Thursday, February 11, 2010

Coddle Me with Brisket

Warning: this post is only sort of about Southern food. I'll try to talk you into believing it is a little later, but really, it's not. It might be more about the urge to mother by braising.

Last Friday I cooked a 3-lb. brisket. It was an irrational act--my husband doesn't eat red meat and both of my kids together can hardly polish off a burger. But it was taking up space in my freezer, and--as the weather's been by turns blizzardy and slushy--calling my name. There are times when a brisket whispers more seductively to me than even a lamb chop.

Once you take any meat out of the freezer, there's no turning back without sacrificing texture and probably flavor. Sometimes I back myself into a corner--I stare into that frosty chaos, grab a hunk of something, and realize a few days later that I have no plan for this flesh and fat time-bomb.  This almost happened with the brisket. I ended up cooking it for no meal in particular.

But that's the beauty of a brisket. You don't really want to eat it the day you make it. If you braise it, which you probably should, it'll taste better a couple days after it's been cooked, rested and sliced, then bathed in its liquid. Then you have lovely, rich, deep flavor and what I can only call falling-aparty texture.  And you have food security for days of snowy, blowy, sniffly winter.

The flavor can be ascribed in part to the beef's origin--and here I don't have to cheat on Southern-ness.  Jackson, Tennessee's Donnell Century Farm has been selling its beef down at the MFM for a couple years now, but it took me a while to try it.  As a Yankee, I don't pull the "slap your mama" cliche out casually--in fact, I think I've never used it--but this intensity of flavor is what that expression was coined for.  (Thank God none of my kids slapped me after eating it.)

There's the question of seasoning and moisture, which I'll get to in a moment, but for texture, the most important factor is heat. Slow and low, as the Beastie Boys once crooned, and Harold McGee will back me up. The most important thing I've learned from his magisterial (yes! I get to use that word! from Latin for teacher, magister) On Food and Cooking is that I can braise a piece of pork butt or lamb shoulder or brisket or any other tough cut all day long if I keep the oven temperature down around 200 degrees, raising the temp only in the last hour or so to bring the meat's temperature up to 180, at which where the collagen and gelatin dissolve. Meat cooked this way retains some attractive myoglobin redness (and its flavor), but is not technically "rare" at all.

As for seasoning, here's where I'll make a pathetic claim to some kind of Southern-ness.  My younger son was born in Ethiopia, and I've become a big fan of the food of East Africa and especially of Marccus Samuelsson's cookbooks. I now keep on hand a little jar of spiced butter and another of berbere, the spice blend whose aroma permeated my clothing while we were in Addis Ababa picking Solly up. Samuelsson is the guy who catered the now-infamous but indisputably glamorous state dinner for PM Singh of India, serving a thrilling menu that dared to merge the cuisine of the African-American South with that of the Indian subcontinent.  I say "dared" because that was the reaction--"no one cooks Indian for Indian visitors!"--but in fact, Samuelsson was doing what he does best.  Ethiopian food reflects the influences of the near East and Mediterranean as much as its continental neighbors.

So maybe it is Southern to rub berbere on my brisket (that my Syrian-Jewish husband can't eat but maybe should), braise the daylights out of it, then serve the leftovers a few days later over egg noodles to my Ethiopian son.  After all, even Memphis now has the feel of a culinary crossroads.  Whatever it was, it sure was comforting. Solly, sick with a cold, needed a little cozy food.

Even Mom needs a little coddling sometimes, too.  For tomorrow's lunch, I'm scheming a Southern twist on the latest Bon Appetit cover to use up the last couple of slices: a brisket and mustard greens grilled cheese sandwich.

So here's the dish on the brisket.  Basing my plan partially on the technique for Oven Brisket in Edna Lewis's The Taste of Country Cooking, I cut a 3 lb. slab off the big piece I bought at the market (saving the rest for special ground beef a la Thomas Keller, but that's another post).  This was basically what would fit in my Dutch oven.  I rubbed kosher salt, pepper, and berbere (here's a recipe that'll work, though mine's from The Soul of a New Cuisine) and let it sit for an hour while I sliced a couple of onions and messed around with my kids.  I cooked the onions in a covered pan till they were really soft in nit'r qibe, basically spiced ghee.  When they were good and shloopy, I scooped them out and wiped the pot, then browned the brisket in more spiced butter.  Or maybe I did it the other way 'round.  And I think I added some chopped garlic and parsley toward the end.

