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Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas Eve with Big Ray

For several years, every Christmas Eve, my mother and I would make the long, winding drive up to Big Ray’s house.  Big Ray was Ray Hicks – the famous storyteller, recipient of the National Heritage award, subject of several books and a Smithsonian exhibit – the teller of the Jack Tales.  To us though, Ray and his family were like our family and going up to Ray’s was as much a part of our Christmas tradition as presents under the tree.
 
Orville (pronounced Arville) Hicks (a famous story teller in his own right) introduced us to Ray, his wife Rosa (pronounced Rosie) and their son, Ted.  Arville was (and continues to be) a close family friend.  Over the years, we accompanied Arville to Merlefest and Jonesboro, and through him, met many famous folks, Doc Watson, Ora Watson, Emmylou Harris, Mac Wiseman, Earl Scruggs, Sam Bush, Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart, Etta Baker, Roy Bookbinder, Guy Clark, Frank Profit Jr. and so many others, but none meant more to us than Ray and Rosie Hicks and their family.
 
The first time we met Ray and Rosie was at the Cove Creek School.  Ray had a sister who shared my mother’s name.  She died early.  When Ray met my mother, he repeated her name over and over.  From then on, we were like family. 
 
We would drive up from Foscoe, usually in the snow, down what was then miles of unpaved road.  We would park on the hill above Ray’s and holler out “hello”.  To my many readers whose origin  is beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains, let me give you this piece of advice:  If you ever visit an old cabin miles down an unpaved mountain road, always holler “hello” before you approach the house; it could save you a few ounces of painful buckshot in your person.
 
The first to greet us would always be the dogs – Ted’s beagle and Ray’s little black dog that had a mohawk shock of white hair running down the center of his head.  Then Ted would yell out, “You’uns come on in.”  Ray, who was almost always sitting in a chair before the wood stove, poking a stick into the fire would reply to our greeting of “Merry Christmas”, “Gaw, is it Chirstmas, gaw… it snuck up on me this year.” 
 
I guess that statement needs a paragraph of explanation.  Ray and his family lived in a cabin built by Ray’s father.  Their only electricity was one light.  There was an outhouse outback.  Rosie cooked on a wood burning stove/oven.  Ray had no way of knowing the date, nor any reason to keep up with such things.  Ray’s way of life was timeless – as old as the mountain.  Time was marked by plowing, planting, growing, harvest, hunting, winter, spring, summer and fall.
 
Rosie would rush into the sitting room/bedroom and hug my mother.  We would visit for a while, and then Rosie and my mother would disappear into the kitchen to talk.  We learned volumes of herbal remedies from Rosie, whose hair grew long and black well into old age due to her partial Cherokee heritage.  Her aunt was a famous “witch woman” to whom local folks went for cures and to have their fortunes told. 
 
Rosie didn’t approve of drinking as a rule, but she didn’t mind on Christmas.  We would bring eggnog and brandy.  Rosie and my mother would emerge from the kitchen with glasses of brandied eggnog.  Soon, the celebration would be in full swing.  I’d either bring my guitar or play a 6 string banjo (tuned like a guitar) that belonged to Ted.  Arville was usually there, and he would join me on guitar or banjo.  Ray would play his harmonica. 
 
We would play all of our favorites – songs by the Carter Family, Jimmy Rogers, Bob Wills, Roy Acuff, Hank Williams and Bill Monroe.  Ray’s favorite songs were the mournful “Precious Jewel” by Roy Acuff and good old “John Henry”.  I knew four or five versions of John Henry, so I would play them all as Ray sang and played harmonica in his absolutely devoid of rhythm style – if you could accompany Ray, playing with Willie Nelson would be a piece of cake!  Rosie would sing the old mountain ballads, in the old shape note style – all those beautiful songs about murder, dying lovers, etc. 
 
We would also sing a few hymns, which was always risky.  Ray had a unique understanding of the Christian doctrine and theology.  As Arville put it, “A preacher came up here once and he and Ray got into it over the Bible.  Ray ran that preacher off, and you never seen a preacher cuss so much!”
 
Hours would pass but time would stand still.  We would exchange gifts, which always included Ray’s favorite old fashioned candy and a pouch of tobacco.  Ray rolled his own cigarettes, and they were the worst looking cigarettes you’ve ever seen.  Burning bits of tobacco would fall everywhere as he smoked and told unending variations on stories like “Wicked John and the Devil”.  Arville would tell a story, punctuating it with his deep chuckle.  Then would come my turn and I’d do my best in my own awkward manner.  Ray would always cheer me on afterward, encouraging me to take up the tradition, “Gaw, that was pretty good!  You could almost pass for a Hicks as tall as you are.  There are two kinds of Hicks, the crane neck Hicks and the Bull neck Hicks.  Arville’s a bullneck!  Gaw”  I stand 6’4”, and even in his late 70s, Ray was a good three or four inched taller than me!
 
Ray and Rosie would both invite us to stay the night and would get a little choked up when it was time for us to leave.  Ted would walk us up to our car.  It was always so cold up on Beech Mountain on Christmas Eve.  The wind would blow the snow around.  But, usually, the sky was clear and the moon would reflect on the snow so brightly that it was never really dark.  You could see city lights in Tennessee in the distance.  The silence and cold was such a contrast to the warmth and celebration inside the house.  I’ve never experienced anything else like it and I doubt I ever will.
 
Ray passed away a few years ago.  We went to the funeral in Boone.  Ted and his older brother Leonard met us at the funeral home.  “I knew you would come,” Ted said.  “You’uns are just like family,” Leonard told us.  My mother went to talk with Rosie.  I sat with Ted and Leonard, reminiscing.  I’ve always had a knack for mimicry, often imitating people’ voices without being aware of it.  “Daddy would have appreciated you’uns coming,” Leonard said.  I know just what he’d say, I replied, “Gaw, it’s Beeeecky and her boy, gaw!”  Ted and Leonard both laughed and remarked how I sounded just like him.  We all got choked up about then and stepped outside.  “I never did like crowds of people; I guess I’m just used to being up on the mountain.” Ted explained. 
 
Someone’s rooster had gotten loose and was strutting around the parking lot of the funeral home – an odd sight in the center of bustling Boone.  At Ray Hick’s funeral though, it didn’t seem at all out of place.  The New York Times and National Public Radio ran obituaries on Ray; somehow though, that colorful, strutting, crowing rooster seemed a more appropriate tribute.  We talked about the rooster until our throats loosened. 
 
