carpetbagging chefs
Photo courtesy of Ralph Neri

There are many kinds of people that make up this little melting pot called Valdosta, Georgia. I’ve lived in the Northeast, Southeast, and Southwest of this great country. My Western friends introduced me to TexMex cuisine, which was first made by the Tejano people living in Texas. They could not get the ingredients they normally used and so had to make substitutions with local fare. Those fiery recipes challenge the taste buds and almost demand that we eat our dinner with gusto. I grew up in the North though, and have been called a Carpetbagger many times since moving here. The term used to have political meaning but no longer does. Now it just means someone who moved here from the North and didn’t go back.

The area where my family lived in New England was largely Polish and French. We mostly ate anything that wasn’t frozen from November until May. Only kidding of course, but the growing season there is too short for black-eyed peas or lima beans so we had to go to Grandma’s house in Mayday, Georgia every few years, or beg a visit from her, in order to replenish our supply of Southern sunshine.

While breakfast in the South might very well include biscuits, jelly, ham, smoked sausage, eggs and grits; I remember loving the cold mornings in New England with Cream of Wheat (which isn’t grits and shouldn’t be compared to them), oatmeal or other foods designed to stick to your bones and provide extra insulation against the cold. My sister had a thing for crepes one year. I believe her French teacher brought them to the students and my sister still loves them.

Many regional favorites across the US have spread across the country; for example the Golumpki (Polish Stuffed Cabbage) and the well-known Cannoli (ricotta filled Italian pastry). A delicious Northern specialty is the Whoopie Pie. These famous “pies” are really just small chocolate cakes sandwiched with a sweet creamy filling. I find them now in many flavors although the classic chocolate is by far the best. Here is a good recipe if you’d like to try a New England favorite:

Whoopie Pies

Cakes

1 box chocolate cake mix
¾ cup water
½ cup vegetable oil
3 eggs
1 box (4-serving size) chocolate instant pudding and pie filling mix

Filling

1 cup Crisco shortening
2 cups powdered sugar
2 cups Marshmallow Fluff
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Directions

For Cakes: Heat oven to 350 degrees and spray baking sheets with non-stick spray. Mix cake ingredients in large bowl until moistened. Blend on medium with electric mixer 2 minutes. Spoon batter (about 2 or 3 tablespoons at a time) onto baking sheets. Be sure to leave plenty of room between them, these cakes really rise in the oven. I use a spoon to kind of smooth the batter into semi flat circles. Bake 10 minutes or until firm. Remove from oven and cool on wire rack. Cakes must cool completely before filling!

For filling: In a large bowl, blend all of the filling ingredients until smooth. Spread the flat side of half the cakes with filling. Top with another cake to form a sandwich. If saving for later just wrap individually in plastic wrap until ready to serve or several fit easily into a quart-sized baggie and they freeze very well. Yield: approx. 16-20 pies depending on size.

Such pillowy goodness!

I happen to know a Carpetbagging chef. My co-worker Ralph Neri hails from Utica, New York and we recently discussed things we remembered about the North that are becoming popular elsewhere in the country, like Whoopie Pies, boiled dinners, and clam chowder. I’m not sure if that’s any comparison to pimento cheese, chicken fried steak, and biscuits and gravy but each part of the country has its favorites.

Ralph has a delicious recipe which has become popular with his Southern friends and fellow biking enthusiasts; Chicken Riggies. Now riggies is short for rigatoni but let me assure you there is no shortage of flavor in this dish. It delivers a definite splash of heat, and it’s easy to see why it’s so popular when you try it.

Chicken Riggies is an Italian American pasta dish original to Utica, New York. It even managed to come under Andrew Zimmern’s radar on his show “Bizarre Foods.” The episode The Mighty Erie Canal aired in September 2017 and in it Andrew mentions Chicken Riggies as well as the Utica version of tomato pie (which resembles a pizza but isn’t one). My co-worker laments that cherry peppers are hard to come by in this part of the country, but there’s always the internet, right? Try this recipe for yourself:

Chicken Riggies

Ingredients

1-1 ½ boneless chicken breasts, cut into 1 inch cubes
1 lb. rigatoni pasta, cooked and drained
3 bell peppers, chopped
1 onion, chopped
4 hot cherry peppers, chopped (or red pepper flakes to taste if not available)
5 cloves of garlic, minced
1 C. white wine
1 can (28oz.) tomato puree
8 oz. Mascarpone (Italian cream cheese)
6-8 oz. baby bella mushrooms, chopped
1 can (2 oz.) black olives, sliced
½ tsp. oregano
½ tsp. basil
2 Tbl. olive oil
1 Tbl. butter
1/3 C. Romano cheese, grated
1/3 C. Parmesan cheese, grated

Directions

Sauté chicken with olive oil until no longer pink. Add in garlic, oregano, basil and ½ cup of the wine. Simmer until wine has cooked off.

In another pan, sauté onions in butter until almost translucent. Add mushrooms and bell peppers, sauté for 2 minutes. Add cherry peppers and tomato puree with the rest of the wine. Simmer medium low/low for 15 minutes or until wine has reduced by half. Mix in the Mascarpone, simmer another 10 minutes while stirring. Add Romano and Parmesan cheeses. Salt and pepper to taste, mix with pasta. Serves 6.

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