Monday, September 21, 2009

southern comfort

I love Southern food. Barbecue, collard greens, fried chicken, fruit pies, shrimp and grits--I love it all. So why don't I make this kind of stuff more often? That's a good question. Southern fare is perfect for dinner parties; it's homey, comforting, happy-making food.

I've made all sorts of dishes for dinner parties--risottos, roasted pork loin, short ribs--but there's a certain level of excitement when you tell people they'll be eating macaroni and cheese. And the perfect time to indulge in some mac and cheese is when you have a few other people to help you eat it.

A few Saturdays ago, our friends Colin, Anne, and Chris joined us for dinner. I debated a lot over which direction to take this meal. I considered making fried chicken, but worried it would be too messy. Chicken-fried steak? No. Some sort of homey casserole? Nah. And then I thought about macaroni and cheese, something I could cook while everyone ate some appetizers, something I hardly ever make. And then the rest of the meal fell in place. Sauteed kale and black eyed peas with bacon would provide a nice vegetable counterpart to the cheesy pasta. A simple tomato salad would also be a nice seasonal side. We'd have deviled eggs to start and a fried chicken liver crostini I'd had my eye on for awhile.

And you know what? This menu was really, really good. It was filling, but not a total gut bomb. It was highly caloric, but the cheese and fried livers and eggs were slightly countered with fresh vegetables. In my mind, successful meals are all about harmony and balance.

Sure, this isn't something I'd make every night--my cholesterol is already high enough. But if you're looking for an inexpensive menu that will definitely make everyone full and happy, break out the mac and cheese. And bacon. And uh, deviled eggs.

Between his new album and amazing 9-11 concert, Dan and I have been on a Jay-Z kick lately. So we all listened to some Hova as we ate, which led to a discussion about rap music, and homophobia and misogyny in the music industry. Let me tell you, Kanye West is a polarizing figure, even before his latest kerfuffle at the VMAs. All serious stuff, until I threw a diamond sign during "Death of Autotune" and knocked over my plate, macaroni bits scattering all over the rug. It was the sort of slow-motion spill that stopped conversation and held everyone's attention for what felt like minutes.

And then we laughed and had more beers and lemon bars. Knocking food on the floor always seems to lighten the mood.

Southern supper for five
Deviled eggs
Fried chicken livers with pepper jelly on toast
Macaroni and cheese
Kale and black eyed peas with bacon
Tomato salad
Lemon bars

Easy baked macaroni and cheese
From The New York Times, via Smitten Kitchen. I followed this recipe pretty closely, save for replacing a cup of milk with a cup of buttermilk, just because I had some on hand. It was pretty subtle, but I think it added a little extra tang and richness. This recipe really was easy, as promised.
(Serves 6 to 8)

2 Tbsp. butter
1 cup cottage cheese (not low fat)
2 cups whole or 2 % milk (or, 1 cup milk, 1 cup buttermilk)
1 tsp. dry mustard
Pinch cayenne
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1 lb. sharp or extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1/2 lb. elbow pasta, uncooked.

Heat oven to 375 degrees and position an oven rack in upper third of oven. Use one tablespoon butter to grease a 9-inch round or square baking pan.

In a blender, purée cottage cheese, 1 cup milk, mustard, cayenne, nutmeg and salt and pepper together until smooth. Add in the second cup of milk (or buttermilk) and blend until combined. Reserve 1/4 cup grated cheese for topping. In a large bowl, combine remaining grated cheese, milk mixture and uncooked pasta. Pour into prepared pan, cover tightly with foil and bake 30 minutes.

Uncover pan, stir gently, sprinkle with reserved cheese and dot with remaining tablespoon butter. Bake, uncovered, 30 minutes more, until browned. Let cool at least 15 minutes before serving.

Kale and black eyed peas with bacon
If you don't like kale, you could use any leafy green like chard, or of course, collards. You could also omit the bacon, but it lends a nice smokiness (as well as a nice porkiness).
(serves 6 to 8)

3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 onion, sliced thinly
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 jalapeno, minced
6 strips bacon, cut into small pieces (about 1/4-inch)
2 large heads of kale, washed and leaves removed from the stems
1 cup of water
2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 can black eyed peas, drained and rinsed
salt and pepper to taste

In a large stockpot, heat your oil over medium-high heat until it starts to shimmer. Add the onion and saute until it softens, but before it turns brown. Add the garlic and jalapeno, and saute for a minute more. Add the bacon and saute until it browns. Add the kale and the water, stirring as much as possible to incorporate. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cover the pot, stirring occasionally to help the kale wilt. After the kale is wilted and cooked down, add the vinegar and the beans. Keep cooking on low heat until the kale is tender, about 10 to 15 minutes more. Add salt and pepper to taste and more vinegar if needed.


Unknown said...

Being from the south but living overseas, this makes me miss home somethin' fierce.

Southern food is making it in my menu this week. Thanks for the reminder :)

Colin P. Delaney said...

As a person who had a chance to eat said meal, let me just say that Lisa is to home cooking what Jay-Z is to Hip-Hop.

Unknown said...

The Kale and black eyed peas look good. I made a black eyed pea-kimchi dish this week and loved it. I think I want to use more black eyed peas. I'll have to try your recipe with veggie bacon later this week.

Lisa said...

Nikkilooch: You should make some! It's amazing how food can transport you to another place.

CPD: Holla!

Tender Branson: Hello! I think this could totally work without any bacon, veggie or otherwise.

figtree said...

What a feast!!! I want an invite!!!! Figtreeapps

Maggie said...

Yum. I love mac and cheese for a dinner party, too. Just hits the right tone, and you get to have some without eating the whole pan. Love the addition of buttermilk!
Am curious about the chicken livers too.

Lisa said...

Figtree: Thank you!

Maggie: Hi! The buttermilk was a total experiment, but it worked really well! Chicken liver recipe coming next week...

Daniel said...

Colin, you are the Jay-Z of breakfast tomatoes.

Lisa said...

Colin's got 99 problems but a caprese ain't one.

Ellen said...

What lucky dinner guests—this meal looks amazing!!! "Gut bomb" that term, I might have to steal it :)

Megan and Butch! said...

Lisa: best comment ever (to Colin). Also, any menu that includes smoked pork, blackeyed peas and greens is a go in my book.

Lisa said...

Ellen: Steal away! ;)

Megan: This is why your wedding menu was so awesome. Wish I could make this dinner for you guys. Miss you lots.


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