The Seven Essential Southern Dishes
The Bitter Southerner never shies away from grand pronouncements, but when we make one, we try hard to make sure it’s based on substance. As the holidays — that special time of year when calories don’t count — approached, we wanted to challenge a great Southern food writer to do the impossible: Define the most essential Southern dishes, the ones that speak most clearly about who we are. Today, North Carolina writer Sheri Castle — the only person alive who can legitimately claim to have read every recipe ever published in Southern Living magazine — takes the big leap.
I have never written anything that is more likely to get me run off.
It’s Chuck Reece’s fault. He asked me to come up with a list of five essential Southern dishes that show our culinary DNA. That’s impossible. So I came up with seven. Seven seems to be the sweet spot on lists of definitives, such as the seven deadly sins, the seven wonders of the world, and the seven dwarfs.
Of course, seven is inadequate as well. As would be 700, or 7,000. No cuisine or culture has countable (or cookable) definitive points of origin. There is no Lucy in the culinary anthropology of our South, and even if there were, her fossilized bones would not be found wearing an apron with handwritten recipes tucked in the pocket. Southern cuisine is evolutionary, which will shock and disappoint the creationists who believe it sprung up fully formed and ever fixed.
Authentic Southern cooking is as diverse and multicultural as the regions in the South and the families who live there. Southern cooks have always creatively drawn upon the mix of cultures that compose the South, starting with Native Americans, Europeans and Africans. Sure, Southerners tend to like what grandma made, but those grandmas didn’t come from the same places, so they didn’t cook the same ways, even when presented with the same ingredients. If what we see as Southern depends on where we stand, then what we eat as Southern depends on who stirs the pot. We must strive to understand, acknowledge and respect all contributions and culinary cornerstones of what came collectively to be known as Southern cuisine – past and future – more fully and accurately. We must.
The original Southern cooks were the Native Americans who hunted, gathered and cultivated our indigenous foods. Everything else was added because someone couldn’t imagine life without it and found a way to cook it, or something as similar as they could muster and scrounge. New foodways arrived in the South with each wave of newcomers, whether they came of their own volition or through the most punishing of circumstances. People tried to bring a little of what they had, what they knew and what they anticipated they would need in the most unknown and foreign of places. One of the surest and most soothing ways to get our bearings in a new place is to cook and eat something we recognize and find familiar, something that tastes of home. When we can’t go home to eat, we can eat to go home.
A universal Southern dish is more often a universal Southern concept. Each community or family can have its own convictions. And each is damn sure its way is the best. But go 50 miles in any direction and there will be another set of equally heartfelt convictions that its version is better. A bite of a dish in each place is a culinary GPS – one taste and you’ll know where you are. Context and pride of place are as crucial to the integrity and authenticity of a Southern dish as any recipe or cast-iron skillet. If there is no there there, it will never taste right.
Southern food is evocative. It makes Southerners talk because it makes us remember. Before we tell you how a thing tastes, we need to tell you how it makes us feel and what it reminds us of. We cannot tell of the food without telling of the people who made it for us, and why, and how well they did or didn’t do. Southern is on the tip of our tongues.
This isn’t to say that all Southern food memories are good because, of course, not all Southern food and cooking are good. On the other hand, some Southern meals are so exalted that we are sure it’s what the angels eat on sabbath. Whether good or bad, food memories are hard to shake. There is no more tenacious nostalgia. One bite of food or one whiff of an aroma from our past is swift transport to somewhere. The persuasion of a food memory is association, not accuracy. Memories are rarely drawn to scale.
That said, I gave a lot of thought to what I picked. I attempted to show that the core of Southern food is agrarian, resourceful and homemade. Pretty fried chicken or barbecue might be the homecoming queen riding in the parade, but the family farm built her float.
Even if there were an adequate list of quintessential Southern recipes, telling Southerners how to cook those dishes, especially those they grew up eating, is perilous if not ill-advised. It’s like telling someone how to pick out a husband or wife: There are too many variables and there’s no accounting for taste.
