Southern Comfort Food

I couldn’t hold up this recipe for cornbread because a lovely wedge with melting butter is pictured with the southern fried cabbage I featured in a previous post. If you’re drooling right about now, imagine how Joe Tedesco feels when he spies this duo on the serving tables at the Mother’s Day celebration hosted by the Baptist church where his and Shirley’s friends, Smiley and Charlene Roberts, attend.

Naturally, Italian food tops the list of Joe’s favorites, but he’s willing to experience a little cross-cultural, culinary revolution if it means he gets to eat to his heart’s content.

Cast Iron Cornbread

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 cup cornmeal

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons sugar (I use raw)

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

1 1/2 cups buttermilk

Cooking Spray

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Lightly grease an 8-inch baking dish.

In a large bowl, mix together the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

In a separate bowl, mix together the eggs, buttermilk, and butter.

Pour the buttermilk mixture into the cornmeal mixture and fold together until there are no dry spots (the batter will still be lumpy). Pour the batter into the prepared baking dish. Allow it to stand for about five minutes to achieve a nice crown on the batter.

Bake until the top is golden brown and tester inserted into the middle of the cornbread comes out clean, about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove the cornbread from the oven and let it cool for 10 minutes before serving.

Side Note: This recipe can be doubled and baked in a twelve-inch cast iron skillet. Bake for 30 minutes and additional five-minute increments until a tester inserted into the middle of the cornbread comes out clean.

Putting Your Butterflies to Bed

John Welles’s first day of school at the University of Maryland was marred by a bad case of nerves. His Aunt Prudence eased the situation by planning a large, country-style breakfast like those John used to enjoy as a boy on the farm. Unfortunately, Prudence couldn’t cook to save her life, but the rich socialite didn’t trouble herself with such minor details. Instead, she wisely placed all responsibility for any culinary success upon her brilliant cook, Lucia.

The ever-observant Lucia knew there was more troubling John than new school jitters. She calmed his distress by preparing his favorite dishes including pan-fried pork chops, fried apples, buttermilk biscuits, and fried eggs.  The following recipe for pork chops is the one I had in mind for the above-mentioned scene. The originator of the recipe is the type of cook who doesn’t measure as she creates, preferring to cook by taste, smell, and sight. I watched closely, and being a good judge of quantity, I copy-catted her recipe for this post.

Lucia’s Pan-Fried Pork Chopsputting-your-butterflies-to-bed

2 center cut, bone-in pork chops

2 T olive oil

Approximately 1 c buttermilk

1 t honey

1 T rosemary

½ t salt

Several grinds of black pepper (I used quad-color peppercorns when preparing the chops.)

Rinse the pork chops and pat them dry. Don’t trim the fat as it will flavor the chops while cooking. You can trim them afterward if you desire.

Put 2 T of olive oil in a one-cup measure and fill with buttermilk to make a full cup. Pour into a mixing bowl and add the honey, salt, pepper, and rosemary. Whisk thoroughly.

Pour half the marinade in an 8 x 8 glass baking dish, add the chops, and pour the remaining marinade over the top. Cover with plastic wrap and marinate in the refrigerator at least four hours or overnight.

Coating:

¼ c flour

2 T yellow cornmeal

½ t salt

¼ t garlic powder

¼ t onion powder

¼ – ½ t cumin

¼ freshly cracked black pepper (Again, I used quad-colored peppercorns.)

Combine the dry ingredients. Remove the chops from the marinade and drain them thoroughly. Dredge them through the coating mixture on each side.

2 T unsalted butter

Peanut Oil

Bring the butter and enough peanut oil to cover the bottom of a 12-inch cast iron skillet to a medium-high heat. Place the coated chops in the skillet and fry each side for eight minutes, turning in four-minute intervals, until they are no longer pink inside and the coating is crispy.

Serve with the suggested menu items for which I have provided recipes. This recipe can be increased as needed by doubling or tripling the quantities.

Enjoy!

One Potato, Two Potato

Fried PotatoesI’ve heard the Irish are fond of their potatoes, but I suspect Americans are a close second when bestowing favoritism on tubers.  Baked, fried, roasted, or mashed, potatoes are not only a staple, they are comfort food.  This is probably what midwife Collie Mercer had in mind as she prepared a celebratory breakfast including fried potatoes for the Welles family to mark the arrival of the newest sibling, John.  Not to mention the hearty meal would sustain them on that cold December morning.

