Contemporary southern cooking is getting a taste of something fresh — respect.
Even above the Mason-Dixon Line, the food of the South no longer is about fried chicken and barbecue cliches. It’s a celebration of local, vibrant produce and carefully raised meats; of exotic ingredients like collards, okra, pork bellies and grits; and of traditions and cultures as deep, varied and flavorful as the foods.
“The South has always been cyclically hip,” says John T. Edge, director of Southern Foodways Alliance. “But now it’s become a permanent condition. America is coming to appreciate the range of culture and tradition in the South.”
Here are some recipes from published and forthcoming Southern cookbook authors:
Mountain Molasses Stack Cake
This dense, rich cake from Joan Aller’s forthcoming cookbook, “Cider Beans, Wild Greens and Dandelion Jelly” (a collection of recipes from southern Appalachia due out in June), is remarkably easy to make, but incredibly flavorful.
For the cake:
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 large egg
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
For the filling:
2 cups finely chopped apples
1/2 cup water
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
To make the cake, heat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil and flour the bottoms of two 8-inch round cake pans.
In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to cream the brown sugar and butter until light. Slowly add the egg and molasses, then blend well. Beat in the buttermilk, vanilla and nutmeg.
In a second bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Slowly add the flour mixture to the molasses mixture and mix until thoroughly incorporated.
Pour half of the batter into each of the prepared cake pans. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted at the center of each cake comes out clean. Let the cakes cool in their pans on a wire rack.
While the cakes cool, make the filling. In a medium saucepan over medium, combine the apples and water. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the apples are tender. Stir in the brown sugar and cinnamon. Bring to a boil and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens and is syrupy.
Place one of the cooled cake layers on a serving plate. Spread half of the filling on top. Place the second cake layer on top, then spread the remaining filling over it. Serves 8.
Whether you’re in the South, from the South, or never even been to the South, it’s easy to appreciate this simple sorbet of pureed watermelon and strawberries from John Besh’s cookbook, “My New Orleans.”
1 pint strawberries, hulled
1 cup diced, seeded watermelon
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 cup sugar
In a blender, puree the strawberries, watermelon, lemon juice and sugar until smooth. Check that the puree has the correct amount of sugar. Add more sugar or juice if necessary.
Transfer the puree to the canister of an ice cream maker and process according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Keep the sorbet in the freezer until ready to use. Serves 6.
Fried tomatoes with aioli
Any small, cluster (on the vine) tomatoes work in this next recipe, also from Besh.
For the aioli:
6 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon ice water
2 egg yolks
2 cups extra-virgin olive oil
For the tomatoes:
1 quart olive or vegetable oil
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups club soda
24 to 36 small cluster (on the vine) tomatoes
To make the aioli, in a food processor combine the garlic, lemon juice, water and egg yolks. Process until thick and evenly pureed. With the processor running, add a pinch of salt, then slowly drizzle in the olive oil.
If the aioli looks oily, add a touch more ice water. The color should be pale yellow and the texture should be matte, not glossy. Set aside.
In a deep heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high, heat the oil to 350 F.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl whisk together the flour and salt. Add the club soda, whisking gently to keep the batter fluffy. The batter will be thin.
Use scissors to cut the tomato vines to divide them into small clusters. Rinse the tomatoes and pat them dry.
Working in batches, dip each cluster into the batter, coating them all over, then carefully slip them into the hot oil. Fry the tomatoes until the batter is lacy, crisp and golden brown, about 1 minute. Using metal tongs or a slotted spoon, carefully transfer the tomatoes to paper towels to drain. Serve with aioli.