Hate my list? Good! Get in the kitchen, sharpen your pencil, and make your own. Think about what you’d lift up as your plate of personal truth. As Bruce Springsteen (not a Southern boy, but no fool) sings: “God have mercy on a man who doubts what he’s sure of.”
To close this opening, let me turn to words from our beloved John Egerton, the most insightful scholar and champion of Southern food: “In practically every good and lasting memory any Southerner holds — of family and friends, of home and countryside, of school and church, of joyful and even solemn occasions — food is there, working through all the senses to leave a powerful and permanent impression.”
If it walked, crawled, or flew, it went in the stew.
Brunswick stew is the flagship Southern community stew, made by a bunch of people adding things to the pot and poking around in it, intended to serve a crowd. It can be made on a stove, but it is best suited to the outdoors where smoke gets in our eyes. It’s the kind of stew that lifelong buddies make at the hunt camp or around a pit, timing the steps by the number of beers they’ve had and the number of times someone has called bullshit on a tale and then laughed so hard they could barely breathe. It’s the type of small town stone soup that is sold as fundraisers for the VFW, the marching band headed to the big parade, and the building fund for the church that hasn’t changed so much as a doorknob in decades. And we, as their neighbors and fellow citizens, buy it, and buy into it.
Raconteur and humorist Roy Blount Jr. quips that Brunswick stew is what happens when small mammals carrying ears of corn fall into barbecue pits. It’s true that Brunswick stew was once made with a variety of wild game, particularly squirrels and rabbits, but is now most often made with chicken and smoked pork barbecue. The vegetables matter just as much. Each cook has a secret combination of vegetables and seasonings, but nearly all agree that corn, butter or lima beans, and tomatoes are requirements.
This is where any agreement ends. All stew-stirring communities continue to declare their provenance, and certainly their take on the way to make it, to be unassailable. The good people of both the town of Brunswick, Ga., and Brunswick County, Va., equally and passionately claim to be the point of origin for the eponymous stew. There are folklorists who swear it was perfected in North Carolina.
Some decades ago, Brunswick, Ga., mounted a 25-gallon iron pot atop a town monument. The inscription declares the pot to be the very one in which the very first Brunswick stew did bubble on July 2, 1898. Georgian Brunswick Stew tends to be made in relatively small batches, often in local cafes where it is served as a barbecue side dish.
In 1988, the Virginia General Assembly issued a decree naming Brunswick County the home of Brunswick stew, claiming they can trace their stew back to 1828, when it was made by Jimmy Matthews on a hunting expedition and was little more than squirrel, onion, butter and bread. These days, stew-making in Virginia is often a male-dominated ritual. Men known as stew masters tend huge cauldrons, stirring the contents with boat oars, cooking up hundreds of quarts. These stews are very thick, often not declared done until an oar can stand upright in the center. Virginia Brunswick Stew is served as a main dish with white sandwich bread on the side, although there are photos of people emptying plastic sleeves of bread directly into the stew.
This version incorporates a little of both iconic styles, and comes from a neutral state of grace. It can be made indoors in reasonable quantities. It can be made quickly because it assumes you will buy roasted chicken and rather than cook a pig, you will buy barbecue from someone who does it often and well.
Makes about 3 quarts
1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes or 3 cups home-canned, chopped with their juices
2 cups strong chicken broth (if using store-bought, enrich by simmering with the chicken bones and skin for at least 30 minutes and then strain)
3/4 cup ketchup
3/4 cup sweet, tomato-based barbecue sauce
1/4 cup peppery, vinegar barbecue sauce or white distilled vinegar
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon hot sauce
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
3 cups green butterbeans
3 cups yellow corn kernels
1 pound pulled smoked or roasted chicken meat
1 1/4 pounds pork barbecue
Serve with: flimsy white bread
Bring the tomatoes, broth, ketchup, barbecue sauces, Worcestershire, salt, pepper and hot sauce to a simmer in a large pot. Simmer 10 minutes, stirring often.
Stir in the onion and butterbeans. Simmer until they are almost tender, about 20 minutes.
Stir in the corn, chicken and pork. Simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes more.
Adjust the seasoning. It should be balanced, but unequivocal. Serve warm with the bread.
A day that begins with a hunk of pound cake and a cup of coffee can be only so bad.
