By Ann Cipperly
On a Sunday afternoon in the Opelika countryside, my mother would be in the kitchen frying chicken in an iron skillet while pots of black-eyed peas and other vegetables were simmering on other burners. The table would be set with a bouquet of flowers from the garden and a plate of just picked sliced tomatoes.
Sunday dinner changed little every week. It was always fried chicken, fresh vegetables and homemade desserts. Mom and Dad both grew up on farms and lived off the land. At our home, there was a garden and chickens scattering in the backyard.
We visited my grandparents on the Gulf and enjoyed fresh red snapper with all the trimmings. Dessert would be one of Granny’s fabulous creations, such as her thinly layered cakes stacked high and filled with either a blueberry filling or a cooked chocolate fudge that would soak into the layers and drizzle over the sides.
In early summer, we would pick buckets of blackberries from nearby fields for making cobblers. During the July Fourth week, Mom would can tomatoes, freeze peas that we had shelled under a shade tree and make fruit jam.
This is how I grew up with southern dishes made with recipes passed down for generations. It was simple and delicious. I didn’t realize how good it was until after I was grown and dined at restaurants famous for their southern dishes, only to discover they were not as good.
When I married Don, we moved to Philadelphia, Pa. On weekends, we traveled to Manhattan to visit his parents. His parents were from New York and had been world travelers, living a few times in Europe.
When Don was young, the family lived in Portugal while his father worked with Radio Free Europe. After they returned to the states for his dad to work in Washington, D.C., they lived on the Chesapeake Bay.
They moved frequently. Don graduated high school in Long Island, N.Y. Then, they moved to Huntsville for his father to accept a position at the Redstone Arsenal, which is how Don ended up attending Auburn University. Afterwards, his father worked for NASA in Germany before returning to New York.
It was culture shock going from Opelika to New York dining at famous restaurants in the city. I had never been to an elegant restaurant with waiters. Cocktails and wine were served that we never had in my southern Christian home.
Don’s mother was a talented cook and had collected recipes from places they lived. I spent weekends copying recipes or being in the kitchen watching her cook gourmet dishes.
While prime rib roast and lamb were on the menu often, once she made a roast suckling pig. Most of the food she prepared, I had never eaten. The desserts were fancy and frequently laced with liquors.
We also had wonderful meals in upstate New York where Don’s grandparents lived. We went for a lobster birthday dinner, and it took me a while to figure how to eat it.
I knew southern cooking, but I wanted to learn how to cook gourmet dishes for Don and his family. No recipe was too long or complicated. I made it all: puff pastry, my own creation for cream puffs, chocolate mousse from the Portugal cook, tortes, crepes and everything in between.
When the children came along quickly one behind the other, they were with me in the kitchen, banging on pots and pretending to mix up dishes with a wooden spoon and bowl (one became a chef).
After living in Philly, New Jersey and outside Washington, D.C, I convinced Don to move South, although we knew he would not have the same opportunities in computers. We wanted to raise our children near my parents in a smaller area.
Being back home, I remembered God had called me to write when I was 12. I began to feel God wanted me to write about the love of cooking for my family.
I was nervous when I walked into Millard Grimes’ office at the Opelika paper. I submitted three columns. After those ran, he requested a column every week. I started with my huge recipe collection and was developing recipes.
One day Mr. Grimes said he always thought featuring local cooks would be interesting. I thought it was a great idea and started featuring cooks in some columns.
Hearing all the stories of traveling the world from Don’s mother sparked an interest. Little did I know that I would soon be traveling across the country and Europe.
Don began making business trips to San Francisco. When I could go, I was amazed at the scrumptious food. On weekends, we would go to the Napa Valley or to Carmel and Monterey. Going up the coast, Oregon was interesting. During winter, we drove to Lake Tahoe, and I tried skiing for the first time. It looked like fun, but snow and this southerner did not mix well.
During these trips, I would try to find a cooking class. I spent time exploring bakeries and collecting recipes. We researched to find the highest ranked restaurants. It was going to be an education on great food. If I was going to write about restaurants, I needed to know what was best.
We went back to New York to the Windows on the World restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. We relished the food in Boston. Other trips included Cape Cod, places in the northeast, throughout Florida and out to Dallas and Houston. Across the southern states included Natchez, Baton Rouge and New Orleans. We found places with wonderful food in the Carolinas.
In between all of the traveling, I went to work part time at the newspaper in the lifestyle section. Three months later I was asked to be editor. I was also food editor and continued to write the food column Southern Gourmet.
Don’s love of skiing took us to Aspen, Vail, Steamboat Springs, Crested Butte and others. During the summer we had upscale meals at the five star Broadmoor in Colorado Springs.
