Chef Hugh Acheson shares recipes and thoughts from “The Broad Fork”

Maybe best known as the “Top Chef” judge with the single eyebrow, stylish outfits and sardonic wit, Hugh Acheson is a very busy and increasingly famous man.

The Canadian-born, Athens, Ga.-based chef and author currently has four Georgia restaurants: Five & Ten and the National in Athens, Empire State South in Atlanta and the Florence in Savannah. And he’s about to open a coffee bar, Spiller Park, in Atlanta’s new Ponce City Market.

But away from all that star chef and TV glitz, Acheson has a wife and two young children, and the kind of everyday domesticity that goes with living in a relatively small, if musically famous, Southern college town.

As he puts it in his new vegetable-centric cookbook, “The Broad Fork” (Clarkson/Potter, $35), “I’m not perfect. If you come into my kitchen you will find many things that you might not expect: Jif peanut butter, mass-production bread, sliced American cheese, pancake mix, forgotten cheap condiments, juice boxes, and store-bought mayo.”

In other words, at home Acheson is just like any other cool dad, making pancakes and peanut butter sandwiches with his kids, while worrying about what his family is eating and how many juice boxes are piling up in the landfill.

All that goes into the reassuring premise of “The Broad Fork,” a delightfully written, thoroughly useful book that Acheson promises is “not a manual to a vegetarian lifestyle, but rather a compendium of seasonal recipes to bring vegetables to the center of your plate.”

Acheson, whose first stab at writing, “New Turn in the South” (Clarkson/Potter, $35), won a 2012 James Beard Foundation best cookbook award, will be at the AJC Decatur Book Festival on Sept. 5.

Earlier this summer, we sat down at Empire State South, where Acheson talked about “The Broad Fork” and the reason he wrote it.

Q: It is impressive that no ghost writers were harmed in the making of any of your cookbooks. But in this one in particular your voice as a writer really comes through.

A: Well, my voice is hard to duplicate. Francis Lam, who is a great food writer, took over as my editor on this one, and he was just fantastic. He’s so smart. And he has a way of keeping my voice but adding to it and fixing stuff that’s nonsensical.

Q: What makes this book different?

A: There have been plenty of seasonal vegetable books. But hopefully the recipes in this one are a jumping-off place to allow people to experience different styles of food and different techniques. It’s not overly fastidious or fussy food. It’s not expensive food. It’s just doable, good food. It’s the way I cook at home.

Q: So each section starts with a particular vegetable or fruit and then …

A: And then there are four or five ways to use it. Maybe a salad or a side dish, and then a main dish, which is a more involved recipe, and maybe a dessert.

Q: You picked melons to feature in late summer. What about the recipes in that section?

A: It’s a good one because it starts with a beverage, and then it goes to a salad, and a cold soup, and finally a main course with catfish. It really shows the flexibility of something that people think is just meant to be chopped up and eaten raw.

Q: How would you sum up the message of this book and what motivated you to write it?

A: It’s an encouragement to get people cooking from scratch again. Why do we do that in this day and age and why is it more vegetable-driven than ever? Well, part of it is because I’m a businessman and protein costs have gone up exponentially. That’s why you no longer see a 12-ounce steak on a menu at a place that’s not a steakhouse.

But more than that, there’s this panoply of vegetables around that are way more interesting. That kind of food has a beauty and a seasonality that we need to celebrate. We take food for granted a lot of the time when we shop out of season. When you understand that melon is in season at a certain time in Georgia, when it’s warm to the touch and fragrant and just oozing with flavor, that’s how we get people to eat better.

RECIPES

These recipes and introductions are from the new Hugh Acheson cookbook, “The Broad Fork,” which is all about cooking with vegetables and fruits in all four seasons. In the summer section on melons, Acheson writes, “The wonder about melons is that many parts of the country have them, but you may have to find that lonesome highway with the pickup truck by the side of the road selling them.”

Honeydew Agua Fresca

Agua frescas are the fruit waters of Spain, Portugal, South and Central America, and the Caribbean. They are very popular in my house because they are a drink that we can all imbibe, regardless of age. Simple, refreshing, and utterly seasonal, these straightforward beverages make everybody happy.

1 honeydew melon

1 cup sugar

1 tablespoon grated lime zest

1 cup freshly squeezed lime juice

2 tablespoons honey

2 cups water

Cut a small disc from the top and bottom of the melon, at the poles. Place the melon, with one of the cut sides down, on a cutting board and, using a sharp knife, cut away the skin by following the shape of the melon. When all the skin has been removed, cut the melon in half, scoop out the seeds and discard them, and cut the melon into 1-inch chunks. Combine the melon, sugar, lime zest and juice, honey, and 2 cups of water in a blender and puree on high speed until smooth. (Work in batches if it all doesn’t fit in the blender comfortably.) Pour the agua fresca into a pitcher and fill it with ice.

Makes: 4 quarts

Per 1-cup serving: 89 calories (percent of calories from fat, 1), trace protein, 23 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, trace fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 8 milligrams sodium.

Cantaloupe and Mint Soup With Crab and Curry Oil

Sweet crab, sweet melon, the punch of mint, and the spice overtones of curry oil make this a great chilled summer soup.

