Spring books: From fried chicken to healthy eats

Every year around this time, just as the asparagus and strawberries are coming in, we see a fresh crop of spring cookbooks.

It’s a great season to be in the kitchen, preferably with some fresh produce and a favorite new book by a local author.

With that in mind, here’s a quick look at three of the best new spring releases: from Georgia chef Hugh Acheson’s paean to produce, “The Broad Fork: Recipes for the Wide World of Vegetables and Fruit” (Clarkson Potter, $35) to Athens author Rebecca Lang’s “Fried Chicken: Recipes for the Crispy, Crunchy, Comfort-Food Classic” (Ten Speed, $16.99) to Atlanta favorite Virginia Willis’ “Lighten Up, Y’all: Classic Southern Recipes Made Healthy & Wholesome” (Ten Speed, $24.99).

We’ve included a short review and a tested recipe from each book. Taken together, these three recipes — for chicken fingers, grilled potato salad and raspberry cobbler — make a great spring or summer menu. It’s the kind of simple, delicious, uncomplicated food that’s perfect for picnics, too.

As Willis says, “Bon appetit, y’all!”

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“Lighten Up, Y’all: Classic Southern Recipes Made Healthy & Wholesome” by Virginia Willis

We all know Southern food has traditionally been marginalized as fattening and unhealthy. Atlanta author Virginia Willis, in her new book, makes the case that it doesn’t have to be. Determined to preserve the deliciousness of Southern food while lowering calories, Willis delivers a personal collection of recipes for Southern classics like macaroni and cheese (using broccoli), pulled pork (made with leaner tenderloin vs. fatty shoulder, and doused with red pepper vinegar sauce) and strawberry shortcake (composed of light buttermilk biscuits and a Greek yogurt-based topping). And yes, she still cooks with bacon, but Willis calls for center-cut strips and pours off most of the grease. (I tried the Grilled Potato Salad with Bacon Vinaigrette, and it’s a keeper.)

Virginia Willis’ Grilled Potato Salad With Bacon Vinaigrette

1 1/2 pounds baby Yukon Gold potatoes, about the size of a walnut, washed and halved

coarse kosher salt

1 large garlic clove, peeled

3 slices center-cut bacon, cut into matchsticks

2 tablespoons apple-cider vinegar

1 teaspoon firmly packed brown sugar

3 tablespoons pure olive oil

4 whole green onions

2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, plus more for garnish

Freshly ground black pepper

Place potatoes in a medium saucepan, and cover by about 2 inches with cold water. Add 1 teaspoon kosher salt and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil gently until potatoes pierce easily with a knife, about 10 minutes. (Don’t overcook them, or they will fall apart.) Drain the potatoes in a large colander and let cool.

Cut the garlic clove in half and chop coarsely. Add pinch of salt and continue to chop, using the flat side of the knife to mash into a paste.

Line a plate with paper towels. Cook bacon in a large skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until crisp, about 5-7 minutes. Drain on the prepared plate. Remove all but about 2 teaspoons of the bacon drippings from the pan. Off the heat, add the garlic, vinegar and brown sugar to the drippings in the pan, scraping up any browned bits. Whisk in 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Prepare a charcoal fire or heat a gas grill with the lid down until very hot, about 10-15 minutes. Place potatoes in a bowl. Add the remaining tablespoon of oil and toss to coat. Working in batches, grill the potatoes cut side down until they have developed a light char, about 5-6 minutes. Flip them and cook the other side until just charred, about 2-3 minutes. Grill the onions until charred, about 4-6 minutes per side. Place potatoes in a bowl. Chop the onions into 1-inch pieces and add to bowl. Add reserved bacon vinaigrette and parsley. Toss to coat. Allow to sit for a few minutes so that the flavors can marry. Sprinkle with reserved bacon; toss to coat. Taste and adjust seasonings with salt and pepper. Serve immediately. Serves: 6

— Adapted from “Lighten Up, Y’all: Classic Southern Recipes Made Healthy & Wholesome” by Virginia Willis (Ten Speed, $24.99).

Per serving: 172 calories (percent of calories from fat, 41), 4 grams protein, 22 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 8 grams fat (1 gram saturated), 2 milligrams cholesterol, 63 milligrams sodium.

“Fried Chicken: Recipes for the Crispy, Crunchy, Comfort-Food Classic” by Rebecca Lang

Athens cookbook writer Rebecca Lang traces her love of fried chicken to her Southern grandmother. Though the crispy bird is a mainstay of our region’s cuisine, it predates America by “thousands and thousands of years,” Lang writes in her new 60-recipe collection, due in stores next month. So while you’ll find instructions here for Real Southern Buttermilk Fried Chicken and Nathalie’s Fried Chicken With Cream Gravy (by Lang’s mentor Nathalie Dupree), you’ll also discover recipes from Latin America, Asia and Africa. Lang organizes chapters by cooking technique, so there are sections on skillet-fried, deep-fried and combination-fried chicken. And since Lang is the mother of two children, she’s perfected the art of the chicken tender. Camden’s Favorite Chicken Fingers, named for her son and served with two homemade sauces, are downright addictive. (When frying, just be sure to use use pure olive oil — not extra-virgin olive oil, which will burn at high temperature.) Next I’m eager to try her pineapple-juice-brined chicken with pineapple salsa and Sorghum Pecan Skillet Chicken. The latter sounds like the perfect thing to serve at breakfast with biscuits. Lang will sign books June 16, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., at Cook’s Warehouse at Ansley Mall.

Rebecca Lang’s Camden’s Favorite Chicken Fingers

2 cups all-purpose flour

1⁄2 cup unseasoned dry bread crumbs

2 teaspoons salt

1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 cups buttermilk

Pure olive oil, for frying

1 3⁄4 pounds chicken tenders (about 18 tenders)

Honey Mustard (see recipe), for serving

Comeback Sauce (see recipe), for serving

In a bowl, whisk together the flour, bread crumbs, salt, and pepper. Pour the buttermilk into another bowl.