Many of our swooning, posturing magazine cover shots suggest that the most accomplished Southern cakes are layer cakes. But a review of community cookbooks and kitchen cupboard recipe boxes reveal that we adore a magnificent pound cake, and have been baking them for longer in our culinary history. Old cookbooks praise the “keeping quality” of these cakes; it’s true that they will keep on the counter for about seven days, which is why many cooks once made a pound cake weekly. A slice of pound cake travels well and requires neither frosting nor fork.
This simple, sublime pound cake is excellent alone and also an amiable companion to fruit and sauces.
Cook’s Note: Southern bakers take special pride in flawless homemade pound cake, but eaters are surprisingly tolerant of a less-than-perfect cake that just didn’t turn out this time. Nonetheless, here are two of my observations on making old family recipes for pound cake in these modern times: First, most old-fashioned pound cakes turn out best when baked in an old-fashioned lightweight and light-color aluminum tube pan with a removable bottom (sometimes called an angel food pan.) Heavy, dark or nonstick Bundt pans make the cake’s crust too dense, dark, and tough. If you’ve had trouble with cake recipes that predate 1970, try the recipe again with a light tube pan, just like grandma used. Second, most heirloom cake recipes assume you are using a hand-held mixer, which is less powerful than our stand mixer behemoths with motors powerful enough to propel a boat across a pond. Cakes mixed in stand mixers require less mixing time.
Makes 12 servings
3 cups cake flour
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
8 ounces Philadelphia cream cheese, at room temperature
3 cups sugar
6 large eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Position an oven rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 325ºF. Grease (with Crisco) a 10-inch aluminum tube pan with removable bottom. Dust it lightly and evenly with flour and tap out any excess.
Sift the flour into a medium bowl.
Beat the butter and cream cheese in a large bowl with an electric mixer set to medium speed until the mixture is smooth and creamy, about 2 minutes.
Increase the mixer to medium-high speed on a stand mixer (high speed on a hand-held mixer) and add the sugar in a slow, steady stream. Beat until the mixture is pale yellow and sits up tall with fluffy peaks when scraped down from the sides of the bowl. The sugar will be mostly dissolved, so you should feel very little grit if you rub a little between your fingers. This takes about 4 minutes with a stand mixer and 6 with a hand-held mixer.
Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition; the mixture may look slightly curdled or grainy. Don’t worry.
Add the flour to the butter mixture in thirds, mixing at low speed only until smooth. Scrape down the bowl between each addition.
Add the vanilla extract and mix on low speed 30 seconds more. Use a rubber spatula to make sure all of the dry ingredients are up off the bottom of the bowl. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan. Gently tap the pan once or twice on the counter a few times to remove any air bubbles.
Bake the cake until a cake tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 90 minutes. (Pound cakes will have a crack in the center that appears wet even when fully cooked, so avoid this area when testing. Pound cakes are tall, so a standard toothpick might not reach the center. Use a longer pick or a metal cake tester. Even a dry strand of uncooked spaghetti will work.
Cool the cake in the pan on a wire cooling rack for 10 minutes. Remove the cake from the pan and turn it face up to cool completely on the rack.
A slice of humble pie ...
If in the beginning there was pie, it was probably chess pie. The main thing about chess pie is that it was pantry pie that could be made from staples most cooks kept on hand, and that didn’t cost much in time or money. It’s also adaptable, meaning that if there was no vinegar for the acid, there might be lemon juice or buttermilk. If there were nuts, you would have pecan or black walnut or peanut pie. If there was chocolate, then in it went. Pie is as pie does.
Chess pie is insanely sweet — some would say shockingly sweet — in the way on that only Southern sweets can deliver. We’ve always had more access to sweeteners than much of the rest of the country. After all, we raise sugar cane and sorghum cane and keep bees here.
No one knows for sure how chess pie got its name, although goofy and annoying stereotypical anecdotes about our drawl feed too many of these musings. Among the more credible theories is that chess pie, in name and in practice, is a derivation of a dairy-rich English cheese pie. You know, like cheesecake, which is neither cake nor contains cheese.
