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).

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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: the Prologue

Have you ever had a friend visit one of your favorite places – say, San Francisco or New York City – and spend all of their time in the worst areas – say Fisherman’s Wharf or Times Square – and leave with a terrible impression of that place – crowded, over-priced terrible food, kitschy and touristy? It’s frustrating. While you know that there is so much more to San Francisco than Madame Tussaud’s and t-shirt shops, it can be hard to overcome that negative first impression, however unjustified.

That sums up my feelings about okra. One of my favorite vegetables, it has a terrible reputation based largely on misunderstanding and poor preparation. Is okra slimy? Well, yes and no. Depending on how it is handled and prepared, it can either look like a creature from Alien or it can be as silky and soothing as good stock. Can it be prickly and stringy? Yes, if you get mature, past-their-prime pods. But all of these are easily avoidable disasters.

So, if you’ll let me be your tour guide, I’ll try to give you a better second impression of okra.

Let’s start with choosing the best okra:

I remember when I was little, my mom handed me a tiny tender okra pod to taste straight from the garden; it was still warm, easy to bite and chew, tender and velvety. It was a perfect little ripe okra pod, bright green and pliable, probably about the size of my thumb now. I prefer cooked okra, but they should be edible when raw, not tough and sharply ridged.

As with most fruits and vegetables, there is a tremendous difference between “ripe” and “mature” okra. Ripeness is the peak of flavor and tenderness before the plant begins putting all of its energy into producing and protecting viable seeds.  Think about the difference between an English pea pod and a flat snow pea. The English pea shell has matured into a case to protect the peas (or seeds) inside while the snow pea is still juicy and tender, immature but ripe. Since okra is not eaten mainly for its seeds, I want the outside to be tender like the snow pea rather than the English pea.

Okra is a sensitive little thing, easily bruised by over-handling, so a good indication of freshness is whether the tips and ridges are blackened by much squeezing and tossing. If you buy okra in a farmers market or grocery store that serves an enthusiastic okra-eating demographic like Indians, West Africans, or East Asians, you will probably see shoppers standing beside the bin rifling through the pile feeling each individual pod in order to get only the best. If an okra pod has been passed over often enough so that it gets bruised like that, walk away. The experts have spoken.

If you come across a pristine pile, go ahead and start feeling up the produce. Gently pick up each bright green pod that looks to be about the right size (think a ladies thumb) and give a little squeeze to see if it feels spiny and rigid or tender and pliable. There will be a light fuzz on the outside and they shouldn’t feel dry or brittle. The tips should be intact and not black and battered looking, and a little bit of stem on the other end keeps them from drying out too quickly. As long as they are not damp, they will store for a few days in a bag in your crisper drawer.

There are two exceptions to the size and color rules: First, there is an okra variety called “cow horn” that is much larger than other varieties while still being ripe rather than mature. If a seller can assure you that the large variety you are looking at is indeed the cow horn type, go ahead and try it, but if they are uncertain, don’t bother buying their okra. There is too much risk that you’ll end up with something that tastes like balsa wood. And then there are some gorgeous bronze and burgundy varieties of okra (like the ones in the first picture)that I like to try when I find them. They are less common though, so I would stick with green until you get comfortable and then branch out to more exotic types.

Now, before I get into any discussion on preparation, let’s talk about slime. Like I said, okra can be really slimy, depending on how it is cooked and handled. But why?  What is it that turns a velvety little pod into something that looks like the Creature from the Black Lagoon? In a word, fiber. Okra contains a soluble fiber charmingly known as “mucilage.” Some other foods that contain mucilage are aloe vera, nopal (or prickly pear cactus), kelp (or kombu), chia seeds, flax seeds, and oatmeal. And just like aloe vera gel is soothing and healing to the skin, this type of fiber is very soothing on the inside. During his recovery from orthognathic surgery a few years ago, Scott had a reaction to anti-swelling steroids he was given that caused a lot of stomach pain. One of the few foods that he could swallow that soothed his stomach were homemade miso soup (made with kelp) and stewed okra. This soluble fiber is also helpful in controlling cholesterol, regulating blood sugar, and keeping the digestive system healthy as a probiotic.

While I may not be able to convince anyone to love okra based purely on its health benefits,  these benefits are information worth knowing. I do however think that I’ll be able to convince you to give it a second change based on it’s deliciousness and versatility, beginning in my next post. See you soon in Okra: Part I

Hummus is Yummus

Last night was my turn to host my book club. The host usually has snacks and wine and since most of us are either arriving from work or from handing children off to a spouse who has just walked in the door, most of try to go hearty with snacks since it is essentially supper. Typically, I had so many things keeping me busy that I didn’t get any prep done ahead of time and walked in the door with a bag full of groceries and wine at about 5:30 to see a herd of dust bunnies galloping down the hall, piles of mail and clutter everywhere, a full dishwasher, and a lot of cooking ahead of me.

