Seasonal flavors from Hot and Hot Fish Club

Farm-to-table proponent to be guest chef at JCT Kitchen.

That's the subtitle of the “Hot and Hot Fish Club Cookbook” by Chris and Idie Hastings (Running Press, $35), and it’s a perfect description of the breadth of delights contained in the pages of this joyful compendium of Southern cuisine.

The 400-page tome showcases many of the best recipes from the Hastingses’ award-winning Birmingham restaurant, the Hot and Hot Fish Club.

More than that, though, it offers a compelling case for the farm-to-table movement -- with chapters arranged monthly by the season, special menus that highlight hunting, fishing and foraging, and profiles of the farmers and purveyors who supply Hot and Hot with fresh ingredients year-round.

Chris Hastings will be in Atlanta on July 15 to cook at JCT Kitchen as part of the restaurant’s Farm to Table and Back guest chef series. The five-course menu will include his signature dish, the Hot and Hot tomato salad with fresh corn, field peas, fried okra, smoked bacon and chive aioli.

The summer-on-a-plate salad epitomizes Hastings' winning approach to re-imagining simple Southern food attuned to the time of year. It has become so beloved of Hot and Hot regulars that every night during tomato season the restaurant has one line cook solely dedicated to preparing the salads.

“That dish has a cult following,” Hastings said during a recent call from the restaurant. “My hope in life is that I can come up with more dishes that have such an impact. There’s a great deal of regional pride about tomatoes and I’m just glad we’re able to capture that passion.”

Hastings' passion for local and seasonal ingredients goes back to family vacations spent in the low country of South Carolina. After graduating from culinary school at Johnson and Wales in Providence. R.I., he worked for Frank Stitt as chef de cuisine at Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham and helped Bradley Ogden launch the Lark Creek Inn in Larkspur, Calif.

When the Hastingses opened Hot and Hot in 1995, very few Southeastern chefs besides Stitt were doing much that could be called farm-to-table cuisine.

“When I worked for Frank 20 years ago, we were doing it way before it was cool,” Hastings said. “But the world has changed and that’s a good thing. For us, it’s been 15 years of committing to people and paying more because we believe in them as farmers who care deeply about what they do.

"What we’ve been quietly doing behind the scenes has become not just a local movement or a regional movement but a national movement. If we continue to put the focus on the importance of this, it could change agriculture in America.”

Hastings said the “Hot and Hot Fish Club Cookbook” was arranged seasonally because that’s the way the restaurant operates and that’s the way his family strives to live.

“Food has a magical quality that brings people together,” Hastings said. “I wanted to talk about that in the cookbook. We go through a year in our life and show these moments of gathering over meals with the family. It’s an opportunity to slow down and live your life. The arrival of soft shell crabs or turkey season or dove season, being with my friends and hunting and fishing or simply cooking together -- life is so lived in those moments and so enjoyable.”

For the Hastings family, foraging may mean gathering wild strawberries or making aromatic simple syrup flavored with fresh golden-yellow honeysuckle blossoms. But Hastings said foraging also is about knowing where to look and whom to ask.

“You’re not walking around the woods, but you’re foraging knowledge and you’re going out there and using the local farmers market or your fish monger or your butcher. Talk to those people. They hold volumes of information for the home cook to learn more about food and how to cook more seasonally.”

Author appearance

Chris Hastings cooks for the quarterly Farm to Table and Back guest chef series at JCT kitchen during regular dinner hours: 5-10 p.m. July 15. $75 per person includes wine pairings. Reservations required. 198 Howell Mill Road, Suite 18, Atlanta. 404-355-2252, www.jctkitchen.com

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Recipes

These recipes from the “Hot and Hot Fish Club Cookbook” showcase how chef Chris Hastings uses seasonal ingredients in fresh ways and gives traditional Southern dishes new twists. “The flavors are big and there’s contrast,” Hastings said. “We want the flavors to hit you in the face and be bright and delicious.”

Introductions are adapted from the “Hot and Hot Fish Club Cookbook.”

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Grouper with Tomato, Avocado, and Grilled Vidalia Onions with Basil-Lime Vinaigrette

Hands on: 45 minutes Total time: 45 minutes Serves: six

This dish is all about the vinaigrette. Extra limey and rich from the avocado, it makes a simple summertime dish that will impress any guest. Good olive oil and a lot of freshly picked basil are important, so don’t skimp on these items. Firm fish such as cobia, halibut or salmon can be substituted for the grouper.

2 large Vidalia onions, each sliced into 1-inch-thick slices (about 5 or 6 slices each)

1/4 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon kosher salt, divided

2 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, divided

4 large, ripe heirloom tomatoes, each cored and sliced into 1-inch-thick slices

4 ripe Haas avocados, halved, peeled, seeded and sliced into 1/2-inch-thick slices

1 cup fresh lime juice

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2/3 cup thinly sliced or chiffonade of fresh basil leaves

6 (6-ounce) grouper fillets

3 cups fresh arugula

Preheat the grill to high heat (400 degrees to 450 degrees).

For the salad:

On a baking sheet, arrange the onion slices and brush lightly with the olive oil. Season the onions lightly with 1/2 teaspoon of the salt and 1/2 teaspoon of the pepper. Grill the onion slices for four to five minutes on each side or until tender, sweet, and slightly charred. Transfer the grilled slices to a mixing bowl and separate the rings. Add the tomato and avocado slices to the onion rings and set aside.

In a separate bowl whisk together the lime juice, extra-virgin olive oil and basil. Toss the vinaigrette with the grilled onion mixture and season the salad with 1 teaspoon of the salt and 1/2 teaspoon of the pepper. Allow the salad to marinate at room temperature for 10 to 15 minutes, tossing occasionally. (This allows the avocados to break down a little and slightly thicken the vinaigrette.)

