Southern Comfort

Southern Comfort

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Tips and tricks for preparing classic dishes from the South at home.

If lazy summer days have you thinking about cookouts, cold drinks, and the comforts of Southern food, why not try making it at home? The following tried-and-true Southern recipes are sure to tantalize your taste buds and feed your soul.

Shrimp and Grits: A Low-Country Classic

When asked what makes shrimp and grits so special, Alex Downing, chef de cuisine at The Club at Rancharrah in South Reno, quickly replies, “It’s just good old Southern food.”

Creole Shrimp and Sausage with Pimiento Cheese Grits prepared by Alex Downing

This low-country Southern Creole dish was traditionally eaten at breakfast time by the Gullah Geechee, African Americans who were enslaved on the plantations of the lower Atlantic coast.

Now shrimp and grits are eaten any time of day, and enthusiasts of the dish can find hundreds of variations of the recipe.

“It’s hard to nail down exactly what the traditional recipe actually is,” Downing says. “In some cases, it’s just basic shrimp and grits. I try to create more of an homage to the classic modern recipe but a more elevated and involved version, mostly with the sauce served over it that takes hours to prepare.”

Downing sautés shrimp for shrimp and grits at his Reno home

Some of Downing’s secrets include choosing shell-on shrimp to impart more flavor into the meat and sautéing them, hot and fast, to form a crust. He also suggests using Anson Mills or freshly ground grits for added texture and flavor.

“Grits sometimes just taste like Cream of Wheat,” he says. “It’s best to get freshly ground because there is a much better texture and a nice toasted flavor. And don’t forget a whole lot of butter.”

Adding more umami, or savoriness, is another key to amping up the dish, Downing says. He achieves this with creamy, spicy pimiento cheese.

What brings the whole dish together, though, is the smooth, rich gravy.

“I approach the Creole shrimp sauce much like a pasta sauce by first rendering cured meat, adding aromatics, and cooking it down over time so that the sauce becomes rich and velvety,” he says.

Whenever you’re in the mood for a Southern comfort classic, try your hand at Downing’s version of shrimp and grits.

Creole Shrimp and Pimiento Cheese Grits

(courtesy of Alex Downing, chef de cuisine, The Club at Rancharrah in Reno. Serves 4) 

Pimiento cheese

2 cups extra-sharp Cheddar cheese, grated
2, 4-ounce jars diced pimientos, drained well
½ cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper sauce
Salt and pepper, to taste

Combine all ingredients in food processor and blend until well combined, slightly thickened, but still somewhat chunky. Let the mixture rest in the refrigerator at least 30 minutes.

Pimiento cheese grits

1 cup white grits
3 cups chicken stock
1 cup heavy cream
2 knobs of butter (a knob is a lump — about 1 to 2 tablespoons each)
½ cup pimiento cheese
Salt and pepper, to taste

Once pimiento cheese has rested in the refrigerator and is ready to use, combine grits, stock, cream, and butter in a pot over medium-high heat. Once it’s simmering, turn heat to low and continue stirring to avoid lumps, about 10 to 15 minutes for regular grits, or 3 to 5 minutes for quick grits. Fold in pimiento cheese and add salt and pepper, to taste.

Creole shrimp sauce

½ cup bacon, minced
2 andouille sausages, sliced
1 teaspoon butter
½ cup green bell pepper, diced
½ cup celery, diced
1 cup onion, diced
2 tablespoons garlic, minced
1, 12-ounce can San Marzano crushed tomatoes
1 cup chicken stock (preferably homemade)
1 bay leaf
Cajun seasoning, to taste (adjusting for desired heat level)
Salt and pepper, to taste
Gumbo filé, an herbal powder made from the dried, ground leaves of the sassafras tree (optional)

Add butter, andouille sausage, and minced bacon to a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Stir occasionally until bacon begins to brown but isn’t yet crispy. Turn heat to high and add onions, celery, and bell pepper. Sauté until fragrant (about 5 minutes). Add garlic and sauté another 2 minutes. Add canned tomatoes (carefully, as they may spatter). Stir and cook until sauce begins to darken and caramelize. Add chicken stock, bay leaf, Cajun seasoning, salt, and a generous amount of cracked black pepper. Turn heat to medium and simmer until sauce thickens, about 10 minutes. If you like, remove from heat and mix in 1 teaspoon of gumbo filé powder for an extra-sweet, earthy flavor.

