This week’s recipes will be dedicated to the Rich South where regional cuisine developed local food supplies and blended with the varied cultural backgrounds of its cooks. The rural agricultural South produced vegetables, fruits, nuts, rice and corn. Game was plentiful: deer, rabbits, squirrels, birds and ducks of all kinds. Oysters, crabs, shrimp, saltwater and freshwater fish were easily procured. Native Americans, Spanish, English, African Americans and French contributed varied ways of preparing the foods they found here or brought from their homes.
Early European settlers starved until they listened to their Indian neighbors and learned to enjoy corn, squash, pumpkins, beans of every color, wild onions, blueberries and blackberries, native plums and cherries. Eventually lima beans, chocolate, white and sweet potatoes and peppers made their way to our area from Latin America. Corn, the fundamental gift of Native Americans was not always appreciated. Early Frenchwomen along the Gulf Coast rebelled when they were forced to use gritty meal for bread instead of their good white wheat from France. But they survived on corn made into ashcakes, hoecakes, and johnnycakes. Every one seemed to enjoy the Indian popping corn.
In the sixteenth century, another Southern food staple trotted into Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas behind Hernan de Soto’s small army of explorers. The Spanish brought pigs along as a moving meat market. Some of these porkers ran away or were stolen by the Native Americans to become the ancestors of today’s wild pigs. Baked ham, country ham and cornbread are still very “Southern”.
The earliest European settlers were looking for quick wealth so agriculture in the South didn’t take off until African farmers were brought here. African Americans brought seeds of collard greens, peas, okra (kumba), yams, watermelons and sesame (benne). They used the same farming techniques they had learned in Africa, creating a surplus of crops that became the basis for traditional Southern Hospitality.
The rural South of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries produced few cities outside of ports like Baltimore, Charleston, and New Orleans. Travel was difficult. Lonesome homesteads and plantations were far apart. Guests expected to visit for days if not weeks. Not only did they need to rest, but they brought news and entertainment to isolated families. Chickens and pork were served in every possible fashion. Salted, smoked country hams were boiled and baked and served with beaten biscuits. Greens and their potliquor were served with cornbread. Desserts featured ambrosia, trifles, sweet potato and pecan pies. Barbecues, and fish feasts drew distant neighbors together. At oyster roasts, oysters were steamed, fried, stewed, served in patties or just raw.
During the first half of the nineteenth century many of the richest citizens of the United States lived in the South. Based on slave labor and ever expanding land to the west king cotton reigned. When Southerners feasted they made a good job of it.
Southern Smothered Chicken Breasts with Onion Gravy
4 skinless & boneless chicken breasts
3/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon each: salt, onion powder, garlic powder & paprika
1 teaspoon dried herbs de provence
1/2 teaspoon fresh cracked pepper
1/2 cup of canola or olive oil
2 1/2 cups chicken broth or stock
1 cup half and half or milk
1 medium yellow onion, chopped or sliced
2 stalks celery, sliced
3 cloves garlic minced
salt & pepper to taste
Season both sides of chicken breasts with a sprinkle of salt and fresh cracked pepper. Place the flour and additional seasonings in a large bowl, mixing well. I use a wire whisk. Roll chicken in the flour mix to coat.
**Here’s a trick for a nice thick coating; cover the breasts in the flour mix and let sit covered in the flour for 20 minutes. The chicken will continue to accept the tasty flour coating producing a nice thick exterior. After 20 minutes shake off excess flour. Transfer 1/4 cup of the flour to a medium bowl and set aside.
In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add the chicken and cook, turning halfway during cooking, until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a plate and set aside.
Pour off all but 3 tablespoons of the oil from the skillet. Reduce the heat to medium. Add the onions, celery, and garlic and cook, stirring often, until tender, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle with the reserved flour and stir well. Gradually stir in the broth and half and half or milk and bring to a simmer.
Return the chicken to the skillet. Reduce the heat to low. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is cooked through and juices run clear about 35 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a deep platter and cover with foil to keep warm. Bring the sauce to a boil over high heat and cook, stirring often, until thickened, about 5 minutes. Season the gravy with salt and pepper and pour over the chicken. Serve hot with buttered noodles, rice or mashed potatoes.