Although buttermilk commands a respectful perch in Southern cooking, Debbie Moose thinks that people continue to underestimate its versatility.
Award-winning food writer and author Debbie Moose will be in Charleston signing copies of her book, “Buttermilk” (University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 3-5 p.m. Saturday at Heirloom Books, 123 King St.
“People think about pancakes and biscuits but there is really so much more you can do with it,” says Moose, the author of “Buttermilk,” published last summer by the University of North Carolina Press. She will be in Charleston for a book signing Saturday.
Blossom’s Buttermilk Fried Calamari With Red Pepper RemouladeMakes 4 servingsFor the red pepper remoulade:1 red bell pepper, seeds and ribs removed1/4 cup chopped parsley4 green onions, choppedJuice of 1 lemon1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce1 cup mayonnaiseFor the calamari:1 pound squid (rings only)1 cup buttermilk3 cups all-purpose flour1 tablespoon garlic powder1/2 teaspoon paprika1/2 tablespoon white pepper2 tablespoons kosher salt1 gallon peanut oilLemon wedges, for servingDirectionsTo prepare the red pepper remoulade, combine all the ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth. Cover and refrigerate. The remoulade may be made a few hours ahead.To prepare the calamari, rinse the squid, drain well, and pat dry with a paper towel. In a stainless steel bowl, combine the squid and the buttermilk and let it marinate in the refrigerator overnight.When ready to cook, combine the flour, garlic powder, paprika, white pepper and salt. Remove the squid from the buttermilk and add it to the seasoned flour, tossing to coat well. Make sure all the moisture is absorbed by the flour.Put the oil in a pot large enough to contain it with plenty of room to spare. Heat the oil over medium heat to 350 degrees. Use a thermometer to monitor the temperature, keeping in mind that the calamari will somewhat cool the oil once it is added.Shake off the excess flour from the calamari and add it to the hot oil. Cook for 30 seconds, being careful not to overcook it, then remove with a slotted spoon. Place the calamari carefully on a plate lined with a paper towel to absorb any excess oil. Serve with lemon wedges and Red Pepper Remoulade.— Adapted from “Buttermilk” by Debbie Moose (UNC Press, 2012)Buttermilk PieYield: 6 to 8 servingsIngredients6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature1 cup sugar2 large eggs, separated3 tablespoons all-purpose flour1 tablespoon lemon juice, more to taste½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg¼ teaspoon salt1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature1 (8-inch) deep-dish pie crust, blind-baked until very lightly brownedDirectionsHeat oven to 350 degrees. In an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment combine butter and sugar until well-blended. Add egg yolks and mix well. Add flour, lemon juice, nutmeg and salt. Add buttermilk in a thin stream until blended. Set aside. In another bowl, whisk egg whites until they form soft peaks. Pour about ¼ cup buttermilk mixture into egg whites and fold gently by hand to combine. Pour egg white mixture into buttermilk mixture and fold gently until just combined. Mixture will be somewhat lumpy.Pour filling into baked pie shell. Bake in middle of oven until filling is lightly browned and barely moves when pie is jiggled, 45 to 50 minutes. If you have added more than 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, it may take longer for pie to brown, so bake 5 to 10 minutes longer, if desired. If edge of crust browns too quickly, cover with foil. Cool on a rack and serve warm or at room temperature. Refrigerate leftovers.— Adapted from Robert Stehling of Hominy GrillButtermilk-Poached Fish With Cilantro-Lime ButterMakes 4 servingsIngredients4 (6-ounce) fillets of fish such as tilapia, snapper, flounder, trout or perchSalt and black pepper3 to 4 cups buttermilk6 tablespoons unsalted butter1/2 cup chopped onion2 cloves garlic, chopped1 cup chopped cilantroJuice of 2 limesDirectionsPlace the fish fillets in a saucepan or Dutch oven large enough to hold them in a single layer and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Pour in enough buttermilk to just cover the fish. Place the pan over medium heat and bring the liquid to a gentle simmer. Simmer the fish for 2 minutes, then use a spatula to turn over the fillets and cook for another minute, or until the fish is cooked through and flakes easily. Remove the fish from the pan with a slotted spatula and keep warm.Place the butter in a saute pan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic. Stir and cook for a few minutes, until the onion and garlic are soft but not brown. Remove the pan from the heat, then stir in the cilantro and lime juice. Pour the butter mixture over the fish and serve immeditately. — Adapted from “Buttermilk” by Debbie Moose (UNC Press, 2012)Daddy’s Favorite SnackMakes 1 servingIngredientsA couple of wedges of leftover cornbreadA cup or so of ice-cold, thick buttermilkDirectionsCoarsely crumble enough cornbread into a tall glass to almost fill it. Pour in enough buttermilk to moisten all the cornbread, but the mixture should still be thick and chunky. Stir a little and eat with a spoon.— Adapted from “Buttermilk”
But here and there, Moose is seeing signs of change and newfound regard — that buttermilk is about to become the latest “what’s old is new again.”
Artisan producers are turning out a higher-quality buttermilk that is sparking culinary interest from chefs and consumers. The interest in Southern cooking overall may be raising its profile, Moose says, as well as the popularity of Greek yogurt, which has a similar flavor.
Moose took a fresh look at buttermilk, which led her to write the book, at a Southern Foodways Alliance event in Oxford, Miss.
