Savoring the South Regional delicacies fondly recalled in 'Memories'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

We all have Southern memories, even if we never set foot there. Generations of talented Southern writers have brought it home to us, from Margaret Mitchell to Thomas Wolfe to Eudora Welty to Pat Conroy -- the hot days and soft nights, the iced tea and bourbon and branch, the white columns and wicker furniture and the food: grits and fried chicken, shrimp and oysters, fresh tomatoes and corn, hot biscuits and country ham . . .

All of these things are Nathalie Dupree's territory. Ms. Dupree, who grew up in Virginia and is a long-time resident of Georgia, has spent a lifetime absorbing the sights and sounds of the South, exploring its traditions and institutions, and cooking and writing about its food. The latest result of her abiding love for the region is "Nathalie Dupree's Southern Memories: Recipes and Reminiscences," (Clarkson Potter, $30).

Strolling through Cross Street Market on a visit to Baltimore recently, she notes the Southern influence on Marylanders' diets. Just inside the door, she is drawn to a meat-market display. "Country ham, it's right here." She reads the label: "Smoked and pepper coated."

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"The fall-time ritual of putting up a whole hog is still practiced by some traditionalists in the South. In the years past, 'putting up' (the colloquialism for salting and curing) was an important way of assuring an ample supply of meat for the winter. Today most of us go the easy route and buy a succulent country ham, and the tangy pink meat is an irreplaceable part of of many Southern celebrations."

-- Nathalie Dupree,

"Southern Memories"

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Ms. Dupree's first book was "New Southern Cooking," (Alfred A. Knopf, 1986, $24.50), and the PBS program based on the book is still airing. But she felt that, with growing interest in regional foods and regional cooking, and a return to the values of home and family, the time was right to explore some of the special contributions of Southern food to American culinary tradition.

"The best food is always what you can buy locally, what's grown locally," she says. "And when that's the best, that's what you should be eating."

A new television series based on "Southern Memories" will begin airing sometime this fall. For the show, Ms. Dupree traveled to dozens of places throughout the South to find the best examples of regional foods. "One thing I like about location shoots is that you learn so much," she says, stopping to point out how ripe a cantaloupe on display is. "See how thin the rind is?"

At a cheese stand, she picks out goat cheese. "I have a goat cheese timbale in the book, grits and goat cheese. Grits and cheese -- I think there's just a real natural affinity there."

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"Those who have not had the opportunity to visit and eat in our homes may not realize the depth of Southerners' passion for foods from the garden. But once the Vidalia onions meet summer's tomatoes in a perfect straight-from-the-garden salad, the Southern table is a nonending parade of vegetables that goes on to late fall and then some."

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At a produce stand, Ms. Dupree stops by trays of collard greens, kale and spinach. The collards could be stir-fried, she notes, a modern take on the traditional preparation of long boiling with fat-back or streaky bacon. "I have a recipe for grits and greens -- you cook the greens in boiling water -- you just blanch them, and chop them up, and then you mix them up with grits that you've cooked in milk and added whipping cream and Parmesan to. And then for a special time, like Christmas or Easter, you'd stuff them inside a ham. . . .

"Yellow squash -- you know, yellow squash is primarily thought of as a Southern vegetable, you don't see it everywhere." Okra, too, is mostly a Southern treat, she notes. Her favorite recipe for okra is the vegetable dipped in buttermilk, rolled in crushed saltines and deep-fried. It is snapped up as soon as it leaves the skillet, she says, laughing. "I feel like you're a real failure if you can get okra to the table."

She pauses by some fat, glossy eggplant. "Eggplants are also very Southern -- and peppers are too." She picks up a red pepper and holds it to the light. "Aren't they beautiful? That's one thing that you can finally find everywhere."

Red peppers appear in her version of hot-pepper jelly, a staple of Southern entertaining that, she writes, "combines the Southern yen for sweetness with the fire of the local peppers."

No one should be daunted by the idea of preparing a jelly, she says. "I like my recipe very much. . . . It should be foolproof. We test every recipe five times, and we always make people who've never made it before make it. I like my pepper jelly just a little loose, so you can use it more like a sauce."

Although the new book is "based on memories and stories," she says, "I think it's really important to have recipes that are doable."

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"There is nothing quite like fresh fish, whether catfish caught by a boy sitting on the side of a pond, string tied to a pole, or shrimp pulled in by nets, or crabs pulled out of pots down our Southern seashore. . . . The importance of fish in Southern cuisine is evident even in the earliest Colonial cookbooks."

