Serve breakfast sausage with ginger peach relish on top of Erika Council’s black pepper-thyme cornmeal biscuits. (Photo by Greg DuPree)

Serve breakfast sausage with ginger peach relish on top of Erika Council’s black pepper-thyme cornmeal biscuits. (Photo by Greg DuPree)

The new flavor of soul food

Atlanta chef melds traditional African-American cookery with modernist cuisine.

African-American chef and Atlanta restaurateur Todd Richards’ cookbook, “Soul: A Chef’s Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes” explores the flavors of soul cooking as an expression of where he and his slave ancestors came from. “Equally important,” he writes, “how we cook today defines where we want to go.”

And where “Soul” takes us is toward an adventurous cuisine that nods to history while embracing the flavors of today.

In his first cookbook, Richards sought to cook the foods of his own people, highlighting them in a way that honors their heritage yet pushes boundaries in a modernist era. The results are enticing: Each ingredient-inspired section of “Soul” offers up classics, then innovations.

“Soul: A Chef’s Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes” by Todd Richards

“Soul: A Chef’s Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes” by Todd Richards

“Because my slave ancestors could not read or write,” Richards continues, “there is little historical record crediting them as the founder of Southern cuisine, unless of course ‘soul food’ becomes the sole qualifier for what is their accepted contribution.”

Every recipe I made was no wallflower. All of them have assertive flavors and each is strong in its Southern identity.

I know we’re at the tail end of strawberry season, but I was intrigued by Richards’ inventive use of both the unripe and extremely ripe berry. Whether picking up a pint at my farmers market or grocery store, I’m often stuck with imperfect berries.

Pickled strawberry salad with champagne vinaigrette, black pepper creme fraiche and smoked pecans calls for green and white-sided berries, while Richards’ strawberry-rum coolers ask for overripe, almost fermenting, berries. We made both of these. The salad is an exciting blend of flavor and texture, and the coolers, as promised, cooled me off on a hot day.

I also couldn’t pass up the his homey breakfast sausage stuffed with cheddar and ham served on black pepper and thyme cornmeal biscuits, then topped with a ginger peach relish. My childhood favorite, hands down, is biscuits and sausage gravy — mom’s biscuits, my gravy. I’d happily eat it three times a day so, true to form, we made these for my son’s birthday dinner.

Strawberry-rum coolers are made with lime juice, orange bitters, agave syrup and ginger beer. (Photo by Greg DuPree)

Strawberry-rum coolers are made with lime juice, orange bitters, agave syrup and ginger beer. (Photo by Greg DuPree)

Strawberry-rum coolers

Remove the rum from these to make a nice non-alcoholic beverage for the kids.

2½ cups very ripe strawberries, hulled and sliced

1 cup water

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice (from 1 lime)

2 tablespoons agave syrup

¼ teaspoon ground ginger

1 cup white rum

1 cup dark rum

Orange bitters

Crushed ice

2 cups ginger beer

1 orange, cut into 8 wedges

Bring the strawberries, 1 cup water, lime juice, agave syrup and ginger to a simmer in a saucepan over medium-low. Cook until mixture is fragrant and strawberries are tender, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, and cool completely, about 1 hour.

Transfer the strawberry mixture to a blender. Process until smooth, about 30 seconds. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to 5 days. This is the base of the strawberry-rum cooler. Makes about 2 cups.

For each cooler, combine ¼ cup strawberry-rum cooler base, 2 tablespoons white rum, 2 tablespoons dark rum and 6 dashes of bitters in a mixing glass, and top with ice. Stir mixture until ice dilutes the liquid into a smooth puree. Pour over crushed ice, and top with ¼ cup ginger beer. Garnish with an orange wedge. Serves 8.

Pickled strawberry salad features a champagne vinaigrette, black pepper creme fraiche and smoked pecans. (Photo by Greg DuPree)

Pickled strawberry salad features a champagne vinaigrette, black pepper creme fraiche and smoked pecans. (Photo by Greg DuPree)

Pickled strawberry salad with champagne vinaigrette, creme fraiche and smoked pecans

Make sure your strawberries are truly unripe, preferably green. I left my berries in the brine overnight — big mistake, they were way too salty. After even half an hour, taste them. Remove them from the brine when they’re to your liking. If your berries are too ripe, they can take in a lot of the warm brine quickly, but don’t worry, this salad can also be made with regular ripe strawberries. Just don’t pickle them.

​For the creme fraiche: ​

1 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons whole buttermilk

1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

Pinch of gray sea salt

​(Alternately, combine ¼ cup creme fraiche with 2 teaspoons cracked black pepper)

2 cups pickle brine​ (2 cups water, 1 cup apple cider vinegar​, ½ cup sugar, ¼ cup kosher salt, ½ tablespoon pickling spice)

16 unripe strawberries

For the champagne vinaigrette:

¼ shallot, minced (about 1 tablespoon)

1 tablespoon champagne vinegar

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

½ teaspoon honey

1 splash champagne or sparkling white wine

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

3 tablespoons blended olive oil

For the smoked pecans:

1 tablespoon blended olive oil

½ cup pecan halves

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon raw sugar

1 teaspoon smoked salt

Pinch red pepper flakes

Pinch coarsely ground black pepper

1 thyme sprig

¼ cup packed micro greens

Combine the cream, buttermilk, pepper, and sea salt in a glass jar. Cover the jar with cheesecloth, and secure with rubber bands. Let stand at room temperature until thickened, 12 to 16 hours. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Bring all ​pickle brine ​ingredients to a boil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high, stirring often to dissolve sugar and salt. Bring the pickle brine to a simmer in a saucepan over medium. Add the strawberries, and remove from the heat. Cover and let stand for 15 minutes.