This Christmas Eve, I’ll remember those nights at Ray’s; I reckon I always will.  If y’all have children or grandchildren, here is a gift idea for this Christmas:  buy them a recording of Ray or Arville Hicks telling stories, or buy a copy of The Jack Tales, collected by Richard Chase, and learn to tell the stories.  There will never be another Ray Hicks, but the Jack Tale tradition can live on through generations to come.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Stew Basics



My friend, Tim Roper (a.k.a. The Meat Trapper) just emailed, asking if I had a stew recipe.... actually, I don't.  Stew, as he pointed out about chili, is more of a style of cooking than a recipe and can be made with a variety of ingredients.  It may be surprising to some that where I come from, beef stew isn't the norm.  On the coast, we have traditional salt water caught fish stews that have origins in the British Isles.  Around the rivers and swamps, we have catfish stews and even catfish stew festivals.  Further inland, venison stew or bear meat stew is a meal for special family gatherings.  Somewhere in between those regions, we have North Carolina style Brunswick Stew.... named for either Brunswicktown (an abandoned colonial fort), Brunswick County or a British royal... which does not get the respect it deserves. 

NC Brunswick Stew may be older than Virginia Brunswick stew, and is certainly older than Georgia Brunswick Stew.  Unlike VA and GA, NC Brunswick Stew is not solely pork based.  It is usually a mix of at least three meats, two of which are usually wild game.  The recipes depend on one's personal taste and the meat on hand - any combination of pork, chicken, venison, squirrel, coon, rabbit, possum or turtle would not surprise a NC Brunswick Stew connoisseur.  Added to the meats are usually tomatoes, corn and lima beans.  Truly, this is a mix of a British stew tradition with American ingredients from an era long before when America became a nation or even when British immigrants had access to more English style ingredients in true colonial times.

So, what is stew?.... well, it isn't soup.  Soup is a thinner, usually broth or stock based liquid dish.  It isn't chowder.  Chowder is usually milk based, not counting Manhattan Clam Chowder (btw, did you know that the residents of Manhattan rioted in support of the South's God-given right to secede and that Lincoln essentially had to invade New York before he invaded the South? ...I bet that wasn't in your US history book in school... or that Union officers were allowed to keep their slaves... just "food for thought").  Stew isn't chili.  Stew isn't gumbo.   

To add a little more confusion, "stewing" is a cooking technique that does not necessarily result in the dish we know as stew.  Stewing is to cook meat, vegetables, etc. low and slow in liquid until soft, purely for the purpose of making them soft.  So, a can of stewed chicken doesn't taste like chicken stew.... it is just soft, bland... unappetizing canned chicken.

Stew is usually made from a tough, flavorful cut of meat (but can be made from fish, chicken, etc).  Stew is usually thick - thicker than soup but thinner than gravy.  Stew usually contains vegetables.  Stew is usually mildly seasoned - it isn't spicy.  Stew is comfort food and especially good on a cold day.  

Meat:  These days, folks probably associate stew with beef, so lets take that as an example.  Any of your tougher, more coarsely grained cuts of beef would do.  You want meat that will stand up to long hours of stewing and still have some chew between the teeth.  Chuck would be a good choice, as would bottom round... or anything labeled "stew meat".  In many countries, their stew meat is a cow's foot... and their stews are all the better for it... but, we'll stick with what you can buy at your local Piggly Wiggly (you do shop at Piggly Wiggly.... the southern chain that is America's first modern grocery store... don't you?).  Stew meat is not ground.  Cut your meat into cubes or chunks about an inch... maybe a little larger, in size.  Dry well, salt and brown well in a cast iron dutch oven or pot (cast iron is better), in a little fat - beef suet is best, but oil will work; butter would burn on its own, but if clarified or added to cooking oil, it will work fine.  My preference is to fry some bacon along with the beef, so that the beef browns in the bacon fat.

Vegetables part 1:  After the meat browns, add plenty of chopped onions and chopped mushrooms (any type you like) and brown them. 

Thickening: Stews can be thickened with several ingredients - flour, potatoes, corn starch, arrow root, masa and even blood.  Yes, blood.  In fact, blood is the most traditional means of thickening stews.  If you use blood, you add it at the end, with the stew not boiling and off the heat but still hot.  Just stir it in slowly and let it thicken.  If you use blood, more power to you.... it is very healthy, but it is not my choice.  Potatoes would be most people's choice, but not mine.  If you use potatoes, you can either cut them into chunks a bit smaller than the meat and add them to the stew after other liquid has been added, so that the potato starch will thicken the soup as they cook in the stew.  Or, you can stir in some mashed potatoes, or even dried potato flakes.  My choice is flour.  After the meat and onions have browned, I push them to the side, add a little more fat and brown two spoons full of plain, all purpose flour, just like I would for gravy..... which is basically the brother to stew.... so is pot roast, btw.

Liquid:  After the flour browns (or before adding an other thickener) you need to add some liquid to make your stew a member of the soup family as opposed to just beef and onions in a thick gravy.  Here, you have 5 choices: 1) Water, 2) Stock or Broth, 3) Wine, 4) Beer or 5) the liquid from shellfish like Oyster Liquor or Clam Juice.  I use wine or dark beer and broth or stock.  Water has no flavor.  Why use water?  In this recipe, I would add about a pint of good, rich stock or bone broth (bones with a little meat on them and vegetable trimmings browned before slow boiling for 24 hours+).  I would also add about 8 oz of a rich red wine that is not too tanic or brightly acidic - red zinfandel or shiraz would be my choice.

Vegetables part 2: Add your favorite vegetables.  I would add celery, carrots, maybe a little crushed garlic, green peas or baby limas... definitely some kind of green bean or pea.... maybe some whole kernel corn... maybe.... tomatoes, turnip root, parsnip, celery root, asparagus cut into one inch pieces, chopped spinach, mild green peppers like bells, squash, pumpkin, leaks.... whatever you like that will not over power the stew, but not too many so that the vegetables over power the stew.  Those that would not work well would be those that would over power the stew, like okra due to its mucilaginous properties, strong greens like turnip or collard or starchy legumes like black eyed peas... unless you particularly like that combination.

Seasonings:  Black pepper - I wouldn't use red/hot peppers in a traditional stew.  Salt to taste.  Thyme - meat loves thyme and its use in a stew is very traditional.  That is all that is essential.  Other good additions could be bay leaf, rosemary or parsley.  I would not use any spices other than pepper, but a tiny pinch of allspice or nutmeg is traditional... so is one or two whole cloves.  I like cloves with onion, so I might go that route... the decision would be made by sniffing stew and the cloves a few times, taking a sip of wine and getting an idea of how the combination would taste.  Lavender is another traditional herb... but I hate lavender and it may lower testosterone, so that is a definite "no" for me.

So, depending on which thickener you chose, and when it should be added, that is it.  Cook it low and slow, "stew" it for a while - the longer the better - uncovered so it will cook down and thicken.  Taste from time to time.  When it is thick enough, salt to taste.  If you salt to taste before the water evaporates, it will end up too salty. 

