Things That Endure

Jerry was a salesman of the old school, straight out of an episode of Mad Men. He was dapper as could be, with creases on his pants that would have cut you, and I never saw him without at least a sports coat, even that time I met him and a client at a ball game.

Jerry was my mentor when I was in financial sales, and he took my somewhat more casual approach to my appearance as a personal challenge. He also tried to teach me the finer points of the business lunch.

Jerry was a big one for lunch. We always lunched together on Fridays and always at one of several restaurants at least as old-school as Jerry himself was. They all had bars, tended to be dark paneled, and had pretty waitresses and generous bartenders. And, without exception, the food was always good.

I remarked on this once when we went to a somewhat shady-looking oyster bar whose dated decor did not fill me with high hopes going in.

“Of course the food is good! I’ve been coming here for 30 years. That doesn’t happen if the food is crap. You have to respect things that endure.”

One of Jerry’s favorite places was Mr. B’s. It was a steak and seafood house in Germantown, an affluent suburb of Memphis. The walls were raw brick, with a small bar along the wall, and the steaks were huge, and so were the cocktails.

Mr. B’s made their reputation on supper but had a strong lunchtime crowd, and being early in my career, my budget leaned more to the blue plate special than it did the porterhouse steaks. And one of the things they did really well was their country-fried steaks.

At least, that is what they called it. If you are used to a large piece of meat deep fried until crispy and then covered in milk gravy such as one may eat at a Cracker Barrel, this was not that.

Instead, it was a tender piece of beef, obviously pounded thin, then fried in a thin batter, and then cooked in a thick brown gravy until it practically fell apart. It was my favorite thing on the menu.

When I was a little boy, the elderly lady next door made something she called steak and gravy that my mom tried and tried to replicate but could not. This was very close to that.

We don’t eat a lot of beef – mostly because of the cost. But also, because we didn’t eat much of it growing up, it just isn’t something I crave. But the other day, the meat department at Kroger had their cubed steaks on clearance, and so I decided to whip up a batch of steak and gravy for dinner one night.

I got home from my last meeting today at 4, so I decided to make today the day it happened. I got out the deep skillet and put four tablespoons of shortening in it to melt and turned the oven on to 350 to preheat.

While waiting, I put a half cup of flour in a shallow bowl and added a teaspoon of black pepper, a teaspoon of salt, and a half teaspoon each of garlic powder and cayenne pepper. I stirred it well.

After dredging the cubed steaks through the flour mixture, I put them in the skillet to brown – about two minutes a side until the flour had formed a crisp crust, but the interiors were still not finished. I did them in batches, putting them on a cooling rack as they finished.

In the melted shortening still in the bottom of the pan, I sauteed a small amount (maybe 1 /4 cup?) of diced onion until brown, then added a few tablespoons of the flour dredge that was left over. After it was all browned, I added enough milk to make a thin gravy, into which I slid the breaded steaks. I put a lid on the skillet and slid it into the oven, where it sat and bubbled away for an hour and a half.

When I pulled it out, the gravy had separated – a danger of using milk gravy for something like this. I removed the steaks, put the skillet on the stove again, added a bit of half-and-half, and whisked quickly until the gravy was thinned out and reconstituted. I slid the steaks back in and let them simmer over low heat as I set the table.

Had I served it with mashed potatoes and English peas, this would have been my favorite meal of my childhood. But instead, we served it over white rice, making it my favorite meal today and still damn good.

Firehouse Soup

While I went to college, I worked a few years as a firefighter for the City of Memphis. I learned many things there, but the biggest impact it had on me long-term was how it taught me to think about food.

The deal was that you worked every other day for three days, and then you were off for four days. So, for example, you may work Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and then you would be off until the following Wednesday, when the cycle started all over again. And each shift was 24 hours long and began at 7 AM. Depending on what fire-fighting equipment was housed at your station, you could have anywhere from four to 12 people on each shift, and you always worked with the same people.

It was like a second family you lived with 1/3rd of your life. We had laundry and showers and we cut the grass and, of course, ate together. And while there was a kitchen and equipment such as pans and knives provided, the actual food was not, and was up to you. Some people brought their own food, but you didn’t if you wanted to be trusted by the others on your shift. To be trusted, you needed to belong to the syndicate.

