Category Archives: Appalachian

Dry-curing bacon for seasoning meat

As I mentioned in the Basics: Greens post ages ago, another food item I’ve missed being readily able to buy is dry-cured seasoning meat with the kind of cure I want. (Not usually so crazy about fatback.) You can find lots of bacon and other cured pork products here, both British and imported, but the cure is still just not quite what I’m looking for. (Still, better availability than in most of the US, with pretty good dry-cured bacon and pancetta in most supermarkets.) And a chunk of cured meat is better to throw in to season vegetables than bacon that’s been sliced thin for frying, to my taste.

Old Waynesboro brand side meat, from MillRiverStore.com. I think I’ve actually bought some of that North Carolina brand before. I also didn’t know you could buy boiled peanuts in a can, before looking at that site, but they’re not really a thing back home anyway because peanuts don’t like the mountain climate. Now I’m oddly intrigued.

At any rate, I had never tried curing meat at all before I got cravings for the “right” kind of seasoning meat. 🙂 This was a much less intimidating project than the hams I used to watch my grandfather cure sometimes, with trying to find a balance between not getting it oversalted so that you get crystals in the meat, and making sure you use enough that it doesn’t go bad next to the bone. It’s also less tricky than bacon you’re intending to slice up and fry without soaking, so I have been erring on the side of making it salty and dry.

Before going into my procedure, here is some general information on dry-curing:

A good British step-by-step on dry-curing bacon. Also, the page I linked to earlier on dry-curing hams from Virginia Cooperative Extension, which goes into safety rather a lot.

As they also mention in both, you don’t absolutely need to use nitrates, though they don’t actually seem to be that bad for you after all. Another good one: Home Cured Bacon Without Nitrates. The first batch I made, I didn’t use any, and the flavor was good even if the brownish-greyish color was more than a little offputting. 😉 It did go rancid more quickly without the added nitrate, though the possibility of botulism is no doubt lower if you let it dry longer than is usually a good idea for straight eating bacon. (One of the reasons I’ve been doing that, besides its hopefully keeping longer in general with the lower moisture content.)

One I’ve been meaning to try, tasty as the commercial stuff is: Lap yuk 臘肉 – Chinese dried bacon, which also usually gets used to flavor vegetable dishes and the like. They also have interesting posts on making some other Chinese cured meats there.

Also, for safety, while I’m thinking about it: you might want to use the ready-mixed curing salt intended for bacon. I already have pharmaceutical-grade potassium nitrate (saltpeter) on hand for aquarium plant fertilizing purposes, and feel OK using that–and guesstimating proportions to use by volume, erring on the low side. If you’re concerned about getting it wrong, it’s probably best to use the curing salt. Like with the brine pickles, the chances of making yourself sick are probably very, very low, but I still don’t want to encourage anybody to risk it!

On with the show, such as it is! I’d been meaning to make another batch for a while now, and couldn’t resist picking up a pack of thick-sliced pork belly that I spotted yesterday. Usually, I’d want to use a bigger chunk of meat, but this worked out just fine before. (Inspired to try it by the Chinese bacon approach!)

This was reduced, but it was still very fresh. The store-cut meat from our local Sainsbury’s tends to be good quality, in general.

I still had a little curing mix left from the last attempt, which didn’t turn out so well since even a British summer is not the best weather if you don’t want it going rancid on you while it’s drying. 😐

Please ignore the cluttered wreck which is my counter right now. I decided to pass on the red pepper pesto for this. 😉

But, to that, I added:

  • 100mL/about 0.5 c. sea salt ground up some in a mortar and pestle, for extra flavor. If you’re using regular table salt, it will pack down more and take a little less.
  • 1.5 tablespoon white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon very dark brown sugar (the balance here is totally to taste)
  • about 1/8 teaspoon potassium nitrate
  • A teaspoon fresh, coarsely ground black pepper (it may take more later)

All mixed up and ready to go, in an airtight storage container.

This 2L container takes up a lot of space in our smallish fridge, but you want one that’s big enough to lay the meat flat in a single layer.

Now, just sprinkle some of the cure on with a spoon (you don’t want to keep putting meaty hands back into the container!), and rub it in well. You’ll want to use plenty of it to draw the moisture out. Make sure to get all the crevices, especially if the meat you bought was already slashed on the top fat for crispiness in cooking, like all the pork belly I’ve seen here.

