Donald Link, chef and owner at Herbsaint, Cochon, and other New Orleans restaurants, surprised me in 2009 with his approachable, modest first book, “Real Cajun.” Unlike most restaurant chefs’ first books, it looked like it had no business with the coffee table and made itself right at home in an ordinary kitchen.
“Down South,” co-authored once again by the very capable Paula Disbrowe, is a bit less focused but mostly just as fuss-free. You may find yourself crying over some recipes because it’s hard to get the country ham, the Creole mustard, the Red Royal shrimp, the smoked mullet, or the head from a 210-pound pig. But there are plenty of dishes that won’t put up a struggle no matter where you live.
Although the book is meant to be broadly Southern, there’s often an unmistakable New Orleans feel — distantly French, with a bit of a sweet tooth, and very porky. A Deer Stand Old Fashioned cocktail mingles honey, pecans, orange, and coffee with such boldness I felt like I could eat it for brunch all by itself. Link’s version of gougeres (made with choux puff pastry) may be elegant finger food, but also work as a bacon and Parmesan delivery system.
Though you usually find brown butter, lemon, and sage accompanying gnocchi or ravioli on the plate, a skillet of crispy cutlets proves that what works with pasta can work with pork. Pounded and pankoed, each cutlet is like a cross between wiener schnitzel and saltimbocca. A white bean gratin is merely cooked beans in a casserole, baked with crumbs and grated Parmesan. The beans need to be drained before baking — a step somehow omitted in the recipe. But it’s satisfying fare even when the breading crumbles to bits and when, instead of the called-for tasso, you are obliged to turn once again to bacon.
Monday red beans and rice may not fit your definition of Monday cooking — you soak the beans overnight, before cooking them for three hours — but they’re generously loaded with ham and andouille sausage, which makes them even better on Tuesday. On the other end of the prep spectrum are grilled chicken skewers that don’t even pause for a marinade. They’re dolloped near the end of cooking with Alabama “white barbecue sauce,” a vinegary, peppery mayonnaise base that contributes twice as much moist flavor as you’d expect.
Carrot-raisin salad is a simple slaw, but homemade fresh curry powder lends it some mystique, and it’s an easy cool-down side for grilled and spicy mains. Collard green slaw, bracing and tart, does the same thing with a more assertive flavor, vigorously cutting through bacon and pork dishes. Broccoli sauteed with garlic slices and a squeeze of lemon may sound more like southern Italy than the southern US, but it goes with nearly everything.
For the most part, desserts in “Down South” are an efficient afterthought. White chocolate macadamia blondies are homey pan sweets. The white chocolate disappears into texture, but the macadamias are luscious enough to make you want to scarf down whatever you have left in the jar.
There was only one real failure: I love roasted pecans, whose aroma usually drives me wild as they ease to coffee-blond perfection in a low oven for an hour. So I eagerly attempted Link’s version, which starts at what I hoped would be a brisk, efficient 400 degrees. Sure enough, the smell of smoking carbon brought me running after 30 minutes, and I found myself with a ruined trayful, scratching my head and mourning my snack.
But the other pleasures in this book are enough to make such fumbles dwindle in significance. And truthfully, after a couple more Deer Stand Old Fashioneds, you may find yourself not noticing them at all.