Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Fried Okra

The Setting: It is downright gorgeous outside right now. Might have to bust out the stroller and go for a jog...which is probably a good idea after Saturday's big dinner.

The Soundtrack: 9 to 5. Has there EVER been a better threesome than Dolly, Lily, and Jane?

Steaming up the oven: Toast.

The Scenario: Time for the next in the series of Music City in the Midwest recipes. Let's hear it for Fried Okra!

It may not be the kind of exotic bizarre food that would attract the likes of Andrew Zimmern, but okra is SCARY.

Long and pointy with slightly sappy fur, the pods themselves are a little on the intimidating side. When you throw in the--let's just say it--mucus-y slime from the interior, this domestic freak show is like a durian on your doorstep.

I understand the fear. I felt it myself as a child.

My mom would order okra at restaurants, and I'd curl away in my seat in terror.

But then I sampled a steaming bowl of gumbo and lived to ask for seconds. There was OKRA in that?

The next time I saw little golden puffs of fried okra on my mom's plate, I found my body uncurling in curiosity...I found my hand creeping toward her plate and reaching for a crispy okra nubbin...And I found the okra DELICIOUS.

These days it's pretty hard for me not to order fried okra when I see it on a menu. But it's easier to resist knowing that I make a pretty darn good version at home.

Fried Okra
Okra plants, actually a close relative to the Hibiscus, grow well in warm climates. Hoosband and I first made fried okra from our own homegrown okra, but now we rely on the freezer section of the nearest grocery store.

~for the buttermilk bath~
1 1/2 lbs frozen cut okra
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1 egg
2 T kosher salt
3 T hot sauce

~for the breading~
1 cup four
1 3/4 cup yellow cornmeal (not corn muffin mix)
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp black pepper

~for frying~
peanut oil

Place frozen okra in a double layer of gallon-sized zip-top bags, set aside.

In a small bowl, thoroughly whisk together the buttermilk bath ingredients. Pour buttermilk mixture over okra, seal bags, and gently shake to coat. Allow okra to thaw in the buttermilk mixture in the fridge overnight.

In a large bowl whisk together the breading ingredients. Set a sieve inside the bowl so that it is filled with the breading mixture.

Heat a depth of 1-2 inches peanut oil in a large, heavy-bottomed saute pan or cast-iron skillet over med-high heat. To check the oil, run your fingers under cold water and flick a few drops into the oil. If the oil is ready the water droplets will jump and spatter; if they jump too violently, your oil may be too hot.

Line a baking sheet with paper towels and place a cooling rack on top.

Working in batches, use a slotted spoon to transfer okra to breading mixture and shake to coat completely. Lift up the sieve and shake off excess breading before transferring the okra to the hot oil.

Fry the okra just until light golden on all sides.

Use a spider or heatproof slotted spoon to transfer the okra to the prepared cooling rack. Repeat with remaining okra and breading.

Once a batch of okra has drained and cooled, it can be transferred to a serving bowl or foil roasting pan to make room for remaining batches.

Serve immediately. Okra can be warmed through in a baking dish or foil roasting pan at 350 degrees F if desired.

Guest Feedback:
Average Score on a scale of 0-5, 0 being "Never again. Need to set my mouth on fire to extinguish the memory" and 5 being "Woohoo! When can I eat that again?" 4.6
Comments: "Very surprised. Very refreshing, even fried." "Good for kids! Definitely will be making it!" "My kids even loved it." "Very Good."

This recipe was featured in a post called Music City in the Midwest for's 24x24 event, for which 24 food bloggers from around the world are selected to host dinner parties within the same 24 hours and blog about them.

Thanks for reading! Here's to Being the Secret Ingredient in your life.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Redneck Tacos

The Setting: Another day with just enough blue in the sky to trick me into leaving the apartment wearing an inadequate number of layers. But I'll take it!

The Soundtrack: Sweet Oia's snoring.

On the Stove-top: Pinto beans with smoked pork shank.

The Scenario: Typing up the recipes to follow up Saturday's delicious dinner. First up: Redneck Tacos.

There is a lot is misinformation out there when it comes to regional variations in barbecue.

Just type "Tennessee-style BBQ" into your search bar and see how many contradicting descriptions you can find.

