Pros: beautifully designed, creative recipes
Cons: hard to keep open on the counter
Southern food is experiencing somewhat of a renaissance at the moment, and part of this new fascination can probably be linked to Hugh Acheson. At his restaurant, Five and Ten in Athens, Georgia, Hugh takes Southern traditional specialties and puts a creative culinary spin on them that elevates them to the kind of food you'd expect at a fancy restaurant. I haven't been to the restaurant, but if the book is any indication, he mostly succeeds.
The book itself is beautiful - thick pages with hand drawn designs and macro photography of finished dishes. It draws you in and makes your mouth start watering before you've even assembled an ingredient list. The photograph of the sweetbreads with baked grits was so luscious, it made me seriously consider trying the cut for the first time.
The recipe I originally chose to try was the squash casserole. This is a very traditional Southern side dish. Fresh summer squash, cream, and cheese, baked together beneath a layer of breadcrumbs until the whole thing is soft and warm and comforting. Hugh's version uses leek crema (which is delicious), two kinds of squash (traditional yellow squash and zucchini), and Parmesan subs in for the usual Cheddar. The leek crema was not difficult to make at all, although the timing on sweating the leeks maybe be off slightly. My stovetop could also run hot, it's possible. The casserole itself is a six-layer wonder, and I was salivating as it went into the oven. I pulled it out a little over half an hour later to disappointment, however. The squash was barely cooked, still crunchy in places, and the Parmesan flavor was almost non-existent. I could taste the good ideas underneath, but the recipe as written either needs to be edited or wasn't tested properly. In the traditional casserole the squash is partially cooked ahead of time. Going into the oven raw requires a much longer cooking time.
After the squash casserole disappointment, I decided to try another recipe from the book, convinced that Hugh's creations could really sing. I chose something simple, yet difficult for almost every cook to get right: lemonade. Hugh's version includes mint and rosemary with a vanilla bean thrown in to steep. The result is amazing. A complex, refreshing lemonade with just the right tartness balanced with just the right sweetness. I would serve this to the most discriminating Southern food fan. It's delicious.
Encouraged by my lemonade success, I'm going to keep working my way through the book. There's a fried okra salad and some smothered pork chops that are calling my name.
Lemonade with Vanilla, Mint, & Rosemary
8 cups (2 quarts) cold water
8 large lemons
1 cup granulated sugar
10 sprigs fresh mint
1/2 vanilla bean, scraped seeds and pod
1 sprig of fresh rosemary
Pour the water in a large pot over high heat and bring to a boil. While the water is coming to a boil, halve the lemons and juice them thoroughly. Place the juice and the juiced lemon halves in a large heat-proof nonreactive pot. Add the sugar, 2 sprigs of mint, the vanilla seeds and pod, and the rosemary.
Pour the boiling water over the mixture. Stir carefully and let sit for 20 minutes. Stir well again and strain out the solids, then discard them and pour the lemonade into Mason jars or a large pitcher and keep refrigerated until people get thirsty.
To serve, pour lemonade over ice in tall glasses, garnish each with a mint leaf, and sit on a porch.
Makes 2 quarts; or Serves 8