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My in-laws arrived in town last weekend with an SUV packed to the gills with stuff from Mississippi. Along with some rugs and furniture they brought two boxes of my grandmother’s cookbooks.

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I was a bit overwhelmed by the amount of books; I didn’t realize there would be so many! She says she has more, but they couldn’t fit them in the car. So, I’ll just start with this. They’ll keep me busy. It’s probably half community cookbooks, half more popular, “classic” books, like Simca’s Cuisine, Joy of Cooking, Beard on Food, etc. Looking through these cookbooks made me realize that food really does go through fads; just like fashion. And unlike fashion, it’s not really easy to get nostalgic about them. Some of the stuff in these books makes me feel kind of gross. Among the recipes you’ll see a great many that call for tuna, cottage cheese, cream of mushroom soup, mayonnaise, and Worcestershire sauce. Many of them are then formed into a ring. Although I scoff at some of these recipes you have to admire the hard work that went into putting them together. I love this one, that has an introduction by the author. Like any good Southern cookbook, the lion’s share of recipes are for sweet things, cakes, cookies, frostings, and pies. Entrees are shoved in the middle almost as an afterthought, and Vegetables and Salads are tacked onto the end after “This and That.”

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My friend Jen loves cooking and we have decided we are going to make some of these recipes. One of the first ones we’ll try, although we haven’t worked up the courage yet, is the Vegetable Jello Salad. You never know, maybe we’ll love it! The recipe comes from Jen’s favorite of the bunch: The American Oil Chemists’ Society Cookbook, 1977.

Vegetable Jello Salad

1 package lemon Jello
1 c. hot water
1 lb. cottage cheese (small curd)
3 medium sized carrots (grated)
1 tbsp. minced onion (grated) how do you grate an already minced onion?
1 tbsp. green pepper chopped fine
1/2 c. salad dressing does this mean Miracle Whip? or vinaigrette?
1/2 c. cream or dream whip (whipped)

Dissolve Jello in hot water. Let cool to the setting point. Mix whipped cream with salad dressing and combine with Jello then with cottage cheese, grated carrots, onion and green pepper. Pour into mold and chill until firm.

If you decide to try this before us PLEASE let me know how it goes. I know you can’t wait!

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This post is part of a series on cornbread; the simple yet widely variable staple of the Southern table.

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I decided to change the name of this series. “In Search of the Perfect Cornbread” had a couple of issues; the first, and certainly not the least, being that it kind of reminds me of that show with Leonard Nimoy where he goes in search of Sasquatch and things like that. The second problem I have with the title is that I quickly realized that finding the “perfect” cornbread recipe is in fact a bit like looking for Sasquatch. You’ll never find it because “perfect” is different for everyone. Who am I to say that this recipe is more Southern than that one? Food cultures just don’t work that way. Instead, they are ever-evolving systems that work with individuals’ tastes. So, instead, I’ve decided to look for my perfect cornbread recipe. Who knows if I’ll ever find it, but like searching for Sasquatch, the searching is the fun part.

My friend Aggie posted a comment to the last cornbread post. Unlike me, she grew up eating cornbread at every meal and knows a thing or two about it. So, I decided to put her recipe at the top of my list. It definitely comes much closer to the “real thing” as I know it. She brought up a few excellent points in her comment; one of them being that you can in fact use other fats, such as lard or Crisco for your cornbread. I used some of the neutral lard in this batch and it came out delicious. The smell as you take the bread out of the skillet is like nothing else in the world…that said, I do like the subtle flavor that bacon grease adds.

Katy pointed out in an e-mail that a  cast-iron skillet is a must for cornbread. I have to agree with her. Of course, cornbread can be made in other containers, but the cast-iron gives the bread a dark, crispy crust, which is in my mind a necessity.

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Here’s Aggie’s recipe. This is real country cornbread. Thanks Aggie!

1 heaping cup self-rising cornmeal mix
1 heaping tablespoon bacon grease (or lard, or Crisco)
Some Milk (Aimee’s note: for me this translated to 1/2 c. or so)
1 egg

Pre-heat oven to 500 degrees.
On stove-top melt grease in small cast iron skillet (no bigger than 8″)
In bowl mix together cornmeal, egg, and milk until batter is the consistency of pancake batter.
pour in melted grease and thoroughly blend (its o.k. if it sizzles)
Pour batter into hot skillet and bake at 500 for about 12 minutes.
If unsure of doneness, stick a fork or toothpick in it. If it comes out clean, its done.
Immediately flip pone out of skillet on to cutting board or plate.
Cut yourself a slice and enjoy. If you want, you can slice it open and smear with butter.

For larger skillets I use about 1 and 1/2 cups to 2 cups mix, about 2 tablespoons grease, and 1 or 2 eggs. (I usually use 2 eggs, because my Momma liked it that way.)

