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Crab hushpuppies

Crab hushpuppies

Crab hushpuppies with avocado aioli


No more sad brown foods: Here's how to add flavorful flourishes like a pro

When extolling the glories of caramelization throughout the cooking process, we often use the expression, “Brown food tastes good.” While that adage may hold true for flavor, many classic Southern dishes can stand to expand their color palate.

Fried foods, stews and braises, and even desserts can benefit from the addition of fresh herbs, vegetables or vibrant sauces to help brighten them up. But we shouldn’t add color simply for the sake of it — the flavors need to make sense in the context of the dish. Remember the garnishes of tri-color peppers, haphazardly chopped parsley or untoasted spices that ruled the day in the early aughts? Leave those at home (with your trucker hats), and try some of these easy flourishes to liven up those monochromatic, brown meals.

Fried Foods
We’ve all seen a classic fish fry platter: fried fish, french fries, hushpuppies. Perhaps some sad, minced white coleslaw and tartar sauce make an appearance, but the platter is otherwise a sea of golden brown foods. On their own, each element can be delicious, but when combined, the dishes need something to break up the monotony of richness. A simple salad of soft herbs can enhance the flavors already on the plate, and it can act as a natural respite from everything fried. Pick two or three herbs — any combination of flat-leaf parsley, chives, basil, mint and dill — a few drops of fresh lemon or lime juice (or vinegar) and a touch of extra-virgin olive oil for a great starting point. Use caution with cilantro and tarragon, as they can occasionally clash with other herbs. To make the salad seem more complete, try adding some fresh or pickled shallots, Fresno chiles, or even some thinly shaved raw fenne, and you'll really be in business.
Get our recipe for fried catfish
Get our recipe for hushpuppies

Braises and Stews
What’s more hearty and comforting than a big hunk of meat, cooked for hours in stock and red wine, and served on top of mashed potatoes? But while it makes for a perfect fall dinner, braises and stews don't make the most visually striking first impression. A bright, crunchy salad served right next to the braise on a dinner plate can break up the soft textures in the dish, and keep you interested in returning for another bite. Keep it simple with one main fruit or vegetable, one additional flavor, a fresh herb, fresh lemon juice and extra-virgin olive oil. If you're braising beef, pick a complementary ingredient like thinly shaved carrots and pair them with horseradish and chives. Is pork more your speed? Try thinly sliced apples with pickled chiles and celery leaves. For chicken, combine shaved raw zucchini with briny olives and fresh oregano or marjoram. The possibilities are endless.
Get our recipe for Mississippi roast
Get our recipe for slow pot-roasted pork butt
Get our recipe for tomato-braised chicken thighs

During the fall and winter months, the prevalence of apples, pears, pumpkin and warm spices, such as cinnamon, leads to tasty but (sadly) brown desserts. Fear not: there are some easy tricks to liven these dishes up. Building on the salad idea, you can construct a small dessert “salad” from seasonal fruits. A simple mixture of thinly sliced apples or pears with a dried fruit like raisins or currants and a tiny amount of picked thyme, all tossed together with a touch of lemon juice and extra-virgin olive oil, can bring needed crunch and acidity to all sweet, spice-forward desserts. To add a pop of color, a quick stroll down the juice aisle at the supermarket will tell you that cranberries play well with a variety of other fruits. Cooking down tart cranberries into a compote or jam can add depth to most fall or winter desserts. Finally, for those times when simplicity must win the day, a scoop of vanilla ice cream is the easiest way to help bust up the brown.
Get our recipe for apple cranberry crisp
Get our recipe for white chocolate and pumpkin bread pudding
Get our recipe for apple clafoutis with bourbon caramel sauce

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Chef Jeffrey Gardner is a native of Natchez, Miss., and a graduate of Millsaps College and Johnson & Wales University. He lives in Atlanta and has served as sous chef for popular restaurants South City Kitchen Midtown and Alma Cocina. In 2013 he became executive chef for East Cobb restaurant Common Quarter and was named one of ten “Next Generation of Chefs to Watch” by the Atlanta Business Chronicle. He has appeared on TV shows including Food Network’s Chopped and Cooking Channel’s How to Live to 100, and also filmed a series of healthy cooking videos with retired pro wrestler and fitness guru Diamond Dallas Page. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling the world with his wife Wendy, watching game shows and “spending all his money on Bruce Springsteen concerts.”