Time is crass. It sterilizes and homogenizes. But here, in these wild pockets of the South that are still left intact, it’s been less profane. I crave being in the heart of Appalachia so much it’s actually uncomfortable, a physical tugging I can feel from my sternum to the pit of my stomach. The mountains, they prey on my mind. I want to know them intimately because I want to know myself.
I spent my adolescence gazing inward wondering who am I, but the who of I lies in this place, in the narrative that drawls from Sand Mountain, where my mother’s family hails from, and on through the Appalachia of my youth in North Georgia and my other half’s on Monteagle Mountain. We’re both from ’round here. You might not know it to look at us, but we’re both quite fundamentally southern. I like to think a trained eye could spot it in our eccentricity, in his perpetual tailored slacks and my wide brimmed hats. Idiosyncrasy is a proud tradition in the south, but originality is a silly cult after all. Even in our eccentricity we’re all derivative, and it’s so grand. Like it or not, roots are part of who you are. You’ll find them tangled deep in your ribcage if you look. I fell into the or not category for a very long time. But now, now I find the object of my obsession and desire in my back yard, in me. This is a great gift, to want what you have and to like who you are.
And this food is part of who I am. It’s a modest take on the blue plate special, essentially a meat ‘n three. It’s pork and beans, honeycrisp apple & sweet potato mash sweetened with tangy Sequatchie Cove sorghum, bacon grease cornbread, and greens. A region nor its cuisine are static things. They live and breathe. So while this is essentially classic southern food, it’s also representative of the new south, which is a fantastically brave place populated by people that know how to be both fierce archivists and radical reformists at the same time. The cornbread, while made with bacon grease, is also made with cultured coconut milk (which I use about half the time now, the other half going with my trusty Cruze Farm’s buttermilk). You can find the recipe here, and Arrowhead Mills makes blue cornmeal but yellow works just fine. The sorghum sauteed apples are spiced with cardamom before going into the sweet potato mash enriched with creme fraiche. The pork, a beautiful forested pork shoulder I procured from Sequatchie Cove at the market, and black eyed peas are married in a take on the French peasant classic, cassoulet, and while it will never replace slow cooked pot likker collards (or turnip greens) this quick version of greens consists of baby lettuce barely wilted in bacon grease and seasoned to taste with the classic flavors of pot likker: a little sugar, apple cider vinegar, hot sauce, and smoky pork. As a cuisine evolves the living and dead share a table. All murder ballads and white lace, Appalachia is a haunted country and it is this that I love. Us southerner’s are comfortable dining with our ghosts. We have to be.
For Pork Confit
Allow to cure in it’s fat for two weeks if possible before using. If not possible, go ahead and use it. It will still be lovely. Rewarm and strain pork before using. Reserve at least 1/4 cup of the fat from the confit for your cassoulet.
For Tomato Wine Sauce
adapted from Epicurious
reserved side meat garlic puree
remainder of reserved bean cooking liquid
Cook sausages until brown and cooked through, slice, and set aside. Fry bacon, chop, and set aside. Dice the side meat into 1/2 inch cubes and fry until crispy and golden. Pick the meat off the ham hock.Heat oven to 350° F.Taste the beans for seasoning. Add a little salt if necessary, keeping in mind that you will be adding salt via the meat, tomato sauce, and cooking liquid as well. In a heavy bottomed cast iron pot, layer some of the beans. Top with some of the slices of sausage, some confit, ham hock meat, bacon, and side meat cracklins. Ladle some of the tomato sauce over it. Repeat this until you have used all of your beans, meat, and sauce ending on a layer of beans. Pour enough of the bean cooking liquid over the cassoulet to just cover the beans. Reserve any left over cooking liquid for remoistening cassoulet as needed during the cooking process and for leftovers.Mix bread crumbs and parsley. Set aside.Bake cassoulet for one hour, uncovered. Remove cassoulet from oven and gently stir in any skin that has formed. Top with 1/2 cup of the parsley bread crumbs and drizzle with 1/8 cup of the reserved confit fat. Reduce heat to 250°F and bake for another hour. Break crust, gently stirring in, moistening with about 1/4 cup of cooking liquid if necessary. You ultimately want the cassoulet to be creamy, not soupy or dry. Top with the other half of bread crumbs and fat. Turn the oven back up to 350° F and bake until creamy, the crust is golden brown, and it’s very hot.
Honeycrisp Apple & Sweet Potato Mash
4 sweet potatoes (I like to use white sweet potatoes when I can find them)
4 Honeycrisp apples (or other tart, firm apples like Granny Smith), peeled, cored, and diced
4 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 tsp cardamom
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 cup sorghum
1 tsp orange blossom water (optional)
1/2 cup creme fraiche (more to taste if you’re feeling decadent!)
about 1/4-1/2 cup whole milk, as needed
kosher salt to taste
Heat oven to 450° F.
Rub sweet potatoes with olive oil and roast on a sheet pan lined with foil for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until very soft all the way through.
Meanwhile melt the butter in a frying pan. Add the apples along with a pinch of kosher salt. Add the cardamom, cinnamon, and cayenne and sauté until soft. When apples are softened add sorghum and stir to fully incorporate. Add orange blossom water and continue to sauté until very soft and browning. (note: these apples would be amazing in an array of baked goods and the puree itself is like the best apple sauce ever. I can think of about 101 uses for them… they’re so good!)
Puree apple mixture until smooth and set aside.
Scoop the flesh out of the roasted sweet potatoes and pass through a potato ricer or food mill and into a pot. If you don’t own a potato ricer you can use a potato masher or even a fork, it just won’t be as smooth.
Stir the apple puree into the mashed sweet potatoes. Stire in the creme fraiche. Add milk as needed to reach your desired consistency. Season to taste with salt. I often pass this mixture through the ricer again to ensure a smooth consistency.