When it comes to American Southern "peasant cuisine," the best advice is to make more than you need, and you'll find a great secret of the farm wife's economical but lavish table. Because you can pull side dishes from the refrigerator all week, you'll be serving mini-banquets, not lugubrious leftovers. It's the meal that keeps on giving.
Country ham, red-eye gravy and grits
Look for thin, pink slices of ham packaged in see-through plastic, preferably from Virginia or North Carolina. One standard brand adjures you not to "buy a pig in a poke," and with good reason.
Some Virginia ham is authentic, but a touch fat. The good stuff -- and remember, a little goes a long way -- is pink as prosciutto and savory as well as salty. Because the meat is highly seasoned, you need figure only about three slices per person. The recipe below is for precooked ham. Some brands require soaking and preliminary cooking before being served: When in doubt, follow the package instructions.
In a black iron skillet, frizzle the ham for about 3 minutes on either side. Remove the ham to a heated plate in a warm oven.
RED-EYE GRAVY: There are almost as many recipes for this Southern classic as there are Southerners. This one uses ripe jTC tomatoes to add color and body to the meat drippings. Use the black iron skillet with "ham brown bits" in it.
1 small ripe tomato, cut in thick slices
2 cups hot water
1/4 cup sherry
2 tablespoons presifted all-purpose flour, such as Wondra
As soon as you remove the ham, mash the tomato slices into the pan drippings and stir them up with a whisk. Flush the skillet with about 2 cups of hot water, to which you have added about 1/4 cup of sherry. Stir in the brown bits from the skillet and reduce the liquid to about 1 1/2 cups. I like to leave the little bits of tomato skin and pulp, but you can skim them out if you like smooth gravy. Sprinkle a little presifted all-purpose flour over the surface and blend it in with the whisk, stirring over medium heat. Keep this procedure going until the mixture thickens very slightly -- the thickness of cold egg whites is about right. Serve over grits.
Fried okra or tomatoes
Allow about 1/3 of a pound of okra per person, and choose young, firm pods.
Allow two or three medium or 1 1/2 large beefsteak tomatoes per person. Choose them quite firm, even a little under-ripe. This dish must be cooked and eaten as close to serving time as possible: It will not come back, any more than fried potatoes will, so judge your amounts carefully.
BASIC FRYING MIXTURE:
2-3 cups presifted, all-purpose flour, such as Wondra
1 1/2 cups stone ground yellow corn meal
2 tablespoons paprika
1 tablespoon salt
1 1/2 tablespoons pepper
2 cups bacon drippings, or a combination of bacon drippings and corn, canola or vegetable oil
Prepare the vegetables by cutting them: the okra into sections about 1 inch long, the tomatoes into slices about 3/4 inch thick. Discard the stem ends. The okra can be shaken up with the frying mixture in a paper bag until thoroughly coated.
The tomato slices benefit from a slightly different treatment. Put the frying mixture in a baking sheet with sides (a cookie sheet) and shake the pan until the flour is in an even layer. Lay the tomato slices on the flour mixture. Let them sit, absorbing the flour, for about a half-hour. Turn them over carefully and repeat the process for side two. Just before you fry the slices, sprinkle and pat more of the flour-meal mixture firmly onto the cut surfaces, so that the outer faces of the slices are dry-coated.
Heat the bacon-dripping-oil mixture (which should be about a half-inch deep) in a black iron skillet. When the grease is very hot but not smoking, add the tomato slices, being careful not to crowd them. (A good test for the grease is when it frizzles and bounces a pinch of corn meal with rising bubbles.) Brown them on one side until they are dark around the edges, then turn them and repeat the process. Remove them to a baking sheet layered with paper towels to drain them of as much grease as possible. Fried tomatoes retain heat for a long time, so be careful not to burn yourself.
Fried okra is cooked by essentially the same method, but stirred and cooked constantly as it browns. It should be golden and crisp, not greasy, and should also be drained before serving.
"In the South," says my vintage "Southern Cook Book," "the jaded appetite turns to turnip greens . . . and the abundant fields of other greens -- kale, mustard, chard, spinach, water cress, beet tops and poke salad." Thanks to the increasing regional savvy of produce managers, many supermarkets carry at least the first five. They are all traditionally cooked the same way.
1/3 to 1/2 pound of greens per person
1/2 pound seasoning meat -- ham ends or bits, pork or lean bacon. (Purists still insist on hog jowl, but the leaner cuts have more flavor and less grease.)
1/2 teaspoon crushed dried red peppers
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
water to cover