Okra Part 1: Whole Roasted Okra

After writing the last post about okra, I planned to quickly post the follow-up recipe posts, but when I went in search of okra for some last-minute testing and photos, I couldn’t find any! The bin at the local supermarket here was full of the sorriest most pathetic pile of okra I have ever seen (due less to being picked over by discerning shoppers than to the general attitude of apathy and torpor under which that particular produce department seems to generally operate) and the farmers market was a wash over the weekend. I guess the stand that carries the beautiful okra I posted last week is only there on weekdays. Oh the trials of trying to cook Southern food in NYC! As a New Orleans transplant I was chatting with said, “You can get anything in the WORLD here, just not anything in the COUNTRY.”

pathetic- just pathetic

This has to be the simplest way to cook okra. Whole, with a lightly crisped spicy exterior, roasted okra is easy to throw together as part of a meal or as I like it as a tasty salty snack. It’s a perfect little finger food to have with beer, salty and spicy without the oily heaviness of a bowl of chips.

I have tried a few different methods of making roasted okra:  slicing it into quarters and tossing it with slivered chiles and onions, tossing whole pods with spices, corn flour and corn starch, tossing whole pods with oil, corn starch and spices, low heat, high heat, you name it. Trial and error brought me to conclude that the simplest, most predictably successful method was to toss whole trimmed pods with oil, then lightly coat them with a cornstarch and spice mixture and then roast them at high heat on a large baking sheet.

Before I detail the recipe I use here, I’ll explain a couple of the problems I’ve had with other methods.  First, quartering the okra and roasting them with chiles and onions is tasty, but it’s not as crisp as the whole roasted pods and at high heat (to try to crisp them up) the chiles and onions tend to burn before the okra is done. Second, adding corn flour (which I use when I fry okra) adds a little extra crispness to the exterior, but the spice coating tends to be clumpy and not adhere as well. Third, my trigger-happy smoke detector taught me to always coat the okra with oil BEFORE putting it on the baking sheet! I tried drizzling the okra with oil while it was on the pan once and the oil that was on the pan started burning and smoking, the smoke detector was shrieking and I was standing in the hall frantically waving a plastic cutting board at the ceiling to get it to shut up! Finally, low heat doesn’t brown the exterior quickly enough, so by the time the exterior has crisped up, the entire pod has collapsed into mush.

One of my favorite spice blends for roasting okra is a vaguely Indian mixture with cumin, ginger, and chile, but I say try whatever seasoning suits your fancy, as long as the spices are finely powdered so that they will stick to the okra – in other words, no big flakes of oregano leaves or rosemary. They will just fall off and burn. I have also used coconut oil instead of regular vegetable oil which compliments the curry-esque spice mix.

Whole Roasted Okra

Serves 4

Preheat oven to 425

1 pound of okra pods

1-2 tablespoons of oil (coconut if you have it)

2 tablespoons cornstarch

½ teaspoon cumin

¼ teaspoon ground ginger

¼ to ½ teaspoon cayenne (more or less to your personal heat tolerance)

½ teaspoon powdered garlic

1 teaspoon sea salt or Kosher salt (reduce by half for table salt)

Trim the stems of the okra down to within ¼ to 1/8 inch of the top of the pod. Wash and drain thoroughly in a colander, shaking off as much moisture as you can.

In a small bowl, thoroughly mix the spices and cornstarch so that the coating on the okra will be even.

In a large bowl, toss the okra with the oil, coating each pod evenly. Sprinkle the spice mixture over the okra and the toss again, lightly coating each pod.

Scatter the okra onto a large baking sheet, giving the okra as much elbow room as you can. The browning happens where the okra is touching the pan and NOT touching its neighbor which would cause it to steam and not roast.

Place the pan in the oven and cook for 12 to 15 minutes (or until the okra is browned to your liking – I think my oven may be a bit fiercer than some others). Give the pan an occasional shake to turn the okra, giving each side time on the pan’s hot surface.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly before checking for salt and devouring.

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Fried Green Tomatoes

Oh wow! What happened? Where am I? I must have fallen asleep there for a minute – I’m so embarrassed. I had the weirdest dream; I was on a beautiful island in the Caribbean and some people got married, and then my sister got married,  and there was an earthquake and a hurricane in New Jersey. Crazy! I have the most ridiculous dreams, like a combination of a Wes Anderson movie and a Dr. Seuss book. But I’m so sorry I dozed off right in the middle of our conversation. How long was I asleep, anyway? And what were we talking about?