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At a fish and seafood stand, Ms. Dupree points out red snapper. "I really think of this as a typically Southern fish, which you can catch. I've caught many a red snapper . . . and flounder . . . and bluefish. I love bluefish, but I really think they're best if you catch them yourself and cook 'em right away."

While fish were always plentiful in Southern cuisine, she notes, beef was less so. Part of the reason was economic, she says. The South was decimated by the Civil War and hit hard by the Depression. But it may also be a matter of taste. "Thomas Jefferson was nearly a vegetarian, even though he was very affluent. He said meat was a condiment, and that's the way it was treated in Southern cooking."

And finally, she says, it was a matter of self-sufficiency. "We were agrarian . . . Everybody had their own little garden, so you could grow your own things, and it was wonderful. You would get the water to boiling and then you would go out and pick the corn."

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"The South is renowned throughout the world for the bounty of its tables and the generousity of its hosts. Southerners say 'we don't know a stranger,' meaning everyone is welcome, and this attitude goes back to the time of the Washingtons."

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"Hospitality is a large part of the South, a large part of what we do," Ms. Dupree says. "You always serve everybody who drops by . . . You always have something, even if it's peanuts or pecans, to offer -- even if you have to crack them as you sit there."

The Southern tradition of cooking for family and friends has universal appeal these days, Ms. Dupree says. "I think people are realizing that Southern cooking represents 'home' cooking," she says. And people do cook: "Maybe not every day, but certainly as much as a French woman cooks."

What people want now, she says, is simple home cooking.

"That's my goal, my mission -- my fantasy," she says. "That people will cook at home in an easy, simple way, because they want to -- because they want to nurture themselves and their family, and relax and be comfortable at home."

Here are some of Ms. Dupree's recipes:

Richmond peppered shrimp

Serves 4 to 6

6 scallions or green onions, sliced, green and white parts reserved separately

1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon prepared horseradish

1/4 cup tomato sauce

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 1/2 tablespoons peanut oil

1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined

salt

freshly ground black pepper

Tabasco sauce

In a small bowl, combine the white part of the scallions with the ginger, soy sauce, horseradish, tomato sauce and red pepper flakes.

Heat the oil in a large saute pan over moderately high heat. Add the shrimp and cook, stirring, just until pink, about 3 minutes. Add the sauce mixture and cook a few minutes longer, stirring frequently, until the sauce is heated through. Season to taste with salt, pepper and Tabasco. Serve hot or at room temperature. Garnish with the sliced scallion tops.

Note: This dish can be prepared ahead and refrigerated, covered. Reheat quickly before serving.

Grits and greens

Serves 6

3 cups milk

1 cup heavy cream

1 cup quick grits

6 tablespoons ( 3/4 stick) butter

1 pound greens (spinach, turnip greens, or poke sallet leaves), washed, veined and stemmed

1 1/2 cups freshly grated imported Parmesan cheese

salt

freshly ground black pepper

poke sallet stems the size of young asparagus, blanched in boiling water for five minutes, for garnish

Combine the milk and cream, preferably in a large, nonstick saucepan, and heat nearly to the boil. Stir in the grits and cook 5 to 10 minutes, stirring as necessary to prevent scorching.

Remove from the heat and stir in 2 tablespoons butter.

Place the greens, still wet from washing, in a large frying pan; cook over medium-high heat until wilted, about 5 minutes. The water clinging to the leaves should be sufficient, but add up to several tablespoons water if necessary. Drain the greens and refresh in cold water. Melt the remaining 4 tablespoons butter in the frying pan over medium heat. Add the drained greens and saute briefly. Add to the grits. Stir in the grated Parmesan cheese and season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to a serving dish and garnish with the poke sallet stems, if desired. This dish may be made ahead and reheated.

Microwave peanut brittle

Makes 1 1/2 to 2 pounds

2 cups sugar

1 cup white corn syrup

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 to 3 cups raw peanuts

2 tablespoons butter

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Grease a 12-inch by 15-inch jellyroll pan. In a 2-quart microwaveable bowl, stir together the sugar, corn syrup, salt and peanuts. Cook on high power for 4 minutes. Stir well and continue cooking on high for 4 more minutes. Stir in the butter until well blended. Cook on high power until the peanuts have turned a golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes longer. Remove the mixture from the microwave and add the baking soda and vanilla. Quickly stir the mixture until it turns a light brown color. Quickly pour into the prepared pan and let the brittle cool. Break it into pieces and store in an airtight tin.

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