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Low-country cook takes reader to Charleston kitchens


"Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking" (Bantam, $24), by John Martin Taylor, captures the assertive flavors and colorful appeal of South Carolina cooking as only a book written by a native can.

It's Mr. Taylor's first cookbook, but he has been writing about food for some time. He's also the owner of Hoppin' John's, a culinary bookstore in Charleston.

The book has special appeal because it looks beyond the recipes. It takes the reader into the kitchens and pantries of Charleston past and present. You search the surrounding Low Country, discovering the abundance of fresh ingredients that was the catalyst for a unique regional cuisine.

"In the three counties into which modern Charleston, the capital of the Low Country, sprawls, there are more than 500,000 acres of wetlands -- salt marsh, rivers, swamps, ponds, creeks, lakes and former rice fields," Mr. Taylor says.

From this setting comes the distinctive Low Country cooking, influenced by Africa, France, England and the Caribbean and touched by hunters and watermen.

Here are some recipes from the book:

Fried bean cakes

Makes 8 burger-size patties or 24 smaller ones.

3 cups cooked and drained (leftover) beans or black-eyed peas

1 large egg

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil

1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano

1 small red onion, diced

2 large garlic cloves, finely minced

1 scallion, chopped

1/2 roasted, peeled and seeded jalapeno pepper, finely minced

unbleached all-purpose flour

vegetable oil for pan-frying

red pepper puree (recipe follows)

Mix together all the ingredients except the flour and oil, mashing the beans with a fork or by hand. Form into patties, coat with flour and fry over medium-high heat in a small amount of oil until browned, about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes on each side. Serve with red pepper puree.

Roasted red pepper puree

Makes approximately 1 cup.

4 ripe red bell peppers

2 scallions, white part and some of the green, chopped

3/4 cup dry white wine

6 Italian flat-leaf parsley sprigs, finely minced

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Roast the peppers by placing them in a very hot oven or by applying direct heat to them, preferably an open flame such as a charcoal grill or the gas flame on the stove top, or you may place them under the broiler of your oven. Roast them until the skin blisters and turns black, turning them with tongs as the skin chars. Burn only the skin -- not the flesh -- of the peppers.

Place roasted peppers in a paper bag and fold down the top for a few minutes so that the charred skins steam away from the flesh. After about 10 minutes, when the peppers have cooled somewhat, remove them from the bag and place them on a cutting board. Peel away the skins, then seed them by pulling the stem end away from the pod. The seeds will usually pull out from the pepper with the stem.

Add the scallions to the white wine in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and reduce by half over medium-high heat. Add the parsley and roasted, peeled and seeded peppers and puree the mixture until evenly smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Sweet potato pie in orange shells

Makes six servings.

6 to 10 oranges, depending on size

1 pound sweet potatoes, boiled, peeled and mashed

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter

3 large eggs

1 cup milk

grated zest and juice of 1 lemon

2 tablespoons molasses

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Cut the top fourth off each orange, then hollow oranges with a grapefruit spoon or a melon baller. Blend the scooped orange together with the remaining ingredients, then fill each orange shell with the mixture. Bake for 20 minutes or until juice begins to run from the oranges.

Creole sauce

Makes approximately 1 1/2 cups.

1 onion, chopped

1 large tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped

1 hot pepper, seeded and chopped

2 garlic cloves, finely minced

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

juice of 1 lime

1/2 cup olive oil

fresh parsley or cilantro leaves, chopped, to taste

1 tablespoon anchovy paste (optional)

Mix all the ingredients and allow to stand at room temperature for about an hour. Serve raw with fried fish and boiled seafood such as shrimp.

Red rice

Makes 10 servings.

1/2 pound bacon

2 cups long-grain rice

2 cups ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped

1 teaspoon salt

1 quart chicken stock

Cut the bacon into small pieces and fry until crisp in a large skillet or saucepan that has a tight-fitting lid. Remove the bacon and reserve for garnish. Pour off some of the bacon grease, leaving about 1/4 cup of it in the pan. Add the rice and saute over medium-high heat, stirring constantly. The rice will begin to get a white, cooked look after a few minutes; do not let it scorch or brown. Add the tomatoes and continue to saute until most of the liquid has evaporated. Add the salt and stock. Simmer, covered, for 30 minutes or until the rice is tender.

Remove from the heat and allow to sit for a few minutes before serving. Fluff the rice with a fork and garnish with the reserved bacon.

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