Now, without my hand blocking most of the view.

Just a few minutes later, you can see how much moisture it’s already started to draw out of the meat.

Yep, that’s some very brown sugar.

Now it needs to go in the coldest part of your fridge, usually the bottom.

You’ll want to pull it out once a day for several days, to drain off the brine and salt it again with the curing mix. When it stops leaching out a bunch of moisture, it will be ready to wrap in cloth and hang to dry. No more batches than I’ve made so far, that time will vary quite a bit depending on the moisture in your meat starting out. As much lean as this particular pork belly has, it may take a week of daily draining and salting.

I did consider waiting until it was done and doing a post then, but the last time I tried that it just never got written up. 😉 I will try to do some followups as it progresses.

And once that’s done clunking up the fridge, I may try some corned beef or pork again.

Basics: Gluten-free Appalachian cornbread

A cast iron skillet of cornbread, with a slice removed to show texture

This is a very common version these days, using dairy products and egg. One of my great-grandfathers was a bit of a purist, and insisted it was inedible crap if it contained anything but cornmeal, water, salt, and some grease. (And more than one relative suggested he bake himself some to his specs, then. *g*) I will eventually do a post on the vegan, lactose-free classic Native hot water cornbread, but not today. 🙂 Both types are great, IMO, if very different products.

Ah, cornbread! Let’s just say that it’s enough of a staple that when I was looking at new cast iron skillets, I chose one just about the right fit for the size pone two of us can eat. Really.

You can use some other kind of heavy pan (and I even resorted to using a pie plate before I got a proper skillet here), but the crust needs a surface that retains heat well to develop properly. Otherwise, your bread will be soggy rather than crusty on the bottom and will probably stick to the pan in the middle.

The recipe

Ingredients set out on the counter

  • 3-4 tbsp. butter or bacon grease
  • 1.5 c. (350 mL) fairly coarse cornmeal / polenta
  • 1/2 c. (120 mL) some other gluten-free flour — I used sorghum (juwar), in this case. You can use all cornmeal, which I do sometimes, but the bread will be crumblier. This is just to hold it together better.
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda (sodium bicarbonate)
  • 1 tsp. salt — I used a particularly flavorful sea salt for this batch, but any will do>
  • 1 egg
  • 1 c. (250mL) buttermilk or  plain yogurt — I used half and half, very thick Greek yogurt and milk, since that’s what I had 🙂
  • Enough water or milk to make a fairly thick batter

Preheat the oven to 375°F / 190°C.

Mix your dry ingredients in a bowl, then add the egg and buttermilk. You can either use enough buttermilk to make the batter the right consistency, or make up the difference past a cup (250mL) with water or milk, depending on how tangy and rich you want the bread to be.  Try not to overstir, or it will knock the CO2 out of the batter, and your bread will be heavy. After the batter sits a couple of minutes, it should be about this texture, maybe a bit thinner:

A bowl of batter, being dropped from a spoon

Put the butter or bacon grease into your pan, and heat it until it starts to sizzle in the oven–about 5 minutes.

This butter browned a little much, but it's OK as long as it's not just plain scorched!

Drain about a tablespoon of the fat into the batter, and stir it in well. Then pour/spoon the batter into the hot pan, and smooth out the top some if you need to. It will sizzle and start puffing around the edges–you want this. 🙂

Batter just poured into the hot pan

Plonk the pan back into the oven, and let it bake for about 25 minutes, until it’s nicely browned on top and develops a good crack around it, like so:

Finished bread

A slice of hot cornbread

Let it sit for a few minutes, slice, and dig in!

A split in half wedge of cornbread, with butter melting on it

Just because melting butter makes almost anything look more appealing... 😉

Between the very yellow butter and the sorghum flour, this batch did not turn out as pearly white as it could have made with the white cornmeal. But, it was all wholegrain and delicious too!

Bacony tomato-stewed green beans

Tomato-stewed green beans, still in the  pot

Photo by Ingvar Mattsson. I was pretty tired after cooking most of the day, so it got served out of the pot!

This is another of the vegetable dishes I made for our slightly reworked Thanksgiving dinner. Between the chaos of cooking a festive dinner and dead batteries in my camera, I didn’t get process shots for any of these dishes.

