Fine Southern Food from a Native Son

'Frank Stitt's Southern Table'
Christopher Hirsheimer/Artisan
Baked oysters with slab bacon and wilted greens.

Baked oysters with slab bacon and wilted greens. Christopher Hirsheimer/Artisan hide caption

itoggle caption Christopher Hirsheimer/Artisan
Roast quail with apples and pecans

Roast quail with apples and pecans. Christopher Hirsheimer/Artisan hide caption

itoggle caption Christopher Hirsheimer/Artisan
Strawberry milkshake

Strawberry milkshake. Christopher Hirsheimer/Artisan hide caption

itoggle caption Christopher Hirsheimer/Artisan
Bourbon panna cotta

Bourbon panna cotta. Christopher Hirsheimer/Artisan hide caption

itoggle caption Christopher Hirsheimer/Artisan

In 1982, when Frank Stitt opened Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, Ala., the American gourmet scene was dominated by chefs on the East and West coasts. But as word spread about Stitt's French-inspired Southern creations, people began taking notice of the Dixie-based chef.

In 2001, Stitt received the James Beard award as the region's best chef. The same year, Gourmet magazine ranked Highlands Bar and Grill number five on their list of top U.S. restaurants.

Now, Stitt is sharing his mouthwatering dishes in Frank Stitt's Southern Table: Recipes and Gracious Traditions from Highlands Bar and Grill, a colorful new cookbook sprinkled with tales of growing up in Alabama. He talks about the tradition of food in the South.

Recipes from 'Frank Stitt's Southern Table':

 

Miss Verba's Pimiento Cheese

(Makes about 2 cups.)

 

Whenever Verba has the urge, she will make a huge bowl of the best pimiento cheese you have ever tasted. Little drugstore lunch counters throughout the South inevitably include pimiento cheese sandwiches on their menus as an economical option. But the cheese is usually the commercially prepared variety, of indifferent quality. Making your own, as Verba does, with lots of charred roasted peppers, gives the spread a whole new life. It is perfect for a light sandwich or as a down-home dip for crudités and crackers.

 

· 1 pound sharp yellow cheddar

· 1⁄4 pound cream cheese, softened

· 1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

· 3 large red bell peppers, roasted (see page 345), peeled, seeded, and chopped

· 1⁄2 cup Homemade Mayonnaise (page 336) or best-quality commercial mayonnaise

· 1 teaspoon sugar

· Splash of hot sauce, such as Tabasco or Cholula

· 1⁄8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)

 

Grind the cheddar in a food processor fitted with the grating disk, or grate it on the small-holed side of a hand grater. Transfer the grated cheese to a bowl, add the cream cheese, white pepper, bell peppers, mayonnaise, sugar, hot sauce, and cayenne, if using, and blend all together thoroughly. Refrigerate and serve chilled. (The spread will keep for several days in the refrigerator, but it usually disappears long before that.)

 

Asparagus with Crawfish Meunière

(serves 4 as an appetizer)

 

This is one of those dishes that is so simple, yet so stunningly good. Make sure that all of your ingredients are perfectly fresh, and of the highest possible quality. The crawfish tails are already thoroughly cooked, so be careful to just heat them through to retain their tender plumpness—extended cooking will make them tough. In addition to the shrimp and crab mentioned as alternatives below, you could also substitute steamed mussels or clams for the crawfish.

 

· Kosher salt

· 16 jumbo asparagus spears, rough ends cut away and bottom half peeled

· 4 tablespoons unsalted butter

· 2 to 3 spring onions or 2 small sweet white onions, such as Vidalia, finely chopped

· 1 garlic clove, finely chopped

· 1⁄2 pound crawfish tailmeat (or substitute chopped boiled shrimp or crabmeat),

picked over

· 3 tablespoons white wine

· Juice of 1⁄2 lemon

· Freshly ground black pepper

· Dash of hot pepper sauce, such as Tabasco or Cholula

· 2 tablespoons chopped chives, flat-leaf parsley, or mint for garnish

 

Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Add 1 tablespoon salt and the asparagus and cook until tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Drain and pat dry.

