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I am lucky to live most of the year in Chapel Hill, NC, a vibrant college town which has a long tradition as a true culinary center in the South. Not one, but two establishments are James Beard Award winners: Andrea Reusing's Asian fusion, Lantern and Crook's Corner, Chef Bill Smith's mecca for all things authentically Southern. I was dining at Crook's last week and as usual, Bill Smith (when he is not somewhere else in the US or abroad cooking banquets for foodies or festival goers), stopped by the table. I had ordered the fried oysters after reading Bill's recipe in his latest book, Crabs and Oysters.
I have always liked his fried oysters, along with his hush puppies, butterscotch pudding, signature shrimp and grits, persimmon pudding, fried chicken, and barbecued pork and coleslaws. But his story of how he came to use corn flour (Maseca) which is typically used in making tortillas, for coating the oysters was both delightful and intriguing. It seems he figured out that a New Orleans seafood breading he had found in the French Market contained corn flour, not corn meal which is more common. When he ran out, he headed over to the Latino market nearby and tried the Maseca. The difference in texture and flavor was a revelation!
Bill, it seems, like most curious cooks hunts and gathers his way around the world, and especially the South, picking up unusual regional foods and sampling local dishes that always inspire a new twist on old classics. You can almost imagine a trail of odd boxes gleaned from the top dusty shelf of some out-of-the-way country store or mason jars of muscadine jelly or chow chow spilling out from his backpack as he tries to slip past airport security. Bill has his regular local seasonal sources too- usually the special offerings of friends and neighbors who load his bike basket with fresh figs from a backyard tree or honeysuckle for his famous sorbet.
Bill always seems to be in motion, and having known him for over 45 years, I marvel at how he keeps it up! All that energy has been a powerful vortex in the revival of Southern food here in Chapel Hill and the US for that matter. For more than 20 years Bill has consistently served up down-home food in the way he learned as a native of New Bern, NC- using the best and freshest ingredients and never never getting "uppity" about who he is or where he came from. He collaborates with his longtime kitchen staff (who are more like family) and rubs elbows with the luminaries of the food world. He never stops learning or trying something new. And we who are his customers and friends like perching at barstools in the restaurant to watch for what comes next out of the kitchen.
So there I was at Crook's ready to taste those oysters again after Bill had revealed his secret ingredient. I wasn't disappointed and was pretty certain that the oysters had not always been made with Maseca. Maybe it was my imagination, but they were better than ever and I could taste the tortilla flavor and the juicy oysters encased in just the right amount of crunch. A splash of fresh lemon, a Sriracha-infused mayonnaise for dipping and they were perfect.
Bill kindly let me reprint his recipe, so give them a try. Better still, stop by Crook's in oyster season...or persimmon season... or crab season...you get the picture.