I’ve never been to Harlem. I’ve never visited New York. I’ve lived much of my life in the Pacific Northwest, so I only have a smattering of experiences to relate to the described call of Harlem, with its gritty allure and folks dressed to the nines.
The food of “Between Harlem and Heaven” seems to make this same contrast of elegance with grit. As though the flavors embody both the drive and determination of a people melded with art and finesse. The further you read and cook from this unique cookbook from New York chefs JJ Johnson and Alexander Smalls — also opera star, Grammy and Tony winner and iconic Harlem jazz bar owner — the more you wonder how it fits so much into fewer than 300 pages.
“Between Harlem and Heaven” is more than the usual localized American cookbook. Instead, it dives deep into an education on the food and flavors of African-American culture, its vitality and history woven into an entire people. A pretty apt choice to cook from during Black History Month.
“It’s bigger than being a chef. It’s bigger than cooking,” Smalls writes. “It’s really about realizing not only myself, but my race and my ancestors. It’s an homage.”
“But don’t call it soul food,” he adds. “The idea that black folks who cook are only making soul food is frightening. What we have to say is much bigger than that.”
There are “soul food” recipes here, but their flavors run farther afield, embracing a wider area than the South. Smalls seeks to explore the origins of foods and spices like turmeric, coriander seeds, curry powder and hibiscus that found their way through West Africa into the world’s cuisines as result of the slave trade. He explains how these wound their way even further, to Harlem.
“African Americans came to Harlem in the first part of the 20th century,” he writes, “so did immigrants from China, Jamaica, Barbados, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, and Cuba.”
With all this overlapping of diaspora, comes a uniquely Harlem cuisine. One rich in the history of not only African culture, but others as well. At the same time, it’s a very American cuisine.
There’s an array of difficulty within the recipes of “Between Harlem and Heaven.” Some are designed for day to day or weekly use, others pack that “Wow” factor. A few ask you to bring your “A” game to the kitchen, and others you can seemingly just toss together.
Spiced goat with coconut sticky rice was surprisingly simple, given the layers of complex flavors. I sourced the goat locally and challenged my palate with the combination of sweet coconut sticky rice and warm curry spices with the earthiness of the goat meat and wilted cabbage.
The feijoada, which Johnson describes as the “gumbo of Brazil,” asked a bit more of me. The feijoada is made with a base of spicy black beans, lamb sausage and the meat and broth from braising oxtails with orange, bay leaf, cinnamon and red wine. I opted to cook the oxtails in a pressure cooker, rather than spend the morning at the stove. The result was tender and aromatic oxtails in a little over an hour.
The oxtail braising liquid lent depth to the feijoada, the lamb and chipotle in adobo from the black beans gave sweetness, and the bird’s eye chilies packed a punch. My wimpy heat tolerance was grateful for the suggested rice and orange slices served alongside.
Had I gone with the described braising methods, this would have been an all-day affair. Sadly, some days you want a good meal but don’t have the energy to get it done. I split the difference and offered up a promise to the authors that I would make this again, using their slower, more deliberate cooking methods. That said, I still think I was able to capture the spirit of the dish, and the feijoada left us happy and full.
In my elementary years I spent time living in the Caribbean, just off the coast of Venezuela. We weren’t there long, but enough to sear into me a love of fried dough, peanut sauce and plantains. (Also shrimp chips and salted black licorice, but that’s another story.)
The result was my honing in on two recipes: West African peanut punch, loaded with bourbon, and savory plantain kelewele — deep fried sweet plantain doughnuts with added bird’s eye chilise, cilantro, parsley and black pepper. Except for the labor of frying batches of kelewele, both came together with little effort.
Childhood realized, I now also had the education on how soy sauce and spices ended up in my favorite Caribbean dipping sauce.
Johnson and Smalls offer a personal touch to each recipe. The stories and descriptions along with photographs of Harlem form a rich and rewarding cookbook. “Between Harlem and Heaven” left me feeling full, and not just in appetite.
Spicy black beans
These robust and spicy black beans make up the base of JJ Johnson’s feijoada, but they’re also amazing served on their own. No long braising of oxtails is required, but do use the best broth you can find, or make your own. Like the feijoada, these can be served with white jasmine rice, cilantro, orange slices and a squeeze of fresh lime.
1 pound dried black beans, rinsed
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup diced red onion
½ cup diced celery
½ cup diced carrots
2 bird’s eye chilies, seeded and minced
½ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ cup canned chipotles in adobo, chopped, with their sauce (about ½ of 7-ounce can)
6 cups oxtail braising liquid, beef broth or water
Freshly ground black pepper
Put the black beans in a 2-quart container and fill the container with water. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Drain the beans, discarding the water.
In a 6-quart stockpot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes, until the garlic just becomes aromatic. Follow with the onion and ½ tablespoon salt to bring out the flavors and liquid from the vegetables. Cook, stirring constantly, until the onion is translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the celery, carrots, and chilies and cook for 3 additional minutes.
Stir in the cumin and cook for 1 minute, then add the chipotles and their sauce and cook to heat through. Add the soaked black beans and the oxtail braising liquid.
Lower the heat to medium and let the liquid come to a lazy simmer. Cover and let simmer and reduce for about 1 hour. Uncover the pot and use a wooden spoon to smash some of the beans against the side of the pot. Stir the smashed beans into the stew to make it extra creamy.
Simmer, uncovered, for another 30 to 45 minutes, until the beans are very tender but not falling apart. Season to taste with salt and black pepper and store, with any cooking liquid, in an airtight nonreactive container for up to 3 days. Makes about 6 cups.
West African peanut punch
This is like a West African version of horchata. Like if horchata met a boozy peanut butter milkshake and decided to make a cocktail. I toasted my peanuts before proceeding, just to release the oils and increase that peanut flavor. You can use a cheesecloth, a fine mesh strainer or a mesh bag used for making nut milks to strain the peanut milk. I used a bit more honey and found that an added squeeze of lime added a nice pop. Don’t skip the peanut garnish in your glass; they make a fun surprise snack while you sip.
¾ cup roasted peanuts
1½ cups bourbon
¼ cup chili honey
Roasted peanuts, for garnish
Note: Buy chili honey at the store, or you can make your own by warming 1 cup honey with 1 tablespoon chili powder for 5 minutes and then letting it cool.
Put the peanuts and 2 cups water in a blender. Blend on high until the mixture is completely smooth.
Strain into a large chilled pitcher. Stir in the bourbon and honey, making sure the honey is completely dissolved.
Serve over ice and garnish with peanuts. Makes 6 servings.
— Excerpted from “Between Harlem and Heaven” by JJ Johnson and Alexander Smalls. Copyright 2018 by JJ Johnson and Alexander Smalls. Reprinted with permission from Flatiron Books. All rights reserved. Photography by Beatriz da Costa.
“Between Harlem and Heaven: African-Asian-American Cooking for Big Nights, Weeknights, and Every Day”
By JJ Johnson and Alexander Smalls. 272 pages. $37.50. Flatiron Books.
Who should buy this? Anyone keen to learn more about African-Asian-American cuisine. Or if you’re looking to broaden the flavors used in your home kitchen.