Monthly Archives: August 2009

Okra – a love/hate relationship

Because Okra loves heat and Chattanooga is hot in the summer, I decided to plant some in my garden this year. It’s coming in quite nicely so I realized I’d need to remember all the things we can do with Okra.

I was telling a friend about the okra plants, and at the mention of okra, her face took on an amazing transformation. To say it was obvious she didn’t like okra was an understatement. Try to imagine a face that means “eww, icky, ug, and other words” and you get the picture. Since this promised to be an interesting discussion and a bunch of fun, I took it to the next level and asked her why she didn’t like okra. I already figured out the answer, but I wanted to hear her description. Her comment back was so funny and surprising I have to put the words here. I don’t like writing them but you won’t get the message if I don’t. Warning – graphic term coming here. You’ve been warned. She said, and this is verbatum, “because it has the consistency of snot.” Ok, now it’s my turn to go “eww, icky, ug.” What was so funny is this is a very quiet, genteel, southern lady. The word “sn..” (I can’t even write it again) just didn’t sound right coming from her lips.

But that’s exactly what I was expecting to hear. People either love it or hate it, a lot like liver. If people have eaten okra cooked incorrectly then they liken it to slimey substances of all kinds. The word mentioned above is one you hear most often. However, it is this very slimeness that makes okra such a great addition as a thickening agent. Think Gumbo. As it turns out, a term used to describe okra is mucilaginous. Isn’t that a great word. According to Webster, it means sticky or “of, relating to, full of, or secreting mucilage.” Hence the reason people say it feels like – hm – nose droppings. If you boil okra, you get slimey. Period. To avoid this, you need to either fry it, add it to other ingredients, or introduce acids like tomatoes or citric products. That explains why okra is so often paired with stewed tomatoes in the south.

So, what exactly is okra. First off, it’s loaded with valuable nutrients. It is a good source of vitamin C, is low in calories and is fat-free. Doing research for this post, I found out it’s a member of the cotton family. Who knew. According to Wikipedia (one of my favorite sources of information) Okra was discovered near Ethiopia during the 12th century B.C. and was loved by the Egyptians. It spread throughout North Africa and the Middle East where the seed pods were cooked and the seeds toasted, ground, and served as a coffee substitute. Slave traders brought it to the plantations of the south where it has become a staple in not only southern dishes but also African, Middle Eastern, Greek, Turkish, Indian, Caribbean, and South American cuisines.

Personally, my favorite way to eat okra is fried. My mom makes it the best. She has a recipe and a process that she goes through to produce great fried okra every time. During a good growing summer, okra is so prolific, people show up on your doorstep with piles much like zucchini, so you learn to find ways to cook, preserve and otherwise use up your stock. What my mom does is to cut up the okra, always a messy task (remember, it’s slimey) and then immediately coating the cut pieces in cornmeal. She says the sliminess makes it easy to coat the pieces – she doesn’t even use an egg wash. Then, she places the cut and coated pieces on a cookie sheet and puts them in the freezer. The purpose is to flash freeze them. After they are frozen, she removes the cookie sheet and places the frozen pieces in plastic bags. This way, when she wants a batch, she simply scoops out a bunch and fries them in very hot oil. Done. And yummy. Every time.

Oh, here’s a tip – don’t wash the pods until you are ready to use them. The water left on the vegetables increases the amount of sliminess. Gosh, I’ve had to spell check all the ways to write slime. How funny is that. I know it sounds yukky to store it unwashed, but okra pods are at the top of the plant and not near the dirt. They tend to be pretty clean unless you spray them with insecticides. Since I don’t use insecticides I won’t have to worry.

If you are going to try to do anything with okra, look for the smaller pods. Okra, like zucchini and squash, if left on the plant, can grow quite large. The larger they are the woodier the pod. Therefore stick to smaller, younger fruit. Classic southern recipes are okra and stewed tomatoes, Gumbo, fried or in Succotash, yet another classic southern dish (maybe in another post), Okra make wonderful pickles. Pickle them in a salty brine – think kosher pickles, but crunchier (and hairier – I haven’t figured out a way to get around that part).

Overall, though, I think fried okra is my favorite and that of many others. When my okra starts coming in, I’ll be using my mom’s technique and also doing some pickling. Should be fun. If you have some good okra ideas, please comment to this post.

