Welcome to Tennessee

Today is National Tennessee Day. Tennessee, the Volunteer State. Theirs is a long and proud history of stepping forward to do the right thing. That is with the exception of the Civil War. Like most southern states, Tennessee was on wrong side of the moral compass.

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Sweet Carolina – North Carolina That Is

Within every state, every town, every community there is much to be proud of, to celebrate and embrace. From tragedy comes inspiration. From necessity innovation. People are amazing. The human spirit should be celebrated, uplifted and honored with every opportunity. By acknowledging a National Day for each state, we get to explore things beyond our own backyard.

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The Perfect Union of Two National Days

What an awesome day! On the National Food Front, today is a celebration of Southern Cooking and (yum) Blonde Brownies. It’s also Friday. We all know that in our house, Fridays are Old School from a Catholic perspective. It’s a meatless day.

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Great Men Believe in the Power of Dreams

Today America celebrates MLK Day. Dr. King was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. Like so many National Holidays, his birthday is celebrated on a Monday, rather than his actual birthday, creating that beloved Three-Day Weekend. While some folks have the day off, the rest are working in the retail and service industries. After all, MLK Day is a good excuse to buy a new mattress or dining room set. And all that shopping works up an appetite.

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National Mississippi Day and Southern Eats

Today is National Mississippi Day. The 20th state to join the union, Mississippi is home to the Delta Blues. Mississippi is one of the first states children learn how to spell with a simple crooked-letter humpback rhyme. It’s also how many of us count seconds – one Mississippi, two Mississippi.

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Sweet Georgia Southern Pecan Cornbread

Call me a Southern Gal at heart, I love my cornbread. And Southern Cooking. I love pecans in my ice cream or as part of a cake. However; I might be southern raised but I’m a Northern born, so you won’t find a lot of Pecan Pie in my kitchen.

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Spicy Southern Fried Fish is Yummy Good!

This recipe was originally designed for the most Southern of all fishes – catfish. However; after spending time way up in the Pacific Northwest where Halibut is king, we’ve made some adjustments. Those of you who know me know that I am not one to make recommendations lightly.  That said, if you ever find yourself wandering through the ocean-side town of Florence Oregon, be sure to check out Bridgewater Fish House and Zebra Bar. Great atmosphere. Better yet, best beer-battered Halibut I’ve ever tasted.

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Alton’s Southern Fried Catfish

While there are no new episodes of Good Eats, watching the reruns was a favorite pastime of mine. Alton Brown’s approach to giving you a recipe reminded me of my own approach to teaching our Catholic Faith to Kiddo. What? Cooking and faith taught in the same way? Yep.

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Southern Deep Fried Lobster

Why is it that when we think of Southern Foods, we think deep-fried. Those Southern people will deep fry anything, right? Well, yes and no. Deep frying isn’t as much a regional thing as it is a poverty thing.

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Sufferin’ Succotash It’s Pan-Seared Catfish

As our old pal Sylvester the Cat would so often say, “Sufferin’ succotash!” It’s one of those expressions I heard on Saturday mornings growing up thanks to cartoons, and never questioned its meaning. It was understood as the utterance of frustration, a polite “Jesus Christ” that conveyed a level of discontent without the need to take the Lord’s name in vain. While I can remember hearing the expression from cartoon characters, I don’t recall ever hearing it from the lips of actual people.

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Good Ol’ Boy Southern Style Cornbread

Like most cooks, I have several cornbread recipes at my disposal.  This particular recipe is truly rooted in the South. Start with the fact that it is baked in a cast iron skillet.  So often it seems that in Southern cooking, a cake pan or baking dish equates to “cast iron skillet” – be it up-side-down cakes, breads or biscuits.

Then there’s the use of bacon grease both to season the skillet and flavor the bread.  I don’t know of many Northerners that keep a tin of bacon grease handy, but no self-respecting Southern kitchen would be without it. Okay, so I was born and raised in California, but my dad is an Okie through and through.  He does a lot of things the “Southern” way. He passed those on to me, and I to my children and grandchildren.

What’s the difference between Northern and Southern Cornbread?  That’s easy – Northern Cornbread is moist, sweet and more cake-like.  It is usually cooked in a cake pan or square glass dish. While not always the case, generally speaking Northern Cornbread uses more flour than corn meal, giving it a more cake-like finish.  Northern Cornbread uses butter or oil as the fat, Southern cornbread uses bacon grease. Northern Cornbread is especially delicious when served alongside a big bowl of spicy chili where the sweetness is a welcome contrast to the fiery bowl of beans. Southern Cornbread usually isn’t sweetened (although I like mine sweet, so I add some sugar to the mix). Southern Cornbread uses more corn meal than flour and is usually cooked in a very hot skillet, making the crust crisp and the bread more gritty. Southern Cornbread is great with grilled foods such as barbecued chicken or ribs.

If you don’t have any bacon grease handy, fry up some bacon for breakfast or BLTs for lunch and save the grease.

Southern Skillet Cornbread
4 teaspoons bacon drippings
1 1/2 cup yellow corn meal, preferably stone ground
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar (or to taste)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons baking powder
1 tablespoon baking soda
1/2 cup rapidly boiling water
1 cup buttermilk
1 large egg, beaten lightly

A “must” for this bread is a hot cast-iron skillet. Although the bread can be made in a cake pan or square casserole dish, that would just be too “Yankee” to do the bread justice. Adjust oven rack to lower middle position and heat oven to 450 degrees. Set 8-inch cast iron skillet with bacon fat in it to heat oven.

