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Recipes and Stories

26 February 2016: Finding Home by the Recipe VI—Meet Clara Elizabeth Clayton

Baked Ziti with Meat Sauce, the favorite supper of Clara Elizabeth Clayton, Boyd Clayton's precocious daughter, showing that the Southern cooking is no longer just fried chicken, grits, and okra . . . if it ever was.

When Charlie Bedford came back to Maple Grove, the little town in the Carolina hill country where he’d grown up, hardly anyone recognized him. Sure, a portrait of him smiled out from the back cover all eight of his children’s books and he’d been in People magazine as “America’s favorite uncle”—twice. But the man who had locked himself up in his childhood home on Elm Street was nothing like the composed, handsome fellow in those carefully posed photographs.

What people saw—when, that is, they got a rare glimpse of him—was not a successful, award-winning writer, but an award-winning mess. Refusing all visitors and offers of food, he spent his days in self-imposed solitary confinement, grieving for a talent that, he was sure, had deserted him forever.

After about three weeks, everyone gave up on him—everyone, that is, but Boyd Clayton, his old best friend from high school. Refusing to believe that Charlie was finished, he prodded until he got the man out of that house and back among the living, so, not surprisingly, he was the one credited with nudging Charlie back to life. But actually, he’d only played an oblique part in that: the person who accomplished it was his precocious daughter, Clara Elizabeth.

Though only eight, Clara knew exactly what Charlie was feeling, because she herself had been abandoned by someone she ought to have been able to trust. Her mother had left when she was not quite six and, other than birthday and Christmas cards and the occasional, random phone call, had made no effort to stay in her daughter’s life. She didn’t really understand all that, but then, she didn’t need an adult understanding to know what to do: she simply loved him.

She’d adored Uncle Bertie and his adventures from the time she could sit up and listen and had never heard the adage “if you loved the book, don’t meet the author.” For her, loving the book and its creator were the same thing. It was the uncomplicated, direct, and unconditional love that only a child can give, and yet, what it did for Charlie always seemed to him nothing short of a miracle. From the moment she catapulted off Boyd’s front porch to wrap her little arms around his knees, her open affection did more for his spirit than a decade of psychotherapy.

When she knew that the man she thought of as Uncle Bertie was coming to her house for supper, there was only one thing she would hear of feeding him, and that was her father’s baked ziti. This was a special occasion, and in her mind, nothing would do for that but her own favorite meal. Here, with a little help from Clara, Boyd shares his secrets for making it.

Baked Ziti – Boyd Clayton in his own words, with a little help from his daughter, Clara Elizabeth Clayton, age 8

My Daddy makes baked ziti the bestest of anybody in the whole wide world. If you don’t believe me, you can ask Uncle Charlie because it’s his favorite, too. Daddy says it’s not, that Uncle Charlie is just being polite, but when he’s all sad and quiet, Daddy’s ziti always makes him smile. I think Daddy was just saying that because he gets tired of making it. When I ask for it, he makes this funny noise and rolls his eyes. But now that I’m eight, I can help him, so maybe he won’t mind making it as much.

One time, Uncle Charlie was having company and asked for this so he could make it. I bet he called Daddy a hundred times. Uncle Charlie let me taste it when I went to his house after school the next day and it was pretty good—not as good as my Daddy’s but I told him I thought it was just the same, because Gramma says the only time you should never tell the complete truth is when you’re talking about somebody’s cooking.

Sometimes Daddy doesn’t put hamburger meat in it, and uses sausages that Mr. Bill makes at his grocery store. Sometimes he puts in the meat from one of them roasted chicken they make at Mr. Bill’s store. That’s good, too, and fun, because I get to help him pull the meat off the bones. My friend Amanda thinks putting your hands in chicken is yucky, but I think it’s fun. Sometimes in the summer when we get stuff from Gramma’s garden, Daddy leaves out the meat and puts in some of those green squashes that I can’t spell and a big handful of these leaves that smell real pretty. I can’t remember what they’re called. It’s not as good as hamburger, but it’s okay.

I have to stop now because Daddy says I’m writing too much, which I don’t think is very polite, but since I don’t really know how to make this yet, maybe it’s better to let him tell you about it.

Okay, this is Boyd taking over. I reckon if Clara was to keep going, you’d still be reading next Tuesday and wouldn’t have cooked a lick. I never saw that child get as worked up over something the way she does this, unless it’s one of Charlie’s books. Uncle Bertie is the only thing I think she loves better than this, maybe even better’n me and her Gramma.

Anyways, before I get on with it, let me say that although this is better when you go to the extra fuss of making your own sauce, when I’m in a hurry, or if I’m running late from the co-op, I use a good one from a jar. Clara eats it just as good, and as long as she’s happy and healthy, I figure the perfect food police ain’t gonna come storm the house.

