BACON SALT POPCORN + A SOUTHERN WINTER WEDDING

28th January 2015

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Like most Southern love stories, this one starts in a small town where everybody knows your business be it good or bad. Due to the zealous nature of southern socialites, a wedding is typically a town-wide affair, even if only a few select locals get an invite. So when a local boy marries a local girl, you know its going to be a big ordeal. Sisters, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, all the women gather to plan and curate the perfect day in the hopes that the other townfolk might talk about it for years to come. We don’t ever say this aloud, of course, but everybody thinks as much.

Just over a month ago, my lovely little sister-in-law married a local boy and all the women from both sides of the family practically chomped at the bit to be involved. Normally, that many detail-oriented minds would wreck havoc on one another and the task at hand, but there’s something special about a southern wedding that grants every woman involved an extra ounce of sanity to carry them through. The bride, of course, gets an extra helping.

While there were plenty of details from that lovely weekend that still stick vividly in my mind – did I mention that my new brother-in-law brewed his own beer for the reception? – the one that has stayed with me the longest was a simple little snack served at the rehearsal dinner. Bacon. Salt. Popcorn.

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I know, I know. I should say that the bride’s lovely gown took my breath away – which it did. Or maybe that the German Chocolate groom’s cake was simply divine – but I never got to taste it. Perhaps the right answer is something about the swell chalkboard signage or the rustic wedding stationery suite – but you see I designed those so I can’t be too surprised now can I? So it all comes back to this bacon salt popcorn. So simple and the perfect combination of salty-sweet-crunchy. Tell me, what wedding dress can do that?

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The entire wedding weekend was a kind of homage to white winter nature. I swear everything and everyone smelled of campfires and, if we hadn’t been in central Texas, the threat of snow seemed oh so imminent. Both the rehearsal dinner and the wedding were outdoor-inspired with collections of local trimmings – including yaupon branches, gilded winged elm, and dried grapevine – adorning each table and we bridesmaids dressed in hues of muted green. The rehearsal dinner was an indoor picnic complete with tartan everything, compostable utensils, handheld portions of this and that, candlelight, and, the bacon salt popcorn. It wasn’t even a main feature of the evening, demurely packaged in small brown paper bags, but I think I ate more of it than anything else – the grandma’s recipe for homemade sugar cookies n’ milk included.

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I’m not even sure who deserves the credit. The caterers, the mother-of-the-groom, perhaps the fun new sister-in-law-in-law I’ve acquired through this marriage? Well whomever it should go to, I apologize, because I’m just going to give all my praise to the bride. You see, that’s how these southern weddings go. No matter who was involved, all credit goes to the bride because without her lovely, lovely presence – and, I guess, the groom’s as well – the wedding and all other festivities wouldn’t even be possible. So there you have it, my sister-in-law – newly married, current PhD candidate, proud new baby beagle mother, and latte enthusiast – has graced the world with bacon salt popcorn.

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However, since my sister-in-law probably didn’t come up with bacon salt popcorn she couldn’t very well provide me with a recipe. So I’ve come up with an approximation of my own devising using just a few simple ingredients. The bacon salt, while clearly meant for freshly popped popcorn, also features quite fetchingly sprinkled over baked potatoes, on warm flapjacks, in cornbread, with cheese and apples, and pretty much anything else.

DIY Bacon Salt
makes a scant cup

4 strips bacon, about 1/2 cup (not especially flavored with maple, pepper, etc)
1/4 cup fine sea salt
3 teaspoons brown sugar
pinch black pepper

1. Cook bacon till very crisp, but not burnt. Drain and pat dry with paper towels. Strain grease and save for later.

2. Combine all the ingredients in a food process and blend until thoroughly combined. Careful not to over blend as the bacon will become paste like. Transfer to a small jar and store in the fridge for up to a month.


This is my go to recipe for popcorn these days. We aren’t partial to the pre-bagged stuff and microwave air-popping in folded paper bags just doesn’t cut it for us. This makes enough popcorn for at least two people to share or one person through a fairly long movie marathon.

Stove-Top Popcorn
recipe inspired by this one from The Kitchn

3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1/2 cup popcorn kernels
1-2 teaspoons melted bacon grease (or oil or butter)
bacon salt

1. Place a heavy-bottomed stock pot over medium-high heat. Add the oil.

2. Once the oil begins to shimmer, add three kernels. When one or more of the kernels pop, add the remaining popcorn kernels and cover.

