Buttery Braised Radishes

Whenever I visit Atlanta, my family tries to have at least one family meal together, gathering at one of my sister’s or my parent’s home to spend the afternoon cooking, playing with the little ones, and finally eating together. My family is big and there are often a couple of friends with us too so Sunday lunch is usually 12+ people. We’re all adventurous eaters and all love vegetables so I like to try to introduce a new vegetable or new way of preparing them whenever I’m there. I doubt anyone would be surprised that when I’m in town, I become the de facto executive chef for the family meal but my siblings make excellent sous chefs. My youngest sister Michal made these braised radishes with me last time and they were such a hit I decided to post the very simple preparation here.

When we had a garden, I always planted radishes because a. they were almost instant garden gratification, b. they were so pretty, and c. radishes are especially nice when they are still young and tender. Leaving them in the ground for a couple too many days and they can get really hot and fibrous. Growing them, you get them at their brightest, crispest, and sweetest. But I alway grew more than I wanted to eat raw so I started cooking them this way, with just a little liquid so that their flavor still shone through, just cooked through but not too soft and mushy. They have a flavor somewhat like a sweet young turnip; in fact, if you find the tiny tender white ping-pong ball sized turnips with the greens still attached, they are also delicious cooked this way. I’ve actually mixed radishes and turnips in the picture below.

IMG_3503

Butter Braised Radishes

serves 2-4

1 bunch radishes

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 small knob ginger, smashed

water

 Wash the radishes thoroughly, remove the greens if they are still attached and trim the root and stem ends. Cut the radishes in half if they are large or leave them whole if they are around marble sized. Place in a frying pan with a fitted lid that is large enough to hold all of the radishes in a single layer. Add the butter, soy sauce, and ginger just a bit of water, maybe a tablespoon. Turn the heat on low and put a lid on the pan. Shake the pan occasionally to roll the radishes in the pan. After about 5 minutes, check to see if the liquid is simmering. The salt in the soy sauce and heat of the pan should cause the radishes to release quite a bit of liquid but if the pan is still a bit dry, add another tablespoon or so of water. Replace the lid and cook for another 10 minutes or so. The radishes should give no resistance when pierced with the point of paring knife but should still be firm when they are done. Remove the lid and raise the heat to reduce the liquid to a sticky glaze. Remove the ginger knob and serve warm.

Long Weekend- Charleston SC

IMG_3774

We had the serendipitous combination of a friend’s wedding in Hilton Head, South Carolina and a business trip to Charleston last week which we combined for a very long weekend trip to warmer climes. I hadn’t been to Charleston in such a long time, and having read so much over the last few years about the tremendous resurgence of its food culture, with chefs, food writers, and restaurants getting awards and rave reviews, I was really excited to visit again.

After a beautiful beach wedding weekend, time with my family (especially my fabulous 1-year-old niece!!!) we drove Hwy 17 through the Low country from Hilton Head to Charleston. I think I’ve mentioned before, there are few things as compelling to me as a hand painted roadside sign advertising “Boiled P-nuts” and after a crushing disappointment on the way from the airport (“Closed”) at the roadside stand we passed, salty peanut satisfaction was finally mine! A plastic baggy full of hot drippy boiled peanuts is the ultimate road trip food (possibly only improved upon by the addition of a bag of chicharrone).

IMG_2159

 The bad news is that there is no way you can physically eat everywhere you want to during a weekend in Charleston. In order not to waste time, we stopped for brunch on our way into town at Hominy Grill. Hominy Grill is in an old house, its high ceilings and light interiors evoking the house my mother and grandmother grew up in Alabama. The food is Southern, but the type that I know, garden fresh vegetables, meat accented by tangy pickles and slaws, prepared flavorfully and simply, deep-fried being an anomaly rather than a staple. We had a fried green tomato BLT with vinegar slaw and a pickled okra, and a pork belly sandwich with pickled cabbage and a side of grits. They did a Tequila Sundrop and a Cheerwine Negroni that were killer!
IMG_2162

Fried green tomato BLT with vinegar slaw, pickled okra, Tequila Sundrop, Fried pork belly sandwich with pickled cabbage, egg and cheese, grits, pickled okra, and Cheerwine Negroni

IMG_2160

After checking in at The  Indigo Inn we went for a walk through the historic downtown to the waterfront. The weather in late April was cool enough to be pleasant and warm enough for the fragrance of the jasmine and tea olives to perfume the air. I prefer a sort of “self-guided” approach to wandering through historic districts and Charleston lends itself to the leisurely amble, but there are lots of tours available. The economy of the area is very tourist driven, but unless you are in the old market area, you don’t feel crowded and jostled.

