by Jennifer Ryan
I was raised in Tennessee around women who were fabulous Southern cooks. For my great-grandmother, cooking was an art form. In her era, making a meal “from scratch” had a completely different meaning. When I make a dish “from scratch,” I follow a recipe. I measure everything carefully, and I don’t take any store-bought shortcuts. When my great-grandmother made something “from scratch,” she used a recipe known only to her. I absolutely loved her cobblers. She would send my sister and me to pick blackberries. We would spend an hour or more happily picking blackberries and return home with full baskets. My great-grandmother would then begin her work in the kitchen. She had no cookbook on the counter, and nothing was measured. We watched the cobbler magically come together. Her blackberry cobbler was the best I’ve ever tasted, and it was the result of her many years spent cooking for family on a Mississippi farm. Everything she made was the result of trial and error, experience, and a life spent perfecting her craft.
My grandmother would tell you that she hated cooking, but she was a great cook. For her, cooking truly was a labor of love. She was an early riser. We awoke in her house to the smell of homemade buttermilk biscuits, sausage gravy, and fresh coffee. Always fresh coffee. Sometimes she swapped the sausage gravy for apricot preserves or tobacco spit gravy, which sounds awful but is actually a red gravy made from country ham. Holidays were spent around my grandmother’s beautiful dining room table set with her fine china, her signature stuffing, and giblet gravy. My grandmother passed away, so my mother has taken over the tradition. She’s also added a few signature dishes of her own, like her pineapple casserole, to the holiday spread.
Nothing reminds me of my Tennessee childhood more than summer. My grandparents had a garden, and we always had fresh produce. What we lacked, my grandmother purchased from a local farm stand. I remember sitting around a table with her, while both of us snapped green beans for dinner. Now as an adult, the rising temperatures bring out the inner vegetarian in me. Don’t get me wrong. I eat meat. I just don’t eat much of it between the months of May and August. Recently, my husband and I visited his family for a long weekend. My in-laws sent us home with fresh produce from their garden. We returned with a bag of okra, purple hull peas, and homegrown tomatoes. The okra and peas were frozen but still fresh. The tomatoes were utter perfection. Tomatoes bought in a store just aren’t the same. I decided to make a southern summer meal from these delectable vegetables, and I’m pretty sure my grandmother would have been proud of the result. Try these recipes at home, and let me know what you think of them!
***Note: I promise my photo snapping skills will improve before my next recipe.
Cornbread can be yellow or white, depending on the type of cornmeal you use. Yellow cornmeal is sweeter by nature, and yellow cornbread usually has sugar added to it. I can’t eat yellow cornbread. It’s just too sweet for me. If you’re looking for a good yellow cornbread recipe, you’ll have to keep looking. This recipe is the white cornbread recipe that I’ve been using for years. To make good cornbread, you’ll need a good cast iron skillet. I use a nine inch skillet, and I only use it for making cornbread. I have a different cast iron skillet that I use for frying. I don’t use dish soap on my cornbread skillet. I just wipe it with a paper towel after each use, and now the skillet is beautifully seasoned.
2 c. white cornmeal
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
1 ½ c. buttermilk
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 to 2 tbsp. bacon grease (or oil)
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Heat bacon grease in cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Mix dry ingredients. Add egg and buttermilk. The batter should be the consistency of oatmeal. Make sure your skillet is nice and hot. Pour batter into the skillet. Use a spoon to get all the batter. The batter should sizzle. Shake the skillet handle horizontally to help settle the batter and make the top of the batter smooth. Let the batter cook on the stove for 2 to 3 minutes. This will make the sides and bottom of the cornbread a dark brown color. If you give the handle a jiggle, you’ll notice that the center of the batter will remain pretty liquid, while the edges will appear to be “set.” Transfer the skillet to the hot oven. Be sure to use an oven mitt. The skillet handle will be pretty hot. Let bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the top of the cornbread is a golden brown.
Purple Hull Peas
Fresh purple hull peas can be difficult to find, so you can substitute black-eyed peas. If you’re using dried peas in a bag, be sure to soak them according to your preferred method.
1 lb. purple hull peas (or black-eyed peas), soaked if necessary
1 ham hock
4 c. water (or chicken stock)
2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp. Cajun seasoning
1 medium onion, diced
1 green bell pepper, diced
1 tbsp. butter or oil
Place ham hock and peas in 4 qt. sauce pan (or dutch oven). Add water (chicken stock), garlic, and Cajun seasoning. You can also use water and chicken bouillon cubes. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer. Melt butter in skillet over medium-high heat. Add bell pepper and onion. Cook until just brown. Stir bell pepper and onion into peas. Recover and continue simmering for about an hour to an hour and a half.
I don’t really have a recipe for fried okra because there are only two ingredients that I use: okra and white cornmeal. I prefer fresh okra. Frozen okra tends to be cut thicker than I like, and I have to thaw frozen okra before I dredge it in cornmeal. Thawing frozen okra can be a bit messy. However, you can still use frozen okra, if that’s all you can find. Restaurant okra tends to be a bit thick for my preference. I like my okra sliced about half that thickness. The okra shrinks during cooking into these wonderful, bite-sized pieces.
Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Pour about an inch and a half of oil into a cast iron skillet. Once oven is ready, slide the cast iron skillet into it. This will heat the oil, while you prepare the okra. Heating the oil in the oven will take about 10 to 15 minutes.
If you’re using frozen okra, you’ll need to thaw it completely. If you’re using fresh okra, slice it as desired. Okra can be pretty slimy, but that’s ok. The slimy texture actually helps adhere the cornmeal. Place several tablespoons of white cornmeal on a dinner plate. Grab a handful of okra and toss it in the cornmeal until it’s lightly dredged. Keep adding handfuls of okra and cornmeal as needed.
Pull the cast iron skillet from the oven and place it on a stove or pot holder. Be very careful here. You don’t want to slosh hot oil on yourself or your kitchen. Drop the okra, one handful at a time, into the oil. Use a spoon to reposition the okra into a single layer that is evenly spaced. You want to make sure all of the okra is distributed in the oil. Return the skillet to the hot oven. Cook about 30 to 40 minutes (or desired doneness). I like my okra, not just burned, BURNT. I like okra that is super crispy, so I tend to let the okra cook until it’s almost black. Use a slotted spoon to remove the okra to a plate covered with a paper towel. The paper towel will absorb the excess oil. Salt, if desired. Delicious!