Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Ruth's Key Lime Pie

If one dessert defined my childhood it was Ruth's Key Lime Pie. With a tangy, creamy center and billowing, ethereal meringue it was quite simply heaven.

Every summer I awaited our family trips to Jacksonville, Florida with the anticipation most children reserve for Christmas. I craved the ocean and the sand, but mostly I yearned for Ruth. To me she embodied every familial female figure. She would hug and commiserate and champion me throughout my life, and most of this happened inside the sturdy, old walls of our beach house kitchen.

Ruth Penn began cooking for my grandmother and her sister in the summer of 1973 (or thereabouts). During the rest of the year she worked for the Duval County Public School System cooking in schools around the city.

"I loved it. It was my passion," she says. "Feeding other people; watching them eat."

At home, Ruth had her own nine children to feed, and really that was her initial impetus for cooking. Ironically, as a child herself, growing up in Annapolis, Maryland, Ruth Lililan Johnson had little interest in the kitchen.

"I was an outside person," she says. "i liked to be gone!"

However, good cooking surrounded Ruth -- this she could not escape. Her father loved food and cooked everything from local vegetables to leg of lamb. And her grandmother ran a small baking business from her home kitchen. Ruth and her siblings spent a few days every week at her house -- watching and helping with pound cakes, cobblers and her famous dinner rolls.

When Ruth married James Penn Jr. (known affectionately as "Penn") she moved to a naval base in Portsmouth, Virginia. It was there that she remembers cooking her first big meal. Penn's family made the trip up from North Carolina, bringing a ham and such, but she had to prepare the greens, which she knew nothing about. Penn guided her through the cleaning of the greens, and then Ruth just threw them in a pot with water and a piece of meat. Ruth laughs now remembering the family arriving to greens floating in a pot of water.

"Girl, you don't know how to cook greens!" they said. Then they took the greens out of the water and started over.

But over the years Ruth taught herself the ways of the kitchen through trial and error -- cooking everything from spaghetti to fried chicken and finally Key lime pie.

She remembers that in the early 80s my grandmother came to the beach after a trip to Key West raving about this pie. She even brought Ruth a postcard with the recipe on it. Ruth had never heard of it but just followed the instructions on that card, and that's what she has been doing every summer since.

Ruth believes that the trick to the pie is in the meringue. "You have to make sure it's whipped to a certain level and browned to perfection," she says. And I agree.

But I also believe the true secret lies in Ruth and the love she imparts with every bite.


Here's the recipe. Please note the only changes I have made are in regards to the meringue and crust. Like Ruth I believe the meringue is the reason folks love this pie so much. Therefore, I have created a recipe for a very sturdy meringue that holds up well at the restaurant. It is a bit more complicated than hers but worth the trouble in my opinion.

Second, the crust. Ruth simply uses a frozen, store bought crust that she fills and bakes with the filling. (There is no pre-baking.) I totally support this move for the home cook. Pie crust can be problematic if you are not accustomed to its nuances. However, if you are a veteran with homemade pie dough then I advise making it and pre-baking your crust before add the Key lime filling to insure extra flakiness.

Expect a blog devoted strictly to "from-scratch" pie dough/crust soon!

And remember you can always check out the menu on our website to see if Ruth's Key Lime Pie is featured -- www.ilovetheglassonion.com -- usually on Fridays, but I might make one tomorrow!

Ruth’s Key Lime Pie
4 eggs
1 can condensed milk
½ cup Joe and Nell’s Key lime juice (Ruth prefers this brand!)
1 pre-baked pie crust
1 batch of meringue (see recipe below)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Separate the eggs. Put all egg yolks into one bowl, one white into another, and reserve remaining 3 whites for meringue (see recipe below.) Add condensed milk and key lime juice to bowl of yolks. Whisk to combine. Beat one egg white until frothy and fold into the bowl of yolks. Pour the filling into prebaked crust. Dollop the meringue on top of the filling (making sure to seal the edges). Bake until the meringue browns, about 20 minutes.

YIELD: 1 pie; 8 slices

6 egg whites
¾ teaspoon cream of tartar
¾ cup of sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/3 cup water
1 teaspoon vanilla
Pinch of salt

Combine egg whites in a large bowl. Beat with an electric mixer until foamy. Add cream of tartar and beat until body begins to build. Gradually add sugar and beat until moderately stiff peaks form. Reserve.

Combine cornstarch, water, vanilla and salt in a small saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring, until gel forms.

Spoon cornstarch mixture into egg white mixture and beat to combine. At this point, your meringue should be stable and shiny.

Yield: Meringue for 1 pie (Double for a tart!)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Country Captain -- The Story and Recipe!

I have to admit that as a child I was not a fan of Country Captain. Its ubiquitous presence at any gathering requiring a covered dish and its “exotic” flavors of curry, raisins and almonds did not enamor me. But my family’s strong allegiance to this fancy chicken stew finally won me over.

They claim it was invented in my hometown of Columbus, Georgia and much requested by dignitaries ranging from General Patton to President Franklin Roosevelt. “Google” the dish, and you will find stories tracing it all the way back to Bengali, India where British officers were called “Country Captains.” Supposedly, one such officer brought the recipe with him to Savannah, Georgia and thus a culinary legend was born.

