Kickin' It New-Southern Style

Southern food is as soulful as ever, but chefs and home cooks are modernizing their menus with local ingredients and global influences.


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Picture a Southern meal and you may imagine a feast of fried chicken and gravy, turnip greens, biscuits and okra, all washed down with a glass of sweet tea spiked with Bourbon, and followed by a sticky pecan pie.

That's Southern food, all right, but it's more like a Gone with the Wind style of cooking, says Executive Chef Linton Hopkins of Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta and the 2012 James Beard Award winner for Best Chef Southeast.

“Southern is a living cuisine, with constant pockets of new,” Hopkins says. “It’s a regional cooking style that comes from the people, the seasons and the land.”

If there is a modern movement in Southern cuisine, it’s a unique combination of going back to the farm for fresh ingredients and using them in surprising new ways, says Rebecca Lang, the author of four Southern cookbooks, including Around the Southern Table: Coming Home to Comforting Meals and Treasured Memories (Oxmoor House, October 2012).

“We’ve rediscovered what our grandparents knew: Food tastes better from close to home,” says Lang.
At the same time, Lang adds, the South is teeming with new global influences that add dimension and excitement to traditional cuisine.

“We have a lot of tributaries, inspirations from around the world that have opened our eyes to new ways of cooking,” she says.

Southern cooking trends today include classics like fried green tomatoes, but with a healthy grilled makeover. Georgia peanuts are ground, spiced and whisked into a vinaigrette. Black-eyed peas and rice are fried, Asian style. And moonshine is mixed into a Bellini-like cocktail with fresh puréed peaches.

Ultimately, Southern cooking centers on Southern ingredients—not so-called “Southern” preparation methods, Hopkins maintains.

“I’m a Southern cook because I have amazing raw material down here,” Hopkins says, citing such staples as collard greens, lima beans, ramps, corn, trout, catfish and tomatoes. “I use ancient techniques of food cookery like preserving, salting and smoking, as well as creativity and new influences.

“To talk about Southern food is to talk about the ingredients,” he says. “People look at a dish and say, ‘That’s not Southern.’ But ‘Southern’ isn’t the presentation and the technique. It’s the ingredients that bear the terroir of the land.”

Wild Foraged Greens, Crisp Country Ham and Duck Egg with Red-Eye Gravy

Recipe courtesy Linton Hopkins, executive chef at Restaurant Eugene, Atlanta

“On the surface, this recipe can be executed very simply,” says Hopkins. “But at Eugene, we step up the complexity to increase the impact of the flavors and textures. One of our favorite resources for foraging is the Foxfire series (books celebrating the home life and creative history of Appalachia), which gives a good understanding of what wild greens you can find in a forest or field.”

1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons hot bacon fat
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 cups wild foraged greens (or cultivated greens such as baby kale and collards)
4 duck eggs (substitute chicken eggs if desired)
3 ounces country ham, divided
1 teaspoon butter
2 teaspoons minced shallot
1 teaspoon sorghum
1 tablespoon strong black coffee, brewed
4 ounces rich duck or chicken stock
4 spoonful of grits (for the base of the bowl), optional

Combine the apple cider vinegar and bacon fat, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Lightly dress the greens and set aside.

In a just-simmering water bath, cook the eggs in their shells until the whites are set but the yolk is perfectly runny (about 5 minutes). Run the eggs under cool tap water for a minute and set aside.

Preheat an oven to 325˚F. Shave 2 ounces of country ham into paper-thin slices. Place the ham slices on a baking sheet with a nonstick mat. Place another nonstick mat on top and bake for 5 minutes. Remove the top mat and bake for another 5 minutes, or until the ham is crisp.

To make the red-eye gravy, mince the remaining 1 ounce of country ham, add it to a hot cast-iron skillet and caramelize well. Turn the flame down, add the butter and let it foam. Add the shallot and sweat until soft, then add the sorghum, coffee and stock. Reduce the mixture until it coats the back of a spoon. Strain.

