Spring, cool mornings looking back

I love this time of year when it seems everything is new and bursting out in bloom. I feel young again, the earth feels new again to me. Its really just the circle of life on the good earth or the spiral. I had a Art Professor in college, David Bigelow, that said that life is not a circle… it is a spiral. That seems right to me. Since then I’ve seen that image in my mind, a spiral ever ascending upwards toward the final turn in life until you are gone from this earth. A bit simple I guess, but why must everything be complex. The best life I have ever know was simple. As I have probably mentioned before, I did the most important part of my growing up in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. All the strength that my life required, at times it has been considerable, has come from my first five years there on my Granny’s farm. Growing good food, listening to stories in the front yard on Saturday night, drinking sweet tea and eating homemade cake, catching lightnin’ bugs… simple pleasures, that fed my soul. Those first years, I was surrounded by strong, kind, beautiful, intelligent women, who, as far as I knew, ran the world. Men were around and they were also kind and good looking… but not essential, necessarily, to the ongoing day to day life decisions. It would be an understatement to say I came from a matriarchal family, back when that was not common at all, especially in the south, in the late 50′s. So from a young age independence was a part of who I knew myself to be, simple as that. Decisions I can make, asking for help making them… that’s a foreign concept to me. It has caused me considerable “issues” with the various men in my life, some of whom I married. But now 3/4 of the way up my spiral, looking back down at all the springs and summers and falls and winters of my life with the decisions I have made and the consequences, good or bad, that came because of them, I know, I would not change a thing. I would never hit the reset button. I have love and honesty and truth in my life, some of it hard won and harder still to bear, but truth none the less. I have people who share the truth with me, good friends, my son (who is my very breath) and a good husband that can’t quiet believe this life he signed up for. I asked him once why was he attracted to me in the first place, he said you were so different from anyone in my family, such a strong personality I couldn’t help myself. Have I mentioned he is a brave man? Some would say reckless, but that ring of the spiral is 18 years gone, that decision made and tempered in fire, it is unbreakable.

Of course, he also mentioned my cooking as being one of the things that drew him to me, but on our first date he cooked for me, one of the sweetest things he has ever done. I pretty much was a goner by then and he hadn’t even kissed me yet. But way back then he was a skinny man, almost 6 feet and about 145 pounds, skinny, SKINNY man. After hanging out with me for about a year he was closer to 185. I’d like to think that was love but it was probably just my cooking. There were lots of things he did not like, having not really grown up as a southerner. Cornbread being one of those things, if you can imagine, fried green tomatoes being another, because he didn’t like tomatoes. I’ll have to say that Indiana has some of the BEST sweet corn I have ever had, but a good tomato from a southern woman’s back yard garden is hard to beat. Here lately, because spring is in my head, my stomach has been growling for some fresh vegetables that even this far below the Mason-Dixon are not even sprouts yet, I have been hankering for some fried sweet corn and sliced fresh tomatoes and wilted lettuce salad with biscuits and cantaloupe for desert. One of my favorite meals as a child. And the first time my sweet husband had my fried corn I thought he was going to fall over his mouth was so happy. I guess some would think this was a vegetarian meal, it kinda is… except for the POUND or TWO of bacon that you have to fry off first just to make the corn and the hot dressing for the salad.

Make you some biscuits and get them ready to stick in the oven.

Slice some fresh Tomatoes and lightly salt.

Slice up a cantaloupe or 2 and put that out on a platter lightly salted.

The very first thing to do is shuck a lot of fresh picked sweet corn, about 2 to 3 dozen ears, now here is the thing, this is a big production so make a lot… so you have leftovers. And it freezes well after you cook it. Corn fresh picked is one of the best things on earth, but it needs to be shucked right before you cook it and it needs to be cooked within 12 hours of picking it. Once you have all that shucked,  cut it off the cob with a sharp knife and make sure you scrape the milk out of the cobs into the bowl. You will end up with about 7 to 9 cups of corn.

First step, fry off some bacon, thick sliced and a good brand. I have actually broiled it off in the oven on a broiler pan so the drippings collect underneath, whichever way you choose, brown it until it is crispy. Set aside on paper towels. Now the best part, pour off about 1/3 cup of bacon grease for the hot dressing for the wilted lettuce. My friend Jennifer McCarter, her Mama called it killed lettuce, but she was from the Sevierville, Tn. mountain area, which is the Appalachians, my family was from the Blue Ridge so they spoke a different dialect of Southern Mountain.