From Sidney Saylor Farr’s My Appalachia: A Memoir:

The Cherokee Indians cultivated beans long before the European settlers arrived in the early 1700s. Like maize, beans were nutritious and fairly easy to grow, particularly in the rich valley bottomlands in the mountains. For most Appalachian families, green beans, served from the garden, canned, pickled [originally like sauerkraut – GFSC], or dried, became a staple food.

Yep. While the British have their Brussels sprouts as the “quintessential Christmas dinner veg”, we Hillbillies have green beans as the obligatory any large dinner (and a lot of smaller ones) vegetable. 😉 Growing up, I knew a girl whose mother served boiled green beans with every evening meal, every single night, regardless of the other foods! (The daughter’s description of her cooking: “It’s very nutritious, but…”) That’s pretty extreme, but I do love my green beans.

Tagging this post, I was more than a little surprised that I hadn’t posted anything involving green beans yet.

This is a fairly basic (and classic) tomato-stewed dish, a lot like the previous stewed okra, but I decided to jazz it up a little with bacon and a little fresh chile. This provided a pretty nice contrast to the milder-flavored coconut milk “creamed” succotash It would have been a shame not to have served any tomatoes at a “New World”-themed dinner, now wouldn’t it? 🙂

Bacony tomato-stewed green beans

  • 4 slices streaky bacon
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • Half a sweet pepper (orange, in this case), chopped
  • A green chile, halved with most seeds and ribs removed, then sliced — I had mildish Jalapeño
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
  • 1 lb. (400-500g) frozen green beans
  • 14 oz. (400g) can chopped tomatoes
  • About half a tomato can of water
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. sugar, to balance the greenness of the beans
  • 1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper — the fresh chile was really mild!
  • 3/4-1 tsp. Herbes de Provence (I wanted the rosemary) or Italian seasoning

Fry the bacon crispy in a skillet, and set aside on paper towels. Fry the onion in the same pan over medium-low heat (our bacon was pretty lean, so I added about a tablespoon of fairly neutral sunflower oil) until it’s translucent and starting to brown; add the garlic the last couple of minutes.

Put the chopped sweet pepper and chile in the bottom of a medium-sized pan. (It will float on the top and take longer to cook if you don’t put it under the beans.) Add the fried onion and garlic, then the beans. Pour the tomatoes over the top, and add the seasonings.

With frozen green beans, it’s probably best to bring the pan to a boil and let them thaw out and release some moisture, so you can tell better how much water to add.  You want them just covered in liquid.

Simmer, covered, for about 45 minutes, checking occasionally to see if there is still enough liquid and poking the vegetables down with a spoon. Frozen green beans will start falling apart and get a weird texture if you cook them much longer than it takes them to get tender. When everything has reached the level of tenderness you want, add the crumbled bacon and let it cook another 5 or 10 minutes. Stir, and enjoy!

You could also use this as a way to jazz up canned green beans, substituting a couple of cans for the frozen. It’s not bad, but I wanted a little fresher green bean taste.

Leftovers are really, really good served over rice or short pasta shapes, even better with a little Parmegiano or Romano on the top. 🙂

Basics: Greens

A bowl of cooked collard greens

Cooked greens are a staple I don’t eat as much as I used to. People just don’t eat nearly as many non-cabbage greens here in the UK, and the selection is somewhat limited compared to what I’m used to seeing in Southwest Virginia. You can easily get spinach in various forms, along with fresh collards, kale, and rape–but not turnip, mustard, or beet greens. (A seller at the local market gave me several bunches of free beet greens along with the beet roots I was buying, since they were just ripping them off and throwing them away! But, I’m usually too shy to ask about that kind of thing.) The only readily available non-spinach canned option is callaloo from Jamaica, and I’ve yet to see any frozen greens besides spinach. I should probably plant me some more mustard and chard!

For this small mess of greens, I bought a 250g bag of  already sliced what appeared to be collards.  It’s more expensive that way, but very convenient–and still pretty cheap. 🙂

A plastic bag of sliced greens

First thing, I gave them a good wash in several changes of water in a pot (or you can use the sink, like for whole leaves). These were not gritty with sandy soil; if yours are, first let them soak in lukewarm water for about 5 minutes to let it loosen and fall off. If you’re starting out with whole leaves, you’ll want to wash them before cutting them up.