Anyway, after you've got some soft onions and browned beef, put it all in the Dutch oven with beef broth about halfway up the beef.  Put it in the oven with the lid on ajar, then turn it to 200 and walk away.  Go out, walk the dog.  Check it a couple hours later, and raise the temp to 250.  McGee suggests checking it for fork-tenderness every half-hour or so after that.  I'm pretty sure that's what I did, but really, it's hard to mess this up.  When it seems good and done, let it cool, uncovered, in the braising liquid.  (I left it out overnight.  Don't tell.)  Skim off the fat, then take it out and slice it.  Puree the cooking liquid and put it all back together, maybe in a smaller pan.  Cover and don't even look at it till a day or two later.  Then warm it up and serve it with mashed potatoes and broccolini or whatever seems good to you.

It'll be good for several days, so you can have your way with it.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Velvet Revelation

I don't usually recommend preparing foods that require an entire fluid ounce of red dye to achieve their ideal expression, but there's got to be a first time for everything. The confluence of my younger son's 2nd birthday, a looming deadline for a Valentine's-Day themed column, and ownership of several pounds of cream cheese from Costco got me thinking--not always a good thing--and I thought my way right into Red Velvet Cake.

On the way, my friends, I paused to produce either a masterpiece or an abomination, depending on your point of view. Under pressure from 6-year-old Gus and my editor at Memphis Parent, I made a heart-shaped "Strawberry Cheesecake". This fluffy confection derived its structure from the colloidal action of Strawberry Jell-O and the lifting power of whipped cream. A bit of cream cheese provided tang to counterbalance the intense sweetness of the Jell-O powder, and--thank God--the recipe called for real strawberries so I didn't have to visit a therapist or confessional after serving it.

However, the Valentine Cake was just a diversion. Once I got it in my head to make Red Velvet Cake, I would not be denied. Forget that everyone else wanted a super fudgy-wudgy chocolate cake. I felt that my authenticity as a writer on foods Southern was at stake.  I'd never heard of Red Velvet before coming to live in Memphis. Down here, every restaurant seems to have a version. So it's a Southern thing, right?

Wrong. Or right. Or both? The dessert first became famous on the menu at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in the 1920s, but it's likely that its origins were Southern. The story of its spread into American cookery is confused by an urban myth involving the costly purchase of its recipe and its subsequent dispersal by an angry lady-who-lunched.

Though most contemporary recipes call for red dye (up to 2 oz. per cake!) or beets, the cake's deep blush is akin to the ruddy brown of a Devil's Food Cake.  Both get their hue from anthocyanin, a pigment in cocoa that reddens on reacting with the acid in buttermilk.  Red Velvet Cake may have been invented by economizing bakers or chefs disappointed by the pallid results produced by Dutch-process cocoa. Or maybe someone just loved the look of blood-red cake under cream cheese-white icing.

There's lots to love.  The flavor is chocolatesque, with just enough of cocoa's warmth to be comforting.  The version I made, from my beloved Lee Brothers, includes plenty of vanilla and some grated orange peel, yielding an elusive complexity that's simultaneously grown-up and coddling. (I was skeptical about the orange peel, fearing bitterness and oversophistication. I needn't have worried.)  Some recipes suggest buttercream or even white roux frosting for this cake, but I think you'd be crackers to use anything but cream cheese. Maybe that's not authentically Southern--the U.S.'s first cream cheese was produced in New York--but I don't care.

I had to sacrifice the glamor of a layer cake, with its sexy reveal of flesh-crimson upon the breach of pristine icing, since I was baking for a toddler's birthday.  Not that I feared the cake's sensuality (what kind of 2-year-old do you think I'm raising?).  But cupcakes are so much easier for kids to handle than giant slices of cake, and they result in a slightly lower level of post-dessert mania. (They're also just right with a cup of coffee.)

