Southern Fried by James Villas ($29.99, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). To be honest, I cannot think of anyone intrepid enough to tackle this controversial subject let alone to do it so successfully and come up with more than 150 winning recipes -- except Jim Villas. Always opinionated, always passionate, always painstaking, he has managed to tame the current hysteria about anything fat, anything fried. Being a bona fide nutritionist, myself (with a BS from Cornell), I say hooray for Jim Villas, the voice of reason so sorely needed. Never one to pussy-foot, Villas plunges right in in his Preface:
"In a nation where organicized, locovorized, artisanized, and molecularized foods are now aerated, sous-vided, nitro-poached, tweezered, and prepared in every other trendy, offbeat, outlandish, and often geeky way imaginable, let's hear a general big round of applause for those familiar, traditional, beloved ones that are still being simply . . . fried." Then several paragraphs later, Villas sets a few things straight.
"While there can be no doubt that the dishes celebrated in this book constitute a large percentage of the Southern diet, nothing is more misguided than the common perception that Southerners nourish themselves exclusively on fried foods without concern for moderation, nutritional values, calorie counts, and overall well-being." If you doubt that, Villas's Introduction will enlighten you. Of course, the success of any cookbook rests squarely on its recipes and once again Villas delivers. Paging through Southern Fried, I saw lots of old friends as well as plenty of less familiar recipes, like this particularly appealing one (rewritten in my website recipe style).
SASSY SHRIMP PUFFS
Makes about 50 Puffs
Southerners love any ground seafood that's mixed with moist bread and/or mashed potatoes, enhanced with various seasonings, and turned into balls, puffs, or nuggets for cocktail parties or stylish receptions. These tasty puffs could just as easily be made with ground clams, lobster, crawfish, crabmeat, or even a lean fish, but whatever you use, just be careful not to over-fry the puffs. Don't ask me why, but for these types of puffs, I always use an electric frypan -- as my mother always did.
- 5 slices firm-textured white bread, crusts removed
- 1 pound fresh shrimp, shelled, deveined, and finely ground
- 2 medium potatoes (about 1/2 pound), boiled, peeled and mashed
- 1/2 teaspoon ground fennel
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Peanut oil for deep frying
- Tear bread into medium-size bowl, add milk to cover, and soak 10 minutes. Squeeze bread dry, discard milk, and return bread to bowl.
- Add shrimp, potatoes, fennel, salt, and pepper and mix well by hand until smooth. Shape into 1-inch balls.
- Heat 2 inches oil in large electric frypan to 365º F. then fry shrimp puffs in batches until richly browned -- about 2 minutes per batch. Drain on paper toweling,
- Serve hot with plenty of toothpicks.
* * * * *
And now two excellent new single-subject cookbooks from The University of North Carolina Press's popular "Savor-the-South" series.
Bourbon by Kathleen Purvis ($18). This is number two for Purvis (I loved Pecans, her first, and reviewed it on this website). I can always count on Purvis, the Food Editor of The Charlotte Observer, for spirited writing and where better than on the subject of the South's favorite whiskey? She begins with the legend, lore, and history of bourbon, then moves on to the recipes, 54 in all that begin, appropriately enough, with cocktails, then proceed through the menu featuring apps, main dishes, sides, and sweets spiked with or marinated in bourbon. This recipe immediately caught my eye (rewritten here in website style).
Makes about 3 Cups
I knew bourbon had caught the attention of a new generation of mixologists the first time I had a smoked mint julep at a restaurant. But since restaurants have access to special equipment like gun-style smokers, I thought this would be out of reach of home bartenders until I discovered how simple it is to smoke bourbon on a charcoal grill. The trick: Keep the fire low to reduce evaporation, and put the bourbon in a wide pan to expose more of it to the smoke.
