Three flavors for spring

The fun and popular Savor the South series by the University of North Carolina Press usually brings out two books in the spring, but this year, there’s a threefer: “Gumbo” by Dale Curry, “Shrimp” by Jay Pierce and “Catfish” by Paul and Angela Knipple.

GUMBO Cover imageIf anyone knows gumbo, it’s Dale Curry, who was food editor for the New Orleans Times-Picayune for 20 years and lives in New Orleans. (Full disclosure: I have known Dale for years through the Association of Food Journalists, and I’m the author of two Savor the South cookbooks.)

I have made gumbo as best as a non-Louisianan can, but the book offers regional takes that I never imagined. Catfish Gumbo or Quail Gumbo, anyone? There is a roux-less gumbo for those who find making roux challenging, as I once did. Curry’s directions for making roux, an essential part of traditional gumbo, are simple but useful. To tell the truth, it’s one of those things that you just have to do a few times and you eventually get it, like riding a bicycle or following knitting directions. But believe Curry when she says do not use a burned roux.

The book includes recipes for some of gumbo’s relations, such as jambalaya – including a recipe for a slow-cooker jambalaya that I’m looking forward to trying out. This is a book of classics from another area of the South that is a good addition to the series.

SHRIMP Cover ImagePierce, author of “Shrimp,” recently became chef at ROCKSALT in Charlotte after years with Lucky 32 in Greensboro and Cary. (More full disclosure: I have met Pierce and welcomed him to the Savor the South sisterhood’s men’s auxiliary; he and Paul Knipple are the first men to enter the fold.) Whenever I encounter a chef-written cookbook, I get concerned that it will have miles-long directions involving hours of prep for those of us without a kitchen full of hired help. Not here. The recipes are creative and accessible, and the stories Pierce tells along with them make you feel like you’ve popped a beer and sat down next to a shrimp-loving buddy.

How to select quality shrimp and freeze it offers great information, as well as reassurance that frozen shrimp is OK, depending on where it’s from. He also clearly explains why buying American-caught shrimp is so important.

Soups, noodle dishes, pick-up goodies like Fire-Roasted Shrimp Tacos, rice dishes like Shrimp Risotto – there’s a lot of variety here. This is a great book to carry to the beach, or make you feel like you’re there.

CATFISH Cover ImageCatfish is a staple in the Deep South, but I wondered how the Knipples, experienced food writers who live in Memphis, would handle an entire book on the ingredient.

On the surface, catfish seems limited to crispy fried plates at fish camps. But they show that catfish can play a role in unexpected places, including Vietnamese and Thai dishes. Coriander Catfish Rolls bring the ingredient to Asian spring rolls. It’s paired with Indian spices in Dodson Lake Samosas. And Delta Paella brings catfish to the Mediterranean classic. Catfish, I barely knew ye before now.

Of course, the book includes precise directions for producing perfect deep- fried catfish, and some traditional sides to go with it such as hushpuppies and slaw.

Going to pot…slowly

The slow-cooker is back, judging from the number of new-wave books out there using the appliance. I’m IMG_2920always surprised to meet people who don’t have one, because mine has saved many busy, stressed-out days. Toss things into it, add some seasoning and turn it on. Six to eight hours later, with no further involvement on your part, you have dinner. It’s like your mother snuck into the kitchen, made dinner, and left without commenting on the state of your house, your children or your job prospects.

Even minimalist cooks can bring something tasty out of a slow cooker – it turns sliced potatoes, chuck roast, generous shakes of chili powder and a coating of bottled barbecue sauce into a quite acceptable dinner. One thing to remember when using a slow cooker is that, because of the long cooking time, you will need more seasoning for flavor. And vegetables like potatoes take longer to get tender than meat, so put them on the bottom of the pot, where it’s hotter.

Author Kendra Bailey Morris draws on her childhood in West Virginia and her years in Richmond, Va. for her new book, “The Southern Slow-Cooker: Big-Flavor, Low-Fuss Recipes for Comfort Food Classics” (Ten Speed Press, $19.99).  One interesting twist in this book is that several of the recipes come with cocktail pairings – now that’s something you never saw in your Mama’s slow-cooker cookbook.

The recipes range from simple combinations to ones that require a little prep work before hitting the pot. But those show that a little effort pays off in raising the level of flavor above what you’d expect from a slow-cooker meal. Dr. Pepper Sorghum Roasted Ham rings so many Southern holiday bells: it has ham, uses a soft drink for cooking and includes sorghum. Until recently, sorghum wasn’t widely available, but now it’s regaining its place in today’s Southern cooking. Sorghum is made from sorghum cane, not sugar cane, and is lighter in flavor than its cousin molasses. Sorghum shows up again in Orange Sorghum Sweet Potatoes with Cornflake Topping, which would be a great new dish for Thanksgiving (and a low-effort dish, thanks to the slow-cooker).

