Published Sep/Oct 2006

Dig into these regional dishes that offer travelers a little bit of home in every delicious bite.

WWhy is it when we crave comfort foods we don’t want carrots and celery sticks? High-calorie comfort foods usually contain plenty of carbohydrates–including sugar–and those ingredients are best at unlocking the endorphins that make us feel so much better.

When it comes to comfort food, no area of the country offers up a cornucopia of goodies bigger than the South. Cornbread, hushpuppies, mashed potatoes, biscuits and gravy, grits, barbeque, pecan pie, cole slaw, peach cobbler, Moon Pies, fried pies, sweet tea–the list goes on.

“The South is one of the few regions of the country that has separate indigenous cooking, and it’s extraordinarily flavorful,” said Nathalie Dupree, television cooking show hostess and author of 10 books on Southern cooking.

Throughout the South, various influences came into play in the kitchen. Foods from England, France and Native America mixed with flavors slaves brought from the Caribbean and Africa.

“Comfort food is really what it is–just really good, Southern home cooking,” said Dupree, a Charleston, S.C., resident who lived in Mississippi. “It’s the kind of food you dream about when you’re away from home late at night or you’re tired and hungry.”

While many foods are common across the South, some are unique to individual states. Try these Southern comfort foods on your next getaway.

Arkansas Eats

As the country’s No. 1 chicken producer, it’s no surprise this bird is popular in The Natural State.

“Everybody here loves chicken,” said Tameka Smith, co-manager of Dixie Café on Rebsamen Park Road in Little Rock (www.dixiecafe.com). “We eat a lot of chicken here, and we serve a lot of chicken. We have fried chicken, chicken tenders, baked chicken, broiled chicken, chicken period. You can boil it, you can bake it, you can fry it, you can barbeque it. Chicken is like the most popular food in Arkansas.”

There are 18 locations of the Dixie Café in Arkansas and Tennessee, including four in the Little Rock area alone. They serve such specialties as chicken fried chicken, Cajun catfish fillets and fried pickles.

Arkansas also produces plenty of tomatoes, so while in Arkansas, try a plate of fried green tomatoes, that unusual dish found only in the South.

“They don’t serve it here (at the restaurant) but when we have green tomatoes at my house, we eat them all the time,” Smith said. “We’ll flash-fry them just to make a side dish. In my house, they’re real popular.”

Don’t even think of frying red tomatoes, she said. “They don’t taste as good,” Smith said, adding the hard, green tomatoes were made for the frying pan.

Mississippi catfish

In the 1980’s many cotton growers turned to farming catfish, eventually propelling Mississippi to the top producer of farmed catfish in the country.

While catfish can be cooked many different ways–a Mississippi restaurant serves it over a Caesar salad–fried catfish probably is the most popular, and is often paired with hushpuppies, another specialty of the South.

Legend has it hushpuppies got their name from cooks in fish camps who fried the cornmeal batter used for the catfish and tossed the cornmeal to nearby baying dogs. Today, hushpuppy batter is often spiked with onions, peppers or jalapenos.

Catfish and hushpuppies are so much a part of the state that when relocated Mississippians gather each year for a picnic in New York’s Central Park, catfish and hushpuppies are served.

Louisiana gumbo

Lynn Boutin, owner of Boutin’s Restaurant (8322 Bluebonnet Blvd.) in Baton Rouge, said gumbo is so much a part of Louisiana that one of the questions a Louisiana mother would ask a son about his wife is, “Does she know how to make a roux?”

Roux is the base for gumbo, to which the “holy trinity” of onions, bell peppers and celery are added, along with stock, okra, seasoning and just about any kind of meat, Boutin said. If using fresh sausage or dark meat, add them earlier to the pot because these meats will take longer to cook, he added.

“But don’t add the rice until you actually go to eat the meal so you can make a big batch of gumbo and freeze some for use later,” Boutin said.

Dessert for your gumbo might be pralines–a delectable confection of sugar, butter and pecans–that has its origins in France but has become a New Orleans tradition.

Oklahoma steak

Oklahomans saw millions of head of cattle come through their state in the late 1800s. Maybe that’s why beef tops the list of comforting food here, and chicken-fried steak scores high with Oklahomans.

This dish is comprised of steak, pounded, floured and fried like chicken. It’s almost always served under a canopy of white gravy, said Patti York, a Duncan, Okla., caterer. It’s a dish people in other parts of the country don’t understand.

“My husband went to school in New York, and he kept asking for chicken-fried steak,” she said. “They just thought he was crazy. They thought it was chicken, but it’s definitely beef.”

Another Sooner State favorite is okra, first doused in a batter and fried.

“It’s just the way it’s always been prepared in this area,” York said. “It’s mighty good.”

But not everyone shares her opinion about okra. When York visited her daughter and new son-in-law in Seattle, she learned he hadn’t tried fried okra. York made a batch.

“He just thought it was horrible, but it’s a favorite down here for sure,” she said. “There isn’t anything better than fried okra–except fried eggplant.”

