Smoke ‘Em If You’ve Got ‘Em

headboard

When I first spotted the old smokehouse door that is now the headboard of my queen-sized bed, I just knew it was pretty, and what I wanted to use it for. I do adore relics, and at a mere $70, it was a steal. What I didn’t know was that on humid, sunny days like today, the wood would sweat and the door would permeate my entire bedroom with the heavenly scent of smoked pork. It drives my dog insane with porcine lust and makes me hunger for the nearest, most rickety Southern barbecue joint I can find. That’s the key to finding a good Southern barbecue restaurant: If it’s too nicely appointed or well-lit, you can be sure the meat won’t be worth a damn and the sauce will be watery and flavorless. I won’t even talk about the potato salad in such establishments—they don’t even try.

Now barbecue I know plenty about, but smoking is another matter. As a technique, it fascinates me—the idea that mere smoke can seep into the very marrow of the meat’s flavor. My brother, who is an avid and very talented home chef, is a master smoker. Lately, I’ve been asking him a lot of questions about how he does this and that in his backyard smoker, and I have also begun researching Southern smokehouses for the chapter The Largesse of Swine and Sauce in the book. Sure, you can smoke plenty of meats, but in the South, it’s likely that the meat in question will come equipped with a snout, a tail, and four cloven hooves.

Despite Biblical admonishments against consuming such creatures, we’ve been crying “gentile” and enthusiastically consuming swine since the first pork meal was served in 1540 in what is now Georgia. You can cook a pig a lot of ways, and God knows, Southerners have tried them all. We’ve baked, roasted, boiled, barbecued, and fried the pig—and all are perfectly fine means of cooking him. But none can compare to the flavor of smoked pork, be it a haunchy ham, a slab of fatty bacon, or a juicy pork butt, its indelicate anatomy notwithstanding.

book66_cover

Here’s a few nuggets I discovered this morning in Dishes & Beverages of the Old South by Martha McCulloch-Williams. The somewhat maudlin but nonetheless historic cookbook was written in the post Civil War era, when smoking was done in a house like the one my headboard came from, not the portable kind you can buy on Amazon. Smoking the meat not only flavored it, but preserved it across the seasons. And it was not easy work; as the author writes, “eternal vigilance was the price of safe bacon.”

  • Plenty in the smokehouse was the cornerstone of the old time southern cookery. Hence hog-killing was a festival as joyous as Christmas—and little less sacred.
  • Smoke from green hickory, sound and bright, is needed for the finest flavor. Lay small logs so they will hug together as they burn, kindle fire along the whole length of them, then smother it with damp, small chips, trash, bark and so on, but take care to have everything sound. Rotten wood, or that which is water-logged or mildewed, makes rank, ill-smelling smoke.
  • Take greater care that the logs never blaze up, also that the meat is high enough to escape fire-heating.
  • You looked at the smokehouse fires first thing in the morning and last at night. They were put out at sundown, but had a knack of burning again from some hidden seed of live coal. Morning smoke could not well be too thick, provided it smelled right–keen and clean, reminiscent of sylvan fragrance–a thick, acrid smoke that set you sneezing and coughing, was “most tolerable and not to be endured.”
Advertisements

10 Things I Learned from My Mother

543287_458292554181638_1383038791_n

The morning my father called to tell me my mother was dying, I yelled at him and called him a liar. Then my knees buckled and I wept like a baby, begging him to erase his words and somehow make them untrue. Dads are supermen, right? They can do anything. But my pops couldn’t fix this one—he couldn’t even fix himself. He was dying too. He’d been diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer only two months before.

So him, we knew about. But the insidious abdominal malady that had sent my mother to the hospital—literally in my father’s arms—was not the hernia we all believed it to be. Or, at least, I believed it to be. It was colon cancer. A week or so after my father broke it to me that “Mama’s dying, honey” as gently as he could, she fell into a coma. A week after that, she was dead. I’ll spare you the details of the in-between, because frankly, I can’t bear to repeat them.