To finish the dish, peel each prepared egg in a small bowl, being careful not to break the yolk. Season with salt and pepper. Place the dressed greens around the egg in the form of a nest. Garnish the greens with the ham chips so the chips rise vertically. Drizzle the red-eye gravy around the egg, and serve immediately. Serves 4.

Wine Pairing: Salty country ham combined with the rich duck egg calls for a wine of distinction, such as Samsara’s 2009 Kessler-Haak Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Santa Rita Hills, says Jeff Hagley, sommelier and wine director at Restaurant Eugene. “The wine has a great weight to match the richness of the egg as well as the salinity introduced by the ham,” he says.

Buttermilk Hushpuppies Stuffed with Pimiento Cheese

Recipe adapted from Around the Southern Table: Coming Home to Comforting Meals and Treasured Memories by Rebecca Lang (Oxmoor House, October 2012)

4 ounces sharp Cheddar
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
1 (2-ounce) jar diced pimientos, drained
Canola oil, to cook
2½ cups buttermilk-cornmeal mix
1 cup finely diced onion
1 teaspoon sugar
1¼ cups buttermilk
1 large egg

Shred the cheese using the large holes of a box grater. Combine the cheese, mayonnaise and pimientos in a bowl.

Pour the canola oil to a depth of 2 inches into a stockpot, and heat until a deep-frying thermometer inserted into the oil registers 375˚F.

Combine the cornmeal mix, onion and sugar in a large bowl. Whisk together the buttermilk and egg in a separate small bowl. Add the buttermilk mixture to the cornmeal mixture, stirring until the dry ingredients are moistened.

Measure a scant tablespoon of cornbread batter. Top with 1 teaspoon of the cheese mixture. Cover with another scant tablespoon of cornbread batter, and use your fingers to mold the cornbread batter around the cheese mixture on all sides. Repeat the procedure with the remaining cornbread mixture and cheese mixture.

Carefully place the stuffed hushpuppies into the hot oil, and fry for about 1½ minutes on each side or until browned. Serve immediately. Makes 22 hushpuppies.

Wine Pairing: This simple recipe from Lang combines two Southern classics: fried corn hushpuppies and pimiento cheese. A crisp, fresh Champagne like Jacquesson’s NV Brut Cuvée 735 is an ideal palate cleanser between bites, contrasting with the richness of this appetizing side dish.

Okra-Crusted Soft-Shell Crab, Jalapeño Meunière Sauce, Grilled Green Tomatoes and Buttermilk Mozzarella

Recipe courtesy Damien Cavicchi, executive chef at Biltmore, Asheville, North Carolina

GRILLED GREEN TOMATOES AND MOZZARELLA
2 green tomatoes, cored and sliced
¼-inch thick
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
8 ounces fresh buttermilk or buffalo mozzarella, cut into ¼-inch slices
Chopped basil, to garnish

Preheat a grill or grill pan to high. Brush the tomatoes with the oil, and season both sides with the salt, black pepper and cayenne. Grill the tomatoes for 2–3 minutes per side, or until tender. Reserve in a warm area.

JALAPEÑO MEUNIÈRE SAUCE
1 cup unsalted butter
2 lemons, juiced and zested
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 jalapeño, minced
2 tablespoons capers
1 tablespoon kosher salt
¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

Place the butter in a heavy-bottomed pan set over medium heat. Cook slowly until the butter starts to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients, and cook for 30 seconds. Remove from heat, and keep the mixture in a warm area until ready to serve—the sauce will look “broken.”

SOFT-SHELL CRABS
4 soft-shell crabs (about 2½–3 ounces each)
1½ cups cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
1½ tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 teaspoon cayenne
2 tablespoons granulated garlic
2 tablespoons granulated onion
2 tablespoons chili powder
7 ounces fresh or frozen okra, finely chopped
2 eggs
½ cup buttermilk
2 cups vegetable, canola or peanut oil

Clean the soft-shell crabs with kitchen shears or a sharp knife. Place the crabs right side up and trim the front of each crab (where the eyes are) about ½ inch, then lift each side flap and remove the gills. On the bottom side, pull back each crab’s apron, trim off and discard.

