Monday, October 25, 2010

"Only Two Things Money Can't Buy...

...that's true love and home-grown tomatoes."

Or maybe fried green tomatoes, since I'm not sure they're worth eating if the tomatoes aren't home-grown. But oh, when they are!

Fried green tomatoes are actually pretty simple. You start with unripe tomatoes (no, green tomatoes aren't some special breed, they're just plain old unripe tomatoes), and you really do want them bright green. Once fried, the sourness that makes an unripe tomato all but inedible becomes tamed into tart deliciousness.

Last weekend I noticed that our tomato plants, even though clearly dying off, were still pretty full of green tomatoes. A home-grown tomato is a thing of such rare beauty that it's positively criminal to waste even one - even one green one - so I started picking. I just couldn't bear to see them go to waste, so even though the only fried green tomatoes I'd ever had were in restaurants (and nothing to write home about, at that), I decided to pull out the trusty cast iron skillet and fry away. About a half an hour (and a few blisters I dubbed "the revenge of the fried green tomatoes") later, I discovered what I'd been missing all those years (and the perfect thing to do with those last, end-of-season tomatoes).

Fried Green Tomatoes and a Dressing-That's-Not-That-Bad-For-You

green tomatoes
granulated onion or onion powder
corn meal (whole-grain and preferably fine-sifted)
bacon grease or lard

Cut the stem out of your tomatoes and slice them about ¼ inch thick.

Lay the slices out on paper towels and sprinkle fairly liberally with salt, black pepper, and granulated onion. Let them sit for at least 15 minutes.

In one shallow bowl or rimmed plate, pour some buttermilk, and in another put a half cup of cornmeal.

Heat your skillet with about ¼ inch of grease to 350°.

Dip your tomato slices in the buttermilk and then coat them in the cornmeal. (I just lay the slices in the buttermilk so one side gets coated, and then I don't wash the seasoning off the top. But both sides get coated with the cornmeal.) Sit them aside on wax paper until your ready to cook them.

Place the tomatoes in the hot grease (carefully! preferably with tongs, as this is where I got blisters from a big pop of the grease). Cook them about 2 minutes on each side and them remove then to a paper towel lined plate.

They are wonderful alone, but also delicious with the following dressing I concocted:

The Dressing-That's-Not-That-Bad-For-You

¼ cup fat-free Greek yogurt
¼ cup low-fat mayonnaise (I wouldn't touch anything but Hellman's or Duke's)
¼ cup buttermilk
2 tsp Texas Pete hot sauce
4 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled
2 tbsp minced fresh parsley
2 green onions, minced (or 1 tsp + granulated onion)
fresh-ground black pepper to taste 

Combine and for best results refrigerate overnight.  

Monday, September 27, 2010

Biscuit Heaven

Is there anything more Southern than buttermilk biscuits? Okay, well maybe grits, but that’s a hard call.

I grew up with biscuits, but Mama makes drop biscuits (think Red Lobster’s Cheddar Bay biscuits without the cheese and garlic). They’re good, quick, and easy. But along the way I decided I wanted to learn how to make a more traditional Southern biscuit.

The family story is that Great-Grandma made her legendary biscuits with her hands in a well in the flour bowl without ever measuring a thing. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do that, but I’ve been working on my biscuits for several years now, and I’ve learned that it’s as much about technique and feel as the right ingredients.

Uncle Clarence started me out. He used to make biscuits for one of the busiest Hardee’s locations in the country, in Panama City, Florida. From there I’ve accumulated hints and tricks through the years, including a new one over the weekend, and altogether they managed to produce the best biscuits I’ve ever made.

I’ve been promising my biscuit recipe to friends for months now, and I’m finally ready to deliver.

Southern Biscuits

2 cups southern/soft wheat all-purpose flour, plus about 1/3 cup
*I use White Lilly (Sunset Foods sells it in Chicago-land, as does Fresh Market), but Southern Biscuit is also good. Pastry flour should work, and cake flour would be a better option than non-southern all-purpose flours.
*Spoon the flour into the dry measuring cup and level by lightly tapping the back edge of a butter knife along the top once before scraping the excess flour off.
½ tsp salt
2 tsp aluminum-free baking powder
*Rumford is the most common brand. The aluminum in most baking powder adds an off taste.
½ tsp baking soda
*The soda is important as these are buttermilk biscuits.
1 scant tsp sugar
*“Scant” means just less – I level with the curved side of a butter knife for this.
½ cup (1 stick) cold, unsalted butter (you can go as low as ¼ cup if you must), plus about 1 tbsp
            *Flavor matters, so use good butter for this. Land ‘O Lakes is the best national brand.
¾ to 1 cup buttermilk

Wisk together the dry ingredients, reserving the extra flour.

Add the butter (except the reserve), cutting it in 1/8 inch slices. 

Mix it into the flour with your fingers. The idea is to end up with flattened bits of nickel-sized butter, so you will be tossing the flour and butter together and squishing the butter flat between your fingers.

Put your bowl of flour and butter in the freezer for 15 minutes.

Stir the buttermilk in until there’s no dry flour and the dough is pulling away from the sides of the bowl (though messily).

Let the dough sit in a cool place for 30 minutes.

Preheat a large cast-iron skillet (my 10” skillet holds one batch of biscuits) in the oven at 450°. A cast-iron griddle pan would work as well. If you’re using a cookie sheet, preheating can be good, but don’t put it in until just before you start working with the dough.

Prepare your work space. A nice, flat countertop will work, but my countertops are tile, so I like to use my pastry mat. Spray the surface with nonstick spray and wipe it to a thin layer with a paper towel. A thin coating on your hands is helpful. Then sprinkle about 1/3 cup of flour on your surface and spread it out. The idea is to work with the dough without adding any more flour than necessary – drier dough makes a drier biscuit. By the time you cut the biscuits, the dough should just hold its shape. Keep the flour on hand to add just enough to keep the dough from completely sticking, if necessary.