Oh right, food. Southern food, wasn’t it?

So, what do you say we make some fried green tomatoes.

The Union Square Greenmarket is retracting, its seasonal pullback from the voluptuous abundance of summer produce into its leaner cold weather rendition. Tables covered with peaches and strawberries and heirloom tomatoes have been replaced by piles of winter squash, apples, pots of chrysanthemums, and the early cruciferous crops of the season. It’s a great time to get green tomatoes; earlier in the year, everyone is too desperate for the first juicy ripe tomato to pick any while they’re green, then we revel in the abundance of the season until we realize that it’s getting toward September and the end of tomato season and the urge to “enjoy them before they are gone” takes over. But now it’s time to strip the vines of the last tomatoes that won’t have time to ripen before the frost and enjoy the unique berry tang of the unripe fruit.

When it comes to frying vegetables, there are a few things I get a little strident about: first, I don’t like a tiny nugget of the vegetable buried in a heavy batter or breading. I love fried okra, but when I eat fried okra, I want to taste a lot of okra, enrobed in a gossamer -like crust, not a greasy chunk of dough with a miniscule piece of okra buried in its depths. Yeah, maybe I’m being a little hyperbolic, but you get my point.

Second, I don’t like the grittiness of cornmeal when I fry. It’s a personal preference, or course, but I don’t like feeling like I’ve face planted into the beach when I’m chewing my food. Corn, however, fries very nicely without some of the sogginess problems that can happen when frying something very watery in a flour dredge. If you’ve ever had fish and chips where the interior of the crust is gummy, it’s because the liquid in the fish released as the fish cooked and mixed with the flour in the batter before the flour had time to cook. Wheat flours, or flours that contain gluten get sticky and gummy when they absorb liquid. If you can control the temperature and moisture level of what you are cooking, this won’t be a problem, but for quick simple pan frying, gluten-free corn is easier to control. Corn has a nice flavor and crispness too, ideal in contrast to the tender fried vegetable inside. In order to use corn while not having that gritty crunchy feeling I dislike, I use corn flour, a ground corn that falls between a “meal” and “starch” grind. The fineness of corn flour’s texture enables it to cling easily and cook quickly.

Third, I very rarely go deeper than a pan fry. Deep frying is usually just too much trouble for me to do, especially considering that the only ventilation in my kitchen is a window next to the stove. Shallower pan frying is much easier to manage. It’s easier to adjust the temperature, control the mess, and clean up afterward. Generally, on the rare occasions I eat deep-fried food, I leave it in the hands of a competent professional. So, for fried food, I use my cast iron skillets and enough fat to come about halfway up the sides of whatever I’m frying, then turn it halfway to fry the other side.

Rather than share an actual recipe with specific measurements, I’m going to list the ingredients and general amounts I made, then explain the technique I use to fry green tomatoes. Rough measurements work best, because the amount of dredge and fat used is dependent on the amount of tomato to be fried.

Fried Green Tomatoes

4 medium green tomatoes

roughly-

1 cup buttermilk

1 cup corn flour

salt, pepper, cayenne to taste

1/4 cup each clarified butter and Spectrum shortening

Line up two shallow bowls (something like a pie plate works well) on the counter. Put the buttermilk in one and the seasoned corn flour in the other.

Slice the tomatoes into about 1/4 inch thick slices

Dip each slice into the bowl of buttermilk, shake it to get any big drips off and then into the corn flour dredge. I like to use chopsticks to flip the slices over to evenly coat each side. It keeps my fingers cleaner because I can never remember the whole “one hand for liquid, one hand for dry” technique. Tap the edge of the tomato slice to get any loose dredge off; the loose corn flour will just end up falling off into the hot fat and burning, kind of inevitable, but this will help minimize that problem.

When you have a pan-full ready, heat the skillet over medium-high until the fat begins to shimmer and the first wisps of smoke appear. While the first batch turns golden on the bottom side, start dipping and dredging the next batch. I use chopsticks again, or a small spatula to lift the edge and check the bottom. The green tomato skin on the edges will begin to lose some of its vibrant color and turn a more olive-green. Flip the tomatoes and cook the other side. Remove to a paper towel- lined plate to soak up any excess fat and quickly add the next batch to the pan.