Ciao for now, y’all


Cooking Epiphanies

One of my posts last week was about my apple butter process. As I said, I try to throw away as little as possible. Since I only have one apple tree, I want to make the most out of the fruit my great little dwarf tree produces. This is even more important because this may be the last year I get fruit for a while or maybe even forever with this tree. Three seasons ago the south had a bad freeze that developed right during apple blossom time. Nobody got apples that year – or pecans, peaches or plums for that matter.

The good news is the next year, my apple tree decided to overdo itself and produce the largest crop of it’s short lifetime. The bad news is the tree lost limbs from too many apples and started to lean so much that it’s now held up with strong ropes and ties. When it started leaning, it cracked the bark and I believe a fungus has invested the tree. So, this year, I’m doing major surgery, cutting back all the branches and trying to force the tree to grow straight again. For one, I won’t have apples for a few years, but I might save the tree. Otherwise, it was worth the effort.

Knowing that I wanted to save a much of my harvest as possible, during the last few years I have tried, unsuccessfully, to make apple jelly. Since I boil all the peelings and cores to make more apple butter, I end up with a lot of apple juice as a byproduct. I use a lot of it in the apple butter, but I saved a large portion to attempt apple jelly. Twice I’ve been unsuccessful.

If you follow my blog, you know I talked about cooks versus bakers in a previous post. Remember me, I am the cook. That means I tend to cook from the seat of my pants, and not the recipe. Well, I had this great idea that I could make good apple jelly WITHOUT all the sugar. Remember, I said this was Jelly, not jam. It turns out that was part of my problem. This is epiphany number one.

As I’m sitting there pouring last years “non-jelly, more like apple syrup” into the batch of jelly I tried this year, I had the ephiphany. Why don’t I do what the recipe says and make it one cup of sugar to one cup of juice. That’s a lot of sugar, but I wanted Jelly, durn it.

If you have ever cooked and made simple syrup you know what happens to boiling water and sugar. It tries to crawl out of the pot. Literally. I remembered that when this happened before, I stopped the process and put what I had in the jelly jars. This is where I had epiphany number two. The recipe said the jelly had to come to 220 degrees. Not lower, but 220 degrees. I suddenly realized I needed to be a lot more patient and figure out a way to let it continue boiling without leaving the pot. Mind you, this epiphany came up as I cleaned up the fourth overflow on my glass topped stove. Eww, the smell of very burnt sugar and apple can be overwhelming, trust me.

So, in my epiphany moment, I decided to remove most of the apply and sugar mixture in my very tall pot and let the stuff boil away. It mean I had to extend the process, forcing me to boil this stuff in three different batches, but I was a woman on a mission. And it worked. I have nine pints of really tasty apple jelly. Wo Hoo.

And that’s when it hit me that I’ve had other similar kinds of epiphanies. Like the temperature of water that goes into yeast for bread. The directions say the water needs to be warm. They even occasionally say the temperature of the water – but that number varies as well. I struggled with my bread baking (remember – cook not baker) and getting my bread to rise was always hit or miss. Until I stumbled on an idea. I decided to test the water the same way I used to test the milk in my babies’ milk bottles – by using my wrist. Through trial and error, I found out if it was too hot, the yeast died. If it was too cool, the yeast couldn’t get enough warmth to bloom. Now, I’m sure I could probably have found a cooking thermometer and been scientific about this but that totally goes against the grain of a cook. Heck, I don’t need no stinkin recipe. Well, I do, but only as a guide.

My last cooking epiphany (not last in ever, but in what I will talk about here) was my piecrust. I love piecrust and I wanted to make the flakiest crust I could. Again I struggled with trial and error for years until I came up with my epiphany. You don’t work the dough hard – the lighter the touch the better. That and I always use Crisco, not butter.

I suppose if I was more of a baker and not a “by the seat of your pants” cook, I wouldn’t need to have epiphanies in order to have cooking success. But gosh, that takes all the fun out of it. So, I’ll continue down my path to cooking glory, one failure at a time.

Ciao for now, y’all.

Beans and Greens – a Southern Staple

On the way back from Baltimore this weekend, we made a stop at Cracker Barrel. I like this restaurant so much there is a brochure in the door of the car that lists all the restaurants by state and interstate. I mean, you never know when you might need one, right?

When the waitress hands us the menus I always look, but know in my heart I’m probably going to get my usual – beans and greens. This is a truly Southern dish and northerners look at it as say “that’s all you’re eating?” Yep and it is satisfying to boot.

