St. John pays tribute to South’s chefs

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Every region has its favorite culinary dish that reflects the heritage of that region. Unfortunately, the South has often gotten a bad rap for some of its traditions &045; such as congealed salads or that canned miracle worker, cream of mushroom soup.

Sadly enough, most chefs simply dismiss cream of mushroom soup and tell us to forget the dishes of our heritage and move on to more &uot;nouvelle cuisine.&uot;

Thank heavens for chefs such as Robert St. John of Hattiesburg. St. John grew up in Mississippi and cooks in Mississippi. Owner and executive chef of the Purple Parrot Caf, Crescent City Grill and the Mahogany Bar in Hattiesburg and Meridian, St. John also writes a &uot;foodie&uot; column for the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson.

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I’ve had the good fortune to attend a cooking class that St. John taught, and let me tell you this guy knows his southern food. Not only were his recipes delicious and uniquely Southern he was one of the funniest people I have ever met. I’m not sure if his wife would appreciate the fact that we are all now aware that her scrambled eggs are always a light shade of green, but it was fun to hear about.

St. John recently published a cookbook titled &uot;Deep South Staples or how to survive in a southern kitchen without a can of cream of mushroom soup.&uot; He will be at Turning Pages from 1 to 3 p.m. Thursday to sign this book and his previous book, &uot;A Southern Palate,&uot; which was illustrated by Wyatt Waters.

It is filled with wonderful recipes and some of his best columns. According to St. John, there is an answer to the can of cream of mushroom soup and I was willing to give it a try.

After a cut-up chicken, a cup of rice and a can of a soup popped in the oven has fed my family on more than one occasion.

On page 241 you will find a recipe for Mushroom Bechamel Sauce. Not only was it very easy to make, it made two quarts and freezes well. And not only was my chicken and rice casserole delicious but I could pronounce every ingredient in the sauce. Have you ever read the label on a can of cream of mushroom soup? All I’m saying is that there is a reason that it stays in the shape of the can when you plop it out in a dish!

You will also find other southern favorites to use the sauce in, such as a eggplant casserole, broccoli and chicken casserole and of course the famous green bean casserole from the holiday tables of the South.

Other good recipes include chicken corn chowder, spinach Madeleine and one recipe that I cannot wait to try for crawfish stuffed baked potatoes.

By the way, St. John has a controversial belief that I fully support and that is that Southern states with two teams in the SEC make the best sweet tea &045; Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee.

And his other belief is &uot;that tea gets sweeter as you travel deeper into the South, and that rule works for women, too.&uot; You gotta love that kind of support for we Southern girls.

Christina Hall

writes a weekly column for The Democrat.