BETTER THAN EVER: BISCUITS & POPOVERS

Some things are worth revisiting.

When I started this blog almost two years ago (dang!), my friend and photographer Sonya Cuellar had only been taking pictures for a few months.  Of course, it was clear even then that she had instinctive talent and a natural eye, and if you spend any time on this blog, you know that statement has proven itself to be true in subsequent time.

Ya’ll don’t hear about Sonya very much; I’m the one who does most of the talking around here.  But there’s no way that Blue Jean Gourmet would run or even exist without her.  She manages to make what I make look good, and even more than that, she manages to capture the spirit of this kitchen, the equal parts playfulness and reverence I have for food.

Sonya’s also hilariously funny, deeply compassionate, trustworthy, and deadly competent.  She’s one of my favorite people in the world and working with her on this project for the last almost-two-years has not only been fun, it has pushed me to be a better cook and more creative writer.  Because Sonya’s so good at what she does, constantly working to improve her technique and find new ways to make pictures of food, I have to work to keep up.  And for that, I’m more grateful than I can say.

Today, a combination and revision of two old posts: biscuits & popovers.  Compare the old posts to the new, and I think you can appreciate just how far we’ve come, together.

BISCUITS

a)    Don’t knock lard until you’ve tried it (unless you’re a vegetarian or non-pork eater).  It truly makes for the most incredible biscuits.
b)    If you don’t have buttermilk on hand, you can squeeze a little lemon juice into 2% milk & let it sit for about 10 minutes.  It’ll do in a pinch.
c)    When it comes to biscuit-making, practice really does make perfect!

ingredients:

2 cups flour

1 ½ tsp. baking powder

½ tsp. salt

pinch sugar

4 T shortening or lard

4 T unsalted butter

2/3 cup buttermilk

1-2 T extra butter, melted

oven: 425°
pan: heavy baking sheet, greased

Whisk together the dry ingredients in a medium-sized bowl: flour, baking powder, salt, & sugar.  Using your fingers, a pastry cutter, or a couple of forks, cut the butter and lard/shortening into the flour mix.  Continue until the mixture resembles pebbly sand.

Pour in the buttermilk and stir until the dough just comes together.  Gather and turn out onto a floured surface, then press the dough out gently into a large rectanglish shape.  Fold the dough in half twice, then press the dough out again—this will help create flaky, delicious layers.

Don’t mess with the dough anymore!  Use a biscuit cutter or the top of a water glass, dipped in flour, to cut biscuits.  Press remaining scraps together to cut more until all or nearly all the dough has been used.  Brush the tops of the biscuits with melted butter and bake for 15-18 minutes, or until golden brown and risen.

Serve warm (of course) with your favorite biscuit accoutrement: butter, gravy, sausage, jelly, honey, etc.

POPOVERS
from Paulette’s Restaurant, as printed in The Commercial Appeal many years ago
If you’ve wanted to try your hand at popovers in the past but have felt intimidated, “DON’T BE SKEERED!” as Mani, my favorite spin class instructor of all time would say.  I don’t know why there’s so much hocus-pocus around popovers; they are truly not difficult to make!

Popovers don’t keep very well (their one flaw), so be prepared to eat the whole batch in one go.  A hardship, I know.

This recipe will yield 8-10 popovers.

ingredients:

1 cup all-purpose flour

¾ tsp. salt

1 Tbsp vegetable oil

3 large eggs, at room temperature

1 cup milk

oven: 415° F
pan: muffin tin or popover pan

Cut thin pats of butter and place into the bottom of each muffin cup.  You can also grease well with vegetable oil or Pam, but why would you when you can use butter instead?  Place the muffin tin in the hot oven.

While the pan heats up, sift together the flour & salt in a large bowl. In a separate bowl or measuring cup, whisk the milk and oil together.  Slowly mix the milk-oil mixture into the dry ingredients with a spoon until creamy smooth.

Add eggs one at a time; this will take some patience!  What you want to achieve are ribbons of egg in the batter.  After all the eggs have been incorporated, stir mixture for 2 additional minutes.

Carefully remove the warm muffin tin from the oven, filling each cup half- or just over half-full.  Bake for 25-30 minutes or until golden brown.  Remove the popovers while still hot or they will stick to the pan!

Perfect served with strawberry preserves & butter, or go the savory route and make a popover sandwich with sliced roast beef & horseradish sauce.

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CHICKEN & DUMPLINGS

Regarding the pain of others, I am ever at a loss.