Take the rest of the bacon grease (at least a half cup, I know but its a lot of corn) and put it in a very large skillet, you might have to do this in batches, but just split up the bacon grease as needed. Add 1/2 stick of salted butter and let that melt over med heat until the grease start to sizzle. Pour in the fresh cut corn and let it fry turning and stirring a lot to keep the sugars in the corn from burning. Fry it for 3 to 4 minutes, adding salt and a little bit of white pepper(I don’t really like pepper too much it seems to take over any dish you put it in) I also add red pepper flakes 1/2 teaspoon to add a bit of heat. All you are trying to do is to bring out the sweetness of the corn and let it brown just a little, if you overcook it you will lose the fresh flavor and it will turn to  mush. Dump the corn back in your big bowl, and in the same skillet add another 3 or 4 tablespoons of bacon grease and the other half of the stick of butter once it melts on med-low temp add 1/2 cup of flour (this is the gravy part) let that cook until it is a light tan color and gradually add whole milk (3 cups or so) while stirring like the devil with your good arm scraping the bottom to get all that good stuff and let it thicken to a gravy like consistency. Pour the fried corn back in and mix well. Take about half the fried bacon and put it in a food processor and grind it up to a very fine consistency and put it in with the fried corn. If you just crumble the bacon in it gets soggy. Adjust for seasoning, adding more salt if needed (probably won’t need it). I learned that last step when I was going to make this for a pot luck and sent my husband to the store to get bacon and he bought low fat bacon when what I needed was full fat bacon. Needless to say grinding up bacon and putting it in with the corn has turned out to be one of the best changes I have ever made in a recipe.

Stick your biscuits in the oven to cook while making the dressing for the wilted lettuce.

Back where I come from we generally had just iceberg lettuce and spinach in our salads but you could go wild and use almost any kind of greens. Thin sliced spring onions are a must also and a few mushrooms but keep it fairly simple. Crumble leftover bacon on top.

Hot Bacon Dressing

1/3 cup of hot bacon grease in a little skillet                                                                                    1/3 cup of olive oil                                                                                                                               2 tablespoons of minced sweet onion or shallot                                                                               2/3 cup of rice vinegar                                                                                                                 1 teaspoon  Dijon mustard                                                                                                                    1 to 2 teaspoons of sugar                                                                                                            fresh herbs (handfull) parsley, basil are good

Heat grease and olive oil in skillet add onions and cook slightly, stir in Dijon and vinegar with a whisk add sugar and melt that in, take off heat add salt and white pepper to taste and lastly add fresh chopped herbs, pour hot over salad greens and serve immediately.

Serve the main course of fried corn along with the tomatoes and cantaloupe and hot buttered biscuits. Some people cut the tomatoes up and put them in their fried corn and it is yum!

I wish I could have this right now! But it is only the 1st day of spring and I’m wanting it too soon.
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Pink corn we got last summer at the farmers market!

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Brazen Braising and other ways to handle cooking supper 8 days a week!

So, I have decided to change my middle name to Braising, not Brazen as most of you who know me would assume. Not Brazen, as in that old southern put down she’s just a “Brazen Hussy”. This comment is usually whispered in loud tones by blue haired older women, about some young cute girl who’s skirt is a bit too short and make-up a bit too heavy, (God knows I WISH that were me now, that actually was me like 30 years ago, but I digress), directly followed by the comment, “Lord knows what she does when no-one is’a watching.” (I wish I was doing something when no-one was watching.) But Braising, as in my new favorite cooking method for any kind of protein. I have lately braised chicken and pork loin and pork chops and beef roast and chicken, I haven’t tried fish yet but that may be next. It is easy, easy,easy and tasty, tasty delicious. And it allows you to switch it up for different flavors so that the family on the home front doesn’t feel as if they are eating the same thing each night. Not nearly as exciting as brazen, but hey its good food!

You can even do this with FROZEN chicken breasts, if you are like me… a bit lacking in the forethought and planning department.

The first thing you need is a good heavy skillet with a lid that can handle at least a 400 degree oven, a 12″size with straight sides will handle a meal for 4 people. Most new ones even with glass lids can handle up to 425 degrees.

You will need for this recipe, your protein, chicken, pork chops, London broil roast, chuck roast etc. Corresponding box of broth, chicken or beef, or I have even used petite chopped tomatoes. I have also used hard cider which goes especially well with pork and basil and rosemary, whichever one you pick you will need at least 30 to 32 ozs of liquid, and corresponding dried spices. For an Italian flavor I like Marjoram or basil, for good old warm comfort food, I like sage and thyme with a bay leaf, Salt and pepper are very important and red pepper flakes if you like.  Also VERY important DRY your meat thoroughly before you season it well. We want it to SEAR when we put it in the skillet not boil it. I usually season 1 side, put that side down in the roaring hot skillet and season the other side while its in the skillet.

Get the skillet, add 1 to 2 tblsps olive oil, I put about that much butter also, get the skillet searing hot, when that begins to sizzle place your  well seasoned roast, chicken, pork chops seasoned side down in the hot skillet and let it brown and sear well, don’t move it around just let it brown until it gets that caramelized color that gives you the excellent taste you are gonna want. If it seems like it is sticking remember it will release from the pan once its seared. Yes you can check it by barely lifting one corner and checking for browness! DO NOT put the lid on or it will release its juices and start to boil and you will have very tough meat. DO NOT be a whimp and turn the heat down or it will boil! Stand over it while you are searing you will get to sit down later when the braising is going on. Once it has seared, after you have seasoned the up side, flip it over and thoroughly sear the other side.

You have just added an amazing amount of flavor to your protein.

