Chicken and Dressing – Free Download

Considering the holidays, and some folks, due to no fault of their own, not knowing how to make cornbread dressing properly – I saw where one lady said she was gonna use Jiffy Cornbread Mix in hers! – my members are making a draft chapter of my narrative cookbook, Food Is Love, available for free download.

It gives you the story behind my memories of Chicken and Dressing and includes recipes for Southern AF cornbread, as well as Chicken and Dressing (and a variation if you want to use pork sausage, like my momma does, instead).

I’m working on a book full of meals and stories like these, and if you want to know how to support that work, get early draft copies of chapters like this in your inbox, and more, you should become a member – you can learn more about that here. If you just want to thank me, you can buy me a cup of coffee or share this post with a friend.

You can download the free PDF file here – no tricks, no spam, and no need to surrender your email address. It’s a pure gift.

I hope your holidays are marvelous, and that you get to celebrate them with the people you love.

Things That Endure

Jerry was a salesman of the old school, straight out of an episode of Mad Men. He was dapper as could be, with creases on his pants that would have cut you, and I never saw him without at least a sports coat, even that time I met him and a client at a ball game.

Jerry was my mentor when I was in financial sales, and he took my somewhat more casual approach to my appearance as a personal challenge. He also tried to teach me the finer points of the business lunch.

Jerry was a big one for lunch. We always lunched together on Fridays and always at one of several restaurants at least as old-school as Jerry himself was. They all had bars, tended to be dark paneled, and had pretty waitresses and generous bartenders. And, without exception, the food was always good.

I remarked on this once when we went to a somewhat shady-looking oyster bar whose dated decor did not fill me with high hopes going in.

“Of course the food is good! I’ve been coming here for 30 years. That doesn’t happen if the food is crap. You have to respect things that endure.”

One of Jerry’s favorite places was Mr. B’s. It was a steak and seafood house in Germantown, an affluent suburb of Memphis. The walls were raw brick, with a small bar along the wall, and the steaks were huge, and so were the cocktails.

Mr. B’s made their reputation on supper but had a strong lunchtime crowd, and being early in my career, my budget leaned more to the blue plate special than it did the porterhouse steaks. And one of the things they did really well was their country-fried steaks.

At least, that is what they called it. If you are used to a large piece of meat deep fried until crispy and then covered in milk gravy such as one may eat at a Cracker Barrel, this was not that.

Instead, it was a tender piece of beef, obviously pounded thin, then fried in a thin batter, and then cooked in a thick brown gravy until it practically fell apart. It was my favorite thing on the menu.

When I was a little boy, the elderly lady next door made something she called steak and gravy that my mom tried and tried to replicate but could not. This was very close to that.

We don’t eat a lot of beef – mostly because of the cost. But also, because we didn’t eat much of it growing up, it just isn’t something I crave. But the other day, the meat department at Kroger had their cubed steaks on clearance, and so I decided to whip up a batch of steak and gravy for dinner one night.

I got home from my last meeting today at 4, so I decided to make today the day it happened. I got out the deep skillet and put four tablespoons of shortening in it to melt and turned the oven on to 350 to preheat.

While waiting, I put a half cup of flour in a shallow bowl and added a teaspoon of black pepper, a teaspoon of salt, and a half teaspoon each of garlic powder and cayenne pepper. I stirred it well.

After dredging the cubed steaks through the flour mixture, I put them in the skillet to brown – about two minutes a side until the flour had formed a crisp crust, but the interiors were still not finished. I did them in batches, putting them on a cooling rack as they finished.

In the melted shortening still in the bottom of the pan, I sauteed a small amount (maybe 1 /4 cup?) of diced onion until brown, then added a few tablespoons of the flour dredge that was left over. After it was all browned, I added enough milk to make a thin gravy, into which I slid the breaded steaks. I put a lid on the skillet and slid it into the oven, where it sat and bubbled away for an hour and a half.

