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.

 


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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.

Easy Peasy Key Lime Squeezy

We’re celebrating a birthday at our house this week. The tough thing about a December birthday is the tendency for it to get swallowed alive by the greater holiday season. People are busy, headed out-of-town, shopping, going to Christmas parties. I really try to maintain its individual specialness by not using Christmas wrapping paper for presents, not doing Christmasy stuff on the actual birthday and not fobbing off Christmas baking as birthday cake. The birthday boy likes pie, so pie is what he gets.

 

 

This year, I took about 20 minutes out of my busy schedule to make what may be the best bang for your buck homemade dessert ever- Key lime pie. I have told people how to make it before and gotten “Seriously? That’s it?” in response. Yes, seriously. It is a crumb crust and three ingredients, baked for about 15 minutes and that’s it. If you want to get really fancy, you can make the crust yourself,  but don’t even think about squeezing the limes, or you are on your own as far as I’m concerned.

 

Key Lime Pie

1 can sweetened condensed milk (14 ounces)

1/2 cup bottled Key Lime juice

3 egg yolks

1 Graham cracker crumb crust

 

Preheat the oven to 350. Blend the first three ingredients with a whisk or electric mixer until smooth. Pour into the crust and bake for 12-15 minutes until it has a softly set, slightly jiggly center. Cool. A snowdrift of whipped cream would also be lovely dolloped on top.

 

 

See? Tangy, custardy, creamy, and easy peasy!

 

I’m adding, for those of you who might want to make you own crust, and in keeping with the three ingredient limit on this post, a recipe for a crumb crust.

Crumb Crust

1-9 inch crust

about 1 1/2 cups cookie crumbs, like graham crackers, gingersnaps, or vanilla wafers

1/3 cup butter, melted

1/4 cup white sugar

Mix the three ingredients together, thoroughly combining to make sure the butter is all mixed in. Pour the crumbs into your pie plate and firmly press them into the bottom and sides to cover it evenly. I use the bottom of a glass or another pie plate to get a smooth, even crust. Bake for 7-9 minutes at 350˚.

Happy Thanksgiving!

When I reflect on this epochal year in my life, it’s too easy to concentrate on the parts of it that have been painful, uncomfortable, overwhelming. And while I know that there is a “time to mourn and a time to dance,” there are so many things that I am thankful for this year; I’m thankful for the grace of enduring friendships, for precious time with my family, a new nephew and brother-in-law. I’m grateful for the stability of employment and healthy babies born to friends, for dear friends beating cancer, for adventure, for a sense of humor, for not going through this year alone, for love.

We’re celebrating the holiday in the South this year at my in-laws. We drove down through nine states and the remnants of a beautiful East Coast Autumn in time for my mom’s birthday, a couple of my youngest sister’s senior year events, had a hilarious evening with friends at our favorite pub in Atlanta. We have eaten a little more BBQ than I care to admit. We’ve been having weather that is warm enough to allow us to sit outside with a fire and play guitar. We’ve had time to connect with friends that usually get squeezed by the holiday rush. It’s been nice.

I’m grateful to have been cooked for a good bit on this trip. In contrast to last Thanksgiving where my brother and I did an Amazing Race-meets-Top Chef Lightening Round style turkey dinner between his kitchen and our hotel at the beach in La Jolla, the only thing I really cooked this Thanksgiving dinner was a rather homely but delicious pecan tart. The recipe comes a little late for all of your Thanksgiving dinners, but it’s also eminently suitable for Christmas dinner, or Thursday night supper for that matter.

Pecan Tart

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into squares

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 eggs

1/2 cup maple syrup

1/2 cup corn syrup

6 ounces pecans, toasted and broken up into large pieces

1 recipe of Cream Cheese Tart Pastry

With the oven rack in the middle of the oven, par-bake the pie crust at 325 degrees.

Meanwhile, melt butter in a heat-proof bowl over simmering water. Remove from heat. Mix in sugar and salt until all of the butter is absorbed. Beat in eggs, then syrup. Return bowl to hot water; stir until mixture is shiny and hot, about 130 degrees. Remove from heat; stir in pecans.

As soon as the pie crust comes out of the oven, reduce the heat to 275 degrees. Pour pecan mixture into hot pie shell. Bake until the center feels soft-set, like gelatin, when gently pressed, 35-40 minutes. Transfer to cooling rack and let it cool completely.

The tart shell is the same one used for the lemon tart in “Sweetart” except that I omit the pistachios.

Cream Cheese Pastry

Makes 1 9-inch pie or tart crust

1 1/4 cups all- purpose flour

2 tablespoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened but still cool

2 ounces cream cheese, softened but still cool

Lightly grease your baking tin. Whisk flour, sugar, and salt together.

Beat butter and cream cheese together with your electric mixer at medium-high speed until completely homogenous, about 2 minutes. Add flour, sugar, and salt and mix on medium low until the mixture looks like coarse cornmeal. Increase mixer speed and beat until dough forms large clumps and pulls away from the bowl.

