Friday, January 15, 2010

It's back to basics and down home cooking......

Hi y'all! I'm standing here in front of an open refrigerator trying to work out what to make for dinner and all I'm seeing is a lot of "odds and ends", leftovers from other meals yet it's all good food that we can't waste, so I need to figure out what to do with all these "pieces" so they'll make a whole dinner and what better than to look to the past, when cooks needed to have this talent to stretch food to the max while still feeding a hungry family with good food.

With this in mind I've thought we'd revisit some "basics" which will come in handy when doing this and some tricks you might find handy to have when you do. Down home cooking has long been known to give us great comfort food and so we will look to them for some ideas. Once modernization became familiar to households and convenience (aka processed foods) meals were made available to home cooks a lot of the basic recipes got forgotten in the name of progress, yet along with this so called progress we also got less nutrition but food was made quicker, giving busy cooks more time to devote their time to other pursuits.

With the acceptance of "canned" biscuits the old way of making these flaky wonders went the way of the dinosaur and no one (except grannies and other folk) was interested in scratch cooking. Now in these modern times there seems to be a resurgence of producing food with a focus on quality and nutrition, moving away from processed foods and trying to recapture some of the classic tastes some can still recall. Those of you with southern roots are in a better position that I, who never had any of this type of cooking growing up, yet a lot of us can appreciate it's qualities and have made an effort to learn about this style of cooking and bring it to our families creating another generation with memories of "new home style cooking" so they in turn will continue the trend with their families.

So as I stand here trying to plan the day's meals it comes to me that I can make some "Country Style Gravy", some "Buttermilk Biscuits" and have good 'ol "Biscuits & Gravy" for a late breakfast. Now you can make this vegetarian style for the more health conscious but for the others that want it "taken up a notch" and want the flavor, I will mention the heavy duty version made with sausage and animal fat too.

I hope you will see the benefits of learning to make real Buttermilk Biscuits and take this opportunity to practice making them (and eating them too), since they are flexible, very tasty, satisfying and real cheap to make and prepare. They can be served alone with some butter and honey, with gravy, as a topper for a caserolle, covered with fresh fruit and whipped cream or used instead of bread or crackers.

Continuing with my train of thought I come to dinner possibilities and settle on a hearty "Chicken & Vegetable Pot Pie" which promises a lovely meal. This is another great option for any leftovers you have and can be easily made with any type of meat, vegetarian style, any vegetables you might have on hand and the sauce is as easy as 1-2-3 too. A one dish meal. The crust can be of different preparation since it can be pie crust style, topped with biscuits, a cornmeal crust or even topped with some leftover mashed potatoes too. You can also make these into individual serving size pies or make a family size one for everyone. How's that for flexibility!

This now brings us to another staple: Mashed potatoes. There is nothing as flexible as the good old spud and I'd wager that most people like them so this is also great. But again with the onset of those dried flaked potatoes people use for mashed potatoes, old fashioned one's lost out since it took a while to bake the potatoes while the dried ones only took a couple of minutes yet the taste difference is huge! You don't need to bake the potatoes, you can boil them or cook them in the microwave, whichever is easier for you. I don't even peel mine since we like the bits of skin and make ours really "rustic", but you're free to make these as you like. You can leave them plain with butter, salt & pepper only or take them to another level with the addition of roasted garlic (fabulous!), all manner of herbs and spices, cheese, etc. You can also use them as a sidedish or a main dish too, a caserolle topper, worked into "croquettes" or used as a breading on other foods too! Fancy them up by beating some eggs, imported cheese and cream, bake in the oven and you have a great "gratinee" the French love..... truly a staple.

Let's get cracking and I'll show you what I mean. Ready? Here we go!

Buttermilk Biscuits: The real deal, flaky, melt in your mouth biscuits everyone will love!

1 1/4 C. cake flour
3/4 C. all-purpose flour
1 1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
1/4 C. butter, cut into small chunks
3/4 C. buttermilk

Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Prepare ingredients: Cut butter into small chunks, place in a bowl and return to fridge. Measure out buttermilk and set aside. Sprinkle flour on a work surface and have extra flour nearby for your hands and biscuit cutter. Have biscuit cutter and an ungreased baking sheet handy.

