Cooks Corner

Former Paula Deen cook writes about ‘real’ Southern food

Hoecakes from Dora Charles’ new cookbook, ‘A Real Southern Cook.’
Hoecakes from Dora Charles’ new cookbook, ‘A Real Southern Cook.’ Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Every time I take the meat off the bones from a chicken or turkey, I’m reminded of a Thanksgiving in the early ’70s, when my mother invited two civil rights activists who were sleeping at her church to join us for the feast.

When it came time to package up the leftovers, I thought I’d done a thorough job of carving all the meat from the turkey when one said, “Let me show you something.” She took that carcass and showed me all the teensy places where meat could be found: pushed from the neck and back and many other small crevices amongst the bones. Soon we had about two cups more.

She explained that her grandmother, the child of slaves, had taught her how to “force meat.” It was an art, she said, developed when cooks learned to get every bit of deliciousness from what they’d been allowed to use after the choice food was served to the slave owners.

Her grandmother maintained force meat was the sweetest of all — whether from poultry or ham or beef — made into stews or pilau, flavoring greens or beans. Making something wonderful from leavings was the backbone of soul food, a gift passed from generation to generation, she said.

My grandmother taught me to layer in the flavors, and to cook slow, with a lot of love.

Dora Charles

Dora Charles, in her just-released A Real Southern Cook in Her Savannah Kitchen (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25), speaks of that same legacy: “There was always a fabulous cook in my family, going right back to slavery, when both sides of my family labored on plantations in the Lowcountry,” she says, and later, as sharecroppers, the great cooking continued.

“The family was really poor, but the food was so delicious that they often ate like kings,” working with what they gleaned from the fields, the woods, the streams.

Charles, who made news when she broke from Paula Deen after decades of cooking for her — going back to when they worked side-by-side in the kitchen of a Best Western — spends just a few pages describing those times. Though Charles supported the discrimination lawsuit of a co-worker, she does not dwell on the experience, but her descriptions speak volumes.

Charles started her cooking lessons at age 6, when she begged her grandmother to teach her.

“She taught me to never waste anything and to save the cooking grease from bacon or fried chicken to flavor something else, like a mess o’ greens. We looked to humble cuts like smoked pigs tails and pork necks to give great flavor to simple vegetables.

“My grandmother trained my eyes, my ears, my hands and my taste buds and taught me to layer in the flavors, and to cook slow, with a lot of love. If you can do that you really know how to cook, in your bones.”

What I love best about this cookbook is its genuine voice. Charles, who never made it past seventh grade, and never wrote down a recipe before putting the cookbook together, brings to life what it was like to grow up poor but rich in family life as a black woman in segregated Georgia.

Plus I love her unabashed use of salt, mayonnaise and convenience foods like Pepperidge Farm herbed stuffing and Bisquick — an honesty that’s rare in cookbooks. I made her biscuits with Sprite as a secret ingredient and was hooked, because the soda not only leavens but flavors those biscuits.

I also love her and her many practical tips and explanations. For example, her explanation of why Southern bakers always have self-rising flour on hand was the first time it ever made sense. It’s a softer flour and a better blend than when you add baking powder and salt to all purpose flour, and if you use it for dusting before frying “it clings well and the baking powder helps to make a crisp crust on the food.”

Milk for health

Giorgio Rapicavoli, chef-owner of Eating House in Coral Gables and one of the Miami Herald’s South Florida Food 50, last week prepared a milk-centric meal at the restaurant for Somos Fuertes. The educational program is funded by the nation’s milk companies and encourages Hispanics to drink more milk for its nutritional benefits.

Rapicavoli’s menu featured fish soup with aji de leche, milk-braised pork loin and the Key lime cuatro leches recipe here.

Rapicavoli says his affection for milk started early, with a favorite childhood breakfast of cereal with milk, a breakfast he pays tribute to with his well-known menu item, Cap’n Crunch pancakes. I loved the Key lime twist — and even more milk — on the traditional tres leches cake. You can find more recipes with milk at fuertesconleche.com.

Fall salad

Fogo de Chão Brazilian Steakhouse has just rolled out its fall menu with some seasonal offerings, and I enjoyed this brussels sprout salad so much I begged for the recipe.

You can’t quite duplicate it at home — for one, the vinaigrette is a secret, though one hint is that it is made with preserved lemons — and the bacon the restaurant uses has a brown sugar and red pepper kick.

Even without secret touches, this blend of sweet-salt-spicy on the earthy sprouts is memorable.

Linda Cicero: LindaCiceroCooks@aol.com. Write to Cook’s Corner at Food, Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Doral, FL 33172.

Shaved Brussels Sprouts and Bacon Salad

Source: Fogo de Chão.

1 pound brussels sprouts

1/4 cup lemon vinaigrette

1/4 cup cooked crumbled bacon or bacon bits

1/4 cup shaved parmesan cheese

1/4 cup piquant pickled peppers, such as Peppadew (see note), cut in thin strips

1/4 teaspoon coarse salt

1/4 teaspoon cracked black pepper

Rinse whole brussels sprouts and pat dry. Slice 1/4-inch thick, or use a mandolin. Place large pot of water on the stove and bring to a boil. Place sliced sprouts into the boiling water and cook for 3 minutes. Drain and place in an ice bath to stop cooking and to chill. Drain and discard ice. Set aside to drain thoroughly.