Next step, while still on the stove top, add just enough broth or cider to come HALFWAY up the sides of the meat or chicken. At this point add fresh spices or veg to add flavor, onion chunks, celery cut 2″ long, garlic smashed and cut up fine etc. Bring broth to a boil in the skillet on the stove top and THEN put the lid on and place it in a 350 degree preheated oven. Check it in about 30 to 45 minutes if it is chicken or pork chops to check for done-ness and tenderness, add more broth to keep the level halfway up the meat . If its not done stick it back in the oven until it is. A pork loin roast or a chuck roast will take an hour and a half or longer. If chicken breast is frozen you will need additional 20 to 30 minutes for oven time. A London broil takes longer to get tender as it has very little fat. The same would apply to venison or other wild game.

Once the meat is done, remove from oven and place back on stove top, remove the meat or chicken from the juices and let it rest on a plate, while you make the pan sauce or GRAVY! YUM! Add the rest of the box of broth or liquid to the skillet. Then all you do is take 2 tablespoons of melted butter add 2 tablespoons of flour mix that together in a separate bowl and stir it into the pan juices with the additional broth. Bring to a simmer to thicken slightly and place meat back in skillet. Let it cook for an additional 5 minutes and you got dinner with I might add…GRAVY.

There are so many ways to vary this recipe, you can turn the oven down to 325 degrees if you need it to take longer to cook.

Here are some suggestions for combinations, all are prepared well salted and peppered during the searing process with additional spices according to what I am preparing.

Pork loin, rosemary and basil S&P to sear and onions and celery added to braise. Use 1 bottle of hard cider(Wicked Orchard is my favorite) for braising while in the oven and add 1 16 oz can of chicken broth to make the gravy, using the butter and flour method, which is delicious, especially over mashed potatoes, with sauteed apples and roasted Brussel sprouts on the side.

Chicken breasts, dried sage, bay leaf and small amount of red pepper flakes. About halfway through oven time add chunks of seasoned raw carrots, onions and potatoes,and celery for a 1 pot meal. Make sure liquid level stays high enough to cover half way up meat and veg. Serve with cornbread or rolls. You don’t even have to thicken the gravy on this one, the potatoes do that for you.

Chuck roast or London Broil seared with rosemary and thyme braised with onions, beef broth, a little red wine(1/2 cup) and bay leaf  in the oven until almost done add lots of sliced mushrooms and thinly sliced bell pepper, more thinly sliced onion about 30 minutes before its done. Remove meat and veg from skillet back on stove top and for the gravy part mix 1/4 cup of sour creme with flour and stir into pan juices with additional beef broth, let it thicken add beef and veg back in and serve over wide noodles for a stroganoff, crusty french bread on the side.

And this was a new one for me, no oven necessary. I needed to prepare dinner the other night and had thawed chicken breasts but really not much else, except for canned chopped tomatoes and 1 jar of Alfredo sauce, but 1 jar of sauce is not enough for 3 people. And I always have pasta of some kind. So I seasoned the chicken with S&P and marjoram, seared it off as usual, turned the heat on the stove top down to med/low and put the lid on the skillet to force the heat inside the chicken and cook it all the way through. When it was almost done I dumped 1 can of petite diced tomatoes with the juice on top of the chicken and let it simmer another 5 minutes, then I added the jar of Alfredo sauce and mixed it in with the tomatoes, and let it simmer for another 5 minutes. Stuck it on top of some cooked linguine and supper was ready in about 30 minutes. I have kinda always though jarred Alfredo sauce is too heavy but the addition of the chopped tomatoes added that bit of acid that really lightened it up. And it was yum.

Here’s the thing, this all seems fairly simple to a cook who has been flying by the seat of their pants for years, I get it… if its too simple for you go make the coconut cake that is on this blog. But if you are like me and make dinner almost every night of forever for hungry men, its a relief to have a simple formula that ALWAYS turns out good, that you don’t have to think about too much that you can keep stuff on hand for, just a simple and good meal that uses fresh veg and meat and takes less time then running to the corner taco stand.

Enjoy friends!

Oh and one more piece of advice… if you get the chance, young or old, male or female, to be a “Brazen Hussy” JUST DO IT, its so much fun.

 

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Family and Gratitude and Gifts

Sometimes….
Family is who you choose. Not who you were born to. Common fact known by those of us who are happily married. We chose this person to be our family. That is how I ended up with my wonderful husband, Keith Miller. 17 years ago, my son and I were slogging through my attempt at single parenthood, my MORE than full time job, NO social life, facing my sons teen aged years with just me to figure it out. This situation is something that many of you have faced or are facing now.
You understand I was a little worried and really lonely.
Then one day… I see this young man working on the landscaping at my neighbors house next door. He had on a pair of hiking shorts and work boots and the sun was setting behind him. He had curly blond hair and the sun just lit it up like a halo around his head. It was another 6 months before I really met him. 10 months after that we were married. I’ve never looked back with any thought that what I chose, or more importantly… what chose me that day, was a mistake. He and I and my son Nathaniel, we became family. We are family today. Tempered by life and its challenges, but stronger because we faced them together. We don’t pretend with each other, we tell the truth, we deal with the consequences. It makes us love each other more, and respect each other deeply. Often it is not easy, often it is “knee walking, praying to God” HARD! But we do it and I am so very grateful that I have someone who sees the real me and loves me for who I am. He does the same for my son. They are best friends and I am so very grateful for that.
What I got that day was the best person that could have happened to me.

