Edna Lewis is in pursuit of flavor. That's because somewhere, somehow, it got forgotten in the race for slicker, quicker food.
"There's nothing they haven't tampered with," laments Lewis about mass production's effect on fruits, vegetables, meats and more.
So at age 74, Lewis, regal Southern cook, caterer, author and most recently the chef at New York's Gage & Tollner restaurant, is still searching for paradise lost -- simple, pure food. It is a mission that is getting easier, with the current emphasis on freshness, farmers' markets and organic produce. And it is a goal that nowadays makes Lewis -- probably known more for her crab cakes and spoon bread -- into a sort of Manhattan Earth Mother.
"I try to cook in a way to get better flavor -- until we reach the day when foods are grown without chemicals and additives," she said last week to 275 foodaholics at the Smithsonian Institution, there as part of its resident associate program, cosponsored by Clyde's Restaurant Group. Lewis was the third speaker in the program's line-up of eight chefs who have been asked to talk about creativity in their cooking.
But Lewis' style is not so much creative as it is recreative, not so much analytical as it is practical. As she said at the opening of her speech: "We're always cookin'. We never have time to talk about it."
Nevertheless, Lewis is at her best when she is talking about her past, for her greatest resource is her memory of taste.
What Lewis remembers from growing up in Freetown, Va., a settlement founded by a group of free slaves after the Civil War, is freshly churned butter and home-rendered lard; herring, eel or catfish snatched from a nearby stream; wild greens, berries and nuts, foraged from the fields and woods; fruits plucked from a tree in the front yard and eaten on the walk back to the house. There was always food for friends or travelers who stopped by, maybe a slice of freshly baked pound cake, or a bit of smoked pork shoulder. There were always lively discussions around the dinner table and big meals, prepared in the days when a man wouldn't marry a woman unless she was a good cook.
"My mother died when I was 18. Up until then, I never saw a tin can in my house," Lewis remembers.
So when she moved from the country to New York City in the 1940s ("like all young people, I thought the grass was greener somewhere else"), she took food with her, or had her sister ship it. And when she went back to visit, Lewis was always mindful of returning with preserves and pickles, put up during a previous summer, to be appreciated on a cold northern day.
Her first job was at the Cafe Nicholson, where her friend, John Nicholson, asked her to be the chef and where an artsy crowd the likes of Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote would dine on her broiled oysters or roast chicken. Capote, she says, "was always badgering me about biscuits."
From there she hopscotched up and down the East Coast, moving to North Carolina to cook at a restaurant there, then back to New York, then to Middleton Place in Charleston, S.C., then to New Jersey, where she owned a pheasant farm, then back to New York.
For the past year, she has been the chef at Gage & Tollner, the 111-year-old Brooklyn landmark that was bought by Peter Ashkenazy from the previous and only second owners, the Dewey family. In the winter, she buys tomatoes from a greenhouse in upstate New York, and lets them ripen for a week before she'll use them. In the warmer weather, she shops at the Union Square Greenmarket, where she seeks out organic produce. For herself, she shops at a neighborhood health food store and buys organically raised meats when she can.
"Eating is one of the great pleasures of life," she says. "If it tastes good, it makes everyone happy."
What makes Lewis happy is a rich chicken stock made from a "no-taste chicken," by cutting it up into small pieces and searing it until the juices are extracted, then adding water and cooking it for a short time. It satisfies her to put salsify in oyster stew, to make a lighter spoon bread without any flour but with fresh corn blended with milk, to take the saute'ed fresh scallions she remembers eating for breakfast and bake them into a scallion pie.
And it also pleases her to set people straight about their mistaken impressions of Southern food: "It's not all fried chicken and greasy greens."
With gentle style, Lewis has a feminine quality that makes it easy to envision her as a girl some 60 years earlier. Shy but crusty around the edges, she orders bourbon at dinner before her speech at the Smithsonian -- it's usually Jack Daniels. And when asked what she does on her one day off a week (Thursday), she laughs and says, "I drink coffee."
She has been written about in numerous publications over the years, and has been called the "dean" of Southern cooks. It all escapes her, though. "I guess one reason is that I'm older than anybody I know in the food business," she jokes.
That may be: at age 74, she works at the restaurant six days a week, from 7 a.m. to 9 or 10 at night. She checks the soups every morning, pickles cucumbers and artichokes, makes strawberry preserves and serves as caretaker for the Smithfield hams that soak in tubs.
What keeps her going, says her niece, Nina Williams, who has come from New York to hear her Aunt Edna at the Smithsonian, "is the old people. Grandma Genny, her brother, her sister. She's very close with them. Virginia and Freetown -- that's what drives her -- that base, the history, the past."
Here are some recipes from Lewis's third and latest book, "In Pursuit of Flavor" (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1988, $18.95).
BONELESS PORK ROAST COOKED ON TOP OF THE STOVE (5 servings)
I often cook a pork roast or chicken on top of the stove because I find this way of cooking produces good flavor and tenderness that is different from oven cooking. Cooked in the oven, this same cut of meat would be crispy on the outside and have a very definite oven-roasted flavor. It would taste delicious, but I prefer its flavor when cooked on the stove. You also don't heat up the kitchen as much. I add peanut butter, which blends so nicely with the garlic as well as pork, and it tastes so much better than water alone. Its flavor is a pleasant surprise.
3 pounds boneless pork roast, trimmed and tied
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon crumbled dried sage leaves
2 tablespoons butter
3 unpeeled garlic cloves
Olive oil, if necessary
2 tablespoons water
1 to 2 tablespoons unsalted peanut butter
Cover the prepared meat with a mixture of salt, freshly ground black pepper, ginger and sage leaves. Heat a 2-quart oval pot over medium-high heat and then warm the butter in the pot until it foams. Add the pork roast and cook it, turning constantly so that the meat is well browned all over.
