Sunday, April 01, 2007

Comfort Me With Collard Greens

There’s no denying it, residents of Tallahassee need comforting. Traffic is stagnant, weather is unpredictable, and exams are constantly looming ahead. It’s a good thing, then, that many of Tallahassee’s best restaurants offer comfort food to assuage our troubled souls. There are staples on every menu, from grits to greens, all singing the praises of the Southern grandma, cooking diligently over the stove and reminding us of happy times.

The term “comfort food” typically relates to any food that grants the eater a sense of security, contentment, and nostalgia. These foods are the ones we turn to in order to find respite from high-stress situations. Tallahassee’s local restaurants have taken the “comfort food” to new heights, as many of our upscale restaurants offer them in innovative ways. Southern comfort food can be broken down into three loosely-delineated categories: white food, fried food, and long-cooked food.

White foods continue to make appearances on menus all over the country, but in the South, they are special. Of course, the most regional of them are grits – coarsely ground corn kernels made into a kind of porridge – which have affectionately been given the acronym: Girls Raised In The South. Grits typically serve as a vehicle for cheese, butter, and cream, which are also white and therefore fall into the group. Also included are mashed potatoes, biscuits, creamed vegetables (including, but not limited to, spinach and corn), macaroni and cheese, and rice.

Nothing is more Southern, or more Tallahassee, than dipping a juicy chicken leg in a thick, viscous batter and deep-frying it until it is golden and crunchy on the outside and juicy and flavorful on the inside. The process of deep-frying is simple, the oil in the fryer repels the moisture in the food, and the oil heats the moisture in the food, steaming it from the outside in. Frying foods has been a Southern tradition for decades, and the distinctive flavor of the crunchy crust imbues us with a sense of home. Fried chicken and catfish reign king and queen of this category, along with their courtiers: fried green tomatoes, pork skins (“cracklins”), fried pickles, fried okra, and, of course, French fries.

Long-cooked foods are those that involved one or more ingredients and a significant cooking time. These foods are usually stewed, braised, or boiled, and end with concentrated flavors. An example of this is the traditional preparation of collard or mustard greens, which are cooked until completely tender, generally in conjunction with bacon. Other examples are stews (jambalaya and gumbo are included), chitlins, boiled peanuts, and beans.

These three categories are best found together, making the quintessential Southern meal. Try Mozaik’s Pecan Crusted Grouper, served with grits and collard greens, or Cypress’ Oysters and Biscuits appetizer for a comforting, but classy, dining experience.

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