Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Ringin' in the New Year Right!

I'm sure every culture in the world has a way of celebrating the start of a new year, but here in the South, we like to ring it in with food, steeped in tradition and seasoned with a dash of superstition. As a child, I was told that midnight could not come and go without black-eyed peas, collard greens, and hog jowl. It sounds like a pretty weird combination, and it's one my mom desperately tried to avoid. That's why we, like many modern Southerns, usually ended up  with a combination more akin to cooked spinach, black-eyed peas, and ham. That's close enough and absolutely essential for starting the year right.

It’s interesting how these traditions started. Some stories say that Union soldiers looting their way across the South left only “animal fodder,” such as peas and greens, to sustain man and beast alike. Somewhere along the way, greens became symbolic of dollars and peas of coins, edible talismans for financial prosperity in the year to come.

Hog jowl is a fatty cut of pork from the cheek of a pig. Smoked or cured, it can be used to flavor both peas and greens or fried like bacon. The only honest to goodness hog jowl I've ever eaten was at Lambert's Cafe in Sikeston, Missouri (http://www.throwedrolls.com/), and it was pretty tasty. Eating rich pork products, like jowl, on New Year’s Eve is supposed to bring good luck for the future.

Another superstition is that cornbread should be eaten with the above meal to represent gold and further prosperity. I didn't hear this part of the New Year's tradition until I was grown, but as it happens, cornbread is the perfect complement to peas and greens. Lucky or not, it's welcome on my table any time.
New York can have their lighted ball and Pasadena their roses. Give me a bowl of hot greens and a kiss at midnight, and I’m set for another great year!

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Flippin' Good Time

I was standing over my stove this morning making pancakes and drinking my Ozark Float Trip coffee when I started thinking about the first time I ever made pancakes. I was in elementary school, and I was allowed to cook on the stove top for the first time. I remember standing on a stool and peering down on the griddle, counting the bubbles as they rose up through the batter. I can still feel myself staring so intently, trying to calculate exactly how many bubbles would mean a perfectly golden pancake and a mess-free flip. I also remember scraping the last few drops of batter from the bowl to make a scant mini-pancake for our family dachshund. (As a vet, I can't condone this now, but it seemed perfectly reasonable at the time.)

I'd like to believe that my cooking prowess has expanded somewhat since that first solo flight in the kitchen, but pancakes are still one my favorite comfort foods. Today's batch was particularly fun because it meant the debut my latest canning endeavor (homemade blueberry syrup) as well as my husband's venison breakfast sausage. The whole combination made for a perfect morning, but it also reminded me of the real beauty of pancakes. They are such a simple food, and yet, there are probably as many versions as there are families on planet earth. Even at my house, it's always changing....over-ripe bananas? Banana pancakes. Fresh blueberries in the freezer? Blueberry pancakes. Wanting something rich and decadent to start the day? Buttermilk pancakes. What? You don't keep buttermilk on hand? Meet my favorite baking cheat:

Evaporated buttermilk is a small miracle of modern cooking. One canister lasts for ages in your fridge, and you can pull it out any time a recipe calls for buttermilk. Just mix with water according to the ratio on the canister, and you're good to go. It isn't going to hit the spot if you're wanting to drink buttermilk, but baked into anything, it gives richness and flavor without pesky leftovers. (A shout-out to my mom for this tip!)

With the holidays upon us and pancakes on my mind, I thought I would share a great recipe for a potato pancakes. They are a fun, different item for breakfast, and the first time I made these for my husband said they were "what leftover mashed potatoes were meant to be." I'm guessing more than one person out there is going to end up with leftover mashed potatoes this Christmas, and this might come in handy.

Potato Pancakes
1 cup grated raw potato
1 cup leftover mashed potatoes
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp salt
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup milk
1tsp dried rosemary, finely ground

Squeeze the raw potato in a clean tea towel to remove excess water. Mix all ingredients and spoon a scant 1/4 cup of the mixture into a hot, greased skillet, pressing out flat. Allow to cook until the bottom is golden brown and lifts easily from the pan. Turn the cake over. When both sides are browned, remove the cake from the skillet and place on a paper towel to drain. Serve potato cakes with honey for breakfast or with stew.

