Friday, August 6, 2010

South By Midwest - Biscuits and Cornbread

(my monthly food column for Heartland Women)
July 2010

I came of age in a time and place where food was simply prepared, served three times a day and usually eaten at home. My mother filled our plates with well-balanced and nourishing meals every night and we were happy and satisfied to eat what was put in front of us.

The only cookbook in my mother’s 1950s kitchen was a slightly worn copy of the Better Homes and Gardens red and white gingham ring binder. In those days, new recipes usually came into our home, and onto our dinner table, in Woman’s Day or Family Circle magazines, the newspaper or on hastily scrawled bits of paper or bank deposit slips passed between friends. Most women learned to cook from their mothers and grandmothers and little changed from generation to generation.

Then along came cooking on television! I remember when Julia Child showed up in our home via PBS and we, as well as the entire country, began to dabble in the wide world of food. We may not have jumped into French cooking with both feet, but we were fascinated by all the fuss and the passion Julia had for good food. Around that time, my mother also acquired a copy of The Joy of Cooking and it became our new, more sophisticated cooking reference. BH&G was out and TJofC was in!

Most of the time, though, written recipes were not needed to put supper on our table. The food we ate was much the same as it had been for generations, reaching back to our ancestors who arrived in the New World from the British Isles and Germany. Settling first in Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky, they became restless as the population grew and set out for a newer frontier. Those who found their home in Southern Illinois farmed, hunted, fished and raised cash crops like tobacco and cotton, just as they had on the other side of the Appalachian Mountains.

Many years of living in both North Carolina and Georgia, confirmed what I’d always believed growing up. The “southern” in Southern Illinois is more than just our geographical location within our own Midwestern state. We are truly Southerners, cut from the same cloth as those still living in the first Southern states. Our heritage and culture are the same. We come from the same people.

And when it comes to food, we are at our most Southern. We celebrate the foods we grow in our gardens or purchase directly from farmers and orchards. We’ve known where our food comes from since long before eating local was cool.

We like meat and fish that are roasted, smoked or breaded and fried. We do vegetables in a thousand different ways – with butter or seasoned meat for flavor, along with salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar. Fruits are suspended in gelatin salads or baked into cakes and pies. We’ll pickle, preserve or “put up” just about anything. And we can do amazing things with a little flour and cornmeal – feather-light biscuits and crispy cornbread being first among the favorites. Southern food is truly the cuisine of America.

The foods we choose to prepare and eat most often are, indeed, a reflection of where we come from, where we’ve been, where we’re going and what we eat along the way. I may not be able to find my own tiny little spot on the historical timeline of food, but I can taste it. And there is no doubt in my mind that my food is mostly Southern, mostly simple, and mostly straight from the garden, farm or orchard. Oh! And definitely at its peak during the summer!

There are two great things about eating fresh-from-the-garden all summer long. The first is having a plate so full of vegetables that the meat is almost an afterthought, if it’s there at all. True Southerners can make a meal of a plate full of fresh summer vegetables -- period!

Well, almost. All those vegetables need only one other item on the plate to make it a complete Southern meal. And that’s what I’m here to tell you about this month – don’t forget the bread!

Let’s say you’ve gone to the garden or the farmers' market. You’re loaded down with bags of fresh vegetables and fruits that tempted you beyond all reason. Now you want to eat them, but you fear you may have overbought for the week. Not to worry! Just celebrate your bounty with an entire meal of vegetables – cook up a mess of greens, boil some corn, stew some cabbage, put on a pot of beans, sauté some zucchini and yellow squash with onions, mash some new potatoes with herbs and butter, and slice up some real tomatoes. Oh yeah – and serve up some peaches or berries for dessert. But above all, don't forget what every Southern cook serves with a meal this good – biscuits or cornbread. My mouth is watering already!

You’re really going to want some cornbread for sopping up the pot liquor from the greens. And you’ll need some biscuits, just in case there’s some gravy on that plate, or maybe some fresh preserves. I personally like my biscuits with a chunk of butter all mashed up with some sorghum and slathered on each half to double the pleasure. And how about a little shortcake for those berries and a nice pie crust to wrap around some sweet, juicy peaches? Heavy on the whipped cream, please!