Place shaved, cooked sprouts onto a platter and spread evenly. Drizzle lemon vinaigrette on top. Toss well and then spread back evenly over platter. Break cooked bacon into 1/4-inch pieces and sprinkle evenly on top of sprouts. Sprinkle cheese over platter. Sprinkle pepper strips onto platter and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate until serving time.

Note: Peppadew peppers are a trademarked South African pepper, about the size of a ping pong ball and about as spicy as a jalapeño. They generally are only available pickled in the United States and are not easy to find, so I’d suggest substituting pickled Italian cherry peppers, which can be found in most supermarkets.

Per serving: 142 calories (47 percent from fat), 7.8 g fat (1.7 g saturated, 0.5 g monounsaturated), 10 mg cholesterol, 7.6 g protein, 12.3 g carbohydrates, 4.5 g fiber, 778 mg sodium.

Yield: 4 servings.

Key Lime Cuatro Leches Cake

Source: Chef Giorgio Rapicavoli.

Cake:

6 large eggs, separated

2 cups granulated sugar

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 cup whole milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 limes, zested

For soaking:

1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk

1/4 cup Key lime or lime juice

1 (14-ounce) can evaporated milk

1 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup whole milk

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 pinch salt

Icing:

3 tablespoons water

3/4 cup granulated sugar

3 large egg whites

Garnish: Crumbled meringue cookies, lime zest, fresh mint leaves

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease and flour a 9-by-13-inch baking dish and set aside. In the bowl of a mixer, beat the egg whites on low speed until soft peaks form. Add the sugar gradually with the mixer running and beat to stiff peaks. Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating well after the addition of each. Sift together the flour and baking powder and add to the egg mixture, alternating with the milk. (Do this quickly so the batter does not lose volume.) Add the vanilla and lime zest. Bake until golden, about 25 minutes. Remove to wire rack.

In a blender, combine the condensed milk and lime juice on medium speed. Once thickened add the evaporated milk, heavy cream, whole milk, vanilla and salt and blend on high speed. While the cake is still warm, pour the cream mixture over it. Let sit and cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate until well chilled, at least 6 hours or overnight.

In a saucepan combine the water and sugar. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and stir to dissolve the sugar. Cook until the mixture reaches the “softball stage,” about 235 to 240 degrees. Remove from heat. In a medium bowl, beat the egg whites to soft peaks. While beating, add the hot syrup in a stream. Beat until all the syrup has been added, the mixture cools, and a glossy icing forms.

To assemble: Remove the cake from the refrigerator and spread the icing evenly across the top. Garnish with crumbled meringue cookies, lime zest and fresh mint leaves.

Per serving: 388 calories (23 percent from fat), 9.8 g fat (5.5 g saturated, 3.1 g monounsaturated), 96 mg cholesterol, 9.6 g protein, 66 g carbohydrates, 0.5 g fiber, 161 mg sodium.

Yield: 16 servings.

Savannah Hoecakes

Source: “A Real Southern Cook in Her Savannah Kitchen” by Dora Charles. Reproduced with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

1/2 cup self-rising white cornmeal

1/2 cup self-rising flour

2 teaspoons sugar

1⁄3 cup buttermilk

1 large egg

1⁄3 cup water, or more as needed

2 tablespoons melted fat or oil (bacon grease, fried-chicken grease, butter or vegetable oil)

Butter or mixed butter and vegetable oil, for frying

In a bowl, mix together the dry ingredients with a wooden spoon. Add the buttermilk slowly. Mix in the egg, cutting into the yolk with the spoon’s edge to help it mix in better. Add the water and fat or oil and stir well. The texture should be like thick soup, so you may need to add more water.

I like to fry the cornbread cakes in my grandmother’s cast iron skillet or on a flat iron griddle, but any skillet or griddle will be fine. Heat over medium heat and grease well with the fat of your choice (butter is delicious, but it tends to burn unless you mix it with a little oil). Once the skillet is hot and the fat is sizzling, drop the batter from a 1⁄8-cup (2-tablespoon) measure into the skillet, in batches if necessary. Fry the cakes until the edges are bubbling and the centers are set, then flip with a spatula to fry them on the other side until they’re done. Like with pancakes, you can’t say how long it will take, but the second side always cooks faster than the first. If the cakes seem greasy, drain them on paper towels before serving hot.

Tip: If you’re out of self-rising cornmeal and/or flour, add 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt to each cup of cornmeal or flour. Batter will keep a couple of days in the refrigerator.

Per serving: 223 calories (35 percent from fat), 8.7 g fat (3.2 g saturated, 3.6 g monounsaturated), 54 mg cholesterol, 5.7 g protein, 30.3 g carbohydrates, 1.7 g fiber, 513 mg sodium.

Yield: 4 servings.

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