That was five years ago, in April. Mother’s Day has been painful ever since, or at least until this year. I can talk about her now without crying, and I am in a happier, more serene, more adult more everything place than I ever imagined I would be. And that would make her happy. I’m not so sad anymore because she’s not with me, I’m just grateful she was ever here. I learned a lot of things from Frances Elizabeth Norwood! Here’s 10 of them.

1. Never Let The Bastards Keep You Down: When people disappoint you or knock you down—as they surely will—get back up. Everybody gets kicked in the teeth by somebody; the trick is not to stay down. “Show them they didn’t beat you,” she’d tell me. “It kills them.” And for God’s sake, don’t let them see you cry. You’ll never live it down.

2. Let The Past Go, It’s Over: She told me over and over, “Don’t live in the past. Let it go, or it will kill you.” All those disappointments, all the things you’ve done wrong, all those life-altering mistakes will drown you if you let them. Release them, and live to swim another day.

3. Never Open the Oven While the Cake is Baking: Seriously, don’t. It falls, and boom. No cake for you.

4. Refuse to Care What People Think of You: People are going to judge you, talk about you behind your back, and make you doubt yourself. Don’t let them. Carry on “like you don’t have a care in the world,” she’d say. That one has stood me well many times.

5. Be a Scarlett Not a Melanie: Don’t get me wrong, the world needs Melanies. It really does. We need those long-suffering types so we can marvel at their graciousness and strength of character. But it’s more fun to be a Scarlett. My mother’s favorite movie in the world was Gone With the Wind, and she admired the heroine’s ability to rise above her circumstances, laugh at her enemies, and set her own standards of decorum. Melanie, on the other hand, she thought a bit spineless—except when she helped shoot and bury that Yankee soldier. That part she liked.

6. Play to Win: My mother was an extremely competitive human being and she hated to lose. That trait had its occasional downside, but mostly, it drove her to be better at what she did, to try harder. Because in the end, it’s not really about coming in first—it’s about racing your own race for the sheer joy of doing so.

7. Laugh at Yourself, Especially When You’re Down: My mother had many traits, many faults, but she was, for the most part, as effervescent as Champagne. She laughed loud and often, and poked fun at even the worst situations in her life (eventually). I’m not saying smile and your troubles will float away. But if you can laugh at yourself, you can live through almost anything.

8. Be Kind to Animals, Always: My mother sincerely believed that Michael Vick deserved life in prison for his crimes against dogs. “It makes me sick to look at him,” she’d say. She had a sincere reverence for all animals—with the exception of snakes, which she truly believed to be soulless creatures. But in general, she loved all of God’s creations, and sincerely believed you could tell a lot about a person by how they treat animals. I’ve found that to be true in almost every case.

9. Family Is More Important Than Friends: She was right about that one too. “Friends will let you down,” she’d say, “but your family will stick by you.” It’s true. No matter how much you love your friends—and certainly, I love mine—it’s my family who will always know who I really am inside. Whether we’re speaking to each other or squabbling, they will always be my family. And they come first.

10. Say “I Love You” When It Really Counts: My mother never said “I love you” to us. When I was older, she explained that she thought those words were overused and frequently spouted off insincerely. Better to show someone you loved them, she said. But my heart longed to hear it too sometimes, especially from my mother. When she was in ICU, she was mostly incoherent, and unable to speak with tubes running here and there…oh, it was awful. The last time I saw her conscious at all, though, as I was leaving her bedside, she called out my name. And then she said, with all her effort, “I love you.” Those were her last words to me, and a week later she died.

So sock it to me World. Kick me in the teeth if you have to. I can take it. Frances Elizabeth Norwood left me with a powerful talisman, and I like to think, at least a little of her courage, strength, and humor. Happy Mother’s Day, Mama. You are missed.

Sweet Tea Chicken and Alabama White Sauce

photo

When my friend Aisha Holmes texted me a few Fridays back to say she had just eaten chicken marinated in sweet tea and pickle juice, I thought I was going to flat-out lose my mind. That sandwich couldn’t be more Southern if it married its cousin, used “fixin’ to” as a verb, and called every soft drink, regardless of brand, a coke. As soon as I read that text, I was completely obsessed and knew I had to replicate this wondrous dish, which from the description I was given, lacked only one thing to make it perfect. And that thing, my friends, is Alabama White Sauce.

