southern food

Grandmother Phillips’ Fried Okra

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I remember my father’s paternal grandmother as a strong, Southern woman. She was a force. I only saw her on holidays but I will never forget her cooking, which we ate at home all throughout the year. She used to freeze her fresh-from-the-garden, hand-battered okra and we would take it home in bags every winter. That fried okra was a precious commodity, rationed carefully until the next Christmas.

Grandmother Phillips had a garden in her backyard. She grew everything in it. I remember describing her to friends as a farmer, though she did not sell her produce for a living. She canned and froze everything. She was an expert in preservation. Preservation of food and of tradition and of family.  The garage of her old home was lined with walls and walls of cans: cucumber, okra, squash, peas, peaches– you name it, she had it canned from her garden.

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At Christmas we would visit her home in (relatively) rural, northern Alabama and there would be an endless array of options. People would comment about how excessive the spread was, but Grandmother Phillips’ would never pare it down. Only after her death did I come to see how food is a love language for Southern folks, and I was (at least partially) descended from Southern folks, and my grandmother was showing her love for us by feeding us well.

After she died I remember looking into our freezer and seeing one last bag of her homemade fried okra. I don’t remember the last meal we ate with that one remaining batch of Grandmother Phillips’ okra, but I’ve been trying to recreate the recipe for most of my adult life.

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We recently joined a CSA program, which gives us plenty of fresh produce to consume weekly. Grandmother Phillips would probably call it lazy eating, but it gives us plenty of okra to experiment with and I have finally been able to get satisfactorily close to her fried okra.

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It has a ton of flavor and it freezes very well. It is easy to prep, as far as fried foods go, and it can be reheated in the oven, which I love for the easy clean-up.

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A single batch will serve five adults as a generous side portion, but we often dole out smaller portions and let half of it sit in the freezer for an easy side on another night.


Grandmother Phillips’ Fried Okra

(serves ~6)

Ingredients
1 cup whole milk*
1 tablespoon white vinegar*
2 pounds fresh okra
1 cup AP flour
1 cup yellow cornmeal
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (just a dash if you don’t like spicy)
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder
canola or avocado oil
*OR 1 cup buttermilk


First, combine the milk and vinegar in a measuring cup. Let it sit for 15 minutes. (Alternatively: skip this step and use 1 cup buttermilk.)

Next, wash and slice the okra into 1/2″ – 1″ thick rounds.

In a medium-sized bowl, mix the okra and milk. Let this sit for at least 20 minutes.

Then, in a large bowl, mix the remaining, dry in ingredients.

When your okra is done “marinating”, drain the excess buttermilk and toss it in the cornmeal mixture. I find it best to toss the okra in batches as to avoid the pieces clumping together.*

Pan fry in a high-temp oil over medium heat. I find that this, too, works best in batches and there is no need to keep the okra on one side and tediously flip every piece halfway through cooking. It is fine to toss them in the pan and shake it around every now and then to evenly brown each piece.**

Drain the okra on paper towels and sprinkle with a fine, table salt. After cooling, it can be placed in a bag and frozen for later.

*If you have the time and patience, batter each okra circle one at a time. Try to keep them as separate as possible!

**One of the greatest things about this okra is that each bite is a little different. It is fully homemade and thus “rustic” in both texture and flavor. Do not concern yourself over perfect knife cuts or even browning, as this okra should be a delicious, low-stress side!

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Black Eyed Peas and Butter Beans

bepbbOkay, so I’m a weirdo who likes to mix my black eyed peas and butter beans together and eat them as one side dish. But I know that nobody else is probably on board with this, so I am adding them as two recipes, and if you want to try them mixed together you can!

First: black eyed peas! Black eyed peas are a traditional New Year’s dish in the south. We eat them for good luck, but throughout the rest of the year they are a great source of yummy protein! Similar to the collards, I don’t use any salted pork or meat-derived broths in this recipe, so it has virtually no cholesterol and is very very low in fat.

Second: butter beans! So, for everyone who hasn’t ever heard of butter beans, here’s a surprise- they’re lima beans! The term ‘butter beans’ is used to refer to lima beans in the southern United States and also in the UK. A little warning: my favorite way to prepare them requires a lot of attention and time, but the end result is super creamy and delicious (almost a little sweet tasting)!

Black Eyed Peas and Butter Beans
Makes 8-10 servings

Ingredients

For the butter beans:
1/2 lb (about 1 cup) dried lima beans
32 oz (maybe a little less) vegetable broth

For the black eyed peas:
1/2 lb (about 1 cup) dried black eyed peas
1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped
32 oz vegetable broth
kosher salt and pepper to taste

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First, thoroughly wash the lima beans. Place them in a medium-sized pot over medium heat and cover them in an inch or two of vegetable broth. Let the broth simmer but don’t heat it to a boil, and let them cook for 10-20 minutes.

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Like I said, butter beans need attention, so make sure that every ten to twenty minutes you check on them and stir them to make sure they’re not getting too dried out. As you check on them, stir them up a bit and add additional vegetable broth to keep them from drying out.

If they are dried out too much, they will look like this:bepbbJust add in more vegetable broth, never covering it all the way. Over the course of about 2 hours, repeat this process and continue to let the beans soak up the broth.

bepbbSoon, they will begin to get very creamy and start to break apart. When this begins to happen, just stir them more carefully to keep them from turning into total mush!

