Buttermilk Biscuits and Tomato Gravy [Organic Version]…



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From Jack’s Skillet

[My all-time favorite cookbook for the writing, not just for the recipes. Met the author years ago at a bookstore in Santa Fe. Make all ingredients from local, organic farmers when possible and use fresh tomatoes for the most wholesome meal - DS]

FIRST get your biscuits in the oven. You can make the gravy while they rise, and it will be hot and ready when they are. Biscuits are easy. Just remember the two-to-one rules:

You can make perfect, wonderful biscuits nearly every time if you remember three sets of two-to-one rations. Here they are:

Use 2 For every 1

Teaspoons of baking powder……. Cup of flour
Tablespoons of shortening……….. Cup of flour
Cups of flour……………………………. Cup of liquid

Biscuits are easy. Just remember the two-to-one rules:

You can make perfect, wonderful biscuits nearly every time if you remember three sets of two-to-one rations. Here they are:

Use 2 For every 1

Teaspoons of baking powder……. Cup of flour
Tablespoons of shortening……….. Cup of flour
Cups of flour……………………………. Cup of liquid

Two cups of flour will make six to nine fairly large biscuits, so let’s assume those are the proportions you’re working with. For that amount of flour, according to the rules, you’ll need four teaspoons baking powder. You’ll also need a pinch of salt and a quarter teaspoon of baking soda, not powder–really, that’s all, a quarter teaspoon. Too much soda makes the biscuits taste funny. I use, nowadays, unbleached white flour. The liquid in this recipe should be a cup of buttermilk, but I’ve made fine biscuits with the old vinegar-and-sweet-milk trick. Heck, I’ve even made good biscuits with thinned-down yogurt. The point of these liquids is their slight acidity, which reacts with the baking soda to release carbonic acid. The acid immediately breaks down into water and carbon dioxide, which makes the biscuits rise. Most of the rise comes from the heat-activated baking powder, true, but the soda-buttermilk combo provides just the right fillip of fluffiness, and the buttermilk makes for a wonderful texture.

Mix all the dry ingredients in a bowl, like they always say. What do they think, you’re going to mix them in a plate? I confess I usually toss in an extra pinch of baking powder. One to grow on. Now the shortening. The classic biscuit is made with true animal-fat white lard, but I use margarine. I would use butter, but Jayme’s allergic to milk products. The oleo gives the biscuits a slight golden hue that I have come to feel is all to the good. They tell you to “cut in” shortening until the mixture is the consistency of cornmeal, meaning with a table knife or one of those plastic scraper blades. I do that, and it takes a while. Sometimes I cut it in with my fingertips. It bruises the flour a little, but take my word for it, no problem. Pinch those patties of margarine or butter, squeeze those dollops of Crisco. Voila! Cornmeal consistency!

Now add the buttermilk. Wait, not so much! Don’t put the whole cup in, save back a tablespoon or two. You don’t want to get the dough too moist. (If you do, though, just sprinkle in a little more flour.) Mix as well as you can with a large spoon. See if you think you need more buttermilk. Forget the spoon, you’ve got to put your hands in again. Don’t work the dough too much. What you’re after is a soft spongy mix that will ball up easily, a dough that is moist and affectionate, but not tacky like wet plaster. Judging the texture requires experience, so don’t feel bad if you don’t get it perfect the first few times. It’s a sensual process. Your fingers learn to know when the batch is right. At this point, you’ll probably want to pinch off a bite and eat it. Mmm, those are going to be some good biscuits.

Or don’t you eat dough? The world falls pretty evenly into those who do and those who don’t. There are some people at our house, if I don’t leave a few scraps over, they get upset.

If you have the time, you can let the dough rest up in the fridge, retracting its gluten. Mixing the dough with your hands, you were of course kneading it, which is good for chewy bread but not good for flaky fluffy fall-apart biscuits.

Next roll the dough out—with an oiled wood rolling pin, please, not one of those plastic monstrosities. Pat the dough flat, then dust it lightly with flour to keep it from sticking to the rolling pin or countertop. I like high biscuits, so I roll the batch to about a finger’s thickness (I don’t have big hands). Cut the biscuits out with a round biscuit cutter. No cute shapes. They show a lack of respect, and I promise you, the biscuits won’t taste as good. You can use the top of a water glass, though the dough seals perfectly and will resist like a pump-flange. My mother always used the bottom of one of those cup-shaped tin funnels through which you pour hot stewed fruit into canning jars. But why not go ahead and get yourself a stainless-steel, three-inch biscuit cutter, complete with a slot to release the air pressure. The tool for the job.

Once you’ve cut them, plop the biscuits onto a cookie sheet, brush with melted butter if you like (I usually don’t), and bake at 350ºF for about twenty minutes. You’ll have to play around to find the right cooking time, since every oven cooks differently and every climate affects the way things cook.

On to the tomato gravy. What you do now, when the biscuits are in the oven, is heat some oil in your black iron skillet, four or five tablespoons’ worth. Add some fresh-ground black pepper to the oil first, and don’t let it get smoking hot. I say oil. My mother used lard. I used to use butter or margarine, thought they scorch pretty quickly. Olive oil does just fine. Stir the pepper and oil with a spatula, and toss in the whole onion you’ve just chopped. Keep stirring. Browned onions are simply glorious, and the odor is your first reward. (Actually, nowadays, I use garlic—Jayme’s allergic to onions.)

When the onions have just begun to turn translucent, sprinkle in a couple of heaping teaspoons of flour and stir to get a smooth, velvety mix. Cajun aficionados will recognize that we are creating roux. You want to brown the roux just slightly but without scorching the onions, an operation that requires practice and delicacy.

When you’ve got the roux just right, turn the heat down to low and open one of those cans of tomatoes [see recipe below]. Pour in the juice gently, a bit at a time, stirring to blend in the roux. If the sauce seems too thick, add water. When you’ve added all the liquid, add the tomatoes, which you should gleefully chop and mash and stir with your spatula. Bring the heat back up to medium or medium-high and linger over the skillet, mashing and stirring. You want the gravy to simmer, not bubble. This is when I add salt to taste. I don’t believe in adding salt too early. It dries things up and interferes with the osmosis. Simmer and stir, keeping the bottom of the skillet clean, until the gravy is as thick and rich as you like. For me, that’s pretty thick and rich.

By now the biscuits should be ready, golden brown on top but not hard on the bottom. Take them out and butter them, all of them, while they’re hot. (Sure, I butter my biscuits before I put the gravy on them. Doesn’t everybody?) I forgot to tell you, you should have a bog old glass of cold milk standing by because you’re about to eat one these suckers right there and then. It will be piping hot, dripping with butter, and you’re going to eat it plain—no jam, no gravydd. It’s the cook’s responsibility to make sure they came out right, isn’t it?

You heap a nice linen-covered basket with your creations. You pour the gravy into a gravy boat Before you pour, you notice with pleasure that a nice skin has formed on the surface. It’s cold outside. Your friends in the dining room are going crazy. How much longer do you plan to keep them waiting?

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See also Healthy Cast Iron Recipes and Cooking Tips
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