Beyond grits and greens. A new trend is emerging in Southern cooking today, combining traditional ingredients with a lighter touch

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

``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.''

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``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.

This is an incredibly wonderful dish, especially at the time of year when there are no decent vegetables to be found. Celery and Carrots with Ginger Sauce 8 celery stalks, stringed, diagonally sliced 8 large carrots, diagonally sliced 1/2 cup sugar 1/2 teaspoon chopped ginger 6 tablespoons butter 1/3 cup small, fresh mint leaves

Melt butter in heavy pan. Add celery and carrots. Cover and cook over low heat until crisp but tender. Mix sugar and ginger and add to pan.

Stir mixture slowly and gently until well glazed and slightly brown. If mint isn't small and beautiful, chop coarsely, otherwise leave whole. Dish up, stirring in mint.

``For years,'' writes Dupree, ``Kate Almand and I have been comparing recipes and I believe she was born with a biscuit bowl in her hands as other people are born with silver spoons in their mouths.

``Kate hand rolls her biscuits, but a biscuit cutter is easier than rolling by hand.'' Kate's Sweet Milk Biscuits 2 cups of self-rising flour 1/2 cup shortening 1 cup sweet milk 1/2 to 3/4 cup self-rising flour

Preheat oven to 500 degrees F. Cut flour and shortening together until mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. Add milk. Stir together with fingers or a fork until mixed. Dough should be soft and wet.

Spread about 1/2 cup flour on a tea towel. Turn dough in flour a few times to lightly coat outside. Place floured towel over dough. Pat or roll towel lightly until dough is flattened out 1/2-inch thick.

Open towel. Dough should be smooth, coated with flour on outside, moist inside.

Cut out biscuits with a floured glass or cutter, without twisting. Place close together, sides nearly touching, on a greased baking sheet. Bake in middle of oven 10 minutes until light golden brown. Chicken With Pecans 1 3-pound chicken, cut up 4 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons oil 11/2 cups chicken stock Salt Freshly ground black pepper 1/3 cup heavy cream 1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley or other fresh herb (optional)

Dry chicken well. Heat 2 tablespoons butter and oil together in large, heavy frying pan or casserole until sizzling hot. Brown chicken, skin side first, then turn and brown other side. Add chicken stock, season with salt and pepper, and bring to boil. Turn down to simmer, cover, and cook over medium heat without boiling until chicken is tender, about 30 minutes.

Remove chicken to platter. Skim fat off liquid in pan and boil until reduced by half. Stir in cream. Saut'e chopped nuts in remaining 2 tablespoons of butter in another small pan. Add to sauce. Taste for seasoning, add parsley, and spoon over chicken. Serves 4. Pecan-Topped Chocolate Pound Cake 11/2 cups butter 21/2 cups sugar 6 eggs 3 cups all-purpose soft-wheat flour 11/2 teaspoons baking powder 1 cup milk 12 ounces chocolate chips, melted 1 cup chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F., grease and flour a 10-inch tube pan. Cut out a piece of wax paper to fit into bottom, and grease and flour paper.

Beat butter in a mixer and add sugar gradually until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating well.

Sift flour with baking powder, add to first mixture, alternating with milk, beginning and ending with flour. Stir in melted chocolate, blend, and then add pecans.

Pour batter into prepared pan and bake. Test for doneness by inserting a toothpick into cake to see if it comes out clean after 11/4 hours.

When cake is done, cool in pan for 15 minutes, then remove to a rack, peel off paper, and cool completely.

Drizzle with extra melted chocolate and sprinkle on extra pecans. Serves 14 to 16.

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