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Comfort Food: Part One

3.March 2009

One of the unique challenges of food photography is trying to make a beautiful photo of a delicious dish that just simply doesn’t look very appealing. Think oatmeal, but without the added visual interest of currants or nuts or anything. Result: something resembling kindergarten paste. Or take as an example a big pot of chili (which can be, but isn’t always beautiful) or something like tripe (not that appealing to me in general, and certainly not attractive. For me, this challenge is embodied by (tragically) perhaps my favorite food. I find myself longing to blog about, but unable to make beautiful the food I would very likely request for my last meal on Earth.

I speak of the mighty Biscuits and Gravy.

Many of my more East-Coast-Cosmopolitan friends have wrinkled their eyebrows at the mere mention of such an odd invention as Biscuits. With Gravy. “What kind of gravy?” is the inevitable question. My inevitable, inevitably unsatisfying answer? “Good gravy.”

Fig. 1. Good gravy.

Sunday it had decided to remind us, weak as we are, that winter is not yet over. Gale force winds and driving snow chilled me, my husband, our puppy to the bone and made it difficult to keep the house warm. The windows rattled. My teeth chattered. It was time for some warm-making food.

So, in need of comfort and general foodstuffs, we trekked to the stout and steady Zipcar and made our way to the Super Stop and Shop (It is material for another blog post altogether, but this is a beautiful supermarket. It was our first – and definitely not last – trip there.) I was lingering in the Pork section of the meat aisle, considering the merits of tackling another roast when I spotted it: the Jimmy Dean sausage that I haven’t found elsewhere. (Is this a rare thing in New England? Don’t you sometimes just need a big tube of peppery, delicious pork sausage?) I picked up one of those delicious pounds of flesh and, in the spirit of quickly attaining comfort food, scooped up another tube, this time of Grands! Homestyle Buttermilk Biscuits (the kind where you have to explode the little cardboard tube before baking the goodness).

Home I went and cooked up perhaps the Best Biscuits and Gravy I’ve ever had. After only minutes of simmering, crackling, bubbling goodness, my whole house smelled peppery and rich and like my childhood. Here’s how I did it. Please pardon the pictures. Biscuits and Gravy is not one of the supermodels of the food world, but it is one of the finest dishes there is.

Biscuits and Gravy – roughly as my mom would do it.

1 lb. Jimmy Dean (or other unpretentious) sausage
1/2 c. (ish) all-purpose flour
1 qt. (ish) milk
1/4 c. half and half (I use the fat free stuff)
generous salt and pepper

1 tube ready made biscuits (or you can make your own, overachiever)

1. Prepare the biscuits as directed. Put them into the oven.

2. Squeeze the sausage out of its tube into a good, heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat. Squish it around until it is more or less evenly distributed and broken into smaller pieces over the bottom of the pan. Brown it quite thoroughly (but don’t burn), while stirring more or less constantly.

3. When the sausage has browned and released it’s juices (read: grease), spoon some flour over it and stir. The idea is to coat all the sides of the sausage, but not too heavily. The measurement is VERY APPROXIMATE, due to the different levels of greasiness, different actual volume of sausage, etc. etc. Use your own good judgment. Also, pepper at this point, but not too much.

4. This is where my mother says “And this is the MOST IMPORTANT STEP. You must BROWN the flour or it will taste RAW.” (Her emphasis) Basically, cook the flour-coated sausage until it’s more brown than white and the little crumbly bits where it’s just flour and grease turn almost crispy. Stir very frequently to be sure all the sides brown evenly. My mother also always says, “You will think it’s burning, but it’s not.”

Fig. 2. “You will think it’s burning, but it’s not.”

5. Start adding the milk. This is another very approximate part of the recipe and depends on a) how much flour you put in, b) how much gravy you need, c) how long it cooks before the biscuits are done. Now, I’m personally partial to a thicker gravy, so I use slightly more flour and slightly less milk and I cook it slightly longer so the milk also browns a bit and it reduces rather drastically. Continue adding milk until you think the consistency looks good to you.

6. Stirring frequently to prevent skin forming and bottom of the pan burning, bring the gravy to a slow boil and allow the milk to reduce and thicken. If it thickens too much, add more.

7. I added some half and half at the end to thin the consistency a bit without reducing the richness. You can do this, too, if you like.

8. TASTE IT. You may want to add more salt and pepper at the end (It’s difficult to predict the saltiness of the sausage). I like my gravy quite (probably dangerously) salty. But your taste is up to you.

9. To serve: Break two of your biscuits open (i.e. separate the top from the bottom). Do not cut them. That’s the coward’s way out. If you don’t burn your fingertips a little bit, you haven’t earned your biscuits and gravy. Pour a generous amount of gravy over the biscuit halves. Eat with a fork. I also find it delightful to pair this with a sweet-tart beverage. Orange juice is delicious, as is cranberry.
Fig. 3. NOT Kindergarten paste.

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