One Delightful Afternoon in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
(Please note: This is Lisa’s personal blog and is not part of the Monday Morning Cooking Club project)
It started on twitter.
It led to a group of crazy gals spending an afternoon cooking and chatting in a true Southern kitchen.
It ended with eight new friends sharing food and stories in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
I now understand the meaning of ‘Southern hospitality’. Through a virtual lunch group on twitter where anyone is welcome to join in the lunch conversation by simply hash-tagging #letslunch, I ‘met’ Jill and Nancie. I knew them a little, virtually. I knew Jill Warren Lucas as a writer and blogger posting on topics close to my heart such as latkes and knishes. I knew Nancie McDermott as a prolific cookbook author, with two of her many books devoted entirely to Southern pies and cakes.
After years of just thinking about it, I decided to actually visit my friend Stefanie in Raleigh, North Carolina, and to make that my starting point for a ‘food discovery tour’ to the Southern states of the USA. My sister Esther was to join me for one week and one week only. I tweeted the #letslunch crew for some guidance, and within days received an invitation from Jill and Nancie. They were excited to put together a group of like-minded foodies who would spend an afternoon cooking Southern specialties. Me, excited? You bet!
On the way to Nancie’s with Stef (Esther is arriving later) I feel like I am on a blind date. We knock on the door. No answer. Maybe I have the date wrong? The address? Maybe it was to be a virtual date instead of a real one? Knock again. One more knock. At last Nancie opens the door, glasses askew, flour on her face and hands, a beaming smile. Welcome!!
Walking into the kitchen, Sandra greets us with a big hug and a warm smile. This is Sandra Guitierrez, cookbook author, who specializes in creating ‘Southern-Latino’ food and who is in the middle of a crazy book tour. Within minutes Jill arrives, also beaming and excited, laden with jars of home made slivovitz (plum brandy) and jelly (jam).
It is not a blind date at all, it is a reunion.
In the corner, Nancie has a table on which she sets out some specialties of the region, as well as all the ingredients she needs for the day. A bunch of collard greens, a packet of pork back fat, bags of grits and cornmeal, White Lily self-rising flour, jars of molasses.
Nancie is putting together something that many of us are familiar with – devilled eggs. She mashes the yolks from halved boiled eggs with Duke’s mayonnaise (the ONLY mayo to use!) and Dijon mustard. She seasons it well and spoons the mashed yolks back into the egg white halves. She places each one onto the glass ‘devilled egg’ dish – yep, a dish especially made for devilled eggs! We nibble on these while the kitchen show begins. We drink locally made Gaelic ale from cute ‘jars’ bought at a charity event. A fine start to the afternoon, indeed.
Elizabeth Wiegand arrives next, shellfish stock in hand, another local cookbook author whose books cover different regions of the State – ‘The Outer Banks Cookbook’ and ‘The New Blue Ridge Cookbook’. She is in the middle of writing another book, has a deadline looming, and still finds the time to come along and share with us her specialties. I like these people.
During the afternoon, some time between the biscuits and the corn bread, Barbara Ensrud pops in. Barbara is a well-known wine writer. This is really looking like fun.
The cooking lessons…
Sandra is about to teach us a couple of her specialties that we, in Australia, are not that familiar with. Pimiento cheese and Southern Biscuits. Her pimiento cheese is simple – the basic grated (and it must be freshly grated) cheddar cheese, Duke’s mayonnaise (it must be Duke’s brand or homemade, nothing else) and chopped pimiento- canned sweet small peppers (a type of small red capsicum), which she chops finely. The special ingredient that Sandra adds is ‘chipotle peppers in adobo sauce’, which transform a simple dip into her Latino-Southern version. We eat it on crackers – a slightly spicy, textured cheese dip (or ‘schmear’ if you were from NYC) with a touch of sweetness.
Sandra’s next lesson is the thing I particularly want to learn and understand, having bought (and been inspired by) Nathalie Dupree’s gorgeous book ‘Southern Biscuits’ some time ago. I will have the pleasure of tea at Nathalie’s when I visit Charleston, but more on that in my Charleston post.
The biscuit. What is it? Is it a scone? When do you eat it and what do you put on it? What do we use instead of Crisco? Do we have to use lard? So many questions!
I learn that there are many ways to make a buttermilk biscuit. The common factors are flour and buttermilk. The fat options include butter, lard (often rendered pork back fat) and Crisco (solid vegetable shortening). You can add sugar. Or not. You can add other flavourings. Or not. It all just depends on what you like.
