Maybe you’ve decided you want some comfort food tonight. If you’ve never tried cooking “Soul-Food” or, “Southern-Food,“ one thing to remember first off, is that like all regions, and cuisines, recipes differ from area to area, as everyone has their personal way of doing things.
Cooking styles across the southern U.S. can be as diverse as any other part of the country. In fact, in many cases, what may be revered as a “Southern Staple Dish” on some Michelin-3- star rated menu-anywhere USA, many southern expert-seasoned-grandmother-chefs ( like mine for instance) quite possibly never heard of.
This probably isn’t news to some of you, but for everyone else, when you consider the different cooking styles in northern Italy, to those in the southern parts of Italy — You get my point.
I said all that to give you a heads up on the fact that, though my southern roots, and innate cooking styles began in the kitchen, and at the table of my mother, and or grandmother many of the dishes I love to cook today, I’ve developed by combining classic French cooking styles with those down home favorites Mama, and Granny used to cook. ( And Mama Still Does!)
Like my Mother, and Granny, however, much of what goes into my dishes comes from instinct, as far as what will, and will not work together.
I’m sure the same can be said for most of you who do a lot of cooking. In other words, mama and granny never followed any “Classic Cuisine” guidelines, or began their delicious sauces, or gravies, from one of the 5 mother sauces used in classic circles of cuisine—they just cooked instinctively, and deliciously.
On the other hand, being one of my personal life long interest, and having worked under a few respected Chefs, in some pretty darn good restaurants, I do occasionally use some of the classic sauces, and dishes to combine with my inherent cooking skills, and dishes.
To cook greens for “Grits and Greens” as an example, I begin with what I remember being done every Sunday, or Holiday, in Mama, or Grannies, kitchen. We use collards, or, at least— I do for “Grits and Greens.”
First we wash the collards. These are from the first batch picked from my farmer neighbor’s winter crop, and what they lacked in the looks department, they greatly made up for in taste… you’ll just have to take my word for it.
I don’t usually add sugar to my collards, as many southern cooks do, and in this case… I was glad I didn’t as these have a wonderfully mild natural sweetness of their own.
I’ll give a general recipe break-down of ingredients I used, although…it’s all up to your personal taste. I didn’t use exact measurements, as I rarely do-and don’t have many people to cook for these days, so the quantity is much less than one might need for their own family meal.
So, for serving 10 to 12 people, or 6 with left-overs… the volumes would be as follows for the Collard Greens, which you will need to cook first:
(This is totally less involved and time-consuming than it looks)
8-12 hickory smoked bacon slices. (or as few as desired)
1- large Onion, chopped as you prefer
2- bone in ham-hocks, or, 1/4 pound country ham diced.
4-cloves garlic finely chopped (optional)
32- ounces water, or, chicken broth.
3 pounds collard greens, washed and trimmed – – Cut or Strip largest stems from center of leaves.
1/3 cup red-wine vinegar.(optional)
1- tablespoon Red Pepper Flakes (optional)
1-teaspoon sugar (optional)
1-teaspoon salt-(to taste)
3/4 teaspoon cracked black pepper
Cook bacon over medium heat in a 10 quart stock-pot for 10 minutes, or until nearly crisp. (seer ham-hocks, if using- in bacon grease before adding other ingredients) Add onions- sauté 5 minutes more-add chopped ham- garlic- and cook 1 more minute. (Do not burn Garlic)
Add liquid-bring to a boil-( if using ham-hocks cover and simmer 30 minutes) place collards on top of liquid-(Much of it will be over the top of the pot-which is fine-as the steam will wilt the greens into the pot)-carefully toss, and flip till all greens are saturated-turn stove top to medium low… cook covered for 30 minutes up to 2 hours-depending on desired tenderness. Sappier ( darker ) greens will take longer to cook than lighter colored greens.
And be sure to save the “Pot-Liquor” left-over broth in the pot after draining, or removing collards to use in other dishes at a later time. It’s great to pull from the freezer to use as a stock for soups, or other recipes. Not to mention that half of the nutrients from the greens are in the stock.
You can start the grits at anytime after this, as they take less time to cook. But, the slower, and longer, they are simmered the better. I cook grits at different levels of thickness, or consistencies, depending on the dish, and these are smothered in a Mornay sauce, so they’ll need to be thicker than the norm. You will be adding Milk a little-at-a-time… as the thicker the better.
Here again-personal taste is the deciding factor in choosing the liquid to cook grits in. I begin with water only, and slowly add milk as I go along. Some cooks, especially when preparing grits to use in “dinner” dishes, prefer to use chicken broth. Some concoct 1-part-half and half, to 1-part-heavy cream mixtures. If you prefer using heavy cream, I recommend adding only a little toward the end of the finished product cooking time for smoothness and taste, as heavy cream has less liquid for the grits to absorb. Liquid absorption improves starch extraction, and therefore increases flavor melding.
There again, as with all dishes, ones personal taste is what is important. If one likes a meal enough to cook it more than once—and I’m certain this is one of those— you will experiment, and develop your personal taste, and recipe over time.
The type of grits one chooses can make a lot of difference also. There are yellow grits, white grits, corn grits, and hominy grits.
Not to worry though, as most grocery stores only carry a few brands, and types. Quaker brand, white hominy grits are a good choice-although, if you have access to local grist-mills, or specialty shops that sell fresh ground grits, they are —delectable — even though they take longer to cook. I used Quaker white hominy grits for this recipe as follows:
2 -1/2 cups water-
1- cup milk
1-1/4 cup Quick Grits/Not Instant
1/2- teaspoon salt
1/4 -cup butter
1/4- teaspoon cracked black pepper
Salt water in a small pot, and bring to a boil-
Slowly whisk in grits-and bring to another boil-
Turn burner down, while constantly stirring, or
whisking. ( Whisking is always better with grits)
Cover and let cook 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally
start adding milk a little at a time, while whisking 5 more
minutes-Stir in butter, and or, heavy cream if desired.
As earlier stated, we are topping these particular
grits with a Mornay sauce… so, we want them thick.
If they turn out a little runny, just cook uncovered
a while longer.
Now it’s time for the real star of the show… the Mornay sauce.
To compliment the “Maize” or, hominy flavor of the grits, I add a small amount of corn to the Mornay in this recipe.
3- Tablespoons APF
2-cups warm milk
1/8 teaspoon white pepper-or, black pepper
2-ounces white cheese of choice, or-
1- ounce Gruyere-
One ear fresh cooked corn cut from the cob -or, 1- half of a 6 ounce can of green giant nibblets.
First we make a blonde roux, which is simply equal parts all purpose flour, and oil/fat—I used butter for the fat here and sautéd in the corn —whisked together over medium heat until it is pale yellowish, or blond-ish in color. – (About a minute-Do not brown!)
Slowly add milk, while whisking till sauce thickens, and comes to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer for 2 minutes while stirring in nutmeg, salt, and pepper- ( This is now a “Bechamel” one of the French classic mother sauces.)
Stir in cheese-and Voilà — Mornay-Sauce
Plate dish by putting a serving of grits into a medium Remington, or a small plate—
Now ladle a small amount of Mornay – or, a sonsothunder size serving over grits—
Next place greens on top… and serve with candied yams, and corn bread- or, just have at it…