These recipes from Alabama cooks put a twist on tradition

These recipes from Alabama cooks put a twist on tradition
Pamela Donahoe's Old Fashioned Chayote Casserole combines spicy Italian sausage, breadcrumbs and Creole seasoning with an ingredient she thinks people will enjoy -- chayote squash. (contributed)

We throw around the word tradition a lot, and usually use it in a favorable light. That’s with good reason: It’s good to have customs and to remember old ways. It connects us to our history – both our collective and our personal pasts. Some wider traditions reinforce cultural ties; others are just for us and keep family bonds strong. Basically, at their best, traditions ensure good things keep going.

But ritual can become routine, and in so doing, dull the very meaning that makes a tradition important. When we’re only going through the motions, the significance of the tradition may be lost. And at its worst, a tradition can hold us back, stop us from branching out and trying something new or from seeing something in a new way. If you always eat that one menu at every holiday meal, what else are you missing out on? What (or who, even) are you leaving out?

These questions aren’t meant to suggest you should forgo your traditions altogether, stop making or quit eating your traditional recipes. But consider adding one or two new dishes and giving the favorites a little twist or two. Shaking up a tradition doesn’t mean getting rid of it. It’s just breathing fresh life into it.

Finding ways that traditions can be flexible, allowing them to evolve as we evolve, is the best way to keep a tradition going. And for traditions that really matter, the significance is in the spirit, not the specifics. When it comes to traditional meals, it’s more about togetherness than what’s on the table.

With these ideas in mind, we invite you to think beyond the borders and try one of the “nontraditional” recipes we got from readers.

Cook of the Month, Pamela Donahoe, Joe Wheeler EMC

A few years ago, a terrible car accident left Pamela Donahoe with a brain injury. As part of her recovery, she began cooking more often. She was relearning how to speak, how to read and how to do math.

“I started really basic, leaning on recipes that were favorites and that were familiar,” she said.

One dish that checked both boxes is her Old-Fashioned Chayote Casserole.

“I learned to make it when I lived in Louisiana, and I love it because the chayote has a great texture but doesn’t have a strong flavor, so it is a fun veggie to play around with,” she said. “This casserole is a great way to use it, and you can add all kinds of things to it if you like. It’s really versatile.”

She wanted to share the recipe since it’s not a common dish in Alabama, and because it has such special meaning to her.

“I thought people who’ve never had chayote would enjoy it,” she said. “And I just love the part it played in my recovery. And now that I’m doing so much better, I wanted to share it for that reason, too.”

Old-Fashioned Chayote Casserole

Meat mixture:

6 chayote squash (aka mirliton)

1 tablespoon butter

1 pound spicy Italian sausage

1 yellow onion, diced

1 tablespoon minced garlic

Salt and pepper, to taste

Tony Chachere’s Creole seasoning to taste

Binder:

2 eggs

1 cup milk

Salt and pepper, to taste

Tony Chachere’s Creole seasoning (may substitute Tabasco and cayenne pepper, to taste)

Topping:

2 cups seasoned breadcrumbs

3 tablespoons butter

Lowry’s Seasoned Salt, to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Boil chayote (skin on) in enough water to cover them for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until fork tender. Drain and let cool. Do not blanch. Peel the skin. Cut in half lengthwise and remove the seed. Cut into ¼-inch dices. Discard any excess liquid. Sauté Italian sausage in 1 tablespoon butter until browned. Add onions and sauté until transparent. Add garlic, salt, pepper and Tony’s to taste; stir and add chayote. Grease a 9-by-13 pan. Add mixture, gently pressing. Mix eggs, milk and seasonings. Pour over casserole. Lightly toast breadcrumbs in remaining butter for 1-2 minutes, being sure to incorporate butter into breadcrumbs. Pour breadcrumb mixture over casserole, lightly pressing. Lightly season entire surface of casserole with Lowry’s Seasoned Salt. Cover with foil. Bake 1 hour. Remove foil and bake an additional 30 minutes or until top is golden brown.