Meanwhile, melt a scant tablespoon of the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the spring onions and cook until just tender, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Add the crawfish and white wine and simmer until the wine has reduced by half. Add the lemon juice, then whisk in the remaining butter bit by bit. Season with salt, pepper, and hot sauce.

Arrange the asparagus on plates and spoon the crawfish meunière over the top. Garnish with the fresh herbs.

 

To drink: Pouilly-Fuissé, Domaine Denogent, Pinot Gris, Pierre Sparr

Roast Fresh Pork Leg with Onion and Bacon Gratin

(Serves 10, with leftovers)

 

A "fresh ham" is an unsmoked pork hind leg. A roast pork leg makes for a dramatic presentation, and it provides a vast amount of meat, making it perfect for a buffet. Be sure to remove the aitch bone for easy carving; your butcher can do this if you like. Curing the pork in a brine for twenty-four hours adds both flavor and juiciness. The brine recipe I provide comes from my friend Jeremiah Tower’s book Jeremiah Cooks.

 

For the Brine:

· 2 gallons water

· 1 cup Kosher salt

· 1⁄2 cup sugar

· 4 garlic cloves, crushed

· 1 tablespoon juniper berries, toasted and crushed

· 6 thyme sprigs, leaves removed

· 6 bay leaves

· 1⁄2 bunch flat-leaf parsley, leaves removed and chopped

· 4 dried hot chile peppers

· 2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper

· 1 tablespoon dried thyme

· 1 fresh pork leg (about 14 pounds), skinned, trimmed of fat, and aitch bone removed (have the butcher do this)

· Onion and Bacon Gratin (see recipe below)

 

Combine all of the brine ingredients in a large pot and bring to a simmer, stirring until the salt and sugar are dissolved, then transfer to a deep pot. Place in the refrigerator to cool thoroughly before using.

Place the pork leg in the chilled brine, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 12 hours. Turn the pork over in the brine and leave refrigerated for 12 hours more.

Remove the pork leg from the brine, wipe it dry, set it on a platter. Let it come to room temperature, about 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 325°F.

Place the pork in a large roasting pan. Roast until the internal temperature reaches 145° to 150°F on an instant-read thermometer, about 4 hours. Remove from the oven and let the pork stand on a large rack set over a baking sheet for 30 minutes.

Serve the pork thinly sliced, with the gratin alongside.

 

To drink: Gigondas, Faraud

Côtes-du-Rhône, Château du Trignon Rasteau

Onion and Bacon Gratin

(Serves 8)

 

Spring bulb onions, often sold as “Vidalia shoots” from December to May, are mild, sweet, and juicy. There are countless other types of bulb onions found in farmers’ markets. Combine them all if you like, and include some of the stems. We love serving this alongside Roast Fresh Pork Leg

 

· 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus (optional) 1⁄2 tablespoon

· 3 large yellow onions, quartered and sliced

· 2 ounces slab bacon, cut into small lardons (1-by-1⁄4-inch-thick strips)

· Six 1- to 2-inch-diameter spring onions with stems

· Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

· 1 garlic clove, crushed

· 2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

· 2 tablespoons freshly grated Comté (or substitute Gruyère or Asiago mixed with a little Parmigiano-Reggiano)

· 1⁄2 cup medium-coarse bread crumbs

· 1⁄2 cup heavy cream

 

Preheat the oven to 425°F.

In a large sauté pan, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter over medium-high heat. Add the sliced yellow onions and bacon and cook until the onions are quite soft, 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer to a colander to drain.

Meanwhile, trim the spring onions, then cut them, stems still attached, into 4 to 6 wedges each. Place the onions in the sauté pan and add a pinch of salt and pepper, the remaining 1 tablespoon butter, and 2 tablespoons water. Bring to a simmer over high heat and cook until glazed, 5 to 7 minutes.

Rub the bottom and sides of a 10-inch gratin dish with the garlic. Scatter the cooked sliced onions and bacon on the bottom and season with salt and pepper. Top with a layer of the spring onion wedges. Scatter the grated cheeses evenly over the onions, then sprinkle the bread crumbs over the top. Pour the cream in along the edges of the gratin and dot the top with a little extra butter, if desired.

