Chef Hugh Acheson is a well-known cookbook author, restauranteur and Top Chef judge with four restaurants in Georgia: Five & Ten (Athens), The National (Athens), Empire State South (Atlanta) and Florence (Savannah). While his James Beard award-winning cookbooks (A New Turn in the South, Pick a Pickle) hone in on the flavors of the Southern U.S., it may surprise you to know that he was born and raised in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. In fact, I didn’t detect a trace of an accent until the very end of his cooking demo on New Southern Cooking when he let slip “a-boat” (instead of about), and frankly I only noticed because it reminded me of my very sweet mother-in-law from Toronto.
Chef Acheson credits his wife with the move from Ottawa to her hometown of Athens, Georgia, during the early part of his career. He made a name for himself as head chef and manager at The Last Resort Grill in Athens, then spent a couple of years in San Francisco working with Gary Danko to open his famous restaurant on North Point Street, before moving back to Athens to open Five & Ten. He went on to be named one of the Best New Chefs by Food & Wine magazine in 2002 before becoming a Top Chef Masters contestant and Top Chef judge.
My interest was certainly piqued: a Canadian chef teaching a class on new Southern cooking with a modern twist? I consider myself open to new ideas, so I was all in. Especially during his introduction when it was revealed that a favorite of F&W’s staff is his recipe for Crispy Pork Belly with KimChi Rice Grits (see below).
Touting his new vegetable-centric cookbook, The Broad Fork, Chef Acheson’s class focused on summer grilling, specifically Grilled Poussin (1 – 1 ½ pound chicken) with English Pea Salsa Verde and Grilled Vegetables. He encouraged us to watch his grilling techniques and to learn to use things in different ways. Splitting the poussin in two, he cut out the back bone and flattened each half by breaking a few bones. To marinate the bird, he used EVOO (oh how Tim Love would disagree!) with fresh herbs, dijon mustard and chili flakes. He then grilled the bird skin side down.
While waiting for the poussin to cook, he blanched the peas to make an Italian Salsa Verde. Using a food processor, he blended fresh herbs, such as marjoram, flat leaf parsley, mint and basil, added FRESH garlic (“If you buy pre-minced garlic you are officially dead to me.”, he quipped), dijon mustard, chili flakes, vinegar, capers, anchovies (loves to sneak these in and claims his kids have never figured it out), and lastly mixed in EVOO. After pulsing to resemble a course pesto consistency, he added the peas and pulsed for another second. “In your fridge you should always have staples for a great meal. The salsa verde should be one of them.” It can keep in the fridge for up to 5 days. You can also freeze it in the freezer in ice cubes.
“Food is utter bounty,” Acheson explained, but his goal is to re-examine what people think of Southern food. “Southern food is not the food that kills you. Rather, it is an agrarian celebration.” Citing Edna Lewis as one of his favorite Southern food writers, he reminded us that Southern food has a rich history. “There is a relationship between you, your food and your community.” He stressed that America “needs to get cooking again”, and feels we need to stop relying on the modern conveniences. The idea being that it is not really that hard to make a fresh meal. And you don’t have to do it every day. He is not saying to prepare this meal on a Wednesday after a 12-hour day and the kids are complaining about being hungry. (Whew, because I would have had to tune him out at this point.) Do this on a Saturday, invite your friends over, and open some wine. Make it a celebration of life and kinship. The class helped me rethink my life. I tend to get hung up in the stress of throwing a meal together. Sometimes it truly overwhelms me. What can I do to change this? I love to shop for groceries, but the grocery chains around town do little to inspire. I will making a concerted effort to make it to the farmers market more often. It only takes 30 minutes really. I will take little steps to engage with the community, as he encouraged. “Wake up an extra 15 minutes and make a fresh meal for the kids’ lunch. They will be healthier and happier.” OK, I will try my best, but that is much easier said than done. I will let you know you long that lasts. He wrapped up the class by grilling some vegetables, such as baby leeks, baby bok choy, allium and corn, he salted it all (as salt draws out liquid and sweetness), spooned the salsa verde over veggies, interspersed some grilled bread, and voilá!
Hugh’s Crispy Pork Belly with KimChi Rice Grits and Peanuts
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
1 pound pork belly, skin off (rectangle, about 6 inches by 3 inches by 1 inch thick)
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 small onion, peeled and diced
½ cup carrot, peeled and diced
¼ cup celery, diced
1 bay leaf
½ teaspoon coriander seed
4 cups chicken stock, divided
½ cup thinly shaved radish
2 scallions, thinly cut, white and green
½ teaspoon white sugar
¼ cup rice vinegar, unseasoned
1 cup Anson Mills rice grits (or long grain rice crushed in a blender for a couple of seconds)
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
½ cup heavy cream
½ cup chopped cabbage kimchi*
1 teaspoon lime juice
2 tablespoons roasted peanuts, shelled and crushed
salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 300F.
Warm a braising pan over medium heat and add one tablespoon of the oil. Season the pork belly with kosher salt and pepper and place it in the pan. Cook until crisped, about 10 minutes on each side, 20 minutes total. Remove the belly from the pan and discard all but two tablespoons of the rendered fat and oil. Add the onions, the carrot, the bay leaf and coriander. Cook until the vegetables have just begun to soften, about five minutes. Add two cups of the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat, add back the pork belly, cover the pan and place in the preheated oven for about 2 hours. When the belly is very tender, remove it from the pot and place on a plate to cool. Strain the braising jus and discard the solids. When the belly has cooled, cut it into four equal sized pieces and refrigerate.
Combine the radish, the scallion, the sugar, and the rice vinegar in a bowl and set aside to lightly pickle.
Now we need to start the rice grits and finish the pork belly at the same time. To cook the rice grits, combine the rice and the remaining two cups of chicken stock with the sea salt and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a bare simmer and slowly cook the grits for about twenty minutes, until it’s a thick, congee-like porridge.
While the grits are cooking, place a large frying pan over medium high heat and add the remaining one tablespoon of vegetable oil. When the oil is hot add the belly pieces and carefully reheat them until they are crisp.
When the grits are cooked through, add the cream and the chopped kimchi. Season with salt and pepper. Lay the crisped pork belly over each small mound of grits and then garnish with some of the pickled radish, scallion and roasted peanuts.
*Prepared kimchi can be found in Asian markets
Happy Eating! xo M