Sandra grinds pork rinds to make a powder and adds this to her White Lily flour. I am guessing she has made these crisp pork rinds herself from the recipe in her book. I imagine you can also buy them ready made. She spoons in some lard and with her fingertips, gently mixes it in through the flour. She adds buttermilk without measuring and, in a minute, with floured confident hands, she deftly and ever-so-lightly makes the dough and pats it into an oval shape. Done.
Sandra dips a cookie cutter into her pile of flour and carefully (“no twisting, girls”) presses down and cuts out the first biscuit. The biscuits are placed into a shallow cake tin side-by-side and glazed with some buttermilk. Sandra says to place them further apart if you want a crust on all sides of the biscuit, and this way for softer edges.
She then pops them into a hot oven, where they rise beautifully, their tops turning golden brown. Once cool enough to handle, we split them as we would a scone and drizzle with sorghum molasses. Sorghum molasses is a sticky sweet, but not sickly, syrup produced in the region. The biscuits are delicious. We also top some of them with butter and a spoon of Jill’s fabulous grape jelly (jam), which is just lovely.
Jill also had a go at the biscuits and was pretty chuffed when they turned out so well! She made hers plain, without the pork rind, and they were just as irresistible.
Sandra’s recipes are from her most comprehensive book ‘The New Southern-Latino Table’. This is not just a book of recipes, it is part story book, history book and paints an interesting picture of combining the traditions and food of Latin America and the American South.
Now it’s Nancie’s turn. She is a super dynamo. She has already made two sweet potato pies (I happily spy them in the dining room). She is now preparing a feast for us all: ‘chicken and dumplings’, pinto beans with ham hock, green beans with potato, fried sausage and apple, candied yams, persimmon puddings and a blackberry pie. Her ‘sweet Southern’ books are gorgeous – I now proudly have both. I am ready to hone my baking skills and plan to cook (and eat) my way through both Southern Pies and Southern Cakes as soon as I lose the 2 kg (5 lbs) I gained on this trip!
Just before we arrived, Nancie put a whole chicken on to boil. The chicken is now cooked through and she fishes it from the water, removing the meat from the bones with her hands (there is really no other way to do it properly!). The bones are thrown back into the water to enrich the stock. The meat is set aside. The stock continues to bubble away for most of the afternoon. Nancie makes the dumplings by making a dough with ‘White Lily’ flour, salt, pepper and the rich stock. She kneads it well for a good 5 minutes and then rolls it out thinly on a floured bench top. She cuts diamond shape pieces and layers them on a plate. The noodles are cooked in the strained stock for at least 20 minutes. The meat is put back to heat through and the dish is ready. Tender chicken pieces, simple stock and soft silky noodle-like dumplings. This is a dish that is nourishing and delicious, something I can’t wait to dive right into.
Nancie McDermott’s Old School Chicken and Dumplings
By December 27, 2012Published:
- Yield: 6 - 8 Servings
- Prep: 20 mins
- Cook: 2 hrs 0 min
- Ready In: 2 hrs 20 mins
Nancie: I grew up on this satisfying, substantial, elemental stew, a favorite at my maternal grandmother’s house. It’s all about the chicken and the broth it creates in cooking. Since she raised chickens, and never ran out of flour, it was an on-hand pantry-centered supper from her dairy farm kitchen, and I love that you’ll still find it in cafeterias, meat-and-threes, and other homespun locations throughout the Southern states. Miss Nannie would not have dreamed of serving anything resembling raw lettuce with this, but I love it with a big crisp and cool salad on the side, or even a plate of sliced tomatoes and a bowl of refrigerator pickles made with cucumbers, onions and fresh dill. Today’s supermarket birds can be huge, five-pounders and more. That’s great for feeding a crowd, and you just make more dumplings and use more water. However, should you be desirous of a 4-to-6 people version, just use chicken pieces, as long as they are bone-in and skin-on to flavor your stock.
- 3 1/2 lbs (1.5 kg) chicken pieces ,bone in and skin on
- 12 cups water
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 cups all purpose (plain) flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
- Place chicken in a large deep pan such as a Dutch oven or a saucepan. Add water; it should cover the chicken pieces by about an inch. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a gentle boil.
- Reduce heat to a lively simmer, and cook for 35 to 45 minutes, or until chicken is tender and cooked through. Remove from heat.
- When chicken is cool enough to handle, remove skin and bones and pull meat into big pieces. Cover and refrigerate.
- Meanwhile, combine the flour, salt and pepper in a medium bowl, using a fork. Make a well in the center of the flour and pour in about 1/4 cup of hot chicken stock. Stir well with a fork, until the flour comes together into a rough, shaggy dough.
- Turn out onto a floured board or bench top, and knead for about 3 minutes, until you have a fairly smooth, resilient dough.
