Take inspiration from these Earth Dinner menus from five outstanding members of Chefs Collaborative. They've even shared a few of their proprietary recipes. Specializing in the foods of five different regions of America, these culinary artists offer tips to bring local seasonal flavor to your Earth Dinner meal.
By Terese Allen, Food Editor
There's history at the Hominy Grill; you can taste it in the food and feel it in the surroundings. Housed in a 19th-century shotgun structure, the restaurant features low country traditions like shrimp creole and buttermilk pie. And thanks to its gifted chef-owner, Robert Stehling, the popular Charleston dining spot has been making some history of its own.
Lauded by such food authorities as R.W. Apple and John Martin Taylor and spotlighted in everything from Gourmet magazine to the New York Times, Stehling has built a national reputation in recent years. Before opening the Hominy Grill with his wife Nunally Kersh in 1996, he yielded a chef's knife at top New York restaurants, but he learned to cook under the guidance of Bill Neal, the Chapel Hill chef who penned such Southern standards as Biscuits, Spoonbread and Sweet Potato Pie and Bill Neal's Southern Cooking.
"I was lucky to have a mentor who didn't press me," says Stehling. "He encouraged me at a time when I was trying to figure out what to do. That's when I started to take cooking seriously."
He may take it seriously, but he also has fun with food, updating Southern classics by borrowing from other traditions or adding a twist of his own. He looks to the seasons and local sources to produce such feel-good specialties as fried catfish with poached eggs, shrimp gravy and grits, and BLT's made with fried green tomatoes. Hospitable, unpretentious and layered with deep flavor, Stehling's cooking showcases Southern heritage, past and present.
Terese Allen: Do you have a favorite season for cooking?
Robert Stehling: No, not really. I'm always ready for the next season when it comes around. I get tempted by what's coming, like asparagus in spring, but I say "no" until it's in season here.
TA: Why should we say "no" to out-of-season foods?
RS: I think Americans have become spoiled—we have whatever we want when we want it. We're hooked on the cheap stuff. We need to learn to eat differently. We need to work in the summer to have local food in winter. We really must go local, in part to support local farmers, to keep those guys alive. It affects so many things...land values, energy costs. People are definitely more aware of what they're eating. Right now people are into the whole concept of organics...but I would like to see a whole reassessment of cooking at home.
TA: You've described the food at your restaurant as "neighborhood cooking." What does that mean?
RS: At the very local level it means the neighborhood we're in—it means we're here to serve the community. It's why we serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. It also means low country cooking, Southern food, and the South is also the "neighborhood." It's about the culinary traditions of the people here, but it also takes into perspective the way we are today, the modern way of cooking. It's a living cuisine, where people really feel the food.
TA: What's a dish you "really feel"? What's something that fills you with joy to prepare?
RS: Gumbo. I love the layering of ingredients and flavors. It's this brownish-looking mess, this primordial ooze, but it tastes so good! I've refined it, given it subtle changes over time. [It's like] liver pudding, which I grew up eating. That's a loaf made with ground liver and bits of pork that you slice and fry up. My neighbors made it—we'd have it when we camped out in the backyard. Eventually I learned how to make it. And it's so satisfying—a long process that becomes a beautiful pâté. It has stayed with me all my life; it's grown and changed, like I've grown and changed.
Spring: shad roe; soft-shell crabs; first shrimp of the season; mahi; wahoo; grits and greens (made with the first crop of turnips, escarole or mustard greens); asparagus; cucumbers; green peas; broccoli; strawberries; blueberries; first peaches
Summer: melons (including cantaloupes, honeydew, watermelon); peaches; nectarines; blackberries; blue crabs; mullet; snapper; chanterelles; eggplant; okra; tomatoes; hot peppers; sweet corn; butter beans; fresh relishes; slaws; chicken salad; home-canned sauces made from tomatoes, blackberries, peaches, etc.
Fall/Winter: pecans; peanuts; collards and other fall crop greens; flounder; sheepshead; scallops; oysters; country ham and biscuits; sweet potatoes; squashes; fried green tomatoes; black-eyed peas; mountain-grown apples; wild persimmons; grapes; key limes; the sweeter, smaller shrimp of fall (perfect for saucy dishes like shrimp creole)