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Joni Woolf: Field Peas to Foie Gras — Southern Recipes with a French Accent

Recently ATR’s Executive Editor Beth Alston put a cookbook in my hands, saying “This is for you.” I have 50 or 60 cookbooks, and am always glad to get one more. I took it home and sat down to read it, thinking I might find something to cook for dinner — or a new soup to try. I soon discovered that this was not just one more cookbook. It is as much a story of one woman’s journey from her family’s farm in Charleston, Mississippi, to Le Cordon Bleu culinary training in Paris as it is a unique collection of recipes combining the best of Southern cooking with French techniques and inspiration.
The woman is Jennifer Hill Booker, a young executive chef now living in Atlanta; she is a culinary arts instructor at the Le Cordon Bleu campus in Atlanta, and a director of the culinary arts program at Grayson High School in that city. She also teaches culinary technique classes at Williams-Sonoma, and has appeared in numerous prestigious magazines.
You can read about all her honors in her new cookbook. Suffice it to say she has paid her dues along the way, and has come up with a cookbook that entertains, informs and preserves those parts of her Southern cooking heritage that we all value. She brings a distinctive perspective to the creation of recipes, reaching back to her childhood when rabbit, squirrel and the entire hog were used for food. She transforms those foods into modern interpretations that most of us can replicate — and enjoy. One of the more interesting recipes in the collection is one for “Rendering Lard,” not something that most modern cooks would consider. In her years on that Mississippi farm, she learned that nothing was thrown away; every part of the hog or cow could be used if treated properly. Need I mention pork cracklings for cornbread?
True to her training abroad, she has given the recipes a lighter touch and all of them sound like food you would proudly serve your guests. From Smothered Rabbit to Lemon Chevre Cheesecake with a Cookie Crumb Crust, to Chicken Liver Stuffed Figs to Blackberry Cobbler, to Pomegranate Brandy to  Seared Foie Gras, Booker has created original recipes for foods simple and complex. Graced with beautiful images by photographer Deborah Whitlaw Llewellyn, the book also features old family photographs that reveal much about Booker’s background, and about her love of and respect for her family and heritage.
Space prevents sharing an extensive recipe, but one that I thought might be of interest to our readers is easy to present and, I think, fairly easy to prepare. I plan to try it soon — if I can find the rabbit (already dressed, of course).

Smothered Rabbit
3 slices smoked bacon, chopped
1/2 cup butter
5 shallots, minced
1 cup flour
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. black pepper
? tsp. paprika
2 rabbits, each cut into 6 pieces
1/2 cup heavy cream
Render the bacon in a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat until crisp. Add the butter and shallots and cook for 5 to 10 minutes, until the butter foams and the shallots begin to brown. In a large bowl, season the flour with the salt, pepper and paprika. Dredge the rabbit in the seasoned flour and place each piece in the skillet with the bacon, butter and shallots, and brown the meat on both sides. Remove the browned rabbit from the skillet, and whisk in any remaining seasoned flour, plus the cream and 1/2 cup cold water. Continue to whisk until the sauce is thick and creamy. Return the rabbit to the pan and cover with a tight-fitting lid. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 30 to 45 minutes. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper,and serve hot over white rice.

Booker has been chosen by the Georgia Department of Agriculture to be a Georgia Grown Executive Chef, traveling the state representing family farmers and promoting foods grown in our state. Check out her website at www.yourresidentgourmet.com to learn more about this creative Southerner whose recipes and stories are worth the price of the new cookbook. Readers may order the cookbook from Pelican Publishing Company at 504-368-1175. Field  Peas to Foie Gras is not just another cookbook. It is an experience to be enjoyed, then shared, then used to prepare a down-home country meal, in a style that would please the pickiest Frenchman.
(Postscript: Her eggnog recipe, called Papa’s Holiday Eggnog, is the finest sounding recipe for eggnog that I have seen. I plan to try it during the upcoming holidays, and will share the recipe, and the results, with you.)

Joni Woolf, a writer and editor, now lives in Schley County, having moved from her home in Macon several years ago. Contact her at indigojoni@windstream.net