There are some dishes that are emblematic of a culture. Fried chicken is as Southern as kudzu and sweet tea. Lobster defines the food of New England, and chili peppers speak to Southwestern cuisine. There are many others to consider, but red beans and rice, a true Creole classic, means Louisiana country cooking. Like many of the best recipes from simple food, red beans and rice is made up of humble ingredients that, after a slow simmer, are transformed into a sustaining, nourishing bowl of down-home comfort.
Tag: Down-Home Comfort
In my family, fall means a trip to the mountains for apple picking and apple cider. We love buying a variety of different kinds of apples — some to refrigerate and keep for eating, some to make jelly, and always, always a couple of pounds of cooking apples for apple pie and crisp. While I adore apple pie, I have to admit that an apple crisp is so simple and easy that it’s my go-to apple dessert. There’s no pastry to make and no dough to roll out, and with a little pep in your prep you can have dessert in under an hour.
Crisps, along with their culinary cousins — crumbles, grunts, brown betties and pandowdies — are all simple, old-fashioned, homey desserts. The desserts in this genre use a streusel-like mixture of flour or breadcrumbs, sugar, warm spices and butter, along with rolled oats and nuts. I especially love to use fresh, in-season Georgia pecans in the fall, but almonds and walnuts are great, too. Crisps are flat-out easy, and everyone loves a piping-hot fruit dessert with a sweet, buttery topping. You can serve the crisp with ice cream, whipped cream, or even creme fraiche for an ultra-indulgent dose of down-home comfort. Read more
Somewhere along the way when women were being “liberated” from the kitchen, processed and convenience foods became dinner du jour. One-pot casseroles became a go-to for many busy moms and families. One of my favorites growing up was Broccoli, Chicken and Rice Casserole. What’s not to love? It’s filling chicken and rice with creamy gravy, topped with cheese. It’s real down-home comfort.
Most often this indulgent casserole is made with frozen broccoli and a couple of familiar red-and-white cans of cream of mushroom soup. This version is made with fresh, wholesome ingredients. It takes just a smidgen more time, but the results are absolutely extraordinary. I’m pretty adamant that down-home comfort can be made without bags and boxes. The truth of the matter is that all too often those shortcuts aren’t really timesavers and they are packed with salt and food additives. I personally really like recipes with ingredients that you can pronounce and don’t need a degree in chemistry to decipher. That gives me a very deep, satisfying feeling of comfort.
It’s a rite of passage to go to one of America’s great steakhouses. Dark knotty, wide wood; warm, well-polished brass; and banquettes upholstered in worn, creased leather set the stage. When partnered with excellent food and excellent service, it’s an all-American experience. Our attraction to the scent of meat cooking on fire is basic; the wafting smoke seems to awaken some sort of primordial urge buried deep in the recesses of our carnivorous brains. There’s not much heartier and more satisfying in terms of comfort food than a meaty, perfectly charred steak topped with mushrooms and served with a baked potato and creamed spinach. This is how the West was won — or at least west Wall Street.
Life occasionally calls for a thick, juicy steak. Those special times might be celebrating something such as a big promotion, a graduation or an anniversary. The celebrations often come with a big price tag, too. Down-home comfort steakhouse-style is a real cause for celebration, because you can do it in the comfort of your own home. No rude waiters, no dings in the car due to the careless teenager in valet and no eye-popping bill that costs as much as a house payment.
Scalloped Potatoes. Potatoes au Gratin. Potato Cheese Casserole. Potato Cheese Bake. Many names describe this mouthwatering, golden-brown, bubbly dish of down-home comfort.
I have a friend who is a personal chef in Atlanta. She told me that she once described a possible menu dish to her customer as a casserole and her customer responded with a slightly disdainful, haughty voice, “Oh, no, our family doesn’t eat casseroles.” Duly noted, my wise friend observed. A few weeks later she thought she’d try again. She described pretty much the same dish, but this time as a gratin. The same customer replied in that same disdainful voice, “No, that’s too far too fancy, our family doesn’t eat gratins.” My friend knew her stumbling block was the language, the description, the perception, because she knew she meant the same recipe. So, going up to bat for a third time, a few weeks later still, she described the dish as a “bake.” It worked. “Oh, yes,” the customer happily replied, “that sounds lovely.”