Fried potatoes are one of those dishes you learn to prepare by watching your mother or grandmother.  Recipes for fried potatoes probably exist but really all one needs is a little know-how.  Russets, America’s most popular potato type, are good for frying.  I use a mushroom brush to scrub the skins as I rinse them under cold water.  You can peel them if you choose.  One to two potatoes per person is plenty depending on the appetite of your guests and what else you may be serving.

Cut the potatoes into half-inch chunks and place them in a bowl of salted cold water until the task is complete.  This will keep the potatoes from turning an unbecoming shade of gray.  Drain the chunks and pat dry.

Grab your cast iron skillet as the non-stick variety will not get hot enough.  Peanut oil is the best for frying, but I imagine Collie made hers in butter.  When I use butter, it is unsalted.  In either case, the skillet should be hot enough that the oil will ripple on the surface without smoking or the butter will melt quickly and bubble.

Add the potatoes but don’t overcrowd the skillet.  Brown until crispy on the edges then flip the potatoes and repeat on the other side.  You can cover the potatoes at first, but be sure to remove the lid for the last bit of browning or they will be soggy.  Garlic, onions, and red or green peppers make tasty additions to this humble dish.  Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve hot.  Slices and shreds can be prepared in exactly the same way.

Enjoy!

Hammin’ It Up

Lyla Welles had one mission in life: protect her children from the hard hand of their father. So when her youngest child, John, was born on a cold December morning in 1907, the delivery-weakened mother worried that she wouldn’t have the strength to see her goal through.

Oblivious to his wife’s concerns, John Welles the elder saw the birth of his fourth child, third son, as cause for celebration. He indulged his appetite by breakfasting on the good food prepared by the midwife, Collie Mercer.

The following recipe is the one I had in mind when I wrote the above-mentioned scene for my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles. While many people enjoy ham, redeye gravy is somewhat of an acquired taste. The salty flavor is enhanced by the strong coffee, and although redeye is thinner than other breakfast gravy, it’s quite rich.

Enjoy!

Ham Steak and Redeye Gravy

1 bone-in, fully cooked ham steak, approximately 1 lb.

½ c strong black coffee

¼ c water

2 T unsalted butter

Salt and pepper to taste

Heat a 12-inch, cast iron skillet on high heat until it is hot. Carefully test for degree of warmth with your hand above the skillet. Place the ham steak in the skillet once it is heated all the way across. Brown the ham steak on both sides. There should be a nice quantity of drippings and ham tidbits in the bottom of the skillet. Don’t burn this or the meat.

Once the ham steak is heated through, remove it to a platter and place in a warm oven. Add the butter, coffee, and water to the skillet and gently scrape the skillet to loosen any browned pieces. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir gently until the gravy is reduced by at least one-third. A gentle boil is acceptable, but take care not to scorch the gravy, or it will taste burnt.

Pour the gravy over the ham steak on the platter and serve.

Hammin' It Up

Juicy and Delicious

Egg On My Face

What could be more delicious or simple than a fried egg? There is so much about the egg that I could say (the history of eggs, uses in different cultures, health benefits, recipes, etc.) but won’t. There are tons of websites devoted to the creation of the perfect fried egg including debates on cast iron versus non-stick skillets. There are sites encouraging the incorporation of the fried egg into everything from bowls of rice and/or veggies to plopping it down on top of ciabatta bread and tomatoes then sprinkling with feta cheese and arugula, thus elevating the humble fried egg to a snazzy dinner item. And don’t get me started on the various methods of frying with absurd names like “animal style” and “press down.” One ill-informed person even suggested that the perfect fried egg wouldn’t have crispy brown edges. Seriously? That’s the best part.

I guess I’m old school and harken back to the days when the toughest decision one had to make about fried eggs was whether or not you wanted the yolk hard or soft. This simplicity of thought is where my mind drifted as I wrote the scene in my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, when midwife Collie Mercer makes a celebratory breakfast for the Welles family in honor of the new baby she has just delivered.

