Preferring tradition to trends in food and drink

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July 14, 2004|By Rob Kasper | Rob Kasper,SUN STAFF

It is not every day you come across a writer willing to sing the praises of pork fat, fruitcake and Champagne rose. But James Villas does this with precision and passion in Stalking the Green Fairy (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2004, $26.95), a delightful collection of essays about fine drink and good food.

A veteran magazine journalist possessed, in his words, with "a seasoned gullet," Villas was the food and wine editor of Town & Country magazine for 27 years and in 2003 was named Bon Appetit's Food Writer of the Year.

While lacking the narrative flow of his 2002 memoir, Between Bites, this collection of essays stirs up entertaining examples to make common-sense points and sprinkles in a few recipes.

On the whole, Villas thinks we would be better off honoring tradition instead of jumping at whatever is trendy. When, for instance, he is invited to a "cocktail" party, Villas expects to taste some booze. If, as happened at one gathering in the glittery climes of Manhattan, the only beverage being served is wine, Villas has been known to pull a flask of Jack Daniels from his jacket and make himself a highball.

"I resolutely do not drink wine at cocktail parties," he writes. "Wine, after all, is not - repeat not - a cocktail and when some gig is pegged as a cocktail party, is it really asking too much to have a simple gin and tonic or bourbon and branch?"

Wine's rightful place in the culinary firmament, he says in a later essay, is as a dinner companion. He suggests that a smart move when ordering top-dollar wine in a restaurant is to carry a vintage chart in your wallet. He carries one drawn up by Monkton's Robert Parker, publisher of The Wine Advocate newsletter.

Villas also makes a compelling case for drinking Champagne rose, the joyful, genuine article from France that costs more than $400 a bottle, or as he calculates, about $10 a sip.

Less convincing is his argument for drinking absinthe, the alcoholic drink made with wormwood. This liquid, known as the Green Fairy, has been praised through the years by poets, painters and composers. In the title essay of the book, Villas writes that while absinthe was once banned as a potential poison, it is making a legal comeback in most of Europe.

On matters edible, Villas, who has long been a champion of regional American fare, hits fine form when discussing the eating habits of his native South. The king of the Southern table, he says, is the pig. "When it comes not only to the art of curing, smoking, seasoning and cooking pig but also to outright consumption, nobody - repeat nobody - outperforms Southerners."

Anyone who makes fun of fruitcake, Villas contends, is either displaying ignorance or the fact that his mama couldn't bake. "Southerners like my mother ... not only still prepare the same luscious cakes made by their mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers but also spend days in the fall planning their baking schedules."

One weekend after reading his tributes to the regal pig, I felt the urge to follow his recipe for smoking a pork shoulder. The result was delicious. Then I used some of the leftover pork fat to make a recipe, printed twice in this book, for a salad with shrimp, peas and cracklin's. A seafood salad isn't truly Southern, Villas and his mama might say, without some cracklin's.

Shrimp-and-Pea Salad With Pork Cracklin's

Serves 6

2 pounds diced fresh steak-o-lean cooking meat (lean salt pork) or slab bacon

2 pounds fresh medium shrimp

1/2 lemon

2 1/2 cups cooked green peas

2 small dill pickles, diced

1 cup mayonnaise

3 tablespoons lemon juice

3 tablespoons heavy cream

1 teaspoon prepared white horseradish

salt and ground pepper to taste

curly endive (chicory )leaves

2 medium tomatoes, quartered for garnish

3 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and quartered for garnish

In a large, heavy skillet render the diced pork fat or bacon over moderate heat until crisp and golden-brown, about 20 minutes, watching carefully and reducing the heat if the fat threatens to burn. Drain the cracklin's on paper towels and reserve.

Place the shrimp in a large saucepan with enough salted water to cover, squeeze the lemon into the water, then toss it in. Bring to a boil, remove from the heat, let stand 1 minute, then drain. When the shrimp are cool enough to handle, shell, devein and place in a large mixing bowl. Add the peas and pickles, mix, then chill 1 hour, covered with plastic wrap.

In a small bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, lemon juice, cream, horseradish, and salt and pepper till well-blended. Add the shrimp to the mixture and toss till ingredients are well-coated.

Line a salad bowl with curly endive, mound the salad in the middle, sprinkle the top with reserved cracklin's and garnish with tomatoes and eggs.

Per serving: 820 calories; 56 grams protein; 59 grams fat; 14 grams saturated fat; 14 grams carbohydrate; 4 grams fiber; 414 milligrams cholesterol; 1,817 milligrams sodium

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