 Photos by Jenn Ballard

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Thanksgiving 2013

Well, another Thanksgiving has come and gone. If you've been following my blog, you probably know that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It happens in the fall (my favorite time of year) and centers on gratitude and food, two things I value tremendously.  This year I started my morning in the kitchen of the Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Athens, GA. This church prepares a huge meal for the community on Thanksgiving, and I went over to help with the cooking. What I received from the experience, however, was so much greater. Normally, I wouldn't write about this sort of thing because I believe what it says in Matthew 6:1-4 about letting your giving be done in secret. Today, however, I need to make an exception, because if I don't, I can't tell you what I learned. There was a gentleman working at the church (I won't use his name out of respect for his privacy) who has been helping to prepare this meal for over 25 years. He took the time to share the history of this event with me while he taught me to make his special turkey gravy. When the event started, they prepared the meal in a field with tubs of water, outdoor cookers, and bonfires to keep themselves warm. It eventually moved indoors (which he says is much easier), and it has had several other changes along the way. Nonetheless, the event has endured, and this gentleman has been there every step of the way. He told me how he learned to cook in his family's soul food restaurant, and how he raised his daughter on his own. He talked about the importance of family and even let me have the first taste of this year's gravy. Thinking back on my week of great memories, it was this experience for which I am most deeply grateful, and I dedicate this blog to my new friend.

After the gravy was finished, it was time to go home and make my own family meal. The weather was cold and crisp (pretty much a perfect day), and my menu was a combination of old and new recipes. Instead of a turkey for just four people, I decided to roast a chicken with herbs, butter, and white wine. This made for an absolutely delicious gravy afterwards (using my friend's tips of course!) My mom made her traditional stuffing to go with it, and I made the green bean and artichoke casserole I wrote about in last year's Thanksgiving blog. I also made the double cranberry-apple sauce from my 2012 Christmas blog, but I used half as many apples and the same number of cranberries. This made a tarter, slightly more traditional version that went really well with the meal. Now for the new....I made a roasted vegetable galette roughly following a recipe from raisingjane.org. My version of the recipe is below.

Roasted Vegetable Galette
1 sweet potato (peeled and cubed)
1 beet (peeled and cubed)
1 parsnip (peeled and cubed)
2 carrots (peeled and cubed)
1 onion (chopped)
12 Brussels sprouts (halved)
2 tsp kosher salt (or more to taste)
1 - 2 Tbsp olive oil
4 cloves of garlic (peeled and minced)
3-4 sprigs of fresh thyme (minced)
1 1/2 - 2 cups fresh kale (finely chopped)
6-8 ounces softed cream cheese
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 tsp granulated sugar
2 sticks cold, unsalted butter (cubed)
cold water
1 egg (beaten)

To begin, make the pastry dough by combining the flour, sugar, and 1 tsp of the salt in a food processor. Add the cold butter and process it until the mixture is crumbly with small pieces of butter still visible. Add the cold water very slowly until the dough has the right consistency (sticky but not gooey - holds together when pressed). Dump the dough out on a sheet of plastic wrap, work it together ever so slightly with floured hands, wrap it tightly in the plastic, and put it in the refrigerator for no less than two hours.

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Peel and chop the roasting vegetables (sweet potato, beet, parsnip, carrot, onion, Brussels sprouts). Toss them in the olive oil and remaining salt, and roast them, covered, until they are tender but not completely soft - usually 30-40 minutes. Set the vegetables aside.

Combine the garlic, thyme, kale, and cream cheese in a separate bowl until the mixture is relatively smooth and creamy.

Roll out the pastry dough out on a floured surface to make a large circle approximately 1/4 inch thick and 18 inches in diameter. Move the dough to a baking surface (I like my pizza stone, but use what you have). Spread the cream cheese/kale mixture out in the center of the dough leaving a 2-3 inch margin around the edge. Spoon the roasted vegetables over the top, covering the kale mixture. Fold the dough edge over the vegetables in sections, allowing it to overlap at the corners. Brush the dough with an egg wash and bake (still on 400 F) until the crust is golden brown (approximately 30 minutes).

