You don’t need to tell chef Sean Brock that Southern food is among the most respected and cherished cuisines in the world. He’s well aware of that fact, thank you very much, which certainly makes sense: He’s the chef behind Husk, a revered Southern restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, and formerly ran the kitchens at McCrady’s Restaurant, another Charleston spot.
But what most people don’t know—and what Sean is on a mission to change—is that food from the South hardly embodies its oft-proclaimed stereotypes. Sure, there is Southern food that’s greasy and heavy and dunked in a pitcher of butter, but that merely scrapes the surface. Southern food is actually quite diverse, seasonally forward, and constantly evolving, a blending of farm-centric ingredients and the South’s storied history.
Sean showcases that coalescence in his new cookbook “South,” a tome flush with both his favorite Southern recipes and a smattering of his own modern concoctions, too. You’ll find the likes of fried green tomatoes and crackly cornbread, grilled spring lamb slick with rhubarb butter and homey sweet potato pie. The cookbook is offset with advice straight from Sean—written as if he were simply chatting with a friend—where he walks cooks through a number of Southern cuisine-focused techniques, including preserving and canning tips, how to take care of a cast iron pan, and how to make the best butter you’ll ever have the pleasure of spreading on toast.
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Below, learn the ins and outs of cooking a pot of greens (it’s all about one strong, umami ingredient!), and try your hand at Sean’s traditional shrimp and grits. It’s a quick and easy one-pot dish, flecked with button mushrooms, country ham, and a squeeze of lemon juice. After spooning into that first bite of grits, you’ll finally understand what Sean is preaching.
South: Essential Recipes and New Explorations, $31.49 on Amazon
Excerpted from South by Sean Brock (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2019.
How to Cook a Pot of Greens
I cook greens a different way almost every time, depending on what I’ve found at the market, the time of year, and even whom I’m cooking them for. But at the core of my method is a simple idea: adding as little liquid as possible. It’s all about extracting the natural “potlikker” from whatever greens you’re cooking, whether collards, turnip or mustard greens, or some combination. Success starts with your pot selection: Go for one that is wider than it is tall, like a French-style rondeau, with a tight-fitting lid.
At the base of a good pot of greens is a smoky, meaty, umami-rich ingredient. This could be any number of things, from belly and jowl bacon or a ham hock to something less traditional, like dried shrimp or dried oysters. I set the pot over high heat and add a tablespoon or two of fresh rendered lard, depending on how much (if any) fat is going to render out of whatever umami ingredient I’m using. Then I cook the umami ingredient until its fat has rendered and it is evenly browned and fragrant, stirring frequently to keep it from burning and turning bitter.
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At this point, I throw in a julienned large sweet onion and cook, stirring, until the onion just starts to give way and turn translucent. Then it’s time to start adding the greens. I add three or four good handfuls of greens that have been thoroughly washed, stemmed (if the stems are tough), and cut into ribbons about an inch wide. After a quick sprinkling of salt (more for releasing liquid than seasoning), I get in there with my hands (double up on latex gloves to do this, because the pot is hot, and the gloves also make it easier to manipulate the greens; or just use a pair of tongs) and start pushing the greens into the bottom of the pot, kind of smearing them around in the onions and lard, squeezing them to encourage them to give up their flavorful juices. As they wilt slightly, I add another three or four handfuls—mixing, squeezing, pushing—along with another sprinkling of salt, and I repeat the process until I’ve added all the greens.
By now, the greens should have released quite a bit of liquid, and the cooking process becomes more like a braise. If it seems that the greens are being stubborn and there isn’t quite enough liquid to cook them, I add moisture to the pan in the form of beer. You need to be careful here, though. You want to add it only a splash at a time, just enough liquid to encourage a little more steam in the pot, or you run the risk of adding too much liquid and diluting that flavor you’ve worked so hard for.
When all the greens are wilted, I reduce the heat to low, cover the pot, and braise the greens. A tight-fitting lid is really important here. It keeps all that hard-earned natural potlikker in the pot, and the greens cook faster than they would just boiling away uncovered. From this point on, I check the greens every few minutes, making sure I don’t overcook them. How far to take them depends on the greens, the time of year (late-season collards, for example, can be pretty tough), and how they’re going to be served. I prefer greens at the moment when they are just tender, before they lose that vegetal flavor, that vibrancy. When cooked this way, they have a lot more to offer from a nutritional standpoint too.
The last thing to do is a final seasoning, if necessary. Simplicity reigns supreme here. The greens ought to be just salty enough, as I’ve added a little salt with each addition of greens to the pot, but I taste to make sure. Then I finish them off with a little cider vinegar for acidity and hot sauce for bite. With patience, effort, and time, you can cook a pot of greens that captures those natural flavors that too often get diluted or hidden, giving you a dish that warms the body and the soul.
Cuisinart 622-36H Chef's Classic Nonstick 14-Inch Skillet, $35.32 on Amazon
Traditional Shrimp and Grits Recipe
This is shrimp and grits at its simplest. It’s a quick, easy, one-pan dish, and it is the only way I cook shrimp and grits at home. The recipe is a tribute to the late chef Bill Neal, of Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He was one of the first chefs to celebrate the dish and elevate it into the realm of the restaurant. Bill’s vision made it possible for chefs, including me, to serve shrimp and grits in restaurants all over the South. Making this dish is my chance to pay back that debt.
Traditional Shrimp and Grits
- ½ cup all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus more for seasoning
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more for seasoning
- 1 teaspoon canola oil
- 2 ounces country ham, preferably Bob Wood’s, cut into ¼-inch dice
- 1 pound 21–25-count shrimp, preferably local, peeled and deveined
- 4 ounces small button mushrooms, washed, dried, and quartered
- ¼ cup thinly sliced scallions
- ½ cup vegetable stock
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, diced
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 1 recipe Stovetop Grits, just cooked and still warm
- Combine the flour, salt, and pepper in a shallow bowl, mix well, and set aside.
- Heat the canola oil in a large skillet over medium heat, add the ham, and cook, stirring frequently, until the fat has rendered and the ham is crisp, about 3 minutes.
- Lightly dredge the shrimp in the seasoned flour, shaking off any excess, and carefully add them to the hot skillet. Cook until lightly browned on the first side, 1 to 2 minutes. Turn the shrimp, add the mushrooms and scallions, and cook until the other side of the shrimp is lightly browned and the mushrooms and scallions begin to soften, about 2 minutes. Add the vegetable stock, bring to a simmer, and cook until it has reduced by half and the shrimp are just cooked through, about 2 minutes. Stir in the butter and lemon juice and season lightly with salt and pepper.
- Give the grits a good stir, then divide them among warmed bowls. Spoon the shrimp and mushrooms, with their broth, on top.
Header image courtesy of Peter Frank Edwards