A sprinkle of sea salt is a minimal final flourish to finish this simple dish. We ate it for brunch with grits and eggs, which is not a bad meal to which to awake.

“Good Job” Biscuits- Southern Food Challenge 7

Our nephew Luke is learning how to talk. He shows off his new words for us when they  Skype us from my in-law’s house – he says “strawberry” and “Dot” (Scott) and “tigers say GRRRRR”.  Allegedly, he has said “Christine,” although not when I’m around. He says “good job” because that’s what we all say when he does something we like. He gets a lot of “good jobs” and applause; he just beams at us beatifically while we congratulate him for, say, trying to use a spoon. We all think he’s pretty adorable.

Luke and his mom drove up to visit the grandparents one Friday night recently and Janice had her hot biscuits ready for his supper when he got there. He sat in his high chair (the throne) and Janice put a buttered biscuit on the tray in front of him. He too a bite, ate it up, looked up at her and said “good job!”

The biscuits I grew up with were not the archetypal “Southern” biscuit. I’m actually planning to talk about them in a separate post in order to better explain both types, but the main difference was in using oil rather than shortening, butter, or some other kind of solid fat . I’m more familiar and comfortable making biscuits from the recipe my mom taught me but I also love flaky crisp buttermilk biscuits, scones and other “pastry” style quick breads (and by “pastry”, I mean gently incorporating a solid fat into flour to make a light, flaky quick bread, in contrast to what I’ll call a “quick bread” method in which a liquid fat like oil is used to make a moist, soft and usually denser bread like fruit bread or tea bread). And in that respect, Janice’s “Good Job” biscuits are hard to beat. They are a light crisp biscuit with a buttery golden top and just a suggestion of buttermilk flavor, a nice little duvet for a pink curl of salty country ham to cuddle up in. I got some really nice country ham from Scott Hams in Kentucky. When you call them, Mrs. Scott answers the phone, takes your order, and is happy to answer any questions you might have about the hams her husband has been curing on their farm since 1965.

The only modifications I made to her recipe were, first, not using White Lily flour which cannot be had for love or money in New Jersey and for which I wasn’t prepared to wait until I could import a sack of it from southern climes and, second, I used Spectrum Organic All Vegetable Shortening instead of Crisco. This choice harkens back to my upbringing; while I’m far less strict about my diet now than my mom was, I have retained an aversion to heavily altered “food-type products”. I just can’t do it. Not that a non-hydrogenated shortening is a health food – it just seems less weird to me. Anyway, that’s how I cook.

Good Job Biscuits

3 cups self-rising flour

1 tablespoon baking powder (I like Rumford Aluminum-free Baking Powder)

2 teaspoons confectioners sugar

1/2 cup shortening

1 1/4 cups buttermilk

butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 450°

Mix the flour, baking soda and confectioners sugar. Cut the shortening in. I use a fork to blend in the shortening and really, the important thing to remember is to do as shoddy and unthorough a job of mixing the shortening into the flour as possible. Don’t try to make it all nice and even; it just makes the biscuits denser. Pour in the buttermilk and stir it in just enough to moisten the flour mixture. Using your hands, knead the dough a couple of times, just to get it to pull together into a ball. Again, this is a recipe that insists that you put your feet up and do as little as possible to the dough for best results. Put the ball of dough on a lightly floured surface and gently pat out into a square about 1/2 inch thick.

I like to make my biscuits square. It alleviates the necessity of reforming and cutting the dough that circle cutters leave. Using a bench scraper or long knife blade, cut the dough into squares. Place slightly apart on a baking sheet or stone and bake for about 10 minutes until the tops are golden. Brush with melted butter. Serve hot.