After sorting through the pages of "this one seems legit" and "this one's full of hooey," what I believe to be the gist is this:

Memphis is mostly into ribs...

Texas is mostly into brisket...

South Carolina is predominantly known for mustard-based sauce...

Kansas City is known for thicker, tomato-based sauces with a lot of sweetness...

Alabama does a crazy white sauce...

And you'll find all these things in Nashville.

However, when I talk to other Nashvillians who grew up in Music City and love barbecue so much you could cut into us and check the smoke ring, all seem to agree on at least one thing: true Nashville BBQ is pulled pork.

For me that means pulled pork so full of smoky flavor it needs little more than a toss with a thin and juicy vinegar-and-pepper solution. My research suggests this is Eastern North Carolina style, but it's Nashville style to me.

My favorite way to eat it?

Well, the Redneck Taco, of course.

Redneck Tacos (pulled pork BBQ and coleslaw on corncakes) are the specialty of Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint, my favorite Music City BBQ destination.

This is an old picture. Martin's no longer shares a building with the auto shop.

Ironically, I never order them when I go there because I am eternally hung up on splitting the incredible Big Momma Sampler with Hoosband (and I'm super-picky when it comes to coleslaw), but they were the inspiration for this tasty meal that's super fun to serve for family or friends.

Redneck Taco Pulled Pork
Okay. If you have the option of smoking your meat, that's a whole different ballgame. But for those of us who only dream of having smokers...or yards, for that matter...the slow cooker and a little smoked pork shank will do just fine.

1 large sweet onion (such as Vidalia), thinly sliced
1 boneless pork butt roast
1/2 a smoked pork shank
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1 T kosher salt
1 tsp coarse black pepper
1 T granulated garlic
1/2 cup hot sauce (I used Lousiana)
1 cup apple cider vinegar

Place all ingredients in the slow cooker in the order listed. Cover and cook on low setting for 15 hours, flipping the butt roast halfway through. Uncover and use a fork (or two forks, if desired) to pull apart/shred the pork and any large pieces of fat. Make sure to break up any large pieces of smoked pork shank (it will be darker in color) and distribute it evenly thoughout the mixture.

Serve now or transfer to a storage container and cool completely before covering and refigerating till ready to use. BBQ can be made as many as 5 days ahead and reheated in a 350-degree oven until warmed through.

Tangy Slaw
I'm really weird about creamy dressings, so this refreshing slaw is mayo-free!

1 T kosher salt
2 T brown sugar
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp celery seed
1 T dijon or stone-ground mustard
2/3 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
2 packages shredded cabbage or slaw mix (I like the kind with bits of red cabbage and carrot)
1/4 cup crispy diced bacon, optional

Pour vinegar over spices and mustard in a very large bowl. Whisk together. Slowly whisk in the olive oil, making an emulsion. Add the cabbage or slaw mix to the bowl, tossing to coat evenly. Stir in the bacon if using. Refrigerate for 1-3 hours before serving.

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup yellow cornmeal (not corn muffin mix)
2 T white sugar or brown sugar
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp kosher salt
2 cups buttermilk
1 T honey
2 large eggs
dash hot sauce
3 T bacon fat or butter, melted, plus more for griddle

In a med-large bowl, thoroughly whisk together flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, soda, and salt. Set aside.

In a smaller bowl, thoroughly whisk together buttermilk, honey, eggs, and hot sauce.

Pour egg mixture into flour mixture and gently whisk just until there are no pockets of dry ingredients to be found, breaking up any large lumps, but not overmixing. Pour in butter or bacon fat, incorporate in just 1-2 stirs. Let mixture rest while the griddle preheats.

Heat the griddle to 375 degrees F or med-high heat, and brush with butter or bacon fat.

Pour the batter onto the griddle to form desired sized cakes. When bubbles pop up all over the corncake, it is ready to be flipped. Cook 3 minutes on the second side or just till golden and cooked through. Repeat with remaining batter.

Corncakes not to be eaten immediately can be placed on a cooling rack or in a single layer on a baking sheet to cool before being stacked in a large foil roasting pan, covered, and kept at room temperature for up to 6 hours before serving. Corncakes can be served room temperature or reheated in the foil roasting pan in a 350-degree-F oven till warmed through.

Serve Redneck Tacos with sliced pickled jalapenos, if desired.