As a responsible parent and food writer, I should disclose at this point that artificial food coloring has been linked to hyperactive behavior in children. This is a treat, not a staple.  So maybe next time I'll make it with the beets.  Between the cheez-cake and the Red Velvet, I've now taken in several drams of red dye and I can hear my DNA reshuffling like a deck of cards.  No matter.  I'm open to the onward march of evolution. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Sweetest Hangover

Monday Morning Coming Down
I just ate lunch.  Not exactly breaking news, but in the glutted days after Thanksgiving, lunch takes on a halcyon character: a turkey sandwich here, a nibble of stuffing there. (By the way, down here in Dixie they call it dressing and often make it from cornbread. I will never do either.) Delight, already cooked, greets me every time I open the fridge.

In fact, today's lunch included turkey liver pate, not on the Thanksgiving menu but a by-product thanks to the fact that our West Wind Farms turkey came with gloriously intact, fresh giblets. (Sounds a little naughty, no? Well, I guess this is food porn.) I used a recipe for chicken live pate from the yellow Gourmet cookbook, but tarted it up with cream and extra soft butter worked in at the end to compensate for the fact that the free-range bird's liver isn't as rich as those coddled chickens'. I subbed some of my husband's high-end bourbon for the indicated cognac. A salutary shift, may I say, and harmless as it cooks off.

Remember my ugly pears? A few of them, transparent with sugar, top my upscale offal. Edna Lewis, in The Taste of Country Cooking, praises the "meaty texture" of these preserves. She's right.  I can't eat Kiefers raw, but the alchemy of heat and sugar turn their grainy, unyielding flesh into a toothsome bit of caramel and a perfect foil for gobbler foie. The nutty sweetness also brings out the best in softy, rindy cheeses.

After I munched 6 or so of these morsels, I remembered my roasted cranberry-apple chutney, a riff on this epicurious recipe, but minus the butter and o.j. and plus clementine sections and crystallized ginger. I also subbed shallots for the onion. I don't know which I loved more desperately atop my pate, but I might have to do it all again tomorrow.

Swee'potatoes 3 Ways

Our good friends the Murphys hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for 12 adults and 8 kids. We brought the aforementioned cran chutney and turkey, Shoaf's Loaf rolls, mixed braised greens, 2 pans of sweet potatoes, and pie.

Not any pie--sweet potato pie, tart with buttermilk, airy with egg whites. Actually, I made 2 pies, the first of whose crust was flaky and rich with lard that I rendered from a pork shoulder I roasted a couple weeks ago.

 Delicious (both the pork and the piecrust), but I was so excited by this fatstravaganza that I spaced out and worked 4 oz. instead of 4T. lard into my dough. I think the technical term for the resulting structural failure is pastry slump. Fortunately, I had enough batter to fill this piecrust to about tart depth, and kept it home so I'd be sure to have enough for breakfast on Friday morning. I think this is about as close to making a fried pie as I may ever get.

I made my recovery piecrust with half butter and half Spectrum shortening. Perfectly good, and didn't put me in that morally questionable position of bringing a pork-fat pie to a dinner attended by many who eschew the eating of furry beasts.

Yam I Ain't

About those other sweet potatoes. I said 3 ways, didn't I? The pie is #1.  The other 2, though traditional, are startlingly delicious, smooth, and rich.  Instead of steaming the sweets as for pie, I roasted them till they swooned, then force them through a strainer. (This took forever and I don't recommend it if you have an alternative. My food mill is in storage, and I'm a little nuts.)

Both preparations are luxe with butter and cream. I deepened the flavor of the traditionally tinted orange sweets with maple syrup and topped them with butter-fried sage leaves. Comforting and kid-friendly. The surprise hit, though, was the chipotle-infused purples. Because of all their berry-colored antioxidants, the tubers have a winey flavor that melded seductively with the smoky adobo sweetness of the peppers. There were finger tracks in the baking dish, and no leftovers.  

These odd-looking tubers have a fascinating history.  Sweet potatoes originated in the Caribbean and Central America and remain primarily a food of the American South. However, the purple sweets I found at Whole Foods are descendants of  a variety that traveled with Columbus to Spain. From there, other explorers launched them on an itinerary leading to the Philippines, China, then Japan, where the purple variety emerged. Early Japanese immigrants brought it to Hawaii, and now they're grown in North Carolina for sale in southeastern markets.  Whew! I guess that means they've almost circumnavigated the globe.

Sweet potatoes, by the way, are neither yam nor potato, but a usually orange relative of the morning glory. True yams, on the other hand, are white to pinkish-purple starchy tubers from the Old World that can be as big and shapely as a Folies Bergère dancer's thigh.

