Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Hatch chile potato casserole: funeral food

“Pass the chicken, pass the pie. We sure eat good when someone dies. Funeral food, it's so good for the soul. Funeral food, fills you up down to your toes.” —Kate Campbell

Funeral food was much on my mind last week as I returned to Texas to attend my grandma Ashner’s funeral.

She had been riddled with pancreatic cancer and when she was diagnosed last fall she was given five months to live. That she made it through 11 months was a gift and while I miss her, I know that she’s no longer feeling any pain.

Grandma Ashner, aka Grandma Fain or Grandma Texas, was my dad’s mother. She was a traditional Southern woman that despite her gentle, belle-like nature also had the strength to raise six children pretty much by herself in not the best of circumstances, with little complaint and much love. She was a passionate Aggie in a family of Longhorns and a staunch Democrat in a family where Republicans are the majority. She also had good Texan taste—adoring both the Dallas Cowboys and George Strait. And she made exceptional giblet gravy, which makes any other holiday condiment taste tepid and weak and wonderful chicken-fried steak, which of course makes all Texans smile.

Grandma Ashner holding me on my first birthday, with my aunts Julie and Jill joining in the fun.

I like to say I get my sweet nature from my mother’s side of the family—where pies are a specialty—and my savory nature from my dad’s side of the family—where chili and Tex-Mex are more on offer. But this is an oversimplification as Grandma Ashner was as sweet as they come. She always had a smile on her face and called everyone either darlin’, sweetheart or precious. And when it was time to bid farewell, you couldn’t leave without her saying, “Sweetheart, give me some sugar!”

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Spicy pickled okra

Okra: people either love it or hate it. But okra and I have a more complicated relationship. My head tells me that I don’t like okra—I find it slimy and strange. But if you present me with a plate of fried okra or a jar of pickled okra, I’ll eat it—happily and greedily.

I come late to okra, which belies my Southern heritage, I know. I only started eating fried okra a few years ago (though have since made up for much lost time) and pickled okra is an even more recent addition to my table.

A Texan friend had called me, thrilled that she had found “Talk O’ Texas” brand of pickled okra at a New York grocery store. I must have not expressed the appropriate amount of enthusiasm for her discovery because she said, “What’s wrong, don’t you like okra pickles?”

I admitted that I had never even tried them before, I was so adamantly against the vegetable. She chided me and told me that my attitude needed to change as I was missing out on a very good thing.

It wasn’t until last October that I finally took the okra-pickle plunge. I was at the annual Southern Foodways Symposium in Oxford, Mississippi and during a gumbo luncheon, jars of Tabasco spicy pickled okra were offered as gifts. None of my table mates wanted their jars and since I hate to see good food go to waste, I ended up with several jars of the pickles.

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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

How to make apricot jam

They say third time’s the charm and it was for me in my attempt at making jam. And, oh, what a jam! I made possibly the best-ever apricot jam.

The first time I tried making jam was last summer. I had a big batch of bruised strawberries and so I made a strawberry jam, following the directions on the pectin box. I must not follow directions very well because what I ended up with was a thick gummy blob. The flavor was good but the texture was just wrong.

So traumatized by my first-foray into the jam-making world, I didn’t gather enough courage to try again until a few weeks ago. This time, I followed a friend’s instructions for freezer jam with a huge haul of sour cherries. But again, I failed, as I let the mixture boil too long. After the jam cooled in the jar what I had was a rock-solid piece of candy, which wasn't very appropriate for spreading on toast.

I am not one to give up, however, and last weekend when I saw a gorgeous display of apricots at the farmers’ market, I decided to try making jam one more time.

I asked the farmer for advice on making apricot jam, and she told me that the key to making jam was to not over think it. I'm certainly guilty of over thinking things, so that was wisdom I could use. I then asked her if she had any other advice and she said, “People who don’t use Sure-Jell are snobs!”

Well, that was not what I wanted to hear! I have no problem with Sure-Jell, but after my pectin disaster last summer I wanted my jam to have a softer set, so I asked her if it was possible to make a decent jam without it. “Of course,” she replied. “Just make sure you have enough sugar.

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