Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Day Our Skillet Went Cold

It was on this day, only 8 years ago, that our family lost my beloved grandmother, Tom. I’ve never written about that day. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve spoken of it with more than a handful of people. There are three days in my life that each and every detail live on so vividly in my mind and this is one of them. I was with her on the exact moment she no longer was on this Earth. It is equally as precious as the minutes when my children were born.
Tom was healthy her entire life, much more so than any other person I’ve known. She cooked daily until she was 100, never had a problem with arthritis, and often wore Nike running shoes the last few years of her life. Only weeks before her death, she was confined to a hospital bed, but still, uttered not one single complaint. Just like always, she never missed a moment to say, “I love you,” or to hold our hands.
I have always felt that Tom and I were connected on an even deeper level than that of a grandchild and grandparent. Our pure love of the kitchen bound us like nothing else could. It was her cast iron skillet filled with fried chicken that first taught me how comfort and love could be tasted and shared without saying a word.
For years, we cooked together, ate together, and talked for countless hours about recipes, cookbooks, and our loves of fat back, Coke in bottles, and Nathalie Dupree. One of her finest days was when Mama brought her to cook with Nathalie and me in the very kitchen she’d seen on television so many times. Simply by sharing a stove, she taught me how imperative the act of cooking can be to a state of real happiness. Being blessed with the gift of sharing the moment when her soul went Home seemed natural and was the ultimate last chapter in our long story together.
My parents and I were with her all day, talking of everything we could think to say. We tried to fill the empty air with subjects that would keep all of our minds off the fact that her death was eminent. We talked about food, work, family, friends, and memories of days gone by. The nurses kept coming in and out, checking Tom’s pulse and blood pressure, which of course reminded us of why we were all there.
A family friend, Jane Knowles, came in to visit Tom one last time. She held Tom’s hand, stroked her hair, and sang Holy Ground with a voice that was nothing short of an angel’s. It was during this magnificent song that Tom left us and went on to meet the Lord she so dearly loved. It’s as if she waited for Jane and her hymn to say goodbye to all of us. Recalling these few minutes of witnessing my Tom drift away leaves me short on words and overflowing with tears.
In memory of Tom and her life so very well lived, I share her fried chicken recipe that has brought me comfort hundreds of times. It is with her skillet that I cook on and never forget.

Tom’s Fried Chicken

1 (3.5 pound) cut-up whole chicken
1/4 cup salt
1 1/2 cups vegetable shortening
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 cup all-purpose flour

Place the chicken in a large mixing bowl. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup salt and cover with cold water. Soak the chicken for 45 minutes. 
Remove the chicken from the salt water and drain on paper towels.
Heat the shortening in an 8-inch cast iron skillet or a large deep skillet to about 360 degrees.
Sprinkle the chicken with 1 teaspoon salt and pepper.  Coat each piece completely with flour, shake off the excess and gently place the chicken in the hot shortening.  Fry 10 to 12 minutes per side or until golden brown, about 25 minutes total. Fry chicken in batches to prevent the skillet from becoming crowded. 
Check the temperature of the oil occasionally.  If the oil is too hot, the chicken will be too brown on the outside but not fully cooked through.
Drain fried chicken on a cooling rack placed over a rimmed baking sheet.

Serves 4 to 6


Monday, January 10, 2011

My Moveable Feast

New Year’s weekend always takes me on a one of a kind adventure of cooking in a dormitory on the Georgia coast. My dad has been the coordinator and compiler of The National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count on Sapelo Island for about 45 years. Since I’m not a qualified birder (and you have to be in order to be invited), I attend for a reason and one reason only. I cook for the group of 16 birders on both nights.
Like most daughters, I think the world of my father. My dad has been a student of ornithology since his high school years and has an unwavering respect for the undeveloped coast. Dad, a former student of Dr. Eugene P. Odum, is right in his element during this birding weekend and I'm very blessed to get to spend it with him. Now that my husband has taken up birding as well, it is an annual weekend with my two favorite men.

We sleep and cook in the dorms of UGA’s Marine Institute. After several years of spending this special weekend in the dorm, I’ve streamlined my cooking and now have it down to a science. It only takes producing a meal in a dorm kitchen once to learn a long list of lessons of what works and what doesn’t. For example, my first trip I made shrimp and grits from scratch in the tiny, badly equipped kitchen. That was not a good idea.
I now cook a great deal of the food ahead of time and pack it into coolers. I also pack my knives, a few basics like cutting boards and tongs, and some kitchen towels and an apron. To get to the dock, it’s about a 5-hour drive from our house before a much anticipated short and breathtaking ferry ride to the island.
My menus change from year to year, so I’m always thinking of recipes that feed a crowd and can be made ahead. I took my Fast Brunswick Stew this year and it worked perfectly. I made it at home, packaged it, and packed it on ice. All it needed on the island was reheating. Because it’s ready to go, I have the luxury of more time to enjoy the island with my camera before supper.
I rode a bicycle most of the day on Saturday, taking in meandering creeks through the salt marsh, exploring the property once owned by RJ Reynolds, and reading while listening to the surf. Every cook should be so lucky.

Fast Brunswick Stew

Makes about 17 cups

1 pound lean ground beef
2 (15.25-ounce) cans whole kernel corn or 3 cups frozen kernel corn, thawed
2 (15-ounce) cans sweet peas or 3 cups frozen sweet peas, thawed
2 (14.5-ounce) cans stewed tomatoes with onions and celery
1 (14.75-ounce) can cream-style sweet corn
3 (15-ounce) cans tomato sauce
1 (4.5-ounce) can chopped green chiles
3 cups chopped barbecued pork
2 cups chopped cooked chicken (1/2 rotisserie chicken)
1/4 cup white vinegar
2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon hot sauce
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
2 teaspoons salt (see Note)

Brown the ground beef in a large stockpot over medium heat. Use a spatula or a spoon to break up any large clumps as it cooks. Drain the meat and return to the stockpot.
While the beef is browning, drain the cans of whole kernel corn and sweet peas. If canned stewed tomatoes are in large pieces, use a pair of kitchen scissors to chop them slightly, right in the can. Once the beef is browned and drained, add the drained corn, peas, and stewed tomatoes to the ground beef.
Add the cream-style corn, tomato sauce, green chiles, barbecued pork, chicken, vinegar, brown sugar, hot sauce, lemon zest and juice, and salt to the stockpot. Simmer the stew for 15 minutes.

Note: The amount of salt is going to depend on the brand of canned items. Some vary more in salt amounts than others. Taste for salt and add as you need it.
Copyright © 2011 Rebecca Lang Cooks, LLC