Thus continues a somewhat regular series in ten parts highlighting some of the basic accoutrements of keeping Southern.
I remember watching a chef who was cooking for a segment of some morning show several years ago. As they’re cooking, the host randomly asked him why what she cooked at home just never seemed to taste as good as what she ate in restaurants. Without even a pause, he answered, “You don’t add enough salt!”
It made me chuckle, because it was immediately clear that there was no way she was Southern.
There’s a “holy trinity” in Southern cooking, and after we ask Jesus to bless the food, the next thing you’ll hear is “Pass the salt!”
Salt, sugar, and pepper are the foundation for seasoning Southern food, and it’s the trick for making pretty near anyone like your vegetables. (That, and butter, but we already covered it.)
I learned about salt from one of my grandmothers, who I swear could go through a shaker of it in a week. When a diagnosis of congestive heart failure had the doctor putting her on a low sodium diet for a couple of weeks, she figured she’d just starve. (I did actually get her to eat and like it, but if I remember, it involved lots of lemon juice and pepper.)
I prefer sea salt, and it’s great to have both fine salt and course on hand, as the concentrated crunch of course, kosher salt is perfect for many dishes. I’ve become quite fond of my grinder of pink Himalayan salt that lets me adjust the grind from Trader Joe’s.
I learned about sugar (it’s not just for desert anymore!) from a wonderful black cook at the small college I used to work for in North Carolina. I went through the cafeteria line for lunch one day and got a bowl of ordinary looking black-eyed peas that ended up being one of the most amazing things I’ve ever eaten. Oh, my land, those were good! I’ve always loved black-eyed peas, but those were something special, so I asked who’d fixed them and then cornered her.
“How in the world did you make those black-eyes so good?!?”
“Well, I just fixed ‘em normal.”
“Really? So what did you do?
“Well, I soaked ‘em for a couple of days, and then I put some ham in and cooked ‘em all morning.”
“ You didn’t put anything but ham in?” (Not that ham isn’t a wonderful thing to put in, but that wasn’t what had made those peas special.)
“No. Nothing but salt and sugar, like I always do.”
“Salt and SUGAR?! How much sugar?”
“Well, enough so it’s right.”
“Hmm. So how do I know how much is right?”
“Just put the salt in your hand and mix in a little sugar, and taste it. Add enough so it tastes balanced.”
“Ah!!!! THANK YOU!”
And that little trick has made me a legend in one family I used to babysit for, where the boys will only eat “Jennifer’s” green beans.
It actually makes a lot of sense for vegetables, which have natural sugars which begin to deteriorate from the moment they are picked. Adding a touch of sugar is just adding the taste of freshness. It makes their natural flavor pop – especially beans. This is a great trick for any dried beans or peas, green beans, and corn. I use plain old cane sugar, but I also like the raw sugars and agave nectar in savory dishes. (Brown sugars are another animal altogether.)
And pepper. What Southern savory dish isn’t better freckled with black pepper? One friend described the appropriate amount of pepper in gravy by saying it should be enough “that the first bite makes you cough.” But pepper’s necessary for a lot more than gravy. Potatoes boiled in peppered water are always better. It’s as vital to grits as salt. And there’s no better way to cook cabbage than to sauté it in butter with a boatload of yellow onions and enough pepper to make you cough. The same goes for yellow squash. Fried chicken. Bacon. Burgers. It’s all better with pepper. Fresh ground is best on the table, bet unless you've got a fancy electric grinder, it just takes too long for a lot of cooking. I keep a container of ground pepper by the stove (it stays fresher with a lid).
If you’re looking for a shortcut to Southern cooking, mix 3 parts salt, 3 parts sugar, and 1 part pepper and keep it in a shaker near your stove. It’s a start. Or better yet, add 1 part garlic powder, too.
Cooking up Southern goodness isn’t so hard. Just be sure not to serve a vegetable “crisp” unless it’s a cucumber (which is terrific, by the way, with a generous sprinkling of pepper).