I haven’t gotten any better at figuring out what to do with these masses of grim humanity that get hurled our way, without warning, without reason, without pattern.  How are we to negotiate a world in which I can sit here, typing away on an expensive computer in a comfortable home stocked with food and supplies, while a few hundred miles south and east of me survival is far from certain and bodies are piling up in the street?

At the gym this week I found myself standing on the elliptical machine, my usual routine interrupted by this footage of the rawest, gnarliest grief and despair in a place that really isn’t that far away from me at all and I thought to myself AND WE ARE WORRIED ABOUT BURNING SOME CALORIES?

Paradox is the sea we all swim in.  I think perhaps the trick is to be aware of our contradictory selves, to fleece out any illusions about this wild and willful world.  To delight in what there is to delight in, to mourn what there is to mourn.  To give our best shot to holding it all in somehow.  To look at the screen, because we must.

My old neighborhood in Tucson was very close to the University and its Medical Center; a whole crew of dogs lived on our particular block, lording over dusty yards behind battered fences.  Whenever an ambulance would go by, the dogs would howl.  Pure, unadulterated noise.  It always seemed to me an appropriate herald: here, you see, pay attention, someone’s life is changing forever.

Two of my favorite people in the whole wide world are right now in the hardest possible places: waiting for news about mother and sister, respectively.  The former in a hospital ICU, the latter in Haiti. I love these human beings so much, more than I can rightly say and yet I cannot make their pain go away, I cannot fix this, I cannot do anything that will make a damn difference.

This is me, howling.


CHICKEN & DUMPLINGS

Sometimes all you can do is dish up a big pot of comfort, stand over the stove with a whisk in hand, scrape dumplings with all your heart and trust that it all adds up to something.

I’m from Memphis, so it’s practically a genetic obligation to be able to make this stuff.  Started adding leeks a few years back when I saw the idea in Cook’s Country magazine—I like the flavor they add, but it’s especially nice to have a dimension of color in the stew which is traditionally all-white.  While I don’t like to clutter my chicken & dumpling up with other veggies, you could easily add diced carrots to the leeks & onions and/or toss in frozen peas at the end.

Also, I’ve at times made a modified version of this recipe which is a little bit less high-maintenance and ostensibly healthier, given that it doesn’t involve rendered chicken fat.  If you have chicken stock & leftover roasted chicken, you can skip steps involving browning the thighs & just add your chicken meat to the stew when you pour in the milk.  Since you won’t have schmaltz for the dumplings, substitute butter.

for the broth:

4 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs

3 leeks, white & light green parts only, cut into thick rings & then in half

1 large yellow onion, diced

3 T flour

3 T dry sherry or cooking sherry

4 ½ – 5 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade

¼ cup whole or 2 % milk

2 T fresh or 2 tsp. dried tarragon

1 T fresh or 1 tsp. dried thyme

1 bay leaf

vegetable oil

butter

salt & pepper

for the dumplings:

1 ½ cups flour

1 T baking powder

1 tsp. salt

½ cup buttermilk

2-3 T chicken fat or butter

equipment: If you have a Dutch oven or enameled soup pot, this is the occasion to use it.  If not, use something tall with a heavy bottom.

Get your chicken nice and dry with the aid of some paper towels—this step is essential or it won’t cook up properly.  Season the chicken generously with salt and pepper, then heat up a few tablespoons of vegetable oil in the bottom of your pot over medium-high heat.

Brace yourself for some splattering–cook the chicken until the skin is brown & crisp on both sides, about 4-6 minutes on each side.  Move the chicken to a plate to cool a bit.  Pour off and reserve the delicious! chicken! fat! that has gathered at the bottom of the pot.  (You’ll use some of it for the dumplings, but I urge you to save whatever’s leftover for adding flavor to soups, roasts, even pie dough).

Return the pot to medium heat & melt a big ole knob (2-3 T) of butter in the bottom.  Add the leeks and onions to cook until soft, about 8 minutes.  Sprinkle flour on top of the vegetables, then whisk in the sherry, thickening the broth base.  Scrape the bottom of the pot to get all of the juicy bits, then stir in the chicken stock, milk, & herbs.

Remove the skin from the chicken thighs, then return them to the pot, cover it all, and let them simmer in the goodness to cook fully, 30-45 minutes.

When the chicken has cooked fully, turn off the heat and remove the thighs & the bay leaves from the pot.  Using forks, carefully shred the chicken meat off of the bone & return it to the pot.  Check and adjust the salt & pepper in the stew, then bring it back up to a simmer for dumpling-dropping purposes.

