Thursday, December 16, 2010

A little soul food.

Last evening, I had the extremely good fortune to share a meal with four of the best friends a girl could ever have. We are a group that has come together over the past 20 years or so and I can say, with no small amount of gratitude, that they have seen me through the very toughest of times. As anyone of midlife already knows (and the rest of you will find out), life is full of ups and downs, of sickness and health, of snow and sun. You can't always do anything about whatever is swirling around you at those times, but you can, if you're lucky, find some hearty souls who'll stand by you until the dust settles. If you're very, very lucky, they'll show up on your door with food on the day you think your world has ended and you'll never be hungry again, but oh how good things taste when there's love cooked in. They'll tell you how good you look even when your highlights, for various reasons, are 6 months old and your pants are new because none of the old ones fit. They'll bring you chocolate and prayers and hugs when you need them most. And they'll just seem to know when that is, even if you don't.

I'll show you a picture of them one day soon, but last night we were having so much fun, nobody thought of it. See all the chocolate?

Today I am back home, two hours away from my best friends, and outside there is ice and snow everywhere and the sky is a cold blue. Some very basic instinct in me must have known tonight would settle heavily, because this morning I thought to put a pot of brown beans on the stove to simmer all day. On another burner, I sauteed garlic, onions and kale and added vegetable stock again and again as the emerald greens braised gently down in their pot. Being a tad lazy and melancholy but craving still more comfort food as suppertime approached, I passed on the traditional cornbread that accompanies soup beans in this part of the world and poured a quarter-cup of grits into a cup of boiling water, instead. After about 5 minutes of slow simmering, I added to this a handful of sharp cheddar and a shaving of Asiago cheese and stirred. As someone very smart once said, "I just want something out of a bowl," and tonight I poured soupy beans into one bowl, spooned a layer of cheese grits in the other and ladled kale and broth on top of that, and sat down in front of "You've Got Mail."

Everywhere in the world, every culture has some form of comfort food. Whether you remember the smell of it in your mother's kitchen, there was a time of hunger that was finally satisfied, or perhaps a happy memory of eating with folks you love, we all have food memories.

For my friends and me, we always seem to gather around chips and salsa, margaritas and handsome waiters. My mother and her mother strengthened their families with what they could grow and preserve themselves, so it's no surprise that my go-to comfort meal would include basics like beans and greens. Tonight I'm just missing my friends and trying to keep warm. But if the holidays are starting to get to you, you think you'll never get the shopping done or the tree decorated, or everyone's coming to your house for Christmas dinner, or perhaps your boss is a bit of a Scrooge - I hope you'll stop for a few minutes and think of something (or someone) that makes you feel warm inside and feed that hungry soul of yours.♥

Friday, December 3, 2010

Muffin Homage to Sweet Potato Casserole

In my previous life as director of a fledgling local museum, the biggest task tended to be fund-raising and one of our most successful projects was a collection of local recipes celebrating our town's bicentennial. It was my job to edit the recipes and once I corralled them into several categories including one called Heritage, for flavors handed down through generations, the book was so popular that it has since been reprinted to mark the museum's 25th anniversary. The second edition allowed me to replace my old food-stained copy.

One reason I don't ever want to be without this cookbook is that it contains a recipe for the holiday dish titled, simply, "Sweet Potatoes" contributed by a Mrs. Ann Gardner Gray. Mrs. Gray's combination of mashed sweet potatoes, butter, crushed pineapple and marshmallows, topped with coconut, gets me every time.

Another favorite recipe is Mix-N-Match Sweet Bread or Breakfast/Snack Muffins and comes from Deborah Taylor-Hough's book, Frozen Assets. In a later previous life, I was a personal chef and referred to this book often for ideas and foods that could be prepared ahead of time and frozen. If you're looking for a go-to muffin or quick bread recipe [do me a favor and please don't call it sweetbread(s) because that is not something that ever belongs in a muffin], this is your lucky day. As the title implies, it's a basic formula to which you can add your favorite ingredient, be it fruit, chocolate chips, nuts, etc., and mix it up!

