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Cookbook review: 'Big Food Big Love' and 'My Two Souths' have unique takes on Southern cuisine

There is no shortage of Southern cookbooks. And with so many covering the perennially popular cuisine, there is a tendency to home in on certain regions, vegetarian dishes — or just desserts and biscuits. Two Southern cookbooks released a couple of months ago take the South to more unexpected territory: India and the Pacific Northwest.

In My Two Souths: Blending the Flavors of India Into a Southern Kitchen, Asha Gomez offers recipes that combine the flavors of Kerala, a southern state in India, and Georgia for what she calls South by South cuisine. Both southern regions, she says, have more in common than expected: warm and humid climates, lots of rice, okra and busy coastal cities with residents who love seafood.

In Big Food Big Love: Down-Home Southern Cooking Full of Heart From Seattle's Wandering Goose, a Southerner now running a restaurant in the Pacific Northwest offers her version of the South in what feels a lot like a family cookbook.

For either book, you'll need more than butter and the storied White Lily flour. Prepare to stock up on cane syrup made in Louisiana, sorghum and Texas Pete hot sauce, as well as a myriad of spices. But if Heather Earnhardt can get her hands on her Southern staples in Seattle, so can we. She, and Gomez, make sure to let us know where to look.

'My Two Souths'

Asha Gomez grew up in Kerala, where she learned how to cook with Indian spices from her mother and aunts, and eventually landed in Atlanta, where she lives with her husband and son. A successful supper club she launched in the city led to a lauded restaurant and eventually two other food-focused ventures where she teaches classes or hosts dinners.

Her unique take on Southern food, a blend of the traditional American South and Southern India, is well worth a visit. She sees Old Bay seasoning as a long-lost cousin of her beloved and oft-used garam masala. With this cookbook on the counter, get ready to use either.

The Skillet Chicken Hash Pie is a solid marriage of chicken pot pie and a samosa. The hearty filling is tinted with the deep yellow of turmeric and enveloped in a cream cheese crust that is easy to roll out, as promised. Bits of fresh ginger give the pie a lightness. I happily ate the dish for lunch all week.

Her buttermilk biscuits are studded with aromatic peppercorns and preferably slathered with tomato jam that's heady with clove. A recipe for peanut sesame blondies results in soft squares enriched with peanut butter and packed with toasted sesame seeds, roasted peanuts and bittersweet chocolate chips. The mix of add-ins calls for more texture than I'd usually dare for in a batch of blondies or brownies, but I had been missing out. The cake pan was clean by the next morning.

Unfamiliar recipes are always offered with context, as in a recipe for Orange Blossom Vermicelli Kheer; Gomez explains the history of the traditional Indian dish and how she landed on swapping in an ingredient that made more sense in Atlanta. Anyone who already loves Southern classics or is curious about dipping a toe into Indian cuisine will enjoy taking Gomez's recipes for a spin. Meals like spiced fried chicken with Low Country rice waffles infused with cardamom await.

'Big Food Big Love'

Heather Earnhardt lived in cities all over the American South before heading west, but she was raised in North Carolina. As I dove deep into Big Food Big Love, I began to read her generous headnotes in what I imagine her voice must sound like as it dances over words and phrases like "potlikker" or "hush now."

Her Granny and Granddaddy were an integral part of her culinary education, and Earnhardt takes you deep into the South of her youth with charming anecdotes about relatives and regional treats I'd never heard of, like a loblolly. This is so personal that, although there are definitely recipes from her restaurant (granola, farro salad), the book's subtitle feels like a bit of a misnomer. Big Food Big Love reveals more about the food-loving family behind the woman who created a restaurant, rather than the restaurant itself. There are many old family photos, copies of handwritten recipe cards and so many stories.

Earnhardt deftly and vividly writes about dozens of early food memories, slipping into the stories as easily as a worn-in pair of boots. I can picture the cheese straws cooling on her Granny's blue linoleum counters; I'm smiling thinking of her Granddaddy rolling up in a Cadillac with a fedora and suspenders to sit down to the requisite peel-and-eat shrimp, and the moonshine spilling as it's passed around in jars at the beach. Her dad loved anything pickled, and there's a whole chapter of pickles here. The headnote for hush puppies about her grandmother and the last dog she had before she died is a heartbreaking couple of paragraphs.

A cookie recipe with toffee and flecks of chicharron (pork rinds) shows a penchant for bold flavors. Her basic buttermilk biscuit recipe is solid, and there are nearly a dozen recipes for biscuit variations, including cinnamon rolls made with biscuit dough, and suggestions for building biscuits into sandwiches that would be right at home at brunch. There's also a brilliant suggestion to turn leftover biscuits into croutons for a salad. That's a thrifty chef move, and one I won't forget.

"The South is not only a geographical region but also a state of being," Earnhardt writes.

Both cookbooks leave me with the sense that this is true.

Ileana Morales Valentine can be reached at ileanamvalentine@gmail.com.