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There are a few other people that I am so very grateful for, people that somehow by some miracle or some great design that I cannot see, were chosen to be my family. This is not random, it cannot be. My best friend through all my adult life, my sister, my confidant, the one person who I can tell anything to is Shelly Baughman. She and I were meant to be friends and sisters.

The first time I remember seeing her was 33 years ago, I was 23 years old. I had been lying in bed, VASTLY pregnant and sick with toxemia. All the windows were open in my tiny 900 square foot house, and the breeze was blowing the warm spring air into the room as I lay there listening to the children play across the street at the elementary school. Then I heard someone talking on my front porch. I waddled into the living room to see who it was, pulled open the front door, 2 women about my age were standing there, talking about the color my house was painted. It was Shelly and her friend Rosalie.

The 2nd time, I came into contact with her, it was actually her daughter and husband I met at Vanderbilt Childrens Hematology clinic when my son was 3. Sally, her daughter started playing with my son and a big green stuffed frog. I remember her laughter and how delighted Nathaniel was with her. He  was sick with Leukemia. Sally was being treated for Leukemia also. Steve, her father told me they were from Murfreesboro, where we lived. I didn’t actually realize the connection.

The 3rd time I came into contact with them, about 6 months later, was in the bathroom at clinic, Shelly was holding Sally’s head while she threw up in the bathroom. I thought Shelly looked familar, I still didn’t realize the connection. Then a few months after that Sally left her book satchel at clinic and the nurses knew we were both from Murfreesboro. I took the satchel  by their house on my way home, they lived on the street behind our house.

The fourth time I met her, I walked into the Art and Frame shop that was my first real job since the birth of my son, Shelly was standing there, sweeping the floor, she laughed and said,”I give up, I guess we just need to be friends.” We have been since that day. We had a lot to talk about, we still do, I try not to call her every day, but I want to.

There is another person that is my family. I’ve loved him since the moment I met him 11 years ago. He is the one person I know I could call for any reason…. say if I needed some help in hiding a body. He is “ON MY SIDE”! Like, no matter what. That’s a good friend. He’d also make sure I got a good lawyer if the need arose. I’m never going to need help hiding a body but its good to know its there. He’s my best boyfriend in the world, Nick Nichols, from the great state of Alabama and ALL that that implies. Yes, we are polar opposite, politics wise, yes we argue about just those things. Yes, he makes me madder than a hornet, sometimes on purpose, but he is my “Southern Gentleman Friend” and I love him with a deep and abiding respect for who he is and how clearly he see’s me. He is my family. I am his family. We did not choose this, it was chosen for us. We have cried and laughed together so often, it feels like we have know each other all our lives. Maybe we have.

And most importantly, my son Nathaniel Davis, the love of my life, the one person who made me realize what family really was. He is the reason I breath every day. He is my gift, he chose me and I chose him long before I ever knew I would have a son. It has been an incredible journey. I never could have imagined I could feel this wealth of love for any one person, he opened my heart. My need for his happiness became so much more important than even my need for my own. Looking back I see that everything I have ever endured in pain or in happiness has prepared me for him. Dear Son, you have given me insight, you have given me strength by showing me yours, you have made me grateful for each day on this earth that I get to be your mother and your friend.lasteset 342

And lastly…but not least, but certainly shortest, my hound dog, Shelby Lou, her highness, Schoochie La Loochie, who protects me each night while I sleep, and makes me smile each and every day. She is my little Beagle Bundle of Joy! I found her and she found me one fall day in Gatlinburg, when I was working and living over there. She was the funkiest smelling adorable dog I had ever seen. By the second night in my tiny travel trailer she had climbed up on my bed and into my heart.lasteset 309

These people and 1 hound dog are my gifts this Holiday Season. I don’t need presents under the tree. I have Love. I have Family. I am so very gratitude filled by these wonderful souls that I get to call family that it spills out of my eyes and runs down my cheeks.  

Merry Christmas Friends, thank you for letting me share.

Posted in love and family, Southern Living, Uncategorized

7 Hour Coconut Cake and reasons to eat it….

Cake is my favorite food, it is my addition. Therefore I LIMIT when I bake it because I cannot leave it alone. Other peoples cake, i.e. bakery cake, or store bought cake cannot touch what I bake myself. I realize that sounds arrogant, but seriously ask anyone who has had one of my cakes. They cause sane people who are educated and aware of what all that white flour, sugar and FAT do to the human body, to regress to 8 years old when any amount of cake is never enough. Isn’t that right Dr. Greg? This man is wonderful physician who runs a clinic at Vanderbilt Children’s to help adolescents deal with our out of control food culture that has made many of them overweight and type II diabetic. I’ve seen him eat 3 pieces of my 7 hour coconut cake (that’s how long it takes to make it) at one sitting or actually one party.