Makes 8 servings
1 (9-inch) unbaked deep-dish pie shell, chilled
2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons cornmeal
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted and slightly cooled
1/4 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 425°F.
Line the pie shell with aluminum foil or parchment paper, making sure it extends over the edge of the crust. Fill with pie weights or dry, uncooked rice or beans. Bake 5 minutes or until pie shell no longer looks wet. Carefully remove the foil and weights and continue baking until crust looks dry and golden, about 5 minutes more. Cool completely on a wire rack.
Reduce oven temperature to 350°.
Whisk together the sugar, cornmeal, flour and salt in a large bowl. Whisk in melted butter, milk, vinegar and vanilla. Whisk in eggs. Pour into the pie shell, filling it only to the inside rim. Depending on the size of your pie shell, you might have a tad leftover that you can discard or bake in a ramekin as a cook’s treat.
Bake until the top is golden brown and puffy around the edges, and the filling is almost set, about 50 minutes. A 2-inch circle in the center of the filling should jiggle slightly (not slosh) when the pan is gently shaken. Shield the edges of the crust with strips of aluminum foil if they brown too quickly before the filling is done.
Cool completely on a wire rack. The filling will finish setting as it cools and the edges will deflate.
The most Southern of legumes ...
Field peas have flourished in the South for over 300 years and Southern farmers’ markets are brimming with them, yet fresh, seasonal field peas are too rare on many contemporary Southern tables and practically unheard of elsewhere in the country.
The term field pea reveals their original role in the South, where for generations they were grown in the rice and corn fields to add valuable nitrogen back into the soil. Field peas were so common and plentiful that there was no need to tend them in a kitchen garden. The plants are undaunted by hot, dry, poor soil that would wither many other crops. Given their critical role as subsistence food for many poor people and livestock, some culinary historians say that field peas once thrived on poverty. Similar to ramps, the humble peas that were once relegated to the poor worked their way up to standard home cooking and are now featured on fine-dining menus. Field peas: one part tenacity, one part tasty.
Enslaved Africans brought field peas from their homeland. Given those fraught origins, it’s hard to imagine how or why eating field peas came to be associated with good luck on New Year’s Day, but they are said to represent coins, just as leafy greens represent folding money. It is even more of a mystery why ubiquitous black-eyed peas, mostly canned at that, are the only type of field pea that many people know. Dozens, if not hundreds, of different field pea varieties grow across the South each summer, peaking in production during the hot and steamy shank of the season.
Communities, family farms, and farmers’ markets across the South often lay claim to their favorite peas, those best-suited to both local growing conditions and treasured recipes. In some places, discussing the relative merits of different ways to grow and cook peas is a point of civic pride, tantamount to debating barbecue. Each person who voices an earnest, heartfelt opinion is equally correct. Or not.
How to Do the Chow Chow
For many families, a jar of chow chow is a staple whenever peas or beans are served. With its bold flavors and crunchy texture, chow chow sure perks up a humble meal. One of the defining flavors in Southern cuisine is vinegar, often delivered in tangy, judiciously spiced, and slightly sweetened pickled vegetable relishes. Chow chow likely started as a great way to use up the ragtag assortment of vegetables from the end-of-season garden, what some folks call the garden orphans. When there wasn’t enough of any one thing to put up, resourceful cooks combined them to make batches of chow chow.
If you don’t make your own, you can buy some at the farmers’ market or nearest country store of merit.
As essential as salt and pepper shakers, Southerners like to load up their tables with jars and bottles of condiments that allow each eater to doctor his or her plate with dibs and dabs and squirts of this and that. As the late chef Bill Neal put it, “By the time the pickled beets, green tomato relish, pepper relishes, bread-and-butter pickles are out, the meal is a celebration of endless combinations, textures, and flavors — the hallmark of Southern cooking.”
