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At book festival, cookbook authors will serve up food for thought to go with tasty treats

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com

With cooler weather, shorter days and holidays around the corner (literally, in the form of Christmas trees and stockings, if you're pushing a shopping cart at Walmart), fall is prime cookbook time.

People are settling into their winter routines and thinking about the meals they'll prepare in coming months. Every year, the Texas Book Festival captures this renewed culinary spirit by inviting the country's top food writers, from chefs and TV hosts to culinary scholars and bloggers-turned-authors, to appear at the annual event taking place at the Capitol this weekend.

Inside today's paper, you'll find a special section dedicated to the book festival, which includes a roundup of most of the sessions dedicated to food. You could spend all day Saturday and Sunday listening to and watching these authors talk about and cook food from their latest books, but we chatted with several of them before the event to find out more about their books, thoughts on coming to Austin and the blistering hot culinary climate.

Pork chops and pork fat

Southern food seems to be the theme of this year's book festival. Paula Deen will be preaching to the choir at the Paramount Theatre on Sunday morning, but fellow Georgia native Virginia Willis will be giving what will surely be a more understated yet equally charming presentation from her new book, "Basic to Brilliant, Y'all: 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up for Company" (Ten Speed Press, $35) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in the cooking tent.

For 20 years, Willis worked behind the scenes, including creating recipes, for television icons Martha Stewart and Bobby Flay. It was, in many ways, thankless work, but it was where she met and befriended Southern food doyenne Nathalie Dupree, who taught her the Pork Chop Theory.

"The Pork Chop Theory is based on the premise that if you put one pork chop in the pan and turn the heat on high, the pork chop will burn," she wrote in a blog post last year explaining it to readers. "If you put two pork chops in the pan, however, and turn the heat on high they will feed off the fat of one another. It's the ultimate in giving, sharing and developing mutually beneficial partnerships and relationships. It's not about competition, it's about sharing the fat, sharing the love."

You can watch the Pork Chop Theory in action at this year's book festival. With half a dozen authors with ties to the South, it might seem like ham hock overload, but everyone brings something different to the table.

"Paula would be at one end of the spectrum; Hugh (Acheson) would be at the other," Willis says. "I feel like my place is somewhere in between. The basic might be closer to Paula, but the brilliant is similar to Hugh."

All of them have something distinct to say about the regional cuisine that in recent years has been embraced across the country.

"Part of my mission is to share with people that Southern food is more than fried chicken and overcooked greens," she says. "It doesn't have to be trapped in the past." She also tries to show that you can cook Southern food without an entire stick of butter in every dish. "Traditionally, we had a history of pork fat, not butter."

You'll find a judicious use of pork fat and, in some cases, butter, in "Basic to Brilliant, Y'all," a follow-up to her 2008 breakout book, "Bon Appetit, Y'all," that is as simple and elegant as the recipes themselves.

With each of the 150 dishes, Willis tells you how to "dress them up for company" without much additional expense. "It's like a little lagniappe at the end of the recipe," she says, and the slightly more advanced steps mean that the book can grow with cooks as they gain skill and ambition in the kitchen.

To keep the high-brow-low-brow balance in check, Willis says she also intentionally used a range of proteins — pork loin and blade steak, chicken breast and thigh, prime rib and Salisbury steak — to make sure people on any budget could get something out of the book.

Beyond 'Top Chef Masters'

Hugh Acheson knows you might only remember him as that "Top Chef Masters" contestant with the unibrow, but that's OK. He makes fun of it, too.

Over coffee this summer, when he was in Austin as a judge for the upcoming season of "Top Chef: Texas," part of which was filmed here, Acheson poked fun at his eyebrows but was serious when he compared Austin and Athens, the college town in Georgia that he calls home and where he opened his first restaurant, Five and Ten, in 2000. "They are both college towns with music roots, but there's a big difference," he says. "We don't have Dell." Without the influx of big businesses that have big paychecks, Athens will remain a relatively poor place, Acheson says.

His goal with Five and Ten is to serve contemporary Southern cuisine but with no pomp and circumstance. "You can't just please the top tier who can afford to eat," he says. With the national attention that comes with being part of the "Top Chef" family comes a responsibility to lift up others in his food community who can't just call up Mario Batali and talk shop. "My role is to be a cheerleader for the food community," he says. Same goes with sourcing. You can't be a good neighbor if you don't buy produce and meat from local purveyors.

He's opened a number of other restaurants since Five and Ten, including Empire State South in Atlanta last year, but his heart is in Athens. "I took over a restaurant in Athens to revolutionize that place. There wasn't much of a food scene at the time."

While in Austin, Acheson ate at all the top spots and some under-the-radar places, too. Particularly memorable was the fried fish and chips at Bits & Druthers, a trailer on East Sixth Street.

As a native Canadian, he comes at Southern food with an outsider's perspective, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. He doesn't have a grandmother's collard greens to live up to or try to replicate, and he can appreciate the cuisine for what it is, not for his own personal nostalgia. "There is no food history like that of Southern food," Acheson says. "Black and white, rich and poor are eating the same food, which is rare."