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While the butter beans are cooking, wash the black eyed peas. In another medium-sized pot, combine the peas, the vegetable broth, and the onion. Cover the peas partially with a lid and let them simmer over medium heat.

bepbbLet them continue cooking, stirring them occasionally, for about an hour. When the peas are done, they will be tender and soft and the onion will be cooked through. Season to taste with kosher salt and pepper.

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Like I said, I like to mix these two side dishes together, but they are also really delicious on their own!

Enjoy!

Chicken Fried Tofu

chicken fried tofuThe inspiration for this dish comes from a traditional Southern specialty known as chicken fried steak. A thin filet of steak is breaded and fried in oil that has been used to cook chicken. Another version of this dish, known as country fried steak, is used with fresh oil. So, perhaps it would be more appropriate to call this country fried tofu because we definitely do not use chicken oil!

To make this even healthier, I usually fry it in olive oil. Though olive oil has a fairly low smoke point, I have always preferred it over peanut and vegetable oils. However, feel free to use your favorite oil for frying as long as it doesn’t have too low a smoke point (like sesame oil).

Because tofu lacks some of the natural flavors and texture of steak, I like to add in many different spices with the panko crust in order to make this protein-rich food delicious! The result involves spices from Cajun and Indian cuisines, so it is fairly spicy. Feel free to tone down the cayenne or hot pepper in favor of oregano or fennel if you aren’t a fan of spicy foods.

Finally, for this dish I use SBP (standard breading procedure), which was taught to me by my lovely mother who also happened to go to culinary school! SBP involves three steps: 1) a flour coat, 2) an egg wash, and 3) the crust. The result is a crispy and flavor-packed crust that won’t just fall off when you start frying it!

Chicken Fried Tofu
Makes 4-5 servings

Ingredients
14 oz of firm or extra-firm tofu block, not cubed
1 1/2 cups flour
1 egg
1 1/2 cups panko bread crumbs (plain)
1 tsp ground Indian hot red pepper
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp oregano
1 tbs fennel
1 tsp Hungarian paprika
2 tsp kosher salt plus extra to taste
6 tbs olive oil (or low smoking oil of your choice)

chicken fried tofuFirst, prepare the tofu for breading. Slice the block into rectangles (about 4 x 2 x 1 inches). Using a clean towel or preferably tons of paper towels (I know, I know super bad for the environment) lay the slices of tofu out and press down carefully to squeeze out all the excess water. You want the slices to be fairly dry, but don’t fret if they stay a little damp because you just need the flour to stick.

drying the tofu

drying the tofu

Next, station a counter for SBP. On one plate, spread out the flour. In a bowl, scramble the egg. On a second plate or in a large bowl, stir together the panko, hot red pepper, cayenne pepper, oregano, fennel, paprika, and kosher salt.

standard breading procedure

standard breading procedure

Put 3 tbs of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat.

Slice by slice, cover the dry tofu with the flour (beating the extra off), then soak it in the egg, then cover it with the panko crumbs.

breaded before frying

breaded before frying

As each slice is breaded, transfer them to a plate or immediately to the skillet if you wish. After a batch or two, you may wish to de-crumb the pan and freshen it with 3 more tbs of olive oil.

chicken fried tofuEnjoy!

Foods of the Deep South: Collards

collardsCollard greens are a nutrient-rich, dark green, similar to kale or turnip greens. Traditionally, they are cooked with some kind of cured or salted meat. However, because I am a vegetarian I do not cook mine with meat. Honestly, these cooked greens are unbelievable even without the meat and it makes them much, much healthier!

The pot likker (the juices that are left over after the greens are cooked) makes a delicious sauce for cornbread or yeast rolls, so you don’t have to waste any of the good nutrients! Collards are eaten all year round but are a requirement for the New Year’s Day meal that is supposed to give you luck in the coming year: collards, cornbread, and black eyed peas!

As a vegetarian, I actually try to make collards a couple times a month because of how healthy they are. I don’t love salads, and this is a great way to get A, K, and those all too easy to miss B vitamins.

Collard greens are in the same genetic family as kale, but when it comes to kale, I am not a fan. To me, kale tastes bitter and is a hard sell despite its wealth of nutritional value. Collards are an excellent substitute, and have actually been proven to be better for you than kale in some ways.

As a final argument for why you’ve got to give collards a chance (if you even need any further convincing!): this recipe only requires FOUR ingredients! Okay, so maybe it does have to sit on the stove for 2-3 hours. Yes, that is fairly time consuming, but it’s just simmering so there’s no need to actually watch it for those three hours!

This is a traditional dish from the South that is actually healthy; likewise, it’s a dark leafy green that doesn’t taste like rabbit food, so I think a little extra cooking time is okay!

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Vegetarian Collards
Makes 6-7 servings

Ingredients
2 bunches of collard greens, thoroughly washed (roughly 15 stalks)
1 medium yellow onion
38 oz vegetable broth
kosher salt to taste

Roll up the collards and cut them like you’re chiffonading basil.

collardsThe result should be long, thin strips of collards:

collardsChop up the onion, and place the onion and collards into a pot with all of the vegetable broth. Place the pot over medium-high heat and watch the mixture, stirring it every now and then until it begins to simmer.

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Turn down the heat to maintain the simmer, and  place a lid, tilted, over part of the pot. The collards need to be covered partially but really need some air venting out so that they don’t get too hot and dry up. Let them simmer for 2 to 3 hours, stirring occasionally. Season with kosher salt to taste.

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Enjoy!