Southern writers share best recipes in an excellent community cookbook
An excellent community cookbook feels like a cherished hand-me-down. It's food history, generally reflecting a specific ethnic group or region. That's what you'll discover in "The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook." Like something a proud parent places in your hands -- a treasure, saying, "This is for you, my best recipes. The ones I love the most. You'll take good care of them."
A collaborative project, the book took three years to produce, with recipes culled from Southern Foodways Alliance members. That's the secret to quality. Choose a great community of food people and food lovers, and you get great recipes.
The Southern Foodways Alliance, of which I am a proud member (although not a cookbook contributor), documents, studies and celebrates the diverse food of the changing American South. The group is headquartered at the University of Mississippi, and it is an institute of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture.
Sara Roahen is a co-editor of the book. Author of "Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table," Ms. Roahen hails from Wisconsin but relocated to the Crescent City. She described the effort to create a volume that was "geographically and spiritually representative of the SFA membership."
At first, it was to be a compilation of collected recipes from the group's archives. "Something to give to members at a following symposium. Then it became clear no one wanted a book with untested recipes and complicated chef's preparations." So began the hard work of compiling and cutting, writing quirky, poetic headnotes and wonderfully unconventional chapter titles, such as "Garden Goods: Straight from the Dirt," "Yardbird, Chickens and Eggs," "Pig, From Snoot to Tail," and "Cane: Sweet Stuff from the Banana Republic."
Chapel Hill, N.C., food writer and educator Sheri Castle was the book's recipe tester. "We contemplated over 600 recipes," she said. "We tried so hard to do a cookbook that was reflective of our SFA community, a mixture of chefs, food writers and home cooks. We worked to balance regions and ingredients. I standardized the language and measurements, but I went out of my way in testing not to change anything, so the integrity of the recipe shined through."
Originally the book had beverages, but those were pulled, perhaps for a subsequent volume. Ms. Castle's mother's recipe, Church Fellowship Hall Punch, was in the mix. A blend of the usual orange juice, sherbet, pineapple juice and ginger ale. The twist: it's tinted with a little Jell-O to match the color of the bridesmaids' dresses.
Scuppernong Sweet Potato Pie was the most-tested recipe. All they had to go on was a note, jotted on an envelope and handed to the book's co-editor and SFA director John T. Edge while he was at an event. It went something like this: My mother used to make a pie that had grape hulls on the bottom and sweet potatoes on the top.
One of Ms. Castle's favorite dishes is Texas food writer Robb Walsh's Chicken-Fried Steak with Cream Gravy. She also loves Mississippi Madras Okra Gravy, Brown Butter Creamed Winter Greens and Grits and Grillades.
Some of Ms. Roahen's favorites include Sazerac Tassies, Tomato Pie, Chicken Purloo, Country-Fried Chicken Livers and Red Velvet Cake. She fought hard to include Rien Fertel's French Fry Po-Boy but lost the battle. Rien is a grandson of the late Ruth Fertel, founder of the Ruth's Chris Steak House empire.
Filled with what? I asked, assuming the whole sandwich was dipped and fried.
"Filled with French fries and gravy," she said. "He used to run a po-boy shop in New Orleans, pre-Katrina. Ultimately it was dropped because a po-boy isn't a po-boy unless it's on the right bread."
The right bread, according to her book, "Gumbo Tales," is baked in New Orleans and "is airy inside, brittle out." It doesn't travel well.
A recipe Sheri Castle insisted must be in the book was her Cranberry Congealed Salad with Poppy Seed Dressing. "Downright un-Southern not to have one in the book," she had protested. "I love my Jell-O Salad, which I make every Thanksgiving. I was raised to expect a congealed salad on the holiday table."
Fried Chicken with New Orleans Confetti
This recipe comes from the late New Orleans chef Austin Leslie, "one of the finest cooks ever to stand before a fryer." The crust is shatteringly crisp and the garlic, pickles and parsley confetti transform a great dish into one of the best things you'll (or ya'll) ever eat.
- 3- to 4-pound chicken, cut into 10 pieces
- (I used 4 1/2 pounds chicken thighs and drumsticks)
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt (you could probably use 1
- 2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons Louisiana-style seasoning blend (I used Tony Chachere's Creole Seasoning)
- Oil for frying
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 12-ounce can evaporated milk
- 1 cup water
- 1 to 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 10 dill pickle slices (you could use more)
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
Wash chicken in cool water and pat dry with paper towels. Rub all over with salt, pepper and seasoning blend. Place in single layer on tray and refrigerate, uncovered, at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours (this helps the skin to dry and become crisp).
Pour oil into deep skillet or Dutch oven to a depth of at least 3 inches. Heat oil to 350 degrees.
In large bowl, whisk egg, evaporated milk and water. Put flour in shallow bowl. Dip chicken in egg mixture then into flour.
Starting with heaviest pieces and working in batches to avoid crowding the skillet, slip chicken into hot oil. Adjust heat to maintain oil temperature as chicken fries. Fry chicken, turning with tongs until juices run clear, or meat is no longer pink when pierced to bone with sharp knife. Drain chicken on wire rack 10 minutes.
Serve hot, garnished with pickles and confetti of garlic and parsley.
Makes 6 servings.
-- Adapted from "The Southern Foodways Alliance
Community Cookbook," edited by Sara Roahen and John T. Edge (University of Georgia, 2010, $24.95).
First Published December 30, 2010 12:00 am