Rich in folklore and history, the cooking of the American South embodies all the glamour, grit, and heartbreak of Southern culture: the sad cruelty of slavery's influence; the joie de vivre of wealthy, well-bred, landed aristocracy; the romance of moonlight and magnolia; the sun-washed wholesomeness of family memories; a note or two of twisted Southern Gothic; fierce attachment to the land; and recently, a prideful sense of place, with chefs boldly championing local, artisanal, and heirloom products and vegetables. My part in the old and complex story of Southern food began in my grandmother's country kitchen, with its walls made of heart-of-Georgia pine. My maternal grandmother, Emily Louise Wingate Baston, whom I called Meme, was the daughter of a farmer, a true Southern lady, and a wonderful cook. Born in 1907, she grew up near Hephzibah, Georgia. From the time I was in a high chair to when I was a grown woman pulling up a chair to her kitchen table, I loved to hear her stories of milking cows and making butter and cheese, filling a root cellar, killing hogs in the fall, and curing hams in the smokehouse. Meme graduated from Young Harris College in 1927, a somewhat unusual feat for a woman of her time in the rural South. Her diploma, a real sheepskin, has hung in the dining room of our family home for as long as I can remember. She met my grandfather at a fish fry on the Savannah River; they were married for almost 65 years, until he passed away. Meme was the president of the Evans Extension Homemakers Club and was famous for pound cake (see page 266); fried chicken; light, buttery yeast rolls; old-fashioned butter beans; turnip and mustard greens with salty, smoky pot liquor; and homemade jams and jellies. Many of these recipes are still scribbled in her handwriting directly on the wooden interior of her kitchen cupboard--a sight that can leave me breathless and even move me to tears. My mother, Virginia, and her siblings grew up being fed from that same heart-of-pine kitchen that came to mean so much to me. The family raised chickens and cows, though they stopped milking the cows when one surly beast kicked my grandmother (they packed the freezer with beef instead!). Meme served grits every morning for breakfast and Mama said she filled the plates to the rim. The school bus would pull up at the end of the long driveway and my grandmother would make it wait until all the plates were clean. No one, including the Columbia County Board of Education, argued with Meme. In the 1960s, Mama and Meme both watched Julia Child's first television series and religiously tried the recipes the following week. Years later, I was the grade school child who took leftover crêpes aux champignons
and roulade au poulet
to school for lunch. I hated it then, but now see in my mother's explorations the roots of my own passion for food. When I was three years old, my family moved to Louisiana and Mama discovered Cajun recipes, often preparing Red Beans and Rice (page 160), Crawfish Étouffée (page 130), and Shrimp Creole (page 131). So Mama's repertoire covers all the Southern classics that she learned from Meme, but also includes Quail in Red Wine Sauce (page 119), various gumbos (page 132), and French Butter Cookies (page 260). A love of fresh, home-cooked food and a tradition of unconditional hospitality have always been guiding values in my family--I see them as a testimony to our Southern heritage. I spent much of my childhood in the kitchen with Meme and Mama, absorbing those values and acquiring skills I would later develop into a profession. There are photos of me as young as four in Meme's kitchen, standing on a chair making biscuits, or sitting on the counter with my feet in the cool steel sink, shelling butter beans. From the age of ten I used to sell birthday cakes to the neighborhood moms for their children. My career began in earnest in Atlanta, where I worked as an unpaid apprentice for Nathalie Dupree, and has since taken me all over the world. I have cooked for President Clinton, chef Roger Vergé, Aretha Franklin, and Jane Fonda--and made lapin Normandie
with the grande dame, Julia herself. My television work has taken me from the steep cliffs of Amalfi, where I picked plump yellow lemons, to the coast of Connecticut, where I tasted a briny oyster straight from the frigid waters of the Atlantic. As a Southerner and a graduate of both L'Academie de Cuisine and École de Cuisine La Varenne, my own style of cooking combines my Southern heritage with classical French training. The result is a mélange of new Southern and new American cooking with a heavy dose of classic French technique. As a food writer and cooking teacher, I try to be sensitive to busy lives, hectic schedules, and health concerns. Thus, many of the recipes in this book are adaptations of, and use less fat than, traditional Southern and classic French dishes, while a few are old-timey dishes flavored with hog jowl and bacon, and some are just simple country food that would be equally at home both here and in France. I take French technique into the Southern kitchen--you'll find recipes for Pork Chops with Dried Plums (page 84) as well as Fried Pork Chops with Pan Gravy (page 80), Old-Fashioned Pot Roast (page 89), and Boeuf Bourguignonne (page 91). My philosophy with most recipes is that simple is best. I try to use the finest ingredients and, by concentrating on sound French technique, do as little to them as possible to let the flavor of the actual food shine through--a style I like to call "refined Southern cuisine." These are recipes to cook in the home kitchen, not restaurant-driven creations. They are recipes for families, for displaced Southerners yearning for a taste of home, for aspiring cooks, and for anyone who simply wants to spend some time in the kitchen working and playing with food. Some of my favorite memories, stories you will read in this book, happened in the kitchen learning at Mama's or Meme's side. I was learning so much more than food and cooking. Those times were history lessons, math exercises, and instruction in social studies. Food and cooking are always about so much more than just sustenance, of course. For me, they define some of my most precious relationships, root me in my culture, and give me my place in the world. Bon Appétit, Y'all
