February 24, 2012

Whole Wheat Shrove Pancakes

I don't know about you, but for me, pancakes have always been a little problematic. I've made them too gummy, too dense, and too black. I can never seem to flip them correctly in a skillet. There is always that stubborn pancake or two that catches on the edge of the pan during flipping and leaves pancake batter sliding down the sides. My pancakes are unattractive and troubled.

The key to golden, evenly-cooked pancakes is a griddle. You need even heat distribution (forget the patchy electric heat on your stovetop) and a flat cooking surface so the pancakes flip with ease. For Shrove Tuesday, I did not have a griddle, but I had the next best thing: a gas stove top. Even though at least one of my pancakes got caught on the side of my frying pan, they still turned out pretty nicely, and more importantly, light and fluffy.

And I finally realized why "light and fluffy" is necessary for pancakes, especially those made from whole wheat, which threatens the very lightness of traditional pancakes: the more porous and light the pancake, the less syrup you need to make your pancakes really sing. So be careful with your cooking times, and be careful not to overmix your batter. Those little lumps and air bubbles are essential to a successful pancake.

February 20, 2012

Drop Biscuits with Fried Basil and Maple Bacon

Folks, biscuits of any type - provided they are correctly baked and not over-mixed - are superior to all other breakfasts. My grandmother makes raised yeasty biscuits and serves them with utterly delicious and savory sausage gravy. Buttermilk biscuits à la my chicken pot pie topping are excellent served plain and hot, with lots of apple butter and jam. Sweet or savory, for breakfast or for supper, really good buttermilk biscuits are an essential staple of every gourmand.

I feel very strongly about biscuits. The vast majority of restaurants gets biscuits plain wrong. And biscuits in "other" (non-Southern) cookbooks are too buttery, salty, greasy, or cakey. The best, absolute best breakfast biscuit I have ever had made outside of the kitchens of cooks I trust was at a sweet little brunch locale in Savannah, a place called B. Matthew's Eatery. (Get the Eggs Benedict or the B. Matthew's Basic Breakfast. Holy smokes.) This biscuit was everything that I love about biscuits: light, fluffy, hot, with a sprinkle of dusted flour leftover from homemade batter that didn't quite get baked through. No superfluous butter. No greasy layers. Grandmother's raised biscuits are like this, as are Bill Neal's buttermilk biscuits that I make with that chicken pot pie.

There is one biscuit in the world that breaks my biscuit rules. And it is from a non-Southern cookbook. I know it must be sacrilege, but if you treat these biscuits right, with good flour (I like King Arthur), good butter (no store brands, as they contain more water and ergo less good butter), and lean buttermilk (cream makes these into scones, not biscuits), then they are just as tasty as my Southern favorites. With that, I share with you the Cook's Illustrated drop biscuit.

February 15, 2012

Georgia Bourbon Pork Tenderloin

As if I could upstage last week's cheese grits. 

We were in Atlanta all weekend, meeting my precious two-month-old nieces, staying warm during an unexpected hard freeze, and cooking breakfasts of biscuits and waffles, whole wheat concoctions of oatmeal cookies and icing, and this amazingly tasty pork dish, which will from this day forward be known as Georgia Pork.

This succulent tenderloin, marinated with rich bourbon, dark coffee, and blackstrap molasses, also comes from the hallowed kitchen of Sara Foster. Rubbed with freshly-picked rosemary and accompanied by heaps of roasted kale and asparagus, this pork loin was the perfectly easy dinner to make on a sleepy Saturday of holding babies and ginger-colored dogs.

February 9, 2012

Goat Cheese Grits with Greens and Ham

Have you ever stopped to consider - really consider - the kinds of food and customs that make up your own culinary identity? Why you grew up cooking the way you do or learning to prepare the recipes that you have? Chances are these recipes have been passed down several generations and some saintly soul (a grandmother or great-grandmother) has bothered to copy them down. Evolutionarily speaking, recipes are a form of our own individual oral histories. They reflect tricks and techniques learned over generations of sharing meals among family and friends. I sometimes like to think this way about Southern food. Where along the way did someone discover that ground corn made an energy-laden, nutritious meal? And where, I'd really like to know, did someone else discover that the addition of cheese to grits makes the world go 'round?
Recent discoveries of my family's ancestry on both my parents' sides have revealed that we have been southern for nearly 400 years. My direct ancestors came to Jamestown before 1620. Part of them were among the First Families of Virginia. One was Royal Governor of the Colony of Virginia itself. Somewhere along the way, these erudite royal folk decided they were tired of the colonies (post-Revolutionary politics no doubt did them in) and moved further south in search of a more peaceful, tranquil life - making booze and selling guns in Alabama. This is the family myth that was somewhat perpetuated over the course of the 19th and 20th century generations. Well, not the booze and guns part, but the myth of the humble, self-made Southerner, the type who was most viciously affected by the ravages of the Civil War, the type who learned to fry chicken in lard and bake cornbread in cast-iron skillets.

February 3, 2012

Creamy Sausage Pasta with Purple Basil

I almost never follow a recipe for pasta. Pasta is one of those dishes that is immediately customizable. Would you like rigatoni with that? Fusilli? Angel hair? Done. Pancetta? Sausage? Goat cheese? Do it. Vegetables? Pretty much anything, depending on your pasta shape and color of sauce. For this pasta, I used a medley of tri-colored sweet peppers, rich green zucchini, and combinations of high-quality Parmigiano-Reggiano and herbed goat cheese. I made sure to buy hot Italian sausage, because we can take the heat. Sneak in a pinch of red pepper flakes if you have higher-than-average spicy tastes, and don't worry; the creamy, cheesy sauce that tops this pasta will soak up any superfluous spicy.