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Soul good: 6 recipes that celebrate soul food
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Soul good: 6 recipes that celebrate soul food

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The historian and scholar John Hope Franklin used to tell the story about the end of segregation in the South.

Blacks in his town were excited by the prospect: At last they would get to see what the white folks ate. But their first trips to previously all-white restaurants quickly turned to disappointment.

Southern whites were eating ham hocks, cornbread and collard greens. They were eating the same things we were, he would say.

The Black version of the food, of course, came to be known as soul food. And like other folk cuisines, in recent years it has split in two directions.

Most soul food is still the old-fashioned, down-home food that has been feeding families for generations. But there has also been a surge in upscale, gentrified soul food — soul food with a modern touch. We're talking collard greens pesto, charred okra and blueberry-sweet-tea-brined chicken thighs.

Give me the down-home soul food any day. You know, the soul food with soul.

I made a big batch of six old-school soul-food recipes, just right for a big Sunday dinner.

Much soul food falls into three main preparations: fried, smothered with gravy and cooked at a low temperature for a long time. The dishes I made fell neatly into all three categories.

I began, naturally, with smothered pork chops. It just isn’t Sunday dinner if there aren’t pork chops smothered in a gravy with plenty of onions.

Half of the flavor comes from a simple rub that coats the chops before they are pan-fried. Onion powder, garlic powder, seasoning salt and pepper work their magic on the naturally sweet pork. A light dredge through flour creates a thin but beneficial crust on the chops, which are then cooked in the always desirable combination of olive oil and butter (that part probably is less old-school than the others).

To keep the pork from drying out, cook it just until the moment the pinkness inside disappears — you can actually cook it just a little bit pink and still be safe, according to the FDA.

The other half of the flavor is the gravy. You begin with some of the leftover fat in the pan, which flavors the onions and garlic, and provides a robust basis for a quick roux. A combination of chicken broth and buttermilk creates just the right consistency for a heavy and hearty gravy.

In the category of fried foods, I made fried catfish, although fried chicken would have been equally traditional. Like the pork chops, the catfish is dredged through flour before frying, but this time the flour is mixed with cornmeal, which creates a satisfying crunch.

A handful of spices (garlic powder, cayenne, celery seed, paprika and black pepper) are mixed in, too, so the crust dazzles the taste buds before yielding to the soft sweetness of the catfish.

If you disparage catfish as a bottom feeder, and I know many people who do, you can use the same technique to cook other thin fish such as tilapia and trout with equally excellent results.

Another soul food necessity — an absolute necessity — is macaroni and cheese. Here I decided to go a little fancy. Instead of making a typical, average mac and cheese, I made a recipe we ran in the Post-Dispatch several years ago for Sweetie Pie’s Macaroni and Cheese.

This is restaurant mac and cheese, as opposed to family mac and cheese, and the calorie count reflects that fact. But so does the taste, the rich, smooth, creamy, soul-embracing taste. Also, and I cannot emphasize this enough, it is Sweetie Pie’s macaroni and cheese.

Perhaps you make macaroni and cheese with one kind of cheese. Maybe you make it with two. It is even possible you get it out of a shiny blue box with powdered orange stuff, which I guess technically counts as cheese?

Not Sweetie Pie’s. This insanely addictive dish is made from sharp cheddar, mild cheddar (or American), Velveeta and Colby-Jack, which is actually two cheeses but I am only going to count it as one.

Plus, it has evaporated milk, whole milk and butter. If you’re lactose-intolerant, perhaps you shouldn’t try it. That is a shame, because there may be literally nothing better to eat on this Earth.

Cornbread is almost as constant a fixture at Sunday dinner as macaroni and cheese. There are three basic ways to make cornbread — plain, sweet and spicy — and I made mine the soul food way: sweet.

I am not ashamed to admit that the basis for my recipe came from the carton for Quaker Oats cornmeal. That makes a frankly delicious cornbread, but it isn’t sweet and it isn’t soulful. So I made two changes that shot it into the realm of soul.

The first was to use buttermilk instead of whole milk; buttermilk adds a faint tang that dances with the sweetness of the cornmeal. The other was to add honey, which layers an undertone of rich, earthy depth to the dish.

It is almost like cake, and it is amazing.

Naturally, I also made collard greens, which is one of those dishes that needs to be cooked slowly at a low temperature.

The long, slow simmer is needed to turn the tough greens into something delightfully tender. But the technique also brings out the most of the greens’ hearty flavor, as well as allowing the tastes added in the cooking liquid to come out — onion, garlic, paprika (some of these ingredients may begin to seem familiar), bacon grease, Worcestershire sauce, apple cider vinegar, crushed red pepper and ham hocks.

Or at least it should have ham hocks. But ham hocks have been difficult to find recently, for reasons I don’t quite understand. The last time I needed them, I substituted smoked ham shanks. This time, I went with smoked turkey tails. These have some wonderful meat in them, but you have to dig through quite a lot of fat to get to it. Next time, if I can’t find the hocks, I’ll use a smoked turkey leg.

Finally, I made another standard soul-food dish, oxtails. These became part of soul food because they were so inexpensive, but like so many other cheap-but-great cuts of meat that have been discovered they have suddenly become much more expensive.

Nevertheless, I persisted. Oxtails, which are actually made from the tail of a cow, are another slow-cooking dish. I used a slow cooker, though they could also be made on a stovetop or in an oven, to cook the tails in a sauce made from beef broth, onion, garlic and Worcestershire sauce.

The flavors in this sauce highlight the rich beefiness of the oxtails, which slowly turn meltingly tender as they cook.

And they are good. They are so good. I had mine with cornbread and collard greens. It was a satisfying meal with soul.

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