10 Decadent Classic Southern Dishes

If there’s one thing we Southerners have mastered, it’s food. Some of the best cuisine in the world is from Dixie, and I think it’s time we celebrate it. Here’s a list of ten of the most decadent classic Southern dishes. My hope is that you’ll read these recipes and be inspired to cook — and if you’re not familiar with Southern cuisine, maybe you’ll try something new.

Instead of a typical countdown list format, I’ve structured this list much in the way a meal may arrive at a restaurant table — starters, sides, main courses, and desserts. Enjoy!

10. Pimento Cheese

Pimento cheese is a staple in Southern refrigerators — a simple, versatile recipe. Creamy and smooth,  yet with an appealing sharpness, pimento cheese is perfect on a sandwich (with or without bacon) or with crackers. The famed Varsity restaurant in Atlanta and Athens serves it on a chili dog, and Lisa De Pasquale and I recently discovered how good it is on a hamburger.

Maybe I’m biased, but my mom, Marcia Queen, makes the best pimento cheese I’ve ever tasted. You won’t find her name in any cookbooks that I know of, so here’s an exclusive recipe.

2 cups softened sharp cheddar cheese
1 4 oz can diced pimentos, drained
1/2 cup mayo
1 block softened cream cheese
Salt & pepper to taste

Mix and enjoy.

9. Fried Green Tomatoes

Fried green tomatoes became famous thanks to the 1991 hit film based on Fannie Flagg’s novel. As gross as they may sound to the uninitiated, fried green tomatoes blend the savory of the breading with the light tartness of the pre-ripe tomato in an appealing way. They’re great on a sandwich, by themselves, or even on a biscuit (which is the way I tried them for the first time). This recipe from Southern Living is a basic one — some cooks add cayenne pepper to the batter or serve them with ranch. Personally, I prefer them sliced as thin as possible.

1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup self-rising cornmeal mix
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
3 medium-size, firm green tomatoes, cut into 1/3-inch-thick slices (about 1 1/4 lb.)
Vegetable oil

Whisk together egg and buttermilk. Combine cornmeal mix, salt, pepper, and 1/4 cup flour in a shallow dish. Dredge tomato slices in remaining 1/4 cup flour; dip in egg mixture, and dredge in cornmeal mixture. Pour oil to a depth of 1/2 inch in a large cast-iron skillet; heat to 375° over medium-high heat. Drop tomatoes, in batches, into hot oil, and cook 2 minutes on each side or until golden. Drain on paper towels. Sprinkle hot tomatoes with salt to taste.

8. Fried Okra

Okra may well be one of the all-time acquired tastes among Southern staples. Even some of the most devoted Southern foodies (including yours truly) will only eat it one way — fried.

Fried okra is like Southern popcorn – an irresistible salty treat. It makes for a great side dish, and it’s great all by itself. Here’s a recipe from Southern Living:

1 lb. fresh okra
2 cups buttermilk
1 cup self-rising cornmeal
1 cup self-rising flour
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ground red pepper
Vegetable oil
1/4 cup bacon drippings

Cut off and discard tip and stem ends from okra; cut okra into 1⁄2-inch-thick slices. Stir into buttermilk; cover and chill 45 minutes.

Combine cornmeal and next 3 ingredients in a bowl. Remove okra from buttermilk with a slotted spoon, and discard buttermilk. Dredge okra, in batches, in the cornmeal mixture.

Pour oil to a depth of 2 inches into a dutch oven or cast-iron skillet; add bacon drippings, and heat to 375°. Fry okra, in batches, 4 minutes or until golden; drain on paper towels.

7. Creamed Collard Greens

Collard greens. Either you love ’em or you hate ’em. I equate them with New Year’s Day, when tradition holds that you eat greens if you want a financially successful new year. They’re supposed to be healthy, right? Not so fast, says MasterChef Season 1 winner Whitney Miller. This recipe from her cookbook Modern Hospitality: Simple Recipes With Southern Charm throws that notion out the window by throwing in some heavy cream. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup diced yellow onion
1 garlic clove, minced
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
10 large collard green leaves, washed and ribs removed
1/2 cup reduced sodium chicken broth

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in 1 cup of the cream and cook for 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally until the cream has reduced and thickened, about 10 minutes. Stir in the salt.

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the collard greens and cook for 2 minutes to blanch. Drain the leaves and pat dry with paper towels. Stack the leaves and roll into a cigar. Cut the cigar in half lengthwise and thinly slice crosswise into long strips.

