By Ginna Parsons/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Meredith Harris would likely blush at the thought of being called a domestic goddess, but how else can you describe a young woman who loves to cook, can and collect all things food-related, including cookbooks, recipe files, lunch boxes and old aprons?
The 30-year-old and her husband, Chip, moved to Tupelo from Memphis in April and she immediately began setting up housekeeping in an older home on Magnolia. They’ve filled the rooms with antiques and family pieces and four cats: Rollins, Winston, Clarice and Turbo.
“I grew up in Memphis, but Chip is from here and we just decided to move to Tupelo,” said Harris, the daughter of Jerry Jones and Mara Sprott. “I knew the pace of life would be better and the schools would be better. Our blood pressure has gone down tremendously since we moved here. You can breathe here. In Memphis, you just go. This was just a good choice.”
One of the first things Harris did after moving to Tupelo was set up a supper club similar to one the couple had in Memphis.
“It was called the Thursday Night Dinner Club and it was just four people – my husband and me and two of our friends. They’d come to my house and I’d cook and all they had to bring was what they wanted to drink,” she said.
The supper club she started here is made up of the Harrises and three other couples. Her first menu? Cruditampés with homemade pepper jelly over cream cheese as an appetizer; slow-cooker brisket with onion gravy, squash casserole, roasted new potatoes and salad for the main meal; and peach and blueberry cobbler for dessert.
“I did not grow up cooking,” said Harris. “My sister did the pastry chef stuff. But one Christmas at a family breakfast, my aunt and my stepgrandmother told me, ‘You’ll never get married if you don’t learn to cook.’ And I told them, ‘Then I’m either going to marry a man who knows how to cook or marry a man who’s rich and I’ll buy me a cook.’ But I got in the kitchen anyway and started cooking simple things like spaghetti and boxed pasta meals. But at least it got me in the kitchen.”
And now, Harris can’t seem to stay out of the kitchen.
By day, she’s a receptionist at Children’s Dental Clinic in Tupelo. Most evenings, she comes home and cooks a gourmet meal for Chip.
“My husband is my biggest fan,” she said. “I get up in the mornings to make his day better.”
But even husbands can tire of hearing their wives talk non-stop about food.
“That’s why I started the blog,” said Harris. “It’s like talking to your husband or your friends or yourself, really. I try to blog three or four times a week at night.”
Harris’ blog is called anchoviesandbutter.com.
“I started the blog in May 2010 and the first entry was about a Caesar salad, so that’s where the anchovies comes from. And the butter – well, the butter is for Julia.”
Harris is a huge Julia Child fan. The screensaver on her computer is a black and white photograph from the 1960s of Julia cooking. She’s got most of Child’s cookbooks. Reruns of “The French Chef” play on her television in the living room.
“I love Julia because she enjoyed food and technique and she loved people,” Harris said. “If you don’t understand what you’re cooking, you’re not really going to enjoy it.”
Harris only got interested in food and cooking about five years ago, around the time she and Chip married. At an estate sale, she picked up an old copy of “A Woman’s Home Companion Cookbook.”
And she was hooked.
“I try to use the cookbooks I have when I cook because I have 75 million of them,” she said. “And I love containers – recipe boxes, lunch boxes. If you’re going to collect, though, you need to use them.”
Harris also collects aprons. Three of them are framed and hanging on the walls in her home office. They belonged to Chip’s great-grandmother.
“I couldn’t believe it when we found them,” she said. “They were all in such great condition.”
Harris got the canning bug last year when her mother bought a share in a CSA, or community supported agriculture farm, in Memphis.
“She offered to split it with me, so I had fresh produce every week and I had to find something to do with it,” she said.
A few years earlier, Harris’ mother-in-law, Betty, had suggested the two learn how to can together. Harris liked the idea, but life got in the way, and the two never followed through.
But once the fresh produce started coming in last summer, Harris’ interest was renewed and she even began visiting a farmers’ market in downtown Memphis.
“What kicked it off were the cute little Kelly green pickling cucumbers,” Harris said. “My paternal grandmother used to make these sweet pickles, but she stopped making them when she was 86 or 87. I wanted to make those.”
