Calves' brains, tofu and tamales: Southern Kitchen's best recipes and stories of 2021

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

It's been a year of change here at Southern Kitchen. We relaunched our site in early fall with a new look and a fresh slate of new stories and recipes. We also relaunched our newsletter. Sign up for the Southern Kitchen newsletter here.

We doubled down on reimagining what Southern food really means in the new South, with plenty of new vegan takes on comfort food and a diverse set of recipes. Southern food is, of course, not a monolith of fried chicken and taters. It can also encompass tamales and tapas.

Here, a look at some of the most popular recipes and stories we shared with you this year.

A story of 'Leather Britches'

Southern Appalachian food represents one of the South's most distinct and fascinating foodways. Southern chefs who have awakened to the vegetable-rich culture of Appalachia, and retold its story in their restaurants, include Sean Brock and Travis Milton.

A garland of leather britches.

Author Ronni Lundy is well-versed in the song of the Appalachian South, and her book "Victuals" (pronounced Vittles) is a celebration of all the region has to offer. 

In this story about Leather Britches, a fascinating Appalachian method of drying and preserving green beans, Lundy described the flavor of the dish as "Appalachian umami."

Leather britches, so named after their resemblance to leather pants that had been soaked and hastily dried, are threaded together and hung up to dehydrate in the pod, giving them a flavor that verges on meatiness once they're simmered in hot water with a hearty chunk of fatback.

The pods of shuck beans, or leather britches, become silky-smooth after slow cooking.

"They become this silky delivery system for the fat and seasoning, and there's some kind of delicate thing in there," Lundy said. "It's just intoxicating to eat them — the flavor is not like another bean dish that I know of because of what happens with the shell when it dries and then cooks — it really is a unique flavor."

Read the story:'Appalachian umami': Leather Britches, a tradition with surprising roots

Make the dish:How to make umami-rich Leather Britches, or Appalachian Shuck Beans, a mountain tradition

Meet three chefs rethinking corn

There's a movement afoot among United States chefs to retell corn's storied history. In the U.S., corn is often seen as a uniformly yellow thing, though there are nearly infinite varieties.

Chefs including Maricela Vega want to revive and celebrate Indigenous and heirloom corn varieties and, in the process, encourage crop diversity.

Pozole, garnished with cabbage, onions and radishes.

You can see the movement on restaurant menus, where handmade tortillas and tamales made the traditional way are beginning to crop up all over. 

Chef Dave Smoke-McCluskey is also working to revive lost corn traditions. An Indigenous foodways historian and member of the Mohawk Nation, the chef also grows and sources Indigenous and heirloom corn, which he washes with hardwood ash to create small-batch masa, hominy and cornmeal under the label Corn Mafia. 

Read the story:Handmade tortillas and hominy grits: Meet 3 Georgia chefs rethinking corn

Make the dish:Earthy, spiced authentic Mexican Pozole Rojo De Puerco for a crowd

That whole calves' brain thing

People have always been fascinated by the Vanderbilts, the family behind the opulent Biltmore Estate in Asheville. That remains as true now as it was in 1904, when Edith and George Vanderbilt hosted a Thanksgiving dinner detailed in an archival menu book.

Thousands of you read Southern Kitchen's story about what the couple and their guests dined on that year, which included items like oysters and ice cream made with then-rare pineapples.

Biltmore starts getting ready for the holidays as soon as Halloween ends.

Vanderbilt's Thanksgiving guests were also served a course of estate-raised turkey with cranberry jelly, peas and beets. Though that sounds rather commonplace, the rest of the meal was a parade of elegant dishes of the era, including calves' brains with mushroom sauce and a fashionable salad of celery served with Virginia ham.

Read the story:Calves brains and consommé: What Biltmore Estate Thanksgiving dinner looked like in 1904

Make the dish:Brined and roasted turkey from the Dining Room at The Inn on Biltmore Estate

Vegan food for the soul

Healthier versions of soulful Southern food are apparently in high demand these days, as about 18,000 of you read a story about chef Rene Johnson, who left behind a career in finance to launch Blackberry Soul Fine Catering.

Johnson, who caters to the stars, said California Governor Gavin Newsom loved her quinoa "meatloaf." Vice President Kamala Harris particularly enjoyed her vegan desserts. Actor Danny Glover preferred her red beans and rice.

Rene Johnson's vegan dirty rice.

"That's because I kept the soul in it and took the bad fats out," Johnson said. "I think my red beans and rice is a classic example of how you can still eat soul food, keep the flavor and still have it be vegan."

The comfort of homestyle food is a powerful thing, which is why Johnson does not recommend an austere diet. "I do believe that, if you want a piece of fried chicken or fried fish, you should have it," she said.

Johnson's tips for healthy eating:Chef Rene Johnson's vegan soul food is perfect for the stars, and your Thanksgiving table

Make the dish:Try this vegan quinoa 'meatloaf' as the centerpiece of your meat-free meal

More popular Southern kitchen recipes

RJ Harvey, culinary director Potatoes USA, is probably the most qualified chef in the US to dole out potato advice.

It surprised exactly no one that many of you wanted to learn how to "Make the best mashed potatoes of your life," with tips from RJ Harvey, a registered dietitian, classically trained chef and the culinary director of Potatoes USA.

More:Here's how to make the best mashed potatoes of your life

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We're also not really surprised that many of you loved our recipe for "Life-changing bacon-bourbon chocolate chip cookies," which are made with a cup of fat. Because everything's better with fat.

More:Life-changing bourbon-bacon chocolate chip cookies

Deviled Eggs

Many of you also loved our collection of 13 appetizers to serve before your big Thanksgiving meal. A tip: Each and every one of these would be perfect to serve any time of the year. 

More:13 easy Thanksgiving appetizers to serve before the main event

In "Mosquito Supper Club," chef Melissa M. Martin shares the Cajun food of her youth, like crawfish étouffée. (Courtesy Artisan Books)

And finally, many of you wanted to learn how to make a buttery Crawfish Étouffée recipe from Kay Brandhurst, a fisherman’s wife who sells shrimp at the Crescent City Farmers Market in New Orleans. Melissa M. Martin detailed the recipe in her lyrically written cookbook, “Mosquito Supper Club.”

More:This buttery Crawfish Étouffée recipe, rich with flavor, comes from a fisherman's wife

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com