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Many Southern dishes were created with frugal ingenuity

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By Staff Brunswick Beacon

Southern food is home cooking, comfort food, Creole, Cajun, Carolina low country, soul food and Tex-Mex. It includes an abundance of fresh vegetables, rice or corn, inexpensive cuts of meat (usually pork or chicken) and fresh seafood.

Popular Southern dishes include barbeque, country fried steak, catfish, smothered pork chops, black-eyed peas, grits, biscuits and gravy, fried green tomatoes, collard greens, okra and sweet potatoes. And no Southern meal is complete without libations, especially sweet iced tea and mint juleps.

Big country breakfasts of eggs, biscuits and gravy, sausage and grits, and supper plates of country fried steak, corn bread and collard greens provided farmers with the fuel to work in the scorching heat and humidity of the South. But these meals were not just nourishing: they were also economical.

Thoughts of the pre-Civil War South may evoke images of sprawling plantations, but in reality, most Southerners were subsistence farmers who relied upon their own harvests to feed their families. Many Southern dishes were created out of necessity and frugal ingenuity. Redeye gravy, for example, is made with pan drippings and leftover coffee.

Key lime pie is another such dish. With very few cows in the Florida Keys, fresh milk was not readily available for pie baking. When sweetened condensed milk was introduced in 1856, it was natural to combine it with Key limes, creating the South Florida favorite.

Fresh fruit cobblers and pies are popular Southern desserts, the most famous of which include Florida’s Key lime pie and Georgia’s pecan pie. Pecans are a key ingredient in many Southern dishes, from New Orleans pralines to Mississippi catfish.

Southern Fried Catfish

4 (4 oz.) catfish fillets

2 cups buttermilk

1 cup yellow cornmeal

1/2 Tbsp. onion salt

1 Tbsp. steak seasoning

1/4 cup vegetable oil

In a medium bowl, place catfish fillets in buttermilk. Cover, and marinate in the refrigerator 45 minutes. In a resealable plastic bag, mix cornmeal, onion salt and steak seasoning. One at a time, drain catfish fillets and place in the bag to coat with the cornmeal mixture.

Heat oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Fry each fillet 7-10 minutes per side, or until exterior is lightly browned and flesh is easily flaked with a fork. Drain on paper towels.

Hush Puppies

2 eggs, beaten

1/4 cup milk

1/2 cup white sugar

1 large onion, diced

1 cup self-rising flour

1 cup self-rising cornmeal

1 qt. oil for frying

In a medium bowl, mix together eggs, sugar and onion. Blend in flour and cornmeal.

Heat 2 inches of oil to 365 degrees (or use a deep fryer). Drop batter by rounded teaspoonfuls in hot oil and fry until golden brown; turn over to brown both sides. Cook in small batches to maintain oil temperature. Drain briefly on paper towels. Serve hot. Makes 24 hush puppies.

Shrimp and Okra Gumbo

2 pounds medium shrimp, peeled and deveined

Salt and pepper to taste

1/2 cup olive oil

2 lbs. chopped okra

1 Tbsp. tomato paste

1 tomato, chopped

1 cup chopped onion

4 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 cup chopped celery

1/2 cup chopped green bell pepper

1/2 cup chopped green onions

8 cups water

1 tsp. each of thyme, basil, oregano

3 Tbsps. Old Bay seasoning

3 Tbsps. Cajun seasoning

Season the shrimp with salt, pepper and some Old Bay to taste and set aside. Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the okra and saute for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the remaining ingredients, except green onions, and saute for 15 more minutes.

Add the water and season to taste. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer for 45 minutes. Add the shrimp and simmer for 20 more minutes. Finally, add the green onion to the soup and stir thoroughly.

Note: Try adding crabmeat to this hearty soup as well. Serve over rice with crusty French bread. Garnish with fresh parsley.

Country Fried Steak with Gravy

4 (4 oz.) cube steaks

1/2 tsp. salt, divided

2 tsps. ground black pepper, divided

1 cup all-purpose flour

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1/4 cup cooking oil

2 cups milk

Season meat with 1/4 teaspoon of the salt and 1/4 teaspoon of the pepper; set aside. In a shallow dish, mix flour with 1 teaspoon of the pepper. Dredge each steak in flour. Dip in beaten egg, and then dredge in flour again.

Heat oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Fry steaks 3 to 4 minutes on each side, or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels.

Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat. Sprinkle 4 tablespoons of the dredging flour into oil. Cook over medium heat for 1 minute, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of skillet. Gradually whisk in milk. Cook, stirring frequently, 3 to 4 minutes, or until thickened and bubbly. Add additional salt and pepper; gravy should be quite peppery. Makes 4 servings.

Easy Key Lime Pie

4 egg yolks, beaten

2 (14 oz.) cans sweetened condensed milk

1 cup key lime juice

1 (9-inch) prepared graham cracker crust

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine the egg yolks, sweetened condensed milk and limejuice; mix well. Pour into graham cracker shell. Bake for 25 minutes; allow to cool for 10 minutes before refrigerating. Top with whipped topping and garnish with lime slices, if desired.

Norm Harding is a cooking columnist for the Beacon. To send him recipes, e-mail him at nharding@brunswickbeacon.com.