Rethinking Southern vegetables: Husk Nashville chef Ben Norton on how to make produce sing

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen
A Southern vegetable plate at Husk Nashville. At center are yellow grits from Marsh Hen Mill. Clockwise from left: Husk’s persimmons with chamomile ice and begonias; sorghum-glazed bok choy; Sea Island Red Pea hush puppies; embered local red radish.

At Husk in Nashville, produce is so prevalent, it nearly hangs over your head.

In October, the branches of a persimmon tree planted near the patio bent slightly under the weight of the fruit. 

On the opposite side of the stately late-19th century home, which houses Husk, is a garden rich with vegetables, fruit and herbs. It's an almost improbably lush oasis amid a growing city.

Husk's menu is also lush with local produce, most notably on "A Plate of Southern Vegetables." The dish has a permanent place on the menu, even if its components change often.

Vegetables are the star of the show

Ben Norton, executive chef of the lauded Rutledge Hill restaurant, said the plate is a showcase for the farmers who arrive at the kitchen door daily. 

"There's always a bounty of stuff," he said. "Or sometimes, it's something we have in the walk-in cooler, stuff we don't have a direction for, and the vegetable plate makes a good outlet."

Husk restaurant Chef Ben Norton prepares a Southern vegetable plate on Wednesday, October 13, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn.

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Each component is handled by a different kitchen station, but somehow the ingredients, served in separate bowls, come together seamlessly.

The Southern vegetable plate hearkens back to a time when gardens overflowed with vegetables, while ostentatious cuts of meat were less prevalent.

The Georgia-born Norton remembers his grandmother's summer garden as abundant with the vegetables—often the star of the show, with meat more so a supporting actor.

"That's how the Southern kitchen is when there's a bounty of vegetables," he said. 

But that wasn't always Norton's preference. Often he grew tired of cucumbers and boiled okra. "There were times when I just wanted fried chicken," he said. 

Adjust with the seasons

In the fall and winter, Norton's grandparents' interest in gardening would wane. At Husk, there is no such seasonal pause. 

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Summer is easiest when the kitchen can serve juicy slabs of heirloom tomatoes kissed with little more than salt. Fall and winter, with their abundance of squash and brassicas, present challenges.

That's where preservation comes in.

Helping to anchor Husk's vegetable plate in all seasons are Marsh Hen Mill grits, stoneground from dried corn on Edisto Island, South Carolina.

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Punched up with an umami-rich sauce, those grits and other preserved vegetables in Husk's larder offer a taste of summer even when little is growing outside.

The secret to making quality grits isn't a fancy chef trick, Norton said. "Just season them gently and let the corn do the talking," he said. Get the recipe here.

Likewise, home cooks don't need overflowing gardens and trees laden with fruit to create a plate that's simple, delicious and nourishing in all seasons. Here are chef Norton's tips for making the best vegetable plate, no matter what's on the vine.

Keep these things in mind

FAT:

Some ingredients, like summer tomatoes, don't require much to make them sing. But if your vegetables need some oomph, try adding fat, whether it's cheese, butter or a dollop of sauce on the side. 

Husk restaurant Chef Ben Norton on Wednesday, October 13, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn.

"That's an easy tactic," Norton said. "Whether it's mayonnaise made with something cool or cooking something in butter, sometimes making something taste good means pairing it with something great to help it shine."

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PEAS, PLEASE:

Don't forget field peas and beans, which taste good and add extra nutritional oomph to your plate. "We do that a lot during the winter when things get dull," Norton said.

Husk chefs love beans and peas, particularly Sea Island Red Peas from Anson Mills. "A lot of times, we just eat those for lunch because we really like them," he said. 

The chefs also make hush puppies with Sea Island peas mixed with red pea flour and cornmeal. Fried and served with a smokey mayonnaise, the hush puppies add texture and flavor to the vegetable plate. 

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DON'T OVERTHINK:

Think of a classic dish that uses vegetables, and let that be the star of your plate. "My grandmother always made a great sweet potato casserole," Norton said. "Who said that should be something we save for Thanksgiving?" 

Hoppin' John, a classic Southern dish of rice and peas, could also be a great addition to a Southern vegetable plate — even if rice isn't a vegetable, Norton said.

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PRESERVATION:

Nothing goes to waste at Husk, where fruit at the end of its prime goes into preserves and early fall peppers get pickled. You can quick-pickle just about anything, from green beans to Swiss chard stems, and add that to your vegetable plate for extra pop.

Pickled habanadas served on the side of hush puppies, for example, lend the floral tang of pickled habaneros without the searing heat.

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UMAMI: 

Ham hocks lend excellent flavor to beans and greens. Still, you don't need to add meat for umami. Mushrooms pack lots of earthy flavors, which intensify when they're dried. At Husk, the kitchen saves mushroom stems for this reason.

"If someone shows up at the door with a Hen of the Woods (a wild mushroom) that's too big and woody to use, we'll dehydrate that and keep it in an airtight container," Norton said.

At Husk, the vegetables plate's creamy, buttery grits are sometimes enhanced with a rich umami broth made from shiitake stems and grilled shiitakes.

Try this:Eddie’s Turnip Greens Recipe

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Mackensy Lunsford covers food policy, restaurants, agriculture and other food-related topics for the USA TODAY Network's South Region. She's the editor of Southern Kitchen and correspondent for The American South. Sign up for my newsletter here.

Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com