Explore the Diverse Flavors of Modern Southern Cooking
“Probably the biggest misconception about the South and its food is that it’s insulated,” says Vishwesh Bhatt of Snackbar in Oxford, Mississippi. “On the contrary, foodways of the South are among the most globally influenced in the U.S., and have always been that way. Southern food in 2018 is, as it has always been, evolving.”
Today’s most exciting Southern chefs look to the traditions of local farmers, fishermen and heirloom ingredients, while also acknowledging the multiplicity of cultures that makes the region one of the most diverse in the world. From Texas to Virginia, the food is more refined, personal and innovative than ever, yet it never loses its qualities of generosity and comfort.
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Courtesy Dean Neff, executive chef/owner, PinPoint Restaurant, Wilmington, NC
Dean Neff developed this dish to showcase crabs from Figure 8 Island, just east of Wilmington, North Carolina, though other lean flatfish will also work. His shallow-frying technique gives the taste and texture of deep-frying for these soft shell crabs, minus the mess.
About Dean Neff
Savannah native Neff worked in some of the South’s best restaurants, like 5 & 10 in Athens, Georgia and Rhubarb in Asheville, North Carolina, before he opened Wilmington’s PinPoint Restaurant in 2015. Inspired by culinary pioneers like Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor and Edna Lewis, whose books used food to connect people and places, he calls the highly acclaimed spot a “coastal community restaurant” showcasing local ingredients on a menu that changes daily.
“PinPoint’s food is defined by the location, season and food that the farmers and fishermen bring through our doors,” says Neff, who often uses unexpected ingredients such as yacón root, vermilion snapper and Austrian winter peas. “It shows the ever-changing landscape of food and farming in our region.”
- 2 cups buttermilk
- 2 cups fine cornmeal or masa harina
- Kosher salt, to taste
- 4 medium soft shell crabs, cleaned (or 6-ounce pieces boneless flounder or skate wing)
- Neutral oil, like corn, safflower or peanut, for frying
- Creamed Cope’s Corn (recipe follows)
- Hot Sauce Beurre Blanc (recipe follows)
- Fresh tarragon or celery leaves (for garnish)
Lightly season buttermilk and cornmeal with salt. Coat crabs (or fish) in buttermilk. Dredge in cornmeal to coat evenly, and shake off excess. Let rest on wire rack.
Pour 1 inch oil in large, deep, heavy skillet. Warm over medium-high heat until it registers 365˚F on candy thermometer. Cook crabs 3 minutes per side, or until deep golden brown and crisp. Work in batches, if necessary, and adjust heat to maintain oil’s temperature. Drain on paper towels. Serve over Creamed Cope’s Corn, topped with Hot Sauce Beurre Blanc. Serves 4.
- 2 cups John Cope’s Toasted Dried Sweet Corn*
- 2 cups milk
- 1 cup vegetable or corn stock
- ½ cup heavy cream
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- ½ cup fine-chopped leek (white part only)
- 3 tablespoons coconut milk
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- 2 teaspoons fine-chopped tarragon
Cope’s Corn is a Pennsylvania Dutch dried corn available from Hanover Foods Outlet.
Combine corn, milk, stock and cream. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours. In medium saucepan over medium-low heat, add butter and leeks. Cook 5 minutes, then add corn mixture. Stirring often, cook for 15 minutes, or until thick but still easy to stir (add more stock, if needed). Stir in coconut milk, salt, sugar and tarragon before serving.
- ½ cup white wine
- 1 tablespoon fine-chopped shallot
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
- 1 teaspoon fresh oregano leaves
- 1 cup low-sodium vegetable or fish stock
- 1 tablespoon Louisiana-style hot sauce (preferably Texas Pete or Crystal)
- 1 tablespoon heavy cream
- 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces
In small saucepan over medium heat, boil wine, shallot and herbs until reduced by half. Add stock and reduce by two-thirds (about ½ cup liquid). Whisk in hot sauce and cream, and reduce heat to lowest setting. Whisk in butter, piece by piece, allowing each to fully incorporate before next addition. (If sauce gets too hot, it will separate—turn off heat, if necessary.) Strain and serve at room temperature.
“The wine I think works best here is Domaine des Schistes’ 2015 Essencial Blanc from Côtes du Roussillon, which is equal parts Vermentino, Grenache Gris and Macabeu,” says Neff. “It’s zippy enough to balance the creaminess of the corn and hot sauce beurre blanc, with enough body from the Grenache Gris to hold up to the sweetness of the corn. This wine has hints of herbs and is balanced enough to match the rich flavors of this dish without falling into the background.”
