Some of the stereotypes about Southern cooking are true. And some are not.
If you ever watched Paula Deen on television, you would assume that Southerners put gallons of butter in everything, including breakfast cereal. But Southerners don’t do that; only Paula Deen does that — and even she doesn’t do it anymore.
But the Southern fondness for biscuits? Yeah, that’s real. And grits? Grits are popular, sure, but they are not an everyday thing.
Sweet tea? That is an everyday thing. I once went to a fast-food restaurant outside Lynchburg, Virginia, and asked for an unsweetened iced tea. The young man behind the counter looked at me oddly. He had literally never heard of iced tea without sugar in it before.
I’ve spent about half of my life in the South, and I never did understand the compulsion to ruin perfectly good iced tea with a pound and a half of sugar.
Still, to celebrate those halcyon days of y’all, I decided to make a proper Southern feast.
I began, as one does, with soup and biscuits. Peanut soup, of course.
Peanuts are grown throughout the eastern part of the Southeast and also, for some reason, in West Texas. Virginians will tell you that Virginia peanuts are the best in the world, and they are right. West Texans will probably tell you that West Texas peanuts are the best, but Texans think the best of everything comes from Texas.
It is the easy availability of wonderful peanuts, no doubt, that makes peanut soup so popular throughout Virginia. Even though the main ingredient is that humblest of legumes, the peanut, it is nevertheless a dish that is typically served only for dinner parties or at the better restaurants and clubs.
Why? It’s the cream. Cream can take any ingredient and make it special. But few dishes are as special as peanut soup. I made mine using the hallowed recipe from the King’s Arms Tavern in Colonial Williamsburg.
The dish is simple to make but remarkably satisfying. Chicken broth is enhanced with celery, onion and butter, and thickened with flour. Then you add smooth peanut butter and light cream, and you have an unbeatable Virginia classic.
No, really. I know it sounds weird, but it tastes great.
For the biscuits to go with the soup — or basically anything — I made them the true Southern way: with White Lily Flour. White Lily has less gluten and protein than all-purpose flour, so the results are lighter and more tender than other biscuits. It’s the standard throughout the South, but if you can’t find it, regular all-purpose flour will do.
Most Southerners use shortening in their biscuits, which makes them flakier than biscuits made with butter. But I opted to use butter because of the flavor. In a trade-off of this sort, I always go with taste over texture.
Besides, you can get a wonderfully light biscuit with one simple trick: Work the dough as little as possible. That’s all it takes to make the perfect biscuit.
When I was contemplating what entree to serve at my Southern feast, I quickly realized there was only one option. Fried chicken is the go-to meal for every occasion, from picnics to funerals to bar mitzvahs.
Actually, ham biscuits are just as universal, although they are not as popular at bar mitzvahs. But they are too easy to make (split open a biscuit and insert a thin slice of salty ham). Fried chicken is easy, too, but at least those who eat it will think you have done some work.
With fried chicken, old-school is good, and older-school is better. So if you have a cast-iron skillet, use it (it will heat the oil uniformly). Try to find smaller pieces of chicken, like we used to fry before chickens started blowing up in size (it’s the only way you can cook the inside without burning the outside). And always use a brown paper bag when coating the chicken in flour (I have no idea why).
I soaked my chicken pieces in salted buttermilk for about 18 hours before cooking it, and that made it just a little too salty. If you’re going to let your chicken sit in buttermilk for more than 12 hours, I’d recommend omitting the salt from the brine and just using more salt in the flour. For less than 12 hours — and you can marinate it for as little as one hour and still benefit from the flavor — you should go ahead and use the salt in the brine.
My vegetable dish is actually not a classic or a tradition, but it uses a very traditional ingredient. Black-Eyed Pea Cakes were created by the Trellis restaurant, also in Williamsburg, Virginia, which at the time was one of the top restaurants in the South.
Black-eyed pea cakes are pan-fried patties of pureed and hand-mashed black-eyed peas, flavored with onion and garlic, and held together with a shockingly small amount of egg yolk and flour. More flavor comes from the judicious use of just a little parsley, spinach and thyme.
They’re best when served hot.
And dessert? Dessert was easy to choose.
For dessert, I made pecan pie. In my considered opinion, pecan is the very best variety of pie. And when I lived in a different part of the South, colleagues would bring in big bags full of pecans, still in their shell, that had fallen off their trees.
Pecans may be expensive here, but in East Texas you could swim in them.
I used a recipe from the undisputed doyenne of Southern cooking, Nathalie Dupree. She adds the zest of an orange to her pecan pie, which turns out to be a brilliant way to balance the sweetness inherent in the pie. If you want a traditional pie, just leave it out.
