Monday, November 07, 2005

Southern Food by a Yankee

My garden is in its final stages and when your garden gives you this:
A whole lot of green (unripe) tomatoes
and this:
a whole lot of kale (Red Russian and Lacinato varieties)

even a Northerner like me feels the urge to cook Southern. Since the most Southern my roots go is the Flatbush neighborhood in Brooklyn, I called in the advice of two of my favorite southerners--Sarah (Atlanta) and Meg (Memphis).

Of course, fried green tomatoes could start off a Southern meal, and the kale could be treated like collards and stewed up with a ham hock, hot peppers and a little vinegar. But what else should one add to make it a meal? After a number of considerations (biscuits with ham? ham and red-eye gravy? hoppin'-john?) Sarah proposed that magic word: grits.

This past summer, Lynne headed South with her family and got hooked on grits. She traveled with a Southerner who had the pleasure of introducing Lynne to the addictive combination of Shrimp and Grits. As Lynne was generous enough to share the recipe on her blog and I'd been itching to try it, this seemed like a good excuse.

Unfortunately, Meg came down with a cold (as did Sarah's Brian) so I invited a few more Yanks to join us: MJ and Lou and Iris.

I've never made Fried Green Tomatoes and they turned out pretty well. My big concern was getting the batter to stick on something as wet as a tomato and an initial dip in flour did the trick. They were a little bit tart, a little bit salty and quite crunchy:
Here's how I made them and what I learned (in bold):

Fried Green Tomatoes

Green (unripe) tomatoes--any non-cherry variety, at least 4 big ones or many smaller ones
1 egg mixed with a little milk
corn meal
oil for frying (I used Canola because it was what I had in the house though I bet peanut would be better) with the addition of 3 T bacon fat (for flavor!)
hot sauce

1. Prepare your tomatoes. Cut out the stem and then trim off the tops and bottoms so you have flat surfaces for the batter to stick to. Cut the tomatoes into 1-1.5 cm thick slices and
salt generously (the first few I made were not pre-salted and were bland. A green tomato doesn't have much flavor on its own so you have to help it along.)
2. Set up batter assembly line: in one bowl put about 1/2 C flour to which you have added some salt and black pepper (seasoned salt or a little cayenne would be good here too), in the next bowl beat the egg with a little milk till it isn't too gloopy, and finally, on a plate put about 1/2 C of yellow cornmeal (with a little more salt and pepper if you like.)
3. Heat up about 1/4 inch of oil with the bacon drippings in a deep frying pan until hot (I don't use a thermometer but you can drop a little corn meal in and see if it foams up when it hits the oil). Then take a tomato slice and dredge it in flour, dip it in the egg and then drop and flip it in the corn meal before popping it in the hot oil.
4. Cook on one side 'till nicely brown (
beyond golden to really brown--again, my first few weren't cooked long enough.) Then flip the tomatoes (tongs work well) and cook on the other side until equally deep brown; the tomato inside should have lost its bright green color and have turned a light olive--that means it is cooked.
5. Remove from the oil and place on a paper towel or paper bag lined plate. If you have a lot to fry mine did pretty well waiting in a warm oven for their brethren to emerge from the oil bath--they didn't sog much at all.
6. Serve with hot pepper sauce (tobasco or the like).

We managed to eat all the tomatoes while reading stories to the kids and getting them tanked up with kid-food (Mac and cheese, crunchy peas, raisins, banana bread, yogurt, etc.). Then, thanks to a DVD of Harold and the Purple Crayon, the grown ups actually got to sit down and eat this:
Mmmm. Shrimpy sausage-y goodness. Get the recipe here.
with this:
White grits cooked with chicken broth and dolloped with butter.
and this:
Kale masquerading as collards.
which made us feel like this:
This would be the state that Meg's son refers to as "Happy Tummy."

We polished off the evening with peach/raspberry cobbler (yeah for frozen fruit!) served with vanilla ice cream.

While there was only one Southerner to truly assess the cooking (and we softened her up with a good supply of wheat beer), it seemed like a successful foray into food that I didn't grow up eating. And I still have lots more green tomatoes left.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Pope Groan

My book group met last night to discuss Pope Groan, sorry Pope Joan. (Mary Jean came up with the pun after tolerating one of my rants. She's good with puns that way.)

I was relieved that I wasn't the only person who disliked the book, though perhaps I did express my disparagement more vociferously than other, more controlled, members (blame the copious quantity of wine consumed...).

Rather than spend any more time rehashing this unworthy book, I'll move on to what was, yet again, a splendid meal. Much of the book was set in Rome, so we (loosely) prepared dishes of an Italian-ish theme.

