Southern cuisine comes into its own

November 7, 2012 

Many of the best chefs in the United States today have Southern roots and the world is beginning to realize that the food that comes out of many great Southern kitchens stands as tall as any.

American Southern cuisine has a growing following, but too often all Southern food gets lumped into a single box.

Southern cuisine is regionally divided and diverse -- think New Orleans, the Caroline Low Country, the Mississippi Delta and countless other regions.

Our seafood is some of the finest in the world and Southern cooks have made red fish court-bouillon, stuffed flounder and crab cakes international dishes.

What a blessing it is to be able to walk to the corner fish market and buy fish and shrimp that just hours before were swimming in the salty water of the Gulf of Mexico.

But we should not lose sight of the common food that we are known for, either. Simple food that has developed over the years from farmers' tables. Food that was always seasonally influenced and was most often all home grown.

My father was the son of a Mississippi share-cropper, and they bought only salt and flour at the store, everything else was grown, raised or bartered for. That description fits equally as well with French country cooking and so we should take note of the comparison. Our food traditions are worthy of anyone's praise.

Of all the combinations of food that fall into that category my all-time favorites are garlic-roasted pork roast, roasted sweet potatoes and greens. If it a big occasion you might want to add black-eyed peas or crowder peas and a good homemade chow chow. What a feast.

GARLIC ROASTED PORK AND SWEET POTATOES

1 pork roast (pork blade roast is my choice)

Fresh ground black pepper

Salt

Olive oil or canola oil

5-8 large garlic toes cut into slivers

Optional seasonings for those who like it spicy: Tony Chachere's seasoning (has lots of salt) and Valentina hot sauce

Special note: the roast and sweet potatoes are at their very best just as they are removed from the oven so your timing is critical. Do your best to take them immediately to the table and your guests.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Wash and thoroughly dry the roast. With a sharp, thin-bladed knife make incisions in the roast deep and wide enough so that the garlic slivers can be easily inserted. Use as much garlic as you like, but remember the garlic is the primary seasoning and as it roasts it becomes fragrant and delicious. Rub a little oil over the roast and season with the black pepper and a little salt and any of the optional seasonings you like. Place in the oven and roast for 45 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees and roast for 3 or 3- 1/2 hours. When fork-tender, carefully remove from the oven and serve immediately.

BAKED SWEET POTATOES

1 sweet potato per person

Butter

Olive oil or canola oil

Salt and pepper

Tin foil

Select sweet potatoes that are about the same size so they will cook evenly. Wash thoroughly and then prick with a sharp knife 4 to 5 times each. Place on a sheet of tin foil, rub a little oil on each, season with salt and pepper and then seal the foil. Put in the oven along with the roast about 50 minute before the roast is done. When ready, carefully remove, slice each open and add a tab of butter.

Whether your favorite greens are turnips, collards or another variety the cooking technique is the same. The first step is to make a flavorful stock; cooking greens in plain water is almost sinful, although some might argue that they are at least healthy. Another common problem is over-cooking greens and that is not a healthy choice. Greens are done when just tender but the longer you cook them after that point the more nutrients are lost. Almost all greens will have a little sand on them so a good washing is always in order. Fill the sink with cold water wash thoroughly, and if there is a lot of sand then wash at least twice.

GREENS

1-2 bunches greens

1 cup rough chopped ham

3-4 toes chopped garlic

Black pepper

Red pepper flakes

Oil

Place 2-3 tablespoons of oil in a large stock pot; add the ham and sauté until well-browned. Add the garlic and cook 2 minutes. Add 3-4 cups of water, aggressively season and simmer for at least 30 minutes. While the stock is making wash the greens and remove the thick stems. Add the greens a handful at a time to the stock, mixing so the greens wilt and make room for the next handful. When all the greens are in the pot, put the lid on and simmer for 10 minutes. Check to see if the greens are tender; continue cooking and checking every few minutes until done. If you like the stock a little thicker drain the greens, place the stock back in the pot, and bring to a simmer. Mix a short teaspoon of corn starch to a little cold water and add to the simmering stock. As soon as the stock has returned to a simmer it will thicken.

Canned vegetables?

My mother would think it sinful, but canned peas and beans really are cooked perfectly. All you have to do is give them a good rinse to get rid of the salt and goop. Of course if you want to soak them over night and cook with a good ham hock there is nothing wrong with that either. But nothing makes beans and peas more delicious than a good chow chow. This is my mother's recipe.

JOSEPHINE'S FAMOUS CHOW CHOW

2 cans stewed tomatoes

1 chopped onion

1 cup sugar

3/4 cup apple cider vinegar

1 teaspoon cloves

1-2 hot peppers

Simmer all ingredients until thick and the juice cooks down. Remember to stir constantly. This can be served hot or cold. This sauce will keep for weeks if refrigerated.

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