JIM CARTER (this article was first published in November 2012)
Buttermilk was and is, to an extent, a staple food of the South. North Carolinian Debbie Moose, an award winning food writer, has done a masterful job in Buttermilk of laying out some of its history and giving us some great recipes to try. If you don’t care about the history and science of buttermilk, just go straight to the recipes.
However, I found the history and science interesting. Moose relates her first memory of buttermilk – her father making a snack of buttermilk and cornbread. It was because of memories like this that led her to write Buttermilk. And she interviewed a professor of food science for a scientific discussion of buttermilk. It’s good background.
Then there are the recipes. The first line of the book is, “Like a full moon on a warm southern night, buttermilk makes something special happen.” Moose is referring to the special things buttermilk can do to make some of our favorite foods even better. She presents 50 recipes that range from breakfast pastries to dinner recipes, including batters for frying, soups, salad dressings, and deserts. And yes, she tells us in detail how to make “Daddy’s Favorite Snack”.
After review, there was no doubt in my mind that these are great Southern recipes; in fact they looked so good that I had to try a few of them. Who could resist trying “Don’t-Fear-The-Slime Okra?”
My daughters, Stephanie and Lauren, were coming to visit the ranch here in Texas just as okra was coming in season. So, as a second course, I built them a salad of heirloom tomatoes, butter beans grown here on the ranch and baby fried okra. I used Moose’s buttermilk-based recipe to fry the okra just before serving the salad. Lauren was the first to dive in. She started with the okra and after one bite exclaimed, “I want more of this!” It seems both of them ate their okra before any other part of the salad. Enough said.
Buttermilk is great in cold summer soups, so I tried Moose’s “Cool Cucumber Soup.” It is so simple and so refreshing on a hot summer day. Be sure to use freshly harvested small local cucumbers, if you can get them.
Finally I tried “Joe’s Blue Cheese Dressing.” Why? Because blue cheese is one of the best foods on earth and when combined with buttermilk it had to be good, and it was. Try it with Buffalo wings or shrimp or on a salad.
If you are not already a fan of buttermilk in your cooking, get this book and soon you will be.
A personal note – my first memory of buttermilk back on the farm in South Carolina was churning raw milk to make butter. Once the butter was skimmed off, buttermilk was left behind. So, buttermilk, a byproduct of butter making, was not allowed to go to waste in the old South. A couple of my favorite recipes from my youth are fried catfish with buttermilk-based batter and chess pie.
Here are a couple of my own recipes with buttermilk…
Fried Catfish with Buttermilk Batter
- 4-5 lbs. catfish fillets
- 1 cup yellow cornmeal
- 1 cup all purpose flower
- 1 tablespoon Cajun style seasoning (I use Tony’s.)
- ½ teaspoon ground cayenne or to taste
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 2 cups buttermilk
- 1 teaspoon Louisiana style hot sauce
Oil for frying, enough to cover the fillets, I use canola oil.)
Rinse catfish fillets and pat dry. Combine buttermilk and hot sauce. Let fillets marinate for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the oil. I use a deep fryer, which has excellent heat control. If you use a Dutch oven or cast iron pan, be sure the sides are high enough to contain the oil. Heat the oil to about 365 degrees. While the oil is heating, mix the cornmeal, flower, Cajun seasoning, cayenne, salt, and pepper in a shallow dish.
Then let each fillet drain a little and dredge in the cornmeal and flower mixture. Place them in the hot oil. Don’t crowd the pan; do two or more batches if necessary. Cook until the fillets are golden brown, about a total of about eight minutes. If not fully covered in oil, turn the fillets over at the four-minute mark. If making multiple batches, let the oil return to about 365 degrees, before adding subsequent batches.
Buttermilk Chess Pie
- 1 nine inch unbaked pie shell (of course in the day we made these from scratch.)
- 2 tablespoons of all-purpose flour
- 2 cups sugar
- 1 stick of butter, melted
- 3 eggs, beaten
- ½ cup buttermilk
- 3 tablespoons of lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon of vanilla
- Salt to taste
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Blend flour, sugar and salt. Add beaten eggs and melted butter; thoroughly mix. Blend in buttermilk, lemon juice, and vanilla.. Pour into pastry shell and bake until done about 50 minutes.
Available from UNCPress, 2012