Comfort:  Serve in a big bowl, grab a freshly baked, buttered yeast roll, pour some more wine or beer and dig in.... stew is simply satisfying.

End Notes:
1) Be sure to check out Tim Roper's YouTube channel - he's a damn good cook: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCcSC-NJ9KwIXozBUMvdu67g
2) Two very cool, short documentaries on Brunswick Stew.... which conveniently leave out the king of Brunswick stews, NC style, but is good anyway: http://www.folkstreams.net/film,336 and http://www.folkstreams.net/film,333
3) Catfish Stew Festival: http://portercalls.com/catfish_stew_cookoff.htm
4) History of Piggly Wiggly: http://www.pigglywiggly.com/about-us
5) The photo is just one I found online - I'll switch it out the next time I make a good pot of stew.
6) Frogmore Stew is not a stew.  It is just a regional name for a Low Country Boil... it is absolutely fantastic though.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Free Meat

I was just talking with a guy who owns a deer processing center. It is the rare processor, that has facilities for aging the meat and makes really good sausage. Of course, we got to talking about what is done with the odd cuts and the deer skin. He sells the hides when he can for less than $5, to a tannery. This would be a huge opportunity for anyone wanting to make leather goods, btw - just go to your local deer processor and buy the hides. Your state will likely require... a paper trail, but you could make anything from fine upholstery and jackets to decorative items. But, what really bothered me was the waste of the meat. Most folks field dress their deer (gut) and few take the heart, liver and kidneys home. To not do so is wanton waste of good food. Sometimes a deer comes into his place not gutted..... by then, he has to throw away the spoiled organs. That is such a shame. Of course, the tripe and lights should also be utilized, but convincing folks to eat such things is harder than putting sense in a fool's brain. But it gets worse. People are not using the head meat, often including some of that excellent neck meat that is so good ground for sausage.. The tongue is a delicacy. Boil the tongue, then skin it and let it cook low and slow with lots of onions and whatever else you like. But, the cheek meat is so obviously good meat, just being wasted. Not everyone likes eyes, I get that... but the meat around the eye is very good. The brain is a bit more controversial ... there are a handful of viruses that can infect the brain, but it is very rare for them to present in the brain only, so that the liver, etc shows no other signs... but, if you have a healthy animal, the brain is very good. Breaded and deep fried, or slow braised in cream and mustard...WOW! Thorough cooking should ensure safe eating. The tails can be used in soups and stocks. But, all those bones that are just thrown away -they often have to pay someone to dispose of them! Look up "bone broth", or check out Clint Locklear's video, on the Wolfer Nation channel on youtube. Even the hooves could be turned into gelatin and the intestines used for sausage casings or chitins... but I won't insist on that point. This waste is shameful. There is free food available, and far better than in many restaurants. I urge everyone who reads this, whether they hunt or not, to contact a local deer processor or to talk with deer hunters and to ask for these things.... deer liver or kidneys, grilled or braised, are among of the finest meals to grace any table. If nothing else, use it for dog food. Your dog will be healthy and happy!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Perspective Of A Meat Hunter and Angler - LIFE IS NOT CATCH AND RELEASE


One thing that I will not discuss much on this blog is "catch and release." fishing.  I do not believe in catch and release fishing and I do not practice it.  Sure, if the fish is too small or cannot be legally kept, I will throw it back.  I hunt, fish and trap for meat.  I am not a "sport fisherman."

I realize that catch and release fishing has played a roll in restocking waters that were over fished or polluted in the past, and for introducing new species of fish in areas where they are not native.  This has especially been true for trout fishing in mountain streams.  However, I think it has been over done.  Too often, catch and release fishing is portrayed as the only ethical style of fishing and those who take fish for eating are looked down on, and even prohibited from certain waters.  This really hit home for me when I was reading a cookbook published by one of America's largest fishing tackle companies.  It had some good recipes and some interesting stories, but its tone was off-putting.  I finally realized what was bothering me about the book when I came to the chapter in which the family is described as fishing with foreign guests, spending all day and evening fishing a stream with the most expensive gear and elegant accouterments and, "of course" releasing all of the fish and dining on grilled beef..... the doneness of which could only be measured accurately by the digital thermometer the company was marketing at the time... which sold for around $80.00 in the 1980s.

Well, to each his own.  I have no problem with another person who chooses to fish merely for sport.  I have no problem with a company marketing its tackle exclusively to the wealthy or upwardly mobile.  In the 'yuppie" culture of the 80s and 90s, that company did remarkably well and brought many to fly fishing who otherwise may not have become anglers.  What bothers me, though is really twofold: 1)  the misguided notion that wildlife can be stockpiled; and,  2) the elitist attitude that those who practice catch and release fishing are somehow morally superior and more responsible stewards of nature than those who eat the fish they catch.

Fish are not immortal.  The average fish lives less than a year before falling prey to natural predators (additionally, predation of fish eggs and minnows by other fish is extremely heavy).  Fish can live several years and become very large, but those are more the exception than the rule.  I once caught a mountain lake trout that was close to being a state record.  That was a nice, big fish and a thrill to catch.  I am glad it lived as long as it did.  But, I ate it with a clear conscience... and it was delicious!  That would certainly shock the catch and release fisherman who assumes a released fish will live another year and grow larger for the next angler who will eventually land a record.  I spent most of my summers in the mountains, where the trout streams and rivers are crowded with catch and release fly fisherman.  Some streams are designated catch and release only.  Countless times I have seen raccoons, hawks and other critters destroying the dreams of the noble dry fly fisherman by chowing down on said potential trophy.

Assuming fish had no natural predators, even man, would that be a good thing?  Would the waters be filled will trophy fish?  No.  Wildlife cannot be stockpiled.  All wildlife populations, whether fish, game or predator, must be managed.  Even the highly esteemed wild rainbow trout, were it to become too populous in a stream would quickly exhaust available food resources leading to undersized, weak fish and eventually mass starvation.  Overpopulation also creates favorable conditions for the spread of disease.  It is the job of state wildlife/fish and game organizations to monitor populations of fish and game.  They set low limits on those species whose populations are too low and higher or no limits on those whose populations are too high or at sustainable levels under current fishing or hunting pressure.  When they set a creel limit on fish, they are telling you that you can and should take that number of fish of that given size.

It is a dangerous and foolish assumption that catch and release fishing is more responsible, or more ethical than taking fish for food.  However, it is that very misguided assumption that leads to the attitude of elitism that so irks me.  The elitist who views himself as the true steward of the environment and the highest embodiment of the art of angling, too often looks down on the man who takes his limit home to feed himself and his family.  Never mind that the fisherman who keeps his fish does so in a manner that culls fish populations and ensures the availability of healthy fish for all anglers... but, he just might be a better fisherman too.  He may be able to fish in varying ways with a variety of tackle, whereas the specialist is an expert in only one.  He may even be more intelligent as he has the sense to enjoy the fruits of his labor and relaxation in a delicious meal.  To the elitist though, he is a barbarian, a hick, the lowest of the human form, besmirching the noble art of angling.