When I pulled it out, the gravy had separated – a danger of using milk gravy for something like this. I removed the steaks, put the skillet on the stove again, added a bit of half-and-half, and whisked quickly until the gravy was thinned out and reconstituted. I slid the steaks back in and let them simmer over low heat as I set the table.

Had I served it with mashed potatoes and English peas, this would have been my favorite meal of my childhood. But instead, we served it over white rice, making it my favorite meal today and still damn good.

My Favorite Sandwich

Until my late teens, my Dad worked for a propane company.

He literally sold propane and propane accessories.

In rural Mississippi, propane is a big deal. I live in town now, and we have natural gas piped in, but folks who live out in the county buy propane, and a giant truck comes out to your house and fills up a huge tank, and that is what fuels your water heater and your cookstove and your heater. Every small town in Mississippi has at least one propane dealer, and in my hometown for most of my childhood, that dealership was run by my daddy.

Now, they sold propane, but the propane accessories was where the money was. The showroom at the front of his building had propane cook stoves, propane fish cookers, and propane grills for sale. The markup on these was high, and after all, the more things you owned that used propane, the more propane you would buy. So every summer, they would have an Open House of sorts, where they would do some sort of sale and set up a grill in the parking lot in front of the building, and there might be balloons and, to highlight the cooking ability of this grill, Dad would put a couple of pounds of bologna on the rotisserie.

It was smart on a number of levels: Bologna was cheap, so this promotion was low cost. It highlighted a rotisserie accessory, which most folks didn’t have, and so they couldn’t replicate it without buying one. It smelled amazing, so it intrigued people who stopped by. And it just tasted good.

It wasn’t complicated: He went to the meat counter in the Big Star grocery and bought a 5-pound chub of bologna, which is just bologna that hasn’t been sliced. It looks like a huge hot dog more than anything else. It has a red plastic skin, which must be peeled away. Then it was threaded onto the rotisserie spit and scored about a quarter inch deep along its length in a criss-cross pattern. Then it was cooked for a good hour or two over medium heat and was periodically basted with a cheap bottled barbeque sauce.

The heat made the surface split along the score marks, and the sauce would seep into the cracks, and the barbeque sauce would sort of candy on the surface. He would keep one going all day, and would have another cut up into small chunks, which were speared on toothpicks for the customers to try as samples. But one advantage of having a dad who was the manager was that you didn’t just get the small samples: You got a barbeque bologna sandwich.

It involved a hamburger bun, toasted. On it, you put a dollop of cheap bottled sauce, a half-inch thick slice of barbeque bologna, all topped by a generous scoop of cole slaw. It won’t taste right unless it is served on a cheap paper plate, accompanied by a handful of Golden Flake potato chips, and paired with an ice cold Coke in a glass bottle that was purchased for a quarter from the cold drink box in the warehouse.

And for best results, it should be handed to you by someone who loves you.

Food is love.

If I were to make a list of the things I know for sure, that food is love would be one of them.

I have known that since I was old enough to know anything. That the secret ingredient in the biscuits Aunt Monty stood in front of the counter and rolled out every day of her life was pure love. That the tender pot roast after church on Sunday was as sincere a sign of my mother’s affection as she was capable of making. That I have never felt as at home in the world as I did all those years ago, in the fellowship hall of Emory Methodist Church, eating Miss VanHook’s chicken and dumplings.

I come from working-class stock. We did not have money for vacations or new cars or even health insurance, but by God, we could have green beans seasoned right and biscuits fit for gods and jelly that came from the efforts of women who loved you sweating over a kettle in the heat of summer.

It was the way people who loved me but didn’t have a lot of tools to express that love, showed it.

I don’t believe I am alone in that. I have polled large groups of people, and always end up with the same results: If I were to ask you your favorite memories of people you loved who are now gone, most of the time, those memories involve food.

Because food is love. It is the product of love, and it’s how we show love, and it’s how we feel love.

So, I’m writing a book about that. It’s a cookbook, in the sense that it will have recipes, but it’s also a book of stories because the stories give meaning and context to the food. Think of it as a narrative cookbook, organized around 18 meals and 40 recipes.

