There are, literally hundreds of "Southern" cookbooks out there in the bookshop world. Why add this one to your library? Well, for one reason, it doesn't dumb itself down to reach the widest possible audience. It expects you know that making your own stock will make your dish much more complex than canned stock, that you know what sorghum is and that you know the exquisite flavor that comes from splitting and scraping down a vanilla bean. Virginia knows her stuff, but is also funny as her "$20,000 Rice Pilaf" recipe demonstrates. As she tells it, her efforts at making rice before her time at L'Academie de Cuisine were dismal at best but after a year at school, her rice pilaf sang and the "$20,000 Rice Pilaf" was born (1 year = $20,000.00 tuition). Imagine how much you've saved by letting Virginia do all the work.
You'll have a hard time choosing which recipe to make first. The purely Southern recipes like "Funeral Grits" or "Meme's Fried Chicken and Gravy"? Or how about the classic French recipes like "Coq Au Vin" or "Gratin Dauphinois"? Can't decide? Then maybe you'll be tempted by the fusion of the two in recipes like "Fried Catfish Fingers with Country Remoulade" and "Vidalia Onion Quiche".
What did I make first? Biscuits of course.
Photo by Linda Misenheimer
The best way to test a true Southern cook is to make her biscuits. These are Meme's Biscuits made with buttermilk and butter. They get the lip smacking, finger licking seal of approval, especially when paired with a tasty hunk of good bacon. When I was at the event where Virginia was giving demonstrations I asked her what I should make first. She thought a minute, mentally flipping through the recipes in her head and settled on two, neither which were biscuits. The first was her "Coca Cola-Glazed Baby Back Ribs". Considering how much I love the sweeter sauces out there in the barbecue nation, you'd think I'd whip this right up. However, when you live in Kansas City and pass by at least five barbecue joints on the way to work just as they are just firing up their wood for the day's meat parade, I decided to leave that one for later. Her second suggestion was much more intriguing - "Chicken Saltimbocca with Country Ham". Photo by Linda Misenheimer
Boneless, skinless chicken breast wrapped with fresh sage leaves in a paper thin slice of Prosciutto de Parma. Lightly dust the whole little package in flour and fry in a little bit of oil. I served mine with basic grits accented with a little dry Italian cheese melted in for good measure. Don't be afraid of the saltiness of the ham. It marries well with the mildness of the chicken. You'll have even more depth of flavor with that layer of sage and a generous drizzling of a reduction of wine and Marsala sauce. It's a wonderful dish and one I will be making again.
This cookbook is beautifully done. And while you may see touches of "La Martha" (for whom, as I mentioned above, Virginia worked) in the color palette and the art direction, the main focus is on the food. Absent are the cluttered dressings and props that littered most cookbooks thirty or so years ago. It's clean and sharp and lovely. Both Virginia (who not only cooked the food but styled the photos) and Ellen Silverman (the photographer) take the rule that "You eat with your eyes first" very seriously. There's a simple close up shot of baby back ribs on a cutting board with an Old Hickory knife that makes me want to lick the page. And off to the side, just a little out of focus are two gnawed on ribs...ribs so good that you can't keep the photographer's assistant from eating them. This is a book from a woman who cherishes her very first memories of food. In it, she shares her knowledge, her generosity and her belief that we can all find common ground when we break biscuits together. There's plenty of time before Christmas to get your copies at Tenspeed Press to give as gifts. Just don't forget to get one for yourself!