Lift up the meat and place the garlic cloves on the bottom of the pot. Put the meat back on top and lower the heat so that the pork will cook without burning. Partially cover the pot so steam can escape and the meat will not stew. Adjust the heat as necessary, and add a few drops of oil if pot becomes dry. Cook the pork for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until the meat is tender when pierced.
Remove the meat from the pot and set aside in a warm place. Skim the fat from the pot, and remove and discard the garlic. Add the water and stir to dislodge the residues that developed during cooking. Cook over low heat, adding more water as necessary. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons of unsalted peanut butter to thicken the sauce and to add flavor. Season with more salt and pepper, if necessary. Strain the sauce and serve with the pork. Per serving: 762 calories, 83 gm protein, 2 gm carbohydrates, 45 gm fat, 16 gm saturated fat, 269 mg cholesterol, 274 mg sodium.
STEAMED LEAVES OF LEEK (4 servings)
I really do not know why more people haven't thought of cooking the green tops of leeks. I decided to try one day when I was making leek soup and could not bear to throw away the healthy-looking greens. When you wash the leek leaves it is important not to let them dry all the way; the moisture left on the leaves helps steam them.
1 bunch leeks
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
Cut off the white part of the leeks and save for another use. Wash the leaves and drain them. They do not have to be completely dry. Cut away about 2 inches of the tops and the bright green part at the bottom. Slice what is left into 1/2-inch pieces. You should have about 4 cups.
Put the olive oil, butter and garlic in a heavy saucepan, and heat it until hot but not sizzling. Add the leek leaves and cover the pan. Lower the heat to medium and steam the leaves for 15 to 20 minutes. Serve the leek leaves as a green with meat or chicken.
Per serving: 151 calories, 2 gm protein, 22 gm carbohydrates, 7 gm fat, 2 gm saturated fat, 8 mg cholesterol, 60 mg sodium.
WHITE BEANS AND LENTILS IN TOMATO SAUCE (6 servings)
When I make this dish, I cook the white beans first and then add just enough lentils for pretty color. The preparation is similar to the one I used for black-eyed peas, but the white beans have a different flavor.
2 cups white beans
3 pounds tomatoes, peeled and seeded
1 medium onion (about 6 ounces), peeled and coarsely chopped
1/3 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons finely crushed garlic
1/2 cup green lentils
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
5 or 6 large basil leaves
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Sift through the beans and discard any stones or shriveled beans. Put the beans in a 5-quart pot and add 10 cups of cold water. Bring to a boil and cook briskly until the beans are tender but not quite finished cooking -- at least 1 hour. Drain and leave covered until ready to mix with the sauce. Put the tomatoes in the blender or food processor a few at a time. Process just to crush them and then remove from the blender. Do not liquefy them. Put the onion in the blender or food processor and treat it in the same way.
Heat a heavy skillet or pot until fairly hot. Add the olive oil and the onion and cook for 4 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and tomatoes, stir well, and simmer the mixture for about 25 minutes. Meanwhile, cook the green lentils in water to cover for about 20 minutes, until not quite done, then drain them. When the tomato mixture is ready, season with the salt, pepper, cayenne and basil. Combine the beans, lentils, and tomato mixture and cook them together until the beans are just done, about 10 minutes. Remove the basil leaves (otherwise they become too bitter), mix in the parsley, and serve hot. This dish could be served with a salad and crusty bread, or with meat.
Per serving: 249 calories, 8 gm protein, 29 gm carbohydrates, 13 gm fat, 2 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 385 mg sodium.
BAKED WINESAP APPLES WITH VANILLA CUSTARD SAUCE (5 servings)
I do not think of baked apples as a real dessert because they are not very sweet. But there are so many good baking apples in the markets in the fall, such as Stayman, Winesaps, Ida Reds and Granny Smiths, that I always like to bake some as a snack or quick dessert. These varieties bake up quickly without too much wrinkling.
5 Winesap apples, about the same size
2 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup cold water or apple cider
FOR THE CUSTARD SAUCE:
1 cup milk
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
Wash the apples under cold running water and drain. Core the apples from the blossom end with an apple corer, being careful not to punch through the bottom of the apple so the juice won't run out during cooking. To make the baked apples look more attractive, peel off a band, about 1/4 inch wide, around the middle of each apple. Fill each apple with 1/2 teaspoon of sugar and a little nutmeg, and top with about 1/2 teaspoon of butter.
Arrange the prepared apples in a dish or casserole and surround with the cold water or apple cider. Set the casserole in a 350-degree oven and bake for 1 1/2 hours, basting the apples occasionally as they cook. Remove from the oven and serve warm with custard sauce.
To make the custard sauce: Scald the milk in a saucepan with the split vanilla bean. Watch it carefully and when tiny beads form around the edges of the milk, remove the pan from the burner.
Using a fork, lightly beat the egg yolks with the sugar and salt. Slowly add the scalded milk to the bowl, stirring constantly with a stainless steel or wooden spoon. Return the custard to the saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring around the sides of the pan until the custard is thick enough to coat the spoon. This will take 7 to 10 minutes. When the spoon is heavily coated with custard sauce, take the pan from the burner and set in in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking and prevent curdling.
Strain the custard into a bowl and when cool, stir in the vanilla extract.
Store the custard in a covered glass jar in the refrigerator until needed. Per serving: 184 calories, 3 gm protein, 30 gm carbohydrates, 7 gm fat, 3 gm saturated fat, 121 mg cholesterol, 107 mg sodium.