So, I'd been thinking for a long time that the sweet potato casserole flavors belonged in a muffin. Then the family of my brother Ben's sweetie, the lovely Elyse, gifted me with some Virginia-grown sweet potatoes and pecans from their farm. These are pictures of the actual produce. Aren't they pretty?

Okay, they're not as pretty as Elyse, but they're not bad either.

Now, it seemed, the sweet potato casserole-in-a-muffin's time had come. And lucky for you (unlike the unfortunate pepperoni omelet incident of 1982), this time I was right! Totally, spot-on, 100%, bullseye. The resultant blended recipe is below and when you make them, gratification will be instant and sweet, as soon as those babies come out of the oven. The cinnamon and sweet potatoes' aroma will have already tempted, and let me tell you, they don't lie. When you pull one apart and melted marshmallow droops across your finger, just go for it -- crunchy pecans, tangy pineapple and sweet potato goodness all merge into one fabulous mouthful. Luckily, the recipe is also generous so when you eat 3 of them right away, no one will know because there are 15 more.

Sweet Potato Mix-N-Match Muffins

3 C all-purpose flour
1 t salt
1 t baking powder
1 t baking soda
3 t cinnamon
1 C sugar
1 C brown sugar

Sift or mix together all dry ingredients. Then add remaining ingredients below and stir gently, only until incorporated.

2 eggs
3/4 C oil
3 t vanilla
2 C mashed sweet potato
1 C crushed pineapple
1/2 C roughly chopped pecans
1-1/2 C mini marshmallows

Spoon into 18 standard muffin cups and bake at 375 for 25 minutes or until tops are springy.

I hope you all have a great weekend, whether you're shopping, baking for friends and family, or kicking back in front of a warm fire or holiday movie.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Snow Day

Don't know if I mentioned this before, but I pay the bills at my house by being something of a virtual assistant. That means I spend a lot of time at the computer, transcribing doctorspeak into electronic records, or possibly helping someone like my parents create a website for their bed and breakfast. To this end, I travel Interstate 81 between southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee up to 2 times a week. But since my son lives and attends college in Johnson City, this doesn't feel like work because it means we get to have lunch most weeks. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, however, my presence wasn't required in the volunteer state and the boy drove here for the big meal. So today, as I took up the work routine once again, and because it snowed and sleeted on me all the way, I felt a treat was in order.

Whether you're a smoked meat fan or not, I personally think everyone in America should eat at Ridgewood Barbecue at least once in their lives. Tucked up against the side of a mountain in rural Bluff City, with just enough parking for restaurant patrons and staff, Ridgewood is something of a monument to barbecue.

It's been written up in Gourmet magazine (a long time ago, but there's a copy on their wall), and this month was featured in the Travel section of Southern Living. The story of the Proffitt family, who started the business in 1948 and are still there today, can be found on the Southern Food Alliance BBQ Trail oral history,

A stone's throw from Bristol Motor Speedway, on race weekend you can watch to-go orders fly out the door so teams can get their barbecue fix. Plenty of autographed photos of drivers line the walls, along with those of television and music personalities, a testament to Ridgewood's fan base.

But today there were no celebrities, just a determined foodie and her boy, along with a handful of others who braved this blustery first day of Appalachian winter. Arriving a few minutes before the "open" sign came on, I got to enjoy the quiet ping of icy white stuff hitting my windshield (the boy called it Dippin' Dots snow) while the smokehouse chimney puffed away.

Now, before you hear about the menu, a confession: I don't actually order any barbecue. For one thing, the sandwich is huge. See all that juicy, saucy pork goodness? For another, I can usually count on somebody at the table not being able to eat all of theirs.