Add the greens to the cream sauce. Using a hand blender, blend or pulse greens until they are in small pieces. (Or transfer to a countertop blender, puree, and return creamed greens to the pan.) Cook over medium-low heat for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the chicken broth and remaining 1/2 cup cream. Stir until combined and cook over medium-low heat until the mixture is heated through, about 10 minutes.

6. Fried Catfish

When it’s done right, catfish is a Southern delicacy. Beautiful golden brown catfish that melts in your mouth makes any meal special. Alton Brown’s recipe is simple enough for a rookie but delicious enough for a seasoned chef:

1 quart peanut oil
1 cup stone-ground fine cornmeal
1 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon seafood seasoning (recommended: Old Bay)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon hot smoked paprika
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
6 (7 to 9-ounce) US farm-raised catfish fillets, rinsed and thoroughly patted dry
3/4 cup low-fat buttermilk

Heat the peanut oil in a 5-quart Dutch oven over high heat until it reaches 350 degrees F on a deep-fry thermometer. Adjust the heat to maintain the temperature. Whisk the cornmeal and flour together in a shallow dish. Combine the seafood seasoning, kosher salt, paprika, and pepper in a small bowl. Season the catfish fillets evenly on both sides with the spice mixture. Pour the buttermilk into another shallow dish.

Dip each fillet into the buttermilk, flip once to coat both sides, hold over the pan and allow the excess to drip off. Coat both sides of the fillets in the cornmeal mixture. Set the coated fillets on a cooling rack and let rest for 5 minutes. Gently add the fillets, 2 at a time, to the hot oil and fry until golden brown, about 5 to 6 minutes. Remove the fried fillets to a cooling rack set over a newspaper-lined half sheet pan. Repeat method with remaining fillets. Arrange the catfish on a serving platter and serve immediately.

5. Shrimp and Grits

People outside the South have a hard time understanding the sway that grits holds over us down here. The creamy heartiness of grits done right makes them a scrumptious dish for breakfast — or any other time, for that matter.

Shrimp and grits is an elegant delicacy. Adding the shrimp and creamy sauce to an already delicious bowl of grits adds a bit of class to a Southern favorite. Here’s Paula Deen’s famous recipe:

2 servings cooked grits
2 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup diced tasso ham
2 tablespoon diced leeks
2 tablespoon diced onion
2 tablespoon diced green peppers
20 medium to large shrimp, peeled and de-veined, with tails on
1 tablespoon white wine
1 cup heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste
green onion tops, chopped

*Cook’s Note: Tasso is a Cajun ham and is often hard to find outside of Louisiana, but you can find it at some specialty gourmet shops or by mail order. If not, you can substitute salt pork, pancetta, or prosciutto, but you will have to beef up your seasonings, as tasso is very flavorful.

Cook grits according to package directions; set aside and keep warm.

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add tasso and saute until crisp. Add diced vegetables and saute until onions are translucent. Add shrimp and saute for 30 to 45 seconds, or until pink. Remove from the pan and set aside. Deglaze the pan with a little white wine. Slowly add the cream and let reduce until thickened. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

Divide grits among 2 serving plates. Line plate edges with shrimp (10 shrimp per serving). Pour sauce over grits. Garnish with green onion tops.

4. Country Fried Steak

Another staple of the Southern table is country fried (or chicken fried) steak. A good country fried steak is a hearty main course that’s hard for even an amateur chef to mess up. Some folks like their steak with brown or red-eye gravy, but I prefer a classic white gravy.

This recipe from restaurateur, culinary instructor, and television host Nathalie Dupree elevates the country fried steak a little — as though something so earthy and wonderful needed elevation:

2/3 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds top round or chuck steak — cut 3 to 2 inch thick
2 eggs
2 tablespoons cream
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 cups saltine cracker crumbs — rolled fine
1 onion — sliced
1/2 cup cream
2 cups chicken broth
1 Dash Worcestershire sauce — optional
1 Dash Hot Sauce — optional

Mix 1/2 cup of the flour, the salt, and pepper together. Pound the mixture
into both sides of the meat with the edge of a heavy plate or mallet. Cut the
meat into serving pieces. Beat eggs together with the cream. Heat the oil in a
heavy cast iron skillet over moderately high heat. Reserve 3 tablespoons of
the flour.

Dredge the steaks in the remainder of the flour, dip in the egg
mixture, and then into the cracker crumbs. Place the steaks in the hot oil and
brown well. Turn and brown other side. Reduce heat to medium, cover the
skillet, and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, turning occasionally, until the steaks
are cooked through and tender. Chicken fried steak should be well done, but
not dry.

