Kendra Bailey Morris is the Author of The Southern Slow Cooker, a recently released classic cookbook filled with full flavored down home recipes receiving rave reviews. In a recent interview, we asked the popular food writer, recipe developer and culinary instructor, how we could incorporate the use of the slow cooker into our upcoming holiday meal plan. Here she shares her fresh take on ways to use the tried-and-true kitchen staple; and what it could all mean for you in the way of new and delicious possibilities!
Donna: Congratulations on the publication; it’s wonderful!
Kendra: Thank you so much. I’m very pleased. Books are a labor of love and when you finally hold it in your hand it’s a very exciting time.
D: You found a niche in the cookbook market.
K: Yes, Southern food has been my specialty for about ten years. I couldn’t believe no one had done a book combining Southern cooking with slow cooking, so I jumped at the chance to make it happen.
D: What was the inspiration behind the book?
K: I grew up in the Baptist church and we would have big potlucks with ten or more slow cookers with all kinds of goodies like pinto beans and stews. Southern cooking is that kind of hearty, stick-to-your-ribs kind of food. So it made sense to do a Southern focus of slow cooking.
D: What challenges did you face in bringing this project to life?
K: I went to my cache of tried and true Southern recipes and transcribed them to work in a slow cooker. These are typically recipes that would be done in the oven or on the stove top but I managed to get them to work in the slow cooker after many tries. I found that not every recipe that works in an oven or stovetop translates well into slow cooker. For instance, cheese does not do well in a slow cooker because the oil will separate from the cheese. Also pasta has such a fast cooking time and it’s so delicate and easy to over cook that it does not work well here. My Editor wanted so badly for me to have a macaroni and cheese recipe but I just couldn’t get it to work. Instead, I managed to create a slow-cooker cheese grits recipe that worked really well. It took several times to get the timing right; but it was certainly worth the challenge.
D: Testing recipes for a cookbook sounds daunting. Did you find the writing portion of the project challenging?
K: While testing recipes is a very involved process, my barometer was that each recipe cooked in the slow cooker be as good or better than if they were cooked in an oven or stove top. Writing the cookbook was actually the part I enjoyed most. My professional background was in writing before it was cooking. I have an MFA in creative writing and I
taught writing at the college level. It’s something that’s near and dear to my heart. From a writing perspective the process is very time-consuming and requires a lot of research. For example, the headnote, which is a little primer to peak your interest about the recipe, has to be interesting. I tried to include little stories with each recipe along with its history which can be tricky – due to the small allotted space.
D: Yes, I’m looking at your headnote for Mom’s Fully-Loaded Potato Onion Soup which sounds great and I personally want to try…
K: Not really low-fat but fine in moderation.
D: What have you made in the slow cooker that you thought could never be made and were surprised by the results?
K: The desserts! I was really impressed with the versatility of the slow cooker. I thought to my self, [the process] is really easy when you do stews or roasts but can you do a cake in the slow cooker? My slow cooker Banana Cheesecake was one recipe that worked better in the slow cooker than in the oven. The moisture makes this a very creamy cheesecake. I found with several of our family cake recipes, like the chocolate spice cake and my grandmothers applesauce cake that after some tweaking they were surprisingly good or better in the slow cooker.
D: Which recipes do you suggest we absolutely try especially for the upcoming holiday season?
K: The ones I really love are what I call the Hail Mary recipes. The meatloaf with brown sugar and barbecue sauce is so moist and tender. The Pork Loin Roast with Rosemary Balsamic Vinegar and Vanilla Fig Jam —was really, really great and screams “Fall” with the figs and balsamic. On page 72 of the book, there’s an herbed turkey breast cooked with cornbread stuffing. For ‘Thanksgiving in a pot’, all you have to do is make your dressing and pack it in the bottom of the slow cooker, then put your turkey breast on top and cook them together. That’s one of my favorites. For a small group you can do some gravy and potatoes on the side.
D: How do you develop your recipes?
K: This can be a very laborious process but when people buy cookbooks the recipes must work. There are many variables in slow-cooking that have to be taken into consideration. In some cases the process involved a lot of changes and I completely re-wrote many of the recipes before going into the kitchen. The rest of the recipes I conceived from scratch. It’s a lot of work but it’s fun work. I also had recipe tester volunteers. Some recipes were tested five or six times!
D: We are all products of our own life experiences. What kind experiences set you on this path of cooking and creating recipes?
