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Hugh Acheson Talks Derby and Appreciating Southern Food

Hugh Acheson Talks Derby and Appreciating Southern Food

For the upcoming Kentucky Derby, Acheson created a twist on the classic mint julep

Celebrate this year's Kentucky Derby with Hugh Acheson's Mint Mutiny cocktail.

Celebrity chef and Top Chef judge Hugh Acheson was born in Ottawa, Canada but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a chef who appreciates the classic cuisine of the American Southern more than Acheson.

Acheson and his wife Mary, a Georgia native, have lived in Athens, Ga. for several years, and today the chef owns four restaurants in Georgia: Five & Ten, The National, Empire State South, and Cinco y Diez.

In honor of the upcoming Kentucky Derby, Acheson has partnered up with Captain Morgan to create a contemporary twist on the mint julep, a classic Derby cocktail. “It’s a really fresh, simple cocktail,” said Acheson.

This year, Acheson will be a guest at the fourth annual Fillies and Stallions Derby Eve Party in Ga., and his drink will be the event’s featured cocktail.

Acheson, who just published a short “cookbooklet” all about pickles, is also rumored to be working on a seasonal cookbook to be published later in 2014. He says it was foods like Southern stewed okra, fried chicken, and potlicker that stuck with him, and that he never tires of the beautiful history of Southern food.

“The thing that keeps me going is that I’m willing to learn every day,” he explained. “Food is a dense topic that makes it really exciting to study. Once we as chefs position ourselves as experts in the field, we stop learning.”

Check out Hugh Acheson’s Mint Mutiny recipe.

Karen Lo is an associate editor at The Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter @appleplexy.

East Tennessee Bacon God Allan Benton Will Not Be Stopped

Nashville-based writer Chris Chamberlain profiles chefs and restaurants with particular talents for classic and reinvented Southern dishes. Now, he’s taking his investigations another link up the food chain as he travels to visit with some of those chefs’ favorite farmers, ranchers and purveyors from across the South. In a new Food Republic series, Southern Grown , find out what makes these suppliers so special that chefs will go the extra mile to use these products in their kitchens.

Despite his reputation as one of the premier artisans of smoked meat in the country — and the ardent admiration of noted chefs and legions of fans who buy his hams and bacon through mail order — it’s hard to get Allan Benton to give himself any credit. “Aww, it’s not a difficult business,” he drawls in his self-effacing way. “It’s not rocket science. If it was, I couldn’t do it.”

Indeed, what this humble man from East Tennessee is doing is replicating an extremely low-tech process that he learned many years ago from his grandparents. The secret to Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams comes from simulating the difficult environment that his grandfather encountered putting up hams over the winter to feed his family. Since 1973, Benton has been creating some of the most delicious cured hams and smoky bacon using the same basic method he saw during his mountain upbringing.

“We were hillbillies, and we always killed hogs on Thanksgiving,” Benton recalls. “Unless it was raining. So I run my equalizer room colder than most folks do, because it was wintertime when we hung our hams.” After curing the pork legs with a simple rub of salt and brown sugar, Benton ages his hams for at least eight months and as long as 18 months for his delightfully funky Tennessee prosciutto.

When he first started out in the ham business in tiny Madisonville, Tennessee, Benton felt pressure to release his products much more quickly. “I was trying to sell quality up against other people who were quick-curing their hams in 80 days,” he says. “I told my dad that I would need to switch to a shorter cure if I was going to survive. My dad said, ‘Son, if you play the other man’s game, you always lose.’ So I decided to make the best I could and quality would eventually win out.”

Chefs including David Chang, Sean Brock, Linton Hopkins, John Besh and Hugh Acheson agree with that sentiment. In a 2006 interview with John T. Edge for Gourmet, Chang told Benton exactly what he thought of his dedication: “You’re a hero to us. Your stuff is the ultimate old-school product. We can smell the work you put into it. Sometimes when you ship us a ham, we can see handprints on the box. We know that the person who packed our box trimmed our ham.”

Unlike other Southern artisans who trade on the heritage status of their ingredients, Benton emphasizes the history of his process. After years of trading with one local supplier, he now sources his hams and bellies from a variety of hog farmers across the country to keep up with demand for his products. “I grew up in rural Virginia,” Benton explains. “We didn’t have to have enough flat land to grow the corn to feed a hog, so we had to turn them loose to feed in the fall when there wasn’t much growing. Those hogs finished their lives on a diet of acorns, but we didn’t think a thing about what that did to the meat.”