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A week or so ago I decided to render some lard. This is something I’ve been wanting to do ever since I bought Jennifer McLagan‘s book Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes during our visit to San Francisco last August. I picked up this book in Berkeley and couldn’t put it down. I sat there reading it for probably twenty minutes and told my husband that I couldn’t leave without it.

It’s one of those books that completely changes the way you look at things. I mean, who ever thought of writing a cookbook praising the virtues of fat? What McLagan argues, very convincingly, is that our bodies need fat and there’s little conclusive scientific evidence that a low-fat diet actually works. I’ll let you read the book for the full argument, but what you should know is that low-fat isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. If eaten in moderation fat won’t kill you. I promise. Lard has less saturated fat than butter (lard: 39%, butter: 50%), and doesn’t leave you hungry and scrounging for more fat free devil’s food cakes.

As someone who loves Southern food this is great news! I mean, I can really get back to my roots if I can cook with lard! The problem, of course, is that my grandmother’s generation stopped cooking with lard when Crisco was introduced. There is no one around to teach me how to do this, so I’m on my own. Armed with McLagan’s book and a few links to some food bloggers, I decided to give it a whirl. What follows is my excursion into pork back fat. You want to use the highest-quality fat you can find. I got this from Chestnut Farms, who have a stand at the farmer’s market. They’d vacuum packed 5 lbs. in two packages, which I’d put into the freezer and rendered in two separate batches. I used back fat this time, but you can also  use leaf lard. As I understand it leaf lard is the highest quality and the best for pie crusts or delicate pastries.

Properly rendered lard should have a completely neutral smell and taste. On the other hand, you can cook it for longer or at a higher heat and get Mexican lard, which has a roasted pork flavor. The first batch I cooked for way too long, so basically I got two jars of Mexican lard. Good for refried beans, but not necessarily the best for biscuits. The problem was, I kept expecting the pieces of fat to melt entirely and that just never happened, with either batch. Nor did the cracklings ever really pop off the fat. McLagan recommends using the oven for more than a pound, but she also gives instructions on using the stove top; maybe that would yield different results. Here’s the fat as I’m cutting it:

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Lard

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees and cut the fat into 1 inch cubes or smaller. Put the diced fat into a Dutch oven or other heavy oven-proof casserole or sauce pan. Add approximately 1/3 c. water per 1 lb. of fat; this will keep it from burning. Place the pan in the oven, uncovered. Stir after 30 minutes, then after 45 minutes, then every hour until the fat begins to color. The water will eventually evaporate and the fat will melt. As you stir you can really press the pieces to the sides of the pan to help them along. After a few hours you will notice the liquid starting to brown a bit around the edge of the pot (you can see this in the picture below). Strain through a cheesecloth-lined sieve or colander. Once all the liquid has drained from the fat, put the fat back into the Dutch oven and return to the oven, stirring every hour until you render more lard from the remaining pieces. This will be the Mexican lard that will have a more smoky pork flavor and smell.

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You can see that I just re-used some jars and containers that I had in my kitchen. This lard will keep in the refrigerator for up to 2 months, or in the freezer for a year. I don’t know if you can read my labels, but I dated them and labeled “neutral lard” and “smoky lard.” McLagan says that you should average 1-1 1/2 c. of lard per lb. of fat. I think I maybe got 4 c. total, including the Mexican lard. Next time I’m going to try the stove top. If you’ve had success with rendering lard please let me know; I’d like to figure this out.

Since I’ve got so much of the Mexican lard I decided to make carnitas and refried beans with cilantro rice. The lard really does make a world of difference. I’d never tasted refried beans like this, except maybe during breakfast in Merida, when we where there on our honeymoon. These beans were rich and creamy and delicious; I’ll never be able to eat the stuff from the can with satisfaction again.

This post is part of a series on cornbread; the simple yet widely variable staple of the Southern table.

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If you follow this blog you may have been wondering what business I have writing a blog called Syrup and Cornbread without actually blogging about cornbread. I admit it, I’ve been dancing around this for a while and I have a confession to make: I don’t yet have the perfect cornbread recipe. Unlike some of my friends, we didn’t really eat cornbread much in our house growing up; although my  mom hails from Memphis, her family were German immigrants from Cincinnati. In my dad’s family there was always cornbread, but it’s just not something for which you’d pass down a recipe. Since my mom did most of the cooking when I was growing up, I was never really given the tutorial on how to properly cook it. Inspired by my friend and fellow cornbread-lover Katy, who has just returned from a trip to Mississippi, I’ve decided to embark on a series of posts about my search for the perfect cornbread recipe. I hope that this series will take me further into my own families recipes (I’ve simply never thought to ask), as well as other people’s.

Cornbread is a pedestrian bread; it is very rarely the star of the show, but people are passionate about it. In the South cornbread is not sweetened at all. Here in New England all cornbread has sugar in it. This is wrong. Cornbread, if made properly, should be thin, crumbly, have a nice dark crust on the bottom, and be made with bacon grease or butter.