This has no commercial potential. Rachael Ray will not have some dude from MS on her show to talk about sausage gravy and the way it felt when his family had driven 8 hours through the night to get to his grandparent’s house and the weary travelers were groggy and sleepy but a hot breakfast was waiting on them.

But because I have members who support my work, I don’t have to worry about that. So I’m gonna publish it myself, with the financial support and encouragement of my members.

Here’s the plan: Beginning Friday, July 1, members of the Membership Team will get an email with a link to download a PDF of a chapter of the book, and will then get a chapter in their inbox every Friday until Friday before Thanksgiving.

Then, on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, the finished book will be available for purchase on the major platforms (print and ebook) but everyone on the Membership Team in November will get a free print copy in the mail as my way of saying thanks for their support.

So, if you are not part of the Membership Team, you can buy my narrative cookbook Food Is Love on Black Friday. But Members will get Chapter One in their inbox on July the 1st.

You can learn more about how to be part of the Membership Team and support my work (and get a free copy of Food Is Love in the process) for as little as $5 a month here.

Hot dog sandwiches

A while back, I was interviewed for the Food and Faith Podcast, and we talked about food and how it figures into our memories. And I had a throwaway line in there where I was talking about the power of food, and I said that the best meal you ever had and your favorite meal was probably two different meals.

My point was that the feelings we associate with food are often separate from the actual quality of the food. This is why my favorite way to eat a hot dog has nothing to do with the best tasting hotdog I ever had.

The best tasting hotdog I ever had was about two weeks ago, in my kitchen. It was the Kirkland bun-length all-beef hotdog, from Costco. It was on a Natures’s Own butter roll, and it was outfitted with dill pickle relish and dijon mustard.

They are in our rotation, and maybe once a month when we need supper in a hurry, I will steam some hotdogs and bake some tater tots and have supper on the table in 20 minutes, with very little mess to clean up.

It’s an amazing hot dog. Really. But it’s not my favorite.

I was six years old and was staying at Monty and Doc’s house. They were the retired farmers who lived next door to us and served as my surrogate grandparents because all of mine were either dead or far away.

Monty was the best cook in the world – I know I said so dozens of times, and usually to my mom when she tried to replicate something I had eaten cooked by Monty, and Mom’s version was found wanting.

“Of course, it’s not as good as Monty’s, Mom. Monty’s the best cook in the world.”

This was probably not, in retrospect, the most empowering thing my mom ever heard.

But anyway, I’m staying at Monty and Doc’s. And for lunch that day, she told me we were having hot dogs.

I loved hot dogs. Mostly, Mom just boiled them and we put them on buns with mustard and ketchup (don’t judge – I was young and foolish). Sometimes, when we went camping, we would eat them grilled. But I had never had Monty’s hot dogs – I just knew these were gonna be great!

I knew something was up when she got out a cast-iron skillet. She then sliced the dogs – the bright red linked dogs you bought at the butcher counter, not the “regular” hot dogs Mom always bought – from end to end. Then she put a dab of bacon grease in the middle of the skillet and turned the stove on medium, and I watched the fat melt and coat the bottom of the skillet. She picked up the skillet and turned it first this way and then that, coating the bottom of the skillet with a thin sheen of fat.

She put the sliced dogs cut side up in the skillet, and cooked them until they got a slight crust on the outside, then flipped them over. At this point, they would often be curled from the heat, and she would take her turner and press the cut side down against the bottom of the skillet until it, too, was crusted.

While they were cooking, she had put white bread (light bread, we called it then) under the broiler to toast. Then she slathered one piece with yellow mustard, put one and a half hot dogs (three strips) on top of that, and then coated the other piece of toast with mayonnaise and the sandwich was made.

I protested. “I don’t like mayonnaise on my hotdogs!” I told her.

“Have you ever had a hot dog sandwich before?” she asked.

Well, no, I admitted.

She told me that meant I didn’t know if I liked it or not, and to sit down and eat my sandwich.

So I did. And that was the day I learned that I love mayonnaise on a hot dog sandwich.