(That said, if you have nothing else, the inside of a paper grocery bag cut in half down the sides and across the bottom and flattened out works well. But as you can’t spray it, your biscuits will usually end up drier.)

Melt the reserved butter in a small dish.

Turn the dough out onto the prepared surface. The dough should be sticky and somewhat wet. Sprinkle some of the flour on top and begin patting the dough and folding it. It’s important not to overwork the dough. Pat it into a rough rectangle a little larger than 8½ by 11. Fold one side over the center, and then the other – like a letter. Turn the dough over (your may need to redistribute the flour on the surface underneath, and repeat the pat out and fold at least two more times and no more than four.

Finally, turn the dough over and pat it to about 1½ inches thick. Cut the biscuits with a sharp biscuit cutter (I like one about 2½ inches in diameter – the larger the biscuit, the less high it will rise), dipping it in flour before each cut and being careful to never twist the cutter (which “seals” the sides of the biscuits, keeping them from rising well). Sit each biscuit to the side as you cut them. Fold your scraps together well and pat to 1½ inches thick and cut as many more biscuits as you can (I usually just get two more at this stage). Fold the final scraps together well and hand shape the final, “ugly” biscuit.

Carefully take your hot pan out of the oven and place your biscuits in/on the pan. In a skillet, the sides will touch, and you will hear a wonderful sizzle as each biscuit settles in the pan. It’s the sizzle of a wonderfully crisp crust beginning to form.

Brush the top of each biscuit with melted butter.

Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the tops are nicely golden brown.

Carefully lift each biscuit out with a fork and serve hot.

These biscuits don’t actually need butter (but did more butter ever hurt anyone), and they are marvelous straight up. The layers are soft and tender with a wonderful chew, and the crust is a marvel of crispness.

If you want to serve them southern style, you can bury them in sausage gravy, or tuck a nice piece of salty country ham inside (my favorite – especially with a touch of yellow mustard in with the ham) or a piece of good sausage (Jimmy Dean), or even drizzle them with a little honey or real maple syrup. Preserves and jams can be good, but you want those with more real fruit flavor than sugar, and good apple butter is a wonder on them. I enjoyed these with a bit of the Ginger Pear Butter that I call “Spring in a Jar.”

And if you want a distinctly non-Southern after-dinner treat, try a warm biscuit with a touch of Nutella spread inside or a bit of dulce de leche. Biscuits are actually the "shortcake" in strawberry shortcake, as well. I like the regular biscuit - the bit of savory adds depth. But if you like a sweeter shortcake, increase the sugar to 2 or 3 tablespoons, switch to regular (sweet) whole milk or half-and-half (the real thing), leave out the baking soda, and sprinkle sugar on top with the melted butter. (The last time I made strawberry shortcake for a party, I shaped the dough in a 10-inch circle and baked it in my skillet, flipping it when it was well set - about 8 minutes in. It won't rise as high, but I topped it with the slightly smooshed and sugared strawberries and whipped cream and served it on a cake stand, cut into wedges. It worked beautifully.)

It just doesn’t get much better than scratch Southern biscuits.

Monday, September 20, 2010

It’s important to remember…

Ever since the phrase “keeping Southern” occurred to me, I’ve been thinking about what it means. There are all sorts of things keeping Southern involves (many of them pertaining to food – and yes, posts on biscuits and cornbread and grits are coming), but if it’s just about doing stuff, what’s the point?

There’s an obvious analogy to “keeping kosher” here, not just in the parallel construction of the words, but in there being a purpose beyond the stuff you do that makes it meaningful to be doing it. For me, part of that purpose is remembering.

The beauty of Southern food isn’t really in its originality or nuevo-ness. The beauty of southern food is in its familiarity, its ability to invoke memory. After all, scent and taste are two of the most potent memory triggers we humans enjoy. Nuevo Southern cuisine only works when the creativity is undergirded by and infused with familiarity.

Remembering is a tricky thing, though. As both Jews and Southerners can attest, sometimes it means eating bitter herbs. There’s a song I love by Kate Campbell. It’s about the tensions and ambivalence in being Southern:

I was taught by elders wiser
Love your neighbor, love your God
Never saw a cross on fire
Never saw an angry mob
I saw sweet magnolia blossoms
I chased lightening bugs at night
Never dreaming others saw our way of life
In black and white

The chorus concludes: “It’s important to remember – to fly the flag half-mast – and look away.”

The “look away” is ambiguous. It’s what we do with things we don’t want to see or acknowledge. But Campbell is echoing “Dixie,” and in that it’s a looking toward with longing. For me, her song embodies looking to the hard, ugly things without letting go of the beautiful ones. Not letting either one blind us to the other.

I spent Labor Day weekend back in Chattanooga where I grew up, and I was reminded of why I so love that city (truly one of the great cities of the world). It’s a city that has renewed itself by listening to its people – who came up with the crazy idea of a world-class aquarium by remembering the river that started it all. More recently, the city has taken another step in developing the riverfront with The Passage, the largest public installation of Cherokee art in the country.  The Passage remembers the tragedy of the Trail of Tears, marking its beginning at Ross’s Landing in the heart of the city. It was designed by a team of Native American Artists from Oklahoma (where the Trail ended), and its dedication – called “Homecoming” – was attended by Western and Eastern band Cherokee Nation chiefs and representatives. It embraces a past of both beauty and pain, and in doing so, begins to redeem it for a different future.

That gets to the heart of what I mean by keeping Southern. Walking out remembering, not to relive or revive the past, but to redeem it.