Makes about 3 cups
3 cups (1 pound) freshly shelled or thawed frozen field peas
1 medium onion, quartered
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2 small bay leaves
4 short thyme sprigs
4 flat-leaf parsley sprigs
1 small carrot, cut into thirds
1 celery stalk, cut into thirds
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
4 cups water or chicken stock, plus more as needed
Serve with: Chow Chow (recipe follows)
Rinse the peas thoroughly in several changes of water to remove any bits of hull and stickiness. When the water runs clear, transfer the peas into a large saucepan. Add the onion, garlic, bay, thyme, parsley, carrot, celery and salt. Add enough cold water to submerge the peas to a depth of 1 inch. Bring to a boil, skim off the foam, reduce the heat, and simmer gently until the peas are tender, 15 to 45 minutes, depending on their size and freshness. (To get an idea of what to expect, taste a raw pea. If it’s small, tender and juicy, it will cook more quickly than a larger, denser pea that fights back a little.) Add water as needed to keep the peas submerged while they cook.
Taste the peas. If they need more salt, remove the pan from the heat and stir in more salt. Legumes love salt, so don't underestimate how much they will need. Let sit for at least 15 minutes to give them time to absorb the seasoning. Discard the bay leaves, herb sprigs, carrot and celery.
Serve the peas warm, topped with a spoonful of chow chow.
Cook’s Notes: You should get 3 cups (1 pound) of shelled peas from 3 pounds of pods. If you enjoy shelling peas and have a sturdy thumb, have at it. Most people are more than happy to pay a little extra to buy peas that are already shelled.
Dried peas can be a good option as well, so long as they are properly soaked and not more than a year or two old. No amount of soaking will soften up a bag of peas that’s been pushed to the back of the cabinet since the last time you moved.
Many traditional recipes use pork seasoning, but here the mild yet flavorful cooking liquid lets the character of the peas have its say. If you prefer meatier peas, add a smoked ham hock or a plump smoked turkey wing to the pot. When the peas are done, you can pull the meat from the bones and return it to the pot, if you wish.
Makes about 5 pints
5 green bell peppers, chopped
5 red bell peppers, chopped
2 large green tomatoes, chopped
2 large onions, chopped
1/2 small cabbage, chopped
1/4 cup pickling salt
2 large jalapeño peppers, chopped (optional)
3 cups sugar
2 cups white vinegar (5% acidity)
1 cup water
1 tablespoon whole mustard seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons celery seeds
3/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
Stir together the bell peppers, green tomatoes, onions, cabbage, salt, and if desired, jalapeños in a large Dutch oven. Cover and chill 8 hours. Rinse and drain; return mixture to Dutch oven.
Stir in sugar, vinegar, water, mustard seeds, celery seeds, and turmeric. Bring to a boil; reduce heat, and simmer 3 minutes.
Quickly pack hot mixture into 5 (1-pint) hot sterilized jars, filling to 1/2 inch from the top.
Run a wooden skewer around the inside of the jar to remove any trapped air bubbles. Wipe the jar rims clean. Cover with lids and screw on bands.
Process jars in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes. Let jars stand in hot water for 5 minutes. Remove jars to wire rack to cool undisturbed. Test the seals and promptly refrigerate any jars that didn’t seal.
If I don’t love you baby, then grits ain’t groceries.
Miss Edna Lewis said, “People should really leave grits alone." The key to good grits is good grits: fresh and stoneground.
Country ham is the South’s most noble contribution to charcuterie. It’s on a par with, if not superior to, the finest hams in the world. Thank goodness we can still find them around here. One of the traits of traditional, authentic Southern cooking is that meat — usually pork — was a condiment or seasoning other than on special occasions. If you killed only a hog or two each year, that meat had to last, and a properly cured country ham will keep right on and on. Old recipes for cooking a whole ham started with instructions on how to scrub any dust and mold off the surface. Precious hams had to go a long way, as well. Other than perhaps on Christmas or at a wedding of a beloved child, folks didn’t serve a whole country ham all at once. They doled it out in biscuit cuts and paper-thin slices. And then there’s the salt. Repentant people have wryly noted that there isn’t enough water (or whiskey) in the world to quench the thirst of a person who has eaten too much country ham at one sitting.
As country ham is a testament to our international prowess with curing pork, gravy is the apex of our sauce making. Anybody ought to be able to make an exquisite sauce with cream and butter. A cook can make exquisite gravy out of nothing.
