Home-cooked satisfaction

Southern-style cooking needs self-rising cornmeal
By TODD RICHARD  |  April 2, 2008
LIKE MOMMA STILL MAKES: Fried fish, fried okra, collard greens, sweet potatoes, and cornbread.

Total  $16.96
4 sweet potatoes at $1.29/lb $2.17
4 tilapia fillets at $4.99/lb $3.75
1 bag frozen collard greens $1.79
1 bag frozen black-eyed peas $1.19
1 box frozen okra $1.19
1 box macaroni $ .80
1 package Vermont cheddar $2.79
1 quart whole milk  $1.79
1 bag ground cornmeal $1.49
Trips to my mom’s house always involve her spoiling me and my friends with Georgia-born home cooking. Afterwards, I recommit to replicating the experience in my own kitchen.

Self-rising cornmeal is a staple of the cuisine (and is important to traditional cornbread, and the crispy crust for the fried okra and fish). If you can't find a store version of this blend, mix up three tablespoons of flour, a tablespoon of baking powder, a generous pinch of salt, and three-quarters of a cup of ground cornmeal to make a cup of self-rising cornmeal. Measure a few cups' worth into a plastic container with a lid, and give it a good shake.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit and put on a large pot of water to boil. Southern convention dictates cornbread be baked in a cast-iron skillet, which yields a superbly crisp crust. If you don’t have one, use a nine-inch by nine-inch baking pan. Add two tablespoons of vegetable oil to your skillet or pan and place it in the preheating oven. Measure two cups of self-rising cornmeal into a mixing bowl, and add a beaten egg and one-and-a-third cups of whole milk or buttermilk. Once the oven and skillet are preheated, pour the batter in, scraping the sides of the bowl. Return this to the oven for roughly 20 minutes.

Slice sweet potatoes lengthwise, and set them cut-side down on an oiled cookie sheet. Butter and salt the skins, and cook in the hot oven. When they are caramelly-browned and the cornbread is done, turn the oven to 375 degrees and finish the sweet potatoes cut-side up. Dump a box of macaroni into the boiling water, resisting the al dente urge and cooking it fully. Simmer the collard greens in a pot with a little bit of water, a pinch of salt and fresh cracked pepper, and the black eyed peas — and if you have bacon, add a slice or two. Don’t pay it too much mind, as you can’t really overcook collard greens. Just don’t let the pot get dry, as we’ll want that juice later.

After draining the cooked macaroni, return the empty pot to the stove on medium-low heat to make the cheese sauce. Add three or four tablespoons of butter, and the same amount of flour, mixing until they are fully incorporated. Let the roux cook until it turns a rich brown, and then add two cups of room-temperature milk, whisking in slowly. Add to this three cups of shredded cheese and stir until melted and smooth. Feel free to thin with milk, as the sauce shouldn’t be too thick. Butter the inside of a deep-walled baking pan, and spread a thin layer of shredded cheese down before adding the mixed sauce and topping it with another layer of cheese. Bake in the 375-degree oven until the top is melted.

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