i've had three main culinary influences in my life; my mother, her father, and my father's mother. all taught me very different things about food, and how to prepare it. the most important thing that they each instilled in me is a love of food and of cooking. my childhood memories are peppered with days spent with my hands in bowls of meatloaf or stirring pots of simmering sauce. my favorite chores were gathering vegetables from my grandmother's garden and shucking corn. you might say i was a strange child.
however, the memory of my childhood has stuck with me, and i think of those chores, and of stirring those pots, and of forming meatloaf with my hands whenever i'm in the kitchen. my mother, my grandmother, and my grandfather have instilled in my an innate sense of what food should taste like, and have drilled into me the steps that go into making it.
with that in mind, my entry to the january 24, 24, 24, is called "southern comfort", a sampling of the foods i grew up loving, prepared the way i remember them, with one of my favorite people by my side - my mother. on the menu is my family recipe for fried chicken, quick collard greens, fried okra, macaroni and cheese with lump crab meat, and my grandmother's recipe for 'spotted pup' - a traditional southern approach to rice pudding.
southern fried chicken
this recipe is simple and actually pretty quick. there are a lot of spices in the flour, which is what gives the crispy crust it's trademark flavor. i always use my mother's cast iron skillet to cook my fried chicken (anything fried actually) and if you have one, you should do the same. if not, another large, flat-bottomed skilled will do a fair job. we use canola oil to fry, though traditionally this would have been made with crisco. as a rule, we brine our chicken before frying it. it keeps the meat moist, and gives it lots of flavor that seeps into the skin and crust when cooking.
ingredients for brine:
1 cup salt
2 cups warm water
directions for brine:
dissolve the salt into the water and then transfer to plastic bag and add chicken. brine overnight in a container in the refrigerator to prevent leakage.
ingredients for the spice mixture:
2 teaspoons fleur de sel (or other sea salt)
3 teaspoons poultry seasoning
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3/4 teaspoon black pepper
directions for the dredging flour:
mix all of the above spices together in a shallow bowl, and then mix into 2 cups of all purpose flour. set aside.
ingredients for frying:
8 pieces of chicken (we used thighs, but you can use your favorite cut)
1 cup buttermilk, in a shallow bowl
directions for frying:
remove the chicken from the refrigerator at least one hour prior to frying. rinse chicken clean of brine, and dry very well with paper towels. set aside on a plate and cover with plastic wrap to keep out curious house cats.
preheat oven to 350 degrees. heat one half to three quarters of an inch of canola oil in your cast iron skillet, or another large heavy skillet. the oil should get very hot, you will know it's ready when a ball made of buttermilk and flour drops into the oil and floats to the top with bubbles all around it.
dredge the first four pieces of chicken in the flour mixture, and then knock off any excess flour (it should be a very light coating), then dredge in the buttermilk, and then back into the flour. this coating should be heavier, and you don't need to knock any excess off. place four pieces of chicken into the pan at the same time. cook for 10 minutes on the first side, flip, and cook 10 minutes more. remove to paper towels and repeat for the second batch.
once both batches are cooked, pop them into the oven for 15 minutes. then remove and serve.
simple, comforting, and delicious. this fried chicken is packed with spicy flavors, and is sure to be a hit if you try it in your home. also, you could use the same ingredients and method to make fried chicken strips for children.
quick collard greens
next up is the quick solution to a southern classic; collard greens. i learned how to make both versions when i was young. the traditional method, though delicious, takes all day to make. these are fast enough for a weeknight, and still retain the smoky flavor and slight bitterness associated with collards.
one half pound bacon, chopped
3 bunches of kale
salt and pepper
in a frying pan over medium-high heat, render down the pre-chopped bacon until crispy. remove bacon from pan, and set aside the bacon grease.
carefully wash your greens in the sink, and remove the stems from them as you go. rip them into large pieces and set aside. fill a large pot with about 2 inches of water and add all of the greens, cover with the lid. set this on the stove over medium-high heat and give it about 15 minutes to steam. check often. the greens will wilt down and turn dark green. this process removes most of the bitterness. once the greens are wilted, drain them off and replace large pot over medium-high heat. add the bacon grease, and the greens, salt and pepper to taste and sautée for about 5 minutes until the leaves are well coated in the grease. don't let them brown.