When I moved to Chattanooga from Miami, very few people realized I really was from a Southern family because I don’t have any kind of accent. People from Miami – I mean born natives – typically have no accent or they sound like whomever they have been near recently. The complex where I worked had a wonderful company cafeteria and being in the south, had great southern food. Several of my co-workers joined me at my table and saw I was eating beans and greens. They were amazed and said how come I, an Yankee, liked this dish. Once I stopped bristling at the “Yankee” comment and informed them I came from a Southern family, I made sure they understood I grew up on this tasty dish.

And it’s not just beans and greens, it’s the fixin’s too. Pickle relish or chow chow and sliced Vidalia onions that are mixed into the beans. Vinegar, or better yet, hot pepper vinegar is poured into the greens to complete the meal. We always had biscuits, but Cracker Barrel likes to serve it with corn bread. That’s cool too, but I always ask for biscuits instead so I can soak up the pot liquor.

Pot liquor? That’s the broth from the greens. My mom makes a killer batch of greens and she had a friend who would call and put in a request for pot liquor. He didn’t care about the greens – he just wanted the broth. What it basically contains is water, and a ton of salt from the bacon and/or fatback or ham hocks. He would have a fresh batch of biscuits ready for dunkin purposes. In return, things got fixed around the property and that suited my mom just fine.

All of us have something we eat that makes us feel warm, fuzzy and at home. Comfort food – what a great expression. Beans and greens is one of those meals, that to me, fill that bill.

In researching things to put in this blog, I’ve chatted with my mom about what we ate and what was considered Southern. To me it was just food that we ate all the time. I never thought of the meals as Southern – they were just what we made. Traveling around the world has taught me that much of what I ate was special to the South and I want to pass those traditions along to my kids. This blog is a start in the direction and beans and greens had to be one of the first entries.

Things to look for in the upcoming days are, in no particular order:

1. My grandmom’s Banana Pudding recipe
2. My mom’s fried Okra techinque
3. Why Iced Tea means Sweet Tea in the South
4. Chicken Fried Steak – yum
5. Hush puppies – I mean what do you do with the leftover corn meal for heaven’s sake
6. Fried catfish – bones and all
7. Cobblers, lots and lots of cobblers
8. Chicken livers – you love ’em or you hate ’em
9. Messes of things – whether it’s greens or shrimp
10. Corn bread or corn pone?

That’s it for today’s entry.

Ciao, y’all.

So why does mushy squash taste so darn good?

As I have matured, I’ve learned to like my vegetables crisp and crunchy. I’ve been known to put raw slices of yellow squash and green zucchini on my lettuce at a salad bar. My grandmother would be turning over in her grave that I’d be eating them raw. Yet, this week, I harvested some “just past the right size” yellow squash from my garden and what immediately came to mind was my mom’s southern style squash.

So what does southern style mean. Well, it means cooked till the squash is almost transparent and so mushy you could eat it without your dentures. Now, it’s not just squash mind you. There are a couple of other key ingredients required. For one – bacon fat. Lots of it. And a big yellow onion, sliced thin. Some salt, pepper and you are good to go.

Basically, the recipe is sliced squash and one large onion, preferably Videlia, of course. Get a big skillet, add in two to three generous tablespoons of bacon fat and heat until not quite smoking. Add the onions. Cook them until they are a bit limp. Add the sliced yellow squash. Add salt and pepper to taste and cover all with water.

Let them come to a hard boil and then turn them down to simmer on the stove for a week or so. No, not really that long. Maybe a day or so. You get the idea. Cook them forever until they are truly transparent.

Use a slotted spoon to ladle them onto your plate. Oh, and you better have enough salt in the squash because they can be really bland unless you put enough salt.

Nowhere did I say this recipe was good for you – I just said it tastes good. And to me, it’s comfort food. It evokes memories of warm, summer evenings with fried chicken, sweet ice tea and homemade mashed potatoes. When I saw those squash on the kitchen counter, I knew immediately I had to make them the way my mom did. I wasn’t sure how the rest of the family (my husband and mother-in-law – er, especially my mother-in-law) would think of the mush. Well, they loved them. Of course, we had to listen to the “what is this” from my mother-in-law but then she asks that about anything that is not meat and potatoes. The key was it had plenty of salt – to her that made it A-OK. To say she can’t taste anymore is an understatement. She wouldn’t eat any mushrooms either until she heard on TV that they are full of antioxidants. Now, they are OK to eat. But, heck, that’s another blog entry in another universe. Don’t want to go there tonight.