is my way of saying welcome to my Southern kitchen. Pull up a chair. chapter 1 Starters and Nibbles
Hors d'oeuvres whet the appetite but do not satiate; they are just a "little something" to begin a meal or to nibble on between meals. In my grandmother's rural South, dainty bites and tea sandwiches would only appear at showers and weddings. This was mostly because there was no need to stimulate the appetite of hardworking farmers and field hands. But also, perhaps, it was that hors d'oeuvres just seemed to marry so naturally with a cocktail, that forbidden elixir of hell to small-town Protestants. As I'm neither teetotaler nor field hand, I'm glad hors d'oeuvres have become part of the modern Southern table, where they can be as highbrow as a starter of Classic Crab Cakes (page 145) or as down-home as boiled peanuts. Some Southern hors d'oeuvres, unfortunately, partake of the "trashy" element of Southern cooking that relies on processed foods. I'm here to tell you that a bag of little smokies, a bottle of ketchup, and a jar of grape jelly combined in a slow cooker, served with a box of toothpicks on the side, is not an hors d'oeuvre. I won't be sharing recipes for canned crescent rolls with fake crab or Vienna sausages and cubes of Velveeta speared with a pretzel stick. Nor will I advise you to put out a potato chip–crusted casserole to eat on small plates and call it an hors d'oeuvre. Because they're not everyday fare, hors d'oeuvres made for a party can require a bit of additional planning and thought. All of the recipes in this chapter have tips on making ahead to help you juggle preparation and serving. And here are a few tips that will help you plan. Judge how much you'll need. There's a fine balance between generously feeding your guests and wasting food. Remember that the greater the variety, the more likely people are to try at least one of everything. Also, the size of serving utensils and plates is important: the larger the serving utensil, the more your guests will take (and likely not finish). Consider the time of day. Is it a lady's tea or an afternoon shower or anevening cocktail party? For a daytime event, I suggest five or six food choices, allowing for two pieces of each per guest. At night, their appetites are telling your guests that it is dinnertime, so you need to plan accordingly. As a rule of thumb, I serve a minimum of eight different hors d'oeuvres for an evening event, planning that guests will consume four or five pieces of each. If hors d'oeuvres are served preceding a sit-down dinner, prepare five or six different choices, counting on one or two of each per guest. Decide the type of service. A stationary buffet is certainly easier for the host, but passing the nibbles allows guests to move about and socialize. A combination of both is an excellent solution. Use six-inch plates for a buffet, even a substantial one. Standing up, it is impossible to balance both a drink and a plate that's any larger. Create a balanced menu. Choose some simple-to-prepare dishes, such as dips, and some that need only be set out on a platter, such as cheese boards and seasoned olives. Some of my favorite hors d'oeuvres require no recipe: I arrange a country ham on a board and slice it paper thin, heap spiced nuts in a bowl, and serve halved French Breakfast radishes to spread with sexy cultured butter and sprinkle with fleur de sel. A bountiful array of lightly steamed vegetable crudités makes an attractive, tasty, and fairly inexpensive "filler" at an hors d'oeuvres buffet. Steaming or blanching the vegetables, then shocking them (plunging them in ice water to stop the cooking and set color) improves their taste and brightens their appearance. Crispy Fried Asparagus
Makes 12 Meme loved asparagus, which she called "asparagus salad," although there wasn't anything to preparing it other than opening the familiar shiny silver can. Even though I know the flavor of canned asparagus (really, there isn't any) cannot compare to freshly cooked, I enjoy that taste memory. The ends of fresh asparagus can be tough and woody. I prefer to slice off the last inch or two of the stem instead of snapping it off where the spear breaks naturally. Not only is it more visually appealing when all the spears are exactly the same size, but they will also cook at the same rate. As these are best fried at the last minute, I suggest you serve them as a first course at a small dinner, not as an hors d'oeuvre at a large party. 12 thick asparagus, ends trimmed 12 very thin slices prosciutto or country ham (about 8 ounces), halved1/4 cup canola oil, for frying, plus more if needed1 cup all-purpose flour, for dredgingCoarse salt and freshly ground black pepper 2 large eggs Prepare an ice-water bath by filling a large bowl with ice and water. Line 2 large plates with paper towels. To cook the asparagus, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the asparagus and boil just until tender, 4 to 6 minutes. Drain well in a colander and transfer to the ice bath to cool. Once cooled, place them on one of the towel-lined plates to drain and pat dry with additional paper towels. To prepare the asparagus, wrap 1 piece of ham around each spear. Set aside on a plate. Heat the oil in a shallow skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. To dredge the spears, place the flour in a shallow bowl and season with salt and pepper. In a second shallow bowl, whisk the eggs. Roll the ham-wrapped asparagus in the flour, dip in the eggs, and transfer to the hot oil. To cook the spears, fry them, in batches, turning to cook on all sides, until golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to the second towel-lined plate to drain. Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately. making ahead: The asparagus spears can be wrapped with ham and stored in an airtight container at least 24 hours ahead. You can also prepare them completely ahead and hold them at room temperature for up to 1 hour. When ready to serve, re-crisp them in a 450°F oven for about 5 minutes.
Excerpted from Bon Appetit, Y'all by Virginia Willis. Copyright © 2008 by Virginia Willis. Excerpted by permission of Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.