In her newest book, Secrets of the Southern Table, chef and Southern Living contributor Virginia Willis wants to expand the world's definition of Southern food.
What is Southern food? When you think about the dishes that define our region, the usual suspects probably come to mind—fried chicken, skillet cornbread, towering slices of red velvet cake. Delicious as those old favorites might be, they are far from the full story.
Chef, writer, and Southern Living contributor Virginia Willis wants to expand our definition of Southern cuisine. To Willis, Southern food is global food. It is an ever-expanding buffet of dishes influenced from all corners of the world: Vietnam, Mexico, Africa, India—and that’s just for starters.
As she writes in her new book, Secrets of the Southern Table: A Food Lover’s Tour of the Global South, “The food of the South is biscuits and burritos, catfish and chapatti, and hoecakes and hummus.” Southern food is also influenced by the terrain, of course. "I often say to judge Southern food as only fried chicken and biscuits wuld be like deeming Mexican food to solely consist of burritos or Italian food to only be spaghetti and meatballs," Willis writes. "The food from Appalachia is different from Coastal Carolina is different from the food of the Gulf. We’ve got extreme geological differences and many climates and sub-climates.”
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Secrets of the Southern Table aims to capture the vibrancy and diversity of Willis’s native home. Along with photographer Angie Mosier, Willis roadtripped around the South, visiting 11 states in eight months to research the book. She talked to a variety of people who reflect what Southern food is today, including Vietnamese shrimpers in Texas, “Appalachicanos,” (Mexican-Americans living in Appalachia) making tortillas with locally grown corn, and the Tennessee family behind cult-favorite Muddy Pond Sorghum.
The resulting book, a combination of essays, photographs, and recipes, is inspiring to read and cook from. After reading an essay about a trip to an heirloom apple orchard in Virginia, it’s hard to resist wanting to bake up Willis’s Apple Stack Cake. Or try other dishes from her travels, like Dulce de Leche Pecan Sweet Rolls; Stir-Fry with Turnips and Greens; Shredded Beef Arepas (recipe below).
Secrets of the Southern Table is a love letter to Southern food in all its delicious forms, and to the people preserving old traditions and starting new ones.
Shredded Beef Arepas
Arepas, which are prominent in the cuisine of Venezuela, are corncakes made of precooked corn flour known as masa harina. Arepas are eaten across the country, across all socioeconomic groups, at all times of day. Masarepa, a type of harina, is widely available in the United States (check the Latin aisle of your supermarket: Goya, PAN, and Areparina are popular brands). It comes in both yellow and white varieties.
Native Venezuelan Lis Hernandez is a first-generation American and the chef-owner of Arepa Mia located in Sweet Auburn Market, a traditional African American market in downtown Atlanta. She prepares a mouthwatering recipe known as arepa pelua (“hairy arepa”), named for the long strands of shredded meat inside; at her restaurants, she uses grass-fed beef from local farms including White Oak Pastures. Lis’s food, made with locally grown ingredients and sold at the market where Martin Luther King Jr.’s family once shopped, represents so much of what I consider the modern Southern table to be.
If you choose not to prepare the arepas, the filling would make one mean South American sloppy joe on a toasted hamburger bun. You could also serve it between two Summer Hoecakes for a real multicultural treat.
For the flank steak
2 tablespoons pure olive oil
1 (2-pound) flank steak
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 sweet onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and chopped
3 garlic cloves, very finely chopped
2 Roma (plum) tomatoes, cored, seeded, and chopped (about 1 cup)
2 cups water, divided
¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
3 tablespoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons smoked paprika
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
1 cinnamon stick
For the arepas
2½ cups warm water
1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
2 cups masa harina
¼ cup pure olive oil, for frying and handling the dough
2 cups grated cheddar cheese (8 ounces), for serving
Avocado Crema, for serving (recipe below)
1. Heat the oven to 350°F.
2. To make the flank steak, heat the oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering. Pat the steak dry with paper towels and season on both sides with salt and pepper. Add the steak to the pan and sear until browned on both sides, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer the steak to a plate.
3. Reduce the heat to medium. Add the onion and bell pepper to the oil and drippings in the pan. Cook, stirring to loosen the brown bits from the bottom of the pan, until the onion is soft and translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. Add the tomatoes and cook until softened, 60 seconds. Add 1 cup water, the Worcestershire sauce, cumin, paprika, cilantro, and cinnamon stick. Season with salt and pepper; stir to combine. Return the steak, along with any accumulated juices, to the pan and nestle it into the vegetables and sauce. Cover and transfer to the oven to cook for 1 hour. Remove from the oven and turn the flank steak over, bathing the meat in some of the liquid. Add the remaining 1 cup water. Return to the oven and cook until the steak is falling apart and the temperature registers 205°F when measured with an instant-read thermometer, 60 to 90 minutes more. Using two forks, pull the meat apart into shreds.
4. Meanwhile, to make the arepas, combine the warm water and salt in a bowl. Add the masa harina in a slow, steady stream, stirring with a stiff rubber spatula to combine. Oil your fingers and hands and knead in the bowl until there are no dry spots or lumps. Set aside to rest and rehydrate, allowing the corn flour to fully absorb the water, for 5 minutes. Divide the dough into 6 even pieces and shape them into balls a little bigger than a golf ball and weighing about 4 ounces each.
5. Oil your hands and pat one of the balls into a disk about 4 inches in diameter and 1/2 inch thick. Heat a film of oil in the bottom of a large nonstick skillet or large griddle over medium heat. Cook the arepas on both sides, 8 to 10 minutes per side. Reduce the heat as needed; a few nicely charred spots are delicious, but burned is not. Also, if cooking a few at a time, the pan will continue to absorb heat, so the last few will most likely need to be cooked on very low heat. Transfer the arepas to a plate to rest and finish cooking at least 5 minutes before serving.
6. To serve, using a serrated knife, split an arepa and fill it with a heaping spoonful of the shredded beef. Stuff with cheese and serve immediately with the avocado crema.
¼ jalapeño, or to taste, seeded and chopped
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro with stems
1 cup water
Juice of ½ lime
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. To make the avocado crema, place the avocado, jalapeño, cilantro, the water, and lime juice in a blender. Puree until smooth. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
SHREDDED BEEF AREPAS from SECRETS OF THE SOUTHERN TABLE by VIRGINIA WILLIS. Copyright © 2018 by VIRGINIA WILLIS. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. Photography © 2018 by Angie Mosier.