By Jill Warren Lucas
For Sara Foster, the memories of waking Christmas morning at her grandparent’s farm have little to do with tearing open gifts. It’s all about the smells of buttermilk biscuits, spiced peaches, country ham and pork tenderloin with roasted tomato gravy.
“We always started the day with a big Southern breakfast – the feast before the feast,” she recalled with a laugh from a table in her Durham Foster’s Market, where late risers were enjoying plates piled high with eggs, crispy potatoes and other savory starters.
Several of the family recipes featured on Christmas mornings, and from dusk to dawn throughout the year, are included in Foster’s most recent book, Sara Foster’s Southern Kitchen: Soulful, Traditional, Seasonal
(Random House). It’s the celebrated chef’s fourth book, and she describes it as her most personal.
“I wasn’t aware when I was young how fortunate I was to grow up on a farm,” Foster said of the family home place in Tennessee. “It seemed we were always outside running around and playing while my mother and grandmother were cooking. And it wasn’t just the two of them: my grandfather hunted and had his own smokehouse.”
Long before it was fashionable, Foster lived the farm-to-fork lifestyle that is the mantra of today’s champions of sustainability. “If something wasn’t in season, you didn’t eat it – unless it had been put up during summer to eat in winter,” she said. “This way of looking at food has always been part of my life. Getting older really makes me appreciate it.”
Part of the inspiration for Southern Kitchen, she said, “was that my sister got tired of me calling her for instruction on how our grandmother made things. She’d inherited her cookbook, which was really a binder of recipes cut out from ladies’ magazines or jotted down on back of envelopes and bit of paper.”
As familiar as she was with many of the dishes, Foster found some of the recipes intimidating for their lack of detail. “It’s a lot of shorthand: ingredients with no method, or ingredients measured in teacup. One called for ‘5 cents of worth of mustard seeds.’
“My grandmother was the sort of cook who never measured anything. I remember her making biscuits on the counter and thinking it was so cool she didn’t use a bowl,” she said. “It took a lot of testing to figure out some of these, but it was so worth it.”
Because her Durham and Chapel Hill Markets are so busy this time of year, Foster doesn’t always make it home for Christmas breakfast anymore. But she recreates it on a smaller scale to enjoy with friends and family, and sometimes features items on the Market menu.
Among her must-makes are Sweet Potato Spoon Bread, a luxurious grits and cornmeal concoction that’s in the book and was featured in a recent issue of Better Homes and Gardens
. It also is posted to her website
. (see photo above
“It’s more like a grits soufflé than a spoon bread,” she said, her hands automatically gesturing the classic folding technique that keeps the batter light and fluffy. “It puffs when it bakes. It’s not as dramatic as a soufflé, but it is pretty.”
The other recipe that truly recalls Christmas morning is Pork Tenderloin and Buttermilk Biscuits with Roasted Tomato-Thyme Gravy. “People don’t think of pork tenderloin as a breakfast meat, but it’s delicious sliced thin and served on biscuits,” Foster said. “The tomato gravy is a special touch.”
Foster offers the two recipes below as her holiday gift to Culinary Historians of the Piedmont – and anyone who wants to enjoy a truly special holiday breakfast.
Sara Foster’s Pork Tenderloin and Buttermilk Biscuits with Roasted Tomato-Thyme Gravy
This recipe is courtesy of Sara Foster, from “Sara Foster’s Southern Kitchen: Soulful, Traditional, Seasonal” (Random House: April 2011).
3 plum tomatoes, cored and halved
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
One 1-lb. pork tenderloin, trimmed
2 tbsp. fresh thyme
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 tbsp. unsalted butter
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Place the tomatoes on a rimmed baking sheet and toss with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and the vinegar. Season with salt and pepper to taste and bake for about 30 minutes, until the skins begin to shrivel and the tomatoes start to caramelize. Remove from the oven and set aside until cool enough to handle. Remove and discard the skins (they will slip right off) and roughly chop the tomatoes.
While the tomatoes are cooking, rinse the pork, pat dry, and remove any silver skin. Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until sizzling hot. Slice the tenderloin into rounds about ¼ inch thick (12 to 15 slices) and sprinkle with thyme and salt and pepper to taste, pressingly lightly so the seasonings adhere. Dip the rounds in the flour to coat both sides lightly, reserving the remaining flour. Place the pork in the skillet and sauté for about 2 minutes per side, until lightly browned around the edges. Remove the meat from the skillet, place on a plate, and cover loosely.
Add the butter to the same skillet and melt until sizzling hot. Add 2 tablespoons of the reserved dredging flour and stir to scrape up any brown bits from the bottom of the skillet. Cook, stirring constantly, for about 1 minute, just until the flour cooks slightly and turns light brown. Whisk in the broth and stir until the gravy is slightly thick and smooth. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring frequently until the gravy comes to a boil and thickens, 3 to 5 minutes.
Reduce the heat to low and return the tenderloin slices to the skillet with the gravy just to warm through. Remove from the heat and serve warm over the biscuits.
Copyright Sara Foster, 2011. All rights reserved.
Sara’s Favorite Buttermilk Biscuits
2½ cups self-rising flour
Pinch of kosher salt
Pinch of sugar
8 tbsp. (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
2 tbsp. vegetable shortening or lard
1 cup well-shaken buttermilk
2 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Lightly grease a baking sheet.
Place the flour, salt, and sugar in a large bowl and stir to mix. Cut the butter and the shortening into the flour mixture using a pastry blender or two knives in a crosscutting motion until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Work quickly so the butter remains cool and doesn’t melt into the flour.
Create a well in the center of the flour-butter mixture. Pour the buttermilk into the well and stir together just until all the flour is incorporated; do not over mix.
Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead two or three times, just until it comes together, and form into a flat disk. Using a lightly floured rolling pin or your hands, roll or pat the dough ½ to ¾ inch thick. Lightly flour a 2- 2½-inch biscuit cutter and cut the biscuits, leaving as little space between each cut as possible and pressing down just once for each biscuit; do not twist the cutter. If the dough begins to stick to the cutter, dip the cutter in a little flour. Gather the excess biscuit dough, reroll once, and cut as many biscuits from it as possible.
Arrange the biscuits on the prepared baking sheet and bake for 15 to 18 minutes, until the biscuits have risen and are golden brown. Remove from the oven and brush the tops with the melted butter.
Copyright Sara Foster, 2011. All rights reserved.
Jill Warren Lucas, a member of CHOPNC, blogs at Eating My Words
. Follow her at @jwlucasnc.