Fall food

September 12, 2010

I’m not cooking today — it’s Child C’s birthday, and we are going out to eat. But these first few hints of fall in the air (albeit not last night, when I was sitting with 45,000 other sweaty folks in War Memorial Stadium, watching  the Razorbacks) and some fall-themed posts in blogs that I follow got me to thinking about fall cooking.

There are, of course, dishes that you think of as fall dishes. Braises, hearty stews, chili, slow-roasted things in the oven. But are there ingredients you just use more of in the fall? Or are there ingredients that just shout out to you, “It’s Fall, dammit! Pay attention here!”

Cooking sorghum molasses. Now THAT tastes like fall!

This makes me think of fall.

This is how folks cooked the syrup from sorghum cane, and probably still do, in that strip of territory on either side of the Tennessee River from Kentucky down to northern Mississippi and Alabama, right squarely in the middle of which is Camden, Tennessee, where I was born and grew up.

I can well remember the excitement when we heard on the local news on WFWL radio that “new sorghum” was available at the sorghum mill. We’d jump in the car and head to the mill, and pick up three or four quart cans of the sweet, sticky syrup.  And dinner that night would be:

  • Cracklin’ cornbread
  • Country bacon or ham
  • Home-canned tomatos
  • New sorghum and butter
  • and a big glass of cold milk

New sorghum, by the way, was so called because the freshly cooked syrup tastes differently than does that which has sat in its can for a few weeks. Think beaujolais nouveau.

Southern treatises have been written on the proper way to eat sorghum molasses. There is the school of thought that says you should poke a hole in the side of your biscuit and pour it full of the syrup. There is another that says you should drizzle it over an open-faced, buttered biscuit. But I learned to eat sorghum molasses thusly:

You take a pat of softened butter (maybe a tablespoon or two), and put it on your plate. You take the pitcher and pour a dollop of sorghum molasses over that (roughly twice as much molasses as you have butter). You use the blade of your knife, and you blend the two together until they’re a creamy, golden paste. And you smear that onto your biscuit or your cornbread, a bite’s worth at a time.

Bliss. Sheer, unadulterated bliss. And if you are fortunate enough to have cracklin’ cornbread, with tiny bits of crispy, salty pork skin distributed through it, and you’re alternating that with bites of smoked country bacon, and the occasional spoonful of canned tomatos to cut the richness of all the other stuff, chased by a long swallow of cold milk….well, it just doesn’t get much better than that.

Sorghum molasses, of course, is no slouch at breakfast, either; it, and pear preserves, are the two things that can make me prefer my eggs scrambled, vs. over easy. Something about the sweetness of the sorghum or pear preserves (another fine fall taste) against the creamy smoothness of the eggs that’s just….right. And it adds marvelously to baked beans, or to glazing ham, or to making gingerbread.

What else changes as far as fall cookery? I find I use more onions and more garlic, understandably, as I’m doing more soups and stews, all of which seem to begin with a sauteed onion and a few cloves of garlic. I use more canned tomatos. I use more dry beans, of assorted colors. I use more peppers.

So, despite it being 90 degrees, I’m thinking today about things like chili…posole…pot roast…vegetable beef soup….red beans and rice…beans and sausage.

Don’t know about you and y’mama ‘n ’em, but I think I’m about ready for fall.

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