Transfer the pickled strawberries and pickle brine to a jar or dish, making sure the strawberries are completely covered with liquid. Refrigerate until chilled completely, about 30 minutes.

Making the champagne vinaigrette: Combine the shallot, vinegar, Dijon, honey and champagne in a small bowl. Whisk in the salt and blended olive oil.

Making the smoked pecans: Heat the blended oil and pecans in a skillet over medium-low. Cook the pecans, stirring occasionally, until toasted, 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in the butter, sugar, smoked salt, red pepper flakes, black pepper and thyme. Increase heat to medium-high, and cook until the butter is browned, stirring constantly.

Remove skillet from heat. Cover and let stand for 5 minutes. Spread the pecan mixture in an even layer on paper towels.

Let stand for 30 minutes. Remove and discard thyme sprig. Coarsely chop the pecans.

To serve, slice the strawberries, and place 4 sliced strawberries onto each of 4 plates. Drizzle 1 tablespoon champagne vinaigrette over each serving.​ Top each serving with 1 tablespoon black pepper creme fraiche, 2 tablespoons chopped smoked pecans and micro greens. Serves 4.

Sausage with ginger peach relish on Erica Council’s black pepper-thyme cornmeal biscuits

Erica Council is a Atlanta-based food writer, award-winning blogger of “Southern Souffle” and self-proclaimed “Biscuit Jedi.” You must make this.

For the cornmeal biscuits:

1½ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting

1 cup coarse yellow cornmeal

1 tablespoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons cold vegetable shortening, cut into 1⁄2-inch chunks

½ cup unsalted butter, chilled, cut into ⅛-inch slices

1¼ cups buttermilk, chilled

2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

For the sausage:

1 pound ground pork

¾ cup cooked ham, finely chopped (4 ounces)

½ cup cheddar cheese, shredded

⅓ cup soft, fresh breadcrumbs

2 teaspoons sorghum syrup

1½ teaspoons minced fresh sage

1 teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes

¼ teaspoon ground coriander

1 large egg, beaten

For the ginger peach relish:

2 teaspoons blended olive oil

1 shallot, sliced into small rings

2 tablespoons peeled and minced ginger

1 pound fresh peaches (about 3 medium peaches), finely chopped

½ cup granulated sugar

½ cup apple cider vinegar

¼ cup honey

1 jalapeno chile, stemmed, seeded and minced

Whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Work the shortening into the flour mixture by breaking up the chunks with your fingertips until only small pea-size pieces remain. Add in a few slices of the chilled butter and coat in the flour. Press the pieces between well-floured fingertips into flat (nickel-size) pieces. Repeat until all the chilled butter is incorporated.

Freeze the flour mixture (in the bowl) until chilled, 15 minutes. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Gently stir the buttermilk into the flour with a fork. Add the thyme. Stir until the dough forms a ball and no dry bits of flour remain. (The dough will be sticky and shaggy.) Turn the dough out onto a floured surface. With floured hands, pat it to a ¼-inch-thick 10-inch rectangle. Add more flour if needed to prevent sticking.

Fold the dough into thirds using a bench scraper or metal spatula. Lift the short end of the dough and fold in thirds again. Rotate the dough 90 degrees, dusting the work surface underneath with flour. Roll and fold again into a 10-inch square about ½-inch thick.

Cut out 12 biscuits using a 2-inch round floured cutter. Place 1 inch apart on an ungreased baking sheet. Brush biscuit tops with melted butter. Bake in the preheated oven until the tops are golden brown, about 15 minutes. Makes 12 biscuits.

Making the sausage: Stir together the pork and the next 10 ingredients in a large bowl; let stand 15 minutes. Scoop the mixture by ¼-cupfuls onto a wax paper-lined baking sheet, and shape into 12 (½-inch-thick) patties.

Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium-high. Brown the patties in the pan in batches, until golden brown on 1 side, 3 to 4 minutes. Turn, cover, and continue to cook until the sausage is just done, about 4 minutes. Remove from the pan.

Making the relish: Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium-high. Add the shallot and ginger. Reduce the heat to medium. Cook, stirring often, until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the peaches and remaining ingredients. Cook until liquid is reduced and syrupy, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat, and let stand for 20 minutes. Makes 1 cup.

To serve, split the biscuits. Top the bottom half of the biscuits with a sausage patty and some ginger peach relish. Cover with top halves. Serves 12.

— Recipes reprinted from “Soul” by Todd Richards with permission from Time Inc. Books.

“Soul: A Chef’s Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes”

By Todd Richards

Oxmoor House. 368 pages. $35.

Who should buy this? Fans of PBS’s “A Chef’s Life.” Someone with a love of amazing pub grub. Those with a heart for soul cooking, or anyone willing to go for it.

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