Guest Feedback:
Average Score on a scale of 0-5, 0 being "Never again. Need to set my mouth on fire to extinguish the memory" and 5 being "Woohoo! When can I eat that again?" 4.6
Comments: "To die for." "Fantastic." "Yes please."

This recipe was featured in a post called Music City in the Midwest for's 24x24 event, for which 24 food bloggers from around the world are selected to host dinner parties within the same 24 hours and blog about them.

Thanks for Reading! Here's to Being the Secret Ingredient in your life.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Music City in the Midwest

 © 2012 Anderson Design Group, Inc. Used by permission.
The Setting: Birds chirping, sun shining. It's a beautiful (but still chilly) day in South Bend.

The Soundtrack: Zac Brown Band (Okay, it's not actually on, but I've got Chicken Fried playing nonstop in my head right now).

Steaming up the Oven: The last of the Buttermilk Biscuits from last night.

The Scenario: Every month sponsors an event called 24x24, for which 24 food bloggers from around the country and world are selected to host elaborate dinner parties on the same day and blog about them within 24 hours (well, by 11:59 p.m. the next day). This month I was selected to bring a little Music City foodlove to the Midwest!

~The Proposal~
Bring a taste of Nashville to the Notre Dame grad-student crowd using as many local (Midwestern) ingredients as possible.

~The Menu~
Should be as specifically "Nashville" as possible, with some quirky Southern staples thrown in for good measure. Bread and spread for the tables. Entree and side. Desserts. Drinks. Take-home treats.

I thought about what says home to me--my favorite dishes from my favorite spots.

Biscuits, Peach Preserves, and Country Ham are never-fails at Nashville's Legendary Loveless Cafe, so I reckoned they'd be a good way to start.

For a main dish my mind went immediately to barbecue.

In Tennessee the Memphis BBQ scene may get all the attention, but as far as I'm concerned, the best 'cue comes from Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint in Nolensville (just outside Nashville). There you'll find the inspiration for my entree, Redneck Tacos, or pulled pork BBQ in a corn cake "taco" with slaw.

I figured my side would be the Southern staple so outstanding it was nominated for two Oscars, Fried Green Tomatoes. The tomato is Tennessee's state fruit after all.

But if you've ever tried sourcing green tomatoes in the middle of winter in South Bend, you know how that panned out. Fried okra made an excellent stand-in.

Dessert would be the Cracker Barrel classic Coca-Cola® Cake, a Cherry-Chocolate-Chip Jack Daniel's® Tipsy Cake, and, just to ensure the elusive tomato made an appearance, Loveless Cafe's "Guess Again" Tomato Cake .

Sweet Tea and Vanilla Bean Lemonade would quench our thirst, and guests would leave with goodie bags of Tennessee Tea-Cakes, Homemade MoonPies and Homemade GooGoo Clusters.

It was an ambitious spread.

The thing about putting something like this together when you have a seven-month-old with a strong preference for being held at all times is it takes a lot of planning, a lot of organization, and the time-management skills of a Fortune-500 CEO who is also a Vegas headliner and an undercover ninja.

I am not what most people would call organized.

I am at my best a semi-well-put-together mess.

But I'm very good at list-making.

....And re-making....

And every now and then I do something someone with French tips and an ironed apron would do.

Since most of my meal was last-minute-labor-intensive, I capitalized on any little bit of free time earlier in the week by measuring out all the dry ingredients I'd need day-of ahead of time.

This was huge!

~Buying Local~
I admit I imported (by way of visiting family) my country ham from Tennessee, but it was important to me to honor my current location by purchasing as many local ingredients as possible.

Turns out South Bend has a chocolate company. With a hefty load of chocolate goodness on the menu, that would have to be stop number one.

We found apples and dried cherries from neighboring Michigan at the grocery store and hit the South Bend Farmer's Market for eggs, smoked pork shank, and additional produce.

~The Execution~
We may have cut it down to the wire just a bit getting everything set up and ready--I had planned to set the mood with a soundtrack of my favorite country tunes and completely forgot when go-time approached--but I'd say the night was a success.

The food was everything I love about home.

