Friday, July 25, 2008

Philadelphia Freedom

Concentrate, for a moment, on six words: the stomach lining of a cow. Got the image in your mind? Good. Now go ahead -- savor it.

There are phrases in the English language that are more unappealing, but not many. Add a couple more words -- soup and honeycomb -- and you begin to understand why it's taken me so long to make Philadelphia Pepperpot Soup, one of two remaining recipes on my American Food Writing-inspired "to do" list.

The soup is a soul food institution little known to outsiders, and it's not hard to figure out why: it's main ingredient is honeycomb tripe, the rubbery, textured lining of a cow's second stomach. The recipe -- a contribution from Sheila Ferguson, '60s girl group singer turned cookbook author -- has potatoes, cream, beef bouillon, spices, and, of course, peppers. But the tripe towered über alles.

Tripe, you shouldn't be surprised to learn, is not stocked at the Park Slope Food Coop, so I'd have to make a special effort to find it. But the promise of Pepperpot Soup didn't succeed in motivating me, even in the cold of winter, when (theoretically) any warm stew would be welcome. Before I knew it, daytime temperatures were topping 100 degrees, and I still had a soup to make and consume -- a tripe soup, at that.

Without really looking for it, I found tripe in a butcher in Chinatown. Two dollars and twenty-nice cents a pound. I gazed at it through the dirty glass window: honeycomb-rippled, gelatinous, and pale, in a basin of ice and water (the tripe above is from the same shop on a different day; it's darker and more expensive than what I bought. That tripe can vary so much is not exactly comforting!). Even though I only wanted no more than a pound, I bought what was there: 1.3 pounds (the meatmonger wouldn't let me shave off that extra 0.3), and brought it home to an apartment that was losing a battle against the AC window unit. As I got up the nerve to touch it bare-fingered, I started to think about cooking it.

Sheila Ferguson's recipe -- which has its roots in the soup that George Washington's troops ate to stave off starvation during a fatal winter in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania -- starts with cooked tripe, finely shredded. She doesn't explain how to cook it, though she mentions her aunt Ella's preferred method ("the soul way"): boiling until "it's nice and tender" and then breading and frying. So i tried that. I cut the tripe into a few pieces -- it was surprisingly resistant to my knife -- and boiled it in salted water for 15 minutes ... 30 minutes ... 45 ....

The cooking tripe gave off a peculiar odor, unmistakable to anyone who has spent time in Chinatown, any Chinatown, and I instantly regretted that the hard-working air conditioner unit prevented me from opening windows. After an hour, my patience was worn thin. Even though the tripe wasn't quite tender, I rolled it in highly seasoned flour and started frying.

Of course, being me, I had taken significant liberties with the other ingredients. Where the recipe called for bacon, I used turkey bacon; where it calls for bell pepper, I used fresh corn. I replaced white potatoes for sweet potatoes, and toyed with the seasonings a bit. My sautéd sort-of-succotash was spicy-sweet and delicious. Barely glancing at the printed recipe, I was so flush with freedom that I decided to hell with it. It's too hot for soup! I added no stock, no cream -- and no shredded tripe.

The result was a heap of veggies, flavored with cayenne and agave nectar, speckled with browned turkey bacon, and topped with a "fillet" of fried tripe. My roommates didn't hide their relief when I assured them the tripe was optional -- though they were good sports and tried a bite, even two. Finally, a year in the making, we sat down to enjoy our very deconstructed Philadelphia Pepperpot Soup, a little taste of tripe-free freedom in every bite.

Philadelphia Pepperpot Succotash

Cooking spray
6 slices turkey bacon, cut to a ¼” dice
Kernels of 2 corncobs
½ cup onion, finely chopped (1 small onion)
½ cup celery, finely chopped
1 teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon thyme
2 tablespoons parsley, finely chopped
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon agave nectar
1 large sweet potato, cut into a 1/8” dice

For the tripe:
1 pound honeycomb tripe
¼ cup flour
1 teaspoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons canola oil

1. To prepare the tripe, put it in a Ziploc bag and pound it for a minute with a heavy can. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and boil the tripe for at least 1 hour, until it can be pierced with a fork. Remove and let the tripe cool enough to handle. Slice into about 4 pieces. Heat the canola oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Combine the flour, salt, cayenne pepper, and black pepper on a plate. Dredge the tripe peices in the flour so that they’re evenly coated. Working in two batches, fry the tripe until golden brown on each side, about 3 minutes each side. Let drain on paper towels.

2. While the tripe is cooking, prepare the succotash. Heat a skillet over low heat. Spray with the cooking spray. Add the turkey bacon and cook until it begins to crisp on the edges, about 5 minutes. Add the onion, celery, corn, paprika, thyme, parsley, salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper. Continue cooking until the vegetables are tender. Remove the vegetables from the skillet.

3. Melt the butter in the skillet. Add the sweet potatoes and sauté, stirring often, until tender, about 15 minutes. Add the vegetables and toss to combine. Serve warm or at room temperature. If you’re using the tripe, finely shred it or slice thin and serve on top of the succotash.

Makes 4 servings.


iconoclast said...

Actually, it may have been possible to special order it at the Park Slope Food Coop.
It is always worth asking.
BTW, you almost have me willing to try tripe. Despite growing up with grandparents and uncles who loved it, it never appealed to me.

Nora Leah Sherman said...

Ah, I have forgotten about the powerful privilege of Special Order! Thanks for reminder. Now I want to think up wacky things just to take advantage. Or maybe not wacky, just unusual and delish. I've been wanting to try my hand at pork belly -- the fatty outer area of the stomach is sooo much more appealing than the lining!

That said, I'm glad my misadventure did not turn you off of the possibilities of tripe. It is said to be a very good cure for hangover -- cultures across the globe use it in soups for this purpose. Anything that can cure a hangover is ok in my book! I just need to learn how to cook it properly.

~~Louise~~ said...

Growing up in the 60s, we often had tripe as an inexpensive meal. I remember once my father made up some soffritto (which he added tripe to) Deviously, he asked our neighbors to taste it for "salt." When they found out what it was they both ran for the hose to wash out their mouths. I still laugh to this day when I think about it. I, myself, could never warm up to the texture.

P.S. As for cooking it, the only thing I remember is he use to boil it, rinse, boil again, rinse and then add it to whatever dish was planned.

Anonymous said...

This is hilarious. My Dad, who is well traveled, will eat anything, and never wastes food, likes to tell a story about the one meal he could not finished. You know it, it was a boiled tripe stew in Italy some place. Apparently it cost something like 5 cents.

I have to say, pan fried looks better than just boiled. There must be someone in the world that likes it.

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