I worked at several different houses during the years I was on the job, and the syndicate always worked the same way. There was one member of the shift who kept track of a pool of money, and that was used to buy groceries for your shift. Each shift had its own refrigerator and cupboard, which were kept locked. At each meal, you were either “in” or “out” for the meal, meaning you intended to eat the food bought from the pool of money, and you were “charged” your pro-rata share of the groceries that went into that meal. And on payday, you settled up your bill, which replenished the pool of money, and it started all over again.

So, every day you worked, you had to figure out who was cooking three meals for your shift. Some shifts had 1 person who just loved cooking, and they took it on as their responsibility, but most times we would ask who wanted to cook each meal, with the others doing cleanup. Breakfast was usually fixed – eggs, bacon, biscuits were common, most often with gravy – and lunch was often caught as catch can, but the big show was supper.

A cool thing about this system is that you had a diversity of cooks, with each bringing their favorites to the table. Tom was in his 20s and could run the grill, but not much else. Curtis loved to make spaghetti. Stan made round steak and gravy, with mashed potatoes and English peas so good that my mouth waters just thinking about it.

And John always made soup.

John was nearing retirement after nearly 30 years on the job. He had been divorced for nearly 20 of those years and most of his off-work meals were either sandwiches or dinner fare. But his one claim to culinary fame was his soup.

I probably ate it two dozen times and watched him make it half of those times, and it was never done exactly the same way twice. It was more of a technique rather than a recipe, but what it always was, was good.

As an example, I will share how I made it last week, but everything in this recipe is up for negotiation.

Dice a small onion into small pieces, and dice two cloves of garlic while you are at it. In a large pot, crumble a pound of ground beef, add your diced onions, and sprinkle some salt on top of it all, and then, over medium heat, begin to brown the ground beef. Stir it all around until the meat is no longer pink and the onions are translucent, then add the garlic and let it sweat a bit, but don’t, for the love of God, let it burn or you just ruined the whole thing. The garlic will be flavorful and ready in about a minute.

Pour in three and a half cups of beef broth (or water plus an appropriate amount of beef paste) and a 12-ounce can of V8 juice. Using a spoon or something, scrape the bottom of the pan to make sure all the bits are off the bottom of the pan and it’s all mixed well.

To this, add a 15-ounce can of diced tomatoes (Rotel is another option here, but it obviously changes the flavor), a couple of tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce (easy for you to say), and 2 teaspoons of Italian seasoning. We only had a few spice jars at the fire station, but Italian seasoning went into everything. Let it come to a boil.

While you are waiting on that, peel and dice 2 potatoes of whatever kind you have around – I had Yukon Golds. Add it to the pot, along with a pound of frozen mixed vegetables. (I know that sounds vague, but that’s what they are always called at the grocery. It’s generally green beans, carrots, and English peas.) Let it boil, then bring it down to a simmer for 15 minutes.

NOW. You can let it simmer for another 15 minutes and have a perfectly acceptable soup to serve with your dinner. Or, you can do what I did and add a cup and a half of elbow macaroni and another half cup of beef broth and THEN let it simmer for another 15 minutes and have a hearty, filling soup you can eat for diner all by itself.

Beef or shredded chicken. V8 or Tomato sauce. Beef broth or chicken. Macaroni or spaghetti or even instant grits (trust me on this). Tomatoes or Rotel. White potatoes or sweet potatoes (What? Yes.)

It’s all up in the air. Mix and match. Live a little.

You deserve it.

Creamed Chicken

They say smell is the oldest of the five senses we humans have. I certainly believe it – There have been times I haven’t smelled a thing in 30 years, and then I do, and I’m instantly taken back. It’s as if the smell is somehow a shortcut to the exact spot in my brain where that memory hides.

I will always remember that hot summer night on Parris Island whenever I smell rotting fruit. I will always think of my Great Aunt’s bathroom when I smell rusting metal. The smell of strawberries instantly transports me into a walk-in cooler in Byhalia, MS, where 16 year old me would hide when I should have been working and would eat the Louisiana strawberries that I should have been putting on the store shelves.

And the smell of hot tuna always transports me back to my momma’s kitchen on a day in 1980: A day I should have been in school, but was home instead, sick.

It was a cold day, and I had been running a fever all night and so Mom let me lay on the couch and watch The Price is Right on TV instead of going to school.

