Over the past several years, Southern American cuisine has found its place on the white-linen tablecloths across the continent. Chefs have been drawn to the flavors and techniques native to the lands south of the Mason Dixon line for many reasons. Some even swear that Southern cooking is the closest we could get to a true identity of American cuisine altogether. The rich agriculture of the South and deep history of our nation lends to those ideas. With early settlements in Virginia and the Carolinas exchanging information and techniques with Native Americans, the foundations for Southern American cuisine began to develop. As the South continued to grow, the cultural melting pot deepened.
The foods of the low country are reflective of the economic stability of these early days. Dishes rich in grains and vegetables that employ less desirable cuts of meat were very common in the fields and on dinner tables of the less fortunate. Southern food culture is based on the idea of making something out of nothing. Dishes like rice middlins’ made from leftover broken grains of rice from the mill, or kilt greens—a pot of tough leafy greens like collards or mustards cooked down with water and smoked ham hock—or fat back; these dishes are still served in some of the fanciest Southern restaurants to this day.
The idea is to make the best of what is available. Sometimes we find that the greatest ingredients are those that are most often passed over for one reason or another. Maybe all it takes is a few extra steps to unlock the delicious potential of a certain cut of meat, or possibly applying new techniques to familiar grains or vegetables. Finding something new in the familiar is exciting. One of my favorite dishes to cook is based on that idea. Braised chicken thighs with rice grits and kilt mustard greens is one of the most delicious and comforting dishes there is to cook. It seems simple on the surface, and it isn’t really difficult to make, but it takes a little patience and a bit of coaxing to find the maximum flavor in these recipes. It is the perfect meal for a cool evening with family and friends.
Braised Chicken Thighs
Braising is a technique that is most closely associated with stewing. It is a slow and low method that yields extremely tender meat, with rich and delicious gravy to accompany it.
4-6 Bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
1 Large yellow onion, quartered
2 Medium carrots, peeled and quartered
2 Ribs of celery, rinsed and cut into 2 inch pieces
3 Cloves garlic, smashed
3 Sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
3-5 cups Chicken stock
3 T olive oil
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Liberally salt the chicken thighs. In a large dutch oven, heat the olive oil on medium high heat. Place the chicken thighs skin side down and sear until the skin is a deep dark brown color. Flip over and sear the other side for about 3-5 minutes. Remove the thighs from the pot and add the cut vegetables. Cook the carrot, onion and celery until they begin to caramelize a bit. Remove the veggies from the pan and set aside with the chicken thighs. Carefully pour off the majority of the excess fat and deglaze the pan with about half of the chicken stock.Place the vegetables back in the pan and arrange the chicken thighs on top. Pour in the rest of the broth until the thighs are about 60 percent submerged in the stock. Bring the liquid to a boil, place the lid on the pot, and cook in the preheated oven for 45 minutes. Let the thighs rest or cool in the liquid before removing them. Strain the vegetables from the cooking liquid and reserve it for gravy, or in this instance, potlikker.
Potlikker is the liquid counterpart to kilt greens. When I say kilt, I’m not talking about the plaid Scottish garment. I mean cooked damn near to death. This recipe takes tough fibrous greens and turns them into a pot of steamy, spicy goodness.
Kilt Mustard Greens with Italian Sausage
1 Bunch curly mustard greens
1 Large yellow onion, peeled and sliced thin
4 ounces hot Italian sausage, casing removed
1-2 cups braising liquid, or chicken stock
Pepper vinegar, salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste.
Remove the thick stems and wash the mustard greens thoroughly, using a large mixing bowl and a colander. Place the mustard leaves in the bowl and fill it with cold water. Agitate the leaves a bit and then remove them from the bowl into the colander. Repeat this process at least three times, or until there is no visible sediment left behind in the mixing bowl.
In a large stock pot, cook the sausage on medium high until it is cooked through. Add the onion and cook until they begin to caramelize. Add the mustard greens a little at a time, allowing them to wilt. Add the stock or braising liquid from the chicken thighs and cook until the greens are tender, about 20 minutes. Season the pot liquor with the salt, pepper and vinegar to taste. Enjoy with a braised thigh over a bowl of rice grits.
1 Cup Rice, ground in a blender or food processor
2 1/2 C heavy cream
1 1/2 C water
2 T butter
4 ounces Cream Cheese
salt and pepper to taste
In a medium size pot, bring the cream, water and butter to a boil. Add in the ground rice, stirring constantly until it is all incorporated. Cut the heat back to medium and continue to stir. As the rice cooks and expands, the grits will thicken. If they become to thick, add a little hot water to thin them out. Cook until the rice grits are tender, about 15 minutes. Add the cream cheese and season to taste.