"Cooking is a way to connect with what you grew up with, what reminds you of home," says chef Ashley Christensen. Her memories include sliced garden tomatoes at every meal and fresh herbs drying on the hood of her dad's old Volvo.
Now the owner of seven Raleigh, North Carolina, restaurants and with a cookbook coming out this fall, Christensen reinterprets food from home while celebrating what's grown and made in the South.
Even in BBQ country, Christensen isn't afraid to let vegetables rule. She believes in the simplest route to a vegetable's natural state: a sprinkle of salt on juicy tomatoes, a quick char for crisp, just-picked okra pods, a room-temperature squash salad to mimic warm days in the garden.
The seasonal, straightforward approach defines Southern cooking now—not just rich or heavy dishes (a misconception that's going away). "As my mother would say," says Christensen, "Southern food is about what grows in the Southern earth."
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Heirloom Tomatoes with Charred Okra, Vidalias, and Malt Mayo
"Okra doesn't have to be fried. Charring the pods is really fun—it shuts down the sliminess and gets beautifully crisp. Tomatoes just need a little salt, pure and simple," Christensen says.
New Potatoes with Shaved Celery, Buttermilk, and Dill
"The dressing for potato salad usually ends up overseasoned and doesn't permeate the potatoes," Christensen says. "Adding vinegar to the cooking process flavors the potatoes, so the dressing should be more mellow."
"A little bigger than a Tic Tac, really buttery and fruity. Just stunning on their own. I carry a bag of white acre peas when I travel and break them out at food events. People are always amazed," Christensen says.
"This is an obvious play on melon wedges wrapped in prosciutto," Christensen says. "Here the melon is sliced to the same thickness as the ham. Instead of 'making melon taste good,' it puts two beautiful things in balance. I love the balance of the musky fruit with the salty-sweet ham and the creaminess of the burrata cheese (you can sub fresh mozzarella). You have a lot of strong flavors at play, and the cheese sets the canvas for the whole thing.”
"Fresh squash has great snap and a little bit of funkiness that I really appreciate. I also love how it changes when cooked. This salad lets you have it both ways in one bite," Christensen says.
She adds "I love this salad over sliced tomatoes with burrata or crumbled Valbreso feta, or as a complement to any protein. The herbs can be swapped for any herbs of your choice. Rotating the squash on the grill before turning allows for a little more char."
"Every vegetable in a succotash has a slightly different cooking time that you need to respect," Christensen says. "The corn is right where it needs to be, while the tomatoes cook down a bit and act as a binder."