I had dozed off, somewhere before the Showcase Showdown and she gently woke me. The TV was off, and I felt a bit better, and she sat on the couch beside me and asked if I was hungry.

“I’m about to fix some creamed tuna over toast,” she said.

I told her I didn’t know what that was.

“I know. But I love it, and your dad doesn’t – he calls it cat food – and since it’s just us today, I thought I would make some.”

We walked into our small kitchen, and I drug a chair over to the stove, to watch.

She got out a small pan and drained a can of tuna. We only had the kind packed in water, because Dad was watching his cholesterol – and she heated up a can of cream of mushroom soup and stirred in a can’s worth of water, and added the tuna to it while it heated.

In the meantime, she put four slices of bread in our toaster, and when the toast was done, she tore it into small pieces, which she placed in the white Corelle bowls with the small blue flower trim they had gotten as newlyweds. She set them on the oak table that my grandfather rescued from the fire in the 1930s.

She took a serving spoon from the drawer and spooned the tuna mixture over both our bowls and then stirred it well, to coat the chunks of bread with the ersatz roux.

The kitchen did smell vaguely of cat food, to my dad’s point, but not obnoxiously so. At that moment, it just smelled good, and safe.

I still love it – creamed tuna over toast, even if I don’t make it that way anymore. I would learn, later, about bechamel sauce and seasoning and the value of aromatics. But that would all come later.

Mom and I didn’t have a lot of things that were just ours – we still don’t, actually – but our love of creamed tuna over toast was one of them. And to this day, when I don’t feel particularly well, I will make a version of this dish and just know everything is going to be OK.

I want to go on record that there’s nothing wrong with making it the way Mom did. I mean, if you are sick, or have been pulling lots of shifts, or just don’t have a lot of energy, spending 10 minutes dumping two cans into a pot and then pouring it over toasted bread may be all you have the energy for. And if that’s true, then go for it.

But, if you find yourself with 15 minutes and a smidgen more energy, you can make something remarkable. These days, I often make this using chicken, because my wife shares my dad’s feelings about seafood, and I want to keep living here. But you can replace the chicken in this recipe with tuna and it still works.

Everything you will need for this is in your pantry, or at least should be. Bread. Flour. Butter. Some leftover chicken. Salt. Pepper. Chicken broth, An onion. Milk. Love.

Before you get started, let’s talk about chicken. You can use leftover chicken of any sort. White meat. Dark meat. Canned chicken. Leftover rotisserie chicken. Chicken legs you bought on clearance and poached specifically for this dish. It doesn’t matter. Really. They all have different flavor profiles, but they are all good. You will need to shred it up, and you need about two cups of it.

You want to start with two tablespoons of butter, which you put in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat.

While it’s melting, take a small onion, and dice it fine. You don’t need a lot of onion, and if I’m feeling fancy and it’s after payday, I would probably use a large shallot for this, and if it’s a few days before payday, I would probably use the 1/2 an onion sitting in the crisper drawer in a ziplock bag leftover from God knows what.

Sweat the onions for about five minutes in the melted butter – don’t let them burn, and this means you may have to reduce the heat. Then put in two tablespoons of flour, and, using your whisk, get the flour coated in the melted butter. Just like when you are making milk gravy, you don’t want this to burn. This is a white sauce, so all you want is the flour and oil to be mixed well.

Slowly add a cup of half and half, a 1/4 cup or so at a time, whisking all the while, until it’s all mixed in. Then do the same with the chicken broth – add it slowly, while whisking, until it is a lovely velvety smooth, and probably slightly yellow. That color is one of my favorite colors. The smell right now is something else, too.

If you are feeling fancy, this is where you throw in about half a cup of what we called English peas, and you probably call green peas or sweet peas. Little green round peas, preferably frozen, is what we’re going for here. And then add the chicken, stirring it all in, so the lovely creamy sauce covers the chicken and peas, and the peas look like little green islands in a light yellow sea.

You want this to simmer for about 5 minutes, to both warm up the peas and chicken, and to thicken the sauce. If it gets too thick, you can drizzle in a bit of hot water while stirring, and also remember that it will thicken a bit as it sits and cools.