Mix the cornmeal, flour and seasonings together. Add half of the cornmeal mixture to the chopped okra and mix to combine. In a small bowl, beat the eggs with the buttermilk, and reserve. Heat the oil in a cast-iron or heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat until a deep-frying thermometer registers 350˚F.

When the oil is hot, thoroughly dredge the crabs in the remaining cornmeal mix, then submerge the crabs in the egg wash. Finally, place the crabs in the cornmeal-okra mixture, covering the entire crab. Repeat until all crabs are completely coated.

Working in batches, gently place the crabs in the oil top side facing down, and cook for 4 minutes. Turn and cook for an additional 3 minutes. Place the cooked crabs on a paper-towel-lined plate, and keep warm.

To serve, distribute the mozzarella and green tomatoes equally among four plates. Cut the crabs down the center crossways and arrange on the plates. Generously spoon the sauce over the entire plate. Garnish with chopped fresh basil. Serves 4.

Wine Pairing: Biltmore’s 2011 Reserve Chardonnay exhibits balanced oak and acidity that marry well with the richness of the crab and meunière sauce while refreshing the palate in preparation for each bite, says Biltmore’s Winemaster Bernard Delille. Its slight toasted character blends with the smoky nature of the grilled tomatoes; its creamy texture and hints of tropical fruit work in concert with the mozzarella. If necessary, substitute any ripe, medium- bodied, oak-aged Chardonnay.


Southern Specialties State-by-State

In the mood for some down-home Southern cookin’? Try one of these dishes with your next glass of wine.

Louisiana: Creole cooking is defined by gumbo, a stew or soup usually made from either seafood or chicken and sausage, roux, spices, okra and holy trinity—a combination of bell pepper, onion and celery—and served over rice. Pair it with a simple rosé like Château de Jau’s 2011 Le Jaja de Jau Syrah from Languedoc.

Arkansas: As the second-largest poultry-producing state, no wonder Arkansas is known for its crispy fried chicken. Cut the fat and cleanse your palate with a bubbling glass of Champagne, such as Taittinger’s NV Brut.

Georgia: Peaches, pecans and peanuts are well-known Georgia treats. Pair a bag of boiled peanuts with a sparkling wine like Lucien Albrecht’s NV Crémant d’Alsace Brut Rosé from Alsace, France, which has bright acidity and underlying earthiness that marries well with the soft, salty treat.

Mississippi: Leading the commercial catfish industry, Mississippi’s cooks can fry up a mouthwatering catfish breaded in spicy cornmeal. Pair the fish with fresh coleslaw, hushpuppies and a fragrant Riesling like Cupcake Vineyards’s 2011 Riesling from the Mosel.

South Carolina: Hoppin’ John, a regional specialty made with ham, black-eyed peas, Carolina rice and seasonings, is a traditional New Year’s dish. Try it with a rich, robust Syrah like Maryhill’s 2009 Proprietor’s Reserve Syrah from Columbia Valley, Washington, which echoes the smoky notes of the ham.

North Carolina: Blue crab fishing is an important industry and pastime in coastal areas, and crab cakes are a favorite way to use the succulent meat. Pair them with a fruity Chenin Blanc, like Dry Creek Vineyard’s 2011 Chenin Blanc from Clarksburg, California, which mirrors the crab cake’s richness and delicacy.

Alabama: Corn is an important Southern staple for sides like cornbread and grits. Try a wedge of Alabama cornbread made with stone-ground cornmeal, bacon drippings and buttermilk, cooked in a cast-iron skillet. Bring out the bread’s rich sweetness with Jordan’s 2010 Chardonnay from California’s Russian River Valley.

Tennessee: Tennessee’s salt-cured and smoked country ham that’s pan-fried and topped with red-eye gravy made from pan drippings pairs perfectly with Wild Horse’s 2010 Unbridled Pinot Noir from Santa Barbara County.

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