Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Cooking to Save the Planet: Creole Boiled Dinner Frittata

Another of those ideas for eating low on the food chain and using everything one cooks from fresh, local ingredients in today's or tomorrow's meals, if possible. This may be a tip thoroughly familiar to many readers. But for those who haven't encountered such a recipe, I hope this will be a useful suggestion.

A meal we cook occasionally is one we learned in New Orleans from an outstanding elderly Creole cook who lived in the French Quarter. Gertrude had grown up in the Garden District, in a lace-curtain Irish family whom she repudiated by marrying a man from backwoods coastal Mississippi, from the very old French and Spanish settlements along the coast from New Orleans to Mobile.

As with many marriages designed primarily to pique one's parents, and in which the backgrounds of the spouses are radically different, the marriage didn't last long and Gertrude found herself living in the French Quarter and trying to raise two children and make a go of it pursuing her original career as an artist. To supplement her meager income from the paintings she sold, she cooked on the side--and was a wonderful cook, full of old New Orleans Creole culinary lore and techniques.

Her boiled dinner was an adaptation of the traditional New England boiled dinner, using New Orleans ingredients and New Orleans touches. It featured ham rather than corned beef, and the holy trinity of New Orleans cooking, onion, garlic, and parsley.

She boiled the ham in enough water to soak it, adding to it several peeled and quartered potatoes, peeled and quartered carrots, stalks of celery chopped into quarters, onions quartered, a half head of cabbage quartered, and abundant chopped garlic and parsley, along with large pinches of thyme and allspice, and several bay leaves. The vegetables sometimes varied by season. In winter, she might substitute a turnip or two, peeled and quartered, for some of the potatoes, or a rutabaga, even parsnips. If greens were in season (e.g., mustard, turnips, or collards), a handful of them might go into the pot, or chopped green onions, both the tops and bottoms. A dried hot pepper such as cayenne completed the assortment.

Traditional Creole cooks were savvy about how to maintain the best texture of an assortment of boiled vegetables like this. They added the harder vegetables (potatoes, carrots, celery) to the pot first, let them begin cooking, and added the onion and cabbage on top of the rest after the other vegetables had begun to tenderize, so that the softer vegetables would not fall apart and cook to gray rags.

Gertrude also insisted that the Creole way of using parsley (which is an essential of almost any Creole dish other than desserts) is to chop a handful, add half of the finely chopped parsley to the dish as it cooks, and then garnish with the rest of the fresh parsley before serving, and, if you wish, finely chopped garlic: the French persillade topping.

As with most boiled dishes like this, it's important to taste and look as you cook. Hams vary greatly in their saltiness, so it's advisable to add salt only as the dish has cooked a while and after you've tasted it. Gertrude insisted on adding salt to any dish only later in its cooking period, claiming that salt toughens meat and vegetables. As the dish nears completion, you may wish to adjust seasonings by adding a bit more thyme, another dash of allspice, some more chopped garlic--whatever your taste buds indicate. Gertrude often added a few drops of Worcestershire sauce after the pot had been removed from the stove.

This meal is served with the ham on a platter surrounded by the vegetables, and the broth as a first course to be drunk or eaten from a soup bowl with French bread and butter prior to the boiled dinner itself.

This detailed recipe is only a preliminary to the one I want to recommend to you now. This is a recipe that uses the leftovers from a boiled dinner meal in another frugal but delicious meal--a frittata. Hence my name for the dish I'm proposing (which we have eaten this evening).

For this dish, take the leftovers of the boiled dinner and drain them of all broth. Mix them together and chop them coarsely. I use a wooden chopping bowl and one of those half-moon choppers I think the Italians may call a mezzaluna and the French a hachoir.

As you're chopping the boiled vegetables, heat a good bit of olive oil in a large skillet. We had about three cups of leftover vegetables with pieces of ham, enough to cover the bottom of a large skillet. (I usually do not eat meat. I made an exception with the boiled dinner because we had been wondering how to use several chunks of ham from Christmas that someone had given us, which were occupying space in the freezer. I have made this boiled dinner without any meat at all, and find it just as delicious as with the ham.)

Turn the hashed vegetables and ham into the skillet and fry over medium heat until it begins to brown on bottom. At that point, pour into the pan several (I used six) eggs into which you have ground salt and pepper, and which you've beaten lightly, and shake the pan to distribute the egg mix across the top of the vegetables. Add a handful of grated cheese, strewing it across the eggs.

Fry for a moment or so on medium heat, shaking the pan now and again to assure the eggs sink down into the layer of vegetables. Turn the heat low and cover with a tight-fitting lid for another few moments. When the eggs have set and the cheese melted into them, slice and serve with green salad and a simple vinaigrette dressing, good French bread, and butter.

And don't forget, of course, to top the cooked frittata with more chopped parsley and, if you wish, a few toes of finely chopped garlic before serving. A delicious, nutritious meal that makes eye- and palate-pleasing use of a meal based on easily found foods, many of them now grown locally in many areas of the world. And the leftover bouillon from the dinner will, bien entendu, soon become the basis of a lentil soup as the week goes on.