While the sauce is simmering, start making toast – two to three slices per person is about right. When the toast is done, I like to rip it into rough chunks about 2 inches square. Then pour a generous half cup of sauce over the top, and if you have any, sprinkle the top with fresh chopped parsley.

This is one of my favorite meals. There are variations galore. This will serve two hungry people or 4 polite ones, but it scales up perfectly – 2 tablespoons of fat and flour per cup of broth and cup of dairy.

This is also lovely over biscuits, served like you would sausage gravy, or over plain white rice, which is how I serve it for supper or when company would show up unexpectedly in the before times.

Go buck wild and use whipping cream or half and half if you are a generally optimistic person, but whole milk is what I use most often. Some of you are scared of your food and will be tempted to use skim milk, and while I would discourage you, I can’t stop you.

Some people, I have learned, just want to watch the world burn.

In Praise of Cabbage

Often when reading a novel, I will find that if the author wants to indicate the smell of poverty, they will mention the smell of cooked cabbage. Like, “The stairway in the tenement smelled of used diapers, cooked cabbage, and despair.”

That’s no reflection on the cabbage, however, as cabbage is no respecter of persons, is filled with vitamins, and will keep in your fridge (or in your cellar) for damn near forever. No, in addition to all the virtues of cabbage, it is also usually inexpensive, which makes it the butt of jokes rather than be celebrated for the heroic vegetable it is, serving to fill in around the edges when the more respected fare is hard to come by.

As a young boy, I ate my share of cooked cabbage, but sadly, I never had any cooked cabbage that tasted good until I was grown. My people tended to, when in doubt, just boil a thing until it surrendered when some things benefit most by gentle encouragement instead of a full-on assault. They would make up for this by pouring the potlikker in the bottom of the pot – the vitamin laden broth left after the cabbage had been eaten – over cornbread, which was always the best part of the meal, the cabbage having been cooked until it dissolved, like the dreams we had of a meal with texture.

But done right, stewed cabbage is a delight, and there is virtually no likker to be had because we didn’t soak away all the vitamins. If it’s a weeknight and you don’t know what to use for a side dish, this is perfect. It takes about 25 minutes, from start to back, and if you add some bacon, you can make it a main dish instead. I think it’s even good enough to serve as a side at a celebration, like Thanksgiving.

If stewed cabbage is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

What you will need for this are a head of white (as opposed to red) cabbage, a big skillet, three tablespoons of some cooking fat – bacon grease is traditional, but butter is OK too, and I like to mix them both, half and half, each bringing qualities of which the other is shy – some salt, some sugar, and some water.

Turn the heat on medium under your skillet, and put your fat in it to melt. I’m going to assume you paid attention and are using one and a half tablespoons each of both butter and bacon grease, but you do you. Unless you doing you involves olive oil, in which case, just … no. There are things for which olive oil is wonderful, but this is not one of them.

While your fat’s melting, quarter your head of cabbage, cut out the stem, and then cut the rest of it into “steaks”, top to bottom (like, from pole to pole of the cabbage head) about an inch and a half thick. Then cut the steaks into chunks about 2×2, and then put the chunks in the hot fat. Don’t shred your cabbage – this ain’t slaw. You want chunks. It may fall apart a bit, which is fine, but don’t encourage it any. I mean, you fall apart, and we do you the kindness of not mentioning it, so return the favor here.

Sprinkle a tablespoon of sugar and a teaspoon of salt over the top of the cabbage chunks. You want to give the cabbage a minute or two in the hot fat, so the leaves will begin to brown and caramelize – take your spatula and move it about a bit to keep it from sticking. When you see edges beginning to brown slightly, add a cup of water (slowly), and then allow the water to cook down over medium heat until the water is mostly gone, the house smells amazing, and the cabbage is tender when you stab it, but the chunks are still mostly intact – which on my stove takes about 20 minutes.

Some of you will want to cook this longer. I understand this, but you’re wrong. It won’t be improved by turning it into mush. I am in favor, however, of starting this dish by frying up three slices of bacon, then dicing the cooked bacon into bits, and using that bacon grease plus another tablespoon or two of butter as the fat and then proceed from there, using the bacon bits as a garnish when you are done.

