Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Chef Joe Truex offers milk and cookies, thoughts on Southern cuisine

Chef Joe Truex of Watershed in Decatury by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Joe Truex believes in terroir, as a chef, wine connoisseur and a native Southerner. That’s how Truex, the chef at Watershed in Decatur, Georgia, explains the enduring national appeal of Southern cuisine. The Louisiana native spoke recently at the American Culinary Federation’s Southeastern conference at the Hilton Atlanta. In describing what makes Southern cuisine both elusive and enduring, Truex told the audience of culinary students and professional chefs that geography and provenance make a difference.

“The South is steeped in tradition,” he said. “As a chef, it’s my responsibility to explore that, to find products and techniques that are new and interesting.”

Truex feels strongly about sourcing ingredients that taste great, and also to accommodate customers with special needs, such as those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance. He uses rice flour from Anson Mills to reduce the amount of gluten in sweets like the Charleston Scotch Cake that he served the audience. The buttery cookie, very much like a shortbread, was sandy and crisp, lighter than a typical shortbread. Truex served it with horchata made from Carolina Gold Rice and almonds; a chef’s take on milk and cookies.

Truex called on the professionals and students in the room to creatively explore Southern cuisine. “The South needs to define itself and further, and at the same time, it needs to expand.” By using heritage ingredients, or ingredients from another cuisine, Truex hopes to “take something old and familiar and make it new and exciting.”

Watershed Restaurant is a Decatur institution, and in Truex's words, "an icon of Southern dining." Founded by the Indigo Girls' Emily Saliers and chef Scott Peacock, its loyal following expects fried chicken on Tuesdays and Southern-cooked vegetables every day of the week. Chef Peacock, who wrote the book "The Gift of Southern Cooking" with his friend and collaborator, the legendary Edna Lewis, left the restaurant last year to pursue new projects. The personable Truex brings to the plate the same sourced-from-the-heart mentality as Peacock, and has plans to put his own stamp on the restaurant's menu, even if that means shaking things up a little bit, (and, even if that means taking the vegetable plate off the menu - loyal fans, don't say I didn't warn you.)

Shortbread by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Charleston Scotch Cake (Shortbread)
from Anson Mills
This is the cookie that Truex served at the conference. It is light and crispy and buttery.

1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 cup Anson Mills Carolina Gold Rice Flour

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon superfine sugar

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

5 ounces (10 tablespoons) cold, unsalted European-style butter, cut into pieces

1. Adjust the oven racks to the lower and upper third positions and heat the oven to 325 degrees. Turn the flours, 1/2 cup sugar, and salt into a food processor bowl and pulse to combine.

2. Distribute the butter over the dry ingredients in the food processor and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Run the processor without pulsing until the dough is very fine, about 10 seconds more. Turn the dough into an ungreased 9-inch cake pan and press down firmly and evenly with a small offset spatula or the back of a spoon. Place the pan on the lower oven rack and bake for 20 minutes.

3. Remove the pan from the oven. Working quickly, score the shortbread into 16 wedges with a sharp, thin knife, then pierce a design into each wedge with a wooden skewer. (Don't cut or pierce the dough completely through.) Return the pan to the oven and bake the shortbread on the lower rack 10 minutes more. Transfer the pan to the upper oven rack and continue baking until the shortbread is toasty brown, 30 to 40 minutes longer. Remove from the oven and place the pan on a wire rack. Sprinkle the shortbread with 1 tablespoon sugar and cut gently through the score marks with a sharp knife while the shortbread is still in the pan. Let cool completely. Remove the wedges from the pan with a small offset spatula. The shortbread will keep well wrapped for up to 2 weeks at room temperature.

My Lighter, Crispier Scottish Shortbread

This is my standard shortbread recipe, with 1/2 cup rice flour subbing for some of the unbleached a-p flour. The fleur de sel doesn't fully melt in the shortbread, giving small dabs of salty goodness throughout - kind of a grown-up taste, so you may want to go with table salt if you're feeding kids.

16 tablespoons unsalted butter, slightly softened

½ cup powder sugar (10X)

1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 cup rice flour (I used Bob's Red Mill)

¼ teaspoon salt, or fleur de sel, if you have it

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 325. In a mixer, cream butter and sugar. Gradually add flour and rice flour. Add salt and vanilla.

2. Line a rimmed baking sheet with a Silpat or parchment paper. Using a rolling pin, gently roll out the dough to 1/4 –inch thick, into 12-by-6-inch rectangle. Using a sharp knife, cut into 1-by-3-inch rectangles and place on baking sheet. Use a fork to dock the dough in a decorate fashion.

3. Bake at 325 for 20 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool. Store in an airtight container at room temperature. Enjoy with a cup of tea, or horchata, and a good book, like "Gift of Southern Cooking."

Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer, with the exception of Anson Mills' shortbread recipe and photo of Joe Truex.

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