The Welleses lived on a farm, so naturally eggs were part of their diet in some fashion on a daily basis. I imagine nothing fancier than scrambled or fried eggs ever appeared on the Welles children’s plates, not even an omelet. But I also know that the eggs were prepared with love. And while a wide variety of foods may not have been an option, no boxes of colorful cereal or flaky croissants, the children were no doubt raised with an appreciation for an abundance of good food prepared simply.

There isn’t an exact recipe involved with this post. In many ways, the preparation of a great fried egg is a combination of common knowledge and simple logic with a dash of familial preference for good measure.

The Perfect Fried Egg

Fresh eggs – we obtain ours from a neighbor down the street

Butter

Salt & pepper

Cast Iron Skillet – our preference at the Gibson household

Pre-heat a cast iron skillet on the stove. Melt about ½ T of butter in the pan per egg until it bubbles. Don’t brown or burn the butter. Crack your eggs directly into the skillet, spacing evenly around the circumference depending on the quantity of eggs and size of the skillet.

Break the yolks at this point if you want them hard. Allow the underside to set up before flipping them to continue cooking on the other side. They are done when the yolk it set and the edges reach desired crispness.

Or, when the underside of the white turns opaque, you can pour a little water in the pan and cover to steam your eggs to doneness. This is usually done for a soft yolk. No flipping required.

Season the cooked eggs with salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot and enjoy!

Apple Seeds

Warmth from the sunbaked, terracotta tiles radiates through the bottom of his thin-soled, canvas shoes. The old man eases himself into a wrought iron chair beneath the jacaranda tree. He slips a pen knife from his pocket; he isn’t supposed to have it, not after Crazy Effie threatened one of the orderlies with her nail file during breakfast. Now they’re all supposed to cut their sausage links with a fork or spoon. This place, this rest home for the retired, treats them like imbeciles. He chuckles to himself as he watches his friend, Wade, drooling as he sits strapped into his wheelchair, napping in the sun. Maybe some of us are, he thinks.

It will be a cold day in Phoenix when he allows them to remove his pen knife from his possession. It’s nothing special. No insignia from a branch of the service or Boy Scouts graces the mother-of-pearl sides. It’s just a nice knife he bought at Woolworth’s when there was still one at the mall. He thinks there might have been a matching razor with it but can’t say for sure. He’s used it to open everything from letters to wounds. Years of grime need to be wiped from the space where the mother-of-pearl meets the metal. Hell, maybe it’s not even real mother-of-pearl.

Apple SeedsHe removes a green apple from his sweater pocket. The bulge caught the eye of every resident he passed, making them wonder what he had smuggled out of the dining room. Green apples are his favorite, and the pretty Hispanic girl who runs the dining room, Gina or Tina, he can’t remember which, always keeps a few in the cooler for him. She knows he likes them cold; he must make more of an effort to remember her name.

Carefully, with much consideration and turning of the apple over and over in his hands while worrying his dentures with his tongue, he decides where to make the first cut. The vibrant green skin breaks with a crisp snap and a soft spray of juice as he slices along the entire curve of the apple. He licks the tartness from his thumb. With a gentle twist, he separates the halves.

Two seeds pop out onto his lap. He draws his knees together to catch them before they fall to the greedy earth hiding between the tiles below, enticing with the promise of life. He knows what the seeds do not: nothing disruptive, certainly not an apple tree with a vast and reaching root system, would ever be allowed to flourish here. Both seeds are pinched between his forefinger and thumb, and then placed gently on the tip of his protruding tongue.

The old man enjoys the bitter-almond taste of the seeds. He always chews them. While most people, especially his lazy grandchildren, only eat the flesh of the apple, the old man consumes every part of it except the stem. He savors the acrid taste of the seeds as he cuts a slice from one half of the apple, eating it off the thumb on which it is balanced, his knife held securely in the same hand. Another seed is visible but trapped in its pocket. A little surgery with the pen knife frees it from its fibrous prison. This seed is bigger because it did not have to share space with a sibling.