But most importantly, the side dishes at Ridgewood are so crazy-good that meat almost becomes the "filler." Their baked beans are magically tangy/sweet and warm in their little crocks and rated Southern Living's best side dish mention. They also dominate reviewers' comments on sites like TripAdvisor and Google maps ( has a copy of the menu). The fries, I'm told, are hand-cut fresh daily into these long spears with the skins left on and cooked the way Lewis Grizzard used to say his mama made them -- crispy golden on the outside while the inside is just this side of done. There's a big house salad that's always surprisingly fresh and while not ordinarily something you'd write home about - and this is where I was hooked - they make their own blue cheese dressing and as near as I can figure, use very large blocks of cheese and punch it up with a shake of cayenne pepper. The lovely servers bring the dressing to your table in its own bowl, and this is where you get lucky. There's enough for the salad AND dipping your fries. Look at those chunks!

If your mouth's not watering yet, check for a pulse. This blue cheese dressing is so renowned that it's earned its own spot on the menu.

And here's some more good news: My son and I split a sandwich and 3 sides for $18 and there's often some left for later when he's studying microbiological stuff.

Needless to say, it's a very satisfying way to celebrate the first snowy December day here in the Blue Ridge.

The Original Ridgewood Barbecue is located just off Highway 19E between Bristol and Johnson City, Tennessee. They're only open for lunch and dinner but if you're in the area, I hear this place serves a gooey bowl of breakfast cheese grits: Also, their website is pretty cool.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Visions of Gingerbread and Peppermint

With the turning of the leaves here in the Blue Ridge, the holidays cannot be far behind. If further evidence was needed - and I am not lying - I saw a Christmas tree lot in my neighborhood this week. And yes, the trees were already there.

In a year when things are not going well for a lot of folks and we seem to have more to worry about than usual, I'm thinking that putting up your holiday decorations in the second week of November is not a bad idea. Besides the faces of my children, few things perk me up in life like the site of fresh-scented greenery, red and gold ribbons and balls, and multicolored lights. And as my children will also attest, I'm no Scrooge when it comes to leaving that "blinking beacon" up until the Super Bowl has come and gone.

Clearly, I have attachment issues with holiday icons. Some years ago, I stumbled upon the answer to said issues in a wonderfully written and illustrated book by Sarah Ban Breathnach (the Simple Abundance author) entitled, Mrs. Sharp's Traditions, in which she describes a "seasonal tree" that is left up year-round and decorated according to each passing season. Can't you picture it? In spring, you could mine the hardware section for tiny gardening implements and flower-covered seed packets, or construct that perennial favorite, the Easter egg tree, and in July, flocks of American flags and firecrackers. February is too easy with all the red hearts and paper doilies that abound. Autumn gourds and Indian corn, cutout paper snowflakes in January. The inexpensive and creative possibilities are endless, especially if your favorite scene in Steel Magnolias is when Shelby throws the switch on Annelle's industrial light and magic show, and if you've noticed how cheap artificial trees are on December 26.

I did not give in to the temptation of buying a Christmas tree this week, as I have not yet decided between that lovely pine scent filling my home (with dry dead needles in January) or the gaudy, beloved, aluminum tree I've used the past few years, complete with rotating 4-color spotlight. However, I did get out my Mikasa Ribbon Holly china and, on the advice of an old magazine article I was reading, determined that I would use it throughout December, not just for Christmas Eve dinner.

One thing led to another and before I knew it, visions of Pumpkin Ginger Scones and Peppermint Tea were dancing in my head. The recipe below is adapted slightly from the TLC site "How Stuff Works, Biscuits & Scones." I substituted Greek yogurt for their sour cream and used ground ginger as I am not a fan of the texture of the crystallized stuff, even though, for my money, the lemony-peppery flavor is gorgeous.

Pumpkin Ginger Scones
1/2 C sugar
2 C all-purpose flour
2 t baking powder
1 t cinnamon
1/2 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
4 T cold butter
1 egg
1/2 C pumpkin puree
1/2 C Greek yogurt
1/2 t ground ginger (or 1/2 t grated fresh ginger or 2 T finely chopped crystallized ginger)
1 T melted butter + 1 T sugar

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Combine first 6 (dry) ingredients in large bowl. Cut in the cold butter with a pastry blender and finish by rubbing between fingers until coarse meal-like texture. In small bowl, beat egg and add pumpkin, yogurt and ginger until blended. Stir this into dry ingredients, gently, with a fork until soft dough leaves sides of bowl.

