Taming Alabama summers in the kitchen
by Margaret Dabbs
Jun 15, 2011 | 3353 views | 0 0 comments | 46 46 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Margaret Dabbs
Margaret Dabbs
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In May, summer teased us as she poked her head out and then retreated for a few days, returning after sharing several amazingly cool mornings. When this fickle creature finally decided to stay, summer pounced on us bearing heat more like July and August, weeks before her official beginning on June 21 at 12:16 p.m. At this point, dates are not important. Summer has arrived bringing three digit temperatures and the overpowering dry way too early.

We all have our ways of coping with extreme Alabama summers. Exercise early outside or forget outside exercise and run or walk or work out in a cool location. Or just forget exercise all together for several months. Get up early and complete all outside chores before the sun catches up with you. Move quickly from one air-conditioned location to another — sprinting between if necessary. Drink lots of water, wear lightweight clothing, and never leave home without your sunglasses.

My solution to taming Alabama summers is to set the downstairs thermostat at about 68 and head to the kitchen — the heart and soul of our home. Misnamed, our kitchen is actually our “living room,” as it is always the gathering spot for our family and friends. We have a small, cozy den with some pleasantly comfortable chairs and a bright open living room with ample space for a crowd.

Nevertheless, we hang out in the kitchen, sitting on the stools, leaning and propping on the counters, or even sitting on the counters if you are under 25 and\or agile enough. Alone, with the boys if they happen to be home, or in the presence of company, the kitchen offers a haven as well as an appropriate battleground for a brain overly focused on the heat.

Many Alabama families congregate with their extended families at the Alabama or Florida beaches during the summer. Some find the lakes in Alabama — Smith, Guntersville, Martin, Logan-Martin — or other just right settings close to home. For these gatherings, dishes that can be prepared at home and brought to any car destination ready to eat are often the focal point of a family breakfast or brunch. For these recipes, I turn to my oldest brother, the “Brunch King.” But he was not always the “king” of any kind of cooking. When he had his first college apartment, my parents and I were invited for dinner on several occasions. Potato chip-topped tuna fish casserole and cherry pie made with Jiffy Mix, canned cherries, and a stick of margarine, were served each and every visit. When I was invited to spend the night, breakfast was peanut butter toast.

The “Brunch King,” known to family and friends as Roy, left for New York City shortly after he graduated from the University of Alabama and has lived there for more than forty years. His dream to make it as an actor did not happen, but he found his place in the theater as a production stage manager.

Starting with very small off-off-off Broadway showcase plays, the first in the basement of a large tenement building, Roy climbed the ladder to Broadway and stage managed Wendy Wasserstein’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, The Heidi Chronicles, in addition to five of her other plays. He has been a part of award-winning new plays and revivals, plays written by contemporary playwrights, and others written by classic playwrights. During Roy’s four decades in this profession, he has worked on plays with Jane Alexander, Frances McDormand, Cynthia Nixon, Kevin Bacon, Sarah Jessica Parker, Madeline Kahn, John Lithgow, Tyne Daly, Robert Sean Leonard, Joanne Woodward, Laura Linney, and Jill Clayburgh, among others.

About ten years ago, Roy and his assistant stage manager decided to organize a pot-luck brunch before the Sunday matinee of A Moon for the Misbegotten starring Cherry Jones and Gabriel Byrne. He described this first brunch as a “somewhat scraggly affair — banana bread from my kitchen, luncheon meats and cheeses from the house carpenter, bagels and cream cheese from another theater technician, fried mozzarella sticks, various breakfast juices… and deviled eggs.”

As the Sunday brunches continued over the years, they shed the prior description and grew into delicious food showcases for actors, understudies, dressers, wardrobe supervisors, scenic artists, stagehands, composers, sound designers, directors, producers, artistic directors, designers, house managers, and doormen. The participants took great pride in their contributions which ultimately became the subject of three books. These collections included the recipes and the stories of those who shared them. For Roy, these brunches fostered his love affair with cooking, which is almost equal to his love affair with the theater.

Brunch over Broadway, the third of the trilogy of recipes and stories, includes a tempting Amish Breakfast Casserole submitted by John Lithgow. This multi-award winning actor excels in roles in the theater, television, movies, and writes children’s books. His family’s recipe is wonderfully suited for a summer family gathering and is cooked in the morning hours before the heat of the day sets in.

Amish Breakfast Casserole

Ingredients:

1 pound sliced bacon

1 medium sweet onion- chopped

6 extra large eggs- lightly beaten

4 cups frozen shredded hash brown potatoes- thawed

2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese

1 1/2 cups cottage cheese

1 1/2 cups shredded Swiss cheese

Directions:

1. Cook the bacon and onion in a large skillet until the bacon is crisp. Drain

and then dice the bacon.

2. Combine the remaining ingredients in a bowl and add the bacon and onion.

3. Transfer to a greased 9x13x2 baking dish. Refrigerate overnight.

4. Remove from refrigerator about 30 minutes before baking.

5. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for about 35-45 minutes or until it is bubbly

and set.

6. Let the casserole stand for about 10 minutes before serving.

Even in the days before our homes and cars were all air-conditioned, homemade ice cream handily challenged the exhausting heat of summer. This hand-churned treat made appearances at our summer family dinners and cookouts with the churning chore only deemed appropriate for the “kids.”

One steamy Sunday afternoon in July, after about an hour in which everyone under 30 took a churning turn, the fresh peach ice cream would not get to the frozen point where hard labor was no longer necessary. Opinions freely floated about why it refused to freeze and just as we were ready to give up on the ice cream, Mama walked out the back screen door with a sheepish expression on her face and the ice cream freezer dasher in her hand. She smiled and asked us if we thought it might speed up the completion of our task. When she filled the freezer, she got sidetracked and simply forgot to put in the dasher — an absolutely essential element in the freezing process.

Mere thoughts of simple homemade vanilla ice cream made with a cooked custard base or fresh peach ice cream made with Chilton County peaches instantly offer satisfying relief from the heat. However, for those who live for chocolate, this candy bar ice cream will make your heart leap for joy. I found the basic recipe in Southern Living’s Summertime magazine about twenty years ago. Over the years I made it my own by using heavy whipping cream in addition to whole milk and essentially tripling the amount of Hershey’s chocolate syrup. The caramel in the candy bars comes through gently, adding a perfect touch.

Double Dose of Heaven Chocolate Ice Cream

Ingredients:

12 (2.05 ounce) Milky Way candy bars

1- 14 ounce can sweetened condensed milk

1 1/2 quarts whole milk (approximately)

1- 16 ounce can Hershey’s chocolate syrup

1 quart heavy whipping cream

Directions:

1. Cut candy bars into pieces.

2. Combine candy bars, sweetened condensed milk, and 2 cups of whole milk in the

top of a double boiler and cook over low heat until the bars are melted. Stir

constantly.

3. After the mixture is cool, add the chocolate syrup and refrigerate overnight.

4. Pour chilled mixture into the ice cream freezer container and add the heavy

whipping cream to the fill line. If the mixture does not reach the fill line,

add more whole milk.

5. Freeze the ice cream and then pack the freezer with additional ice and rock

salt and let it stand for about one hour before serving.

As summer’s temperatures hover in the 90s and perhaps higher, we head off into battle with a foe who hangs around, hangs on, and often does not release us until the cool days of late fall. Waging this war in the kitchen, we find battles easily won, hunger amply satisfied, and fresh battle plans consistently emerging.

Margaret Dabbs is a freelance columnist who resides in Jasper. Her column appears every other Wednesday in the Lifestyles section. Comments and suggestions are welcomed by contacting Dabbs at 387-2890.