Anyone who has pushed away from the table after a big Southern feast, sated and wishing for more give in the waistband, can attest to the many emblematic ingredients of the regional cuisine.
Crispy fried chicken. Barbecue bathed in a classic mustard, vinegar- or tomato-based sauce. Greens in pot liquor. Grits. Biscuits. Cornbread. Hushpuppies. Pies.
That’s just a sampling of the foods that say: This is the South, y’all.
In an attempt to stock kitchens and bookshelves across the country with a flavoring of the region, UNC Press has launched a cookbook series called “Savor the South” that focuses on characteristically Southern foods and culinary traditions.
In a collection of short, pithy books, food writers and well-known cooks will dish up bite-size essays and recipes on ingredients and topics that range from pecans to peaches, buttermilk to bourbon and sweet potatoes to Southern holidays.
Each season will bring two books with 50 recipes in each. Just out are “Pecans,” by Charlotte Observer food editor Kathleen Purvis, and “Buttermilk,” by Raleigh, N.C., food writer Debbie Moose (an N&O columnist and former food editor), priced at $18 per petite volume.
Books on tomatoes and peaches will be out in the spring. Fourteen books are in the works, including a volume on pickles and preserves by N&O food writer Andrea Weigl, and editors are thinking about more.
“The idea is to give a really nice highlight and focus to the kinds of food that are common to Southern foodways,” said Elaine Maisner, the senior executive editor at UNC Press who launched the project. “It provides an opportunity to rethink the Southern food tradition in a fresh new way.”
Each book shows how the ingredient can be used in a classic Southern way along with providing farm-to-table ideas used by contemporary chefs and international twists.
Buttermilk, Moose writes, is “truly representative of the South — both the traditional South of country farms and the evolving region of creative chefs and international influences.”
Her first taste of the lip-puckering liquid came as a child when her father crumbled leftover cornbread into a tall glass and filled it with buttermilk, an experience many Southerners can recount. Over the years, she has learned that a touch of buttermilk can add fluff to pancakes, bring a bit of sour to a trendy ice cream or lend flavor and froth to a cool mango-spice lassi.
Purvis explains how pecans became rooted in Southern cuisine, starting with Native Americans who packed them as protein sources to the horticulturist in Louisiana who successfully grafted a tree that produced the large, thin-shelled nuts now used in commercial production.
As she blends the history of a nut that spurred a never-ending debate (is it pronounced pee-can or pee-cahn?), Purvis shows how to use the rich protein source in appetizers, salads, meat or fish dishes and such classic sweets as pies, tassies and pralines.
“It’s hard to remember any occasion, from a picnic to a cocktail hour to a post-funeral spread, when pecans didn’t turn up somewhere, mixed in the chicken salad, embedded in the cheese ball, sprinkled on the casserole, or just buttered, salted, and put out by the bowlful,” Purvis writes.
A recipe for success
UNC Press, founded in 1922, has long counted regional cookbooks among its recipe for success. It has a tradition of editors who love food as much as they do literature and scholarly works.
Maisner, at UNC Press since 1994, has worked on the Nolin River Farm in Kentucky, cooked with Deborah Madison at the renowned Greens Restaurant in San Francisco and interned at Chez Panisse in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Her last two titles — Sandra Gutierrez’s “New Southern-Latino Table” and Sheri Castle’s “New Southern Garden Cookbook” — won rave reviews in the cookbook world.
She hopes the “Savor the South” collection will be met with the same plaudits.
“The food books are part of our regional trade programs,” Maisner said. “The Press needs to have a nice mix of books so we can support our scholarly works.”
In 1989, when New York food critics were lavishing praise on new food trends in the South, UNC Press published Bill Neal’s “Southern Cooking,” showing the diversity and range of cooking with classically Southern ingredients.
“We don’t fancy ourselves a kind of generic cookbook publisher,” said Maisner. “Our cookbook list reflects that.”
“Savor the South,” though, is a little different, devoting each book to an emblematic ingredient or tradition.
“Ideally, people will want to collect them all and create this little shelf that will be a connection to Southern culture and foodways,” Maisner said.
About 30 small cookies
2 large egg whites
2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup coarsely chopped pecans
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon white vinegar
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line one or two baking sheets with parchment paper or non stick foil.
Beat the egg whites with an electric mixer until they form stiff peaks when the beaters are lifted. Beat in the brown sugar and granulated sugar a tablespoon at a time. Beat in the salt and vanilla.
Sprinkle the pecans, cornstarch and vinegar over the beaten egg-white mixture. Fold in gently but thoroughly with a rubber spatula.
Use a teaspoon to spoon the batter onto the lined baking sheets. (Don’t worry about getting the cookies too close together.)
Place the baking sheets in the oven. Turn off the oven and leave them in the oven with the door closed for 8-12 hours or overnight. Peel the cookies off the parchment or foil and store in an airtight container.
Tex-Mex Corn Pudding
3 cups corn kernels (fresh or frozen, no need to thaw)
3/4 cup yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese
1/2 cup canned chopped green chiles, drained
4 green onions, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3 large eggs
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 1 1/2- to 2-quart baking dish with nonstick cooking spray.
Stir together all the ingredients in a large bowl. Pour the mixture into the prepared dish. Bake for 45-50 minutes or until lightly browned on top.