You may have noticed that countries all over the globe are represented in The Stout Sprout kitchen. Regions, too, like the American South (ambrosia salad, anyone?), the Louisiana bayou (like this gumbo), and our home state of New Jersey (can’t wait to have more Jersey clams this summer!).
You may also have noticed that our dishes are often a combination of those cultural and regional influences. We recently made a return visit south of the Mason Dixon line but shook things up a little during our culinary travels. Sunday brunch, after all, is made for mixing it up, and here we took our cues from the Southern dish of biscuits and gravy, substituting the more commonly used sausage with chunks of fresh ham, some thyme, and a splash of sherry.
Commissary cooking during the American Revolutionary War helped to popularize the dish now known simply as biscuits and gravy. It was an economical meal made from ingredients that came together quickly and were easy to come by. Following the war, kitchens across the American South served this stick-to-your-ribs breakfast to keep farmers and plantation workers fueled during the long day ahead — buttermilk biscuits drenched with a roux-thickened milk sauce flavored with sausage. A breakfast so good it continues to be a menu staple anywhere good cooking is appreciated, but especially in the South.
It is still early March here in New Jersey, and there isn’t any real farming to be done. But there are hungry Sprouts in our house who are more than happy to work up an appetite helping in the kitchen. Baking biscuits is a new favorite activity and we’ve been trying out different recipes — I’m more a cook than a baker, and I rely on the expertise of others when it comes to biscuits. We had some buttermilk on hand and came across this recipe for tall and fluffy buttermilk biscuits on the Cook’s Illustrated web site. I highly recommend it, but you’ll need to register with Cook’s Illustrated in order to view it. Another good one to check out is Alton Brown’s Southern Biscuits, or take a look at this recent biscuit and scone recipe from the New York Times (published this weekend…which means we all must have had biscuits on the brain on Sunday).
Start these early on a weekend morning and then spend the extra 20 minutes to make a creamy gravy to pour over them. And maybe a poached egg, too.
Between the biscuits and the gravy, there are lots of things with which the kids can help. Ours measured, poured, mixed, formed, rolled, brushed, and helped to chop. And took several very full plates to the table, where we all proceeded to get very full ourselves.
If you make these I hope you enjoy both the history and the twist on the traditional, though they may become tradition in our house. Especially once spring arrives, and we can get out into the garden to work off our breakfast. Happy brunching!
Creamy Ham Gravy with Buttermilk Biscuits
3 tablespoons canola or grapeseed oil
8 ounces of ham steak, cut into a small, 1/4-inch dice
1 tablespoon dry sherry
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
Leaves from 3 large sprigs of fresh thyme
Freshly-ground black pepper
2 cups low-fat milk, warmed slightly on the stove top or microwave (do not boil)
Kosher salt, for seasoning
8 freshly-baked buttermilk biscuits (see above for suggested recipes)
1 tablespoon finely minced fresh parsley for serving
Serve with: poached eggs (optional)
Begin by heating 1 tablespoon of oil in a large skillet over medium high heat — use a cast iron skillet if you have one. When the oil is shimmering, add the ham and sauté until most cubes of ham are lightly browned, which should take between 5 to 10 minutes.
Deglaze the pan with the sherry, stirring to remove some of the fond from the bottom of the pan. When the sherry has fully evaporated, add the 2 remaining tablespoons of oil to the pan and heat until it shimmers. Add the flour and stir well, cooking the ham/flour roux for an additional 3 to 4 minutes while adding the thyme and several grinds of fresh pepper.
Begin to add the milk, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring vigorously and bringing to a simmer. The milk will thicken as it cooks with the roux, and you’ll want to keep stirring to avoid lumps in the gravy. Taste the gravy and correct for seasoning, adding more ground pepper or salt if necessary. (We intentionally avoided adding extra salt during cooking because the ham can be quite salty.)
Serve the ham gravy over a split buttermilk biscuit, sprinkled with minced parsley, and a poached egg or two on the side. One biscuit with gravy will probably satisfy the younger set, but adults may prefer two.
Serves: Between 4 – 8, depending on appetites
Kid rating: Four stars. Both of our Stout Sprouts liked this brunch, eating two (smallish) portions a piece. Daughter 2 even turned up in the kitchen looking for more “meat gravy.” But then, she kept sneaking bites of ham during the prep, too. Daughter 1 LOVED the biscuits. Hard not too. If your kids don’t like parsley, and ours do not, serve their dishes without.
Parent rating: Four stars. This is a fast, delicious and filling breakfast — my husband specifically mentioned just how full he felt when we finished. For us, we used some leftover ham and got a whole meal out of it, enough to tide us over until supper. I liked the added depth of flavor from the thyme and sherry. You may even decide to add some sliced mushrooms as you’re sautéing the ham — they would be fabulous in this dish, though decidedly a more adult twist.