Simple Fresh Southern: Knockout Dishes with Down-Home Flavor

Simple Fresh Southern by Ted Lee '93

Ted '93 and Matt Lee

Reviewed by Catherine Newman '90

Don't be afraid of exterior mold. This is good, if not easily generalized advice, and it comes from Matt and Ted Lee's newest cookbook, Simple Fresh Southern. They're talking about country ham, that famous Southern funky of funkies that’s like the charcuterie equivalent of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. But this is not actually a “classic” regional cookbook. In fact, if you’re expecting them to lug around a deep-fried monolith of Southern food from the 1950s, you may be disappointed. “Southern cooking has always been a living art,” Ted explains to me. “It’s so much more interesting than people are letting it be.” And the Lee brothers—who were born in New York and raised in Charleston, S.C., and who, with their Buddy Holly glasses and joie de vivre, are as adorable and enthusiastic as a pair of hipster Julia Childs—are never not interesting. As they explain in the book’s introduction, “Southern soul doesn’t come from any one thing, whether it’s a mayonnaise jar, a deep fryer, or even a quail trap.” Wishing otherwise stinks of something, doesn't it? An unsavory kind of nostalgia for some elusive kind of authenticity. And besides, your quail trap’s probably in the shop.

The recipes are thick with traditional ingredients—corn meal and buttermilk, collards and shrimp and bourbon—but they’re understood through the premise of freshness: freshness of outlook, Ted explains, and freshness in the farm-to-table sense. Grits are not smothered in cheese and greens are not smothered in pig and yes, I was disappointed at first, but I can always get my lard fix from their earlier collection, the James Beard Award-winning The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, which is nearly 600 pages and could well be described as “definitive” Still, there's no orthodoxy one way or another in the new book, and it’s no dieting primer: a Pimento-Cheese Potato Gratin is as bubblingly orange and wickedly molten as an au gratin served to you by Satan; the recipe for Creamy Sweet-Onion Soup serves four, contains two sticks of butter and a pint of heavy cream, and should probably be served with a side of defibrillator. In truth, though, these are the exceptions. The recipes are largely balanced and beautiful, mouthwateringly bright with vinegar, citrus, peppers and smoke, and illustrated with the kind of saturated full-page photographs that make you realize you’ve attached yourself to the book with a long string of drool.

“We love eating,” Ted explains, simply. “We have always been hungry people.” Happily, the brothers managed to parlay this hunger into a whole career, starting with a college-grad experiment in aimlessness—to recreate the boiled peanuts of their youth on a Brooklyn stovetop. It turned first into a thriving mail-order business (you can still order a Lee Bros. Boiled Peanuts Catalogue—and you should, if not to order an “I brake for boiled peanuts” bumper sticker or the nuts themselves then to admire its wonkily-stitched binding and comically vague line drawings), and then into a series of illustrious writing gigs: Matt and Ted Lee became columnists for, among other publications Food & Wine, Travel + Leisure, and The New York Times.

This was around the time I first heard about them, because The New York Times can feel a bit like the Amherst alumni magazine crossed with Where’s Waldo--and plotted by someone who wants to hurt your feelings. Everybody from your graduating class is winning a Nobel Prize and getting named “Best Person Ever” by Obama and writing The Da Vinci Code; stories that could have been written by or about you are written instead by or about increasingly baby-faced alums. This is not helped by the Parent Factor: my father, for example, loves to call in with New York Times sightings. “Didn’t that Pulitzer Prize winner in today’s Times go to Amherst?” Yes. “Didn't those boiled-peanut guys?” “One of them did,” I say, sulky. “The other one went to Harvard.”

Ted, who melted cheese over everything in the Valentine microwaves (“Sloppy stoner food,” he explains), worked dish room in East and was a double major in English and French, laughs when I confess my insecurities: “Oh, it's the same for me. My parents are academics and my mother is still kind of waiting to see what we’re going to do when we grow up.” I look at this grown-up cookbook, though, and I seriously doubt that.

