I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the origins of food and certain dishes. I can usually trace most of the dishes I’m interested in, to meals I had in my youth. My culinary style— and most of the foods I’m interested in— comes from meals I remember eating at home, at relative’s homes, and in various restaurants in Hattiesburg, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
What interests me most is to take a Southern staple and update it using modern styles and techniques. We’ve been doing that in our restaurants for 23 years. I dedicated an entire book to it, and I use that process at home, too.
My grandmother roasted a leg of lamb once a month during my childhood. She served it with asparagus, rice, gravy, some type of congealed salad that I never ate, and the lightest little biscuits you have ever eaten.
At Easter, the lamb meal took on an entirely different feel. Next to Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, this was the premiere meal of the year. An extra vegetable usually made the cut, and several dessert offerings were added to the Angel Food cake or pound cake that she always kept under glass.
I have fond memories of my grandmother’s table, though the one place where she dropped the ball was in the asparagus department. She never used fresh asparagus. Actually, I grew up thinking that I didn’t like asparagus because all I had ever eaten was canned asparagus. I was in my twenties before I ate properly cooked asparagus.
Canned asparagus doesn’t taste like asparagus at all. It tastes more like English peas than asparagus. One couldn’t purchase fresh asparagus in supermarkets when I was a kid. The South Mississippi of the 1960s was a culinary void for vegetables such as fresh asparagus.
Today, asparagus is one of the most common vegetables served in my home. My kids love it. I drizzle Extra Virgin olive oil on it, sprinkle a little Kosher salt over it, and broil it in the oven for four or five minutes. It comes out al dente and flavorful.
Our lamb meal has been updated, too. My grandmother made a simple pan gravy using the drippings from the roasted leg of lamb and beef stock. She occasionally added canned mushrooms to the gravy. When I cook lamb today, I reduce red wine in the skillet where the lamb was seared and add veal stock and fresh morels. I love morel mushrooms.
One of the greatest bounties of spring are the morels. If the morels are in, I know that spring has sprung. I was walking through the Purple Parrot kitchen last week and spotted a case of fresh morels and knew that copious clouds of pine pollen can’t be too far behind.
In my opinion, the best cooking tips a hat to the old and gives a nod to the new. As long as dedication to freshness and passion for creativity are part of the mix, some very interesting and delicious dishes can be created.