Cool Texas chili

Texas has no shortage of exciting food choices, but barbeque is top on the list. After all, the cattle trade helped build this state. And whether it’s steaks, ribs or brisket, barbeque is a way of life in the Lone Star state.

On the other hand, chili is the state dish of Texas, and there are those who claim the dish was invented there. The late Texas journalist, Frank X. Tolbert, documented its history in “A Bowl of Red,” his 1962 ode to this legendary part of Texas cuisine. He later founded the Chili Appreciation Society International, which will host the 40th annual Terlingua International Championship Chili Cookoff Nov. 2–4.

Tolbert’s daughter, Kathleen Tolbert Ryan, and her husband recently reopened Tolbert’s Restaurant, once a Dallas bastion, in nearby Grapevine (423 S. Main St.) just north of Dallas where they continue to dish out the famous bowl of red, chili con carne.

“We make it with real good meat and spice and no beans,” Ryan said.

Texans love their chili and eat it year-round. “Today I ate lunch, but then I ate chili later on,” Ryan said.

Kathie Sutin is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.

Above, title Lynn Boutin serves gumbo at his restaurant, Boutin’s, in Baton Rouge.
©2006 Charley Fisher/Golden Paws Photography

Above: Chicken fried steak is an Oklahoma staple. National Cattlemen’s Beef Association

Below: Chili is the official Texas dish. Texas Beef Council photo

Before You Go
Before your trip, stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides, which contain numerous restaurant listings. Visit www.aaa.com for a list of offices.
For more information, contact:
• Arkansas Parks and Tourism, 1-800-NATURAL, (800-628-8725), www.arkansas.com;
• Mississippi Development Authority/Tourism Division, 1-866-SEEMISS (866-733-6477), www.visitmississippi.org;
• Louisiana Office of Tourism,
1-800-766-3775, www.louisianatravel .com;
• Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department, 1-800-652-6552, www.travelok.com;
• Texas Economic Development and Tourism, 1-800-888-8TEX (888-8839), www.TravelTex.com.

Stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks and TourBook guides. View a list of offices.

Order free information through the Reader Service Card online. Click on Reader Resources.


Fried Green Tomatoes
From Cotham’s Mercantile, Scott, Ark.

Green tomatoes (if the tomatoes are starting to turn, they will not work), sliced 1/8 inch thick

Seasoned cornmeal or Cotham’s Catfish Seasoniing

Oil for frying

Ice water

Soak tomato slices in ice water for 5 minutes. Heat skillet or deep-fry to 350 degrees. Take tomato slices out of the water and coat in seasoned cornmeal. Place in skillet or deep-fry for 8 minutes, turning once. Place on paper towel to drain grease and serve with favorite dressing. Cotham’s serves with ranch dressing.

Cotham’s Mercantile photo

Touchdown Beef Chili
From Texas Beef Council

Makes 8-10 services
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 1 1/2 hours

2 1/2 pounds boneless beef chuck or round, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 cans (15 1/2 ounces each) black beans, rinsed and drained
1 can (15 1/2-ounce) chili-style tomato sauce with diced tomatoes
1 medium onion, chopped
2 teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 cup prepared thick-and-chunky-style salsa

Combine all ingredients except salsa in Dutch oven. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover tightly and simmer 1 1/4t o 1 1/2 hours or until beef is fork-tender. Just before serving, stir in salsa and heat thoroughly.

Bob Plager’s Pools Brew Chili
From www.abowlofred.com

Makes 4 “Texas-sized” servings

2 pounds chuck roast, trimmed of fat and gristle, cut into small cubes
Vegetable shortening for browning meat
1 (14-ounce) can beef broth
1 (14-ounce) can chicken broth
1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
2 pitted dry-pack prunes
Water if required

Spice Mix #1

1 tablespoon paprika
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
2 teaspoons beef granules
1 teaspoon chicken granules
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon chili powder

Spice Mix #2

2 teaspoons cumin
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons chili powder

Spice Mix #3

1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon cumin
Salt to taste

Brown the meat in a heavy medium-sized pot in a small amount of vegetable shortening over high heat. Drain off excess fat. Add beef and chicken broth, tomato sauce, prunes and Spice Mix #1. Bring to a boil, lower heat, cover the pot and cook approximately 2 hours, or until meat is tender.

Remove prunes and add water if necessary. Thirty minutes before serving, add Spice Mixture #2 and cook over low heat. Fifteen minutes before serving, add Spice Mixture #3 and continue cooking over low heat. Salt the chili to taste and serve hot.

Southern-fried Catfish
From the Catfish Institute

Makes 4 servings

1 1/2 pounds (4 fillets) U.S. farm-raised catfish
1/2 cup milk or buttermilk
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper

Heat to 350 degrees two inches of vegetable oil (enough to cover the fish) in a large, heavy skillet.

Shake off excess coating before frying, adding a few fillets at a time. Cook until golden (opaque on the inside)–about 6 to 8 minutes. Drain on paper towels.

To pan fry: In a large, heavy skillet, heat 2 tablespoons vegetable oil over medium-high heat. Add a few fillets at a time, cook until golden and opaque in the center, about 9 to 10 minutes. Turn halfway through cooking.

