Mac ‘n cheese, cornbread, creamy grits, fried oysters and just about anything thrown on the grill …no other cuisine can comfort your soul quite like Southern Food. And when that Southern food is served up all fancy like, as it is in Frank Stitt’s delicious cookbook, Southern Table, you’ve got a match made in…I don’t know, what’s something better than heaven? You’ve got a match made in the green room where Tina Fey and Amy Poehler hung out before the Golden Globes.
Dinners in my home usually consist of whatever mishmash I find in the fridge and whatever mood I’m in. The usual suspects are often involved: olive oil, garlic, sauteed mushrooms, caramelized onions, lemon, parsley, what have you – as well as a new culinary find I picked up that week: romanesco or fresh pasta from the Farmer’s Market, a new mustard we got in the shop, a bag of limes from Johnny’s mom’s tree. But, every now and then, I cuddle up with a good cookbook and get inspired and Frank Stitt’s Southern Table serves up inspiration in an all-you-can-eat buffet style kind of way. Assuming that buffet was considered one of the best restaurants in America, of course.
See, what ol’ Frankie (that’s what I’ve been calling him for years now) does is mix simple, classic Southern food with an extremely elegant technique, combining the rustic style that makes Southern food so special with a level of quality that makes Frank pretty freakin’ special, too.
Ok, so who is this guy and where is he from? Well, this good ol’ boy is the chef and owner of Highlands Bar and Grill, Bottega, and Chez Fonfon all located in Birmingham, Alabama. He’s the recipient of the James Beard Award for Best Chef:Southeast and has become a pretty big deal in the culinary world. His famed Highlands Bar and Grill was ranked fifth on its list of the fifty best restaurants in America by Gourmet. And when they say, “At Highlands Bar and Grill, Stitt embraces these southern traditions and blends them with worldly flavors and humble elegance. The result is food that no one anywhere can resist’” it’s easy to see why.
Here is the Highlands mission, according to their website:
“We serve a daily changing menu informed by classic French technique, incorporating the foods of our Southern region. We love the ever-changing basket that each harvest allows, from the first springtime shad roe to the blue-green live and kickin’ soft shell crabs that arrive a few weeks later. Summer’s shell beans, tomatoes, okra and watermelon bring a smile. The cooler weather game of venison and quail, root vegetables and greens creates sustenance. Our dishes are prepared with respect and restraint to allow each ingredient’s inherent goodness to shine through.”
All I know is the restaurant has an oyster bar and a daily libation – not a guarantee you’re getting a great restaurant, but a good indication that they may be on the right track.
Locals, if you want to sink your teeth into some good Southern culinary magic, might I suggest trying, or returning to, Indigenous. Chef Steve Phelps isn’t aiming for Southern cuisine, but his dedication to local, sustainable ingredients – which include treats from his weekends spent foraging in Florida’s foliage, as well as goodies dropped off by local customers from their burgeoning citrus trees – plus his ability to flaunt his highly-skilled technique without destroying the integrity of the ingredient or coming across too fussy, gives him a similar feel to Stitt. At least, it does in my book. I’ve never had a meal by Frank Stitt so I could be talking totally out of my ass here. Even if I’m way off, you will be tremendously happy to have eaten at Indigenous and by your dessert course you probably won’t even care who Frank Stitt is.
Anywho, get your paws on this book. It is chockablock with delicious recipes that have a heartiness to them, but their gourmet touch allows them to be deliciously rich without being sinfully decadent. Think Charred Corn Relish, Baked Oysters With Slab Bacon And Wilted Greens, Flounder With Lady Pea Succotash, Lamb Chops With French Lentils, and Peach Crostata. Seriously, try to tell me that doesn’t sound obscenely delicious.
The book also boasts: “In addition to regional recipes executed with finesse, Frank Stitt’s Southern Table profiles those people, places, and events that shape, and are shaped by, the culinary traditions of the South: and annual winter quail hunt amid the south Georgia pines; early-morning bartering among the produce vendors at the Alabama Farmers’ Market; Buddy “the Watermelon King” Payton, who can read a watermelon the way a palm reader reads the lines of your hand; the laden farmhouse table Stitt sat at as a child. In personal essays—and odes to favorite ingredients—Frank Stitt’s Alabama reveals itself to us.”
Well, the cover alone convinced me, but that little ditty made me a true believer.
Have you tried Frank Stitt’s restaurants or cookbooks? Do you want to now? Go on and try a recipe or two and let me know how they turn out.