Wednesday, May 26, 2010

An Ode to My Southern Baptist Food Roots

I was raised Southern Baptist. My dad was a deacon in the church and my mom was a Sunday school teacher. Our family spent every Sunday at our church, and I don't mean just showing up for morning service and then taking off for a leisurely afternoon of rest and relaxation. I mean, Sunday church was an all day event, beginning with an hour of Sunday school, then an hour or more of church service, after which we headed home for an early Sunday supper, which almost always involved some kind of casserole dish made with leftover ham along with sweet tea, kale cooked in fatback, and if we were really lucky, West Virginia pepperoni rolls topped with Oliverio peppers and mozzarella cheese, a family tradition harkening to our Fairmont, W.V. roots. Later that afternoon, we would return to the church for an hour of choir practice, another hour of youth group and finally evening service, which usually wrapped up well past 8 p.m. For active church members like ourselves, the seventh day of rest was hardly rest at all.

Later in the week there was Wednesday night church, which was prefaced by Wednesday night supper, an evening where the church ladies took over the kitchen, whipping up every comfort food imaginable. From fried chicken with white gravy and biscuits to meat sauce doused spaghetti, the hardworking ladies of our church created an array of decadent concoctions that culminated with a spread of homemade cakes and pies divine enough to make the angels weep.

You see, as true Southern Baptists, there isn't whole lot we're allowed to do. Booze is off limits as is smoking, fornicating, non-secular music, even dancing in some instances, but there's one action that is completely acceptable-- eating, and we do a heck of a lot of it, often in large, self-indulgent quantities.

From all-you-can eat ice cream socials where attendees are encouraged to taste their way around thirty or so hand-churned flavors (peach, strawberry, fudge) to the ubiquitous church potluck where ladies and gents offer up their "best of the best", often consisting of several different flavors of cheese balls, three-bean salads, deviled eggs, cream of mushroom soup-laden casseroles, bacon-laced BBQ beans, and no less than at least five variations of potato salad, with each version being touted as the only one worth eating, we Baptists will devour it all, happily oblivious to the number three deadliest sin: gluttony.

Speaking of sin, the dessert table at a church potluck is its own sugary evil. Think buttermilk pie, fried apple pie, bundt cakes made with 7-UP, coconut black walnut cake, cinnamon rolls dripping with powdered sugar icing, chocolate chunk cookies, peanut butter fudge, and of course, some gooey, jiggly goody that always involves gelatin. Jell-O salads spiked with pineapple bits, graham crackers, bananas, whipped cream, maraschino cherries, nuts, even rice, pimientos and crushed pretzels happily find their home somewhere along those long fold-out tables.

There's something so loving about offering up the rest of the world your very best even if cooking isn't your thing. Maybe it's just that one dish you know how to make, and maybe it's just a slap-together-crockpot of grape jelly meatballs made with frozen meatballs, grape jelly and jarred chili sauce. Maybe your go-to dish are those addictive sausage balls made with Bisquick (which are three ingredients of pure heaven, by the way).

There's no room for fancy when you're cooking with love.

Let's face it, church food is special. Made from the gentle, caring hands of many-a-church lady, these are recipes to be savored, cherished and hopefully passed along to future generations, no matter what one's chosen religion might be, because when it comes to food and fellowship, sometimes it's best to let the cooking do all the preaching.

Got a favorite food memory or recipe? I'd love to hear from you.

Church Ladies Circle Salad

This salad might seem an odd combination with its mixture of diced pimentos, cream cheese and pineapple, but trust me, it's an immaculate amalgamation of sweet, savory and crunchy. The church ladies love to serve this salad with side of Ritz crackers to enhance its salty sweet combo.

Serves 8

2 (3-ounce) boxes lemon gelatin
2 cups boiling water
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
1 (8-ounce) can crushed pineapple, drained
3 to 4 tablespoons diced pimientos
1/2 cup lightly crushed pecans
1 cup heavy whipping cream

Dissolve your gelatin in boiling water. Let it stand a few minutes and then add cream cheese so it will partially melt into the gelatin. It's ok to leave a few cream cheese chunks in there. Add in your drained pineapple, pimiento, and pecans. Mix well and refrigerate just until it starts to set. Then, stir it again. Whip up your whipping cream and fold it into the gelatin mixture. Throw the whole thing into a baking dish and stick it back in the fridge until it sets up.  Cut into squares and serve chilled.

