Food & Drink

Southern Living deemed her cake cookbook ‘essential.’ How about her fruit cookbook?

Thai-Inspired Watermelon-Pineapple Salad from Nancie McDermott’s cookbook, “Fruit.”
Thai-Inspired Watermelon-Pineapple Salad from Nancie McDermott’s cookbook, “Fruit.” jleonard@newsobserver.com

What makes fruit Southern? Must it be native, like the blackberries that glisten amid the brambles, to wear the sash and represent us on the runway?

Maybe you see the peach as the ultimate expression of Southern fruit. After all, you can’t go more than a few blocks in Atlanta without passing something named Peachtree. And the Peachoid, the iconic water tower that masquerades as a giant peach, delights commuters along I-85 in Gaffney, S.C. This year, the stamina of our luscious Sandhills peaches is helping to ease heartbreak for consumers farther south, where historically abundant groves were hit by a late frost.

But like so many of us, the peach is an immigrant. With roots in ancient China, it was adopted by Mediterraneans and followed the trade winds around the globe long before anybody’s grandma thought to cool a hot peach pie on a Carolina window sill.

The curious Southern pedigree of fruit is explored by Chapel Hill author Nancie McDermott in “Fruit: A Savor the South Cookbook” from UNC Press. With equal parts enthusiasm for history and gusto for easy-to-make recipes, the collection considers six wild and six cultivated fruits that thrive in our region’s long, hot growing season.

“I’m not trying to say that these are the best or only fruit that count as Southern, but they are ones that have assumed a kind of iconic stature,” McDermott said in a phone interview.

She has a series of book signing events in the Triangle, starting Thursday at the Regulator in Durham, and a livestream cook-along Aug. 17 with Jenni Field of Garner. She also will be featured Aug. 28 in a broadcast of “Home & Family” on the Hallmark Channel.

Some of the fruits in McDermott’s book aren’t as common as they once were, like damson plum, mayhaw, pawpaw and wild persimmon. But if you ask folks who live in the country where to find them, or gamely forage along trails or riverbanks, McDermott believes you will be rewarded by their distinctive flavors.

She especially recommends hunting for pawpaws. “There is something about it that is so special, so fragrant and unusual,” McDermott says. “They are worth the effort it takes to find them.”

Most fruit lovers would not recognize a pawpaw, which is just coming into season, if one of the large green pods fell from a tree and hit them in the head. They might, however, ring a bell for Triangle craft beer fans as the signature ingredient in Fullsteam’s Paw Paw, a seasonal, Belgian-style tripel produced with the help of foragers.

The Durham brewery describes the fruit’s flavor as “mango-meets-butterscotch-meets-banana.” Since its exotic appeal can be diminished when the fruit is cooked, McDermott suggests churning pawpaws into ice cream.

A forager’s zest for adventure also is advantageous for muscadine and scuppernong grapes, available now, and wild persimmons, the sweet gift of autumn. In addition to blackberries and peaches, other chapters in “Fruit” cover cantaloupes, figs, strawberries and watermelon.

The mighty fig

Figs are in high season in the Triangle, making that section a perfect place to start. Lucky fig tree owners have been reporting a bumper crop.

“Every year, I beg friends to save me some. Everyone should, because they are just so good,” says McDermott, who regrets the mistake of picking a non-fruit-bearing variety for her garden several years ago.

Figs ripen very quickly, sometimes transforming a glorious bowlful suitable for a still life painting into moldy mush. Because of this, savvy Southerners freeze bagfuls or preserve the fruit whole or as jam. Preserved figs are great on toast or a cheese plate but achieve perhaps their highest glory stirred into the batter of moist Ocracoke Island Fig Cake.

Each chapter opens with a short historical look at the title fruit, often combined with memories so vividly described that you can practically smell blackberry rolls baking in the Piedmont kitchen of McDermott’s grandmother. In full disclosure, McDermott includes a tweaked version of my husband’s grandmother’s famous date swirl cookies, deliciously recast here with fig. Loella Fugate used to make them every year for Christmas, and now you can, too.

McDermott also includes a fine fig compote created by Vimala Rajendran, chef-owner of Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe in Chapel Hill. The recipe can be found below, along with McDermott’s refreshing Thai-Inspired Watermelon-Pineapple Salad.

Prolific author

“Fruit” is McDermott’s 14th book in 25 years. Her early work, focusing on Thai cuisine, reflects her time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand. More recently, she has explored iconic Southern dishes, including “Southern Soups and Stews” (a finalist for the 2016 IACP American Cookbook award), “Southern Pies” and “Southern Cakes.”

“Southern Cakes” recently was named by Southern Living magazine as one of 10 Cookbooks Every Southerner Should Own. Bill Smith, longtime chef at Chapel Hill’s Crook’s Corner, also was included in the list for his “Seasoned in the South.”