Homemade Buttermilk Biscuits and Peach Preserves, recipes follow

Build-your-own Redneck Tacos (recipe here), country ham

For those who are unfamiliar with country ham, it is a very salty cured ham popular in the South. It's sort of like a very thickly sliced prosciutto that is fried up in a skillet and served with bisciuts. It typically comes in vacuum-packages of either two full slices or a bunch of little trimmings, which is what I used for the party. To prepare, add ham directly to a hot skillet over med-high heat and cook 6-10 minutes, flipping halfway through to brown on both sides.

Redneck Taco and Vanilla-Bean Lemonade (lemonade recipe follows)

Fried Okra, recipe here

Cola Cake, recipe here

Loveless Cafe "Guess Again" Tomato Cake, recipe here

The only recipe from the party that wasn't my own, "Guess Again" Tomato Cake comes from the Desserts from the Famous Loveless Cafe cookbook.

© 2012 Anderson Design Group, Inc. Used by permission.
The Loveless Cafe has been a Nashville institution since 1951.

Jack Daniel's Cherry-Chocolate-Chip Tipsy Cake, recipe here
Sweet Tea and Vanilla-Bean Lemonade (recipes follow), served in mason jars

Tennessee Tea-Cakes, recipe here

Homemade GooGoo Clusters, recipe here

Homemade MoonPies, recipe here

Judging by the cleaned plates and positive feedback cards I collected, I'd say the guests had a good time!

And my greatest efforts would have been for nothing if it weren't for the enduring support and patience of Hoosband and help from my amazing in-laws, the real Secret Ingredients in this endeavor!

So many thanks to for allowing Being the Secret Ingredient to be a part of this month's 24x24 and to everyone who came out to share in the fun! And even the slightly less fun...

It was amazing to get feedback on my Nashville favorites from such a geographically diverse crowd. With guests from all over the country and world, from the East Coast to the West, from England to Japan, the dinner presented new flavors to many. Check out the guest feedback on the upcoming recipes to see what people thought!

Homemade Peach Preserves
You need a beastly blender to pulverize the apple seeds into oblivion (you're using them for the amazing gelling properties in their pectin!). If you do not have a beastly blender, you may wish to either peel and core the apples (or omit them) and use commercial pectin, or to strain your jam over cheesecloth. If you decide to strain the jam, you will be left with jelly rather than preserves, but it will still be tasty.

1/4 cup unsweetened orange juice
2 large apples (I used Galas this time), washed and quartered, with the skins and the seeds (do not remove the core)
1 lb frozen sliced peaches
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup brown sugar
scant pinch salt
scant pinch ground cardamom

Place the juice, apples (and any seeds that may have fallen out), and 1/2 of the peaches in the blender and process on high speed until smooth.

Transfer the mixture to a small-to-medium-sized saucepan, stir in remaining ingredients, and cook 30 minutes over med-high heat, stirring occasionally and using a splatter guard if desired.

Reduce heat to med-low and cook one more hour, stirring occasionally and using a spoon or spatula to slice up the larger pieces of peaches just a bit against the side of the saucepan.

Let cool completely before transferring to an airtight container to store in the fridge for up to one month.

Guest Feedback:
Average Score on a scale of 0-5, 0 being "Never again. Need to set my mouth on fire to extinguish the memory" and 5 being "Woohoo! When can I eat that again?" 4.6
Comments: "Very tasty." "The preserves were to die for."

Buttermilk Biscuits
When we got married I had to convince Hoosband (whose favorite breakfast is biscuits and gravy) we could get by without Bisquick.  I won him over with buttermilk pancakes and biscuits from scratch. If you do not have a food processor, you can use a pastry cutter or two forks to cut the butter into the dry ingredients.

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp table (fine grain) salt
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 cup (2 sticks) cold, unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch chunks
1 cup buttermilk
2 T butter, melted

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.

Place in the flour, salt, sugar, baking powder, and soda in a food processor fitted with a dough blade and pulse a few times to combine (or whisk together in a bowl). Add the butter, and pulse until the largest pieces are roughly pea-sized (or cut the butter in with a pastry cutter or two forks). With the processor on, slowly stream in the buttermilk* through the shoot on top, turning off the machine as soon as the dough comes together. The dough should be soft and slightly sticky, but not overly wet. *Temperature and humidity can affect how much liquid is actually needed. In warmer kitchens with high humidity, you may need a touch less buttermilk.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface (I like to work on a silpat or parchment paper), and gently pat into a rectangle. Don't overwork the dough, as this would be like a steroid shot to the gluten in the flour and would yield a tougher, angrier biscuit. Gentle dough-handling equals tender biscuits. Cover the dough with a piece of parchment paper, and gently roll the dough out to a thickness of about 3/4-inch. Use a pizza cutter to cut the dough into square biscuits of your desired size. I like for them to be a little irregular, so I don't get too finicky about jagged edges and such.