Mix dough: In a medium-large bowl, whisk together flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt until very well blended. Add butter and cut into flour using a pastry blender, two knives or your fingertips, until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Pour in buttermilk and stir lightly until dough comes together in a ball. Knead dough and cut biscuits: Dump dough mixture out onto floured work surface. With floured hands, lightly knead dough a few times until it is fairly well blended. Pat out into a circle, 3/4 – 1 inch thick. Dip cutter into flour and cut biscuits without twisting the cutter. Form the dough scraps into an extra biscuit-like shape instead of re-rolling the dough. Place cut biscuits together on the baking sheet so that the sides are touching. Brush tops with melted butter, if desired.

Bake biscuits: place baking sheet in the middle of a preheated 500 degree oven and bake for 8-10 minutes until they are golden brown. Remove biscuits to a wire rack to cool for a few minutes.

Basic Gravy: This can be made almost of any flavor and you'll be able to tell once you see the list of ingredients needed. Keep an eye on the tips and great gravy is the result!

1- The rule is 2 tbl of fat to 3 tbl of flour. Make a roux (you need to cook the flour in the fat so it doesn't taste like flour; stir in a hot pan until beginning to get golden, then add the liquid). 2 cups of liquid (stock, wine, milk).

2- The ideal fat is from any meat or meat drippings. I like bacon fat which is the result after making bacon (I save this). So you see how you can have chicken, turkey, beef, pork due to the drippings you have on hand, you can also use any other fat like olive oil, butter or margarine (I've used all these in a pinch).

3- A good stock is ideal and if you're vegetarian, this is vegetable stock. So you can still have a great gravy! If you're using pan drippings after roasting meat or vegetables, be sure to get all the brown bits at the bottom when you deglaze (with wine or stock) and you will be set. I save bones and trimmings and use these to make a rich stock for use when making gravies, sauces or rice. If you've got roasted or cooked veggies you can blend them (in a blender or with an immersion blender) and make a cream type stock to use.

4- Always use a whisk to incorporate the roux and liquid, this will keep your gravy lump free. You can finish your gravy off with the addition of herbs, spices, mushrooms or almost anything you'd like. If you use dried mushrooms, the soaking liquid can be used as part of the liquid to add more flavor. You can finish off the gravy with a tablespoon of butter to give it a lovely sheen.
NOTE: You can see how you could make a gravy from almost anything, right? Plus you could make it in a couple of minutes too.

Sausage and Sage Cream Gravy: Real Southern Style gravy - Not for the faint hearted either!

2 T. bacon grease (or 1 T. oil plus 1 T. butter)
1 pound bulk sausage
1/2 C. flour
4 C. whole milk, brought to a simmer
pinch of dried sage (or fresh, finely chopped)
salt, to taste
fresh ground pepper, to taste

In a medium saucepan, heat milk over very low heat, stirring occasionally. Make sure to keep an eye on the milk, don’t let it boil. Meanwhile, in a large skillet (preferably cast iron), heat the bacon grease (or butter and oil) over medium high heat until melted, then add sausage. Crumble and cook the sausage until well-browned and no longer pink. Sprinkle flour over the sausage and cook, stirring, for a minute or two. Add warm milk all at once and cook, stirring, until thickened and bubbly. Turn heat all the way down, add sage (if desired) and season well with salt and pepper, stirring and tasting frequently until the flavor is to your liking. Turn off the heat. Gravy will continue to thicken as it cools.

Now for a great main dish that you can make from leftovers (or not) that is flexible since you can make it from almost anything too.

Old Fashioned Chicken Pot Pie: This classic of down home cooking shouldn't be overlooked when feeding a hungry family and whether made with meat (chicken, beef, pork, sausage, ground meat or vegetarian) or not and the addition of any vegetables at hand plus the thick sauce that comes with it (which can be flavored in a thousand different ways too, from simple to fancy) and topped with a different type of crust to suit your needs and tastes.

2 cups shredded chicken (or your choice of meat if using)
2 1/2 cups chicken stock (or other, your choice)

Pie crust:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, cut in 1/2-inch cubes (chill in freezer 15 minutes before using)
1/4 cup vegetable shortening, chilled
3 to 4 Tbsp ice water

Filling: (feel free to change these around)
6 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 large onion, diced (about 1 1/4 cups)
3 carrots, thinly sliced on the diagonal
3 celery stalks, thinly sliced on the diagonal
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups milk
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
1/4 cup dry sherry (optional)
3/4 cup green peas, frozen or fresh
2 Tbsp minced fresh parsley
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Egg wash:
1 egg whisked with 1 Tbsp water

Prepare the pie crust dough. Combine the flour and salt in a food processor (or in a bowl combine with a pastry cutter or a fork). Add the chilled butter cubes and pulse 5 times to combine. And the shortening and pulse a few more times, until the dough resembles a coarse cornmeal, with some pea-sized pieces of butter. Slowly stream in ice water, a tablespoon at a time, pulsing after each addition, until the dough sticks together when you press some between your fingers. Empty the food processor, placing the dough on a clean surface. Use your hands to mold into a ball, then flatten the ball into a disk. Sprinkle with a little flour, wrap with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, or up to 2 days, before rolling.