A couple of notes: I doubled several of the vegetables to serve on the side for some carb-minded family members. If that's the route you plan to take, I would finish the extra vegetables in the oven uncovered so they will brown. The vegetables on the galette with finish and brown as the dough cooks. My recipe calls for considerably more cream cheese than the original recipe. The kale didn't cook down as much as I expected, and this should help to smooth everything out. If, however, you want to use less cream cheese, I would recommend chopping the kale very finely and maybe even wilting it briefly before adding it to the filling. The recipe is good as is but could probably use some tweaking. Please let me know if anyone out there has a suggestion.

The galette was delicious and beautiful, though admittedly a lot of work. We finished the meal with my grandmother's famous pumpkin pie and proceeded into the usual Thanksgiving stupor. In closing, let me just say that I am so deeply grateful for all of the tremendous blessings in my life, and I wish everyone out there a safe, happy, and blessed holiday season.

Photos by Jenn Ballard

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Under the Fig Tree

When my husband and I rented an old farm house in rural Georgia, we adopted something rather common for old homesteads: a large patch of fig bushes. I don't know exactly why these plants were so popular with previous generations, but I have a few guesses. They are very easy to grow. The fruit is really delicious and easy to preserve. Despite this, part of me thinks that the biblical significance of this plant has played a role in its popularity. In fact, figs are mentioned more than 50 times in the bible. Adam and Eve clothed themselves in fig leaves after the fall, and the promise land was described as:
"a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil, and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing" (Deuteronomy 8:7-9)
As appealing as that picture is, my favorite story about a fig tree comes from the book of John in the New Testament. It's the calling of the disciple Nathanael (also known as Bartholomew).
'When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, "Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false."
"How do you know me?" Nathanael asked.
Jesus answered, "I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you."
Then Nathanael declared, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God; King of Israel."
Jesus said, "You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that."' (John 1:47-50)
The first time I heard this story, I wasn't sure why someone would be convinced that Jesus was indeed the Son of God because He saw them sitting under a tree. But I heard a sermon about it several years ago, and I liked the explanation. The figs we grow in our backyards are really just bushes, but in the middle east, the figs are a different plant. They really are trees with low-hanging branches.  If you were sitting under one of these, you'd be pretty well hidden. Moreover, if you've gone to sit under a tree like that, you're probably thinking about something important or maybe praying. If you really think about it, the only explanation that would justify Nathanael's response would be if he were praying under the tree and Jesus acknowledged something about which only God could have known. What Nathanael was praying for I can only guess. Perhaps he was questioning God's purpose for his life or desiring to be used in a meaningful way. Maybe he desperately wanted to see the Messiah in his lifetime or was in the midst of a crisis of faith, his only question being, "Are you there?"  I often think about this story while I'm collecting figs in my yard. The sun is usually setting, and I look at the tangle of fig leaves and honey suckle. I would be pretty well hidden under my fig tree. It's comforting to think that God knew Nathanael while he was sitting under his tree, and He knows me under mine. He hears the prayers we say in quiet places, and He answers them when we least expect it.
Whatever the reason for their popularity through the generations, I think that figs are a beautiful, earthy fruit that is sometimes underappreciated. Since acquiring my own (plentiful) source, I've tried a few recipes that I would highly recommend. I used chopped figs (along with goat cheese) to stuff a pork tenderloin for my birthday party last year. I also canned fig and strawberry preserves (figs alone can be bland). They were great served on toast, grilled brie sandwiches, or over a brie pastry. Another great way to use this fruit while it's fresh is to grill it for a quick, everyday dessert.
Grilled Figs
4-6 figs (ripe but not soft) - washed and halved (longitudinally)
2-3 tsp granulated sugar
dash of allspice
4-6 Tbsp mascarpone cheese
1 tsp lemon juice
1 Tbsp confectioner's sugar
Sprinkle the cut surface of each fig with 1/2 tsp of granulated sugar and place, cut side down, over indirect heat on a hot grill until the figs are soft and the sugar is caramelized. You may have to flip them over for a few minutes to make sure they cook through. Meanwhile, whip the cheese, confectioner's sugar, and lemon juice in a small bowl and refrigerate. When the figs are done, sprinkle them with a dash of allspice and add a dollop of the cold cheese mixture. Serve immediately.