Cake and (its quickie cheap counterpart) pie, have been the topic of serious discussion by serious writers at serious dinners on many occasions. One in particular that I remember took place in Nashville at a now closed restaurant called Allium (much great food and liquor) after a writers weekend  meeting at MTSU which goes by the name of “The Loft” (a seriously great writing program started by Roy Burkhead and now continued by Karen Alea for folks who might want to become writers like me). At the restaurant my friend and the Director of “The Loft” at that time, Terry Price and I, Terry’s beautiful wife Sharon and one of the speaker/writers for the weekend Richard Goodman (brilliant man and writer) threw down and argued about which was better, cake or pie. This friends, was a half hour discussion. Ending with a challenge, a duel as it were. Terry and I were on the cake side, Sharon and Richard were on the pie side. And dear Terry said one of the most brilliant phrases I have heard to date.

“Cake is a long term love affair, pie is a one night stand.” Then he extrapolated. “Cake is Sophia Loren, pie is Gidget.” See…brilliant!

At that point someone ordered a gauntlet and threw it down. Bake off at Terry’s house using his brand new Persimmon colored Kitchen Aid mixer. I started insisting that everything be made from scratch, and that’s when Sharon indeed showed she has brains as well as beauty. She forfeited, in agreement with Richard. Then decided… I should just come up to sunny Springfield and with the winning cake team (me and Terry) and bake the winning cake. Smart Girl. At which point they would declare CAKE the winner.

Well, as y’all who follow along know, I published my coconut cake recipe the last time I blogged. And Dear Dr. Greg posted a wonderful comment on my Facebook page which I will attempt to quote here as I am not the cut and paste genius that most 7 year olds are.

Gregory Plemmons, “You posted your recipe? In one sense this is like Colonel Sanders and Coke Cola beneficently saying, “here…here is the recipe.” In another sense its really just handing out crack. Readers be forewarned: I have tasted of this creation. Cross over, children. All are welcome in the light.”

I would call that an endorsement, wouldn’t you?

So at this point I really am not that worried about other people taking over and making my coconut cake and handing it out like crack. Because did you seriously READ the recipe? Its not called a 7 hour coconut cake for nothing. Most people are not going to go to that kind of trouble. But if you ever do… call me and I’ll help you eat it.

As for reasons to eat cake…I recently heard of a quote, from a brilliant woman I never had the privilege of meeting. My dearest friend Nick Nichols, best boyfriend ever from Alabama or anywhere else for that matter, told me he had for years wanted his Mama’s Coconut cake recipe and she would never give it to him. She lived on Sand Mountain in Alabama, and he lives in Huntsville about 2 hours away. Whenever he would ask her for the recipe, she would tell him,”Son I won’t give you the recipe, but if you come spend the day with me I will bake you one.” Mrs. Nila Nichols Jones passed away a few weeks ago, quite suddenly. At the family gathering after the service while Nick was sitting with his cousins and family it occurred to him that he had missed his chance and he said, “Well, I guess I’ll never get Mama’s recipe for Coconut cake now.” His cousin Ann piped in and said, “Nick I have it, I’ve had it for years, everyone at my church has it too, we call it Nila’s Coconut cake.” Seems Miss Nila, strong Southern woman that she was, knew not only how to make a good coconut cake, but also knew a very good reason to bake and eat one.

Rest in Peace, Miss Nila. You honor Southern women everywhere.

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Seeming Perfection and its Consequences!

Human nature is such a curious thing, I often feel like I need to be a practicing therapist just to get through life. Like… I need weekly newsletters from the American Psychiatric Association with the latest updates just to get through the day. I’m sure you’re thinking  she’s a writer and a cook how hard could it be? Well the answer to that is, I’m from the South, the land of cotton and guilt and stories and emotions and guilt. I was recently reading an article on Alfre Woodard, a wonderful actress from the South, in Garden and Gun magazine, a publication you should read as often as possible. In the interview something she said struck me deep inside as being one of the truest things I have ever read. It made me laugh out loud. This brilliant woman said when asked, What else do you value about the south?

“I like that people touch each other there. They fight. They don’t back away from human contact. The south is like a family. There is more social engagement. There are more real relationships between cultures, age groups, economic groups. The region is a huge breathing organism. My husband is from an old New England family. And I’m just saying, if you boil some meat instead of frying it, you aren’t going to be telling any good stories.”

I personally have never boiled any meat. I have, however, heard some really good stories.

