Red Eye sandwiches.

TaMara’s been gushing about her new cast iron skillet. Since I wrote quite a diatribe on cast iron not so long ago, I’ll not bend the ear again. Instead I’ll pass along a recipe for which I use my cast iron.

Maybe you’ve heard of Red Eye Gravy. Maybe you saw mention from Alton Brown on one of his episodes. I’m here to tell you that there is more than one red eye gravy, and the one he makes is, well, it’s not the one I grew up with – though he grew up Southern and I grew up in Kansas with a southern Grandmother. His is sawmill gravy using coffee as the liquid. Mine…

We’re going to make this in one cast iron skillet for cooking, but you’ll need a couple of dishes to finish before eating. The first thing you’re going to do is bake biscuits. Whether you’re making from scratch or popping a tube, when you’re using the cast iron skillet you pre-heat the oven but put the biscuits in a cold skillet. Bake the normal time.

When the biscuits come out, pop them into something to keep them warm. Me, I like to have a towel that I’ve warmed laying in a bowl. Put in the biscuits, fold the towel over the top, get back to cooking.

Put the skillet on a burner that’s medium hot. Add enough oil or shortening (or if we’re going to do this right, lard) that when melted it covers the bottom of the pan with between 1/16 and 1/8 inch of liquid fat. Now fry up a slice or four of country ham.

Ummm… Country ham is ham that’s been preserved. It may have been salt cured, maybe sugar cured. It was probably (but not certainly) smoked. When you get ready to cook it up you need to scrub off the outside layer, then soak it for several hours to rehydrate – and it wouldn’t hurt to change the water a time or two while you’re at it. The ham’s still going to be, well, a bit dryer. It’s also probably given you a LOT of meat, only some of which got eaten the first time round. Anyway, cut off some slices and fry them up – a couple of minutes on each side so they’re lightly browned. Put them aside and cover so they stay warm.

It’s time to make the gravy. Now the truth is that there are a lot of variations of red eye gravy, most of which come from two stories of why it’s named that. Most truckers will say it’s called red eye because it keeps you up all night from the caffeine. Most truckers are used to the sawmill red eye gravy. If I’m confusing you, I mean a gravy made by adding some flour to the fat left, then adding hot liquid and stirring till that thickens. Cream gravy, sausage gravy, and a bunch of other gravies are made that way. It makes a lot of sense. Thing is, there’s another story.

Pour the fat off into a bowl. Pour twice as much coffee as you have fat into the skillet. Deglaze over heat (that means rub with your spoon so the meaty bits left on your pan come loose into the liquid), and then let reduce to half. (That means simmer to boil till half the coffee is gone.) Now pour all that into the bowl with the fat. When you look down into the bowl, you get a reddish black center surrounded by a reddish white/clear liquid – a red eye. But we’re not done yet. Yes, you could just use this as a gravy and pour it over everything, but there’s a better way.

Cut your ham into pieces about the size of the biscuits. Break the biscuits in half, and dip the newly opened sides into the red eye gravy. Put in the ham slice, and close the sandwich.

Now these are delicious fresh. Thing is, they’re also delicious re-heated even though the biscuits aren’t quite as fresh. In fact, it’s a great “put a platter on the table” dish for a bunch of folk who are headed to work and want snack on the road or in the early morning. Or pack a couple or four into a napkin (or a lunch box). Because it’s not a sawmill, it doesn’t turn into glue as it sits. It’s just a rich sauce flavoring a ham and biscuit sandwich.

And all the cooking was in one skillet. A towel for the biscuits, a plate with a lid for the ham, a bowl for the gravy, a plate for the finished sandwiches that everyone eats in their hands, not on a plate. The idea that I can start my day off with a total of four dishes – well, six or seven counting utensils – beats the heck out of egg covered plates and skillets plus… yeah.

Give it a try. I think you’ll like it.

[LATE EDIT. One alternate I do when I’m short of time or feeling lazy is to only use as much coffee as I had fat. I’ll just pour it into the pan while the grease is still there, deglaze, and at that point pull it off and dip the biscuits directly from the pan. Just a bit of time and effort gets saved that way.]

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