Monday, September 24, 2018
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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 [email protected]

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