At least not until Benton found himself sitting on a panel discussion at a Big Apple BBQ Block Party a dozen years ago where he heard New York Times columnist and self-proclaimed “hamthropologist” Peter Kaminsky talk about Spanish hams that were finished on acorns and brought $250 to $300 apiece on the open market. “Man, I felt my ears stand up like a rat terrier’s when they told me how much they were getting for those hams! I told Kaminsky I was gonna buy a book on those pigs and started looking for pasture-raised hogs.” For years, Benton had a reputation for producing some of the best hams available, but his supply of pigs began to dry up. “Everybody is looking for those same hogs,” he says. “Now I’m a lot more guarded about my sources.”

Initially, his target market consisted of customers in the area around Madisonville, with many of his hams heading home with tourists visiting the gift shops in the hillbilly meccas of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. (Think Dollywood.) But at the much more upper-class resort of Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee, a young chef named John Fleer was beginning to popularize his version of upscale Appalachian cuisine, and Benton’s hams and bacon were a key component in many of his dishes. As other notable chefs came to visit Fleer’s kitchen, he would introduce them to these remarkable ingredients, and the Benton’s brand began to appear in restaurants from Manhattan to Yountville. (And that’s just on Thomas Keller’s menus.)

“I thank those chefs every day for popularizing my product,” says Benton. “I owe every bit of my success to the creativity of these young chefs. They could make dirt and grass taste good!” Always humble, Benton doesn’t think to acknowledge that he takes commercial pigs, salt, brown sugar and wood and makes them taste amazing in the form of his famous bacon.

The secret to his sliced belly meat is in the intense smokiness that is imparted by a two-day repose in one of two smokehouses fed by small wood stoves. “I don’t care what kind of wood we use,” says Benton. “As long as it’s hickory.” He takes advantage of the sweet fog for more than just his bacon, though. Benton has smoked cocoa nibs in there for a ridiculous bar of chocolate brittle sold by Nashville artisan Olive and Sinclair. Benton counts Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewing as a friend and has smoked barley for special beer projects. Even the T-shirts that Benton sells online have been known to spend a little time in the smokehouse, leading to the desire to wear them several times before the first washing and extra attention from the family dog. There are stories of UPS drivers asking chefs if they can keep the box that Benton ships his bacon in to use as potpourri in their trucks. It’s that good.

While he has no concrete plans to retire, he does have an eye on the future. A recent expansion almost doubled the size of his facility, and for the first time there is a separate space apart from the cutting and packaging area for two employees to keep up with the shipping of his products. But there’s still just one phone line into Benton’s, and it leads to an ancient rotary phone on the boss’s desk. Odds are good that Benton will be the one to answer if you call, unless he’s out making a delivery or stoking the stove in the smokehouse.

But the Willie Wonka of smoked meat won’t be able to work as long and hard as he does forever. “I just turned 68,” Benton muses. “I realized that means I’ll be 80 in 12 years, and I don’t know any 80-year-olds running around having fun.” Perhaps one day, some lucky young chef will cut open a package of smoky bacon from Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams to discover a special golden slice that will be the key to the kingdom. He’d better show up ready to work.

Hugh Acheson’s Guide to Football Food

“It’s hard to avoid Georgia football,” jokes chef Hugh Acheson, who adopted Athens, Georgia, as his hometown in the mid-1990s and rose to national prominence with such restaurants as Five & Ten and The National. But who would want to miss out? Getting ready for gameday is its own sport in the South, and in the hours before kickoff, you’ll find tasty fare in any nearby parking lot, front porch, or TV room.

“Because of what I do for a living, I want to up the ante a little bit,” says Acheson of his own gameday cooking traditions. “It’s not just hotdogs and hamburgers.” His cookbook, The Chef and the Slow Cooker, offers inventive ways to use the handy appliance to feed a crowd, so we asked Acheson for tips and a few recipes to help craft a perfect spread.

“You’re going to a game, and the team has a plan on how to win it—hopefully. You want to plan, too,” Acheson says. “Put the pieces in place so you’ve got an easy morning.” On cold days, Acheson suggests using two coolers: one for hot food and one for cold. “All coolers do is insulate at whatever temperature is inside them. If you put a whole slow cooker in there, with hot broth ready to go, it’ll hold temperature until you can get it on-site and plug it in.” Acheson also suggests purchasing or preparing a few easy appetizers, too. “Homemade pimento cheese is always going to be classic, plus lots of pickles, lots of snacking food,” he says. “You’ll want a good spread, and then some hot toddies to stay warm. A belly full of bourbon fits the bill, too.”