Now that’s I’ve gone to the dark side and made mushy squash, I guess I’m committed to mushy green beans as well. Remember though – the key ingredient – bacon fat – is the reason this all works out. I just need to go find me one of those little aluminum cans with the fat strainer in the top – you remember, the ones with the little yellow knob on the handle. Then make some bacon, drain the fat, and savor the results. Yum.

Ciao for now, y’all.

Apple Butter Time

Well, it’s a bit early, but the raccoons have been at my tree so I’ve had to start harvesting my apples and making my apple butter.  A couple of friends have asked how I make my batches so this post will attempt to show you what I do. It’s not so much a recipe as a process.

The photos above show the initial pot of apples soaking to clean them off, my apple peeler (a must have), my cooking, straining and canning tools, the other ingredients, the finished product and the final picture is all that is left over when done.

First off, I start with a batch of apples.  How many depends on how many are on the ground and are ready to be picked from the tree.  The first photo shows the apples.  I clean them and then run them thru my apple corer/peeler.

Peels and cores go into a pot with water and a little lemon, just to cover them.  Apple slices go into another pot with water and lemon, again just to cover them.  When all peeled and sliced, I add sugar, cinnamon and apple cider to the pot with the apple slices.  I bring the pot to a boil and turn it down to a very slow simmer.  The other pot is put on to boil as well.

When the cores and peels are soft, I strain them through a fine sieve and add cider, sugar and cinnamon and start another apple butter batch from the apple sauce created from the scraps.  I try not to waste any apple material if possible.  You can see from the last photo that not much is left.

After the apple butter has turned a nice dark brown, and has thickened, I add it to hot, cleaned jars.  Cover the jars and process in a water bath, leaving boiling for 10 minutes.  When you remove them from the water bath, make sure you hear the lids pop as they seal properly.

I have never used an official recipe.  The apples are sweeter some years and not others, so I add sugar based on taste.  The same goes for cinnamon.  For the large pot of apples you see here, I used about a half a gallon of  apple cider for the total batch.  There were about 30 apples.

That’s the process.  If you don’t have an apple tree, you can use apple sauce as a subsitute.  You won’t need to add as much sugar to the batch.

Yes I am Southern

Yes, I am southern.  I have to say that because growing up in Miami, Florida, a place many people do not consider the south, I don’t have a southern drawl.  But trust me, honey child, I am southern through and through.  Most of my family is from Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Louisiana.  So, as far as I am concerned, that’s the South.

I love to cook and come from a long line of fine women cooks.  We don’t just cook southern, but that’s the main underlying theme (think bacon fat). I keep finding myself posting recipes and how I did stuff out on Facebook and it occurred to me that maybe a blog would be a good place to write about one of my dearest passions – cooking.

A teacher of a class we once took said there are cooks and there are bakers.  If you are a good baker, you can’t be a good cook.  I sorta don’t agree with that statement because I love to bake and can make a darn good loaf of bread.  But, absolutely, I am a cook.  I use a recipe as a “guide” not a rule.  Bakers use rules – absolute rules – which is why some of my baking efforts have been, hm, less than stellar.  Not bad, just not wonderful.  But when I get to create’n things based on recipes I’ve read, the cook comes out.  Now, can I remember what I did later – probably not.

I’m trying to put together a cookbook for my family so the recipes that have been passed down to me live on.  But how do you write up a recipe that says “until it looks right.”  I make a Syrian Lamb dressing for turkey that is a long time family tradition.  It is lamb, rice, mint and cinnamon.  It’s the cinnamon part that’s tricky.  How much do you use? Well, until it looks right.  Just the right sort of brown that’s not too much and not too little.  How much you use depends on how much rice you use.  Oh and that varies by the number in the crowd at Thanksgiving.  See, it’s tough.  Saying “just a smidgen” doesn’t fly either.  But we’ll figure it out because I will make this happen.

So, this is my starting post.  I’m going to post another one later tonight.  It’s apple time (well, it is now so I can race the raccoons to the tree) and that means it’s time for my apple butter.  I have friends that walk in the door, say hi, and then say “do you have anymore apple butter.”  I want to post how I make my apple butter and my favorite tools to do so – most of the time you see people making it a church affairs in giant cast iron kettles.  Mine is much simpler and I thought I’d share what I do.  Even if you don’t have a “tilting way over and will probably die this year” apple tree, you can make it with apple sauce just fine.

That’s it for now.  My mission is to try to post something here every so often so’s you keep coming back.  Bye now.

Pat Patterson Egen