Any way you look at it, November is the month of one of the biggest feasts of the year. Gulf Coasters do not take Big Dining lightly, and Thanksgiving is a great holiday for including all those wonderful items that come from the land and the sea. We load our tables with all manner of impressive goodies, prepared as only we can, using every cooking technique suitable to the purpose and our desires.
Importantly, we don’t deviate much from the way our mothers and grandmothers prepared the Thanksgiving feast in respect for tradition, but we also think of ways to improve on perfection. What cold heart among us does not anticipate a wonderful and memorable meal shared with relatives and friends?
While turkey may be the accepted American traditional center course, on the Gulf Coast we embellish with oysters, redfish, grouper, venison, duck, yams, dirty rice, corn bread, pork dressing and other items you won’t be seeing in a Norman Rockwell painting.
Cracklin’s and Peanuts
A lot of effort goes into making Thanksgiving dinner, one of the grandest meals of the year. But what about just snacking while waiting for the great dining experience? Are we as unique in that area? Do we have foods that are also not generally experienced in other parts of the country? You’d better believe it. Our snacks add to the occasion.
Take cracklin’s. These spicy bits of the pig’s flesh are deep-fried then coated with a spicy seasoning. The deep frying renders the fat that is just below the pig’s skin, so in that regard, cracklin’s are health food. But don’t get too carried away with that thought.
After the frying comes the spices, usually heavy on the salt, that are laden on the ready-to-eat snack that crackles as you eat it. You can find cracklin’s in cellophane bags manufactured by the same folks who bring you other “chips” products, but the best cracklin’s are homemade or made by small retailers, and they are fresh to you.
It’s become very fashionable of late for restaurants that feature pork, like Cajun restaurants, to create their own cracklin’s and serve them to guests when they sit down at the table.
Anyone who has never enjoyed an afternoon of cracklin’s and beer has never spent an authentic Gulf Coast two-course “formal dining” experience.
Boiled peanuts are a true child of the South. While the folks around Georgia have a claim to their creation, boiled peanuts are special treats across the many states that comprised the Old Confederacy. These tasty little treats are sold at truck stops, convenience stores and at roadside stands.
You take a regular peanut in the shell, and drop it into boiling water to which salt has been added. That’s as complicated as it gets. The boiling causes the salt to penetrate the shell, now soft. Remove the peanuts from the water, let them cool just a bit, and there you have it.
Many boiled peanut experts, which most of you probably are, know to leave the peanuts on a low boil for a couple of hours. Some let the peanuts and the water go all day. However soft you like your boiled peanuts determines how long they stay on the boil.
Most folks put the whole thing in their mouth, shell and all, and then extract the sweet nuts from inside, along with some of the salt water. Remove the shell from your mouth and chew/suck on the soft, sweet, salty, nutty peanut.
For an extra special treat, try adding crab boil to the water instead of just salt. Makes for a terrific flavor and a nice spiced kick.
Homemade Potato Chips
One of the great advertising lines of all time was, “Betcha’ can’t eat just one.” It was a line to sell potato chips. And it was credible because we all agree that it is true.
Yet homemade potato chips are better than store-bought and absolutely irresistible. Completely. What a special treat, and really so very easy to do. There are several tricks, but the important thing to remember is that the first batches will be devoured quickly. Maybe after that your gang will slow down a bit and you, the generous chef, can get ahead. But in the beginning you will be working from way behind the demand.
Fortunately it’s all quite simple. By making your own potato chips, you have complete freedom as to what kind of potato you wish to use. The firmer the potato, the closer you will come to what everyone knows as potato chips. Then when you get into the sweet potato/yam family, that’s really where the fun begins. Those are flavors everyone enjoys but did not know they would like as a potato chip.
Another key is to keep the potato slice uniform. Whether you like thin or thick cuts, just make certain all the potatoes going into the fryer are uniform for cooking consistency.
You’ll also want your grease good and hot, and you’ll want the oil to be fresh and clean. When you slice up your potatoes let them sit for 30-45 minutes in cold water which removes starches and allows the potato to crisp up in the oil.
Dry the potatoes then drop them into the oil, which should be around 350 degrees. Cooking takes 3 minutes or less. When they are done, remove them from the oil and allow the potato chips to drain and cool completely.
Here’s another fun part: you can spice them however you want. Maybe plain salt is fine for you, but what about truffle salt, or jalapeño salt, or Cajun salt? All of the flavors that come from the large manufacturers of potato chips do not occur until the end of all the processes, just before bagging, when the salts are sprinkled on the product.
You can do the same, but since these are your own personal chips, you have more freedom to please you.
Pickled Vegetables, Okra and Mirlitons
As noted above, we humans are big fans of salt. We crave it, even if at times it’s not that healthy for us. Who cares? We are talking snack foods here and no one is ever going to mistake a boiled nut, a potato chip or a pickle for health food.
But we love these things. And pickled vegetables are still vegetables, right? Yea, yea, I know. Save your breath. I still like my vegetables in a briny condition.
Pickled okra is a particularly great approach to enjoying vegetables covered in brine. And a great vegetable. It’s local to us. The knock on okra is usually its texture, not its taste. Gotta’ love the grassy goodness. And with pickling, you are dealing with whole okra, not the cooked deal that sometimes is just slimy, not texturally tempting.
When you pickle okra, you get take full advantage of the interior air chambers in the plant that allow the pickling spices and brine to fully circulate on both the interior and the exterior. The crispy okra that evolves is a delight to just pick up and bite into.
Incidentally, the Gulf Coast tie-in with okra goes back over 200 years. Even the word “gumbo” is African meaning okra. That’s an excellent pedigree.
So go ahead. Have your big November feast. Do it as only Gulf Coasters can. But don’t forget the snacks, again, as only we can do it.
Photos courtesy of Stock.Xchng, Cajun-shop.com, gracebeforemeals.com, food.com