Creole Gumbo-Southern Food Challenge 6

Calvin came into town this past weekend to hang out, spend time in NYC, and celebrate his birthday with us.  Of all the things we miss about our life in California, spending time with Calvin is near the top of the list. So, as usual when we do see him, we took the opportunity and crammed about a month’s worth of hanging out into one long weekend. I think we may have crammed about a month’s worth of eating into one weekend too. I had my first ShackBurger in Madison Square Park and my first John’s Pizza on Bleeker Street. Eataly was a culinary mosh pit; we got espresso and dodged elbows. We drank beer at the Blind Tiger and the Ginger Man. We got cannolis and lobster tails at Georgio’s across the street. For Calvin’s birthday, we took him to a little Japanese “soul food” restaurant we tried for Scott’s birthday called Hakata Tonton.  The three of us shared their signature hot-pot, full of vegetables, pork belly and feet, dumplings and goji berries in an amazingly unctuous broth. And before we put him on the train back out to JFK, we had lunch at  Ippudo, the best bowl of ramen I have ever eaten. I had tonkotsu ramen in Hong Kong for the first time last year; the creamy white pork broth and dark garlic oil with chewy ramen noodles, so lip-smacking and savory and have been craving it since……I ate so much I felt like a pork belly myself.

It made me think about the nitty-gritty of what it is that makes great soup really great. I think it is unarguably the broth. It’s the bones and cartilage and collagen and meat that slowly infuse their essence into water, creating something that tastes incredibly rich without fat. In beauty, one hears about having “good bones”; stock is literally the “good bones” of beautiful flavor.  I’m not asserting that good soup can’t be made with bottled chicken broth or water and aromatics, but every once in a while, it’s worth it to go the extra mile to make a rich, collagen filled stock, full of the most intense essential flavors and make a special meal superlative.

The easiest entry point for stock has to be fish (or seafood) stock. Using the shells, heads, and bones of the seafood going into this gumbo to make a simple stock creates a layer of flavor that deepens and echoes the sweetness of the shrimp and fish in every rich, spicy bite.

Creole Seafood Gumbo

1 pound of head-on shell-on shrimp

1-2 pound fish, fileted, bones and head reserved (I used red snapper)

about 1 cup bay scallops

1/3 to ½ pound of andouille

roux

1 medium white or yellow onion, diced

2 stalks celery diced (celery leaves have lots of flavor, chop them up too!)

½ green bell pepper, diced

2 fat cloves garlic, minced or micro-planed

¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes

½ teaspoon thyme

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

1 bay leaf

salt

1 can diced tomatoes, undrained

2 cups sliced okra (frozen works well off-season)

1 ½ quarts fish stock*

hot rice

hot sauce

Rinse the shrimp and fish. De-head and peel the shrimp. If you’re hard-core like me, filet the fish, slicing the filets into bite-sized pieces. Keep all the bones and shells for the stock. If you get a whole fish from a market and have the fishmongers do the dirty work of fileting, specify that you want to keep the bones and head. Some stores will sell packages of fish trimmings for stock; get a white-fleshed fish for this recipe.

Make a roux

I use less roux for seafood gumbo than for meatier gumbos. For this recipe, I used about ¼ cup each of flour and oil.

After the roux is dark enough, add the Trinity of diced onion, celery, and bell pepper (similar to mirepoix, onion, celery, carrot) to the roux and stir until the vegetables are softened.

Slice and quarter about a link’s worth of smoked andouille (maybe 1/3 pound). The only brand I could find here in town this week was D’ Artagnan; I don’t prefer their seasoning though. Stir it into the roux in the pan, getting it to brown a little on the edges.

When the sausage begins to render a little of it’s fat, add the garlic and spices; I usually gently toast spices for a moment before I add any liquid. When I began learning about Indian cooking and their treatment of spices, I started assimilating the technique of dry toasting or frying spices and herbs often along with the aromatic vegetables and it really seems to bloom and infuse their flavor and fragrance better.

Add the tomatoes, okra and stock. Bring to a simmer and stir until the roux is smoothly incorporated into the stock and cook it until the okra is tender. It shouldn’t take too long, maybe 20 minutes, but cook it slowly and gently so that the assembled throng has time to mingle their flavors. Taste for salt.

Finally- and I mean finally so as not to overcook- stir the scallops, shrimp and fish into the soup. Heat just to a simmer, very gently stirring the seafood into the broth so that it is just opaque and barely cooked through. Be gentle with the fish so the pieces don’t get too broken up

When the seafood is cooked, scoop some hot rice into a bowl and pour the gumbo over. Shake a bit of hot sauce on top.

