Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Casserole Story

As any cornbread lover can tell you, South Pittsburg, Tennessee is the location of the National Cornbread Festival. It also happens to be the home of the finest cast-iron cookware in the world, produced by the Lodge family. Joseph Lodge began making cast iron in 1896, in this little town named for its greater industrial counterpart in Pennsylvania. Some 115 years later, his family continues to make products that are venerated in the cooking world and beloved by Chef Linton Hopkins. So much so that he has declared this season “A Winter of Casseroles” at Holeman & Finch Public House.

For Chef, finding a good cooking vessel is as exhilarating as finding good greens or grass-fed beef. He relishes the character that emerges when vegetables and proteins are cooked in unique, and traditional devices. Just as a discerning wine palette will notice the subtle differences in terroir between Napa and Sonoma, dedicated foodies can recognize if something’s been cooked in a clay pot or in a cast-iron skillet.

The right pan deserves the same kind of quest and care as sourcing exquisite sea salt or just-ripe fruit for sorbet. Because Chef feels so strongly about Lodge cookware, he sees no reason to confine it to the kitchen. Y’all can enjoy these casseroles in the very dishes in which they’re cooked.

This winter greens casserole is an homage to Virginia Willis, who was recently guest-of-honor at a Restaurant Eugene Author Dinner with her newest book, Basic to Brilliant Y'all. Using butternut squash from Burge Plantation and greens from Truly Living Well, Chef has conjured a dish that is sure to please on a chilly December night. What brings the whole dish together, however, is a béchamel, whose star ingredient is a ham hock from Benton’s Hams. Which just so happens to be in Tennessee. There’s no need for you to travel far, however. There’s a Lodge casserole dish at the Public House with your name on it every night. And, in case you would like to try this at home:

Winter Greens Casserole

1 medium butternut squash
1 lb. hearty winter greens (collards, mustards, turnips, etc.), diced
1 gallon water

For béchamel:
2 tbsp. butter
2 cups milk
¾ cup buttermilk
2 tbsp. flour
1 small shallot, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 ham hock
1 bunch thyme in sachet
2 tbsp. salt
1 tsp. black pepper
1 nutmeg
For crumble:
½ cup butter
½ cup crushed crackers

1) In a 2 quart sauce pot slowly heat the butter. Once it begins to foam, add garlic and shallot, place on a medium-low heat and sweat for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add flour and stir until combined. Cook over low heat, stirring frequently to cook off raw flour flavor.
2) Add milk, whisking to mix into roux. Add hock, thyme sachet, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Simmer for 20 minutes. Strain into a mixing bowl and reserve the hock.
3) Cut squash in half lengthwise and scoop out seed. Place cut side down on an oiled sheet tray and roast at 350 degrees for 25 minutes or until tender throughout. Medium dice once cooled.
4) Bring water to a rolling boil. Add 1 cup salt. Blanch greens until tender, about 30 seconds-1 minute. Drain and shock in ice water. Squeeze out all excess moisture.
5) Combine all preparations and buttermilk in mixing bowl and mix thoroughly. Put in a casserole dish and top with buttered cracker.
6) Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes or until top is evenly golden brown.

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