A breath of fresh, summer air for a wintertime kitchen
I know I’m just asking for an argument, but when I hear the term “new Southern,’’ I figure that what we’re talking about is elements of old Southern - fried chicken, barbecue, grits - lightened, multiculturalized, even refined. If that’s the case, then “Simple Fresh Southern: Knockout Dishes with Down-Home Flavor,’’ by brothers Matt and Ted Lee, certainly fills the bill.
Their previous effort, “The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook,’’ was a fine old-school contribution to the pantheon of traditional Southern cookbooks. But the shiny recent release shakes that edifice till it falls apart, and then picks up the pieces (okra, collards, shrimp, bourbon) and puts them back together in astutely reimagined ways.
At heart “Simple Fresh Southern’’ is a summery book, with its sharp and saturated flavors and melon-bright pictures of glorious outdoor picnics. At first it was a little strange cooking these recipes in the gloom of flu season. But they are their own best argument. I found myself warming to the book.
Clams with sweet potato, smoked sausage, and watercress is a good example of the way the Lees orchestrate tastes that chase each other around the mouth, from briny to earthy to smoky to spicy. They never quite catch up with each other or marry, but it’s good, distracting fun.
A soup of collard greens and winter roots gets a judicious dose of bacon, neatly referencing the collards and ham hocks it’s descended from. Turnips and carrots sweeten the mix, but are interrupted by a little vinegar before becoming mushy or boring.
The Lees have a knack for sussing out easy weeknight entrees, like their grandmother’s flank steak. The marinade relies on bourbon, that staple of the Southern bar. Combined with soy sauce, the bourbon takes a powerful, raisiny bouquet that resolves into a deep, sweet, savory character on the grill.
Equally simple and also good on a weeknight is shrimp creole. The tomato quantity is a little off. You need two instead of five, and they took more than twice as long as the recipe specifies to soften into the sauce. But the combination of sausage, poblano, smoked paprika, and vinegar is lovely and tart, and letting the shrimp cook off the flame at the very end ensures success.
The Lees core and strain tomatoes for their savory juices, which become the base for a delectable dressing in cucumber, tomato, and okra salad. The okra is dry roasted to burn away some of its moisture; chopped scallions add pungency and texture.
Vegetable sides are charming and often unexpected, ranging from the Southeast Asian-inflected cabbage and lime salad with roasted peanuts (I guess it’s the peanuts that make it Southern) to new potatoes with salty country ham, roasted in tart balsamic vinegar with poblano chilies. Especially irresistible are roasted parsnips, flavorful and intense in their minty shallot vinaigrette. The prep time isn’t quite accurate, and the oven time is more like 40 minutes rather than 25. But it’s worth making.
Some dishes merely simplify, rather than reinvent. Easy chicken and dumplings is nothing more than chicken breast poached in chicken broth; the dumplings are shreds of a simple pasta dough. It’s easy, all right, but the pasta dough does not come up to its stated yield no matter how thinly you roll it. Mushroom and okra “purloo,’’ or pilaf, is a composition of cremini mushrooms, okra, green pepper, and tomatoes that still won’t win any okra converts. A streamlined Hoppin’ John is no more than the sum of its parts: rice and peas.
Innovation aside, some cooks will always have a soft spot for creamy grits, unrepentant fried chicken, the many nuanced shades of barbecue. But like most comfort foods, the myth and mystique surrounding them could use a bit of fresh air. “Simple Fresh Southern’’ has fresh air to spare. And that’s always welcome, especially in the winter kitchens of the North.