The Ice Cream

I have written before in these pages about my Aunt Louise. My great aunt, really – Dad’s mom’s sister – she died when I was 12, but until then was one of my biggest influences.

She lived on 40 acres, 10 miles from a town of 800 people, and while she owned a car, she could not drive. It never occurred to me at the time, but she was intensely lonely out there.

Lonnie was her second husband, and he owned land out in rural Desoto County, Mississippi so when they got married she moved from Memphis to his house. It had been his parent’s house, actually. Lonnie had grown up in it and then had lived in it with his first wife, and when he moved Louise in, she insisted on major changes. The kitchen was moved to another room, the bathroom was upgraded, and she turned the old kitchen into a storage room.

I asked her one time why she moved the kitchen.

“There wasn’t anything wrong, really, with the old kitchen. But it wasn’t mine. It was hers”, she said, meaning the first wife. “I told him if I was moving in there, he was going to make the house the way I like it. “

And he did. Aunt Louise took no crap.

She had lived in town all her life – in Dyersburg, and then in Memphis. And so moving to the middle of nowhere was a big deal for her. And when he died in 1971, she was alone in that house, with her two dogs – Festus and Princess.

I only knew her alone. We would go over on Saturday and take her grocery shopping in town, and occasionally we took her into Memphis to her doctor’s appointment, and often I would spend the night there when Mom and Dad went out somewhere and would be home late. I loved staying at Aunt Louise’s house.

Virtually every woman I knew was in some way defined by a man. Mom was married to Dad, and did things that benefitted him. Monty was married to Mr. Doc, and cooked and did his laundry. But Aunt Louise just took care of herself. She was the most independent woman I knew growing up.

Sometimes she ate cereal for supper. I told her that everybody knew that cereal was for breakfast, and she told me she was a grown woman and could do whatever she wanted to, and that the worst reason to do anything was that everyone told you you were supposed to do it that way.

She had a 4 cup coffee maker, but she only drank three cups of coffee every morning. The remaining cup she mixed with Pet milk, and poured it over a handful of crushed crackers after it had cooled down, and she served that to her dogs. Yes, her dogs got coffee for breakfast each morning.

She kept a gun in her purse, drank whisky like water, and would, when she got down, drunk dial her friends back in Memphis. She read Earle Stanly Gardener and Agatha Christie, watched Barnaby Jones and Perry Mason, and cooked for herself and her dogs.

Once, when I was staying over, Mom had dropped me off after supper, and so we were sitting at her table, watching Barnaby Jones waiting to go to bed when she announced she was hungry. I told her I had already eaten, and she told me that she had too, but that a nice thing about living by yourself was that you could absolutely eat two suppers if you wanted to.

She got up and rummaged around in the pantry, and pulled out a can of Showboat Pork and Beans. She put them on the stove to warm, and then she pulled a package of hot dogs from the freezer and took two out. She sliced the frozen dogs directly into the beans, and then covered them as they simmered.

After we had eaten, she got out a half-gallon of vanilla ice cream and a can of Hershey’s syrup, and we gave a scoop of ice cream to the dogs, because of course we did, and we ate ice cream and watched Perry Mason and I told her I was always going to live alone, so I could stay up late and eat ice cream whenever I wanted.

“You don’t have to live alone to stay up late and eat ice cream whenever you want”, she told me.

“It’s just easier if you do.”

Firehouse Soup

While I went to college, I worked a few years as a firefighter for the City of Memphis. I learned many things there, but the biggest impact it had on me long-term was how it taught me to think about food.

The deal was that you worked every other day for three days, and then you were off for four days. So, for example, you may work Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and then you would be off until the following Wednesday, when the cycle started all over again. And each shift was 24 hours long and began at 7 AM. Depending on what fire-fighting equipment was housed at your station, you could have anywhere from four to 12 people on each shift, and you always worked with the same people.

It was like a second family you lived with 1/3rd of your life. We had laundry and showers and we cut the grass and, of course, ate together. And while there was a kitchen and equipment such as pans and knives provided, the actual food was not, and was up to you. Some people brought their own food, but you didn’t if you wanted to be trusted by the others on your shift. To be trusted, you needed to belong to the syndicate.