A pot of water with sliced greens in there to wash

Remove any unfortunate-looking pieces. This was a nice bag of greens, even though it had been in the fridge for a week!

Discarded pieces, lying on the edge of the sink

Looks like I need to remove yucky-looking limescale from the draining board again

Now, we have to decide how to season them. Growing up, I mostly got fairly plain cooked greens, with a slice of dry sugar-cured “streak meat”/”side meat”, salt, and a little sugar to tone down the greenness. Some fried and crumbled bacon (streaky bacon in the UK) works well too.

A package of thick-sliced dry-cured bacon

Pre-sliced Old Waynesboro brand side meat, from MillRiverStore.com. I think I've actually bought some of that Western North Carolina brand before, not sliced.


Photo source.

That’s not a bad way to eat greens, but I got started adding more flavor when I was vegetarian.

A box of Knorr ham cubes and half a chopped onion
I didn’t have any bacon, so I used a Knorr ham cube. It’s not the same, but it’s not bad.

For this mess of greens, I decided to use half an onion browned in about a tablespoon of sunflower oil, some black and crushed red pepper, some dried garlic for convenience, a Knorr “ham cube”, and a little extra salt. (Since the “ham cube” has a little sweetness, I didn’t use any extra sugar for flavor balancing.) If you’re using bacon, fry a few slices crisp and set it aside, and use the grease to brown the onions. For a vegetarian version, you can substitute insta-veggie broth, or just use more salt. The extra savory note is good, though. If you’re in the US, Wiley’s Greens Seasoning is an easy, pretty tasty (non-vegetarian) option.

The cooking is much less of a hassle than cleaning the greens. Just put them into a pot big enough to hold at least 75% of the raw greens (they will wilt down, a lot), add seasonings and enough water to come about halfway up the raw greens, and bring it to a boil. If you’re using bacon, now’s the time to break it up and add it.

A pot of slightly wilted sliced greens, just after the water went in

I used hot water from the kettle, being impatient and all. 😉

Poke them down into the water with a spoon, to make sure everything gets covered by the boiling water. Turn it down to a simmer, and put the lid on.

They wilt down pretty quickly. This is only a few minutes later.

Stir occasionally while they’re cooking. Add more water if they’re not just barely covered. I don’t like to cook them until they’re starting to fall apart, so I gave these about half an hour instead of, say, the more traditional hour and a half. Taste for seasoning, and enjoy!

Finished!

To jazz up frozen or canned greens, just steam-fry them with the same seasonings used here, and a little more water than usual. It’s not as good as fresh, but awfully convenient sometimes. 🙂

A lot of people like to garnish their greens with chopped raw onion or sliced green onion and a splash of vinegar (usually cider). But, with the extra seasoning added to the pot, I like it as is. Plus, I find the vinegar sharpness unpleasant when I put cornbread in to sop up the pot liquor, or just drink it out of the bowl. Not only is the pot liquor tasty, it’s chock full of water-soluble vitamins.

The long cooking is not really a problem. As Mark F. Sohn put it in Appalachian Home Cooking: History, Culture, and Recipes:

In restaurants all across North America today, many chefs serve undercooked, almost raw vegetables. Yes, the vegetables are bright in color; however, they are also tough to chew, hard to digest, and lacking in flavor. For traditional hill folk, the process is different. They simmer fall greens with country ham, salt pork, or smoked ham hocks for one, two, or three hours. Slow cooking develops the flavor and tenderizes both the meat and greens. The result is a muddy-green, drab olive, almost brown color, and it is full of taste and easy to chew and digest. Slow-cooked greens are an example of simple mountain cooking that requires patience.

Tender-crisp vegetables have their place, but not involving collards or other thick-leafed, full-flavored greens IMO. I really don’t like to cook them until they turn colors that remarkably, but when they’re fully tender it’s easier (and more appealing) to eat larger quantities of the greens. Especially if you don’t throw out the cooking liquid, that more than makes up for any extra heat destruction of vitamins from the longer cooking.

Basics: Saucy gluten-free macaroni and cheese

Macaroni and cheese is a bit of a staple at our house. When I’m not sure what to cook, it’s likely to satisfy.

