October 08, 2011

The About.com Guide to Southern Cooking by Diana Rattray

I'm not sure why I picked this book up. Its not like my normal selections for cookbooks. I usually go for the kind with lots of pictures and for more exotic cuisines. But I am a big fan of Southern food and about the only person in my family who likes greens. Therefore, it just kinda made sense for me to add this to my ever-growing cookbook collection. Overall I was pleased with the book, it had some decent recipes, and everything was pretty easy to make for the most part. I found a lot of the recipes I had to up the seasoning quite a bit as it was somewhat bland, but I'm fond of heavy spices so this may not hold true for everyone.

The book is laid out 15 chapters and some appendices. Within the chapters themselves there are spaces on the sides of the pages where tips, tricks, links to online recipes or articles dwell. There are also some comments on usage of tools in the kitchen. In the back is an index, but everything is pretty much grouped by type of food so locating things is fairly easy. Each chapter starts out with a list of recipes that are contained within the chapter as well. For those who like pictures though, be warned, the only picture in this book (aside from the authors face in areas) is the one on the front cover.

This chapter covers drinks, and by far, I didn't really accomplish much within this chapter. I did try the Mint Julep (which I didn't care for but then again I don't drink a lot of alcohol) and the hot chocolate mix, which was very good. It also contained recipes for frozen drinks and coolers. The julep that I tried was kind of involved, but the hot chocolate was easy to make and the recipes in this section varied between the two in difficulty.

I found it a little strange that the bread was in this section, but it worked out alright and at least it was titled as so. I'd have to say that I probably tried the most recipes out of this section because they were all fairly easy to make and sounded delicious. The Spicy Cheese Straws tasted like Cheez-Its, which I personally don't like, but any who do would probably love. The crab stuffed mushrooms were good but probably could have been better with more crab and less breadcrumbs. The Deviled Eggs recipe was pretty standard and I imagine the staple recipe anyone would have. I did try the Creamy Crab Dip as well and it was good, but it turned out a lot thinner than I expected and didn't make a good "dip". My fiance was a big fan of the Tangy Glazed Sausage Bites, in which you make your own sauce for instead of a store bought sauce. I do have to say that when I got to the bread part of this section, I was vastly disappointed in the cornbread. For a Southern cookbook, this cornbread was dry and tasteless. The Perfect Buttermilk Biscuits on the other hand, where extremely easy to make and were light, fluffy and delicious.

Surprisingly I didn't try much out of this section although there were plenty of wonderful recipes contained within. Most involved making Casserole's or Breakfast Bakes (which I did make the Mississippi Breakfast Bake, which looked beautiful when finished but could have used some more spice). I was very happy to see Beignets which I think are delicious and can't wait to give this recipe a try.

There was a whole lot going on in this chapter and it was pretty evenly split up between the soups and salads. Included in the salads though are recipes like potato salad or cole slaw so its not just a green salad section. I tried out the Chicken Tortilla Soup and thought it was easy to make. The crispy tortilla strips made to accompany were good just on there own and the most popular part of the meal. The Ham and Bean soup was also very easy to make and was just perfect on a rainy day and surprisingly thick. For salads I absolutely adored the Broccoli Salad with Raisins and Pecans (although I used dried cherries, she said any dried small fruit would work) and like most of the recipes within this cookbook, it was very easy to make. The Black Eyed Pea Salad with Basil Dressing was an interesting refreshing take on a bean salad and not quite what I expected when I first started making it.

I hadn't heard of a Kentucky Hot Brown until I cracked open this book. The name isn't actually very appealing, and at least for this recipe, there was nothing brown about it (I later learned it was named after a place) but it was tasty and very filling. The Out of the Ordinary Burger was tender, but not big on flavor. There were some other Southern classics that I haven't yet tried, like Pimento Cheese Sandwiches, but they looked fairly easy to make through the instructions.

This is the biggest chapter of the book and contains quite a bit of recipes for all of these meats. So many sounded good and they all were fairly inexpensive cuts of meat (aside from lamb, which is always pricey). The Country Fried Steak I was a bit disappointed in. There wasn't a lot of flavor, and maybe it was just the cut of meat I got (which was the suggested cut in the book) but it wasn't very tender and terribly hard to eat since it was so chewy. The Country Style Meatloaf was good and chock full of veggies that you didn't even realize were there while eating it. The Barbecued Meatballs with Rice was a big hit with my fiance, but I just thought they tasted like tangy ketchup (which was a main component of the homemade bbq sauce for the recipe). I haven't yet been able to try any of the Lamb or Veal, and probably won't in the near future due to cost and squeamishness respectively.