In a large heavy skillet, heat 1⁄2 inch of olive oil over medium heat to 325 degrees. Set a wire rack over a rimmed baking sheet.

Working with half of the chicken tenders at a time, dip them in the buttermilk and dredge in the flour mixture. Stir the flour mixture often to keep the bread crumbs from settling to the bottom of the bowl.

Carefully place the tenders in the hot oil. Fry, turning often, for 8 to 10 minutes, or until golden brown and juices run clear. Maintain an oil temperature of 315 to 325 degrees.

Drain the pieces on the wire rack. Repeat with the remaining chicken.

Serve the chicken fingers with honey mustard and sauce. Serves: 4-6

— Adapted from “Fried Chicken: Recipes for the Crispy, Crunchy, Comfort-Food Classic” by Rebecca Lang (Ten Speed, $16.99).

Per serving, based on 4: 559 calories (percent of calories from fat, 36), 53 grams protein, 34 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 22 grams fat (4 grams saturated), 118 milligrams cholesterol, 821 milligrams sodium.

Homemade Honey Mustard

1⁄2 cup yellow mustard

1⁄2 cup honey

1 teaspoon lemon zest

1⁄4 teaspoon paprika

In a small bowl, whisk together the mustard, honey, lemon zest and paprika. Cover and store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. Makes: 1 cup

— Adapted from “Fried Chicken: Recipes for the Crispy, Crunchy, Comfort-Food Classic” by Rebecca Lang (Ten Speed, $16.99).

Per 1-tablespoon serving: 38 calories (percent of calories from fat, 7), trace protein, 9 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, trace fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 94 milligrams sodium.

Comeback Sauce

1⁄2 cup mayonnaise

1⁄4 cup chili sauce, such as Heinz

2 tablespoons ketchup

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

3 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 1⁄2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

1⁄4 teaspoon paprika

1⁄8 teaspoon garlic powder

1⁄8 teaspoon onion powder

1⁄8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

In a small bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, chili sauce, ketchup, Dijon mustard, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, paprika, garlic powder, onion powder and cayenne pepper. Cover and store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. Makes: 1 1/4 cups

— Adapted from “Fried Chicken: Recipes for the Crispy, Crunchy, Comfort-Food Classic” by Rebecca Lang (Ten Speed, $16.99).

Per 1-tablespoon serving: 50 calories (percent of calories from fat, 91), trace protein, 1 gram carbohydrates, trace fiber, 5 grams fat (1 gram saturated), 2 milligrams cholesterol, 63 milligrams sodium.

“The Broad Fork: Recipes for the Wide World of Vegetables and Fruit” by Hugh Acheson

I love Hugh Acheson’s books because I can tell he’s a reader, a thinker, a culinary explorer — forever connecting his Canadian past with his Southern present. Fruits and vegetables are a constant obsession for the Athens-based chef (who in 2012 won two James Beard Awards — for his first book, “A New Turn in the South,” and Best Chef Southeast) and they are the subject of a beautiful new volume that’s well timed for the growing season. The first thing you’ll want to do is turn to the spring and summer chapters, get out your stickies and head to the farmers market. I’ve earmarked Green Garlic Soup With Poached Egg and Crisp Croutons; Radish and Cucumber Sandwiches (a buttered-bread snack that is simplicity itself); and Perfect Pan-Roasted Chicken Breasts With Creamed Corn, Lemongrass, and Crisp Shallots. As always, Acheson is in tune with Southern ingredients. I’m smitten with his idea for Roasted Poblano and Pecan Guacamole and am looking forward to making his fig jam when the fruit appears in late summer. For this story, I tested Acheson’s super-simple and beautiful raspberry cobbler. The fruit comes out bright red, while the crust, made with a bit of cornmeal, has the texture of golden spoon bread. I love that Acheson dedicates the dish to Southern-food icon Edna Lewis and her protege, Scott Peacock, who apparently once turned out a like-minded cobbler, soupy with berry juice and topped with biscuits. You can also try this dessert with other fruit, such as blueberries, blackberries or a combination thereof.

Hugh Acheson’s Raspberry Cobbler with Drop Biscuit Topping

3 pints fresh raspberries

¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar

½ cup all-purpose flour

¼ cup cornmeal

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon sea salt

¼ pound (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, diced

1/2 cup buttermilk, plus more as needed

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

1 teaspoon cornstarch

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees

In a medium-size mixing bowl, combine the raspberries with the ¼ cup sugar and set aside to macerate at room temperature for 1 hour.

In a food processor, combine the remaining 1 tablespoon sugar, flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, and sea salt. Pulse to combine; then add butter. Pulse until the butter flakes into small pieces. Add the buttermilk and pulse until just combined; if the dough is not holding together, add more buttermilk, 1 teaspoon at a time, until it forms a soft, wet, but not soupy dough. Remove dough from the processor and set aside.

Add the lemon zest and cornstarch to the raspberries, stir to combine, and place the mixture in a small baking dish or cast-iron skillet. Dollop spoonfuls of the biscuit topping over the raspberries. Bake for 35-45 minutes, or until the topping is golden brown and the fruit is bubbly. Serve warm or at room temperature. Serves: 6

— Adapted from “The Broad Fork: Recipes for the Wide World of Vegetables and Fruit” by Hugh Acheson (Clarkson Potter, $35).

Per serving: 308 calories (percent of calories from fat, 46), 4 grams protein, 39 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams fiber, 16 grams fat (10 grams saturated), 42 milligrams cholesterol, 393 milligrams sodium.

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