IMG_3780

With this trip being last-minute, I wasn’t able to get a reservation at Husk, one of the better known newer restaurants in the area but our hotel told us that the restaurant’s porch was first come so we went and got a locally brewed beer at the bar and waited for a porch table.  We went with the local Westbrook White Thai witbier with our Kentuckyaki pig ear lettuce wrap, fried chicken skin with pimento cheese and pickled green tomato, and cornmeal dusted catfish with tiny brussel sprouts and tomato gravy. My favorite was the lettuce wrap, S’s was the catfish.

Coffee break : City Lights Coffee 141 Market St, Charleston, SC 29401

IMG_3776

On my own the next day, I wanted to go back to Hominy Grill for their lunch specials. Besides being a very comfortable, quiet, pretty hotel, The Indigo Inn is the kind of place that when the front desk couldn’t get a cab to the restaurant for me within about 5 minutes of my request, one of them offered to drive me to the restaurant and gave me a guided tour of the area on the way.

I got the 4 Vegetables and cornbread lunch plate, an amuse bouche of boiled peanuts and the restaurant’s cookbook.

IMG_2175

tomato pudding cornbread, mustard greens, squash casserole, and fried eggplant

Walking back to the hotel, I walked through the Westside, Cannonborough, and Radcliffborough neighborhoods which provides and much more diverse and varied perspective of the city after the grandeur of the historic downtown. Students and professionals are eating and drinking coffee in the restaurants and cafes, a little trendier and hipper than the statelier downtown. It was a nice walk in cool weather but if you visit when it’s hot, cabs are flat rate $6 on the peninsula and restaurants and hotels will happily call a car for you.

Coffee break: Coffee: Black Tap Coffee

IMG_2183

Back in the French Quarter that afternoon were two of my favorite spots on the trip: Goat. Sheep. Cow.  a gem of an artisan cheese, wine, charcuterie shop with local baguettes, goat milk caramels and chocolates. Its owners Trudi and Patty love Charleston and are happy to talk cheese, restaurants, food, bakeries. This cheesemonger spent a very happy hour or so there, talking shop and getting the local lowdown and where to eat and drink. It’s the perfect place to put together a picnic to enjoy in one of the waterfront parks.

IMG_3778

They told me about the very newly opened  Craftsmen Kitchen & Tap House, and since it was close by and raining, we ducked in for some local craft beer and very well made bar meal: catfish fingers and chips and a really great burger.

IMG_2189

The next day, I headed back north to the Cannonborough to a filling station converted into Xiao Bao Biscuit, an Asian restaurant with a local vibe.

IMG_2192 IMG_2193

I had the Som Tum with chicken, a black bean paste encrusted chicken with rice and spicy papaya salad and a Howling Wolf Hefeweizen

Coffee break: Kudu Coffee and Craft Beer

Another little gem in the French Quarter was Charleston Beer Exchange, one of the best little beer shops I’ve ever visited, educated and  happy to share their love for great craft beer with customers. They are friends with the ladies at goat. sheep.cow and do beer and cheese events with them as well. I talked to Brandon, their Cicerone certified manager about the little beer department I’m trying to build here and he gave me some good beer and cheese pairing ideas.

IMG_2195

For our last night, we drove out to Bowens Island Restaurant, a fish camp on the tip of Bowens Island overlooking the beautiful low country marshes.

It’s basically a big screened porch on stilts that serves big plastic trays of oysters with a knife and a towel (shuck your own!) fried seafood on paper plates, hushpuppies and slaw and cold beer. the plywood walls are covered with the graffiti of visitors, the kind of place that you bring your kids or a group of friends and stay for a while. I love these undesigned places, ate my first oyster at just such a raw bar in the Florida panhandle and was sorry to see that it had gotten decorated and remade after  hurricane George. Something in the organic rough and ready personality of these places appeals to me.  It was recommended to me by Amy Evans, Oral Historian with the Southern Foodways Alliance. It was the perfect place to fulfill our yearly deep-fried fresh seafood and shuck your own oysters craving. It was also the perfect place to watch the sunset from the porch and then make a running leap into the car as soon as the sun went down- next time, bring bug spray!

