If you are tuned in even a little to the South’s culinary scene, you have probably heard of Sean Brock.
Brock is executive chef and partner at four restaurants in Charleston and Nashville. He was named best chef in the Southeast by the James Beard Foundation in 2010 and was a finalist in 2013 and 2014 for outstanding chef, a national award.
Brock started getting attention at The Hermitage in Nashville and later at McCrady’s in Charleston, fine dining restaurants known for refined Southern cuisine executed with some futuristic techniques borrowed from science labs. He became better known after opening Husk, farm-to-table restaurants in the two cities that celebrate heirloom plants and heritage-breed animals. He became more widely known for starring in eight episodes of the acclaimed PBS show, “The Mind of a Chef.”
That’s all a preamble to say Brock’s debut cookbook, “Heritage,” which came out this fall, has been widely anticipated. The publisher, Artisan Books, is known for producing stunning photo-filled books that can sit on a coffee table as well as a kitchen shelf.
The 330-page book offers a mix of recipes. Some are ripped from Brock’s restaurant menus, others from his home kitchen, and an entire dessert chapter features recipes from his female relatives. In a recent interview, Brock talked about what led to his book, how the concept changed along the way and why he was happy to include a recipe for his grandmother’s “Hillbilly Black Walnut Fudge,” made with a pound of Velveeta cheese.
Brock said he never wanted to write a cookbook until he started collecting cookbooks from the 18th and 19th centuries. As a restaurant chef, he said, his recipes are constantly evolving and being improved upon.
“It’s really just a moment in time that you’re capturing,” Brock said. “There was an opportunity to capture a moment of time in my life, not just the restaurants,’ not just a place. The book started to become more personal. I decided I had an opportunity to possibly influence people, and maybe influence people to maybe take the same journey that I’ve taken as a chef.”
What had been envisioned as a cookbook documenting the foods and purveyors of South Carolina’s Lowcountry became a book documenting his personal journey. Brock wrote about growing up, eating and cooking alongside his grandparents in western Virginia, where it was common to have a large kitchen garden, to save seeds and plant heirloom varieties of plants for generations. Brock said he only later realized how special those foods and traditions were.
The recipes reflect all areas of his life: the fried chicken that he makes at home, the corn-goat cheese soup with brown butter chanterelles at McCrady’s and the chocolate eclair cake that his sister makes every year for his birthday. About that fudge recipe with the Velveeta cheese, he said: “People love it.”
2 1/2 to 3 cups
3 large pimento peppers (about 12 ounces)
4 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup mayonnaise, preferably Duke’s
1/2 teaspoon Husk Hot Sauce (or other favorite hot sauce)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/4 cup pickled ramps, chopped, plus 1/2 cup of the brine (or, substitute your favorite sweet pickles)
1 pound sharp cheddar cheese, grated on the large holes of a box grater
Roast the peppers over an open flame on a gas stovetop, one pepper at a time, on the prongs of a carving fork. Or, place on a baking sheet and roast under a hot broiler. In either case, turn the peppers to blister all sides. Then transfer the peppers to a bowl and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Set aside to let the peppers steam until cool enough to handle.
Carefully peel the blackened skin off each pepper. Cut the peppers lengthwise in half, open out flat on a cutting board, and carefully scrape away all the seeds and membrane. Dice the peppers.
Put the cream cheese in a medium bowl and beat it with a wooden spoon until softened. Add the mayonnaise and mix well. Add the hot sauce, salt, sugar, cayenne pepper, white pepper and smoked paprika and stir to blend. Add the ramps, ramp brine, and cheddar cheese and stir again. Fold in the diced pimentos.
Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. Tightly covered, the pimento cheese will keep for up to 3 days in the refrigerator.
Note: For creamier pimento cheese, combine all of the ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on medium speed for 2 minutes. Everyone has his or her own way of making pimento cheese, but the biggest debate always revolves around what kind of mayo is used. I prefer Duke’s, but you can use your favorite brand – that’s what making a signature pimento cheese is all about. This is best made with pimento peppers you roast yourself, but if you can’t get the fresh peppers, substitute 12 ounces jarred whole pimentos, drained and diced (don’t use jarred chopped pimentos – they have no flavor).