My other need for some kind of guide book concerning people, is the innate quirkiness of Southerners. I include myself in that diagnosis. Lord God, we got some quirks! I haven’t quite figured out if we are more quirky or we just hide less about ourselves. I suspect its the latter. For one thing it is hot down here, about 78% of the time. Yes we have a reasonably nice fall, but it don’t really cool off these days until October and we have been know to spike a temperature of 85 in DECEMBER or January. Winter is the month of February. Spring shows up in March. Because its hot, we physically hide less of ourselves. Maybe that equates to hiding less of our personalities. I realize these are wild guesses here. But picture this. Its hot down here. We are cooking in a hot kitchen, where the only air moving through the window screen feels like the devils breath, sweating bullets for a Sunday dinner, FRYING chicken, which you have to stand over, (not boiling it, which you can walk away from) and the stories and the emotions and the sweat and occasional swearing are starting to fly. That’s the Sundays I remember. Granny is frying chicken, and Great Aunt Bonnie, while stuffing deviled eggs, would be telling about the time she and her 2 sisters  (my Aunt Louise and my Granny) decided they all had to go to town  one Friday, for a social at the Spindale House. They had a plan to go and pick out some husbands. So they all got dressed up in nice dresses and did each others hair, and all 3 got astride the one old mule my great Grandfather, Papa, would let them take to town. How they ever though landing a husband smelling like mule was going to work, I’ve yet to figure out. Henry the mule was ancient, had a good temperament and practically knew the way himself. As young girls do, they got to giggling and squirming around so much and then tickling each other that the old guy just stopped in the middle of the dirt road about half way to town. And wouldn’t budge. I’m assuming his dignity was impinged by this foolishness. So my Granny, who was the smallest, got off and tried to lead him. Henry wouldn’t move an inch. So Aunt Louise got off thinking that would help. Nope. Finally Aunt Bonnie with the red hair and temper to match, got off him and pulled a switch from a roadside bush and swatted him on the butt. My Granny was holding the reins, but she was barely 5 feet tall and not hardly a hundred pounds and Henry jerked his head upwards pulling her off the ground, where she lost her grip and landed on her butt in the dirt road, in her good dress. Aunt Louise started laughing, Aunt Bonnie took off after Henry, who had turned tail and ran back towards home. Old as he was, he was still pretty fast, faster than the teenage girl in Sunday shoes trying to catch him. They never made it to town that Friday night. An hour later when they finally made it home, Papa and their Mama, Mimi, were sitting on the front porch waiting for them, drinking iced tea and laughing. Henry had made it home already, been there most of that hour. When Bonnie asked “Daddy when Henry came home without us, why didn’t you come looking for us?” He just said “Bonnie, I could hear you girls fussing a mile away, I knew you were fine.”  But those 3 old ladies in my Granny’s hot kitchen, laughing again like they were teenage girls, and trying to stick the blame on each other still after all those years is a thing a 5 year old girl doesn’t forget. I always wanted sisters like that. And a Henry the mule.

There’s another interview in that same magazine with Amy Ray, another Southern Girl who is an amazing musician, best know as one half of the Indigo girls. She lives in North Georgia in the Blue Ridge and records in Asheville. And yes I am going to quote her also,

“Being Southern means everything to me,”she enthuses. “Its the first thing that comes to my mind about myself. Before singer, before white, before gay, before activist, before woman. Being Southern means you’ve had to grapple with all the dark things.”

Because as my friend Sue, from Portland Oregon said after living down here a few years, “the South is the boiling pot.” I guess our boiling pots aren’t on the stove… they are out in the culture and the people on the streets and in our families. Grappling with all the dark things is something we do daily. That probably adds to our innate quirkiness too. There no covering up anything here  in the boiling pot, its sweat and blood and tears and talking it out. Because we have to, because all those dark things will become a legacy to our children if we don’t. They will have their own problems… we cannot give them ours.

Recently I did something that I am having a hard time forgiving myself for. I got really mad at my dearest boyfriend in the world, Nick Nichols. Yes he’s my boyfriend, yes I am happily married to my wonderful husband Keith. Nick is happily married to his wonderful wife Leigh. But Remember? Quirkiness? I call him my boyfriend because to me he is. And its also kinda like that boy cousin you had a crush on growing up (but that’s a big no-no), and he’s kind of like my brother too. So we settled on boyfriend. He’s from Alabama and a true Southern Gentleman, up one side and down the other, to the core. If you have never met one of those, try and find one as soon as possible (no you cannot have mine, I already have to share him with his wife), become his friend and keep him around,  especially if you are female, you will not regret it. Food is a good way to keep ‘em coming back, I kept Nick around with my cornbread recipe. Yes, the recipe is on this blog, feel free to use it. So Nick and I were having a meal one evening when he was in Nashville working, I was hurting badly and I shared something with him, that I felt he did not respond to in the way I wanted him too. The thing I have found is, if you are hurting anyway and someone doesn’t show the degree of sensitivity that you need, you just get hurt more, often out of misunderstanding. Unfortunately I am a fighter by nature, grew up with a bunch of boys. So when I get hurt, I get mad. Anger for me is a catalyst, it usually gets me going to get whatever it is fixed and done with. Got mad that night, got madder the next day. So instead of using that catalyst to fix things, I decided to cool down a bit before contacting him, kinda ignored him when he contacted me. 2 months went by, I texted him yesterday, he called me back, we talked, I cried, he apologized profusely (Southern Gentleman), we made up. I told him I would wear his ring again, he said he would meet me on the school bus the next morning and hold my hand. That of course, is fiction. We did actually say those words, we meant those emotions, but it is that old fashioned kind of crush you have on someone you really admire and that is a precious, precious thing. And we are old and we are Southern and we are quirky. And we love stories and we like to play. And  2 months is too long to stand  within the cold knowledge that you were justified in what you did or said (especially if you really weren’t, like me). Being right and feeling perfect in that righteousness is a cold way to live. You just get colder and colder and hard on the inside. You miss out on the love you could have had. Obviously the thing to do is not to get mad… yeah right, that won’t work, our range of emotion is the thing that separates us from the monkeys, I believe that is where that particular family tree split. I am human, I have emotions, I make mistakes. I will not let another day pass in misunderstanding if I can help it. I should have called him the next day, instead I missed out on the love I could have had. Isn’t that really what we are here for, the love we can have, the love we can give. Dear Lord never let me go cold again.

