A small landslide of new Southern cookbooks has been reminding me daily of the good cooking -- no, the GREAT cooking -- that has grown out of that part of the country.
The latest book to arrive, "A Southerly Course" by Martha Hall Foose, a Mississippian by birth and palate, has gotten me jazzed up about Southern salads.
These salads are no limp concoctions of wispy greens but substantial dishes that cannot be dismissed as mere "sides." Go to a Southern picnic, and the salads -- slaws, potato salads, tomato salads, bean salads and, of course, "congealed" (gelatin) salads -- are often the stars. (Along with the desserts ... and the fried chicken ... and the cornbread. Heck. Just go to a Southern picnic, and be grateful you were invited.)
Foose charms the home cook with a number of stellar salad recipes: Black and White Bean Salad, "Alligator Pears" (Avocados) and Bacon Salad, Honey and Pear Salad, Plum Salad, Chicory Salad (served with a coffee and molasses dressing), Potato and Anchovy Salad, Tomato Salad with Crab Dressing, Soybean Salad and, my favorite, Hominy Salad.
She also charms the reader with stories from home, of boys with bean shooters and dogs on the dinner table, and of Mississippi writer Eudora Welty's love of custards. Her discourse on congealed salads compares them to "pageant girls" -- strict rules are followed to achieve that colorful, vibrant appearance. ("Those girls didn't just hop up there and start walking and waving. It took time and a great deal of study to get it down pat.")
She shares a memorable line of her mother's, who, when confronted with an unwelcome dish on someone else's table, said, "Oh, look what they like."
Back to that hominy salad. Hominy is simply corn that has been soaked in an alkali -- traditionally wood ash, lime or lye -- in a process called nixtamalization. The process helps preserve the corn, but more importantly makes essential amino acids available to the body. Ancient peoples in South America figured this out, and cultures thrived on hominy. It has a nutty, toasty, truly corn-y taste, and can be found, canned, in most supermarkets, in either a "golden" or "white" form. If your supermarket doesn't sell it, ask.
Of her hominy salad, made with chili spices, Foose writes that it is "a great change from boring potato salad. It is kind of like changing the radio dial from a typical oldies station to a feisty, fun, Mexican one."
Her Soybean Salad also makes a great change. You can find fresh or frozen shelled, packaged soybeans, sold as "edamame," at the supermarket, and cook them according to package directions.
Oh, look what Martha Hall Foose likes. You'll like it, too.
1 (14.5-ounce) can golden hominy, rinsed and drained