I have a confession I’m not a Southerner. My mother grew up in Virginia, but Northern Virginia around Washington D.C. I do have ancestors that were Southeners dating back to before the Civil War, but I am far removed from that time. I have had a long love affair with Southern food as I attempted to recreate those flavors from afar. In 2010 I moved to Northeast Florida as I like to refer to it as Southern Georgia. My love of Southern food coalesced around sourcing Southern ingredients and devouring all that I could from my new friendships. I cooked with some of them, allowed to thumb through recipe boxes and expanded my Southern palate. This blog has grown out of those experiences as I continue to expand my horizons and my willingness to try anything once.
I’ve worked in a professional kitchen, but never for a long period of time and have never run a restaurant kitchen. With that said I am a cook and not a chef, but more than a cook I consider myself a culinary researcher. I thrive at researching food history and how a single ingredient is used in different ways with different supplemental ingredients in different regions. The examples of this in the South are plentiful from grits, to cornbread, type of shrimp, type of fat, sweetener whether it’s honey, cane syrup or sorghum syrup.
Cooking is a joy or at least it should be. Sharing food you have prepared with friends or family is an exquisite experience.
Listen to music…
This is part of your new enjoy yourself philosophy. Cooking doesn’t need to be work, it shouldn’t be. My current playlist as of December 2018 consists of: The Band, Bob Dylan, Cadillac Sky, Charlie Daniels Band, Connor Christian and Southern Gothic, Louis Armstrong, Miranda Lambert, Sugarland, and Tim McGraw.
Buy a good knife or two…
This can’t be stressed enough. Cooking is much more enjoyable with a good sharp knife. Buy a good Chef’s knife and paring knife. I own Wusthof and Shun. I love Shun for a Japanese knife, but they are quite expensive. Wusthof makes some great knives; I own the Classic line and use them every day. Just a note to remember, keep your knives sharp. Sharpening knives is easy, learn how to do it and keep them sharp. You can buy the most expensive knife, but if you allow it to become dull it will frustrate you.
Buy a Lodge cast-iron skillet…
Lodge makes the best cast-iron pans in the world. They have hundreds of uses and are a cinch to clean. You can pick up a 10” skillet at Target for $20.
Other helpful kitchen gear and tools:
- Mandolin. An inexpensive model will help you save time in prepping vegetables in a way you never knew possible.
- A good large cutting board. Buy a maple one and you won’t regret it. It is easy to clean and keeps sanitary.
- A vacuum sealer will free up needed freezer space in an unbelievable way. Also say goodbye to freezer burnt meats.
- I love my pressure cooker. They create flavor that is almost impossible to achieve in such a shortened period of time. Are they cumbersome and annoying? Absolutely. Borrow one and cook some dried beans in it and then on the stove traditionally. You’ll put one on your to buy list I guarantee.
- If you zest lemons or other citrus, use nutmeg, Parmesean cheese, truffles then invest in a good microplane. They are invaluable.
- Food mill. If for no other reason they are excellent for making the silkiest mashed potatoes and purees you’ll ever eat. You will never use your ricer again and they are much easier to use. You’ll find more and more uses for them I promise you.
- KitchenAid. A workhorse, this is the machine you need. I’m not sure what I did before I had mine. I use mine all the time from when I am baking bread to using the food grinder attachment to make paté or sausage.
- Immersion Blender. A good immersion blender is not absolutely necessary, but is a fantastic luxury. I use mine a lot for pureeing soups and sauces. Once you use one you’ll swear you never knew what you did before.
Buy quality ingredients…
- Don’t buy factory raised animals whenever possible. I can’t stress this enough. If you can at all afford to buy organic, or grass-fed, or pastured or whatever they are calling it in your area do that. Do the research and know exactly what words like organic mean, who is certifying it. Do your research. The protein will taste better and be better for you. It is up to the individual consumer if you want to change the way factory farms work. Whenever possible buy local.
- Eat tomatoes when they are in season…and only when they are is season. Winter tomatoes are a bad joke.
- Use kosher salt.
- Use a finishing salt. I often use Fleur de Sel.
- Black pepper. Throw away the pre-ground stuff. It is not pepper. Always grind your own pepper.
- Low fat, light or non-fat. The only thing these products offer is less flavor. Cut down on portion size, not taste. Don’t even get me started on low or non-fat cheese. These products taste nothing like cheese and the texture is awful. Sorry vegans this includes Daiya cheese as well. I’ve tried it and it doesn’t melt the same, certainly doesn’t taste the same. Eating real cheese is one of the true great pleasures in life. Don’t deny yourself that experience.
- White chocolate is not chocolate. If you like it fine. I think you are lying if you say you do, but that is another issue. You will find no recipes calling for it here.
- Bacon fat. Save it and use it. It is the byproduct of the gods. Use it to fry a piece of meat, in gravies, add it to hollandaise, and add it to homemade mayonnaise. It enhances and brings layers of flavor that you will never have imagined.
- Lard. Lard gets a bad rap. It is no less healthy than other fats and it is delicious. Add it to biscuits or pie crusts and you’ll be amazed. Fry with it. Unless you are vegan or vegetarian you eat the rest of the animal anyway. Cook with lard and you won’t be disappointed.
- Butter. Make clarified butter. It is easy. Do it and cook with it.
- Duke’s mayonnaise. If you aren’t going to make your own mayonnaise, then buy Duke’s. It is simply the best mayonnaise that is available. Try it and you will no longer even consider the other brands. It is simply that good.
Expand your eating repertoire…
- Escargots. Try snails you may just love them. I’ve been eating them for twenty years and they are one of my all-time favorite proteins. They in fact do not have a lot of flavor, but take on the flavors of the other ingredients in the dish. I still say whoever thought for the first time that snails would be delicious had to be damn hungry. I’m just glad they tried them. Don’t be afraid of the stigma.
- Offal. There was a time when I was afraid or put off by the thought of eating offal, even though I had grown up eating rocky mountain oysters (beef testicles). Now I absolutely adore beef heart, which when cooked right tastes very much like a lean steak. It is awesome made into a Tartare. I cannot imagine ordering Pho (Vietnamese Noodle Soup) without tripe. It is simply delicious and makes the dish. Perhaps start with sweetbreads, they are the gateway offal, even though they are neither sweet or bread. Don’t let the stigma of these proteins scare you off either. Try a bite when a friend or family member orders them.
- Foie Gras. I am solidly on the side of eating foie gras in the debate. It is simply rich, delicate and delicious. If you try it you will be a convert. As with such notable chefs as Anthony Bourdain and Michael Ruhlman I support foie gras production from “humanely treated, properly raised” animals. I admit there is quite a bit of debate among chefs and others with such places as California passing a law that foie gras is illegal. The debate will continue and you can make your own decision. Foie gras from such places as Hudson Valley Foie Gras in which the animals are cage free is a much more humane way of raising the delicacy.
- Alligator. Alligator steaks are delicious. I hate to admit it but it tastes much like a more flavorful chicken. Try an appetizer of it. I bet you’ll order it again.
- Crawfish. I know so many people that are afraid of these little mud bugs, but will gladly pay for their larger cousins the lobster. Try a good crawfish etouffee and you will be won over. Nothing makes a more fun evening than a fresh crawfish boil with friends and family.
Read the recipe through…
This cannot be stressed enough. Read all the way through a recipe before you start. Know what the steps are and then execute.
Do not under season. This doesn’t mean go absolutely crazy, but season both sides of the protein. If you are making fried chicken season the chicken and don’t assume there is enough seasoning in your batter.