So in an effort to keep your loved one close or if you need a recipe to catch you a Southern Gentleman, I have a really good one in mind. Its one I have promised before but did not deliver. But it is the perfect Coconut cake, you will be famous and loved, men and women will bring you yellow roses, and thank you profusely for making their mouths so very happy. This friends, is a labor of love, it takes anywhere from 6 to 7 hours to make, but worth it, so very worth it. So set aside a day, gather up some money and coconut and butter and cream and eggs and make a gift to yourself and all who come into your life. It is a hunk of LOVE on a desert plate. Friend this cake will allow you to grapple with the dark things.

Candace’s 7 hour Coconut Cake

  • This has 5 separate parts
  • The cake layers
  • The custard
  • The syrup
  • The filling
  • The buttercream

Layers first, every ingredient at room temperature for the cake layers

  • 3 1/4 cups sifted cake flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon fine salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 6 large egg whites
  • 1 teaspoon very finely grated lemon zest
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2/3 of a cup of coconut milk mixed with
  • 2/3 cup of whole milk
  • 1 cup sweetened flaked coconut

Prepare 2 9″ cake pans by greasing them with Crisco and putting wax paper in the bottoms and flouring them. Preheat oven to 350

Sift together flour, baking soda and salt into a med. bowl. set aside.

In an electric mixed using the paddle attachment, beat butter at med speed, 30 secs until creamy

Gradually add sugar and beat at high speed until light and fluffy about 2 minutes.

Reduce speed to low and add egg white 1 at a time, beating well after each and scraping down sides of bowl.

Beat in the lemon Zest and Vanilla extract, add flour in 3 additions, alternation with the milk mixture in 2 additions, just until flour is mixed in well. remove the bowl from the mixer and add the cup of sweetened coconut by stirring it in last. Scrape batter into prepared pans evenly, smooth the tops.

Bake at 350 for 25 to 30 minutes until lightly browned at the edges, cool cakes on wire racks for 15 minutes and then invert them onto the racks to cool completely.

Whew, step 1 is done!

The Custard is next, yum!

Again all ingredients room temp.

  • 4 1/2 cups whole milk or more if needed
  • 3 cups sweetened flaked coconut
  • 12 large egg yolks
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 9 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 3 tablespoons dark rum
  • 3 teaspoons Vanilla extract

Combine the milk and the coconut in a saucepan and heat over med. heat to just under a boil. Set aside and let steep for an hour. Pour the mixture through a sieve, pressing down on the coconut to extract as much milk as possible. You should have 4 cups of milk. Add milk to make up the difference if you have less.

In a separate bowl whisk together the egg yolks, sugar and cornstarch, set aside.

Return the coconut infused milk to a saucepan and bring to a gentle boil over low to med heat, remove pan from heat. Take 1 cup of the hot milk mixture and gradually add it to the egg yolk mixture to temper the eggs. Gently pour the hot egg mixture in the pan of milk, off heat and stirring with whisk until well combined. Place back over Med to high heat and bring to a boil whisking constantly. Boil whisking fast and furious for 1 minute. Remove from heat, scrape the bottom of the pan with a spatula and again stir with whisk until smooth. stir in the rum and vanilla extract. pore into a bowl and put over an ice bath until chilled stirring often, about 15 minutes. Keep chilled in refrigerator until ready to use, with a piece of plastic wrap directly on top of it. you should end up with at least 4 cups. If you have more than that you get to eat whats left over, all by itself.

Making the syrup, important and easy step, use really good dark rum.

  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 4 tablespoons dark rum
  • 1/4 cup coconut milk

Bring water and sugar to a boil over med high heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Take off heat, add rum and coconut milk. bring to room temp.

Making the filling, its important that this is really cold

  • Use 2 1/4 cup of the coconut custard you make and kept Chilled
  • 2 1/4 cups of heavy cream Chilled

In the bowl of an electric mixer beat the heavy cream with the custard until soft peaks form refrigerate cover with plastic until ready to use.

Last step in the making process, Make the Buttercream

  • 3 cups unsalted butter softened (6 sticks)
  • 2/3 cup confectioners sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups coconut custard that was made previously
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • a good pinch of fine salt

In a perfectly clean mixer bowl beat at very high speed butter and confectioners sugar until light and creamy about 4 minutes, add the 1 1/2 cups coconut custard, the vanilla and the salt and beat at med speed until blended and smooth. Keep it chilled until ready for use.

You will also need 1 more cup of sweetened coconut to squish onto the sides of the completed cake.

Now we have all the parts and your kitchen is wrecked, all we have left is the assembly and resulting raves. 