Remove the steaks from the skillet and drain on brown paper bags.
Keep warm. Add the onion slices to the pan and saute quickly. Pour off all but
3 tablespoons of the fat in the skillet and stir in the 3 tablespoons reserved
flour. Stir to incorporate any particles on the bottom of the pan and cook for
1 to 2 minutes. Stir in the cream, then the chicken broth. Season the gravy
with Worcestershire and hot sauce. Slice the meat across the grain and top
with the gravy. Yield: 6 to 8 servings

3. Powdered Sugar Pound Cake

I’m convinced that God gave pound cake to us as a direct gift from Him. I’m not talking about some Sara Lee prepackaged cake out of a tin here — real homemade pound cake is a true labor of love. I always thought my late grandmother, Frances Arnold, made the best cakes, but when I asked my mom for one of her recipes, she said, “I’ve got a recipe that’s better than Granny’s.” So here you go — the only time my mom has ever been arrogant.

3 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
1 pound powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 large eggs
2 1/3 cups all purpose flour

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Butter and flour a Bundt cake pan. With an electric mixer, beat butter in large bowl until fluffy. Gradually beat in sugar, vanilla extract, and salt. Beat in eggs one at a time. Add flour in three additions until each addition is blended. Pour batter in pan.

Bake the cake until you can insert a toothpick in and have it come out clean — between an hour and 75 minutes. Remove cake from pan and cool.

2. Red Velvet Cake

I have a confession – I’m a sucker for a good red velvet cake. The classic red velvet cake originated at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, but many foodies and writers consider it a Southern recipe. The rich, moist cake surrounded by delightful cream cheese icing will please any palate. The red velvet concept has morphed into plenty of other fascinating variations as well. This Food Network recipe isn’t for the faint of heart, but it’s well worth it.

Vegetable oil for the pans
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon fine salt
1 teaspoon cocoa powder
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
2 large eggs, at room temperature
2 tablespoons red food coloring (1 ounce)
1 teaspoon white distilled vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Crushed pecans, for garnish

Cream Cheese Frosting:
1 pound cream cheese, softened
4 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar
2 sticks unsalted butter (1 cup), softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly oil and flour 3 (9 by 1 1/2-inch round) cake pans. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, and cocoa powder. In another large bowl, whisk together the oil, buttermilk, eggs, food coloring, vinegar, and vanilla. Using a standing mixer, mix the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients until just combined and a smooth batter is formed. Divide the cake batter evenly among the prepared cake pans. Place the pans in the oven evenly spaced apart. Bake, rotating the pans halfway through the cooking, until the cake pulls away from the side of the pans, and a toothpick inserted in the center of the cakes comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Remove the cakes from the oven and run a knife around the edges to loosen them from the sides of the pans. One at a time, invert the cakes onto a plate and then re-invert them onto a cooling rack, rounded-sides up. Let cool completely.

In a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or with a hand-held electric mixer in a large bowl, mix the cream cheese, sugar, and butter on low speed until incorporated. Increase the speed to high, and mix until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. (Occasionally turn the mixer off, and scrape the down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.) Reduce the speed of the mixer to low. Add the vanilla, raise the speed to high and mix briefly until fluffy (scrape down the bowl occasionally). Store in the refrigerator until somewhat stiff, before using. May be stored in the refrigerator for 3 days.

Frost the cake. Place 1 layer, rounded-side down, in the middle of a rotating cake stand. Using a palette knife or offset spatula spread some of the cream cheese frosting over the top of the cake. (Spread enough frosting to make a 1/4 to 1/2-inch layer.) Carefully set another layer on top, rounded-side down, and repeat. Top with the remaining layer and cover the entire cake with the remaining frosting. Sprinkle the top with the pecans.

1. Gooey Butter Cake

One of Paula Deen’s signature desserts is a simple cake that combines flavors perfectly. It may be far from the healthiest food you’ll ever put in your mouth, but at least your taste buds will rejoice. You can create your own variations on the recipe by adding lemon, chocolate, pumpkin, or any number of other  wonderful flavors. Gooey Butter Cake ends a meal on the right notes.

1 18 1/4-ounce package yellow cake mix
1 egg
8 tablespoons butter, melted

1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
8 tablespoons butter, melted
1 16-ounce box powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Combine the cake mix, egg, and butter and mix well with an electric mixer. Pat the mixture into the bottom of a lightly greased 13 by 9-inch baking pan. In a large bowl, beat the cream cheese until smooth. Add the eggs, vanilla, and butter and beat together. Next, add the powdered sugar and mix well. Spread over cake batter and bake for 40 to 50 minutes. Make sure not to over bake as the center should be a little gooey.

All right y’all, let’s get to cooking. Coming next week: some lighter recipes from the South!

Join the conversation as a VIP Member