>>MODERATE

Skillet Chicken Hash Pie

For the pie crust:

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt

½ teaspoon baking powder

18 teaspoons (2 sticks plus 2 tablespoons) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces

7 ounces cream cheese, chilled and cut into small pieces

¼ cup very cold water

For the hash filling:

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon peeled, finely chopped fresh ginger

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 teaspoon garam masala

½ teaspoon turmeric powder

1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt

2 teaspoons tomato paste

1 pound cooked chicken breast, cut into bite-sized pieces

1 cup fresh or frozen green peas

2 small gold potatoes, peeled, boiled, and smashed to pieces or roughly chopped

5 large eggs, beaten

½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, for garnish

½ teaspoon dried parsley flakes, for garnish

Make the pie crust: In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the flour, salt and baking powder. With the mixer running at low speed, add the butter a few pieces at a time, mixing until the butter is in small pea-sized pieces. Add the cream cheese and mix until the cream cheese gets incorporated and starts forming a shaggy dough. Gradually drizzle the cold water over the dough and mix until the dough clears the side of the bowl. Form the dough into 2 flat discs; wrap the dough in plastic wrap and chill for at least 1 hour or up to 2 days. Roll the dough into two ¼-inch-thick and 10-inch-round circles.

Make the hash filling: Line a 10-inch cast iron skillet with one circle of the dough. Chill in the refrigerator while preparing the filling. (Reserve the other crust for future use.)

In another large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onions and ginger and cook until the onions are golden brown, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the garlic, cooking and stirring for 2 minutes. Add the garam masala, turmeric powder and salt, cooking and stirring for an additional 1 minute.

Add the tomato paste and ½ cup of water, stirring well to fully incorporate the ingredients. Add the chicken and continue to cook, stirring occasionally until all of the liquid evaporates. Add the peas and potatoes and stir well to combine. Cook, stirring occasionally, until everything is coated and well combined, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool.

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Stir the hash filling into the eggs. Pour mixture into prepared crust and bake until the top is a light golden brown, about 25 minutes. Garnish with red pepper flakes and dried parsley flakes. Cool for 15 minutes and serve right out of the skillet.

Makes filling for one 9-inch pie (8 to 10 servings).

Source: My Two Souths: Blending the Flavors of India Into a Southern Kitchen by Asha Gomez with Martha Hall Foose

>>MODERATE

Biscuit Cinnamon Rolls

For the cinnamon-sugar filling:

¾ cup packed dark brown sugar

¼ cup granulated sugar

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon kosher salt

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

1 tablespoon butter, melted, plus more if needed

For the frosting:

4 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

1 cup confectioners' sugar, sifted

2 tablespoons buttermilk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pinch of kosher salt

For the rolls:

6 ½ cups flour

3 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons baking powder

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 ½ teaspoons baking soda

1 ½ cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, diced and chilled

3 cups buttermilk, chilled

2 tablespoons butter, melted

Make the filling: In a large bowl, stir together the sugars, cinnamon, salt and cloves. Stir in the butter; the mixture should look like wet sand. If needed, add a bit more melted butter. Set it aside.

Make the frosting: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the cream cheese on medium speed until it is very smooth and no lumps remain. Mix in the confectioners' sugar, then the buttermilk, vanilla and salt. Scrape down the bowl with a rubber spatula and mix again until the frosting is smooth. Transfer the frosting to a small bowl and set aside, at room temperature, while you make the biscuits.

Make the rolls: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and baking soda on low speed until combined. Increase the speed to medium low and mix in the butter until it is the size of small peas. With the mixer running, add the buttermilk, mixing just until blended. Do not overmix; the dough will be a bit shaggy with bits of unincorporated dry ingredients.

Heat oven to 450 degrees.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Using a floured rolling pin, roll it gently into a 12- by 6-inch rectangle that is ½ inch thick. Brush the dough all over with the melted butter, and sprinkle the filling over it, leaving a 1-inch border. Using a bench scraper or your hands, roll up the long side of the dough into a log. Trim ½ inch off the ends and cut the log into 1 ½-inch thick slices, for a total of 10 to 12 pieces. Arrange the pieces cut side down on a baking sheet.

Right before baking, reduce the oven temperature to 425 degrees. Bake the rolls until puffed and golden brown on top, 22 to 25 minutes, rotating the sheet halfway through.

Let the rolls cool completely on the baking sheet, then frost them using a butter knife or off-set spatula. Serve immediately or gently rewarm them in a 200-degree oven if serving later.

Makes 1 dozen 3-inch rolls.

Source: Big Food Big Love: Down-Home Southern Cooking Full of Heart From Seattle's Wandering Goose by Heather L. Earnhardt

Cookbook review: 'Big Food Big Love' and 'My Two Souths' have unique takes on Southern cuisine 01/16/17 [Last modified: Monday, January 16, 2017 2:10pm]
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