In a mountain community in which I spent several years, all of the good trout waters were "owned" by a fly fishing club.  I place owned in quotations, because their legal right of ownership was questionable at best.  The law would appear to read that they could only own the banks on either side of the rivers, and that anyone could wade those waters - the water itself was public.  But, money talks and these were big money "summer people".  Any non-club member caught fishing would quickly be ticketed by the local game wardens.  Their purpose was simple - they meant to keep the riff-raff out.   We local hillbillies were unwelcome in their waters.  Again, I have no problem if a club wants to legally purchase a stretch of water so its members can have a little extra casting room.  But, when they lock up nearly all of the good fishing waters in a community so that the common man cannot enjoy natural recreation or provide for his family's table with the God-given bounty of the earth, that is wrong - and its wrongness compounded by the fact that those "private waters" benefitted from stocking of trout by state agencies, funded by the very tax dollars of those deemed unworthy to fish said waters.

At the heart of my objection to the elitist, strict catch and release philosophy... beyond all I have written previously... is that it embraces a very unnatural view of man's role in nature.  Man is not separate from nature - some alien being to the wilderness whose presence can only be detrimental to the natural order.    The same God who created the world and filled it with plants and animals also created man and gave him a unique role.  The plants and animals - the bounty of the earth- would feed man and in turn, man would steward the earth.  Man would farm, fish and hunt - and man would manage those natural resources.  This stewardship is not only to ensure the earth's bounty for future generations but to ensure the health and environment for plants and animals - living beings that have no capacity for reason or concept of the future and no ability to manage their own environments.

The man (or woman) who eats his catch is fulfilling his natural and God-given role in the natural environment.  For man to live, he has to eat.  Everything he eats was once alive and must die for him to eat.  Life is not catch and release.  Whether plant, fish, bird or mammal, a living thing must give its life for another to live.  The angler who studies the fish he seeks and the art of fishing, who catches and kills the fish, who cleans and scales the fish and who stores or cooks and eats the fish has a much more intimate relationship with his food than does the catch and release fisherman who spends all day yanking fish out of the water by a hook through their lip and looking at them, only to leave them behind to eat steak or hamburgers for dinner.  An angler who fishes with simple tackle like a cane pole, or who keeps his catch to eat, should never be denigrated.  The elitist who looks down his nose at the common man does so out of arrogance and ignorance.

In closing, I will say that when I begin publishing fishing videos on this blog, they will not be catch and release.  Unlike most fishing shows, you will not see scene after scene of the angler pulling a fish from the water, holding up for the camera, exclaiming something like "whoohoo, look at that pretty fish", throwing it out and casting again.  Here, you will fine detailed information about tackle and techniques. You will see how rigs are assembled and how they are fished.  You will see fish caught, landed, killed, bled, gutted and scaled.  You will learn how to store and preserve fish and how to cook them.  Killing will be done as quickly and humanely as possible.  At times, it may be a bit graphic, but will not be unnecessarily so.  I do not enjoy killing, nor do I fish for sport.  However, LIFE IS NOT CATCH AND RELEASE.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Leftover Barbecue Soup

I took the bone from an uncured ham that
I smoked for 10 hours over live hickory coals last week. This, I boiled for several hours. After removing the bone, I added about 1 pound of chopped barbecue, 1 lb of white beans, an onion chopped fine, a few cloves of minced garlic, a big can of stewed tomatoes, frozen chopped spinach, salt,pepper and crushed red pepper to taste.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

A different sort of pepper sauce


Often, I want the flavor of a pepper sauce without the vinegar/fermented taste of Tabasco, Texas Pete, Louisiana, Franks, etc or the heat of a Mexican sauce like El Yucateca (which is my favorite hot pepper sauce), and not a sauce made from dried or roasted peppers. I love those in the right combination, but some times, I want a less hot or acidic taste. I want the fresh, green flavor, enhanced by making a sauce. I have come up with a wine and fresh pepper sauce:
Take the peppers of your choice... cubanelles. anaheim, poblano, wax, banana, peperoncini, cherry, bell, baby bell.... anything from sweet to a bit hot. Remove the seeds and stems.
Toss them in a blender or food processor or along with a few cloves of garlic, onions, scallions or shallots, a good handful of parsley, salt and pepper to taste. Add to this about a half cup of white wine. If you use chardonnay, or another low acid white, add a splash of lemon or lime juice. If you use a wine with sparkling acidity like a good sauvignon blanc, you may skip it. A sweeter wine needs some lime juice and some zest.
Tailor it to your taste. I love this stuff. I find myself adding it to stewed tomatoes, topping baked or roasted chicken and pork... with beans... as a rub for red meats. It is particularly good with mutton and game. Sometimes I mix in some mustard, I have also mixed it into a cream sauce, along with some pureed red leaf lettuce and served over pasta. Generally, just all around good stuff.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Mussels



I just returned from a remarkably unsuccessful surf fishing trip.  It was just before a hurricane and the fish were just not biting.  The only "keepers" I caught, I did so with my cast net while catching minnows for bait.  I continued to fish every high tide, because the simple act of surf fishing is enjoyable - the sand, the water, the sea birds, the indescribable beauty of the shore... but, at low tide I visited a little tidal creek.  I caught blue crabs down there but mainly, I gathered shellfish.  I ate my fill of raw oysters daily, just shucking them and slurping them down while standing in the mud.  I gathered beautiful, sweet, meaty clams and buckets full of mussels.

The clams went into a simple chowder - onions and celery sweated down in butter until translucent, bacon, whole milk and half and half, potatoes, salt and pepper.

The Mussels were the star of the table.  I found them along the edges, in huge colonies clinging to the aquatic grasses and reeds.  I could have literally filled my pickup truck bed with them with very little effort.  I harvested several dozen large mussels... 4-6 inches long.  Back at the house, I washed the mud off and scrubbed them with a stiff brush until all the mud was gone.  The shell is shiny, silvery mother of pearl just under the surface.  Mussels have a"beard", the fibers with which they attach themselves to other surfaces or each other.  When fresh, these can be pulled off by strong hands. Otherwise, a pair of needle nose pliers does the job.



Steaming is the best method for cooking mussels.  I picked up a half bushel of tomatoes from a local farm on the way down and had cooked a gallon of the riper ones down the night before.  I sweated down finely chopped onions and celery tops/leaves in butter and added two cups of tomatoes in a stockpot. Mussels are full of slaty brine, so no salt was needed.  I tossed in some black pepper and a glass of white wine.  Once this came to the boil,  filled the pot with the cleaned and tightly closed mussels.  I put the lid on and waited 10 minutes.  When I opened the pot, all of the mussels had opened.  I removed the pot from the heat, and left the lid on while it cooled.