*Just one more way you know you’re really Southern – it’s supper, not dinner, for the last meal of the day. Dinner is served on Sunday, in the middle of the day, and, if it’s done right, you won’t have any room left for supper. We’ll talk more about that another time.

2/3 cup shortening
2 cups self-rising flour
2/3 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Cut shortening into flour until it is the size of small crumbs. Add buttermilk. Turn onto floured surface and knead lightly by folding dough over itself a couple of times – about 20 seconds is enough. Press dough with fingertips to ½-inch thickness. Cut biscuits into circles with biscuit cutter or glass. Place on baking sheet and bake for about 12 minutes, until golden brown. Serve with homemade preserves, jelly or honey butter.

1 stick butter, melted
1 cup sour cream
1 cup self-rising flour

Mix all ingredients in a small bowl. Spoon into lightly greased mini-muffin pans. Bake at 450 degrees for 15 minutes. Serve hot.

2 eggs
1/3 cup corn or olive oil
8 oz. sour cream
1 pkg. Jiffy Cornbread Mix

Mix all liquid ingredients; add cornbread mix. Mix well and spoon into mini muffin pans. Bake at 450 degrees for 10 minutes or until golden brown.

3/4 cup white self-rising corn meal
1 c. all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 cup milk
1 egg, well-beaten
2 tbsp. butter, melted
1 tbsp. shortening

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Mix and sift dry ingredients. Add milk, egg and butter. Add shortening to cast iron skillet (large skillet for thin cornbread, small skillet for thicker cornbread) and place in oven to heat skillet and melt shortening. Carefully remove skillet and pour in cornbread batter. Return skillet to oven and bake for about 20 minutes, until top is golden brown. Serve warm.

(adapted from
½ cup mashed cooked sweet potato
2 cups Bisquick
6 slices meaty bacon, cooked and chopped
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves (stems removed) OR ½ tsp. dried thyme
½ cup milk
2 tbsp. brown sugar
all-purpose flour for dusting counter

Preheat oven to 450 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Peel and cut sweet potato into chunks and boil until tender. Remove from water and place in a small mixing bowl to cool. In a medium bowl, combine Bisquick, chopped bacon and chopped thyme. Add milk and brown sugar to the mashed sweet potato and whisk until well blended. Pour sweet potato mixture into dry mixture and stir until just combined. Dump mixture onto the floured counter top and knead a few times, just until dough is blended. Pat dough with fingertips to ½-inch thickness and cut with biscuit cutter. Place biscuit rounds onto parchment lined baking sheet. Bake at 450 degrees for 8 – 10 minutes, or until just lightly browned on top. Serve warm with butter. Makes 8 – 10 2-inch biscuits.

For pie crust:
2 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup Crisco
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 egg
1 ½ tbsp. vinegar
¼ cup water

For fruit filling:
4 cups fruit – raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, sliced peaches, etc.
½ c. flour
½ cup sugar (if needed)
¼ cup sugar for topping

In a medium bowl, blend flour, Crisco and salt with a pastry blender, or two knives, until crumbly. Stir together egg, vinegar and water; add to flour mixture and blend. Shape dough into a disk; wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before rolling out. Remove pie crust from refrigerator and cut into 4 equal size pieces. Roll out each piece on a floured surface. Fold each crust round in half and then in half again. Gently place crust into a small custard cup or ramekin and fit into bottom of dish. Divide fruit into 4 equal amounts and fill crusts. Gently fold edges of dough back over fruit filling, leaving a hole in the center. Sprinkle ¼ c. sugar lightly over the top of pies. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place baking dishes on a baking sheet and bake until top of crust is golden brown, about 20 – 30 minutes. Serve warm or room temperature with ice cream.

2 cup self-rising flour
8 oz. sour cream
½ cup butter, melted
4 oz. crumbled blue cheese
sliced sweet strawberries
honey or whipped cream

Stir together all ingredients just until blended. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Pat dough to a 3/4-inch thickness; cut into desired size biscuits with biscuit cutter or glass. Place dough biscuit rounds on a lightly greased baking sheet. Bake at 425° for 15-18 minutes, or until lightly browned on top. Split biscuits and serve with sliced strawberries and honey or whipped cream for a deliciously different Strawberry Shortcake dessert. Makes 12 biscuits.

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