PITTSBURGH – Alexander Smalls was a professional opera singer before reinventing himself as a chef and restaurateur. It’s no surprise, then, that he takes an artistic eye on the recipes he created for his 2020 cookbook, Meals, Music, and Muses: Recipes from My African-American Kitchen (Flatiron, $35).
He brings a pretty keen ear to the Southern dishes featured in the book, providing a “soundtrack” of the bold and flavorful Gullah Geechee dishes he grew up with and learned to cook in Spartanburg, South Carolina – some of which he made in the featured Declaration & Resistance Dinner, which he curated on April 23 at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art to celebrate an exhibition by Baltimore artist Stephen Towns.
Each chapter pays homage to a music genre associated with a food category. Appetizers, for example, are compared to the improvisation, blues, and swing of jazz, while rice, pasta, and grits — “lean on me” dishes that often form the backbone of a home cook’s repertoire — represent the comforts of spirituals.
As he states in the cookbook’s foreword, food and music are inextricably linked in the United States, especially in African-American culture. “Both Southern music and Southern food are rooted in a knotted lineage that connects West Africa and Western Europe,” he writes.
Smalls spent years traveling the world as a young artist and won both the Grammy and Tony Awards with the Houston Grand Opera for the cast recording of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. But as a black man he was never able to break through the glass ceiling of the opera; His last audition at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, he recalls, resulted in an offer to be part of the chorus rather than the lead role in which he had made his debut, leading to rave reviews.
“So I left devastated,” he says, “but really determined to move on with my life” by opening the small, intimate restaurant he always dreamed of having in the back of his mind.
One of the forerunners of New York City’s soul-food revolution, Cafe Beulah opened in 1994 to rave reviews. Four more restaurants followed, including The Cecil in 2013, which emphasizes the interplay between African and Asian cuisine, and the jazz bar and restaurant Minton’s next door.
“I didn’t just have to own a seat at the table,” says Smalls, “but the whole table.”
His first cookbook, 2018’s Between Harlem and Heaven: Afro-Asian-American Cooking for Big Nights, Weeknights, and Every Day, earned him a 2019 James Beard Foundation Book Award for Best American Cookbook. It examines the immense impact that the African diaspora has had on global cuisine.
With Meals, Music, and Muses, Smalls hopes to continue the conversation about the unsung contributions of people in the African diaspora to American cuisine.
“It’s essentially my kind of ode to African-American cuisine and my path, if you will,” he says. “The lens that made me the creative person I am.”
DEVILED CRAB CAKES WITH SPICY CREOLE MAYO
“Crab cakes are an integral part of South Coast cuisine,” writes Alexander Smalls in Meals, Music, and Muses, which is why the chef and restaurateur has featured them on his restaurant and catering menus for more than 30 years. This “jazz” appetizer, which can be made larger for a plate or smaller as an appetizer, features a rich Creole mayonnaise lightened with cayenne pepper to lift the flavor profile.
If you’re trying to limit fried foods, you can bake the crab cakes in a 400 degree oven until browned, about 5 minutes.
For crab cakes:
- 1 pound chunk of crab meat, picked for clams
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped onion
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped red bell pepper
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped celery
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
- 2 large eggs, beaten
- 1 cup white bread, cut into small cubes, toasted
- 1/2 cup breadcrumbs plus more for dredging
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme
- 1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
- 1 cup fresh corn kernels
- salt and pepper
- Peanut, canola or vegetable oil for frying
For Creole Mayonnaise:
- 1 cup canned diced tomatoes
- 1/2 cup finely chopped red pepper
- 1/2 cup finely chopped celery
- 1/2 cup finely chopped onion
- 1 tablespoon light brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
Make Crab Cakes: In a large bowl, mix together crab, onion, peppers, celery, parsley, eggs, bread cubes, breadcrumbs, thyme, cayenne, corn, and 1/8 teaspoon each of salt and black pepper until well combined. Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours or up to overnight.
Make Mayonnaise: In a medium saucepan, combine tomatoes, peppers, celery, onion, brown sugar, cayenne, tomato paste, vinegar, salt, and black pepper and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring frequently.
Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until mixture has the consistency of a thick paste, about 20 minutes. Allow to cool to room temperature, then refrigerate for 1 hour.
Transfer the tomato mixture to a food processor and pulse until smooth. Pour the mixture into a bowl and fold in the mayonnaise. Chill for at least 30 minutes before serving, or refrigerate in a sealed container for up to 1 month.
To prepare crab cakes, place breadcrumbs in a shallow bowl. Shape shrimp mixture into 1 ounce patties (about 1 1/2 inches in diameter). Toss patties in breadcrumbs to coat and shake off excess crumbs.
Fill a large cast-iron skillet with oil to a depth of 1/2 inch. Heat to 325 degrees over medium heat. Working in batches to avoid overcrowding the pan, place crab patties in hot oil and fry once until golden, about 2 minutes per side.
Drain on a crumpled brown paper bag or kitchen paper. Serve immediately with Creole mayonnaise.
— “Meals, Music, and Muses: Recipes from My African-American Kitchen” by Alexander Smalls (Flatiron Books, $35)
Makes 12 chocolates
Popular in the Southern states and featured in the cookbook’s Serenades chapter, these sweet treats are easy to make and a perfect way to end a meal.
- 3/4 cup tightly packed light brown sugar
- 3/4 cup heavy cream
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 cup chopped pecans
In a medium saucepan, combine brown sugar and cream and heat over medium heat, stirring, until brown sugar has melted. Cook, stirring occasionally, until a paste forms, about 10 minutes. Add butter, vanilla and pecans. Cook while stirring for 5 minutes.
Line a half sheet pan with parchment paper. Spoon the chocolates into the prepared pans one tablespoon at a time and allow to cool completely.
— Adapted from “Meals, Music, and Muses: Recipes from My African Kitchen” by Alexander Smalls (Flatiron Books, $35)
SALAD WITH VEGETABLES, POACHED PEARS AND BLACK-EYE PEAS
“For me, this salad is all about taste, texture and childhood memories,” writes Smalls in Meals, Music, and Muses. It’s one of many that will be on the menu at the April 23 Declaration & Resistance Dinner at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art. The cookbook pays homage to his South Carolina heritage and the music that inspired the former professional opera singer.
It was on the menu when he opened The Cecil in New York City in 2013. It honors his father and grandfather and the pears they grew in their backyard in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
The beans add protein and the pears add a touch of elegance. A lemony vinaigrette ties everything together.
It’s a versatile recipe that can be made ahead of time to dress up later, and easily goes from an appetizer to a full meal, depending on size. I halved the ingredients for smaller portions.
For the salad:
- 4 ripe but firm Bosc pears, halved and cored
- 2 cups of red wine
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 2 star anise pods
- 1 1/2 cups halved grape tomatoes
- 1 red onion, halved and thinly sliced
- 2 cups thinly sliced seedless cucumbers
- 2 pounds mixed leaf lettuce
- 2 1/2 cups cooked black-eyed peas
For the vinaigrette:
- 1/2 cup champagne vinegar
- 1 tablespoon each of fresh lemon, lime, and orange juice
- 1 1/2 teaspoons chopped shallot
- 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
- 1 1/2 teaspoons honey
- salt and pepper
- 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
In a medium saucepan, combine pears, wine, sugar, cinnamon sticks, star anise, and 1 cup water.
Bring to a boil over medium heat. Cover, reduce heat to low and poach until pears are soft but not mushy, about 35 minutes. Allow pears to cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate for at least several hours or up to overnight.
Make the vinaigrette: In a food processor, combine the vinegar, citrus juices, shallot, mustard, mayonnaise, honey, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Pulse until smooth, about 30 seconds.
With the machine running, add the oil in a thin stream and process until emulsified. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Use immediately or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to three days.
Remove pears from poaching liquid and slice lengthwise into 1/8 inch thick slices. Save poaching liquid for another use.
In a large bowl, mix together the grape tomatoes, onions, cucumber, and greens. Add black-eyed peas and vinaigrette (a little at a time until greens are lightly coated) and toss.
Divide among 8 chilled plates. Garnish with poached pears and serve immediately.
— “Meals, Music, and Muses: Recipes from My African-American Kitchen” by Alexander Smalls (Flatiron, $35)