A couple of days after I was in Chattanooga visiting The Passage, I was back in Chicago listening to a Native American talk about the immigration debate – “a lot of immigrants trying to decide what to do with more immigrants.” Mark Charles is Navajo who believes that if Native Americans voices and perspectives are not included in the American immigration reform discussion, whatever solutions may be put forward cannot be either “comprehensive” or “just.” It’s not a position about what should be done with immigrants, or reparations, or even being right. It’s a position about respect, and, perhaps most of all, remembering.

Mark has an analogy about how it feels to be a Native American living on a reservation:

[It] feels like I am an old grandmother who owns a very large house. It is a beautiful house with plenty of rooms and comfortable furniture. I am upstairs in my bedroom tired, weak and sick. Meanwhile there is a party going on in my house. It is a large party with plenty of food and drink, games and laughter. People are all throughout the house having a great time. Yet no one ever comes up to my room. No one comes in to say hello and no one stops to acknowledge that the house belongs to me. It is not even that I am sad that I cannot join in on the festivities, or that I would be unwelcome to come out of my room. It is that, no one comes to me. And at times I wonder if they even remember whose house they are in.

There is much to remember – and much that is not pretty. We must not turn away. But if we have the courage to remember, there is beauty to redeem, as well. The Cherokee Four Journey Directions. Magnolia blossoms. Lightening bugs at night.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Hot Dogs with Everything - Just a Different "Everything"

Chicago dogs are great. They really are. But when the heat hits I crave a good and sloppy Southern slaw-and-chili dog. (And don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it!) 

A good pork wiener (hard to find in these days of chicken-filler) tucked into a grilled bun (sorry, Chicago, grilling beats poppy seeds hands-down) alongside mustard and raw onions, with a slop of hotdog chili on top and crowned with creamy cole slaw. Oh yummmm. The best dog diner in Burlington, NC has a “deluxe” version with bacon and Velveeta added. That's the only variation I've liked, and I wouldn't even say it's better than the original. But bacon and Velvetta...those push some good buttons for me.

Now don't get me wrong, I like Chicago-style dogs. No doubt, they're healthier (and who'd've thought you could say that about a Chicago specialty?). My only complaint is that too many places put on so many sport peppers that you can't taste anything else, and the best parts of the classic Chicago dog are everything else - the garlicky all-beef dog, summer ripe tomatoes, crisp dill spear, and sweet-tangy relish, all with the mustard and onions that are a personal must for any dog and that final dash of celery salt. It's great on a hot day, and even has the requisite messy factor.

But I'm just not convinced that even the quirkiness of a dill spear and sweet relish can top chili and slaw.

The whole thing is quite do-able in Chicago except for the chili, which is smooth rather than chunky. My favorite version in the South is Texas Pete’s “Chili Sauce” (which is really just chili, not chili sauce), and after having Mama bring me some when she visits for the past several years, I’ve now found it in both fresh Market and Ultra Foods! So come on Chicago, give the Southern dog a try! (It’s not like I’m asking you to put ketchup on it!)

On a side note, in the old diners in the Carolinas, if you ask for a hamburger “with everything,” you’ll get it topped with mayo, mustard, lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles, chili (same style as on the hotdogs), and slaw. Snappy Lunch in “Mayberry” (Mt. Airy, NC), where Andy Griffith grew up getting lunch, serves their pork chop sandwich the same way. Didn’t anybody ever tell you the best things in life are messy?

Monday, August 9, 2010

My Cornbread Waffled on!

I love it when people write about food in quirky and creative ways. What could be more Southern, when you think about it? After all, we're the people who crumble cornbread into buttermilk and fry chicken gizzards.

So I was delighted a few months ago when I stumbled on Dan Shumski's blog, where he tackles the question, "Will it waffle?" My favorite yes-answer was waffled falafal, not only because it looks delicious but because it's super-fun to say!

After reading a few posts, my imagination was stimulated to golden cornbread waffles piled with pulled pork. Yummmm. I wrote Dan and shared my vision (noting that this was not a cornbread-dream that involved sugar), and he replied that while waffling cornbread seemed like a natural and he wanted to try it, he was intimidated by it.

Well, I think it's a shame for anybody to be intimidated by something so simple and good as cornbread. It's easy to get right, but like most things good, I know it's also easy to get wrong, so I sent Dan my recipe (which is based on my mama's recipe, which was based on her mama's recipe, get the picture). Last week (while I was sitting in Florida basking in the glory of the pristine Gulf and enjoying my uncle's homemade barbecue) Dan concluded that cornbread does waffle very well indeed and posted the results, complete with pulled pork! (He included my recipe and a link - thanks, Dan!) It looks spectacular!

Now I just need to find a well-seasoned cast iron waffle iron.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Top Ten Tools for Keeping Southern - 4. Texas Pete

Thus continues a somewhat regular series in ten parts highlighting some of the basic accoutrements of keeping Southern.

There’s hot sauce, and then there’s Texas Pete.

Hot sauce should be about more than heat. It should be about flavor, and Chicago-land is finally learning that when it comes to flavor, Texas Pete is king. Like Texas itself, the goodness comes from further east* – Texas Pete has been made by the Garner family in Winston-Salem, North Carolina for generations. I am delighted that I no longer need my folks to bring a quart of it when they visit. You can now find it at Ultra Foods, Wal-mart Superstores, and the previously lauded Fresh Market. I even got a cute little sample bottle from a Texas Pete booth at the Taste of Chicago on the Fourth!

Like so much that's good about the South, Texas Pete is about keeping it simple, taking your time, and getting it just right. The ingredients are simple: peppers, vinegar, and salt. But the pepper mash is aged for up to three years, and the result is a delicious balance of flavor and heat that enhances rather than overpowering food. The Garner family still makes Texas Pete on the old homestead on Indiana Avenue (originally named for Garner kin in Indiana). We lived on Marvin Boulevard, just off Indiana Avenue when I was born, and we passed the factory most every day.