1 cantaloupe

1 tablespoon curry powder

¼ cup olive oil

½ cup plain yogurt

2 tablespoons champagne vinegar

Sea salt

2 teaspoons fresh mint leaves

1 pound jumbo lump crab meat, picked over for cartilage and shells

Cut a small disc from the top and bottom of the melon, at the poles. Place the melon, with one of the cut sides down, on a cutting board and, using a sharp knife, cut away the skin by following the shape of the melon. When all the skin has been removed, cut the melon in half, scoop out the seeds and discard them, and cut the melon into 1-inch chunks. Set aside.

In a small saucepan, warm the curry powder with the olive oil over medium heat for 5 minutes, whisking to thoroughly combine. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the mixture to cool to room temperature.

In a blender, combine the cantaloupe, yogurt, champagne vinegar, sea salt to taste, half the mint leaves, and ½ cup of water. Puree until the soup is smooth. (Work in batches if it all doesn’t fit in the blender comfortably.) Adjust the seasoning with salt if needed, and the consistency with more water if needed.

Pour the soup into 6 bowls and divide the crab among the bowls, placing it in the middle of each. Garnish with the remaining mint leaves and a drizzle of the curry oil.

Serves: 6

Per serving: 195 calories (percent of calories from fat, 48), 16 grams protein, 10 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 11 grams fat (2 grams saturated), 60 milligrams cholesterol, 265 milligrams sodium.

Cantaloupe With Prosciutto, Purslane and Vidalia Onion Vinaigrette

This is a classic, done a little differently from the usual. It takes the bright sweetness of the melon and the rich saltiness of prosciutto, and matches them with earthy caramelized Vidalia onions and the sour punch of purslane. Purslane is a succulent. It grows like wildfire, so it’s one of those things that we should probably enjoy eating. I love it. It’s refreshingly sour and chewy without being tough. If you have leftover vinaigrette, no biggie. Use it in a salad.

1 Vidalia onion

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

Kosher salt to taste

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

½ cup olive oil

½ pound very thinly sliced prosciutto

1 cantaloupe

¼ pound purslane leaves and stems

Slice the onion in half, lengthwise, and then cut each half into ½-inch-wide wedges. Melt the butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat, and add the onions. Cook for 10 minutes on each side, until a rich brown. Season the onions with salt to taste and transfer half of the onions to a blender; reserve the other half.

Add the mustard and vinegar to the blender, and puree. With the blender running, slowly add the olive oil to emulsify the vinaigrette. Season with a pinch of salt.

Cut a small disc from the top and bottom of the cantaloupe, at the poles. Place the melon, one of the cut sides down, on a cutting board and, using a sharp knife, cut away the skin by following the shape of the melon. When all the skin has been removed, cut the melon in half, save one half for another use, and scoop out the seeds from the other half and discard them. Place the seeded melon scooped side down on a cutting board and slice it into very thin half-moons.

Arrange the prosciutto on a platter and lay out the melon slices as well. Find your inner food stylist and make it pretty, but don’t turn it into some meticulous exercise.

Place the purslane and the reserved caramelized onion wedges in a bowl, and add 1 tablespoon of the vinaigrette. Toss well. Arrange the purslane and onions over the prosciutto, and then spoon vinaigrette to your liking around the platter.

Serves: 4 as an appetizer

Per serving, using half the vinaigrette: 310 calories (percent of calories from fat, 58), 18 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 20 grams fat (4 grams saturated), 44 milligrams cholesterol, 1,566 milligrams sodium.

Sautéed Catfish With Cantaloupe, Lime and Cilantro Salsa

Catfish is one of those things: Buy it American. I know that I sound like a broken record imploring you to support your community, but this one is important. The amount of catfish flooding into our markets from Asia is having a devastating impact on U.S. producers. And I will also go on record with this: Our catfish is a lot better.

The trick to cooking fish on the stove is that it must be pretty dry and your pan has to be really hot when you add it; this way, the fish will not be prone to sticking. And give it time to crisp up properly.

½ cup finely minced cantaloupe

1 fresh red Fresno chile, thinly sliced on the bias

½ cup minced fresh cilantro leaves

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice

Kosher salt

4 catfish fillets (5 to 6 ounces each), trimmed of any connective tissue

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

6 sprigs fresh cilantro

Place the cantaloupe, chile, minced cilantro, 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, the lime juice, and kosher salt to taste in a small bowl. Mix well and set aside.

Pat the catfish dry with paper towels and season all over with kosher salt. Dredge the catfish fillets in the flour, shaking off any excess. Place a large skillet over medium-high heat and add the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. When the oil is shimmery-hot, place the catfish in the pan and cook for 5 minutes on one side. Then add the butter, let it foam, and baste the fillets with it, using a spoon. Turn the fillets over and continue cooking the catfish until just done, about 3 minutes, depending on how thick the fillets are. Catfish should be cooked through but still be very moist.

Transfer the fish to individual plates, and top them with the cantaloupe salsa. Garnish with the cilantro sprigs, and serve.

Serves: 4

Per serving: 291 calories (percent of calories from fat, 54), 25 grams protein, 9 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 12 grams fat (4 grams saturated), 90 milligrams cholesterol, 72 milligrams sodium.

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