OMG. If you’ve never had Alabama White Sauce, first of all, I feel sorry for you. And second, you don’t know what you’re missing. The first time I remember ever had white sauce was from Big Bob Gibson Barbecue in Decatur, Alabama. Friday nights were frequently barbecue nights in the Norwood household, which I now realize also happened to coincide with payday. My mother would pick up a whole roasted chicken, sometimes some pulled pork for sandwiches, and always a bag of crispy fried pork skins. Even as a child, and long before the book or movie had become a phenomenon, the pork skins seemed a little Silence of the Lamby to me, so I never touched them. But the chicken I liked—because it was a vehicle for the white sauce.

The sauce is a many splendored thing, and couldn’t be simpler to make. Mayonnaise, vinegar, sugar, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Some people fancy it up with wine vinegars, horseradish, mustards, what have you. Me, I don’t bother. No sense trying to make a silk purse out of sow’s ear—although I will say I think it’s far superior if you use my homemade mayonnaise as a base. As for the chicken. Shoot. I felt like that chicken needed a little something extra, though it was near perfect as described. So along with the sweet tea and dill pickle juice, I added bread and butter pickle juice from the pickles my brother and sister-in-law had canned (amazing, by the way), and a soupcon of soy sauce for a salty edge and depth of flavor.

It was crazy good and you better holla, because this chicken will slay you. I mean, Game of Thrones-style. It’s amazing! And I’m fairly certain a dill pickle juice marinade really is the secret to Chick Fil A’s famously moist and flavorful chicken, because that is exactly what it reminded me of at first bite. Drizzle on the white sauce, add bread and butter pickles and either a wrap or bun and you have the perfect dish to kick off grilling season in true Southern style. Plus it’s a great way to upcycle your pickle juice after you’ve eaten all the pickles.

Sweet Tea Chicken

4-5 boneless chicken breasts

1 quart sweet tea

Juice from 1 quart jar of dill pickles

Juice from 1 quart jar of bread and butter pickles

1/3 cup soy sauce.

Marinate chicken 8 hours or overnight. Discard marinade and blot chicken with paper towels. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Grill until cooked through, depending on thickness of chicken (6-8 minutes per side) and chicken has pretty brown grill marks and internal temp of 165°—but don’t overcook. It will be tough. And nobody wants to eat tough chicken, except (God rest her soul) my mother, who was convinced you would die of some disease if you didn’t cook meat until it was practically leather.
Alabama White Sauce
1 1/4 cups mayonnaise
1/4 cup white vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
Juice of half a lemon
Salt, pepper to taste
Whisk everything together and adjust with additional mayo, vinegar or sugar until it tastes just like you want it and is still thin enough to drizzle. Seriously, white sauce is an art, not a science.

Asparagus, I Done You Wrong

pizza

First off, I would like to profess my ignorance and obstinance in matters of asparagus. I have never given the tender green shoots their due—before now. For reasons I cannot even begin to ascertain, I just can’t seem to consume enough asparagus this spring. Which is odd, because I’ve never especially cared for it.

Mind you, I’ve never actively despised asparagus (as I do okra); I’ve just always been sort of meh about it. It is known that ancient Greeks and Romans prized asparagus, and its cultivation eventually spread to Europe and ultimately America. It eventually first made its way onto my plate covered in a puddle of cream of mushroom soup, Durkee fried onions, a bit of cooking sherry and Cheddar cheese via a tall, cylindrical can with the words “Green Giant” emblazoned across the label. My mother—who claimed to “love” asparagus—apparently saw fit to molest its otherwise venerable flavor with this unbecoming culinary congress. It’s little wonder I developed a barely concealed contempt for what I knew only as the basis of a mushy, craven casserole whose redeeming characteristics were few, if any.

