Natchez native tackles iconic dinner table dishes
Flavors and ingredients from across the South, many inspired by Natchez and the surrounding area, shine bright in Denise Gee’s new book, “Southern Casseroles: Comforting Pot-Lucky Dishes.”
The Natchez native digs deep into her Mississippi roots to retrieve a collection of recipes and stories fit for any home worthy of being labeled Southern.
Gee, who has authored other kitchen books such as “Porch Parties” and “Southern Cocktails,” decided to tackle the Southern quintessential dish of casseroles after a fellow author pitched the idea of the book.
“She remembered me telling her stories about the times I was at Southern Living magazine and would try like 16 different casseroles in a day, and she just knew I had a lot of casserole-related stories,” Gee said. “With casseroles, there are any number of ways you can bring the best of Southern ingredients together in a dish that’s portable, easy to share and easy to give.”
Gee grew up in the Bailey House on Commerce Street surrounded by her grandmother, Nannie, and other family members who were no strangers to the kitchen.
It was in Nannie’s kitchen that Gee learned the significant role casseroles played in day-to-day Southern life.
“Casseroles seem to be something you cook to share, and there’s such a warmth really associated with casseroles that it goes great with the hospitality notion that Southerners are so proud of and embrace,” Gee said. “Whenever anyone needed a lift in some way in their life, people would bring casseroles by, and so it was something that not only was delicious, but also comforting.”
Gee’s book offers 55 different casserole recipes inlcuding Jambalaya Ya-Ya — a Cajun dish complete with the attitude on the side — and Easy-Bake Chicken ‘n’ Herbed Dumplings, a quick kitchen favorite.
Gee also shares some basic casserole preparation and storage methods that aim to eliminate any kitchen faux pas along the way. She also breaks down steps to create homemade ingredients for casseroles instead of using canned items.
“If they use a lot of canned ingredients, I wanted to try to encourage people to understand how easy is it to make a white sauce, for example, to avoid going straight to the can,” Gee said. “I also wanted to address the things I think are essentials that hopefully start inspiring people to want to cook them more often.”
All recipes in the book include a storage side note suggesting the best way to store and serve the dish later.
Other pages include some tidbits, labeled “Lil’ Dish,” about the dish itself or ingredients featured in the dish.
Sissy’s Spicy Shrimp and Cheese Grits, for example, includes a brief history behind Rotel, a key ingredient in the dish.
“I wanted to think of some entertaining things that could serve as side notes that I could weave throughout the book,” Gee said. “As I was testing all the recipes, these are the things I thought of and wanted to include.”
Gee’s husband, Robert M. Peacock, who is also a Natchez native took the food photos featured in the book.
“I was delighted to do this book, but it was also a big challenge because casseroles aren’t the most photogenic subjects,” Gee said. “We both looked at the book as something we were going to prove that it can be done, and I’m very pleased with how everything came out.”
Gee spent nearly a year working on the book, taking time to compile recipes from a number of places including her time working at Southern Living and growing up in Natchez.
“I wanted to include the traditional recipes, but also the ones I’ve had fun developing over the years,” Gee said. “I wanted to include foods that were delicious, beautiful and ones that looked like something you wanted to dive into.”
Gee and Peacock, who now live in Texas, will be at Turning Pages in Natchez from 3 to 5 p.m. Monday for a book signing.