IMG_2197

Tray of oysters

IMG_2199

Big ol’ fried shrimp

IMG_2198

Fried fish and Westbrook White Thai

IMG_2205 IMG_2204 IMG_2200

SFA did a great little short documentary film on Bowens Island Restaurant: http://southernfoodways.org/documentary/film/bowens-island.html

Places I want to go next time-

FIG

SNOB

Carolinas

27 State Street B&B

Martha Lou’s Kitchen

Closed For Business

Tips:

Taxis are $6 flat rate on the Peninsula

There is a free shuttle bus marked “King/ Meeting” the 2 main shopping streets that I didn’t use, but would next time.

Bring bug spray to Bowens Island

Porch seating at Husk is first come if you don’t have a reservation.

I made a map of the places I mentioned in the post:

http://goo.gl/maps/6b1qe

Okra, the Finale: Fried Okra

Well, I’ve pretty much laid bare my okra loving soul to y’all over the past three posts. It’s not an exhaustive treatment of the topic, but I’m hoping it’s enough to get some of you over the fence and back into the fold.

It wouldn’t really be an okra series without talking about probably the most popular way to cook okra: I’m talking fried, baby!  It’s the first thing most people think of when you say “okra”But never fear, I am not without sturdy opinions on the topic. Let’s talk technique.

First, I think I’ve mentioned before that I am neither a frequent nor enthusiastic deep fryer.I’ve never had a kitchen with a ventilation system that could stand up to it and that day old fried smell is enough to stop me. I like to pan fry okra about waist deep in hot oil. It’s quick and effective and it suits my dredge approach to the okra’s crust without the mess or commitment of deep frying.

On to the next point: dredging versus breading. As you may know, if I want a deep fried corn bread nugget, I’ll go with a hush puppy every time. The breaded version of fried okra is just a substandard tiny hush puppy with a piece of soggy okra inside, which is neither want I look for in a hush puppy or in fried okra. The beauty of fried okra is the okra. Covered in a thin crunchy carapace, it’s the okra that you taste, not the pouf of breading, and the moisture released from the cooking okra has more of a chance to escape. I think the texture of the cooked okra is superior to the swaddled steamed version that happens when you have breading. I just like it better. I think it’s a better bite. This is why I dredge my okra.

Having established my position on pan versus deep fry and dredge versus bread, let’s move on to the ingredient portion of the dredge. I’ve gone through several versions of the dredge over the years and have found my favorite. I started with a mixture of regular corn meal, all purpose wheat flour and seasonings, but found the contrast in texture between the corn meal and flour too extreme. The okra stayed gritty or fell off and burned leaving me with a thin veil of flour dredge. I discovered corn flour, a finer grind of corn meal that I use a lot not only in cornbread but in pan fried recipes because it adheres evenly and cooks quickly without leaving behind the sensation of a mouthful of sand. I mixed it with wheat flour as I had with cornmeal, which was fine, but when I tried the corn flour by itself once, I found that I preferred just the corn flour. It coated the okra evenly, had a good flavor, and gave it a nice crunchy (but not gritty) texture. It seems to fulfill the roles of both cornmeal and wheat flour without the drawbacks of either.

As far as recipes go, this is necessarily an “eyeball it” recipe. The measurements really depend on the amount of okra you have, the moisture in it, and your preference in seasoning. It’s more of a guideline than a recipe, but that’s all you really need.

 Fried Okra

1 pound of okra

About ½ cup of corn flour, enough to evenly coat the okra slices

Salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper to taste

Corn, vegetable, or peanut oil, enough to cover the bottom of your frying pan by about ¼ inch

Rinse the okra and remove the stem ends. Slice the okra into about ¼ inch rounds. I usually cut them a bit thicker toward the pointed ends so that everything cooks in more or less the same amount of time. Don’t dry the okra off; in fact, if it gets dry, I usually sprinkle a little water or buttermilk over the slices to make it damp enough for the dredge to stick.

In a large mixing bowl, sprinkle the corn flour, salt and peppers over the okra. I usually just start with a generous handful or two, not even bothering with a measuring cup. Using both hands, toss the okra with the dredge until all of the surfaces are covered. If any of the slices have stuck together, separate them. If the okra is sticky, add a little more corn flour until everything is dry and no longer sticking together. Any extra dredge usually settles into the bottom of the bowl

In a large frying pan, heat the oil over medium high heat until it shimmers. Try a test piece; the okra should immediately sizzle. Some of the corn flour is going to fall off into the oil but if the oil is hot enough, most of the dredge should stick and start to cook immediately. Working in batches if you need to, add just enough okra to make one layer in the pan with a little elbowroom. Allow it to sit in the sizzling oil for 2-3 minutes without moving it; then after checking the bottom side to see if it is brown enough, use a wide spatula and turn the okra over so that the other side can brown. Other than shaking the pan occasionally to even the layer, don’t mess with it. It needs to stay in contact with the hot oil to crisp and brown. Once the okra has gotten as dark as you like, scoop it out of the pan with a slotted spoon or spatula onto absorbent paper to drain off any leftover oil. Sprinkle with some flaky salt and eat it while it’s hot (or cold- it’s awesome both ways).

