I suppose my upbringing of Southern hospitality dishes like fried chicken and catfish, mustard greens and black eyed peas with generous cubes of country ham, and a rubbing of lard before pouring cornbread batter into a cast iron pan has left me with the indelible mark of meat as a central commodity. Meat in the South is something like what Marx was seeing when he noticed workers consuming their work with reckless abandon. But, where Marx went wrong, Southern food does it right by showing that when one is caught up in a whirlwind of tradition or work, enjoyment is often the crux of that tradition. You could say the two correlate in the the fact that Southern food has been so greatly influenced by African, Cajun, Creole, Cuban, and Irish customs as well as by necessity that necessity itself is often attributed to the most similar cultural influence that can be found just as day to day work is oftentimes descended from an enjoyment in one's occupation. The notion of meat not being the center of every meal, in my book, is quite a healthy and conscious decision these days and one not too decentralized from the dishes I hold so dear like cornbread utilizing a light coating of vegetable oil for lubrication, creamy cheese grits, and even the glories of buttermilk biscuits.
Buttermilk is a strange concept and one which seems absurd until you think about the innovators who first bottles wine, made cheese, formed tempeh, and realized salt would preserve meat allowing a safe alternative to rancid meat. I researched the roots of buttermilk to find out there is little to no documentation on how the concept of leaving remnants of churned butter to sour momentarily makes the most tangy Southern biscuits, pancakes, gravy, and a pantheon of other Southern delights. And, necessity they say is the mother of invention just like the robust ragù bursting with umami flavors I happened upon the other night.
Mushrooms as you have probably already noticed are a familiar touch to my cuisine and something that adds both texture and rusticity to dishes that make my mouth water. Thoughts of a ragù in all its warming capacity, carrots in all their unappreciated glory, and just a hint of red pepper flakes to liven the senses. The umami flavors, however, do not stop with mushrooms as I was determined to break Dawn's dread of Swiss Chard, which she claims tastes like dirt on its own. Remember, my Southern roots are still attached although separated by a thousand miles, so I had to call upon the help of crispy bacon lardon to rest atop the wilted chard as well as a necessitous quince mustard vinaigrette. In the end, I guess necessity is the mother of selection rather than invention or maybe it's a linear progression. Nonetheless it allows for one heck of a good meal.
3/4 # white button mushrooms
1 carrot peeled and chopped to 1/4 inch half moons
1/4 C. white and light green leek finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
12 sages leaves julienned
2 large shallots finely diced
1/2 yellow onion coarsely chopped
1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
2 slices thick cut bacon roughly chopped
14 oz. can stewed whole grape tomatoes
4 T. olive oil
1 1/2 C. wheat berries, soaked eight hours
Bring heavy pot to a simmer with two quarts of salted water and simmer wheat berries for an hour and a half or until softened adding water periodically as it evaporates.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Heat four tablespoon olive oil in oven proof pan on medium heat and add bacon to pan, cooking until crispy. Add mushrooms spreading evenly to allow some browning, cooking approximately six minutes. Add shallots, onion, leek, and garlic, cooking for three minutes until vegetables are softened. Add canned tomatoes without juice and crush tomatoes with potato masher. Once flavors have melded about 4 more minute transfer pan to oven with a lid on and cook for about fifteen minutes to reduce some of the juices. Once the ragù is desired thickness, serve over wheat berries with julienned sage on top.
Wilted chard with Lardons and Quince Vinaigrette
1 large bunch rainbow chard, stems removed, cut into 2 inch cubes
2-3 pieces thick cut bacon roughly chopped
3 T. quince jelly
1 tsp. hot English mustard
1-2 tsp. apple cider vinegar
Add bacon to pan on medium heat and cook until crisp rendering out the bacon fat then add chard stirring until wilted, approximately three minutes. Remove from heat and drizzle with quince vinaigrette and enjoy.