On a recent bid to simply eat more vegetables, however, I discovered that asparagus is nothing short of amazing if you observe two simple rules: Don’t oversauce it and don’t overcook it. Asparagus needs little more than a bit of salt, a fat (my favorite is olive oil) and an acid (I prefer vinegars to lemon juice, balsamic in particular) to lets is distinctive flavor shine. As for cooking: if you think you’ve blanched, grilled or roasted the asparagus too long, it’s probably already too late. One heartbeat too long in the heat and you’ve got mush on your hands.

Roasting Asparagus:

Preheat oven to 400°. Rinse asparagus and cut off the woody ends. Place on a parchment-lined sheet and drizzle in olive oil and a sweeter vinegar (almost any balsamic will do); sprinkle with kosher salt. Roast for 7-15 minutes—this depends on the thickness of the asparagus. As soon as tips start to turn color, it’s done. Eat as a side, toss with pasta salad, or on a savory tart or this pizzetta:

Rustic Asparagus Pizzetta

1 12 or 14-inch Whole wheat crust, baked or grilled

Roasted Asparagus

6 ounces creamy goat cheese, at room temp

2-3 ounces Blue cheese, crumbled (smoked blue if available)

Caramelized red onion

Balsamic crema

Blanched almonds or lightly toasted almonds, if desired

Fresh thyme, if desired

Once pizza crust cools slightly, spread evenly with goat cheese and sprinkle with blue cheese. Top with asparagus, caramelized onions, and fresh thyme. Drizzle with balsamic crema and sprinkle with nuts, if using. Serve immediately—also good cold, the next day.

Betty Draper and Berry Buttermilk Breakfast Cake

img_7779

Dang, Betty Draper is crazy. I mean, just look at her. You do not want to get in this woman’s way, because she will straight-up shoot you and not even wrinkle her negligee. She may not even ash. God knows, I love a good dichotomy, and Betty Draper is definitely that.

On the one hand, she’s forming inappropriate bonds with neighborhood children and slaughtering a neighbor’s homing pigeons. But on the other, she’s teaching homeless beatniks in New York how to make a proper brisket. That woman is a gemini through and through.

That’s how I feel about breakfast cake: Two things that make no sense together, but which form a fascinating whole. Last night I had some spare strawberries on-hand, almost overripe, that I needed to use quickly. So I did what any woman in my shoes would do—I schemed and schemed until I figured out a way to tuck those berries into a cake.

Like Betty, I like to have my cake and eat it too, so I devised a low-fat version that’s perfect for breakfast—packed with oats, whole wheat flour, Omega 3-rich walnuts, and brown sugar. It even has morning juice in the Creamsicle Glaze. And yes, it is scary good. Not as scary as bedraggled Betty Draper in her sad clown dress, but you get my point.

oatscake

Berry Buttermilk Breakfast Cake with Creamsicle Glaze

1 cup oats

1 cup buttermilk

½ cup 2% milk

¼ cup olive oil, canola oil, or softened butter

1 egg

2 teaspoons pure vanilla

1 cup whole wheat flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup light brown sugar

1 cup mashed strawberries (very ripe)

½ cup walnuts

Glaze

1/3  cup 2% milk

1/4 cup orange juice

2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

1. Preheat oven to 400°. Coat 9-inch cake pan in nonstick cooking spray.

2. Mix oats and buttermilk together in the stand bowl of a mixer; refrigerate for 1 hour.

3. Beat oat mixture, milk, oil, egg, and vanilla on low for 3 to 5 minutes.

4. While the mixer is running, sift together flour, baking powder, salt, and brown sugar.

5. Beat flour mixture into oat mixture, adding a little at a time. Batter should be slightly thin, but not overly so.

6. Fold in strawberries and walnuts. Spoon batter into prepared cake pan.

7. Bake 19-23 minutes, or until a fork inserted near the center comes out clean.

8. Cool 20 minutes.

9. Mix glaze ingredients and drizzle evenly over top of hot cake. Refrigerate overnight and let sit out for a few minutes before slicing.

