Back in the 1990s, New Orleans kidnapped the word “creole” and threw it into a pot of hot roux. Not nice! Did a fertile, far-reaching concept like creole deserve to be appropriated by a single city or cuisine? Indeed, no. We cast this conceit facetiously, but when we hear the word “creole” tossed around casually like an ordinary lowercase adjective we get a little huffy. Creole influence combines Old World, New World, and African culinary culture. Today, a description of African influence in creole cuisine has devolved to suggest merely “Caribbean,” but such a perspective diminishes creole’s sphere of influence. Anything truly creole has a big chunk of western Africa attached to it—it is as simple and as complicated as that. The apparently unconnected histories of the recipes in this newsletter turn out to have a beautiful commonality: yes, they are all creole! Tracking Southern food traditions as they bounce from continent to continent is fascinating if you love the chase. And we do, especially when the resultant discoveries come wrapped in seductive flavors.
We begin with rice for breakfast and our continuing fascination with the vast but now nearly vanished imprint of rice breads on Antebellum cuisine. Calas, aka rice beignets, fuse African and French-Caribbean fritter and bread traditions. Yeast-risen, light and warm, with a moistness at their centers punctuated by occasional soft kernels of Carolina Gold rice and an exterior reminiscent of tiny crystals hammered from hard candy, good calas practically scream N’awlins. And why not? Black women were hawking calas from food carts down there before Louisiana was even part of the United States. They are totally addictive, and drop dead easy to make. Watch out!
These shallow pan-fried citrus-cured sea scallops dusted in oat and rice flour come by way of our guys at the mill who, in addition to farming and milling, also cook with Anson Mills products everyday. It was they who prompted us to share the recipe with you. If that isn’t enough, chefs have been using Anson Mills oat flour for years to provide lightness, a crisp finish, and a furtive caramel spice nuance to pan-fried dishes. Combined with Carolina Gold Rice Flour, Anson Mills 18th Century Style Rustic Toasted Oat Flour produces a wondrously flavored ultimate crisp finished texture in any black skillet fry-down. The combination is a beautiful mash-up of Afro-Caribbean and Huguenot creole foodways.
The elements of this dish are simple: deep-fried coarse polenta under a drift of finely rasped Reggiano. But a literal description falls far short of conveying how utterly sublime it is. The wedges are thick, the finish uniformly crisp and craggy, the flavor a jolt of fried corn, and the interior, hot buttered mush that stays just on the firm side of tender. Obviously, crisp polenta goes to flavors emanating from Italy. Our polenta integrale, curiously, is made from Caribbean origin maize that by the mid 1500s migrated to what is now the Trentino–Alto Adige region of Italy.
After my (Kay’s) good buddy Adam Ried served me an irresistible piperade with scrambled eggs for breakfast last fall, I had a feeling this gorgeous French Basque sauce/condiment might offer a colorful umami counterpoint to our crisp-finished polenta (see above). So I asked Dawn Yanagihara to work up a version based on Adam’s notes. (Are there any seconds, please?) Thus did piperade become a little Cook’s Illustrated reunion recipe for the three of us! This is truly a condiment phenom, all silky roasted peppers sweated in olive oil with onions, garlic, and tomatoes. It is superb on nearly everything. Our particular take on this Basque classic eliminates the modern green bell pepper altogether in favor of its sweeter red sister, and forsakes perforce the racy, fresh piment d’Espelette, a New World origin pepper that arrived in Basque country at about the same time as did our polenta corn in Italy, for its dried counterpart. The legacies of both polenta and piperade suggest creole connections in African and native Caribbean cookery.
Laissez les bon temps rouler, y’all, and Good Food!