Southern Living: Talking with Matt Lee and Ted Lee

With their debut cookbook, The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, South Carolina siblings Matt Lee and Ted Lee swept the 2007 cookbook award season, winning two James Beard Awards, including Cookbook of the Year, and two IACP awards. With The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern: Knockout Dishes with Down-Home Flavor, Matt and Ted continue celebrating Southern cuisine in a collection filled with easy, approachable dishes for home cooks. Matt and Ted are also the founders of The Lee Bros. Boiled Peanuts Catalogue, where Southern ex-pats can get their grits fix, and are contributing editors for Travel + Leisure and the wine columnists for Martha Stewart Living.

Full disclosure: I've been following Matt and Ted's byline for years and since their cookbook came out in 2006 I've been lucky to call them both great friends. We've cooked together and shared many meals together since then. I recently caught up with the guys, calling in from their Harlem office where they were gearing up for their book tour. Read on, or listen in to our podcast, as we talk about Southern food (naturally), quick pickles, how to win friends with a jar of sorghum molasses, entertaining tips (it helps to have live fire and/or a mystery guest), Lowcountry living, and what it means to cook "simple fresh Southern."

And check out Matt and Ted's recipe for Clams with Sweet Potato, Smoked Sausage, and Watercress.

--BTP


Amazon.com: First of all, what do you think is the biggest misconception about Southern food?

Matt Lee: Heavy, fried, overcooked, hostile to vegetables...

Ted Lee: Well, that's the first four! I think the fifth is that it's very difficult to make. In part because so many Southern meals are ones that sort of happen outdoors with a ton of people. People have come to think that every meal in the South is like a whole-hog barbecue--you dig the pit the day before, that sort of thing. Don't get us wrong--we love that. That is one of the great things about Southern food. What we wanted to focus on in the new book was kind of like the way we cook in the South from day to day. The way Matt and I cook in Charleston from day to day. We like to think it's a very vegetable-focused kind of cooking, wouldn't you say, Matt?

Matt Lee: Absolutely. The thing that people inherently know about the South and yet they seem to forget is that everything grows there. The climate is so favorable for growing vegetables, fruits, and things, so it's not a stretch to recognize that we do a lot of things with those fruits and vegetables and they become a part of our lives in a very meaningful way. Anyone who collects Southern cookbooks knows that and see that there are some great, classic dishes that involve vegetables. Everyday cooking in the South involves vegetables on a regular basis. The sexiness of our fried chicken and barbecue and long roasts get a lot of play but there are some exciting things going on in other parts of the grocery store, too.

Amazon.com: Can you break down the bullet-points for "simple fresh Southern." What does that mean to you and how do you want that translated to the home cook?

Ted Lee: I think the first word, "simple"--our notion of simplicity isn't bound by a five-ingredient book or recipes that are going to take less than 30 minutes. Those might be easy recipes but every recipe in the book was evaluated according to how easily it fit into the rhythms of the life of a busy person. So even though our whole roast chicken, which we cook in a skillet on a bed of vegetables, may take an hour it's very stress-free cooking time and at the end of it you have this amazing chicken and you have your side dish. That would be part of the whole notion of simplicity.

Matt Lee: And it takes place in a single skillet so there is a minimum of clean-up afterward. All those different factors of purchasing, cooking, and clean-up are very present in our minds at the time we were developing the recipes for our book.

Ted Lee: So the notion of simplicity is a very holistic notion of simplicity. And then secondly, "fresh." Fresh, in it's most literal sense--we don't use a whole lot of processed or canned ingredients or packaged goods. Fresh ingredients--we love them, we get a lot of them in Charleston, whether it's produce, shrimp, oysters, fish, that kind of thing--great pork, too. We also felt like fresh had a double-meaning in a sense, because in our last book we had some recipes in there that people did not recognize from the Southern canon. There was a lot of authentic recipes in there but some of them, like our butterbean pâté, for example, which was a simple spread--like a sandwich spread, or a dip made with butterbeans and mint.

Matt Lee: And parsley and lemon.

Ted Lee: And olive oil. That was sort of a riff on Southern ingredients that we love, sort of distillation of the Southern garden into a dip. In this book, with the fresh thing, we really wanted to focus on things like that, that may not be classics in the Southern canon, but are our riffing on getting excited about okra in a new way.

Matt Lee: And being inspired by the ingredients in the South. And to the point of the butterbean pâté, sort of the flavor of summer. We were channeling a lot of the different moments in a Southern calendar year that really inspire us. The fall for us is always oysters and oyster roasts. It's simple to do them and easy to cover but we thought we had neglected the wonderful soups you can make with oysters. So we developed this soup that's simple and emphasizes the fresher flavors. You put the oysters themselves in a bottom of a bowl raw, and then you laddle a hot soup over it that cooks it just enough. It's a cream-based soup and couldn't be simpler. We're going to reuse that word in this interview, aren't we? For us, a warm, comforting oyster soup channels the feeling of late October, early November in the South.

Ted Lee: As Matt said, what's original in that oyster soup seems to be the method of its preparation. The freshness and originality might express itself in a different way as a new use for a classic Southern ingredient. One example of that in our book is the buttermilk fresh cheese, which is sort of a ricotta-like cheese. We curdle milk with buttermilk and then strain it through a cloth. It just makes this really wonderful farmers' cheese that you can do a ton of things with. You can roll it up with country ham and blanched collards and make a sort of passed appetizer kind of thing. You can just put it on a plate with some crackers. You can dust it with all kinds of nuts--pistachios, pecans. And sometimes the freshness in the title also refers to our taking a classic Southern dish and then having fun with it. A classic example of that would be the mint julep panna cotta. A panna cotta is not exactly a Southern preparation. What's funny is that things in this day and age are so fluid that a panna cotta to us seems like the sort of gelatin salads, aspics, that sort of thing. It seems very Southern in texture certainly. We brought all the flavor and fun of a mint julep into a panna cotta and I think that's going to be one of the breakout desserts from the book.

Matt Lee: Ted, I think Giada pronounces it panna cotta.

Ted Lee: We're Southern, we say panna cotta.

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