What? Biscuits and Chocolate Gravy. That sounds like something a devious 6-year-old would make up, doesn’t it? Tender, buttery biscuits enrobed in dark, rich rivulets of creamy, chocolate gravy. Yes, it may sound very Willy Wonka-inspired, but Biscuits and Chocolate Gravy is actually a very old-school traditional breakfast of the Upland South.
People talk about Southern food as if it’s one cuisine, when in actuality it has many variations and subtleties, often region by region. The South can be subdivided into two principal larger areas: the Upper South and the Lower, or Deep, South. The Upper, or Upland, South is the northern border of what we define as the South in the United States. It runs from Virginia and North Carolina westward through West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas, dipping into the northern realms of Alabama and Georgia. The Upland South doesn’t conform neatly to state lines, but instead is influenced by the terrain, history and culture. It’s the landscape of a diverse society and what could generally be defined as Appalachia, an area at once both incredibly poor and culturally rich.
Corn has been part of the American kitchen since Colonial days, as it was a hardy crop, relatively easy to grow and resistant to insects. It was a staple of the Native American diet long before the first settlers arrived and quickly became part of the settlers’ diet. It had a long harvest that extended over a longer period of time than wheat and was cultivated extensively from New England to Georgia. There’s also a long history of corn in the hills and valleys of Appalachia, as corn was better suited to the mountainous terrain than wheat or barley. Corn was eaten fresh in the summer and dried into meal for the winter months. Practicality guided it to find its way in some form, sweet or savory, into breakfast, lunch and dinner.
When I was a child my grandfather would sometimes barbecue a whole hog to mark the end of summer. He was a honest-to-goodness country boy and knew what he was doing with a pig and a pit. The huge beast was split and slowly cooked on a metal grate set over a pit of gray cement blocks above glowing embers. My grandfather would make a basting mop out of a bent pecan branch and white cotton rags, patiently basting the pig with a potent broth of vinegar and salt, letting heat and smoke slowly transform that pig into our Labor Day feast. My sister, the cousins and I would run around in the nearby yard, begging to stir the coals or add split pieces of oak, absolutely anything to be near this unusual scene that utterly transfixed us. To this day, I can close my eyes and hear the sizzle of the fat as it dripped on the white-hot coals.
I am just old enough to remember Bill Cosby as the Jell-O pudding man. Those joyful ads were effective! He would be seated at a kid-size table in a kid-size chair, nearly always in a colorful, crazy sweater, with his knees jutting up as he cavorted with what seemed to me to be very, very lucky children. He was like the ultimate dad or friendly uncle, smiling and enjoying smooth and creamy pudding with a group of smiling, happy kids. I wanted to be one of those happy kids; I wanted a cup of that chocolate pudding.
I didn’t grow up eating that premade cup of pudding he was promoting, which may be part of the reason I had such a hankering for it. It wasn’t that we were uber-elite about homemade foods only. In my family, the cakes and pies were always made from scratch, but in terms of convenience desserts, my family was actually more inclined to the ruby-colored, fruit-flavored gelatin versions. My grandfather called it “nervous pudding,” since it wiggled and jiggled.
A rotisserie chicken picked up on the way home from work in a mad dash into the grocery store spells convenience. It’s dinner on the table in a hurry. You can even get all-organic chickens with all-natural ingredients in some better markets. It’s good stuff. However, a home-cooked Whole Roast Chicken with Lemon and Herbs spells real down-home comfort. For all practical purposes, they are the same dish, same bird, same concept, but face it — it’s just not really the same thing. A bird in a bag is a heck of a lot better than a fast-food burger and fries, but it’s like comparing the proverbial apples and oranges — both fruit and round, but that’s about it.
There is little more that satisfies me personally than roast chicken. I love the mouthwatering aroma that fills the house, the sound of the sizzle of the juices in the pan when you open the door to baste the meat, the crackle of the golden-brown skin when the bird is carved. When I go to a world-class restaurant and I really want to see what the chef can do, I don’t order the sous vide signature dish christened with foam or the fancy-pants dish studded with truffles; I order simple, humble roast chicken.