His wife once told him the taste of the seed was from the cyanide within. It seemed like a fact she would know, so he never questioned her on it. From then on, he made a point of eating every seed especially if she was watching. I’m building up my tolerance and recognition of cyanide in the event that someone tries to poison me, he had teased her. She retorted that if she wanted him dead she would use the cast iron skillet on his head while he slept. Their wicked sense of humor shocked most people, even their friends.

He wonders how many apple seeds he’d have to eat to escape this place. It’s so beautiful, Dad, his daughter had said, with flowering trees and benches, shuffle board courts and walking paths, a chess club and whirlpool. Who had she been trying to convince? One little tumble down the front porch steps and the next thing he knew, he was an inmate at Buena Vista Acres. His daughter believed she was doing him a favor moving him to Arizona to be near her. As if a fifty minute drive was near her. He might as well still be living in Ohio for all that he sees her.

If he could see anyone right now, it would be his wife. He crushes two more seeds between his back teeth, the ones that are still real. More of the apple is consumed, more seeds discovered. More memories flirt with the edges of his mind. The white walls of the main building shimmer with early morning heat, the brightness nearly blinding him even though his eyes are averted. Bittersweet and tart, apple seeds and life. The core of his existence chewed away to nothing. He will not let it poison him. He kisses the stem and flicks it into the bushes.

As he returns to his room for a nap, he waves to Maria, the dining room attendant. Maria, just like his wife. He smiles to himself, proud at having found a way to remember her name.

Cast Ironclad Alibi

One of my most prized possessions is the cast iron skillet I inherited from my beloved Grandma Smith. The skillet is twelve inches in diameter and easily weighs as much as my Kia Spectra. I have to use both hands to lift it, and if it weren’t so unwieldy, it would make one heck of a weapon.

I know I surprised Grandma when I asked her if I could have the skillet when she broke up housekeeping. She was leaning toward giving rest-home living a try about a year after my Grandpa had passed. I assured her there was no rush and that I’d wait until she was completely ready to part with it.

“What do you want that ole thing for?” she asked and laughed.

I explained to her that is was infused with memories of her and all the delicious things she ever cooked in it. She smiled sweetly, I imagine still somewhat amazed that I’d asked for it, and said okay.

The day my father brought it home to me was actually kind of a sad day. Grandma was still with us, but her days of clomping about the kitchen (she wasn’t exactly light on her feet) and directing the creation of large meals for family gatherings were over.

Unfortunately, I let the pan sit for many years because I was too intimidated to use it. I wasn’t sure I could live up to my Grandma’s reputation as a great cook. Besides, I had a shiny set of Revere Ware Copper Bottom pots and pans. They were dishwasher safe; the cast iron skillet was not.

So, Grandma’s skillet languished in my stove, setting off the fire alarms every time I forgot to remove its oil-preserved self from the oven prior to preheating. I’m ashamed to say that I moved it to the storage shelves in the basement. Its presence was replaced with a non-stick skillet from my mother.

A couple of years ago when I began writing my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, the skillet drifted back to the edges of my memory. As I mentioned in a previous blog post (Edible Fiction), I love to feed people, both real and imagined. One of my characters, Collie Mercer, is responsible for a great deal of the food mentioned in my novel. Without realizing it, every time I wrote about Collie cooking, without even stating it, I pictured her using a large, cast iron skillet exactly like my Grandma’s.

Black Beauty with a gleaming coat of oil.

Black Beauty with a gleaming coat of oil.

Long story short, the skillet, re-seasoned and currently in use, now reigns supreme in my kitchen. I never thought I could fall in love with a cooking implement, but I have. Who knew that cast iron was not only healthier for you, but the non-stick qualities put the new skillets to shame? And keeping it seasoned is not the chore I initially believed it to be.

There is so much about cast iron that I want to share with you, but I’ll direct you to two books, The Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook by Sharon Kramis & Julie Kramis Hearne, and The New Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook: 150 Fresh Ideas for America’s Favorite Pan by Ellen Brown. What I love about these books, besides the delicious recipes, is the sentiment the authors express for the cast iron cookware they inherited.

So, whether you’re starting out with a brand new piece of cast iron, rescuing an old relic from the back of someone’s cupboards, or just pulling out Grandma’s skillet to use for making dinner, get your hands on a piece of cast iron and fall in love with cooking all over again.

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