It’s still pecan pie. It will be great. It is a true taste of Southern cooking.
4 tablespoons (½ stick) butter
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 celery ribs, finely chopped
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
8 cups chicken stock
2 cups smooth peanut butter
1¾ cups light cream or half-and-half
Finely chopped salted peanuts, for garnish
Melt the butter in a large saucepan or soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion and celery and cook, stirring often, until softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in flour and cook 2 minutes longer.
Pour in the chicken stock, increase the heat to high, and bring to a boil, stirring often. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring often, until slightly reduced and thickened, about 15 minutes. Pour into a sieve set over a large bowl and strain, pushing hard on the solids to extract as much flavor as possible. Return the liquid to the sauce pan or pot.
Whisk the peanut butter and the cream into the liquid. Warm over low heat, whisking often, for about 5 minutes. Do not boil.
Serve warm, garnished with the chopped peanuts.
Makes 10 to 12 servings. Nutrition per serving (based on 10): 505 calories; 39 grams fat; 12 grams saturated fat; 33 milligrams cholesterol; 19 grams protein; 25 grams carbohydrates; 11 grams sugar; 4 grams fiber; 538 milligrams sodium; 92 milligrams calcium.
— Recipe from King’s Arms Tavern
Light and fluffy biscuits
2 cups all-purpose flour, preferably White Lily Flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons (½ stick) butter or ¼ cup shortening
¾ cup buttermilk or ⅔ cup milk
2 tablespoons butter, melted, optional
Preheat oven to 475 degrees.
In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt. Cut in butter or shortening with pastry blender or two knives until the largest crumbs are the size of peas. Blend in just enough buttermilk with fork until dough leaves sides of bowl.
Turn dough onto lightly floured surface. Knead gently 5 to 6 times, just until smooth. Roll dough into a circle that is ½- to ¾-inch thick. Cut out 7 to 8 biscuits using a floured 2-inch biscuit or cookie cutter. Place on baking sheet, about 1 inch apart. Shape dough scraps into a ball. Pat out until ½-inch thick. Cut out additional biscuits.
Bake 8 to 10 minutes or until golden brown. Brush with melted butter, if desired.
Makes 12 servings. Nutrition per serving: 137 calories; 7 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 17 milligrams cholesterol; 3 grams protein; 17 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram sugar; 1 gram fiber; 212 milligrams sodium; 73 milligrams calcium.
— Recipe by White Lily Flour
Southern fried chicken
1 small chicken, preferably 3½ pounds or less
3 cups buttermilk
2 tablespoons salt, see note
1½ cups all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon paprika
Shortening or oil for frying
Note: If you plan to marinate the chicken for more than 12 hours, you will only need 1 tablespoon of salt.
Cut the chicken into 8 or 10 serving pieces (cut the breasts in half for 10 serving pieces). Pour buttermilk into a large bowl. If you are planning to marinate the chicken for 1 to 12 hours, stir in 2 tablespoons of salt. Add no salt if you will marinate the chicken for 12 to 24 hours. Add chicken pieces, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 to 24 hours.
Pour oil into a large, heavy skillet, preferably cast iron, and heat to 400 degrees. Meanwhile, pour flour, paprika and 1 tablespoon of salt (only if you marinated chicken in salt-free buttermilk) in a brown paper bag. Season with plenty of black pepper. Add 2 or 3 pieces of the wet chicken and shake the bag to coat them lightly. Remove. Repeat with the remaining chicken.
When the oil reaches 400 degrees, add the pieces of coated chicken. You may have to do this in batches. Cook until golden brown on one side; then flip and cook until golden brown on the other side. If possible, try to regulate the temperature of the oil so it is near 375 degrees while cooking. Remove chicken and drain on a wire rack before serving.
Makes 4 servings. Nutrition per serving: 462 calories; 14 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 120 milligrams cholesterol; 37 grams protein; 45 grams carbohydrates; 9 grams sugar; 2 grams fiber; 861 milligrams sodium; 230 milligrams calcium.
— Recipe by Daniel Neman
Black-eyed pea cakes
1 pound dried black-eyed peas, washed and picked over
1 tablespoon salt
12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) plus 1 tablespoon butter, divided
½ cup minced onion
Salt and pepper to season
1 teaspoon minced garlic
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, divided
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon chopped fresh spinach
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme (or a pinch of dried)
Place the washed peas in a 5-quart saucepan and cover with 4 cups cold water; allow to soak at room temperature for 2 hours. Drain the liquid and rinse the peas. Return the peas to the saucepan and cover with 6 cups fresh cold water. Add 1 tablespoon salt. Place the saucepan over medium-high heat and cook until tender, about 25 minutes. Drain, then cool under running water.