Again, gently, turn out onto floured surface and knead slightly so dough remains soft but not too sticky. (This is where plenty of people irreversibly change the finished scone into something tough and not at all tasty, by simple over-handling. Same with biscuits.) Ball up the dough and then pat into a circle about 8 inches in diameter; I like my scones and biscuits tall and light rather than flat. You can cut them into small circles or squares, but I like making 8 wedges out of the circle. Place each scone onto a parchment paper-lined baking sheet, brush with melted butter and sprinkle with sugar, and bake 12 to 15 minutes. The original recipe instructed 10 to 12 minutes but my chubby scones required more like 15 to 17 minutes to finish. Cool 10 minutes on a rack while you make your favorite tea, and serve warm with butter, jam or clotted cream if you know how to make it because it is apparently as scarce as hen's teeth in this country and not at all authentic.

Like the seasonal tree, Celestial Seasonings' peppermint tea is something I keep year-round because it is not only delicious, but possesses wonderful stomach-settling properties when you need them. This time of year, it's even better with a candy cane in your cup.

And that tree lot I saw, it's over on Park Street if you're looking.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Pimento Cheese Revisited

My very early years were lived in Radford, Virginia, home to what was called at that time, the "state teacher's college." Young ladies from all over attended Radford University, renting rooms from the local folks and walking to school in trim skirts and sweater sets. There were no young men on campus but they drove over from nearby Virginia Tech, especially when the weather was warm and sunbathing plentiful.

As a treat, and before I had siblings, my mother and I would occasionally walk hand-in-hand down to Norwood Street, as the main drag was known, and Carson's Drug Store. As we made our way downtown, I would insist on being lifted up to make my steps on every one of the low stone walls that lined the walks in front of stately older homes.. That way, I felt as tall and grown-up as my mother. Once we got there and were seated in one of the high-backed booths, I could watch as the sales clerk dispensed perfumes in exotic bottles from behind the retail counter while mysterious prescriptions were handed out from the back of the store.

I'm sure there were other things available at Carson's and the other lunch counters that were popular in our area - Miller Drug, Rose's five and dime, Thompson-Hagen - but our favorite seemed to be their grilled cheese sandwich. This meatless choice may have been a decision of economics - we were certainly not well-off - and my mother was good at figuring out how to afford treats. Anyway, she would always order hers with pimento cheese and each time offer me a taste, but I stuck hard and fast with plain sandwich slices. Being small and with a pretty unsophisticated palate, I wanted no part of pimentos - whatever they were - soiling my buttery, gooey, grilled American cheese on immaculately toasted white bread. Oblivious to the fact that I would eventually have to share my parents with 3 siblings, I would happily soak up my mother's attention while sipping a fizzy Coke-Cola and crunching on the customary dill pickle chips that left a tangy green impression on my sandwich.

Now that I'm a tad bigger and older, I've come to appreciate pimento cheese, along with plenty of other things in life that are elevated above the ordinary with the simple addition of one colorful or spicy or differently-textured ingredient. The hearty, honey-sweetened whole grain bread you see below, the recipe for which appears in the last post in the form of dinner rolls, is another example.

Some years back, thanks to a combination of 2 formulas from Southern Living Annual Recipes (submitted by readers Patricia Flint and Eos Steele), I found the perfect pimento cheese for me. Creamy, a little tangy, and though my taste buds have come a long way, you'll note I still only use half the recommended jar of pimento.

Pimento Cheese
8 oz. package softened cream cheese
2 C shredded sharp cheddar
1/3 C mayo
dash of garlic powder or more to taste
1/2 jar (2 oz.) diced pimentos, drained
1 t lemon juice

Combine all ingredients. Cover and chill. The flavors will blend overnight but when I crave pimento cheese, I don't often wait that long. Beating with a mixer also makes it fluffier, if you like.
Makes an excellent cracker spread or, like Mom and me, a gooey warm filling for buttered bread, lightly caramelized in a stove-top pan or grill, or under the broiler. Preferably dunked in soup when the the sun starts to set early and temperatures fall, as they did this weekend in the mountains.