The only (temporarily due to what they eat) poisonous mussels in America grow on the west coast.  However, it was still very warm weather with lots of warm water being pumped in by the approaching storm... and this was a heavily populated area... so, just to be sure there was no chance of bacterial contamination, I used a two stage cooking method.  After the mussels cooled, I removed them from their shells, and returned them to the cooking liquid.  This, I simmered for a few minutes before serving.

With a slotted spoon, I heaped mussels and tomatoes over white rice and enjoyed a wonderful meal.  In fact, I ate the entire mess of mussels in just two meals,  Their savory/sweet/rich/meaty/briny taste, that is like a combination of an oyster and a clam went so well with both white and red wine that I had quite a feast with a few ginger snaps for dessert.

I was left with nearly a gallon of broth from all of the mussels and vegetables.  I strained it and used this to make several more meals.  Each day, I would serve a ladle full of the broth over buttered rice along with whatever I caught.  A few blue crabs boiled in the broth until their claws dropped, picked and dusted with creole seasonings were jaw droopingly good.  A few shrimp prepared the same way were well worth sore shoulders from tossing the cast net and the many bug bites suffered in their capture.   The few fish I caught were poached in the broth and their flavors enhanced but not compromised.  Each batch of seafood cooked in the broth added complexity, but the flavor of the mussels remained.

Fishing is fishing.... it is always worthwhile, but it is not always catching.  Shellfish, bivalves, mollusks and crustaceans are often more easily harvested and never disappoint when fresh.  Hours spent with my dog watching the sea and the sea birds (there were lots of pelicans around and I even saw a bald eagle steal a fish from a sea gull!), drinking wine and eating the freshest of seafoods are good for the soul... even when the fish don't bite nearly as much as the "no see ums", mosquitoes and sand flies.

Broth and Stock



There are some things so ubiquitous in my daily cooking that I rarely give them the attention I should.  Perhaps chief among these are broths and stocks.  A good cook wastes nothing.  In my family tradition of cooking, all scraps of meat, vegetables, fish, bones, etc were utilized.  A good deal of kitchen scraps were used to feed pets and livestock.... it is strange for me to think that most dogs now days eat only store bought dog food -our dogs on the farm, lived long and healthy lives eating "dog bread" (leftover cornbread or stale biscuits) soaked in gravy, meat scraps from the kitchen and plenty of cut offs from butchering livestock and game.  The choice bits though (and plenty of not so choice bits) fed the family and enriched countless dishes by being utilized for broths and stocks.

Generally speaking the difference between broth and stock is that broth is made with meat and stock is made with bones. However, this is not a hard and fast rule.  It is more useful to consider meat the base of broth and bones the base of stock.  Fish should also be used and you could consider a fish broth as being made with the flesh of the fish and/or the liquid from clams and mussels, while a fish stock would be made with the bones or shrimp shells, etc. However, you may boil fish heads for a wonderfully flavorful broth that also contains bones.  The same is true of chicken or ham broth made with meat still on the bones - when this is done, the joins release some collagen, which gives the broth a wonderfully rich mouth feel and more nutrition.  When it comes to vegetable broths and stocks, the distinctions are less clear, as both are just boiled vegetables.  Not being a vegetarian though, I rarely, if ever, make a pure vegetable broth or stock - I just toss the vegies in with the meat and/or bones.

To make broth, cut whatever meat you like into bite sized chunks put them in a pot of cold water.  Add to that any vegetables you like, if you wish.  You can brown the meat first (I usually do), or not. You can cook the vegetables first, or not. You can use scraps of meat left over from roasts, hams, poultry or fish.  You can use whatever you have and whatever you like. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and let it simmer slowly for several hours, skimming off excess fat occasionally.   It is generally best to make individual broths of chicken (or other poultry), beef (or other red meats), pork and fish.  That way, when you need a cup of fish broth for a recipe, you have it on hand and if you want chicken soup, you already have the broth on hand and need only add a few ingredients to have the wonderful, home made soup that costs very little and is far tastier and better for you than anything from a can.

To make stock, take the bones or shells of whatever critter you have recently cooked and place them on a sheet pan.  Chop up any root vegetables you have on hand and the cut offs of onions, celery, etc.  Put them on the the pan ad drizzle with a little oil and salt.  Roast everything in the oven at around 300-350 degrees until the bones and vegetables are brown. Let the bones cool and then crack them (if you wish).  Put everything in a pot with cold water and cook just as described above for broth.  Stock is much richer than broth and you will likely add smaller amounts to many dishes.  Stocks are a must have ingredient in gravies, soups and sauces, or can be eaten just like soup.  Many people believe that a bowl of stock is among the most nutritious foods on earth.

I really cannot imagine cooking without broth or stock, even on fishing trips.  When I'm at the coast, I keep a pot of shellfish and fish stock going all the time.  I toss the shrimp shells, crab shells, fish bones, etc in, along with an onion studded with cloves and a bay leaf, and some black pepper.  If I want to make a nice soup, all I do is boil a few fish heads in some stock, with some celery and usually a dash or four of Tony Chachere's, a bit of white wine and/or milk.  Most early fishing mornings, a cup of fish stock is my breakfast - stick some jerky in my pocket for lunch and I'm set for most of the day. 

You can refrigerate freeze broth and stock if you can't use them fast enough.  I usually freeze mine in gallon ziplock bags, but some people fill ice trays with them so they can have pre measured amounts. Ideally though, they should be kept out, on the back of the stove and added to daily with fresh scraps.  I have been moving around too much the past few years to keep one going, but I usually have a pot of ham bone stock on the back burner to cook my beans in, and a pot of chicken stock for soups and sauces.  Real French Onion Soup is my favorite. 

Broths and stocks can and should be kept going for generations, handed down like sour dough starters to ensure a heritage of fine cooking! This brings up the final and very important point and the question of whether or not to salt your broths and stocks.  Most chefs would likely say that you should not salt broth or stock, so that it is easier to use as an ingredient.  Using unsalted ingredients makes it easier to control he amount of salt in a dish.  However, I do salt mine.  I live in the South, where it is hot in the summer.  I find that salted broths and stocks keep better without refrigeration, because salt inhibits bacterial growth.  That said, it is okay if they "sour" a bit, so long as you do not let them spoil; this can add a slightly fermented richness tot he flavor.  That must be to your own taste and discretion, though.  If you decide to make and maintain your broths and stocks in the traditional manner of keeping a pot on the back of the stove, simply bring it to a boil for a few minutes daily to prevent spoilage.

The only thing I would caution against adding to your broths is “pot likker” left over from cooking beans or greens.  The flavor is too strong and would dominate the broth.  Instead, add some broth or stock to your pot likker and make a delicious soup.

