Modern Southern cooking may be inspired by the past, but doesn’t need to be defined that way


Virginia Willis has several cookbooks to her credit, but something about her newest collection of essays and recipes is connecting with people in a way she only dreamed it might.

Since “Secrets of the Southern Table: A Food Lover’s Tour of the Global South” was released last month, the Atlanta chef has been featured in places where Southern cooks who preach food justice and cultural competency don’t often find themselves, including Forbes and People magazine. “CBS This Morning” suggested a spread of her dishes for Memorial Day entertaining and invited her to sign one of those shiny white plates reserved for the hottest celebrity chefs.

“I’m astonished and thankful,” says Willis. “I’m happy that it’s shining a light on what I’m trying to do.”

Willis has long strived to gently educate home cooks that the modern South is no longer defined by fried food, gravy and greasy greens. She tastefully made that point in her last book, “Lighten up, Y’all: Classic Southern Recipes Made Healthy and Wholesome,” which won a 2016 James Beard Award in the category Focus on Health.

In “Secrets of the Southern Table,” she invites readers to embrace the complex flavors and personal narratives that recent and established immigrants to the South bring to the table.

“I love fried chicken and biscuits, but that’s a very one-dimensional way of looking at Southern food,” Willis says. “Everyone is welcome at my table.”

SHARED STORIES

Each chapter of her new book starts with informative essays that explore the motivations of people who grow or cook food for appreciative consumers. One of the most inspiring pairings contrasts two Georgia farms: White Oak Pastures, established by a veteran returning home from the Civil War on land that’s been farmed sustainably by six generations, and Gilliard Farm, founded by a former slave emancipated by the Civil War. Today, it’s managed by his great-great-grandson. It’s not only one of the oldest African-American farms in Georgia, but also the entire United States.

Willis eloquently describes the struggles and triumphs of people dedicated to making a difference in feeding their communities. That means everything from reclaiming over-farmed land, celebrating handmade products and giving credit where due for the diverse culinary traditions that co-exist under the broad umbrella of Southern food. Among the intriguing stories shared are those of the Mexican barbacoa makers of Lexington, Ky., who are dubbed Appalachicanos; the Vietnamese shrimpers of East Texas; and the Greeks who have been feeding Birmingham, Ala., since the 19th century.

Willis credits Triangle food lovers with being more savvy than people in many other parts of the South about food equity and acknowledging the contributions of immigrant cooks. She attributes this to the area’s abundance of high-profile cooks, cookbook writers and academics who are actively engaged in both preserving historic Southern foodways and expanding it.

Among the experts that Willis cites is Marcie Cohen Ferris, newly retired UNC professor of American Studies and author of “The Edible South: The Power of Food and Making of an American Region.”

“As a recovering history major, I respect her work so tremendously,” Willis says. “Trying to sort of translate her academic work into something a lay person can grasp or have a takeaway from is important to me.”

April McGreger, who recently announced she is shutting down her award-winning Farmer’s Daughter Pickles & Preserves, is among the artisans, farmers and chefs profiled in the book. Willis says two other entrepreneurs also have changed their business model since the book was submitted for publication.

“It is incredibly difficult and very expensive to produce artisan goods,” says Willis, who sat in McGreger’s Hillsborough kitchen as she converted produce grown by Hmong farmers of Chapel Hill’s Transplanting Traditions into glossy pumpkin and ginger preserves. “You can’t get any more Southern than putting up, and yet there’s this incredible cross-cultural and slow-food heritage. I can’t help but admire that.”

SOUTHERN INSPIRATIONS

Willis shares stories and recipes from other familiar Triangle names. Cookbook writer Nancie McDermott, whose Down East-style Chicken Bog from “Southern Soups & Stews” is adapted with an Asian twist as Ginger Chicken Bog, and Crook’s Corner chef Bill Smith, whose popular Atlantic Beach Pie, an easy-to-make classic currently on the dessert menu, was rechristened as Lemon Icebox Tart with Saltine Crust.

She also spotlights her friend Sandra Gutierrez of Cary, a cookbook author and food writer who has become a go-to expert on the impact of Latin American immigrants on Southern food and communities.

“She’s become this badass on the Southern Latino experience,” Willis says admiringly. “I’m so excited about her finding her voice and becoming more vocal, understanding her place and how she can influence and affect.”

Willis recalls her first taste of Gutierrez’s Latin Fried Chicken as “an absolute revelation.” She turns it into Latin Fried Chicken Chopped Salad, included below.

Beyond the Triangle, Willis includes Charlotte Observer food editor Kathleen Purvis, Greensboro grilling expert Elizabeth Karmel, award-winning writer Ronni Lundy of Burnsville, and several books published by UNC Press. Another connection is her godmother Jenny Wingate, formerly of Winston-Salem, who shares her recipe for Moravian Sugar Cake.