I wasn’t a fan of Albuquerque, N.M., but Santa Fe was special, and so were the southwestern dishes. Las Vegas and Reno were other places that were not favorites, but the food at the top of Paris in Vegas was yummy.
We began traveling with Don’s mother after his father passed away. The best times were with our children. When I needed copy for the lifestyle section, I decided to write about our travels with my mother-in-law, the world’s pickiest traveler. The columns were popular and amusing as she had to have the best table at restaurants, so we changed tables two or three times. Then, the Manhattan cocktail was not perfect.
One time we went to London with her for ten days. While it was hectic, I adored savoring afternoon tea. I was disappointed to learn “high tea” was an early supper.
Don and I traveled through several countries in Europe on our own. The chocolates in Belgian were sublime, and cheeses in France and Holland superb. The lavish desserts in Paris where not as good as my mother’s and grandmother’s cakes.
We not only traveled with Don’s mother but also flew all over the country with his brother Ed, who became director of global sales for American Airlines. Flying with Ed meant first class travel.
He would send passes to meet him in Miami to fly together to Aspen for skiing. I could write a book, as there are so many stories, including flying with him to Key West for his wedding on a yacht at sunset.
We went on a cruise to the Caribbean, which offered a lot of food. Details of food at every place was recorded in journals.
As the lifestyle, food and entertainment editor for 15 years, I was blessed to receive awards. Afterwards, I wrote for other publications and started at East Alabama Living magazine about 16 years ago. I cooked food for the tablescapes for about 13 years, but it was difficult to pack up and take someplace.
Don and I still travel, explore, search for regional dishes and write about it, and I still collect recipes. We focus more on the Southeast and enjoy Charleston, Savannah, Asheville and smaller towns that are interesting and offer excellent food. We have great restaurants in Lee County that we also write about.
I always enjoy writing about cooks. Being in homes with my food column for the past 11 years at the Observer has been a joy to sit in kitchens and listen to stories. I look forward to meeting more good cooks and sharing their recipes.
As I look back over the years at my love of cooking and traveling to learn more about foods in different areas, one thing has remained the same. When we return home, my first meal is fried chicken or a tomato sandwich. Both are still favorites.
When I pull out my Mama’s big cast iron skillet from under the stove, I know my heart still clings to southern cooking, whether it is a classic dish or a gourmet recipe adapted with the flavors of the southland.
Cipperly can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mom’s Best Buttermilk Fried Chicken
1 fryer, cut up, or chicken tenders
Dash of baking soda
Black pepper to taste
Salt chicken pieces. Place chicken in bowl; cover with buttermilk. Chill overnight.
In a heavy skillet, heat oil. Combine flour, baking soda and pepper. Dip chicken in flour mixture or place flour mixture in paper bag; shake chicken pieces to cover. Shake off excess flour.
Fry over medium heat until golden brown and thoroughly cooked. (Oil must be hot when adding chicken or the flour will fall off.)
While self-rising flour contains baking soda, Mom added a little extra to make the chicken crust flaky. It only takes a few minutes to cook chicken tenders on each side; turn them once.
Mom Cipperly’s Cheese Blintzes
Cheese Blintzes have been a favorite in my husband Don’s family for many years. My mother-in-law used pot cheese in her recipe and so did I when we lived in Philadelphia and New Jersey. In the south, I cannot find pot cheese, which is a type of dry cottage cheese. This combination of cream cheese and ricotta works just as good.
1 cup water
1 cup milk
2 cups flour
2 Tbsp. oil
2 tsp. sugar
½ tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
Butter or margarine
8-oz. pkg. cream cheese, softened
16-oz. pkg. ricotta cheese
1/3 cup (or more) sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
Fresh fruit, if desired
Blend first 8 ingredients in a blender, making sure they are thoroughly blended. Let batter sit for at least 30 minutes before using. Stir before pouring.
Heat an oiled 6-inch skillet over medium heat. Add about 2 tablespoons batter to the skillet, tilting skillet so batter completely covers bottom. When edges are slightly brown, place crepe on a cookie sheet.
When cool, crepes may be stacked with waxed paper between layers.
To prepare filling, beat cheeses with an electric mixer until fluffy. Add egg, sugar and vanilla; beat well.
Spoon a tablespoon of filling onto cooked side of crepe. Fold up the bottom edge, then each side; then the top edge, making a rectangular envelope shape. Repeat with remaining crepes.
To cook, melt butter in skillet, place blintz seam side down in skillet. When brown, turn and lightly brown on other side.
