I like to think that the best part of me is Southern. But the thing is, unless you grew up with me, or know a little about my personal history, you'd never guess I was from the South. Sometimes when I'm tired, or waxing nostalgic, or talking to another Southerner you can hear a faint drawl, a slow molasses drag in my words. But to look at me, nope, not a chance. My mother is Korean so most of her features are stamped on my face, slightly diluted by my father's blue-eyed genes. And even though I haven't lived in the South for the last 13 years, I identify strongly with my Southern roots, it's who I am, and who I'll always be no matter what other label I'm wearing at the time. We've all heard the old adage, "You can take the girl out of the South, but you can't take the South out of the girl", but there's truth in those words. Southern isn't just about "down home" cooking, or funny dialects, or even Gone With the Wind. It's a way of life, a connection with folks that always includes strangers, and a method of doing things, nice and easy. And of family, big get-togethers with stories, touch football, and more food than anyone could ever eat. Ours always centered around my grandmother, Elsie, or "Dick" as she was called by friends and family, when during the holidays, we'd come from all over to crowd her house. When I think of "home" it's of grandma, vignettes of late nights watching old black & white movies, of midnight breakfasts, and milked-down coffees, digging in the sand for shark teeth and seashells at the beach, swinging on the porch swing that instead hung from a big tree in the front yard, and swatting at swarms of gnats collecting at our heads. And of fried chicken, hissing and splattering grease in her old cast-iron skillet, biscuits made from scratch baking in the hot oven. Home is grandma's cooking, and that old cast-iron skillet.
I've lived in Los Angeles for 4 years, but I still only own one pot, and two cast-iron skillets. If I need a lid, it goes in the pot but otherwise I do all my cooking in the skillet. Cast-iron skillets are an integral part of Southern cooking, most families use the same skillets their grandmothers used, passed down from one generation to the next. No other pot or pan has got quite the same searing and frying ability. But it's also good for long-cooking stews or braised dishes because of its steady way of diffusing and retaining heat. Over time, with consistent "seasoning", a cast-iron skillet develops a "non-stick" surface, making it perfect cookware for late-night scrambled eggs, or cornbread that's crisp on the outside, but chewy on the inside, or upside-down cakes, upright pies, and even cobblers of every kind. A good cast-iron skillet has a unique recipe of its own, a sort of DNA, or seasoning it perfects over time. The seasoning is what makes it black and textured, if somewhat ugly, but it's also what makes it so unexpectedly inviting to cook in. There's history there, steeped in tradition, and heritage, and old family recipes. But especially of grandma in the kitchen.
STRIKE WHILE THE IRON IS HOT
The cast-iron skillet is so versatile, you can even bake a pie in it. I found this old recipe on RecipeCurio. It's an easy-to-make fresh berry pie from a vintage recipe pamphlet distributed by Ocean Spray Cranberry Products. Serve it alone, or with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, or fresh whipped cream.
Cranberry Skillet Pie
*Shortcake Dough (recipe below)
1 tbsp (1 envelope) plain gelatin softened in...
1/2 cup cold water, then dissolved in...
1/2 cup hot honey
1 1/2 cups sifted confectioners sugar mixed with...
1/2 tsp cinnamon
4 ups (1 lb.) Ocean Spray Fresh Cranberries (or other brand)
HAVE READY: Shortcake dough, gelatin-honey mixture, cranberries mixed with sugar and cinnamon, and 8" or 9" cast-iron skillet lightly greased.
- Preheat oven to 450°F. Roll out shortcake dough to form circle 4" to 6" larger than pan. Scallop the edges with a crescent cutter or knife, and fit it into skillet letting extra dough hang evenly over the edge.
- Pile in sugared berries and fold extra dough toward center. Pinch and shape the edges to form flat petals.
- Bake in hot (450°F) oven 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350°F and bake additional 15 minutes.
- Pour hot honey mixture over the filling, stir to coat berries and bake another 10 minutes. Chill until set.
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp baking powder
3 tbsp white sugar
3/4 tsp salt
1 stick butter, chilled, cut into pieces
3/4 cup heavy cream (or milk)
- In food processor, pulse together flour, baking powder, sugar and salt. Add cold butter and pulse together until mixture has the texture of coarse meal, but with a few pea-sized chucks of butter remaining.
- Transfer mixture into a large bowl and make a well in the center. With fork stir in the cream or milk, just until dough is moist. Be careful not to overwork. The dough doesn't have to hold together at this point. Let the dough stand for a minute.
- Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Fold the dough over on itself (knead) 2 or 3 times, until it is holding together and is less sticky.