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Born in Georgia, French-trained chef Virginia Willis has become an authority in Southern cuisine and culture, authoring six cookbooks on the subject and earning a James Beard award. But Southern food, as illustrated in Willis’ latest book, is more than just grits, okra and biscuits (although, “I have to say, I love biscuits, grits and okra” notes the chef). Debuting this month, Secrets of the Southern Table: A Food Lover’s Tour of the Global South (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30) takes a deep dive into the region, its multitude of cultural influences and the complexities of Southern food culture.
“I travel a great deal for my work,” says Willis, who divides her time between Atlanta and Massachusetts. “I began to realize that many people outside the South don’t understand the South, the people, or our foodways. I wanted to write this book to share the rich diversity of stories and recipes that make up my homeland.”
Along with friend and photographer Angie Mosier, Willis embarked on an eight-month journey across 11 states—from metro Atlanta to the mountains of Appalachia—interviewing and photographing farmers, catchers, makers and harvesters about the South’s complex culinary identity. Willis shares their stories through a series of thoughtful essays throughout the cookbook, which are accompanied by a total of 80 recipes. The classics are represented, of course, (think pimento cheese tomato pie or black pepper cream cheese biscuits), but many of the dishes exemplify a melting pot of influences—there’s Mississippi-style Char Siu Pork, Greek okra and tomatoes, West African chicken stew, and carnitas nachos.
“We’re an agrarian-based cuisine and have something coming out of the ground or off a tree nearly 12 months of the year,” Willis says. “The South is rich in cultural diversity and the food of the modern global South reflects this.”
Black Pepper Cream Cheese Biscuits
Makes 36 (1½-inch) biscuits
4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out the biscuits
2 tablespoons baking powder
1½ teaspoons fine sea salt
8 tablespoons (½ cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, at room temperature
¾ to 1 cup buttermilk, plus more for brushing the biscuits
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, plus more for the top
Sliced ham, for serving (optional)
Pear Mostarda (recipe follows)
1. Heat the oven to 500°F. Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat.
2. In a food processor, pulse together the flour, baking powder and salt. Add the butter and cream cheese and pulse to combine. Add ¾ cup of the buttermilk and the pepper; process until the dough starts to come away from the sides of the bowl, adding the remainder of the buttermilk, if necessary. The dough should pull from the sides of the bowl. (In testing, I found that 1 cup was necessary with King Arthur all-purpose flour and 3/4 cup was more appropriate for White Lily flour.)
3. Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface. Knead lightly, using the heel of your hand to compress and push the dough away from you, and then fold it back over itself. Give the dough a small turn and repeat four or five times. (It’s not yeast bread; you want to just barely activate the gluten, not overwork it.)
4. Using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the dough out to a 9-inch square about ¾ inch thick. Using a chef’s knife or a long utility knife, cut the biscuits into 1½-inch squares. (Don’t drag the knife through the dough, but instead press the knife directly through the dough. This will help prevent pinched edges.)
5. Use an offset spatula or pancake turner to move the biscuits to the prepared baking sheet, keeping them close together. Brush with buttermilk and sprinkle with additional pepper.
6. Transfer the baking sheet to the oven and immediately reduce the oven temperature to 450°F. Bake, rotating the pan once, until nicely browned and the temperature registers 205°F, about 17 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool slightly. Serve warm with sliced ham and Pear Mostarda.
Makes 2 cups
¾ cup white vinegar
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
6 firm Bosc pears, cored, peeled and diced (about 6 cups)
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper
1. Combine the vinegar, sugar, mustard seeds and ½ cup water in a medium saucepan. Add the pears and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat to maintain a simmer. Cook until the pears are tender but still hold their shape and most of the liquid has cooked away, 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the Dijon mustard. Season with salt and pepper. Let cool completely before serving. The mostarda is best made a few days before serving so that the flavors can meld and intensify. It keeps well in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.
BLACK PEPPER CREAM CHEESE BISCUITS and PEAR MOSTARDA are excerpted from SECRETS OF THE SOUTHERN TABLE © 2018 by Virginia Willis. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.