Serve with sour cream and fresh fruit, if desired. These freeze well. Place uncooked blintzes on cookie sheet. When frozen, place in plastic bags. When ready to serve brown frozen blintzes in butter on low heat.
Shrimp D’ Orleans
When I lived in New Jersey, I took a class on entertaining. This was one of my instructor’s favorite recipes. She suggested serving it with rice, asparagus, a salad of avocado, tomato and Boston lettuce; rolls and a chocolate mousse dessert.
1 Tbsp. butter
1 medium onion, diced
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 cup sour cream
¼ cup ketchup
3 oz. can mushrooms, drained (can use fresh)
3 cups cleaned, cooked shrimp
Melt butter in skillet; add onions. Cook until tender but not browned. Add soup, sour cream, ketchup, mushrooms and shrimp. Cook over low heat until mixture is well heated. Serve on rice. Serves 6.
Blue Cheese and Pear Crostini
From first Observer food column
4 oz. blue cheese crumbles
6 oz. cream cheese, softened
8 slices sandwich bread, crusts removed, or sliced baguette
1 pear, sliced
Toasted walnuts or pecans, optional
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine blue cheese and cream cheese; set aside. Cut bread into strips or slice baguette. Brush one side of bread with olive oil. Toast about 12 minutes until brown; cool.
Spread cheese mixture on bread; top with slice of pear dipped into lemon juice, if preparing ahead. Sprinkle with toasted nuts, if desired. Serves 8 or more.
Mocha Almond Cream Puffs
In this recipe for the Southern Gourmet column, I used a classic cream puff batter with my filling and topping combination. It makes an attractive dessert, and can be prepared ahead. One time I made 500 for an event.
Cream Puff Batter:
1 cup water
½ cup butter or margarine
1 cup all- purpose flour
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a medium saucepan, heat water and butter to a rolling boil. Stir in flour and stir vigorously over low heat for about a minute or until mixture forms a ball. Remove from heat; add eggs all at one time (can add one at a time). Beat until smooth.
Drop dough by heaping tablespoons, less if smaller size is desired, two inches apart onto ungreased cookie sheet. Bake 35 to 40 minutes or until puffed and golden. Cool. Remove tops; remove any filaments of soft dough.
Fill with Almond Cream and replace top. Drizzle with Chocolate
Frosting and make a rosette on top of frosting with Coffee Butter Cream. Top with chocolate covered coffee bean, if desired. Could also use a chocolate covered almond.
2 small pkg. instant vanilla pudding
2 ½ cups milk
2 cups heavy cream, whipped
1 to 2 Tbsp. almond extract
Prepare vanilla pudding mixes using 2 ½ cups milk. Fold in whipped cream and almond extract.
2 one-ounce squares unsweetened chocolate
2 tsp. butter
2 cups confectioner’s sugar
2 Tbsp. hot water
Melt chocolate and butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Remove from heat; blend in confectioner’s sugar and hot water.
Coffee Butter Cream:
1 tsp. instant coffee
2 tsp. hot water
4 Tbsp. butter, softened
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
Chocolate coated coffee bean or almond to garnish rosette
In a small bowl, dissolve coffee in hot water; add butter and blend. Mix in confectioner’s sugar. Spoon into a decorator’s bag fitted with a star tip. Place coffee bean or almond in center of rosette.
Butternut Squash Soup
Ed Cipperly’s Recipe
2 medium butternut squash, split and seeded
2 onions, chopped
4 Tbsp. fresh ginger, vary according to taste (optional)
4 medium apples, peeled, cored and sliced
3 Tbsp. butter
6 cups chicken broth, homemade is best, divided
Salt pepper to taste
Sour cream and/or croutons for garnish
Preheat oven to 375. Spray Pam on a baking sheet and place squash cut side down. Bake for about 40 minutes or until fork tender (very soft). Set aside to cool.
In a large soup pan, cook onions and ginger in butter about 5 minutes. Add apples and cook until tender. Add 4 cups of the stock and bring to a simmer. Scoop out the squash and add it to the stock. Simmer for about ten minutes.
Either transfer to a blender in small batches or use a submersible blender to achieve desired smoothness. Add more stock or water as needed to reach desired consistency. Salt and pepper to taste. Garnish and enjoy!
12 oz. milk, semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate chips
¾ cup heavy cream or half and half
1 Tbsp. Kirsch or Cointreau (optional)
Place chocolate and cream in a saucepan; stir constantly over low heat until smooth. Stir in liqueur, if desired. Place in small chafing dish to keep warm or serve in decorative container.
Surround with fresh fruit. Can also serve with cubes of pound cake, angel food cake and small pretzels.