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.
A recent 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.")
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.
1 (14.5-ounce) can golden hominy, rinsed and drained
1 (14.5-ounce) can white hominy, rinsed and drained
2 cups chopped fresh tomatoes
1⁄4 pound sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (1 cup)
1⁄2 cup mayonnaise
1⁄4 cup chopped green bell pepper
1⁄4 cup chopped red bell pepper
4 scallions, roots trimmed, white and green parts chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro leaves
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon salt
In a large bowl, combine the hominy, tomatoes, cheese, mayonnaise, bell peppers, scallions, cilantro, chili powder, cumin and salt. Toss well to combine. Refrigerate for at least one hour before serving.
If you can only find one type of hominy - white or yellow - go with it. Likewise, if the canned yellow hominy has chili spices in it, you can use that as well.
Yield: 8 servings
1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted
2 medium cucumbers, peeled, quartered lengthwise and cut into 1⁄4-inch thick slices
1 small onion, peeled, quartered and sliced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup cooked shelled soybeans (edamame)
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons cottonseed or vegetable oil
1⁄2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1⁄4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
To toast the sesame seeds, place them in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Cover and shake as the seeds pop. They will be toasted in a minute or so. Remove the skillet from heat, and remove the seeds from the skillet to stop cooking. Set aside.
Put the cucumber and onion slices in a bowl, and toss with salt. Allow to stand at room temperature for about one hour. Rinse, drain well in a colander, and return to the bowl.
Add the edamame, lemon juice, oils, cayenne and toasted sesame seeds. Toss well to combine. Refrigerate for 30 minutes to allow flavors to blend. Served chilled or at room temperature.
Yield: 3 to 4 servings
Recipes from "A Southerly Course: Recipes & Stories from Close to Home" by Martha Hall Foose (Clarkson Potter, 2011)
• Marialisa Calta is the author of "Barbarians at the Plate: Taming and Feeding the American Family" (Perigee, 2005). For more information, go to www.marialisacalta.com.