- 2 cups hickory chips (about)
- 6 cups bourbon
- 1 cup water
- 2 quarts charcoal or 30 briquettes (about)
- Place hickory chips in bowl, add 1 cup bourbon and water and let stand at least 30 minutes. Pour remaining bourbon into 13 x 9 x 2-inch baking pan and set aside.
- Meanwhile, set up grill for indirect heat with rack on one side and area for hot coals on opposite side. If possible, open top and bottom grill vents on hot coals side. Ignite charcoal; I prefer a charcoal chimney to lighter fluid. Use only enough charcoal to half-full chimney.
- When coals are covered with white ash, spread in grill to create a low fire. Note: Proceed with greatest care -- bourbon is flammable. Place pan of bourbon on rack on side opposite coals, add handful of bourbon-soaked chips to coals, and cover grill. Smoke bourbon about 1 hour, adding another handful of bourbon-soaked hickory chips to coals every 15 minutes.
- Carefully remove pan of bourbon, cool to room temperature, then pour into
1-quart preserving jar, and screw lid down tight.
- Use for mint juleps. Note: Follow Purvis's recipe for the classic mint julep
using smoked bourbon. And for "a truly sublime bloody mary," she calls
for a half-and-half mix of her smoked bourbon and bacon bourbon (another
of her unique recipes).
Biscuits by Belinda Ellis ($18). What a bargain this book is -- 55 recipes plus an insider's secrets for making perfect biscuits. Ellis, who spent 15 years criss-crossing this country on behalf of the South's beloved White Lily Flour may well be America's best biscuit maker. "I learned that deep in the soul of a biscuit," she writes, "there's more than flour, fat, and milk.
A hot biscuit embodies a memory of place and family." To that I'd add "a light touch" plus a knowledge of the role flour plays in a biscuit as well as the role of shortening and liquid and leavening and of course, how each interacts with the others, all of which Ellis explains at the outset in admirable detail. You couldn't ask for a more valuable collection of biscuit recipes -- from basic to impressive. Just a few of the ones I'm eager to try: Flaky Butter Biscuits . . . Gorgonzola, Walnut, and Cranberry Biscuits . . . Mayonnaise Biscuits . . . Pimento Cheese Biscuits . . . and, not least, Belinda's "Big Nasty," a gravy-smothered meal in itself chock full of chicken. With Biscuits in the kitchen beside you, you cannot go wrong. And to get you started, how about this biscuit casserole that's good morning, noon or night (rewritten here in website style)?
Caramelized Onion, Bacon, and Biscuit Breakfast Casserole
Makes 6 Servings
Breakfast isn't just for breakfast anymore. Eggs and bacon have become all-day foods. It's fun to have breakfast for dinner. Of course, it's good in the morning, too
- 1/2 pound bacon
- 1 small yellow onion, diced
- 1/2 medium red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and diced
- 1 medium clove garlic, minced
- 3 large eggs
- 1/2 cup milk (not low-fat or fat-free)
- 1/2 teaspoon rubbed or ground sage
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to season
- 3 cups 1 1/2-inch chunks leftover biscuits
- 1/2 cup moderately coarsely grated Gruyère cheese
- Preheat oven to 350º F. Spritz 8-inch square baking dish with non-stick cooking
spray and set aside.
- Brown bacon in large heavy skillet over low heat until crisp, then drain on paper
- Add onion to skillet drippings and sauté over moderate heat, stirring often, until limp
and nicely browned. Add bell pepper and garlic and cook, stirring often, a few
minutes more until softened.
- Whisk eggs, milk, sage, salt, and pepper in small bowl until frothy and set aside.
- Crumble biscuits into baking dish, crumble bacon evenly on top, then distribute
onion mixture over all, and top with grated cheese.
- Pour egg mixture evenly over all and let stand 15 minutes; if biscuits float, press
down into egg mixture with large spoon.
- Slide baking dish onto middle oven shelf and bake uncovered until table knife
inserted in middle of casserole comes out clean -- about 30 to 35 minutes.
- Remove from oven, let cool a few minutes, then serve at table.