Article published in Edible Shasta-Butte in Winter 2017.
One of the things that makes food so enjoyable is its ability to capture memories. Powerful, sensory, olfactory memories born from food and packaged forever into our brains. Triggered by the spicy smell of thickening sausage gravy, the hiss of apples cooking in brown butter, and the sight of an over-crowded pie pan filled with white biscuits, I am 9 years old and I can eat more biscuits and gravy than my grown grandfather.
Isn’t it funny how food has such control over us? Funny though food is stored in the mind as a positive or negative experience with emotions to boot, it’s even funnier knowing that those emotions are actually born from deep within your gut.
Inside the deepest depths of your core, there are roughly 400 different species of bacteria - that means that bacterial genes outnumber human genes thirty fold. In essence, we are all more bacteria than we are human - which is a crazy thought. These critters make up what we call the human microbiome and it houses 95% of your feel-good serotonin production. They work for us to keep us balanced, regular, and happy, so long as we feed them well, meaning with simple, whole foods.
Whole foods, like grains, are designed to be consumed in their entirety. With each part intact, the grain lends itself to proper digestion: beneficial fats and minerals in the germ, along with fiber in the bran help to slow down the speedy breakdown of energy-rich endosperm. Adding a sourdough culture helps to break-down difficult to digest components of grains, which further renders them accessible to our bodies for absorption.
Taking care of your gut and your mental state doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy your most favorite comfort foods. Macaroni and cheese can easily be converted to include whole grains, as could chocolate chip cookies and biscuits and gravy. Though baking and cooking with whole grains may take some getting used to, once your palate has adapted to whole grains, you become devoted to these flavorful and satisfying offerings. Striking a balance between your memories, traditions, happiness, and health may actually leave you feeling physically, emotionally, and digestively happier.
Maybe you will adapt your own memories or work to cultivate new ones with the ones you love. With every scent of simmering sausage gravy and sputtering of caramelizing apples, I am transported to a time of blackberry foraging and cobbler eating by the campfire, revving loud engines, and tossing up sand while riding to the beach to sit on a piece of driftwood and eat lunch with my family.
Powerful emotions around food are no coincidence. We’ve worked out a great trade with our many partners in digestion: good eats for them and powerful happiness for us. I wanted to share with you my adaptation of my most favorite meal. It is a meal fit for every imaginable interpretation of the term comfort food and I hope it leaves you feeling nourished.
California Biscuits and Gravy
Though it’s technically not the same as my Gram’s, I would say it’s even better: homemade biscuits with locally grown and milled whole grains, a rich sausage gravy made from locally raised and seasoned pork, and crisp fresh apples seasoned with fresh herbs from the garden.
SPELT-EMMER BUTTERMILK BISCUITS
1 cup whole Spelt flour
1 cup whole Emmer flour
1 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp sea salt
1 stick + 1 TB unsalted butter, cold
generous ½ cup sourdough culture, cold
¼-⅓ cup buttermilk, cold
1 lb fresh breakfast sausage
3 tbsp whole Spelt flour
1 quart organic whole milk
Black pepper, freshly cracked
4 Fuji apples
2 tbsp unsalted butter
3/4 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp fresh lemon thyme
FOR THE BISCUITS: Preheat your oven to 450°F and place a stone on the middle rack. Allow the stone to heat up for at least 20 minutes before baking your biscuits.
Whisk together the flours, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Cut the cold butter into cubes and, using your hands, quickly press it into the flour mixture until there is a good distribution of butter - shoot for some small pea-sized flecks as well as some larger, nickel or quarter-sized flakes. Move quickly so that the butter doesn’t warm up too much.
Again using your hands, gently fold and press in the sourdough culture until it is evenly distributed. Add cold buttermilk a little at a time until the dough just comes together. Lightly flour your countertop and turn the dough out onto the counter, kneading a couple times to keep the dough mass together. Once your pan in the oven has been thoroughly heated, remove the dough from the refrigerator and use your hands to flatten the dough into a 1-inch thick rectangle. Using a bench scraper, cut the dough into squares and place directly onto the preheated stone. Bake for 12 minutes until the biscuits have puffed up, revealed layers, and have browned nicely on the tops.
FOR THE GRAVY: Place the entire block of sausage in a dry cast iron pan and crank the heat to medium. Use your favorite utensil (mine is a bamboo rice paddle) to break the sausage into the size clumps you’d want to eat. Continue to mix and break the sausage up until it is cooked through and beginning to brown.
Throw in your flour and use a whisk to incorporate it into the fat that rendered from the sausage. Continue whisking until the flour becomes sweetly fragrant, about 60 seconds. Add about a half cup of milk to the pan and whisk until the flour dissolves. Add 1-2 cups of milk and stir slowly with your original utensil of choice. While stirring, take care to scrape the bottom of the pan and move in broad, sweeping strokes. Don’t stir too often, as we want the gravy to thicken - don’t stir too infrequently or it may develop lumps. Basically, you want the mix to simmer and see bubbles breaking at the top. You do want to give it a stir to check thickness and keep the bottom from burning. As the mixture thickens, add more milk in 1-2 cup increments. Continue this process of thickening and adding more milk. Once thickened to your liking (remember, it will continue to thicken upon cooling), remove from the heat and season to taste with salt and pepper.
FOR THE APPLES: Core and thinly slice the apples. Heat the butter in a pan over medium heat until it begins to darken and smell toasty. Toss in the apples and cook until they begin to soften. Sprinkle in a pinch of salt along with the cinnamon and lemon thyme and continue to cook, stirring occasionally to develop nice caramelization. You want the apples to be soft but not mushy, caramelized but not burned.
TO SERVE: My Gram would serve each biscuit open-faced with a hearty scoop of gravy and apples on the side. I’ve always added the apples to the open-faced biscuit before piling on the gravy, which makes for a remarkable flavor compliment with the robust spicy sausage and sweet apples. I take each plate in with my eyes, so also like to add some leftover roasted orange vegetables and sautéed greens before serving.