Kathy Skinner’s seafood gumbo doesn’t stop at shrimp. It also calls for fresh crab meat and sea trout, along with bacon and cube steak. (contributed)

Seafood Gumbo

4 slices bacon, cut into small pieces

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 medium onions, diced

2 medium cube steaks

2 15-ounce cans tomatoes

3 cloves garlic, diced

3 small boxes frozen okra

1 pound shrimp, shelled and deveined

2 cups crab meat (fresh is best)

2 sea trout or other mild fish

1 package crab boil

Salt, pepper, red pepper and oregano to taste

Make Roux:  Lightly oil a Dutch oven. Fry bacon until crispy. Remove bacon and reserve grease. (Bacon may be added back to finished gumbo.) Add the flour and cook on low heat, stirring often, until roux is dark (the color of an old penny) but not burned. The secret to a good gumbo is the roux. Add onions, cube steaks, tomatoes and garlic. Cook until cube steak falls apart and tomatoes are cooked down, about an hour. Add 2 cups water and okra. Bring back to a simmer. Add seafood, crab boil and seasonings. Cook slowly until flavors are blended and seafood is done.

Kathy Skinner, Tallapoosa River EC

Stuffed Beef Tenderloin

3 ¼ pound beef tenderloin

Kirk Vantrease’s Stuffed Beef Tenderloin calls for spinach, bacon, onion, mushrooms, provolone and pinot noir. (contributed)

6 ounces spinach

4 slices bacon, finely chopped

1 cup mushrooms, finely chopped

1/2 onion, finely chopped

1 cup provolone cheese, shredded

1 cup red wine (recommended: pinot noir)

1 cup beef stock

1 stick butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon garlic

Salt and pepper, to taste

Heat a large skillet on medium heat. Add olive oil and bacon, cook for 2 minutes. Add onion and mushrooms and cook 5 minutes. Increase the heat to high and add butter, garlic, beef stock, red wine, salt, pepper and spinach, and cook until spinach wilts. Using a sharp knife, slice beef tenderloin down the middle but not all the way through. Open the tenderloin, cover with wax paper and pound it with a mallet until about ½-inch thick. Spread the mushroom-onion mixture evenly over the beef and sprinkle the provolone cheese. Take one end and roll the beef, securing it with kitchen twine. Pour the liquid from the skillet into a casserole baking dish and place the rolled tenderloin in the center of the dish. Bake for 45 minutes on 450 degrees until the internal temperature of the beef is 125 degrees. Remove twine and cut across the grain to serve.

Kirk Vantrease, Cullman EC

Crockpot Ro-Tel Grits

1-2 pounds Velveeta cheese

1 can Ro-Tel tomatoes

1 stick butter

1 pound Conecuh sausage

2 cups Jim Dandy quick-cooking grits

8 ½ cups water

Salt to taste

Cube Velveeta and place in crockpot along with Ro-Tel and butter. Turn heat on high. Cook Conecuh sausage, slice into bite-sized pieces and add to the crockpot. Cook grits according to package directions. Add cooked grits to crockpot and simmer.

Amy Miller, Clarke-Washington EMC

Cheesy Chili Baked Potato Casserole

4 baking potatoes

16 ounces cheddar cheese

15 ounces canned chili

2 sticks butter

1 cup sour cream

1 cup Fritos corn chips

1/2 cup jalapeños, chopped

Olive oil

Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place the 4 baking potatoes in a casserole dish and cover each potato with olive oil. Poke each potato with a knife and bake for 1 hour. When potatoes are soft, cut each down the middle and open it. Cube the 2 sticks of butter and spread evenly over the potatoes. Layer 8 ounces of cheddar cheese, then the 8-ounce can of chili over potatoes and bake for 10 minutes. Top casserole with 8 ounces of cheddar cheese, sour cream, chopped jalapeños and crumbled Fritos corn chips.

Kirk Vantrease, Cullman EC

This story originally appeared in Alabama Living magazine.

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