“I f you can find power or use a generator, you can use a slow cooker to great benefit,” Acheson says. Think roadside classics like boiled peanuts—which Acheson prepares with vinegar and a kick of red pepper—alongside comfort foods, like soups and stews. “You can make a catfish stew on site by just poaching the catfish to finish,” he says. Just make the broth in advance and tackle that final touch at the tailgate. Another favorite is his Thai-inspired chicken soup with chiles, coconut, and lime. “You could bring that chilled and then reheat it on a small burner, or on a barbecue, or whatever you wanted, “ he says. Either way, warm dishes are the ultimate crowd-pleasers at late-season games. “If you’re the guy giving out hot, piping soup, you’re going to make some friends pretty quickly.”

Thrill with a No-Frills Bar

For easy cocktails, Acheson suggests mixing a batch of Negronis in advance, and serving them up from a large Thermos. As for that belly full of bourbon, Acheson sticks to accessible, high-quality bottles. “We all love the Pappy Van Winkle, but I’m not sure I need a second mortgage,” he laughs. “There are other great bourbons—Maker’s Mark is a clear classic that’s always good, Old Grand-Dad is great, and Michter’s we love in various whiskey forms.”

The Good Times Don’t End with the Game

After the final whistle, plenty of fans return to the tailgate tent to wait out traffic or catch a second wind. “Have the after-game stuff as almost a second course,” Acheson says. He recommends packing sandwiches, like pimento cheese and simple tomato when in season, to satisfy post-game cravings. “People are tuckered out. They’ll want to regenerate before going out and celebrating a win—or consoling a loss.”

Donald Link on New Orleans and Homestyle Cooking

Donald Link is one of the most celebrated chefs in New Orleans. His restaurants Herbsaint and Cochon, which emphasize French and Cajun cooking, respectively, are rooted in simple, satisfying, but deep European country traditions. His focus as a chef is not surprising: you can draw a direct line from the feasts he'd have growing up on both sides of his family to the cooking that ended up earning him a James Beard Award in 2007. In the following interview, Link explains it all and talks about his beloved city.

Let's revisit something you've talked about a bunch: what makes Herbsaint and Cochon.
The principal root of the food is the same, but each restaurant has a different emphasis.

What is the root?
I definitely think that the root is the country style of cooking — French countryside, simple Italian food. The latter elements really resonate with Cajun food. I've been to the countryside of France and Italy, and I think that there are a lot of similarities. You know, you could call a chicken sauce piquant a chicken fricassee in France. The processes are very similar, and what tends to change are the accompanying ingredients.

I've read about your family and how you grew up in strong food culture, but I didn't know you had gone to Europe.
My first trip to France was six years ago, which is fairly recent. My mom's father was from Alabama, so they made Southern food, and the other side did most of the German and Cajun stuff. The family in Alabama had a farm — an acre of land — where they grew corn, eggplant, peppers, and even peanuts. When we'd go to to his house, there'd be huge feasts. What was significant was that it was all local. It's funny to hear all of those terms now, because that was just how we ate back then. My dad and I used to go shrimping, and the only fish we'd eat was the fish we caught. I don't think we've ever bought fish from a store.

So I built Herbsaint on the premise of the southwestern French cooking — the cassoulets, the Italian pasta, the German sausage making. It's honest, simple, country food. I remember when I went to France the first time, I saw my first farmers market in Chablis. It was amazing. I got a little choked up, to be honest. It wasn't a yuppy or trendy thing. I couldn't wait to wake up every morning to go to the market. I'd pick out all the ingredients and cook for the group we were with while on vacation. The food is fresh and people buy what they cook — they get everything from there. It reminded me of how I grew up, because that's your source. Everything is there.

And how do you go from having that strong foundation and appreciation for food to actually opening a restaurant?
I went to California and worked out there for a bit. I got re-introduced to great produce and the idea of letting the ingredients do the work, which pulled me back into the cooking that I love. I remember being in culinary school basically breaking the credit card so I could eat at places like La Folie and Masa's. My first meal at La Folie was $375, I think. I thought I had just committed some horrible sin to pay that much money for dinner. It was great and it was wonderful, but I felt that I had a different niche: something affordable, something I grew up with, which wasn't popular at that time. It's homestyle country cooking, but done in a way that's a bit different.

