What is Southern food? Hugh Acheson is one of a number of chefs encouraging diners to broaden their definition. "My aim," Acheson says, "is to constantly remind people of the goodness of Southern food." And while the South gets more attention for its food than any other American region, the media often emphasizes a very narrow expression.
So how does Acheson intend to move Southern food forward? By looking backward. The recipe below was inspired by Charleston Receipts, a 1950 cookbook admired for preserving generations of Charleston-area recipes and the strong influence on this cuisine of Gullahs, descendants of slaves living in the coastal area called the Lowcountry. Though Acheson is Canadian, his wife is from the Lowcountry. He counts that and the Appalachian foothills as his locales.
At its simplest, his credo is, "Take recipes from the vernacular and modernize them gently by lightening them and finding local ingredients." This can appear as a traditional rice porridge with added kimchi, reflecting the influx of Asians in the South. If it seems odd, flip through Charleston Receipts; it is far more worldly than you might expect.
The recipe takes a simple one-pot chicken meal, lightens it with olive oil in place of lard, and adds a touch of exotic Turkish Urfa chile.
He sneaks the chicken's liver into the sauce. "I firmly believe in using everything at my disposal," Acheson says. "Southern cooking does that a lot. And you should butcher the chicken. Do it in the kitchen so your kids can see. This skinless chicken breast and cube-of-stock weirdness is no good."
The wine is not local. COS Nero d'Avola Sicilia 2009 is a favorite of Acheson and his wine director, Steven Grubbs. "We love COS," Acheson says. "It is so good, so ageworthy, and it is the most Burgundian style of that region." It also has acid to stand up to the tomatoes. COS uses some throwback winemaking equipment like amphorae; like Acheson, moving forward by looking to the past.
How to Make Hunter's Chicken
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon unsalted butter
4 shiitakes, stemmed and finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon Urfa chile flakes
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 3-pound chicken, and liver
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt plus a pinch
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, thinly shaved
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup of the wine you'll be serving
2 cups peeled, seeded and diced tomatoes
1/2 cup chicken stock
2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1. Bring 2 tablespoons of butter to room temperature in a small bowl. Add the remaining teaspoon of butter to a pan on medium heat. When the butter has melted and foamed, add the shiitakes and cook for 3 minutes, until limp. Add the warm shiitakes, chile flakes, soy sauce and pepper to the butter. Chop the chicken liver finely and add to the butter. (It will cook when you add it to the final dish.) Stir the butter, then chill.
2. Cut out the chicken's backbone. Cut off the thighs, then cut the drumsticks from the thighs. Remove wings and save for another day. Cut through the breastbone to divide the breast into 2 lobes, then halve each lobe. Season the 8 pieces of chicken with salt.
3. Warm a large cast-iron skillet over medium to medium-high heat. Heat the olive oil, then add the thighs and the drumsticks, skin side down. Cook them for 5 minutes without moving the pan and then add the breast pieces, skin side down. Cook for 10 minutes, until the skin is crisp and the fat has all been rendered off.
4. Remove the chicken from the pan and add the shallots, garlic and bay leaf. Sweat for 5 minutes, then add the wine. Cook for 2 minutes, then add the tomatoes and stock. Cook for 5 minutes, then season with a pinch of salt. Add the chicken, skin side up this time, and cook for 10 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through.
5. Cut the compound butter into 4 pieces. Remove the chicken from the sauce and whisk in pieces of butter over medium heat. Finish with the chopped parsley. Serve the chicken over rice, then spoon sauce over the top. Serves 4.
Chef's choice: COS Nero d'Avola Sicilia 2009
Wine Spectator alternates: Cusumano Nero d'Avola Sicilia Sàgana 2009 (92, $35)
Viticultori Associati Canicatti Nero d'Avola Sicilia Centuno 2010 (90, $25)