Blueberries are the Disney version of summer fruit, round and gentle like a bouncing sing-along ball. They bring to mind fingers stained purple-blue, fruity tarts, pies and cobblers, and warm, fresh-from-the-oven muffins. I love eating them fresh out of hand as a snack, with creamy, healthful yogurt to start my day — or perhaps topped indulgently with freshly whipped cream to end it! Blueberries are good and good for you, a veritable summer delight. Read more
Tag: Down-Home Comfort
Although it’s pasta-based, old-fashioned Easy Macaroni Salad is pretty far away from anything that might remotely be considered Italian. Only in Middle America would something made of pasta and mayonnaise be considered a salad. Believe me, Rome, Georgia, and Rome, Italy, are more than just a few miles apart. Instead, consider the deli cases all across the U.S. that have mini-tubs and buckets of this lined up like soldiers and at the ready for afternoon picnics and summer suppers on the deck. Macaroni salad is all-American Down-Home Comfort. Moms and dads are also quick to go to this to recipe to accompany BBQ chicken or burgers on the grill. And we all know that store-bought is fine, but homemade is nearly always better. Read more
If there is any one point that marks the beginning of the backyard barbecue season, it has to be Memorial Day. The official start of summer may be the solstice on June 21, but summer really starts Memorial Day weekend. It’s the kickoff of afternoons spent tending burgers and ribs on the grill, enjoying lazy picnics in the park — before it gets too hot — and supper under the stars. Food just tastes better when served outdoors on a beautiful evening. Our senses are alive and we are more engaged. On my deck I have the very same picnic table my mother’s family used when I was a child. It essentially serves as our dining room table in the spring and early summer. Dining alfresco is one of the true joys of the season. Add a slab of ribs and you’ve got summer front and center. Read more
From the familiar blue box to gourmet eight-cheese combinations, we can’t seem to get enough of mac and cheese. It may be the be all and end all of down-home comfort food. It’s rich, flavorful and satisfying — friendly and familiar but never dull. It’s a great, classic choice for dinner parties and a vegetarian dish that leaves even the carnivores contented. Almost everyone loves it. Creamy and cheesy, there simply aren’t many foods more comforting than homemade macaroni and cheese.
There are two primary formulas for making all-American macaroni and cheese: the bechamel or custard method. Bechamel is a white sauce made by stirring heated milk into a butter-flour roux. This white sauce can be thin, thick or somewhere in the middle. The thickness of the sauce depends on the proportion of butter and flour to milk and varies according to what you are using it for: for example, thin for soup, medium-bodied for casseroles such as mac and cheese, and thick for souffles. The medium white sauce is probably the most common. The proportions for a thin sauce are 1 tablespoon each of butter and flour per 1 cup of milk, a medium sauce uses 2 tablespoons each of butter and flour, and a very thick sauce, 3 tablespoons each. Bechamel is a very useful sauce in the kitchen, far beyond mac and cheese.
While working on my first cookbook, I got into a squabble with my editor over a recipe title. I had created a grits casserole recipe called “Funeral Grits,” and my Harvard-educated, California-residing editor was appalled. She said no one would want to cook something associated with a funeral. I countered her argument, noting that a bowl of grits after a funeral would evoke comfort, not sorrow.
Who wouldn’t want a bowl of creamy, comforting grits when feeling sad? Comfort food means safety, satisfaction and simplicity. Grits are easy to prepare, can be a main meal or a side dish, will hold for hours in a low oven and reheat wonderfully as leftovers, even in the microwave. I’m suggesting this Grits Casserole for Mother’s Day breakfast or brunch. It’s easy enough that Dad can help the kids make it the day before or that morning. And, worst-case scenario, if the lady of the house has to cook her own Mother’s Day Grits Casserole, it can be made ahead by her too! Read more
Perhaps the most-famous shortcake dessert is strawberry shortcake. Depending on where you are in the United States, shortcakes can either be sponge cakes or sweet biscuits. These shortcakes are split and the bottoms are covered with a layer of strawberries and whipped cream. They are divine down-home comfort.