How so?
One of the things we always try to do with Cajun food at Cochon, for example, is think about how we can keep something alive without making it ridiculously heavy. We try to make the traditional dishes more reflective of the seasons, as well. That's a lot easier now, since there are more markets and farmers than there used to be in New Orleans. After that, you start melding the German, the French, the Cajun, and the Italian.

What are some examples?
You'll take a country ham and mix it with gnocchi, for example, or some dirty rice and put it with duck confit and citrus glaze. You take components of different regions that look, at least to me, that they've always gone together.

Can you explain how you lighten things up? That's something that a lot of Southern chefs like John Currence and Hugh Acheson talk about.
I grew up eating Southern and Cajun food in the purest, simplest form. You could probably count on one hand how many dishes there are. If you break down what Cajun food is — even though I hate the question "What is Cajun food?" because everyone has a different answer. But growing up, it was a few things: crawfish étouffée, smothered pork, smothered chicken, dirty rice, jambalaya, and gumbo. Everything else was basically an adaptation of those basic dishes. It's like the five mother sauces. A crawfish bisque is basically a gumbo, a chicken sauce piquant is basically a chicken fricassee with peppers and tomatoes in it.

If you think about the Southern food I grew up with, it's just a reading of a bunch of clichés: fried cornbread, creamed corn, pigs feet, dumplings, collard greens, black-eyed peas, fried chicken.

Pork belly is a good example: if you smother and stew down a pork belly, it's delicious. I do pork belly like my granny used to do smothered pork shoulder: a brown gravy with onions, simmered and cooked slowly. You could take that concept of the pork belly and say roast it instead of braising it, serve a little bit less, and throw in some mint and cucumbers. There's a big Vietnamese population, and you see those tricks in that cooking. It's a great counterpoint.

But you're not necessarily making healthy food?
That's a very good question. I don't mean to say that I'm cooking low calorie food at all. I'm just saying that it won't make you want to take a nap as much. It's just not as rich or heavy. You eat my granddad's chicken and dumplings with creamed corn and some fried cornbread and you are hitting the couch.

Let's talk about your city.
I lived in San Francisco for six years and have eaten all over New York, but I think New Orleans has something different. The food to me is set apart, but that's not to say it's better, of course.

What sets it apart, in your view?
First off, it has more salt. Where I grew up, everything had three times more salt than anything I've had anywhere else in the world. I wouldn't say that the food is spicier, but I would say that it is more seasoned. I don't really find it spicy at all. I remember the jolting contrast when I first went to visit California: "You guys eat this stuff? It tastes like paper!"

I think the food in New Orleans jumps out. It's bold. I think the shrimp here tastes better and that the products are awesome. There is a serious depth to these traditions, and just enough heat to wake everything up. I'll eat clean, delicious dishes elsewhere, but personally, I find it mild. That's not to say I eat Cajun food every day. I definitely, definitely don't.

How do you think Katrina changed the restaurant industry?
The easy answer is that it made everything local more important.

In what sense?
When you have everything stripped away, I think it puts things in perspective. There's the guy I've bought my shrimp from for ten years. That man would not have gotten back to work if I had not reopened the restaurant. It's one thing to say that if you don't buy from the guy he's going to find business elsewhere. But I was all he had.

It gave everyone a purpose and showed us how we relate to each other. If I need to buy produce, I'm seeing on a very close level how the economy works. I am helping someone in the community make a living.

Has the restaurant scene fully recovered?
It depends on how you look at it. A lot of new — and different kinds — of restaurants have opened up here. We didn't used to have a burger culture, but now we do, for instance. But the thing that I love about New Orleans is that we have a chef-owner culture. It feels like you're going to someone's house to dinner as opposed to just a restaurant.

4 ways Atlantans can eat more locally grown food

Locally grown food has many benefits, including helping the environment as well as the area's economy. And the fresher food is, the better it generally tastes. Fortunately, metro Atlanta and the rest of Georgia enjoy a long growing season, which ensures a good variety of crops, from our iconic peaches to pecans to potatoes.

The following are four easy ways to eat more locally grown food:

Visit a local farmers market.

Farmers markets have evolved into more than just a place to buy food – although that's certainly the main attraction. Many also have tastings, cooking demonstrations and sometimes even music.

No matter which metro Atlanta county you live in, you'll have your choice of several farmers markets. Take the time to visit a few, and you may also find a new way to prepare one of your favorites or be introduced to a food you've never tried before.

Pick your own produce.

