Fat Tuesday Finger Food

Three “Big Easy” Appetizers 

Our family is not great about observing Lent, but we LOVE celebrating Mardi Gras. We usually forget about Friday being meat-free [hello, bacon], and cave on our abstentions around week two. When asked why they missed so many days of Sunday School in the winter, our kids told their teachers that “everyone knows you get powder day exemptions” November to March. Don’t know if the Pope’s approved that one, but it works for us. One year, the boys decided to ‘give up’ donuts for Lent, completely undermining the only bribery that had ever worked for getting them to Mass in the first place. They are a couple of clever whippersnappers, those boys. I’m so proud.

My gal Sazerac and her yummy etouffee.

My gal Sazerac and her yummy etouffee.

But back to Mardi Gras. I’m writing a piece about The Sazerac—one of my all-time favorite cocktails—for cityhomeCOLLECTIVE , so enlisted a specialized crew of my friends to help me out with an early photo shoot last week. I’m not gonna lie, it’s a little freaky planning my holiday life about three weeks earlier than I’m actually ready for Mardi Gras, but what’s a gal to do? Well, in this case, keep the food as simple and easy to throw together as possible, with a minimum of fuss and clean-up to boot. I’m swimming in backyard eggs from my hens, so making Southern-style deviled eggs with homemade pickled okra garnishes was an easy pick. I also snagged a big ‘ol wedge of Cajun-spiced  goodness crafted by one my favorite Utah cheesemakers, Beehive Cheese, which ended up as part of an addictive filling for mushroom caps finished off in the oven right before the party. I love the savory-sweet combo of traditional Devil’s on Horseback, but changed them up a bit with Southern flavors: dates stuffed with smoked oil-packed jalapeños I put up last fall, watercress goat-cheese filling, and topped with locally-made Creminelli salumi. I’m tellin’ ya: Holy goddamn yum, y’all.

My gal Sazerac [from last Halloween’s Poison Apple party] brought fixins for crayfish etouffee and flash-fried grit cakes. She swears she just Googled “easy etouffee” and “Emeril,” and ended up with the recipe that she used and “tweaked it, maybe a little.” Well, we’re too polite to pry, but I’ll get to the bottom of this secret if I can. Oh, what I do for y’all in the name of research.

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Crawfish Etouffee

Crawfish Etouffee

 

Big John’s Cajun Stuffed ‘Shrooms 

Big John's Cajun Stuffed 'Schrooms

Big John’s Cajun Stuffed ‘Shrooms

These were the hands-down hit of the party. Even my man, who never eats mushrooms, scarfed down about five of these bad boys. I’m going to start making them all year ‘round, they are that good.

24 oz. baby portabella mushrooms, cleaned and stems removed

4 oz. cream cheese, softened to room temp

6 oz. Beehive Cheese “Big John Cajun,” finely shredded [divided use]

2 scallions, minced

¼ cup minced fresh red or orange bell pepper

½ tsp. kosher salt

¼ tsp. celery salt

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray a large rimmed baking sheet with cooking spray. Meanwhile, combine cream cheese, 4 oz. of the shredded cheese [save about 2 oz. for topping the mushrooms], veggies, and seasoning in a bowl using a fork to smash or in a food processor using quick on/off pulses. Divide filling between all the mushroom caps evenly, adjusting for size of the mushroom as needed. Sprinkle each cap with a bit of the remaining 2 oz. shredded cheese. Bake on the middle rack in the oven until cheese is slightly browned and filling is bubbly, about 15-20 minutes. Serve warm.

“Big Easy” Stuffed Dates

Dates with smoked preserved jalapenos, goat cheese-watercress filling, and Creminelli's "Campania" salami

Dates with smoked preserved jalapenos, goat cheese-watercress filling, and Creminelli’s “Campania” salami

I usually use some of my home-cured wild goose or antelope andouille to top cheese stuffed dates, but am plum out right now. We are huge fans of locally-made Creminelli artisan salami, and their slightly smoky spiced uncured “Campania” variety married wonderfully with the sweet dates, tart watercress, and creamy goat cheese. The smoked preserved jalapeños [from Hank Shaw’s fantastic blog] are completely optional but highly recommended.

