When the calendar says it’s fall this Friday, our brains will instantly click over to comfort food mode. We’re ready for hearty soups, gumbo, chili, red beans and rice, lasagna, and other heavier dishes. Pumpkin spice lattes may be on the menu at coffee houses, but in Mississippi, we’ll experience heat waves until Thanksgiving. Coming up with dinner menus for our tepid fall can be done, but it takes a little ingenuity and digging through cookbook stacks.
Last week, I ran across a cookbook published by one of the state's most iconic families. Patriarch Jerry O’Keefe, who passed away last year at 93, was a World War II fighter pilot and war hero, state legislator, Biloxi mayor, successful business man, and arts patron. But perhaps most impressive, he and his wife raised a clan of 13 children in a sprawling home on Beach Boulevard a few feet from the gulf.
To keep them all fed, Mrs. O’Keefe and the family cook Florence locked down a weekly menu plan that rarely changed, according to one of the children’s memories.
The “repetitious” meal plan recalled by Kathryn O’Keefe in Cooking on the Coast included red beans and rice on Mondays, meatballs and spaghetti on Tuesday, chuck roast with potatoes, onions, and carrots on Wednesday and leftovers or fricasseed chicken on Thursday.
For the Catholic family, Fridays meant fried fish or courtbouillon, a type of Creole seafood stew. Saturdays brought hamburgers and French fries for lunch, followed by their mother making homemade pizza for the kids’ dinner while the adults dined on grilled steak.
The biggest treat of the week was Florence’s fried chicken and all the trimmings for Sunday lunch. To cook enough chicken for the family of 15, “she started cooking early in the morning and we would awake to the wonderful aroma of fresh, hot, fried chicken,” said O’Keefe.
I’m sure the O’Keefe children prayed for a menu change. But as adults, they fondly remember the delicious meals around the family dinner table.
I realize our world has changed since those simpler times and not everyone has a talented cook like Florence to prepare nightly meals. However, there are many dishes that can be prepared the night before, placed in the refrigerator overnight, and baked before dinner to create a hot meal in minutes.
One of my favorite prep early/enjoy later dishes is pork chops and hash brown bake. It’s a healthier way to prepare pork chops than frying and contains a built-in base of one of my favorite side dishes.
In a large skillet, brown five bone-in pork chops on both sides in a little oil until lightly browned. In a separate bowl, combine a cup each of sour cream and chopped onion, cream of celery soup, and half cup of milk. Stir in a 32-ounce bag of frozen shredded hash browns that have been defrosted. Spread hash brown mixture in a 13 x 9-inch casserole dish and sprinkle with a cup of shredded Cheddar cheese.
Top with pork chops, cover, and refrigerate overnight. Bake at 375 degrees for 45-50 minutes until pork chops are thoroughly cooked.
Reading about Mrs. O’Keefe’s homemade pizza for 13 hungry kids caused me to search for my favorite recipe. It won’t feed as many as her recipe did, but it’ll easily satisfy everyone around your table.
Easy Ultimate Cheeseburger Pizza
1/2 pound ground chuck or sausage 14 ounce can of diced tomatoes, drained 1 teaspoon minced garlic 12-inch prebaked pizza crust 1-1/2 cup shredded Cheddar cheese 1/2 teaspoon Italian seasoning 1/4 cup green onions, chopped Ketchup and mustard to taste
Brown meat in a skillet, stirring often, until beef crumbles and is no longer pink.
In another bowl, stir together tomatoes and garlic. Spread over crust, then top with beef, cheese, green onions, and Italian seasoning. Lightly drizzle ketchup and mustard (use bottle with tip end if possible) in criss-cross pattern over top of pizza. Bake at 450 degrees F directly on oven rack for 12-14 minutes or until cheese is melted.