Go early in the day to avoid more scorching temperatures, and you can harvest your own produce at a variety of Atlanta area farms, including DJ's U-Pick Blueberry Farm, which is located near the Mall of Georgia, and Whitley Farms.

Buy a share in a farmer's crop.

You can buy a share in a farmer's crop at the beginning of the growing season, and in exchange, you'll receive a scheduled delivery – often weekly or monthly – of what they grow. This is frequently referred to as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), and it can also include the perk of getting to visit the farm once a year. If you have young children, this can be a great opportunity to help them learn more about and have a greater appreciation for the food they eat.

LocalHarvest maintains a list of CSAs in a particular area, so you can search for a participating farmer near Atlanta or search by ZIP code.

Eat at a restaurant that uses local foods.

The "farm to table" movement is popular at many of today's restaurants, so you can still enjoy local foods even if you don't feel like cooking. The following are among the Atlanta-area restaurants that highlight local foods:

999 Peachtree St. NE. 404-541-1105,

Chef/partner Hugh Acheson is well known for his creative Southern dishes that often use local foods.

1028 Canton St., Roswell. 678-869-5178,

From local cheese to vinegar sauce to Georgia trout, the menu reflects Table & Main's motto: "Simple. Seasonal. Southern."

Hugh Acheson Gets Personal With Vegetables in His New Cookbook

I am an exuberant gardener. Just not a very good one.

In January, with months of snow still ahead, the temptation to cheat the seasons by starting seedlings comes on strong. By March, however, there are few survivors. The seedlings have dried up through neglect or been knocked off the windowsill by cranky cats.

That doesn't deter me. The second the temperature inches above freezing, I start digging into the ground. Hearty seeds (kale, radishes, arugula) go in the cold soil first, followed by fair-weather transplants (tomatoes, chiles). For a brief moment, the garden looks vibrant, full of life.

The Ten Cookbooks Every Cook Should Own

But trouble inevitably strikes. Bugs get at the tomatoes. Squirrels eat all the snap peas. Eggplants never put on fruit. The tiny harvests I do manage—a pipsqueak zucchini or a handful of green beans—simultaneously mock my ambition and hint that maybe next year I'll know better.

Point is, there's a tremendous amount of care and effort that goes into growing vegetables, and my pitiful efforts make the bounty of the farmer's markets seem that much more impressive. Regardless of how you come by your vegetables—whether it's through torturously bad gardening, fighting the farmers' market crowds, or simply choosing the one green thing that doesn't look wilted at your corner store—you want to treat them well when they finally make it into your kitchen.

Enter Hugh Acheson. The Canadian-born, Georgia-based chef is famous for many things: being a Top Chef judge, winning James Beard awards, having a singular, giant, bushy eyebrow. He's also the author of two (and a half) cookbooks. His first, A New Turn in the South, was a thorough, refreshingly modern take on Southern cuisine. He also wrote a booklet of pickle recipes called, charmingly, Pick a Pickle.

And now he's written The Broad Fork, a book that quite literally seeks to answer the question, "What the hell do I do with kohlrabi?" Acheson opens the book with his neighbor asking him that very question, and it turns out kohlrabi is quite versatile: it can be puréed, pickled, braised, slawed, steamed, sautéed, or eaten raw. Acheson goes on to answer this question for over 50 different fruits and vegetables, from apples to artichokes. Each entry gets several recipes, including pantry items (often jams and pickles), basic weeknight dinners, and flashy dinner party fare.

Acheson is not alone in the vegetable cookbook category, of course. This spring alone has seen two other chefs, New York City's April Bloomfield and fellow Georgian Steven Satterfield, enter the genre. There are also mighty classics in this field, including my personal favorite, Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. Vegetable know-how is not hard to come by, if you know where to look.

Ramp Jam

But the joyful Broad Fork is the only vegetable cookbook written by Hugh Acheson. And that's key, because his personality screams from every page. This is a book full of weird Southern food (yacon, anyone?), corny dad jokes, Canadian nostalgia, good old chef-y know-how, and recipes that make you want to swing by the grocery store on the way home from work. Green Garlic Soup with Poached Egg and Crisp Crouton. Seared Scallops with Corn, Spinach and Bacon. Pan-Roasted Pork Tenderloin with Sorghum and Roasted Apples.

Just try and tell me you don't want to cook one of those for dinner tonight.

