Small dishes

Small dishes

By
Brad McDonald
Contains
17 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
ISBN
978 1849497206
Photographer
Andy Sewell

Put some spice on it

If you say toe-mah-toe, I’ll say toe-may-toe. But if you say chilli, I’ll say pepper. For us, chilli is a dish made on the prairie with tomatoes, spices, (sometimes) beans and braised meats. In the South we love chilli, but it’s not a dish we created.

‘Chile’, on the other hand, is another term we use for a hot pepper, as well as a country that grows a lot of peppers. If you’re looking for a green chile, for instance, you’re asking for something that’s noticeably hot like a jalapeño or a serrano, but never a sweet bell pepper. It may be confusing at first, but it just boils down to this: we’ve got red, yellow, orange and green bell peppers. They’re all ‘sweet’ peppers, but everything else is a chile. So, you can put chile in your chilli, but never the other way around.

The Southern climate is ideal for growing all types of subtropical peppers, so we appreciate both sweet and hot varieties. The green bell pepper forms part of the ‘holy trinity’ of ingredients, along with onion and celery, in Cajun and Creole cuisine – an ordained pepper.

The biggest brand of hot sauce is the McIlhenny family’s Tabasco, the internationally renowned sauce made from the eponymous pepper (not cayenne). But its main local rival is Louisiana Hot Sauce, to which the die-hards hold on fiercely. Hot sauce has therefore become a territorial issue rather than one of flavour – and the line might even be drawn through your own living room. Maybe it’s that some locals consider Tabasco a bit ‘fancy-pants’, or maybe it’s about machismo and how hot Southern men like their sauce, but I like the nuance of each, and many others too.

I’m not the type to eat anything as a test of strength or will; I want to eat for deliciousness. The capsaicin in the chillies sets off endorphins in your body that work to open up the flavour receptors on your tongue – so choose your sauce based on what you’re eating. When it comes down to it, to each his own.

On occasions

There seems to be an endless list of occasions when Southerners get together to eat and drink: Mardi Gras, Fourth of July, Easter, Christmas, Sunday potluck ‘dinner on the grounds’, revival breakfasts, bonfires, hunting picnics, ‘tailgate parties’ (where you picnic out of the back of the truck at a football game). We’ll throw a party for any reason at all.

If I’m honest, sometimes we don’t even need an excuse. It’s enough if it’s simply a Saturday and time to relax: springtime when crawfish are in good season, or when it’s finally been dry enough for you to get your crops in the ground.

When I was growing up, we most often did shrimp boils in my family. My father worked for the Department of Transportation in Mississippi, and he was on the road a lot. It wouldn’t be uncommon for him to come home with a cooler full of shrimp that had been brought up from the coast. Beautiful white Gulf shrimp that have the most amazing, sweet flavour. He would bring out the turkey fryer set-up. It’s a 10- or 12-gallon stockpot with a basket that fits inside and a butane burner underneath to supply the gas. It always ends up becoming an eat-with-your-hands meal.

At home we often fried catfish for occasions like this, too. There’s a catfish farm in Yazoo County where we got the cleanest-tasting fillets. We’d fry up hush puppies and French fries. There would be coleslaw on the table, tartare sauce and ketchup, and sweet tea, with lemon icebox pie and pecan pie for afterwards. It was a help-yourself sort of gathering, an intensely social way of cooking and eating. Everybody groups around the main cooking pot, enjoying the sunshine, sitting with friends in the shade. Who wouldn’t prefer that to a stiff dinner party?

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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