When I exchanged emails some weeks ago with Southern cookbook writer Virginia Willis upon the release of her new cookbook, “Secrets of the Southern Table: A Food Lover’s Tour of the Global South,” she commented, “It’s very a exciting time — Ed Lee’s book is Southern diversity , Eddie Hernandez’s and Susan Puckett’s book is Southern diversity, and Todd Richards’ is Southern diversity!”
All the names Willis refers to are culinarians of the South who have debuted a cookbook this season. The latest is from Richards, his first, titled “Soul: A chef’s culinary evolution in 150 recipes”(Oxmoor House, $35), released May 22.
And Willis is correct: Diversity is the word of the day. It’s how we cook these days. It’s how we eat out. In fact, it is precisely chefs’ access to and use of global flavors, aka the new fusion revolution, that we highlighted in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Spring Dining Guide.
Richards’ cookbook is about Southern diversity. But it’s also Richards’ personal journey told through food, informed by his upbringing in Chicago, visits to family in Arkansas, and ultimately, a life lived in Atlanta and the South since the early 1990s.
The chef-owner of Richards’ Southern Fried at Krog Street Market, he is a self-taught chef whose decorated career spans more than 20 years. He has worked for numerous hotels and restaurants including the Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, The Oakroom at the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, Ky., White Oak Kitchen and Cocktails. He has also partnered and consulted on airport concepts One Flew South and Chicken + Beer, as well as The Pig and The Pearl at Atlantic Station and, most recently, City Pharmacy in Covington, Ga.
Each of the cookbook’s 14 chapters is organized by ingredient, and begins with a traditional African-American dish. As chapters progress, so, too, do flavor combinations and techniques, culled from all parts of the globe.
“I explore, experiment and draw inspiration from around the world,” Richards writes.
The reason for organizing the book around ingredients and progressing from time-honored to atypical, he said, is “that is representing what soul food is. It’s not just West African-based foodstuffs. When we arrived in this country, we had to pick up other techniques to survive.” He noted that soul food, just like the recipes in the book, holds Native American influences along with those from the Caribbean and South America, among others.
The discussion begins with collards. “It’s the most iconic food association with soul food. Some might debate fried chicken is that, but I disagree,” Richards said. “I wanted to tell that story first because it’s the most important way to recognize our contribution to the cuisine of America.”
Myriad home cooks have their own way to cook up a mess of greens — Richards’ rendition is Collard Greens with Smoked Ham Hocks — but Richards also offers unique ideas, like collard green ramen and collard green pesto. “It’s such a simple recipe to do,” he said of the latter.
One of his favorite recipes in the book is Mom’s Fried Catfish with Hot Sauce. He recalled how his mother made it every Friday for his father, leaving it out for him to eat when he came back from his night shift. “I will never forget how much love she put into that dish,” Richards said.
While Richards has spent a couple of decades working in professional kitchens, the book is geared to home cooks. For starters, recipes call for ingredients that are readily available. “That is the hallmark of soul food,” Richards said.
In addition, recipes are not complicated and can easily be multiplied or divided.
And Richards encourages home cooks to experiment with the recipes and make them their own. “Recipes are just guidelines, from my family’s standpoint,” he said.
The book also includes menu suggestions, ideas for drink pairings and even playlists.
“My career has been in fine dining. I want a person to have an entire experience,” he said. “That’s what my parents did for me as a kid. Music, great food and libations were all part of parties.”
Collard Green Pesto
Who says pesto has to be made from basil and parsley? Break the rules and use collard greens to make a decidedly Southern version of an Italian classic. “This is one of my favorite condiments to use on dishes such as pizza, grilled fish, grilled pork chops and pasta,” Richards says.
In this rendition of deviled eggs, Greek yogurt takes the place of mayonnaise, giving slightly tangier results. The filling is versatile as a sauce that pairs well with lamb and vegetables.
Mom’s Fried Catfish with Hot Sauce
“It’s the single most iconic dish that my mom made,” Richards says of this fried catfish dish that his mother prepared every Friday during his childhood. “I was always amazed by the crispiness of her fish. She let it sit in cornmeal for about 5 minutes — a technique I use today.” If using boneless catfish, Richards recommends serving it as a sandwich topped with lettuce and swiped with chive aioli.
Turkey Wings Glazed with Strawberry BBQ Sauce
While this recipe calls for baking the turkey wings, they can be smoked or grilled. “The sweet, meaty quality of turkey is highlighted when it is smoked or grilled,” Richards says. The strawberries in the barbecue sauce add “complex sweetness to the usual players.” Richards rubs the wings with blended olive oil since it is contains 75 percent or more vegetable oil and will thus have a higher smoke point.
Sweet Tea Brine
While this sweet tea brine works well for turkey wings and even fried chicken, if you remove the salt you could enjoy this herb-and-spice sweet tea over ice.