Soup for Nuts

A steady stream of emails last week from foodie sites conveys the anxiety--and possibility--that clings to a spent turkey carcass as surely as pie-pounds cling to my carcass. Some ideas are better than others. Turkey tacos, okay. Turkey-pear Stilton pie made with prefab crust? maybe, but if it involves buying stuff I don't already have around, maybe not.

Something easy and traditional appeals to me, so I simmered bones, carrots, celery, onions and garlic all afternoon and into the evening, then used the jiggling stock to make a rich, dark tortilla soup from the Lee Bros. cookbook. I hope you made stock too, and will treat yourself to a much-deserved bowl of something soothing in the holiday-hectic weeks to come.

Talk to Me
What did you do with your leftovers?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Fall Ephemera

A Lengthy Cooldown 
Here in the Mid-South, fall lasts forever.  It's not like Chicago, my last perch, where the shoulder seasons--spring and fall--are technicolor blips on the way from the pure steel gray of winter to the deep somnolent green of summer. A Memphis autumn is a long slow slide from crippling heat through endless rain to crisp days that remind me of New England but never lead to snow. In fact, down here, the transitional seasons dominate.  Winter is a brief pause on the way back to summer.

What this means for us eaters is that fruits and vegetables that make brief appearances up north linger into October here.  Take the tomato.  Some growers I know pull up their plants and hang them in the cellar, where the fruits ripen well into the fall. Others take their chances with the frost, betting that the midday sun will make it worth their while.

Highly Perishable

A couple of weeks ago I bought a small bagful of the season's last tomatoes from the Dodsons. Our growers didn't suffer the curse of blights that Northeasterners did this past summer, but constant rain and uncommonly cool weather left our tomatoes mealy and flavorless.  There were exceptions, of course, and recent warm weather brought out the best in Thomas Dodson's small heirlooms. Olive oil and a few generous pinches of salt concentrated the flavor for a savory lunchtime salad.  The leftovers did not keep well, though. Wish I'd eaten them all right away.

Give Beets a Chance
And now, a digression from strictly local fare. I haven't gone completely off the beam--the green stuff on my plate is arugula from Gracious Gardens' Tim Smith, aka "The Arugula Guy" (though wouldn't it be more fun if we called him Rocket Man?).  I bought it at the winter market next to Tsunami on Saturday (that's where you'll find the Dodsons, too).  But I confess that the rest of my salad's ingredients hail from the produce aisle of our local Whole Foods.  And the star?

Sturdy yet brilliant, reviled yet unbeeten.

Don't worry, only a few more beet puns before I move on.  But take in their day-glo glamour. Why is the beet the butt of every extended yucky-food joke? I blame cafeterias and salad bars that serve beets that taste of can lining. But roast a beet yourself, then marinate it in sherry vinegar and shallots, and you have an earthy, piquant foil for smoked fish and peppery greens.  How frisky does that salad look?

Panicked by a recent editorial about the desperate state of the eastern Atlantic & Mediterranean bluefin tuna fishery, but craving smoked fish, I bought some smoked mackerel instead of trout, which is usually farmed and so less delicious, or salmon, which is hard to keep up with in terms of which fisheries are endangered.  Mackerel, along with their smaller cousins the sardines and anchovies, appear at least now to be numerous and healthful.  More importantly for us, they are absolutely transcendent with beets and arugula. Beets me why more people aren't snarfing down this combo every chance they get.

Sorry. Can't beet 'em, join 'em.

Falling into Grace 
And now my beet moment has passed. Come November, I'm looking for comfort and creaminess and orangey-colored foods.  I'm back at my stove, pan-roasting chickens and braising greens, thanking my oven for its warmth against my knees.

I've started taking delivery of pastured chickens from Downing Hollow Farm every couple of weeks.  The birds are bosomy and firm--none of that spongy stuff you get from industrial fowl. For a recent supper I cut one up and browned the parts. After sauteeing shallots, ginger and garlic, I deglazed the pan with a good splash of sherry vinegar and chicken broth. Buttermilk-mashed sweet potatoes and creamed spinach round out the plate.  Best thing?  I made the buttermilk.

