"Big Bad Breakfast" with chef John Currence

If you're destined to become a chef, the food-centric city of New Orleans isn't a bad place to grow up. John Currence was born and raised there by a family that loved to cook and loved to travel. After cooking jobs around the South, Currence settled in Oxford, Mississippi, in 1992 and opened City Grocery. It won him the 1992 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the South.

Now his City Grocery Restaurant Group includes Big Bad Breakfast with locations in four states. That's also the title of his second and most recent cookbook.    

Here are some of Currence's signature recipes: 

Low Country cast-iron skillet scramble

¼ cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
2 teaspoons olive oil
Salt and black pepper
¼ cup clarified butter (page 30) or your preferred cooking fat
2 tablespoons chopped yellow onion
2 teaspoons minced garlic
½ cup diced andouille sausage
1/3 cup medium shrimp, peeled
¼ teaspoon plus a pinch of Old Bay seasoning
½ cup Potato Hash (recipe follows)
¼ cup diced tomato
2 eggs, well beaten
¼ cup grated cheddar cheese
3 tablespoons sliced green onion, green parts only

Directions

1. In a small ovenproof skillet (see Note), stir together the corn and olive oil and season with a pinch of salt and black pepper. Broil, stirring every 30 or 45 seconds, until the corn begins to brown lightly, 5 to 6 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside. Do not turn off the broiler. Warm the clarified butter in a 6-inch cast-iron pan over medium heat for 1 minute. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until the onion begins to turn transparent, about 1 minute. Add the andouille, shrimp, 1/4 teaspoon Old Bay, and Potato Hash, season with salt and pepper, and sauté, stirring constantly, until the shrimp turn opaque, 2 to 3 minutes. 

2. Stir in the broiled corn and diced tomato and cook, stirring, until warmed through, about 30 seconds. Add the eggs and slowly scramble with a silicone spatula, scraping up large curds from the bottom of the pan. Just as the eggs are almost set but still a tiny bit runny, after about 2 minutes, turn off the heat and sprinkle with the cheese. Slide the pan under the broiler and broil until the cheese melts, 10 to 15 seconds. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with the green onions and a pinch of Old Bay. Serve immediately in the cast-iron skillet.

NOTE: If you don't have an ovenproof skillet, cook in a nonstick pan until the eggs are just done. Transfer the scramble to an ovenproof dish, sprinkle with cheese, and finish under the broiler.

Potato hash

Ingredients

2 cups diced baking potato, cut into ½ -inch cubes
Salt and black pepper
2 tablespoons bacon fat or your preferred cooking fat
¼ cup diced yellow onion

Directions

1. Set up an ice bath by adding ice and cold water to a large bowl. Place the potato in a medium saucepan with 2 cups of water and 2 tablespoons of salt. Bring to a boil over medium heat and cook until the potatoes can be easily pierced with a knife, 2 or 3 minutes. Drain the potatoes, then plunge into the ice bath for a minute or so to stop the cooking.

2. Warm the bacon fat in a nonstick sauté pan over medium heat for 1 minute. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until transparent, about 2 minutes. Add the potatoes, stirring to combine, and season immediately with salt and pepper. Continue to cook, slowly stirring, until lightly browned, 5 to 6 minutes. Serve immediately or set aside for a Skillet Scramble (pages 87 to 93).

Shakshuka 

Ingredients

2 pounds fresh San Marzano tomatoes or ripe roma tomatoes
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt
3 tablespoons clarified butter or your preferred cooking fat
1 yellow onion, diced
1 large red bell pepper, diced
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons za'atar
1 ½ teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Black pepper
1 ½ cups crumbled feta or queso fresco
6 eggs
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro
Warmed buttered pita bread, for serving

Directions 

1. Preheat the broiler. Toss the tomato and oil in a bowl. Season lightly with salt and place on an oiled baking sheet. Slide the baking sheet under the broiler. Turn the tomatoes continually until all sides are blistered and browned, but not brunt, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside. When cool enough to handle, remove the tops and coarsely chop. Reserve the tomatoes and their juice.

2. Turn off the broiler and preheat the oven to 375 Degrees F.

3. Warm the butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat for 1 minute. Add the onion and bell pepper and gently cook until very soft, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about another 30 seconds. Stir in the za'atar, cumin, paprika, and red pepper flakes, and blend completely. Stir in tomatoes and their juice and season with salt and black pepper. Turn the heat to low and simmer until the tomatoes thicken, about 15 minutes. Stir in the feta.

4. With a large serving spoon, make 6 indentations in the tomato sauce, evenly spaced around the pan. Gently crack the eggs into the indentations and season the eggs with salt and pepper. Slide the skillet into the oven and bake until the eggs are just set, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with the cilantro. Scoop portions from the pan and serve with the pita. 

