Saturday, August 15, 2009

Apron Strings: Red Clay & Jell-O

In the summer days of my red clay South Carolina childhood, my mom would feed us breakfast, let us watch some tv on the black-and-white set with the rabbit ears, then send us outside to play until lunch. My older brother didn't need to be told, his friends usually came around on their bikes, asking if Will could come out and play. He'd grab his bike and be gone for the day. Sometimes I'd play with my younger brother, Tom. I remember elaborate adventures involving Barbie, Big Jim and G.I. Joe, where the well-dressed girl dolls were usually rescued by the rough, camouflage-cloaked boy dolls. We'd play until lunch time, then we'd be turned outside yet again, allowed to ride our bikes throughout our small neighborhood of 70s ranch houses. I'd find my friend Jill and we'd amble through the pastures surrounding her home. We would walk to the creek and follow it to the pond, which was a favorite of Will's, if he could find a buddy to fish with.

In late afternoon, my brothers and I would head home, and if we were late, Mom would stand on the back porch and yell for us to come in for supper. And this is what I remember most: being sweaty, hot and hungry, stepping into a cool house and a warm kitchen. Somewhere along the line in my spiritual journey, I've adopted the idea that heaven is like your best childhood memory. Heaven for me is stepping into our Gaffney ranch house after an afternoon at Jill's house. The air-conditioning and smell of food cooking hit me at once.

My mom, with one of her hostess aprons around her waist, would fix a meal worthy of the hardest-working farmhands; a meat like a roast or my favorite, country fried steak, two or three vegetables, the best the season had to offer, sliced fresh tomatoes, (which I never ate as a child and am struggling to eat as an adult; it's a texture thing.), and that classic Southern side, a Jell-O salad (Grandmother would always call it a "congealed salad.") What this country needs is a Jell-O revolution. Bring congealed salads back to the dinner table!

So this brings me to my supper tonight, right from the Warren family table in Gaffney, South Carolina, ca. 1974. Country Fried Steak and Gravy served with rice, fresh from the cob corn sauteed with butter and a smidge of salt, and squash casserole made without cream-o-whatever soup, topped with buttery bread crumbs.

Country Fried Steak and Gravy is one of those dishes that you can get started on the cooktop and then put in the oven to braise for the afternoon. The longer the meat sits in the gravy, soaking up the gentle heat of the oven, the more tender it will be. If you put this together about 2:00 in the afternoon, set it to braise in the oven, about 6 p.m. you'll be ready to eat. The bonus us that you can clean the kitchen and set the table so that dinner will be easy-breezy. There's nothing more discouraging to the cook is to look at a sink of dirty dishes while you're trying to enjoy a meal.

Country Fried Steak with Gravy

1 pound cubed round steak (packages are usually 1 1/4 pounds, and that's ok), cut into 4 oz. portions
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
salt and pepper
1 (14 oz.) can beef broth, preferably low-salt
4 sweet onions (preferred, but any storage onion is fine), peeled and thinly sliced
a couple tablespoons vegetable oil

1. Heat oven to 300. Have an oven-safe braising dish with a lid nearby. In a skillet, over medium heat, pour in oil. In a pie pan, combine flour, salt and pepper and dredge steaks.

2. Place dredged steaks in oil. Do this in batches so that the steaks brown well on both sides. Place browned steaks in braising dish. Continue until all steaks are in dish. Cover braising dish while you cook the onions.

3. Pour a little more oil into the pan and add onions. Scrape up all the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. When onions are soft, add remaining seasoned flour from the dredging pan. Whisk and cook the flour until there are no lumps. Gradually add beef broth, continuing to stir until smooth. If gravy is thick, add water until it reaches the desired consistency. Correct seasoning and pour onions and gravy mixture into braising dish over meat.

4. Place dish in oven for a minimum of one hour (tough but toothsome) up to three or four hours (tasty and meltingly tender meat). Every half hour, check the liquid and adjust if it gets too low by adding water.

5. While the simmering dish fills your house with that home-cooked smell, you can make a pot of white rice (my favorite) or mashed potatoes (more work, but more traditional). Tie on the last of your Mom's hostess aprons, set the table with your Mom's Pfaltzgraff and raid the pantry for a package of Jell-O.

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