Southern Food. It’s a thing. But where we live, we just call it dinner.
National food trends are cyclical, and the spotlight currently shines on farm market delicacies like fatback, turnip greens and pickled beets. You can read about Southern Food on the newsstands and find it memorialized on the network cooking shows. Snout to tail has gone metro. Collards are the new kale, and red-eye gravy is practically deemed a master sauce.
Big-city chefs have finally figured out what folks in Southern coastal areas have known for centuries. Just-caught fish and parts from the pig are classic, go-to combinations, as are chowders from the sea and cornmeal dumplings, and fish roe and fresh chicken eggs. This is what we eat. This is how we cook.
Yes, it is true that the fish cheeks are the sweetest meat. Yes, the collards are delicious, too. Eggs are not just brown or white; they are blues and greens and are not just from chickens. Sweet potatoes have always been a super food, and peanuts can carry every course. Cast iron is superior to any other type of pan, and lard, not canola oil, goes into the fryer.
We eat what is seasonally available from the gardens and farms, what our neighbors catch, what our friends hunt and what we preserve for the winter. We are so on trend!
If you are new to Southern cooking, a great place to start practicing is with grits and collards.
Grits and Collards Q + A
Q: There is an aisle in my grocery store full of boxes filled with stuff labeled grits. When cooked, they are tasteless, white, runny and bland. What am I doing wrong?
A: Nothing and everything. Reading labels and understanding real food is a time-consuming effort, and consumers can no longer depend on labels to understand what they are buying. You bought something labeled grits. Unfortunately, most major grocery stores in the South no longer carry real, stone-ground corn grits. They carry big-name fakes and stock them near the instant oatmeal and cream of wheat. Look instead in the organic section or in specialty food shops for grits that are clearly marked as stone-ground, heirloom or old-fashioned milled. Look at the cooking instructions. If cooking time is less than 20 minutes (remember My Cousin Vinnie?), you do not have the real thing, keep looking. When you find the real deal, take your time; it will be worth the wait. I am sharing a recipe for stone-ground grits. If you have a chance to top them with shrimp and red-eye gravy, do. I am sharing a recipe for that, too.
Q: My friend says she stir-fries her collards. I always put mine in the pot on the stove for half a day. Admittedly, none of my friends or family can stand the smell, even though I add a few unshelled pecans to absorb the aroma. Most don’t even like the taste. Do I have to cook them so long?
A: No! Remove the rib, rough chop and you are almost done. I like to make a batch of quick-cook collards by simply heating a cast-iron pan, drizzling in a bit of fruity olive oil then dropping in handfuls of chopped collard greens. A bit of minced garlic and a generous pinch of sea salt and you can call it done. It is an easy, delicious, nutrient-packed vegetable and a gorgeous bright green addition to any plate. If you want to elevate your collard cookery, try creaming them. I am sharing a recipe.
3 cups water
1 cup milk
1 cup stone ground grits – NOT instant grits
Place water, milk and grits in a heavy saucepan with a dash of sea salt and heat to simmer. Stir, stir, stir. Grits will start to thicken and large bubbles will rise to surface. When this happens, cover and reduce the heat to very low, and continue to simmer until the grits are very tender, stirring often, about 30 to 40 minutes. At this point you could add a bit of cheese or just a touch more sea salt and cracked pepper to preference.
Shrimp and Red-Eye Gravy
¼ pound country ham, cut into half-inch pieces
2 pounds peeled and deveined local shrimp
¼ stick + 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons unbleached all purpose flour
¼ cup heavy cream
2 cups fresh, strong coffee
Cracked black pepper
In a large cast-iron skillet, cook the country ham for 2 to 3 minutes over medium-high heat. You will not need to add anything to the pan before you add the ham if you have a well-seasoned pan. Some of the ham will stick to the bottom of the pan. These yummy bits are called fond and will be the base of your gravy. Next, add your shrimp. Move them around in the pan as they cook. The water content of the shrimp will help them not stick to the pan. The shrimp will start to brown and caramelize and the flavors of the shrimp and ham will have a chance to marry before the rest of the ingredients arrive.
When the shrimp are almost cooked, remove the duo from the pan. Return the pan to the stovetop and add 2 tablespoons of butter and melt on medium heat. Sprinkle in flour and immediately whisk the butter and flour and watch it closely. You will want to stir often and cook just until the raw taste of flour becomes nutty and sweet. At that point add your coffee and continue to whisk. Keep whisking and you may not have a lumpy gravy. While still moving the sauce around in the pan, add the heavy cream. If your heat is too high, you may absorb the liquid too fast. If that happens, you can always add more coffee, so make sure you have a bit extra on hand.
At this point you can add sea salt and pepper to taste as well as the rest of the butter. Remove from heat when you add the butter and stir continuously until butter is incorporated and you have a smooth, elegant sauce.
If you have a few lumps and they are not bits of country ham, you may want to strain the gravy. All you need to do is pass the gravy through a fine strainer over a bowl and then return the gravy to a clean saucepan.
Add the shrimp and ham to the pan gravy and warm until the shrimp finish cooking. Try not to overcook the shrimp. They like to curl into themselves loosely to let you know they are ready.
Serve immediately over stone-ground grits.
1 big head collards from the farm, (3 to 4 lbs or 2 big bags of chopped)
¼ lb. bacon, cooked and crumbled
Garlic Béchamel Sauce:
½ cup unsalted butter
2 garlic cloves, minced
¾ cup flour
4 cups milk, warmed
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg, fresh is best
1 teaspoon local sea salt
Dash white pepper
Rinse collard greens. Trim and discard thick stems and rough chop into bite-sized pieces.
To prepare béchamel sauce, melt butter in a large, heavy saucepan over low heat; add garlic and sauté for just a minute, then whisk in flour until smooth. Cook for about 2 minutes, whisking constantly. Increase heat to medium. Gradually whisk in milk and cook over medium heat, whisking intermittently, for 6 or 7 minutes, until mixture is thickened and bubbly. Stir in nutmeg, salt and pepper.
Stir collards into béchamel sauce and let them lightly cook in the sauce until wilted. Just before service, sprinkle with bacon, if desired. If you prefer your collards cooked a bit more, consider blanching first and then dropping them into an ice bath. Add cooked collards to warm béchamel just prior to service.
Note: Leftovers are great on top of baked oysters.