‘Round the Table: Comfort Foods for the Holidays

Cornbread, sweet potatoes and greens are sure to appear on our holiday tables in one form or another, and with good reason. These are the foods of our culture and our history. These are the foods that comfort our souls and reflect our roots.  These are the foods that speak to the resiliency that we share as a Southern people; because of this, they will always share a prominent place on our holiday tables.

This soup is the kind that is thick and sweet; warmed with spices and infinitely comforting. It is the natural progression of comfort food. Our ancestors baked sweet potatoes in ashes on the hearth, our grandmothers candied them in black iron skillets and our mothers created sweet potato casseroles topped with marshmallows or pecans. Today, we take this humble vegetable, give it a new spiciness with garlic, cumin and turmeric and then honor our parents and grandparents by a whimsical topping of marshmallows.

Peg’s Sweet Potato Soup gives a grateful nod to the past while looking to the future.

Peg’s Sweet Potato Soup

Yield: 8 servings

4 medium sweet potatoes

2 teaspoons of olive oil

1 small clove of garlic, mince

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon dried rosemary

1 teaspoon thyme

2 teaspoons turmeric

4 cups of chicken or vegetable broth

3 cups of miniature marshmallows or toasted pecans

Salt and Pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 475°F.  Wash the sweet potatoes and bake them on an oven rack until they are fork tender, about 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from the oven and set at room temperature until cool enough to handle.

Heat the olive oil in a large pot set over medium high heat. Add the garlic and sauté for 2 minute or until tender. Do not brown.

Remove the skin from the sweet potatoes and add to the pan along with the cumin, rosemary, thyme and turmeric. Stir in the broth and using a potato masher or the back of a meat fork, mash the sweet potatoes. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.  Bring the mixture to a boil; reduce the heat to a bare simmer and simmer, uncovered for about 25 minutes. Taste, and adjust the seasoning if necessary.

Top with the marshmallows and/or toasted pecans and serve warm.

While most vegetables are killed by the frost, collards thrive. In fact, frost makes them sweeter.

Slow Cooker Greens

Yield: 12 servings

A few years ago, kale was the nutritional darling of the food world. Suddenly everyone was loving green leafy vegetables. Southerners, on the other hand, just observed, amused. We’ve always known that greens are good, and good for you. They thrive in our mild winters and provide delicious nutrition during those dreary winter months.

If you are lucky enough to have garden greens, you are lucky indeed. If not, choose nice big green leaves with no blemishes. Choose crisp greens that are not wilted. Greens can be very dirty, so submerge them in a water bath to loosen grit and then wash carefully.

2 smoked ham hocks (about 1 ¼ pounds total)

2 cups of chicken broth or water

½ cup chopped onion

2 Tablespoons of light brown sugar

2 Tablespoons of apple cider vinegar

2 teaspoons kosher salt

2 pounds of greens (collard greens, kale perhaps mixed with spicy mustard greens or turnip greens), washed, stems removed and chopped

Place the ham hocks, chicken broth, onion, sugar, vinegar and salt in the crock of a 6-quart slow cooker. Stir until combined.  Add the greens. Cover and cook on low for 9 hours.

Carefully remove the ham hocks and all the bits of bone that may have broken off. Cool the hocks and thoroughly remove all the fat and bones. Chop the meat and return to the slow cooker.

Serve hot with pepper sauce.

You can make greens up to two days in advance. Simply prepare as directed, and refrigerate them, covered, in the slow cooker crock. Allow the crock to stand at room temperature for at least 30 minutes but not more than an hour before returning to the slow cooker to reheat.

You won’t find Mexican Cornbread in Mexico; instead, you will find it on tables across the south.

Aunt Jo’s Mexican Cornbread

Yield: 8 servings

Most families have at least one version of this moist and decadent cornbread and my Aunt Jo made the best.  Dense with corn and cheese and studded with bits of spicy jalapeno, Aunt Jo’s Mexican Cornbread is a meal in itself. Don’t fret if it sticks to the pan; hers always did and so does mine. There is one rule, cook gets the stuck-on crumbles. You’re welcome.

2 Tablespoons of bacon drippings or vegetable oil

1 cup of plain yellow cornmeal

½ teaspoon of salt

½ teaspoon of baking soda

1 cup of buttermilk

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1 cup of canned cream corn

½ pound of sharp cheddar, grated

1 medium onion, chopped fine

3 jalapeno peppers, chopped fine

Preheat the oven to 400°F.  Add the fat to a well-seasoned 10-inch cast iron skillet and heat on the stovetop over medium high heat until very hot, but not smoking.

Mix the dry ingredients; then in a separate bowl mix together the wet ingredients. Pour the wet into the dry and stir until just combined.  Fold in the cream corn, cheese, onion and jalapeno.

Pour the batter into the hot skillet and immediately transfer it to the preheated oven.  Bake for 30 minutes.

This cornbread sticks every time I make it, no matter how well seasoned my skillet is. But it’s so good, no one minds if it’s patched together.

If you want to use self-rising cornmeal, then omit the soda and salt.