If we were to describe red-eye gravy to people from another culture, they would think we were joking. It’s made from country ham dregs and strong black coffee, two woebegone and seemingly incompatible leftovers that somehow form an iconic Southern gravy. Where did it get its name? Some say it was a rejoinder from Andrew Jackson in response to the bloodshot eyes of his hung-over cook. Others say the dot of grease in a bowl of naturally red country ham juice looks like an eye.
We’ll never know the who, where or why of the first pan of red-eye gravy, but I have a theory. I don’t think that cook set out to make gravy. Instead, I think he or she was simply trying to clean out a skillet after breakfast one morning. Fried country ham leaves behind quite a bit of sticky, salty, tasty residue. Dragging a biscuit through that good stuff would rip it up, leaving a tattered trail like white lint on black pants. However, good cooks know that deglazing a skillet liberates those enjoyable dried bits. What liquid might be sitting around after breakfast? Coffee. Waste not, want not.
In "Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History," the beloved John Egerton had this to say about red-eye gravy: “The cookbooks are strangely muted on this divine elixir; it is only the fortunate consumers of it who wax eloquent.”
You might want biscuits with this meal, but you are on your own to make them happen. Plan on two per person: one for sopping and one with jam, syrup or sorghum, as breakfast dessert.
Makes 4 servings
1 cup whole milk
1 cup water
1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1/2 cup grits
2 tablespoons butter
1 ounce cream cheese (heretical, but it keeps them creamy)
1 teaspoon hot sauce, or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Ham and Gravy
4 large slices country ham (about 8 ounces)
3/4 cup freshly brewed strong coffee
1 to 2 tablespoons firmly packed brown sugar (optional)
Pinch of cayenne or a good shake of hot sauce (optional)
For the grits: Bring the milk, water, and salt to a low boil over medium-high heat in a heavy, medium saucepan. Add the grits in a slow, steady stream, whisking continuously until smooth. If your grits are so coarse that chaff floats to the surface, skim it off.
Reduce heat to low; simmer until thick, stirring often with a wooden spoon, about 25 minutes for quick-cooking (not instant) grits and up to an hour or so for coarse, stoneground or heirloom grits. If the grits get too thick and dry before they are done, add a little warm milk or water. Stir more frequently as the grits thicken.
Remove the pan from the heat; add butter and cheese and stir until smooth. Season with salt, hot sauce, and pepper. Serve at once or keep warm over low heat until time to serve, stirring occasionally. If they get too thick, thin them with a little more water. Serve hot.
For the ham and gravy: Trim most of the thick white rim of fat from the outer edge of the ham slices. Score the strips of trimmed fat to keep it from curling as it cooks.
Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add the fat and cook until it renders about 2 teaspoons of melted fat, about 3 minutes. If the ham is very lean, make up the difference with a little butter.
Add the ham to the skillet and cook until browned on both sides, turning it over several times, about 10 minutes in all. Transfer the ham to plates and cover with aluminum foil to keep warm. Discard the rendered pieces of fat.
Increase the heat to high. When the fat sizzles, slowly stir in the coffee. Bring to a boil and scrape up the bits from the bottom of the skillet with a heat-proof spatula. Add the brown sugar and stir until melted. Decrease the heat to medium and let simmer, stirring frequently, until the liquid reduces to about 1/2 cup or to your personal preference, 5 to 15 minutes.
Season with cayenne and serve piping hot. Lukewarm red-eye gravy is awful.
“Folklore is the boiled-down juice, or potlikker, of human living.” – Zora Neale Hurston
While almost all Southerners love greens (bitter or otherwise), there's no question that they play a particularly big role in African-American cooking in the region, and anywhere in the country where Southern blacks moved in their diaspora.
Gardeners tended sturdy greens as long into the season as the weather would allow, and then as soon as spring brought green shoots of branch lettuce, dandelion, cresses and poke, people took to the creek banks and forest to forage. When there wasn’t enough of any one kind to make a mess, they combined what they had.