I'd gone mad chasing around town for the real thing.  Recently Whole Foods started carrying products from East Tennessee's Hatcher Family Dairy, and their buttermilk is quite good, free of carageenan and the other thickeners that even respectable organic cooperatives like Organic Valley add to theirs.  But they were out.  I raced over to Easy-Way, which used to stock the buttermilk in glass bottles from Rock Springs Dairy. Nuthin'.

So I got to work. 

As If By Magic

I love microbes. Because one day I had a half-cup of month-old buttermilk in my fridge, and the next I had 2 cups of delicious, useful, fresh-tasting cultured dairy goodness on my counter.  Or coyly peeking from behind a curtain.

How did I do this?  I googled "buttermilk how to make" et voila.  You mix buttermilk and fresh milk in a 1:3 or 4 ratio and leave it out for a day.  Yes!  Leave it out!  It's crazy, but it works! And the taste is fresh and, well, alive. I'll get into the science of it another time, if you like.

This buttermilk gave tang to my sweet potatoes and body to my creamed spinach.  I also tested Marion Cunningham's recipe for Buttermilk Baked Eggs from The Breakfast Book.  Sounded tasty, but not so much. (Otherwise, the book's a winner.)  Basically, it's Egg in the Basket (which my mom called Pig-in-a-Poke) with buttermilk poured over it, baked for a bit.  Better with nutmeg and thyme mixed in and some cheese on top, but not a keeper.  However, the buttermilk is.
A blog lives through its readers, so talk to me.
Have you tried making cultured dairy products at home?  Cheese, yogurt, creme fraiche?  What, why, how?

And what's your position on beets?  Do you have any entry-level recommendations for beet newbies?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Hell House: the Unappetizing Edition

I really want you to continue reading my blog, so today’s post is a bit of a risk.  But I’m betting that all 8 of you out there are going to hang in there with me.  We can get through this together.

This fall, I’m taking a journalism class that’s got me writing all kinds of stuff that’s out of my comfort zone.  Add a husband who’s carrying on like a traveling salesman—no, not that way! he’s just out of town a lot this month for work—and I’m not cooking as often as usual, nor as successfully.  I'm still shopping down at the farmers markets (this week's pretty much the end of the season), but I've got Kiefer pears piled up waiting for canning and starting to rot.  (They're ugly but they cook up beautifully; Edna Lewis has great ideas for canning and poaching them in The Taste of Country Cooking.)  And I also brought home pork shanks and great drifts of mustard and turnip greens to braise and freeze.

It’s got to be good to know that food fanantics like me fail, right?  So, for this post—a tale of woe.  Call it the ghoulish Halloween edition, featuring rank, overcooked greens and handheld videos of braising pork shanks.  Because—oh yes, didn’t I tell you?—even my camera copped out on on me, so the only visuals I’m offering up are—gasp—videos, or snapshots from videos.


This is a full account of what happens when I try to cook full-tilt without the spouse in the house to throw his body between our offspring and the kitchen portal.  It’s not pretty—or tasty.

The ugly thing about this story is that one of the things I do when I’m not blogging my little heart out is write a column for Memphis Parent Magazine in which I promote the fiction that working stiffs can make healthy, delicious, homemade meals that the kids will greedily lap up.  That after these meals, they will beam at their parents, their expressions of dewy gratitude making it all worthwhile.  That, with a little planning and know-how, anyone can cook with and for kids.

The jig is up.

I work at home most of the time, so, unlike the rest of you who toil elsewhere and have to scramble to make supper in the evening, I usually get a jump on the meal.  (Yes!  I’m a cheater!  My column is a lie!)  But the system broke down this week in the face of unfolded laundry, dog walking, article deadlines, putting both kids to bed—all the tasks my husband helps with or facilitates.  Eye fatigue from watching too many episodes of 30 Rock on Netflix instant view hasn’t helped either.

Really, this week, with the huzzy gone, it’s like Hell House.  Amazing: a simple-ish meal like this one—some oven-braised meat and simmered roughage—would be a no-brainer with another adult in the house.  But I experienced a complete breakdown with my greens—a pair of generous bunches of mustard bought from Va Vang at the MFM—and they tasted—no other way to put it—awful.  Like peepee.  Gus said it first; I had to concur.  Worst I’ve ever cooked, and I know it wasn’t the greens’ fault.  (In fact, I blanched and froze a few bunches, and they smelled and looked great.)