For the fish:

Season the fish fillets on both sides with the remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt and 1 1/2 teaspoons of pepper. Place the fillets on the hot grill and cook for six to seven minutes or until the fillets begin to pull away and loosen from the grill rack. Turn and cook an additional four to five minutes or until the fillets are golden brown and cooked through. Remove the fillets from the heat and keep warm until ready to serve.

To serve:

In the center of each of six dinner plates arrange one marinated tomato slice. Using a slotted spoon, place onion and avocado slices on top of the tomatoes. Top each salad with a second marinated tomato slice. Spoon several tablespoons of the vinaigrette over and around each salad. Arrange the grilled grouper fillets on top of each salad. Toss the arugula in the mixing bowl with the remaining vinaigrette. Top each fish fillet with a small mound of the arugula. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 817 calories (percent of calories from fat, 72), 37 grams protein, 21 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams fiber, 68 grams fat (10 grams saturated), 63 milligrams cholesterol, 676 milligrams sodium.

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Warm Johnny Cakes with Blackberries and Buttermilk Ice Cream

Hands on time: 30 minutes Total time: 1 ½ hours, including time for proofing and rising Serves: six

Johnny cakes, also known as hoe cakes, are generally made from a simple batter of cornmeal, water and pork fat. They were a staple among poor Southerners who cooked the cakes on their hoes over open fires while working the fields. This recipe is Hastings’ rendition of the original Johnny cake with the addition of yeast and honey to take it from the backs of hoes to a dessert worthy of your most important dinner guest. Blueberries, mulberries, strawberries or peaches can be substituted for the blackberries.

2/3 cup whole milk

1/4 cup honey

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest, divided

1/2 teaspoon dry yeast

1 1/2 cups finely ground yellow cornmeal

3 cups fresh blackberries

1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar

3 tablespoons lemon juice

2 large egg whites

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

3 cups homemade buttermilk ice cream (recipe below) or vanilla ice cream

In a small saucepan over low heat combine the milk, honey and 1/4 teaspoon of the lemon zest. Stir occasionally until the honey is dissolved and the mixture is heated to 110 degrees.

Remove the pan from the heat, add the yeast, cover and steep for 15 minutes or until the yeast begins to foam.

In a mixing bowl, stir together the cornmeal and milk mixture and whisk until smooth. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm place to rise for 30 minutes.

In a medium bowl, sprinkle the blackberries with 3 tablespoons of the sugar. Stir in the lemon juice and remaining 3/4 teaspoon of lemon zest and allow the berries to sit at room temperature for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

In the bowl of a standing mixer, whisk the egg whites on low until foamy. With the machine running on low, add the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar, 1/2 tablespoon at a time, until all of the sugar has been added. Increase the speed to medium and whisk until the egg whites form medium-stiff peaks. Set aside.

Once the dough has risen and soaked up most of the liquid, fold one-third of the egg whites into the batter mixture. Add a second third of the egg white mixture to the batter and fold until well incorporated. Fold in the remaining egg whites, being careful not to over mix or deflate the batter.

In a large cast iron skillet heat 1 tablespoon of the butter. Add the batter, 2 rounded tablespoonfuls at a time, to form cakes about the size of a silver dollar. Cook the cakes for 1 1/2 minutes on each side or until golden brown and cooked through. Transfer the cakes to a plate and keep warm until ready to serve. Repeat with the remaining butter and batter.

To serve:

Arrange three cooked cakes on each of six dessert plates. Evenly divide the macerated blackberries and their juices over each serving of cakes. Top each plate with 1/2 cup of the ice cream. Serve immediately.

Per serving, including ice cream: 691 calories (percent of calories from fat, 54), 10 grams protein, 71 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams fiber, 43 grams fat (25 grams saturated), 276 milligrams cholesterol, 124 milligrams sodium.

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Buttermilk Ice Cream

Hands on time: 30 minutes Total time: Up to 12 hours, including time for refrigerating and freezing Makes: about 6 cups or 12 servings

At home, Hastings prefers to use a White Mountain brand hand-crank ice cream freezer to make slow-churned ice cream. When you’re pressed for time, any electric tabletop ice cream freezer will work well.

4 cups heavy cream

1/2 vanilla bean, split

8 large egg yolks

1/2 cup granulated sugar

Pinch of salt

1 1/2 cups whole-milk buttermilk

In a 2-quart saucepan add the cream and place over medium-high heat. Scrape the vanilla bean seeds into the cream and add the scraped bean pods to the cream. Bring the mixture to a simmer and remove from the heat.

Prepare a water bath by filling a large bowl halfway with ice and a small amount of water.

In a large stainless steel bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar until they are pale yellow and slightly thickened. Slowly drizzle the hot cream mixture into the egg mixture, while whisking continuously. Add a pinch of salt and pour the entire mixture back into the saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, for 2 to 3 minutes or until the mixture coats the back of a spoon.

Remove from the heat and strain the mixture through a fine-meshed sieve or strainer into a stainless steel bowl. Set the bowl in the prepared ice water bath, stir until cool, add 1 1/2 cups whole-milk buttermilk and refrigerate overnight (about 8 hours). Pour the mixture into an ice cream machine and freeze according to the manufacturer’s directions. Transfer the ice cream into a freezer-safe container and freeze for at least 2 hours or until firm. The ice cream will keep in an airtight container in the freezer for up to one month.

Per serving: 358 calories (percent of calories from fat, 82), 4 grams protein, 12 grams carbohydrates, no fiber, 33 grams fat (19 grams saturated), 252 milligrams cholesterol, 78 milligrams sodium

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