It's no surprise I discovered Texas Pete as a baby - there's a bottle on every restaurant table in North Carolina. As Mama tells it, I saw a bottle on the table at a restaurant and wouldn’t stop begging for it. So she finally put a couple of drops on a spoon and gave it to me. (Trust me, that wasn’t cruel – I was just that stubborn.) I promptly grabbed daddy’s glass of iced tea (which I hated until well into adulthood) and downed half of it. I came back up for air panting “More! More!” and have been enjoying Texas Pete ever since.

*Update - Mama corrected my version this weekend and informed me that it was actually Daddy who got tired of my begging and gave me a spoon with "more than a few drops" on it. Bless him! :)

Texas Pete is just plain good. Good in eggs, good in cheese grits, good on about anything. It makes the ultimate buffalo wings (they have a buffalo wing sauce, but for really great wings, go with the original Texas Pete). And I’ve recently learned that the best fried-chicken should be dipped in Texas Pete before being dredged in flour and fried. 

I’ve long thought that there’s not much of anything you can’t manage to eat if you put enough Texas Pete on it. Which means you might just want to take a bottle with you when you go...well, pretty much anywhere. Texas Pete is keeping Southern all over.

* Texas was founded by Tennessee. Sam Houston, Davy Crockett…they call Tennessee “the Volunteer State” because we volunteered to go found Texas, among other things.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Top Ten Tools for Keeping Southern - 3. Duke's Mayonnaise

Thus continues a somewhat regular series in ten parts highlighting some of the basic accoutrements of keeping Southern.

So what can’t you find in Chicago-land?

There’s no time of year keeping Southern doesn’t count, but when Summer’s heat and humidity strike, keeping Southern makes all the difference between misery and finding a way to relish the weather.

I live in an older home without air-conditioning, and there’s nothing like the 90 degree days with humidity climbing to get me craving Southern goodness. So here’s the first of a collection of ingredients I’ve been thrilled (and surprised) to find in Chicago-land.

From potato salad, to coleslaw, to pimento cheese, to BLTs, Southerners swear by Duke’s. Some of us will settle for Hellman’s if we’re forced to (though my grandma sure wouldn’t - she'd literally turn up her nose and sniff at anything but Duke's), but Duke’s wins out, hands down. If it's not homemade, it'd better be Duke's!

Duke’s is the ultimate real mayonnaise – all natural with no sweeteners. And that’s the important difference: no sugar. Don’t get me wrong, we Southerners like our sugar, just not in our mayonnaise (or potato salad or slaw or pimento cheese or BLTs…you get the picture). Great mayonnaise makes it all great. And not-so-great mayo makes it forgettable at best. Some of the best recipes are the simplest, but the ingredients have to be right. Slaw = cabbage, Duke's, cider vinegar, salt and pepper. BLT = whole grain bread, Duke's, quarter inch thick bacon, home-grown tomatoes, and lettuce. And maybe some pepper.  My mama's potato salad is a little more complicated, but not much. Everybody tries to cut corners with the ingredients and then complains that it doesn't taste like hers. Well, duh! When it's good, getting the details right matters, and Duke's is a very important detail.

Like so many of the best things, Duke’s is made in the Carolinas. I was delighted (and a bit stunned) to find it at Fresh Market (a southern gourmet grocery chain that also stocks Thomas Sauce, decent cornmeal, and the only store-made pimento cheese worth buying – no jalapenos, thank you very much). So all you Yankee mayo-lovers out there, go find some Duke's and get a taste for the Cadillac of mayonnaise.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Getting It Right

It's that time of year once again, when Yankees (and far too many Southerners, I'm sad to say) butcher the meaning of the word "barbecue." From Memorial Day to Labor Day, barbecue would have an identity crisis, if Yankees have anything to say about it. But fortunately, members of the barbecue clan have a strong sense of self and aren't afraid to assert their identity, though they still need a little help getting the word out. A couple of gentlemen from North Carolina have written a song to help with that, and bless their hearts, if they haven't gotten it all about as right as rain!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

"Paminna Cheese"

If you grew up in the South, you might have taken a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to school, but it was just as likely to have been a pimento ("paminna") cheese. Pimento cheese sandwiches are to the Masters at Augusta what mint juleps are to the Kentucky Derby and strawberries are to Wimbledon. I love pimento cheese and always have. It got me through braces, when my lunches most often consisted of a thermos of cream soup and a pimento cheese sandwich sans crust and cut into bite-sized pieces that I could squish up in my mouth instead of chewing. (Thanks, Mom!)

I occasionally cook lunch for around thirty co-workers, so when the temperature hit the mid-seventies this week and I was on for lunch, I figured the best way to celebrate Spring was to introduce them (mostly mid-westerners and Yankees, with a couple of Brits) to pimento cheese. I served the sandwiches cut into triangles on a big lunch tray.

It was a hit.

Of course.

Pimento Cheese
(enough for about 10 sandwiches)

8 ounces Colby or Colby Jack cheese, fresh grated (2 cups)
8 ounces sharp Cheddar cheese, fresh grated (2 cups)

(Fresh grating is important. Pre-grated cheese has a little bit of a coating that keeps the consistency from coming together. Plus block cheese is cheaper.)
1 cup mayonnaise (Duke's; but outside the South, Hellman's is best)
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon granulated onion
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 (4-ounce) jar chopped pimientos, undrained
Freshly ground pepper to taste (don't overwhelm it)
Couple of dashes of hot pepper sauce (Texas Pete - we're talking flavor more than heat, here)

Combine mayonnaise, pimentos, lemon juice, mustard, onion, cayenne, Worcestershire sauce, pepper and hot sauce.