“It was my goal with this book to include as many names and inspirations and recipes and quotes, races and genders, cultures and sexes,” Willis says. “It was a reaction to me living part of my life outside of the South, travelling so much and coming home again, and coming to the realization that people don’t understand the South.”

The book also reflects growing racial and cultural tensions since the 2016 election, what Willis calls “the polarization of emotions and feelings.”

“I strongly feel that, in the sort of position and platform I have, if I can share other voices and views, I want to do it. And it’s also a cookbook,” she adds with a laugh, “with a lot of accessible recipes for people.”

———

CHICKEN AND BUTTERBEAN PAELLA

Nestled alongside the Cumberland Plateau of the Appalachian Mountains is the town of South Pittsburg, Tennessee, home to Lodge Manufacturing Company, maker of cast iron skillets since 1896. My most often used pan is my cast-iron skillet. I use it practically every day. Once I use it, I wash it in warm soapy water, dry it well, and store it in the oven so it continues to dry in the residual heat of the oven. Some folks say you’re not supposed to wash cast iron, but my grandmother Meme always did, so I do the same. I inherited my pan when my grandmother passed away, and it’s well over 70 years old. It may be just a common skillet, but it is more precious to me than the finest bone china. Lodge also has a line of seasoned carbon steel — including a 15-inch paella pan perfect for this recipe.

3 3/4 cups homemade chicken stock or reduced-fat low-sodium chicken broth, plus more if needed

2 cups shelled fresh butterbeans (about 1 1/2 pounds unshelled) or frozen butterbeans

Generous pinch of saffron

Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 (4-pound) chicken, cut into 8 serving pieces

2 tablespoons pure olive oil

1 sweet onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, mashed to a paste with salt

1 1/2 cups long-grain rice

1 tomato, cored, seeded, and chopped

1 bay leaf, preferably fresh

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

2 tablespoons parsley leaves

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Combine the stock, butterbeans, and saffron in a saucepan. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer. Cook until the beans are just barely tender, 15 minutes.

Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a very large skillet or 15-inch paella pan over medium-high heat. Add the chicken without crowding. You may need to cook in batches. Cook until well browned on all sides, 5 to 7 minutes. Set aside.

Remove all but 1 tablespoon of the oil from the pan. Add the onion and cook until golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. Add the rice and stir to combine.

Add the tomato, bay leaf, and thyme. Pour in the stock with the butterbeans and stir to combine. Return the seared chicken to the skillet and nestle it into the rice. Make sure the stock covers the rice, and add more if needed.

Transfer to the oven and cook until the rice is tender, the liquid has been absorbed and the chicken is cooked through, 40 minutes. Remove and discard the bay leaf.

Return the pan to medium heat on the stovetop. Cook until the rice on the bottom is crispy, 5 minutes.

Garnish with the parsley and serve immediately.

Yield: Serves 6 to 8

Excerpted from “Secrets of the Southern Table,” copyright 2018 by Virginia Willis. Photography copyright 2018 by Angie Mosier. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

GARLIC-RUBBED SKIRT STEAK AND VIDALIA ONIONS WITH PEANUT ROMESCO

In this age of seasonless grocery stores, where strawberries and squash are always available, Vidalia onions remain a spring treat, with a harvest from late April through mid-June. Here their unique sweetness provides a great complement to rich steak and tangy romesco sauce. The sauce makes about 2 cups and can be easily doubled for a crowd.

Skirt steak is a thin, long cut of beef from the diaphragm muscles of the cow (when purchasing, you may need more than one steak, as they are generally sold in pieces). Skirt steak is best cooked over very high heat and should only be cooked to rare or medium-rare for the tenderest texture; when you serve, cut across the grain of the meat. You may use other steaks such as flank or hanger in this recipe with equally delicious results.

For the steak:

2 pounds skirt, hanger, or flank steak

6 garlic cloves, mashed to a paste with salt

2 tablespoons pure olive oil

2 or 3 large sweet onions, preferably Vidalia, sliced

For the romesco sauce:

1/2 cup roasted peanuts

1 (12-ounce) jar roasted red bell peppers

1/2 cup tomato puree

2 garlic cloves, plus more for garnish

1 slice country white bread, toasted and crumbled

1 tablespoon smoked paprika

1/3 cup sherry vinegar

2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for garnish

Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

To prepare the steak, using paper towels, pat the steak dry and place in a large bowl; slather the garlic paste and olive oil all over meat, turning to coat. Add the onions. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or up to overnight.

To make the romesco sauce, grind the peanuts in a food processor. Add the roasted peppers, tomato puree, garlic, bread, and paprika. Process into a paste. Add the vinegar and pulse to blend. With the motor running, gradually pour the oil through the feed tube in a steady stream until the mixture thickens like mayonnaise. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper and then transfer to a serving bowl.

