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A Perfect Collection of Southern Comfort for Fall

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A Perfect Collection of Southern Comfort for Fall

Soul-warming recipes that harken back to the days when the kitchen was king

Nancie McDermott, author of the new cookbook Southern Soups and Stews (Chronicle Books), sees herself as a food detective. Book by book and recipe by recipe, McDermott says she followed the clues and inspiration for this beautiful collection of 75 comfort foods.

“I ended up with a beautiful abundance of dishes worth remembering,” McDermott says.

She says her criteria for what made it into the cookbook was that the recipe had to be “wonderful to eat and doable in a 21st century kitchen.” The book offers some great recipes for soups and stews that include home cooking and restaurant cuisine.

Much of the book is anchored in family and tradition, McDermott’s and others. It also has stories that cross culture, class and race to reflect the history of the Southern table in all its forms. “My grandfather’s Christmas Eve oyster stew was the seed for the chapter of clams and oysters,” McDermott says. But it was her friend from New Orleans, writer Pableaux Johnson’s weekly gathering over red beans and rice that moved her beyond gumbo in addressing the great food of Louisiana.

And speaking of gumbo recipes, McDermott says people need to get over their fear of making the roux, the base for many soups and stews. The recipe for a good roux is only two ingredients, oil and flour, but it has brought many home cooks to tears. “The only thing you need is time and patience,” McDermott says. “It isn’t difficult, but it can be boring or intimidating, depending on your attitude. The biggest ‘wrong’ is not even starting, out of fear of messing it up, making a mistake, but you learn to do it by doing it.”

We have a love hate relationship with Southern food these days. We love to eat it and we love to complain that Southern food is the root of unhealthy eating and obesity. But that isn’t a reason to shy away from Southern Soups and Stews. McDermott says good food from the South has gotten a bad rap.

She says the habits we’ve gotten into after World War II, when the world changed and the connection between the kitchen and the garden got broken, is the issue. “We also got busy, and had more options, including inappropriately cheap chicken, fast food everywhere all the time, an explosion in the idea of what portions are, and we got more sedentary.” She calls it a perfect storm of factors, most of it subtle and entwined with big overall changes.

While she loves fried chicken, gravy, biscuits, pork chops and caramel cake, McDermott says her family traditionally ate them for special Sunday dinner. Those dinners would also be loaded with side dishes that included plenty of vegetables, including green beans, butterbeans, corn, sliced tomatoes, refrigerator pickles, squash casserole and turnip greens with cider vinegar on the side.

“We’ve forgotten a lot, and lost a sense of what food can mean in our day, and a sense that cooking at home is worth some time and some energy,” she says. “We’re remembering, and moving back in that direction, and I see Southern food as the solution not the problem.”

McDermott says it was the food and stories that drew her in. “Sometimes it was a personal story, mine or someone else’s, and sometimes the story is an ingredient, like fresh field peas or dried pinto beans or okra.” She wanted a range of regional dishes, “and that happened, with recipes from Washington, D.C., to Pensacola, [Florida,] and Cajun country and up to Kentucky and the Blue Ridge mountains.”

McDermott says it wasn’t easy to decide which soups and stewsmade the cut, but “it’s good that I had a count to meet and a deadline to make me stop. It’s not all there is out there, not even close. But it’s a very good start.”

It is a great start, and will have you cooking up a storm.

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Andrea King Collier