From, "White Trash Gatherings: From-Scratch Cooking for Down-Home Entertaining" (Ten Speed Press, 2006) Pin It Now!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Homemade Big Macs Make for Great Food Porn

Ain't nothing like starting your morning off right with a big, thick slice of food porn, and in my humble opinion, this homemade version of a McDonald's Big Mac ranks up there with some of the best drool worthy shots out there. Clearly, this photo does not reflect a professional photographers hand (albeit mine), but dang, just look at it-- the grease, the half-melty cheese, that shiny burger all glistening with fatty goodness just waiting, waiting for you to dive in and do with it what you will.

Many folks take serious issues with Micky D's and, in some cases, rightly so. Not only will a Big Mac double your butt size, but who the heck knows what's in that combo of pressed meat, sugary buns, shocking orange cheese product and "special" sauce? That's why instead of rolling the Mickey D's roulette wheel of mystery ingredients and hitting the drive-thru, I set out to recreate the Big Mac myself, and you know what?  It tasted better-- a lot better. In fact, when I wrote about my Big Mac experiment for my cooking column in The Richmond Times Dispatch a few years back, my readers simply raved about the recipe.

No frozen patties here. Only ground beef pressed by hand (that's at least 15 percent fat). And, the sauce?  That's homemade, too (meaning, no cheating with Thousand Island dressing, although there is a wee bit in the recipe as you'll note).

So, let me leave you with two things: one more money shot along with a tasty burger recipe that might cause you to reconsider that next happy meal in favor of whipping up your own at home.

Very Special Burger Sauce

¼ cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons Thousand Island dressing
1 tablespoon sweet pickle relish
1 tablespoon minced onion
1/2 teaspoon white vinegar
Salt and Pepper, to taste

Mix all together and refrigerate until ready to use.

To Assemble Very Special Burgers
Makes one burger

2 thin hamburger patties
Salt and pepper
½ tablespoon vegetable oil
2 large sesame seed buns
One slice American cheese
2 tablespoon finely minced onion
½ cup finely shredded lettuce
3 slices dill pickles

Heat a grill pan or griddle to medium high.

Lightly salt and pepper hamburger patties.  Add vegetable oil to pan and cook each burger until the juices run clean. Remove burgers and set aside. 

Take one of the buns, open it, and place each bun face down on the grill. Take the other bun and remove the heel (bottom part of the bun) and place it face down on the grill (save top part of bun for another burger).  Toast each bun well, letting it soak up a little of the leftover burger grease.

To assemble, spread one tablespoon of the Very Special Burger Sauce on the bottom bun and top with one tablespoon minced onions and some shredded lettuce. Top with the slice of cheese and then one of the burger patties.  Next add the remaining bottom bun.  Spread it with more dressing, minced onion, shredded lettuce, pickle slices and then add the second burger. Top with the remaining top bun.

Now, get yourself a bib and a pile of napkins and dive in! This is one deliciously, messy burger.
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Thursday, May 20, 2010

I'm a Little Bit Country and I'm a Little Bit Rock 'n Roll

So, I went into this kicking and screaming like a six year old at the tail end of an all-day birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. But, I'm here, joining the ranks of the other 8 million food and travel bloggers floating around the blogosphere who share their thoughts, forays and recipes on everything from henna and paneer tapas to crap no sane human being should ever put in their mouth. It's a crowded room, the internet, overrun with "experts" of all shapes and sizes, but I hope to find my place among this holy mess while sharing what I love: food, travel and more food.
As I mentioned in my opening post when I was blogging for Gadling, my food mantra falls somewhere between cheesy grits and Chateaubriand, chili dogs and boudin, or my fav dichotomous entertainers, Donnie and Marie. My familial roots hail proudly from the coalfields of West Virginia where brown beans and cornbread are king and suppers are accented with sweet tea and tall glasses of buttermilk. Yet, I can't step away from the finer things in life (perhaps it's that Taurus in me) and relish the opportunity to enjoy a three-course lunch with bottles of Bordeaux, steak frites and grilled crevettes.
So, there you have it-- bookends, because oftentimes life is neither paper napkins nor white tablecloths, but an amalgamation of both, at least for me. In the meantime, I hope you'll join me at the table and on the road as I seek to straddle the gray line that lies somewhere between fatback and foie gras. Pin It Now!
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