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.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Return to Form: the Pickle Edition

Forgive me readers, for I have sinned. It's been one year, three weeks, and two days since my last post.

It seems that after a hasty sign-off, I promised to return with tales of canning and pie-making. Gus was having cranial surgery and our then 6-month-old, Solly, was waiting for us in Ethiopia. I thought I'd be back when the fuss died down.  I guess the fuss lasted longer than I'd planned.

There are certainly parents, writers, bloggers out there who can change diapers and cook and post promptly. I ain't one. We got home from Africa and the peaches couldn't wait--we scooted up to Jones Orchard every couple of weeks for the rest of the summer, till the last fuzzy nubbin was plucked. Solly lay on a mat, gazing up through the branches, and I like to think that this introduction to America can explain part of his sunny disposition.

We peeled their skins (a nude peach is as beautiful as a baby's naked bottom), then canned, pickled, and stewed them.

We roasted them with lemon, honey and thyme, and just ate them out of hand. We made cobbler and pie.

My husband Josh even managed to pick up a wicked rash up and down his inner arms and legs by snuggling a poison ivy-swaddled peach tree.

But blogging was beyond my strength. Between processing all this food and bonding with our energetic new baby--who swiftly phased into a kinetic crawler, then a gonzo toddler--I had only enough energy left over to stagger to bed. And then stagger back out to get a bottle and rock Solly back to sleep.

Lately, though, Solly's learned to snooze the night away. He's in a toddler program at the same Montessori as Gus--so I'm back in the saddle. And I've got news.

Pickled okra.
Okra pickles show up at parties and picnics here in Memphis sometimes, but apparently they're not universally savored. Leaving the Kroger with a case of Ball jars the other day, I got a curious look from a friendly lady shopping with her son. "You doing some canning?" she asked me. "Okra!" I said brightly, assuming that a native Memphian would cotton (sorry--couldn't resist) to the idea of a Yankee like me falling under the sway of such a idiosyncratically Southern foodstuff.

Instead, her sweet brown face squinched up. "Ergh." Her son's followed suit. "You eat that stuff?" Oh, well. So much for my stereotypes about Southerners.

Gus, on the other hand, loves the stuff. His schoolmate Dantz has it every day in his lunchbox, I was enviously told. Well, I'm not going to let any kid have a better lunchbox vegetable than mine. So Gus and I have been hitting the MFM, buying big bags of okra and smaller piles of Thai chiles. Following a recipe from the Lee Bros. cookbook, we've cured them in a brine of dill and spices and garlic. Mmm. Tasty crunchy goodness.

These little spears are great in a picnic with hard-boiled eggs--or better yet, alongside curried egg-salad sandwiches, with some Bedekar's Lime Pickle on the side for added zing. We've also paired them with Gus's Fried Chicken. I even did a few jars of mixed okra and green beans. Fantastic.

I'm on the verge of getting myself a proper pickle-centric cookbook, but till then I've been relying on the combined counsel of the aforementioned Lee Bros. and the almost-infallible Rombauer and Becker. Below is the basic recipe, without a canning primer. You can find all that yourself.

(By the way, you don't need to tell me that all this pickling is just a desperate subliminal bid for some kind of Southern authenticity--trying to out-Delta the locals, or whatever. Bear with me. At least I haven't taken up the harmonica.)

Pickled Peaches
adapted from The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook
Enough for 2 qt.-sized jars, easily doubled
4 lb. small, firm peaches
2 lb. sugar (yes!)
2 c. cider vinegar
2 sticks cinnamon
1 T whole cloves
1 heaping t finely chopped crystallized ginger (I subbed 1T each peppercorns and cardamom pods, to good effect)

1. Check whether your peaches are too large to fit through your jars' mouths. If they are, you'll cut them in half after you skin them.
2. Fill a sink or large pot/bowl with ice water. Set another big pot of water to boil and sterilize your jars.
3. Score the bottom of each peach with a little "X". This will make them easier to peel. After you remove your jars from the boiling water, using the same water, plunge each peach in for a minute, then move with tongs into the ice water. After peeling (and halving, if necessary) each peach, place it in a bowl.
4. Clean that big pot and then bring to a boil all remaining ingredients in it with any peach juice that has collected in the bowl. Boil gently for 20 minutes until you have a concentrated syrup.
5. Poach the peaches, about a pound at a time, in the syrup for 8 minutes. Roll them around in the syrup so they cook evenly. Repeat until all peaches have been poached and gently placed in sterilized jars.
6. Carefully ladle hot syrup into jars up to 1/2" below rims. Seal with lids, and process if you plan to keep them longer than 4 weeks in the fridge. (I processed mine and gave them as gifts. They make a great substitute for cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving, or if you give them out for Christmas, they're amazing with New Year's Day ham.)

Pickled Okra
This is remarkable easy. Also from the Lees, also relatively easy to double or even triple.
1 1/2 lb. okra or mixed okra and green beans (look for pods small enough to fit in your jars)
1 qt plus 1 1/2 cups water
1 T plus 2 t kosher salt
2 dried hot chiles (actually, I used fresh, and it was fine)
4 sprigs fresh dill
4 large cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
4 c. distilled white vinegar (the kind made from grain) or cider vinegar
2 t sugar
1/2 t peppercorns (see below for add'l. spice ideas)

1. Sterilize your jars (see above or read up on canning).
2. Trim the woody ends of the okra's stems, but don't cut into the pods. Dissolve 1T salt in 1 qt water and soak the okra for a couple hours, covered, in a cool place.
3. After the soak, put a big pot on the stove with the vinegar, remaining 1 1/2 c water and 2 t salt, sugar, and peppercorns. (I did a batch with coriander and mustard seeds, too. That worked out well.)
4. Meanwhile, drain, rinse, and dry the pods. Preferably with clean tongs, place a chile, a dill sprig, and 2 garlic cloves in each jar.
5. When the brine boils, let it simmer for 4 minutes. Then ladle it, using a canning funnel if necessary, into jars, leaving 1/4" at the top (the okra will soak up some of the brine). Seal and process, or seal and turn upside down, storing in the fridge for up to 4 weeks.