A common candidate for long-cooked potlikker greens is collards, particularly the ones picked after a heavy frost, when huge beads of impossibly cold dew collect on the surface and shine like diamonds. People say the frost sweetens the collards. It’s true; the cold converts some of the starches to sugars and makes them more digestible. However, collards were not ubiquitous in the South, so other good choices for long-cooked greens are large-leafed or slightly mature mustard, turnip and kale.
To make top-notch potlikker greens, two things are certain: the greens must be sturdy and the cooking liquid must be richly flavored and smoky. Beyond that, there are choices. Some people add heat to their greens with pepper pods, crushed red pepper flakes, ground cayenne, hot pepper vinegar, or some combination of these things. Some people temper the bitterness of their greens with a little (or a lot) of sugar, cane syrup, or sorghum. Go with what you know and crave. Even when seasoned thoughtfully by the cook, eaters appreciate bottles of vinegar or hot sauce on the table.
People who love greens love potlikker even more, getting all emotional and consecrated over it. The potlikker should be served with cornbread in some form that is suitable for sopping: a big pones, flitters, fritters, hoe cakes, or dumplings.
Makes 6 servings
2 to 2 1/2 pounds sturdy greens, washed and drained
4 tablespoons bacon fat
1 large onion, thinly sliced or finely diced (about 2 cups)
8 cups Smoky Pork Stock (click here for how to make stock)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 dried or fresh hot pepper pod or generous pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar, sorghum or cane syrup (optional)
Serve with: Skillet Cornbread (recipe follows)
Remove and discard the stems and tough part of the inner ribs by cutting them out with a knife, or by stripping the leaves off the stems by hand. Working in batches, cut the leaves into manageable bite-sized pieces. To remove the inevitable hidden grit, swish the collards in a sink or large bowl of cool water and let them sit in the water for a few minutes so that the grit can fall to the bottom of the sink. Lift the greens out of the water and let them drain, but you don’t need to dry them.
Heat the fat in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 8 minutes.
Stir in the stock, greens, salt, pepper, and hot pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer gently until the greens are tender, at least 30 minutes. They should be velvety, but not slick as pond scum.
Remove the pot from the heat. Stir in the vinegar and any sweetener. Let sit, covered, for 1 hour. Taste the potlikker and adjust the seasoning as needed. Reheat over medium heat and serve warm.
Make-ahead note: Greens and potlikker are almost always better when made at least one day ahead and seem to improve with age. Check the seasoning each time you reheat them. They usually need a splash of vinegar.
Give us this day, our daily bread.
Yes, cornbread, not biscuits. Corn is the giant of the Southern garden, not only in size, but also in importance. No other crop is more versatile or more important to the traditional Southern diet. Native Americans first cultivated corn more than 7,000 years ago.
Traditionally, every inch of a cornstalk had its uses, from the grains to the cobs to the stalks to the shucks. Corn, both fresh and dried, was our grain, cereal, vegetable, flour, fodder, and the basis of our best liquors — bourbon and moonshine.
Unlike wheat, corn can be grown as a field crop or as a garden item in small plots around the perimeter of a house or yard, minimizing the amount of land that had to be cleared, which was no small thing. Acre for acre, corn has a much higher yield than wheat and requires less manpower. Corn has a short growing cycle, produces throughout the growing season, and can handle heat and direct sunshine. All of this made it possible for families and small farms to raise decent amounts of corn. It could be used and sold fresh, dried, preserved or processed into other products, which made it food and commodity.
It’s not impossible to get good cornbread in a restaurant, but it dwells mostly at home, the last holdout of scratch baking, where it is best made on demand in a black iron skillet. No fast food joint has attempted the mass mechanization of cornbread that can be wrapped in paper and passed through a drive-through window. No cornbread comes frozen or crammed into a whomp can.
Cornbread should be served piping hot or completely cool. Tepid cornbread is the penance of poor planning.
Makes one 9-inch pone
4 tablespoons bacon fat
1 1/2 cups coarse stoneground cornmeal (white or yellow, depending on your raising)
1/2 cup all-purpose flour (if this offends, replace it with more cornmeal)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 large egg
1 1/2 cups well-shaken buttermilk
Put the fat in a 9-inch cast iron skillet and place it in the oven as it preheats to 450°F.
Whisk together the cornmeal, flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda in a medium bowl.