Stir sauce into well-mixed grated cheeses, and serve (though I like it better the next day).

Make sandwiches (I like them with pickles, sweet or dill). Top hamburgers. Fill celery. Spread on crackers. Make grilled-pimento-cheese sandwiches (yum!). Bake it in a small casserole until it's bubbly and browning and serve it with corn chips ("Southern Queso"). Get creative. Whatever you do, enjoy!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Let the Alleluias Ring!

It’s Easter-tide now – a season that begins on Easter Sunday and lasts until Pentecost seven weeks later. As Easter has always been my favorite holiday, I was quite happy to learn it actually lasts even longer than the twelve days of Christmas.

The earliest Easters I remember involve a frilly white and yellow dress with petticoats and pinafores and adorable, floppy-eared bunny “pockets,” my daddy in one of those grey and pale blue and tan plaid suits popular in the early seventies, a row of Easter lilies down the side of our house, and the beautiful pastel striped basket that came out every year (with chocolate-covered marshmallow bunnies, of course).

But the strongest memory, reinforced by more years than the yellow dress and daddy and his suit, is of sitting on top of a big grey tombstone in the church yard in the dewy pre-dawn, listening to an old manual pump organ and my mother’s strong, soaring soprano as we all sang out “Up from the grave he arose!” while the sun came up over the tree tops behind the cemetery.

My daddy wasn’t in that cemetery – he was buried at the bottom of a West Virginia hill with three crosses on top of it when I was three. But I knew the names on those tombstones – families whose children were my playmates, whose members were my honorary aunts and uncles. I’d seen coffins lowered into the ground there and in many other cemeteries. So I sang “Up from the grave he arose” imagining one grave bursting open that meant one day all these graves were going to be bursting open.

And you wonder that Easter has always seemed better than Christmas to me!

It wasn’t until a few years ago, when I met a particular group of Anglicans in the western and northern suburbs of Chicago that I found churches that celebrated Easter with the significance it holds in my heart.

Wearing the ashes on Ash Wednesday, those “from dust you were made and to dust you will return” ashes. Ashes that might as well be the dust of Daddy and Grandpa Rich and Grandpa and Grandma Knight and Grandpa Duggins and Grandpa McNeil and Grandpa Ould and Tom and Stacey and Grandma Ould and Grandma Rich and Aunt Robbie and the great-aunts and great-uncles and the host of friends and family who have returned to dust.

On Ash Wednesday we wear the grave on our faces.

We never really know Easter until we’ve touched that death and walked it out in Lent. Until the alleluias have been muted.

The hints of hope are there – each Lenten Sunday there is life on offer. And then on Palm Sunday we face our own duplicity – crying out praises in one moment, hailing our King, and so soon denying we know him, calling for his crucifixion.

It’s about the death that lies before us, but also the death we carry within.

On Spy Wednesday, we face ourselves at our most desperate. The friend who will betray with a kiss.

It is not a pretty thing, the potential that lies within me. We betray each other so easily, without even meaning to.

And in the midst of all that, there is still the new commandment of Maundy Thursday: “Love one another as I have loved you.” And he washed their feet and went out to die.

Maundy Thursday gets me more than anything but Easter itself. The beauty of a community – individuals in relationship with each other – serving each other in the vulnerability of naked feet. Praying for one another without regard for position, for age, for race, for gender, for kinship. A father washing his teenage son’s feet. A mother washing the feet of a daughter too young to understand what it all means. The friend and the stranger. The “prodigal” daughter who returns for just this and is always embraced and made welcome. We break the bread together and drink the wine. And then the agony of the Psalm pierces us, of a single voice:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    and are so far from my cry and from the words of my distress?
O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer;
    by night as well, but I find no rest.    
Yet you are the Holy One,
    enthroned upon the praises of Israel.    
Our forefathers put their trust in you;
    they trusted, and you delivered them.    
They cried out to you and were delivered;
    they trusted in you and were not put to shame.
But as for me, I am a worm and no man,
    scorned by all and despised by the people.
All who see me laugh me to scorn;
    they curl their lips and wag their heads, saying,
"He trusted in the LORD; let him deliver him;
    let him rescue him, if he delights in him."
Yet you are he who took me out of the womb,
    and kept me safe upon my mother's breast.
I have been entrusted to you ever since I was born;
    you were my God when I was still in my mother's womb.
Be not far from me, for trouble is near,
    and there is none to help.

The cross is covered in black. The alter is stripped bare but for the chalice, overturned. All is darkness and silence.

We walk into the shadow of Good Friday—when we taste despair and know that all our darkness, all we despair of in this life, has been known and entered into.

The God of all Glory suffered all agony and went to the grave. And we go with him.

But that was not and is not, for once (and ultimately, for all), the end.

Holy Saturday brings the Great Vigil. We remember all that came before, all that was told us. From the creation of the world to the salvation of life in a boat of wood and a promise in all the colors of the rainbow. From the deliverance out of Egypt to the obedience of Abraham. From “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters,” to “Son of Man, can these bones live?”

And that always brings me right back to Ash Wednesday. To the grave and all the death both in it and walking about above it.

Can these bones live? These bones I’ve lived with, I know are all too dry. Can they again have sinews upon them, and flesh, and skin? And, most of all, can the breath of life fill them?

Can these bones live?

And the answer comes. Finally.


And it seems that all heaven breaks loose. The bells want to be rung forever (and maybe one day they will be!) proclaiming He’s alive! Hope is alive, and yes, even these bones do indeed live. For yes,

Up from the grave he arose;
with a mighty triumph o'er his foes;
he arose a victor from the dark domain,
and he lives forever, with his saints to reign.
He arose! He arose! Hallelujah! Christ arose!

