Soul food: It’s actually NOT about the butter

Last month, I spent an epic Memorial Day weekend in Tennessee for my stepsister’s wedding in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee. I took a ton of photos … enough of the wedding dress and the view, for sure, but infinitely more photos of food. It was everywhere. For miles. The bride and groom rented out a huge mountaintop lodge and asked the guests to bring food in lieu of gifts, and the wedding banquet table was heaped with piles of every sort of delicious food you can imagine.

One of my favorite dishes was a relatively simple one, a creamy corn casserole that complemented all of the summery salads and delectable breads and meats perfectly. Luckily, I happened to be sitting right next to the chef herself as I noted to my dinner companions how much I loved it.

As you can see, everyone else loved it too.

“Oh, it’s so simple, honey,” my new aunt Shirley said. “Two bags of frozen corn, two sticks of butter, and two boxes of cream cheese. Cook it with salt and pepper, and that’s it.”

My jaw dropped. No wonder it’s so yummy … it is frighteningly bad for you! I set out to make my own version of it that wasn’t quite as fattening.

My idea was to impart additional flavor, as opposed to just more fat and butter. (There’s nothing wrong with a lot of butter and cheese in a recipe; but we can’t use it to substitute for cooking, can we?)

I used half of the cream cheese (just one 8-oz. box), half of the butter (just one stick) and I roasted the corn (this also made my version less watery, because often when you cook frozen veggies it releases extra water as it cooks). It should also be noted that the recipe she provided was enough to make a vat of it, fit for 80 people to enjoy at a wedding, and I trimmed it down to much less. Plus I added paprika, dried basil and parsley, a whole head of my own smoked garlic, a Cajun house spice, and two sliced jalapeños (seeds and all). I have to say, it was a great success.

Hillary’s Spicy Roasted Corn Casserole

(“Not as unhealthy as the other kind.”)

  • 6 whole ears of fresh corn, roasted (see below)
  • 1 stick of butter
  • 1 box (8 oz.) of cream cheese (low-fat is OK)
  • 1 head of smoked garlic
  • smoked paprika, salt, pepper, dried basil and dried parsley (about 1 tbsp. each)
  • 2 whole jalapeños

First, I roasted the corn. I like to roast my corn dry unless I plan to eat it fresh off of the cob. Strip off some of the outer husk, then pull out the fine hairs stuck to the corn itself. Pull some of the husk back over the corn and place on the grill. Roast them on full heat for about 20 minutes or until the corn is blackened and the husks are crispy (but watch out for flames and keep a spray bottle handy just in case!)

Note: if you ARE going to just eat these cobs fresh, which is not a bad idea, you can add butter, cheese, herbs, etc., to the corn after you pull off those hairs and before you cover the corn in its husk (and wrap in foil if needed). I recommend a crumbly bleu or goat cheese, and maybe fresh basil or cilantro. Play around with flavors next time you have a cookout.

Then, I sliced the jalapeños and added them to a big pot with the spices, butter and cheese, and let them simmer for a while.

Then I sliced the roasted corn from the ears — cut off the end so you can  stand it flat on one end, then run your knife straight down; it should come off easy — and added it to the mix.

This was a great success when I took it to a Thanksgiving in June party this past weekend. I plan to try this again with some other variations … possibly adding bacon (I tried to keep it vegetarian for this party; the poor non-meat-eaters get left out enough at Thanksgiving meals, haha) or even making it sweet and savory, say, with roasted tomatoes and fresh basil.

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Decadent Smothered Pork Chops

I grew up in southern California, but spent my high school and college years in Tennessee, and a little time in Texas and surrounding areas as well. As such I think I have learned a lot of amazing things about southern food to add to my repertoire.

One of the easiest and tastiest of those dishes is smothered pork chops. It can be adapted to your favorite flavors, and it uses relatively few dishes and ingredients.

pork chop recipe card

I start with some bacon, sliced sweet onions and cremini mushrooms. I rendered the bacon and sautéed it all briefly in a cast-iron skillet, until the vegetables were tender. Then I removed the vegetables and bacon (leaving the bacon grease and juice in the pan), then added more vegetable oil and the coated pork chops.

I like to use a bone-in pork chop, but you can also use a boneless tenderloin slice or other similar cut. I also prefer the flour coat/ egg wash / breadcrumb dredging, but feel free to switch it up to use your favorite coating or flavored batter (although I have to say, personally, I think bread crumbs keep the pork chops nice and crispy even after smothering). Once the chops have been browned on each side, remove them from the pan and set aside.

For the sauce, I like to add the bacon, mushrooms and onions back to the pan with a cup or so of chicken stock, then whisk in cream or milk and some corn starch to thicken the sauce. You can also make a roux of butter and flour in the pan, then add the veggies, cream and stock until it thickens.

Once the sauce is thick and creamy (check the seasonings at this point, too, and add more if necessary), add the pork chops BACK IN for a few minutes in the gravy.

If you make sure the chops are both well-coated and fried very well at very high temperature, then they will retain their crispy outer shell even when they are drowned in sauce.

Serve immediately and enjoy!