Acheson is living the life of a high-profile chef, but he longs for a time when restaurants and chefs had smaller aspirations. Not that they shouldn't strive to make great food, but instead of thinking you'll graduate from culinary school and suddenly open a four-star restaurant is unrealistic. A small restaurant with a small wait staff and kitchen is a perfectly acceptable goal. "A $3 million restaurant is insane," he says. "Banks will own what we should be running."

Acheson's first cookbook "A New Turn in the South: Southern Flavors Reinvented for Your Kitchen," (Clarkson Potter, $35) feels funky and modern, with handwritten sketches, titles, recipes, notes and explanations on almost every page and recipes such as boiled-peanut hummus and shaved Brussels sprouts salad that reflect a place but don't feel dated. The photos by fellow Athens resident Rinne Allen aren't overstyled or showy.

You can catch Acheson at 10 a.m. Saturday in the Central Market cooking tent alongside Martha Hall Foose, who has followed up to her hugely popular 2008 book, "Screen Doors and Sweet Tea," with "A Southerly Course."

Sweet Potato Grits

2 cups water

2 cups low-fat or whole milk

1 cup stone-ground grits

2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and grated

Coarse salt and freshly ground white pepper

1/4 tsp. ground ginger

Pinch of ground cinnamon

1 Tbsp. unsalted butter

In a large, heavy saucepan, combine the water and milk and bring to a gentle boil over medium-high heat. Slowly add the grits, whisking constantly. Add the sweet potato. Season with salt and white pepper. Decrease the heat to low and simmer, stirring often, until the grits are creamy and thick, 45 to 60 minutes.

Taste the grits and sweet potato to make sure both are cooked and tender. Add the ground ginger, cinnamon, and butter. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and white pepper. Serve immediately. Serves 4 to 6.

Add a bit of technique and this basic country classic is transformed into a brilliant soufflé-like spoon bread. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter an ovenproof casserole or round 2-quart soufflé mold. To the sweet potato\u2013grits mixture, add 2 large egg yolks, one at a time, stirring after each addition. In a separate bowl, using a handheld mixer, beat 2 large egg whites with a pinch of salt on high speed until stiff peaks form. Gently fold the egg whites into the warm sweet potato mixture. Transfer the lightened mixture to the prepared pan; smooth the surface with a spatula. Bake until the outside is puffed and risen, the inside is firm but moist, and the top is golden brown, 35 to 40 minutes. Serve immediately while still puffed. Serves 4 to 6.

— Virginia Willis, "Basic to Brilliant, Y'all: 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up for Company" (Ten Speed Press, $35)

Lyonnaise Salad with Bacon Vinaigrette

For vinaigrette:

1/4 lb. bacon, finely diced

1 Tbsp. grain mustard

1/2 cup olive oil

1/4 cup sherry vinegar

1 Tbsp. lemon juice

2 Tbsp. chopped flat leaf parsley

Pinch of kosher salt

In a large skillet over medium heat, cook the bacon until crisp but not burnt, then remove it from the pan using a slotted spoon. Set the bacon strips, side by side, on a couple of paper towels. Turn off the heat but save 2 Tbsp. of the warm rendered bacon fat.

Place a medium bowl on a damp kitchen towel on the counter. Add the mustard and slowly whisk in the olive oil. Once the oil is incorporated, add the warm bacon fat, sherry vinegar, lemon juice, parsley, and the cooked bacon. Stir well and season with kosher salt. Heat gently to serve. This vinaigrette will last for 1 week in the fridge. Makes 2 cups.

For salad:

2 heads of frisee lettuce, cleaned and outer darker green leaves removed

2 red apples, sliced thinly

1/2 cup flat leaf parsley leaves

1 cup Bacon Vinaigrette (recipe follows)

1 tsp. plus a pinch of kosher salt

1 Tbsp. white vinegar

6 large eggs

In a large bowl combine the frisee, sliced apple, and parsley. Place the bacon vinaigrette in a small pot and warm over medium heat for 2 minutes.

Season the salad with a pinch of salt and dress with 1/4 cup of the warm vinaigrette. Toss well and then split equally onto 6 plates.

Place a wide, shallow pot on the stove on medium-high heat and fill 2 inches with water. Bring to a boil, then simmer over low heat. Add the vinegar and 1 tsp. of kosher salt to the water. Crack the eggs individually into six small bowls and then carefully pour each egg into the water. Poach the eggs for 3 to 4 minutes depending on how soft you like your yolks. I like mine quite soft. Remove the eggs from the water with a slotted spoon, dabbing the bottom of the spoon onto a kitchen towel to remove any excess moisture, and place a poached egg on top of each salad. Finish each plate with a drizzle (about a Tablespoon each) of the bacon vinaigrette. Serves 6.

— Hugh Acheson, "A New Turn In The South" (Clarkson Potter, $35)