3. Turn off the heat, and shake the pot while you count slowly to 30. Turn the heat back on and continue to shake the pot over the burner to prevent the kernels from burning. Keep shaking until most of the kernels have popped or the timing between pops is about 1-2 seconds. Remove from heat (careful, as a few more kernels could still pop), drizzle the popped corn with the melted bacon grease, sprinkle liberally with bacon salt, and toss to combine.

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Main takeaway from the wedding: everyone and everything was lovely and more weddings should have bacon salt popcorn.

INGREDIENT STUDY: TEA & TEA THINGS

23rd January 2015

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“But indeed I would rather have nothing but tea.”
― Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

After writing a thesis on Jane Austen and then another on the Southern tea ritual, it seems as if my life is ruled by the high pitched whistle of the tea kettle. I even wrote an encyclopedia article on it earlier this year. And so I feel like sharing some of what I’ve learned (for those of you who don’t care to leaf through an encyclopedia or thesis volume). While I drink my fair share of coffee, tea is the drink I routinely turn to for all manner of reasons: sickness, fatigue, malaise, habit, friends, books, writing. My tea cabinet is like an unkempt used book store, filled to the brim with bits and pieces – some old, some new – lots of dust (tea dust that is) and there really is something for everyone. It wasn’t too difficult to come up with a curated collection of popular teas to create this ingredient study, although the Japanese matcha is a new venture for me (more to come on that).

So here’s a collection of teas – white, green, oolong, black, herbal, and blended – to start your lesson in the art of that “necessary luxury” as cookbook writer, Estelle Woods-Wilcox said. I’ve also featured some of the more useful tea things including utensils, cups, bowls, and bags that we often turn to when make a cup of tea. If I’ve left anything out, let me know, there’s enough tea in the world to make a dozen more ingredient studies.

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From the top left, column one: pan fried Dragon Well, Oolong, gunpowder, Jasmine pearls; column two: Sencha, Matcha powder, green tea fannings, Nepal SFTGFOP; column three: Earl Grey, Darjeeling, Assam, White.

So that crazy SFTGFOP isn’t another language, it’s tea code, or rather tea leaf grading to be more precise. The letters correspond to a classification system and grading process that was popularized in the 19th century by British tea merchant and founder of the eponymous tea company, Sir Thomas Lipton. While the system is far too complex for the average tea sipper to really understand, the grading systems exist separately for fannings, broken leaves, dust, whole leaves, and even particular regions.

Here are a few of the more common codes in order of rank:

BOP | Broken Orange Pekoe
Referring to broken tea, fannings, or dust used in tea bags.
OP | Orange Pekoe
OPS | Orange Pekoe Superior
GFOP | Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
TGFOP | Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
SFTGFOP | all of the above, simply the best

Other fun words used in relation to tea quality include tippy, referring to an abundance of tea leaf tips, and flowery for when a tea consists mostly of large leaves.

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BLACK TEAS

clockwise from top left: Nepal, Earl Grey, Darjeeling, Assam

For black tea, leaves are picked and allowed to ferment in the open sun before being dried. Black teas are often blended, with either other black teas or herbs or flowers, to create familiar mixtures such as English Breakfast or Earl Grey. Teas are often named for their origins, thus Darjeeling and Assam are both named for their original regions in India.

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GREEN TEAS

clockwise from top left: gunpowder, pan fried Dragon Well, Sencha, Matcha powder

Green tea is made of unfermented leaves that are dried soon after picking. These leaves can be rolled tightly, like gunpowder, pan fried to help halt the fermentation process, or ground into a fine powder, like matcha, which is popular in Japan.

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TEAS SHAPES & SIZES

clockwise from bottom left: fannings or dust, gunpowder pellets, Jasmine Pearls

As I explained above, tea can be rolled, flattened, pan fried, or ground before it is ready to consume. When the Jasmine Pearls touch hot water they slowly begin to unfurl into delicate whole tea leaves that give off the scent of fresh jasmine flowers. I couldn’t even drink the cup and left it to diffuse its lovely tones into the kitchen.

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HERBAL TEAS

clockwise from top left: yerba mate, raspberry fruit blend, red rooibos, chamomile buds, dried spearmint, hibiscus flowers.

Herbal teas, while low if not void of caffeine, are often substituted for regular tea or used in blends. Chamomile tea is often used to soothe and to help people sleep, raspberry and spearmint teas help with digestion and stomach cramps, and rooibos is said to help with immunity.