Courtesy Vishwesh Bhatt, executive chef, Snackbar, Oxford, MS
With 100,000 acres of ponds to explore, Mississippi is the catfish capital of the U.S., and it’s a central ingredient of the state’s cuisine. Here, Vishwesh Bhatt plays on a classic preparation of catfish and collards by employing an Indian-inspired herb paste and an en papillote cooking technique. Bhatt serves this dish with grits seasoned with black pepper and cardamom.
About Vishwesh Bhatt
Bhatt, 52, came to the U.S. in his late teens, first to Texas, then Kentucky, Florida and, finally, Mississippi. His menu at Snackbar displays deep Mississippi roots, with dishes like pecan-crusted redfish with squash-andouille risotto. But he often adds Indian touches with ingredients used in both cultures, such as okra, millet and black-eyed peas. “There’s a deep respect in the South for the idea that food and drink are about sharing,” says Bhatt. “As new Southerners add their influences and ideas, the cuisine continues to grow, while still maintaining its respect for locality.”
- 8 large collard leaves
- 4 6-ounce catfish fillets Salt, to taste
- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 6 tablespoons fresh-squeezed lime juice
- ¼ cup peanut oil
- 2 shallots, sliced
- 1 2-inch piece ginger, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1 serrano chile
- 1 cup cilantro leaves
- 2/3 cup mint leaves
- 1/3 cup roasted peanuts
- 1½ teaspoons toasted cumin seeds
- ½ teaspoon toasted fennel seeds
- 2 teaspoons toasted coriander seeds
- 1 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
- 1½ teaspoons brown sugar
- Chopped cilantro, chopped peanuts and thin-sliced jalapeño (for garnish)
Heat oven to 400˚F.
Blanch collard leaves in salted boiling water for 30 seconds. Remove and shock in ice water. Lay leaves on towels to dry.
Sprinkle both sides of catfish lightly with salt, turmeric and 3 tablespoons lime juice. Refrigerate for 20–30 minutes. Add remaining lime juice, 2 tablespoons peanut oil and all other ingredients (except garnishes) to food processor. Blend to a smooth paste. Add salt, to taste.
Lay two collard greens side by side, just overlapping. Place 1 catfish fillet in center, and spread 2 tablespoons herb paste on top. Carefully fold leaves around fish to create secure package. Turn over so folded side faces down. Repeat with remaining catfish.
Heat remaining peanut oil in ovenproof skillet over medium heat. Place fish packets in skillet, folded side down. Sear about 2 minutes per side. Cover pan, and cook in oven for 12 minutes.
Gently transfer to serving platter or individual plates. Add garnish. Serves 4.
“We love the Hugel 2014 Classic Riesling with this dish,” says Drew Stevens, beverage director at Snackbar. “This flinty [Alsace] white has just the right amount of sweetness to balance out the warm ginger of the dish, and is a perfect pair for the earthy catfish.”
Courtesy Nicole A. Taylor, author, The Up South Cookbook: Chasing Dixie in a Brooklyn Kitchen (Countryman Press, 2015).
“Melding together the American South and Caribbean ingredients creates a storied African diasporic dish,” says Taylor when describing this deceptively simple cornbread. The mango purée adds complexity and a subtle sweetness that balances the pepper’s heat. Taylor recommends cornmeal from South Carolina’s Geechie Boy Mill.
About Nicole A. Taylor
Taylor’s book, The Up South Cookbook: Chasing Dixie in a Brooklyn Kitchen, traces her move from Georgia to New York as an adult and her culinary journey to rediscover her roots. The book embraces both traditional dishes and new inventions that reflect her Brooklyn community, and the recipes included are emblematic of a younger generation of inquisitive Southern cooks with varied inspirations.
An expert in Southern foodways and a self-proclaimed “master home cook,” she’s also a freelance journalist, host of the Hot Grease podcast about food culture and food editor for Crop Stories, a semiannual journal that documents farm culture in the South.
- 8 tablespoons unsalted butter
- ½ Scotch bonnet or habanero chile, seeded
- 2 cups fine yellow cornmeal
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon coarse salt
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1 cup buttermilk
- ½ cup mango purée
- 2 large eggs
Add butter and pepper to small saucepan, and melt over low heat. Remove from heat, and let infuse for 30 minutes.
Heat oven to 400˚F. Place seasoned 8-inch, cast-iron skillet in oven to warm.
In large bowl, whisk together cornmeal, sugar, salt, baking powder and paprika. In separate bowl, whisk buttermilk, mango and eggs, then stir into cornmeal mixture. Remove pepper, and slowly pour butter into batter. Mix well.
