Bill Smith: The Key 3

Sep 18, 2017

Chef Bill Smith of James Beard award-winning restaurant Crook's Corner is known for his classic Southern dishes. In this installment of The Key 3, he shares with Lynne Rossetto Kasper the techniques behind three of his favorite recipes: Fried Oysters, Banana Pudding and Collard Greens. 

Here are Bill's keys, as told to Lynne.

Being from eastern North Carolina, I'm going to say my Key 3 are Fried Oysters, Banana Pudding and Collards. They're things I grew up on. They're just what I think of when I think back, and they're the foundation of what I do still.

I didn't start off wanting to be a chef. It's interesting. But I guess I paid attention to all the people who were around me. I grew up in a time when everyone would go to grandmother's house for lunch every day. We'd leave school or work and go there, and she would cook lunch for everybody. If you put your name in the pot in time, you were expected to show up at noon and we had big, nice lunches. It was called dinner in those days. And that's what we did. It's always been a part of my life, long before I realized I would be doing it for a living.

1. Fried Oysters
Fried Oysters

I'm going to fly into the face of some people's opinions -- I'm going to produce a batter with lots of crust. People say, "Oh, this is all bread. You can't taste anything but the crust." I fry chicken that way, too. People see crust as a minefield to get around on the way to the food.

I discovered this recipe by accident in a way. Growing up, we always had cornmeal. One time I was in New Orleans, and they have all these brands that you can only get there. So I went through the French walk on the way to the airport, and I grabbed all this stuff, and I got a seafood breeder. About a month or two later we said, "Oh, let's use this," so we fried the stuff. And we said, "God, this is so good. What is this?" But by then, the wrapper was in the Dumpster, so I had to go out in the Dumpster and fish through the trash. I pulled it out and it said corn flour instead of corn meal. So I used corn flour for years, and one year I ran out when I needed it. I ran to the corner store, which is the Mexican store on the corner, and they have Maseca. It's the same thing. So now we use Maseca, because that's the best of all.

Use half self-rising flour and half Maseca. Mix that together. I haven't measured anything in years; I just sort of eyeball it.

This is the salt and pepper blend. I like my oysters to be salty. I'm mixing it with my hands and I'm probably going to stick my finger.

It's going to be fried in very hot oil. If it's too cold, they'll be all sogged out, you don't want that. It will bubble and it will come to the top. You don't want them to be crowded because you might make a dough rather than a crust. They cook very quickly. I like them a little underdone, but most people seem to prefer them a little brown.

I line a bowl with just a rag and let them drain a second longer. Then, hit them with some sea salt. I like the big crunch things on it.

We serve these with all kinds of things. Some people like cocktail sauce or garlic mayonnaise, which we make out of roasted garlic. (It's like a roasted garlic aioli.) Maybe lemons. Lately, I've been using Sriracha sauce stirred in to mayonnaise.

2. Collard Greens
Collard Greens

A lot of people can't really ever get to like them. But they're things I grew up with. Southerners, or people who grew up with collards, really love them. I probably cook collards every other day here.

When I was growing up, my great-grandmother, who was the big cook in our family, always said you weren't supposed to use them until after the frost. She would put hers in the freezer if she got them before frost. I have found here, because I have to have them all the time, that's not necessarily true. They may be better having been hit by the frost, but we cook them all summer, all winter.

We tear them up by hand and wash them in warm water. You wouldn't think of doing vegetables that way ordinarily. The stems are sometimes big and you need to remove them. If they're small, you don't need to.

Then, depending on what you have -- often I have country ham, sometimes I have the bone, but I always have bacon -- we dice up onions and begin frying it in some bacon grease with some of the bacon.

You don't brown them; you just soften that whole thing. Then the collards in the bottom of a big pot go on top. And then we throw in whatever ham we might happen to have. It might be the bone, it might be the end pieces we couldn't use that wouldn't slice pretty, it might just be the rind. It could be anything for a salty flavor of some sort. It's a very powerful seasoning: country ham. I love it. And I'm always picking the little fragments out of the pot. You could use whatever you want, more of a hog jowls, it doesn't matter. But that's just what we have most often, and sort of traditional.

You put maybe a palm-full of crushed red pepper flakes, but it doesn't make it real hot. It's interesting, people's tastes have changed. When I first came to work here, which has been a long time ago now, people would complain when things were too spicy. But now people complain if they're not, so America's taste has changed considerably.

Then they boil. Now there's many schools on this. I think they need to boil; we probably cook them 2 1/2 or 3 hours. And that's at a hard boil. You cover them with water, with a little room for them to float, but not so much. We cram them in our biggest pot.

They're a side dish. You can order them as a side, or they come with a sort of a Southern sampler that we do with barbecue and cornbread. We put a little shredded Parmesan on top of ours, which is unusual I think.

Sometimes I just take the juice and pour it over rice. My great grandmother believed it was like medicine. Often, if you were sick and there were collards, you'd get a cup of that at bedtime.

She always said the reason the poor Southerners survived the Depression was because you can grow collards anywhere. They'll grow at the front steps, they'll grow in the shade, they'll grow in whatever the weather, and she said everyone can throw collard seeds out in the yard and that's how we lived throughout the Depression. They're very nourishing.

3. Banana Pudding
Banana Pudding

It's something I grew up with, but it's also something our public demands on our menu. I used to just do it occasionally, and people would come in and say, "Where's the banana pudding. What's going on?" So finally I just sort of gave in, and now it's on every single day.

It doesn't make any sense as a recipe: cookies and bananas and custard. A lot of the times you think, "Who ever thought of this?"

You always use vanilla wafers, Nabisco Nilla Wafers. Not to do a commercial, but that's what you've got to use.

There are two schools of thought: Do you want it fresh or do you want it to have sat? Because it sogs out a little bit when it's a day old. There's even a song by Southern Culture on the Skids called "Day Old Banana Pudding." There are two camps. I happen to like both.

It's like a trifle after it's old, but it's also something nice to find the crispy cookies in that custard, which is essentially pastry cream. I use one that has corn starch, because I don't like the taste of the flour. And it's just vanilla pastry cream, basically.

Then on top you make meringue. You smear it on in a dramatic way with all the little swirls and stuff on top of the pudding after you've assembled it, which is essentially layering all those different things together. You put it in the oven and brown the top.

The Key 3 is a series of discussions with great cooks (not just professional chefs) about the three recipes or techniques they think everyone should know.