Some of you will think this can be improved by reducing the fat down to only one tablespoon, making it less fattening. It may be less fattening that way, but it won’t taste better. And in all honesty, two tablespoons of butter has 200 calories, which when divided by the four serving this makes, means you saved 50 calories a serving, but managed to turn something delicious into something your kids will make fun of you for making.

Suppertime Cheese Grits

I got asked a while back by a friend if I was going to talk about grits on my blog.

If y’all thought cornbread was contentious, just wait till Southern folk start talking about grits. And do note that while they are very different things, they are both derived from corn, the poor man’s wheat, and they are both examples of peasant cooking, so of course, I’m going to talk about grits.

If ever there was an example of my adage that “Normal is just another word for whatever you are used to”, it’s grits. And if you can do it to a bowl of grits, I assure you somebody has.

Growing up, grits were for breakfast. Mom liked them because the preparation was simple, it was filling, and it was as cheap as could be. One thing she didn’t like about grits, unfortunately, was the grits themselves: She tended to prefer Cream of Wheat, but never managed to convert us. But she grew up traveling around the country with my grandfather, who was in the Navy, so one has to make allowances.

When visiting our neighbors, Monty and Doc, I would eat fried grits for lunch, which was basically leftover grits poured into a loaf pan, then cooled in the refrigerator until firm. They would then be sliced into inch thick slabs and fried in bacon grease, making an ersatz fried polenta. In fact, the first time I ate polenta, I was convinced it was just expensive fried grits. Spoiler: It pretty much is, although grits tend to be made with white corn, and polenta with yellow, which is sweeter, so there is a slightly different flavor profile. But grits and polenta are a whole lot closer than collards and kale, which are interchangeable.

But today I want to tell you about suppertime grits. Because I usually make these as a weeknight meal, I take some liberties to speed things up, but you can have this on the table in about 20 minutes. I tend to use them like you would pasta or potatoes, but if you add enough cheese or even a heavy meat sauce, this makes a fine main dish.

You will need some grits. White is traditional, and regular people eat just regular grits, although there are artisanal, stone-ground grits to be had out there. But for our purposes, some white grits – even the quick-cooking grits, like I do in this recipe-, will do on a weeknight. We don’t speak of instant grits, nor of anything that comes in a packet.

You will need a liquid. At its most basic, you can use water, and many people do, but milk is a fine choice too. But if you are going to the trouble to make them for supper, try chicken stock instead. In this recipe, we will use both chicken stock and milk.

And since these will be served as part of a meal (instead of by themselves) I would add some cheese. Now, any cheese will do – cheddar (my preference), cream cheese, Velveeta, American – just whatever you have laying around. Honestly, I use cheese grits like this as an opportunity to use up little bits of cheese I might have laying around.

Here’s how I would do it.

I’d put 8 cups of chicken broth in a heavy saucepan and heat it up to a boil, and then bring it down to a simmer. Now, if you don’t have chicken broth on hand, you can use something like Better Than Boullion’s Chicken Base, or even some chicken bouillon cubes instead. The point is, any of that will be better than just water.

Now that it’s simmering, slowly add 2 cups of quick-cooking grits while you which them in. If you just dump them in, it will clump up. I would do it slowly, stirring the broth as I slowly shake the grits into the pot. When they are all in, add ¾ of a teaspoon of salt, give the mixture a final stir for luck, and then put the lid on the pot, turn it down to low, and let them simmer for a good 10 minutes or so, until they thicken. You will want to stir them at least twice during this time, so they don’t stick.

You could stop now and have a fine bowl of grits, but we can keep going and make them extraordinary. Let’s add a tablespoon of butter (I use salted butter here because it’s what I always have, but unsalted would work too), and a cup to a cup and a half (let your conscience be your guide) of good shredded Cheddar cheese, the sharper the better. Just stir it in a bit at a time, and watch it melt. This will thicken the grits a bit, especially if you use pre-shredded cheese (it’s a weeknight, so you are forgiven), which is coated in cornstarch and thus has a thickening effect on everything. You then will thin it down with about half a cup of whole milk, or if you are feeling festive, half and half or whipping cream.

This serves four people if you do it as a main dish or about eight as a side. I’d serve it in bowls and sprinkle the top with freshly ground black pepper.

Now, of course, this is a starting point. One of my favorite ways to eat grits is to serve them with a red sauce made with peppers and Italian sausage, which makes them very fancy, indeed.