Recipes range from breakfast to dessert. There’s corn pudding, buttermilk chocolate cake and even the slow-cooker apple butter recipe that I’ve heard tell of and long wanted to try. There’s a lot in this book for fans of Southern flavors to love…slowly.

IMG_2921Kathy Hester’s “Vegan Slow Cooking For Two or Just For You” (Fair Winds Press, $19.99) aims at one drawback of slow cookers: they prepare enough food for a horde. No matter how much you like your spouse’s bean chili, you don’t enjoy eating it five days in a row. Hester, who lives in Durham, created recipes using 1 1/2- to 2-quart slow cookers, because with the larger cookers, the cooking quality changes if you don’t fill them up enough.

Hester’s earlier book, “The Vegan Slow Cooker,” used the large-size cookers, but most recipes in “Vegan Slow Cooking for Two or Just for You” are new. As with the previous book, each recipe includes options to make them gluten-free, oil-free or soy-free.

Recipes go from breakfast to dessert and snack time (including a decadent hot chocolate). Hester has a great way of making vegan dishes exotic and intriguing. I will say upfront that there is no chance of me becoming vegan anytime soon, but the Creamy Veggie Curry, using a plethora of Indian spices, is tempting no matter what one’s dietary philosophy. And Corn and Basil Risotto might tempt the most ardent carnivore.

Southern exposure

There are so many Southern-themed cookbooks out now. And while the bigger cookbook world just discovered my native chow, some  writers have been carrying the torch for years. One such author is Jean Anderson, whose 2007 book “A Love Affair with Southern Cooking” is full of heart, soul and history.

Now Anderson, who lives in Chapel Hill, N.C., opens the door to Southern-style baking with “From a Southern Oven: The Savories, the Sweets” (John Wiley & Sons, $32.50). The book contains recipes for casseroles with Southern touches, like Orange Chicken Nested in Pecan Pilaf, and plenty of crab and seafood dishes. Anderson always finds at least one recipe with a history that surprises. One in this book is Philpy, a quick bread made in the South Carolina Lowcountry using cooked rice and rice flour. Then there’s Confederate Rice Pudding, from the same part of the world, which includes Madeira.

I love sweet potatoes, and am pleased to see several enticing recipes using them, including Sweet Potato Focaccia, Sweet Potato Corn Bread and Bourbon-Glazed Sweet Potato Pound Cake.

Anderson has written more than a dozen cookbooks, and is a food writing professional whose recipes always work; you can rely on them. She has long been my role model in that area. Others may be jumping on the Southern cookbook bandwagon, but they will have to ride a long way to catch up with Anderson.

The Cultivated South

The single true thing in the romanticized “Gone With the Wind” is the image of Scarlett O’Hara clutching a hunk of Georgia clay as if she would squeeze life from it. Southerners grab onto the soil – literally or figuratively – and only reluctantly let go. Talks at the recent Southern Foodways Alliance symposium in Oxford, MS., all came down to that link – often broken, sometimes rewoven, frequently emotional – between Southerners and the land. “The Cultivated South” was the theme for this group, whose events mix challenging ideas with a lot of pork products and bourbon. Read more about SFA here.

The land facilitated a desire for connection in Elizabeth Engelhardt’s talk about women who exchanged plants and information via letters in market bulletins in Georgia. Talks by Ragan Sutterfield and Eleanor Finnegan brought up what guidance concerning use of the soil and producing food comes from religious views. Finnegan pointed out that a tenet of the Nation of Islam involves healthy eating.

Discussion of how to bring African-Americans back to farming led to how they left in the first place. Shirley Sherrod told her compelling personal story, of how her father in Georgia was murdered by a white farmer over a land dispute in 1965. Sherrod was with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Georgia before being forced to resign in 2010 over a controversial video of a speech, which a conservative blogger edited to make it appear that she had made racist comments. Sherrod, who has a long history of working for civil rights, pointed out in her SFA talk the many ways in which African-American farmers have been cheated out of their land over the decades, and efforts to encourage them to return.

And, there’s the delight that Southern soil provides, from the pimentos for pimento cheese to mirlitons and collards. Lots of collards, leading up to a collard opera and The Hub’s complaints – not a fan of the leaf, he.

I’ll have more details on the goodies placed before us during the symposium later – I know y’all want to know what we ate. But I walked away reminded that the same clay earth stains every Southerners, whether we see it or not.


A bloomin’ lot of cookbooks

If you needed more proof that Southern food is hot, look at the number of cookbooks by North Carolina authors that have popped out like the azalea blossoms this spring. One is by longtime Durham, N.C. chef and caterer Sara Foster (of Foster’s Markets in Chapel Hill, N.C. and Durham). Another is by Chapel Hill food writer and cooking instructor Sheri Castle and the third shares recipes from Asheville, N.C.’s popular Tupelo Honey Cafe (yes, the recipe for the sweet potato pancakes is there).