Fortunately, the ladies of book club do not care a whit about my careless housekeeping, particularly if they are well fed, so I turned some MGMT on really loud, put my apron on, and cranked out my hummus recipe because it is so fast and easy and everyone loves it. With hummus in the bag, I got to work on a trio of crostini toppings – diced tomato and basil with olive oil, salt and pepper, chopped mushrooms sautéed in butter with rosemary and a little cream, and this Parmesan spread from 101 Cookbooks that I mixed with chopped artichoke hearts. Kate arrived first and  helped me slice and toast my baguettes from the Antique Bakery (which still bakes all of its bread in an old coal oven) and open wine bottles. I have to admit I had worked up a little sweat getting everything done at the last minute, but our book club is always fun and worth the effort.

Having recipes like hummus that are easy to throw together are great if you like to have people over but don’t have a lot of time to prepare. I served mine with a platter of crudite – red pepper slices, cucumber spears, slender blanched green beans, and celery to balance the richer crostini toppings, but I often bake whole wheat pita wedges to make quick pita chips.

Hummus

– 1 – 19 ounce can of garbanzo beans, drained

– 2 cloves of garlic, chopped or microplaned

– 3 Tablespoons tahini

– 1 lemon, juiced

– 1 teaspoon ground cumin

– 1/2 teaspoon ground smoky chipotle

– about 2 tablespoons olive oil

– salt to taste

Note: because of the variety of textures in canned beans, I sometimes need more or less olive oil to get the texture I want. If, after blending, the texture seems stiff or dry, add a little more olive oil, or if it seems loose and soft, add a little less. Same thing with the salt- taste it before adding any because some canned beans are already salty.

In the bowl of a food processor (I used my mini prep), combine the beans, garlic, tahini, lemon juice, and spices. Pulse the mixture until you like the texture- I prefer it pretty smooth but with a bit of chunky texture. Once you get the texture you want, taste it for salt and add the salt and olive oil. The olive oil and tahini make it creamy. Serve with a drizzle of olive oil on top.

Keen as Mustard

After that last post for chili, some of y’all are probably rolling your eyes, nudging one another, and asking yourselves  “does she do EVERYTHING the most difficult way possible? I mean seriously, roast and grind the chiles that you freaking GREW YOURSELF and THEN chop the meat by hand? What is she, like a kitchen masochist?” The simple answer to that question would probably be “yes, sort of.” Just kidding.

I do enjoy the process (she says, not defensively at all). And I don’t really cook many elaborate things. I just like simple things to be really tasty and I like to understand what makes it so. And I’ve found over the years that some of the things that seem intimidating, like mayonnaise for example, aren’t that hard. Homemade mayonnaise takes 10 minutes to make and I’ve not yet had a batch break. So if you have the time and inclination to occasionally put in a bit of extra time, I think it’s worth the reward.

So, for things that seem like “why in the world would you make —– when you can buy it?”, I give you the biggest bang for your $2 and 5 minutes of kitchen time:

Homemade Coarse-grain Mustard

My basic recipe comes completely unedited or adapted from one of my favorite and most aspirational blogs,  Hunter Angler Gardener Cook by Hank Shaw. For simplicity, I’ll include the recipe as I made it here, but do spend some quality time wandering around his archives and you won’t be disappointed. His explanations of the chemical reaction that make “the magic” happen are especially helpful.

The nice thing about making your own mustard, other than it being dead simple and effortless, is its endless adaptability. I can’t wait to make some with apricot preserves, Belgian beer, black mustard seeds, smooth mustard powder, or balsamic vinegar. This one has a lot of heat, probably because I used really cold water, but a honey mustard with a bitter-sweet buckwheat honey sounds intriguing too.

Here are the basics:

makes about 1 cup

about 5 minutes active, 12 hours passive prep time

– 6 tablespoons mustard seeds

– 1/2 cup mustard powder

– 2 teaspoons salt

– 3 tablespoons vinegar (2 cider, 1 sherry)

– 1/2 cup very cold water

In a small coffee/spice grinder (or with a mortar and pestle) blitz the whole mustard seeds until they are about 3/4 cracked, but not powdered. Mix the mustard seeds, mustard powder and salt. Pour the vinegar and cold water over it and mix thoroughly. Spoon into a jar and refrigerate for 12 hours before consuming.