Monday, October 18, 2010


It's officially autumn in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia. My 52nd autumn, to be exact, and except for one year lived in another hemisphere, all my experiences are recorded within their blue-green frame. Weddings, births, funerals, wars, a bit of travel here and there, all carrying that familiar essence -- the seasoning of love and loss, of lack and abundance, in equal measure. But always in the background, holding things together even when life fell apart, were those great blue hills. Tirelessly keeping watch as we planted our gardens and canned our harvest, cut Christmas trees and boiled apple butter, sometimes with a big old harvest moon for company. This week, they are poised to burst into every shade of flaming red and gold because the nights are cooler and the days shorter, and so, naturally, my thoughts turn to the kitchen.

Of Scots and German blood, it seems my family has always known how to live off the land and settling in Appalachia back in the 1800s must have felt just right. I have cousins who still farm part of the original land grant and my Grandpa Bell was said to have made moonshine so fine, there was no need of a chaser. Mostly I remember that he kept a bag of Circus Peanuts in a metal breadbox on the kitchen counter and while he still lived, I was just tall enough to reach unseeing into that bag I secretly knew he wanted me to find.

I cannot claim his reputed skills, but having spent some years as a baker and a stint as a personal chef, and being the descendant of such folks, I have found my niche, albeit in a different branch of fermenting. I recently had the pleasure of attending a family reunion, visiting with my mother's remaining two sisters (she's the baby) and their various offspring. My contribution was these hearty whole-grain dinner rolls, tweaked from an ancient recipe by the addition of wheat berries and 7-grain cereal. Let me know what you think.

2-1/2 C bread flour (we're aiming for a total of roughly 6 to 6-1/2 cups flour/grains)
2-1/2 C wheat flour
1 C 7-grain cereal
1/2 C wheat berries (if you're not enamored of boiling "wheat kernels" or simply like a smoother dough, omit and substitute cereal/flour, again depending on desired consistency)
1/4 C vegetable oil
1/3 C honey
1 T salt
4 t yeast
Roughly 2 C warm water

Combine all ingredients (hopefully in your powerful Kitchenaid stand mixer if you're like me and the novelty of hand-kneading has worn off) and when well integrated, knead 7 minutes minimum, adjusting just a bit on the hydration, if necessary, until you get a smooth dough. You know the drill - place in a greased bowl, flip so the whole thing is oiled, cover and go find something else to do for up to 2 hours, or until it's doubled (unless it's summertime, I leave mine in the oven with the light on, and ditto once they're shaped, until you're ready to preheat). I also have some very inexpensive plastic bowls with lids that I routinely use for bread-rising - saves on plastic wrap and dish towels - though sourdough will blow off the top and scare the cat/dog.

When ready, fold the dough onto your floured counter top. At this point, you can simply divide in half, roll up and place in 2 greased loaf pans. If you want the dinner rolls, however, the easiest way to divide is into 2 halves. Then split each half, by turn, again. Roll these lumps gently/loosely into a rope and cut into 6 fairly even pieces (for a total of 2 dozen rolls). Alternatively, you can weigh the dough and divide/weigh accordingly. Use whatever technique you like to make them round and don't worry - they'll rise together and become pretty uniform on their own. I like the tucking-under method that just stretches the top of each piece smooth. Some like to roll them, Miyagi-style, using the counter top for friction, or make a "mushroom" by squeezing between thumb and forefinger. Place side-by-side on a greased baking sheet - mine is about 11 x 15 - and let rise until the sides are just about touching. Time varies but allowing an hour should do the job. For prettiness, just before baking you can egg-wash them and sprinkle some of the 7-grain on top. Preheat oven to 350 and when risen, bake 20 to 25 minutes or until brown on top.