Alexander Smalls’ deviled crab cake recipe comes with a spicy Creole mayonnaise. (Gretchen McKay / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Alexander Smalls’ deviled crab cake recipe comes with a spicy Creole mayonnaise. (Gretchen McKay / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

This chef has a trained ear for Southern cuisine

Alexander Smalls’ musical meals help home cooks explore the Gullah Geechee foods of his childhood.

By Gretchen McKay / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH — Alexander Smalls was a professional opera singer before he reinvented himself as a chef and restaurateur. So it’s no surprise he brings an artist’s eye to the recipes he created for his 2020 cookbook, “Meals, Music, And Muses: Recipes From my African American Kitchen” (Flatiron, $35).

He brings a pretty good ear to the Southern dishes featured in the book, by offering a “soundtrack” of the bold and flavorful Gullah Geechee foods he grew up eating and learned to cook in Spartanburg, South Carolina — some of which were featured at the Declaration & Resistance dinner he curated April 23 at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art to celebrate an exhibition of Baltimore artist Stephen Towns.

Each chapter pays homage to a genre of music tied to a category of food. Starters, for instance, are likened to the improvisation, blues and swing found in jazz while rice, pasta and grits — “lean on me” dishes that are often the backbone of a home cook’s repertoire — represent the comfort of spirituals.

As he notes in the cookbook’s forward, food and music are inextricably linked in the U.S., especially in African American culture. “Both Southern music and Southern food are rooted in a knotty lineage that connects West Africa and Western Europe,” he writes.

Smalls spent years traveling the world as a young artist, and won both Grammy and Tony awards for the cast recording of “Porgy and Bess,” by George Gershwin, with the Houston Grand Opera. Yet he was never able to break opera’s glass ceiling as a Black man; his last audition with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, he recalls, resulted in an offer to be part of the chorus instead of the prime role he’d made his debut to, to rave reviews.

“So I left devastated,” he said, “but really determined to get on with my life,” by opening the small, intimate restaurant he’d always dreamed of in the back of his mind.

Cafe Beulah, one of the forerunners of the soul food revolution in New York City, opened in 1994 to rave reviews. Four more restaurants followed, including The Cecil in 2013, which highlights the interplay between African and Asian cuisines, and the jazz bar and restaurant Minton’s next door.

“I needed to own not just a seat at the table,” Smalls said, “but the whole table.”

His first cookbook, 2018’s “Between Harlem and Heaven: Afro-Asian-American Cooking for Big Nights, Weeknights, and Every Day,” won him a 2019 James Beard Foundation Book Award for best American cookbook. It explores the immense influence the African diaspora has had on global cuisine.

With “Meals, Music, and Muses,” Smalls hopes to continue the conversation about the unsung contributions people of the African diaspora have made to American cuisine.

“It’s essentially my sort of ode to the African-American kitchen, and my pathway if you will,” he said. “The lens to which I’ve been the creative person that I am.”

Deviled crab cakes with spicy creole mayo

“Crab cakes are an essential part of Southern coastal cooking,” Alexander Smalls writes in “Meals, Music, and Muses,” which is why the chef and restaurateur has had them on his restaurant and catering menus for more than 30 years. This “Jazz” starter, which can be made larger for a plated entree or smaller as an appetizer, features a robust Creole mayonnaise brightened with cayenne to lift the flavor profile.

If you’re trying to cut back on fried foods, you can bake the crab cakes in a 400-degree oven until browned, about 5 minutes.

For the crab cakes:

1 pound lump crabmeat, picked over for shells

2 tablespoons finely chopped onion

2 tablespoon finely chopped red pepper

2 tablespoons finely chopped celery

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

2 large eggs, beaten

1 cup small cubes white bread, toasted

½ cup plain bread crumbs, plus more for dredging

2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme

1½ teaspoons cayenne pepper

1 cup fresh corn kernels

Salt and pepper

Peanut, canola or vegetable oil, for frying

For the Creole mayo:

1 cup canned diced tomatoes

½ cup finely chopped red pepper

½ cup finely chopped celery

½ cup finely chopped onion

1 tablespoon light brown sugar

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 tablespoons tomato paste

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon pepper

½ cup mayonnaise

Prepare crabcakes: In a large bowl, mix crab, onion, bell pepper, celery, parsley, eggs, bread cubes, bread crumbs, thyme, cayenne, corn and ⅛ teaspoon each salt and black pepper until well combined. Cover and chill for at least 2 hours or up to overnight.