K: I grew up in a household where food was very, very important. Not just eating but cooking it. We cooked together as a family my entire childhood. My grandmother, Beulah- Anne Bailey, back in Princeton, West Virginia, was where we all convened for the holidays. The whole family would be together cooking. Everybody helped in one way or another; whether you were snapping beans, shucking corn or stirring something in a pot. It helped frame my love of cooking at a very, very young age. I also started collecting cookbooks when I was really young and I would read them and try out recipes. Initially, it was a way to
relax but later on became more serious. I worked professionally in restaurants, had my own catering company and went to culinary school for a brief time. Blending my writing with my cooking was a natural transition.
D: I relate to everything you just said. I’m too a natural foodie and find it very relaxing to cook… sometimes even running out of people to cook for.
K: Yes, it’s the best. It’s just my husband and me and I’m always making more food than anybody needs.
D: In the world of cooking, who are some of your favorites?
K: Julia Child is so inspirational as a cookbook author and a chef. I love her story and how she found herself as a cook and a professional later in life. She used this as fuel to have a great career well into her eighties. I’m a big fan of John Egerton who has written some Southern cookbooks. I love Nathalie Dupree; she’s iconic in Southern food and cooking. Virginia Willis, who was kind enough to endorse my book, is another favorite. I’m partial to the ladies in the kitchen.
D: Do you follow the food trends? What do you think is trending now in food?
K: Southern food in cooking is trending heavily now. It is written about frequently. Bon Appetite had a cover story on Southern cooking. The New York Times had an article debating Southern pies and Southern cakes. It’s getting the national press it’s never gotten before.
Southern focused restaurants are opening in non-Southern cities like New York City and Chicago. The appeal is obvious; it’s good country cooking. I love the fact that people who didn’t grow up on Southern foods like grits and biscuits are finally getting a taste of it. I’m happy to see Southern cooking have a representation outside of the South.
D: What’s your idea of the perfect holiday meal? Is it a big gathering or more of an intimate occasion just with your husband?
K: I think it depends on how much work you want to do. Some years I’m in the mood to have a bunch of people over and I’m ready to commit to all that entails. There have been years where it’s just me and my husband and I’ll do something simple like a roast chicken not a turkey, with a salad and maybe some potatoes and a basic dessert. For folks who are doing the big holiday meal, the slow cooker is really wonderful. It allowed me to have more food in the oven. Sides can be made in the slow cooker. I made the Kale with Ham Hocks and Buttermilk Corn and Chive Spoon Bread in the slow cooker. Since the turkey so often takes up the whole oven, using the slow cooker, gives you more free time and space.
D: Those are great suggestions. So I suppose using a slow cooker is a viable alternative for holiday cooking?
K: Yes. Most people have one slow cooker, I have seven. And since the dishes cook a long time, you can start early in the day, set it on low and forget about it. It stays warm all day long and allows you to do other cooking. I also have breakfast recipes. When family spends the night, I do an overnight oatmeal with cinnamon, brown sugar, and maple candy bacon. All you have to do is get it going at night, wake up in the morning and breakfast is done!
D: What other things would you like to share with our audience?
K: I’m happy to share my love of Southern cooking with your readership and people from all over. Although there are a lot of good cook books out there, the rigorous testing that went into the development of these recipes ensures that this is a good cookbook.
Kale with Ham Hocks
While collard greens are often the slow-cooked greens of choice in the South, I grew up enjoying my mom’s slow-cooked kale made with ham hocks, bacon drippings, and sautéed onions. Both the ham hocks and the bacon drippings give this dish its signature smoky flavor, so I recommend going whole hog here. However, you may substitute olive oil or vegetable oil for the bacon drippings, if desired. Either way, be sure to drink up a shot or two of “pot-likker,” the liquid left in the pot, because it’s full of valuable nutrients. Garnish your greens with a sprinkling or two of hot sauce and cider vinegar and serve with a bowl of brown beans and cornbread for a real country-style meal.
Serves 6 to 8
1 meaty smoked ham hock, or 4 or 5 ham hock slices (about 8 ounces)
1½ cups water
1 cup chicken broth, low sodium or homemade
12 cups torn fresh kale leaves, tough ribs and
stems discarded (2-inch pieces)
2 tablespoons bacon grease, vegetable oil, or olive oil
1 onion, thinly sliced
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar, plus more to serve
Salt and black pepper
Hot sauce, for serving
Put the ham hock into a microwavable bowl and cover with the water and chicken broth. Cover and microwave on high for 3 minutes, or until bubbly.