Pour batter into hot skillet. Place on middle rack and bake for 40 minutes. Serves 8.
Chardonnay and corn are a great match. The Williamsburg Winery 2015 Vintage Reserve Chardonnay from Virginia offers concentrated aromas of pineapple, banana and papaya that nod to the cornbread’s Caribbean elements, with a palate that’s more nutty than fruity. Its round and creamy mouthfeel stands up to the richness of the cornbread, while the wine’s long, toasty finish melds perfectly with the recipe’s slightly smoky, not-too-sweet flavor.
Courtesy Nina Compton, chef and co-owner, Compère Lapin and Bywater American Bistro, New Orleans
This dish, a menu staple at Compère Lapin since it opened in June 2015, melds Compton’s Caribbean roots and Italian training with the classic flavors of Louisiana.
About Nina Compton
“Much like my personality, my style of cooking is fun and outgoing,” says Nina Compton of Compère Lapin, one of New Orleans’ hottest restaurants, as well as the forthcoming Bywater American Bistro.
The Top Chef alum and St. Lucia native gives local ingredients Caribbean and Italian twists. The result is the creation of new classics like the dirty rice arancini here. “Diversity in the South’s population is woven into the food scene,” says Compton. “It goes to show how much room there is to grow within Southern cuisine.”
- 6 cups chicken stock
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 8 ounces chicken livers, minced
- 4 ounces pork sausage (casing removed)
- ½ Scotch bonnet or habanero chile pepper, seeded and minced
- 1½ cups fine-chopped yellow onion
- ¼ cup fine-chopped green pepper
- ¼ cup fine-chopped celery
- 2 large garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus more to season
- 1½ teaspoons onion powder
- ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1½ teaspoons chopped fresh oregano
- 1½ teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1½ cups Arborio rice
- 2 cups flour
- 4 eggs, beaten
- 2 cups panko crumbs, finely ground in a food processor
- Black pepper, to taste
- ¼ cup minced fresh parsley
- 1 cup fine-grated Parmesan
- 4 ounces fontina, cut into ½-inch cubes
- Sour Orange Mojo (recipe follows)
Warm stock over low heat.
In large sauté pan, warm oil over medium-high heat. Add livers and sausage. Cook, stirring often, until meat is browned, about 5 minutes. Add chile pepper, ½ cup chopped onion, green pepper, celery, garlic, salt, onion powder, cayenne, oregano and thyme. Cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Add ¼ cup stock and scrape up any browned bits. Lower heat, and simmer for 5 minutes. Set aside.
In separate pot over medium heat, melt butter and add remaining 1 cup onion. Cook until onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add rice and cook, stirring often, 2 minutes. Continue cooking, adding remaining warm chicken stock 1 cup at a time and allowing rice to absorb stock between additions, until rice is al dente, 20–30 minutes (you may not use all stock). Remove from heat. Stir in sausage mixture, parsley and Parmesan. Let cool.
Season flour with salt and pepper. Put flour, egg and panko in separate dishes. With wet hands, scoop about 3 tablespoons rice and form into balls. Using thumb, create hole in center of each ball. Add cube of fontina, and enclose with rice. Coat in flour, then egg, then panko, and shake off excess each time. Set aside on wire rack until ready to fry.
Fill wok or deep pot with 4 inches oil, and heat to 350˚F. Fry in batches until golden brown, turning to cook evenly, about 4 minutes. Dry on paper towels. Serve hot with mojo sauce. Serves 4–6.
- 6 large garlic cloves, chopped
- ½ Scotch bonnet or habanero pepper, seeded and minced
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds, toasted and ground
- ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/8 cup sour orange juice (or half-orange, half-lime juice)
- 2 teaspoons Sherry vinegar
Using mortar and pestle or small food processor, mash garlic, chile pepper, salt and cumin into paste. Scrape into bowl. In small saucepan, warm oil and stir into garlic mixture. Let sit 10 minutes. Add juice, vinegar and black pepper.
Larry Miller, co-owner/general manager of Compère Lapin, suggests the Descendientes de J. Palacios 2015 Pétalos Bierzo. “This is old-vine Mencía,” says Miller. “It has mild tannins and medium body to work well with the creaminess of the cheese and spicy flavor of the meat, with enough acidity to balance the fried texture of the arancini.”
- 1Crispy Soft Shell Crabs
- 2Collard Green-Wrapped Catfish
- 3Scotch Bonnet Cornbread
- 4Dirty Rice Arancini with Sour Orange Mojo