A Piedmont native, chef John Fleer came to Blackberry Farm, the luxurious resort in the Smoky Mountains near Walland, Tennessee, with his curiosity wide open. It was the early 1990s and he began to prowl local groceries, finding the likes of Muddy Pond Sorghum, Allan Benton’s intensely smoked bacon, and Cruze buttermilk. Fleer shaped a distinctively mountain-flavored menu at Blackberry that was the first to win fine-dining recognition for the products and traditions of the southern Appalachians. He influenced the next wave of young chefs from Joseph Lenn, who followed in his footsteps at Blackberry, to Sean Brock, who says that this particular soup, a simple riff on the hill tradition of eating crumbled cornbread in buttermilk from a tall glass, “changed my life, the way I thought about what I could do.”
You can sometimes find this life-changing soup on the menu at Fleer’s latest restaurant, Rhubarb, in Asheville, North Carolina. Or you can make it at home with his recipe, graciously shared here. Note, though, that the better your buttermilk, the better this soup will be. When I don’t have Cruze on hand myself, I look for whole-milk buttermilk without stabilizers or additives. Smaller local dairies sometimes have such, and the organic buttermilk found in natural foods groceries is often good, too.
1/3 cup chopped leeks, white part only
1/3 cup chopped celery
1/4 teaspoon minced garlic
2 1/4 cups chicken broth, plus extra if needed to thin the soup
1/2 cup crumbled day-old cornbread, plus extra for garnish
1 cup whole buttermilk
3 tablespoons heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Set a medium soup pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, and add enough peanut oil to coat the bottom. Add the leeks and celery, and reduce the heat to medium-low; sweat, stirring often, for about 5 minutes, or until the vegetables become lightly translucent without coloring. Add the garlic and cook for another minute; then add the chicken broth and cornbread. Bring to a low simmer, and let simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Stir the buttermilk and heavy cream together in a large bowl. Very slowly add the hot soup to the milk mixture, stirring constantly, almost drizzling the soup in. Puree the soup in a blender or with an immersion blender until smooth. Taste, and season with salt and pepper as needed. If the soup is too thick for your liking, add a touch of extra chicken broth.
Return the soup to the pot and heat it very gently over low heat until it is hot. Serve with a little crumbled cornbread on top as a garnish. To reheat any leftover soup, be sure to rewarm it slowly over low heat to prevent the butter milk from separating. It’s also quite delicious served chilled.
Reprinted from Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, with Recipes. Copyright 2016 by Ronni Lundy. Photograph copyright 2016 by Johnny Autry. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
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