After I stood, gazing in disbelief at the jar as I put it in the fridge this morning at how ridiculously EASY it was to make, I let it sit and stew all day. Pulling it out for a taste tonight was the real litmus. And it is really good! Sinus-clearingly hot, fresh and spicy, it tastes like a chewy pretzel’s soul mate. I’m not making pretzels by the way. I buy those. What do you think I am, a glutton for punishment?

P.S.-

Since I had an extra 5 minutes after writing this post, I made another half batch of mustard:

Figgy Mustard

-3 tablespoons mustard seeds

-1/4 cup mustard powder

-1 teaspoon salt

-1 heaped tablespoon fig preserves

-2 teaspoons white wine vinegar

  -2 teaspoons fig balsamic vinegar

-1/4 cup room temperature water, to minimize the heat.

After sitting overnight, it is a lovely spicy/sweet mustard that will be perfect on some broiled smoked sausages.

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.

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.

Rice rice baby

I’ve been trying to make myself a welcomed and pleasant houseguest these past few weeks. I have a few techniques I try to use. I try to remember the “house guests and fish” rule, by not staying too long in one place. I make myself scarce when my hosts are busy. I try to be charming, an amusing conversationalist, a general pleasure to be around. I tidy up after myself, bring gifts of wine and cheese and cookies. And I cook.

I’ve been staying at Kristen’s house this week. She has two boys. As it turns out, teenaged boys can put away some groceries. It’s like a shop vac gets turned on in the kitchen, and thirty minutes later, they are hungry again. So the other night, I made a huge skillet of fried rice for a very appreciative audience. (That is a nice thing about cooking for teenaged boys- they are very enthusiastically appreciative). It’s quick and easy, a good way to use leftovers, and according to the boys, a crowd pleaser.

There are two important things to remember: first, start with cold rice, and second, don’t be afraid of high heat. Most other things in fried rice are negotiable. These are not, so no back talk. The reason for cold (and even a little dry) rice is that it holds up much better under the stirring and tossing. Fresh rice just gets mushy and beat up. And the high heat, which I think is one of the most important things to get comfortable with as a cook, cooks everything fast enough to get done before it starts getting mushy. Fresh rice and a tepid pan makes for a sodden greasy grease bomb and nobody wants that. You want glossy individual grains of rice, emollient but not saturated with sesame oil, lightly bound with a bit of just-cooked egg and studded with vegetables and shrimp, chicken, pork or sausage.

 

 

Fried Rice

Here is what I used :

5 or 6 cups of cold or room temperature long grain rice- leftover is perfect. Use your hands to gently separate the grains into a bowl, ready to pour into the wok

Oil (corn, canola, peanut etc.) to generously coat the bottom of the pan

Toasted sesame oil

1 clove garlic minced or crushed

1 tiny knob of ginger finely grated

3 or 4 scallions, sliced

A cup or two of cooked vegetables (I used a frozen mix of water chestnuts, baby corn, snow peas, mushrooms, and edamame, thawed and drained , but frozen peas work well too; whatever you like )

3 beaten eggs

Teriyaki chicken

Soy sauce, or

Salt to taste

White or cayenne pepper to taste

 

Fried rice takes minutes to make once you get started, so have everything ready to go when you turn the heat on. You will need a big flat bladed spatula and a big pan. (I use a wok at home, but used Kristen’s electric skillet on its highest setting this time). Get you large wok or skillet as screaming red rocket hot as you can and then pour the oil in, probably about a 3 to 1 ratio of regular oil to toasted sesame oil. As soon as it starts to shimmer, add the garlic and ginger. Keep it moving, stirring or shaking the pan. You’ll get that hit of fragrance and then it’s time for the vegetables and scallions to go in. Keep moving and tossing with one hand, and then scatter the rice across the whole of the pan’s surface so that it gets as much rice-to-hot-pan exposure as possible. It should be pretty noisy and hissy; that means it’s frying and not getting all steamy. Once the rice grains starts to look glossy and separate, scoop them up the sides of your pan, leaving an empty well in the center. If you are not using a non stick pan and it looks pretty dry, add a little more sesame oil to the middle. swirling it slightly to get it hot and distributed. Pour the beaten egg into the well and immediately begin folding the rice into the egg, gently stirring and folding to distribute the egg throughout the rice as it cooks. Turn the heat off as soon as the egg thickens. If you want to, toss in some chopped up meat, whatever you like. Get a fork and taste for seasoning. I personally like a few tablespoons of salty soy sauce stirred in instead of salt. White or cayenne pepper for those who wish it.

Fried rice is pretty negotiable, like I said, so use what you have or prefer. If you want to it vegetarian, just bump up the proportion of vegetables. If you aren’t cooking for teenaged boys, use less rice. And if you can find some Chinese sausage, that’s very good too. I’m hoping this one bought me at least a couple more days of houseguest goodwill.