Olive Oil Isn’t Just for Salad Dressings and Spaghetti

Berry Muffins with Olive Oil

Sadly, I did not grow up in some sun-baked Mediterranean country that smells of salty ocean air, piney rosemary and fragrant lavender. Nope. I’m from Alabama, where the most exotic thing that ever happened  to me was the time my family went to Disneyland in Florida and I got to see coral reefs and “the sea” for the first time inside the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea submarine ride. Back home in my landlocked hometown, though, it was a big-time adventure to try “foreign” dishes like Pepper Steak (“it’s oriental food,” my Aunt Nancy told my mother when she shared the recipe) and the pu-pu platter at  Yengtze River Restaurant in neighboring Decatur.

Thanks to my mother’s Sicilian kin and some preternatural pining for pasta and herby tomato sauces, however, we did consume our fair share of lasagna, spaghetti, and noodle bakes. And later when we moved to Florida, we stumbled upon a hotbed of Greek street food carts with foods so flavorful we were taken aback. Succulent spiced lamb—which I’m fairly sure my mother thought was beef—chewy pita bread and tangy yogurt and cucumber sauce sandwiches were an every-single-weekend treat, as was feta and spinach-filled filo pastries, simple grilled chicken on a stick, and honey-drenched baklava for dessert. So I was not completely without exposure to Mediterranean cookery (I love that word!), but for some weirdo reason, I can’t remember ever seeing even a single bottle of olive oil in our pantry. Not once. It wasn’t until I went to college that I “discovered” olive oil, and I thought I was terribly sophisticated for cooking with it. I also thought I was really worldly when I quit shaving my legs for an entire semester and learned the term “feminist pedagogy”  after taking a somewhat brutal women’s studies course, so what the hell did I know?

photo

In the last few years, though, I have had the benefit of sampling some truly gourmet olive oils, and I’ve found that each is very different—as variable in flavor notes as a bottle of wine. Whatever is happening in the earth and the world and the soil when the olives are cultivated and harvested leaves its mark on the oil that is produced from the nectar.  Arbequina and picual oils, blended oils—each has a different body and flavor—especially depending on the maker. Of late, the best oils I’ve had have all been Spanish, and the possible uses include not only savory dishes, but sweet as well. Personally, I prefer arbequina oils for baking and confectionary; the picuals and blends can overwhelm the flavor of every other ingredient in my opinion. I have made extraordinary chocolate cakes, brownies, crunchy granola mix, cookies, and muffins using olive oil. A tip from me to you: I find that baked goods made with olive oil tend to stay fresher longer, but also tend to want a little extra sugar or sweetener and a splash more liquid for a nice balance of sweetness and moisture. So if you’re converting a recipe made with butter or vegetable, compensate a bit.


muffins

 

Whole Wheat Berry and Olive Oil Muffins 

2 cups whole wheat flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 eggs

1 1/2 cups turbinado or organic sugar

1/3 cup whole milk

1/4 teaspoon lemon oil (Boyajian) or 1 teaspoon lemon zest

1/4 teaspoon orange oil (Boyajian) or 1 teaspoon orange zest

1 teaspoon vanilla

3/4 cup arbequina olive oil

1 cup blueberries

1 cup raspberries

1/2-3/4 cup pecan or walnut pieces

1. Preheat oven to 350°. Grease muffin tin.

2. In a large bowl, mix flour, baking powder and salt together.

3. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat eggs, sugar, milk, lemon oil, orange oil, and vanilla together until light and lemony yellow. Beat in olive oil.

3. Mix in flour until thoroughly incorporated. Stir in berries and nuts.

4. Fill muffin tins with batter (I filled the wells nearly to the top) and bake for 22-25 minutes, or until golden brown and a fork inserted comes out clean. Cool 5-10 minutes and remove from pan. Serve with marmalade or fruit preserves (fig or peach is my suggestion) and, of course, bacon. Seriously. Everything is better with bacon, including these muffins.

