Thursday, July 24, 2014

Quick Trip to the South: Down Home Tastebuds Do an Appalachian Jig


Collard greens, delightfully overcooked in pork fat. Buttermilk biscuits, flaky, tender, buttery. Okra with tomatoes. Fresh corn chowder. Summer squash. Real fried chicken.

My recent trip home to the mountains of North Carolina was not a gourmet trip. Far from it. I went home to help move my Mom's things into storage now that she is (happily) in a nursing home. But wherever I go, there's a chance for good food and I will take it. First on my must-have list of southern foods was Bojangle's Cajun chicken and biscuit. For those of you not from the south, Bojangle's is a fast food chain that serves New Orleans-style delectables like "dirty rice," pinto beans, collards, and Cajun-spicy friend chicken. No trip to the south is complete without a taste of what the locals eat. I get a jonesing for Bojangle's about the time I see those Blue Ridge mountains poking up in the windshield. Ahh--rich, satisfying heaven of my childhood food dreams. Fast food is just one option--a sinful pleasure at best. Now home-cooking, that's where the real treat lies.

Back to biscuits, in California where I live now, they are so just not the same. In an effort, perhaps, to reduce the guilt and the voluptuousness of a bad-for-you food, Californians zap the sanguinity out of biscuits, which end up tasting like blobs of dry dough--ick! (Funny, there doesn't seem to be a compunction to diminish doughnuts--Kirspy Kreme is so popular, lines snake around the buildings everywhere you go in SoCal--amazing to me, because I cannot stand doughnuts). A real southern biscuit is rich with buttery flavors and simply must have buttermilk and either real butter or lard, or bacon grease, or some combination of the above. Most chain restaurants, sadly, use the unthinkable shortening in baked goods, the same stuff that is wisely banned in New York City. An honest biscuit, however, uses the good stuff. And buttermilk in goodly amounts.

When I describe southern food to people not from the south, it never sounds quite right--oh, that's gotta be unhealthy--all that salt, all that fat--and sweat tea?!? Sure, it sounds dreadful--sausage gravy on biscuits--but it's the association that gives any food its magic. Yes, foie gras is innately tasty, but would you really--c'mon now, be honest--get a frisson of delight eating it if you knew it were as common as grits? Hardly. It would still be tender and delectable. But thrilling? No way. What we ate happily as a child is where the real heart of food joy lies. Food that feeds more than our bodies and comforts more than our spirits. When I bite into sausage gravy on a buttermilk biscuit, my heart soars with joy. If I ate such heart-ful heavy fare every day, it wouldn't be the same thrill either. Rarity makes food delicious too. Maybe twice a year I get real southern cuisine. And I am grateful for those times.

Here's a recipe for real buttermilk biscuits. If you use lard, buy the rendered kind. You can also use half lard and half butter (trust me--lard has gotten an unfairly bad reputation. See Lard--the New Health Food.) Never fear using butter either. Butter ain't the bad boy it used to be considered either. No worse than cheese, I always say.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 2 cups King Arthur white flour (or other good-quality all-purpose flour)
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup lard or butter
  • 1 cup buttermilk

PREPARATION:

Preheat oven to 400°.
In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder, soda, and salt. Cut in chilled lard or butter until you have pieces the size of small peas. Make a well in center of dry ingredients; pour in buttermilk. With a wooden spoon, gently blend dry ingredients into the buttermilk, just until mixture is clumping together. If necessary, add a few more teaspoons of buttermilk.
Transfer dough to a lightly floured board. Pat out in a circle about 8 inches in diameter and 1/2-inch thick. Using a 2 1/2 to 3-inch biscuit cutter, cut out and place on ungreased baking sheet. Bake on center oven rack for about 15 minutes, until tops are browned.
Makes 10 to 12 biscuits.

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