Southern Cookbook and Good Home Cooking

Now that school’s out and I have all three girls home with me all day, every day, my time is even more valuable, especially to them. Apparently, along with all my other roles, I’m also their personal chef, activities director and event planner for the summer. They don’t know how good they have it. I try to remember this when they try to lay on the guilt with: “I’m hungry. I’m bored. Can we go somewhere?” HELL NO! I’m trying to write in my blog. Of course I didn’t actually say that.

One place we love to go is the library. It’s good, free entertainment and we get to bring home books to occupy them later. I owe my sanity to the public library (which is why I made a nice little donation when I heard my branch might shut down due to underfunding). That’s not the only reason I love it. I could spend hours in non-fiction, browsing the shelves in section 641. Food and drink. I’m a big supporter of borrowing books rather than spending money on new ones. Especially cookbooks, since I really only use them for inspiration. But every now and then, I find one I don’t want to return. I renew it until I can’t anymore. Art Smith’s Back to the Family, is one such book. The pictures are amazing and the food is good and simple. I’ve made bread pudding (twice), fennel coleslaw and a brunch dish that coincidentally called for a cheese I’d just picked up at Trader Joe’s that I’d never used before (manchego). As usual, I made a few changes to suit our taste and food choices and sometimes just to use what we had on hand. If you like southern food, I recommend this book.

I’ve made several recipes already. My favorite is the bread pudding. I strongly recommend drowning the raisins in spiced rum first. I let them marinate for about an hour in hot rum. And I served it with ice cream as suggested (homemade vanilla). It’s so easy to make, it’s scary.  Scary because it so damn good.

One night I was looking for a way to use some cabbage that I’d had in the refrigerator for a week and a half, which by the way was still crisp and quite fresh since it was freshly picked when I’d bought it from Matthews Farmers’ Market (best in the Charlotte area, hands down). Raw veggies and apple cider vinegar have great health benefits. The recipe is for Fennel Coleslaw. I substituted half the fennel with my cabbage and added a red bell pepper.  I love fennel and it has its own benefits, but I don’t think my family would love a coleslaw made entirely of fennel.

Late one morning, I was looking through the book and came across a recipe for Asparagus with Manchego Cheese. I had a smoothie very early that morning and was getting hungry. This recipe looked easy and tasty. The tomatoes, now in season and delicious, and of course the manchego caught my eye. Similar to the bread pudding recipe, it calls for bread cubes and eggs. I substituted the French bread with a very dense whole wheat sandwich bread and the asparagus with broccoli, because that’s what I had on hand. When I was a less experienced and less confident cook, I would pass on recipes unless I had (and liked) the ingredients called for, which was a big mistake. It turned out wonderfully, but I can’t wait to try it with asparagus (and a few other veggies, now that I think of it).

I encourage less confident cooks to take a chance and make changes to suit your taste or use what you already have. (America spends a lot of money and resources on wasted food.) My mom has this simple and awesome fried rice recipe that’s comforting and makes me feel like a kid again. It’s not like the fried rice you’d find in a Chinese restaurant. There is no soy sauce or eggs and aside from the Korean sticky rice she uses, it’s more like an Americanized version of fried rice. She uses rice, carrots, onions, celery, ground beef, salt and pepper (and probably some minced garlic). I made this recipe with sausage instead, again because it’s what I had on hand. The smell of the sausage with those ingredients reminded me of another one of her recipes for dirty rice, so I meshed the two and added curry powder and a little extra turmeric (because it has some great health benefits and to give it a beautiful yellow color). Don’t get me wrong, my mom’s recipes are already good and very special to me. They are my comfort foods, along with the rest of her home cooking. (Where do you think my interest in food and gardening comes from?) However, I’ll be making this mash-up of the two again and again.

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When Two Seasons Collide on a Plate

August might just be the best month for food (at least here in my region). There are still some tomatoes and summer squash on the vines. Some herbs and leafy greens are perking up again thanks to cooler temperatures. A few peaches and cantaloupes are left.  And now the first of the winter squash is being harvested. You can never really get bored when eating seasonally. Something new is always cropping up at the farmers market (or in the garden). And when two seasons collide on a plate, it’s a culinary dream. This week I have been successfully keeping things seasonal and simple. I don’t think I spent more than an hour on a single meal this week. (Well maybe the gnocchi, but that was my fault. Keep reading.) I cooked in bulk, made use of leftovers and kept recipes simple.

