Beyond grits and greens. A new trend is emerging in Southern cooking today, combining traditional ingredients with a lighter touch
Today, food habits everywhere are changing, but Southerners seem to have an especially strong desire to hold onto the customs of the past. ``We have not been willing to relinquish those foods that satisfy our yearnings for days gone by,'' says Nathalie Dupree, cookbook author and one of the South's television chefs.Skip to next paragraph
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``We like the kind of down-home food that gives a feeling of security when the rains don't come and the mills close, today as much as yesterday,'' Ms. Dupree says.
On a recent visit to Boston, she explained that ``For generations, Southern food has been served `family style' in big bowls at the table. It's not nouvelle cuisine, not chef's art. It's just good home cooking.''
``Perhaps big bowls of food and hot biscuits say hospitality and abundance, for the table of the country home cook was always surrounded by family or people from church, or a stranger in town.
``The old-fashioned Southern lady cooked for a crowd, then sat down to eat in the same gingham dress she had worn all day. She never gave a dinner party in her life. It's only lately that many Southerners started to `entertain.' Before, we would `have company over.'''
``How many people did a recipe serve? Nobody counted that way. You might cook a `mess,' meaning a large quantity of greens or peas, and they would be stretched to feed the crowd if need be,'' she said.
``Many dishes, like the soul food from the cooking of former slaves, have became a trademark of Southern cooking,'' she explained. ``But although the spicy Creole and Cajun foods and the Spanish and Mexican foods from Florida and Texas were strong influences, these are not in the mainstream of Southern cooking.''
And in spite of the recent influx of people from many nationalities and cultures, the real amalgamation in Southern cooking is just beginning, she added.
The Southern cook is by no means an island. The newness of Dupree's recipes is evident in the way she mixes the down-home foods in unusual flavor combinations; expanding the old-time cooking but remaining within the tradition.
Her recipes are lighter, use fresh ingredients, and they're quicker and easier to put together because of new techniques and methods. There are unusual combinations of foods such as asparagus with scallops, zucchini and pecan soup, turnip green pasta with sausage meat, crispy duck and grits roulade, and frozen ginger-caramel mousse.
``You see, we are willing to accept some of the new, and we also enjoy a little tweak of fun at our traditional favorites like grits and greens and rabbit stew,'' she said.
Dupree founded Rich's cooking school in Atlanta, where she lives, and she has operated a restaurant in Majorca, Spain. She won a Tastemaker Award for her book ``Cooking of the South,'' and her PBS television series, ``New Southern Cooking with Nathalie Dupree,'' was launched nationwide this past fall.
There's an honest, straightforward appeal about her latest cookbook, ``New Southern Cooking'' (Knopf, $18.95), with its simple, delicious dishes and clear, succinct instructions.
New recipes predominate, but you'll also find old favorites like hot buttered biscuits and cornbread, home-cured ham, oysters, field peas, and turnip greens, fried okra, blackberry pie, black walnut cake, and sweet iced tea.