Okra Part 2: Maque Choux

My last post was for okra cooked whole, a good way to enjoy okra without any of the “slime” factor. Once you cut into okra, like aloe vera, the mucilage starts to seep out. Adding liquid for a braised or stewed dish enhances this seepage. There are a lot of tricks and techniques that people say will prevent this from happening – cut it in thin slices, cut it as little as possible, sear in with high heat, don’t add any liquid, just to name a few.

 My approach is to just go with it: okra contains mucilage, mucilage is slimy, so rather than try to change the nature of okra, I try to make this quality work for me. Okra is commonly used in gumbo as a “thickener”, a term which I don’t think is entirely accurate, or maybe just isn’t the most complete or descriptive term for what okra does for gumbo. I would say that it adds body to the broth.

 I’ll explain what I mean in terms of chicken stock: good gelatin-filled stock slips over the tongue silkily and substantially, filling the mouth with the essence of its ingredients, rich but never greasy.  The richness of a good homemade stock is not from fat but from the cartilage that has been slowly broken down and infused into the liquid. Okra has much the same effect, not creamy or thick, but lip-smacking.

 Gumbo is the obvious and most common way to take advantage of okra’s bodyfying qualities. I have, however posted a couple of gumbos here on the blog, so I’ll branch out and share another favorite: maque choux (mok shoo). Maque choux is like a succotash where the lima beans are replaced by okra. It is a fresh braise of corn, okra, tomato, onion, and peppers. The crispness of corn kernels and acidity in the tomatoes balance the tenderness of the okra. So to make a silky braised okra dish, balance the proportions of ingredients so that the okra doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the vegetables, add some acid (tomatoes), and cook the dish just long enough to get through the slimy stage to a richly flavored but light bright vegetable dish. It’s a perfect summertime side dish for fish or fried chicken (and yes, I know it’s September, sorry. Check back next year?)

 One of the tricks I use for this dish, I picked up from David Walbert’s brilliant chowder recipe: *after stripping the kernels, break the cobs in half and just barely submerge them in a pot or water. Cover the pot and bring it to a simmer for about 20 minutes, or about as long as it takes to prep everything else. All of the flavor that was left in the cob will infuse the water to make the corniest broth you’ve ever tasted. I prefer not to add a lot of water when I cook vegetables, but with all of the natural sugar in the vegetables, it can get pretty thick and sticky. The corn broth adds nice flavor and loosens up the mixture with out watering down the vegetables.

 Also of note: green bell peppers are probably the traditional choice for this dish. I just prefer almost any other pepper to green bells. I don’t think they have a lot of flavor and I also prefer a little heat, so I usually use a combination of poblano and serrano chiles. If you like other varieties better than the ones I use, they will work perfectly well. Feel free to improvise.

And a final note: if you live somewhere where it is difficult to find okra, this one will work very well with frozen okra. I like to get pods frozen whole and cut them up myself, but sliced is fine.

 

Maque Choux

serves 4

2-3 tablespoons oil (or half oil and half bacon grease, if you’re so inclined)

1 medium white onion, diced

2 poblano chiles, diced

1 serrano chile, minced

2 cup sliced okra

3 ears of corn, kernels removed, cob reserved for broth

2 cups diced tomato with their juice

*Corn broth as needed

Salt

Cayenne pepper if desired

Prepare all of your ingredients and start the corn broth.

In a large sauté pan or skillet, heat the oil and or bacon grease until it shimmers. You need just enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan.  Add the onions and chiles and a pinch of salt and sauté until they begin to soften and become fragrant, 5-7 minutes. Add the okra, tomatoes, and corn and another pinch of salt, which will help the vegetables release their water and keep them from sticking as much. Cover the pan and let it simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally; the okra will start to look “stringy”but the acid in the tomato juice will begin to break that down and melt it into the sauce. Add about ½ cup of corn broth at a time if the vegetables begin sticking to the pan. Once the okra no longer looks stringy, taste test to see if the vegetables are tender. It will probably take 15 minutes or so, but the main thing is to get them past the stringy stage with enough liquid in the pan to make it a loose but not soupy mixture while removing them from the heat before the vegetables become mushy. Salt to taste and add a pinch of cayenne if you like it spicy.

