All that’s missing is the fried okra and corn muffins!
Often when I was a child my family packed everything we could fit in our 1974 dirt brown Ford Pinto station wagon and drove from Baltimore to the tiny town of Fayette, Alabama (population about 4000). We took this eighteen hour trip so many times that I can still see the landscape rolling by in my mind 30 years after my last trek. In a time before car seats and rear-seat belts, my father was a child-safety pioneer. He fashioned harnesses in the “way back” of the wagon to work with the rear seat folded down. These harnesses were bolted to the car frame for safety but allowed my sister and me a little freedom; so we tolerated eighteen unbroken hours in a car in periods of play and sleep. Most interestingly, the parts of the trip that really stick in my mind are all in the second part of the trip; the places of the South. I remember the faded advertisements on the sides of barn beckoning everyone to See Rock City or Ruby Falls, and I remember watching kudzu go by. If you are unfamiliar with kudzu it is a highly invasive vine which covers most of the south in billowing foliage and often looks remarkably like animals. To a child half numb from 10 hours of highway and car sleep, looking for animals in the Kudzu was a welcome diversion.
I also remember the food we ate on these trips. For the first half of the trip we ate what my mother had packed for us in the cooler; mainly cold fried chicken, sandwiches and snacks. The second half of the trip had the food we waited for—Morrison’s Cafeteria. Morrison’s was heaven in a cafeteria line. You didn’t really need meat, although the fried chicken was wonderful, but the sides were just too good to miss. A lot of people felt this way, that’s why they offered a vegetable plate (most southern style restaurants still have something like this). The veggie plate was your choice of five sides. For me this was always fried okra (Morrison’s was legendary), creamed corn, black-eyed peas, a piece of corn bread, and mac and cheese. Only in the south could macaroni and cheese pass for an item on a “vegetable” plate, but it was there and unmissable. Not a trip went by without my parents telling us stories of the two of them eating at the Morrison’s in Tuscaloosa while they were at the University of Alabama. My sister and Iwould happily munch away on our fried okra and black-eyed peas while we listened to stories of my parents’ early days before kids and memories were made.
Now that I’m an adult I sit in the front of the car on our trips to my parents’ house. My son is luckier than I was in that his treks are only five hours, not eighteen. However, he is constrained in the modern torture device known as the five-point restraint car seat. I wonder what my son sees in his trek to his grandparent’s house. There are no kudzu jungles to look at, no Morrison’s to look forward to. What can he possibly take away from his frequent treks down the stretch of I-95 between Boston and New York? I don’t think one makes memories that last a life time at the West Haven, CT service plaza.
While Morrison’s is no longer around, my son still gets the veggie plate. A slightly shortened version is a frequent meal around our house, and it’s a great meatless Monday meal. I usually make the modern idea of mac and cheese with a thick and cheesy Bechamel sauce which is poured over cooked pasta and browned in the oven. However, in a pinch for time recently, I reverted back to the old-style mac and cheese I remember from my childhood. Pasta is layered with shredded cheese in a baking dish with a milk and egg mixture poured over the top. Buttered breadcrumbs are sprinkled on top and then thrown in the oven while the rest of the dinner is made. It’s easy and old-fashioned, and sometimes it’s a nice change from the rich and creamy style we are all used to these days. Along with the mac and cheese I make several other veggies like green beans, black-eyed peas, creamed corn, and fried-okra. Make large portions of everything on Monday and you’ll have sides to go with your dinners the rest of the week.
Retro Mac & Cheese – Click here for a printer friendly version
You can use pretty much any cheese you have in the fridge. For this recipe I used a mixture of asiago, cheddar, Gruyere and jack cheeses.
8 ounces elbow or corkscrew pasta
2 cups shredded cheese
1 1/2 cups milk
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup bread crumbs
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 teaspoon paprika
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Boil pasta according to package directions and drain. Coat a 2 quart baking dish with cooking spray and spread 1/3 of the pasta on the bottom of the pan. Cover the first layer of pasta with 1/3 of the shredded cheese. Repeat with pasta and cheese so that you have three layers of cheese and three layers of pasta.
Combine milk, egg, salt and pepper in a bowl and whisk to mix well. Pour over the pasta and cheese. Combine bread crumbs, melted butter and paprika. Toss with a fork until evenly combined and sprinkle over the pasta.
Bake for 30 minutes or until bubbles start to form around the edges. Switch the oven to broil and continue to cook for another minute or two, until the breadcrumb topping is medium brown. Remove from oven and let cool slightly before serving.
Creamed Corn – For Printer Friendly Click Here
Use a porcelain-enameled cast iron pot if possible. The coated surface will help prevent the corn from burning and sticking to the bottom. Time is your friend for this dish. Don’t try to make this in a hurry. This can be made up to two days in advance.
It is highly preferable to use mature ears of corn for this dish. The young tender ears of corn that make fantastic corn on the cob are not desirable for creamed corn. You can do a little test with your fingernail to see if it is right for creamed corn. Stick a fingernail down into one kernel. If the kernel pops with a watery juice then it’s great for corn on the cob, if it has a thick creamy liquid, its better for creamed corn. If you only have young tender ears of corn, then mix in two tablespoons of corn meal with the corn before cooking.
8 ears corn
1/2 cup butter
1 teaspoon salt
Use a grater to scrape corn kernels off the cob into a bowl.
After all sides of the corn have been run over the grater several times, run a small amount of water over the cob.
Over the bowl, slide the back of a knife down along the cob to scrape any remaining corn from the cob as well as the starchy juices of the corn.
Melt the butter in a large pot set over medium heat. Once the butter has melted and is starting to bubble add the corn and salt. Stir to mix the butter into the corn and just bring up to simmer. Turn heat down to low and simmer uncovered until thick and about the consistency of pudding; about 1 hour.
Stir frequently, being sure to scrape the bottom of the pot each time. Season to taste with additional salt as needed.
That there’s some good eatin’, y’all.
I also wanted to share pictures with you of the amazing color changing beans I bought at the farmer’s market. When I bought the beans they were a deep eggplant color, but cooking turned them normal green bean colored. They were also very tasty. They had a great bean flavor with a nice firm texture that held up to southern cooking (long and slow) very well.
Before shots are of the whole beans and then trimmed and cut.
The after shot is just after a few minutes of simmering, and you can still see small specks of purple on the beans. The color would probably stay with a very quick blanch, but now that’s not very southern is it?!