right before serving, toss in the bacon.
this adaptation is really simple and though not good for your body, good for your soul. you could use less bacon and bacon grease here, but really, it's what gives the greens their trademark flavor.
next up on the list is fried okra. this is another southern classic, and one i remember more fondly than any of the others from my childhood. my grandmother made this all the time when i was growing up, and i was often called in to remove the slimy snotty stuff that appeared whenever the okra was cut into. i never minded though, because i knew these were at the end of all of the hard work. we used to pop these into our mouths like popcorn, sprinkled with salt, and even a little pepper, these evoke some of my happiest childhood memories.
1 bag frozen okra, thawed at room temperature
1 and one half cups of blue corn meal (you can use yellow if you have that already)
salt and pepper to taste
either use the oil left over from the fried chicken (it will have a little more flavor than if you start over with new oil) or fill a cast iron skillet (or another heavy skillet - a wok would work too) with about half an inch of canola oil. heat over high heat, and check to see if it's the same way as for the fried chicken. you can also use a bit of bread to check this if you don't have the okra prepared yet.
to get the okra ready, add the corn meal, salt and pepper to taste (more than you think you need) to a ziploc bag. move around with your fingers to make sure it's all incorporated, and then add in the okra. toss around to make sure each piece is well coated in the corn meal.
when the oil is ready, add the okra and move around a little to make sure all sides are being hit by the oil. keep in the oil until browned, and then remove to paper towel. you will likely have to do this in batches. as soon as you remove the okra, sprinkle it with more salt (and pepper if you'd like, or even cayenne) and then let it cool slightly.
with four ingredients, this recipe is really simple. even if you've never tried okra before, you should give this recipe a go. and, the best part is that the frozen and thawed okra takes care of the annoying slimy snotty stuff for you. it's a misunderstood vegetable, and one that is at its very best in this classic southern preparation.
macaroni and cheese with crab meat
macaroni and cheese is a classic southern dish. it's served all over the south, and there are as many recipes for it as there are stars in the sky. my own family has one that dates back well into the 1940's, and it's my go-to recipe whenever i need to prepare a batch of this creamy and cheesy dish.
however, i knew for this that i needed to impart a little of the north into the traditional southern approach to this dish. i hope you will forgive me my decision when you taste this dish. it is, without a doubt, the best macaroni and cheese i've ever had...and i've had a lot. the crab is there, and can be tasted, but it's not overwhelming. the cheeses i chose are a perfect compliment to the delicate shellfish, and melt so well you won't believe your eyes. also, instead of the traditional elbow macaroni, i've chosen to use a slightly more updated tubetti shape. it's fun, but still evokes the more expected shape.
this is the most laborious component i cooked the whole day. it takes a while to make good mac and cheese from scratch, but it's well worth it.
6 tablespoons plus one teaspoon of butter, divided
2 large (or 3 medium) shallots, minced
1 clove of garlic, minced
3 tablespoons of flour
4 to 5 cups of whole milk
1# pasta (i used tubetti, but you could use elbow or another shape)
6 oz. crab (either good canned or fresh from the fishmonger)
1 wedge brillat-savarin cheese at room temperature
1 wedge good french brie at room temperature
2 wedges st. teresa peccorino sardo at room temperature
put a large pot of water on to boil, and add several heavy pinches of salt. once it boils, add the pasta and under cook slightly (make sure there are no hard bits, but don't let it get as soft as you would if you were going to eat it with sauce). drain and set aside.
pick through the crab meat with your fingers, removing any shells or hard pieces and discarding them.