Earl Cruze was there talking about the buttermilk his family produces on their small dairy farm in Knoxville, Tenn.
Cruze still makes his buttermilk the old churn-style way, “which very few places do anymore,” Moose says.
“It was so different, it was almost like yogurt that you could drink,” Moose says. “It was very tangy and very rich and something so completely different from when you go grab a carton in the grocery store. And it really started making me think about that and the place it has in Southern cooking and why.”
Old vs. new
But what is buttermilk?
In the old days, it was the acidic liquid left over from churning butter, and retained a small amount of fat. If left sitting out, as was common before refrigeration, it would naturally ferment. That extended its usable life beyond that of fresh raw milk, which spoiled easily in the South’s heat.
Over time, dairies began making buttermilk by adding commercial cultures to “sweet milk” that changes the lactose into lactic acid. The milk also undergoes high-temperature pasteurization, which purists say detracts from buttermilk’s flavor.
Another aspect of modern milk production also may affect buttermilk, Moose discovered. The industry starts the process by removing all the fat from milk, and then adds it back in to meet the standards for fat-free milk, 2 percent or whole milk.
Farmers such as Tom Trantham of Happy Cow Creamery in Pelzer, which makes whole-milk buttermilk, see that as a problem.
“When you homogenize and take the cream out, then squirt some back in, you’ve already damaged the milk and it can’t function like it’s supposed to,” he told Moose. “We don’t take anything out.”
Whether purchased from the supermarket or a small farm, Moose urges consumers to seek out buttermilks with at least some fat, or optimally full fat. Those will have a better taste, texture and are superior for cooking and baking, she says.
Buttermilk from smaller producers can be found in the Lowcountry. Our Local Foods market and cafe at Two Rivers Center on Clement’s Ferry Road near S.C. Highway 41, carries full and half-gallons for $7.25 and $4.25, respectively.
Owner Maria Baldwin says the cafe’s kitchen uses buttermilk in a variety of ways, including for its coleslaw and ranch dressings, in muffins, and for marinating chicken or fish before frying.
Geer’s Barber Shop on Savannah Highway is another source. It sells half-gallons of buttermilk for $8.75 from Milky Way Farm in Starr in the Upstate.
Buttermilk on menu
Among the local chefs using buttermilk is Adam Close of Blossom on East Bay Street. Several items on Blossom’s menu list buttermilk prominently, and Close says people frequently ask about it.
He says the kitchen employs buttermilk mainly for frying. “It serves a similar purpose as mustard for breading fish, to coat the outside. It just adds a tart flavor and also helps the breading to stick. You have to use something viscous like that. Buttermilk fits the bill and adds a flavor.”
Chef-owner Robert Stehling of Hominy Grill is another fan of buttermilk. It’s part of Hominy’s cornbread, fried chicken and ranch dressing, but the showoff is the restaurant’s Buttermilk Pie, which has never been off the menu.
The recipe goes back to Stehling’s time in Chapel Hill, N.C., when he worked under Bill Neal at Crook’s Corner. Neal, a renowned chef and restaurateur, taught Stehling how to make the pie.
“Buttermilk pie itself has always been billed as kind of the cousin to chess pie,” Stehling says. “The thing that really sets this recipe apart from most is that you pull the egg whites out and whip them, and put them back in, which gives you a much lighter version.”
The pie also has a connection to Stehling’s days in New York. The original recipe appeared in a 1969 paperback titled “Princess Pamela’s Soul Food Cookbook.”
The “princess” operated a restaurant in Manhattan, and she was picky about her clientele.
“She was famous for stopping people at the door.” Stehling recalls. Nunally (now his wife) and I went in there to eat once, and of course, Nunally had planned to go to some show afterward. So we got there early and we were going to eat and go to the show and Pamela says, “You can’t do that. Eating here is the show.” So she made us wait like an hour and a half before she brought out some whiting. She was a real character.”
Moose has a few suggestions among her book’s 50 recipes for those desiring a baptism in buttermilk.
“People always go for the biscuits. (But) the pound cake, I think that showcases two sides of buttermilk’s personality. How it helps it rise, creates texture and you get the flavor. The tanginess bouncing out the sweet flavor of the cake.”
As for a different sort of use, try poaching fish in buttermilk, Moose says.
“It really mellows out the fishy flavor. It’s very surprising, you don’t realize it’s going to do as much as it does.”
Her personal favorite in the book?
“It’s hard to beat buttermilk and cornbread. I’m also kind of fond of Joe’s Blue Cheese Dressing. Use the thickest buttermilk you can find. I got that from the contractor who was working on my house.”
Moose acknowledges that a homemade buttermilk “substitute” can be made by adding lemon or vinegar to milk, but she says it’s a pale imitation of the real thing.
“You can do that but it’s kind of like buying a can of air freshener and expecting it to smell like the lilacs in your yard. It’s not the same.”
Buttermilk Pie is a perennial favorite at Hominy Grill. Chef Robert Stehling learned the recipe from another renowned Southern chef, the late Bill Neal.×
Blossom chef Adam Close×
One of buttermilk’s many uses is for marinating meats and seafood before frying. Here is Blossom’s Buttermilk Fried Calamari With Red Pepper Remoulade, a fixture on the menu.×