A souffle for all your 'mothers'
On Mother's Day, it is customary to reminisce about mom's cooking.
Yet you don't have to be a mom to impart treasured recipes and cooking skills to others.
My Grandma Girtha influenced my cooking as much as my mother did, maybe more. If I had not learned anything else from her (and I did), just the knowledge that you can't really measure the amount of water for piecrust would have been enough. When the weather is damp, the flour will have more moisture in it, and you won't need as much liquid. From her I also learned to make something out of practically nothing (egg noodles in chicken broth), and how to turn out the best fried potatoes in the world.
My teachers, my kitchen "mothers," are too many for this space. The late Leslie Revsin, through her cookbooks, taught me that the beater whip from the standing mixer, instead of a spatula, used by hand, works best to fold flour into egg whites and the like. From her, I also got recipes that are standards in my repertoire: yeasted sugar cookies, dainty corn cakes, three-mustard chicken breast.
As with my grandmother, Helen Witty, a cookbook author who lives in East Hampton, revealed the joys of simplicity with her duck started off in a cold iron skillet and her slow-cooked "minimalist" pork ribs. She is the source of a wild-rice-pecan turkey stuffing that makes me long for Thanksgiving to roll around.
From Marion Cunningham's books, I learned the be-all, end-all of cornbreads, made with cream so it is custardy, and her peanut butter fudge has become my own. The prune spice cake to end all spice cakes came from the late Camille Glenn, onetime food editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, who died early this year at the age of 100.
Lately, I have coached my Pakistani friend Bina Siddiqi of Middle Island on such American classics as yeast bread, fried chicken and biscuits. I'm hoping her children, Sami, 8, and Habiba, 3, will think of me, in their own kitchens, years from now.
CAMILLE GLENN'S ASPARAGUS AND TARRAGON SOUFFLE
Glenn suggested in "The Heritage of Southern Cooking" that it's best to wait for fresh tarragon to be in season to make this, as "it complements the asparagus and the cheese so knowingly." That is no longer necessary, now that fresh tarragon can be purchased year around.
1 pound fresh asparagus
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-
Reggiano or Swiss cheese
3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon
Salt, to taste
Cayenne pepper, to taste
4 egg whites
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. Break off or cut off and discard tough stem ends of asparagus. Peel stems with a thin, sharp knife or peeler, and cut asparagus into 2-inch pieces. Drop into a pot of boiling salted water and cook 2 to 3 minutes, so asparagus is still crisp. Drain well.
3. Melt butter in a heavy saucepan or double boiler set over simmering water. Add flour and whisk until smooth. Add milk slowly, whisking constantly; cook over medium-low heat until sauce has thickened, 2 minutes. Add cheese and blend. Stir in egg yolks, tarragon, salt and cayenne. Keep warm.
4. Put asparagus in a buttered 4-cup shallow baking dish.
5. Beat egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff but not dry and grainy. Fold a bit of the egg white into cheese mixture to lighten it, then add the mixture to the remaining egg whites, folding it in gently with a rubber spatula. Leave a few specks of egg white showing for greater volume. Spoon mixture over asparagus.
6. Place dish on middle or lower shelf of oven, and bake until soufflé is well-puffed and golden, 25 to 30 minutes. It should feel fairly firm to the touch. Serve immediately, being sure to scoop up asparagus from the bottom. Makes 4 servings.