OffBeat Magazine’s “The Gravy: In the Kitchen with Susan Cowsill

01 October 2010 — by Elsa Hahne

“My mom and dad both came from Cranston, Rhode Island, outside of Providence. Lots of Italian, Portuguese and Irish Catholic, which is what we are. The meat loafs and the stews and the roasts, that’s all Irish. Anything you can put a potato in. The roast was always smaller than all the potatoes.

My mom was the primary cook in my family. Mom food, food mom, mom food. My dad had one thing he did, which was way complicated because there are so many ingredients in it; it’s an Italian spaghetti sauce that has chicken, pork, sausage, meatballs, everything in one pot. It was called Bud’s sauce, and that was his one and only thing; my mom made everything else. She was the meat loaf queen, the baked chicken queen, pot roast on the stove, which I don’t see much anymore, and beef stew and then there were these two really horrible dishes based around mashed potatoes. One of them was called hamburger gravy, which was just hamburger [meat], flour, butter, salt and pepper, over mashed potatoes. The other horrible item was called cream of salmon, which was canned salmon and milk and butter and salt and pepper, over mashed potatoes. It was a food product where you had to have a glass of milk right next to you. You don’t want to taste it and you don’t need to chew it. You could always tell when the paycheck was low, because there was that cream of salmon crap. And chipped beef—things that go over mashed potatoes that shouldn’t.

I make pies. I’m a really good pie maker. Since Katrina, it was a meditation to make pies. We’d be evacuated in somebody’s house, and I’d be sitting there on the phone asking somebody something about where we are, and I’d get stone crazy. I got into baking at that point. I got really good at apple pies and not bad at lemon meringue. I make my own crust and the trick is the cold water, and when it goes in. I learned pie crusts from my sister-in-law. Water goes in while it’s scootching around in the food processor, and it’s all about staring at it to see what consistency it is. If you go too far, pull it out, start over. I use shortening. It’s the American way, the Betty Crocker way. Crisco, flour, salt. I like to put a little sugar in.

I got scared about doing this interview because I cook off the top of my head. I don’t think about how much I’m putting in. I cook like I write; just throwing it in and hoping it works. The recipe I want to give you is Beastly chicken, paneed chicken. I don’t like deep-fried food, and deep-fried is terrible for you—bless our hearts, literally. I’m primarily olive oil, but I will pop in a little cooking oil, maybe to give it a little more of a crunchy outer coating. And then when I fry the Beastly, it’s only in an inch or so. I mean, maybe an inch and a half, but then it starts to evaporate. As I go along, at some point, I have to stop, scoop out all the brown bits because now we’re smoking and burning. Clean out the cast iron, start over. If I don’t do that the pieces at the end are much darker than the ones in the front. I don’t think you can print this, but my kids call it crack chicken. Doesn’t that read well? We usually serve it with mashed potatoes and broccoli and bearnaise sauce, which has become the ketchup of our household. You take the Knorr envelope, cup of milk, five pounds of butter and—boom, bearnaise!

And then there’s the mac and cheese. It was my mom’s, my grandmother’s, maybe my greatgrandmother’s— no, I don’t think they made Kraft singles back in great-grandmother’s day. Mac is something mom fed us a lot because you can make a giant vat of it and it spreads out among seven children. As a child, I didn’t care for it because it had tomato in it, but now I love it. You’ve got the crunchy cheese on top. Half the family wants it burnt, half of the family doesn’t. Strangely, only me and my brother Paul carried the recipe down.

Also, we have Saints Sundays, every game day when we’re home we have our friends over. Always the boys from the Glasgow band, Sam and Jack Craft. Even when we’re not here they will come, because we’ve got that big TV we got for Katrina. Katrina’s like Christmas sometimes, when you say it like that. ‘Oh, we got this for Katrina!’ ‘What holiday is that?’ ‘You don’t know the Katrina holiday, when everybody got new stuff?’ Christmas, Hannukah and Katrina—I don’t know if you can print that either… Everybody brings food. The Craft brothers bring Sambalaya or Jackbalaya, which is jambalaya made by Sam or Jack— who’s middle name is Chachere. That’s important to mention, that they’re Chachere babies. It’s in their name. So when they say they’ll bring jambalaya, I say ‘Okay.’”

Beastly Chicken

4 boneless chicken breasts (try to find medium-size)
1 cup Italian bread crumbs
1 handful (about 2 tbsp) flour
1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
1 teaspoon Lawry’s Seasoned Salt or Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning
1 teaspoon garlic powder
4 eggs
1/2 cup milk
1 cup olive oil
1/2 cup cooking oil

Slice breasts horizontally and pound each piece with a meat tenderizer to half an inch thick.

Combine bread crumbs, flour, Italian seasoning, seasoned salt and garlic powder in a wide bowl.

Mix eggs and milk in another wide bowl or baking dish, and soak chicken for 10 minutes.

Lift chicken out of egg-milk mixture and coat each piece with bread crumb mixture by pressing each side into crumbs; place on a dry cookie sheet. Heat oil in a large cast iron frying pan. Fry chicken over medium-high heat until golden and crispy, about 3 minutes on each side. Cut each piece in half to make sure it’s done. Serve with Knorr’s Bearnaise sauce.

http://www.offbeat.com/2010/10/01/the-gravy-in-the-kitchen-with-susan-cowsill/

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