NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Contemporary southern cooking is getting a taste of something fresh — respect.
Even above the Mason-Dixon Line, the food of the South no longer is about fried chicken and barbecue cliches. It’s a celebration of local, vibrant produce and carefully raised meats; of exotic ingredients like collards, okra, pork bellies and grits; and of traditions and cultures as deep, varied and flavorful as the foods.
“The South has always been cyclically hip,” says John T. Edge, founding director of Southern Foodways Alliance. “But now it’s become a permanent condition. America is coming to appreciate the range of culture and tradition in the South.”
That appreciation has made it possible to dine on great down-home food in places as varied as Oregon, Illinois and New York.
In many ways, the South has benefited from a growing national interest in local and crafted foods.
“A few years ago you used to go to the farmer’s market and everything was from Florida or California,” says Kathleen Purvis, who served as food editor for the Charlotte Observer for more than 25 years. “Now it’s locally grown for the most part, and that is certainly a reflection of southern cooking, which is closely tied to the land.”
She also thinks the interest isn’t all that new, pointing out that Craig Claiborne was writing about the South during the ‘70s, and Joe Dabney won a Beard award in 1999 for his cookbook “Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread, & Scuppernong Wine.”
In explaining the appeal, Edge points to the variety of southern cooking, which includes Cajun, Creole, soul and seafood.
“It’s an area comparable in size to Western Europe,” he says. “And it has the same range of cultures.”
The scattering of southerners across the country that has taken place in recent years may also account for some of the spread of down-home fare.
“I used to take the pimento cheese sandwiches my mother made for my lunch, the red velvet cakes for my birthday, the grits for Sunday breakfast for granted,” says Bon Appetit magazine restaurant editor Andrew Knowlton.
Moving north made him appreciate the rich culinary traditions of the South, says Knowlton, who grew up in Atlanta.
“When chefs started focusing on local food, the South was a natural place for them to focus,” he says. “Both in terms of flavor and tradition.”
Because of that, Knowlton says he now can get such southern delights as boiled peanuts, deviled eggs and his beloved pimento cheese in cities from Portland, Ore., to Portland, Maine.
“And you practically can’t find a restaurant now that isn’t serving Anson Mills grits,” he joked, referring to the Charleston, S.C., company that specializes in heirloom grains.
Those traditions are celebrated at the Southern Foodways Alliance, the goal of which is to “document, study and celebrate Southern food cultures,” according to Edge.
“The South has always been close to its roots,” he says. “There is a food tradition here that continues and is celebrated.”
Southern food also has some advantages, including a longer growing seasons and a tradition of using local ingredients, according to the Lee brothers, who won the American cookbook category in 2007 with their book, “The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook.”
“Southern cooks have traditionally lived close to the land,” says Ted Lee. “People say we’re trying to bring a California infusion to our food, but we’ve always used fresh ingredients and fixed them to emphasize flavor.”
Fried whole cherry tomatoes may sound unusual, but they are beautiful and delicious. John Besh, author of the cookbook “My New Orleans,” gives them a simple tempura-like batter and an easy aioli sauce for dipping.
Any small, cluster (on the vine) tomatoes work in this recipe. Most grocers sell several varieties this way.
Fried Tomatoes with Aioli
Start to finish: 30 minutes
For the aioli:
- 6 cloves garlic
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon ice water
- 2 egg yolks
- 2 cups extra-virgin olive oil
For the tomatoes:
- 1 quart olive or vegetable oil
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- Pinch salt
- 1-1/2 cups club soda
- 24 to 36 small cluster (on the vine) tomatoes
To make the aioli, in a food processor combine the garlic, lemon juice, water and egg yolks. Process until thick and evenly pureed. With the processor running, add a pinch of salt, then slowly drizzle in the olive oil.
If the aioli looks oily, add a touch more ice water. The color should be pale yellow and the texture should be matte, not glossy. Set aside.
In a deep heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high, heat the oil to 350 F.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl whisk together the flour and salt. Add the club soda, whisking gently to keep the batter fluffy. The batter will be thin.
Use scissors to cut the tomato vines to divide them into small clusters. Rinse the tomatoes and pat them dry.
Working in batches, dip each cluster into the batter, coating them all over, then carefully slip them into the hot oil. Fry the tomatoes until the batter is lacy, crisp and golden brown, about 1 minute. Using metal tongs or a slotted spoon, carefully transfer the tomatoes to paper towels to drain. Serve with aioli.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Recipe from: John Besh’s “My New Orleans,” Andrews McMeel, 2009
This dense, rich cake from Joan Aller’s cookbook, “Cider Beans, Wild Greens and Dandelion Jelly” (a collection of recipes from southern Appalachia), is remarkably easy to make, but incredibly flavorful.
She says it is based on cakes assembled at family reunions and other celebrations in the region. She says each family would bring a single layer. The collection of layers then would be assembled into a single cake at the event.
For most of us, the two layers in this recipe probably will be plenty.
Mountain Molasses Stack Cake
For the cake:
- 1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
- 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1 large egg
- 1/2 cup molasses
- 1/2 cup buttermilk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
For the filling:
- 2 cups finely chopped apples
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
To make cake: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil and flour bottoms of two 8-inch round cake pans.
In large bowl, use an electric mixer to cream the brown sugar and butter until light. Slowly add the egg and molasses, then blend well. Beat in the buttermilk, vanilla and nutmeg.
In second bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Slowly add the flour mixture to the molasses mixture and mix until thoroughly incorporated.
Pour half of the batter into each of the prepared cake pans. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted at the center of each cake comes out clean. Let cakes cool in their pans on a wire rack.
While cakes cool, make filling: In medium saucepan over medium heat, combine apples and water. Cook, stirring occasionally, until apples are tender. Stir in brown sugar and cinnamon. Bring to a boil and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens and is syrupy.
Place one of the cooled cake layers on a serving plate. Spread half the filling on top. Place second cake layer on top, then spread the remaining filling over it.