Many of the dishes in Broad Fork are the kind a moderately talented home cook could make without a recipe, but with fun tweaks and great ideas, like the remarkably delicious creamed collards spiked with kimchi. You'll need a lot of collards for this one—two bushy farmers market bundles only netted me a half recipe—but it's worth it, especially the next day.

For ambitious cooks, there are some restaurant-y recipes (Duck Prosciutto with Poached Figs and Cipollini Risotto). For beginners, there are super basic, traditional options (Indian Eggplant Pickles, or Sautéed Sweet Potato Greens). A simple, savory jam of ramps and balsamic vinegar took a little while to put together—cutting the leaves of a pound of ramps into "small squares" took a good half an hour—but it's a spring treat that can be kept well into the fall to be served with roasted meat. (Rampsgiving, anyone?)

If I ding Acheson for anything, it's that each section would be improved by a quick explanation of how to shop for, store, and prep each vegetable. Add that, and you would have a seriously comprehensive vegetable book.

But you know what? Managing to write something simultaneously this personal and this appealing is no small feat. By staying true to his personality, by sticking to his vegetable worldview and organizing the book by the Southern seasons, by exploring how he cooks both at home and in his restaurants, Acheson is being his 100% true self. And that gives you the authority—the courage, perhaps—to be your true self, too. Whether you're a restaurant chef or a home cook. A master gardener or a fumbling amateur.

So here I am with my tiny harvest of pitted radishes. They may not be beautiful or plentiful, but I grew them myself. Acheson offers several ways to prepare even a meager supply of radishes: on a sandwich, with poached shrimp and salsa verde, browned in butter with snapper. If there's one thing I've learned about gardening—through all of my stumbling—it's how to make the most of what you've got. And The Broad Fork is a great cookbook for embracing and embellishing any harvest, whether it's a farmers market bounty or a small labor of love like mine.

Hugh Acheson on the Best Southern Cookbooks and How to Cope With Your CSA

Hugh Acheson's latest book project began at a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) pickup. A neighbor stopped him and asked for help: what the heck do you do with kohlrabi, anyway?

I feel that neighbor's pain, and I'm guessing some of you are with me. A box full of fresh local vegetables at the height of their season can feel like the best gift you've ever received, or it can cause some pretty real anxiety. How are you going to use up all this stuff before it wilts? What if you can't convince your picky-eater wife to eat any more greens?

Acheson's The Broad Fork is a handy resource, full of inspiration for the CSA-stressed or folks who are just looking for ways to cook well from the farmers market. There are recipes for those problem vegetables—a celery root salad with buttermilk dressing, directions for braising turnips in soy and sautéing radishes with lemon brown butter—as well as suggestions for more familiar produce. (There's a silky eggplant dish baked with torn bread and topped with a tahini yogurt sauce that I've got my eye on, and I'll definitely be trying his recipe for high-heat cooked broccoli with olive, caper, and anchovy dressing.)

I asked Acheson—who owns about 1,000 cookbooks ("Too many!" he says)—about his tips for tackling a CSA box, and his favorite books for inspiring all of your cooking.

Do you ever feel CSA anxiety—a fear that not everything from the box will get used, or that none of it goes together? Has cooking in restaurants (and writing this book) taught you any lessons that are helpful when dealing with a CSA box? I think that we get the vegetables with the best intentions but some things fall into the crisper drawer only to be found three weeks later. You need to lay everything out when you get a CSA box and make some plans. We need to fully embrace and respect the vegetables and that doesn't happen when we let them become compost. Cooking in restaurants has made me much more agile in figuring out how to use things quickly and effectively: you need to think the same way. No one wants to waste, and menus should often be created not out of the dream of what you want but of the reality of what's on hand.

Any other advice for people who are first time CSA subscribers facing a variety of unfamiliar vegetables? (especially those with picky-eater kids or spouses.) Americans, for the most part, cook in their comfort zone and to break free of that you need to try new things. As for picky eaters, mostly kids, two things come to mind: if dinner is at 6 p.m., then the 5 p.m. snack has GOT TO GO. It just leaves kids in a non-hungry state and more prone to pushing the peas around the plate. Hungry kids eats those peas. Also, kids need to be introduced to vegetables at a very, very young age so vegetables really are part of a meal, not the required part of the plate that gives access to dessert.

What's your advice for CSA subscribers facing the same veg over and over? Purees, soups, roasted vegetable salads. think outside the box. Grilled lettuce is fantastic. Lettuce soups can be beautiful.

