Southern food is now in vogue, with connoisseurs boasting of BBQ experiences and hipsters being well-versed in heritage this or that, but when it comes down to it, Southern cooking is about eating what you cultivate and using what you may have on hand. My boyfriend tells a story of how one of his grandmothers in North Georgia was given a groundhog and cooked it slow and low until it tasted better than roast beef. Years later, he tried to replicate that culinary experience and completely failed.
Thank goodness, because it might have been a deal-breaker if he had served me groundhog on an early date. By contrast, I grew up in New Jersey eating Italian food. Indeed, on an early date, I served my boyfriend ravioli in homemade tomato gravy with meatballs made according to my grandma’s recipe. Honestly, I had heard so much lore and praise of my boyfriend’s family cooking of real Southern food, I was too intimidated to try my hand at these traditions. After all, I was told my boyfriend’s grandmother made the best biscuits ever. I stuck with my knitting and kept cooking Italian food or experimenting with other cuisines. Last week, we visited his family in Georgia and our first stop was with a treasured cousin.
She prepared quite a spread: collard greens, creamed corn, lima beans, and, instead of ribs, a London broil. (The butcher recommended the beef when ribs weren’t available.) She also baked cracklings cornbread, which I hadn’t had before. My boyfriend was in seventh heaven. The two cousins spoke of their grandmother’s cooking and their family memories. He remarked that we (he and I) should start a Veggie Sunday, on which we would cook such vegetables for the week. I loved the idea of us cooking together. Upon our return to Texas, I bought all the ingredients to make Veggie Sunday happen. That morning, I woke up early, sipped coffee and mapped out the order of the recipes. My boyfriend announced which errands he planned to undertake. It dawned on me that I was going to cook all this Southern food. Thank goodness for the internet, and especially, Taste of the South Magazine, and The Southern Lady Cooks, for their creamed corn and lima bean recipes, respectively. For the cornbread, I skipped the cracklins and went with the basic recipe on the back of the cornmeal bag. But, this is no ordinary cornmeal. We bought it in Helen, Georgia, at a real grist mill. Thank you, Nora Mill Granary for the fantastic cornmeal and the recipe. This is the best cornbread I have ever had.
For the collard greens, I followed our Georgia hostess’ advice and put them in the slow cooker for more than four hours. To get them started, I cooked pancetta in a Dutch oven until crispy and then wilted the collard greens in the Dutch oven for a few minutes. (OK, OK, pancetta is Italian, but it is bacon.) For the meat, I marinated chicken breasts in the last of some truffle oil and Meyer lemon juice. My boyfriend pitched in by grilling the chicken to perfection. We pulled up to the table and looked at the spread before us: cornbread, chicken, creamed corn with squash, collard greens, lima beans with ham (also slow cooked) as well as a cucumber and radish salad and picked carrots. My boyfriend tasted everything and pronounced that it was outstanding. Veggie Sunday, Mission Accomplished.