As I write this, a hurricane is just making landfall.  The rains are coming down and the wind is picking up.  I will likely lose power soon.  It is a great comfort to know that I have several days worth of nutritious food already prepared, simply because I utilize my food scraps in the form of broth and stock. 


Stay safe, well fed and unreconstructed, ya’ll!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

REAL PIZZA!

Although pizza is not generally considered Southern, in recent decades it has become as ubiquitous as hamburgers. I was very fortunate to grow up in a small resort village in the Appalachian mountains of NC, where Italian-Americans were perhaps 1/3rd of the population. I grew up on good pizza, homemade dough, homemade sauce, home made sausage, herbs and tomatoes from the garden. Over the past few years, I have had the remarkable misfortune to lodge in a "village" comprised of at least 90% yankees, with the worst pizza on earth. They all claim to be experts on pizza... and most everything else, but there is only one restaurant in town that makes fresh dough... and that is Little Caesars - the rest all use frozen dough, canned sauce and other abominations! Here, in this "village" (I put it in quotes, because one cannot have a village comprised entirely of rude and/or unfriendly retired yankees... a village denotes community), I must make even what is generally considered a yankee dish, from scratch, because these yankees have no taste. I have very much tailored this recipe to my tastes:
Pizza dough is flour, water, salt and yeast. But, I add beer for a buttery richness.
Proof one packet of dry, active yeast in 1 cup of hot water, in which has been added and dissolved 1 tablespoon of sugar and 1/2 cup beer. Let stand until foamy and active... about 10 minutes.
Mix the yeast liquid into a bowl containing 5 cups all purpose flour (I find the Food Lion house brand to be the best...it is a rather "hard", unbleached AP flour). Knead for 15 minutes or until you have a firm, smooth, elastic, just slightly damp/tacky ball of dough (10-12 minis a stand mixer once it has come together). Add more flour or beer if necessary, but lean to the dry side. The consistency should be such, that tif you were suddenly attacked, you could pick it up and whomp someone in the head with it like a black-jack or sap. Put some olive oil in the bowl and return the dough ball to it, toss it to coat with oil, cover with plastic and let rise 2 hrs in a warm (not hot) oven. After 2 hrs, punch down and divide into 3 equal balls. Put these in ziplock bags with a bit of oil. Put two in the fridge and leave one on the counter for one hour.
Sauce:
In a sauce pan or pot, put 4 tablespoons olive oil. Finely chop one medium onion and toss it into sweat on low/medium low heat, with a good dash of salt. Once the onions are transparent, add 3-4 cloves of chopped garlic, a dash of black pepper, a bout 1/2-1 teaspoon each of oregano, rosemary, basil, garlic powder, parsley, a pinch of thyme and a good dash of crushed red pepper. Let the herbs cook a bit in the oil, but don't let them burn. Then add a few tablespoons of canned crushed tomatoes, stir and let the tomatoes brown/darken just a bit. Then, add the rest of the double size can. Let simmer, stirring occasionally for at least an hour. Salt and season to taste.
Take your room temp dough ball and flatten it out on a floured surface. You can roll it out with a rolling pin or wine bottle..or toss it, or just press it out with your hands. Get it about 18 to 24 inches across, thicker at the edges than the center. Turn it over frequently and make sure the dough is dry and won't stick to the counter.
Then, you can use either a pizza peel (wooden paddle thing) or the back of a cookie sheet. IF you use a peel, dust it with cornmeal. IF you use a cookie sheet, cover it with parchment paper. If you are not using a cookie sheet, you will need a pizza stone, fire bricks or terra cotta tiles placed in a cold oven and then pre-heated to at least 450 degrees. The cookie sheet goes in on the rack, but you'll still need a very hot oven.
Transfer the dough to either your dusted peel or cookie sheet. Cover thinly with sauce to about 1/2 inch form the edges. Top as you like. I used whole milk mozzarella, sliced raw onion, mushrooms, green olives and pepperoni.
If you use a peel, be sure to shake the pizza occasionally and especially before moving toward the oven, to make sure it isn't sticking. The oven is way too hot for anything but a smooth transfer.
Bake your pizza either directly on the stone, or on the parchment paper/cookie tin for about 11 minutes at 450-475, depending on your oven. Peek form time to time to see when the cheese browns-it will be ready then.
Enjoy!


Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Fried Cornbread



Where I come from, fried cornbread has only 3 ingredients: Plain  Cornmeal, Water and Salt..... as my great-great grandmother taught my great grandmother, my great grandmother taught my grandmother, my grandmother taught my mother and my mother taught me.  Actually, this recipe goes back at least to the 1600s in my family.

Actually, I can't give a specific "recipe", because one does not exist.  Each person who cooks it alters the proportions to taste.  Some add more water for thinner, crispier, lacier edges.  Some add less water for thicker, softer patties.  Some add more or less salt.  Some like it browner, like the dark, caramelized areas on pan fried chicken.  My uncle added fresh chopped onion, a dash of garlic powder and a dash of cayenne pepper (which was considered heresy.... tasty, tasty heresy).




Basically, you just make a slurry of cornmeal and water and salt to taste.  It should look about like this:



Then heat oil for frying in a cast iron pan about medium hot.  Drop in a spoonful or two per patty.  Fry one one side, then turn over and fry on the other side.




After they brown up nicely, let them cool on a paper towel lined plate.



It may take a few tries to get it just how you like, but they should turn out not too greasy, soft on the center, crispy on the edges and just very satisfying.  With a plate of mustard greens and a pork chop, or most anything else.... they cannot be beaten!