Prepare the filling. Preheat oven to 400°F. In a large skillet, melt butter on medium heat. Add the onions, carrots, and celery, and cook until the onions are translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the flour and cook, stirring, one minute more. Whisk in 2 1/2 cups of the chicken stock. Whisk in the milk. Decrease the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring often. Add the chicken meat, thyme, sherry, peas, parsley, salt and pepper and stir well. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Divide the warm filling among six 10-ounce ramekins or a casserole dish.

Prepare the crust. Roll out dough on a lightly flour surface to a little less than a quarter-inch thick. Cut into 6 rounds, slightly larger than the circumference of the ramekins or if you're using one casserole dish, roll out to this size. Lay a dough round on each pot pie filling. Fold the excess dough under itself and use the tines of a fork to press the dough against the edge of the ramekins. Cut a 1-inch vent into each individual pie. Use a pastry brush to apply an egg wash to each pie. Line a baking sheet with foil, place the pies on the baking sheet. Bake at 400°F for 25 minutes, (more for the large dish) or until the pastry is golden and the filling is bubbling. Let cool for at least 5 minutes before serving.
NOTE: Flavorings can be anything you like. Replace the sherry and add curry. Leave off the sherry and add herbs & spices, especially if you're doing a meatless dish. You can also top with with unbaked biscuits by laying them across the top, touching each other or with leftover mashed potatoes to cover the casserole too. You can also use this topping, just add 3-4 tbl of sugar to the mix, over fresh fruit for cobblers and baked desserts. Great!

This brings us to Home Made Mashed Potatoes: You can make these with leftover baked potatoes (either in oven or microwave) or boil the potatoes in salted water or chicken / vegetable stock for more flavor. I leave the peels on for a more rustic appearance and more flavor. You can add butter, heavy cream, salt & pepper for the basic potatoes, but there are other flavorings you can add to make them special, like:

-Roasted Garlic: Cut the end of a whole head of garlic, wrap up with aluminum foil with some olive oil and bake in the oven for 1 hour or until very golden and soft. Blend into potatoes for a great garlic flavor, yes, all the garlic!
-Cheese: From cheddar to imported Swiss, add a couple of eggs, a little cream, salt & pepper and bake in the oven until the top is beginning to get golden. French Gratinee!
-Sour Cream and Grated Cheese: A great flavor for potatoes.
-Horseradish and Cream on potatoes works too.
-Puree cooked carrots and caramelized onions and add the to the potatoes.
-Roasted Poblano Strips and Jack cheese plus sour cream. Lovely!
With potatoes, anything goes and your imagination is the only limitations you have.

Potato (or other) Croquettes: These old fashioned goodies have been virtually forgotten by many yet they are great! Have them alone or stuffed with meat, cheese or veggies and they are wonderful. As an appetizer or main dish, they will please everyone at home too!

2 tablespoons milk
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon chopped green onion
2 egg yolks, beaten
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 cups mashed potatoes
1 egg, beaten
Sifted dried bread crumbs (or panko, etc.)

Add milk, salt, pepper, chopped onion, beaten egg yolks and flour to mashed potatoes. Chill and then shape either as pancakes or thick "fingers". Dip in the beaten egg, then roll through bread crumbs. Fry each croquette in shallow oil until brown on all sides. If filling with cheese or meat, be sure potatoes cover the filling real well.
Note: Cook in small batches, giving each croquette at least 2 inches of space around it to not overcrowd the pan. This prevents the croquettes from crumbling while frying.
NOTE: You can make these from mashed lentils, rice, fish, pumpkin, mushrooms, falafel, kibeh, beans, cheese, ground meats, etc. Great way to recycle leftovers. Caution: they are quite adictive and yummy!
Guess I'll stop now and get to making my own dinner, I could go on and on with these types of meals. I wanted to mention these basics because I feel we've forgotten about them and if we don't keep making these basics we will no longer remember them and they will be lost. Besides, this is comfort food that is economical, nutritious and makes good use of leftovers. So when you're thinking of what to do with the leftovers in the fridge, remember this post and maybe you will see how great these can be. Make some memories of your own and pass these on!

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