Lord knows where the truth lies, but my family passed down a rough version of this recipe for generations. I have honed it a bit myself, and at the GO we have “restaurantfied” it down to simply a chicken breast. Here, you will find the perfect home version using a whole chicken. It yields dinner for two with plenty of leftovers or dinner for four if some folks are happy eating just dark meat.

Country Captain
1 ½ cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 whole chicken (3 to 4 pounds), rinsed and cut into serving pieces
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup chopped yellow onion
1 cup chopped green bell pepper
½ cupped chopped celery
2 tablespoons yellow curry powder
2 cloves of Garlic, thinly sliced
1 bay leaf
6 cups canned whole peeled tomatoes, crushed with their juices
1 cup chicken stock
1 tablespoon Crystal Hot Sauce
1 tablespoon Worcestershire Sauce
½ tablespoon dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon tomato paste
Few sprigs of fresh thyme, tied into a bundle with kitchen twine
½ cup raisins
1/2 cup sliced toasted almonds

Combine the flour, 1 teaspoon salt and the black pepper in a large shallow dish and stir to blend. Dredge the chicken pieces in the flour mixture, coating evenly. Shake off any excess. Set aside.

Heat the oil and 1 tablespoon butter in a large heavy pot over medium-high heat. Cook the chicken, in batches, until lightly browned, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Transfer the chicken to paper towels to drain; set aside.

Add the remaining tablespoon butter to the saucepan and add the onions, bell peppers, celery, curry powder, garlic and bay leaf. Cook, stirring, until the vegetables are soft, about 5 minutes.

Add the tomatoes, chicken stock, hot sauce, Worcestershire, brown sugar, tomato paste, thyme and the remaining teaspoon salt. Stir to blend, bring to a simmer and then reduce the heat to medium. Add the chicken and cook, stirring occasionally, until very tender but not falling off the bones, about 50 minutes. Add the raisins and cook until plump, about 10 minutes longer. Serve hot over steamed white rice. (At the restaurant we use jasmine rice.) Garnish with the almonds.

Yield: 2 to 4 servings

P.S. If you are happy to find a GO recipe then you will be even happier knowing that I am hard at work on our cookbook, which will hopefully be published in the next six months. As always, stay tuned to our website for updates -- www.ilovetheglassonion.com -- come and get it!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Who Is the Woman Behind the Golden Eggs?

Celeste Albers is an iconic figure in the Lowcountry farming community. Her Sea Island Eggs are coveted by Charleston restaurants, and at the Glass Onion we are lucky to serve them.

Cracking one open reveals a yolk as golden as a sunset. They literally make our bearnaise, deviled eggs and desserts. During the heat of summer when the hens simply refuse to lay enough, we enter a time of mourning. We substitute other high quality, farm fresh eggs, but the bearnaise turns a pale yellow more reminiscent of the washed out midday sun than its evening splendor.

So, who is the woman behind the golden eggs? Celeste’s roots lie in the Lowcountry. Her grandfather shrimped in Bulls Bay and ran a country store on Highway 17 near Awendaw. However, her father left farming to earn an accounting degree and wound up working for DuPont in Delaware. She remembers that he hated his job, and he eventually ended up back in Awendaw farming the family land.

In 1993 Celeste moved down with her baby daughter Erin and joined him. She began selling their produce at the fledgling Charleston Farmers Market. There she met George Albers who was selling his own produce. Celeste remembers that George used to stop by her booth, buy some of her wild blackberries and chat for a while.

“It was the blackberries that did it,” says Celeste. “George stole me away from my dad, and before you knew it we had one booth instead of two.”

Together, they have navigated the rough terrain of making a living off the land. They have grown vegetables, shrimped and finally raised chickens and cows. None of it has proven easy, especially since they lease rather than own their property -- negating any meager security you might expect a farmer to have. Furthermore, they physically labor every day of the year.

But Celeste maintains that she would rather this than a lifetime of working a job she hates. These days they do seem to have found their niche -- focusing on their egg and raw milk production. And amongst those in the know their product has achieved a cult-like following.

At the Glass Onion we regularly receive phone calls from avid Celeste fans wanting to reserve their eggs and milk, and I truly understand their reverence. Right now, during the egg drought I reserve her eggs for use only in our bread pudding, and with each of the 40 eggs I crack -- I give thanks to Celeste.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Memories of Whole Fried Fish

Nothing makes me happier than food memories, and I especially love when diners at the GO share theirs with me. Just last week we ran a whole fried fish for the first time. We were all very excited about the dramatic presentation of this gorgeous, local snapper, and we were especially thrilled when some regulars ordered it for lunch.

After giving them a few minutes, I approached the couple’s table and asked what they thought. They both agreed it was exquisite, and then the gentleman regaled me with the memory this fish elicited. Years ago, they rented a cottage on Long Island overlooking the water. One morning, they witnessed a huge commotion -- a school of blue fish churned the sea. Local fishermen also noticed and came with a seine net. They surrounded the school with the net and hauled in hundreds of fish. The gentleman walked down and asked if he could buy one. “Sure,” replied the fisherman, “One dollar!” The gentleman took the fish back to their cottage, cleaned it and fried it whole for lunch.

His eyes lit up as he told this story, and his wife smiled while listening intently -- two people clearly transported to another time.