I worked at several different houses during the years I was on the job, and the syndicate always worked the same way. There was one member of the shift who kept track of a pool of money, and that was used to buy groceries for your shift. Each shift had its own refrigerator and cupboard, which were kept locked. At each meal, you were either “in” or “out” for the meal, meaning you intended to eat the food bought from the pool of money, and you were “charged” your pro-rata share of the groceries that went into that meal. And on payday, you settled up your bill, which replenished the pool of money, and it started all over again.

So, every day you worked, you had to figure out who was cooking three meals for your shift. Some shifts had 1 person who just loved cooking, and they took it on as their responsibility, but most times we would ask who wanted to cook each meal, with the others doing cleanup. Breakfast was usually fixed – eggs, bacon, biscuits were common, most often with gravy – and lunch was often caught as catch can, but the big show was supper.

A cool thing about this system is that you had a diversity of cooks, with each bringing their favorites to the table. Tom was in his 20s and could run the grill, but not much else. Curtis loved to make spaghetti. Stan made round steak and gravy, with mashed potatoes and English peas so good that my mouth waters just thinking about it.

And John always made soup.

John was nearing retirement after nearly 30 years on the job. He had been divorced for nearly 20 of those years and most of his off-work meals were either sandwiches or dinner fare. But his one claim to culinary fame was his soup.

I probably ate it two dozen times and watched him make it half of those times, and it was never done exactly the same way twice. It was more of a technique rather than a recipe, but what it always was, was good.

As an example, I will share how I made it last week, but everything in this recipe is up for negotiation.

Dice a small onion into small pieces, and dice two cloves of garlic while you are at it. In a large pot, crumble a pound of ground beef, add your diced onions, and sprinkle some salt on top of it all, and then, over medium heat, begin to brown the ground beef. Stir it all around until the meat is no longer pink and the onions are translucent, then add the garlic and let it sweat a bit, but don’t, for the love of God, let it burn or you just ruined the whole thing. The garlic will be flavorful and ready in about a minute.

Pour in three and a half cups of beef broth (or water plus an appropriate amount of beef paste) and a 12-ounce can of V8 juice. Using a spoon or something, scrape the bottom of the pan to make sure all the bits are off the bottom of the pan and it’s all mixed well.

To this, add a 15-ounce can of diced tomatoes (Rotel is another option here, but it obviously changes the flavor), a couple of tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce (easy for you to say), and 2 teaspoons of Italian seasoning. We only had a few spice jars at the fire station, but Italian seasoning went into everything. Let it come to a boil.

While you are waiting on that, peel and dice 2 potatoes of whatever kind you have around – I had Yukon Golds. Add it to the pot, along with a pound of frozen mixed vegetables. (I know that sounds vague, but that’s what they are always called at the grocery. It’s generally green beans, carrots, and English peas.) Let it boil, then bring it down to a simmer for 15 minutes.

NOW. You can let it simmer for another 15 minutes and have a perfectly acceptable soup to serve with your dinner. Or, you can do what I did and add a cup and a half of elbow macaroni and another half cup of beef broth and THEN let it simmer for another 15 minutes and have a hearty, filling soup you can eat for diner all by itself.

Beef or shredded chicken. V8 or Tomato sauce. Beef broth or chicken. Macaroni or spaghetti or even instant grits (trust me on this). Tomatoes or Rotel. White potatoes or sweet potatoes (What? Yes.)

It’s all up in the air. Mix and match. Live a little.

You deserve it.

Chips and Cheese

In high school, I worked at a grocery store after school. I worked from 4 to closing (which was 8 PM) during the week, and usually a good eight hours on Saturday, and would sometimes work on Sundays from 1 when we opened after the church was out, until 6 when we closed. Sunday was the worst because on Sundays you had to both open AND close.

