With short chilly winter days, action moves indoors, and good, old-fashioned country cooking takes on the appeal of comfort food. A cup of spiced apple cider and a slice of special home-baked pie can stir up pleasant memories.
And for those who have few traditional recipes to call upon (or have forgotten just how Grandma made her chicken and dumplings), novelist Dori Sanders provides her family's best in "Dori Sanders' Country Cooking: Recipes and Stories From the Family Farm Stand."
This gracious Southern lady who wrote two novels about life in the South, "Clover" and "Her Own Place," includes such Southern treats as crackling bread and "cooters" (green snapping turtles). These exotic dishes are tucked among standard country favorites recognized in many regions, such as "smothered" chicken and creamy peach ice cream.
When her publisher asked her if she would like to write a cookbook, she jumped at the chance. "I thought, 'This will be a piece of cake,' " she laughs. "I have been cooking all my life. Little did I know how hard a cookbook is to write. I had to have measurements, pan sizes, even egg sizes. And I had to say how long it takes to cook and at what temperature. Can you imagine that a farm woman, who grew up cooking on a wood stove without a thermometer, would know what temperature at which to bake a cake? You put a cake in a hot oven, that's all."
But with the help of a wonderful food editor, she says, she did re-create her family's recipes, measurements and all.
Ms. Sanders has written her cookbook as a series of family stories, and since those stories are about the culture of South Carolina and growing up African-American on a family peach farm, the recipes are all the more interesting: Fixing a lovely, moist, sweet potato pound cake with peach glaze takes the reader-cook into the realm of literature. It's Sanders's personal history that also helps explain what country cooking really is.
"Cooking is all about who we are, how we had to live, what we had to live on, and how all that influenced our cooking," says Sanders.
"We depended upon the land for survival. When you are doing that sort of thing, you have to look at the streams, fields, and forest around you, and just reason - this is how we are going to survive the winter."
It isn't easy to define country cooking, since it varies from region to region.
Sanders emphasizes the importance of vegetables - not only those grown in the garden, but those in the wild.
"Country women tend to pull in anything and everything, almost, and end up cooking it. We scour the fields in the spring for those special greens. We call them 'creasie greens' - they are really watercress or field cress and pokeweed."
Country cooking is also associated with family traditions handed down from one generation to the next. Country seldom calls for expensive or rare ingredients, and there's a lot of baking and frying. You can't broil, Sanders points out, on a wood-burning stove. And then, perhaps, the most important distinguishing characteristic of country is one-pot cooking. "You put everything in a pot," she laughs, "and then cook it on top of the stove or in the oven."
While she was growing up, her family seldom had refined sugar because it was expensive. So they made brown sugar out of molasses.
It amuses her to remember how, as a little girl, she thought store-bought light bread with fried baloney was a treat - and how she scorned the homemade whole-grain breads that are now so expensive to buy at the market.
Sanders writes in the winter when there is little to do on the farm but care for the animals. But she didn't begin writing until she was well into her 60s. She writes about what she knows - and then lets her imagination soar. "If you will notice in the second novel, as well as in 'Clover,' I talk a lot about food, food, food. But trust me, in the South on a farm, if you didn't talk about food you wouldn't have any conversation at all - that and the weather, that's it."
Farming is a hard life, she says, "But I do have something to sustain me, and that's my writing." Indeed, she has begun work on her fourth book, a nonfiction piece about her father.
"If I had to depend on farming now, I might have to quit it all together," she says. "We've all, the whole family, been at it for over 60 years, and we've all thought about quitting it. But there's something that pulls us back. Something that makes us try yet another year.
"Maybe what it really does boil down to is family. Somehow or another, it is that thread that holds us together. We were fortunate enough to have devoted parents who worked hard and encouraged us to stay close to the land.
"Maybe it was because of my father's struggle to buy the land - a sense of responsibility to him.... But it's certainly not the dollars and cents."
Sweet Potato Pound Cake with Peach Glaze
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2-1/2 cups cooked and mashed sweet potatoes (about 2-1/2 large or 4 small potatoes)
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the glaze:
1/2 cup drained canned peaches or cooked fresh peaches
1 cup confectioners' sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons milk
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar, beating until light and fluffy. Add the sweet potatoes and again beat until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.
In a medium bowl, combine the flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder, nutmeg, and cinnamon and stir well. Add to the creamed mixture in three parts, beating after each addition until well combined. Add the vanilla and beat until well combined.
Spoon the batter into a large greased and floured tube pan, smooth the top, and bake in the preheated oven for 1 hour and 15 minutes or until the top is just golden-brown and a knife inserted into the cake comes out clean. Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack for 3 minutes, then remove from the pan and cool completely on the rack.
While the cake is cooling, mash the canned or cooked fresh peaches to form a puree. Combine in a small bowl with all the remaining glaze ingredients and mix well. Drizzle over the top of the cooled cake. Serves 6 to 8.
8 pieces of chicken (legs, thighs, or breasts with or without skin)
1 cup all-purpose flour
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder (optional)
1/4 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon paprika
About 1 cup vegetable oil
2 medium onions, sliced thin
3/4 cup sour cream
1/4 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup chopped green onions (scallions) including green part
2 tablespoons water
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Wash chicken pieces and dry well. In a clean plastic or brown paper bag, combine flour, salt, pepper, garlic and onion powders, and paprika. Shake a few times to mix. Place 2 to 3 pieces of chicken in the bag, shake to coat evenly, remove, and shake off excess coating. Repeat with remaining chicken.
In a large ovenproof skillet, heat 1/4 inch of vegetable oil over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Add chicken pieces and brown well, about 3 minutes per side. Remove from pan and set aside.
Pour excess oil out of the skillet, leaving a thin layer. Add the onions and saut, stirring occasionally, until translucent, about 5 to 7 minutes.
In a medium bowl, combine the sour cream, chicken stock, green onions, and water and mix well.
Place the browned chicken on the top of the onions in the skillet and pour sour cream mixture over the top. Cover lightly with foil and bake in preheated oven for 40 to 45 minutes or until the chicken is tender and shows no trace of pink near the bone.
Serve at once. Serves 4.