- Scatter flour over the bench top. Divide the dough into 3 portions. Using a rolling pin, roll out each portion into a thin, flat sheet.
- Cut into strips about 1 1/2 to 2 inches wide. Cut strips crosswise into pieces about 2 inches long.
- Measure the chicken broth, you should have about 7 cups. If you don’t have that much, add water or chicken broth to make 7 cups. Bring the chicken broth to a lively boil.
- Add the dumplings, a few at a time, stirring to keep them from sticking together. When all the dumplings are in the pot, stir well.
- Reduce the heat to maintain a very gentle simmer, cover, and let cook 20 minutes, until the dumplings have thickened a little and become silky smooth outside and cooked within.
- Return the chicken pieces to the pot. Cook and stir gently to combine everything well and heat the chicken pieces through.
- Serve in shallow bowls, with dumplings, chicken, and broth in each bowl.
Just after we arrive, Nancie starts to cook the green beans and potatoes, which are to be boiled for ages (and ages!) until really soft. This is apparently the way they like their veggies in this part of the world. No blanching here, and at the end there is not a green green bean in sight.
On the menu is a particularly local and ‘everyday’ dish of sausage and apple. Sausage mixture is shaped into small patties, which Nancie then fries in batches until cooked through and well browned. She uses ‘Neese’s’ brand sausage, which comes in a block, and also suggests using your favourite sausage filling from the butcher – before it is made into sausages. She then slices green apples which she fries in the sausage fat remaining in the pan, and piles them on a plate with the patties to serve.
How lovely it is to see Nancie, one of the doyens of Southern pies, make her own blackberry pie just for me (well, us…). She has the pastry for her pie crust ready. One rolled piece is placed in the bottom of the pie dish, and she then piles in loads of fresh blackberries, a sprinkle of sugar , flour and a few slices of butter. The top pastry sheet is placed over the mound of fruit and she seals and trims the edges, pressing them down with a fork. She pricks holes in the top and it is ready to go. It’s gorgeous. The pie needs to bake for a good hour as there is no blind baking. The bottom crust needs to cook through, as does the pile of fruit. The message I am clearly given is to bake your pies for longer than you think necessary!
The ‘candied yam’ dish is a simple one. It is my job (useful at last) to peel the parboiled orange sweet potatoes. Nancie tells me to slice them thickly and she layers them in a baking dish with white sugar and butter. They also go into the oven. Mouth watering already.
The dried pinto beans have been soaked overnight and they are boiling away with a ham hock. Man there is a lot going on in this kitchen today. It’s quite a hectic job to photograph, take notes, pay attention, chat , have all my questions answered and of course taste absolutely everything…
Nancie is busy with her old-fashioned egg beaters (takes me back to my childhood omelette days) making the persimmon pudding, which is now in line for oven space. Persimmon is not something I have ever seen in a dessert – in fact it is one of those fruits I have no idea what to do with – and this looks very interesting.
It is now Beth’s turn for the kitchen stage.
She is making ‘shrimp and grits’ and a super quick corn bread. And I am in heaven.
She is whipping up the cornbread so fast, in the middle of the now-near-crazy kitchen, that I pretty much miss it all. Perhaps I am too busy stuffing another biscuit into my mouth. I do notice that she mixes her cornmeal and mixture in one bowl, and spoons it into a preheated (to very hot) cast iron pan to bake in a very hot oven. I think I need 3 days with these gals, not 3 hours.
The grits (stone ground cornmeal) are cooked (polenta-like) in the shrimp stock, stirring until the liquid is absorbed and the grits are cooked through. The shrimp are cooked separately in bacon fat and served on top.
Suddenly, the whirlwind cook-a-thon is over. We carry dish after dish to the dining room and sit down to a feast. And what a feast. I think there is enough food for an army. And seriously delicious food at that! Jill’s husband Tim fits right in with all the girls and we have a truly delightful evening. Esther (a late arrival straight from Australia) and Nancie’s husband Will (also a late arrival straight from parenting duties), also make their way through each and every dish.
I can’t thank Jill enough for planting the seed for this wonderful idea, and Nancie for her TOTALLY INCREDIBLE and genuine Southern hospitality. Thanks also to Sandra and Beth for sharing their secrets with me, and to Barbara for sharing her interesting wines.
I am happy to say that I feel right at home, even on this blind date. I have all my new cookbooks from each of these wonderful gals, and jars of Jill’s jelly. My ‘Coke bottle’ of slivovitz is long gone.
I’m pleased that Nancie has enough delicious food to last until the end of the month. At least. And we’ll all have to all make do with mere virtual cook-a-thons on twitter – until next time.