If you value rare Scotch and enjoy British meals, you probably sampled Wes Morton's cooking when he was the executive chef at AGAINN. But Morton has tucked aside his recipe repertoire to return to the cooking of his Southern roots. As executive chef of Art and Soul on Capitol Hill, Morton now dreams up dishes that reflect the flavors of his childhood favorites.
A native of Abbeville, La., Morton grew up in a large extended family with members who were either cooking or out in a garden picking figs or citrus fruits from their trees; minding cattle, chicken and quail; or out fishing in the nearby coastal waters. "We lived in Low Country," he says, "with rice fields and sugar cane fields. We always had meat from the town butcher, a friend of my grandfather. My grandfather and uncle did a lot of fishing, which was a big part of our diet."
He says he grew up with rice and gravy, a Cajun thing -- just meat braised and served on rice with gravy. "That was blue-collar food and it was served in all the local cafes at lunchtime," he explains. "It was always full with those guys, and always about home cooking."
|If you go|
|Art and Soul|
|» Where: 415 New Jersey Ave. NW|
|» Info: 202-393-7777; artandsouldc.com|
|» Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday|
Roast or barbecued pork were typical main course meats, though occasionally his grandmother served fried chicken or a roast, and she ended the meal with either a summertime fruit ambrosia of melons from the garden or a black-bottom pie. "It was real home food," he says.
With such a background, how has this young chef taken his food memories into an upscale restaurant? Quite simply, he says. "I can prepare food that is directly related to my childhood," he says. "I don't copy exactly what I grew up with, but it has influenced the menu items. I have crawfish etouffee, but I add peas, pea shoots and lemon thyme."
Another aspect of his Southern background shows up in his charcuterie -- I make hogshead cheese, he says, a throwback to what I grew up with -- and with his very Southern andouille sausages, which he often pairs with shrimp and grits.
While Morton keeps a Southern outlook in his cooking, he also practices the fresh, seasonal approach to meal planning, a habit he learned at his grandmother's -- and family's -- knee. Lesson learned: If you grow and harvest your own produce, you eat seasonally. And if you raise your own livestock, you can be pretty certain of its healthful food sources. Patrons will rejoice that he learned these family lessons so well.
What is your comfort food?
Rice and gravy the way my mom cooks it. Then top round of beef, smothered in onions, brown gravy and Cajun spices, or maybe black-eyed peas cooked with ham hocks.
What is your cooking philosophy?
Driven by seasons, keep it simple, keep things that work, and what grows together goes together. When we have a dish on the menu, all components come from one farmer.
What are your basic essential ingredients?
Salt, pork, that's it, that's what it all comes down for me. Plus add greens, so it is salt, pork and collard greens.
Where is your favorite restaurant?
Palena, but I don't eat out a whole lot. Then Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore.
What's in your fridge right now?
Tons of fruit, always seasonal, and a ton of stuff for a 6-year-old. Then salad greens and stuff for tacos. We cook at home, and my son gets really involved. It is nice to have the family sit around the kitchen; that's how I grew up.
Black-Eyed Pea Salad
Serves 4 to 6
3 cups dried black-eyed peas, rinsed
3 bay leaves
1 head garlic, split in half
2 sprigs rosemary
Salt to taste
To cook the peas, combine the dried black-eyed peas, bay leaves, garlic, rosemary and 9 cups water in a large saucepan. Add enough salt for the water to taste a little less salty than ocean water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook until the peas are just tender but not cooked all the way through; they should still have a little bite to them. Drain in a colander, and keep warm. Add the dressing, and let the peas marinate for at least one day; see recipe below
3 shallots, minced
2 lemons, zest and juiced
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1/2 cup chopped chervil
1/2 cup chopped chives
1/2 cup chopped tarragon
1/2 cup verjus vinegar, red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar
Extra-virgin olive oil to coat
Salt and cracked black pepper to taste