The food scene is always on the lookout for the next best thing, the next big idea, giving rise and fall to a stunning number of restaurants that go into, then quickly out of, business in places like Atlanta. Current and coming trends are grass-fed beef, organic pork, gluten-free and restaurants with their own kitchen garden.
It was TV host, author and lecturer Nathalie Dupree — almost one of us since she owned a restaurant at the Hub in the ’70s — who coined the phrase “New Southern Cooking” almost 25 years ago. Since then, New Southern Cooking is still the hottest ticket going, as her travel schedule attests.
In her book of that name, she included tried and tested Southern staples like black-eyed peas, fried chicken and peach cobbler, as well as new combinations of the old, like stir-fried collards and peanuts or pork tenderloin stuffed and roasted with liqueur-marinated apricots. Another “new” idea was to take a Southern favorite — pole beans — cut them into diamonds, then sauté them, vs. boiling them with fatback for hours. Then came “Southern Memories” that combined her love of Southern recipes with reminiscences about her homeland. Food and story are inextricably linked in her writing. With the help of Ann Brewer, “Southern Memories” was shot in and around Covington at homes like Phil and Ivy Stone’s, Dr. and Mrs. Robert Faulkner’s, Debbie and Tommy Craig’s, Arvin Spell and the late Terry Thompson’s, Brewer’s own and a cabin in the woods that belonged to the late Dr. Jordan Callaway.
Today, Dupree, ensconced in her historic Charleston home, is hard at work on what will be the most laborious and intensive project of her career. It has a working title of “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking,” with no offense to Julia Child’s massive cookbook “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”
“Julia’s book was more about French recipes, while mine is more about the techniques used in cooking Southern foods,” says Dupree.
Here’s a dilemma that today’s Southern cooks face and one of the reasons Dupree has taken on this particular concept: “With the huge size of the chickens that we’re getting today, how do you get perfect fried chicken that’s not raw on the inside and burned on the outside? When a recipe says ‘knead,’ what is the exact technique?” I described my own method, and she told me that I wasn’t kneading but “folding and pushing.” Hmmmph.
She continues: “When a recipe says to cut in the fat or the butter, what is the name of the motion used and what is it supposed to look like when you finish? Also, “If you’re not using self-rising flour in a recipe but making your own with salt and baking powder, a few turns with a whisk are much more effective than using a sifter. I’m just asking questions about everything including whether technique matters and then what is the best technique. I’m finding that the more I test, the less I know! I’m not so much looking for what’s new and different, but trying to make what’s old more clear. I want people 50 years from now to be able to pick up this book and know what it takes to be a Southern cook.”
At the Hub, Dupree grew many of her own vegetables, while many local growers contributed from their own largesse. She had learned the value of a kitchen garden while running a restaurant on the island of Majorca off the coast of Spain. At London’s Cordon Bleu where she trained, nothing but fresh vegetables was ever used.
“There’s really no reason to ever use canned vegetables except for perhaps canned beans or peas,” she says.
She does take delight these days in seeing old favorites like watermelon used in different ways.
“It used to be the only way you saw watermelon was in heaping bowls of cut-up fruits and melons, but today you can put it in a salad with arugula, goat cheese or bleu cheese, maybe basil and olives.” Her favorite summer dish of the moment is pureed watermelon turned into a chilled soup with a little dash of white wine. “Now why didn’t we think of this before now?” she asks.
Barbara Morgan is a resident of Covington. Her column appears on Fridays.