When done right, Southern country food - greens, macaroni and cheese, barbecue and so on - is close to perfect: delectable but familiar, lively yet comforting, and without the blandness that often afflicts comfort food.
So what was Frank Stitt thinking when he decided to combine down-home cooking with French cuisine in his book Frank Stitt's Southern Table: Recipes and Gracious Traditions From Highlands Bar and Grill (Artisan Publishers, 2004, $40)?
On its face, the idea doesn't sound promising: Would you like some foie gras with those ribs, madame?
Stitt comes by his notion honestly. Raised in rural Alabama, he grew up eating ham hocks and grits. But his parents were gastronomes, so he also dined in the best New York and New Orleans restaurants. After college, he worked at high-end French restaurants in San Francisco, and then in vineyards in France.
Out of this diverse experience, he developed his aesthetic. While still in his 20s, he opened Highlands, a restaurant in Birmingham, Ala., that serves Southern food cooked with a French flair.
He's gone on to open two more restaurants there, all featuring the same country-continental combo.
The funny thing is, his idea actually seems to work. He respects country cooking, so he doesn't try to change its character with show-offy tricks. He simply tries to take the dishes a little further without debasing them.
Take the Low Country Red Rice, for example. This is a standard Southern coastal recipe, and Stitt doesn't vary it much, leaving in that key Southern ingredient, bacon, which gives the dish its hearty foundation. (In good country style, he doesn't worry much about calories - butter, eggs, mayonnaise and bacon fat abound in these pages.) But I'd bet that not many old family recipes call for basmati rice and cilantro, as Stitt's does. The result is still soulful, but with an understated twist.
Some of these recipes are closer to Provence than the Delta. Stitt gives them a country feel by using local ingredients or adding Southern side dishes or sauces.
He clearly knows these dishes well; you get the impression that he has cooked most of them often. He frequently includes asides about how to make alternate versions, or advice on other ingredients that can be added or substituted.
One caveat: This is not a minimalist cookbook. A number of the dishes here require substantial preparation time, with lots of ingredients and steps. They're doable, but you won't be eating in 15 minutes.
With Christmas almost here, there's another consideration. Southern Table is a substantial, elegant hardcover filled with sumptuous food photos. In other words, a perfect gift. Even if the recipient never tries any of the recipes, the book will look impressive on a shelf or coffee table.
Low Country Red Rice
Serves 6 as a side dish
2 cups peeled, seeded and chopped tomatoes, with their juices (or substitute canned, reserving the liquid)
1/4 pound bacon, cut into 1/2 -inch strips
1 large onion, cut into 1/4 -inch dice
1 large red bell pepper, cored, seeded and cut into 1/4 -inch dice
2 celery stalks, finely diced
extra-virgin olive oil, if needed
2 jalapenos, seeded and diced
1 poblano or yellow bell pepper, cored, seeded and diced
2 bay leaves
4 thyme sprigs
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 3/4 cups chicken broth or canned low-sodium broth or a combination of half chicken and half shrimp broth or bottled clam juice
1 cup basmati rice
4 scallions, thinly sliced
1 small bunch basil or cilantro, leaves removed
If using fresh tomatoes, drain them in a sieve or colander set over a bowl to catch their juices; set the juices aside.
In a large Dutch oven, cook the bacon over medium heat until it is beginning to crisp. With a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to paper towels to drain.
Return the Dutch oven with drippings to the stove, add the onion, bell pepper and celery; saute until softened, about 10 minutes. (Add a little olive oil if the bacon fat seems insufficient.)
Add the jalapenos and poblano pepper, tomatoes, bay leaves and thyme to the pot. Season with salt and pepper, and simmer for about 10 minutes, until the jalapenos and poblano pepper have softened.
Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, combine the broth with a scant 1/4 cup of reserved tomato juices (discard any remaining juice) and add salt to taste. Bring to a simmer. Add the rice, return to a simmer and stir a few times. Lower the heat to the lowest setting, cover, and cook until the rice is tender (about 16 minutes).
Add the rice to the vegetable mixture, along with the bacon. Taste for seasonings. Stir in the scallions, basil or cilantro and a big squeeze of lemon. Remove bay leaves and serve immediately.
Note: In his introduction to the recipe, Stitt recommends adding shrimp. We did, and turned this into a main dish for 4.
Per serving (excluding shrimp): 208 calories; 8 grams protein; 4 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 37 grams carbohydrate; 3 grams fiber; 7 milligrams cholesterol; 388 milligrams sodium