Form into a disk and press into the pie tin with your fingers, working out from the center and up the sides until the dough is evenly distributed.

Wrap well and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Bake at 325 for 35- 40 minutes for a fully baked crust or 20-25 minutes for a partially baked crust.

“But you ain’t ever had my cornbread….”

I expect I might get a few “she’s an idiot, bless her heart”s for this one. I’m sort of messing around with one of the quintessential elements of a regional cuisine; but I have my reasons.

Although I hail from Atlanta, Georgia, and although my Southern roots spread deep and wide, my childhood did not really establish me with the fundamentals that constitute the canon of “real Southern cooking”. We didn’t eat pork  (so no BBQ) or seafood, we didn’t fry anything, and we weren’t allowed to eat white sugar. I knew more about tofu, bean sprouts, and carob (which in my opinion is the devil’s sorry substitute for chocolate) than I did about catfish or country ham or peach ice cream.  Our biscuits usually had whole wheat in them, and our (freshly ground before our eyes at the health food store) peanut butter sandwiches on whole wheat bread were PB&”M” for molasses instead of “J” for jelly.

This lack of orthodoxy in my education has enabled me to come away without a dogmatic position on what constitutes “real Southern cornbread.”  I do prefer a crispier cornbread, made in a cast iron skillet, to the cakier moister versions I’ve tried. But I don’t like cornbread so gritty that it feels like a mouthful of sand crunching between my teeth. And while I don’t want it sweet, I don’t mind a little sugar in the mix. This sort of precluded most buttermilk-based recipes also, since they are subtly sour.

I tried the ATK Best Recipes version, probably a pretty classic Southern style cornbread that involves pouring boiling water over part of the cornmeal to make a mush before mixing it into the rest of the ingredients.  While it does enhance the corniness of the flavor, it left me wanting more. I’ve always used a little milk in cornbread; I thought about substituting milk for water in which case I could heat the cornmeal in the milk and which honestly, I’m not going to do, one of the chief benefits of a quick bread being its quickness.

There were a few dismal failures, not even worth mentioning in detail, but I did have the foresight to write “not good” in pencil next to the cornbread recipe in one cookbook to save myself the trouble next time.

My next good attempt was with the 1931 edition of The Joy of Cooking’s “Method I.” for cornbread.  The recipe itself has a pleasing symmetry – ¾ cup flour, ¾ cup cornmeal, and ¾ cup milk – that is helpful to the “number remembering deficients” among us (me).

It was still a little on the gritty side for me, so I modified it ever so slightly, using half cornmeal and half corn flour (very fine cornmeal, not cornstarch) to make up ¾ cup. The recipe also stipulates an 8×8 square pan, but I use a buttered and pre-heated cast iron skillet.

So, with minor adjustments, here is The Joy of Cooking‘s

Corn Bread

Method I.

Heat the oven to 425° Grease or butter a cast iron skillet. Five minutes before the batter is ready to bake, place the pan in the oven until it becomes sizzling hot.

Mix:

¾ cup all-purpose flour

2 ½ teaspoons baking powder

4 teaspoons sugar

¾ teaspoon salt

¾ cup cornmeal (made up of half cornmeal and half corn flour)

In a separate bowl, beat together

1 egg

2-3 tablespoons melted butter of bacon fat

¾ cup milk

Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry, mixing minimally. Pour the batter into the hot skillet and bake at 425° for about 25 minutes.

It was a super bowl

I’m not going to say that I choose my Super Bowl team based on the city with the most appealing gustatory traditions, but if someone wants to draw that conclusion based on my making gumbo today, I can offer only a half-hearted defense. What do Colts eat? I don’t know, but I do know that I’ve had gumbo on the brain for weeks.

Last Friday found me in Old Oakland at the Friday farmer’s market and the Old   Housewives  Market.  A bustling farmer’s market in February is one of the loveliest things about living in this area. It was full of greens and citrus, cruciferous and root vegetables. I briefly considered what looked like a rubber chicken which was actually a real chicken complete with head and feet and suitable for stock-making, but I was single-minded and on my way to Taylor’s Sausage for some hot smoked sausage, then on to Ranch 99 for a duck.

My gumbo today was based loosely on Southern Living’s Chicken and Sausage Gumbo recipe with several notable differences. When I made the roux, I used a couple of tablespoons of bacon fat that I had in the refrigerator to add a little smoky depth to my peanut butter colored roux. The duck had been broken down and the bits and bones made into stock. The breast and legs were poached in the stock and shredded and the stock de-fatted before pouring it into the roux and vegetables.

While I love okra and tomatoes in gumbo, I was looking for a deep smoky winter gumbo. The dark roux added so much body and flavor to the soup that it didn’t miss the okra thickener.

Let’s just say that if we had had a cooler full of icy Gatorade lying around the house this evening, it would not have been inappropriate to douse me with it after supper, cause, baby, that gumbo was a winner!