While the peas soak or cook, melt the 12 tablespoons of butter gently over low heat. Skim off any white solids on top. Slowly pour melted butter into a container, stopping before any of the solids on the bottom pour out. You should have about 1/2 cup of clarified butter. Set aside.
Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon butter in a nonstick sauté pan over medium heat. When hot, add the onion, season with salt and pepper, and sauté for 1 minute. Add the garlic and 2 tablespoons of the flour and cook, stirring, for 4 to 5 minutes, being careful not to scorch the flour. Remove from the heat.
Put 3 cups of the cooled black-eyed peas in a food processor, add the onion and flour mixture and purée for 1½ to 2 minutes. Add the egg yolk and pulse to combine.
Place the remaining black-eyed peas in a bowl and crush by hand. Add the pureed peas and parsley, spinach and thyme. Season with salt and pepper and mix well.
Form the black-eyed pea mixture into 8 cakes of equal dimensions — ½ inch tall and 4 inches in diameter. Place the cakes on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper as they are formed. Cover the sheet with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 1 hour or up to 2 days.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Heat ¼ cup of the clarified butter in a large nonstick sauté pan over medium high heat. Coat the pea cakes lightly on both sides with the remaining ½ cup flour, patting the cakes gently to remove the excess. When the butter is hot, season the cakes with salt and pepper and then fry 4 cakes until browned, about 2 minutes per side.
Once the cakes are fried, transfer to a baking sheet. After the first 4 cakes have been removed from the pan, pour out the butter, wipe the pan dry with paper towels and heat the remaining ¼ cup clarified butter until hot. Repeat the cooking procedure with the remaining 4 pea cakes. When all of the cakes have been fried, place the baking sheet in the preheated oven until all of the cakes are hot, 4 to 5 minutes. Serve very hot.
Makes 8 servings. Nutrition per serving: 403 calories; 19 grams fat; 11 grams saturated fat; 69 milligrams cholesterol; 17 grams protein; 43 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams sugar; 8 grams fiber; 1,242 milligrams sodium; 80 milligrams calcium.
— Recipe from “The Trellis Cookbook,” by Marcel Desaulnier
⅔ cup brown sugar, packed
3 tablespoons butter, melted
¾ cup dark corn syrup
Grated peel of 1 orange, orange part only (no white pith)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon salt
1½ cups pecan halves, chopped
1½ cups pecan halves, whole
1 pie crust, such as 3-2-1 crust, below
Note: This pie freezes well.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
In a large bowl, combine the eggs, brown sugar, butter, corn syrup, orange peel, vanilla and salt. Whisk together by hand. Stir in the chopped pecans. Pour into the unbaked pie crust. Neatly arrange the perfect pecan halves on top of the filling. Bake until the filling is set and the pastry is nicely browned, 45 to 50 minutes. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature.
Makes 8 servings. Nutrition per serving: 652 calories; 38 grams fat; 12 grams saturated fat; 135 milligrams cholesterol; 8 grams protein; 75 grams carbohydrates; 55 grams sugar; 3 grams fiber; 357 milligrams sodium; 72 milligrams calcium.
— Recipe from “Nathalie Dupree’s Southern Memories,” by Nathalie Dupree
12 ounces sifted all-purpose flour (2¾ cups plus 2 tablespoons)
8 ounces unsalted butter
1 teaspoon table salt
½ cup (4 ounces) ice water, see note
Note: Set aside a bowl of ice water. When it comes time to use it, measure out ½ cup of the ice water, without the ice, and use that.
Place flour in freezer for at least 30 minutes. Cut butter into a dice, spread out on a plate, and refrigerate at least 30 minutes until cold.
Place cold flour, butter and salt in a large bowl. Work together with your fingers until the largest pieces of butter are the size of peas. If the ingredients no longer feel cool during this process, refrigerate until they are chilled again. If your hands aren’t strong enough to work the butter, use a food processor until the largest pieces of butter are the size of peas.
Add ice water and mix with your hands just until you can press it together into a ball. Do not overwork the dough, which will make it tough. You do not want any dry or crumbly parts, but you do want to see streaks of butter.
Divide into 2 equal parts, flatten each into a thick disc, and wrap individually in plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 1 hour before using, or overnight. The dough can also be frozen at this point and thawed in the refrigerator before using.
Makes 2 pie crusts. Nutrition per serving (based on 16): 180 calories; 12 grams fat; 7 grams saturated fat; 30 milligrams cholesterol; 2 grams protein; 16 grams carbohydrates; no sugar; 1 gram fiber; 147 milligrams sodium; 7 milligrams calcium.