5 oz. goat cheese, room temp

2 oz. cream cheese, softened to room temp

½ bunch fresh watercress [about ½ cup packed]

4 dozen large dates, split down one side to open and pits removed

3-4 oz. Creminelli “Campania” salami

2-3 oz. smoked preserved jalapeños, chopped

To a small food processor add cheeses and watercress, combine until smooth using on/off pulses. To each date, stuff first with a few pieces of smoked jalepeno, add about 1 tsp. [or slightly more, depending on the size of date] cheese filling. Slice salami into thin rounds, then cut each round again into 3-4 strips. Top each date with a strip of salami. Refrigerate for up to 24 hours or serve immediately.

Campania, Goat Cheese & Watercress Stuffed Dates

Campania, Goat Cheese & Watercress Stuffed Dates and Devilish Eggs with spicy okra

Devilish Eggs

Y’all know how to make perfect hard-boiled eggs with no grey ring, right? Place eggs in a shallow pan, cover with water, and bring to just a bare boil. Boil gently for one minute, then immediately turn off the heat and put a lid on the pan. Let eggs sit in the hot water for 12 minutes. Pour out the hot water, then cover eggs with cold running water and a few cubes of ice until cool to touch. Keep refrigerated until ready for use. 

Backyard Chicken Eggs. Good work, ladies!

Backyard chicken eggs make for the most gorgeous yolks!

Keep 'em coming, ladies!

Keep ’em coming, ladies!

6 eggs, hard boiled, peeled, and cut in half [reserve yolks in a separate bowl]

3 heaping Tablespoons mayo

3 heaping teaspoons country Dijon or coarse-grained Cajun mustard

Sliced rounds of pickled okra and red pepper for garnish

A few dashes of Louisiana hot sauce, optional

Smash egg yolks with a fork until fine grained and evenly crumbly. Mix in mayo and mustard, smash to combine well. Fill egg whites equally with yolk mix. Can be covered and refrigerated for up to 12 hours. Just before serving, garnish with pickled okra and pepper rounds, and a couple of dashes of hot sauce.

Devilish Eggs

Devilish Eggs

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Applaud the Pod: Okra, okra, okra!

Okra:  Pickled, fried, and in a martini.   pickle okra_martini

My first introduction to okra was in the form of cornmeal-crusted deep fried bites in a Louisville diner.  Crunchy, salty, greasy goodness.  Yum.  After that, I looked for okra all over the South, trying the pod in its many and various forms:  stewed with tomatoes, with onions and spice topping rice, folded into gumbo, and of course, fried.  Deep fried, pan fried, fried in bacon fat or peanut oil.

As a grown-up, though, my absolute favorite okra treat is a crunchy, spicy, garlicky okra pickle.  Even better if it’s a whole skewer full of them lined up on the rim of a Bloody Mary glass, or on the advice of my girlfriend who we’ll call Tennessee Redneck Martini, in place of olives for a truly bodacious dirty martini.  If this doesn’t convert you to okra, then I gladly throw in the towel.

When we lived in Phoenix (down the street from my aforementioned girlfriend TN Red Martini) I grew okra right alongside my artichoke plants, collard greens, and rainbow chard.  The desert growing season being both long and hot enough there to produce a bumper crop every year, provided I spent plenty of time watering.  Seeing the combination of crazy purple artichoke blooms, variegated chard, and spiky outrageous okra plants taller than me made me smile every day: it was like my own personal Little Shop of Horrors-slash-Tim Burton garden.   I swear some days you could watch an okra pod grow in one afternoon – like zucchini, you’ve got to watch those little bastards because they will get woody and fibrous on you in a matter of days, if not hours.

Since moving to the mountains, my okra-growing days appear to be over (or at least limited), but that hasn’t stopped me from gathering up bushels of okra when I see them fresh at the Asian market or farmer’s market.  You can tell okra pods are fresh if they are uniformly green, and the tip end is firm (not bendable); also check for bruises and dark spots, which indicate they are past their prime.  The cut end of the pod should be firm; trim the end off of the stem end to clean, but do not pierce the pod.

After much trial and error, I can share the following suggestions for making your own pickled okra, and then wish you the best of luck. You can also buy perfectly good pickled okra at most grocery stores, but where’s the fun in that?