In a small bowl, whisk together the egg and buttermilk. Make a well in the center of the cornmeal mixture and pour in the egg mixture. Stir only until blended.
Remove the skillet from the oven and scrape in the batter. It will sizzle and pop, so be careful.
Bake until the cornbread is firm in the middle and golden brown on top, about 25 minutes. Turn out immediately onto a plate so that it won’t sweat in the pan, run it to the table, and serve.
Put on a pot of rice and then decide what to have for dinner.
This skillet supper is simple, but not haphazard. Pleasing rice cookery requires mindfulness, as does the selection of worthy shrimp and sausage. Thoughtful, informed shopping is key to good cooking. There are many ways to make red rice, which is a type of pilaf. This is one of them.
In much of the South, rice is the essential starch, especially as one moves closer to our considerable length of coastline. Although rice grew (and grows) in pockets across the lower south, a quick history from the rice preservationists at Anson Mills teach us this about the first rice to be grown in our region. “Carolina Gold rice, a long-grain rice of slender size and ambition, first surfaced in South Carolina just after our Revolution. Clean, sweet and non-aromatic, it prospered in coastal Carolina and Georgia bogs and did its fluffy separate-grain thing in a traditional black iron hearth pot, or potje, complementing the African-style stews it attended. ”
Speaking of our considerable length of coastline, fresh seafood is integral to Southern cooking. Despite the many economic pressures and environmental assaults that have come to bear on our fishing waters in recent years, it’s still possible for us to seek and enjoy wild American shrimp, even though 90 percent of the shrimp consumed in this country is now imported. Debates fueled by local loyalties and taste memory rage over which states produce the best wild shrimp. Of course they do.
Southerners make good sausage. It’s the most delicious way to use up myriad pig parts that should not be wasted or spurned, what some call whole animal butchery, or rooter-to-tooter utility. Fresh sausage is a fleeting treat. Smoked and other cured sausages hang around longer.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1 pound 21/25-count shrimp with shells (and heads, if possible)
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
2 1/2 cups chicken stock
4 tablespoons bacon fat, divided
5 tablespoons butter, divided
1 1/2 cups diced onion
1 cup diced celery
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
4 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
2 cups tomato purée
1/2 cup tomato juice
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
2 bay leaves
Large pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
2 cups long-grain white rice
8 ounces spicy, smoked sausage (such as andouille), sliced 1/2 inch thick
Shell the shrimp, saving the shells and the heads if you are lucky enough to have them still attached. Devein the shrimp and refrigerate them until needed. Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the shells and heads and stir to coat. Cook, stirring continuously, until they turn bright pink and release their aroma, about 1 minute. Add the chicken stock and simmer gently until the shells release their flavor onto the liquid and the stock reduces to 2 cups, about 30 minutes. Strain and keep warm over very low heat.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the fat and 2 tablespoons of the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion, celery, garlic and 2 teaspoons of the salt. Cook, stirring often, until tender, about 8 minutes.
Stir in the tomato puree, tomato juice, stock, vinegar, 2 teaspoons of the salt, the pepper, thyme, bay leaves and pepper flakes. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes. Check the seasoning and keep warm over low heat.
Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of bacon fat and 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat. When the butter foams, add the rice and cook, stirring slowly and continuously, until the grains are well-coated and opaque, about 5 minutes. Don’t rush this step. The gloss of fat affects the rate the rice absorbs the liquid and keeps it from turning mushy.
Stir the tomato mixture into the rice. Cover, reduce the heat to very low, and let cook undisturbed for 25 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let sit for 5 minutes. Do not lift the lid while the rice cooks or rests.
While the rice cooks, brown the andouille in a medium skillet over medium heat, about 3 minutes. Cover and keep warm.
While the rice rests, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter in a large skillet over medium heat. When the butter foams, add the shrimp and cook, stirring, only until they are opaque, about 1 minute.
Uncover the rice and stir gently. The grains should be plump and no longer hard. It will have absorbed most of the cooking liquid, but not be dry. Fold in the sausage and shrimp. Discard the bay leaves. Stir gently, check the seasoning, and serve at once.