Nine Classic Entrees Every Southern Cook Should Know

by Angela Garrison Zontek

Every good Southern cook knows the basics of meal planning: meat, bread, and a side (or two or three). There are certain mainstays in the pantheon of Southern dishes—if you’re cooking Southern, you should know these. Dressed up, or scaled down, these Southern mains are down-home, traditional, and always satisfying.

Let’s review nine entrees that embody all the flavor and comfort of a supper in the South.

Fried Chicken

Fried chicken is the crown prince of essential Southern entrees. This one, humble dish perfectly personifies an entire region, its people, and the warmth of its climate and culture. The way a golden, juicy, fried chicken breast speaks of the Southern United States is tantamount to culinary poetry. Of course, crowning the prince of Southern meals is where all agreement ends, and the debate over how to properly prepare fried chicken begins.

The best fried chicken is always dredged in eggs and buttermilk, dropped into a baggy with seasoned flour and shaken furiously, then fried in a cast iron skillet with an obscene amount of vegetable shortening. Are we fighting, yet?

Fried Fish

Catfish is the king of the skillet in the South. Having said that, we do love variety at a fish fry! One is likely to find the crispy, golden-breaded option of Flounder, Grouper, Trout, or Whiting on the menu. Unlike fried chicken, Southerners are much more tolerant of variations in the way fried fish might be prepared. On occasion, one might choose to serve their fish baked and not be judged too harshly…but only on occasion (and never on a Sunday).

Salmon Cakes

Crab cakes are for fancy brunches and weddings—salmon cakes are for dinner. The beauty of salmon cakes lies in their simplicity. In the South, we mix-up our salmon with cornmeal, mayonnaise, and spices. However, just like politics and religion, the discussion over whether to use store-bought mayonnaise, or to make your own, is not meant for polite conversation. One might also choose to simply not use mayonnaise (but that would make you a monster). Salmon cakes are best served with a side of hush puppies or a wedge of cornbread.

BBQ 

BBQ is a many splendored thing, and not just in the South, but everywhere. The global span of this method of cooking, along with the infinite variations on sauce, make pressing someone to choose their favorite type of BBQ seem a cruel and unusual thing to do, so we’ve chosen for you. Pulled pork BBQ slightly inches ahead of the rest as the South’s most beloved. It might photograph better with two buns, but really, this sandwich begs to be served open-faced. And it’s also good on a plate (no buns) paired with cool, crunchy slaw.

Black Eyed Peas & Rice

Simmer. We don’t boil, or bake, or do anything other than simmer our black-eyed peas. Aside from a long, slow steady cooking method, we spice them just right with plenty of salt, pepper, fresh garlic and Vidalia onion. And while some might argue for serving them in a bowl with a side of cornbread, the general (Southern) consensus is that this delicacy works best heaped over fluffy white rice. Some call this dish Hoppin’ John, while others Carolina Peas and Rice, we just know the two main ingredients are black-eyed peas and rice. And together they are delicious.

Red Beans And Rice

The other bean in the South… Some folks use their ham hocks to make split pea soup, but those people are dead inside—we jest. Nothing is quite as hearty as the red bean. As one of the few legumes with a significant chew-factor to its texture, the combination of ham hocks and red beans makes for a brimming bowl of heavenly comfort on a cold winter’s night. Serve with a generous scoop of white rice and your meal is complete.

Chicken Fried Steak

Whether your chicken fried steak is served alongside a heap of mashed potatoes at a greasy spoon, or plated with a side of truffle fries at a trendy cafe, you’re certain to experience the smug satisfaction that comes from beholding a plate of pure Southern decadence. No other Southern dish comes close to boasting the rich indulgence born from battering a cube steak with seasoned flour, frying it in a cast iron pan, then smothering it with delicious white Southern gravy.

Salisbury Steak And Gravy

The big debate over Salisbury steak is whether it’s served best with onion or mushroom gravy. The answer, of course, is both. Ground beef is featured in many a Southern dish, but Salisbury steak and gravy is where it shines the most. The trick to this dish is in the simmering of the ground beef with caramelized onion in the gravy– the mushroom and onion gravy – because no Southern cook should ever have to choose between mushrooms or onions.


Chicken And Dumplings

Some comfort foods have a magical, almost medicinal power—none more potent than a steaming bowl of chicken and dumplings. Is it a soup or a stew? Well, that all depends on the cook. It’s important to use quality chicken stock, fresh chopped veggies, and always season according to your family’s taste for garlic and onion.

The art of the dumpling, however, is subject to interpretation. Some cooks insist on making their own from scratch, cutting flour with butter, while others opt for the modern ease of using canned biscuit dough (pinched up and plopped right into the broth). Whether you prefer your dumplings soft, chewy, or a little dry, there’s a recipe out there to please every palate.

Southern cuisine is full of delicious food. These nine dishes are only the beginning, but we think you’ll agree they provide a great foundation for the creation of many traditional Southern meals.