*Make this basic seafood stock with the fish bones and head and shrimp shells and heads, a little onion and celery. I used the shells and heads of 1 pound of shrimp and the bones and head of a 2 pound red snapper, a stalk of celery and ¼ onion and two quarts of water. Bring it all to a simmer, covered and let it burble away for about 20 -30 minutes. Strain out the solids and reduce the stock to about 1 ½ quarts.

Deviled Eggs-Southern Food Challenge 5

Deviled eggs are the edible equivalent of the little black dress: they can go anywhere, adapt to any situation, always appropriate, day – to – evening, dress it up, dress it down. You know.

In its simplest form, I can barely even justify calling the formula a recipe:

Deviled Eggs

For each two hard-boiled eggs (I know, who makes just 2?)

1 tablespoon of good mayo

1 teaspoon mustard

pinch of salt

pinch of cayenne

Whenever I’m boiling eggs, I try to start them in fairly hot, almost simmering water so that my timing is more accurate. I don’t like overcooking them. For deviled eggs, once I have gently lowered them into the simmering water, I set the timer for 11 minutes, then scoop the eggs out and submerge them in cold water to stop the cooking. After they’ve cooled, I peel them, slice them in half (tip: a thin bladed knife like a slicer works well for this job; a heavy chef’s knife blade can tear the whites up), and remove the yolks into a bowl. The yolks get mashed with a fork a little and then I add the mayonnaise and mustard (French’s yellow mustard is the classic in this case) and mix most of the lumps out.

At this point, you can just season the yolk with the salt and pepper, scoop it back into the egg white halves, maybe dust it with a little paprika and be done. You would have a very nice, simple deviled egg such as have graced the tables of thousands of church picnics across the South since time immemorial. Kind of like the equivalent of a black sundress and flats.

For a little dressier but still simple variation, maybe a brunch, I thought “salad nicoise” and chopped up some (2 teaspoons for 2 eggs) rinsed salt-packed capers and used Dijon mustard instead of the French’s. I don’t salt it until after  the capers are added and I’ve taste-tested . Even the rinsed capers may have enough salt. I shave a razor-thin sliver of red onion onto the  top for a contrast in crunch and flavor.

So, day to evening: mix the Dijon mustard into the yolks and mayonnaise and blend them until they are really smooth. When you put the yolks back int the hollow of the egg white, make a little dimple in the top with the back of a teaspoon and fill it with fish roe or caviar, according to your taste, the occasion, and the pocketbook. I used the tiny capelin roe, called Masago. It’s sweet and crunchy, popping delightfully between the teeth in contrast to the smooth creamy egg. It’s the plunging neckline with 5-inch peep toe sling-backs version of the deviled egg.

Deviled eggs are not intrinsically a fussy food. It’s beauty lies in its simplicity, so in that all of it elements should be evident in each bite,  use good ingredients. They are the perfect occasion to bust out the home-made mayo and fresh, sharp mustard (which loses its flavor over time, so it’s good to check that jar in the fridge once in a while to see if it still tastes). And use my suggestions as inspiration; think about how many flavors go well with eggs – smoked salmon, bacon, curry powder. Since it’s pretty risk-free to experiment with two eggs at a time, go for it and try all of them.

Red Beans and Rice- Southern Food Challenge 4

Beans and rice, as I’ve mentioned before, have always been staples of my cooking rotation. Beans and rice of all kinds are my comfort foods. So when I started thinking about doing red beans and rice for this challenge, I had to think “now how do I write down a recipe for something I don’t even have to  think about cooking?” I remembered an episode of Good Eats in which Alton Brown made red beans and rice with a twist I had never tried: it was seasoned with pickled pork instead of smoky andouille. I started looking around for recipes and began running across a lot of claims that pickled pork was actually a more traditional seasoning meat than smoked pork for red beans. I like pickles and I love pork, so I decided to shake my bean routine up a little and make my red beans and rice pickled instead of smoked.

 

 

Red Beans and Rice

serves about 8

 

1 pound of red beans, rinsed, soaked, and drained

1/2 cup celery, chopped

1/2 cup green bell pepper, chopped

1 cup onion, chopped

8-10 cloves of garlic, crushed and minced

oil to saute’ the vegetables

2 bay leaves

1/2 teaspoon of thyme

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

hot sauce like Tabasco

12 ounces pickled pork*

2 quarts water

Salt and black pepper to taste

 

hot cooked rice (I used Rosematta, a chewy, smoky Indian red rice I got at Kalustyan’s in NYC)

 

 

Get all of your aromatics cut up and ready to go. Assemble the spices you will need and have your beans pre-soaked and drained.

