A true lady's repsat is seasoned with elegance LUNCH WITH A Southern Accent

May 08, 1994|By Nathalie Dupree | Nathalie Dupree,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Although Southern ladies' lunches are a time for exchanging sentiments and stories, for celebrations of friends and families, loves and losses, they are also a symbol of the strength of the Southern woman. The kitchen was always the domain in which the Southern woman could exercise control and indulge creative impulses when all other avenues were closed to her. When the audience for her culinary endeavors was other women, her efforts and results tended to be even more spectacular.

And no Southern woman would try to win support for a project dear to her without offering something to eat. For food to us is the great convincer, the great mediator, the way of saying, "I want to please you," as well as saying, "You are welcome here."

Ladies' lunches are still special occasions in the South, whether at garden-club meetings with a spring garden cake bedecked with candied violets and pansies, charity organizational meetings, fund-raisers, showers, bridge clubs or simply a gathering to fuss over an out-of-town guest. On these occasions the fare is sophisticated, men are banished and women reign supreme.

There is no particular mandate for what or how one eats at these functions, except that even in these harried times we still try to provide a touch of grace. In the spring, my mother-in-law, Celeste, borrows knock-up tables from the Baptist church next door to her house (even though she is a Methodist) and sets up for company outdoors. With great pleasure she uses her antique linens and plates -- the older the better.

Whether a simple meal of corn bread and piperade (onions, peppers and ham wrapped in eggs), or an elaborate outdoor party with grilled chicken, squash souffle and raspberry tart -- with linens and silver, sparkling glasses and flowers everywhere -- the ladies' lunch is worth fighting for, even in busy times.

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My first restaurant, Nathalie's, was in a renovated warehouse at Mount Pleasant Village, on the site of the Mount Pleasant Plantation. The old homestead is now owned by Mrs. Oby (Ann) Brewer. Ann had the fig trees, well over 200 years old, moved from the side to her back yard, where she will often entertain a friend in the afternoon for a late lunch or hot or cold tea and figs. I think lush figs filled with slivers of country ham and drizzled with a light vinaigrette is one of the most beautiful of Southern marriages.

Figs with country ham and lime vinaigrette

Makes 4 servings

4 large ripe figs

4 very thin slices country ham or baked ham

1/4 cup fresh lime juice

2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 shallot, minced

1 teaspoon grated lime peel (no white attached)

1/2 teaspoon sugar

2/3 cup peanut oil

1 tablespoon freshly chopped chives

salt, freshly ground black pepper

Cut each fig into 6 wedges, slicing through flower end into, but not through, stem end. Open out like petals of a flower. Fold ham slice in half to resemble a triangle. Holding 1 corner, gather or bunch ham together in spiral pattern. When rolled, open up edges and separate slightly to form rose pattern. Place ham flower in center of each sliced fig.

Whisk together lime juice, vinegar, mustard, shallot, lime peel and sugar in small bowl. Add peanut oil in slow stream, whisking constantly to form emulsion. Add chives. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Drizzle vinaigrette over figs.

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Herbs grow outdoors at least nine months of the year in the South and many grow year round. This wonderful marinade incorporates ingredients used since Colonial days, contrasting the cool tang of lemon juice with the heat of the spices. The marinade gets spicier the longer it sits.

Grilled marinated chicken breasts or Cornish hens

Makes 6 servings

1/4 cup vegetable or olive oil

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano

1 teaspoon ground coriander seeds

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

4 garlic cloves, finely chopped

salt, freshly ground black pepper

6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts or 2 Rock Cornish hens, cut into quarters.

Whisk together oil and lemon juice in large bowl. Add oregano, coriander, red pepper flakes and garlic. Whisk in salt and pepper. Add chicken breasts to marinade, turning to coat both sides. Cover and marinate at least 30 to 45 minutes before grilling.

Remove chicken from marinade, reserving marinade. Place fowl, skin side to heat, on hot grill or under broiler and cook 5 to 10 minutes on each side, or until done. While chicken grills, transfer marinade to small saucepan and bring to rolling boil. Serve chicken warm or cold, with sauce on side.

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Tender summer squashes -- yellow crook-neck and zucchini -- are very suited to fluffy souffle-like side dishes that are good for lunches as well as family dinners.

Summer squash souffle

Makes 6 to 8 servings

2 pounds yellow crookneck squash or zucchini, sliced 1/2 -inch thick

1 medium onion, coarsely chopped

1/2 cup water

2 tablespoons butter, melted

3 eggs, lightly beaten

3/4 cup half and half

3/4 cup cracker crumbs

1/4 cup freshly grated imported Parmesan cheese

salt, freshly ground black pepper

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