He is risen.
And up from all of our graves shall we too arise.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

St. Patrick’s Day Feasting – a little bit Southern

I am part of a group of friends who meet for dinner every Wednesday. Sometimes we go out, but a lot of the time we pull together some sort of potluck. It’s like having family dinner when your family’s all somewhere else. It’s one way of keeping Southern. Cooking together. Eating together. Laughing together. So when I noticed that the Feast day of St. Patrick would fall on Wednesday this year, it was an excellent excuse for a dinner.

I made my first St. Patrick’s dinner of corned beef and cabbage three years ago, in a March when feasting with friends seemed an especially good idea. Of course, we had to have corned beef and cabbage. But there was a problem. I’d had it before and found it less than feast-worthy, and particularly being Southern, that was a problem.

Typically, corned beef is boiled in water with some seasonings, and the cabbage is added to cook alongside towards the end. Not being all that impressed with boiled cabbage, I decided to give the cabbage the all-out Southern-cooked vegetable treatment. If you don’t know what that is, it involves plenty of butter, onions, salt, and pepper. And there’s no such thing as a “crisp” Southern vegetable.

For the corned beef, I finally came across a recipe that sounded promising. It involved browning the beef and then simmering it in seasoned Guinness. Yep, Irish stout. The first year, I stuck with the recipe and it was good. The second year, I switched out the sweeter spices in the recipe for more traditional pickling spices, and it was better. This year circumstances forced a more dramatic change which turned out to be for the best.

I made two 3.5 lb corned beefs (I plan at least ½ lb of beef per person, as it cooks down as much as 50%), but this method would easily work for one.

I try to pick out a good brand of beef (I haven’t yet chucked out the money to try a top brand), and this year I got flat cut. I did try the cheaper point cut one year, but there’s a lot more fat and it cooks down enough that I’m not sure the savings was worth it. But as all good Southerners know, the flavor is in the fat. Even if you trim the fat off later, it flavors the meat in the cooking. In my best of all world, I could get a whole brisket, which would include both point and flat together.

In my perfect world, I’d have access to a big enough fridge to corn my own brisket. But that’ll have to wait. This year, I got Cook’s, which seems a reliably good brand. Brisket comes from the underbelly, behind the front legs. It’s working muscle, and so requires long, slow, moist cooking to be tender. (My mother raves about corned beef she had in Australia which was a “silverside” cut. Apparently, this is also known as a round streak or bottom round. It’s definitely leaner, and thus would lack some flavor. I’m curious about the differences. I wonder if they cook it differently, too.) Because I’ve made my way into the 8 to 5 world once more, that required creativity to get dinner on the table by 7:00 p.m. I combined two cooking methods.

First, I browned the beef when I got up Wednesday morning (requiring the removal of the battery from the smoke detector) and then placed it fat side up on top of two quartered onions in a Texas-sized crock pot. I added a bottle of Guinness and the seasoning pack that came with the beef (which can be replaced with about 1½ tsp of pickling spice) and cooked it on low 8 hours (I think it might’ve been better with only 6, but I couldn’t get home earlier). When I got home, I took the beef and onions out and threw away the juices (they are very briny). Then I put the beef on a big sheet of aluminum foil in a baking dish fat side down and stuffed the onions along side. I studded the beef with 12 to 15 cloves, spread Coleman’s mustard on top, and sprinkled it with a couple of tablespoons of brown sugar. I meant to put some mustard seed on to, but forgot in the rush to get it done. Then I sealed the whole thing up in the foil and put it in the oven on 350° for another hour.

It actually got a little overdone, because it was falling apart (it should slice neatly across the grain), but it tasted great. And one taste of the fat after all that cooking and I was wondering why we even have dessert. (Hey, I’m Southern.)

With the cabbage, red potatoes boiled with pepper, a wonderful dish of snow peas and leeks brought by a friend, Irish soda bread (which I have yet to get into making myself), cookies and brownies, it was a feast indeed.

Now I’m wondering if I could deep-fry the leftovers.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Little Bit of South Coming Up North

“Chick-fil-A in Chicago? For real?”

What a beautiful headline in the paper last week! Especially since the answer is a pretty secure “Yes!”

For the past five years, when people ask me if I like Chicago (yes) and if there is anything I miss about the South, my answer has most often been that I miss mountains, real barbeque, abundant platters of inexpensive fresh (and fried) seafood, and Chick-fil-a.

You’ll note that three out of the four are food related.

So yes, I’m happy. It was nearly two years ago that I was teased by a friend in Wheaton who knew a real estate agent shopping Chick-fil-a around to find a location there, only to have that prospect delayed, presumably by the economic nosedive. So now to have real locations (in Aurora and Orland Park in 2010 with Wheaton soon to follow) announced in an as official forum as the Chicago Tribune is a bubble of happiness I only hope won’t be punctured again.

But back to the questions of Chicagoans…

The mention of Chick-fil-a tends to elicit moans of deprivation from fellow-devotees of the chicken sandwich that is practically-perfect-in-every-way. From others, it brings the question, “What’s the big deal with Chick-fil-a? It’s just chicken sandwiches, right?”

That’s like saying Wrigley Field is “just” a baseball stadium.

Yes, Chick-fil-a is more than a chicken sandwich. It’s actually more than one sandwich, including a grilled option. (I have a friend who absolutely loves their chicken salad sandwich.) And that’s not to mention Chick-n-strips and nuggets. It’s also yummy waffle fries, some of the best milkshakes out there, and the best fresh lemonade ever.

But it really is all about the chicken sandwich.

