Marcus Samuelsson’s latest book, The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food, is best summed up as “an invitation to a listening party that everyone is welcome to join – a celebration to discover the breadth, depth, and diversity of Black cooks.” I recently received a review copy. It’s a collection of recipes inspired by the work of African American chefs, culinarians, and writers. Because “The contributions of Black people in this country have always been underdocumented and undervalued,” this book shines a light on some of the inspiring work in the food industry in an effort toward social change. The chapters are organized by theme as it relates to the food industry individuals highlighted. And, after an introduction to each individual, there are recipes that speak to that person’s history or current work. The first chapter is Next, and it includes stories of cutting edge work that shows what’s possible and what’s to come. Of course, I was delighted to see pastry chef Tavel Bristol-Joseph of Austin’s Emmer and Rye included here, and the recipes that follow his story are based on flavors from Guyana where he was born. There’s Coconut Fried Chicken with Sweet Hot Sauce and Platanos and Smoked Venison with Roti and Pine Nut Chutney. And, what’s so interesting throughout the book is the variety of dishes. Following the venison, you’ll find Quick Salted Salmon with Carrot Broth and Mushrooms in honor of Adrienne Cheatham’s elegance and grace. She worked at Le Bernardin and was also Samuelsson’s executive chef at Red Rooster. I’m always drawn to Cheryl Day’s sweet creations and the recipes she inspired here include Baobab-Buttermilk and Broiled Peach Popsicles and Sweet and Wild Berry Pie with C & C Crumble that involves a mix of cassava flour and coconut. Also, the seafood recipes kept getting my attention. I was craving the Grilled Piri Piri Shrimp with Papaya and Watermelon Salad, Crab and Chile Chitarra Pasta, and Citrus Scallops with Hibiscus Tea. And, that seafood craving led me to the Corn and Crab Beignets with Yaji Aioli.
These savory beignets were inspired by BJ Dennis of Charleston, South Carolina where he works to preserve and celebrate the food of the Gullah Geechee culture. His cooking along with his research into ingredients prepared and grown by descendants of West Africa focuses attention on dishes “driven by produce and seafood, rich and full of deep flavor.” I was able to get some lovely, jumbo lump crabmeat from a nearby seafood market. But, since corn isn’t in season yet, I opted for frozen. Making the beignet batter is a simple enough process of stirring everything together, and frying is quick and easy once you have everything ready. I use a paper grocery bag cut open and folded in half on top of a baking sheet as a resting spot for anything just fried. Use a pan with plenty of space, and give the oil enough time to come up to temperature. Then, frying in batches goes by in a flash. For the aioli, I first made the yaji spice blend with roasted peanuts, ground ginger, salt, paprika, garlic and onion powders, and cayenne pepper. The peanuts were ground in a small food processor until finely chopped. The spices were added and processed to combine. This mixture should remain dry and not become peanut butter. A generous tablespoon of this spice mix was added to about a cup of aioli.
Crispy beignets were a decadent treat, and the rich, spiced aioli contrasted the texture perfectly. Happily, we had some leftovers, and they do reheat well in the oven. There’s so much more to explore in this book. From Fonio Stuffed Collards with Pepper Sambal and Sauce Moyo to Montego Bay Rum Cake, I’m going to enjoy the journey from one page to the next.
Corn and Crab Beignets with Yaji Aioli
BJ Dennis grew up in Charleston, picking okra and fishing in the creeks for shrimp and crabs. The crab beignets here are paired with an aioli made with yaji, the ultra-popular West African spice blend.
MAKES ABOUT 24 BEiGNETS
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
2 cups fresh corn kernels (from 2 ears)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 large egg
8 ounces lump crabmeat
Vegetable oil, for frying
Yaji Spice Aioli
Melt the butter in a medium sauté pan set over medium heat. Add the corn and cook until softened slightly, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a large mixing bowl, stir in the chives, and set aside until cool.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, corn- meal, baking powder, cayenne, and salt. Add the buttermilk and egg to the corn and stir to combine. Add the flour mixture and stir to combine. Add the crabmeat and fold to combine.
Heat 1 1/2 inches oil in a large pot or deep fryer to 375°F. Place a paper towel–lined cooling rack in a baking sheet and set aside.
Using a tablespoon measure or a 1/2-ounce scoop, carefully place scoops of batter into the oil, four or five at time. (Work in batches to avoid overcrowding the beignets in the oil.) Fry, turning frequently, until the beignets are golden brown and cooked through the center, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer the cooked beignets to the prepared cooling rack to drain and cool slightly.
Serve warm with the aioli for dipping.
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