Classic Southern Cuisine
The cooking techniques in the southern part of the U.S. are as diverse as the ingredients used to make the food. There are at least six different types of Southern cuisines: Cajun, Creole, Floribbean, Gullah, Low Country and Soul Food.
Many Cuisines from Many RegionsCajun cuisine came from the descendants of French Canadians (aka Arcadians), who migrated to Southern Louisiana in the mid-1700s. There are many swamps and bayous in this region of Louisiana, which is home to wild duck, alligators, crawfish, turtles and frogs. Boudin Sausage (unsmoked pork sausage made with rice, green onion, parsley and seasonings), Dirty Rice (cooked rice made with chicken giblets, ground chicken livers, onions, green bell peppers and celery) and Jambalaya (a one-pot meat-and-rice dish made of ham, shrimp, crawfish, sausage, rice, tomatoes, green bell peppers, onions and seasonings) are popular Cajun dishes.
Creole cuisine is a style of cooking associated with cooking techniques from France and Spain, using spices and seasonings from Africa and Native American Indians. Savory Creole dishes are characterized by the use of rice, tomatoes, peppers, onions and spices. Crawfish Étouffée is an example of a classical Creole dish, which is made of fresh crawfish, onions, celery, tomato sauce and rice. Bread pudding is a traditional Creole dessert made of stale French bread, milk, eggs, sugar, vanilla extract, butter, cinnamon and nutmeg.
Floribbean cuisine is quite different from the rest of the South—even within the state of Florida. Floribbean cooking is prepared and eaten mostly around the southern tip of Florida. It is a mixture of Cuban, Haitian and Spanish cuisines. Cuban-style Garbanzo Soup can be found in many local restaurants in the Miami area and consists of diced potatoes, diced lean ham, garbanzo beans, shredded cabbage, diced green bell peppers, sliced onions, sliced chorizo (spicy pork sausage), chicken broth, olive oil and garlic. The popular Key Lime Pie came from a region of Florida known as the Keys and is found on most dessert menus across America.
Gullah cuisine was created by former slaves who migrated to the Sea Islands and coastal districts of South Carolina, Georgia and Northeast Florida after the Civil War. Many culinary historians believe Gullah cuisine is almost identical to West African cuisine. Seafood, rice and lots of vegetables are used to make a variety of soups, stews and one-pot meals. Groundnut Soup (aka peanut soup), made of chicken or vegetable broth, peanut butter, evaporated milk, sautéed onions and seasonings is popular in this region. There is a dish called Gullah Rice made with diced chicken breast, chopped tomatoes, chicken or vegetable broth, diced carrots, diced green bell peppers, rice, corn kernels, salt, garlic powder and black pepper. It is a one-pot dish almost identical to an African dish called Jollof Rice that is eaten in many African countries along the western coast of the continent.
Soul Food is a fairly new name used to describe a certain style of Southern cooking. The term was coined in the 1960s, during The Civil Rights Movement, when African-Americans started to adopt their African cultural heritage, including Southern cooking. Before being called Soul Food, it was known as country cooking or down-home cooking. This type of cooking was created in the slave quarters of Southern plantations. Simple ingredients were used to create simple cooking techniques, producing complex flavors.
An example of this is in the preparation of greens. They were picked, washed and torn into bite-size pieces, then boiled with some type of seasoned meat such as fat-back or ham. In order to cook a tasty or more complex-flavored pot of greens, cooks learned how to mix different kinds of greens together. They learned that when turnip greens are cooked alone, they taste bitter, and when mustard greens are cooked alone, they taste too weak. However, by mixing a combination (equal portions) of turnip and mustard, and adding a few collard greens or spinach along with a small piece of seasoned meat, they made a great pot of tasty greens. Most Southern cooks have created their own combination/ratio of mixed greens and passed the recipes from one generation to another.