Monday, January 4, 2016

My Chili Recipe




I've eaten a lot of great chili. Texas chili is awesome and has no beans. New Mexico chili (red and green) is fantastic... my great uncle makes an awesome pork chili verde! Midwestern chili is great in a diner, with freshly chopped onions an cheddar cheese. Carolina (N&S) style hamburgers would not bee complete without that specific style of drive in chili and a Nathan's hotdog just has to have that coney sauce. That said, I make damn good chili. I don't know what style it is, but I've spent years perfecting it. I use beans, not for filler but for flavor. The right beans add richness and sweetness and savoriness. Honestly, the technique is at least as important as the recipe - I'll probably need to do a video. Rex Stout, in a Nero Wolfe novel, wrote that chili was America's original gourmet food. European tradition says that we have 5 tastes; salty, sweet, savory, sour and bitter. Japanese tradition adds one more "umami", which is that hard to describe flavor of browned meat, mushrooms, funky sauces and sometime, spicy heat. Good chili has all of these aspects of flavor.
Judson Carroll's Chili recipe:
1-5 pounds of ground beef (or a mix of beef and venison) about 80 percent lean.
2 medium yellow onions
4 cloves of garlic
6-12 green -peppers (preferably a mix of jalepenos, serranos and poblanos... but if you can only get one, grab the jalepenos)
Salt
Black Pepper
Crushed red pepper (or dried chili peppers)
Cumin
Chili Powder (generic... any brand)
Dried cilantro
Dried avocado leaf
Garlic powder
Lowry's seasoned salt
1 can El Pato sauce
1-2 cans black beans
1-2 cans DARK red kidney beans
1-2 cans pinto beans
1-2 cans de Fratelli or other very fresh tasting brand of crushed tomatoes (or home canned - always better)
Sour cream
El Yucateca green habanero sauce
Tortilla chips
Most importantly, add NO water to this recipe!
First, brown the meat. Toss in the meat and a good tablespoon of salt. Get it well browned. This is the heart of the flavor
Add two chopped onions and the chopped green peppers, stir in and and cook until the onions are translucent and a little brown
Add the garlic and cook at least 10 more minutes over medium high heat
I'll say spoons or pinches because more or less is to taste.
Add a spoonful of black pepper
a pinch or two of crushed rep pepper
two spoons full of cumin
four (at least) big tablespoons of chili powder
a teaspoon of cilantro
a pinch or two of avocado leaf (this will really make the beans taste fantastic... it is the secret flavor in good refried beans)
a spoons full of garlic powder
Let the spices toast and darken a bit
Add the El Pato sauce and cook it down, stirring until most of the liquid is gone.
Taste and adjust seasonings
Add Lowry's seasoned salt to taste.
Dump in your beans, including the liquid in the cans, which is sweet and rich... If you rinse out the cans to get it all into the pot, just add a little water tot he cans and swirl; be sure to cook it out o the pot.
Add the crushed tomatoes and stir in well.
Bring to a simmer.
Taste and season again - another tablespoon of chili powder will likely be needed, and some more seasoned salt.
Simmer for an hour or so.
Serve with a big spoonful of sour cream and some habanero sauce (if you like it hot)
Put chips on the side to dip with until it cools enough to eat.
Anasazi beans are even better than the kidney beans, if you can find them.
The key is to brown everything, including the spices, thoroughly without burning. Aim for savory flavors enhanced by spices and savoriness. And, to taste at every step and adjust the seasonings.





Sunday, January 3, 2016

A Primer on Cornmeal and Cornbread



As any elementary school student knows, corn was first cultivated in the "New World" by natives.  This was one of the first great foods taken back to Europe by explorer's and a staple of colonial cooking.  Cornmeal is simply ground dried corn.  Early Americans took to corn quickly and began figuring out ways to make bread and whisky from it.  Corn is actually more "American than apple pie", as it was a staple crop that enabled the independence of settler's from British and European imports.

Today, when one shops at a grocery store, one is likely to see several different brands and varieties of cornmeal.  There will be "Plain Cornmeal" in white and yellow varieties and "Self Rising" cornmeal also in yellow and white.  Most of these will be fine ground.  If you go to a specialty store (or  gristmill), you may see medium and coarse ground options, as well as other colors of cornmeal.  But, the average person only comes into contact with a few major national brands and only the white and yellow varieties, in fine or medium grind.  This is a relatively new phenomenon.

For centuries, corn has been grown in America and ground in small grist mills.  Usually, in a rural community, one family would own land on a body of water and build the mill, using a river, creek or "mill stream" to turn a water wheel, which would provide the power for grinding.  Other families would grow the corn and take it in to be ground "on halves."  The mill owner would keep half the ground corn and the farmer would take half home.  The mill owner would then sell his half of the corn to make a profit.  This led to regional preferences for  the fineness or coarsens of a grind, as well as, the varieties and colors of corn.  Variations aside though, there was only one variety of cornmeal as we would see it today and that variety was "plain." Self rising cornmeal would not come on the market for  at least 200 years after the Southern states were settled and founded.

In the coastal and "low country" areas of the Southern United States, cornbread is still usually made the same way as our ancestors made it hundreds of years before, only with modern equipment.  This is fried cornbread, which is simply a mix of plain (usually fine ground) cornmeal with a bit of salt and water, stirred into a slurry and fried in oil in a cast iron pan.  Any type of oil can be used, from vegetable oil to bacon drippings and the cornmeal may be white or yellow.  The grind varies to taste as does the color and thickness of the cornbread patties.  My family (which has been growing and grinding corn, and frying cornbread in eastern NC, SC, VA and GA since the 1600s) prefers white, fine ground (plain) cornmeal mixed with a bit more water than many recipes call for, so that our patties form crispy, lacy edges when fried. A drier slurry makes a patty with more rounded, softer edges, with more density int he center.

Baking powder was developed in 1845 and soon after, it was added to plain (all purpose) flour to make a self rising flour. Sometime later, it was added to plain cornmeal to make the self rising version, but it would be decades before it became popular in the South.  By the time Self Rising Cornmeal came to market, the Civil War was on the horizon.  Soon, would come blockades which prevented the import of any goods into the South.  Following the War, came Reconstruction in which many Southerners were kept at starvation level poverty for years as punishment for secession.  It would be nearly 1900 before the Southern economy had recovered enough, and railroads had expanded enough, for non-regional foods to come to market in most Southern Communities.  Even then though, the super market/ grocery store that we know today was yet to come.  Back then, one bought their staples at a general store.  The general store usually carried only one brand of each item.  You gave your list to the store manager and your goods were brought to you at the register - you didn't select them and variety was not an option.

Piggly Wiggly introduced the modern super market in 1916.  This was the first time Americans in the Southern United States had the opportunity to shop or themselves - to walk the isles and choose the products that most appealed to them and to put them in their own baskets for purchase.  No longer did people have only the option of the one variety of cornmeal available at the local mill, but they had a shelf stocked with various brands and varieties.  With the advent of the super market came the modern marketing of national, brand named goods.  Flour and cornmeal companies were among the first companies to make effective use of radio advertising for their products to the South, through sponsoring live country music programs.  In Texas, W. Lee O'Daniel, owner of the "Light Crust" flour company would not only sponsor radio shows, but form the "Lightcrust Doughboys".... which evolved into both Milton Brown's Musical Brownies and Bob Wills" Texas Playboys (which became among the most, if not the most popular band in America in its time).  O'Daniel rode this fame to becoming both Governor of and US Senator from the State of Texas.  In the Southeast, WSM's Grand Ole Opry came to dominate the airwaves and Martha White became its longest running sponsor.  Most southerners are familiar with this tune by the legendary bluegrass band, Flatt and Scruggs:   https://youtu.be/ZxgBycCuqVQ

Although other brands, like White Lilly, were popular, Martha White came to dominate the Southern market.... and with it, came "Hot Rize".... or, baking powder.  By 1950, Self Rising Cornmeal had a strong foothold in the Southern kitchen. This, however was the beginning of risen cornbread.  So, lets talk about rising (or leavened) breads.