Foster’s cookbook, her fourth, trumpets her Southern roots. “Sara Foster’s Southern Kitchen: Soulful, Traditional, Seasonal” (Random House, $35) has all the requisite standards: Buttermilk biscuits, fried green tomato BLT, and a whole chapter on pork. Pork must make a substantial contribution to any cookbook that calls itself Southern. There are hints for matching cocktails to hors d’oeuvres, which is so Southern.

The book includes surprising recipes using what I consider an under-appreciated Southern vegetable: Summer squash. When it’s in gushing supply in midsummer, squash gets passed around – and avoided – like a baby with a stinky diaper. Everyone has squash, but no one seems to know what to do with it. Foster uses it in a version of hush puppies, plus as pickles, in a pot pie and soup. Of the three cookbooks, this is the most elegant, showing more than a touch of Foster’s previous life working with Martha Stewart.

Castle’s book, “The New Southern Garden Cookbook: Enjoying the Best from Homegrown Gardens, Farmers’ Markets, Roadside Stands and CSA Farm Boxes” (UNC Press, $35). is gorgeous, too. Rather than organizing recipes by course, Castle walks through the garden with chapters highlighting individual vegetables and fruits. Nice to have when the blueberries are pouring in and you’re looking for ways to use them. The organization makes it a bit more challenging to put together a menu, but you do have the serendipity of running into Chicken and Sweet Potato Stew alongside Sweet Potato Rum Cake. Nothing wrong with a meal of sweet potatoes, I say.

The book exhibits Castle’s wide range of experience and expertise, leading to clear directions, especially for the bread many fear to tackle, biscuits. It’s a homey read full of stories, too.

“Tupelo Honey Cafe: Spirited Recipes from Asheville’s New South Kitchen” by Elizabeth Sims with Chef Brian Sonoskus (Andrews McMeel, $29.99) is as much about life in the mountains and Asheville as the food. The book seeks to identify the food by rooting it in the culture of the mountain town, and it makes for a witty read. The book starts off with recipes for gravys. How Southern is that?

The cookbook recognizes Asheville’s place as a craft brew haven by offering both wine and beer matches for dishes. There’s a laid-back quality to this book that makes it feel accessible.

If you’re only going to invest in one, which cookbook should you buy? That really depends on what you’re looking for and which recipes call to you.

Sit down and eat

When I visit a new part of the state or country, I look for a community cookbook. They are great for getting a real sense of a place. And they are full of good home cooking, not cuisine from coiffed heads on TV. Can there be a community cookbook for the entire South, with all its diversity? The Southern Foodways Alliance has proved it can be done.

“The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook” edited by Sara Roahen and John T. Edge (University of Georgia Press, $24.95) brings together recipes and stories from across the region. The SFA, based at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, documents and celebrates the area’s food cultures. I’ve been a member for several years.

These are real recipes cooked by real people, ranging from greens and rice to game and desserts. In the interest of full disclosure: My recipe for Strawberry Jam is included in the Put Up chapter.

You can walk right into this book and hang out for hours, reading the notes and history throughout. When you get hungry after all that reading, there are plenty of classics to try. My eye was caught by the inevitable Southern love of pork and the recipe for Deep-Fried Bacon. Nothing is more appealing than a touch of excess. More restrained folks can sample Corn Fritters, Grits and Grillades or Gumbo z’Herbes, a lesser known Louisiana gumbo packed with greens of all kinds. And you know you’re reading a Southern cookbook when you see an entire chapter on gravy.

Another thing I like about the book is that is has a spiral binding. That means it will lay flat on my counter while I’m cooking instead of needing to use the coffee grinder to press it open. So, dig in.

Oink for ‘Pig’

North Carolina native James Villas has written several books on Southern food in knowledgeable, graceful

'pig: king of the southern table' by james villas

'pig: king of the southern table' by james villas

style. He brings the same qualities to his newest cookbook, “Pig: King of the Southern Table” (John Wiley & Sons, &34.95).

The title says it all – this is the complete book on the South’s love of pork. Despite the current popularity of bacon, “Pig” is refreshingly free of trendiness (no bacon ice cream here). From bourbon-glazed pork chops to pig pickin’s, from spoon bread with country ham to Mississippi Crusted Pigs’ Ears (yes, ears), it goes whole hog. Villas does not flinch from writing about the less attractive parts – chitlins, hog’s head, pig liver – that sustained Southerners in earlier days. They’re all part of the history in a land where, during many decades of deprivation, folks really did eat “everything but the squeal.”

The book is a classic that I can see dipping into over and over. I tried the Sullivan’s Island Bacon and Shrimp Bog last night, and the clearly written, simple recipe was the perfect mid-week meal. And Villas had the good sense to dedicate the book to my buddy Kathleen Purvis. What more do you need?