In a large dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-low heat. Add the onion, celery and bell pepper and stir, cooking until they begin to soften, maybe 10 minutes or so. Add the garlic, thyme, and cayenne to the aromatic vegetables and stir until they begin to get fragrant.

Pour the beans into the pot and add the water, hot sauce, pickled pork, and bay leaves. Don’t add the salt until the beans are almost done; salt can keep beans from softening when they cook.

Simmer for at least an hour or until the beans have softened to your liking; salt to taste. I always think that the flavor of beans improves with a little time, so I recommend letting it chill (literally and figuratively) in the fridge overnight.

Serve in bowls with a scoop of hot rice and a bottle of Tabasco sauce.

 

 

Making red beans with pickled pork was more work up front than just buying good andouille, and I love the flavor of andouille so I can’t say I won’t ever go back to my old habits, but the pickled pork added a really interesting complexity and tang. It reminded me a little of Brunswick stew or bigos (a Polish stew made with game and sauerkraut). It is certainly worth a try.

 

 

*Pickled Pork

I did a combo recipe of Alton Brown’s Pickled Pork and a New Orleans Cuisine blog‘s version:

1 quart white vinegar

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

1/4 cup yellow mustard seeds

1/4 cup brown mustard seeds

3 bay leaves

4 dried serrano chiles

1/2 teaspoon whole coriander

1 tablespoon celery seed

10 cloves of garlic, peeled, whole

about a teaspoon hot sauce

2 tablespoons Kosher salt

2 tablespoons turbinado sugar

2 pounds of pork shoulder, cut into 2 inch cubes

a cup of ice

Pour the vinegar and all of the rest of the ingredients except for the pork and ice into a pot and bring to a boil. Boil for 3 minutes and then remove from the heat and cool; after it has cooled to room temperature, add the ice cubes.

Put the pork into a heavy 1 gallon ziplock back and put the whole bag in a bowl (this will keep any leakage contained!). Pour the cooled vinegar mixture and all of the spices over the pork, squeeze out as much air as you can and seal the bag. Put it in the refrigerator for three days. It will be ready to use after three days. I used about 1/3 of the pork in the red beans; the rest I removed from the brine, divided into containers and froze. It’s not pretty, but it sure is tasty!

 

Country Fried Steak- Southern Food Challenge 3

I never said this was going to be pretty. There are no glamour shots in this post. It is impossible to make country fried steak look like anything but a big plate of brown. While country fried steak is doubtless very tasty, a feast for the eyes it is not. I think that may be a significant part of why country fried steak has never been in heavy rotation in my kitchen. (That and the “country”, “fried”, and  “steak” parts.) My gene pool is neck-deep in artists so I’m practically genetically hardwired to “first, eat with your eyes.”

 

 

Growing up, I don’t actually remember ever eating country fried steak. After I got married, I started making it occasionally, because despite the fact that he introduced me to kimchi and tom yum soup and sushi and cioppino, I married a guy who occasionally craves things his mother or grandmother cooked. His culinary guilty pleasures tend to contain trans-fats. His mom could give Paula Deen a run for her money in butter usage; she makes a mean tuna noodle casserole; she sometimes country-fries things; She’s not afraid of Crisco. So for love, I learned to fry. Sometimes.

When I started looking for actual recipes for country fried steak, I discovered that there  are a couple of significant variations: I have always dredged, pan-fried and then covered and cooked the meat in a sort of self-made brown gravy. A lot of recipes almost deep fry the meat, then make a cream or milk gravy separately and  pour it over the top when it is served, very much like a weiner schnitzel. It’s interesting then that that version has its roots in Texas with its significant influx of German immigrants in the early 19th century.

There is also some variation in the name: is it “country-fried” or “chicken-fried”? None less than John T. Edge of  Southern Foodways Alliance weighed in in the NY Times Diner’s Journal saying that “Country fried steak is, usually, battered and fried beef, smothered in gravy and simmered until solid crust and liquid gravy fuse. It’s a pan-Southern dish.”

