CELEBRATION IS CENTRAL to a life well lived according to Nicole A. Taylor. And the author of “Watermelon and Red Birds: A Cookbook for Juneteenth and Black Celebrations,” published this month by Simon & Schuster, knows a thing or two about revelry. The Georgia native and food writer has spent years curating menus for Juneteenth, a federal holiday each June 19th that commemorates the emancipation of African Americans throughout the U.S.
“This book is intended to be light with the pleasures of good food and heavy with the weight of history,” writes Ms. Taylor. Refined hot-weather recipes like zucchini corndogs, strawberry and black pepper slab pie, and caraway-butter trout hold a resounding truth: Food can provide an occasion to reflect on painful history, reshape present challenges and honor the ingredients and innovations introduced by Black Americans. From her home in Athens, Ga., Ms. Taylor shared more tips, insights and the potato salad recipe you’ll be making from now on.
The cookbook I turn to again and again is: “Vegetable Kingdom” by Bryant Terry. I was vegetarian for about 10 years, and I tend to cook a lot of vegetarian food. Bryant is also a dear friend.
My pantry is always stocked with: so many freaking salts. I have a lazy Susan with all of them. The Jacobsen Salt Co. Habanero Salt. Beautiful Briny Sea is one of my favorite salt and sugar blend makers, based in Atlanta. I have the Gunpowder Finishing Salt that [founder Suzi Sheffield] did with chef Kevin Gillespie. Red Boat Salt. A Bulls Bay Saltworks Sea Salt Bourbon Barrel Smoked Flake salt. I also have Rancho Gordo beans. I grew up on beans and I was ashamed of it, but now it’s so trendy. My pantry is full of small makers, like Smoky Espelette BBQ blend from PET PET, an Athens-based company. Or Salsa Macha, from XILLI, a New York-based Mexican brand. Anytime I go to a city, I’m always looking for what the local maker is making.
Yeah, my pantry stays well stocked. I have coconut cream, grits, canned fish, tortillas. My toddler has his own section with Goldfish, Cheerios. The way people started to cook in the pandemic—pantry meals—that’s what I’ve always done.
My refrigerator is stocked with: plenty of cheese. My friend Osayi [Endolyn] says, “You always have a cheese board ready.” I buy a bunch of peppers from the farmers market and spend a day making my own hot sauce. I ferment it and let it sit in a jar with salt. I have the Capital City Mambo Sauce, which is in my book, on the Black-owned product list. I have Champagne. My entire bottom bin is always grapefruit, lemon and lime. I always keep Swiss chard and fresh veggies like broccoli so I can cook it up really quick. I have Japanese turnips, which I deep-fry like corndogs. They’re great. Lots of herbs. Plenty of eggs. And stocks. You open up my fridge, you see chicken stock, lamb stock, mushroom stock. To make the mushroom stock, you take the very coarse woody edges, put them in a bag and throw them in the freezer. When I have some free time, I take, like, two cups of water, a bay leaf, maybe an onion or garlic, and let it simmer.
The pan I reach for most is: what’s on my stove now, all black and beaten up, this All-Clad skillet and this inexpensive crêpe pan. I’ve had this—I call it the all-purpose pan—forever.
The ingredient I’m most excited about right now is: chicken salt: celery seed, cumin, some other ingredients. (It’s in the cookbook.) Even if I’m not grilling—if I’m just doing everyday chicken or everyday protein—I put a little bit of the chicken salt on top of it.
On weeknights, I typically cook: very much what I can do in 30 to 45 minutes, especially now that I’m a parent. One day this week, I did—I don’t even know what you want to call this—quesadilla night? I made guacamole, and I had leftover salmon and leftover shrimp. Only I eat the shrimp, because my husband is allergic. So I made three different types of quesadillas, like a quesadilla bar. Straight-up cheese and mushroom for my son, and one with salmon, and then one with shrimp.
On weekends, I typically cook: a dessert. It’s when I’m going all out. Like one of my pound cakes, and I’m making ice cream to go with it.
When I entertain, I like to: do grilled mushrooms. I often make them for a barbecue or Juneteenth gathering, for my vegetarian friends. I get the fancy mushrooms—not the portabello. Maitake or blue oysters or lion’s mane. I’ve learned that less is more. I always think about what is the one thing I want people to be talking about when they leave here. Or when they see me again, and they’re like, “Oooh, girl that cake was good. Oooh, and that drink.” If I’m having a celebration, let me spend the extra money and buy lion’s mane. Let me spend the extra time and make some corn ice cream cookie sandwiches.
I love it when my dinner guests bring: flowers. You can never have too many flowers in your house. I also love when people, particularly old friends, bring some wine or something that we share together, and there’s a story behind it. “Oh my gosh, my husband and I went to Italy and we had this wine, I think you may love it.”
My favorite season for cooking/eating is: year-round. I know it sounds cliché. But, I will say, I do probably get the most excited right around this time of year: spring and summer. The farmers’ markets are brimming with color. You see all the red raspberries, the strawberries, and you know you’ve only got a certain window to get the good stuff before it starts tasting not so sweet. Beautiful fresh herbs, corn, tomatoes, figs. (I just kind of became a fig fanatic.)
When I travel, I like to: shop and eat from the farmers’ market. My husband and my close friends say, “Are we relaxing, or do we gotta go to every market?” Cairo, Savannah, Asheville, Austin. I will plan my trip around that. Also, coffee. I’m a serious coffee person, so I want to go and find who’s making the best. Particularly if it’s a place roasting coffee.
In addition to food, I’m obsessed with: plants. I can say truthfully that this was not a pandemic thing for me, right? I grew up with nature around me. As a 40-year-old-plus woman, I’m realizing that this is what I need.
—Adapted from an interview by Kayla Stewart
Use a waxy variety like fingerling, Yukon Gold or red potato, that will keep its shape and texture. Take care not to overcook, and season the potatoes while they are warm.
- 3 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
- ⅓ cup plus 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 8 ounces bacon (optional)
- 4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter (if omitting the bacon)
- 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
- 1 fennel bulb, cored and chopped
- ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- ½ cup sour cream
- ¼ cup fresh parsley leaves and stems, chopped, plus 2 tablespoons leaves for garnish
- 2 teaspoons ground mustard
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika, plus more for garnish
- Zest of 1 lemon (2 tablespoons)
- 3 tablespoons pickle brine
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Rinse potatoes in cold water. Place potatoes in a large pot, and add water to cover (around 10 cups) and ⅓ cup of the salt. Bring to a boil over high heat and cook potatoes, uncovered, until just tender but with some bite still, 18-25 minutes. Drain potatoes and transfer to a large bowl.
- Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt and let cool 30 minutes.
- Meanwhile, in a large skillet, cook bacon, if using, over medium heat until fat has rendered and bacon is crisp and browned, 7-10 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel–lined plate, leaving fat in pan. If you omit the bacon, melt the butter in a large skillet here. Add onion and fennel to hot fat in skillet and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Season with remaining 1 teaspoon salt. Remove from heat and let cool.
- Add cooled fennel mixture to bowl with potatoes, then add olive oil, sour cream, chopped parsley, ground mustard, paprika, lemon zest, pickle brine and pepper, and stir to combine. Taste and season further as needed. Garnish with parsley leaves and, if desired, an extra pinch of paprika. We’re talking about potato salad here, so: Everyone has their way. Some people make it the day of; some make it a day ahead. Store in the refrigerator until ready to serve.
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What favorite recipes are you preparing for Juneteenth and the rest of the summer? Join the conversation below.
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