Mississippi chef John Currence coming to Fearrington

aweigl@newsobserver.comOctober 29, 2013 

Chef John Currence.

COURTESY OF JOHN CURRENCE

  • Meet chef John Currence

    McIntyre’s Books and Fearrington are hosting a reception and book event at 3 p.m. Nov. 24 for chef John Currence of Oxford, Miss. The event includes samples of dishes from his new book, “Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey.” Attendees receive an autographed copy of the book. The event cost is $85. To reserve a seat, call 919-542-3030 .

    Details: http://tinyurl.com/pzatll8

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 didn’t add something profound to the conversation of Southern food that I didn’t 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. It’s 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.”

Currence’s 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 Currence’s life from his upbringing in New Orleans to his introduction to cooking by his mentor, Bill Neal at Crook’s 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 Currence’s 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 chef’s 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. It’s 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 Crook’s 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 Crook’s Corner with Neal, was there to congratulate him.

Hammer made a point of telling Currence: “Bill’s really proud right now.”

Grilled Carrot Soup Chef John Currence calls this soup the Chilled Grilled Carrot Soup but notes that it is just as good served hot. Here is a hot version adapted from his book, “Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey” (Andrews McNeel, 2013) 1 1/2 pounds carrots, peeled and halved lengthwise 2 tablespoons pure olive oil 1 teaspoon ground cumin 2 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper 2 tablespoons unsalted butter 3/4 finely chopped shallots 1 tablespoon finely minced garlic 2 tablespoons fresh marjoram 3 tablespoons fresh chopped cilantro 4 teaspoons garam masala spice mix, divided, or more if needed 1/4 teaspoon cayenne 6 tablespoons dry vermouth 6 cups vegetable stock 1 cup sour cream 3 tablespoons heavy cream 2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice 1/4 cup fresh whole cilantro leaves

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

Weigl: 919-829-4848; Twitter: @andreaweigl

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