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CHAI TEA

Also known as Masala chai, this tea blend typically contains a mix of black Assam tea, and aromatic spices such as peppercorns, cardamom pods, cinnamon pieces, cloves, ground ginger, and sometimes chiles. Chai is often served with milk and lots of sugar.

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YERBA MATE

Popular throughout South America, particularly in Argentina, yerba mate is tea is made from the dried leaves of the mate plant, a sub species of the holly family. The drink is often substituted for coffee as a caffeine alternative and is traditionally consumed out of a small hallowed out gourd with a special metal straw called a bombilla.

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ROOIBOS

Meaning “red bush” and also called “bush tea,” rooibos tea is made from a broom-like plant native to South Africa. The leaves undergo a similar curing process as traditional tea and can come in a variety of colors including green and red.

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BREWING OPTIONS

clockwise from top left: metal stick strainer, paper tea bags, food grade plastic mesh pyramids, paper pyramids, yerba mate bombilla, round paper bags, self-fill mesh tea bags with fold-over closure, vintage tea ball strainer, paper tea bag in an unsealed paper packet, square paper tea bags.

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BREWED TEAS

From the left, row one: chamomile, raspberry fruit blend, Jasmine pearls; row two: gunpowder, chai with milk, spearmint; row three; hibiscus, rooibos, Oolong; row four: Assam, frothy matcha, panfried Dragon Well; row five: Darjeeling, Earl Grey, green tea fannings; row six: Nepal, Sencha, White.

Each tea requires its own specific steeping time and temperature and is subject, of course, to the sipper’s preference. In general you can follow these rules:

White | 150-160 degrees F | 1-2 minutes
Green | 170-180 degrees F | 1-2 minutes
Oolong | about 185 degrees F | 2-3 minutes
Black | about 210 degrees F | 2-3 minutes
Herbal | about 210 degrees F | 3-6 minutes

tea study 15Happy sipping, y’all.

BRÛLÉED CLEMENTINES + SPICED HONEY YOGURT

17th January 2015

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Belmont, Massachusetts. Temperature, 19 degrees. And that’s some of the highest temperatures we’ve seen all week. Needless to say, my resolution to go outside more has been put on the back burner. Oh, I still go outside, just not willingly. Since I work from home, I try to find reasons to force myself out into the cold: walk to the post office, go get a newspaper, bribe myself with a coffee from up the street, but then I remember I only really like iced coffee from that place so then I’ll have to walk back home with a coffee-cicle attached to my already frozen hand. Oh the calamity.

So I’ve been trying extra hard to eat very well to make up for this complete lack of movement. And by well, I clearly meant dessert disguised as fruit.

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Is it just me or does anybody else have a hard time coming to terms with the fact that citrus – including but not limited to oranges, clementines, grapefruits, lemons, kumquats – is a winter fruit? I mean how can the edible version of sunshine thrive in this most ridiculous of seasons? While nearly everything else dies, as people lose all sense of humor, and as cats’ tempers shorten that much further, citrus is just doing it’s thing and all the while getting sweeter. While we bundle ourselves up for an outing in the snow or an icy walk, citrus exists with only its perfectly zesty rind. How, citrus, how?

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But I guess that’s why the higher powers put citrus on earth and why they later allowed man to figure out global shipping in order to provide non-tropical locations with access to these lovely fruits when we need them most. So, since I refuse to go outside at the moment and since my body has seemed to have permanently melded to my electric blanket, I feel like I can make adequately healthy compromises by eating my body weight in citrus fruits. All that vitamin C and what not. I’ll start with these bruleed clementines with added health points from the spiced honey yogurt and cocoa nib garnishes. *pats self on back*

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Since I have so much in time indoors, I figured it was the perfect occasion for a little blog update. Nothing much has changed save for a few aesthetics here and there, namely a new logo up at the top, and I’ve updated the recipe index up in the menu. Now you can easily access all my past cold weather dishes to give you something to do while you wait out the winter.
These are a few of my favorites:

cowboy bread
orange snow creams (made with real snow!)
baked oatmeal
kale and sprouts shaved salad w/ grapefruit dressing
homemade tortillas (for when you are stuck inside and feel guilty about your laziness)

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I prefer clementines in this recipe since they are some of the sweetest citrus available, but you could easy swap them for Cara Cara oranges (the pretty pink ones), blood oranges, or any others. This would even be a nice way to serve grapefruit on lazy mornings.