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.

The 3 Pillars of Potato Salad

Potato salad is one of those basic all-American dishes that everyone ought to have in their recipe repertoire. I’ve made a lot of different kinds of potato salad over the years, some versions better than others, but it goes so well with so many occasions that I’ve made an effort to refine a few techniques that bring out the best in it. Seasonings (and seasons)  change, but these techniques form the three pillars of all my  potato salad:

1.  Cook the potatoes whole. I’ve cooked a lot of potatoes in my day and will say that this is the most flavor and texture preserving technique for potato salad. Good potatoes actually have a lot of flavor, and the dense waxy potatoes I use for salad have a firm, creamy texture. Peeling, cutting them up and cooking them in boiling water dilutes the flavor and the texture that I want to be a significant component in the salad. Imagine that – potatoes as a feature, rather than a vehicle for dressing in potato salad!

2. Soak the potato pieces in apple cider vinegar. To counter the creaminess of the dressing, the dense starchiness of the potatoes and the juicy crunch of vegetables, I infuse the potatoes with a flavorful acidic vinegar steam bath. It lifts and brightens the salad from a typical blandness to a subtly tangy well-balanced bite.

3. I use dashi soup powder in the dressing. This is the point at which I will tiptoe into a very hotly debated health topic: glutamate and MSG. This very interesting article in the Guardian explains the history and controversy far better and in more depth than I possibly can, but my takeaway on the topic is that glutamate is a naturally occurring flavor enhancer, found in concentrated forms in aged cheeses, kelp, fish, mushrooms and mother’s milk (yep). My preference is to use ingredients that are in their most natural usable form rather than those that are industrial by-products or manufactured compounds imitating a natural product. Sugar and salt are examples of this, rawer versions having more mineral content and flavor that more refined versions. I first heard about these dashi soup mixes from this post on No Recipes as a more natural version of the flavor enhancing properties of  MSG. So, while I know this might be a controversial topic (what food isn’t these days anyway), it is something that I happily use and feed to the people who I love.

This is my favorite basic recipe:


Bacon Dill Potato Salad

2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes

¼ cup apple cider vinegar

2 pieces of smoked bacon

Dressing:

1/3 cup mayonnaise

1/3 cup sour cream

1 small clove garlic

¼ red onion

2 ribs celery with tops

1 tablespoon dill weed

½ packet smoked bonito dashi mix

salt

fresh black pepper

Chop the bacon up and fry it. Once it is crisp and browned, remove the pieces from the fat they have rendered and set the bacon on paper to drain.

Wash the whole potatoes and cover them with an inch or two of salted water in a pot. Bring them to a low boil and cook until a sharp knife slides in and out of the center of the potato easily (given that the potatoes are cooked whole, it makes sense to try to get all of the same potatoes as close to the same size as you can). Time will vary, but start checking after 15-20 minutes.

Drain the water and let the potatoes cool just enough to be able to gingerly handle them. Cut the hot potatoes into bite sized pieces (I did eighths). Return them to their cooking pot and pour the apple cider vinegar over the potato pieces. Cover the pot with a lid and let the potatoes cool and soak up the vinegar.

While the potatoes are cooling, make the dressing. Mix the mayo and sour cream in a big bowl. Grate the small clove of garlic on a microplane grater, or use a garlic press or heavy knife to mash it into a paste. There should be about ½ teaspoon of garlic, just a hint in the dressing. Mince the onion and celery and stir the garlic, onion, and celery into the mayo and sour cream. If you have fresh dill weed, take the bigger stems out and roughly chop the fronds; dried can go into the mix whole. Add half of the packet of smoky bonito soup mix. Taste the dressing for salt, and add some if needed, keeping in mind that the potatoes have been cooked in salted water. Stir everything together well.

Once the potatoes have cooled to about room temperature, put them into a big enough bowl to stir the dressing into them with out them falling out all over the place. Pour the dressing over and grind about 10 grinds worth of black pepper over everything. At this point the bacon can be mixed into the potato salad too, or it can be sprinkled over the top of each serving. Mixed in, it loses a little of its crispness, but incorporates its flavor throughout the salad. Allow the potato salad to sit, refrigerated, for 30 minutes or so before serving (it’s even better the next day).