This is how much I make for Clara and me, so we can have it for another meal or two. It’ll feed about six folks if you have company. Sometimes, I let Clara pack it for her lunch at the school. You can reheat it in a 350-degree oven. In fact, when I can, I’ll make the whole thing ahead and just reheat it when we get home at night.

Good olive oil
1 pound good ground beef chuck (I don’t use nothing but JS’s beef from Grover’s—it’s all grass-fed)
1 medium-sized yellow onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, hit with the side of your knife to loosen the skin, peeled, and chopped up real fine
4 cups Marinara Sauce (use my recipe down below or get a good one in a jar)
1 1-pound box ziti pasta (use a good Italian brand: I figure they been making pasta a lot longer than we have, and know what they’re doing)
2 cups coarse-grated whole milk mozzarella (grate it yourself—and don’t be using that low-fat stuff)
1 cup Parmigiano Reggiano that you have grated yourself (that’s the real Parmesan cheese—don’t even think of using nothing else)

1. Put enough of your oil in a big, deep skillet to barely coat the bottom and warm it up over medium heat. When it’s hot, crumble in your meat and stir it around until it’s browned good. Take it out and spoon off some of the extra fat, then put in your onion and stir it around until it’s good and soft and clear as window glass but not brown, about 5 minutes. Add your garlic and let it cook half a minute. Don’t let it change color or the whole thing will taste sharp and burnt. Put your meat back in, give it a stir, and add your sauce. Let it come to a good boil, then cut your heat way down and let it simmer 20 minutes. While that’s cooking, bring a good 4 quarts of water to a boil in a big pot. Put a rack in the middle of your oven and cut it on to 400 degrees.

2. Throw a handful of salt into your boiling water (you want it to taste like the ocean) and stir in your ziti. Cook it, stirring every now and again, until it’s almost but not quite tender. It’s gonna cook some more, so don’t let it get soft. Drain it, saving out a few spoonfuls of the water. Mix your ziti in with your sauce, and add 1½ cups of your mozzarella and half your Parmigiano. If it seems like it’s too dry, add a few spoonfuls of the cooking water you saved back.

3. Rub a big deep dish (a 9-by-13 inch casserole dish or one that’s at least 12 inches round) with a little olive oil and put in your pasta and sauce. Smooth the top and sprinkle the rest of the cheese over it, then bake it in the middle of your oven until it’s bubbling in the middle and is nice and brown on top, about 20 minutes. Let it sit for a few minutes before you put it on the table so your kids won’t burn their mouth when they dig right into it.

My Marinara Sauce – Boyd Clayton

That time when Charlie made this for his company (and the less said about THAT company, the better), I told him to use a bottle of sauce because he ain’t been cooking all that long, and you got to take cooking in baby steps. But he ignored me and made the sauce from scratch anyway, and let’s face it: it ain’t that hard, and there’s nothing like a good homemade sauce; no use pretending otherwise.

This is real good on spaghetti or macaroni all by itself and Clara has been known to slather it all over a hamburger. If your kids won’t eat squash, then try cooking it in a cup or two of this sauce. I bet they’ll put it away and ask questions later.

You can make this way ahead and keep it in a covered jar in the refrigerator. It’ll keep for up to a week, they say—I wouldn’t know on account of it never lasts that long in my house.
Makes about 4 cups

2 tablespoons good olive oil
1 small yellow onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, hit it with the side of your knife to loosen the skin, peel it, and chop it real fine
1 tablespoon fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon of dried
2 big cans of crushed Italian plum tomatoes

1. Put your oil and your onion in a deep, heavy bottomed pan and cut on the heat to medium. Stir it around (the fancy chefs calls this “sautéing”) until the onion is soft and clear as window glass and just starting to turn golden. That’ll take 5-8 minutes—I think; I don’t never watch the clock. Add your garlic and oregano and stir until it starts to smell real good but don’t let your garlic start to brown. That only takes half a minute or so.

2. Now add your tomatoes and a pinch each of salt and sugar and bring it to a good boil. Cut the heat down real low, until it’s just barely bubbling, and let it cook, stirring every now and again, until the tomatoes is falling apart and the sauce is good and thick. It don’t take long—maybe about half an hour—so don’t go wandering off and forget about it. When it’s done, taste it and adjust your salt and sugar. I have an Italian friend that turns her nose up about the sugar, but a lots of times, them canned tomatoes has an edge to them, and I like to mellow them out with just a touch of sugar.

Recipes and text adapted from Finding Home by Damon Lee Fowler, copyright 2015, all rights reserved.

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