and Three of Unique Eats. My first trip for the show involved eating at six Atlanta restaurants in two and a half days. When I arrived in the Hot-lanta airport and sleepily wandered onto the rental car tram queue (dumbest fucking idea ever, incidentally -- I positively HATE that system), I saw Matt Lee ahead of me and tried to introduce myself but got tongue tied. Then I stumbled while getting onto the tram as the doors were closing and, um, fell on him. It turns out that he was there for Unique Eats, too, so we ended up having dinner together at JCT later that night. It was a delightful meal and I tried not to be ridiculous.

I am more than a little jealous of the Matt and Ted Lee, mainly because they know people in Charleston, SC and get invited into GORGEOUS homes there for dinners and brunches. They know real-live, ACTUAL Southern Hostesses.

Sometimes, I feel like I could live a very happy life living in a mansion (with a ballroom) in a small southern town, giving parties and dinners and gardening and running the city council or some such. But the only hitch is that because I hail from ARIZONA, I will always be an outsider. Auslander... (the Germans always know how to really stick the insult.)

No matter how light or flaky my biscuits, or how soft and juicy my boiled peanuts, how crisp and flavorful my fried chicken... I will always be a girl who grew up on Navajo fry-bread and enchiladas in the desert, because I will NEVER BE A SOUTHERNER.

Bitter? No. Jealous? Truly.

But the Lee Brothers? Born, bred and Certified. I thought their cooking would be the ideal menu inspiration for a Derby Day Oyster Roast. What better way to spend the afternoon than to huddle around the grill at our first backyard Sunday Night Dinner of the season, sucking hot, briny oysters out of their shells and eating pimento cheese on toast and boiled peanuts? I mean, really.

As I delved a little further into The Lee Brothers' Southern Cookbook, I found this recipe for Luau-style BBQ pork shoulder that intrigued me.

Rub a Boston Butt Pork Shoulder with spices and salt, wrap in whole collard leaves, tie with butcher string, double wrap in aluminum foil and roast on a rack over a pan of water at 450° degrees for 3 to 4 hours.

WTF... 450 degrees? Really?

Madness. Even with the water in the pan, it made no sense to me. They called it "Luau Style Roast Pork". 450 degrees, I repeat, Four Hundred and Fifty Degrees. For FOUR HOURS.

I splurged for this one, and ordered a gorgeous Niman Ranch Pork Shoulder and followed the recipe.

Mostly. Okay, so I didn't really measure the spices and added a few of my own, but I certainly followed the spirit of the recipe, if not the letter. The collard leaf wrapping job looked like it was done by Andrea Boccelli, but hey, I never claimed to be an artist. I put it into the oven on 450°. I figured if it ended up a charred disaster, (which I was confident it would) we still had plenty of oysters and vegetables to keep folks fed.

Uh, yeah. This is what it's A-SPOSED to look like...

Turns out, I had to replenish the pan water a few times to the pan so the meat would keep on roasting/steaming. I resisted the almost overwhelming urge to defy the Lee Brothers and reduce the oven temperature, but I didn't do that, and when I unwrapped those wrapped babies, well, I was glad that for once in my life I allowed myself to trust a recipe (almost) completely. The pork turned out so juicy, so flavorful, so aromatic and was just falling apart. It was unbelievable.

The collards had virtually disintegrated, and had become bits and pieces mixed in with the meat and juice and broke up the flesh of the pork with beautiful splashes of green. It made me wish I had made ten more pounds of it.

While the pork was roasting its little heart out, I moved on to the boiled peanuts, a big favorite in our house.
Know what's good in boiled peanuts? A little beer!

A brine of water, cider vinegar, salt, chili peppers and a sack of raw peanuts, shell on, boiled to within an inch of their little lives, meaning four hours or more.
Leftover collards went into a pot with ham broth from deep in our freezer (I just KNEW I would eventually use it!) salt, cider vinegar and a bit of butter. Faintly porky and very green and delicious.

Black eyed peas were soaked overnight, got rinsed and were put in a deep pot with big chunks of sauteed slab bacon (Schaller & Weber double smoked), onions, garlic and water.

Know what's good in blackeyed peas? A little beer!

I simmered them about an hour and a halfish, then finished them with a touch of salt and sherry vinegar. Just enough to brighten the flavor a bit. (Sherry Vinegar, incidentally, is tied for 8th wonder of the world. Along with Miso.)

The Asparagus, Spring Onions and whole Favas were washed, tossed with olive oil and salt and lovingly seared on a hot charcoal grill.

Made me think of the spring Calcotada festivals.

Cucumbers, shaved thinly on the mandoline, then tossed with dill and sugared vinegar. Something about the combination of sugar, salt and vinegar makes me crazy with deeelight.

Salt Boiled Potatoes. Who needs jalapeño poppers when you can have Wee Salt Boiled Potatoes?

Perfect and wonderful eaten plain, and at room temperature, you can make them in about twenty minutes and then let them sit. I like to just pop one in my mouth while I am working, so I don't end up drunk from not eating anything. The perfect snack.

Ah, Pimento Cheese. Much has been written about Pimento.

I have been told that any Southerner worth their salt has a family recipe. I decided to call in the Big Guns for this task, namely, Lynn McNutt. Lynn is from Jacksonville, FL and is an old friend of a friend (Nicole Golden, aka The Golden.) The girl knows her Pimento. So I got The Golden to request the recipe.

Ask and ye shall receive. Lynnybird not only unassed the recipe, but gave me specific instructions about how much beer should be consumed at each stage of preparation, you know, for a clear palate, so you could really nail the "science part" of the recipe. Like me, Lynn has little use for actual measuring, so she just gives you a list of ingredients and tells you to keep adding, keep tasting, and, above all, keep drinking. Someone should give this woman a cookbook, ah tell you whut.

The siren song of McNutt Family Pimento Cheese was so powerful, that it brought The Golden by during the actual Derby Running. She ate some, drank a little, and took the leftovers home.

Note ladylike pinky extension when shwigging a beer...

Now, that's a woman who never forgot her roots...

People trickled in all afternoon, ate oysters fresh off the grill, successfully willed the rain away, and generally enjoyed being at a dinner outside for the first time this season.

The first day in the yard is always so refreshing. I felt the warm weather coming on and realized... holy shit... I needed a pedicure, stat! It also reminded me that I could eat grilled oysters four times a week and never tire of them. I think I need to revamp the budget a little to get that happening.

After some of us watched the race, I broke out our dessert: Ambrosia, inspired by Jennifer Williams, who had brought a fabulous batch to Easter Dinner at my house a few weeks earlier. I whisked sour cream, heavy cream, a touch of sugar and dry sherry together, and then tossed it with fresh and canned pineapple, canned peaches and mandarin oranges, grapes, blackberries and dried unsweetened coconut.

I could eat this dish every day. I originally planned to make a buttermilk pound cake to serve it over, but I realized that would be gastronomic folly. After a gut-busting afternoon of oysters, pork and vegetables a little fruit salad was he right call.

The grill cooled and was covered, the chairs were brought in, the patio was hosed clean. Hundreds of oyster shells waited out front in industrial strength black trash bags for the trash men.

I had got my gamble on, and learned an important lesson about trusting the recipe without having to endure a lecture.

Mission. Accomplished.