Prepare mayonnaise: In medium saucepan, combine tomatoes, bell pepper, celery, onion, brown sugar, cayenne, tomato paste, vinegar, salt and black pepper and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring often.

Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the mixture has the consistency of a thick paste, about 20 minutes. Let cool to room temperature, then chill for 1 hour.

Transfer tomato mixture to a food processor and pulse until smooth. Spoon the mixture into a bowl and fold in mayonnaise. Chill for at least 30 minutes before serving, or store in a sealed container in the fridge for up to 1 month.

To make crabcakes, put bread crumbs in a shallow bowl. Form crab mixture into 1-ounce patties (about 1 ½ inches in diameter). Dredge patties in breadcrumbs to coat and shake off excess crumbs.

Fill a large cast-iron skillet with oil to a depth of ½ inch. Heat over medium-high heat to 325 degrees. Working in batches to avoid overcrowding the pan, add crab patties to hot oil and fry, turning once, until golden brown, about 2 minutes per side.

Drain on a crumpled brown paper bag or paper towels. Serve immediately with Creole mayonnaise.

Serves 6.

— “Meals, Music, and Muses: Recipes from My African American Kitchen” by Alexander Smalls (Flatiron Books, $35)

Pralines

Popular across the Southern states, these sweet treats — featured in the cookbook’s “Serenades” chapter — are easy to make and a perfect way to end a meal.

¾ cup firmly packed light brown sugar

¾ 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-low heat, stirring, until brown sugar has melted. Cook, stirring occasionally, until blended into a paste, about 10 minutes. Add butter, vanilla and pecans. Cook, stirring, for 5 minutes.

Line a half-sheet pan with parchment paper. Drop pralines by tablespoons onto prepared pans and let cool completely.

Makes 12 pralines.

— Adapted from “Meals, Music, and Muses: Recipes from My African Kitchen” by Alexander Smalls (Flatiron Books, $35)

Field greens, poached pear & black-eyed peas salad

“This salad is, for me, about flavor, texture and childhood memories,” Smalls writes in “Meals, Music, and Muses.” The cookbook is a tribute 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 a touch of elegance. A lemony vinaigrette ties it all together.

It’s a versatile recipe that can be made ahead to be dressed later, and it easily goes from an appetizer to a full meal depending on the size. I halved the ingredients for smaller portions.

For the salad:

4 ripe but firm Bosc pears, halved and cored

2 cups red wine

1 cup sugar

2 cinnamon sticks

2 star anise pods

1½ cups halved grape tomatoes

1 red onion, halved and thinly sliced

2 cups thinly sliced seedless cucumbers

2 pounds mixed salad greens

2½ cups cooked black-eye peas

For the vinaigrette:

½ cup Champagne vinegar

1 tablespoon each fresh lemon, lime and orange juice

1½ teaspoons minced shallot

½ teaspoon Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons mayonnaise

1½ teaspoons honey

Salt and pepper

¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil

Combine pears, wine, sugar, cinnamon sticks, star anise and 1 cup water in a medium saucepan.

Bring to boil over medium-high heat. Cover, reduce heat to low and poach until pears are tender but not mushy, about 35 minutes. Let pears cool to room temperature, then cover and chill for at least several hours or up to overnight.

Prepare vinaigrette: In a food processor, combine vinegar, citrus juices, shallot, mustard, mayo, honey and a pinch of salt and pepper. Pulse until smooth, about 30 seconds.

With the machine running, add 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 fridge for up to three days.

Remove pears from poaching liquid and cut lengthwise into ⅛ -inch-thick slices. Reserve poaching liquid for another use.

In a large bowl, toss grape tomatoes, onion, cucumbers and greens to combine. 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.

Serves 8.

— “Meals, Music, and Muses: Recipes From My African American Kitchen” by Alexander Smalls (Flatiron, $35)

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