Noted chef Sean Brock’s new cookbook, Heritage, is more than simply a collection of time-honored recipes forged in the kitchens of his restaurants Husk and McCrady’s. While his chosen specialty within Southern cuisine is Low Country cuisine, the particular food heritage of the Carolinas, he asserts that Southern cuisine is at least as diverse as European cuisine, a fact that is often lost on outsiders.
But Heritage is also more than simply a cookbook about a particular cuisine. It is a manifesto, a blueprint, an assertion of a culinary philosophy adaptable to any regional cuisine. In Heritage Sean Brock sings from the hallowed past (he collects and studies ninteteenth-century cookbooks), his recipes authentic and painstakingly researched, while advocating for the return of lost and nearly forgotten heritage crops such as benne.
While he has a reverence for what has come before, however, he also advises the home cook to be adaptable to circumstances. Adaptability is perhaps the most universal of all the virtues available to the Southern cook. He advises the home cook to use the freshest and best available local produce, even if it means that the recipe may not be ‘authentic’ per se. The soul of Southern cooking transcends the particular details of what ingredients may or may not be available.
Heritage is divided into nine chapters: “The Garden” (salads and vegetable dishes), “The Mill” (breads and other grain-based recipes), “The Yard” (recipes with poultry or eggs), “The Pasture” (pork, rabbit, or lamb), “The Creek and the Sea” (fish recipes, as much freshwater as from the sea), “The Larder” (pickled, preserved, or “put-up” food recipes), “The Public House” (recipes for parties, easily paired with a good cocktail), “The Sweet Kitchen” (traditional Southern desserts, like Chocolate Chess Pie) and “The Basics” (recipes for various spice mixtures, oils, salad dressings, stocks, and sauces).
In “The Garden” Brock reveals the soul of his culinary philosophy:
So my aims are twofold: to help bring the small local farmer back to prominence by respecting the work of local growers and to encourage farmers to reach back beyond the hybrid varieties, wasteful practices, and chemical inputs that have transformed agriculture (and the taste of food) over the last century. Only by reclaiming the flavors unique to Charleston or Nashville, or any locale, can we begin to move forward. Otherwise, no one will even know what’s missing, and we will have lost forever a tradition that transcends the mere practice of producing food. Authentic food must engage its geographic culture—it must reflect a way of life.”
I adapted Sean’s traditional Hoppin’ John recipe to my Arkansas home kitchen. Hoppin’ John is a culinary reminder of our past, the cow-peas brought from Western Africa long ago by men and women sold into slavery, lovingly preserving this living link to their distant home. Rather than use the traditional black-eyed peas used in Sean’s recipe, I used Arkansas grown purple-hull peas (I have an affection for them born from memories of helping my grandmother hull purple-hulls on her Northern Mississippi porch years ago).
I included the diced carrots and onion, but rather than use celery I used sweet red bell pepper. Rather than use thyme I used ground coriander and whole allspice, and in place of the cayenne pepper I used a sweeter Chamayo red pepper, somewhat like a cross between an assertive paprika and cayenne pepper. The result was deeply satisfying, rich, and almost creamy.
Heritage is a cookbook worthy of any thoughtful and soul-filled Southern kitchen. The recipes are easily adaptable, exciting, and delicious. I would encourage you to purchase a copy as soon as you can. It’s a resource you’ll come back to again and again, I’m sure, and it may even sow seed for new thoughts about old traditions and fresh opportunities in your own kitchen—Southern or not.
Sean Brock’s Low Country Hoppin’ John
2 quarts Pork Stock or Chicken Stock
1 Cup Anson Mills Sea Island Red Peas, soaked in a pot of water in the refrigerator over night
1 1/2 cups medium dice onions
1 cup medium dice peeled carrots
1 1/2 cups medium dice celery
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 fresh bay leaf
10 thyme sprigs
1/2 jalapeño, chopped
4 cups water
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 cup Anson Mills Carolina Gold Rice
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed
Red Pea Gravy:
Reserved 1 cup cooked red peas
Reserved 2 cups cooking liquid from peas
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Sliced chives or scallions for garnish
For the Peas: Bring the stock to a simmer in a small pot. Drain the peas and add to the stock, along with all of the remaining ingredients except the salt. Cook the peas, partially covered, over low heat until they are soft, about 1 hour. Season to taste with salt. (The peas can be cooked ahead and refrigerated in their liquid for up to 3 days; reheat, covered, over low heat before proceeding.)
Drain the least, reserving their cooking liquid, and measure out 1 cup peas and 2 cups liquid for the gravy; return the rest of the peas and liquid to the pot and keep warm.
For the Rice: About 45 minutes before the peas are cooked, preheat the oven to 300F. Bring the water, salt, cayenne pepper to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium, add the rice, stir once, and bring to a simmer. Simmer gently, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the rice is al dente, about 15 minutes. Drain the rice in a sieve and rinse under cold water.
Spread the rice out on a rimmed baking sheet. Dry the rice in the oven, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Scatter the butter evenly over the rice and continue to dry, stirring every few minutes, for about 5 minutes longer. All excess moisture should have evaporated and the grains should be dry and separate.
For the Gravy: Put 1 cup peas, 2 cups cooking liquid, and the butter in a blender and blend on high until smooth, about 3 minutes. Add cider vinegar to taste. (Gravy can be made up to 3 days ahead and kept in a covered container in the refrigerator; reheat, covered, over the lowest possible heat, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching.)
To Complete: Use a slotted spoon to transfer the peas to a large serving bowl. Add the rice and carefully toss the rice and peas together. Pour gravy over them, sprinkle with chives or scallions, and serve.
Serves 6 to 8