Anyway, getting back to the issue of aesthetics: I used red onions. It was the best I could do.

 

Country Fried Steak

a general outline


Tenderized beef round steaks, about 1 per person

1 cup all-purpose flour, seasoned (to taste) with

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon paprika

pinch of cayenne

1 large onion, thinly sliced

Oil for frying

Milk , about a cup to dredge the meat and 1/2 cup for the gravy

water or broth to surround but not cover the meat

dash Worchestershire sauce

 

 

In a heavy skillet, slowly saute’ the sliced onions in about 1 tablespoon of the oil until they are a sweet softly wilted tangle. Remove from the  pan and hold for later.

Meanwhile, dip each piece of meat into the milk, then dredge it in the seasoned flour. Cover the meat completely, but dust off any extra that isn’t well adhered. As each piece is covered, set it aside on a plate for 10 minutes or so before frying them. The flour will begin to absorb the milk and juice from the meat and will get a bit of a crust.

Once the onions are cooked and the meat is all dredged, add a couple more tablespoons of oil to the pan and heat it until it shimmers slightly. Lay the meat in the pan and fry until both sides are golden brown. Scatter the onions back over the pan, pour in the 1/2 cup of milk, enough water or broth to surround but not cover the meat, and that splash of Worchestershire sauce. Bring the liquid to a simmer, cover the pan with a heavy lid and keep the heat on low for about 15 minutes until the meat is very tender and the gravy has thickened.

 


Collard Greens- Southern Food Challenge 2

 

Driving through the Southern country side in the winter:  black trees, bare and sharp against a pearly sky like Japanese ink paintings, maybe the lucky surprise flash of a scarlet cardinal; tawny fields with folds and furrows like the creased hide of a sleeping lion. It’s beautiful and restful in its monotony of winter-softened color, nothing to jar the eye but the occasional murder of black crows, or the pounce of a rusty hawk on some unwary rodent-until late Winter when the forsythia and quince suddenly explode like firecrackers and take your breath away for a second.

Even the winter gardens sitting lonely beside older homes have a subtlety, an unkempt bed-head look to them; mostly left to their own devices while their gardeners stay in the warm indoors, they are patches of root vegetables and earthy greens that burnish and sweeten with a little frost. Collards, with their dusty chalkboard-green leaves like well-worn old leather are the beauties of the bunch. They are Brassica like cabbages and broccoli; the leaves are braised, traditionally with smoked meat seasoning, until they are meltingly tender. Scott likes them with apple cider vinegar mixed into the pot liquor in his bowl; I like them with sriracha sauce (yes, green top, rooster- that one).

 

 

Since most of the work of cooking collard greens is in the preparation, I always make a big potful and freeze the leftovers for a busy day. I fill the kitchen sink with enough water to float all of the leaves so that any dirt or grit can sink to the bottom and then swish and wash the leaves really well, checking for ugly leaves and little creatures that may have tucked themselves into the bunches (this is probably more critical if you are growing them yourself- we found plenty of little caterpillars on the greens we brought in from our garden last year). I usually slice out the fibrous stems, cut the leaves in half long ways and stack them up like bundle of  dollar bills to cut them across into wide ribbons.

Meanwhile, in a big stock pot, I bring about a quart of water to a simmer. I don’t always use the same meat, but something with a little fat and some deep smoky flavor – diced bacon, smoked ham hock, a ham bone, or smoked turkey legs. While I’m cleaning and cutting up the leaves, I let the meat simmer in the water, covered with a lid, to start infusing the broth. Because I love their smoky heat, I usually throw in a dried chipotle or two. I add the greens and a little salt, clap the lid on again and let them collapse in the heat, with an occasional stir, checking they don’t steam out of liquid, slowly braising them to tenderness.

 

 

I usually like my vegetables on the crisp side- not the stereotypical “boiled to death” green beans and carrots and peas and spinach that give vegetables a bad name. But collards are an exception: like a tough, lean veal shank reaches its apotheosis as osso bucco after a long gentle braise, so the relatively fibrous collard leaves become rich and tender and flavorful. I don’t mean boiled though, a low simmer really, and I use a minimal amount of water so the flavor of the greens isn’t diluted too much. If I’m using anything but bacon, I’ll get tongs and pluck the bone out of the pot toward the end and shred the meat off to add back into the greens.