Spray the inside of the slow cooker with cooking spray, then add the greens to the slow cooker. Heat a large pan on the stovetop over medium-high heat and add the bacon drippings. Add the onion and sauté until translucent and lightly browned, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the onions to the slow cooker. Then, pour in the ham hock mixture and stir.
Cover and cook on low for 6 to 8 hours, until your greens are nice and tender.
Remove the ham hock from the slow cooker and shred the lean meat. Return the meat to the pot, discarding the skin and bones. Add the cayenne, cider vinegar, salt, and pepper, then stir. Set the cooker to warm and serve straight from the pot alongside a bottle of your favorite hot sauce and extra cider vinegar.
Buttermilk Chocolate Spice Cake
This is a very old family recipe that has all of the elements of what makes a homemade cake truly decadent: lots of chocolate. And, this is no ordinary chocolate cake. This one is infused with cinnamon and cloves and gets a unique tang from the addition of buttermilk. Serve the cake with vanilla ice cream topped with a drizzle of caramel sauce (page 119) for the ultimate sugary explosion. • This recipe also involves baking the cake in a dish placed inside the slow cooker insert. I’ve found that a 1½-quart rectangular baking dish set inside a 6-quart slow cooker works best (and a 6 x 8-inch dish fits perfectly). Pouring the batter directly into the slow cooker results in a dried-out, slightly burned cake.
Serves 4 to 6
¼ cup unsalted butter, softened
¼ cup vegetable shortening
1 cup white sugar
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cup buttermilk
¼ cup unsalted butter
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup confectioners’ sugar, plus more as needed, sifted
¼ cup whole milk or half-and-half
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Line the bottom of the baking dish with parchment paper and spray it with cooking spray. In a large bowl, cream together the butter, shortening, and white sugar and beat until fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla and beat well. In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, cocoa, baking soda, cloves, cinnamon, and salt.
Add the dry ingredients in thirds, alternating with the buttermilk, to the sugar mixture. Mix well until combined. Pour the batter into the prepared baking dish and place it inside the slow cooker. Thickly layer several paper towels over the top of the slow cooker to absorb any evaporation.
Cover the slow cooker with the lid and cook on high for 1½ to 2½ hours, until a knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. (Keep in mind that the cake will continue to cook once it’s removed from the slow cooker, so don’t overcook it.) Place the dish on a cooling rack for 10 minutes. Then, carefully flip the cake onto the rack and remove the parchment paper. Let cool before icing.
To make the icing, melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat and stir in the cocoa. Take it off the heat and alternately add confectioners’ sugar and milk, mixing it until smooth. Stir in the vanilla. If a thicker icing is desired, add additional confectioners’ sugar and let cool a bit before frosting the cake. Spread the frosting over the top of the cooled cake.
Orange Sorghum Sweet Potatoes with Corn-flake Topping
When I first conceived this recipe, I imagined a steaming bowl of crunchilly topped, orange-flavored sweet potatoes on the Thanksgiving table next to the turkey. Then I tried this dish topped with ice cream, and I discovered it also makes one heck of a tasty dessert. Feel free to serve these tangy, cornflake-topped sweet potatoes any way you like them, either as a side dish or warm
with melted ice cream or whipped cream. If you’ve got a crowd coming over, this recipe doubles easily, so no worries there. While the sorghum syrup is what makes this dish truly shine, if it’s not available where you live, feel free to substitute light molasses, honey, or cane syrup. • If you wish to transfer the sweet potatoes to a separate bowl for serving, line the inside of your slow cooker with parchment paper, so the paper just reaches over the rim. This way, you can easily lift the contents out of the cooker to transfer to a serving bowl.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled
and cubed into a 1-inch dice (about 5 cups)
¼ cup firmly packed brown sugar
¼ cup sorghum syrup, unsulfured light molasses,
honey, or cane syrup
¼ teaspoon grated orange zest
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
Pinch of cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar
2/3 cup chopped pecans
2/3 cup cornflakes
Rub the inside of your slow cooker generously with 1 tablespoon
of the butter. Add the sweet potatoes.
In a small bowl, mix together the brown sugar, sorghum, orange zest, orange juice, cinnamon, salt, and cayenne. Pour this over the sweet potatoes and mix well (I just toss everything with my hands). Dot the sweet potato mixture with the remaining 1 tablespoon
Cover and cook on low for 4 to 6 hours, until the potatoes are soft.
To make the topping, in a small saucepan, melt the butter and brown sugar until the sugar dissolves. Mix in the pecans and cornflakes. Sprinkle this mixture over the sweet potatoes and serve.