Brûléed Clementines + Spiced Honey Yogurt

4 ripe clementines, halved
1 -2 teaspoons sugar
1 cup plain yogurt,
2-3 tablespoons honey
cardamom
cocoa nibs for garnish

1. Set the broiler to high and move an oven rack into the upper third of the oven.

2. Place the halved clementines cut side up on a lined baking sheet. Sprinkle each with a thin, even layer of sugar. Place the sheet under the broiler as close to the flame as possible. Rotate the pan as needed until the sugar is melted and the tops of the clementines just begin to brown. Remove the sheet and let the clementines cool for just a minute or two.

3. In a small bowl, mix together yogurt, honey, and cardamom until smooth. Place a single clementine half in a bowl, drizzle with spiced honey yogurt, and sprinkle with cocoa nibs. Repeat and serve.

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DIY ANCHO CHILE HOT COCOA MIX

11th January 2015

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Back in New England. All my PhD applications have been submitted, work has started up again, I have several nifty projects penciled in on the calendar, and we’ve been chatting about our next adventure – either to nearby New York City or a little further to the Pacific North West to see old friends. Despite the halted, frozen landscape of mid-winter Massachusetts, things seem to be moving along at a delightful little pace. After a year full of travel, weddings, and other unexpected life bits, I thought the New Year would begin with quite a whimper. Another part of me feared that 2015 would start with a deafening bang – perhaps with the announcement of 5 more friends engagements and thus 5 more weddings to attend – but thankfully (no offense, you dear newly engaged folks) life has been a welcome mix of quiet and joy. For starters, earlier this week Instagram named me a Suggested User on their app, an honor I’m still in awe of achieving. I guess some people really enjoy my endless feed of enamel-ware, sleepy kittens, southern charm, and cold weather scenes. So to keep with this theme, I thought I’d share a simple recipe combining all my ‘gramming characteristics and the perfect treat to celebrate these little personal victories. DIY Ancho Chile Hot Cocoa Mix, a grammable sip if I ever saw one.

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The trick to this recipe is time (and patience, I guess). Tuck a crushed dried ancho chile pepper into a jar of sugar (not your normal jar mind you, that would be an odd batch of sweet iced tea) and let it sit for a few days or a week if you can manage, shaking every once and a while. The sugar will pick up a bit of that smokey spice and your hot cocoa mix will be all the better for it. You can always substitute crushed chile pepper in the mix if you are pressed for time (or for a bit of extra heat), but are you really the kind of person to make a batch of homemade hot cocoa mix and then turn around and complain about time?

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Good quality cocoa powder and even better quality chocolate are the other secrets to this recipe. You can vary the amount of sugar to your liking and use either hot water, milk, or cream – oh my! – when brewing up a cup. Top with generous handfuls of marshmallows and a sprinkle of both chile powder and cinnamon. This whole recipe is best served along side a healthy rewatch of Chocolat after which you can proudly say “no, your cinnamon is not gone rancid” and then go off and sip your warm beverage while thinking about dancing on a riverboat with a young Johnny Depp. Oh ancho chile hot cocoa, take me away.

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For the heat averse, make sure to remove any seeds from the mixture and remember that you can always add more spice to your own cup during the brewing process.

DIY Ancho Hot Cocoa Mix
inspired by the Smitten Kitchen recipe for decadent hot cocoa

makes 8 to 10 servings

1/2 cup sugar
3 ounces semi- or bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped or grated
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon vanilla powder or fresh vanilla bean seeds
1 teaspoon crushed dried Ancho chile
pinch salt
1 whole dried Ancho chile

Add all the ingredients, except for the whole chile, to the bowl of a food processor and pulse to combine. Alternatively, you can chop the chocolate even finer and whisk together the ingredients in a large bowl. Transfer mix to an airtight jar, tuck the whole chile into the mix, shaking to cover.

To make a cup of cocoa: combine 2 to 3 tablespoons hot cocoa mix with one cup hot water or milk. Stir to combine, top with a splash of cream, marshmallows, and a sprinkle of cinnamon.

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Stay warm and spicy, y’all.

NEW YEAR BLACK EYED PEA POT PIES

1st January 2015

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This past year seemed to fly by faster than all the other years I’ve lived so far. I graduated with my Master’s degree, attended or stood up in five different weddings, traveled to DC, Colorado, and Texas, ate my weight in macarons in Paris, began work as a full time freelance writer, recipe tester, and photographer, and, perhaps the highlight of my year, I wrote my first encyclopedia article. Not really what I thought I’d be doing by 2014, but you never really know where you’ll end up (sorry if that sounded a little Forest Gumpy). I have high hopes and big plans for this next year and can’t wait to see where the road takes me this time. As I rush forward into 2015, my resolutions are focused on the present and the moment.

