Food for Thought

Greens, Eggs and Ham

The devil in the details

By Jane Lear

Something about April makes me nostalgic for — well, I’m not sure what, exactly. The first young vegetables are juicy, tender and exquisite; they are what spring tastes like. Farmers and home gardeners alike have earth-caked hands and knees. They are working hard, being patient. Waiting for the world to wake up and warm up.

As a child, my Aprils were often spent chasing after my mother, who was intent on foraging wild watercress before it flowered and then disappeared until the following year. She’d picked up the knowledge that the plant had been used both culinarily and medicinally during ancient times, and as we waded in frigid creeks and teetered on rocks midstream, she’d treat me to a homily on how brilliant the Greeks were and how exceptional watercress was. (Watercress is indeed rich in vitamins K, A, C, E and B6, as well as phosphorus, magnesium and calcium. Ounce for ounce it contains more antioxidants than broccoli.)

For Easter and other spring occasions, we might be treated to watercress soup served in my grandmother’s thinnest porcelain cups. For the most part, though, we enjoyed the peppery, pungent sprigs fresh in a salad, dressed with nothing more than salt, lemon juice and olive oil — back then, not all that easy to find down South, and thus one of my mother’s most valued condiments.

These days, I avoid wild cress unless I know for sure that the stream it comes from is pristine; instead, I go for the cultivated stuff at the supermarket. It wilts beautifully under a steak, roast chicken or seared piece of fish.

And it makes a wonderful bed for deviled, or stuffed, eggs — the quintessential springtime hors d’oeuvre. I’m crazy about them, especially those made by my longtime friend Rick Ellis. He’s a noted food stylist and culinary historian who is never afraid to serve stuffed eggs at the fanciest dinner party. “They’re always the first thing to disappear,” he said, and he’s right.

What gives Rick’s eggs their rich, round flavor is butter, and he credits Julia Child with the idea. One of the things you learn from someone like Rick (or Julia) is that simplicity doesn’t necessarily mean ease of preparation, but instead perfection and balance in a dish. That’s why it’s important, for instance, to push the cooked egg yolks through a fine-mesh sieve rather than mash them with a fork. It’s what gives the filling such great body.

Another great spring favorite is deviled ham — reason alone for serving a tender, juicy baked ham at Easter. The use of the culinary term “deviled” to mean highly seasoned with spices or condiments dates from at least the early 19th century, but the kind of deviling most Southerners come across isn’t fiery at all, but instead gets a sharp nip from Dijon mustard, often with an assist from a pinch of cayenne.

And if you spoon it onto toast points, you have lovely little canapés, which were, Rick told me, one of the first types of hors d’oeuvre served with drinks. My mind leapt immediately to Jack Benny, who once defined an hors d’oeuvre as a ham sandwich cut into 40 pieces.

Rick, however, was thinking about another icon, Fannie Farmer, and after a quick search in his library, read aloud from his 1918 edition of Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cook Book, which laid out the newfangled concept of canapés. “Canapés are made by cutting bread in slices one fourth inch thick, and cutting the slices in strips . . . or circular pieces. The bread is toasted, fried in deep fat, or buttered and browned in the oven, and covered with a seasoned mixture of eggs, cheese, fish, or meat.”

As for the deviled ham, Rick found a recipe for ham sandwich spread seasoned with mustard, salt, pepper and vinegar in the original (1931) edition of The Joy of Cooking. It rightly belongs to the far older category of potted meats, of course. Two centuries ago, I would have had to pound the cooked ham (or partridge, ox tongue, hare, etc.) to a smooth paste with butter in a stone mortar, then season it with salt, pepper and perhaps mace or cayenne. Pressed into small crocks and sealed with clarified butter, my potted ham would have kept about two weeks in a cool, dry place.

No recipe re-enactments for me: I’ll take my food processor and refrigerator and be grateful, thank you. The recipe for deviled ham, which is based on Marion Cunningham’s reborn classic, The Fannie Farmer Cookbook (published in 1979), is simple and delicious. No way it’ll last two weeks.

Rick Ellis’ Stuffed Eggs

Makes 24

1 dozen large eggs

1/4 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup Dijon mustard

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened to room temperature

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

Coarse salt and ground white pepper

Finely snipped fresh chives for garnish

1. Place the eggs in a pan large enough to hold them in 1 layer and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, cover the pot, and let sit 15 minutes. Drain and run under cold water until eggs are completely cool.

2. Peel the eggs and cut in half lengthwise. Remove the yolks and rub through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl. Add the mayo, mustard and butter, and mix until smooth. Stir in the lemon juice, cayenne, and a generous amount of salt and white pepper. Transfer the filling to a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch tip (or jury-rig out of a plastic zip-top bag with a corner snipped off).

3. Pipe the filling into the egg white halves and sprinkle with chives.

Deviled Ham with Toast Points

Makes 2 cups

About 8 slices best-quality white sandwich bread

2 cups (about 1/2 pound) chopped cooked city-cured (baked) ham

1 tablespoon minced onion

2 to 3 teaspoons Dijon mustard

A small pinch cayenne

An even smaller pinch ground mace (optional)

1 tablespoon minced sweet pickle

2 tablespoons mayonnaise or unsalted butter, softened to room temperature

Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Heat oven to broil and set rack about 6 inches from heat. Put the bread slices on a baking sheet and broil until pale golden and crisp on top, about 1 minute or so. Flip the slices and broil until pale golden on other side, about 1 minute. While bread is still hot, trim crusts and cut into triangles or strips. Once cool, the toast points will keep in an airtight container up to 1 day.

2. Purée the ham until smooth in a food processor. Scrape it into a bowl, then stir in the rest of the ingredients. Pack the deviled ham into a small crock and refrigerate, covered.  PS

Jane Lear was the senior articles editor at Gourmet and features director at Martha Stewart Living.

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