Breakfast sausage

Ingredients

5 pounds pork shoulder, cut into 1 ½ -inch cubes with fat intact
8 ounces pork fat, cut into 1 ½ -inch cubes (see Note)
7 tablespoons rubbed sage
6 tablespoons dark brown sugar
5 tablespoons minced fresh garlic
¼ cup salt
3 tablespoons black pepper
2 tablespoons red pepper flakes
1 ½ tablespoons toasted fennel seeds, crushed
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper

Directions 

1. Stir together all of the ingredients in a stainless steel bowl until well combined. Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours. Meanwhile, set up your meat grinder with the smallest die, according to the manufacturer's directions. Working in batches, feed the meat mixture into the grinding tube and grind the sausage mixture into a separate bowl.

2. At this point you can form the sausage into 2-ounce patties or 1-pound logs. To form into patties, weigh 2 ounces of sausage and press into a 2-inch patty that that's about ½ inch thick. Repeat, forming patties, until all of the sausage has been used. These will keep chilled for 3 or 4 days or for 6 months frozen.To form into logs, lay a 1-foot piece of plastic wrap on a flat surface. Lay 1 pound of sausage down the center of the plastic, then fold the plastic to cover the top and roll the sausage into an 8-inch-long log about 2 inches in diameter. Grab the end of the plastic and begin to roll the sausage like a hard candy, holding onto the ends of the plastic, so the log gets tighter as you roll. Fold theplastic ends under the log, so its weight will hold the ends in place when it is frozen. Repeat, forming logs, until all of the sausage has been used. The logs will keep for 3 or 4 days chilled or for 6 months frozen. 

3. To cook the patties, warm a sauté pan over medium heat for 1 minute. Add the patties and cook, turning every couple of minutes, until browned on both sides and the center is firm to the touch, about 10 minutes. To cook the logs, slice them into patties and follow the above cooking instructions.

NOTE:

You can omit the pork fat, but the finished product will not be quite as rich. If you add salted fat (like a salted fatback), cut the salt in the recipe in half.

Black pepper biscuits

Ingredients

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into cubes and frozen
3 tablespoons lard, frozen
1 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter, for brushing

Directions 

1. Preheat the oven to 400 Degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

2. In a food processor, combine the flour, baking powder, sugar, baking soda, salt, and pepper and pulse several times to combine. Add the frozen butter and lard and pulse several times again, just until the mixture resembles a coarse meal. Turn out the flour mixture into a stainless steel bowl, add the buttermilk, and stir with a dinner fork until combined. (It will be crumbly, but still very wet in places.) Dust your hands generously with flour, gather the dough while it's still in the bowl, and work it with your hands until it barely holds together.

3. Turn the dough out on a floured surface and knead, folding and turning the dough, until it becomes slightly smooth and homogenous, about 4 or 5 turns of the dough. Roll out the dough until its ¾ inch thick. Cut the biscuits with a 3 - inch biscuit cutter (or whatever size you like). Gather the scraps, knead gently just until the dough comes back together, reroll, and cut. Discard the scraps. Place on the prepared baking sheet and brush with the melted butter. Bake until golden brown, about 12 minutes. Serve Warm.

Tomato gravy 

Ingredients

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup diced yellow onion
1 tablespoon bacon fat
¼ cup all-purpose flour
2 cups cored, seeded, and diced fresh tomatoes
Salt and black pepper
1 cup canned crushed tomatoes
1 ½ teaspoons dried thyme
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ cup heavy cream
1 ½ teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
¾ cup chopped green onions, green part only

Directions 

1. Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until tender and transparent, about 3 minutes. Add the bacon fat and cook until it melts. Add the flour and whisk until a roux forms. Continue to cook, whisking constantly, until the roux turns a light gold and gives off a nutty aroma, 2 to 3 minutes. 

2.  Stir in the fresh tomatoes and season lightly with salt and black pepper. Once the tomatoes begin to soften and break down, about 4 minutes, add the canned tomatoes, thyme, and cayenne. Simmer, stirring, until the gravy begins to tighten up slightly, about 5 minutes. Add the heavy cream and lemon juice and bring back to a simmer, stirring often, until the gravy thickens and coats the back of a spoon, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the green onions. Serve Warm.

Banana pecan coffee cake 

Ingredients

⅓ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup unsalted butter or margarine, at room temperature
2 soft, ripe bananas, mashed
¼ cup sour cream
1 egg
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup whole milk

Topping ingredients

¼ cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 tablespoons very cold, unsalted butter, cut into pieces
⅓ cup toasted chopped pecans

Directions 

1. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Grease an 8-inch square baking pan. To make the cake, in a large bowl with an electric mixer, cream the granulated sugar and butter at medium speed until fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add the bananas, sour cream, and egg and mix until combined.

2. Stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, nutmeg, and salt in a separate bowl. Add the flour mixture to the banana mixture, and then the milk. Beat until well combined. Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan.

3.  To make the topping, in a small bowl, stir together the flour, sugars, and cinnamon. With a pastry blender or your fingertips, work the cold butter into the flour mixture until coarse crumbs form. Sprinkle the topping over the batter, followed by the pecans.

4. Bake until golden brown across the top, 35 to 40 minutes. Drizzle with glaze and let cool for 10 minutes or slightly longer before cutting into squares or wedges. Serve immediately or cover with a cake cover or kitchen towel for up to 2 days.