Figuring out how to make a good gluten-free version was trickier than I expected, thanks to the very different behavior of all the GF pasta I’ve tried when it sits in liquid. It will go a lot mushier than durum wheat pasta, and will sometimes totally lose structural integrity. Most of the homemade macaroni and cheese I got growing up was of the layered baked custard variety, but that really, really does not work well with corn and/or rice pastas unless you want cheesy paste! I have even tried putting the pasta in raw, and the results were something to behold.

So, I’ve been exclusively making a sauced version. Though it takes a few more steps to put together,  the cooking time is a lot shorter than sticking a dish full of cold milk and eggs in the oven–and the results are delicious. If I’m in a hurry, I’ll just put all the cheese in the sauce and mix it with the hot pasta, but I prefer to top it with more cheese and bake it a while. 🙂

The only place I have seen GF elbow macaroni in Greater London was at Totally Swedish, and it’s at least twice the price of supermarket store-brand pasta, plus either a trek from the burbs into Central London or shipping charges. (Yes, there’s enough demand that we do get store-brand here. The average supermarket’s GF selection here didn’t look too bad, until we went in a grocery store when we were visiting Stockholm! Now I have Free From section envy.)

At any rate, if you can’t easily get hold of macaroni, it works well enough with other small pasta shapes. I like to use Dove’s Farm pipe rigate (shells that hold together well), but what we had on had was either rice-and-corn penne or fusilli from Tesco. This fusilli is really bad about falling apart, so I went with the penne.

Plate with a serving of macaroni and cheese beside a piece of baked chicken

It doesn't look like much, but yum!

Saucy GF macaroni and cheese

  • 8 oz. (250g) pasta
  • Salt for pasta water

Sauce:

  • 3 c. (700mL) milk
  • 3/4 tsp. salt
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • Ground black pepper and cayenne — I used about 1/4 tsp. of pepper and a pinch of cayenne; you can substitute mustard powder for the chile
  • 1/2 tsp. onion powder
  • 1/4 tsp. garlic powder
  • 2 tbsp. cornstarch, or about 1 tbsp. potato starch
  • Half an 8 oz. (200-300g) package of cream cheese — blame Paula Deen! 😉
  • 8 oz. (250g) grated cheese — I used a mix of mild Cheddar and sharper Red Leicester, for pretty close to a Colby-Jack effect
  • Optional: 1-2 tbsp. grated Parmegiano or Romano
  • Optional: Sprinkle of paprika on top of the cheese

Start the oven preheating to 350F/180C. Cook the pasta in salted water.  When it’s not quite as done as you would normally like, drain it and rinse it in hot tap water to stop the cooking.  (Often a good idea with GF pastas!)

While that’s cooking, put together the sauce. If you’re using cornstarch, just put all the ingredients but the cheese in a pan together, make sure it’s stirred up well, and keep stirring occasionally while you heat it over low until it thickens.

Cold sauce ingredients in a pan

Just turned on the stove

For potato starch, bring it almost to a boil so that you start seeing small bubbles (a full boil will curdle the milk), then take it off the heat and stir well the whole time you’re gradually pouring in the starch mixed into about 2 tbsp. of water or milk. (That’s a small enough quantity that the water isn’t going to dilute the sauce enough to notice.)

A pan of sauce, almost at a boil

It's almost time to turn off the heat and add the potato starch

When the sauce is thickened, take it off the heat if you haven’t already, and stir in the cream cheese. All I can get here is the spreadable kind in a plastic tub, but if you’re using the more solid kind, you might want to cut it into smallish chunks first. Then add the other cheeses–all the Parmegiano/Romano and about 3/4 of the main cheese–and stir it until the cheese melts in. It doesn’t have to be totally uniform.

A plate of grated cheese, with mixed orange and creamy white colors

A pan of steaming cheese sauce

Good enough!

Taste the sauce for seasoning. Put the pasta in the buttered baking dish, pour on the sauce, and stir it together. Put the lid on the dish so the top won’t dry out, and bake for about 20-25 minutes at 350F/180C.

Pasta and cheese sauce mixed together in a glass baking dish

Ready to go in the oven, covered

When that’s baked, take off the lid. Spread the remaining cheese across the top, and sprinkle it with paprika if you like. Put it back in, uncovered, for another 10 minutes or so until the cheese on top browns a bit.

Finished dish of macaroni and cheese

It's ready! It turned out looking more yellow here.

Let it sit for about 10 minutes out of the oven to cool, et voilà!