Peasant Food

There have been times in my life when I knew a thing, innately, down in my bones, and yet I didn’t know it academically. Later, I would learn the academic or scientific basis for something that knew only in that visceral way, and then I would feel validated and sometimes comforted by now having language for a thing I only knew practically before.

I learned the other day that my style of cooking is called “Peasant Cooking”. This was not one of those times when having language for a thing you know will bring you joy.

But it’s not far off, I guess. We were working class folks – until I was 14 my Dad went to a job where he had his name on his shirt, and prosperity (and health insurance) hit our home when Mom got a job at the Walmart. (For some reason, she worked at the Walmart, but we shopped at Walmart, without the article. Vernacular is a funny thing.)

We ate good food, honest food that did not hide behind fancy names.

In my mid-twenties, I was upwardly mobile, and trying to get beyond my blue collar roots.

By chance and circumstance, I ended up at a fancy Italian restaurant with a client I desperately wanted to impress. To that point, my Italian food experience largely involved spaghetti and meatballs or Pizza Hut.

The client: They have the best polenta here. Do you like polenta?

Me: I love it.

Me in my head: WTF is polenta?

We ordered the polenta. I remember it was nearly $20 a plate, way back in the mid ‘90s.

When it came, we both dug in. It was amazing.

The client: What do you think about it? Good, huh?

Me: It’s amazing.

Me in my head: I just paid $40 for 2 plates of gotdamned fried grits and spaghetti sauce.

I had a similar experience when I first was served cauliflower in béchamel sauce. I have to give them credit – no way would I have had the gumption to pour milk gravy over boiled cauliflower and serve it to people I wanted to give me money, but people raised in town are a different breed.

Milk gravy – béchamel sauce, the French call it, and they have a word for everything – is an important thing to know how to make. If you can make milk gravy, you can eat nearly free for days and days without repeating anything. And there’s been several things I wanted to tell y’all about – like creamed chicken over rice, or sausage gravy and biscuits, or baked macaroni and cheese – that I can’t talk about without talking about white sauce, or béchamel, or milk gravy, whatever they called it wherever you happened to grow up.

Gravy scares people for some reason, but no reason it should. It’s just a series of steps, and if you follow them, it’s hard to screw up. But I will say this is a time to make sure you have your stuff all out ahead of time, because things are gonna move fast.

You will need all purpose flour, salt, pepper, whole milk, and butter. You could also use cooking oil, or bacon grease, or pretty much any fat, understanding they all change the flavor profile a bit. We often make this with the grease left over from something else (like the grease left when you cook sausage, or bacon, or the drippings from roast chicken, which is amazing) but I’m going to assume that if you don’t know how to make milk gravy, you probably don’t have a jar of bacon grease in your refrigerator, either.

In a small cast iron skillet, or a heavy sauce pan if you don’t have one, put in two tablespoons of butter and turn the heat to medium. While the butter is melting, get your measuring spoons and cups out, and then measure out two tablespoons of flour and a cup (8 ounces) of milk.

The flour you add to the melted butter – just scatter it thinly around on the surface of the melted butter and then take a whisk and stir the hell out of it. You want to mix the butter into the flour here – you will end up with a thick, clumpy sort of mush. You don’t want it to burn – now, some people like to let it “toast” a little, because some book told them to, but we don’t. I was told this was to cook out the flour taste, but their gravy just tastes burnt to me.

Once the flour and melted butter are well mixed – that’s called a roux, by the way (it’s pronounced “roo” – it’s French, but I learned it in New Orleans from Cajun folks. My people wouldn’t have had a word for it) – slowly add about 1/4th a cup of the milk, and begin whisking. The roux will suddenly start clumping up as it thickens. Keep whisking as you keep adding the milk in increments; add some milk, whisk it into the roux. Add more milk, and whisk it into the roux. Keep going until you are out of milk. Make sure you get the whisk into the corners of the pan, as the sooner you get the flour incorporated into the liquid, the better.

If you followed the instructions, you won’t have any lumps in the sauce. Add salt – opinions vary here, but I would try ¼ of a teaspoon and see how that works – and I usually add the same amount of ground black pepper.

You are going to have a bit more than a cup of gravy here, which is fine if you are putting this over rice, or toast, or mashed potatoes. The important thing is the fat to flour ratio is always 1:1. In this case, 2 tablespoons flour, two tablespoons of butter, 1 cup of milk.

It needs to cook for just a few minutes yet to thicken up. I usually put it on low and let it simmer while I set the table, but if it thickens up too much on you, just slowly drizzle water into it while whisking to thin it back down. If the opposite problem happens – if it’s way too thin because you didn’t follow the directions – do NOT try adding flour, or you will be sad. The safest way to deal with this is to just turn up the heat and cook off the liquid until it thickens. Either way, stir it periodically while it’s still over heat, as the edges will thicken faster than the rest.

Also, know that it will thicken a bit as it sets, so if you are trying to be fancy and are planning to put it in a gravy boat on the table, you will want it to be thinner than you expect it to be, or else you will have something that looks like oatmeal when it comes time to eat. But honestly, I usually make this as part of something else. It’s the basis for so many good things, but none of them involve cauliflower.


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