Southern food fascinates for me. It’s hard to say exactly why; maybe it’s the flavors. Maybe it’s the generous hospitality associated with southerners (something I got used to in my own Italian-American upbringing). Maybe it’s the rich history and commitment to tradition. When I think about it, all of the above attracts me to what I consider one of my favorite styles of cooking.
My affinity for Southern food has me looking forward to the upcoming pop-up restaurant event in January in the gallery at Hoyt Sherman Place. Man-about-town Chris Diebel and Orchestrate chef extraordinaire Scott Stroud are opening Bubba, a southern-themed restaurant spanning three days (Jan. 10-12). It has all your down-home favorites; from grits to gumbo, fried green tomatoes to chicken and waffles! Each course is paired with a southern-inspired cocktail sure to warm up a cold Iowa night. Four courses, $75/person. Call 515-493-6500 or visit Bubbadsm.com for reservations. Trust me – you won’t want to miss it!
Now, my contribution to the pop-up restaurant is one of the most celebrated signature food item of Southern cuisine: the biscuit. Over the years, biscuits have evolved from beaten biscuits to what I call the modern day biscuit.
Few people, especially in the north, know about the beaten biscuit. Originally made from short patent flour, water or milk, salt and some lard or butter, these were beaten with a large wooden rolling pin – the more they were beat, the better they got. For special company, some biscuits were beaten over 1,000 times! Like many labor-intensive work during the 1800’s, this was typically done by slaves or servants, although cooks of all means also got into the action in pursuit of the perfect biscuit.
By the middle of the 1800’s, a kitchen tool called the biscuit brake came along to make the task of biscuit-making much easier. This machine still required a skilled hand and some hard work, however, and by 1904, the biscuit brake was nearly obsolete. Recipes were still in cook books for these biscuits, though, and even a few recipes today still suggest a biscuit brake. But still the most educated of cooks have little familiarity with these little gems.
Miss Howard Weeden (a 19th-century African-American poet and artist from Alabama) wrote:
Gone are the splendid, brave old days,
When cooking was a feat:
When it stirred one’s blood like victory,
Just to hear the biscuit beat
Clearly Miss Weeden longed for these biscuits!
HOMEMADE SOUTHERN BISCUITS
Most specialty dishes are difficult to make. This might explain why convenience foods grew to be so much in demand (I’m not sure who first coined the term “labor of love,” but that’s how I see cooking). In the mid 1800’s the availability of commercial baking powder was an early convenience food and the modern day biscuit evolved from there.
Wherever I travel, I talk to cooks about cooking and food. This is a formula I picked up from a cook in Atlanta, Ga., for a very good southern biscuit. (On the average, 2 cups of flour will yield about 12 biscuits.)
Here’s what you’ll need:
- 2 cups self-rising flour
- 1 stick of butter (very cold)
- 3/4 cup well chilled buttermilk
In a large mixing bowl, sift the self-rising flour. Using your fingertips, rub the cold butter into the sifted flour until mixture looks like crumbs. You’ll need to work quickly; you don’t want the butter to melt. Make a well in the center of your mixture and pour in the chilled buttermilk. Stir just until the dough comes together – it will be very sticky.
Turn the dough onto floured surface, dust top with flour and gently fold it over itself 5 or 6 times. Press into a 1-inch thick round. Cut out biscuits with a 2-inch cutter, being sure to push straight down through the dough. Do not twist the cutter! Place the biscuits on a buttered baking sheet, preferably one without raised edges. Gather up the scrap dough and re-form it, working it as little as possible and continue cutting. Note that biscuits from the second pass will not be quite as light as those from the first.
Bake the biscuits in a 450 degree oven until they’re tall and light gold on top (this will take about 10 to 15 minutes). If they get too brown, they will be dry – which will be a downright shame.
COUNTRY HAM & BISCUITS
Country ham and biscuits is one of my favorite flavors of the south. Slow roasting slab bacon works perfectly for replicating the flavors of a southern country style ham with much less labor.
In addition to the biscuits, you will need:
- 1 package of Smithfield bacon (Niman Ranch is an acceptable substitute; both are available at Gateway Market)
- 1 cup of water
- Some farm-fresh eggs
- American cheese slices
Place the bacon in baking dish with 1 cup of water. Cover the dish and bake in a 325 degree oven for 3.5 hours until the meat is tender. Let the bacon cool, then slice and fry it in cast iron skillet to crisp.
Use the fat from the bacon to fry up your eggs. Season with a pinch of salt and plenty of black pepper.
To assemble, split warm biscuits in half and place a freshly fried egg on half of the biscuit. Top with a slice of American cheese and the crispy fried bacon.
Then, just put everything back together and watch the faces of the people you give these tasty delights to… this is my favorite thing about cooking!