Gently transfer biscuits to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, brush with melted butter, and bake at 425 degrees F for 12-15 minutes or till slightly puffed up and light golden on top. Serve immediately. Leftover (completely cooled) biscuits should be stored well-wrapped at room temperature for 1-2 days or wrapped individually in plastic, then foil, and frozen for up to one month in a freezer-safe zip-top bag.

Guest Feedback:
Average Score on a scale of 0-5, 0 being "Never again. Need to set my mouth on fire to extinguish the memory" and 5 being "Woohoo! When can I eat that again?" 4.6
Comments: "So buttery." "Very good biscuits."

Sweet Tea
It doesn't get much more Southern than this.

2 cups water
4 black-tea bags
pinch (about 1/8 tsp) baking soda
1 cup sugar
extra water, preferably filtered
lemons rings or wedges, if desired

Bring water to a boil, add tea bags, remove from heat, and let steep 5 minutes.

Remove tea bags. Add baking soda and sugar to hot tea, stirring to dissolve completely. If the sugar does not dissolve readily, you can put the pot back on the heat, stirring just until the sugar is dissolved.

Fill a large pitcher with ice. Pour the hot tea over the ice, add just enough extra water to fill the pitcher, and refrigerate until ready to drink.

Serve over ice with lemon rings or wedges if desired.

Guest Feedback:
Average Score on a scale of 0-5, 0 being "Never again. Need to set my mouth on fire to extinguish the memory" and 5 being "Woohoo! When can I eat that again?" 4.5
Comments: "Wow, just wow."

Vanilla Bean Lemonade
Okay, this is more a me-thing than a Nashville thing, but I'm from Nashville, so there you go. You will certainly find fresh-squeezed lemonade at many of the down-home Nashville establishments, but the addition of vanilla is something I picked up in college in Auburn, AL, at  the iconic corner drugstore and soda shop, Toomer's Drugs, where they'll add any soda-shop flavor shot of your choosing to their legendary lemonade. Vanilla was always my favorite.

1 cup water
1 vanilla bean
1 cup sugar
10 large lemons, rinsed and dried
extra water

Split the vanilla bean, scrape out the seeds, and add the seeds and pod to the saucepan with the water and sugar. Bring just to a boil, stirring until sugar is completely dissolved.

Remove from heat and let cool.

Meanwhile, fill a large pitcher with ice. Juice the lemons into the pitcher over the ice.  Pour the vanilla syrup, pods and all, over the lemons and juice, and add just enough extra water to fill the pitcher. Stir to combine.

Refrigerate till ready to drink. Serve over ice.

Guest Feedback:
Average Score on a scale of 0-5, 0 being "Never again. Need to set my mouth on fire to extinguish the memory" and 5 being "Woohoo! When can I eat that again?" 4.4
Comments: "I want it now!" "Too strong! The flavors were tasty, but it was a little hard to drink." "I will be making this quite often." "Too sweet." "Very unique." "Best lemonade ever!"

For more recipes and information on the food you saw here, stay tuned to Being the Secret Ingredient's upcoming posts!

Thanks for reading! Here's to Being the Secret Ingredient in your life.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Be Mine!

The Setting: A very chilly V-day Eve.

The Soundtrack: ABC Family's Melissa & Joey on instant-stream. So not embarrassed. It's the Who's the Boss of the new millennium.

On the Stove-top: Turkey stock.

The Scenario: My Valentine's plans involve Chinese food, a bottle of Andre, and some TV time with Tim Allen and Courteney Cox.

But if I weren't so excited about all that, I'd probably do a little of this....

Gimme S'more Love

Raspberry Pav-LOVE-as

His and Hers

White-Chocolate-Cranberry "Wedded Bliss" Bars

Bing Cherry Buckle
(so simple and perfect it needs no cheesy title)

Thanks for reading! Here's to Being the Secret Ingredient in your life, and happy Valentine's Day!