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A few New Year’s Resolutions:

Be still, be silent.
I have a tendency to talk too much and I’ve been told my voice can get near chickadee levels. I hope to work on being quiet and to lend even more of an ear during conversations.

Limit the unnecessary.
This applies to several things, namely negative, snarky news sites (we all know which one I’m talking about), unnecessary stress in situations that don’t even involve me or my family, gossip, and even foods that might not be the best choice (read: that extra cup of coffee, the husband’s favorite salt and vinegar chips).

Simplify.
Everything. Simplify everything. My morning routine, my collections of things, how I tell stories, what I think I need in my life. Everyone will be the better for it.

Go outside. Everyday.
This was one of my resolutions last year and it turned out so well I thought I’d keep it on my list again this year.

Turn to movement.
Whenever I’m stressed I often shut down and stay put, bundling up in a ball of frustration when I know good and well that a walk, a hike, or a tough yoga session would improve just about everything. I hope to turn to these things more and more this year.

Focus on me and my own.
I don’t mean in the selfish way, but in the, “I know what’s best for me and my immediate family better than others do” kind of way. I know I’m on a good path and I know my family is too, and the only opinions that really matter are ours (and our cats, of course).

Eat more grits.
An unorthodox resolution, I know, but all these years I’ve turned my nose up at grits, especially when my Dad made them, and all these years I’ve been so horribly obtuse. Grits are the best thing that corn has ever been turned into. A cheap, flexible meal solution that I have big plans for in 2014. There may be a metaphor there.

Use what you have.
Clothes, books, shoes, dishes, tools, and ingredients. I need to turn to what I have instead of finding reasons to go get another something or other. I am especially bad about this with food. I cook and test recipes for work all week and by the end I just want to order a pizza. Or just because I’m lacking one ingredient for a dish, I decide to throw the towel in completely. I have a full pantry, a well-stocked fridge, and an innovative culinary mind. I should be better at this.

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My New Year’s resolutions have already taken effect, starting with this recipe for Black Eyed Pea Pot Pies with Chopped Ham Cornbread Crust using leftover New Year’s ingredients. Everybody knows that black eyed peas taste better the second day and recipes always make too much. In the South, ham is the traditional holiday and New Year’s meat of choice and, so long as everyone has simmered down from this season of constant snacking, you should hopefully have a slice or two leftover. Whip up a quick bowl of cornbread batter and you’ve got a great little New Year’s pot pie. The perfect thing to keep the good luck cooking all week long.

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If you don’t already have a recipe for black eyed peas, or if you’ve never cooked them before, here’s my family’s simple recipe. Add other spices if you’d like – I’m partial to bayleaf or a pinch of cumin – but simple is sometimes just the way to go.

Black Eyed Peas
makes a giant pot

3 tablespoons butter
1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
2 or 3 cloves garlic, finely diced
1 pound fresh black eyed peas
hamhock or pig knuckle
water
salt and pepper to taste
pinch of cayenne

1. In a large pot set over medium-high heat, melt the butter and saute the onions and garlic until translucent. Add the black eyed peas and saute for a minute more.

2. To the pot, add the hamhock and enough water to cover the beans with an additional half inch of liquid on top. Bring the peas to a boil, reduce to a low simmer, and cook until beans are soft and fat and the hamhock is tender (about 3 hours). Salt, pepper, and cayenne to taste.

NOTE: If using dry beans, refer to Southern Plate’s instructions for soaking.

Black Eyed Pea Pot Pies with Chopped Ham Cornbread
gather all your New Year’s leftovers to whip together these little pot pies for continued good luck.

leftover black eyed peas
1/2 cup flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1 egg
1/2 cup milk
2 tablespoons butter, melted
ham, finely chopped

1. Set the oven to 400 degrees and place a few ramekins or oven proof single-serve dishes on a lined baking sheet. Fill each ramekin about half-way up with black eyed peas.

2. In a small bowl, toss together the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and cornmeal. Make a small well in the dry ingredients and add the egg, milk, and melted butter. Stir together until just combined with a wooden spoon. Add the ham and stir a few turns more.

3. Spoon a dollop of cornbread batter on top of the peas in the ramekin and gently spread to the edges. Repeat with remaining ramekins and cornbread batter. Transfer baking sheet with filled ramekins into the oven and bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until the cornbread is set and golden. Let cool on the counter for a few minutes then serve immediately.

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Happy New Year, y’all.