Most recently, I came across a recipe for a fig and almond dessert known as a galette (if you speak French) or crostata (if you speak Italian). Essentially it's a rustic or free-form tart. The almond filling has the consistency of a lemon bar, and the subtle sweetness of the figs gives this dessert a beautiful, light flavor. My first bit of advice is to make sure that there is plenty of filling and fruit under the folds. Too much crust can make it a tiny bit dry. My second bit of advice is not to try to move it off the parchment paper (unless you're way more talented at such things than I am). When I took this to a party, I trimmed the parchment paper so that it wasn't noticeable, and moved it (paper and all) to a serving dish. This is truly an amazing and beautiful dessert that I would serve for any fall party. I found the original recipe on http://www.marthastewart.com, and I've changed it very little.

Fig and Almond Galette
1 1/4 cup all purpose flour
1/2 tsp granulated sugar
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 stick of cold, unsalted butter, cubed
3-5 Tbsp cold water
1/2 cup blanched almonds
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1/2 stick unsalted butter
2 tsp all purpose flour
1/3 tsp pure vanilla extract
pinch kosher salt
10-12 fresh, ripe figs
1-2 Tbsp lemon or lime juice
To make the dough, combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor with a dough attachment. Add butter and pulse lightly until the dough has a crumbly consistency with visible pieces of butter remaining. Add the water, a little at a time until the dough has a stickier, crumbly consistency but holds together when pressed. Carefully dump the dough mixture onto a piece of plastic wrap, and work minimally to form a ball or disk (with floured hands). Seal the plastic wrap around the dough and place it in the refrigerator for at least an hour.
To prepare the fruit, wash and slice the figs, discarding the stems and the bases. Add the fruit juice and mix to coat. You can add a small dusting of granulated sugar to this if your fruit is a little under ripe. Cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate
Preheat oven to 350 F.
To make the filling, in a food processor with a chopping attachment, combine the blanched almonds and granulated sugar until everything is finely chopped. Add one of the eggs, butter, flour, vanilla, and salt. Pulse until the mixture is thoroughly combined.
When the dough has firmed up, remove it from the refrigerator. With a lightly floured rolling pin (on a lightly floured surface), roll the dough into a circle or oval with an approximately 1/4 inch thickness. Place this on a piece of parchment paper over a cookie sheet. Pour the almond mixture into the middle of the dough and spread evenly, leaving a 1 1/2 - 2 inch border round around the edge. Place the sliced figs, side by side, across the entire surface of the almond mixture. Fold the border of the pastry over so that it cover the outermost filling. Fold in sections, allowing pleats or creases to form as you change your angle. Whip the remaining egg with a teaspoon of cold water, and liberally brush the pastry dough, particularly at the corners.

Bake 45 min or until the crust is golden brown. Some of the filling will leak out but don't fret! It is easily trimmed away when everything is finished.

This is honestly one of my new favorite desserts. I hope you enjoy it also. Please share any fig recipes you have. I'd love to try them.

Photos by Jenn Ballard

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Fall Is On Its Way....

With the summer winding down, I'm getting very excited about some great fall food. This week I made one of my favorites: apples and sausage over waffles.

You can find my recipe for apples and sausage in my October 2011 post, but I have the most wonderful recipe for whole-grain waffles. I like putting the apples and sausage over these waffles because the density of the whole grain, while not overbearing, suits the heavier topping. I cut this recipe out of a magazine several years ago (probably Southern Living but I can't remember for sure), and I've modified it a bit.

Oat and Honey Waffles
1 cup uncooked regular rolled oats
1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
2 large eggs, split
1 1/2 cups milk
4 Tbsp melted butter
2-3 Tbsp honey
1-2 Tbsp sorghum molasses
pinch of cream of tartar

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Toast the oats for 10 minutes (stirring halfway through). Allow the oats to cool, and then place them in a food processor. Pulse the food processor until the oats are roughly ground. Mix the flour, baking powder, salt, and oats in a large bowl. Beat the egg whites and cream of tartar on high until soft peaks have formed. Whisk the milk, butter, honey, molasses, and egg yolks until well blended. Add these to the dry ingredients. Lightly fold the egg white mixture into the batter. Preheat and follow standard instructions for the use of your waffle iron.

When the waffles are finished, serve them with a heaping spoonful of apples and sausage, drizzle with maple syrup if desired.

I'd love to hear about your favorite fall foods. Please tell me about them in the comments or post a link to the recipes.

Photos by Jenn Ballard