Take the 2 layers of the cake and split horizontally, yes its not easy but you can do it. Place the bottom side of 1 layer bottom side down onto your serving plate, you can use a little buttercream as glue. Brush the cut side with the rum coconut milk syrup. Spoon 1/3 of the coconut cream filling onto that layer, and spread evenly to with 1/2 inch of edge. place another layer cut side up onto that, brush again with syrup, and spread with the next 3rd of coconut cream filling. 3rd layer same way, syrup finish with last 3rd of coconut cream filling. On the 4th layer put the cut side down after brushing with syrup. Now friends you are ready for the buttercream. If your stack is a little slippery straighten it up and stick some wooden skewers in it broken off below the level of the top. Warn your guests. If you keep everything well chilled, I keep everything in the fridge including the cake until right before I need it, this is less of a problem. If it slides a little or the layers aren’t even don’t worry it will still taste good. Perfection isn’t needed here or anywhere for that matter. Now all we have to do is frost it with the buttercream and pat on the coconut.

So do that! Place back in the refrigerator, well wrapped until ready to serve. It is not only a beautiful cake it is also the best coconut cake you have ever had, and I have tasted plenty of them all around the south from Charleston to Savannah to Highlands to Atlanta to Louisville.

I’ve never seen coconut cake offered in the mid-west or the north. My friend Charlotte can’t get it in the northwest. So I assume its a Southern thing. I guess the south will rise again, this time on its food.

My boyfriends back and your gonna be in trouble….

hey ya, hey ya, my boyfriends back…

I love you my friend!

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Unrequited Ratatouille

Really delicious Ratatouille seems like such a good idea. I actually fell in love with the idea of Ratatouille while I was watching the Disney cartoon/movie by the same name. Fresh vegetables, cooked simply, in just the right combination with fresh herbs… sounds delicious, no?

No.

I tried for years to make really delicious Ratatouille, that unique combination of fresh eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers and herbs, all of which I love, combined into a dish that any french mother could make in a moment (at least according to Disney), I mean in the movie a Rat made it! Albeit a french Rat, I have a french Great Grandfather and a son that’s been to France twice, doesn’t that count for something?

Apparently not.

So I refused to buy eggplant. Although those round sensuous purple orbs called to me from the farmers market stand, I would see other people buying them and be jealous, thinking they had the secret. I did not. I love zucchini. I love onions. I love bell peppers and garlic and basil and tomatoes and yes, I love the idea of eggplant (eggplant is featured in the photo at the top of my blog and in this photo, shot the same day. It was taken about 4 years ago, I know that because my sweet dog Zoe is in the background and she has since passed away).img_0211.jpg

I’ve been TRYING to make Ratatouille for literally YEARS.

I have made successful  Eggplant Parmesan, it was wonderful, crispy and golden and cheesy, with homemade marinara.  But I wanted it simpler, something where you could really taste the eggplant. So I watched Bobby Flay grill it, so I grilled it. And I watched Alton Brown salt it and let it drain to take out the bitterness. I did that and then tried to Ratatouille it. EH,… not so much! It was never REALLY good and I was going for excellent.

I consider myself a pretty darn good cook, but I absolutely could not get my mind and taste buds around the Ratatouille idea.

Until…

Last Saturday morning, I gave in to the purple temptation and bought some at the farmers market, Fairy Eggplant. Little tiny purple and white fingerling sized tender beautiful eggplant, and some zucchini and peppers and purple onions and a lot of other things including a purple cauliflower and purple blue potatoes. I was in LOVE with the color purple again! veg and schooch 203

Sometime late Saturday afternoon, I suddenly felt…focused, like I did the day I finally made excellent sweet potato biscuits and put pepper jelly on them with shaved country ham.

It was time.

I walked in the kitchen, and took out a large purple onion and chopped it, along with 3 cloves of garlic and minced that. I put about two tablespoons of olive oil in my skillet and sauteed the onion until translucent and put the garlic in and sauteed that for a few minutes more. I took it off the heat and turned up the flame and took a red bell pepper and blackened the skin right over the flame, wrapped it in wax paper to steam off the skin, rubbed it down and chopped it up and put that in the skillet. I took a LARGE (1 pound) Cherokee Purple tomato (its really red, that’s just the name, a heirloom variety and my personal favorite) peeled it and chopped it and put that in the skillet with the rest of the veggies, back on the heat with some salt to taste and 1/4 tsp of red pepper flakes. Cooked the whole shebang on medium heat for 10 minutes, and stuck an Immersion blender in and whirled it up until it was a chunky saucy gravy.

Tasted it and the heavens opened up and the world stood still, you could have put it on a flip flop and it would have been fabulous.

Next, I sliced the zucchini and the little Fairy Eggplants long ways, oiled them up with olive oil and salt and pepper and grilled them until they were crisp tender with lovely grill marks etched on their sides.

Next I laid them out on the cobalt platter and dolloped the roasted red pepper tomato sauce on them and sprinkled torn fresh basil over the top.

I would have taken a picture of it but we ate it too fast. It was amazing, excellent texture and taste, not mushy, and bright tasting because I didn’t overcook vegetables. And REALLY good for you.

I call it “Deconstructed Damn Good Ratatouille.”

I am no longer unrequited!

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Veggies and birthdays

veg and schooch 199

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