Comfort foods – southern style

Eugenia Uhl Photograph

I spent my early years in Memphis where we didn’t have fresh shrimp, crabs or oysters. That is why I loved nothing better than visiting my grandmother, who lived 20 miles from New Orleans.

One night at her house we went to bed, leaving a basket of live crabs in the kitchen to cook the next day. (Friends often presented my grandmother with fish and shellfish fresh out of the water.) During the night, I wandered into the kitchen for a drink of water and found wall-to-wall crabs crawling over the linoleum floor. I ran screaming through the house until everyone was awake and grabbing at crabs before they could sidestep into the living room and all of the bedrooms. My young heart beat fast, but the next day brought the reward of delicious boiled crabs.

Fish fries are another memory. An uncle would drive to Manchac to buy fresh fish to sizzle in big iron skillets outdoors. On occasion, we all drove to Middendorf’s for dinner, which started with piles of boiled crabs and ended with fried catfish or shrimp. Today, I’m still driving there every chance I get.

Ah, the good old days. Now we fear the loss of these precious commodities in the 21st century. But we’ve all got our fingers crossed because no one can imagine New Orleans without fresh fish and shellfish, and hopefully we’ll never have to.

Just in case we have to reduce our intake of the water’s jewels temporarily, let me tell you what we ate in Memphis.

When I returned home from Louisiana, we resorted to canned seafood – tuna salad sandwiches and salmon croquettes. One of my favorite meals was salmon croquettes, macaroni and cheese and English peas. I must admit I still love these dishes and frequently prepare them as comfort food.

Despite the greatest environmental disaster in the nation’s history, I predict the raw determination of Louisiana fishers and all those involved in the industry will have us back in record time. We heard doomsday opinions following Hurricane Katrina, and we’re hearing them now. But in the hearts of many Louisianians is the desire to bring back our natural resources no matter how hard the fight.

As long as I’m going on about comfort foods, let me throw in one that isn’t seafood but still a great summer indulgence – pimento cheese. It is better known in the Deep South than it is in New Orleans, but you can get a bunch of southerners together and they’ll argue about how to make pimento cheese. Onions or not. Mild or sharp cheese. Sugar?

I am a purist when it comes to pimento cheese: Sharp cheddar, pimentos and mayo. Spread it on some fresh Bunny bread and you’ve got a lunch to remember.

The best thing about these recipes is that they’re easy and can be made in minutes.

Tuna Salad
2 5-ounce cans tuna, light
      or white, in water or oil
3 Tablespoons finely
      chopped onion
1 stalk celery, finely
      chopped
2 eggs, boiled and chopped
1 small or medium dill
       pickle, chopped
2 Tablespoons mayonnaise
      or more to your liking
Salt, pepper and Creole
       seasoning to taste


Drain tuna and place in a medium bowl. Use a fork to break into small pieces. Add all other ingredients and mix well. Taste before adding salt as canned tuna is salty. Mayonnaise can be adjusted to your taste.

Serve as a salad on lettuce leaves, or spread liberally on bread or toast, preferably dressed with lettuce and sliced tomatoes.

Serves about 4 as salad or sandwiches.

Salmon Croquettes
2 eggs
4 slices white bread, torn or
      cut into pieces
1 14.75-ounce can pink or
      red salmon
3 Tablespoons grated onion
24 Saltine crackers, rolled
      into crumbs
Vegetable oil for frying


In a medium bowl, beat eggs, add bread and soak for a few minutes. Drain and stir in salmon, breaking into small pieces. Add onions and mix well. Place cracker crumbs in a small bowl.

Heat enough oil to cover the surface of a large skillet, about 1/8 inch deep. Croquettes will brown quickly so oil shouldn’t be too hot.

When oil is medium hot, measure 3/4-cup salmon mixture to form into patties. Roll gently in cracker crumbs. Place in skillet and turn when croquettes begin to brown. Turn several times while cooking. They should be done in about 10 minutes. Take up on paper towels. Depending on size of skillet, croquettes may have to be fried in batches. Add oil as needed.

Croquettes can be served by themselves, or with tartar sauce or ketchup.

Makes 8 croquettes.

Serves 4.

Pimento Cheese
10 ounces sharp cheddar
       cheese
2 Tablespoons mayonnaise
      or more to your liking
1 2-ounce jar pimentos


Grate cheese on large side of grater and let it sit until room temperature. Cream cheese in electric mixer. Add mayonnaise and mix well in mixer until smooth. Drain pimentos and chop. Mix by hand into cheese.

Spread liberally onto soft bread to make sandwiches. It is also delicious on crackers.

Makes about 1 1/2 cups.
 

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