It was a small town and a small grocery store. It was roughly the size of a Rite Aid or small Walgreens. I didn’t work every night, but most of them. I generally pulled 25 hours a week or more – probably more than was wise for a kid my age, but I loved it.

But the best part was after I got home. By the time we closed the store, it might be 9 before I got home during the week. Supper would be long over, and my brothers in bed, but Mom would leave dinner out for me, and I would fix myself a plate and heat it up in the microwave. Often she would then put everything away and go lay down and read, and Dad would sit up to watch the news before bed.

This particular night, I had gotten in later than normal and was starving. Mom had fixed Taco Salad for supper, which was what she called it when she would spread crumbled tortilla chips on a plate, then cover the plate with iceberg lettuce and tomatoes and shredded cheese, which was then topped with “taco meat”, which is what we called ground beef with an Old El Paso seasoning packet added, and jarred salsa and sour cream. It was very filling and good and seemed exotic in Marshall County, Mississippi in 1986.

All the ingredients were left out on the counter, waiting on me to put them together. Mom was already in bed, reading, and Dad was watching the end of a show, in anticipation of the news. I piled all the assorted goodness on my plate and, as I often did on those nights, sat in the living room with Dad and ate while we watched TV together.

When the show ended, I got up to put the food away. Dad followed me into the kitchen.

“Wait a minute”, he said. “I need a snack.”

He took down a large supper plate – one of the white Corelle plates with the blue flowers they had gotten as newlyweds – and spread chips over it in a single layer, edges just barely touching. Then he picked up the block of good sharp hoop cheese we always seemed to have in our refrigerator and, holding the box grater in his left hand, grated cheese over the tops of the chips in a dense layer, coving the chips until only the undulations of the chips under the cheese betrayed their existence.

He took this mounded plate of yellow marvelousness and put it in the microwave for 30 seconds, during which time the cheese melted and spread over the chips, flowing into the cracks and bubbling on top. He took it out, pulled a chip from the edge of the plate, watched the melted cheese string stretch an improbable length before breaking, then picked it high in the air and, head tilted back, put the whole thing in his mouth, cheese string first, the way some people eat spaghetti.

Then he shut the microwave door and went into the living room to watch the news. I had watched all this with curiosity, just waiting to see where this was going. Suddenly, the spell broke.

“Wait, “ I said. “I want some!”

“Well, make you some of your own. What do you want me to do, write the recipe down for you?”

So I made some, exactly the same way, and just as I walked into the living room, the news came on the TV. We sat together on the couch, in silence, with nothing heard above the sound of the TV but the crunching of chips and occasional sighs of satisfaction.

Creamed Chicken

They say smell is the oldest of the five senses we humans have. I certainly believe it – There have been times I haven’t smelled a thing in 30 years, and then I do, and I’m instantly taken back. It’s as if the smell is somehow a shortcut to the exact spot in my brain where that memory hides.

I will always remember that hot summer night on Parris Island whenever I smell rotting fruit. I will always think of my Great Aunt’s bathroom when I smell rusting metal. The smell of strawberries instantly transports me into a walk-in cooler in Byhalia, MS, where 16 year old me would hide when I should have been working and would eat the Louisiana strawberries that I should have been putting on the store shelves.

And the smell of hot tuna always transports me back to my momma’s kitchen on a day in 1980: A day I should have been in school, but was home instead, sick.

It was a cold day, and I had been running a fever all night and so Mom let me lay on the couch and watch The Price is Right on TV instead of going to school.

I had dozed off, somewhere before the Showcase Showdown and she gently woke me. The TV was off, and I felt a bit better, and she sat on the couch beside me and asked if I was hungry.

“I’m about to fix some creamed tuna over toast,” she said.

I told her I didn’t know what that was.

“I know. But I love it, and your dad doesn’t – he calls it cat food – and since it’s just us today, I thought I would make some.”

We walked into our small kitchen, and I drug a chair over to the stove, to watch.

She got out a small pan and drained a can of tuna. We only had the kind packed in water, because Dad was watching his cholesterol – and she heated up a can of cream of mushroom soup and stirred in a can’s worth of water, and added the tuna to it while it heated.