One 9-inch round loaf
4 ounces bacon, preferably Benton’s
2 cups cornmeal, preferably Anson Mills Antebellum Coarse Yellow Cornmeal
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 cups whole-milk buttermilk
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Put a 9-inch cast-iron skillet in the oven to preheat for at least 10 minutes.
Run the bacon through a meat grinder or very finely mince it. Put the bacon in a skillet large enough to hold it in one layer and cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently so that it doesn’t burn, until the fat is rendered and the bits of bacon are crispy, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the bits of bacon to a paper towel to drain, reserving the fat. You need 5 tablespoons bacon fat for this recipe.
Combine the cornmeal, salt, baking soda, baking powder, and bits of bacon in a medium bowl. Reserve 1 tablespoon of the bacon fat and combine the remaining 4 tablespoons fat, buttermilk and egg in a small bowl. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients just to combine. Do not overmix.
Move the skillet from the oven to the stove, placing it over high heat. Add the reserved tablespoon of bacon fat and swirl to coat the skillet. Pour in the batter, distributing it evenly. It should sizzle.
Bake the cornbread for about 20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Serve warm from the skillet.
Cornbread, like barbecue, can be the subject of great debate among Southerners. Flour or no flour? Sugar or no sugar? Is there an egg involved? All are legitimate questions.
Notes: My cornbread has no flour and no sugar. It has the tang of good buttermilk and a little smoke from Allan Benton’s smokehouse bacon. You’ve got to cook the cornbread just before you want to eat it, in a black skillet, with plenty of smoking-hot grease. That is the secret to a golden, crunchy exterior. Use very high heat, so hot that the batter screeches as it hits the pan. It’s a deceptively simple process, but practice makes perfect, which may be why many Southerners make cornbread every single day.
Lowcountry Hoppin’ John
6 to 8 servings
For the peas
2 quarts pork stock or chicken stock
1 cup Anson Mills Sea Island Red Peas, soaked in a pot of water in the refrigerator overnight
1 1/2 cups medium-dice onions
1 cup medium-dice peeled carrots
1 1/2 cups medium-dice celery
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 fresh bay leaf
10 thyme sprigs
1/2 jalapeno, chopped
For the rice
4 cups water
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 cup Anson Mills Carolina Gold Rice
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed
For the red pea gravy
Reserved 1 cup cooked red peas
Reserved 2 cups cooking liquid from the peas
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Sliced chives or scallions for garnish
For the peas: Bring the stock to a simmer in a small pot. Drain the peas and add to the stock, along with all of the remaining ingredients except the salt. Cook the peas, partially covered, over low heat until they are soft, about 1 hour. Season to taste with salt. (The peas can be cooked ahead and refrigerated in their liquid for up to 3 days. Reheat, covered, over low heat before proceeding.)
Drain the peas, reserving their cooking liquid, and measure out 1 cup peas and 2 cups liquid for the gravy; return the rest of the peas and liquid to the pot and keep warm.
For the rice: About 45 minutes before the peas are cooked, preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
Bring the water, salt and cayenne pepper to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium, add the rice, stir once, and bring to a simmer. Simmer gently, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the rice is al dente, about 15 minutes.
Drain the rice in a sieve and rinse under cold water. Spread the rice out on a rimmed baking sheet. Dry the rice in the oven, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Scatter the butter evenly over the rice and continue to dry it, stirring every few minutes, for about 5 minutes longer. All excess moisture should have evaporated and the grains should be dry and separate.
For the gravy: Put the 1 cup peas, 2 cups cooking liquid and the butter in a blender and blend on high until smooth, about 3 minutes. Add cider vinegar to taste.
The gravy can be made up to 3 days ahead and kept in a covered container in the refrigerator. Reheat, covered, over the lowest possible heat, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching.
To complete: Use a slotted spoon to transfer the peas to a large serving bowl. Add the rice and carefully toss the rice and peas together. Pour the gravy over them, sprinkle with chives or scallions, and serve.