What’s the secret to a light, tender shortcake? This is where down-home comfort meets food science. Wheat flour contains two proteins, glutenin and gliadin. When you combine flour with water, the proteins create a strong and elastic sheet called gluten. Flours vary in their protein levels, which affects the texture of baked goods. Gluten gives structure to yeast breads but is not recommended for tender sponge cakes, biscuits and quick breads. All-purpose flour milled in the South is from soft red winter wheat, which has less gluten-forming protein. It is typically bleached, which makes it whiter, but this does not affect the protein. My family has always used White Lily flour, a staple across the South; another dependable Southern brand is Martha White.
There seems to be a requirement for comfort food that it is simple, unpretentious and modest. There is a natural humbleness to home-cooked foods from the wild. Sure, chefs all over are foraging and turning bits of moss into foams and gelees, but long before the old became new again, people were gathering food from the wild and harvesting from the seas, lakes and rivers.
Fried fish and hushpuppies are quintessential examples of such simple country cooking. If you had a hook and a line and a little cornmeal, you might have dinner. (Well, then there’s the whole idea of noodling — catching catfish with your bare hands — but that’s just crazy.) A fish fry would not be complete without a hushpuppy. Hushpuppies are traditionally made from the seasoned cornmeal used to coat the fish (often mixed with beer) and fried in the oil used to cook the fish. Nothing is wasted — another hallmark of down-home comfort.
Fresh ham is nothing like the boozy bourbon-soaked and smoked holiday ham or the candy-sweet spiral wonder. It’s essentially a pork roast with a bone — a rather big pork roast with a bone — but a pork roast nonetheless. It’s simply the upper hind leg of a pig, not processed or cured using salt or brine, nor smoked as most hams are. Fresh ham tastes like a really moist pork loin or center-cut pork chops. And, when prepared and roasted properly, a fresh ham is capped by an exquisite, burnished-gold piece of crispy skin. It’s the perfect marriage of a bone-in pork chop and cracklin’ pork belly. Fresh ham means down-home comfort, especially when served with roasted sweet potatoes.
How did serving ham for Easter become a custom? Mediterranean celebrations, including the Jewish Passover, traditionally call for lamb at spring feasts. However, in northern Europe, pigs were the primary protein and ham was often served instead for special meals. Pigs were slaughtered in the fall and the meat was salted, smoked and cured over the winter. The resulting hams were ready to eat in the spring. At the point when refrigeration became widely available and curing hams wasn’t a necessity, someone came up with the grand idea of cooking fresh ham. I am glad they did.
Banana pudding is the epitome of old-fashioned country cooking. Yet it’s based on the English dessert called trifle made of layered cake, custard and fruit, often served in a special footed glass serving dish. There are no fancy dishes used for banana pudding. The iconic banana pudding receptacle is a square-shaped Pyrex glass baking dish. Practically every “meat-and-three”-serving restaurant, old-school cafeteria and BBQ joint across the South has a shallow aluminum pan or Pyrex dish of silky banana pudding on its cold line ready to serve up. Nothing fancy, no ordeals — just easy and delicious. Read more
The Chesapeake Bay, Atlantic coast and Gulf of Mexico are riddled with numerous shallow muddy inlets of brackish water, the perfect home for blue crabs. Blue Crabs are found abundantly in rivers, inlets and bayous and are one of the most popular of the more than 4,500 species of crabs found worldwide. Cracking steamed crabs is an eating sport of sorts; the eater has to really dive in to reap the rewards. There might be a bit too much work for it to be considered comfort food. Cheesy, warm crab dip moves in the right direction, but crispy on the outside, tender on the inside crab cake? That, my friends, is pure down-home comfort.
The best crab cakes contain ingredients that enhance the flavor of the crab yet don’t compete with it, like raw red peppers that are usually added simply for color but do little to improve the flavor of the dish. Crab cakes are best when they are left alone to be crab cakes, not crab-and-breading cakes, or worse, breading-and-crab cakes. You need just enough of a binder to hold them together.