Measure 1/2 cup cornmeal into medium bowl. Set aside.

Mix remaining 1 cup cornmeal, flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, and baking soda in small bowl; set aside.

Pour boiling water all at once into the 1/2 cup cornmeal; stir to make a stiff mush. Whisk in buttermilk gradually, breaking up lumps until smooth. Cornmeal mush of just the right texture is essential to this bread. The mush must be smooth without overworking the batter. Don’t rush the buttermilk and you’ll have less lumps to break up. Once the mush is ready, add the egg.

When oven is preheated and skillet very hot, stir dry ingredients into mush mixture until just moistened. Carefully remove skillet from oven. Pour hot bacon fat into batter and stir to incorporate, then quickly pour batter into heated skillet.

Place skillet back into the oven, then immediately lower the temperature of the oven to 425 degrees.

Bake until golden brown, about 15-20 minutes. Remove from oven and instantly turn corn bread onto wire rack; cool for 5 minutes, then serve immediately.

If serving the cornbread with a spicy barbecued dish, poke a few holes in the top of the bread with a fork. Spread a little honey butter over the top of the cornbread and let it seep in just before serving.  The honey will help to off-set the heat.

An Old Fashion Southern Catfish Fry

When I was barely knee-high to a grasshopper (meaning very young for those of you who are scratching your heads), my Dad often showed up at my elementary school. He wanted to go fishing, and wanted to take his fishing buddy along. Way back then, anywhere along the Sacramento Delta was good for fishing. All you needed to do was to find a wide spot in the road, pull over to park, then hike down the embankment to the wide, lazy river.

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Down Home Chicken-Fried Steak with Creamy Gravy

Maybe it’s because all the winter holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve spent at home surrounded by loved ones) are behind us, leaving thoughts that are filled with fond memories of family that I’ve had a craving for all things “down home”. All I know is that I have been yearning for some good, old fashion home-spun cooking and nothing screams home-spun louder than simple Southern suppers. (And this from a Yankee no less). It could also be because today is Ash Wednesday, and cravings naturally rear their ugly head whenever something is “forbidden” – like meat for instance. Or a big, filling meal.

Which brings me to the burning question – is it Chicken-Fried or Country-Fried Steak? Are the two interchangeable names for the same dish? Are the differences a “Southern” thing, depending upon which part of the south you hail from or is there really a difference? As it turns out, the answer to all these questions is yes, depending upon who you ask. Some food historians claim the names are a regional thing – “Chicken-Fried” steak as it is commonly called in Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, is a pan-fried steak served with gravy. While in Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, and the Carolinas, “Country-Fried” steak is on the menu.  And that much is correct – be it Chicken-Fried or Country-Fried, it’s generally a cheap cut of meat that has been pounded, coated and pan-fried. Above all else, the pan-fried steak is always served with gravy.  The concept of Country-Fried Steak is thought to have been brought to the Southern United States by German immigrants in the mid-1800’s. The name “country-fried steak” goes back at least that long, while the name “chicken-fried steak” has only been around since around the mid-20th century.

Besides the names, it turns out that there are other subtle difference between the two. Country-Fried Steak is moistened with milk, dredged in seasoned flour and then pan-fried. When the steaks are finished, a brown gravy is created in the skillet, and the steaks are returned to the pan cook a bit longer in the gravy. Sometimes caramelized onions are included as part of the gravy – similar to Salisbury Steak gravy. Chicken-Fried Steak on the other hand is double-dipped in seasoned flour, with the use of egg as part of the breading process. The peppery gravy accompanying Chicken-Fried Steak is creamy, made with milk rather than beef broth, and can be served over the steaks or on the side. Personally, I like my Chicken-Fried Steak smothered in gravy, with more on the side. And a big helping of mashed potatoes and buttery corn. Oh, and maybe some biscuits with honey butter or a big pan of cornbread. Now we’re talking . . .

Chicken-Fried Steak with Creamy Gravy
1 1⁄2 lbs cube steaks (about 4 steaks)
1 cup all-purpose flour, plus 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour, divided
1 1⁄2 teaspoons salt, divided
1 1⁄4 teaspoons pepper, divided
1 teaspoon paprika
3 1⁄2 cups milk, divided
3 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons butter, chopped

Place 1 cup flour, 1/2 cup milk, and eggs in 3 separate shallow bowls on your work area or counter. Pie pans work great for this purpose.

To the flour, add 1 teaspoon each salt, pepper and paprika. Mix well.

Season both sides of cube steaks with additional salt and pepper, if desired.

Dip cube steaks in milk, then dredge in seasoned flour.

Dip floured steaks in egg wash, then again in the seasoned flour.

Heat 2 tablespoon of olive oil in a large cast iron skillet on medium heat.

Brown the cube steaks on each side, about 8-10 minutes total cooking time; remove from heat and set the steaks aside. (A platter in a warm oven works well).

If skillet is oily, drain oil without removing the brown bits left behind from the steaks. Add butter to the skillet and allow the butter to melt without browning. Sprinkle 3 tablespoons of flour over the melted butter to make a roux, and cook for a few minutes on low heat. Do not allow roux to burn.

Increase heat to medium-low and slowly add the remaining 3 cups milk, and stir or whisk constantly until mixture comes to a boil and thickens. Lower heat and continue to cook for a few minutes longer, until the desired gravy consistency is reach. Season well with pepper.

Remove steaks from oven, smother with about half of the gravy, reserving the other half for the potatoes.

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