John Currence is a James Beard-award-winning chef with four Oxford, Miss., restaurants, including his flagship City Grocery, a breakfast place, a French bistro and a casual Creole eatery.
With those credentials, it seems surprising that Currence was reluctant to write a cookbook. For a decade, I labored under this feeling that if I didnt add something profound to the conversation of Southern food that I didnt have any business writing a book, he said in an interview this month.
Eventually, Currence realized that he could just tell stories: the stories of his food, his life and his family and friends. His cookbook, Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey: Recipes From My Three Favorite Food Groups and Then Some has just been published. Its a fun, laugh-out-loud read with song suggestions for each recipe that may inspire you to pour a cocktail, crank up the music and get in the kitchen and cook.
There is no narrative arc to the stories in the book, Currence explained. But if you submit to reading it, you should get a sense of who I am and how and why I cook the way that I do.
Currences book tour will bring him to the Triangle for a Nov. 24 event at Fearrington Inn. Tickets are $85 for food and an autographed copy of the book.
The cookbook ambles through Currences life from his upbringing in New Orleans to his introduction to cooking by his mentor, Bill Neal at Crooks Corner in Chapel Hill, from the start of City Grocery to his expanding business empire. The vignettes run from humorous to heartbreaking.
One story recounts Currences revelation when it came to Southern food. It happened after he had opened City Grocery and then took an extended trip to France to work. He went to a market with a French chef who held up a piece of okra and asked how to cook it. Currence bought bags full of okra and cooked every dish he could think of and watched the French chefs reaction.
I could see this look in his eyes and he was excited, Currence recalled. He had a new weapon in his arsenal. I realized in that moment: This is what I failed to learn from my time with Bill Neal. This food is legitimate. Its exciting and comforting.
Neal, a champion of regional Southern food, is credited with elevating what some consider humble fare to a cuisine, thanks in part to stories written by former New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne. Currence worked as a busboy and cook at Crooks Corner from 1987 to 1989.
One sad story Currence recounts was his last interaction with Neal, who died in 1991. The men feuded at the restaurant an argument that Currence said began after he asked a question about a batch of soup. Currence walked out and never talked to Neal again. Years later, when Currence won a James Beard award, the highest honor for an American chef, Gene Hamer, who owned Crooks Corner with Neal, was there to congratulate him.
Hammer made a point of telling Currence: Bills really proud right now.
BUILD a hot fire in your outdoor grill. Allow coals to burn down until there is no fire, but coals are white-hot. Or if you have a gas grill, preheat to medium high and oil the grates with a folded, oiled paper towel.
TOSS carrots together with olive oil, cumin, 2 teaspoons salt and pepper in a large bowl. Grill carrot halves until they are marked on both sides. Remove, cool and chop roughly.
MELT butter in a soup pot over medium heat and saute shallots and garlic until transparent. Add chopped carrots, marjoram and 3 tablespoons chopped cilantro and saute until warmed through. Sprinkle in 3 teaspoons garam masala and cayenne until carrots are coated. Stir in vermouth and reduce it briefly. Add stock and bring to a boil. Lower heat to maintain a lower simmer for 25 minutes.
BLEND with an immersion blender or puree in batches in a counter-top blender until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Adjust garam masala and cayenne as needed to suit your taste.
WHISK together sour cream, heavy cream, lemon juice, remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and remaining 1 teaspoon garam masala. Serve soup with a drizzle of seasoned sour cream and 1/4 cup fresh whole cilantro leaves.Yield: 8-10 servings
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