I’ll begin this review with two disclosures. First, I’m from away. Second, I’m still learning to cook.

Cover courtesy of Shambhala

The away part is critical when considering my review of ‘Southern from Scratch: Pantry Essentials and Down-Home Recipes.’ Not only am I not from Maine, but I haven’t lived in Virginia for decades. No matter where I live, however, I always call the Blue Ridge Mountains home.

Now, the culinary confession: I was rarely allowed in my mother’s kitchen. Our kitchen was small, like everything else in the trailer. Two people in that tiny galley was just too many, especially when one had a quick temper and the other was known for asking too many questions.

I’m not sure it would’ve been different if we’d lived in a house. My mother worried that teaching me to cook might turn me into somebody’s housewife, much like learning to type had turned my sister into somebody’s secretary. Her philosophy: be somebody, not somebody’s girl.

Not learning to cook down-home food didn’t stop me from falling in love with eating it. As a child, the only thing that could get a sleepyhead like me out of bed on summer Saturday morning was the smell of fried apples, sausage gravy and buttermilk biscuits coming from Nannie’s kitchen.

In addition to the nostalgia value, I picked up Ashley English’s “Southern from Scratch” cookbook hoping she could teach me the regional culinary secrets I’d missed out on as a child. Plus, I like the idea of knowing exactly what goes into my food, so the idea of making almost everything from scratch was appealing. The book works like this: English gives a recipe for something basic, say chow chow, then gives several recipes that build on it, say Southern Greens with Chow Chow, and Pickled Shrimp & Chow Chow.

I enjoyed her recipe introductions, which explains for outsiders and ex-pats like myself exactly how to preserve foods using a boiling water bath. It reminded me of things I’d forgotten, like eating Hoppin’ John for New Year’s Eve, and taught me new things, like “kilt” spinach salad leaves are killed, or wilted, not something hailing from Scotland, even though many mountain foods do.

As someone with a family history of hypertension, diabetes and gout, I liked a cookbook buttressed by English’s nutritionist credentials. If she feels safe restoring down-home food to her diet, I’d like to think I can eat homemade buttermilk fried chicken a couple times a year without fear.

The book is as much about building up a well-stocked southern pantry as learning how to make from homemade staples. Is it more work to make your own butter? Yes. But it’s worth trying, at least once, to decide what from-scratch ingredients are worth the extra time, and which ones aren’t.

The recipe I tested, cornbread sausage casserole, exemplifies both categories.

Making the spiced pork from scratch was well worth the extra 15 minutes, and the bottle of fennel seeds I had to buy. It gave the dish a deep flavor that everyone loved, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It also allows you flexibility to tweak the spices and tailor the dish to anyone’s palate.

The homemade butter and buttermilk, however, which were required for the cornbread sausage casserole, were not worth it, at least not in my book. But the butter did prove extra delicious when I slathered it on a slice of cornbread I had saved for breakfast. Next time, I’ll use store-bought butter and buttermilk for the casserole and save the homemade butter for slathering.

That brings me to the cornbread, my favorite childhood food. To me, cornbread is sacred, whether it’s crumbled up in potato soup or eaten on its own. “The best comfort food will always be greens, cornbread, and fried chicken,” poet Maya Angelou once said. I couldn’t agree more.

The cornbread included in the casserole was good, but, unlike the sausage, it delivered no culinary epiphany. I found it a bit bland, the grind of the cornmeal too fine. Much better than box cornbread, yes, but not nearly as good as my aunt’s. I give it three out of five skillets.

It turns out simple dishes aren’t so simple when you make every ingredient from scratch.

Breakfast Sausage

Makes 1 pound

1 pound ground pork

1 tablespoon dried rubbed sage

1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt

1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground coriander

Put the pork, sage, salt, garlic, black pepper, thyme, fennel seeds, pepper flakes, nutmeg and coriander in a bowl.

Using clean hands, squish the meat into the seasonings until fully combined

Place a large sheet of parchment or wax paper on the counter. Transfer the meat to the paper and form into a log about 6 to 8 inches long.

Store in the refrigerator and use within 5 days, or transfer the roll (still in the paper) to a sealable freezer bag or container; store in the freezer, and use within 3 to 4 months.


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