The only way I can explain it that I lost my mojo.  And for me, the mojo depends on concentration. Without my full attention, the garlic scorched and the greens cooked too fast, losing their opportunity to get nice and tender.  (I swear by "Collard with Double Garlic," the definitely un-Southern treatment recommended in Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything.  I've tried cooking greens with all kinds of pork, and haven't gotten the hang of it.  Honestly, I seldom even like greens cooked that way in solid meat-and-threes, which is weird, because I usually hold that any food is improved by contact with pork.)

Even the gorgeous Newman Farm pork shanks suffered from my distraction.  The details that can make or break a dish—when you add the salt or red pepper flakes so the flavor can penetrate—slip my mind when I’m trying to cook and watch my kid simultaneously.

Not that the osso buco turned out badly. The smell was fantastic.  Some jowl from Kevin Barnes, the MFM's other all-pork vendor,  replaced the pancetta in the recipe my dad sent me.

Osso Sizzle
At least Solly and I liked it.  Gus, however, has become more discerning recently, and was put off by the unctuous connective tissue.

Gus's Critique

Honestly, I'm stumped.  People have cooked with kids around since, well, always.  Why is it so hard for us?  But I’m starting to think I need to take a look at simplifying my weeknight offerings.  At least until the kids are old enough to chop onions for me.

Here's my dad's recipe for the osso buco.  I skipped the cippolini, but if you can send your kids to the movies or out to chop some wood, you won't have to.

Pork Shank Osso Buco

(I have no idea where he got this recipe, so I can't attribute it properly.  Dad, if you read this, could you tell us in the comments section?) 

4 1 ½” pork shank pieces, cut across the bone like osso buco
¼ cup flour
1 tb paprika
salt & pepper
2 tbs olive oil
1 stalk celery
1 carrot, peeled
1 med. onion
1 bay leaf
1 cup pancetta, in ¼” cubes
1 cup chicken broth (preferably low-sodium – pancetta is salty)
1 cup white wine
1/8 tsp red pepper flakes
8 cipollini onions

    1.    Blend flour, paprika, salt & pepper. In pie pan or Ziploc bag toss pork pieces to coat. Shake off excess flour.
    2.    Brown pork pieces in olive oil on all sides in olive oil, about five minutes. Remove pieces from pan and drain all but 1 tb. oil.
    3.    Chop celery, carrots and onion. Add to pan with bay leaf and pancetta. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, to brown veg and render fat from pancetta.
    4.    Nest pork pieces in sautéed veg and pancetta. Add broth and wine to cover pork halfway. Bring to boil, cover and simmer for one hour, turning meat occasionally. (Or put in 325-degree oven.)
    5.    Boil cipollini for 2 minutes, then drain and cool. Peel when cool enough to handle.
    6.    When shanks have cooked for 1 hour, remove from oven or flame. Set meat (pork and pancetta) aside and strain sauce to remove bay leaf and veg. Return meat and sauce to pan along with cipollini and red pepper flakes. Simmer for 30 more minutes. Uncover pan and reduce sauce for 5 minutes over high heat.
    7.    Serve over or alongside rice or Israeli couscous, garnished with chopped flat parsley.

Serves 4.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Shriveled and the Savory

It’s probably too late for you to befriend this lonely little peach, but if there are any like it at your local farmers’ market, consider this.  Once a year, when the straggler peaches—likely the ones stunted in an early frost or just unloved by the elements—hang late on the trees, lovers of the rare and strange can savor a delicacy.

I stumbled upon it last year, when we had baskets of tiny September peaches littering our kitchen, and I was running out of energy, time and ideas.  I rifled through my cookbooks and came upon a few recipes for roasted peaches and other stone fruits.  One in an Alice Waters cookbook suggested lots of lemon juice and honey, another (can’t remember which now) advised butter, lemon zest and thyme, no added liquids.

I took a long look at these little guys—most of them were starting to get wrinkly, but very few were succumbing to that nasty moldy rot that infests overripe peaches.  In fact, they looked kind of unsexy, since they weren’t juicy or lush, but at the same time wholesome and attractive.  (I’m searching for some analogy to an experienced and weathered middle-aged person, but letting it drop since a little close to home.)