In addition to The Broad Fork, what cookbooks do you recommend for those looking to cook more with vegetables?
The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis. A beautiful primer on true Southern food. The Zuni Cafe Cookbook. SO GOOD. The salads are awesome and it has the best roasted chicken ever. Ottolenghi's Plenty is a seminal cookbook that makes Middle Eastern food as craveworthy as it should be. Moro: the Cookbook. Stunning simplicity from a London icon of a restaurant.

What was the first cookbook that really inspired you and why? The first River Café Cookbook was such and inspiration. So simple. So good. Two chefs colluding together to make simply great food. The restaurant has churned out superstar talent ever since.

What other older cookbooks and lesser-known cookbooks do you treasure?
Charleston Receipts. It is such a standby. La Varenne Pratique. It's technique illustrated a wonderful teaching text. Southern Food by John Egerton. Such an important wander through Southern food. Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking by John Taylor. This book is so ragged from use. The man is a genius of a writer and recipe interpreter. From these books I learn where I am from and where I live now. I learn that there is a crossover in French food and Southern food that needs constant inquiry.

Any other books you consider essentials when it comes to Southern cookbooks? Are there Southern cookbooks we should have heard of but haven't? The Hoppin' John Taylor books are amazing. Southern Provisions by John Shields. An academic look at the Southern larder. Heritage from Sean Brock. The man is a nerd. A wonderful chef's chef who shows us something new about Southern food everyday. Hints & Pinches by Eugene Walther. Smart short book from a beautiful human. Bill Neal's Southern Cooking. Before all celebrity chefs there was Bill. Every chef in the South owes the man a high five.

Recipe Summary

  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • Two 8-ounce meaty pieces of pork belly, about 1 inch thick
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 2 small carrots, chopped
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
  • 4 cups chicken stock or low-sodium broth
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/4 cup unseasoned rice vinegar
  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced radishes
  • 2 scallions, thinly sliced on the diagonal
  • 1/2 cup rice grits, preferably Carolina Gold (see Note)
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped kimchi
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • Crushed roasted peanuts, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 325°. In a large, deep ovenproof skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil until shimmering. Season the pork with salt and pepper and add to the skillet, fatty side down. Cook over moderate heat, turning, until crisp and browned all over, about 20 minutes. Transfer to a plate.

Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of fat from the skillet. Add the onion, carrots, bay leaf and coriander seeds and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until the carrots just start to soften, about 5 minutes. Add 2 cups of the stock and bring to a boil. Return the pork to the skillet. Cover and braise in the oven for about 2 hours, until the meat is very tender. Transfer the pork belly to a work surface and let cool slightly, then cut each piece in half crosswise. Discard the braising liquid and vegetables and wipe out the skillet.

Meanwhile, in a shallow bowl, whisk the sugar with the vinegar until dissolved. Add the radishes and scallions and refrigerate until chilled, about 15 minutes.

In a saucepan, combine the rice grits and the remaining 2 cups of chicken stock and bring to a boil. Add a generous pinch of salt, cover partially and cook over moderately low heat, stirring, until the grits are tender and become suspended in a creamy porridge, 20 to 25 minutes. Stir in the kimchi and cream and season with salt and pepper. Keep warm over very low heat, adding 1 or 2 tablespoons of water if the grits become too thick.

In the large skillet, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil until shimmering. Add the pork belly and cook over moderately high heat, turning once, until crispy, about 4 minutes. Spoon the grits into 4 shallow bowls and top with the crispy pork belly. Garnish with crushed peanuts and the pickled radishes and scallions and serve right away.

Interview with 2012 Atlanta Rising Star Chef Ryan Smith

Katherine Sacks: What inspired you to get into the kitchen?
Ryan Smith: I was 15 and I needed a job. I started washing dishes. I was always kind of intrigued by the chaos of the kitchen I wanted to get my hands in food. I got a job in Penn State Catering during college and [I] loved learning.

KS: What goes into creating a dish?
RS: A lot of it’s talking with farms and working down a produce list. There is a difference in spending a lot of time on conceptualizing and needing to make a change on day to day availabilities. We try to talk with farmers and ask what they can't get rid [of]. At the end of market on Saturdays the farmers come here and we buy pretty much everything from them.

KS: What else are you doing to run a more sustainable kitchen?
RS: Anything and everything we can do to support the local community. It’s more than terminology the community is what’s important. Instead of it being a selling point, it should be assumed that’s what we do. We're very active in reaching out to new farms, and we try to give a little to everybody. Farms call us all the time that have 50 pounds and we buy it all to pickle. We also try to take field trips as a staff, to see who is on the other side.

