Southern food traditions have the menu covered from Thanksgiving through New Year's Day.
Celebrating the holidays in the South always will involve gathering friends and family around tables laden with wonderful food. In time for the holidays, I visited with a home-taught cook, a trained chef/instructor, and a New Orleans radio talk show host to dish about Southern food traditions. You might want to grab a napkin; your mouth is watering.
Pie, oh my
Like most good cooks, Charlotte Bowls learned from other good cooks. For 22 years, Bowls has owned and operated Charlotte's Eats and Sweets, 290 Main St., in Keo, a tiny town of about 200 people whose history is steeped in cotton plantations. The little café is inside a former apothecary shop.
Central Arkansas folk know Charlotte's Eats and Sweets offers tasty home-cooked meals, but the cakes and pies are the real draw here.
She opens the kitchen each day at 6 a.m. to start baking and preparing the luncheon items. On any Saturday, she will bake at least 30 pies, including seasonal fruit, caramel, or her signature coconut cream that's crowned with a tall, golden meringue. Bowls said she has two ovens that bake up to five pies at a time.
She learned all about pies from Norma Morris of England, Ark., whom Bowls calls “a wonderful pie maker.”
During the holidays, Bowls' pie-making routine really ramps up to keep up with preorder demand. She'll bake 150 pies in a day to fill orders. In addition to the coconut cream, she'll offer favorites like pumpkin, sweet potato, and pecan.
“I do a lot of pecan,” Bowls said.
Her grove of about 700 trees is the source of pecans, which go into Bowls' pies, cakes, and homemade chicken salad. Keo and nearby Scott in central Arkansas are noted for pecan groves.
Her recipe for pecan pie is pretty simple, according to Bowls.
“I just follow the Karo® recipe,” she said with a light laugh. “My customers love it. I love it. I do brown my butter a little to make it taste even nuttier.”
As expected, Bowls also makes all her piecrusts from scratch, following the Crisco® shortening recipe.
“But do not add another speck of flour to it,” she said. “It'll make it tough. Roll the crusts between plastic wrap. And don't stretch it too much.”
For diners who plan to visit Charlotte's Eats and Sweets, hours are from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday–Friday and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. The restaurant is closed Sunday and Monday. If you want to end your lunch with a piece of pie, get to Charlotte's early because when the sweets are gone, they're gone. It's a good idea to put the pie order in with your lunch order.
And before you leave Keo, stop by The Nut House near the end of Main Street, which cracks, packages, and ships Arkansas pecans all over the United States. Cracked pecans are available to purchase.
TASTEBUDS, AWAKE! IT'S RéVEILLON
Nowhere but in New Orleans, La., would families come home in the wee hours of the morning following midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and sit down to a lavish meal; I'd reach for a bowl of cold cereal and plop into bed.
But in the early days of New Orleans–we're talking 18th century–when most of the city was Roman Catholic and the tradition required a 24-hour fast prior to taking communion on Christmas Eve, famished families celebrated afterward with a feast that closely resembled a brunch–eggs, breads, pudding, turtle soup, oysters, and veal. The custom, known as Réveillon (REH-vee-on), is derived from a French word for awakening. However, the food tradition had become extinct by the 1940s.
Thankfully, this great food city reawakened the Réveillon dinners in the late 1980s when the French Quarter Festivals organization approached downtown restaurants with an idea to offer these festive dinners at reduced prices to attract tourists. Now, almost 30 years later, the tradition is flourishing, as more than 40 restaurants in the Quarter–as well as other districts in the city–offer Réveillon dinners from Dec. 1–31.
Tom Fitzmorris, longtime host of “The Food Show” on New Orleans radio 1350 AM and 105.3 FM, said dishes served for Réveillon often are traditional with that special New Orleans twist. Fitzmorris–who may have the best job in the world–said a popular dish for Réveillon is daube glacé, which he described as “beef's answer to hog head cheese” with a bit of a spicy kick. It's served cold with crackers, and you'll find it in homes as well as restaurants.
Other favorites on menus for Réveillon include roast goose, pâtés, pastries, and eggnog.
“And somebody or another will do a Yule log,” he said.
One of Fitzmorris' favorite restaurants for holiday Réveillon is the Pelican Club.
“It's one real standout. They have the best variety, offering eight or nine different entrées and appetizers,” he said. “But the seafood martini–lobster, lump crabmeat and Gulf shrimp served in a martini glass–is irresistible.”