Bake until the gratin is golden and the cream is absorbed, about 25 minutes.

Peach Crostata

(Serves 6)

 

Crostatas are rustic, free-form tarts that usually enclose flavorful fruit. Because of their design, there is lots of crisp buttery pastry. You can prepare the dough well in advance and even freeze it with no loss of quality. Remember to keep the dough thoroughly chilled before baking—this will help ensure flakiness.

 

For the Dough

· 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

· 1⁄4 cup sugar

· 1 teaspoon Kosher salt

· 11⁄4 sticks unsalted butter, cut into 1⁄2-inch cubes and chilled

· 1⁄4 cup ice water

For the Filling

· 1⁄4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

· 1⁄4 cup sugar

· 4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter

· 2 pounds ripe peaches, pitted, peeled, and sliced into 3⁄4-inch-thick wedges

· 1 large egg yolk, beaten with 1 teaspoon heavy cream for egg wash

· 1 tablespoon coarse or granulated sugar for topping

 

To prepare the dough, combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor and pulse a few times to blend. Add the butter and pulse until it is the size of small peas, about 15 times. With the processor running, add the ice water and process for about 10 seconds; stop the processor before the dough comes together. Turn the dough out onto a sheet of waxed paper, divide the dough in half, and shape it into two disks. Wrap them in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. (The dough can be refrigerated for 2 days or frozen for up to 2 weeks; if it has been frozen, defrost the dough for 30 minutes at room temperature.)

Preheat the oven to 450°F.

Roll one disk of dough into an 11-inch circle on a lightly floured surface. Transfer to a baking sheet. (Reserve the second disk of dough for another use.)

To prepare the filling, combine the flour and sugar in a small bowl. Blend in the butter with two knives until the mixture resembles coarse meal.

Place the peaches in the center of the dough circle on the baking sheet and top with the butter-sugar mixture. Begin draping the edges up and over, forming about 3 pleats. Crimp the pleats and press down to seal. Brush the pastry with the egg wash and sprinkle with the sugar.

Bake the tart for about 25 minutes, or until golden brown. Let cool on a rack and serve slices with vanilla ice cream or crème anglaise.

Variation: Line the dough bottom of the crostata with a heaping tablespoon of pecan frangipane before adding the peaches. To make the frangipane, combine 1⁄2 cup toasted pecans and 1⁄2 cup sugar in a food processor and process until the nuts are coarsely ground. Add 8 tablespoons (1 stick) of unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, and 1 large egg and pulse until the mixture resembles a coarse paste.

Strawberry Milkshake

(Serves 4)

 

For a decadent springtime splurge, prepare this glorious pink dessert with the finest, ripest strawberries and richest homemade ice cream. In fact, a good gauge for the perfect berry shake is to keep adding the strawberries until the color is right—a bright shocking pink!

 

· 2 cups quartered ripe strawberries, plus 4 whole berries for garnish

· 1⁄2 cup sugar

· 8 scoops Strawberry Ice Cream

· 2⁄3 cup half-and-half

· Lightly sweetened whipped cream

Place the strawberries in a large bowl, add the sugar, and toss to coat. Cover and let the strawberries macerate at room temperature for 2 hours. (The strawberries can be macerated up to 1 day in advance and refrigerated, covered.)

Put the strawberries and their juices into a blender or a food processor and process to a rough puree. Transfer to a bowl.

Make two shakes at a time: Add 4 scoops of the ice cream and half of the strawberry puree to the blender, add half of the half-and-half, and blend until thoroughly combined.

Pour into two chilled tall glasses. Repeat to make the remaining two milk shakes. Garnish each with a whole strawberry and a little spoonful of whipped cream. Serve with straws.

 

Recipes excerpted from 'Frank Stitt's Southern Table: Recipes and Gracious Traditions From Highlands Bar and Grill' by Frank Stitt (Artisan Books). Copyright 2004 Frank Stitt.

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