For thousands of years before cornbread was developed, Europeans had been making bread with flour (and other grains).  Flour contains gluten, which is nothing more than a type of protein.  Yes, I know that millions of people are worried about gluten these days and that "gluten free' foods are the current trend marketing to said ignorant people.... btw, less than 5% of Americans are actually gluten intolerant... probably less than 2% in reality.  For everyone else, gluten is just a plant based protein and is just as nutritious as any other natural food.  But, I digress.....

Gluten is the aspect of wheat flour that gives it its chewy texture and allows it to rise.   Yeasts are bacteria,  that when added to flour and water (sugar, eggs, milk etc) eat the available sugars and starches.  The byproduct of yeasts eating and multiplying is carbon dioxide gas.  Little bubbles form in the dough and become trapped in the strands of gluten.  Traditionally, this is what causes bread to rise.  Unleavened bread does not rise and is "flat bread", crackers, etc.

Wheat bread may also be made to rise with chemical leavening such as baking soda and baking powder.  Baking soda produces carbon dioxide when exposed to an acidic liquid.  Baking powder rises twice, the first time when liquid is introduced and a second time when the bread becomes hot enough in baking.

Cornmeal contains no gluten. Therefore, on its own, no leaving agent can truly make it rise.  Whether plain cornmeal is mixed with yeast, baking soda or baking powder, there is no gluten to hold the bubbles.  A few bubbles may last long enough to form little chambers in the cornbread, it will essentially turn out as a flat bread.

Before the advent of Self Rising Cornmeal, some folks began using baking soda to make cornbread that would rise somewhat.  Usually, this was in regions that were way from major cities, where reliable yeasts and wheat flour were less readily available.  They added eggs and buttermilk into their batter, along with baking soda.  This gave protein from eggs to allow rising and acid to activate the baking soda and cause rising.  When baking powder came on the market, this gave even a bit more rise.  This was "skillet cornbread".  It was especially popular where people did not have ovens and relied on dutch ovens or open fire cooking, which made it the easiest bread to make at home or on the trail.

When Self Rising cornmeal became readily available, and the national companies had access to nearly every kitchen in the South, they found the opportunity to dominate the market.  The promoted Self Rising Cornmeal as a convenience food and as a superior product to Plain Cornmeal.  They purchased "advertorials" in magazines and cookbooks, conjuring the old-fashioned, Southern Cooking images along with western campfires and creative recipes.  They also promoted their products as more modern, implying that only the uneducated and unsophisticated would use any other brand... and only a moron, backwoods hick would use plain cornmeal from a local mill.

Their marketing was amazingly effective... and, it was not completely false.  Wonderful cornbread can be made with Self Rising Cornmeal.  However, wonderful cornbread can also be made from Plain Cornmeal.  In reality, both types are delicious and ideally suited for their own applications.  The problem is that too many people who were brought up on heavy brand marketing stopped using Plain Cornbread from their local mill.... and many of those mills went out of business.  Today, we actually have fewer choices in brands and types of cornmeal than our ancestors did just 100 years ago and fewer of us know how to cook properly with cornmeal.

To put it simply:

1) Plain Cornmeal is for making fried cornbread or for breading fish (etc) for frying.

Self Rising Cornmeal may be used for making fried cornbread, but it will not rise.  The texture will be a bit drier and more crumbly than fried cornbread made with Plain Cornmeal.  It will not form crispy, lacy edges.  And, because salt comes pre-added, you can only add more, not less.

2) Self Rising Cornmeal is ideal for making baked loaves of cornbread or cornbread muffins.

With the addition of eggs, water or milk and sugar, it produces the cornbread that is most often served in restaurants and which has probably come to be much more popular in recent years.

3) Skillet Cornbread is not fried cornbread.

It can be made with either Self Rising Cornmeal of amended Plain Cornmeal (as can baked).  It is usually mixed like a baked cornbread batter, poured into a hot, heavily greased skillet and finished in the oven.  This gives a crispy, fried bottom and a baked bread consistency throughout.

4) Many things can be added to basic cornbread recipes, but the fundamentals remain.

5) Hoe Cakes, Corn Pones and Indian Fry Bread are traditionally made with plain cornmeal.  Corn dodgers, dumplings and hushpuppies vary.

6) Masa is a type of cornmeal in which the corn has been treated with lye.  The lye makes the corn more digestible and nutritious.  It also yields a softer cornmeal, which is generally used for tortillas, tamales and other delicious items originating in Mexico and South America.

In closing.... our tastes delight in variety.  Why just have one type of cornbread made with only one brand, color and texture of cornbread?  You may have a favorite (I certainly do - the same fried cornbread made with Plain cornmeal that my great grandmother taught my grandmother to make, that she taught my mother, that she taught me, etc..... btw, we like the House-Autry brand made in Four Oaks, NC).    The problem is that too few people, these days, received family food traditions passed down.  They know southern food as only what they eat at a restaurant chain and learn their recipes from the back of a ready mixed package..... if they even learn to "cook."  The result is that small producers and older recipes are lost.  I believe that is to the detriment of us all.  "Hold fast to tradition!"


- Photo: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hope_Park

Advice on Collards




If you don't like collards, here is my advice: You never know what type of collard greens those are in the grocery store or where they come from. Collards can actually be grown and harvested most of the year, but the best, sweetest ones come straight from the field after the first frost. The old fashioned "cabbage head", also called Morris heading, are best. Stay away from loose or "Georgia" collards. You'll know they are good if you try a tender bit of a stem right where it joins the leaf. It should be sweet with just a hint of bitterness. We only cook them with fatback and salt ( no sugar or hamhock), but to each his own.
To cook collards: wash the leaves thoroughly, tear out the stems, chop the leaves into long, thick ribbons, chop the tender parts of the stems and discard the tough parts. Render out a few slices of fatback in a deep, wide pot. Remove the fatback and add some collards. Place the lid on just long enough for that bunch to wilt down and make room for the next. Add another bunch and stir them to the bottom. Repeat until everything is in the pot. Once you have enough cooked greens to press the raw bunches down, don't use the lid anymore. Salt to taste.
Be sure not to cook them with the lid on the pot. Putting it on for a minute every now and then to help wilt them down is fine. But collards release sulfur gas when the cook and if this is allowed to mix with the steam and fall back into the pot, it ruins the flavor and is actually a bit toxic. You know when your collards are cooked right because they stay vibrantly green. If they turn dark, olive brown, then they are full of sulfur. Also if they are fibrous or leathery, the leave were too old when picked. Look at the pic to see the color collards should be.
Beyond that, just be sure to have some apple cider vinegar in which hot peppers have been pickled to douse on when plated. If none of that works... well, you just might not like collards.