Lavish holiday decorations and reduced prices for three- and four-course dinners make Réveillon a wonderful food tradition.
GOOD LUCK, GOOD FORTUNE
Mississippians celebrate New Year's Eve in many ways; some may choose to have small gatherings of friends and family at home, while others go to hotels for dinner and dancing. Many will welcome New Year's Day with these foods on their tables: cornbread, greens, and Hoppin' John.
Hoppin' John is a dish of black-eyed peas and rice with origins in West Africa, particularly Senegal. Initially served in South Carolina and Georgia, the recipe–and tradition behind it–spread throughout the South. Said to resemble coins, the black-eyed peas symbolize good fortune. Some tradition holds that each person should leave three peas on the plate to ensure luck, fortune, and romance. Other practices involve putting a real coin under the plate.
Greens (the color of money) and cornbread (the golden color representing wealth) are usually added to the New Year's Day menu.
Loren Leflore, kitchen manager and chef/instructor at the Viking Cooking School in Greenwood, Miss., said classes are offered for greens and cornbread. Leflore said she mixes turnip and collard greens to cut down any bitter flavors. She buys greens from the local farmer's market when she can, and always cleans it herself. She soaks the greens in the sink and then rinses with running water after trimming. Leflore renders bacon and then sautés onion and her other vegetables in the fat before setting the greens on the stove to simmer two hours. She stirs in the crisped bacon when serving.
For cornbread–made from scratch–she pours the batter into a hot cast iron skillet. That's what makes the edges brown and crispy.
“It's how my grandmother and great-grandmother did it. I will never make it any other way,” said Leflore.
For Hoppin' John, Leflore uses frozen black-eyed peas to cut down on preparation. She renders bacon and sautés onion and bell pepper. She cooks the peas and rice and tosses in the vegetables, topping the dish with crisped bacon.
A native Mississippian, Leflore has been at Viking Cooking School for six years. She said the popular New Year's Eve dinner class offers a new menu every year. The hands-on class is designed for up to 12 people, and at the end of their work, they have a marvelous meal. The class is available Dec. 26–30, but reservations do fill up quickly.
For those who want to celebrate without the work, The Alluvian Hotel in Greenwood (AAA Four Diamonds) offers a regionally popular New Year's package that combines drinks, dinner, and dancing. Partygoers also can reserve a hotel room for the night.
However you choose to celebrate the holidays this year, may you enjoy great food with family and friends gathered around your table.
Deborah Reinhardt is managing editor of AAA Southern Traveler magazine.
November/December 2015 Issue
With origins in West Africa, Hoppin' John is often served on New Year's Day. The black-eyed peas, said to resemble coins, symbolize good fortune. Some leave three peas on the plate to ensure luck, fortune, and romance.
– Viking Cooking School
A cake of cornbread that emerges from a well-seasoned, searing hot skillet has a crust that no baking pan can produce. For best results, use Southern-style cornmeal and flour, such as Martha White or White Lily.
– Viking Cooking School
Slow-Cooked Southern Greens
Some vegetables should be cooked until they are crisp-tender. Greens are not among them. Good greens must be simmered in flavorful liquid until they are melt-in-your-mouth tender. That will yield perfect, silky greens and plenty of delicious pot likker, the juices from the greens. Many Southerners finish their greens with a generous splash of vinegar, particularly the vinegar that’s spiked with hot peppers.
*If collard greens are unavailable, substitute mustard greens, turnip greens or kale.
Variation: If you wish to substitute ham hocks for the bacon, score 2 smoked ham hocks all over with a small knife. Complete the recipe through Step 3, then place the pot over medium-high heat. Increase the water to 4 cups, and add to the pot along with the scored ham hocks. Simmer until the ham hocks are very tender and falling off the bone, about 2 hours. Continue with Step 4 of the recipe, beginning with “Add the greens in batches…” Before serving, remove the ham hocks from the pot and cut the meat off the bone; dice the meat and add back to the pot of greens. Discard the bones. Smoked turkey necks are another popular choice in the South for imparting flavor to greens; they should be handled in the same manner as the ham hocks but will only take half the amount of time to cook.
Make it ahead: Make the greens up to two days in advance; reheat over medium heat until hot throughout. Make sure you save the pot likker for dipping your cornbread.
Make it light: Omit the bacon and cook the onions in 2 tablespoons of olive or canola oil. Add a teaspoon of liquid smoke for flavor. You may also omit the sugar, if you desire.
Yule Log Cake
Ingredients for cake
Ingredients for rich chocolate frosting
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