The actual canning part of making okra pickle is pretty straightforward.  Gently pack all of your ingredients into sterilized jars, and then pour over the pickling liquid and process as usual.  But okra are tricky little buggers, and it’s taken me years of practice to get them to behave.  They are susceptible to bruising and bursting, and are notorious floaters.  One friend claims that he has one jar explode in the canner every time.  On the other hand, another friend’s jars are routinely only half-full of pickling liquid after processing.  I’ve tried pricking the pods with a needle on the advice of grandmas (which does limit floaters, but tends to make the pickling liquid gluey and cloudy), hand-packing the pods in the same direction, or alternating directions.

My advice: place the flavoring ingredients in the bottom of your jar, first.  Gently pack okra one at a time in the jars, filling jars as full as you can (it doesn’t matter which direction, but I like them all lined up the same way because it looks pretty).  Put long pods in pint jars, and the baby ones in squat half pint jars.  Avoid squishing, bending, or bruising the pods.  Most recipes call for ½ inch of headspace AFTER removing air bubbles – I audaciously fill those suckers with pickle liquid right up to the rim.  Again, gently, poke around the pods with a chopstick to remove air bubbles, then recklessly fill the jars to the rim again.  Trust me:  there are inevitably air pockets around the okra no matter your chopstick skills, and the pods themselves are full of air.

Okay, here you go:

Crunchy & Spicy Okra Pickles (makes about 7 pints)

1)      Prepare canner; sterilize jars and lids

2)      In a large non-reactive (stainless steel) saucepan combine 6 cups water, 6 cups white vinegar, and 2/3 cup pickling salt; bring to a rolling boil, then reduce to a simmer

3)      Meanwhile, to each pint jar (or halve ingredients for ½ pint jars) add:  1 large clove peeled garlic, two tiny bird chilies, ½ tsp. dill seeds

4)      Clean and trim about 6 lbs okra pods, sort by size (see, above)

5)      Gently pack okra into jars, leaving at least ½ inch head space between pods and the rim of the jar

6)      Ladle hot pickling liquid into jars to the rim.  Poke a chopstick around pods to eliminate air bubbles.  Pour more liquid in to cover okra, if needed.

7)      Wipe rim with a sterile cloth; center lid on jar, and screw band down to finger tip tight

8)      Place jars in canner, making sure they are completely covered with boiling water.  Resume boil, and process for 15 minutes (In SLC I add another 6 minutes to adjust for altitude).

9)      Turn off burner.  Remove canner lid.  Let sit for 5 minutes.

10)   Remove jars, cool at room temperature for 24 hours (do not tip those jars, no matter how tempting!).  After 24 hours, test seals, then tip jars over on their sides & lids to release air bubbles and check that pickling liquid is covering most of the pods.  Store in a cool dark place for up to 1 year.

Tennessee Redneck Dirty Okra Martini (makes 1)

Rub half of the rim of a martini glass with a section of picked okra, dip the damp rim into a saucer dusted with Cajun or Creole seasoning.   In a cocktail shaker combine:  3-4 cubes ice, 2 oz. gin, a dash of dry vermouth (1 tsp., or to taste), and a slosh of okra pickle juice (about 1-2 tsp).  Shake vigorously for 8-10 seconds.  Strain into the martini glass, and garnish with skewered okra pickles.

This is a bit more involved than my eponymous gal makes- hers just has gin, okra juice, and an okra pickle in it and it is sublimely and simply delightful just like that.

Fried Okra

Cut 2 lbs. okra pods into 1” wide rounds.  Combine 2/3 cup cornmeal and 2/3 cup white flour.  Add 1 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. black pepper, and ½ tsp. cayenne pepper and mix thoroughly.  Toss all of the okra into the dredge and mix to coat.  Heat a cast iron skillet over med-high heat, and add 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil; heat over med-high until almost smoking.  Shake off excess dredge, and gently scatter a handful of okra into the hot grease.  Fry until golden, then remove to a paper-towel lined plate.  Keep on repeating until all your okra is done, adding more oil as needed, and turning down the heat if okra is getting too brown too fast.  Dust with additional sea salt while still steaming.  Eat right away.