In the meantime, she put four slices of bread in our toaster, and when the toast was done, she tore it into small pieces, which she placed in the white Corelle bowls with the small blue flower trim they had gotten as newlyweds. She set them on the oak table that my grandfather rescued from the fire in the 1930s.

She took a serving spoon from the drawer and spooned the tuna mixture over both our bowls and then stirred it well, to coat the chunks of bread with the ersatz roux.

The kitchen did smell vaguely of cat food, to my dad’s point, but not obnoxiously so. At that moment, it just smelled good, and safe.

I still love it – creamed tuna over toast, even if I don’t make it that way anymore. I would learn, later, about bechamel sauce and seasoning and the value of aromatics. But that would all come later.

Mom and I didn’t have a lot of things that were just ours – we still don’t, actually – but our love of creamed tuna over toast was one of them. And to this day, when I don’t feel particularly well, I will make a version of this dish and just know everything is going to be OK.

I want to go on record that there’s nothing wrong with making it the way Mom did. I mean, if you are sick, or have been pulling lots of shifts, or just don’t have a lot of energy, spending 10 minutes dumping two cans into a pot and then pouring it over toasted bread may be all you have the energy for. And if that’s true, then go for it.

But, if you find yourself with 15 minutes and a smidgen more energy, you can make something remarkable. These days, I often make this using chicken, because my wife shares my dad’s feelings about seafood, and I want to keep living here. But you can replace the chicken in this recipe with tuna and it still works.

Everything you will need for this is in your pantry, or at least should be. Bread. Flour. Butter. Some leftover chicken. Salt. Pepper. Chicken broth, An onion. Milk. Love.

Before you get started, let’s talk about chicken. You can use leftover chicken of any sort. White meat. Dark meat. Canned chicken. Leftover rotisserie chicken. Chicken legs you bought on clearance and poached specifically for this dish. It doesn’t matter. Really. They all have different flavor profiles, but they are all good. You will need to shred it up, and you need about two cups of it.

You want to start with two tablespoons of butter, which you put in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat.

While it’s melting, take a small onion, and dice it fine. You don’t need a lot of onion, and if I’m feeling fancy and it’s after payday, I would probably use a large shallot for this, and if it’s a few days before payday, I would probably use the 1/2 an onion sitting in the crisper drawer in a ziplock bag leftover from God knows what.

Sweat the onions for about five minutes in the melted butter – don’t let them burn, and this means you may have to reduce the heat. Then put in two tablespoons of flour, and, using your whisk, get the flour coated in the melted butter. Just like when you are making milk gravy, you don’t want this to burn. This is a white sauce, so all you want is the flour and oil to be mixed well.

Slowly add a cup of half and half, a 1/4 cup or so at a time, whisking all the while, until it’s all mixed in. Then do the same with the chicken broth – add it slowly, while whisking, until it is a lovely velvety smooth, and probably slightly yellow. That color is one of my favorite colors. The smell right now is something else, too.

If you are feeling fancy, this is where you throw in about half a cup of what we called English peas, and you probably call green peas or sweet peas. Little green round peas, preferably frozen, is what we’re going for here. And then add the chicken, stirring it all in, so the lovely creamy sauce covers the chicken and peas, and the peas look like little green islands in a light yellow sea.

You want this to simmer for about 5 minutes, to both warm up the peas and chicken, and to thicken the sauce. If it gets too thick, you can drizzle in a bit of hot water while stirring, and also remember that it will thicken a bit as it sits and cools.

While the sauce is simmering, start making toast – two to three slices per person is about right. When the toast is done, I like to rip it into rough chunks about 2 inches square. Then pour a generous half cup of sauce over the top, and if you have any, sprinkle the top with fresh chopped parsley.

This is one of my favorite meals. There are variations galore. This will serve two hungry people or 4 polite ones, but it scales up perfectly – 2 tablespoons of fat and flour per cup of broth and cup of dairy.