KS: What is the toughest thing you’ve done in your career?
RS: Opening this restaurant. I started here after it was six weeks old I inherited an open restaurant rather than opening it. It was hard to make it mine at first.

KS: What trends do you see emerging?
RS: I hope it’s independent good food and drink. There are a lot of corporate restaurant groups here. We are a little guy who likes to support the little guys.

KS: If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?
RS: Wood working. It’s kind of a hobby of mine.

A Thomasville Wedding

Daytime sporting shoots. Nighttime revelry. Great Southern food. Sounds about right for a weekend in Thomasville, Georgia. But add in a crowd of three hundred guests and a pair of “I dos,” and you’ve got the makings of a wedding that captures the South like no other.

Both actors who met in New York City, Megan Ferguson and Nico Evers-Swindell grew up on opposite ends of the globe—she in Florida and south Georgia, he in New Zealand-—and their wedding marked the first time all of their friends and most of their family would meet. Deciding on the location was the easy part—Boxhall, Megan’s parents’ plantation, would make an ideal backdrop for the ceremony and reception. The rest of it? That’s where things got interesting.

photo: Shawn Connell/Christian Oth Studio

With oversized blooms, the bride’s Monique Lhuillier dress was a natural and non-traditional choice for the garden wedding.

Megan’s first call was to Nan Myers, owner of the Thomasville design store Firefly, where Megan had worked as a teenager. Never mind that Myers had never planned a wedding. “I didn’t want a traditional wedding planner,” Megan says. “I wanted it to be personal. Having Nan was the perfect partnership.”

For ten months, the couple collaborated with Myers on every detail. To transform more than three hundred shotgun shells into place-card holders, for instance, Myers recruited her husband and a family friend and told them, “Just start shooting.” And instead of traditional parquet dance floors, she installed planks of painted and distressed plywood. “We were never limited by what a wedding should be,” Megan says. They enlisted Empire State South chefs Hugh Acheson and Ryan Smith to create the ultimate Southern menu—oysters on the half-shell, fried chicken, butterscotch pots de crème—and booked the Defibulators, a rocking country band in the vein of Holy Ghost Tent Revival, to play the reception.

photo: Shawn Connell/Christian Oth Studio

Ferguson flanked by her maids of honor (from left) Julia Sortwell, Barbara Bush, and Samantha Walsh

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photo: Shawn Connell/Christian Oth Studio

The Defibulators on stage

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photo: Shawn Connell/Christian Oth Studio

A special greeting to guests

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photo: Shawn Connell/Christian Oth Studio

Raising a glass at the family-style dinner

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photo: Shawn Connell/Christian Oth Studio

Spent shotgun shells doubled as place-card holders

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photo: Shawn Connell/Christian Oth Studio

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photo: Shawn Connell/Christian Oth Studio

Hurricane lanterns and twinkling lights lit the way

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But since so many guests had traveled so far, the real trick was making everyone feel at home. The couple arranged a series of pre-wedding gatherings—skeet shooting lessons at Myrtlewood Plantation, a rousing pig pickin’ at Haile’s Warehouse (an old Coca-Cola bottling facility), and cocktails under the stars at Millpond Plantation. From the moment guests arrived at the welcome dinner on Thursday until the last Bloody Mary was poured at Sunday’s farewell brunch, the party never stopped. The mood was so relaxed by Saturday afternoon, when guests gathered on the lawn at Boxhall, that hardly anyone noticed when the bridal party arrived late to the ceremony. In fact, Megan’s dress had ripped at the last minute. Former first daughter Barbara Bush, one of three maids of honor, came to the rescue, repairing the damage with a needle and dental floss. Forty-five minutes and a steadying glass of champagne later, the couple exchanged vows and joined their guests for one last night of revelry before retreating to their honeymoon cottage, a one-hundred-year-old cabin the Fergusons restored and relocated to the property as a wedding gift.

“Not many weddings go from the Haka, a traditional Maori greeting dance, straight into bluegrass,” says groomsman Harry Smail. “It was a true merging of two tribes.” And as it turned out, the tribes found they had a whole lot in common. “New Zealanders love to talk, and they found the perfect match in Southerners,” Megan says. “I don’t think there was a moment of silence all weekend.”

Watch the video: Panna Cooking Hacks: How to Truss a Turkey by Paul Kahan. FYI (January 2022).