Garden

The Mouth of My South: A Guest Post

The Mouth of My South: A Guest Post

Today’s post was written By Shelly Collins, a writer, thinker and cook whom I admire for her self-possession and deep thoughts.I always wonder what she’s thinking, and I asked her to write about what “Southern food” means in her head, based on her experience. You can read more at her blog, lovingfoodandlife.com While I don’t necessarily consider myself a Southern cook, my foundations are deeply rooted in the ways of a Southern kitchen. What made it Southern? That my grandmothers grew up in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Alabama – is that what made it Southern? I never really questioned it much. The food that we ate was never labeled as Southern food. I grew up digging potatoes and putting them in my little red wagon. I picked cherry tomatoes off of the vines and immediately popped them in my mouth to savor their sweetness. I learned to string beans and shuck corn before I could spell my name. I was eating as local and as seasonal as one could get as a wee one. I acquired a taste for the finest ingredients available. They grew in my back yard. Our gardens were huge. There was plenty of food to feed us through summer and a surplus to “put up” for feeding us through the rest of the year. I rarely ate anything out of a can in those days. I definitely equate that style of eating with my selectiveness about what I choose to eat now. I have a thing for preparing a dish that is true to the ingredients. I grew up on the apron strings of both of my grandmothers. Today I laugh at the subtle competition that was happening between households – maybe only when I was around. I would say, “but my Nanny makes me eggs this way, or Mamaw makes Johnny cakes, why don’t you ever make them?” I am not sure what either grandmother’s real reaction was, but they never made something for me the way the other one did. Maybe they were too proud or just plain stubborn. The benefit was that I learned two subtly different styles of cooking. I am proud of them both. I love to cook more than most people I have met. I have spent my life expanding my cooking skills from the foundation that began in my grandmothers’ kitchens. When I reminisce about a memorable Southern spread, I see a table full of veggies fresh from the garden. One of my favorite dishes was my Nanny’s Silver Queen white corn. She cut and scraped the milky white kernels off the cob and cooked it only with the milk that comes from scraping the cob real good. She...

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Clean Wild Blackberries: Southern Cooking for Company

Clean Wild Blackberries: Southern Cooking for Company

July was blackberry picking month at my granny’s farm. Our routine was this: long-sleeve shirt, jeans, loose socks, boots, hat, then a dousing of bug repellant. NO UNDERWEAR OR BRA, OR EVEN TIGHT SOCKS! (Chiggers crawl on your person until they can’t go any futher, like an underwear legband or a bra strap. Then they bite.) We’d pick gallons of berries for preserves, jam, freezing and eating fresh with cream. In England, blackberries also grow wild, but are very well-behaved. The species has fewer thorns, and the canes grow individually, rather than in dense hedges. In a lightly trafficked lane near our house was a nice clump of canes that provided enough berries for topping ice cream or cereal. With friends Nettie and Poppy, we’d range further afield for bigger harvests. Delightfully free of mosquitos and chiggers, too. Nettie insisted with soak our harvested berries in lightly salted water, which I hadn’t heard of. And when we did, ohmidog: the bugs–not just a few–jumped and floated to the top of the water, where they were easy to skim off. How many times had I gleefully downed handfuls wild berries? And how many bugs had I unknowingly eaten? Uncountable, that’s how many. So now I soak wild berries in water to cover with a teaspoon of salt for 30 minutes. I recommend...

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That’s No Watermelon! For Starters, It’s Hairy

That’s No Watermelon! For Starters, It’s Hairy

Southern gardeners know that compost is both wonderful for the soil and good for a laugh. It’s amusing to see what unexpected thing sprouts in a garden enriched with composted vegetables and fruit. Will it be a volunteer cherry tomato? A sweet potato vine? A cantaloupe?  This year’s pop-up plant was an obvious member of the cucumber family. The leaves were bigger than a cucumber plant, but it trailed and put out climbing tendrils like a cucumber. The flowers didn’t look like a cucumber plant–they were much bigger, and the petals more deeply divided. And it had a big central pistil or stamen. It looked more like a yellow hibiscus. “Well, more’s the surprise,” I thought, “if I don’t know exactly what it is.”  Mostly I ignored it. Then, on a little trip to the garden for chives, I spotted a little polka dotted something under its leaves. The shape, size and color whispered “watermelon.”   Well hey there! A watermelon! And the critters didn’t eat it–must be my lucky year. It was a little thrill, like winning a lotto scratcher. Just a moment of grace, something received that I didn’t work for. After all the laboring in the garden, it was about time. So I got a little closer for a better look, and….ewww! It’s covered, all over, with prickly hairs. I don’t even know what this alien UFO is. I’m scared of it. And I can’t pick it up.  And I’m sure as hell not throwing it into the compost....

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“Frenching” Green Beans

“Frenching” Green Beans

The later the season, the likelier it is that green beans are tougher. It’s as if their little reproductive systems shout,”Right! Forget the tender pod and kick the seed production into high gear!” As a result, the tender little sauteed beans of the early season give way to slow-cooked with sweet onion and tomato, or ham hock. You could be having those tender little beans still, with about 3 minutes of knife work. I learned about “frenching” beans when I grew a series of square-foot gardens while writing The All-New Square Foot Gardening Cookbook (Cool Springs Press, 2010). Those tough, late season Kentucky Wonder beans: I “studied on them,” as they say out in the country, and discovered that the tough part is the “seam.” Cut it out and you’ve got a tender pod that can be cooked like a haricot vert, more or less. Even when the beans get fairly large, cutting the whole pod into strips, or “frenching” it, yields green beanlets that can be tenderized by boiling a couple of minutes. Then you can serve them with lemon and butter, chill them for a salad, or saute them with garlic, ginger, bacon, thyme, or however you like them. It seemed like frenching might be the right thing for the tough-ish broad, flat beans from an August CSA delivery. Because they’re flat, they’re even easier to cut into strips. I can practically hear you thinking, “Slicing beans into strips–ain’t nobody got time for that.” So I timed it. That serving of beans pictured at the top of the post took exactly 1 minute to slice with a santoku knife. I wasn’t hurrying–don’t rush when you’re slicing anything. Just 1 minute produced enough beans for one person. The whole colander full took about 5 minutes. TO do it, first try stringing the bean. Snap off the stem and try to “unzip” it. Next, bite it–if the seam is too tough to chew, it’s a good candidate for frenching. Use a small sharp knife to pare off the seam. At that point, try cooking it. If it’s still a little too tough, with your next batch, after cutting out the seam, slice the beans. To do this, hold the bean more or less straight and slice it longwise or on a slight diagonal. Cut any leftover curved ends into a couple of slivers. I used the most recent batch in place of long beans in dry-fried pork and long beans from Every Grain of...

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Hello, I’m Nicki

I've written about food for a living since The Silver Palate was new. Discovering a new cookbook or technique is my idea of fun. And kitchen gear--I'm helpless to resist. Like kitchen projects, the posts here are occasional and open-ended, so please subscribe. You can read more about my work at the "About Nicki" page.

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