There's much about the Old South that America would rather forget or disavow. But under that black line of redaction, there's a food culture that is worth revisiting and preserving, tied up with the pain and struggle of that time and place as it may be. Sean Brock, James Beard Award-winning chef and champion of all that is heirloom, walks the tightrope of culinary nostalgia with his modernist eyes locked on the future of Southern food. To the giddy delight of the food world, he is finally releasing his first cookbook, Heritage, this week, which he's labored over for years and which has the potential to redefine Southern cooking for a lot of people, both in the South and out.
In Heritage, what's old is new again, and what's new is brand-spankin' new. There are several humble recipes for when Brock is feeling down-home (Cornmeal Hoecakes), but there are more that are unadulterated versions of what he serves at his brilliant, highfalutin restaurants, McCrady's and Husk in Charleston, and Husk Nashville (Swordfish with Celeriac Roasted in Hay, Cider-Braised Lettuce Ribs, and Country Ham Emulsion—that's one dish, if you were wondering). He pulls no punches and keeps no secrets when sharing the dishes that have made him a phenomenon. This makes many of the recipes difficult to execute exactly without having an immersion circulator; making one or more base recipes; or sourcing hard-to-find or out-of-season ingredients (even the Pimento Cheese necessitates having his Pickled Ramps on hand). At first, I was put off by the fussy particulars, but what Brock is doing is actually just giving ALL the information so you can recreate as closely as possible the experience of his food.
Brock is passionate about Southern food, and his passion radiates from this book. He strives in his life and his restaurants to secure the future of produce and livestock that modern farming practices have against the ropes. For his restaurants, he sources everything, including olive oil, locally, limiting himself to only what a narrow swath of the region can provide (this effort may have become trite, but it's difficult and admirable, nonetheless). He advocates for sourcing ethically raised, heritage breed meats, because it's crucial to ensuring the future of those breeds and because they simply taste better. He is Anson Mills' biggest proponent, and their heirloom grains are the backbone of many recipes in Heritage. Heirloom beans and benne seeds (the flavorful ancestor of grocery store sesame seeds) show up again and again, as do regional and seasonal ingredients, like ramps, nasturtiums, Benton's bacon, and Tennessee black truffles. Because of this dedication to seasonality, preserving each season's harvest for use in the next is imperative to the functioning of Brock's kitchens, and there is a whole chapter devoted to putting up and pickling, with things like Spicy Pickled Jelly, Watermelon Rind Mostarda, Cured Egg Yolks, and Shad Roe Bottarga.
Difficult as it may be to follow this book to the letter, it is well worth doing what you can to replicate Brock's recipes. The man is right—Anson Mills' grains are world-class, and Benton's does amazing things with pork, and if you have the time, money, and inclination, order them. If you want to make Brock's version of hot sauce and bread-and-butter pickles to go on the Husk Cheeseburger, go for it. He's asking you to embrace his cooking with a spirit of commitment, and I'm sure it does result in the very best version of the recipe, but if you need to make substitutions, no one's coming to spank you with a switch, and you'll still end up with a tasty meal.
I chose some of his more accessible recipes to feature this week, and even so, I had to cut some corners; everything came out delicious, nevertheless. First, we'll make his Cracklin' Cornbread, an unsweetened, buttermilk cornbread flecked with bacon. Then we'll make bright and zingy Watermelon and Red Onion Salad with Bibb Lettuce, Pickled Shrimp, and Jalapeño Vinaigrette, whose name says it all. Next up will be his wonderful, autumnal Farrotto with Acorn Squash and Red Russian Kale, which is the perfect vegetarian fall dinner. And finally, we'll cap the week with Fried Chicken Skin with Hot Sauce and Honey, which, I warn you, will have you yanking the skin off any chicken that happens into your kitchen.
Win a Copy!
With big thanks to our friends at Artisan, 5 lucky readers will win a copy of Heritage this week. Just tell us what traditional Southern food tops your list (or that you're curious about) in the comments below.
Excerpted from Heritage by Sean Brock (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2014. Photographs by Peter Frank Edwards.