For the dumpling dough, combine all ingredients in a small bowl and stir until it looks like unappetizing paste.  Fret not!  They are going to taste de-li-ci-ous.  Using two big spoons, gather up a tablespoon’s worth of dough into one spoon then scrape it into the stew with the other. You’ll get the hang of it.

Fill the top of the pot with dumplings, leaving a bit of room because they will grow.  Reduce the heat on the stove to low and let the dumplings cook, turning them once, after about 10 minutes.  Cook the other side of the dumplings for another 10 minutes and then serve.

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NO-FAIL POPOVERS

I’m feeling nostalgic for Memphis.  Always happens at about the three-and-a-half-month mark.  After that much distance, I start craving all the regulars:  pulled pork sandwiches, dry-rubbed ribs (which I attempted to make myself last week, with surprising success, whee!), fried catfish, everything my mother makes, and popovers with strawberry butter.

popovers

Hmm.  These not exactly what you think of when you think of Memphis?  Let me explain.

Growing up, there was a “default” fancy restaurant, reserved for birthdays, anniversaries, and graduations: Paulette‘s in Midtown, an oak-paneled kind of place with a live pianist and French-inspired menu of crêpes, steaks, and other old-school fare.  Just the kind of place to make young girls feel very grown-up and sophisticated; an excuse to wear your party dress.

I haven’t been to Paulette’s in many years, and really the only reason they occupy an important place in my arsenal of culinary memories is because of their popovers.  Instead of a basket of bread, Paulette’s would (and I hope they still do) offer up baskets of hot popovers with strawberry butter.

Oh yes oh yes oh yes.

Have you ever had a popover?  Or is it just a Memphis thing?

popovers 2
Conventional wisdom on popovers has long argued that they are fussy and high-maintenace, but that’s never been the case for me.  In a stroke of what I can only classify as foresight genius, I clipped the Paulette’s recipe for popovers out of the local Memphis paper while I was in high school.  I didn’t even cook then!  In fact, it was probably about four or five years until I even tried the recipe–by then, I was far from home and nostalgic for its tastes.

This recipe has never failed me.  You do have to follow the specifics (pre-heating the pan, using room temperature eggs), but it’s not necessary to use a popover pan the way some people think (a muffin tin works just fine, thankyouverymuch) and the finished product is supremely satisfying.

What does a popover taste like, you might ask?  Like a very eggy-but-not-chewy pastry, crusty on the outside and airy on the inside.  Serve them with strawberry butter, like they do in Memphis.

In just about a week, Jill and I will be driving up to my hometown for a visit.  When we cross the bridge from Arkansas to Tennessee over the big, muddy, ugly Mississippi where my father’s ashes were spread, I will cry.  I’ll weave through the streets of Memphis, which I can navigate like I can’t anywhere else.  Jill and I will eat our way through the city, and through my mother’s two (count them, two!) refrigerators, which she will have stocked for our arrival.

That’s how I’ll know I’m home.

Coming up Tuesday is the next installment of our Summer Classics Series: key lime pie.  Ohhhhhh yeah.  Until then, try these popovers for a lovely weekend brunch.

NO-FAIL POPOVERS546958620_dsc_0032
Paulette’s Restaurant, as printed in The Commercial Appeal many years ago

1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
1 Tbsp oil
3 large eggs, AT ROOM TEMP
¾ tsp. salt
1 cup milk

pan: muffin tin, well-greased

oven: 415° F.

Place muffin tin in hot oven.  Sift together flour & salt.  In a separate bowl, whisk milk and oil together.  Slowly mix milk-oil into dry ingredients with a spoon until creamy smooth.

Add eggs one at a time; this will take some patience!  What you want to achieve are ribbons of egg in the batter.  After all the eggs have been incorporated, stir mixture for 2 additional minutes.  Remove warm muffin tin from the oven, filling each cup ½ full.

Bake 25-30 minutes or until golden brown.  Remove the popovers while still hot or they will stick to the pan!  Perfect served with strawberry butter.*

buttered popover 2
*Strawberry Butter

Mix together equal parts softened butter & strawberry preserves.  It really is that easy!  Of course, with strawberries being so lovely right now you could do something more homegrown: wash & chop strawberries, pat dry.  Place them in a bowl & sprinkle sugar over them, letting the mixture sit for an hour to release the juice.  Blend the strawberries with an equal amount of softened butter.

Either version of strawberry butter will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for a few days or in the freezer indefinitely.  Just make sure you soften it again before you want to use it

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