Recently, Glory Foods rolled out two new flavors of boiled peanuts (salted and Cajun style). The product comes in a convenient flip-top can. Boiled peanuts have always been a popular snack eaten throughout the South. “We realize that this product is perhaps one of the most unique offerings within our line, but in the South, boiled peanuts are a natural favorite. Once people taste them, they’re hooked. You can serve them warm or snack on them straight from the can,” says Lisa Cliff-Burk, national sales director of Glory Foods.
Cooking Techniques: BakingSouthern cooking cannot be mentioned without including some discussion on baking cornbread. Is it made with or without sugar? Is it baked in a pan or a skillet? Is it made with or without buttermilk? Art Smith (talk show host and Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef), says, “To make a great cornbread, you must first have a good quality corn meal. A coarse, sand texture like stone-ground cornmeal is preferred. Also, a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet will be needed to make good cornbread.” Smith’s cornbread is made of yellow or white coarse cornmeal, all-purpose flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, buttermilk, eggs and vegetable oil. In his book, Back to the Table: The Reunion of Food and Family (Hyperion, 2001), there are several variations of cornbread recipes that can be made from his classic cornbread recipe listed, including a roasted tomatoes, onions and cheddar cheese version; and a corn, chile peppers and Monterey Jack cheese version. Smith lives in Chicago, but he is from Tallahassee, Fla., located in the Florida panhandle. The cooking techniques and food ingredients of the region are just as Southern as the two states to the north, Alabama and Georgia.
The Martha White Company recently introduced a line of premium cornbread mixes to the market: an extra-rich buttermilk cornbread and a cheddar cheese cornbread. Both products are convenient, pre-measured and packaged in a 6.5oz pouch.
A cobbler is a deep-dish of fresh fruit, with sweet, biscuit-type dough covering the top of the fruit. About two years ago, it was next to impossible to find cobbler desserts in the grocery stores, because they were considered a Southern regional dessert that was made and enjoyed mostly at home, during the holiday season or on Sundays. Recently, two of the country’s largest baking companies, Mrs. Smith’s Bakery and Sara Lee Bakery, produced a line of frozen cobblers. Mrs. Smith’s line is called Classic Cobblers. The flavors are apple crunch, blackberry, cherry crumb and peach. They are packaged in a 32oz family-size pan and require about one hour of baking time in the oven. Sara Lee has two cobbler flavors: apple and blackberry. There are two 4oz single serving size cobblers per package, and the product is microwavable.
Cookbook author Joyce White has a recipe in her newest book, Brown Sugar: Desserts from Family and Friends (Harper Collins, 2003), called Apple-cranberry Pie. It is made with tart apple slices, cranberries, orange juice, brown sugar, granulated sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, cornstarch, vanilla extract, butter and pie dough. The idea of combining apples and cranberries together to make a pie displays creativity and also gives a sense of comfort; both ingredients are familiar to everyone.
Another one of her recipes, Butternut Squash Pie, is made of cooked, mashed butternut squash (seeds removed), eggs, sugar, molasses, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, vanilla extract, flour, milk and pie crust. This pie has a flavor and texture similar to a custard pie. Butternut squash is mostly used for savory dishes such as soups and casseroles. However, using it as an ingredient to make a pie is out-of-the-box thinking. A butternut squash cobber or a sweet butternut squash soufflé might be possible for an eager manufacturer to explore.
Cooking Techniques: SmotheredTwo of the most popular Southern cooking techniques are “smothered” and frying. The definition of smothered, taken from the book Smothered Southern Foods by Wilbert Jones (Kensington Publishing Corp., 2006), is a method in which food is covered with another food or sauce while braising in a covered skillet. Smothering is as easy as searing a piece of meat on both sides in a hot skillet, then pouring some broth or water over the meat, covering the skillet and letting the meat simmer until it becomes tender.
There will be at least one smothered item found on any Southern restaurant’s menu. Chicken, cabbage, okra, corn and tomatoes, pork chops or crawfish étouffée are some examples.