We’re still sort of in that “mud season” between winter and spring up north;  the Union Square Greenmarket stalls carry parsnips and turnips and cold storage apples (and I got sleet burn on my face last time I was there). I’m beginning to crave something sharp and fresh and green but for now I’m taking advantage of the last of the gifts of the winter and making a pot of collard greens. It’s especially good with beans and cornbread.

Collard Greens

what I put in the pot

2 bunches of collard greens (or more, if they are stingy bunches)

about a quart of water

3 slices of bacon, diced, or

2 small smoked ham hocks, or

1 meaty ham bone, or

1 nice big smoked turkey leg

salt, to taste (start with 1 1/2 teaspoons of flaky Kosher or sea salt)

1 or 2 dried chipotles

 

Braise over gentle heat for at least 45 minutes for a big pot, until the leaves are tender, but are not so cooked as to disintegrate when stirred.

 

Pimento Cheese – Southern Food Challenge 1

One of the first things I made after our cross-country move was pimento cheese. (The very first thing I made was grits with sweet corn and pan-fried catfish, just sort of as a declaration that you can put the girl in Jersey but you can’t put Jersey in the girl!). It was while we were living in that furnished apartment with a “fully equipped kitchen”  and I had to grate the entire block of cheese with a fork. It was totally worth it, but I highly recommend a cheese grater; it makes the whole process much easier. And you’ll get fewer blisters.

Pimento cheese is simple, easy to make, and endlessly varied. I like the combination of really sharp cheddar and creamy, mellow Monterrey Jack.

Pimento Cheese

makes about 3 cups

12 ounces sharp cheddar cheese

6 ounces Monterrey Jack cheese

1/2 cup roasted red peppers, chopped small

about 2/3 cup mayonnaise (we like Duke’s)

Use the fine side of a grater to grate all of the cheese. If you are using jarred roasted peppers, drain them well before chopping them up. Put everything into a mixing bowl that gives you plenty of room to energetically stir. Start with a bit less mayo and stir everything together so that the peppers are evenly mixed through the cheese and everything is creamy and cohesive. If it seems too stiff, or when you taste it, you prefer a milder, creamier flavor, add a little more mayo and stir it in.

Following the pimento train of thought a little further, you can add finely chopped green olives (the pimento stuffed type) to half of the pimento cheese-very nice on a cracker.

Southern Comfort: My Ultimate Southern Food Challenge-

It’s the first week of Spring and it has snowed twice here in New Jersey. That’s just mean. Especially since I had been driving through North Carolina just a few short days before, sunroof open, wearing  flip-flops and  a tank top. When one has felt that first sweet kiss of Spring-time warmth on bare skin after a long dark winter, coming back to sleety boot-and-glove climate feels a bit like a slap. Daylight Savings Time did not come a moment too soon for me.

I am loving the extra sunlight! While I’ve been busy exploring bite-sized chunks of NYC,  and have been doing really well on some of my New Year’s resolutions (wearing more eyeliner;  my “Walk ’til You Get Warm” exercise regime), I’ve honestly been a little listless, aimless this Winter. So I’m taking the burst of energy that the lengthening days bring me to try to  undertake an epic personal cooking challenge:  I’m going to cook my way through Garden & Gun magazine’s Ultimate Southern Food Bracket.

There are 32 Southern foods in the brackets, which are, in the tradition of March Madness, being narrowed down to the Championship face-off for Ultimate Southern Food. I’ve been voting the bracket on Facebook and have found some of the match-ups strange: how to choose between okra and banana pudding, or pimento cheese and country ham biscuits, (and this one in particular) deviled eggs and fried chicken? How can any of those be losers? I love them all! Having spent the last decade on the West coast and now living in New Jersey, I’m feeling a nostalgic pull to wade back into the flavors and scents of the Southern table. I might even add a couple of my own Southern favorites to the list.

So I’m going to try to cook them all, see if I stand by my votes, see which Southern foods are my desert island choices. Given some of the strange makeshift arrangements in my kitchen, my ignorance of where to source things like grits and country ham and crawfish in my area, and my firm belief that no one wants me smoking pulled pork or having a fish fry on my fire escape, I hope it will be fun and not an act of madness. I’m thinking it will be fun. And maybe a little crazy. So here we go-