Harris picked up a couple of canning cookbooks and went to work.
“I canned 380 jars last year using 35 or so recipes,” she said. “It was a hobby and I just immersed myself in it.”
Now that she’s in Tupelo, her father-in-law, Butch Harris, has stepped up to the plate. He offered to plant the couple a garden at his home in Plantersville and Harris quickly said OK to his tomatoes, squash, okra, eggplant, hot peppers, cucumbers and green onions.
“He sows, plants and harvests it and brings it to me,” she said.
So far this summer, Harris has put up 175 jars of jams, jellies, pickles, relishes, tomatoes and green beans. She does her canning on a fish cooker outside because the water heats up faster than it does on the stove, plus it keeps her kitchen cool.
“I mostly can on the weekends because it can eat up a weeknight,” she said. She cans 10 to 12 jars a weekend, and figures she’ll still be putting stuff up through the end of September.
In the Harrises’ laundry room is a wall of shelves and they are stuffed with jars bearing the fruits of Harris’ labor. And if you’re lucky enough to be invited to her home, you will likely go home with a goody bag containing a jar or two.
“We’ve been so blessed,” she said. “Cooking is the way I show my gratitude to people. You will not leave my house empty-handed. You will have something in your hand as you go out the door.”
Really Quick Dill Pickles
4 pounds (4-inch) pickling cucumbers, blossom ends removed
24 whole black peppercorns
1 garlic head, cloves separated, peeled and chopped
6 small dried hot peppers, such as japones or de arbol (optional)
6 dill heads, with sprigs
23/4 cups cider vinegar, white wine vinegar or distilled white vinegar
3 cups water
1/4 cup pickling salt
Halve or quarter the cucumbers lengthwise or leave them whole. Divide peppercorns, garlic and hot peppers, if you’re using them, among 6 pint or 3 quart Mason jars. Pack a portion of cucumbers into each jar along with some dill.
In a saucepan, bring vinegar, water and salt to a boil, stirring to dissolve salt. Pour hot liquid over the cucumbers, leaving 1/2-inch of head space. Close the jars with two-piece caps. In a boiling-water bath, process pint jars for 10 minutes or quart jars for 15 minutes.
Store pickles for six to eight weeks in a cool, dry place before eating them. After opening a jar, store in the refrigerator.
5 pounds tomatoes, finely chopped
31/2 cups sugar
8 tablespoons lime juice
2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon red chile flakes
Combine all ingredients in a large non-reactive pot. Bring to a boil and then reduce the temperature to a simmer. Stirring regularly, simmer the jam until it reduces to a sticky, jammy mess, about 11/2 to 2 hours. While this cooks down, prepare the canner, jars and lids.
When the jam has cooked down sufficiently, remove from heat and fill heated jars carefully, leaving 1/4-inch of head space. Wipe rims, apply lids and twist on rings. Process in a boiling water canner for 20 minutes. When time is up, remove jars from water and allow them to cool. When the jars are cool enough to handle, test seals. Store in a cool, dark place for up to 1 year.
Makes 41/2 to 5 pints.
Tender Crispy Chicken with Sweet Tomatoes
4 chicken legs or thighs
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 big handfuls of red and yellow cherry tomatoes, halved
2 big plum tomatoes, quartered
1 whole head garlic, broken into cloves and peeled
1 fresh red chili pepper, finely chopped
Handful of fresh basil leaves
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place chicken pieces in a large roasting pan, pat dry and sprinkle all over with salt and pepper.
Toss together in a large bowl the tomatoes, garlic, red chili and a few good glugs of olive oil. Distribute contents of the bowl all over the chicken pieces. Layer the basil leaves on top of chicken and tomatoes. Bake for 11/2 hours or until the chicken is crispy and falls off the bone.
Hot Onion Soufflampé
3 (8-ounce) blocks cream cheese, softened
2 cups grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 bag frozen chopped onions, thawed and squeezed dry
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
In a large bowl, combine cream cheese, Parmesan cheese and mayonnaise. Fold in onions and mix well. Transfer to a shallow 2-quart soufflampé dish. Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until the edges are golden brown. Serve with Fritos.