Chef Vivian Howard of Chef & the Farmer restaurant in Kinston and star of the PBS series “A Chef’s Life,” also admires “Southern Cakes.” Last month, the award-winning author of “Deep Run Roots” included McDermott’s book in her list of nine must-have cookbooks: “If I’m going to spend the time, I’m d--n sure going to follow a recipe I’m certain will work. ‘Southern Cakes’ has never let me down,” she writes.

McDermott said she was surprised by both endorsements.

“It makes me so happy when people tell me that they made a recipe from one of my books and it came out well, and they want to thank me for that. What a gift,” she said. “I keep grinning and feeling amazed. I feel as if I get to be at all these parties and gatherings and moments, where people get together to enjoy each other and eat and connect.”

Jill Warren Lucas is a freelance writer from Raleigh. She can be reached at 3lucases@gmail.com or via Twitter at @jwlucasnc.

‘Fruit’ Book Events

Here are some events tied to Nancie McDermott’s book, “Fruit.” All are free and will include samples from featured recipes.

▪ Thursday, Aug. 10: 7 p.m. The Regulator Bookshop in Durham, with Tema Flanagan, author of “Corn: A Savor the South Cookbook.”

▪ Friday, Aug. 11: 7 p.m. Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, with Tema Flanagan

▪ Sunday, Aug. 13: 4-6 p.m. Sunday at the Farm event at Pleasant Green Farms in Hillsborough, hosted by Purple Crow Books of Hillsborough (RSVPs requested via Eventbrite)

▪ Monday, Aug. 14: 6:30 p.m. Page 158 Books in Wake Forest

▪ Thursday, Aug. 17: 4 p.m Cook the Book with Jenni Field, livestream via Facebook at facebook.com/groups/CooktheBookwithDeniseandJenni/

▪ Monday, Aug. 28: Cooking demo on “Home & Family” (Hallmark Channel locator)

▪ Saturday, Sept. 2: 2 p.m. McIntrye’s Books at Fearrington Village, Pittsboro

Vimala Rajendran’s Fig Compote

This vibrant accompaniment to both savory and sweet dishes comes from the chef/owner of Vimala’s Curryblossom Café in Chapel Hill. Typical of the flavor-packed, irresistible menu her customers adore, this luscious dish is part of Vimala’s solution to the abundance of sweet, ripe fruit on the fig tree in her backyard. Serve this as you would chow-chow or pickles, dolloping it on a plate of sliced tomatoes, corn on the cob, green beans, new potatoes and fried okra. Or celebrate its sweetness by spooning some over vanilla ice cream or a bowl of yogurt or oatmeal.

1 pound fresh, ripe figs (about 24 medium-sized figs)

1/4 cup dark or light brown sugar, lightly packed

1 cup dry sherry

1 lemon, quartered and thinly sliced, seeds removed

1/2 teaspoon salt

Remove and discard the stem from each fig. Quarter the figs lengthwise and set aside.

In a medium saucepan, combine the brown sugar, sherry and lemon slices. Place over medium-high heat and cook, stirring often, until the mixture becomes a thin syrup.

Add the figs, reduce the heat to maintain a lively simmer, and cook until the figs are glossy and the syrup thickens a bit, about 2 minutes more.

Remove the pan from the heat, stir in the salt, and transfer the compote to a medium bowl to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature. To store, cool the compote completely, place it in a container, cover, and refrigerate for up to 3 days.

Yield: 4-6 servings

Recipe from “Fruit: A Savor the South Cookbook” by Nancie McDermott. Used with permission of UNC Press.

Thai-Inspired Watermelon-Pineapple Salad

Growing up in North Carolina, I learned to live with the sultry, penetrating heat of summertime. Living in Thailand as a Peace Corps volunteer, I found the blistering heat familiar, but still a challenge. One brilliant culinary tradition eased the burden: the simple dessert course of watermelon and pineapple, arranged in big slices on a platter and inundated with shaved ice. Sweet, juicy, bright in color and flavor, the two fruits were a magic respite from the hottest afternoon’s heat. I love combining the two fruits in a bowl with fresh mint and little honey. Even inside with air conditioning’s cushion, this simple dish brings cool pleasure every time.

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice or lemon juice

2 tablespoons honey

3 cups watermelon chunks

3 cups sliced pineapple, cut in bite-sized triangles

1/4 cup thinly sliced fresh mint

2 teaspoons dried red pepper flakes

In a large bowl, combine the lime or lemon juice and honey and stir with a whisk or a fork to combine them evenly and well. Add the watermelon, pineapple, mint and red pepper flakes. Gently toss and stir to flavor the fruit and mix in the mint. Serve at once or chill for an hour or two and serve cold.

Yield: 4 servings.

Recipe from “Fruit: A Savor the South Cookbook” by Nancie McDermott. Used with permission of UNC Press.

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