Forget Red State vs. Blue State. Okra divides this country as surely as any October college football rivalry. You either “get” okra, or you don’t. And if you live outside of the South, you probably just don’t get it. I know. I know. It’s weird. It’s slimy. It’s green and prickly. Maybe you just have to grow up with it to appreciate it. For me, growing up in East Tennessee, our childhood summer dinners would often just be a plate of fried okra, sliced tomatoes (both from with my Dad’s big vegetable garden) and cornbread. If there is a better summer dinner, I don’t know what it is.
It’s only the first week in May but already my garden is overrun with spearmint. It’s not to the point where it’s choking out my carrots or strawberry plants yet, but give it couple of weeks with some steady rain and I’ll be in trouble. Luckily, it’s Kentucky Derby weekend so I can pull some of that mint up and use it in a Mint Julep.
Mint juleps have been the traditional drink of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs since 1938. Traditionally served in pewter cups, it is a “smash” of simple syrup muddled with fresh spearmint and bourbon, poured over crushed ice. I like to think of it as a grown-up mint/bourbon slushie.
When I finished my lard rendering project, I was left with about 4 cups of cracklins. Cracklins (or cracklings) are crispy bits of fried pork fat. They are pretty much just like the crispy ends of a bacon strip. Not wanting to waste them, I put them in the freezer for later use.
Ever since I had cracklin cornbread at Harold’s BBQ in South Atlanta, I’ve been wanting to make some at home. One exceptionally cool night last week, with a pot of veggie soup on the stove, I pulled out my cracklins from the freezer and made a skillet full.
One thing I want to make clear… you should never, ever, ever add sugar to cornbread. That is just wrong.
Do people in other parts of the country make chess pie? Even though I’m not from the Deep South, I’ve eaten chess pie my whole life. It’s hard to imagine someone not knowing about it. Brought over from England, the chess pie has been around the South for at least 200 years. Chess pie is a simple egg custard pie, made with buttermilk, butter, sugar and, uniquely, corn meal. Variations that I’ve seen include nutmeg, vanilla and lemon for the flavoring. In the springtime, before the summer fruits start coming in, I love to make a lemon chess pie to serve with the beautiful fresh strawberries that we start to see in the market. With some newly-made pie dough in my fridge last week, I decided it was time to make a pie.
Sometimes, when I talk about an ambitious food project that I’m working on at home, I get the sense that people think I’m crazy. Am I that much of a food freak? Maybe I just have too much time on my hands, but I sincerely love good food and I’ve realized over the years that the best food comes from a certain amount of effort done in my own kitchen. I know I’m not the only one who thinks this. Many of my friends are like-minded – spending a lot of time, energy and love on their food. I hope that you’re one of those people, too.
One thing I love to do is make pies, including my own pie crust. A homemade pie crust has a flavor and texture so superior to a store-bought crust and is so easy to make, that I never even think of buying one. If you have cold butter (and/or lard), flour, salt and sugar, you can have a pie crust dough ready to put in the refrigerator in 10 minutes.
What’s wrong with lard? Nothing. That’s why you should be making lard at home.
In the 60’s & 70’s, everyone knew that butter and lard were full of saturated fats and cholesterol and if you cooked with them, you were just handing out heart attacks on a plate. My Southern mother, being the progressive person that she was, always cooked with Crisco or margarine. Why? Because science told her it was healthy! To us, lard was a bad word, connoting greasy, porky, fatty food. I’m sure the ghosts of our Southern great-grandmothers were collectively rolling their eyes at this. Why? Because as it turns out, switching out manufactured shortenings and fats for natural fats was a huge mistake. It turns out lard is a healthful fat!
How healthful? Lard contains less saturated fat than butter, is mostly a mono-saturated fat (the good kind of fat), has no trans fats and has a high smoke point, making it ideal for frying. If it is naturally rendered, it is free of artificial colorings, flavoring or additives. It is also has an incomparable taste in a pie crust or a tamale. It’s really no wonder that chefs have rediscovered cooking with lard as a return to natural whole foods.