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Popular Southern comfort dishes are made with frugal ingenuity

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By Norm Harding, Reporter

Southern comfort food is typically made from inexpensive cuts of meat (most often chicken and/or pork) combined with an abundance of fresh vegetables, rice and corn. It’s known by various names, from Creole, Cajun and Carolina low country to soul food.
Some of the more popular Southern dishes include barbecue (what else?), country fried steak, catfish, shrimp and grits and biscuits and gravy, along with black-eyed peas, fried green tomatoes, collard greens, okra and sweet potatoes. And don’t forget no Southern meal is complete without a large serving of hush puppies and sweet tea.
Frugal ingenuity
Working in the scorching heat and humidity of the South, farmers tended to lean toward big country breakfasts, like eggs, biscuits and gravy, sausage and grits, and the ever-popular country fried steak with corn bread and collard greens. These fuel-powered meals were not only nourishing but they were also economical, relying upon their own harvests to feed their families. When it came to ingenuity, though, the best example was redeye gravy, made with pan drippings and leftover coffee.
Southern desserts
Popular Southern desserts include fresh fruit cobblers and pies, but the most well known are Florida’s key lime pie and Georgia’s pecan pie. Pecans are also used in other popular Southern dishes, from pralines in New Orleans to Mississippi catfish.
Key lime pie became popular when sweetened condensed milk was introduced in 1856, since fresh milk was not readily available in Florida for pie baking. Combined with fresh key limes, the South Florida favorite was created.
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 lightly browned and flesh is easily flaked with a fork. Drain on paper towels. Makes 4 servings.
Hush Puppies
There are many versions of this popular delight. This one is slightly sweet with a dash of minced onion.
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup milk
1/2 cup white sugar
1 large onion, minced
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
Try adding crabmeat to this hearty soup as well. Serve over rice with crusty French bread. Garnish with fresh parsley.
2 lbs. 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 sauté for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the remaining ingredients, except green onions, and sauté 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 onions to the soup and stir thoroughly.
Country Fried                  Steak with Gravy
A Southern staple, this dish uses inexpensive cube steaks cooked slowly in rich, thick peppery gravy.
4 (4 oz.) cube steaks
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup cooking oil
2 cups milk
Season meat with salt and pepper; set aside. In a shallow dish, mix flour with 1 teaspoon of 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 3-4 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, about 3-4 minutes, or until thickened and bubbly. Add additional salt and pepper; gravy should be quite peppery.
Return steaks to the pan, cover with gravy, and cook on low another 10 minutes. 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 lime juice; mix well. Pour into graham cracker shell. Bake for 15 minutes; allow to cool for 10 minutes before refrigerating. Top with whipped topping and garnish with lime slices, if desired.