Food Chat: the Art of Southern Cooking Edition

Years ago, Southern cooking was denigrated as the food you cooked if you didn’t know any better.  It was commonly held to be the food of people who had no money and no imagination.  The only thing everyone agreed it had was heart; and lots of it.

It was gathering around Grandma’s kitchen table for Sunday dinner.  It was ‘putting up’ summer vegetables in a kitchen that felt like the inside of a steam iron.  It was desserts that were full of love, fat, and sugar.

But then folks got busy.  In many households, both mom & dad worked all day away from home.  There just wasn’t time, energy or desire to spend all day in the kitchen turning out big, heavy meals.

And as time passed, there were fewer of those old-school grandmas left.  Those recipes and techniques were forgotten.  And we were all the poorer for it.

Then along came Nathalie Dupree, and everything changed.

In 1986 her book, New Southern Cooking was published.  And all that humble Southern fare was reintroduced to a new generation.  And this generation realized that home cooking, Southern cooking, country cooking; whatever you called it, was an important gift from our ancestors.  It was something to treasure and something in which to take deep pride.

It was better than the convenient meals we had traded it for.  Cleaner, tastier, and healthier—to mind, body and spirit.

On the weekend of August 5th, Nathalie Dupree will be in Chapel Hill at Southern Season to conduct a cooking class and a book signing (check their website for particulars).

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to have a telephone food chat with Nathalie (I tried calling her ‘chef’, but she quickly corrected me, “Everybody calls me Nathalie”.)

When I first became interested in cooking, I never missed her PBS show and have quite a few of her cookbooks.  She is one of my very first culinary mentors.

She’s a Cordon Bleu-trained chef, a renowned hostess, a savvy business woman, and a moving author (Get your hands on her essay, “Lover’s Menu”; it’ll break your heart).

She insists that her hundreds of shows; on PBS, The Learning Channel, and Food Network, were education, not entertainment.  And she’s still a teacher, who makes learning completely painless (and plenty entertaining).

She gave me a tip which I will use for the rest of my life when writing recipes.

Unless it’s a baking recipe (which is chemistry that relies on proper proportions for success); she doesn’t list an amount for salt and pepper.  You cannot season unless you taste.  And as the cook, you must taste and determine for yourself.

Nathalie generously gave me permission to share her recipes with you.  I chose one of her specialties; simple Southern vegetables viewed through the lens of a classically trained chef.

Green Black-eyed Peas, New Style

black eyes

2 cups fresh black-eyed peas, and snaps

4 cups boiling water

3 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons chopped fresh savory and/or thyme


Freshly ground black pepper

Place peas in a pot with the water and bring to the boil.  Add butter, and let boil for 20 minutes.  Add the herbs, salt and pepper.  Serve the peas hot and slightly crunchy in their “pot likker”.

Nathalie Dupree started the new Southern cooking movement.  She’s sold over half a million cookbooks.  Her cooking school in Atlanta has educated over 10,000 students.  She’s won two James Beard awards.

She rescued Southern cuisine and in doing so changed the way we all eat and cook.

Thanks for your time.

Best of both worlds

It’s well known that I’m no fan of the energy draining heat and humidity of our North Carolina summer. I watch for the subtlest of changes to leaf colors the way a middle school boy looks for whiskers on his upper lip.

You’d think with my often whined-about antipathy that I have no love for anything to do with the season.

Au contraire, mon frère.

I enjoy swimming in the ocean (Petey’s always terrified I’m going straight to Europe when I get going — or be eaten by a shark). I like cute sandals. And…

I have to be honest here. I thought and thought, and even asked Petey for help, but I could only come up with one more thing I like about the summer.

I absolutely love summer produce. Tomatoes, berries, summer squash, corn and green veggies; I am there all day.

These days it’s possible to buy fresh summer fruits and veggies out of season, but most of it has traveled from afar, and tastes as much like local in-season bounty as a photographic depiction would.

But if you’re in the mood, and are very particular and discerning, it’s possible to enjoy a summer dish in the fall that has both bright, authentic flavor, and radiant, sunny color.

This can be accomplished by using a combination of fresh and frozen ingredients.

Commercially prepared frozen foods use a method called “IQF”, which means ‘individually quick frozen’. Processing plants are located very near the fields where produce is grown, and right after harvesting it’s prepped and frozen. In many instances it’s done quicker than farmers can get it to the farmer’s market, and you can purchase it and get it home. Corn and berries are good examples.

Some veggies are so easy to grow and ship that they’re always available, at a pretty constant level of quality.

Most grocers usually carry fresh sugar snap peas (usually packaged) and scallions year-round. Supermarket tomatoes are problematic all the time. But grape tomatoes are ubiquitous, sweet and yummy.

So, on a day when it’s nice enough for grilling, I have a side dish and dessert that will create the charade that it’s the middle of the summer — with no swooning involved.

Summer veggie salad


2/3 cup mayonnaise

Juice of 1 lemon

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

½ cup finely grated manchego cheese (may substitute other dry, hard cheese, like Parmesan)

Salt & pepper

Whisk all ingredients together at least one hour before service, and refrigerate.


12 ounces fresh snap peas

1 cup grape tomatoes, halved

1 cup frozen shoepeg corn, thawed

2 slices bacon

3 scallions, sliced thinly

½ teaspoon sugar

Salt & pepper

Blanch snap peas: Cook in heavily salted, boiling water for 2-3 minutes. Remove with slotted spoon into ice water. When cool, drain and slice in half at an angle.

Cut bacon into ½ inch strips, and cook until crispy. Remove from pan and drain. Pour out all but 2 teaspoons grease. Into same pan, pour in corn, season, and add sugar. Allow to cook until browned around edges. Remove and let cool.

Put all salad ingredients except bacon into bowl, and mix. Add dressing a bit at a time until coated. Refrigerate until service. Right before serving, stir in bacon. Serves 4-6.

Berry cobbler

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, divided

2 tablespoons cornstarch

5 cups frozen mixed berries

Juice and zest of 1 lemon

1 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 cup self-rising cornmeal

2 pinches salt

¼ teaspoon fresh nutmeg

1/3 cup butter, melted and cooled

1 cup milk

Combine 1/3 cup sugar, pinch of salt, and cornstarch. Stir this into berries and lemon juice; spoon mixture into lightly greased 2-qt. baking dish.

Combine flour, cornmeal, pinch of salt, nutmeg, lemon zest and 2/3 cup sugar. Whisk in butter and milk. Spread batter evenly over berries.

Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons sugar.

Bake at 350° for 40-45 minutes or until golden. Serves 6-8.

So, to answer that peculiarly 21st century question: Yes, you can have it all.

You can eat like it’s the middle of July, while wearing the cutest pair of suede boots and an adorable little sweater—in October.

Thanks for your time.