This is also lovely over biscuits, served like you would sausage gravy, or over plain white rice, which is how I serve it for supper or when company would show up unexpectedly in the before times.

Go buck wild and use whipping cream or half and half if you are a generally optimistic person, but whole milk is what I use most often. Some of you are scared of your food and will be tempted to use skim milk, and while I would discourage you, I can’t stop you.

Some people, I have learned, just want to watch the world burn.

In Praise of Cabbage

Often when reading a novel, I will find that if the author wants to indicate the smell of poverty, they will mention the smell of cooked cabbage. Like, “The stairway in the tenement smelled of used diapers, cooked cabbage, and despair.”

That’s no reflection on the cabbage, however, as cabbage is no respecter of persons, is filled with vitamins, and will keep in your fridge (or in your cellar) for damn near forever. No, in addition to all the virtues of cabbage, it is also usually inexpensive, which makes it the butt of jokes rather than be celebrated for the heroic vegetable it is, serving to fill in around the edges when the more respected fare is hard to come by.

As a young boy, I ate my share of cooked cabbage, but sadly, I never had any cooked cabbage that tasted good until I was grown. My people tended to, when in doubt, just boil a thing until it surrendered when some things benefit most by gentle encouragement instead of a full-on assault. They would make up for this by pouring the potlikker in the bottom of the pot – the vitamin laden broth left after the cabbage had been eaten – over cornbread, which was always the best part of the meal, the cabbage having been cooked until it dissolved, like the dreams we had of a meal with texture.

But done right, stewed cabbage is a delight, and there is virtually no likker to be had because we didn’t soak away all the vitamins. If it’s a weeknight and you don’t know what to use for a side dish, this is perfect. It takes about 25 minutes, from start to back, and if you add some bacon, you can make it a main dish instead. I think it’s even good enough to serve as a side at a celebration, like Thanksgiving.

If stewed cabbage is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

What you will need for this are a head of white (as opposed to red) cabbage, a big skillet, three tablespoons of some cooking fat – bacon grease is traditional, but butter is OK too, and I like to mix them both, half and half, each bringing qualities of which the other is shy – some salt, some sugar, and some water.

Turn the heat on medium under your skillet, and put your fat in it to melt. I’m going to assume you paid attention and are using one and a half tablespoons each of both butter and bacon grease, but you do you. Unless you doing you involves olive oil, in which case, just … no. There are things for which olive oil is wonderful, but this is not one of them.

While your fat’s melting, quarter your head of cabbage, cut out the stem, and then cut the rest of it into “steaks”, top to bottom (like, from pole to pole of the cabbage head) about an inch and a half thick. Then cut the steaks into chunks about 2×2, and then put the chunks in the hot fat. Don’t shred your cabbage – this ain’t slaw. You want chunks. It may fall apart a bit, which is fine, but don’t encourage it any. I mean, you fall apart, and we do you the kindness of not mentioning it, so return the favor here.

Sprinkle a tablespoon of sugar and a teaspoon of salt over the top of the cabbage chunks. You want to give the cabbage a minute or two in the hot fat, so the leaves will begin to brown and caramelize – take your spatula and move it about a bit to keep it from sticking. When you see edges beginning to brown slightly, add a cup of water (slowly), and then allow the water to cook down over medium heat until the water is mostly gone, the house smells amazing, and the cabbage is tender when you stab it, but the chunks are still mostly intact – which on my stove takes about 20 minutes.

Some of you will want to cook this longer. I understand this, but you’re wrong. It won’t be improved by turning it into mush. I am in favor, however, of starting this dish by frying up three slices of bacon, then dicing the cooked bacon into bits, and using that bacon grease plus another tablespoon or two of butter as the fat and then proceed from there, using the bacon bits as a garnish when you are done.

Some of you will think this can be improved by reducing the fat down to only one tablespoon, making it less fattening. It may be less fattening that way, but it won’t taste better. And in all honesty, two tablespoons of butter has 200 calories, which when divided by the four serving this makes, means you saved 50 calories a serving, but managed to turn something delicious into something your kids will make fun of you for making.