Sunday, July 20, 2008

A Southern Trio

You know, if I lived in the south I would weigh 400 pounds. I love grits – especially if mixed with plenty of cheese or topped with plenty of butter. (Chuck is not normally a grits man but Paula Deen has a recipe that calls for lots of butter, two types of cheese, and a can of spicy Ro-Tel tomatoes that he relishes.) I love collards – especially if cooked with a piece of smoked meat and finished with a dash of vinegar and a small (or large) amount of red pepper flakes for interest. And anything is better battered and fried. Ever tried deep fried dill pickles? Delicious!!

Today I am going to write about three more essential southern foods – biscuits and gravy. County ham and banana pudding. To start with biscuits and gravy. We quickly learned that there are two different preparations for this breakfast staple. To most of us, biscuits and gravy means a white sauce mixed with cooked and crumbled sausage and served over baking powder biscuits. But in this area, you need to check because you may get biscuits covered with a meat-free gravy, and, if you want, you order the sausage in the form of links or patties on the side. In both cases – meat-free or with meat – the white sauce contains a copious amount of black pepper in case the taste buds need awakening in the morning. The true measure of good biscuits and gravy is the quality of the biscuit. A bad biscuit ruins great gravy and, conversely, a great biscuit elevates a so-so gravy. The latter was the case at Theresa’s Café in Crozet, VA. These “five Addie” (remember the rating system) biscuits were scratch made, at least an inch and a half high, and had that somewhat sharp flavor that comes from the baking powder. Served under “three Addie” gravy, they alone made this a “four Addie” breakfast.

{Mural at Oddfellas Cantina in Floyd, VA.)
Canned ham is to country ham as deli boiled ham is to prosciutto. Rubbed with sugar and salt, air dried for as long as eighteen months before smoking, country ham is dry, almost chewy (almost tough), salty, and has a flavor so intense that a small serving goes a long way. Old time “hammers” use no preservatives (i.e. nitrates) believing that, if cured, aged, and smoked correctly, these are not necessary. Preparing a whole country ham is a labor-intensive process – as I learned in my one attempt to cook one. The skin needs to be washed with a wire brush to remove any mold (don’t go “yuck”), and then soaked in cold water to leach out some of the salt. Soaking is a twelve hour process with the water changed every three or four times.

Because of the dry texture, this ham is served thinly sliced, grilled, and frequently topped with red eye gravy which is made by adding a cup of coffee to the pan drippings. (I’ve never been overly fond of red eye gravy.) If the ham is served with biscuits, the cut side of the biscuit can be dipped in the gravy to off-set the ham’s dryness.

Country ham scraps can be added to slow cooked green beans – no al dente here – and the resulting “pot liquor” mopped up with good biscuits. Any way you use it – country ham is a “five Addie” delicacy.

Banana pudding is one of those quintessential southern home desserts. I have – in storage – a cookbook of the best recipes from the backs of boxes, cans, and packages, and it would surprise me if a recipe for banana pudding isn’t in there. Bananas and “Nilla” wafers are added to a vanilla pudding base and a serving is topped with a generous serving of whipped cream. Paula Deen serves a very good banana pudding at her restaurant, the Lady and Sons, in Savannah, GA, but the pudding we had at the Galax Smokehouse was exceptional – “five Addie” status. The food writer for Southern Living magazine included it on her list of great southern restaurant desserts – a list that included a dessert from the Inn at Little Washington near D.C. The exact recipe of the Smokehouse is a secret – the chef has three “secret” ingredients that he won’t divulge. The serving is large – almost enough to share but so good that you won’t want to share.

Sunrise (top of entry) and sunset (at left) at the Ft. Chiswell RV Park in Max Meadows, VA.

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