By Norman Van Aken, author of Norman Van Aken’s Florida Kitchen
When I was asked to help organize a dinner with some other James Beard Award–winning chefs to cook at the James Beard House in New York City not long ago, I chose a variation on hush puppies. It happens to be a recipe we included in Norman Van Aken’s Florida Kitchen. It was served at reception cocktail hour . . . an hour I’m pretty sure the Titan of American Food, Mr. James Beard of course, loved mightily. And I’m sure that James Beard would have had no problem with such a casual creation in a soiree named in his honor due to his all-embracing love of American regional foods.
Bacon-Speckled Hush Puppies
These hush puppies are adaptive to so many fillings you can either put add-ons straight into the batter or “sandwiched” into halved hush puppies. Try grilled or sautéed wild mushrooms, crabmeat, or cooked shrimp. For a straight, non-meat version, omit the bacon from the recipe. Have your variations as you wish!
Makes about 20 hush puppies
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons stone-ground self-rising yellow cornmeal
½ cup self-rising all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 ½ cups buttermilk
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 cup finely diced sweet onion
½ Scotch bonnet chile, seeded and finely minced
2 ½ tablespoons cooked diced bacon
Vegetable, peanut, or canola oil for deep-frying
1 teaspoon Escabeche Spice Rub (recipe below)
Make the Escabeche Spice Rub
¼ cup cumin seeds
¼ cup whole black peppercorns
5 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons kosher salt
Makes 1 scant cup
Put the cumin seeds and peppercorns in a dry skillet and toast over medium heat until fragrant, 30 to 60 seconds. Let cool, then transfer to a spice grinder and grind until fine. Pour into a bowl, add the sugar and salt, and stir well. Store in an airtight container until ready to use.
Make the Hush Puppies
- Combine the cornmeal, flour, sugar, salt, baking soda, and baking powder in a medium-size bowl.
- In a separate bowl, whisk together the buttermilk and egg. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, whisking until just combined. Add the onion, chile, and bacon. Stir and set aside to rest for about 5 minutes.
- In a deep heavy pot, heat 2 to 3 inches of oil to 350 degrees.
- Spoon heaping tablespoons of the batter into the hot oil using two spoons—one to help push the other’s batter into the oil. (It also prevents oil from splashing up onto your hands.)
- Cook for 1 ½ to 2 minutes, carefully turning the “puppies” over once or twice to cook evenly. When they are golden and cooked through (check one to test it), lift them out with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Sprinkle the warm “puppies” with the Escabeche Spice Rub, place on a cookie rack, and keep warm until ready to serve.
Note: These can be frozen and reheated after the frying step. The batter also can be made a few days in advance and held in the refrigerator.
Norman Van Aken is chef-owner of NORMAN’S at The Ritz-Carlton, Grande Lakes, Orlando, and 1921 by Norman Van Aken in Mount Dora, Florida. Additionally, he is chef-partner at Three, a fine dining restaurant, and No. 3 Social, a roof deck lounge, in the Wynwood Arts District of Miami. His cooking school, In the Kitchen with Norman Van Aken, is also in Wynwood. Van Aken is the only Floridian inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America and was a 2016 MenuMasters Hall of Fame inductee with Jacques Pépin and Wolfgang Puck. He is the author of five cookbooks, including My Key West Kitchen: Recipes and Stories with Justin Van Aken, and a memoir, No Experience Necessary: The Culinary Odyssey of Chef Norman Van Aken.