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Ok, so this recipe isn’t Southern at all. It’s so good though I feel obligated to share it. I don’t really know why, but winter squash is not something that is typically associated with the South. We didn’t eat it much growing up and I don’t really remember seeing it on any buffets or pot luck suppers. Well, it’s very good for you and very popular up here in New England. Everywhere you go you see squash and pumpkins for sale.

A couple of weeks ago I was at the farmer’s market and ran into my friend Shira, who is apparently a squash aficionado. I was there looking for some to fix for my one-year-old daughter, but I’m not really a squash person myself. I mean, I like it, but butternut is about as exotic as I ever get. Anyway, there I was lost among the gourds when Shira came to my rescue. Her eyes lit up when I told her that I was charmed but confused by all the different kinds of squash. She relished the opportunity to tell me the virtues of each variety; when she got to delicata all she had to say is, “this one is really deliciously sweet,” and I was sold. Before moving on she told me about this cooking method, which makes wonderfully crispy sweet rings of squash. Let me tell ya, they are really really good. You can eat the skin, or you can peel it off pretty easily just before you eat it. I think the skin adds a nice aesthetic.

Crispy Delicata Squash Rings

Preheat oven to 400 degrees

Slice one delicata squash into rings. With a spoon scoop out the seeds. Drizzle with olive oil and salt and roast for 10-15 minutes. Flip and cook for a few more minutes if needed.

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Fall is officially here; the weather is getting cooler and I finally went out and ripped up most of the dead plants in the garden. There were still a ton of green tomatoes though, so I picked them and created a meal around them. As you know, I love fried green tomatoes, but don’t really enjoy frying things that much, and can really only eat so many of them. So, I decided to make a green tomato casserole. This robust side dish needed an entree that wouldn’t be overshadowed by the zing of the tomatoes so I decided to make my grandmother’s “hot Italian roast beef” with some rice. It was a perfect meal for a cool autumn evening, and we’re still eating the roast on sandwiches.

Green Tomato Casserole

5-6 medium sized green tomatoes (or more)
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. pepper
bread crumbs
1 cup cheddar cheese with some extra for sprinkling
1 tbsp. butter

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Slice tomatoes about 1/4″ thick and line the bottom of an 8×8″ casserole dish. Mix salt, sugar, and pepper together in a bowl and sprinkle over tomato slices. Sprinkle with bread crumbs and half of cheese. Place another layer of tomatoes, seasoning, bread crumbs and cheese. End with a layer of tomatoes, seasoning, and bread crumbs. Dot with butter and bake for 1 hour. Once casserole is bubbly and brown around the edges sprinkle with remaining cheese and bake until melted.

Hot Italian Roast Beef

1 tbsp. butter
1 5 lb. beef roast (I think I used top round roast)
1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes with juice
1/3 c. water
2 tsp. crushed red pepper
1 tsp. salt

In a Dutch oven melt butter over medium heat. Brown roast on all sides. Add remaining ingredients. Cover and simmer until roast is tender (about 3.5 – 4 hours). Remove meat from broth and make gravy by thickening broth slightly. When ready to serve slice meat and reheat in gravy. This makes very good hot roast beef sandwiches.
I found that the roast was pretty charred on the bottom by the end of the braising…next time I’ll turn it occasionally. This could also be made in the slow cooker after the meat has been browned.

I heard somewhere that the world is divided into cake people and pie people. OK, I admit that’s rather simplistic, but maybe there’s something to it. I do like a good cake, and I used to be a cake person, but now I consider myself a pie person. I love pies. There is a real artistry to making a good pie crust (to which I still aspire), and the variety of fillings is virtually endless. I didn’t really become a pie person until I moved to New England. The only explanation I can think of is that fruit pies are much more prevalent in New England than down South. Here in New England you can find blueberry pie, strawberry rhubarb, and apple pie at just about every farmer’s market you go to. Diners, fancy restaurants, and everything in between offer some variety of fruit pie.

Down South on the other hand, fruit goes in a cobbler. Pies are chocolate, chess, coconut, custard, sweet potato, pecan, etc…. Not that I think this is necessarily a bad thing. I love chess pie and Linda Dunnaway’s egg custard pie (sans traditional crust) is one of my all time faves, but I’m at heart a fruit person, and growing up, would always opt for the blackberry cobbler with ice cream over the custard pie. Well, taking all of these things into consideration, I’ve found the perfect pie. Fruit and custard, together in one pie crust. It’s heaven, I tell you. This is my hands-down-all-time favorite pie recipe (and you know already how much I love pie). The recipe is from Simply in Season. Those Mennonites sure know how to bake.

