'King of Lowcountry cooking' shares tips on cuisine with a Southern accent
"I hope that someday I will be remembered for helping people everywhere understand that Southern food should be considered among the most revered cuisines of the world." So starts "South: Essential Recipes and New Explorations" (Artisan, $40), chef Sean Brock's recently released cookbook.
It's his second. The first, "Heritage," won the 2015 James Beard award for best American cookbook.
The chef that the Wall Street Journal dubbed "the king of Lowcountry cooking" forged his considerable reputation at Husk, the landmark Charleston, S.C., restaurant (with branches in Nashville, Savannah, Ga., and Greenville, S.C.) that celebrates Southern ingredients and heritage. The Virginia native is now working to open a restaurant in Nashville that will focus on the flavors and traditions of Appalachia.
In a recent conversation, Brock discussed his pantry secrets, the wisdom of gardening and the allure of buttermilk.
Q: How did you get away from viewing the South - and, by extension, Southern cooking - as a single, homogenous entity?
A: We're still discovering the nuances of all these microregions, and just how diverse and important they are. Sometimes I think we forget how young we are as a country. We still have lots of room to grow, and lots of history to make. The South has the oldest history, as far as cuisine is concerned. Think about eating food in New Orleans and in Asheville, N.C., and how different those two experiences are, and you start to recognize the role that geography plays.
Q: Does that explain why the book features four cornbread recipes?
A: That came from me opening Husk in four different cities. Husk is known for cornbread, and I wanted to use cornbread to create community pride. You know, "These are our flavors; this is our area." I just looked back at the agricultural history of those places, and looked at the cultural influences of those places, and thought about the base flavors.
There's a practice that's pretty common in the Lowcountry, where you take the night's leftover rice and fold it into the next day's cornbread. Carolina Gold rice in cornbread is amazing. But in the Smoky Mountains, (ham and bacon producer) Allan Benton is king. At his house, I'll have cornbread with bacon cracklings in it.
Q: How did farming change your approach to cooking?
A: I spent most of my childhood in my grandmother's garden. It was two acres, which I suppose lots of hipsters these days would call a farm. That was my life growing up. That planted the seeds for appreciating where food comes from, and eating with the seasons, and understanding how vibrant food can be just after it's harvested. It wasn't until I planted my own garden - an acre - that I developed a whole new appreciation for how difficult it is, and how much wisdom comes out of it.
Q: What role has canning and preserving played in your life, and in your cooking?
A: My grandmother's basement was a wonderland of Mason jars. I can close my eyes and see it, crystal clear, and smell it. Her entire basement was essentially a cannery, and it was so cool. She was always putting food in Mason jars, or eating food from Mason jars.
Now, I start by grabbing the most delicious, vibrant, fresh food that I can find. Then I go to my pantry, where all of these different flavors live. They're the ingredients that help me add new layers to whatever I'm cooking that day. I rely so heavily on my pantry.
At the restaurant, there's a team that is just working on the pantry, curing and preserving, anything we can do to expand the flavor profiles of our indigenous ingredients. We take it further than my grandmother. We're using more scientific equipment than she would have used. But it's the same principle: capturing the essence of something wonderful, saving it and then using it sparingly.
Q: The book has a great user's guide to nine country-ham sources. Is there one that you would recommend for a country-ham novice?
A: I always believe that it's better to start with the simplest forms and then start moving to the more intensely aged hams. It's a progression. If I had to pick the simplest, I'd would say it's Broadbent's (broadbenthams.com). They've been around for 100 years, and they haven't changed the way they do things. It's salt and sugar, and it's really simple.
Q: There's a cheeseburger recipe in the book. What is your path to cheeseburger nirvana?
A: To me, what makes a great burger - whether it's a thin patty, which is my favorite, or a thicker patty - is concentrating on getting the most intense crust possible, on one side. You don't have to get it on both sides, although it's fantastic if you can. That's why Shake Shack is so great. You can go any one of their locations, anywhere in the country, and there's always a crust.
Q: Your recipes are so direct and concise. Do you find it challenging to write recipes, or does the process come naturally to you?
A: Having multiple restaurants - and writing cookbooks - has taught me the importance of writing accurate recipes. Where I come from, people take pride in not writing anything down, and not using recipes.
When I'm working, I always have someone there with me who is actually recording everything that I'm saying, and measuring everything to document each quantity. While I'm cooking, I'll say everything that comes to mind. Every thought, every decision, it's a stream of consciousness, and it all gets transcribed.
Q: Why is buttermilk a favorite ingredient of yours?