Do you read a cookbook or use it? If you’re like me, both, and this one’s a real page-turner (Pickled Grapes! Smoked Shrimp with Three Dipping Sauces! How will it turn out?)—but I rouse myself from armchair gorging to figure out what I’m actually going to make. We invite friends over, and we start with a cocktail: Strawberry Wine Coolers that are all hot pink and cool fruit—like a kind of Southern sangria as refreshingly unlike Boone’s Farms as a pitcherful of summer. (I don’t make the Purple Jesus, but love the introduction: “In the South, and especially on college campuses, a popular party trick is to fill a bathtub or plastic garbage can with ‘Purple Jesus,’ a blend of rotgut liquor, citrus fruit, and grape Kool-Aid. It’s a colorful tradition, which begins festively enough and rarely ends well.” Indeed.)

Buttermilk Fresh Cheese goes beautifully with the drinks, and it’s a thrilling (and easy) kind of alchemy: a pot of warmed milk meets a square of cheesecloth and becomes, magically, a beautiful round of spreadable deliciousness, creamy and tangy, rich and light all at once; I flavor mine with lemon thyme, lemon zest and black pepper, and, still-warm, it is sublime. I also make Radish Butter, which appeals in its utter simplicity—it is radishes and butter—even though I add a compensatory flurry of chopped mint and don’t regret it. Salt-and-Pepper Shrimp, the last of the appetizers, is on the table in six minutes, and the groaning and shell-sucking that ensues is more or less obscene.

I’ve had my eye on the Pan-fried Whiting with Pickled Peppers and Onions—on, in particular, a pornographic close-up of crunchy fillets draped in vinegared jalapenos—and it is every bit as good as it looks. Gran’s Flank Steak (named after the brothers’ 97-year-old grandmother) gets a soy-sauce-Jack Daniel’s bath and a stint under the broiler and emerges alarmingly ugly, like the slick, pale tongue of a giant; I want to say it is the dud of the lot, but I can’t, because, sliced thin and served with the pan juices, it is savory, sweet and succulent, and it gets devoured. Green Goddess Potato Salad is another ingredients-list droolfest: anchovies and mayo, parsley and tarragon and plenty of vibrant lemon and vinegar; again, it’s as good as it sounds. The other side, Field Pea Salad with Gingered Beets and Lemon is gorgeously pink and tangy, with a warming dose of ginger and a pleasantly musty sweetness from the black-eyed peas; an admiring young guest shovels more and more onto his plate until his mother stops him.

We’re stuffed, but there’s dessert too: Mint Julep Panna Cotta, the classic mint-and-bourbon duo flavoring a lovely gelled cream. The kids don’t like it—Too boozy? Too rich?—but the grown-ups do. (“The flavor of mint to us has a Pavlovian association with bourbon,” the Lee brothers write, “so much so that we’re pretty sure we could get a buzz from mint tea!”) Lucky for the children, there are also lovely Buttermilk Pudding Cakes, which are custardy and vanilla-scented and go from idea to cooling rack in 11 minutes; I serve them with farm-warm strawberries, and it is one of the few times in my life when “go-to” (Our go-to cassoulet! My go-to lobster bisque!) does not annoy me as  a recipe description; this is my new go-to summer dessert.

These are recipes that manage to be both straightforward and chatty, with plenty of funny asides, friendly tips, and delightful lore. Ted describes his “amazing advisor” Jack Cameron’s influence at Amherst: “He was tough—before him everyone had been too nice. He said, ‘You can't be this sloppy!’” And he’s not. Simple Fresh Southern is part cookbook, part philosophy; if the Lee Brothers have a worldview, its main premise might simply be delight. In one recipe they say, about a sparkling-wine cocktail, “It’s rounded, baroque, life-affirming,” and you just can't help feeling that this describes the book itself. Maybe not baroque—but rounded. And definitely life-affirming.