Back in the late 1980s, when I was working as a rewrite man in a downtown newsroom, I loved to take my lunch break at a restaurant near State and Lake called “Soul Food by the Pound.”
The concept was unique: The customer walked through a cafeteria line and piled whatever he or she wanted onto a plate, then the whole tray would be weighed and the customer would pay a set price, about $3.99/pound as I recall. Only years later did I realize we must have been paying for the tray and plate every time.
Despite the eccentricity of the concept, this experience was the beginning of my love affair with soul food.
As press secretary for Cook County State’s Attorney Cecil Partee in the early 1990s, the campaign trail would often bring us to Army and Lou’s and other legendary Chicago soul food restaurants.
Later, when I was in culinary school, one of my favorite source cook books was by Sylvia Woods, the “Queen of Soul Food” and owner of Sylvia’s Restaurant, in Harlem, New York. Long before “Julie and Julia”, “Dan and Sylvia” were cooking our way through the recipes in that amazing book.
For the most part, no one will mistake soul food with health food. Much of its lushness
is attributed to ample amounts of fat and salt. That’s a huge part of the pleasure of the experience.
But there are healthy variations of this amazing food genre.
For example, I love braised greens. They are rich in iron and other vitamins, not to mention delicious. They are a staple of many cuisines around the world. For example, in Greek cooking, they are served with almost every meal, drizzled with a little lemon juice.
This recipe I stole from Sylvia and have been incorporating into my menus for years. Each kind of green has a separate and distinct flavor – mustard greens have a distinctive tanginess, collard greens and kale tend to be smoother, and dandelion greens are pleasantly bitter — but they are all amazing.
1-2 lb greens (kale, mustard, collard or dandelion)
2 chunks (about 2 oz) fat back (or salt pork, or bacon, or whatever fat you have)
1 clove garlic, punched
1/2 cup chicken stock
Salt and pepper to taste
Remove thick ribs from greens and discard. Wash your greens in cold water at least twice. Most greens are grown in sandy soil, so you want to remove any and all grit.
In a large, lidded pot, render fat back, salt pork or bacon by cooking slowly over a medium to low heat to extract as much fat as possible without burning. Add the punch of garlic (smashed once, but still intact to add subtle flavor), then slowly add greens, a handful at a time, turning with a tongs.
The hot oil will cause the greens to collapse. When they are nearly all limp, stir in the chicken stock and cover, leaving a little space for some steam to escape. Cook over a medium low heat until the bright color of the greens washes out to a dark green color and they start to fall apart to the touch, about 25 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
To serve, lift greens from pot with a tongs and hold over the pot for a moment so excess liquid drains. This prevents pooling on the plate.
Another soul food staple – macaroni and cheese – is the ultimate comfort food. I don’t even pretend to make this one healthy, I just eat it in moderation.
In restaurants over the years, I’ve made a lot of fancy variations of macaroni and cheese, with everything from super sharp cave-aged cheddar to buttery gorgonzola to pungent gruyere. But nothing beats this traditional, and inexpensive, recipe for the world’s coziest comfort food.
Macaroni and Cheese
For the Bread Crumb Topping:
2/3 cup bread crumbs
1-1/2 TBS unsalted butter, cut into chunks
For the Pasta:
½ lb elbow macaroni
2-1/2 TBS unsalted butter
4 TBS unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp yellow mustard
Pinch cayenne pepper
2-1/2 cups skim milk
4 oz Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
4 oz Sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded
Salt and pepper to taste
For the bread crumbs: Combine the butter and bread crumbs in bowl. Rub the mix between your thumbs and forefingers until it forms an even meal. Set aside.
For the Pasta: Preheat oven to 375F. Bring 4 quarts salted water to boil in large pot with cover. Stir in macaroni, cook until done, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Drain in colander (don’t rinse) and set aside.
In same pot, add the 2-1/2 TBS butter and melt until foaming. Whisk in flour and cayenne to form a roux, stirring frequently so it doesn’t burn. Cook out the flour taste, about 2 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk the mustard into the milk. Slowly add the milk to the roux, whisking constantly to break up clumps. Bring to boil. As it boils, the roux will cause the milk to thicken into the consistency of heavy cream. This is awesome and takes about 5 minutes.
Once it’s reached the proper consistency, turn off the flame. Fold in the cheese until melted, then the macaroni. Transfer the mixture to a baking dish. Sprinkle the bread crumbs evenly over the top, then bake uncovered for about 25 minutes, or until the bread crumbs turn a golden brown.
Remove, let cool for a minute or two and serve. You are now in soul food heaven. Serves 6-8. This cost about $4.25 to make, so the cost per person is $.53 to $.70/person.