There are 125 smothered recipes in Jones’ book, which shows that almost any food can be smothered—vegetables, meats and even desserts. The most popular food that most Americans might know about is Smothered Chicken, which is made of a whole chicken cut into serving pieces, seasoned with salt and pepper, then coated with flour and fried in a small amount of oil in a skillet. Onions, green bell peppers and mushrooms are sautéed in the reserve oil, after the chicken has been fried and removed. Chicken broth is added to the vegetables, and then the chicken parts are added back to the skillet to be covered and cooked, or smothered.
Smothered Southern Foods has a smothered-version of a Bananas Foster recipe called Bananas with Pecans and Whiskey, which is made of bananas, pecans, raisins, cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar, unsalted butter and whiskey. All the ingredients are placed in a skillet, then covered and cooked for a few minutes. Unlike the typical Bananas Foster recipe, the alcohol used in this smothered recipe is not burned off (flambé); it is smothered.
Another dessert in the book is called Buttery Cinnamon Apples (similar to a typical Southern fried apple recipe), which is made of firm tart apples, butter, sugar, allspice, cinnamon, raisins, orange liqueur (Grand Marnier) and a small amount of freshly ground black pepper. All the ingredients are cooked, covered and then placed over low heat. Buttery Cinnamon Apples can also be eaten as a side dish, served with a roast pork or a baked chicken entrée.
Cracker Barrel Country Store and Restaurant, a national chain, has Southern Fried Apples on its menu. This chain is known for home-style cooking, focusing on quality ingredients used to prepare menu items from scratch throughout the day.
In many Southern homes, homemade fried apples are cooked with sorghum, which is a syrup extracted from sorghum cereal grass; it grows like stalks, similar to the sugarcane. The juice extracted is boiled down to make syrup. During the Civil War, sorghum was a substitute for sugar in the South, because sugar was very scarce. Now, sorghum syrup can be found in most well-stocked national grocery stores, gourmet stores and health food stores across the country.
Cooking Techniques: FryingFrying foods is probably the most popular way to cook many Southern dishes. Several food historians believe this cooking technique was brought to America by slaves from West Africa. Years ago, most Southern foods that required frying were cooked in unhealthy fat such as lard (pork fat) or vegetable shortening. Today, many Southern cooks and most restaurants fry their foods in healthier oils such as canola or vegetable. Additionally, most of the boiled vegetable dishes are cooked with smoked turkey instead of fatty pork parts.
Edna’s Restaurant in Chicago is known for making some of the best fried chicken in the country. Owner Edna Stewart says, “In order to serve great fried chicken to our customers, we focus on quality ingredients such as fresh chicken, good quality flour and healthy oil.” Edna’s Restaurant has been open for 40 years. “We have fed many celebrities and political leaders,” she says.
Fried chicken is a national mainstream comfort food. Nearly every grocery store chain has installed a frying station next to their deli counter so that their customers can smell, see and buy fried chicken easily and quickly.
Sidebar: Bananas with Pecans and WhiskeyIt has been many years since I had my first Bananas Foster dessert at the famous Brennan’s Restaurant in New Orleans, which was affected by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. This is where Bananas Foster was created, using rum that is flambéed so that the strong alcohol flavor is cooked off. I like the alcohol flavor in my dessert, if it calls for alcohol. So this recipe calls for smothering, which is my very own version of Bananas Foster.
- 1/3 cup light brown sugar
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1/3 cup unsalted butter
- 1/3 cup whiskey
- 1/4 cup chopped pecans
- 2 tbsp golden raisins
- 2 tbsp dark raisins
- 4 large bananas, peeled and sliced in half, lengthwise
Credit: Smothered Southern Foods, Kensington Publishing Corp., New York
Sidebar : Sole in White Wine SauceThis recipe calls for sole, but any firm-fleshed flatfish such as plaice, flounder or turbot can be used. If possible, have the fish cut into fillet pieces at the fish market or grocery store.
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp butter
- 4 6-oz sole fillets
- 1/4 tsp ground allspice
- Salt and black pepper to taste
- 2 cups white wine sauce
- 4 carrots, peeled and shredded
Makes 4 servings.
Credit: Smothered Southern Foods, Kensington Publishing Corp., New York