in another large pot melt two tablespoons of the butter over medium low heat. add in the minced shallots and garlic and sprinkle with salt. slowly sweat them until they are glassy and very soft. this could take up to 10 minutes, but don't rush it. it's important that these don't brown, so keep the heat low and be patient. once they are done, add in 4 tablespoons of butter and the flour. mix well with a fork or whisk until incorporated and cook for about a minute more to remove the raw flour flavor. add in the milk (start with 4 cups, and slowly add up to 5 if you need to thin the mixture out) and whisk to remove any lumps of the flour and butter mixture. slowly break in the brie and brillat-savarin cheeses, and sprinkle in some cayenne pepper to taste (don't be scared to put this in, it really brings out the flavor of the cheeses). you can add in the rind of the cheeses, they will melt down. keep whisking this until all of the cheese has melted. it should be the consistency of buttermilk, very pourable, so add more milk if necessary.
grate the peccorino sardo onto a plate with the largest side of a box grater.
preheat oven to 350 degrees.
use remaining 1 teaspoon of butter to grease the inside of your casserole dish. begin layering with pasta, then crab, then peccorino sardo, then the sauce. shake the casserole dish and pound down on the counter to make sure that the sauce is making it all the way down into the pasta. complete two more layers this way, which should use all of the crab and leave just a little pasta and cheese and a lot of sauce. for the top layer do just pasta and cheese and pour on the remaining sauce. sprinkle some cayenne pepper on the top and pop into the oven for 45 minutes until browned and bubbling on the top. let cool some before serving.
i'm not lying when i say this is the best. though, i will admit that the cheeses are necessary to making these flavors work. as you can see from the above photo, i shopped for my cheese at whole foods, which has an amazing selection. if you don't have one of these near you, you can check online. the brie should be easy enough to find almost anywhere, but the brillat-savarin and peccorino sardo my require a little more detective work. these flavors are delicate enough to serve at a baby shower luncheon, but bold enough that everyone will be clamoring for the recipe.
modern spotted pup
the women of the south really knew how to take something simple and turn it into something fantastic. this recipe is a perfect example of that. at it's core it's just rice, milk, raisins, and sugar. and it would be fine with just those things. but, of course, i've taken it to a more modern place with the addition of some tasty spices and some american honey bourbon. american honey is manufactured by wild turkey and we love the stuff around here. i drink it on ice after a long day, and i try to incorporate it into meals. it's strong, but not kick-you-in-the-pants strong, because the honey it is made with smooths it out.
my understanding of the name of this dish is that the raisins against the white of the rice make it look like the coat of a hunting dog, but correct me if you have a more accurate description. any way you name it, this is good old fashioned comfort food.
ingredients for the steeping mixture:
1 star anise
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 of a vanilla bean, seeds scraped from pod
1/4 pound golden raisins (if you want to use regular, you can, i just like goldens)
1/2 cup american honey
directions for steeping mixture:
in a small saucepan over medium low heat bring the star anise, cinnamon stick, vanilla bean (seeds and pod), raisins, and american honey to a gentle simmer. simmer until raisins are plumped and liquid is reduced. remove star anise, cinnamon stick, and vanilla bean pod and discard. set the raisins in the liquid aside.
ingredients for the rice:
1.5 cups arborio rice
6 cups whole milk (plus more if needed)
1/2 vanilla bean, seeds scraped from pod
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise
1/2 cup plus one tablespoon sugar
add the rice, sugar, the milk, vanilla bean (seeds and pod), cinnamon stick, and star anise to a large heavy pot and bring to a strong simmer over medium to medium-high heat. gently stir for about 30 minutes. the rice will begin to absorb the milk and will become soft. add in extra milk if the mixture becomes too dry. taste the rice to make sure it's soft enough, and when it is, add the raisins (reserving the liquid in the other pan). mix the raisins through, and then spoon into serving dishes. drizzle the liquid over the rice pudding before serving.
this dish can be served cold (which is more traditional) or hot, which i think tastes better. the raisins become little pops of liquor in your mouth and the rice becomes so soft and sweet. it's really a nice treat on a cold winter day.
the meal was a success, and was much enjoyed by all. each of these dishes could be prepared on their own, but having them all at once was like being in my grandmother's kitchen again as a child. i hope that my family recipes entice you to try some southern cooking, whether you live in minnesota or istanbul.
the american south is known for two things, good food and hospitality. i hope my small bit of southern hospitality has made my grandmother proud today. enjoy!