I love bacon, ham, and all things pig. This was a pretty large section and it was nice because the few ham recipes used, you could later turn into other ham recipes with the leftovers. The Cajun Seasoned Pork Tenderloin didn't make it to leftovers though. It was incredibly delicious and tender and the only thing I noticed was that I used all of the seasoning for about half of the poundage of meat advised. The Oven Barbecued Pork Chops were easy to make but despite slow cooking they didn't turn out very tender and the sauce was merely ok.

This section was actually smaller than I expected for a Southern cookbook. There was still quite a few recipes, but it did shock me that the beef section was larger than this one. The Fried Chicken Strips were good, especially dipped in sauce, but makers should beware that you don't need as much flour mix as is called for in the recipe. The Oven Barbecued Chicken was average, but easy to make.

I haven't tried too many recipes out of this section either, just because of seafood costs in my local area, but a lot of the recipes sound pretty good. Frying is a main preparation but there are also croquettes and broiled fish available as well. I did make the Baked Dijon Catfish with Crumb Coating and it did have a good flavor but wasn't as crispy as I would have liked.

This section was small, but had a nice little array of recipes. Since I had a whole ton of beans, I chose to make the Louisiana Red Beans and Rice which wasn't bad but took way longer to cook than stated. I also simmered some Down-Home Pinto Beans that were reminiscent of some restaurants, but lacked the depth of flavor even though I used a nice smoked ham hock.

I was actually on the fence about this chapter. Most of these veggies are cooked but not with a lot of seasoning and a pretty standard bland cheese sauce is used for a good many f them. The Easy Fried Corn was interesting, but had a decidedly weird texture. Savory Collard Greens were great with hot sauce, but alas, it made so many and I was only one person eating them and couldn't get through them all. Spinach Casserole with Eggs and Cheese was easy to make, but once again, could have used more spice. But the Creamy Potato Scallop was good, and while it took longer than expected to cook because it was so liquidy, it didn't ruin the flavor. Broccoli with Cheese Sauce, as stated before, had a bland kind of cheese sauce that did nothing for the vegetable. The same applies to the Savory Baked Cabbage as well.

Just like it sounds, this chapter was a mash up of things. The Creamy Sausage Gravy (which I thought should have been in the Breakfast section) was pretty standard fare and very hearty. A real stand out in this chapter was the Come Back Sauce. I will come back anytime for this interesting and tasty sauce that I used on the Fried Chicken Strips. The Barbecue Sauce with Bourbon definitely had a hint of alcohol, but wasn't my favorite bbq sauce.

For some reason I haven't touched this chapter much even though it holds an astonishing amount of goodies. I did make the Praline Cheesecake with Pecan Crust that was sinfully rich, but noticed that the resident cheesecake lover scraped off the topping and went just for the plain cheesecake underneath. There are a couple pies in here that I definitely want to get to making and I think in the future that this chapter will get some heavy use.

This chapter did get a lot of use and all of it was very filling and sugary. The Old-Fashioned Peanut Butter Cookies were classic and eaten quickly while The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies were pretty good, but almost tasted store bought somehow. For a candy, the Southern Pecan Pralines were not very troublesome in the way of making, and while not a lot was made, it was so rich that we had trouble getting through it all.

The last chapter was filled mainly with sauces and Bread Pudding. I'm not a big fan of bread pudding but I did make one and my fiance didn't like it very much. The Bourbon Sauce on top was a different story though and was quite tasty, although a pain to make.

Appendix A contains a glossary of southern food and cooking terms which could really come in handy for a beginning cook who doesn't know what bacon drippings or blackened might mean. Appendix B had suggested menu offerings for Holidays like New Years or Mardi Gras. Appendix C, since this is an about.com cookbook offered other sites and further reading on the material.

This cookbook managed to contain a few themes in regards to food. Most recipes were easy to make and didn't take a lot of prep time by the cook. For ingredients, a few ingredients ran strong through the whole book and were mostly affordable items. Pecans are a little pricier and were used in a lot of recipes, but it probably depends on the region you're from whether its a luxury item or not. Cheddar Cheese, Buttermilk, and other fairly inexpensive items were used consistently and with just a small selection of ingredients, a lot of the recipes in this book could be made without adding too much else to the shopping list.

Since its a comfort food style of cookbook these recipes probably aren't the most healthy. For sure I would have liked to see vegetables that weren't smothered in sauces and hidden, but there were a few outstanding recipes in every chapter and enough good recipes to satisfy a busy cook. It'll probably remain a go-to cookbook, if nothing else just for the biscuits, but I can envision myself making more out of this book (and updating this review accordingly). It's good Southern food quickly and easily.

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