A simple bun, two dill pickle slices, and the best fried chicken breast ever. That’s it. You can add mayo, but it doesn’t need it. It’s perfect the way it is, and it’s actually healthy! (The original chicken sandwich comes in at 430 calories and 17 grams of fat.) Chick-fil-a knows what they’re doing. The keep it simple and do it best. They’re friendly and generous, and they have a great sense of humor. They’re keeping Southern, if ever a fast food chain has!

As far as fast food is concerned, Chick-fil-a is in a league of its own. The cows know it. So will Chicago soon.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Top Ten Tools for Keeping Southern - 2. Butter

Thus continues a somewhat regular series in ten parts highlighting some of the basic accoutrements of keeping Southern.

I can’t believe you can’t believe it’s not butter.


There’s no point in even trying to approach keeping Southern without butter. Try eating a saltine spread with butter and then one with margarine, and I don’t care what the talking Parkay bowl said, you are not going to mistake the two. There is a fortune being made on products that pretend to replace butter, but none of them even comes close. They aren’t even healthier, for the most part!

I make biscuits and pie crust with butter (Crisco is made from cotton plants and a combination of butter and lard makes a much better pie crust). I put it in vegetables. Pasta or rice with butter and salt is nearly as good as desert. I cook all my eggs in it. 
Mama used to fix me a “butter-poached” egg for a treat when I was little – you melt a tablespoon or so of butter in a smallish skillet, and then break an egg into one side. Tilt the pan so that the egg is not over the heat but the side where the butter pools is, and spoon the hot butter over the egg until it cooks it with the yellow still runny. Then slide the whole thing over a piece of whole grain toast, sprinkle on some salt, and relish the deliciousness. When I make it now, I add a little fresh parmesan if I have some around. Oh, yum. (Now I’m hungry.)

Startlingly enough, this is one part of keeping Southern that’s actually easier up north. Restaurants up here always serve real butter, whereas back home if you ask for butter with your bread, you’re apt to be brought packets of the artificial stuff. My folks, who don’t eat margarine, often encounter confused looks from servers in the South when they tell them that what they brought is not actually butter. I’ve seen them resort to instructing them to go ask the cooks to give them some real butter, and the server comes back with a slab of butter on a saucer, looking amazed to discover that there is such a thing in their restaurant.

The confusion still reigns outside restaurants in the north, though, and I always feel awful when I ask someone to bring butter and they come back with some form of margarine. But there is a difference. And while I’m giving away one of my “secrets” here, it’s just better with butter. Even a box of brownie mix can go from ordinary to mysteriously rich and delicious if the oil is replaced with melted butter. Every smidge of flavor from simple ingredients matters.

The great thing about Chicago is that, with a significant portion of the population retaining genetic European memories, you can get European, high butter-fat butters fairly easily. Some of the most expensive is Irish butter, but oh yum. Even better than that to me, though, is finding a Wisconsin dairy outlet with fresh butter. Great butter here can go well beyond Land O’Lakes (the best of the grocery store brands).

And if you’ve largely forsaken butter because it’s too hard to spread on your toast and the like, you may be happy to learn that there is actually no need to refrigerate butter! Butter does need to be protected, but the fridge isn’t necessary – a Butter Bell does the job nicely. (Another item on my wish list.) So go ahead! Dig in, scrape on, drizzle over - savor the goodness of butter.

I’m proud to say it – I ♥ butter!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Chicken Fried Chicken

The name really does make sense. Really! It does!

It’s Chicken Fried Steak made with chicken breast instead of steak, and while the steak is sometimes called Country Fried Steak, Country Fried Chicken is a common name for regular fried chicken. Thus we get to revel in the delightful redundancy of Chicken Fried Chicken.

I am new to deep frying. But back South, I had all the access to deep fried deliciousness I could want without doing the work myself. It’s different up here. I mean, they fry things, but not necessarily the same things and not necessarily the same way. I grew up watching Grandma fry chicken on a regular basis. (A favorite family story involves the first time Grandpa brought home a turkey. Grandma had never cooked one and decided to treat it pretty much like a big old rooster. She boiled it, floured the pieces, and fried it. For the rest of her life, she never cared much for turkey unless it was fried.) Fried Chicken was a not uncommon treat, but I always loved chicken even more when I didn’t have to mess with the bones (boneless wings are brilliant!).

So when my friend, Chris, decided to move to Orlando, and some of us were considering what might be a good meal to send him off with, I thought there couldn’t be a better time to try making the Chicken Fried Chicken which happens to be his favorite. I did some research and concluded that three thing (maybe four) are critical: double dipping the coating, buttermilk, lard or peanut oil, and lots of salt and pepper. So here’s the recipe:

Chicken Fried Chicken for 8

  • 8 (6-ounce) skinned boned chicken breasts, flattened to ¼ inch thickness
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, plus
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus
  • 2 sleeves of saltine crackers, crushed
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, divided
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne (half if you want to lower the kick)
  • 2  large eggs
  • 2  teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2  cups buttermilk
  • Lard (or Peanut oil, if you must)

-Sprinkle the chicken pieces liberally with salt and pepper.
-Combine the cracker crumbs, flour, measured salt and pepper, and cayenne.
-Beat the eggs, adding the baking powder and baking soda before blending in the buttermilk. (It will be foamy.)
-Put the flour mixture in one shallow dish, and the buttermilk mixture in a wide bowl.
-Heat the lard or oil in a cast iron dutch oven or deep skillet to 375 degrees. (This is important! When the grease is hot enough, the moisture in the cooking chicken expands and keeps it from soaking up the grease. And lard just tastes better. Shortening is awful stuff, and the lard is not going to hurt you once in a while if you generally eat healthy.)
-Dredge the chicken in the flour mixture, then the buttermilk, then the flour again, and fry it, 7-10 minutes on one side. Turn it and fry it for 4-5 minutes more. I fried 2 to 3 pieces at a time, depending on their size. It should be golden brown. It's helpful to have a cooling wrack on a cookie sheet in a 200 degree oven to keep it warm.