For reasons that probably had more to do with what was available in my pantry than some innate culinary wisdom, I opted to merge recipes and go for the utmost simplicity.  I halved  as many peaches as would fit in a baking dish and drizzled them with a mixture of honey, thyme, lemon juice, zest and a pinch of salt.  I scattered a few more thyme sprigs about, put them in a 400° oven, and after about 20 minutes, basted them every 10 minutes or so.  When the tip of my knife slid into a piece and they looked crinkly, I took them out.

The flesh was transformed into a silky, dense, almost custardy substance.  I’ve tried this with midseason fruit and it just doesn’t work—it turns into something else delicious, but more like a compote.  But when I tried it again last week, it worked like a charm.  Because these fruits are a bit dry and their sugar is underdeveloped, they desiccate into something exotic, like a fresh-dried apricot.  The honey and thyme make the experience of eating them—especially if you do so with Greek yogurt and some more honey—feel positively Attic.

On another note, I posted last time about this amazing catfish I bought from Muddy Waters at the MFM.  Here are some photos of these guys—I took them right after buying some deelish redfish that I cooked up into a garlicky chowder.  The pink color is from tomato paste, and I finished it with some corn kernels and fresh basil.

Muddy’s fish is great, and don’t these guys have lovely smiles?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Like Seafood?

Only barbecue is more of a Dixie cliche than catfish, but grits beats them both.  (Yes, I treat grits as a singular noun.  No one eats a grit.  Wanna fight?)  And so the resumption of my blogging activities compels me to enter with all guns a-blazing, or however the phrase goes.  Herewith, a dinner comprised almost entirely of Southern standards, including my now-legendary pickled okra.

It all begins, as it often does, with a Saturday trip to the Memphis Farmers Market.  Gus chose the butter beans from Ly's Home Grown, I grabbed catfish from Muddy Waters Seafood.  (We finally have a guy who trucks shrimp, crabs, redfish and other wet things up from Louisiana.  Having devoured a couple pounds of wild catfish last month, we're back for more.)  Some Delta Grind stoneground cornmeal and grits at home in the fridge--what else does a family need?

Flowers--I rationalized buying a couple bunches from Sue's, the the Olympic athletes of floral arrangement, to spruce the place up for a couple of showings that weekend.  (Our house is on the market, you see. Don't worry--I saved the fish fry for after the prospective buyers came through.)  So when suppertime rolled around, we had dahlias to go with our vittles.

The genius of most Southern food, as I've experienced it, is that it's really home cooking.  I'm not talking about the great Cajun and Creole dishes of Louisiana here, but instead about the meat-and-three tradition of fresh food, simply prepared.  Perfect for Sunday suppers at our house--not a lot of fuss, but worth a leisurely couple of hours in the kitchen.

First, the butter beans on the stove over gentle heat with a half onion and a bay leaf.  Next, catfish soaking in buttermilk spiked with Louisiana Hot Sauce.  (And now a pause as we consider "The Perfect."  I do like it better than Tabasco--it's brighter and fruitier, less dominated by vinegar.)  For dredging the fish, whisk together lots of cornmeal with some flour, salt, pepper and paprika.  Start the grits on the stove, hovering at first as I stir them into a boiling mix of milk and water; then, once they start to thicken, turning the heat down and stirring from time to time as they glug away, waiting for their dose of butter, cheese and seasonings.

A big blob of Spectrum shortening takes the place of the peanut oil I usually use for pan-frying. (During the school year, I don't even keep peanut oil in the house, since I don't want to inadvertently send Gus to school with a forgotten morsel that could be lethal to one of his allergic schoolmates.)  This is not health food, but there's something that feels healthy about frying up catfish, tasty from its buttermilk bath, in a big old cast-iron skillet.  The crunchy crust locks in succulence and flavor, and though Solly prefers his fish nude, once he gets used to the mouthfeel of cornmeal, he ceases peeling the coating from his bits.  Did I mention how good the butter beans are?  Of all the foods on this plate, they're the most deeply delicious.  My kids--yes, kids, who aren't supposed to tolerate anything that resembles a Lima--pop them like M&Ms.

By the way, I realized as I wrote this post that I'm a fraud until I start cooking from Edna Lewis's cookbooks.  No self-respecting Yankee-turned okra-eater should do without.  In defiance of an increasingly dire fiscal outlook, both for my family and the nation--North and South--I am ordering The Taste of Country Cooking and In Pursuit of Flavor (which purports to contain some Ethiopian recipes as well).  So there.