We had it last night with thin slices of peppery hangar steak and a cool tomato cucumber salad –

Happy Pi Day!

To celebrate, I’m going to share a delicious painting (or three) by one of my favorite Southern artists.

Gladys Always Put A Rabbit’s Foot In Her Apron Pocket When She Made A Meringue

by Oxford, Mississippi artist Amy Cameron Evans

Amy is the Oral Historian for Southern Foodways Alliance where she gathers and documents the stories that make up the rich and varied food culture in the Southern U.S.

Camille’s Grandmother Loved Duke’s Mayonnaise and Costume Jewelry

It’s this embrace of the gorgeously eccentric personalities of the South, while still embracing and celebrating its traditions (like Dukes’ Mayonnaise and dill pickle chips) that I love about her work.

Velma Had A Secret

I also love the visual storytelling. Storytelling, yarn-spinning, layered, complex, absurd, hilarious, colorful, evocative, is to me a defining characteristic of “Southerness.”  And Velma Had A Secret is about as loaded a four-words-and-a-painting short story as it gets.

To see more of her artwork, follow these links:


http://amycevans.com/

or

KoelshGallery.com

Sweet Potato Casserole

I’ve been trying to think of ways to say this without sounding like a strident bossy health obsessed food tyrant, but really, when it comes to sweet potato casserole, YOU PEOPLE ARE DOING IT ALL WRONG!!!!

I’ve been reading Laurie Colwin’s  Home Cooking in which she states in her chapter “How to Fry Chicken”: “As everyone knows, there is only one way to fry chicken correctly. Unfortunately, most people think their method is best, but those people are wrong.” Her method is not 100% correct – she uses a chicken fryer instead of cast iron –  but I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment. A short, non-scientific survey of a number of my cookbooks bears me out. They all tell you to add at least a cup of sugar to your sweet potato casserole! Outrageous!

It’s a SWEET potato. When roasted, it has very tasty, flavorful, SWEET flesh. If one adds a cup or more of sugar, the tongue (figuratively) throws in the towel and refuses to taste any more flavors. All of the lemony spicy goodness is lost in a bland tidal wave of sugary sweetness. If you like a little sweet crunch for contrast, add the nutty streusel to the top. It’s plenty.

Which brings me to my second point: the spices. If you desire a creamy orange dessert with the flavor of cinnamon, cloves and allspice, make a pumpkin pie. Pumpkin is delicious with cinnamon. But the flavors that truly make a sweet potato sing are nutmeg and lemon. If you don’t believe me, feel free to take it up with Edna Lewis’s  In Pursuit of Flavor, page 47 “Baked Sweet Potatoes with Lemon Flavoring”.

This is the only way to make sweet potato casserole correctly-

Sweet Potato Casserole

– 6-8 medium sweet potatoes

Bake whole unpeeled potatoes at 400 for 45 minutes to 1 1/2 hours until they are soft when squeezed with a pot holder. Allow them to cool to the point at which they can be handled without inflicting terrible burns on yourself (or completely). Peel and scoop out the flesh into a bowl and mash until it has the consistency you desire. I like to use the paddle attachment on my mixer, but a potato masher or even a fork will work.

With the potatoes in a large bowl, add the following:

– 5 Tablespoons butter (melted if the potatoes are cool)

– 2 teaspoons salt

– 1/2 teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg

– 1/2 teaspoon black pepper

– 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

– 1 teaspoon of lemon extract (or lemon juice/ zest)

– 4 egg yolks

Beat together until smooth. If the mixture is really thick, add a little half and half , milk or cream to thin it out slightly. Since sweet potatoes can be a little fibrous sometimes, I use the whisk attachment or the beaters of an electric mixer to whip everything together; any little stringy bits that wrap around the beaters get thrown away. Those things are bad for getting stuck between your teeth. Pour everything into a buttered baking dish (about 9×13)

If you like, scatter the top with this:

Streusel

Crumble together with your fingertips into a nutty rubble:

– 5 Tablespoons of cold butter

– 1/2 cup flour

– 1/3 cup brown sugar

– a little salt and

– 4 oz chopped pecans

Bake for 45 minutes at 375 degrees. The sweet potatoes should puff up a little and the topping should be a crisp brown lid. Cool a little before serving or it can be eaten at room temperature.

I’m so glad I got that off my chest. I feel much better now.

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.