For my first attempt I turned to my favorite Southern cookbook, The Gift of Southern Cooking. You all know how much I love Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis, the authors of this cookbook. I have the utmost respect for them both and came very close to actually swooning over the dinner I had at his restaurant Watershed (oh, and don’t forget when I was spying on his biscuit-making at Slow Food Nation ’08). Well, I tried their favorite cornbread recipe and was underwhelmed; it turned out too egg-y. You might be able to see in the picture (my fancy camera is on the fritz so you have to make due with the point-and-shoot) that there’s a layer of egg on the top. This was unexpected, and I’m not sure I like it; maybe I did something wrong, although I can’t figure out what.

The only substitution I made in the recipe was bacon grease for butter. I just keep a jar of bacon grease in the door of my refrigerator. It keeps forever and is perfect for getting that nice bottom crust that all cornbread should have. His technique, from what I can tell, is pretty standard. You melt the grease in a cast-iron skillet in a hot oven. Then, once it’s melted, you pour it into the batter, stir, then pour the batter into the skillet. Katy told me this is what her mom does, and it’s pretty close to the method I use.

Don’t get me wrong, this cornbread turned out really good; I realized that I do like buttermilk or sour milk, but this particular recipe just didn’t it the mark. I want a bit more crumb and certainly less egg. The search continues.

Our Favorite Sour Milk Cornbread
From The Gift of Southern Cooking by Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis

1 1/2 c. fine-ground white cornmeal
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
1 3/4 c. soured milk or buttermilk*
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tbsp. unsalted butter (I used bacon grease)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Mix the cornmeal, salt, and baking powder together in a bowl. Stir the milk into the beaten eggs, and pour over the dry ingredients in batches, stirring vigorously to make a smooth glossy batter.
Cut the butter into pieces and put in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet or baking pan. Put the skillet in the preheated oven, and heat until the butter is melted and foaming. Remove from the oven, and swirl the butter all around the skillet to coat the bottom and sides thoroughly. Pour the remaining melted butter into the cornbread batter, and stir well until the butter is absorbed into the batter. Turn the batter into the heated skillet, and put in the oven to bake for 3040 minutes, until cornbread is golden brown and crusty on top and pulls away from the sides of the skillet.
Remove the skillet from teh oven, and turn the cornbread out onto a plate. Allow to cool for 5 minutes before cutting into wedges. Serve the cornbread while it’s hot.

*I didn’t have buttermilk, so I soured some milk according to their note: “A Quick Sour Milk It only takes about 10 minutes to make this tangy substitute for buttermilk. Stir into 1 3/4 cups sweet milk 2 tsp. lemon juice and 2 tsp. cider vinegar. Let sit until curdled.

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This, my friends, is my latest obsession. Right there along with gumbo, beef stew, and flu chaser soup. I just can’t stop eating chocolate, and if you are going to eat chocolate you might as well go for the gusto. My husband prefers milk chocolate of the Hershey’s variety, but I prefer dark. In fact, the darker the better. I often find myself munching on the bittersweet bits of chocolate that go into cookies, stopping just short of the unsweetened stuff. Maybe it’s the wintry mix outside, or maybe it’s a holdover from Christmas sweets, but for some  reason I can’t get enough dark chocolate, preferably enjoyed with a cup of ginger tea.

Last year I noticed a new stand at the farmer’s market. It was a local “beans to bar” chocolate maker called Taza Chocolate. It took me a while to actually buy any, but when I did I fell in love. This stuff is amazing, and I’m not even writing this because they sent me a free sample like they did some people (ahem, hello? what am I chopped liver? Just kidding). I found out that a local wine store carries the stuff (cheaper than Whole Foods), and I’ve stopped in so much lately that I’ve gotten to know the lady behind the counter.

The Chocolate Mexicano pictured above is for drinking, although I also like to eat it. These disks come in vanilla, cinnamon, and almond. Here’s a video that Taza posted on facebook on now to make authentic Mexican hot chocolate (I can’t get it to display on this blog since it’s on facebook). The package comes with two discs, the outside says “2.7 oz.” In the video he mentions that one disc is 2.75 oz. This confused me, since the packaging makes it look like both discs weigh 2.7 oz. I made one cup yesterday and used half a disc for 8 oz. of water and it turned out delicious. I did simmer it on the stove for a few minutes until it was the consistency I wanted. As he says in the video, you can also use milk. My friend from Colombia uses milk in her hot chocolate and puts pieces of salty mozzerella cheese in it….Don’t knock it ’til you try it! I promise it’s good. You let the pieces of cheese melt in the warm chocolate and then fish them out with a spoon. They’ll be softly melted and add a nice contrast to your sweet beverage. I recommend putting the cheese in hot chocolate made with milk; it’s a more natural pairing, I think.