Note: I have a couple of go-to pie dough recipes, but I still feel like I need to experiment a little bit more before I blog about them; it just feels like a post for another time. I do recommend a homemade crust though. On the other hand, if you don’t like making dough, or don’t know how, you can make custard pies without a crust and they will form a kind-of crust of their own.

Pear Custard Pie

9-inch unbaked pastry shell
4-5 c. pears (peeled and sliced)

Place fruit in pastry shell.

2 eggs
1 c. sugar
1/4 c. flour
1/4 c. butter (softened)
1 tsp. vanilla

In a small bowl beat together with an electric mixer until light anf fluffy. Pour mixture over fruit. Bake in preheated oven at 450 degrees for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 and continue baking until set, 30 minutes.

I had the occasion last week to cook some Southern food for friends. My book club read Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter and I thought it would be fun to make it a Southern afternoon. I’d been a little sick so I decided to keep it simple. I whipped up some pimento cheese and served it with celery sticks a la Watershed. Then I made a caramel cake. I’ve only ever had this cake at funerals or pot luck suppers on the South. John Edgerton in Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, in History calls it “another of the South’s old favorites.” Basically, it is white cake with caramel icing. There are plenty of shortcuts for making a “quick and easy” version, but I wanted to do it the old fashioned way. That is, by caramelizing sugar in a cast iron skillet.

I decided to turn to my “community cookbooks.” Everyone has at least one of these on their shelf. I don’t know if other regions of the country rely on them so much, but every Southern cook has at least four that he or she relies upon for old fashioned recipes such as caramel icing. In Mississippi the ones that stand out to me are Bell’s Best, Come On In, Southern Sideboards, and for those of us with Southern Louisiana ties, Talk About Good. I’m sure I’m missing a few, but these are the ones that I turn to most often. I was reading M.F.K. Fisher’s Serve It Forth recently and was mildly irritated by what I considered a snobbish comment about community cookbooks:

“…to be passed by quickly are…those hideous pamphlets sold by ladies’ aid societies in small towns….whose broken covers and limp yellow pages clutter every American cookbook shelf of decent age, are utterly useless unless you know some of the women whose prize recipes are printed in them. Then, if you are feeling ill-tempered, you can curl your lip at Mrs. Sophia Jamison’s prune whip, and surreptitiously steal Cousin Annie Fink’s little trick of stirring three chopped marshmallows into the —”

How can she talk about these little nuggets of culinary wisdom like that? These home cooks are in many ways keeping culinary traditions alive. In The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture “Foodways” volume, there is an entry for “Cookbooks, Community,” in which the author mentions that these cookbooks have been studied since the 1980s as cultural artifacts. If the community cookbooks are often the only place I can reliably turn to for authentic Southern recipes, then I don’t think they are “utterly useless.”

After cooking the cake I went back to Fisher’s remark and I think I see what she means now. Often these home cooks submitted recipes that had never been written down formally before. Or, they left out steps (intentionally or not) that will make or break the recipe. I realized that I could have used a little more information on making the caramel icing. Although it tasted good, it didn’t turn out quite right. I should have cooked it a bit longer so that it was more “spreadable” and less “pourable.” See how it’s kind of dripping down in the picture above? It shouldn’t really do that. Still, everyone said it was delicious, so I guess it turned out ok. I’ll let you know how it goes next time. Another important point about some community cookbooks, at least one I have, Bell’s Best, is that they are so difficult to navigate that it’s almost impossible to find what you need. The index is arranged topically with such obscure topics as “Mens, Microwave.” Something as simple as chili can be found under “Soups,” “Meat,” or maybe “Men’s,” with each recipe in each section being different.

The following recipe was found in Bell’s Best under “Cakes,” but other recipes were also under “Frostings.”

Caramel Icing

2 3/4 c. sugar
1 stick butter
3/4 c. milk
1 tsp. vanilla

Caramelize 3/4 c. sugar in saucepan. Mix 2 c. sugar with the milk in another saucepan; bring to a rolling boil and pour it over the caramelized sugar, stirring constantly. Cook until it comes to a soft ball stage, 2 or 3 minutes (this is where I didn’t cook it long enough, I think. It bubbles up like molten lava and it took me by surprise) Add butter and vanilla flavoring; beat with an electric mixer. Spread on cake layers.
Mrs. Curtiss (Hattie) Hale, Columbus Club