Cookbook Q&A: Slow Cooking the Southern Way
Cookbook writer Kendra Bailey Morris has a knack for creating fresh, crowd-pleasing dishes from her native South. Now, with The Southern Slow Cooker: Big Flavor, No-Fuss Recipes for Comfort Food Classics, she’s applied her culinary know-how to our favorite time-saving appliance. I had the pleasure of testing a couple of Kendra’s recipes before the book went to print, and I’m looking forward to trying many more. Recently, Kendra shared some of her best tips for slow cooker success.
Tell me what makes Southern food so special.
Southern cooking is all about nourishing the soul with homemade comfort foods that are built on tradition and family heritage. We are proud of our food and love to share it.
Why did you want to write a slow cooker cookbook?
There are three things that make the slow cooker such an amazing appliance. First, the convenience factor, as in set it, forget it, and then come home to the decadent aroma of dinner that’s ready for the table. Second, I love the versatility of the slow cooker. It goes without saying that soups, stews and chilis cook wonderfully in the slow cooker, but you can make so many other things in it, from cakes and homemade jams to cheese dips and breakfast casseroles. Finally, there is no better appliance to take to a potluck, game-day party or tailgate to keep your meatballs warm all day!
Where did you grow up and who did the cooking in your household?
I was born in West Virginia, but mainly grew up in Virginia. However, since my grannies, aunts and cousins were still in West Virginia, I spent almost as much time in the mountains as I did in central Virginia, so I proudly claim both states. Both of my grandmothers are amazing cooks, and I mean real pros, so when we sat down to dinner, there’d be 12 or 15 different made-from-scratch dishes on the table and all of them qualified for best food on earth. My mother is great cook as well, and she can make a mean batch of apple butter for canning, and don’t even try to out-bake her when it comes to pies. In fact, she helped me create and test quite a few of the recipes in the book. She should have been a co-author!
From jam to chicken stock to caramel sauce, you include some very creative slow cooker recipes in the book. Were you pleasantly surprised by any of the recipes you developed?
I was pleasantly surprised by many of the recipes in The Southern Slow Cooker, especially the chicken stock, which is now my go-to method for making it homemade. It’s so much easier and less laborious than doing it stovetop with all that skimming and stirring that takes place and tastes so much better than canned broth. In the slow cooker, you can just plop in the chicken bones, onions, carrot, celery, cook it on low 10 hours, skim off the fat and, voila!, you’ve got homemade stock. Plus, I can think of no better way to use up leftover chicken bones from a store-bought rotisserie chicken.
Did you find working with the slow cooker challenging?
The biggest challenge I found when writing The Southern Slow Cooker was balancing the amount of prep work involved so the recipes would contain mostly all-natural ingredients versus adding items such as canned soups and prepared mixes for flavor and convenience. While adding convenience foods definitely make things a lot easier in terms of prep, I wanted the recipes in this book to reflect the style of Southern food that I grew up eating, which is fresh, natural and from scratch. As a result, some of the recipes in the book require some up-front chopping, dicing, mixing or pre-browning, but I’ve discovered in terms of flavor that the end results are well worth the extra effort.
What are some tips for cooks who want to get the most out of their slow cooker?
One of the biggest problems home cooks face when slow cooking is ending up with a soup, stew or other dish that is too watery. Since slow cookers use a form of slow, damp heat, oftentimes there tends to be a lot of condensation left over. A great tip for reducing this is to layer several thick layers of paper towels over the slow cooker insert before replacing the lid. The paper towels (a dish towel works well, too) will help to absorb some of the extra liquid during the cooking process. Another great method for thickening food naturally in the slow cooker is to make a paste of one part flour and one part butter. Swirl this in the last hour of cooking to help thicken soups, stews and sauces without having to resort to cornstarch, which can get gummy. Also, season, season and season some more. Slow cooking has a tendency to dilute flavors, so seasoning with a heavy hand is often necessary.
What are your two or three favorite recipes in the book?
Oh, tough choices! If I had to pick just a few, I would have to go with the Beer-Braised Beef Po’ Boy sandwiches, the Black-Eyed Peas and Stewed Tomatoes (a classic!), and the Chocolate Banana Cheesecakes that are slow cooked in mini Mason jars.
Any recipes that are good to just plop in the slow cooker and walk away?
I’ve got a tasty recipe for Smoked Ham, Potato and Rice soup where you just dump everything in except the rice and then cook it for 8 hours. Then, during the last 15 minutes or so add the rice and serve. It’s a hearty meal that’s super easy. I’ve also got Easter ham recipes, cabbage with smoked sausage, dry mustard-rubbed chicken, turkey with cornbread dressing, green beans, pinto beans, butter beans with ham hocks, breakfast apples and cheesy grits, and they all involve little to no prep work at all.
Did you have a lot of slow cooker experience before writing this book?
I grew up slow cooking in my mom’s round vintage 70’s green and brown Rival crockpot. In fact, I still cook in it. In the past, chili, stews and soups were my usual mainstays. I’d also occasionally make grape jelly meatballs to take to a party or use the slow cooker for serving hot cider. It was only after writing this book that I discovered all the other amazing foods you can make in the slow cooker.
How important was it to you to develop recipes that are affordable?
As someone who is living on a budget, affordability is very important to me personally. Like many families, we have a set budget for food, and while I would love to nosh on lobster tail every night, we just can’t afford to do that. With The Southern Slow Cooker, I was very mindful of cost when creating recipes for the book. As a result, most of the recipes boast inexpensive cuts of meat, poultry, vegetables and pantry ingredients. Also, most of the serving sizes in the book are geared for families (serving 6-8 or more). If your family is smaller, nearly all of the recipes can be frozen and reheated later for a second meal.
How did you get into writing about food?
I got into writing about food in a roundabout way. I found the love of cooking at an early age. I recreated a Twinkie recipe when I was around 12 years old, which I guess piqued my interest in food and recipe writing. Over the years, I worked in restaurants, taught cooking classes, and did gobs of catering. During all of this, I also completed my MFA in Creative Writing and later attended culinary school for a time, which I suppose helped to morph me into a food writer. Two cookbooks later I am proud to call myself an author and look forward to writing my third book!
Interview has been condensed and edited.
Photos: Erin Kunkel © 2013
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