To assemble Creole shrimp and grits dish

1 pound 16/20 prawns
1 tablespoon Cajun seasoning of choice
Pinch of baking soda
1 tablespoon olive oil
Optional: green onions, shredded Cheddar cheese, gumbo filé, and minced basil, for garnish

Pat shrimp very dry with a paper towel. Heat a heavy-bottomed saucepan on high. Allow pan to heat until water droplets dance on the surface. Coat bottom with a high-smoke-point neutral oil, such as canola, lard, or ghee. Add shrimp, settling until all are lying flat. Allow to sear and develop a deep brown, almost charred crust on one side before turning heat to medium low and adding a few generous scoops of Creole shrimp sauce. Beware, the sauce may spatter; it’s a good idea to keep lid handy to prevent a mess. Simmer 5 minutes and remove from heat.

Serve immediately over pimiento cheese grits. If you like, garnish with chopped green onions, shredded cheese, gumbo filé, and minced basil.

And, as always, add more hot sauce.

Cajun Crawfish Stir-Fry

(courtesy of Alex Downing, chef de cuisine, The Club at Rancharrah

in Reno. Serves 4)

¼ cup green bell pepper, minced
¼ cup celery, minced
½ cup onion, minced
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
1 pound live crawfish
2 tablespoons Cajun seasoning
½ cup chicken stock or beer
Salt and pepper, to taste
Louisiana hot sauce, to taste
Cornstarch slurry, to thicken (combine equal parts cornstarch and cold water until smooth)
Garnish: Green onions and crispy fried garlic

Heat a large wok on high until near smoking, then coat with oil. Add bell pepper, onion, and celery, and sauté until translucent. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant. Add crawfish and Cajun seasoning and toss until homogenous. Add chicken stock (or beer) and cover. Steam about 5 minutes and uncover. Add seasoning, hot sauce, and cornstarch slurry. Sauté until sauce thickens and crawfish look glossy. Transfer to plate, and garnish with scallions and fried garlic (found at any Asian grocery store).

Fried Okra

(courtesy of Alex Downing, chef de cuisine, The Club at Rancharrah in

Reno. Serves 4)

1 pound whole, fresh okra
½ cup buttermilk
¾ cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup potato starch
1 cup corn meal
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
Salt and pepper, to taste

Combine all dry ingredients with a whisk. Using edge of a butter knife, lightly scratch entire surface of okra; this will allow breading to adhere more effectively. Coat okra in buttermilk, drip off excess, and, in batches, add to corn meal mixture. Roll each piece to evenly coat, and transfer to sheet pan lined with parchment. Heat deep fryer or heavy-bottomed, deep, cast-iron pan to 350 degrees F. Working in batches, carefully add okra to hot oil, making sure pieces do not stick to each other or bottom of pan. Fry for 4 minutes or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels.

Fried Chicken

(courtesy of Alex Downing, chef de cuisine, The Club at Rancharrah in

Reno. Serves 4)

For this recipe, you’ll marinate the chicken for several hours (or overnight) before dredging and deep-frying chicken.

For marinade

4 each of chicken legs, thighs, and drumsticks, separated
2 cups buttermilk
1 tablespoon Louisiana hot sauce
2 tablespoons Cajun seasoning
2 tablespoons Lawry’s Seasoned Salt
1 tablespoons ground black pepper

Combine all marinade ingredients, and toss chicken to coat. Optionally, transfer to zip-lock bag, squeezing out all excess air and allowing chicken to marinate for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight. Remove from refrigerator 1 hour before cooking. Do not discard marinade (it will be used for fried chicken).

For chicken coating

4 cups cake flour
1 cup potato starch
2 tablespoons baking powder
4 tablespoons Lawry’s Seasoned Salt
2 tablespoons Cajun seasoning
2 tablespoons poultry seasoning
2 tablespoons onion powder
2 tablespoons garlic powder
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
4 tablespoons ground black pepper

Combine all ingredients in large mixing bowl, and set aside.

To make fried chicken

Preheat oven to 200 degrees F.

Drizzle a small amount of the buttermilk marinade over the dry mixture, and, using your fingers or a whisk, mix until tiny clumps distribute throughout mixture. Drain chicken well, and, working in batches, roll each piece in the coating mix to cover evenly. Once finished, bury dredged chicken in remaining dredge mixture, and allow to sit while deep fryer comes up to temperature, 300 degrees F. Once fryer is heated, working in batches (do not overcrowd!), shake off excess coating and carefully lower into hot oil. Fry until a thermometer in the deepest part of the thigh registers 165 degrees F (about 12 to 15 minutes). When one batch is finished, transfer to a sheet pan lined with a rack, and keep warm in oven until remaining batch(es) are finished.