Then you make the gravy, which I never use a recipe for. Say, 3 to 4 tbsp of the frying grease or butter, 5-6 tablespoons of flour. Brown well, then stir in 4 cups of whole milk a cup or two at a time until it all thickens up. 1 ½ tsp of salt or so and a bunch of black pepper (to taste – Chris said enough pepper so that when you eat the first bite of gravy it makes you cough, I think it was).

And you can’t have Chicken Fried Chicken without the gravy. And mashed potatoes. Corn and green beens are pretty important, too.  

It turned out marvelously well, if I do say so. And it was a fitting send off for a friend who likes his meat fried and boneless!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Southern Snow-Frenzy

Most of you will be aware that the Southeast (which is what I'm refering to when I say "the South" - yes, Texas is geographically south, but I only really include it as the red-headed step-child of Tennessee, which founded it) got whollopped with winter this past weekend. My cousin, Lisa, called me Friday to let me know they were expecting 15 inches of snow in central North Carolina. (Uncle Don, who has been known to drive two to three hours to find snow, is ecstatic, I'm sure.)

The mysterious thing about snow in the South is its connection with white food. Snow sends Southerners into a somewhat bizarre (and hilarious) frenzy over bread and milk. And to a somewhat lesser extent, eggs. If the lightest of flurries are in the forecast and you haven't already gotten to the grocery store, you're out of luck. The bread and milk will be gone. Weather men and women must stop on the way to work or call their spouses to give them a head's up before they go on the air. Whoever it is that is getting there first, this phenomenom has been around longer than I have. Snow = we need white food staples!!!!!

I've often wondered what happens to all that bread, milk, and eggs. I can't imagine that there's too much craving for cereal in the cold. I'd like to think about all those kids snowed in at home instead of going to school stuffing themselves with a hot brunch of french toast before they go out to plow through the yard. The milk is necessary for that treat, Snow Cream, and some people put eggs in it (which I suppose would make it Snow Custard). But mostly, I think people are probably sitting there trying to figure out what to do with the extra gallons of milk before they spoil and feeding stale bread to the birds out in the snow. Eggs, as most Southerners know, don't really go bad.

Friday, when Lisa called, she was chuckling. She'd just come home from the store, where she'd gone to get some medicine and cheese for her husband Nathan who was sick and apparently develops his own craving for grilled cheese sandwiches when snow is in the forecast. She'd gone to the dairy section to get the cheese and laughed all the way home because the canned biscuits were gone. One more white food fallen to Southern snow-frenzy.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Chick-fil-a, Krispy Kreme, and Sunshine

I arrived in Phoenix for a work meeting (and a couple of days with family here) and was quite happy to be greeted by this sign:

So I enjoyed Chicken Minis and a hot Krispy Kreme for breakfast this morning. It was loverly! And I must admit, it is one way in which the whole franchise-driven suburb phenomena doesn't seem quite all bad. When a regional specialty can be reliably exported, a bit of home can follow (or precede) me. Krispy Kremes were invented just a few miles from where I was born in North Carolina, and Chick-fil-a has its roots in Georgia. Both are now somewhat common across the country (though not in Chicago), but they've kept their Southern values. They've kept Southern. They do something simply realy, really well, and I've been quite happy to find a bit of the South in Arizona.

That, and the sun.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Top Ten Tools for Keeping Southern - 1. A Big Table

Thus begins a somewhat regular series in ten parts highlighting some of the basic accoutrements of keeping Southern.

The table pictured is a little over the top to be ideal, but at minimum, the table should be big enough to seat twelve – and fourteen to sixteen if you’re squishing. I don’t have such a table, but I am fortunate to have a dining room big enough to hold one. So I currently make do by pushing together two tables – one of them my roommate’s and one of them borrowed – that completely don’t match. With that configuration we can seat twelve (and more if we’re squishing). My previous roommate had a nearly ideal table – one that would seat six with slide-under leaves on either end that doubled its length. But that table moved on into married life with her and is now blessing their home with its lovely versatility.

The ideal table has leaves so that a cozy dinner of two or four is not overwhelmed, but extends to embrace a dozen. It’s not a table you fold away in the garage or basement – that table’s an exception. It is a table that makes a space for family and friends every day. It’s also a solid, pedestal table, so that more can be squeezed in without concern for knocking knees with table legs. It’s solid wood, but made so that bangs and spills don’t so much damage it as give it the warm patina of enthusiastic and welcome use. No one should have a moment’s nervousness sitting down to this table. I remember a table I saw in a store once years ago – it looked like it had come out of a medieval monastery or working castle. Not fancy, but solid and well-used.

And that’s the important thing about the big table – how you use it. I am rarely happier than when my table is filled with too many friends, too much food, and too much laughter, because I really don’t think there’s any such thing as too much of any of those things. A big table should be like an open door – always ready to welcome. One of my pastors in North Carolina had a big table like that. Actually he had two – the second one took up one side of their huge front porch. When it was time for dinner, anyone who happened to be around was welcome. Keeping Southern is knowing how to extend that welcome. It doesn’t have to be fancy – maybe no more than a big pot of beans and a cake of cornbread, but it’s as warm and good as friends together. As a smile in the eyes that says I’m glad to be here with you right now enjoying this moment.

Maybe you don’t have a big table (or even two smaller ones you can push together), but you can pretend. The spirit can precede the table.

Note - Closely associated to the big table is the big pot. I mean a really big pot. The kind you can make Brunswick stew for thirty in. I don’t have a pot like that. I have a friend with a pot like that, but he’s moving it to Orlando. I have pot-envy.