The Southern Holiday Table

Classic, festive recipes from the American South
Sam Gugino
Issue: November 30, 2011

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Oysters Rockefeller
Roasted Pork Leg With Truffled Madeira Sauce
White Bean and Collard Green Gratin
Bread Pudding With Bourbon Sauce

The South, from Virginia to Texas, Kentucky to the Gulf of Mexico, is known for being deeply rooted in culinary traditions. This is particularly true when it comes to the holiday season.

In the past, holiday foods were often hard-to-get or expensive items, like that piece of citrus in the Christmas stocking. Oysters were considered one of these specialty foods. Though common along the Gulf, oysters were difficult to transport and were considered a holiday treat for those who lived farther from the sea. "In warmer months, higher temperatures made transportation and preservation difficult," says John T. Edge, a Southern food historian who grew up near Macon, Ga., eating scalloped oysters for the holidays. "But in the colder months you could get the oysters to inland areas more easily and cheaply. Oysters [symbolized] indulgence and excess."

The Southern dish oysters Rockefeller was named after John D. Rockefeller, the wealthiest American when this rich dish was created at Antoine's restaurant in New Orleans at the turn of the last century. The basic preparation was fairly simple: Oysters were baked on the half shell and topped with a seasoned spinach puree. The seasonings traditionally consisted of scallions, parsley, garlic, breadcrumbs, hot sauce (usually Tabasco) and anise liqueur (often Pernod). Nowadays, however, numerous substitutions and additions can be made for the topping, including bacon, anchovy paste, lettuce, watercress and celery.

Though many recipes suggest using frozen spinach, I think freshly steamed spinach makes a smoother, tastier topping. As for the oysters, it doesn't matter much what kind you use, although medium-size ones make the best vehicle for the topping.

Because it has a range of flavors, this dish needs a wine nimble enough to handle them. My favorite was a South African Chenin Blanc 2010, which had a good balance of fruit and acidity, along with earth and mineral qualities and spice notes, all of which matched up well with the oysters and topping.

Ham is a popular holiday dish throughout the country, but it's a way of life in many parts of the South. Pigs were traditionally slaughtered at the first frost, and the hind legs were salted, smoked and hung in preparation for the following year's Christmas table.

Country hams, which are dry-cured, needed soaking and boiling to get back some moisture and remove some of the salt before baking. More traditional hams were simply baked, but often got treated to some dressing up first. "Pork was a mundane thing, used for bacon and salt pork," Edge says. "But ham was special. So you really wanted to dress it up with something elaborate."

Then there's fresh ham, or the uncured pork hind leg. I think a roast pork leg is right up there with standing beef rib roasts as the finest you can serve to your family and friends. The whole leg can weigh upwards of 20 pounds, which makes a sumptuous presentation for a crowd, but it can also be cut down into roasts as small as 4 or 5 pounds.

Ask the butcher to tie up smaller roasts, which helps keep the meat together, and to remove the aitchbone, which makes carving easier. If possible, get your fresh ham from a heritage breed of pig (see the "How to Get It" section at the end of this story).

Southern chef and restaurateur Frank Stitt of Birmingham, Ala., makes a sauce for his ham that combines Madeira with truffles, a luxury that befits a meal of indulgence. Madeira was popular throughout Colonial America, but it was perhaps most popular in the South. To this day, Charleston, S.C., has a strong Madeira culture. "Charleston is one of the places in the United States where you'll see Madeira on the back bar and it's not for show," says Edge. Perhaps it's because Madeira actually improves in hot temperatures, which softens its otherwise powerful acidity, that it became so popular in the South.

Wine for this dish needs depth to handle the light gaminess of the pork and enough acidity to cut through the fat. Mondavi Carneros Pinot Noir 2008 had sufficient richness to handle the meat and do it more deftly than a heavier Gigondas Stitt had suggested.

As for vegetables, bitter greens such as collards, kale, mustard greens and turnip greens have always been a staple in the South. The tradition began with the Southern slaves, who cooked them with cheaper cuts of smoked pork, such as hocks and jowls. These vegetables came to represent riches for the coming year, and various dishes containing them are popular on holiday tables across the South. Stitt makes a terrific gratin of white bean and collard greens.

Two Southern states, Georgia and Texas, are the largest producers of pecans, so it isn't surprising to see these nuts in many Southern holiday desserts. Pecan pie, of course, tops the list.

Another favorite holiday dessert, bread pudding, is also prevalent in the South, perhaps because the recipe requires a traditional Southern drink-Bourbon. I use a recipe adapted from Eating Southern Style (HP Trade), by Terry Thompson. No matter what recipe you use, though, make sure the Bourbon is special. Get a small batch or single-barrel bottling with some age on it, like the Knob Creek 9-year-old small batch Bourbon I use. It's the holidays, after all.

Oysters Rockefeller

2 pounds fresh spinach
1⁄2 cup finely chopped scallions (using the white part and an inch of the green)
1⁄2 cup finely chopped parsley
1⁄2 cup finely ground fresh breadcrumbs
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons Pernod or other anise liqueur
6 drops Tabasco sauce
1⁄4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Rock salt
36 oysters, shucked and placed on the half shell

1. Preheat the oven to 450˚ F.

2. Clean the spinach, and steam until just wilted. Gently squeeze out any excess moisture, and chop. In a food processor or blender, combine the spinach with the remaining ingredients except the rock salt and oysters, and puree until smooth.