A: Because it hits so many different marks. It has a little umami, along with sourness, acidity, creaminess and fattiness.
Q: Yet I noticed that you skip the common step of dipping chicken in buttermilk before frying it. Why?
A: I used to do that. But it just creates too much steam, and then the temperature and the viscosity of the oil blows off all of the breading. I'm interested in creating a fried chicken that you could kick across the room and the breading wouldn't fall off. I did a million trials, and the recipe in the book is the result of many months of eating mediocre fried chicken.
Q: What are some common mistakes made with cast iron cookware?
A: This is going to make people angry, but I think there's so much bad cast iron out there, so much that's poorly made. That started in the Great Depression, when the recipe for cast iron started to change. Before that, the idea of seasoning a cast-iron pan never even existed. There's one American company that does know how to make it the right way: Butter Pat Industries (butterpatindustries.com). Yes, it's more expensive. But divide that cost over three generations, and then it's pretty cheap. Because it's going to last forever.
Q: Where would you steer a beginning cook, in terms of recipes?
A: It's important that it's easy. The shrimp and grits dish, it's one pan, so there's limited cleanup, and it's just so delicious. And it tells the story of one of our most iconic chefs, Bill Neal of Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
He was one of the first chefs to say, "This simple, rural dish is worthy of a white tablecloth restaurant." It was in the New York Times, and I think a lot changed after that piece was written.
SWEET POTATO PIE
Note: Amber-tinted sorghum syrup is less bitter tasting than molasses. The author suggests using Muddy Pond sorghum syrup, available at muddypondsorghum.com. From "South," by Sean Brock.
Single pie crust pie dough for 10-inch deep dish pan (see below, or ready-made)
1 3/4 pounds large sweet potatoes, scrubbed and patted dry
1 cup heavy cream
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon sorghum syrup (see Note)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed light-brown sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons flour, plus extra for work surface
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly whipped cream for topping
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Prick the sweet potatoes with fork and place in a baking dish and bake for 75 minutes, or until tender. Remove from oven and let cool completely. Lower oven temperature to 350 degrees.
Place dough on lightly floured work surface. If the dough has been refrigerated overnight, let it soften a bit at room temperature before rolling it out. Lightly flour your rolling pin and start rolling the dough gently from the center out. Do this a few times, then gently pick up the dough, rotate it a quarter-turn, and roll again. Continue to roll, rotating the dough and flouring the work surface and the dough as needed, until you have a 12-inch circle about 1/8 inch thick.
Loosely fold the dough into quarters and unfold it into a 10-inch deep-dish pie pan. Gently fit the bottom and up the sides of the pan; you should have an overhang of about 1/2 inch around the edges. Fold the excess under and crimp the edges of the dough around the rim. Refrigerate the pie crust while you make the filling.
Cut the sweet potatoes in half, scoop the flesh into a large bowl, and discard the skins. Mash the sweet potatoes with a potato masher or the back of a fork until smooth. You need 2 cups of mashed sweet potatoes for the filling.
In a bowl of an electric mixer on medium speed, combine 2 cups mashed sweet potatoes with cream, eggs and sorghum syrup; beat until blended.
In medium bowl, combine granulated sugar, light brown sugar, flour, ginger, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg and salt. With mixer speed on low, slowly add the dry ingredients to the sweet potato mixture and beat until completely incorporated.
Pour filling into pie crust and place pie on rimmed baking sheet. Bake until filling is set and no longer jiggles in the center when the pan is gently shaken, about 1 hour, rotating the pan halfway through baking. Remove pie from oven, transfer to wire rack and cool to room temperature. Slice pie into 8 wedges, garnish with freshly whipped cream and serve. Cover any leftovers and refrigerate for up to 3 days. Remove from refrigerator 30 minutes before serving.
FLAKY PIE CRUST
Makes enough for 1 single crust 9-inch pie or 10-inch deep-dish pie.
Note: This dough must be prepared in advance. From "South," by Sean Brock.
1 1/4 cups flour, plus extra for work surface
1 teaspoon kosher salt
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, diced and refrigerated
1/4 cup ice water
In a medium bowl, combine flour and salt. Add the butter and, using your fingers, cut the butter into the flour mixture until the pieces are about the size of small peas. Drizzle in the ice water, mixing it in with your hands until the dough just comes together.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and gather it into a ball. You should still see pieces of butter, and you want to work quickly to keep the butter cold.
Flatten the dough into a disk about 1 inch thick, wrap in plastic wrap, and let rest in the refrigerator at least 1 hour or up to overnight before using. Prepare filling and continue with recipe.
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