Classic Southern

It’s so Sad that Julia Child had to invent good American Cooking all by Herself

From native foods like grits and corn bread, to introduced European specialties such as ice cream and macs and cheese, the South has something of a history with food. The included recipes here are particularly Southern, and there will be NO FRIED CHICKEN (even though I trained as a chicken fryer with the Kentucky Colonel’s business).

Zen and the Art of the Southern Tomato Sandwich

Mayo, Creole French Bread, Homestead Heirloom Tomato, and a pair of Buddhist cookbooks. Is this why Bodhidharma went to China?

Robert Pirsig, author of the fascinating and riveting book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, literally had a breakdown trying to answer the question of, What is quality? If only he had known about a really good tomato sandwich. This three ingredient sandwich is the equivalent of Southern Zen–if done properly. Here’s how I make it.

Ingredients

Heirloom Tomatoes, preferably home or locally grown

Sliced and Toasted Creole French Bread

Mayonnaise (I will learn to make this one day, with the hope that I don’t become as obsessed by it as Julia Child did)

Simple? Yes, but everything depends on the quality of the ingredients. Most generic recipes sound like they are stuck in the 1970’s. Here’s the usual.

Ingredients

Supermarket Tomatoes

White Sliced Bread (the kind that comes in a plastic bag)

Mayonnaise

So much is wrong here, that it is difficult to know where to start. I will begin with the low hanging fruit. I had students tell me that they didn’t like tomatoes, after I brought up this controversial sandwich. My immediate question was, Have you ever had a tomato that didn’t come from the supermarket? The answer was always no.

The reason for their response is that essentially all supermarket tomatoes, despite their appearance, are green. The practice of gassing tomatoes with ethylene became commonplace in the 1970’s, and ethylene is a gas that turns green tomatoes red, even though they are still completely unripe. Try a slice of that on your BLT, and tell me what you think of tomatoes.

As far as bread in a plastic bag goes, first, buy as few things packed in plastic as you can. That white bread is practically embalmed anyway, considering how many preservatives it has in it. Topped with a good tomato that sandwich will still be good, as another major ingredient of that white bread is air, which is pumped into the dough.

There are all sorts of superfluous additions to this sandwich, but I only consider three to be appropriate.

Salt

Olive Oil

Fresh Basil

If you want to add something like avocado, knock yourself out. Just don’t call it a tomato sandwich. Your zen is all gone. One of my favorite zen riddles has to do with the master who asked a novice the meaning of zen. The novice said that all was emptiness. The master just grabbed a stick, and gave the student a giant whack, which made the student really angry.

The master just said, “If all is emptiness, then were does your anger come from?” Enough said.

Southern Vegetable Soup

Southern Vegetable Soup, Just getting Started

Here’s an old family recipe, created out of the necessity of eating only vegetables. As it so happens, it turns out to be, and I am actually understating this here, unbelievably good. Our vegetables play well together.

I have Died, and Gone to Vegetable Heaven

Create your own version out of whatever you have, but this is ours. Using what you got is the secret to good food. Quantities are based on how much you have.

Ingredients

Chicken Stock

1 Vidalia Onion, diced

Butter Beans

Field Peas

Tomatoes

Okra. sliced

Sweet Corn, cut from the cob

Salt and Pepper

Except for the seasoning, ingredients are cooked in that order. This is truly a dish of high summer, when all these things are in season at once. I now mill my tomatoes in a food mill, so the okra seeds get to be the star. The kicker is when all this is cooked, add:

Wide Egg Noodles

The extra starch does some magical something or other, and adds a little who knows what. Wait, that’s called flavor. Ideally, serve with a hot piece of:

Corn Bread

We’re talking a real melting pot here, Southern Cucina Povera. We freeze some for the winter, and days when you think it will never be warm again. Freeze it without the noodles, and add those only when you cook it. This soup is the boss, the mac daddy, and the kiss my butt on twentieth street shut your mouth cheap talk at the table stopper. That last one is something of a Birmingham thing.

Creole Shrimp Boil

Laissez les Bon Temps Roulez!

This is something of an empty out the spice cabinet dish, and a boil can have everything from crayfish, shrimp and sausage, to artichokes and corn. Since this was for two, we stuck with the basics of shrimp, sweet corn, and new potatoes.

Shrimp Boil

Ingredients

For the Boil:

Water to cover the Ingredients (2 Quarts here)

1 teaspoon Thyme

1 teaspoon Oregano

Cayenne Pepper Flakes to taste

2 tablespoons Salt

6 Cloves

6 Allspice

2 Bay Leaves

1 teaspoon Dill Seed

1 teaspoon Fennel Seed

And anything else you like. Cover, and bring this mixture to a rolling boil. Turn it off, and let it steep for awhile. If you have a cold, stick your face down in the vapor. If it’s well seasoned, it will clear your head out.

For the Edibles:

4 new Potatoes (we have 2 Red and 2 Yukon Gold)

2 ears Sweet Corn (these are Silver Queen)

1/2 pound+ Shrimp, deveined (we usually use Gulf shrimp, but these are Florida Keys shrimp)

Boil the potatoes for 30-35 minutes, then add the corn. Cook for 8 more, and add the shrimp. In about a minute or two, the shrimp will curl up and turn opaque, which means they are done. Strain in a colander, and serve in a bowl with a rustic paper towel lining.

Have beaucoup amounts of butter for the corn and potatoes. Our favorite condiments are cocktail sauce, tartar sauce, and Chinese hot mustard. If the boil didn’t clear out your sinuses, a combination of hot mustard and cayenne flakes surely will.

Peach Marmalade

Peaches Marry-nating before the Magic Happens

Most people in the South would call this recipe “preserves,” but the amount of lemon in it gives it some punch. I also came up with the idea of adding some lemon pulp to the mixture.

Ingredients

5-6 Fresh Peaches

1 Meyer Lemon

1 cup Sugar

Why Meyer Lemon? It’s something of a cross between a lemon and an orange. And check out the size.

Lemon v. Peach

My wife Melanie Jane grew the lemon, and the peaches came from an orchard a couple of mountains away from here. Time for some process.

Place the peaches in a colander or strainer in a sink, along with the jars, flats, and rings. Crank up the old teakettle and soak them all with scalding water. You’ve just done two steps at once.

Meanwhile, combine the sugar and lemon juice/pulp in a non-reactive pan. Lemons pulp easier if they are frozen first, and then thawed. Peel the peaches, and compost the peels (I fed mine to my chickens. They’re experts at composting.) Cut into eights, and add to the lemon sugar mixture. Let that marry-nate until the sugar dissolves.

Action time! Slowly bring the mixture up to a boil, and then turn it down to low. Sing the refrain from “Lady Marmalade” a few times–that’s the part that’s in French. When the peaches are soft, mash them into small cubes with a potato masher. Cook for another five minutes, at a higher temp, and then you have two options.

Can at this point, if you want a juicy spread. Add pectin, if you want a firmer marmalade. I use Certo, because it’s quick, and available everywhere. Pour the mixture into jars, and boil ten minutes in a water bath. Here’s the result:

Strangely enough, the diva Patti LaBelle, who recorded “Lady Marmalade,” is also an accomplished cook, and has a number of cookbooks in print. I don’t know if she has a marmalade recipe in any of them, but she is welcome to try this one.