- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 29, 2009

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Nathalie Dupree - grande dame and veteran of nearly 50 years in the kitchen - and I are sipping iced tea on a Charleston piazza. In this city, that is the side porch of traditional houses that stretch back from a narrow frontage, with a long side wall open to capture any breezes from the sea. The cooking is similarly deceptive: On the face, it’s all deep-fried shrimp and grits, but it’s far, far more complex under the surface.

Ms. Dupree’s life is a culinary odyssey, a tour of the South and Southern cooking. She was raised in the Virginia countryside “in the shadow of Mount Vernon,” then in Texas and New Orleans. Cooking came naturally. “I began in a student house in Cambridge in 1959,” she recalls. “There were 18 of us, and these were the days when ladies didn’t cook. I took over the kitchen and loved every minute of it.” Ten years down the road, she found herself immersed in French cooking at the Cordon Bleu School in London.

Then it was on to her own restaurant on the Mediterranean island of Majorca. The Catalan maitre d’hotel took her to the market and introduced her to local ingredients. “Food straight from the sea and the garden is different; I grew figs and citrus and all my own herbs,” she says. “This is what so many people are looking for now; I was there early.”

On moving to Atlanta in the 1970s, Ms. Dupree found herself once again a pioneer. She found the city “a repository of so-called Continental cuisine. I didn’t do that, I cooked my own fresh food.” The cooking school she started in a Rich’s Department Store became a model for their 20 branches and attracted 10,000 students over the years. Her book “New Southern Cooking,” published in 1986, sums up the style.

For Ms. Dupree, Southern cooking ranges from legendary favorites such as barbecue, grits, turnip greens, Hoppin’ John and biscuits to contemporary updates such as butterbean and champagne soup or grilled duck with muscadine preserves, all based on local ingredients.

In the 1980s, teaching in the kitchen became teaching on camera, and Ms. Dupree went national on half a dozen television shows. “It was hard for people at that time to understand Southern cooking,” she says. “They thought it was all pork and bitter greens.” She aimed at a modest budget with affordable ingredients and became an expert on Southern flour with its low gluten content (White Lily is the most famous brand). With less gluten to glue doughs and batters together, biscuits are lighter, cakes such as coconut are fluffier. I remember visiting Ms. Dupree’s kitchen one day, and the whole table, nearly a yard square, was covered with biscuit dough ready for stamping in rounds.

Somewhere along the way in her life, Ms. Dupree has found time to be chef in two restaurants, one in Social Circle, Ga., the other in Richmond. She became president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. She has written a dozen cookbooks focused on the South and subjects such as “Comfortable Entertaining,” “Southern Memories,” “Shrimp and Grits,” and her landmark “New Southern Cooking.” Ms. Dupree is writing for the novice, the nervous, the aspiring cook.

When Rich’s cooking schools closed in the mid-1980s, new horizons opened for Ms. Dupree. She married historian Jack Bass and moved to Charleston, S.C. She discovered a new network of friends and launched the relaxed, potluck parties for which she is famous. “Once a Southerner, always a Southerner” she smiles. “Life in the South stamps you, and you’ll be the richer for it.”

Ms. Dupree has a knack for bringing people together. At a recent gathering, I met students from the local culinary college, a couple of chefs, a jazz musician, a book dealer, a few journalists, a historian or two, some old-fashioned Southern socialites, and a dear friend that I had not seen for more than 10 years. As for the future: “I’m getting into history,” she says. “I like to be a bit ahead of my time!”

Folly Island shrimp and grits

Makes 2 servings.

Ms. Dupree’s latest book is a riff on that Southern classic, shrimp and grits. Stone-ground grits are best if you can find them, but this recipe is quick if you use quick grits. The cooking time for stone-ground grits can vary, so consult your package for a hint and then rely on your senses rather than your timer to tell you when they’re done. Her Southern generosity ensures that this recipe will provide two hefty portions.

1/2 cup stone-ground grits or 1/2 cup quick grits

2 cups chicken stock, more if needed

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons soft cream cheese

2 tablespoons half-and-half

1/3 cup chopped scallions

1 pound raw medium shrimp, peeled

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

For the grits: Bring stock to a boil in a saucepan. Stir in grits, letting them fall into the stock in a stream and stirring constantly. Add salt and pepper, and simmer, stirring very often, until grits are tender but still slightly chewy, 20 to 40 minutes depending on how coarse your grits are. They can be “dry,” just holding a shape, or “loose” and almost creamy, as you prefer, so add more stock if needed. Stir in 1 tablespoon butter, the cream cheese, half-and-half, and half the scallions. Taste and adjust seasoning. Cover and keep warm. If using quick grits, follow package directions, replacing any water with chicken stock to add flavor.

For the shrimp: Heat remaining butter in a frying pan, add shrimp and saute, tossing to cook both sides, until they turn pink, about 3 minutes. Add lime juice, salt and pepper, taste and adjust seasoning. Divide grits between 2 warm plates, top with shrimp and spoon over pan juices. Sprinkle with remaining scallions and serve.

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