When in Virginia: taking a swing at Southern food

I bought buttermilk. I had a few things in mind when I did this, besides drinking it with a dash of pepper like I did as a kid (and have since lost the stomach for). I had elaborate plans to make homemade biscuits, like the ones my Atlanta-raised culinary champion of a friend Katy (also a dietician who gave birth to a precious baby boy this week!) always whips up when we stay with her. And to fry me some of that delicious okra that keeps cropping up at the local farmers market. As a kiddo, I regularly made meals out of giant plates of fried okra at a Wichita, Kan. restaurant called Stroud’s, which is known for its chicken fried steak. That may have been when my obsession with eating food out-of-the-fryer hot — even at the risk of burning my mouth — was born. You really can’t eat okra any other way.

After about the fifth time I said, “I need to make those biscuits,” and “I’m gonna make that okra” (and after a little nudging from the hungry husband), I finally followed through. I schlepped my cast iron onto the stove, dug out my high heat cooking oil (sunflower is what I had on hand) and got to frying. There are surely more storied friers of okra who can give you scientific reasoning behind each of their ingredients and methods, but whatever I did seemed to work pretty darn well. So well that, had my husband arrived home about two minutes later, there would not have been any okra left for him.

I dedicate this recipe to new momma Katy, who is a steady hand at all things Southern food:

Fried okra (for two, if the cook decides to share)
Ingredients:

  • A pint of whole, fresh okra from your farmers market if possible. Sliced into 1/2-inch or bite-sized pieces.
  • A high heat oil like canola or peanut or sunflower, enough to cover the bottom of a cast iron skillet.
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 cup stone-ground cornmeal
  • 1 1/2  tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • 3 tsp. salt

(Preheat the oven to 250 degrees or so if there’s time between frying and eating, to keep the goodies warm.)
1. Heat the oil in a cast iron or other medium-sized skillet to medium-high heat.
2. Whisk together the buttermilk and egg in a small bowl. In another bowl or shallow dish, mix the cornmeal, flour and salt.
3. Using your fingers (please), toss portions of the okra into the milk mixture, then into the cornmeal mixture, coating them thoroughly, excessively even.
4. Plop the coated chunks of okra into the fryer, with your spatter shield nearby. It doesn’t matter if some are clumped together and is nearly impossible to avoid. (And clumps make it more exciting, like puppy chow).
5. Fry them until browned and crispy on one side, then flip ‘em over to brown the other side. About 2 to 3 minutes per side. While that batch is cooking, baste and cornmeal the next round of okra to have it ready.
6. Use a slotted spoon to rescue the fried okra from the oil and place it on a couple sheets of paper towels on a plate, to soak up extra oil. Continue frying (and taste testing — though try to use some restraint) until you’re finished (or full).

BISCUITS:

I am typically more of a recipe follower than an author, but scrapbook o’ recipes tends to evolve over time as I fail to follow directions and end up liking my failure. So I have major respect for people who, out of thin air or frequent visits to foreign countries, just create recipes. I recently got to share cappuccinos with a fabulous Italian cookbook author who is an Alexandria neighbor of mine, Domenica Marchetti (Check out her blog and books here) — and I’m still amazed by her process of creation.

Feeling buoyed by my fried food triumph, I tried my hand at whole-wheat biscuits on Saturday morning. But since I’m still a fearful baker (it involves chemistry and science and all those subjects that writers fear), I followed this recipe from fortheloveofcooking.com to a T. I did, however, experiment with the what-to-bake-them-in category.

Cast iron or baking sheet? Let’s try both.

Based on my observations of Katy’s amaza-biscuits, I knew she baked hers — more of a drop biscuit than flake-apart style — in a cast iron skillet to squish them together so that they’d only rise up (there’s an allegory in there somewhere). Though the recipe I used called for placing them on a pan, 1 inch apart, I put some of the biscuits in a cast iron to test the theory. The results: cast iron is molto benne for high-rise biscuits. The others did fine, but were slightly dense in the center. I thin whole wheat biscuits just need more coaxing to get high and lofty, since they’re chockfull of all that heavy nutrition and such (and served with bacon, ahem).

Risen or not, these biscuits were Saturday-morning happiness when slathered in butter and honey. And, unlike most ready-mix batters (especially the low-fat versions I used to favor in high school) these actually fill you up!

Hooray for satisfying Southern cookin’!

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