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A taste of down-home country cooking SOUTHERN SUPPERS


ONE OF THE THINGS I LOVE ABOUT GOING SOUTH EVERY SUM- mer is the vegetables. In little restaurants -- often with "Family" appended to their titles -- you find glorious buffets of food that are the apotheosis of old-fashioned Sunday suppers marking the end of summer's bounty.

It is the American Southern version of "peasant cuisine": crisp fried okra; thick, crimson slices of ripe tomato; country ham and grits with red eye gravy; green and seven other kinds of beans from lima to black-eyed peas; corn; collards; kale and turnip greens steamed gently in big steel servers.

Piles of snowy mashed potatoes repose on the buffet, near buttery rolls and brown biscuits. Crisp lettuce, crunchy celery and onions strong enough to wiggle your nose hairs reside next to sharp radishes and tart little cherry tomatoes, the whole to be bathed in a sharp herb-vinegar dressing with plenty of garlic. Hearty wedges of plain sharp Cheddar and Roquefort cheeses are placed temptingly next to ripe berries and melons. Glorious fruit concoctions with fruit snatched from the trees not too long ago, fat jugs of whipping cream, and really good, fresh coffee with more cream complete the ruin of the cholesterol conscious -- but after all, a cheat once in a while reminds us of how virtuous we normally are, no?

That's all very well, I hear you say crossly, but how shall I drive to North Carolina for an unspecified family auberge? "Where's gas? Where's tolls?" as Woody Allen once inquired of a rather incompetent Death, who was trying to spirit him to the afterlife via the New Jersey Turnpike.

No need to go so far. The generous repast above is not much trouble to cook, in spite of its profusion. Much of it depends on picking the right produce and passing it lightly through a little brief, simple cooking.

If you have enough pots, and if you organize things properly, the meat and most of the vegetables can be thrown together in about an hour of steady sequential cooking and prep, with the finished dishes going into a warming oven or the refrigerator until you're ready to serve.

But the other good thing about some of this meal (the greens, the beans, the shortcake and the fruit, the ham and gravy) is that it can be made ahead -- and to my mind (heresy to the blanche-and-chomp-it vegetable school) some of these old fashioned-vegetable dishes gain flavor from being done the day before.

And on the practical side, making up four or five big dishes of vegetables and two dozen rolls is not much more trouble than making two tiny dishes and half a dozen biscuits.

You can still find the square, clear-glass, covered dishes designed for this kind of cooking at country auctions.

The covered dishes keep each dish from absorbing odors from the others and go straight from the refrigerator to the oven, making reconstituting the meal easy and the dishwashing virtually nil.

But the modern version of the same process is even easier -- whisking zip-close heavy-duty bags, opened to allow steam to escape, through the microwave to warm the contents and serving the dish directly onto heated plates.

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