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Updated Southern Cooking:
A Buffet Dinner to Celebrate the New Year: Part II

John Tullock

Creating a menu that both reflects Southern traditions and lends itself to advance preparation was the goal in designing the holiday buffet for 12 that I introduced last week. Check the article archive for the salad and dressing recipe. You'll need to get busy now if you expect the basil vinegar to be ready in time for New Year's Eve.

For this installment, let's turn our attention to the soup and cheese courses. The soup can be made up to three days in advance, improving with age as most soups do. You can also pick up the cheeses and nuts at the market and hold them in the refrigerator until time for the party.

Good Luck Bean Soup and Skillet Cornbread

Please refer to the article archive for 'A Proper Pan of Cornbread' for the recipe to accompany this soup. You can serve corn muffins or any other type of bread and the soup will be just as good, but folks here in the southern mountains would scarcely think of eating beans without cornbread baked in a cast iron skillet. I suggest turning out the finished cornbread on a cutting board. Carefully wipe out the skillet with a dry kitchen towel and hold it in readiness for a second batch, just in case.

You can also make a spare pan of cornbread ahead of time. Allow it to cool and wrap tightly in aluminum foil. If you like, you can spruce up the cornbread a bit by dotting the top with butter before wrapping it in foil. Store it at room temperature for several hours. Reheat in the foil in a hot oven for ten minutes or so. Some cornbread officianados prefer it at room temperature, by the way.

Appalachian folklore provides the inspiration for this hearty soup. Tradition holds that eating black eyed peas and smoked hog jowl on New Year's Day will bring good luck throughout the coming year. I find the smoked meat too overpowering for the soup, and black eye peas, by themselves, too earthy for a first course. So I've lightened up the soup by including other legumes and vegetables. Pancetta and a prosciutto hock stand in for the hog jowl.

Make friends with someone in the deli section of your local market, who'll save you the hock from a prosciutto, and may even knock down the price a bit, since this part is usually thrown away. The hock should weigh about 10 - 12 ounces. For the dry beans, I like to shop the local food co-op, so I can buy just the amount I need. Shops that cater to vegetarians always have a good selection of dried legumes. You may of course substitute freely. Try to achieve a good balance of tastes and textures, which vary surprisingly among legume varieties.

Dry Bean Mixture - Part One
3 3/4 oz white baby lima
2 1/2 oz red kidney
1 1/2 oz black eyed pea
1 1/2 oz black turtle

Dry Bean Mixture - Part Two
2 1/2 oz green lentil
2 oz green split pea
1 3/4 oz red lentil
1/2 oz yellow split pea

1 prosciutto hock
one small peeled whole onion, with a bay leaf stuck to it with 2 whole cloves (le oignon pique)

2 ounces pancetta, diced
1 cup chopped onions
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped carrots
1 minced clove garlic
1/2 oz sun dried tomato pieces
1 Tbs dried basil leaves, crumbled
2 Tbs Worchestershire sauce
grated zest from one-half a lemon
1/2 tsp ground black pepper

At least two days before you plan to serve the soup:

Soak Part One of bean mixture overnight in water to cover by one inch. Drain. Place soaked beans, Part Two of bean mixture, the prosciutto hock, the oignon pique, and three quarts of water in large pot. Bring to a boil and simmer one hour, skimming off any scum that forms. Remove the pot from the heat and allow to cool. With tongs, remove the onion and discard. Remove the proscuitto hock, cut it apart and remove as much lean meat as possible, discarding the rind and sinew. Transfer the chopped meat and the beans to a storage container, cover and reserve. The soup may be continued from this point, or you may hold the beans until the following day.

In a clean, heavy bottom soup pot, cook the pancetta over medium heat, stirring occassionally, until its fat has been rendered and the pieces are light golden brown. Lift out the browned pancetta with a slotted spoon, and add the onions to the fat in the pan. Saute until the onions are translucent, then add the celery and carrots. Saute until the vegetables are tender, then add the garlic, tomatoes, and basil. Saute a minute longer. Add the reserved beans and meats, the Worchestershire sauce, the lemon zest, and black pepper. Bring the soup to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the beans are quite tender, about 1-1/2 to 2 hours. Taste carefully, adding salt if necessary.

Cool the soup to room temperature, cover and refrigerate overnight, or up to 3 days. Reheat over a low flame before serving. The starches from the beans may absorb water during the soup's 'rest' in the refrigerator. If the reheated soup seems too thick, thin with a little warm water or stock.

Assorted Cheeses and Nuts

Stilton with English walnuts is a classic combination that fits well with this meal and calls forth the cultural roots of the earliest southern Appalachian pioneers who were mostly from the British Isles. Not that those hardy souls would have had such delicacies as Stilton, but they did have homemade cheeses, and nuts, both wild and cultivated were abundant in the lush forests, especially so on the western slopes of the mountains. If you can locate them, black walnuts (easy to find but expensive) and hickory nuts (much more difficult, unless you have a tree nearby) would be traditional treats, along with the ubiquitous pecan, also a native of the Mississippi Valley. Several species of hickories are found in the United States, ranging from the inedible bitternut (Carya cordiformis), to the mockernut (C. tomentosa) whose deceptively large husk contains a tiny but edible nut, to the supremely edible shagbark (C. ovata) and shellbark (C. laciniosa) trees. The shagbark is found in upland areas, which the shellbark inhabits rich bottomland. Development has sadly eliminated much of the habitat for this tree, also known as the 'kingnut hickory,' a reference to its large, sweet crop in early fall.

The pioneers would also have enjoyed roasting chestnuts as an after dinner entertainment. The American chestnut, now nearly extinct due to an introduced blight, was superior in flavor to the Chinese chestnuts one sees in markets during the holidays. At least that was the opinion of my grandparents, who used to gather American chestnuts by the bushel from several huge trees that either died or were cut, their wood being highly prized, before I was born. If you have a fireplace, a cast iron skillet with a layer of chestnuts spread out in it can be placed on the hearth to roast. Watch carefully, and stir or shake the skillet from time to time for even roasting. You can tell when they are done by the savory smell. Guests shell their own when they are cool enough to handle. Each nut should have its tough shell pierced with the tip of a knife before roasting, or it will explode from the build-up of steam inside. In our household, it was customary to leave a few nuts intact, and then to place friendly bets on which one would be the first to pop.

All nutmeats go especially well with both blue and cheddar cheese varieties.

John Tullock is an expert gardener and self-taught cook who likes to develop new recipes using his own fresh produce and the best from the local market. His interest in plants and horticulture begin in childhood, and he holds a masters degree in biology from The University of Tennessee. He also co-owns "Native Sons Nursery," a retail business that specializes in rare ornamental and gourmet vegetable plants.

A Buffet Dinner to Celebrate the New Year

A Buffet Dinner to Celebrate the New Year: Part III

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