Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Grits, Greens, and Grumblings about Bagels: Southern Boiled Dinner 2/22/11

The inspiration for this recipe came from my mother’s preparation of corned beef and cabbage, and Paula Deen's recipe for collard greens.  I am calling it Inspiration Nation Southern Boiled Dinner, and rest assured there is neither corned beef nor collards involved.

Corned beef and cabbage was one of those dishes I always thought of as part of Jewish cuisine.  Later on, I learned that different cultures claimed it as their own, notably the Irish and New Englanders.  There is probably some crossover there, but I’m neither a food historian nor a food anthropologist, nor do I play one on TV.  My mother’s preparation was utter simplicity, and always delicious.  She cooked a corned beef brisket in a large pot of water, bringing it to a boil and then lowering the heat for a long simmer.  When the beef was done, she took it out to rest before slicing, and added wedges of crisp green cabbage, and large peeled and halved potatoes to the cooking liquid, boiling them till beyond done.  While my younger brother and father chowed down on thick slices of corned beef, my mother and I based our feast on the cabbage and potatoes and lots of French’s yellow mustard.  The cabbage was wonderfully limp and the potatoes were mealy perfection, and both were thoroughly infused with the flavor imparted to the cooking liquid by the corned beef brisket.  Later on, I was exposed to the heresy of cooking the vegetables in fresh water, thus avoiding the salt and fats from the meat.  Potatoes are pretty good no matter how they are prepared, but plain boiled cabbage is a tasteless mass of unattractive vegetation.  One might just as well chew on algae fresh out of the ocean.  I stuck to my guns and ate the good stuff.  My blood pressure stayed low while my cholesterol made a graceful upward sweep into numbers that caused my doctor to consider early retirement.  Anyway, it wasn’t the corned beef, it was genetics.

Fast forward forty years and I’m living in the undiscovered country, at least as far as food is concerned.  It is true that Florida is the most “northern” of the southern states, but that does not change the fact of regional food differences.  Without going into my eternal harangue about not being able to get a real New York bagel or a decent slice of pizza in the entire state of Florida, I do have a few comments to make regarding southern food and ingredients.  Like what is the big deal about grits?  Why don’t the 7-Elevens in Florida carry buttered rolls?  Are crawfish really miniature lobsters?  Why can’t I find any bluefish?

Incidentally, my favorite description of grits comes from a novel written by Susan Isaacs called “Compromising Positions.”  In one scene, the heroine, Judith Singer, is admonishing her BFF, Nancy Miller, about replacing her wine intake with something substantial.  “Grits,” she tells her southern-born friend, “you could eat grits.”  To which Nancy replies, “grits taste like ground-up horsesh*t.”  Since my move south almost twenty years ago, I have tried grits and can report with a straight face and complete sincerity that Nancy Miller was absolutely correct.

One southern favorite that I have come to love is greens.  Collard greens and turnip greens are both delicious, and I like them prepared the old-fashioned way - boiled within an inch of their lives in the cooking liquid from ham hocks or smoked turkey wings.  My other southern favorite is real barbecue, prepared over wood, low and slow.  Almost makes up for the bagels and pizza. 

It all comes down to technique.  The same technique - cooking the meat in liquid, in effect harnessing the essence of the meat, and sharing that flavor with vegetables and starches to make an extremely tasty dish - is responsible for delectable corned beef and cabbage, Jewish chicken soup, and southern collard greens.  And it works really well in this southern boiled dinner which relies on pork rather than beef as it's main ingredient.

For this dish, rather than start with just water, which would have worked perfectly well, I mostly followed the recipe I use for collard greens, adding a whole lot of flavor to the "pot likker."  The meat is a beautiful smoked pork shoulder, also called a pork butt, more reasonably priced than a corned beef brisket, and with a lot less shrinkage.  Instead of cabbage I use fresh brussel sprouts and the big mealy potatoes of my youth are substituted by tiny new potatoes.  When I can get them, I like to use a bag with mixed colors - white, yellow, purple and red skin.  It all comes together for a beautiful dish.  The recipe can be found here.

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