Halla brought yummy cheese and bread for us to eat (and to soak up the red wine that some of us were putting away at an alarming rate) before dinner. The group favorite was the drunken goat--a semi-soft goat cheese that is soaked in red wine.
Cheese--decimated by the barbarians

Sarah hosted and treated us to Artichokes stuffed with Sausage and Feta with a lemon-egg sauce:
Sarah demonstrates proper artichoke technique.

The artichokes were served with Marilyn's wonderful Cesar salad and Meg's roast vegetables:
Another groaning plate of bliss.

And then for dessert we had pine nut honey gelato (which I made) and Lea's homemade pizzelle:
See the beautiful bowl? Sarah made a set of these. I have such talented friends.

I'm going to blog more at length about the gelato in the near future after I have leisure to ponder (and research) the nature of gelato-ness.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Honest Pretzels

Last week in the midst of some pre-retreat excitement, I had the privilege of cooking with one of my favorite food-enthusiasts. He may only reach to my sternum, but in sheer excitement for the kitchen, he is a giant. I speak of Saul Vielmetti, the boy who gives me hope for the palate of the next generation.

While pesto is among Saul's favorite foods (and mine) we were cooking with my far less-adventurous-eater son, Ian, and so together we made Honest Pretzels.
Ian and Saul man-handling (aka kneading) the dough while Fiona (paw to the left) experiments with the gravity properties of flour...

How do you tell an "Honest" pretzel from a "Dishonest" pretzel? Beats the hell out of me. But that was the title of the recipe from the terrific kid's cooking book of the same name authored by Molly Katzan (yes, that Molly Katzan. Now that she isn't churning out Moosewood cookbooks, she is cooking with the height-challenged set).

We already own Pretend Soup, her first and most simple kid's cookbook (a gift for Ian from Saul--see how he is spreading the gospel of good eating among his friends?) and we obtained Honest Pretzels from the library. Pretend Soup is to credit for (re) introducing Ian to beans (bean and cheese quesadillas), getting him to try a banana for the first time in 3 years (the title recipe, pretend soup) and encouraging Ian to sound excited about vegetables (his actual consumption of vegetables lags behind his enthusiasm for reading recipes about them, but hopefully the gap will close over time).

Honest Pretzels
is intended for ages 8 and up and is a bit more challenging, both in how the recipes are written (more words, fewer pictures) and in the techniques and coordination required. But with adult help handling the dangerous stuff (knives, ovens, boiling water, etc.) the recipes are quite do-able. And Ian and Saul are (allow me to brag a bit here) both incredible readers who can read the whole book cover to cover. (Ok, now that I've exhibited some of that insufferable parent pride I'll try to keep it under wraps for the rest of this entry.)

First we mixed up a simple bread dough in the food processor, turned it out on the counter top and, (after yet another hand-washing necessitated by my children's fondness for nose picking) allowed the kids to finish the kneading process.
While the dough proofed, there was a break for wrestling/train playing/general mayhem among the short folks, and a flour containment project for me.

An hour later we reconvened in the freshly swept kitchen and started the shaping process. We started with the conventional pretzel shape and then got creative. There was a snail (Saul's mom, Deb), a little person (Debbie Sobeloff, another adult friend attending the dough festivities), some misshapen blobs (Fiona), and two "A"s from Ian and Saul since it is a letter that is in both of their names.

After shaping, the pretzels get boiled for about a minute in a big pot of water, the same preparation as a bagel undergoes. We discovered that pretzels made of one piece of dough (a circle, the snail) survived the immersion bath far better than those pieced together out of little pieces of dough. My teddy bear pretzel lost a few appendages in his bath.

Then the boiled dough was placed on a baking sheet, sprayed with water (to make them crusty rather than squishy) and baked for 20 minutes. Half way through I pulled them out and spritzed them with water again (the kids got to do the initial spraying which, much to my surprise, mostly landed on the dough). We decided not to sprinkle them with salt. Despite my love of most foods saline, I don't quite trust my kids with moderating the salt flow to an edible quantity--if the salt was approached even remotely how they approached the flour, we'd be stuck dumping the finished product out for the birds to consume.
There were a wide array of shapes from which to choose.

The finished warm pretzels made a fine (vegetable free) lunch. Ian and Saul decided to dip theirs in peanut butter, the grown ups enjoyed them smeared with the goat cheese Deb brought with her, and Fiona discovered that cream cheese is a fine interactive art medium:
We'll definitely be making these again, though next time I'll try to sneak in a little whole wheat flour. The unfortunate facet of cooking with two excellent readers is they can tell when you "cheat" the recipe a bit.