Chef Rob Newton views the South as a crazy quilt of regions, “each with its own unique flavor, yet still interwoven into the larger fabric of one cuisine.”
The wild-foraged ramps and pepperoni rolls of his Ozark childhood sharply contrast with the shellfish stews and fancy tortes of the Lowcountry. These distinctions form the premise of his debut cookbook, “Seeking the South: Finding Inspired Regional Cuisines.”
Newton worked in top New York restaurants, where he sought to bust through deep-fried, sugar-packed cliches gleaned from road trips through the South. His cooking was also informed by travels as a foreign exchange student in Germany as well as military service abroad during the first Gulf War. Ultimately, he chose to return closer to his roots, bringing those experiences with him to Nashville’s Gray & Dudley.
In “Seeking the South,” Newton deftly connects flavors to people and places, and uses them as a starting point for his own creations. Recipes are divided by region, beginning in the Upper South, from which he hails, and continuing through the Deep South, Gulf Coast, Coastal Plains and Piedmont, and Lowcountry and Southeast Coast. Throughout each chapter, he weaves in historical context, supported by an extensive bibliography of classic Southern cookbooks.
There’s Pinto Bean Cassoulet, a French-inspired riff on the humble mountain staple topped with mustard-spiked bitter green salad. Nashville’s Little Kurdistan inspires Grilled Meatballs with Eggplant Spread, and the idea for Meyer Lemon Curd with Saltine Crumble sprang from “Atlantic Beach Pie” made famous by Bill Smith at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
I highly recommend giving his Braised Turkey in Spicy Peanut Stew a try now that cooler weather’s here. It’s derived from the old Colonial Virginia recipe for peanut soup, richly spiced with garlic, ginger and chili seasonings.
Newton is all for mixing and matching ingredients and techniques, so long as their are used with respect. To him, “the biggest pleasure in cooking Southern cuisine is finding ways to make it your own.”
Susan Puckett is a cookbook author and former food editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow her at susanpuckett.com.
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