When ready to grill the steak, scrape any excess garlic off the beef and discard. If using a charcoal grill, prepare the fire using about 6 pounds of charcoal and burn until the coals are completely covered with a thin coating of light gray ash, 20 to 30 minutes. Spread the coals evenly over the grill bottom, position the grill rack above the coals, and heat until medium-hot (when you can hold your hand 5 inches above the grill surface for no longer than 3 or 4 seconds). If using a gas grill, turn all the burners to High, close the lid, and heat until about 500 degrees, 10 to 15 minutes. If using a grill pan, heat the pan over medium-high heat.

Grill the meat and onions over direct heat until char lines appear, the meat is done to taste, and the onions are tender and charred, 3 to 5 minutes per side. Let rest for 5 minutes before slicing the meat across the grain. Serve the steak and onions with the romesco sauce on the side.

Yield: Serves 4 to 6

Excerpted from “Secrets of the Southern Table,” copyright 2018 by Virginia Willis. Photography copyright 2018 by Angie Mosier. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

LATIN FRIED CHICKEN CHOPPED SALAD

Sandra Gutierrez is a native Guatemalan, first-generation American, proud North Carolinian, fantastic cook, cookbook author and a dear friend. She blends ingredients, traditions, and culinary techniques, creatively marrying Latin American cuisine with the food of the American South, as in this recipe for Latin Fried Chicken. The first time I tasted it was an absolute revelation. She cooks pieces on the bone, but I have adapted it to use boneless, skinless breasts for salad. Sandra has recounted stories about people assuming that because she is Latin American, she and her family are itinerant migrant workers. Not much could be farther from the truth, She attended Smith College, her husband is an international businessman, one of her daughters is a dentist, and the other daughter is a lawyer. Those sorts of assumptions – actually thinly veiled racism – are slowly changing as the region is becoming more diverse and more educated.

Self-rising flour is simply all-purpose flour that already contains baking powder and salt. If you are unable to find self-rising flour, you can make your own: For every 1 cup all-purpose flour, add 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt and whisk to combine.

For the chicken:

3/4 cup buttermilk

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

1 canned chipotle chile in adobo, finely chopped

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (2 pounds), cut lengthwise into 1/2-inch strips

1 1/2 cups self-rising flour (see note)

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste

Canola oil, for frying

6 corn tortillas, cut into 1/4-inchwide strips

For the salad:

2 medium heads romaine lettuce, chopped

6 radishes, thinly sliced

1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped

1 avocado, pitted, peeled, and chopped (see sidebar)

1/2 red onion, very thinly sliced

1/4 jalapeño, or to taste, seeded and chopped

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

Salsa Buttermilk Ranch Dressing (recipe follows)

1 lime, cut into wedges, for serving

Line a rimmed baking sheet with paper towels. To make the chicken, combine the buttermilk, cilantro, chipotle, and garlic powder in a large glass bowl. Season with salt and black pepper. Add the chicken strips and stir to combine. In a separate large bowl, combine the flour, paprika, coriander, and cayenne. Season with salt and black pepper.

Pour 1 to 2 inches of oil into a large Dutch oven and heat the oil to 350 degrees over medium-high heat. Add the tortilla strips and cook until crispy, 2 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the fried tortillas to the prepared baking sheet. (These may be done ahead. You may also simply use store-bought tortilla chips if you really want to make it easy for yourself.) Return the oil to 350 degrees.

Working in batches, dredge some of the chicken strips in the seasoned flour. Fry the strips in the hot oil until the juices run clear when pierced with the tip of a knife and the temperature registers 165 degrees when tested with an instant-read thermometer, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer to the baking sheet with the tortilla strips to cool slightly, then transfer to a cutting board and chop into 1-inch pieces.

Meanwhile, to make the salad, combine the romaine, radishes, bell pepper, avocado, onion, jalapeño, and cilantro in a large bowl. Toss to combine. Add the chicken and toss with a little of the Salsa Buttermilk Ranch. Top with the fried tortilla strips. Serve immediately with lime wedges and the remaining dressing on the side.

Yield: Serves 6

SALSA BUTTERMILK RANCH DRESSING

1/4 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup low-fat buttermilk

2 tablespoons 2 percent Greek or 0 percent Icelandic yogurt

1 green onion, chopped

1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 garlic clove, very finely chopped

1/3 cup store-bought fresh salsa or pico de gallo

Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a bowl, combine the mayonnaise, buttermilk, yogurt, green onion, parsley, vinegar, mustard, and garlic. Add the salsa, season with salt and pepper, and stir to combine.

Sidebar: To achieve perfect cubes of avocado without the mess, cut the avocado in half lengthwise (around the pit) and twist to separate. After removing the pit, cut the flesh on each half, still in the skin, in a crosshatch fashion, not cutting through the skin, and gently scoop out the cubes with a large spoon.

Yield: Makes about 1 cup

Excerpted from “Secrets of the Southern Table,” copyright 2018 by Virginia Willis. Photography copyright 2018 by Angie Mosier. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.


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