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.