On Sunday we had chilli made with browned ground pork and cooked beans straight out of the freezer and tomatoes that had already been pureed and canned. (Why do they call it canning, if you put it in a jar?) All I had to do was chop some onions, peppers and herbs and throw it in a pot with my precooked beans and ground pork and a little seasoning. I did make cornbread from scratch (adding jalapenos and frozen corn for more yum).

“Meatless Monday” consisted of a stir-fry with seasonal veggies and shiitakes served with brown rice (cooked a double batch) and the best thing I’ve eaten in awhile: grilled okra. The simple recipe came from a friend. (Thanks Nisa!) I washed and dried the whole okra then tossed it in olive oil, salt and pepper. I skewered it, then grilled it on medium high heat for about 2 minutes on each side. So simple and delicious – it blew my mind. I thought I hated slimy okra. Now I can’t wait to get some more at the farmers market tomorrow! Revisiting foods you thought you hated, only to discover that you really love them… priceless.

Porkchops were on the menu Tuesday. I could eat vegetarian nearly every day, but after a Meatless Monday the rest of the family was ready for something meaty. I used my favorite pork chop recipe. I browned them, then let them braise in their own juices and some red wine, garlic and rosemary. They braised for two hours, but I wasn’t in the kitchen for that! I also made one of my kids favorite sides, potato wedges (olive oil, rosemary, salt and pepper – 25 minutes in a 400 degree oven), and their not-so-favorite sauteed swiss chard (onions, garlic and olive oil). We also had a salad with homemade mustard vinaigrette (olive oil, apple cider vinegar, mustard, honey, rosemary, salt and pepper).

Wednesday we had Baked Delicata Squash with Lime Butter. Delicata is a winter squash that looks kind of like a mini watermelon. I served it with leftover brown rice, lima beans (cooked in a broth made with leftover juices from Monday’s pork chops). We had salad again with homemade avocado mojito dressing (avocado, olive oil, a few tablespoons of Greek yogurt, mint, lime juice and zest, salt and pepper and a little milk to thin it out a bit). I also toasted the seeds from the squash (seasoned with olive oil and chilli powder). We sprinkled them on our salad to add a zesty crunch. The salad dressing was so refreshing and complimented the squash with it’s chilli-lime-butter.

Yesterday we had ricotta gnocchi. I always thought gnocchi was some fancy, technical Italian dish. It was so easy. Well… it should have been. I made it hard by trying to use a piping bag (which was way too small) instead of just rolling it into a thick rope and cutting it like the recipe instructed.  This was the most time consuming recipe of the week, but it can be done quickly if you don’t get in your own way. I used this recipe as a template for the gnocci, but replaced the nutritionally deficient and refined all purpose flour (bleh!) with 1/2 whole wheat flour and 1/2 brown rice flour. This made a dense, yummy gnocchi. But the sauce is what really made it tasty. I chopped and browned half a package of bacon, then removed the bacon bits and added  a couple tablespoons of chopped sage, about two ounces of gorgonzola and aji dulce peppers to the bacon drippings. I let that cook for a minute, then turned off the heat and added some broccoli I had steamed in the microwave and some thawed chopped spinach. When the gnocchi floated to the top of the boiling pasta water, I just tossed them straight into the spinach and broccoli mixture. I topped each plate with the reserved bacon bits. Oh, and I’m giving myself a pat on the back for remembering to double the gnocchi recipe so that I could freeze a batch for later.

Aji Dulce Peppers - Sweet and fruity like habeneros, minus the heat!

Tonight we’ll be finishing off the avocado dressing with our fish tacos (cod seasoned with lime, tequila and chilli powder, served with lettuce, tomato and green onions). And as for lunch, we’ve been enjoying leftovers and sandwiches. We had baked potatoes for lunch one day, which was a big hit with the girls. For breakfast we’ve had Greek yogurt which we flavor ourselves, cereal (not the junky, sugary ones), burritos (eggs, cheese and veggies) and stone ground grits with bacon, goat cheese, kale, tomatoes and onions (not those quick cooking southern style grits – mine are more like risotto and could easily be served for dinner). I’ve been snacking on another one of my seasonal favorites – goat cheese stuffed figs. They don’t have a lot of flavor on their own, but I’ve found that marinating them in a little bit of balsamic vinegar for just few minutes really brings out their flavor. I add a tiny bit of goat cheese and some walnuts then drizzle them with a little honey. Yum. So sad that fig season seems to be winding down. The balsamic marinated figs are also a great addition to salad.