3. Sprinkle a thin layer of rock salt on a baking sheet large enough to hold all the oyster shells, and nestle the shells on top. Top each oyster with a heaping tablespoon of the spinach puree. Transfer to the oven, and bake until hot, about 12 minutes. Serve immediately. Serves 6 to 8.

Roast Pork Leg

(Adapted from Frank Stitt's Southern Table (Artisan)

1 tablespoon juniper berries
1 cup kosher salt
1⁄2 cup sugar
4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
Leaves from 6 sprigs fresh thyme
6 bay leaves
Leaves from 1⁄2 bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped
4 dried chile peppers
2 tablespoons coarsely ground fresh black pepper
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 14-pound fresh pork leg, fat trimmed and aitchbone removed

1. In a small heavy skillet, toast the juniper berries over medium heat for a few minutes, shaking the pan periodically. Remove from heat, and set aside.

2. In a large pot, combine all the remaining ingredients except the pork with 2 gallons of water, and cook over medium-high heat. Stir periodically, until the brine begins to simmer and the sugar and salt dissolve. Remove from heat, let cool, and refrigerate until chilled.

3. Place the pork in the chilled brine, and refrigerate 24 hours, turning the ham halfway through. Remove the pork from the brine, wipe dry, and transfer to a large roasting pan. Let sit at room temperature for 30 to 60 minutes.

4. Preheat the oven to 325˚ F.

5. Transfer the pork to the oven, and roast 3 1⁄2 hours or until the internal temperature of the meat reaches 145˚ F. Remove, and cover loosely with foil for 30 minutes. Serve with truffled Madeira sauce (recipe follows). Serves 10.

Truffled Madeira Sauce

(Adapted from Frank Stitt's Southern Table)

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 shallots, finely minced
Leaves from 2 sprigs of thyme
1 ounce black truffle, thinly sliced (Note: Truffle butter can be used instead of truffle. Substitute the unsalted butter with an equal amount of truffle butter.)
6 tablespoons Sercial or Verdelho Madeira
3 cups chicken broth
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. In a small saucepan, melt 2 teaspoons of the butter over medium heat. Add the shallots, thyme and truffle, and cook, stirring, until the shallots are soft, 3 to 4 minutes.

2. Add the Madeira, and stir to deglaze the pan. Over high heat, reduce the liquid until it becomes syrupy. Add the broth, and reduce by half, about 15 minutes.

3. Return to medium heat and whisk in the remaining butter, a few teaspoons at a time, making sure it is incorporated before adding more. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour into a sauce-boat, and serve immediately with the roast pork leg.

White Bean and Collard Green Gratin

(Adapted from Frank Stitt's Southern Table)

1 3⁄4 pounds young collard greens
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 medium red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into 1⁄2-inch dice
7 cloves garlic, 6 chopped, 1 crushed
1⁄2 cup chicken stock
4 1⁄2 cups cooked white beans
1⁄2 cup chopped bacon or pork sausage
1⁄2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 sprigs rosemary, leaves removed and finely chopped
Extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon butter, softened
1⁄2 cup medium-coarse fresh breadcrumbs

1. Roll up the collard greens to resemble cigars. Cut off 2 inches of the bottom stalk, discard, and cut the rest into 1⁄2-inch-wide ribbons. Wash thoroughly, and steam for about 5 minutes or until just tender. Gently squeeze out any excess moisture.

2. Preheat the oven to 450˚ F.

3. In a large sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and bell pepper, and cook until just tender but not browned, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the chopped garlic, and cook for 1 minute. Add the collard greens, and cook for 1 minute, stirring well.

4. Transfer the mixture to a large mixing bowl. Add the chicken stock, beans, bacon, 1⁄4 cup Parmigiano, rosemary, a splash of olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste.

5. Butter a gratin dish large enough to hold the bean-collard mixture, and rub the inside with the crushed garlic. Pour in the mixture. Combine the remaining Parmigiano with the breadcrumbs, and spread evenly over the top. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil. At this point, the gratin can be refrigerated and cooked later. When ready to cook, cover with foil, and bake 35 minutes. Uncover, and bake 10 minutes more, or until the top is golden-brown and crusty. Serves 10 to 12.

Bread Pudding With Bourbon Sauce

[Adapted from Eating Southern Style by Terry Thompson (HP Books)]

1-pound loaf French bread, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 quart whole milk
11 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 eggs
3 cups white sugar
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup golden raisins
1⁄4 cup high quality Bourbon

1. In a large bowl, combine the bread and milk, and set aside for 30 to 60 minutes. As the bread softens, break up any large pieces. Meanwhile, melt 3 tablespoons of the butter in a 13-inch-by-9-inch baking dish, and set aside.

2. In a medium bowl, beat 3 of the eggs until frothy. Stir in 2 cups of the sugar until well-mixed. Add the vanilla, ginger, cinnamon and raisins, and blend well.

3. Add the sugar-and-egg mixture to the bread and milk. Mix well, and pour into the baking dish. Let sit at room temperature for 30 to 60 minutes.

4. Preheat the oven to 375˚ F.

5. Transfer the dish to the oven, and bake until set, about 1 hour.

6. To make the Bourbon sauce, use the top part of a double boiler to cook the remaining butter and sugar over simmering water. Whisk until the butter is melted, and the sugar is dissolved. In a small bowl, beat the remaining egg until frothy, and gradually whisk it into the butter-sugar mixture. Remove from heat, and stir in the Bourbon. Pour into a sauceboat and serve with the bread pudding. Serves 10 to 12.

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