To oven fry: Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Coat a large baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray. Arrange the breaded catfish fillets, flat sides down, on the sheet. Moisten coated fillets with nonstick cooking spray.

Bake in the upper third of the oven until the fish is pale golden and opaque in the center, about 15 minutes, turning halfway through.

Southern Cornmeal-crusted Catfish
From the Catfish Institute

Makes 4 servings

4 (6-ounces each) U.S. farm-raised catfish fillets
1/4 cup buttermilk or plain nonfat yogurt
1/2 teaspoon hot sauce
1/2 cup cornmeal
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Stir together milk or yogurt with hot sauce. Brush on catfish and marinate for 10 minutes. Coat catfish lightly with cornmeal and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Melt butter and oil in non-stick skillet over medium heat. When pan is hot, sauté catfish about three minutes on each side, turning once, until golden.

Grilled Catfish
From the Catfish Institute

Makes 4 servings

1 1/2 pounds (4 fillets) U.S. farm-raised catfish

Flavor with or marinate in or top cooked fish with
Citrus juice barbecue sauce chopped onion, olives
Red & black pepper salad dressing tomato, sweet red peppers
cilantro, parsley
Cilantro teriyaki sauce toasted nuts
Oregano, dill  mayonnaise/lemon capers or pesto

Before cooking, moisten fillets with nonstick cooking spray.

Heat the grill until medium hot. On an oiled or sprayed rack, place the seasoned fillets flat sides down. Cook 4 inches from the heat until opaque, 6 to 8 minutes. Turn once.

Country-fried Steaks with Spicy Blue Cheese Sauce
From the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association/Beef Checkoff

Makes 4 servings

4 beef round (sirloin) tip side steaks, cut 3/4-inch thick (7 ounces)
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 egg, beaten
1 tablespoon water
1/2 cup unseasoned dry bread crumbs
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil

For sauce:

1/2 cup refrigerated prepared blue cheese dressing
1/4 cup dairy sour cream
1 teaspoon green hot pepper sauce

Combine flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper in shallow dish. Whisk egg and water together in shallow bowl until blended. Combine bread crumbs, 1/4 teaspoon salt, garlic powder and red pepper in separate shallow dish.

Cut steaks into a total of 4 serving-size pieces. Place between sheets of waxed paper and pound into 1/4-inch thickness. Dip each steak in flour mixture to coat both sides lightly; shake off excess. Dip in egg mixture, then in bread crumbs to coat.

Heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil in large nonstick skillet over medium heat until hot. Place 2 steaks in skillet and cook 5 minutes or until coating is crisp and golden, and beef is medium rare, turning once. (Do not overcook). Remove steaks, keep warm. Repeat with remaining oil, if needed, and steaks.

Combine sauce ingredients in small bowl and serve with steaks.

Country-fried Steaks with Tomato-basil Sauce
From the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association/Beef Checkoff

Prep and cook: 30 minutes
Makes 4 servings

4 beef cubed steaks (4 ounces each)
1 egg
1 tablespoon water
1/2 cup seasoned bread crumbs
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 can (14.5-ounces) diced tomatoes with herbs
Shredded Parmesan cheese

Beat egg and water in shallow dish until blended. Place bread crumbs in second shallow dish. Dip each steak into egg mixture, then into bread crumbs, turning to coat both sides.

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in large nonstick skillet over medium to medium-high heat until hot. Place 2 steaks in skillet. Cook 5 to 6 minutes or until cooked through, turning once. Remove and keep warm. Repeat with remaining oil and steaks.

Add diced tomatoes to same skillet, cook and stir well 2 to 3 minutes or until slightly thickened. Serve steaks with tomatoes. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese to serve.

Country-fried Steak
From the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association/Beef Checkoff

Prep and cook: 20 minutes
Makes 4 servings

4 beef cubed steaks (4 ounces each)
2 egg whites
2 tablespoons low-fat milk
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup dry bread crumbs
1 tablespoon cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
Topping: 1/2 cup prepared salsa, 1/2 cup nonfat plain yogurt

Beat egg whites and milk in a medium bowl until blended. In a shallow dish, combine bread crumbs, cornmeal, chili powder, salt and pepper. Dip each steak into the egg white mixture then crumb mixture to coat both sides.

Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium to medium-high heat until hot. Place steaks in skillet and cook 5 to 6 minutes, turning once. Serve with the salsa and yogurt.

Southern Hush Puppies
From Noah New, regional chef, Hardin’s Sysco

1 1/2 cups white cornmeal
1/2 cup sifted all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning
3/4 cup minced onion
1/4 cup minced Jalapeno peppers
1/2 cup whole-kernel corn
3/4 cup to 1 cup buttermilk
1 large egg, beaten
1/4 cup oil or shortening (hot)

Mix first 9 ingredients. Stir in enough buttermilk to make a very thick batter. Stir in beaten egg and mix well.

Drop by teaspoon into deep hot oil. Batter will go to the bottom and brown on other side. Hush puppy should be the size of a golf ball or a little smaller. Drain on paper towels.

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