Sunday Morning Confessions

pancakes2

My father has been so close to mind lately it’s almost like he’s here with me. I can close my eyes and hear him saying my name, in that way that only he said it, his thick Southern drawl emphasizing the “Stac” in “Stacey.” The closest I can physically get to my pops these days is to drive to 1100 Hammitt Street in Hartselle, Alabama. That’s not a place I like to go, so memories it is. And I have plenty of those—especially on Sunday mornings.

When I was a little girl, my father always seemed to have dreams of becoming anything he wasn’t. During one particularly prolonged stage, that included being a country music star. I know he wrote some songs, and he was forever either attempting to play a new musical instrument or longing to learn how. There was talk of the dulcimer and fiddle at one point, and a brief bout with the harmonica, but he mostly stuck with the guitar—never really “playing” it so much as strumming the strings repetitively while he sang. He loved old-school country, and one of his favorite tunes—which he sang like a lullaby to me every night because I begged him to—was Sunday Morning Coming Down by Kris Kristofferson. Daddy sang that song with such heart in his voice, I could tell, even at my tender age, that he meant every word. And I would wonder why he was “wishin’ Lord that I was stoned.” I wasn’t entirely sure what “stoned” was, but it didn’t sound like anything a good Baptist like my father was supposed to wish for on a Sunday morning. But that was my pops. Always a little sad, a little angry and disturbed, but mostly sweet and just plain confounded by life.

For quite a few Sundays there, we went to church. We kept going for a while too, but that all stopped after my Dad got drunk as Otis Campbell and led the Hartselle police on a car chase through town. Mr. Norwood’s wild ride ended in our living room with a few punches thrown and my dad being carted off in handcuffs shortly thereafter. Though my father suffered a broken ankle courtesy of a fat cop’s overly-eager  baton, and the loss of his (and my mother’s) dignity because the whole town of Hartselle knew every salacious detail, that wasn’t enough for Flint Baptist Church. Oh no. The deacons came calling to let us know that once my father could stand again, he needed to do so before the congregation and confess his “sins.” My poor shame-faced father was willing, but Frances Norwood wasn’t having any of that. She may have been ready to kill him (and she threatened to a few times), but she’d be damned, she said, if David Norwood owed the fine people of our church an apology. God, yes—on that point she relented. But a congregation full of sinners who, according to my mother, were no better and no worse than the rest of us? Unh-unh. And that was the end of church on Sundays and the Sizzler for steak, a baked potato, and pudding parfaits afterward.

So the rest of my Sunday mornings until the time I became an adult and a Presbyterian were spent on the one tradition that seemed to stick with us Norwoods: Sunday breakfast. My mother’s amazing biscuits or hot buttered toast, fried eggs for Daddy and scrambled for the rest us, grits with melted cheese and enough hot sauce to burn a whole in your tongue, sometimes crispy bacon and sometimes fresh, sagey sausage. Always coffee. Occasionally hash browns. It was a time of week I looked forward to because even when we were yelling at each other or ill-tempered, we were together. You can’t help but love your family over Sunday breakfast—even when they’ve crushed your heart to pieces or you’re so angry with them you could scream. Something about the ritual of eating eggs and toast together mends what is broken and heals you where it hurts. So this morning, just for my late father, I made pancakes and bacon. Made them from scratch too. He wasn’t physically here with me to share them, but he was here.

David’s Pancakes

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup cake flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons turbinado or organic sugar

3/4 cup buttermilk or milk

1 egg

1 tablespoon vegetable or almond oil

1. In a medium batter bowl, mix flours, baking powder, salt, and sugar. In a large measuring cup, whisk milk, egg and oil. Add liquid ingredients to dry. Whisk together thoroughly.

2. Heat griddle or skillet sprayed with non-stick spray until a droplet of water sizzles and pops.

3. Pour batter into skillet, allowing it to spread a little—about 1/4 cup per pancake or so. Once you see bubbles on the uncooked side, it’s time to flip. Using a spatula, flip carefully and quickly. Cook until golden, remove to plate, add a small sliver of butter, cover, and repeat with remaining batter. If you prefer,  stir in chopped bananas, berries, nuts, chocolate chips, pumpkin or sweet potato puree into batter before griddling.