Fried Bacon Mac and Cheese: Southern Classic with a Twist

Sometimes a twist on a classic becomes a classic itself. That’s the case with the fried bacon mac and cheese at BJ’s Nevada Barbecue Co. in Sparks.

It all started when the restaurant had leftover homemade macaroni and cheese that the staff didn’t want to scrap.

“We needed to find a way to repurpose the product,” says Jay Rathmann, BJ’s chef/owner. “We didn’t want to throw it out.”

This top-selling appetizer starts out with the restaurant’s original macaroni and cheese dish, which is made with Velveeta and Cheddar cheeses. Bacon, panko crumbs, and more cheese sauce are added to leftover mac and cheese, and it’s then shaped into loaves, baked, and cooled in the refrigerator.

When the appetizer is ordered, a rectangular portion is cut from the loaf, breaded, deep fried, and topped with more creamy cheese sauce and green onions.

“Customers love it,” Rathmann says. “It’s one of those dishes that you don’t see that much, and it’s homemade.”

And if you’re looking for another savory Southern side dish, try Rathmann’s Southern baked corn recipe, another customer favorite at BJ’s.

Fried Bacon Mac and Cheese

(courtesy of Jay Rathmann, chef/owner, BJ’s Nevada Barbecue Co. in Sparks. Serves 8 to 10)

For this dish, you’ll first prepare the mac and cheese, then cook and cool it in a loaf, as the staff at BJ’s does. Once it’s cool, you’ll cut a slice to make the fried bacon mac and cheese.

Cheese sauce

4 tablespoons salted butter
1 tablespoon shallots, minced
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups half and half
¼ teaspoon turmeric
¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
1 pinch cayenne powder
1 pinch nutmeg
1 pound Velveeta cheese, cubed
2 cups Cheddar cheese, shredded

Mac and cheese

8 cups cooked macaroni noodles (1 pound dry)
6 cups cheese sauce
1½ cups panko breadcrumbs
½ pound softly cooked, chopped bacon (1 pound uncooked)

Melt butter in saucepan on medium heat. Add shallots and cook until translucent. With a whisk, add flour and stir to incorporate. Cook roux mixture 2 minutes, whisking constantly to make sure it doesn’t brown. Add half and half and all spices, then whisk until there are no lumps. Once mixture has thickened, add cheese and whisk until smooth. Reserve any remaining sauce for plating.

Add cooked noodles, cheese sauce, panko breadcrumbs, and bacon pieces to a bowl, and mix until combined. Pour into a 2-inch, half-size hotel pan lined with plastic wrap. Press mixture into pan so there are no air pockets. Place another piece of plastic wrap on top. Place into a bain-marie, or water bath, to ensure edges don’t overcook, and place in a 225 degree F preheated oven. Cook for 2 to 2½ hours or until very firm. Cool in refrigerator overnight.

Breading mixture

2 cups panko breadcrumbs (Japanese style)
2 cups plain breadcrumbs
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon kosher salt

Combine all ingredients in bowl and reserve.

Egg wash

4 to 5 large eggs
¼ cup water

In small bowl, whisk eggs and water together and reserve.

To assemble fried bacon mac and cheese dish

Remove chilled bacon mac and cheese from refrigerator and remove from pan. Cut pieces 2 inches by 3 inches in size. Stand pieces on edge and cut in half to create two pieces half as thick. Dip into egg wash, then breading mixture and coat evenly. Heat frying pan coated in oil to 350 degrees F for 4 to 5 minutes or until golden brown and cooked through. Reheat reserved cheese sauce for drizzling over finished bites.

Southern Baked Corn

(courtesy of Jay Rathmann, chef/owner, BJ’s Nevada Barbecue Co. in Sparks. Serves 8 to 10)

2, 29.5-ounce cans creamed corn
3 cups frozen or fresh corn
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
1 cup onion, diced
1 cup celery, diced
¾ cup milk
1 cup Cheddar cheese, shredded
3 tablespoons butter
1 large egg
½ tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper

Mix all ingredients in bowl until combined, add mixture to greased casserole dish, and bake at 325 degrees F for 35 to 45 minutes or until center reaches 165 degrees F.

Kymberly Drake is a Reno-based freelance writer with endless curiosity about food and drink and the sources that help bring it to our tables.

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